Tag Archives: Comedy

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Up front, I’d like to give the guy who created the final trailer for Walter Mitty an award.

I remember seeing that trailer in late Fall 2013, leading up to the Christmas Day release of the movie; and I remember being dazzled at just how good that trailer was… nodding toward that abyss of existential angst underlying any human ego and offering to provide one man’s way of soaring above it — all with triumphant music, stunning color, and a resolutely resonant Ben Stiller… although underlying it all, I found myself skeptical of any of it being real. It was like falling in love with someone across a crowded room, thrilling over the mere sight and sound of them, yet knowing full-well that things could likely flop if you ever dared actually approach them and find out who they truly are.

And that’s how the movie worked for me.

The issues come at the start and last a good half-hour or more into the story. The movie is flat… very flat…. to the degree I almost stopped watching. Stiller does best when he’s allowed to create energy on-screen… but the interpretation of Walter Mitty is so restrained and internalized that Stiller isn’t really able to engage anyone or anything until later in the movie as he begins to explore his own self-expansion. Beats drop out of the dialogue, there are long pauses where someone should be responding, and Mitty just… stands there. Or says something inconsequential. It’s hard to care about a character who doesn’t seem to care.

Adam Scott as Hendricks, the “professional head chopper” who decimates the Life mag staff, comes off as a brittle and annoying twerp (with a paste-on beard, to boot!) who no respectable company would have taken seriously enough to hire. Again, the tone issue is a killer; if Walter Mitty weren’t so flat and humorless, then maybe we could view Hendricks as caricature, but it just doesn’t gel.

Fortunately, Wiig (as the potential love interest of this isolated man), MacLaine (as his independent and engaging mom), and Penn (as the almost-but-not-quite MacGuffin of this “coming to terms with self” story) do a lot to both anchor and energize the movie before it completely deflates. Even Patton Oswalt’s rather random character (the eHarmony service rep who jovially pesters Mitty throughout the movie) is more entertaining.

The movie comes more to life when Walter finally does something “crazy” (mostly out of desperation — he’s too professional to quit trying, even after it doesn’t matter) and takes off for Iceland, to track down photographer O’Connell and acquire the missing “negative #25”. In the process, he ends up having to take more risks than he’s reduced himself to over the years, reacquiring a spark for life he once had but then had forgotten.  Some of the depicted events are unbelievable, yet the landscapes and depicted events are the most stunning parts of the movie  — far more compelling than the character of Walter Mitty.

And ah yes, where is that mysterious “negative #25” that is “lost” in the early part of the movie, instigating Walter’s decision to take a risk? Well, I imagined it going one of two ways, and it was my second thought that proved true. No real surprises there. The content itself kept me guessing ’til the end, yet left me unsatisfied with its conventional sentiments. I thought the ending would be… bigger?

Maybe it was that trailer that I couldn’t get out of my head. You know, the one that made this a story larger than Walter Mitty, a story that encompassed all of humanity. The one that sent my pulse pounding, my heart racing, spurred a desire to just drop all the dead weight of my day and look for more meaningful ways to spend my time. The one that suggested a large lesson — that life is not meant to be managed or processed, it’s meant to be lived, and the risks we take for the things we desire and love (rather than just hiding in our heads) are what ends up contributing to our eventual satisfaction.

So live, Walter. And let’s live, all of us… not the secret life, but the real one.

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The LEGO Movie

The LEGO Movie is one of the pictures where the less said about it ahead of time, the better. So I won’t say a lot about the specifics.

But I will say that this movie works on so many levels at once, it’s clear that despite the ease with which it unfolds on the screen, the lines and plot and themes were carefully thought through. This movie was lovingly crafted, and with deep respect for its audience. What comes off as cliche in other movies did not scan as cliche here.

It works as a pop-culture smorgasbourd (anything from fantasy and comic book tropes to science fiction movies and Saturday morning cartoons).

It works as a nostalgic peek at the toys that multiple generations have built with.

