Sunday, March 30, 2014

Spellbound: Jason Bateman’s Directorial Debut “Bad Words” is Hilariously Rude and Crude

Jason Bateman is notoriously good at playing the straight man. But who knew he could be so delightfully raunchy and crude? And even more impressively he delivers an outstanding directorial debut. In “Bad Words,” he plays a rude, childish adult who angers stage parents everywhere when he weasels his way into a children’s national spelling bee competition (through a good-enough loophole). It’s his goal not just to win the competition but to make a mockery of the entire enterprise. The reason why is what the audience is extremely curious about – and it’s the reason that really give the film the emotional backbone that is able to support all the naughty behavior screenwriter Andrew Dodge throws at us.

It must be said that “Bad Words” isn’t quite a movie for everyone. I’m not surprise by the film’s low theater count and moderate box office. This a foul-mouthed  flick with Mr. Bateman like you’ve never seen him before. It’s sort of like watching Leonardo DiCaprio in last year’s “The Wolf of Wall Street.” They’re both delightfully offensive. Bateman is Guy Trilby and as the film opens we see him taking part in a regional qualifying spelling bee. The head of the local organization is outraged, but a loophole in the rules states that anyone who has never passed beyond the 8th grade qualifies. And Mr. Trilby has his transcripts in hand proving he never graduated middle school. They apparently have no choice but to let him in of course his rude and mean behavior should raise flags as he taunts and teases the younger contestants in many successful attempt to psyche them out. He makes the nationals where a young Indian boy named Chaitanya (a deliriously charming Rohan Chand) befriends him en route.

Every adult having to do with the spelling be makes things purposely difficult for Guy. Understandably so. Allison Janney who plays the president of the national spelling bee organization reserves the local hotel’s supply closet for his accommodations. He’s even berated at a local eatery by a woman whose son is in the competition. He ends up making rude remarks about the woman’s vagina. All in front of the impressionable young Chaitanya. Much to his dismay he begins to take the young kid under his wing, pulling mean spirited pranks on people, doing donuts in the parking lot, and even giving him a lesson in female anatomy.

I’ve always been someone who has found spelling bees to be full of true, genuine fun and suspense. The kids are adorably dorky and unimaginably intelligent. And it was a gas to see Guy and Chaitanya go at in when their friendship quickly turns into an unexpected rivalry. And I never quite knew where the film was going to end up. Dodge’s script (his first) is really tight and clever. And Bateman has filled his movie with some truly great supporting roles from the always reliable Phillip Baker Hall to the always funny Kathryn Hahn as the reporter who is Guy’s spelling bee sponsor.

For a movie titled “Bad Words” it certainly lives up to its title. The movie is pretty crude and I’m sure it could be easily offensive to those who have no idea the movie isn’t a feel good family film. Bateman has made an audacious first film and gives an even better and unexpectedly different performance that really showcases what he’s capable of. That little kid is almost too adorable even if he is a shining example of my “kids who act like adults” cinematic pet peeve. The film is a real winner.  GRADE: B+

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Princess and the Frog: “Muppets Most Wanted” is a Fun Heart-Felt Zany Romp

I can’t believe it’s been three whole years since the last Muppet outing relaunched the long running series in theaters. “The Muppets” was a fun, charming, and clever way to reintroduce the Muppet game back into the pop culture world. Heck, it even won an Academy Award (Though we remember there wasn’t much competition, literally).  Now the Muppets are back again and I want to say that this new big screen adventure, in a way, is more true to the spirit of the old Muppet movies that we all grew up with as kids. It’s zany, it’s weird, it’s full of celebrity cameos. The 2011 felt like a tribute to the original “Muppet Show” but this one feels like  a true Muppet film. It’s plot is lightweight  - this is minor Muppet – but it still retains everything people love about this lovable characters.

While “The Muppets” was a ultra-meta, post-modern take on the Muppets, this new film is more of a straightforward Muppet tale. It’s in many ways like “The Great Muppet Caper” in that it takes place abroad and involves a criminal mastermind that looks exactly like Kermit the Frog. His only distinguishing feature? A black mole on his face (and villainous Russian accent of course). The film literally takes place exactly where the last film ended and right away Kermit, Miss Piggy, and the gang are figuring out what the plot of their next film should be. They meet up with Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) who signs on as their manager and suggests taking The Muppet Show on tour in Europe. There he plans to work with Constantine (who has replaced Kermit comically unbeknownst to anyone else) to rob museums that are adjacent to the theaters that the Muppets are performing in. Meanwhile Kermit is sent to a prison in Siberia that’s run by Tiny Fey who sports a comedic Russian accent and Ty Burrell is an Interpol agent who teams up with Sam the Eagle to track down Constantine.

