Bad Trailer/Good Trailer: “Brothers” and “The Crazies”

I saw F. Gary Gray’s Law Abiding Citizen last night, and saw two incredible trailers, which prompted this aside:

The purpose of an advertisement is to make me want to buy your product, Hollywood. If I don’t see a trailer for your film, I’ll at least feel neutral about it. If I see a compelling, provocative trailer, I may well want to see the film. But if I see a trailer that gives away the whole damn plot (or at least gives me that impression), it will leave me utterly uninterested.

Whether we’re talking about a cheesy, but potentially enjoyable armored car heist or Tom Hanks forging a deep friendship with a volleyball, this has been a problem for a while.

But it’s rare that I’ve seen such an egregious offender as Jim Sheridan’s Brothers:

I don’t need to see this movie. Ever.

Remarkably, in the same evening, I saw an absolutely balls-out-audacious trailer that gave away a TON about its film – Breck Eisner’s “The Crazies” – and yet still left me wanting to see it:

Story structure exists for a reason. You can pitch me a movie without revealing every twist. It’s okay. Really.

Both of these films have their selling points. The acting looks solid in Brothers, and I’m quite pleased to see someone acknowledge the uncanny resemblance between Jake Gyllenhaal and Tobey Maguire. I approve of the The Crazies‘ shameless appropriation of Gary Jules’ “Mad World” (originally written for Donnie Darko), and it looks like potentially fun cheese (although I’ve been burned by that assessment before).

These films may be good or bad, and that’s really not the point. We’re talking about the difference between a book jacket and the Cliff’s Notes.

Tantalize me, Hollywood. Give me a little, and leave me wanting more, and I may just buy a ticket.

*There are two exceptions to this rule:
-Romantic comedies. The quantity of “spoilers” in the trailer had no bearing on my decision not to see Love Happens.
Marley and Me (only obliquely related, and thoroughly spoilerific).

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Ruben Fleischer’s “Zombieland” – Better than it has any right to be

Poster for "Zombieland".

Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland is about four people milling about in a world overrun by zombies. And…that’s about it. My expectations were low for this film. Back in June, when I wrote up the trailer, I referred to it as “the latest entry in an already clogged genre”, and attempted to explain the zombie phenomenon as an societal indulgence of psychopathic fantasies of mass slaughter. And in that grain, it did not disappoint.

These zombies are no slow-moving, Romeroan allegory for a society steeped in consumption and conformity. They’re beasts. They chase down and slaughter humans in grotesque, blood-spattering, gratuitous, slow-motion glory, in an apparent attempt to combine all the cinematic advantages of both fast and slow zombies. And Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) is the rough-and-tumble zombie-killin’ cowboy who’s happy to put them down. To say that at least one scene ends with him literally standing atop a pile of dead zombies hardly merits a spoiler warning.

In fact, I’m not sure if I could spoil the plot of this movie if I tried. Ruben Fleischer has accomplished something truly remarkable here – he’s created a world that is not only completely devoid of plot, but could not logically include one. America is empty, save for a few aimless, meandering zombies and even fewer aimless, meandering humans. No one has a long-term plan or even a short-term objective, save for the usual rumors – the eastern survivors hear there’s a zombie-free zone out west; the western survivors hear there’s a zombie-free zone back east. As Tallahassee puts it when speaking to his new protégé, Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), “You’re like a penguin at the North Pole who hears it’s nice at the South Pole this time of year.”

If that’s all this movie had been – an aimless, nihilistic slaughter fantasy – it would’ve been a huge disappointment. And yet, this film contains some truly remarkable character work. The survivors meet under the most random of circumstances, and band together (eventually) because they don’t know what else to do. After a brief Mexican standoff, Columbus catches a ride with Tallahassee, and the two are eventually joined by Wichita (Emma Stone) and her sister, Little Rock (Abigail Breslin).

At first, there is very little sentimentality amongst these four. They refer to each other by their respective cities of origin, so as not to become too attached. They make blithe reference to the demise of each other’s loved ones. They have some pretty serious trust issues.

And yet, amid this loss of identity and hope, they gradually remember what it’s like to be human. For a long second act in which we see almost no zombies, these four actually start to open up to each other. This piecemeal family-amid-disaster could easily descend into maudlin territory, but the film manages to humanize these characters without losing any of the fun and cynicism of the first act. When the inevitable “romantic” subplot occurs between Eisenberg and Stone, it consists of the latter asking the former to join her so she doesn’t have to drink alone, shortly before announcing that she “could hit that”.