It works as a humor Gatlin gun, one laugh flung right after the next so that you might miss a few zingers if you’re not attentive.

It works as a self-referential story with strong overtones of The Matrix, dovetailing the efforts of freedom fighters to overthrow a despotic regime with one LEGO figure’s quest to find meaning for himself.

It works as an exploration of the relationship between parent and child — what kinds of expectations exist and what kinds of interactions are ultimately productive for everyone.

It works as a criticism of cultures that alternately squelch out creativity and freedom in favor of mindless productivity and efficiency, while at the same time frantically stoking the self-indulgent fires of each individual’s imagined self-importance.

It also works at the best kind of advertisement, not just as a venue for multiple product placement or by presenting options for what one can build with LEGOs, but by respecting and encouraging the creative spark that exists in EVERY person regardless of whether someone is zany or traditional, old or young. It says that we all can be remarkably inventive, regardless of our personality style, without a quiver of exploitation or snark in its voice.

And this last bit, in a movie that could have easily veered into becoming mostly cynical or somewhat trite, that could have favored part of its audience at the exclusion of other parts but didn’t, is what makes it truly remarkable.

4.5/5

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Movie 43

I’ll just come right out and say it: I think it’s silly to give a comedy movie a Razzie award. I think the Razzies should be aimed towards movies that try to be taken seriously and yet end up being impossible to see as anything but a big joke.

Comedy is also in the eye (or ear) of the beholder. You can figure this out just by seeing what comedy shows are on television and noting the vast degree of difference — even if we just focus ones that actually have developed followings, we’ve got anything from All in the Family, Cheers, The Facts of Life, and The Office to Futurama, Archer, Robot Chicken, Kids in the Hall, and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. And that’s barely scratching the surface. Typically what one person thinks is funny, there’s someone else in the world who thinks it’s stupid. That’s the nature of comedy.

Movie 43 can deservedly take some crap (literally) for catering to the lowest-common denominators: scatalogical and sexual humor. While compilation comedy movies like “The Kentucky Fried Chicken Movie” and “Amazon Women on the Moon” (both of which are worth seeing, btw) manage to vary things up and branch into the silly with only a few nods to sex, Movie 43 can’t seem to move away aside from the topic — well, aside from a clip about a pissy little leprechaun, that is, and another one about how blacks dominate basketball. But it doesn’t mean that none of the clips are amusing, if you can handle the subject matter.

It’s also rather amazing at the degree of talented actors who agreed to play a small role in the movie — we’re talking about Academy-Award winners/nominees here. There’s at least one star in every clip who is high-profile in the acting business, as well as the thin but sometimes amusing storyline that connects everything involves Dennis Quaid, Greg Kinnear, and Seth MacFarlane, among others. (I guess I’m just amused that Dennis Quaid can actually come off looking like a crackhead living in a Dumpster behind Sears somewhere.) I’m not sure what favors g0t called in here, but someone was really saving up for a long time.

Not all of the segments are as funny as others. Some might even be (as expected in a string of comedy sketches) offensive to some. My personal favorite is “Homeschooled,” starring Naomi Watts and Liev Schrieber (ironically, a couple in real life) as parents raising their teenager at home while trying to provide him with an “authentic high school experience” … which ends up being full of enough existential angst, alienation, and social rejection/abuse to give some of us flashbacks of our own miserable teen years. (You have been warned.) But I still laughed at some of the fake ads, the Speed Dating bit (with a pervo Batman trying to help Robin — impeccably cast as Justin Long — score with the ladies), and even the opening clip with Hugh Jackman as the guy who has dangly bits hanging from his throat and Kate Winslet as his unsettled date gets some mileage.

No, it’s not high art, but was it the worst movie of the year enough to win the Razzie? Do we laugh at something because it’s funny, or do we think something is funny because we laughed? Well, as Veronica says, let’s not have another chicken or egg debate…

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Turbo (3D)

The idea of a snail “going fast” (enough to compete in the Indianapolis 500) is a nicely amusing one, but a great high concept is only the first part of a successful movie.

