Sunday, January 31, 2010

Living on the EDGE OF DARKNESS

For a knee-jerk reactionary vigilante thriller, Edge of Darkness is surprisingly restrained with a long, slow burn of a mystery capped with swift brutal vengeance doled out in efficient action beats. It often follows a traditional structure for this type of movie, but it’s still shockingly satisfying even if we’ve more or less been here before.

At the film’s opening a corpse bubbles up to the surface of a lake with an ominous factory in the background. We return to this event later, but for the time being we are introduced to a grizzled Boston detective played by Mel Gibson. Whatever you think of his personal behavior (his drunken anti-Semitic rant is rightly a permanent smudge on his reputation) he has a compelling screen presence. He’s not a great actor, necessarily, but he has a force that draws attention and sympathy. In the opening moments of the film, his character is meeting his twenty-something daughter (Bojana Novakovic) who is returning home during time off from the nuclear facility at which she works. Just when we get our bearings she’s gunned down on the front porch, just minutes into the film. The act of violence is shocking in its force and gore, the shot flinging her back through the door with blood splattering the doorframe and staining the rug. But, as we are told, every action has an equal and opposite reaction, especially in the kind of movie in which the bereaved father has access to all the tools of a professional detective.

Probing the mystery of his daughter’s murder, Gibson visits her place of work, which brings us to the ominous factory of the opening shot. There he meets her boss, a slimy executive played by the great Danny Huston. Although he’s clearly the villain from the minute he walks on screen, Huston plays it so well, so coolly, that the point isn’t “how’d or why’d he do it?”, but “when will he be taken down?” Along the way, there are plenty of other slimeballs propped up as fodder for the vengeance machine, including an infuriating senator (Damian Young) and a shadowy suit (Denis O’Hare). There’s also a wild card whose allegiances may or may not be slippery; he’s played by the always welcome Ray Winstone who brings a performance filled with perfect shades of gray.

Gibson’s search for the truth is entertainingly handled, with this slick, professional production smoothly turning the gears of the plot. By the time the big reveals occur, the sensation of bloody justice feels earned. It is always a little queasy to have a movie so thoroughly work up the blood lust, coaxing dark feelings of violence out of the audience, but this movie, despite its sometimes squishy gunshots, doesn’t linger on injury in unseemly ways, nor does it go out of its way to glamorize the violence. This is a tight thriller with sharp blasts of satisfying revenge. Director Martin Campbell, adapting a 1980's miniseries that he directed, does a capable job of managing tone and expectations. The movie held my interest all the way through. I cared about Gibson’s quest for revenge and, yes, I felt a rush of adrenaline every time he moved closer to his ultimate goal. This is a smoothly enjoyable piece of popcorn filmmaking, a dependable, if ultimately slight, piece of entertainment.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Quick Look: Invictus (2009)

At this point, can we expect anything less from a film directed by Clint Eastwood than a good-looking film? Even when they’re not good – I didn’t care for Flags of Our Fathers or Gran Torino – they still look just fine, with a classic sheen that comes from dependable Hollywood craftsmanship. Certainly, Invictus does nothing to reverse this trend, but the film comes up short in a few other areas, mainly in the arenas of character and passion. Eastwood, in telling the story of Nelson Mandela’s first months as president of South Africa, has chosen to focus on Mandela’s interest in uniting the country through its rugby team. It’s an interesting story, but one that I’d have rather seen as a subplot in a Mandela biopic. Even so, I have to judge the movie in front of me and not the movie I wanted to see. Eastwood had the good sense to have Morgan Freeman play Mandela. It’s a performance that borders on mere imitation but Freeman has a quiet dignity that suits the role. The presentation of Mandela feels a little superficial, but Freeman carries the part, giving it the feeling of greater depth than what must have been on the page. As the rugby captain is Matt Damon doing a capable job in a role that requires him to mostly just shout “let’s go, guys!” The movie seems aimless for a while, even if it’s enjoyably so. I liked every scene with Mandela; he gives excellently performed monologues and dialogues and I got great enjoyment out of the scenes that simply observed his political process. I also enjoyed a subplot that runs through the film which follows the black and white members of Mandela’s security team learning to work together. Once the all-rugby finale kicks in, the movie finds a drive that it had been missing, but it pushes Freeman to the side in the process. He’s the emotion, but not the thrill, I guess. At moments, Invictus is genuinely soul-stirring but I left the theater wishing my soul could have been stirred up just a bit more.

Quick Look: Daybreakers (2010)

The Spierig Brothers’ Daybreakers takes place in a world of inky black and vivid white. It’s a color movie, but most of it takes place during pitch-black night illuminated only by soft, chilly, blue-tinged lights. It’s a striking vision of a world gone mad, with corporations literally draining away humanity’s life-force. You see, the movie takes place in a world that is filled almost exclusively with vampires. The few humans that do exist are either in hiding or locked in giant blood-sucking devices. This is a futuristic world that doesn’t sparkle with glamour; it oozes a sense of ice-cold danger. The Spierigs have not rested on striking visuals alone, unlike with their deliberately mucky – and consequently ugly – zombie movie Undead. Here they have written a story that moves along quickly and entertainingly, by turns suspenseful and exciting. Action beats and gross-out jump moments (with plenty of gushing gore) are well paced and the world the film creates is somewhat interesting both metaphorically and on a plot level. Ethan Hawke, playing a scientist tasked with finding a substitute for the dwindling supply of human blood, brings a believability to the world, along with Michael Dorman as his brother and Sam Neill as their slimy boss, grounding the outlandishness with a sense a weary sentiment. Unfortunately, the weak link in the movie is a human played by Willem Dafoe who is given horrible lines to say and delivers them in a way that doesn’t mask that fact. Dafoe leads a group of humans who end up convincing Hawke to help them find, instead of a blood substitute, a cure. Once the movie starts to move with this plot, it’s easier to ignore and accept Dafoe’s poorly-drawn character and get back to enjoying the production design and the shivery moments of explosive B-movie thrills and spills (and splatter).

