Sunday, March 28, 2010

Catch ups: "Alice in Wonderland" and "How to Train Your Dragon"

A few movies I've seen in the past month that I never wrote up...

Alice in Wonderland (2010, dir. Tim Burton)

Can a judge please file a restraining order between Tim Burton and Johnny Depp? The collaboration, which was once so fruitful with "Edward Scissorhands" and "Ed Wood," has grown old, with both artists--who used to be widely known for their unpredictability and edginess--becoming predictable and, in the worst cases ("Charlie and the Chocolate Factory") annoying. I'll grant that "Sweeney Todd" was a brief return to the dark, twisted brilliance both have conjured before, but with "Alice in Wonderland," they go tumbling back down the rabbit hole of trite banality.

I'll admit that there was a part of me that thought the collaboration might work when it was first announced. After all, "Alice in Wonderland" is not a typical frothy kids' tale. Although I've never read the original books, I've seen enough of the filmed projects to know that the best versions of this story are a bit unhinged, gloriously anarchic and have a knack for scaring kids. If there's anything Burton's known for, it's being unhinged and creepy. "Alice in Wonderland" is the fairy tale he was, conceivably, born to tell. And although I'm getting very tired of "quirky Johnny Depp" and would like to see him go back to portraying realistic characters (see his work in "Donnie Brasco" or last summer's "Public Enemies"), the idea of him as the Mad Hatter had a certain appeal.

And the idea is interesting. Instead of a straight retelling of "Alice," this follows the heroine (Mia Wasikowska) as a young adult, faced with a marriage proposal that she finds a bit too stifling and terrifying. Terrified of giving into convention, Alice runs off after a rabbit, falls down a hole and...well, the rest follows largely as the original story did. She meets the creepy Cheshire cat, a hookah-smoking caterpillar and joins the Mad Hatter for a very similar tea party. The twist is that Alice doesn't remember ever being in Wonderland before, which is a problem for the world's inhabitants, who are depending on her to fulfill a prophecy that will set them free. Alice, it seems, must slay the Jabberwoky on the Frabjous Day, thus freeing Wonderland of the tyranny of the Queen of Hearts (Helena Bonham Carter) and returning it to her sister, the White Queen (Helena Bonham Carter).

And it's there that the film makes a fatal flaw. As I've said, I haven't read the original books, but I've read up enough to know that the success of "Alice in Wonderland" is do to its illogical nature and words, such as "frabjous," that have absolutely no meaning. It's that illogical silliness that makes the story so crazy, so beloved and has allowed artists to use the story as satire for whatever they see fit. Trying to tie it all up with a structure robs the story of its insanity and joy. And plus, to me, it feels lazy. The prophecy of "The One" who comes to save a world from destruction is, of course, timeless. When it works, it's because the world and the characters have been well developed and the rules established--that's why we love "The Matrix," "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" and "Harry Potter." When you take a character who is as one-dimensional as Alice--and needfully so, because she's basically the conduit through which we view Wonderland--and then try to establish rules on a world that is, by definition, illogical, it tends to land with a thud. Especially when, in a Tim Burton movie, the joy comes from what twisted and bizarre sights we might experience...with Wonderland, he's given a playground to indulge his most outlandish fantasies. Forcing it to be structured and linear is like confining it to a sandbox.

Depp, as the Mad Hatter, was positioned as the film's selling point but, to be honest, he's the weak link here. His character alternates between quirky and, well, mad, to solemn and pensive about the fate of Wonderland; he also slips in and out of a Scottish accent. When Depp swished onto shore as the Jack Sparrow, it worked because it was the last thing we ever expected to see in a pirate movie. Its success has really meant that Depp is expected to be outlandish whenever he's on screen and here he's quirky for quirky sake, without it ever becoming funny or having any sort of impact. I'm not going to lay the blame all at his feet, however. I think Disney signed Tim Burton and said--"oh, you need Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter!" and a minor role got padded into something larger for the sake of a marque name. Depp isn't horrible, just unnecessary, and I do find myself longing for the days when he was an actor, not a movie star.

