Thursday, September 30, 2010

"Case 39" stylish but too silly

Case 39 (2010) 
109 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C +

What's with studio heads kicking movies to the curb and repeatedly shuffling them around until a delayed release? In the case of "Case 39," it's been waiting patiently on the shelf after being shot in 2006 and now released 4 years later from moldy hibernation. It's not entirely good, but didn't warrant such a long shelf life and being kept a dirty little secret from the world. 

Chipmunk-cheeked Renée Zellweger commits to the role of Emily Jenkins, a good-hearted but overloaded child services worker who takes on the case of a innocent, withdrawn 10-year-old girl, Lily Sullivan (a scarily assured Jodelle Ferland from "Silent Hill"), who's nearly killed by her nutso, abusive folks. Then, even though proclaiming it'd never work, she takes in the little Wednesday Addams. Famous last words Em, as Lily naturally prompts the deaths of everyone around her new guardian. Emily slowly comes to the realization that Lily is the problem, not her parents, and she could have something in common with Damien Thorne.

Didn't we just see the above-average "Orphan"? This unoriginal albeit stylishly well-made “Bad Seed” horror hokum has some decently creepy and shamelessly nasty goodies up its sleeve, until things just get silly and stupid. At some point, Lily stops being fiendish and starts being an annoying brat, repeatedly saying "Why, Emily?" on a loop, demanding ice cream, spinning around and around in Emily's office desk chair, and cutting her dinner peas in half. 

It's entertaining enough and wisely doesn't concern itself with much explanation—Lily is evil and that's that—but German filmmaker Christian Alvart's insistence on cheap scares (A jump-out-of-your-seat alarm clock jolt? Why not?) doesn't help the unintended giggles. One kill scene involving hornets emerging from a character's orifices has potential to be scary, but it's undone by schlocky CGI. Another in a prison delivers a gruesome delight of a punchline involving a fork. And a disturbing, unsettling scene has the little fiend being duct-taped in a kitchen oven by her crazy folks. But other than that, "Case 39" has nothing left in its bag of Devil-child tricks. 

Making a profession out of playing Evil Tykes, Ferland acts circles around most of the adults; her cold stare could stop traffic and her Miss Innocent act sure can frighten Ms. Zellweger. Ian McShane and pre-fame Bradley Cooper ably fill the be-killed spots as Emily's cop friend and colleague-with-benefits, but Callum Keith Rennie and Kerry O'Malley make the real impressions as Lily's dead-eyed parents. 

"Case 39" can be filed as the only movie to have Zellweger screaming her head off and holding onto a kitchen knife for dear life, next to "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation." It's still early in October when all the horror flicks start piling in. "Case 39" is no prize winner for scares, but at least it's a dumb thriller and not a boring one.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Likable actors show their claws in tired "You Again"

You Again (2010) 
105 min., rated PG.

The “mean girl” syndrome carries over to two generations of actresses in "You Again," a tired, contrived, but harmless sitcom-style comedy that we've met before in the shrill "Bride Wars." The always-adorable Kristen Bell plays Marni Olivia Olsen (how her parents didn't catch onto her initials being MOO is beyond anyone, including the screenwriters), an L.A. publicist with painful, zitty, four-eyed memories of her high-school torture. Going home for the wedding of her older brother Will (Jimmy Wolk), Marni discovers—get this—he is marrying Joanna (Odette Yustman), the cattiest cheerleader responsible for ruining her teen years. To top it off, Joanna pretends she doesn't remember going to school with Marni and her last living aunt, spa-hotelier Ramona (Sigourney Weaver), is Marni's mom Gail's (Jamie Lee Curtis) high school “frenemy”! Ripley waging a war with Laurie Strode! Boo yah! And this being one of those movies, no one is over it yet. Get over it! 

Despite the game efforts of such a likable cast, "You Again" works more as a private party for the entire crew. To the audience, it's like a party without an open bar. Curtis and Weaver are over-50 pros and get some fun mileage out of this juvenile material (and spry 88-year-old Betty White adds life as wisecracking Gramma Bunny), even if they deserve a smarter, less ham-fisted script and better direction than what first-time feature writer Moe Jelline and Andy Fickman have done. The most amusing jokes were in the trailer, leaving the actual movie to telegraph its hopelessly obvious and lame gags: Whenever there's a shot of a bowl of pea soup, be prepared for it to get dumped on someone's head. Or when an earring is held above a sink, you bet your ass it's going to fall down the drain and water will drench the actor in their retrieval attempt. Oh, and if two well-dressed characters argue near a pool...good job, you're catching on! 

