27 November 2014

The Funniest Movie of the Year for the Past 20 Years

Watching the atrocious Dumb and Dumber To (2014) has made me think a lot more about how great Dumb and Dumber (1994) is, which I'd consider one of the funniest movies of all time. But then I think about This is Spinal Tap (1984) or Blazing Saddles (1974) or The Jerk (1979) and have to reconsider. I think I can at least claim, however, that Dumb and Dumber is the funniest movie of 1994, which got me thinking - what movies can claim that title year by year? Comedy is always a subjective, contentious issue, so  take a look at my pics here and then feel free to troll the hell out of the comments:

1994: Dumb and Dumber

You could have figured this out by the heading of this post. There's very few more quotable comedies that are so keenly written in its dumbness. The plot is a loose construct for plenty of road-trip jokes but when it settles on Aspen and making fun of the erudite Colorado skiers, it really shines.

1995: Billy Madison

Between Madison and Happy Gilmore (1996) I always think this has an edge even if it's really just a prototypical man-child movie. There's so much subtle insanity to the world, though, which is constantly much stranger than Billy himself. From the sardonic High School principal to the unnecessarily lusty maid, there is so much more going on around Adam Sandler that pushes its modern surreal humour. Also every scene looks exactly like my Elementary School.

1996: Black Sheep

This was the first really difficult year. There are better comedy films out there for sure, like Kingpin or Fargo, but is anything funnier than Black Sheep? Kill whitey, hell no.

1997: Orgazmo

Austin Powers is the easy choice here, but to be honest, it's aged pretty poorly. And I still get hard when I hear those first few chords. Trey Parker and Matt Stone's humour was still developing here, but this is a surprisingly confident film full of shit like this that still cracks me up for no reason.

1998: The Big Lebowski

It's tempting to go with more late 90s efforts by the Farrellys or Matt and Trey, who dominated 90s humour, but when the Coens are on, they're on. The slow burn of how funny The Big Lebowski really is in undeniable, and while it may not necessarily be seen as a defining comedy movie (it does seem to defy genre), it's engrossing and endlessly re-watchable.

1999: Galaxy Quest

Going way outside the box, here, folks. American Pie is the most mainstream comedy of 1999 and Office Space is probably still the most relevant, but Galaxy Quest has put in its time, if only as an eerily canny Star Trek spoof. I just wish J.J. Abrams had seen it.

2000: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Again, we have a pretty mainstream option in Meet the Parents here, but I can't tell you the last time I watched it, and despite renewed relevance through James Franco, I'm leaning towards Coens again, because Dude, Where's My Car? also just feels old.

2001: Zoolander

2001 is tough. Why is 2001 so tough? Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back may win on jokes, but it's not a very good movie, and the references wear thin. Wet Hot American Summer is also far more subtle, but is that a good thing? It's more conceptual than laugh-out-loud. It really hurts to knock off Super Troopers, but I've seen both recently and Zoolander just wins. By now it feels like it should be overrated, but it just wins.

2002: Jackass: The Movie

I feel like every year has one comedy that irks its way onto College Campuses and is seen enough to be quoted to death and revered without ever really being that good. In 2002 this was National Lampoon's Van Wilder, which has been diminished through a decade of sequels and knock-offs. I thought about going way outside the box with Kung Pow: Enter the Fist, but I'm not sure its anti-comedy holds up. So let's go with most laughs per minute.

2003: ELF

2003 is an incredible year for comedy, particularly Christmas flicks on either side of the spectrum - Bad Santa and ELF as well as Will Ferrell vehicles on either side of the spectrum - Old School and ELF. Let's split the difference and hit what's probably one of the more unique comedies on this list - an immortal, hilarious, at time subversive Christmas picture that also gave us a blonde Zooey Deschanel.

2004: Shaun of the Dead

Anchorman probably leads quotes, although Napoleon Dynamite can't be too far behind. It broke my heart not to give this to Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, but there are far too many chuckly character moments in Shaun of the Dead that really hit on point to ignore it here.

2005: Wedding Crashers

There's a clear battle here between this and The 40-Year Old Virgin, but you need only to remember that first time you saw Wedding Crashers - it's the movie that made everyone involved a star and for damn good reason. Pre-critical mass Vince Vaughn is a spectacle to behold.