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Harrelson and Breslin perform admirably in their roles, despite not getting much time to shine in the film’s 88 minutes, and Emma Stone’s performance is adequate, although her character’s motivations become increasingly muddled as the film goes on. But the strongest performance in the film is easily Jesse Eisenberg.

I’ve been a fan of Eisenberg’s since Adventureland, and he continues to demonstrate his prowess as an actor, doing a better job at playing Shia LaBeouf roles than LaBeouf himself. Columbus really is the emotional center of this film, and it is a testament to Eisenberg’s performance that I can refer to any of the characters as such. Columbus has stayed alive by following a self-imposed list of rules – some practical (“Wear seatbelts”), cautionary (“Beware of bathrooms”), or even philosophical (“Don’t be a hero”). They’re eventually supplemented by an entry from Tallahassee – “Enjoy the little things.”

If I had to extract a message from the film, it would be that last rule. It is exemplified by one of the best scenes in the film, in which the characters wreck up a kitschy souvenir shop at an Indian casino just for the hell of it. The amusement park climax of this film is more or less completely forgettable, and yet there are so many brilliant little scenes between these characters that I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent with them. As a horror flick, creature thriller, or road-trip tale, the film does very little to distinguish itself, and as a zombie film, it’s actually rather boring (and devoid of zombies!). But as a comedy and character piece, it is quite an accomplishment.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

Ricky Gervais’ “The Invention of Lying” – Those jeans make you look fat

Poster for "The Invention of Lying".

Ricky Gervais is a chubby little loser who became semi-famous among a small group of Americans for creating a British TV series called “The Office”. Like most British comedy, the show was very dry, and appealed mostly to those few Americans who appreciate obscure foreign cultural references and being rendered physically uncomfortable. It was eventually adapted by American comics to much greater success, owing largely to its attractive cast and lack of silly accents.

For the record, I adore both versions of “The Office”, and I only refer to Gervais as a “chubby little loser” because he’s quite fond of referring to himself as such. But this is the world of Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson’s The Invention of Lying – a world of brutal and unrepentant honesty. Gervais stars as Mark Bellison, an unsuccessful screenwriter who accidentally discovers that he has the ability to lie. Anna (Jennifer Garner) is Mark’s potential love interest, with the minor hitch that she doesn’t find him attractive (and is happy to tell him so), and Brad Kessler (Rob Lowe) is a thoroughly loathsome rival to Anna’s affections. Jonah Hill and Louis C.K. appear as Mark’s friends, joining a host of comedic cameos, including Martin Starr, Jeffrey Tambor, Tina Fey, Jason Bateman, and an almost unrecognizable Ed Norton.

Unsurprisingly, with so many comedic greats on board, the film excels at the humorous exploration of its reality. In a world with no lies, what are movies? What are advertisements? What is dating? All of these questions (and more) are answered, and the resulting world feels a bit like Liar Liar. Characters are forced to tell the absolute truth, and they do so even when they aren’t asked a direct question, making this not so much a world of honesty as a world of too much information. It would be downright alarming if not for the fact that no one reacts to these startling revelations in any visible way. In this sense, they seem childlike – an image that is reinforced as soon as Mark realizes how easy it is to lie to get what he wants. This kind of behavior could easily come off as predatorial, but Mark doesn’t entirely understand his new power, and is mostly well-meaning.

The people of this world start off with a blank slate, and the first half of the film resembles a Lockean state of nature (minus any notion of God) – which makes it all the more fitting when Mark accidentally invents the concepts of God and Heaven at the top of the film’s second half.

At this point, this film might well be retitled “The Invention of Religion”, and becomes perhaps one of the most overtly antireligious films of the year (which might explain its pervasive Budweiser product placement – gotta pay the bills somehow). For his part, Gervais seems quite at home in the ranks of atheist comics – he even delivers a hilarious “Ten Commandments” scene reminiscent of George Carlin. This act feels more or less like an origin story for morality, and is at least moderately fascinating as such. Unfortunately, Mark is not the most well-conceived moral authority. His morality is tenuous, illogical, and largely inconsistent. It seems mostly derived from Gervais’ desire to poke fun at religion, and in that sense its shortcomings may be at least somewhat deliberate. Nonetheless, at this point, Mark ceases to be a real character, and his romance with Anna starts to further strain credulity (despite a worthy effort by Jennifer Garner).

