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…

CEDAR RAPIDS Gets Ed Helms Out Of The Office

CEDAR RAPIDS (Dir. Miguel Arteta)

This new comedy is only playing in Raleigh at the Regal North Hills Stadium 14, and it’s in one of their smallest theaters. That’s a shame because it’s a winning film that’s as charming as it is lovably crude, wonderfully carried by Ed Helms (The Office, THE HANGOVER).

The straight-laced and extremely dorky Helms is a small town insurance salesman whose boss (Stephen Root) sees as the “kid who was going places, but then…didn’t.”

When hot shot salesman Thomas Lennon (The State, Reno 911) dies from auto-erotic asphyxiation, Helms is sent in his place to the annual insurance industry convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Helms, who amusingly is having a fling with his much older former elementary school teacher (a sly Sigourney Weaver), is nervous about going, especially since he’s never left his home town or been on an airplane before.

Upon leaving, Root warns Helms to stay away from John C. Reilly as a sleazy possible client poacher, and, yep, that’s who he turns out having to room with at the hotel.

Luckily his other room-mate is the more sincere Isiah Whitlock Jr. (Clay Davis from The Wire) who uses snappy phrases like L.A.C. (Loud And Clear) and “and at the end of the day that’s N.T.S. – that’s Not Too Shabby.”

There’s also the surprisingly appealing performance by Anne Heche as another convention veteran who ferociously flirts with Helms.

So our hapless hero Helms’ goal is to win the coveted 2 Diamonds Award by schmoozing insurance association president Kurtwood Smith (most likely best known as the dad on That ‘70s Show, but I prefer to think of him as the villain in the first ROBOCOP).

But Relliy’s partying antics, the temptation of Heche, and a brewing bribery scandal may thwart Helm’s path to victory.

There are a lot of laughs in CEDAR RAPIDS, most of the clever character based variety that was so missing from the raunchy-for-the-sake-of-raunch of the recent Farrelly Brothers flick “Hall Pass”.

In fact, there have been few comedy films lately that feel like they have real empathy for the people on the screen. Helms gives us a guy whose naivety we initially laugh at, but come to laugh with as the film goes on.

He comes off like a big kid, but not like man-children in the films of Judd Apatow, he’s more about the wide-eyed giddy feeling of learning things for the first time.

In this movie that giddiness is hilariously endearing, and at the end of the day that’s N.T.S.

More later…

AVATAR: The Film Babble Blog Review

AVATAR (Dir. James Cameron, 2009)

When my brother and I were kids we would often put down the lackluster effects of many of the sci-fi films released in the wake of STAR WARS saying they looked “fakey”. Well, there’s almost nothing fakey looking in AVATAR, James Cameron’s long-in-the-making special effects epic in which every cent of its $250 million + budget sparkles on screen. Nearly every frame is a flawless spectacle of jaw-dropping jolts that makes last summer’s STAR TREK reboot already look dated.

AVATAR is set in 2051 on a the distant moon Pandora which is inhabited by large blue humanoid life forms named the Na’vi. Human colonization of Pandora is underway with scientific studies clashing with military might over the Na’vi because they just happen to have a valuable commodity, a mineral called “Unobtainium”, which is vital to the survival of Earth, of which the protagonist says “there’s no green there, they killed their mother.” That protagonist is paraplegic marine (Sam Worthington) who is recruited to attempt to connect to the natives through “Avatars” – genetically engineered hybrid bodies that allow humans to breathe and co-exist in the Na’vi environment.

Worthington loves being reborn as a CGI creation that can run, jump, and engage in fighting off the crazy alien creatures of the lush but creepy forest. Telling the Na’vi leader that he is a warrior from the “Jarhead” clan, Worthington is allowed in to their culture based on the spiritual energy of the woods around them. He falls in love with the tribe chieftain’s daughter (Zoë Saldana) as he learns their ways and comes to believe that he should join them in fighting the humans who are coming to destroy their sacred Hometree for the “Unobtainium” underneath.

“Just relax and let your mind go blank” says Sigourney Weaver as a sneering scientist also Avataring it up. Though she adds: “That shouldn’t be too hard for you” to Worthington, that’s good advice for the audience. If it isn’t hard to turn one’s brain off, an exhilarating visual experience can definitely be had, but if that switch remains in the “on” position, stiff dialogue, simplistic politics (army bad, nature good) and a predictable formula thread may get in the way of total transcendence.

