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Posts Tagged ‘Seth Rogen’

I’m hearing a lot at the moment that Things Are Never As Bad As They Seem and The Future Is Bound To Be Better, but even so, I can’t help feeling a bit startled by the optimisim of opening a vast new shopping centre just right now. And yet this is what someone has done: said edifice dominates Oxford city centre like a necropolis for branded goods. The sheer scale of the space seems intended to make one feel tiny, and psychologically bullied into going into a relay outlet to propitiate the trade gods with some kind of financial libation. JG Ballard would have written a novel about it; I went there to watch a movie, of course.

Said cinema is on the roof of the place and is definitely up towards the luxury end of the scale – very much more a winebar than a coffee shop or sweet seller. The staff all seem terribly keen, too, although the decor incorporates different-coloured seats randomly mixed up together (which did my head in) and the place is still so new it has an all-pervading smell of paint. I was left feeling rather nauseated by this, after finding myself unable to hold my breath for the 100 minutes or so I spent watching James Franco’s The Disaster Artist.

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Speaking of optimism and pessimism, success and failure, I am struck by the fact that, for all that Hollywood loves making films about the movie business, there are very few films about the making of genuine classic movies. No fictional accounts of how The Godfather came to be, or Lawrence of Arabia, or 2001 (yes, obviously there may be a mileage differential here). On the other hand, they did a movie about the origins of Plan Nine from Outer Space (this seminal production is covered in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood) and a film has now appeared about how Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero overcame the drawbacks of having no discernible talent or experience and made what’s generally considered one of the worst movies of the 21st century, The Room.

The Disaster Artist opens with a sort of ho-ho-ho-ironic-sensibility sequence in which various hip and cool folk come on and talk about their admiration for The Room – one of them is JJ Abrams, who is on very thin ice when it comes to mocking other people’s films, if you ask me. Hey ho. Suffice to say this initial sequence gives the impression that there’s a central joke here which you really have to be in on to fully appreciate the film.

This does not last, however, as the story gets underway and we meet Greg (Dave Franco), a keen wannabe actor unencumbered by talent or presence, and Tommy (James Franco), a bizarre and enigmatic figure who looks like a vampire saxophonist and talks like a Russian Star Trek alien. An unlikely friendship develops between the two, as they bond through playing football very badly and giving impromptu dramatic recitations in crowded restaurants.

Much to the concern of Greg’s family, the duo end up heading off to Los Angeles in an attempt to make it in the movie business. Greg is marginally successful, Tommy is not, and in the end Greg suggests they stop knocking on the door of an industry which seems (quite sensibly) determined to ignore them and make their own movie.

Tommy duly bashes out the script for The Room, a drama about human behaviour, to star and be directed by him, also starring Greg, and co-starring a bunch of other actors who frankly have no idea what they’re letting themselves in for. But as the stresses of movie production increase, can the friendship between the two men survive?

Full disclosure: I have managed to make it well into my fifth decade on this plane of existence without ever actually seeing The Room. What can I say, maybe I’m cursed. I was a little concerned that you actually do have to have seen this legendary yapper in order to really appreciate The Disaster Artist, but I don’t think this is quite the case – obviously there’s a degree of in-jokiness about the whole project, but I still found it to be a very funny and engaging movie.

It is, first and foremost, a story about friendship under pressure – it struck me that there were very faint echoes of Withnail and I in this tale of struggling creative types, and the corrosive effects of bubbling resentment when your friend is more popular and successful than you are. But you’re never in doubt of the genuine friendship and affection between the characters played by the two Francos (perhaps unsurprisingly) and you never completely lose sympathy for Tommy Wiseau, regardless of how outlandishly strange and arbitrary his behaviour becomes.

Normally I would suggest that James Franco goes howlingly, soaringly over the top as Wiseau, were it not for the fact that Tommy Wiseau himself turns up at a couple of points in the film to show just how spot-on Franco’s impersonation of him is. He comes across as not just heroically weird, but weirdly heroic too – if you want a career as a creative person, I suppose you do need the kind of indestructible confidence in your own talent that Tommy has here. But how can you be sure you’re not engaged in making your own version of The Room? It’s a thorny question.

The Disaster Artist doesn’t worry overly about that and instead gets most of its mileage and best moments from its depiction of the making of The Room, which is basically presented as one man’s journey into creative megalomania. There are some very, very funny scenes, and Seth Rogen is good value as the bemused script supervisor attempting to act as the voice of sanity on the production. (Such is The Room‘s notoriety that various big names like Bryan Cranston and Zac Efron turn up in small roles throughout The Disaster Artist.) I share no spoilers, of course, if I reveal that the film concludes with Tommy as outlandishly enigmatic as ever and The Room on its way to becoming a genuine cult movie.

