Friday, March 18, 2011

Movie Review: "Paul"

Is this the year of Spielberg nostalgia?

In June, children of the '80s will flock to J.J. Abrams' "Super 8," whose trailer suggests that it will resonate strongly with fans of the Amblin brand.

Until then, we have "Paul," an extraterrestrial comedy starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, and littered with homages to "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "E.T." and "Jaws."

Of course, I don't remember E.T. smoking pot or saying the f-word every five minutes. Maybe I haven't seen the special edition.

Graeme (Pegg) and Clive (Frost) are two British nerds visiting the U.S. for a comic book convention, followed by a road trip across famous alien landing sites, such as Area 51. During their travels, a little green man named Paul encounters the duo and asks for their help escaping the government clutches. Sane people would normally run away if an extraterrestrial approached their RV, but as Paul is a laid back, stoner alien voiced by Seth Rogen, the two geeks don't mind a little extra adventure. Along the way they pick up a fundamentalist Christian named Ruth (Kristen Wiig) and run afoul of a government agent (Jason Bateman) out to track Paul down.

A film so full of film references is nothing new to Pegg and Frost, who co-starred in the classic genre mash-ups "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz." Like those two films, "Paul" is written by Pegg and Frost. Yet the film lacks the energy, wit and fun of those classics, settling for lazy gags and crass banter. It's "E.T." by way of Kevin Smith, although even Smith would find the "Star Wars" shout outs a bit too obvious.

Pegg and Frost really have nothing to do here. "Shaun" and "Fuzz" may not be deep films, but they gave the two actors actual characters to play. Despite its zombie film roots, "Shaun's" humor came from the idea of a slacker having to man up and rise to the occasion; "Hot Fuzz's" biggest laughs came from placing an action movie super cop in a tiny English hamlet.

Here, we're not given much more information other than the fact that Graeme and Clive are nerds who like "Star Wars." Clive is supposedly a writer, but nothing comes of that until the end credits. Graeme has a romance with Ruth, but it's mostly obligatory - there's nothing really for Pegg to sink his teeth into.

What's left is a collection of obvious and homophobic jokes (the hotel only has one bed, ha!) or movie references that start out clever and then are delivered with no subtlety. For instance, it's funny when Graeme and Clive buy "Five Tones" fireworks to signal Paul's alien companions - movie fans would get the "Close Encounters" reference. It's not funny to have them remark about how fitting the reference is.

But the majority of the film's gags are of this variety. A few are clever - listen closely to the music in a Western bar, for instance. Some, such as Paul's contribution to 1980s movies, start funny and then go on too long for the joke to work. And others - a character shooting a CB and saying "boring conversation anyway" - just lack conviction and fall flat.

You might notice I haven't even mentioned Paul yet. The truth is, he kind of gets lost in the shuffle. I understand the thinking in bringing Rogen in to voice the alien as a laidback everyschlub. But there's really nothing very interesting or funny about Paul, except that he talks like Seth Rogen. Maybe I'm still recovering from "The Green Hornet," but that didn't help my enjoyment of the film.

As for Wiig, the "Saturday Night Live" star who has been hit-or-miss in feature films, she's given the thankless task of playing a stereotypical and offensive caricature of fundamentalist Christians. There's an intriguing concept in having a character begin to question their faith by encountering something beyond their grasp, but the film plays it for cheap laughs about religion and abandons any attempt at character in exchange for having Ruth be so excited about being "free" of dogma so that she can now smoke and swear all she wants. It's a mean-spirited and unfunny characterization.

When it becomes clear that the road trip can only meander so long before getting stale, the film packs itself full of characters. In addition to Bateman's agent, we have Bill Hader as a psychotic cop, John Carroll Lynch as Ruth's fundamentalist father, Sigourney Weaver as the government head behind the conspiracy and Blythe Danner as one of Paul's oldest earth friends. None of these people are particularly bad - I laughed quite a bit at Bateman's deadpan delivery, Weaver's over-the-top menace and Hader's bizarre antics. But by the time the film gets to the third act, it becomes so stuffed with superfluous characters that it spins off the rails.

