Meet the Parents


Meet the Parents

Robert De Niro wants to make sure Ben Stiller isn’t lying when he says that he’s his favorite dramatic actor.

(2000) Comedy (Universal) Ben Stiller, Robert de Niro, Teri Polo, Blythe Danner, Nicole deHuff, Owen Wilson, Phyllis George, James Rebhorn, Jon Abrahams, Thomas McCarthy, Judah Friedlander, William Severs, Kali Rocha, John Fiore. Directed by Jay Roach

 

It is true of all long-term intimate relationships that you are not only with your partner, are with your partner’s family as well (and they with yours). There is nothing more terrifying for a prospective groom than meeting the mom and dad for the first time with them eying you not as a boyfriend but as the husband for their daughter. Believe me, I know — I’ve been there.

Greg Focker (Stiller) is a male nurse facing this very prospect. He is head-over-heels in love with Pamela Byrnes (Polo) and is intent on marrying her, but wants to do it the right way. Before he asks her, he wants to ask her dad first. And for you guys thinking of asking daddy for her little girl’s hand, consider the nightmare it would be if daddy happened to be de Niro. As in Robert. Yup. Someone get the smelling salts please.

Focker does his best to make a good impression, but he is in a household made chaotic by the impending marriage of Pamela’s sister (deHuff), the presence of her medically-snobbish in-laws-to-be (George and Rebhorn) and Pamela’s somewhat put-upon mother (Danner). Things keep going wrong for poor Greg. And then they get worse. By the time things come to a head, your sides will be sore with laughter.

Stiller, on the strength of this film and There’s Something About Mary, has become one of Hollywood’s most bankable comedians. His likable boy-next-door style reminds me, oddly enough, of silent star Harold Lloyd, without the physicality. De Niro, who exhibited heretofore unknown comic talents in Analyze This, continues to lampoon his own image with hilarious results. Wilson, who has since made a career out of playing the laconic second banana shines here; he’s not so much a second banana as a comic foil here, the perfect ex who makes Greg look more and more like a schmuck with each incident.

My beef with the movie is that Greg, who is a plenty smart guy, turns into a raging idiot once the action begins. I can understand how the need to impress your prospective in-laws might lead you to doing some things you might not ordinarily, but Greg as a nurse didn’t strike me as particularly irresponsible – why would he be completely irresponsible in the in-law situation to the point of irrationality? That didn’t jive with me and was really the one part of the film I had trouble reconciling.

Even if you don’t like the Farrelly Brothers, whose style Meet the Parents most closely resembles, you’ll find yourself laughing out loud hysterically at some of the more inspired gags. There’s one bit involving a cat and an urn that literally turned the Da Queen and I purple from laughter. It’s very therapeutic (although those with parental remains in their home may cringe). There is definitely a more 90s comedic feel here but it never devolves into schtick which some comedies from the era did. While there is plenty of slapstick it didn’t strike me as particularly low-brow, sort of a happy medium more like.

Meet the Parents is vulgar in places (but not as much as, say, The Hangover) but it’s screwball at heart. It’s one of the funniest movies of its era, certainly far more successful in creating laughs than its two successors in the series. If life is stressing you out, an evening watching Meet the Parents could be just the tonic you need.

WHY RENT THIS: Stiller is at the top of his game. Really, really funny in places. One of the best comedies of its era.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Stiller’s character acts unbelievably dumb in places.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some sexuality, a bit of bad language and some drug references.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The name “Focker” was suggested by Jim Carrey who was at one time attatched to the property in the role Stiller eventually took. The MPAA wouldn’t allow the use of the name however until the filmmakers found at least one person with that surname, which they did.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: All DVD editions include a Blooper reel. The DVD Bonus and Blu-Ray editions includes a scene of DeNiro singing “Love is in the Air,” a featurette on the training of the cat that played Mr. Jinx and a featurette on polygraph testing. The DVD Collectors edition includes none of those, but does have two interactive games.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $330.4M on a $55M production budget; the movie was a big time blockbuster.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: There’s Something About Mary

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Looper

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Chernobyl Diaries


Chernobyl Diaries

Out of the frying pan…

(2012) Horror (Warner Brothers) Devin Kelley, Jonathan Sadowski, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Jesse McCartney, Nathan Phillips, Dimitri Diatchenko, Milos Timotijevic, Pasha D. Lychnikoff, Zinaida Dedakin, Ivana Milutinovic. Directed by Brad Parker

 

Some things are just downright bad ideas. Teasing the starving mother of bear cubs is one of them. Calling Mike Tyson a sissy is another. However, you’d pretty much have to put sightseeing at the sight of the worst nuclear accident in history right at the top of the list.

