Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: The Campaign

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The Campaign is probably Will Ferrell’s funniest movie in quite a while. Can’t say the same for Zach Galafianakis, but that’s because the first Hangover was pretty great. But otherwise it seems like his talents haven’t been as well used as they could. Jay Roach’s last film in theaters was the mediocre Dinner for Schmucks, surrounded by a couple of HBO movies, and before that it was Meet the Fockers. So we can say that it’s an improvement for a few of the folks involved.

I’ve skimmed some criticism from my peers and betters and have found that the reason a number of critics didn’t like this film is because they wanted it to be political commentary instead of a commentary on politics, which is what it is. Personally, I’m perfectly fine with this as, instead of trying to make political points, it’s using that energy to tell a story of two characters attempting to reach the same goal for two very different reasons and doing so at nearly any cost.

Ferrell is echoing his SNL portrayal of George W. Bush, with a big chunk of John Edwards thrown in for sleaze factor. (Hard to believe how close that guy came to the White House.) Ferrell’s Bush was always more of a character than an imitation, so it makes sense that his film character, Cam Brady, a four-time incumbent North Carolina Democrat congressman, can share so many traits while seeming somewhat original. His unhinged southerner cuts loose in a purely sociopathic way. He has tasted power and now he truly believes that nothing he does is wrong and that nothing is his fault. The fact that he’s been mentioned on a shortlist of vice-presidential candidates has only made it worse.

Galifianakis, meanwhile, dips into the effeminate weirdo that he has often channeled in his stage act (which he says is his brother) and in Todd Phillips’ moderately funny Due Date. He plays Marty Huggins, the misfit son of a powerful political strategist (the mighty Brian Cox). He runs an unsuccessful tourism office for a city with little to offer tourists, but he is darned enthusiastic about his job and his life. He is tapped by The Motch Brothers, played by Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow in a mode that is obviously channeling the Dukes from Aykroyd’s 80s classic Trading Places, to run against the formally unopposed Brady on the Republican ticket.

With his equally weird family and two slobbering pugs in tow, his campaign begins to pick up steam under the guidance of a rather intense Dylan McDermott, the Motch’s kingmaker. The brothers pull out all the stops since they figure Huggins is a dope they can keep in their pocket to get around labor violations.

Instead of pussy-footing around to get a PG-13, The Campaign is gleefully R-rated in the best way. Frequent (and creative) uses of foul language permeate the film while it’s punctuated with nudity, some of which you will wish you hadn’t seen. It helps mark a difference between this film and the juvenile dancing around the ratings board that Roach performed in the Austin Powers sequels.

The two leads smash into each other in a great way, with each new confrontation upping the stakes to delirious heights, mocking all of modern politics’ absurdities and a great many recent scandals. “Gotcha” ads, ridiculous debate logic, sex scandals, PACs, political favors, grooming candidates based on market testing, and even the Cheney shooting are pulled in as the contest becomes more and more ridiculous. If it wasn’t abundantly clear how annoying and stupid the “I approve this message” tag at the end of every political ad was before, it certainly will be when you’ve seen Ferrell do it naked on a bearskin rug.

By concentrating on the characters and the process instead of trying to make a political point with a sledgehammer, the film successfully manages to keep the comedy focused and continuous, even during the inevitable saccharine finale. Seriously, you just know it’s coming. It just can’t avoid it. But at least it doesn’t linger too long.

In the meantime, you’re treated to a couple of actors doing a great job of improvising off each other and a lot of talented people in small roles. Jack MacBrayer, Jason Sudeikis and a lot of other folks get their chance to shine.

This is one election I would hate to vote in, but it was a pleasure to watch. It made me laugh and that helps it overcome any of its minor shortcomings.

(Three and a half damns out of five)

Kent’s Damned Move Reviews: Oz the Great and Powerful

F5. Finger of God

After all the trailers, it was obvious that Disney was trying to sell Sam Raimi’s Oz: The Great and Powerful as the second coming of Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Thankfully, that’s not entirely the case.

