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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Dinner for Schmucks review

The word "schmuck" is never actually used in "Dinner for Schmucks." The characters talk of "idiots" instead. It's disappointing that the film isn't eager to embrace a hilarious word like "schmuck". Try it yourself. Say it slowly and put a lot of emphasis on the "m." Pretty funny, right? But the film wastes the opportunity to make constant use of the word. Everything about the film is a wasted opportunity.

Paul Rudd stars as Tim Conrad, a young go-getter at a money management firm. He wants a promotion so he can marry his girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak). He takes some initiative, earns the trust of an important Swiss client, and gets in good with the boss. There's still one obstacle in the way: The boss likes to hold dinner parties where executives bring unsuspecting schmucks to dinner so everyone else can laugh at their schmuckiness. If Tim can find a big enough schmuck, the promotion is his.

Thinking the whole idea is in bad taste, Tim is prepared to give up on the opportunity. But then he stumbles upon a perfect schmuck named Barry (Steve Carell). Barry is clumsy, says one stupid thing after another, and makes (surprisingly impressive) dioramas with dead mice in his spare time. Tim invites him to the dinner, which we hope the plot will get to soon since there's no point in testing their friendship when we know they're going to go to the dinner anyway.

Alas, Barry shows up at Tim's apartment a night early and ruins his life in the meantime. In a very short period of time, Barry will get Tim's apartment trashed, wreck his car, injure his back, get him audited, invite over a psychotic ex-girlfriend, endanger his job, drive Julie into the arms of another man.

And the kicker is that he acts extremely annoying the whole time and never takes the hint that he needs to leave. I guess that the joke is that we all have a friend like Barry and it's funny to laugh at someone else have to deal with someone like him. But you're having to pay money to spend time around someone like that all the same.

There is one element of the film that works extremely well, and that is with Julie's boss, Kieran (Jermaine Clement). He's a bizarre artist, eager to share his nonsensical experiences and nonexistent wisdom with anyone who wants to listen and plenty who don't. He is very much like Russell Brand's rocker character in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and I'm hopeful that he gets a spinoff as funny as this year's "Get Him to The Greek." Kieran is a tremendous schmuck, and the film doesn't even have the decency to make him a part of the dinner.

It's no surprise that the plot eventually winds its way to the dinner, but it is surprising how lame the dinner is. The other schmucks get about two lines each, and there's wasted potential in all of them. Barry's only real competition is from his coincidentally-invited boss Therman (Zach Galifianakis). Therman is convinced he has mind-control powers, mainly because Barry is convinced he has mind-control powers. Barry allows himself to be controlled, going so far as to allow Therman to steal his unhappy wife. Tim evens the playing field by convincing Barry he has powers of his own.

"Dinner for Schmucks" is likely to be seen by people who enjoy Steve Carell's work on NBC's "The Office." There are definitely parallels between Barry and Michael Scott, the most obvious being that they are both incredibly stupid. Michael works because he is an empowered schmuck affecting an entire world. Barry just bumbles from one scene to the next, adding nothing but stupid comments and an occasional accident. He is nothing more than Steve Carell acting like a schmuck.

5:48 pm edt          Comments

Inception review

Christopher Nolan's “Inception” is a film that lets you know early on that you can't trust it. The characters have conversations about dreams and we find out that the conversation was a dream. Then they wake up and explain the dream, but we find out that that's a dream. So we know that what we're watching can be undone at any time. This would be the downfall of a lesser film, but “Inception” sets the stakes high enough that you to care about its characters anyway.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Cobb, an “extractor” who invades people's dreams to steal their secrets. The way this works is that he, his partner (Joseph-Gordon-Levitt), and a mark all knock themselves out while hooked up to a machine. The machine allows them to all enter the same dream where Cobb can either steal the secret or persuade the mark to give it up. Sometimes when they want to be really tricky, they go into a dream within the dream to mess with the mark's sense of reality even further. They're good at what they do, but they have the constant obstacle of Cobb's dead wife (Marion Cotillard) always showing up at some point in the dream to sabotage them.

One day an offer comes along that Cobb can't refuse. An energy giant (Ken Watanabe) wants him to plant (“incept”) the idea in another energy giant (Cillian Murphy) that he should break up his company, leaving his rival to monopolize the market. In return he'll get Cobb out of trouble with a former employer (unhappy that Cobb botched an earlier mission) and the police (he's wanted for questioning in his wife's death). Cobb assembles a team, including Ellen Page as a new Architect (someone who designs the worlds where the shared dreams take place). The plot needs someone new on his team, so he can go over Shared Dreaming 101 with them and us.

The rest of the film is the unfurling of the plan, and it's here where things get really complicated. Since inception is more difficult than extraction, the team needs to go into at least three layers of dreams. This requires sedatives so strong that dying in the dream won't wake them up the way it normally does. Die in the dream, you might spend eternity stuck inside yet another dream. The mark's mind is filled with goons that want to protect their leader's secret, so the film becomes an action movie. We get a train in the middle of a busy street, an extremely slow-motion bridge fall, a shootout at a snow-covered mountain facility, and most memorably, a sequence set in a hotel where gravity first shifts severely and then disappears entirely.

The “anything goes” aspect of the plot is thrilling because it makes prediction impossible. The dream worlds themselves are among the most interesting parts of the movie, not just for all the eye-catching architecture, but because they contain impossible aspects (unending staircases, tilting and upside-down buildings, etc.). One thing did bother me though, and it sticks out as a plot hole that even dream logic can't explain. Cobb's wife can infiltrate his shared dreams, perhaps because his emotions involving her death are too strong to shut out. Cotillard's scenes are great, the film wouldn't be the same without her. That's not my complaint.My question is why don't people and memories from the other team members' lives infiltrate the dreams as well?

With reality distorted the way it is in “Inception”, it is no surprise that the film's ending is ambiguous. The film's final shot at the screening I attended had people screaming at the screen.The audience cared about the film, even though they surely didn't understand much of what had preceded it. The film is well-made and its plot well-managed enough to get the audience truly involved in its outcome. If I can plant an idea in your own heads, rise to the challenge of seeing “Inception.”

5:45 pm edt          Comments

Despicable Me review

The characters in "Despicable Me" eat nothing but junk food. Its three orphan girl characters go door to door selling cookies, which characters order in mass quantities. The character who adopts them fills a doggie bowl with candy and tells them it's dinner. Cotton candy and other sweets are consumed at an amusement park. It is appropriate that the characters in "Despicable Me" follow this disgusting diet because the film is cinematic junk food.

The main character of the story is Gru (Steve Carell, armed with a painful Eastern European accent), a self-proclaimed "supervillain" with aspirations of stealing the moon. He's been going through a bit of a rough patch lately. He's only been able to steal lame things and the people at the Bank of Evil seem unwilling to fund his schemes anymore.

On top of that, hotshot new villain Vector (Jason Segel) just showed him up by stealing the Great Pyramids of Giza. Gru can make his moon-stealing plot work by stealing a top-secret shrink ray, but Vector steals it for himself right under Gru's comically pointy nose.

Gru can't get into Vector's lair himself (Vector knows Gru wants the ray, and effortlessly foils a series of personal break-in attempts), but he notices that Vector has ordered some cookies from three orphan sisters. His plan is that he'll adopt the girls, supply them with cookies that are secretly ray-stealing robots, ditch the girls, and then carry on with his plan. But guess what? Taking care of the girls is more trouble than he thought.

The girls want to do things like go to dance recitals and amusement parks and listen to bedtime stories. And they constantly defy his orders to sit around quietly and not bother him. Because they're kids and they can't be expected to behave. Actually only the two younger ones can't be expected to behave. The oldest, Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), seems to be mature enough to follow simple instructions, but just has an uncooperative nature that just makes her strongly unlikeable. Luckily, youngest sister Agnes is cute, sweet and unconditionally affectionate enough to balance her out.

The three girls aren't nearly as obedient as Gru's employees. Gru's second-in-command is a scientist named Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand) and thousands of incompetent Minions. The Minions are an easy source of humor for the film, not least of all because they look cute and funny. Their bodies are shaped like yellow jelly beans and they have either one or two big googly eyes. The characters are clearly designed to be Happy Meal toys (more junk food) and are only in the film so kids can find at least one likeable character.

