SEX AND THE CITY 2 (2010) / Comedy

April 27th

This is a satire. This has to be a satire. I mean, really, seriously this has just got to be the most subversive, most scathing, most indescribably disturbing satire ever filmed. Ever. In the entire history of the medium. Had Robert Altman lived to see this, he would have been scared for his own life. Had Paddy Chayefsky lived to see this, he would have straight killed himself. If this had been shown to George Orwell, he would have literally disintegrated. It has that kind of ungodly, repulsive power. This was not nor could it have been made by a person whose primary intentions did not include brutally satirizing the lives of the rich and glamorous, whose lives are so dripping with copious amounts of unbelievable wealth that they find room to complain about having not one but two Manhattan skyrise apartments; that they get mad – so mad that they cry – at their kids for leaving handprints on their new silk blah-dy blahs and then pontificate about the burdens of being a mother; that, because they are so oblivious to how the real world functions, feel as though they can actually relate to the poverty-stricken townspeople of Abu Dahbi because they share similar marriage problems. This is a satire, and if somehow it isn’t, if somehow the people who made this actually thought that they were making a genuinely funny, cutesy comedy, then this is the greatest horror film I have ever seen: a massive, abysmal chasm of soul-sucking blackness into which all things good – morally, ethically, intellectually good – have disappeared. This is a consumerist’s wet dream, i.e. my nightmare, and one of the most bloated, reprehensible things I’ve encountered in my lifetime, and if there is a single, living, breathing person out there who enjoyed it on its own terms, for its own merits, for the way in which it was made, for the god damned message, then weep. Weep for civilization. Weep for mankind. Weep for two hundred and fifty years of progressing as a society. If we are capable of creating something this poisonous, this offensive, this completely unaware of its own insurmountable terribleness, then surely the end is near. We are all responsible.

Don’t ask me why or how or when or where or with whom, but I watched this. This is something that I watched, willingly. I have only myself to blame.

Final rating: 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

© 2014 Stephen Earnest

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THE DESCENDANTS (2011) / Comedy-Drama

Running Length: 115 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for language including some sexual references.

Cast: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Nick Krause, Amara Miller, Judy Greer, Beau Bridges, Robert Forster, Matthew Lillard
Director: Alexander Payne
Producers: Alexander Payne, Jim Burke, Jim Taylor
Screenplay: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor, Nat Faxon (based upon the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings)

The Descendants is director Alexander Payne’s first work since Sideways in 2004. However, unlike Sideways or, say, Election, The Descendants takes a more dramatic approach in resolving its issues, showing us a side of the director that Sideways only briefly touched on. That’s not saying that it doesn’t have a sense of humor – it does, but only enough of one to provide us with a few momentary laughs. Payne does not sidetrack us for too long with a funny joke; he gets right to the point.

The Descendants is undoubtedly his most personal work yet, so to speak. Set in Honolulu, the story focuses on Matt King (George Clooney), a lawyer, father, and somewhat-devoted husband whose thrill-seeking wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) is rendered comatose as the result of a boating accident. Because of this, Matt is forced to step in as full-time parent; something he has never had to do before. Work has always been his primary obligation. It was Elizabeth that was in charge of running the household, so Matt’s relationship with his two daughters, Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), has slowly deteriorated over time. Now, he’s forced to confront both them and their problems, and he’s entirely unprepared for either.

All of this happens in the midst of closing an important land deal. Matt is a descendant of one of the first white land-owning families on the island and is in charge of deciding whether or not to turn a large tract of undeveloped land into a vacation spot. Up until now, he’s been all for it, but with the added weight of personal crisis on his shoulders, he’s forced to rethink his options. Pressure to close the deal and take care of his family steadily mounts, and that’s not to mention the fact that he finds out that his wife was cheating on him.

At first, The Descendants seems exactly like what you’d expect: a film designed specifically to win its lead actor an Academy Award. (I gathered that just by glancing at the film’s poster.) Granted, Clooney’s name alone will attract most of the film’s audience, but his performance his not the only reason to see the film. There’s a fine cast of actors and actresses alongside him (most notably Shailene Woodley and Matthew Lillard) and while their performances don’t quite parallel his, they’re still just as important.

