Wreck-It Ralph

November 2, 2012 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: voices of John C. Reilly, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch
Directed by: Rich Moore (debut)
Written by: Jennifer Lee (debut) and Phil Johnston (“Cedar Rapids”)

For better or worse, Walt Disney Animation Studios with always be compared to its wildly-successful upstart corporate sibling, Pixar. Ever since the latter released “Toy Story” in 1995, Disney Animation had been stuck in a creative funk. High points in the late-’80s and early-’90s like “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin,” and “The Lion King” gave way to forgettable bombs like “Treasure Planet” and “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” and other titles that stand no chance of being preserved in the sacred Disney Vault. Recent duds by Pixar, however, like “Cars 2” and “Brave” paired with the breezy success of Disney’s “Tangled” signaled a return to form for the venerable animation studio. And with their latest release, “Wreck-It Ralph,” its clear Disney has been looking over Pixar’s shoulder, taking notes on how to create kid-pleasing animation filled with enough wit and heart to appeal to adults as well.

“Wreck-It Ralph” takes us into the secret lives of video game characters after the doors of the arcade close. As the villain in the classic video game “Fix-It Felix, Jr.,” the brutish Wreck-It Ralph (perfectly voiced by John C. Reilly), punches out and heads home to the dump just off screen. While it’s Ralph’s job to be the bad guy, defeated time after time by the game’s hero Fix-It Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer), he’s a good guy at heart, grown weary of being the villain. In order to prove he can be a hero, Ralph “game jumps” and ends up in the first-person shooter “Hero’s Duty” under the command of Sgt. Calhoun (Jane Lynch) in a quest to win a medal. When things go awry, an escape pod sends Ralph, his medal, and a dangerously devastating cy-bug rocketing into the candy-coated racing game “Sugar Rush.” Here, Ralph meets Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) a glitchy 9-year-old racer looking to become part of the game, a feat she can’t accomplish without Ralph’s help.

Directed by “Simpsons” veteran Rich Moore, “Wreck-It Ralph” establishes its retro-geek bonafides from the very first frame: the “Steamboat Willie”-inspired Walt Disney Animation Studios logo rendered in lovingly lo-fi 8-bit graphics reminiscent of the golden age of arcade games. It only gets better from there, from the “Donkey Kong” meets “Rampage” gameplay of “Fix-It Felix Jr.” to the “Bad-Anon” meeting wherein reluctant bad guys like Ralph look for support among like-minded villains like Bowser (of “Super Mario Bros.”), Zangeif (“Street Fighter II”) and Clyde (the orange ghost from “Pac-Man”) that brilliantly takes place in that little ghost box that sits in the middle of the “Pac-Man” game board.

It would be a hollow victory, though, if fond memories were all “Wreck-It Ralph” had going for it. Thankfully the film goes for the high score with a heartfelt, laugh-filled story to match its nostalgia-fueled visual palette. Reilly’s endearing, self-aware voice work on Ralph powers the story forward, while strong performances from Silverman, McBrayer and Lynch prove once and for all that you can still cast big-name celebrities perfectly for their animated roles instead of simply plugging current stars in to whatever roles are available. I’m looking at you, Dreamworks and Fox Animation.

While the cynics in the audience may scoff at the formulaic “find your true self” storyline Ralph embarks on with Vanellope that dominates the second half of the movie, the inclusion of songs from current hit-makers Rhianna and Skrillex, or the romanticism of a thriving arcade still existing in 2012, “Wreck-It Ralph” is delightful and charming enough to keep earning its quarters all the way through to the end.

We Need to Talk About Kevin

March 22, 2012 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller
Directed by: Lynne Ramsay (“Morvern Callar”)
Written by: Lynne Ramsay (“Morvern Callar”) and Rory Kinnear (debut)

Look, if you’ve seen just one “evil kid” movie, even the most stylistic, well-acted offering in the genre isn’t going to offer you any surprises. A weird little kid is going to do creepy and borderline psychotic things that only one of his parents will notice, leaving the other one to bumble around happily, stopping every so often to reassure their troubled spouse with inane platitudes like, “Oh, you’re just over-reacting” or  “Honey, please…it’s perfectly normal for a boy to continue masturbating while staring you dead in the eyes when you accidentally walk in on him.” Seriously, it happens in “We Need to Talk About Kevin.”

