A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 485 – Death at a Funeral (2010)

Death at a Funeral (2010) – June 28th, 2011

Back when we first watched the original version of this movie we really didn’t know what we were going to see. And then we loved it! But at the time I recall thinking that the style of humor and the way it was presented was so very British, I couldn’t imagine how it would play if redone with an American cast. So we figured hey, why not check it out and see? So we bought this and then we put it in our collection and didn’t watch it and didn’t watch it. No particular reason. We just always seemed to pick something else. But I admit, I’d been really curious.

I do find it slightly odd that this movie even got made, mostly because it’s not like the original was old or outdated or even in another language. There are no real barriers to an American audience watching the original aside from the British accents and British countryside setting. And as barriers go, those are flimsy ones. But then there is a bizarre habit on the part of US tv to remake British tv shows. They tend not to do so well. Witness the British and US versions of Coupling. Or don’t. Just go watch the first couple of seasons of the British version. It’s better that way. It’s a strange concept to me. That’s all.

But then I grew up on British television. British comedy, specifically. American sitcoms just never appealed to me the same way. So I probably never would have picked up the remake on my own. Without this project, even, I’d have likely left it on the shelf. And sadly, I think I might have been right to do so. I won’t say this was an entirely bad movie. It definitely has some fun performances and some great moments and it certainly captures the humor of the original in places. But overall I think it’s just plain trying too hard. Trying to capture the essence of a thoroughly British comedy with a thoroughly American cast and not quite managing to meld the two styles well enough to pull it off. So it just comes off as somewhat desperate in places.

It’s difficult to define the specific differences in style. The best I can do is say that the American version is far more blatant in its attempts at humor. So many of the jokes are spelled out and elaborated upon as if the movie doesn’t trust the audience to find them funny without additional prompting. I don’t so much like when a movie acts like I need to be told how to react to it. Let your story and actors do the job, thank you. Showing, not telling. I don’t want this whole review to be an exercise in comparison, but really, part of the brilliance of the original is how contained everyone is. It makes the explosions and outbursts that much more shocking. The humor is in the hushed tones and the build-up. I once read an interview with Patrick Stewart where he defined being British through an anecdote about falling off a surfboard and struggling in the water. Two other surfers paddled by and asked if he was okay and he said yes, hoping that they would understand that by ‘yes’ he actually meant ‘help me, I’m drowning’. And that’s how the original plays. In the US? We’d say ‘Hell no, get me out of this water!’ And that never happened here.

The trouble, I think, is that most of the cast, while excellent, struggled with how to take these thoroughly British roles and lines and perform them as Americans. Because this cast isn’t British and the story has ceased to be British, but the performances are still quiet and somewhat contained. Unfortunately, without the tension present in the originals, where a tight ‘I’m fine’ clearly means ‘I’ve got a dead body in the study’, that quietness just comes of as dull. And never in my life did I think I would be describing Martin Lawrence and Chris Rock as dull. There’s just no real spark there. It’s like they’re reciting the lines without making the parts their own. Like they were trying too hard to make the same movie as the original and missed out on making the remake special. And it could have been so much more.

The evidence for the potential this movie had is some of the other performances. Specifically, I think Columbus Short did a fantastic job as Jeff, the pharmacist who brews up a powerful hallucinogen that three people in the movie end up taking. Now, this is one of my favorite parts in the original but Short isn’t just rehashing the role of Troy. No. His delivery is fantastic in every line. He reacts well and he emotes well and he’s just generally fantastic. In fact, that whole subplot of the movie is well done. The main plot of the movie revolves around the funeral of a family patriarch and all of the horrible things that happen during it. His two sons, Aaron and Ryan here, bicker constantly over responsibility and money and jealousy and his widow belittles Aaron’s wife (and I’ll come back to that) and Aaron, who’s been taking care of his parents for some time wants to break free and there’s a hypochondriac friend of the family and a friend of a friend of the family who’s after the deceased’s niece and it’s a thorough mess. But then there’s a subplot about the niece, Elaine, and her fiance, Oscar, and how her father hates Oscar and Oscar ends up naked on the roof, totally hopped up on LSD.

