Monday, January 20, 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
Grade: D
Cast: Chris Pine, Keira Knightley, Kevin Costner, Kenneth Branagh
Director: Kenneth Branagh
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The shadows for Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit fall over the movie and the actors themselves.  When did Kevin Costner become an old man? What happened to Keira Knightley’s rise to stardom? Why has a relaunch of Tom Clancy’s heroic CIA analyst fallen into the January dump period, especially when it, at least, is not a disaster?

There’s certainly nothing shadowy about the chosen story for this intended reboot. This isn’t the first time that the elements of the plot have seen the broad daylight. The Russians are ready to crash the American economy. To do so, they plan to stage a terrorist attack somewhere in America. The mastermind of the plot is a Russian businessman (Kenneth Branagh, who directs), a nation where nice guys finish not only last but dead. Jack Ryan (Chris Pine), new CIA recruit, discovers something shady while pondering a set of data. He journeys to Moscow to uncover the plot, where he dodges shootouts, car chases, and a suspicious girlfriend.  

Shadows from the past stretch from the toes of the Jack Ryan predecessors – The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, A Clear and Present Danger and The Sum of All Fears. They are not quite great films, but sturdy, lasting entertainments.  They are helped by Clancy’s detailed knowledge of spycraft and his ability to convey it first in print and then celluloid. There are neat, smart twists and touches to Shadow Recruit – like the way that a little fresh paint gives away the plan – But on the whole, it feels like a step down in quality from the ones before it. 

Shadows of Harrison Ford, the best known Jack Ryan of the past, also linger. That’s a long unfair shadow, but it’s there nonetheless. There’s always something about Pine that makes him seem like a junior member. That works for a young Captain Kirk or the rookie train man in Unstoppable, but it doesn’t really work with a CIA agent, even a newcomer. On the other hand Shadow Recruit has a pair of likable performances from familiar faces. As a CIA veteran, Costner cooks in a comfort food presence. I’m always pleased to see Knightley when she’s sharp, although I would be more pleased to see her in something more meaty.

There’s something familiar about Shadow Recruit. It’s a trip back to the time of spy vs. spy movies and rote Russian baddies. For most viewers, that will seem either comfortable or boring. While sitting, typing, and thinking about it, it seems to have had the weight of a shadow and lasted about as long.  

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises
Grade: B
Cast: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Gary Oldman, Marion Cotillard, Michael Cane, Morgan Freeman
Director: Christopher Nolan
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If Inception found Christopher Nolan debating whether to surrender, Tarkovsky-like, the real world for the deepest levels of imagination, The Dark Knight Rises finds Nolan already having taken the plunge.

Where would you rather be, as a musclebound cross between Darth Vader and Lord Humongous, Warrior of the Wasteland sinks Gotham into a nuclear-tipped French Revolution? When peasant kangaroo courts manned by maniacs belt out ice-water justice to balding stockbrokers? Is there a better place than under the covers in the shadows of Wayne Manor (where we find Bruce Wayne in Howard Hughes-like seclusion)? With the gloomy worldview expressed in The Dark Knight Rises, we might well look for Chris Nolan to be peeing in mason jars right there next to him.

If The Dark Knight Rises is indeed a mirror on the times, then it reveals the director’s misgivings about the current wave of populism biting into the world. In their Batman trilogy, the Nolan Brothers – director Christopher and screenwriter Jonathan – have found “the public” untrustworthy, insufficiently thoughtful, too open to manipulation by disinformation. The villainous Bane, leading the people in a reign of terror against Gotham’s wealthy, replaces a civilization based on stabilizing lies with lies of his own. The film makes an overt reference to the French Revolution, Dickens and A Tale of Two Cities. But it plays a little like Animal Farm.

Why does Bruce Wayne love Gotham, anyway? Why is this wretched hive of scum and villainy worth saving? It seems like a lot of trouble, a classic co-dependency. Gotham is the bachelor billionaire’s crazy girlfriend, constantly skinnydipping with the enemy, never able to turn his rubberized head without her slipping back into anarchy. The people of Gotham are worth saving, Batman seems convinced, but perhaps only in theory, only so far as to soothe his need to be the hero. Every martyr needs an audience to save.

