Friday, March 18, 2011

'Paul,' the alien you can get high with

Simon Pegg and Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen) on a bad trip.

There’s a constant danger that a film like Paul could end up one long inside joke, filled with obscure sci-fi references and nerd shout-outs with no real connection to anyone who isn’t a massive geek. It goes without saying that Paul is a flick by geeks, for geeks, but it also packs enough heart and energy to win over anyone with a taste for the odd, or even just a dirty sense of humor.

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (the team that brought you Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) star as Graeme and Clive, a pair of English nerds who flew into America for the annual San Diego ComicCon and then opted for an RV tour of America’s most noteworthy UFO-related sites. After a pit-stop at the Little A’Le’Inn (a real place) in Nevada, the pair encounters a car crash on a lonely road. It’s there that they meet Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), a little grey alien on the run from a government facility.

After the initial shock of finally meeting an actual alien after years of nerdy speculation, Graeme and Clive chat with Paul, who reveals that his spaceship crashed in Wyoming in the 1940s and he’s been hanging around ever since, informing the government on alien life and even influencing more than a few aspects of American culture (Agent Mulder was his idea). But now he’s used up his intellectual and scientific currency, and the Powers That Be want to keep him quiet. So, with a cold Man in Black (Jason Bateman) and his two hapless subordinates (Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio) hot on their trail, the threesome set off on a cross-country adventure to get Paul back to his home in the sky. Along the way, they meet a Bible-thumping RV park manager (Kristen Wiig), her crazy father (John Carroll Lynch) and a host of other helpers and obstacles as an adventure full of cursing, car chases and cosmic fates unfolds.

It’s easy to dismiss what’s going on here as a foul-mouthed, grown up version of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. If you said that’s what Paul is, you wouldn’t be wrong, but you would be wrong to dismiss the film because of what it owes to classic alien visitor films. Wrapped up in “Paul” are E.T.Close Encounters of the Third KindAliensThe X-Files and all those fun old flying saucer cheeseball flicks from the 50s. But there’s nothing wrong with that. Pegg and Frost, celebrated nerds in their own right, celebrate even the most clichéd parts of the characters and story they’ve created, because after all, Paul is a love letter to all the “visitors from beyond” flicks of yore, and in that respect it works marvelously.

It also becomes very hard to fault Pegg and Frost for making a film based almost entirely on other films when you take into account how funny Paul is. The pair made their names as in over their heads zombie battlers in Shaun of the Dead, and they do just as well as in over their heads alien companions. It might be a formula, but it’s not worn out yet.

Pegg and Frost know how to do what they do better than anyone, but Paul is their first truly Americanized film, and it's set apart by a bevy of American comic actors joining the act. Bateman, one of the great straight men of modern comedy, delights in the villainy of his character. Hader and Truglio are brilliantly bumbling, and Wiig is her typically effortless self.

What it all comes down to is that there’s nothing to complain about here. Mixed reviews for this film are mystifying. There’s no doubt that a good portion of what’s in Paul is derivative, but it’s also well done, reverent and a flat-out blast to watch.

Matt’s Call: If you’re a sci-fi geek, you’ll love it. But even if you’re not, there’s plenty to enjoy here.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Breaking Down the Madness of March

ITZ Sports Correspondent Brandon Scott offers his take as the NCAA Tournament kicks into high gear this week.

I wish everyone would stop telling me how badly the NCAA Tournament is going to suck. About how watered down the talent pool is and the lack of star-power hovering over the brackets.
You know why experts are down-playing the parity and glamour in this year’s tournament? It’s because somewhere along the way, they stopped paying attention.
Just so this piece doesn’t seem so agitated, I’m going to get the star-power discussion out of the way now.
Melvin Johnson III
It started yesterday with UTSA’s Devin Gibson and Melvin Johnson III showing off in the play-in game against Alabama State. Of course it was Johnson who took over the first half with 25 points and cemented his own ESPN highlight. Most college basketball fans had no idea who this 165-pound sophomore was before this morning, because they more than likely paid the game no attention on TruTv. But I watched UTSA take down a more talent Sam Houston State squad in the Southland Conference Tournament and Melvin Johnson III was a dude I knew could play a while ago. Kudos to Alabama State for upping his star-power, though.