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Quick Look Early Review: When in Rome (2010)

Kristen Bell is cute, but cute doesn’t carry a movie, especially one like When in Rome which has a script that was seemingly written by an ersatz rom-com robot (actually it’s worse, the writers of Old Dogs) capable of only creating dialogue and situations that play slightly better than clanging pots and pans together for 90 minutes. It’s a painfully unbelievable and unlikable story about a career woman (Bell) who takes coins from a fountain in Rome which causes the previous owners of the coins to fall in love with her (all of the coins were thrown by New Yorkers, coincidentally). The way the character is written and performed, magic would be needed to fall in love with her. She’s incredibly annoying, as are the men who follow her around in a lovesick haze, the rules of which change according to the whims of the filmmakers. These men are played by Josh Duhamel, Will Arnett, Danny DeVito, John Heder, and Dax Shepard, likeable performers, but their likability is drowned in the mush. Most incredibly, someone tricked Anjelica Huston into appearing in this mess. Don’t ask me how. The movie makes no sense and proceeds from one hopelessly unfunny moment to the next, inspiring nothing but pure hatred that I could direct towards the screen. It’s shot without distinction and directed by a seemingly uncaring Mark Steven Johnson who previously made superhero movies like a bland Ghost Rider and an okay Daredevil (yeah, I kind of liked that one). Even he is slumming here. Everyone involved deserves much, much better than this, especially the audience.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

When a Problem Comes Along: WHIP IT

It’s always risky for an established actor to take on directorial duties. They could become the next Clint Eastwood or the next C. Thomas Howell, and it’s nearly impossible to tell which kind they’ll be until the finished product is available for scrutiny. Luckily for Drew Barrymore, her directorial debut is Whip It, a fast-paced, crowd-pleaser that announces her as a director to watch. She generously allows the actors in the film room to breathe, room to explore their characters in deeper and more unexpected ways than you would think would be allowed film that, prior to viewing, sounds so schematic and predictable.

Ellen Page stars as a sassy small-town teen who feels stuck in her world of beauty pageants and standardized tests until she discovers an outlet she never knew she needed at a roller derby. It sounds like a typical coming-of-age, parents-don’t-get-it, teen sports movie, and indeed it has all the beats that such a film would require like the moment where the adolescent lead finds a secret thrill in a new passion, the moment where the mismatched group of outsiders take the teen into their group, the moment where the parents find out about what their kid has really been doing all this time. (See: Saturday Night Fever, Breaking Away, etcetera). And yet, the movie isn’t a typical example of that type, hitting those beats in unexpectedly refreshing and satisfying ways. If it’s not quite Breaking Away, and it isn’t, it’s not for lack of trying.

Page gives her best performance yet (yes, including her Oscar-nominated turn in Juno), giving her character a depth and a yearning that ring true. It also helps that she’s surrounded by wonderful acting. Alia Shawkat (Maebe in Arrested Development) plays her best friend, their rapport also ringing true. Every time they share the screen, it feels like watching two old friends in the way they subtly read each other’s moods, keep long-running jokes moving even farther, warbling along with the radio, and breaking down into fits of giggling. It’s a relationship that feels so truthful, that when a cute guy (Landon Pigg) comes along, making eyes at Page, I genuinely cared about how he would change the girls’ friendship.

Like the friendship, Page’s interactions with her parents hit a particularly truthful nerve in the mixture of awkward candor and unfathomable love that often develops between a teenager and parents. There’s a core of mutual respect in their relationship that feels right. Daniel Stern, as her father, has a loveably awkward sense of a father struggling with connecting to his teenage daughter, careful to say the right thing, desperately wanting to not seem desperate in his attempts to stay an important figure in her life. Marcia Gay Harden, as her mother, is not some stage-mother stereotype, despite early scenes that threaten to push her in that direction. Instead, she’s a woman who very much wants her daughter to succeed. She’s not closed-minded; she merely stubbornly wants her daughter to be great. There’s a feeling of genuine love in the parent-child relationship on display here, not just snarky dysfunction that’s so often a teen-movie cop out. A quiet dialogue scene that finds Harden and Page sitting on the floor of their kitchen, engaging in an intense heart-to-heart, is one of the most memorable scenes I saw in any movie of 2009.

It’s memorable because Barrymore knows the strengths of her actors and the strengths of the script by Shauna Cross. She hasn’t drained her movie of stylistic flourish, but she isn’t suffering from first-time director look-what-I-can-do waywardness either. She knows when she can set up a fairly simple dialogue scene and trust that her actors will more than carry the moment. This is an enormously entertaining film as a result, with a smart, fast-paced script and great actors to perform it. The great indie-rock soundtrack and the vibrant colors are only an added bonus.

