PAUL: The Film Babble Blog Review

PAUL (Dir. Greg Mottola, 2011)

STARMAN meets SUPERBAD in this sci fi comedy that has Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, the comic duo from SHAUN OF THE DEAD and HOT FUZZ, aiding and abetting an extraterrestrial fugitive voiced by Seth Rogen.

Pegg and Frost, who also co-wrote the screenplay, are a couple of British geeks on an American vacation that kicks off with a visit to Comic-Con in San Diego before making a road trip to alien landmarks from Area 51 in Nevada to Roswell, New Mexico.

There’s a FANBOYS vibe going on as the pair are starstruck at meeting fictional fantasy novelist Adam Shadowchild (Jeffrey Tambor), whose name is a running gag throughout the film – the joke being that only hardcore nerds know who he is.

Right after stereotypical rednecks (David Koechner and Jesse Plemons) harass Pegg and Frost at a U.F.O. themed diner, our protagonists meet Paul – the CGI crafted little green man from another planet.

“He looks too obvious!” Frost protests, but our snarky title character explains that it’s because pop culture has been inundated with his image in case an encounter occurs.

It turns out Paul, a pot-smoking heavy-drinking party animal of an alien, has escaped from his 60 year imprisonment at Area 51 and is on the run from a government agent (Jason Bateman playing it perfectly straight), so Pegg and Frost’s rented RV becomes his vehicle to an undisclosed location for a spaceship pick-up.

Kristen Wiig, in one of her better performances, jumps on board the RV as a half blind trailer park manager who gets converted from her crazy Christian mind set by the outspoken E.T. and is chased by her father (John Carroll Lynch). Also on the chase are SNL’s Bill Hader and the creepy Joe Lo Truglio as clueless FBI agents.

Every sci fi movie ever seems to be referenced in “Paul”. Lines are lifted from STAR WARS, locations from Star Trek to CLOSE ENCOUNTERS are visited, and then there’s the presence of Sigourney Weaver as “The Big Guy” – Bateman’s boss who will stop at nothing to recapture Paul.

It’s a film for sci fi nerds by sci fi nerds. It’s sloppy and choppy, but it has so many legitimate laughs in it that I didn’t care that it didn’t come close to the visually stylish Edgar Wright films that Pegg and Frost cut their teeth on.

PAUL is fast-paced foul-mouthed fun with an infectious silly tone that never lets up. Although you can see many of the gags coming, they’re still funny when they land thanks to the playful platform provided by Pegg, Frost, Rogen, and director Greg Mottola.

Though I don’t consider myself a STAR WARS fanatic, Trekkie, or sci-fi junkie to any extreme, my inner star-child was greatly amused by these alien antics.

More later…

UP IN THE AIR: The Film Babble Blog Review

UP IN THE AIR (Dir. Jason Reitman, 2009)

George Clooney’s third film of the last quarter of 2009 has “the last movie star” (Time Magazine’s words – not mine) in a much more recognizable role than his last 2 efforts. It’s not just because he’s not a mustached military man or an animated fox, it’s that he has a more recognizable character arc: slick professional who believes he has all the answers glides through life until realizing that there’s emptiness to it all which he desperately and clumsily tries to remedy.

This is also the character arc of director Jason Reitman’s first film THANK YOU FOR SMOKING, which UP IN THE AIR closely resembles at times especially in its opening introductory montage. Clooney’s voice-over narration, accompanying aerial shots of many American cities, tells us that he is a corporate downsizer. He flies all over the country to conduct formal sit-downs with employees to tell them that they are being laid off. He is very good at his job and prefers the 322 days of the year that he is on the road to the 43 that he is home in his sterile white walled rental unit of an apartment in Omaha.

Clooney’s frequent flyer lifestyle is threatened when his boss (a lightly bearded slightly jaded Jason Bateman) brings in a young consultant (Anna Kendrick) who has plans to replace the face-to-face meetings with video conferencing. Bateman sends Kendrick on the road with Clooney so she can be shown the ropes. Clooney hopes this will show her the flaws in what he believes to be a flawed inhuman media method, but you just know that both will be taught essential life lessons by one another.

In a hotel bar meet-cute earlier, Clooney literally charms the pants off fellow frequent flyer Vera Farmiga. She nicely compliments his no-strings-attached philosophy and provides a counter balance to Kendrick’s wet behind the ears romantic idealism. After Kendrick’s boyfriend back home dumps her by way of a text message, Clooney can’t help but to make a wise-crack: “That’s kind of like firing people over the internet.” Farmiga offers, with much more sensitivity, some solid advice about how it won’t feel like settling by the time somebody is right for her.

These relationship insights blend into the travelogue mosaic of cards being swiped, more aerial shots, and the many firings, yet we just know that they form the crucial crux at hand. For example Clooney has the annoying task of taking along a cardboard cutout of his sister (Melanie Lynskey) with her fiancée (Danny McBride) to be photographed at famous landmarks for a wedding collage – this draws our attention to his ostensible freedom in contrast to his sibling’s ostensible stability with neither coming out on top.

The first half of UP IN THE AIR is breezy and amusing, but the second half descends into mawkish sentimentality with soul searching acoustic balladry in the background broadcasting what we’re supposed to be feeling. Clooney’s charisma is so pleasantly palpable that he makes the film appear better than it is while we’re watching it, yet its superficial effect evaporates once we leave the theater.

