MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. The Rest. Paul, Mars Needs Moms, Despair

Paul (Two and a Half Stars)
U. S.: Greg Mottola, 2011  (Universal)

Suppose you were to rethink E. T. as a combination 70s road movie and Three Days of the Condor-style paranoid anti-C.I.A. thriller, with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, of Shaun of the Dead as a couple of RV-riding, geek-slacker Brits named Graeme Willy (Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Frost), who make up a comic book artist-writer team, and Seth Rogen as the voice of a little green man/E.T. named Paul, who’s even more of a geek-slacker than they are.

Kristen Wiig is the romantic interest, Ruth Buggs, a skinny gal with a deformed eye and a bible thumping pa (John Carroll Lynch) who’s chasing them all, and a new-found fascination with four-letter words. (She’s more romantic, and a lot funnier, in Bridesmaids.) And Jason Bateman is one of the spooks. And Blythe Danner is an old-time UFO-spotter. And, oh yeah, Sigourney Weaver, in a gown, is the main government villain, The Big Guy.

It sounds sort of funny. But, as written by Pegg and Frost, and directed by Greg Mottola (Superbad, Adventureland), it’s sometimes a little witty, sometimes a little campy or likably slap-sticky, but more often scruffy-looking, forced and obvious.  The magnum opus graphic novel of Graeme and Clive, for example, has a cover sporting an alien supergal with three breasts, but not one memorable bra joke. For some reason, creationism gets them all angry. And little Paul keeps making smart-ass remarks and exposing himself to unwise scrutiny.

Yeah, I know a lot of people liked this. Didn’t help me any. I hate to say this, but this movie could have used Ricky Gervais, maybe as the guys’ acerbic and cynical asshole of an agent. He could have won points by insulting everybody, and maybe betraying them, and getting smooshed. Or maybe the movie would have been better with Edgar Wright (the other “Shaun” guy) directing it, but why would he have wanted to, for reasons other than companionship or an unwise wager?

Oh yeah, Steven Spielberg is in this thing too. As Steven Spielberg. I’m afraid he can’t tip the balance.

Mars Needs Moms (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Simon Wells, 2011 (Walt Disney)

Mars Needs Moms, which takes its title from the infamous 1968 Mars Needs Women, starring Tommy Kirk, is a pretty good feature cartoon, and that points up again how generally better, and smarter, animated features are these days. It’s about an adventurous  boy (voiced by Seth Green), who hitches a ride to Mars, when his  mom (Joan Cusack, who’s very, very good) is kidnapped by the Martians. These Marsmen run a regimented society, bossed by the tyrannical Supervisor (Mindy Sterling, of “Austin Power“ land) and they need to steal a mom every once in a while, for maternal help, in getting their divided sexes to grow up.

The movie was directed and co-written (with wife Wendy Wells) by Simon Wells, great grand-son of H. G. Wells, and the director of the 2002 film of his great grand-dad’s The Time MachineRobert Zemeckis was one of the producers, and the movie was done in the motion capture process (refined here to something called “emotion capture”) that Zemeckis used for The Polar Express and the Jim Carrey A Christmas Carol — which means the actors supplied some movements and expressions as well as the voices for their characters.

It’s an okay movie, as I say. And Cusack, as I say is gangbusters as the movie’s mom. But there’s another performance that really is incredible, fantastic: Dan Fogler as a chubby Earthling faddist, enthusiast and gimmick-guy on Mars called Gribble. Fogler has been in a handful of movies including some bad ones (where he was good) like the current Take Me Home Tonight, which I reviewed (badly) last week. He usually plays overweight sidekicks, awash in pop culture shtick, which is what he is here. “Awesome” and “totally” are two of Gribble’s favorite words.

But Gribble has more: a spontaneity, wild humor and a sweet, flakey quality that makes this role really shine, creates a star-making turn. At first, as I was watching him, I was convinced he wasbeing voiced by my old L. A. Weekly pal, movie critic F. X. Feeney, and I almost called him up afterwards. (Just kidding.) He also reminded me of an old chum of mine at the University of Wisconsin, the late Don “Sluggo” Carlson. At any rate, I was totally convinced Gribble was a real person. And that’s what acting totally is. Awesome.

It’s easy, or at any rate easier, to look terrific with a great, well-written part, with something like, say, The King’s Speech, The Social Network or True Grit. It’s harder to be superb in schlock or flawed movies like Fanboys, Take Me Home Tonight and even “Mars Needs Moms,“ all Fogler credits. Or when you‘re making some of it up yourself. (Some of “Mars” seems improvised.) But Fogler, whom I had ignorantly sort of dismissed as a mini-Jack Black, has the stuff, totally. Gribble is a great job. Even though Mars Needs Moms is a cartoon sci-fi fantasy, you laugh and feel for this crazy irrepressible babble-mouth shlump-a-clump. (Not that my pals F. X., or Sluggo, ever babbled, or schlumped, or clumped. But they could have voiced Gribble too.) I’m sure other people and critics are noticing this part, and that Fogler has been noticed lots of times before, for his Spelling Bee play, and others. But now I can say you heard it here. Not necessarily first. But you heard it.

Despair (Three Stars)
Germany: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1978 (Olive)
R. W. Fassbinder made Despair — an adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel about a candy manufacturer in ’30s Germany who’s going crazy and thinks he’s found his doppleganger — in the middle of his greatest period, 1978-1982, the time of The Marriage of Maria Braun, Lili Marleen and Fassbinder’s masterpiece Berlin Alexanderplatz. But, it’s not as strong as those pictures, and for a movie set in Germany during the rise of Hitler, it sometimes seems unsettlingly disengaged. It wasn’t the English language breakthrough he wanted. 
But it’s a very good film anyway: an intelligent, high-style examination, of  decadent lives and a civilization about to plunge into Fascism and madness too. In a way, Despair is an hommage to Luchino Visconti, another gay art film master, and to the movie Fassbinder once named as his all-time favorite, Visconti’s 1969 epic of moral and social collapse The Damned — whose star Dirk Bogarde here stars for Fassbinder as the deranged candy man Hermann Hermann. (Shades of Humbert Humbert in “Lolita.”) With Andrea Ferreoll, Volker Spengler, Peter Kern and Bernhard Wicki (who directed the classic German anti-war film The Bridge).  Photographed, smashingly, by Michael Ballhaus. No extras.    
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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon