Monday, March 31, 2008

Run Fatboy Run

Coming off his role as Ross in the venerable Friends series you have to assume going in that first-time director David Schwimmer is likely to have a skewed, anti-reality based comedic view. Run Fatboy Run (2008) backs that idea up. It follows the story of loser Dennis (Simon Pegg), a guy so pathetic that living at home at 30 would be a huge step UP for him. He works a part time job as a security guard for an upscale lingerie store 5 years after leaving his pregnant fiance Libbie (Thandie Newton) at the altar.

That leaving of her started with him literally running down the street in panic as the wedding party watches in stunned disbelief. The theme of Dennis running away from problems is going to be made as clear as possible, from the movie's tag line to the visuals to even the penultimate event of the movie itself, the dramatic marathon at the end.

Along the way there is an eclectic hodge-podge of characters ranging from best friend Gordon (Dylan Moran) to Libbie's new beau Whit (Hank Azaria) to the bizarre landlords Mr. Ghoshdashtidar (Harish Patel) and Maya Goshdashtidar (India de Beaufort), a lady we definitely need to see in more movies. Very easy on the eyes. Perhaps even easier than the gorgeous Thandie Newton.

Anyhow, the story develops with Dennis a klutz who forgets his keys, gets outsmarted by a thief, can't get tickets for a Lord of the Rings play while Whit is successful, debonair, handsome, charming, and getting ready to propose to Libbie.

Dennis realizes how much he wants to be together with her so, in a moment of indiscretion, commits to running a marathon in 3 weeks.

In the normal formula of events he goes through training, quits, overcomes obstacles, realizes his entire life he has been running FROM obstacles and this time needs to run TOWARDS things. Along the way there are a surprisingly large number of laughs and it has a typical feel-good ending.

Of course, that brings us to the interesting portion of the essay on something that caught my attention. I do a lot of pop-culture studies and one thing that runs through that field is the idea that every movie has a message, something people learn from it either consciously if they are looking for it or subconsciously if not. In this one the obvious thing is you will, at some point, "hit the wall" in runners parlance. For me that was always around the 15 mile mark and really have to push hard to get past it. But you can do so if you have the will power and perseverance. That message was a centerpiece and people got it whether they looked for it or not.

But there was another interesting theme, one we often see in movies. That theme is that men who are financially well off are, by definition, worse choices for mates than jobless, shiftless ne'er-do-wells. Whit cares for Libbie and the boy, he is a successful businessman, he takes good care of himself. Dennis, by contrast, smokes, considers a hundred yard dash to be a ridiculous amount of exercise, is behind on his rent, is in a dead-end job with no prospects for the future...yet the conceit of the movie is that Dennis is a far superior choice. It is not until he decides he wants Libbie because Whit has her that the golden-boy image of Whit begins to unravel. Once it does, however, we the audience KNOW Whit is not good for her and Dennis is based on the emotional response of Dennis being the protagonist. Thus we root for the loser to win and the guy who seems to be everything people look for in a spouse...financially independent, fit, caring for the other, in fact, a louse. They have flaws, you just have to find them.

There is a movement in movies to ensure people learn the lesson that finding a caring, well-off man is not possible. He will be so deeply flawed that no sane woman could or would find him attractive if she were not blinded by...well, something. It is a new take on the "damsel in distress" routine with the new twist that instead of said damsel being tied up and thrown on the railroad tracks, now she is besotted with love and about to marry into a problematic relationship. And the rescuer, instead of being an altruistic genuine good guy is a flawed pauper who generally ends up taking on the role of paramour and is himself rescued in a sense from a shiftless life to being a better person...though at times she simply realizes his worthless butt is better than the other guy, and generally for inexplicable reasons. Frankly...I find the whole thing rather offensive.

Simply having money does not make someone a bad person...and not having money or job prospects yet having anti-social proclivities such as smoking, heavy drinking, illicit drugs does not make you a good guy or worthwhile prospect. Yet the current trends will leak into the general subconscious, become part of the zeitgeist and cause unnecessary issues. Too much credit being given to movies? Well, I would argue that paradigm exists in television, comics, and a lot of novels. As someone famous once said, tell a lie often enough and it becomes the truth. I suspect it is even easier when there is perceived to be a grain of truth...

If you are expecting great cinema or classic stories you will be sadly disappointed. On the other hand if you want diversion for a couple hours with some poignant, thought provoking moments and want some good laughs, this might be your ticket.

And for the record...I really have no need to see further spatula-related spankings this year. So don't even offer.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Horton Hears a Who

Bringing a Dr. Seuss book to the screen is a difficult process. Much of their charm came from the delightful illustrations and more came from the rhyming prose. Seriously...would Green Eggs and Ham have sold even a single copy without the rhyming, lyrical nature? Would Hop on Pop get reprint after reprint without those awesome illustrations? I lean pretty heavily towards no. And bringing Horton Hears a Who (2008) to the screen was made even harder by having Jim Carrey voice not just a character but the main character, the title character Horton.

