Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Macgruber

I like the Macgruber sketches on Saturday Night Live.

They're funny, stupid and short. What more can you ask of a skit?

Now we've got a full-length feature comedy, and we expect more than just funny and stupid. Sadly Macgruber can't deliver.

There's not much to say about the movie, because it's everything you would expect of a failed sketch-turned-feature. Amusing moments are sprinkled throughout, but there's almost no effort made at story construction. Therefore Macgruber is less like previous SNL movies The Blues Brothers or Wayne's World and more like the Scary Movie spoofs. Laughs come every few minutes, but they are quick bursts that fizzle, and they get less frequent as the movie wears on.

Perhaps the problem is that the original Macgruber sketches have no element of story in them.

They depict a generic action scenario in which quick-thinking Macgruber -- based on 80's television hero Macgyver -- tries to defuse a bomb with common household items, but allows himself to be distracted by an irrelevancy. He forgets to defuse the bomb and everyone gets blown up.

Try turning that into a movie.

Actor Will Forte and his SNL co-writers John Solomon and Jorma Taccone widen their focus by modeling the plot on a pastiche of 80's action movie cliches. Thus, evil arms dealer Val Kilmer procures a nuclear bomb he intends to use on Washington D.C. for no very good reason. Macgruber, America's top special forces operative, is called on to stop him.

Macgruber assembles his team which -- after a mishap involving large quantities of homemade C4 -- consists only of Kristin Wiig and tabloid-fave Ryan Phillipe.

They follow a series of pointless clues theoretically in quest of Kilmer's weapon, but really in search of quick, cheap laughs, which is pretty much what one would expect from skit writers who have never written a feature.

Spoofs can work. The Airplane movies were great, as were the more recent Naked Gun movies. But both those series operated successfully, though bizarrely, as stories. There was an underlying seriousness and attention to logic that made the inane behavior of their characters funny throughout, not just in gasps.

No such architecture exists here. Macgruber is a chocolate cake consisting of nothing but frosting. It sounds good, but once you start eating, you get sick of it pretty quick.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 42/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 43/100

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Robin Hood

Here's the paradox. Hollywood is smart and Hollywood is stupid.

It just depends how you want to look at it.

But let's use the new Ridley Scott-directed, Russell Crowe-starring Robin Hood to look at how utterly moronic Hollywood can be.

Our backstory begins with a spec screenplay called Nottingham written by a couple of TV scribes, Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris.

Nottingham puts a fun spin on the Robin Hood story. In it, the vilified Sheriff of Nottingham is actually the good guy. His nemesis, Robin of Locksley, is a childish, selfish jerk unworthy of the affections Maid Marian -- whom the Sheriff crushes on -- bestows on him.

But the Sheriff has a more immediate problem. He is investigating a series of brutal murders in Nottingham; bow-slayings that appear to be the work of the brigand of Sherwood.

The Sheriff would like nothing more than to throw his romantic rival in jail, but the forensic evidence -- the Sheriff is a budding Holmes -- indicates Robin Hood is not the killer.

The evidence further suggests the real killer is someone much more dangerous. Someone in a position of power in Nottingham itself.

What ensues is a witty, charming tale of truly unlikely heroics that of course go unrewarded, since everyone knows Robin Hood has to be the hero, and the Sheriff has to be the foil, regardless of actual facts.

This screenplay was bought by Universal Studios in 2007 for a million-dollar sum. Good job, Hollywood!

Then director Ridley Scott was brought aboard to direct. One little problem: he didn't like the central conceit of the script. Uh oh!

Ridley thought the idea of making Nottingham the hero was stupid. So did his leading man, Russell Crowe. Therefore they did what the powers-that-be in Hollywood always do. They brought in a series of A-list screenwriters to rewrite the hell out of a script that sold for a million dollars.

Damn it, Hollywood!

So Nottingham became Robin Hood, a ponderous, dreary war movie with about seven hundred speaking parts and at least as many complex political machinations. The villain is a court advisor named Godfrey, who counsels Prince John but secretly has an arrangement with the French to facilitate an invasion which will place the French King on the throne of England, and whom Godfrey can then advise -- presumably with a pay raise.

The climax has Crowe's Robin Longstride fighting off the French on the beaches of Dover in a truly unexciting finale.

Whatever fun, cleverness and narrative simplicity existed in the original material was ripped to shreds somewhere between draft five and draft thirty-five of Robin Hood.

This kind of thing happens when actors and directors make creative decisions. In a perfect world, Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris would have directed and cast their own script. The resulting movie may not have been perfect -- it may have lacked Ridley Scott's visual flair and Russell Crowe's brooding intensity -- but I bet the Sheriff of Nottingham would have been the protagonist.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 26/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 24/100

Nottingham
Script: 86/100

Friday, May 14, 2010

City Island

This is a comedy about acting; the acting we do in our everyday lives.

And it's a lot of fun.

The story revolves around the Rizzo clan, which lives on City Island in New York. Patriarch Andy Garcia is a prison guard who is secretly taking acting classes -- "secretly" because his artistic ambitions embarrass him.

His wife is played by Julianne Margulies, who suspects infidelity.

Their children -- a teenage girl and boy -- are moonlighting as a stripper and peeping tom, unbeknownst to their parents.

The entire family is full of secrets.

These secrets start to unravel when Garcia's acting teacher assigns his students a workshop exercise: to reveal their deepest secret to the whole class in a week's time. Garcia talks through the exercise with his acting partner, Emily Mortimer.

His deepest secret is this: he has recently encountered a new prisoner at the correctional facility where he works. He has reason to believe this new prisoner is his own illegitimate son conceived before he met his current wife.

