Casa de Mi Padre (2012) dir. Matt Piedmont ***1/2
I’ve got to learn to stop reading reviews before I go into movies – I’m under the impression that this part of some unwritten critic’s code, which makes sense in that you don’t want your opinion of a movie to already be swayed by others before you see something. Reading reviews before I see something is a tough habit to break, though, but Casa de mi Padre may be the movie that breaks me of it. The reviews were mostly lukewarm, saying that it was cute, but not hysterical, so I went in to the movie thinking that I wasn’t going to be laughing much, just smiling a bit. I was wrong. Will Ferrell’s pet project about Armando Alvarez, a big hearted, yet naïve, rancher’s son who gets caught up in a Mexican drug war is quite funny, and I was laughing constantly. It’s not the story, but the tone and execution. The film works sort of as a parody, or maybe a tribute, to Mexican melodramas of yesteryear. There are constant continuity problems, cheap sets, lame animatronics, and editing errors throughout. One of my favorite scenes involves Armando, his father, and his brother having an overblown conversation about the reason Raul, Armando’s prodigal brother, has returned from America with a hot fiancé. Throughout the scene, characters’ spacing is continually changing despite them standing in place. Eyeline edits don’t match, and in the climax of the moment, Raul’s fiancé walks across frame to join him, but when the edit comes, she’s moving from a different direction in the next shot. The surreal vibe makes it obvious Ferrell and his collaborators are having a blast, from a crazy sex scene to a well-placed flashback about Armando’s childhood, to Gael Garcia Bernal’s wicked funny performance as Onza, a crazy drug lord. The fun is contagious, and I dare anyone to watch this film and not want to start singing along with “Yo No Se.”
Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2012) dir. Jay and Mark Duplass ***1/2
Jay and Mark Duplass’ Cyrus was such an excellent film that I went into Jeff, Who Lives at Home with a real eagerness. And they didn’t let me down. Jeff is a slight, beautiful movie about the struggles associated with grief. All three characters in this film – Jeff (Jason Segel) , his brother Pat (Ed Helms), and their mother, Sharon (Susan Sarandon) – have dealt with the death of the boys’ father in different ways. Jeff is a stoner who lives in mom’s basement, jerking off, getting high, and contemplating the deeper meanings of M. Night Shylamalan’s Signs everyday. Pat is in a loveless marriage to Linda (Judy Greer), and thinks that buying a Porche Boxster against her wishes is the way to inject some much needed passion into their lives. And Carol is an aging spinster who wants something more for her life, and finds something she thought lost suddenly reawakened in her when she starts receiving instant messages on her computer from a “secret admirer” at work. The Duplass brothers direct this film with their typical minimalism, but since their stories are small and character-centric, their style is a perfect fit. I adored this film, was drawn into the worlds of these perfectly defined characters, and found myself invested in a climax that in lesser hands could have come off very badly, all covered in cheese. I’m very interested in what type of character story the Duplass’ will tell next, or whether they will attempt a project with more ambition. They are two to keep an eye on.
Friends with Kids (2012) dir. Jennifer Westfeldt ***
A solid, lightweight rom-com from Jennifer Westfeldt, starring her and Adam Scott as best friends who decide to make a baby and raise it without the inconvenience of a romantic relationship. Once you get past the premise, which stretches the limits of credulity, you get a pretty straightforward romantic comedy about two people who are in denial about being soulmates. Westfeldt is pretty good at taking a tired premise and injecting it with an interesting twist (re: Kissing Jessica Stein), and while she makes a strong effort here, the only thing that makes this film worthwhile is the winning performances from its male characters, most of whom are well-developed, interesting spins on classic male stereotypes. Adam Scott’s Jason, the male best friend who gets the brilliant idea that he and Julie (Westfeldt) should procreate so they can have the benefit of raising a child without the shit being in a relationship brings, is especially interesting. Scott plays him with just as much immaturity in his attitudes toward dating as he is does in showing Jason’s maturity and effectiveness in his roles as best friend and father. I wish Westfeldt had invested more time in building her female characters, because she might have been able to salvage the ending, which is about as predictable and sigh-inducing as any Kate Hudson flick. I liked this movie, but I wanted to like it more.