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Anna is a fascinating case study in this world. She likes Mark, maybe even loves him. But she can’t be with him because Brad Kessler is more attractive, successful, and a better match for her genetically. In a world of no lies, the purpose of dating is getting married to make babies. Anna does not have Mark’s ability to lie, but she would have to go against her biological imperative in order to be with him (resulting in “little fat kids with snub noses”). With Anna, the film comes very close to classifying love as a form of self-deception, and this may ultimately be its most provocative theme.

Since “Extras”, Ricky Gervais has shown his aptitude for exploring the ideas of fame and undeserved notoriety, and this film definitely continues in that grain. But The Invention of Lying just feels like a bland entry, dabbling in many complex and fascinating ideas, but spending far too much time undermining them. The resulting allegory may well be enjoyed by some, but is mostly forgettable.

FilmWonk rating: 5 out of 10

Week in Brief: “Whip It”, “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”

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Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, Whip It, is the story of Bliss (Ellen Page), a 17-year-old girl who takes a shine to roller derby – the sport in which ladies both lovely and terrifying skate around a banked oval track throwing elbows and attempting to collapse each other’s lungs while passing their opponents’ crumpled bodies to score points. The title refers to a technique whereby one or two skaters act as an anchor to in order to “whip” a teammate past them – a slingshot maneuver designed to greatly increase the teammate’s speed around the track. When I saw this and similar maneuvers put forth in the later matches of the film, I couldn’t help but think of the “Flying V” of The Mighty Ducks. Indeed, Whip It ends up falling somewhere between a Disney sports film and a Texas football tale, and even without the other story trappings, it would be an admirable entry in the sporting genre.

Bliss’ mother Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden) puts constant pressure on her daughter to stay pretty and compete in events that are equal parts beauty pageant and debutante ball, and is naturally appalled to find out what her daughter is doing with her spare time. The parallels to overeager Texas football dads aren’t exactly subtle, but this subplot worked well for me, owing largely to Page and Harden’s performances, as well as that of Daniel Stern as Bliss’ father.

When confessing her secret sporting life to her parents, Bliss proclaims, “I am in love with this!”. This line was in the trailer, and Page delivered it with such earnestness that it was almost solely responsible for my interest in this film. The story of a teenager in love who doesn’t need to wallow in brooding, misunderstood angst was strangely appealing to me, and Page’s performance delivered on every bit of promise from this line.

And yet, Bliss is not an unrealistic or idealized teen. She acts bratty and selfish at times, and is ultimately put in her place a bit for it. She partakes in a romance with a local guitarist, for no clear reason other than because he’s (omg) super-hot. This storyline initially seems pointless, but pays off rather well in the end, and treats us to a bizarre, but entertaining underwater makeout scene.

The supporting cast is solid, with great performances from Alia Shawkat (“Arrested Development”), Zoe Bell (the Kiwi stuntwoman from Death Proof), Andrew Wilson (Idiocracy), and Kristen Wiig (“SNL”) – who proves her acting chops even without her signature comedic deadpan. The great Juliette Lewis is also effective as a rival derby player.

The only real weak link in the acting – with the exception of Jimmy Fallon as an absolutely repellent announcer – is director Drew Barrymore. I was conflicted about her presence as an actress in this film; at times, it seems self-indulgent. Barrymore plays a member of the derby team – basically a non-character, lacking any defining characteristics beyond her nom de guerre (Smashley Simpson). I can’t comment much on her performance, since she doesn’t really do much acting, but she does bring the same convincing physicality to the derby sequences as the ladies above (granted, I have no idea how many of the stunts were actually done by the actresses). There’s seems to be no reason for her to be in this film except to join the fun, but I can’t fault her too much for it.

As a freshman filmmaker, Barrymore’s direction is not mindblowing, but she has done a fine job. Cinematographer Robert Yeoman brings the same sort of semi-grainy look that he’s used in every one of Wes Anderson’s films, but it works fine here. The camera starts off tight and claustrophobic – focusing on a one or two players at a time, intermixed with POV shots (seemingly from a camera on skates), but as the film goes on, the shots get wider, and we see more and more. The direction kept the action coherent, built the matches’ interest as the film went on, and brought an adequate measure of intimacy and earnestness to the character moments.

The empowering message of “Be Your Own Hero” is ever-present, but not overwrought. If there’s one message the film conveys best, it’s that roller derby looks brutal and immensely fun, and it’s wrapped in enough solid character work to make this a memorable film.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10
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Poster for "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs".