There’s a set of stars in every division of the bracket. Here we’ll name one from each and let the debate begin on why I named the wrong guy. This will prove my point of the widely overlooked talent that’s lurking.
East – Jared Sullinger Ohio St. Didn’t overlook Harrison Barnes of UNC or Isaih Thomas from Washington, but Sullinger is a 290 pound load who just turned 19 a week ago and is leading the number one overall team in the tournament. That’s star power if I’ve ever seen such.
Southwest – The Morris Bros. Kansas. And there’s two of them. Markieff Morris is the bigger one, while Marcus Morris is probably the better one. But Kansas goes as far as these twin juniors from the east coast take them. The Morris’ are just as entertaining as Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison in 2003 – just saying.
West – Kemba Walker UConn. In my March Madness piece printed in this month’s magazine, I mentioned Nolan Smith was my pick for Player of the Year. He’s been incredible, but I’m singing a different tune these days. With Kemba Walker’s performance in the Big East Tournament, leading the Huskies to a title victory with five wins in five days averaging better than 25 points per contest, he’s easily the biggest performer on this side of the bracket (possibly the biggest star in the tournament). But if Kyrie Irving is even a shell of himself in his anticipated return to the Duke backcourt, I could be singing yet another tune by the end of the week.
Southeast – Jacob Pullen Kansas St. He’s been sick and Pullen’s teammates say his mom is hanging around babying him. This baby has a mean beard and some serious game. While a nice chunk of his season was disappointing, no question that Pullen plays for the big moment. His magnetism reminds me a lot of Mateen Cleaves with Michigan St in 2000 and Kansas St, under Pullen’s leadership, has a good chance of having the same type of fortune this season.
I consider my bracket to be a safe one, but it’s not all chalk. In the East I have Syracuse taking down North Carolina in the Sweet 16. Others might pick North Carolina as a favorite to upset number one seed Ohio St in the Elite Eight. But that’s just if they get that far. 'Cuse won six straight Big East games before losing to UConn (my pick to win it all) in the conference tournament championship game. I think Syracuse better conditioned for big games, playing in college basketball’s strongest league.
I’ve got Louisville beating Kansas for no real good reason, other than my idea that if anyone’s going to beat them, it’ll be one of the Big East teams. That’s the pick I’m ok with being wrong about.
I don’t have any huge upsets in the West but experts like ESPN’s Pat Forde believe Oakland could really knock off Texas. I’ll beg to differ. After seeing the Longhorns run away with a money game against SHSU, I’ve been convinced on their potential ever since. That’s the popular spoiler pick, but I say Texas will beat Oakland by at least 15 points.
Then in the Southeast division I see #10 Michigan St upsetting #2 Florida in the second round, as well as #6 St. John’s over #3 BYU. These are matches up that are much closer than the seedings let on.
With everything mentioned here as well as everything not, there’s plenty of suspense to gravitate towards. So what are these experts talking about, really?
Ohio State
Notre Dame
St. John’s

*UConn takes down Notre Dame for the national championship in a shootout between two stars – Kemba Walker and Ben Hansborough. Enjoy!
Think you know better than Brandon? Comment with your picks!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

New on DVD: 'The Fighter' goes all 10 rounds

"Marky Mark" Wahlberg and Christian "Ginger Jesus" Bale in "The Fighter."

Some films get under your skin before you even know it.

They sneak up on you, make you think that you’re not going to care and then hit you with the truth: you cared all along, it just took a few key developments to make you realize it.

The Fighter, the new film from I Heart Huckabees director David O. Russell, is one such film. Much of its runtime is devoted to explorations of poverty, drug abuse and general misery, but it all builds to soaring scenes of hope and triumph, and all those minutes of darkness were well worth the wait.

Based on the true story of a pair of boxer brothers in Massachusetts town in the early 90s, The Fighter of the title is Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a struggling boxer trying to break his losing streak while working his day job as a road paver. His trainer, mentor and resident upstager is his brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), a former boxer still trying to relive his glory days and disappearing for days at a time to hang out in a crack house.

As the film opens, a documentary film crew is following Dicky around, chronicling his boxing career and his efforts to make a comeback even as he tries to train his brother for the big time. What he doesn’t know, what no one in the family knows, is that the documentary being shot is about crack addiction, not boxing.

As Micky struggles to succeed even as his brother’s absence and bad decisions sabotage his career, he also must juggle his domineering mother (Melissa Leo) and his new girlfriend, bartender Charlene (Amy Adams), who is in a fight of her own to get Micky past his family’s hang-ups and into the realm of real boxing glory.
Much of the film, at least the first half, is often incredibly hard to watch. The filmmaking is top notch. Russell packs strong visuals and intense scenes together in a rapid fire cocktail of powerful cinema, but the fact that it is so powerful, so convincing, means a long ride of drug use, family tension, poverty, depression, pain and failure that’s real enough that it almost hurts to look at.

It’s almost a theatrical ordeal, and as a result it might seem unenjoyable. But where Russell and his cast and crew succeed is in portraying the turnaround, the high moments, the crescendos of bright glory. When the inspirational portion of this inspirational true story kicks in, it really kicks in, and the fact that the first two acts were so hard to watch makes it all the more satisfying.

