Monday, June 22, 2009

Don't flatter yourself; it wasn't that great--The Hangover

A week ago I finally got around to seeing The Hangover, eagerly awaiting which I thought would be a barrel of fun. It was more like a teacup.

I can't believe this is the comedy that America is holding to its collective bosom. When I posted as much on Facebook--sparking the interest of the entire Internet community--a friend of mine thought I was nuts for having such a thought.

Wanna know why? Well, there are seven reasons. (No, we're not going to talk about the borderline offensive gay jokes. That's been covered and smothered.)
  1. The script relies too much on the wacky. Hey, there's Mike Tyson singing Phil Collins! Ed Helms lost a tooth! Wow, Heather Graham is breast feeding. That's all terrific, but where's the funny dialogue? Where are the home run lines, you know, the dialogue I'm going to recall with friends years later? Anybody can put a string of wacky scenarios together, but being funny is a whole other matter entirely, and The Hangover is too busy trying to push the envelope that it forgets too frequently to tell jokes.


  2. Director Todd Phillips is not Harold Ramis. All of Phillips movies suffer from the same problem: There are two or three funny moments, and then the rest of the time there's nothing. My brother, the comedy writer, brough this to my attention years ago: It's almost like Phillips has three or four funny scenes in mind, and then builds a movie around it. Consequently, his movies usually sag in the middle and feature desperate attempts to get it back to life (e.g. Will Ferrell's breakdown in Old School; the awful Helms/Graham love story in The Hangover). The parts are always better than the whole, just like Michael Mann, another director who has somehow seduced the American public.


  3. The ending stinks. This a common thread in all of Phillips' movies, and The Hangover is no exception. Fellas, let me ask you something: Have you ever been to a bachelor party that ended a day before the wedding? Of course, you haven't. Well, The Hangover does that because there needs to be a mad dash to get the groom to the bride. The last time that story device was fresh was in a Three Stooges short back in the late 1930s; Shemp wound up marrying a chimp. It was spectacular.


  4. The fancy car. Roger Ebert has said that whenever he sees a fruit cart in a city street, he knows that it's going to be toppled over. I think it's time to extend that definition to a fancy/classic car (e.g. Tommy Boy, Risky Business, Ferris Beuller's Day Off). The Hangover goes to that hoary old device, and what's worse--there's no bloody payoff. The car gets banged up. Thanks, fellas. This also extends to...


  5. The obligatory love interest. I have to give credit to everyone involved to showing zero creativity and pizzazz in setting up Helms (who I liked, actually) and Graham (still looking great). The motivation behind their union was, according to my notes, they had interlocking parts. Simply inspiring.


  6. Racheal Harris' character. I know we need to have a reason for Helms to stray, but it's got to be more imaginative than Harris' character being a combination of Andrea Dworkin and every bad first date I experienced. She could have been too cutesy or too young or too old. If you need an obligatory excuse for Helms to ditch her, don't make her that she's so flagrantly unpleasant, especially if she's one of the few female characters (the other is Graham, a stripper/escort. Hooray!) in the movie. That's an excellent way to repel the women in the crowd.


  7. Jeffrey Tambor gets nothing to do. Really? That's a great way to gain respect from the comedy nerds, give the head of the Bluth family fewer lines than Heather "Rollergirl" Graham. Splendid move.

I did like Zach Galifianakis's beard. Always have.

Also, for anyone who thinks I'm a comedy snob or an elitist. Check out the title of the post. It's a line from one of my all-time favorite movies, and it's not Howard's End.

Monday, June 15, 2009

WPW, Bringing People Together Since, Uh, Now

With social network sites all the rage, it's easier than ever to reunite with people than ever before. Sometimes this is a good thing; sometimes not so much. Believe it or not, some stuff from the past should just stay right where it is. As Billy Joel once said, "The good days aren't always so good and tomorrow is not bad as it seems."

Then again, Billy Joel also wrote "We Didn't Start the Fire" and parted ways with drummer extraordinaire Liberty DeVito, so consider the source.

OK, getting back on track, I never thought this blog could reintroduce me to lost friends. But in between all the pictures of Anne Hathaway and book recommendations, that's exactly what happened. I guess you can thank Facebook, but when Tiki Barber does his soft focus story for Dateline NBC , I want my credit.

I had lost touch with my friend Javier years ago. There were no big arguments or anything, but the details of adulthood threw us off course. So I was pleasantly surprised, when I noticed that Javier, who I had known since the sixth grade, was a follower of the site.