After all the unfunny cat fights, there are three piano-key Second Chance/Apology Scenes in a row that want to be touching but settle for pat fluff. Kyle Bornheimer gets oddball laughs as Joanna's morose, obsessive ex-fiancee, as does Kristin Chenoweth as an over-the-top (what else?) wedding planner. And how appropriate for a big-screen sitcom that old sitcom stars give cameos, from Reginald VelJohnston (Carl Winslow from Family Matters) to Patrick Duffy (Frank Lambert from Step by Step). The staged cast fight promo for "You Again" has more bite and humor than the movie itself. In fact, it should've just been White's movie as her and Cloris Leachman also get their quick chance to duke it out. 

Grade: C -

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

"House on Haunted Hill" bloody Cheez Whiz

House on Haunted Hill (1999) 
93 min., rated R.
Grade: C +

A blood-soaked rethink of William Castle's amusing 1958 spook-gimmick cheapie, this cheeky ball of Cheez Whiz is more fun than last week's yawn-a-thon "The Haunting," which was dull even with all the effects money could buy. In the less pretentious "House on Haunted Hill," the house in question is a former psychiatric hospital where mad surgeon Dr. Vannacutt (B-movie vet Jeffrey Combs, who completely disappears in the proceedings) performed ugly bodily experiments and all the patients died in a mysterious fire in 1931. 

The feint of a story follows a deliciously hammy Geoffrey Rush as Stephen H. Price (wink wink to Vincent Price), an obnoxious, pencil-mustached amusement park mogul comprising the guest list for his malicious wife's birthday party of five strangers. The house is decked out with scream-inducing pranks by the rascally Price himself, but soon enough it's really, truly haunted. Each of them is bribed with a million dollars if and only they survive the night! 

From the "Evil Dead"-esque, spookily designed opening credits, to a plasma-pouring pencil stabbing, and then a fake roller-coaster freak accident, this diverting junk never takes itself overtly seriously, providing prankish shocks and gross-out giggles from the messy gore and loud CG effects. A particularly creepy moment where a woman sees ghostly nurses and doctors only through a video camera will give you more creeps than anything in "The Haunting." Heavily produced by Joel Silver's Dark Castle production company and William Malone directs with style, but the last seconds of the finale are a letdown, doing its surviving characters no favors or tying up any of the loose ends for us watching. The familiar cast is disposable ghost fodder (Taye Diggs, Ali Larter, Bridgette Wilson, Peter Gallagher), however, a straight-faced Chris Kattan is funny as the former owner's grandson, and Rush and a venomous Famke Janssen as Mrs. Price are having a ball.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

"Devil" wastes great premise

Devil (2010) 
80 min., rated R.
Grade: C

"Devil" makes you wonder what Hitchcock would've done with such a doozy of a campfire-story premise that Rod Serling might've written. “Ten Little Indians” in an elevator: Five strangers (Bojana Novakovic, Jenny O'Hara, Bokeem Woodbine, Geoffrey Arend, Logan Marshall-Green), each with a shady past, get stuck in the elevator of a Philadelphia high-rise office building after someone has committed suicide out of the 35th floor window. Now which one of them is the Devil? 

The first in “The Night Chronicles,” producer M. Night Shyamalan's supposed series of films, "Devil" is a tight 80 minutes, but disappointingly does very little with its idea. John Erick Dowdle's (2008's "Quarantine") direction is confident, his framing helping with the tension and claustrophobia, and long moments of darkness and flickering lights are effective. The dizzying opening credit shots of downtown bridges turned 180 degrees upside down are especially disorienting. But Brian Nelson's screenplay (Shyamalan credited for story) so thinly draws its characters that it's tough for us to care who lives, who dies, and who's Beelzebub. Not to mention the lazy, stupid writing that reveals the devilish culprit, and as for a second story twist about repentance and forgiveness, it's not at all surprising. A superstitious security guard's (Jacob Vargas) unnecessary narration, voicing his vast knowledge of El Diablo, feeds us exposition and only stunts the suspense. (Bet you never knew that dropping your toast, having it land jelly side down, is the work of Satan himself. Ah, the surprise is gone.) 

As for Fernando Velázquez's doom-laden, shut-up-already musical score, every time a loud noise clangs on the soundtrack it's supposed to count as a scare. For a “trapped in an elevator” suspense movie, "Devil" starts off with promise, then just goes down as wasted potential.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

"The Town" solid cops-and-robbers formula

The Town (2010) 
130 min., rated R.

