This is the End

The Kings of Summer (2013), directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts

This is the End (2013), directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg

Full disclosure: this is a cheater Double-shot Review. I saw this movies on separate nights, I’ve just not had the chance to write about either yet, so I’m combining them into one. I know, I’m a sham. No integrity whatsoever. Oh, the shame. But, Hollywood!

Summer Movie Season means superhereos and explosions, but it also means comedies. And I mean real comedies. Funny ones. So I’m not counting The Hangover Part III in this statement.

Just in time for a distraction from the building summer heat (hopefully) is a couple of great ones, I have to say.

The Kings of Summer was a critical darling at Sundance, which is now suffering from the post-Sundance reassessment. See, what tends to happen (so I hear, I’ve never actually BEEN to Sundance, come on) is that every year in the midst of all the indie doldrums of the film festival, one film stands out which critics, apparently drunk on the high altitude and hot chocolate, heap praises on, probably because it’s the only film which has actually been legitimately entertaining.

And then when said film gets released into the real market, a market saturated with entertaining fluff pieces and snark, the film gets reassessed as manipulative and naive.

Well, in this case the Sundance critics and audiences were right, because The Kings of Summer is one of the most straight-up enjoyable films I’ve seen this year.

The movie is essentially a youthful fable that asks you to step outside your adult perception of responsibility and plausibility and enjoy a tale of three boys sick of their parents, who decide to build a house in the woods and set up shop for themselves.

It’s delightful in the same way Stand by Me is, in that it really evokes the feeling of being a teenager during the summer and from that builds a fantasy we’ve all probably had some version of in our lives. Your bored, you have a huge crush on that one girl from school, its hot outside and your parents are driving you insane. Surely this is universal.

Through appropriately-quirky characters and a charming mix of irreverent humour and Swiss Family Robinson nature love, the film feels like Wes Anderson and Terrence Malick went to summer camp together.

People seem to hate the main character and the portrayal of the parents as unconscionably horrible. Well, to that I say, maybe we all have our big boy pants on a little too tight. The parents in the film are caricatures, and its story is a fantasy, made clear by the film’s wistful tone and humour. And yes, Joe is an ass. He comes from a long line of incorrigible asses, such as Huckleberry Fin and Chris Chambers.

If Joe wasn’t an ass, the story would never have happened, because it takes an ass to run away from home. And the whole point is that he learns a thing or two about the complicated nature of life and as a result better understands his dad. That’s the whole crux, and one I rather enjoyed seeing come together.

A film about a young man who respects his parents and enjoys his nurturing home life wouldn’t be quite as interesting.

Really it’s one of those movies where if the humour works for you, you’ll love it, and if it doesn’t, well that’ll be the end of it. If a small Italian boy saying “I met a dog the other day that taught me how to die” sounds appealing to you, give it a chance.

For a more broad type of humour, head out to This is the End, which is the genuinely hilarious, over-the-top telling of the apocalypse as seen through the eyes of characters Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Danny McBride and others.

This who’s who cast of modern comedic actors are playing themselves in this movie, which comes from a short film Rogen and co-director Evan Goldberg wrote called “Jay and Seth Versus the Apocalypse.”

Listen, if you’ve seen the trailer, you know what you’re in store for: profanity, bromance, silliness, homoeroticism, ’90s hip-hop, drugs and crude humour.

And it all works really well.

Is it self-indulgent? Sure is. But whatever, these guys are where they are for a reason: they’re funny. They do good work. Sure this movie is a back-patting celebration of that, but why not, they’ve earned it, and we all get the enjoyment of watching it.

It’s also massively fun watching these guys make fun of themselves, their public images and the shortcomings of celebrities. I loved Hill as the prissy “actor”, Franco as the arty bore and McBride as the full-out party boy, as if their on-screen and media personalities have merged.