I love this plot. I love every hideously embarrassing moment of it. I loved it in the original and I love it here. Zoe Saldana is fabulous as always and plays Elaine perfectly. I already mentioned Short as her brother, who concocted the drugs Oscar’s on through the movie. And then there’s James Marsden as Oscar. It’s a great role and Marsden does a great job with it. Every time this plot took over the screen I found myself paying more attention and laughing more. The cast for this subplot just seemed to bring their own takes on the situation and it works. The only detraction for me is Luke Wilson as the friend of the family who’s got a thing for Elaine. It’s a messy role and there’s this additional motivation for him where he’s not really after Elaine he’s after her father’s money and I get it, but it’s weak because it’s never really given much time. Ron Glass does a fine job as the father, but Wilson never seems sure of what he’s after so you never really get a feel for what he’s up to aside from bugging the crap out of Elaine.

Now, speaking of additional motivation, that’s something that was added to Aaron and his wife’s situation. And I actually really quite liked the idea of it. They’re not just trying to move out. They’re trying to start a family and have a baby, which has been difficult, apparently. And this is all introduced well and given a couple of good moments for Regina Hall as Aaron’s wife, Michelle (and overall I think Hall did very nicely with what she was given). There’s more there for the conflict between Michelle and Aaron’s mother, Cynthia. And Cynthia, played by Loretta Divine, is fantastically and serenely biting and grief-stricken, so the additional lines about wanting a grandchild play well. If only they played more. Because that little bit of motivation seems to disappear about halfway through the movie, like the writers forgot they’d introduced it. Which is how a lot of the newer material feels.

Overall I felt like this movie had promise, because it’s still a fun premise and a whole lot of what made the original fun is still in there. They’ve even still got Peter Dinklage as the blackmailer who shows up at the funeral with some secrets about Aaron and Ryan’s father. And he’s great. And Danny Glover is fun as the grumpy uncle and all the pieces are there and then some. But it comes together sloppily. Whether it’s the addition of more obvious joke lines or more motivation, the lackluster performances from the two leads or just that it’s really hard to make a British comedy into an American comedy, I don’t know. After watching it we immediately put in the original while we worked on our reviews. I really wanted to like this movie and I liked bits and pieces of it. But I just couldn’t manage to like the whole package together.

June 28, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Death at a Funeral (2010)

June 28, 2011

Death at a Funeral (2010)

This is a very strange experience. Since we watched the 2007 original version of this movie for our project we have watched it a couple more times, and we’ve come to enjoy it as a new favorite. We’ve seen it with Amanda’s parents and with some of our friends. We might not know every line yet the way we do with our all time favorite movies, but it’s fast approaching that level. As a result it’s very odd to see this American re-make of the film, which is scene for scene very faithful to the original.

I can’t help reviewing this movie more as a re-make than on its own merits. It’s so incredibly close to the original version, which just highlights the differences and alterations made to appeal to American audiences. Right from the very first scene it’s clear that although the script is virtually identical and every character is the same this is a disorientingly different movie. In the first scene Aaron is waiting for the funeral home director to deliver his father’s body for the titular funeral. In a mix-up that indicates just how everything is going to go wrong for Aaron on this day the corpse delivered into his living room is not his father. Now in the British version the funeral director admits his mistake and beats a hurried retreat. In the American version there’s a confrontation, the funeral director refuses at first to admit that there’s been any mix up, then he reassures Aaron that this sort of thing hardly ever happens – he’s pretty sure he knows where the body really is (it’s in one of two places) and then he thinks he’s lost his keys.

In my review for the original I said that it got much of its humor from the tension of knowing that some great new disaster was about to happen. This movie, by contrast, is a collection of great comedians all trying desperately to steal scenes from each other. Every line has to be a punchline and every performance has to be bigger and funnier. The end result is that there’s a feel of desperation to this film – as though it’s trying frantically to make you laugh rather than just relying on the solid script and the embarrassment of family forced together.