Firstly, Oz actually lends itself more to this kind of thing. When the hero’s journey was grafted onto Alice, it felt out of place because Lewis Carroll’s novels are dreamlike and episodic. They flit from one fancy to the next, never worrying about plot or theme, but only caring about fun and cleverness. The Oz books, however, are more about the journey and when you slap the fact that the original film version was very much that type of film, it makes much more sense to go back to that well. It’s also a prequel that sort of makes sense; I mean, how did that guy get to be the “Wizard of Oz” when he’s just a dude behind a curtain? Wouldn’t someone have noticed?

Admittedly, I’m not the ideal candidate to review this film because I hate the Judy Garland film. Haaaaaate it. H-A-T-E. Hated it as a kid and never wanted to go back for another go as an adult. However, if only from growing up in Kansas and having popular culture (and a lot of Californians, if no one else) shove it down my poor throat, I’ve kept a lot of it through simple osmosis. What Raimi’s done here, whether the film is successful as a whole or not, is commendable and should be a pleasure for fans as he’s managed to capture a lot of the spirit and aesthetic of that experience while managing to neatly side-step the toes of MGM. (Disney may have the rights to much of Oz, but not to the original film.) The music by Danny Elfman adds to the film, even though it sounds so much like generic Elfman that the main theme that echoes seems only a few notes shy of being the Jack and Sally theme from Nightmare Before Christmas.

After one of the better opening credits sequences I’ve seen in a while, the film settles in to an Academy ratio screen (think your old TV set) in glorious black and white. It’s turn of the century Kansas and Oz (James Franco) is a carnival magician. And for a carnival magician, he’s pretty good. He manages to incorporate people’s expectations into his act in order to make things even more “magical.” But apparently, his audience is made up of morons that aren’t familiar with the concept of stage magic and want him to become a revival preacher that can heal the sick. It’s a little tough to swallow and feels like kind of a misstep, though thematically it makes sense later in the picture. To escape a beating, Oz (aka Osbourne) takes off in his hot air balloon and winds up swallowed by a tornado. It’s this point that I was actually wishing I’d been able to see the film in 3D since the sequence is full of tricks that look like they’d be fun and Raimi is the kind of showman kook to throw them in there because they’re fun.

As he is spit-up by the tornado, he finds himself exactly where you’d expect to find him, the land of Oz. At this point, the film expands to vivid, almost overwhelming, color and takes up the entire screen. Oz finds himself welcomed by Theodora (Mila Kunis), one of three witches that will help determine his fate of the stranger in the even stranger land. Along the way, it follows another motif of the original film in which he gathers companions that have Kansas counter-parts like the flying monkey he adopts voiced by Zach Braff, who also plays his assistant in the carnival.

As much visual wow as Raimi throws at the audience, the film still ultimately falls on the shoulders of Franco and that’s where it falters. Franco has absolutely been good in things. I have an affinity for anyone that was a member of the Freaks and Geeks ensemble and he was actually one of the bright spots in the studio-tinkered Spider-Man III while Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst were a bit lost. But the way Oz is written, it relies on him being able to play a charming asshole. A lovable rogue. A scoundrel, as Princess Leia might put it. And when the film was initially being developed, Robert Downey Jr. was to be in the title roll, a decision that makes complete sense. But Franco just can’t make it work. There’s very little difference between his acting and when he’s acting… like he’s… acting. Anyway, it would take a very nuanced performance and Franco is playing it big and broad practically the entire time. There’s enough ham there to keep him out of a Jewish deli. Of the other performers in the film, Michelle Williams seems to exonerate herself the best, bringing some interesting shades to Glinda while Rachel Weisz is good but one note and Mila Kunis somehow manages to be very good at displaying naive vulnerability, but seems to be stilted, perhaps because of the dialogue.

I’ll give the film a middling review because I saw it as a middling film. If you’re a big Oz fan, I could see enjoying it a lot more than I did. Even if the ending can’t help but feel like a placeholder due to the demands of the story.

(Two and a half damns out of five)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Killer Joe

Set-up to the worst knock knock joke ever.

[Author’s note: I saw this film through Netflix ,which states that it was rated R. The film as released in theaters was NC-17 and it was released to video in R and unrated versions. I would not at all be surprised if the version of the film I saw was incorrectly labeled and was actually the unrated version, but I did want to make it clear that I’m not sure which version I viewed.]

