Archive for March, 2011
British comedy duo Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (“Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz”) team up with several SNL stars in the comedy “Paul.” There is a little something here for everyone, with a charming little green alien, silly adult humor and a legion of pop-culture references. The most successful accomplishment of “Paul” is its ability to use the sci-fi genre as a comedy without poking fun at the genre’s fans. Eventually the film reveals itself as more than just a sci-fi spoof — incorporating romance, intrigue and a road trip sense of adventure.
Lifelong friends and science fiction fans Graeme Willy (Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Frost) cross the pond from London to attend Comic-Con and visit several alien hotspots in the southwest parts of the U.S. They get more than they bargain for when stumbling across Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), an alien on the lam. When alien Paul – cleverly named after the dog his ship lands on — crash lands in the Midwest, the U.S. Government keeps him under lock and key to learn what he knows about the universe and — more importantly — lends that information to Hollywood (We learn that Paul is the driving creative force behind Steven Spielberg’s career, and that Agent Mulder was also his idea). When Paul discovers the government’s plan to remove his brain, he makes his escape to return to his home planet. After encountering Paul during his escape, Graeme and Clive befriend the witty yet crude alien, and the three embark on a cross-country road trip in an effort to return Paul to the mother ship. Characters encountered along the way include Christian zealot Ruth Buggs (Kristen Wiig, “SNL”), angry redneck Gus (David Koechner, “Anchorman”) and U.S. Government Agent Zoil (Jason Bateman, “Hancock”).
The film follows a familiar successful formula by director Greg Mottola (Superbad, Adventureland) with witty characters and one-line zingers embedded throughout the dialogue. The computer-generated Paul blends into the film seamlessly, unlike several of his predecessors (I’m looking at you Garfield and Jar Jar Binks). After a somewhat plodding exposition, the film picks up steam as a fun road trip romp with picturesque settings of the southwest and even delivers a few twists during the resolution. Pegg and Frost have superb on-screen chemistry and Jason Bateman shines as always as Agent Zoil.
The subtle pop-culture references are a lot of fun to unearth throughout the film. My favorites were a honky tonk country western band playing the Star Wars Cantina song and Steven Spielberg’s first feature length film “Duel” astutely located on a theater marquee. There are plenty more, but I won’t give them all away. Much like the character Paul, the film takes a while to grow on you. It is slow moving at first, with somewhat confusing character motivations, but eventually settles in as a traditional Mottlola comedy that is entertaining and good for several laughs. Oh, one more thing, don’t forget to bring your Reese’s Pieces — you’ll need them for the E.T. homages during the film!
Paul contains within it two movies, one of which is very good. The other is dominated by Seth Rogen.
Graeme (Simon Pegg) and his BFF Clive (Nick Frost), who insists upon introducing himself as “the writer Clive Gollings,” have traversed the Atlantic for the pilgrimage to San Diego’s Comic-Con, plenty of money for katanas in hand. Graeme declares it the most fun he’s ever had, literally, and that’s before the two head off on the UFO greatest-hits tour of the Southwest that crashes them into the path of Paul (Rogan). Like many space-dwellers, Paul isn’t a huge fan of the government, and thus hops into the pair’s RV to chart a path homeward.
As befitting any respectable road trip flick, the trio encounters a number of wacky characters en route, ranging from one-scene wonders (Jane Lynch’s truck stop waitress) to the fully-fledged love interest provided by the gawky Ruth (Kristen Wiig). It’s easy to see the sweetness that immediately endears her to Graeme, but several of the running gags she brings with her — a one-note crazed father and a knack for off-the-wall swearing — grow old fast.
Like Pegg and Frost’s previous big screen ventures “Shaun Of The Dead,” a slacker zombie flick extraordinaire, and “Hot Fuzz,” which takes the enthusiasm of Bad Boys and places it in a quaint village, the story is a love letter to its source material. Paul is a celebration of all things nerd, from obvious references (Paul asks for Reese’s Pieces when they arrive at a gas station), to the diet “X-Files” feel of Jason Bateman’s stoic FBI agent. And while it may be easy to enjoy the movie-lover allusions that pepper the film at a base “hey, I remember that!” level, Paul stays away from direct parody, to its credit.
