Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Underrated: Observe & Report

          I know it's easy, but don't blame Paul Blart. Really, don't do it. It isn't worth it. You know why? Because people ate up Paul Blart. He was a hit at the box office. And the way people are eating up sequels these days, they would have eaten him up again. Had the cheap jokes of Paul Blart persisted in this other mall cop film, Observe & Report, then things would have been peachy. Fortunately for us, instead of another Paul Blart, audiences got Ronnie Barnhardt.
          "What's the difference?" you say. Well, for starters, Paul Blart had a heart of gold. He tried to do good while performing, as some bribed critics would say, "hilarious hijinks."
          Ronnie Barnhardt does not do good. Ever. In fact, he does mostly bad. He has every intention of being a great guy, but he's a sociopath. And very rarely does a sociopath's intention of good equate to actual good. For example, Ronnie's idea of doing good police work is killing crackheads in cold blood. Okay, perhaps they didn't quite die, but he may have used some excessive force. And if that scene wasn't enough for you, watch the ending of the film. It won't be spoiled for you here, but lets just say there is more excessive force used.
           Ronnie Barnhardt's story did not meet much success. It is one of the lowest grossing Seth Rogen films ever released, and one of the critically despised films in his repertoire. But why? What is so wrong with this film? I mean, people have very serious reactions to it. Just look at some of the reviews online. Yikes. People react strongly to the violence, to its cynicism, to its anger. The film is mean-spirited and never lets up. Nobody wins, nobody changes for the better, and nothing is learned. Why would anybody want to see a film about a sociopath with a mundane job who creates a false catharsis for the audience by performing acts of unnecessary violence?
          Wait, actually, that sounds like a familiar plot. It sounds like some universally beloved film that has gone on to become an American classic.
Hint, Hint
          But Taxi Driver wasn't a comedy. It was serious. It had all sorts of drama and what some new, hip critics call "badassery," which is just another word for unnecessary, yet stylish violence. What makes Scorsese's film a masterpiece and Jody Hill's film too vicious and stupid to watch? They're essentially the same film. Only, Taxi Driver was a drama. This man is sick and depraved and his drama is somehow important because of this. Ronnie Barnhardt, equally depraved, is reduced to a bad fart joke by most critics because critics are watching this film as a straight comedy.
          Don't get me wrong, before we go any further, this is a comedic film. 
          However, I would not call Observe & Report a comedy. Comedies, by an antiquated definition, are supposed to have happy endings. This one does not (perhaps arguable, make that argument in the comments section). Comedies are also supposed to make you laugh.
          This film achieves the goal of making its audience laugh, but to what end? How far will the audience follow this film? I saw Observe & Report twice in the theaters. Once by myself, and the second time (in retrospect a bad decision) with my girlfriend. Both times I saw the film I noticed something strange about the audience.
         I was part of a very select few people who were still laughing after half an hour. Particularly after a scene that takes place a half hour into the film. After this certain scene, people rejected the film's attempts at humor. They sat, motionless, waiting for their ten dollar torture chamber to turn its lights back on.
          And it hit me, leaving the theater on both occasions, why they stopped laughing. The protagonist became completely unlikable. We were stuck in a comedy starring a man with no morals.
          Not only that, but it was Seth Rogen up there committing murder, performing date rapes (no argument, here), beating up children, and doing cocaine in a mall bathroom. At the time, we had come to expect Seth Rogen to be a certain character. We expected him to be the sort-of dumb, sort-of funny man child who has a good heart, not to be a totally dumb, sort-of insane sociopath with no heart at all.
          The film is shocking. Its violence is fast and brutal. There is an immense amount of offensive language. There are no likable characters. I'm still describing Observe & Report, you know, for all you Taxi Driver fans out there. However, that latter film is well-respected for its courage, and the former film is universally despised for its indecency.
         What is a courageous film if not a bold display of indecency? 
         I can tell you why Observe & Report failed.
          For the same reason that The King of Comedy failed. People don't like to mix their genres if they don't have to. And people certainly don't want any kind of ambiguity from their filmmakers.
         Comedy has an implicit subjectivity. Drama can dare to be objective because there are images on a screen and they play out in succession as a story progresses, fine, but a comedy is always commenting on something. The joke always has to have a point. There is always a means to an end. So when you release a problem comedy, there (bad joke?) going to be some problems. First of all, why are we laughing at this crazy person? Are we laughing at him, or are we laughing with him?
         We're just coasting along in this comedy, and all of a sudden a horrifying act of violence is committed. Are we supposed to laugh at that? Do we laugh at its absurd amount of gore? Is that even funny? What is my intended response?
         When people ask themselves these questions during a movie, they have already left the film. They are no longer following the story or buying into what is happening on screen. They see a fault with the film. And I can't really blame anybody. That is not how we have been trained to watch movies. They are supposed to have clear lines. Funny parts can be in serious movies, but when it gets serious, the music needs to let me know. The tone needs to change accordingly. We can't have the punchline be murder. It's unsatisfying.
          But sometimes we get films that blur these lines. And they're important. Especially films like Observe & Report that are marketed and sold to mass audiences. People need to know that lines can be blurred. Sometimes comedies can convey a message that is just as rich and profound as dramas.
         I'll admit, the film is not perfect, but it is extremely ambitious, thought provoking, and totally courageous. Yes, courageous.

