Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Would You Like to Play a Game?

(No, Katie Featherston has nothing to do with this news. Just keep reading.)

So, about a week ago, Paramount hired Saw VI director Kevin Greutert to direct a sequel to Paranormal Activity, perhaps the biggest success story of 2009 (or at least, Avatar aside, the biggest low-budget success story, anyway). This was funny because Paranormal Activity was the movie that finally knocked the Saw franchise -- Greutert's entry, actually -- from its four-year throne atop the Halloween box office. I guess the old saying, "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" still applies.

Greutert's Paranormal sequel was positioned against Lionsgate's Saw VII 3D, which may or may not, depending on its financial performance, be the last theatrical Saw movie (that is, until they remake or reboot the first one, which, going by Spider-Man, may be as soon as, say, Thursday).

Or at least that was how things were until yesterday, when Lionsgate decided to exercise an option they held on Greutert, forcing him to direct Saw VII instead of Paranormal 2. Saw V director David Hackl, who was previously slated to direct VII, is relegated off to some other, as-of-yet undecided project.

While it makes for great, hilarious, public Hollywood shenanigans, this is a terrible, terrible move. First of all, how does Lionsgate expect to get a good performance out of Greutert when he's got the taste of sour grapes in his mouth the whole time? Greutert edited all five Saw films prior to his directorial debut on the sixth, so there's no doubt he's got the franchise in his blood. But is he going to be able to creatively and emotionally invest in a project he doesn't want to make? As low-rent as it may be, I am still a die-hard Saw fan, and if this is the last hurrah, I want it to be good.

Then there's Hackl. The general consensus is that Saw V is the worst of the series (I agree). Producers being producers, they'd never tell you straight up that a movie they worked on sucked unless they were fired or something, but I'm sure Hackl thought it was a good display of solidarity when he was asked back to direct the seventh, and in 3D as well. Of course, the moment it became "the last", I'm sure the stakes went way up, and all of a sudden, going with the fans' least favorite director starts looking like a bad idea, especially when your last director is running off to the competition. Greutert expressed his frustration via his website, although he chose to delete what he specifically said and left it at "pissed". I imagine Hackl doesn't feel much better (although for him, "used" be more accurate).

Of course, Hackl's involvement raises another question: the movie supposedly starts rolling on February 1st, so the film can make its traditional last-week-of-October date. Since it's January 26th, I imagine the movie's ready to go before cameras, but didn't Hackl do all the pre-production work? Not only does Lionsgate have an unwilling, angry director, but he's also gonna have to adapt using months of another director's pre-production work, on something as complicated as 3D.

In any case, I'm excited to see how this story develops. Personally, I'm hoping Hackl signs on to direct Paranormal Activity 2. I hear they're looking for a director.

Remake Watch 2010: Week 5

It's hard not to think about Mannequin and not also think about Weekend at Bernie's, because they're both such stupid premises from the 1980's starring Andrew McCarthy (Also, the Mannequin logo is pink, usually with a blue background behind it, and Bernie's shirt is pink and his jacket is blue. Shut up). I guess the people who own the rights to Mannequin and Weekend at Bernie's agree, because now the epic McCarthy-Jonathan Silverman comedy milestone -- a film so good and so ingrained into the cultural landscape that they gave it away with pizzas -- is also headed back to theaters in an all-new, still-stupid incarnation.

It's funny -- I watched both Weekend at Bernie's films back to back a year or two ago, and I can't really remember a thing about them, other than the fact that Terry Kiser plays a damn good dead man, and that I would rather be watching Catherine Mary Stewart in a better movie, like Night of the Comet. Night of the Comet is a classic, and believe me, Hollywood, by the time you try to remake that (because it's inevitable), I'll do more than make pizza jokes. Unless, of course, we get a good special edition DVD of the original. Then I'll just grumble about it a lot, and probably see it when nobody is looking. Anyway, the point I'm making is, Terry Kiser is still alive, so he should play Bernie again. That'd really be better than all the Andrew McCarthy cameos in the world.

Also, apparently they're rebooting some superhero movie. But I can't find any information about it.

In case you're wondering, I used the Weekend at Bernie's II poster because the tagline is phenomenal. It's so lazy. It's one of those things that really is so bad, it's funny. And then it's bad again.

[via Moviehole]

Remake Watch 2010:
3 film remakes in development
0 film remakes released in theaters
0 film remakes released direct-to-DVD
1 film reboot in development
0 film reboots released in theaters
0 TV remakes announced
0 tv remakes released

A "reboot" is defined by Remake Watch as a new attempt at a film series with new actors playing old characters (thus, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Race to Witch Mountain are excluded). Sequels to remakes (The Pink Panther 2, Halloween II) are ignored.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Top 10 of 2009 (subject to change*)

*not really

So, I was just telling TFP non-contributor Matt Lingo, following a belated viewing of Up in the Air, how much I hated making top 10 lists, and that I'd probably never even create a top 10 of 2009.

Lucky for you, I'm a big fat liar, because right after that I proceeded to look at the notepad file I had with most of the movies I saw in 2009 written down in it, and I found that arranging them in an order I liked was actually easier than I thought.

Still, I hasten to add that I am notoriously nitpicky (I probably have OCD), and my rankings over the course of the year often change at the drop of a hat. What's important is what I write about the movie, because even if my ranking of the movie changes, the things I like and dislike about the movie itself don't -- I just, as I mentioned, hate making lists. I mean, there are several movies I saw this year that I fleetingly considered number ones at the time I saw them that aren't even on the list anymore. I also don't care about star ratings, which are equally susceptible to my mood, so there's also the possibility that you look at the linked reviews and they don't quite mesh with the placement on the list. But the point of publishing the list in the first place is to try to combat my incessant need to rearrange the movies on it, so rest assured, this is the list that's going in the books; if any movies I missed turn out to be the missing link in the best of 2009 food chain, it'll be too little, too late.

