THE CHANGE-UP

By R. David

Published August 5, 2011

Deep down I know “The Change-Up” is not technically a good movie. It’s clichéd, offensive and lazy. It starts slow and ends predictably. But it has a terrific mid section that, while also offensive and lazy, accomplishes the only thing that matters in a comedy: It made me laugh. Perhaps against my better judgment, and despite the fact that comedy doesn’t get any more lowbrow and formulaic than than the stuff on display here, but laugh just the same.

Credit mainly goes to a game cast, especially Jason Bateman, playing – yet again – Jason Bateman, and the invaluable Leslie Mann who constantly raises the bar of any film she’s in. Also, the script, while wildly over-the-top and far too reliant on lazy and predictable gross-out gags and vulgarities, somehow manages to sneak in just enough smart insight and commentary about the harried life of a family man trying to juggle a high-stress job and higher-stress household.

Bateman is Dave, a workaholic, father of three who begins to realize he wasted his 20s constantly striving for the perfect career and family. His childhood friend Mitch (Ryan Reynolds) is an unmotivated, unemployed layabout who spends his days smoking pot and his nights with any woman who falls for his good looks and carefree attitude. After a drunken night out, the two confess they wish they had the other’s life and, in a scene that defies any plausible reason or explanation other than, ‘well, it had to happen somehow’, the two switch bodies. Now Dave is Mitch and Mitch is Dave and, hey, a stoned slacker has to pretend to be lawyer! Hilarity ensues.

“The Change-Up’s” premise is not its strong suite. The body-switch thing has been done to death and its not as if many moviegoers have been clamoring for the glory days of “Vice Versa” and “Like Father Like Son”. Here, the old switcharoo is merely a gimmick that serves as a palate for all sorts of raunchy gags. Some hit, some miss. But where the film starts out rather flat, especially with Reynolds acting as a sort of Stiffler 2.0, throwing out all sorts of f-bomb laced dialog that feels awkward and forced, it eventually settles in to a nice rhythm, balancing raunchy humor with smart observations about both family and single life.

Some of the situations, brazen and often juvenile as they are are laugh-out-loud funny in spite of themselves. The scene with Bateman – as Reynolds – with his kids in the kitchen is so wrong, it nearly becomes an instant classic; and there are at least two or three memorably awkward sexual encounters, one with Mann that has been heavily promoted in the previews, but is more explicit – and funnier – than those previews suggest.

It’s “The Change-Up’s” go-for-broke, anything-for-laugh attitude that eventually won me over. None of these scenes are funny because they are new or original, but rather because the cast simply sells them so well. It’s worth noting too that this film has a major affection for breasts. So much so that even Mann is convinced to drop her top for the first time (though I do wonder if she had some CGI cosmetic surgery – if not, Kudos Leslie!). And, despite the fact that anyone who has ever seen a comedy of this type before knows where things are headed, the filmmakers manage to keep things interesting and entertaining despite heading full speed ahead to the inevitable.

“The Change-Up” certainly won’t be for all tastes and it is indefensible on almost every level should anyone want to challenge my recommendation. But, in spite of myself, I laughed.  And there are good performances and enough smart writing to carry the viewer through the, admittedly considerable, lulls.

3 stars out of 4.

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

By R. David

Published August 5, 2011

“The Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is an extremely pleasant surprise. What looks on paper like just another lazy remake, reboot, reimagining, or whatever term of the day studios are using instead of simply admitting they are completely bankrupt of original ideas, is actually a satisfying, clever and exciting film in its own right, regardless of it’s titular connection to a series that goes back nearly 50 years.

Unlike Tim Burton’s misguided (and awful) 2001 remake, “Rise” is not a slave to the original source material (this film functions as a prequel of sorts, though if there is a sequel, there is no reason the filmmakers can’t continue with a series that is all their all their own) and it does away with the campy monkey mask and make-up that have always made these films hard to take seriously. Though many of them are CGI creations, at least “Rise’ has the good sense to have the titular apes be actual apes. It has always felt odd watching actors in make-up and masks trying to pass themselves off as apes. That’s like casting a guy in a shark suite as Jaws. Some representation of the real thing goes a long way towards lending the film an air of plausibility and credibility. Andy Serkis’ (Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy) motion-capture performance as Caesar, a lab monkey in Alzheimer’s research trials who becomes a super-intelligent leader of an ape uprising, is fascinating, both from a technical, FX standpoint, but also in the emotion Serkis is able to convey through only body language and facial expressions. It is full and true actor’s performance, despite the fact that the actor himself is never seen. The technology has also become more convincing since his Gollum days.

