The A-Team: The Potato loves it when a film comes together!

1983. A legendary network television show was born. It featured action, adventure, comedy, brotherhood and, of course, Mr. T. Creators Stephen J. Cannell and Frank Lupo found a way to combine the popular detective procedural drama with a boys-with-Tonka-trucks sense of precocious male abandon.  It was a huge hit, and ran for 5 seasons until it was canceled in 1987. After 23 years of the franchise lying dormant, the world will be reintroduced to: The A-Team.

::Cue burst of machine gun fire::

That’s right everybody, Hannibal Smith, Faceman Peck, B.A. Baracus, and Howlin’ Mad Murdock are back, and they’ve finally brought their particular brand of military justice to the big screen.  At the helm of this camouflaged runaway freight train is a particular brand of director, and his name is Joe “Blood, Guts, Bullets, and Octane” Carnahan.  A perfect marriage if I’ve ever seen one.  Of course, as with all resurrected franchises, we have to reintroduce it to the younger folks who only know The A-Team as some show that Dad can’t shut up about, and so the film version is an origin story of sorts: the team forms, the team is shown in action, they get framed and arrested, they break out, and then they begin their quest to clear their names.  It couldn’t be the exact same story, because it was so much of its time and politics that it would ring false today.  Instead of being made up of Vietnam vets, they’re Gulf War vets, and so their circumstances behind their framing, arrest, and escape have all been tweaked to serve this contemporary update.  The major plot points and characters, however, remain the same.  The result is a cigar-chomping, testosterone-dripping comic action opera that satisfies the inner child’s need for danger and adventure, with as many one-liners fired as bullets.

For a TV show that contained such memorable characters that all had an unlikely chemistry (the very chemistry that made the show what it was), their big screen counterparts did not disappoint.  The two versions of the cast are proportionate to the action universes they inhabit.  The TV show features military heroes. The film is a big-budget, explosive, 80’s-informed blockbuster (in the best way), requiring the cast to do more heavy lifting.  They have to be more than military heroes; they have to be action heroes. Of course, comparisons are inevitable, and they may also be warranted.  How could anyone replace Dwight Schultz?  How could anyone truly replace Mr. T.? Mr. T. built his entire legacy around the B.A. Baracus character.  He is B.A. Baracus.  Even in an updated film, the best that any actor can do is imitate him and for an imitation, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson did a good job.  He could definitely handle the action, he pitied fools constantly, and he could keep up with his lively costars.  The script gave also his Baracus an emotional depth that could be expressed with fewer words and more actions.  Though the updated Baracus is not as cuddly, he comes from a similar place.

Much like George Peppard before him, Liam Neeson plays Hannibal Smith as a tough-as-nails Army colonel, with a big heart and mischievous look in his eyes.  Anyone who has seen the action opus Taken knows that Liam Neeson can growl painfully and dispatch movie baddies with convincing aplomb.  In this film, Hannibal Smith is still the man with the best laid plans, and he still never hesitates to get in the fight.  The most perfect casting comes in the form of Bradley Cooper as Faceman Peck.  Cooper matches Dirk Benedict’s old school urban swashbuckling charm perfectly and is the glue that holds all the other performances together. Faceman is the most complicated because he is both the finesse and the fire, and while Dirk Benedict is responsible for creating him, Bradley Cooper is keeping Faceman alive and well.  The big surprise is District 9’s Sharlto Copley who is able to effortlessly capture the constant mania that Dwight Schultz brought to the Howlin’ Mad Murdock character.

After his performance in last year’s District 9, which was largely improvisational with little written dialog to work from, Copley was tested with the A-Team’s more traditional script and had to show that he could sustain an already existing character. Any skeptics should worry not, for Copley’s performance is the heart and soul of The A-Team’s dynamic.

As far as supporting casts go, this one is game.  As Captain Sosa (and Faceman’s former flame), Jessica Biel does a lot with a thankless role, holding the line between love interest and woman-of-action.  Gerald McRaney (Major Dad?) starts out playing General Morrison as the General from Predator, but his character gets more complicated as the plot thickens.  Extra kudos goes to Lakeview Terrace’s Patrick Wilson as CIA Agent Lynch, a wormy, sociopathic G-Man so duplicitous that you love him as much as you hate him.

