Monday, October 8, 2012

The Redbox Report - October 8, 2012

It's time for another entry in the Redbox Report, ladies and gents! I've collected a handful of hopefully helpful hearsay, regarding recent releases. Enjoy!


Chronicling "small town life" has been a component of countless films, books, and television shows throughout the years. And, for better or worse, plenty of the creative minds behind these endeavors only know what they know about "small town life" from other works or via hearsay. Richard Linklater, on the other hand, has spent enough time in and around small Texas towns to know how to bring them to life on screen brilliantly and authentically. Bernie is the true story of a murder that took place in Carthage, Texas on November 16, 1996. Based on a Texas Monthly article by Skip Hollandsworth, who co-wrote the film with Linklater, the film plays out as an unlikely marriage between comedy and drama that walks an incredibly fine line with skill. Jack Black is the titular character, funeral mortician Bernie Tiede, and turns in one of the best (if not the best) performances of his entire career. His turn as a warm-hearted and personable individual - if somewhat strange (on account of his professional direction) and effeminate - is as genuine as it is paradoxical at times. Shirley MacLaine plays Marjorie Nugent, the crabby old woman whose murder marks the turning point of the film; while Matthew McConaughey offers up a hilariously hawkish performance as the local district attorney Danny Buck Davidson. The film hybridizes itself as a kind of faux-documentary, as the narrative plays out interspersed with "interviews" from the townspeople of Carthage and a few actors thrown into the mix; like Texas independent film-favorite Sonny Carl Davis. Similar to the brilliant blend between comedy and drama herein, the joining of documentary and narrative elements in this movie is handled marvelously and further serves to set this film apart from others like it. Despite it being about a murder, the film is not bloody or graphic and goes to precise lengths to play down the horror of the whole affair. It's not ignored or cheapened, but the impact of the murder (and some of the subsequent measures taken to cover it up) are tastefully negotiated by some restrained cinematography and excellent writing. On the whole Bernie is a surprisingly compelling film, given its subject matter and the pitch perfect balance it achieves between polar opposites. And as a study on small-town-Texas life, it's unparalleled. If you've spent any time in and around one of those tiny Texan townships, you'll find Bernie chock full of people you swear you've met before - or perhaps are even related to.


Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon have fantastic creative synergy. Having worked together previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff  Angel, the two reunited for Cabin in the Woods and hammered out a script in three days. The result was a film that simultaneously lampooned and elevated just about every cliche and narrative device horror movies are known to employ. I won't go much into the plot because the story itself is wound up in the sheer brilliance of this film, and you need to see this movie at your earliest convenience. But Cabin in the Woods essentially distills the "cabin in the woods" slasher genre down into its basic components and then reconstructs it as a meta-commentary on the nature of the genre itself. Kristen Connolly fills the roll of the innocent "final girl," Chris Hemsworth is the "dumb jock," Anna Hutchison is the "slutty one," Jesse Williams plays the "bookish guy," and finally Fran Kanz as the "idiot in the group." Each of these archetypes are sent up in creatively grisly ways, and there's an absolute banquet of references and homages to other films for the knowing eye. Just to name a few... Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2 (the films which practically started the "cabin in the woods" subgenre of horror movies), Hellraiser, Jurassic Park, Night of the Living Dead, The Shining, The Ring...those are the only ones that first come to mind at the moment but I'm certain there are countless others. Cabin in the Woods is, as Whedon himself described it, "a loving hate letter" to horror movies that simultaneously disparages its tropes while reveling in them. There are more than a few moments in the film that are absolutely hilarious, and just as many that are intensely visceral and shocking. In a word, the film is brilliant. Fans of horror will find plenty to enjoy here, and I wager many who don't care for horror will enjoy this ironically vicious romp through cliche and convention.

