Wednesday, January 26, 2011

'RED,' one bloody cool flick

Not long ago, I listed RED as one of my five most anticipated films to close out 2010. I placed it among some pretty heavy company, the likes of The Social Network, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I and the Coen Brothers’ remake of True Grit. I did this because I am utterly enamored with the work of its co-creator, comic writer extraordinaire Warren Ellis (Read his sci-fi series Planetary and thank me later.), I am utterly enamored with just about every member of the ensemble cast, and I was utterly enamored with the idea: an action comedy about former CIA agents saddling up for a revenge mission.

Ellis’ original comic miniseries is almost shockingly short; three slim issues. It’s a dark, solitary tale of a single deadly retired agent named Frank Moses who, when an overanxious new CIA director sends a hit squad to eliminate it, turns his guns back on his former employers. That’s it. No frills, no friends, no laughs.

To make the whole thing long enough to film, director Robert Schwentke (The Time Traveler’s Wife) and writers Jon and Erich Hoeber (They wrote the atrocious Whiteout, but we’ll let that slide.) sought to expand the tale while keeping the dark cool that ran through Ellis’ original story. To do this, they gave Moses friends in similar predicaments and turned the villain into an apparently vast governmental conspiracy. Also, they made it funny. Does it work? Most of the time.

Frank Moses (Bruce “Bruno” Willis) is a retired CIA agent living a quiet life in a suburban neighborhood, decorating for Christmas and tearing up his pension checks just so he has an excuse to call his lovely benefits coordinator Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker) and ask her how her day is going. When a wet team (Which any spy thriller fan knows is called “wet” because their work is bloody.) visits him in the dead of night to try to eliminate him, Frank proves he’s still got game, takes them all out and hightails it to Kansas City, where he promptly attempts to enlist the help of Sarah, who is so shocked by his arrival that he’s forced to kidnap her (it’s funnier than it sounds, believe me).

The next chunk of the flick is a road movie. Frank is on the run and visiting old friends like Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman), who’s living out his days in a retirement home, and stuffed pig-bearing Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich) a paranoid retired operative hiding out deep in the Florida swamps.

On Frank’s trail is William Cooper (Karl Urban), an ambitious CIA honcho ordered by his superiors to take care of the Frank problem. After learning that Frank has been tagged RED (Retired Extremely Dangerous), Cooper pulls out all the stops to make sure his targeted it history, but Frank, with his friends in toes, foils him at every turn. As the film progresses, details emerge about why exactly Frank has been targeted, and he must enlist the help of saucy former MI6 operative Victoria (Helen Mirren) and Russian agent Ivan (Brian Cox) to bring the wild ride to a close.

One of the things I love about RED is that it never bills itself as anymore than what it is: an action comedy about spies getting old. For me, it covered each of the bases well. The action was well-paced, fun to watch and even cheer worthy at times. The comedy had sharp timing, good delivery and a fair share of belly laughs, and the getting old thing was made amusing without becoming what the whole movie was about.

The problem with RED comes when you try to take too seriously that plot that the filmmakers threw together to make up for the fact that the source material was too short. It’s a thinly-stretched tale, to be sure; to mention awfully farfetched. But that shouldn’t change your enjoyment of the finer things. Come on, John Malkovich uses a grenade launcher like a baseball bat in this movie, and Helen Mirren fires a machine gun at a limousine. That's a pretty healthy dose of badass.

Speaking of the cast, they’re a masterful bunch, but you knew that already. Freeman and Mirren are two of the best actors in the world, and it shows. Malkovich is one of the great portrayers of crazy characters in the business, Parker is great at being in over her head, and Willis is an action icon. It’s a recipe for awesome.

RED is not perfect. It’s not a mind-blowing cinematic experience, or a profound one, or a though-provoking one. It is, however, a highly-polished, completely fun action flick, and one that’s definitely worth seeing.

Matt’s Call: I stand by my declaration that it’s among the five most worthy flicks at the cinema last fall. It’s not an Oscar-winner, but it was never trying to be. It’s a popcorn flick, and it’s among the best popcorn flicks I’ve seen in a while.

Friday, January 21, 2011

SHSU Basketball: A Critical Point

Bearkats Captain Josten Crow in game against Baylor. Image via

ITZ Sports Correspondent Brandon Scott blogs this week on the state of Bearkat Men's Basketball.

