Review: The Final Member (2012)

The Final Member

© Drafthouse Films

© Drafthouse Films

In today's cinematic landscape, it seems as though so many movies tell the same predictable stories time and time again. As we watch these movies, we can be constantly reminded of the previous films that have used the same ideas and plots in the exact same manner. We see sequels and remakes and reboots galore, and we wonder just why Hollywood can't create new and exciting tales to satisfy our hunger. Luckily, film lovers have been able to fall back on the rise in documentary features, crafted by filmmakers eager to tell true and engaging stories that a screenwriter simply may not be able to imagine. One such tale revolves around the one-of-a-kind Icelandic Phallological Museum. 

The Final Member follows museum curator Sigur∂ur Hjartarson, a man who has been collecting specimens of mammalian genitalia for over three decades. In that time, he has come into possession of every mammal species know to man, save one: man himself. Eager to complete his collection amidst failing health, the curator receives permission from Páll Arason, a famed Icelandic explorer, to obtain possession of his genitalia upon his death. The elderly man shows no signs of slowing down in his old age, however, leaving the door open for someone else to beat him to the throne. Enter middle-aged American Tom Mitchell, who submits his own penis as a potential donation, and he just might be willing to part with it before his soul leaves his body. 

If the above synopsis hasn't done enough to grab your attention, let me continue by saying that The Final Member is a solid and entertaining film. It weaves a seemingly quirky idea with a very straightforward storyline that almost plays like an offbeat thriller. The story itself takes a number of twists and turns that one would expect from your average Hollywood fare, but the idea that the real-life events happen right before our eyes makes it all the more fascinating. I can't quite figure out whether the directors tried to play the situation for laughs or if the scenario itself allows for its own comedic sensibilities, but I can tell you with fair certainty that you will be hit with numerous fits of laughter as a result of either the topsy-turvy story or the three men bolstered at the center of it all. 

This particular story would be absolutely nothing without intriguing and entertaining central characters, and The Final Member offers us three from which to choose. Curator Hjartarson is a sensible man whose eccentric hobby started as a joke but soon grew to be his life's passion. We see a multi-faceted individual whose goal in life proves to be more than just finishing his collection; rather, he uses his little bit of infamy to help break down the taboos about openly discussing male genitalia. The individual we spend the least amount of time with is our Icelandic explorer, who slowly ages right before our eyes. He's a tall tale of a man whose personal story is so rooted within the story of the Icelandic landscape that his status as a living legend only helps to bolster the idea of the film and his right to his potential resting place inside the museum. If anyone truly steals the show, however, it has to be our American compatriot, who will stop at nothing to ensure he is the first man to be immortalized within the confines of this one-of-a-kind mausoleum. A true exhibitionist at heart, we see the lengths to which he is willing to go to cement his place in history. Regardless of whether you agree with his methods, you have to admire his tenacity and determination to his increasingly ridiculous cause. 

The Final Member may not be the greatest film the documentary world has ever seen, but it still manages to be incredibly engaging and entertaining through every step of its absurd journey. I can say with certainty that you will not soon forget some - or all - of these characters, and for that reason alone, The Final Member should warrant a watch. As for me, I'll be looking into just how quickly I can find my way to the small town of Husavik to stop in for a visit to the Icelandic Phallological Museum. 

Review: Suicide Squad (2016)

Suicide Squad

© Warner Bros.

© Warner Bros.

Earlier this year, DC Films started its serious attempt at creating an expanded universe to combat the one that rival Marvel Studios already has in place. They kicked things of with the critically-maligned Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in preparation for their upcoming Justice League films. I sat through that two-and-a-half hour slog, actually finding myself somewhat drawn to the storyline and to the characters we have seen portrayed on-screen time and again. I ultimately blasted the film for its climactic bait-and-switch which took away any possibility for DC to make a bold statement within the superhero film genre that would have stood in stark opposition to the seemingly happy-go-lucky Marvel fare we have seen over the past eight years. One of the key crosses that DC bears in the creation of its films is this idea that they must be the darker alternative to their more light-hearted counterpart. As a result, their films have lacked a true sense of fun and adventure, but the studio hoped their newest installment might be the one to break that dreary mold. 

Suicide Squad opens with Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), a military operative attempting to craft a plan for keeping America safe from future meta-human threats in the wake of Superman's death. She plans to assemble a team of dangerous criminals forced into taking high-risk missions on behalf of the government. The team, emotionally led by an elite hitman known as Deadshot (Will Smith) and a deranged psychiatrist named Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), must fall in line behind Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) as an ancient menace begins terrorizing Midway City in a plot that could spell doom for the entire world. The group of hardened and seedy individuals must then decide whether their own personal proclivities overpower the needs of the rest of the world before time runs out. 

Let's just cut to the chase: Suicide Squad is a terrible movie. I'll get more into the specifics in just a moment, but the film simply illustrates a summation of cataclysmic factors that generate one of the worst filmgoing experiences I have seen in quite some time. Below-par movies oftentimes manage to have some sort of silver lining or saving grace, but Suicide Squad earns the rare distinction of being an all-around stinker. Let's figure out just what fails, shall we? 

If a film can only be as strong as its screenplay, then Suicide Squad must have been made with particle board. I'll discuss the issues and concerns with the movie's cast and stylistic choices momentarily, but every aspect of the film ultimately suffers as a result of an abysmal script that simply doesn't allow the actors or the story any room to breathe. The film opens with an overly long introductory segment in which Viola Davis's character runs through the members of her brand new "bad guy" task force. These rapid-fire cut scenes play like the lineup introduction during an NFL broadcast, complete with a list of stats and misdemeanors for each and every character. Rather than allowing the audience to meet the characters organically over the course of the film, we are given a rush-cut of their personas and ideals right from the start in the hopes that skimming through these introductions will allow the main storyline to hold the film's focus. The film's opening feels sloppy and rushed, but I hoped that the lack of attention to these introductory moments might give way to a decent storyline filled with the lighthearted humor that a DC film so desperately needed. What we get instead, however, is a plot so ridiculously muddled that it seems as though the characters themselves can't keep it straight. 

The cast does its absolute best to elevate itself above the atrocities the screenplay presents them, but there's only so much an actor can do with awful material. Will Smith plays himself here, bringing a little bit of his personal flavor to the criminal-with-a-heart-of-gold character we have seen so many times before. Margot Robbie portrays a perfectly adequate Harleen Quinzel, and to her credit, she seems to be having the most fun with her character. Aside from the lack of true characterization, my biggest gripe with her performance lies in the fact that her accent slipped on more than one occasion throughout the film. As you may have heard, Jared Leto has infamously taken on the Joker persona, portraying the character on-screen for the first time since the passing of the late Heath Ledger. All of the marketing for Suicide Squad played as though the Joker would be a central figure throughout the film, but in the final cut, he's simply resigned to chasing after his honey bunny Harley. In the few scenes in which Leto actually appears, he hams it up, leaving his performance feeling over-the-top and borderline pretentious. Reports have surfaced that a number of his scenes were cut from the final film product, and perhaps a more fleshed-out Joker would have presented a stronger performance. As it currently stands, however, it feels more like piecemeal than anything else. We can round out the stars of the film with Viola Davis, who brings a seemingly strong character out of the muck. Her screen presence alone makes her a minor shine in the film, but everything else just leaves her star power dwarfed. 

