From the Archive — Pineapple Express

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The arrival of the tenth anniversary of the release of Pineapple Express has led to a small batch of articles reflecting on the comedy-action film as if it’s some significant artifact. I guess. For me, it’s just another entry in the long line of films that demonstrate the dismal effect that Judd Apatow has had on modern film comedy. I actually like Apatow a lot (and owe him eternal gratitude for his central part in making Freaks and Geeks happen), but has he ever brought a proud sloppiness to a genre that benefits from razor-sharp precision. Anyway, this was written for my former online home.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about Pineapple Express and, despite my best efforts to avoid it, I keep coming back to Judd Apatow. I’d rather a different angle because I’m not likely to center evaluation of any other film this year around the perceived contribution of the producer. Directors and actors I’ll bring up for certain, and I’ll often consider the screenplay. Cinematography, music scores, editing: these are all fair game. Once I even offered praise for especially interesting and effective sound editing in a film that was not of the sort that usually gets singled out in such a way. But a producer. There are not many instances where I’d be likely to bring up a contributor whose role is nebulous enough that its hard to spot their fingerprints while sitting in the theater.

Then there’s Judd Apatow. Since The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which he also directed, there have been a whole group of films — Knocked Up (in the director’s chair again), Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall — that feel of the same set. David Gordon Green may have directed Pineapple Express and the Superbad writing team of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg bear the predominant screenplay credit (Apatow has a story credit that, according to Rogen, amounted to little more than coming up with the shell of a premise), but its tone, rhythms and shape (or, more accurately, shapelessness) feels scissored out of Apatow’s well-worn cloth. His influence as a producer is evidently strong enough to make all these films feel like they belong to him as much as anyone else. I can’t immediately recall any other producer skewing the authorship of films to such a degree since Steven Spielberg started amassing producing credits in the eighties and every film seemed to represent some variation on his then-twinkly worldview. This is the kind of impact Brian Grazer dreams of every morning as he civil engineers his ridiculous hair into place.

Pineapple Express is about a pot-smoking summons server and his friendly neighborhood drug dealer who inadvertently find themselves…well…inside an action movie. I don’t mean that literally — this isn’t some sort of meta romp like The Last Action Hero — but the actual plot is so thin and lacking in any sort of compelling intricacies that it’s simply easier and more accurate to talk about the film in terms of its premise instead of its storyline. Besides, it’s not really about that. Like all of these Apatow films, it’s about that fleeting opportunity when a male can reject his own orchestrated arrested development and decide to grow up and take responsibility. This time it’s just framed around rescuing your cohorts from gun-wielding drug gangs instead of devoting yourself to the unexpected mother of your child or the cute girls you hung out with at last night’s party.

There are laughs to be extracted from the situation, mostly from exploiting the contrasts inherent to slobby, clumsy guys who recoil from the very carnage they’re creating or rapidly fold under pressure when playing the hero role isn’t as effortless at it seems onscreen. James Franco is especially good as the generally amiable drug dealer prone to mental wandering. He’s loose enough in this role that it does feel like a liberation from the sort of dour leading man stuff he’s concentrated on since he was the first Freaks and Geeks cast member to achieve visibility apart from the cult fandom of the show. It’s an agreeably scruffy performance in a sometimes disagreeably scruffy film. Overall, it’s still entertaining and has memorable moments, but Apatow is fast approaching the point where he’ll face a similar decision as those thrown at the characters in his films. Does he want to grow up enough to add some focus and discipline to the films that bear his name, or is he satisfied softly plodding along, making movies that pass like a thin, dissipating haze?

Greatish Performances #38

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#38 — Bob Hoskins as Eddie Valiant in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Robert Zemeckis, 1988)

Bob Hoskins had to invent an entirely new style of acting when he was recruited to play the lead in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The most obvious challenge Hoskins faced was interacting dynamically with beings that weren’t in place on set. Robert Zemeckis’s film imagined a classic Hollywood where humans and classically rendered cartoon characters lived together. Animated figures and human actors had certainly shared the screen before, but never in a manner that was meant to be particularly convincing. It was a gimmick, nothing more. That’s not what Zemeckis wanted, though. He wanted to bring a pliable yet compelling verisimilitude to the conceit.