(His younger sister, my friend on Facebook, tipped him off about the blog. Why I didn't just ask her for Javier's contact information is simply beyond me. Good thing I'm not in a line of work that requires keen investigative skills, eh?)

During my one year retrospective, I gave him a shout-out, and he dropped me a line soon thereafter. I'm happy to say that we met up recently and had a great time, picking up right where we left off a decade ago.

So, all those naysayers who think this site is frivolous can suck it. We're bringing lost friends together! Is Glenn Kenny's blog doing that? Doubtful. What about Ebert's?

While you ponder that, I'll wait to hear from the producers at Dateline and send my best wifebeater to the cleaners.

No, Greased Lightning!


Part of the reason for the time between posts is that I was involved in a whirlwind of family stuff, namely attending two weddings with the girlfriend over the course of a weekend. It was just like the start of Wedding Crashers only the complete opposite.

At one of the receptions, the DJ was just lazy, playing the same awful tracks that have annoyed me for years: "Electric Slide," "Celebration," and the Grease mega-mix. While commiserating with some folks at the bar, girlfriend's younger brother pointed out how much he hated Grease--that it hadn't aged well, that the songs were cheesy and overplayed.

And you know what? He's absolutely right, even if he is a Phillies fan.

Grease came out in 1978, which was, let's see--carry the 5, divide by Pi--31 years ago. If you're a DJ with an ounce of creative ambition, couldn't you collect songs from more universally loved movies? Or how about songs from movies that aren't approaching a quarter-life crisis?

In the roughly 5,000 weddings I have attended in my life (Reason? My mom's side is gigantic), how come I don't remember hearing anything from Dirty Dancing, Clueless, or Boogie Nights? Especially since people with fuzzy memories of those movies are getting married in droves. Has anyone created a mix of songs from movies of the 80s and 90s, like "Twist and Shout" goes right into "King of Wishful Thinking"? Movies have given us a rich musical legacy beyond "Greased Lightning." Can one of the cutting-edge geniuses on the DJ front work on that. Please.

Seriously, part of the reason why I go to weddings is to dance, and it's excruciating when some jerk in a rented tux and a trunk full of props refuses to show an ounce of originality. I'm willing to bet that if someone played The Commodores' "Machine Gun," the dance floor would be hopping.

And if everyone sprung into the choreographed dance from Boogie Nights, I could die right then and there. Screw Mt. Everest, that's something I want to see.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

FAQs and Che (Shea)

In the hopes of making this blog a more enjoyable, informative experience for everyone involved, from time to time I'll be putting up some FAQs. Here's the first.

Q: I notice that in your reviews for ICON the films get stars. What's the scale?
A: In the case of the Film Round-Up, the films are rated on a scale from 1 to 5...Keep in mind, I rarely give out five stars for a movie. That's for special cases.

Q: How come some of your reviews are of already-released movies, while others haven't come out yet?
A: It boils down to a case of economics and connections. Let's take the first factor. I currently live in central New Jersey, and I'm very happy there. Screenings are usually in New York, occasionally in Philadelphia. Traveling costs money, and like everyone else, I'm trying to save money wherever I can. So I really have to limit my trips, going to two/three screenings a day, if possible. That's the reality, and I hope it will change soon...The second factor I'm working on. The longer I review, the more studio and PR people I come in contact with, or I try to reach in my spare time, the more advance stuff I'll see.

Q: Weren't you supposed to profile a prominent New Jersey filmmaker? Aren't you going to tell us who the hell it is?
A: I completed the profile a few weeks ago, and it will run in November. I promise to divulge who that person is very soon. The story behind getting the interview is pretty entertaining. Or at least it is to me. You'll hear about it. Trust me.

Q: Why don't you do more interviews with directors and actors and the like?
A: I guess I could, but it has to be the right situation. Unless you're persistent (my speciality) or a big wheel at the cracker factory, most times publicists will organize a conference call, or worse, grant you a sliver of time to talk to said star during a press junket. There's a great sequence in The Devil's Candy, where Julie Salamon profiles Brian DePalma doing one for Bonfire of the Vanities. Poor DePalma is forced to sit for hours while any moron with a press pass asks stupid, misguided, or wrong questions for five minutes. How can an interviewer get anything good in that time period? And if talent finds these things as miserable as DePalma did, aren't they going to be jaded to start with?

By the way, if anyone can assure me this isn't the case, I'd love to hear it. Post a comment.