In “Kevin,” troubled mother Eva (Tilda Swinton) deals with the aftermath of a tragedy, slinking through life permanently shattered. She spends her time avoiding personal contact on the street and traveling to visit her son Kevin (Ezra Miller) locked away in prison. Flashbacks fill in the details slowly, as Eva and husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) grow apart through Kevin’s childhood as both parents see very different sides of the same little boy.

Tilda Swinton turns in a fantastic performance as a broken woman who has to deal with a son capable of doing terrible things, a husband who doesn’t believe her, and a community that holds her personally responsible for the awful things Kevin did. While it may serve the artier parts of the movie to alienate Eva from the world, the film never really makes it clear why the townspeople would see fit to slap Eva square in the face in public for expressing the least bit of happiness. The supporting performances are fine, with Ezra Miller bringing the requisite uneasiness to the well-worn trope of the deeply-troubled teenager. A likeable John C. Reilly adds nothing new to the standard oblivious parent role. Also, his recent forays into absurd comedy can’t help but undercut his dramatic performance. That may be unfair, but it remains true and proves to be a minor distraction.

Director Lynne Ramsay piles on the artistry, yet the story remains pedestrian. A palette of blood red permeates Eva’s life before and after the tragedy, from a paint-splattered front porch to a strawberry jam sandwich smashed ominously on a coffee table to a wall of red soup cans, but it all boils down to metaphorical window-dressing that fails to disguise how routine the plot unfolds.

Carnage

January 14, 2012 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly
Directed by: Roman Polanski (“The Pianist”)
Written by: Roman Polanski (“The Ghost Writer”) and Yasmina Reza (“Chicas”)

With a title like “Carnage,” even if the weapon of choice is words, one might expect to see some type of intellectual bloodbath. In Oscar-winning director Roman Polanski’s (“The Pianist”) new dark comedy, the dialogue may be sharp at times, but the force behind the jabs is nothing a little Band-Aid wouldn’t fix. As overblown as it is, however, those involved would have you believe they were tossed into a pit of meat cleavers.

Based on the play “God of Carnage” written by Yasmina Reza (the Broadway version starring Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini, and Marcia Gay Harden won Best Play at the 2009 Tony Awards), the screenplay — co-written by Polanski and Reza — starts off effortlessly enough before diving into a diatribe of irritating proportions.

Two preteen boys get into a fight at a park in the swankier side of Brooklyn. One of the kids busts the other’s mouth with a big stick (in a less privileged neighborhood it might’ve been a shank or a 9mm). The kids’ parents (Cristoph Waltz and Kate Winslet play Alan and Nancy Cowan; Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly play Penelope and Michael Longstreet) decide the best way to remedy the situation is for both couples to meet in person and talk it out. But when their face-to-face goes from civil to sour, the Longstreets and Cowens flash their claws and berate each other on everything from parenting techniques to animal cruelty.

If you enjoy listening to people air their dirty laundry to the point of sick fascination, “Carnage” might produce enough snarky attitude to allow you overlook phony characters at their worst. Maybe that’s the point. Just because I couldn’t relate to these whiny parents who drink expensive Scotch, have out-of-print Oskar Kokoschka books in their bourgeois apartment, and use words like “conciliating” and “upbraided” in everyday conversation, doesn’t meant there aren’t some out there who will. There’s supposed to be an uncomfortable dark humor behind their snobbery, but as the quarreling continues and goes off on tangents, it gets less and less interesting. Despite the consistent rhythm Polanski is able to pull off in this contrived chamber piece, I kept hoping there might be a gas leak somewhere in the kitchen. Get halfway through the 80-minute “Carnage” and you’ll feel like you’ve earned some quiet time.

Now, I admit, I’ve only seen a handful of public theater versions of the play on YouTube, but I’m convinced this is one of those instances where a film adaptation was an ill-fated idea right from the start. Even the simple mechanics of the production don’t make sense in movie form. On stage there is nowhere to run and hide, but in Polanski’s take there are countless moments when the chaos would come to an end if someone just said good-bye and meant it.

“What the hell are we doing here?”Nancy asks well past the point of no return. A better question would’ve been, “How many times have we walked back into this apartment for more coffee?”

While a lot of the material is grating, the performances (even the miscast and sometimes overly-aggressive Foster) are just as proficient as the 11 Oscar nominations and four wins between the foursome would lead you to believe. The standout is Waltz who plays his father character with a menacing twinkle in his eye. He knows how silly all this is, but he’s still waiting for someone else to get the joke. If “Carnage” gets under your skin, however, the last thing you’ll want to figure out is why a cultural comparison between Ivanhoe and John Wayne is supposed to be clever.