2006: Beerfest

For the longest time I informally considered Clerks 2 to be 2006's funniest movie, but I think it needs to step down to Beerfest, which has held up a little better. Clerks 2 mostly boils down to poor acting and a donkey show, which also echoes throughout Borat, which is a strong contender. I once called Borat one of the best films of the decade. It may now slide into that "enjoyable" slot (jeez look at that list on that page - you should no longer be surprised by most of these musings here), and I'm not sure I've revisited it all that much since.

2007: Superbad

This and Knocked Up felt so similar - sharing a similar cast and producers and coming out pretty close to each other, both being really funny and really surprising successes. I'm leaning towards Superbad being funnier, although you can switch the titles around in this paragraph and come to no stronger a conclusion.

2008: Tropic Thunder

An unsung contender here is Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which was a little quieter upon release, and has much better character work than just about any other film here, but I've got to hand the crown to Tropic Thunder, which blew me away upon release. Damn, I forgot about Pineapple Express...wait...what was I doing here?

2009: The Hangover

There's not really a debate here. I actually still think the sequel is funnier (even though it's, you know, the same movie), but The Hangover is a giant in 2009 and instantly entered that hall of immortal comedies. Hell, it even brought back Mike Tyson so he could be solving mysteries to this day.

2010: Get Him to the Greek

Tough call between this and The Other Guys - the latter may be more mainstream (is it?), but when you're comparing scenes between Mark Wahlberg and Sean Combs you know you've stumbled into a weird place. I want to go with this movie because I love every second of it, I already dissed Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and I listen to Infant Sorrow constantly.

2011: The Muppets

Here's another year where the two funniest films are on complete opposite ends of the spectrum. Bridesmaids holds a mean fight against The Muppets, but there's no "travel by map" in sight, so fuck that. It's tough to remember a theater experience laughing as hard as I did for The Muppets. Actually, I think I brought a flask to that one.

2012: The Campaign

I think that over time, 21 Jump Street has emerged the champion of 2012, and The Campaign sort of got swept under the rug, and I trashed it after I saw it for not taking a tough enough stand. Actually read that first paragraph, oh jeez. Comment on this one, folks. Two years down the road I think it's incredibly underrated, and an especially fitting team-up of Ferrell and Galifianakis who are gods of this yearly list.

2013: This is The End

Here is where I reached Muppets-level in-theater laughter without even a flask in hand! This is still one of my all-time favourite movies that I thought hit every note perfectly while having some really interesting things to say about the public personas of film actors. The Backstreet Boys ending still leaves something to be desired, but I can deal with it for the preceding ninety minutes of hilarity.

2014: 22 Jump Street

I've talked a lot about my problems with 22 Jump Street, I in fact, JUST talked about it, but it's still the funniest movie of the year by a wide margin. Neighbors comes close, and I'm curious which of these movies we're talking about a few years from now, but for now, it's all Jump Street.

Damn, is it Thanksgiving? What are you doing reading this? Go watch Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987) for goodness sake!

And argue away in the comments! This is especially ripe for discussion - do you think that even my contenders should be contenders?

26 November 2014

First Impressions: Dumb and Dumber To

I am happy to announce that after seeing this, everything I said would be wrong, happened. This is not a good movie in any sort of way, and possibly even reaches worse depths than Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd (2003). At least this holds up and the franchise isn't ruined because another terrible movie already did that to Dumb and Dumber (1994). The big question here, though, is how did a sequel to one of the funniest movies of all time, featuring the same directors and cast, completely fail?

The simple reason is that a lot can change in twenty years, and while 1994 was the start of a hot streak for the Farrelly Brothers, which has cooled considerably, as well as Jim Carrey's comedic peak, saying that a movie should be good because all the same people are back doesn't really have any merit. Not only is it really tough to replicate long-term success, especially in comedy as voices and tastes change, but there's never going to be any comedic value to a property that lacks strong story and characters, which Dumb and Dumber To (2014) bungles for no good reason other than a desperate outstretching of effort. Needless to say, if you care, SPOILERS for this wretched sin against God come from here on out.

Comedy sequels are always really hard to do, because it's so easy to fall into the same jokes and plots that worked the first time. I've spoken at length about this this year, notably with 22 Jump Street (2014), both in my preview and review. 22 Jump Street is simultaneously spectacular and problematic because it surpasses its predecessor in humour in nearly every way, and pushes its meta-content to a ridiculous level. What I argued brought it down, however, was the fact that although it's continually commenting and consciously fighting against itself to "do the same thing it did last time," it ultimately doesn't break from the plot beats established in 21 Jump Street (2012). Therefore, it kind of has its cake and eats it too: it's able to make fun of every stupid sequel that just does the same thing while it, itself, does the same thing.

