POSTED ON OCTOBER 13, 2010:
Welcome to the Loony Bin
It's Kind of a Funny Story is kind of fun, while My Soul to Take is awful
Whatís So Funny? Keir Gilchrist (Craig) and Zach Galifianakis (Bobby) star in Itís Kind of a Funny Story, a light-hearted look at what happens when Craig checks himself into a mental ward after contemplating suicide.
I know there must be something inherently wrong about a film set in a psych ward that's so genial it makes you want to check into one right after leaving the theater. It's the sort institution that only exists in films. A place where all of the patient's quirks and problems never rise above being poignantly sad or amusing; a place inhabited by oddly charming misfits, as opposed to anyone truly, perhaps dangerously, mis-wired.
The sort of place where the administration and staff are deeply committed, caring and possessed of sage wisdom and a place where art, music and companionship nourish the mending of whatever psychological rift it was that put the patients there in the first place. I may be a bit of a cynic but a film as amiable as this makes living in a mental hospital seem like a relaxing, if strange, vacation. I really shouldn't like It's Kind of a Funny Story as much as I ultimately do. It's too pleasing to feel real.
Craig (Keir Gilchrist) is a 16-year-old whose squared-away life as a student at a prestigious New York high school has fueled a yearlong depression that has him dreaming about taking a dive off the Brooklyn Bridge.
Craig's parents (Lauren Graham and Jim Gaffigan) are caring and supportive, though his father is a bit too intent on molding his son into his own image. He marvels at his best friend Aaron's (Thomas Mann) ability to handle the same stresses in stride -- while he also lusts after Aaron's girlfriend Nia (Zoë Kravitz) -- which only adds another layer of disaffection to his claustrophobic life. Becoming fearful that he might harm himself, and of the ramifications that might have on his friends and family, Craig checks himself into a mental ward for a week.
There he meets Bobby (Zack Galifianakis), a (quirky and sage!) Bob Dylan-quoting patient who befriends Craig and teaches him the ins-and-outs of life amongst the ward's more broken and eccentric citizens. Craig quickly realizes that he's in over his head. His roommate is a depressed Egyptian who has been in bed longer than Charlie Bucket's grandparents. His neighbor is a Hassidic Jew, possessed of super sensitive hearing, who never came all the way back from a trip after dropping a hundred hits of acid. On top of all that he has to put up with Jeremy Davies' whispering dialogue.
But Craig finds he isn't the only disaffected, suicidal, yet completely fortunate kid on the floor, when he meets Noelle (Emma Roberts) a beautiful, wrist-cutting ocean liner full of baggage who Bobby helps Craig to woo, while Craig discovers his previously unknown gifts for drawing and Freddie Mercury impersonation. Renewed faith and healing are not far behind.
Adapted from the memoir by Ned Vizzini about his brief stay in a presumably similar ward, writers/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson) have crafted a feel-good character study that's a tonal opposite to something such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. No Nurse Ratched is to be found amongst the nurturing staff and the personal horrors of psychological dysfunction never rear their head in any ugly ways. Maybe this was Vizzini's experience but the narrative is just implausible enough to make it seem like a fantasy, particularly the leap of circumstance it would take to put two perfect for each other teenagers together in a ward full of dysfunctional adults.
But it's a nice fantasy buoyed by Boden and Fleck's straightforward direction and a couple of damn good performances, particularly Galifianakis, whose role as Barry reveals him to be a fine actor who is capable of far more than the weirdo fuck-ups he's played in The Hangover and the upcoming Due Date. I've been a fan of his heady, stream of conciseness stand-up work and I think I've made the argument before that stand-up comics make for natural actors (at least the good ones). Galifianakis seems to be further evidence in support of that. He imbues Bobby with a mature warmth and world weary acceptance that registers sharply in what is a surprisingly subtle performance. It's most recent parallel in breaking-type would be Seth Rogen in the criminally under-seen Observe and Report. Even there, Rogen was still playing to his comedic strengths, which Galifianakis mostly abandons here. It's an eye opener.
But he's not the only one turning in impressionable work as Keir Gilchrist ably fills out the other half of their unlikely friendship with a fine performance. As Craig, Gilchrist makes for a relatable guide through his heretofore unexamined life, as he discovers that his true calling and the girl of his dreams hold the keys to relieving his discontent--hardly revelatory, but still genuine. He shares a fine chemistry with DeVestern's damaged siren, as they bond over mutual affections for Vampire Weekend and The Pixies.