Cedar Rapids

March 4, 2011 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche
Directed by: Miguel Arteta (“Youth in Revolt”)
Written by: Phil Johnston (debut)

Making morons out of men isn’t some innovative concept in the comedy genre. If anything, man’s link to his Neanderthal ancestry has been magnified by the big screen ever since The Three Stooges in the ’30s (Chaplin did slapstick, but wasn’t an idiot). Just last year, Steve Carell in “Dinner for Schmucks,” Zach Galifianakis in “Due Date,” and the entire cast of “Grown Ups” and “Jackass 3D” proved the male species hasn’t evolved much, cinematically speaking.

Still, there are levels of stupidity and naivety that can make or break a character depending on the comedic execution and, of course, the joke itself. It doesn’t take a genius to see the differences in humor between Steve Martin bumbling around as Navin Johnson in “The Jerk” and Steve-O launching through the air in a shit-filled Port-O-Potty.

In “Cedar Rapids,” small-town insurance salesman Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) is the kind of hopeless buffoon you wouldn’t mind getting to know. His rite of passage comes when he is sent to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to represent his company at an insurance convention, a sizeable step for Tim, who has never left his own backyard.

Playing an easily impressed, inoffensive man-child (much like Carell in 2005’s “The 40-Year-Old Virgin”), Helms’ deadpan wit is far from shtick. When Tim befriends a few convention veterans (a spazzy John C. Reilly included), Helms delivers some dialed-down, hilarious moments that never feel like second-rate gags. There is also never a point in “Cedar Rapids” where Tim grinds your nerves or overstays his welcome, which propels the story a couple tiers above a “Saturday Night Live” skit.

Sure, the film, which is directed by Miguel Arteta (who helmed last year’s underappreciated “Youth in Revolt”), is like watching a group of uncool adults on a lame high school senior trip they’re decades late for, but its Midwestern charm has a lot more going for it than most dummy comedies out there.

John C. Reilly & Jonah Hill – Cyrus

July 10, 2010 by  
Filed under Interviews

In the dark comedy “Cyrus,” John (John C. Reilly) and Cyrus (Jonah Hill) vie for the attention of the same woman – John’s new girlfriend and Cyrus’s mother (Marissa Tomei).

During an interview with me at the 2010 South by Southwest Film Festival in March, Reilly and Hill sat down to talk about Reilly’s singing talents, how Hill was able to make his character funny without getting to creepy, and whether they’ve ever had any luck when it comes to hitting on women.

John, you’ve had to show off you singing abilities in past movies like “Walk Hard,” “Chicago,” and even a bit in “Magnolia.” What was it like to have to forget all that and sing as badly as you possible could in “Cyrus?”

John C. Reilly: I don’t sing in this movie. I don’t think I sing. Do I?

Jonah Hill: Yeah you do. (Singing) Don’t…don’t you want me.

JCR: Oh yeah, that. I forgot that. What movie is this? “Cyrus,” oh yeah.

JH: Great singing scene.

JCR: Well, I tried to sing as best I could without sounding like a professional singer, which my character is not. That was actually a very difficult scene to shoot because it was really embarrassing. All these extras are standing around not reacting and me trying to get people involved in the song. It was like excruciatingly embarrassing, actually.

JH: Yeah, as it is to watch.

JCR: Yeah. You know like the full body sweat? You’re so embarrassed your whole body starts sweating at once. It’s like, “Whew, OK!”

JH: I was so impressed though because John, he’s a professional singer. He’s got like a beautiful voice. So, to me, it’s always impressive when people have good voices, when they attempt to sing badly, you can usually still hear that they have a great voice in it. I thought he was amazing because I’ve heard him sing and he’s incredible. To hear him pull that off and actually sound like he has a bad voice was a really great acting coo on his part.

Jonah, how did you confront this role that could have easily turned more awkward than it already was? I mean, there’s a distinct line between Cyrus and his mom, but how did you manage not to cross the line into total weirdness?

JH: I just kept on thinking, “What would happen if someone tried to take away the thing that was most important to you in the entire world?” What would you do to stop that from happening? Whoever it is, whether it’s your mom or your girlfriend, or your best friend, I just treated Marissa’s character like the most important thing in the world to me and didn’t pay attention that she was my mom. I never let that enter my head. She was just the most important thing in the world to me. I didn’t think, “Oh, it’s my mom” and treat it like that. It just happens to be my mom, which makes it weird.