The remainder of the cast rests on a spectrum ranging from under-utilized to absolutely atrocious. Jay Henandez's Diablo just might be the film's best-written character, receiving an actual arc over the course of the story. In contrast, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje's Killer Croc might receive the slightest amount of background information; all I gathered about the character was that he is some sort of mutated individual who now eats other humans for fun. Jai Courtney shows up and actually plays against type (in that his normal "type" is stoic and dull), but I never really got a sense of his character's motivations. Cara Delevingne plays both sides of the field, but that simply means she offers her awful performance to both the good guys and the bad guys in what culminates in the movie's worst performance. Joel Kinnaman, Kara Fukuhara, and Adam Beach round out the principal cast, but each proves to be either mediocre or forgettable. Again, most of the blame of this film must lie with the screenplay itself, but even so, this cast offers up a slew of poor performances. 

Suicide Squad also offers a number of peculiar stylistic choices that don't necessarily work with the end result. The cinematography can be characterized as colorfully murky, presenting a grimy world that still hopes to show some bright flash aimed at keeping viewers invested. Suicide Squad does take a step away from the full-on dreariness that Zack Snyder has crafted with his Superman entries, but this one never feels like it does quite enough to bring it completely out of that darker atmosphere. The musical choices also left me scratching my head. The film takes a page from the Guardians of the Galaxy playbook by offering a number of catchy and recognizable rock and pop songs meant to draw the viewers interest. Unlike its Marvel counterpart, however, these song selections are not used to enhance the film or add to the storyline; instead, they seem haphazardly placed simply as a veiled attempt at keeping the audience engaged. 

All of its flaws aside, Suicide Squad simply proves to be a slog of a film. I know that I have been an outspoken opponent of the superhero genre in general, and I know that I clearly do not fall into the key demographic for this realm of movies. In addition to the diehard comic book fans itching to see their favorite characters on-screen, studios mainly market these movies to adolescent boys looking for explosions and edgy - but not inappropriate - humor. I'm sure that plenty of people in that group enjoyed Suicide Squad, but I also saw a thirteen-year-old in a seat near me fall asleep halfway through the film. Suicide Squad is a boring, muddled mess of a movie, and all you DC fans deserve so much better. 

Review: The Family Fang (2015)

The Family Fang

© Starz Digital Media

© Starz Digital Media

Two years ago, Jason Bateman transitioned from the realm of acting to the world behind the camera. He released his debut feature, Bad Words, to fairly positive reception and success. Bateman directed himself playing a character who had found a loophole into a children's national spelling bee, and through the course of the film, we begin to understand the past traumas that have caused this man to stage such a spectacle. I recall the film being shot in a dreary sort of manner, but it still managed to offer some fun and a few laughs here and there. Would Bateman's sophomore effort expand on his directorial vision?

The Family Fang follows Annie (Nicole Kidman) and Baxter Fang (Jason Bateman), two siblings raised by a pair of infamous performance artists who constantly made them the center of their artistic pieces. As they two grow up, they start to see the affects that participating in these incredibly macabre visions has had on their respective psyches. Annie now struggles as an aging Hollywood starlet while Baxter fruitlessly attempts to complete his third novel. After Baxter has an accident that sends him to the hospital, he is sent to recover under the supervision of his parents Caleb (Christopher Walken) and Camille (Maryann Plunkett). Annie, needing a break from the limelight, elects to take time off and stay with them as well. When the two siblings refuse to join their parents in yet another artistic venture, the elders leave on an impromptu vacation only to soon be found missing in what looks to be a homicide. Annie and Baxter must then piece together the clues to determine whether their parents have actually been harmed or if they are simply trying to create one final elaborate hoax. 

If this movie succeeds in any way, it's that it shows us just what kind of directorial vision Jason Bateman wants to bring to the screen. So far, he has used his opportunities to attempt to bring some sense of comedy to two very dreary lifestyles, and while it mostly worked with Bad Words, it simply falls flat with The Family Fang. Bad Words had a charm about it that revolved around Bateman's on-screen chemistry with Rohan Chand, his child star counterpart. This new movie doesn't offer any real chemistry between any of the characters, and when the emotion of a film stems from the very way that the individuals affect and have affected one another, then a lack of chemistry can certainly spell doom for any venture. A very interesting and original story lies hidden within the confines of The Family Fang, but Bateman's near-solemn atmosphere doesn't allow for any comedic aspects of the situation to slip through the cracks. Instead, it simply feels like a step-by-step progression to a rather predictable conclusion. 

The characters themselves seem to be ripe with emotion and desire, but the actors simply are not given enough with which to flesh out these individuals fully. Bateman and Kidman are fine as our leads, but I never truly bought them as siblings nor did I feel as though they were ever truly invested in the situation presented to their characters. They play individuals frustrated with their down-on-their-luck livelihoods, and although they seemingly want to escape the struggles of their day-to-day, they approach it with a palpable boredom that oozes off the screen. Even the always stellar - if truly one-note - Walken can't manage an exemplary moment here or there; instead, his character is left stifled by the constructs of a character that leaves him as the broken-down shell of a once charismatic artist. If anyone manages to break the monotony, it's Kathryn Hahn and Jason Butler Harner, who portray the younger versions of Camille and Caleb in flashback sequences. In these moments, we get to see an off-kilter family with a true sense of life in their eyes as they attempt to create these profound artistic visions. I longed to stay with these younger versions of the characters rather than constantly be thrust back into the tiring lives of their older counterparts. Bateman may have been vying for that dichotomy, showing just how someone can lose the fire in their belly as time continues to pass, but it simply doesn't translate well for someone trying to ingest what the movie is trying to say. 

When all is said and done, The Family Fang ultimately commits a film's greatest cardinal sin: it's boring. Bateman takes a somewhat fascinating storyline and manages to bring it down into the depths of tedium by focusing on the emotions of the tired and aging versions of lively and fascinating characters. Give me a story about these four trying to create their greatest - and most dangerous - piece rather than letting me sit with the monotony of their whining as they grow older. Despite the best efforts from a cast of award winners, The Family Fang simply cannot pull itself out of the doldrums it sets for itself. Hopefully Bateman can bring a little more life to his next endeavor. 

Review: Captain Fantastic (2016)

Captain Fantastic

© Bleecker Street Media

© Bleecker Street Media

While you may not immediately recognize the name Matt Ross, you have more than likely seen him grace the screen at one point or another. In addition to appearing on numerous episodes of recent television hits like "American Horror Story" and "Silicon Valley," he has also snuck on-screen in big-budget film fare like Twelve MonkeysAmerican Psycho, and The Aviator. To this point, Ross has enjoyed a long, if subdued, acting career in Hollywood, but the past few years have seen him start to slip into the world behind the camera. He created a few shorts before delving into his debut feature - 2012's 28 Hotel Rooms - which met mixed reception from both the critical and audience communities. His sophomore effort, Captain Fantastic, looks to be the film that shows he can be adept in the director's chair as well. 

