Monday, May 30, 2011

The NJNM Podcast: Ep. 42 - Scarlet Street


In this week's episode, Tyler and Ben discuss Fritz Lang's 1945 film, Scarlet Street.





Introduction
Character Name Game Intro - 2:03

Media Consumed
Tyler
Star Wars "Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina" book - 3:01
Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie - 6:08

Ben
Look, Up in the Sky! The Amazing Story of Superman - 13:47
The Shield, Season 1, Pilot - 19:08

Review
Scarlet Street - 24:32

Wrap-Up
Next Time: Slither - 53:13
Listener E-mail/Voicemail - 54:05
Character Name Game - 57:49
Where You Can Find Us - 1:00:49

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Hangover Part II

The Hangover Part II is perhaps the prototypical example of a studio sequel: increase the budget, increase the scope, repeat the schtick that worked the first time. But does it work as effectively the second time?

The Hangover Part II
Director: Todd Phillips
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis, Ed Helms, Ken Jeong


When Stu (Ed Helms) decides to get married in Thailand, his best friends Phil (Bradley Cooper) and Doug (Justin Bartha) are naturally invited to the wedding. But thanks to their previous misadventure, Stu holds a bit of a grudge toward Alan (Zach Galifianakis) and refuses to invite him along. Fifteen minutes into the movie - following a "Denny's bachelor party" scene, and with much guilt heaped upon him - Stu has a change of heart and the Wolf Pack is reunited. Don't ask how the wives and girlfriends get to Thailand - just like the first film, this movie isn't concerned with women in the slightest. They pop up occasionally, but this is a Todd Phillips movie and as this great piece in the New York Times points out, that means this is a bro-centric comedy through and through. Here, the crew is forced to take Stu's soon-to-be-brother-in-law Teddy along for the festivities, much like Alan himself in the first movie. But unlike Alan, Teddy is a sixteen-year-old Asian kid and the apple of his father's eye - so of course, when the inevitable blackout occurs a couple nights before the wedding, Teddy is lost to Bangkok and the disoriented (no pun intended) members of the Wolf Pack have to retrace their steps to find him.


Sound familiar? Because of their surface similarities, I wouldn't begrudge you voicing the opinion that "if you liked the first movie, you'll probably like the sequel." After all, the two movies are nearly identical; from the returning cast to the structure to some of the jokes, it's almost close enough to be called a remake. But if you look a bit closer, there are some aspects of the movie that don't quite gel. Beware: massive spoilers ahead.


Personally, I didn't find the movie to be that funny. Don't get me wrong: there were people in my audience cracking up left and right, so I know this style of comedy works for a lot of people. I just don't happen to be one of them. I'm sure there were people who listened to me laughing out loud in the theater during Anchorman and walked out shaking their heads saying, "I just don't get it." That's the thing about comedy. Also, I'll be the first to admit I didn't even like the first Hangover all that much. I found it clever, but ultimately overrated. So in the interest of providing you a baseline from which I'm operating, I wanted to let you know that.


The thing that kind of bothered me about this movie is that even though the scope is definitely increased (the movie was clearly shot in Thailand, and looks alternatingly beautiful and horrifying due to its locations), the characters don't react much differently to the crazy things that happen to them than they did to the much-milder-by-comparison events of the first movie. Let's take the big one for starters: Stu is anally violated by a transvestite. After a few minutes of quiet crying and freaking out, the characters move on and that seems to be the end of it. Yes, it's mentioned once more in a crude wordplay joke when Stu says "I have a demon in me" in his final speech, but that's it. Everything's seemingly fine. To me, that seems like a life-shattering event, one that overshadows finding Teddy or anything else for that matter. Phil is shot in the arm at one point, and after a brief jaunt to the hospital, it's forgotten that even happened by the end of the movie. Teddy even loses a finger, for God's sake. There are other examples of this, but that'll do for the purposes of this argument.

Also, the connections between events are even more sketchy than those of the first film. These movies aren't meant to be taken literally, but at the same time, Phillips goes out of his way to make them seem relatable and kind of plausible. Getting lazy when it comes to connecting the dots feels like it's cheating the movie in a way. At one point, the characters come across a bar they destroyed the night before and just so happen to see Stu's tattooed face on a nearby building. Inside, the tattoo artist sees a tattoo on an old mute monk the guys are lugging around and informs them it's the symbol of his monastery right outside the city limits. There are multiple aspects (including the cause of their blackout) that seemed to stretch the limits of plausibility for me, and that plausibility was a large part of what makes The Hangover watchable.


