Sunday, March 29, 2009

How do you pronounce Arnezeder?

A story on the next great French star, at least for one film, Nora Arnezeder of Paris 36.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Monsters Vs. Aliens

Monsters Vs. Aliens [PG]
Grade: D
Cast: (voice) Reese Witherspoon, Seth Rogen, Hugh Laurie, Will Arnett, Kiefer Sutherland, Rainn Wilson, Stephen Colbert, Paul Rudd
Director: Rob Letterman, Conrad Vernon

Come now, is there a better title ever created to bull’s eye young boy’s hearts than Monsters Vs. Aliens?

I mean, do eight year old boy have two more favorite things, especially in movies? Find the kid who doesn’t want to see this movie, and you find the kid who is going to be overly obsessed with Camus in high school. This one title screams “box of super-sugary cereal.”

And lo and behold, one of the monsters, trapped in a space-bound government facility before being released to save the Earth, happens to be an oversized lizard. Those are boys’ third favorite thing. And he knows …. he knows karate! If I told you his buddies were a mad scientist cockroach and an amorphous Jello blob?

So who was laughing in the theater that I attended? Not the kids. Few of them seemed too responsive to the puns, the Herbie Hancock reference, or the “boings” that ran on time like a train, probably coordinating whistle stops with the Hell Express. In fact, the children barely laughed. So much for the cereal box theory.

This piece of Dreamworks animation obviously takes after the Alien vs.Predator films. This theoretically kid-friendly tome certainly doesn’t share the same tone. But it might well share the same screenwriter.

All of these films look back to various 1950s monster flicks. You know, the ones where Godzilla would fight Mothra, the giant moth, with the citizens of Tokyo left to scurry from building to building and try to keep from being gum on a mutant’s shoe.( I always suspected that Godzilla used his star power to get those films made in order to soften his image. But I can’t prove it.)

As the title suggests, this group of monsters are squaring off against a group of aliens. This alien pod army is led by a squid-like alien bent on universal conquest. While plotting the downfall of Earth, he might want to take lessons in comic delivery from Martin the Martian.

He is opposed by the 40 foot woman who becomes known as “Ginormica” after a glowing green meteor strikes her chapel on her wedding day. Cold feet, I guess.

I was disappointed with the film’s feel. Take everything we’ve seen in recent animation and dull it down a few notches. Most animation tries to untether you from the feel of a camera from time to time. This only happens long enough and bland enough to make you certain they tried and didn’t get it. The film never achieves the sense of sweep. A great deal of the film is set in northern California (including a fight with an alien robot at the Golden Gate Bridge. The sights are vaguely realistic. But I don’t want them to be. I want a fully animated world, not a half one.

I suspect old monster movie fans will have fun figuring out what monsters each character is inspired by. There is a sort of inside ballgame going on here. Unfortunately, it’s covered up by a bland cartoon over the top.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

I Love You, Man [R]
Grade: B
Cast: Paul Rudd, Jason Segal, Rashida Jones, Andy Samberg, Jaime Pressly, Jon Favreau, J.K. Simmons, Jane Curtin
Director: John Hamburg

There’s one very common trait to thirtysomething male life – it gets really hard to make friends.
Sports are gone, your wife is your best friend (if you’re lucky), the hangovers hurt more than they used to, and there’s something, well, uncomfortable about one grown man asking another if he wants to go out. Unless it’s The Dude and Walter heading out to bowl.

The painful search for male friendship would seem like a rich vein for comedy. Yet I can’t think of a film that really does so. Which is why a film like I Love You, Man – one that belches, scratches, and air guitars its way through this underexposed psychological terrain – is more or less welcome.

Male bonding might be for most males, but it never has been for Peter Klaven (the always solid Paul Rudd). On the brink of marriage, he realizes that he doesn’t have a male friend to be his best man. To make up for it, he goes through an embarrassing series of “man-dates” until he bumps into the uber-cool Sidney (Forgetting Sarah Marshall’s Jason Segal). They hit it off. They grab a beer. They walk his flatulent dog. They jam to Rush (This is that rare film that acknowledges the central role that “Tom Sawyer” once had in male adolescence.). They live through an inappropriate champagne toast about oral sex. It’s all very funny at times. And then you leave.

As the Judd Apatow Factory has brought the term “Bromance” into use, I Love You, Man does a few things invitingly differently. Its women have more brains than mouths. In fact, you get the feeling that this is one of those few bromances that gasp – secretly likes its friend’s girlfriend. The film also has the smarts to set up and then deflate some of the conventions of this type of film. It has been around long enough to have clich├ęs open for satire.

