Knocked Up


The odd couple.

The odd couple.

(2007) Romantic Comedy (Universal) Seth Rogen, Katherine Heigl, Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Jason Segel, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Martin Starr, Charlyne Yi, Iris Apatow, Maude Apatow, Joanna Kerns, Harold Ramis, Alan Tudyk, Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Ken Jeong, Craig Robinson, Tim Bagley, Loudon Wainwright, Adam Scott, Mo Collins. Directed by Judd Apatow

Cinema of the Heart 2016

What says I love you more than having a baby together? Well, that isn’t always the case – sometimes babies are made of bad choices, accidents of chance and/or alcohol. Or sometimes all of the above. Nonetheless, the baby doesn’t know the difference and getting someone knocked up is only the beginning.

Ben Stone (Rogen) is a Canadian slacker living in L.A. whose idea of entrepreneurship is setting up a website that collates all the nude scenes for every actress in every major Hollywood film. An idea whose time has come? No, it’s an idea whose time has been but don’t tell Ben and his stoner roommates that. Ben is slovenly, jovial and pot-addled but basically a nice guy.

Alison Scott (Heigl) is beautiful, poised and talented; she has just hit a career jackpot by getting an anchor job on a major cable network. She goes out to celebrate but meets up with Ben and somehow the two hit it off and end up in her bedroom. The morning after is awkward but cordial; Alison can’t wait for her over-the-two-drink-minimum mistake to go home while Ben knows he has managed to tap way beyond his league and kind of wants to see where it goes. Alison makes it clear it’s going nowhere.

But that’s not going to happen. In the festivities of carnal relations, Ben rang her bell and she’s pregnant. Although she is advised to get an abortion, Alison doesn’t want to do that. She decides to bring the baby to term and so she tells Ben what’s happening.

 

At first Ben is a little bit terrified, then he throws himself into impending fatherhood with as much enthusiasm as he can muster, which is considerable. Perpetually broke, he leans on Alison for expenses which doesn’t sit too well with her. As they get to know each other, they realize how wrong for each other they truly are but Ben perseveres out of a sense of responsibility.

Alison, who lives with her married sister Debbie (Mann) and Debbie’s affable husband Pete (Rudd) whose own marriage has its ups and downs, is scared of what’s going to happen to her and her baby, and frightened at the prospect of raising a child alone. However, when Ben gets to be too much for her, she realizes she may have to do just that.

This in many ways was Apatow’s break-out movie; sure The 40-Year-Old Virgin was a hit but this was a HIT and kind of set up the Apatow brand which would rule cinematic comedy for the last half of the decade and on into this one. It has a cast that includes some of the funniest people in the business, from SNL to Second City to stand-up stars to TV comedy stars and even a few straight non-comic actors.

What really impresses me about this comedy is that when you separate the laughs, the drug jokes, the dick jokes and the crude humor, there really is some intelligence here. Gender roles are looked at with a fairly unflinching microscope and the way men and women tend to interact also merits examination. So often the sexes tend to talk at cross-purposes, neither understanding the meaning of what we each have to say. Knocked Up finds the humor in the disconnect, but there’s a serious message behind the laughter.

What doesn’t impress is that the movie tends to take the low road at nearly every turn. I don’t mind raunchy humor or low comedy at all but sometimes it feels like the intent here is to shock rather than amuse. How funny is it really to be taking a dump on your roommate’s bed to give them pink eye? That’s when it starts to veer off in little boy humor and that wears damn thin quickly. Also the last third is a tad cliché and the ending more than a tad pat.

Thankfully, there are some major talents in the cast and for the most part the players take their roles seriously and give some pretty decent performances. For Rogen and Heigl, this established them as legitimate movie stars and launched their careers, while Rudd, Hader, Segel, Hill and Mann also garnered plenty of notice on the way to making their careers much more viable. It’s hard to imagine what the modern comedy landscape circa 2016 would look like without Apatow’s films.

This is in many ways a landmark film and in many ways it is an ordinary film. There are those who say it is too raunchy to be romantic, but what is romance without a little raunch? There is actually a surprising amount of true romance here, more so than in other films that are much more serious about the romance in their comedy. This may occasionally go into the gutter for its humor, but it is a much smarter film than most give it credit for.

WHY RENT THIS: Takes a surprisingly mature look at sexual expectations and gender roles. Fine performances by a standout cast.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overdoes the raunch. Runs a smidgen too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of drug use, some sexuality and quite a bit of foul language and innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally footage from a live birth was going to be used, but that plan was scrapped when it turned out a work permit would have to be obtained for the unborn child.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The traditional Apatow extra Line-o-Rama is here, as well as a gag reel. There is also outtake footage of the children on the set, as well as scenes of Rogen that he did for some inexplicable reason without a shirt. The Blu-Ray has additional comic features including a fake casting doc on the part of Ben Stone, as well as the “sixth” roommate who decided to bail on this movie to do the latest Woody Allen film. Not exactly priceless, but certainly different than what you usually find on the average home video release. Also please note that this is available in most places in both the theatrical version and uncut version.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $219.1M on a $30M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon (unrated), iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: This is 40
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Synchronicity

The Innkeepers


The Innkeepers

Too much Visene can be a bad thing.