Every once in a while, a film comes along that challenges Pixar’s well-earned dominance of the animation market. A film with a solid story, compelling characters, and gorgeous animation. Last year, it was about a panda that wants to learn kung fu. This year, it’s about a scientist who builds a machine that turns rain…into food.

Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) is a crackpot inventor who has built a myriad of bizarre inventions since childhood, from spray-on shoes to a monkey thought translator. His latest invention is a machine that can “mutate the genetic formula of water to turn it into food”. And that’s about as detailed as the science gets in this film. Lockwood’s lab is designed very much in the Calvin and Hobbes aesthetic, complete with a set of blast doors painted onto a curtain. And just like Calvin, all of the science he develops is immensely fun and borderline magical.

Lockwood lives on a drab island town in the North Atlantic called Swallow Falls, which had previously survived solely on its sardine industry. This industry collapsed when it was discovered – and announced in newspapers the world over – that “Sardines Are Super Gross”. While the town makes an ill-conceived attempt to revitalize through “sardine tourism”, Lockwood’s invention accidentally blasts into the sky (as crackpot inventions are wont to do), and he discovers that it can be programmed remotely to make the skies rain down any food the townspeople want like manna from heaven.

Also in the mix is the power (and food) hungry mayor (Bruce Campbell), a beautiful weather intern (Anna Faris), Lockwood’s disapproving father (James Caan), an aging former sardine mascot (Andy Samberg), and an alarmingly speedy cop (Mr. T). The casting is one of the film’s greatest strengths. Sony appears to have learned a lesson from Dreamworks’ failures. You can’t just pack a film with movie stars and expect them to do well as voice actors. These actors (even Mr. T) feel very much at home in their parts.

As for the character design, it seems quite deliberately cartoonish. Flint Lockwood looks more or less like Jon Arbuckle, with a nose easily half the size of his head. His father’s eyes aren’t even visible under a huge bushy brow and above an equally monstrous mustache, and Mr. T’s cop sports an inverted mohawk (a line shaved down the center). This is in stark contrast to the rest of the animation, which looks gorgeous and practically photorealistic. The film takes place in a sort of heightened reality, and yet the island of Swallow Falls feels every bit like a real place, from its initial shroud of gloomy gray mist to its eventual golden glow amid a shower of falling cheeseburgers. The weather and atmospheric effects are incredible, and the food looks delicious.

Still from "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs".

The film could have stopped there, but it goes on to showcase some remarkable visual wonders and absurdities. There are depictions of food and food-related wonder and peril that I never could’ve imagined before this film. What does a sunrise look like through the shimmering golden walls of a palace made of jello? How do the children play in a town covered in giant scoops of ice cream? What does it look like when huge animate gummy bears hop onto the wing of a plane and start ripping out wires like a pack of gremlins? I could go on. By the end of this film, you will know all of this, and more.

The film is written for the screen and directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, two of the writers of CBS’ brilliantly funny sitcom, “How I Met Your Mother”, and this film has many similarities to that show. In addition to the rapid-fire jokes delivered throughout the film, it also showcases several well-conceived running gags, each of which has a hilarious payoff by the end. It also balances the humor, which is unrelenting and hilarious, with some solid character work. There’s Sam Sparks, the weather girl, afraid to show how smart she really is, and ‘Baby’ Brent, the former sardine mascot, unsure of what to do with his life in adulthood…

There is also a very well-conceived relationship between Flint Lockwood and his father. Tim Lockwood is a simple fisherman, afraid of new technology, who can only communicate meaningfully with his son in the form of fish-related metaphors. As Flint unveils his fantastical machine to the townspeople, this relationship becomes imbued with subtle shades of the creative destruction wrought by new technology on old industry. The relationship keeps these shades while confronting one of the most basic questions between father and son: Is Tim proud or appalled by what Flint has accomplished?

It is largely through this relationship that the film tackles the implications and consequences of a society steeped in overconsumption, but it keeps this to a very basic level. This treatment of the film’s message seemed well-suited for such a lighthearted romp of a film, but it may feel to some like a missed opportunity. To such individuals, I would simply say this: not every film needs to be WALL-E. This film deftly acknowledges the implications of its grand premise, and then leaves its audience to ponder them further if they desire. This, along with the myriad of smart running gags, will ensure that this film rewards repeat viewings. This is a gorgeous, intelligent, and family-friendly piece of animation, sure to be enjoyed by adults and children alike. It respects its audience and will leave them begging for more.

FilmWonk rating: 8.5 out of 10

Special thanks to Devindra Hardawar from the /Filmcast for recommending this film, which I would probably have overlooked otherwise.