Note: My personal system is that anything that has some sort of wide availability in America in the year in question qualifies for the year-end-list. Sometimes, that means a limited theatrical run, but often, "wide availability" means a DVD release. In any case, this is why there are films from 2008 and 2007 on the list -- it was my first real chance to see them.

10. The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
[Pre-order it on Blu-Ray or DVD]
Pathos and darkness have their place, but fantasy and joy are almost a relief these days, with everything going "dark" in an attempt to be more realistic. Thus, while the year was filled with wonderful animated films like Henry Selick's masterfully creepy Coraline and the underrated and underseen seriocomic wonder Mary and Max, I have to rank them under The Fantastic Mr. Fox, director Wes Anderson's breezy, hilarious adaptation of Roald Dahl's popular book. Anderson's style and company of actors all fit right into the meticulous stop-motion world of the film, and there are well-written characters despite the lack of doom and gloom. Hotbox!

9. The Hurt Locker (2008)
[Buy it on Blu-Ray or DVD]
I've seen The Hurt Locker twice, and I don't feel like I've taken it all in. I probably owe it (and several other movies on this list) one more viewing before I publish, but it's already the middle of January, so I should also just suck it up and post it, because I doubt anyone will live and die by the movies I choose. In any case, while I wasn't quite as taken by it as my fellow OFCSers, who awarded it Best Picture and Best Editing in addition to Best Actor and Best Director in our year-end awards voting, I agree that Jeremy Renner paints a perfect picture of all-consuming, desperate dedication to living on the edge, and director Kathryn Bigelow effortlessly summons up stomach-churning, sweaty, cold-palm tension.

8. Moon (2009)
[Buy it on Blu-Ray or DVD]
I love a good slow, atmospheric film, and I love it even more when it contains weird, slightly creepy science fiction. At the front and center of Moon is a multi-faceted performance by Sam Rockwell, but the picture is really completed by Duncan Jones' gorgeous, desperately lonely lunar visuals, and the sad, slightly haunted score by Clint Mansell. These three elements combine into an experience that alternates between dreamlike head trip and hallucinatory paranoia. The presence of Kevin Spacey as the voice of an awesome computer-slash-robot that uses emoticons to communicate is just icing on the cake.

7. Away We Go (2009)
[Buy it on Blu-Ray or DVD]
When I first saw the trailer for Away We Go, I thought it essentially looked like a sequel to Garden State: a similar blend of comedy and romance, a plot that might have picked up where that film left off, and even including "The Office" star John Krasinski as a parallel to "Scrubs" star Zach Braff. I also wasn't particularly grabbed by the choice of Sam Mendes as director; I liked Jarhead plenty, but his other films have left me cold. In execution, however, Away We Go, is a vibrant adventure that feels like it's about real people in real places, deftly avoiding boring relationship roadblocks and too much "quirky" humor. The film's greatest strength, however, is the palpable chemistry between Krasinski and Maya Rudolph; it's intimate, devoted, funny and sweet, and it easily turns Away We Go into everything I've ever wanted from a modern movie romance, only better.

6. Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex (2008)
[Pre-order it on Blu-Ray or DVD]
On one hand, it's hard for me to rank a movie as cold as Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex above a movie as warm and wonderful as Away We Go, but Uli Edel's direction is so visceral it's impossible not to. The movie couldn't have been going for ten minutes before a group of protesters are sprayed down by police using fire hoses, and it feels so real you want to run for your life. Since the RAF were corrupt, evil people, the movie is hard to relate to, in a way, but the stark violence of their actions is compelling. Every bit the equal of Inglorious Basterds when it comes to depicting the atrocities of war.
(read my DVDTalk theatrical review here)

5. District 9 (2009)
[Buy it on Blu-Ray or DVD]
I saw District 9 the day it opened and didn't quite know what to make of it. I watched it again on DVD and was seriously blown away. The sad truth of the matter is, when I saw it in theaters, I don't think I knew how to process such a startlingly original movie; District 9 is made out of familiar pieces but feels unlike any movie I've ever seen. The potent combination of thrilling, psuedo-documentary action, body horror, romance, and political drama packs more pure cinematic energy than most of the other movies I saw this year put together, and Sharlto Copley's performance as Wikus van de Merwe is genuinely Oscar-worthy. This is definitely one of the films on the list that I'm in danger of ranking higher, as it's a perfect blend of big ideas and popcorn escapism.

4. Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
Movies like the awful (500) Days of Summer (review here) have ruined the word "quirky" for the modern moviegoer, but Where the Wild Things Are is better described with words like "wit" and "whimsy", deftly illustrating the tale of Max (played knowingly by young Max Records) and his desire to escape to a world where he can do what he wants. Director Spike Jonze effortlessly juggles the movie's many tones while roving around a stunning landscape painstakingly crafted by production designer K.K. Barrett and beautifully photographed by Lance Acord. There's also the vocal performance by James Gandolfini, which in a fair and perfect world, would have a legitimate shot at a Best Actor nod.
(read my DVDTalk theatrical review here)

