Friday, March 18, 2011

Alienation Nation

Paul [**]

For me the films of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have always been something of a comedy event. I didn't know who they were the first time I went to see Shaun of the Dead, but I learned to make them synonymous with people who understood why we liked certain kinds of movies, people who respected and crafted those kinds of movies and as people who did it while making us laugh unabashedly, unashamedly. It was, and maybe can be again, wonderful. But it is not this time.

I have to admit I was excited for collaborator Edgar Wright not to be a part of this film because Greg Mottola has made some pretty excellent, unshowy comedies and I was still reeling from how flashy and empty (and unappreciative of its audience) Scott Pilgrim v The World appeared to be. I wanted something that was going to be more sincere, funny, honest and less flashy. I thought Mottola was going to nail this film. I didn't get what I wanted in any case. Without the injection of energy and crafty editing that Wright would have brought to the project the action that kicks in around the last half hour feels a little still born. There's no exclamation marks on the jokes, which is okay, I don't need that. I understand that it is not necessarily part of Mottola's arsenal to be over-the-top and high energy but it really might have benefited from such things. I think the magic of Simon Pegg might be lost outside of Hollywood blockbusters and I think the magic of Pegg and cohort Nick Frost is certainly lacking without Edgar Wright. The three of them are like Dr. Pepper when mixed together and without one of the ingredients you have a Mr. Pibb type beverage that no insistence from the masses is ever going to make taste the same. It's okay when that's what you want, but it isn't necessarily what you were expecting.

Don't get me wrong I don't mean to insist that Mottola is the Mr. Pibb of directors, but I must insist that Wright-Frost-Pegg never not collaborate together again and if a Greg Mottola kind of movie, with funny jokes and thoughtful characterization is going to peak its head out of the veil of coulda/shoulda/woulda that Paul wears over it's oddly shaped little green head then it is probably better that Mottola have the room to be himself.

Paul for anyone who didn't see the preview is about two comic book/sci-fi aficianados who are touring the country's UFO sights post Comic Con when they pick up an alien and end up with homophobic rednecks and government agents on their tail. They also kidnap a woman who runs an RV park only to have her gun toting father also head out after them.

The film's two nice surprises are that a gun toting secret agent played by Jason Bateman is not exactly who he appears to be, in the best possible sense. That he also resurrects a long dormant grade school phrase ("motherfucking titty sucking two ball bitch") is one of the film's two unmitigated pleasures. The other is that Paul in all his miracle working tendencies cures a woman of blindness in one eye, which her father later hails as a miracle from God, and gives the woman (a devout Creationist) a moment's pause. It's a shrewd moment that allows for the most important and successful element of science fiction to be acknowledged: that faith and what science teaches us be allowed to intermingle; possibly to challenge or even reaffirm our beliefs. I think the fact that an otherworldly being participates in this moment says more about the possibility of a God than not but the movie is quick to rebuff any notions of a higher power. That moment is also where the film finds a problem that I think speaks to the relative lack of success of this general enterprise. This close mindedness about its subject, that no other Pegg-Frost collaboration has had, seems to hinder their ability to embrace the totality of their story, transcend it and create a lasting work that can stand alongside whatever they're loving and lampooning.

In the past, Pegg and Frost are able to understand the appeal of Michael Bay films and zombie films without saying they are ridiculous. In fact, the two of them go hog wild celebrating the films without ever uttering the r word, but they can't for a moment acknowledge the possible lynchpin of science fiction. Even if only to say that man's ambition is what drives him to be closer to God, but they don't even say that, they just find a target to give the middle finger to. It's not the most troubling thing in the world, but it is definitely coming from two guys who should know better.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

fighting and settling

The Adjustment Bureau [***], The Green Hornet and Take Me Home Tonight [**1/2]

Since the world probably would have exploded had Ben Affleck and Matt Damon released competing films on the same day audiences had to wait six months to see the Matt Damon starrer The Adjustment Bureau and, to be honest, had it come to pass it would have been a pretty depressing double header. Not because both films share an optimistic and downbeat quality, but because Affleck's film is on a whole different plateau of goodness while Damon's primary goal (for me, at least) is to wash the taste of Green Zone out of the collective American mouth. I will say that both Damon and Affleck have stellar chemistry with their leading ladies, but Affleck could have brought the heat with anyone (luckily it was the lovely Rebecca Hall) while Damon's not inconsiderable conviction is entirely dependent on how radiant Emily Blunt is. I'm not saying another actress couldn't have done this part, but I'm saying I don't want to imagine it. Blunt is the ray of sunshine that Damon spies when he surfaces for air against the dim tide of the fate controlling Adjustment Bureau.

On a slightly less enthusiastic note, but an enthusiastic one just the same, I found Michael Gondry's take on The Green Hornet to be a surprisingly fun film. It occasionally strains under the obviousness of shots that seemed tailored to the wholly unnecessary 3-D, but having seen it in two glorious dimensions I'm lucky to have had the experience in "presentable vision."

The movie strikes me in just the right way early on with a pretty amusing James Franco cameo where he latches on to the insecurities of a crime boss and trashes his legacy before being put out to pasture. But Franco and Waltz do it so gamely, with much relish that it is hard not to welcome the movie with open arms from that point on. Jay Chou, who was not welcome news to me following a Stephen Chow departure before the project even lifted off, manages to acquit himself nicely as an ass kicker. Having only been previously exposed to him in The Treasure Hunter and ever-so-briefly in the excellent True Legend, I wasn't convinced he was the right replacement ass kicker for the job, but he does fine and I appreciated the near instant chemistry he had with Rogen. I also appreciated a great brawl between friends that destroys everything in the room a la Commando and Rogen and Franco's own Pineapple Express.

The action also surprises with a certain level of clarity, destructiveness and a well executed boxing the heroes in for certain doom moment.

The vulgar 80s set introspective life after college romp makes a return with Take Me Home Tonight, a film that lacks the heart of Adventureland and the confidence wrecking comedy that can be wrought on characters by family members that She's Out of My League brought to the table, but it has drugs and boobs and a fat guy. These elements don't always converge to make an ideal comedy, but I always admire films that deal with issues of aimlessness because I can very much relate to the pussy in flux aspect of the protagonist. I can't say that I get triumph in one hundred minutes, but I take comfort in the message: love thyself, take a risk, etc.

I find it even more refreshing when a movie is honest enough to tell me that if I went for the things I wanted years ago I would not have gotten them, but maybe now I might get some of them. It's not exactly saying that it's never too late to chase after your dreams, but if you get loaded enough on drugs or booze or life experience you might just grow the stones to get some version of the life you wanted.