John, we see how socially awkward you can be during the party scene when you’re talking to girls. How good were you at flirting and making small talk in real life when you were single and trying to meet women?

JCR: I was not good. I was not good at it. I would always have to become friends with people first and kind of go at it that way. I was never somebody who could go in with the right line or talk to strangers very well. I got better at it since I had to do it more for work. But as a young person, I was concerned about seeming phony. I remember when I finished acting school a lot of people were like, “You gotta work it. You gotta like schmooze.” I was like, “Ugh, that sounds just so phony and terrible!” I think it’s just a journey that you take. You grow and you learn how to open up to people and be confident in yourself. I think it was more about my confidence when I was younger.

What about you Jonah?

JH: I always think about what you were saying, like if you had to “schmooze” or “schmoozing” or flirting or hitting on a girl. It’s one of those things, if you could ever see a video of yourself doing it you would blow your brains out because it would be so uncomfortable to watch yourself put yourself through that and lose all yourself respect.

JCR: And that’s…

JH: …what you watch in this movie. (Laughs) Thank God you have a lovely wife and a family. You don’t have to worry about that anymore.

Cyrus

July 9, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, Marissa Tomei
Directed by: Jay and Mark Duplass (“Baghead”)
Written by: Jay and Mark Duplass (“Baghead”)

If anyone remembers Jonah Hill’s voluptuous role in the 2006 comedy “Grandma’s Boy,” it would be hard to imagine him playing a character any more attached to a teat (in this case literally) than he was for a majority of his screen time in that movie.

But in Jay and Mark Duplass’ “Cyrus,” Hill manages to do just that. Although he’s not hanging from a breast like a little piglet in this one, his awkward albeit loving fixation on his mother is more than enough to make even Sigmund Freud blush. In “Cyrus,” the Duplass brothers give us a modern and hilarious take on the Oedipus complex analyzed in dark-comedy form. For the Duplasses, it’s the first mainstream-ish movie of their careers.

Taking the advice from his ex-girlfriend Jamie (Catherine Keener), borderline desperate John (John C. Reilly) decides it might be time to move on with his life after their breakup seven years ago. Revealing just how socially incompetent he is at a party, John is somehow charming enough to get the attention of Molly (Marissa Tomei) before the night ends despite his best attempts to be oafish and a bit creepy.

When John decides to surprise Molly by visiting her house, he is a bit shocked to learn that her sensitive 21-year-old son Cyrus (Hill) still lives at home and clings to his mother (also his best friend) like a jumbo-sized baby. Although John wants to cut the cord, Cyrus is unwilling to allow a new man to come into his mom’s life. To make sure he won’t take a backseat to his mom’s new love interest, Cyrus makes it his mission to sabotage their relationship until John concedes his place in the peculiar love triangle.

While the Duplass brothers stick to the “mumblecore” genre they helped pioneer with their first two films “The Puffy Chair” and “Baghead,” the duo has a lot more to work with in “Cyrus.” The positive results of an increased budget and casting more established talent is evident with Reilly, Hill, and Tomei leading the way. The film, however, still comes down to the unique and talky narrative and odd characterizations the Duplasses are able to deliver.

Most impressive is how the Duplass brothers take their time with “Cyrus.” There is never a sense of eagerness most mainstream comedies of this nature have to get to the next gag or joke. Instead, it all flows without exaggeration, which is very effective especially with Reilly and Hill riffing off one another in perfect sync.

If you can handle the weird, incestuous atmosphere that lingers throughout, “Cyrus” is a must-see summer comedy that doesn’t fit the broad summer comedy mold by any means. The Duplasses have transitioned well into the big leagues and have done so, it seems, on what made them such a delight to begin with.

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant

October 28, 2009 by  
Filed under CineStrays

Starring: John C. Reilly, Chris Massoglia, Josh Hutcherson
Directed by: Paul Weitz (“American Dreamz”)
Written by: Paul Weitz (“American Dreamz”) and Brian Helgeland (“Mystic River”)

Part fantasy, part parody, “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” fails to introduce us to enough interesting characters to keep the story interesting. It’s unfortunate since the script is co-written by Oscar winner Brian Helgeland (“L.A. Confidential”) and directed by Paul Weitz, who helmed the first “American Pie” and a great film in “About a Boy.” Here, the vampire narrative feel second rate in an era where everyone is trying to cash in on the folklore. Based on a series of books by Darren Shan, there’s really no reason to continue the vampire tween saga and try to outperform (at least in box office revenue) something as obsessively followed as “Twilight.”

