Review: THE STUPIDS (PG)

Tom Arnold stands in front of chart that I'm not even sure he understands.

U.S. Release Date: August 30, 1996

Running Time: 93 minutes

MPAA Classification: PG (Mild language, violence/peril)

Cast: Tom Arnold, Jessica Lundy, Bug Hall, Alex McKenna, Scott Kraft, Mark Metcalf, Bob Keeshan, Christopher Lee

Director: John Landis

Producer: Leslie Belzberg

Screenplay: Brent Forrester
 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / March 22, 2011

At last we have a movie that isn’t afraid to be too ridiculous or too absurd. Often enough, I ridicule movies for being stupid, so why am I delighted to finally see a movie that encourages it? Because this movie is ridiculous and absurd without any real reason other to be ridiculous and absurd. It doesn’t start out being serious and become preposterous as the film progresses—- It begins stupid and ends stupid. This film is aptly named The Stupids.

Tom Arnold is the hero of this film. He stars as Stanley Stupid. Yes, that’s his last name. He has a family and all of their last names are Stupid as well. The plot is easy to follow, but hard to put into words. I’ll try as best I can.

So, Stanley Stupid is convinced that someone is stealing his trash. Late one night, he stays up to find out that the thief is a garbage truck, so he decides to follow it to see where it has been taking his trash all of this time.

Stanley follows the truck until it eventually ends up at the dump. But by doing this, he unknowingly stumbles onto a secret gathering where corrupt army officials are selling contraband to foreign arms dealers. The leaders of this gathering aren’t stupid; they know that Stanley doesn’t belong at the meeting. So Colonel Neidermeyer (Mark Metcalf) assigns someone to track Stanley to his next destination.

Meanwhile back at the Stupid residence, the kids (Bug Hall and Alex McKenna) realize that their dad is missing, so they assume he has been kidnapped and decide to go to the police for help. They leave a note for their mother, but jumble up the words. Now, the note makes it seem as though the police are responsible for their disappearance. Of course, the wife (Jessica Lundy) is just as stupid as the rest of her family, so she buys into the whole conspiracy and goes after her kids.

The Stupids becomes a thousand times more complex than what I just described, but to sum up the entire movie would take more than a thousand words. Really, it’s actually a fairly smart movie, despite what the title suggests.

One of the reasons why I liked The Stupids was how it embraced such sheer stupidity with utmost enthusiasm. It doesn’t accidentally become stupid; it tries to get as absurd as it can possibly get. How often do you a find a movie like that? And it’s so damn funny! Sure, some parts are bland and could’ve been handled better, but this movie really is genuinely funny. It’s stupid and moronic in every way possible, but only because it wants to be. It’s not stupid in the sense of “Oh, this sucks”; it’s stupid in the sense of “This is genius!”, if that really makes any sense at all.

Realize that I’m not upholding stupidity by saying this. Stupidity, to me, is when a film does something stupid with the intention of being good: The Stupids is stupid with the intention of being stupid.

RATING: 2.5/4

Review: ZODIAC (R)

Jake Gyllenhaal and Chloe Sevigny in "Zodiac."

U.S. Release Date: March 2, 2007

Running Time: 157 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (Language, violence, drugs)

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey, Jr., Anthony Edwards, Dermot Mulroney, Brian Cox, Chloe Sevigny, John Carroll Lynch, Elias Koteas, Donal Logue

Director: David Fincher

Producer: Cean Chaffin, Brad Fischer, Mike Medavoy, Arnold Messer, James Vanderbilt

Screenplay: James Vanderbilt, based on the novel by Robert Graysmith

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / March 22, 2011

Zodiac is the finest film I have seen from director David Fincher yet. Based upon the book by Robert Graysmith, it’s an exact retelling of the infamous “Zodiac killer” murders — at least, from the perspective of those directly involved with it. The screenwriter, James Vanderbilt, remains quite faithful to the source material, even though his script might have been better suited for a director with less visual “style.” But despite that, Fincher does give Zodiac a look that not many other directors could; a look that is highly beneficial in creating a dark and dreary mood which makes the film all the more terrifying.

Plot is the main focus. Like another great journalism-centered film, All the President’s Men, Zodiac relies on its storytelling ability more than anything else. Everything is driven by dialogue and slow-but-steady character development. We focus on different characters as the film progress, watching what the case does to them and how it affects their lives. For its monumental length (which is roughly two hours and forty minutes), it covers a great deal of time, spanning from 1969 to 1991, even though most of the events that happen occur in the 1970s.

