November 30, 2007

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (11/30/07)

Lettergrade: B

I don't know if I'd see it again, but the first time through, at least, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story was pretty funny. I should quickly mention that about 85% of it is primarily a parody of Walk The Line, the excellent Johnny Cash biopic from a few years back, with dashes of Ray, the less successful movie about Ray Charles, thrown in. Parody movies often fall down, I think, because they're more interested in spoofing specific scenes from specific movies rather than developing coherent plots of their own. Honestly, there isn't a lot of story here that hasn't been lifted directly from the two movies I've mentioned, but the picture manages to hold together anyway, probably because it pokes fun at the general history of rock throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s in addition to its cinematic forbearers. Walk Hard doesn't reinvent the spoof film, but the filmmakers understand the conventions of the genré well enough to make a pretty decent one of their own.

A key thing that makes this picture a little above average is that the songs are generally good. Sitting here now, I'm failing to recall any specific melodies or lyrics, but in context of the film, at least, they're amusing and help make the picture seem a little more legit. For that matter, the film is atypically well shot and edited, and most of the major tech components are of high quality. Perhaps that's no surprise, however, seeing as the movie was produced by Judd Apatow, a guy who's recently been associated with several well-made comedies that manage to be smart and very funny while on the surface appearing to be stupid.

The movies Apatow has directed (The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up) generally have a lot of heart, whereas the ones where he is a producer (Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy, Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby, and last summer's Superbad) are mainly out to be silly. He co-wrote and produced this one, and like the others on his resumé, it is refreshingly R rated and does not wuss out when it's time to drop the f-bomb or show male nudity.

Dewey is played by the hysterically dopey John C. Reilly, who warbles through the songs surprisingly well, and greets the situations he encounters during his rise and fall with enthusiastically dim cluelessness. After the death of his brother following an unfortunate machete accident, Dewey leaves home at 14 and eventually joins up with a band comprised of Saturday Night Live regulars Chris Parnell and a surprisingly funny Tim Meadows. The rest of the cast is essentially a who's who of recent comedy film and television projects, including Kristin Wiig (also from SNL), The Office's Jenna Fischer, from Orange Country (the director's previous picture) Jack Black and Harold Ramis, and various alumni of the Christopher Guest improv comedies including John Michael Higgins and Jane Lynch. They come and go from the picture as Dewey achieves amazing success and loses it all due to his demons and flirtations with illicit substances.

Somehow, the talent of the cast combined with the good production value help the picture transcend the sometimes-juvenile screenplay, which is more successful when parodying scenes that are of the typical rock biopic cloth, and less successful when using Dewey's last name in double-entendre rich sentences such as "I need Cox right away!" and "Remember: It doesn't say Cox unless I say it tastes like Cox!"

While fairly consistently entertaining, the thinness of the plot does begin to wear in the third act a little. The movie is set up somewhat segmentally, so we see a small section of Dewey's life and career before jumping forward a number of years to the next thing. That's probably the right way to do something like this, but the twists are occasionally so random and detached that I caught myself thinking about how (and if) the movie was going to tie it all together, rather than what was in front of me at that moment. I would guess that Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story's target audience probably won't care about that, but it's worth mentioning as a significant stumbling block in what is overall a pretty funny movie.

November 21, 2007

The Mist (11/21/07)

Lettergrade: C

The Mist is a disturbing meditation on the nature of human fear, dressed in the trappings of an old school monster movie. Several scenes in it are very good, but unfortunately they are interspersed with many others that don't really work. It pains me to say that as director Frank Darabont previously wrote and directed two exceptional pictures of the 90s: The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. Like those, The Mist is based on a Stephen King story, but where the previous films had more humanistic ideas at their core, this one has a large supernatural element and is primarily out to scare. Although the picture does have some good freaky scenes, the results by and large are fairly mixed.

Darabont's great talent, as demonstrated in his previous movies, lies in creating screen-characters who are complex but flawed versions of classic movie archetypes. Likewise, he is a master at lacing grim subject material with dashes of ribald humor; doubly effective not only because the laugh is unexpected, but also due to the fact that it creates what I think of as a "full-spectrum" experience. Life situations are so rarely as monotone as many movies would have you believe, and Darabont (or is it King?) knows this: He's good at taking beats here and there to find the bittersweet humor in the drama, and usually both work better as a result. It is no coincidence that The Mist is at its best during the character moments. The scenes where fear and panic drive human characters to do irrational things are by and large a lot scarier than the scenes where CG monsters show up.

