The Other Guys

A ballet of emotions

The Other Guys is a buddy cop/double act comedy featuring an unlikely cast of household names.  If you’ve seen Martin Scorsese’s 2006 crime masterpiece, The Departed, the obvious written-for-certain-actors roles of The Other Guys may be all too apparent (in a good way, however).  Mark Wahlberg plays Terry Hoitz, an obvious reference to his Departed character Sean Dignam.  Wahlberg spends the majority of the film yelling, while Will Ferrell gets top billing as Allen Gamble, a nondescript police desk-jockey who idolizes the department’s supercops, Danson and Highsmith (Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson).  Rounding out the main cast is Michael Keaton, Jackson’s co-star from Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, this time playing Hoitz/Gamble’s police captain who moonlights as a manager at Bed, Bath and Beyond and inadvertently quotes TLC songs at least four times.

The story follows Hoitz and Gamble, “the other guys” (as labeled by narrator Ice-T) attempting to become the department’s star detectives after Danson and Highsmith inexplicably leap to their deaths.  The man they’re after, David Ershon (Steve Coogan) is a multi-billionaire attempting to cover his company’s losses.  A very interesting end-credits sequence features statistics about AIG, Enron and other companies, as well as depressing numbers about CEO money and average employee treatment.

The film generates some good laughs, and the now-famous improvisation of Will Ferrell takes center stage in a few good scenes, particularly when Hoitz attempts to intimidate Gamble.  The film’s biggest gut-buster occurs when Hoitz decides to play “good cop , bad cop” with Ershon, but Gamble mishears it as “bad cop, bad cop” and throws a screaming fit.  Wahlberg’s character is a great satire of violent police heroes, in one scene shouting “Colombian drug lords!” before single-handedly defeating a group of masked bikers.  Ferrell asks, “How did you know that?”

There are a few good cameos, the best of which is Derek Jeter (who plays himself).  I won’t spoil his reason for being in the film.

But now for my Statler and Waldorf section.  This film centers around pairs of characters.  Hoitz/Gamble, Gamble/his wife (Eva Mendes), Danson/Highsmith, as well as a pair of rival cops (Rob Riggle and Damon Wayans, Jr.), Gamble’s ex-wife and new husband, the bad guy (Ray Stevenson) and his shockingly attractive femme fatale sidekick, and so on.  There are a few too many.  My biggest issue with this: why get The Rock and Sam Jackson to play the supercops only to have them die and be replaced by two characters who are trying to do the exact same thing?  The situation is presented as humorous, but it’s actually a bit of a downer and the film takes awhile to recover.  It’s also a shame because Jackson and Johnson are given very little time to act together, and they’re an inspired duo.  Additionally, there are occasional awkward scenes in which director/writer Adam Mckay, who is accustomed to Ferrell’s improv gems, clearly wrote no dialogue, relying on Ferrell’s humor to save the film.  It doesn’t always strike gold, particularly in his scenes with Eva Mendes.  There are also a few too many jokes at the expense of women, which is par for the course in a movie about cops, but three of them within a minute or two is overkill.

Much like the year’s earlier buddy cop film, Cop-Out, Tracy Morgan appears.  This time, refreshingly, he doesn’t say anything.  Funnily enough, the film is narrated by an uncredited Ice-T who wrote the controversial song “Cop Killer,” and now plays a cop on Law & Order: SVU.  Sorry, no punchline for this one.

The Other Guys (2010); written by Chris Henchy and Adam Mckay; directed by Adam Mckay; starring Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Steve Coogan and Michael Keaton.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Cross your fingers for honorable mention

Niels Arden Oplev’s adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s novel is a film that makes me regret that the masterworks of our friends overseas will always fall into the category of “foreign films” when I talk about them.  “Richard, what is that movie you’re watching?”  “Oh; it’s a foreign film.  It’s Swedish.”  Granted, David Fincher is doing a surely groan-worthy American adaptation of the Millennium Trilogy, but Oplev’s film will overshadow not only any adaptation of this novel, but any crime thriller released in the near future.

I have a difficult time swallowing the phrase “foreign film” when it comes to gems like this one.  Because it’s territory that makes me feel as un-foreign as un-foreign can be: this is the type of narrative I’m at home in.

