July 13th, 2009 by Mike Fulton

iloveyoubethcooper_bigposterI’d call out “spoiler alert” here, but frankly, if you’ve seen this movie’s trailer, you already know the plot. High school valedictorian Denis Cooverman, played by Paul Rust, breaks from the norm in his graduation speech to declare his love for Beth Cooper, played by rising star Hayden Panettiere. She’s the girl he’s sat behind in class after class for four years, and his friend has convinced him that this is his last chance to make any sort of impression on her. And while he doesn’t otherwise name any names, he’s also got words for other classmates as well. After the ceremony ends, he discovers that the object of his affection has a beefy boyfriend who isn’t exactly happy about anything, and especially not happy about the fact that Beth seems to find the whole thing kind of charming. Zany antics ensue.

The movie is directed by Chris Columbus, which is a bit of a surprise since this seems more like the sort of movie that often gets a first-time director, not a successful veteran. It’s basically a small movie that you’d normally see in the spring or fall rather than the first half of the summer. In fact, I have to wonder if maybe screenwriter (and original novel author) Larry Doyle wasn’t in consideration to direct at some early stage, but when they managed to cast Hayden Panettiere as the titular character, the expectations for this movie were raised significantly.

Discounting Hayden Panettiere, the only recognizable stars are Alan Ruck and Cynthia Stevenson as Cooverman’s parents. The casting of the former in particular seemed like a wink and a nudge to the films of the mid to late 80’s like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which co-starred Ruck, and that’s more than fitting since this movie owes more than a little bit to that heritage.

The part of Denis best friend is played by Jack Carpenter and he spends most of the movie either denying the idea raised in Cooverman’s speech that he might be gay, or else cheering on a reluctant Denis to go where the night is taking them. Beth’s entourage slash two best friends, Cammy and Treece, played by Lauren London and Lauren Storm, don’t really have much to do for most of the film except to feed straight lines or provide one-liners in response to the main characters.

The basic premise here is the plot, and the story lies not so much in how the plot develops but rather in how the characters do. There’s plenty of zany comedy action, but this is ultimately a character-driven movie. On the one side you have Denis as the shy and awkward, but not quite lost-cause nerd who spends an evening finding out that this girl he’s put up on a pedestal is in fact altogether different from what he expected.

On the other side, you have Beth, a beautiful young woman who isn’t quite sure what to make of this guy. At first she’s embarrassed, then just a little bit charmed by him. Right at the point where she might have otherwise have said goodbye, she ends up having to essentially rescue him from her cocaine-crazed beefy boyfriend. Beth is more than a little aware of the effect she has on the opposite sex, but like a lot of such young women, hasn’t quite decided what to do about it yet. Sometimes it’s useful, and sometimes it’s just a burden. She’s also painfully aware of the likelihood that her life has already peaked and that the rest of the way will all be downhill.

It’s interesting to note that we don’t really see the same sort of over the top high-school stereotypes here that we might see in other similar movies. For example, in alternate takes on this same idea, Beth Cooper would start out as a total bitch who would be furious about Cooverman’s speech. Her two friends slash henchmen would be cut from the same cloth, and together they’d all be hatching schemes to embarrass and ridicule Cooverman, rather than trying to rescue him Cooverman from her dickwad boyfriend.

Here, we take the more subtle, less-traveled route. Rather than being angry at Cooverman’s speech, Beth is a bit embarrassed and charmed despite herself. Every time you start to think you’ve pegged her, she switches directions. And while it’s not like they have a ton to do, it’s clear early on that Beth’s friends aren’t the usual clones that usually accompany the queen bee in such movies. The girls are not at all alike in personality. In fact, when you get right down to it, Denis Cooverman himself and Beth’s boyfriend Kevin are the biggest stereotypes in the movie.

Nothing here is likely to win any major awards. The acting is OK but not spectacular. In fact, if anything, the acting is a bit better than the script really deserves. It’s surprising for what is essentially a character-driven piece, but I didn’t really feel that the script had a lot of depth for the actors to work with.

Denis Cooverman is supposed to be the one who has the greater voyage of discovery here, but I found Beth Cooper to be the more interesting character. Her go-for-broke wildness is kind of premeditated rather than spontaneous, and behind it there’s a subtle self-awareness and a bit of desperation, like if she doesn’t have as much fun as she possibly can right now, it won’t be long before she’s never going to have the chance again. Maybe this was the script’s one real attempt at depth, but given how shallow the rest of it is, I have to give Hayden Panettiere the credit here for the characterization.

