Posted by mike in Found Roles at 9:48 pm on September 29, 2009

This is the third entry in an ongoing series.

Everybody knows who Seth Rogen is these days, but his acting career got off to a relatively inauspicious start. After playing one of the “freaks” in Judd Apatow’s TV series Freaks & Geeks, his first feature film role came in Richard Kelly’s debut film, Donnie Darko, now a cult classic that is pretty widely loved (although I do know one guy who dislikes the film, probably because he finds the armchair philosophy distasteful; I think it’s similar to how somebody like me can’t watch a movie like Swordfish with a straight face, or why real-life doctors generally can’t stand House M.D.).

In this minor role, Rogen plays a high school bully named Ricky Danforth. I find it immensely amusing that not only is he a generic heavy, but he plays second fiddle to Alex Greenwald, whose acting career hasn’t exactly followed the same trajectory as Rogen’s from their common beginning (though his Wikipedia page informs me that he’s primarily a musician).

The following is a collection of three clips from Donnie Darko, which stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Jena Malone. They pretty humorously demonstrate what Rogen’s role in the film amounted to.

  • We see him as the sidekick bully, who gets to utter the timeless line, “I like your boobs,” before angrily flipping a cigarette butt at Donnie (Gyllenhaal).
  • We then see his classroom bully persona, taunting the new girl in school (Malone).
  • In my favorite part, at the film’s climax, Rogen gets to grunt and shout some of the most generic dialogue imaginable. “Don’t fuckin’ move—don’t fuckin’ move!”, “Get the hell outta here—now!”, and “Come on, let’s go! They called the cops!” are all somewhat cringe-worthy.

On the last point, it’s not just funny that the dialogue is somewhat cheesy, but Rogen’s delivery also does nothing to salvage it, adding an additional layer of cheese on top. He came a long way between here and his break-out role in The 40 Year Old Virgin, and today he’s one of the more recognizable big-screen stars out there. His most recent role was in this past summer’s Funny People, which I think is his best work yet, and a performance that’s leaps and bounds above what he was doing just 8 years ago.

Donnie Darko is actually pretty fertile ground for Found Roles. That’s Noah Wyle (from ER) as the high school teacher in the clip above, and Drew Barrymore plays his colleague. Then there’s the recently-deceased Patrick Swayze in a hilarious role as the motivational speaker with a deep, dark secret. Whenever I watch Donnie Darko, though, what seems the most out of place is Seth Rogen’s appearance and performance in it, and so it’s him who I’m focusing on here—though some of those others (particularly Swayze) may be worth returning to in the near future.

Note: I feel like I’d be remiss if I discussed Seth Rogen’s early career and didn’t mention his youthful aspirations as a stand-up comic.

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Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 3:44 pm on September 27, 2009

Status: In limited release (opened 9/25/09)
Directed By: Bob Gosse
Written By: Tucker Max & Nils Parker
Cinematographer: Suki Medencevic
Starring: Matt Czuchry, Jesse Bradford, Geoff Stults

I’ll say up front that I think Tucker Max has contributed something significant and worthwhile to the world of film: The womanizing blogger turned bestselling author turned screenwriter and independent producer has chronicled the making of his first film from the point of view of a Hollywood outsider, sharing a lot of valuable insights about what goes into making a movie in layman’s terms as he learned about the process himself by going through it. While a lot of what he writes about may seem obvious, there are several useful insights to be found throughout his I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell production blog. The result of this process is the film loosely based on his book of the same name, which, in contrast, comes as a discouragingly poor movie, displaying more often than not the concessions made during its production in the name of maintaining complete creative control on the part of filmmakers who probably could’ve used some of the tried-and-true wisdom they so readily shunned.

There have been successful films based on collections of short stories (Short Cuts comes to mind), but I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell is an example of how not to go about such an adaptation. It’s what I think of as a He Goes Movie. The screenwriters—Max, along with writing partner Nils Parker—have a series of situations they want to put their characters in, with the primary goal being to set up quips and one-liners, rather than to be in service of an overarching story. They want to make jokes about bartenders, so Tucker (the character, played by Matt Czuchry) goes to a bar and engages the employees. They want to give their characters excuses to espouse their thoughts on strippers, so he goes to a strip club. Later there are more jokes about bar patrons to be made, so he goes to another bar. And so on. It’s as if in developing their screenplay, Max and Parker first concentrated on which jokes they wanted to tell, and then lazily contrived situations in order to force these jokes into their story.

