People Like Us (Alex Kurtzman, 2012) – Obnoxious, absurd, and sentimentalized to the point that could even Hallmark greeting card writers vomit, People Like Us wastes of the talent of the people who made it and the time of the people unfortunate enough to watch it. Right off the bat, the title couldn’t be more of a misnomer. I can assure you that no one who waltzes across the screen in this drivel is even remotely like you. Why? Well, because you have genuine feelings and emotions beyond those forced on you by a lazy writer who has read one too many books on story structure and is convinced that screenwriting is a puzzle that can somehow be solved by putting certain elements in a specific order as opposed relying on things like creativity, personality, or insight. It’s a pretty rough movie, drab and inconsequential with only hints of the complicated emotions that make a good drama.
Chris “Captain Kirk 2.0” Pine stars as a slick suited business type whose job appears to be fast-talking his way into bad deals for pretty well anything. We see him land a big career making deal in a quick cut opening sequence before instantly being put in his place by his boss (an inexplicably cast Jon Favreau) who tells him that the company being sued for fraud and Pine is in the middle of it. Then to complete the “shittiest day ever” arc, where the flawed protagonist must experience crisis before redemption, Pine learns that his father died. Over a weekend when he should be cleaning up the mess at his work, he has to fly back to California for the funeral. It turns out that Pine’s father was an absent, work obsessed music producer who he ran away from years ago along with his former groupie mother played by the always welcome Michelle Pfeiffer (whose performance is the lone bright spot in the movie, even though she’s rarely featured).
Pine is then told to visit his father’s lawyer for a meeting about the family estate, which he gladly runs to hoping to inherit a little cash to pay off his upcoming debts. However, instead he’s given a shaving kit full of $150,000 in cash to give to a woman named Frankie (Elizabeth Banks). He initially assumes that it’s some sort of mistress. Instead it’s a secret half sister Pine never knew he had, who is now an AA regular and bartender supporting a young punk kid (Michael Hall D’Addario). Now, the logical thing to do would be to confront the woman about their secret family relations and maybe even discuss splitting the money he needs so badly, but if that happened there would be no movie.
Instead, Pine gradually and secretly works his way into the mother and son’s life, warming up to them and finding a warm mushy center in himself through a series of good times montages (ugh). Oh and Chris Pine also has a girlfriend, she’s not really worth mentioning though as she has no personality beyond constant irrational support for her asshole boyfriend (he is pretty though, I guess that’s all that matters). Mark Duplass also has three scenes as a lonely security guard with an unrequited crush on Frankie, though why he’s actually in the movie will remain a mystery until deleted scenes pop up on a DVD some day.
It’s all pretty tough stuff to sit through, alternating between quirky comedy without the laughs and grating weepy sequences that will cause audiences back pain because director Alex Kurtzman is pulling so hard on their heartstrings. It’s Kurtzman’s first film as director, so he probably should be forgiven for such sloppy stabs at manipulation, but the odd thing is that his background is exclusively in whizbang genre fair like the Star Trek reboot and Transformers. Those aren’t great screenplays, but given the restless desire to entertain they represent, it’s a little odd that Kurtzman’s passion project would be so painfully dull. I guess he’s a children’s entertainer who secretly dreamed of boring adults all along.
The film is also the latest monument to the sad limitations of Chris Pine and Elizabeth Banks’ respective careers. Both are perfectly fine actors, but too beautiful to get a chance to show it. Pine can help but look like an action hero, while Banks has comedy chops and dramatic weight, but her model looks keep relegating her to supporting roles as stuffy girlfriends. The only dramas either actor will get without skyrocketing to A-list status are projects like People Like Us that have been passed on by all of the bigger stars before falling into their laps. Hopefully when they get older and pudgier, they’ll get some interesting characters to play, let’s call it the Alec Baldwin phenomenon.