Carrey has, from time to time, turned in enjoyable efforts. Idiotic premise aside, Liar, Liar (1997) was actually enjoyable. Fun with Dick and Jane (2005) was decent as well and there were moments of Me, Myself and Irene (2000) that were inspired enough to overcome the insipid, vapid majority of the film. But overall to like a Jim Carrey movie you have to be into overacting, bizarre physical movements as comedy, and thinking shouting is funny.

Fortunately, the casting director realized this and to get away from the "it is funny because the actor is shouting" model they brought in Carol Burnett to play Kangaroo. (For those who never saw the Carol Burnett show...well, basically the joke was her shouting. No, not a typo...THE joke...there was really only one joke in the entire show run and that was her shouting. If you think people shouting is funny, go get a hold of the Carol Burnett Show. On the other hand, if you don't consider that a may not be your thing.)

As it turns out...Carrey may have found his niche. His voice characterization was awesome, the animated antics of the elephant were fitting and he was perfect for the part. His voice added to the role without becoming a distraction. In fact, the entire cast seemed to hit their notes perfectly.

Will Arnett, famed for his role as the inept, bungling magician scam artist brother on Arrested Development, provides an awesome characterization for the villainous Vlad. His sibilant, accented voice deepened the character.

On top of that, the animation was brilliant. It had that distinctive Dr. Seuss look and feel with bright primary colors, recognizable Seuss characters and bizarre contraptions/conventions. The story...well, the story is what it is, a delightful bit of childhood whimsy with some interesting digs at home schooling parents and atheists that will sail right over the head of kids but might smack the adults.

I went in with very low expectations and instead found a well executed bit of cinema. It was swamped in allusions to pop culture media ("Keep watching the skies!" was one of the most obvious but hardly the only example). The weaknesses of some of the actors were turned into strengths or else outright ignored and their strengths were amplified. The Mayor of Whoville (Steve Carrell) was a perfect vehicle for the low-key aw-shucks who, me? persona Carrell has perfected, for example.

In all it was a surprisingly strong outing in taking a difficult project and turning it into a delightful feast for the eyes of the animation enthusiast, a nice, good-natured morality tale for that parent set, and a nice foray into Suessland for the nostalgic adult.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Maltese Falcon

St. Helens has one of the older theatres still operating. When The Maltese Falcon (1941) was a new release it played in St. Helens. A couple weeks ago it did so again. And there was still at least one patron there who had seen it in new release! That was impressive. Even more impressive, they somehow made it into the balcony.

Anyhow, Maltese is a classic movie. It shows a good size stable of character actors at their most effective...Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet in particular...and has Humphrey Bogart in one of his more notable roles. As an example of film noir it is a must-see. The lines are cheesy, many of the characterizations weak, but it really stands out in the plot. The twists and turns are often unforeseen for the first time viewer and you want to see the Falcon, to find out what happened to it. And the ending leaves it wide open for a sequel, something along The Third Man (1949) line where the criminals are the heroes.

The story follows Sam Spade (Bogart) as he tries to solve the murder of his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) while dodging the police and also dealing with 3 groups trying to access the Maltese Falcon; the gang of Kasper Gutman (Greenstreet) and Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook Jr.) on one side, Joel Cairo (Lorre) on another, and femme fatale Brigid O' Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) on yet another with Spade being hired by Brigid.

Throughout the movie they spout one-liners ("When you are slapped you will take it and like it" snarls Spade to Wilmer), have melodramatic love scenes, and get to the bottom of a tangled web. If you prefer the acting of today you will not like it, but if you take it at face value it provides an entertaining hour and a half or so with a great finish that really shows why Bogart, Greenstreet and Lorre got so much work.


Remember the Road Warrior franchise? Somebody thought it would have been better with mass amounts of blood, some decapitations, some blood, burning someone alive, some blood, some decapitations, a weak storyline, some blood, some cannibalism, some blood, and some bloody decapitations. Hence they made Doomsday (2008), the latest in a long line of apocalyptic dystopian films serving as vehicles for political commentary.

Of course, in Doomsday there is no attempt at subtlety. Just to make sure the audience understands the political they have one of their politicos flat out say they intend to let the plague run its course to narrow down the population since there are too many people living in London.

So the plot summation is simple: plague wipes out Scotland, wall built around it, decades later the same plague occurs in London, survivors found in Scotland so combat team sent in to find cure while plague devastates London, team fights a lot, finds unexpected cure, gets it out of Scotland. Now on to the real review.