3. Up (2009)
[Buy it in a Blu-Ray/DVD Combo Pack (same price as the DVD by itself)]
There is better direction and heart-wrenching emotion in the first ten minutes of Up than there is in the majority of movies released in a given year, and yet this intro is just a tiny piece of a soaring, colorful adventure that works just as well in carefully crafted Disney Digital 3D as it does in a more standard set of two dimensions. The movie's villain seems slight, but the wise minds at Pixar, never ones to hinge a film on its plot mechanisms, bring it back around to emotion in the end, with just the faintest touch of bittersweetness. As a comedic bonus, Up also contains some of Pixar's best side characters ever in Dug the Dog and Kevin the Bird, which are both masterful observations of real-life animals.
(read my DVDTalk theatrical review here)

2. 12 (2007)
[Buy it on DVD]
Most viewers probably missed 12 in 2009, but this 160 minute, Russian-language remake of Sidney Lumet's classic 12 Angry Men is every bit the equal of its inspiration, using the same story -- 12 jurors determine if a young man is either innocent or guilty of murder -- as the backbone for an original, entirely different story. The only other thing the two movies have in common is a whole table's worth of phenomenal performances, who make those 160 minutes feel like 20.
(read my DVDTalk DVD review here)

1. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
[Buy it on Blu-ray or DVD)
It's hard to summarize all of the things that are great about Inglourious Basterds, but Quentin Tarantino's latest is bursting with pent-up energy, expertly biding its time before rattling the screen with jaw-dropping, bloody intensity. They ought to teach the bar scene in film schools as an entire course on how to create and increase dramatic tension in films. On top of this, Tarantino has several of his best performances to fall back on, from Mélanie Laurent (a delicate, thoughtful wave of righteous fire and brimstone), Brad Pitt (brick-to-the-face comedy) and Christoph Waltz (an embodiment of the word "sinister"). It's ridiculously good, the kind of movie you can't believe someone made while reveling in every detail. In one scene, a terrified Nazi yells at Pitt's Lt. Aldo Raine: "You'll be shot for this!" I think of Tarantino, the rules he's breaking, and the executives he's working for. "Nah, I don't think so," responds Raine. "More like chewed out. I been chewed out before." Sounds about right.
(read my DVDTalk theatrical review here)

Note: Since, once again, I hate making lists, I didn't wait to add it, but I'm pretty sure, having recently seen most of In the Loop, that it would have made this list. Do with this information what you will.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Jurassic Park IV

Courtesy of Boxoffice.com, currently paying my bills, comes the information that Jurassic Park IV -- last rumored to be dead as a doornail -- is very much alive and kicking, and, in typical 21st century fashion, it brought two sequels along for the ride.

Since I just endured all six American Pie movies, I immediately applied Universal's auto-sequel "system" to the new Jurassic Park movies and became instantly amused. Imagine: DTV-quality CG dinosaurs tormenting a bunch of well-meaning but utterly interchangeable actors, running around spouting the same "don't play God" plotline in each one, all joined by a doom-and-gloom cousin of Sam Neill's character, each individually suckered back in for "one last look" at the park and all the scientific secrets held within. And no direct-to-video Park sequel would be complete without a requisite cameo from Wayne Knight -- even though his character is dead -- in a retconning flashback sequence where he mentions he's stealing embryos for Dodgson and ends up privy to some dark secret about the park's past.

Back in the real world, I'm not sure how I feel about Jurassic Park 4, since there's no doubt it won't be the super-ultra amazingly awesome treatment by John Sayles that was previewed on Ain't It Cool News at least half a decade ago. If I remember correctly, it brought back Sam Neill but he vanished about halfway through, replaced by an all new mysterious character as dinosaurs spread across the planet. There was some other stuff going on, but eventually the movie incorporated Knight's shaving cream can with embryos, and a Transylvanian castle where a madman was training dinosaurs to become military weapons underwater. I mean, I'd pay to see that in a second, and who wouldn't? Unless you hate fun, that is. I would find the page on AICN and link to it, but AICN's search function is still the worst thing ever invented in the history of the internet, and using Google doesn't work much better.

In the meantime, expect a Franchise Legacy post about Jurassic Park either sooner or later, depending on how awful and lazy I am.

(don't hold your breath or anything)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Franchise Legacy: American Pie (Part 2)

Franchise Legacy is a series where I review all the entries in a given franchise, and try to determine what (if any) impact the series has had on the public at large. I started work on this first entry, for American Pie, sometime during fall 2009, intending to get it done before the first film's 10th anniversary had past, but it fell by the wayside and I wasn't sure I was ever going to run it. Recently, the series' seventh entry, American Pie Presents: The Book of Love, has arrived on DVD, and I thought it would be a good time to resurrect my article.

For Part 1 of this article, click here.

American Pie Presents: Band Camp (2005)
I guess band camp is a reasonably logical place for an American Pie spin-off to go, but the setup in the movie is bizarre: after pulling a pepper spray prank that sends several students away in ambulances, Matt Stifler (Tad Hilgenbrinck) is, uh, sentenced to band camp for the summer (by the Sherminator, now an East Great Falls High guidance counselor in a mildly depressing Chris Owen cameo). Matt's plan to survive such a dreadful torture? Buying what looks like $25,000 worth of video equipment (all with the click of a mouse and the script's disinterest in creating a logical financial situation for the character) to record whatever hijinks occur (especially anything sexual).

Five seconds of Hilgenbrink's Stifler impersonation and you get it -- this is why they made the movie. The guy has Scott's mannerisms and tone down pat, and he's less annoying than Scott's performance in American Wedding to boot. And, even more importantly, just like Eric Christian Olsen's truly remarkable Jim Carrey impersonation in Dumb & Dumberer, it makes not one bit of difference when it comes to the film's comedic aptitude. You can have several Oscar-caliber performances in a movie -- which this absolutely isn't, in any way, shape or form (just spot-on mimicry) -- and it doesn't mean anything unless the script is up to par, which, in Band Camp's case, it is not.

