Sunday, November 7, 2010

Due Date

Due Date
Grade: B
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Zach Galifianakis, Michelle Monaghan, Jamie Foxx
Director: Todd Phillips

Lately in movies there has been an epidemic of obvious music choices.

For example, the Beatles’ “Baby You’re a Rich Man” ends The Social Network. In Due Date, a Motown song about getting back to my baby opens the film as expected father Robert Downey Jr. prepares for a cross-country flight home to his very pregnant wife. It doesn’t end there. Is there a more obvious choice for a drug scene than Pink Floyd? If you have a touchy scene involving a dead father, what better way to spice it up than Neil Young’s “Old Man,” one of three songs known to make grown men cry.

Yet Due Date, Todd Phillips’ follow-up to the mysteriously popular The Hangover, makes the obvious choices work consistently. It takes an obvious two mismatched-strangers-on-a-road-trip movie premise (Robert Downey plays Steve Martin. Zach Galifianakis plays John Candy) and makes it funny and occasionally moving.

Much of what works has to do with the chemistry between its leads. Downey is not just a natural as an uptight professional with a deadpan wit. He’s also a very good supporting actor who sharpens the performers around him. He sharpens Galifianakis, and the two have great fun playing off of one another (at least once, you can see Downey starting to crack up in the background). The comedian is helped by an emotional undercurrent of missing fathers, giving him a chance to do a little more emotion and a little less random chaos generation. A little less.

Due Date draws the cannonball dynamics of male friendship competently. It’s not as strong in this area as Sideways or The Big Lebowski, but it’s better than many films. Downey’s character swings between irritation and a fatherly desire to guide and comfort Galifianakis’ man-child.

Things that Due Date does right: it’s quite funny and doesn’t waste its comic premises, such as the everpresent coffee can with the surprising contents that becomes a recurring third character. The comedy style relies more on clever observation than vulgar disgust. Even the obligatory vomit projection has a touch of tenderness. (One last thing: in two films, Philllps and cinematographer Lawrence Sher have shown a real talent for shooting desert vistas.)

There are a few times that it goes too far, asks us to believe too much. A single comic car crash is one thing. Two comic car crashes is hard to take. And when was the last time you saw an entire crew of attractive stewardesses on a domestic airline flight like it was still 1975? Seriously, whatever happened to attractive stewardesses? Perhaps they should retitle this Planes, Trains and Time Machines.

Whatever mistakes Due Date makes are done with enthusiasm more than cynicism. Either that, or I’m getting old and soft. Take your choice.

Inside Job

Inside Job
Grade: B
Cast: Matt Damon (voice)
Director: Charles Ferguson

As I write this review, the Federal Reserve is embarking on a near trillion-dollar program that it hopes will stimulate the economy. Quantitative Easing amounts to Helicopter Ben Bernanke printing money in order to horse-whip capital off the sidelines and into circulation.

You might think this is the best thing to do. Or you might think it's a last-ditch backdoor stimulus and taxation without representation (by devaluing the money that you have sitting in the bank). You might even be looking at wheelbarrow investments and polishing your father’s 1975 vintage Whip Inflation Now button.

If you think this is another handout to a politically-connected banking industry, you might be interested in Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job. The much-praised documentary takes a biting, long-term look at the institutional corruption that fed the financial crisis we’re still trying to escape. The film’s big achievement is boiling down the truth without dumbing down the truth.

This damning view of the US financial system starts with the major players in their roles during the Savings and Loan crisis of the late 80s, proceeds through the 90s boom and the Internet Bust, and finally plows through detail after detail of the subprime mortgage fiasco that resulted in the Great Recession of 2008. Ferguson points to consolidation and rapid growth of the banking industry as the main culprit, fueling riskier and riskier investments. Ultimately, perverse incentives led risk-taker bankers to make billions of dollars in housing loans for which they had no good reason to expect repayment.

That’s not where it ends. Ferguson goes through painful detail of the political-financial inbreeding that enabled the housing crisis. Figures from both worlds bounce from Wall Street to Pennsylvania Ave. doing what’s best for the big banks. Neither Republican nor Democrat is spared. Those who should be blowing the whistle fail to do so. Those that do are ignored. The best moments are when participants are cornered over their roles in rubber-stamping the subprime crisis, then shown to have survived with reputations and power intact.

I don’t agree with all of the premises. For instance, the movie shows a graph of the proportion of recent tax cuts the very rich received. But it doesn’t show the amount that the very rich pay. And it doesn’t show the amount that that revenue might have generated through circulation in the economy. Also the film doesn’t draw much of a line between sinister intentions and honest mistakes. What appears like corruption is, I would guess, sometimes incompetence.

If you want a cynical, snappy explanation of the bank bailout, here’s one. They stole your grandchildren’s money so that bankers could still pay for their cocaine and call girls. There is a whole, whole, whole lot more to it, but it's a shocking little sentence that does a nice job summing up the risk, dissolution, corruption, and narcissism. And if this little documentary doesn’t get you fired up about macro-economics, nothing will.

127 Hours

127 Hours
Grade: C
Cast: James Franco, Clemence Poesy, Kate Mara, Amber Tamblyn
Director: Danny Boyle

In movies, nothing good ever happens on a mountain. Unless you’re Julie Andrews, and good things happen to you everywhere.

There’s Kevin MacDonald’s documentary Touching the Void, about a mountain-climbing expedition shot to hell. And what was that mountain disaster movie that at first advertised its cannibalism but later changed to a “triumph of the human spirit” angle?

I‘m not sure if 127 Hours is technically a mountain movie, but it’s close enough to invoke the rule. Danny Boyle’s follow-up to Oscar-winner Slumdog Millionaire trails a rugged young outdoorsman, Aron Ralston, who finds his arm pinned beneath a boulder. In a crevice. In a desert national park. Cut off from civilization. Running out of water. With only a small knife to keep him company.

No matter how you slice it, 127 Hours is a movie that builds up to and away from its one big moment. The good news is that it has one big moment to build up to and away from. The bad news is that if you know what’s coming, and most viewers will, it sometimes leaves you wanting to cut to the chase. Somewhere around the 41-hour mark, I wanted the film to be chopped down and retitled 67 Hours.

Nevertheless, most viewers will be entranced by the story’s grotesque circumstances. They will like James Franco’s performance as the hiker, whose experience leaves him both more of and less of a man.

Being an arty project, we know there has to be meaning derived from the moment. Boyle chooses to ruminate on the nature of human connection in the face of terrifying isolation. We enter the film through shuffling images of random crowds, images in search of a grand point. The images of human connection stand as a counterpoint to the isolation of nature and Ralston’s Lone Wolf personality.

Stuck in a rut, slices of Ralston’s life flash before his eyes. He imagines his loved ones, whom he keeps at arm’s length, and the only woman that ever really mattered. It’s a little like Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center (except without the eye-rubbing, head-shaking, and one critic’s prayers for divine relief). There is also a tinge of Sean Penn’s Into the Wild.

For a while, Franco has been a star-in-the-making that Hollywood couldn’t quite figure out what to do with. It appears the answer is, stick him in a hole. Ralston is a role that takes an actor out on a limb, because it is a lot of doing not much, and it’s all about you. For the most part, his performance never snaps a branch.

The arthouse loves a good grotesque rural survival story. It’s a way to enjoy a good horror film free of a feeling of slumming and guilt. Why just this year, there’s Kelly Reichardt’s forthcoming Meek’s Cutoff, and we’ve already seen Winter’s Bone. Whereas Cutoff and Bone would appear to be traditional indies, 127 Hours contains an element of horror, as well. So come, enjoy the terror, and feel fine about it.