Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Internship

Directed by Shawn Levy.
2013. Rated PG-13, 119 minutes.
Cast:
Max Minghella
Josh Brener
Dylan O'Brien
Tiya Sircar
Tobit Raphael
Jessica Szohr

Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson are luxury watch salesmen that work as a team, because salesmen aren't a bunch of heartless cutthroats. It's okay for me to say that, I was in sales for five years. While I'm at it, let's address me going with the actors' real names instead of their characters' monikers. It's something I almost never do. However, let's keep it real. This is the same Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson we always get. 'Nuff said on that front. Turns out, the company they peddle time pieces for has abruptly shut down. A few nights later, Vaughn is job surfing online when he decides to google "google." Bada-boom, bada-bing, he and Wilson are now part of a highly competitive internship program on the campus of the search engine giant. The winning team of interns will earn full-time gigs. Of course, our heroes have no tech experience at all. Wilson doesn't seem able to turn on a computer. Vaughn can surf the web, but is pretty computer illiterate, himself. Of course, they wind up on a team of misfits. A really long commercial ensues.

If you've seen the trailer for The Internship then you know I'm not kidding about this being a commercial. Hell, the trailer is essentially a commercial for the commercial. So how do they flesh things out? We start with a live-action version of Monsters University. No, I'm serious. Same basic plot, same stock characters. Swap out John Goodman and Billy Crystal for Vaughn and Wilson, respectively. Add a few cuss words, a love interest for Wilson, a scene in a strip club, slap the Google logo all over everything, have everyone speak of the company with great reverence, and voila!


You just want to know if it's funny, right? In spots. Vaughn does his usual fast-talker schtick while Wilson does his normal routine. If you find either or both of these guys funny then you'll find things to make you laugh, potentially lots of things. It helps if you're in their general age group. Lots of the jokes center on the generation gap between them and their fellow interns. When the team is given a task, our heroes start trying to talk their way through it, regardless of whether that's a useful thing to do, and make lots of reference to 80s pop culture. One reference, far older than any of those is one I found most interesting. At one point, Wilson breaks into a paraphrased and truncated rendition of the legendary Langston Hughes poem "A Dream Deferred." The kids don't get this or most references and go about actually trying to solve the problem. Rinse. Repeat. The flip side of this is that neither Vaughn or Wilson has any clue about computers nor current pop culture. Sort of. For instance, a big gag involves the guys being sent on a wild good chase to find Professor Charles Xavier. I get that they didn't immediately recognize the name as being leader of the X-Men. I even get that the joke can go on for a moment while they catch up. However, this isn't something you have to be young and hip to know. Even if we ignore the fact that X-Men was one of the country's most popular comic books right when these guys were right in the target audience for such things, and had a Saturday morning cartoon, we still know something impossible to overlook. They have been making X-Men movies for more than a decade and unless I'm mistaken, all of them have taken in hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office. These movies have also shown up all over TV numerous times. Finally, our "old" guys know something far younger in terms of being a pop culture phenomenon, The Hunger Games. To be fair, as full of holes as the logic for this scene is, it is one of their funnier bits.

The rest of the cast is filled out with characters we've all seen before in a number of movies. Remember how much I said this resembles Monsters University? Yeah, same characters here, pretty much. We have the cocky and arrogant bully as our bad guy in the competition. We also have the unforgiving authority figure presiding over the whole thing. Just about everyone else is one form of geek or another. Therefore, the story feels like a by-the-numbers job that fails to add its own twist to the proceedings. It just tries to float by on the charm of the two lead characters. They do an amiable job, but can't really make it anything special. It is occasionally funny, breezes by without causing us to think, and just isn't anywhere near as good as Monsters University at doing essentially the same thing.


MY SCORE: 5/10

Monday, April 14, 2014

Poetry in the Movies Blogathon!: Louder Than a Bomb



As you may know, I've decided to host my very first blogathon. In honor of National Poetry Month, it's all about acknowledging the elegant art getting some overdue credit for being a major contributor to cinematic history. If you would like to participate, please check out my original post on the matter. I'm going to jump in with my first of what will be at least two posts (maybe 3?). No messing around with ancient verse just yet. We're going with a contemporary documentary, Louder Than a Bomb.