Captain Fantastic centers on Ben (Viggo Mortensen), a hippie-ish father of six raising his family in the wilderness depths of the Pacific Northwest. He teaches his children daily, running them through training exercises that craft both their body and mind while they live off the grid. When the family learns that their mother (Trin Miller) has suddenly passed away, the children beg their father to let them head into the everyday world in the hopes of attending her funeral. Ben initially resists after being told by his father-in-law (Frank Langella) that should he come near the ceremony, he would have Ben arrested. Despite his reservations, Ben's troupe makes their way towards the New Mexico service, learning from and interacting with a slew of individuals along the way. 

While I have not seen Ross's previous directorial endeavors, if he were to be judged solely based on this most recent effort, I would say that we have a fascinating new voice in the realm of cinema. The writer/director has crafted an elegant story about a man trying to keep his off-kilter family afloat amidst a sea of outside forces pounding against them. Both Ben and his wife make the decision to move their family into the wilderness, but after losing her, Ben must decide whether he alone can continue to keep his family safe without the structure that a normal, everyday life could bring. Ross packs an incredible amount of emotion into the film, and that emotion stems from a number of sources. The story itself offers a number of highs and lows, but it is in the individual characterizations that the family truly comes to life. We see a constant shift of emotion as one may grieve while another comforts, and this cycle continues from the film's start to finish. Handling the emotion of one character can be challenging enough, but Ross has created a movie where the emotion ebbs and flows from character to character over a two-hour run-time in a beautifully graceful manner. 

Writers and directors can craft and create beautiful stories with amazing characters, but the cast must still rise to the occasion to bring those characters to life. Since becoming a household name through the Lord of the Rings franchise, Viggo Mortensen has channeled his fame into a string of amazing performances in smaller-budget dramatic fare. From A History of Violence to Eastern Promises to The Road, Mortensen has managed to put forth strong outing after strong outing for over a decade, and his performance here in Captain Fantastic might just be his strongest yet. The story calls for his character to be the family's rock, and he does a wonderful job balancing all of his childrens' emotions while we can clearly see he's barely holding himself together. This energy wells behind his eyes from the start of the film, and his moment of release proves to be powerfully moving. Mortensen's Ben is the emotional and moral center of the film, and he absolutely knocks it out of the park. 

While the adult supporting cast of Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn, and the aforementioned Langella do well with their respective roles, the real treat opposite Mortensen's brilliance lies with his on-screen children. Each actor brings forth a unique and definable performance that complements everyone else in the group. Shree Crooks offers an encyclopedic intelligence while Charlie Shotwell gives us a youthful innocence. Nicholas Hamilton brings fury and anger while Annalise Basso illustrates a wild and independent spirit. Samantha Isler presents a thoughtful adolescence while George MacKay shows us a boy standing on the precipice of manhood. Each character belongs to one particular moment of childhood, and through them all, we see the full spectrum of life and learning. Individually, the film presents a set of truly beautiful characters, but when the sextet blends together, we just might be seeing one of the most cohesive and complete family units every put to the silver screen. 

In the midst of telling his story, Matt Ross performs a balancing act by showing both the positive and negative aspects of the life lifestyle that Mortensen's Ben has created. In certain moments, we feel drawn to his character's ideals, believing him to be showing the audience the way, the truth, and the light. When other characters stand in opposition of his principles, they sound outrageous and insane. As time continues to pass, however, the rose-colored glasses fall off our faces, and we begin to see the flaws in Ben's experiment. Just as the on-screen individuals begin to question their own livelihoods, we too start to wonder what would be best in the situation and how we might act and react were it to happen to us. Captain Fantastic does a wonderful job in portraying both sides of the coin, allowing the viewer to determine just where they stand. Ross presents this opportunity deftly, showing the steady hand one would expect from a more seasoned director. 

Much of the film's events take place as a result of one character's complications with bipolar disorder, but the movie itself also uses the bipolar concept as a template. We experience the drastic highs and lows alongside Ben and his family, and we feel the swings of emotion as we join them on their journey. Captain Fantastic is ultimately about life and death, but it's also about love and hate, right and wrong, and pain and forgiveness. The depth of the characters will draw you to them, and the depth of their emotion will pull on your heartstrings as you laugh and cry with this off little family. For a pure, emotional experience, Captain Fantastic will simply be hard to beat. 

Review: Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)

Everybody Wants Some!!

© Paramount Pictures

© Paramount Pictures

Richard Linklater has had a long and storied career that started back in the 1980s, but it was his 1993 film Dazed and Confused that truly put him on the map. The film focuses on high school kids in the mid-1970s celebrating the last day of school by following them on their adventures and exploits into the early hours on one eventful night. Critics praised the movie for its ability to delve into the small slice of Americana while blending it with arguably the greatest compilation film soundtrack of all time. In the decades since, Linklater has gone on to direct a slew of films across a wide range of genres: from family-friendly comedy to heavy drama, from quirky and off-beat thrillers to mind-bending visual experiences. His last film, 2014's Boyhood, garnered some of the best critical response of his career, and we as a collective filmgoing community have been waiting with bated breath for his follow-up effort. 

Everybody Wants Some!! centers on Jake (Blake Jenner), a freshman pitcher heading to college on a baseball scholarship, following him for the three days before classes begin as he attempts to integrate himself not only with the collegiate lifestyle but also the extreme personalities of his teammates and the party-hard lifestyle that they embody. The crew hits different bars every night with the sole objective of finding a girl to bed for the evening. Despite the seemingly loose and lackadaisical attitude the rest of his teammates have towards the women on campus, Jake begins to pine after a young woman named Beverly (Zoey Deutch), whom he meets just after his arrival. 

Linklater has stated that this film serves as something of a spiritual sequel to the aforementioned Dazed and Confused. A spiritual sequel does not necessarily directly follow its "predecessor;" rather, it generally has been made by the same filmmaker and shares common themes and ideas. In that sense, Everybody Wants Some!! definitely flows in the same vein as Linklater's 1993 flick. Interestingly enough, Linklater's latest also works as a pseudo-follow-up to Boyhood, which ends with its protagonist on the cusp of starting his collegiate journey. Despite these connections, Everybody definitely deserves to be treated as its own film, especially considering we don't have any direct correlation to the director's previous works. It has been years since I have seen Dazed and Confused, and while I remember greatly enjoying it, I would have to go back and revisit it to remember completely just how strong a film it is. That being said, Everybody Wants Some!! gives the the drive to want to do just that. 

For all of you fans of storyline and plot, I am giving you fair warning: this movie doesn't revolve around its settings and situation in order to advance itself; rather, it drives with full force on the stunning characterizations that bring each and every individual to life. In a way, Everybody works as a shallow character study that lets you observe the lives of a group of young men simply trying to sow their seed. The screenplay enhances this by working more as a series of vignettes highlighting key moments in Jake's first days on campus rather than offering a plotted narrative meant to keep you guessing from scene to scene. I used the term shallow earlier not in the derogatory sense but rather in the idea that we get enough information about each character to feel as though they could truly exist, but we're never really scratching far enough beneath the surface to understand their every want and desire. Just as Jake is getting to know the men and women who will shape his first year of college, we too receive just enough information to establish opinions about who we may want to gravitate towards as our story continues. 

