Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Dictator and God Bless America: Two overly preachy disappointments

Sacha Baron Cohen created one of the all-time best comedic characters ever to grace movie screens with 2006's Borat, and made me laugh uncomfortably loud during 2009's Bruno.  Since then, Cohen has remained busy with supporting roles (including a part in the Academy-award winning film Hugo), but The Dictator marks not only his return to the spotlight, alongside his fellow writer and director Larry Charles (Seinfeld, Religulous), but also a whole slew of often unfunny in-character talk show appearances (am I wrong in thinking 'poor Ryan Seacrest'?).  When this project was first announced I was hoping that it would follow suit with the last two outings and place Cohen in real situations, in a "prank" styled mockumentary - but with a watch of the trailer it's obvious that that concept would be abandoned for a straightforward narrative film. Cohen states in interviews that it's because people are now too keen on his shenanigans for him to pull it off again.  I still had high hopes for this movie though, hoping perhaps that Cohen might again be able to provide big laughs while providing some social commentary.  Unfortunately, it all just ends up falling flat, like a soda that's been sitting in a car too long.

The Dictator is filled with raunchy jokes, and even though they follow that "shock the audience" formula that made the other outings so hilarious, the whole thing still almost feels "safe."  And the social commentary that Cohen is known for feels really forced and inorganic to the movie.  Part of this might be attributed to the fact that you aren't getting "real" people in this movie.  Whereas in Borat or Bruno, the social commentary came straight from Cohen's brilliant social experiments, The Dictator force-feeds us the "lessons" and it comes off really preachy.  Although there are moments in this movie that really shine (such as the helicopter scene seen in the trailer), it just felt muddled and lacking.  Many of the jokes were already shown in the trailer, and I was constantly thinking in my head that it might get better...but it never did.

Rating: C-

One of my favorite movies of 2009 was the very under-the-radar flick World's Greatest Dad.  Directed by Police Academy star Bobcat Goldthwait, the film gave Robin Williams one of his best roles in a long, long time, and I just clicked with its dark and twisted, yet comical tone.  So when I heard of God Bless America, Goldthwait's follow up to World's Greatest Dad, I was stoked, especially upon hearing that it was about a guy going on a killing spree, only killing the biggest jerks in America, like reality TV stars and unappreciative spoiled rich kids.  It was a great concept, but much like The Dictator, it ended up becoming too preachy and there was not enough story to latch on to.

Again, similarly to The Dictator, God Bless America was not without its moments.  I enjoyed the fake TV shows that obviously resemble certain reality shows, and there are some moments of violence (especially one towards the very beginning) that are quite shocking.  I do have to say though, some of the blood effects feature really bad CGI, which there's no real excuse for; I don't care how "indie" this is, I think you can afford some fake blood.  I also liked the two main actors (although their dialogue left a LOT to be desired), who I thought kept a strange, yet believable chemistry.  If you want to watch the cinematic equivalent of a 50 year old ranting on and on about how reality TV is terrible with some awkward dialogue and somewhat enjoyable sequences of shooting sprinkled in, have a blast.  I just wished that it had more of what made World's Greatest Dad so great: a story.

Rating: C-

Monday, May 7, 2012

That little indie film called The Avengers

For those who stuck it out until after the credits of Iron Man, many of us shat a brick when a one-eyed Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury presented himself to Tony Stark to talk about a little program called the Avengers Initiative.  Four years and four movies later (Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America), every comic book fanboy's wet dream has come and it's time for the heroes to unite in the most epically-scaled movie possibly ever.  Really, just the fact that this movie exists is an accomplishment. As far as I know, no other movie series has done this - taking a bunch of characters from their own universes and bringing them together for one superhero supergroup.  The fact that Joss Whedon (Firefly, Buffy) was at the helm really made me less weary about this; if anyone would be able to pull of this ridiculously difficult balancing act of integrating all of these heroes together it would be him.

