American Reunion (B-)
U. S.: Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg, 2012, Universal
American Reunion is indubitably the best of all the American Pie series. Don't think I don't know how much that last judgment is a case of damning with faint praise, or praising with faint damns, or whatever.
But what can you expect from a franchise whose original premise consisted of losing your virginity in high school, with pies? In Michigan? The new movie, which probably should have been called American Pie: The Reunion -- this title sounds like a serious doc -- has brought back virtually everybody you might remember from the various Pie casts: from horny teen turned horny 30-something repressed hubby Jim Levensheim (Jason Biggs) and his even more desperate widowed caterpillar-browed dad (Eugene Levy), to Jim's four horny chums -- sportscaster Oz (Chris Klein), wayward intellectual Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas), bearded good guy schmo Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas), and the horniest of them all, the irrepressible Steve Stifler, a.k.a.. The Stiffmeister (Seann William Scott)
Also back for the blast: the guys' various gal pals and lust objects, including Band Camper Michelle, now Jim's wife (Allyson Hannigan), Vicky (Tara Reid), Heather (Mena Suvari), Jessica (Natasha Lyonne), and the American pie itself (or at lest its recipe) -- and it has all of them doing exactly what you'd expect from the third sequel to a sexy hit suburban teen movie. The one major difference: They feel guity about it. (Though not as guilty as you may feel watching the movie.)
It's not really a very good show or a very funny one, though it's not bad for most of the time, and it has at least one thing going for it: (Or four or five actually.) Reunion's writer-directors -- Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, scripters (and occasional directors) of the Harold and Kumar movies -- seem to like these Adam Herz characters and to feel some sense of responsibility to them, and to the fact that they've grown older if not less ridiculous. That doesn't mean that the five avoid doing the same damn dopey things, and getting into the same inane predicaments this time around. But at least they express a kind of remorse, or a vague self-awareness. (Everyone but Stifler, of course.) And the movie tries, not very successfully, to give them more credibility.
Anyway, there are two great characters in this movie, played by two actors who, I'm convinced, are the main reasons for the series' success: Levy as Jim's appallingly pseudo-hip and likably corny Dad, and Scott as the Stiffmeister, horndog in excelsis.
These two are as good -- or bad -- as ever. Here, Reunion takes Mr. Levensheim to a wild party and pairs him up (memorably, under the credits) with Stifler's legendary Mom (Jennifer Coolidge), who has grown up even more erratically than her son.
As for Stifler -- well, anyone who went though high school and/or college during one Sexual Revolution or another probably knows what a well-observed, hilarious, only a bit exaggerated character Stifler is. The other four of these East Great Falls High chummos are affable but fairly typical movie guys. Biggs plays (well) an amiable neurotic, Klein a leaden jock, Nicholas a glib little guy, and Thomas an over-imaginative tale-teller and fantasist. (Finch claims to have translated War and Peace into Latin, for fun.) We can recognize things we know in all of them, a little.
But everything about Stifler rings either true or funny -- from his omnipresent wild-ass grin, always somewhere on his face even if its lurking behind his ears, to his congenital madman squint, to his maddeningly no-brakes behavior and his flair for colossal screw-ups.
The point about Stifler is that, even though his work life is shown here as a failure (he's a corporate temp with delusions of grandeur), he's also the crazy-swinging comic engine behind the whole movie, the daffily good-natured, insanely uninhibited erotomaniac who makes things happen and has no shame. I knew some Stiflers. So did some of you. Scott nails them all. Or most of them, anyway.
Just the reintroduction of Jim's pop and The Stiffmeister alone is enough to raise a little indecent nostalgia in this movie. Or bonhomie, maybe. Not enough to make it a good movie, but at least enough to avoid it being an irredeemably bad one.
Casa de Mi Padre (C)
U.S.-Mexico; Matt Piedmont, 2012, Lions Gate
In Casa de mi Padre, Will Ferrell and some friends from Mexico, including those two talented fugitives from Y tu mamá también, Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal, make fun of bad Mexican movies -- especially lurid telenovela serials about obsessive romance and family intrigue and dark dirty secrets: dumb shows that rot the brains of couch potatoes south and north of the border.
Give Ferrell credit. He approaches the project with real De Niro-like determination, playing his entire part in Spanish -- a language that he had to learn phonetically. But though he does a his usual brilliant job of playing a vacuous dolt, the movie may be too dumb for its own good.
Ferrell, his beady eyes clouded in doltdom, the words chewing in his mouth like big juicy burritos of addled sentiment. plays the majestically foolish, buttock-fondling Armando Alvarez, a doofus virgin and a lousy rancher who -- as Ferrell imagines him -- is also being played by a lousy actor. Armando roams the range of El Rancho de Mi Padre, in the grandeur of MexicoScope, with his two dopey sidekicks Esteban and Manuel (Efren Ramirez and Adrian Martinez). These range scamps live it up vacuously, hiding behind rocks to watch drug executions by the evil fashion plate drug dealer Onza (Bernal), and engaging in dopey sidekick high jinks.