The positives? Turbo 3D looks beautiful. The colors are remarkable. The 3D is vivid. The shots of the yard and garden are breathtaking. The crows really look like crows. Turbo also looks rather cool zipping around, with that blue nitrous oxide trail highlighting his wake, even if the science involved there belongs on Amazing Spiderman 2 this May and not really in high-school bio lab.

The negative? There’s nothing unexpected here, you pretty much can predict every beat of this by-the-numbers story… it even steals from Talladega Nights (which was a more dramatically interesting movie, sadly). Nothing is really “wrong” with the movie, but nothing really stands out either. It’s one of those animated movies that kids who like fast things will enjoy watching to pass the time, which is why Netflix also made a series out of it, but it’s not really something that sticks in your heart and soul. There’s a conscious attempt at multiculturalism (Hispanic), but it all seems to focus on the cosmetics.

Still, the final lesson — that in the end, it doesn’t matter what powers you have, it just matters (win or lose) that you gave something everything you had, the victory is found in one’s will to persevere — is a good lesson to come away with.

3/5

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Warm Bodies

Love changes things. It can open one’s eyes, it can remake the world. Maybe it can even raise the dead.

Warm Bodies isn’t “just another zombie movie.” R is one of those zombies who is not like the others. Although he’s not much for words anymore, and although he’s driven to chow down on human flesh with the best of them, inside beats the idealistic heart of a Disney movie protagonist. R can’t dance, and he sure can’t sing, but he’s got the next best thing — a record album collection of popular 70’s and 80’s tunes — and it’s all tucked away in his own little Ariel-esque treasure trove of odds and ends he’s collected in order to remind himself of what it was like to be human, once.

R is trapped in the terrible merry-go-round all zombies face — staggering about, grunting, eating people, falling to pieces — until one fateful day when he and a posse of fellow zombies run into a group of teenagers out on a medicine run. Zombie meets girl, it’s love at first sight, and R’s heart literally skips a beat. Better yet, Julie’s boyfriend just bit the dust, so there’s an opening for a new stiff in her life… or, at least, hope springs eternal for lovelorn teenagers, undead or not.

Warm Bodies (usually humorously, sometimes cleverly) manages to filter a teenage romantic comedy formula through the zombie motif. In fact, the more R changes, the hunkier he becomes… but Nicholas Hoult wasn’t cast just as a pretty face; he believably manages to convey the earnest nuance of a transition from Mr. Zombie Lonely Heart back to something more recognizably human. His love interest, Julie (Teresa Palmer, know for her kick-ass #6 in “I Am Number Four”) is thick-skinned and bull-headed, so it’s believable that she can handle being trapped in zombie territory without freaking out regularly. (There’s only one moment where she surprised me with an unexpectedly subdued response, but the moment passes quickly.)

John Malkovich as Capulet, err, Julie’s father — the survivalist leader with an understandable vendetta against the zombies who ate his wife — plays what screen time he gets pretty much by the numbers, ho-hum. Analeigh Tipton has a nice little role as Nora, Julie’s best friend and co-conspirator, who offers necessary BFF support as the two little lovebirds attempt to bring their two clans together without being offed in the process. It’s all not exactly Shakespeare, but the banter between some of the characters (R and Julie, Julie and Nora) is alternately endearing and amusing. R’s interactions with his “best zombie friend M” (where “best friend” means staring blankly at each other and grunting on occasion) are also drolly funny, and the ever-evolving relationship between them signals how the zombie zeitgeist might be changing for the better.

The movie spends a lot of time developing the relationship between R and Julie, so much that the film feels unbalanced when the endgame is reached and resolves itself more quickly than expected. However, there’s so much good stuff in the first half that it’s not a huge loss, even if it would have been nice to see a little more meat regarding the prejudice inherent between humans and zombies. The visual palette is rich and detailed, with dream and memory sequences in vibrant gold and the color tones moving from cold blues to a more normal range as the story progresses.