I should say, though, in a world of blandly-directed movies, this one is among the blandest .Obvioiusly, director John Hamburg decided to back off, let the script work, and try nothing special. At that last part, he proved a tremendous success.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Sickening [Last House on the Left]

Last House on the Left [R]
Grade: F
Cast: Sara Paxton, Tony Goldwyn, Monica Potter, Garrett Dillahunt, Michael Bowen, Spencer Treat Clark, Rikki Lindhome
Director: Dennis Iliadis

There’s dumb. There’s boring. There’s dumb and boring.

At least have the kind manners to choose one. Don’t be like this rancid little piece of inhumanity, Last House on the Left, a film that mistakes inertia for suspense and violence for fear.
There’s really nothing positive to say about this disgusting, heavily mysoginistic exploitation flick. The first words out of my mouth upon leaving the theater were, “I can’t believe you screened this.” The only good thing about the film is that I have the opportunity to warn you about it.

Oh, you poor things. Okay, so the lesson here is if you’re ever on vacation at a remote lakeside hideaway, never, never give your teenage daughter the keys to the car to visit a friend. Because she’ll end up in a cheap hotel getting baked. And getting kidnapped. And getting raped and/or killed in the woods. Shown in a prolonged, disgusting scene.

And then ….. oh, and then …… the little murderous band of redneck hippie psychopaths will end up back at your lake house to treat their wounds and get a good night’s sleep. You can’t blame them; it’s been a long hard day of disturbing filmgoer’s polite sensitivities. And it’ll be just in time for a bad storm. One that leaves the innocent family stranded at the mercy of said little murderous band of redneck hippie psychopaths. There are plenty of knives.

Last House on the Left is a remake of a 1972 Wes Craven film, and it piggybacks on the success of other recent 1970s horror remakes. It comes from that history of horror films in which skuzzy backwoods types without a conscience violently terrorize nice city slickers. I suspect that director Dennis Iliadis or the writers might even tell you that the film bears resemblance to Straw Dogs. And that shocking modern seen-everything audiences requires going to unthinkable extremes. I suspect the filmmakers might be patting themselves on the back. Congratulations. You win. I lose. Can I go pee now? (By the way, IMDB lists two acting credits for Iliadis, in one of which he plays a character noted only as “Sexist.” Go figure!)

Nor is this particularly worthwhile filmmaking. It has no cinematic language with which to propel the story besides the most boringly brutal violence. Every time it can’t figure out what to do, someone gets kicked in the stomach. And it holds its suspense beats for too long. Too long, like eight minutes.

So I’ve seen a smattering of positive reviews for this film. Some critics are calling it effective at its task (as if its sadism and rampant hatred of women should be treated as content neutral), while others are celebrating it as a grindhouse .ode or containing hidden archetypal conflicts. I could dismiss these arguments intellectually, saying things like, “Just because it pits country folk versus yuppies hardly means anyone should honor it as esoteric social commentary,“ or “When did ‘grindhouse’ become a compliment?”

But I’m just going to do it this way. How many of them would load their 9-year-old daughter into the family Toyota Camry, drive her to her friend Stacy’s house to spend the night, and when Stacy’s parents inevitably ask, “Seen anything good lately?” would say, “You might like Last House on the Left. It has this brutal rape scene involving a teenage girl. It should be very effective at challenging and disgusting your bourgeois sensibilities?” I’m thinking not many.

My point is not that you have to clear your film opinions with your neighbors. My point is that it’s one thing to write something and launch that opinion into the vastness of Cyberspace. It’s another thing to offer that same opinion when it would have real life implications for what people think of you. When you recommend a film, you ought to be able to do it with the same conviction as if you were sitting in a living room looking your neighbor in the eye.

Like any film critic, I dream of switching sides. Running around in my head are scenes from films that will never be made. I have a sense of how precious the opportunity to share your vision must be. Which is why this so bothers me. And I wonder, who walked around with this running in his head, a man being eaten alive by a garbage disposal? For how long? Months? Years? I pity that person.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The best moment in Watchmen .... ?

One moment of tremendous success is Watchmen .... the fight in the alley with Laurie Jupiter and Dan Dreiburg, as they are cornered by a group of thugs. Why this one? Why not another? Because we have these two characters who have been sitting out on life since their days of superherodom. They've been dawdling about in stasis and obsolescence. Then suddenly this fight comes upon them. Their story is one of re-awakening and this is their first moment of it. It humanizes them. It means something to them to be there at that moment. That's more than I can say for most of the film.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Too late, always was, always will be [Watchmen]

Watchmen [R]
Grade D
Cast: Milan Akerman, Patrick Wilson, Billy Crudup, Jackie Earle Haley, Matthew Goode, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Carla Gugino
Director: Zack Snyder

One Thanksgiving, a friend and I had a long, involved conversation with his uncle about the origin, history, and development of the sport of racquetball.