Considering how Hollywood is all about genre films lately, a solidly made piece of genre filmmaking like "The Town" is a treat. In the working-class Boston suburb of Charlestown, Ben Affleck's character Doug MacRay, dreaming of pro-hockey, follows in the same footsteps as his bank robber father (Chris Cooper, making his little screen/jail time count). With his gang of heist men, this is his last score before going clean. The hotheaded Jem (Jeremy Renner) disagrees and wants to do robbery after robbery. After the first heist we see, the thieves take a hostage, bank manager Claire (Rebecca Hall). Doug plans a meeting with Claire at a laundromat and she, not know he's one of her former assailants, gets involved with him romantically. 

Affleck, the director and co-writer, affirms he can bring a tasty, tangible Bostonian flavor and a clean, tense style and finesse to a pretty streamlined cops-and-robbers formula, and cast good actors to a T. And Affleck, the actor, does his best work to date (and nails a convincing accent). "The Town" could've been trimmed up a bit and even more complex in some of its characterizations. But it has colorful characters and standout performances. Hall and Affleck make their unbelievable romance believable and give it texture to this cops-and-robbers yarn. Jeremy Renner is electrifiying as an uneasy, short-fused guy who's got the swagger but doesn't go over-the-top. "Mad Men's" Jon Hamm is on the mark as an FBI guy on the criminals' tails who means business. Blake Lively, though initially overdoing the slutty hooker thing, comes a long way here from her "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" movies playing Doug's trashy ex-girlfriend. Also, Pete Postelthwaite is sinister as a mob kingpin working as a florist. The opening heist is a bang, the score with the nun-mask disguises is memorable, and the climactic heist at Fenway Park, audacious as that sounds, is a knockout. See, genre movies don't always have to be stale and clichéd.

Grade: B +

Friday, September 17, 2010

"Going the Distance" does just that, surprisingly

Going the Distance (2010)
109 min., rated R.
Grade: B +

"Going the Distance" confirms the fact that the romantic-comedy genre still has a little life yet. In fact, it's more honest than most in a timely rececession-era world with two smart, funny people that talk like real people and deal with real people problems. Erin (Drew Barrymore), who's 31, is wrapping up her summer internship at “The New York Sentinel” and would love a permanent position there. Garrett (Justin Long) works for a small N.Y. record label but isn't satisfied with the bands he has to represent. The two thirtysomethings meet cute at a bar over their bond of the videogame “Centipede,” get drunk and hook up, but want something more by morning. Six blissful week later, and about to move to the West Coast to finish grad school, Erin agrees to a long-distance relationship with Garrett. They want to keep it light and disease-free, but they become horny, jealous, and frustrated. 

Sweet but never sentimental, "Going the Distance" is kept in check by some raunchy stuff (sexual, not scatological, if you were wondering). There is some standard rom-com conflict in place, and a trip to the airport that occurs in the first half, but it all goes in a more authentic and understated direction. None of those artificial break-ups or bets exist here. There's even a sex-on-the-kitchen-table gag that doesn't go for the obvious gross-out. Doc filmmaker Nanette Burstein makes her first fiction debut, working from Geoff LaTulippe's first script, which is light and often witty and made even wittier by the cast's delivery. 

Barrymore is her lovable self but is refreshingly liberated and spiky, delivering much of the delightful raunch (uncensored conversations about oral sex and dry humping), and Long is still that likable boyish-puppy Mac Guy. The couple has an easy, real chemistry (much like Barrymore has shared with Adam Sandler and Jimmy Fallon) and it probably doesn't hurt that these two actually dated in real life. And by the end, we're pulling for Erin and Garrett to stay together, which may be predictable, but isn't that integral in the genre? Christina Applegate is comically endowed like a tack as Erin's uptight sister; Jim Gaffigan is a hoot as her husband; and Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day alternate between funny and annoying as Garrett's slovenly best dude friends who, respectively, has a mustache to attract older women and dee-jays Garrett's hookups. 

"Going the Distance" may not go all the way, but it's not pedestrian or forgettable like "Leap Year," "The Back-up Plan," or "The Bounty Hunter," so you could call it a genre saver. 

Sharp, funny "Easy A" has more wit than standard

Easy A (2010)
93 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: A -

Don't judge a book by its cover. A sharp-witted, engaging, very funny high school comedy like "Easy A" easily boasts a higher mark than the standard teen-comedy piffle. To go further, it belongs next to similarly smart entries like "Heathers," "Election," "Mean Girls," and "Juno." The film's dark horse success almost completely lies on the shoulders of Emma Stone, and this is her official coming-out showcase. The kid's got spunk, a go-for-it-goofiness, and she makes raspy voices appealing. 