How should we react when Gotham (and allegorically, our world) turns upside down once again? What would Nolan have us do? It’s obviously not to follow a strongman like Bane, the brutal trickster, and his illusion of imprisoned “liberation.” It isn’t the aloof out-for-herself Catwoman (a foxy Anne Hathaway, at the top of her considerable talent), disconnected from the world around her. As a hero, Batman offers stability and good intentions. What does Batman deliver but noblesse oblige, restoration of a dysfunctional status quo, and a delay until the next relapse?

As an action movie, The Dark Knight Rises is quite successful, involving in the moment, although not quite as memorable or darkly humorous as the best of its predecessor, The Dark Knight. The scale and the drive are consuming (even if Hans Zimmer’s score goes too far). The story is thick, layered but understandable. I might have cut a couple of characters (Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s beat cop comes to mind), but it doesn’t detract too much from the proceedings. Bloated and pompous, true, but The Dark Knight Rises is ultimately rewarding. Disguised as entertainment, its best moments feel like a foreboding prophecy of the present.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Grade: N/R
Cast: Quvenshane Wallis, Dwight Henry
Director: Benh Zeitlin

I probably shouldn’t write about Beasts of the Southern Wild since I walked out in the middle of it. I didn’t really expect to write anything about it at all. But here I am.

In fairness, my departure had more to do with an early morning doctor appointment than disgust. That said, the greatly hyped Sundance winner – the story of a girl and an isolated community dealing with the flooded aftermath of Hurricane Katrina – did leave a pretty thick layer of disappointment.

Walking into Beasts of the Southern Wild, I was mindful of the fact that this was a story of impoverished country people in the Louisiana delta conceived by a private school graduate from the East Coast. What I felt I walked out with was a movie about impoverished country people in the Louisiana delta conceived by a private school graduate from the East Coast.

That origin is not insurmountable. Affluent artists have always written about the poor, some very successfully. This is moviemaking, after all, where they make movies about the underclass on soundstages in Hollywood. Still, it is a real obstacle. And it’s an obstacle that debut director Benh Zeitlin doesn’t quite figure out how to deal with effectively. While I wouldn’t call it phony, it is wanky, and the film never quite reaches the illusion of authenticity.

One path would be with a fairy tale style, and sometimes Beasts makes that departure. Browsing his biography, Zeitlin’s parents are folklorists, and Beasts contains elements of folklore. It has a child who cooks dinner by blasting the stove with a propane flame, for goodness sakes. But the film never quite makes a necessary choice between realism and lyricism. Visually, this film bathed in mythological elements is grounded by techniques built to enforce reality. It goes so far as to use a shaky cam style, the sort of thing designed to convince us of the gritty realness of an alien invasion. Beasts is a little like a Zora Neale Hurston story filmed as if it were District 9.

For these reasons, Beasts of the Southern Wild reminds me a little of Alejandro Gonzalez Inniritu’s Babel. After the splendid success of Amores Perros, director Gonzalez Inirritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga ultimately split in different directions. In Babel, Inniritu’s realism/hyperrealism ended up in a different place than Arriaga’s Fassbender-like melodrama. There comes a time in Babel where you feel the script working against the direction, and you can feel the film’s loose stylistic ends. I felt the same way here.

So what do I have to say about it, finally? Chin up. The willingness to make a story about small places and delicate lives is encouraging. Zeitlin is a different voice, and I suspect it will eventually find its range.


Grade: B
Cast: Kelly MacDonald, Emma Thompson, Billy Connally, Julie Walters
Director: Mark Andrews
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If you were a Scottish princess, wouldn’t using a spell to turn your mother the queen into a bear be considered an act of insurrection?

It’s hard to imagine that in real life Merida – the red-headstrong princess in Disney Pixar’s Brave – would avoid the tower for very long. In fact, consorting with a witch would be pretty risky – burning at the stake and all. Not to mention Scottish royalty has a particularly discouraging tradition of leaving life with one less head than they entered it with.

