Film Threat Review: Hall Pass

2011
Rated R
105 minutes

*

One would think that after nearly twenty years spent writing and directing movies, the Farrellys would be better at it. They started out OK. “There’s Something About Mary” and “Kingpin” are consistently funny. “Shallow Hal” is practically a heartwarming story with a good message. They haven’t done anything noteworthy since. After their latest offering, a tragically humorless mess, they should strongly consider retirement. At its best, “Hall Pass” is a checklist of “outrageousness” including, but not limited to, public defecation, an enormous boner, a tiny boner, a massage parlor mishap, a catastrophic fart and frequent discussions about what one could and would do to various parts of the female anatomy. At its worst, it’s a puerile, if not completely misogynistic take on marriage. Despite the (squandered) presence of Stephen Merchant (“The Office” UK) and a handful of jokes that were likely improvised, there is no good reason to see this film. Be warned, readers: I’m about to get all Camille Paglia on your asses.

Maggie (Jenna Fisher) and Grace (Christina Applegate) are two long-suffering wives who decide that they are tired of being embarrassed by their husbands’ perpetual horniness. At the suggestion of their pop psychologist friend (Joy Behar) they decide to give Rick (Owen Wilson) and Fred (Jason Sudeikis) a week off from marriage to do whatever or whomever they must to “get it out of their system”. Never mind the fact that this would all be resolved if they just had sex with their husbands.

Rick, the marginally more mature one, isn’t completely on board with the Hall Pass idea at first. He has no say though, as the ladies leave town before they can discuss it. Meanwhile, an ecstatic Fred convinces Rick that it’s a good thing because it’s their turn to have a dream fulfilled. Their wives, he asserts, have had all their dreams come true. These dreams included getting married, having babies, and buying a house with a nice kitchen. This speech is delivered and received with utmost sincerity. According to the Farrellys, all women want to be pretty princess baby machines and all men want only to put their penises in things.

Unfortunately, these ideas aren’t entirely original. The Farrellys are perpetuating a long-standing implication that only men want to get laid while women view sex as either a soul-bearing experience or an inconvenience. “No sex after marriage” is the joke that will never die. But it really needs to. Sure, every marriage experiences dry spells, particularly if there are children involved. However, even with frequent boning, every person (male or female) in a committed relationship checks out other people and occasionally fantasizes about them. Anyone who claims otherwise is lying. This is perfectly normal, healthy and doesn’t mean that they love their partner any less. The wives in “Hall Pass” confess to each other the lengths they’ll go to avoid sleeping with their husbands from pretending to be asleep to complaining of lady problems. Maggie has mentally bronzed the moment she lost her virginity, claiming to know the month, day and hour it happened. Both women accuse their husbands of being unreasonably horny. But it’s not unreasonable to be allowed access to your spouse’s genitalia every once in a while. These women should be happy that their husbands still find them attractive. It’s not that wives owe their husbands sex. It’s that they should want to have sex with their husbands. Otherwise, why stay married to them?

The Farrellys have never been particularly good at writing female characters. They’re barely capable of writing male characters resembling socialized adults. Rick and Fred are detrimentally arrested adolescents while Maggie and Grace are humorless, frigid balls of estrogen. The women loosen up somewhat when they decide to utilize the Hall Pass for themselves. And the men do have one or two moments in which they make real, adult decisions. But it’s not enough. Simply having one or more characters ultimately “learn something” does not make up for gross gender stereotypes.

To add insult to insult, the conceit of “Hall Pass” isn’t even original. Whether or not the Farrellys were aware of “The Freebie” when they wrote it, the conceptual similarities cannot be denied. But concept is all they have in common. “The Freebie” is a thoughtful, emotionally honest look at the lengths an otherwise happy couple will go to in order to fix their stale sex life. They are friends as well as spouses so they discuss these issues honestly and maturely. It leads to them opening a very touchy can of worms, but this is an extreme outcome to a conversation that many couples have had. The Farrellys, on the other hand, took an interesting premise and vomited it onto the classroom floor. “Hall Pass” is desperately in need of the pink sawdust treatment.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

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Film Threat Review: Unknown

2011
Rated PG-13
113 minutes

**

It’s difficult to explain what went wrong with “Unknown” without giving away the ending. So you must take my word for it that, though it starts out promising, it just doesn’t deliver. I can’t get into details about the twist, of course, but I can tell you that the motivations feel pretty slap-dash and the subsequent events are borderline cartoonish.