Along with a nice parallel where R first protects Julie in his domain, then she later protects him in hers, there are two themes that bring dramatic substance to the movie. One revolves around why zombies eat brains in the first place, creating an even more intense dichotomy of pity versus revulsion for their condition. (It reminds me of discussions I’ve about the nature of vampires being undead who steal life from the living to pretend they are alive, and what moral choice remains to the vampire who wishes to be an agent of good rather than harm.) The other is in the origin of their condition — not just the virus but also a loss of the memory of what it means to be human — and that perhaps a cure relies less in a pill or injection and more in restored connections with those who can help them remember how to find their “way back.” (One might even go so far as to say that Warm Bodies comments on how fragmented human relationship leads to destructive consumerism, although that’s more of an idea for undergrads struggling for a film class term paper topic than something the movie consciously obsesses over.)

Along with the full-length feature, the BluRay contains a few goodies, including deleted scenes and a gag real with a few really funny bits. One of the “must-sees” is “Zombie Acting Tips from Rob Corddry” from Screen Junkies, a mock doc of the actor playing “M” that will leave you laughing and even perhaps a bit disturbed (in the good sense).

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Les Miserables (2012)

The closest I ever came to Les Mis was in college (back ’bout the time Hugo wrote the novel, *cough*) and a friend lent me his copy, and years later, it’s still sitting untouched on my bedroom bookshelf. (Note to self: Is that why he stopped talking to me?)

Too many purists were emerging from the woodwork when this adaptation hit the theaters on Christmas 2012, so I decided to save my money. The biggest surprise upon viewing this spring was how enjoyable it actually was, even if not perfect… but then again, isn’t acceptance of the imperfect the definition of grace? And if Les Miserables is a tale of anything, it is a tale of grace to move the heart.

Jean Valjean is a man harshly punished by society (5 years for stealing bread to feed his sister’s child, another 14 for myriad attempts to escape), and not just before his release. His relapse into theft is quick (stealing the monastery silver), driven both by need and by society’s contempt for him as a prior felon — but a moment of grace by the Church offers him a taste of freedom and a new vision of who he could become. So Valjean violates his parole and vanishes in order to recreate his life from the ground up, reemerging eventually as a well-meaning and well-respected community leader.

The story might have ended there, but parole violation is still a crime, and the relentless Inspector Javert has no forgiveness for anyone’s shortcomings, not even his own; he lives so that others might pay for even the smallest of crimes. Valjean is granted a golden opportunity to pin his crimes on another, but selflessness have permeated his heart: He finds he can no longer stomach such deceit,  so he reveals his identity and the chase begins anew.

Les Miserables doggedly pursues this conflict between grace and guilt, dispensation and denunciation, through both the mundane events of life as well as through an actual revolution in the streets of Paris. Can the truly guilty still experience redemption? What is the nature and cost of forgiveness, what is the difference between a clean versus corrupt heart? Which worldview dominates, and what happens to the man who realizes his world no longer makes sense?

The public discussion around the movie at its release is, for the most part, accurate. In terms of composition, the movie relies on face shots for many sequences, which might provide some intimacy to the characters but reduces the contributions of establishing shots and set/costume design. However, Hooper’s decision makes some sense in terms of how the film focuses on live (not canned) performance, which involves capturing both sound and facial expression. Art is essentially a collection of decisions made between mutually exclusive choices; there are always tradeoffs, and in this case Hooper opted for the raw and personal.

Jackman, with prior stage experience, comports himself admirably as Jean Valjean; he’s believable, he’s sympathetic, he can sing, he can act, he propels the story forward by sheer force of will and emotional grit. It’s also impressive that Hathaway (as Fantine, the mother-turned-prostitute in trying to provide for her little girl) snagged an Oscar for a performance with so little actual screentime. While she sings well, it’s really her acting — especially the facial expressions during “I Dreamed a Dream” — that will tear your heart out. I don’t think I’ve seen such a diverse, yet authentic flow of emotion (sorrow, fear, rage, regret, emptiness) expressed within such a short range of time, even if at time the song dies in her throat. There are some who would take issue with this, but I don’t agree; she’s not a singer here, she’s an actress, this is a movie and not a musical concert, and Hathaway’s choices serve the ultimate goal of bringing the viewers deeply into the movie’s pathos.