Well before the advent of motion capture acting and the digital manipulations that make it possible, Hoskins was acting to tennis balls and other ad hoc contraptions to keep a physically consistent sight line. At best, he had Charles Fleischer, who voiced the hyperactive, conspired-against bunny of the title, sputtering lines just off set while adorned in an appropriately fluffy costume. Actors were already adjusting to a relatively new professional requirement to stare at some ominous something in the distance, knowing it was be added during the post-production phase. Ahead of the CGI revolution, sharing the screen with a whole cast of pending co-stars was unfamiliar terrain.

No matter how impressive the work of the animators or the efforts of other creative inventors to integrate the ink and paint with the flesh and blood, it was up to Hoskins to sell it. For the film to work, he needed to make the emotions and motivations in a highly fantastical environment feel completely, perfectly right. Importantly, that doesn’t necessarily mean he needs to make those elements feel real. And that speaks to the other components of the performance that are more elusively revolutionary and perhaps yet more impressive.

Hoskins hits a sliver of a sweet spot where realistic and cartoonish overlap, and does so while simultaneously offering the most loving and gentle spoofs of classic film noir private detectives. The performance is miraculously broad and grounded at once, in part because Hoskins seems to know he can push little mannerisms — especially the character’s defining gruffness — a little more robustly, knowing the popping, bounding crowd he’s within will make him look understated in comparison. It’s an invitation to indulgence, but Hoskins still keeps the performance in a precisely calibrated balance, making intricate adjustments depending on the moment and exactly which riotous rapscallion is sharing the screen.

Eventually, there would be a whole fleet of actors who could speak to similar experiences, shaped by the need to plaster every screen in the multiplex with superheroes, boy wizards, and other products of the wildest imaginings. There’s now a cohort that can offer mentoring in the strange art of acting against the future work of digital craftspeople. Three decades ago, Hoskins faced a untended landscape and simply got down to blazing a trail.

Previously….

About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander
#18 — Kurt Russell in The Thing
#19 — Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio
#20 — Linda Cardellini in Return
#21 — Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King
#22 — Oliver Platt in Bulworth
#23 — Michael B. Jordan in Creed
#24 — Thora Birch in Ghost World
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco
#26 — Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys
#27 — Wilford Brimley in The Natural
#28 — Kevin Kline in Dave
#29 — Bill Murray in Scrooged
#30 — Bill Paxton in One False Move
#31 — Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight
#32 — Essie Davis in The Babadook
#33 — Ashley Judd in Heat
#34 — Mira Sorvino in Mimic
#35 — James Gandolfini in The Mexican
#36 — Evangeline Lilly in Ant-Man
#37 — Kelly Marie Tran in Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Bait Taken — The Academy Awards Shake-Up

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Not that long ago, the Academy Awards spent one of their annual ceremonies giving practically every trophy they could to The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. Directed by Peter Jackson, the film was the concluding feature in a trilogy of films based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s magnum opus. It won in every category in which it was nominated, including Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Directing, and — the top prize — Best Picture. It became one of three films in Academy Awards history to tally eleven total wins. It was also the highest grossing film of the year, by a considerable margin. Indeed, by the end of the film’s box office run, bolstered a bit by the Oscar haul, it was the second-highest grossing film of all time to that point, behind only James Cameron’s Titanic, another Academy Award Best Picture winner (and another film tied for the record of eleven Oscar wins).

In an increasingly desperate bid to stem the ongoing attrition impacting practically every televised event, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announced a set of planned changes to their annual awards ceremony, which will present its ninety-first edition in early 2019. There aren’t many changes, but those that were sent into the showbiz world (with a shocking lack of basic logistical detail) are so abjectly terrible that they suggest the people charged with protecting and preserving the Oscars have nothing but contempt for the venerable institution in their charge. The additions and subtractions are simultaneously an embarrassment and an affront, undercutting the credibility of the one entertainment award that matters and tacitly communicating to a wide population of cinematic artisans that their most inspired efforts simply aren’t as worthy of public celebration.

The proposed change that has stirred slightly less chatter will relegate an indeterminate number of Oscar categories to presentation off-air during the annual ceremony, while the American Broadcast Company is helping Pepsi and Toyota peddle their wares to the masses. The Academy hasn’t identified while categories will be shunted to the side, but they surely are looping an oversized hook around the so-called technical categories, bereft of famous names, but also, let’s not forget, more amenable to exactly the sort of big blockbuster entertainments the Academy clearly wishes were more present in the ceremony. Those Academy members presumably targeted for official second-tier status are understandably upset.

