Grown Ups

By , June 29, 2010 3:48 pm

"But wouldn't the character's development be furthered if I farted in this scene?"

Reviewed by James Owen

Adam Sandler’s collaborations with “Grown Ups” director Dennis Dugan chart the star’s devolution. Over a decade and a half, the emotionally-broken man-child of Dugan’s “Happy Gilmore”  has tried to turn his unhinged impulses into something redeeming. Enter the relatively socially conscious Sandler movies, beginning with Dugan’s “Big Daddy”. Ultimately, neither did much—except tap into the dark fantasy of emasculated young men raised with a sense of entitlement, who learn they have no control of the real world. Who wouldn’t want to smash a golf cart or paralyze a few roller bladers? Personal mayhem is AWESOME when it results in a happy ending!   This Oedipal dreck was directed at, and ultimately consumed by, Gen X frat boys. Guilty as charged.   

Later, Sandler and Dugan tried to grow up by tackling complex social issues. The result was the let downs of “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” and “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan”. These films disappointed because they were, especially for Adam Sandler, rather intriguing ideas. Sandler, a Republican who donated to Rudi Giuliani’s campaign, tried to square the latent homophobia of his man-child movies with a pro gay marriage message. In “Zohan,” Dugan and Sandler (who is Jewish) plant a Zionist who escaped the violence of the Holy Land in the middle of multicultural NYC. Still, even with these provocative set-ups, these films never rose above simple stereotypes and tired gags. Sandler and Dugan didn’t seem interested in the films’ concepts; they were wasted on just another chance for mugging, funny voices, and aggressive homophobia.

So, for those who have grown up watching Adam Sandler movies, “Grown Ups” is a depressing reminder of the onset of middle age (Tellingly, I watched “Grown Ups” under the influence of a muscle relaxer due to a sprained back). Just as they have for fifteen years, Sandler and Dugan miscalculate: They confuse sentimentality with maturity. In fact, the same structural problems exist in this quasi-family slapstick comedy as they did in those juvenile gross-out comedies.

Like those earlier films, “Grown Ups” is not interested in context or complexity. To start, all of the characters are one-note: Sandler is the Rich Guy Spoiled By His Affluence. He’s stuck with a spoiled wife (Salma Hayek, who deserves more to do) and two miserably rotten children. Chris Rock is the Emasculated Husband, constantly disrespected by his working wife (Maya Rudolph, in another role Sandler and Dugan virtually ignore). Rob Schneider is Creepy Dude, who shows up with the sure-fire laugher, Old Horny Wife (Joyce Van Patten, who creates a lot of sympathy for Joyce Van Patten). David Spade is the Smarmy Single Guy who, despite little screen time, does a good job of playing David Spade. Then there’s Kevin James playing the Fat Schlep. Even though he’s fat and ho-hum, he still has a really attractive wife (Maria Bello, whose acting skills Dugan utilizes with a gag about squirting breast milk), like every fat husband in recent pop culture. Like The King of Queens for instance.

They gather to mourn the death of their junior high basketball coach, who Sandler and Dugan somehow restrain themselves from giving the Hilariously Strange Death, like “Happy Gilmore”’s Carl Weathers.  Rather than touching, this set up is really sad. Does anyone really care about the mindless pep talks their 7th grade coach gave them? Especially when you’re pushing fifty? Not to mention that, almost as an aside in the third act, the film introduces a rematch with the rival team (featuring athletic heavyweights Colin Quinn and Steve Buscemi) as though every character’s dignity is going to hinge on the outcome.

As with Sandler and Dugan’s post-Gilmore movies, this film has more on its mind that just some cheap jokes. There’s a lot of talk about aging and death. You know a film is desperate to pull on your heart strings when Sandler’s daughter says in that little annoying kid voice, “I want to use the Navigator to help you find your friend in Heaven.” My first thought was: Nice product placement. My second thought was:  Really? Why don’t we just haul Marley out and give him a second dose of pentobarbital as long as we’re going for pat sentiment?

These Important Life Lessons are furthered by each character’s Big Secret. Each secret is so ingrained within their bare-bone character there’s hardly any tension in the reveal. Example:  Everyone knows Sandler is super rich, but he doesn’t want them to know that they have a nanny. So, he tells them she’s a foreign exchange student! Wacky!  If your friends are going to bust your chops for being rich, what difference does it make? But this is “Grown Ups” idea of tension and conflict—just an extension of their tired caricatures. The script does this for every single character, each dumber than the last. Throw in some jokes about an old woman passing gas and Kevin James falling down (the fat-guy sub for Chris Farley), and that’s the movie.

Improbably, there are small moments between the actors that suggest a better film about middle age anxiety. These moments recall one of Gene Siskel’s great tests of movie quality:  Which is more interesting, the movie you’re watching or a documentary of the actors just talking?  In this case, I would have paid for the latter. While I am certainly not a fan of the majority of the leads (Sandler and Rock are the only two who matter), their interactions made me laugh more than once. One gets the sense that it must be pretty funny to see Spade and and Rock gang up and make fun of Schneider and then to watch him get all sour and defensive. This peeling of the onion should have been the movie.

Instead, “Grown Ups” wants us to “care” because it’s “sincere”. With that, it’s clear there’s not much difference between aiming for the cheap laugh and the cheap emotion. No matter the genre, the message is: If you don’t invest in the characters, then nothing will work. That’s a lesson Dugan and Sandler still haven’t figured out in fifteen years.

The Pitch:

1 Old School

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 1994-95 Season of Saturday Night Live

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

2 Grown Ups

2 Grown Ups

Knight and Day

By , June 22, 2010 4:26 pm

Cruise Gearing Up After Reading Paul Haggis' Scientology Resignation Letter

Reviewed by James Owen

What’s in a title? Seems to me even before you watch a trailer, the title gives your first taste for what one might expect. It’s the first defining moment. Got a guy in an iron suit fighting crime? Better call it “Iron Man”. Maybe it’s a clue to the lesson of the film. As in, “I bet Drew Barrymore and Justin Long really teach me about ‘Going the Distance.’” Sometimes they should just be warnings. Like whenever a title is preceded by “Lars von Trier’s…” you know this a film to make you hate yourself.

The title of James Mangold’s “Knight and Day” suggests yet another film about opposites placed into some form of conflict where they must learn to deal with one another in order to give resolution to their dilemma. Watching the trailer suggests the audience would expect two pretty stars (the very capable Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz) bickering and kvetching until the banter turns into flirting and seduction until we finally figure all of those were one of the same and…these two were perfect for each other from the beginning! Cue the Beyonce song and let the credits roll.

Watching “Knight and Day” itself is a completely different experience. The story is far more complicated than the basic facts one needs to have before going in: June Havens (Diaz) is catching a flight from Wichita to Boston and keeps bumping into Roy Miller (Cruise). They bump into each other so much one must think this is an over-the-top Meet Cute. It is…with a twist. She boards the same plane only to find out that almost everyone on board wants to kill him.

