April 30, 2011

Water For Elephants (04/30/2011)

Lettergrade: C+

On the surface, everything about Water For Elephants appears to be top notch... the actors, the photography, the sets, the music... but scene after scene, the movie feels like it's missing something intangible that makes it all "work." I can't put my finger on what that is, to be honest.

Largely taking place during the height of the Great Depression, the picture has Twilight's Robert Pattinson as a gifted student about to finish his veterinarian degree at a prestigious Ivy League school. That doesn't happen because his parents are suddenly killed in a car crash, and since they leveraged all they had to pay his tuition, the bank repossesses the family home, and he is left with no money to complete his education.

Pattinson then does the only logical thing: He hops a train on his way to who-knows-where where he will then do who-knows-what. As it turns out, the train he randomly selects is used to haul one of the era's many traveling circuses. A kindly old James Whitmore clone gets him a job shoveling assorted animal feces with the show, which he quickly parlays into being named the circus's full-time vet. The sadistic owner / ringmaster who gives him that promotion is played by the charmifying Christoph Waltz, forever doomed to be cast as sociopathic assholes and monsters after his wonderful role in Inglourious Basterds two years ago. He has a thing for beating up the animals every so often, including the elephant who joins the group early in the flick. The show's headline performer also happens to be his wife. She's played by Reese Witherspoon, so Pattinson is contractually bound to fall in love with her pretty much upon first glance, creating a classic King Arthur style love triangle, but you know, with more disturbing animal abuse.

Is the cast the reason the movie isn't entirely successful? No, I don't think so, but it feels like we're getting close... I'm not sure that Pattinson's smoldering sexuality is right for this role, honestly, but it's not like he does a poor job or ever feels inadequate. My guess is that he got the gig over guys like Emile Hirsch and Andrew Garfield because the producers predicted that having a Twilight star on the poster would send pre-teen sales through the roof, which was true in our theater, at least. Waltz, too (stepping in for Sean Penn, who departed the movie shortly before filming), is strong and engaging, and even finds a surprising way to inject heart into a twisted character that feels a bit underwritten. Less effective is Witherspoon, who again is fine, but seems just a little unengaged with the material, perhaps indicating that she had an idea that the picture wasn't firing on all cylinders.

And in fact... maybe that's what's not quite right about this one. The characters all work in and of themselves, but they don't necessarily work with eachother. I guess I didn't quite buy that Witherspoon was ever in love enough with Waltz to marry him in the first place, nor that she was falling for Pattinson as the picture went on. The thing that's missing are those little moments that get you to really believe what you're seeing. The chemistry. I saw a very pretty, very professionally made picture where it felt like a lot of decisions were made because it's a coming-of-age / joining-the-circus / stupping-the-bosses'-wife movie and these are the sorts of things that are supposed to happen in them. The scenes where Waltz would lose his shit and beat up the elephant (off screen) were disturbing, of course, but I think that's pretty much a given. The climax is very well-staged and exciting, but I never feel that a good finish makes up for the first 2/3rds being a little sloppy.

The director is Francis Lawrence, whose last feature was 2007's I Am Legend, which I rather liked. Richard LaGravenese's screenplay is based on a novel by Sara Gruen, which was written as part of National Novel Writing Month. I haven't read it, but whatever was special enough about her work to turn it into a best seller honestly doesn't quite translate to the screen here. The picture hung onto a few devices like Hal Holbrook appearing as an older version of Pattinson's character (who bookends the main action as its elderly narrator) that frankly feel utterly superfluous. A book is a book, and a movie is a movie. Each must tailor itself for the medium it exists in.

All in all, it's not a bad picture, but it's one that seems to have been designed for Awards season, and yet it was released in April, far away from the time such films tend to be released for nomination purposes. There's probably an implicit caution note there which should not be ignored, lest you walk in thinking that you're about to see The Horse Whisperer or something.

April 23, 2011

African Cats (04/23/2011)

Lettergrade: C

My wife and I are serious cat lovers, and have two of them at home. As such, the ads for African Cats never failed to excite us, and for weeks on end one of us would ask the other if this is the weekend that "the kitty movie" was set to come out.