The more buzzed about alteration is an addition. There will be “a new category for outstanding achievement in popular film.” It is vaguely defined, with the tepid assurance that “key details will be forthcoming,” but all signs point to it as some sort of “people’s choice” equivalent, given to a film with a far larger box office footprint than, say, Spotlight or Moonlight or even, I guess, The Shape of Water, which took in a wholly respectable $195 million worldwide. Those sorts of films can, and often do, factor into major Academy Award categories on their own merits. Even Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, long the poster child for the Academy’s elitist rejection of hit films, was nominated in eight categories and won an acting trophy (posthumously, for Heath Ledger). It competed in the very categories the Academy would so dearly love to excise. I find it hard to believe that the pandering consolation prize of Best Popular Picture would struck anyone — creators, fans, viewers — as a satisfying outcome.

If anything, the segmenting off of “popular” films makes them less likely to contend. It’s early in the process, but it does seem possible that Marvel’s Black Panther could be a major presence at next year’s Oscars, for a variety of reasons. The Academy’s new categories signals to voters that they need not take it seriously. A little kiddie table has been created for that film, so don’t bother considering it among the real art. (To be fair, at this point last year, it was plausible that Wonder Woman could factor into Picture, Director, and Lead Actress races, and it was completely shut out of the nominations.) Even if the best intentions are assumed, that the new category is meant to extend the celebration of film excellence, it winds up doing the exact opposite, emphasizing that the hit movies don’t belong, that they’re not creative achievements.

I freely admit that I’m not the type of film fan the Academy is anxiously trying to win over. But I am precisely who they need to keep around. I’ve been watching the Oscars with a mildly mortifying intensity for decades, and I’ve defended the earned value of the awards with exhausting persistence. I’ve also openly lamented certain choices, especially in recent years. Today, though, really does feel like the first time I’m watching Academy leadership blithely demolish everything that’s been built up across nearly a century.

Now Playing — The Spy Who Dumped Me

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If the main problem with modern studio comedies is a tendency towards unwieldy narrative sprawl in the name of cramming in every mildly amusing aside captured on set, director Susanna Fogel should first be credited for her uncommon discipline with The Spy Who Dumped Me. Although it runs to nearly two hours, the film rarely feels as if it’s swamped with the flotsam of improvisational collisions. It’s tempting to attribute the bolstered focus to the presumed requirement to adhere to the storytelling rigor of the espionage-driven action thrillers gently spoofed by the film, but that didn’t make a whit of difference with Paul Fieg’s Spy. Instead, Rogel simply understands that jokes are funnier when they emanate from coherent story and consistent characterizations.

The jilted lover of the title is Audrey (Mila Kunis), a woman whose glum celebration of her thirtieth birthday is preface to a shocking discovery about the strapping fellow (Justin Theroux) who recently broke up with her via text message. He is a government agent engaged in bombastic missions, and a chintzy trophy he left in her possession hides secrets that fiercely feuding factions are anxious to attain. With the barest of instructions and a distinct lack of skills — especially in the necessary task of spinning convincing lies — Audrey is off to Europe to try and get this newfound spy material into the right hands. Luckily, she has help, in the form of her roommate and bestie, an aspiring actor named Morgan (Kate McKinnon).

Fogel handles the film’s many action sequences — including shootouts and car chases — with solid craft, bringing a clarity that eludes supposed masters of the form. (This is where I type out the name Michael Bay, affix a hyperlink in the appropriate place, and then shudder.) Her real strength, though, is in the more basic moments. She provides the space for Kunis and McKinnon to develop a real rapport, effectively depicting the rhythm of well-worn friendship. As usual, Kunis is natural and charming, with a crack comic timing that never pushes into eager jokiness. And McKinnon is something else entirely. Vividly alert to every moment, her words are like mercury, shifting and melding in ways simultaneously unpredictable and logical, making nearly every line reading a little discovery.

There might not be a lot of layers to The Spy Who Dumped Me, despite some stabs at an lesson in empowerment. The surface of it is still satisfying, all polished and bright. Dumped is a keeper.

From the Archive — Stranger Than Fiction

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On the occasion of Marc Forster ushering into theaters a new film that plays with the idea of famed fictional characters intermingling with the real world, I’ll rustle up my old review for this earlier effort with some superficial similarities. Stranger Than Fiction is a film I found more ingratiating on subsequent viewings, and not just because the “Whole Wide World” scene haunts me as the precise experience I’m sure I missed out on because I never learned to play guitar. 

