Talking Movies

July 31, 2013

The Heat

Director Paul Feig reunites with his Bridesmaids star Melissa McCarthy for a female buddy-cop movie that’s short on laughs but still better than The Internship.

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Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) is a prim and proper FBI Agent who specialises in humiliating her co-workers with displays of her deductive genius. Her despairing boss Hale (Demian Bichir) sends her to a knotty case in Boston as a test. If she can manage to not alienate her co-workers while cracking the case he’ll consider her for a plum promotion, otherwise… Unfortunately for Ashburn the first Boston suspect she wants to interrogate, drug-lord Julian (Michael McDonald), brings with him an obnoxious arresting officer Mullins (Melissa McCarthy). The foul-mouthed Mullins volubly prefers brute force and ignorance to Ashburn’s Quantico-honed subtlety and reconnaissance. She also brings to the case a possible inside man, her deadbeat brother Jason (Michael Rapaport), recently released from prison and being recruited by Julian’s associate Adam (Taran Killam). Can Ashburn and Mullins work together and overcome their personal issues?

Bridesmaids was a curiously depressing film that relentlessly showed Kristen Wiig’s character defeated by life and yet expected audience cheers for the Little Miss Sunshine-aping end which solved only one of her many problems. Thankfully The Heat isn’t that infuriating, as, despite being written by Parks & Rec’s Katie Dippold, it feels like a thriller retouched as a comedy. Tony Hale and Kaitlin Olson pop up for lengthy and meandering scenes that completely waste their comedic talents. It’s hard not to notice that the comedy steps up a notch when Bill Burr and Nate Corddry appear as yet more Mullins siblings; and you suspect they improvised some of their cross-talking madness. Indeed the very deliberate delivery of the initially incomprehensible line “Ah you or ah you not a nahc?” to Ashburn is hands-down the funniest moment in the entire film.

Marlon Wayans is decent as Ashburn’s subordinate Levy, but the great Bichir is shockingly underused. Dan Bakkedahl’s albino DEA Agent Craig is the butt of an uncomfortable vein of crude humour, and that’s before the finale employs the wrong note of 21 Jump Street’s finale without its saving absurdity. Russell T Davies gave Billie Piper the line ‘Ooh, can you smell the testosterone in here?’ in Doctor Who, and that sexism has popped up endlessly and tiresomely in discussions of banking culture. I’ve longed for a character to rant about oestrogen in the same manner to expose the sexism of the trope, so it’s infuriating that Dippold has Agent Craig do just that; but by making him a deeply unsympathetic character subtly justify the corresponding sexist trope. It’s hard to know what to say about a central pairing whose bond is based on Ashburn learning to curse. I watched McCarthy play Sookie for 7 seasons of Gilmore Girls; she’s better than this, but this apparently is where the career is.

The Heat suggests that there’s a true gulf opening up in American comedy between the school of Rogen & Hill and unfunny people.

December 22, 2011

Fanboys Vs Paul

At what point on the homage-o-meter does a film become so dependent for its laughs on just referencing other films that it simply ceases to exist in its own right?

I’m posing this question because I quite recently watched both Paul and Fanboys which are so referentially dependent that taking away that crutch of familiarity would cripple both. Paul would be less hobbled than Fanboys, because it’s operating on a higher level of comedic sureness, but the two films share the same basic DNA – nerds go on a road trip and things get very silly, with copious references to late 1970s/early 1980s pop culture, and Seth Rogen even appearing in both movies. There is obviously a huge difference in budgets between the two films, evident in looking at the star wattage of the casts. Sam Huntington, Jay Baruchel, Dan Fogler, and Kristen Bell for Fanboys weigh in substantially lighter than Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Jason Bateman, and Kristen Wiig for Paul. But that’s not that clinching, throwing money at bad jokes doesn’t make them funny.