Stone is adorably winning and self-deprecating with a sure sense of timing and charm as Olive Penderghast, a smart, articulate, clean-cut (but not stereotypically geeky) California 17-year-old that, in her words, if she was a 10-story building, Google Earth wouldn't even notice her. Of course, that social invisibility changes when a little “confessed” lie to her gossipy BFF (a bubbly Aly Michalka) about having a one-night stand with a college guy (she actually stayed home all weekend) spreads around the school like wildfire. Tuh-duh, Olive's reputation is easy tramp. But when closet-case friend Brandon (Dan Byrd) wants to pretend to be straight to survive high school, he makes a deal to perform a fake public sexcapade. While studying The Scarlet Letter in class, Olive decides to emulate adulturess Hester Prynne by continuing to play it up as a high-priced trollop (complete with a red A embroided on her slinky outfits) to do non-sexual favors for geeky virgins with gift cards in return, but Olive learns popularity and financial gain is never worth it. 

"Easy A" does for The Scarlet Letter what "Clueless" did for Jane Austen's Emma, amusingly satirizing Nathaniel Hawthorne's book (and the awful Demi Moore movie). Credit must also go to Bert V. Royal's whip-smart script and Will Gluck's driving direction that pay affectionate tribute to John Hughes in overt but entertaining nods from '80s song covers, “Don't You (Forget About Me)” as well as “We Go Together” from "Grease," to a “musical number for no apparent reason” to finally the "Say Anthing"/"Can't Buy Me Love" finale with Olive's love interest (a too-old Penn Badgley). 

The supporting cast is also irresistible. Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci are hilariously endearing as Olive's eccentric but very easygoing parents. Thomas Haden Church and Lisa Kudrow, as an English teacher and his guidance counselor wife, make every line count. Also, Amanda Bynes leaves an amusingly nasty and not fully one-note impression much like Mandy Moore in Saved! as Bible-thumping mean girl Marianne, but looks like a spray-tanned chipmunk. 

Only does it try to accomplish more than it really had to in a curve-ball subplot, but without detracting from the film, Royal writes off the cliché and the dialogue is snappily acerbic without losing believability. For a knowing and enjoyable comedy, a teen comedy at that, "Easy A" stands out as one of the betters and proves that maybe redheads, like Stone, Lucille Ball, and Debra Messing, are the ones having more fun.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

"Never Let Me Go" profoundly sad and graceful

Never Let Me Go (2010) 
103 min., rated R.
Grade: B +

Profoundly sad and thoughtful in only the way an oxymoron film can be, "Never Let Me Go" is a haunting, gracefully made piece of romantic science fiction that Merchant-Ivory might as well have made. Since the youthful days at their English boarding school Hailsham in the late 1970s—actually since birth—Kathy H (Carey Mulligan), Ruth (Keira Knightley), and Tommy D (Andrew Garfield) already have their lives dictated for them. Rather than growing up, going to America, and getting a job, their fates are donating their vital organs in their young adult lives. 

Director Mark Romanek (2002's "One Hour Photo") and screenwriter Alex Garland command this rendering of Kazuo Ishiguro's 2005 novel with a visually melancholy poetry and seductive storytelling without being overly lugubrious. One wishes, as the logical nitpick is hard to overlook, that the characters (or hell, anyone of the child clones) would attempt to rage against the machine, but rather, they're passive children separated from the real world. One subtly witty scene has the trio having trouble ordering at a cafe since the world is such a mystery to them. The performances make this story urgent whereas the direction is more patient and meditative, although it is beautifully crafted and lushly photographed. And Rachel Portman's score perfectly mirrors the drama happening onscreen without being too aggressively maudlin. 

At the heart and soul of the film, Mulligan is lovely and expressive with her glances as always, essaying a heartbreaking anguish as Kathy. Garfield is impressive, also donning a Brit accent, as Tommy, who clings to his youthful innocence. Knightley is alluringly cruel but not two-dimensional as the jealous Ruth. Their child counterparts (Isobel Meikle-Small, Charlie Rowe, and Ella Purnell) are natural and terrificially cast. Sally Hawkins makes a wonderful impression, however brief, as Miss Lucy, the school's only sympathetic teacher to tell her students the truth of their created existence.

The conceit is science fiction, with words like “carer,” “donor,” and “completion” becoming part of its alternate reality, but "Never Let Me Go" is a classic romantic tragedy to its name and at its core. It's also a depressing experience, so know that your sole purpose at the film's end is to have your heart broken, but well worth the emotional investment.

"Machete" carves up bloody, hilarious fun

Machete (2010)
105 min., rated R.

