(Hoopla Streaming, October 2018) Yuck. Prison movies have been a staple of Hollywood for decades, but the latest few examples of the form have been simply brutal. This does reflect the growing radicalization of the incarceration/industrial complex, with prison life being portrayed as merciless even in the best of cases. Brawl in Cell Block 99 pushes that tendency as far as it will go in a film that will leave viewers feeling soiled for watching it. Like most prison movies, it begins with a somewhat innocent man being at the wrong place at the wrong time and getting incarcerated for his troubles. But there is little isolation between prison life and outside life when his wife and unborn child are directly threatened by an organized crime group. Our protagonist doesn’t have a lot of choice: He’s going to have to become more brutal than even the biggest brutes in order to save his family. Writer/Director S. Craig Zahler turned a few stomachs with his gory western debut Bone Tomahawk and he’s back for worse here—Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a prison drama with gore exceeding most horror movies and I won’t describe what you’d see because even the description will gross you out. But worse than the images is the unbearably bleak atmosphere of the film, which reinforces its hopeless message with a harsh colour palette that underscores the artificiality of the story. It doesn’t end particularly well, but Brawl in Cell Block 99 teaches its audience to expect the very worst very early on. While I’m not all that happy with the result, special mention must be made of Vince Vaughn’s unusual performance as the protagonist, playing his natural bulk as an imposing physical presence and never once resorting to the man-child persona that made him famous. I’m not really looking forward to Zahler’s next film, though.
(Netflix Streaming, September 2017) There are a lot of remakes, but very few shot-by-shot remakes sticking as closely to the original as possible, down to the dialogue and specific shots as this 1998 version of Psycho does. But what Gus van Sant has done with his version of the classic film is unexpectedly fascinating rather than annoying. Moviemaking techniques evolved considerably between 1962 and 1998, and one of the most interesting aspects of this Psycho is comparing the extra details in the same frames, the depth of perception and the increased energy of the camera. Some changes are fully justified, from the opening bird-eye introduction to the characters to mercifully shortening the end monologue introducing the concept of split personalities to 1962 audiences. Other changes aren’t so remarkable: Vince Vaughn is (to put it bluntly) no Anthony Perkins, and Anne Heche is rather dull as a heroine. Still, trying to make sense of this film as a standalone thriller is difficult (the structure is lopsided enough), and simply treating it as a remake misses the point that it actively tries to be the same film, except made for 1998. I’m not going to call it good, but I will call it interesting.
(On TV, August 2015) I have now seen too many so-called comedies about breakups and they all share one common characteristics: They are depressing, unfunny, unpleasant and almost a chore to go through. The Break Up may be directed by Peyton Reed –who, in between Bring it On and Down With Love, once seemed such a promising director), it’s not particularly funny, compelling nor all that insightful regarding human relationships. The basic premise has something to do with a couple breaking up but being forced to live together for some reason, but the basic dramatic arc here is one of likable people being quite unlikable with each other, and I suppose that I’m really not a good audience for that kind of stuff. It doesn’t help that the lead couple is played by Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston: I’m not a big fan of Vaughn even in the best of circumstances, and I find Aniston to be a dull actress, usually playing parts that could have been far better handled by many other actresses. Such comedies often live on the strength of secondary characters and comic set-pieces, but there is almost nothing of interest to find here –The Break-Up is just a sad film, and the longer it goes on, the more unpleasant it gets.
(On TV, July 2015) The best and worst thing about Couples Retreat is how resolutely predictable it can be. A fairly traditional (albeit PG-13-rated glancing at R) Hollywood comedy about matrimonial reconciliation, it relies heavily on the comic persona of its lead actors: Jason Bateman plays the straight-man with a bit of unpleasantness lurking at the edge of his personality; Vince Vaughn plays the overgrown-frat boy loudmouth; Jon Favreau is a lout… and so on. Characters are established early and seldom deviate from their broad personalities, the reconciliatory ending is a foregone conclusion and the gags along the way tend to be fairly obvious. Much of the details are inane bordering on moronic (I’m still figuring out why Guitar Hero would need a dedicated salesman) but the film goes have the “tropical retreat romantic comedy” atmosphere in the tradition of Just Go With It, Blended or Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Even though most jaded viewers may not appreciate the leisurely pace of characters on holidays, there’s a little bit of vicarious living in spending an hour or so in tropical settings. The main players are up to themselves: Bateman and Vaughn don’t really stretch their persona, but Jean Reno makes for a fun self-help guru while Peter Serafinowicz has a small but hilarious role as a demanding host. All of the film’s slight qualities don’t manage to make it stand out as anything but a middle-of-the road kind of comedy. There was potential for something a bit more unnerving (a comparison between trailer and final film suggests that at least one risqué subplot was cut out –although a reference to realized infidelity stays in the film and comes as a bit of a surprise.) but in the end embraces traditional values. And yet, as predictable Couples Retreat can be, it’s also comforting in a way.
