May 30, 2010

Please Give (05/30/10)

Lettergrade: B

My wife wanted to see this new movie from Nicole Holofcener, who previously made Lovely & Amazing and Walking And Talking. She's one of her favorite directors, but only makes a picture every 5 years or so and when she does, so says my wife, they've consistently been really good. Please Give is not one I'd probably see if left on my own, but I found the light drama, which centers on a group of New Yorkers wrestling with liberal guilt in one form or another, to be very smartly written and thought-provoking.

Catherine Keener and the hideous, hairy man-blob that is Oliver Platt operate a resale shop that harvests vintage furniture from the homes of the recently deceased, and then sells to semi-suspecting yuppies at obscenely marked-up prices. They've bought two adjacent apartments in the same building: One that they live in, and another that is occupied by a very old lady. Although they're perfectly pleasant to her in the hallway, they ghoulishly confer about how they can't wait for her to die so they can knock down the walls and get to work on their larger living room and master bathroom. The elderly neighbor has two hot granddaughters (played by the ever-tan Amanda Peet and the lovely Rebecca Hall), who are acutely aware of the circling wolves, and make little effort to hide their hostility when passing in the halls or sharing an elevator. Platt and Keener invite them all over to dinner early on in the movie in an attempt to make peace and more importantly to make themselves feel better about the situation, and setting the characters primary interaction throughout the rest of the story in motion.

The movie is a very interesting portrait of selfishness in its many forms and how people deal with it (or not). Keener's character aggressively gives leftovers and money to people on the street who appear homeless, while at the same time refusing a to spend dime more than she absolutely has to on her daughter. Rebecca Hall feels a sense of obligation and gratitude to her hostile grandmother to the extent that she's reluctant to do things for herself that would probably make her much happier. Skin therapist Amanda Peet, by contrast, is unrepentantly self-centered: one of the only characters in the movie who doesn't try to cover up her nasty behavior with empty deeds and gestures.

I wouldn't call it a great movie, really, but I certainly enjoyed it, and it held my attention and stimulated my intellect, which I'm fairly certainly The Prince Of Persia would not have done this weekend. Viewers beware, however: This film contains graphic scenes of extreme Oliver Platt shirtlessness. I would advise not eating for at least two hours before watching.

May 14, 2010

Babies (05/14/2010)

Lettergrade: C+

One of the big factors in me wanting to get into film professionally was my father, something of a late-bloomer who did not get around to starting a family until he was nearly 40. He felt a strong compulsion to document his children's early years as thoroughly as he could on super 8mm film, and we practically grew up with his camera in our faces, which we hated. Even more so, we bitched and moaned on the occasional evening when my dad would bring the screen and projector out from the hall closet, and show sections of the films he had made to us and whomever else was over for dinner that night.

After a couple years of this, however, it became clear that my dad's home filmmaking had a certain kind of genius to it. He was a master at knowing exactly when to turn the camera on us when we were about to do something silly or entertaining, and then, more importantly, he understood the exact right time to cut away before the moment overstayed its welcome. Now, it's not like the doings of my sister Elisabeth and I were super revolutionary or interesting, but I think my father, in addition to wanting to record and remember as much of our early years as he could, simply understood the extreme entertainment value in watching little children explore, discover and learn.

It's hard for me to believe that the makers of Canal Plus's Babies had anything much deeper than that in mind when they decided to document the first 12 months or so of four newborns in different parts of the world: Mongolia, Namibia, Tokyo, and San Francisco. There's no real story to speak of, and in fact there isn't even much structure. Nevertheless, the picture's 79 minute run time held my attention, and is a different kind of movie going experience in this, an age of 3D epics and endless Shrek sequels.

It's hard to recommend that you spend 12 bucks per ticket to see it in a theater, honestly, but at the same time seeing it that way, with an audience, seems to be the only real way to make the experience worth it. I'm trying to imagine watching it in my living room on DVD, and it just doesn't seem like it'd be the same movie. There's something about the fact that this is a picture featuring four children born into different cultures and languages (but who all grow and develop in similar ways) that makes seeing it in a big theater with strangers seem to speak to the universal point it's driving at (if that makes sense).

Now, while I did enjoy the movie, light as it is on substance, I will put on my critical cap for a moment here and say that I wish the whole thing had felt a little less random and more structured. I think the four babies are followed more or less chronologically throughout their first year of life, however, I felt like the transitions from one to the next were haphazard and without much logic. Every once in a while, certain events are grouped by theme (such as children interacting with animals, or everyone taking a bath, etc), but more often than not, the way the footage is edited together just feels like they just put it there because, well, they wanted to include it and it had to go somewhere.