That's not to say that there aren't pleasures. Burton's film may be standard, but it's never less than beautiful to look at. His Wonderland is a fascinating CGI creation that I wish Burton had explored more of and while some have complained about the 3D, I thought it was effective--not "Avatar"-quality, but certainly not the pop-up-book look of "Clash of the Titans. Wasikowska takes an underwritten role and does solid work as the wide-eyed heroine and I liked a lot of the supporting characters that popped up randomly. I'm normally no fan of Helena Bonham Carter, but she's clearly having a ball playing the Red Queen in all her manic "OFF WITH HER HEAD" glory, and the film picks up whenever she's on screen. Hathaway chooses to play the White Queen with an odd touch of ditziness that made me laugh. And while I'm not sure exactly what Crispin Glover was doing as the height-fetish addled Knave of Hearts, the fact that Glover was in a Tim Burton film just feels right (although his work was much more memorable in the following week's "Hot Tub Time Machine.")

"Alice in Wonderland" isn't a horrible film by any means, and I can understand why families have made it a monster hit--kids will love the dragons and, let's face it, what adult doesn't secretly want to introduce their kids to Tim Burton's film..."Alice" could be a gateway film to"Beetlejuice" and "Edward Scissorhands." But for me, it never connected and drew me in. I found myself watching a bunch of pretty images, distracted by a few characters and then checking out as the story became more predictable. Burton's upcoming choices--a remake of his own "Frankenweenie" and an adaptation with Depp of the TV show "Dark Shadows"--feel more like the safe, family-friendly fare he's currently churning out. It's a shame...I can't wait til he is allowed to get a bit crazy again, following his own deranged rabbit-hole.

How to Train Your Dragon (2010, dir. Dean Deblois and Chris Sanders)

Ironically, just as I thought "Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland" could be a good idea at first, the idea of Dreamwork's "How to Train Your Dragon" provoked disinterest from me when I first heard of it.

Dreamworks Animation is one of the most frustrating studios out there. When they're good, they're the "Looney Tunes" to Pixar's Disney-esque films. The first two "Shrek" films are witty, gloriously irreverent fun and I've gotten a chuckle out of "Bee Movie" and "Monseters vs. Aliens." Every once in a long while they even manage to get close to Pixar-inspired joy, such as with "Kung Fu Panda," which merged their mega-star-driven comedies with a fun, heartfelt story that celebrated a genre instead of spoofing it.

But "How to Train Your Dragon," upon first look, had all the markings of a "Shark Tale" or "Madagascar." It has a hip, Judd Apatow-friendly cast, a quirky premise--a young Viking befriends a dragon--and trailers scored, of course, to hip, current pop songs. I was prepared for this to be another disposable, pop culture-riffing lazy comedy that placated kids with noise while going for cheap adult laughs via double entendres.

Instead, "How to Train Your Dragon" may be the closest Dreamworks has come to Pixar-level quality.

Hiccup (Jay Baruchel, "Knocked Up") is a young Viking whose father Stoick (Gerard Butler) is the most fearsome dragon-killer in their clan. Hiccup, who mentors with a blacksmith (Craig Ferguson), dreams of killing the dragons who plague their village, but he's a bit too scrawny and weak. His father, however, finally gives him permission to take dragon-slaying classes and, it's about that time that Hiccup finally downs a Night Slayer, the most fearsome of the dragons, and learns that the creatures are actually friendly and misunderstood.

It's a simple story, really just a riff on the boy-and-his-dog genre. But DeBlois and Sanders, who delivered the best of the recent Disney 2D films with "Lilo and Stitch," tell it with a heart and humor that doesn't resort to pop-culture commentary, silly spoofs or hipper catchphrases. The best thing they do here is acknowledge the simplicity of the story and then let it unfold without peppering in too much noise and unnecessary distractions.

I've like Baruchel since seeing him in "Undeclared" (the sadly-ignored follow up series to "Freaks and Geeks), but he's always been relegated to third-rank supporting characters. For whatever reason, he seems to be getting the star treatment this year, headlining the recent comedy "She's Out of My League" and co-starring alongside Nicolas Cage this summer in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." He's about as perfect as the weakling, nerdy Viking as Jack Black was for, well, a panda obsessed with Kung Fu. His nasally, Urkelish voice fits perfectly with a Viking who'd rather invent things than kill dragons and Baruchel plays his character fairly straight, without any of the mugging a larger star might have been.