Linklater has long been a gifted screenwriter, and that streak continues here. Still, a writer needs a stellar cast to bring their characters to life, and our man at the helm gets just that with Everybody Wants Some!! If you think about films revolving around freshman starting their college careers, you probably envision a string of films focusing on shy and quirky characters trying to find their footing in this new adult world. This movie strays from the status quo, offering a leading man whose few minor insecurities pale in comparison to his extreme self-confidence. Blake Jenner brings a comedic gravitas to the role so steadfast that it helps to amplify the eccentricities of the characters flowing around him. He creates a grounded individual that shines amongst the wacky and sometimes insane antics put forth by the rest of the male cast. 

Jenner's co-stars do a solid job playing up those eccentricities to round out the quirkiness of their characters. Glen Powell, J. Quinton Johnson, and Tyler Hoechlin serve as the most consistent standouts in the supporting cast, bringing the best performances and the most laughs throughout the course of the film. The aforementioned Deutch also does a fine job opposite Jenner, and the two have a fantastic chemistry that leaves you wanting to know more about their eventual possible relationship. The character I will remember most, however, is Will Brittain's Beuter, a down-home Southern boy who's trying to keep things going with his girl back home. I have never seen any of Brittain's other work, but here he channels a young Matthew McConaughey, mimicking the Oscar winner's voice and demeanor to a tee. At the start, it was a tad bit distracting, but it proved to be a fun one regardless. In a way, it felt like the strongest direct connection to Dazed and Confused

Although I'm by no means an expert in the realm of music, I do have to say that Linklater has done another fantastic job in creating a compilation soundtrack for this film. Just like Dazed and Confused brought us back to the 1970s, Everybody gives us a glimpse into the transition from those tunes to the sounds that would permeate the collective consciousness of the 1980s. The film features music from a slew of artists from the era, and the soundtrack immediately thrusts us into the appropriate vibe. While I wouldn't quite say that Linklater reaches the heights of Scorsese or Tarantino when it comes to musical selection, he very well might be running a slightly-distant third. 

Films about college have been released in a steady stream over the past few decades, but since the turn of the millennium, many of them have focused more on the raunch-com style that has grown to be the industry standard in today's comedic world. Everybody, on the other hand, turns back the clock and channels a more subdued idea of comedy that works wonders in contrast to the big-budget fare we get nowadays. It shows a refreshing level of restraint that most comedies simply cannot or will not strive to create. Imagine National Lampoon's Animal House with more intelligent humor, well-written characters, and legitimate depth. That's exactly what Everybody Wants Some!! brings to the table. 

Review: Ghostbusters (2016)


© Columbia Pictures & Sony Pictures Releasing

© Columbia Pictures & Sony Pictures Releasing

Last year's Oscar-winning film Mad Max: Fury Road opened in theaters to a bout of controversy. When it quickly became apparent that Charlize Theron's Furiosa would actually be the film's central character, a vocal minority of men's rights activists began to raise their hands in alarm. How could they possibly take such an iconic, masculine character as Max Rockatansky and belittle him to the passenger seat next to an empowered - and incredibly badass - woman? I feel as though many of those outcries fell silent when Fury Road proved to be one of the best action films in decades; around the same time, however, similar sentiments began circulating the Internet like a shark smelling blood in the water and circling its prey.

Ghostbusters serves as a reboot of the classic franchise started back in the mid-1980s. The new film opens with Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig), a Columbia University professor on the cusp of earning tenure just as her hidden ghost-hunting past rears its ugly head. Infuriated that her chance at earning a career at a prestigious university has been put on the line, she goes to confront her old colleague, Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), who has never given up the chase for the paranormal and seems to be ready for a breakthrough of her own. Joined by her new partner Jillian Holtzman (Kate McKinnon), the three quickly find themselves in the midst of investigating an alleged apparition that opens their eyes to a world of possibility. With a rise of spectral visions appearing across New York City, the trio adds the street-smart Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) to complete their ghost-busting quartet. Little do they know that a larger plot may be at play that could spell certain doom not only for their city but also for the entire world. 

Many consider the original Ghostbusters film to be a comedic classic of the 1980s, but I want to preface the rest of my review with this sentiment: I am not a massive fan of Ivan Reitman's original venture; I find it entertaining, but I've never truly been smitten with the '80s brand of humor so present in that original film (Note: at the time of this writing, I have yet to see Ghostbusters II, so any commentary on the previous films in the franchise will be limited to my knowledge of the original movie). I can begin to understand the inherent obsession with the flick, but I can't begin to comprehend the impressive and disheartening recoil from the collective interwebs when this new reboot was announced to have been cast with women in the central roles. I don't think I'm making much of a stretch when I say I'm sure the same people who publicly denounced last year's Mad Max just might be the ones attempting to silence this new Ghostbusters entry. 

While I won't go so far as to say that this new installment outperforms the original classic, it still proves to be a fun and entertaining film that manages to distance itself from its predecessor while still holding onto some of the themes and ideas set in place back in the '80s. This new Ghostbusters is inherently a remake, traveling a path familiar to the one we've already seen, but the filmmakers do a pleasant job of updating certain scenarios to make the film feel as though it belongs in the 21st-century. Sure, we're given a few throwback moments for the sake of nostalgia, and some of them work while some of them don't. Yet it is in its attempts to distance itself from its predecessors that this new film cements itself as its own standalone idea. 

The success of this film was always going to rely on its cast and its ability to create a group of characters that could stand toe-to-toe with such an iconic set of individuals. If this new film does anything dreadfully wrong, it's in its handling of the slew of cameos and brief appearances we see throughout the film, mostly from the likes of actors who appeared in the original Ghostbusters saga. Was it nice to see the likes of Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, and Sigourney Weaver grace the screen for a moment or two? Sure, but it all felt a tad bit forced. It felt like an unnecessary passing of the torch, so to speak. 

The true stars of the new Ghostbusters film are the Ghostbusters themselves. McCarthy and Wiig have both made careers portraying extreme and out-of-the-box characters, but they reign it in here, instead playing intelligent scientists with more middle-of-the-road personalities. It's nice to see that the two of them can play the straight (wo)man if necessary, and it opens the door for their on-screen colleagues to chew the scenery as much as they possibly can. McKinnon and Jones, both Saturday Night Live alums, bring a fantastic presence to the screen and account for a large number of the main group's comedy. While they both seem to be playing personas they've created and enhanced during their time on SNL, both fit perfectly into the vein of the style of comedy this movie wants to project. Kate McKinnon absolutely steals the show, bringing a level of insanity not often seen in your big-budget comedy; we may very well be seeing a star-making turn with this particular venture. Where this quartet truly shines, however, is in their chemistry. They were able to blend their four personalities in a way that I never truly felt while watching the original Ghostbusters could. This new movie presents a team that simply feels more put-together than its predecessors. 