9

September 11, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Elijah Wood, Jennifer Connelly, John C. Reilly
Directed by: Shane Acker (debut)
Written by: Pamela Pettler (“Monster House”)

Contrary to popular belief “9” is not a movie directed by Tim Burton. It seems like anything these days that is stylish, dark, and animated is mistaken for Burton’s work. No, “Coraline” wasn’t his either.

That still doesn’t mean, however, that someone as creative as Burton hasn’t visually influenced a director like Henry Selick or Shane Acker. In “9,” Acker, who turns his 2006 Academy Award-nominated animated short into a feature film, provides a picturesque setting through impressive computer-generated images but leaves some of the storytelling behind in the process.

In the film, which at times can be much more disturbing than anything Burton (a producer on this project) has conjured up, Acker sets his story in a post-apocalyptic world where all humans have disappeared and the only things that remain are a group of small ragdoll-like beings who spend most of their time fending off the frightening mechanical beasts that hunt them down.

The last of the characters to come alive in the wasteland is called 9 (voiced by Elijah Wood). He and the others that have come before him, all of which seem constructed out of burlap sacks and spare parts, are also named in the order they were hand-stitched. It’s only natural that the character with the No. 1 sewn on its back is the leader of the “stitchpunks.” So, when 9 attempts to disturb the hierarchy by questioning why they hide away and wait to be destroyed instead of fight back, a pint-sized revolt takes place and each numbered character must decide what they should do if they want to survive.

While the narrative starts off intriguing, it’s when Acker and screenwriter Pamela Pettler (“Monster House”) fall back into the familiar storyline that things get murky. The second half of “9” becomes a simple rescue mission with an underlying tale about how the machines have come to take over the world.

Still, the visual stimulation “9” offers up is too much to ignore even if most of it comes in heavy doses of drawn-out action sequences. Each character Acker has fashioned has its own unique personality and comes with some fine voice work by actors like John C. Reilly, Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, Crispin Glover, and Jennifer Connelly. Even the two mute stitchpunks are mesmerizing to watch as they blink incessantly to communicate with their counterparts.

At the end, Acker makes rookie mistakes, but it’s not enough to spur disinterest in something so imaginative. Give him a few more years and he’s bound to make a masterpiece even without Burton in his corner.

Step Brothers

July 28, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Mary Steenburgen
Directed by: Adam McKay (“Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy”)
Written by: Adam McKay (“Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby”) and Will Ferrell (“Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby”)

They’ve only been in two movies together, but watching Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly in their new film “Step Brothers” will make you wonder if they were created in the same agar-filled Petri dish or once connected at the hip.

It’s not only the fact that they have the same dollish, curly hair or that they both look like identical geeks in argyle sweaters on the movie poster. Ferrell and Reilly have the same offbeat comedic timing and when put together makes for one eccentric metronome of humor.

In “Step Brothers,” 30-something-year-old Brennan Huff (Will Ferrell) is not too thrilled when his mother (Mary Steenburgen) falls in love with Dr. Robert Doback (Richard Jenkins) and decides to marry and move in with him and his 30-something-year-old son Dale (John C. Reilly).

The boys, er, men quickly butt heads as they invade each other’s personal space. Basically, they hate each other from the get-go. Not only is their respect parent stealing the other away from them, both their mother and father are beginning to recognize that if they don’t make Brennan and Dale grow up, get jobs, and move out, they are going to be stuck with them for the rest of their lives.

Although the sibling rivalry/blood feud lasts for a good portion of the film (there are some great one-liners like, “I’m Dale, but you have to call me dragon” and “It’s like masturbating in a time machine”), the boys find out they have more in common then they first thought. Similarities in their personality take shape when both realize they share the same dislike for Brennan’s younger, douchebag-of-a-brother Derek (Adam Scott), whose seemingly perfect life is actually quite creepy.

While Ferrell and Reilly manage to keep the laughs coming for the first half of the film, Ferrell as a screenwriter once again proves that he can’t stop a joke from going on too long before it loses steam. At points, Ferrell’s humor is like the awkward silence or poorly extended scenes during parts of “The Family Guy.” You know there is a great comedic moment buried somewhere in the clutter, but its layers are far too thick to claw out.

“Step Brothers” is as juvenile as a film can get, even more so since the juveniles here are played by grown men. Once you get past all the horseplay and back to the short and offensive dialogue, there is some fun to be had with Ferrell and Reilly rampaging through the film like a fat kid through a candy store.