130: 17 Again

Sometimes you have to poke through the obvious exterior of a movie and keep an open mind. Recently I decided to dig up 17 Again, a Zac Efron vehicle from 2009 that got panned  by many critics, but which got a fairly positive buzz nonetheless. I always planned on getting back to it, but never got around to it, until now… and I must say that the critics had it wrong this time. This is a largely enjoyable feature about what it means to grow old and the responsibilities that brings with it.

In 17 Again we return to a Big-like story (except in reverse) about a guy who has doubts about the choices he made when he was young. During an important basketball game he chooses to go for the girl instead of the winning play. The ramifications of this choice have kept him occupied all his life. And one night he asks the powers that be to be seventeen again. His wish is granted, the only problem is that he did not specify the time in which he wanted to be seventeen again. See, even asking for a wish he can’t do very well. He becomes seventeen in the present day and that is anything but ideal.

Zac Efron never really showed up on my radar before. It is that dreaded cute-guy-syndrome Leonardo DiCarpio and a score of other guys have been struggling with in their career. Efron shows in 17 Again that he can handle himself beyond being the cute guy who brings the teenage girls into the theaters. His performance is believable and that is all we were asking for in this fantasy-tale of redemption and getting that coveted second chance. His older self is played by Matthew Perry and he is excellent. He has that quality to him a lot of guys can relate to. He is a little chubby, you see he wonders about what could have been, he is insecure and he just doesn’t want to commit to a life that entails having less fun and having more responsibility.

Everything in 17 Again hinges on the performances, because the story we have seen a million times before. Efron and Perry are excellent as the main lead, Leslie Mann plays his wife and Thomas Lennon (Reno 911!) is hilarious as the guy who was the nerd in high school and now has a house that resembles the ultimate man-cave. And Melora Hardin (The Office) plays the hard-nosed principal of the school who takes an interest in Lennon’s character. Their dinner together is one of the true highlights of 17 Again.

Director Burr Steers made Igby Goes Down in 2002, a movie I didn’t feel much for and which I thought was too heavy-handed for its own sake. In 17 Again he seems to have found a more pleasant balance between drama and comedy. He went on to make another movie with Efron called Charlie St. Cloud, which I have yet to see. That flick got panned as well by the critics, so maybe I’ll just have to check that one out as well.

> IMDb

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129: Ted

I am not a fan of Family Guy. I think Seth MacFarlane’s animated show about the dysfunctional Griffin family is overrated. His constant stream of jokey jokes and cut-aways are extremely tiresome and quite frankly not very funny. I was afraid MacFarlane’s first step into the world of directing a feature film, Ted, would take the same approach. While Ted does have some similarities with Family Guy it is also so much better, and incredibly funny. But… be warned. Ted may feature a cuddly teddy bear, but it is definitely NOT suitable for children.

The deception of Ted starts right at the beginning. We drift down towards a middle class neighborhood at Christmas time. We meet John Bennett, a lonely boy who has no friends. He can’t even get himself to be picked on, he is that alone. On Christmas eve John gets a huge fluffy teddy bear he calls Ted and at night he wishes the bear to be real. In the morning it becomes clear that a miracle has happened… Ted is alive and even more cute than the night before. All this is played as if this was an ’80s Steven Spielberg with harmless music and sweet cinematography.

It almost makes you forget that MacFarlane explains to us that Christmas is the time of year when the Christian kids beat up the Jewish kids and that a Cobra helicopter is far more powerful than love. From that point on Ted takes a turn for the grim. Ted becomes a celebrity with all the perks that come with it. But with his rise to fame his subsequent decline is inevitable. Ted becomes a stoner and practically lives on John’s couch, even though John (Mark Wahlberg) now lives together with his girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis). John and Ted are inseparable and that starts to takes its toll on John’s life.

The story of Ted is not very interesting in itself. You have a guy who has trouble growing up. His life isn’t panning out the way he it too. He resorts to childish behavior and uses his teddy bear friend as an excuse for his immaturity. During the course of the film he has to come to terms with the fact that he has to cut Ted loose in order to grow up and move on with his life. Nothing special there. The plot is actually just there to function as a framework for Ted’s comedy, which is so incredibly funny it almost made me choke on my drink.