The people left behind in Scotland when the plague breaks out are victims. They were promised help. That help never comes. Now, normally this would position the survivors as heroes. They have all the earmarks of being heroes; they survive against all odds, they are kept as unwilling prisoners by unscrupulous politicians...however, in this movie they are just cannon fodder. Okay, fair enough. Who doesn't like seeing a few hundred outlandishly clad maniacs mowed down? So they provide the homage to the villains in the Road Warrior series with vehicles and costumes lifted straight out of that or out of The Postman (1997) or a host of other post-apocalyptic flicks.

Yet the heroic doctor who stayed behind to find a cure is no sinecure either. He has set up a kingdom modeled on King Arthur apparently with shades of Roman gladiatorial games. His band of killers is modeled on Vlad the Impaler, the 15th Century King who was the model for Dracula. It was pretty jarring having knights on horses roaming about, then having a one-on-one combat in an arena. So finding the hero of the piece only to find out he is ALSO a psychopathic killer and a villain...well, we were still looking for the heroes of the piece.

The British politicians are shown to have known A) there were survivors, B) there was a cure, and C) the plague would break out again. Yet they did not allow the survivors to be rescued nor the cure to be developed. Clearly they are not the heroes.

So in the end the only heroes are the small group who invades Scotland to find Dr. Kane (Malcom McDowell). Of course, all but 2 of them die, too. Eden Sinclair (Rhona Mitra) is the centerpiece as the story follows her exclusively as one by one she loses her entire team except one guy, rescues Cally (MyAnna Buring) for her representative survivor aka cure, and then goes back to lead the cannibalistic hordes.

One question the movie leaves open has to do with why they became cannibals. There are cow herds reminiscent of the buffalo herds that clogged railroad tracks in 19th century America. Why, then, were they unable to obtain food? Of course, this is just one of many ridiculous moments in the movie. For example, in a Scotland allegedly devoid of all sources of energy for 3 decades there are lots of cards running around, not to mention a steam train. Curiously, these vehicles that have been cobbled together and look like they will fall apart if they hit a speed bump are fast enough to keep up with a brand new, out of the box Mercedes which, in turn, is tough enough to drive through the side of a bus.

So the movie ends up being an excuse for lots of people getting their heads cut off, copious amounts of blood spatters in particularly gruesome death scenes, and a pretty entertaining if nonsensical car chase.

If you really want to see a great dystopian post-apocalyptic film, I can honestly give a strong recommendation. Of course, that recommendation would be to rent the old Road Warrior/Mad Max movies...but at least you get a recommendation.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Semi Pro

Will Ferrell has had a checkered career. I do not know if I just don't "get" his humor or what...maybe it is too sophisticated for me. (Insert eye-roll here). At times he gets into the slapstick which has seldom really amused me. I did not find the 3 Stooges remotely entertaining, for example. Jim Carrey at his best...the face-pulling, over-the-top antics, etc. just makes me want to hurl. And there are elements of that at times in Ferrell's work. Aside from that, perhaps it was just the subject material.

I was not nearly as amused by Old School (2003) for example as most of my friends were...but I can chalk that up to them having lived on campus whereas my university experience was primarily working 40 hours, then going to night classes, then home so I never experienced the bong-driven college party life. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) had its moments but is nothing I feel compelled to inflict on myself again, the eye candy of Christina Applegate aside. In fact, after Anchorman I was on the verge of putting Ferrell on my "save your money, do not see his stuff" list. But then came Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006) and my perceptions changed.

It would be easy to credit it to the source material...except I don't really get neck-car racing. I tend to be in the "mock them for turning left" crowd. I do not get...or care about...nuances such as drafting, setting up cars, tire selection, fuel me it is watching cars turn left. I just don't enjoy watching any sort of races.

No, the charm of Talladega Nights was in the story and the characters. It was a funny, funny movie with great, quotable lines. Even today I have the Shake and Bake confrontation and the his going off on "I hope you have sons...handsome, beautiful sons" while in the hospital as ring tones on my phone. He was back on the hot list.

He followed that up with Blades of Glory (2006) which, again, is something where the source material...well, let's just say I have spent more time watching NASCAR than I have watching ice dancing. Blades was pretty funny, though certainly not in the same class as Talladega. The ending veered back into his hyperbole arena for sheer outlandishness and stupidity but the rest of the movie was good enough that I liked it well enough.

So when I saw the previews for Semi Pro (2008) I ignored the lackluster, non-funny trailers and decided to give it a shot. After all, I am a huge basketball fan and loved the old ABA so the source material was good and he seemed to be in a funny arc of sports movies. This one came with a strong supporting cast of players.

Unfortunately it came without strong writers. Ferrell veered back into the realm of "it's funny because I am Will Ferrell" and away from "it is funny so I will play the part". The laughs are few and far between. The quotable lines are all but non-existent with probably the best one coming in an exchange between broadcasters Lou Redwood (Will Arnett) and Dick Pepperfield (Andrew Daly). Redwood constantly does color commentary with a scotch in one hand and cigarette in the other. At one point on their daily television show Pepperfield gets tired of the cigarette smoke:

Pepperfield: "Lou, would you mind putting out that cigarette, it's very unprofessional."
Redwood: "No. I like to smoke when I drink."

Most of the laughs in the movie come not from the dialogue or the acting but rather from the hideous sartorial selections. There are a few exceptions but they are mostly from the supporting cast. Redwood and Pepperfield are by far the funniest characters.

In the end there is a happy ending for about everybody with appropriate amounts of cheese and some nice cameos but overall it was a huge step backwards for Ferrell. Fans of his older movies will probably love this one, those who thought they were pedestrian will not like this one, either. For example, the Goose loved it. I felt like, had I not gotten the Tuesday free popcorn deal it would have been two wasted hours of my life...

Vantage Point

From time to time a Japanese movie will be so important that it is referred back to again and again and again. One obvious example would be The Seven Samurai (1954), a movie so influential it spawned the four Magnificent Seven movies and a host of others. You will still hear it referred to from time to time as an influence on various action/adventure type movies and occasionally other genres as well.

Even more influential was an early silent, Rashomon (1911), a story that was told multiple times from multiple points of view that each put vastly different spins on it. The concept has been done numerous times with varying levels of success, from the slightly shifted take on it in Run Lola Run (1998) to the animated Little Red Riding Hood riff Hoodwinked (2005) and now the latest entry in the genre, Vantage Point (2008).

Vantage Point is the story of an attempted assassination/kidnapping/assassination of the U.S. President by an unnamed dissident group during an anti-terrorism conference in Spain. 1 20 or 30 minute sequence of events is told repeatedly from a variety of angles...Secret Service Agent, President, media hack, various conspirators...and each time the story is told a bit more is revealed and often from an angle that shifts the meaning of events, sometimes subtlety and sometimes quite seriously.

This is particularly used to make the Spanish cop look by turns guilty, innocent, more innocent, guilty, and dead...which reveals both the strengths and weaknesses of Rashomon type films. On the one hand the various viewpoints provide a refreshing way of viewing a story...the non-linear development allows an otherwise basic, by the numbers spy thriller to become a fascinating story, though the repetitiveness can wear on you after a while. It also allows you to spot clues if you are paying attention and allows the director some freedom to hide the good guy or bad guy nature of particular characters until the last possible second. That tension adds to the enjoyment of the movie. At the same time, the weakness would be in the dreaded loose thread. If you are the type of moviegoer who wants to know what happened to Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer) at the end of Heat (1995) then things such as the ultimate decision on this character...Javier? (Edgar Ramirez) he a good guy or bad guy? When that is left hanging, you might not like it. And that is one weakness of these stories for some viewers as many threads simply cannot be carried through to the conclusion. On the other hand, if you do not mind loose threads then that can be a strength. You can choose to regard Javier as a hero who was betrayed by his girlfriend and martyred at the end or you can see him as a villain who participated in the plot and got his just due at the end.

Overall the acting was pretty solid with one interesting exception. Forest Whitaker plays Howard Lewis, an estranged husband touring Europe who is videotaping the speech of the President. I have seen Whitaker in a lot of movies and he is, as a general rule, a really solid actor. For whatever reason in Vantage Point director Pete Travis elects to have him portray a childlike buffoon who drools in delight over the most mundane things...his facial expressions and verbal cues sound like a 4 year old receiving a helium balloon. His sense of childlike wonder at everything he sees would be well understood if he were 12 and scoping out the Grand Canyon...but on a middle age man it was so out of place. The internal mood of the movie was dark and gritty with bombs, blood, carnage...and mixed in with that you have a guy in a Disney feel good setting doing the Jim Carrey Overactors Anonymous recovery session. Again, I have seen Whitaker often enough to know this was on the director, not the actor.

Be that as it may, Vantage Point was an interesting flick. The clues were there early as to who the turncoat was...I actually had him pegged from his first line as a suspect and was sure about him before the first run-through...but not everyone picked up on those clues. Some of the other good/bad guys were less obvious and the political commentary was pretty heavy without always being heavy handed.

Best of all, the movie delivered what it should even with the ham-handed acting and entertained from beginning to end including a spectacular car chase that would make a lot of top car chase of all time lists if not for the insipid ending to the Goose pointed out it is a bit unbelievable that terrorists who would bomb and kill thousands of people, shoot others at will, and just generally show little to no regard for human life would swerve so hard that they roll their rig because a little girl stood in the road. No, they would have pile driven her and kept on going. So there could have been a better end to the car chase, but for all that it was a fun, entertaining movie.