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.