Speaking of added bonus, there’s the roller derby girls themselves. Played by the likes of Kristen Wiig, Eve, Zoe Bell, Juliette Lewis, Ari Graynor and Drew Barrymore (humbly giving herself a bit part), the athletes have great sense of comedic timing and are an energetic source of frenzied fun on and off the track, even if they are forced into a food fight in the one wrong note the movie manages to hit. Characters on the periphery of the derby are entertaining as well, especially a goofy announcer (Jimmy Fallon) and a sarcastic but supportive coach (Andrew Wilson). But, even with such minor male influences, this movie is a blast of girl-power gusto. Whip It is a hugely entertaining experience, a kind of feel-good movie that doesn’t go out of its way to make you feel good. I just had no other option when confronted with a movie so endearing, energetic, and sweet. This is the kind of movie that could have felt common, but is instead told uncommonly well.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Purposely Adrift: UP IN THE AIR

I’m trying to resist the urge to call Up in the Air “timely” or “the movie of the moment,” but it can’t be helped. Director Jason Reitman’s film, which he wrote with Sheldon Turner from the novel by Walter Kirn, captures the zeitgeist in its opening moments and never lets it go. This is the kind of movie that feels just right. It made me sit back in my seat and think to myself “Yes, this is how we live now.” And yet, the film isn’t self-important or singularly focused on making broad statements about our time. Reitman never loses sight of the fact that he’s telling a story about specific characters. These characters are so fully formed through perfectly pitched writing and acting that I could have spent time with them for much longer.

The film opens with a series of firings, the despondent faces of the fired looking back at us angry, confused, on the verge of tears. Then we meet the man on the other side of the table, the bearer of bad news. He’s Ryan Bingham (George Clooney). He’s contracted by companies to fire their employees. In the current economic downturn, he’s given remarkable job security which enables him to cultivate his deliberately untethered lifestyle, a kind of life that has him away from his Omaha apartment for over 300 days out of every year. When he is forced to stay in Omaha he returns to an apartment that is cold, sterile, and bare, without any indication that someone lives there. It’s a home that is less personal than a hotel, which is, of course, where he’d rather be.

He has a system for travelling that is nothing short of perfection. We see him packing his suitcase, going through security, and boarding a plane, each step moving with a rapid pace and crisp precision. We see tranquil aerial views announcing each new city that illuminate the respite Bingham finds while in flight. He’s hiding his emptiness behind routine, or at least that’s how it would be clearly delineated if this were the traditional Hollywood effort setting up the jaded cynic to learn how to open up and love life. This isn’t that movie, even though Bingham does receive some unanticipated changes in his perfectly honed routine.

These changes come in the form of two women. The first is a frequent flyer with whom he starts a casual romance when their paths cross in a hotel bar. As played by Vera Farmiga, this woman is the female equivalent to Bingham, a career-driven woman who can only meet him when their flight schedules happen to cross. The interactions between Farmiga and Clooney are filled with spark and wit, two incredibly confident personalities bouncing off and feeding into each other. Farmiga is radiant, and it’s not just the reflection off of Clooney’s likability. This is one of the most likable on-screen romances I’ve seen recently. How often do you actually want the characters to end up together instead of just mutually agreeing to go along with the movie’s romantic formula? I’m even more grateful, then, that the romance is so touchingly nuanced, so grounded in reality. Neither of them makes unbelievable shifts, even when they do something surprising. This is an adult interaction, an adult romance. That’s not to say it’s pornographic (though it manages to be frank without being specific), but rather it’s a casual romance that involves two adults who conduct their relationship in a thoroughly adult manner. Romances in Hollywood productions, even a wonderful film like (500) Days of Summer, lock their participants in a state of stunted romantic development with notions relating to relationships stuck in an adolescent state. Here, Farmiga and Clooney behave as adults who have had experiences, have lived lives, and are finding some moments of solace in finding each other.

The other woman who causes change in Bingham’s lifestyle is a new hire at the company that keeps him on the road. Played by Anna Kendrick, she’s a motormouthed delight. Fresh out of college, she wants to eliminate the need for so much travel despite much protest from Bingham who argues that she should understand the nuances of firing before trying to shake things up. Their boss (the always excellent Jason Bateman) sends them on the road together on a whirlwind downsizing mission. Kendrick and Clooney have an unforced rapport that starts in a place of hostility but has the possibility to become, not friendship exactly, but something closer to mutual respect. The relationship between these two characters is so convincing that it carries the film through what could have been treacherous avenues. The characters, with their age gap, are never drawn into a squirmy romantic attraction but nor do they move in a more paternal direction. This is an unforced portrait of cross-generational exchange that feels accurately and closely observed.

In a film like this, casting is almost everything. If the wrong actors were put in place, the movie, even with its strong writing, would fall apart. Luckily Farmiga, Kendrick, and Clooney are perfect in the kind of convergence between performer and character that leaves one entirely unable to imagine a different cast. Farmiga gives a glowing portrait of thirty-something beauty and she’s totally charming, but she also brings a hint of hidden depths of pain behind her easy-going attitude. Kendrick is a force of nature, always moving, always quick to speak, and yet she projects a fragility behind her confident bravado that reveals how young and out-of-place she feels, especially when firing a person twice her age. But Clooney may pull off the greatest acting feat out of the three of them, taking his winning one-step-ahead star persona and subtly subverting it in a way that seems effortless, turning Bingham into a man who lies to everyone about how happy he is, especially himself. He, like the film, is all sparkling charm over a nearly unfathomable sadness.