Making an impact with his first feature Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane, and making a smaller yet deeper impact with Narc, Joe Carnahan should have made his action smashup debut with 2006’s  Smokin’ Aces, but it was a misstep. The cinematography and offbeat dialogue suggested that Carnahan would be a director who could handle large action while maintaining a uniquely graphic vision, but Aces fails because the story falls apart in the third act, and also does not deliver the action that it was building towards.  In The A-Team, I must say, I love it when a Joe Carnahan movie comes together.  His cinematic vision for the franchise is a combination of Tony Scott and True Lies-era James Cameron.  It is an immensely entertaining homage to old-school Hollywood spectacle. The script, co-written by Joe Carnahan, Skip Woods, and Brian Bloom (who also plays rogue mercenary Mr. Pike) is a breezy, expertly strung together tapestry of one-liners with a clever plot and a few interesting twists along the way. The action sequences are fierce, fun, and impossible, culminating with an unbelievably destructive scene at the Long Beach harbor.  Amidst the chaos, Carnahan keeps the film moving in its quieter moments, and though there aren’t many, they’re very well placed. In The A-Team, Carnahan is tasked with aiming a shotgun at a target, and instead pulls out a rocket launcher and fraggs the entire mountain. Hoo-yah.

If you’re an A-Team fan, if you’re an action fan, a Liam Neeson fan, or pretty much a fan of all things loud, fun, and awesome, then maybe you can hire…The A-Team! I give it an enthusiastic 4 out of 4 stars/bullets.

The Potato wins with “The Losers”

Exactly 4 months ago, a crack commando unit was framed for a crime they didn’t commit.  These men survived assassination and promptly escaped to the Bolivian underground.  Today, thought dead by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have an ass that needs kicked, if the government sets them up, and if you can find them, then maybe you can hire…The Losers? ::cue machine gun fire and explosions:: BOOM!

Sound familiar? You were expecting maybe a different ending? Ok, so maybe 2010’s “The Losers” isn’t exactly “The A-Team”, but it is damn close.  If you sort of know the opening narration from the classic TV show, I could recite that synopsis and easily fool you.  The lyrics are different, but they’re both singing the same tune.  This may sound like I’m unfairly criticizing “The Losers” for being basically DC Comics’ answer to “The A-Team”, but no.  “The Losers” is a cool, snarky, cigar-chewing action adventure that is both a throwback to the action comedies of the 80’s (specifically a certain aforementioned TV show) and a great showcase of hyper-stylized comic book thrills of today.  Part “The A-Team”, part “Smokin’ Aces”, and part “Beverly Hills Cop”, “The Losers” just plain rocks the socks off.

The casting of “The Losers” is spot-on perfect in the kind of way that made “The Hangover” so watchable.  With the wrong cast, both films would have been absolutely dreadful to watch.  As the leader known as Clay, Jeffrey Dean Morgan proves that his performance in “Watchmen” was not an action fluke.  Like a Bruce Willis, Morgan knows how to portray the tough guy without having to sacrifice vulnerability.  Likewise for Idris Elba’s character, known simply as Roque.  The scenes that these two men share rival even the manliest scenes of “Predator”, and that’s a manly movie.  This film will benefit Morgan just fine, but I hope that Idris Elba gets some more lead roles as well.  He manages to be completely entertaining and still remain underrated as an actor.  As the wheelman and techie of the group, respectively, Columbus Short and Chris “Captain America/Human Torch” Evans both hold their own in the fight, and also wield the comic relief like two kids who found their dad’s pellet guns.  They’re having fun, and that means we’re having fun too.

As the sole lady of action, Zoe Saldana continues to tear apart the screen and Jeffrey Dean Morgan (in a very well shot fight sequence in a flaming hotel room that obviously is meant to set up their sexual tension).  For being in so many blockbusters in her short career including the highest grossing movie of all time, Zoe Saldana STILL needs that big role.  She doesn’t get it in “The Losers”, but her presence makes the film just that much better.  But the big, big surprise performance in the film comes from its main villain, played to the absolute lunatic hilt by Jason f*cking Patric.  He’s always been a favorite of mine, and it’s great to see him chew the scenery in a film like this.  Every time he walks into the frame, insanity ensues.  Think of his character as a mixture of every Connery-era James Bond villain with Nicolas Cage’s character in “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans”.  You have to see it to believe it.

Peter Berg and James Vanderbilt have crafted a very fun and funny script.  Its tone resembles Tarantino’s self-awareness and Lethal Weapon-style badassedness.  As far as the direction goes: Sylvain White, where did you come from, sir?  I had only seen his previous collaboration with Columbus Short known as “Stomp The Yard”, and as fun a dance movie as it was, it did nothing to predict that Mr. White could emerge as a “get this guy an action franchise right now” kind of director.  The man can clearly handle very large action set pieces, special effects, and edgy camera work.  I’ll be very interested to see what his next project is going to be.

Overall, if you like action films, if you like comic book films, if you like “The A-Team”, you will have a crazy good time during “The Losers”.  I give it a 3.5 out of 4 stars.