Directed by Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel.
2010. Not Rated, 99 minutes.
Cast:
Kevin Coval
Adam Gottlieb
Nate Marshall
Nova Venerable
Lamar Jorden
James Sloan
Charles Smith
Jesus Lark
She'Kira McKnight
Elizabeth Graf

"Louder Than a Bomb," which takes place in Chicago, is the nation's largest high school poetry slam. For the uninitiated, poetry slams are spoken word poetry competitions. Poets are scored on a scale of one to ten on each poem they perform. Here, we focus on students from four of the nearly fifty competing schools in 2008. Most prominently featured are the kids from Steinmetz Academic Academy. They won the previous year despite it being their first year competing. We spend lots of time with Mr. Sloan, one of their coaches, as well as with students Lamar Jorden, Jesus Lark, She'Kira McKnight, and Charles "Big C" Smith. We get a little time with some others on the team, too. These are the kids that go against the grain. Judging books by their covers, you'd be hard pressed to peg these as poetry buffs. They're the most "urban" group, to use a code word. Yet, these are the defending champs. They are also struggling to get it together for this year's slam.

For the other three schools, our focus is limited to one student each. Adam Gottlieb attends Northside College Prep. He's the kid who loves everyone and everyone loves him. He is the ultimate diplomat, giving shout outs to his competition in his own poetry. Nova Venerable goes to Oak Park and resides at the opposite end of the spectrum. I don't mean that people don't like her. That's not the case. I mean that she's tougher to get close to with her guarded personality that stems from her hard childhood. She writes more as a cathartic exercise and with an underlying anger. She might be in the competition, but she's really purging her soul. Nate Marshall is the happy medium between Adam and Nova. He goes to Whitney Young Magnet School and is known as "the grandfather" of their poetry program. He loves teaching others and has fun with his art. However, he does carry with him the memories of growing up in a rough environment.


With the Steinmetz kids, we go through the trials and tribulations of a team trying to prepare without always having everyone on the same page. Their ups and downs make for an intriguing roller coaster ride. With the others, we delve into their backgrounds, getting to know them more intimately. Adam and his family makes us laugh. Nova's might make us cry. True to form, Nate's does a bit of both. The movie works itself into a fun carousel that stops rotating come competition time. That doesn't mean the ride is over at that point. Directors Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel do a wonderful job playing up the natural tension of the competition without it feeling forced. By the way, movie buffs will find this interesting. Jon Siskel is the nephew of none other than the late and now legendary movie critic Gene Siskel.


As for the poetry itself, it's a solid mix of funny, personal, and socially relevant pieces. Like lots of spoken word, the majority of what we hear relies heavily on rhythm, rhyme, and passionate delivery. We get that in spades and enjoy listening to it. For me, there are three pieces that stand head and shoulders above the rest. There is the crowd-pleasing ensemble poem "Counting Graves" from Steinmetz. It's a superior piece of performance art, timely and powerful. The other two are both by Nova. Her first, "Apartment on Austin," details her relationship with an often drunk and needy father. The other, "Cody," is named after her younger brother who has special needs. Both are exceptionally well written poems with strength completely independent of the theatrics of her recitations, which there really are none. They just punch you right in the chest and rip your heart out through the hole.

You may or may not be into poetry like I am. Still, the human stories on display reach out and grab the viewer. We become invested in their fates and root for the tens to go up after they've read. We're disappointed when they don't. However, we learn that what the slam organizers repeat numerous times is true. The point is not the points, the point is the poetry.


MY SCORE: 9/10

Sunday, April 13, 2014

French Toast Sunday's Darren Aprilofsky


Lindsay over at French Toast Sunday is honoring director Darren Aronofsky all this month by highlighting content based on his work from around the web. Any of you that are fans of his work should definitely pop by there to get links to all the Aronofsky you can stand. You can also join in on the festivities by leaving a link to your own stuff on the man, or his movies. Just click here and off you'll go into a happy place.

If you're still here, I've got some Aronofsky content of my own for you to check out. Click on the titles below for my reviews of the following movies:









Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Purge

Directed by James DeMonaco.
2013. Rated R, 85 minutes.
Cast:
Rhys Wakefield
Adelaide Kane
Max Burkholder
Edwin Hodge
Tony Oller
Arija Bareikis
Dana Bunch
Chris Mulkey
Tisha French

James Sandin (Hawke) and his family are getting ready to completely lock down their home as they do every year during the annual Purge. The Purge is the one night of the year where everything is legal. Whatever crime you want to commit, up to and including murder, is fair game. The idea behind it is that being allowed to do what you want for this night will purge the evil from our systems. It seems to have been effective. Excluding Purge Night, crime and unemployment are almost non-existent and the economy is in phenomenal shape. The Sandins don't participate, though. They barricade themselves in their home using the same expensive security system that James has made a very nice living selling.