But put down your pitchforks, folks: it's not all negative. There were a few aspects of Part II I did enjoy. Ken Jeong's Mr. Chow was much funnier this time around; it's the rare instance in which a small character is given a larger role in a comedy sequel and is actually less annoying than in his initial appearance. I think I would have been happier if they had killed him off with the drug overdose, since that would have been an interesting plot development in a series that consists of mostly tired cliches (hooker with a heart of gold, domineering Asian father, etc). But when he returns late in the movie, it's to the film's benefit. Paul Giamatti was woefully underused, but I liked his character and performance for the brief time we saw him. And though it may sound as if I've berated this movie for repeating the same structure as the first movie, I actually found it kind of cool in certain areas. Stu's song on the boat was charming, and the opening scene featuring Phil's phone call framed in the exact same way as the first movie but with Bangkok looming in the background was fun to see.


While this is definitely a watchable comedy, it doesn't have nearly the same fresh feeling that defined the original. It's a retreading of the same material in a different location, a safe sequel that should have felt brazen but ultimately comes off as pretty stale. If you love seeing full frontal transvestite nudity in larger-than-life venues, then by all means, see this in theaters. But otherwise, I think you're good to wait for DVD with this one. And by the way - where is Doug this whole time? Sipping Mai Tai's at the resort, explained away so he can be the "man on the inside" back at the wedding. Why doesn't he get to come along and experience the adventure with the other guys? If anyone's getting cheated out of anything in this franchise, it's Justin Bartha's visibility as an actor. Until next time...

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The NJNM Podcast: Ep. 41 - Zardoz (Guest: Elisabeth Rappe from Film.com)


In this week's episode, Tyler and Ben are joined by Elisabeth Rappe (from Film.com and Chud.com) to discuss John Boorman's 1974 film, Zardoz.




Introduction
Character Name Game Intro - 1:23
In My Netflix - 2:12

Media Consumed
Tyler
Love and Other Drugs - 6:53
Thor - 10:50
Marketing for blockbuster films today - 17:05

Elisabeth
The Dark Tower books - 22:23
HBO's "Game of Thrones" - 24:45

Ben
The Patriot - 25:08

Review
Zardoz - 33:00

Wrap-Up
Next Time: Scarlet Street - 1:15:00
Choose Our Next Movie! - 1:16:20
Listener E-mail/Voicemail - 1:16:51
Character Name Game - 1:24:09
Where You Can Find Us - 1:25:53

Note: We're ending this week's episode with Macho Man Randy Savage's entrance music to honor his passing. Read tributes at The Solar Sentinel and The Playing Field. Other article Mentioned: I-Mockery's Summary of Zardoz.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

I think it's fair to say The Curse of The Black Pearl took most of us by surprise. Right at the start of what is being perceived as Hollywood's creative downfall (board games being turned into movies, etc.), a film based on a theme park ride frankly seemed like a horrible idea. But the movie was a ton of fun, and launched Johnny Depp's career to new heights. Immediately capitalizing on its success, Disney greenlit two back-to-back sequels which are not nearly as well regarded as the first movie in this series. Now, with a new director and a few fresh faces, can the Mouse House breath new life into this franchise? More importantly, does On Stranger Tides approach the quality of the first movie? Read on to find out.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Director: Rob Marshall
Starring: Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Geoffrey Rush, Ian McShane


To instantly answer my previous question, On Stranger Tides aspires to be a standalone movie in a similar way that The Curse of The Black Pearl was intended to be a one-and-done film, so it shares some qualities in that regard. I don't think it reaches the greatness of the original, but it's far better than the other two sequels. The biggest difference between On Stranger Tides and the first three films is, strangely enough, something about this one just doesn't feel quite like a Pirates movie. But we don't have to dig far to find out the cause of the change: in 2007, Disney purchased the rights to a book written in 1987 by Tim Powers called "On Stranger Tides". Pirates writers Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio adapted elements from Powers' story - plotlines involving Blackbeard and the Fountain of Youth - and took the book's name for their own. I haven't read Mr. Powers' book, so I can't pretend to be able to point to every piece of this film that was influenced by his material, but there's a definite disconnect with the rest of the series. 

Say what you will about Dead Man's Chest and At World's End - and trust me, I've talked smack about them before and will continue to do so with no shame - but at least the original trilogy felt like a cohesive unit. In fact, I'd say those stories rely on each other almost TOO much - Dead Man's Chest can't even stand alone as it's own movie: it's basically just a stepping stone to At World's End. And while the absence of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley in On Stranger Tides is greatly appreciated by this writer, something still feels peculiar. Perhaps it's that Sparrow is a captain without a ship, spending more time reacting to situations instead of confidently charging toward a goal. Perhaps it's the addition of the cleric character Philip and his romantic subplot with a mermaid (paired with the consequential muddling of that mythology - are mermaids evil, or not?).