The film meanders and strays at times but I honestly didn’t mind, this being more of a lark than a proper movie in my mind. The joy in the film is watching the big names play versions of themselves and their interactions with each other. That the framing story isn’t half bad and the way the plot plays out is actually highly enjoyable is just icing on the cake.

So there we have it, two very different summer comedies, each excellent in their own ways. Combined, they provided more laughs at the cinema than I’ve had in a long time.

The Kings of Summer and This is the End are in cinemas now.

21 & Over

21 & Over (2013), directed by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore

All I asked for going into 21 & Over was your basic outrageous comedy that would make me laugh and not piss me off. That’s really it.

But alas…

I would say 21 & Over is the low point for recent comedy but with The Hangover Part II still lingering like a bad…well, you know, and The Hangover Part III coming out in May I would hate to play favourites. Oh and the trailer for Scary Movie 5 might win that title alone, never mind the full movie.

The biggest problem with 21 & Over is that it simply isn’t funny. Why? Well, for one thing the epic night of drinking plot is wearing thin. The Hangover was a great comedy when it came out, but this is yet another re-creation failing to capture the spark of the original.

Also, is anything truly outrageous anymore? Gross-out and foul comedy used to be hilarious because it flew in the face of stuffy bourgeois society and our parent’s parent’s politics. Now that counterculture has been so firmly devoured by mainstream culture, what used to be delightfully ludicrous is now pointlessly crass. Watching a man throw up in slow motion doesn’t “stick it” to anyone’s precious sensibilities. Our parents watched people throw up in movies when they were growing up. Let’s find something new, kids.

Another thing (and here’s where comedy diehards and bros tune out) is lazy humour based on gender and ethnic stereotypes is really getting old. Comedy is at its best when it’s progressive and challenging the norms. That’s shocking, outrageous comedy. But now, in 2013, when you have a character whose interactions with every other character is based purely on their ethnic background, your film seems simple and outdated.

Don’t get me wrong, everyone is a target: Latinos, Chinese, Serbians, women, homosexuals, Jews. It’s an equal opportunity type of stereotyping. And then film seems to poke fun at itself when the white characters say their feelings are hurt after a joke about white people, but that does nothing. It’s still asking us to laugh at this tired, old schtick throughout the entire film. One tiny piece of wit saves no face.

Actually you know what, I’m going to go out on a rare limb for me and say I enjoyed the more serious moments of this film than I did the comedy. Usually I think trying to have “meaning” or a tidy, loose-string tying ending ruins these type of comedies (Wedding Crashers, Old School, etc.), but in this case the only time the movie ever actually elicited any sort of reaction out of me was during some of the heart-to-hearts between old friends who are falling apart.

Then again, that’s not really a compliment. What I’m trying to say is the movie is so unfunny that I even preferred the dreck, sentimental bits. The only alternatives are a man peeing on people at a bar and jokes about how jocks are secretly gay.

And I know, I read these types of reviews before I see a comedy too and think ‘the bitter, old critic just doesn’t know how to take a joke,’ but for serious guys, this is a terrible movie. It’s not funny. Don’t go see it.

21 & Over is in cinemas now. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Seven Psychopaths

Seven Psychopaths (2012), directed by Martin McDonagh

(I took a much needed break from horror to watch this “normal” movie. Don’t worry, I’m going to see Sinister tonight.)

In Bruges is one of my favourite movies from the past decade or so, so I have been pretty stoked to see Martin McDonagh’s followup film Seven Psychopaths, coming about four years after Bruges. In Bruges has this magnificent character-driven plot matched with a wonderful cinematic quality, larger, overarching concepts and a hilarious sense of humour running through it all. It’s a great movie.

Seven Psychopaths is not as great a movie, but it’s a pretty darn good one.

