Film review – This Is the End (2013)

18 July 2013
This Is the End: James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel and Danny McBride

James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel and Danny McBride

On 7 May 2011 something apocalyptic happened in popular culture – Michael Bolton became really cool. The soft rock crooner teamed up with the comedy trio The Lonely Island to make a music video. The gag was that instead of Bolton providing the trio with a ‘big sexy hook’ for them to use on their hip hop track, he instead sang about how much he loved the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. The resulting song ‘Jack Sparrow’ was funny on several levels, but most of all because Bolton was parodying his clean-cut and somewhat saccharine and dorky image. ‘Jack Sparrow’ became a shining example of a phenomenon from the past two decades where public figures can earn enormous street cred by mocking themselves. Even Mike Tyson now comes across as a loveable rogue when he playfully pretends to bite Neil Patrick Harris’s ear during the opening number of the 2013 Tony Awards.

The all star cast of the massively self-reflexive and self-aware end of the world film This Is the End are not doing anything especially new with the concept of playing derogatory versions of themselves. However, their self-mockery is remarkably savage and most importantly, it is very funny.

While some of the best contemporary examples of actors playing highly unflattering versions of themselves have come from the UK – especially some the projects that Ricky Gervais or Steve Coogan have been involved in – the recent trend seems to have begun in the USA in the early 1990s. The 1992 film The Player assembled a huge cast of famous actors to play versions of themselves in director Robert Altman’s witty and vicious satire of Hollywood. From 1992 to 1998 Garry Shandling was doing something similar with the television series The Larry Sanders Show, which directed its witty and vicious satire towards late night television. This Is the End is not reaching for a similarly biting expose on the entertainment industry, but it does use the techniques used in The Player and The Larry Sanders Show to mock celebrity and fame.

The first part of This Is the End features Seth Rogen (who also wrote and directed with long term creative collaborator Evan Goldberg) dragging reluctant friend from out-of-town Jay Baruchel to a large party that James Franco has thrown. At the party is a large ensemble of mostly comedic actors who have worked with Rogen, and Goldberg on various films, most notably Knocked Up (Judd Apatow, 2007), Superbad (Greg Mottola, 2007) and Pineapple Express (David Gordon Green, 2008). Like in The Player, many of these performers appear incredibly briefly, even some to the extent that you may not have realised they were there if you didn’t read their name in the credits at the end of the film. For the most part the humour comes from seeing these familiar personalities all in the same place at once and the resulting blend of egos, hormones and emotions that would occur at any large party. Their brief appearances juxtapose nicely with the perception of actors being self-important, something the film explores more as it continues.

The film changes gear when Judgement Day occurs and most of the cast are wiped out. One of the film’s greatest gags is that not a single person at the celebrity-packed party gets taken up to heaven as part of the Rapture. This Is the End then becomes more like The Larry Sanders Show as it focuses on the details of the various performers to mock the way they are perceived. And The Larry Sanders Show is a fitting reference point as it was an early television series that Judd Apatow worked on before becoming a key part of the creative team behind Freaks and Greeks (1999-2000), which Rogen and Franco got their breaks on, and then creating Undeclared (2001-2002), which starred Baruchel and again featured Rogen.

One of the grounding character arcs in the film concerns the tension between Rogen and Baruchel now that Rogen has become a bigger and more recognisable star and has famous friends like Franco. Added in the mix is a bromance love triangle between Rogen and old friend Baruchel, and new friend Jonah Hill who is wonderfully insincere. The rivalry between Baruchel and Hill for Rogen’s affections, even while the world is coming to an end, plays out beautifully. Added to the mix is Danny McBride being selfish and immoral, and the physically imposing Craig Robinson who reminds everybody that they are just actors and therefore completely lacking all skills, resourcefulness and toughness to cope with what has happened.

As well as acknowledging resentments and rivalries that may well reflect elements of truth, none of the performers in This Is the End try to present likeable versions of themselves. Not only does the film joke about none of them being worthy for heaven, but it includes conversations about how overpaid and overvalued they are in society. They appear needy, deceitful, manipulative, cruel and pathetic. Conflict does not just result from fights over the dwindling food and water, but about masturbation etiquette. The obsession with dick jokes that many of these performers are known – and sometimes derided – for is milked to its full extent, not just to generate laughs but to infantilise them and reveal their anxieties about their gender and sexual identity. None of it is particularly sophisticated or complex, but it is funny.

