Thursday, April 23, 2009

17 Again (2009)

We have heard a lot recently about Zac Efron and whether or not he’s a movie star. On the basis of 17 Again, I would say he certainly is. The movie’s a teen comedy, moving him out of the pre-teen musical land, and will probably surprise parents of young kids with some of the more suggestive humor. It’s a comfortable, sturdy, mid-sized star vehicle all his own, and it doesn't hurt that the camera loves him. He harkens back to the young leading men of the mid-eighties with a little Michael J. Fox here, a little Kevin Bacon there, a little Tom Hanks here, a little Tom Cruise there. That’s not to say he’s a great actor, but he does solid work here as a thirty-seven-year-old man (at the start, Matthew Perry) who gets transformed by a magical janitor (played by Brian Doyle-Murray, Bill Murray’s brother) into his seventeen-year-old self. Efron’s charming, likable, and manages to convey the situation fairly well. I was surprised by the emotion he could convey in scenes such as the one when he describes holding his daughter for the first time.

His daughter, of course, is no longer a baby. She’s in high school (and played by Michelle Trachtenberg) along with her brother (Sterling Knight). Both young actors do a fine job here, but the real heavy lifting goes to the supporting cast of adults. Leslie Mann (delightful as the leads’ soon to be ex-wife), Thomas Lennon, and Melora Hardin (along with Jim Gaffigan and Margaret Cho in very small roles) sell even the dumbest lines. Pay close attention to a date between Thomas Lennon, as Perry/Efron’s best friend, and Melora Hardin, as the school principal. As I watched it I found myself thinking: if this isn’t funny, why am I smiling?

The whole movie’s like that. There’s not a moment I couldn’t see coming (there’s even a use of the old cliché of a character vehemently, repeatedly, opposed to doing something immediately followed by a cut to the character doing it) and yet I was improbably entertained, or at least distracted. This isn’t a particularly involving movie, but it sure goes down easy. The hook of the movie is a fairly generic body-shift comedy. It’s never surprising but it’s puzzlingly entertaining. Director Burr Steers has created the kind of glossy, unchallenging entertainment that Hollywood can grind out from time to time. As far as recent body-shift comedies go, 17 Again is more fun than 13 Going On 30 but not quite as fun as the latest Freaky Friday.

It’s the commitment of the actors who help tip the movie over the edge. Even though they have surely seen all the same movies we have, they appear invested in it, which in turn helps sell it back to us. When Efron dances with Mann, it’s not a teenager dancing with an older woman. It plays like a husband and wife, a feat that could only be accomplished by good acting. Of course, Mann doesn’t know that Efron’s her husband and the two of them inject some unexpected nuance into the relationship.

Earth Day was this week. Why not see a recycled film? It takes junky movies like Vice Versa and Like Father Like Son, mixes in just a dash of Big and 18 Again and ends up with a competent result. Every once in a while, particularly a scene involving Efron spinning a basketball while insulting a bully, a scene comes across as awkwardly written but for the most part this is simple, unchallenging entertainment. And I must confess, when the big clunky cliched moment of revelation comes, I was satisfied. Twinkle those eyes, Mr. Murray! Run, Mr. Perry! There's a movie to conclude.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

State of Play (2009)

If a thriller is like a pot of water, State of Play is centered on the right burner, simmers satisfactorily for a while, and manages to boil a few times, even if it doesn’t have enough material to ever boil over. The film follows a pair of reporters, one a veteran (Russell Crowe), one a newbie and a blogger (Rachel McAdams). As a routine murder (suicide? accident?) story turns into a sex scandal and then a full blow conspiracy piece, the two of them are drawn into an endless web of intrigue. There’s a wide and diverse supporting cast that really shines. There’s Helen Mirren as the tough and biting editor and Robin Wright Penn as the wife of a senator. There’s also a great collection of shifty slimeballs engaging in the skullduggery the leads must sort out. Ben Affleck is quite good – I’ve never thought him to be as bad an actor as some have made him out to be – as a senator who finds himself in the middle of a scandal. Among the respectable and suavely sinister supporting cast, Jeff Daniels, Jason Bateman, and David Harbour are great in the handful of scenes they each are given.

