For Reel

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012)
July 19, 2012, 8:52 pm
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Director: Lorene Scafaria

Those still in recovery from their Melancholia-induced depression might have more patience for the slightness of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, the new dramedy from the screenwriter of the surprisingly appealing Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist. Unlike the bride-to-be of von Trier’s film, Lorene Scarfaria’s characters have not resigned themselves to their fates, with their countdown to the end of days instead serving as an invigorating motivational tool to rid themselves of regret. Star Steve Carrell, now in his post Michael Scott career, shows questionable promise as a dramatic leading man. Much like his performances in Dan in Real Life and Crazy, Stupid, Love., he is so earnest, so intentionally humorless that he barely registers as a presence on screen. Keira Knightley, on the other hand, is desperately animated – their dynamic gives one flashbacks of the disastrous James Franco and Anne Hathaway combination at the Academy Awards. Scarfaria has one inspired joke – that many average people have continued their day-to-day slog despite the impending apocalypse – but much of the comedy falls flat, such as the unmemorable vignettes involving a suicidal truck-driver and the overly-enthused workers at a Fridays-like restaurant.

The Bitter Buddha (2012)
July 18, 2012, 2:16 am
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Director: Steven Feinartz

An unusual fixture on the contemporary alternative comedy scene, Eddie Pepitone is a veteran of thirty years who has only recently come to be recognized thanks to his advantageous embrace of digital media and social networking. The Bitter Buddha, a documentary that probes into his day-to-day life, is a sort of public service announcement that relentlessly expounds on his gifts – think of it as Katy Perry: Part of Me for irritable twenty-somethings. Fans of the comedy world will take great pleasure in seeing the recognizable faces chime in (including a heated confrontation between Pepitone and the reliably antagonistic Marc Maron), however they will likely be disappointed with the film’s disinterest in exploring the writing process or the evolution of stand-up comedy in the world of podcasting. The picture’s most revealing moment shows the frustration of trying to write the perfect tweet – a timely detail that resonates far beyond the isolated comedy scene. It is a disappointment, then, that director Steven Feinartz most often settles for the easy chuckle, most tellingly demonstrated by using some of Pepitone’s wittiest tweets as makeshift chapter titles. Slight as the film may be, however, Pepitone is a fascinating presence, and a late father-son interaction is sure to garner applause from even the most cynical of crowds.

Prometheus (2012)
July 16, 2012, 9:54 pm
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Director: Ridley Scott

Three-quarters of the way through Prometheus, writers Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof begin to answer some of the questions that viewers might be having about the plot. “Might” being the operative word – rather than delving into satisfying explanations regarding the intentions of mankind’s supposed creators, a series of “twists” involving, among other things, Guy Pearce in fifty pounds of old man make-up, begin to trickle down with a resounding thud. The dramatic delay one character executes before using “…father” as an identifier is perhaps the biggest unintentional laugh that the summer has had to offer. Easy as it is to tease the faults of the screenplay (clever articles elsewhere on the web have made comprehensive lists of every plot inconsistency and unanswered question), Prometheus is nonetheless the most handsomely made blockbuster in some time, with Dariusz Wolski’s camera searching with wonder the expansive hive-like set from production designer Arthur Max. For all of the talk that precluded the film about how it interacts with the world of Scott’s science fiction classic, it is a slight disappointment that, for all intents and purposes, it is a direct remake – when Noomi Rapace runs through a spaceship is skimpy clothing and comes face-to-face with the monster that she thought was dead, the sense of déjà vu is inevitable. Yet, for having what is largely a disaster of a script, Prometheus is just compelling enough, thanks in large part to a game cast, led by the aforementioned Rapace and, more significantly, an android played by the ever-reliable Michael Fassbender, who molds himself after the protagonist of a certain David Lean epic.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
July 11, 2012, 11:58 pm
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Director: Wes Anderson

The opening sequence of Wes Anderson’s latest involves a series of lateral pans through a household, sweeping with a self-awareness that firmly establishes to the audience that Moonrise Kingdom is meant to be approached as a storybook. In many ways, it is the definitive showcase of Anderson’s visual sensibilities – it is almost as if he were attempting to literalize the so-called “dollhouse” aesthetic that has become a key identifier of his work. The reiteration that Anderson is one of the most visually uncompromising of working American directors comes as no surprise, but nonetheless it is the kind of sequence that leaves one breathless through its impeccable framing, with each image ready, as the cliche goes, to hang on a wall. Unfortunately, not since Rushmore has Anderson met his high standard of art direction with a completely satisfying narrative. For a fantastical adventure tale of young love, Moonrise Kingdom often feels too stilted – while the adults of the story have already been beaten down by the world, the kids seem equally complacent, with their behavior seeming too methodical and calculated, possessing none of the exuberant spontaneity that one might associate with childhood. For once, it is as if Anderson wasn’t being precious enough – handsome as the production is, the intangible “warmth” has been systematically drained from it due to its insistence on artifice.