The plot is, as I said, almost exactly the same. Chris Rock plays Aaron, the responsible brother who has been living at home with his parents (in their enormous mansion somewhere just outside of LA.) His father has passed away and all his relatives and some family friends as well have come together for the funeral. There’s his hysterical mother, who can’t stop crying dramatically whenever death comes up in conversation. There’s the irresponsible younger brother Ryan (played by Martin Lawrence) who is a well respected author living in New York with money problems. There’s a pair of angry uncles, one a wheelchair bound curmudgeon and one a wealthy but bitter doctor. There’s cousin Elaine and her fiance Oscar and her brother Jeff the student pharmacist. There’s Aaron’s dimwitted friend Norman and his pal Derek who tags along in hopes of seeing Elaine. And there’s Peter Dinklage reprising his role as the father’s blackmailing secret lover.

What’s interesting here is that the biggest names in the cast are in supporting and generally unfunny roles. Chris Rock is very much the straight man who has to be stoic and maintain his dignity in the face of the madness surrounding him. Martin Lawrence plays his character as egomaniacal and sleazy, but doesn’t really get to crack wise much. Zoe Saldana, as Elaine, is probably the most level-headed person in the entire movie. Tracy Morgan’s character Norman is supposed to be bumbling comic relief, but his performance didn’t stand out for me.

Most of the laughs in the movie come from the many ancillary characters. These are my favorite parts of the movie. James Marsden plays the role of the anxious fiance Oscar who inadvertently takes a heavy duty hallucinogen instead of Valium. It’s the role that Alan Tudyk played in the first movie and both of them are hilarious in the part. It’s largely improvised I think, and they’re given free reign to go as mad as they want to. Danny Glover is the irascible invalid uncle Russell, and it never stops being funny to see him beating people with his cane and yelling at them.

It’s perhaps most fascinating to see Peter Dinklage performing exactly the same role as he did in the 2007 movie. It’s line-for-line exactly the same character (except that instead of a fancy dress party it’s pictures of a Dreamgirls premier that he has pictures of.) Even his costume is the same (only this time he has the beginnings of a goatee.) In keeping with the general amped up tone of the rest of the film he’s a little more insane when his character is high on hallucinogens, but otherwise it’s largely the same role. It says something about the impact he made in the first movie that the producers of this one couldn’t find anybody else to fill his shoes, but I’d imagine that it must have been hard for him to keep the character fresh.

I admit that I didn’t like this version of the movie as much as I did the original. It’s trying too hard to be funny instead of building that repressed English tension that made me laugh so much at the first one. It’s more zany and less restrained. My preference is entirely a matter of personal opinion though, and probably influenced by the fact that I saw the other one first. Perhaps if I were more familiar with this one I would have reviewed the other from a different perspective. As it was however although I got a few good laughs out of the 2010 movie and really enjoyed some of the performances and actors in it (always a pleasure to see Ron Glass for example) it mostly just made me want to put the 2007 one in when I was done. Which is exactly what we did.

June 28, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Clash of the Titans (2010)

November 9, 2010

Clash of the Titans (2010)

Aside from the title, the Kraken and some of the character names from the 1981 movie this one bears very little resemblance to its forebearer. I kind of thought as we put this in tonight that I knew what I was going to be watching. I thought it was going to be the same basic movie as yesterday, but with modern big-budget effects. In truth it bears more resemblance to the God of War series of games – but with a slightly less unlovable hero.

The core quest – to slay Medusa and use her head to stop the Kraken from destroying a city and save Andromeda remains the same, but all the motivations have been changed around, and the mythology is far crazier than even in the first movie. Right from the beginning it’s established that there’s some big conflict between the gods and mankind in this movie. Humans are sick of being playthings for the gods and have decided to just stop worshiping them. Perseus’ adoptive father Pete Postlethwaite says that men have “declared war” on the gods when he sees a giant statue of Zeus being toppled into the sea, but really it’s more like men have just kind of decided it’s too much bother all that burning sacrificial cows and whatnot and are kind of hoping if they ignore the gods that the gods will just leave like unwelcome party guests. Of course they go too far and start bragging about how they’re the gods now, which kind of upsets the big folks on Mt. Olympus.