22 Jump Street gets away with this, however, because it has such strong character moments - which in an artfully crafted comedy, leads to the funniest parts in the film. The funniest moments are all steeped in character interactions, specifically between Jonah Hill, C-Tates and Ice Cube. These moments happen because the characters are well constructed with easily recognizable traits, desires, motivations, and conflicting opinions that bounce off each other in interesting, and often very hilarious ways. I was really sour on 22 Jump Street when it first came out, but by now the humour has grown on me and I can appreciate it much more for what it is trying to do.
There were some creative vehicle choices.

The point of all this in a post ostensibly about Dumb and Dumber To is that a movie with as canny a pair of directors as the Farrellys cannot make this film in a post-22 Jump Street world. It did too good a job of calling out these stupid cash grab sequels. Comedies by their nature should be biting at this - not necessarily in a meta way, but comedians should have some kind of self-awareness. That's where satire comes from - letting people in on the joke of life. If The Three Stooges (2012) is any indication, though, the Farrelly Brothers actually have no idea how to be self-aware, use it to their comedic advantage, or have any idea how to deliver what people want. They are insanely out of touch with their audience, which again, is mind-blowing considering they offered easily three of the Top Comedies of the 90s (Kingpin [1996] and There's Something About Mary [1998] are the others). Perhaps that's just it - they left all their sensibilities in the 90s.

Despite my ranting about 22 Jump Street and that film's own ranting about sequels themselves, there have actually been some high profile comedies lately that completely or mostly threw out what came before. Horrible Bosses 2 (2014) offers strong character work with a fresh(-ish) premise that doesn't beat for beat follow its predecessor, even if that was a mostly toothless comedy (ooooh targeting bosses? No one has thought to hate those). More relevant, though, is Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013), which I would calmly say surpassed its predecessor on nearly every level. I think it got some flack for this, strangely - it wasn't as quotable as Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004), and nearly didn't have any callbacks, which I think people were expecting. We're literally in an age where we can neither create wholly new sequels nor carbon copy sequels. I, frankly, want new every time, if new fails. Anchorman 2 is an excellent example of a long-term sequel that was highly anticipated and did pretty damn well.

Dumb and Dumber To is pretty bad, but it looks much worse in comparison to these flicks for not fitting into this new world. It's also weird how it resists for a really long time, but the only result of this is an aimless first half-hour that doesn't know what it's doing. And the jokes aren't even that bad, and once the film gets rolling on the road with the two characters, becoming more focused on just putting them in wacky situations, it finds some sweet spots. But the primary reason for its dismal reception comes down to the characters, chiefly Jim Carrey. There is just a lack of tact to the film that renders Carrey completely unsympathetic, which is essential to buying into the film. Again, we need to talk about how character is the basis of the film, and there's so much distance here because of how awful his character is that the rest completely falls about. The audience can't buy into his hijinks.

Now, Lloyd Christmas is essentially the same character, which is a pretty dark and selfish character to begin with, but in Dumb and Dumber, he came across as simply more innocent and misguided than just blatantly mean. It's not like this is an outrageous thing for Carrey's comic persona, but if you're going to go this nuts with his unscrupulousness, you need to have some kind of balance. Like The Cable Guy (1996) worked because Carrey was the kind of annoying sociopath character he always played, but people reacted reasonably and hated him within that film's world. This is why The Cable Guy is an incredible commentary on these kinds of films the same way Funny People (2009) used Adam Sandler to comment on Adam Sandler. It is clear, however, that neither Carrey nor Sandler understood this, or if they did, like money more.

For a flick made in 2014, this is also strangely misogynistic and racist. Harry and Lloyd sort of acted like this back in the day, but that was really them being immature more than anything - it was expressed as them having that 14-year old boy mentality ("Nice set of hooters you got there."), that was more out of naïveté than degradation. But things like laughing at a woman doctor and Jim Carrey busting at Harry's Asian parents come off as really inappropriate. It's not like it's being dark or edgy by pushing the envelope - look at Neighbors (2014), which uses the n-word twice and comes across as less racist. You can even cite That's My Boy (2012) or The Campaign (2012) as recent comedies with blatantly racist jokes, but they at least showed their victims as actual human beings that both got back at their ignorant oppressors. Carrey makes fun of the Asians as stereotypes but they're nothing but stereotypes and there's no comeuppance, which is kind of awful.