As the film moves into its final moments, it risks falling into a false crisis or a sappy sentimentality, especially with Bingham deciding to attend an event he seems indifferent towards at the opening of the film. That doesn’t happen. Jason Reitman has remarkable control over the tone and trajectory of the film, manipulating it with skill, staying true to his characters. He has grown remarkably as a director over the course of his first three features. Thank You for Smoking (2006) was a funny satire that would occasionally get a little sloppy in its tone. Juno (2007) featured incredible performances that were sometimes hurt by the odd faux-slang of Diablo Cody’s otherwise heartfelt screenplay. Now, with Up in the Air, Reitman has delivered a work that feels of one smooth piece from beginning to end. It’s a film that operates from a perceptive base of knowledge that filters through every scene, thoughtful and touching about how people really interact. And yet it is wedded to a Hollywood-slick style that features impeccable craft from all departments. This is truly one of the best of the year, not just because it’s timely, but because it’s well made in all aspects. This is a studio dramedy that scrapes at real emotions, that has a sense of reality in its ability to hold painful melancholy underneath the unexpectedly sweet.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls: THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS

Reader, I must confess that I’m as likely to find a Terry Gilliam film as baffling as I do dazzling. Don’t get me wrong, I like the chap and adore some of his movies, but I’ve never really felt an emotional connection to any of his work. Even Time Bandits, my favorite Gilliam movie – not counting Twelve Monkeys, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and The Fisher King, films I still haven’t seen – has its share of moments where I just stare at the screen with my forehead wrinkling asking myself “what’s all this then?” And yet, I’m drawn to each new Gilliam movie, not just for the imagery that’s delightfully inventive and genuinely surprising, a consistent attribute dating back to his days of Monty Python. I’m drawn to his work for the sense that he’s spinning a delirious story and loving every minute of it, whether or not we can keep up. I think it is because of this possible handicap that I enjoyed The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus as much as I did, not just because it’s one of Gilliam’s most accessible works, but because it just might be his most personal.

Doctor Parnassus, played by the great Christopher Plummer, is a sort of wizard as storyteller, an immortal who derives his power not just from his deal with the Devil (Tom Waits, of course), but from the sheer power of the imagination. There’s an early scene that finds Parnassus and the Devil discussing the nature of existence. It’s a tensely playful conversation until Parnassus experiences a revelation of great import. As long as someone somewhere is telling a story, he decides, the universe will go on existing. I feel that Gilliam believes that, right down to the core of his artistic soul, for his films not only feed the imagination, but in their strange journeys and bizarre tangents, in their grimy grounded connection between reality and fantasy, they spin out whole worlds that are conjured from that most wonderfully strange location: the human mind.

Parnassus is on a journey to prove to the Devil that the power of the human imagination has not been dulled by modernity and so he travels in a ramshackle horse-drawn cart that unfolds into his Imaginarium, a scruffy stage upon which he and his band of performers try to enchant customers with their invitation to pretend. But of course, it is not all pretend, for Doctor Parnassus has a portal in the form of a false mirror that, when stepped through while he is in a trance, takes people right into the depths of their imaginations, forming a world just for them. These are incredible special-effects fantasias with looming, giant props, vast, gaudily colored landscapes, and unpredictably shifting circumstances. One elegantly dressed lady imagines a world with large, elegant shoes dotting the embankments of a tranquil river. Of course, the Devil will tempt those in this strange world, but if their imagination stays pure, Parnassus is closer to winning his wager.

The crew of the Imaginarium is an entertaining bunch. The coach driver is a sarcastic midget (Vern Troyer). The ringmaster (Andrew Garfield) is a bumbling runaway, hopelessly in love with the fourth member of the ensemble, Parnassus’s daughter (Lily Cole). Garfield takes what could have been one-note and makes it something a little greater and Cole, for her part, gives a soulful and earthy performance with the ability to suggest great depths in her big eyes. The four of them make a strange group, stranger still when their tattered cart opens up in front of a bar or in the parking lot of a hardware store. They’re always uninvited, almost always unwelcome, and urgency is closing in. You see, as part of Parnassus’s Faustian bargain, he had to make some dark promises for the future of his daughter if he failed to win over enough souls by the time she turned sixteen. Her sixteenth birthday is in three days.

But now I’ve gotten carried away telling you what the film’s about instead of how it’s about it. This is just the type of movie that’s so thrillingly complex in its fantastical elements that I feel I could explain it for hours and never get to the entirety of its wonder and detail. And I haven’t even gotten to the complication that truly kick-starts the plot. It’s the element of the film that has received the most press: the character played by Heath Ledger. It’s a charming performance but there are several moments when there is an uncomfortable subtext hanging about, a deep sadness that wouldn’t have been as deep if Ledger were still alive. And yet, his death forced Gilliam to greater heights of invention as there was work left unfinished when the unfortunate incident occurred. The scenes that find Ledger on the other side of the mirror had yet to be filmed and so Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell play the character in the most fantastical moments. It makes perfect sense and Gilliam even manages to make the shape shifting resonate thematically, illuminating the character in ways more superficial and yet deeper still.

But what role does Ledger play in the plot? I’d rather let you find out, just as I won’t spoil any more of the complications, the stunning effects, hilarious sight gags, or the jaw-dropping moments of awe. This may be Gilliam’s finest accomplishment, may be better than Time Bandits, may be better than Brazil. (But then, all Gilliam films need time to settle past their immediate impact). Here is a movie that reflects in every aspect the vision and worldview of its maker, a handcrafted testament to imagination in every frame. In the character of Parnassus – doomed to walk the earth forever as those around him tire of his stories and find no need for his techniques of entertaining – is an astute reflection of Gilliam himself, a filmmaker who started so promisingly and yet has been thwarted by studio meddling and unforeseeable complications at nearly every turn. Yet Gilliam, like Parnassus, thrives when he is in his element, growing close to the height of his powers.