But I'm getting ahead of myself... As the picture starts, Thomas Jayne is a commercial artist living quietly with his wife and son in upstate Maine, a favorite region of Stephen King to wreak supernatural havoc. His family wakes one morning to find that a storm has damaged their house and knocked out the phones and electricity. Jayne grabs his son (and his asshole neighbor), and heads to the local super-market to stock up on supplies, barely noticing the armada of military trucks and fire engines that frantically race in the other direction. While in the store, a mysterious mist rolls in and completely obscures the parking lot. Anyone who ventures out into the haze comes back battered and terrified, or worse, reappears in bloody pieces. With no clear way out, the group of 70 or so settles in and waits for help to arrive.

Darabont quickly establishes ways in which the group creates confrontational divisions among itself; be it year-round residents vs. city folk there on vacation, well-educated people vs. drop outs, and somewhat obliquely, conservative versus liberal. Much of the movie, however, focuses on a terrifying Marcia Gay Harden, as a religious zealot who preaches that the ongoing events are part of God's wrath. Although generally reviled by the others when the mist first rolls in, the appearance of large locust-like creatures (as well as the other supernatural beasts that turn up) work in tandem with her ever-ready Old Testament quotes to convince a small, panicky mob that she is a profit and had foreseen it all.

Religious extremism of any kind often freaks me out, and I was genuinely unnerved when Harden started rattling off some of the Bible's more fire-and-brimstone themed passages. Her performance, along with Toby Jones - as the store's resourceful asst. manager... pragmatic and level-headed in many ways that Harden is not - are the two most compelling in the picture. Unfortunately, however, as well-conceived as the Jayne, Harden, and Jones characters are, many of the others are a bit broadly drawn or conveniently display stupidity and poor-judgement in the interest of allowing the plot to move forward. Again, it is a tome on fear and the irrational things it leads people to do, but something about the way our characters in this movie behave consistently rings false.

One other thing to note is that the musical score, while largely absent for the first half of the picture, is among the most obnoxious I've heard in any movie during the second half. It mainly consists of a large church organ playing while a middle-eastern vocalist wails away. The art direction, cinematography, and editing are all great, but there needs to be an industry-wide ban on ever allowing this dude to record a note of music ever again.

In the end, however, I did not despise The Mist, but other than a few bright spots here and there, I didn't think it was all that noteworthy either. Were the film a straight emulation of the 50s monster movie, rather than a picture that tries to do more and say something while merely paying homage, some of the dopier scenes might not take the air out the proceedings quite the same way. It's a shame because Darabont has done better work in the past, and I'm sure he'll do better work in the future.

November 19, 2007

Beowulf (11/18/07)

Lettergrade: D

I pretty much hated Beowulf right from the first scene. I know that's not very constructive, but it's how I feel. I think I was expecting a real kick-ass, sword-and-sorcery popcorn flick, but that's not quite what this is. There _is_ some magic and swordplay afoot, but much of the story is fairly dreary and dull. Conversely, when the action scenes do take place, they're kind of shrill and nightmarishly unpleasant to sit through. All this is exacerbated by the fact that it's computer animation (based on motion capture), and many of the CG characters, who often look almost exactly like the actors voicing them, don't have a lot of articulate expression. I don't know if the movie would work better if it had been staged with real actors performing with CG monsters or not, but at the very least there would be the subtle nuance of human interaction that guys like Anthony Hopkins and John Malkovich have spent their lifetimes perfecting, and that no digital reproduction has yet been able to match.

Indeed, several of the characters look and behave pretty much like gristled up extras from the Shrek universe, with the key differences being that they drink, get horny, and kill things in graphic ways. Curiously, there are many lengthy dialogue scenes that take place in a mead hall which, one would think, might lend itself better to just building the sets and shooting the actors in costume rather than going to such lengths to replicate such things anyway. Nevertheless, when smackdown time arrives, the digital environment does permit our heroes to perform amazing feats that no stuntman would subject himself to, and allows for dynamic shots that no cinematographer could ever shoot. The movie's aim is spectacle, and while it is perhaps a bit underwhelming, you have to give it points for being unique.

