As If I Needed Lessons

How To Lose Friends and Alienate People is the second movie in as many weeks that seems to illustrate the rather large indifference of the American masses to British stars. Last week’s delightful Ghost Town showed we don’t care much about Ricky Gervais, while this week’s similarly delightful How To Lose Friends and Alien Poeple indicates we don’t give a rat’s ass about Simon Pegg. It reminds me a bit of the complete and utter rejection of the perfectly delightful Aardman studio movie Wallace and Gromit and the Curse of the Were-Rabbit, as well as the later, less delightful but still pretty good Flushed Away.

Maybe Troop is right about “perforated abalones” or whatever he calls the Brits.

I, on the other hand, think it’s a shame. While this is a pretty by-the-numbers romantic comedy (as was Ghost Town), it’s a solid one and provides plenty of laughs.

The story concerns trashy Pegg being wooed away from his trashy little celebrity-hit-rag by magazine mogul Jeff Bridges (as the anti-Dude!) to work at his trashy BIG celebrity-kiss-ass-rag. There he meets nice girl Kirsten Dunst, a pre-op transsexual, and super-hot Megan Fox, channelling a sort of Marilyn-Monroe-meets-Bette-Davis type. He lusts after Fox (I mean, of course) but falls in love with Dunst (again, of course, but for different reasons). Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy pursues other girl–the story begins with Pegg in striking rang of his goal of having sex with Ms. Fox, and I don’t need to tell you how that turns out–and loses his soul in the process, but again, I don’t need to tell you how that turns out, either.

As I said, by-the-numbers but less gross than a lot of modern comedies, with more slapstick, and with a curious message–or so it seemed to me: That it’s better to be a celebrity-mocking journalistc parasite than to be a celebrity-ass-kissing-journalistic parasite.

Isn’t that like saying it’s better to be typhus than The Plague?

The cast is absolutely pitch perfect. Bridges is entirely credible as a guy who both hates and, at some level, longs for the person he used to be. Pegg has the right combination of likability and unlikability–he’s really quite a good actor, showing range by being a completely different person than he was in Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead. Kirsten Dunst is almost too believable as the girl who trades in her dreams for a steady paycheck and a creepy boyfriend. Danny Huston, by the way, is the creepy boyfriend/sleazeball/obstacle to all of Pegg’s dreams, and he’s got the smarmy thing down pat. Gillian Anderson is excellent as the soulless PR agent bending everyone to her will.

Megan Fox is eerily dead-on as the flavor-of-the-month actress. She’s completely superficial and at turns siren, vulnerable girl, airhead and cruel vixen. (Her award-winning movie role is hysterical, too. Stay through the credits, because they do a full trailer.) You really don’t end up knowing much about her–she’s completely insubstantial, really–which is in its own way perfect for the story.

All the little roles seem to have been filled with care, as well. Miriam Margoyles plays the Polish (Russian?) tenement manager, Bill Paterson shows up as Pegg’s father, Max Minghella is the over-rated wunderkind director, Diana Kent plays the washed up ‘70s actress (though is she really old enough?), and Thandie Newton does a turn as herself, being chatted up by Pegg in one of his more charming disguises.

And, hey, you got your full-frontal male nudity, sorta, in the form of nude model Charlotte Devaney, who plays a pre-op transexual stripper. I don’t really believe it myself, as she lacked any outward male characteristics whatsoever and I don’t think Playboy and Hustler feature TSes, but since about 12% of my hits are for full frontal male nudity, I thought I’d throw you guys a bone. (Heh.)

A solid flick with lots of laughs from humor both broad and subtle, but it ain’t gettin’ no love in terms of distribution and box office.

Damned abalones.

Waitress, On Reflection

Adrienne Shelley’s Waitress has been on cable quite a bit, and I’ve had a chance to re-view it.

When it first came out, Althouse hated it. I think I even put off seeing it for weeks on that basis.

I realize now, Althouse and I do not have anything like comparable movie tastes. (For example, I’ve given a cursory view to Across The Universe, and found it vaguely offensive, despite the music.)

Anyway, I liked the movie when I first saw it, and I like it more on re-view. It’s stylized: deliberately placed out of time and a fairy tale situation, in the sense that the characters are all placed in their situations without much concern for how they got there.

What I find weird was Althouse–and others–assertion that this was a man-loathing movie. Yet, in the end, all the characters are flawed, and the only really bad man is Jeremy Sisto’s creepily played Earl. Indeed, one of the most despicable characters in movie history.

In fact, the lead character–whose view colors everything in the movie–goes from seeing men as bullies and ogres, and comes to see them as human as her girlfriends.