And yet, the film is still a bit of a mess, wobbly at first and often confused. It’s marvelously complicated fantasy occasionally works as a detriment as the film threatens to collapse under its obfuscation. Still, though, Gilliam manages to pull it together, creating a weird and wonderful film, continually surprising and more than a little moving.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Quick Look: Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Someone has taken Sherlock Holmes and turned it into Pirates of the Caribbean, by which I mean the title character and his exploits have been run through the modern blockbuster system and turned into a jokey set-piece extravaganza. In this case, even though it’s not as good as some of the Pirates films, the results are not entirely a bad thing; it could have been much worse. Guy Ritchie’s blunt ham-fisted direction pounds the material into submission, but Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law (as Holmes and Watson) keep the movie feeling bouncy and agreeable with their funny chemistry and likable screen presences. Ritchie’s late-1800’s London is suitably grubby, the mystery’s just compelling enough, and while the supporting cast is underused, they are not underappreciated, especially the villainous turn by Mark Strong and the proto-femme-fatale vamping of Rachel McAdams. The set pieces scrape up some thrills and there’s some small amount of wit in their staging. This isn’t exactly the Holmes of the past, but the movie has no sworn duty to ensure the perfect enforcement of fidelity to the source material. This is a mostly enjoyable experience, a big-budget, slightly goofy, action-thriller-mystery driven forward, and kept afloat, by its cast, its production design, and the charmingly off-kilter score by Hans Zimmer that recalls The Third Man’s zither in its unexpected instrumentation.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


It was a sad day when it was announced in 2004 that the pretty awful Home on the Range would be the Walt Disney Company’s last work of hand-drawn animation. The medium responsible for all of that studio’s greatest artistic achievements, from Snow White and Pinocchio to Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, was being thrown overboard in order to better jump on the CG bandwagon, a wagon that was already plenty full with Pixar, Dreamworks, Sony and BlueSky, among others. So it is a relief to see The Princess and the Frog, Disney’s return to what they do best, classical storytelling with hand-drawn style. Sure enough, the film doesn’t disappoint on the visual front, each frame filled with fluid beauty that resonates with equal parts wonder and nostalgia. The mild failings of the movie have been left to fall solely on the storytelling.

Featuring the first black princess in the company’s history (about time!), the story is a smart, if a little derivative, retelling of the Prince who becomes a frog and must be kissed to reverse the spell. The voice work is uniformly excellent with Anika Noni Rose and Bruno Campos as thoroughly delightful leads. The leads are thoroughly charming; the prince dances like Gene Kelly and the princess has a weary grace about her. You see, she’s not actually a princess, but rather a hard-working waitress mistaken for a princess by the frog prince when he stumbles upon her at a masquerade ball on the first night of Mardi Gras. The film takes place in a lovingly recreated 1920’s New Orleans, with zydeco and jazz influencing Randy Newman’s soundtrack and Cajun cooking practically wafting off the screen. It’s an enchanting location for a sweet little adventure, especially since, not being a princess, she becomes a frog post-kiss and the two of them escape to the bayou.

At times though, the thrust of the story is lost amidst the strain of the Disney folks stretching their artistic muscles to the point where it feels like the creative team is working off of a checklist of classic Disney features. There’s an overflow of fully animated musical numbers and, while many are charming and striking, they trip over each other and too few really stick. There are more than enough charming animal sidekicks (a dog, a turtle, a gator, a family of fireflies) and plenty of human types as well (people fat and skinny, tall and short, snaky and prim, white and black, smart and hick). It’s nice to see that the Disney animators have such a wide range of skill in producing so many of the character types that have been used in the past, but were they all needed in the same picture?

So, the movie’s a little busy and at times frantic or just plain unmemorable and the plot muddles a bit more than necessary, but I barely care. There are a host of wonderful moments as well, times where the plot zigs where hundreds of animated features have always zagged and quiet character moments that are genuinely touching. There’s also a memorable villain in the form of a voodoo witchdoctor (Keith David) who gets the most memorable song and some genuinely creepy henchmen. And, above all, I like the leads. They were well-voiced, well-designed, and easy to care about. I only wish they weren’t frogs for so much of the film; they make much more appealing humans.

Now get back to work, you fine folk of Disney. I’m ready for another hand-drawn masterpiece from you.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Quick Look: The Chaser (2009)

Na Hong-Jin’s The Chaser has a mishmash of multiple tones and threads pushed together in ugly clumps that it whipsaws past on its convoluted trajectory to the end credits. It’s about a former detective (Kim Yun-seok) turned pimp who has recently had a problem with disappearing prostitutes. It’s also about a group of unbelievably inept policemen who are more worried about how they allowed feces to be thrown in the face of a politician than about solving the crime spree that takes up the third plotline. The fourth plotline involves the criminal (Ha Jung-woo), a sadistic serial killer no less, and the prostitute (Seo Yeong-hie) who he is currently holding captive in preparation for a kill. Long story short, very short, the detective finds the murderer and chases him down. But where’s the missing prostitute, still alive but bleeding and definitely threatened? The race, and chase, is on. This all happens fairly early in the film which then can focus on how many different ways a plot twist can happen – mostly escapes by the killer – that will lead directly to a chase sequence. This is, after all, The Chaser. There’s a cool adrenaline rush for a while, accompanied by a sickening tension that grows with each cutaway to the bleeding captive, but the balance between the broad humor of the bumbling police and the very real stakes of the race-against-the-clock is messy and frequently, jarringly, tips from one to the other with unexpected force. Then there’s the shocking violent act near the climax that derails the film entirely, a glibly punishing moment that pushed me out of the experience. Kim Yun-seok’s performance is gritty and funny enough, and the suspense is real enough, that it pulled me through, but this is ultimately a movie too painfully uneven to fully endorse.