Director Marc Forster has an oddly toneless quality to his work. His directing is smooth enough, obedient to the writing and allowing room for the actors to bring their own personalities and approaches to the material. And it’s not as if his choice of shots is limited to plain vanilla choices. In his latest, Stranger Than Fiction there’s some occasional elegant shot construction, and a few trick shots (from inside a shower head, for example) that are actually a little off-putting. He’s not a bad director by any means, but across three films of significance (like the rest of America, I never saw Stay) the common characteristic of his work is a lack of that little surge of spirited creativity that can make the end product into something truly remarkable.

In this case, though, the end product is still pretty good. Stranger Than Fiction is the sort of film that Charlie Kaufman made safe for Hollywoodland. In the film, Will Ferrell plays Harold Crick, an I.R.S. auditor who suddenly finds his mundane life being narrated by a voice only he can hear. This development quickly transforms from a maddening annoyance to a matter of some urgency when the disembodied voice promises Harold’s impending death, sending him on a quest to find the narrator and urge her to reconsider.

The metafictional elements are the most obvious tie to Kaufman’s beloved screenplays, but the film also shares his wry romanticism. What it has that’s unique is its literate nature. This manifests itself most obviously is some of the conversations Harold has with a literature professor played by Dustin Hoffman. Getting to the bottom of his situation and finding the author of his life means determining the nature of the story being told, leading to some nicely constructed exchanges that hinge on the trappings of different forms of fiction. But Zach Helm’s script is also filled with warmly witty turns of phrase or simply drawn but nicely eloquent character moments. Here, Forster’s seeming fidelity to the words on the page pays off. Letting the screenplay carry the film proves an effective approach, even if it falters a bit at the end. The problem with writing something so Kaufmanesque is that the same pitfalls he struggles against are likely waiting, and endings are especially difficult to pull off in these existential fantasias.

Will Ferrell fiercely tones down his overwired presence in the title role, proving that his comic timing doesn’t need excessive volume and go-for-broke mania. Indeed, he proves to be an especially charming straight man, wringing laughs from quietly pained reactions to the strangeness of his situation. Hoffman continues his late-career tendency to winningly futz around with the details in performances that hardly test his limits, but are no less winning for it. Emma Thompson apparently chatted a lot with Hoffman on the set, as she basically takes the same approach as the acclaimed novelist who unwittingly presides over Crick’s life, and it proves equally charming for her.

It sometimes seems as if Stranger Than Fiction is striving for bigger, deeper points than it’s really capable of making. It’s not much more than a little, clever entertainment. Sometimes, of course, that’s enough.

Now Playing — Mission: Impossible — Fallout

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Since launching as a fairly conventional action series with a couple gimmicky elements primarily included as a nod to its original network television source material, the Mission: Impossible series of films have progressed as an escalating dare. Over six films, the scenarios have grown increasingly preposterous, drifting further away from logic and plausibility. Simultaneously, the aging movie star at the center of the franchise combats the AARP solicitations that are starting to hit his mailbox by putting himself in greater danger for the amusement of the masses, proving his perpetual virility by banging himself off of solid objects and hanging perilously from various ropes and pulleys.

The latest outing, Mission: Impossible — Fallout, is blissful nonsense. The plot unravels at the gentlest scrutiny, and yet it is delivered with such verve and conviction that the problems don’t matter a whit. The plot turns are rarely, yet the ride doesn’t slow enough to allow for even a single discontented eye roll. As usual, there are sleeper agents and nuclear threats and a vast conspiracy network of secret bad guys intent on demolishing the world for some wobbly concept of a greater good. The Impossible Missions Force — or at least a small subset of the organization that Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) trusts in this moment of heightened threat — darts all over to globe to retrieve three orbs of plutonium, bring down terrorist zealot Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), and generally engage in spirited action mayhem, preferably with a countdown clock ticking away.

Christopher McQuarrie becomes the first director to return to the film series for an encore engagement, after taking his first turn with the dandy Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation. He’s also the sole credited screenwriter, and the film clicks along with the confident assurance of a filmmaker who completely understands the task before them, and carries that solid sensibility over to the characters. With each spectacular set piece — and they are truly all wonders in their own right — the stakes are laid out clearly, as are the major impediments that must be overcome. That the espionage efforts proceed with an energy and internal logic closer to a Chuck Jones Road Runner cartoon than the solemn spycraft of John le Carré is precisely what makes Mission: Impossible — Fallout a consistent pleasure.

