Movie Review: Jackass 3D

The problem with the Jackass movies is not their inherent stupidity or tendency toward self-destruction, that refrain from parents that the films are destroying the fabric of humanity by their mere existence, wreaking havoc on the minds of young impressionable children. It’s the fact that the movies themselves are a mixed bag. Given the cheapness of the concept, the ever-increasing budgets (and profits) of the films, and the amount of footage the ‘filmmakers’ shoot, you’d think it would be a little easier to populate a 90-minute picture with non-stop laughs. Sure, humor is subjective (in most cases) and the movies all have their fair share of major guffaws, but the dead-spots in a picture like Jackass 3D are enough to call into question the worthiness of the ticket price, especially when you take into consideration that the movie will be released on DVD with hours of ‘bonus’ footage. Maybe the cast and crew can’t help but part with specific stunts that the audience would rank lower on the hilarity meter, because their personal involvement and shameless self-sacrifice disables them from being an impartial narrator during the editing process. Maybe they think the dumb stuff is as funny as the ridiculous stuff and we just have different tastes. In any case, Jackass 3D is a short movie but feels adequate length for a feature with a few dead spots.

Its use and exploitation of the added third dimension is the best excuse for donning the dweeby plastic glasses since Piranha 3D. What is it about low-brow cinema that understands 3D better than high-brow cinema? When you’re dealt a dirty hand, you play dirty. If 3D is a cheap, pandering means to fill the seats at an added ticket price, then I understand its inception (lack of pun intentional). I don’t mind watching films that exploit the third dimension, so long as they’re honest about it. Movies like Clash of the Titans exploit the third dimension as the way to- pardon the phrase- polish a turd. They already know their movie is a steaming pile of garbage, so why not gussy it up in some three-dimensional make-up and trot it around town. I like nothing less so much than being lied to, and this sort of attitude- yeah, it’s shit, but 3D shit!- just feels like the kind of slight of hand salesmanship that manages to pull the wool over the American public’s eyes time and again. I see no fundamental difference between it and the “Saddam might have WMDs, so protect our freedom” logic that got us into our current military quagmire. Come to think of it, it’s also the cause of the housing crisis. “Don’t worry, America. You can trust our nice big banks to support your greedy little loans.” It’s bad salesmanship. It’s a purposeful mistruth. It’s a McDonald’s cheeseburger wrapped around your mouth in a smile.

So maybe Jackass 3D isn’t all bad. At least it knows what it is: 90+minutes of three-dimensional dick jokes and pratfalls. If you can’t get on board with that premise, then I’m sorry, you’re what’s wrong with America. You can claim to be some higher-educated man-ape, but we all know the truth. If you’re intelligent in the slightest then you think man evolved from monkeys. And monkeys masturbate, throw banana peels, and fall from trees to the comic delight of other monkeys. They hump and hoot and holler. And this is high art to monkeys. Now this argument naturally excludes the increasingly reasonable invention of a talking monkey, a literal man-ape, science permitting. Would a talking monkey find Jackass 3D hilarious? No, but only because it would be too busy screaming about how much it was masturbating and throwing poop around the movie theater- “THIS IS AMAZING. HAVE YOU TRIED THIS?”

My point is this, America is what’s wrong with America. Humanity is what’s wrong with humanity. We evolved from beings that we call lower, that eat and fart and put bugs in their noses. How is this any different from what we do every day? We drink and fart and fuck. We live and laugh and love. Jackass 3D seems to be the only one willing to admit the fact that the differences between those two stacks of actions aren’t that noticeable. For all our technology, for all our science and reason, we still contrive our resources to create new means of conveying fart jokes across the universe. And there’s something reasonable about that, something not so embarrassing.

We as a culture demand to make each other laugh. We want to be funny, well-liked and reasonable human beings. But there are base and primal urges within us that contradict what we consider to be our deeper nature: Our desire for knowledge of art, culture, and philosophy- some sense of permanent reason throughout all the madness. There isn’t any- and perhaps our greatest failure as thinking apes is our demand that there must be, and that we are somehow at the center. Whether this planet is wiped out in an instant or a lifetime, life will go on with or without us. It always has, and it always will be. We’re not the cause or the end-all-be-all. Stop worrying about the planet. It has a reset button. We don’t.