While the main cast does a fantastic job of crafting believable characters, the supporting cast doesn't quite hit the same mark. Aside from Chris Hemsworth playing against type as a lovable moron, no one really gets close to the overall effectiveness of our four protagonists. Andy Garcia feels incredibly miscast as the lackadaisical Mayor of New York who spends the entire film attempting to downplay and deny the existence of a paranormal menace wandering his streets. Neil Casey, who stars as the film's central villain, suffers from a lack of clever writing that leaves his character feeling like a stereotypical genius-gone-bad. Cecily Strong brings the audience a one-note performance as the Mayor's PR woman, and though she gets close, she can't quite stand toe-to-toe with the likes of McCarthy, Wiig, McKinnon, and Jones. In a way, the sub-par performances from the rest of the cast only helps bolster the strengths of our protagonists, letting them truly take the film's reigns. 

In the same way that I'm not a fan of the dry comedy of the 1980s, I'm also a little opposed to the current vein of comedy in the twenty-first century. This brand of comedy, which has its origins around the turn of the millennium, focuses on taking a joke as far as it possibly can in the hopes of generating just a little more laughter at the expense of one continued punchline. To me, it feels a bit like overkill, and unfortunately, Ghostbusters mostly falls in line with that particular style for most of its runtime. While there are a number of solid jokes, including one Jaws reference that warmed my heart, the overall level of comedy feels like more of the same when it comes to the current status quo. If the film does anything well comedically, it offers a very tongue-in-cheek look at the public outcries against it. The film offers quite a few moments that play with the idea that such a large number of people have been publicly outspoken about this film's creation. I won't go so far as to say that Ghostbusters is metatheatrical, but it definitely plays with the real-world issues circling itself. 

Is Ghostbusters a good film? I'm going to lean towards a mostly spirited yes; while a few of its moments don't quite hit their mark (just like the original), there's more than enough here to craft a fun and engaging foray into the world of people who chase and capture ghosts for a living. Is Ghostbusters as good as the original? I personally think it's just as effective in conveying its storyline and delivering its humor, but I would still give the slight edge to the 1984 venture purely on the basis of originality. That being said, I definitely laughed way more during this one than I ever have whilst watching that '80s flick. Is this movie worthy of all the conversation surrounding it? Absolutely yes.

I haven't paid much specific attention to the worries and concerns of the incredibly vocal minority chastising this female-centric endeavor, but from what I've heard in the past week since the film's release, it seems as though a large portion of this group thinks the movie is a feminist, anti-man march. As a man myself, I never really felt all that attacked by anything in this movie, and I honestly liked the different point of view that plays against your typical conventions. Let me give you an example: throughout the film, Wiig's Erin pines for the affection of the hyper-good-looking Hemsworth, but every time she starts to make a move, her three colleagues tell her she's being ridiculous in her fruitless quest. Now let's switch the roles and look at the same scenario from a male-centric film that utilizes the same style of comedy. Guy A would vie for Hot Woman A, and all his buddies would stand around saying, "Yo, you gotta hit that!" Now try to count just how many different movies popped into your head. I think that the female cast in Ghostbusters shows a level of comedic restraint that most male-based comedies haven't shown in years, and that's something that I can appreciate. But never once did I feel like this movie was trying to bash me or my male counterparts. 

I've been giving it a lot of thought, and I think that the individuals battling against the women in this film are scared of three things. First, I think they're worried about how that change might affect their nostalgic attitude towards the original. To an extent, I understand the desire to reconnect with your childhood or adolescence. When Jurassic World and Independence Day: Resurgence hit theaters, I hoped above all hopes that they would do justice for the five- and seven-year-old Shaun sitting in the theater. Ghostbusters hit all of its nostalgic marks through situational moments, and it didn't need the cast to make it happen. Second, I think there's a stigma that women don't have the capability of being funny, but I think we crossed that threshold years ago. Madeline Kahn received an Oscar nomination for her comedic turn in Blazing Saddles back in the mid-1970s, and that's just one example off the top of my head. Ladies are allowed to be and are capable of being funny. Finally, I think these individuals fear the possibility of women having and holding a strong leading role, and by "leading," I don't necessarily mean the "main character." One of the reasons this Ghostbusters works so well is that we're given a group of women who are all highly intelligent in fields of science or local geographical history, and it's done in such a way that the scientific jargon isn't watered down for the audience. So often do we see science-based films that have to explain everything for the audience to understand, but it's always so refreshing to just have intelligent characters on the screen saying what they need to say and doing what they need to do. In the real world, no scientist would stop to explain complex concepts and theories in the midst of of an end-of-the-world situation. By allowing these characters to be our scientists, they become the leaders of the film, the ones who know what's right and what's at stake as soon as things turn sour. Powerful and well-written female characters are hard to come by in Hollywood, but I think that we've finally started to turn the corner. Unfortunately for this set of Ghostbusters, this particular turn coincided with the remaking of a beloved classic, and it opened the floodgates for a slew of men intimidated by powerful women and ready to throw unwarranted sexist balderdash in the hopes of slowing them down. 

At the end of the day, this Ghostbusters film wasn't made for me, and it certainly wasn't made for those individuals dead-set on slander. This Ghostbusters, with its simple and silly premise about a group of people capturing spectral spirits and placing them in a thermos, is for the young girls of the world looking for new heroes and role models. Film has been around since the late-1800s, and in that time, men have been given a seemingly infinite number of heroes from the medium from which to choose. Contrarians will say that women have been given plenty too, but I'm more than sure that that particular graph is skewed strongly in one particular direction. Don't worry fans of the original: you can still have your Venkman, Stantz, Spengler, and Zeddmore. Just let the girls of today and tomorrow have their Gilbert, Yates, Holtzmann, and Tolan, too. 

Review: Holidays (2016)


© Rialto Distribution

© Rialto Distribution

I'm a little bit of a horror junkie, and I will do whatever I can to search out as many horror films as possible, no matter how obscure they might be. One of my personal favorite sub-genres in the realm of horror comes in the form of anthology films, which blend a series of segments or vignettes that either add to a larger story or follow one particular theme that resonates throughout the feature-length runtime. Some of my personal favorites include 1982's Creepshow and 2007's Trick 'r Treat, which were directed by George A. Romero and Michael Dougherty, respectively. In my opinion, those films succeeded because they relied on one director's vision in bringing all of the stories together, ultimately making a more fully cohesive experience. In the past few years, however, the horror community has started to see an upswing of anthologies featuring handfuls of individuals directing individual segments. Films like this year's Southbound and the V/H/S franchise fall into this category, and I feel as though they have a more difficult time crafting their stories and themes and themes into one communal tone. They may be pushing the envelope on shock value, but the overall experience ultimately suffers without one binding presence. 

Holidays hopes to buck that trend by offering an anthology film based around - you guessed it - holidays. The movie offers eight different segments, each one of which takes direct inspiration from a different popular holiday and twists the tale into something short and horrific. The stories are told in calendar order, not that the timeline has any real pertinence to the film as a whole. Before I discuss the film as a whole, I want to break down each segment briefly and talk about which ones work better than the rest. 