Of course, if the Sandins just shut their doors to the world raging outside and the night passed without a hitch, we wouldn't have a movie. Still, Mary (Headey) stands by with  passive look on her face while her husband brings the barricades down. Their daughter Zoey (Kane) stomps off to her room because that's what teenage girls do. Meanwhile, their son Charlie (Burkholder), equipped with some techno gadgetry of his own and a bleeding heart, pays close attention to the security cameras. When Zoey gets back to her room she finds her boyfriend there. Yup, dad doesn't like him. He snuck in before the lock down, or never left, since he was there earlier in the day. Minor detail. Point is he is not supposed to be there. However, that's a small issue compared with what Charlie does. While watching those cameras he notices a random black man staggering and screaming for help in the middle of the street. Why yes, he opens up the house and lets the guy in. Obviously, this man being a stranger in the Sandins home on the most dangerous night possible is a problem, but there is even bigger trouble following him. A group of well-to-do white twenty-somethings were trying to purge by killing our random black man when he got away. Having figured out that he's hiding in the Sandin house, they go knocking on the once again barricaded door. Their demand? Send him out so that we may finish killing him or we will find a way in and kill all of you! The problem? It's a pretty big house and the Sandins can't find the guy.

The Purge is a highly political movie masked as a home invasion thriller. It's pretty clear, to me at least, which characters represent Republicans and which are Democrats. The actions taken by them, particularly the ones seeming to be Republicans, are exaggerated versions of what their present ideologies imply. After all, we're told several times the Purge has become an annual massacre of the homeless, the poor, and anyone else the haves deem to be an unproductive member of society. This amplifies the importance of the homeless guy being black. With both of those things perceived to be working against him, he seems a prime candidate to be purged. If you happen to be a conservative don't take offense. I'm just noting how those views sound to people who don't share them.


Like most movies that position themselves as social allegories, The Purge not only tries to give us its point of view, but to provoke questions as well. One of the questions that immediately springs to mind is could an annual purge work? No matter which side of the political ledger you fall, I think you'd agree the correct answer is 'not a chance in hell.' It might be tantalizing to think that it could. Your initial feeling may be 'if we just had that one night to get all the anger and hatred out of our system we would be happy and content, or at least able to restrain ourselves for a year.' However, if you've ever met a human being you quickly realize this is some cockamamie bullshit. Still, it makes for an interesting film premise. Just don't take it literally.

Speaking of the film, let's actually get back go it. Sorry for my rambling. Then again, that rambling is a symptom of the problem with the movie. The thoughts and conversations stemming from its ideas are better than our experience watching it, by a longshot. I don't think it's a bad movie, just an okay one. Ethan Hawke does a very nice job as our dad-turned-action-hero, desperately trying to protect his family. Our first group of bad guys are a purposely faceless and freakish bunch. The second group of baddies aren't quite faceless. For one, they don't wear masks. Unfortunately, their part of the story is telegraphed way too early. The tension created by this whole situation is not as unbearable as it should be, either. Finally, by the end, it just becomes too blatant in its message and reveals itself to be too small for its premise. Watching this family defend themselves is nice and all, but a film more worthy of its ideas might have been made by broadening its scope beyond the walls of our wealthy hosts.


MY SCORE: 6/10

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Steven Seagal's Top 5 Movies


Sometimes you come across some interesting things when you're just bopping around the net. What I found is that today is Steven Seagal's birthday. The pony-tailed one is turning 61. Though he's spent the last decade or so putting out one crappy straight-to-DVD movie after another, I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for him. Throughout the 90s, he supplied me with many of the most awesome martial arts flicks featuring an American actor ever made, no matter how much alike they all were. I know, I know, Chuck Norris, blah blah. There was nothing like watching Seagal play the same character in every movie, badly at that, almost never kick anyone and break limbs like No. 2 pencils while avenging the death of a loved one(s). Regardless of his weight. Oh, and I can't forget the hilariously bad Arnie Schwarzenegger-esque one liners. So, as a birthday gift, I'm counting down...

Steven Seagal's Top 5 Movies

5. Hard to Kill
(1990)
As cop Mason Storm, Seagal is actually gunned down by intruders in his very own home! No worries, he doesn't die from his wounds, 'cuz he's hard to kill and stuff. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for his wife and young son who did not survive the attack. After a stint in super secret hospital and hooking up with 80s "it" girl Kelly LeBrock, he hunts down the bad guys responsible.

