Nov 29, 2009

The Hangover (2009): C

The Hangover is a cheat, and not just because it's the latest, altogether lousy production to take the box office by unprecedented storm (already enough to reserve its status as one of the great overrated comedies of our era, and rest assured, this thing will only become more ungainly on DVD). Even viewed apart from its sterling reception, its disappointment stems from an inability to ever fully take off, like a airplane bolted to the runway. An amusing set-up - in which three friends (Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis) find themselves in the Nevada desert the morning after a bachelor party gone awry with the soon-to-be-married guest of honor nowhere to be found - ultimately goes all sorts of nowhere, the screenplay an overly and obviously scattershot attempt to cover as many broad humor bases as possible and one whose attempts at randomness instead bear the comparable spontaneity of a deliberately dropped anvil. With it, Todd Phillips cements his status as perhaps the most lethargically unironic comedy filmmaker working today (only the cheeky, self-reflexive Road Trip seems worth watching outside the walls of an alcohol-flooded frat house). Despite a few instances of legitimate comedic shock value (the end credits photo montage is an easy high water mark, albeit one that comes far too little too late), The Hangover stinks of committee production values; that the preview for the film is infinitely better than the final work says as much. Worse than its paint-by-numbers execution, however, is its total lack of empathy. Exclusively defining its characters via their non-femininity and non-homosexuality, the lack of scrutiny or definition given to their behavior slowly drowns the proceedings in a sludge of astonishingly obnoxious self-righteousness. You might call these guys flamingly straight, but you'd be just as well off saying they're unrepentant dicks. In a world with Superbad and I Love You, Man, The Hangover's witless regression is unforgivable.

Nov 25, 2009

The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009): C

Seemingly intent on pleasing even those members of the audience who would otherwise be offended by its implicit lampooning of the American military complex, trademark wartime idiocy and all comparable areas of interest, The Men Who Stare At Goats comes to us as the latest political satire to have inadvertently sliced off its own pair. Concerning a military unit (the "New Army") developed post-Vietnam with the intention of creating psychic-enabled super-soldiers (referred to as Jedi Warriors, thus making the very decision to cast Ewan McGregor as the surrogate straight man some kind of desperate joke), the film follows McGregor's Bob Wilton as he decides to take his journalism career to Iraq during the dawn of the War on Terror, hoping to salvage his ego in the midst of an impromptu marital incineration. Fate, it would seem, brings him to Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a New Army veteran traveling to Iraq for his own, often misleading, purposes. What follows is part road movie comedy, part new age existentialism with a forcibly ponderous tone that strikes all the wrong notes (the opening credits assure us that "more of this is true than you would believe", but even this seems less intent on actual enlightenment via humor than a mere conditioner for the detached, altogether "safe" black comedy to follow). A bit of research on the original book - unread by myself - suggests that whatever changes were made en route to the screen were surely for the worse. Either way, one must stand in a sort of awe at the skill it must have taken to waste the talents of Clooney, McGregor, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey in the same film, let alone the same scene.

Nov 24, 2009

Law Abiding Citizen (2009): C-

While preferably to the typical Saw entry by about a five-to-one ratio, Law Abiding Citizen still isn't any good. Drab and borderline lethargic from virtually any cinematic standpoint (only the climactic image, which involves a character in a locked cell, offers something in the way of lyrical creativity), the most fascinating aspect of this modest train wreck is that anyone decided to give so embarrassingly nonsensical a script the green light. At the outset, Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) is the titular character: a loving husband and father who, after the tragic murder of his family, can only find comfort in the thought that the guilty will receive their due punishment at the hands of the state. Alas, when D.A. Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) strikes a deal with the assailant in exchange for testimony on a much bigger fish, Shelton snaps and spends the next handful of years planning his revenge. So commences a string of murders beginning with the systematic torture and dismemberment of the sicko who killed Shelton's family, the intended and heavy-handed lesson being that the constitutional rights of known (but not convicted) killers should be seen as subservient to the lives of the innocent still in harm's way, with Shelton ultimately offering himself up for theoretical sacrifice in something of an inversion to Seven's harrowing climax. Even without taking into consideration the relatively black and white outlook on justice herein, Law Abiding Citizen is about the last argument one would want to seriously represent such a cause; as a moral thesis, it amounts to little more than heavy-lifting lip service, while the flaunting of so much purported violence (Shelton sends a videotape of the aforementioned dismemberment to Rice's home, etc.) confirms the film's interest in physical brutality over moral scrutiny. Seemingly able to orchestrate violent events from behind bars in a blatant manipulation of the legal system (made only to subsequently call out its flaws), Shelton's serpentine plot against the government is only sparsely made believable; at least Christopher Nolan's Joker seemed capable of pulling all the strings necessary to put the squeeze on an entire city, even if the particulars were never laid out in the open. As braindead entertainment, Citizen proves to be camp of the inadvertent kind; as philosophy, it's pure mistrial.

Nov 23, 2009

Surrogates (2009): A-

Star Trek might be the year's sci-fi rage, and while a fine space opera it may be, that it holds the upper hand amidst the competition only highlights how the exquisite work of Jonothan Mostow seems fated to go unappreciated in its time. With the WWII fable U-571 the only blemish on his resume (and that particular film's only flaw being the fact that it isn't great), his genre craftsmanship - while never as rapturously perfect as his predecessors (John Carpenter, James Cameron, Blade Runner-era Ridley Scott) - is nevertheless far and away from the typical studio worker. Surrogates joins Spielberg's sci-fi contributions and Michael Winterbottom's Code 46 as one of the defining dystopic visions of the decade, eschewing special effects glamour for a well-worn world in which the decidedly alien is an accepted given. The deliberate banality employed in the presentation of progressive robotic technologies renders the scenario with exponentially greater moral scrutiny and, concurrently, a creepy disconnection from human reality. As unfolds via an opening newsreel montage, the near future holds for us the development and mass social acceptance of surrogates: synthetic, humanoid robots used by the populace for their daily goings-on while their living flesh-and-blood selves pilot them from home; small groups of naturalist humans have quartered themselves off from the larger world and maintain an uneasy peace treaty (the plot centers around a terrorist weapon capable of destroying a surrogate in such a way that the host, too, is terminated; unlike those plugged into The Matrix, these things are supposed to be safeguarded here). Mostow's big budget B-movie draws exquisite everyman performances from the cast (in addition to eerie, necessarily artless performances as their characters' respective surrogates); Bruce Willis, as a cop not entirely unlike Blade Runner's Harrison Ford, is as flesh-and-blood empathetic as any role he's helmed since Die Hard. Scaled as if to suggest a budget even smaller than the actual, Surrogates seems less like a 21st Century would-be blockbuster than a lost 80's relic only just rediscovered. Either way, we're lucky to have it.