Bob and Justin's Mad Movie Blog

My name is Bob. My friend Justin and I are aspiring filmmakers and we have pretty similar tastes in movies. This will include our take on what's going on in film and television today as well as updating you on the status of our own work.

Friday, August 20, 2010

"The Other Guys" and "The Expendables"

Yes, I've been to a whole lot of movies lately. By reviewing these two I'll finally be caught up on everything I've gone to in the past week and a half.

The Other Guys - An action/cop comedy starring Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg guarantees one thing. Lots and lots of yelling. What it also fortunately has is its share of good laughs and surprisingly good action sequences from the director of "Anchorman" (Adam McKay).
As the title suggests, "The Other Guys" is not the story of two superstar cops. The superstars are there (Samuel L. Jackson and The Rock, who wants to be called Dwayne Johnson now but once you've gone by The Rock that ain't goin' away), but when a foot chase doesn't go as planned, it's up to detectives Allen Gamble (Ferrell) and Terry Hoitz (Wahlberg) to pick up the slack.
Unfortunately for the NYPD, Gamble is a forensic accountant who is more useful with a paperclip than a firearm and Hoitz is best known for accidentally shooting Derek Jeter in the leg before the seventh game of the World Series, earning him the name "the Yankee Clipper." (A joke involving a particular teammate of Jeter's was especially enjoyable for me.)
Insisting, "I'm a peacock! You gotta let me fly!" Hoitz is determined to take on a big drug case and in spite of his intense dislike for his cluelessly cheerful partner, he brings Gamble onto the case. At gun point. Being that this is a comedy from Will Ferrell's crew, Gamble and Hoitz naturally screw things up early on no matter what they do. Their captain (a hilariously put upon Michael Keaton) doesn't want them on the case and another pair of detectives (Rob Riggle and Damon Wayans, Jr.) mocks them at every opportunity. As things get worse however, the two naturally, however slowly, bond as they try to crack the case.
As a buddy cop comedy, this is nowhere near the greatness of "Hot Fuzz," but I wasn't expecting it to be. With an enjoyably over the top Wahlberg handling the lion's share of the yelling, Ferrell mainly plays Gamble as a milquetoast fellow, but he has some explosive moments of his own. The two play nicely off of each other and thankfully the script by McKay and Chris Henchy gives them more to work with than "Dinner for Schmucks" gave Paul Rudd and Steve Carell.
In addition to Keaton's very funny turn the supporting cast is highlighted by Eva Mendes as Gamble's deeply devoted wife. The scenes between her and Ferrell are amongst the funniest in the film as he constantly insults her looks and personality with her sweetly taking it in stride. The biggest disappointment of the film also regards the supporting cast however.
A note to American comedy directors: When you put Steve Coogan in your film, give him material worthy of him. Ben Stiller got it wrong in the otherwise good "Tropic Thunder" and McKay and company get it wrong here. As funny of a comic actor as Ferrell is, Coogan could run circles around him, but as a slimy corporate villain, he is given nothing to work with. Anybody could have played this character and it wouldn't have made a difference. If they'd provided Coogan with a real character to play this would have been a far funnier movie than it already is. It really is frustrating because the average American filmgoer has no idea how funny the man really is.
In spite of a few shortcomings and the sense that it's sort of running out of steam near the end, "The Other Guys" is a funny enough movie with some pleasantly surprising car chases. 7.5/10.