(2011) Supernatural Horror (Magnet) Sara Paxton, Pat Healy, Kelly McGillis, Alison Bartlett, Jake Ryan, George Riddle, Lena Dunham, Brenda Cooney, John Speredakos, Sean Reid, Kurt Venghaus, Thomas Maloney, Michael Martin, Michael P. Castelli. Directed by Ti West

 

All good things come to an end and so it was with the Yankee Pedlar Hotel. A more than 100-year-ld inn in bucolic New England,  it is down to once last weekend. Two staff members are left to oversee the grand dame who has  a reputation of being haunted. Claire (Paxton) and Luke (Healy) are there to take care of the few guests that are left.

The third floor has already been stripped, closed to guests as the work to gut the hotel to make room for a parking lot is preparing to get under way. Luke mostly watches Internet porn, when he isn’t working on a ghost website, regaling the impressionable Claire with stories about the hotel’s checkered past and his own supernatural encounters and ignoring the guests’ demands for towels.

Claire befriends one of the guests, a former television actress turned psychic healer Leanne Rease-Jones (McGillis) who at first seems somewhat, for lack of a better term, bitchy. However as she begins to find the supremely naive but extremely likable Claire to be harmless, Leanne decides to delve into the Yankee Pedlar, only to find something very sinister that has Claire firmly in its sights – involving a bride who committed suicide years before and a cover-up by the innkeepers of the day that would only serve to make the bride’s ghost very, very angry – and you sure don’t want to be in the sights of an angry bride now do you?

West has developed a good reputation in the independent horror community with films like House of the Devil and The Roost to his credit. He has a reputation of movies that develop slowly, chock full of quirky but realistic (read: non-cookie cutter) characters who are brought out of their comfort zone and face to face with something terrible.

He follows much the same formula here too. There is the first half of the movie which belongs mostly to Paxton and Healy, who work very well together. Although theirs is a non-romantic relationship (no sex in this movie guys – move along if that’s what you’re looking for) there is chemistry nonetheless between them. They banter like co-workers who have a bit of a forced friendship due to the circumstances i.e. pending unemployment. There is a certain gallows camaraderie between them.

McGillis also figures into the first half significantly. The star of such films as The Witness and The Accused has been long absent from multiplex screens and it is a welcome return indeed. Even though she gets what I affectionately call “the Zelda Rubinstein part” (so-named for the diminutive actress who played the psychic in Poltergeist) she carries it off with grace and professionalism.

West is good at delivering the goods in the scare department and he does so here. The last fifteen minutes of the movie are a real wild ride, with some legitimate spooky scares. It’s just the getting there that may put some people off. Those who love a shock-o-rama from start to finish are going to get antsy sitting through the first portion of this movie.

I had a different reaction. I liked the first part of the movie, a lot. Horror movies that take the time to develop characters who are not clichés are increasingly rare these days as mostly the actors exist to be launched into a meat grinder. Taking the time to develop characters we can actually care about is almost unheard of, so many kudos to West for that.

The writers also take the time to develop a nice mythology which is crucial in any kind of supernatural horror. The background of the tale is at least as important as the scares and the writers pay close attention to that.

The trouble here is that the first part and the last part of the movie are so night and day. Some may find it jolting to go from a kind of almost sitcom-y feel into a balls-to-the-wall frightfest.  I actually thought the two parts reconciled well but admit it was a little bumpy in places. There really isn’t much of a transition.

This is a strong independent horror movie, something that I’m happy to say we’re starting to see more of and that’s a trend I strongly hope is going to continue. There is some inventiveness to it but not a lot and that’s okay – it just takes a little. In other words, this isn’t a game changer for the genre but it is a strong example of how good a well done ghost story can be.

REASONS TO GO: Paxton and Healy work well together. Well-written with a nice mythology behind it.

REASONS TO STAY: Real scares come late and when the horror aspect gets going is almost schizophrenic, at odds with the lighter tone earlier in the film.  

FAMILY VALUES: There are some terrifying images and a few bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Paxton is distantly related to actor Bill Paxton; she mulled over a career in music (she has sung on several soundtracks to her movies) although that appears to be on hold at the moment.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/6/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100. The reviews are pretty good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ghostbusters

NEW ENGLAND INN LOVERS: The filmmakers shot this primarily at the actual Yankee Pedlar Inn in Torrington, CT. which is supposedly haunted. The lobby is gorgeous filled with antique furniture. I wouldn’t mind staying a night or two here – if Madeline permits.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Holy Rollers

World’s Greatest Dad


World's Greatest Dad

Sometimes comedy really DOES make the strangest bedfellows.