When describing the comic scenarios in Band Camp, the word "labored" springs to mind, over and over again, as Stifler ends up in some sort of embarrassing or disgusting situation, and then either someone walks in on it or something even more disgusting and embarrassing happens. I suppose this might work for a shock laugh or two, but the situations are always painfully telegraphed, with obvious punchlines. On top of all of these problems, the scenarios are just plain...unlikely, to say the least. An example of all of these problems: the events that lead Matt to sexually pleasure by sticking his manhood in the end of an oboe are haphazardly thrown about in two scenes where other things will likely be taking up the audience's attention, and there's no further payoff than the sight gag, both of the character doing it and the aftermath in which the instrument won't come off, neither of which is that funny to begin with. There's also the problem with gross-out for the sake of gross-out, and while a shot of a filled-up toilet is unnecessarily distasteful, there is a scene in Band Camp that goes farther than I could stomach. Maybe it's just me; I've never been nauseated by a movie before, but a scene involving a soda can really turned my stomach, and still does even now (I'm literally retching as I think about it).

This being a direct-to-video Unrated DVD, the nudity and sexual content is really ramped up for this entry, which means a lot of gross-looking post-surgery boobs for little to no reason. In fact, there's more nudity in Band Camp than there is the first three American Pie films put together, a theme that will continue throughout the American Pie Presents series in the most exploitational and useless way. Matt sticks a camera in the girls' shower area, and the results are almost so over-the-top as to be funny; I may be going out on a limb here, but I doubt impromptu dance scenes regularly break out in girls' showers. Of course, the writers of American Pie Presents: Band Camp don't know anything about going over the top, much less poking fun at themselves, so the girls perform "I Like Big Butts" on Stifler's webcam without irony.

Then, of course, there's Eugene Levy. As will become a running motif with these direct-to-video sequels, I'm not sure why Eugene Levy is willing to appear in them; the movies look like they cost under a million dollars, so how much money could they possibly be offering him? Regardless, he's here, dutifully making faces, referencing the originals as frequently as possible, and basically delivering exposition, which leads me to my next question: why pay Eugene Levy a bunch of money to be in your movie and saddle him with all the boring dialogue? The guy is a talented improvisor, if someone gave him the chance, he might come up with some comedy gold. Alas, it is not to be. Aside from Levy, and to a lesser extent, Owen (only in two scenes), the other way the movie tries to feel similar to the originals is by using the same songs (although they had to swap Jimmy Eat World for a cover version).

That said, there is actually one scene in the movie that's really nice; a brief character moment between Matt and Elyse (Arielle Kebbell), the movie's female lead, where they lie and watch the clouds. For approximately three minutes, the movie does fairly low-key dialogue jokes, Hilgenbrink turns off the Stifler impression, and the characters just chat with each other. In fact, having just finished reviewing The Book of Love, I can definitively say this is the one and only genuinely successful "nice"/"sweet" scene in all four spin-offs. Of course, the moment can't last: it's followed by a ridiculous scene where literally everything that could go wrong for the Stifler character does so, and does so consecutively, like a checklist, which is, like the dancing, sort of funny, but again, not in any evidently intentional way. I guess the "nice" scene at the end of the film is fine, but, like the rest of the film, it's predictable and contrived, which robs it of the things that make the other moment work.

American Pie Presents: The Naked Mile (2006)
Just like American Wedding is a step down from American Pie 2 and Band Camp is a step down from American Wedding (annoying Scott performance and all), The Naked Mile is a step down from Band Camp. Although this second sequel has a less irritating lead actor, the connections to the rest of the series are mighty tenuous, and the ability to harp on that nostalgia for the series is really all the gas these spin-offs have in the tank.

There are germs of ideas in the plot of The Naked Mile, none of which go anywhere. Erik Stifler (John White) is the only virgin in the Stifler clan, behind cousins Matt, Steve and Dwight (Steve Talley). His girlfriend Tracy (Jessy Schram) isn't ready, and Erik is getting antsy, worried that his persistent dry spell will reflect poorly on his family or give him an inescapable reputation as a loser virgin (or something). Tracy's awful friends (more on them later) persuade Tracy to give Erik a shot at fourth base, but after a disasterous first attempt, Tracy goes back in her shell, waving a white flag of surrender. Her idea: a guilt-free pass for one weekend, to be used while Erik heads up to college and attends the Naked Mile, a yearly clothes-free run through campus.

I know it's just the beginning of a story, one that would need an actual plot following it to work, but I'm convinced that the "guilt-free pass" idea could have been a Hangover-style hit in the right hands. Instead, the idea is buried in The Naked Mile, which has Tracy regretting the agreement almost immediately, followed by various painful plot devices (like a shot of Erik making out with another girl on the evening news) that create dumb miscommunication and other predictable romantic comedy crap for the couple to fight through and triumph over. I'm almost obsessed with the concept: just the basic idea of a "guilt-free pass" that starts out fun but ultimately results in a weekend to regret sounds like an excellent concept to hang a good R-rated comedy on, and it's mildly infuriating that the idea is basically wasted in a crappy direct-to-video American Pie sequel. There's also the premise of the Naked Mile itself, which as depicted is a believable, sexy event to use as the backbone for a movie, but the event ultimately has no bearing on any part of the plot, other than the miscommunication I already described.