This is a slick, solid film handled well by director Kevin Macdonald. Three screenwriters are credited, reason enough, I suppose, for the watered-down feel of the vision. Matthew Michael Carnahan (Lions for Lambs, The Kingdom), Tony Gilroy (the Bourne films, Michael Clayton, Duplicity), and Billy Ray (Shattered Glass, Breach) are all adept crafters of thrillers but this, an adaptation of a six-hour BBC miniseries (unseen by me, though now I want to give it a look), feels a little rushed and jumbled, almost exactly like three different yet similar takes on the material cobbled together and sanded down, but not quite a smooth integration. Even so, this is a well drawn film with fine performances from fine performers that results in fine drama that’s consistently engaging. This isn’t exactly innovative or distinctive filmmaking but there’s something oddly comforting about seeing an old reliable genre trotted out done well and done right. The script is filled with fun lines and a deep vein of wit, as well as sharp twists of ratcheting tension and wrenching reversals of information that shine new light on sleaze and thicken the plot to a pleasant pulp (and it only once reminded me of the similarly circular Coen comedy Burn After Reading).

And there’s something engagingly current about this film which is a bit of a simultaneous eulogy and appreciation for the art of the printed newspaper (there’s even a bit of homage to that classic journalist film All the President’s Men in the way the final headline types across the screen). The editor complains about the corporation that took control of the paper. A reporter nervously compares his status to that of the new blogging department; after all, they’re cheaper, faster, and have lower standards, or so he says. It’s a rather touching tribute to what Crowe’s character would call “damn fine reporting.” There is a valiant melancholy to the tone of the film that sends the reporters, those brave investigative journalists, off into an uncertain sunset.

This isn’t a great thriller but it’s a good one, the multiplex equivalent of a well-written airport novel. It’s long – but not too long – complex – but not too complex – and satisfyingly immersive with some genuinely unexpected twists and a compelling mystery. I settled back into my seat, sipped my soda, and thoroughly enjoyed having the world melt away for a little over two hours, even though it was only replaced by a hightened and simplified version of it.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Observe and Report (2009)

For years, directors and writers like Kevin Smith and Judd Apatow have been making spectacularly raunchy films that cloak their edginess with soft-hearted sentiment, a technique that has worked quite well quite often. Audiences are used to it now; it makes the edginess palatable, or at least tolerable. With Observe and Report, Jody Hill, following up his overrated first feature The Foot Fist Way, removes the cloak of sentiment leaving all the edges exposed and sharp. This is the bleeding edge of comedy. It casts the loveable Seth Rogen as a violent, bipolar, racist, sexist, gun-nut mall cop. A mall-cop movie could be made into typically middling Hollywood fare – indeed it was just a few months ago – but here it’s uncomfortable and even downright scary. Hill doesn’t just push up against boundaries; he tries his hardest to knock some down in a movie as volatile and unstable as its protagonist.

Throughout the film, Rogen’s mall cop attempts to hunt down a flasher who has been terrorizing customers in the mall parking lot. There are plenty of funny moments of comedy both broad and subtle during the investigation courtesy of a fine ensemble. Celia Watson plays Rogen’s perpetually proud (and drunk) mother. Ray Liotta is a tightly-wound cop who has a low tolerance for Rogen’s antics. Michael Peña puts on a hilarious lisp to play Rogen’s second-in-command. Anna Faris is an alcoholic party-girl who works at the makeup counter who goes on a pity date with Rogen and supplies a very funny scene wherein she spies Rogen’s psychotropic medication. “I didn’t know you partied like that!” she says. He answers “Oh, I do…every four to six hours.”

The date scene ends on a shockingly dark note which helps tilt the movie into darker territory which continues with a parade of ugly emotions and shocking violence. In fact, during the final sequence of the movie, there are two of the sickest shocks I’ve ever encountered in a comedy, especially a sudden moment of violence used as a sort of brutal punch-line that caused me to gasp and literally drop my jaw. It has to do, in part, with the filmmaking of the sequence which plays out in a dreamy slow-motion that suddenly slaps back to normal speed, with little warning, as fast as a bullet out of a gun. The movie gave me a kind of emotional whiplash as my stomach knotted and sank as laughter was cut off in my throat.

Rogen does a fine job in the lead. He never winks at the camera to let us in on the joke. He’s a harsh, irritating character with severe problems and delusions which are off-putting to say the least. Which leads to the question: is the film being ironic or is it complicit with its main character’s startling and unsettling actions. The finale plays out in a squirmy deadpan that borders on congratulations. Is the ending in Rogen’s head, as some have suggested, or is it homage to Scorsese’s film The King of Comedy which follows a similarly unlikable character and sees his dream realized? It may be both (the latter has been explicitly referenced by the director in interviews), but that would give the movie more credit than it deserves, would assume that Jody Hill had control over the tone of the film. At first, I feel the film’s too contradictory and sloppy for me to credit Hill with any control over how the material plays out, but then I step back and begin to wonder if Hill did know what he was doing.