Huntington is a gifted comedian who was a sublime Jimmy Olsen, Jay Baruchel is a reliable comedic presence, and Kristen Bell rarely gets to be as awesome in film as she was as Veronica Mars but she’s always got that charisma in reserve. Dan Fogler, however, sums up the problem with Fanboys. I’ve been mystified by Fogler’s rise because I don’t think he’s particularly funny in Balls of Fury, Good Luck Chuck, or Fanboys. Indeed the only time I’ve been impressed by him was in Love Happens where in a straighter role than usual he was quite good, even damn good in one serious scene. Fanboys sees him purvey his usual brand of crude, physical humour (constant dry humping) and he puts so much obvious energy and commitment into his performance you actually feel bad singling him out as a synecdoche of the film’s failings.

Fanboys is a film where the script constantly falls back on crudity and slapstick and asks its performers to mug like hell to hide the shortcomings of the material. It is intermittently amusing, but, with some exceptions, those laughs come from references to the Star Wars film, or from the efforts of cameoing stars whose presence are the only reason jokes work – think Carrie Fisher saying “I know” when someone says “I love you”, or William Shatner boasting “I’m William Shatner, I can score anything”. Even Rogen’s dual roles only work because of the sublime moment where as a Trekkie his beloved Kirk statue is destroyed and he cradles it shouting “KHAAAAAAAAAAN!” Take away the famous actors in tiny roles, and you’re left with a deeply suspect attempt to graft an emotionally manipulative arc about a dying friend’s last wishes onto raucous road trip comedy.

Paul by contrast has a far less weighty arc that works much better. It just wants Pegg to get a girlfriend and Frost to finish writing his novel as the transformative result of encounter with runaway alien Paul. It’s a funnier film than Fanboys because, though Paul’s dialogue is crude and the Kristen Wiig sub-plot is foul-mouthed and oddly mean-spirited, there is still more comedic gold left when you sift away the referential gags. Those references to Lucas, Spielberg, Zemeckis and Landis are hysterically funny, not least the moment when our heroes walk into the Roadhouse to find the band playing the Cantina music. But they are equalled by the absurdity of Jason Bateman’s character name, and the peerless Kristen Wiig’s crestfallen reaction to Pegg telling her she ‘should go’, meaning to visit the UK, but she takes it as meaning to just go away.

Paul is better than Fanboys but, while it’s hilarious to see Paul offering Spielberg advice on the phone on creating E.T., does Paul just feature too many referential gags versus original gags compared to the previous two Pegg/Frost movies directed, and crucially co-written, by Edgar Wright? Sigourney Weaver’s appearance saw me start a mental timer until the line ‘Get away from her you bitch!’ was referenced, and of course it was. Are Pegg and Frost compensating for the loss of Wright’s flair for visual absurdity by gripping ever more tightly their pop culture talismans? If, by some miracle, you could find a viewer entirely unfamiliar with cinema and pop culture from 1974 onwards would they still find Paul, and especially Fanboys, funny at all? Or would they merely look baffled and say ‘I don’t get it, what’s meant to be so funny about that line?’ Obviously though such an ideal viewer is impossible as Lucas and Spielberg colonised the popular imagination in a manner most film-makers can only dream of.

Still, it must be asked at what point doffing the cap to Lucas and Spielberg becomes a despairing admittance of defeat at ever conjuring up something equal to their magic?

January 28, 2011

2011: Hopes

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In Darkest Night

Ryan Reynolds is Green Lantern, Blake Lively is love interest Carol Ferris, and Mark Strong is renegade alien lantern Sinestro in the biggest gamble of the year. Green Lantern’s ring which allows him to physically project anything he can imagine, but which can’t handle the colour yellow because of the evil Parallax, is the most far-out of the major DC characters; but in the right hands (see the recent resurgence of the comics title by Geoff Johns) he can be majestic. If this movie works it opens up the whole DC Universe for cinematic imaginings. If it fails then Nolan’s Batman swansong and Snyder’s Superman will be the end of DC on film for another decade…

