April 17, 2014

“MacGruber” is a bomb, while “The Square” rivets with unpredictable thrills


By Sean O’Connell

MacGruber (*1/2 out of 4)
If Pixar and its animated output is Hollywood’s safest bet, then full-length features derived from brief “Saturday Night Live” skits have to be the industry’s riskiest gamble. It’s possible you’ll end up with a “Blues Brothers” or a “Wayne’s World,” comedies that extend their single-joke premise and expand the universe for their potentially amusing characters. But more often than not, you’re destined for an unimaginative dud like “The Ladies Man,” “It’s Pat,” “A Night at the Roxbury,” “Superstar” and, now, “MacGruber.” Why do studios continue to green light such projects? Russian roulette players have better survival rates.

The running gag in a “MacGruber” sketch is that the incompetent hero, played by Will Forte as a poor-man’s version of Richard Dean Anderson’s television adventurer MacGuyver, usually explodes right before he does something lewd or ridiculous. In a recent episode, a bomb MacGruber meant to disarm goes off right before he French kisses his grandmother (Betty White).

Without network censors breathing down their necks, Forte and his team (which includes writer-director Jorma Taccone and co-writer John Solomon) are able to show you how far they’re willing to go in a “MacGruber” sketch. It ain’t pretty. What starts as a smart send-up of 1980s action thrillers — with the deepest homage paid to Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo series — rapidly devolves into the usual, disgusting piss and shit jokes writers use as lame crutches. If MacGruber has his back against the wall and he feels he has exhausted all options, he’ll graciously offer to give another man a blowjob. In fact, he won’t take no for an answer. And when MacGruber needs to distract heavily armed terrorists, he strips naked and sticks a stalk of celery up his ass. Do these jokes make you laugh? You’re in luck. They’ll be repeated multiple times throughout this blessedly short “comedy.”

There’s not much to say about the acting in “MacGruber.” Forte’s his earnest, uninformed self, though he does affect an aggressive side when he stands off against Ryan Phillippe, cast as an all-American soldier and the straight man to Forte’s renegade. Phillippe’s presence kind of strips the usually funny Kristen Wiig of any motivation. She’s supposed to be MacGruber’s right-hand woman, but then she morphs into his love interest. She looks like she wishes she had funnier lines. So does Val Kilmer, who has a few inconsequential scenes as MacGruber’s arch nemesis, Dieter Von Cunth. His name is more titillating than the movie as a whole.

“MacGruber” skits are funniest when they’re prevented from showing us what disgusting violation of the natural law might happen next. We laugh because our imagination fills in the rest. Taccone’s feature-length comedy needs more imagination. It also needed to show us a lot less.


The Square (*** out of 4)
Every couple of years, a director churns out a film that you just know the late, great Alfred Hitchcock would have enjoyed. Hitch adored tweaking the audience with titillating thrills. The unseen twist was almost as important to the legendary storyteller as each film’s eventual outcome.

“The Square” has plenty of these twists up its sleeve, and they virtually trip over themselves on the way to a shocking finale that could only be called predictable if you happen to be as sadistic as director Nash Edgerton. A career stunt man, Edgerton transitions behind the camera with an impressive ease, delivering a seriously tense and stifling bit of paranoid, Australian noir that’s intricately plotted, passionately performed, terrifying in its execution and, at the end of the day, just sordid enough to make you feel dirty for rooting down into its moral muck.

Click here to read our exclusive interview with “The Square” director Nash Edgerton!

Ray (David Roberts) is a married construction foreman whose having such a good time sleeping with his sexy neighbor, Carla (Claire van der Boom), that the two decide to run off together. Conveniently, Carla’s abusive husband, Greg (Anthony Hayes), has an inordinate amount of money stashed in his office ceiling — he’s into some shady practices, as is just about everyone in the film. So the lovebirds concoct a scheme to boost the dough, burn Carla and Greg’s house to the ground to destroy the evidence, and live happily ever after.

To say things don’t go according to plan would be an understatement, and soon Ray’s mistakes lead him down a slippery slope of cover-ups and lies. Beyond serving as one of the most effective public service announcements opposing extramarital affairs, Edgerton’s “The Square” also examines how guilt and suspicion have the power to gnaw away at a person until their sanity completely erodes. Savvy, cynical moviegoers usually can enter a thriller like “The Square” and project the plot twists long before they happen. Credit Edgerton’s pacing, then, because he packs more than a few surprising jolts into his narrative, which is culled from an original story idea by his brother, actor-screenwriter Joel Edgerton.

What’s to be admired is how fearlessly Edgerton embraces the dirt and grime oozing out of “The Square,” manufacturing the guilt that’s produced when information is withheld, when lies are tossed around, and when the best laid plans go awry. Like the shape in the title, “The Square” has well-defined boundaries. And when you step inside it, you’ll feel restrained, and more than a little claustrophobic. But in the best way possible.


Princess Kaiulani (*** out of 4)
Plenty of films have been set in Hawaii. Yet counting Marc Forby’s stately “Princess Kaiulani,” I can maybe think of three or four films whose stories center around our 50th state. That suggests a wealth of tales that have yet to be unearthed by up-and-coming filmmakers … and they’d be wise to steal a page from Forby’s book.

“Kaiulani” casts beautifully exotic Q’orianka Kilcher (Pocahontas in Terrence Malick’s graceful “The New World”) as the title character, Hawaiian royalty forced to leave her beloved island community and spend years exiled in England. She meets and, in a predictable sidebar, falls in love with British aristocrat Clive Davies (Shaun Evans). But the pull of her homeland creates a rift, and Kaiulani eventually plunged into the fierce political fray surrounding Hawaii’s potential annexation by the United States government.

Compared to Malick, Forby’s deliberate pacing is downright rapid. His production values are exquisite, his attention to detail admirable. He builds a handful of narrative clichés into an otherwise riveting historical drama, perhaps to pander to patrons who feel they need sweeping romance or artificial drama in their epics. But anytime “Kaiulani” strays, Kilcher quickly recaptures our focus with her authenticity and magnetism. The scene of Kaiulani discovering the inner courage to speak about Hawaii’s monarchy before a hostile, foreign, American assembly isn’t just factually accurate. It’s emotionally moving … like much of Forby’s film.

About Sean O'Connell

Sean O'Connell is a nationally recognized film critic. His reviews have been published in print ('The Washington Post,' 'USA Today') and online (AMC FilmCritic.com, MSN's Citysearch) since 1996. He's a weekly contributor to several national radio programs. He is a longstanding member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS), and the Southeastern Film Critics View all articles by Sean O'Connell Association (SEFCA).

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