Sunday, September 14, 2014

They Came Together

***1/2 out of ****

New on Blu-ray and DVD, They Came Together is a film that stars Paul Rudd as an executive at a heartless conglomerate and Amy Poehler as a small business owner at risk of losing her store to the major competition. The two soon meet one another, where rivalry ensues –and then romance –and then rivalry again. That’s a surface-level description. If it sounds familiar, it’s intentional. This movie is the latest comedy from the hilarious David Wain who borrows from You’ve Got Mail and countless other yuppy-centric movies to do a rather funny lampoon on modern romantic comedies.

Instead of a bookstore, it’s a cute little candy shop and the evil corporation with a high-rise tower is completely devoted to monopolizing the business of candy. In the pursuit of romance, Poehler’s character has a co-worker/best friend who is an unrealistically giving person. Rudd’s character confides in bunch of bros down at the basketball court who play (badly) while offering conflicting advice, based on whichever male archetype they literally claim to be.

Along with Christopher Meloni, Bill Hader, Ellie Kemper, Max Greenfield, Ed Helmes, Cobie Smulders, Michael Ian Black and way too many people to list, this New York-set rom-com mockery swells with brilliant delivery of absurd exchanges.

I laughed throughout this whole film, but I won’t be quick to give it a broad recommendation. For a guy who sees way too many movies, a flick like this feels like a liberating escape. To someone else, it may come across as obnoxious. There are also people who don’t get this kind of humor, sadly lacking the capability of understanding a movie that refuses to take itself seriously in any way.

There are other movies, which have honorably spoofed a genre using similar tactics. Black Dynamite spoofed blaxpoitation better than any other film that tried. Down with Love was a very clever take on the Doris Day and Rock Hudson sex comedies of the Kennedy era. One of my absolute favorites, however, was David Wain’s first film, Wet Hot American Summer, which was a send-up of summer camp comedies of the 1980s.

Wain’s material, with the help of his longtime co-writer Michael Schowalter has a knack for following the path of formulaic entertainment only to address every cliché as it is met, by either overplaying it or subverting our expectations in an outrageously inappropriate way.

One of the most unforgettable examples of this can be found in Wet Hot where the teen counselors go into town to get away from the campground for a bit. What follows is a joyous montage with happy eighties rock playing as they party a little while engaging in the benefits of being away from their responsibilities. They eat a little McDonalds and then score a pack of beer, some cigs, and a little weed… Before you know it, they steal a purse from an old lady, buy some heroin in an alley and are then seen passed out in shambles while lurking in a crack house. Then it shows them return to camp, all smiles, in perfect health with the implication that only an hour has passed.

Watch that scene here

His comedy trio Stella, with his co-creator Michaels (Ian Black and Showalter), was also an energetic abandonment of logic or any seriousness. In the form of stage show, internet shorts and a short-lived TV show, the three well-dressed men try to fit in with society while their hijinks leave a path of destruction, but will always inexplicably find reward in the end. 

Wain later moved on to do a trio of movies with co-writer/actor, Ken Marino. The first was sketch comedy movie called The Ten, which was a series of short films -all supposedly reflecting each of the Ten Commandments. Their oddball comedy was followed be Role Models and Wanderlust, which were both comparatively grounded with a more standard comic narrative. They both had a good deal of hilarity but I felt as though Wain and his The State alum were falling into a less adventurous format in favor more conventional comedy.

While They Came Together isn’t nearly as funny as Wet Hot, I still felt a good deal of satisfaction watching a film where Wain gets back to the style that best suits him. I’ve always had a weakness for irreverence when it comes to getting a laugh. From The Marx Brothers to Monty Python and the Holy Grail to the Naked Gun movies and even Alex Winter's little-known insane feature, Freaked, I will always favor comedy that has the courage to abandon all reason.

Friday, September 5, 2014

IN RETROSPECT: Ghostbusters (1984)

In honor of its 30th anniversary, 1984’s Ghostbusters (Originally Ghost Busters)has been playing in movie theaters across the country. It makes me happy that this movie is still an endearing classic that people will gather to see. Like many of its fans, I found it to be a fun movie to grow up with. There was so much in that movie for a kid to love and a lot of comedy to interpret when I got older.