As with the story, there is nothing remarkable about the comedy. It is a mix of raunchy lines and slapstick comedy, just as we have grown accustomed to in MacFarlane’s productions. The brilliant thing about Ted is the way the comedy is presented. Ted delivers his lines (voiced by MacFarlane himself) with such a deadpan conviction in a thick Boston accent. Lines that include racial slurs and other even more questionable words. Anything he says comes out funny, there is not one missed beat in MacFarlane’s performance.

On top of that there is the fact that nobody in Ted’s world seems to question the fact that there is a living and breathing teddy bear walking around. When Ted drives John to work nobody minds, even though he plows his car into another car on the lot. The funniest scene is the one where John has a fight with Ted and they physically fight. Normally John should have no problem whatsoever winning a fight with a teddy bear, but Ted gives it his all. They go flying across the room and clearly John does have a rough time beating Ted. Instead of having this be the comedic high point of the movie MacFarlane chose to play this scene incredibly serious. Not a single beat is played for laughs and that makes it even more funny. I nearly busted my gut watching that scene.

MacFarlane shows with Ted that he has a clear understanding of what good comedy is. He needs a lot of profanity to do it, but nonetheless he pulls it off, something I never really got from Family Guy or his Star Wars parodies. Be aware of when you take a swig from your cup, because it may end up on the back of somebody’s head. Ted is a comedic masterpiece.

> IMDb

128: The Expendables 2

In 2010 Sylvester Stallone unleashed a new concept: the geriatric action movie. Or: take a bunch of washed up action heroes, add some younger guys to push their wheelchairs around and have them shoot at anything that moves. No excuses, no plot, just guns, explosions and fun. The Expendables took in nearly 300 million dollars worldwide, so the inevitable sequel was put into production almost immediately and now we get to ‘enjoy’ another one of these self-congratulatory exercises. Well, here goes…

I was not a fan of the first Expendables. The first two acts were fine, but the movie fell apart completely in the last act when the safeties were removed from the guns. It was a chaotic orgy of nonsensical violence that had nearly nothing to do with what came before. It was as if Stallone, who directed the first installment, was bored with all that pesky storytelling and decided to go all out just for the heck of it. For The Expendables 2 Stallone surrendered the helm of his movie to Simon West, director of Con Air and The Mechanic. I was hoping that West could perhaps add some meaning to what could be a terrific franchise.

Boy, was I wrong. The Expendables 2 doesn’t just continue where the first movie ended, it expands on its stupidity in a way that is just laughable. While The Expendables had some sort of emotional undercurrent that made sense in its alternate universe and sometimes actually felt genuine. The sequel goes for the cheap emotional way out with a contrived tangent in which the youngest member of the crew has found the love of his life in France and now wants out. Of course he is the first one to go (sorry, spoiler), because then Stallone can stand over his grave and say stuff like, “Why do the good ones always go first and the bad ones get to stay alive. What’s the message in that?” (I could have some of these words wrong, because most of the time it is extremely hard to actually understand what Stallone is growling.) It is all so simplistic that it actually hurts the movie. Yes, you heard me right, the writing hurts this movie.

Before you start ragging on me about being too harsh on The Expendables 2 because it is only a piece of mindless entertainment. I would like to add that I would have loved for The Expendables to be mindless entertainment, but it often tries so hard not to be that. West is a director who knows how to film action sequences, those are excellent and nicely over the top. He has no idea however how to frame that action with a story the audience can be invested in. If Stallone had gotten a director who knows how to balance these elements this could have been a much better movie.

Just look at the roster. How can you go wrong with guys like Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren (who is surprisingly funny), Terry Crews, Randy Couture and new to the cast are Jean-Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris. Returning for their small parts (although a little bigger than the last time) are Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis.

It was highly advertised that Willis and Schwarzenegger would have larger roles this time around and while technically this is true, it is also not really that. These two gentlemen don’t have much more to do here than in the first movie. They enter and leave the movie on a regular basis and the only thing they get to do is shoot and make fun of themselves. They even go so far as having Schwarzenegger utter his famous line “I’ll be back”, with Willis replying, “No, you stay, I’ll be back”, to which Arnie replies, “Yippie-ki-yay”. If that isn’t the pinnacle of painfully obvious fanservice than I don’t know what is. And all this transpires during the climactic shoot-out, which in the good tradition of The Expendables doesn’t make any sense at all.