Then things get even more muddy. It seems that Hades has a plot to depose Zeus by forcing people to fear him, thus depriving Zeus of his worshipers. It’s like the writers of this movie learned everything they know about Greek mythology from the Disney Hercules movie. I don’t actually recall much quarreling between Zeus and Hades in the myths. Most of the time it was Zeus and Poseidon (who here is played by some guy who REALLY wants to be Brian Blessed, but only gets about two lines.) Or Zeus and his jealous wife Hera – because he was always sleeping around with mortals. Hades was the quiet guy with his own entire kingdom to rule who fed pomegranates to visiting princesses or something. I never got the sense that he was dissatisfied with his lot aside from maybe being a little lonely.

Anyhow – Hades is going to release the Kraken (who in this version was a tool used to defeat the Titans who begot the gods.) He gives the people of Argos (which in this movie has not been destroyed already) the choice of letting their city be destroyed or sacrificing their princess Andromeda. Our lumpy hero Perseus in this movie doesn’t really care either way. He arrives in Argos all pissed off because he has just seen Hades kill his entire adoptive family in retribution for the destruction of Zeus’ statue – which they didn’t even participate in. We can tell he’s the hero because he’s the only man in all of Greece who doesn’t have tragically awful hair – everybody else has sort of dreded out braids but he has a buzz cut. Anyhow, he doesn’t give a damn about Argos or about Andromeda (who seems like a nice enough girl who is fully willing to sacrifice herself to save her people) and he’s not too thrilled to find out that he’s the son of a god. Along comes Io – who here is the scrappy female companion and romantic interest for Perseus – and she somehow convinces him that if he doesn’t get off his ass and make with the quest ting this whole movie is for nothing, so he becomes a reluctant hero and along with a rag-tag band of lovable caricatures who are clearly doomed he sets off. There’s the laconic old guy, the gawping new recruit, the bitter commander who only wants to spit in the eyes of the gods, a couple of local hunters for comic relief and a bunch of cannon fodder besides.

You know what? Who cares about the plot. The motivations aren’t there, the hero can’t decide if he wants to be a hero and has this complex about being just a simple fisherman, the entire conflict between Zeus and Hades seems contrived and the “romance” between Io and Perseus seems almost laboured. Perseus has absolutely no reason to want to save Argos so it’s odd that he just keeps on going through all these obstacles to do it. After the group on their quest defeat some giant scorpions in a big action set piece a bunch of undead Djin show up and I had to just throw my hands up in submission. Now it seems that this God of War inspired Clash of the Titans movie is throwing in stuff from the most recent Prince of Persia game – it’s just silly. After a while I just stopped caring about anything in the movie except for the action scenes, and maybe that was what the creators intended. The action scenes are fun, I suppose. There’s the scorpions and there’s Medusa, and there’s the climactic chase scene through the streets of Argos with Pegasus and a bunch of flying demon-things that have stolen Medusa’s head, and there’s the Kraken, which is big and breaks a lot of stuff. It’s nice to look at, I suppose, but when you don’t really care about anybody involved it loses some of its impact.

Ultimately I feel like this movie is simply forgettable. It’s a soulless effects laden summer blockbuster with none of the charm or heart of the movie it was based upon. It will be remembered mostly as a footnote. Its most memorable feature I suppose was that it started a sad trend of slapping 3-D effects onto a movie in post production at a time when 3-D was perceived as being the next big thing in cinemas. (Don’t get me wrong – I love 3-D movies and fully intend to get a 3-D television in the next couple years, but post-production fiddling is absolutely the wrong way to go about it.) Amanda tells me now that there’s a sequel to this in pre-production. I hope it involves an ash-covered bald Spartan and his quest to kill his father Zeus… or maybe time travel and steampunk robots – at this point I’d believe they’d throw in just about anything.

November 9, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment