Friday, November 11, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: Nov. 1-10

Horrible Bosses (2011) ***½
Director: Seth Gordon
Writer: Michael Markowitz, John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein
Starring: Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, Jason Sudeikis, Jennifer Aniston, Colin Farrell, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx

“Horrible Bosses” is a unique guilty pleasure in that the movie itself is so funny there’s no guilt in liking it, only in why. We’ve all had those bosses that you’d just like to see die. You don’t necessarily want to kill them yourself, but hey, if no one else is stepping up…

What this movie gets right is imagining three very different bosses and three wonderful reasons you’d want to kill them. Kevin Spacey’s boss is the most obvious and possibly the least believable in the way he so blatantly abuses his employee, Jason Bateman, to his face. Colin Farrell does the fat suit and bald cap routine to play the son of a wonderful boss to Jason Sudeikis’s character. When that wonderful boss dies, guess who takes over the family business. And, Jennifer Aniston might seem like not such a bad boss with all her sexual advances toward Charlie Day’s character, but the movie makes you realize just how much his situation actually sucks.

Of course, it isn’t the bosses that really make this movie work, but the solid comedic work by Bateman, Sudeikis, and Day. These three are the comedic masters of the movie. Bateman perfected tread upon in his comeback show “Arrested Development” and he uses it here just as well. Sudeikis is one of the few SNL cast members who is even funnier as a normal person than he is as one of his SNL characters. I was unfamiliar with Day’s work before this movie, but now I’m thinking the buzz on “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” probably has something to it.

And, I didn’t even mention Jamie Foxx.

Bad Teacher (2011) **
Director: Jake Kasdan
Writers: Gene Stupnitsky, Lee Eisenberg
Starring: Cameron Diaz, Lucy Punch, Jason Segel, Justin Timberlake, Phyllis Smith, John Michael Higgins, Eric Stonestreet, Thomas Lennon

“Bad Teacher” is bad in the moral sense. It’s not that I need my movies to be morally righteous. I certainly don’t. But, if you’re going to take the moral low road, you should really have a point to it all. “Bad Teacher” thinks it can show you the immoral depths of its main characters and get away with making her sympathetic.

Now, along the way there are a good deal of laughs, and Cameron Diaz’s bad teacher isn’t necessarily any worse than those she opposes. Well, no, she is worse. That’s the movie’s problem. The teacher she’s in a battle of wills against, played very well by Lucy Punch as one of those incessantly sunny people, is a bad person. She may not be a bad teacher, however; and she certainly isn’t as bad a person as Diaz here.

The filmmakers want us to be OK with that. Sometimes that symbolizes some sort of message about our society, but I don’t think it does here. In this movie, they’re just trying to shock you with her behavior, but since she’s the main character they want you to root for her too. I’m sorry, but that just doesn’t fly. Not with an educator, it doesn’t.

The Trip (2011) ***
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Starring: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon

I’m not entirely sure what the point of a movie like “The Trip” is, but it’s entertaining enough to watch. It isn’t a mockumentary. It’s told in a traditional cinematic narrative style, but it stars British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. The premise is that Coogan has been commissioned by a British magazine to review eateries throughout Northern England. After his girlfriend cancels on him, he asks Brydon to accompany him. That’s pretty much it.

The movie acts like a sort of travelogue with Coogan and Brydon trying out their impressions and comedy on each other throughout the driving and eating. It’s funny, but it’s not a flat out comedy. Coogan is a master at creating uncomfortable situations for himself and those around him. Plus, there’s a surprising amount of introspection done by Coogan’s character.

I say Coogan’s character, because he can’t really be playing himself. He wouldn’t want anyone to know this is who he is. There are dramatic elements, too. Coogan struggles with his life choices, but mostly he struggles with the fact that he invited Brydon along with him. Brydon never stops with the impersonations. The impersonation scenes are funny, but you can see how they would wear on you after a week spent with the guy.

I’m not familiar with Brydon’s work, but am quite familiar with Coogan’s. Brydon is an interesting character, but he’s not given as much depth here as Coogan. The direction by Michael Winterbottom, who previously directed Coogan in the excellent “24 Hour Party People” and both Coogan and Brydon in “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story”, does a wonderful job capturing the many faces of England as the background for this kind of dry British humor version of “My Dinner with Andre”.

Tabloid (2011) ***
Director: Errol Morris
Starring: Joyce McKinney, Kent Gavin, Jackson Shaw, Peter Tory, Dr. Hong

“Tabloid” is a return to form for the documentarian of quirky people, Errol Morris. I was not a fan of his last doc “Standard Operating Procedure”, an exploration of the scandal at Abu Ghraib prison during the Iraq War. That movie moved away from the oblivious ignorance of most of his subjects and into something a little more subversively vile. That subject really required revelations above observations. Morris’s strength is not investigation, but his ability to observe the absurdities of his subjects. The subject of “Tabloid” is a perfect marriage with Morris.

Joyce McKinney is an unusual type of crazy, a woman who was sent to prison for kidnapping her Mormon boyfriend from a church in England after her left her in Utah. What Morris observes in this documentary is a person who’s own reality does not match what the rest of the world can see. She was a tabloid sensation in England in the 70’s when the kidnapping incident happened. She even made the tabloids again in the Aughts when she had her dog cloned by a Korean scientist.

This is not one of Morris’s best docs. There are some investigative elements that Morris falls short on, like defining just where McKinney obtained her seemingly substantial funding for both the kidnapping and the cloning. It feels like it would be a better fit in a shorter format. It’s the type of subject he explored on his television show “First Person”, lacking the necessary substance for his feature film format. Beyond those slight faults, however, this is a wonderful example of the appeal of Morris’s style of documentary filmmaking. People are freaks, and Morris is more than happy to show us some of the most extreme examples.