It’s a conversation that we still like to make evil fun of. Racquetball was once a game of finesse, we learned. But racquetball was never the same after Marty Whatshisname came along in the seventies, added power, and changed everything. Good ol’ Marty Whatshisname. Love him or hate him, you couldn’t give your playing partner a red spot on the leg without him.

For the 33-year-old comic book fan who lives in your basement, Watchmen is Marty Whathisname, the before and after moment, which he will obsessively discuss with the same mockable enthusiasm. In the world of the “graphic novel” – an exalting Orwellian term like “exotic dancer” or “body art” that I use grudgingly – Alan Moore’s 1985 creation might as well be the Dead Sea Scrolls. For these afflicted souls, it is more than just a good read. Watchmen is their sole chance to dignify their favorite waste of time.

If it sounds like I’m not part of the target audience, well, obviously. As large crowds go to see Zack Snyder’s beautiful, bloodless screen version this weekend, those who wouldn’t know Rorschach from his evil twin cousin Ink Blot will likely drown in the density of the winding stories and flashbacks. But passionate fanboys likely will find it a bold, stunning dream come to life.

While dabbling in the usual gore, ultra-violence, misogyny, and revenge fantasy of the graphic novel, Watchmen feels more like a thermonuclear apocalyptic soap opera, or perhaps a backstage musical for caped crusaders. By order of law, the defunct Watchmen, a superhero consortium along the lines of The Justice League, have ditched their masks and moved on to normal lives in an alternate reality version of 1985. Both at present and in the past, the all-too-imperfect members are dogged by human frailty – petty rivalries, romantic anxieties, and competing ideologies. This group of dress-rehearsal superheroes, like the rest of us, never could agree on a functioning moral theory, leaving their “heroic” activity shrouded in layers of ambiguity.

Long past his cynical itchy-trigger-finger prime, “The Comedian” (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) dies in his apartment at the hands of an intruder. His death attracts the paranoid attention of the illegally active Rorschach (a wild, wry Jackie Earle Haley), a Sam Spade-Travis Bickle combo hidden underneath a mask of shifting inkblots. Convinced of a plot to kill the former Watchmen, he warns first Dan Dreiburg (Patrick Wilson), aka The Nite Owl, the nicest vigilante hero you’ll ever meet, who has changed permanently into Clark Kent. He’ll also seek the help of the world’s smartest man (Matthew Goode), the former Ozymandias, and Laurie Jupiter (Milan Akerman), whose role as Silk Spectre runs as a family legacy.

There’s that tricky little business about the world being on the brink of World War III, with President Richard Nixon, in his fifth term, debating whether to launch the nukes. The only thing discouraging Soviet aggression has been the real superpower – ex-Watchman Dr. Manhattan , a clairvoyant, omnipotent, usually naked product of a nuclear malfunction. Stuck using his immense powers for drab human tasks, this unjolly blue giant has wearied on the human race. He soon retreats to Mars, leaving the fate of humanity in nuclear-tipped uncertainty.

As he has advanced beyond the powers of men, Dr. Manhattan has lost most emotional contact with the world that surrounds him. All computer generation and largely bland acting, Snyder’s filmmaking has joined him. This is easily seen in its love triangle. Yet the lack of passion extends to the action scenes, more concerned with their immaculate facade than their visceral thrill. For instance, the centerpiece slo-mo, freeze-frame slugout down a cell block might “look cool,” but it lacks the panting, chugging, human intensity of the famous Oldboy fight that it recalls. Watchmen is designed for the eye. Not for the gut. Not for the heart.

Watchmen is filled with a dizzying array of high and low references. Its dig-into-the-past structure, for some reason, brought to mind The Great Gatsby. The ending, I would note, is reminiscent of the deal at the end of Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game, an agreed-upon lie to preserve the social structure. Yet to get there, the story indulges in the weird depths of trash eighties nuclear scare tv programs, with the utopian idea that with nuclear disarmament, international relations would suddenly be sunshine and unicorns. And only a few million people had to take a glowing green one for the team in order to make the world a better place. If this is meant as morbidly ironic, the delivery doesn’t match.

But, but, but … the fanboy will say … you haven’t wrestled with Watchmen’s themes. You haven’t mentioned the fact it deconstructs the inherent fascism found in superhero tales. Fantastic. I’ll alert Aquaman. Perhaps the film will give him a moment of self-reflection. Otherwise, it’s not exactly news you can use.

And yet the visual spectacle is undeniable. The broad Martian skyline to every last crevice on a human chin--mind-blowing. And reading other reviews has persuaded me that there are some worn but challenging ideas at the story’s core. However, the duty of a filmmaker is not just to flatly present ideas, but to enliven them with his or her filmmaking. For all of its splendor, this is Snyder’s ultimate super-failure.