Weddings can be stressful; that's a fact proven and exploited hundreds of times over in book, television and film. In fact, it's a point so relentlessly brought up that it's beyond cliche. Most often this point is illustrated in the ways everything happens at the last minute or how everything goes wrong at the worst possible time. But taking the opposite approach to the same conundrum, The Five Year Engagement chronicles the prenuptial struggles of a couple whose circumstances ended up dragging things out rather than cutting things close. The movie opens on Tom Solomon (Jason Segel) proposing to his girlfriend Violet Barnes (Emily Blunt), setting in motion the course of events that will lead them through a five-year engagement. It's a fairly predictable and somewhat overlong exercise, but those cons are overcome by some fantastic casting. Jason Segel is charming and accessible as always, and Emily Blunt is her usually versatile self; oscillating between humor and drama with ease. The supporting cast steals the show though, as Chris Pratt - who plays Tom's best friend/best man - and Alison Brie (Violet's sister Suzie) ham it up on screen perfectly. My favorite moment of the movie was watching Alison Brie and Emily Blunt argue with each other using pretty terrible impressions of Elmo and Cookie Monster (respectively) in order to shield the adult nature of the conversation they were having from the children in the room with them. The Five Year Engagement isn't a brilliant movie or really much you haven't seen before in a romantic comedy. But it's got a fantastic cast who handle the subject material quite well and in between a few laughs and (maybe?) a few sniffles there's a good deal of sincerity to be had as well.


I'm at that stage in my life when the majority of my friends are getting married and/or having kids. While the main characters of Friends with Kids are a generation or two ahead of me, they deal with the same issue. Chronicling the lives of a group of friends and how having kids changes their lives together and individually, Friends with Kids is Jennifer Westfeldt's (who plays the main character, Julie) directorial debut. The film is most easily described as a romantic comedy, but it dabbles in some pretty heavy drama from time to time. The principle plot is concerned with Julie and Jason (Adam Scott) and their plan to circumvent the usual struggles associated with parenthood by having a child together outside of a committed relationship. The two at first feel like they've gamed the system by sharing the responsibilities of raising a child, but still being "free" to pursue their individual social lives. But it becomes evident very quickly that they have made things more complicated than they realized. Admittedly, Friends with Kids felt a little forced to me - even unintentionally preachy in places. The film's core message is sincere and relevant, but the lives of the supporting cast - namely how upended they've become with the advent of their children - seemed to skew into the cartoonishly absurd merely for the sake of contrast. And for a comedy/dramedy/romantic dramedy/whatever you want to call it, it's not particularly funny - though it tries to be. The film didn't really resonate with me on any level, though I could feel it trying to. It's not an entirely unimpressive affair, but by the end it was much more forgettable than it started out.


Some of science fiction's earliest incarnations dealt with the subject of visiting other planets. It's in our nature as explorers and discoverers to wonder what worlds are like beyond our sky, and to invent them before we've even been there. Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars, released in 1917, was among the first books dedicated to events going on the surface of the Red Planet. His series, which would go on to span 11 books written over the course of almost 50 years, has been in various stages of development at Disney for the better part of the studio's existence. Going between rewrites and format revisions, Disney finally released John Carter as a live-action sci-fi/fantasy epic this year. The movie follows the titular character John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) as he is unwittingly whisked away to the planet Mars. There's obviously a great deal more fantasy employed than science fiction in this piece, as the Mars (which is called Barsoom by the race of humanoids that live there) of the movie is habitable, if barren. The scope of the film is grand, and admirably ambitious. The visual effects are impressive, and the mythology woven throughout the film is nothing if not compelling. But it's a big budget piece with stereotypical big budget hangups; there isn't a great deal of character development, the writing doesn't invigorate the way the visual effects do, and ultimately the film feels about a half hour too long. John Carter isn't terrible, but it's another example of a film that suffered for the amount of time it spent in development - ultimately feeling like the work of several different films cobbled together without compelling cohesion. Still, if you're up for an easy watch with lots of cool special effects and fight scenes, John Carter delivers pretty satisfyingly in that department; if that department alone.


