December 31, 2010

The Films of 2010: In Memorium

About mid-way through 2010, I started telling people that it really didn't seem like a great year for movies. The summer especially had a huge dearth of flicks I actually wanted to go out and spend a bunch of money to see. The year sure finished well, however, and awards season brought several excellent pictures that I greatly enjoyed. Still, it's strange... I'm getting a little deeper in my 30s, movie tickets are getting pricier, and if I'm not mistaken the dumb summer movies seem to be getting a little dumber. I would have guesstimated that we saw fewer films this year than we have in the previous few, but according to my records (this blog) the movies we saw number in the mid-30s, almost the same as last year. Below, I've attempted to list what we saw, placing the ones we enjoyed the most up here at the top, and ones that flat out pissed me off toward the bottom.

The Social Network
I found The Social Network to be an endlessly fascinating going-into-business story for the modern era. It's the product of two very distinctive talents - screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) and director David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button) - and interestingly retains the artistic signature of both. My main critical thought about this one is that they really portrayed Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg as an evil, anti-social prick, almost to Mommy Dearest levels. It's almost impossible to believe that the real guy is anywhere near as awful, nor could he have achieved the success that he did with such minimal people skills. The real Mark Zuckerberg, recently named Time's Man Of The Year, is putting a ton of effort (and money) behind rehabilitating his public image. Although I don't think this is his motivation in doing so, I believe the PR effort will have an adverse effect on the film's Award Season chances. I would guess they have a great shot at winning Best Screenplay for Sorkin, and possibly Supporting Actor for a surprisingly solid Justin Timberlake (!), but I have a feeling that at the Academy Awards, at least, the Best Picture will be...

The King's Speech
A fantastic movie about the future King George VI (as played by the wonderful Colin Firth) overcoming a massive speech impediment in pre-WWII 1930's England, with the help of a speech therapist played by the excellent Geoffrey Rush, in a rare non-pirate role. It's an historical drama with an excellent historical perspective that isn't dry or uninteresting for even a single frame. I actually saw it again recently, and was surprised to find that I liked it even more the second time.

True Grit (2010)
Joel and Ethan Coen went back to Charles Portis' original novel for this picture, which was famously made before in 1969 with John Wayne, who won his only Oscar for the lead role. Many scenes in the 2010 version directly correlate to the '69 one and the two even share a good amount of dialogue (presumably taken from the book). Some of the words may be the same in this new one, but the feeling and the texture are completely different. It's like the original story as seen through the Coens' very distinctive filter. Jeff Bridges makes the Wayne role his own, and is supported by stellar performances by Matt Damon as a well-intentioned but somewhat novice Texas ranger, and Josh Brolin in a small role as the deceptive baddie both men are hunting. Really, though, the movie is completely stolen by Hailee Steinfeld as the determined Mattie Ross, who hires Bridges to avenge the murder of her father in the first place. She's one of those fast-talkin' characters that the Coens seem so amused by, and it's enormously entertaining to watch her outsmart and outmaneuver adults who are much more dangerous and accomplished than she is. Also, unlike Kim Darby in the original, Steinfeld seems much more at risk while in the wild territory, and way out of her element. Excellent movie all around.

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World
From the director of two movies I love dearly, Hot Fuzz and Shaun Of The Dead, comes this unique and inventive comic-book adaptation where Michael Cera wants to date Mary Elizabeth Winstead, but must defeat her 7 evil exes first. Infused with the DNA of 8-bit 80s era videogames, the movie is living cartoon that is probably most comparable to Tarantino's Kill Bill movies, if only vaguely. I'm 32, and I feel like this movie was aimed at my age group specifically. Those much older and younger than I didn't seem to care for it much, which doesn't surprise me, frankly.

The Millennium Trilogy
The Girl With The Dragon TattooThe Girl Who Played With FireThe Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest
The three books that make up the late Stieg Larsson's "Millennium Trilogy" were filmed as a Swedish mini-series in 2009, but released as separate films in the US in March, July, and November this year. My wife loved the books, but I knew nothing about them until we saw the fantastic first picture, which I would characterize as an above average detective story where a controversial journalist teams up with the intriguing and enigmatic punk bisexual computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace). The second picture was a bit of a disappointment in comparison to the first, delving deep into Salander's personal history in a way that felt a little more soap-opera-y to me. The third film, which is more or less a direct continuation of part 2, more than made up for it, however, finishing the series on a really strong note. If you can put up with the subtitles (and can handle an intense rape scene), they're well worth the effort to see.

The Kids Are All Right
The children of a same sex couple seek out the sperm donor their mothers employed back in the day and get to know him a bit. It's an interesting and charming movie that won a lot of points with me for being very naturalistic and plausible. The couple - played by Annette Benning and Julianne Moore - have a great relationship that feels very "lived in," - not sensational or glamourous the way lesbian couples sometimes are in movies and TV shows (especially the ones on late night Cinemax). The movie treats them like real people, and doesn't make a big deal out of their sexuality, which is how it should be. The actors who play the kids are solid, and Mark Ruffalo as the donor is layered and interesting. The movie sets up a number of uncomfortable scenarios for which there are no easy answers, but makes it all smooth and fascinating.

Black Swan
I think I admired the craft that went into this highly fucked up story of a big-time ballerina losing her shit on an epic scale more than I actually enjoyed watching it. I have a problem with movies that are kind of built around a device that obscures whether or not things that the movie has spent a great deal of time showing you have actually happened. Like Inception and Shutter Island (which I recently saw on video, and therefore did not blog about), I feel such stories give the director a certain kind of license to do a lot of off-the-wall shit for the sake of creating a mood and without any consequence to the story whatsoever. That sort of thing just rubs me the wrong way, even when it happens in a masterfully staged movie like this one.

I love Christopher Nolan's other movies, but I honestly found this one to be a little cold and off-putting. My hats off to him for coming up with such a unique concept and being able to stage it as effectively he did, but at the same time I felt the mechanics of what the "dream heisters" were doing were awfully cumbersome and unclear. They may indeed make perfect sense, according to the film's own rules, but I was a bit turned around during my one and only time watching it. And truthfully, it didn't intrigue me enough to really go back and figure it out. Nevertheless, it's a powerful movie going experience with some standout sequences.

Toy Story 3
I know this is heresy, but Toy Story 3, while good, just didn't do it for me like the other two did. Much of it even felt like a retread of the second film, actually, which I felt ended so beautifully that a third film would be very difficult to justify. I'm still not convinced they had a good reason for making part 3, but I enjoyed seeing the characters again, even if the film subjected them to terrible incarceration and non-stop torture.

Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows - Part 1
Director David Yates did a better job on Deathly Hallows - Part 1 than he did on the previous two entries in the series, but I still think he's unimaginative, emotionless, and pretty much ill-equipped to be making these things. This movie, which covers the first half of the final book in the series, abandons the structure of each movie depicting another year for the kids at Hogwarts, and instead has Harry and his friends on the run from the bad guys, who have pretty much taken over the entire wizard community. This means that it's a story that moves from point A to B to C in a pretty linear fashion, unlike the previous entries where different elements had to be concurrently introduced, developed, and then intertwoven by the end... which Yates was terrible at. Also, since this film and 2011's part two are the last in the series, it was perhaps more clear to him which parts of the story he really ought to focus on, which stands in great contrast to his interpretation of part 6, where he focused on staging the least interesting parts of book, and pretty much left all the good stuff out.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie and The City Of Lost Children) made this imaginative French farce about a circus troupe that takes on a pair of weapon manufacturers. It's a little lightweight, but really charming and I would argue a lot more exciting than the last couple of Mission: Impossible movies or The A-Team, which have similar break-in scenes that are not nearly as tense or as exciting as the ones here.

Huge guilty pleasure. I'll repeat a line from my original review, and say that it's like they took the original Predator (which I love dearly), and mixed in elements of Con Air and The Most Dangerous Game. Only real complaints are that apart from Adrian Brody, Alice Braga, the inimitable Danny Trejo and a goofy cameo from Lawrence Fishburne, the supporting cast feels a little third rate (although they were built upon ridiculous 80s stereotypes, which I appreciated). Also, the movie hits a serious lull after a while, much like the first Predator did.

Never Let Me Go
Insanely depressing movie about a future where clones are raised for the sole purpose of one day donating their organs to non-clones (and die in the process). Like Michael Bay's The Island done as a depressing English drama. I kept thinking about it for a long time after I saw it, but shit is it downbeat.


