Last week I took a daring trip into the unknown, facing two potentially unbearable pieces of cinematic dreck, films jettisoned by their studios into the faces of filmgoers everywhere, too mainstream and seemingly formulaic to earn the respect of the intellectual elite, with perhaps too broad a focus to attract the eye of even the dumbest redneck searching for the next popcorn-muncher to bide the time between giant robot splatterfests.  I’m talking about the two movies you failed to see this past weekend, Date Night and A Nightmare On Elm Street.  In a single sitting, I stomached both of these cinematic monstrosities, wrapped my brain (and palpable ego) around them, and have returned with the knowledge of their respective quality.  Why is this such a big deal?  Because I found both films to be so surprising that their reviewership could only be handled by one massive double-review double-feature entitled:


(The FIRST, and preferably last, INSTALLMENT)

And away we go.

Review the First: Date Night

It should be assumed that the comedic coupling of Tina Fey and Steve Carrell will produce laughs, but based on the cinematic offerings of either thusfar, the pickings for genuine humor are slim.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m as big a Mean Girls or Anchorman fan as anyone, but by the same token, you wouldn’t expect me to grab my Baby Mama or Evan Almighty blu-rays when company arrives for movie night.  Both Fey and Carrell have proven in their television careers that they are capable actors and writers with an innate sense of comedic improvisation.  Oftentimes their performances are so subtle and character-based that their laughs get handed off to bigger, broader performers, the Tracy Jordans and Dwight Schrutes of the world.  As a comedic improviser, writer and performer myself, I cannot help but applaud their commitment to character in the face of  cheesier choices towards easier laughs.  It’s the sort of comedic determination that separates the Carlos Mencias from the Sacha Baron Cohens, the difference between a placating purveyor of fart-jokes and a comedian committed to performing in the skin of a different human being, choosing the reality of the character’s universe over the potential for easy one-liners.  That is not to say that Ali G was free of fart-jokes or that Dwight K. Schrute is anything less than the finest partially-improvised character currently on television.  In order to be the primary or focal character in a comedy series of the modern era, a Leslie Knope or a Michael Bluth, the parameters and regulations of the character’s personal philosophy dictate his potentiality for obtaining laughs, and not the other way around.  Sound overly scientific?  It’s my opinion- and the opinion of this Board of Study- that comedy is equally as scientific, if not moreso than drama.  The building of tension in drama is more of an art form than most methods of expression, but the precision necessary to sustain laughter and accentuate the humorous in a comedic situation is much akin to the construction and deconstruction of chemical compounds.  And I say this not just as a humble blogger of thoughts, but also as a big fan of technical jargon that Walt might use to analogize on Breaking Bad.

All that psychobabble notwithstanding, Date Night is a shockingly likable comedic effort from a cast of characters who probably should be granted free reign to work together and improvise with each other in front of cameras for the next few decades.  Like it’s buddy cop movie roots (yes, that’s right, I did not say rom-com) Date Night works best when its central characters are playing with each other to the point where you can see the authentic smiles of the actors underneath, like those moments in Midnight Run when through sheer irritation it seems like Charles Grodin has actually gotten through Robert DeNiro’s shell to his core on a human-to-human level.  There are brief glimpses of actual attraction and romantic chemistry onboard in Date Night, but they are usually too far-flung or fleeting to underscore the movie with any real heart.  Those looking for a movie packed with equal parts comedy and romance will be surely disappointed, but those looking to be surprised by a scene in which two cars fuse together in a wholly illogical but mostly enjoyable display of movie-physics are in for a delightful ride.  I happen to like the sensible yet mainstream tone of this picture, and I think the person(s) in charge of casting this movie should be commended for their efforts.  All of the bit players in Date Night get moments to shine (some far too often in Marky Mark’s case) but the whole thing does revolve around a simple mistaken identity premise, so don’t expect much in way of story beyond “we’ve gotta get to the next set piece!”