There's a cast of all-star voices, including Butler, Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and America Ferrara (I guarantee this is the only time she'll play a blonde-haired Norwegian). But unlike a film like "Monsters Vs. Aliens" or "Bee Movie," the film doesn't play to the stars. There's no McLovin' riff on Mintz-Plasse's character and each actor simply voices their character without any mugging or spotlight stealing, creating actual characters instead of cartoon movie stars. The exception is Butler, who's voice is basically a retread of his "300" role, but it fits the context instead of being a joke.

As I write this, I realize I'm probably making the film sound fairly typical, and it is. But in toning down the usual manic comedy Dreamworks is known for and actually telling a straightforward story without winking at the audience, "How to Train Your Dragon" actually succeeds because it's typical. What kid wouldn't want a dragon? Who hasn't had to question everything they've been taught? And it's refreshing to see a kids movie that says that sometimes you have to think for yourself, question what you've been taught and stand up for what's right when you've been led astray. The absence of fart jokes is also refreshing.

And I haven't mentioned the sheer beauty of this movie. It's nothing new to say that computer-generated imagery continues to get better and better. The design of the dragons is fun and colorful and the Viking village has a great, fantasy quality about it. The film was designed with 3D in mind and if you have the chance to see it that way, take it. It's a reminder that when the technology is thought of from the start, it can be a great tool. Like "Avatar," it adds a depth to the film and draws the audience deeper into the story. The flying scenes are spectacularly done, even better than what James Cameron was able to accomplish in "Avatar." The final battle--who didn't expect one?--is exciting and energetic in all the ways that "Clash of the Titans" was mediocre and predictable.

I really would like to see more of this work from Dreamworks. Alas, their next big animated feature is "Shrek Forever After," guessed it...3D. But it's nice to remember that when they want to, Dreamworks can tell a fun, heartfelt and enjoyable little story like this.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Movie Review: "Hot Tub Time Machine"

Originally published in the March 28 edition of The Source

The thing about a movie called "Hot Tub Time Machine" is that it's pretty critic-proof.

There are doubtlessly many who will, upon hearing that title, roll their eyes and remark that it "sounds stupid" and never set foot in a theater playing the new John Cusack comedy. For others, the title will immediately invoke images of wacky time-travel shenanigans, raunchy jokes and moments of hilarious stupidity, which will cause them to immediately call up their buddies and fork over $10 on a Friday night.

I have a feeling both camps will be satisfied with their choices.

The people in the former group will still find their lives worth living even if they miss out on the sight of four grown men sucked back to the 1980s through a wormhole in their Jacuzzi. The latter will laugh hard, see it again several times, and work the film's quotes into their vocabulary alongside bon mots from "Tommy Boy" and "Animal House."And all the critic can do is sit helplessly and ask readers "What do you expect from a movie called 'Hot Tub Time Machine?'"

To be fair, the movie delivers on every one of its promises. There is a hot tub, discovered by four men on a retreat to a ski village they loved in their 20s, but which has since become run down, inhabited by bums and cats. The hot tub does indeed transport them back to 1986, where they are reverted back to their old bodies - except for the kid who wasn't born in 1986 and flickers helplessly while watching his mom drink her way toward his conception - and find themselves able to relive their heydays.

Each of the men is, of course, struggling in some way from never fully letting go of the 1980s. Adam (Cusack) has grown into a self-obsessed yuppie who lives with his young, nerdy nephew Jacob (Clark Duke) and whose girlfriend has just left him. Former aspiring rock star Nick (Craig Robinson) has put up the guitar to perform digestive operations (by hand) on dogs and commits to a marriage even though he's found out that his wife cheated on him. And Lou (Rob Cordry) stills drives fast, drinks hard and lives the party animal '80s life, until some drunken driving and air-guitar playing in his garage lead to a night in the hospital. Interpreting this as a suicide attempt, Adam and Nick take Lou back to their old stomping grounds, along with Jacob.