Saturday, January 9, 2010


She’s been divorced for ten years but now, on the eve of her youngest child’s college graduation, this intensely successful baker has started an affair with her ex-husband, even though she might be about to find romance with the architect who’s designing her new kitchen. See, that wasn’t so complicated, and yet Nancy Meyers, or some studio executive, has named the movie It’s Complicated anyways. The title is a clue to the true intentions of the movie, though, which is in the spirit of screwball comedies and door-slamming farces where the plot is only as complicated as the characters choose to make it, as they go so far out of their way to hide what they know, or think they know, that they run the risk of running right back into the truth. That spirit is very much present in the movie but Meyers hasn’t a good enough script to stand proudly among the traditions she intends to uphold. To these ears, the movie is probably pretty flat on the page. What saves the movie, making it a very pleasurable and enjoyable experience, is the sheer luminosity of the stars involved.

The baker is Meryl Streep, genuinely radiant here, bouncing delightfully off of the ex-husband played by a pitch-perfect Alec Baldwin. Together, they take the drabbest scenes and spruce them up through line readings and twinkling eyes into something approaching believable. They sparkle and crackle their way through the plot with cheery good-nature and glistening precision. They’re impossible to hate. Steve Martin as well, as the architect, turns what could have been a one-note milktoast role into a small work of much charm. Continuing the trend of elevating the material is John Krasinski, as Streep and Baldwin’s soon-to-be-son-in-law, getting some of the biggest laughs with his charm and delivery, rivaling all on screen for sheer likability. The movie’s at its best when it winds up the characters and lets the personalities bounce off each other in believably entertaining ways. The funniest moment involves an unexpected combination of characters getting stoned at a graduation party, which also makes it the funniest on-screen drug trip of the year.

It’s too bad Meyers doesn’t do her cast any favors by shooting the film as blandly slick as possible and stranding them in palatial settings of barely believable wealth and prosperity. She even mucks around with the plotting until the long sizzling of the plot comes to an unsatisfying rushed ending that seems to cut corners and denies the opportunity for the truly marvelous payoff that feels owed. The way the whole situation is finally unveiled to all of the characters is too neat and tidy, and the choice Streep makes ultimately feels too hurried. But even all that doesn’t take the shine off of the good times. It’s a very slight, completely inconsequential movie, but it becomes an enjoyable one through the seemingly effortless work of its stars.

Friday, January 8, 2010

He Gives Love a Bad Name: YOUTH IN REVOLT

The amount of enjoyment you get out of director Miguel Arteta’s Youth in Revolt, based on the cult novel by C.D. Payne, may hinge on how tired you are of Michael Cera. After all, this is yet another one of his stammering-teen performances like the ones he’s given in Arrested Development, Superbad, Juno, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and Year One. There are, however, slight variations in his screen persona from character to character, and I, for one, am not yet tired of his way of delivering jokes by sometimes shyly slipping lines past or throwing lines away, muttering them under his breath, and then other times, asserting lines with painfully earnest intent but deeply strange delivery. I still have to smile when I think of Paulie Bleaker telling Juno that she’d “be the meanest wife ever.” He’s funny precisely because he doesn’t seem to be.

In Youth in Revolt, Cera is given yet another funny character in Nick Twisp, a mopey teen who lives with his mom (Jean Smart) and her live-in boyfriend (Zach Galifianakis). He’s repulsed by them, but an escape to see his dad (Steve Buscemi) and his dad’s much-younger girlfriend (Ari Graynor) doesn’t do much to relieve his constant state of self-pity. He’s surrounded by people in love, or something like it, and yet is cursed to remain vaguely lovesick. That is, at least until that vagueness is sharpened and focused on one girl he meets over the summer while vacationing in a trailer park. That girl is Sheeni Saunders, a cute and funny young woman whose capacity for affected anomie matches only Twisp’s. Saunders is played by relative newcomer Portia Doubleday, a great find and a fine match for Cera. They make a relaxed and cutesy couple. Doubleday shares with Cera a sly way of delivering punchlines without seeming to realize how funny she is.

After leaving the trailer park containing his mother’s boyfriend’s summer home, Twisp creates what he calls a “supplementary persona” in the form of the mustache-wearing, cigarette-smoking, bad boy Francois Dillinger. A revoltingly suave youth, Dillinger will occasionally appear and give Twisp very bad advice. Of course, he’s only in Twisp’s mind, but he gives him the courage to act (sort of) wild in an attempt to be sent away to be closer to Sheeni. He takes to spitting, tipping bowls of cereal, and, naturally, starting a massive fire. Cera has fun with this dual role; if he’s mostly unconvincing - he is - I suppose that could be the mildly clever point.

It’s a good thing that most of the humor arises out of the chemistry between Cera and Doubleday (and between Cera and Cera), though, because the movie feels awfully raggedy. Good performers like Fred Willard, Ray Liotta and Justin Long (in addition to Smart, Galifianakis, and Buscemi) are tragically underused in extremely underdeveloped supporting roles. Subplots start nowhere and then never get going while the plot itself starts strong, hitting a few funny notes, and then consists of nothing more than slight, and slightly worse, variations on those same few notes. It’s lumpy and episodic with a snarky tone that gets wearying, especially when it asks us to care more deeply about its characters. That said, this is a gently crude, yet still hard-R, teen comedy that’s kind of enjoyable, in a scrappy sort of way. Cera and Doubleday make it worthwhile.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

At Last: Avatar

In a year that brought us giant robots, living museum pieces, mutants, super-soldiers, and guinea pig spies and had them all be endlessly dull clattering noises and nonsensical spectacle, Avatar feels like a breath of fresh air. Here’s a story with real characters and arcs that matter. Here’s special effects that have real impact in a plot that has peaks and valleys and room to breathe. Of course, it’s a shame that the plot is a hodgepodge of other sci-fi extravaganzas with a bit of Dances with Wolves and Pocahontas thrown in for good measure, not to mention its sledgehammer metaphors for modern ailments, but at least it’s shaped and developed in a cohesive way. I’m not exactly sure how every aspect of the world operates, and some of it gets a little silly, but here’s a movie that sets out to excite and entertain and actually accomplishes it.

