March 20, 2011

Paul (03/20/2011)

Lettergrade: C-

Most of Paul is just sort of "okay." It picks up a little in the second half, but I'm honestly not all that happy that I spent 2 hours with it on a valuable day off, and I cannot recommend that you do the same. The fault is probably mine: I expected too much.

You see, the movie - a take off on the E.T. / Mac & Me / A.L.F. sub-genre where two comic book guys encounter a stoner alien - stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, the neo Abbot & Costello pair who were also in two of my recent favorites: Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz. Pegg co-wrote those earlier movies with director Edgar Wright (who also made the wonderful Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World last year), but Paul was co-written with Frost instead, and Adventureland's Greg Mottola stepped in to direct.

The result is a movie that feels like a more foul-mouthed companion to Galaxy Quest or The Coneheads in that it's pleasantly amusing, and even has a handful of decent scenes, but ultimately feels a little too banal and toothless for my taste. It's not as intense or as extreme as Shaun or Fuzz on a visual level, and although the love of pop-culture and referencing other movies is in there, the joy with which the earlier film made those references is not. I think both this movie and Galaxy are reluctant to really take the gloves off when depicting the comic-book crowd, knowing full well that it's the same demographic that tends to buy most of the tickets. Oh if the filmmakers had only used Triumph The Insult Comic Dog's epic encounter with Star Wars fans camping out to see Attack Of The Clones in 2002 as inspiration:

But you know, content aside, a big part of my so-so reaction to the movie is Paul himself. He's voiced by Seth Rogen, which I don't necessarily have a problem with, but the character he plays, like most of his other characters, doesn't seem to be all that different from the man himself. He smokes pot, makes lewd comments, and is generally a lovable slob. But the thing is that other than drug use, he's also not that all that different from A.L.F. (although I might actually argue that A.L.F. was funnier and more socially relevant). Maybe the few seconds of American Dad I've seen over the years have desensitized me to seeing aliens who like to sleep-in, watch bad TV, and eat junk food, but during a couple scenes in Paul I got the idea that the fact he was smoking or drinking a beer or something was intended to get some laughs, and it just wasn't. The image is so kinda familiar now that you pretty much expect it.

I don't begrudge the use of an all CG creation as one of the leads, but I also think that the makers of the film fell into the Jar Jar Binks trap of allowing Paul himself to outshine his live-action co-stars for too much of the film. The warning signs are there even in the trailer where you can clearly see the CG alien make big, grandiose facial expressions and movements while the actual people who were there on the set just look on blankly. Watch the second Pirates Of The Caribbean movie again and marvel at how often many of the CG characters simply stand and listen, then react appropriately... much like real actors usually do when performing in other movies. There's something Davy Jones understands that no other CG actor I've seen does.

Indeed, synthespians like Paul are so much more effective when they don't articulate all that well, or better yet, even look a little crappy. Lousy effects certainly didn't hurt 1989's Mac & Me, a piss-poor E.T. knock-off in which the McDonald's and Coke product placement is off the fucking charts, making for a movie that in many ways is funnier and far more memorable than this one.

Pegg and Frost seem to understand the joy that comes from reveling in the schlockiness sci-fi movies of yesteryear (Frost's character even brings up Mac & Me at one point), but weirdly they're doing it in a movie that's glossy and well-produced and which tries hard for genuine tenderness at multiple points. I have to blame the director for everything not quite working in harmony the way that it should.

I really liked Mottola's previous two movies, but something about his laid-back, quasi sentimental approach seems completely wrong for this one. Superbad and especially Adventureland revolve around young men who are at transition points in their lives, and I walked away from both really impressed that he was able to be very funny while still saying something very intangible and honest about the way in which guys interact with and, yes, even love eachother. In a perfectly hetero way, I mean. Not that there's anything wrong with... well, you know.

The Pegg and Frost characters in Paul are essentially sci-fi geek children who have reached their 40s without really advancing much. That's fine, but the movie makes an attempt at illustrating their life-long friendship and affection for eachother that feels out of place in the movie, as if Mottola looking for soul and depth where he really shouldn't be. Could Paul's key problem be that it tries too hard to be a movie that's about something other than just having a fun adventure?

March 12, 2011

Jane Eyre (03/12/2011)

Although my high school and college transcripts are full of English classes, I somehow missed having to read Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. My wife was assigned the novel once in high school, and liked it enough to re-read several times on her own over the years. She really liked this new film version too, which was directed by Sin Nobre's Cary Fukunaga and stars Mia Wasikowska as the lead, Michael Fassbender as the handsome dickhead she falls in love with, and features supporting roles from Judi Dench and Sally Hawkins, among others. Critics have also been on fire about it, and my Facebook buddy Jens actually saw the film twice in two days, remarking that he liked it even more the second time.

I must admit that I didn't get a lot out of it myself. I usually do have a soft spot for English costume-dramas based on novels of Jane Eyre's time, but in this case I wonder if a lack of familiarity with the text prevented me from seeing layers in the film that everyone else seems to. Because I have neither read the novel, nor have I seen it staged in different ways, I'm probably ill-equipped to really appreciate how the material was handled this time, and in fact at times I had a little trouble understanding what was going on at all.