The movie is based on a 9th century poem that I wrote a report on in 7th grade, but do not remember. It starts with the monster Grendel (played by Crispin Glover) attacking king Anthony Hopkins' mead hall somewhere in bumfuck Denmark. Hopkins knows exactly what to do: He calls Beowulf and his entourage, who are known throughout the land as ace monster exterminators. Beowulf (Ray Winstone) is a hero of egomaniacal nature... as in love with the legends that have accumulated about himself as anyone. I was amused that he would always shout his own name while kicking something's ass, ala the O'Doyle family in Billy Madison. Beowulf quickly dispenses with Grendel (whom, it turns out, resulted from Hopkins slipping the pork-saber to some kind of sea-demon years earlier). The next night, however, the village is attacked by something far more wicked and foul: Angelina Jolie, bringing back her Count Chocula accent from 2004's Alexander, and her "crazy bitch" persona from everything else.

Beowulf goes to her lair, the entrance of which is designed to look like a dark vagina, but is overcome when something that looks exactly like Jolie emerges from the water instead. The naked-but-nippleless creature offers Beowulf a deal: If he performs the sexual act with her, she will turn him into a king more powerful than all others. It has been established that the prospect of nookie is too great for our vainglorious hero to resist, and he succumbs to the dark creature's promises; like Hopkins before him, and Brad Pitt during the production of Mr. And Mrs. Smith. The second half of the story picks up some 50 years later, with an elderly Beowulf having to deal with the consequences of his one-night stand (a really pissed off dragon).

There are certainly compelling thematic points about the nature of heroism, and how the lust for power, wealth, and mad-monkey sex tragically undo several men of great strength in this story. I was especially interested in Beowulf's No. 2, played by Brendan Gleeson, who is endlessly devoted to his boss, but recognizes his flaws. Nevertheless, the execution is such an unpleasant combination of 'wooden' and 'horrific' that there isn't a whole lot to enjoy here, despite the thematic food-for-thought that seems a little more meaningful in hindsight than it did to me in context of the picture.

Director Robert Zemeckis made some of the most treasured popcorn movies of my youth (the Back To The Future trilogy and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) before moving into more mature pictures that I admired and studied throughout high school and college (Forrest Gump and Cast Away). Lately, it seems that Zemeckis has lost his goddamn mind. His film prior to this one was The Polar Express, which, like Beowulf, boldly experimented with using motion capture to grab an actor's physical performance and map it onto a CG character in a CG environment. The result was interesting because it allowed Tom Hanks to "play" many different characters in the film of all shapes and sizes. Despite the creepy, dead soullessness in the eyes of all the CG actors, there was a unique and optimistic sense of magic that really kept the movie going.

Beowulf isn't that lucky. The overall atmosphere is too frequently sabotaged whenever anyone steps into a close-up, and you're reminded that you're not looking at actors using their craft to convince you that they're living through something extraordinary, but instead at a computer simulation that attempts the same thing. Beowulf is an amazing use of the technology available to filmmakers of our day, but I suspect it would be more fruitfully used as an enhancement for tried and true techniques, rather than a replacement.

November 9, 2007

Bee Movie (11/09/07)

Lettergrade: D

I thought the ads looked kinda sucky, but the few reviews I came into contact with for Jerry Seinfeld's Bee Movie were generally very positive. More than that, though, was the glowing word-of-mouth: "You like Seinfeld, don't you?" Who doesn't? "It's like they took the humor from the show, but adapted it for cartoon bees!" Well, that's a hell of an endorsement, so we decided to roll the dice. A few minutes into the movie, however, I had the distinct feeling that we were fucked.

Actually, that's being a little harsh... a more measured thing to say is that, contrary to the hype, Bee Movie is not too unlike many other Dreamworks CG animated pictures that have been in theaters in recent years... Over The Hedge, Shark Tale, Madagascar, et al. Movies in which celebrity personalities are anthropomorphized onto various members of the animal kingdom and sent off for adventure. Generally speaking, they're also the kind of thing that I, a big fan of imaginative children's entertainment, have little interest in seeing. I should come clean here and admit that I never, in fact, saw the first two movies on the above list, but my six year-old cousin saw Madagascar in the theater and assures me that it's "pretty stupid."

And Bee Movie isn't "stupid," but it's also not as inventive or as subversive as the witty advertisements would have you believe. I think a key aspect of why this is not really the best use of Seinfeld's talent is that his humor often centers around spontaneity (or at least the appearance of it). Animation is about the least spontaneous filmed media that there is, and additionally it does not allow Jerry to sarcastically mug through a scene the way he could on his NBC show. I guess with that in mind, the film's main way of trying to keep the proceedings feeling extemporaneous is by instituting a series of bizarre and radical plot shifts which, at times, seriously brought my brain to a screeching halt.