George Clooney has long since mastered the ability to create understated, intelligent characters. Matt King is the same old Clooney that we’ve seen in previous films like Up in the Air, The American, and Michael Clayton. He’s as sleek, dark, and handsome as ever, but ultimately, he was miscast. Sure, the performance that he gives is solid and one that deserves a fair amount of praise, but another actor would have been far better suited in his position. His demeanor just doesn’t fit the bill and on occasion, he’ll fall flat with his line readings. Understand that I’m not criticizing his performance; I just wasn’t entirely convinced by it.

The most promising aspect is Woodley, who many will know as the star of the ABC Family series “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.” But while she delivers arguably the best supporting performance, it won’t be her that most audiences will find their attention directed at. No, that would be Nick Krause as the film’s comic relief. He plays Sid, Alexandra’s stoner boyfriend whose own cluelessness often gets the better of him. Other standouts include veteran actor Robert Forster, Beau Bridges, and a brief appearance from Matthew Lillard.

Oddly enough, the weakest link is the script, which, despite some decent plot turns, is disappointingly average. Payne utilizes standard clichés to get him from one end to another and never really incorporates anything of his own, so what could have been great and original ends up being only serviceable. But overall, The Descendants is a pleasant outing at the movie theater. There are individual areas that need working on, but as a whole, the film and its message are entirely effective.

Final rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★)

© 2012 Stephen Earnest

THE INDEPENDENT (2000) / Comedy

Running Length: 80 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for language, some violence, and sexuality.

Cast: Jerry Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, Max Perlich, Fred Williamson, Nick Cassavetes, Ron Howard, Peter Bogdanovich, Ted Demme, Karen Black, Roger Corman
Director: Stephen Kessler
Producer: United Lotus Group
Screenplay: Stephen Kessler

There’s no doubt that Jerry Stiller has made a career for himself as one of the most prolific and recognizable character actors out there. His personality for each character is usually the same – bellicose, boisterous, and brash – and because of this, he’s immediately identifiable. While he has appeared in quite a number of films, Stiller is more known for his television work and will undoubtedly be remembered as either the misguided Arthur Spooner of “King of Queens” or the ornery Frank Costanza of “Seinfeld.”

Here is The Independent, a look at the life of eccentric independent film maker Morty Fineman (Stiller) as his career slowly and steadily spirals downwards, and he becomes the focus of a two-man documentary crew. Fineman is the definition of a true independent filmmaker; a man whose own blind ambition is far greater than his talent. His films are those same trashy, low budget exploitation flicks the likes of Larry Cohen and John Waters made. They’re not bad on purpose; they’re made with the intent of being good, which makes them all the more awful.

Upon experiencing his final bouts of bankruptcy, Fineman calls in his estranged and relied-upon daughter Paloma (Janeane Garofalo) for council. He has his assistant Ivan (Max Perlich) searching for a film festival that’s willing to showcase his oeuvre. A comeback is what he needs to get back on top, but luck rarely comes his way. And to make matters worse, he’s operating out of a fleabag motel.

Like This Is Spinal Tap and Zelig, The Independent mainly benefits from its own authenticity. The film’s story is intercut with stock footage from cheap grindhouse flicks and interviews with real-life film makers and actors, making everything seem more factual. It hits pretty close to home, accurately depicting the troubles of independent film making and doing so in a comic vein. Of course, since the film is shot in a half-mockumentary, half-narrative style, we don’t actually ever “believe” in any of it, but this doesn’t at all detract from the viewing experience, even though some might find it a bit irritating.

Stiller is a riot as Fineman, the director oblivious to his own ineptitude. He gives a superb comedic performance (including the deadpan reaction he gives when having his work brutally criticized) and hits all the right notes. His persona and celebrity status make him perfect for this role and bring more depth to his character, the aging legend trying to make one final comeback. Such could be said about Stiller and this film. In all of the areas that it sags, he pulls through, consistently drawing laughs whether it be through action or dialogue. Sometimes he just yells and it works. I tell you I could laugh at this guy just by him standing there alone eating an ice cream cone.

