Sunday, June 10, 2012

Film Reviews: Fantastic Four Rise of the Silver Surfer and American Wedding

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
The middle of the last decade was not a good time for superhero movies. The current crop (which started with 2000’s X-Men) had begun to feel stale; the best of the early franchises, the X-Men and Spider-Man movies, were reaching their respective putrid third installments, and as a whole the genre was beginning to feel tired. In 2005, Fox released a Fantastic Four movie that could generously be labeled mediocre. Though already strained for creativity (aside from Michael Chiklis’ touching and energetic take on The Thing), box office returns necessitated a sequel by Hollywood conventional wisdom, so two years later we got Rise of the Silver Surfer. Its acronym, ROTSS, is an appropriate description of the result.

Taking place sometime after the first movie concluded, Rise of the Silver Surfer deals with the immanent threat of Galactus, a major marvel villain (here, somewhat inexplicitly, depicted as a huge cloud) who devours a planet in the film’s opening scene. We transition back to Earth, where we learn that the Four’s mega-celebrity status is getting in the way of the nuptials of Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) and Susan Storm (Jessica Alba). As they get ready for another attempt to tie the knot, strange things are happening worldwide, seemingly connected to a silver streak that appears in the sky. Can our heroes figure out a way to stop the impending threat before it’s too late?

If I had to describe ROTSS in one word, it would be “inept”. There is absolutely nothing that works in this movie, to a degree that is actually kind of impressive. The special effects are poorly directed and don’t look good by 2007 standards, the attempts at humor are painfully unfunny, and the attempts to create some sort of interesting interplay between the characters is a complete waste of time. The climax is lame and uninteresting—every attempt by the script to raise the stakes just makes things feel more and more contrived and stupid. And that’s just the smaller-scale issues—in a broader sense, the screenplay is a nonsensical, confusing disaster and characterization is simplistic at best. No character other than maybe Reed and the Surfer has an identifiable character arc, and even then they’re simplistic and incompetently executed.

But maybe worst of all is that this movie can’t even be enjoyed in a mindless popcorn-y way—it’s terminally boring. The action scenes, when they exist at all, look like they were choreographed and directed by an amateur. Rather amazingly, ROTSS is only rated PG. It is true that the Fantastic Four has always been one of the more lighthearted and family friendly of Marvel’s major superhero franchises, but that is still fairly incredible. And it earns the rating too. There has been more convincing violence on SpongeBob, and the feeble attempts at sensuality could have been written by a Mormon middle-schooler (other than one extremely forced scene that ends with Alba nude, albeit barely on camera).

It seems almost pointless to mention any individual actors considering how thoroughly everything else in the film fails—Marlon Brando couldn’t have been convincing in this movie. Still, special commendation must be given to Jessica Alba, an actress already much more famous for being pretty than talented*, who looks like she is actively pained to be in the film. One feels like she probably tried to drown her agent as soon as production wrapped. And whatever spark poor Michael Chiklis (apparently a huge Fantastic Four fan from childhood) brought to the first film has been smothered; he doesn’t have much screentime, and what he does have is so badly written that his best efforts are useless.

*Though in this film even her usually dependable physical beauty seems weirdly off. I couldn’t tell if it was the makeup, wig, creepily fake looking blue contacts, or something else, but there was something strangely unappealing about her here. Maybe it was just how obviously uncomfortable she was. If a movie manages to screw up putting Jessica Alba in skintight spandex, you know something is seriously wrong.

Though there are a few potential contenders that I have not seen, notably including the first Ghost Rider, this may represent the nadir of the superhero movie*. Fortunately for fans of the genre, and I include myself, the next year after this piece of crap came out was 2008, which dramatically reversed the downward trend and raised the bar with Iron Man and especially The Dark Knight. It is probably in everyone’s best interest to try and forget that ROTSS ever happened at all.

*Though 2003’s Hulk is a worse movie, at least it manages to fail in a spectacular, ambitious way, and I give it credit for that, if nothing else.