Bridesmaids (2011) ***½
Director: Paul Feig
Writers: Kristen Wiig, Annie Mumolo
Starring: Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, Chris O’Dowd, Melissa McCarthy, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Ellie Kemper, Jon Hamm, Rebel Wilson, Matt Lucas, Michael Hitchcock, Jill Clayburgh

Earlier this year, I contributed to a article about Hollywood’s recent trend in producing ‘R’-rated gross-out comedies. Perhaps the most buzzed about of this year’s entries into the genre is “Bridesmaids”. “Bridesmaids” made an impact for two reasons. 1) It’s very good. 2) It stars, appeals to, and was written by women. The blockbuster success of such gross-outs as “The Hangover” indicated that these hard ‘R’ comedies had broken through the gender barrier. The success of “Bridesmaids” proves it.

Unlike most gross-out comedies, “Bridesmaids” actually has a brain. Co-written by and starring Emmy nominated SNL cast member Kristen Wiig, this movie is more than just a gross-out comedy. The food poisoning scene and sex scenes with an uncredited Jon Hamm (“Mad Men”) solidify its status as gross-out, but it actually considers the actions of Wiig’s heroine. The script doesn’t just accept her behavior as something people do when they’re in a gross-out comedy. It treats them in terms of how they might really impact her life and friendship with the bride, another SNL alumnus Maya Rudolph. Wiig pays for her behavior. Because of this, the audience is allowed to empathize with her, unlike the less successful “Bad Teacher”.

The Eagle (2011) ***
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Writers: Jeremy Brock, Rosemary Sutcliff (novel)
Starring: Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Denis O’Hare, Donald Sutherland, Mark Strong, Tahar Rahim, Thomas Henry, Ned Dennehy

I don’t come down on actors too much, but I’ll admit, I was less than impressed with the acting prowess of Channing Tatum when he first came on the scene. With some very smart choices in the past year, however, he’s beginning to bring me around. He surprised me with a charming comedic turn and one of the film’s few bright spots in “The Dilemma”. He’s part of the ensemble cast of Steven Soderbergh’s upcoming “Haywire”. And, earlier this year he appeared in the surprisingly effective sword and sandal adventure “The Eagle”.

Tatum plays a Roman commander who chooses to serve the Empire in Britain, where he hopes to restore his family name. 20 years earlier, his father led a garrison into the North Country and disappeared with the Empire’s valuable golden Eagle standard. Unfortunately, Tatum’s bravery in defending his own troops leads him to injury and an honorable discharge. When he learns of the possibility of finding the standard, he employs his own Britain native slave to search for it with him in the dangerous North Country.

Directed by Kevin Macdonald (“Touching the Void”, “The Last King of Scotland”), who alternates between documentaries and features based on true stories, the movie has the gravity of a true story. Although, as far as I know, it’s based on a fictional novel. Macdonald includes details that suggest the reality of the time rather than the posturing that usually accompanies such period filmmaking.

The conflict of the slave, whose life the Roman commander saved, helping his enemy retrieve something the Empire lost while invading his homeland creates great tension. Tatum is very convincing as the Roman, so full of his own purpose that he little suspects what a difficult choice in which he places his slave. The movie pulls you along with the commander’s purpose, but gives you pause to consider the slave’s position. The final act is a little more standard that the first two, but it all makes for a compelling adventure.

Western of the Week

Buck (2011) **
Director: Cindy Meehl
Starring: Buck Brannaman, Robert Redford, Mary Brannaman, Reata Brannaman

I will not deny that Buck Brannaman is one of the more interesting subjects that could be chosen for a documentary feature. I don’t find him to be one of the more dynamic I’ve seen, however.

Buck is a real life horse whisperer. He was an important consultant on the Robert Redford directed “The Horse Whisperer”, even acting as Redford’s double in many of the horse training scenes. He’s a good man. He seems to have a sound and simple philosophy on life, which he uses dutifully in the many horse-training seminars he hosts throughout each year. And, his skills as horseman are akin to watching a magic show. He just doesn’t present a feature-length’s worth of material.

He’s no fan of his father. He makes that clear. Then he tells us again. And again, and again. He’s a gentle man, who believes that gentleness is the key to training horse and to life. He tells us this and shows us how it works. He tells us again, and shows us again. And again, and again.

There’s about 40 minutes of great material in this documentary stretched out over 90 minutes, but it feels like 130 minutes. This, of course, isn’t Buck’s fault. He’s just the horse whisperer. He’s not a filmmaker. Director and producer Cindy Meehl on the other hand, either needed to get some more material for a feature-length’s worth, or accepted that she only had a documentary short in her camera. She even places the credits at both the beginning and the end of the film. What’s up with that?!


t-rocc said...

i'm excited to check out Tabloid. although i haven't seen "Standard Operating Procedure" and agree with you that Morris' strength is observing his subjects and their quirks well, "The Thin Blue Line" might be one of the best investigative documentaries ever - it helped get Randall Adams off death row and out of prison!

Andrew D. Wells said...

That's true about "Thin Blue Line", but a lot of what he revealed in that film was a no brainer, it just took someone putting the story on a larger stage to get something done about it. But, I don't really mean demean Morris's skill as an investigative documentarian, that's just not what makes his movies so special. "SOP" on the other hand really needed someone a little more focused on the investigation and less on the personalities, which just weren't as quirky in that movie as in his others, even "TBL". Alex Gibney is a director who comes to mind as kind of opposite in his approach to Morris. His powerful "Taxi to the Darkside" looked at the torture practices of the U.S. in Afghanistan, Iraq and Gitmo.