But how to tell his family? He's mortally ashamed he walked away from the baby and its mother all those years ago. He can't even tell the illegitimate son, now a likeable car thief. He also can't watch the son he abandoned languish in prison.

So he does what seems logical within the framework of a comedy: he brings the prisoner home under his personal custody. This requires an elaborate lie to his family, which creates great confusion among them, but the audience never has any trouble following everyone's motivations.

And this is half the reason the movie works: it employs superior position to great effect.

The audience always knows more than the characters do. When Margulies starts making passes at the new house guest we enjoy it because neither of the characters involved know what they are actually doing.

The movie has outperformed its modest financial expectations, partly because the humor, while clever, is also broad, sometimes to the point of slapstick. City Island is a Hollywood comedy masquerading as an art-house comedy.

If it had been rolled out with a huge advertising campaign and a couple big-name stars, it would probably be rolling in money right now.

Instead, you'll have to find it on video or cable. But it's worth the search.

City Island is a comedy with actual laughs in it.

And laughs are always welcome!

SCORE

How Accomplished: 77/100

How Muh I Enjoyed: 79/100

Iron Man 2

I'm a simple man.

I like simple themes. Simple storylines. I want only a single antagonist per movie.

That's why I favor first movies in superhero franchises. First movies are forced to start at a saga's beginning, which imposes a kind of simplicity on their stories. So I'll take Batman Begins over Dark Knight, X-Men 1 over X-Men 2...

...and Iron Man 1 over Iron Man 2.

In IM2, Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark acquires a rival industrialist (Sam Rockwell), a rival irreverent genius (Mickey Rourke) and a rival Iron Man (Don Cheadle). His girlfriend Gwyneth Paltrow even acquires a rival for Stark's affections (Scarlett Johanson).

Also making appearances: Garry Shandling as a US Senator who wants Stark's technical secrets, Mad Men's John Slattery as a video recording of Stark's deceased father and Samuel Jackson in an extended role as Stark's future Avengers boss, Nick Fury.

The movie is about friendship and loyalty. It's about mortality. It's about atoning for crimes of the past. It's about every damn thing you can imagine.

There's just too much going on.

You can get away with this if everything is connected beneath the surface in a profound thematic way. But this is almost impossible to pull off.

Simplicity's the way to go.

Hollywood, of course, spurns simplicity because they like to pack as many stars into a project as they can. They think it helps with the marketing. But if your movie is Iron Man, the central character sells the movie without the need of "name" stars. And good special effects will beat lots of special effects any day.

But good is hard. Lots is easy.

And Hollywood likes it easy!

So Iron Man 2 kind of sucks. It lacks cohesion, identity and purpose.

Though I did somewhat enjoy the extended fight sequence that ends the movie.

Must have been all the special effects.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 32/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 30/100

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Harry Brown

Michael Caine is great. Don't get me wrong.

But Harry Brown is laughably bad.

Or at least it would be if it weren't so damn lethargic. It's hard to laugh at the absurdities of a plot that moves this slow. Come on, movie, let's pick up the pace!

Caine plays a former British Marine -- so far, so good -- who lives in a British tenement wracked with crime. When his elderly friend dies after antagonizing local hoodlums, Caine takes to the streets, vigilante-style.

Sounds kinda fun, right?

But all the fun parts are left out. Where's the scene where Caine, pushed over the edge at last, breaks out his old SAS weapons and starts to train himself for action? Doesn't exist. Where's the scene where he examines a map of the thugs' alley hangout, learning the best avenues of ingress and egress? Doesn't happen.

When Caine decides to start kicking ass, he just starts kicking ass. The transformation isn't prepared and therefore feels phony.

While we're at it, where's the delightfully twisted antagonist? Sadly, he's nowhere to be found. Our bad guy is a small-time drug dealer who is slightly overweight and uses the most foul language at every opportunity. This character would be a lackey in a better movie.

Curiously, there's a scene in Harry Brown -- the best in the movie -- where Caine encounters a scumbag who might have been a worthy antagonist. It takes place in a drug den, where Caine has gone to purchase a black-market weapon.

The scumbag in question is a shirtless, emaciated addict covered in scars, tattoos and piercings. His bulbous, unblinking eyes stare right into your soul while his slow, breathy delivery makes the most prosaic dialogue feel deeply threatening.

Now that's what I call a bad guy!

Unfortunately he gets blown away by Caine at the end of the scene. Such a shame. The movie really could have used that nightmarish psychopath.

Instead the climactic confrontation takes place between a geriatric Michael Caine and a tubby twentysomething wearing a hoodie. Not the stuff of gripping drama.

But it's the subplot that takes Harry Brown from bad to awful. It consists of Emily Mortimer's police inspector, tasked with investigating the Harry Brown killings. The movie cliche handbook is heavily relied upon as Mortimer must contend with a reluctant partner and a supervisor who thinks women inspectors have no place in the homicide division. (Harrumph!)

Poor Mortimer is forced to portray the worst police officer in recent memory. Not only are her eyes continually going moist with empathy -- an acting misstep that falls on the director -- but at the point of maximum danger she shows all the strength and courage of an early victim in a slasher flick.

The movie's writer and director are both newcomers to their roles, and it shows. Not only is there no authorial voice in Harry Brown, there isn't even a settled genre.

Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid said it best: "Walk on one side of road, fine. Walk on other side of road, fine. Walk in middle: squish! Like grape!"

Harry Brown tries to walk a middle road between realism and fantasy, action and drama.

Squish! Like grape!

SCORE

How Accomplished: 32/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 28/100