Now, to the alien himself. Assumedly much of Paul’s humor is meant to derive from his looking like a prototypical extraterrestrial, while acting and speaking like, well, like Seth Rogan (whose mouth seems to have been creepily CGI’ed on). But the main issue isn’t the celebrity behind the character, it’s that this being, who we’re told possesses universal knowledge of everything, is a total blank. Paul provides quips galore, and a necessary (and temporary) wedge in the friendship between Clive and Graeme, but all in all, he’s the worst type of animated character — one who takes up no emotional space onscreen, never mind the pixels that make him show up.
What we’re left with, then, are lines that seem lifted from earlier, lesser drafts of Pineapple Express. Though he’s not physically present, Rogen’s essence permeates many parts of Paul, and while that’s not necessarily a flaw, it results in a disjointedness at times that holds the film back from the heights that “Hot Fuzz” was able to reach.
In honor of the thousands of college students heading south for spring break, I decided to check out the film that started it all for the spring break sub-genre: 1960′s “Where the Boys Are.” Most people probably think of cheesy 80′s films when they think of spring break flicks, but director Henry Levin set the stage 20 years earlier, complete with the sunny locale (Fort Lauderdale), the eclectic mix of vacationers, silly college hijinks, and the “crazy” guy with the funny nickname. The film cleverly begins with scenic aerial shots of the Florida coast while a narrator describes spring break in Fort Lauderdale as more of a zombie attack than a vacation hotspot, calling the onslaught of students an “annual invasion that turns night into day.”
The film is set during a time when casual sex was becoming more acceptable — or at least discussed — and the topic is a recurring theme throughout the movie. Four college girlfriends set out for sunny Florida in search of decent tans, boys, and innocent fun, but end up with more than they bargain for. Led by Merritt Andrews (Delores Hart — much more on her later), the foursome begin meeting who each thinks is the man of their dreams. Merritt falls for Ivy Leaguer Ryder (George Hamilton). Tuggle (Paula Prentiss) swoons over the goofy yet charismatic TV Thompson (Jim Hutton). Promiscuous Melanie (Yvette Mimieux) gets into a complicated romance with two men in the hotel complex. Angie (Connie Francis) is generally unlucky in love, but eventually finds love with eccentric jazz musician Basil (Frank Gorshin).
The film serves as a coming of age tale as the girls’ principles are tested in their new relationships. Merritt discovers she isn’t ready for the sexual relationship Ryder pushes for. Tuggle spends the week trying to figure out the quirky TV, only to watch him fall for an older woman. The mostly lighthearted film takes a dark turn when it is implied that Melanie is sexually assaulted by one of the men she has been cavorting with. With the film’s climax revolving around Melanie’s assault, Levin fails to recapture the previous feel-good vibe during the film’s resolution, leading to a somewhat bemusing denouement.
Watching classic films isn’t for everyone, though I highly recommend you at least give it a try (if you have not already done so). It is a wonderful experience to watch a classic and then research the film — learning about actors from past generations, the culture during the film’s decade, and all the fun celluloid tidbits you pick up along the way. For instance, the star of “Where the Boys Are,” the beautiful Delores Hart, was dubbed the next Grace Kelly. She was Elvis Presley’s first onscreen kiss, and well on her way stardom when this film was made. However, after six years in Hollywood she became a cloistered nun in the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in Connecticut, where she resides today. My favorite character of the film was TV Thompson, portrayed by Jim Hutton. I didn’t know this going into the film, but Hutton is the father of Timothy Hutton (TNT’s “Leverage”), one of my favorite actors of today’s generation. The quirky Paula Prentiss is extremely charming, and I found it interesting that she and Hutton starred in four consecutive films together — because they were MGM’s tallest actors (Prentiss at 5’10” and Hutton at 6’5”). Frank Gorshin, of course, played The Riddler in 1966′s “Batman.”