It’s about…well, a lot of things. It’s about these dognappers who steal dogs and then return them for reward money. It’s about this writer, Marty (Colin Ferrell), who is trying to write his screenplay, Seven Psychopaths, but is being slowed down by a lack of inspiration and alcohol. It’s about a killer who only kills mobsters and leaves behind a jack of hearts at the crime scene. Also there’s a part with Tom Waits and a bunny. So lots going on.

All of this is delivered with a buddy comedy type feel, splashed with intense violence, a postmodern trim and a coating of existential philosophy.

McDonagh is the type of director who can make this chaos work, and he does for the most part. Despite all the ins and outs of the plot, the film flows smoothly and makes sense. The characters are fantastic, as are the actors playing them. It has everything that makes an action comedy work, but with a little more substance to it, thanks to McDonagh’s unique take on storytelling. And, of course, what makes it all come together is the humour, which is excellent. Laugh out loud even.

I’m going to be this guy again and talk about the film’s use of racial, sexist and homophobic slurs. The film is littered with them, especially the latter two.

I had a great, real life example last night of why these things can be troublesome. Behind me in the cinema was a group of three or four college guys who were drinking a mickey of vodka and obviously felt everyone else in the theatre would appreciate their comments as much as they obviously did.

Most of their comments were just general jackass hoots and hollers and declaring the return of Chris Walken whenever he said something slightly odd (I would bet money these guys have never seen The Deer Hunter, so they need to shut the hell up and show some respect). But at one point they started to compare an older black woman in the film to Aunt Jemima (which is nauseatingly racist). And then, once Woody Harrelson’s character used the n-word they decided that must be okay then and used it too.

I myself have used the argument many times that characters in the movie using homophobic or racist or sexist slurs is just an honest reflection of their characters. I still believe that’s true for many movies. But in something like this, something designed to be “cool”, with characters that are funny and stylish, that are going to be quoted ad nauseam, a film you know is going to be a college hit, can’t we try a little harder? Isn’t there a more intelligent way to use these words? Or hey, maybe even not use them? I don’t think not having the characters use ‘f-’ or ‘bitch’ throughout the movie would have in any way taken away from it.

McDonagh is a smart man and an intelligent director. He questions these pitfalls even as he commits them. There’s a great part where Walken’s character, Hans, asks Marty why his female characters are all so useless. He says he’s known a lot of women and most of them are able to at least string a sentence together. A part I really liked too is when Hans rewrites a part of the script with a topless hooker so that she is in a pretty dress and wants to have a conversation.

It’s a bit of a cop-out because then you can do anything you want and no one can hold you accountable because you’ve pointed it out yourself. I wrote a term paper like that for a class on media studies claiming that the teacher had to either fail me or give me an A because I recognized the shortcomings of my own argument (in a nutshell). I got a B-. I deserved it.

That’s how I feel about McDonagh’s handling of the use of slurs and his depiction of women. He gets a B-. If he knows his approach is flawed, as he admits, why not try to do a better job?

But most of the film is much better than that. And at least McDonagh has the wherewithal to question these things and not just slip them in unnoticed like in most Hollywood movies.

It’s no In Bruges, but Seven Psychopaths is still one of the more interesting and entertaining movies out lately. And I’m still intrigued to see what McDonagh comes up with next, because he is certainly a talented writer and director, who I feel can do a lot better and has a lot more to offer.

Seven Psychopaths is in theatres Friday.

The Campaign

The Campaign (2012), directed by Jay Roach

Do you remember the days when satire had bite?

When it made you rethink the whole system and how things are run? I’m thinking Dr. Strangelove. Or The Candidate.

Well, people are calling The Campaign a “political satire” and while I suppose it is, things sure have changed. And that makes me concerned.

No longer does a film like The Campaign ask us to rethink how the system works. Instead it harps on the disillusionment and distrust that we already all know and feel down to our core and asks us to laugh at it without really thinking about it. It’s sad that instead of exposing holes in the system, it instead has to rely on making fun of how corrupt the system is to get laughs.

In its own crude way the film condemns lobbying, corporate financed campaigns, media coverage, citizen’s lack of political intelligence, smear campaigns and back-room deals. All worthy things to condemn.

(All of this sprinkled with a little sexism for good measure, but hey, par for the course right?)

But it does so in such a flippant and obvious way that it never asks you to really think about it. We all just assume everything is corrupt to its core and go from there.

Beyond that the form of the film, the way the story arch is carried out and the way the film is shot, is so run of the mill that the director never once seems to actually be asking you to think about politics. Just laugh when the baby gets punched and let’s move on.

As a pure comedy The Campaign is marginally successful. Some parts are genuinely hysterical. I must admit that the baby punching scene is a highlight.

But I must also admit that even then I have trouble remembering most of what was funny about the film. It’s not one that will be quoted by my friends for years to come.

The problem is it exists in the middle. On one hand it wants to be a typical ridiculous Ferrell vehicle, but on the other it has aspirations for something more. But there it sits, turning out as neither as it tries to be both.

Alternatively, The Campaign brought to mind in some ways Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Only with, you know, a nip slip scene. The film does go for that little man against the system type story, where in the end honesty and integrity are the virtues that rise above the corruption and disillusionment.

Unlike a film like Mr. Smith, however, we get no sense from The Campaign that the filmmakers believe this. Obviously the two films are very different, one is an outrageous comedy and other a heart-on-sleeve David and Goliath story, but even so there’s no real heart to The Campaign, nothing to make you actually care about anything that’s happening.

It very much has a paint by numbers feeling that holds it back from having either the bite or the heart that could have made it something more.

The Campaign is in theatres now.

Casa de mi Padre

Casa de mi Padre (2012), directed by Matt Piedmont

Finally the Mexican epic that we have heard so much about is now available on home video. Shot over the course of weeks, with a cast of at least a dozen, Casa de mi Padre is a triumph of Mexican cinema that heralds the arrival of its new international star, Will Ferrell.

Alright, alright, I won’t go overboard with the joke because we all know it and I stole it straight up from the movie’s marketing. Casa de mi Padre isn’t a great Mexican film. It was shot on a sound stage in Hollywood that isn’t even disguised to be anything other than obviously a sound stage. It stars Ferrell as Armando Alvarez, a noble son of a ranch owner who loves the land and his family’s honour.

The film is a tongue-in-cheek homage to Mexican telenovelas, which, as I understand it, are basically Mexican soap operas. This is a comedy, first and foremost. I mean, obviously. Will Ferrell is in it and he speaks Spanish. Will Ferrell doesn’t speak Spanish. Hilarious.

I have to say that even though this is a mess of a movie that I’m sure will leave most people scratching their heads and is probably a heck of a lot funnier to those more familiar with Mexican culture, I still enjoyed it.

It’s silly and thrown together and completely inconsequential, but I still had a lot of fun watching it. It partly goes for this Tarantino-like celebration of a Mexican grindhouse style of cinema, and while it fails to hit that mark, I enjoyed watching it fail and know that the filmmakers went into it without taking the whole thing all that seriously. Maybe it’s sad that I find that refreshing, but sometimes you just need a silly movie, you know?

The music is excellent, the mix of the best of the best of Mexican actors (Diego Luna, Gael Garcia Bernal) with the clearly not-Mexican Ferrell is a punch line worth seeing and the whole thing comes off as an enjoyable lark. I liked the phony sets and the painted backdrops, the shoddy cuts and soft focus. All that plus one of the strangest and most hilarious sex scenes I’ve seen in a while. Hard to lose, really.

I really don’t want to get into some in-depth diatribe with a film as unapologetically silly as this. This is a minor Ferrell film, a throw away, a giggle, really nothing more. But it knows it, that’s what it goes for, and I enjoyed it as just that.

Casa de mi Padre is available on home video now.

