Greg Mottola’s “Paul” – An overstuffed road trip

For some, Paul might provoke a sense of nostalgia. It is chock full of so many elaborate and perfectly executed pop culture references that you’ll spend far more time knowingly chuckling than actually laughing. It has all the ingredients of a solid road-trip comedy – Graeme (Simon Pegg) and Clive (Nick Frost) are a pair of unabashed nerds who take an RV across the American Southwest in search of gorgeous scenery and all things UFO. Halfway to Roswell, they run into an honest-to-goodness alien named Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen). Oh, and did I mention that Pegg and Frost, the beloved comedic duo from Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, also wrote the screenplay? And that they secured director Greg Mottola, whose last film made my Top 10 of 2009?

With all of these players involved, I am baffled as to why Paul is staggeringly unfunny for most of its runtime. The first 15 minutes, in which we get to know Graeme and Clive, are downright tedious. Pegg and Frost have their usual rapport, but their naturalistic banter is saddled with an overabundance of scatological humor and enough gay jokes to overwhelm Adam Sandler. Pegg and Frost’s relationship definitely got stronger as the film went on, but this first act was bad enough that I found myself wondering if, in a world where I hadn’t seen their prior collaborations, I would have bought them as friends at all.

Nonetheless, the film becomes truly enjoyable as soon as Rogen enters the picture. Rogen’s voice performance is hilarious and raunchy (like Rogen himself), and the repartee between Pegg, Frost, and Rogen (which allegedly contained a great deal of improv) is definitely where Paul is at its strongest. And that’s just what this film needed! Bring these giants of geek comedy together, and just let them be funny with each other. Instead, there were far too many scenes that dragged on for just a bit too long in the service of gags that aren’t nearly as funny as the movie thinks they are. When Paul brings a bird back to life with his E.T. mind-magic and then eats it, I chuckled (at least, I chuckled when I saw it in the trailer). But did it merit such an awkward pause in both story and comedic timing? Not at all. And there were a dozen other gags that felt just as expendable.

I’ve omitted some characters thusfar. Jason Bateman plays Agent Zoil, the ruthless man-in-black who is doggedly pursuing Paul. And I must say – this is one of Bateman’s finest performances. Bateman is the consummate straight man in every comedic project, and to see a straight-man who is heavily armed and committed to tracking down and killing every comedic character in the bunch is frightening and hilarious. Kristen Wiig is also in the mix as Ruth, the daughter of a Christian fundamentalist, and quasi love interest for Graeme. I don’t have much to say about this character – mocking religious nuts is pretty passé (and a bit too easy), and Ruth and her dad were perhaps the most extreme indications that this script was written by a pair of Brits who only had an eye for American caricature. The film simply felt overstuffed with both one-note characters and underused comedic talents (including Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio, Jeffrey Tambor, Jane Lynch, David Koechner, and one more I won’t spoil), who had very little to do with their brief screen-time except make the audience wonder why they showed up.

The most frustrating thing about Paul is that there seems to be a truly great road-trip adventure film at the center of it. Pegg, Frost, and Rogen (and eventually Wiig) are an affable group, and the wide open spaces and scenery look gorgeous (can’t go wrong with the American Southwest). Blythe Danner shows up as Tara Walton, the adult version of the little girl who first discovered Paul’s crash site, and I must say – this is a backstory that deserved more screen time. This film teases the kinds of strong relationships found in E.T. and Close Encounters, but seems too timid to actually embrace them. Every time it comes close, it wastes time on a throwaway line or shot-for-shot scene remake of one of those films instead. Comedy cannot survive on referential gags alone, and Paul‘s focus on them is entirely to its detriment.

FilmWonk rating: 4.5 out of 10

Sidenote: Kudos to the effects team that designed the alien Paul. This was a perfect fusion of reality and CG character design, on the same level of realism as District 9, but with a much more cartoonishly designed alien (which makes it even more impressive).