Ghostbusters is a unique example of where dark sci-fi fantasy and goofball comedy find a strange place to coexist. The movie does an excellent balancing act between big laughs and awe-inspiring special effects that thrill and sometimes genuinely scare.

When you look back at the early eighties, the popularity of state-of-the-art big-budget spectacle, spearheaded by Lucas and Spielberg films, was infectious. When you think about it, comic writer/actors from Saturday Night Live, SCTV and National Lampoon bringing their irreverent humor to such sophisticated technical filmmaking was a strange gamble, but it paid off.

The eccentric Dan Aykroyd wrote the script’s original draft, which was set in the future and was to feature himself and John Belushi as a follow-up vehicle to their success in The Blues Brothers. After Belushi’s untimely death, the script was reworked and rewritten with the help of the now-departed Harold Ramis who would eventually star as well. Director Ivan Reitman brought his producer experience to the project, raising the budget above what any of its initial creators were probably expecting.   

The final story wound up being about a group of paranormal investigators (with a charlatan as their spokesperson) who are cutoff from university funding and facilities. With enough research and scientific understanding of ghosts, they go into the business of harnessing supernatural beings using self-made high-tech tools and discover a lot of normally unreported hauntings. They do all of this in the guise of sloppy exterminators.    

The film’s most effective player, Bill Murray, delivers comic understatements in reaction to the marvels he witnesses. Like Murray’s best roles, he’s a reassuring presence to jaded moviegoers who desire a little relief from the pretentiousness of cinema.

If Murray deserves the most credit for the film’s laughs, then just as much credit is due to Sigourney Weaver for bringing a relatable humanity to the love-interest character. Her earnest straight face is complementary to the movie’s silliness –especially in the presence of scene-stealer Rick Moranis as her obliviously rude twerp of a neighbor.

Many movies that followed took inspiration from the entertaining achievements of Ghostbusters. Only a year later, Back to the Future proved to be a similar success of bold jaw-dropping high-tech filmmaking with a carefree attitude - as did Men in Black in 1997 and all the way up to this summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy.

What’s sad is how telling it was that the makers of Ghostbusters never managed to imitate the quality they got the first time around. Ghostbusters II was fun when I was a kid and had a fair share of funny and scary moments alike - with even better effects work – but it was ultimately a disappointing sequel, dependent on the brand name that the first film created rather than respecting the lucky circumstances that made it work so well. In spite of Ramis's unfortunate passing, the dreadful discussion of a third part or reboot is still out there.

To watch deleted scenes from the first movie’s shoot reveals how much goofier they intended it to be. One of the strangest missing scenes involved Aykroyd and Murray playing homeless oddballs in Central Park as if they intended the movie to take a detour from its engaging narrative into sketch comedy humor. Somehow, in editing, they made decisions that led to a new kind of movie.

I have no idea if they really expected Richard Edlund’s optical effects to be so captivating. It’s hard to imagine the movie working well without those trippy streaks of light hovering over Manhattan. Elmer Bernstein’s grand score was also a major contribution that elevated the supernatural eerie tone of the film and served as an effective contrast to the comedy. Ray Parker Jr.’s theme song was pretty catchy too.
There is nothing like a laugh that follows a scare. It’s why so many of us love Halloween. Ghostbusters is a one-of-a-kind movie, which emulates that feeling and when there is a fall-like chill in the air again, I am sure to pop some corn, make some Stay Puft s’mores and enjoy the hell out of this old favorite. 

Bustin' makes me feel good.

Aside from this brief theatrical run, Ghostbusters is currently on Netflix and an Anniversary Re-Mastered Blu-ray set of the two movies will be available on September16th

Friday, August 29, 2014


***1/2 out of ****

John Michael McDonough’s, Calvary, is a dialogue driven story about a week in the life of a small-town Irish priest, played excellently by Brendan Gleeson, who has received a threat on his life in the confession booth from an unseen man who wishes to punish the Catholic Church for a childhood of constant sexual abuse by a now-deceased clergyman.

The rest of the film involves the priest, possibly accepting the fate of murder as he continues his troubled relationship with a community who regularly show him apathy and disrespect. He’s patient and tolerant. The existence of his grown daughter (Kelly Reilly) is proof that he knows the trials and tribulations of adult life outside his now anointed status. Like Christ suffering the sins of the world, he’s essentially a good priest suffering the sins of the priesthood.