There’s an authentic charm to Date Night that stems from the warmth of the lighting and the genial way in which director Shawn Levy portrays New York City and family life in general.  It’s certainly a step in the right direction from his portrayal of D.C. in Night at the Museum 2, wherein he accurately recreated the city’s economic turmoil by taking a shit on a pile of studio money.  In spite of its broad and ridiculous situations, the likeability factor really outweighs a lot of the silliness at play here, and it’s often just fun to hear Fey and Carrell comment to one another as they run from one misadventure to the next, like the endless patter between the stars of It’s Always Sunny.  I would say that had this movie actively made an effort to be more of a romantic comedy than a buddy cop / action movie, it might have had the potential to affect more people’s emotions or stick with them longer than the next comedy movie.  In a way, Date Night is the straight-edge equivalent of Pineapple Express, another movie where bumbling buddies are thrown headfirst into the world of professional criminals.  You can’t count on Date Night for the same kind of broad but offensive laughs as Pineapple Express, but you can be sure that it will go toe-to-toe with that movie in the charm department any day.  Date Night has so much good will that it’s hard for me to fault its meager middle-of-the-road aspirations.  This might be as close as we can get to an intelligent American comedy these days, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.

Grade:  B

Surprised, no?  I was too.  Let’s move on to the next review, a midnight opening night viewing of the new horror remake…

A Nightmare on Elm Street

Let me get this out of the way right off the bat:  I was never a fan of the original movie in this series, never saw it when I was young enough to be scared by it or drunk enough to appreciate it for its camp value.  The only movie I really liked in the original series was Dream Warriors, just because it stars a young orderly by the name of “Larry” Fishburne, a.k.a Morpheus, and features teens traveling into Freddy’s hellish dreamscape so they can conquer him with “dream powers.”  That’s right, twisted bizarro dream-land superheroes.  You heard it here last.  I was always more of a Friday the 13th guy, not much fandom beyond the first one, but for the original movie’s genre-defining story structure, gratuitous Kevin Bacon sex-murder, and Tom & Jerry style dispatching of its (surprising) final villain, it will always hold a place in my heart.  When I saw last year’s Friday the 13th remake I thought it was hilarious that they decided to take a huge risk and blatantly sequelize the original film they were “remaking,” starting their new movie immediately where the original left off, creating one of those weird Superman Returns-style narrative parallel dimensions where the series can be watched in multiple terrible ways and will inevitably lead to mass message board continuity hysteria and Kool-Aid based cult suicide.

But I digress.  A Nightmare On Elm Street is back and I would argue better than ever.  There’s nothing beyond the shallow exterior of Freddie’s dream-based quips and subsequent murders, but there’s something unmistakably cinematic about the choices of movement, framing and mis-en-scene in this remake, making each shot or sequence of Nightmare deeply unsettling, jarring and occasionally nausea-inducing.  Director Samuel Bayer’s experience in music videos definitely allowed him to transport his characters easily from their narrative reality to Freddie’s hellish dream landscapes, making a smooth transition from calm to eerie on a regular basis.  He also has a great capacity for sustaining tension over the course of numerous scenes, making it unclear whether the audience should prepare for another scare or finally relax.  In most circumstances the moments that should make people jump actually deliver, and I think the real quality of this picture will come down to how many people are willing to invest emotionally in the semi-corny premise that has been around for three decades already.  Freddie’s a not-so-trustworthy children’s caretaker who returns from the dead to torment his former daycare kiddies with dream-like murder scenarios, all with brutal effects in the real world.  The movie does little to reinvent Freddie as a character or justify his supernatural existence in any legitimate way.  It simply presents the scenario (within three minutes of the movie’s opening) and let’s the claws fly.  If you’re not onboard with the premise from a Nightmare On Elm Street sold-on-name-alone kind of way, there will be little to win you over to the franchise.

For fans of the franchise and fans of camp-horror alike, there is much to be enjoyed.  The scares delivered consistently for me, and I was pleasantly surprised by the inventiveness (or referential nature) of the kills, especially the one they saved for last.  There’s a really strange narrative structure at work here that adds to the general unsettling feeling.  You’re never quite sure who your main characters really are until the third act, a would-be moronic decision for any genre other than this one, in which the chapter-to-chapter jumps in focus from one character to another serve to underscore its already unsettling tone.  Without certainty as to whose fate is secure, it becomes easy to take each scene as a possibility for terror, and while I understand that the lack of traditional narrative might produce boredom in others, it worked for me in an experimental way rather than a flawed one.  The Friday the 13th remake was so lazily formulaic in plot structure that it actually resorted to weed-humor to liven up its proceedings.  I liked this remake’s sense of self-importance and I dug its visual style.  I think Jackie Earle Haley’s Freddie is better than the original.  I also think this is a real easy sequel, assuming people give it enough of a chance to actually enjoy it.  There are some people who prefer utter darkness and brutality in their horror, those fans of the Saw franchise and others, but I personally prefer a little bit of comedy in mine, whether tongue-in-cheek or not.  Freddie’s one-liners are enjoyable, and the ridiculous brutality of some of the kills raises Mortal Kombat-level questionability as to how serious the movie takes itself.  Are the kills hilarious punctuation to all-too-melodramatic scenes of dialog?  Is Samuel Bayer in on the joke?  These questions are too cerebral to be answered within the haphazard constraints of the screenplay, but the director’s own talent level and personal ability shine through when the acting and dialog do not.