The Potato’s “Best” of The Decade

Ok, so there are too many films.  I wish I had a team of researchers to track down every film I have ever seen so that I could come up with a really awesome list.  In fact, I’m making it one of my resolutions for 2010.  I really do need a team of something…but I digress.  The only two criteria for the list are that the film must have been released between the years 2000 and 2009, and the film must not suck.  That’s it.  I also tried to pick films that hold some sort of significance in the film world/pop culture.  Some of my favorite films didn’t make the list, and other critically acclaimed films didn’t make the list.  I suppose I would need a top 50 in order to capture them all, but who has time for that?  In chronological order, here’s The Potato’s “best” films of the decade list:

Memento (2000)

Christopher Nolan payed homage to the classic Hitchcockian thriller while also managing to reinvent the genre.  With this film, Nolan declared that he would be one of the directors to watch in the coming years, and he delivered on that promise.

The Lord of The Rings Trilogy (2001-2003)

Peter Jackson captured lightning in a bottle three times with his Epic-with-a-capitol-E fantasy series.  In the post-9/11 world, we prefer even our diversions to be as realistic and as dangerous as ever, but LOTR dared audiences to suspend disbelief and use their imaginations once again.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Wes Anderson was considered a director to watch back when he released 1996’s Bottle Rocket and 1998’s Rushmore, but this is the film that made even the mainstream film fan stand up and take notice.  A director with uncompromising, intricate visions, Wes Anderson has never been better.

28 Days Later (2002)

The film that changed horror, reinvigorated the zombie craze, and the film that made people finally appreciate how great a director Danny Boyle is.  It’s scary, it’s intelligent, and it’s a ride from start to finish.

The Bourne Identity/Supremacy/Ultimatum (2002, 2004, 2007)

The film series that changed spy films, action films, and Bond films.  It also made Matt Damon both an action hero and earned him a spot on the moviestar shortlist.  The Bourne series convinced us that we want our heroes to be recognizable, fallible, and still extraordinary.  They are also action films that film buffs can enjoy openly.  Also, the film Casino Royale, in its current form, wouldn’t exist without this series.

Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind (2004)

Charlie Kaufman is one of the greatest screenwriters working today, and this film is the reason why.  Michel Gondry is one of the greatest directors working today, and this film is the reason why.  Both have had success before and since, but Eternal Sunshine is an achievement that transcends any lines or labels such as “indie” or “mainstream”.  The film immortalized Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey as one of the great complicated screen couples, and it revolutionized the way we think of storytelling and how it relates to human nature.

Spider-Man 2 (2002)/The Dark Knight (2008)

So this is another listing cheat.  I wanted each film to have their own spot, but we all know that superhero films have pretty much blanketed the Hollywood landscape, and we don’t need another reminder.  These two films, however, are both superb and also changed how superhero films are made.  While on both sides of the spectrum (Spidey being more comic-book-ish, Batman being darker and more realistic), both films are the benchmarks of the genre, and have not been topped since.

The Incredibles (2004)

The film that changed mainstream animation.  Pixar and Disney proved with this film that even adults could enjoy PG-rated animated action.  The visuals are eye-popping, the voice talents are awesome (with special shoutouts to Jason Lee and Craig T. Nelson as Syndrome and Mr. Incredible, respectively), and the music is super cool.

The 40 Year-Old Virgin (2005)

The film that changed comedy, and also made the name “Apatow” into an adjective.  The film introduced us to Steve Carell, Seth Rogen, Jane Lynch, and reintroduced us to Paul Rudd.  The film speaks for itself, since nearly every critically acclaimed comedy since has been compared to it, and will be listed as one of the most influential comedies ever made.

No Country For Old Men (2007)

The film that finally made me a forever Coen brothers devotee.  I was always a fan, but had never fully appreciated their genius until this film.  It also introduced us to one of the scariest film icons in decades, in the form of Javier Bardem’s sublime portrayal of assassin Anton Chigurrh.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

I’m sorry, Mr. Soderbergh.  If I had a top 20, you’d rule it for sure.  Same goes for Mr. Tarantino, Sr. Del Toro, Mr. Reitman, and Mr. Abrams.

Traffic (2000)

Kill Bill vol. 1 & 2 (2003-2004)

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Juno (2007)

Star Trek (2009)

The Potato celebrates “Humpday”

Every film invites the audience to emotionally include themselves in the events unfolding on screen. While Hollywood is now using 3D technology and IMAX screens to draw audiences in, sometimes all you need is a good story about people we can relate to on some level. When I turned on 2009’s “Humpday”, I expected to watch a comedy about two random dude friends who decide to make porn together on a whim. I had seen the trailer months ago and had decided that it would be a rental, as the trailer played up its bromantic comedy elements, and I had already seen “I Love You, Man” a few months prior. As I scoured my Netflix instant play options for something new, I noticed that “Humpday” was available for streaming. After some technical difficulties with the internet connection, I was ready to experience 100 minutes of male bonding gone awry.