        What do some of you think of the film? Let me know in the comments section.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Movie Review: Knight and Day

Why aren't they pictured on the poster? Read more!
          Knight and Day is an interesting little movie. It was directed by James Mangold, who I like, and stars Tom Cruise, who I also (sometimes) like. Cameron Diaz I could take or leave. I don't find her half as charming as this movie does, but she doesn't make me cringe or anything.
        There's action, but there's no suspense. But should there be? It's a Tom Cruise action thriller. Were you expecting suspense? No, you're expecting cool. And it is cool. It's very cool. Eerily cool. Almost...too cool.

        The Skinny
        Early in the film, Tom Cruise (his character has a name-- which is Knight, by the way--but what's the point of giving him a name? Other than, you know, making a GREAT title) tells Cameron Diaz (ditto) that "the less she knows, the better things will be." If that's the case, then why are you reading this review? Stop. Here.

       Still with me? Great!
       I think Tom was on to something back there. When it comes to the plot of Knight and Day, if you want to call it that, there's not much to go on. There's some important thing that Tom Cruise is protecting and Cameron Diaz is the blonde collateral damage that has gotten caught up in the fun. But something is different. Based on how things are laid out in the beginning, it feels like Tom Cruise is the collateral, and that Cameron Diaz is the one commanding the plot.
      This switch is a nice welcome in the film, and the reason I continued watching it. The point of view is very close on her, and we never get crucial plot details because Tom Cruise continually, in a running joke, drugs her during the transitional times.
      You know how in action movies Tom Cruise seems to just appear in other countries, and we never see the boring stuff where he's on the plane? This movie skips those things by drugging the character, and waking her up at the next action scene.
      It's pretty hilarious, actually. In one montage, she goes to sleep in a gunfight in Boston, wakes up on a helicopter as it is crashing, falls back asleep, and then wakes up as Tom Cruise hangs from a ceiling with tape over his mouth. Of course, she falls back asleep, only to wake up on a beautiful beach on some remote island. Clever--she missed an entire James Bond film and woke up at the end.
      So, basically, there is no real plot. There are scenes. And some of them are quite funny. Sometimes the scenes are linked because that important object has moved, but I wouldn't call that plot, really.
      But, really, I prefer the movie this way. I hate it when Tom Cruise action movies give me exposition. Just show me the explosions and that winning smile.

We're HOW old?

          The Facts
          Knight and Day was not always planned to be what it has become. In other words, the Knight and Day I saw is not the one that was intended several years ago. In fact, it was a straightforward comedy about an aging woman trying to find love, only to get mixed up with a fake special agent in Paris.
         Then that script was bought, doctored, and re-written as Wichita and Trouble Man. Which is really a great title. That script was closer to the one we have now, except, you know, the protagonists were in their twenties, there were many action scenes added, it took place in (guess) and had almost no relation to the original screenplay.
       Then Tom Cruise got a hold of it. And get this, nothing was changed. Except for the names. Because the new title is GREAT.
      But there's a problem here. Tom Cruise is not in his twenties. Cameron Diaz is not in her twenties. However, the film doesn't really act like it. This is not a "age doesn't matter" scenario where fortysomethings do awesome athletic things and feel great about themselves. This is a middle-aged, fading movie stars not accepting their ages thing.
      If you don't believe, just watch the movie. How old is Cameron Diaz's sister supposed to be? 20? Younger? Why are Tom Cruise's parents only a few years older than him? This movie is weird.

Not in 3D! Hooray!
         The Verdict
         Let's face it. We all know why I watched this movie. Quentin Tarantino put it on his top 20 movies of 2010 list and I thought, "Whaaaaa....I must see this...." And I did. And it was...fine. Actually, I'll give it better. It was fun. It was a lot of fun. It was charming.
        I really liked it.
        I loved that part with the motorcycle (both) and the guns (all twenty) and the Tom Cruise smiling (???). In fact, I think this is the best action hero Tom Cruise has ever played. He's hilarious in it. Genuinely, intentionally hilarious. His character is so Tom Cruise. He compliments Cameron Diaz's character in absolutely hilarious ways, at inopportune moments, and the jokes actually work. You just have to see it to believe it.
       The whole last half hour had me excited, even if it was slipping slowly into formula. There's just something so fun about this movie. I would definitely recommend it to anyone who likes Tom Cruise. Because, lets face it, that's the movie. Even if he became an embarrassing-to-watch celebrity who shamed the film's studio so much that it refused to use his face on the official poster.
       He is great in it. And he is everything he has been for twenty years. No surprises, but hey, no 3D!!!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Recent Films That Have Already Been Forgotten

          What separates the movies that are remembered and the ones that are forgotten? What's the difference between, say, Deep Impact and Armageddon? They were both released around the same time, had around the same budget, and were both equally horrible. Why is it that Armageddon is the one most remembered?
          [This probably has something to do with studio money and FX's inability to purchase the rights for more than two movies, but I'm going to pretend that I live in a world where film quality and people's interpretation of it is the reason that movies stay on television and in the public eye.]
          Probably because of its more upfront hilarity and willingness to have fun, but not because of its actual quality as a film, I must say. Maybe it has something to do with Ben Affleck, or that Aerosmith song, or something.
         Anyway, not the point. What I'm really asking is why some movies, good movies, just get forgotten while other movies, also good--sometimes terrible--get remembered.
        I've found that in most cases, movies are forgotten because they're simply "blah". For every Lord of the Rings there's always a The Score, and the "blah" factor is definitely a good scale for maybe 90% of these cases. But what about that 10% of cases where a great, or at least interesting, film is largely forgotten while similar films from its time become well-regarded classics?
        What is it about Sunset Boulevard that makes it more readily acknowledged than, say, The Men, from the same year(1950), which is perhaps an even better and more interesting film? It's a question I'm not going to answer. However, if you want, feel free to answer that question in the comments.
       Instead, I'm going to give a quick list of movies that, when released were critically and theatrically well-received, yet have been strangely forgotten by the public so soon after their release. I'm going to move backward in time, starting with 2008's

Speed Racer:

           Daniel Kasman, writing for Mubi, has gone as far as to call Speed Racer the most expensive avant-garde film ever made. And I have trouble disagreeing with him. The film is fast, as the title suggests, and colorful, and loud, and actually pretty awesome; also, it is extremely weird. The movie has one flaw, but it is a really, really unfortunate one--it is Speed Racer. I know it sounds strange, but the film's very existence is its downfall.
          My main question while watching Speed Racer is, "who in the world did the Wachowskis think would be the demographic for this movie?"
         In one hand, you have a very colorful film with broad humor, enthusiastic performances, and a simple story, and in the other hand you have a film with pacing so fast, and a runtime so long, that only older audiences would be able to keep up. Put that on top of the fact that the movie is flat out weird. All of the backgrounds are digital, and sometimes the entire setting starts spinning, the background morphs into a flashback, and character's faces jump out of nowhere at the screen. In fact, the only movie I can think of that uses its visuals this way is Lars Von Trier's Europa, one of the most off-puttingly experimental movies I've ever seen.
        Instead of bathing the movie in self-righteousness like Von Trier, the Wachowskis make it fun, engrossing, strange, and cool. The only downside, really, is the fact that it is based on a cartoon. A family cartoon. Meaning Speed Racer is a family film. Meaning the humor is too broad and the moral lines are too distinct. I believe that the film's family friendly agenda is the reason that it did not do well. It is an experimental, interesting, and strange film wrapped around a pretty standard family film, and it does not succeed because those things are not blended well. Not nearly as well as, say, Wall-E did the same year. However, that being said, Speed Racer is still an immensely interesting film, and probably the most amazing example of HD visuals I've ever seen.