Regardless of it's foibles, I actually did have a fun time watching this movie. Rob Marshall ably fills in behind the camera, and while he can't coax the liveliness out of his actors that Gore Verbinski managed earlier in the series or capture the same aesthetic with the camera, he does give us some pretty solid action sequences. An escape scene near the beginning was a highlight for me, and the introduction of Angelica (Penelope Cruz) - a swordfight in the back of a bar - called back to Jack Sparrow's first meeting with Will Turner in The Curse of the Black Pearl. Other than that, though, the film was pretty by-the-numbers, never providing any surprises or unexpected twists. Characters are introduced early on that are all questing for The Fountain of Youth, and anyone who has seen a movie before can predict that they'll all arrive at the same time for a big showdown at the Fountain, so essentially the rest of the movie is kind of just filler bullsh*t until they get there. At 137 minutes, it's actually the shortest of the series, but I thought some severe pacing issues dragged it out and it felt much longer.


The movie was shot mostly in Hawaii, and distracted me at times by utilizing some of the same locations as LOST. There's even a scene in the movie involving an old shipwreck in the middle of the jungle, conjuring memories of The Black Rock from the aforementioned television series. Disney cut the budget drastically from the last two films, and you can feel the filmmakers wanting to go all out in certain areas (locations included) but not having the freedom to do so. They skimp on the budget but have enough money to add unnecessary (and terrible) 3D in post? Come on. (In case that wasn't clear enough, if you do see this movie in theaters, please save your money and just see it in regular 2D.) And to be expected, the movie leaves plenty of room for additional sequels, so expect much of the cast to return for more swashbuckling in the next couple of years.


Though On Stranger Tides leaves a lot to be desired, it's still worth seeing for fans of the franchise. Depp is great and has brought a wonderful consistency to his character throughout the entire franchise; newcomers Cruz and McShane (who plays Blackbeard) hold their own and are vibrant enough characters to sustain interest throughout. Geoffrey Rush chews through the scenery yet again as Barbossa, though, more noticably than the other returning cast members, he doesn't seem to be having as much fun this time around. I'm a big fan of the music, but even that left me a bit disappointed considering talks of Rodrigo y Gabriela's contributions to Hans Zimmer's score were greatly exaggerated: the blistering guitar duo is abysmally underutilized. 


So with all of that said, did this movie entertain me enough to line up for another one in the series? Sure, as long as Depp continues to remain the focus of the series. Captain Jack Sparrow is such a fun role for him, and I really enjoyed his chemistry with Penelope Cruz. So if those two are front and center in Pirates 5, I'm totally willing to go along for the ride. I'm just hoping they can tighten everything up a bit next time around. Until next time...

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The NJNM Podcast: Ep. 40 - Hudson Hawk (Guest: Marc Carusiello from "30 Rock")


In this week's episode, Ben and Tyler are joined by Marc Carusiello (production assistant on NBC's "30 Rock") to discuss Michael Lehmann's 1991 film, Hudson Hawk.





Introduction
Marc talks about his experiences on "30 Rock" - 1:15
Character Name Game Intro - 4:14

Media Consumed
Tyler
Ric Flair's autobiography - 4:45
King's Quest: The Silver Lining - 8:13

Marc
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me - 11:35
"A Collection of Short Stories: I Found This Funny" - 13:50

Ben
Season 2 finale of "Community" - 20:30

Review
Hudson Hawk - 25:29

Wrap-Up
Next Time: Zardoz - 56:40
Choose Our Next Movie! - 57:05
Listener Voicemail/E-mail/Twitter - 58:13
Character Name Game - 59:12
Where You Can Find Us - 1:03:10

Monday, May 9, 2011

Bridesmaids

Mark it down: 2011 is the year Kristen Wiig becomes a big-time Hollywood player. Greg Mottola's Paul was a good stepping stone for the up-and-coming actress, giving her a strong supporting role, but Bridesmaids (which she also co-wrote) puts her where she belongs: front and center. This film is an instant classic; it's charming, familiar yet slightly different, and - most importantly - hilarious. It's a turning point in Wiig's career, and after seeing her work here, I'm ready to see a Kristen Wiig comedy once a year for the next five.