So is it good or bad to laugh at Jackass as a human? More concretely, is it good that Jackass is capable of making humans laugh? If a man like Spike Jonze, a touted filmmaker, thoughtful and capable of great artistic leaps, can produce a movie where a ping-pong ball is hurled in slow-motion at a man’s penis and whacked like a baseball at a home run derby courtesy of Chris Pontius, a rich beyond measure Jackass star, then I think we need to take a second look at what we find funny as a people. I think there’s something funny about Jackass, something noble about the pursuit of these idiot men trying to injure themselves in increasingly creative ways. The fact that the movie made so much money is evidence itself that there’s something compelling about the premise, or alternately something wrong with the very core of our being. Whichever it is, the movie works on a fundamental level, and its only flaws are when the injuries come in less creative doses or seem like too much of the same thing. Is there a perfect Jackass movie to be made in three-dimensions? Probably, but it would have have to be a mixtape of the finest moments in Jackass history, because some of the classic clips, in a Ali G Show kind of way, capture the humor of an era as it was evolving. Maybe Jackass 3D is the Toy Story ending of a trilogy. Is there a secret edit of an ultimate movie hidden somewhere between the three, or are we going to have to buy the Jackass 4-EVER blu-ray combo pack for $79.99?!

Movie Review: Piranha 3D

This review has taken me a long time to write (mostly because of how difficult it is to spell Piranha) but it is without a doubt an important one to read. Piranha 3D may be the best summer movie of 2010- due in no small part to the dearth of quality entertainment in this year’s cinemas, but also due to the shockingly watchable direction of Alexandre Aja and the remarkably well-structured screenplay by Pete Goldfinger & Josh Stolberg. While not exactly Hitchcock or Shakespeare, the film offers no pretense of haughty intellectual aspirations, instead hitting its comedic and narrative beats with surprising aplomb, not to mention reverence to summer movies history. Rather than providing us with a bare-bones rendition of an obvious premise (hint: piranhas attack!), Piranha somehow manages to do the impossible, making us care about its characters and regret their gruesome deaths, no matter how small or irrelevant their roles may be.

In many ways, Piranha is a knowing homage to Jaws. Both films rely on their characters to provide distractions from the occasionally cheesy or overwrought special effects, and both movies center around a small beach town community overrun by a sea-dwelling menace. It’s fairly obvious that the filmmakers adore horror history and wanted their movie to be both referential and cutting-edge, so allusions and surprises abound. What separates Piranha from its predecessors is its borderline NC-17 sensibilities. Not since the Roger Corman films of yore have I seen such blatant exploitation of the female form in a theatrical release. That being said, it’s both sexy and lesberiffic! (Note: This quote available for back-of-DVD.) Beyond the valley of the boobies, there is a jaw-dropping amount of gore in this picture. The blood splatters range from hilarious to horrifying, and despite the piranhas’ adorable design they still bring a cringe-worthy tension whenever they approach their prey.

The cast of characters is packed to the brim with bit players, each with their own unique and likable schtick. Only Jerry O’Connell martyrs himself as the sole hate-worthy player in this picture, simply because his rendition of a Joe Francis-esque purveyor of Girls Gone Nuts entertainment is equal parts hammy and spot-on. Adam Scott often looks confused as to whether he should be grinning more often, and Elizabeth Shue is the only hold-out in an otherwise perfect set of tongue-in-cheek performances. Even the young lead actors in the cast, Steven R. McQueen and Jessica Szhor, provide compelling performances within obvious type roles. Brooklynn Proulx and Sage Ryan- both terrific examples of why you should not let your parents decide your stage name- are an adorable pair of tots hugely reminiscent of Bart & Lisa Simpson in terms of chemistry. Usually it’s the cheap newcomers in horror movies that make the films so tedious to watch, but here it’s the young talent that really owns the picture, occasionally making the more experienced elders look old and out-of-place.

There is plenty to love in Piranha 3D. The creativity of the deaths should delight horror fans, as should the number of nods to horror history, the badass cameos- thank you, Mr. Eli Roth- and the insane duration of the massacre sequence, which somehow manages to eat up (excuse the pun) half the movie. Let there be no mistake, this film is violent, raunchy and sadistic, but beneath its garish and off-putting exterior there is a sweet caramel core that infuses the movie with heart. I never expected to care about any of the characters in this movie. I expected to meet an assortment of hot, young douchebags whose deaths I would giddily anticipate. In Piranha, even the slutty and repugnant characters are worth mourning, because their pre-mortem dialog is amazingly affable. The deaths are so disturbing and omnipresent that you have little room to gasp before another actor bites the big scaly bullet. You begin to hope that someone, anyone will survive. That’s right. This is a horror movie where you actually root for the protagonists instead of the murderer!