Please Give
An interesting picture on the subject of how people deal with the guilt they have for wanting the things that they want. Catherine Keener and the hideous, hairy man-blob known as Oliver Platt have bought the apartment next to theirs with plans of expanding their living space once the old lady who lives there passes on. Naturally, the lady's granddaughters, played by Amanda Peet and Rebecca Hall, find their intentions ghoulish. Nevertheless, they all get to know each other in this indie drama from Nicole Holofcener, which is packed with shady morality and interesting takes on proper behavior.

Winnebago Man
I'm a YouTube addict, and one of my favorites is a compilation of outtakes from a Winnebago promotional film from the late 80s where the host continuously loses his shit, forgets his lines, and shouts profanity at the crew. This entertaining documentary tracks Jack Rebney down and examines the effect that the video's infamy has had on the man himself. It really runs out of steam after a while, and takes a dark turn or two, but I love docs like this and found it immensely entertaining.

Best Worst Movie
Similar to Winnebago Man in many ways, including the fact that it's really longer than it should be. The guy behind this doc appeared in a low budget cheapie called Troll 2 as a child, eventually regarded by many as the "Worst Movie Ever Made." This doc offers updates on the people who made it and what the major players are all up to now. If you love bad movies, like me, you might get a kick out this examination of low budget non-Hollywood junk and the lives of the people behind it.

Cute footage of babies doing shit, but I felt there was virtually no order to any of the images that we're shown, and the picture doesn't really "do" anything, other than show us babies. I guess you have to give it points for being pretty much what it claimed to be.

The A-Team
I know I threw some shit at The A-Team a few entries above, but it's actually pretty okay. It's a standard action adventure heist movie, really. Its worst crime is that it is not super memorable (I can't even remember what the plot is about), but Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper and the guy from District 9 are entertaining as the leads. Less successful is Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, who steps into the Mr. T role and isn't really given much to do anyway. I still argue that they should have gotten Mr. T himself out of retirement to do it.

The Last Airbender
You know, even though the first half hour is really sucky, I kinda liked this action / adventure / fantasy from reviled director M Night Shyalaman. I have yet to meet another man, woman or child who doesn't think it's a world class pile of shit, however. Fans of the Nickelodeon series hated what Shyamalan did with the material. People who hated Shyamalan's previous few movies (and I'm one of them!) might have gone in already expecting it to be crappy. And those who saw it in 3D might have been upset by how awful the 3D conversion was (Roger Ebert spent most of his own review complaining about it!). Nevertheless, I liked the chop-socky stuff, and there were moments toward the end that I even found to be a little moving. My friend Megan just saw (and hated) it, and commented on her blog that the only way to watch it is with the hysterical RiffTrax commentary playing at the same time. Well said.

Fair Game
A political thriller about former CIA agent Valarie Plame, her husband Joe Wilson, and a vindictive White House that purposefully blew her cover in 2003. This happened a few months after the second Iraq War began, when Wilson wrote a piece for the New York Times asserting that the administration's claim that Iraq's attempt to purchase Yellow Cake Uranium from Niger, its key justification for invasion, was simply not credible. It's a wildly uneven movie, oscillating between Clear And Present Danger type scenes and family melodrama. Although I have a great deal of feeling for the events portrayed by the movie, I feel like they made an error in judgement by making the representatives of the White House appear so evil and conniving. I'm no fan of them or of the war they started, but I think the film needed to treat them more as highly misguided than teeth-gnashingly wicked. They certainly deserve to be denigrated for destroying this woman's career of service to her country, but in making thin caricatures out of Bush people in this movie, the filmmakers showed their very narrow, limited view of the situation.

Alice In Wonderland
I saw this movie twice, and wrote a rare follow-up review the second time. The first time I thought it was okay, and the second time I was acutely aware of how empty it is. I think a large amount of the blame centers around the presence of Johnny Depp in the cast, frankly. I know that Tim Burton doesn't seem to be physically capable of making a movie without him anymore, but because there's a star of Depp's caliber playing the relatively minor role of the Mad Hatter, he's suddenly the most important person in the film. Alice herself isn't even on the goddamn poster! It's just a shot of Depp in make-up. Lazy, lazy, insipid filmmaking, which is even worse when you consider the richness of the source material. I didn't hate it, but let's be honest: It's crap.

Iron Man 2
Highly mediocre sequel to a moderately better movie. Back in the 1980s, Robert Downey Jr. began what would become over 25 years of extensive research in order to prepare for his role as mega-rich, boozed-up, ego-maniacal, philandering drug-addict asshole Tony Stark. His scenes with Gwyneth Paltrow feel completely improvised and are excruciating to watch. The Wrestler's Mickey Rooney is the bad guy, and I can't even remember what his character's name is. Really, there's no good reason to see this movie unless you were okay with the first one, but wish that it had been less "mildly entertaining."

On one of the A/V Club podcasts, they remarked that an interesting thing about a summer with so few standouts is that movies which would otherwise seem mediocre wind up looking a lot better in comparsion, naming this one specifically. I vaguely liked this John C. Reilly / Marisa Tomei comedy, but the handheld video ultimately made me want to ralph, so I left the theater and hung out in a book store until the end credits rolled and my wife came to find me. Looking at Jonah Hill probably contributed to my nausea too.


Hot Tub Time Machine
No film could possibly live up to this, the single greatest title in movie history. I appreciated the 80s stuff, but I was seriously put off by how dark the movie was overall. Starts off in present times with John Cusack, Craig Robinson and Rob Cordory as bitterly depressed adults (so much so that Cordory even tries to kill himself in the opening scenes!). Once the high temperature, aerated water device with temporal distortion properties that is referenced by the film's title does its thing and they're back in time, there's still loads of regret, self-hate and most disturbing (to me, at any rate) excessive use of cocaine and other popular 80s drugs to go around. I'm not terribly comfortable around hard core drug use, to be honest with you, and so scenes like the one where Cusack locks himself in his hotel room and snorts a metric ton of coke (which would presumably kill most people) are comedy killers for me.

The Ghost Writer
Wow, I hated this thrill-less political thriller from Academy Award winning director and fugitive child rapist Roman Polanski. I like politics. And I find the world of literature to be at least interesting fodder for a movie. But I just don't see what other people saw in this horrible, drawn out snoozer.

The best parts of 2007's Grindhouse were the fake trailers that appeared between the features. The best of the fake trailers was the one for Machete, a faux Mexploitation film starring Danny Trejo. The key mistake this full-length feature makes is that it assumes that people who were amused by the trailer would want to see a film that faithfully incorporates and gives context to the moments that made them laugh the first time. The resulting star-packed feature commits that worst of all movie sins: It's really boring.

It's Kind Of A Funny Story
No it isn't. It's a horribly cliched, derivative knock-off of some much better stories. Children and adults would never, never, never, never, never, never, never be allowed to cohabit in the same mental ward the way they do in this movie, but don't worry, the filmmakers have that covered: Toward the beginning of the movie, they have some of the staff explain that "the under 18 ward is being renovated" multiple times, which is why they're all going to be together. Zach Galifianakis has a short credit line with me: I really enjoyed the The Hangover and while I appreciate that he tried to do something more interesting as a follow-up, if he keeps appearing in junk like this and Due Date (see below), he's f'ing done, man!

The Wolfman
I saw this one mostly out of curiosity. The original director quit right before they started filming, and then the picture lingered in post production hell for nearly two years before Universal shat it out into theaters in February. During that time, reshoots happened, top editors were brought in to recut certain scenes, and composer Danny Elfman wrote an amazing score for the movie, which was thrown out and replaced by techno crap for a while during post production, before a good amount of it was ultimately restored to the picture, which was at that time horribly mangled from all the recutting. It's a sterling example of why films that shoot before they're ready to shoot wind up costing a fortune and are virtually unwatchable.

Piranha 3D
There were a lot of indications that the movie would have a dark, subversive, self-conscious streak of humor in it, ala The Bride Of Chucky. But it's more like a light dusting of that. The rest of the movie is surprisingly gruesome and pretty horrifying. Don't see it, not even for the Kelly Brook topless scenes.

Date Night
Some smart executives at Fox decided that Tina Fey and Steve Carell, both stars of popular NBC sitcoms, would make a great screen couple, which they do. Unfortunately, that's roughly where the script development of this highly silly and thoroughly shitty waste of time ended. So many scenes feel like they just let Fey and Carell make it up as they went. It's the kind of movie that wouldn't be more than a few minutes long if the people in it weren't complete fucking morons and totally divorced from what actual human beings do. I'm being extra hard on it not only for being awful, but for getting such charming actors together and then not doing anything with them.