Ah, but that’s the thing about teenagers. You’re pretty much contractually obligated to forgive them. So is there any risk that Brave would turn into anything but a touching mother-daughter movie? The princess learns a little about life. The queen learns a little about love.

Life and love told amid a slight bedtime story. The queen wants to marry off her daughter in a proper manner. The tomboy daughter, who prefers archery to riding sidesaddle, has other matrimonial ideas. There’s something to be said for wedding for political alliances, but of course this isn’t the film that would say it. This is the modern age and we marry for love. There’s a wild king with a peg leg, rowdy clansmen in kilts, and a trio of mischievous brothers to keep the castle on its toes.

Even among Pixar’s successes, Brave stands out in the visual realm. Pixar’s genius is that it creates movies that look like they were filmed on location on a computer-generated planet and brought here. There’s not a “hey I’m watching a movie!” sense. It’s like visiting a real world. The dark hollows and fresh greens of Brave’s fictional Scotland are breathtaking and unique.

By the way, Brave extends the bow-firing trend among young female heroines. For parents already fretting the “should we buy our daughters a deadly weapon for Christmas?” decision, this is another arrow in the quiver.

I’d love to sit here and tell you a million interesting things about Brave. I think there are maybe 11 or 12, and I’ve said them all. It’s a particularly lovely round of craftsmanship, and it never loses your attention.

Rock of Ages

Rock of Ages
Grade: C
Cast: Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta, Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Russell Brand, Bryan Cranston, Mary J. Blige
Director: Adam Shankman
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Rock of Ages, this week’s hair metal spandex singalong, asks a basic question about the musical – what’s the point of a musical?

More specifically it asks a pair of underlying questions about musicals: Is enjoyment a worthy artistic goal? Is sentimental simplification acceptable in the name of fantasy and fun?

On one level Rock of Ages does to the metal years of the late 1980s no more or less than what Singin in the Rain does to the twenties or Grease does to the fifties or Moulin Rouge does to Golden Age Paris. Accusing these films of ignoring the racism, violence or barbaric dentistry of their era would be a little like marking off Peyton Manning’s greatness because he isn’t a very good tackler. It’s true, but it misses the point.

On the other hand, how do you take the most hedonistic, polyamourous, and misogynistic era of pop music and turn it into a musical with a female lead about multiple couples pursuing that one true love? And how do you create an atmosphere of self-destructive decadence in a movie in which no one even smokes? There’s a fly in this zeitgeist somewhere.

Rock of Ages casts sunny-eyed Millenials as broken-homed Gen Xers. Accusations of being American Idol: Metal Night are, sadly, fairly accurate. Aspiring baby-faced metalhead Diego Boneta doesn’t exactly conjure memories of Axl Rose. Playing an Oklahoma Snow White who escapes to the bright lights of Los Angeles, Julianne Hough seems more like a girl who would listen to Madonna or Debbie Gibson, or Amy Grant and Stryper. In real life, she ‘s Ryan Secrest’s girlfriend. She looks it. She feels it. And she sings like it. Of the younger set, only Malin Akerman (Watchmen), as the Rolling Stone journalist Constance Sack, comes across as a natural candidate to be spread across the front hood of a Camaro.

What saves the film, and ultimately makes it worth the view, is the great supporting cast. Russell Brand is either a choice so perfect that it’s obvious or a choice so obvious that it’s perfect. He’s teamed successfully with a camp Alec Baldwin as the owner of a Sunset Strip club on the tight rope of bankruptcy. .It’s topped by Tom Cruise having an enormous amount of fun as rock legend Stacee Jaxx, an 80s action star playing himself as an 80s rock star. On a practical level, how do you hire leads that are so miscast but a supporting cast that’s right down to the last sprinkle of hairspray?

Is the music good? A better question … was the music good then? An even better question .. is the music fun? On the last point, I’ll go with more yes than no. A cheeky busride rendition of Night Ranger’s Sister Christian sets the tone, giving you a good taste of director Adam Shankman flair for amusing camp. When it hits that point, it makes up for clunky editing and the blah story. Rock of Ages isn’t a film I particularly respect. But I did enjoy it.