By the time Christopher Lloyd showed up, I realized I was watching the perfect summer movie. In the same way that Jaws and many of Spielberg’s films embraced schlock while reinventing it, Piranha embraces its cheesy b-movie roots while never bending over backwards to placate anybody or undermine itself. This is still a movie, and there is never a point where anyone looks at the camera sheepishly and says, “This bites, literally!” That in itself is an accomplishment under the new Hollywood regime, hellbent on incapacitating its audiences with plotholes, shameless formula, and an absence of edge or originality. Piranha pushes every possible boundary it can get its fins on, often at the expense of decency and good-taste but never to the point where its narrative integrity crumbles. The 3D effects are better and more convincing than Avatar’s and probably the best example of why 3D doesn’t suck that I’ve seen outside of How to Train Your Dragon. While a completely different genre, tone, and type of film, I might rank this movie a little ahead of Inception in terms of fun. There’s nothing cerebral or inventive cinematographically in Piranha, but the fact that the movie is competently shot and directed (another rarity in horror) places it leaps and bounds ahead of Nolan’s attempts to revive the dying spy movie genre. You mean to tell me that someone made a tongue-in-cheek homage to b-horror-movies that holds its ground against classics and new releases alike? Sign me up for the sequel (as the guy whose brain gets eaten first).

Movie Review: How to Train Your Dragon

When it comes to children’s classics, Dreamworks Animation has cornered the market on pop-culture slinging ogres and pose-able kung fu pandas, but what happens when the animation giant tackles a smaller story with a little more heart?  How to Train Your Dragon is the clear result of much love, hard work and passion for storytelling, and it might well be Dreamworks’ best effort as a purveyor of artwork, let alone children’s entertainment.  While I have a special soft spot for Kung Fu Panda and even Shrek 2 at times, it’s easy to dismiss those pictures as children’s fare specifically because of the no-holds-barred marketing campaigns launched by the studio to promote these franchises.  Dreamworks’ fledgling animation department managed to pack in loads of humor and warmth into their Bugs Life competitor Antz as well, but the moments of heart were often overshadowed by the thirty-foot-tall Pepsi soft drinks that loomed over the characters during their journey.  This is where How to Train Your Dragon stands apart from the rest.  In an age where integrated semi-subliminal marketing is a constant goal, it was nice to see finally find a film devoid of pop culture references, packed to the brim with heart and seemingly unconcerned with selling things beyond its premise and the believability of its characters.

In terms of animated movies, the upper echelons are brimming with tough contenders vying for the seat of “cinema classic.”  Finding Nemo, The Lion King, both Toy Story movies, not to mention The Iron Giant and Nightmare Before Christmas are all difficult animated classics to outrank, thanks to the innocence and beauty inherent in their stories.  How to Train Your Dragon matches those films in beauty and innocence and manages to pack in a little complexity at times to the tried and true formula.  Our main character’s adolescent daddy issues are challenging for father and son, more reminiscent of the conflicting viewpoints in Hook or choice episodes of King of the Hill than your typical Disney-fied parental relationship.  The wacky sidekick characters are resourceful enough to outweigh their moments of annoying behavior and are never forced down your throat to the point of revulsion, meaning you won’t have to sit through one of those moments in Kung Fu Panda where the lead character is literally admiring action figures of his best friends and commenting on how great they are.  The type of trademark commercialism Dreamworks is known for is graciously absent from this film, and the pure simplicity and engaging nature of the universe present in How to Train Your Dragon makes it easy to be swept up in the adventure without the distractions of in-movie marketing or anachronistic catch phrases. How to Train Your Dragon borrows a few contemporaneous visual cues from Avatar, but unlike that film manages to hit its narrative cues expediently and with an honesty that gives the visually stirring set-pieces some soul in addition to flair.  It sincerely strives to be a coming-of-age story, the tale of a father and son, the journey taken by a boy and his pet (or best friend, if you’d prefer) all at once.  It’s a love story, an adventure, and another reason to enjoy the new 3D that permeates our cinematic culture.  Unlike the short-sighted “stuff-is-coming-at-the-screen” style of the new Resident Evil: Afterlife trailer, How to Train Your Dragon is a film that engages the viewer in its third dimension both playfully and skillfully, but it is obvious that this picture could charm any audience, with or without magic spectacles.