I think this has something to do with the age of the principal duo. It seems okay when they are younger and can play up being a little ignorant, but as 50-somethings it feels really wrong. It's less confused and more mean, which isn't great for sympathizing with the protagonists, which is a huge part of getting into this movie. And it's not like Jeff Daniels was making Black jokes at Victoria Rowell - there's not really a history of the kind of anti-social behavior on display here.

To some part I get it, I mean, the movie does piece together the fact that these guys are the dumbest folks on the planet and that only they would think to laugh at the idea of a woman doctor. In its own way the film is saying that these kinds of attitudes are really dumb, but at the same time it's again this issue where it renders the characters more unsympathetic rather than providing any artful meta-commentary. And dude, I loved That's My Boy - seriously, I'm one of the only people on the planet to do so - I really dig this kind of unapologetic crudeness, but it doesn't work in Dumb and Dumber To.

If we're comparing the two films, and we can pretty easily, because it's essentially about two characters who are trying to like each other, but keep being dicks to each other, which pushes them apart, we can see some reasoning here. Adam Sandler is clearly analogous to Jim Carrey and Andy Samberg can be our Jeff Daniels. While Sandler ruins his life, it's ultimately for the better and he helps Samberg shed some shackles and become who he really is inside. This is after Sandler humbles himself and finds redemption of his own. The only brief bit that comes close to this in Dumb and Dumber To is Lloyd's realization that the daughter he wants to bang is actually his, which is such a revelation on its own (one that I thought was awfully clever and a nearly perfect way to grow both characters...until the film reneged it). This is fuddled, however, by the pressing background issue of Harry's kidney need, which is also completely fake.
Oh yeah, and these two. I'm not even going to
talk about these two. Rob Riggle was pretty great, actually.

Every real moment of character growth in this film is undermined, and again, look at any of the other comedies I've listed here that share similar moments of grotesque, crudeness, and hilarity - it's not like this film needed to shed any sentimentality to be funny. Dumb and Dumber (2014) keenly pushed its complicated background sub-story behind, to the point where it's incomprehensible, but deftly so that it didn't interfere with the main story. The sequel puts way too much emphasis on the weirdly complicated kill-the-old-genius plot along with the kidney thing that distracts from what the movie is actually about, which is this father / daughter relationship that doesn't actually exist. This ultimately creates a really hollow experience.

The reveal that neither has ever had sex, or even knows what sex is is decent, but part of the film would have been a bit more interesting if they stuck with the reveal that Fanny Felcher was Lloyd's daughter. She's such a dead ringer for it, and actress, Rachel Melvin does a nice job keeping up with the dumb leads. At least 22 Jump Street had Rooster's High School football team be the Plainview Red Herrings. The film's concluding notion that Felcher is better off living with her biological grandparents, who are the parents of a guy from the past named "Pee Stain" that died directly because of actions taken by Lloyd, is a disheartening vote of no confidence in the film's leads.

It's a similar ending to Dumb and Dumber in that the duo are two dumb to hold on to a good thing when they have it, but the key is that they of their own ignorant volition discarded the first film's gift of being Bikini Tour Oil Boys and here a redemptive fatherhood (and let's face it, whoever the father was, the other would have a large role to play with equal character pay-off, and Harry would have made a much better uncle because he wouldn't be trying to fuck Lloyd's daughter all the time) is stolen away from them, seemingly at the cruel behest of the film itself in an otherwise arbitrary move. And by all means, Fanny would have been pretty happy hanging out with Lloyd and Harry for the foreseeable future. She was just a rare, perfect match for them. Mostly because of dumbness.

But do you know what this film's greatest sin was? Putting Bill Murray and Jim Carrey on the same set without anyone ever knowing about it and completely squandering that opportunity in a forgettable Breaking Bad gag.

Fuck you, Farrelly Brothers.

16 November 2014

First Impressions: Interstellar

There's always been this tension between movie theaters and home entertainment, at least since TV gained mainstream popularity in the 1950s which led to all those zany "epic" movies of the 1960s that attempted to draw people back to the cinema. Nowadays, thanks to viewing options at home being generally better than that of a movie theater in every possible way, it's tougher and tougher to get people out to the movies.