The first hour of the film serves more as an introduction to the Zodiac case, branching into three separate stories. There are brief re-enactments of the brutal Zodiac killings, which were entirely unpremeditated. There is the involvement of the San Francisco Police Department, led by detectives Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards). And then there are the journalists at the San Francisco Chronicle, who surprisingly do a better job of “digging” than the police.

As the film progresses, we begin to settle more on Graysmith and his efforts to figure out the identity of the Zodiac killer. While the rest of the world dismisses the case due to the amount of time that has passed and lack of evidence that has circulated, Graysmith becomes more and more obsessed with it, believing that he is on to something. Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch) is the prime suspect at the center of all of the commotion, even though he is never formally convicted. Lynch (who most people only know as the husband of Marge in Fargo) has arguably the best performance in all of Zodiac, and he’s barely in the film at all. He delivers such an effectively accurate portrayal of Allen, capturing just the right amount of creepiness.

The most impressing thing about Zodiac is the fact that it is so free of the standard clichés and predictability that bog down most police procedurals nowadays. Sure, we know the details of the Zodiac case. We know how it begins, ends, and what happens in between, yet it manages to thrill in ways unimaginable. And it doesn’t do this by shocking us or providing us with unnecessary pop-ups or bloodletting, but rather by giving us the cold, hard facts.

The story never hits a snag. We remain interested all of the way through, gradually pulled down deeper and deeper into darkness as Graysmith’s obsession with the case grows. Mood envelopes us. David Shire (who scored All the President’s Men as well) has a terrifyingly simple soundtrack, often being just the simple notes of a piano. The cinematography by Harry Savides is breathtakingly bleak.

In a time of horror movies that don’t deliver what they promise, Zodiac is unconventional because it does. It’s not some slasher flick that you pick to watch on some Friday night; it’s much deeper than that. It’s subtle and something that you have to pay attention to. While it may not be the most exciting thing out there most of the time, it’s definitely engaging.

RATING: 4/4

BRICK (2005) / Crime-Drama

Running Length: 109 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for violent and drug content.

Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Nora Zehetner, Noah Fleiss, Matt O-Leary, Lukas Haas, Brian J. White, Richard Roundtree
Director: Rian Johnson
Producers: Ram Bergman, Mark G. Mathis
Screenplay: Rian Johnson

At first glance, Brick is some kind of subtle masterpiece. It’s essentially a film noir set in present-day California suburbia. The plot, characters, and dialogue come straight from the pages of a Raymond Chandler novel. Except the characters have been replaced by teenagers. And most of the action takes place around a high school. Everything else remains the same.Oh golly, parents are going to have start paying more attention to what their kids do. It’s amazing what teenagers can get away with in Rian Johnson’s neo-noir debut, Brick.

Our lone hero is Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, (500) Days of Summer), filling the shoes of the Bogart character. Brendan is out of place at school. He doesn’t sit with the popular people at lunch and spends most of his time by himself, and at the beginning of Brick, he’s staring at his dead ex-girlfriend, lying in a storm drain. This launches Brick into a hardboiled detective story, with Brendan playing detective. He wanders the streets — or halls — looking for information on his dead ex. Gordon-Levitt is sturdy in the role. He’s a real charmer, doing what is necessary to keep your eyes on him at all times. Like Bogart, he comes close to danger countless times, slapping around a stoner, fighting with the schools biggest jock, and coming within inches of being run over.

Rian Johnson holds nothing back. He never slips up or falters once with the whole “noir” feel, even though you’ll doubt the likelihood of any of these events ever occurring at a high school. He keeps everything serious. Yes, even when the most bad-ass drug dealer on the block lives with his mom. There’s a couple of times when the story will lose you and go just outside the realm of possibility, but then Johnson will reel you right back in. He’s one of the more promising new film makers in recent years, showing a fresh and original visual style.

Now, you can’t deny the talent involved here. The score evokes memories of classic film noir. The cinematography is exuberant and kinetic. A lot of the time it practically puts you in Brendan’s shoes. There’s just so much style and originality here that you’ll actually find yourself wanting to like it more than you actually do. Regardless, it’s still great.

Final rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★)

© 2011 Stephen Earnest