Chris (McCartney), his girlfriend Natalie (Dudley) and her good friend Amanda (Kelley) are touring Europe the way only young people can – like complete idiots. Relentlessly taping everything, acting like goofballs in front of the camera, they head into Kiev to visit Chris’ brother Paul (Sadowski) who has been estranged from his family for awhile. Paul shows them a good time, but the continuation of the tour to Moscow is interrupted when Paul meets an extreme tourism operator named Uri (Diatchenko) who proposes a trip to nearby Chernobyl.

Actually, the trip would be to Pripyat, the town near the plant where the plant workers and their families lived which became a deserted ghost town overnight when reactor #4 exploded on April 26, 1986, giving those who lived there no time to even collect their belongs. The town slumbered in radioactive peace for 25 years, the radiation too high to allow any sort of return until recently. The reactor itself is still highly contaminated and can only be approached in complete protective gear and even then only for a few hours at a time.

For Type A personality Paul, this sounds like his kind of adventure. Cautious Chris, who means to propose to Natalie in Moscow (can anyone say Lieutenant Deadmeat?) is reluctant to go but Paul convinces Amanda, who is a photographer, that she can get the shots of a lifetime in Pripyat so Amanda convinces Natalie at which point Chris caves.

At first it looks like the trip is over before it begins – the army has closed off the town and isn’t permitting Uri, who has conducted several tours there, into the town. However wily Uri knows a back way into town and drives the four Americans, along with Norwegian honeymooners Michael (Phillips) and Zoe (Berdal) into the deserted town.

Most of the vegetation is dead and they find a  mutated fish near a stream on the edge of town (had they stayed a little longer they might have seen a whole lot of ’em) but it’s the silence that’s eerie. No birds, few animal noises of any sort. There are feral dogs running around the area which can be dangerous if there’s a lot of them but nothing too dangerous (other than that big mofo bear that runs through one of the apartment buildings, scaring the bejeezus out of them). That is, until they return to their van and find out that the van won’t start – the leads on the starter have either melted or something is wrong with them – and neither Uri nor Michael can repair it. They call for help but nobody answers. It looks like they’ll have to spend the night in the van. And it soon becomes very apparent that they aren’t alone.

Oren Peli, who created the Paranormal Activity franchise, wrote and produced this (first time director Parker was behind the camera). There are several similar elements here; a microscopic budget (under a million, chump change for most Hollywood productions), unknown actors (unless you count pop star McCartney), a genuinely terrifying premise and shaky, hand-held cameras (at times the angles and shaky-cam perspective make this look kind of documentary-like). However, this isn’t nearly as scary as Peli’s previous film.

For one thing, none of the actors are really memorable, although McCartney bears a striking resemblance physically and also vocally to a young Leonardo di Caprio. Diatchenko also is strong and likable as Uri. The rest are mostly unremarkable but pretty competent.

I accept that for most horror movies to work, there has to be an instance of people doing dumb, stupid or irresponsible things and this film is no exception. I would not, for example, venture into the night from the safety of a closed and locked van armed only with a handgun to investigate strange noises when you are already aware that there’s a bear wandering around. You would definitely not do it if you had special forces survival training, which one of the characters supposedly had.

The monsters – you can pretty much figure out what they are – do not really act consistently which is another problem. In some instances they seem to be stalking the tourists with almost military precision. At other times they are mindless, shambling things out of a George A. Romero movie. We really only see them towards the end of the movie although we certainly know they’re there.

I liked parts of the movie and to be honest, with a little more care in the script, particularly in character development – if I can’t care about the characters, I have no emotional investment in their survival. In this case the audience become voyeurs at a Grand Guignol show and walk away merely feeling dirty instead of entertained, but thankfully there is sufficient entertainment value here. It could have used a lot more tension though – and a little less arguing.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific concept.

REASONS TO STAY: Inept script. Lacks real suspense.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence, a surfeit of bad language and some pretty graphic and gruesome images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Oren Peli got the idea for the movie after seeing a photo blog of a girl riding through Pripyat on a motorcycle.  