(On DVD, June 2015) Well, I’m torn: What happens when you try to review a decently-made film that practically sanctifies someone who’s done something really, really stupid? I’m not much for the whole “throw away your shackles, take a hike, enjoy life” narrative: I think we’re made stronger by being part of a civilization with rules, ties and obligations. I’m not against traveling and having new experiences, but seeing the protagonist of Into the Wild give away his money, sever ties with his family, spout incoherent feel-good nonsense and head away from civilization in such a way as to sacrifice any chance of survival doesn’t make for a hero. And yet, Into the Wild is captivating. Sean Penn’s directorial debut is heartfelt, benefits enormously from location shooting, knows how to best use its actors (Emile Hirsch steals the show as the protagonist, but even Vince Vaughn has an uncharacteristic role) and manages to make even its most depressing moments mean something almost profound. It does suffer from its length, though: clocking in at a far too long two hours and a half, Into the Wild often feels as if it’s waiting for something else and seems even longer given the dumb decisions made by the so-called hero of the story. At the end, I’m more saddened by the film than uplifted by its attempt to glorify a series of bad decision by someone who may have had significant mental issues. Have I liked Into the Wild, or not?
(Video on Demand, June 2015) I usually find Vince Vaughn annoying, which is not really a good portent when watching a film built around him. But this time around, Vaughn looks as if he’s slowly stretching out of his overgrown frat-boy persona as a family man heading out for a crucial business trip. I’m not suggesting that his humor is any more mature than his usual shtick – but in Unfinished Business, he shows signs that he’s at least trying to play his age. It helps that hi co-stars, Tom Wilkinson as a sex-obsessed pre-retiree and Dave Franco as a too-dumb-to-live youngster, take up a lot of his usual immaturity routine. The result isn’t necessarily a good movie: Unfinished Business is dumb even by Vaughn standards, with crude humor sabotaging whatever emotional core the film tries to build as foundation. But it’s unsatisfying for reasons that don’t necessarily have to do with Vaughn himself, and that’s already an improvement over much of his filmography. As for Unfinished Business, what’s to mention? A good small role for Nick Frost. Far more nudity (of both genders) than you’d expect. A far too long time-jump at the end of the prologue. I suppose that the film’s biggest flaw is how it unsuccessfully tries to navigate a middle-road between family-friendly sentiment and outrageous raunchiness. Unfinished Business feels padded despite a short running time and while the basic laughs are there, there’s also a sense that it should be much better.
(On Cable TV, January 2015) I have a high tolerance for dumb comedies, so it takes a quite a bit to make one tip into irritation. Sadly, The Internship occasionally manages to do so in a way that seems particularly counterproductive to its goals. The story is straight out of the kind of aging fratboy fantasies fulfilled by Vince Vaughn’s persona: Here are a couple of ordinary middle-aged salesmen abruptly taking on an internship at tech giant Google, where their initial sense of estrangement will eventually give way to pride as their knowledge of how to have fun and cut loose will teach valuable life lessons to the young nerds around them. If you’re thinking anti-Revenge of the Nerds, then you’re on the right track: in better hands, this could have been a poignant exploration of the irrelevance of traditional man-child values at a time where technological knowledge and intellectualism is in vogue. But with Vaughn not only starring, but writing and producing, you can bet that this is not the case. This is about bringing party back, about telling the nerds to loosen up and finding relevance at a time where arrested development isn’t funny. My idiosyncratic reaction to all of that, being of the nerdish persuasion, is predictably irritated. The script isn’t much more than tired retreads on a familiar structure and brain-damaged sequences, which isn’t much of a surprise considering the pedigree of Vaughn and Shawn Levy as writers. The real question here is why Google allowed the film such generous use of its corporate identity: I suppose that, in Goldman’s term, nobody knew anything about how the film would turn out. All of this being said and having established that The Internship can occasionally be as obnoxious as Vaughn’s persona, there are a few saving moment here and there: There is a good restaurant sequence between Owen Wilson and Rose Byrne as they race through a decade’s worth of bad dates in a minute, Tiya Sircar has a small but striking role as the nerd-girl who know everything but has done nothing and Aasif Mandvi also distinguish himself as the putative voice of reason. Still, that’s not a whole lot to save a film. On its own as a mediocre comedy, The Intership would be barely worth a mention. As a none-too-witty aggression over nerd values couched in a Google advertisement, well, it’s obnoxious in ways that seem worse than the sum of its parts.