Perhaps what’s most frustrating about People Like Us is that there are moments and ideas that could have been expanded into the compelling drama everyone involved seems to think it is. When Pine courts the family as if he’s a potential new father figure he is welcomed in as such with very creepy incestuous undertones, while Michelle Pfeiffer’s heartbroken widow has the secret shame of being responsible for breaking up the family years ago. Unfortunately, these ideas (and many others) are barely explored in favor of a slavish devotion to the cookie cutter “jerky business dude makes good” narrative formula.
The Blu-ray does have one gleefully silly feature where Chris Pine nerds out about getting a chance to film at his favourite taco stand, but two and a half commentary tracks (one with Pfeiffer is scene specific), deleted scenes and a blooper reel don’t add much. As for the making-of documentary on the disc: if you loved the film, it will tell you all you need to know and if you didn’t like it, this will help explain almost every reason why. (Phil Brown, review/Andrew Parker, Special features information)
Rock of Ages (Adam Shankman, 2012) – “So you think my singing’s out of time?/It makes me money./And I don’t know why/I don’t know why./Anymore.” – Quiet Riot, “Come on Feel the Noise”
The above lyric from the song that plays over the closing credits to Adam Shankman’s big screen adaptation of the jukebox stage musical Rock of Ages sums up 80s Hair and Glam Metal to a perfect T. A faithful, but ultimately unsound reimagining of an era, Shankman seems to get the joke that the Whitesnake’s and Poison’s of the world were admittedly kind of funny. He provides exactly what Glam Metal provided for audiences in the film’s musical numbers, but as an actual story with characters, plot, and actors, there’s not much to gravitate towards. And yet, somehow, it still feels fun at times.
Things don’t get off to a promising start in the narrative department with a mash-up number leading into an eventual cover of “Nothing But a Good Time,” but it’s up front sentiment still feels hackneyed out of the gate, as we’re introduced to Sherie (Julianne Hough), a country girl from Oklahoma headed to LA in 1987 to pursue her dreams of becoming a singer. After a rough introduction to the famed Sunset Strip, she starts a meet-cute relationship with Drew (Diego Boneta), a bartender at the fictionally famous Bourbon Room (clearly a riff on combining the Viper Room with the Whisky a Go Go), and an aspiring singer/songwriter in his own right.
While the film admirably lays bare that it has nothing to go on other than pure artifice within the first five minutes, the problems with the leads are never overcome throughout the entire film. Aside from being somewhat bland and being saddled with a romance that feels completely like an afterthought, they each only bring half of the their character’s total packages to the table. Hough can actually act and dance quite well, but every time the film makes her sing it’s positively cringe inducing (with the exception of a mid-film rendition of Quarterflash’s torch song “Harden My Heart” with an assist from Mary J. Blige that admittedly kills). Boneta, on the other hand, has a fine singing voice, but absolutely no real acting muscles. It might be Shankman’s way of elbowing the audience in the ribs to make them realize these two are made for each other, but when the film has to concern itself primarily with these two characters, it leaves a hole where the heart should be.
Luckily, Glam Metal was always about the actual theatrics of something rather than actual technical mastery of an art, so Shankman and the film’s three writers give a cast of real pros some secondary characters to play that allow them to really make something out of nothing. As the owner and manager of the bar, respectively, Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand manage to have some great chemistry with one another, and they have the only real subplot to have a satisfying and somewhat surprising payoff. There’s the aging rock God Stacee Jaxx, played by Tom Cruise with great, boozy aplomb, upon whose unreliability and eccentricity the venue’s future rides, and who has to contend with screaming fans, his own demons, and unscrupulous manager (Paul Giamatti), and a Rolling Stone reporter (Malin Ackerman) sent to document his final concert with his former band before going solo. There’s the Tipper Gore substitute, here played to the absolute hilt by Catherine Zeta-Jones who gets the best musical number of the whole film by covering Pat Benntar, and her Reagan-ish husband and soon to be mayor (Bryan Cranston, who’s good, but somewhat wasted here as he always seems to be in films) who want to close down the Bourbon for good.