Rapace, who plays co-protagonist Lisbeth Salander, is the driving force behind the film. A bisexual pseudo-punk (“goth” if you must) hacker who lives alone, Lisbeth has a troubled past about which we are allowed to learn very little. She becomes obsessed with journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) and a murder case he is following, going so far as to email him further clues about the case’s solution. Do not misunderstand: Lisbeth is not a girl who needs a man; this is obsession on a deeper level. She is a near-recluse, keeps to herself, has a photographic memory, and shows telltale signs of Asperger’s Syndrome. She is sexually aggressive but completely passionless, approaching physical encounters with nearly frustrating cavalierness, and never giving a smile or a laugh in the entire span of two-and-a-half hours. Her chain-smoking would make Elliott Gould proud. Rapace plays the role with heartbreaking honesty; this is hands-down one of the bravest performances in recent memory.

The movement of the film relies on your standard thriller fare.  We start with an old man who has a problem (Sven-Bertil Taube), a few red herrings and a missing woman, along with a dashing (but not too dashing in this case) protagonist steadfastly dedicated to tracking down the suspect.  Rapace’s character offsets this classic balance, and the results are refreshing.

The Swedish language is beautiful to listen to, even when the killer is explaining his shenanigans during the climax of the film.  The plot takes plenty of turns without ever relying on cheap twists or deus ex machina, and the surprises during the last forty minutes warrant a re-watch.  Oplev gives us true drama where an American film might replace dialogue with CG and action.

I worry about this American remake.  I can’t imagine Daniel Craig as A) a Swede, and B) playing Mikael.  Furthermore, after all the talk of who would play Lisbeth in the American version, Fincher settled on Rooney Mara, a 25-year-old who has done next to no dramatic acting, the majority of her appearances being in teen schlock and corny horror knockoffs.  This is a story meant to be told in its native language with no imitations.  Don’t misunderstand: I am glad an American director wants to pay homage to Larsson despite a film trilogy based on the source material having already been developed and released, but here are a few points you can count on for the remake: there will be more “action” scenes (maybe they’ll even throw in a shootout); the rape scenes will be severely toned down if not cut out altogether and only implied offscreen; there will be far less smoking (if any); there will be thrice the product placement; and Daniel Craig will beat someone up (TBA whether he’s shirtless or not) and say macho stuff that isn’t in the novel.

Trepidations about this and that aside, please see The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  Tell your film-aficionado-friends about it and have a movie night, then go see the sequels (in theaters now and October).  You will be dazzled by the direction, moved by Rapace’s performance, and you’ll have a frame of reference for when the remake nightmares begin.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009); based on the novel by Stieg Larsson; screenplay by Nikolaj Arcel; directed by Niels Arden Oplev; starring Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist.

The Expendables

The manliest movie ever made

After Sly’s alarmingly violent Rambo reboot, I forced myself (despite my excitement) to reserve expectations for The Expendables, thinking it might end up another gorefest involving Stallone “playing in the jungle,” as Mr. Schwarzenegger puts it.  I had some confidence going in, however, because the formula for a classic actioner was always there.  Present in the film’s initial trailer and the opening credits sequence: Stallone’s banter-laden tough-guy dialogue, bullets, clouds of flame, projectile body parts/human bodies inexplicably shooting through the air, and the main cast members’ surnames splayed over the action in metallic silver text (although how Randy Couture’s name ended up on the screen will forever be a sad mystery to me).

Stallone’s newest effort is not so much a “who’s who” of action films as it is a “who’s been there.”  An early sequence features Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Stallone himself talking in a church.  If this hadn’t been shot with a digital HD camera and presented to me as part of a film, I might have thought it was just the three of them reminiscing about the glory days.  It’s a scene with some true magic, and it is refreshingly obvious that these roles were written specifically for these actors.  “What the fuck is his problem?” Willis asks as Schwarzenegger leaves.  “He wants to be President,” Stallone replies snidely as Arnold gives him a look you could shoot out of a cannon.

As relatively straightforward as the movie is, you’ll likely forget the story once you get caught up in the fun.  I’ll give it a shot: Evil dictator teams up with rogue CIA agent and Stone Cold Steve Austin; mercenaries needed because CIA killing their own guy looks bad; wizened old-timer (Mickey Rourke, despite being younger than Stallone) tells touching story about old days; Stallone and his buddies take the job; mission is not what it seems.  It’s the type of story meant for Stallone’s writing style: simple, plenty of room for one-liners, and littered with dead people.