The performances are almost all top notch. Wahlberg gives a solid performance as Micky, and Amy Adams, known for her sweetie romcom fare, shows off her chops in a grittier role. The real champion of the film, though, is Bale, who lost a good deal of weight for the part. It’s not just the fact that he’s skinny, though. It’s the look in his eyes, his nervous energy, his nonstop squirrelly shaking and yammering that make Dicky so convincing, and so tragic. It’s a daring, powerful performance, and he steals every scene.

The Fighter is a film that never lets up, that pummels you first with despair, then with unrelenting hope. It’s a film about struggles, about not just one fighter but a whole town of them. Some of it might be a cliché, and it’ll never be Raging Bull (the best boxing film EVER), but rarely has a film about a working class hero been done so well.

Matt’s Call: Definitely one of the best films of the year, made even better because it’s hard to make an original film about a boxer any more. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

New CARS 2 trailer!

Hey kids, we've got some Disney/Pixar fun for you today. A new Cars 2 trailer was just released, and you can see it right here. Enjoy!

Cars 2 races into theatres nationwide June 24.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Highs and Lows of Oscar Night

One day we'll look back on this and...Yeah, we still won't laugh.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more muddled, flailing awards show than the one I saw Sunday night at the 83rd Oscars. Almost nothing worked. The youthful exuberance and hip charm that was promised us in the guise of hosts James Franco and Anne Hathaway fell completely flat. The choices made by the production team were almost all confusing, from the spotty movie retrospectives to the slew of horribly written jokes. Still, there were bright spots, things we can remember alongside the travesties of the evening. Here’s what stood out, for better or worse.

Low: The Hosts
James Franco and Anne Hathaway are both fantastic actors. They’re young superstars poised to do great things for decades. But put them front and center on an awards show stage and everything you love about them turns into grating hate. Hathaway’s energy and overjoyed charm becomes shrill, overanxious cackling, while Franco’s laid back suave becomes pretentious apathy. To their credit, both hosts seemed to know they were failing almost immediately, and by the end both had a “get me off this damn stage” look about them. We were thinking the same thing.

High: ‘Inception’ takes four Oscars
Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” was my pick for best film of 2010. I knew it wouldn’t win the top prize, but it still managed to prove its worth by taking home four awards in the technical categories, for visual effects, cinematography, sound design and sound mixing. While it’s still a shame that the Academy ignored much of the rest of its merit, going so far as to snub Christopher Nolan in the Best Director category, at least its sensory glories were applauded.

Low: Auto-Tune the Oscars
In an effort to continue you the “Hey, we’re young and hip” campaign that began when Franco and Hathaway were hired, Oscars producers concocted a few bits of tech savvy shtick in a further attempt to hook in the kiddos. Among these was an unfortunate attempt to make songs out of bits of dialogue from films like “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I” and “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse” through clever use of auto-tuning. The result was not only bad songs, but bad comedy.

High: Aaron Sorkin
Aaron Sorkin is a genius. The television community has known and acknowledge this for more than a decade now, and Sunday night the film community jumped on board by handing him a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for “The Social Network.” He also gave one of the most eloquent speeches of the evening.

Low: The Honorary Awards are pushed to the back…again
For the second consecutive year the Academy opted to remove its honorary awards, including the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for lifetime achievement, from the Oscars broadcast and instead present them at a special “Governor’s Awards” ceremony. What used to be an interlude in the broadcast to honor legends in the field was instead converted to a smile and nod moment, when Thalberg winner Francis Ford Coppola and honorary winners Eli Wallach and Kevin Brownlow stepped out onto the stage. These are giants among men. They deserve better.

High: The all too brief appearance of Billy Crystal
For much of the night the Oscars audience seemed ready to fall asleep in their chair, but everything changed when legendary Oscars host Billy Crystal took the stage for a few brief moments. His jokes, his poise and his style reminded us what we were missing, and because of that the rest of the evening might have actually seemed worse.

Low: The continued ego-stroking of the acting nominees
If you’re looking for a message among the way the Academy presents its awards, one is always obvious: we care more about movie stars than we do about anyone else. The Academy continued its tradition Sunday night of taking extra time to honor the Best Actor and Best Actress nominees. Last year’s winners, Jeff Bridges and Sandra Bullock, came out and delivered specialized speeches about how special each of the nominees were, and then the statue went to the most special of them all. Even if you eliminate the fact that none of the other categories, including those with other actors, get this treatments, it’s just plain obnoxious.

I could also devote some time to complaining that “The King’s Speech” took Best Picture honors over “The Social Network,” but we have to face that the Academy will always go with the polished, safe choice over the daring one. That doesn’t bother me all that much, but if you’re going to pick the polished films, you can at least polish up your presentation.