The main dragon happens to be one of the coolest and most charming factors of the movie, a character with the same sort of immediate personality and character as Calvin’s stuffed tiger Hobbes. I won’t spoil too much by commenting specifically on the dragon’s behavior, but in one of those rare moments where animation surpasses live-action storytelling, our young Viking hero’s befriending of the black dragon Toothless is so endlessly watchable that it defies conventional critical need for explanation.  It’s Aladdin visiting the Cave of Wonders, Wall-E romancing the unconscious Eva, a moment that becomes a classic as soon as the synapses start firing in your brain.  The movie clips along to its finale at a rapid pace, leaving little room for boredom or complaint and making the running time of How to Train Your Dragon the least of your concerns. You won’t have to worry about suffering through any schmaltzy or simplistic moralization at the end, or a moment where the movie takes a sharp nosedive to comment on consumer culture.  From beginning to end, How to Train Your Dragon is a captivating fairy tale, a trip to a land so likable you’ll wonder why it’s taken you so long to visit in the first place.

Grade:  A

Movie Review: Alice in Wonderland

With its $116 million dollar opening and two weekends of box office domination, Alice in Wonderland is already Tim Burton’s most successful cinematic debut and easily stands to be one of his most profitable films of all time.  But is it one of his best?  That question almost seems unnecessary in age of cinema obsessed with 3d goggles and mind-boggling effects.  The standard by which the success of a motion picture can be determined has been rewritten by Avatar, just as The Matrix rewrote it a decade prior.  It seems that Hollywood and audiences across America are reveling in the benefits of an extra dimension of filmmaking, resulting in higher ticket prices and higher ticket sales correspondingly.  But are we paying for an added dimension of storytelling, or just a few extra moments of flash and pizzazz?

Alice in Wonderland intimately represents the tightrope walk between innovation and redundancy so omnipresent in Hollywood.  It starts innocently enough, with a bit of flashback storytelling establishing the all-too-familiar tropes of stuffy British aristocracy and that maddeningly young woman cavalier enough to upset them all.  This is all well done and as charming as the thousands of other dips into Brit-Lit that have borrowed the cliché, but it’s the careful preparation and calculated delivery of the exchanges between characters, the set design and costuming that make Alice’s pre-Wonderland experiences so likable.  It’s almost a shame that Burton spends so little time here, as his uncharacteristically direct approach to satire and duality is a welcome treat in this instance, as opposed to his Big Fish, which almost reeked of bland banality.  Could it be that in his later years, Burton has discovered an insight into the human condition that makes his treatment of the inhumane less interesting?  It could be, because as soon as Alice tumbles down the rabbit hole, all sense of satire and merriment is lost on the story, and we are instead “treated” to a dark and half-formed bastardization of Wonderland that shares more in common with Coraline‘s twisted alternate dimension or a bad trope of light-world/dark-world video game storytelling than it does the deeply satiric and mesmerizing writing of Lewis Carroll.

The thing that made the books special was Carroll’s ability to interweave then-modern social and political satire into a comical and otherworldly experience.  Children could amuse themselves with the rich and beautiful storytelling, while adults could marvel at the inside jokes and chuckle at the digs that make the novels memorable.  The whole nature of Wonderland acting as an alternate universe to the real world speaks to a basic duality, and the “fun-for-children, clever-for-adults” nature of the original Wonderland stories served to underscore that.  Burton’s vision of the stories presents a half-baked Wonderland swimming on the outskirts of a painfully more interesting real world, where the almost absurdly convoluted rules of Wonderland undercut the fun to be had by both Alice and the audience, to the point where the almost Pirates of the Carribean-y vibe of Alice’s real world seems a welcome alternative.

Much of the blame can be laid at the feet of screenwriter Linda Woolverton, who meaninglessly strives to construct an action movie out of a British political farce.  Certainly there is something to be said about Alice coming into womanhood through her larger-than-life adventures in Wonderland, but never has that notion been trivialized so severely as when Alice is forced to don a suit of armor and decapitate a literal Jabberwocky.  The Jabberwocky, a mythic and terrible creature from one of Carroll’s best moments of poetry, is nothing more than a Lord of the Rings-ian analogy in this picture, serving no purpose other than to give the heroine something to slaughter in the third act so we can all go home thinking we saw a big movie.  It’s almost too difficult to fault individual moments of the story for being unnecessary since all of Wonderland is a series of meaningless contrivances designed to comically poke fun at a real world analog.  Rather than giving the audience any time to wonder about anything, Alice is shuffled off into another series of vaguely grotesque events that feature a handful of memorable fairytale characters being imprisoned, attacked or CGI’d beyond recognition.  As much fun as it is to see them live on camera, it would have been more fun if any of the sights in Wonderland had contained a snippet of significance that Alice could carry back with her to the real world.  The Alice of this universe enters Wonderland with as much preposterous rebellion as she leaves it with, leaving her little room as a character to change or grow.  How does killing a mythical beast correlate to Alice’s ability to plot trade routes in the Far East for her father’s company?  This movie would like to make the claim that it does directly, and that any dream one has can give them the courage to learn nothing from it and continue behaving exactly as you did before you ever fell asleep.