There isn’t a weak link among the supporting players with all of them bringing their A-game to roles that might not entirely deserve the effort since they’re all essentially only play roles in an extended mix tape that even dudes that still own Pontiac Firebirds will probably scoff at. The scattershot tone of the narrative (which could be a problem with the stage version for all I know, since I haven’t seen it) makes the audience member feel almost like a drunk mingling at a party, drifting in and out of conversations so they only hear the good parts and the highlights. It also leads to the film’s identity crisis. It knows it’s a musical, but does it want to be an accurate period piece, a piss take, camp, high art, commentary, or homage?
None of it entirely matters because Shankman has adopted Glam’s style-over-substance edict, meaning that the musical numbers and set pieces are given centre stage here. While some of the songs quite dubiously explain the ways characters are feeling, the clear emphasis here are on the novelty and nostalgia of hearing the songs themselves rather than them actually being good. It’s hard to believe that anyone on screen is actually singing these songs since they’re autotuned to death, especially Hough and Cruise, who has his best sequence (an sex scene on an air hockey table while singing some Foreigner) somewhat ruined by his voice sounding completely unnatural. I know they are actually attempting to sing and that much like how Hair Metalers weren’t good musicians, Shankman purposely hired actors for most of the roles. With the exception of Boneta, Jones, and Brand the cast has to rely on theatrics to really get the point across, which, you know, really seems like the point. The scenes themselves do hold a certain kind joie de vivre in their depictions of beer and sweat soaked Bacchanalia.
The film’s main love story ends up being handled in as half-assed a way as possible, but in this loving ode to 80s cheese the onus is never on the journey or even how to get there. It’s on watching just how ridiculous it all looks and kind of equally laughing both at and with the movie. The abundance of unnecessary characters and plot points and the film’s knowing sense of frivolity sometimes go together like oil and water, but much like the much derided musical sub-genre it sets out to represent, it’s not without a shaggy dog kind of charm. And in that sense, it’s actually pretty entertaining for fans looking to get their leg warmers and leather pants out of mothballs or for anyone not willing to give the film a second thought. It’s actually pretty entertaining once you get past the awkward opening. And I don’t know why. I don’t know why.
One of the biggest problems with Rock of Ages was a running time of over two hours in its theatrical version, but that doesn’t get helped with the Blu-ray extended edition which offers a 136 minute cut that’s somewhat needlessly longer. The thirteen minutes of added footage doesn’t make the film any better or worse. It’s just kind of there. There are some standard featurettes and jump to a musical number navigation, but the real treat here is watching some 80s rockers comparing the film to the actual era it supposedly comes from. Not to shockingly, many find it inaccurate. (Andrew Parker)
The Raven (James McTiegue, 2012) – The faults of this repurposing of the life story of Edgar Allan Poe as the backdrop to an old school CSI styled mystery are far easier to overlook at home than they were in theatres, but the off key ending still adds considerable sting to a film that so deftly incorporates Poe stories into an actual mystery only to squander them at the last second in favour of hackwork that the master of the macabre would have scoffed at.
Arriving unwelcome in Baltimore as a washed up drunken prat turned literary critic, Poe (John Cusack) spends most of his time bickering with his editors about being pushed out of the local paper and teaching women how to write poetry for his rent and booze money. While the once mighty Poe seems to have fallen far, a locally based serial killer has taken to recreating Poe’s ghastly horrors and mysteries as actual gristly murders. The local police enlist Poe’s help to stop the killer, who has also targeted his new fiancée (Alice Eve).