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2009 Glennies, Part 5: Best Picture (Top 10 Films of 2009)

#11: Avatar



(written/directed by James Cameron)

Last year, I cheated my Top 10 list a bit because a numbering error in Word caused me to accidentally type an extra description. This year, I’ve opted to include James Cameron’s Avatar for a wholly different reason. You can read my full review of the film, in which I fully acknowledge a number of serious plot, character, and storytelling problems with this film. By any of these measures, Avatar was not worthy of my Top 10. And yet, I am compelled to include it, because I had an absolutely marvelous time with this film. My first viewing was on a miniscule screen, from a seat crammed into the right front section of the auditorium, but I still couldn’t take my eyes off a single frame. This film is a grand and wondrous spectacle. Even as piracy, obnoxious advertising, and a constant barrage of texting diminish and devalue the theatrical film experience, James Cameron has given us a new reason to adore it. And beyond that, the film has proven provocative enough to spawn some of the most in-depth and fascinating film writing I’ve ever seen in print or online. Avatar absolutely piles on its message, but whether you love it or hate it, you will certainly have something to talk about afterward.

#10: The Boys Are Back



(directed by Scott Hicks, screenplay by Allan Cubitt, novel by Simon Carr)

Scott Hicks’ The Boys Are Back accomplished something remarkable… It managed to take a rather somber premise – a husband and father dealing with his wife’s untimely death – and turn it into a downright cheerful film. The film is shot in Hicks’ native Adelaide, Australia, and Greig Fraser’s cinematography (complimented by Hal Lindes’ delightful score) give this film an absolutely gorgeous backdrop. The film excels in its tone and pacing. It deals with some weighty issues, but the story moves right along when it needs to, and never veers too far into somber territory without coming back to show us something genuinely delightful. This variable emotional curve could easily have come off as jarring, bipolar, and seemingly not serious enough for the film’s subject matter, but it manages to avoid these problems. The result is a joyous portrait of family and fatherhood, featuring a trio of strong performances from Clive Owen and his cinematic sons.

#9: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince



(directed by David Yates, screenplay by Steve Kloves, novel by J.K. Rowling)

When I first read J.K. Rowling’s sixth Harry Potter book, I thought it was a fascinating middle chapter, but easily the least cinematic in the franchise. I held a similar view of the fifth book, so imagine my surprise in 2007 when director David Yates and screenwriter Michael Goldenberg turned it into one of the best films in the franchise. And with the sixth film, Yates and returning HP screenwriter Steve Kloves have done it again.

I will throw in a caveat… This is definitely not a film for newcomers to the franchise. It’s crammed with back story and setup for the final chapters. It relies on an existing interest in and affection for the characters, their relationships, and a rich and elaborate world that deftly raise the stakes for this entry. And yet, this is one of the film’s most persistent strengths. We’ve watched these kids grow up in the joyous halls of Hogwarts, but this time around, the school feels strangely empty and somber. DP Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography makes the grounds look absolutely gorgeous, and provide a brilliant “underwater” look for the film’s many flashback sequences (I was quite pleased to see the Academy take notice). Nicholas Hooper’s score is hauntingly beautiful at times, but keeps the same cheery flourishes that I so enjoyed from the fifth film (particularly the Weasley twins’ theme).

I already singled out Jim Broadbent’s fantastic supporting role, but there were too many strong performances in this film to even mention. The character work and storytelling were effective, and the adaptation showed remarkable restraint in omitting an entire battle sequence from the end of the film. In print, this sequence always played like a lighter version of the next book’s final battle (minor spoiler – there’s a final battle), and cutting it out of the film was definitely the right choice.

#8: Up



(written/directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson)

The latest Disney/Pixar film from Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc) definitely fell prey to what I would call “WALL-E syndrome” – the first half hour is absolutely the best part of the film. It tells the poignant love story of childhood sweethearts Carl and Ellie Fredricksen in a matter of minutes, and is one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking montages I’ve ever seen put to film. It is also a taut piece of visual storytelling, effectively conveying such weighty adult issues as infertility and broken dreams with only the briefest of glimpses and zero dialogue. By the time we meet Ed Asner’s cantankerous old man, he is thoroughly endearing, and finds an excellent partner in crime in Russell (Jordan Nagai), a Wilderness Explorer who is just the right blend of cute and annoying. The ensuing adventure film is immensely fun, and features the hilarious motif of a talking dog with the intelligence and personality of…a dog (with a great voice performance by co-writer/director Bob Peterson). Up certainly takes place in a heightened reality, but it tells a very down-to-earth and touching story.