Poor Armando is disrespected by all. Armando's father, Don Ernesto Miguel (played by the late Pedro Armendáriz Jr., son of the John Ford stock company stalwart), thinks he's a buffoon. His brother Raul (Luna) -- who has returned to the rancho to pay off their debts by dealing dope like Onza -- thinks he's a lovable fool. His brother's knockout fiancee, Sonia (Genesis Rodriguez), thinks he's sort of a cute fool. Indeed, she seems unaccountably more attracted to Armando than Raul, possibly because he's the star of the movie.
The rest of the cast tries to match the El Dopo levels of Armando's witless histrionics. But, even though they're mostly Hispanic and can speak the language, almost everybody in Casa de Mi Padre acts as if they've learned their parts phonetically. They also seem to be trying desperately to keep from breaking up into helpless laughter as they say their lines. (You may not share their dilemma.)
The movie was written by Andrew Steele (of Saturday Night Live), directed by Matt Piedmont (of Saturday Night Live) and of course stars Will Ferrell (of Saturday Night Live). It's almost all in Spanish, except for Haggerty as Grizzly, and Nick Offerman as a villanous DEA agent, who seems to have wandered in from the Saturday Nght Live version of No Country for Old Men. It's all subtitled.
I've never watched a telenovela, though I've skipped past what might have been a few (they were certainly bad enough) while channel-surfing. But I don't think this is a very good idea for a movie -- even though the actors all seem to having fun, especially Haggerty. (Extras: commentary by Will Ferrell, director Matt Piedmont and producer-writer Andrew Steele; featurette; deleted and extended scenes.)
Silent House (B-)
U.S.: Chris Kentis & Laura Lau, 2011, Universal
Thrillers thrill us because they make us believe them -- even if we probably shouldn't. I didn't really believe most of Silent House, even though I wanted to.
It's a contemporary variation on the "Old Dark House" lady-in-distress thriller, based on the Uruguayan suspense film La Casa Muda (by Gustavo Hernández), and it stars the pretty and convincing Elizabeth Olsen of Martha Marcy May Marlene as Sarah, a sensitive and troubled young lady whose somewhat obnoxious father John (Adam Trese) and somewhat enigmatic Uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens) have joined her at the family's summer home, to clean it up and prepare it for sale. Also briefly present is a fox-eyed young woman Sophia (played by Julia Taylor Ross) who claims to be one of Sarah's best friends, though Sarah can't remember her.
It's an old dark house all right, even though the movie starts out in the light of day. The doors are locked and the windows boarded up, and the electricity is off -- which means, I would think, that they should put off cleaning to another day, or at least find more battery-powered lighting, But like many another hapless citizen of horror-land, these people just keep plunging into darkness and more darkness, and finally chaos and mayhem take over. The men appear and disappear, Sarah keeps screaming and hiding under furniture, and we're pretty sure Sophia will show up somewhere, along with the mysterious young girl and older man who are also lurking on the premises.
It's not in the least plausible, though it has some surprises -- implausible surprises. And some flashy technique. Silent House has been publicized in some quarters as having been made in a single continuous shot, which made it seem much more interesting to me -- though it isn't true. According to co-director/writer Laura Lau, as quoted by Film Noir Blonde, the movie was shot on a Canon 5D camera in 13 separate shots, and edited together to create the illusion of a single shot. It's a pretty good illusion, although some of the cuts -- the ones that take place, for instance, just after we're suddenly plunged into darkness -- seem pretty obvious. (Lau's co-director, as he was in the deep sea shocker Open Water, is Chris Kentis, and the busy cinematographer is Igor Martinovic of Man on Wire.)
Now I'm actually a sucker for cinematic long takes and extended camera shots, especially in the hands of a genius like Orson Welles, or the great Alexander Sokurov, who actually did shoot one of his films in only one take: the formidable single tracking shot moving inexorably along with our chatty guide, though the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, past walls full of paintings, halls full of statuary, up and down staircases and finally through a glittering grand concert and ball, with throngs of people moving toward the exits and the movie's end -- this shot was executed by the steadicam genius Tilman Butner in Sokurov's masterpiece Russian Ark.
The 13 shots that make up the illusory one-take of Silent House, on the other hand, are much less of a tour de force. But they do have their own hypnotic power. There's tension in Silent House and it comes partly from the fact that we're trapped in those shots, just as Sarah is trapped in the house.
On the other hand, why is she trapped? There's an explanation for Sarah's bizarre predicament, but it doesn't really kick in until the end, and even then it doesn't really make much sense. Long unbroken shots in a film can have their own special beauty, but they suffer if the content of the shot, as here, is questionable or just plain uninteresting. If Silent House were actually a one-shot movie, I think I would have been impressed enough by the technical feat to grant it a little foolishness. But it kept me in the dark too long, and those 13 shots didn't add up to one great one.