Or at least that's the myth Hollywood would like to sell you. There's some argument that ticket sales aren't what they should be, but movies have never made more money at the theaters worldwide, even if inflation is outpacing them a bit. The core struggle then started with the advent of VHS, which meant we didn't have to wait for re-issues in theaters or basic TV airings to re-watch our favorite movies. Nowadays we call this option, "Blu-Ray." And it's pretty great. There's really no reason to sit in a dark, crummy, sticky theater watching a half an hour of commercials before a highly anticipated film anymore.
The real star of the movie. Sorry, I mean black hole of the movie.

Every once in a while, though, a movie will come along that demands to be seen in the Bijou. Last year that movie was Gravity (2013). This year it's Interstellar (2014). I'm not sure if all such movies in the future will be IMAX space movies, but whatever. Interstellar is the latest from Chris Nolan, who seems to really really struggle to make a poor film. Although in all honesty, he has plenty of time to screw up, as this is really only his fifth original full-length studio film in addition to his three Batman movies. Between this and Inception (2010), though, he's getting this knack for directing really epic films with hard science-fiction bends combined with esoteric intellectual diversions that would otherwise never see the light of day. And that's a good thing because a film like Interstellar needs the kind of budget that a dude like Nolan can guarantee. And for sure, SPOILERS from here on out.

And this thing looks gorgeous. I was fortunate enough to see it in 70 mm IMAX, which was a gorgeous, seat-shaking spectacle to enjoy. It's also a passionate expression for the worth of film above digital, which Nolan has been pretty vocal about. There's just no denying that Interstellar looks amazing, which when you're crafting black hole rendering software so advanced that papers are written about it, it's a solid trip.

A guy like Steve Spielberg might have been able to pull off Interstellar as well, and a version from his hands would have been pretty interesting. You can actually see a lot more of Spielbergisms than Nolanisms in this, from the focus on family relationships, particularly the viewpoints of awe-struck children, to the (seemingly) presence of extra-dimensional beings that guide our protagonists, which could be right out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). It's very much a Nolan humanist move to make those extra-dimensional beings actually future humans.

Nolan's not only a hardcore humanist but first and foremost a realist, which certainly informs this entire film. The science is pretty realistic and based on a lot of the works of a dude named Kip Thorn, who is mostly agreeable. Some of the Internet, it would seem, is regurgitating a lot of this science and seems perplexed by the density of how much the film plays with the nature of humans experiencing bends in space-time based on Einstein's Theory of Relativity. I understood most of it, which I realised is mostly due to Neil deGrasse Tyson's Cosmos that aired earlier this year, which in turn inspired a healthy amount of googling. There is some merit in a movie version of Cosmos that is also fueled by a pretty compelling narrative.

The rest of Interstellar borrows bits from The Astronaut Farmer (2006), Gravity, and especially at the end, comes as close as we're going to get to a modern adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). All those movies, though, although perhaps aesthetically similar or similar in certain plot details, were about pretty different things, which allows Interstellar to stand on its own. For instance, Gravity was all about one woman's struggle for survival. Interstellar is chiefly about a father fulfilling a promise to his daughter. With splashes of balancing that desire with a general desire to save humanity strewn in there.

This balance of character desires is really really good screenwriting. There's all this underlying personal baggage to every character in the film, which is unfortunate, because they're all tasked with saving the residents of Planet Earth. Only Wes Bentley and the Black Guy (David Gyasi) seem to be reasonable people on the mission. This includes everyone who came before them, like Dr. Mann.

That's a little on the nose, by the way - that Mann is the closest thing we have to a villain in this film. Yes, man is evil and should not be trusted. The interesting bit is how Mann and Michael Caine thought outside of themselves and their own loved ones in order to ensure the survival of the species. They're thinking on a much grander scale than anyone else in the film, and although their actions may be selfish, they're pretty human in their sacrifices, full of regret and longing. It works well as a way to humanize the bad guys in this film without stooping to either blatant evil or making the villains needless sympathetic (I always think of the Sandman in Spider-Man 3 [2007] as a film that tried to over-humanize its villain's motivations, which ended up conflicting with his actions). They're still not even villains, really, just characters with motivations that conflict with the survival of our immediate characters. Hell, that's a great PC villain description if there ever was one.

I'd like to get to the rest of the characters and actors a bit later. Let's talk first about this vision of the future that Nolan is highlighting, because he's never really done science fiction like this before, again because of his realism. There are some easy comparisons to Inception in the sense that these are both intellectual blockbusters that aren't really that hard to figure out conceptually, but really just use a surface-level complex plot to mask some important themes that cut to the heart of human nature. Also like Inception, it's all about a dad going to insane lengths to get back to his kids. With Inception it was reaching across dreams and sub-consciousnesses, with Interstellar it's a mutli-million mile journey across time and space. Kids are important, after all.