But that’s not saying there isn’t any room for improvement. The director, Stephen Kessler, goes so over the top in a couple of instances that he loses any credibility. Satire is best done in a subtle manner and comes off as silly when taken too literally. The entire impact as dimmed. That being said, the premise does hold up — for the most part – and The Independent delivers both in smarts and laughs, and goes to show how truly good a film on such a low budget can be.

Final rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★)

© 2012 Stephen Earnest

GO (1999) / Crime-Comedy

Running Length: 103 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for strong drug content, sexuality, language, and violence.

Cast: Sarah Polley, Katie Holmes, Jay Mohr, Scott Wolf, William Fichtner, Desmond Askew, Timothy Olyphant, Taye Diggs, Breckin Meyer
Director: Doug Liman
Producers: Matt Freeman, Paul Rosenberg, Mickey Liddell
Screenplay: John August

After finding almost immediate success with his smash hit Swingers, director Doug Liman went on to make the ambitious Go, in which he tried yet again to appeal to the indie crowd. Sure, Go is hip, stylish, kinetic, cool, crazy, wild. The camerawork is handheld and frenetic, dashing in between different characters and places with an almost documentary-like feel. The dialogue is snappy, clever, and sardonic, and spoken by characters that seem to always be in a rush. Trouble escalates as the film progresses. Things get out of hand. Characters are thrust into situations that they would rather not be in. But as fast-paced and funny as their misadventures sometimes are, Go is never quite as impressive or involving as it wants or tries to be. It packs the punch that Swingers had, but lacks the heart.

Like a junior Pulp Fiction, the storyline of Gois divided into segments, each one focusing on a different set of characters and their perspectives on the night of a botched drug deal. In the first segment, Ronna (Sarah Polley) is a grocery store clerk in need of some quick cash, otherwise she’s facing eviction. Her chance to score comes when she’s approached by a couple of actors looking for Simon (Desmond Askew), a small-time drug dealer that’s out of town. They need drugs and she needs money, so she decides to fill in for Simon and get the drugs herself from Todd (Timothy Olyphant), Simon’s supplier. Unfortunately, Ronna’s a hundred bucks short and has to leave her friend Claire (Katie Holmes) behind as collateral while she goes off to collect the rest of the money. Problems arise when the deal turns out to be a set-up and Ronna’s forced to flush the drugs down the toilet.

The setting then moves to Las Vegas for the film’s second segment, where we focus on Simon and his friend Marcus (Taye Diggs) as they engage in various escapades across the city. After losing most of their money to gambling, the two steal a car and travel to a strip club, where they order a private room. But after Simon ignores the rules and “touches” the merchandise, he and Marcus are forced to flee the premises with the bad guys on their tail.

The tone of Go changes with its third and final chapter. It deals with the actors from the first segment, Adam (Scott Wolf) and Zack (Jay Mohr), who turn out to be only involved in the sting operation so that their own drug charges are dropped. After the deal goes south, their night continues, but gets weirder. They are invited to dinner by a cop (William Fichtner) and his wife (Jane Krakowski), who turn out to be advocates of a retail company. They manage to escape, but are quickly confronted with the implications of a hit-and-run.

The main successes of Go can be found in the film’s first episode, where the stars shine the brightest and the direction is the keenest. From there, the plot unravels and gradually loses steam. The transition from the first segment to the second is drastic. (In fact, it almost seems as if the two were written by entirely different people.) The dialogue feels forced and the characters are unlikable. It resorts to low-brow humor in order to garner laughs and doesn’t deliver quite as much as the first half-hour does. Consider a scene where Simon is forced to run through the hotel fully naked after the room he was having sex in bursts into flames. These are the kinds of antics that are overused to the point of being predictable and unfunny, and they simply do not belong in a film like Go.