Due Date
Director Todd Phillips made last year's very funny, highly entertaining The Hangover. I applaud him for wanting to do something different for his follow-up, but it's too bad he went for "not funny, not entertaining." Words cannot sum up how much this movie pissed me off. Downey Jr. was completely miscast as the guy trying to get home, and it's heartbreaking to see Galifianakis slum it so early in his film career with such awful material. Desperate celebrity cameos and horrible segments that don't bear any consequences to the rest of the movie top off this, the biggest shit souffle of 2010.

And that's it! I still haven't seen Tron 2 or Yogi Bear, and that might change everything.

December 4, 2010

Black Swan (12/04/2010)

Lettergrade: Complicated

In Black Swan, Natalie Portman plays a big-time ballerina who experiences some extreme mental strain whilst preparing to appear in a new Carnegie Hall rendition of "Swan Lake." I can think of no other movie this year that was as (intentionally) excruciating or which caused me to squirm as much in my seat as this one did. I can't really call it enjoyable, and to be honest with you I'm not even sure that it's all that good. But it is a hell of an experience to sit in a theater and watch it, and if nothing else its effectiveness at making the viewer feel creeped out makes it noteworthy.

The movie was directed by Darren Aronofsky who, having made Pi, Requiem For A Dream, The Fountain and The Wrestler prior to this one, further demonstrates his interest in private spaces where obsession and addiction fester, and ultimately lead - in most of his films, at least - to some kind of dramatic self-destruction. I was in college when I saw Pi, and it would take more words than I'm presently aware of to accurately describe how much I hated it. The only one of his movies that I've really liked is that last one, The Wrestler, mostly because he abandoned the crazy camera stuff and the insane film-student-run-amuck stylistics, and filed the void instead with a surprising amount of humanity, which I would argue made the extraordinary things that happened in that movie much more relatable.

Black Swan is much more like his earlier movies. Its visual DNA is probably more like Requiem than the others... There's no shortage of shaky nervous camera angles, blood and open wounds, alternating scenes where Portman masturbates then vomits, and non-stop creepy visuals. For a picture about dancers, it's much more like A Nightmare On Elm St. than A Chorus Line. Aronofsky is great at making it scary and disturbing, but what's the point other than to provide a good jolt every now and again? I'm not really sure what this movie is about, and none of the characters in it seem like people who exist outside of movies.

I think that's the root of my problem with Black Swan: The filmmaking is stylish but cold, and the relative thinness of the characters just kind of put it into fantasy territory for me. When we meet Portman's character at the beginning, she's already, like, 95% unhinged to the point where she's imagining people who aren't there and seeing her reflection do things that her body isn't doing. That doesn't seem as interesting to me as a movie about how she got so messed up in the first place might be.

The other characters around her are designed to provide some clues to that backstory, but mostly take the form of cruel caricatures: The Swan Lake auteur, Vincent Cassel, is predictably slimy and lecherous. Her mother is at once over-bearing and protective, but occasionally whips out the crazy. It's intentionally unclear if her attempts to subvert her daughter come out of concern or jealousy, and maybe it's both. Portman herself has virtually no interests outside of dancing and doesn't seem to have any close friends or contacts at all... Can one become a prominent Carnegie Hall ballerina and completely lack interpersonal skills or understand a thing or two about politics? I'm not sure I buy that. We know that she has multiple OCD habits that include scratching herself in her sleep and practicing endlessly. We know that she's super driven to succeed, but we're not given much of a window as to why she feels her career is more important than her own mental health. Lots of symptoms in this movie, but very few causes.

The one person she does interact with outside of the dance hall is played by Mila Kunis, who is kind of a punk rival ballerina, sorta along Tyler Durden lines. Kunis is supposed to be a professional ballerina too, but she treats it more like juvenile detention... she drinks, smokes, does drugs, stays out late, and has a lot of large tattoos on her back. Maybe I'm naive here, but it just doesn't seem like anyone even remotely like that would ever be performing at Carnegie Hall. I think the tattoos alone are kind of a deal breaker, aren't they?

At certain points of the movie, I wondered if all of these characters (again, ala Tyler Durden) might be imaginary. I don't think they are, but the movie does spend a great deal of time showing them do things that they're not really doing. This kind of thing drives me up a wall: You quickly lose track of what's even happening in the movie's "reality." We're shown elaborate sequences, and then told they didn't actually take place. There are a lot of bat-shit crazy characters in the movie, and we see them do a lot of bat-shit crazy things. But which of them actually happened or at least have consequences that ripple into what is really happening? Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don't. Are all these sequences just dramatizations of what's going on in Portman's head? Is she even a ballerina at all? Is New York City actually there? Did Tchaikovsky even write Swan Lake in the first place? I'm sure the plot to Inception explains all this somehow, but I have no clue how.

It's one of those movies that was egoistically designed to be watched several times before you really "get it." Sitting here now, I've got virtually no interest in seeing it again, and unlocking whatever brilliant subtext Aronofsky decided to make so unclear to first-timer viewers. In fact, I don't even really want to think about it much more than I have already. And in fact, screw it: I'm going to work on my journal entry for True Grit, a much better movie, instead.

November 26, 2010

The King's Speech (11/26/2010)

Lettergrade: A

The King's Speech is about the man who would become King George VI played by Colin Firth, and the horrible stammer he overcame with the help of a failed actor-turned-speech therapist, played by Geoffrey Rush. It also covers a fascinating period of world history ranging from 1925 to the late 30s (and the start of World War II). On the surface, one might suspect it to be a dry history lesson, and the more cynical might even point out that the main elements seem to go right down the awards' season checklist: a dramatic historical setting... a charismatic future-leader before he became a leader... a disability to overcome... the lines of succession within the Royal Family... World War II... Nazis... Winston Churchill... Helena Bonham Carter; all the things that Academy voters eat up. Believe me, I'm as sensitive to crass Oscar-bait as anyone, but so much of The King's Speech is well-done and the movie works so beautifully that it's hard to think that the filmmakers had much in mind other than making a good movie.

As the picture opens, King George V (Michael Gambon) is fading, and fears that his eldest son, played by Guy Pearce, will be too busy philandering to meet the responsibilities of leading the Empire and dealing with the gathering war clouds over Germany. Should Pearce's Edward VIII pass the Crown on instead, Firth would be next in line, but he himself lives in mortal fear of such a scenario due to his stammer, which leaves him more or less paralyzed at public engagements. And the film skillfully underlines that this is a time where oratory skills have never been more important. Early on, George V notes that the increasing omnipresence of newsreel cameras and radio technology require that all nation's leaders must not just look regal, but be able to elocute accordingly. "It's turned us into actors," he sighs.

The future George VI winds up taking top secret speech lessons from Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), who treats his client a bit more gruffly than Royals are used to. Their "inspiring teacher / reluctant student" dynamic feels a little familiar at first, but Firth and Rush sell it so well that it's hard not to be engaged by their electric screen time together. Indeed their lengthy sessions both dominate the picture and comprise what is best about it. Midway through, I wondered if screenwriter David Seidler, who also wrote 1988's highly underrated Tucker: The Man And His Dream, adapted the material from a stage play of some kind, but I've not seen anything in the credits or the production notes to suggest that he did. In any case, the writing is clear and sophisticated, it's hard to think of lead actors who could perform it more convincingly. The play-like structure is smartly counterbalanced by quieter scenes here and there where both men spend time with their families, and the geopolitics of the day churn in the background, causing Firth to interact with several alumni of the Harry Potter movies.

Director Tom Hooper last made the seven-part John Adams mini-series for HBO, which I tried to watch, but found a bit tough to get through. Part of what turned me off was that the key moments of Adams' life were filmed with an MTV-inspired "shaky cam," as if he thought history needed to be sexed up so teenagers would watch. In this one, he sticks with a fairly classical approach, pulling fantastic work out of cinematographer Danny Cohen, editor Tariq Anwar, and composer Alexandre Desplat, without letting any of them get too crazy.