Not a lot of what happens in The Raven makes logical sense, but it makes almost perfect narrative sense. Much like a lot of the real Poe’s work, this film lines up a trail of breadcrumbs that the audience has to follow to reach a final revelation, but that’s not to say that it’s dully handled. McTiegue keeps the action moving along at a great pace, and showing a visual style not too far removed from his work on V for Vendetta. Even when the film’s editing seems to fail him at sometimes the most inopportune of times, the film is good looking enough to shrug off some minor inconsistencies. That is until the conclusion, which can’t really be discussed without spoiling, but would be exactly the type of hackwork that the critical Poe would’ve looked down upon with utter disdain. The suspension of disbelief needed to go along with the killer’s style of offing people completely breaks down into something so unfathomably ludicrous that it’s almost comedic. Absolutely nothing that happens in the last ten minutes of the film could ever have taken place even within the somewhat fantastical world created by Livingston and Shakespeare.
Despite that, the film definitely has entertainment value, thanks in large part to Cusack who hasn’t had a role this good in quite some time. As Poe, he gets to get his Nicolas Cage on for a great deal of the film, without ever retreating to Jack Sparrow drunkenness or Robert Downey Jr.’s level of smartass eccentricity. It hits the sweet spot the character needs to have to simultaneously seem sympathetic and repulsive to the audience. Sure, there are scenes where he has to devour the scenery while shouting at the top of his lungs and he sometimes carries around a pet raccoon, but there’s something endearing about seeing Cusack doing something different for a change. He elevates the film to a level of fun, brainless camp that the wonky material needs and deserves.
The Blu-ray really brings out the stunning colours McTiegue captures through all the darkness, making it look even better than it did on the big screen. The special features, however, are a bit of a let down. The commentary track with McTiegue and the producers is really heavy on minor technical details, light on insight, shrugworthy when it comes to the history, and mostly just describes the action on screen. There’s 7 deleted and extended scenes that don’t add much and a behind the scenes featurette that tells more in 12 minutes than the entire commentary track does despite still not adding much. A requisite featurette on the life of Poe hits all the bullet points in quick succession and a three minute sit down between Cusack and McTiegue goes nowhere. (Andrew Parker)
Iron Sky (Timo Vuorensola, 2012) – It’s an idea so outlandish that it seems like something that was created as a cheapo tax shelter project in the late 1970s and it can be summed up in two words: space Nazis. The crew behind the ultra low budget and seven years in the making internet phenomenon Star Wreck follow up their last effort with a loving homage to 50s space films, 70s exploitation, and modern action cheese all wrapped up in a package that only bursts when the film adds a somewhat top heavy political message onto things.
It’s 2018 and Sarah Palin has been elected president of the United States. To bolster her numbers in an election year, she sends a black male model with no aeronautical experience named Washington only to have him discover that a group of Nazis has escaped to the dark side of the moon to regroup before eventually heading back to Earth to take over the world anew.
When the Nazis discover that new technology such as cellular phones can make their lives easier, Washington gets genetically engineered to look whiter and is sent back with a power hungry colonel and a young female teacher who has never known life outside the moon, and that’s when the movie starts to get messy. It’s already too outlandish to be taken seriously, and it’s too tame even by nazisploitation standards to be offensive in the slightest, but a constant shift in character alliances starts to become arbitrary as it leads to an oddly sermonizing ending about violence begetting violence that it never pulls off. It’s kind of like the humour in Idiocracy, only a lot more stunted and broadly aimed to only make Republicans look like Nazis instead of the real thing. Still, any film that remounts the famed war room scene from Downfall from the perspective of a PR guru and later jokes about Chaplin’s The Great Dictator as being “the best short film ever made” deserves some credit. It has starships fighting giant zeppelins during the finale, and that’s all you really need to know.
The DVD transfer sadly makes the really decent ultra-low budget effects look worse than they probably are, but the sound mix really delivers the goods. There’s a commentary track and a behind the scenes featurette for those interested in how a movie this cheesy could end up looking so good. (Andrew Parker)
Also out this week: Prometheus (review next week, arrived after press time) and Shut Up and Play the Hits.