Now, I would like to say that the third act gets better, but it doesn’t. It basically mirrors the events of the first two episodes, but does it with less excitement. It’s uniform and repetitive and still sub-par when compared with the first half-hour. In terms of resolution, it works. It manages to adequately connect the pieces and end the movie on a lighter note. But is ending the movie on a lighter note what we want? Is an upbeat ending what a film like this should have? It feels phony and put-on and doesn’t fit the mood. Look, I’m all for catharsis, but I’d rather have an ending that’s straightforward and depressing rather than one that I don’t believe.

Sarah Polley and Katie Holmes have the two best performances. (Their characters are the two that most obviously represent the Generation X crowd that Go appeals to.) They bring the most enthusiasm and likability to their characters, and it’s disappointing that they have so little screen time. As for the rest of the cast, Taye Diggs and Timothy Olyphant (who I’ve found to be a pretty reliable actor) both do a pretty good job. Desmond Askew is serviceable, despite my disdain for his accent, and Scott Wolf and Jay Mohr are intolerable for the most part. Their characters are arguably the most uninteresting of the bunch. (I cite them as the one of the major downfalls of the third act as well.)

The worst part yet is how much I wanted to like Go. From the opening shot, I was hooked. I thought I was getting into something really good. Doug Liman is such a gifted and well-equipped director, and even though his career choices of late have been a bit poor, Go certainly exudes a fair amount of style. Even though it may borrow a lot of itself from Pulp Fiction, it stays original for the most part, especially in the visual aspect, and there are some qualities about it that are likable.

Final rating: ★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

© 2012 Stephen Earnest

THE STATION AGENT (2003) / Comedy-Drama

Running Length: 88 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for language and some drug content.

Cast: Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson, Bobby Cannavale, Michelle Williams, Paul Benjamin, Raven Goodwin
Director: Thomas McCarthy
Producers: Robert May, Mary Jane Skalski, Kathryn Tucker
Screenplay: Thomas McCarthy

“It’s funny how people see and treat me, since I’m really just a simple, boring person.”

Thomas McCarthy’s debut The Station Agent is a film of unprecedented power and emotion, given the fact that it seems so small on the outside. The cast is comprised of actors and actresses whose names were not very well-known at the time of its release in 2003, and the budget with which it was financed is relatively small. At first glance, one would expect for The Station Agent to be another one of those sappy, light-hearted films that independent cinema is becoming all too familiar with; but really, it’s not. It’s something much more than that, and I won’t deny that it was designed to make those who watch it feel good, it’s more of a chance for its cast and writer/director to showcase their talents.

Peter Dinklage stars as Finbar McBride, a quiet dwarf who lives alone in Hoboken, New Jersey. Making new friends is not an easy task, as he always expects for people to ridicule him for his dwarfism, so he lives withdrawn from the rest of the world. He keeps to himself most of the time and runs a small model train shop with his friend Henry (Paul Benjamin), a man who shares the same quiet personality. Fin loves trains – watching trains, building trains, listening to trains. It’s where he finds his refuge, and since the public doesn’t accept him for his size, it’s what most of his time revolves around. However, Henry dies of an unexpected heart attack and the shop is closed, but Fin learns that he has inherited a small piece of land that happens to have an abandoned train station on it. The property is out of the way in a rural part of New Jersey, making it an ideal place for him to start his new home. Of course, when he arrives, his move does attract the attention of the locals, such as Joe (Bobby Cannavale) and Olivia (Patricia Clarkson).

As stated before, the strengths of The Station Agent come from its acting and writing. (Thomas McCarthy won the BAFTA award for Best Original Screenplay.) McCarthy’s script is clever, original, honest, inspirational, and often very funny, and while The Station Agent does work as a comedy, it works as a drama as well. The tone is upbeat and the message is worthwhile, but the strongest element that McCarthy employs in his script is heart – pure, genuine heart.

Peter Dinklage excels as his character simply due to the fact that the character of Fin was made for him. I believe that The Station Agent is the first film to actually show the life of a dwarf as an everyday person. (To quote Dinklage from 1995’s Living in Oblivion, “Why does my character have to be dwarf? Is that the only way you can make this a dream? To put a dwarf in it?”) Dinklage has always been a fine actor, but because Fin is a character that is so close to home for him, he does an even better job than usual. This is his chance to shine, and shine he does.

