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This Is the End

Ensemble comedies usually come at a price. They usually have too many characters and most aren’t given the screen time they need to feel relevant. Most of the time, and this seems to often be the case, it’s merely an excuse for some millionaire celebrities to hang out with each other and get paid for it. The quality of the film in question means little. Take 2010’s “Grown Ups” as an example, a movie that was almost universally hated by both critics and moviegoers alike that somehow made enough money to get an ill-advised sequel next month. Despite the (mostly) likable cast, it was a film devoid of laughs, heart or even a moderately amusing story. If that movie stands as an example of how to do an ensemble comedy wrong, “This Is the End” is an example of how to do one right. Although it’s by no means perfect, it nevertheless remains laugh-out-loud funny and features a unique and inspired post-apocalyptic story with an interesting message about divine forgiveness.

The film takes place in the real world, with every actor onscreen playing themselves. It’s a typically interesting night for the Hollywood elite and James Franco is having a party to break in his newly constructed home. Craig Robinson is there schmoozing Rihanna through sexually suggestive piano tunes, Danny McBride is doing what he does best and is passed out in the upstairs bathroom, Jonah Hill, being the nicest person in the world, is complimenting his friends at every turn and Emma Watson is relaxing with a beer while Michael Cera, playing against his nice guy onscreen persona, sniffs coke off a nearby table. Jay Baruchel has just flown in from New York with every intention to just hang out with his best friend Seth Rogen, but Seth insists they head to Franco’s party, so they do, despite Jay’s dislike for those present. While there, all hell breaks loose, literally, when the apocalypse starts.

While it would certainly be a stretch to call “This Is the End” a message movie, this set-up leads to an interesting dichotomy between holy grace and a sinful Hollywood lifestyle. Perhaps unsurprisingly, our characters are left behind while those who have led good lives are whisked skywards to heaven. These celebrities have used their fame to sleep with women, buy lavishly expensive material objects and waste their lives away partying and doing drugs. They’re the walking definition of sin, but as the movie goes on, it explores the forgiving nature of a truly loving God, one that shouldn’t be feared as many Christian communities believe, but rather as a God that truly believes in redemption.

Granted, the events that play out are merely there to give the movie somewhere to go (without the hope of salvation, what would be the point?), so I doubt even writers/directors Rogen and his buddy Evan Goldberg would argue their movie has some deep meaning. Everything that happens is there to set-up a joke, a cameo or something so outlandishly absurd you can’t help but laugh at it, yet the film’s greatest strength is in its self-satire. Because it’s playing with fictionalized versions of real actors, it can acknowledge their past work and even poke fun at it. One of its standout moments comes when the guys realize they’re stuck in that house while the world crumbles around them, so they decide to shoot a gritty version of “Pineapple Express 2.” At one point, they even reference 2011’s abysmal “Your Highness,” which Franco and McBride co-starred in, siding with the rest of the film population by commenting that they should never make “Your Highness 2.”

The film goes on to make fun of Seth Rogen’s laugh and one paparazzo even asks him when he’s finally going to start acting, given that every character he plays is exactly the same. Moments like these, coupled with some truly great and inspired cameos that should remain unspoiled, make “This Is the End” the single funniest movie since “21 Jump Street.” Where it falters is in its length, pacing and misunderstanding of the horror genre. With the apocalyptic setting, some fun is had with demonic creatures (particularly when the gang performs an exorcism by quoting lines from “The Exorcist”), but Rogen and Goldberg don’t know how to set up a scare, not so much missing the beats required for it, but rather bypassing the set-up entirely. Most of what happens does so suddenly, usually in the middle of a conversation, and though they work as jump scares, they’re cheap jump scares, similar to a little kid jumping out of a bush on Halloween and yelling “Boo!” It’s a tad startling, but it’s hardly scary.

Its pacing issues come from a padded runtime and jokes that go on for far too long—Jonah Hill’s nice guy shtick quickly becomes grating and one particular scene involving the discussion of ejaculate is too much—yet despite all this, and a really whiny story arc revolving around Baruchel’s dissipating friendship with Rogen, the film succeeds because, well, it’s just plain funny. At the end of the day, comedies don’t need great performances or stylistic direction or a complicated story to work. They only need to make you laugh. If they do, they have succeeded, so by that standard, “This Is the End” certainly does.