The Expendables - Obviously every time you see a movie you want it to be good. But there are times when you find yourself hoping even more that you'll enjoy yourself. A couple of months after the movie version of "The A-Team" mostly got being a big, dumb, fun action movie right, "The Expendables" has come along, starring the biggest lineup of action stars ever assembled. I hoped for a big, fun, and dumb in the right way kind of time. Well it was big. It was dumb, but it wasn't that much fun.Directed by Sylvester Stallone, this is the story of Barney Ross (Stallone) and his crew of mercenaries who travel the world killing bad guys and blowin' stuff up for large sums of money. The crew consists of Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Ying Yang (Jet Li), Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), Toll Road (Randy Couture, an MMA guy from Everett), and Hale Caesar (Terry Crews).
After Gunner loses it on a job, Ross decides he doesn't want him on the team anymore as they go into their next mission. The mission comes from a man who calls himself Mr. Church (Bruce Willis). Then Trench (Arnie) walks into the room with Church and Ross and we have the three biggest action heroes of all-time in one scene. This should have been a nice nod to the movies of the Reagan years. I wanted some good laughs here mixed with a sense of, "They've still got it." Sadly though this is the moment I knew something was really wrong. While Arnie was never the most skilled thesp in the world, his rustiness is noticeable. Delivering cheesy Arnie lines just isn't his thing anymore. Willis meanwhile just seems to be forcing...something, I don't know what, but he's just off, and Stallone's grasp of humor just isn't there. I should have known not to trust the star of "Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot" with pulling off sly humor. (I just realized I put "sly humor" when referencing Stallone. That was not intentional but I'm not changing it now.)
The rest of the movie involves Ross and his crew taking on a South American dictator. Along the way Ross has to find his soul again after years of...ya know, killin' people for money and stuff so he's gotta save the dictator's daughter who's fighting the good fight and...things. That's about it plot wise.
Big, dumb action movies don't tend to be known for their heart or for making us care why a boat or a compound needed blowin' up. The thing is, you don't really need that if you give us some characters who we enjoy. As director, co-writer, and star, Stallone just doesn't make Ross very interesting or terribly likeable. It seems like on all counts, Sly is just mailing it in, believing that this collection of stars will make the movie automatically good. Statham saves the movie from being a complete drag. He brings the personality, badassery, and understanding of the sort of humor a BDAM (big, dumb action movie) needs to work. The same story line with him acting as a one man wrecking crew like Arnie in "Commando" probably would have been a lot of fun. Li and Crews are both cool when they have something to do, but each only really gets one sequence. Other than that they're just kind of there. Then as one of the villains there's Steve Austin who takes the "I'm not gonna say anything, I'm just gonna stand here and look badass" thing way too far. And finally there's Dolph Lundgren who proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that the only words he should ever be allowed to say on film are, "I must break you," in an attempted Russian accent.
Throughout it all, I kept thinking that the Spike TV logo was going to suddenly appear in the corner of the screen. People who are predisposed to not like this sort of movie are probably asking, "Well, what did you expect, Bob?" I expected a highly entertaining BDAM. I like a good BDAM for what it is. For those of you who think I'm just being a snob by not liking this, I say again that I like a good BDAM. But this just wasn't it.
"The A-Team" had a sense of fun to it, with characters I liked, that "The Expendables" is lacking. It shows that even when making something considered low brow, there's a fine line between making it work and making something that feels like it was ghost directed by Renny Harlin. 3.5/10.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

"The Extra Man" and "Get Low"

"The Extra Man" - Independent low-budget films are often marked by their (and I've really come to hate this word) "quirkiness." Sometimes it's natural, a part of a great movie's fabric. Other times it ends up being a tool to mask how weak the story and characters are, and the more regularly I see this the more I hate the word. Based on the novel by Jonathan Ames ("Bored to Death"), "The Extra Man" isn't quirky. It's genuinely strange. By the three minute mark we learn that Louis Ives (Paul Dano, "There Will Be Blood") is a man who typically imagines himself living in the 1920s while secretly desiring to wear women's undergarments. It's a testament to Dano that knowing essentially only these two things about the character, we still feel like he's a regular guy.
Louis certainly seems normal when compared to his new Manhattan roommate, Henry Harrison (Kevin Kline). Henry dresses and behaves as though he is someone who might be better suited living in the world that Louis so often imagines. That said, Henry's old fashioned and unabashed views ("Princeton was great once. And then they let women in.") shock Louis. Henry forbids Louis bringing women over to the apartment, stating that, "I think you'll find I'm to the right of the Pope on those issues." Louis is fascinated by Henry and the two bond over a night cleverly sneaking into the opera.
Henry doesn't want to reveal much of himself to anyone, certainly not Louis, but he can't help but explain to the young man that he is an escort for older women, typically very wealthy ones. Not a male prostitute, but an escort. Someone to appear at functions and eat fancy and sometimes not so fancy dinners with. Taken with the idea of being this sort of gentleman, Louis wants to do what Henry does, even as he still harbors the strong desire to dress like a woman. This makes his budding friendship with his new co-worker Mary (Katie Holmes) decidedly difficult for him to navigate. But Louis doesn't really have an easy time figuring anything out anyway.
Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, "The Extra Man" is the very strange story of a man, who despite so many factors, isn't such a strange guy after all. Dano does a wonderful job showing Louis as a young man still trying to figure out who he is and where he fits into the world. Even if it's with friends such as Henry and Gershon (John C. Reilly as a man with...ya know what, I don't want to spoil it for you), Louis seems to be figuring out who he is.
Being primarily a stage actor these days, Kline's film performances are not exactly bountiful these days, but they are always welcome. His performance in "A Fish Called Wanda" is bar none, my favorite of all-time. While I can't imagine him ever topping it, he does give a terrific performance here. He is funny and bizarre to be sure, but he doesn't give Henry away all at once. He is as fascinating to us as he is to Louis because despite being so set in his ways and his world view, he is constantly surprising. This would have been a very easy character to get wrong and I have a hard time believing anybody but Kline could have pulled it off as well.
Strange in a wonderful way, "The Extra Man" is definitely worth seeking out. In the Seattle area it is currently playing at the Metro. This won't get a wide release so check out the art house theaters in your area for this one. 8/10.