The first thing we see is a too-good-to-be-true jungle as we glide across the canopy, the branches whisking past our faces. The 3D is hardly revolutionary; movies just this year like Up and A Christmas Carol used the technology in similar ways to similar effects, deepening the landscape with a more fluid technique arising from their animated nature. The live action nature of Avatar achieves something closer to the multi-plane animation of early Disney works where the foreground, background, and everything in between look like they exist on separate plates creating a convincing illusion of depth. But because of this 3D technology the movie, to my eyes, looked pretty much 2D. After all, regular movies are perceived to possess depth as well by simply showing us an image that represents the real world as we see it. A normal image doesn’t appear to flatten the background into the foreground, does it? Throwing 3D in to the mix only distracts here, especially because Cameron isn’t interested in throwing things into the audience, the trick 3D does best. For most of Avatar I felt like I was watching a 2D movie while wearing an extra pair of glasses. Now that the disappointment with the most trumpeted revolutionary aspect of the film can settle in, we can get back to the plot.

After the jungle soars by, we meet the man who will guide us into the story, Jake Sully played by Sam Worthington, the young Australian actor who stole Terminator Salvation right out from under Christian Bale. Worthington’s not quite as good here, but his role is just as intriguing. Sully is an ex-marine who is forced to take his brother’s place on a corporation’s mission to a planet called Pandora. His brother had been trained to control an avatar grown with his DNA mixed with that of the natives of Pandora, the Na’vi, a race of blue bipedal felines. This avatar is, well, I’m not exactly sure what it is. Is the creature a separate being that Sully can control or is it an empty biological vehicle that he merely drives? Oh, well. Cameron doesn’t stop to tell us. Whatever it is, the fake Na’vi is controlled by Sully, who uses a wheelchair but when he enters his avatar he has control over a fully functioning, albeit alien, body. It’s an escape but one that leads Sully to end up being torn between Sigourney Weaver’s sassy scientist who wants to use the avatar program to learn about the peaceful natives and Stephen Lang’s brutish ex-military company man who wants to use the avatars to learn how to relocate the natives in order to get at the rich deposits of futuristic minerals.

Luckily, all of this is set up within the first act of the film, allowing for us to ignore the plot for much of the middle portion of the film, which finds the big blue Na’vi Sully interacting with the natives, especially the one played by a motion-capture Zoe Saldana who begins to take a romantic interest in the strange outsider. It’s a somewhat compelling romance, but luckily the true love story is between Cameron and the fantastical world he’s showing us. The film wanders through the jungles of Pandora and, make no mistake, it is some kind of spectacular. There are floating mountains and glowing moss, dizzying drops and lush fields. There are plants that glow when tread upon and a holy tree that can read your mind. It’s a rich and detailed exercise in world building and it’s a delight to explore as it unfolds on screen, every little detail satisfying. Well, that holy tree is kind of hokey, but other than that this is a satisfying sci-fi universe.

The movie zips right along and, despite nagging problems with the details of the plot, I was caught up in the action. There’s a devastating moment of mass destruction that hits about two-thirds of the way through the film that jolted me, surprising me with how much I cared about this world. The movie may not have the relentless forward momentum of Cameron’s Terminator or Aliens, but it does have a comfortable pacing that allows the spectacle to settle in before the massive all-action finale that sends creatures and technology hurtling into each other in a slick and awesome cacophony as good as a Star Wars battle or the kind of comic book panel that feels so packed with carefully choreographed motion and detail that it should probably be a centerfold. Even in 2D, this epically satisfying climax would be totally enjoyable.

So, is Avatar a groundbreaking, jaw-dropping motion picture event unlike any we have seen since maybe Star Wars or even The Jazz Singer? In short, the answer is no, and it doesn’t matter how groundbreaking Cameron thinks it is. Instead, the movie is just a well paced, entertaining, special-effects extravaganza. It has a derivative plot and some thin characters, but I kind of cared about them, and I certainly cared about the planet Pandora. When some in Hollywood seem to have lost the ability to make us care about thin characters in fantastical situations, it’s nice to see a blockbuster that’s actually worth the blocks it’s busting.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Short-order Weather: CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS (2009)

I held off on seeing Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs when it was first released. It looked loud and frantic and 3D to boot, not at all what I wanted to see happen to a sweetly whimsical, albeit mostly plotless, picture book about a small town that finds itself the center of a most unusual weather pattern that precipitates food. The mostly lukewarm critical reaction confirmed my suspicions and I stayed away despite the intriguing positive statements from a handful of trusted sources. I recently caught a screening (in 2D, just fine for me) of the movie at my local dollar theater and have been in disbelief ever since that the movie isn’t at all what I thought it was. Instead of an aggressively banal example of non-Pixar computer animation, it’s one of the best times I’ve had at the movies in 2009, a sheer delight from beginning to end. It’s a sprightly and energetic film with nonstop (often running) gags and jokes that are actually funny, never just quickly stale pop culture references. It’s unashamedly a cartoon, think more Looney Tunes than Snow White, with appealingly rubbery visuals. It’s a bouncy, energized, stylized slapstick motion machine that refused to slow down too often, not even to let me catch my breath between laughs.