Sorry, that was way too cutesy... If I read something where another couple was talking like that, I'd probably projectile vomit all over the keyboard.

In any case, it never really occurred to us that a movie about giant African cats would probably be about them fighting for territory, killing each other, young cubs getting picked off by predators and the elements, and the general "circle of life" in Africa, which makes for a fine Elton John song, sure, but comes off as a bit horrifying and depressing when you see it in reality.

Nevertheless, it's an interesting picture, although at times it crossed my mind that it's not substantially different, really, than the sort of thing you could catch on Discovery HD. I think the main thing that makes it noteworthy is that it's more of an experience than watching TV at home: You can see it in a theater with a bunch of other people, which I still maintain makes a difference. Is that faint praise? Maybe, but damn it, if we're keeping it real here, I've got to admit that that's where the big draw is.

Still... I'm happy that Disney has created a "Disney Nature" division, which once a year (usually around Earth Day), has been putting out large-scale documentary programming for family audiences like this. They get big-name talent to do the voice over work (in this case, Samuel L. Jackson, who surprisingly never found a way to work the word "fuck" into his dialogue), and they hire big composers to write the music. They've gotten a bit of heat for anthropomorphizing the characters a bit and forcing them into a "human" story, but hey, what can you do?

My entry on Disney Nature's Earth.

April 16, 2011

Scream 4 (04/16/2011)

Lettergrade: C

The first Scream, released in 1996, smartly dissected horror movie cliches while simultaneously celebrating them with a fresh spin, but the thinly drawn follow-ups in conjunction with the countless irony-free knockoffs have taken the revival genre from smart to kinda standard. That goes double for Scream 4, coming ten years after the previous movie, which doesn't have much purpose or inspiration, really, apart from attempting to build up financial solvency for Bob and Harvey Weinstein's current company.

While Kevin Williamson's original script was a highly inventive novelty at the time, the writing on these subsequent entries has been pretty thin gruel. I was a junior in high school when part 1 hit. I remember seeing part 2 on video at some point, and part 3 on a date in college. I have very faint memories of what actually happened in all three movies, to be honest with you, and I think you can blame the glaring lack of substance for that. All the self-conscious quasi analysis is back for part 4, of course, but especially now that it's the fourth round, I'm not sure that acknowledging crappy movie conventions really gives you a pass to turn around and use many of them.

Other than a surprisingly charismatic Hayden Panettiere (pictured right), the victims-in-waiting don't leave much of an impression, and they're all disposed of in the same perfunctory manner: The Ghostface Killer lures his prey into a secluded area, and then administers a fatal stab with the same ease as a hot knife cutting through a room-temperature stick of butter. Death is always instant, no matter where the wound is (unless you're one of the leads, of course), and the other characters' reactions strictly range between indifferent shrugs and mild disappointment. Say what you will about Freddy Kruger, but every death in the Nightmare On Elm Street movies was at least creative, almost like a Warner Bros. cartoon where Freddy would show up in some silly costume, fire off a couple one-liners, and then get down to business.

As for the returning cast, Scream 4, like the other sequels, relies heavily on short-hand, counting on the audience to independently recall whatever affection we had for Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, and most unjustifiably David Arquette in order to be invested in their survival now. The movie doesn't put much effort into winning you over in that regard: A couple times during this one, I wondered what makes Campbell's Sydney Prescott interesting apart from the fact that she has survived the previous movies. I never got an answer on that, but in the character's defense, she does seem pretty and nice.

As in the earlier movies, the identity of the person behind the Krazee-Eyes Killah mask is completely arbitrary and virtually meaningless, as if they shot the first 2/3rds of the movie, then picked the killer's name out of a hat and shot the rest. Although the movie is largely forgettable, I will say that once Scream 4's big secret is revealed, the scenes that followed were easily the most interesting and entertaining part of the flick. Of course it is still illogical and completely far-fetched, but at least the character's motivations constituted an actual fresh idea, the kind that I wish had been introduced earlier than 85 minutes into the movie.