As the film opens, Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) and his wife, Liz, (January Jones) are on their way to a biotech conference in Berlin. We don’t really know much about it other than he seems super nervous about the speech he must give and, as a result, leaves his all-important briefcase on the luggage cart at the airport. He doesn’t find out that it’s missing until they’re already at the hotel and Liz has gone inside to check in. Rather than take the two seconds to tell his wife what’s up, Martin decides to hail the next available cab and head back to the airport. En route, a random accident lands the cab and its passengers in the river. The lovely lady cabbie saves Martin’s life and then quickly flees the scene. Martin wakes up in a hospital four days later with no I.D. and a minor case of amnesia. When he finally makes it back to the hotel to meet up with his wife, he finds that another man (Aidan Quinn), claiming to be Dr. Martin Harris, has replaced him. Nobody he knows, including his wife, will acknowledge his identity and he’s ejected from the hotel, left to figure this whole mess out. Of course, he eventually teams up with the conveniently pretty cab driver (Diane Kruger), an illegal alien trying to raise the dough to get out of Berlin. They’re aided by a former Stasi agent with a dark past and a knack for getting to the bottom of things.

“Unknown” bears a striking resemblance to “Frantic.” For a while, it’s nearly on par with Roman Polanski’s film. There are grand shots of snowy Berlin and exciting chases through and underneath the city. Though it sometimes dips into cliché action movie territory, something about the European setting lends it an air of credibility. But, when it finally comes time to start explaining what the deal is, things get pretty silly. It’s as if they started filming immediately after they thought of the premise and forgot that they would eventually have to wrap things up. Once the twist is revealed, it’s wham bam thank you ma’am right up to the ridiculous end.

Also lending credibility are the performances. Character actors abound, including “Downfall’s” Bruno Ganz and the inherently creepy Frank Langella. Neeson seems right at home as the gentle giant in the inadvertent caper. (I guess this is just what he does now.) The only one who’s out of place is January Jones. Sure, she looks the part of the femme fatale, but a lot of people can wear their hair like Veronica Lake. I’m an enormous “Mad Men” fan, but I’ve never been seduced by the wooden doll named January. She may have Matthew Weiner fooled, but her juju doesn’t work on me.

A second bump on the head restores Martin’s memory (as seen in the trailer…settle down, anti-spoiler freaks) just in time for the face-off between the two Martins. This fight is inevitable in more than just the context of the film. Neeson and Quinn have had similar careers, jumping between Oscar bait, romantic leads and action roles. Quinn, it seems, is always just a step behind. It’s fun to see these two lads duke it out for top Irish actor in Hollywood.

“Unknown” isn’t exactly a hot Razzie mess. For the most part, it’s a fairly enjoyable addition to the European Amnesia Thriller genre. But it’s also quite forgettable, even if you haven’t experienced head trauma.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

Film Threat Review: These Amazing Shadows

2011 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL DOCUMENTARY PREMIERES SELECTION!
Unrated
90 minutes

***

The first time I met an archivist, I had little concept of what the job entailed. It seemed like they were basically librarians with less job prospects. Though there is some truth to that, “These Amazing Shadows,” depicts the brass ring of archivist jobs: Working for the National Film Registry. Archivists are passionate people. No one would work so hard for so little pay or job security if they didn’t love what they did. But if you consider yourself a lover of cinema, you know why they do what they do. Think of your favorite film. Chances are you consider it an indispensable part of film history. Now think of a future without it. “These Amazing Shadows” is an entertaining, though somewhat frivolous, look at what it takes to keep that from happening.

The National Film Registry is a department of the Library of Congress, which strives to preserve as many films as possible in their original format. It was created in 1988 as a response to protest by actors and filmmakers of Ted Turner’s colorization spree of black and white films. The registry initially named 1000 films for inclusion. Since then, they’ve nominated 25 films per year to be added to the list. The criteria are that they be “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” This can, of course, mean different things to different people and recommendations for the list are sometimes met with controversy. Inclusion on the list is a more prestigious award than an Oscar, because it means that the film stands the test of time.

“These Amazing Shadows” is more a love letter to cinema than an informational documentary. There is much talk about the magic of movies and how they enrich our lives; how they hold a mirror to society and document our history. There are tons of clips from indispensable films including “Easy Rider,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” You’re most certainly guaranteed to see a clip from one of your favorite movies and, as a result, much of “These Amazing Shadows” feels rather moving. But it often relies too much on the films themselves and doesn’t delve enough into the process of preservation. Sure, we get a peak inside “Nitrate Land”, the vast, climate controlled chamber that keeps our beloved films in pristine condition. We meet an archivist in “triage” as she literally tapes together the reels of a damaged film. We hear testimony from a couple of employees as they tell the story of getting their favorite movie on the list. But these are merely brief glimpses in between montages of famous films. Because of this, it often feels more like one of those commercials that studios put together to showcase their biggest titles. It would have been nice to, instead, follow a single film from nomination to preservation.