#7: Adventureland



(written/directed by Greg Mottola)

As I said in my original review, Greg Mottola’s Adventureland defied my expectations on every level. I went in expecting a comedy akin to Superbad – and the film’s marketing certainly encouraged this image of the film. Instead, I was presented with a mature, poignant drama that presented a brilliant portrait of the twentysomething post-college experience, and the sudden, reluctant thrust into adulthood.

The film boasts some brilliant performances… Jesse Eisenberg plays a great everyman, and was just shy of my Top 5 for Best Actor. Ryan Reynolds and Kristen Stewart were both surprisingly effective (each of them having lowered my expectations at some point), and Martin Starr – whom I’ve adored since “Freaks and Geeks” – continues to show his prowess here.

Adventureland is both an effective coming-of-age tale and a touching romance, whose conciliatory message (“You can’t just avoid all the people you’ve screwed up with!”) will likely resonate as much with this generation as it did in the 1980s, when a young Greg Mottola was working at the real Adventureland. Whether this indicates the film’s timelessness or simply Mottola’s understanding of modern twentysomethings, the result is well worth seeing.

#6: Coraline



(written for the screen and directed by Henry Selick, novel by Neil Gaiman)

The best use of 3D animation I’ve seen this year was not in James Cameron’s Avatar, but in Henry Selick’s stop-motion adaptation of Coraline, a children’s novel by Neil Gaiman. Equal parts Nightmare Before Christmas and Alice in Wonderland, this film is a fantastically creepy exploration of a child’s desire to escape boredom. The voice cast is enjoyable, with effective performances by Dakota Fanning and Teri Hatcher, and a fantastic use of Keith David as a talking cat. The plot does get a bit too much like a video game in the third act (use your special scope, go here, retrieve one item from each location, BOSS FIGHT!), but it balances this with an absolutely stunning mixture of stop motion and CG animation as the fantasy world starts to crumble – and I’d be hard pressed to tell you where one stops and the other begins. Everyone has a film from their childhood that is as beloved as it is nightmare-inducing. Coraline absolutely deserves the title for today’s kids.

#5: Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs



(written for the screen and directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, novel by Judi and Ron Barrett)

Sony Pictures Animation has only made a few films, they got off to a fantastic start with Gil Kenan’s 2006 film Monster House. Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs had an atrocious marketing campaign, and hardly looked like it would be a worthy followup. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be the best comedy of the year.

Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) is a crackpot inventor whose latest invention is a machine that can turn water into food. The science in this film is very much in the Calvin and Hobbes aesthetic – immensely fun and borderline magical. The character design is deliberately cartoonish, in stark contrast to the rest of the animation, which looks gorgeous and practically photorealistic. The film’s North Atlantic island locale 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.

This is a screwball comedy driven by a non-stop barrage of surprisingly thoughtful gags. The casting is fantastic, with great performances by Hader, Anna Faris, Andy Samberg, James Caan, and even Mr. freaking T (whose character actually sports an inverse mohawk). This supports some very believable relationships and effective character work. The film even tackles the implications and consequences of a society steeped in overconsumption, but keeps this to a very basic level. It’s one of many ways the film shows respect for its audience, kids and adults alike. The running gags all pay off fantastically, lending the film extremely well to repeat viewings.

This is about as preachy as I’ll get during my top 10… This is a film for everyone. It’s the best character-driven animation since The Incredibles, and one of my all-time favorite comedies. See this movie!

#4: Moon



(directed by Duncan Jones, written by Nathan Parker, story by Duncan Jones)

I’ll keep this one brief, since I’ve already raved about Sam Rockwell’s performance, and this is basically his one-man show (you can check out my full review here). Duncan Jones’ Moon does a lot with very little, creating a compelling moon base environment on a downright meager budget. It’s helped along by an absolutely beautiful score (I have yet to hear a Mansell score I haven’t loved). It’s a fantastic character piece, and a welcome return to true sci-fi. Check it out if you love big ideas.