The Arnie-ism: I'm gonna take you to the bank, Senator Trent...to the blood bank!

4. Above the Law
(1988)
In Seagal's debut he plays Nico, a Chicago narcotics cop who once quit the CIA over some things he saw and disagreed strongly with in 'Nam. While he and his partner are investigating a drug trafficking operation they find out some more stuff and are forbidden to continue on the case. Think that'll stop him?  C'mon man, he's above the law! And he's got one of my lifelong crushes on his side, none other than Pam Grier.

The Arnie-ism: You guys think you're above the law? Well, you ain't above mine!

3. Under Siege
(1992)
This time, our hero is playing Casey Ryback. He is a former Navy SEAL who is still a sailor, but now a cook aboard the battleship Missouri. It's about to be decommissioned and the Navy is having a big celebration to send it out in style. Of course, things couldn't be so simple. A gang of terrorists come on board and take over. And you know who is the only one who can stop them. This one benefits from a really good supporting cast that includes a nutty turn by Tommy Lee Jones as the bad guy who puts the ship under siege and draws our hero's full wrath. Gary Busey and Colm Meaney are also fun in their roles. This is the only one of Seagal's movies in which he plays the protagonist, to get a sequel. A rather insane one with Morris Chestnut as his sidekick. And I promise, the well endowed Erika Eleniak jumping out of a cake topless has nothing to do with this lofty ranking.

The Arnie-ism: (Before a knife fight breaks out between Seagal and Tommy Lee Jones, Jones tells him the difference between them is that Jones doesn't have faith. This line comes after killing Jones by stabbing him in the head) Keep the faith, Strannix.

2. Machete
(2010)
This is the only movie on the list where Seagal doesn't play the hero, and the only one from this century. As drug kingpin Rogelio Torrez, he's quite the opposite. Instead of having his own loved ones killed, he gets to do it to good guy Machete, played by Danny Trejo. Wracked my brain trying to come up with a dumb pun to jam in here using the word machete, but couldn't. Consider yourself lucky. For my money, this is far and away the best acting job Seagal has ever done. The movie as a whole is amazing, in my opinion. In fact, it really is much better than the movie I have at number one. However, I have my reasons for not giving it the top spot. We'll get to that in a sec. First, we have to get to...

The Arnie-ism: You're Machete's girl. I know , 'cuz you're his type. (Asked "What type is that?) Dead.

1. Marked for Death
(1990)
As DEA agent John Hatcher, Seagal has an especially rough start to this one. Down in Colombia, his partner gets killed during a drug bust. If you've seen it, then you know 'bust' is the operative word in his death. Once back at home, he has a run-in with the Jamaican street gangs who are dealing drugs under the leadership of the charismatic Screwface, played in scene stealing and scenery chewing fashion by Basil Wallace. From then on, Seagal and his family are marked for death. True, this is not as good a film as Machete and it's not even close. It gets the top spot because it is Seagal at the absolute height of his powers. The movie is completely bananas, possibly a bit racist, and winds up with a wacky twist that adds another fight scene for us. The mall scene stands as the best moment in Seagal's career. Period.

The Arnie-ism: I hope they weren't triplets.


Enjoy...


Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Drinking Buddies

Directed by Joe Swanberg.
2013. Rated R, 90 minutes.
Cast:

Kate (Wilde) and Luke (Johnson) work at the local brewery. After a long, but usually fun day at work, they tend to head down to the nearest bar with a number of their other co-workers and drink lots of their own product. It is painfully obvious the two have a thing for each other. The issue here is two-fold: 1) Each is involved in a serious relationship with someone else, and 2) Neither of them will own up to how they feel about the other. Instead, they flirt endlessly. They do it that way people do when they have a really strong connection. Of course, they think it is mere friendship. So Kate thinks it's no big deal to invite Luke and his girlfriend Jill (Kendrick) up to her boyfriend Chris' (Livingston) beach house for the weekend. They accept. Life rolls on from there.