Still, most audiences are sure to find this film a likable lark. It’s well made and has a shiny gloss to it that often outshines its predictability. It also benefits from not having a neatly tied up conclusion – sometimes it’s best to leave some things right where the title says they should be.

More later…

Judging Mike Judge’s EXTRACT

EXTRACT (Dir. Mike Judge, 2009)

The filmography of Mike Judge is very small (just 4 films over 13 years) and very odd. Best known as the creator and voice of Beavis And Butt-head and King Of The Hill, his movies have a obvious bent towards working stiffs and the threat of stupidity taking over the world (see OFFICE SPACE and IDIOCRACY). EXTRACT is cut from the same cloth as Judge’s cult classic OFFICE SPACE but it’s a jagged uneven piece of that cloth. As the protagonist Jason Bateman is not just a cog in the system, he owns his own company – an extract manufacturing plant. A freak accident on the factory assembly line that leaves one of his employees (Clifton Collins Jr.) with only one testicle, leaves him with a huge lawsuit that could potentially ruin his company. Meanwhile on the home front Bateman isn’t getting any action from his wife (a blank slate Kristen Wiig from SNL) so he drowns his sorrows at a nearby hotel sports bar whining to his best friend – bartender Ben Affleck.

Affleck, bearded and be-wigged and seemingly having a better time than anyone else in the movie, spouts out awful advice, and recommends pills as solutions. Bateman is attracted to a new intern (Mila Kunis) and confides to Affleck that he wouldn’t care if his wife cheated on him as long as he could get it on with Kunis. Affleck refers Bateman, heavily drugged, to a small time gigolo (Dusty Milligan) whom he hires to go to his house in the guise of a pool cleaner in order to seduce his wife.

Okay! This is where I give up on the plot summary as recounting it is almost as bad as it was watching it. What started out promisingly becomes a test of endurance. Instead of waiting for laughs I found myself anticipating the flimsy unpleasant premise to get even more flimsier and unpleasant. When Gene Simmons of Kiss showed up as a sleazy lawyer (one of the film’s most inspired notions actually) I expected him to make good on his threat to slam Bateman’s balls in the conference room door. Why not? It’s not like the film had any loftier aspirations.

There are a number of genuine laughs in EXTRACT, just not enough to add up to a great cutting comedy. Kunis’s character as a hottie grifter (no Spoilers there – that’s revealed in the opening scene) offers no surprises and no character is likable enough to care about – I’ve liked Bateman in just about everything I’ve seen him in (especially Arrested Development) but here he’s a pretty bland and not particularly sympathetic everyman. I cringed more than I laughed during this movie I’m sad to report. Judge’s previous works were indeed odd with a twisted yet likable affinity for those struggling to climb to another rung on the ladder of success. EXTRACT is just odd and twisted – which would be fine if it was just funnier.

More later…

STATE OF PLAY: The Film Babble Blog Review

Taking a break from the heat on my Vegas vacation I found a theater (United Artists Showcase 8) not too far from my hotel and decided to take in:

STATE OF PLAY (Dir. Kevin McDonald, 2009)

Literally hitting the ground running with a foot chase through a rain drenched Washington DC night resulting in multiple murder, this adaptation of the six part 2003 British miniseries never lets up from its riveting opening. In the cold light of the next day we are introduced to a scruffy haggard looking Russell Crowe as a ace old school reporter (the type who brags about using a 16 year old computer) who buys coffee to get info from the police and makes jaded quips like: “I’ll need to read a few blogs in order to form an opinion.” A nice timely touch is to then pair him up with a blogger (Rachel McAdams) for his newspaper’s online division. Crowe’s long time buddy, a congressman played surprisingly solidly by Ben Affleck, is exposed as having had an affair with one of the previous night’s victims (Maria Thayer – only seen in photos and cellphone footage) and, of course, something sinister lies in the shadows with an evil corporation possibly pulling the strings.

Yes, it’s a conspiracy movie with a “trust nobody” vibe that has many allusions to one of the all time greats, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN with its Washington DC backdrop, intense walks and talks, doors slammed in journalist’s faces, and even a shadowy parking garage sequence. The Watergate hotel gets more than just a visual shout out too. Crowe gets many terse tongue lashes from his English editor played beautifully by Helen Mirren in the cluttered newsroom of the fictional “The Washington Globe” (same typeface as The Washington Post in case one misses the connection) while he and McAdams go from lead to lead. For the up to par supporting cast we’ve got Robin Wright Penn as Affleck’s estranged wife, Jeff Daniels as a smarmy Senior Representative, Viola Davis (DOUBT) as a no nonsense pathologist, and a stand-out Jason Bateman as a bisexual fetish club promoter addicted to OxyContin.

There are contrivances and clichés galore but the movie moves so fast with such entertaining zeal that none of that matters. Crowe puts in a cantakerously crafted performance that’s strong enough to conceal that we are given virtually nothing of backstory of his character, while McAdams appealingly works those “dewey eyed cub reporter’s eyes” (as Mirren sneeringly calls them at one point) uping the ante from her previous one note roles like the love interest in WEDDING CRASHERS. There is spare but weighty commentary on the fate of print media in the era of the internets – particularly the likening of bloggers to bloodsuckers (ouch!). Through this all the supreme structure of the film is what really makes it tick. It’s played straight with a tightened pace that doesn’t ever fall out of focus. Maybe it’s not quite in the league of the classic 70’s political thrillers it pays ample homage to, but STATE OF PLAY is a worthy addition to the conspiracy cinema canon.

More later…