On opening night at midnight, plenty of young geeky gentlemen were adorned in creepy Freddy sweaters, and it seemed like the film school crowd was really excited to welcome back the franchise.  There was this weird girl sitting next to me who kept trying to rub her leg against mine during the scary parts, but other than that, it was a pretty fun experience.  I felt really bad when this big guy who works at The Farm restaurant next door fell down on his knees while he was walking up the stairs, but the same sense of schadenfreude that allowed me to chuckle under my breath at his misfortune also allowed me to enjoy the frightening situations the characters faced in Nightmare.  So maybe my sadism is a good thing. If you have any sick side of your personality that loves quips, gore and blood galore, this flick might be for you.  It was clear that I was seated in an audience destined to enjoy the movie, but I can easily envision a not-so-scary 4 pm Saturday matinee in a mostly dead house, forced to endure the loud but justified sighs of a not-unlike-Al-Gore gentleman sitting midway to the back of the theater.  If you want it to work, it will work, in a way similar to Paranormal Activity but unlike Orphan.  It’ll terrify you triumphantly if it’s taken with a pinch of salt.

Grade:  B-

And that concludes our brief foray into the unknown.  Not too scary right?  Well, some parts were pretty scary, like when that guy almost fell down the stairs and died.  But anywho, I hope you enjoyed the reviews.  If you did, please leave a comment so I can obsess over it or respond immediately and try to out-quip you.  Whoever leaves the best #hashtag wins!  Go!

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: Kick-Ass

This movie is a great opportunity for a reviewer to work in a snappy pull-from quote into the article, something like, “The name of the movie is Kick-Ass, and this movie definitely did just that!” or “For a movie called Kick-Ass, it didn’t kick much ass, and believe me, my ass is huge and used to punishment!”  Honestly, I think there is a very earnest part of this movie that is trying for that sort of early summer movie blockbuster-y feel.  But when I looked at the mostly vacant opening night stadium seating at the Grove in Hollywood, I began to question who the target audience of this movie really is.  It’s a comic-book movie, there’s no doubt about that, and the constant allusions to other major franchises like Spider-Man and Batman make it clear beyond a doubt that Kick-Ass wants to be considered amongst the upper echelon of comic book cinematic geekfests, as opposed to say The Spirit (though there is a pretty good Spirit dig by way of a marquee in the background in one of the shots).  The tongue-in-cheek nature of the dialog and the all-too-oddball characters often raise the stakes of the satire to a near parodic level of comedy, likewise raising the question of whether Kick-Ass is a send-up or authentically original source material.  There are enough cool moments to vie for its claim to originality, but all the characters are by design and self-reference alone a series of formally bastardized concepts utilized to satirize the tropes and ridiculous stakes at hand in real comic book fiction.  If Kick-Ass is a parody, it’s attempting to be a parody of comic books in general, rather than any particular one. But the near constant references to the Spider-Man franchise by the titular hero Kick-Ass alone, not to mention the fact that director Matthew Vaughn seems all-too willing to steal visual queues from his successful predecessors, raises the question of whether Kick-Ass has enough original content to serve an audience as memorable pop culture, or whether it’s simply a mixtape of the most likable geek moments of the past decade.