#3: The Hurt Locker



(directed by Kathryn Bigelow, written by Mark Boal)

Kathryn Bigelow’sThe Hurt Locker doesn’t exactly have a conventional plot, but feels rather like a series of carefully constructed action set-pieces. Nonetheless, it is an incredibly effective thriller, owing largely to the action direction – that sense of spatial relationships that is that is absent from so many action films today. From my original review:

Every scene in this film is well established, and the audience always has an excellent sense of what’s going on. Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) dons his protective suit (a relative misnomer) and marches through the blazing sun toward his objective. Civilians watch from every surrounding building, and bustle through the adjacent streets and alleys. The soldiers behind him take cover behind a Humvee and survey the crowd. Anyone with a cell phone could be trying to detonate the bomb. And all the while, the audience understands exactly where everything is in relation to everything else. And when all hell breaks loose, they can still understand what’s going on.

The rest of the film’s effectiveness is due to the three leads. Renner, Mackie, and Geraghty are just fantastic, and present a fascinating psychological profile of these characters, even as the film’s plot and dialogue exhibit utter contempt for anyone trying to analyze them. The film’s greatest strength is in crafting a palpable sense of urgency and danger – when it’s over, you’ll have to forcibly pry yourself loose from the edge of your seat.

#2: Up in the Air



(directed by Jason Reitman, screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, novel by Walter Kirn)

Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air bears a few similarities to Reitman’s last bit of corporate satire, Thank You For Smoking (including another great soundtrack), but has a much more somber tone. In my original review, I called it a brilliant and timely character piece, and I can’t stress this point enough. Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is a doubly fascinating character, between his constant air travel and his job as a professional hatchet-man. This may be the best performance of Clooney’s career, amid a trio of fantastic acting. The film takes a great number of risks, but stops just short of spreading its characters too thin. What’s more, it contains some of the richest dialogue and most effective scenes I’ve had the pleasure of seeing this year. And while it may be timely, this does nothing to diminish its rewatch value (three times and counting for me).

#1: Inglourious Basterds



(written/directed by Quentin Tarantino)

This film’s brilliantly deceptive trailer made it look like the Basterds (and their commander’s awful and hilarious scenery-chewing) would be the stars of the show. While I actually ended up liking Brad Pitt’s performance in the end, the Basterds feel more like a backdrop for the main revenge plot, which featured powerhouse performances from costars Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Laurent, and Diane Kruger.

In my original review, I noted some minor similarities to Bryan Singer’s 2008 World War II film, Valkyrie. In that film’s insistence upon historical accuracy, it demanded a great deal of its audience – namely, to root for a plot whose failure was a matter of historical record. With Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino makes no such demands on the audience. He doesn’t strain or even test your historical knowledge. He simply asks you to live in his world for a while.

And what a world it is. A world of fantastic performances and increasingly tense 15-minute dialogue scenes. These scenes stop just short of being self-indulgent, and ultimately, Tarantino earns every moment in this film. It feels like a teaser for a much larger story, and yet we are still privy to enough brilliantly crafted character moments that it simultaneously feels complete.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Anvil! The Story of Anvil (fantastic documentary by Sacha Gervasi – omitted because I only just saw it)
  • In the Loop (directed by Armando Ianucci, written by Jesse Armstrong)
  • Drag Me To Hell (directed by Sam Raimi, written by Sam Raimi and Ivan Raimi)
  • The House of the Devil (written/directed by Ti West)
  • The Brothers Bloom (written/directed by Rian Johnson)
  • Trick ‘r Treat (written/directed by Michael Dougherty)
  • District 9 (directed by Neill Blomkamp, written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell)
  • (500) Days of Summer (directed by Marc Webb, written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber)
  • Observe and Report (written/directed by Jody Hill)
  • Star Trek (directed by J.J. Abrams, written by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci)

Click here to see the rest of the 2009 Glennies.

My entirely over-long review of Greg Mottola’s “Adventureland”

adventureland
Kristen Stewart, budding teenage heartthrob, fresh off her role in the critically acclaimed epic vampire romance Twilight, returns to the screen alongside comedic greats and Judd Apatow alums Ryan Reynolds, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig in Adventureland, a hilarious and carefree new comedy from the writer/director of Superbad.

…or not.

Adventureland was filmed in October of 2007 and sat on the shelf for a year and a half while Miramax figured out how best to release it. I can only speculate as to why they held onto it for so long. Eventually, it seems, a combination of residual favor from Greg Mottola’s previous film and Kristen Stewart’s increased profile following her turn as teenage vampire-lover Bella Swan in 2008’s creepy stare-fest, Twilight, was enough to get the film a release.