Spinning off his brilliant mock trailer (“They just fucked with the wrong Mexican!”) created for 2007 double-feature schlock-palooza "Grindhouse," Robert Rodriguez mans his feature-length "Machete" with cousin Alvaro Maniquis. Machete (pronounced “ma-chet-ay”) is like the real grindhouse pulp he parodied, but done with such infectious spirit and loving skill that it's witty, gleefully violent, knowingly tawdry fun. 

Danny Trejo, the go-to Mexican, has such a craggy, scarred, hard-living face like Mickey Rourke and unsmiling gusto (“Machete don't text”) as the machete-wielding Machete that he makes badassery awesome. Three years ago, Machete was a federale that watched his wife get slaughtered by a Mexican kingpin (Steven Seagal with, yes, a Mexican accent and an Eddie Munster haircut). Now, he works as a day laborer on the Texan border, and hired by a shady political aide (Jeff Fahey) to assassinate a U.S. Senator (an amusingly hammy Robert De Niro), who's advocating against Mexican immigrants, but he's set up as a patsy, naturally. Being the warrior that he is, Machete goes on a rampage, with the help from a sexy immigration officer (Jessica Alba, who still can't act her out way out of a wet paper bag) and a taco-stand-vendor-by-day and underground revolutionary leader known as 'She' (Michelle Rodriguez who's getting better at lessening the scowling). 

Two-man-show Rodriguez and Maniquis go hog-wild with "Machete," exploding with blood splatter, explosions, gratuitous boob-baring, cheesy '70s music, and a gritty drive-in look not as ultra-aged as its trailer predecessor. Plus you've never seen the uproariously over-the-top way a man's intestine can be used until here. Everyone in the great, eclectic cast is placed to perfection, including re-introduced Don Johnson as a border vigilante, pre-slammer Lindsay Lohan as Fahey's drugged-up web-porn daughter who gets to don a nun's habit (how's that for typecasting?), and Cheech Marin who's a real hoot as Machete's gun-toting padre partner. 

"Machete" may be too much for one B movie, the political message is ham-fisted, and it all starts to wear itself out before the grande showdown. But although not suited for the easily offended or the humorless, if you're up for a cartoonishly bloody exploitation throwback such as this, you won't be able to resist a sense of giddiness when the kitschy final graphics come up and we're promised coming attractions: "Machete Kills" and "Machete Kills Again!" 

Grade: B +

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

"Catfish" really hooks us, despite deceptive hype

Catfish (2010)
86 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: A -

The first rule of "Catfish" is – you do not talk about "Catfish." The marketing campaign of this timely, fascinating, thought-provoking documentary is so deceptively savvy that it's going to mislead and probably disappoint those hoping for a backwoods bloodbath. Based on the open-ended trailer and spoiler-free hype (“Don't let anyone tell you what it is.”), you don't know what to expect, but it's not another "Paranormal Activity" or a “Hitchcock-had-it-been-directed-by-Hitchcock” thriller (as has falsely categorized it as), so let's review it for what it is rather than bash it for what it isn't. 

Yaniv (or Nev) Schulman is a 24-year-old photographer living in New York City. He strikes up an innocuous, long-distance friendship with 8-year-old Abby, who saw one of his photographs in her local Michigan paper, made a painting of it and had her mom, Angela, ship it to him. Soon a Facebook and phone relationship develops not only with Angela and Abby but also with Abby's older half-sister, Megan, a gorgeous, multi-talented model type. This Facebook family keeps sending Nev packages of paintings, as his brother Ariel and their friend Henry Joost keep shooting it for a movie. He's so flattered by the attention and becomes so interested in the family and Megan, especially, that he decides to make a road trip—with his brother and buddy and camera—to see her. Spoiling more would be criminal. 

Shot on consumer-grade video, "Catfish" hooks us from the start; it's very funny and helps that Nev is such an interesting, good-looking guy with a bright, ready smile that we can't help watch to see where this experiment of gullibility and pitying goes. This riveting film turns out to really ramp up the suspense, uneasiess, and mystery as we keep holding our breath and have no idea where it's going to go, especially when it becomes a rather creepy but heartbreaking and hopeful story and a food-for-thought cautionary tale for our times of Facebook profiles, Google Maps, and cell phones. Ignore the publicity and run, don't walk, to see "Catfish." 

Monday, September 13, 2010

"The Expendables" more like The Disposables

The Expendables (2010) 

103 min., rated R.