As a hard assed army Colonel looking to annihilate the Na’vi, Steven Lang comes off as such a standard issue war monger that I almost expected him to blast “Ride Of The Valkries” when flying in to attack on the speaker system of his highly robotized helicopter. Also during the ginormous concluding battle sequence I got lost in the explosions and so tired out from the bloated running time (161 minutes) that I was looking for dead Ewoks in the brush.

In the end though, critical jabs at the film and Cameron’s expense will do little to undermine the overwhelming technical achievement he’s created. AVATAR is sure to be a box office phenomenon and hugely influential in expanding the limits of effects driven genre films. Its amazing aesthetics make it one of the tastiest pieces of cinematic eye candy ever. So much so, that I could even let the sucky song (“I See You” by Leona Lewis) that plays over the end credits slide.

More later…

Just As Everybody Says – WALL-E Is Wonderful

WALL-E (Dir. Andrew Stanton, 2008)

Everybody (well, just about everybody – the film is at 96% at Rotten Tomatoes) is raving about WALL-E and it is well deserving of the acclaim. As the latest in the line of popular sophisticated animated Pixar films it is set in 2700 and involves a lonely rusty robot left behind to clean up the Earth after pollution has deemed it unlivable many centuries previous. As the humans have retreated to what Buy’ N Large (think Wal-Mart) CEO (played by a non-animated Fred Willard) calls “the final fun-tiere!” on a large corporate cruise-ship space station, WALL-E (stands for Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth) compacts old trash into cubicles and builds skyscrapers out of them. He collects what strikes his fancy – a Rubik’s cube, silver lighters, a dingy old hub cab that he tips like a hat while watching an ancient videotape of HELLO, DOLLY.

It’s apparent up front that this machine, as well as this movie, has a big heart as he befriends a cockroach and looks longingly to the sky while replaying love song sound-bites from his before mentioned favorite movie. When a probe named EVE (stands for Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) from the ginormous spaceship comes to Earth looking for plant-life, WALL-E is intrigued. She’s a shiny new model with a noble directive and after one of the mightiest movie meet-cutes I’ve ever seen, WALL-E is soon smitten. I really don’t want to spoil any more of the nice narrative surprises or the tons of ingenious ideas here so that’s as far as I’ll go with the plot.

A friend mentioned IDIOCRACY (Mike Judge’s failed futuristic dumbing-down of society satire) right as WALL-E began so it was hard to shake the similarities of a trashed-out Earth with remnants of non-perishable plastic products covering every square inch. There is no big spelled out environmental preachiness here though, the narrative is too clever for such moralizing – more fun to be had in spectacularly imagining a future where cute robots sift through the debris and help mankind get back on track. There are many echoes of past sci-fi classics which also involved cute and not so cute robots – the warp speed, musical queues, and sound effects of the STAR WARS movies (thanks to Academy award winning sound designer Ben Burtt who also does the voice of WALL-E) and 2001 in both the character of the evil ship’s Computer (voiced by Sigourney Weaver!) and the use of the grand “Also Sprach Zarathustra.”

Jeff Garlin (Curb Your Enthusiasm, I WANT SOMEBODY TO EAT CHEESE WITH) does a enthused performance as the Ship’s Captain who despite his hard to move girth may find a spark of inspiration from the passionate power-activated robots who suddenly appear before him. In the matinee crowd full mostly of families with many little kids I sat in watching this mind bogglingly beautiful and funny movie I heard a lot of laughter of course, but there was also much crying, awe-ing and the very vivid sensation of an audience being profoundly moved. Score hit #9 for Pixar – in my book, or on blog, every one of their films has been better than the last and WALL-E is not only the best yet but one of the best films of the year.

More later…

Those Damn DirecTV Movie Tie-In Ads – Offensive To Film Buffs?

To cut to the chase – yes. Those commercials (most running for 30 seconds) that re-create a scene from a well known movie oft played on cable with an actor re-outfitted in their old characters duds and mugging to the camera about the better picture quality benefits of DirecTV have been irking me for some time now. Let’s take a look at a few of them shall we? :

The first of these that I have seen wasn’t too bad – it had Christopher Lloyd dressed and made up to look like his 1985 Doc Brown character from BACK TO THE FUTURE (Dir. Robert Zemeckis) in this ad designed to make you feel like you’re coming back from commercials to a movie you forgot you were watching. Lloyd hams it up saying “I forgot to tell Marty when he gets back to the future he needs to get DirecTV HD!” As Wikipedia notes “Marty would not actually be able to get DirecTV once he got back to the future as it did not exist in 1985 and the Doc of 1955 would obviously have no way of knowing about it. However, this blatant illogic can be regarded simply as a joke.” Uh – okay!