A Knife-Edge

Talking of gambles what about Suckerpunch: can Zack Snyder handle an all-female cast and a PG-13 rating after the flop of his animated movie? The answers provided by his Del Toro like escapade set in a 1950s mental hospital where Vanessa Hudgens and Abbie Cornish escape into a fantasy universe to fight a never-ending war will give hints as to how he’ll handle Lois Lane and the challenge of resurrecting Superman’s cinematic fortunes. Breaking Dawn sees Bill Condon, director of Gods & Monsters, take on the final Twilight book in two movies. Given that the book sounds the epitome of unfilmable on the grounds of utter insanity, it’s a gamble to split it in two when it may make New Moon look competent. On the other hand he may take the Slade/Nelson route of Eclipse and simply play the romance as stark nonsense and be as nasty as he can with what little time for horror is left him after he’s shot Jacob shirtless 20 times. Paul should be a lock: it’s a comedy with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. However, they’re not working with Edgar Wright, co-writer and director of their other two movies, but with Greg Mottola, writer/director of Adventureland, and this film was meant to be released last year. Kristen Wiig has a supporting role created for her and Seth Rogen voices the titular slobbish alien with whom Pegg & Frost’s archetypal nerds have daft adventures, but will this be a mish-mash of styles?

A Grand Madness

Werner Herzog’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? has had immense success on the festival circuit and seems to confirm that Bad Lieutenant was no one-of, he really has got his feature mojo back.  Michael Shannon stars in a very loose version of a true-life murder case which saw reality and fiction tragically become fatally confused for a young actor appearing in a Greek tragedy. The Tempest sees Julie Taymor takes a break from injuring actors on Broadway to helm another Shakespeare movie. Her last film Across the Universe was misfiring but inspired when it worked, expect something of the same from this. Helen Mirren is Prospera, while Russell Brand’s obvious love of language should see him Fassbender his way through his jester role.

In England’s Green and Pleasant Land

February sees the release of two adaptations of acclaimed English novels. Brighton Rock sees Sam Riley, exceptional as Ian Curtis in 2007’s Control, take on the iconic role of the psychotic gangster Pinkie in an adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1938 novel. This remake updates the action to the 1960s and mods v rockers, with Helen Mirren as the avenging Fury pursuing Pinkie for murdering an innocent man, and rising star Andrea Riseborough as Pinkie’s naive girlfriend. Greene and Terence Rattigan co-wrote the script for the superb Boulting Brothers’ 1947 film, so this version has to live up to the high-water mark of British film noir. Meanwhile Never Let Me Go sees one of the most acclaimed novels of the Zeros get a film treatment from the director of Johnny Cash’s Hurt video. Can Mark Romanek find a visual way to render Kazuo Ishiguro’s dreamy first-person narration of the slow realisation by a group of elite public-school pupils of the sinister purpose of their isolated education? The cast; Keira Knightley, Andrew Garfield, and Carey Mulligan; represents the cream of young English talent, but replicating the impact of the novel will be difficult.

Empire of the Spielberg

Super 8. I gather it’s about aliens, and monsters, in fact probably alien monsters. In fact really it’s probably Cloverfield: Part II but with Abrams writing and directing instead of producing. Spielberg is producing so it’s safe to say this will be exciting. Whatever it’s about. It’s out in August. The War Horse sees Spielberg breaks his silence after Indy 4 with an adaptation of West End hit which follows a young boy’s journey into the hell of World War I in an attempt to rescue his beloved horse from being used to drag provisions to the front. Meanwhile with Tintin we get an answer to the question does Peter Jackson still have his directorial mojo? His version of the beloved famous Belgian comic-book has a lot to live up to, not least the uber-faithful TV cartoon adaptations. And can the problem of dead eyes in photo realistic motion capture CGI finally be solved?