Going into a movie called "The Expendables" that has co-writer and director Sylvester Stallone assembling a team of inglorious bastards from his stoic, athletically built tough-guy roster, it sounds like manly theory. This meathead blowout coulda been a contenda, but the title is a tipoff: it's truly expendable. Stallone plays Barney Ross, the leader, and his mercenaries are hothead knife expert Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), a martial arts master (Jet Li), a weapon specialist (Terry Crews), demolitions man (Randy Couture), and sharp-shooter (Dolph Lundgren, Stallone's "Rocky IV" Russian nemesis). Brought together, their latest mission sends them to a South American island to save a general's freedom-fighting daughter. Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme must have declined, but wrestler “Stone Cold” Steve Austin plays a henchman, and Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger (though misled for top-billing) turn in amusing cameos. 

Wasting no time with character or coherent plot, "The Expendables" sure does expend all things brawny, brainless, and bloody, with fire-ball explosions and violent, insanely over-the-top brawlings. But the jokey sense of humor gets obliterated by self-seriousness and jackhammer-edited action that rarely lets a shot last more than 2 seconds. Stallone's style has a certain '80s throwback appeal, from the likes "Commando" and "Cobra," but he goes more for grit than slickness and the incoherent editing makes "The A-Team" look still and seamless where you can barely tell who's being shot at. The battered, muscley Stallone is 64, but admirably doesn't look it. Eric Roberts embraces his scenery-chewing bad guy (in a suit!). And Mickey Rourke gives the most restrained performance of them all, mouthing some profound words as tattoo artist Tool. 

"The Expendables" has some junky fun but should've been more fun than it is, with less boredom and laziness. When Thin Lizzy's “The Boys Are Back in Town” rocks on, you feel like the “boys” should've been given a better vehicle. 


Saturday, September 11, 2010

"Virginity Hit" more smarmy than funny

The Virginity Hit (2010) 
86 min., rated R.
Grade: C -

The inscrutable popularity of the YouTube video, “2 Girls, 1 cup,” was a disgusting curiosity of exhibitionism. "The Virginity Hit" is a “4 guys, 1 camera” or “The 17-year-old Virgin,” less graphic and a tad less disgusting, but what a voyeuristic experience this is. Written and directed by Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland (who made some shorts before writing last month's "The Last Exorcism"), with Will Ferrell and Adam McKay getting producing credit, this prankish, unfiltered, hit-and-miss horndog-fantasy mockumentary pits four high school pals against their own virginity. 

After making a pact, all of the hormonal buddies from New Orleans, Zack, Jacob, and Justin have (unbelievably) gotten laid except the last in their circle, Zack's adopted brother, the gawky, stiff (no pun intended) Matt, and make it their goal to get him deflowered. As film major Zack says, “I'm gonna do to your virginity what Alfred Hitchcock did to birds.” He's been with his hottie girlfriend Nicole for 2 years, and plans to lose his virginity with her, but then he hears a rumor that she's cheated on him with a frat dude. If she cheats, is it warranted to get even by videotaping their first sexcapade in a hotel with all of his friends listening from the other room? Whatever, he does it, breaks up with Nicole, and he goes on a quest to lose his V-card. A sexually uninhibited 25-year-old stranger posts online, offering herself to Matt's cause to be his first and promises he won't regret it. Their actual scene together is cringe-inducing, but there's a surprise twist. On a road trip, Matt gets drunk and nearly hooks up with his adoptive sister, Krysta, but it's not-by-blood incest. Then his buddies try hooking Matt up with his favorite actress, porn star Sunny Leone. 

With "The Virginity Hit," there is more of a believability factor to the conceit of keeping the camera rolling. Why? Because no alien is destroying a city and nobody's tracking a witch in the woods. The getting-to-know-them section for the first 20 minutes makes these people likable and relatable at first, but then they become charmless, obnoxious, and self-humiliating duds. Everyone keeps their real first names and the not-really-actors get the chance to do some improv. If Michael Cera and Andy Samberg made a baby somehow (but hopefully don't), Matt Bennett would be the product. Subplots with Matt's now-deceased Cancer-stricken mother and his drug-addicted deadbeat father ground the movie a bit but feel queasy against all the sex stuff. 

Even with the amateurish, do-it-yourself aesthetics, "The Virginity Hit" is still a smarmy, brain-dead YouTube riff on "American Pie" and "Superbad" that gets its kicks out of jokes involving diarrhea and shaving pubic hair.