Is there something fun to behold in this second Expendables? Well, that depends on your ability to handle plotholes, stupid dialogue and extreme amounts of gratuitous gore. From the very first moments Stallone and his crew appear, it is clear that we are not in for a subtle exercise. Blood splatters freely from bodies that are dismembered in a variety of fashions. I found nothing funny in all of this, while it was certainly played up as funny. There were some funny moments, but mostly my smiles came from a place where I thought to myself, “Geeze, they actually went there.” In the end all I could think was that a cast of this magnitude deserves more than what The Expendables 2 has become: a joke on itself and that is just not fair to those involved.

> IMDb

127: The Cabin in the Woods

Not so long ago a little movie called Tucker & Dale vs Evil surprised friend and foe with its ingenious take on a tired and worn-out genre: the teenage slasher horror flick. Director Eli Craig took this type of movie and turn the conceit around. He created a wholly original experience nobody expected. Anybody who loved this little movie should sit up now and pay attention, because there is another movie out there that takes the same genre and also turns it upside down, but this time on a much grander scale. That movie is The Cabin in the Woods and it is awesome.

I would like to warn anybody who has not seen The Cabin in the Woods up front. In order to be able to talk about this movie some spoilery liberties must be taken. If you have not seen it yet, I suggest you stop reading and go watch it… NOW! Go, don’t let me keep you.

With that out of the way I can continue.

Everything in The Cabin in the Woods revolves around that dreaded eponymous cabin in the woods. For years kids have been lured to these types of cabins in order to be killed by whatever evil is unleashed on them. We have seen it hundreds of times, most famously in movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Evil Dead and Cabin Fever. But why does this happen? Why do kids keep going to these places when they very well know it is unsafe? Why do they stay even though something mysterious is going on outside or in the cellar? It turns out there is much more behind these tales about promiscuous teenagers then we could have ever imagined.

Like so many others I had heard about The Cabin in the Woods before I watched the movie. I knew there was a twist to the story that was very original, but I was very surprised to see that first-time director Drew Goddard, who wrote episodes of Lost and wrote Cloverfield, had the guts to actually open the movie with the twist (that is now no longer a twist of course) that I was expecting to be revealed later in the movie. A ballsy move that puts the viewer squarely in the middle of the movie. By choosing this structure we are constantly involved with all the sides of the story and because we are so evenly introduced to all parties. The payoff, which would have been too much to handle in a single reveal, is therefor much more interesting.

Even though at first I thought the trailer of The Cabin in the Woods gave away way too much, I realized that wasn’t the case at all. Much of the material in the trailer is actually used in the first part of the movie. That makes what happens later in the movie and the reasoning behind all of what happens  even more surprising. And, no, don’t worry, I am not going to divulge the secret of The Cabin in the Woods here. It is just too cool and surprising to reveal casually in a review.

Goddard wrote The Cabin in the Woods together with none other than Joss Whedon, a man who seemingly can’t do wrong at this moment in his career. Whedon also produced. While I did not finish watching Lost (I gave up at the beginning of season two) I still felt a strong kinship between The Cabin and the Woods and that show, as well as Cloverfield. A group of innocent people are thrust into an adventure that is totally out of their hands and beyond anything they could have imagined. They are being played by some malevolent force that they could have no hope of beating. But they rise up and make every effort to vanquish their foe, whether they succeed or not.

If you want a nice evening of revisionist horror movies, I recommend you get Tucker & Dale vs Evil and The Cabin in the Woods. Both are great movies that will make you laugh and will surprise you countless times. The only downside is the fact that in the coming years a lot of knock-offs will start to flood the market and that is not something I am looking forward to.

> IMDb

Intermission: In Memoriam Tony Scott

I am sure a lot will be written in the coming days about Tony Scott. This great American director, who always sported his signature red cap, jumped to his death last weekend after hearing he had inoperable brain cancer. He was only 68 years old. Scott, brother of Ridley Scott, was a director who had just about as many detractors as fans. His incredibly kinetic way of shooting movies made him into some kind of a punchline with people calling his style the fuel for the MTV generation.

People die more often, and people commit suicide more often, then why does the cinematic society at large react so intense to the news of Scott’s death? His movies haven’t always been the most deep and thoughtful and to make an inevitable comparison, his movies never really caught up to his brother’s movies. They both, however, worked the system perfectly. He was the perfect Hollywood director with enough style and brains to make his movies stand out from the crowd. My theory for the outcry about Scott’s death is the fact that a great percentage of people today grew up on his movies.