Now, I’m not unsympathetic to the view that movies–particularly female-centered ones–portray men badly, as villains, etc. But that just doesn’t apply here. About the only characters who don’t show off severe flaws are Dawn and Ogie, with Dawn being rather insecure and Ogie being…a little intense.

IMDB has this at 7.4 which is maybe a hair low for the current curve (maybe a 7.6). I’m a bit surprised by the number of comments I’ve read that are so severely judgmental. I sort of come away from this film thinking, “Well, we all make mistakes, and the idea is that we should correct them and move on, and also not be too severe about others mistakes.” It’s such a non-controversial concept (“Lord’s Prayer” anyone?), I’m surprised at how many people approach this from the viewpoint that the main character should be pilloried.

Anyway, Adrienne Shelly was just cute as a bug’s ear, to boot. And her tragic death should not go unobserved. Fortunately, it hasn’t.

Spore Launched

Wil Wright’s Spore came out today.

The Amazon reviews list it as 2-stars but that seems to be because of the “draconian” DRM. (I’m sympathetic to that but not considering it in this post.)

GameRankings reports an 86%, which is good (but not great) and which is probably not from the most clear-eyed reviewers.

While I have, literally, hundreds of games, I have little time to play. Since it has been ever thus, I’m at least smart enough to wait till the game drops into the $10-$20 range (or less, if I can buy a collection of several games for $20).

Althouse had a post up about regretting netflix rentals. I have tons of books I haven’t read, a few movies I hadn’t watched (before my collection “walked off”), some music CDs I haven’t played, and tons of games I haven’t played.

I don’t regret it, I think of it as a sort of defense against boredom.

Anyway, every now and again, I’ll buy a game first day, and Spore is one of them. (Heroes of Might and Magic 3, Heroes of Might and Magic IV, Doom 3, Civilization 3, Civilization 4 and Black & White are the others.) Spore was announced 3 ½ years ago, which, for perspective, was probably about the last time I held The Boy’s hand.

I confess that I have been dubious about the degree to which putting five games into one package can work, and I hear some complaints about that already. The thing about those games I do buy is that I’m not always looking for compelling gameplay, so I’m not necessarily disappointed in the way other hard-core gamers are when the final products don’t measure up.

Sometimes I am: Heroes of Might and Magic IV was a disaster that the series never recovered from. Doom 3 on the other hand was a mixture of “good enough” and nostalgia. Civ 3 was my favorite of the series, and Civ 4 is very sold as well.

But the biggest comparison point for Spore is Black & White. B&W was meant to be a revolutionary game. “Be a god,” the claims went, “and watch the world change according to your goodness or evilness.” (At one point, a $5 price premium–to be donated to charity–was considered for the white box version of B&W, but saner heads prevailed.)

It could’ve been revolutionary but for a few fatal flaws. The first flaw is that they made it into a game. Entertainment software is usually in the form of games, but some, like SimCity or The Sims, are more correctly called “toys”. B&W had the mechanics of a toy with a game superimposed over it. (Developers talked about the game aspect constantly, even nervously.)

But the instant you make something into a game, you end up engaging the hardcore gamers who consider games as things to be beaten. (This personality is quite fascinating: Games are to be beaten, not necessarily enjoyed, even.) And so B&W was beaten quickly as the cracks in the painstakingly developed universe were found and exploited.

The second, more fatal flaw was that the measure of good and evil was–well, practically French. (No comment on the fact that developer Peter Molyneux’s studio “Lionhead” is based in France.) In other words, killing, regardless of the purpose it served, tipped the scales to evil. You had to–as a deity–wait on your worshippers hand and foot to be good. (This also made your worshippers worthless.)

It was a virtual embodiment of the welfare state.

I enjoyed it, though, because I enjoyed the polish that went into making it. The interface was fun. The exploration aspects were fun. The sussing out of good and evil would’ve been more fun had it been done better, but it was still interesting.

Interesting is a good word. (Kevin Smith said that “interesting” is what they say in Hollywood when they don’t like something.) But where I liked it, I was careful not to recommend based on that.

Spore, I expect, will also be interesting. Unlike B&W which was very geared toward hardcore gamers, I expect Spore to have broader appeal–so hardcore gamers will dismiss it as simplisticc. (A lot of hardcore gamers don’t get the Wii, for example.)

At the same time, I’m not sure how compelling all of the games can be.

The Creature Creator–wherein you create the species that is going to evolve from microorganism to galactic conquerer–seems to be a brilliant and engaging toy, however. And I expect to see that used as a launch pad for more games and further evolutions of the Spore concepts.

I’ll post The Boy’s opinons once he’s had a chance to delve into it.

The Dark Knight Returned

I saw The Dark Knight again.