I thought about describing William Friedkin’s Killer Joe as Kentucky Fried Fargo, but it’s not quite apt (and not only because the film takes place entirely in Texas, seemingly on the outskirts of Dallas.)

Unlike the Coen’s white-out noir, this isn’t a good versus evil tale of a planned crime spiraling out of control. Like a Jeff Foxworthy routine as filtered through a Hustler magazine, it is a tale of despicable people doing despicable things and having them slowly blow up into an explosion of deplorable human behavior in a trailer park.

You see, Chris is, to be nice, kind of an idiot. Portrayed by Emile Hirsch, he is a mix of naive innocent and stupid criminal. It’s not hard to see how he got that way, what with his mother being an alcoholic that tried to kill his sister and his dad (Thomas Haden Church) being dumber than the proverbial box of rocks.

In many ways, we’re told what kind of a seedy world we’ll be entering at the outset. Chris, pounding on the door of his father’s trailer to escape a downpour, has the door thrown open and we are greeted with an over the shoulder, eye-level view of Gina Gershon’s naked crotch.

It’s not just rain coming down on Chris’ head. He’s in to a loan shark and his mom has stolen the drugs he could sell to pay it off. However, he’s been told about a detective for the Dallas Police Department that will commit murder on the side, as long as you pay up front. And his mother has a life insurance policy worth $50K.

That detective is Joe, portrayed with hypercreepiness by Matthew McConaughey. He would normally just walk away from the situation, but through a chance meeting he’s met Dottie.

Dottie is an apt name. Chris’ sister, seemingly brain damaged by her mother’s attempt to kill her as a baby, is stuck in a nearly childlike state. She functions in society, but there are many things about her that seem to be in arrested development, like different parts of her personality are at different ages. Brit actress Juno Temple portrays her as adolescent and Friedkin uses that to sleaze up the picture in what seems like a nod to the lolita-style exploitation films that dotted the seventies. (Let’s just say that her flattering baby doll negligee can’t be a coincidence.) It’s a tightrope performance that shows just how good she can be and may be too much for some people. Joe becomes infatuated with Dottie and agrees to take her on as a “retainer.”

Of all the adjectives that can be used to describe Killer Joe: off-putting, darkly comic, punctuated with violence and sometimes hard to watch… sleazy does seem the most apt. Friedkin succeeds in making the film a lurid Southern noir. A kind of grindhouse Faulkner that takes the dregs of what would have to be called white trash and amps up that trashiness to the Nth degree.

By the time the film reaches it’s explosive, squirm-worthy conclusion, it’s tough to imagine anything better fitting to this celebration of the lurid. You’ll certainly never again see McConaughey as the stoner townie that has defined him for so long. Not everyone can nor should watch this film and the finale shows exactly why. It’s sick and wrong and there’s very little other way to look at it. Which exactly describes this film as a whole.

(Three damns out of five)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: A Good Day to Die Hard

*sigh* Hard

A Good Day to Die Hard (aka Die Hard 5: The Deadening) wants so desperately to harken back to the days of the earliest couple of films in the franchise that it’s practically palpable, yet it fails on most every level. Like a graduate course in mediocrity, it just feels absolutely lazy.

It’s not surprising that, like John McClaine himself, the series is showing its age, but all of the previous sequels, even the much maligned PG-13 fourth installment, have been well-made and well-acted with snappy scripts and fun performances.

While it’s nice to see Mary Elizabeth Winstead appear for all of two minutes as Lucy (reprising her role from Live Free or Die hard), John “Jack” McClaine Jr., as portrayed by Jai Courtney, is a total dud as an addition to the family McClaine slowly seems to be reassembling in his old age. If they make a sixth film, will Bonnie Bedelia be back? They can call it “Til’ Die Hard Do Us Part.”

In a move pretty much spoiled by the trailers, McClaine heads to Moscow in this installment to find his estranged boy, not knowing he has been off on a mission for the CIA for the last few years. Rather than build any kind of relationship for them at the beginning, the film simply throws up lazy cliches of McClaine not being there for his kids and Jack being terminally angry in order to hurry into the first action sequence, which takes a tried-and-true three-way freeway chase and turns it into a mess of bad editing. It is at this point that McClaine starts his awful running joke of saying every fifteen minutes that he’s “on vacation,” despite the fact that he obviously is not, unless going to stop your son from being executed is a vacation.