"Get Low" - The opening image of this new film from Aaron Schneider is so striking that we are absorbed before we meet one character. The only thing more powerful than this image is the personality of Felix Bush (Robert Duvall), a hermit in Depression-era Tennessee. Living in a shack he built himself on a massive plot of land, Felix is known about by everyone within several nearby counties. No one actually knows him but they know the stories. Whenever he does meet someone he demands their stories. Nobody seems to want to say no.
Knowing he is nearing the end of his life, Felix decides that while he's still alive he wants to throw a party. A funeral party. He wants to invite everyone who has a story about him so that they can tell them. Needing assistance with setting this up but not knowing when to turn when the local pastor (Gerald McRaney) is simply baffled by the request, Felix finds help on his doorstep.
Buddy Robinson (Lucas Black, "Jarhead") is the new salesman for Frank Quinn (Bill Murray). Quinn, concerned that his business is ironically about to go under due to the lack of local deaths, enlists longtime assistant Buddy to sell Felix on the idea of letting Quinn Funeral Home put the party together. Buddy's inherent goodness wins Felix over, while Felix's one of a kind personality charms the young man, making him care that much more about doing this right.
As Quinn and Buddy begin to advertise Felix's party, Felix shows more of himself to them, which actually creates an even greater mystery about the man who's locked himself away from the world for the past 40 years. Along the way Felix re-connects with one of the few people who knew him long ago, Mattie (Sissy Spacek).
Written by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell, "Get Low" is an excellent study of a man who desperately needs to talk about what has eaten him from the inside out over the past four decades, but isn't sure that he can. It's not overstating to say that Duvall is extraordinary. The best and worst in Felix are constantly at work, his internal struggle felt every moment he's on screen. Murray meanwhile, is great in his understated role as the slightly greasy but ultimately decent funeral home owner. Black is wonderful as Buddy, a man with such a big heart that Felix feels, "For every one like me there must be one like you."
"Get Low" is a film that keeps us absorbed thanks to its outstanding characterizations and the way that it builds to the truth about what Felix has been hiding away from all this time. Deeply moving with the right touch of humor, this is a film that I highly recommend. In Seattle it's currently playing at the Guild 45th. 9.5/10.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Waking Sleeping Beauty