This is one that sticks with you, whether you enjoy it or not. God Bless America is a crazy, full-tilt, excessively violent evisceration of what has become of American culture. It’s full of tons of anger, self-righteousness, and irony so deep that it borders on hypocrisy. Joel Murray plays Frank, a nice, anonymous schlub who is a recent divorcee, loses his job, and then discovers he has a brain tumor. Suddenly, he’s mad as hell and can’t take it anymore as he spends his evenings listening to his neighbor’s kid scream to high heaven while watching the worst of American TV – infomercials, commercials for farting pig ringtones, American Idol wannabes, and shows about entitled teens blaming their parents for their problems. Frank decides to go on a killing spree, and along the way he encounters Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), a teen girl who borders on psychotic as she wants to tag along to do some killing for herself. On one end, Bobcat Goldthwait’s recent directorial effort is a mesmerizing bit of catharsis – after all, who can’t relate to wanting to shoot one of those Fox News talking heads – but on the other it’s a mess of logic and hypocrisy. Roxy’s reasoning for wanting to join Frank is sketchy at best, yet so much of the story hinges on it. And, of course, one of the movie’s biggest issues is the irony that if Frank is so upset with our society’s blatant disregard for courtesy, and its willingness to cater to the lowest common denominator, then why is he shooting people? Doesn’t that make him worse than anyone he kills? I gather the movie doesn’t want to function on that deeper level, but the scope of its concept, and the ambition of its execution lead me to believe that Bobcat Goldthwait wants us to take the movie’s message seriously. Regardless, God Bless America is audacious, darkly funny, and features a fine performance by Murray, who relishes the opportunity of being the lead.
Detention (2011) dir. Joseph Kahn **1/2
I’m not sure what to make of Detention, to be completely honest. Is it a satire of modern teen culture, horror movies, sci-fi flicks, or is it just a demented potpourri of all of the above with a taste for highly stylized, pop culture influenced indie films? This confusion is part of what makes Detention exciting to watch, because it is so risk-taking and offbeat on one hand, but on the other it’s a tonal train wreck, filled to the brim with incomprehensible plot twists and tangents that interrupt the film’s progression. It tries to tell the story of a teenage misfit named Riley (Shanley Caswell) who fits the traditional angsty teen role. She is in love with Clapton (Josh Hutcherson), a popular kid with no forward momentum or motivation in his life, but he is involved with her former best friend. They are surrounded by a bunch of satellite characters who seem to serve little to no purpose other than to share exposition, make a well-time crack, or die. Their lives become complicated when a copycat killer, fashioning himself after the popular “Cinderhella” franchise, starts murdering local kids, including a failed attempt on Riley’s life. If you think this is sort of reminiscent of Scream, you’re right, and the film is all too aware of its roots. Detention seems to live in the 1990s, and even spends some of its screen time in 1992, as characters spend too much time making pop culture references to a period of time most of them couldn’t have lived through. Along the way, we are treated to subplots about dudes who can turn into flies, time traveling bears, Dane Cook’s facial scar, and the true meaning of school spirit. It’s not too much to say that Detention is a kitchen sink movie, and while it occasionally works (during it’s crazy opening sequence, and during an equally crazy party scene that ends with a horrible YouTube-related humiliation), it is often perplexing and outright lame (i.e. the character that turns into a fly for no reason other than he does. I also didn’t understand the place aliens had in this film). If you’re looking for a fantastic, completely realized meta-fiction horror film, check out Behind the Mask: The Rise and Fall of Leslie Vernon, or wait a couple months for Cabin in the Woods to hit your local Redbox.
Piranha 3DD (2012) dir. John Gulager *1/2
File this one under “you get what you paid for.” Piranha 3DD is a cash grab on the campy classic vibe of Piranha 3D that came out last year. In the skilled hands of French horror maestro, Alexandre Aja (Haute Tension), Piranha 3D was a gross, bawdy thrill ride with some terrific shock value, and an awesome lesbian underwater ballet. DD is merely gross, with acting that makes performances on the WB network seem Emmy worthy, and dialogue that a porn scribe might call tone deaf. The plot is about as basic as 3D’s: a water park is overrun by ancient flesh-eating piranha. Along the way we have all the requisite types – the virginal hero on vacation from her grad school program (Danielle Panabaker), the lovelorn geek who’s afraid to swim (Matt Bush), the longtime bully who is now Sheriff (Jean-Luc Bilodeau), a slew of hot girls whose only personality is that they are hot, and David Hasselhoff (David Hasselhoff). If it weren’t for the Hoff’s willingness to poke fun at his own resume, the frequent callback to the soundtrack of Baywatch, or Ving Rhames’s return with a pair of unintentionally funny prosthetic legs, I might have given this film zero stars. Regardless, while Piranha 3DD has some fun moments, it is ultimately a pale imitation of its predecessor.