It was an ugly scene. The men’s basketball team recorded its first conference loss to the University of Texas-Arlington on Jan. 12. The Kats looked as if they hadn’t played 14 previous games. It was Mary-Hardin Baylor all over again, except this time it was a conference opponent.
UTA held the Kats to only 18-of-52 shooting, while reigning in 38.5 percent of its 3-point attempts against the SHSU defense.
“It really didn’t have anything to do with defense,” head coach Jason Hooten said. “We got plenty of stops, especially when we were down. It’s pretty much been the same story all year long, our lack of execution offensively.
“Just got to step up and make shots. We’ve got the best player in the league and they’re going to double and triple team him all night long and pound on him and beat on him. Somebody else has to come to the rescue.”
Brandon Scott
It’s important to note that senior and co-captain Lance Pevehouse missed the UTA game with an eye injury, but the Kats admittedly failed to step up that night.
However, they answered with an inspired group effort against Nicholls State Jan. 15., who came to Johnson Coliseum with a winless conference record, but possibly the league’s best scorer in Anatoly Bose.
Defensively, the Kats are usually solid and maintained that against Nicholls. SHSU shot 54 percent from the field, 50 percent from 3-point range, while holding Nicholls to 33.2 percent from the field.
One of the most daunting questions for the Bearkats is what happens when Gilberto Clavell struggles offensively, or when he’s held back by foul trouble because of his aggressiveness.
Clavell finished with a mild 12 points in limited time against Nicholls after picking up fouls in the first half. The Bearkats jumped out to an early 10-0 lead with three-pointers from Marcus Williams and Drae Murray, as well as offensive rebounding activity from Antuan Bootle. 

Hooten’s request for his team to spread it around is a critical one.
This isn’t last season, when SHSU was the clear-cut favorite after two conference games. There’s heightened parity in the league, and if they hope to adequately defend their title, they have a dogfight on their hands.
One thing they know they can’t do is expect Clavell to be the ticket to the second straight conference championship.  
“That’s a part of us getting in the gym and getting extra shots,” Drae Murray said. “I know I’ve missed a lot that I should have made. Then, every time we try to get the ball to G they got three people going down to him. You know, we live on G a lot so everybody else has to step up and make plays.”
Coach Hooten ripped into to his players after losing to a UTA team they should have beaten. We could hear him yelling in the locker room, all the way from the tunnel.
“I have never been this mad, EVER!”
Hooten was well within his rights. The Kats went out and stunk it up in what will prove to be the most critical point of the season. Last year, the players and coaches talked about gaining separation from opponents in the conference standings. They might not have such a luxury this season, but the ball is literally in their court.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

MOVIE NEWS: Sacha Baron Cohen's next role will be 'THE DICTATOR'

Paramount Pictures announced Thursday that Sacha Baron Cohen's next film, "the heroic story of a dictator who risked his life to ensure that democracy would never come to the country he so lovingly oppressed," is set for worldwide release on May 11, 2012.

The Dictator will be adapted (somehow) from Saddam Hussein's novel Zabibah and the King (and yes, that's a real thing). Baron Cohen will co-write the screenplay with Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm alums Alec Berg, Jeff Schaffer and David Mandel. Scott Rudin joins Baron Cohen, Berg, Schaffer and Mandel to produce the flick. Larry Charles, who collaborated with Baron Cohen on Borat and Bruno, is attached to direct.

So...a dictator movie. It's ballsy, just like everything Baron Cohen attempts, but this time he's tramping in the footsteps of legends. Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator set the absolute standard for satire of this kind. I don't think Baron Cohen will ever be able to break away from that comparison (at least among people like me). But at least it'll be funny...right?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

'The Green Hornet' isn't super, but it's fun.

Jay Chou and Seth Rogen don't look at explosions.

The Green Hornet is yet another story of a billionaire playboy who decides to turn his life around and use his resources, his dark past and his trusty assistant to fight crime (a la Batman and Iron Man). Where it splits from previous films of its kind is in the kind of hero it portrays: a headstrong, largely good-intentioned buffoon who’s far more confident in his abilities than his fighting skills suggest he should be.