Friday, September 10, 2010

18-year-olds might lap up juvenile "Miss March"; Lowbrow "College" fails out

Miss March (2009) 
90 min., rated R.
Grade: D 

Creators of the cult TV series “The Whitest Kids U' Know,” Zach Cregger and Trevor Moore, star, write, and direct their first feature-length film "Miss March" . . . and it's the Unfunniest Comedy U' Know, this year so far that is. Cregger plays high school senior Eugene who practices abstinence—and even teaches it to elementary school kids—with his gorgeous but modest girlfriend Cindi (Raquel Alessi, remaining a cipher most of the movie) but promises to lose his V-card on prom night. But before he can seal the deal, Eugene slips into a coma for four years. Waking up (with no control of his sphincter), he realizes his sweetheart Cindi is now a Playboy centerfold for the month of, yes you guessed it, March. What do you know, the upcoming Saturday is the same day as Playboy's Annual Anniversary Bash, so Eugene and his always-horny childhood buddy Tucker (Trevor Moore) road trip it. An unnecessary, mean-spirited horror-movie subplot involves Tucker's epileptic girlfriend (Molly Stanton), her fireman brother, and his men on the guys' tail after Tucker stabs said girlfriend when she has a seizure while giving him oral sex (!). 

This juvenile, raunchy horndog sex-comedy suffers from annoying male leads and an overall determination to be crude to an appalling, misogynistic degree, making this thing pretty much a dog. Speaking of, there's one icky gag with drinking dog urine. You may find two cheap snickers at the most, but this is the kind of movie where the filmmakers didn't think one literal bowel obstruction joke was enough, as three make the tally. 

Cregger is uncharismatic as Eugene, and Moore does an insufferable imitation of Matthew Lillard and Jim Carrey's Ace Ventura, mugging and wearing an open Hawaiian button-down. The T&A factor is surprisingly low for a crude comedy with Playboy on the brain, until the final ten minutes at Hugh Hefner's mansion, who by the way gives an extended cameo. Craig Robinson's exaggerated rap artist, Horsedick.MPG, is in particular poor taste, as he rocks a party bus full of black hoes and then flashes his mangina. 18-year-olds and frat guys will be easily amused by "Miss March," but not anyone else.  

College (2008) 
94 min., rated R.
Grade: D

You don't have to clear a 1000 on your SATs to know that "College" is a dim dud. Drake Bell, a far departure from his Nickelodeon show “Drake & Josh,” is Kevin, a straight-arrow high school senior who is just dumped by his girlfriend. So he and his two pals—geeky Morris (Kevin Covais) and slovenly Carter (Andrew Caldwell)—take a road trip to Fieldmont University (ha ha, F.U., get it?!) to experience the wild college parties. Rejecting the dorm room of a chronic masturbator as home for their visit, they get into a frat house, only to be hazed the whole weekend. 

This lowbrow, all too typical teen comedy seems carved straight from the "Superbad" mold (the friends even get fake IDs!) mixed with Animal House and is as uninspired as its own title. Stacked with girls-gone-wild bare breasts, gross-out bathroom humor, and homophobic jokes galore, "College" may suit the college crowd whom it was made for, just not anyone else. The pledge pranks are just gross and so funny you'll forget to laugh (i.e. taking shots off a hairy frat brother's chest and swallowing liquor sliding down his ass crack); the characters are crude and unappealing that you wouldn't want to have a beer with them, particularly Caldwell, who's some sort of junior Chris Farley. 

However, if anything, freshman director Deb Hagan refreshingly makes the girls sweet and intelligent, not simpleminded fun-bag bimbos. Verne Troyer wastes his time giving a namedropping cameo as himself. "College" is like frat hazing to the audience. 

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Dark, twisted "Observe and Report" has some laughs

Observe and Report (2009) 
86 min., rated R.
Grade: C +

"Observe and Report," a wildly twisted, occasionally funny but uneven charcoal-black comedy, would probably be the result if Quentin Tarantino wrote and directed "Paul Blart: Mall Cop." Think in the vein of 2003's hilariously nasty but surprisingly human "Bad Santa," 1983's "The King of Comedy," and 1976's "Taxi Driver." Like Paul Blart, Seth Rogen is a mall security guard who takes his job way too seriously, wants to be a police officer, and has the hots for a mall clerk. And that is where the surface similarities of that benign PG-rated movie and the dark, proudly perverse "Observe and Report" meet a distinct end. 

The All-American Teddy Bear as of late, otherwise known as Seth Rogen, plays Ronnie Barnhard, head of security at the Forest Ridge Mall who's a borderline sociopath with bipolar disorder, making him delusional and quite the a-hole. But he lusts after dippy, collagen-lipped cosmetics consultant Brandi, played by the brilliant Anna Faris. So when a heavyset flasher “terrorizes” the parking lots of Forest Ridge and exposes himself to Brandi, wannabe cop Ronnie becomes a hysterically shocked Brandi's knight in shining armor, using it as a way to her heart. When a smug cop (a suitably oily Ray Liotta) comes in to assist, Ronnie tries to prove he'll catch the perve, even if he won't pass the psychological testing to be a cop. 