Grade: B
Cast: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce, Idris Elba
Director: Ridley Scott

Named for a deep-space vessel on a mission to discover the interplanetary creators of mankind, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is on another unenviable origin mission – the near-impossibility of recapturing the shock and dread of the original 1979Alien.

So much of the original is surprising and unexpected. Sequels, prequels and whateverquels (we’ll call this a companion film) are burdened by knowledge and expectation. Despite the best efforts of Noomi Rapace’s awesome shag haircut – floating in space since the Disco era – that 1979 magic is lost in the interstellar vastness. When an alien finally bursts from an unfortunate astronaut’s stomach, it’s not a scare or shock but the re-emergence of a brand. In space no one can hear you scream. That's OK when we’re meant to cheer.

That said, don’t take that to mean that Prometheus is some sort of doughy, follow-the formula failure. Actually it’s a sharp, follow-the formula success. Scott shakes the box of familiar elements (abandoned spaceships, flamethrowers, double-dealing androids, symbols of disturbed motherhood, fears of sex and being eaten) and out pops a summer freak-out that should leave audiences satisfied.

It’s appropriate that the android in Prometheus is obsessed with Lawrence of Arabia, as this is Scott’s leanest movie in years. Absent – or at least unnoticed – are the multiple cameras and restless editing that have marred the director’s recent films. Michael Fassbender is the android who not only wants to be human (a seeming AI reference) but wants to be Peter O’Toole. He is assigned by the Weyland Corporation to a deep space exploration aboard a ship seeking aliens who might be the creators of human life.

Two things emerged from John Hurt’s stomach in 1979. One was the phallic-headed alien. The other was the stardom of Sigourney Weaver. Prometheus affords Rapace (You’ll always be my Lisbeth Salander) a similar opportunity. Certainly she’s helped by Prometheus’ intense centerpiece – a self-performed C-section that nails the coded fears of sex and violence that the Alien series does best.

Prometheus ‘ main deficit is either some of the dialogue or some of the acting. It’s a little hard to identify alien and egg. Is Charlize Theron’s corporate master too cold, or is she just burdened with too much dialogue that consists of yelping? (Did they write down specific yelp noises, or did they leave the yelp content to the inspiration of the actress?) But the story is nimble and confident, and the visual effects are first-rate.

Magic Mike

Magic Mike
Grade: B
Cast: Channing Tatum, Alex Pettyfer, Matthew McConaughey, Cody Horn, Olivia Munn
Director: Steven Soderbergh
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Hamstrung by protein-level decisions made during the first Nixon Administration, I can’t fully enjoy Steven Soderbergh’s male stripper drama Magic Mike. That’s what DNA gets you. But I did enjoy it as best as my hormones permit.

If your wife has planned some mysterious me-time this weekend, be aware where she’s going. She’s probably figuring out ways to smuggle kiwitinis in her purse as we speak. And she’ll enjoy it. Soderbergh sexualizes the male bodies of Channing Tatum, Alex Pettyfer and Matthew McConaughey much like the women’s bodies of Gina Carano in Haywire or Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience. The mercurial Ocean’s series director has become one of the last American filmmakers who believes in the carnal potential of cinema.

By casting the ultimate fighting champ Carano, Soderbergh rang in the year by crossing gender roles on the action film in Haywire. Conversely, Magic Mike places Tatum in the traditionally female role of a stripper with a heart of gold. The muscular heartthrob becomes something rare for a male lead – a sexual object. Like Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut, the film even begins with a butt shot of Tatum.

…. Now ladies, sit doww … you promised! …. please notice the film is more than its ripe bottom. Soderbergh’s recent films have been situated at the crossroads of work, performance, and identity. Mike is a sex worker with normal worries and dreams of a furniture business. He thinks he leaves it at work, but it’s not that easy. And a disagreement with a bank loan officer brings home Soderbergh’s point – the idea that capitalism depends on self-exploitation in which everyone participates. Just some ways are sexier than others.