The film is supposed to focus on Gru's transformation from supervillain into loving father figure, but the problem is that he isn't really a villain. The character isn't written with the motivation to be truly evil, just unpleasant. He's more like Shrek, starting off rude and selfish, but coming around to be nice and sweet. For a character like Gru to be as evil as the movie needs him to be, he needs to have more diabolical goals than making ends meet and winning his mother's approval. Three orphan girls getting adopted and finding out their new parent is megalomaniacal, that might have been fun.

Although funny in places, "Despicable Me" isn't a movie anyone needs to see. Your kids have seen the same story told better, and it certainly isn't creative or moving enough to be enjoyed by adults.

Your kids may want to see it because the minions look cute and there are funny gags in the commercials. It is similar to the way they would want a steady diet of junk food if they had the choice.

The film makes for a pretty inoffensive night out at the movies, the same way a family trip to the ice cream parlor can be fun. But please, make sure they know that there are better, smarter choices out there.

5:42 pm edt          Comments

Twilight: Eclipse review
          The “Twilight” films may not be great on their own, but if you see them with the right crowd you will have quite the experience.  Opening weekend crowds are usually made up of teenage girls who fawn over Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner.  Their reactions are so funny and warm that it’s hard not to enjoy yourself along with them, even if it’s just for the unintentional hilarity.  The movies themselves get about two stars, the crowds get five.  The crowd helped me enjoy “Eclipse” to be sure, but the film actually holds up relatively well on its own. 
The series’ love triangle remains unchanged.  Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) is hopelessly in love with her vampire soul mate Edward Cullen (Pattinson).  Her werewolf friend Jacob Black (Lautner) is in love with her, but she only likes him as a friend.  The only development that we see in “Eclipse” is that Jacob gets more aggressive in trying to win Bella’s heart, not surprising with his animal instincts kicking in.  The film likes to play up that Bella has a choice, but she is (and we are) never in doubt that her destiny lies with Edward. 

Bella even wants to marry Edward and become a vampire.  Nobody else wants her to do this, because apparently becoming a vampire loses you your soul (Edward and his family seem to be pretty soulful, though.  Are they sure they aren’t just confusing “soul” with “skin pigment”?).  Jacob is quick to push the promise that she won’t have to change for him, so he is seen as the film’s “safe” choice.  The problem with this thinking is that werewolves definitely aren’t safe.  All Bella would have to do if make Jacob angry for a split second and he’d claw her face off.  Bella won’t have to worry about Edward biting her and draining her blood after her initial transformation. 

The film promises to be the most action-filled “Twilight” yet, and boy we get it.  Evil vampire Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard) creates a vampire army to go to war with the Cullens.  Bella begs Jacob and the werewolves to fight with them, which Jacob is happy to do since he gets to help Bella and fight some vampires.  The Cullens fight each other in well-choreographed practice battles in the woods, the werewolves just plan to rip everything pale to shreds.  We don’t have to put up with a whole lot of neck-biting (probably for the best), but we get a lot of bone crunching and dismemberment.  The film saves its PG-13 rating by not having much blood and conveniently explaining that vampires don’t have any. 

Aside from the action, there are enough cute little moments to distract from the constant “I’m so devoted to you” dialogue.  Bella’s overprotective father Charlie (Billy Burke) has officially become the funniest and best character in the series and everything out of his mouth is golden.  The other members of the Cullen family remain scene-stealers, especially psych(ot)ic sister Alice (Ashley Greene).  But beware, most of the dialogue involving Jacob, Edward, and especially Bella is almost categorically limited to endless variations of “Are you sure you’re making the right decision?” “Yes I am” “You won’t like it, are you sure?”  “Yes, I am”.  A lot of mature movie fans will complain about this loop, and they will be right to do so. 

Again though, the best parts of “Eclipse” and all the “Twilight” installments are the parts where the camera wants you to get a good long look at Pattinson and Lautner.  If you aren’t the kind of person who can enjoy these scenes at face value, then at least you can laugh at the reactions (I think “squealing” is the right word) of the people who do.  Just make sure you catch the film in its first few weeks when the theater will be crowded or else you’ll be stuck judging the film under normal circumstances.
5:38 pm edt          Comments

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