And still, as the characters increasingly humiliate and degrade themselves and each other, they are completely endearing and a joy to spend time with. Like many contemporary comedies This Is the End could have reduced its running time for a snappier end product, but there are not too many bits that drag. The special effects to create the various calamities as described in the Book of Revelations are impressive. By representing the idea of the Biblical Apocalypse seriously, the horror aspects of the film enhance the comedic aspects very effectively. Like Kevin Smith’s 1999 film Dogma, the depiction of Christian mythology is reasonably faithful to the source material, which helps with the film’s edginess and comedy. The end result is a highly entertaining film that rather than being a self indulgent romp for the performers, becomes a funny self-aware critique of their indulgences – along with several violent deaths, demonic monsters and dick jokes. There are lots of dick jokes.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – Paul (2011)

25 April 2011
Paul: Graeme Willy (Simon Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Nick Frost)

Graeme Willy (Simon Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Nick Frost)

Two English comic book fans on a UFO-sighting tour in America pick-up a smart-ass alien named Paul. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (who both also wrote the script) play the fans, Seth Rogen voices Paul and Greg Mottola (Superbad) directs. With so much reliable talent involved in this film it is extremely disappointing that it is only a mildly amusing comedy with a smattering of reasonably fun science-fiction references.

To be fair there are several supporting actors who provide some great moments to rise above the anal probe and ‘we’re not gay not that there’s anything wrong with that’ gags. Jason Bateman as a mysterious government agent and Kristen Wiig as a fundamentalist Christian discovering the joys of swearing are especially enjoyable.

The final act is reasonably strong but it’s too little too late. The film is overly reliant on Pegg’s, Frost’s and Rogen’s personas for laughs with none of them doing anything we haven’t seen before. There are some fun cameos and inspired moments suggesting how popular culture has been shaped by Paul’s presence on Earth, but this is overall a very average film.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 378, 2011

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – The Green Hornet (2011)

18 January 2011
The Green Hornet: Britt Reid / The Green Hornet (Seth Rogen)

Britt Reid / The Green Hornet (Seth Rogen)

While most superhero film adaptations are based on comics, The Green Hornet is based on a 1930s radio serial, which has also had a life in other media including comics, film serials and television serials. The story is another variation on the masked vigilante scenario that contemporary cinema has recently explored from a variety of different angles in films such as The Dark Knight, Watchmen and Kick-Ass. The 2011 film of The Green Hornet actually possesses a bit in common with Kick-Ass in that the titular character does not have any superpowers or special training. However, The Green Hornet is not nearly as dark or transgressive as Kick-Ass, leaving it light on social commentary to instead be a consistently vibrant film with a glorious anarchic spirit.  Freed from a lot of the angst and seriousness of other superhero films, The Green Hornet is actually incredibly carefree and enjoyable.

A significant factor for the breezy vibe is that the costumed vigilantes are motivated by little more than the desire to have a bit of fun. The Green Hornet is the alter ego of Britt Reid, the wealthy son of a newspaper publisher, who despite having some fairly low-key Dad issues is closer in mentality to Tony Stark/Iron Man rather than Bruce Wayne/Batman. Seth Rogen (who also co-wrote the script) plays Britt Reid, which is a natural fit as Rogen wonderfully embodies the required likeable slacker persona; actually Rogen has made a career from playing such parts.

The Green Hornet: Kato (Jay Chou)

Kato (Jay Chou)

The Green Hornet greatly benefits from the inclusion of the character Kato (Jay Chou) who along with Reid’s secretary Lenore Case (Cameron Diaz) supplies Reid with the brains as well as the technology and martial arts skills. Chou is predominantly known throughout Asia for his music career but his charismatic performance as Kato should earn him a big new audience. Part of what makes The Green Hornet so off-kilter is that The Green Hornet is not even the main point of interest as so much of what drives the narrative and makes the action sequences so inventive and fun is Kato. Much of the film’s charm is derived from the growing friendship between Kato and Reid with lots of riffing about whether Kato is The Green Hornet’s partner or sidekick. It is also a nice touch portraying Kato as a Bruce Lee fan since Lee played Kato in the short-lived 1960 television serial.

This is not exactly a subversive film but allowing the supposedly secondary character to take centre stage gleefully undermines superhero narrative conventions and audience expectations. Kato also gets to take part in all the best fight scenes, many of which evoke early Jackie Chan films where the fights were not won according to what weapons were carried in but by what objects in the immediate surroundings could be re-purposed as a weapon. The incredible degree of carnage and destruction also give the action a thrilling inventiveness and playfulness.

The Green HornetDirector Michel Gondry is best known for the slightly whimsical and offbeat visual style that he brings to his films, often relying on basic in-camera techniques for special effects and a handcrafted aesthetic to create the quirky mood in his films. With the very notable exception of his 2004 masterpiece Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, his other films have only been moderately interesting despite the clear display of Gondry’s talent behind them. However, in The Green Hornet Gondry has successfully harnessed digital effects, stunt work and his own energetic style extremely effectively. Fans of Gondry’s may recognise techniques such as the kaleidoscope effect that he used in The Chemical Brother’s music video “Let Forever Be”. He also creates an extremely creative sequence with split screens and various impressive scenes with slow motion, where Kato visualises how he will execute an attack before then actually doing it. A similar technique was used in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes but The Green Hornet does it better.