I think a key problem for me was Wasikowska, whom I found to be awfully blank and difficult to get much feeling from, apart from a few climactic scenes. I understand that this is partly by design - Jane herself is described as exceedingly plain by several characters in film - but I, a Jane Eyre novice, went through large segments of the movie without a lot of insight into how she felt about everything that was going on, apart from feeling general empathy for a young woman that was forced to live with her mean-spirited aunt who did not want her, sent her to a boarding school where she was disliked, and who then became the governess at Thornfield Hall, a dusty estate owned by surly bastard Mr. Rochester, who harbors a dark secret or two.

The movie deviates from the book, I have been told, in that it shuffles up the chronology a bit. It opens with scenes of Jane running off from Thornfield Hall that appear about three-quarters of the way into the book, before flashing back to pick up the early scenes of Jane's childhood. I kinda hate this terribly clich├ęd technique to begin with, I must say, as I believe it appeals more to filmmakers when they talk amongst themselves than it does to the audiences who watch the movies. The idea, I guess, is to show the star of the film right up front (a chronological telling would mean that Wasikowska wouldn't show up for at least half an hour or so), and to tease at a big dramatic moment that the movie will be working toward.

With this movie in particular, I think the "stunt structure" had an unintended consequence that's actually a big problem: You see, when Jane arrives at Thornfield Hall later, she is to tutor a young blonde girl who mostly speaks French. Young Jane, in her flashbacks, is quite similar in appearance, and when the other girl showed up for the first time, I had a mild freak out moment: Had I been through all of the "Young Jane" scenes not understanding that it wasn't Young Jane at all but this other girl instead? The film was still flashing forward and backward at that point (ala ABC's Lost), meaning that it could very well have been the case, and I had somehow missed it. Or what if this was the older Jane Eyre meeting her younger self, and it marked the beginning of some kind of time-travel or alternate reality subplot that would be critically important to the movie's action / sci-fi climax? Was the space-time continuum about to collapse because of this paradoxical meeting? I asked my wife, and she quietly reassured me that I was right the first time: The French girl was a new character entirely, and film was not going to become a 19th century staging of Twelve Monkeys or Millennium.

Getting back to reality, however, it's hard to level criticism toward a movie that people seem to like simply because I "didn't read the book," but damn it: This blog is supposed to be about keeping it real, and writing about how I really feel about the flicks I'm seeing versus towing the same bullshit marketing lines that professional critics often do. What it comes down to is... did I understand it? Well, sorta. And did I like it? Egh, it was alright, I guess.

So there we are.

March 6, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau (03/06/2011)

Lettergrade: B-

I found myself really liking big segments of The Adjustment Bureau, mostly due to the electric chemistry between Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. But then - every once in a while - a scene would come up that would cause my enjoyment to grind to a screeching halt. Usually they were the ones where someone would begin to explain a little about what the Bureau is and what it does.

You see... it's kind of a non-denominational guiding force, sort of like a technologically minded group of guardian angels who all dress like they're auditioning for background work on Mad Men (and for no clear reason: the movie is set in present times). They use tactics like delaying your commute slightly, causing you to miss an important call, or getting you to run into someone you haven't seen in a while in order to make sure you are where you're supposed to be at key moments of your life and that you meet (or don't meet) the right people. Or in other words, that you stick to "The Plan." And who made The Plan? Well, it was made by the vaguely defined "Chairman," alternately referred to as "The Man Upstairs" - the movie's stand-in for whatever deity you happen to believe in, or not believe in.

It's not the non-committal theology that I have a problem with. The idea, based on a Phillip K. Dick short story called "The Adjustment Team", is a neat one, but it also seems like one that might be a bit more striking if the details had been allowed to remain a little fuzzy and if most of the activities of the Adjustment Bureau were left off camera. Indeed, once scenes like the ones I alluded to above were over, I quickly found myself again wrapped up in the love story between Damon's charismatic young politician and Blunt's sweet professional ballet dancer whom he meets and becomes intensely smitten with. They can't be together, says the Bureau, because The Plan forbids it, but Damon spends most of the movie trying anyway and quarreling with Bureau agents over matters of free-will versus fate.

Readers of this blog might know that I see most movies with my wife, and in our relationship she's the one who typically sees the positives and merits of a movie whereas I will become fixated on story points that seem kinda bullshitty and out of place and allow them to overrun things. This was a very rare example where the opposite was true: I was charmed enough by Damon, Blunt, and the quasi cool sci-fi concept of the picture to sort of forgive the things that didn't quite work. Laura, by contrast, was put off by the premise pretty much from the get go. She got a little worked up when we talked about it during the car ride home, seeming especially irked by the big sci-fi action climax at the end where Damon steals one of the "magic hats" that the Bureau agents use to travel around the city in order to prevent Blunt from marrying someone else, The Graduate style (egh, don't ask). She's got a point. That whole part was kind of, well... really stupid. On a crankier day, that - combined with some of those other Bureau scenes and the clearly reshot ending - maybe would have sunk the movie for me too.

More than the specifics, though, I think the overall premise didn't entirely sell her, and that's a complaint I've been hearing a number of other people who have seen it too. Honestly, though, whilst sitting in the theater I caught myself really enjoying the movie more often than not. It's interesting to see a medium-budget drama like this that seemed to be mostly made with adults in mind... it's a rare thing these days. While not perfect, it held my attention and gave me something to think about, which is probably more than Justin Bieber: Never Say Never would have done.