Scott started his movie career with a little movie called The Hunger that not a lot of people have seen, But it was Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer who recognized something special in him and they asked him to take a look at Top Gun. Although Scott was reluctant he did it eventually and it cemented his name and style in the heads of many young boys. Top Gun remains one of the greatest action movies from the ’80s. I wrote about it earlier this year and I stand by my comments then.

The death of Tony Scott made me put Top Gun in my player again and with the very first sequence, the shots in slow motion of the fighters rolling on the deck of the carrier, I was reminded of the incredible power it still possesses. It made me well up at the thought that the man who thought these shots up chose to take his own life in a moment of despair. Scott influences my love for movies so much that it actually hurts to see this beautiful sequence. And this was only his second feature film. After Top Gun he went on to create his own style that would spawn numerous imitations.

Movies like Days of Thunder, True Romance, Crimson Tide, Spy Game, Man On Fire and even more recent outings like The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and Unstoppable will be studied in the future for their relentless use of movement and tension. In addition to his directing chops he also was a very prolific producer through his and his brother’s Scott Free Productions. The list of properties he produced is enormous and also for that I would like to thank him. Tony Scott was a great director and he will be sorely missed. My thoughts go out to everyone around him. Now I will go back to watching Top Gun, one of my favorite movies, ever, period.

> Tony Scott @ IMDb

126: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

What if you had to eat sardines for the rest of your life? You would start to invent some machine to change your fate, right? And Flint Lockwood happens to be an inventor who has been thinking up stuff his whole life. Shoes with laces that don’t come undone, the remoteless television, ratbirds and now the Flint Lockwood Diatonic Super Mutating Dynamic Food Replicator or FLDSMDFR, for short. This contraption is capable of creating anything that is considered food. From hamburger to steaks, from ice cream to spaghetti with meatballs. Exactly the thing a sardine-ridden island needs, right?

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is as quirky as the premise make it seem. This is an animated movie without boundaries and I love it. Cloudy is like nothing I had seen before. At first it was a little unsettling. The characters are very cartoony, the colors are so bright it almost hurts your eyes and the story is so out there you really need to rewire your brain to make sense of it. Once you have done that you can let the wacky nature of Cloudy wash over you. Phil Lord and Chris Miller based their screenplay on a children’s book of the same name by Judi Barrett, but did not adopt its visual style. They went with a very different look, a look I actually prefer over the book.

I have now seen Cloudy numerous times, because my kids love it so much. While other movies have the tendency to become annoying after twenty or so viewings, Cloudy doesn’t seem to do that. With every viewing (mostly from the corner of my eye while doing other stuff) I discover new jokes, visual details, and other brilliant bits that escaped me on all those earlier viewings. It is a virtual smörgåsbord of hidden references and snappy dialogue. It is not often that a movie can stay surprising for such a long time.

While being incredibly funny Cloudy is also a great morality tale for the youngsters (and old folk) out there. It teaches them to respect and admire that which you have over what you desire. Flint is so occupied with creating this brilliant new future for his community that he starts to neglect his relationship with his father, whose business almost goes belly up due to Flint’s inventions. And it teaches kids that being yourself is always better than presenting yourself as something you are not, as Anna Faris’ Sam finds out. There is a beautiful layer of wise truths to be found underneath all that happens in Cloudy. I heartily recommend Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs to anyone who hasn’t seen it and to anyone who has seen it I say, go revisit it. You will not be disappointed.

> IMDb

125: Catching Hell

I started playing baseball around 1986 as a young teen. The problem with playing baseball in Holland was the extremely limited access to events in the Major League here in the U.S. There was no internet and hardly any baseball game was broadcast over there. Unless maybe it was a World Series, then it would get a spot in one of the major sports programs on TV. I’m telling you this, because I have been watching the 30 for 30 series from ESPN. I am only a few episodes into it, but already I love it. I am learning stuff about sports events I never even knew about. Events that are still very much in the mind of the American sports fan.

One of these events is the Steve Bartman incident that occurred on October 14, 2003. During Game 6 of the National League Championship Series the Chicago Cubs were on the verge of reaching the World Series for the first time since 1945. The fans were ecstatic, but then a fly ball went into foul territory over in leftfield. Outfielder Moisés Alou ran over to snag the ball, but a fan by the name of Steve Bartman reached out for it and deflected it just before it reached Alou’s glove. This fateful moment sealed the Cubs’ fate and the Florida Marlins went on to score eight runs and ultimately the National League championship. While there were other errors made that facilitated the loss the fans united in chastising Steve Bartman for his collision with fate.