This film defied my expectations on every level. I went in expecting a comedy akin to Superbad – and the film’s marketing certainly encouraged this image of the film. Instead, I was presented with a mature, poignant drama that presented a brilliant portrait of the twentysomething post-college experience. It is the story of James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), a recent graduate who was all set to head for Europe on a post-college jaunt when his parents painfully admit that due to money problems, they will not be able to pay for his trip. Without warning, James is presented with the insurmountable task of finding a job with his liberal arts degree.

This aspect of the story was rather apropos for me – the poli sci major currently working in IT. But even the various absurdities of a helpdesk employee seem tame in comparison to an exciting career in crooked carnival gaming.

“You can do better, son,” says James’ father when he announces that Adventureland is the only place he can find employment. And yet, James can’t do better. He’s quickly realizing that his parents can’t help him, and that he has to take whatever job – and whatever life – he can find. It is this desperation and sudden, reluctant thrust into grownup life that the film captures so well.

Throughout the film, there’s a persistent feeling that these kids aren’t ready for their situation. They live with their parents. They’re old enough to drink legally, and yet they sneak around hiding liquor. They sit in their parents’ cars and make out in their driveways. They gossip, spread rumors, and weave a tangled and overlapping web of ambiguous relationships. They engage in whimsical, self-destructive behavior at the drop of a hat. These kids are not alright. They’re college graduates acting like high school students.

And yet, not a single moment in this film rings false. The story is a parable of modern life, and a ruthless exploration of modern relationships. The film’s treatment of romance, evoking sympathy for all manner of relationship fouls, reminds me greatly of last year’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall. And in much the same way as that film, you just have to stare resignedly at the characters and shake your head in bewilderment.

You know you shouldn’t do that, you’ll say. You know you’re just doing it because you’re in love and heartbroken and stupid. You know you’ll feel worse afterward. And you know you’re going to do it anyway.

The principal romance in this film was between James (Jesse Eisenberg) and Emily (Kristen Stewart). In a rare reversal of the usual pratfall of casting young characters, the then-17-year-old Stewart plays a seemingly 21-year-old college graduate.

kristenstewartAs much as it pains me following my experience with the abominable Twilight film, the moment has finally come when I must admit… Kristen Stewart is a damn fine actress. I can only speak to my reaction, but during every moment of Emily’s screen time, I was on the edge of my seat with anticipation. Stewart, in an incredibly nuanced and visual performance, managed to convey such a compelling sense of desperation and longing in every scene (both with and without Eisenberg) that I spent the entire film simultaneously rooting for and pitying her.

“You can’t just avoid all the people you’ve screwed up with!” is the conciliatory message of this romance, as delivered by James in the final romantic speech at the end of the film. This scene was obligatory, as it is in most romantic dramas, and yet (without giving too many details) Mottola’s take on this scene manages to ring truly unique. Jesse Eisenberg’s acting definitely deserves some of the credit for how well this scene (and the romance) plays, but it is Stewart that truly shines in this film.

ryanreynoldsI must also give praise to Ryan Reynolds. Here is an actor whose work is consistently entertaining, but offers the same one-note, sociopathic, likeable douchebag performance in every film he’s in. You’ve probably met someone like this character in real life. Someone who evokes two simultaneous reactions – amusement and unsettlement. Someone who might be good for a laugh or two, but would probably toss you aside the moment he no longer needed you for something.

Reynolds returns in this film as that character, aged 10 years, saddled with a dead-end job and an unhappy marriage. And yet he manages to convey the truly pitiable nature of such a character. His antics and doubletalk no longer seem charming here. His underhanded and lecherous conduct comes off as sad, creepy, and immature for a man of his age. Reynolds does a fine job of portraying all the ugliness and truth of this character without any of the signature likeability that he brings to his other roles.

Adventureland is a poignant film with a lot to say about our generation. And I say this as a current twenty-something who is more than happy to coopt and internalize the lessons of this film. And yet, the story is actually Greg Mottola’s semi-autobiographical take on his experience after college in 1987. Does this indicate that the film’s message is at least somewhat timeless? Or that Mottola has merely spun a tale of modern twenty-somethings and added a bit of weird hair, outdated music, and a lack of cellular communication for ambiance? Impossible to say. But the result is well worth seeing.