And I now feel compelled to circle back to Cruise. Whatever commitment to deeper acting he was approaching around the time of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia is long gone by now, replacing by a genial willingness to trade on his own slightly unhinged public persona. No matter how much time the film expends on the anguished personal compromises Ethan has made over the years, there’s barely a character there. Instead, Ethan has become a mere personification of Cruise’s lunatic bravado, and in that Cruise has finally found the perfect role. Other performance in the film are effective, either because they’re good (Vanessa Kirby, as a sly, seductive broker of villainous trade) or bad in a useful way (Henry Cavill, notoriously mustachioed as a lumbering CIA agent coupled to the IMF squad). Cruise’s work is invaluable while careening off the spectrum of thespian acumen altogether. More than ever before, he comes across in Mission: Impossible — Fallout as the last movie star, getting by on pure personality and a compulsion to entertain which the broader movie landscape shifts to game performers buried under CGI super-suits. He’s Errol Flynn with a death wish, and I find myself oddly grateful for his headlong service to a frivolous cause. As the saying goes, not all heroes wear capes.

From the Archive — Primeval and Bats

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Sometimes I wish I’d had a silly online outlet for tapping out my impressions of visual entertainment back in the days when my household regularly hosted small, snarky crowds for double features of cinematic misfortune. Sadly, I have no old review of Shadow Conspiracy to share. Technically, Bats was included in one of those original evenings, but I didn’t remember that when we put this combo together several years later. An attendee of the first go-round reminded me, noting it was paired with Lake Placid. Anyway, this very loose reflection was written for and posted at my former online home.

Last night’s Bad Movie Night was more of an impromptu affair than our previous exercise in movie masochism. Our first feature has been on our DVR for a couple weeks now because any movie attached to a poster with that many discarded human skeleton bits on it is a movie that my partner-in-all-things is going to need to watch at some point. After deciding we didn’t have the mental wherewithal for our patiently waiting Netflix DVD and indulging in several minutes of a familiar good movie, we decided it was time for some cinematic ugliness.

We pressed play on Primeval (Michael Katleman, 2007). It begins efficiently enough. The filmmakers have only cursory interest in pesky things like character development and backstory. Instead, they introduce the characters and give them a reason to jet off to Burundi to track down a gigantic killer crocodile. That no-nonsense approach stops when the trio of bickering unlikely adventurers touch down in Africa. More characters get introduced and the filmmakers keep taking stabs at media, social, or geopolitical commentary like a disaffected teen trying on so many interchangeably bland tops at the local ShopKo. When the discernible I.Q. of your film is in the Pauly Shore range, you’re probably better off spending time considering your freakishly large reptile than the smothering danger of man’s inhumanity to man played out across the savanna. That array of jokes that revolve around the way that “croc” rhymes with “cock”? That’s your strong suit.

Avoiding the crocodile is a little more understanding as it moves into the spotlight for its star turn in the second half and the low-budget CGI emerges in all it’s snowy shimmer. The actors do their best, but since the cast is assembled from the sort of aspiring-to-the-B-List, happy-to-be-working variety folks who usually populate these films, best is a very relative term. For all I know, Dominic Purcell is a broody sensation on Fox’s “Prison Break,” but he’ll always be John Doe to me, which means that any of his numerable moments of exposition earns some extra giggles in our household. You can also pass time by considering how recently it was that Orlando Jones was considered someone on the way up in Hollywood.

For the second film (double features are a necessity on Bad Movie Night) we could have gone to one of the sorry standbys. Before pulling that ripcord, we checked the various cable channels to see if there may have been a fortuitous showing of something that would pair nicely with Primeval, which leads us to Bats (Louis Morneau, 1999).

Bats stars Lou Diamond Phillips (perhaps thinking about the days when Oscar votes weren’t an unlikely result of his efforts) as a Texas sheriff working with a foxy chiroptologist to combat an invasion of super-intelligent bats created by every moviegoer’s favorite evil warden. These adversaries with glowing red eyes and glistening fangs seem about as formidable as that rubbery photo above indicates. At one point, Phillip’s character snarls about being up to his chest in bat shot. He could have been speaking for anyone watching the film.