This film is such an action-star cast party that you’ll also probably forget the characters’ names, and if you remember them, you’ll feel a bit silly using them.  But the names are worth remembering if only for their novelty.  The cast includes Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), a heavy weapons expert whose only monologue is about explosives; Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), the only one in the group who actually has a girlfriend, though he has somehow kept from her the fact that he’s a ruthless murder-machine.  Statham gets a role that is a bit deeper and infinitely more fun than the expressionless, American-accented statues that pass for characters in such popcorn action fare as the Transporter and Death Race films.  The role of Lee is no Turkish or Bacon, to be sure, but at this point in his career (unless he makes it into Guy Ritchie’s proposed remake of RocknRolla), Statham is unlikely to be doing anything but this kind of film for a long time.  In addition, we get Yin Yang (Jet Li), who has more speaking scenes in this film than American directors usually allow him, and they’re magical to witness, particularly a driving scene with Stallone in which he discusses the positives and negatives of his stature, and his fighting scenes are, as usual, dazzling (though it’s clear that a fight team is helping him out with the tougher material these days).  Dolph Lundgren also appears as Gunner Jensen, a Swedish sniper and apparent junkie.  How long do you think Rocky and Drago can last on the same team?  Just watch the first scene and you’ll know.  The last member of the team is Toll Road (Randy Couture), a demolitions expert and…y’know, he does that MMA schlock.  He’s one team member too many, and I know this isn’t dramatic, Oscar-race cinema, but every time he was alone on screen, I was embarrassed for him.  Rounding out the cast are a decent group of one-note bad guys, including an extremely hammy Eric Roberts as “James Munroe,” a corrupt CIA agent with a suspiciously allegorical name; General Garza (David Zayas), the apparently-evil dictator, though we’re expected to simply take the narrative’s word on that; The Brit (Gary Daniels), a stereotypical European enforcer who we just know will end up fighting Jet Li later; and Dan Paine (Stone Cold Steve Austin), Munroe’s bodyguard.  This is the type of role Austin should have been playing at the very beginning of his acting career (note: this is still the beginning, but he’s been in a few films now, and the henchman role suits his abilities).  Charisma Carpenter and Gisele Itie’ appear as the film’s women, but you may not remember them either.

The Expendables manages to be manly without being misogynistic, overly gory, racist, or a sweat-inducing sausage-fest (i.e. 300) .  Not a single breast or naked rear end is shown, and the two females with speaking parts are treated with respect.  The most violent scene occurs within the first ten minutes, and the gore slows down in favor of telling a story.  The cinematography is nicely crafted – care is put into every corner, not just the mindless stuff.

This film is classic action fare with witty references, a writer/director/star who knows the genre, and a cast of familiar (and likable) faces.  Perhaps the body count in this film will clear up some room for Kurt Russell to appear in a sequel?

The Expendables (2010); written and directed by Sylvester Stallone; starring Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li and Mickey Rourke.

Dinner For Schmucks

Be nice to your goats

It becomes evident within the first twenty minutes of Dinner For Schmucks that that “schmucks” in question are the very people attending the dinner.  At the onset, the movie reminded me of a film I wrote and worked on – Slices – which featured characters meeting when the protagonist (straight man) hits the secondary main character (funny man) with a car, following which he gives him a ride, and the adventure begins.  I was flabbergasted until I remembered that when I was writing Slices in 2007, I was creating a project in the vein of conventional double-act comedy.  After that, I was able to enjoy myself.

The film features Steve Carell as the funny man and Paul Rudd as the straight man.  Rudd’s character, Tim Conrad, is offered a high-paying position at the company he works at (by the time the film is halfway done, you won’t remember what the company is or what they do or what they’re called; you’ll just remember that they’re a classic group of misogynistic suit-wearing pricks with a ton of money).  As part of the company’s tradition, Tim is required to attend a company dinner and bring along an “idiot” to make fun of.  Why this would be funny or plausible in real life without the “idiots” realizing what was going on is beyond me, but it makes for an interesting comedic premise, to be sure.

