Paul

March 18, 2011 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Seth Rogen
Directed by: Greg Mottola (“Adventureland”)
Written by: Simon Pegg (“Shaun of the Dead”) and Nick Frost (debut)

In the hands of anyone else but Simon Pegg and Nick Frost and “Paul” might’ve been a disaster on any intergalactic planet. As it is, the alien comedy written by the stars of the incredibly funny zombie rom-com “Shaun of the Dead,” has just enough originality to keep the nerdy movie references and obvious extraterrestrial gags from turning into a shameless sci-fi parody.

In the film, Pegg and Frost play Graeme Willy and Clive Gollings, best buddies on a road trip that starts at Comic Con in San Diego and sends them trekking through the heartland of America in their RV in search of the geekiest landmarks they can find. The boys hit the motherload when they come upon a living, breathing alien named Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), who has escaped a military base after spending the last 30 years kicking back and working as a consultant to help create many of the science fiction classics the world has come to love. Sure, the story is a stretch, but at least a Steven Spielberg voice cameo makes up for some of the narrative’s weaker plot points.

On Paul’s trail is a crack team of the FBI’s finest, led by Agent Zoil (Jason Bateman) who is looking to recapture the pot-smoking alien before he finds a way to get back home. Actors Bill Hader and Jo Lo Truglio round out the agents with little panache. Kristen Wiig also can’t seem to find her footing as the religious daughter of a trailer park owner who is forced to go along on the harmless misadventure.

Directed by Greg Mottola (“Superbad,” “Adventureland”), raunchy humor takes a backseat to the jokes and scenarios fanboys will be glad to see pop up on screen, including references to “Star Wars,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and “E.T.” It’s not nearly close to the laughfest the Pegg/Frost combo has been in the past, but it is passable entertainment for those moviegoers who would throw a fit if someone misidentified Jango Fett for Boba Fett. If that last sentence made any sense, “Paul” will probably play to perfection in your personal geekdom.

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.

Avatar

December 18, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver
Directed by: James Cameron (“Titanic”)
Written by: James Cameron (“Titanic”)

It has taken filmmaker James Cameron quite a while to get behind another camera for a feature film since proclaiming he was “king of the world” for delivering the sinking-ship-love-story that broke box-office records 12 years ago.

While “Titanic” went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture (over “L.A. Confidential” mind you) in 1997 and Céline Dion gave us enough firepower for a decade of “My Heart Will Go On” jokes, Cameron quietly slid out of the limelight and under the water to make a couple of documentaries on sunken ships and ocean ridges.

Now, Cameron, who is also behind groundbreaking films such as “Aliens” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” has come out of the ocean for some air and found time to give us another of those visual spectacles he’s known for. With “Avatar,” not only is the sci-fi adventure a magnificent sight to behold, there’s a quite serviceable – if not all too familiar – story to go along with the breathtaking imagery.

In the film, Sam Worthington (“Terminator Salvation”) plays Jake Sulley, a paraplegic Marine who is called up by the U.S. government and their scientists to make contact with members of an indigenous tribe on an alien planet called Pandora. The creatures, known as the Na’vi, have blue skin and are 10 feet tall. Jake’s job is to befriend the species and get them relocate so the military can go in and collect a powerful mineral in the area the Na’vis inhabit. Yes, the parallels to the war in Iraq are aplenty.

Of course, Jake cannot simply go in on his wheelchair and expect the entire alien race to trust him and follow his orders to move out. Instead, the government scientists – led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) – assign him to his own avatar, a surrogate alien that looks, walks, and talks like all the other Na’vis. Jake can control his avatar from the comfort of a laboratory pod.

Described by some critics as a sci-fi version of “Dances with Wolves,” Cameron captures the physical and emotional journey Jake takes as he becomes this alien being who must learn the ways of the tribe if he wants to earn his place among the clan. Zoe Saldana (“Star Trek”) plays Neytiri, a female Na’vi warrior who is delegated to teach Jake everything he must know to become part of her people. Their relationship is at the forefront of the storytelling and Cameron does not let it slip by the wayside. Beside the intriguing appearance of everything computer-generated that flashes on the screen, the connection Cameron makes between Neytiri and Jake is essential in having us believe his out-of-body experience is more than just a covert mission.

We are on a journey with Jake. From his first ride on the dragon-like banshee to his sprint through the jungle on his aliens legs, Cameron has us experience it all in vibrant detail and engaging action sequences.

While “Avatar” is not without its flaws (some of the dialogue is very laughable), there is entirely too many dazzling moments not to recommend it to anyone whose imagination craves a spectacular tour into a world never seen before.

WALL-E

June 20, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: (voices of) Ben Burtt, Sigourney Weaver, John Ratzenberger
Directed by: Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo”)
Written by: Andrew Stanton (“Monsters Inc.”)

Every time you think Pixar Animations couldn’t possibly top themselves, they find a way to astonish in the most creative and heartwarming ways.

While the animation company hasn’t turned everything it has touched into gold (there’s a couple of solid bronze medals in the bunch), there’s no denying they’re leading the pack in making the most imaginative animated films since Disney’s days of “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King.”

In “WALL-E,” Pixar’s newest venture into the great beyond, we journey to the 28th century where humans no longer inhabit the Earth and small robots are left to clean up the mess that now covers the globe. Over the years, these small robots known as Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class (WALL-E for short) haven’t been maintained and only one has lasted this long to gather up all the debris he can during the day. WALL-E goes about his day working to stack trash into small, neat cubes and spends the rest of his time exploring in the rubble with his little cockroach friend and stockpiling treasures he finds in for her personal collection (think how curious Ariel was in “The Little Mermaid” when she found dinglehoppers. That’s how WALL-E becomes when he discovers something he never knew existed). He becomes especially intrigued when he uncovers a tiny plant growing amongst the garbage, so he scoops it up in an old boot, and adds it to his possessions.

The life he has always led changes, however, when a spaceship lands on Earth and a sophisticated robot known as a probe (she introduces herself to WALL-E as Eve) is sent to the planet to survey the grounds. Swept off his rusty tracks by Eve, WALL-E wants nothing more than to be with her and show her everything he has found while working for the past 500 years. He also wants to know what it is like to hold someone’s hand, something he has always wondered about since he watched a copy of “Hello Dolly” he found in the landfill.

The adventure blasts off into space when WALL-E stows away on Eve’s ship after she find his plant and is programmed to store it away, go into lock down, and return home. Her home is on the Axiom, a mothership where a community of chubby, lazy humans lives and awaits a time when they can re-colonize Earth once it is habitable.

A beautiful love story between two robots, “WALL-E” is as charming as it is a groundbreaking animated feature. Minimalistic in its delivery of dialogue (before the humans enter the picture, the most you can expect is a few blips and bleeps) and awe-inspiring in its technique, it’s the best animated film of the year. It won’t be surprising if it stays that way for the second half of the year.