So how did it turn out?  The consensus from everybody on the planet seems to be that it "kicked ass."  Now, I would agree with that in some aspects, but I truly felt a little disappointed in the film.  I know I'm in the extreme minority on this one.  First off what I liked: the action and how it was handled.  With maybe 7 characters that needed their moments (including Iron Man, Hulk, Cap', Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and the villain Loki) I think all of them have at least one great scene.  Some are given more time than others, but what do you expect?  Considering what he had to do, I don't think Whedon could have done much better.  I loved the fact that these wildly different characters are interacting, and in interesting ways.  The action is extremely well handled, and the way the camera moves from hero to hero in the 20-30 minute battle scene at the end (spoiled endlessly in the trailer) is top notch.
The Avengers - Hulk
Of all the heroes in the movie, and I was not expecting this, the Hulk is probably the best.  Mark Ruffalo plays it really well and in a subdued performance as Bruce Banner.  The Hulk actually resembles Ruffalo as well, and is by far the most fun to watch during the final New York battle scene.  As opposed to her non-character in Iron Man 2, Black Widow is also given a lot of cool moments in the film, and really is more fleshed out.  I thought Tom Hiddleston as Thor's brother Loki was a great villain, and he should given an honorary award at the Oscars for Best Evil Grin.  The only two major parts lacking I thought were Jeremy Renner as the bow-and-arrow wielding Hawkeye and Sam Jackson as the aforementioned Nick Fury.  Although he is smushed into the main team of the Avengers, Hawkeye was the only character that didn't have much personality other than being BA (that's "bad ass" in hip teen lingo).  And even though Samuel L. Jackson is an amazing actor (Pulp Fiction is one of my all-time favorite films), as soon as he enters a "big" role like Nick Fury or Mace Windu from Star Wars, for whatever reason he's just not the Sam Jackson.

For all it had going for it though, I just couldn't dig it, sorry.  The characters all work and their interactions are awesome, but what they are fighting for I couldn't give a rat's ass about.  Much like a lot of recent summer blockbusters, the plot is almost an excuse for the action.  The beginning of the film is a real slog.  It takes a while for things to pick up.  Basically Loki steals a glowing blue cube of destruction known as the Terreract and there is a brief escape scene involving Loki.  When he manages to skirt away, Sam Jackson says some line and THE AVENGERS plays on the screen.  That opening title moment should have given me goosebumps, but I just felt let down - I just thought 'This is the beginning of the movie?' The entire plot boils down to the heroes trying to stop Loki and get back the cube.  I love movies like Spider-Man and Batman because I genuinely care about what happens and feel a personal connection to the story, but chasing after a cosmic cube is so disinteresting to me I kind of got bored at parts of this.

Everyone keeps toting on about how great Whedon's dialogue is and how funny the film is.  I don't know what it is, but I just didn't find this as funny as everyone else (maybe I'm just a stickler or something).  I honestly thought the almost universally-hated Iron Man 2 was much funnier than this.  I found the same problem with The Cabin in the Woods, maybe me and Whedon just have different sensibilities.  Everyone seemed to laugh at this one line Thor makes about his brother being adopted...I for the life of me can't see how that deserves anything more than a chuckle, but when people hear it's Whedon, all hands on deck, we've got a genius here.

I hope I'm not sounding contradictory here, but my feelings about The Avengers are pulling at me both ways.  On one hand it was a logical culmination of four radically different-toned films and it pretty much covered all bases in terms of incorporating big action set pieces, individual character moments and interactions, but when it comes down to it, I couldn't care.  I think The Avengers would have worked better as a TV series; that way all of the interconnections could be given a proper amount of time and more interesting themes could pop up.  As it stands, it's solid enough popcorn entertainment that's sure to entertain nearly everyone in the theater, and given the challenges this movie faced before it even started, that's a minor miracle compared to the clusterfuck that could have been (DC, take note if a Justice League movie ever arises).  It still suffers from the genre, the mythology, and the previous films that laid the groundwork, but for superhero/Whedon/action fans I think this is a must-see anyway.

Rating: B-

I was originally going to give this a C+, but after having some time to let the movie simmer in my head (and after thinking about me being massacred for giving it such a low grade), I actually really want to see it again and have since had a sudden surge in interest in comic books and want to get into them more.

Also, come on Dark Knight Rises...I know this Avengers thing has made a lot of money, but we can beat it.
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