(Magnolia) Robin Williams, Alexie Gilmore, Daryl Sabara, Mitzi McCall, Henry Simmons, Geoff Pierson, Morgan Murphy, Daniel Glick, Evan Martin, Bruce Hornsby. Directed by Bobcat Goldthwait

When someone dies young, there is a tendency to accentuate the more positive aspects of the deceased’s character and ignore the negative. After all, nobody particularly likes to speak ill of the dead, right?

Lance Clayton (Williams) is a wannabe novelist, one who has written five novels and gotten exactly zero of them published. Still, he continues to try and while he does, he continues with his temporary vocation, a high school English teacher reading poetry to students who could care less.

His son Kyle (Sabara) is a rat bastard. He is hateful to nearly everybody and is sexually obsessed to the point of creepiness. Masturbation isn’t just an occasional pleasure for him; it’s the biggest part of his day. His only friend is Andrew (Martin), a skinny reed of a boy who is much brighter than Kyle.

Kyle regards Lance with roughly the same contempt that a billionaire regards a bum. Still, Lance can take solace in his sexless romance with Claire (Gilmore), who teaches art at the same school but even that soon becomes threatened. Fellow teacher Mike (Simmons) publishes his first story in the New Yorker and suddenly Claire seems to be casting her gaze in Mike’s direction. That’s not too much of a shocker; Claire is remarkably shallow and Mike is much younger and more handsome than Lance.

One night Lance returns home to find Kyle dead. The death was accidental; he had strangled himself while engaging in autoerotic asphyxiation, but despite the harsh relationship he had with his son, he simply can’t bear the truth coming out about the manner in which Kyle, already pretty much despised by everyone, died – whipping his weasel as it were. As a loving dad, he rearranges the death scene, writes a suicide note and puts out the fiction the Kyle hung himself.

The fall-out from this is unexpected. Suddenly the student body and faculty become sympathetic, guilty at the shabby treatment Kyle had been afforded in life. When Lance writes a fake journal purportedly authored by Kyle, it becomes a sensation and Lance suddenly has the literary success that had always eluded him, even if he wasn’t getting credit for it. Now there are appearances on talk shows and talk of movie deals. Even Claire has come back to him with a vengeance.

But it’s all based on a lie, and that digs at him. The strange thing is that the effects of the lie have made things better; people are opening up, communicating and coming out. But can Lance’s conscience live with the deception?

Goldthwait has given us what can charitably be called offbeat comedies (in the form of the alcoholic circus performer Shakes the Clown and the bestiality comedy Sleeping Dogs Lie) and more accurately called button-pushers. As a filmmaker (and before that, as one of the best stand-up comics of the ‘80s) he has pushed the boundaries and forced his audiences to look at unpleasant things in order to deal with issues like trust and fear.

Here he works with his close friend Williams and it’s a good pairing; this is one of Williams’ best performances in ages, maybe going back to Good Morning Vietnam. He handles the pathos of discovering his son’s body with great dignity, and keeps his comedy restrained. I guess it could be fair to say that he’s mellowed with age, but in any case, he’s become a much more well-rounded performer, although I still recall his manic rants with fond affection.

Sabara has the thankless job of playing an utter douchebag, one who is without any positive qualities whatsoever. Not many actors, who as a species tend to crave attention and love, would even attempt a role like this but Sabara does it almost too well, making his early exit a relief in many ways. Gilmore plays the narcissistic shallow Claire with a certain amount of flair, even being brave enough to allow a couple of upskirt photos which become very germane to the plot.

The irony of the film is what I thought worked best about it; that the death of a miserable prick gets him nearly canonized which in turn brings about changes in attitude for the better. There’s a message there about how we choose to see things, and trying to grab something to identify with – one of the running conceits of the movie is how many “close friends” Kyle had after death when in reality his only friend was Andrew all along, and Andrew alone is the only one who gets off scot-free, being literally the only one in the movie who doesn’t exploit Kyle’s death for their own benefit.

There is a level of cynicism here that might give a few viewers some pause, but it would be wise to remember that what is depicted here is human nature nonetheless. I found the movie enjoyable, at its best curiously when it was more serious. It’s not that the comedy is unfunny; it’s just that the movie seemed to find its rhythm when it was looking at grief less cynically. Perhaps there’s hope for me after all then.

WHY RENT THIS: Comedy doesn’t get any blacker than this. Williams gives one of his better performances in years.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sabara is so unlikable it’s actually a relief when his character is killed off. The movie could have used a better balance between pathos and comedy.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of vulgar language, some fairly sophisticated and twisted sexuality, drug use and deeply disturbing situations. I would probably restrict this to mature teens only and even then you might want to have the remote nearby in case of emergency fast-forward or full stop.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Krist Novoselic, the former bassist for Nirvana, has a cameo as a newspaper vendor who hugs Lance. The irony here is that one of the tangential themes is teen suicide, and of course Nirvana’s lead singer Kurt Coabin committed suicide himself.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an interesting music video for “I Hope I Become a Ghost” by the Deadly Syndrome, containing some minimalist surreal animation. Tres cool.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $221,805 on an unreported production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Beer for My Horses