Sadly, the comments about Crowe are also true; his singing skills aren’t up to task, he lacks confidence in his own performance, and even at his best moments sounds like he’s crooning to a lover rather than angrily hounding his enemy to the ends of the earth. (If you want to see “Stars” falling from the sky, you need go no further; the song is a disaster, from at least a characterization perspective.) But it’s hard to blame Crowe, who was doing his best with a role that was obviously beyond his grasp to start with.

The other characters comprise themselves well. Even if it’s not a stretch for them, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter perfectly play farcical innkeepers who always seem to have money on their minds. Seyfried as the older Cosette hits all the right high notes; and then we begin to run across cast members with extensive theater backgrounds and professional voices (Redmayne, Barks, Huttlestone, et al) who bring a whole new depth to the music as well as the acting. They don’t get as much attention as the top-billed stars… and to me, that’s a crime far worse than the theft of a loaf of bread.

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Color of Night

Imagine a lazy Saturday afternoon where you don’t feel at all like cooking, the diet’s got you down, your  legs are shaky from exercising, and in the back corner of some forgotten cupboard, you run across a greasy Giganto bag of Fritos, and after making sure that no one else is home, you pop the seal and dig in.

Now imagine that the Frito bag is already open, notably stale, half-empty, and it’s not even Fritos but some lame knock-off store brand, yet you finish the bag anyway … and the only guilt you feel is that you don’t feel completely grossed-out by the experience.

That’s how I felt after watching Color of Night.

Never since Fire & Ice or Heavy Metal has “getting my stupid on” felt this good; never has the phrase, “Whut?? Srsly???!” found more use except perhaps when I was watching Sarah Palin debate Joe Biden in 2008.

I’m still wondering if Willis was throwing a party on the scale of Project X, and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” came on the telly, and people started blurting out, “Hey, let’s do it! But we’ll make it a support group instead! And have lots of sex! And action! And a noir mystery!” And then someone cranked out a basic storyboard, and people drew names out of a hat to get their part, and then the cameras started rolling while the actors ad-libbed their lines. While tripping out. All before 5:25am.

The cast headed by Willis looks like it was culled from a pool of “Name Famous 90’s Character Actors” from Jeopardy: Lance Henriksen, Leslie Ann Warren (AKA Miss Scarlet in Clue), Brad Dourif, Eriq La Salle, Scott Bakula, and that’s just for starters. If you thought The Perfect Storm had some pretty big waves, then you haven’t experienced Warren’s bomb-burstic display of histrionics in this movie.

And then there’s Jane. Oh Jane. Pretty, sweet, Jane March, who puts in such a monumental effort for a movie so painfully trivial. Her contribution here cannot be disguised. Even when a particular scene appears beyond her, she dives right in and refuses to come up for air. Without Jane, this entirely deranged movie would fall apart.

While managing to be about as removed from reality as many its support-group patients (which include an OCD, a klepto, a nympho, an S&M’er, an antisocial, and a gender dypshoric who doesn’t seem to know which direction s/he’s going), the movie also is credited by Maxim as having some of the best sex scenes ever in American cinema. I kid you not, I even think I caught a Willis willy sighting during one splashy scene. And what is spectacular sex without a really crappy theme song blaring through your sound speakers by an orchestra channeling the zeal of a sixth-grade trumpet section playing “Rocky”?