Of course, Tim decides to bring Barry Speck (Carell), a taxidermist who collects dead mice and creates colorful dioramas with the corpses.  After a fight with his girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Sztostak), Tim is left with Barry, who mistakes which night the dinner is.  Together they adventure through L.A. in hopes of bringing Julie back, running into a nice cast of bizarre characters including Tim’s insane ex, Darla (Lucy Punch); Barry’s mind-controlling IRS boss, Therman (Zack Galifianakis), and eccentric artist Kieran Vollard (Jemaine Clement), with whom Julie is thought to be cheating on Tim.  Clement brings yet another quirky and well-acted performance to a comedy film, all but stealing the show again in this one.  As Vollard tells us, “There are only two things in this world: wonderful, visceral, sexy sex; and death.  Horrible, boring death.”

The film also features Bruce Greenwood, Ron Livingston and David Walliams in small roles, as well as Larry Wilmore, The Daily Show With John Stewart‘s “senior black correspondent,” and Kristen Shaal (also of Flight of the Conchords and The Daily Show).   It seems as though Stewart’s show is now a gateway into comedy films and larger comedy careers in general, as exemplified by Carell, Stephen Colbert, Ed Helms, Mo Rocca, Rob Riggle and Rob Corddry.

The performances and direction fit the bill.  It’s a well-cast film with an ear for comedy, though it doesn’t have as many laugh-out-loud moments as the recent Date Night or Get Him to the Greek.  The film perhaps makes up for it with some truly touching moments, including a scene where we find out exactly what some of Barry’s weirdest dioramas are really referring to.  The dinner itself, the film’s centerpiece, has a lot to live up to, and while it’s not chock-full of gut-busting one-liners, it’s got enough color and bon-mot-flinging to satisfy.  It even features appearances by Patrick Fischler of ABC’s Lost and Jeff Dunham, who does his annoying ventriloquism thing.

Despite not containing one occasion of the word “schmucks,” the film is a charmer with some real heart, not to mention Steve Carell on his comedy A-game.  Go see it, for schmuck’s sake.

Dinner For Schmucks (2010); written by David Guion; directed by Jay Roach; starring Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, and Jemaine Clement.

Gentlemen Broncos

Cyclops there; cyclops there

Let me begin with a suggestion: someone should start a running tally of films that end with Kansas’ “Wayward Son” playing over the credits.  Put that on my wish list.

Gentlemen Broncos features an outstanding performance from Jemaine Clement of the popular New Zealand duo Flight of the Conchords.  He stuffs away most of his Kiwi accent and replaces it with pure arrogance.  The story follows Benjamin Purvis (Michael Angarano) and his quest to be a popular science fiction author.  If you can get past the glaring inaccuracies as far as publishing, the writing process, and the “fortune” that comes from being a fiction writer, it’s an enjoyable film.

Opening with “The Year 2525” by Zager and Evans, the film promises a strange adventure.  In this respect, it delivers.  The narrative toggles between the real-life of Benjamin, who attends a sci-fi writer’s camp led by his hero, famous author Ronald Chevalier (Clement), and the story of his fictional protagonist, Bronco (Sam Rockwell), who changes appearances based upon whose version of the story is being imagined.  Chevalier’s new novel is apparently so awful that his publisher wants nothing to do with it, so he steals the best piece of student work, which happens to be Benjamin’s.  The interactions between Angarano and Clement are funny, well-acted and in some cases truly clever.

There are a few needless sideplots, including 1) a friend of Benjamin’s attempting to make his story into a zero-budget indie film.  The friend claims to have made eighty-three motion pictures and is granted a television interview in which he talks about the adaptation of Benjamin’s novel.  Why does this guy have money if his films are so obviously horrendous?  How did he get the TV interview?  Why would anyone care?  2) A misguided pseudo-romance between Benjamin and Tabatha (Halley Feiffer), which is foreshadowed from the second or third scene of the film but never addressed until 3/4 of the way through.  3) The exploits of Benjamin’s deranged mother (Jennifer Coolidge), who designs horrid dresses and makes things out of popcorn.  Edgar Oliver gets shot in the chest with darts at some point, but I’m not sure why.

Additionally, the gross-out jokes often distract from some of the very witty and creditable humor.  I counted three occasions of vomit and three occasions of feces, as well as countless testicle jokes.