Q: Why don't you share more personal information with us?
A: Because most of the time it's not essential to this blog. I'll tell you anecdotes about myself, my family, or other people when it's warranted. But the one thing I hate about blogs is that everyone feels the need to share everything, from the mundane to the remarkably personal. That's why I have a journal. Emily Gould, formerly of Gawker Media, wrote an interesting piece about this in The New York Times Magazine last year. I strive not to "overshare."

Q: Hey are those super-cool "Shea Forever" still for sale?
A: Indeed, they are. Go to http://www.toastofmanhattan.com/ and buy, buy, buy.

Thank you. No further questions.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Film Round-Up for June


In this edition of The Film Round-Up: The awesomeness of Star Trek; the pretty goodness of Wolverine; the mehness of Ghosts of Girlfriends Past; and the irrelevance of Terminator Salvation.

To ease the pain of reading the review of Terminator Salvation, here's a photo of one of the movie's co-stars, Moon Bloodgood. Pretty lady, no? Sorry ladies, I don't have anything for ya, but I just posted a 600-word review of a movie starring John Krasinski. He's John Cusack 2.0!

As always, these reviews previously appeared in ICON, and are reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)

The summer movie season--when everything is bigger and better, allegedly-- kicked off last month. Here's a look at four high-profile releases, one of which you should see immediately.

Terminator Salvation (Dir: McG). Starring: Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Moon Bloodgood, Anton Yelchin, Bryce Dallas Howard, Common, Jane Alexander, Helena Bonham Carter, Michael Ironside. The fourth installment in the popular, time-bending franchise takes us to 2018, where rogue soldier John Connor (Bale) leads humanity's fight against a legion of unstoppable machines intent on destroying the human race. Thrown into this epic struggle is the appearance of man/machine Marcus (Worthington, who fails to maintain an American accent) and Connor's teenager father (Yelchin, whose teeth are awfully white for someone living during a holocaust), both of whom play crucial roles in mankind's survival. For so much on the line, the movie never makes you care about what's taking place, glumly covering the same terrain as its predecessors while offering no compelling storylines or ideas. The acting is uniformly intense, which makes it hard to take anyone or anything seriously, especially when there are several gaping plot holes. Terminator Salvation isn't bad as much as it is irrelevant, proof that good ideas from the past eventually get stale. PG-13 **

Star Trek (Dir: J.J. Abrams). Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Eric Bana, Bruce Greenwood, Leonard Nimoy, Anton Yelchin, Winona Ryder, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Karl Urban. Abrams' rollicking, youthful interpretation of the epic TV and movie franchise should be the crown jewel of the summer movie season. The new edition concerns the early days of the Starship Enterprise's crew--specifically the battle between a young troublemaking James T. Kirk (Pine) and the quietly brooding Spock (Quinto, who's outstanding)--and their mission to save Earth and their captain (Greenwood) from a revenge-minded Romulan named Nero (Bana). You don't need to be fluent in Klingon to enjoy the movie, which doesn't cater to geeky trivia or nostalgia, though Nimoy does a nice job as the future Spock. The movie stands on its own. The new crew is fantastic (aside from Quinto, Urban and Pegg steal their scenes), and the movie is relentlessly entertaining, the apotheosis of a smart, fun summer blockbuster. Pray the half-baked sequels and aspiring, Uhura-loving fanboys are kept to a minimum. Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman wrote the terrific script. PG-13 ****

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Dir: Gavin Hood). Starring: Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, Danny Huston, Lynn Collins, Will i Am, Dominic Monaghan, Ryan Reynolds. Jackman takes a break from singing and dancing (thank God) to again portray his most famous role--the titular clawed superhero. Here we see his story pre-X-Men, when he and his mutant brother (Schreiber) spent years on the run--fighting in multiple wars, mostly--before joining a covert task force. When Wolverine objects to its ethics, he starts a new life in rural Canada, which is harshly interrupted years later by his unhinged brother and the force's power-mad commander (Huston). Destruction ensues. Entertaining and chock full of action, Wolverine is enjoyable, and writers David Benioff (25th Hour, The Kite Runner) and Skip Woods offer enough dramatic twists and snappy dialogue to keep us engaged between explosions. Certainly not as dramatically polished as recent superhero movies, which is actually an asset. Sometimes it's OK to turn your brain off and have a good time. Wolverine fulfills that need perfectly. PG-13 ***