Another thought I had was that perhaps there should have been more title cards throughout the picture, so that when we go back to Ponijao, for example, we know that he's eight months old and he's doing a certain set of things already, which we can then compare with, say, Hattie in San Francisco who is developing other skills at a different rate, due in part to her environment.

Filmmaking gripes aside, though, I usually like it when different types of pictures get a wide release into theaters and do well, and I'm glad that Babies has done the same. Really, I'm not sure that it amounts to much more than 80 minutes of porn for new and aspiring parents, but at least you can't blame it for delivering what the title promises.

May 10, 2010

Iron Man 2 (5/10/2010)

Lettergrade: C

Part of what made the first Iron Man such a breath of fresh air two years ago is that modest expectations allowed it to be fun, lean, and pretty light on the brooding superhero stuff that had become so commonplace in other comic book movies around that time. Iron Man 2 is the sequel to a movie that wound up being very successful at the box office, meaning that it is obliged to be a little bigger and more of an action spectacle than its predecessor. As a result, it also feels a little more ordinary and not quite as good. It's certainly not a bad movie, but at 2 hours, 10 minutes, it's a little too dull to really justify its running time, and perhaps feels more like the summer movie you go to see because the one you want to see isn't out yet (which is kind of what I thought the first picture was going to be in relation to The Dark Knight back in 2008).

Once again, Robert Downey Jr. is a narcissistic, beaver-chasing, drug addict, alcoholic asshole, meaning that he slips into the role of Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) seamlessly. As the movie starts, a Russian Mickey Rourke just happens to be watching the end of the first movie on television (specifically, the scene where Stark reveals that he's been Iron Man all along at a press conference), which inspires Rourke to spend the entire opening credit sequence building what we will later find out is a very powerful S&M outfit complete with electric whips that are powerful enough to cut through cars and bust Iron Man up at various points during the picture.

But before that happens, Stark. has to a face a Congressional hearing in Washington led by Senator Gary Shandling, who wants to commandeer the Iron Man suit for use by the US military to protect the nation, much as he himself has commandeered an insane amount of fat to protect his puffy, bloated face from aging. Downey Jr. argues he has successfully privatized world peace (a statement which goes completely unsupported... we don't see him dismantling weapons or even stopping any global criminal activity or anything of the sort), and further says that no one else is even close to developing a suit that rivals what his Iron Man suit can do. The only other person even trying is apparently Sam Rockwell, appearing as a sleazy weapons contractor named Justin Hammer who looks like he's auditioning for a role on the next season of Mad Men.

Later on, after the scene on the race track with the whips that's in all the trailers, Rourke says that he didn't want to kill Iron Man, but just wound him and then watch the world consume him afterward. It's a nice line, but again, there's virtually zero demonstrative evidence that anything of the sort results from that action. Oh, the fat around Shandling's face twitches with vindicated triumph, but I don't think any actual plot points or anything develop from it.

I guess one thing that does happen, though, is that Hammer hires Rourke to build a bunch of knock off Iron Man suits that will be debuted at Tony Stark's WMD Expo that happens more or less continuously in New York. This all ramps up to the film's big climax, which is a bit of a let down for the same reason that the climax for the first movie was a let down. In the first movie, it was basically Iron Man versus an even bigger Iron Man! Played by The Dude, but still. In this one, it's Iron Man vs. a lot of other Iron Men!

The scenes between Morton Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow, the heart of what made the first movie so good, completely feel 100% improvised in this one, often with dialogue that overlaps so excessively that you cannot understand what either one is saying. I don't know who at Marvel felt that this movie needed to be more like a Robert Altman movie, but it really feels like they made the wrong decisions here. In the middle of the movie, there are lengthy and irritating sequences like the behind-the-scenes footage of Robert Downey Jr. drunk in the Iron Man suit (which was cleverly edited into the movie to make it look like the screenwriters had written a scene where Tony Stark is drunk at his own birthday party).

Don Cheadle steps into the role played by Terence Howard in the first movie (he will become Black Iron Man later in the flick), and Sam Jackson puts on the crappy eye patch he wore during the end credit cookie of Iron Man 1 and kinda vaguely plays Nick Fury, the super secret head of S.H.I.E.L.D. which will figure into the planned Avengers movie in a few years (basically, it's Marvel Comics version of Superfriends).

So anyway, there we are. The first movie was an above average bit of summer fun, and while this movie is still alright, it gave me plenty of time to wonder why I was so excited to see it in the first place. I guess you can blame the element of surprise vs. the element of expectation. I had no idea who Iron Man even was in 2008 until Paramount started marketing a movie about him. I think I have a new way to measure event movies, though: Is the movie better than the Burger King ad that comes with it?

In this case, no it isn't.

My review of the first Iron Man