Instead of capitalizing on these good ideas, the movie places two things center stage: the entirely uninteresting noble turn that Erik predictably takes in the final reel, and the character of Dwight Stifler, who is not a suitable replacement for either Scott or even Hilgenbrinck. Talley is not quite annoying, but he does reek of failed comedy at all times; the script has not a single good line, funny mannerism or amusing moment for him to play, and the actor brings nothing to the table to improve upon the writing. At least it's not a rehash of Hilgenbrinck's Stifler impression, which would be both redundant (did Hilgenbrinck's price get too high?) and probably irritating. Both Erik and Dwight also mark the Presents series' pointless, oddball need to introduce new Stiflers. By the time the seventh has drawn to a close, there are a total of nine family members on screen in one of these, plus a bonus tenth in Chris Penn (who played Stifler's Dad in American Pie 2 but wisely wound up on the cutting room floor).

The Dwight part of the story introduces the movie's villain, an entire fraternity of little people that are out to bring Stifler and Beta House down. The problem here is not really that this development is not very funny (which it isn't), but that it's so gimmicky. None of the original American Pie movies relied on such jokey, bizarre setups to be funny (even if there was an extensive misunderstanding or two), and there's no reason The Naked Mile should have to do it either. Any and all scenes of the two houses' rivalry is lazily thrown at the movie like a spitball, in the hopes that it will stick even though it's just timekiller material, filled with scenes that don't contribute anything even to the almost non-existent arcs of the characters. In fact, the most dispiriting thing about The Naked Mile is how disinterested the whole enterprise is in even going through the motions of being part of the franchise. It isn't set in a familiar place, it doesn't bring back any characters (other than stealing the name Stifler and attaching it to an entirely different nuclear family), and (unlike the previous entry) it doesn't even half-heartedly try to cheat by using the same music.

Oh wait, I lied. Eugene Levy makes his customary appearance, which is about as shoddily written in as is humanly possible. Unlike Band Camp, which made Jim's Dad a counselor, there's literally no legitimate reason for the character to be in the same place as any of the characters, and the script doesn't even try to hide it. The second time wee see Jim's Dad in The Naked Mile, it's when Erik sits down on what is literally a random park bench somewhere on the college campus, and the person sitting on the same bench puts down the newspaper and -- surprise -- it's Levy. I'm almost surprised that Levy doesn't stop one of the long-winded explanations about his experiences with Jim and simply ask Erik if he saw the first American Pie, because it'd probably be more subtle than the existing execution. The only interesting tidbits about Levy's glorified cameo is that the movie credits his character with the creation of the Naked Mile (I found that amusing), and that you find out what his first name is. TFP non-contributor Matthew Lingo claims you find out in another movie (it may be written somewhere in American Wedding), but for the record, it's not as good as series creator Adam Herz's suggestion that his name is Bullwinkle.

Finally, I do have to call out writer Erik Lindsay on a couple of points. First of all, really? Your name is Erik and you named your main character Erik? Isn't that a little narcissistic? And, more importantly, why are Tracy's friends (specifically the one played by Jordan Madley) so unrelentingly awful? I'm not exactly offended, per se, but dialogue like "Men are like dogs. They hump everything they see. Now go and get your dog back on its leash," and "We're girls. Boys should know better than to trust us to be rational. It's not in our nature," not only sounds like a male writer trying and failing to write dialogue for women, but it's also shockingly ignorant. I know you're writing the fifth American Pie movie here, but, come on, man, don't be an asshole. Lastly (and this criticism is directed at director Joe Nussbaum as well), please do not even suggest an homage to Ferris Bueller's Day Off ("suggested", in this case, because Universal probably had no interest in securing the rights to the actual song from Bueller; a vague sound-alike takes its place).

American Pie Presents: Beta House (2007)
Not shockingly, American Pie Presents: Beta House is the worst entry in the series. The first (and, perhaps, best) indication of how little Beta House cares about anything arrives at exactly one minute and six seconds into the film, when the following line of dialogue appears: "Son, you spent the entire summer depressed because your girlfriend ran off with that pretty boy, Trent."

That's right, in case you're actually following along, that line of dialogue basically negates the entirety of American Pie Presents: The Naked Mile, which had the main character, Erik rushing back to East Great Falls to save said girlfriend from sleeping with that very character. Now, I hate to spoil the emotional core of The Naked Mile for you, but in an overwhelmingly unsurprising twist, the power of love wins out, with Erik and Tracy ready to live a full and wonderful life together on the strength of their undying passion for one another. Yet Beta House, the only direct sequel among the Presents films -- even written by the same person, Erik Lindsay -- can't even be bothered to give the slightest s--- about its predecessor.

Knowing this, I watched with startling disinterest as the film mounts a plot that could best be described as Revenge of the Nerds in reverse, with the nerds as the villains. There is an even vaguer inkling of an idea here than in the previous two films (I liked that the nerds got all the women because the women knew the nerds would eventually be rich), but...ugh, it's so much effort to try and make a good movie.

All of the same problems with The Naked Mile are essentially present here, because the movie focuses on the same characters. The only notable difference, and indeed, the only bright spot in the entire movie is actress Meghan Heffern as Ashley, Erik's new love interest. The character of Tracy had things to do, and was presented as a separate plotline running through the movie, but Heffern is not so lucky, only showing up sporadically throughout, when the plot has nothing better to do than focus on Erik and his love life rather than Dwight and his boring antics. Heffern makes the best of the situation by being effortlessly, consistently charismatic, even in the face of terrible body fluid jokes. Admittedly, one of these moments provides the movie's only funny moment (only funny shot, actually, of Erik desperately trying to grab a strand of CG semen in slow motion -- so sue me, I laughed), but the entire movie I desperately wished I was watching Heffern in something better (even American Pie Presents: The Book of Love).

