Thursday, February 24, 2011

C.H.U.D. (1984)

Transcendent and fresh, this New York-set monster flick has a bunch of C.H.U.D. (Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers) breaking out of the Manhattan subways and bringing murderous carnage to the streets. We see several characters learning about, and dealing with, the eminent threat in various ways; the stalwart police chief attempting to bring it to the mayor's attention, the empathetic soup-kitchen worker (named "The Reverend") investigating his missing homeless familiars, and the seen-it-all photographer, who just wants to settle down with his girlfriend. I suppose I must credit the three not-yet-famous actors for supplanting this movie with a surprising amount of integrity: John Heard as the photographer, Daniel Stern as the disheveled humanist, and Christopher Curry as the Dennis-Franz-mustached cop (ok, two not-yet-famous actors). Along with Kim Griest as Heard's girlfriend, they render the potentially cheesy material to something strong and, dare I say it, human. The monsters themselves are not, particularly, terrifying; while they are shot in minimal, terse bursts, they do not prove as menacing as the city government that attempts to cover up the phenomenon. There is clever social commentary in how the C.H.U.D. only exist because the NYC mayor dumped toxic waste under the city streets; gentrification much? These elements are more than just filler and backstory, but provide a bulk of the movies substance, making it more nuanced and intelligent than your average mid-80's monster flick. That being said, there are gnarly deaths, some kick-ass make-up (a decapitated head, in particular, is impressively convincing), and a pretty terrific, tense climax. In the end, however, the low-budget renderings of the C.H.U.D. themselves ruin too many individual moments, and keep the film from being a true classic of the genre.

Recommended for fans of New York-set monster movies (this one was actually shot there, and it shows) or socially-conscious horror films in general; by the end, it's obvious that the political negligence, rather than the monsters themselves, is the true villain of the piece, not just a sideshow backstory.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Paul (2011)

Adorable, culturally savvy road comedy about 2 English geeks who, en route to Area 51, encounter, and befriend, a foul-mouthed alien as he attempts to flag down a spaceship home. Opening with our two heroes at Comic-Con, and riddled with referential dialogue, this is nearly a nerd-exclusive affair, with our protagonists being people who have always dreamt of the very adventures they end up going on. The two main characters are played by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, and, as in Shaun of the Dead, and Hot Fuzz, their relationship has a very bromantic, borderline-homoerotic feel, which may prove uncomfortable for many hetero males on this side of the pond. Personally, I found their interplay in this one hyper familiar and immediately endearing; these guys, with Pegg's as the stumbly romantic lead and Frost as the sweet, but obtrusive lovable oaf could be England's Hope and Crosby, going on fantastical adventures with their own signature comic tone. However, once Paul enters the picture and takes center stage, the film becomes less about them and more about him, and, inevitably, less specific and more palatable for mainstream audiences.

I was worried that Paul's entire character would be in his description: "swearing, culturally literate wiseass." Luckily, as written by Pegg and Frost and voiced by Seth Rogen, Paul ends up having a very clear, likable identity, void of cliche and full of genuine comic energy. The gags they blatantly vomit at you in the trailer (I'm quite bitter at the amount of gags that are ruined in the newest red-band trailer that seem STUPID in the ad but are HILARIOUS in the final film), such as Paul's powers of resuscitation, are, in the film, well-earned and contain substantial payoffs. The whole film has a strong sense of cohesion to it, from the running gags to the development of the human trio's (they pick up a third human, played by Kristen Wiig) relationship with Paul. The action/chase scenes are played straight, yet contain humor and hardly break the flow of hte film. And the villains are very cleverly thought out and presented.