           This one just baffles me. Why hasn't anybody seen this movie? Or, lately, even heard of it? Michael Mann's work on Ali is pretty astonishing. And even more impressive is Will Smith's portrayal of Muhammad Ali. You actually forget that you're watching Will Smith. You know, one of the most recognizable personalities in Hollywood. His voice, his mannerisms, his body, everything about Will Smith melts into a perfect performance. What's sad is that Ali attempts to do something brave with the biopic, something different, and it has now been largely forgotten--making it harder for other biopics to follow in its footsteps.
          What's different about this biopic, other than its slow, leisurely pacing, is its focus on letting the viewer know exactly who this person is. We all know that he's a great boxer, a charismatic public persona, and devout Muslim, and the film plays with that knowledge. Instead of giving us a straightforward film about, say, Ray Charles where he sings, gets steadily famous, goes through a drug period, and then comes out the other side, we get a film where Ali is, and remains, a troubled soul for the duration of the picture. We see him fall in love with four women, sincerely, and then we watch as those women come to understand the man as fleeting, temporary in all aspects. He falls in love with things and quickly loses interest.
          His ego is huge, and it causes him to lose his friends, his family, his career. His stubbornness in not fighting in the Vietnam war causes him years of court battles and hardship. Yet we don't really see those things. Because we know those things. The film merely hints at the large moments of his life--winning titles, his court battles, his marriages, and focuses instead on small moments. Conversations, aimless or otherwise, a friendship between Ali and his media enemy, Howard Cosell, and many, many extended scenes set to music where Ali is seen training, speaking at press conferences, or merely sitting at a bar.
          I suppose this kind of aimlessness, and subtlety, in a biopic about one of the loudest and most well-known personalities of the 20th century does sound kind of like a hard sell, but the film is so tender to its source material, so engaging in its minimalism, that it is hard not to be profoundly moved by it. Another biopic released that year, 2001, is A Beautiful Mind. Strangely, A Beautiful Mind is a biopic that exploits Nash's schizophrenia and misrepresents the truth so much that what we see is very little of the actual man. However, that film is still widely viewed and talked about today. Go figure.


          Terry Zwigoff's Crumb is one of the most moving films I've seen in quite some time. It depicts Robert Crumb, the father of underground comics, and his brothers, Max and Charles Crumb. All of the men in the Crumb family suffer from a debilitating depression due to their unhappy childhoods, yet Robert is the only brother to have found an outlet to release and sadness and anger. His brother Charles who lives at home with his mother--with no job or car--since high school, and his other brother Max who lives as a  homeless street performer, have trouble coping with day to day life, both having attempted suicide on multiple occasions.
         The film chronicles six years in the life of Robert Crumb, covering topics ranging from the meaning behind his art, his abusive childhood, his sexual hang-ups, his parents' troubles in raising five children, and what he finds to be the "hellish vacuum of American commercialism." In other words, it is jam-packed with interesting ideas and powerful images--both from Crumb's work and from his life. The movie was directed by Terry Zwigoff, who was trying to overcome his own case of severe depression at the time of filming, and the film definitely takes its toll on the viewer. It is neurotic, twisted, strange, dark, and haunting, but it's also one of the best documentaries I have ever seen.
        Hoop Dreams, also made in 1994, has had a better shelf life, and for good reason--it's a great documentary, but it's a shame that it has, for so long, overshadowed what is a rather brilliant film.

What are some other films that have been strangely forgotten about in recent years?