There's a lot of awards season buzz around The King's Speech already. I never like making predictions on what might be nominated and what won't be, but all indications are that this one will turn up in many of the major categories, most conspicuously for its acting. As a kid, I think I might have rolled my eyes a bit at seemingly stuffy costume dramas like this that always dominate awards shows. As an adult who feels nauseated that a movie like Alice In Wonderland might get nominated for Best Picture, however, I recognize that a solid drama as well-crafted and as well-performed as this is award-worthy indeed.

Something about a reluctant king having to learn how to behave properly seems familiar, though...

November 19, 2010

Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows - Part 1 (11/19/2010)

Lettergrade: B

Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows - Part 1 adapts the first half of the series' final book, its seventh, into an exciting, well-paced 2 1/2 hour movie. Being a devotee of the books, I have my complaints about what made it into each of the flicks and what didn't, but by and large I try to look at the movies as separate entities: Are the characters and story points clear and interesting on screen? Is, at the very least, the spirit of the source material there? And above all, do the films simply "work" as enjoyable reasons to go out to the cinema? For the most part, I'd say that this one did. I've got some major beefs (beeves?) with how it is as an adaptation (as ranted on below), but if we're talking about it as a film that follows the other films in the series, it's a good one. The four or five action scenes in the picture are thrilling, and there's enough intrigue and mysticism to keep even casual fans of the movies entertained.

I started reading the books after the third film came out in 2004, and during these last couple movies I've sat in the theater wondering if certain moments would make a lick of sense to people who were not already familiar with the texts. Maybe concerns like that are irrelevant... If you haven't read the books by now, you're probably not that interested, and if you're not that interested, what are you doing at a teenage wizard movie in the first place?

The main action of this one breaks from the tradition of each installment covering another year at Hogwart's School For Witchcraft And Wizardry, and instead has Harry, Ron and Hermione on the run from the authorities (now under the control of the bad guys), and hunting for magical objects that will aid in the destruction of Harry's arch nemesis, the noseless Voledemort. Being free of the series' signature formula allows director David Yates to stage things on his own terms, leaving no frame of comparison to whatever the franchises' earlier three directors might have done. Unlike the Hogwart's-based stories, this one moves in a little more of a straight line from clue to clue to clue... the overall plot development is a bit more confined, and Yates is able to get things to progress much more fluidly than he was with the turgid part 6.

Because the preceding movies omitted details that wound up being important in the final book, a good amount of Deathly Hallows - Part 1 is spent filling in missing pieces and playing catchup. Early on in particular, there are several awkward scenes where "Movie Harry" must be awkwardly introduced to characters that "Book Harry" has known for years already... the new Minister of Magic played by Bill Nighy, members of Ron's family who never made it into previous films, and a questionable good guy named Mundungus Fletcher, who, had he been around earlier, would have already stolen some key stuff that turned out be a problem in this one. By necessity, Yates has no choice but to patch the holes as efficiently as he can, often by simply having one of the characters in the scene recite a short, declarative statement that doesn't seem to be motivated by anything.

I have mixed feelings about Yates' handling of these movies overall. On one hand, his entries in the franchise have had the unenviable task of boiling massive, beloved books by J. K. Rowling into functional movies, and my hats off to him for getting the feeling right in ways that some of the previous directors did not. On another, though, his three movies have also felt strangely "thin" - seeming to rely on viewers' fond memories of the books, rather than finding ways to translate that emotion to the screen as complete movie scenes. Neither part 5 nor part 6 were entirely coherent or satisfying for me, as I felt they required audiences to already know the details by heart, and even then, to interpolate feelings and ideas that the films only vaguely touch upon.

While we're on that subject, I think I finally put my finger on what really bothers me about the three Yates movies midway though this one: Although he handles individual moments in the series as well as any of the other directors, there's a weird lack of momentum, tension and context in many of his scenes (all of which practically drip off the pages of the book). By that, I mean when a character speaks, he doesn't seem to be thinking much more about what he's saying at that precise moment. You don't see his or her eyes shifting with ulterior motives... you don't get a sense of where these characters have been or where they might go next.. there's no attempt to at the very least allude to aspects of the book that the movies didn't make time for. So many scenes seem to feature passionless recitations of dialogue (ala the Star Wars prequels), as if everyone was more concerned with professionally hitting their marks rather than really understanding how the scene fits into the larger whole. The big "oh shit" moments in the movie only seemed to work for me because I remember how I felt when I read them originally, and that's really not how it should be.

During the whole first part of the film, where the kids are getting ready to set off on their Horcrux quest, there's a patently bizarre lack of discussion about where they might need to start looking. In fact, I don't believe they talk about it at all, which is the exact opposite of the book, wherein every waking moment is spent trying to figure out what the miniscule clues they've got might mean. Later, when the kids are stranded in the woods, without any ideas about what to do next... what are they thinking about? Well, they don't seem to be thinking about anything. They don't talk about anything or really even do anything... they sit and sulk, gradually getting more and more pissed at eachother. The book has scenes like this too, of course, but unlike the film, it always keeps the personal squabbles in the context of the impossible task ahead.

One of the great running concepts throughout pretty much all the books are that the adults - even the ones the kids really look up to - all have their flaws... ranging from vanity, to egotism, to pride, or to long-standing disappointment that makes one bitter. Really, there are no benign older characters at all... not even Dumbledore, who, starting in the sixth book and especially in the seventh, is revealed to be just as imperfect and as troubled as anyone. I can't tell you how disappointed I am that this movie in particular failed to capture that aspect of the books. Posthumous stories come out about Dumbledore and his early life (in the book, at least), which are not entirely truthful, but nevertheless make Harry feel angry and abandoned, as if he didn't know his old teacher at all. It's agonizing and soul-crushing for him, and indeed I would argue that the whole element of Harry kind of losing faith in Dumbledore and becoming more aware of his less-than-saintly attributes is pretty much the essence of the first half of the book! There miiiiiiiight be a line or two of dialogue in the picture that references this, but it sure doesn't get you to feel it.

And while we're at it, there's another powerful component of the book that the movie fails to stage effectively too: The idea that Harry's thought-be-be-dormant psychic connection to Voledemort has again started opening up at will, giving him chaotic, uncontrolled peeks at what the baddie is up to. In the fifth movie/book, Harry attempted (unsuccessfully) to control these visions, but then they sort of went away on their own anyway. In this one they're back, and just as dangerous as ever. There's powerful scene from the middle of the book (appearing close to the end of this film) where Harry digs a grave with intense emotion, and has a series of blinding epiphanies. Without getting into specifics, he's suddenly renewed with a searing sense of purpose and at long last his thoughts are clear and focused, meaning, among other things, that he is now in control of those visions, and can keep them out whenever he likes. It's a major turning point for Harry, and it is appropriate that the first part of the story should conclude not long after. Nevertheless, my key argument here still applies: Yates shows images that kinda sorta represent this major change in his lead character, but I'll repeat that he sure doesn't get you to feel it. Had I not known what I was looking at from reading the books, would I have intuited that it was such an important moment at all?

My journal entry on part six, Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince

And my entry on part five, Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix

November 6, 2010

Due Date (11/06/2010)

Lettergrade: F

Apart from a dozen or so really good laughs, most of Due Date is pretty terrible. I don't mean terrible in the way that highly entertaining movies like UHF or The Kentucky Fried Movie or even Happy Gilmore are terrible, where a large part of the joke seems to be that a movie so strange somehow got made and was put in theaters in the first place. No, I mean terrible in the sense that it's derivative as hell of older, better movies... it leans heavily on tired cliches and on Zach Galifianakis's schtick in order to get from scene to scene... and it goes for cheap, bludgeoning sentiment that is completely unearned and totally unmoving. I don't ask for much from movies, but I do insist that the characters in them behave in patterns that are at least semi-consistent with actual human behavior. A lot of the characters in Due Date act like people who learned how to conduct themselves in life by watching other movies, and that drives me up a wall.

As the picture begins, smug architect Robert Downey Jr. is on his way to catch a flight from Atlanta back home to LA, allowing plenty of time for him to be there for his wife's planned c-section at the end of the week. Of course, Galifianakis-style hijinks somehow get the two placed on the No Fly List, and so the Oscar and Felix strangers team up to make the 2000 mile trip together (you know, sort of like Planes, Trains And Automobiles, or Midnight Run, or the middle of Tommy Boy, or the second half of Twins, or certain segments of Rain Man).