I thought a little of Looper (2012) at the start of this film, just because Nolan's crafting a very foreseeable future, here, which is terrifying. This is only natural, though, because he's a filmmaker who very much stays within the bounds of plausibility. This is, after all, the man who took one of the most outlandish superheroes, one that has spent much more time in camp than badassery, and created this whole "gritty" superhero film revolution. Nolan has made his buck on the serious-minded treatment of the outrageous, and he does it with such a careful hand that no one really rebuffs him. I mean, I do, because the self-seriousness of his films constantly borders on pretentiousness, but there is also a simple fact that these are really well-constructed movies that always make audiences think. And since they're usually successful, I would consider getting many people to think is a good thing. The only unfortunate after-effect is the attempt of other studios to apply this treatment to other properties with a less deft hand, which results in strange tonal clashes in films like The Lone Ranger (2013) or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014).

Anyway, the future is plausible and terrifying. It's no accident that the most common profession in Interstellar's future is farming, only corn is left, and there's a stringent run of anti-intellectualism and anti-science running throughout earth. It's about time that some mainstream film paid attention to the growing food crisis worldwide, and particularly rampant under the corn empire in this country. As if the Relativity parts seemed lifted from Cosmos, this seemed lifted from a recent multi-issue series from National Geographic concerning the daunting task of feeding 9 billion people in a few years. It's easy to see corn as everyone's answer, because corn is in everything anyway, especially animal feed, which is where most of our grown corn ends up.
And Catwoman herself!

There's also this inherently misguided notion towards world problem-solving where kids are taught to give up on their dreams and instead focus on short-term solutions to humanity's hunger. Interstellar's society isn't concerned with anything but growing food, which isn't really a move towards sustainability. It's a subtle argument, but the film constantly bemoans an engineer living a farmer's life, the fact that no one's inventing anything anymore, and how our paranoia and insecurity has caused us to lean increasingly Luddite lives, to the point of re-writing history to make us seem less great technologically. There's also potshots at an institutionalised school system that squashes creative thought in favor of the pursuit of these misguided solutions. Murph is clearly a child prodigy and for most of the film Matt McConaughey is the sort of lovable dad who encourages us to cause trouble that we've always wanted. Thanks, buddy.

Once the film leaves the ignorance of Planet Earth behind, it becomes this dialogue, often brought to the text of the film, between the value of saving loved ones vs. saving the species. It ruminates at length over the power of human love, which comes across as so less corny as writing it does here. It's love's ability to focus human caring on a very specific fellow member of the species or the entire species as a whole. I remember this conversation with the Architect of the Matrix, actually. And I figured out that Love is the most powerful force in the Universe like 11 years ago. Seriously, my buddy and I made formulas. Way stronger than gravity.

So, sticking with this, I actually knew very little about this movie going into it. I actually didn't even know Anne Hathaway was in it until I saw a screenshot of her on some online article the day I saw it. So while watching this film it was cool to go along and then say, "Oh shit! Casey Affleck?! Whoa! Jessica Chastain?! MATT DAMON?! Ok, Topher Grace." The cast does a really nice job, and it's worthwhile to stand back and think for a second, "Wait, this movie has four Academy Award winners among its principal cast? Holy shit." But really, this is the McConaughey show.

Finally, finally, the McConaissance has a blockbuster poster child. It's the latest solidification of his comeback as an actor, to top his recent journey into respectable indie filmmaking and his turn in one of the greatest shows of our age, True Detective. And not every Hollywood beefcake can play a scientist. For realz. It really feels like this capper on a great year this dude has had. And of course I have to comment that like every Nolan hero ever, he is a white male with a dead wife / lover. Actually I don't think Pacino had one in Insomnia (2002), right? Anyway, my loud laughter when McConaughey said his wife was dead, because Nolan does this so often was certainly inappropriate.

So, Interstellar is sweet. It's full of really down to earth domestic themes as well as very high, cosmic trippy, "humanity's place in the universe"-type themes with awesome genuine character beats, a coherent and compelling story, and a gorgeous-looking iconic aesthetic design. Hot damn this was a good fucking movie, folks.