This Is the End receives 4/5


Spring Breakers

Being a fan of bizarre director Harmony Korine, a friend of mine who went to a pre-screening of “Spring Breakers” with me had lots to say about the final product, but nevertheless concluded that he was happy he didn’t have to analyze it like I did. He was happy he could watch it for what it was, know why he liked or didn’t like it, but never have to fully explain it. Because, frankly, how do you explain a movie like this? “Spring Breakers” is nutty, surreal and just plain weird and, if I’m being honest, I’m not quite sure what I think of it. As a product that breaks the cinematic norm, I’m fascinated by and appreciate it, but a value of its cinematic worth is hard to assess. What does this movie have to say? Sadly, I’m not sure it says much of anything.

The story begins innocently enough. Spring break is approaching and a group of college friends want to live it up in Florida. There’s the aptly named Faith (Selena Gomez), the religious one, and then the other three, Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson) and Cotty (Rachel Korine), who, personality-wise at least, are indistinguishable from each other. They’re the crazy ones and when they realize they don’t have enough money for their trip, they decide to rob a local chicken shack. Once down there, they find themselves in a bit of trouble, only to be rescued by a rapper/drug and arms dealer/self-proclaimed being from another planet named (nicknamed?) Alien (James Franco).

And from there, the movie gets so wild, I don’t know what to make of it. If Rotten Tomatoes is to be believed, early reviews have noted the “stinging social commentary” the movie presents, though what that commentary is isn’t actually specified. Some may claim it’s about the degradation of American youth or the destructiveness of their reckless behavior, but it’s an argument that’s hard to swallow. The film is so absurd at times, so ridiculously over-the-top (particularly during its conclusion), that it’s hard to take seriously. It’s not so much an analysis of rebellious youth culture as a gross exaggeration. At times, the movie even appears to be analyzing the idea of faith by surrounding the peacefulness and kindness of religion when surrounded and confronted by evildoers. Can it really hold strong and protect us in dangerous and unpleasant situations? But then the movie turns its back on the idea, content to follow its unusual narrative path.

When “Spring Breakers” ends, it’s hard not to ask: what was the point of that? With all the gratuitous nudity and graphic violence, much of which is superfluous to the actual story, perhaps the argument can be made that the movie is pointing the camera back at our own perversions. The four girls, all of whom look barely legal, are almost never in anything but bikinis. Even after they’ve been arrested, thrown in jail and appear in court in front of a judge, the bikinis remain, which is itself a bit ridiculous. Perhaps it’s an experiment to see how many of us are willing to dish out money to satisfy our own lustful, shameful urges. With a director like Harmony Korine, it’s certainly a possibility, but such ideas are speculative at best.

Nevertheless, “Spring Breakers” remains oddly fascinating. Although it’s hard to tell what the movie is going for, particularly in its tone, where it seems to switch from drama to extremely dark comedy in the blink of an eye, it remains watchable, particularly for film aficionados. Anyone else, those who are more used to traditional Hollywood fare, should steer clear. This movie isn’t for them, but rather the ones who don’t mind a movie wandering all over the place, both thematically and narratively. It’s for those who don’t mind a bit of pretentiousness in their directors because the places they take them are so memorable, they don’t mind putting up with some ego stroking. But while I was fascinated by it, I can’t say I particularly enjoyed it. It was too messy of a story and it lacked a focus that is needed to really pull in a viewer. That’s why, for the first time ever, I’m neither recommending it nor dissuading you to see it. I’ll let you make your own choice. “Spring Breakers” certainly has an audience, particularly those familiar with Harmony Korine’s work, and you know who you are.


Oz the Great and Powerful

“The Wizard of Oz” is without question one of the most magical movies ever made. It’s so lively and warm and its imagination so grand that it has remained a cinematic staple for over seven decades. So many movies have come and gone hoping to capture even a shred of its wonder, but most have failed (there’s a reason it’s in the American Film Institute’s top 10 movies of all time). To expect them to succeed would be unreasonable when the movies in question aren’t related, but when you put out “Oz the Great and Powerful,” the officially unofficial prequel to “The Wizard of Oz” (which itself had an unofficial 1985 sequel, “Return to Oz”), it’s impossible to not expect something special. Director Sam Raimi has done his best bringing this world to life, but his best proves to be futile. Despite some wondrous moments, “Oz the Great and Powerful” feels a tad dull.

The story begins in Kansas in 1905 with a traveling circus magician named Oscar, or Oz for short (James Franco). He’s a blatant womanizer, which gets him into trouble with the circus strong man. In a desperate attempt to flee, Oz jumps in a hot air balloon and takes off. Unfortunately, it’s right towards a tornado. After some close calls, he finds himself in a colorful place the likes he’s never seen. There he meets Theodora (Mila Kunis) who explains that he’s in the land of Oz and is the wizard that was prophesied to appear and defeat the Wicked Witch. The people of Oz think he has magical powers, though he knows they’re only tricks, but he plays along anyway after being told that if he defeats the witch, he’ll become king and own all the gold in the land.