The main problem, I think, is that the picture seriously miscasts Downey Jr. in a mean-spirited part that pretty much destroys any chance the rest of the movie had of being funny. He's a cruel, indignant cad pretty much from frame one of this sucker, a choice that doesn't really work when played up against the otherwise-very-funny Galifianakis, who again goes with his type and plays a sweaty, awkward dude who is well intentioned, but highly irritating. He worked so well in The Hangover because he was a complete and total surprise: There were three normalish guys on a bachelor party weekend and then this very unusual, mentally unstable, bearded psycho creating all kinds of uncomfortable moments and unknowingly derailing everything. But it really falls flat in Due Date and I hold Downey Jr. responsible for that. I feel like it might have functioned a bit better if the character had been a bit softer: a Paul Rudd or a John Krasinski, if you will, who could maybe be pleasantly tolerant of Galifianakis's wake of destruction before gradually losing his shit on him.

On that subject, let's have a closer look at 1987's Planes, Trains And Automobiles (Due Date's four screenwriters sure as hell did!)... John Candy's antagonism of Steve Martin is similar to the point where the John Hughes estate should really think about pressing charges. The antagonism works in that movie, however, because Martin has a great deal of natural charm and even when he hits his breaking point, there has been a relatable build that allows you to sympathize with his tantrum. Like in this family friendly scene:

In the very first scene of Due Date, Downey Jr. treats even the slightest offense with a Keith Olbermann level of outrage ("How dare you SIR!!!), and the almost instant result was that I didn't like the guy, I didn't care about whatever Galifianakis did to him, and I had very little investment in whether or not he got to his wife in time. Seems like a pretty fatal miscalculation, huh?

But character problems aside, this movie has some other serious issues. A solid number two on my list of grievances is its highly episodic nature. The guys go to one place and a certain amount of segmented wackiness ensures for a bit, but then they move on to another place and another kind of completely random wackiness happens. These self-indulgent and nonsensical segments include such unrelated highlights as:
•Danny McBride as a disabled Western Union clerk who beats Downey Jr. up?
•Jamie Foxx as Downey Jr's pro football best friend in Texas, whom Downey Jr. suddenly suspects is the actual father of his to-be-born child??
•An extended sequence where the boys visit an Alabama pot dealer played by Juliette Lewis, for whom Galifianakis performs scenes from The Godfather, much like Jon Lovitz did in City Slickers II: The Legend Of Curly's Gold???
Worse yet, the events of these sequences often BEAR NO CONSEQUENCES WHATSOEVER FOR ANYTHING THAT FOLLOWS IN THE MOVIE. What about the climactic scene where Galifianakis busts Downey Jr. out of a border patrol facility that he was sent to for attempting to sneak marijuana across the Mexican border? He drives a stolen government truck through a high security INS compound, smashing through walls and causing thousands dollars worth of damage. Sounds like a pretty serious national security incident to me... but one that doesn't seem to merit any reaction from the law enforcement officials of the southwestern United States at all in subsequent scenes. They even keep the stolen government truck and take it all the way back to Los Angeles, but no one comes looking for it once the scene is over. But wait... I guess they did get the pot from Juliette Lewis earlier in the movie, so I guess that's some continuity between the movie's segments.

Director Todd Phillips last made The Hangover. Once upon a time, he also made 2003's highly entertaining Old School and before that 2000's raunchy but really funny Road Trip. You might look at those movies and say the guy's on a hell of a winning streak. Have a look his IMDB page, however, and note that inbetween all those movies he also made some serious clunkers: That god-awful Starsky & Hutch movie with Ben Still and Owen Wilson, School For Scoundrels with Billy Bob Thorton and the guy who played Napoleon Dynamite, and now this one.

Of course, we are talking about three really funny comedies mixed in with three not so good ones here, but the hit-and-miss ratio is great enough that the casual film goer should be cautious whenever the words "from the director of "The Hangover" are used to advertise a picture in the future.

Check out my entry on The Hangover, and my entry on last month's It's Kind Of A Funny Story.

November 3, 2010

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest (11/03/2010)

Lettergrade: A-
"Oh Lisbeth! It's the Big One! I'm coming to join you honey."
-Fred Sanford
The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest is based on the third part of the late Steig Larsson's "Millennium" books, which were all filmed as a Swedish miniseries in 2009, but recut for the States and released as separate movies this year (with subtitles). The series follows the exploits of investigative journalist Michael Blomqvist and his complicated relationship with the mysterious and intriguing Lisbeth Salander, a punk bisexual computer hacker who has a deeply troubled past. I don't think I found this third film to be quite as stellar as the first one, but I'll give it the same lettergrade anyway for succeeding as an excellent thriller, as a satisfying legal drama, and as a fitting close to the high-caliber series.

I greatly enjoyed the first picture, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, as a well-above-average potboiler featuring atypically compelling characters (and in part because I had pretty much no expectations going in). The second movie, The Girl Who Played With Fire, while still enjoyable, stumbled a bit for me. Instead of simply working on a independent mystery, as Blomqvist and Lisbeth did in the first picture, the second story had them caught up in a larger conspiracy plot that delved deeper into Lisbeth's personal history. The tone was quite different, and certain key elements felt like they were on loan from the James Bond franchise: The blond muscle-bound thug who could not feel pain, the mysterious villainous Zala, who was hideously deformed from an accident earlier in his life, etc. The story was a little sleazier (gratuitous lesbian sex scenes for Lisbeth), there was all this weird shaky cam stuff, and less satisfaction came from the crime solvin' aspect as the two leads were kept apart for virtually the whole movie.

The second film was also designed as something of a cliffhanger that would lead more or less directly into this one. Getting into the nuances of the plot would be pointless for the uninitiated and redundant for those who have already read Larsson's books. Suffice to say that part 3 brings several elements of the first two pictures to a boil, and finds Lisbeth defending herself in court for much of it. The picture seemed to tone down a lot of aspects that I had a problem with in part 2 (thankfully, Zala's appearance in this one is brief), and gotten into territory that doesn't necessarily recreate what the first movie was, but is arguably just as effective.

It's interesting to me that all three stories feature much older characters attempting to keep covered crimes that were committed long ago. In this film, as in the others, we spend time with seemingly-benign, grandfatherly men who it turns out have done some pretty messed up, horrible things earlier in life. Hornet's Nest features a governmental group called "The Section" which was formed long ago to protect Soviet spies who defected to Sweden (presumably for the health-care, the world-renowned culinary offerings of the Swedish Chef, and for the excellent, inexpensive build-it-yourself furniture that populates the land). Early in the movie, the now-elderly guys meet up to discuss what to do about the growing threat of their program being exposed, and who they need to kill to keep it a secret. It's sort of a like a bizarro scene from Cocoon, where Hume Cronyn and Don Ameche draw up a list of people to brutally murder. I was amused later in the movie when a member of the geriatric mafia takes a break from his dialysis treatments and dodders into a local hospital to bump a key player off.

Larsson's plan was have the series continue well beyond this entry, but he died suddenly after completing the manuscripts for parts 2 and 3 (although a fourth unpublished one is said to be caught up in a battle over Larsson's estate). I bring this up because although the various threads were not necessarily intended to be all tied up by the end of this third story, the film, at least, concludes everything in a way that I found extremely satisfying.

My journal entry on part 1, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

And my entry on part 2, The Girl Who Played With Fire

October 20, 2010

Alice In Wonderland - TAKE TWO on (10/20/2010)

Originally reviewed on March 6th, 2010.

For a while now, I've been thinking it'd be interesting to write follow-up entries on movies that I've wound up seeing a second time, way after the initial release.

Awards season is beginning here in Los Angeles, meaning that studios are holding free screenings of their films at various places throughout the city in hopes of getting nominated for, well, pretty much anything they can get nominated for. The studio I'm working at presently hosted a screening of Alice In Wonderland last week, and we thought "why the hell not?" Although I wasn't nuts about the film when we first saw it in March, I liked it enough to want to see it again, especially if it meant that I literally didn't have to go through any effort whatsoever to do so. My wife met me at the studio, we had dinner and a few drinks across the street, then we came back and walked right into the flick. The most labor-intensive part of the process was seriously when I spent 15 seconds navigating through the RSVP website.

Unfortunately, the convenience, the "freeness" and the mild inebriation didn't make up for the fact that I liked the movie considerably less the second time. In addition to there being a conspicuous lack of "wonder" for most of the movie, the momentum just lays there like a drenched towel until, like, the last 15 minutes of movie, where things start to get exciting. Those 15 minutes, where Alice actually has a mission and grows and changes a little, are actually pretty good, but it's far too little too late, I say!