The group is whisked back in time and informed by a mystical/clueless hot tub repairman (Chevy Chase) that they need to live life exactly the same way to avoid altering the future. That means Nick has to sleep with a groupie, even though he's committed to his wife; Adam has to break up with his hot girlfriend, which he knows will lead to a fork in the eye; and Lou must endure a pummeling at the fists of a ski patrol officer.Of course, when old men relive their past - especially when Russian-enhanced power drinks are involved - they may decide to alter a few things, which is where some of the film's biggest laughs come in.

At its heart, "Hot Tub Time Machine" is just another riff on the raunchy frat boy comedy that gained momentum last summer with "The Hangover." But like that summer smash, "Hot Tub Time Machine's" biggest laughs come from its twists on the formula - in this case, making the frat boys 40-year-old men who have had to suffer the consequences of their actions and adding a dose of clever geekery in the form of Jacob, the film's voice of reason. Jacob can be forgiven for being a bit antsy, however. He just learned that his mom - who will give birth to him in, oh, about nine months - is a promiscuous party animal and that if things don't unfold as they should, he may never be born.

Director Steve Pink lets this all unfold with an energetic lunacy, as the characters first pay lip service to the rules before the film allows them to disregard them altogether. To say much about what unfolds would ruin many of the film's biggest laughs, particularly involving Crispin Glover as a bellhop awaiting an unfortunate fate. The film's dialogue is cleverer than I expected and there's sheer glee in the way the characters are allowed to totally trash any of the time-travel guidelines that films normally abide by.

Cusack initially seems out of place in such a raucous comedy, but there's something fitting about watching him return to the era that made him a star. He's basically the straight man, however, allowing the others to wreak havoc throughout the '80s. Robinson, most popular for his work on "The Office," is solid as usual and Duke has a nerdy charm that makes him appealing. But it's "Daily Show" alum Cordry who really gets his chance to shine as loud, obnoxious Lou. Cordry seems to be relishing his opportunity to be the film's wild man and, while he lacks the charm that lets Vince Vaughn or Bradley Cooper get away with it, he still manages to wring a few laughs out of his brazen performance, although it gets tedious in the closing stretches.

The film manages to be more clever than its title implies, but it's not always a success. A subplot between Adam and a journalist in town to cover the Poison concert is a bit weak and drags down a comedy that runs on pure energy. Chase's role is more amusing than funny and Duke's character is funny but never given much to do. The film's ending is a bit too extended - a riff on "Back to the Future's" ending that just goes on for a bit too long.

Obviously a movie called "Hot Tub Time Machine" is bound to have some sex-related humor, but the film's raunchy moments actually serve to detract from the humor. For a film that can be so clever at times, Pink's tendency to keep building up shock humor and gratuitous nudity stifles some of the film's wit. I'll admit to chuckling, but the shocks are really cheap laughs that weren't needed in a movie that has some genuinely funny and well-crafted moments. Then again, the film's title probably brings to mind a certain amount of debauchery, so I guess I'd be in the minority on this.

But here I am, having written more than 1,000 words about a movie called "Hot Tub Time Machine" - more than any human being would find necessary. So I'll just leave it with this: The movie is called "Hot Tub Time Machine." You know whether or not you're going to see it just based on the title. And it is my duty as a critic to inform you that whatever you decide, you'll be happy with your decision.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Movie Review: "Cop Out"

I should have been the target audience for "Cop Out." I'm a sucker for buddy cop comedies, particularly the "Lethal Weapon" franchise. I think Tracy Morgan's work on "30 Rock" each week is consistently the most outlandish and hilarious comedic work on television. Bruce Willis has been one of my favorite action stars since uttering "Yippe-Kai-Yay" in 1988. And Kevin Smith, "Cop Out's" director, has built a career around fresh, funny movies. Two years back, I drove four hours to Akron, Ohio by myself to see Smith give one of his Q/A's.