There are certainly great artful flourishes to the visual style that I wasn’t expecting, great energetic editing and fine song choices too. There’s humor and moments of darkness that exist in even the same moment, a testament to at least some degree of skill on Hill’s part. That I laughed and cringed equally may mean that the movie succeeds in the way it was meant too. There’s a great forward leap in filmmaking ability here for Jody Hill, a massive improvement over his first feature. This one doesn’t exactly work – I don’t think Hill pulls off his thematic intent in quite the way he thinks he is and I get the impression he’s often pushing boundaries only because he can – but I applaud Warner Brothers, and all the actors involved, for putting out a movie so singular and strange. This is a movie that is a bit irreconcilable, but it’s a thrilling attempt to do something out of the ordinary, an attempt that’s often fascinating, even entertaining, to watch in the moment and fun to try to puzzle out afterwards. This is a movie that, if nothing else, is full of vitality and complicatedly alive.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2009)

When I saw Anvil! The Story of Anvil at a packed festival screening, I was seated behind a couple with so much body odor I had tears in my eyes. I had to watch the whole film with my fingers blocking my nostrils as best as I could. What does this say about the movie? Nothing, really, other than that it explains why my excitement about the movie is slightly tempered, although the movie’s a good one. It tells the story of two aging heavy-metal rockers who make up Anvil, a band, we’re told, that was very influential and nearly popular once. We follow these two men, Steve “Lips” Kudlow and Robb (with two Bs) Reiner, as they attempt a comeback tour and record their thirteenth album. The title? This is Thirteen.

The director, Sacha Gervasi, does a pretty good job of telling the story, knowing when to punch up the editing to really sell a joke in ways that seem learned from the school of mockumentaries, of which This is Spinal Tap seems to be a reference point. The comparisons between the two films are uncanny; surely someone thought of that comedy classic when Anvil visits Stonehenge. But unlike Spinal Tap, this film is a real documentary and while the people on screen say funny things they are also sad, worried, and moving testaments to the power of dreams. If most men live lives of quiet desperation, these men have found a way to live lives of rockin’ desperation. When the band kicks up their signature song “Metal on Metal” it’s almost anthemic, a love letter to middle-age rockers everywhere who still dream of making it big someday.

The movie does a fine job of not always going for the obvious jokes; there's no jokey editing or juxtaposition occurring during their tour where they miss trains, are denied payment, play shows for audiences that reach the double digits on a good night, and are given a front row seat to the nervous breakdown of their number-one-fan turned manager. Where Gervasi disappoints is in his fanboy gloss, which tends to paint the band in a positive light. This is not presented as a warts-and-all portrait but rather presented as a portrait of two talented guys screwed over by circumstance and I’m not sure how much of that’s true. The bias’s origin is clear, however, since Gervasi was the band’s roadie for some tours in the early 80s. Still, as a fan’s tribute, the movie works much better than expected. The subjects are remarkably candid, if not always remarkably lucid ,and the events that take place are the perfect illustration of the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction. Well, let’s put it this way. Here the truth is almost stranger than Spinal Tap.

I’m not a heavy metal fan, but by the end of the film when – mild spoiler – the band finally plays for a large crowd, I felt a surge of excitement and relief. They didn’t make it big but at least they made it somewhere. And no amount of bad smells could make me stop feeling happy for them.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Adventureland (2009)

Films like Adventureland are thrilling in their specificity. This is not exactly neo-neo-realism, but it's a pitch-perfect story of a young man’s summer job at an amusement park, a film that perfectly captures the melancholy rhythms of a minimum wage job. The customers are bizarre, rude, baffling, and funny. There’s long periods of downtime, rambling conversations about pop culture, philosophy and gossip, and, in the accurate running joke, the same song seems to be played over and over and over again.

This is James (Jesse Eisenberg, performing as a cross between Woody Allen and Michael Cera) and his existence the summer of 1987. Writer-director Greg Mottola has created a film of moods and rhythm, finding moments of fleeting beauty and awkward humor, perfectly creating the kind of nervous, half-ironic ways of speaking that people of a certain age have, the sense that the whole world may be judging your next sentence. James knows what he wants to do with his life but is caught in a sense of mid-schooling confusion. He sees his life closing in around him, sees that it’s time to stop dreaming about what he wants to be when he grows up because he’s almost there.

Mottola lets us get to know the other characters, and I mean characters, who work at the park including the Gogol-reading, pipe-smoking, Slavic languages major (Martin Starr), the maintenance man (Ryan Reynolds) who plays in a local band and is rumored to have once jammed with Lou Reed, and the eccentric owners, (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, very funny but somewhat underdeveloped and underused). The employee of most interest to James is Em, played by Kristen Stewart with the warmth and genuine fragile emotion she brought to Into the Wild but lacked in Twilight. Em and James strike up a flirtation with the thrilling, romantic edge of a burgeoning friendship that may become more.