The problem is that I've loved Frost and Pegg before. I hold "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz" up as two of the last decade's greatest comedies. The two have a wonderful chemistry together, and that does result in some scattered laughs here and there in "Paul." But with its genre mixings and the duo at the forefront, the film obviously wants to evoke the same sense of fun as their previous collaborations, but simply lacks the wit and energy.

The problem may be director Greg Mottola, who has successfully handled buddy comedies ("Superbad") and nostalgia ("Adventureland") before. But Mottola lacks the finesse to seamlessly integrate the lifts from other films with the same flair as "Shaun" director Edgar Wright, who used homage as a way to tell a story; here, the parody feels clunky and obvious, delivered with a shout instead of a sly whisper.

It's disappointing that a cast and crew that has made me laugh very hard before is unable to get more than a few chuckles out of me this time out. But their previous successes give me confidence that they'll return to form in the future; hopefully, "Paul" is just an alien experience to them.

Originally published here.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Movie Review: "Rango"

A witty and exciting mashup of Westerns, film noir and whatever else passes through director Gore Verbinski's brain, "Rango" is easily the most original non-Pixar animated film in years. Don't let the Nickelodeon label and talking animals fool you: This is far from standard kiddie fare.

Johnny Depp voices the titular character, a chameleon left stranded in the desert when his aquarium topples from the family car. Following advice from an unfortunate armadillo (Alfred Molina), the lizard seeks shelter in the ramshackle town of Dirt, where he quickly impresses the locals with far-fetched tales of bravery, assumes the name Rango and is appointed sheriff. Although he'd much rather be acting, Rango quickly takes to his new role of protecting the town's lizards, possums and other assorted creatures, and guarding the village's diminishing water supply.

On paper, this sounds like just another fish-out-of-water tale, a popular staple with animated films. But John Logan's script, coupled with Verbinski's outrageous visual style and Depp's love for everything off-kilter, make this something far better.

Rather than parody Western tropes, "Rango" presents itself as a true genre tale, complete with shoot-outs in the town square, a thrilling chase through the desert and a saloon full of shady drunks. There's the shifty town mayor, a dastardly rattlesnake villain and a pretty little lizard to save. "Rango" is not a spoof, but a true Western comedy, respectful of the genre and finding laughs not by poking fun at its cliches but celebrating them and mixing its humor in with the story.

"Rango" could easily be a child's gateway for great movies. In addition to its Western roots, the plot also borrows heavily from "Chinatown," pays homage to "Apocalypse Now" and even makes a nod to Depp's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." The film's full of witty references and sly in-jokes that will delight cinephiles, and I imagine adults will get a good chuckle when Rango visits the Spirit of the West, who looks fairly familiar.

The references will likely go over children's heads - I doubt many preteens have watched "Chinatown" recently. But unlike so many recent animated films, which rely almost entirely on pop culture-centric gags, "Rango" will enthrall kids with its nonstop arsenal of gags and action sequences. It should be noted, however, that the adventure gets a bit intense in some parts and parents may be surprised at some of the language flying out of the toons' mouths; it's nothing that violates "Rango's" PG-rating, but hearing cartoon characters say "hell" and "damn" make take some parents off guard.

A visual marvel, "Rango" is beautifully animated, with a bright and diverse pallet for Verbinski to play with. Sometimes the colors pop off the screen, as with Rango, his Hawaiian shirts and lush playscape in the aquarium. Other times, Verbinski bathes the characters in shadows and takes advantage of the film's Western background to have his characters charge through the dust and grime of the Old West. As he proved with his "Pirates of the Caribbean" films, Verbinski loves bizarre visuals, and Rango's adventures in the dessert give him room to play with some delightfully weird images, like a wind-up goldfish or headless Barbie doll. It's "High Noon" by way of Terry Gilliam.

