With stoner flicks I always have to wonder how many of my fellow patrons got baked in the parking lot before the show. Granted, not many straight-up stoner comedies get a wide release -- or are shot in 3D. Arguably a first, A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas...well, it's really an invitation to burn one right in the middle of the theater.
For those not up to speed, the franchise began with what is still its best film, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. The story of two chronic-loving roommates, one an Asian business major, Harold (John Cho) and the other his lecherous, Punjabi, pre-med best friend Kumar (Kal Penn), White Castle chronicles their perma-fried and increasingly disastrous attempts to satiate their epic munchies with piles of tiny, steamed, goddamn delicious little burgers. It's the flick that made Neil Patrick Harris a mad, wandering deity.
The follow up, Harold and Kumar Escape for Guantanamo Bay (that Penn went to work for the Obama administration afterwards was a supreme irony; one that gets knowing joke in 3D Christmas) really cemented what was already a solid comedic pairing. The duo achieved a chemistry that could be compared as much to Laurel and Hardy -- sans fat -- as to Cheech and Chong. Where the first film capitalized on its concept, the second could double down on its leads. Cho and Penn became the loveable draw and despite the film's odd self-awareness, and the franchises "hit" and miss set pieces, Guantanamo made a raunchy, fine sequel. Again, NPH is the secret weapon.
So the very idea of a fucked up Christmas comedy with these three is something of a joyous pinnacle. It's always a series of increasing misfortunes for Harold and Kumar that always lead them to Harris -- this time with his own hilariously staged musical number and faux-homo sub-plot ("I'm gay for your pussy") that once again transcends his actual gayness, creating a classically debonair, pan-sexually uproarious God.
Calling All Stoners.
The latest installment, which plays its 3D to the hilt (i.e. see it that way), finds Harold has moved on from his erstwhile best friend to become a successful business guy whilst Kumar has sunk to the slovenly depths, stoned and moping over his exes -- both his girlfriend and Harold. They both have new, fairly ill-suited best friends -- Todd (Thomas Lennon) is the anti-Kumar, an uptight father, while Adrian (Amir Blumenfeld) is the anti-Harold, an outgoing, man-whore.
When Kumar finds a mysterious package on his doorstep addressed to Harold, two years after he's moved out, Kumar decides to deliver it.
Harold, now married to Maria (Paula Garcés) is trying desperately to earn the respect of her father (Danny Trejo) by having the perfect Christmas tree for a perfect, family Christmas. Of course, Kumar's arrival ensures that the perfect tree, grown by Harlod's father-in-law for 8 years, gets burned to a crisp. They have to replace it before Machete gets back from the Midnight Mass.
Along the way they cause major property damage; run afoul of a Russian mobster (Elias Koteas); are indirectly responsible for a stoned, coked out, tripping balls toddler; get turned into Claymation and wind up reliving a scene from A Christmas Story with a very different body part stuck to a pole.
And the results are as hit-and-miss as ever. Under the direction of Todd Strauss-Schulson, 3D Christmas haphazardly hurtles from one set piece to the next with varying success. Like Tenacious D In The Pick of Destiny, its episodic nature is sometimes wildly uneven, at times falling flat while at others scoring some inventive laughs.
The whole Todd sub-plot, with his increasingly drugged out toddler, stuck in the mobster's closet with Adrian is unfunny and borderline pointless. While inspired moments -- beer pong, the Claymation sequence, the Christmas Story homage and anything with NPH -- recall what made the series endearing, somewhat subversive, even occasionally smart comedy. In some of those moments Strauss-Schulson finds real inspiration and when 3D Christmas clicks it feels like a worthy sequel.
And while the 3D is used to neat effect -- like Bobby Lee's Platoon moment that substitutes eggs for Vietnamese bullets, yolks splattering against the camera like gore; or even Kumars Claymation schlong -- but it's the chemistry between Cho and Penn that keeps these films enjoyable over the sometimes bumpy comedic roads. That chemistry is still at work here, making the unevenness of the comedy go down much easier.
Of course, going into this under the proper chemical conditions wouldn't hurt, either. Smoke 'em if you got 'em.
It was before a screening of the great documentary about hip-hop pioneers A Tribe Called Quest -- Beats, Rhymes and Life -- that my girlfriend became semi-obsessed with the trailer for Take Shelter.
Understandably so. The brooding, atmospheric tone and the promise of a deep performance from Michael Shannon were masterfully brought together in two minutes and 22 seconds of a trailer with freaky looking storms and birds that act atypically. It had the vibe of Donnie Darko meeting David Lynch.
And Take Shelter earns that comparison; for better and worse.
Geeks love Donnie Darko. Richard Kelly's trippy, time-displacement teen angst ode was rife with dream lucidity while offering little in the way of narrative coherence, mostly to its benefit. The original cut of Donnie Darko is the kind of movie that you like because you like it. It established an ambiguity that the eventual Director's Cut destroyed.
With Take Shelter the lucid dream imagery is a tonal reminder of Darko but the ambiguity and essential inertness of Take Shelter's narrative falls short of the cultish, thematic depths that made Darko somewhat compelling. Time travel, The Apocalypse, Smurf sex and a custom-made Tears for Fears video? It's a hipster's wet dream.
But, while it shares themes of possible mental illness and fiercely apocalyptic imagery, Take Shelter is clearly aimed at a different crowd and crafts a different world.
Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) is a small town Ohio father and husband, working with his best friend Dewart (Shea Whigham) drilling holes for a small construction firm. His wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), has born them a deaf daughter (Tova Stewart). Curtis's insurance from work can provide cochlear implants that might allow her to hear.
But then Curtis starts seeing really, really weird shit.
Amazing storms with near alien cloud formations lurk on the horizon and occupy Curtis's lightning-plagued dreams; dreams that usually end in a loved one being harmed or even sometimes turning violent against him. Eventually he gets into a personal construction project -- spurred by the storms and the languorously flocking crows that only he can see -- to retro-fit the tornado shelter that sits on the edge of his pastoral homestead. Because a storm's a comin'.
Writer/director Jeff Nichols imbues Take Shelter with a lot of atmosphere. Working from his own sophomore script, Nichols (Shotgun Stories) has a wonderfully adept hand with the brooding tone of Take Shelter and also for culling fine performances from his uniformly good cast.
But story-wise the wheels spin. While Shannon is great, his character has no real arc. Curtis, slowly coming to grips with his possible mental illness is stuck in a loop. He works and has daylight hallucinations. He sleeps as he has unnerving dreams of terrible storms seemingly out to destroy him while his family lolls catatonic.
In between he walks around worried about his ill-defined future and obsessing over the tornado shelter. Wash, rinse, repeat. Sure, his circumstances breakdown along with his mental state, but the conclusion of the film almost completely subverts everything that came before it in a Total Recall-like attempt to get the audience to second guess itself. If there's a point being made about the state of the mental health industry, or the acceptance of the mentally ill amongst their communities, or health insurance affordability it's mostly lost in a repeating, though utterly atmospheric, cycle. Curtis's deaf daughter barely serves any narrative purpose at all.
Take Shelter could have lost 20 minutes of screen time and been better for it. But as it is the narrative thrust is dulled by its plodding length, despite the fine dramatic work on display from Shannon and Chastain.
The film looks gorgeous, too. Cinematographer Adam Stone shoots some beautifully composed frames, almost to the point that wind and rain -- there's plenty of it -- feel tangibly lulling. But as pretty a package as it is, Take Shelter holds surprisingly little weight.
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