Of course, the people employing the people trying to kill Roy think she’s working for him and puts June in the cross-hairs as well. Without getting into specifics (all of which deal with the CIA and a bunch of arm dealers all vying for some new battery of much importance), Roy’s efforts to keep June out of harm’s way requires a lot of car chases, explosions, and bouncing around from one exotic, sexy-looking location to the next. Along the way we get Peter Saarsgard playing a CIA spook whose bizzaro-Southern accent disappears after the first scene and Paul Dano with perhaps the oddest mustache you’ll ever bear witness.
Other than the fact that he’s some sort of super-secret agent and she’s just an “average” person (who looks like Cameron Diaz), there’s nothing really “night and day” about these two. In fact, it does not seem like the characters Cruise and Diaz play are that far apart from one another emotionally. Cruise, playing his charms like a two dollar piccolo as always, is dangerous but never very threatening. He is a risk taker by the merits of his profession…whatever that profession may be.

Diaz, who has never received the credit she deserves for radiating a normal likability despite her superhuman looks, isn’t just the normal gal getting on a plane in Kansas (trust me): We know she wants to take risks because she’s always talking about finishing a rebuild on a classic car (a film shorthand for “tough and spunky so don’t mess with THIS one”) and about how “’someday’ just is another word for never”. Plus, she dumped her perfectly nice, fireman fiancée before the movie starts because HE isn’t exciting enough. He puts out fires for a living! My point is she’s not much different than her male counterpart and, thus, there’s not a whole lot of friction that ever develops over the course of the movie. It’s like “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” made about their really long, extended first date but Mrs. Smith remained unsure about her killer instincts.

 Then again there’s nothing wrong with making a movie around that concept either. Plus, you could find worse actors than these two to spend two hours with. Yes, yes I know: They’re both fading is the meme. But it’s clear from watching these performances that Cruise has gained a loosey-goosey quality thanks to Les Grossman and the only thing Diaz is suffering from is bad picks in movies as she is as funny and engaging as ever. Mangold keeps the action moving and, as low of a bar as this may be, I could actually figure out what was going on at all times.

Presenting “Knight and Day” as a conflict-driven romantic epic creates false expectations. The film’s original title was “Wichita” and, to me, is a truer notion of a film when it defines itself by the starting point. Like how “Fargo” only spent the first five minutes in its titular town. But no one is going to see a movie named after the largest town in Kansas. The next title was “Trouble Man” and placed the emphasis in its proper place: It’s not that the two main characters are different but this dude has got some real problems. You can’t really sell this as a romantic-action-comedy-whatever if it’s got “Man” in the title. So “Knight and Day” it is. I should also point out that it turns out one of the character is really named “Knight” but neither of them is named “Day. So that doesn’t make sense, either.

Oh, would I just let it go already?

The Pitch:

4 Mr. and Mrs. Smith

4 Mr. and Mrs. Smith

4 Mr. and Mrs. Smith

4 Mr. and Mrs. Smith

 

 

 

 

 

Minus

1 Ashton Kutcher and Katherine Heigel

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

3 Knight and Day

3 Knight and Day

3 Knight and Day

A-Team, The

By , June 20, 2010 6:25 pm

Jennifer! C'mon! You never got this pissed at Brad, did you?

 “The A-Team” is the variety of blockbuster that doesn’t just want your money—it wants your respect because the movie, like you, is in on the joke. The question is whether we, the self-aware summer moviegoer, is supposed to be impressed by irony. In other words, because “The A-Team” is aware of its ridiculous blockbusteriousness, should we joyfully spill our sodas and popcorn while convalescing into one big gut laugh?

Perhaps back in the early 90’s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Hollywood had a duty to mock the Cold War jingoism it helped propagate.  But just as Planet Hollywood struck people as a cynical attempt to have its twelve dollar burgers and eat them too, the movies of the Ah-nold, Stallone, and Willis triumvirate couldn’t be both ridiculous and earnest for very long. Die Hard, sure, but Schwarzeneggar quickly degenerated into the mismatched muscleman, Stallone started going straight-to-video, and Willis played his harmonica for a decade until his resurrection by Quentin Tarantino.

So, yeah, there was a span of summers where the self-aware, ironic action movie was hip. But we’re way past that now. The great comic book movies of this decade have demonstrated that a big budget blockbuster can be thoughtful, complex, and deliver the popcorn goods without winking. Brian Singer’s “X-Men” movies weren’t just showcases for Hugh Jackman’s triceps, but interesting stories about civil rights (Professor Xavier the MLK figure; Magneto the Malcolm X). Sam Raimi’s first two “Spider-Man” movies touching portraits of tortured adolescence. Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” movies explore the dark line between vigilantism and heroism. The apotheosis of the style is Peter Jackson’s Oscar-winning The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s not enough to roll out the blockbuster template and amp up the stunts.

“The A-Team” has some interesting ideas, but is too busy being smugly ironic to pull them together into a cohesive story. The plot revolves around The A-Team’s quest to clear their names after being set up by some vigilante private contractors. “Black Forest” (um, yes, they’re supposed to be who you think they are) operators aren’t controlled by military law, and thus don’t uphold the ethics of “real” soldiers. Or, as Hannibal says, they’re “a bunch of frat boys with trigger fingers.” Understand, the A-Team isn’t some off-the-books special-ops squad; they simply specialize in “the crazy.” Thus, the movie venerates military law and support the troops (the boys reverently show each other their Ranger tatts), but also allows Hannibal and Face to drive a tank in midair that’s been dropped from a plane. Don’t forget the CIA, who are a bunch of cocky suits who just don’t get it. Most interestingly, the team’s final mission is something out of a Rand Paul nightmare: Apparently, the Iraqis had the only plates outside of the U.S. Mint that can print our money (My God, Saddam ran the Fed?!?!).

You get the point:  “The A-Team” wants to “say something” like that string of failed mid-aughts Iraq War movies (“Rendition,” “Lions for Lambs,” etc.), but also be A Big Ass Blockbuster. Again, “The A Team” lack the cohesion and artistry of the great comic book films to pull it off. First, “The A-Team” relies too heavily on the Blockbuster template. The first twenty minutes are the Audacious Character Introductions (Face is going to be set on fire because he nailed some Mexican drug lord’s wife; Murdock is in an insane asylum, etc.). As Murdock captains a helicopter across the border so that the Air Force can legally blow away some Mexican drug copters in pursuit (I think that’s what was happening), Hannibal announces that he loves it when a plan comes together.

This leads us to the second problem: Qui-Gon Jinn had better dialogue than Hannibal Smith. In fact, The Plan is like The Force, except that The Plan often requires Hannibal to take a half dozen punches to the face before Face cons his way past guards, B.A. beats some people up, and Murdock flies the chopper in for the rescue. The rest of the team isn’t much better. Here’s a sample of dialogue that occurs in fifteen to twenty various forms:

Murdock:  Whoa man, that’s crazy!

B.A.:  I’m sick of this crazy shit, man!

The third problem is that, while Neeson—whose career has become a shorthand for grizzled mentoring—is solid, the rest of the cast is inconsistent at best. Quinton “Rampage” Jackson highlights the clarity and precision of Mr. T’s line delivery. Bradley Cooper delivers a very professional performance, letting his pecs, hair gel, and bleached front teeth do his acting for him. Sharlto Copley as Murdock is a more interesting case: If Keith Richards inspired Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow, then Copley’s Murdock is an action movie Chris “Mad Dog” Russo.