They also briefly touch on some of the more controversial inclusions such as the notoriously racist film, “The Birth of a Nation” and footage of the JFK assassination as well as films with cult significance like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” I wish that “These Amazing Shadows” had gone deeper with these topics. They bring up “Star Wars,” but only to talk about how it was instantly iconic. There is no mention of the fact that they sometimes can’t prevent the filmmakers themselves from attempting to ruin their original work.

Also missing is an explanation for why it is so important to preserve these films on celluloid. While I know that there is nothing so beautiful as an original 35mm reel of a favorite film, why work so hard to preserve such a fragile medium? Perhaps they should put some work into finding a more robust method of keeping these films alive. And what of films that are actually shot digitally? Are they out of the running or will the National Film Registry eventually have to update their vaults to accommodate them? After all, we fall in love with films because of the story, not the thing it’s printed on.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

Film Threat Review: Uncle Kent

2011 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL SPOTLIGHT SELECTION!
Unrated
72 minutes

****

Say what you will about Mumblecore. Though I usually enjoy it, chances are I’ll agree with you. It’s a challenging genre. Auteur, Joe Swanberg is known as one of its heavy hitters and his latest offering, “Uncle Kent,” is so textbook that it will someday become some film student’s homework. Shot with seemingly the worst camera he could find with no attempts to boost light or sound quality, “Uncle Kent” isn’t so much a narrative film as it is a fictionalized home movie. But because it depicts a pivotal debacle in a single forty-something’s sex life, it’s not the sort of thing you’d want to share with the neighbors.

The film starts out slow as the Kent in question (co-writer, Kent Osbourne) carries out his daily routine as a children’s show illustrator. He easily succumbs to the pitfalls of working from home including goofing off with friends, cat snuggling and pot smoking. These scenes are mundane because Kent’s life is mundane. Outside of the occasional party and an obsession with the website, Chatroulette, he has no social life to speak of. He claims to be fine with this, protesting to his happily married friend (Swanberg) that he enjoys the freedoms it affords him. For instance, instead of having a set dinnertime, he can eat whenever he gets hungry. That sounds so liberating.

Things start to get interesting when Kent invites a Chatroulette acquaintance, a journalist named Kate (Jennifer Prediger) in town on business, to stay with him for the weekend. Though she has a boyfriend, the sexual tension presents itself immediately. The frank conversation that is so easy to have in cyberspace ups the anty when they’re faced with it in person. She “accidentally” lets him see some naked pictures she took of herself on her camera. They demonstrate their individual masturbation techniques. They take pictures of their naughty bits for the benefit of other Chatrouletters. Though Kate is very game for this extreme flirtation, she always puts on the breaks whenever things seem like they will come to a head (no pun intended). As the weekend wears on, Kent becomes increasingly confused and frustrated.

Obviously, the only way to clear things up is to have a three-way with a young woman from Craigslist. In most movies (adult or otherwise), a three-way directs itself and the participants merely go with the flow. In real life, which “Uncle Kent” emulates perfectly, three-ways are full of fumbling and awkward moments. Things get even more awkward when Kent realizes this isn’t so much a three-way as it is two people having sex with one other person.

Though light on the action, “Uncle Kent” is a very rich film, full of quiet moments that speak volumes. Kent adds another piece of tape to the wad that is holding his car together. Lacking a proper guest room, Kent must inflate a mattress for Kate every night and deflate it every morning. In a tiny closet, Kent wedges himself between his bike and the litter box so that he can scoop up cat shit. He frequently documents his humdrum activities on a Flip camera for a reason probably unknown even to him. The whole thing feels painfully voyeuristic. Then again, with Facebook, many of us partake in voyeurism on a daily basis. We invite it. Voyeurism has become the new way to socialize. For people like Kent, who have little going for them outside so-called social networking, it suddenly seems rather pathetic.

However you feel about them, a Mumblecore movie will always leave you with something to talk about. Atypical plot devises aside, the characters are so credible and natural that you can’t help but project yourself into the story. These aren’t larger-than-life Hollywood models having fantastical experiences. Even a really good mainstream movie will never leave you with as many social and ethical topics as a Mumblecore movie. If you can’t relate to the characters directly, you can at least feel morally superior watching them do and say boneheaded things. And who doesn’t love that?

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).