When I say 'life rolls on,' that's probably the best compliment I can give this movie. It's a true slice-of-life flick in every sense of the term. There really is no plot. Everything about our leads are just the facts of who they are, not set ups for some grand character arc. Finally, Drinking Buddies doesn't end so much as it just stops. When it does, I wouldn't blame anyone who throws their arms up and says "WTF!" when the final credits roll. I suspect that's what's behind the disparity between how critics view this movie and how normal folks see it. Critics have praised it while audiences are rather lukewarm toward it. The things it doesn't have are the things we've been trained to expect from our films. Without those things we're left with a feeling of uncertainty about what we just watched. A movie lacking a definitive beginning, middle, and end might not immediately make sense to us.


Enjoying DB requires a willingness to take it on its own terms and, perhaps, actually thinking about it afterwards. That's because we may have to sort some things out. It does what I often knock other movies for not doing. It shows, not tells. Counter intuitive to that sentiment, this movie is much more noun than verb. It is something that is, not something that does. We're used to our visual media "doing" for us. It sticks around until the bad guy is caught and the hero gets the girl. Little to no effort is required of us. Therefore, most of us don't have the energy for a movie with a figurative test at the end. I like this movie. That's not to say I'm smarter than people who don't. I'm just more willing to put in the work necessary to appreciate it.

I feel like I've rambled quite a bit without saying much about the actual film. There really are reasons to enjoy it as it goes along. Right away, it positions itself as a dramedy. It makes us laugh, but that's not necessarily it's aim. It's more about exploring the relationship between Kate and Luke. Whatever drama or humor that comes out of this is organic to the human experience, not gags or overly contrived melodrama. To their credit, our stars are an immense help in this area. Both Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson deliver completely natural performances. Wilde is particularly good. Her best acting is done by her eyes during pauses in dialogue. When she speaks, she feels like a woman we might know. The same is true for Johnson. Well, he sounds like a man we might know, not a woman. You understand. Through the two of them, we sense these are people who are aware of their feelings, but struggling mightily not to act upon them. Immediately, we start wondering "will they," or "won't they." This uncertainty drives the movie. Our curiosity happily rides along on this train. I like where it drops us off. I'm not sure you will.


MY SCORE: 7.5/10

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Other Dream Team

Directed by Marius Markevicius.
2012. Not Rated, 89 minutes.
Cast:
Arvydas Sabonis
Sarunas Marciulionis
Rimas Kurtinaitis
Jonas Valanciunas
Bill Walton
Chris Mullin
Jim Lampley
Dan Majerle
David Stern
Zydrunas Ilgauskas

At the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, basketball was dominated by the U.S. Men's Team. Collectively known as the Dream Team, they were led by such household names as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird. In addition to that trio was a roster full of players headed for the Hall of Fame. What I didn't realize at the time, and I'm not sure how many people did, was that there was another team that much more literally represented the hopes and dreams of their country. That team was from Lithuania. It was a nation that had just wiggled free from beneath the thumb of the Soviet Union. Their independence was so new that just four years earlier, at the prior Olympics, all of the country's athletes played for the Russians. This is the story of how the country gained its freedom and the role basketball played.

Our tale is told through the eyes of the gentlemen who were the stars of both Lithuania's team in '92 and the Soviet team in '88. Two of them, Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis would go on to play in the NBA, themselves. The others would have lengthy pro careers playing internationally. All of them still make their living within the sport in some capacity. Along with some other talking heads, they relay stories of what it was like living under Soviet rule. They speak of harsh and oppressive conditions. We hear of many Lithuanians being exiled to Siberia, a lot of whom never made it home. Through it all, they found joy in the sport they love. However, even that was tainted by being forced to play for another country.


As rough as it sounds, it's not depressing stuff. Our heroes are able to find humor in their despair. There is much laughter as they recount their trips to America while playing for the Soviets. They tell us how they managed to sneak out of their rooms at night despite being forbidden and closely watched by the Russians. We hear them marvel at the sheer availability of everything and the measures they took to smuggle home such illicit goods as blue jeans and walkmans. For you young'uns, the walkman was the iPod of the 80s. Go ahead, google it and have a laugh.

Things turn serious again when our attention is turned to the country's last days as a Russian annex. They speak of yearning to send a team of their very own to the upcoming Olympics once they were free. However, it was a bankrupt nation. We see the players, Marciulionis in particular since he was already in the NBA by that time, making huge efforts to make this happen. Eventually, we learn how rock legends The Grateful Dead took up their cause. It's all a heartwarming and uplifting documentary. You know what I'm saying: underdogs making good, triumph of the human spirit, and all that cheesiness. Thankfully, it's cheese that works and has plenty of basketball footage mixed in.


MY SCORE: 8/10