The characters are truthfully drawn, and compassionately followed by the film which presents bad decisions in a nonjudgmental way and good ones in an ambivalent light. This is a film with its pulse on the feelings of youth, the confusion about purpose and the thrill of discovering new things, or even just the old things with new people. The film has humor that bubbles up naturally out of the characters and their situations rather than relying on coasting from gag to gag. There’s a natural, conversational, anecdotal feel much of the film, which oozes 80's pop as it watches its characters interact and develop over the course of the summer.

Yes, this is one of those “and that was the summer that changed my life” movies, the yuppie-white-boy-comes-of-age variety, or at least it starts out on that path. It doesn’t end up there, however, as it turns out his life isn’t changed, or at least not in all the ways we’d expect. It's an unexpectedly touching and tender comedy that has an impact that snuck up on me. This is the kind of movie that calmly observes a young man in transition, enjoys hanging out with his new friends, listening to cool music, admiring girls, watching fireworks, gossiping, eating, romancing (or trying), getting high (or trying), talking philosophy, art, theology, family, and working every day running rigged carnival games while planning for the future. This is a movie that captures this type of employment but also captures a state of mind, a sense that it’s hard to shift while the ground is shifting under you.

Note: It’s R-rated for a reason – it certainly reflects this kind of reality – but it’s not coarse for coarse sake like so many other films that think profanity is a suitable substitute for a punch-line (I’m looking at you Step-Brothers).

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Knowing (2009)

I had this post ready to go up yesterday but, as I was defending a movie that has recieved nearly universally negative reviews, I thought it best not to post on April Fool's Day.

The basic premise behind Knowing reads like a dumb numerology thriller. Nicolas Cage plays a scientist who comes into possession of a list of numbers – fresh from a time capsule – that line up accurately to the date of every global catastrophe of the past fifty years. In execution, as directed by Alex Proyas, Knowing is often chilling, sometimes even frightening; it generates great apocalyptic dread as the sky steadily grows redder as the film progresses. I’m not sure the plot makes total sense but the actors bring such commitment to the material which is just a little emotionally smarter than other similar features as it grapples in a surprisingly, ahem, knowing way with issues of spirituality.

Cage plays a widower having an existential crisis of purpose, which is especially troubling to his only child, a young boy (Chandler Canterbury) still grieving over the recent death of his mother. It’s also troubling to Cage’s father (Alan Hopgood), a reverend, to whom he hasn’t spoken in years, and his sister (Nadia Townsend) who, in an early scene, gently offers to pray for him. Then the list arrives, along with a newfound sense of purpose when he discovers that there are a handful of dates that are still in the future (although I was never exactly comprehending the way that purpose was suposed to help keep the events from happening). The way the knowledge of the list interacts with various characters is intriguing, as when Cage speaks with a colleague or a haunted woman played by Rose Byrne (with a face almost scarily thin) who enters the plot as well, but I’d hate to spoil it too much. The scene where Cage figures out the pattern, I must confess, gave me a jolt, even though I had been thoroughly informed by the advertising of the pattern's nature.

The movie then turns into a creep-fest with lurking strangers, haunting clues, and some very well-done special effect disaster sequences. The first, a plane crash, plays out in a single, smooth, unbroken take so convincing I barely felt like I was watching effects. The second disaster is much more obviously special effects but it’s so fast and intense that I didn’t care. In both cases, my eyes widened and I straightened in my seat as a result of their fantastical verisimilitude. I didn’t entirely understand why Cage, at one point learning the coordinates of a disaster, would rush towards it but sometimes, if a thriller’s working for you, things like that can be glossed over. And this one was working for me. It’s filled with great tension and creep-outs along with a nice twist on an it’s-only-a-cat moment. It sets up a grim premise (“What happens when the numbers run out?”) and then proceeds to push it farther and darker and stranger than I thought it would have the guts to go.

This is not a flawless film. The ending is a little strangely conceived (for those who’ve seen it, I’m not talking about the heat wave, I’m talking about the multiple vessels without multiple seen couples) and afterwards I could pick out additional possible plot holes. This is not a great science fiction film, like the director’s previous Dark City, but it’s in a similar spirit, taking on interesting questions (of faith and science this time) and exploring their emotional implications in a serious way.

Like Roger Ebert, I am at a loss as to the extremely negative reaction the film has received. It’s not always great art, not quite a cohesive whole (and I certainly didn’t like it as much as Mr. Ebert) but the movie is a fairly good example of a semi-smart B-movie popcorn thriller. It wants to raise philosophical questions while providing some excuses for good scares and for eyes to pop. In that, it succeeds.