A Girl and her Dog [Wendy and Lucy]

Wendy and Lucy [R]
Grade: B
Cast: Michelle Williams, Wally Dalton, Will Patton, Will Oldham
Director: Kelly Reichardt

After working on small films for more than a decade, Kelly Reichardt has awakened to find herself a hero to an American indie scene in need of one.

With her latest two films, Old Joy and the recent Wendy and Lucy, she has firmly stamped the American cinema with her own distinct voice and style. I’ll tentatively call it “plotless films in well-forested places.” As Hollywood still sees women as shopaholics in need of confession, Wendy and Lucy places its heroine at the center of a hobo movie, a story of a gentle drifter hanging on at the edges of American society.

While maintaining her stripped down vision, Reichardt does indulge in a name actress – Michelle Williams, hidden under a dark flop of hair. The role of Wendy is far from glamorous work, because, like the film, it only offers so much overt expression. The opening long, distant tracking shot immediately defines the film’s shy style. It follows Wendy and her dog Lucy humming gently through the woods, laying out the film’s casual, minimalist way.

Old Joy pictured a shifting male friendship on a camping trip. Apparently thinking that was too plot-heavy, Reichardt makes a sparser film. The elfin Wendy lives in her 1988 Honda Accord and a blue hoodie sweatshirt. She’s going to Alaska to find work in the canneries. Her car breaks down somewhere in Oregon. She loses her dog Lucy. She walks around looking for her. Sometimes she yells her dog’s name. She talks a little with a kind Walgreens security guard (Wally Dalton). Then she walks some more. There’s more walking in this film’s compact body than Lawrence of Arabia. The cynic might say that Wendy and Lucy is 80 minutes of walking toward one emotional payoff.

There’s a plate-spinning attraction to all of this. How long can Reichardt keep this up without someone needing to pull a gun, or something? It almost feels like a dare. I understand and appreciate the desire to get as far away as possible from Hollywood glitz and mythmaking. I admire Reichardt’s mostly successful desire to tell it like it is. But is it truly realism, or, at times, does it risk a reactive indie cinema with its own tropes and cliche?

The film has vaulted Reichardt to the title of queen of minimalist micro-moviemaking. And yet I wonder whether her style is a sentence to permanent obscurity. (What was it once said about indie rockers, that they all want to sell 1 million records to 50,000 people?) Is she the filmmaking equivalent of the modern artist who places a black dot on a white canvas and calls it a portrait of alienation? She is definitely an iconoclast. But is she truly a visionary? I don’t think we know the answer. It should be interesting to discover the answer in the years to come.

Head case [Phoebe in Wonderland]

Phoebe in Wonderland
Grade: B
Cast: Elle Fanning, Felicity Huffman, Patricia Clarkson, Bill Pullman, Campbell Scott
Director: Daniel Barnes

Movies about mental illness are a notorious peril.

Come on, we all remember the old network disease of the week movies. That said, for good actors, I don’t think it’s all that hard to portray the mentally ill. The symptoms are documented well enough to manufacture a sufficient imitation. One side thinks you’re great. The other side thinks you’re overdoing it. On to your next project.

The tough thing, I think, is portraying the feelings of the people around them. It is too easy to slip into sentimentality, for instance turning the love of a good woman into a cure. In fairness, a generation ago, doctors knew nearly as little about mental illness as Hollywood. The thinking has advanced, and now it’s time for the artistic world to follow suit.

And so what I find interesting in Phoebe in Wonderland isn’t so much the portrayal of a childhood mental disorder (although Elle Fanning’s sharp performance makes you wonder what they’re feeding those kids), but rather the portrait of a mother trying to do right by her afflicted child.

Felicity Huffman brings an intelligent grace to her motherly role. She wants her daughter to be well, but fears overmedicating her unique personality. She loves her daughter but realizes her troubles are draining her time and productivity. As a non-parent, watching this performance I was struck by how truly terrifying it must be to be in charge of another human being, and particularly someone you love.

What emerges is a fair portrait of a parent who makes mistakes. But unlike more cynical films, these choices are not portrayed as coming from selfishness or a lack of love. And that is the feeling you get from the entire project. In addition to being a strong film about mental illness, it’s also offers a generous depiction of a marriage. I’d take this one over the overheated yelling matches in Revolutionary Road anytime.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Rushdie: Slumdog "ridiculous"

Salman Rushdie calls Slumdog Millionaire "ridiculous." Apparently, he just didn't think much of the fantasy element of a slum child winning at Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

Credit crunch kills Shakespeare

The economic crisis has claimed its first high-profile victim and it's a rather shocking one, in my book. What would you think of a version of King Lear with Keira Knightley, Naomi Watts, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Anthony Hopkins? Pretty bankable? Apparently not. This one went from "look at all those Oscar contenders!" to zero pretty quickly. A shame. I was quite looking forward to this one.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Box office

Is it true box office is up 10 percent this year so far? So says my radio.