The first hour of the film is all build up, and may be too leisurely paced for action junkies expecting two full hours of monkey rampage carnage. And though I bought the man-and-his-monkey relationship stuff, and the obvious cautionary tale aspects of the story, I will admit this ground has been well covered in dozens of other sci-fi films over the years. But once the apes take to the streets of San Fransisco and the Golden Gate bridge, the movie becomes one big, endless action sequence. It’s impressive, riveting, wholly entertaining stuff. Ditto the movie.

3 stars out of 4.

NOTE:  This is neither here nor there in terms of the quality of the film, but I can’t help but think it is inappropriately titled. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” sounds awkward with those two “of the”s in there. Why not “Planet of the Apes Rises” or “Rise of the Apes”? Anyway…

COWBOYS & ALIENS

by R. David

Published July 29, 2011

“Cowboys & Aliens” is a cinematic ode to focus groups and studio executive collective bargaining. The film is manufactured to be a summer blockbuster rather than earning that moniker organically and of its own merits.

Everything about “Cowboys & Aliens” smacks of calculation. How do we get the most butts in seats? Big-name stars? Check. Big special effects? Check. Cross-genre, cross-culture, cross-generational appeal? Check. Outlandish premise and humorously enticing, straightforward title? Check. “Cowboys & Aliens” wants to be all things to all audiences, but in its quest for mass appeal, rather than focusing on being one really good movie, it becomes several mediocre ones. Ideas, character, plot threads and possibilities are constantly short changed in favor of the easiest and most obvious plot devices all so the movie can stay dumbed-down for mass consumption.

It’s too bad too, because “Cowboys & Aliens” is not without its assets and starts off strongly enough, with Daniel Craig waking up in the desert with no idea who or where he is, or why he has a mysterious metal cuff shackled to his wrist. It turns out he may just be an outlaw on the run who not only has the law after him, but who also draws the ire of a hard ass, much-feared cattle rancher (a merely adequate Harrison Ford, doing his usual later-career gruff, shouty schtick). Craig is in fine form – nothing special, but good – as the steely-eyed, man-with-no-name type, and the film has the look and tone of a great western. But then the aliens show up and, while fun for a while, the movie never capitalizes on the possibilities of the title.

The idea of a bunch of cowboys in the Old West, without the technology or resources to defend themselves from space invaders is inherently intriguing and should offer all sorts of high concept possibilities and WTF exchanges, but everyone here acts as if aliens landing – and being engaged in a war of sorts with them, no less – is no more surprising or terrifying that any other bad news gang of thugs that strolls in to town. There is an almost suffocating lack of awe to the proceedings which is the one thing, if nothing else, that audiences want from a big scale alien invasion flick, and certainly one that has the audacity to mix them with cowboys.

Add to this some slow and cliched stretches in the middle of the film – if you are a sucker for scenes where someone gets shot and spends their dying moments in the arms of a loved one giving breathy exposition, this movie is for you – and Olivia Wilde as a love interest for Craig who seems shoehorned into the film simply because this type of movie dictates the hero must have a lover interest, nevermind if its awkwardly grafted into the plot or that the characters have little chemistry, “Cowboys & Aliens” is studio hackery at its most blatant.

It looks good, and has a few rousing action sequences, but that’s about it. “Cowboys & Aliens” is a title and concept in search of an actual movie.

2 stars out of 4.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER

By R. David

Published July 22, 2011

“Captain America” has a few things going for it that every other comic book movie of the summer (and that’s a big list this year) does not. While it might be fun to see Thor throw lightening bolts, the X-Men turn around missiles with their minds, or the Green Lantern create an over-sized Gatling gun out of green mist (or whatever the hell was going on in that movie), there’s something far more appealing about a superhero who tackles real world villains and whose super powers are grounded to improvements in strength and speed, but stop short of being able to conjure up weapons out of thin air or teleport through time and space.

Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is simply a scrawny kid in WWII-era Brooklyn who just wants to enlist in the ARMY to serve his country, but because of his size and various physical and health ailments he is continually rejected. But that old adage about the size of the fight in the dog proves to be true in Steve’s case and he is recruited by scientist Stanley Tucci who is looking for the ideal candidate to transform into a super soldier in order to stop the Red Skull, a Nazi honcho hell-bent on world domination (naturally).

“Captain America” gets a lot of mileage out of its WWII setting. It’s almost a shame the film isn’t a bit harder and darker and willing to place Cap in some real life WWII scenarios. It feels like a squandered opportunity to have him fighting such cartoony villains when the real-life ones were far-more compelling.

But this is a family film after all, and one based on a comic at that, so by those standards it works rather well. But it succeeds on very workman-like level, never taking any chances or risking a well-worn formula for success. Chris Evans, who I am not a fan of generally, is surprisingly good (he tones down the snark factor and looks the part), the effects are convincing and the script has some clever dialog peppered throughout the usual monotonous exposition that must accompany any film in which a mad genius type is plotting world domination.

“Captain America’s” biggest asset though is the fact that Cap is not invincible or some sort of God. He gets big, strong and fast, but other than that he’s more or less the same guy he was before he acquired his “super powers” (I did wonder why he always seems to have his gun drawn yet hardly ever uses it). It’s nice for once not to have to design a flow chart just to keep up with the characters backstory and motivations. If only the film overall felt a little fresher, a little more ambitious.

If nothing else though, “Captain America” does a good job of establishing a character we’ll be seeing in up-coming “The Avengers” movie, and no doubt his own sequel(s) down the road.

2.5 stars out of 4.

HORRIBLE BOSSES

By R. David

Published July 8, 2011

“Horrible Bosses” is a relatively formulaic comedy that excels thanks to its unique cast and often hilarious dialog. The three leads are completely believable as long-time friends, each stuck in a professional rut, mainly due to unavoidable conflicts with their respective sadistic bosses. They banter about in a comfortable, charismatic way; and though the story is contrived and preposterous on the surface (the three friends concoct a scheme to kill each others’ bosses), this is one of those comedies like “The Hangover” in which the film’s outlandish set-up is less its true pleasure than the way the cast and script play around in the margins with individual scenes, set pieces, and ad-libbed dialog that lend the proceedings an assured and breezy charm.

The three leads all hit just the right notes and each brings a different sort of energy to the table.  “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s” Charlie Day is the manic one, SNL’s Jason Sudekis is the laid back one, and Jason Bateman is, well, Jason Bateman.  Not since Woody Allen has an actor carved out such a niche as a neurotic, hard-luck schmuck.  Still, as always, he owns it and is an effective, sympathetic and often hilarious straight-man.

As good as these three are though, it is the inspired casting of the bosses that really makes the film shine. Kevin Spacy always excels at playing a cocky SOB and he is in top form here as Bateman’s heartless corporate CEO.  An unrecognizable Collin Ferrel with a bad comb-over and some extra pounds scores plenty of laughs as the spoiled coke head son of Sudekis’ boss who inherits the company after his father’s unexpected death, and immediately runs roughshod over it.  And Jennifer Aniston, an actress who has not been in a movie I have liked for at least a decade, gives not only her best performance in ages as sexually charged dentist, but might just be the most entertaining character in a film full of them.  Most guys in the audience probably won’t have a lot of sympathy for Day’s dental assistant character initially (“Oh, boo-hoo, Jeniffer Aniston wants to sleep with you!”), but Aniston is so aggressive and unhinged in her advances that any fantasies, for Day as well as any members of the audience, are completely squashed.

“Horrible Bosses” hits all the familiar beats and doesn’t appear to be trying very hard to be anything more than a raunchy buddy comedy, but it is funny. Actually funny.  The film doesn’t simply rely on gross-out gags or lazy scenes of people falling into things and calling that “comedy”. Rather, the film has a genuine comic energy thanks to the appealing and talented cast, even if much of it is less than original.

3 stars out of 4.