14 November 2014

The Road to a Blockbuster: Dumb and Dumber To

You've got two options tonite if you're a fan of Dumb and Dumber (1994). You can either watch it on TV on Comedy Central (or well...anywhere, you know how to use the Internet), or you can watch the sequel, Dumb and Dumber To (2014) in theaters. I suppose you could watch Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd (2003), but the less we talk about the better. There are a certain amount of issues at stake with the debut of this new sequel, and it's worth taking a moment to examine.

Now, it'd be easy to just deride this as a meaningless cashgrab sequel that no one really wanted, but that's a bit simple and reductive. I'd like to instead consider pieces that made the first one great, issues with the Farrelly Brothers, and maybe, even some redemptive elements to be found. Let's first revisit that original, timeless comedy.
And a nice chianti

I say timeless, but actually, re-watching Dumb and Dumber lately reminds me of just how 90s it is. I'd still consider it one of the all-time greatest comedies, but it is crazy 90s. That one moment where Lloyd and Harry leave each other while the Crash Test Dummies "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm" plays in the background doesn't really have enough notoriety as the most 90s moment ever. Watch that scene and try not to flashback to the Clinton years. It's also similar to a lot of Seinfeld episodes with the core conceit that the entire plot could be pretty easily prevented with a simple cell phone call.

The film also hinges on the youth of its actors, Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels as these hapless 30-somethings somewhere between youth and maturity, who pull off extreme dumbness while their exaggerated arrested development mixes with these bits of childish attempts at being grown-ups ("a rapist wit," Lloyd's purchase of "essentials," which mostly involves porno, beer, oversized hats, and pinwheels). Yeah, as a kid I never put it together that he loses his wallet trying to obtain a copy of Rhode Island Slut. So, the first strike against a sequel coming out in 2014.

There's plenty in the film, though, that's really funny that's not dependent on age or timing. And while it's arguable whether or not Jim Carrey has evolved as an actor since 1994 (He has for sure. As a comedic actor maybe not), Jeff Daniels certainly has earned some notable chops as a dramatic actor in his middle age. Again, has Jeff Daniels really proved he can do comedy to the heights he did in 1994? Not really. One ray of hope is the return of the original directors, Peter and Bobby Farrelly.

The Farrelly Brothers actually have a truly insane sliding scale with their films. They followed up Dumb and Dumber with Kingpin (1996), which maybe didn't reach mainstream audiences the same way their other 90s comedies did, but contains some pretty damn strong character work and storytelling. There's Something About Mary (1998) is probably their most notable film in terms of both financial and cultural success, but after that it gets rough. I mean, REAL rough.

I'd contend that Me, Myself, and Irene (2000) had its moments while never really connecting as a whole. I'm not sure if you can even really consider Osmosis Jones (2001) their own because they had nothing to do with the animated portions, which weren't altogether terrible. Then they have a legendary run of shititude with Shallow Hal (2001), Stuck on You (2003), Fever Pitch (2005), The Heartbreak Kid (2007), Hall Pass (2011), and The Three Stooges (2012). There's a mind-numbing descent into hell there, my friends. Out of that lot I actually think the funniness of Hall Pass is underrated and Shallow Hal is at least memorable, but look at the rest of this shit. How did the creator of three of the greatest comedies of the 90s release some of the worst studio comedies of the past decade and a half?
This alone could be worth it. Right?

The simple answer is that comedy is hard, particularly for career comedy directors who only really have one voice, which they demonstrated pretty well in their first efforts and then stretched and mutated for eight additional films without ever really evolving. I'd suggest that the Farrelly's at least understand story even if their comedies have been missing the mark in humour lately. It would be worth their while to branch out a bit and stretch their creativity. Part of another reason that Dumb and Dumber worked so well is because it's really a movie about nothing - it's just a pair of dumb guys interacting with people across the country. It's also two movies in one that allows itself to get away with being at first an expert study of the heightened degree of patheticness of the lives of these idiots, and then it shifts to look at what would happen if they had a ton of money. It's just an excuse to riff on these ridiculous situations that's really free-flowing and unpredictable while crafting all these really genuine characters.

Okay, I will jump on the completely unnecessary bandwagon criticism, too, if only to again expose my biggest issue with sequels like this. So often we tend to pour all this energy and expectation into these rehashes or sequels that try to match their predecessors instead of creating something new. I'm not really looking for a Dumb and Dumber sequel, but I'd like to see the Farrelly's (or anyone) match the film and create a new property that we're complaining about getting bastardized in 2034. Seriously - do you think we'll get a Neighbors To in 2034? Man I hope so. I'd rather see the next Jim Carrey than the old Jim Carrey try to be the new Jim Carrey. And if you think that's unfair, look at what Bill Murray has been able to do with his career (actually become an actor and evolve rather than fall back on what got him there).