Soderbergh can be a little like the edgy songwriter who stirs provocative images but doesn’t know quite where to go with them. At times, the film grips conventional plotlines for buoyancy – a will-they-won’t-they-of-course-they-will romance and a younger stripper’s ascent to stardom and descent into hedonism. Fortunately, the performances and tone are sharp and the detriment minimal.

Magic Mike is strangely the (loosely) real life story of its star Tatum, a male exotic dancer before his film career, but the fantasy of McConaughey – who as the club’s folksy owner nearly steals the show. But it’s Tatum’s sense of cool that holds the film together. He’s the owner of that unmistakable indefinable. It’s there in scene like when he casually backflips off a bridge into water, with no sweat or hesitation. I can’t quite define it, but I can see it, and it’s something I can’t quite forget.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom

Moonrise Kingdom
Grade: A
Cast: Jared Gilman, Kara Heyward, Bruce Willis, Ed Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton
Director: Wes Anderson

Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom is not only a story of the power of first love but also the way that children create the mythology of adulthood through the fabric of stories. The world approaches us first wrapped as tales, and we handle its mysteries with imagination. The largest part of reality, even as we age, remains a contradictory act of abstraction.

This has been a quietly placed theme in the films of Terrence Malick, including last year’s Cannes winner The Tree of Life. The children first imagine death as Sleeping Beauty laying in a glass coffin in the woods. They learn of time, property and death from a story about a rabbit in a garden. Even earlier, an infant learns the animals with a small toy Noah’s Ark – the first taste of a wider reality is an act of representation.

Speaking of Noah, it’s been an unexpectedly good year for him at the movies, with his presense felt throughout Moonrise. Robed and in sandals, he might as well sail into Cannes’ red carpet (where Moonrise debuted in competition). Of course when you think about it, Noah’s Ark is our first love story, with perhaps the first glimpses of sexuality that we see as children.

The love story in Wes Anderson’s brilliant young adult fantasy begins at a church performance of the Benjamin Britten musical Noye’s Fludde. Sam is an unpopular Khaki Scout with precocity, defiance and good camping skills. Suzie is the daughter of a pair of loveless lawyers; she lives in a storybook lighthouse on the isolated New England island of New Penzance. Her role in the play is the raven, that most tempestuous of birds, though a red-headed outburst will soon see her demoted to a blue jay.

The couple meets in a field one year later to elope to a beach – him with an airgun, a coonskin hat, and a corncob pipe; her with a blue suitcase, a record player, sci-fi books, a kitten and dreams of adventure. Don’t be thrown by the age – they are every bit as passionate, sincere and liberated as Jean-Paul Belomondo and Ana Karina in Pierrot Le Fou, using the radical edge of love to escape the docility that surrounds them. They are both experiencing love as a fiction and love on its purest level.

Tracing them are a flock of kind but broken adults – the sadsack parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), a lone pokey policeman (Bruce Willis), a teacher who wishes he could be a scout master every day (Ed Norton). There is also a social services worker, dressed in electric blue, who has been so consumed by adulthood that she no longer has a name. 

This pair of lovestruck tweens are rushing into adulthood, and the adults are longing for childhood. Anderson has been playing with this idea since at least Rushmore, and it is a predominant inspiration for the film. In relocating that feeling of first love, as well as the nostalgia for that feeling, Moonrise Kingdom brings it home with humor and elegance.

That’s all I would say if it were not for the extraordinary craft, which cannot go without a mention. Anderson’s love of widescreen compositions (from cinematographer), detailed art direction, and perpendicular filming of actors and activity are at their prime in Moonrise Kingdom. His reputation has made him a spaz to some detractors, but here it is at its most inspiring effect. The script that he and Roman Coppola have composed is a gem of brains, humor and heart.

The Avengers

The Avengers
Grade: F
Cast: Robert Downey, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston
Director: Joss Whedon

Have you ever seen Ruby in Paradise, the 1993 North Florida indie that brought Ashley Judd to prominence?