Hemingway & Gellhorn (2012)
July 1, 2012, 11:58 pm
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Director: Philip Kaufman

It is difficult to understand how it is that HBO has continued to produce such consistently great television (including the occasional mini-series, such as last year’s Mildred Pierce) while their features have remained bland and tedious at best. Hemingway & Gellhorn, to no surprise, has impeccable production values, but its script is, if admirable in the sense that it intends to be historically exhaustive, dramatically repetitive. As the two authors travel everywhere from Finland to China, director Philip Kaufman reliably shows us examples of Martha Gellhorn’s integrity, Ernest Hemingway’s stubborn pride, and the series of clashes that they find themselves in. That the couple remains at an emotional stalemate is largely the point – Gellhorn, much more than any of his other three wives, is uniquely well-matched for the bestial Hemingway – however Owen never manages to humanize the over-the-top brute, no more than Corey Stoll had intended to in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Over-the-top is perhaps the optimal description for the picture, best illustrated in the consummation of the titular lovers’ romance – the film figuratively pauses for a steamy display between its attractive stars, writhing in bed as their hotel is bombed and ceiling debris rains down over their sweaty flesh. Had the film maintained such a high level of camp, it might have been interesting, but Kaufman’s Forrest Gump-esque method of incorporating the actors into archival footage is both a thin gimmick and oft-times offensive, as when images of the prisoner corpses in Dachau are exploitatively used in an effort to fabricate shallow drama.

The Avengers (2012)
June 23, 2012, 1:41 am
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Director: Joss Whedon

There is little to add to the discussion of the box office behemoth that is The Avengers. It is exactly what one would expect: loud, sometimes funny, sometimes exciting, loud, well-acted, loud, and loud. It is an admirable thing for a summer movie to live up to its marketing when the blockbusters of today are largely forgotten by September. The Avengers surprises in one major way, however, and that is in the propagandistic elements that seem at odds with Joss Whedon’s worldview (at least the worldview that one sees in his previous work). Samuel L. Jackson, in the role of SHIELD director Nick Fury, at one point defends the secret arsenal of weapons held by his organization, arguing that their program is best not questioned and that they have the interests of the country in mind. It’s an off-putting aside that reaffirms the film’s heavy pro-military stance, contextualizing the alien invaders as the feared “other”, a terroristic power hellbent on little more than destroying American freedom. In another line – which is admittedly charming in that it reflects the “rah-rah” single-mindedness of the character – Captain America, confronted with two battling Norse Gods, tells the audience that there is only one God and that he doesn’t dress “like that.” It is inappropriate to criticize a film for having a decidedly right-wing point-of-view (as long as a film executes its point-of-view competently, it is a success), but both moments seem terribly at odds with Whedon’s often cynical sensibilities as a writer, which were on display only months ago in The Cabin in the Woods. None of this is to say that The Avengers is a bad film. It’s simply exponentially better the less you think about it.

The Five-Year Engagement (2012)
June 3, 2012, 7:08 am
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Director: Nicholas Stoller

Like 2010’s Going the Distance, The Five-Year Engagement probes into the strain that professional ambition places on a relationship. Jason Segel, again co-writing with frequent collaborator and director Nicholas Stoller, plays a rising sous chef in San Francisco who is forced to give up his position in the kitchen when his fiancée, played by Emily Blunt, is offered a postdoc fellowship in the midwest. Most of what follows goes down amiably, holding few surprises but packing plenty of charm. Where Stoller falters – outside of the overblown length (what is it with the two hour plus run times that plague the Apatow universe?) – is in indulging in broad, farcical humor alongside the otherwise realistic degradation of the couple. In a particularly misguided sequence, Segel takes his new hobby for hunting too far. Not only does he grow out a mountain man’s beard, but he finds absurd uses for deer hide around the dinner table. The best screwball comedies of old often tested the limits of plausibility, but those films existed in a universe that was distinctly Hollywood – carefree, filled with glitz and glamor. The very casting of Segel – a go-to schlubby nice guy – grounds the world in a sense of realism that the script is often at odds with. When, in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Segel performs a puppet musical about Dracula, the audience is not meant to feel sorry for or pity him, but rather admire his oddball creativity. Here, the joke of mountain man Segel turns him purely into a punchline, so externalizing his feelings of complacency that it reduces the character’s struggle purely to farce. Nonetheless, if the comedic elements are not entirely successful, much of the drama is. There’s a vitriolic argument that occurs in bed that harbors both great authenticity and even a few sly laughs. One can only hope that Stoller will soon learn how to tell his stories more economically and with better tonal consistency, as his promise does provide some resistance against the dearth of quality found in contemporary romantic comedies.