The first thing a discerning viewer will notice is that “Oz the Great and Powerful” is far more playful than the trailers let on. This is both a strength and a detriment to the film, a strength because the world of Oz is a charming place and should have a charming tone, but a detriment because when the film does go dark, it doesn’t gel well. The two parts separated from each other are greater than when combined into a whole, which leads to tonal problems and a sense that Raimi didn’t really know what direction he wanted to take his movie in, which has always been his primary flaw as a director (albeit a small one in a streak of mostly solid work). The finale to the film is terrific and brings its themes full circle, but the way those themes are handled in such stark contrast to each other in the two halves make something that is wildly uneven.

What could have saved the film, despite a narrative that doesn’t form a cohesive whole, is its visuals. Wow the viewer with something to gawk at and you can effectively obscure a narrative that isn’t all that interesting. Unfortunately, “Oz the Great and Powerful” feels like an odd amalgamation of live action and a half-finished video game. Take, for example, Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” which nailed its look, regardless of what one might think of the film’s overall quality. It reached into the far corners of the imagination and created something that was visually mesmerizing. “Oz the Great and Powerful,” on the other hand, is half baked, at a strange middle ground where it isn’t realistic enough for the actors to blend in convincingly and not imaginative enough to make up for it. The best CGI heavy movies create the illusion that the actors are aware of their surroundings and are interacting with them appropriately. Here’s, it’s plainly obvious they aren’t, which could be due to poor performances that didn’t take the time to hear the details, poor direction that didn’t take the time to give them the details or poor post production rending that didn’t take the time to actually create the details. Who is to blame is anybody’s guess.

Rounding out an altogether disappointing movie are some casting decisions that are so bad, they’re hard to believe they were even considered, much less decided upon. If I were to reveal the most blatant, it would be considered a spoiler, but audiences across the world will undoubtedly groan when the big reveal happens, a reveal that really isn’t all that surprising to begin with. To put things into perspective, the movie isn’t all that bad, but rather the missteps are so disappointing that it’s hard not to focus on them. The film is actually kind of charming and funny and the transition from a black and white 1.37:1 aspect ratio to a brightly colored 2.39:1 is breathtaking (though it doesn’t hold a candle to the infamous transition from sepia to Technicolor in “The Wizard of Oz”), but it’s missing that magic that was so prevalent in the original film. It simply needed something more and was missing nearly all of it.

Oz the Great and Powerful receives 2/5


Rise of the Planet of the Apes

The original Planet of the Apes is one of the best science fiction movies ever made because it took a B-movie idea and turned it into something more. It battled themes of science vs. religion and took a bold stance, that intellectual progression was being impeded by archaic religious thought. It’s a controversial idea, but it’s nevertheless an interesting one and it can be argued that such a thing is still happening even today. The movies that followed dealt with intolerance, slavery, and the perpetuation of war, criticizing those who worship the bomb (a theme made perhaps a bit too literal in the second film), among others. All of this derived from a single creative concept: what if apes were the dominant species? The newest film in the series, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, tries to tackle heavy issues, but lacks the profundity of its predecessors. What it amounts to is simply another summer movie spectacle, but at least it’s a good one.

The film begins prior to the events of the first film (and disregards the rest). Will (James Franco) is a scientist working on an experiment drug known as ALZ-112. It’s a rebuilding drug that he hopes will be able to cure certain mental ailments, such as Alzheimer’s, which his father, Charles (John Lithgow), is suffering from. To test the drug, he and his co-workers experiment on apes, which ends up yielding positive results. With only one small dose, the apes are able to intelligently reason. It appears they are getting smarter. One day, however, something goes wrong and Chimp #9 goes berserk in front of the company’s board of directors, effectively shutting down the experiments. What they don’t realize is that the ape was only protecting her newborn son, afraid he would receive the same painful treatment. She dies, but her son, eventually named Caesar (Andy Serkis in a motion capture performance), is taken home by Will, who realizes that the drug was passed down hereditarily. As the years go by, Caesar becomes smarter and smarter, eventually leading to a revelation and beginning the rise of the apes.

Though sometimes billed as a prequel, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is more a reboot of the series, or even a reimagining of the fourth film in the series, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, which tackled similar territory, but it’s different enough that it can skillfully stand alone. It could almost entirely exist outside of the rest of the series had it not been for a couple of nods to the original film, one humorous and welcome and one so blatantly out of place it pulls you out of the movie (though it really shouldn’t come as a surprise). It takes a couple of things from Conquest, namely the ape being walked around on a leash and treated like a pet, but otherwise, it’s totally different, and that’s a good thing because Conquest is one of the worst in the series.