In short, “The A-Team” is “Ocean’s Eleven” if directed by Tony Scott. More precisely, this is exactly the movie “Macgruber”  targeted a month ago. “Macgruber”’s brilliance is that it’s only a beat beyond the movies it parodies; “The A-Team”’s problem is that it wants “Macgruber”’s irony along with “Rendition”’s seriousness. You can’t have both at the same time, so “The A-Team” opts to be so loud that you won’t know the difference.  Considering the DVD potential, Twentieth Century Fox has to love it when a plan comes together.

The Pitch:

1 Ocean's Eleven

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 Tony Scott

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

2 The A Team

2 The A Team

Winter’s Bone

By , June 18, 2010 10:00 am

Jennifer Lawrence in search of that elusive residual check from the The Bill Engvall Show

 

Review by James Owen 

I went into Debra Granik’s adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s novel “Winter’s Bone” with an extremely skeptical eye. You see, I am almost certainly going to be the only reviewer of this fine film who not only was raised in the Missouri Ozarks (where the film was based and shot), but also has spent the majority of his adult life there. My skepticism arises from the unfortunate tendency of entertainment and marketing—from both outside and, tragically, from within the area—to show anyone living among the vast forests and stunning plateaus straddling the Mason-Dixon line as “hillbillies”. You’ve seen this in cartoons or billboards or, Heaven forbid, in what passes as “musical entertainment” in Branson (cleverly described by The Simpsons as “Las Vegas if it were run by Ned Flanders”): The bearded “wild man” garbed with some half-pinned pair of overalls sucking on a corn pipe and chugging some “XX” marked jug of moonshine.  

Not only is this character an imbecile, but also a rebellious free spirit who bucks societal and legal norms, frozen in some bygone era. “Hillbilly”—a phrase of Scotch-Irish origin mostly associated with Appalachia, but first used to describe an Alabaman—stuck to the area of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas with no thanks to its own inhabitants. A novel of some reputation, The Shepherd of the Hills, presents simplistic Ozarkian living as a magical, Christian elixir that cures all ills.  Later, this image was transformed into the white minstrel show The Beverly Hillbillies, created by Missourian Paul Henning (whom the state saw fit to name a state forest after). Li’l Abner and the presumably inbred inhabitants of Dogpatch, Arkansas tormented the “funnies” pages for decades. For a while, the Chamber of Commerce in Springfield (the 300,000 strong “Queen City of the Ozarks”) gave out an annual “Hillbilly Medallion”, President Harry Truman being the most notable of its recipients. Every theme park and gift shop lining any route of travel through the area offers tourists a chance to purchase outhouse-themed knick knacks and “Bubba teeth”.  

Once, at some more idealistic point in my life, I had some fear that this kind of stereotype’s only damage was that it made everyone from this area come across as some sort of uneducated, backwards nut. Of course, there are plenty of backward nuts from this area. (See: Ashcroft, John) I myself am a frequent victim; I once had a citizen of the elitist and blandly racist city of St. Louis ask me if I drove a four-wheeler to work. (For the record, I don’t) But painting with such broad, idiotic strokes has never been healthy for a geographic region. Or for a race, creed, or any other form of identification-at-birth.  

Now that I’ve become a little more complicated in my paranoia, I think this stereotype is far more evil. I find it more evil when perpetuated from within because this hides the ugly truth: We “hillbillies” are plagued by some great societal ills. We are impoverished; the poorest areas in Missouri are not its urban cores, but the rural hills along the Arkansas border. Child abuse and neglect, even while largely unreported, are at epidemic levels. Spousal abuse and sexual assaults are not far behind. Kids don’t make it to college because they often don’t make it through high school. Thought they cling to religion, a lot of them don’t make it to graduation because of pregnancy. And drugs? Well, it’s no wonder that one of the slang terms for methamphetamine around the country is named after southwest Missouri’s area code? (Requesting “417” in LA will get you some pseudoephedrine hydrochloride-laced Drano.) The powers that be who run the theme parks and music shows (staunch Republicans who pay their employees so little they openly encourage them to sign up on the public dole) don’t want any attention on the sad and pitiful, the violent and the addicted. That doesn’t sell time shares at the lake and doesn’t get people to line up for your roller coasters.   

Since that’s off my chest, I can get back to my current skepticism regarding an indie film crew heading into the Ozarks to shoot a story about a bunch of drug-addicted hicks. Generalizations are the lazy filmmaker’s best friend and, with a lack of proper cinematic guide, this project seemed to invite it. But director Debra Granik starkly shows the reality of the Ozarks through a complicated but understated character going on her tragic journey. Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence, already burning up Hollywood after the film’s Sundance win) is a young woman burdened with an invalid mother, an absent father, and helpless younger siblings. When a sheriff’s deputy pulls up to inform Ree that her father is a wanted man, we discover that he’s more absent than we thought. Worse, Pops has a court date in a few days put the property up for his bond. If there’s a no-show, for whatever reason, the family spread gets sold to the highest bidder on the courthouse steps. As they say, the place ain’t much but it’s all she’s got (although proof of death would be a reprieve as well). So Ree somehow, someway, has to find him. One might think that such an isolated place would make it hard to hide. But if someone’s got the will, there’s all sorts of dark places to tuck away in them there hills.  

This search leads Ree into some pretty hostile territory. A lot of critics have characterized “Winter’s Bone” as a mystery. But, knowing that Dad is a meth cook who rolls with some pretty nasty sorts doesn’t offer much opportunity for a happy ending.  Thus, there’s not enough tension for “Winter’s Bone” to be properly labeled a “mystery.” This is more of a sick, strange “The Wizard of Oz”: Ree encounters family members who talk endlessly about kinship, but seem more interested in traveling the yellow brick road of running drugs and making money. She has to seek help from friends who dropped out of school to start families, or, at the very least, had kids and now battle deadbeat spouses. Ultimately, retracing her steps allows Ree to see how she came to her noble dead end—a life where she has to teach her younger siblings to shoot and skin a squirrel when they aren’t begging the neighbors for something to eat (Ree’s smirking response to her brother’s question as to whether they have to eat the animal’s organs: “Not yet”). Any way out of this world—or, in the least, trying keep things from getting worse—requires confronting some pretty unpleasant truths about Ree’s roots.  

As with the rest of her life, Ree gets no assistance on this journey. Uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes, scary enough to make you forget his goofy performance as Kenny Powers’ brother in Eastbound and Down) has some bare shreds of morality that move him from trying to suppress his niece’s search to trying to help her. And when I say help, I mean threatening to kill a person or two. There are also a variety of authority figures who impotently attempt to introduce law and logic into a lawless and illogical place.  

For Ree, the only thing that matters is survival. Unfortunately, her survival is inconvenient for everyone else’s survival; Ree’s world is populated by angry, delusional scavengers.  Believe me, I wanted to find something wrong with these portrayals, but these people are out there and they are abundant. What “Winter’s Bone” doesn’t do is soften their edges with buffoonery (like Hillary Swank’s Missouri relatives in “Million Dollar Baby”) or try to make them unnecessarily villainous (pretty much every back wood nightmare film since “Deliverance”). It’s not funny, exactly, but there are some strong moments of gallows humor. It’s not sentimental, but that doesn’t mean you won’t feel deeply.  

Not just a compelling character study, “Winter’s Bone” thrives with its look and atmosphere. It’s set on lone trailer plots and in backwoods drug dens, in dense woods and barren dead fields.  This is a slate gray film not achieved through some visual color scheme, but by catching the Ozarks in its mixture of dull wintry sky and a blood-dyed brown: a clash of ash and iron. The landscape is cluttered with real eye-catchers like burnt-out trailers and grungy honky-tonk bars. But there’s subtle touches, like the toppled-over satellite dish and the stripped down deer carcass. The homes Ree visit are decorated with balsa food and flooded with massive VHS cassette collections and faded other remnants of, perhaps, happier times. There is an untamed beauty here, evidenced by the caverns and the river shores. This is, for better and certainly for worse, what the Ozarks looks like. The landscape highlights our plight and despair: Beautiful, yet trashed by poverty and waste. Granik is not a flashy director, but she certainly knows how to stand back and let her surroundings do all the work.  

“Winter’s Bone” is certainly a film that can survive an Ozarkian’s scrutinous eye. It is not a condescending film, but one that looks at its main character with dignity, not pity. The film is also, despite its focus on lawlessness and ruinous drugs, not hopeless. There are moments where the light shines pretty clear through the trees.  The Chamber of Commerce around these here parts wouldn’t dare endorse this film, but certainly take that as a compliment. The film nails it and starts the derby for best film of the year. Be sure to tell ’em this hillbilly sent you.      

    

The Pitch:   

 

2 Breaking Bad

2 Breaking Bad

 

    

    

    

    

    

Plus   

2 Coal Miner's Daughter

2 Coal Miner's Daughter

 

 

    

    

    

    

Equals   

    

4 Winter's Bone

4 Winter's Bone

4 Winter's Bone

4 Winter's Bone

Get Him to the Greek

By , June 14, 2010 3:59 pm

Hill and Brand get a look at the Gary Coleman autopsy photos.

 Review by James Owen

In its first five minutes, Nicholas Stoller’s “Get Him to His Greek” achieves comedic brilliance, yet  cements the film’s eventual downfall. Rocker Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), whom we last saw tormenting Jason Segal in 2008’s “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”, is in some sort of behind-the-scenes mock-u-mentary for a video of the dreadful-sounding “African Child”. Of course, it’s much worse than it sounds: a pretentious, leaden, completely nonsensical series of lyrics and images that exploit the very sub-Saharan Africans the song purports to be supporting.  Ignoring calls that the song is “the worst thing to happen to the continent since Apartheid”, Snow earnestly explains he believes the song can save Africa and that he is “some sort of Jesus sent from space. Yes, a white space Jesus”. My first thought was, Oh my Gosh! That’s the most perfect description of Bono ever. For, as much as Mr. Himes and I bow at the altar of The Edge and the Vicar of U2, it sure is easy to mock Mr. Paul Hewson for trying to raise money for AIDS awareness while selling Gap clothes.  My second thought was: what a perfect parody of the vapid, self-serving celebrity culture that has followed Bono into this tragic geography.

If this scene had been the totality of “Get Him to the Greek”, I would have been happy. But there is a movie to be told about Snow and his fall from the wagon, his drop in the charts, and the studio that wants to revitalize his career. The problem here is Snow was conceived and executed as a bit of a joke. Segal wrote the small sample of Aldous Snow’s absurd lyrics for “Sarah Marshall” to contrast the rock star with the schlubby jingo-artist main character.  The lyrics showed Brand’s character’s ridiculous confidence in all the things Segal’s character did not: career, talent, sexuality, intimacy.   This was Snow’s only function, and Brand was able to comically overdo the physicality and Brit-rock theatrics.

But, by making this character the focus of an entire film, Snow cannot be construed as a serious rocker worthy of fan adulation and industry hoopla–which is precisely what “Greek” tries to portray. (It could also be that I have a terrible disdain for Brand. Some might think I am overreacting, but those people probably don’t know the story of  Brand appearing on MTV the day after 9/11 dressed as Osama bin Laden and making World Trade Center jokes with physical humor. He can blame that on the heroin now, but some things are a little hard to forgive; especially when they are done simply to get a cheap rise for some sort of easy joke. He has every right to do that, but I every right to disrespect him for it.)

By shackling itself to such a misguided concept, “Get Him to the Greek” doesn’t reach its full comic potential. The story’s structure is simple: Studio lackey and resident music idealist Aaron Green (Johan Hill, tuning down his nastiness to a sweet effect) is assigned by mogul Sergio Roma (Sean Combs, playing himself channeled through Les Grossman) to get the fading star from his London flat to LA’s Greek Theater in seventy-two hours for a comeback show. Of course, getting there leads starry-eyed Green through a world where music is compromised by mercantile, where a person is only as good as they can be used by the industry, and where emotions are quickly disposed for gratification. On top of those heady concepts, there are also a whole lot of jokes about drugs, orifices, and a combination of drugs and orifices. While never really straying very far from the funny, some of this has a dark edge of  the emotionally draining reality of the entertainment industry.

All of this is tossed between several relationships: There’s the Fan and the Star, who learn to hate and then to love one another again. Then there’s the Star and his Ex Jackie Q (Rose Byrne), who dumps him for being too sober. Then, there’s the Star and His Burnt-Out Father who’s embodied by Colm Meaney in a way that makes you remember the actor can almost do anything with lame, Daddy-never-loved-me material. Then, there’s the Fan and his Girl.   She’s Dr. Daphnie and, as played by Elizabeth Moss, it took me ¾ of the film to realize she was Zoe Bartlett from The West Wing. But, while beautiful and smart, she’s kind of dull and possibly dragging our protagonist from his dreams. All of these relationships are relatively harmless, but then they’re forced into awkward resolution near the end of the film where nothing would logically occur unless the plot required it. It’s almost as though producer Judd Apatow realized the first hour and half of this film lacked his patented sentimentality, so he crammed it into ten minutes.

All of this is too bad, really. Apatow could have achieved some sort of alternate “Dewey Cox” (that he co-wrote and produced) parody where the rock music bio-pic is picked apart for its trite plotting and generalized stereotypes that make even the most unique artists blandly predictable. Then again, “Cox” didn’t make any money and never received the attention it deserved. So instead of that we get a parred-down “Funny People” where, instead of stand-up comedians, we get rock stars who are defined by their novelty songs. If this were the film’s only ambition were to be comical (and you’ll laugh enough to merit the experience), all would be well. But this wants to be a feel-good morality tale as well, and the proceedings just are not weighty enough to deserve such a treatment.  Whereas a film like “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” gets its humor from a simple character study, “Greek” takes a humorous story and tries to find character. It only works the other way around.

The Pitch:

2 "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story"

2 "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story"

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 Brian Molko

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

3 Get Him to the Greek

3 Get Him to the Greek

3 Get Him to the Greek

Summer Movie Preview, July 2010

By , June 4, 2010 7:43 am

We're going to be the most gorgeous couple in rehab after this whole vampire fad blows over.

July 2nd

The Last Airbender:  It looks like the Slumdog Millionaire guy does battle with a bald kid wearing a burlap hooded robe doing a Darth Maul impersonation with a kendo stick in a circle of candles.  M. Night Shyamalan tries to shed the “Twist Ending Guy Who Made a Great Movie Twelve Years Ago, But Has Only Done Crap Since” rap and remake his career as the director who…I don’t know, made a movie that looks a lot like Bulletproof Monk without Stifler?  Well, whatever we might say about Night (though nobody’s tossing this around anymore, are they?), he doesn’t make lazy movies.  Night believes he’s a great filmmaker, even if his ideas are half-baked Manicheaism wrapped around pseudo-profound modern mysticism.–Steve

Twelve:  Crap-teur Joel Schumacher heads to the Upper East Side for this Gossip Girly caution tale about a drug deal gone wrong.  Chase Crawford and Rory Caulkin are the rich white kids, 50 Cent deals them the drugs, and Emma Roberts tries to prove she’s Anne Hathaway by starring in cute tweener flicks, then skanking out to show that she’s a real actress.  It got hooted out of Sundance, but Ebert liked it, so there’s that.  An interesting alternative to…     –Steve

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse:   There’s plenty of things to hate on about the adaptations of Stephanie Meyers’ Mormon-infused retooling of the vampire mythology.  For instance, the absurd notion of making “nice” vampires who don’t have to suck the blood of their victims, which undermines the dangerous seductiveness of the entire vampire concept.  But there is also plenty to like: the appeal of the main performers (despite Kristin Stewart’s lockjaw) and the really impressive and distinctive visual style of each film—a believable portrait of small towns painted on an angst-dripping canvas, which makes this ridiculous story palatable.  I am sure this makes me a complete “tweener” ripe for your criticism. But standing in line for opening night (with my girlfriend, in case you were wondering), I felt like I was waiting for an estrogen-fueled version of “Star Wars”, suggesting a pop culture phenomenon deserving of examination rather than derision. Regardless, the new version features a blown-out war between vampires and werewolves (which sort of sounds like the unfortunate “Underworld” series) where Bella (Stewart) has to make that ultimate choice between Team Edward (embodied by emo-dreamy Robert Pattinson) and Team Jacob (embodied by the dreamy dud Taylor Lautner). Hey, that sounds like “New Moon” on a larger scale.–James

July 9th

Despicable Me:  An animated movie about the only guy in the ‘burbs with a dead lawn (Steve Carrell) who is going to attempt to steal the moon with equipment stashed in his underground lair.  Three orphans take kindly to this weirdo (probably because they’re the only ones whose property values he’s not destroying) and a crisis of conscience ensues.  This is the first offering from NBC/Universal’s new animation branch, which is headed by the former president of Fox Animation Studios.  This probably explains why the teaser trailer feels like the wordless teaser trailers with Scrat from Ice Age.  The voice cast is pretty impressive—not only James’ favorite Russell Brand, but the ubiquitous presences of Kristin Wiig and Ken Jeong, and Danny McBride, Will “Gob Bluth” Arnett, and Kenneth the Page and Mindy from “The Office” as “Tourist Parents.”–Steve

Predators: I am not totally 100% sure what producer/developer Robert Rodriguez is going for in this remake/sequel (that line is becoming so much harder to distinguish this days) where Oscar-winner Adrian Brody (?!) and Topher Grace (????!!!!) take the place of sensitive skinny boys like Arnold Schwarzenneggar and Jesse “The Mind of the 9/11 Conspiracy Theory” Ventura. But throw Danny Trejo and Alice Braga into the mix and I’m in. This time, it appears that the typical group of ragtag mercenaries is tracked by at least more than one Predator. I mean, I can only guess that from the “s” at the end of the title.  Sadly, the alien won’t be here to follow the continuity of “Alien vs. Predator: Requiem.” Which is too bad. Really. I mean I saw it and you didn’t, so you don’t really know, do you?.–James

July 16th

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: When the IRS comes a knockin’, it’s time to head back to the Jerry Bruckheimer teat for Nicolas Cage.  Yes, Cage has reteamed with the director of the “National Treasure” films (which easily ripped the lid off the whole Masons-really-run-the-country conspiracy) to do some sort of grand adventure that is really just trying to capitalize off of “Harry Potter” in some form or fashion. Specifically, Cage has to fight Alfred Molina and somehow must recruit Jay Baruchel in order for to really harness the power of good in order to defeat evil. Uh…did you see “She’s out of My League”? Yeah, me neither. But if buying a ticket for this gets Cage to work with Werner Herzog again for another “Bad Lieutenant” movie, then I will take five adult tickets, please.–James

Inception:  “What’s the most resilient parasite?  An idea.  A single idea from the human mind can build cities.  An idea can transform the world and rewrite all the rules.”  Look, I trust Christopher Nolan (the Batman films, Memento, Insomnia), but shouldn’t he have called for a rewrite?  Building cities, transforming the world, and rewriting the world doesn’t sound like parasitic behavior.  I get that the science-fictioniness of the movie is that an idea is like a living organism, but I still don’t get the parasite thing.  I also think Leo is underrated, but he seems very close to stepping off of Serious Actor Cliff and landing in Pretentious Schlock Ravine.–Steve    

July 23rd

Salt:  Agent Jolie flips out when a Russian gangster accuses her of being a Russian spy, so she goes rogue to prove her innocence to Important Guy Standing Behind a Computer Bank Looking at a Huge Screen Liev Scribner.  Salt colors her hair and starts kicking ass, as if Valerie Plame morphed into Lara Croft.  I guess that puts Scribner in the George Tenant role…anyway, Salt looks rather inconsequential, a return to The Saint and Clear and Present Danger movies for Phillip Noyce, after a series of somewhat successful serious films (Rabbit Proof Fence, The Quiet American, and Catch a Fire).  Perhaps this is the one for “them” before he does one for himself again.–Steve

Dinner for Schmucks:  The director of the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents movies brings us a Trading Places-like scenario with Paul Rudd as the handsome rich guy and Steve Carrell as the loser.  Well, at first it seems like Trading Places, but John Landis’ movie was about class, race, and elitism.  It was Wall Street as a comedy.  This movie, however, seems to be about making fun of weirdos.  In fact, that’s what the whole purpose of the Dinner for Schmucks.  Am I missing the point?–Steve   

Ramona and Beezus:  Beverly Cleary’s books describe the complex and difficult relationship issues children deal with as they grow from elementary school to teenagers.  This movie features a Disney-manufactured Selena Gomez telling her little sister that she’s “her own person.”–Steve    

July 30th

Charlie St. Cloud:  Burr Steers directs this adaptation of a Ben Sherwood novel that looks like it has a Sparksian sappiness (Playing catch with his little brother?  He gets killed on his way to the ballgame?).  Still, Steers directed a very good movie about a Northeast old money kid dealing with messed up family issues in Igby Goes Down, so there’s hope here.  Also, I’m cheering for Zac Efron for the reasons outlined in my review of Me and Orson Welles, his first “serious” film.  We’ve already confirmed that Miley is a bust, but Zac still has a fighting chance.  Even though it looks awful, I’ll give it a chance.–Steve 

Beastly:  A teenage American Psycho meets Dorian Gray who then runs into Beauty and the Beast.  The telling moment of the trailer is at the 2:04 mark when Neil Patrick Harris fake vomits in his mouth after Alex Pettyfer says something about making something beautiful from something ugly.  Or something like that.  Anyway, when the trailer gives you the impression that the film is aware of its own banality, perhaps that’s a red flag.–Steve

Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore:  This might be pretty awesome if Kitty Galore is actually Mr. Bigglesworth playing Dr. Evil, perhaps some sort of Bond parody?  If anybody gets stuck taking the kids, email me and let me know.  Apparently I’m going to be at the Zac Efron movie that weekend (see above).–Steve

A Zapruder Film Breakdown of the Jim Joyce Blown Call

By , June 3, 2010 8:29 pm

Joe Posnanski, of course, finds the poetry in Jim Joyce’s blown call that ruined Armando Galarraga’s perfect game.  I want to talk about the science of the moment—specifically, the mechanical mistake that led Joyce to think that Jason Donald beat the throw.  Unlike, say, I don’t know—Chief Justice John Roberts, I’m a guy with a law degree that actually understands what umpires do.  But that’s an argument for another time.  (Did I mention that I think Chief Justice Roberts is a disingenuous phony who created some b.s. soundbite to intentionally mislead the American people about what the Supreme Court actually does?)  Anyway, I’ve umpired ten seasons of high school and American Legion ball, so I’m by no means a pro, but I’m very versed in umpiring mechanics.  And I worked for a prosecutor in law school.  I’ll put these two skills together and break this thing down like Kevin Costner in JFKLet’s go back-and-to-the-left to figure out what happened to Jim Joyce. 

The ground ball to the first baseman’s right is one of the most difficult plays for an umpire to call.  On a groundball to any other infielder, you’re taught to take a few steps into fair territory, focus on the bag, and listen for the ball.  If you hear the smack before you see the foot hit the bag, he’s out.  (This is why Little League is often harder to call than a good high school or college game:  the plays aren’t as crisp.  So give the high school kid umping your child’s game a break.  It’s much harder than it looks.)

On the toss play to the pitcher, you have to deal with two issues.  First, you need to position yourself so that you’re not in the way of the play.  If the first baseman makes the play, you can be in your regular position; but if the second baseman makes the play in short right field, you’ve got to make sure you’re not in the way of the throw.  Thus, you need to watch to see if the first baseman makes the play.  On this kind of play, your timing is a little off because normally you don’t spend so much time watching the infielder make the play, and the throw is coming from a closer range.  Thus, you need to switch your focus quicker than you’re used to.

Second, because the toss is soft, there’s no smack to hear.  On a normal play, you zero in on the bag.  On this play, however, you have to completely change how you look at the play; rather than focus strictly on the bag, you should try to see both the catch and the runner hit the bag at the same time.  The problems are two-fold.  First, you may be too close to the play to be able to see both the catch and the bag at the same time.  Second, this isn’t how you’re trained to see 95% of plays.  We’re taught to get in position to focus intently on one thing:  the strike zone, the base, the foul line, etc.  So on this play, the natural tendency is to focus intently on the catch, then immediately look to see if the runner hits the bag.

Here’s what happens on the bouncer to first:  You’re timing is off because you’re not in position as quickly as you’re used to, and you may be too close to the play to see both the things you need to see.  Most importantly, you’re probably going to look for the ball to disappear completely into the glove, and then look at the bag.  If the play is close, you’ll see the catch, but you won’t look down until you’re sure the pitcher has possession of the ball

On a bang-bang force play at first, you’ll naturally look at the catch long enough to make sure the pitcher has possession of the ball, but at that point, the runner has already touched the bag even if the catch beat him by a step.

This is what happened to Jim Joyce.  (I would embed the video, but MLB.com is vigilant about their copyrights).  At the :10 mark of the video, Joyce is standing still, watching first baseman Miguel Cabrera make the play.  Between the :10 and :11 mark, once he sees Cabrera come up with the ball, he takes three or four steps forward to get in position to make the call.  On a normal infield grounder, this is exactly what you’d do:  See the catch, take a few steps towards the bag, then focus on the bag. 

Somewhere between the :10 and :11 mark, Joyce stops to focus.  This is a cardinal rule of umpiring (and one, frankly, that you see a lot of Major League umpires break because they’re out of position or out of shape or out of position because they’re out of shape).  Even though he does the right thing, you’ll notice that there’s less about a second between when he sees Cabrera come up with the ball and when he needs to be in position.  And he’s probably closer to the play than he should be.

So, Joyce’s rhythm is off, he may be a little too close to the play, and he’s got to try to see the catch and the runner hit the base at the same time.  But he doesn’t.  He looks for the catch first, then to the bag.  This picture shows that, when Donald hits the bag, Joyce is clearly still focused on Galarraga’s glove. 

So why did it take so long for Joyce to see the catch and then look to the bag?  The next picture shows that Galarraga had the ball in his glove, but it’s “snowconed”:  You can still see some white, even though he’s got it in his grasp.  Then Galarraga snaps his glove, which swallows the ball whole.  Joyce likely would not have looked at the base until the ball completely disappeared into Galarraga’s glove.  But by the time the ball completely disappears and Joyce switches focus and finds the bag, Donald had already touched it.  Joyce sees this and calls him safe.  

 

It’s not a coincidence that the two most infamous blown calls in baseball history have been on this kind of play.  Missourians remember this play from the 1985 I-70 Series (Video not available because of MLB copyright claims).

First base umpire Don Denkinger had a distinguished thirty-year career in the Majors, but east of Columbia he’s an epithet for this moment.  On this play from the bottom of the 9th inning of Game 6 of the 1985 World Series, Kansas City Royals pinch hitter Jorge Orta hit a bouncing ball to the right of St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Jack Clark.  Clark fielded the ball and tossed to pitcher Todd Worrell.  Here, because the play occurred in front of the first base bag, Denkinger positioned himself in foul territory so that he wouldn’t interfere with the play.  This is the correct mechanic because if the umpire is in fair territory, he could interfere with the runner making a turn for second if the ball gets by, get hit by the throw if the catcher throws it by the base, or potentially get hit by the batted ball if it skips by the first baseman.  However, as you see here (See the “Denkinger’s Bad Call” photo in the loop):

Denkinger is about ten to fifteen feet from the play—far too close to be able to see both the catch and the runner’s foot at the same time.  Though we can’t see Denkinger’s eyes, his head is tilted upward as if he’s looking for Worrell to secure the throw.  Denkinger ended up perpendicular to the play—he had no angle to see the ball enter the glove .  Likely, Denkinger waited a second too long to be sure of the catch, looked down at the base, and Orta was already there. 

Safe.  The Kansas City Royals rally to win Game 6, and then Bret Saberhagen throws a complete game five-hit shutout to win Game 7.  Even eight-bit Nintendo RBI Baseball knows Denkinger blew it.   Kansas City has been trying to revive ’85 ever since. (But it still didn’t cost you the Series, Cardinal Fan).     

The talk today has surrounded instant replay, the class of Armando Galarraga, Jim Joyce manning up, and even poor Don Denkinger was dragged into the national conversation.  The instant replay debate is a whole other conversation (the game would change dramatically because of certain “conventions” at the Major League level:  the middle infielder “phantom tag” of second base when turning a double play, a runner is out 90% of the time if the throw beats him to the bag even if the tag is high, etc.).  Just don’t be surprised if the next historic blown call comes from a routine bouncing ball to the right of the first baseman.

MacGruber

By , June 2, 2010 10:47 am

The recession forces MacGruber to craigslist the Miata

Roger Ebert once wrote that any movie idea can work, the execution is what’s important.  If true (and why not believe Ebert), the necessary corollary is that all SNL skits-turned-movies aren’t necessarily going to be failures.  “But how do you turn a one-joke, four-minute sketch into a whole movie!” the critics ask.  Though we’ve rarely seen it done properly (Wayne’s World being the obvious outlier), it can be done.  You can’t simply repeat the one joke over and over; the joke must be the seed from which grows a full satire.  This is exactly what MacGruber does.

The joke of the MacGruber sketch is that the hero gets distracted from disarming bombs with dental floss to deal with the personal issues of the people he’s trying to save (like when MacGruber has to deal with his grandma’s nagging because he doesn’t say thank you enough).  The satire isn’t really of “MacGyver,” but an Austin Powers-type parody of the ridiculousness of action movie climaxes.  From this seed springs MacGruber the movie, which is a vicious take-down of the Cold War action movie mentality that Hollywood has turned back to, after a few years of trying to grapple with the complexity of terrorism. 

Few Iraq War movies have made any money, so that’s off limits.  As for movies featuring Arab terrorists, Hollywood faced backlash from groups who found the depiction of brown-skinned baddies as stereotypical and offensive.  Also, as more and more of Hollywood’s profits come from overseas, why risk being misunderstood, especially by cultures who, despite the Obama Effect, tend to see Americans as the enemy.  The solution is to speak a language we all know:  Russian bad guys.  Really, is it likely that Putin and Medvedev are offended by visions of Russian strong men threatening the world order?  They have to welcome that, right?  I mean, isn’t that their M.O.?

For Hollywood, the brave new world of grappling with the complexities of terrorism are brushed aside for the Manichean world of the Cold War.  And that means we’re headed back to the 80’s!  Hot Tub Time Machine made the same point earlier this year, and MacGruber further plays with the idea.  MacGruber, vest-clad and sporting a Kurt Russell haircut, and his feather-banged love interest Vicki are characters straight out of the 80’s.  Yet they’re anachronisms in a movie set in the present.  If this isn’t a vision of the mentality of today’s Hollywood action film, what is it?

In short, MacGruber is a parody of Nicolas Cage’s career with Jerry Bruckheimer.  Not enough credit is given to Jorma Taccone’s  mastery of the Bruckheimer style:  Val Kilmer’s close-ups, the overwrought score, the dialogue so predictable it’s in your head the moment before it comes out the speakers (“Fuck the Brass!”).  The genius of MacGruber is the same as Tina Fey’s Palin impersonation:  The mockery hits harder the closer it is to reality.  During the Vice Presidential debate sketch, Fey quotes Palin word-for-word with just a touch of exaggeration.  MacGruber is an exaggerated shot-for-shot Bruckheimer film—and yes, there is a lot of gross-out humor here, but much of it is only beat beyond the stupidity of, say, Terminator Salvation

Taccone’s most telling detail is the blood splattering.  He captures the minute droplets of blood not unlike Wanted, for instance.  Taccone does it one better by actually splattering blood on the camera, as if mocking the fetishism of Tarantino-knock offs and the 3-D movement at the same time.  MacGruber’s trademark “throat rip” could come right out of the hands of Christian Bale. 

Taccone also has a Weird Al-like grasp of the employ of pretentious pop music to give “importance” to the action movie that captures the pompous superficiality of the music, but the entire Cold War worldview.  Really, can there ever be a more effective use of “Touch and Go” by Emerson, Lake, and Powell—the very embodiment of 70’s and 80’s synthesizer “progressive rock”?  Or “Broken Wings” to underscore the soul-saving aspect of MacGruber getting it on with the best friend of his dead fiancé?  By so thoroughly marinating his movie in 80’s-ishness, yet setting it in the present day, Taccone seems to be satirizing Cold War nostalgia, when white people (Americans and Russians) ruled the world, Mr. Mister ruled the charts, and the complexity of our post-9/11 world is just a momentary Stephen Gaghan-penned hallucination.  Syriana is out; the progeny of Red Dawn is in.  Of course, this is probably giving the braintrust behind MacGruber too much credit, but the detail is too precise to not give it the benefit of the doubt.  The bloodsplattered angel redeemed by vigilante justice against international terrrorists is pretty much what the Hollywood action movie is all about, and it’s exactly what MacGruber makes love to in the final disturbing frames.    I was hoping for an all-out satire on the ticking time bomb mentality of “24” and it’s nostalgia for the Cold War, but to make MacGruber into Jack Bauer wouldn’t really fit the character.  Still, you can see MacGruber defusing a Soviet missiles and yelling “Wolverines!

The Pitch:

2 Jack Bauer

2 Jack Bauer

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 1/2 Dewey Cox

1 1/2 Dewey Cox

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

3 1/2 MacGruber

3 1/2 MacGruber

3 1/2 MacGruber

3 1/2 MacGruber

Summer Movie Preview, August 2010

By , June 1, 2010 7:00 pm

Hollywood has said the same thing, Sly.

August 6th

The Other Guys: After “Step-Brothers”, I am pretty sure I would never want to sit through another Will Ferrell/Adam McKay teaming. How do you lose your nerve after making two of the most perfectly absurd comedy blockbusters of the past ten years with “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights”?  But “Step Brothers” celebrated arrested development in a way that would make Adam Sandler blush and seemed to show that these two guys had nothing else in the tank. However, the idea of Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg playing a detective pair who becomes obsessed with being just like another duo played by Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson is too good to pass up. Plus, could this be the Michael Keaton comeback we’ve been hoping for since the disappointment of “Herbie: Fully Loaded”? Yes, probably.–James  

Step Up 3-D: Nothing says “awkward white guy” like sitting through the trailer for this very “urban” flick and yelling out, “That looks cooler than ‘Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo”! Yes, I really said that. But here’s a film that has no trouble telling you what it is with the title: Another dance competition where some talented youngster has to “step up”. This time, the studio gets to gouge you for another two bucks just so you can watch “mad hands” and animated squiggly lines come right off the screen. Rest assured everyone will learn about life, love, and wicked skills by the end of this mess.–James

August 13th

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: Edgar Wright gets away from Simon Pegg and Nick Frost to adapt this comic-book epic about a young man (Michael Cera) who falls for a woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) only to learn he has to fight off all seven of her ex-boyfriends to win her heart. Expect lots of cool music, enough pop-cultures references to make Wright’s girlfriend Diablo Cody’s head spin, and lots of fast editing that simluates the paneling of the graphic novel. But don’t expect Wright to treat any of those things with the least bit of awe and wonder. There’ll be enough cynicism and snarkiness to be cool, but enough heart and depth to make the film a nifty little classic. Don’t give up on Cera…yet.–James 

The Expendables: Sylvester Stallone gets behind the camera again and—you can say whatever you want about the unhinged rebooting of “Rambo”—he always has some interesting ideas rolling around the seemingly thick skull of his. This time, he assembles a ragtag group of mercenaries (presumably not the same one from “Predators”) that includes Jason Statham, Jet Li, and Dolph Lundgren to overthrow a ruthless South American dictator (Please let it be a Hugo Chavez stand-in!). Of course, things don’t go as planned and all sorts of double-crossing and back-stabbing commence, all of which involves Eric Roberts and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Certainly Stallone will make a compelling flick with a dash of odd-ball international politics involved, the real trick will be figuring out how Bruce Willis and Ah-huld fit into all of this. They’re pretty prominent in the trailer but not so much on the cast sheet. Surely Stallone isn’t harboring some sort of mid-80’s Planet Hollywood resentment in an early plot rub-out. Or…is he?–James 