Ted (2012), directed by Seth MacFarlane

Take This Waltz (2011), directed by Sarah Polley

I recognize that these are two pretty strange films to look at side by side. But I saw them both this weekend and I’m going to squeeze out some potentially thin thematic connections. Mainly though, I only had time to write one post. Anyway, don’t give me any grief about it.

I went into Ted with high hopes for an outrageous, stupid, foul-mouthed, immature blow out. With MacFarlane at the helm I figured it wouldn’t disappoint. I was wrong.

Here’s my main problem with Ted, and really, with a lot of MacFarlane products. While on one hand it tries to be subversive by making fun of everything and tearing popular culture a new one, it also revels in pop culture, which unfortunately in this means framing the crude, unusual humour in a plot that is so cliched, overwrought and overbearing (pun intended) that it ends up ruining the humour.

I mean, really MacFarlane? A story about an immature man having trouble growing up with a shrew of a girlfriend riding his back to be more of a responsible adult?

I don’t find the use of the word “fag” offensive in MacFarlane movies, because it’s used so ubiquitously that you know he’s doing it to get a rise out of you. For some reason I can appreciate that. It’s intentional and flies in the face of political correctness. It may be discomforting but it’s supposed to be. I like immature humour.

But to have all that in such a weak sauce plot really ruins the whole thing. Could MacFarlane really find nothing better for Mila Kunis to do than give Wahlberg a hard time and demand he stop being friends with his cool, talking Teddy Bear? Could we not find anything more interesting for this plot to revolve around than a guy struggling to stop just smoking weed everyday and become an “adult”?

It’s just such a tired premise. And MacFarlane does nothing new with it. Having that same old story only with a living Teddy Bear doesn’t offer any new perspective or comment or joke on the same old story. It’s just the same old story. With a Teddy Bear.

That said, I still somewhat liked it. The bear is hilarious, I love Wahlberg in comedies, all the Flash Gordon stuff is great. There are some genuinely funny moments and lines. It should have been a fantastic comedy.

But then there’s the rest, including the tacked on, ridiculous kidnap plot with Giovanni Ribisi. I don’t know, it just kind of ruined the whole thing for me.

And so that brings us to this movie’s opposite. The very serious, meticulously crafted, mature Take This Waltz.

Surprisingly it’s better than Ted. That is such a snob thing to say, but if you knew how much I wanted Ted to be better than Take This Waltz you might not see me as a snob. Unfortunately this review might solidify that view.

Take This Waltz is Canadian treasure (and serious CineFile crush) Sarah Polley’s second directorial effort, after the much applauded Away From Her. It stars Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen as a young married couple in tough times. In comes dark, handsome Luke Kirby as Daniel to get Williams all riled up. Things get complicated.

This is a very bittersweet movie. It’s bitter because it’s all about relationships failing and a young woman who just can’t seem to be happy. It’s sweet because you understand what she is feeling and you like the characters and how honest they are with each other. At the end of the day though it’s mainly frustrating.

It’s a beautifully filmed movie, and with a wonderfully careful, honest look at relationships that really touches a note. The performances are complex and rich. Williams is fabulous as a character that you may not like, but will probably understand and sympathize with.

I know I didn’t like her. She does nothing to help herself. She relies totally on the men in her life to make her happy. She barely works. She acts like a needy child, which as Rogen’s character shows, can be both endearing and also incredibly annoying and frustrating.  She means well but doesn’t seem to have the capacity to know how to function in life. I wondered at times if she wasn’t slightly disabled.

I think some will have trouble getting past that. But I don’t think the movie owed us a character we like wholeheartedly. I enjoyed aspects of her, but even with her frustrating personality traits I still felt sorry for her and took away a lot from her relationships with men and friends and life. There’s a needy, childish, unsatisfied little Michelle Williams in all of us I guess. And at the same time all the other characters are imperfect. And that makes them compelling and relatable.