So it pains me to report that "Cop Out" is possibly the most epic failure in the careers of all involved. Hardest hit, however, is Smith who, in his first outing directing someone else's screenplay, is left floundering without the wit and emotional honesty that often balances out the crassness and immaturity of his other works. Without Smith's original voice or convictions, "Cop Out" comes across as immature, vulgar and pointless. To make matters worse, it's brutally unfunny and boring. It's easily the worst thing Smith has been associated with--and yes, I have seen "Jersey Girl."

Willis and Morgan play Jimmy and Paul, two long-partnered NYPD detective recently suspended for blowing a drug bust. Jimmy's daughter is engaged to be married and her arrogant stepfather (Jason Lee) wants to rub Jimmy's economic troubles in his face by offering to pay for the wedding. Jimmy, hoping to keep his dignity, refuses the help and decides to sell a mint condition baseball card, which is promptly stolen. Jimmy and Paul try to track down the thief and somehow get involved with Mexican drug dealers and a kidnapped woman and end up on the wrong side of two fellow cops (Kevin Pollack and Adam Brody).

Smith films all of this in homage to the great buddy cop comedies, from "48 Hours" to "Lethal Weapon," complete with scenes of the detectives arguing like an old married couple and the inevitable scene where one partner saves the other's life at just the right time. With a Harold Faltmeyer score and the requisite ribbing from fellow officers, every beat is right from the 80s cop movie playbook. But while Smith knows the lyrics to the song, he can never make it dance.

The great buddy cop comedies worked because the two leads had great chemistry with each other. The classic example, of course, is Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the "Lethal Weapon" franchise. Go back and watch that series. Even as the film's grew a bit more predictable and sillier, you could always count on the Gibson-Glover chemistry to provide great humor and an emotional undercurrent to the series. The two actors bantered naturally, bounced jokes off each other and came off like they really were old friends.

Negative chemistry can work as well, as Bruce Willis showed in "The Last Boyscout," one of the great cop guilty pleasures. There was never the sense that Willis or costar Damon Wayans really liked each other, but they used that tension to milk humor and grit out of each scene. Even Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker were able to find a comfortable working rhythm to carry the laughs of the "Rush Hour" series.

There's a very palpable sense that Willis and Morgan hated working together here. The actors don't have a rapport or rhythm. Willis scowls and looks annoyed, sometimes smirking if something catches him as funny. Morgan takes his "30 Rock" persona and cranks it to 11, weirdly mispronouncing words and shouting his lines as if sheer volume will force the laughs from the audience. Never do the two actors appear to be working on the same wavelength and, although we're told they've worked together for nine years, there's never a sense of camaraderie, friendship or even respect.

Instead, they shout obscenities, talk about sex and make poop jokes.

And yes, in the interest of full disclosure, one of the times I laughed was at a poop joke. What can I say, I have weaknesses.

Being a Kevin Smith film, one would expect comments about genitalia, sexual practices and general crassness. And although it's discomforting and offensive in Smith's other films, he's able to get away with it because it comes across as honest. In "Chasing Amy" or "Clerks," his characters were offensive, but one never got the chance that he Smith was trying to shock his audience. Instead, there was always the very real sense that Smith was writing characters he was familiar with, and Smith comes from a background that swears and jokes about sex. It may not be the greatest use of his talent, but there was always a strong sense of originality and heart to Smith's best endeavors--"Chasing Amy," "Dogma" and "Clerks 2" work despite their vulgarity because Smith had something he wanted to say, be it about relationships in the 1990s, his Catholic upbringing or the slacker culture realizing it's time to grow up. They're not clean films, but they're honest ones, coming from a filmmaker with something on his mind.

In "Cop Out," there's no emotional underpinning, no personal connection for Smith, yet he still feels the need to toss in vulgar sexual comments and crude language. It comes off as distracting and unnecessary at first and then, by the end becomes exhausting in its immaturity.

Smith's strengths have always been as a writer and here, working from someone else's screenplay, he seems lost and unable to frame what should be an easy joke. For instance, the movie's first scene should have been easy enough: Morgan is going to go interrogate a suspect and, for him, that just means spouting off movie quotes. And it's genuinely funny to see Morgan start shouting every cop cliche: "King Kong ain't got nothing on me!" or "Say hello to my little friend." It gets even funnier when he starts tossing in everything from "The Color Purple" to "Dirty Dancing." There's even a nice chuckle when he leaves the suspect by shouting "These are not the droids you're looking for."