This is so much against Dumb and Dumber To, but in all honesty, the trailer doesn't look that bad. Yeah, it seems pretty funny. Maybe that's all it needs to be.

03 November 2014

Because it's on TV: Why Sleepy Hollow is Television's Best Worst Show

Wait a second...

Anyway, a nice meaty post about Sleepy Hollow has been brewing inside me for a while. Since at least when I started paying attention to this maniacal thing last year. I still really stand by that Walking Dead post, by the way, and although I've heard better things about it, that taste in my mouth is just too sour for me to really climb back into the bosom of Rick and Carl. The title of TV's Best Worst Show is perhaps a misnomer for The Walking Dead, because no part of it is "best" at all. I wouldn't call it TV's worst show by any means, but it's certainly trying hard to bring zombie genre fare to the forefront of mainstream critically acclaimed programming, and while doing so has become really really hackneyed without shifting its tone of being half-prestigious / half-gory. I'm not sure quite what to feel about The Walking Dead right now, but it doesn't deserve that title I gave it.
And Clifford Franklin, himself! Seriously, in 1999 would you
ever think Orlando Jones could pull off being this dramatic?

Sleepy Hollow sure as fuck does. Sleepy Hollow is pure insanity taken to the maximum extent. It's a genre show that relishes its genre-ness. I'm confounded tuning into this monstrosity each week while staring at disbelief at what has been turned into a show. It's a delectably creepy mix of the occult, history, science fiction, and cop procedural. And unlike The Walking Dead, I've kept watching, because at least the characters are consistent.

I don't mean to oversell the zaniness, but part of the show's appeal is how completely schizophrenic the plot is while maintaining a difficult air of somberness and guilty-pleasure inducing self-aware fish-out-of-water humour. The riff of a basic Sleepy Hollow episode goes as follows: Ichabod Crane, who is actually not a historical character, but a historical fictional character, and some chick he ran into in modern day find A) a seemingly innocuous artifact left by a founding father that is crazy magical, B) a terrifying twist on an old fable, or C) some kind of monster that will fight either with them or against them that in some way adds to the coming Apocalypse.

It's a rhythm the show rarely deviates from. Along the way we get pleasurable sidenotes about how Ichabod Crane was best buds with Washington, Franklin, and Sam Adams for some reason, which contrast our modern mythologizing with reality, faux or otherwise. The fish-out-of-water stuff is lessening by now as Crane's pretty adapted, although there's still amusing anecdotes about Crane's aversion to everything from the vagabondery of today to some pithy ranting against the power of unfailable yet deregulated banks. It's solid.

Oh, and the Headless Horseman. What's basically Vice-President Agnew, this show has turned into the Horseman of Death. Yes, THAT Horseman of Death. While it spent a good amount of time finding its footing establishing a real world around Lt. Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie, who is crazily game for this nonsense), it's now really nothing more than a weekly creature feature that has more in common with The X-Files than anything else. That's not a bad thing. Except The X-Files had immortal characters walking a fine line of skepticism and belief. Sleepy Hollow is all belief, and if not, you'll probably be killed by a Wendigo.

I find it really fascinating examining the episodic nature of this show, because it always feels so serial. In every episode they're "running out of time," "the Apocalypse is near," and "with this artifact, the Horseman of War (John Noble, fresh off the set of Fringe) will doom us all." But then none of that shit happens, the dire consequences are solved by episode's end and next week there's something else that's dooming humanity. I don't even really have a complaint about the illusion of stakes, I'm too busy being impressed by the new shit they come up with each week. You'd think they could get a couple episodes out of Ben Franklin's kite key (WHICH OPENS UP A DOOR TO HELL), but they wrap that up pretty nicely.

Sleepy Hollow wears its doofiness on its sleeve while fully committing to its creepiness, historicalness, and Relevations-centric plotting. It all makes for a damned fun experience that avoids artificial drama in favor of THE HEADLESS HORSEMAN SEDUCING ICHABOD CRANE'S WITCH WIFE. How can you write that sentence in a serious show? Sleepy Hollow treats that shit deadly serious, which makes it a show worth watching. You can catch it tonight. In like, two hours.
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