The plot clunks around, eventually turning into more of a half-assed Animal House riff that melts uncomfortably into the movie's equally bad Nerds thievery. It's around this time that Eugene Levy makes his scheduled appearance, saying his lines and being...present...with the utmost professionalism. I have already forgotten any developments that happen to Erik or Dwight by the end of the film, and I only watched it three days ago. If you had asked me after Beta House, before The Book of Love was announced, whether I'd like to see another, I'd probably have said no. But Book of Love proves that the series' (and its obviously esteemable legacy) isn't permanently tarnished.

Then again, at this point, what does American Pie even mean? Not only has the series been ransacked for a quick buck, but in an age where comedies about sex are everywhere, we probably don't need another one, especially since the subjects -- teenagers -- have their bases pretty well covered themselves. There have been rumors recently that an eighth American Pie> would go back to theaters, and maybe even reunite some of the original cast. I'm not holding my breath, but it might be nice to see: one last round with characters we may have grown up with, just a little, to send the series out on a reasonably respectable note.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Franchise Legacy: American Pie (Part 1)

Franchise Legacy is a series where I review all the entries in a given franchise, and try to determine what (if any) impact the series has had on the public at large. I started work on this first entry, for American Pie, sometime during fall 2009, intending to get it done before the first film's 10th anniversary had past, but it fell by the wayside and I wasn't sure I was ever going to run it. Recently, the series' seventh entry, American Pie Presents: The Book of Love, has arrived on DVD, and I thought it would be a good time to resurrect my article.

It's been (more than) ten years since the release of American Pie, and with the release of the seventh American Pie film direct-to-DVD (with talks of the eighth going to theaters), I started to wonder how much the modern R-rated sex comedy has been affected by the series' existence.

For me, the '90s felt like a decade swamped with parental boundaries and implied "good taste", but I was growing up in the '90s, so my opinion is probably biased. It may be shocking given my love of film, but I spent those years sheltered from the "racy" content of R and even PG-13 movies (there's a reason I haven't seen so many classics -- I didn't get into movies until I was 16, when my parents finally gave up). The moviegoing public had their tolerance for violence raised by slasher films of the 1980's and by mainstream R-rated action films like Terminator 2 (not an extreme example of violence, just a fairly bloody movie that was widely accepted as "okay" for younger audiences -- at least, going by how many people my age I know who saw the film in theaters). The barrier for foul language was similarly lowered by "South Park", which started airing on Comedy Central a few years before American Pie, which stirred up a big fuss among parent groups at first (do those even exist anymore?), but was eventually forgotten in the face of its exponentially expanding popularity.

Sex, though, was still taboo. These days, thanks to the internet taking over, the worry that films and television are going to be the source of extreme content has all but vanished; if someone made Showgirls today, I doubt anyone would care, but what vague memories I have of the 1995 release of Showgirls was a fair amount of controversy over the basic inability to mask or cover up Verhoeven's subject matter thanks to the movie's NC-17 rating, and not the film's million-dollar screenplay.

Whether or not a combination of timing and execution is unique to American Pie itself (i.e., if not Pie, would something else would have come along?), the first movie's success still seems to have finally opened that door, tackling even more brazen topics than those covered by There's Something About Mary, a door which Hollywood has subsequently taken advantage of. In the 1980's, teen sex films like Porky's, were not only commonplace, but massively profitable, and there's nothing the industry likes more than a reliable source of cash flow, and American Pie's revival of the formula has had, I think, a noticeable impact on society. I'm not necessarily saying that American Pie is the reason you can print "va-jay-jay" on a magazine cover sold in supermarkets or that they'd be censoring the title of The Vagina Monologues if the film cans had burned on the way to the printing lab, but I do think the first film played a part in helping along the public consensus that sex had become a commonplace topic. Today, it's almost bizarre to think that a film like American Pie was ever controversial, but I don't think a television censor would have allowed a video like "I'm F---ing Matt Damon" to air in 1993, or that The 40-Year-Old Virgin would have been a blockbuster in 1996 (at least not with the same title), and I'm willing to venture that it's because of these movies, if only in some small way. Even the MPAA doesn't seem to care: I always find it interesting that they allow films like Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Date Night to put what are essentially blowjob and masturbation jokes into greenband trailers, especially since they tried to give Clerks. an NC-17 just for language in 1994.

Again, there are (currently) seven American Pie movies. Four of them are direct-to-video releases, and I certainly hope Eugene Levy is enjoying the fruits of the deal he made with the devil to shamelessly embody the half-hearted stab at series legitimacy each "American Pie Presents" offers up (although I guess it could be worse: Chris Owen also returns for the fourth film, and it's extra-embarrassing). Thanks to "The Franchise Collection" and "The Threesome Pack", the first six unrated DVDs can be conveniently nabbed in two nice-looking box sets, which I have procured and proceeded to watch in order and reviewed, because apparently I don't have anything better to work on. As an added bonus, I've also got "American Pie Revealed", a massive 3 hour and 18 minute documentary about the making of the original theatrical trilogy, which I'll (EDIT: maybe) throw in a review of as well.

Here goes nothing...

American Pie (1999)
Despite everything I wrote about American Pie above, it wasn't until I watched it for this article that I finally saw what was special about it. Maybe it's enduring years of perceived fallout from the series, perhaps it's just getting older and identifying more with where the filmmakers' heads were at when they were making it, or maybe it's just that my attention span developed enough to focus on something other than dick jokes (or at least multitask and focus on more than just dick jokes), but this time through, I really enjoyed it.