The initial premise, for example, has more in common with 1998's Antz (which featured the voice of Woody Allen and was one of Dreamworks' first CG movies) than anything else in the Dreamworks catalogue. Both films assign the voice and mannerisms of its beloved New York Jewish comedian to young neurotic insects struggling to find mass acceptance in rigid societies. When the time comes for the [bee/ant] to choose his place among the [hive/colony], he decides to venture out of the [hive/hole] for a [meaningful/heart-warming] adventure of discovery.

Seinfeld's character (the somewhat unenthusiastically named Barry B. Benson) explores NYC, and winds up in a Central Park-adjacent apartment occupied by a florist voiced by Renée Zellweger. The movie doesn't get into how a florist can afford a penthouse apartment with a Central Park view, but if you're going to get hung up on that kind of shit, maybe a talking bee picture isn't right for you to begin with. Anyway, in true movie fashion, the florist is dating a real dickhead (Patrick Warburton), who is about to swat Barry into oblivion before Zellweger steps in. Barry feels a debt of gratitude, and decides to violate one of the primary rules of Bee Society: Using English, he verbally thanks his rescuer.

A bee striking up a vaguely romantic relationship with a human is not all that outlandish within the realm of the fairy-tale movie, but then things got strange:

Barry discovers, to his horror, that humans hold bees captive and harvest the honey they produce for retail purposes. This pisses him off so royally that the film abruptly becomes a courtroom parody for the next 20-25 minutes. Barry brings about an undefined lawsuit against human kind that seems to have something to do with theft and imprisonment. Although there were stern warnings at the beginning of the movie that speaking to humans is strictly forbidden, there are no repercussions when Barry appears in court and on national television to level his charges.

I'm giving a good deal away here, but the bees eventually do win their case, and THEN things get even weirder. Since the bee community now has all this reclaimed honey, they decide to stop working and no longer leave the hive to pollenate flowers, fruit trees, and all other manner of vegetation. Pretty much overnight, all the earth's pollen dependent plants dry up. The movie focuses not on the wide-spread famine or massive economic collapse that would result in such an occurrence, however, but instead on Zellweger, who tragically can no longer afford her penthouse apartment now that she has no flowers to sell. The final part of the film deals with Barry's crazy schemes to get the bees to resume their activity, so the plants will be pollenated, so Zellweger will like him again.

What's the message? I have no idea. I've gone through the trouble of describing all this, however, both in attempt to find some logic in the bizarre patchwork quality of the plot, but also to make mention of the fact that a significant portion of the film is spent dealing with an issue that is actually quite relevant to current ecological events: A significant increase in a syndrome referred to as Colony Collapse Disorder, wherein worker bees have abruptly departed their hives apparently due to some kind of orientation problem, has been recorded in North America and Western Europe since late 2006. Scientists have little understanding thus far of what's causing the disappearance - bee keeping practices, pesticides, and human activity such as radio waves and cellphone signals are all potential suspects - but if the trend continues unchecked, the end result would be something not too unlike what happens in the second half of Bee Movie: An ecosystem collapse that results in significantly fewer flowers, fruit, and vegetables for the animals on this planet to make use of.

Don't get me wrong... if the film encourages kids (or their parents) to modify their behavior in such a way that bee welfare is given more consideration, that's a wonderful thing. As it stands, however, the movie has seemingly taken on a mysterious issue that does not yet have a viable solution. I'm not entirely convinced that Bee Movie is really trying to make some sort of environmental statement at its core, but the plot point seems a little too timely to be entirely arbitrary. The only message that seems abundantly clear is that we humans shouldn't feel guilty about taking honey from bees because it keeps them doing their fucking job.

But you know, it's weird: I like animated pictures. I really do. I love many of the Pixar films, and thought that Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the WereRabbit (also a Dreamworks Animation release, although co-produced by Aardman in England) was nothing short of perfection. Is it just that these particular sorts of movies are not aimed at my demographic? Are they aimed exclusively at children and at parents while I, childless at 29, am simply not able to appreciate the appeal?

I have every respect for the time and effort that went into Bee Movie and I'm glad that people got paid for the three years or so that it probably took to make it. It's one of those things, though, where I look at the talent, artistry, and money that was involved in making a picture, and am a little sad that no one came up with an especially inspired (or even cohesive) idea for everyone to put their effort toward.