Valentine's Day
Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kolsch get the film off to a solid start with the story of a high school swimmer bullied by her teammates for her apparent depression as well as her less-than-hidden affections for their coach. Madeleine Coghlan does a fine job as our unspeaking lead, but her performance's quality may partly be attributed to the painfully bad one given by her on-screen rival, Savannah Kennick. Still, the segment works relatively well and kicks Holidays off with a true sense of the macabre. Of all the film's segments, this is one that I would like to see expanded to a longer runtime, if only to flesh out a few interesting touches that might have been skipped for lack of space.

St. Patrick's Day
Gary Shore, the director of 2014's Dracula Untold, brings us the only segment not set on American soil. The story follows a young schoolteacher (Ruth Bradley) who dreams of having a child, but after one fateful Paddy's Day, she finds herself impregnated with something not quite human. The story does well in crafting parallels between Bradley's struggle and the story of Saint Patrick expelling serpents from Ireland isle, but the segment unfortunately takes a few liberties that prove to be too over-the-top for my personal taste. It makes a number of overt references to other films that play directly into the storyline but only make this one feel more like a rip-off than an homage. The final payoff also proves to be too laughable, and not in the sense that Holidays is attempting to be a horror-comedy. 

Did the idea of the Easter Bunny breaking into your home ever terrify you as a child? Did the concept of the risen Christ Jesus roaming the earth an undead zombie ever cross your mind? If you've ever had these fears and concerns, then perhaps Nicholas McCarthy's bizarre Easter mashup will cater more to you than it did to me. The young Ava Acres anchors the story of a little girl terrified of the possibility of some unseen monster leaving her gifts she'll awake to in the morning. When she wakes in the middle of the night to find the creature in her home, the segment takes an absurd yet imaginative twist. What ultimately hurts this segment are a few moments of shoddy storytelling and unpaid exposition. That, and one unnecessary throwaway scene of the girl's mother (Petra Wright) preparing to pleasure herself before a crucifix (no, I don't mean in a Regan MacNeil kind of way).

Mother's Day
Sarah Adina Smith's Mother's Day segment sadly proves to be the least accessible section of the film. We quickly learn that Kate (Sophie Traub) becomes pregnant after each and every act of intercourse and as a result has terminated nearly twenty pregnancies by the ripe old age of twenty-four. She opts into attending an all-natural fertility clinic in the middle of the desert in the hopes of finding a way to become less fertile. The story loosely explains her predicament but glosses over the horrifying aspect of her affliction, leaving the audience to scratch its head as the segment meanders through a few arduous minutes of a borderline catatonic Traub being handled by the clinic's nurses. The segment means unexpectedly and shockingly, and while I can start to gather the goings-on of the story, it almost felt a tad bit rushed. This one could have benefited from another few minutes to allow more insight into Kate's predicament, but perhaps the mystery was the plan all along. 

Father's Day
In contrast, the Father's Day segment just might be the best-directed one of the bunch. The story follows Carol (Jocelin Donahue) after she receives a mysterious package containing an unlabeled cassette. On the tape, she hears her father's voice beckoning her to come find him. Having thought him to be dead for years, she follows the instructions on the tape which ultimately lead her to the last place she ever saw him alive. Anthony Scott Burns does a fantastic job in setting an ominous atmosphere with this segment, allowing the tension to grow slowly as we build toward the climactic moment. Seeing as this is a horror anthology, we can readily assume that all will not end well, but it's in the unknowing of just how everything will unravel that we derive our terror. Unfortunately, the final reveal itself leaves something to be desired, but with this segment, the journey means so much more than the destination. 

Part of me had hoped the film would skip over the iconic Halloween holiday simply because it has already proven to be well-trodden territory in the genre. With none other than Kevin Smith behind the camera, however, I had high hopes that this segment would stand above the rest, and it surely does not disappoint. Smith continues his recent horror kick by directing Harley Morenstein as Ian, the pervy "agent" for a service featuring young girls on webcams. He currently has a trio of girls, led by Smith's own daughter Harley Quinn, at his beck and call, but when he tries to force himself on one of them, the three work together to exact their own brand of vengeance. Where the previous segment worked best with its source of tension, I think Smith's Halloween segment offers the best blend of comedy and horror to be seen in the film. He gives his two Harley's the opportunity to lead the show, and both prove to be rather effective in their roles. I'll admit that I'm a tad bit biased, but Kevin Smith's entry into Holidays is easily my favorite of the bunch. 

Although not as ripe as Halloween, I had also hoped that the Christmas season might be passed by for this particular anthology venture, but alas, the filmmakers made sure to hit the obvious points. Scott Stewart, who directed such feature-length films as Legion and Priest, brings us a story about a virtual reality headset that shows its users their everyday lives from the visual perspective of the people with whom they have interacted. In a way, it's an avenue to watch your life as though it were a film, and you were the star. Seth Green serves as our leading man, a spineless character in a seemingly loveless marriage who is dead set on securing the headset for his son as a Christmas gift. When he places the headset on himself, however, he starts to see a side of himself he had never previously noticed. The story offers a few twists and turns, keeping you guessing as you make your way to the climactic moments, but it all proves to be a tad bit fleeting. An interesting premise, it's one that I would like to see expanded; there could be a feature-length film crafted from this one. 

New Year's Eve
The Holidays should have ended at Christmas. Adam Egypt Mortimer gives us a glance at a murderous man (Andrew Bowen) looking for a New Year's date whom he finds through an Internet site. Lorenza Izzo, whom I recognized from The Green Inferno, stars as the aforementioned female set on avoiding a lonely New Year's night as well. As the two make their way back to their apartment, they both realize they'll be getting exactly what they want from the evening; sadly, the audience doesn't. This final segment simply didn't work, and I can't tell whether it's the segment itself or simply a product of fatigue. Were this portion placed earlier in the film, I might have been more invested, but after having cycled through countless characters by this point, I just couldn't bring myself to care about these two. The segment proves predictable and dull, and for a short film so focused on when the ball will drop, it sure did drop the ball. 

As a whole, Holidays mostly functions as an interesting foray into different directorial styles. We see one veteran in Kevin Smith stand above the rest, and I'll definitely be keeping my eye on the future of Andrew Scott Burns. Does Holidays ultimately pull itself together as a cohesive anthology? I don't think so. Too many of its segments stray too far away from their source objective, taking surface level concepts and crafting their storylines from there. To do so is the filmmakers prerogative, to be sure, but when bringing an anthology together, we need to have some more concrete tissue to hold everything tightly. Ultimately, Holidays simply works more as a fine exposé for budding horror directors than as an anthology film in the truest sense of the word.

Review: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016)

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

© Paramount Pictures

© Paramount Pictures

Over the past ten to fifteen years, audiences have been subjected to a slew of films focused on the multiple wars in the Middle East. Some of these films, such as The Hurt Locker, have soared, but most of them have proven to be lackluster and forgettable. In addition, save for Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, most of these movies have centered on soldiers and their male perspective during the wartime efforts. Because of this incredible skew, it was a refreshing change of pace to see a female-centric film set in the midst of the War in Afghanistan that didn't necessarily rely on a soldier's point of view. 