One surprise for me about the script was that while the story generally follows the original book, the ending is greatly simplified in the movie. The book’s ending had quite a bit more going on, and the penultimate scenes seemed exactly like what you’d expect in this sort of story. But the ultimate ending was a bit darker and more cynical, and didn’t really allow for much of a sequel. To be honest, I don’t foresee a sequel happening here, but the movie does leave the possibility open for one. On the other hand, this was probably a fairly cheap movie to make, so even modest success might be enough to spawn a sequel. Stranger things happen in Hollywood daily.

I was once again somewhat disappointed in the quality of the image at the theater. The image lacked crisp sharpness and colors were unsaturated. It just seemed kinda blah. But then again, with the exception of Star Trek on IMAX, I’ve felt that way about nearly every movie I’ve seen in the theatre since I got my current television. I guess the bottom line is that it’s just really really hard for a projected theater image to compare with a good 1080p Hi-Def television these days. As more and more people upgrade their televisions and adopt newer media like Blu-Ray, this is going to be something that the movie studios and theater chains are going to have to address.

Update For DVD/Blu-Ray Release

I just had the chance to check out the new Blu-Ray release of this movie, and prominently featured on the front of the package was a sticker proclaiming an “unreleased alternate ending!”

Since one of my minor annoyances about the movie was the way they’d changed the ending from the book, I anxiously opened the package, put in the disc, and went straight to the Special Features menu to watch the “unreleased alternate ending”. I have to say, I wasn’t really all that surprised to see that it was essentially the original ending from the book, minus the comic-strip “5-years after” epilogue. They must have filmed the original ending, decided they didn’t like it for some reason, and then filmed the one that ended up in the theatrical release.

My original speculation was that the ending was changed in order to shorten the film’s running time a bit, but on film, the original ending is actually not as long as I would have expected, and probably no more than a few minutes longer, so now I’m thinking the issue must have been something else. I’ve no idea what it might be, because I really do the “alternate” ending from the book is a better, less-abrupt ending than what I saw in the theatre. At least now we have the option of seeing it. It’s just a shame that the Blu-Ray doesn’t give you the option to seamlessly jump to the ending of your choice.

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July 1st, 2009 by Mike Fulton

I was too old to really care when the Transformers first hit the scene back in the mid 80’s as a toy and Saturday morning TV series. But when I saw the first Transformers movie, I really enjoyed it and I was looking forward to the new movie, Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen. Apparently a lot of other people were looking forward to seeing it too, because not quite a week after it opened, it’s already done about $200m in box office sales.

Brief overview of the Transformers concept: the Transformers are electro-mechanical lifeforms from a planet called CyberTron. Millenia ago, a civil war broke out with the “good guys” Autobots fighting the “bad guy” Decepticons. Recently, when the war finally destroyed their planet, refugee Autobots made their way to Earth, followed soon thereafter by the Decepticons. Chaos and robot-on-robot action ensues.

If only it were good.

I don’t know which situation annoys me more: when a good movie tanks at the box office, or when a crappy movie does really well. In the case of Transformers: ROTF, I think it’s going to work out that most of the hardcore fans will see the movie during that first week of release, but after that, word of mouth is going to catch up with it and the box office will drop like a stone.

There are several categories of bad here. First, bad writing. The script has some absolutely horrible bits and the plot has a ton of holes in it. The movie wants to jump right into the hardcore robot-on-robot action and the story suffers as a result.

Early on, we see that our buddy Josh Duhamel from the first movie is now part of a secret multinational military force (NEST) charged with the task of responding to Decepticon outbreaks all over the world, with the aid of the Autobots. After a huge battle in Shanghai very publicly destroys a good portion of the city, the unit is visited by a government weenie who tells the unit that the president (specifically President Obama, mentioned by name!) and his advisers are concerned that the only reason that the Decepticons are showing up on Earth is because the Autobots are there. If the Autobots were gone, the problem would disappear.

It’s a perfectly valid concern, but I have a hard time believing that any president, and Obama in particular, would express it in this fashion. It’s exactly the same sort of “government is evil” cliché that I talked about in my review of The Day The Earth Stood Still. Later, this same government weenie claims he is taking charge of the unit at the President’s order. The first problem is that not even the president can put a civilian in charge of a military unit. It’s just not legal. The president himself is the only civilian that can be in any military chain of command. The president can replace the commander of the unit if desired, but it’s still going to be a military officer. Second problem, this is a multinational force and is therefore likely not under the same degree of direct presidential control as a regular US force.