Bridesmaids
Director: Paul Feig
Starring: Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, Melissa McCarthy


Bridesmaids has been called a female version of The Hangover, but I think - and this may shock some of you - that this movie is actually funnier than Todd Phillips' 2009 comedy. There's a scene on a plane in Bridesmaids that I'd pit laugh-for-laugh against any comedy from the past few years, and if it didn't win, I guarantee it'd at least hold its own. The reason it works so well is the characters feel like real people; Wiig and co-writer Annie Mumolo put a lot of care into crafting this script, almost certainly drawing from some real experiences to populate this universe with great moments that toe the line between the believable and the outlandish. The film adheres to a lot of romantic comedy conventions, but don't let that scare you away - it never feels tired or boring. This is a rom-com for the Apatow crowd, and way heavier on the "com" than the "rom". 


Director Paul Feig seems a bit unsure of the pacing at the end of the second act, but this can be excused for a director who hasn't worked much in film. (Feig cut his teeth directing episodes of some of my favorite shows: "Parks and Recreation", "Arrested Development", "The Office""Freaks and Geeks""30 Rock", and "Mad Men" to name a few.) Visually, the movie looks about how you'd expect, and there's no flashiness behind the camera here. He allows the cast (mostly women, a rarity in Hollywood these days) to take on the pressure of carrying the film, relying on performance over panache. It's a wise decision; this is the type of movie that will age very well, thanks in no small part to the strong script and fantastic delivery from some of Hollywood's emerging new talent.


Wiig is exceptional, a born leading lady. Both she and co-star Maya Rudolph are fairly well-known for their work on "Saturday Night Live", and though both have dabbled in film before, neither one of them has been better (or funnier) than they are here. Ellie Kemper (Mystery Team, Erin from "The Office") essentially plays a female version of Jack McBrayer's sheltered character from another Apatow production, Forgetting Sarah Marshall. She has a tiny part, but she's easy to watch. Rose Byrne is also making a bigger name for herself these days, and is great as Rudolph's bitchy high class new friend.


As great as these cast members are, it's Melissa McCarthy who absolutely steals the show. She plays Megan, one of the funniest characters in recent memory: a belching, foul-mouthed, sex-crazed force of nature. McCarthy is hysterical throughout the entire film, and she's definitely someone to keep an eye on in the years to come. I honestly wouldn't be surprised if she got her own spin-off movie from this, kind of a parallel to Get Him to the Greek.

If none of the above convinces you to see Bridesmaids, there's a musical cameo at the end that upstages Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (that's a huge hint, but I won't spoil it directly). I'm fully expecting this to be one of the top comedies of 2011, so don't miss out on this one. And if I haven't made it clear enough to the gentlemen out there: despite some below-average trailers, if you're a fan of the Apatow style of comedy, you'll dig this. Until next time...

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The NJNM Podcast: Ep. 39 - Muppet Triple Feature


In this week's episode, Tyler and Ben discuss a triple feature of Muppet films: The Muppet Movie (1979), The Great Muppet Caper (1981), and The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984).





Introduction
Character Name Game Intro - 1:51

Media Consumed
Tyler
The Golden Compass - 2:15
Haunted Honeymoon - 7:53
Almighty Thor - 9:42

Ben
Childish Gambino (I Am Donald Tour) - 10:20
The Social Network - 13:43
Justified, Season 2 finale "Bloody Harlan" - 18:55

Review
The Muppet Movie - 26:38
The Great Muppet Caper - 41:00
The Muppets Take Manhattan - 1:03:23

Wrap-Up
Next Time: Hudson Hawk - 1:24:45
Choose Our Next Movie! - 1:26:00
Listener Voicemail/E-mail/Twitter - 1:28:34
Character Name Game - 1:34:05
Where You Can Find Us - 1:37:10

Articles Mentioned: The Social Network (Ben's Take and Joe's Take), Kermit Bale, Ben's Thor review, NJNM Episodes 2 (Outland), 4 (Excalibur), and 7 (The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth), The Solar Sentinel presents The Muppet Movie test video

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Thor

Hot on the heels of Fast Five, Marvel's latest superhero entry continues the momentum of Summer 2011. Kenneth Branagh's Thor is a notable departure from the more reality-based Iron Man franchise; this movie spends half of its duration on Earth, but also introduces audiences to the Norse realm of Asgard. A star-making performance from Chris Hemsworth, a nicely balanced script, and an organic blending of S.H.I.E.L.D. mythology make Thor a blast to watch and one of the best films Marvel has made to date.