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/13/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 21% positive reviews. Metacritic: 31/100. The reviews are pretty much all negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: [Rec]

ANTHONY BOURDAIN LOVERS: During a recent episode set in the Ukraine of his “No Reservations” travel program, chef/author Bourdain was taken to Pripyat and saw the amusement rides and vacant apartment buildings. There were no mutants caught on camera for the show however.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Mr. Popper’s Penguins

The Strangers


The Strangers

Liv Tyler is upset because housekeeping hasn’t finished her room yet.

(2008) Thriller (Rogue) Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman, Gemma Ward, Kip Weeks, Laura Margolis, Glenn Howerton, Alex Fisher, Peter Clayton-Luce, Jordan Del Spina. Directed by Bryan Bertino

 

Simple is better. When in doubt, stick to the basics – these things are true for just about everything, including filmmaking. Some of the most effective movies are the least complex.

James Hoyt (Speedman) and Kristen McKay (Tyler) are driving on a dark road late one night. They are returning from a wedding reception and the drive is made in silence. James had proposed to Kristen and she’d said no, she wasn’t ready for marriage. They are staying at his father’s farmhouse, and an awkward evening it’s going to be. He’s very hurt and she feels…well, it’s hard to describe.

Once at the house things are decidedly strange between them but it’s going to get stranger. He goes out for a pack of smokes. There is a knock at the door; a young woman looking for someone named Tamara. There’s no Tamara there, but the young woman insists.

Soon there are mysterious figures in masks lurking in the shadows. Strange noises in the night. James comes back and at first thinks his girlfriend is being paranoid. Then he begins to hear the noises, see the figures. Soon the stakes go up and the couple realize that this isn’t a prank – they are indeed fighting for their lives.

And that’s it. That’s all the plot there is, and really all the plot you need. This gives the movie everything it needs to become a horror classic which it had every opportunity to be. It claims to be based on actual events, although which events seem to be subject to debate; the writer/director says that he experienced the late-night knock on the door but the events that followed thereafter are pure invention.

However, the writer, Bryan Bertino, had no experience as a director (he had been a grip on a different movie). He may have been ambitious enough to submit this for a project to Rogue, but he commits the cardinal sin as a director – he gives the ending away; we know who is going to survive and who isn’t. In order to make the movie worthwhile, we need to get to know the characters, feel their pain and terror. Sadly, this doesn’t happen and it’s just a matter of an hour and change of waiting for the movie to end.

Tyler and Speedman are both fine actors, Tyler in particular. She’s certainly easy on the eyes but she’s not what you’d call a typical scream queen. Still, she doesn’t  do badly here; however she isn’t given a whole lot to work with. I wish she’d have had more; an actress with her skills could have really made this movie soar. As it is, she gives it a shot in the arm that it needs. Speedman has a more sympathetic character in many ways but at the end of the day we don’t know enough about him to really invest ourselves in him.

What I do like is that the main characters panic. They don’t act with cool, calm reserve and show hidden martial arts skills – neither of them are former Army Rangers or MMA fighters. They are two ordinary people in the wrong place at the wrong time. The people who are stalking them are doing what they do without rhyme or reason. We never learn why they decided to inflict the terror and pain on this couple; the only explanation we receive, late in the film, is that “you were home.”

There is no point here. There’s no grand moral lesson to be learned other than that bad things happen. Most of us are well-acquainted with that lesson in any case. I do like that Bertino and cinematographer Peter Sova make the proceedings sufficiently tense and scary enough to keep our interest for the 86 minutes (88 minutes on the unrated version) that the movie runs. Sadly, the ending is so disappointed (and the rumor is that the studio had a hand in messing with the ending) that we feel that we went through that length of time terrified for no good reason. And terror for it’s own sake really doesn’t do it for me.

WHY RENT THIS: The tension is well-established. Tyler does as good a job as any.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: We fail to care enough about these characters to connect. Ending is given away at the beginning, turning this into torture porn. The ending is disappointing.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s plenty of bad language and some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the film, “Mama Tried” by Merle Haggard is played several times. Haggard’s backing band for the song was called The Strangers.  

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $82.4M on a $9M production budget; the movie is considered a blockbuster based on its box office to production cost ratio.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Vacancy

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Paper Man

The Dilemma


The Dilemma

Jennifer Connelly is happy she isn't getting blamed for this mess.

(2011) Comedy (Universal) Vince Vaughn, Kevin James, Jennifer Connelly, Winona Ryder, Channing Tatum, Queen Latifah, Amy Morton, Chelcie Ross, Eduardo N. Martinez, Rance Howard, Clint Howard, Guy van Swearingen, Troy West. Directed by Ron Howard

The last place anyone wants to be in is in the middle of a friend’s marital issues, particularly if their friend is unaware of those issues. These things can not only affect your relationship with your friend, but your other relationships as well.