But the scene's momentum is lost by intercutting reaction shots of Willis citing all the movies Morgan is quoting, which robs the scene of energy and only serves to show that Smith is afraid his audience won't get the reaction. For a filmmaker so steeped in geek culture and who made a living by referencing the "Holy Trilogy," it's a bit off-putting to see Smith spoonfeed the jokes to his audience and rob Morgan of his energy. Yes, it's funny to have Morgan quote "Yippee-Kai-Yay" in a Bruce Willis movie. It's NOT funny to have Willis respond "never seen it."

The scene gets even worse as Willis calls the other cops in to laugh at Morgan's shenanigans. Instead of showing him appalled at his partners tactics or using this as a way to show that Jimmy doesn't take Paul seriously, Willis' character actually seems amused...and when everyone's laughing at a character doing something funny, it ceases to be funny. By the time Willis drew a penis on the two-way mirror, the laughs in theater dried up.

And the whole film is made up of miscalculations like that. Morgan shouts lines that aren't funny, Willis scowls and there's never a rhythm or energy to the film. A subplot involving Paul's wife is inert from the start, proving that while Rashida Jones had a charm on "The Office" and "Parks and Recreation," filmmakers have no clue how to treat her. Smith, a director short on visual skill, bungles the action scenes, robbing the film of even some good shoot-outs.

In the end, you have to take laughs where you can find them. Yes, I chuckled when Morgan punched a little kid in the crotch. And Seann William Scott shows up in what would be considered the "Joe Pesci role" as a convict bent on annoying Morgan's character. The film's energy picks up a bit when he's on the screen. Pollack and Brody have an interesting rapport and Brody has a great reaction shot at the end that made me want to see a film about those two characters instead. And yes, there's a monologue about pooping that made me laugh...but I was still ashamed.

In the end, to successfully pull off this kind of homage, you have to have more than a funny script (something I don't think 'Cop Out' even started with). You have to be able to mimic the genre's energy, lovingly ape its cliches and--most importantly--have two stars with great chemistry. While watching "Cop Out," my mind kept returning to "Hot Fuzz" and how perfectly it achieved much of the same thing Smith is aiming for here. "Hot Fuzz" worked because Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have a fantastic chemistry together and because director Edgar Wright knew that some of the best humor came from cranking up action movie cliches to ludicrous heights. Halfway through the film I turned to my friend and said, "we should have just gone to my house and watched 'Hot Fuzz." At least there were no poop jokes or phallus drawn on the walls there.

Sigh. It's a review that sucks to write because I'm such a fan of so many people involved. Morgan will one day finally come across a director who knows how to control him and if Willis survived "Hudson Hawk" and "Mercury Rising" he'll probably be safe here. But it's Smith who's at a crossroads. If he's truly divorcing himself from writing original screenplays to take on more commercial works, he's going to have to find some way to inject his sensibilities and passion into it. Because his heart is obviously not in "Cop Out" and the result is a mess that should be illegal.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Catch ups--"Big Fan" and "Extract"

Sorry for the delay between posts. I was sidelined for about a week by sickness and then another week when things went insane at my day job. It's been awhile since I've actually hit the theater--the madness at work meant I took two weeks off my freelancing work to adjust--and I'm going tonight with a friend, so hopefully I'll have my thoughts up soon about whatever we see.

But I did want to chime in with thoughts on two films I recently was able to catch up with at home that I thought were worth brief mentions. So, enjoy!

Big Fan (2009, dir. Robert Siegel)

"I can't tell you how sick I am..."

Those words open "Big Fan," Robert Siegel's haunting look at fanaticism. And while the words are spoken in regard to its protagonist's frustration with his beloved New York Giants, they also unsettlingly foreshadow the fact that this film follows a man with some deep issues.