The Oscar push that's begun for this movie lately is totally and utterly baffling to me. The producers seem to think it's got a shot at getting nominated for Best Picture, which is f#@%ing insanity. Check out the self-delusion that drips off this quote from producer Richard Zanuck on WorstPreviews:
"I think it would be terribly disappointing not to make the Top Ten," said Zanuck. "You can't make a billion dollar gross unless millions of people are satisfied with a picture. The whole point of the new rule of 10 Best Picture nominees was not to exclude the most popular pictures of the year such as 'The Dark Knight.' It was like pooh-poohing the audience. There should be recognition that you don't get that business unless there were a lot of repeats and broad-based appeal and true creative accomplishment."

Well, it's criminal malpractice if the movie gets nominated for anything other than visual effects, make-up, or costumes. And maybe music.

But let's move on to my thoughts about the second go around. I don't want to rehash my original entry on this movie entirely, so I will attempt to go through things using more concise bullet points instead...

•Man, what a dour movie! When Alice gets back to Wonderland, the place is a burned out hellhole. Why did Burton think that we'd want to go to a post-apocalypic Wonderland instead of the one from the books?

•I like Mia Wasikowska, who plays Alice, but she seems awfully restrained for the role. It's a movie about her finding her identity, I guess, but she doesn't really get you to feel it until the last couple scenes.

•I think that the Mad Hatter, and the fact that he's played by superstar Johnny Depp, is one of the main problems with the movie. I don't recall him being that significant in previous versions of the story, but here he's treated like he's Che Guevara. But the thing is, the character, as portrayed in the movie, is schizophrenic, unstable, and kind of an asshole. Alice makes it her mission during the middle part of the movie to save him from the Red Queen, but the question is why? I mean, he spent the earlier part of the movie scaring her and failing to give her any help whatsoever. Had it been me in Wonderland, I think I would have put the Hatter being captured and drug off to be executed in the category of "shit happens."

•The only one who seems to be having any fun in this movie is Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen. Another is Stephen Fry as the voice of the Cheshire Cat, but he was probably only in the studio for about 25 minutes to record his lines, so let's not count him.

•Behind Carter, a distant second is Anne Hathaway in a much smaller role as the White Queen. By her own admission, she modeled her performance after the Food Network's Nigella Lawson, and if you watch the flick knowing that, she's hysterical. However at the same time, playing her that way seems like a really poor decision on Burton's part that says to me that he wasn't taking this seriously at all... A bad guy can get away with some theatrical panache like that. When a good one, like the White Queen, does it, it feels sorta like the actress thought the story was a bunch of bullshit.

And that leads me to my very biggest problems with this whole thing:

There are virtually no stakes in this movie , and the few that there are are flaccid and ineffective.

What does Alice want in this story? She ran away and fell down the rabbit hole in the first place because some sleazy looking fat guy with bad teeth asked her to marry him. Also, she catches her sister's husband making out with a girl who is not her sister (a plot point that results in neither action nor payoff later in the movie), and she feels bad for her elderly aunt, who seems to have some kind of dementia and believes that her prince is waiting right around the corner - none of which seems to have much point or consequence, other than to demonstrate that being a 19th century adult sucks.

So now she's in Wonderland, and she doesn't want to get home right away because she'll have to see that dude again, but it's not like she's invested in Wonderland or any of its problems either. In fact she spends, like, an hour or so of screen time denying that she's even the real Alice at all, a plot device that's beyond moronic. What is the movie going to do? Bring the real Alice into play at the last minute and have her kill the Jabberwocky? Or tell the audience that the real Alice is busy or died a couple years ago off camera or something, so the fake one will just have to make due?

So she doesn't want to get home, and she has very mild interest, at best, in staying. And the movie doesn't even do much to get us interested in her staying. And that's another beef I've got with this sucker - the fact that...

•There's no suspense or intrigue about where the movie is going. As soon as Alice arrives in Wonderland, the gang tells her (and us) that she's going to slay the Jabberwocky tomorrow. There's even a prophecy drawing of her doing it just in case there was even a shred of doubt. I'll repeat for emphasis: There's absolutely no question that she's going to do it, and that it will happen tomorrow. The good guys know it, and the bad guys know it. In fact, when the big day arrives, even though the Red Queen knows that her beloved Jabberwocky is destined to be killed that day, she lets him out anyway, also knowing that Alice is standing right over there and that she has the Vorpal Sword, the only weapon which is capable of doing it. She had already pretty much decimated all of Wonderland before the movie started, so there was zero point in her letting her pet out. It was just sheer, unadulterated carelessness and extreme, mind-numbing stupidity that further made it seem like the screenwriter came up with the movie in about 15 minutes on the back of a cocktail napkin.

Moving on, though, one thing that made viewing #2 more interesting was that we saw it in 3D this time, having opted for good old fashioned 2D the first time. Generally speaking, I detest the format, feeling that it only detracts from the experience of watching a movie. My opinion remains completely unchanged, although I did get some mild amusement out of moments where Crispin Glover would point directly at the camera, etc. I'll repeat myself, however, and say that the mild diorama effects do not make up for the diminished brightness and sharpness that the glasses create.

I feel that if a movie is making extensive use of 3D, odds are that it will be good once, and not again after that. Viewing Alice a second time added fuel to that suspicion for me, and it saddens me that as one of the highest grossing movies of the year, it will only further the trend.

Oh, and last point:
•The Fudderwacken (aka the horrible dance that Johnny Depp performs at the end of the movie). I knew it was coming, having suffered through it before, but when it did, I felt shame, embarrassment and disgust. It doesn't make or break the movie, but man is it ill advised and awful!

Read my initial journal entry on Alice In Wonderland from March 6, 2010 by clicking here.

October 8, 2010

It's Kind Of A Funny Story (10/08/2010)

Lettergrade: C-

Earlier today, I realized that we had seen a movie, like, two weeks ago that I have neglected to write about. It took me a moment to recall which movie it was, exactly, and what happened in it... something that probably speaks volumes about It's Kind Of A Funny Story and whether or not I believe you should spend a couple hours and a bunch of money to go see it yourself.

The lettergrade system I've been using for this blog sometimes fails me... I try to reserve the "C" range for movies that are not bad (although not especially good), and anything below for ones that start to feel a little lazy, or crappy, or poorly thought-out. Where do I put a perfectly serviceable dramatic comedy like this that doesn't do anything too offensive, but at the same time sticks to the tried-and-true conventions of its sub-genre, failing to distinguish itself as much more than exercise for everyone involved?

The movie is about a depressed teenager played by The United States Of Tara's Keir Gilchrist. He's haunted by recurring thoughts of jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge that seem to stem from unrequited lust for his best friend's girl in addition to having to write some kind of important summer school application that will determine whether he'll go on to have a rich full life or not. Instead of actually jumping and cutting the movie's running time down considerably, he goes instead to the local hospital where ER doctor and Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi agrees to commit him to the hospital's mental ward for five days... Just enough time for him to befriend an eccentric man-child played by Zach Galifianakis and learn a couple important life lessons.

Minors and adults together in the looney bin? The movie explains multiple times that due to renovations in the section where the under 18ers would usually be, everyone must be mixed together for the foreseeable future. Yeah, that sounded conspicuously like a bullshit movie gimmick to me too... almost as if co-writers / co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck were nearly done with the script by the time that a more informed source told them that a 16 year old and a 40 year old would never be allowed to be in the same treatment space like that, and this was the easiest fix they could come up with. And for that matter, their floor must be one of those no-security wards where those with dangerous mental impairments can basically leave whenever they want to without any repercussions whatsoever as long as they pick-up some unattended hospital scrubs first, and look around with mild concern before using one of the many, many unguarded exits.

But anyway, back to the plot. As the week continues, Gilchrist's friends on the outside learn about where he is. His best friend mocks him shamelessly as only a douchy 16 year old can, but the aforementioned best friend's girlfriend is suddenly really turned on, and even comes to the ward at one point with the intention of having sex with him! She's played by Zoƫ Kravitz, who looks like a slightly more feminine version of Lenny Kravitz, her father, and her sudden willingness to sleep with the friend of her boyfriend in a nasty mental ward is not only kind fucked up, but it also creates a problem for Gilchrist with another patient played by the lovely Emma Roberts, Julia's niece, with whom he had been developing a quasi romance.