There is a dark-comedy undercurrent to the film found in the characters the priest sees. His daughter has come to stay with him after a suicide attempt. His associate priest (David Wilmot) is an ignorant nitwit. The town Butcher’s (Chris O’Dowd) battered wife (Orla O’Rourke) is having an affair with the mechanic (Isaach De Bankolé) and a few other local men. There’s also a drunken millionaire (Dylan Moran), a rude bartender (Patt Shortt) a sadistic doctor (Aiden Gillen) and many other troubled souls including an incarcerated serial killer played by Domhnhall Gleeson (Brendan's son). These people regularly engage the priest provoking him to impart genuinely experienced sound wisdom, only to disregard it -or throw it in his face.

His daughter grudgingly gives him a rough time but is ultimately a loving person. He also occasionally delivers goods to a reclusive aging American writer (M. Emmett Walsh), who enjoys the priest’s company but challenges him with the request of a gun should he need to take himself out one day. The only moment of real solace in the film is when he comforts a widow, played by the beautiful Marie-Josée Croze, who dealing with the reality of love and mortality seems to be on the same page as this troubled man.

This is in no way, a feel-good movie, but is thought provoking beyond my words and likely to stir up discussion among religious and non-religious people alike. It’s a bitter film, but cinematically poetic beyond the abilities of most who tackle this kind of material.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

**1/2 out of ****

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is a sequel made by popular demand. The results are generally underwhelming despite the fact that it’s everything one should expect. In 2004, when Robert Rodriguez brought legendary comic book artist Frank Miller’s famous graphic novel series to the big screen - with Miller’s input as co-director - several things were notably accomplished:

Rodriguez continued his legacy as a maverick filmmaker working with a limited amount of money while utilizing new digital moviemaking tools to great effect. While Batman Begins was a couple months away from showing everyone the most realistic take on a comic book, Sin City took inspiration from 1990’s Dick Tracy, creating the ultimate surrealistic movie based on a comic book. Above all, we were reminded by a mostly colorless movie, that black and white is beautiful. 

The last movie took three of Miller’s books and created an anthology movie, like Heavy Metal. All the books take place in the same universe, and the stories often intersect. This time around, according to the title, the movie was fully committed to only one of these books; a fan-favorite, A Dame to Kill For.

For those unfamiliar, Frank Miller’s creation is a perverted dark fantasy inspired by film-noir, glorifying violence with heavy doses of misogyny. All this would be objectionable to me, if it weren’t so removed from reality. The stylized gun violence, bloodletting and aggressive sex is cartoonish to the point of laugh-inspiring juvenile eye-candy. I enjoy it. Especially with some beer and greasy food. Rodriguez doesn’t make sincere cinema, he makes fun trash, which walks the line between sensational escapism and parody.

A Dame to Kill For follows a prowling private detective named Dwight McCarthy, played in this film by Josh Brolin, who gets pulled into the schemes of a seductive femme fatale, played by Eva Green. A great amount of the film, features this beautiful actress nude in some of the most creatively lit shots -especially the ones involving the emergence of a body from water in very high-contrast black and white.

This story seems as polished as the previous film’s three stories and yet it lacks the same punch. Regarding sequel continuity, this one is weakened by some unfortunate recasting. Dennis Haysbert replaces the late Michael Clarke Duncan's Manute, competently -but man, do I miss Duncan. What really hurts this sequel is the lack of Clive Owen, whose face was a pretty essential role to tie the movies together.

The ultimate weakness of the new movie is a newly created story that acts as an irrelevant arc. It begins interestingly with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a young reckless gambler with a miscalculated plan. Unfortunately, this story is preoccupied with the terrible continuation of Jessica Alba’s Nancy Callahan, a stripper hell-bent on revenge. Mickey Rourke's Marv is a welcome return but his involvement in Nancy's story throws the entire Sin City chronology out of whack.

Still, I can say that I enjoyed this encore but as late-night guilty pleasure fun, but not enough to give it a big recommendation. After a near decade since its predecessor, it has little to offer that feels fresh.