It could have been easy to turn against them (smart, wealthy, 16-year old white kids have real problems?), but despite their advantages, I could buy into Craig and Noelle's issues in a society that values constantly scheduled interconnected expectations from their kids as opposed to letting them just find themselves (to a soundtrack by Broken Social Scene).
It's Kind of a Funny Story is sweet and entertaining and so light as a feather it could easily be dismissed as nothing more than feel-good pabulum. But the charm of its performances and well-drawn characters elevated something I would normally dismiss into a film whose comforts and understated humor put me in a good mood through unapologetic force of goodwill.
Taking No Pleasure
Jesus, what happened to Wes Craven? The guy could never be accused of high art. In fact, quite a few of his works fail to stand the test of time and integrity. But there's a difference between consistently crafting entertaining schlock like The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare on Elm Street or even The Serpent and the Rainbow and squeezing out this reeking, bowlful of atrociously written, alarmingly inept shit.
If you can't tell, I hated My Soul to Take.
I hate even having to describe its hackneyed, road-most-travelled, story of a generically masked, knife-wielding serial killer -- whose name, The Ripper, is a mark of just how much thought was put into this hemorrhoid of a movie -- coming back years after his supposed death to predictably slice and dice a group of cardboard cutout teenagers one by one (with plot points and devices lifted from the first Elm Street movie as well as Scream). Let me put it this way: If you've read this far and still think you want to see this hour-and-a-half long lesson on how to steal $11.50 from the unsuspecting (due to the price of the completely pointless 3D) with a completely predictable movie that still manages to make no sense then you need to stop reading -- permanently.
Sixteen years after the death of a father of two (one child in utero) who turns out to be a schizophrenic -- possibly supernatural, the film never decides -- serial killer called The Ripper, the children born on that night gather together on the shore of a river (in a town called Riverton; way to try too hard) and reenact a ritual, near the burnt out shell of the ambulance he died in, that supposedly keeps The Ripper's spirit trapped under the pedestrian bridge and unable to possess their souls.
Adam "Bug" Heller (Max Thieriot) is chosen to symbolically face off against The Ripper, embodied by a guy in creepy mask and a cloak, who he's supposed to fight to keep the real Ripper's spirit from re-incarnating itself into one of the teenagers born on the day of his death. But the cops run the kids off before the ritual can be completed and soon after they start getting knocked off one by one.
Adam's a weird one to begin with. Obsessed with condors (reputed as soul eaters by Native Americans), and with only one real friend, fellow misfit Alex (John Magaro), he has a tendency to zone out and begin repeating things his friends have said, as if he were one of them. Sometimes he sees their ghosts in mirrors after they've been Le Morted off the earthly coil.
Not that you'd miss them, as poorly drawn and generic as they are. The absurdity of Penelope (Zena Grey), an uber-pious red head who almost seems schizoid herself as she flips between sounding like a normal poorly written teenager and a poorly written teenager spouting fire and brimstone warnings in Biblically florid elocution, had me pining for her date with a rusty knife blade (with lines like "When it gets too hot I turn on the prayer-conditioner!" can you blame me?).
Is Adam the re-incarnation of The Ripper? What dark secrets lie in his family? Was Wes Craven facing a huge IRS bill when he decided to crank out this borderline larcenous, horrible waste of precious life better spent doing literally anything else? I'd have been more entertained watching a loop of Geico cavemen commercials dubbed in Spanish.
So many of the films ideas achieve the feat of being unformed nonsense while being mind numbingly cliché that examples are too numerous to list, and I really don't want to bother. Written and directed by Craven, it's no surprise that this thing sat on the shelf just long enough to insure Craven could start shooting Scream 4 (originality strikes again). My Soul to Take's horridly lazy, boring and stupid writing, one-dimensional characters, and listless performances might have gotten him thrown in director's jail before he had another chance to give David Arquette and Courtney Cox an opportunity to earn a paycheck.
Normally I'd dissect these things a little more, especially if My Soul to Take had tried to be as bad as it actually is. In an R-rated horror film with plenty of blood and a couple of hot girls there aren't even any inventive kills or nudity to praise, a signifier that My Soul to Take is as bad as it is because Craven wasn't trying to do anything except keep making his mortgage payments. That just pisses me off.
If My Soul to Take were a comedy, Cop Out would finally be the second-worst movie of the year.
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