The House of M: Part I

Kenneth Branagh’s directorial resurgence sees him helm Thor, his first comic-book blockbuster. Branagh will no doubt coax great performances from Anthony Hopkins and Natalie Portman, but does Chris Hemsworth have the charisma as well as the physique to pull off a Norse God banished to Earth just as Loki decides to invade it? This is a pivotal gamble by Marvel’s in-house studio. If this flops, it puts The Avengers and Iron Man 3 in major difficulties, and it is a worry. Captain America had fantastic storylines in acclaimed comics by Mark Millar and Jeph Loeb in the last decade, but Thor really has no great canonical tale that cries out to be told. Not that those Loeb/Millar ideas will get in the way of a (How I Became) Insert Hero Name approach to the Cap’n. Chris Evans, fresh from dazzling comedic turns in Scott Pilgrim and The Losers, takes on the title role in Captain America: The First Avenger. He will be a likeable hero but it’s almost certain that Hugo Weaving will steal proceedings as Nazi villain The Red Skull. Joe Johnston’s Indiana Jones background should probably guarantee amusing hi-jinks in this 1940s set blockbuster.

The House of M: Part II

Other studios, content to build one franchise at a time around Marvel characters, will unleash two very different comic-book blockbusters. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance sees the lunatics behind the Crank films finally get their hands on a blockbuster after their script for Jonah Hex was rewritten to make it vaguely ‘normal’. The prospect of Nicolas Cage, fresh from his brush with Herzog, being encouraged to again find his inner madman while the two writers/directors shoot action sequences from roller-skates besides his bike is an awesome one. Matthew Vaughn meanwhile helms X-Men: First Class starring James McAvoy as the young Professor X and Talking Movies’ hero Michael Fassbender as the young Magneto. This prequel charts the early days of their friendship and the establishment of Xavier’s Academy, before (according to Mark Millar) a disagreement led to Magneto putting Xavier in a wheelchair. The prospect of Fassbender doing his best Ian McKellen impersonation gives one pause for joy.

April 6, 2010

Whip It!

Drew Barrymore assembles a strong ensemble of comedic actresses for her directorial debut led by Juno and Hard Candy star Ellen Page in her first lead role since Juno.

Page stars as Bliss Cavendar, a teenager attending blue bonnet pageants to please her mother while simultaneously plotting her escape from 1950s throwback that is her hometown of Bodeen, Texas. A shopping trip to that liberal enclave Austin sees her encounter the fishnets wearing, eyeliner dripping members of the Texas Roller Derby. So begins a secret life as the new jammer for the perennial losers the Hurl Scouts led by Maggie Mayhem and Smashley Simpson (Barrymore’s ridiculous supporting role). Adopting the name Babe Ruthless, Bliss, as the fastest skater on the team whose job is to pass other players, soon becomes an integral part of the team and propels them to success and a rivalry with the reigning champions. Juliette Lewis takes a break from music to return to acting as Iron Maven, the wild child captain of that team, and is a joy.

Saturday Night Live’s Kristen Wiig is surely only one decent role away from being a film star as, following Adventureland, she is once again wonderful in support as Bliss’s self-proclaimed ‘cool aunt’ figure Maggie Mayhem. Only Maggie and Smashley are depicted as having a life outside the rink but that’s to quibble when life inside the rink receives so much screen-time in a series of games that never become repetitive thanks to Barrymore’s ultra-violent and very exciting choreography of the bone-crunching plays designed to take out rival skaters. It probably helped to have Quentin Tarantino’s favourite stuntwoman Zoe Bell as one of the Hurl Scouts…

The creaking of the plot mechanics does become a bit audible in the second act, as Bliss falls for a pretty boy rocker, and becomes estranged from best pal Pash (Alia Shawkat) and her mother to the strains of oh-so-hip indie music but this is redeemed by a third act which is pleasingly subversive on two counts. Barrymore, unsurprisingly as an actress turned director, coaxes fine performances from all the cast, especially the two most important males – Andrew Wilson’s exasperated coach and Daniel Stern’s supportive father – and even manages to rein in Marcia Gay Harden’s usual histrionics as Bliss’ mother so that you get a sense of the real love between mother and daughter even as she seeks to push Bliss down the road she herself abandoned.

Amid all the debate about Bigelow’s Oscar for a macho film it’s nice to see Barrymore quietly assemble a talented female cast to take on such a traditionally male genre and to do this a good job of subverting expectations. Whip It! is not a great film but it is an awful lot of fun and signals Barrymore as a director of note as well as actor/producer.

3/5

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