21 Jump Street (2012)
April 19, 2012, 8:01 pm
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Director(s): Phil Lord & Chris Miller

After much discussion revolving around Pixar mavericks Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton making the transition to live-action filmmaking, the duo behind Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, snuck their way into the fold with the surprising critical and commercial success, 21 Jump Street, an adaptation that few saw any value in initially. Perhaps the picture’s popularity, however, says more about the dismal state of mainstream comedy than anything else. Like its predecessor in the excessively violent Pineapple Express, the film goes off the rails when it abandons its slacker comedy for the more serious, life-threatening stakes involving biker gangs, car explosions, and a dismembered penis. Whereas the former project had some charm in the able performances of James Franco and Seth Rogen, 21 Jump Street‘s stars are decent enough foil for one another, but have little of interest to do. In the midst of every other genre send-up, at the core of Michael Bacall’s script is a classic “body switch” comedy, only it never delivers with its bonding moments in the way that something as by-the-numbers as the Freaky Friday remake can. Mostly, though, the problem is not that the actors aren’t funny or the script doesn’t make some humorous observations (the “new” popular kids – hyper-sensitive and eco-friendly – are the film’s best running gag), it’s that Lord and Miller bring their manic, chaotic pace to the proceedings and never let up. There’s no sense of off-the-cuff, improvisational comedy – it seems to hurdle towards the finish line without allowing the actors, or by extension the audience, a chance to have fun with the characters.

The Hunger Games (2012)
April 10, 2012, 3:09 am
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Director: Gary Ross

With Suzanne Collins’ straight-forward, highly descriptive style of writing, The Hunger Games read as a film outline as much as it did a novel. It is no surprise, then, that much of Gary Ross’ adaptation is devoutly true to the book – in some cases, in fact, the plot resonates more clearly (a well-timed riot provides the audience with much-needed external context). However, while the early sequences in District 12 are wisely accomplished with a gritty, naturalistic style that conveys a palpable sense of dread, much of the titular games lack the novel’s sense of momentum due to Ross’ failure in visualizing Katniss’ struggle. Collins, to her credit, takes a fair amount of time to explore the moral conflict within Katniss – but, as much of this is interior, it is largely lost on the screen, even with the boost given by Jennifer Lawrence’s able performance. Lazy screenwriting devices such as a Sports Center-like commentary track and a look at the technicians behind the game further illustrates Ross’ inability to cinematically convey the more troubling expository moments of the book (to his credit, however, an unconvincing love triangle in the book is slightly improved in the adaptation). Although The Hunger Games, on the page, isn’t risk-taking enough in its content or politics to produce a faithful adaptation that completely satisfies all audiences, a more inventive director might have better accentuated the novel’s strengths.

Wanderlust (2012)
March 16, 2012, 6:47 pm
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Director: David Wain

It was far from certain that David Wain, the alt-comedy maverick behind such cult interests as “Stella” and Wet Hot American Summer, could make the transition to traditional studio filmmaking. While Role Models and his latest, Wanderlust, didn’t necessarily leave a major impact on the box office, he has proven his ability to produce satisfying, star-driven comedies without wholly compromising his admittedly outlandish sensibilities. Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston star as a struggling New York couple who, out-of-work, take shelter in a hippie commune in northern Georgia. Although the script, penned by Wain and long-time collaborator Ken Marino, doesn’t commit quite enough to make any provocative observations about the failings of the American dream in the middle of an economic crisis, it provides a consistency in the humor, affording each of the talented supporting players a scene or two to shine with the leads. Sometimes Wain’s extremes get in the way of his own ethos – the biggest laughs in the film involve Rudd’s utter incompetence in attempting to seduce the alluring Malin Akerman, however they come at the expense of sensitively depicting the character’s wistful anxieties. Nonetheless, if not quite as endearing as Role Models, Wain’s latest offers the expected volume of laughs.