I’ve been fairly unkind about James Franco’s acting at various times in the past (someone I know does not have many kind things to say about his novel-writing, either), but The Disaster Artist is a bit of a triumph for him as both an actor and a director. I’m not sure what to make of the fact that a film as good and entertaining as this owes its existence to one as bad (but still apparently entertaining) as The Room. But there you go. Obviously, the world often doesn’t make as much sense as it should. There’s a time to worry about that, and a time to go and see films, and going to see The Disaster Artist would be a pretty sensible choice.

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The era of non-stop counter-programming seems to be coming to an end, as the stream of low-budget biographical movies is finally replaced by… oh, a big-budget biographical movie. And, a movie which may itself arguably be considered counter-programming, given that it has apparently tanked massively in the States, and presumably no-one at Universal has very great hopes for it doing any better over here. The film in question is Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs, which concerns… oh, you guessed it.

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Yes, you might think there was something slightly ironic about the fact that a movie about the famously successful entrepreneur is struggling to make its money back at the box office, but one of the things the film highlights is the fact that Jobs was not quite the Midas figure popular legend has him being. Not entirely unpredictably, Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin eschew anything resembling a traditional bio-pic and opt for a hugely theatrical structure, where the film finds Jobs (Michael Fassbender) at his most intense, in the moments leading up to three key product launches: the Apple Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT Cube (no, me neither) in 1988, and the iMac in 1998. (Prior to all this, the scene is set with some archive footage of another visionary, as Arthur C Clarke – speaking, it would appear, in the late 60s or early 70s – predicts how the PC revolution was going to change many lives.)

As coincidence and the script would have it, Jobs ends up talking with the same handful of people on all three occasions – Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), company CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), his initially-unacknowledged daughter (various actresses), and so on. Overseeing it all is marketing executive Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), who often seems to be the closest thing Jobs has to an actual friend. The same themes recur: Jobs as an obsessive control-freak on a monumental scale, as a prophet of a digitally-enhanced world, as a colossal ego, and as a man highly unlikely to win the Parent of the Year award.

It does boil down to the same few actors talking to each other about roughly the same things on a handful of different sets (there are cutaway sequences to Jobs and Wozniak in the garage where Apple was founded, and to the board meeting which saw Jobs ejected from the company in 1985), but Sorkin’s flair for dialogue and Boyle’s deftness with a camera mean that the film is anything but flat and dull. There are thrilling, electrifying moments of drama scattered through the movie, delivered by a group of actors making the most of an extremely good script.

Even though I am not the world’s biggest Apple fan (I believe I still have an iPod somewhere, but I haven’t listened to it in at least five years), I have of course heard of Steve Jobs and knew a little (a very little, if we’re honest) about him – the man has, after all, become something of a present-day icon. (This is the second Jobs bio-pic in three years.) Steve Jobs the movie does a first-rate job of turning Steve Jobs the icon into Steve Jobs a man – the objection that many who knew Jobs have been making, of course, is that the man on the screen is a grotesque caricature of the person who they knew, and that Boyle and Sorkin have other fish to fry than doing Jobs justice. Certainly the character played by Fassbender is breathtakingly callous and brutally manipulative for much of the movie – but, to be fair, the film makes no attempt to hide what an influential thinker he was, or how many of his ideas now underpin the fabric of everyday life (and by the end of the film it’s fairly plain that, underneath it all, he does at least aspire to be a decent father).

Whatever else, Michael Fassbender is certainly very impressive in the central role. Some quite excitable things have been said about Fassbender of late, declaring him the new Brando and so on, but he is one of those actors who does seem capable of anything, and is furthermore quite untroubled (it would appear) by ego. He even seems quite capable of that most difficult balancing act, where he spends some of his time in unashamedly populist entertainment (one more X-Men film is still to appear) and some of it in less mainstream fare (Macbeth, for instance) while remaining in demand for both.

Quite which category Steve Jobs falls into is the question of the moment, as the movie apparently cost a total of $60m to produce and market and has so far recouped less than half that. The obvious comparison, for all sorts of reasons, is with The Social Network, which ended up making about $225m – not exactly Marvel or Bond money, but still pretty impressive. But why did that film connect with audiences in a way this one apparently hasn’t? Well, friends, I frankly have no idea: I doubt very much that it’s just because Facebook was at its height of coolness back in 2010, while right now we’re all sick to death of hearing about Apple/Jobs, nor do I think the ostentatious theatricality of Steve Jobs is what’s been frightening the horses. Is there something to the claim that Fassbender just isn’t a big enough star to open a movie on this scale? Hmm, maybe, but are people claiming that Jesse Eisenberg is?