As the primary G-man on Paul's trail, Jason Bateman quietly steals the movie away from its headliners. He dials down his trademark boyishness and lays on a cold, "Men In Black" vibe that perfectly complements his deadpan delivery. Part of the non-nerd side of the equation, Bateman's character nonetheless squeezes in several subtle cultural references that had me, in equal measures, howling in laughter and weeping. The supporting cast is peppered with comic talent: aside from Wiig, Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio play Bateman's naiive local assistance, John Caroll Lynch is Wiig's psychotically possessive Christian father, David Koechner shows up as a decidedly un-Anglo-friendly hick, and Jeffrey Tambor, Jane Lynch, and Sigourney Weaver (!) turn in fun cameos.
However, Seth Rogen's work as Paul is really what bolsters down the movie and keeps it from being a neat, geek-friendly concept piece. While we all know he can deliver half-stoned witticisms like it's nobody's business (and he does), Rogen takes it a step further and really plumbs the depths of his character. As interpreted by Rogen, Paul feels less like a laid-back, cool dude, but rather a kind of sullen, lonely, somewhat reserved outcast; he is thoroughly culturally literate, down to understanding the humor of asking the guys to buy him Reese's Pieces (more on that later), but it seems like he has adopted these cultural elements out of necessity and neglect, rather than any sort of spiritual affiliation. He wants to fit in and connect with people, despite how he looks, and the film achieves a distinct poignancy when exploring the various relationships Paul makes on Earth. Rogen's inherent everyman qualities make Paul especially endearing and identifiable, and, I feel, easily acceptable and likable by American audiences (alas, we'll see.). While it is clear that E.T. was the jumping off point for this project, with its candy-coated male bonding and the lobotomy-happy G-men hot in pursuit, it does not settle for that films underhanded sentimentality, and never devolves into nostalgic or schmaltzy dreck; in the end, it earns its more heartfelt moments because of its unwillingness to pander or to fully remove comedy from the equation, which many similar films end up doing in their third acts. As is, it is a hilarious, moving, and thoroughly memorable sci-fi/comedy, and another phenomenal, instant-classic (at least, for me) entry into the Pegg/Frost canon, which, I pray, does not end with this wonderful film.

Highly Recommended for fans of Pegg/Frost's earlier films, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, or of the comic cast in general. Director Greg Mattola has outdone himself here, topping his previous films Adventureland, Superbad, and, even, The Daytrippers in almost every way possible.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Death Note (2006)

Bleak, serio-comic Japanese film about a young man who comes into possession of a book that has the power to kill any living person on earth by merely writing their name down in it. The protagonist (if you can call him that), Light, is an average teen who finds the book in a dumpster, and is immediately descended upon by a creature named Ryuk, who identifies himself as the previous owner of the book. He explains the rules to Light, and acts as sort of a guardian angel, only without the angel part; he is more of a sounding board for Light's ideas than a conscience. Initially well-meaning and focusing only on nationally known criminals, his antics with the book become so nefarious and undeniably supernatural that a force begins to oppose him, led by the police and an ominous force named L who communicates through a surrogate and a computer. The moral and practical implications and pressures of what he is doing begin to take their toll on Light, and he descends into a pragmatic madness to justify his use of the book.

The film is based on a Manga, and it is evident by the structure of the plot; even more so than Akira, this feels like a perfectly compiled "Greatest Hits" of a larger, more overarching story. Light is a very complicated protagonist, and his issues are certainly not resolved by the films end, enticing me to next seek out the films sequel. His relationships with his girlfriend, his father and, later, L, are layered and real, way above most western portrayals of dark, haunted teens. Him and Ryuk, his Jiminy Cricket, have a uniquely personal interplay that makes one easily forgive the so-so computer animation of his character; neither being a saint, they talk of morality and responsibility in vague terms, aware of goodness but never fully compliant to it. The whole film has a moralist edge that conflicts with the pseudo-nihilism of the characters, and it works in the films favor, creating a world where ethics are impotent without power, while achieving power corrupts ones ethics.

Highly Recommended for fans of gritty Japanese morality tales a la Battle Royale. As I have not read this or any other manga, I cannot refer to how it compares to the final film, but I've heard from friends that the Death Note manga is overdrawn, melodramatic, and superficial, none of which I would say about the cinematic adaptation.