Thor
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Clark Gregg


Who would have thought the guy from the opening scene of J.J. Abrams' Star Trek had the ability to carry an entire film? But Chris Hemsworth has insane screen presence, easily holding his own against the gravitas of veterans like Anthony Hopkins as Odin, king of Asgard. Hemsworth is jacked, absolutely believable as a badass warrior with a terrible temper. Tom Hiddleston plays Thor's younger brother Loki*, a jealous conniving trickster competing for their father's affection. He does a great job as the villain here, and (SMALL SPOILER ALERT) he'll be interesting to watch as an evil force in Joss Whedon's The Avengers. I'll go ahead and get my biggest complaint with the film over with now: Thor's transition from hot-headed blowhard to humble servant struck me as rushed, with the screenwriters clearly trying to pick up the pace and get the action rolling again about halfway through the film.


Thor is important because it beats WB's Green Lantern to the punch when it comes to epic space-themed superhero movies this summer. Asgard is a fantasy world, to be sure, but Branagh applies his Shakespearean experience to that world and grounds it with universal paradigms as old as storytelling itself: a king passing down his throne, betrayal between brothers, loyalty among warriors, and much more. These are themes we've seen countless times, and make it much easier to relate to relate to these events as they're surrounded in otherworldly visuals. The production design of Asgard is fittingly regal, a vast empire filled with towering structures and CGI crowds. Alternating between impressive and slightly cheesy, the look of the movie is ultimately effective enough for an audience to accept the characters riding across a rainbow bridge and fighting Frost Giants. 


But that's only half of it. Once Thor is banished to Earth, he becomes a point of interest for Natalie Portman's Jane Foster, a scientist searching for a link between worlds. There's something of a love story tossed in, but Peter Parker and Mary-Jane Watson this ain't. Portman works just fine, but this is not a standout performance for her. She's gorgeous - no surprise there - so it's easy to see why the god of thunder would fall for her. Kat Dennings plays Darcy, an intern seemingly more concerned with making quips than contributing to Jane's research. Thankfully, even as a character so blatantly written as comic relief, Dennings never strays into annoying territory. She's given just the right amount of one-liners, and her quippy delivery and cutesy persona is exactly what the movie needs to balance out the sometimes overly serious drama going on back on Asgard. The success of the film is largely dependent on how believably it transitions between the two worlds, and even though the love story isn't the most compelling aspect of this movie, the film is equally effective regardless of the setting. Stellan Skarsgard is also a fantastic addition to the cast, playing Dr. Erik Selvig, the veteran father figure on this side of the universe.


One of the things this movie does best is incorporate the characters and elements of S.H.I.E.L.D. into the story in an organic way. Katey Rich wrote a solid piece at CinemaBlend detailing the things Thor does better than Iron Man 2, and its treatment of S.H.I.E.L.D. is the standout achievement in my opinion. Clark Gregg's Agent Coulson discovers Mjolnir (Thor's hammer, which Darcy hilariously mispronounces continuously throughout the movie) and forms a compound around it, setting up for a confrontation with Thor when he comes to retrieve it. Personally, I'm glad the actor has a bit more to work with here than in previous films. The only slightly negative S.H.I.E.L.D. comment I have was the totally unnecessary cameo of Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), who not only has about three lines and never fires a single shot, but basically just appears so audiences will recognize him when he shows up in the upcoming SuperTeamUp movie The Avengers in 2012.


Though the film is well balanced, the action is a bit uneven. The battle scenes on and around Asgard are much more cartoonish and outlandish than the ones set on Earth; I'll take the practical effects used in the explosions in the Destroyer sequences over the digital effects used during fights with Frost Giants any time. The graphics are decent overall, but the crazy color scheme of the world of the gods got a little too outrageous for my tastes as the movie progressed. Also, the 3D is pretty worthless, so save your money and see the 2D version if one's available in your area.


Marvel has accomplished their goal with Thor: the film hasn't even hit American theaters yet and it's already made nearly $100 million overseas, seemingly assuring a direct sequel. But more importantly for Marvel, Thor will serve as a gateway for its lesser known "magic-based" characters to find a home on film. After watching a movie about Norse gods, it should theoretically be easier for audiences to digest a movie about a powerful sorcerer like Dr. Strange, for example. But in the meantime, we can be content that Thor is a well-directed, visually interesting (far of those canted angles, eh Branagh?), exciting entry into Marvel's quickly-expanding film library. Until next time...

*I'm just going to go ahead and assume Thor is a prequel to The Mask, since Loki is the spirit locked in the mask that gives Jim Carrey his crazy powers in that movie.