There’s a scene where the uncomplicated runaway Ruby drags her pretentious bookstore boyfriend to an alien invasion movie. He storms out of the screening. How can you watch this junk, he demands.
I’m convinced they were watching The Avengers. Linear time be damned.

In his rave, Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers calls The Avengers everything that he thought it would be. I share this analysis but stagger toward the opposite conclusion. This is a film that does exactly everything you think it would do – and that’s the problem. There is not an unexpected moment in Joss Whedon’s very plastic superhero collision, sticking slavishly to its good-guy-bad-guy yay-team! template. Not only is The Avengers a 3-D return to the heavily corporate good-evil special effects distractions of yesteryear. It’s proud of it.

Six Marvel Comics superheroes – Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, The Hulk, Hawkeye, and Black Widow – assemble in the face of an alien invasion led by Thor’s evil brother, Loki. This leads to more than two hours of superheroes shaking hands, planning, bickering, duking it out in predictable misunderstandings, planning, bickering, and then taking off and landing, and taking off and landing again, and taking off and landing again, which the camera documents with a Lucasfilm -like obsession. There is also a ridiculous amount of ridiculous foreshadowing. And the score overpowers with volume rather than skill or elegance.

The plot involves a struggle to gain control of a blue interdimensional cube called the Tesseract. This leads to the squabbling superheroes uniting to fight an alien invasion in a prolonged final battle across the skies of a pixilated Manhattan. This unity is achieved on the intellectual cheap. The heroes come together not out of ideology or moral principle but because  -- dammit – it doesn’t look like much fun to be ruled by ugly aliens on space motorcycles.

But what if the invaders weren’t ugly aliens on space motorcycles, but well-dressed Mitt Romneys gently cruising to Earth in space Lexuses?  Christopher Nolan’s Batman series raised the stakes on comic book movies by introducing a moral dimension. The release of The Dark Knight Rises trailer this week makes the third entry in that series look like a sprawling crime saga more than a kiddie matinee. The Avengers gleefully reverses the trend toward smarter blockbusters and heads back in the opposite direction.  

The Avengers was always at risk of becoming Iron Man and Friends, with Robert Downey Jr. riding roughshod over a cast largely devoid of his star power. That’s essentially what happens. The others make occasional marks. Scarlett Johansson fights evil with the cool diffidence of a forties B-movie star – perhaps she should fight crime by rejecting the aliens’ passes. There is a great deal of praise headed in Mark Ruffalo’s way for Dr. Bruce Banner who transforms into The Incredible, who likes to smash.  But like most of these characters, and the film itself, it’s ultimately a one-trick show.  

The Five Year Engagement

The Five Year Engagement
Grade: B
Cast: Jason Segel, Emily Blunt, Chris Pratt, Allison Brie, Rhys Ifans
Director: Nicholas Stoller

When Nicholas Stoller and Jason Segel introduced Forgetting Sarah Marshall in 2008, it represented the low point for the Apatow Factory, during the phase when it produced any old comedy premise that could fit on the back of a bank receipt. The filmmakers probably didn’t go in thinking, “We’re going to make a stalker fantasy laughfest,” but that’s what came out the other side.

That’s why it’s so encouraging to see the same group produce The Five-Year Engagement – easily the most balanced of the Apatow battle-of-the-sexes comedies. The fairer sex does not get off the hook, but a stronger female side creates a sharper give-and-take between man and woman. This advantage is heightened by casting one of the most gifted comedic stars of her generation – Emily Blunt – rather than the hot TV star of the moment.

The result is a comedy with real-ish characters that feels like it comes from someplace true rather than wild exaggeration. When the film finally ends in a wacky Hollywood fantasy wedding, it feels less like a cynical conclusion than a bit of earned whimsy, like the end of a Fellini film (no, it’s not that good).