Since 1945 the Cubs have been playing under the weight of what they call the Billy Goat Curse and lifting the curse has been on every Cubs fan’s mind ever since. Steve Bartman was at the wrong place at the wrong time and caught hell for something any fan would have done, because catching an official Major League baseball is a dream of any baseball fan. But I also understand that in the heat of the moment people wanted to lynch Bartman. The tensions ran so incredibly high, that any incident would have sparked some kind of controversy. Having somebody within reach to blame the loss on was a gift from the baseball gods for the people who were there. Blaming a loss on a player remains something remote. They are on the field and disappear into the catacombs after the game. Bartman didn’t have that option. He couldn’t jump onto the field to flee from the irate fans around him. I don’t know if I would have acted any different from the way that entire ballpark was acting. Gibney makes the argument that he was doing something anybody would have done, and that is true, but he was still the one who did it. People who still carry a grudge against Bartman after all these years should, however, rethink their priorities.

Gibney doesn’t just focus on the Steve Bartman incident. He also goes back to 1986 to investigate another baseball incident: an infamous error made by first baseman Bill Buckner. The situation was very much like the one with the Chicago Cubs. The Boston Red Sox were also on the verge of clinching a championship and with that eliminating their own curse they had been carrying with them since Babe Ruth moved to the New York Yankees in 1920. So the expectations were high when the Red Sox were in the lead in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. However, the Red Sox botched their lead by making some crucial errors during that fateful last inning. The last of which was a slow roller that inexplicably went through the legs of Bill Buckner. Because he made the last error everybody focused their rage on him and subsequently made his life a living hell. It took years before the Red Sox finally won the World Series and then they started thinking about forgiving Buckner.

While Gidney is certainly interested in telling Buckner and Bartman’s stories, the main focus of Catching Hell is the scapegoating of a single person to get rid of this unending frustration about a losing team. Why were these two people singled out and blamed for the losses and why were the other players that also made mistakes conveniently forgotten? It is a question that lingers all through the movie and to be honest, nobody really knows an answer. Gibney gives the people involved ample time to explain what happened back then at both incidents and that sheds a light on some of the events, but he never really answers his own thesis in a satisfying manner. But, then again, do we want him to. I think not, a lot that goes into sports is the rabid fandom of people and the strange workings that can entail. It’s a mysterious pastime that unites people in ways they probably couldn’t even explain to themselves. I am not one to start shouting at someone in my every day life, but when I am at a ballgame I let myself go regularly. Sometimes out of frustration, sometimes out of happiness. There is so much drama to get caught up in.

At the very end of Catching Hell Gibney does go into a bit of a preachy mode by letting people tell the viewer that what happened was wrong, that they feel sorry for Bartman, that everybody should look at what happened at that game back in 2003 and make sure it never happens again. While some of this might be true it also comes across as wiping your own nose clean after committing exactly the things they are riling against. Hindsight tends to always be 20/20, so let’s not kid ourselves: if something like this were to happen again in the future people will not react any differently than before. It is human nature and in the heat of the moment anything can happen.

It is also human nature to forgive someone for their mistakes. Gibney shows us that Buckner actually was officially forgiven by the fans of the Boston Red Sox. Eventually he went back to Fenway Park and walked onto the field to throw the first pitch at the Opening Day game in 2008. He got through this ordeal of being scapegoated and can now move forward. The same thing can still not be said of Bartman. He is still living with the burden of being the guy who botched the Cubs’ chances to win a championship and he wasn’t even a player. I am not a Cubs fan, so I can’t speak for those fans, but let’s give this guy a break and focus on the stupid errors the players made during that game. I hope one day this guy gets to walk onto the turf at Wrigley Field to receive some kind of apology from the fans. I really do.

Although it seems like Alex Gibney’s 2011 documentary Catching Hell is a part of the ESPN 30 for 30 series, and therefore shouldn’t be included in this blog, it actually isn’t. It is part of a spin-off documentary series called ESPN Films Presents. It is also longer than a regular episode at 1 hour and 42 minutes and it is listed on the IMDb as a stand-alone documentary.

> IMDb