In a time when animation, particularly Disney Pixar animation, is having incredible success commercially and artistically, it's easy to forget that not so long ago it was an art form considered to be at death's door. This movie tells the story of the people who not only saved Disney animation, but who helped usher in a new golden age of animated cinema that we are still in the midst of today.
Directed by Don Hahn (a producer on such megahits as "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and "Beauty and the Beast"), "Waking Sleeping Beauty" uses archival interviews, home videos, and old sketches to show how Disney animation came back to life during the late '80s and early '90s. We also see how it could have come crashing down all over again.
In 1984, Walt Disney's handpicked animators, or "Nine Old Men," were giving way to a new generation of eager artists who wanted to do things their own way. After the very expensive 1985 film "The Black Cauldron" failed at the box office (though it's a better movie than Hahn gives it credit for here), it was clear that some changes needed to be made. Walt's nephew Roy Disney enlisted Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Frank Wells to get the animation department going in a new direction.
Narrating the movie himself, Hahn presents the information in a very straightforward manner, and regularly makes his opinions known on certain individuals and their actions. He seems to think of animator Don Bluth as Benedict Arnold with a pencil and the success of Bluth's "An American Tail" over "The Great Mouse Detective" in 1986 still seems to pain Hahn. Mainly though, "Waking Sleeping Beauty" is about the determination of Disney's artists to make great films while the egos of Katzenberg, Eisner, and Roy Disney permeated anything and everything related to the company. Hahn seems to view the three the way most employees view their old bosses. Quick to point out their shortcomings as well as their good qualities, as he saw them. Katzenberg doesn't come off as the most wonderful guy on the planet but Hahn isn't the least bit vindictive. He doesn't smear the man who left to start rival DreamWorks. Wells meanwhile is looked upon quite fondly and even Katzenberg commented that Wells was often the peacemaker between he, Eisner, and Roy Disney and that he was easily the "most selfless" of the four. When Wells died in a helicopter crash a few months before the release of "The Lion King" the end was near and the remaining three seemed to know it.
This movie is the most interesting, the most fun, and even the most heartbreaking when focused on the making of the films leading up to "The Lion King." The two films that Hahn puts the heaviest focus on are "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast." The first was the film that showed that Disney was truly back and there to stay, while the second ended up being one of the few animated films to ever be nominated for Best Picture. Songwriter Howard Ashman, who died of AIDS before the release of "Beauty and the Beast" is the focal point of this section of the film.
The aftermath of Katzenberg's exit and how Disney fared after "The Lion King" are not examined here. The arrival of Pixar is discussed briefly but mainly the story ends in the mid-'90s. Hahn's film is interesting for anyone who is either a Disney fan or just has an interest in how art is created while executive egos clash around artists. I enjoyed it but for some reason that I still am trying to put my finger on, it felt like there was something missing. I think I would have liked to see more focus on the animators and what they went through to make these movies as opposed to all the scenes from old office parties. But I guess when you're hard at working creating a masterpiece you can't be holding a camcorder in your hand all day.
"Waking Sleeping Beauty" only played for one week in the Seattle area and unfortunately it's already gone. If you live elsewhere you may be able to catch it, otherwise you will have to wait for its DVD/Blu-ray release on November 30. 7/10.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

"Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" and "Dinner for Schmucks"

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World - Back in April I opened my review of "Kick-Ass" by saying that it was a difficult film for me to review, in part because it was so unlike anything I'd ever seen. Well now "Kick-Ass" has a companion. It's nowhere near as profane (f-words are bleeped and accompanied by black bars in this movie), the violence is decidedly less brutal (instead of being soaked with blood the dead simply explode into coins), and it's decidedly less morally ambiguous. Still, this is one seriously ambitious and unique film aimed at a generation that grew up on comic books and video games.
Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is a 22 year old bass player for a Toronto band named Sex Bob-Omb, he has a gay roommate named Wallace (Kieran Culkin), and Scott is dating a 17 year old girl named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). In spite of his professed innocence ("We almost held hands once but then she got too embarrassed"), Scott's dating of Knives is meant with judgment from everyone in his life, particularly his gossipy sister Stacey (Anna Kendrick). This doesn't stop he and Knives from enjoying their time together, playing interactive video games at the local arcade. Despite his complete lack of money or potential for going seemingly anywhere with his band, Scott feels quite content. Until he meets Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, "Live Free or Die Hard"). Instantly smitten, Scott knows what he must do. Order a package from Amazon (Ramona's employer) in hopes that she'll deliver it so that he may ask her out. He'll get around to breaking up with Knives eventually. The thought of actually doing it just makes him queasy right now.
Scott's nerdiness and insecurity around Ramona actually wins her over because she's glad to finally be dating a nice guy. What Scott quickly learns though is just how different he really is from Ramona's exes. When a battle of the bands is invaded by Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha), the first of her "seven evil exes," Scott's commitment to Ramona is put to the test. Once Matthew is dispatched, Ramona explains to Scott that in order for them to continue dating he may have to "defeat" all seven. In the words of so many video games, "Fight."
From the Universal logo at the film's beginning, "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" is a movie that aims to please video game nerds. Being one himself, Edgar Wright ("Shaun of the Dead" and 2007 Bob Award Best Picture winner "Hot Fuzz") is the perfect director for this. But you don't have to be one to love this film. I know that because I wasn't. My nerdiness was always invested more into movies and television. Video games were just something fun to do every once in awhile. Wright wants all geeks to enjoy this movie and at least for me, he most definitely succeeded.
Based on a series of graphic novels by Bryan Lee O'Malley, the screenplay by Wright and Michael Bacall is sharp and funny, with Wright's direction keeping the film on the fly. The appearance on the screen of words you would normally see flashing across fighting games doesn't end up being gimmicky but feels perfectly natural.
The cast obviously knew exactly what Wright was after as well. Cera, doing what he does best, is an unconventional action hero to be sure, but that's just what this movie needs. Winstead does well to not try to make Ramona more likeable than she should be. She is likeable, but she's also maddening and we fully understand Scott's frustrations with her. With his dry delivery, Culkin almost walks away with the movie and the rest of the cast provide wonderful touches throughout. Most notable are Ramona's evil exes, particularly Chris Evans, an absolutely hilarious Brandon Routh ("Superman Returns") as an ex with vegan powers, and playing the most evil ex of all, Jason Schwartzman.
"Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" is the must see movie of the moment for geeks everywhere. I think what makes it a real achievement is what I realized near the film's end. You know how when you go to a friend's house and they're in the middle of a game that they're not quite ready to pause yet? You're starving so all you want to do is get to Taco Bell. And it's a nice day outside on top of it. Let's get out of here! But you wait and wait and remember just how boring it is to watch someone else play a video game. For the first time in history watching a video game you're not playing is an absolute blast. Well done, Edgar Wright. 9/10.

