POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 19, 2012:
Laughing for Different Reasons
A moderately sucky sequel and a moderately funny original round out the week
I've seen so many Resident Evil movies suck in more or less the same way that they've become almost endearing.
Not Naptime. Milla Jovovich stars in Resident Evil: Retribution.
Based on the venerated videogame franchise (which itself has become almost a parody), writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson was always a worrying choice to helm Sony's flagship games as a film series; Mortal Combat being a precursor to his inability to combine a compelling story written by him with his admittedly not awful visual chops. But, then, it was a Mortal Combat movie. The soundtrack was the best thing about it.
And it's not as though the Resident Evil games have been narratively cohesive or that they often make tons of sense. The voice acting is more wooden than a bamboo forest and the puzzle elements would never adapt well to film.
In reality, Anderson had a great palette to work from in crafting a killer story that could span many films. The combined narratives of Resident Evil One and its prequel Zero would make for a fan pleasing arc and a seriously weird movie.
But the films of Anderson -- be they directed, written or merely produced -- are a narrative pastiche even more nonsensical and pulpy than the games he cherry picks from, falling back again and again on his ADD, style over substance writing and the unintentionally (though I'm never quite sure about that) hilarious performances he culls from his actors.
Resident Evil: Retribution opens where Afterlife left off, with our hero Alice (Milla Jovovich) on an oil tanker full of refugees escaping the T-virus Apocalypse when the forces of the Umbrella Corporation descend with deadly force. In what seems like a neat twist, the opening credits replay the moments after the ending of Afterlife in reverse, a cool way to catch fans up on what happened last while setting up a compelling way to bring in new audiences right into the action without resorting to a graphics-laden, clunky, 4th Wall breaking, Alice-narrated synopsis of the last five films--oh, wait. That's exactly what Anderson does next.
Anyway, Alice is trapped in a super-secret underwater, Umbrella complex, where they test virtual reality simulations in mock cities like New York and Moscow, to gauge how the T-virus -- or the Plagas parasite -- spreads. Her former bestie, Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory) is her interrogator -- she was turned to evil by a weird scarab-like robotic crab attached to her chest (don't ask). Her amazingly flat line readings are the stuff of sublime hilarity.
In another don't ask turn, Albert Wesker (Shawn Roberts, somehow winking though sunglasses) mounts a rescue operation to save Alice, since he's finally come to the realization that all of the mutated monsters and zombie hordes spawned by the blatantly reckless and irresponsible bio research of his company, Umbrella might have the unfortunate side effect of extinguishing humanity.
Retribution is an apt subtitle since this entire film is just about getting Alice out of prison and to the next movie. And despite the ham-fisted opening synopsis, pop-up book characterizations, plotting that makes little sense and ignores its own rules and acting that sometimes tests the definition of the word (Guillory as Jill Valentine and Johann Urb as Leon Kennedy amusingly underwhelm) there's some fun to be had in Resident Evil: Retribution -- if for no other reason but how batshit the mythology has become.
Clones, Cronengergian biomechanics, alternate realities and mutated monstrosities almost distract from how blatantly Anderson adopts visual cues from Alien, Star Wars, Aldous Huxley and the video for "Billie Jean" to bring Resident Evil: Retribution to dully familiar life. Anderson gleefully swan dives into his own derivative style because, despite his mediocrity, he admirably wants to give the audience what they want. It's hard to really hate that.
Franchises like Resident Evil -- and to a larger degree Saw and Paranormal Activity -- have become the 21st century serials. Annual arrivals where one part of the story may end, but the ultimate resolution waits for the next installment.
Only now they're in 3-D and cost a hell of a lot more than 50 cents.
Sleepwalk with Me
Much of the same quirky charm that goes into the long running National Public Radio show, This American Life pleasantly manifests itself in Sleepwalk with Me, the feature writing and directorial debut from starring actor, Mike Birbiglia.
￼All Smiles. Mike Birbiglia and Lauren Ambrose star in the comedy Sleepwalk With Me.
You know the show. The pleasantly intriguing anthology of slice of life stories, hosted by Ira Glass (who serves as producer on Sleepwalk) tends to find humor in the oddest corners of regular life, commenting on the uniqueness of the human condition with a an almost palpable lopsided grin.
Birbiglia plays Matt Pandamigilio, an entry level standup comedian whose material isn't exactly lighting up the audiences. Dredging though open microphone hell, Matt's material is observational yet totally without edge. He spends most of his time bartending at the comedy club as opposed to honing his chops on the stage.
Matt has a long-term girlfriend, Abby (Lauren Ambrose) who is looking to seal the deal, though Matt seems clearly unready and unwilling to walk down the aisle. As much as he tries to convince himself to go through with marriage and ubiquitous normalcy, his need to do standup -- and her cloying supportiveness -- keep him from committing.
When Matt gets hooked up with a crappy agent who starts booking him on gigs, his ever far flung road trips provide an excellent excuse to postpone relationship responsibility. And when he has a chance meeting with Mark Maron (played ably by Mark Maron) he learns to ditch his milquetoast material in trade for jokes about his relationship reluctance and his odd sleepwalking habit -- which turn out to kill.
Sleepwalk with Me is a charming, pleasantly funny little film, and oddly successful at a genre that often meets with failure. Films about standup comedy as narrative -- the story of Sleepwalk is based on Birbilgia's one-man stage play, itself based on his life -- usually fall short in that the jokes try too hard to be funny (see everything from The King of Comedy to Punchline to Funny People).
But Sleepwalk charts a nice arc for Matt's character and his material as he mines his personal life for laughs. His epic road trip makes for fun fantasy wank for wannabe comedians, while his titular disorder makes for a few funny moments.
It's really the slice of life, nuts and bolts of crafting a standup act that make for Sleepwalk's most compelling and endearing moments as Matt's act develops from badly timed observations to wry, introspective and funny jokes.
Birbilglia is charming as Matt, and his direction for the film is a pleasing amalgam of pseudo-documentary and narrative fiction not entirely unlike that of American Splendor. Cameos from Maron and Kristen Schaal cement the films real life comedy credentials though it's really James Rebhorn and Carol Kane, as Matt's parents, who steal every scene they're in.
Funny, light hearted, and warmly pleasing, Sleepwalk with Me might not be the funniest film around, but, much like an episode of This American Life, it reliably inspires an undeniable grin.
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