Once you forgive the film for the mistimed use of cheesy music and poorly lit scenes that go from day to night and back to day, you’ll enjoy a fun little trip back in time. Most of the shenanigans by college students are overheard on a police radio in a running gag, so you get more Gidget than Jersey Shore from the film. Credited with popularizing the trek to Florida for spring break, “Where the Boys Are” has certainly earned its place in pop culture history. While much tamer than its descendants, the film created the wildly successful sub-genre formula that is still used in Hollywood to this day.
The distinction between “lying” and “storytelling” is something that many people (my childhood self included) choose to ignore. Did I lie to you? No, I just told you a story. Stories are dynamic and fantastic, while being labeled a liar is a hideous insult.
“The Fall,” released in 2006 after four years of shooting, is an astonishingly beautiful lie. Story. Whatever. And given that it’s helmed by Tarsem (last name Singh, though he chooses to only use the first), a director with a background in commercials and music videos, it’s unsurprising that he’s able to create images so fantastic that the film had to issue a statement declaring that no visual effects were used in its creation. Even the opening credits sequence, a seemingly random occurrence that proves important later, is initially hard to decipher due to the distractingly gorgeous cinematography.
Set in a Los Angeles hospital “once upon a time,” which happens to look much like the early 1920s, two convalescing patients meet through a twist of fate, as befitting any good fairytale. One is Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), a five-year-old girl who currently has her arm confined to one of the most uncomfortable-looking plaster casts in history, the other is Roy (Lee Pace, of the late, lamented TV show “Pushing Daisies”), who is bedridden and potentially paralyzed from the waist down.
Their stories are not given to the audience, though bits and pieces filter through – Roy’s state is explained by his work as a stuntman for “flickers,” as he calls them, and a love affair gone awry. Alexandria and her family are recent immigrants, and we’re given the notion that they came to their current lives in the orange groves due to violence in their past.
But just as Alexandria would prefer it, most of the bombast is saved for the world that Roy’s narration builds in her head — here everything is saturated in color, there are swimming elephants, and a quintet of larger-than-life characters, all on a mission to assassinate an governor who’s about as evil as the Galactic Empire, or so it sounds. They include the ex-slave Ota Benga, an Indian widower, Charles Darwin (who wears a massive coat of red and white fur, because why not), and a explosives expert named Luigi.
To round them out is the Blue Bandit, who begins as an outsized vision of Alexandria’s father until she requests to have the part played by Roy, instead. Her role in the tale is vital and visual — if she decides that Charles Darwin has been searching for a magical species of butterfly, well, who’s going to contradict her? It’s her mind, so if Alexandria prefers to cast the characters as her favorite nurses and doctors, then so shall it be.
Digging a little deeper into the production history of “The Fall” reveals its own network of untruths and exaggerations — Pace kept himself confined to a wheelchair for months during the hospital sequences, later stunning the cast and crew (and his young costar) when he revealed he was able to walk. Many of the scenes between Untaru and Pace were filmed secretly and at a great distance to allow the pair to bond as their characters do, to lovely effect; several plot twists were added as the two built their own story.
Though the bulk of the movie is spent wrestling over the dreamscape’s plot, the hospital scenes between Roy and Alexandria are the heart of the film. The real world has a few less elephants, but the drama is just as intense and with more dire consequences. And it’s the ultimate mark of the movie’s quality that a sequence where a man emerges from a burning tree can be followed immediately by two people sitting in a sterile hospital room without the slightest downgrade in intensity. “The Fall” might find be memorable for its storybook imagery, but its core of emotional truth is what makes it linger in the mind.