Ronnie Valentine (Vaughn) and Nick Brannen (James) are partners in a small Chicago engine design firm – Valentine is the sizzle and Brannen is the steak – but more than that, they’ve been best friends since college. Nick is married to Geneva (Ryder), who was friends with both of them back in the old school days. Their business and personal relationship works pretty well; Brannen is the engineer, the brilliant designer that is their chief asset. Valentine is the glib salesman, the man who makes the business run. In the way of old friends, they are comfortable with each other, knowing at all times how the other is going to react.

Ronnie, who has never really found the right girl, may have finally found one in Beth (Connelly). She is patient having put up with a gambling problem that Ronnie apparently has kicked over the past two years. However, he has balked at actually committing up to now. Nick and Geneva urge Ronnie to pop the question – a girl like Beth, gorgeous, sexy and smart (not to mention a top chef) – won’t wait around forever.

Ronnie and Nick are down to the bone on their business; they need a big deal or they’ll both go under, having mortgaged everything to keep the company afloat. However, help looks like it’s on the horizon – a meeting with a Chrysler VP (Ross) about a fuel-efficient motor with the sound and power of a V8 muscle car motor gets a tentative go-ahead…provided they can make it work. They are left to the tender mercies of a maverick executive (Latifah) who tries very hard to be one of the boys.

There’s plenty of pressure on Nick as the engineer and he has the ulcers to show for it. However, his little talk with Ronnie has prompted him to propose to Beth – and he has gone to the local arboretum to find the perfect spot to propose. While there, Ronnie spies Geneva with a strapping, tattooed young man – Zip (Tatum). They seem awfully cozy…and then when they begin passionately kissing, Ronnie is so startled he falls into a patch of highly toxic plants, causing his face to break out in itchy hives and for him to have “challenging” urination.

Ronnie wrestles with how to tell his friend about what he saw, but after practicing on his sister (Morton) who then gets the impression he was talking about her husband (Van Swearingen) he then confronts Geneva with what he knows. However, not only does she refuse to tell her husband about what’s going on, she threatens to spill the beans on a secret the two of them have been keeping since before she met Nick. Ronnie then resolves to inform Nick one way or another without telling him directly – and merriment (theoretically) ensues.

This is a movie with a terrific pedigree – an Oscar-winning director, two of the funniest comic actors in the business and two of the most gorgeous women in Hollywood. It has all the ingredients for a very successful comedy. It just isn’t very funny.

The filmmakers rely mostly on gags that put poor Vince Vaughn through the wringer, from having him getting beaten up (numerous times) to falling into poisonous plants to having him get bitched out by Geneva. I’m all for pratfalls and physical comedy, but if that’s all you got, well even the Keystone Kops had subtlety sometimes.

I’ve always liked James and Vaughn and they have enough genuine charisma and chemistry to carry things through to a certain extent – it’s just that they don’t have anything funny to do. That can be deadly if you’re making a comedy.

Now it can be argued that Howard never intended to make a comedy and an argument can be made that this is actually a relationship drama. If that’s the case, why establish expectations for a comedy by casting Vaughn and James…and then market it as a romantic comedy? You simply set up a movie for failure that way.

That aside, there are some interesting insights on relationship dynamics, particularly when it comes to honesty within a relationship. It isn’t anything particularly earth-shattering or even mildly so, but at least it tries to shed some light on the subject and I give the movie points for that.

Still, much of the movie falls flat and the attempts of humor don’t work. I just felt that the movie didn’t connect with me and I more or less passed time rather than enjoying it. That’s not really a recommendation for a movie at all.

REASONS TO GO: Connelly and Ryder are both very pleasing to the eye. Some insight into moral dilemmas.

REASONS TO STAY: The really funny parts are few and far between and mostly seen on the trailer. Vaughn’s character is so wishy-washy you end up wishing he’d just blurt it out and get it over with.

FAMILY VALUES: The entire plot has to do with sex and infidelity, although it’s never addressed in an overt manner.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While practicing for the “Shoot the Puck” scene at the United Center, Kevin James actually shot the puck into the net. While he didn’t win a trip to the NHL All-Star game, the extras all cheered “Chelsea Dagger” in his honor.  

HOME OR THEATER: Nothing here screams big screen.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Legion