That story—or what there is of one, at least—centers around three friends’ trip to a strip club for a bachelor party. There’s the groom, Dan (Geoff Stults), Tucker Max, and Drew (Jesse Bradford), a bitter, recently-cuckolded character who exists only to brood and sulk while tossing one-liners about women, until he becomes involved in an inexplicable love story that’s tacked on just so the filmmakers can respond to accusations of misogyny by having a female character to point at. For what it’s worth, Marika Dominczyk in said role is the only actor in the film to exhibit anything resembling a noteworthy performance, though she’s given precious little to work with (look what a cool girl she is, she plays video games!). The leads, in contrast, are painfully bad at nearly all times. Bradford in particular delivers every line in a robotic monotone, going for a disinterested delivery but achieving an unengaging recitation of one-liners. Czuchry plays Max as a wacky screwball of a character, sporting disheveled hair and a chronic case of bobbling-head syndrome throughout the movie (if I bobble my head while delivering this line, you can tell I’m being funny, right?).

I normally have a pretty high tolerance for independent films and the shortcuts they’re often forced to take, but I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell consistently exceeded that threshold. There are two sets in particular that are ridiculously under-sized and under-filled with extras, one being the strip club that serves as the primary location for about half the film, the other being the wedding reception scene of the film’s hacked-together conclusion. The latter is described earlier in the movie as “a big wedding,” but it takes place in a room that’d be more appropriately used for the buffet table than the actual reception, with about a dozen people in attendance. This scene also exemplifies the shoddy, nonsensical storytelling at work: Drew’s bachelor party was attended by his two closest friends, neither of whom is involved with the wedding. His groomsmen show up for the first time during the wedding and reception scenes, which also serve to give the real-life Tucker Max a chance to try his hand at acting, which he does about as well as the rest of the cast (which is to say, not very well at all).

Tucker Max has repeatedly stated that he’s made the movie he wanted to make, and there’s certainly plenty to be said for that, but none of them are that it’s good. It feels like the product of a couple of guys who’ve seen a lot of funny movies and thought, “Hey, we could do that too!” They don’t seem to have put much thought into what made those movies work, though, instead focusing solely on the jokes and funny lines that occur throughout. He also often says that this is unlike any movie you’ve ever seen before, and if he means it has virtually no story or character development to speak of, I guess I might agree with him. This movie is most easily and readily compared to The Hangover, both in terms of its subject matter and in its aim of comedy above all else. Re-reading my comments about that film, I find that a lot of them could also apply to I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, but a few key aspects affect the final verdict: the production value is significantly lower here, sporting a cheap and lazy look throughout, but more importantly, the jokes just aren’t as funny, and the characters have no likability to fall back upon when their attempts at humor fall flat. And when telling jokes is the sole purpose of your film, those are pretty big deficiencies. (The climax of this movie is a prolonged shit scene, and I think that says it all.)

I do have one footnote to add, though, of a positive nature. Max’s decision to embark on a month-long, self-financed premiere tour is not only a refreshingly unique and effective way to market a movie, it’s also immensely cool of him. I attended the last stop on the tour in San Francisco, and was thoroughly impressed by how all-out they went. For my $10 ticket, I got to see the movie, introduced by the screenwriters; I got a t-shirt and a “swag bag” full of mostly useless stuff emblazoned with the film’s title (although the pint glass is nice quality, and will get plenty of use); and I got to sit through an extensive—though mostly banal—Q&A session afterwards. Tucker Max is certainly savvy and dedicated, and that’s impressive in its own right. I think if he gets the chance to make another movie based on his stories, though, he should probably let a professional handle the adaptation, because after achieving success in other forms of media (with his blog, and with his books), here he seems to be quite a bit out of his league.

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Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 10:37 pm on September 22, 2009

Jennifer's Body

Status: In theaters (opened 9/18/09)
Directed By: Karyn Kusama
Written By: Diablo Cody
Cinematographer: M. David Mullen
Starring: Amanda Seyfried, Megan Fox, Johnny Simmons

I’ve never been a big fan of the “mash-up” style of summarizing movies—I’m not really sure if that’s the “proper” term for it or not, but you know what I mean: “It’s like The Godfather meets Saw,” to steal a line from The Sopranos (describing their wiseguy-financed horror-gangster movie Cleaver). About halfway through the first act of Jennifer’s Body, though, I decided that I was watching something that lends itself particularly well to these types of descriptions, and they all begin with “It’s Juno meets…” Filling in the latter part of that reductionist summary could be done in any number of ways, but I think I’d probably lean towards one of Sam Raimi’s horror movies, or maybe more appropriately Shaun of the Dead. At any rate, Jennifer’s Body is the second produced screenplay by Diablo Cody, the stripper cum writer of Juno who won an Oscar for her debut script. (She’s also the creator of the Showtime series The United States of Tara, which I enjoy.) Here she revisits familiar territory with a decidedly different twist: it’s the story of a high school girl in Minnesota trying to deal with unique life events that threaten to irreversibly alter her sense of who she is and who she’s in the process of becoming. Instead of an unplanned pregnancy throwing a wrench into the works, though, ‘Needy’ (Amanda Seyfried) has her life turned upside down when she and her best friend, Jennifer (Megan Fox), narrowly escape death and the latter is—ahem—transformed.