But that’s the kind of movie it is. It’s so determined to pack in every single thing it thinks you expect from an action movie that it doesn’t bother to make sense of it. It’s like a kid with a jigsaw puzzle and a mallet, smashing pieces together that don’t fit so they don’t make sense as a picture and then saying, “Close enough.”

Given how director John Moore managed to screw up a sure thing like Max Payne, it shouldn’t surprise me that he managed to blow this one. I’m trying to figure out where this whole thing fell apart. It certainly starts with the script, but the editing is also poor and makes it difficult to follow the action (which should be the film’s bread and butter) while nearly all of the movie’s principals are sleepwalking their way through it. Between Moonrise Kingdom and Looper last year we’ve seen that Willis still has his acting chops, but maybe even he just didn’t feel he could elevate the hackneyed material. While he was not the wisecracking everyman cop from the first film anymore even before the series reached this point, there was still some of the old McClaine in the fourth film, albeit hardened by his experiences and more curmudgeonly. There is basically none of the original McClaine left in A Good Day to Die Hard.

Instead the character is now a one-dimensional joke. The film lazily makes callbacks to the original film as a way to try to make the audience think this facsimile is the genuine article (McClaine’s ringtone is “Ode to Joy,” one of the bad guys makes reference to how much he hates cowboys, etc.) but the audience should not be fooled. It doesn’t help that most of his forced one-liners were old when Willis’ career began. It’s a sad commentary that the series that broke the mold and changed what an action film could be has sunk to being the very kind of film they were avoiding. In the first film and beyond, the filmmakers made a point of showing McClaine getting hurt due to his heroics. Now, he falls through glass ceilings, flies through the air and down building sides and aside from a smattering of fake blood, he seems to suffer no ill-effects. His son takes some rebar through the torso and is fine hours later.

There are some interesting ideas on display here as far as the action sequences are concerned, but nearly all of them are mishandled, poorly coreographed and incoherent.

After this disappointment, I am wondering what will become of the franchise. Perhaps its failure will convince Fox to hang it up and call it a day, but I wouldn’t bet on it. In a few years, we’ll probably be seeing Die, Die Hard My Darling. The Die Hard is Cast? If I Should Die Hard Before I Wake, maybe? Regardless, this might be the installment that finally proves the name wrong.

(One and a half damns out of five)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Looper

Prepare for that time travel migraine

As a time travel story fan, I would say that you will most likely have a good time with Looper if you can get past the weird make-up used to disguise Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a young Bruce Willis. (Apparently it was easier to turn Levitt into Willis than Willis into Levitt. Whodathunkit?)

A tale of the surprisingly low-key near-future in which most things are, rather than crazily changed, exaggerations of current technology like smaller, clear phones and big, cartoony guns that reminded me of a prop from Who Framed Roger Rabbit, time travel has not yet been invented, but is being implemented.

Time travel exists in the future, but has been made illegal, so the only people using it are criminal organizations. They use it to commit clean murders. Victims are sent back in time at a specific time and place where hitmen called loopers dispose of them; no fuss, no muss. Apparently, once time travel is illegal, only criminals will have time travel. Think about it… won’t you?

One of these loopers is Joe. Apparently good at his job, he wipes out a lot of targets on his tarp near the edges of a cornfield. (The action takes place in an undisclosed city which apparently is not that large because it doesn’t take long to leave it and be in the backwater country.) He gets paid for this by his boss from the future, Jeff Daniels, and puts it away for the future. But loopers are expected to do something unusual; provided they are still alive in a few decades, their future selves are sent back and the loopers are expected to kill themselves, aka “close the loop.” In between dosing himself with eye-administered drugs and oh my lord, I’m turning into one of those critics that tries to fill a review with nothing but a recap of the movie and we know how annoying THOSE are. OK, long story short, everything is fine until his future self (Bruce Willis) pops up and proceeds to screw everything up.