Horrified by the sight of reknowned uber-nerd Sherman (Chris Owen) walking a hot girl out the front door the morning after a party thrown by their friend Steve Stifler (Seann William Scott), high school seniors Jim (Jason Biggs), Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas), Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas), and Oz (Chris Klein) make a pact to lose their virginity before prom. Character motivation like this falls somewhere between contrived and ridiculous, although to the film's credit, nobody inside the film's story or out seems to take the "challenge" aspect of it very seriously. It's more of an agreement than a pact, and there's never any literal or perpetual clock ticking down in the background because there are no real consequences suggested for failure (other than loserdom).

A point sorely missed by the MPAA amidst their insistence on tagging American Pie with the NC-17 rating four times is the picture's consistently light-hearted tone. The scene where Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth) takes off her top is easily the most famous scene in the movie, but viewed within the intended context, the focus is always on the characters. Lest one also forget, it's also a well-written, well-acted, well-edited, well-directed setpiece that holds up ten years later as very funny, thanks to primarily to Jason Biggs, who throws himself around, covered in flop sweat, with and without clothes on, without a hint of shame. Biggs gets a bad rap these days (a really bad rap), and admittedly, in a movie like American Pie, it's hard to quantify how much of the film -- if any -- requires actual acting (i.e. inhabiting another character, emoting, etc.). Regardless, I have always thought of him as a reasonably talented physical comedian, and his performances in the American Pie movies are good examples. Most people remember the webcam sequence for Shannon Elizabeth, but as memorable as she is, I always think of the somersault Biggs manages to land while diving over his hedge after running frantically back to his house at the prodding of his friends, and his ridiculous, hilarious dancing.

I also feel sorry for Mena Suvari. For one, they chose to use the world's worst photograph of her on the front of The Franchise Collection, which is a shame (here's four much better ones), and two, aside from American Beauty, other hits have eluded her. Like Biggs, she doesn't have to plumb any emotional depths to play the role of Heather, but I find her almost endlessly charming. Heather gets paired with Chris Klein's Oz, and Klein walks a fine line between good and bad (future roles have revealed a great deal of bad). During Oz's first attempts to connect with Heather, he fakes his sensitive side, and it's enough strain on Klein to be called upon to act, much less called upon to "act" while acting. How any girl would fail to see through his over-the-top, soft-spoken routine in a second is an unresolved mystery. But Suvari almost effortlessly guides this plotline along, making it one of the more endearing stories in the movie.

Within the film itself, though, it's Thomas Ian Nicholas who gets the short end of the stick. His character is forced to contemplate all the "bigger" issues, and the lame relationship stuff he goes through with Tara Reid's character Vicki (do couples really have a huge, yet cutesy problem with saying that they love one another? If someone I knew said "She said the 'L' word to me today!", I think I might be speechless) doesn't ring true to me. I do think the character provides a touch of realism that the other characters often don't; with Kevin around, the movie's broad comedy contracts a litle (in a good way), but the effectively-created friendship between Kevin, Finch, Oz and Jim is the only effective part of Nicholas' otherwise bland character. Casey Affleck, on the other hand, is pretty awesome, so it's nice to see him pop up briefly as Kevin's wiser older brother.

For a film closing in on its eleventh anniversary, it's aged pretty well; I watched the movie Spring Break for DVDTalk, and despite its charms it felt phenomenally antiquated. American Pie's webcam stuff is going to become a bit old-fashioned thanks to the march of technology alone, but that bond, the friendship between the four lead characters, is really at the heart of the movie, and the mechanics of friendship haven't changed much in the 24 years I've been alive. Even the other teen comedies I've liked in recent years (such as 10 Things I Hate About You or Orange County) have rarely been focused on friendship as opposed to romance, and it's sort of clever how Chris and Paul Weitz and screenwriter Adam Herz have buried a movie about best friends inside a typical teen romantic comedy shell.

American Pie 2 (2001)
In the sequel, the gang returns comes back to East Great Falls in the summer after their first year in college, and they find that the comforts of home are a little dull. Inspired once again by Kevin's brother, the five guys opt for a change of scenery, driving down to the coast and shacking up in a spacious beach house where they can party to their heart's content. While Jim was probably the most prominent role in the original, the sequel specifically and obviously focuses on him as a main character, and with Nadia's return looming, Jim enlists the help of Michelle (Alyson Hannigan), his band-geek prom date from the first movie, to improve his technique in bed.

Call me a big sucker for caring about the characters from American Pie, but I do, and the development of Jim and Michelle's romance is really what puts the sequel up against its predecessor for me. I admit, this is a dopey R-rated comedy sequel with Superglue and ass-trumpet gags and whatnot, but Jim's actions at the climax of the film actually warm my heart a little (even, against all odds, despite the 3 Doors Down song that chimes in). My investment in the moment can be easily chalked up to Biggs and Hannigan, who have enormous chemistry together. I like this sequel, so I'd probably rank most of the characters as faring the same, but I'd have to say that Hannigan's material as Michelle actually gets a little better, no doubt because her character was sort of a throwaway joke in the first movie.

I also like American Pie 2 as a pure comedy. The original might be a slightly better movie with all the relationship material in it, but American Pie 2 doesn't bend over backwards to match it, focusing on solid, B+ teen comedy instead. There are still a few missteps when it comes to the script (the movie forcefully involves all of the players from the original, and when it comes to story beats, there are several strong whiffs of sequelitis), but director J.B. Rogers just lays the movie on the shoulders of his able cast, and the comedy plays just fine. The movie's famous CB radio scene and Jim's adventures as "Petey" at band camp, for instance, are not forced through writing but scenarios in which the characters' reactions are the joke, and it works.