That man is Paul Aufierto (Patton Oswalt). Paul is a short, shlubby man in his mid-thirties. He still lives with his mother in Staten Island and works as a toll collector in a New York parking garage. He has few friends, no romantic possibilities and looks pained when he has to sit at a family get together with his successful siblings.

It's not that Paul wants a family or a better job. It's that these get togethers and these entanglements would be obstacles to the one thing he loves more than anything in life: the New York Giants. Every Sunday Paul and his best friend Sal (Kevin Corrigan) tailgate in the parking lot of the Giants' stadium, alternating in cheers and curses as they watch the game on television while the fans watch it live just a few feet away. Paul's greatest triumph, the thing that makes him come alive, is when he can deliver his carefully written and rehearsed diatribes on a sports talk radio show, where he trades barbs with his rival, Philadelphia Phil.

Paul is obsessed with the Giants. It's the only thing that makes gives him passion. He goes through his days with a pained expression on his face, suffering his family and those who offer him "something better" for a living. But he smiles, cheers, laughs and screams when the Giants are on. For him "Football is Life, the rest is just details" is not a clever t-shirt's his philosophy.

One night, Paul and Sal are out and run across the Giants' star quarterback, Quantrell Bishop (Johnathan Hamm). An feeble attempt at saying hello quickly turns disastrous and Paul finds himself severely assaulted by Bishop. Upon awaking three days later in the hospital, Paul is urged by his friends and family to sue. But that would mean Bishop would be unable to play and the Giants would likely lose. And if the Giants lose, what does Paul have to hope for in life?

It's easy to see that "Big Fan" could, in lesser hands, become a broad, raucous comedy. And that's probably what anyone would expect coming from Oswalt, one of the best stand-up comedians working these days (and a solid comedic actor in his own right in "King of Queens" or "Ratatouille"). But Siegel, who wrote the devastating "The Wrestler," has a different story in mind, one that feels more like "Taxi Driver" than "Celtic Pride."

The most devastating thing about the character of Paul Aufiero is that I know he exists. He's the friend who obsessively talks about sports anytime he gets a chance, arguing until he's red in the face about his team's chances next fall---in the middle of summer. He's the movie geek who spends hours on message boards, tearing apart every comic book adaptation and going off on diatribes about his favorite actors and actresses. He's the political addict, spouting Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck or (on the other side) Al Franken and Chris Matthews as if their words were Gospel, flying off the handle anytime something threatens his deeply ingrained, cherished and elevated political beliefs.

In other words, "Big Fan" is not about sports. It's about obsession. In another context, it's about idolatry. It's about what happens when something takes such a place in our lives that everything else becomes meaningless. It's not that Paul is an evil person. It's that he's a sick obsessed with football that everything else is secondary. He's got a job, but no desire to better himself, move out of his mother's home, start a family or live a normal life. When the Giants begin to lose because of his dilemma, he struggles with how to proceed--deal in a way that preserves his dignity, or make a sacrifice to his idols.

It's a shame this film didn't get much of a release--had I seen it before the year's end, Oswalt's performance would be one of my top five of 2009. His routines often deal with pop culture obsessions and general geekery, but here he lets go of any of the joy it brings and showcases a sad, sick man who is so captured by his idols that his own life is secondary. It's a powerful performance and Oswalt's brings to life Paul's saddness, loneliness, anger and resentement while still making us empathetic for the character. The "Taxi Driver" comparison I made earlier wasn't flippant--Paul could easily be kin to Travis Bickle, an isolated loner with no connections. The difference is that Paul's isolated himself and, unlike Bickle, seems to not care about his lack of connections.

Siegel's script is solid, as is his direction. I'm sure that there was the temptation to inject a bit of humor into the story or lighten up Paul's character a bit...but that would have been wrong. Like "The Wrestler," this is a story of a man who's been damaged by his own choices and is so obsessed with sticking to the things that have brought him joy before that he neglects any chance to sacrifice it in hopes of new happiness. The film's final 20 minutes get dark and I began to fear that Siegel was going to make the "Taxi Driver" comparisons a bit too apt...but the final moments balance tragedy with a sad humor without tipping things too dark.