The gags relate to the difficulties of engagement, particularly one that lasts forever, and the winter blues of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Tom and Violet meet in San Francisco, fall in love in San Francisco, get engaged in San Francisco, and end up moving to A-Squared when she gets a post-doctorate assignment. The couple delays marriage again and again. Violet's academic career thrives under a zap-haired professor. Tom gives up his chance to be a great chef, grows a Grizzly Adams beard, takes up crossbow hunting, and sinks into misery. (While some critics gripe about the Grizzly Adams phase being too far afield, you can be assured that Tom is not the first person to grow a mountain man beard in Ann Arbor.)

While many of the criticisms directed at the film – too long, weird digressions, tone shifts from reality to exaggeration – are not without merit, The Five Year Engagement earns clemency by coming from a real place and being consistently smart and funny. While some of the comedy set-ups are unoriginal lifts from other films, it doesn’t feel that way, because there’s a plausible relationship with real chemistry underlying it.

The Five Year Engagement profits from that relationship between Segel and Blunt, who share a loose, playful chemistry. They seem remarkably at ease. They’re matched nicely by her sister and his best friend, Allison Brie and Chris Pratt, respectively, who relive the plot of Knocked Up as a counterweight. They are the couple forced into a marriage by pregnancy. They make it work despite the difficulty of the situation solely because they want it to.

That’s why The Five-Year Engagement sees the Apatow romantic comedy finally getting into the ballpark of the thirties films that they always seem to aim for but usually fall short of. The Five-Year Engagement works as comedy. The Five-Year Engagement works as romance. What are you waiting for? Go.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games
Grade: B
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Wes Bentley, Donald Sutherland.
Director: Gary Ross

The Hunger Games will sap up comparisons to science fiction. That’s what happens with stories about futuristic dystopias and freaky hovercraft. The better comparison is to Roman or Biblical epics of the fifties. Its story – of the youth of 12 outlying provinces exploited for the bloodsport of a wealthy and perverse capital – is reminiscent of Ben Hur or Spartacus. It even has a grand chariot parade, with crowds adoring Katniss Everdeen, a firelit, coal-haired Cleopatra.

These are essentially stories of the risks of opulence, how wealthy societies are built on this sort of cruelty and exploitation. Violent spectacle is seen as the dark payment for a vital but oppressive society. The suggestion is that civilization is little more than a sophisticated decoration of the primitive instinct.

Science fiction typically presents itself as the future, when really it is the present in disguise. But the Hunger Games begins by looking into the past. This is a future that first takes shape in a dim Appalachia, lingering in a permanent time warp, where even a nuclear war seems unable to change much. The coal shaft explosions are still as present as the class struggles that have marked the place for hundreds of years.

The is the world of Katniss Everdeen, and it bears considerable resemblance to the world of Ree Dolly, Jennifer Lawrence’s previous heroine from Winter’s Bone. In each film, she has played a backwoods teenage breadwinner with a missing father and an enfeebled mother. Lawrence seems to win these roles at least in part because her mild Kentucky accent is Hollywood’s idea of backwoods credibility. That she fills each truthseeker with the same blend of bravery and vulnerability is the cinema’s good fortune.

Katniss volunteers to take the place of her younger sister, who is chosen by lottery to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a 24-teen televised fight-to-the-death. By some twist of logic, this ceremony keeps the unruly districts from rebelling against the kleptocratic capital.

The story catches Katniss in two swirls – her impending fame and her impending death. From the latter, we arrive at a young woman revealing her sturdy character as she faces her demise. For the former, our bow-and-arrow tomboy receives a makeover into a young woman. There’s a moment when the coal-country girl, partial to hunting clothing, goes for a twirl in front of a TV audience in a stylish dress. It’s a moment of surprise exhiliration, and it’s one of the film’s unexpected best moments. One of the film's shortcomings is that it loses sight of the fact that it is a coming-of-age story set in bizarre circumstances.

Coming-of-age means romance, as do YA novels (the film is based on a book series by Suzanne Collins). A movie aimed at young women means “torn between two men.” So of course it includes a love story, with the wimpy but likable Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), a fellow contestant from her district. The dreamboat Gale (Liam Hemsworth) sits this one out back home, leaving a triangle for future films. The suggestion is that the refreshment of purity, authenticity and youth poses the greatest challenge to corruption.