Delightful and exciting as "Rango" often is, the film sometimes feels ready to topple over. Depp is doing a variation on the eccentric, panicked hero he often plays, but sometimes his jokes fizzle and his character falls flat. The film is so packed with ideas that, at times, it's rather unwieldy and overstuffed. The film also resorts to bathroom humor several times, which should delight kids but will have adults rolling their eyes.

Originally published in the Advisor & Source newspapers.

But how often do we have that problem with animated films these days? Most the time, anything without the Pixar label is struggling to get out a steady stream of easy gags and dated pop culture references. "Rango" is a true original that works more often than not. And those times it fails, it deserves quite a bit of credit for trying something different.

Movie Review: "The Adjustment Bureau"

An intriguing, smart and often silly rumination on fate, destiny and love, "The Adjustment Bureau" is a film that works in spite of itself.

When Congressman David Norris (Matt Damon) suffers a crushing defeat during election season, he's ready to throw in the towel. But a chance encounter in the men's bathroom with beguiling beauty Elise (Emily Blunt) reenergizes David and leaves him smitten. When he bumps into the woman on the bus months later, David tries to pursue her, but is surprised to stumble upon a gang of fedora-wearing men stopping his path.

These men, we quickly learn, are the Adjustment Bureau - a team of professionals working for the Chairman (aka Fate) to make sure people don't step out of line with their destiny. David is never supposed to see Elise again and warned about the consequences if he does - and the Adjustment Bureau has supernatural abilities to change minds, cause car accidents and do just about anything to ensure David and Elise are kept apart. But David, so sure of his feelings for this mysterious stranger, feels that the Bureau is wrong, and that he and Elise are supposed to be together.

The concept, based on a short story by Phillip K. Dick, is interesting. Who among us hasn't wondered whether a different decision in our life - a new route to work, a talk with a stranger - would have completely altered where we ended up? The issue of free will vs. determinism has fueled many films, some of them good and some of them bad.

"The Adjustment Bureau" leans a little more to the former, even as it struggles under the weight of its own silliness. The trouble with a film that so literally deals with issues of fate is that it risks sounding corny and self-serious. Lines like "if he kisses her ... a real kiss ... everything changes" may produce snickers from the audience, and the villains' bumbling throughout the film's first half may be intended to be humorous but comes across a bit clumsy.

The film works much better when it takes the time to go beyond its science fiction trappings and focus on the love story between David and Elise. Damon is one of this generation's most likeable male leads and he brings a real charisma to his role as a politician with a troubled past. He and Blunt have a terrific chemistry together, and their shared scenes are sweet, funny and romantic. The thing that makes the film work, despite some of the plot's clumsiness, is that the actors make the audience want to see the characters together.

Director George Nolfi finds a surer footing for the sci-fi elements in the film's second half, when Terrence Stamp is brought in as an agent assigned to finally shut David down. Stamp brings a sense of intimidation and menace to the film, raising the film's stakes from the earlier moments when David could easily outwit his pursuers. Anthony Mackie also has an interesting role as an agent who finds himself sympathizing with David's plight.

Despite its inherent silliness, "The Adjustment Bureau" is a mostly enjoyable thriller driven by an effective romance. It provokes questions - albeit surface ones - about matters of fate, destiny and sacrifice. It's not particularly deep, but it has a bit more to chew on that, say, the latest Jason Statham thrill ride. Only in its final act, when it devolves into a series of chase sequences and arrives at a limp denouement, does it begin to fly off the rails.

Dick's work has been the basis for a number of films, some great ("Blade Runner"), some good ("Minority Report") and some unspeakable bad ("Paycheck"). "The Adjustment Bureau" falls closer to the middle category - it's not a waste of time, but I wouldn't say it's your destiny to see it, either.

Article originally published in the Advisor and Source Newspapers.


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