Now, while Dinklage does deliver a strong central performance, the best performance – in my opinion, of course – comes from Bobby Cannavale, an actor whose work I am entirely unfamiliar with. Cannavale plays the outgoing, talkative character of Joe that befriends Fin in the early stages of the film. He sees past Fin’s size when others don’t and sticks up for him. Cannavale adds so much charm to his already likable character, bringing such positivity to the screen. To complete the trio, Patricia Clarkson plays Olivia, an artist dealing with a divorce and the death of the son. There are other supporting characters as well, such as Michelle Williams, John Slattery, and Raven Goodwin, although their screen time is limited.

McCarthy has found success in other films since his debut, but The Station Agent remains to be his greatest, most well-meaning and earnest piece of work. Like any good film, it takes more than one viewing to fully grasp – not because it is too confusing to comprehend, but because it takes multiple viewings to realize how truly powerful it actually is.

Final rating: ★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

© 2012 Stephen Earnest

HORRIBLE BOSSES (2011) / Comedy

Running Length: 98 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for crude and sexual content, pervasive language and some drug material.

Cast: Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, Charlie Day, Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston, Jamie Foxx, Colin Ferrell, Lindsay Sloane, Donald Sutherland
Director: Seth Gordon
Producers: Brett Ratner, Jay Stern
Screenplay: Michael Markowitz, John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein

Work sucks, especially when you have bosses like the characters in Horrible Bosses do. These are some of the most wretched, most foul, most unforgiving people ever to be encountered by mankind, and to give them control of a company is like handing the other employees a death sentence. Prepare for the rest of your days at this building to be a living hell.

The story focuses on Nick (Bateman, Hancock), Dale (Day, TV’s “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”), and Kurt (Sudeikis from “SNL”), three buddies whose day jobs are getting the better of them. Nick is a borderline workaholic who has high hopes that his hard work will result in a promotion that his manipulative boss Dave Harken (Kevin Spacey, American Beauty) never plans on giving him. Dale’s boss, Dr. Julia Harris (a brunette Jennifer Aniston), frequently subjects him to sexual harassment. Kurt has the best job of all until his beloved boss (Donald Sutherland) dies and he’s stuck with his insensitive and drug-addicted son, Bobby (Colin Farrell). So, upon the realization that their lives will only continue to get worse if they allow themselves to be treated this way, the three plot to finally get rid of the bosses once and for all, and it doesn’t go exactly as planned.

Sure, there are moments in Horrible Bosses where I felt dirty for laughing. The humor is coarse and the jokes are vulgar, but compared to the other raunchy comedies of yesteryear, it’s relatively tame. There are no lines that are crosses, no bounds that are overstepped. The material here is suitable for a modern audience, and that’s refreshing for a comedy in this day and age. Previous efforts like The Hangover Part II or The Change-Up tested the limits of offensiveness and ended up being less funny. On the other hand, Horrible Bosses is not nearly as crude or graphic and had me laughing from start to finish.

The acting is one of the brightest aspects. Jason Bateman employs his usual deadpan comedic style and works well alongside Charlie day, who remains energetic and frenetic throughout most of the movie. Jason Sudeikis delivers a calm and well-modulated performance and adds balance to the trio. Plus, his comedic timing is impeccable. The writers (Michael Markowitz, John Francis Daley, and Jonathan Goldstein) equip their script with a fair amount of one-liners that come in handy when the boys go out on their various reconnaissance missions, even though a lot of it seems improvised.

Like his character in Swimming with Sharks, Spacey is rude, sarcastic, and a real wise-ass. An actor of his age and status is perfect for this role. He incorporates years and years of playing the bad guy into one very memorable performance and frankly, it’s one of his funniest. As for Aniston, the success of her performance comes from the fact that the character she’s playing is so atypical for her. It’s shocking to hear her say some of the things that she says, but it’s never not funny. Colin Farrell rounds out as the last of the bosses and while he doesn’t have much screen time, he’s just as evil and crude as Spacey. My only problem is that he was underused.