The opening credits announce, in the location usually reserved for the director’s name, that the movie is “A Film By A Lot of People” and so, fittingly, I have much praise to lavish upon the talented people who created such a great time. The directors, Chris Miller and Phil Lord, do a fine job helming such a meticulous endeavor as a computer animated film and making it seem effortless and spontaneous. As the movie rockets forward it becomes a good-natured parody of disaster movie clich├ęs, all the funnier for appearing in multiplexes so close to 2012. The unobtrusive celebrity voice work, rather than distracting, actually compliments the story with such funny people as Bill Hader, Anna Faris, Neil Patrick Harris, Bruce Campbell, Mr. T and Andy Samberg proving they are wonderfully expressive comedians even when restricted to voice only. The cast carries the rapid-fire vocal comedy as a team of capable animators provide the adorable squishy textures and rounded shapes of the characters and setting, creating a convincing cartoon universe with beautiful food-covered vistas popping with gorgeous colors and sparkling light.

Only stepping back from the experience do I start to realize that the plot itself, including the Big Lesson to be gleaned, is hardly new (though the “it’s good to be smart” message is certainly welcome) and the emotions evoked don’t go quite as deep as Pixar has conditioned us to expect. But that’s not what the filmmakers wanted to do here, was it? This is a movie that doesn’t tread entirely unfamiliar ground in its arc and yet spins wildly inventive imagery and versatile humor around it. None of the small doubts I have ultimately take away from the experience of seeing the movie in action which creates a state of bliss so complete that’s it’s hard to shake. And why would you want to shake off a feeling so good?

Monday, January 4, 2010

Precious: A Review Based On Precious: Based On the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire

Precious Jones, 16-years-old, obese, illiterate, pregnant for the second time, living in inner-city squalor with her monstrous mother, has had a hard life. The victim of perpetual familial and societal abuse, it’s amazing that she has any drive within her at all. Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, already much heralded for her performance, does a remarkable job of disappearing into her frame so, despite usually being the largest person on screen, Precious is hiding within her own skin, constantly squinting and scowling as if she is afraid to let others get too close to her. That fear is certainly well founded, given the horribly hellish treatment she has endured from those who claim to love her. The movie that tells her story, the unwieldy titled Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire, is a button-pusher and a grueling watch, to be sure, but while it’s almost saved by its indomitable title character and a host of fine acting, it’s ultimately undone by its director.

The first film directed by Lee Daniels was the queasy exploitation thriller Shadowboxer. One of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, it’s a queasy mixture of in-your-face stylistic flourishes – odd color schemes, whiplash editing – and monstrous inanity that cavalierly mixes brutal abuse and violence in a volatile and absurd plot that, at its most sensical, casts Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding, Jr. as a mother-and-son assassin team. Thankfully Daniels hasn’t brought his full bag of noxious tricks to the table here, but, given the nature of the extreme child abuse occurring on screen, not much exaggeration is needed to make the necessary points.

Unfortunately, exaggerate he does, self-importantly rubbing the audience’s faces in the depravity. Luckily the movie calms down after a while, settling in to a subtler groove that, while still hard to watch, is only occasionally spurred into exaggerated grotesquery, once Precious is finally moved to an alternative school and begins to receive support and encouragement from a luminous, saintly teacher (played gorgeously by Paula Patton) and a compassionate social worker (played by Mariah Carey, the most endurable she’s ever been). But until that point, Daniels foregrounds the abuse, shooting it in a nauseating style. Certainly, Mo’Nique gives a whirlwind of a performance as the tyrannical mother, but the performance, the events, and the set-design would be strong enough to stand on their own without constant sensationalized direction.

 Viewers will have their own tipping point where the onscreen depravity becomes unbearable. Will it be when a massive sweating belly in a rape scene is cross-cut with shots of frying fatty foods? Will it be when Precious steals a bucket of fried chicken and we get a close up of her greasy chin as she gobbles it up? Will it be the scene that immediately follows in which she throws up the stolen chicken with explicitly chunky vomit? Or maybe it will be the scene in which Mo’Nique drops a newborn baby? Or the scene where Precious rolls down the stairs while holding the baby, every thump wickedly amplified?

Still, Precious is an impressive character, and it’s easy to root for her. The characterizations ring slightly true; unfortunately there are some in this country who are living lives closer to hers than we would like to admit, despite the presentation here leaning towards stereotyping. The scenes in the alternative school, especially Precious’s interactions with her classmates and teacher, are welcome respites to her home life, calming sequences with humor, hope, warmth and love amidst the hardships. Precious wants to change her circumstances, but realizes it will be hard work. It’s a relief to see her slowly finding a support system that’s more tangible than her gaudy fantasy sequences.

But this is a movie that presses its message too hard, not allowing breathing, or thinking, room for an audience. Daniels knows exactly what he wants us to feel and think and goes after it with single-minded determination, ending up with a movie that’s often grueling to watch and intellectually shallow. The movie’s a classic example of bungled execution. There’s no interest in actually digging in to the real emotions of the situations presented. It’s a movie that just wants to provoke, to push buttons and make you squirm, gasp, and laugh. It’s an absurdly surface treatment of potentially deep topics.

There’s a scene late in the film in which Mo’Nique’s character finally gets to open up delivering a harrowing monologue that’s more involving and disgusting than any of the visualized abuse that occurs up to that point. It’s what the movie should have been, more reserved and observant with a quieter power instead of loud and uncomfortable with every emotion pounded into the crowd. The story is powerful enough that my train of thought would have arrived to the emotions naturally without Daniels greasing the tracks. It’s an uncomfortable and grueling clash of intentions and execution.