Good movies about the television industry are hard to find. The 1976 film “Network” set the bar high, and 1987′s “Broadcast News” followed in its footsteps. As a ten year veteran of the television news industry, I was looking forward to Hollywood’s latest offering about the business in “Morning Glory.” Going in I had high hopes, based largely on a veteran cast that includes Harrison Ford and Diane Keaton. Those hopes were quickly put on standby, as “Morning Glory” ended up like many of its poor predecessors, focusing on fluff rather than substance.
Directed by Roger Michell (“Notting Hill,” “Changing Lanes”), the film follows the exploits of perpetually optimistic and bubbly television producer Becky Fuller (Rachel McAdams). Fuller is riding high as a morning show producer at a New Jersey television station when her position is eliminated in cutbacks. Desperate for a job, she lands the role of executive producer on the deteriorating national morning show “Daybreak” at the fictional network IBS. Desperate for ratings, she turns to a washed up veteran anchorman, curmudgeon Mike Pomeroy (Ford), to turn the show around. Fuller finds herself in over her head when personalities clash, the network threatens cancellation, and her personal life begins to crumble around her.
I’m being kind when I say the plot is flimsy, the characters are unlikeable, and the film’s portrayal of the news industry is unrealistic. The plot has a feel-good predictability to it when Fuller, an unknown producer, somehow lands a job as a national network executive producer. It all goes downhill from there once she actually shows up for work. On her first day on the job, Fuller makes a statement by firing an unpopular and uncooperative anchor, only to replace him with the similarly hostile Pomeroy. She spends the rest of the film trying to appease Pomeroy, rather than doing the job she was hired her to do, which is improve the show. When Pomeroy goes against Fuller’s will and actually breaks a newsworthy story live, Fuller for some inexplicable reason receives all the credit. The cast and crew of the failing morning show constantly complain about their fourth place rating, but do absolutley nothing to improve the show. Any shot the film has at verisimilitude is lost when the news crew literally jumps out of a van and magically goes live with no setup or satellite truck.
The strong veteran cast couldn’t save this film. Ford’s talents are wasted thanks to a flat character in Pomeroy with a dry, monotone delivery. Pomeroy’s co-anchor Colleen Peck (Keaton) spends all 107 minutes of the film bickering with co-workers. McAdams is a great choice for the enthusiastic protagonist, yet her repetitive shortsighted and questionable decision making quickly wears thin on the audience. The only likeable characters — Fuller’s love interest Adam (Patrick Wilson — “Watchmen”) and fellow producer Lenny (John Pankow — “Mad About You”) — are extremely flat and play minor roles in the film. As an audience we are supposed to relate to and root for the film’s protagonist. Fuller comes off as a tad whiny, ditzy, and not fully prepared to be working in network news. At one point she argues that the viewers want entertainment over news, and tha is what she is prepared to give them. Remind me never to tune into “IBS” for coverage of any serious issues facing the world today.
The film briefly touches on the blurring of the line between news and entertainment, featuring a young producer focused on the entertainment side of news and a veteran journalist who feels the golden years of the industry have passed him by. Given the talent at their disposal in Ford and Keaton, it is a somewhat puzzling decision that the film instead focuses on the ditzy morning producer trying to corral all the personalities in the newsroom. Even for a fluff comedy it misses the mark due to misused actors, a silly plot, and a protagonist you don’t find invested in. In today’s reality of news becoming “infotainment,” there was plenty of fodder available for the screenwriters to make this a lighthearted drama with real substance. Unfortunately they chose to go the route of the bobble head comedy, devoid of any real acumen or depth.
The issue of female professionals has long been a well of plot opportunities for comedic films – from “The Proposal” to “Knocked Up,” highly ambitious women are typically coded as ice queens, wound as tight as piano wire. If only something—someone—could intervene in their grim, lonely lives and show them the romance they’ve been dreaming of all along. “Morning Glory” is the latest in this line. While it thankfully doesn’t come down so strictly on its protagonist, it does include the constant “love of a good man” trope, to the detriment of an otherwise pleasant vehicle for a talented cast.
