(Crackle streaming, February 2015) I’ve been checking off a list of “unseen must-see movies” lately, and some of my least-favourite ones are those films belonging to the filmography of popular comic actors that I don’t find particularly funny… in this case: Will Ferrell. (Also see; Adam Sandler) Stupidity is celebrated here as two thirtysomething men with the EQ of unpleasant eight-year-olds are forced to live together when their parents remarry. From afar, Step Brothers looks like the dumbest thing to have been filmed, and the actual film often feels like it, what with Ferrell and John C. Reilly doing their best impression of socially-retarded man-children. I can’t deny that some of the sight gags can be amusing, but given my distaste for Ferrell’s typical overgrown-toddler shtick, Step Brothers was often an endurance exercise –especially given how often it relies on the kind of humiliation-comedy gags that I find unbearable. Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins are particularly enjoyable, but their characters suffer the brunt of most of the film’s jokes. A surprising amount of Step Brothers is mean-spirited on top of everything else, so it’s no surprise if my final reaction to the film really isn’t all on the positive side.
(Video on Demand, January 2015) Even almost a year after his death, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s presence is still deeply felt, and each posthumous film seems to remind everyone of what an interesting screen presence he could have. In God’s Pocket, he’s about as far from glamour as he could be, playing a down-on-his-luck blue-collar worker you gets entangled in a growing pit of lack luck and even worse circumstances. It’s far from being a cheerful story, and Hoffman’s hanging-dog charm fits perfectly with the poor-neighborhood setting. Unfortunately, he’s stuck in a script that doesn’t quite know how to balance the sad drama with the black comedy – at times, God’s Pocket goes from naturalistic social study to jet-black absurdist comedy without graceful transition, or even unity in its presentation. The very dark ending doesn’t help anything. Still, John Slattery’s direction isn’t too bad, and Richard Jenkins gets some attention as a journalist who’s ultimately too smart for his own good. In the end, we just want to get away from the place as quickly as we can.
(On Cable TV, February 2014) While Killing Them Softly has the admirable ambition of using a crime story to tackle much-bigger social and economic themes, it looks as if, along the way, it has forgotten to entertain viewers on a minute-to-minute basis. Adapted from a seventies crime novel but updated to be set in the middle of fall 2008’s presidential/economic crisis, it’s a film that attempts to make parallels between low-level mob desperation and wider social problems. As such, it’s got a lot more ambition than most other crime thrillers out there. It all culminates into a tough but compelling final scene, in which America is unmasked as a business far more than a community, and in which getting paid is the ultimate arbitrator of fairness. Stylistically, Killing Them Softly has a few strong moments, perhaps the most being a slow-motion bullet execution. Alas; it’s so kinetically entertaining as to be atonal with the rest of the film, which takes forever to makes simple points and delights into long extended conversations in-between bursts of violence. Still, Brad Pitt is pretty good as a mob enforcer trying to keep his hands clean (it’s another reminder that he can act, and is willing to do so in low-budgeted features once in a while), while James Gandolfini has a one-scene role as a hit-man made ineffective by his own indulgences. Richard Jenkins also has an intriguing role as a corporate-minded mob middle-man in-between men of violence. Otherwise, though, Killing Them Softly‘s tepid rhythm kills most of its interest: Despite writer/director Andrew Dominik’s skills and lofty intent, the film feels too dull to benefit from its qualities.
(On-demand video, October 2012) Horror fans won’t have to think twice about whether to see this film: The Cabin in the Woods is as essential a horror film as any in the past few years. A gleeful deconstruction of the good-old “cabin in the woods” horror scenario, it’s a commentary as much as it’s a comedy. It takes the good old tropes and plays with them until they fall apart. I have some evidence that the film won’t play very well to an audience that is unfamiliar with horror films, making it even more specially targeted (for better or for worse) to a specific public. Coming from geek-favorite co-writer Joss Whedon and co-writer/director Drew Goddard, The Cabin in the Woods is a blast-and-a-half for those in the know. Is it perfect? Of course not: one danger with parodying tropes is forgetting a few, and it sure seems as if one “upstairs sabotage” plot thread has been left dangling. (My theory involves the audience getting bored.) Still, what the film does manage to deliver is enough to mandate a viewing. It helps that The Cabin in the Woods is competently-made: Goddard knows how to deliver the laughs, and the actors do passable jobs in the roles they’re given. Kristen Connolly, Fran Kranz and Richard Jenkins stand out, by virtue of their places in the plot as much as anything else. There’s plenty of freeze-frame fun, and the film does a fine job at playing with the demands of the various genres it has taken on. For a while, The Cabin in the Woods is going to be the horror movie to watch with friends and that’s great: the horror genre was taking itself a bit seriously lately what with the icky torture-porn trend, and this is a welcome corrective. One final note about spoilers: it’s perfectly possible to spoil yourself rotten about the film, and still enjoy it immensely… so don’t panic if you think you already know too much.
(On-demand Video, April 2012) I’m never too sure whether I should be annoyed or relieved when mainstream Hollywood comedies end up neutering their daring premises with innocuous plot developments. Audiences don’t like to be unnerved when they’re supposed to be laughing, and I suppose that I’m no exception. Nonetheless, there’s something maddening in seeing a film about married couples agreeing to mutual indiscretion racing to a conclusion when nothing really happened. (Actually, it may be best to ignore the fact that the one woman who did something, albeit briefly, ends up punished by a car crash that ends up not much more than a plot point for her husband’s emotional growth. But such is the way of Hollywood, and this includes the emotionally-retarded male protagonists who are supposed to earn our sympathy. The gender politics here aren’t particularly even-handed here, which is keeping in mind the target audience of the film.) Still, Hall Pass has a number of laughs in reserve, especially when the protagonists can’t even begin to imagine how to take advantage of the freedom they’ve bargained for themselves. Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis (who, in-between this film, Horrible Bosses and A Good Old Fashioned Orgy, is carving himself a bit of a niche as a sex-obsessed protagonist) are both as charming as they can be in characters who are barely emotionally adults, although it’s Richard Jenkins who gets the biggest laughs in short appearances as an even older and less mature professional bachelor. The problem is that by ultimately playing it safe, Hall Pass doesn’t do anything that warrants any lasting attention. Despite a few out-of-place graphic gags, it’s a disposable comedy destined to the bargain bin.