You can’t really fault Charlie Sheen for turning a fast buck revisiting his MAJOR LEAGUE (Dir. David S. Ward, 1989) role of Rick ‘Wild Thing’ Vaughn. It’s a movie that seems to always playing on some cable channel (mostly TBS) and he was likable in it which is seriously unlike just about all of his other films so he and DirecTV are in the clear here. Major points would have been added if Dennis Haysbert (who played Voodoo practicing Cuban defector Pedro Cerrano in the 1989 film and its sequels) did some add-on shot (he’s probably too busy doing AllState ads) – but I’ll still put this in the acceptable pile.

Now those were somewhat cute – if you stick to mainstream movies and B or C-list celebrities popping up in mock scenes from their movies sure we can look the other way but Sigourney Weaver resurrecting her female-empowering alien-ass-kicking heroine Ellen Ripley in this ALIENS ad attrocity that just starting airing recently really gets my goat! To see this classic character who was named by the American Film Institute as the #8 greatest hero in American cinema history shilling for DirecTV is just depressing. Maybe we can tell ourselves that it’s one of Ripley’s clones from ALIEN RESURRECTION – no, it’s still sad.

I mean it makes some kind of marketing sense to have Jessica Simpson break the 4th wall from her role as Daisy Duke in the apocalypse-warning signpost that was THE DUKES OF HAZZARD (Dir. Jay Chandrasekhar, 2005) and chastize her leering viewers by taunting them by saying “Hey – 253 straight days at the gym to keep this body and you’re not going to watch me on DirecTV HD? You’re just not going to get the best picture out of some fancy big screen TV without DirecTV.” Though incredibly eye-rolling inducing it makes some kind of sense because it’s a completely disposable commercial movie and nobody will care if a character steps away from that kind of cinematic enterprise to do a sales pitch for a company. Speaking of stepping away from the Enterprise …

“Settling for cable would be illogical” Captain Kirk (William Shatner) says to Spock’s (Leonard Nimoy) grimace. Shatner is surrounded from footage from STAR TREK VI mind you in this commercial. Not the first time he’s acted reacting to nothing and it won’t be the last. This one is understandable because Shatner with his pitches, MCI, and the UK Kellogg’s All-Bran cereal ads has been a commercial spokesman * almost more than he’s been an straight actor, no wait he’s never really been a straight actor. Still, I get a bit pissed off watching his laconic walk-through in this ad I’m reminded by comedian Patton Oswalt’s put down from Shatner’s Comedy Central Roast -when he held up a paper bag and dared Shatner – “Could you act your way out of this?”

* To see the hilarious origins of Shatner as a commercial spokesman checkout this hilarious Commodore Vic20 Ad.

I just feel like we’re one step away from having Ralph Fiennes popping up as his evil Nazi personage Amon Goeth in a mock scene from SCHINDLER’S LIST looking right at the camera and saying “don’t you want to see me personally execute masses of Jews in the crystal clear clarity of DirecTV? Don’t you?!!?”

Okay, maybe that was a bit over the top – none of the ads so far have been from serious dramas or Oscar-caliber prestige pictures but I think these ads are bad for the film community. Okay, maybe just the online film community. Okay, maybe just me. Now this one with Pamela Anderson playing her iconic character C.J. from the television show Baywatch is just about right – hear that DirecTV! Stick to TV shows and low-brow comedies that were cheesy to begin with and all is forgiven. Okay?

Postscript : I know I haven’t covered all of those damn ads – Leslie Nielsen revisited his 1980 Dr. Rumack performance in a AIRPLANE! one, Ben Stein again asked “Bueller? Bueller? …” for a FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF throw-back, Bill Paxton once again chased a tornado in a TWISTER take, and shortly before his death in Pat Morita brought back Miyagi from THE KARATE KID (’86). If there are any others that irk you or that you actually like – send ’em on in to :

Oh yeah – I read somewhere that Bill Murray was all set to re-Carlize himself for a spot from CADDYSHACK (’80) but he was either out of the country working on a film or he came down with a case of integrity…

More later…