And then there's Galifianakis himself, playing a more somber variation on the role in played last summer's The Hangover (which indeed might not be all that different from the man anyway). I still think he's really funny, and I sure hope he doesn't follow the Seth Rogen / Will Ferrell / Vince Vaughn template of making too many crappy movies way too quickly, thus completely wearing out his welcome before he's even had a chance to have a good long career. I'm glad that he tried to pick a movie with more content to appear in before Due Date hits next month and The Hangover 2 arrives next year, but I can't help but wish he had picked a better one to be in.

But you know, there's something weird about the fact that a big comedy guy like Galifianakis is in this movie in the first place, along with a number of other comedians like Mandvi and Jim Gaffigan, who plays Gilchrist's dad. None of their parts are all that funny, nor are they really intended to be (they are, however, "kinda funny" which I guess justifies the title). The Fleck and Boden might describe it as a "dramedy," which is a sub genre I have a problem with, actually, because so often it seems to be used as an excuse for the movie existing in the bland nether region between comedy and drama. It's not funny? Well, what do you expect, it's a Dramedy! The story doesn't have much drive? Well, it's a Dramedy! It's completely flaccid and uninteresting? Dramedy! As if the banality is okay because there's a category for it already.

Parts of this movie made me think of a much better movie, 1992's Scent Of A Woman, in that Gilchrist, like Chris O'Donnell before him, is thrust into a very adult and scary situation for a few days with a very damaged individual, from whom he gains a valuable perspective on life that transcends his piddly-shit troubles at school. In that movie, however, O'Donnell's journey is about developing character and doing the right thing in the face of expectation and peer pressure. In this one, it's more about the kid coming to the conclusion that he shouldn't work too hard at school and that he should totally ask out that Emma Roberts girl, even though she's really messed up and tried to commit suicide herself too.

Not sure what I'm supposed to take away from that, which is probably why I didn't take anything from it.

October 2, 2010

The Social Network (10/02/2010)

Lettergrade: A-

There's so much breakneck dialogue in The Social Network that it begins even before the Columbia Pictures logo has faded to black. Not a speck of it feels superfluous or out of place, however, in this, an excellent going-into-business picture about the formation of the internet phenomenon known as Facebook, and its principal founder, Mark Zuckerberg. He doesn't catch much of a break from screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, the famed West Wing creator / producer, who writes the world's youngest billionaire as a wildly anti-social, self-absorbed dickhead, or from director David Fincher, who seemingly took a major cue from Citizen Kane and the downfall of Michael Corelone in The Godfather part II when staging it.

Much of the movie follows the Kane model of telling the story in flashbacks, allowing us to skip around from event to event and to greatly truncate parts of the story that the film doesn't want to spend a lot of time with. The central device here are various hearings and depositions centering around two simultaneous lawsuits in which the damaged parties explain why they feel they were wronged by Zuckerburg (and are therefore owed money). Ala Rashomon and One Night At McCool's, we get conflicting testimony on what went down and how. My wife, a tax attorney, appreciated that it's essentially a courtroom drama that does not take place in a courtroom but in the meeting rooms of various lawfirms, where most real lawyerin' gets done.

There is much about the movie that is endlessly fascinating. The technical and business side of how Facebook became what it is and grew to over half a billion members since its short life began in 2004 is mesmerizing in and of itself, and Sorkin dishes it all out in a way that's clear and easy to comprehend while not talking down to the audience. And then of course there's the curious case of Zuckerberg himself, depicted in the film as a perennial outcast who cannot get terribly far into the Harvard social scene (or even maintain any close friendships), and yet his understanding of how his classmates interact with eachother and how that might translate to his internet venture is uncanny. He cannot listen or interface, and has no humility or modesty. He speaks endlessly about random topics, flitting from subject to subject in a way that's seemingly designed to be just as disparate as a common selection of status updates. Jessie Eisenberg plays him, and if the picture has a falling down point, it could be that at times his performance is so twisted and vindictive that it somewhat strains credibility, getting slightly into Mommy Dearest territory.

His best friend and initial Facebook CFO is played by Andrew Garfield (who also appears in Never Let Me Go this month). Garfield leaves a hell of an impression in this movie as one of the few victims of Zuckerberg's ambition who manages to gain our sympathy. Garfield's Eduardo Saverin, is one of the few real life people who also participated in Ben Mezrich's much disputed book "The Accidental Billionaires," upon which Sorkin based his screenplay. Considering that, perhaps the fine light he appears in here is not an accident. Other characters, like the ultra douchy Winklevoss twins who claim that Zuckerberg stole their concept and ran with it, don't quite earn the same emotion. Nevertheless, another standout performance comes from Justin Timberlake, who appears as a Napster founder Sean Parker, the guy who arranges for Facebook to go big and broad at a key point of its infancy, and who likes to challenge business conventions and create trouble in a Tyler Durden sort of way.

It's interesting to see two very distinctive talents like Sorkin and Fincher (who previously directed Se7en, Zodiac and The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button), team up on the same picture together, while both managing to hang on to what makes each so distinctive. Even familiar bio-pic conventions are played very smoothly by the two and given refreshing twists. During the first half of the picture, I appreciated that the picture cleverly shows where a lot of Zuckerberg's inspiration for Facebook's various features might have come from, without ever having the equivalent of a giant lightbulb go off over his head.

Ultimately, however, it's the damning portrayal and the extreme darkness surrounding Zuckerbeg's character that will probably generate the most thought and debate with this picture. Forget about the implication that he betrayed, screwed over, and abandoned nearly everyone he was even close to being friendly with... the guy, as depicted by the film, has generated his online world more out of sheer loneliness and desperation than out of any desire to connect with others. He was brilliant enough to come up with the framework and architecture of the site, but is hopelessly lacking any personality with which to fill it, or any skills with which to develop the real-life friendships that all those Facebook links supposedly represent. In the end, he's still a lonely guy, albeit in a much fancier room, peeking out into the personal lives of others while sorely neglecting his own.

I have no idea how much this image has in common with the real Mark Zuckerberg, but if that's not a cautionary note about virtual online communities taking the place of real interaction and human experience, I'm not sure what is.

September 25, 2010

Never Let Me Go (09/25/2010)

(Warning! Below I reveal a little about the premise of the movie that is not clear from watching the trailers, but no real "spoilers"!)

Lettergrade: C+

At long last the prayers of people who liked the concept of Michael Bay's 2005 clone actioner The Island, but wished it had been done as a highly depressing English drama that doesn't have any action in it have been answered.

Never Let Me Go is based on a best selling novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, and tells a multi-decade love story set in an alternate reality that looks a lot like ours, but in which clones have been created for the sole purpose of staying healthy so they can someday donate their organs to non-clones (and likely die in the process).

The movie follows three of them (played as adults by Carey Mulligan, Kiera Knightley and some guy I'd never heard of), and functions in three main segments, taking place in 1978, 1986, and 1992, respectively. Mulligan's child substitute likes Tommy (Andrew Garfield), but a much more aggressive clone who will grow up to be Keira Knightley likes him too. Each time period examines a very different phase of the three's lives and meditates upon how they feel about themselves, each other, and their ultimate purpose.

The movie is beautiful, emotionally haunting, and wildly sad, but I take some major points off the top for ultimately being a bit dramatically inert. It's a little funny to me that I feel that way because when I think of it, there are a few very powerful dramatic devices that work quite well during certain segments of the movie, however the lack of an overall narrative thrust is what really prevented the movie from taking off for me. The segment that leaves the strongest impression is the opening segment, where we think we're looking at a standard English boarding school of the 70s, but slowly begin to realize that something is a little wrong. The classes the children take sure seem to have some unusual subject material, and visitors to the school look at the kids with an unspoken combination of pity and disgust. The beans are spilled about 20 minutes into the film by Happy Go Lucky's wonderful Sally Hawkins, who has a brief role as a young teacher who doesn't seem to have taken the job meaning to cause trouble, but whose conscience upon spending time with the children up close will not allow her to do otherwise.

The film's other revelations are more intimate and interpersonal in scale, and yet the movie feels overly restrained at the same time in a way that put me off. I have not read the book, but I hear that director Mark Romenek and his screenwriter, Alex Garland, stayed pretty close to the source material. They know how to communicate a great deal of emotion with wonderful efficiency and poignancy, but I kept waiting for some key element of the plot to emerge that never quite did.