You first! No, you first!

The plot is simplicity itself: Ben is just a normal suburban guy with a great wife, a good job, and a white picket fence existence. Andrew is an artist who travels the world looking for the great inspiration that will allow him to finally complete an art project. When Andrew unexpectedly drops in on Ben and his wife Anna (at 1:30 in the morning, no less), it shakes up all their worlds in ways that no one could anticipate. During a drunken stream of consciousness, Ben and Andrew decide to shoot an amateur porn scene together on the pretense that two straight male buddies having sex on camera could be the “next great artistic statement” and of course, Anna has no idea of their plans.

As the viewer, you have to believe that these two guys would come up with such an idea and actually want to realize it. I think that the film being set in Seattle helped me believe the premise right away. If it were set in a place more thematically obvious like San Francisco, the film could almost be read as satire. Putting the film in Seattle allows the viewer to believe that these guys could be open minded enough to shoot a pseudo-gay art-porn scene while not having to pay lip service to any gay stereotypes. Not to say that San Francisco is full of gay stereotypes, but some viewers who have never been to San Francisco or only have a limited exposure to alternative cultures might unfairly judge the film or write it off as just “another one of those crazy indies.”

As Ben and Andrew respectively, Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard have great chemistry. I could see how these two disparate characters would be friends, and their performances suggest a past that the characters shared without having to use a lot of expository dialogue to explain it. Duplass reminds me of John Krasinski while Leonard’s performance has shades of Owen Wilson (with a sprinkle of Zach Galifianakis, and I’m not just talking about the beard). As Ben’s wife Anna, Alycia Delmore gives a very honest performance. Anna serves as the female perspective to all the male-centric craziness that it happening around her and Delmore’s performance keeps the viewers (and the male leads) grounded in reality. She’s the one that gets to ask the questions that we all want to initially ask: “Hey, what do you mean you’re going to make a porn with your best friend? What the f*ck is up with that?” I only wish that Delmore had more screen time, as her character unfortunately takes a back seat to her male co-stars. I would love to see these three do another movie together.

Alycia Delmore

Writer-director Lynn Shelton frames the actors in simple, home video style scenes that feel intimate almost to the point of sheer discomfort. I kept listening to the dialogue but sometimes I couldn’t look at the screen as they were saying it. I was so embarrassed for these characters at times because they felt so real and familiar. It very much feels like you are in these conversations, and that you are a party to the events that are unfolding in front of your eyes. Shelton directed the film from her own script, but I wonder about how much the actors improvised because the dialogue feels very natural and flows as real conversations would. The opening scene with Ben and Anna in bed together is one of the most true to life moments between a man and a woman I have ever seen in a film, and it’s not even that shocking or important to the story. It isn’t necessarily a film about sex or pornography or even art. It’s about all of these, and none of these. It’s a film about two men discovering what it means to be close friends, and the crazy ends that some friends will go to understand the nature of that closeness. Mainstream films like “The Hangover”, “Pineapple Express”, and “I Love You, Man” deal with the same issues but use homoeroticism as more of a sight gag than a statement, which is fine because these films do it well and it’s good to laugh at masculinity sometimes. “Humpday” plays less like an addition to the new bromantic comedy pantheon, and more like a deconstruction of it. The film simultaneously questions male masculinity while reaffirming it as well. The film ends in exactly the way that it should, but you have to see it to believe how it all turns out. All around, “Humpday” is one of the best films I’ve seen all year, and I recommend it to anyone who loves independent film as well as people who might have thought “I Love You, Man” played it a little too safe. I give it a 9 out of 10.

The Dame With The Necklace – “Song of The Thin Man”

songthinman

Just a quick post today, as an afternoon showing of Transformers 2 is calling my name.  My lady-fair has been educating me on all things classic film, and today’s stop on the Golden Age Hollywood tour was the final film in “The Thin Man” series called “Song of The Thin Man”.  If Dashiell Hammett and Chuck Jones mated and their offspring raised by Lucille Ball, this would be the movie that the kid would make.

The sets, the costumes and the locations were all perfectly choreographed into a ballet of 40’s conventions.  In that way, the flick’s a great shorthand if you’re trying to write snappy, 1940’s-sounding dialogue.  Lawrence Kasdan must have seen these flicks a lot.  As the two iconic lead characters Nick and Nora Charles, William Powell and Myrna Loy prove once again that the couple who solves crimes together stays together. Their dog Asta might just be the most awesome dog in the universe, next to our dog Bridget.

Bridget the Superdog. Taking a much deserved break from fighting crime.

Bridget the Superdog. Taking a much deserved break from fighting crime.