Dinner for Schmucks - Most comedies fall into one of three categories. There are the very funny, the hit and miss, and the aggressively unfunny. The thing about the aggressively unfunny ones are that not only do you not laugh, you feel a bit irritated, maybe even a little angry at their constant attempts to make you laugh that completely miss.
The most interesting thing about "Dinner for Schmucks" is that it's an anomaly. It doesn't fall into any of the three categories. I don't really recall laughing at anything particularly, but not because it's unfunny. I didn't groan or roll my eyes at a gag that fell flat. Other than occasionally causing me to smile just a little bit and at one point become very uncomfortable, "Dinner for Schmucks" didn't make me feel much of anything. It's just sort of there to look at. It will be the perfect movie to have on your TV while you pay your bills, read magazine articles, or talk to people on the phone. You kind of want to see some bits here and there but you really can just ignore it if you want to.
Based on the French comedy "The Dinner Game," this is the story of an eager company man named Tim (Paul Rudd). With a coveted position having just opened, Tim's making a strong move for it. He impresses his boss (Bruce Greenwood) by telling him he's in talks with a very wealthy Swiss businessman (David Walliams). The promotion is his if he can just do one more thing. Every month the boss hosts a dinner with the other top men in the company. Each man brings a guest. Someone "extraordinary." Extraordinarily stupid. At the end of the night one guest is bestowed with a trophy, whose true meaning is only understood to the men from the company. It's the prize for the biggest idiot.
Tim is very uncomfortable with this but he desperately wants that promotion. When he quite literally runs into Barry (Steve Carell) the day before the dinner and sees that Barry would be the perfect guest, Tim can't help but invite him. Tim's girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak) is infuriated by the very idea of the dinner and storms out of their apartment. The rest of the film involves Tim's attempts to win Julie back, get the promotion, and Barry's disastrous attempts to help him do both, with the dinner itself acting as the film's finale.
Rudd is one of the best comic actors working today. Always relateable as the straight man, he delivers a solid performance here. Carell meanwhile is sweet, well meaning, and incredibly annoying. It's a bit like Bill Murray in "What About Bob?" except the results of his actions are decidedly different and Bob was actually a pretty smart guy in the end. Eager to help and with a constant smile on his face, Barry unwittingly creates a nightmare for Tim that could destroy his relationship with Julie as well as his job. Along the way we meet a highly eccentric artist (Jemain Clement, "Flight of the Conchords") and Barry's manipulative boss Therman (Zach Galifianakis), who give Barry a run for his money in the schmuck department.
In terms of the casting and the premise, this movie really ought to be a comic slam dunk. But it never really gets going. The setup seems to take ages and in spite of the best efforts of the actors it never becomes truly funny. The script by David Guion and David Handelman seems content to just play it safe and not really approach something really funny, subtly or uproariously. It's just kind of pleasant and director Jay Roach ("Austin Powers," "Meet the Parents") just rolls along with it.
The character I really wanted to see more of didn't arrive until the dinner. As a blind swordsman, Chris O'Dowd ("The IT Crowd") seemed worthy of a little more screen time because he seemed to be creating a pretty interesting character there. With a script that really went for it, he, like every other character in "Dinner for Schmucks," could have been brilliantly funny.
While clearly not aggressively unfunny, "Dinner for Schmucks" could have been great if it had just been aggressive at all. As it is, it will do just fine as you glance at it on your TV screen while you figure out what to eat for dinner. 6/10.