My original review, from six weeks ago is here. Some observations upon reflection:

  • It holds up rather well.
  • It’s at #3 on IMDB (under Shawshank and Godfather) which is still too high.
  • My initial appraisal of Maggie Gyllenhall was off. She really isn’t convincing as the tough-as-nails DA. What’s surprising is that, in retrospect, Katie Holmes was. But Gyllenhall is far more convincing as a hippie/folksinger/drifter than an authority figure, and sort of slouches and shrinks her way through this film.
  • Mostly unchanged on my view of Heath Ledger: He did good. But he’s actually not even in the film that much.
  • I was contrasting with Superman 3 and noticing that Bale does a good job acting even while wearing the cowl. I know people didn’t like the “Batman growl” he does, but it still works for me.
  • Aaron Eckhart has the toughest role: He’s a good guy in a way that’d perfectly comfortable in a movie from the ‘40s. For a guy who played a cigarette PR guy (Thank You For Smoking), he does sincerity really well.
  • Gary Oldman is too old to be Commissioner Gordon but it works.
  • Caine and Freeman and Bale should make a non-Batman movie together.
  • Joker’s claim to not be a “schemer” is not credible.
  • Watching Spiderman 3–with celebrations for Spidey–twigged a vague recollection of something. In the DC world, with Superman and Batman, the heroes are generally publicly praised. I think it was Stan Lee and Jack Kirby who introduced the idea of public opprobrium to comic books. I never once read an anti-superhero comic as a kid, unless it was due to a temporary misunderstanding.
  • The theater was about 2/3rds full. (!)
  • UPDATE: Also, Batman’s head was HUGE. That was one problem with showing him in full light. What’s up with his head being almost a perfect sphere with bat ears?

TransSiberian: Like TransAmerica, minus the gender reassignment

A stable, staid couple hooks up with a wilder one causing havoc in their otherwise ordinary lives. Sure, we’ve seen it before, but have we ever seen it on a train crossing Asia?

Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer have just finished helping some orphans in China have decided to take the train back home instead of a plane, when they meet a sexy, sleazy Spaniard played by Eduardo Noriega, and his twitchy, sexy girlfriend Kate Mara. Hard-nosed Ben Kingsley is sniffing around with his lapdog Thomas Kretschmann, ratcheting up the tension.

I actually can’t describe much more without giving away the plot twists. This movie can be commended for missing about half the usual clichés of this well-worn plot. The normal trajectory of the “good couple gone bad” has them clashing with the “bad couple” and doing desperate things to restore normalcy back to their life. The theme of this movie is more about faith and honesty.

This latest film from Brad Anderson lacks the eerie atmosphere of his earlier film The Machinist, though it has much of that movie’s predictability. It generally seems above-average by missing a lot of the typical turns, as I’ve noted.

The Boy liked it but felt it was a bit slow in parts. I didn’t find it such, but with movies with foreign languages I (sorta) know, I’m always trying to parse out the foreign language.

Smart Gits

Get Smart was still playing and a movie was needed. The new Mummy flick doesn’t look too good, and 3-D doesn’t work for me, ruling out the other Brendan Fraser.

He’s doing cute spots with Maria Bello on cable, though. (Cinemax?)

The movie is not as funny as the old show, but in fairness, the old show isn’t as funny as it once was. As a summer movie, it’s good fun, with wall-to-wall comedian cameos; as nostalgia, it’s not bad, there are some good references to the old series; as a sitcom remake, it’s one of the better ones (if not the best of what is a horribly weak field).

Some details:

They made a lot of good choices. Instead of Maxwell Smart being a complete boob, he was a highly competent desk jobber who wanted to be an agent, but was too good at his data crunching to be field agent. And actually, many of his failures were not in execution, but in timing or just plain luck.

This…works. If you recall the original series, Don Adams’ Smart was a constant goof. But in order to forward a plot with an incompetent protagonist, you have to rely on others (which diminishes your lead) or you have to rely on luck, which gets tiresome. Adams did both, which was fine, because the series was composed of 22 minutes shows, stuffed with sight gags and other absurdities. This movie gives Smart enough skill to make him less irritating than he might have been.

Carrel is just right. He could do a fairly good, dead-on, Don Adams imitation if he wanted. But that wouldn’t have worked for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s weird. The guy’s dead, but only for about five years. Second of all, the original character wouldn’t have fit due to the changes made in the setting.

Like an Owen Wilson or (in most cases) a Will Ferrel, Carrel has created a persona that works in a wide variety of situations, and that means he can do the goofy stuff and switch into a more serious–though never too serious in this movie–mode. In this movie, that means, completely missing a stunt on the one hand, and then moments later doing something competent, and then doing something movie-competent (like avoiding lasers with Olympic-level gymnastics).

The movie walks this line, too.