The way Cody writes dialogue is already somewhat of a trademark, a constant series of snarky, all-too-self-aware quips and pop culture references that nevertheless somehow manage to avoid becoming too annoying or too overwrought. Jennifer, the consummate popular girl in school, accuses Needy of being “Jell-O” of her beauty; later when it seems she might be showing weakness, she reassures Needy and herself that she’s “Ford Tough.” I’m sure Diablo Cody could make a decent living for herself as a script doctor alone, taking others’ works and sprinkling such nuggets of dialogue throughout. Thankfully, she’s talented beyond her propensity for witty dialogue, and with Jennifer’s Body she’s written a movie that is wholly tongue-in-cheek from first frame to last, and the dialogue is just the beginning.

While Karyn Kusama’s direction provides the requisite startles to satisfy the Friday night high school crowd, it’s the tone of Cody’s screenplay that most defines this film. It’s winking at you the whole time, indulging in every cliche of both the teenage drama and the horror genres, and it has a lot of fun doing it. Needy narrates as the understated, overlooked friend of the hottest chick in school, with the requisite steady relationship with her nice-guy boyfriend (Johnny Simmons) to contrast with her friend’s heartbreaking tendancies. And of course under those over-sized glasses, Seyfried has plenty of hotness of her own to let out when the situation calls for it.

Jennifer becomes somewhat of a monster, or she’s possessed by a demon, or something, in a hilarious ritual that evokes the fabled story of Led Zeppelin’s rise to fame. Needy learns of Jennifer’s condition through the requisite scene where she visits the library and reads dozens of books—which just happen to be on the shelves, conveniently located in “the occult section”—over the course of a few hours (tops), giving us all the explanation we could want or care about. And then there’s a scene where the two girls just happen to end up in the same bed, and as I’ve learned from extensive research on the Internet, and as Jennifer’s Body reaffirms, whenever this happens and the two girls are sufficiently attractive, they are compelled to make out with each other, so that’s exactly what Needy and Jennifer proceed to do. And yet, somehow, this scene manages to play as a sort of defining and empowering moment for both characters.

This is a really fun, clever movie. It doesn’t have quite the emotional heart that nudged Juno over the edge into the realm of widespread acceptance, but it’s nonetheless a satisfying (and unexpected) follow-up effort from a young and trendy writer. If nothing else, it’ll certainly keep you chuckling. Taken alongside Drag Me to Hell, it bookends this past summer with a pair of entries that newly redefine the sub-genre of intentionally-campy horror movies. It’s a category that I keep finding myself enjoying.

And wouldn’t you know it: I just commented in my last post that J.K. Simmons always plays the same character, only to see him show up in Jennifer’ s Body in a totally different role than usual. The comedic value he adds remains the same, of course.

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Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 11:54 pm on September 10, 2009

Extract poster

Status: In theaters (opened 9/4/09)
Directed By: Mike Judge
Written By: Mike Judge
Cinematographer: Tim Suhrstedt
Starring: Jason Bateman, Ben Affleck, Kristin Wiig, Mila Kunis, J.K. Simmons, Clifton Collins Jr.

If you told me there was a girl who was so attractive and charming, whose piercing eyes and somewhat exotic look gave her the ability to effortlessly sucker men into just about anything, I’d probably picture Mila Kunis. After her breakout role in Forgetting Sarah Marshall (and a somewhat throwaway appearance in the mostly forgettable Max Payne), Mike Judge has given her a role she was born to play in his new film, Extract. It’s no wonder Joel (Jason Bateman) falls for her allures, and finds himself in over his head with a far-fetched scheme to land her.

The fact that Joel’s married to an unexciting, reality show-obsessed homebody (the always-kitschy Kristen Wiig) certainly contributes to his desires—not to mention his sexual frustration—but it’s the indelible appeal of Cindy (Kunis) that drives him over the edge. He’s helped by a hair-brained plan hatched by his bartender pal Dean (Ben Affleck). It’s one of those plots that even the participants know couldn’t possibly work, until it does.

Joel owns a food-flavoring plant, which he operates with his partner Brian, played by J.K. Simmons, an actor who manages to remain funny even while playing essentially the same role in movie after movie, making me wonder how many of those roles are written specifically for him. Their aspiring floor manager is Step (Clifton Collins Jr.), a redneck stereotype who isn’t played as much for his gullibility as for his charm. He’s the victim of a rather unfortunate accident that throws a wrench into everybody’s works.