(On Cable TV, December 2013) This may be the fifteenth alien-invasion film in the past four years, but it’s certainly one of the most inconsequential. As a peaceful suburban community hosts an imminent alien invasion beachhead, the mysterious death of a Costco™ security guard prompts a few post-adolescent males to gang up into a neighborhood watch in order to catch the killer. Part Costco™ product placement, part adult male fantasy fulfillment, part more-of-the-usual from Vince Vaugh, Ben Stiller and Jonah Hill, The Watch never hesitates to reach for the lowest-common-denominator joke when it’s within reach, and the result feels as immature as you’d think. For all of the premise’s potential, and occasional good work from either Stiller or scene-stealing from relative British newcomer Richard Ayoade, The Watch quickly finds its level by allowing Vaughn and Hill to wallow in their usual screen persona (or, more fairly, in Vaughn’s usual man-child character and Hill’s early aggressive-teen shtick.) It should work for anyone who already likes that stuff; otherwise, it’s just a dreary way to go from one plot point to the next, leading all the way to the Costco™ store showdown. (The product placement is even more blatant considering that in order to shoot the film they had to convert a closed-down store into a Costco™.) From a Science-Fictional perspective, The Watch is hollow: it doesn’t have a single new idea to offer, and merely treats the alien invasion as a plot-driver for juvenile comedy. From a comic perspective, the film has little more to offer, but it does land a chuckle or two. Alas, it feels compelled to insert a few scenes of a more serious emotional nature in the middle of the dumb jokes, creating more forced atonality. Perhaps the most intellectual thing The Watch has to offer is a not-so-unwitting study of the modern American suburban male’s uneasiness: Which SUV-driving North-American doesn’t dream of killing dangerous foreigners, punching their daughter’s creepy boyfriend, being invited to secret orgies, increasing their sperm count and earning the macho respect of authority figures? If you don’t share those obsessions, well, The Watch may feel a bit long.
(Video on Demand, May 2013) For an actress I didn’t even know at the beginning of the month, I’m suddenly quite impressed by Rebecca Hall’s screen presence and the range she shows from the “hero scientist” of Iron Man 3 to the “ice-cold English noble” of Parade’s End to the “trailer-park chic” of her role in Lay the Favorite. [July 2013: Although the “non-nonsense pragmatist” of The Awakening and Vicky Cristina Barcelona suggest that Lay the Favorite is a bit of an outlier.] Her performance is one of the few things that transform the somewhat ordinary script for Lay the Favorite to something worth remembering the day after. A gambling comedy set in the sports-bookie world of Las Vegas, it at least has the merit of exploring a new subculture and doing so with just enough style to be interesting. Much of the plotting is purely serviceable, with the expected story beats all carefully lined up in a row. But it’s light-hearted enough to be unobjectionable and one suspects that the light breezy tone has a lot to do with how it landed notables such as a smiling Bruce Willis in the lead, usually-reprehensible Vince Vaughn as an antagonist of sorts, and Catherine Zeta-Jones in another of her increasingly-frequent strong supporting roles. Still, the film really belongs to Hall, and she makes the most of her role, even elevating the somewhat slight film built around it. Despite weak romances, tonal inconsistencies and a dull ending, she’s the reason why Lay the Favorite remains watchable throughout and leaves a generally favorable impression even despite its familiarity and lack of substance.
(On TV, sometime around July 2010) If anyone wonders why I’m not much of a Will Ferrell or Vince Vaughn fan, let me point at Old School and shrug. Their chosen screen personae are that of overgrown men-child prone to temper tantrums and a shocking lack of self-reflection, and this movie allows that persona to run wild without constraints. It is, literally, about thirty-something adults regressing to an earlier stage of development, starting a fraternity to relive their college glory days. Is it fitfully entertaining? Of course. Is it a reprehensible anthem to the arrested man-childs? Somewhat. Is it designed for me? Absolutely not. In retrospect, this may be most notable as an early prototype of the kind of movie that would come to dominate American film comedy by 2009 (the link to The Hangover, with common director Todd Phillips, is certainly not accidental.) Otherwise, there isn’t much to say about Old School: It’s pretty much what you can expect from the premise or trailer, for better or for worse.