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot follows Kim Baker (Tina Fey), a middle-aged copywriting desk jockey, who is thrust into the midst of the war in Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11th attacks. The film chronicles a three-year time span during which she becomes accustomed to field duty in and around Kabul. Initially hesitant, she soon finds her stride as one of the more daring journalists who isn't afraid to jump into battle alongside soldiers in order to get the best possible footage. Baker maintains a friendly competition with Tanya (Margot Robbie) as well as a possible affection for a Scottish photographer named Iain (Martin Freeman). As a slew of military forces are re-stationed in Iraq, Kim and her colleagues find it increasingly difficult to find stories worthy of airtime back in the United States. 

When I first saw the Whiskey Tango Foxtrot trailers, I was certain that I would be seeing a more light-hearted approach to the war on terror. Some films in recent memory have opted for all-out comedy with less-than-stellar results, so I was a tad bit apprehensive about the possibility of this film going down that route. It sets a very different tone early, however, vying for a more dramatic approach that you wouldn't quite get from the early previews. Now that's not to say that this film is devoid of humor, and the attention to dramatic detail actually helps punch up some of the jokes that do flow steadily, if not as consistently as you might imagine. Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa manage this balancing act well, taking a step in the right direction after their last film - 2015's Focus - seemed to miss the mark. 

The film revolves around Tina Fey's character and, to a certain extent, the movie lives and dies on her ability to delve into the dramatic. To this point, I can't remember ever seeing Fey perform in a dramatic role nor have I ever heard her use the extensive profanity that she utters throughout the course of the film. Suffice to say it came as a bit of a shock. Although the film doesn't necessarily ask much of her in the dramatic sense, she still manages to hold quite a presence from start to finish. While her supporting cast mostly outperforms her, I think most of that stems from the reality that they are playing more unique characters. The essence of Fey's Baker is one that we have seen time and again: she's stuck in an office job and feels as though her life is stagnant so she decides to take a plunge into something extreme that could be construed as an adventure. Think Walter Mitty using war as a backdrop to find meaning and spirit in life. That's Fey's character in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

The film's two standouts are Margot Robbie and Martin Freeman, both of whom are given tastier roles in which they can actually sink their teeth. Robbie plays the star female journalist who has already made a name for herself in Kabul, but she too has started to feel the effects the Iraq War has wrought on her ability to produce newsworthy content. Her self-confidence plays wonderfully opposite Fey's early apprehension, and the two form an unlikely bond and strong chemistry from the film's opening moments. Freeman plays the aforementioned Scottish photographer (named Iain) who starts the film as a lewd and lovable playboy working his way through the westernized women of Kabul. As time progresses, we watch as he and Fey begin to develop a stronger chemistry and relationship that in any other film might feel forced and contrived but works her because the two have an incredible repartee. A few other recognizable faces pop up from time to time. Billy Bob Thornton plays a Marine corporal who slowly comes around on Fey's ability as a reporter and investigative journalist. He plays a fine character, albeit one rife with Southern and militaristic stereotype. Alfred Molina also makes a supporting appearance as the newly-elected Attorney General of Iraq in one of the more miscast roles I've seen in some time. Rather than portraying a powerful and confident politician, we merely watch him as he goofily pines over Kim Baker in the hopes of garnering her affection. 

What keeps this film from being a knockout hit is its relatively predictable storyline and its inability to pack a punch. In the first act, we see Baker as she begins to learn the world of field journalism in the midst of war, and we essentially follow her on that journey. The second act shows her delving into issues you might not normally hear broadcast from a war zone, including an attention the rights and plights of women in the region. I really enjoyed that the film was looking in a different direction, and it seemed as though it was trying to offer a female-centric view on the wars in the Middle East. The final act, however sees that aspect of the narrative unravel in favor of a predictable storyline that blends romance with the wartime effort. Baker's attempts at exploring the travesties against women fall by the wayside as she focuses on her relationship with Iain while still trying to search for something worthy of her station's news broadcast back home. Had the film continued onward with what it sets up in the second act, I think we might have been looking at a groundbreaking film that dared to take a deeper look at some unmentioned aspects of recent history; instead, the final act lacks the punch needed to bring everything home, so I left the film feeling a tad bit underwhelmed as the credits rolled. 

Ultimately, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is an above-average war flick that's going to keep you invested. It's hindered by some typical and rote decisions from the story's perspective, but there's enough there for most audiences to enjoy. I can't say that the film quite lives up to its phonetic pun of a title; there weren't any moments where I was truly shocked by the goings-on of the film, but I still find the title to be clever and original. WTF is worth your time, but only if you have the time to spare. 

Review: Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (2016)

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates

© Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

© Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

What happens when you take four of the hottest young comedic actors in Hollywood and put them in the same movie? In the past, studios have attempted to bring together dream teams of big-name stars, and it has had widely varying results. Surely a movie starring a principal characters from "Workaholics" and "Parks & Recreation" as well stars from Pitch Perfect and High School Musical would be able to deliver a fun and entertaining experience.

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates tells the story of Mike (Adam Devine) and Dave Stangle (Zac Efron), two wild and crazy brothers who always manage to destroy their family gatherings. When they're younger sister Jeannie (Sugar Lyn Beard) is set to be married, she and their parents ask the boys to bring dates to her destination wedding in the hopes that the "nice girls" will help keep the brothers' antics at bay. Mike and Dave post an ad on Craiglist, stating they are looking for two girls to take on an expenses-paid trip to Hawaii, and thousands of women immediately respond and share the posting with everyone they know. Tatiana (Aubrey Plaza) and Alice (Anna Kendrick), two struggling and out-of-work women looking to get away from their lives for a while, decide to con the boys into bringing them to Hawaii so they can soak up some rest and relaxation. When they arrive on the islands, however, Mike and Dave soon start to realize that these "nice" girls might not be as mellow and family-friendly as they had hoped. 

The earliest trailers for this film made it seem as though it might offer a few good laughs here and there, but with any trailer for a comedy, you always have to wonder if the studios are filling it with the film's best bits in the hopes of getting your butt into the theater. While Mike and Dave does offer a few minor laughs, this is mostly an unfunny slog from start to finish. I didn't know a film with a runtime just under one hundred minutes could feel this slow and arduous. I don't think I cracked a smile during the first two-thirds of the film, and during its climactic moments, I found myself laughing more at the film's expense than at its merit. Not the best sign for a comedy.

I could easily spend time talking about the insanely predictable storyline or the fact that the overall writing by Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O'Brien was incredibly shoddy, but at the end of the day, I don't think this film's key demographic really cares about the overall character arc. They want to hear jokes that push the raunch boundaries, and they want to hear them from some of their favorite funny actors, so in that respect, this movie lives and dies in the hands of its principal cast. Sadly, this cast has butterfingers. 

I have personally never been much of an Adam Devine fan as I think he's simply been playing a version of his "Workaholics" character for the majority of his career (save for his decent guest appearances on "Modern Family"). He's bringing his status quo for Mike and Dave, playing the overgrown man-child who's more interested in having fun and getting laid than achieving any kind of life solidity. Zac Efron has finally shed his High School Musical stigma by appearing in a few feature films including the highly successful Neighbors franchise for which he garnered praise for his comedic turn. Of the four main characters in this film, Efron delivers the best performance, bringing a little bit of depth to a character that is tangibly underwritten. Our two female leads don't fare much better, and a lot of it comes down to the writing. Aubrey Plaza has made a name for herself playing shy and awkward characters, but here she plays against type and attempts to command the screen as the risqué and outspoken foil to Anna Kendrick's goofy aloofness. Plaza's break from type is fun to watch but ultimately suffers from being poorly-written and lacking true depth. I never fully believed Kendrick's character for much of the same reason, and it felt like she compensated for the lack of depth by playing the character over-the-top. I constantly had to remind myself that Anna Kendrick is an Oscar-nominated actress because she's that far from her potential here. 