Eat Pray LoveInto the Wild for bored housewives.  Privileged American white woman goes on a journey to exotic lands to “work on herself” and “let the universe in” and be enlightened by Indian yoga and be moved spiritually by pasta.  To be fair, Elizabeth Gilbert is an engaging writer, even if her journey seems too self-conscious and, frankly, made up.  The problem here is that the funny and reflective Gilbert simply cannot be embodied by the sassy and angry Julia Roberts.  There is nothing about Julia Roberts that was, is, or ever will say “meditation.”  A classic casting misstep: assuming that if you throw a hit book at a megastar, it has to work.  See Hanks, Tom.–Steve

August 20th

Takers:  A cavalcade of former “it” guys thrown into a heist movie for no real discernible reason.  Or have you been clamoring for Paul Walker, Jay Hernandez, or Hayden Christensen since, oh, 2002?  Mix in some rappers and Matt Dillon as The Detective, and you’ve got yourself a $3 million dollar late August opening weekend.–Steve

Nanny McPhee Returns:  Oh, does she now?  There’s a lot of talent in this movie that’s boxing below their weight:  Oscar winner Emma Thompson as the crusty old nanny who acts mostly with a mole and a tooth, Dame Maggie Smith as her agent (she-pimp?), Maggie Gyllenhaal and Ewan McGregor as English pig farmers with a litter of kids, Ralph Fiennes as some sort of official-type person, and Rhys Ifans as “Uncle Phil.”  Then again, Mr. Magorium and his assistant have eight Oscar nomination and a slew of BAFTAs between them.–Steve   

The Switch:  This could be interesting.  Jennifer Aniston is getting a sperm donor; Jason Bateman is the best friend who can’t figure out why he’s not the one.  After a few too many at her “I’m Getting Pregnant!” party, Bateman switches the sperm cups…or does he?  This could land in annoying quirky rom-com territory, but there’s some top-shelf quirk here: not only Bateman, but Jeff Goldblum, Juliette Lewis, and Todd Luiso.  If Michael Cera were playing the wacky nephew, I’d be all-in.–Steve

Lottery Ticket:  Perhaps a PG riff on this Chappelle sketch (“I bought this whole truck of Kools!”).  I like Lil Bow Wow.  Roll Bounce is a very charming, if inconsequential, movie, largely on the likeability of its lead.  Here, Bow Wow wins the lottery, and the whole neighborhood wants a piece.  Looks like a wacky ensemble comedy for name-brand character actors like Mike Epps, Bill Bellamy, and Charlie Murphy—wait, did this movie get big-timed by Nick Cannon?!   Ice Cube appears to be cast as the elder statesman of the group, which begs the question:  Is Chi McBride busy?–Steve 

August 27th

Piranha 3-D: If nothing will turn you off to the 3-D phenomenon (which is never going to work as long as the technology is being tacked on in post-production), then give Alexander Aja’s take on the schlocky horror classic. Aja started out with some sort of nonsense ultra-gross avant garde piece of Eurotrash back with 2005’s “High Tension,” since becoming just as lazy as any backward-capped idiot Michael Bay would hire to wreck a perfectly good horror film. Here, a bunch of pretty (obnoxious) college kids get chewed up by some ancient fish with nasty choppers. Somehow, Christopher Lloyd and Richard Dreyfuss (wearing on outfit that depressingly evokes Matt Hooper) get dragged into the bloody waters of Lake Victoria during an uncommonly stupid Spring Break. Watching nasty CGI fish prey upon hapless victims is a little more fun that watching some anonymous masked killer mercilessly butcher a hapless victim. But, honestly, these fish look pretty stupid. What else would you expect the last weekend of August?–James  

Going the Distance:  Justin Long and Drew Barrymore (Are they back on again?  I can’t keep up.) meet cute and end up in a long distance relationship.  Jason Sedekis and Christina Applegate are the advice dispensing BFFs.  This is documentarian Nanette Burstein’s first fiction piece; perhaps this is better than it looks on paper.  The trailer doesn’t feel as stupid and obvious as the usual rom-com; if John Hodgman makes an appearance as the TSA security guy at the airport, you’ll know you’re in good hands.–Steve

Iron Man 2

Iron Man has had enough of all the lady drivers in the Indy 500.

“Iron Man 2” falls prey to the mythologification of summer blockbusters: The tendency to overstuff the movie with plot points and characters to create faux-complexity, rather than focusing on making the central characters and plot nuanced and interesting.  The new model of blockbuster franchises is to create “worlds,” like The Lord of the Rings, that are sustainable for trilogies, quadrilogies, and beyond.  The worst of these oversimplify the original premise to accommodate familiar archetypes (The Matrix sequels) or lard up the sequels with complicated plots and minor characters because it doesn’t really have any ideas (The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise). 

Iron Man 2 does a little of both.  First, the movie strips politics from the Iron Man franchise; the first movie at least had some interesting things to say about the relationship between national security and the government’s relationship with military contractors.  Second, there’s no reason for Samuel L. Jackson, except that Samuel L. Jackson gets people excited for about five seconds.  And there’s no reason for Scarlett Johansson, except to tease teenage boys into thinking they might see something.  

So, in order to not instantly forget that you even saw this movie, you’ve got to make up some b.s.  Let’s try this:  The most interesting part of this movie is the establishment of Tony Stark as the logical end of the uniquely Bush-ian Free Market Neoconservatism.  In other words, Tony Stark is Dick Cheney’s foreign policy driven by Grover Norquist’s fiscal policy, sold to the public by Ari Gold.

Cheney-ite neocons believe that the only way to keep the world safe is through American hegemony.  Thus, America can only achieve world peace—or, more exactly, preventing another 9/11, which is what we really care about—by scaring other nations into forsaking nuclear weapons or establishing terrorist training camps.  Eventually, countries will be left with two options:  adopt our values (turn yourself into a Western-style democracy) or face our wrath.  

Norquistians believe that in nearly all instances, private industry is better able to not only produce and distribute goods.  The rise of the military-industrial complex extends this idea to the deployment of the weapons of war.  To Tony Stark, the military is the enemy—it’s just another example of stifling government bureaucracy.  Thus, in the world of Iron Man, Tony Stark gets his moral authority because he can create American hegemony much more efficiently and cost-effectively with his Iron Man suit. 

The problem with this vision is that it misunderstands the nature of the military industrial complex.  Somebody has to buy Stark Industry products, else Stark Industries doesn’t make any money.  That’s why the government, ultimately, “owns” national security.  The military-industrial complex has creatively gotten around this in several ways, mostly by reclassifying traditional employee (uniformed soldiers) roles into independent contractors (Halliburton, Blackwater now XE).  Stark Industries represents the end of this logic:  Not only is the military outsourcing goods and services, but decision-making as well.  Eventually, private industry will be the military, leaving the government—and, ultimately, the people–powerless.   This is what’s happening right now in the Gulf of Mexico. 

The Pitch:

1 X-Men Origins: Wolverine

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 Former Blackwater CEO Erik Prince

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

2 Iron Man 2

2 Iron Man 2

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