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (Dir: Mark Waters). Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Michael Douglas, Emma Stone, Breckin Meyer, Lacey Chabert, Robert Forster, Anne Archer. A womanizing photographer (McConaughey), who doesn't believe in love, returns home for his younger brother's wedding, where he reunites with the one true love he abandoned (Garner) and looks to hook up with a bridesmaid. Unable to see the error of having commitment-free sex with underwear models, McConaughey is visited wedding eve by the ghost of his uncle/playboy mentor (Douglas), who does that for him a la A Christmas Carol. Big, dumb-as-a-doorknob romantic comedy is salvaged by three terrific performances: a Robert Evans-inspired Douglas; the increasingly reliable Garner, whose gentle acidity is most welcome; and an unrecognizable Stone (Superbad), who nearly steals the whole shebang as McConaughey's first ghost/sexual partner, a chatty 1980s teenager. The trio elevates the movie above its clich├ęs and lack of touch. As for McConaughey, who's decent, he must stop playing the same redeemable rogue before he becomes a hunkier version of Alan Alda. He's better than that. PG-13 **

Review of Away We Go


The review appeared in the June issue of ICON, and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)

If anything can be gained by this movie, it's that Maggie Gyllenhaal is one of the best actresses working today.

Enjoy...

The summer movie season is so large, so driven by familiarity and profit, that it can be hard for character-driven movies that don't have cross promotions with fast food giants and soft drink behemoths to find a foothold. Ironically, those movies, like Sam Mendes' Away We Go, are the breath of fresh air that's needed during three months of sequels and TV adaptations. Away We Go is more than an alternative to Terminator Salvation, but a touching portrait of a young couple grappling with a fast-approaching future. It can be enjoyed any season.

Burt and Verona (John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph) are in their early thirties, walking a fine line between stagnation and lifelong disappointment. They live in a crappy house that looks like it was furnished by repeated trips to the flea market. She's six months' pregnant, but has no desire to marry despite Burt's urging. His parents (the peerless combo of Catherine O'Hara and Jeff Daniels)--and their sole means of support and security--have gleefully decided to move to Antwerp, grandchildren be damned.

Verona's parents are dead, so the kids are on their own, and they're not remotely ready for that. But it allows them to search for a new home and a new support system. So, they hit the road, hoping to find a point of stability, an example to aspire to. It doesn't go too well. Trips to see Verona's ex-boss (Allison Janney) in Arizona and Burt's family friend (Maggie Gyllenhaal, awesome as usual) in Wisconsin show the perils of being on either end of the parenting intensity spectrum. College friends in Montreal (Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey) have built a happy family of adorable adopted kids, but it lies on a foundation of repeated sadness. A sudden trip to visit Burt's brother (Paul Schneider) in Miami offers a glimpse of what awaits a child if a parent leaves. To quote legendary screenwriter William Goldman, nobody knows anything.

Obviously, this is more than a road trip for Burt and Verona, but a way to find their adult selves. The husband and wife writing team of Dave Eggers (author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) and Vendela Vida (novelist, co-editor of The Believer magazine) never announce life lessons. Instead, they come about naturally in quiet, thoughtful moments, like Schneider mentioning how there are certain things a father can't do for his child. When Verona mentions to Burt that they need to argue more, we're reminded how little the movie grandstands. The only time Away We Go gets loud is when it's funny--witness the parenting attempts of Janney and Gyllenhaal's characters. The former barely acknowledges her kids' existence, an ideal path for intense therapy, while the latter raises her kids based on some unholy combination of liberal arts and metaphysics.

In the lead roles, Krasinski and Rudolph follow the writers' leads, taking baby steps toward adulthood, eventually learning to go their own way. Their performances are quiet, but powerful, perfectly matching the movie's tone. Life revelations don't come about in flashes, but after years of trial and error. Krasinski and Rudolph carry that unwritten history with them in every scene, and watching them adjust to that weight is both funny and heartfelt.

Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay Away We Go is how intimate it feels, considering Mendes's showy tendencies (behold the endless screaming-as-satire of Revolutionary Road) and the aura of hip whirling around Vida and Eggers. The cast consists of independent film standouts or other pop culture darlings (Krasinski of The Office, ace comedian Jim Gaffigan). I was afraid that Away We Go would be the type of emotionally pumped-up drama that's the blockbuster of the art house circuit. It's not. Burt and Verona's trip may be transparent in its importance, but it's introspective, human, and always authentic. Sometimes it's a good idea to examine the small stuff behind the big moments, and Away We Go is a nice reminder of what can result from that underused philosophy. [R]