Either you like Katy Perry, or you don't; so your opinion of a film about her will be predicated on your opinion of her and her music. Personally, I am a huge fan of the Lady Katherine of House Perry and consequently enjoyed the hell outta this movie. Katy Perry: Part of Me unfolds as part documentary/part concert movie. There's a very nice symmetry in how that's constructed, as the songs performed during her California Dreams Tour are interspersed with topical information about her life that reflect the content of the song. For example, the song "E.T." (which describes a girl meeting a guy who she finds "not like the others") is intercut with interviews and footage documenting the start of Katy's relationship with Russell Brand. The movie doesn't delve too deeply into Perry's personal history, though it gives us just enough of a peek inside to satisfy fans wanting to know more about how she became the person she is today. Family members are interviewed, along with other performing artists and celebrities, throughout the course of the film - though the bulk of the movie deals with the tour itself and the performances put together for it. One thing that stood out to me most of all about the film is Katy's dedication to her fans, to a degree I wasn't even aware. At one point, we are privy to a backstage breakdown that's been brought on by physical exhaustion and personal turmoil. In tears through makeup and costuming, it's uncertain whether the "show will go on" or not. Literally right up to the moment before she goes on stage, she is wiping away tears and collecting herself. And then - in an instant - she takes a deep breath, musters a sincere smile, and begins her performance in spite of it all. As a general fan of her music, I've become even more impressed with her as a person after seeing this film. Again, if you don't like Katy Perry, you don't need me to tell you that you probably won't like this movie. But if you are even a bit of a fan, I think you'll find Katy Perry: Part of Me will give you cause to enjoy her music all the more.


The Underworld series is a great example to me of pulpy action flicks done right. They don't take themselves too seriously, but there's a respect for convention and backstory running through the first three films that set them apart from other movies of their ilk. But Underworld: Awakening is kind of like that fourth helping at Thanksgiving; everything leading up to it has been great, but going back for more is both unnecessary and ultimately painful. (I'm not the only one who gets 4+ helpings of food at Thanksgiving am I?) Awakening opens up shortly after the events of the second film in the franchise (as you'll recall the third dealt with the history surrounding the conflict between vampires and Lycans that started the whole franchise's gears a-turnin') and picks up where Michael (Scott Speedman) and Selene's (Kate Beckinsale) story continues. Humans have initiated "The Purge," an initiative to wipe out all vampire and Lycan life on the planet. Selene and Michael are captured and cryogenically frozen early on, but Selene has never been one to accept defeat so easily. Underworld: Awakening has some great action scenes, some of the best of the franchise even. But that's about it. There's precious little in the way of engaging story here, the writing and acting are wooden, and the whole affair seems more perfunctory than anything else. Kate Beckinsale is always a joy to watch as the icy cool vampire Selene, but even some of her scenes felt forced. I really wanted to like Awakening because of how much I enjoyed the first three movies in the franchise. But by now it seems the creators have just run out of halfway decent ideas for this franchise. I'm going to pretend this movie doesn't exist and continue to enjoy the first three as they are, any problems with that? Nope? Cool.


The concrete jungle can really take it outta you. A good deal of research even backs this up with findings that indicate greater longevity for those who live outside of major metropolitan areas for most of their lives. Wanderlust opens on George and Linda, (Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston) a couple signing for their new micro-loft in New York City. Egregiously expensive, it only takes the course of about a minute's worth of montage for us to realize - right along with them - that they've made a huge mistake. When both of their jobs end up tanking on the same day, they're forced to sell the micro-loft at a loss and move to Georgia to live with George's brother. But on their way they end up finding a hippie commune called Elysium, one thing leads to another, and they decide to join the commune. But the lifestyle of their new compatriots looks like it will prove to be more than they can handle. Rudd and Aniston have wonderful onscreen chemistry as a couple trying to find their bearings in an increasingly alienating world. David Wain has proven his directorial abilities in movies like Role Models and Wet Hot American Summer and he returns to a number of familiar vignettes in Wanderlust. Justin Theroux steals just about every scene he's in as Seth, one of the commune's leader figures and a hilarious caricature of every hippie stereotype you can conceive. A number of other faces and names abound in the supporting cast including Malin Akerman, Alan Alda, Kathryn Hahn, and Kerri Kenney-Silver. Wanderlust is laugh-out-loud in a few places, but it's humor is definitely not mile-a-minute. A few moments of improv dialogue definitely felt very improv, but apart from that Wanderlust is a pretty entertaining comedy with a stellar cast.

1 comment:

  1. And here I was wondering what to do with a free Redbox coupon that was texted to me this morning!