The movie I kept thinking of throughout Never Let Me Go was 2007's Atonement, another multi-decade British drama in which there similarly is a romance that is strangled at birth by the selfishness of a third party. Knightley is in both movies, although she's the wronged party in the earlier film whereas she's one doing the love obstructin' in this one.

Now the guy they're both hung up over doesn't really seem to have a lot going on, honestly, other than the fact that he's there, and he's obtainable. Sort of like the British clone boarding school equivalent of work hot. I think the movie survives this just fine, but a love triangle like this would seem to work a lot better if you can more clearly understand why both women are fixated on the same dude. Tommy is with Knightley in this movie because she wanted him to be and basically pushed him to do that: whatever his personal feelings may have been, they don't seem relevant to the matter!

I honestly don't think of Atonement (a Best Picture nominee!) much these days, other than to briefly remember the stellar acting from some of the cast, Saoirse Ronan in particular. Never Let Me Go made me feel deeply sad in a way that has stuck with me for much of the last week, but to be honest with you, I suspect that in the future I'm not going to think of it much either.

And check out my journal entry on Atonement.

September 9, 2010

Piranha 3D (09/09/2010)

Lettergrade: D-

I tend not to dig horror flicks much these days, but I have a soft spot for movies that are a little hammy, self-conscious, and satirical. Alas, Piranha 3D is not. A number of factors led me to believe that the flick would be a lot more fun than it turned out to be, some of which I'll get into below. Suffice to say that the movie's wit and sense of humor are like a thin layer of caramel that runs through a pint of ice cream: It adds some tasty accent here and there, yes, but it still feels mostly like you're eating vanilla.

In spite of some inspired tongue-in-cheek casting choices and some overly ridiculous uses of 3D, most of the movie is kinda mean-spirited and ugly. And then there's a scene where the piranhas attack a spring break party toward the end that rivals Saving Private Ryan in terms of sheer gore and gruesomeness. I'm not sure what I was looking for from this movie... maybe something more along the lines of Bride Of Chucky or Freddy Vs. Jason or even the disappointing Snakes On A Plane: All of which knew how to deliver some laughs while keeping the violence amusingly unrealistic. But as is, it's one of those movies that seems to be made for a bafflingly small audience, and I can't really recommend it to anyone for any reason.

But back to my reasons for plunking down the cash for a ticket in the first place. The first thing that caught my attention with this movie was that director Alexandre Aja was trying to get Joe Dante (who directed the original 1978 Piranha, a cheapie take-off of Jaws) and James Cameron (who got his directing break on 1981's Piranha II: The Spawning, but was later fired) to appear in the film as water safety instructors. Dante wanted to do it, but Cameron, who was busy making Avatar at the time, didn't. Nevertheless, the idea that Aja attempted an idea like that suggested to me that there was a perverse wit at work here that might just make one of those ridiculous so-good-it's-bad cult classics that I love watching with friends.

And then I heard about the cast. The scenery chowing Christopher Lloyd as a local doom-saying marine biologist. Elizabeth Shue as the cop. An actual speaking performance from the lovely Kelly Brook, a British super-model with world-renowned breasts and almost zero acting talent (and she's not shy about flaunting either!). Jerry O'Connell as a character so closely based on Girls Gone Wild's Joe Francis that there was almost a lawsuit (although he could have been more upset that they show his surrogate giving cocaine to a college freshman then getting his johnson bit off by killer fish more than anything). They even got Richard Dreyfuss to appear as a character named Matt, who dresses a hell of a lot like Dreyfuss's own Matt Hooper from Jaws and even sings the same tune that the earlier character sang with Quint and Chief Brody whilst fishing during the pre-credit sequence.

But again, all these clever / inspiring ideas find themselves in a pretty bloody, highly unpleasant movie. Several times during the flick, I had to look away from the screen, something I rarely do. Aja and his picture editor seemed to anticipate just how long audience folk like me might avert their eyes before attempting to look back at the screen... and then they held it a few seconds longer!

James Cameron has really come out against this movie, saying in an interview with Variety that its cheap, manipulative tricks are not what 3D is all about:
“I tend almost never to throw other films under the bus, but that (‘Piranha 3D’) is exactly an example of what we should not be doing in 3-D. Because it just cheapens the medium and reminds you of the bad 3-D horror films from the ’70s and ’80s, like ‘Friday the 13th 3-D.’”
As readers of this blog know (all three of you!), I hate 3D. And I think Cameron has got it completely dead-ass wrong here. Cheap 3D tricks are exactly what the format has always been about. If you're going to make a movie in 3D there had damn well better be things lunging out at you and random shit flying at the camera. That's what it's been about since it was popularized in the 50s in order to compete with the ever growing trend of people having new fangled television sets in their homes. Making a serious, dramatic picture with Oscar aspirations is not what 3D is all about. And frankly, after sitting through three goddamn hours of your 3D smurf epic last winter, I can't think of a single way in which having to wear thick, cumbersome glasses made the movie better. In fact, I would argue, that because 3D made your picture darker and less sharp that most people would have been better off seeing it the ol' fashioned way. You know, the way where color, depth of field and sharpness actually mean something.

3D is, and always has been, a cheap gimmick designed boost ticket sales. If nothing else, give Piranha 3D (and the upcoming Jackass 3D) credit for understanding that where you do not.

September 5, 2010

Machete (09/05/2010)

Lettergrade: D+

I made my wife go see Machete with me, and I will have to live with the strain and damage it has inflicted on our marriage.

No seriously... it's not that bad, but make no mistake that it's bad. Here's a movie with several different influences that just don't sit well together. A small part of it seems to want to be The Kentucky Fried Movie occasionally and the other tries really hard to be cool with lots of blood n' guts badass'dness the likes of which were present in some of co-director Robert Rodriguez's earlier movies. Those two things tend to cancel eachother out to a certain degree, I think, and resulting the movie falls into that trap that many movies seem to these days... it works too hard to do too many things, and as a result succeeds at none of them entirely. It's amusing sometimes, but frankly not enough to be called a comedy. The action is intense and gruesome, albeit cartoony, and not really what I'd call "fun."

Three and a half years ago, Rodriguez made a fake trailer for Machete which was used as an interstitial bit during Grindhouse, the double feature tribute to low budget 70s exploitation flicks that he made with Quentin Tarantino. Fans seemed to agree that the fake trailers (Machete in particular) delivered much more satisfaction than the two movies themselves, each of which ran upwards of 90s minutes and seriously wore out their welcome. The popularity endured, in part because beloved character actor and Rodriguez regular Danny Trejo was so great in the role, and now Machete has been expanded to a feature's length of 1 hour and 45 minutes. In a way, it feels like a third Grindhouse feature, but with toned down mimicry of subpar 70s filmmaking. Also like those movies, it's one that feels like it might have played right at about 65-70 minutes rather than 100.

Part of what made the fake trailer so great was that we only got quick flashes of the absurd story, without any of that clunky set-up or pesky backstory to get in the way. The new movie sees fit not only to reuse (or recreate) as much of the trailer's material as it could, but to weave the peices into a storyline explaining how Machete gets from point A to point B to point C. Isn't brevity the soul of wit, to deploy an overused quote? And aren't certain things funnier if left pretty much unexplained?

The basic premise is that Machete, an ex-Federale living in Texas, gets wrapped up in a botched assassination attempt on an ardently anti-immigrant senator up for reelection. Give credit to Rodriguez for assembling an all-star cast including Robert DeNiro, Jessica Alba, Jeff Fahey, Cheech Marin, Lindsay Lohan, Don Johnson and Steven Segal, but fault him at the same time for not coming up with something more interesting for all these people to do once they made it to set.

And a word about that, if I may... I really admire that Rodriguez has built his own studio empire in Austin... far from (and somewhat independent of) Hollywood, but at the same time I must acknowledge he coughs up what seems like 2 or 3 directing projects a year, most of them feel pretty mediocre, as this one does. Spielberg has directed multiple movies back to back before, and usually one will feel a little undernourished. You almost forgive him for being half-hearted with a Jurassic Park sequel or something like Minority Report, however, because there's a Schindler's List or a Catch Me If You Can or a Saving Private Ryan coming at the end of the line. If Rodriguez cuts short post-production on Spy Kids 3D, it's so he can jerk out The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3D before the fiscal year ends. There's a key difference here, folks.

In any case, I'll give the movie some points for a few great laughs, but would overall describe it as malformed and unsatisfying: One you can safely skip, be it in the theaters or on DVD. Watch the original trailer again, though:

And check out my journal entry on Grindhouse.