Ambitionless party boy Britt Reid (Seth Rogen) has just inherited a successful Los Angeles newspaper after the death of his overbearing father (Tom Wilkinson). After a night of serious drinking and a morning of general apathy, he meets Kato, his father’s mechanic and resident barista. The two bond over a general dislike of Old Man Reid, as well as Kato’s supercool modifications (among them bulletproof glass and no-flat tires) to several of the vehicles in the Reid garage. 

During yet another of Britt's bad decisions, the two come across a gang of street toughs (yes, street toughs) attacking a couple in the street, and save the day. It’s then that Britt decides he and Kato should become a crime fighting team, but should masquerade as criminals to keep their good deeds hidden from the rest of the criminal underworld.

And so by day, Britt and Kato pose as big shot newspaper executives, assisted by the foxy and brainy Lenore Case (Cameron Diaz), and by night don masks and do battle with the criminal element of Los Angeles and its leader, Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz).

The Green Hornet has a long history in the costumed hero tradition. It predates Batman and Superman. It’s appeared in numerous incarnations over 75 years, including comic books, radio shows and a television series co-starring the legendary Bruce Lee. This version, written by Rogen and his partner Evan Goldberg (they wrote Superbad and Pineapple Express together) and directed by art-house icon Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), bears little resemblance to any of the previous Hornets. This masked hero is immature, selfish, cocky and definitely not the sharpest tool in the utility belt. Conversely, Rogen and Goldberg’s Kato has evolved version beyond the mere sidekick. He’s the backbone of the team, the facilitator, the guy who gets it done while his cohort is ducking below the bullets. Green Hornet and Kato have become an Odd Couple, and their crime fighting adventures are played for laughs.

Fortunately, the laughs are there in abundance. As in Superbad, Rogen and Goldberg once again prove their gift for pitting opposites against one another with rollicking results. Britt and Kato clash like contentious brothers over everything from women to the best gadgets to deploy, and it all works. 

The problem with this is that everything else doesn’t necessarily work around it. Skill in comedic dialogue doesn’t help Rogen and Goldberg pull off a convincing villain (even with a mega-actor like Waltz pulling his weight) or give any accurately sinister portrayal of the criminal underworld. This too is played for laughs, and the lack of contrast that presents is a stumbling block.

Still, the laughs are there, but they don’t work if you don’t like Seth Rogen. His Britt Reid/Green Hornet isn’t a character. It’s Seth Rogen in a domino mask. For some, seeing the dude from Knocked Up riding in a cool car and throwing punches is a good thing. For others, it isn’t. Fair warning. Chou’s performance is admirable if for no other reason than he manages to get bigger laughs than Rogen. Whether or not he has talent beyond that is tough to tell, since his co-star seems bent on talking as much as possible (which, again, may or may not be a bad thing, depending on how you feel about said co-star).

One thing that isn’t uneven or softened by ubiquitous comic touches is the action. Gondry proves he’s got the game to do a genre flick and do it well, interspersing trippy art-house touches (including a nifty device that could only be called "Kato-Vision) with classic blockbuster polish to great effect. Every action sequence ups the ante from the last, all building to one remarkably entertaining (if highly improbable) final showdown.

The Green Hornet is a deeply flawed film, but it’s a film that also packs plenty of entertainment into its two hour run-time. Don’t ask it to be something it’s not and it might prove a pleasant surprise.

Matt’s Call: If you’re burned out on Rogen, skip it. If you’re happy with a decent popcorn ride, this is your remedy. But don’t pay extra for a 3D seat. That technology is wasted on this flick.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

New on DVD: "The Social Network," a bold and brilliant film.

Jesse Eisenberg and Justin Timberlake speak of Cameron Diaz, Jessica Biel and other things that men discuss.

 The Social Network hits DVD and Blu-Ray this week. Here's Matt's review.

The great peril of making a film like The Social Network, would be to make it, perhaps predictably, in the spirit of great entrepreneurialism, a film about a smart person who did a great thing and then had to defend himself as everyone tried to steal it. It would be easy to canonize Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and to tell his story in a “Kids, be all you can be” kind of way. He is a genius, after all, and the youngest billionaire in the world, and he created something that revolutionized the way we communicate the world over.

But we already know that.