Just beneath the surface of these gags, that distinct bond between the characters is still intact, and it's enjoyable just watching this group of guys and gals hang out with each other again. I could pass on the movie's rehashing of Kevin's wistful sadness (even less effective than in the original, although the original pass at this beat, as seen in the deleted scenes, is even worse), I think the Rule of 3 is a pretty dumb theory, and the return of Matt Stifler (Eli Marienthal) has little bearing on anything, but then a sequence like the aforementioned Superglue scene starts (which Biggs, again, performs with no shame, even sticking a doorknob in his mouth, which looks and sounds bad for the teeth), and I'm willing to forgive these flaws. American Pie 2 isn't a home run, but it's a solid double, and to that end, it fares far better than any of the sequels to follow.

American Wedding (2003)
Disappointingly, the third film in the franchise can't live up to the modest bar set by the first two movies for one reason and one reason only: the exhausting return of Steve Stifler. Even in American Pie 2, Stifler functioned like a supporting character, but this time, the infamous nature of the character apparently proved irresistable to everyone involved, and he unfortunately takes center stage.

First off, Seann William Scott's performance is remarkably bad. Stifler's schtick in American Wedding reeks of sad, lonely desperation in a way that might've been uncomfortably funny and even fitting for the character if anyone within the film ever acknowledged it. Nobody does, of course, and Scott prances around, letting out a forced cackle every time someone (mainly himself) mentions sex or says something awful. The experience is worsened by the strain it puts on the viewer to see something so resoundingly unfunny being treated as if it were comedy gold. Even well-concieved, less-grating scenes like Stifler getting into a dance-off at a big-city gay bar aren't enough to justify enduring the rest of the character's flop-sweat-covered moments. He's like a robot that got damaged in the middle of a bad Jim Carrey impression, with his moronic toothless grin contorting itself on and off of his face at random (watch him react when Biggs tells him to leave at the beginning of the third act: what the hell could be going through Scott's head?).

The element that almost saves the Stifler character is the "reasonably-clever-if-only-in-a-comedy-movie" plot where Stifler tries to act like a wholesome young man in front of Michelle's sister Cadence (January Jones), while Finch conversely takes on the persona of a foul-mouthed jackass. If Scott was bringing his American Pie 2 game to the table, this thread alone might have made the movie funnier than its predecessors. As it is, it's just an amusing idea that the movie manages to lose before the 90 minutes are up without escalating or building to some sort of grand finale the way it should. The scene where Stifler is forced to eat dog shit is also a big, big miss (although, I've since seen a less funny, more disgusting shit-eating scene in the mega-bomb Year One, so take that as you will).

The short end of the stick I said Thomas Ian Nicholas was holding before manages to get even shorter. The actor looks unsure of what he's meant to be doing the entire movie, which is a completely justified reaction, since Kevin is barely there, like a loose wheel the verge of being edited out of the frame. Nicholas mostly appears to be waiting; maybe he's expecting the other shoe to drop, convinced that at any moment someone will walk up and tell him to go home. I hate to say it, but watching American Wedding, I miss the element that Chris Klein brought to these movies. I can see how cutting Mena Suvari, as much as I love her, might have made sense; she's not really Michelle or Jim's close friend, she's only acquainted with them because she's with Oz. It's a shame, though, that the producers decided Oz was equally useless, because he's no more or less useless than Kevin, without Kevin's insistent need to go introspective near the end of each movie. Not that the script needs to dump Kevin in favor of Oz, either: the more characters there are, the less time there is for Scott's agonizing performance.

Another curious mistake is the fact that American Wedding looks like something. Nothing wrong with comedy directors bringing visual flair to an otherwise drab experience, and I'm certainly not saying that the movie should look ugly, but the 2.35:1 widescreen presentation and refined cinematography are both too unlike the previous movies. It's distracting to see implied dog sex antics and the frantic covering-up of a strip bachelor party in richly-lit scope. American Wedding basically feels classier than anything occuring within it, and the viewer spends more time looking at the shot than catching the sight gags.

For Part 2 of this article -- the dreaded direct-to-video sequels -- click here.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Remake Watch 2010: Week 2

Alright, so last year, I started trying to do Remake Watch and ultimately failed, because I wrote Boxoffice.com news updates for a few months and really lost the time that I would have been spending on the blog. Now, I'm back, and not only do I have more free time to do it in, I have a better system: weekly updates.

In the second week of 2010, Moviehole ran two exclusives, concerning new versions of Mannequin and F/X. As usual, I wonder why the studios even bother. First of all, I don't know how anyone can live with the shame of having greenlit Mannequin once, but doing it again is even dumber, since we have concrete evidence -- the films themselves -- that neither Mannequin or its sequel were a good idea. Secondly, the name-brand recognition factor of the movies, which I thought was the reason studios churned out remakes in the first place, keeps getting lower and lower as Hollywood literally runs out of 1980's movies to rehash. I mean, how many people have even heard of F/X, much less seen it? It's true, some guys have all the luck.

Moviehole also mentions that MGM and Darren Aronofsky are having a conflict over whether the RoboCop remake should be in 3D. I like 3D, but it seems totally unnecessary for RoboCop, and MGM really needs to shut up and listen. Hey, guys, there's a reason you're going out of business. Stop arguing with the guy who could make the next Batman Begins-slash-Casino Royale-style reboot.

Remake Watch 2010:
2 film remakes in development
0 film remakes released in theaters
0 film remakes released direct-to-DVD
0 reboots announced
0 reboots released in theaters
0 TV remakes announced
0 tv remakes released

A "reboot" is defined by Remake Watch as a new attempt at a film series with new actors playing old characters (thus, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Race to Witch Mountain are excluded). Sequels to remakes (The Pink Panther 2, Halloween II) are ignored.