Writer-director Jody Hill (of 2006's "The Foot Fist Way" with Danny McBride) sure gets brownie points for giving his film a subversive edge and mean streak, and having the guts to not play it so safe for a mainstream release. That being said, it definitely earns its R rating, but may leave some with a bad aftertaste. The first half has the right balance of funny and salty, but as the movie progresses, we realize the movie itself has a bipolar disorder, confused on when to be funny and when to be unpleasant and uncomfortable, and Ronnie's condition is no longer humorous but sad and pathetic. 

Rogen somehow makes Ronnie a vulernable but disturbed and dislikable fellow, shedding his lovable stoner schlubbiness from "Knocked Up," "Superbad," and "Pineapple Express." So hey, he's trying something new at least (take note Michael Cera). As Brandi, Anna Faris nearly hijacks the whole thing, valiantly playing skanky dimwittedness for all it's worth. She's a pro at playing characters like Brandi, bravely going so far in her dinner date with Ronnie when taking umpteen tequila shots and the whole bottle of his medication, only to end in a date rape. Collette Wolfe is unassumingly sweet and heartbreaking as Nell, the picked-upon coffee shop clerk with a handicapped leg who takes a liking to Ronnie while everyone else calls him a “retard.” Celia Weston is hilarious as Ronnie's blunt-spoken, fall-down-drunk mother, who gives her son advice with a touching, boozed-up honesty. 

An extreme montage, with Ronnie and his right-wing man (a lisping Michael Peña) snorting coke, beating the crap out of teenage skateboarders, injecting heroin, and other radical things, comes out of nowhere. The bone-crunching violence is jarring and brutal for a comedy, even as dark as this one, and the ballsy climax goes all the way, showing the flasher (Hill's very, very game pal Randy Gambill) in all his glory that will put the frontal nudity in "Borat" and "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" to shame (oh, they go there). If you dig your steak and your comedy burnt to a crisp, then the screwy, oh-so-wrong "Observe and Report" will be your bag. 

Overlong, uneven "Pineapple Express" only has a few laughs

Pineapple Express (2008) 
110 min., rated R.
Grade: C

The likable Seth Rogen does a riff on his slacker/schlub from "Knocked Up" in "Pineapple Express" as Dale Denton, a 25-year-old process server who frequently lights up a doobie in between assignments and is dating a high school girl (Amber Heard). One day, after accepting a sample of a very rare, potent weed called "Pineapple Express" from his spacey pot dealer Saul (James Franco, who gets to showcase notable comedy chops), Dale later drops the roach in a panic when he witnesses a drug mogul (Gary Cole) and a dirty cop (Rosie Perez) murder an assassin sent by rival Chinese dealers; this leads to Cole's henchmen going after this unconventional Cheech and Chong pair. 

This raucous but uneven and self-indulgent hybrid of violent action and stoner comedy is a big disappointment from the Judd Apatow Comedy Express, as it should have been funnier and more fun. But maybe that's because not all moviegoers will choose to view it under the influence of maryjane or some varying altered state, since Dale and Saul rarely have a clear-headed moment themselves. In a change of pace from indie arthouse to mainstream studio pictures, director David Gordon Green's characteristically shows strength in the character-driven moments rather than the action. The script (written by "Superbad" writers Evan Goldberg and co-star Rogen) has some sharply amusing dialogue that's more or less much ado about nothing, but some scenes are done in by dull, talky stretches. In one especially funny sequence, however, our stoned heroes end up in a wild car chase, with Saul driving a cop car (and Dale in the backseat), then kicking his foot through the windshield, only for it to get stuck. 

Too bad the film suffers from unnecessary overlength—it's a stoner comedy, not "Lawrence of Arabia"—and subplots that don't lead anywhere (i.e. Rogen's young girlfriend who's told to stay at a hotel with her family, for she may be in danger, is never put into the action or heard from again). If anything, Rogen and Franco reprise the natural, easygoing chemistry they shared on TV's “Freaks and Geeks”; there are some stray amusing tidbits, including a black-and-white prologue with Bill Hader on how the joint came to be and the stuff with Saul's middleman Red, played by lunatic Danny McBride. 

Pass this joint, but don't smoke it because "Pineapple Express" is strictly for tokers: it's like going to a party sober where everyone else is trashed and laughing their asses off to Kingdom Come and you're not.