"Big Fan" unfortunately didn't get much of a release, but I believe most cable companies are carrying it direct and it should be able to be found on DVD. It's definitely worth a look.

Extract (2009, dir. Mike Judge)

Mike Judge just can't win, can he?

First, "Office Space" was ignored in theaters only to become a cult classic. Then "King of the Hill," despite being on television for over a decade, was always considered Fox's underdog animated comedy. Then "Idiocracy" languished for months, was dumped into approximately two theaters and released unceremoniously to DVD where--you guessed it--it became a cult classic.

This past fall, Miramax gave Judge a fair shake with "Extract," his return to the workplace comedy. They promoted the film, released it in a good number of theaters and gave it every show to work. And...audiences stayed away.

Given Judge's track record, I'm sure they'll catch up eventually.

And they should. While nothing great, "Extract" is an often funny and witty comedy featuring Judge's trademark deadpan wit. While I'm a fan of "Idiocracy," this film tones down the volume a bit and is a more focused work, allowing Judge's trademark dry humor to flourish and giving some well-respected comedic actors a chance to shine.

Jason Bateman is Joel Reynolds, the owner of an extract factory. He's happy with his job, proud of what he can do and trying his best to manage a crew of dimwitted gossips on the production floor. It doesn't help that his co-manager Brian (J.K. Simmons) has so little interest in his job that he has stopped learning his employee's names, prefering instead to call them "boy genius" and "dinkus" (there may actually be two dinkuses.)

Joel is having a bit of a rough time as the film opens. He's not having much luck with his wife (Kristen Wiig), who puts on sweatpants and denies him any extracurricular marital activities if he's not home by eight each night. An unfortunate accident at the plant has cost one of his workers a vital part of the male anatomy and could cost Joel an important sale to General Mills. And there's the distractingly beautiful new employee Cindy (Mila Kunis), who feigns interest in Joel but may have ulterior motives in mind.

"Extract's" marketing hinged on comparing the film to "Office Space," but that's not entirely true. The sympathies are switched here. If "Office Space" was about the little men rebelling against a faceless, unsympathetic and clueless corporate world, "Extract" is about the Man and his frustration with the selfish, clueless peons he manages. And there's some clever humor in watching the factory women gossip about the new foreign help or in the airheaded forklift driver inviting everyone to his band's show.

But satire seems to be further from Judge's mind here, as he's actually interested in telling a story about characters. As much as I love "Office Space" and "Idiocracy," the characters were two-dimensional, nothin more than entry points into a broader satire. Here, Judge actually has characters with arcs, interested in saving their marriage, selling the factory or just selling some tranquilizer.

While it's refreshing to see Judge branch out a bit, the film does lose a bit of the focus that the best parts of his other works have had. It's fun to see Gene Simmons as a disgusting lawyer, but he's only good for a scene and then the subplot's dropped. There's a b-story about Joel hiring a gigolo to cheat with his wife so he can be excused for getting into an affair, but the story never really gels or provides much humor, except for the fact that the gigolo is brilliantly dumb.

The humor here seems to come when the film forgets the plot and lets its characters riff. Simmons and Bateman's scenes are always amusing--any scene in any movie with J.K. Simmons is amusing, as a rule. Ben Affleck shows up as a drug dealer/bartender/part-time pimp and his musings are the film's highlights. David Koechner shows up as the world's most boring, intrusive neighbor and his scenes are probably the most dead-on satire in the film, perfectly capturing Judge's dry sensibility and feeling very "Office Space"-esque.

But for everything that works, something doesn't. Wiig has proven that, given the right work, she's one of the funniest women working. Unfortunately, her role is underwritten and she's the straight character, not the best place for her to be. Kunis is fine in her role but her con of an injured worker just doesn't seem to work and her storyline just kind of fades out. The film's climax is a bit messy as well.

Still, "Extract" is able to, um, extract a few charms and good laughs. It's nice to see Affleck this loose and funny and Bateman's line delivery is always great. It's nice to see Judge trying to get a bit more ambitious with his storytelling....let's just hope before he steps into the office again he pays attention to his performance reviews.


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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.