I was, admittedly, turned off by the complete and utter victory of Benjamin at the end.  Quite often, popular authors who plagiarize do not have their careers abruptly diffused and disappear from public knowledge altogether (David Shields, James Frey, that Russian girl, etc), nor would the kid whose work was plagiarized actually have his book published in place of the bogus one by the already-famous author.  Nor, I hasten to add, would it sell, and if it did, he’d certainly not make enough money to a) be happy/secure, and b) start up a business for his mother.  Again, this is a world of fiction, and maybe I’m trapped in the reality of the writer, but I would have preferred Benjamin’s family to remain destitute while learning things about themselves and changing as people, while the villain wins money but lives on with the knowledge that he stole his idea from some poor kid.

All in all, this is an enjoyable and bizarre ride.  The filmmakers were wise to base the story around genre-fiction and use actual passages from the works very sparsely (though when passages appear, they consist of some of the most cringe-worthy, unpublishable writing you’ve ever heard.  Whether this is purposeful is never truly clear in the film).  It does, however, capture the eternal arrogance and idiocy of pulp sci-fi writers.  The highlights include Jemaine’s performance, the music, and the very weird settings, which quite often make use of stop-motion animation and puppets as opposed to obnoxious CG.  If you’re a writer, it’s worth a rental, and it far surpasses the annoying Napoleon Dynamite.

Note: I had this film on Netflix and misplaced it, searching for two months before discovering the sleeve behind the living-room baseboard heater.  How this happened remains a mystery.

Gentlemen Broncos (2009); written and directed by Jared and Jerusha Hess; starring Jemaine Clement, Michael Angarano and Sam Rockwell.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Because I can read minds!

With the above, we get a Nicolas Cage gem to rival that of “Not the bees!” (which, despite its popularity, is not even featured in the final cut of The Wicker Man remake).

What we get with this film is a bit different.  Jon Turteltaub and Doug Miro’s (and six other writers’) reimagining of the Dukas poem, the Goethe ballad and the Fantasia short cartoon, is aimed at a strictly PG audience.  Only one scene is reminiscent of the older Disney film (the sorcerer’s apprentice animating mops and buckets to clean up his mess and the disastrous results that follow), and most of the humor is material I would have found hilarious as a ten year-old.  The film does have its charm, however.  Choosing Baruchel as the proverbial “chosen one” is somewhat inspired, as are several other characters.  Well, one other character: Drake Stone (Toby Kebbell), a secondary antagonist in a movie with way too many bad guys.  Kebbell gets to have fun with this role, parodying modern flash-artists who give illusionists a bad name (i.e. Criss Angel), and easily stealing the show.    Alfred Molina also stars as Horvath, the main baddie, who unfortunately remains fairly one-note throughout.  Par for the course in a film made for children.

But is it good for children?  I’m not sure.  Early on, Molina hurls a knife through a windshield and kills a guy.  Later, he murders a twelve year-old girl (albeit off screen).  I dug this stuff when I was younger, if not for anything but the laughs generated from annoying people getting theirs, but I’m curious as to what this onscreen behavior in a film with a very specific audience is advocating.  Sure, Molina plays the “evil” character, but everyone wants to play the “bad guys” in Hero Quest, don’t they?  Is Hero Quest even in print anymore?  Probably a rhetorical question.

Ultimately, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is clumsy film-making; the plot contains more holes than a Lorraine Swiss, the editing is choppy (as though the editors were rushed to shorten the film), and the characters are nothing more than the usual suspects in a film of this type – except Kebbell, who seems oddly out of place with his East-end accent and fourth-wall-breaking lines, including “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for,” (a throwback to the original Star Wars) which gets the film’s biggest laugh.  Despite all that, Cage plays his role with the usual enthusiasm and seriousness, and the audience can never once doubt that he at least finds great importance in this story’s action.

It’s a good time at the movies, with the obligatory post-credits hook for a sequel (which doesn’t quite make up for the amount of unresolved plot details).  Worth seeing with kids or good-humored friends?  Definitely.  I did have to shake my fist at the Product Placement Gods, however, when Cage brings to life a stone eagle perched atop the Chrysler building and flies it into the night…in four different scenes.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010); written by Doug Miro; directed by Jon Turteltaub; starring Nicolas Cage, Jay Baruchel, Alfred Molina and Toby Kebbell.