Part of how much you enjoy the film will undoubtedly rely upon your ability to accept Levitt and Willis as the same character. I thought it worked reasonably well, but not always. Eventually, I just let it go because they’re both good. Also of note is Emily Blunt. She is quite good in the film, but in a role I can’t really reveal, as this is one of those movies that’s best to go into without too many spoilers.

Looper may not be as original and imaginative as its backers seem to imply, but it is definitely smart and fun. The film is presented as something of a neo-noir, taking its cues from films like Blade Runner in combining the pulp thrills of crime novellas and sci-fi yarns into a single vision. Writer/director Rian Johnson relies more on writing and ideas than spectacle, a rare instance in this day and age. Thankfully, it also still contains plenty of visceral thrills with gunplay and inventive camera work to spare. It’s also wisely, elusively stingy details to almost the point of frustration. Old Joe keeps tight lipped about the effects of time travel except when hard pressed. Most aspects of the future go unexplained in their appearance or development. Young Joe narrates the movie expecting you already know about the humdrum of everyday future living and only explains the seedy side that most people wouldn’t be aware of. A murderous Dashiell Hammett character-type.

The time travel goes by Back to the Future rules which means it doesn’t necessarily hold to to fierce scrutiny in immediate cause and effect in a lot of cases, but is treated as usually being fluid. But time travel, in not existing anyway, has many interpretations and it’s up to the writer to determine how a change in the present reflects upon a splitting timeline, especially to those present in the original. In the end, it’s a storytelling device and as long as the story is well told and not full of the kind of obvious logical holes that accompany, say, Prometheus, it’s best to enjoy the ride regardless of the physics that make time travel a practical impossibility in the first place for everyone but John Titor. (Just look it up on Wikipedia.)

(Three and a half damns out of five)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Ruby Sparks

Fly! Fly, my pretties!

There is a familiar mantra in the profession of writing, which of course appears in Ruby Sparks. Write what you know.

This has lead to writers writing about writing. Inevitably, that development has lead to masturbatory fiction of writers writing about writers being awesome and important. In Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, his co-main character, Michael Blomkvist, is a thin facsimile of himself; an intrepid, middle-aged magazine journalist that somehow has every woman he meets throwing themselves at him sexually through no effort of his own. (One of the reasons I enjoyed David Fincher’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo adaptation was that it dialed down this element.) Californication features a sex-addled writer portrayed by David Duchovny. And let us not forget the moment when M. Night Shyamalan revealed his egomaniacal tendencies casting himself as a writer whose work will change the world.

These are but a few examples of the type of metafictional Mary Sues that have permeated the popular culture on the male end. Ruby Sparks is a bit of a twist, because Zoe Kazan has written and portrayed not the writer, herself, in the film, but the creation of a writer played by Paul Dano (her real-life beau). The writer plays the creation while the creation is the writer. Is your head swimming yet?

It may be equally masturbatory for Kazan to play Ruby since the story is about how women are mystical, magical creatures that are far more complex than any man can understand, even one that sprouts fully-formed from the imagination like a manic pixie Athena. In the way Linus from Peanuts said, “Of all the Charlie Browns in the World, you’re the Charlie Browniest,” so goes that of all the manic pixie girls in filmdom, Ruby is the manic pixie girliest. The way this constitutes the main character’s “dream woman” may possibly be a commentary on that particular type of character’s ascension within modern character archetypes with one of the characters espousing of the inherent flaws of such women in the real world. But however self-servicing the plot and the role may be, the fact that it’s different from what we’ve come to expect helps make it enjoyable.

Essentially, Dano is an author named Calvin Weir-Fields who made a big splash as a teenager, creating what is considered to be the Catcher in the Rye of a new generation. Don’t worry about missing that bit. The Salinger references are beaten into submission. To cure his writer’s block, he is seeing a psychiatrist. The doctor urges him to write something about his dog and a dream he had, especially if it’s terrible. The girl in that dream has begun appearing nightly and Calvin finds himself inspired. Thusly, he begins writing more than he has been able to in years of being stymied by overhyped expectations for his follow-up novel. Eventually it becomes an obsession for him to “spend time with her.” Then one day, the girl he has dubbed Ruby suddenly appears in his house like she’s always been there. She’s cute, has bangs, wears brightly colored tights and is generally Zooey Deschanel concentrate. Telling only his brother, Calvin decides to just go with it and thus starts his roller coaster of emotional instability as he faces the thought of inadequacy for his own creation that is spiraling out of his control. Calvin doesn’t want to share what he’s created with the world and tries to horde her like Smaug and his gold.