Just because it can’t be stressed enough, the movie has a lot of sex. And mysterious, gruesome deaths. And terrible secrets harbored by distraught extras. And insane action sequences on the highway, full of smashed cars. (Hilariously, the red car driven by the villain sometimes has a crushed side, other times untouched, depending on where the script doctor and editors screwed up. Later, this sneaky red car with the mutating side stalks Willis from atop a parking garage, in order to better push another car down on top of him without even being able to see where Willis is. Did I mention this movie gets its stupid on?)

And then comes the spectacular, slam-bang ending where just about everyone dies, and the bad guy finally is revealed to be who we suspected it might be, and we are graced to hear the Villainous Monologue, and the there’s a final climactic battle, followed by a totally superfluous chase to the top of a needless tower … in a rainstorm.

Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. This movie is the glue that holds together every tired, hackneyed, half-baked movie trope in existence.

I kept watching for the background smirk or the knowing glance or the more overt Breaking of the Fourth Wall as an actor addresses the audience director, but they play it straight. Didn’t they realize that it was all one big joke?

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The Evil Dead (1981)

With the new “The Evil Dead” hitting theaters, it was an excuse for me to finally dig up the old one. Yes, I’m an Evil Dead virgin — never saw the first two, and then only the  portions of “Army of Darkness” that I’d catch surfing cable channels on a Saturday afternoon.

(And always the same portions! How on earth do they time them, so that I only see the same 15-minute segments over and over?)

I’ve survived various excursions into this genre — Cabin Fever, Chuckie movies, bits of Poltergeists, House, and most recently the meta Cabin in the Woods — but never this granddaddy of them all, aside from the small clip shown in Donnie Darko (a movie I found more chilling, honestly… but then again I’ve always had a thing for creepy bunnies with overactive pituitary glands and teeth only an orthodontist could love).

Let’s face it, Evil Dead (like furries in chains) is the sort of movie where you really have to be into it. I can’t say I’m into it; at the same time, I can definitely see why some people might be.

Yes, the acting is bad; the writing is average; the effects are really cheesy; there’s enough violence to drown your grandma in. Yet Raimi never apologies for any of it. In fact, he seems to create an even bigger spectacle of it in the same way that a sixth-grade boy might cackle hysterically after releasing a refried bean fart into a crowded room. Tittering abounds; that kind of glee can be infectious.

Everything, really, is so over the top: Demons with their guterral giggles and melting faces and proclamations of violence, the axes and shovels and chainsaws and blades of various shapes and sizes hacking away limbs and other unrecognizable pieces of flesh, the voluminous gouts of blood, the crazy Latin chants (uh dude, are you SURE you want to be saying that out loud?!), the ruinous disintegration of demonic badies when the book bound in human skin starts to… wait, did you actually hear me say the book is bound in human skin and set with teeth? Well, of course you did. It’s a Sam Raimi movie.

There are some real “wow” moments, not just related to the poor girl stupidly wandering the woods, screaming, “I know you’re out there! Where are you?!!” to the demons right before her wish is granted and she gets her groove groved; and you just have to be impressed by the audacity of it all, even if the production quality is dubious at best. In no other movie does a guy spare the corpse of his girlfriend a few slashes with a spluttering chainsaw and live to regret it.

And then of course, even if a movie should be judged solely on merit, if you’re aware that Raimi and Campbell et al almost went bankrupt on the picture, cutting costs wherever possible and taking out unimaginable loans to see it through to the end? Well, I have to admire regardless someone so committed to their vision. Some of these guys burn up other people’s money with nothing to show for it, because they have no financial investment; but it’s another to be giving everything you own to bring your own dream to fruition, and here I think it paid off for him. Raimi went on to direct some real blockbusters, including the first Spiderman franchise as well as the most recent Oz movie, showing that he’s more than a one-note wonder.

Note: My favorite movie by Raimi is the possibly underrated “Drag Me to Hell” (2009), where he had some budget to play with and polished up his trademark blend of camp and horror first introduced in “The Evil Dead.” The movie manages to be sadistically funny while completely terrifying, with barely a misstep and sticking the landing; never has losing a button been so disastrous. 

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