Becky Fuller (Rachel McAdams, a ray of sunshine on uppers), is introduced in the movie’s opening scene as a consummate workaholic, a trait that is apparently a horrifying turn-off to a potential date. To top it off, Becky is a journalist, that breed of person already unwilling to engage with their non-work life (or so the movies have told us) – after all, the news never quits.
Indeed, she has her work cut out for her, both at her initial gig doing production of a small-time morning broadcast show (starting her day at 4 a.m.), and upon her being recruited for “Daybreak,” which currently sits behind “Good Morning America,” “The Early Show,” and any number of other fictional TV network programs at the bottom of the heap. Becky proves herself as someone willing to take significant risks—including firing 50% of the on-air talent at her first pitch meeting.
Enter Harrison Ford, remaining well in his wheelhouse of gravelly-voiced cranks, as Mike Pomeroy, a formerly-great broadcast reporter who still hangs out with Dan Rather for a drink now and then. Due to a contract stipulation—contract details are always so useful in stories like these—he reluctantly agrees to join the “Daybreak” team, currently consisting of a goofy weatherman, a barely-literate celebrity reporter, and Colleen Peck (Diane Keaton), who can generate morning pleasantness mere seconds after verbally incinerating Becky on her first day.
Sadly, McAdams has to spend a fair amount of time attempting to create chemistry with fellow newsman Patrick Wilson, who has consistently proven himself to be as alluring as drywall. Her true relationship is the one generated with Ford, and while the plot leaves the characterization of both McAdams and Ford motionless for too long, the pair are able to sell this. Ford in particular manages to capture the needed blend of sentimentality and gruffness, though at times he sounds like he’s challenging Christian Bale’s Batman to a hoarse-off.
The extreme dearth of Diane Keaton is perhaps the film’s largest misstep. 90 minutes of the sarcastic back-and-forth between Colleen and Mike would make a fine film in and of itself. McAdams, meanwhile, continues to assert her status among the finer young(ish) actors at work today. The story may be predictable, and a continuation of an already — irritating gender trend. But, much like “Daybreak” itself, the true successes come from the repartee of the on-screen talent.
“City of Angels” meets “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” in this week’s review of “The Adjustment Bureau.” The film is being dubbed a romantic thriller, and while it does tell a love story, it ultimately theorizes on the issue of free will. Veteran screenwriter George Nolfi makes an impressive directorial debut thanks in part to a notable performance by Matt Damon. This isn’t the first time the duo has teamed up to make cinema magic – Nolfi was a co-screenplay writer on “The Bourne Ultimatum.” Now behind the camera, Nolfi brings the same chaotic energy from the Bourne series to “The Adjustment Bureau.”
Charismatic congressman David Norris (Damon) fills the void in his life with a busy life of politics, but a chance encounter with dancer Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt) turns everything he knows upside down. After repeat run-ins with Sellas, Norris is convinced it is fate, but a higher power has other plans. The Adjustment Bureau – an organization meant to keep things running “according to plan” — steps in to keep the two apart, declaring they have other plans for Norris. Despite the efforts of the Bureau, Norris finds Sellas after a search that lasts several years, determined to eschew the destiny that has been set for him and instead write his own future — one that includes the woman he loves.
The love story works thanks in part to tremendous chemistry between Damon and Blunt. It is a bit hokey at first, as the self-made Norris seems to mope for three long years while searching for someone he barely knows, something that comes off extremely out of character. Yet once the couple reunites, the sparks fly. Nolfi wisely leaves out typical gratuitous sex scenes, opting instead for the subtleties of a long awaited lingering kiss — a moment so important it is warned by the Bureau that “if they kiss, it all changes.” Having first met my future wife in grade school and finally confessing my life-long crush to her eighteen years later on a very serendipitous night myself, I could easily relate to the love at first sight relationship shared by the couple in the film.