Kick-Ass finds strength in a factor that is rarely present in most superhero films: Its sense of humor.  There is a broad but dark sense of humor at play in Kick-Ass, and everything from Nicholas Cage’s purposefully stilted delivery of dialog to the sheer vulgarity and inexplicable extremity of the violence involved serve to both heighten and exaggerate the relatively limited stakes proposed at the movie’s offset.  When Kick-Ass the character decides to become a superhero, there is little indication that things will escalate to the Kill Bill style slaughterfest they become by the 3/4 point of this movie.  And maybe that’s some of the problem tonally.  While everything in this movie is semi-sincere within the constraints of its own universe, there is a marked comic-booky, childlike innocence that abounds throughout the film, both underscoring and comedically undermining the violence at hand.  Because the main character’s voice-over narration literally references movies we’ve seen before in the same genre with the same exact themes, at times taking careful note to parody key moments of dialog from other franchises, it’s hard to believe its sense of innocence as anything short of facsimile.  If anything, the teenager portions of Kick-Ass seem wiped squeaky clean and free of any real bite.  For a movie so willing to take risks with its audience in terms of allowing an adolescent girl to spit vulgarities and slice people’s throats by the barrelful, there are relatively few risks when it comes to portraying a normal teenage life.  Maybe the only thing missing from Kick-Ass is the willingness to poke fun at human beings in a realistic way, outside of jackass friends and masturbation jokes.  The love story in Kick-Ass is just as shallow, if not moreso than the love story in Spider-Man, missing a much-needed opportunity to provide a look at real love within a comic book universe rather than a completely flaccid one-sided snorefest.

And I think that’s my major problem with Kick-Ass in general.  It takes careful time to pull its punches.  Not only is it a very funny, very solid movie, but it also had the opportunity to be the be-all end-all comic book geek movie, especially in a post-Watchmen era of cinema.  Rather than owning up to that masterful opportunity, Kick-Ass would rather establish itself as its own little franchise, making its existence all the more redundant.  There’s nothing really wrong with Kick-Ass as a movie, but there’s not a lot to write home about either.  The ending is about as corny as you can get without giving it a piano bar dance sequence.  The real problem is that from a screenplay standpoint, the movie starts with a vaguely believable portrayal of teenage life and is immediately juxtaposed against a barely believable yet wholly endearing introduction of tweenage merry murderess Hit Girl and her father, played by Nicholas Cage (Wicker Man, Ghost Rider).  When the universes finally collide, it’s clear that Kick-Ass is wholly less interesting than either of his counterparts, enough so that the only nemesis they can muster to fight him is played by Superbad’s McLovin.  Again, is McLovin funny as the character, or is it funny because McLovin is trying to play a superhero?  It’s hard to tell, and that strange sense of awkward sincerity permeates Kick-Ass inside and out.  In a way similar to Zombieland, it’s so unclear whether the laziness is intentional, accidental or just part of the fun that you sort of get lost in the madness and just try to enjoy the ride.  There’s no point in fighting against Kick-Ass once you’re already in the seat, at least as long as you’re not expecting to see anything new.

I would recommend Kick-Ass as a visually stirring and interestingly shot superhero splatterfest.  The dialog is very funny, and many of the costumes and set-pieces are enough to elicit laughter from even the hardest heart.  Nicholas Cage is a walking joke, in every possible meaning of that expression.  The sheer fact that the film is this funny does raise the question of why it needed to earn its R-rating so violently, as there is plenty of room in tone alone for small children to enjoy this picture.  In my screening, there were five or six kids who would have definitely been deemed “too young” by the MPAA, but by the same token, these kids left the theater the most excited of any of us.  Maybe that was the product of the violent video-game like imagery, the onslaught of movie theater sugary snacks, and a lifetime of ADHD, but my guess is that to a kid, this story is no more violent than the average comic book, Japanese manga, or for that matter Harry Potter.  It’s just strange that this movie’s R-rating exists as this Joe Camel-like enticement, a golden yellow police-line around an adults-only movie.  Kids are the ones who could really appreciate this movie, in spite of the violence inherent in the premise, and I think I’d rather have them watch this than Clash of the Titans.  Frankly I’d rather have my kids grow up to be sociopathic rogue vigilantes, fighting for justice and truth against all odds, not some beef-headed wannabe god who spends his days spanking scorpions in the desert. But that’s just me, and to each his own when it comes to training kids.  In all honesty, I think Kick-Ass is a lot of fun and I wish it had been a little bit smarter, but that’s truly splitting hairs.  The movie is a violent journey with a lot of strange and cool scenery, just don’t expect to come back any smarter than when you left.