It may simply be the case that this is an anomaly, a fluke of release dates and zeitgeist conspiring to make a genuinely good movie tank. For Steve Jobs is a very impressive piece of film-making, as you might expect of the talents involved. Is it a fair portrait of its subject? I doubt anyone is qualified to say for sure, but script, performances and direction are all first class, and you do emerge from the theatre excited and moved and with some thoughts newly-provoked. In the end, I suspect history will prove to be as kind to Steve Jobs as it almost certainly will to Steve Jobs.

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The rise of Simon Pegg to genuine movie stardom has been a source of vicarious (not to mention slightly ridiculous) pleasure to me. I mean, I’ve met Pegg once, about eight years ago, and we spoke for five minutes at the absolute most. But he’s a thoroughly nice bloke (or at least he was prior to making Shaun of the Dead) and it’s been nice to see him get on, both as the lead performer in his own films and the comic relief in blockbusters (some hard-core Trekkies may disagree).

 

Currently enjoying a high-profile release in the UK is Pegg’s new film, Paul, directed by Greg Mottola. In it, Pegg and regular sparring partner Nick Frost play Graeme and Paul, a couple of British SF and UFO fans on a visit to the San Diego comic-con followed by a tour of places in the south-west USA like Area 51 and Roswell. The trip takes an unexpected turn when they witness a road accident, the driver involved being – well, the titular Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen). Paul is also visiting the US, but from rather further afield: he’s an alien who’s been stranded on Earth since 1947 and is on the run from the government who’ve been holding him prisoner ever since. Paul recruits Graeme and Clive to give him a lift to a spot where his ride home will shortly be arriving – can they get him there while avoiding the relentless Agent Zoil (Jason Bateman), a bona fide Man in Black?

Hmmm. Having gone to a number of SF conventions in my time, and fairly recently returned from my own road trip through the south-west US, I felt a definite affinity for Paul right from the start. However, even this did not disguise the fact that, compared to Shaun or Hot Fuzz (which are surely going to be most people’s points of reference), this movie is a little bit disappointing.

It’s by no means a total failure – I laughed a lot, and I feel obliged to mention that many people at the same screening as me were laughing considerably more than me. But there are long stretches where the laughs-per-minute ratio drops fairly drastically, and some of those were born as much of recognition as genuine amusement. It’s a very likeable film, just not hilarious.

One assumes this is partly due to the absence of Edgar Wright, director and co-writer of Shaun and Fuzz, who was off making Scott Pilgrim at the time. In his place, Mottola does a very decent job as a director, but the script – co-written by Pegg and Frost – is just a touch shapeless, lacking in structural rigour, focus and wit. The comedy’s a little too broad and repetitive, and the scenes attempting to evoke genuine pathos feel forced and intrusive. Even the plethora of nudge-wink references to other films don’t raise the smiles they should – some of them are a little obvious and heavy-handed, and at least one of them is painfully cheesy. (The central idea that SF fans are also likely to be Flying Saucer people is also… well, while it’s central to the script, it ain’t necessarily so, and Simon Pegg knows as much.)

One element of the script which actively annoyed me was a subplot about a character named Ruth (played by Kristen Wiig) who gets picked up along the way. Ruth is initially an uptight creationist, but meeting Paul causes her to lose her faith and become (essentially) a foul-mouthed thrill-seeking hedonist. Nothing wrong with that idea in principle, but to begin with Ruth’s written as a one-dimensional caricature, a militant atheist’s idea of what a Christian fundamentalist is like. And then she turns into a Christian fundamentalist’s idea of what an atheist is like. At no point does she ring true as an actual person. I don’t have a problem with people pointing out the (extremely numerous) flaws in Biblical creationism as a world-view (I’ll happily do so myself at the drop of a hat), but Paul‘s treatment of this is basically to take a few cheap shots at an easy target.

As well as co-writing the script, Nick Frost also finds himself promoted to, effectively, joint lead in this film. Frost’s ability to steal scenes from much more experienced performers, often with not much more than a line or two, is formidable, but he’s much less effective when it comes to carrying large sections of the film himself, as he does here. This also means that Simon Pegg, a genuinely gifted actor as well as a great comic, has fewer chances to shine. To choose a metaphor they’d appreciate, Pegg and Frost are like Han and Chewbacca: a great double-act, but one of them’s much better at long dialogue scenes than the other.