In the originl show, you had to sort of wonder what Agent 99 saw in Agent 86. And Barbara Feldon can hardly be commended enough for convincingly conveying real love in an absurd sitcom. I’ve heard people–guys–pining for her decades after and in retrospect, it’s probably because she managed to adore Agent 86 and respect him, even though her skills were far superior.

Not really my type, I do see the appeal. Now compare her to Anne Hathaway, also not my type.

I’m putting these here because I these pictures may say something about changes in taste, at least as presented by Hollywood. Beauty, in the ‘60s, had a rounder face, and smaller nose and eyes, as this picture of Feldon doesn’t actually illustrate all that well.

Hathaway is more in the Julia Roberts/Uma Thurman mold, with a longer nose and wider mouth, to say nothing of enormous eyes. Her eyes are so strikingly large that it’s easy to forget she’s not really my type. (Not that she’s been hounding me for attention anyway.) Is it just my imagination? I see more Hathaways than Feldons these days.

Anyway, I don’t really “get” the appeal of Hathaway. When I see her in a movie, I think, “Why’d they pick her?” And then at some point during the movie she wins me over, as she did here. Right about the point she donned a 99 wig and was doing the goofy laser-dodging thing that’s been all the rage since Entrapment, and actually gave us a husky voiced (momentary) Feldon imitation, I was swayed.

The supporting cast is superb: Dwayne Johnson as the uber-buff super-agent; Alan Arkin–man, this guy’s been funny since before I was born; Terence Stamp just-so in the Bernie Kopell role as head of KAOS; the versatile Terry Crews; Masi Oka and Nate Torrence as the uber-nerds; Ken Davitian as Stamp’s lower-key right-hand man; and the ginormous Dalip Singh as the sensitive crusher, whose domestic problems make him grumpy at work.

On top of that, we got cameos. Bill Murray as Agent 13. Patrick Warburton as Hymie. James Caan as the Presdient. Larry Miller and Kevin Nealon as agents of a competing bureau. Etc. What’s cool is that they’re not just gimmicks. Everybody does a good job both fitting in and being funny in their own ways.

It’s fair to criticize the movie for not being funny enough. One character appears to get killed–in a non-funny fashion–and that felt wrong. The original would’ve shown him in tattered clothes and smudge-faced, I think. (Though if memory serves, the original show did have people dying, but off-screen due to some sort of “missed it by that much” deal.)

But ultimately, this movie works pretty darn well, has a lot of the spirit of the original, and showed proper respect. Name a movie based on some other ’60s sitcom that does the same.

Baghead (Not A Story Of A Trooper York 3AM Date)

There’s some well-worn ground in the new little flick Baghead. Four actors who long for bigger and better careers are inspired after watching a (amusingly pretentious) low budget film to go into a cabin in the woods to make their own picture. The sexual dynamics between them are ambiguous on the one hand, and on the other, one of them dreams of a man with a bag over his head, and turns them down the road of making a horror movie.

Until Baghead starts making his presence known and they start disappearing one by one…or do they?

So we have a relationship movie about guys making a movie, that’s also a horror movie about guys making a horror movie.

It works pretty well. Someone on IMDB compared to the Coen Bros., but this is no Blood Simple. That said, it’s not bad.

Our characters are: the handsome one (Matt, played by Ross Partridge), the nebbishy one (Chad, played by Steve Zsiss), the older-and-wise blonde hottie (Catherine, played by Elise Muller), and the new blonde hottie (Michelle, played by Greta Gerwig). Matt and Catherine are “beyond labels” in their relationship, while Chad is crushing on Michelle. Michelle, of course, is crushing on Matt, which pisses Catherine off. Chad is resentful of Matt, who he thinks gets all the girls, but Matt isn’t doing too well, apparently, since he broke up with Catherine.

Somebody shoot me.

This stuff’s all right. There’s a lot of drinking. And scheming. But it’s a bit slow.

It’s also a bit familiar. I kept wondering if I knew these actors or I just knew a lot of people like them.

Baghead livens up the proceedings but the movie sort of plays with being a horror movie without ever actually being a horror movie. That’s not necessarily bad, except for me finding that, when they finally commit at the climax of the movie, I was curiously unimpressed. I didn’t buy it whole hog. The filmmakers didn’t convince me that they would actually allow the things to happen that I was seeing.

Part of this is the limit of low-budget-ness. The camera’s at a pretty removing distance most of the time. Part of it is the limit of the story, though, too. There’s a sleight-of-hand that’s not very convincing even when it’s all laid out at the end.

But, all-in-all, not bad. Short. Fairly thoughtful. They do manage a few good scares, though I would hasten to point out that that’s a relatively easy task compared to making an effective full-on horror movie.

Nonetheless, no point in critiquing it for not being what it’s not trying to be. It does what it tries to do fairly well. So, good work to the Duplass brothers who wrote and directed.