PG-13 comedies are being churned out less and less these days. (In fact, I can’t remember the last time that I heard of one coming out in theaters.) So much more room is given with the R rating. The kind of humor changes and darker things are allowed to be said and done, and Horrible Bosses doesn’t exactly exploit its rating, it certainly takes full advantage of it. It’s by far one of the funniest comedies of last year.

Final rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★)

© 2012 Stephen Earnest

ZOMBIELAND (2009) / Horror-Comedy

Running Length: 88 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for horror violence/gore and language.

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Woody Harrelson, Abigail Breslin, Bill Murray
Director: Ruben Fleischer
Producer: Gavin Polone
Screenplay: Paul Wernick, Rhett Reese

I get Zombieland. I get where it’s coming from. Nowadays, most of the horror films that come out are just no good. They’re not scary enough, plain and simple. They rely on the standard clichés of the horror films of the past and in this day and age, those clichés are so overused that they’re no longer effective. That’s where Zombieland comes in. Granted, it can be scary at times, but ultimately, Zombieland is not a horror film, nor does it ever really try to be. It’s a comedy with horror elements, and I’ll admit that most of the time it works.

The zombie comedy genre experienced a revival upon the release of the critically-acclaimed Shaun of the Dead, which I still feel is a bit overrated. (Nonetheless, I found it somewhat enjoyable and occasionally funny in the mildest sense.) Like Shaun of the DeadZombieland is a zombie comedy as well and for some odd reason the two are often compared, even though they are different in almost every aspect aside from the fact that they both deal with zombies in a humorous manner. That’s the absolute extent of their similarity. Of course, this is irrelevant and doesn’t really matter, but I just find the entire ordeal annoying.

Anyway, the story of Zombieland transpires in a post-apocalyptic America, where most of the nation has been “zombie-fied” due to a mutated strain of mad cow disease. Unlike other zombie films of the past, this is an entirely plausible and logical epidemic, which is something I have rarely seen. Our hero is “Columbus” (Jesse Eisenberg), a college student whose name is derived from the town in Ohio that he is traveling to. He’s on his way home. Along the way, he encounters “Tallahassee” (Woody Harrelson), a redneck and certified zombie-killer on his way to Florida, and the two take up as traveling companions. Eventually, they come across “Wichita” (Emma Stone) and her little sister “Little Rock” (Abigail Breslin).

From here, Zombieland becomes little more than your average road movie. The gang finds themselves headed towards Pacific Playland, a zombie-free amusement park on the West Coast. Now, how the park remains so free of the undead is a mystery to me; a mystery that logic will undoubtedly spoil. But that is neither here nor there because while I found particular moments of Zombieland not to my liking, I enjoyed the film as a whole.

My fondest performance came from Woody Harrelson, and it’s definitely one of the best that he’s had in years. (Who knew that it would be in a movie like this?) He can switch from being funny to being emotional to just kicking ass and not once does his acting ever falter. Jesse Eisenberg does a good job as the lead, creating a likable and reasonable character, and Abigail Breslin is her usual self, but I had a hard time with Emma Stone. I suspect that it’s mainly because I find her to be such a cold actress, even though I liked her in Superbad. Here, she’s monotonous and delivers her lines without emotion.

Acting isn’t something that should be relied upon in a movie like Zombieland. It’s more about style and the millions of ways that zombies can be killed and it does a good job in both areas. Ruben Fleischer, the director, is a man unknown to me and I know none of his earlier work, but he contributes a good sense of direction here, especially for a first-timer. Now, while most of the humor and events are premeditated, there are certain elements that are original, both visually and in the script, and let’s not forget — let’s not forget — that hilarious cameo. I can guarantee that that scene will generate the most laughs.

It does end the way that you expected it to, but there is enough room left open for a possible sequel, which would be a definite delight. Zombieland is fun, harmless entertainment, but certainly not for the weak of stomach.

Final rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★)

© 2012 Stephen Earnest