I’m being quite critical of Paul, but the fact remains that I enjoyed watching it and by no means felt I’d wasted my time or money. Pegg is always very watchable, Seth Rogen delivers a great vocal performance as the title character, and Jason Bateman plays it commendably straight as the man on our heroes’ trail. (Sue from Glee turns up in a slightly alarming wig, too.) Compared to most comedies, Paul is smart and warm and – above all – funny, and it’s only in comparison with Pegg and Frost’s previous work that it falls a little short of expectations.

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We appear to have reached an interesting point in the evolution of the superhero picture as a distinct genre in its own right. This kind of movie now seems to be enough of a fixture for film-makers to be able to start playing with its conventions without worrying about the audience not getting the joke. To be fair, this has been happening for a quite a while – most notably in 2008’s Hancock – but I was reminded of it while watching Michel Gondry’s The Green Hornet.

In the UK, at least, the Green Hornet’s name-recognition factor probably rates around the same as that of characters like Archie the Jungle Robot or Captain Hurricane, which is to say he’s incredibly obscure. To be strictly accurate, the Hornet isn’t really a superhero at all, originally appearing as a masked vigilante in a pulp-derived radio show in the mid-1930s (and thus predating the first true superheroes). Still, these days he tends to get lumped in with them and Gondry’s movie is no exception to this.

Oafish slacker Britt Reid (Seth Rogan) finds his life changes forever when his newspaper-publisher father (Tom Wilkinson, sort-of slumming it) dies, leaving him in charge of the family company. Now an oafish millionaire, Britt takes to spending time with his employee Kato (Jay Chou), but when a prank takes an unexpected turn the two find themselves unexpectedly becoming vigilantes – a role Britt is keen to pursue further, adopting the persona of faux-villain the Green Hornet and enlisting Kato as his accomplice. After all, they make the perfect team – Kato bringing his coffee-making skills, and also expertise in weapon design, vehicle construction, and spectacular martial arts to the partnership, while Britt brings… Britt brings… well, basically he just shouts a lot and falls over. Little does Britt realise that his activities as the Hornet are causing some turmoil to local crime boss Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz), only exacerbating the mid-life crisis the poor man’s already going through. Sure enough, a show-down between the two is soon on the cards…

As you can probably tell, The Green Hornet functions at least partly as a comedy, which is a brave way to go with an established and indeed venerable character. A few years ago, plans to do a comedy version of the DC character Green Lantern starring Jack Black were rapidly abandoned when they were met with bared fangs from the fanbase – so either the Hornet’s fanbase just doesn’t care or there aren’t enough of them to be worth cultivating.

It’s the comedy element that makes this film distinctive, anyway. It’s not what I’d describe as a mainstream comedy – it’s a little more oddball and deadpan than that in places, as one might expect with Gondry on the case. I found Waltz’s performance particular droll, as he experiments with various increasingly absurd gimmicks and catchphrases in an attempt to be a more interesting criminal. Elsewhere things are a tad more conventional, as Cameron Diaz shows up to deploy her comedic skills in the usual charming way, and Seth Rogan… well, shouts and falls over a lot. (Also in the cast, James Franco is uncredited, Edward Furlong is unrecognisable, and Bruce Lee – whose association with a previous version of The Green Hornet may be the only reason the character’s endured – is given due reverence.)

That said, this isn’t a pure comedy by any means, and in places the film does make a grab at moments of genuine gravity and emotion not entirely unlike some of those in The Dark Knight (a brave move, given that that film has set the gold standard for superhero movies). As a result the tone is extremely choppy in places, as the clashing styles bang into one another. The script, overall, does the job, although some of the storytelling just isn’t up to scratch (characters have dialogue like ‘As you know, I was your father’s most trusted employee for thirty-five years…’ So why are you telling him that, other than for the audience’s benefit?). It improves as it goes on, and the cheerfully destructive climax picked me up and swept me along by virtue of its sheer energy and bravado.

The Green Hornet isn’t what you’d call a truly great movie, and some elements of it definitely work better than others, but on the whole I was rather entertained by it. If there’s a place amongst superhero comics for more left-field fare, as well as the big-name characters, then hopefully the same is true for superhero movies too. Anyone interested in funding my expressionist rom-com adaptation of Squirrel Girl?

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