I do not mean to imply that there is nothing to be admired about Burton’s Wonderland.  There is plenty to be visually compelled by, and the three-dimensional glasses actively behave as your colleague on this maddening adventure, vying harder than the screenwriter ever could to make this experience less dreadful.  Certainly, there is nothing to be enjoyed about Alice in Wonderland without the aid of the 3d glasses, and the thought of wearing regular reading glasses during the proceedings would devolve the experience into a worse-than-Chronicles-of-Narnia level torture-fest.  There are beautiful moments, though they are few and far between, and unless the thought of seeing a dormouse pluck an eyeball out of a bandersnatch’s head is delightful to you, you’ll have a very difficult time justifying why the physical landscape of Wonderland seems so burned-out and sparsely populated, a visual bastard son of even Planet of the Apes‘ set design.  It is a sad state of affairs when I long for Alice to wander the terrifying forests of Sleepy Hollow, for at least there she could be surrounded by atmospheric tension as opposed to the un-artful approximation of Dali-esque fantasy in Wonderland.

Johnny Depp’s performance is confusing, but clearly more a fault of the screenwriting than his own design.  As a performer he is charming and effortless in movement and expression, but the parameters of his Mad Hatter are hard to follow and beyond the feeling of, “Oh, isn’t that whimsical,” there isn’t much depth to consider.  The real steal-the-show moments come from Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen, whose petulant humanity shines through in spite of the gaudy computer-generated madness applied to her forehead.  Crispin Glover performs adequately as a character who vaguely resembles a human being, and unfortunately for Anne Hathaway, she does the same.  As for Alice, it is hard to get a read on the performance of an actor shamelessly wandering from situation to situation and only occasionally coerced into action.  She does a good job of looking a combination of stern and forgetful, which is fair, because Alice suffers from a needlessly crushing bout of amnesia for nine-tenths of this movie, only to remember that she is Alice at the last minute, has done this all before, and it was just as boring and meaningless the first time. Yes, you do get to see Alice drinking to shrink and eating to grow, but you also have characters commenting on the fact that she’s done it all before, even though she doesn’t know it.  Then you get to hear Alice complaining that she doesn’t remember doing it before.  Then they say they are confused because she should remember.  Then she remembers.  And it changes nothing.  Not one bit.  She says, “Oh, now I remember,” we see a brief montage of scenes from a much more interesting movie featuring a much more age appropriate Alice, and we cut back to the grown-up Alice, she slays the monster, and yadda, yadda, yadda.

I hope I haven’t spoiled too much of the story for you, as Linda Woolverton has strived tirelessly to provide that service for you herself, robbing all subtlety and grace from Wonderland, all inquisitive nature from Alice, and almost all humor from this picture.  There are a few laughs, and a few majestic moments of CGI perfection that will make you say, “Wow! That extra seventeen dollars I paid at the door really did come through!” but did it really?  Afterwards your pocket is still empty and you’ll have a decidedly shallow feeling of dissatisfaction, as if the Milk Duds and Junior Whoppers you consumed during the movie weren’t as satisfying as a balanced meal, complete with character and heart.  The problem with Woolverton’s Wonderland is that it lacks any parallel to the real world, and provides no insight into its own proceedings or the correlating lives of real people.  Things that were pointless for the sake of fun in the original are pointless for the sake of inclusion in this picture, and nothing about the original stories are explored in further detail.  Instead Burton’s Alice provides a shallow mixtape of Wonderland memories, for some reason double-packaged with amnesia.

But it’s damned pretty to look at sometimes.  And it’s all thanks to the 3d.  Three-dimensional motion pictures are the latest in a string of tricks used by Hollywood to convince people to overlook the flaws of an already broken picture. The only difference between this trick and Hollywood’s regular schemes is that with Alice, the tricks are actually working.  It’s kind of fun to get caught up in the stupid madness while it’s happening thanks to your magic goggles, and I can even see people buying this film on Blu-Ray or DVD only to be disappointed that the small screen experience can never live up to the cookie-cutter big screen comparison.  But by then it’ll already be too late.  Most big pictures in the next two years are already slated for 3d release.  What does that mean for you as a filmgoer?  Possibly nothing.  Maybe a bunch of bad movies will be made glaringly less bad thanks to the visual leg-up program provided by 3d.  But for me, I’ll be wallowing in my own liminal state between spectacle and meaning, praying that filmmakers don’t lose all sense of storytelling in the jump to approximate weird computer-generated lizard things spiraling pointlessly toward the audience.

Grade:  C