The movie as a whole, though, is mostly like meeting up with a old friend from high school who you only kinda sorta remember. Although it's fun to look back, you should probably just exchange a few pleasantries on Facebook and leave it at that.

April 8, 2011

Arthur (04/08/2011)

Lettergrade: C

This new Arthur remake runs a number of uninspiring plays from the romantic comedy rulebook. The material is elevated, however, by the natural likeability of the two leads - British sleaze-comic Russell Brand and Greenburg's lovely Greta Gerwig - with a strong assist from Helen Mirren as Arthur's crusty nanny. I wouldn't necessarily recommend it, but I will say that given my skeptical opinion both for Brand and the trailers, the movie surprised me by being "not bad."

Brand's Arthur is a multibillionaire playboy whose mother manages a family trust that does something or other. Tired of his drunken headline grabbing, stock-holder spooking, spoiled-brat antics, mother decrees that Arthur must marry the reptilian Susan (Jennifer Garner), a high-up in the family business, so that someone with the family name might take over the fund someday, as is tradition. Arthur, of course, is opposed to the idea, but recognizes that he cannot live without the money. Matters are further complicated when he meet-cutes Gerwig, who is giving an unofficial tour of Grand Central Station, and helps her out of a jam in such a way that just happens to kindle instant romance.

The movie makes an honest attempt at getting the character stuff between comedic bits to really work... Sometimes it does, and sometimes it feels horribly rushed and simply not believable. As much as I liked Gerwig in the movie, her character felt alarmingly underwritten to me. Nowhere is this more apparent than during her early scenes, where she's all smiles and seemingly ready to unquestioningly jump into a relationship with a man who, in spite of his wealth, would raise serious warning flags for most other people. Later, there's a dramatic scene where he must tell her that he's already engaged to Garner... information that, naive as she is, would be almost impossible for her to miss by even casually browsing the occasional newspaper.

Brand's screen persona is a mishmash of other fictional characters... as if Jack Sparrow and Austin Powers had produced a child and assigned Pee Wee Herman to raise him. I found him entertaining as a side-character in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but have very deliberately avoided anything else he's been involved with, in part because he gave his autobiography the unforgivable title "My Booky Wook" and also because I equally despise his now-wife Katy Perry. Really, though, I must admit that he's not bad in the movie, and should he see fit to take on more interesting, challenging roles in the future, I would not be opposed to giving them a shot.

When I first saw the ad for this movie, not knowing what it was, I remember thinking that Brand was doing a bizarre Dudley Moore impression. Toward the end of the trailer, when the title card revealed that it was Arthur, a remake of the 1981 comedy that made Moore a household name, it suddenly made sense. I honestly never saw the original when I was a kid, but have extremely fuzzy memories of catching bits of Arthur 2: On The Rocks on HBO at various points during the 80s. As such, I have no real perspective on this film versus its predecessor, but I see from IMDB.com that many of the character names are the same, and I hear that several of the big plot points are as well.

I've noticed over the last few weeks that the tag line on the poster ("Meet The World's Only Lovable Billionaire") is quite prominent, so much so that I have to believe it was a huge point of concern for the marketing folks at Warner Bros. Indeed, with the ├╝ber-wealthy so vilified after the financial meltdown of 2008, I can't help but think that the film's caviler attitude toward Arthur's obscenely extravagant and wasteful lifestyle might flat out piss off a large percentage of the movie-going public, who have had it worse than ever lately. Arthur lives in a fantasy world where anything is possible after a phone-call or two. Other than the vague threat of not having that money to play with anymore and some thin P.S.A.s from Gerwig about how there's a lot of public property that can be enjoyed for free, he's a man who has not (and does not) have to confront economic realities on any level whatsoever. It's tough territory for any movie to try to mine laughs from... particularly when it's one that happened to open on a weekend where the Federal Government nearly shut down over budget matters like whether or not to fund heating assistance for low income families.

I'm not sure that it's the right time for a light-hearted romp about the foibles of the repugnantly wealthy, but if you think you can sit in the theater and not seethe about how badly you're getting f**ked by the upper 1%, it might make for an enjoyable time-filler.