The architecture of the world inside “The Adjustment Bureau” is brilliant. Nolfi constructs God and his angels as a modern day corporation, with God cleverly referred to as the “chairman.” The film is set in New York City, and the angels use doors throughout the city to move through space, able to cross miles with the single step through a doorway. The plot moves quickly, revealing additional details about the Bureau as it unfolds. Little about the Bureau is known at first, making it a bit frustrating as it serves as the film’s antagonist, but in due time all is revealed. “The Adjustment Bureau” plays out like an inner-city cat and mouse game between a omnipotent deity and a cantankerous mortal soul. You do, however, find yourself questioning the motives of God in the film, as he employs somewhat bumbling angels and seems to have a habit of changing the master plan on the fly.
The film is a lighthearted hypothesis about destiny and free will, and leaves the audience questioning the random moments of life. As one of the angels explains the seemingly inconsequential moments in life to Norris, such as the occasional stumble or the spilling of coffee, “sometimes it’s chance…sometimes it’s us.” It was a surprisingly humorous and action-packed love story that lived up to the billing of a romantic thriller – a hybrid genre I didn’t realize existed until now. It offers a fresh, stylistic take on the butterfly effect and examines the ripple effect our actions may have on the rest of the world around us.
“The Adjustment Bureau” is a solid piece of entertainment – it’s too bad the PR people for the film seem to be trying their hardest to cover that up. From a bland title to a lackluster tag line (“Fight for your fate,” snore), the zing of energy is absent. While this makes watching the movie itself a pleasant surprise, I worry that the greyscale snooze of an ad campaign may result in few people getting to experience that surprise for themselves. Still, whatever the weekend grosses may prove, “The Adjustment Bureau” brings a somewhat lofty premise down to Earth quite well.
David (Matt Damon), an aspiring politician, runs into the intriguing dancer Elise (Emily Blunt, finally getting the sort of leading roles she deserves) twice by happy coincidence Of course, we are quickly informed that in fact, coincidence doesn’t exist — what the two lovers consider a twist of fate is seen by a group of shadowy, fedora-wearing men as a severe mistake in The Plan (capital letters most certainly implied). It’s then up to two of these overseers — “adjusters,” as the film’s lexicon terms them. After pulling David out of his usual reality and revealing their vast network of intricately planned “accidents,” a team (most notably John Slattery and the always-excellent Anthony Mackie) declares that the reencounter with Elise was an error of the highest order, and the two should be forever separated. Well, you know what happens when you tell a pair of crazy kids in love something like that.
Matt Damon is one of a number of actors lucky enough to possess that invaluable quality of likeability. (George Clooney might be the exemplar of this sect.) So when “The Adjustment Bureau” opens with a montage of his character gladhanding among New York citizens in a bid for the Senate, it seems natural to see him in front of adoring crowds. Using the reasoning that David and Elise are “destined” often seems a cop-out, but Blunt and Damon have the kind of cheeky chemistry that makes an audience agree with an idea like fate if only to keep these characters onscreen together for a while longer.
The themes of predestination and free will have always run rampant in the writing of Philip K. Dick, the futuristic writer from which “The Adjustment Bureau” draws its plot (“Minority Report” and “Blade Runner” can also thank him for their stories). Here, though, his musings are brought to life in a decidedly romantic fashion by writer/director George Nolfi (in a directing debut, having formerly penned both “Ocean’s Twelve” and “The Bourne Ultimatum”), and the story is improved because of it.
Rather than remain in the mechanized world of several other Dick adaptations, Nolfi’s script is unafraid to bring an element of spirituality to his “adjusters,” who admit that they’ve sometimes been referred to as “angels.” He’s wise to leave this vague — ten to one, the ideas the audience will infer will be more meaningful than anything a throwaway dialogue exchange could ever be. And while there are other areas of plot that could be improved with more detail — the ins-and-outs of Elise’s life, to name a notable example — “The Adjustment Bureau” is able to balance itself between the worlds of sci-fi and swoony philosophy, getting the best of both.