Your Highness (2011)

Laugh-out-loud, ambitious fantasy-comedy about a pair of medieval-era princes, one handsome and stalwart, the other a Kenny Powers-esque slob and philistine, who team up to save the handsome one's bride from an evil wizard. Along the way, they get involved with many genre-appropriate side-quests and obstacles, eventually forming a bond with a female warrior who, inevitably, is the philistine's love interest. The true innovation of this movie is a reappropriation of the tone of 2001's A Knight's Tale, with it's amalgam of era-appropriate and anachronistic dialogue and circumstances, just done to the umpteenth degree; while some scenes are riddled with "thines" and "thous," in one of my favorite moments, the handsome prince reacts to news of the female warrior's joining of their party with a genuine, "Nice!" However, to counteract the fantasy stuff, the first hour (prior to the addition of Natalie Portman's badass chica) has a very strong buddy comedy element, with the two princes having a strained, yet bro-y relationship that recalls David Gordon Green's last film, Pineapple Express; separating the two for third-act tension is the film's most crucial flaw, along with the lack of a payoff a la the brilliant "I'm gonna save you, man" scene in the latter film. The fantasy stuff is very cool, and played surprisingly straight, with some pretty inventive and creative scenarios and creatures, but the ending promises a more spectacular display of magic and wizardry than it ultimately delivers on. Ultimately, the film achieves a tone not unlike Land of the Lost, where, while there are genuinely cool things going on, the true essence of the film is defined through its comedy and its tongue-in-cheek tone.

While I figured, prior to seeing the film, that Danny McBride would kill it as what is essentially a dark age-era Kenny Powers, cussing, womanizing, and abusing drugs with an intense, thoroughly intent vigor, it is James Franco, as the foppy heir to their fathers throne, who ends up standing out. Investing his character with a different sort of sexual and behavioral naivete than his character from Pineapple Express, he smiles, poses, and sings (terribly) through the film without once taking his character too far into the realm of the obnoxious superstar role; he has true love for his brother, and actually respects him for not succumbing to the superficial, castrating pressures of the royal court and their father. However, about an hour or so in, he joins his love interest (a surprisingly funny, but disappointingly sparse Zooey Deschanel) in captivity, and Natalie Portman permanently joins McBride to defeat the evil wizard and save the two lovers. Here, without the constant verbal interplay of Franco and McBride, the film begins taking itself too seriously, and several unnecessary plot elements begin to develop, before faltering and being forgotten about. While the action in the final showdown IS big, and only slightly anticlimactic, it is not dynamic or interesting enough to cover for the decided lack of laughs in that section of the film. That being said, the rest of the film balances its tone nicely, with Charles Dance, Damian Lewis, and Toby Jones (well, maybe not Toby Jones) adding a touch of gravity and dimension to the proceedings, but it only barely survives the cliched, lazy plotting the film eventually succumbs to. And Natalie Portman, skivvies or no, is having a tremendously overexposed year, with Black Swan, No Strings Attached, The Other Woman, Thor, and this all opening within THE FIRST 6 MONTHS of 2011. Her familiar, and boringly Episode 1-ish appearance in the film deflates much of the momentum from the films sails, and the successive beats that work function despite, and not at all in due to, her presence.

Recommended to fans of goofily epic and large sci-fi/fantasy films, a la Land of the Lost, or Judd Apatow buddy comedies, like the aforementioned Pineapple Express. There are a number of potsmoking references and scenes, but this is not the stoner comedy its title would lead you to believe; way more Krull than Cheech and Chong.

P.S. Justin Thereoux may be slightly too cutesy and self-aware as the evil wizard, but he gets some INCREDIBLE moments and lines, such as the already iconic response to the King's, "And how do you expect to do that?": "Magic...motherfucker!!"