A few of the supporting characters are serviceable although no one truly stands above the rest. Sugar Lyn Beard plays sister Jeannie, and for the most part she's fine, save for one particular scene involving a special massage where she definitely chews the scenery. Her fiancé Eric, portrayed by Sam Richardson, might be the most consistent character in the film, but he isn't given enough screen-time for us truly to care about his well-being. If anyone in the film rubbed me the wrong way, it has to be Alice Wetterlund who played Cousin Terry. Her character has a constant tiff with Devine, and in her every moment on-screen, I felt as though the two were simply trying to out-shine the other in typical Devine fashion. Were the character not so close to the one I've grown to know and dislike from Adam Devine, I might have liked Wetterlund a little more, but as it stands, it just got very old very fast. 

As you can see, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates simply doesn't have enough falling in its favor. The story is flimsy, the characters are poorly-written, and the overall direction is relatively bland. All of that would have been forgivable, however, had this quartet of comedic stars been able to improv their way to a handful of solid jokes and gags. This film really just feels like the cast and crew wanted an excuse to head down to Hawaii for a little while, and they just happened to make a movie while they were there. When I saw the movie, I was in a theater occupied by a large percentage of college-aged men, who I think would fall under this film's demographic. I think one of the most telling signs that Mike and Dave is a flop was the fact that none of them even managed to chuckle throughout the entire film. If you can't hit your own demographic, you're not going to be able to hit everyone else. 

Review: Swiss Army Man (2016)

Swiss Army Man

© A24

© A24

Today's Hollywood has a penchant for the big-budget blockbuster event. We live in a world where sequels and remakes dominate the cinematic frontier, all in the hopes of cashing in on a previously-established intellectual property. These tentpole pictures do enough to whet the appetite of the average theatergoer, but it feels as though there's a groundswell of individuals clamoring for a taste of some original fare. So many fresh and exciting ideas and concepts fall by the wayside simply because they cannot compete with the big-budget machine that churns out reboot after sequel after remake. When something original does break through and permeate the public consciousness, attention must be given. We all crave these new stories, but riddle me this: is there a limit to just how "original" they can be before we turn against them?

Swiss Army Man opens with Hank (Paul Dano), a suicidal man stranded on a tiny deserted island, as he readies himself to end his life. He glances across the beach to catch one last glimpse of this world and notices a body has rolled onto the sand only a few yards away. He stumbles across the beach only to find a very dead (and very flatulent) corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) who proceeds to expel bodily gasses in such a way that he propels himself through the surf. Seeing his opportunity for escape, Hank hops on the man and rides him to the mainland where the pair's true adventure begins. 

Before I delve into my thoughts on the film, let's talk a little bit of Swiss Army Man background. The movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in January, and news immediately broke that a large portion of the audience attendees walked out of the theater before the film had finished. Normally, something like this would be a bad omen, but the people who managed to sit through the film in its entirety began to give it a slew of praise. Clearly, this movie was going to be divisive, and something about that drew me into the idea. I waited patiently for the film to hit theaters in the hopes of seeing something seemingly original, no matter the concerns of those who had left prematurely. I just wasn't quite prepared for the experience that is Swiss Army Man.

This film does have a bit of an elephant in the room with the aforementioned flatulence, so let's just get this out of the way. I'm sure plenty of you might be turned off by the thought of sitting through a film with consistent low-brow humor centered around a slew of bodily functions, and I for one needed about ten to fifteen minutes to commit myself to sticking this one out. Our audience was less fortunate: of the twelve people in the theater, six left before the film had concluded, with the first casualties lasting less than five minutes. Again, this movie is divisive. Aside from a few moments in film history, I generally despise toilet humor such as what's thrown our way at lightning speed in Swiss Army Man, but I urge all of you to try to push through the slog of farts and erections because the rest of the film is more than worth the suffering. 

Swiss Army Man is an unconventional story of friendship that uses an incredibly outlandish premise as a starting point for its ideas. Shortly after discovering the rotting corpse, Dano's Hank begins to see it seemingly come to life before his very eyes. We as the audience as never truly told whether the things we're seeing are actually happening or if they're the product of some starvation-induced fever dream, but that's part of the intrigue of the film. As they continue their journey, Hank grows to know Manny (the name the corpse gives himself) and begins to reintroduce him to the world and its realities. The two battle and bond as they trek through the wilderness together, learning and debating the deeper concepts of life. 

For the most part, Swiss Army Man works, and a large portion of its success rests heavily on our two leads. Paul Dano continues to cement himself as one of today's best young actors, but it's his counterpart who truly deserves recognition. Daniel Radcliffe continues to push himself further away from his Harry Potter visage; taking the plunge and playing a reimagined corpse was a gutsy move, but his boyish innocence works well opposite Dano's manic-depression.

The chemistry between the two keeps the film going even when the story falters from time to time. This movie is grandiose, and it takes quite a few shots at being something of a transcendent experience. Over the course of the film, Hank and Manny have discussions about the meanings of everyday life, and each moment feels as though it's meant to be more profound than the last. Unfortunately, many of these conversations fail to hit the mark. In a way, the film's reaches further than it can grasp, and although it's makes a valiant effort, it just doesn't hit the messages home. 

If the film truly succeeds in any respect, it's in its visual style. Directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert have spent much of their career working on music videos, and you can see that translation in their feature film debut here. There's a manic energy that paces the film, and the very look of it all feels wondrous and magical. Their use of music throughout the film adds to the joyous atmosphere, and I have found myself running the music through my mind since I saw the film last week. You'll be hard-pressed to find another film this year that encompasses such a spirit.

At the beginning of this review, I asked whether a film could be too original for your everyday audience, and I think that Swiss Army Man is certainly toeing the line. This is a weird movie, but it embraces that weirdness and to an extent champions it. I walked out of the theater not knowing just what to think, but the more I allow myself to process everything I saw, the more I'm coming around to the brilliance of Swiss Army Man. Is it a perfect film? Not by any means. It has the flaws that you would expect from a first-time directing duo, but it also stands as an impressive debut. The film itself is a feel-good movie that's moderately accessible, but it's going to take some internal convincing to get yourself to sit through it. It doesn't play by your normal film conventions, and it has to be forgiven and applauded for that. The Daniels, as the directing team calls themselves, have made something truly unique and, at times, breathtaking. Swiss Army Man is the perfect anti-comfort food type of film: it's hitting all the themes and tones you would expect from a movie about friendship, but it's doing them in a way unlike any movie you've seen before. I've certainly never seen anything quite like it. In a way, it's letting it's freak flag fly, and in a day and age where we all have something that makes us self-conscious, Swiss Army Man is the perfect antidote.