Mike Judge’s story intersects all of these characters’ fates, with Kunis’s Cindy at the center of it all. There’s humor at every turn, though it’s not as outlandish as you might’ve come to expect from Judge’s previous films (the nerd-cult classic Office Space and the universally under-appreciated Idiocracy). These characters are all gullible nearly to the point of being delusional, and they manage to get themselves into a shared mess. The story structure is essentially the same as that of Office Space, although the main character here (Bateman’s Joel) is the boss rather than the drone. There’s even an annoyingly over-acted Milton-esque character, played by renowned annoying over-actor David Koechner.

While the formula is somewhat familiar, the execution is a bit more mature. Extract is Mike Judge’s most subtle work to date, presenting us with characters who aren’t so much the absurd caricatures we’re used to seeing from the creator of Beavis and Butt-head, but ones who are more believable and relatable. Jason Bateman is as likable as always, presenting Joel’s innocent demeanor and self-deprecating attitude in a charming and sympathetic manner. Ben Affleck continues to show that he’s often overlooked as an actor; his bad advice-dispensing bartender here provides most of the film’s comedic highlights, and his timing and delivery is surprisingly good. Even Koechner and Collins Jr., two actors with a strong tendency to go a bit overboard with their performances, manage to tone things down just enough to be tolerable, complementing the tone of the film without yanking the audience out of its story every time they appear onscreen. And Mila Kunis continues to be a mesmerizing actress: her vibrant smile and bright eyes—and her subtle Ukrainian accent—command the screen throughout each of her scenes, and she provides the type of emotional punctuation that helps to round out a film like this.

Extract is an understated comedy, but a pleasing one nonetheless. It’s the kind of movie that presents characters and situations you become invested in without realizing it. It won’t have you laughing out loud very often, but you’ll find yourself smiling throughout.

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Posted by mike in Predictions,Sports at 11:40 pm on September 9, 2009

Last year I was 3-for-6 in picking AFC playoff teams, and only 2-for-6 with the NFC, but I did get two of the four participants in the conference championship games correct (although I was off on the Super Bowl matchup). I think this year might hold just as many surprises as 2008 did.

Once again, I’m not picking every single game, so the wins and losses might not add up quite right, but they’re more meant to give my general feel for each team (e.g., the Bears “feel about like” an 11-5 team to me this year). My total number of wins and losses league-wide (256-256) do add up, though.

So here are my picks for the impending 2009 NFL season, with playoff teams and winners in bold.

AFC
North South
Pittsburgh 12-4 Indianapolis 11-5
Baltimore 10-6 Tennessee 10-6
Cincinnati 8-8 Houston 6-10
Cleveland 4-12 Jacksonville 5-11
 
West East
San Diego 13-3 New England 12-4
Denver 8-8 Buffalo 10-6
Kansas City 4-12 Miami 5-11
Oakland 3-13 New York 4-12
 
AFC Championship
San Diego
over
Pittsburgh
 
NFC
North South
Chicago 11-5 New Orleans 10-6
Minnesota 8-8 Tampa Bay 8-8
Green Bay 7-9 Atlanta 7-9
Detroit 2-14 Carolina 6-10
 
West East
Seattle 11-5 Philadelphia 13-3
San Francisco 9-7 Dallas 10-6
Arizona 9-7 New York 9-7
Saint Louis 4-12 Washington 7-9
 
NFC Championship
Philadelphia
over
Chicago
 
 
Super Bowl XLIV
Super Bowl XLIV
San Diego
over
Philadelphia

A few notes, tidbits, and further thoughts on the above:

  • I’m taking the Chargers again this year—they just seem like they’ve been poised for a big breakthrough season for a few years now, plus they’re the most stable team, both in terms of their roster and their coaching staff.
  • It probably goes without saying, but never count out the Patriots, Steelers, or Colts. They’ve been the most consistently dominant teams of this decade.
  • Remember how the Dolphins won the AFC East last year? Neither do I.
  • Ditto for the Panthers in the NFC South—although that division is wide open again this year, so none of the four teams winning it would surprise me.
  • I could see both NFC Wild Cards coming out of the same division: either the East or the West. I split the difference in my picks, though, and went with one from each.
  • It wouldn’t surprise me if I’m wrong about the Vikings—while my disdain for Brett Favre might be clouding my judgment, the Vikings do have more tools surrounding him than the Jets did last year, but I’m still fairly confident that he’ll find a way to disappoint yet another fan base.
  • Speaking of Minnesota, am I the only one who was surprised they didn’t make a play for Michael Vick after Favre initially told them he was going to stay retired? It seemed to me like he would fit into their offense well, taking the lead in place of Tarvaris Jackson, but as far as I know they made no effort to sign him. Instead he’s now yet another weapon on the Eagles’ already high-powered offense, which I think will be the class of the NFC.
  • Jay Cutler gives the Bears the same kind of spark they had in 2006 with Rex Grossman when he was on his game, if he can play up to his potential. Here’s hoping.

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