Any film depicting the things we’ve already seen, heard and thought about Facebook would be doomed to fail. Facebook has permeated the social consciousness like few other things in, well…ever. Whether you’re a rabid user or you simply use it as an excuse to talk about how kids these days don’t know the value of face time, you’re perpetually aware of the impact. 

The Social Network, helmed by dual revolutionaries director David Fincher (Fight Club, Zodiac) and writer Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The West Wing), avoids these pitfalls skillfully, and instead becomes a film about an obsessive, driven genius more interested in social revenge than social expansion.

In 2003 Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is a sophomore computer geek at Harvard obsessing over his ability (or inability) to get into exclusive campus clubs. When his girlfriend, fed up with his bad attitude, dumps him in a bar one night, he goes back to his dorm, writes an angry blog, then begins building a website where his fellow students can rank Harvard girls by hotness. The site is so frequently visited that it crashes the campus server in a matter of hours, and makes Zuckerberg infamous.

It isn’t long before a new idea develops, an idea for a social networking site unlike any other. Working day and night over a period of several weeks, with finance from his partner Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), Zuckerberg crafts a site he calls “The Facebook,” which rapidly gains a following and turns him into something of an Ivy League rock star.

The film leaps backwards and forwards in time, simultaneously chronicling the rise of Facebook from Harvard exclusivity to a worldwide social media empire and the subsequent fallout as Zuckerberg is simultaneously sued by Saverin and a pair of Harvard athletes who claim he stole their idea for the site.

The true genius of the film is that there are really no heroes or villains. Zuckerberg is never portrayed as a crusader or a martyr or a thief, but rather a somewhat pompous nerd on a mission to be better than everyone else. Saverin might be a victim, but he’s also often apathetic, distracted and combative with his cohorts. Everyone is too complex to be labeled, and this somehow makes everything all the more riveting than any good versus evil tale could be. 

As I mentioned earlier, beating the audience over the head with the “Facebook changed the world” theme was never going to work out. Fincher and Sorkin avoid this by making the movie personal. We see how Facebook changes Zuckerberg’s life, and Saverin’s, and their inner circle of friends, colleagues and enemies. We don’t see arbitrary news reports, media interviews with the characters or editorializing by pundits. Instead, something brilliant happens. Fincher, always the visual stylist, accomplishes nearly all of the global impact vibe through visual styling. As Zuckerberg sits in his dark dorm, crafting a revolution on his desktop, Harvard frat boys party. The audience realizes that the real socializing, the real status enhancement, is happening where no one at the time expected it to, and it’s this subtlety that makes the film so thematically dense.

Sorkin’s contribution, apart from his usual brilliance with dialogue, is unflinching, brutal characterization of everyone involved. When we first meet Zuckerberg, he’s socially awkward, superior, and trying to impress everyone. Later, after he’s a billionaire, he’s still socially awkward, superior and trying to impress everyone, even after he’s made everyone in the world friends with everyone else. It’s an unexpected, harsh revelation about geniuses. They’re often just it in for themselves. 

At the same time, the character is never concerned with making a lot of money (as the hoodies and flip-flops he sports in nearly every scene indicate), nor is he really concerned with making lots of friends. He’s concerned with superiority, with being the sharpest mind in every room, and this phenomenon manifests itself through snide remarks, intellectual boxing matches and no small amount of smugness. But at the same time, he’s constantly trying to prove that he’s not a bad guy, just misunderstood. It’s this complexity, this maddening struggle within a once-in-a-generation mind, that makes The Social Network so riveting.

But of course, this degree of character complexity couldn’t be done without an outstanding cast. Eisenberg, so often seen as the nice guy, shines as Zuckerberg, digging deep to find a savage brilliance that’s both exhilarating and at times terrifying. Garfield is almost as wonderful as Saverin, and Justin Timberlake (yeah, the singer) is flat-out surprising as Napster founder and Zuckerberg cohort Sean Parker.

Take all of this, throw in superb photography, a mind-blowing score by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, and the relevance of the subject, and you’ve got a near perfect film that’ll make your brain hum like a computer processor. It’s a flick that’s neither a condemnation nor a vindication of Facebook. It’s simply a meditation on how something so big comes to be, and how costly it is for the people who lived it. 

Matt’s Call: It’s right up there with Inception in a bout for movie of the year. I don’t care if you use Facebook or not. You need to see this film, not because of its topical relevancy, but because it’s a shining example of truly great storytelling.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

New on DVD: "Dinner for Schmucks," two guys you like playing guys you don't like, but, you know...funny.