4 Terrible. D-.

American Wedding
I’ve always had a fondness for the American Pie franchise that is somewhat irrational. On the one hand, I don’t really find them particularly funny, and much of the acting is amateurish, especially in the first film. On the other hand, I admire them for their vulgar audacity; despite dozens of copycat films over the years that have tried, no one pulls off disgusting comedy setpieces as well as American Pie. Even if I don’t find them that funny*, I still have an odd appreciation for them. And for some reason, I have some emotional investment in the characters of the series, or at least some of them. So while American Wedding isn’t exactly a great film, it is still one that I enjoyed in its own way.

*To be clear though, for the most part these scenes are funny, just not as much as I’d like. Contrast that to imitators like Harold and Kumar or Eurotrip, which I find actively unfunny.

American Wedding begins with Jim Levenstein’s (Jason Biggs) proposal to his girlfriend Michelle Flaherty (Alyson Hannigan), which goes about as well as anything ever goes to designated cosmic practical joke target Jim. Despite the universe’s best efforts, however, Michelle accepts, and suddenly the two have to plan a wedding. Jim is “helped” by friends Finch and Kevin (Eddie Kaye Thomas and Thomas Ian Nicholas, dueling for the coveted “most first names” title), and, despite his best efforts to not invite him, Stifler (Sean William Scott, also competing). Providing awkward but earnest moral support as always is Jim’s Dad (Eugene Levy). Meanwhile Michelle’s family, including father Harold (Fred Willard) and younger sister Cadence (pre Mad Men January Jones, arrive in town—Cadence is immediately courted by both Finch and Stifler, and Jim tries with increasing desperation to impress the Flaherty parents. Predictably, increasingly outrageous hijinks ensue.

A number of the supporting characters from the previous two films are absent from this one, and for the most part they are not really missed. Whatever ensemble depth we lose without Chris Klein, Shannon Elizabeth, Tara Reid, and Mena Suvari is more than made up for by the increased screentime for the series’ other characters. Stifler in particular picks up much of the weight, and indeed probably has more screentime than anyone. While I could see some being put off by that much Stiffmeister, the movie does a good job rounding the character’s edges enough that he doesn’t overstay his welcome.

I do, however, wish that the film had spent a little less time on the love triangle between Cadence, Finch, and Stifler. It isn’t bad per se, and has its moments (including a reliably funny role reversal between the usually polite and gentlemanly Finch and crude Stifler), but does take away time from the relationships that have become, against all odds, really, the backbone of the series—Jim and Michelle and Jim and his dad. Alyson Hannigan and Eugene Levy are easily the best parts of the film, as they were in the previous two, and it’s too bad that they aren’t in it a little more. This is especially true for Hannigan, given that the film is ostensibly about Michelle and Jim’s wedding. There is one great scene in which Michelle and Noah have a private conversation that is both hilarious and oddly touching, and made me wish the two got a little more material together.

The humor is mined from the same vein as in the previous two films, and it’s a vein that apparently has not been tapped out yet (though I have not seen American Reunion). The setpieces are predictably disgusting and usually pay off in at least a limited way. An extended sequence in Jim’s home that features a gay man in assless chaps, two (female) strippers, and Michelle’s parents is probably the highlight. No one (other than maybe Leslie Nielsen) plays cluelessness as well as Fred Willard.

The performances are the best in the series, which is a combination of ditching a few of the worst offenders (gone are both Oz and Vicky, and Kevin has a very limited role) and the maturation of the principles. Jason Biggs nails the put-upon everyman, and both Thomas and Scott are completely comfortable in the third ride with these characters. Fred Willard is delightful as Michelle’s dad, and even January Jones is acceptable in a bland sort of way. And as mentioned above, the two most consistent comic presences, Hannigan and Levy, are both great.

By cutting off some of the fat and focusing more on the characters and relationships in the series that work, the third helping of American Pie manages to avoid becoming stale. It’s just too bad that it isn’t a little funnier.

6.5 Decent/Good. C+

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