The Green Hornet is a reckless and irresponsible film in the best possible way. As well as feeling a bit like a light-hearted variation of Kick-Ass is also possesses a similar hyperactive intensity to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. And yet, it’s also nothing like those films. It’s very much a Michel Gondry film but it’s also a Seth Rogen film and perhaps most of all a Jay Chou film with a few ingredients borrowed from 1980s Hong Kong action cinema and Dadaism. It’s not a superhero film; it’s an exuberant anti-superhero film that exists with no agenda except to delight.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Funny People (2009)

12 September 2009
George Simmons (Adam Sandler) and Ira Wright (Seth Rogan)

George Simmons (Adam Sandler) and Ira Wright (Seth Rogan)

Judd Apatow has been writing, directing and producing most of the big comedies to have hit the big screen over the past five years. The guy knows humour and his previous two directorial efforts, The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, are two of the funniest films of recent years. Funny People is the third film that Apatow has directed, written and produced and it is a very self-reflexive look at the business of creating comedy. Adam Sandler plays George Simmons, a wealthy comedy mega-star with a background in stand-up and a string of mediocre films to his name that somehow haven’t diluted his popularity. In other words, George is a version of Sandler (although a far more egotistical, unpleasant and chauvinistic version since by most accounts the real Adam Sandler is actually a very generous person). George is dying of a rare form of leukaemia, something that he only confides to his new assistant and joke writer Ira Wright (Apatow regular Seth Rogen), an aspiring comedian. Through Ira’s suggestion George gets back in touch with his family and friends, which includes ex-fiancé Laura (Leslie Mann) who now has a family of her own.

The key to enjoying Funny People is to first accept that it is not a comedy but a drama about people who work in comedy. There are funny moments but for the most part Funny People reflects many of Robert Altman’s films with its combination of multiple cameos, improvised dialogue and cynicism about the industry of making people laugh. The characters are not typical Apatow characters either as they aren’t really that likeable. What made The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up such enjoyable films is that despite all their arrested adolescent behaviour and flaws, the characters were all decent guys with good intentions. Not so with Funny People: George is rude, narcissistic and callous; Ira screws over his best friend Leo (Jonah Hill); and Leo and Ira’s other housemate Mark (Jason Schwartzman) are overly competitive about making it in the comedy world.

Clarke (Eric Bana) and Laura (Leslie Mann)

Clarke (Eric Bana) and Laura (Leslie Mann)

The first section of Funny People is actually hard going because the characters are so dislikeable. The endless cameos by real life comedians playing themselves never really successfully lighten the mood either although there is one very funny scene where Eminem and Ray Romano have an altercation. Funny People picks up significantly when it begins to focus on the dynamic between George and Laura, mainly because Leslie Mann is just so terrific as Laura. It is also during these scenes that Sandler really gets to demonstrate how good he can be as a dramatic actor. The presence of Eric Bana as Laura’s obnoxious Alpha-male husband also helps to liven up these scenes. Funny People is not as good as the other films directed by Apatow and it probably would have worked better if the fairly weighty material was in the hands of a more seasoned director. Nevertheless, this is a very good film providing that you are prepared for its long running time and you aren’t expecting it to be a laugh riot.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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Film review – Monsters vs. Aliens (2009)

29 March 2009

mva002cc-low-res

The latest film to boast both state-of-the-art computer animation and 3D effects is Monsters vs. Aliens from Dreamworks. The premise is as simple as its title suggests – when aliens invade earth the government fight back with a bunch of monsters that they have been secretly hiding from the rest of the population. The monsters are all loosely based on classic 1950s horror monsters. There is a giant woman, a giant insect, a mad scientist who has turned himself into a cockroach, a gelatinous blob and a reptile man. The alien invaders and their robotic warriors also evoke 1950s science-fiction classics such as The War of the Worlds, It Came from Outer Space and The Day the Earth Stood Still. The result is a fun blend of action and humour yet the film can only really be described as mildly entertaining.

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Film review – Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008)

21 February 2009
Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks)

Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks)

Zack and Miri Make a Porno delivers exactly what you would expect from a film by writer/director Kevin Smith about a pair of platonic long-term friends who decide to make a porn film in order to get themselves out of debt. The mildly amusing scenario allows Smith ample opportunities for his slightly contrived yet often funny pushing-the-envelope-of-taste humour. Zack was written for and is played by Seth Rogen (Pineapple Express, Knocked Up) as exactly the same type of lovable, crass man-child character that Rogen plays so well. Elizabeth Banks (The 40 Year Old Virgin, Role Models) as Miri is also wonderful and has real chemistry with Rogen. A real strength of the film is that amongst all the comically graphic sex scenes, the scene where Zack and Miri have sex is unexpectedly sweet and sincere. This of course allows Smith to delve into his other favourite mode of getting all deep and meaningful about the nature of friendship and love.

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