It seemed like there was a 4-star general in overall command of the NEST unit, followed by Duhamel’s Major Lennox. Aside from the fact that 4-stars don’t typically command individual units, it seems like a big jump from Major to 4-star. Where are the colonels, or at least a brigadier?

The story also has some weird total reality disconnects. For example, Sam and Mikaela go to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington DC because they think there may be an ancient Transformer there who can help them. After looking around, they find him disguised as an SR-71 Blackbird spy plane. Shortly thereafter, they’re discovered by Decepticons. While trying to escape they go out a hanger door and find themselves… in a airplane graveyard in the desert. WTF?

I’ve heard some complaints that two of the Autobots were supposedly acting and sounding like stereotypical black people. I can agree it’s bad to reinforce negative stereotypes, but they are mainly just an other example of a script with many, many problems. And honestly, when I watched the movie, I don’t know if I would have noticed anything if I hadn’t already heard the complaints.

I’ve also heard a few things about how director Michael Bay objectifies women. I’ve heard that complaint applied to such a wide range of things I don’t know if it has any real meaning that a reasonable person can take seriously. Some people can take ANY depiction of ANY woman doing ANYTHING and make this complaint about objectification. Furthermore, it seems odd that the complaint is almost exclusively directed at depictions of women doing something that emphasizes their attractiveness, as if that was the only way in which a woman could be objectified. At any rate, I don’t really think the complaint has any great basis here. The whole thing comes down to the fact that Megan Fox is an extremely attractive woman, and ohmigosh the movie might actually let us notice that for 10 seconds before robots start attacking each other.

Oddly, bad acting is not really among the things we have to worry about here. Oh, nobody’s going to be winning any Oscars, but for the most part the actors do a reasonable job with what they’re given to work with. The script’s problems are mainly structural and plot oriented, and not so much centered on the dialogue itself.

Surprisingly, the second big category of bad is the visuals. The problem isn’t so much the quality as it is the design. Half the time during the big fight scenes, especially in the latter part of the movie, you simply can’t tell who is who. There is simply no discernible difference between the Autobots and the Decepticons they’re fighting. Now, one might make the argument that this sort of confusion is quite common in actual combat, but my response is that this is a movie, and I darn well want to know who’s who!

I have to wonder what sort of scenes have been left on the cutting room floor. Might there be a bit more dialogue, and a scene or two that fills in some of the gaps in logic? Or as seems more likely, might there just be more robot-on-robot action? I guess we’ll have to wait until the DVD & Blu-Ray release to find out.

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June 30th, 2009 by Mike Fulton

This is one of those rare movies that manages to combine complete chaos and debauchery with a complete lack of any sort of moral pretense and yet still come out with an ending that actually feels good and reasonable.

The basic idea here is that a group of 4 friends decide to go from LA to Las Vegas a few days before one of the guys gets married. It’s the last big road trip. They arrive in Vegas, check in the hotel, and then proceed to hit the town. The next thing we know, everybody but the groom is waking up in the room, hungover and with no clear memory of the previous night’s events. They must reconstruct the night before to figure out what happened and find their friend and get him back home before his wedding the next day.

Justin Bartha plays bridegroom Doug. He’s a cool kind of guy, fun-loving but not an extreme party animal. Bradley Cooper is Phil, who is just a bundle of contradictions. He’s the loudest party animal in the group, but is also a happily married family man when he’s not taking friends on bachelor parties to Vegas. Ed Helms, Andy from NBC’s The Office, is Stu, who is normally a very conservative guy who never steps farther than his over-controlling fiance allows. Finally, Zach Galifianakis plays Alan, the bride’s brother who isn’t normally a part of this circle of friends. Or any other circle of friends, since he’s really kind of a weird dude in many ways.

In supporting roles, we have Heather Graham as a… well crap I can’t say what her role is without giving stuff away. It’s really not a big role, unfortunately, and I would have liked to have seen more of her. We also have Sasha Barrese as the bride, Tracy, whom we see mostly when she’s calling to find out when everybody is getting back home for the wedding. I would have liked to have seen more of her as well.

It’s hard to talk too much about what goes on here without giving things away, and since the laughs often depend on surprise I don’t want to do that. The bottom line is, however, that this is a damn funny movie. But it’s not even a little bit subtle, so if you prefer a drier sort of humor you’d best look elsewhere. This movie’s humor is more of the hit-you-in-the-face with a Whiffle-ball bat sort of funny. And beyond that, the humor is also frequently somewhat crude and vulgar. It’s far from the most crude I’ve ever seen, but if that sort of thing bothers you, stay away.

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