Steve Carell, Paul Rudd and Lindsay Lohan's mom...
I recently heard the term “overexposed” applied to Steve Carell.

Yes, the dude has a hit TV show (The Office) and two big movies out this year (the brilliant Despicable Me and the film I’m about to review), but I would hardly classify him as someone I’m sick of. If you want to talk overexposed celebrities, we can talk about the way Johnny Depp and Jude Law wouldn’t get out of our faces a few years ago, or we can talk about the way Seth Rogen couldn’t be shrugged off for a while. We can even talk about how sick we all are of Justin Beiber, but in the case of Steve Carell, we’re not dealing with an overexposed star. We’re dealing with a ridiculously talented comedian in extremely high demand due to the aforementioned ridiculous amount of talent.

In Dinner for Schmucks, Carell plays Barry, an odd man with the unusual hobby of making shadowboxes from elaborately stuffed, costumed and posed mice, then photographing them (He calls them “mouseterpieces.”). Paul Rudd plays Tim, a mid-level financier hoping to making it to the top floor of his company by impressing his boss (Bruce Greenwood). To do that, he has to find the perfect candidate to bring to his boss’s monthly “Dinner for Winners,” an elaborate social affair during which rich businessmen pick up morons and invite them to give a presentation of each of their unusual hobbies (other guests at this particular soiree include a blind fencer and a woman who can communicate with dead pets). The “winner” gets a trophy, and if Barry takes it home, Tim gets his promotion, and a chance to really impress his art dealer girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak), who is being wooed by an eccentric artist (Jemaine Clement).

What begins as a chance encounter and an invitation to dinner leads to Barry worming his way into Tim’s life bit by bit, and mucking every bit of it up. But Barry has his own issues, many of them centering around his boss, Therman (Zach Galifiankis), an IRS auditor who wears a cape and believes he can control minds.

Though all the pieces are in place for a raunchy, R-rated comedy, this flick manages to come in at PG-13. The dirty words are still there, but in fewer numbers, and the jokes are much more universal, giving the flick a sense of enjoyment that goes beyond the rapid fire F-bomb fare that’s been so trendy for the past few years. Make no mistake, I’ve got no problem with cursing in movies, but the diminished vulgarity of Dinner for Schmucks, coupled with its somewhat outlandish concept, gives the film the same feeling as an Arsenic and Old Lace style farce from Hollywood’s Golden Age. The side-splitting awkward moments seem to build to a fever pitch, creating a Murphy’s Law kind of feel: anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

Where the film fails is its plotting. Director Jay Roach (he rocked all three Austin Powers flicks) never drops the comic timing, and the pace is quick, but at times everything seems thrown together. When you’ve got a flick that’s a bit far-fetched in the first place, you have to be extra careful not to get your comic moments too knotted up, because when you do everything begins to feel really, really phony. Dinner for Schmucks isn’t phony, but it seems at times that if it weren’t for the hard work of a great cast, the flick would go over the edge.

Speaking of a great cast, Rudd and Carell have all the makings of a comic dream team. Rudd, who already played a great straight man to foil Jason Segel in I Love You, Man, pulls it off again here, and Carell…well, he’s Steve Carell, he’s always hilarious, but even he reaches further into his own brilliance with Barry. He’s not recycling the antics of the well-intentioned but ill-prepared Michael Scott of The Office, or the out and out bizarreness of his weatherman from Anchorman. This is something entirely new: a character who walks the line between idiocy and profoundly chaotic wisdom, with a lot of heart to boot. But even Carell has to work hard against Clement, who threatens to steal every scene with his rants about the mysteries of the wild and living among goats.

Dinner for Schmucks is not a flawless comic flight, but it’s something different, and something more global, and it’s also very, very funny. We can all relate to feeling like an idiot, and we can definitely all relate to treating someone else like an idiot, then feeling like one ourselves for having acted so superior. Dinner for Schmucks may be outlandish, but it captures those emotions perfectly.

Matt’s Call: This is a film that’s funny to the point of stomach soreness, and it won’t make you feel too guilty about taking some of the older kids along with you. And if that weren’t enough, you get to see a group of comic masters at work on some truly zany characters.