The film again features many fun songs composed by Bret McKenzie and while they’re all very good, the staging of them leave a little to be desired. Even if the film itself has good production value, I can’t imagine this movie really being a theatrical release if this was ten years ago. Maybe it just needed some more dogs and bears and chickens and things? The film is filled to brim with celebrity cameos. Of course everyone’s definition of celebrity will be different.  Besides the obvious requirement of cameos and songs, this film truly captures the feel and tone of all the classic Muppet films. Of course many of the original Muppet performers are absent, (though some like Dave Goelz are still around) so a few of the voices sound a tad off (don’t get me started on Janice) but otherwise there’s really not much for a Muppet fan to complain about. Not much has really changed for these guys, for instance, Miss Piggy is still constantly trying to get Kermit to marry her even though they got married in “Muppets Take Manhattan.”

Director James Bobin and co-screenwriter Nicholas Stoller, who helped steer the last movie, have proven themselves to be just the right men for this job. They have done a pretty great job in successfully relaunching this long running series. The film begins to get bogged down in plot elements in the third act but the jokes are right on target and very, very funny. The most hilarious being a line of dialogue made at Danny Trejo's expense.  Even if “Muppets Most Wanted” is more of a lightweight romp, it’s still a great Muppet movie. It’s not as good as the best ones and not worse than the bad ones. I can’t wait for the next one. I’d love to see them take on a classic literary adaptation again. “Animal Farm” perhaps?  GRADE: B+

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Up in the Air: “Non-Stop” is Delightfully Fun Nonsense

Thrillers that take place onboard airplanes will always take a special place in my heart. Hollywood has been using the general fear of flying for efficient, effective thrillers for years. Some are dumb but memorable like “Turbulence,” some are simply outstanding action films “Air Force One,” and some are overhyped cult classics “Snakes on a Plane.” Some are even Oscar-nominated “Airport.” Heck and then there’s the best airplane movie ever made, the appropriately titled “Airplane!” The new Liam Neesen thriller (cue the groans) it set aboard a non-stop flight over the Atlantic in which a passenger threatens to kill fellow passengers until a large sum of money is deposited into a bank account. This is both a flawed and excellent premise for a movie: it’s flawed because as the plot is slowly revealed it just never makes much rational sense and yet it’s excellent because there’s nothing more exciting than a claustrophobic airplane murder mystery.

The initial, and inevitable, criticism was bound to happen: “Isn’t it just ‘Taken’ on an airplane?” I myself have never quite understood the popularity of the “Taken” series or of Liam Neeson (Oscar nominee for “Schindler’s List”) as an action hero. So frankly, the film could have starred anyone and I would have happily forked over my money. It’s all about the premise. I’m a sucker for pretty much any airplane thriller. The film works because it’s a premise that doesn’t actually seem like it would make much sense. I mean how hard should it be to stop a guy from murdering people on an airplane? When the film’s plot begins to unravel you get a sense of what the antagonist is really after however.

The setup is good if not particularly spectacular or very original. Set in the post-9/11 world, Neesen is federal air marshal Bill Marks assigned to a transatlantic flight from New York to London. He’s sort of a mess. He’s an alcoholic and he has some issues having to do with his young daughter.  He’s seated next to a female passenger named Jen (Julianne Moore) who engages him in conversation when she sees that he’s not the most comfortable flyer. Soon Bill begins received texts from someone claiming to be on the plane. This person is going to murder a passenger in twenty minutes if $150 million isn’t deposited into a specific bank account. Bill is hesitant to jump to extreme conclusions, but can’t just ignore it.

Perhaps it’s all a sick joke perpetrated by the flight’s other air marshal Jack (Anson Mount). Conspiracy theories fly left and right as Bill becomes more and more obsessed with finding the culprit while making everyone onboard feel frightened, anxious, and confused.  After all the screenwriters John W. Richardson, Christopher Roach, and Ryan Engle have found the screenwriter’s number one character trope for a thriller like this: is all this really happening or is it in the mind of the crazy protagonist? And what’s with all the other suspicious passengers. Moore’s character seems awfully too nice (and surprisingly cast) to not be more than just a typical lady who likes to sit in window seats on planes.

You kind of have to turn your brain off to really enjoy “Non-Stop,” (although it’s actually not the most absurd of all the airline thrillers out there, though the final reveal is pretty out there) which is probably why the film left me guessing right up until the third act. It’s a pretty decent mystery actually. And the film certainly doesn’t just play things safe; if, for instance, a bomb were to be introduced, how lame would it be if the thing didn’t go off? And as crazy things get director Jaume Collet-Serra (who knows his way around twisted thrillers with “Orphan” and “Unknown”) feels fully in control and knows exactly what audiences want to see. Hence, there were several moments in which the audience actually broke out into applause as if we were watching some kind of over-the-top thrilling stage play.

“Non-Stop” like many a decent airline thriller thoroughly entertained me. I’ve enjoyed most of these types of films, even if after the events of 9/11 have sort of soured them. It does add a new, if obvious, twist to the fear of air travel, yet at the same time it makes these plots feel ever more implausible. Sometimes you just have to go with it. If you’re willing to do so here, you’ll find it’s worth getting onboard.  GRADE: B+