The plot of a writer’s words coming to life is, of course, nothing new. Since the dawn of fiction it’s been a fantasy of man to make something come to life or to control destiny. Stranger Than Fiction did a great job of displaying the conflict between life and art and which is more important. This is not to that level and it has some rather uneven shifts in tone (let’s be honest, it’s almost to be expected in an indie comedy with a high-concept idea), but it does feature some winning performances from the leads as well as Chris Messina as writer Calvin’s brother with a douchier outlook on life, Elliot Gould as his therapist and a personal favorite, Steve Coogan, as a fellow author. These performances, along with Kazan’s involvement on both sides of the camera, give the film a more personal, homemade feeling than if it were the same idea crapped out of the Hollywood machine as an Eddie Murphy vehicle.
It’s that personality that gives the film its charm and makes it worth seeing.

(Three damns out of five)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: The Raid: Redemption

40 Stories of Sheer AssKicking!

I didn’t know there was an Indonesian martial art that involved grabbing people by the legs and swinging them into walls face-first, but now that I do, I am eager to see more of it.

The Raid (released in the U.S. as “The Raid: Redemption” as apparently Sony couldn’t get the rights to just “The Raid”) is a slam-bang action film that is in many ways, similar to another film that was released this year, Dredd. But, as with Deep Impact and Armageddon or Volcano and Dante’s Peak, there are distinctions that give both films distinct atmospheres and styles. In this case, they each bring their own brand of pleasure. (For the record, Dredd was in development first, but released second.) Both films are well-made and both involve a trek through a locked-down building to get a bad guy. For The Raid, the protagonists are members of a highly weaponized SWAT team, most of whom are rookies.

Where they begin to differ is that while Dredd is a post-apocalyptic shoot-em up with a lot of good character work, The Raid is more streamlined and has a much greater reliance on chop-socky film tropes over the course of its run time. Like most films of that ilk, there of course comes a point where two characters put down their weapons to face each other in hand-to-hand combat, but for a lot of the run time, the fighting is brutal and decisive.

I can not use the word brutal enough. As people are stabbed, shot in the head or, in the case of one henchman, have their skull slammed repeatedly into a wall that it’s sliding down, the action looks absolutely painful and the characters use whatever is nearby to inflict said pain. With little exception, the characters do not look like they are in a violent ballet, but are actually trying to take down their enemies in the most effective way possible. As such, guns, knives, machete and the dank building itself are used to maim and kill. In many ways, the building in The Raid is a character in and of itself, much the way the self-referential ‘block’ of Attack the Block was.

While I’m sure that CGI is used to enhance the bloodshed, I was truly impressed by its measured and quality application. Not only is the execution some of the best I’ve seen, it shows just how awful the fakey “pops” in the much-higher budgeted Expendables were. It just goes to show how many foreign genre films are using their budgets better than Hollywood and how good a lot of smaller effects houses are becoming.

If there’s one place that the film fails, it’s in characterization. Through character shorthand, we learn about the most base motivations of a handful of the characters, but for the most part, Welsh director Gareth Evans seems to have tunnel vision upon upping the carnage. In that respect he succeeds as he pretty much remakes the Omaha Beach scene from Saving Private Ryan within the confines of a stairwell and an apartment. But afterwards, while there are certainly some short pauses to allow the audience to catch their breath, there’s not much revelation of who these people are that are beating the living hell out of each other. Whether that is due to a thin script or overzealous (but effective) editing, I do not know.

The good news is, while it’s missing the kind of needed character content that makes films like Die Hard true classics that transcend their limitations, it contains enough visceral thrills and inventiveness to make a hardened action film fan say, “OOOOOH, DAYUM!” It’s a more than entertaining hour forty-four for the kind of people that enjoy “that sort of thing.” Like me.

(Three and a half damns out of five)