What the movie does so beautifully is make us understand why Caesar comes to act the way he does. He isn’t treated well and, though it suffers from exaggerated cruelty from a few human characters, the film does a good job of making us sympathize with the apes and root against our own species. Some of Caesar’s action, which become more and more humanlike as the movie goes on, will come off as cheesy to some, if the constant snickering in my screening is any indication, but I found his decisions to be hard hitting and narratively necessary. Rise does a great job of establishing the effects of the drug that has been coursing through his body since birth, so of course he’s going to learn human behavior. It takes the phrase “monkey see, monkey do” to a whole new level.

The few times it gets a bit too silly for its own good are in its use of subtitles when the apes sign to each other, which are dumbed down to sound prehistoric (“Human no like smart ape”), and when Caesar essentially becomes a rebellious teenager, like in one scene where he defiantly pushes his plate of food away after being told to eat it. But on the whole, Rise of the Planet of the Apes should be taken as a serious, dramatic movie that can be interpreted in one of two ways: as a message about playing God or as one against animal testing. The problem is it thinks it’s profound, when it really isn’t. The former message is cliché and overheard while the latter is preachy and laughable. I wouldn’t say this is a particularly deep movie; it’s just well made and interesting. It’s a disappointment to be sure, but it had lofty expectations to live up to. The fact that it’s still pretty good is something for which to be grateful.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes receives 3.5/5


127 Hours

Danny Boyle is a director of immense talent. His varied approach to filmmaking and refusal to stick too close to one genre is admirable and refreshing in this cinematic age of rehashes and remakes. He has tackled horror (28 Days Later), science fiction (Sunshine), drama (Trainspotting), romance (Slumdog Millionaire) and family films (Millions). His versatility to the craft of film is awe inspiring. So why am I so letdown by his latest based-on-a-true-story character piece 127 Hours? While not bad—in fact, I’m recommending it—127 Hours is nevertheless an uneven film with enough questionable decisions to keep it from reaching greatness.

Seven years ago, an adventurous man named Aron Ralston took a trip to Blue John Canyon in Utah to climb through its many crevices for sport. While descending a long, narrow passage, a giant rock broke off and wedged between the two walls, catching one of Aron’s hands and trapping him down there. His arm eventually died and the rest of his body was soon to follow, so after days of struggling, he cut through his flesh and bone and escaped what he thought was going to be his tomb.

James Franco plays Aron and, much like Ryan Reynolds in the recent thriller Buried, he is forced to carry the movie virtually by himself. However, when compared to that similar film, as is inevitable, 127 Hours pales in many respects. What this movie does, unfortunately, is leave the scene of the dilemma far too often, something Buried so skillfully avoided throughout its equally short runtime. It gets sidetracked too easily with quick cutaways to spontaneous fantasies and memories from Aron’s past.

Instead of keeping us there in that tight space and forcing us to feel how the character feels, it foolishly snaps us away from the action (or lack thereof) to show us trivial back stories, like how Aron lost his most recent girlfriend. One of the key differences between this and Buried is that the latter film never bothered with any of that because it didn’t matter. Buried was carried by raw emotion. This tries to trick us into feeling something. At numerous points in the film, we see and hear what is going on in Aron’s head and at one point, a laugh track is even used. I’m not kidding.

That scene in question, which is only one of many, is intended primarily for laughs. The movie, though certainly more dramatic than comedic, too often makes light of the situation. For instance, a long, sped up tracking shot that travels from the spot Aron is stuck to the back of his car miles away where a Gatorade sits is meant as a humorous way to show off his dehydration, but there's nothing funny about what this man went through.

There are so many missteps in 127 Hours, it boggles the mind. But what that really goes to show is how crucial a good performance and capable direction can be. While Franco is very good, it’s Danny Boyle who steals the show. Although it begins with an excess of hyperactive editing and annoying split screen, Boyle quickly calms it down and directs with an assured hand, spicing up the proceedings with some nifty point of view shots and canted camera angles that serve to make the mountainside look ferociously steep and scary.

It isn’t until about 15 minutes in that the title card appears and Aron finds himself stuck. This simple, but effective little detail works not only as a way to remind the audience what they’re watching, but warn them that things are just beginning and the worst is yet to come. I suppose that is 127 Hours’ greatest strength. Everything before that fateful moment is meant to build his character, label his personality and make us care about him and it works. It’s because of that smart calculation that I was able to look past some of the film's faults. It’s nothing enthralling, and I doubt Boyle will be clutching a Best Picture Oscar come awards season, but this story is worth experiencing all the same.

127 Hours receives 2.5/5