Much has been wondered about the film’s politics. Are they left or are they right? Such is the state of politics in this country that the populist impulse on either side has come to resemble one another in some ways. The orientation is less important than the accuracy, of a centralized power structure draining the life and wealth out of the rest of the country, and the society that sublimates its violent imagination into competitive rituals.

But does The Hunger Games get this right? Or is this a case of how authors overestimate ominous portents found in simple progress? As it pertains to de-sensitization, The Hunger Games is its own best evidence. Twenty years ago, a movie about a teenage murder pageant – aimed at teenage girls, no less – would have caused protestors to lay in front of the theater doors. Now it’s a girls night family outing.

On the other hand, we’re 20 years past The Running Man, which was the last time that we were “only a few years away” from this sort of thing. Somehow we’ve managed to steer clear of death match game shows. In reality, masculine excess is not our problem. Men being forced by wives to wear those embarrassing strap-on baby carriers is more our problem than excessive bloodlust. Sometimes I wish I lived in a country that could still stage a televised death match.

Anyway, it drags at times, but I enjoyed The Hunger Games. And I’m also pleased to have a genuine event movie that everyone has seen, the first of several this year. Even better, its soundtrack hit No. 1 this week, something that used to be routine. It’s like taking a step back, appropriately, to 1984.

Wrath of the Titans

Wrath of the Titans
Grade: C
Cast: Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Rosamund Pike, Edgar Ramirez, Toby Kebbell
Director: Jonathan Liebesman
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In Ancient Greece, Homer’s memorized recitals of the stories of the heroes and gods certainly required an attention span. The Wrath of The Titans certainly does not. It demands only the attention typically demanded by modern Hollywood blockbuster screenwriting.

But would Homer, in all his “As I lay dying, the woman with the dog face wouldn’t close my eyes as I descended into Hades”-ness, have been better served by less longwindedness and more action? With three screenwriters and a focus group whittling his tales down to sixth-grade level? With Zeus turning to Hades before they run around tossing lightning bolts during the climatic battle and uttering that phrase that has echoed down through the ages: “Let’s have some fun!”

In fairness, Hollywood isn’t trying to make a story that will last down through the millennia. They’re shooting for two hours, tops. And while The Wrath of the Titans does nothing to crater your attention for that length of time, it doesn’t do much to earn it beyond the two-hour parking limit, either.

Something of a greatest hits of Greek mythology, The Wrath of the Titans pours enough mythological creatures into the story that you might think it’s Bella Swan’s new dating list. There are giant Cyclops, wraiths, minotaurs, and of course the flying horse, Pegasus. If they didn’t get into the first film, 2009’s Clash of the Titans, they must figure this could be the last chance.

Fans of Hercules and Theseus may be dismayed having their accomplishments credited to a different warrior. That warrior would be Perseus (Sam Worthington). After vanquishing the Kraken several years ago, the reluctant warrior must leave his peaceful life to help his father Zeus save the world from dastardly Olympian infighting. His brother Ares, the god of war, is plotting against the two of them. This is a perfect setup for Ancient Greece, the culture that gave us the "daddy issue.”

I might leave this film lost in a labyrinth with no string to lead it out except for one thing – the visual effects are rather brilliant. Kudos to visual effects supervisor Nick Davis and his team. They integrate the CG monsters smoothly into the “real” elements of the scene and find the right balance between spectacle and reality. The images own an enormous amount of visual detail.

I was also impressed, at times, by the art direction and cinematography. There’s a lovely earthen feel to the Greek infantry smudged in mud as they await battle. And some of the shots are really beautifullly composed. For instance, watch, for instance, the scene where Perseus lands the flying horse Pegasus into a phalanx of Greek soldiers. See how the camera glides – from the dismounting hero, down the line of kneeling soldiers. to a helmet planted in the sand, then upwards to a person walking back toward Perseus. It’s a well-thought-out and executed shot. Almost from the beginning, director Jonathan Liebesman and cinematographer Ben Davis plant little gems like this.

If only they had also planted little gems like characters you care about and action that matters.