I really liked this movie, all told. Polley is a wonderful director with a great eye for visuals and a deep understanding of characters and tone. It’s an immersive experience, watching it, and one that you feel the better for having gone through. Even if, at the same time, you kind of want to jump off a bridge.

That said, it was a little long and could have used a little more humour.

In a perfect world they would have combined Ted and Take This Waltz. That way it would have been an interesting movie with a compelling plot AND have a talking Teddy Bear.

I warned you there would be weak links in this review.

Both movies are in theatres now.

The Dictator

The Dictator (2012), directed by Larry Charles

Okay, I have to admit it, I laughed my ass off throughout most of The Dictator. It is a seriously funny movie. Yet it’s one of those movies that you feel shame for finding funny, because it is so offensive, so over the top in its vulgarity, stereotypes, and even straight up racism. But that’s Sacha Baron Cohen’s thing, pushing his humour beyond anything considered even stretched good taste. And you kind of have to respect him for it.

People are saying he’s gone too far this time. Interestingly though their objection isn’t the content, necessarily, but the context. Cohen’s earlier films Borat and Bruno (although I never saw Bruno) are completely ridiculous and totally inappropriate but because those films show Cohen’s characters interacting with real people, that pushed audiences to question the level of racism, intolerance, homophobia etc. in our own culture. The films, in some strange way, had a social agenda, despite being, on a surface level, incredibly offensive.

The Dictator is different though. It is completely scripted, with no “real people” in it. It’s a full on movie, and yet has the same level of incredibly offensive material, including extreme sexism, anti-semitism, homophobia…you name it. Now because we don’t have that level of seeing actual people saying horrible things, we just have this ridiculous character to laugh at, and I suppose some would worry, to laugh with.

I understand that point of view but I also believe that by pushing intolerance to its extremes through humour that you are exposing its holes. Many supposedly oppressed groups do this themselves. I have never heard such horrific and disgusting Holocaust jokes as I have from some Israeli friends. They think they’re hilarious and I think it makes them feel like they are taking ownership of such a tragic part of their history and the intolerance that spawned it.

Now, I’m not saying that we should all start going around telling Holocaust jokes, because that would be inappropriate. But when Cohen uses similar humour he pushes it to such an extent that you simply can’t take it seriously and it does point out the ridiculousness of the intolerance that he could be viewed, on a surface level, to be reveling in.

The humour makes you feel uncomfortable, but it absolutely should and that’s the whole point. If it didn’t, that would be an issue. I spent half the movie uncomfortably squirming in my chair, because I couldn’t believe the things he was saying, while at the same time laughing uncontrollably. It’s in some ways a really discomforting experience, but again, that’s the point. Even if the point is to make us ask ourselves “Why do I think that’s funny?” than that has value.

Granted I’m the type of person who thinks you can make a joke out of anything. Clearly there are lines, but again, those lines aren’t a matter of content so much as context, or situation. I don’t enjoy racist jokes for the sake of racist jokes, but I do enjoy people who say horribly offensive racist things knowing full well what they are doing, trying to get a rise out of people. I think there is a time, place and purpose for that sort of humour. Cohen is the master of it.

Beyond that though this is just a classic quotable, off the wall comedy that college students, and apparently me, will love. It will have you chuckling and shaking your head even the morning after at this or that line.

Some personal favourites: the 9/11 scene in the helicopter, everything with John C. Reilly, Jason Mantzoukas in general, when Cohen slaps the hipster customer, the comment on women going to school…and much more.

Listen, this isn’t a classic. But it’s a damn funny and even though people don’t seem to think it makes as much of a point as Borat, I still think there’s more going on here than audiences just laughing at racist jokes because they agree with them. Hopefully it’s modern audiences laughing at jokes about racism as a way of owning them, of taking away the hate that they come from and ridicule it.

But it’s also people just laughing at Cohen having a bowel movement while hanging on a zip-line over a city street.  So you decide.

The Dictator is in theatres now.