Monday, February 15, 2010

Valentine's Day

Valentine’s Day
Grade: D
Cast: Jennifer Garner, Anne Hathaway, Julia Roberts, Jessica Biel, Jamie Foxx, Shirley MacLaine, Jessica Alba, Emma Roberts, Taylor Swift, Taylor Lautner, Bradley Cooper, Patrick Dempsey, Topher Grace,Hector Elizondo, Who am I forgetting?
Director: Garry Marshall
Free Admission Granted

One of Valentine’s Day’s big stars, Jessica Biel, plays a lovesick publicist who throws a pity party each year on Valentine’s Day to mark another year without a guy. As if Biel or any other member of the star-studded cast would have trouble finding dates.

On this particular year, the pity party has no takers. That’s something of a surprise. After being saddled with this melted-chocolate film and its dead rose of a script, every member of Valentine’s Day’s long roster of the famously beautiful deserves a good pity party. With some care, attention, and alcohol, it could even turn into a support group.

When we watch a movie with a giant cast of stars, we want to see them interact, play off each other, match skill and ego. With a few notable exceptions, Valentine’s Day fails to deliver, its stars spending most of its time in isolation, unless you count a wickedly and intentionally starless set of male pushovers (Patrick Dempsey, Topher Grace, and the like). In fact, the film’s one interesting pair is the underrated Biel with the only male star of rival stature, the charismatic Jamie Foxx. It’s the one story that you sort of wish they would chuck all the other stories in favor of.

I said sort of.

So Valentine’s Day’s enduring mysteries are not the mysteries of love. They are the mysteries of casting. Starring in Valentine’s Day is less a matter of appearing in a film than making sure that you get into the right Hollywood sorority, no matter how bitchy the sisters are. If you’re not in, you’re definitely out. It’s not as important to be in the film as it is not to be outside of it.

Yet strangely, the sorority sisters don’t even get rewarded with the funny things to do or say. Time after time, director Garry Marshall, he of Pretty Woman fame and Exit to Eden infamy, wraps up its few laughs for the faceless bit players wandering at the edges. The result is Cupid shooting arrows not dipped in love but rather in career poison.

So who survives this thing? Biel and Foxx, as mentioned, might have made an interesting date movie on their own. Julia Roberts has one great moment demonstrating the power of star presence. While her phone sex secretary role shows her cut above-ness, even those of us who have championed Anne Hathaway need to stop and wonder if she’s starting to waste her career.

On the downside, yesterday’s bombshell Jessica Alba fades into the woodwork of the Beverly Wilshire hotel even among these meager surroundings. Jennifer Garner confirms her status as the actress who’s remarkably adequate at doing what 100 other actresses could do. And as an actress Taylor Swift makes a great singer.

Aside from once again noting one of my favorite Laws of the Cinema – there is no good movie in which the phrase “Copy that” appears – that’s all I have to say.

From Paris WIth Love

From Paris With Love
Grade: B
Cast: John Travolta, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers
Director: Pierre Morel
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Does From Paris With Love ever stop?

Nah, this French flavored actioner romps through its steps as if its success depends on outrunning logic. For the most part, it succeeds.

It’s hard to know what a fussy Frenchman would think, the City of Light transformed from film’s most romantic locale, suddenly vulgarized by an American action film mentality. Sprouting wild-ass shoot-outs like vineyard grapes, unleashing a damn exciting highway chase with weaving cars and a bazooka, From Paris With Love is the movie equivalent of EuroDisney – Americanizing Paris, both spectacular and distracting, with zero attention span and ….. hey look, a balloon!

Jonathan Rhys-Myers is a civilian security officer at the American embassy in France. On the night of his wedding proposal, he’s dispatched to assist a visiting agent on a mysterious and dangerous mission. Enter John Travolta as Charles Wax, a maniacal assassin dispatched to chase a terrorist syndicate.

Travolta anchors the film down deep with his sudden hulkiness, bald pate, and the weight of his screen ego. His forehead seems to be gaining mass and could go supernova any second. You wonder if he should be the first movie star tested for steroids. Roid rage would explain his foul mouthed, shoot-first ass-kicking through the seedy side of Paris. Perhaps torn apart by the gravitational pull of Travolta’s forehead, the film completely loses sense of reality. And don’t you just love it for it?

From Paris With Love is the product of Pierre Morel (joined by producer Luc Besson)l, responsible for the respected District B13 and last year’s big hit Taken. It is carnivorous cinema, digesting recent action films and sharply regurgitating them. We might be regurgitating, too, if the film didn’t know how to intelligently and amusingly smother the whole thing in tasty action gravy. You can’t put Travolta in Paris without handing him a Royale with Cheese. At least the film has the good graces to decorate it with a hint of cleverness.

If From Paris with Love changes your life, it will only be by awakening your long latent epilepsy. Yet its pleasures are undeniable– superbly staged and edited, pasted together by a wink and nod, washed down with a hint of genre satire.

Edge of Darkness

Edge of Darkness
Grade: D
Cast: Mel Gibson, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston
Director: Martin Campbell
Free Admission Granted

Why is Mel Gibson shaving?

The government wants him dead. They’ve already killed his daughter. Killers are still on his trail. Again, why is he shaving?

And why is he opening the door without his police-service revolver? In fact, why is he opening the door, period? And don’t let that guy in! What are you thinking?!

Edge of Darkness, a revenge thriller and would-be comeback for the beleaguered Gibson, leaves you asking those questions. You also are left asking what looks older, the balding Mel Gibson or the film’s exhausted plot? Conspiracies abound. If only someone had conspired to make the film worthwhile.

Edge of Darkness also presents us with the paradox of director Martin Campbell. How can a man be so successful with directing James Bond films (Casino Royale, Goldeneye) and so hopeless outside of the series (The Legend of Zorro)? Squished together from a 1980s BBC miniseries, Edge of Darkness leaves doors swinging in the wind, barely attached at the hinge. Entire scenes and subplots evanesce and then turn to vapor. One character’s fight with blindness drops in in a single scene before the darkness swallows it whole.

Edge of Darkness does have its pleasures. They come in the form of two of the better character actors around – Danny Huston and Ray Winstone. Huston has a habit of falling back on slimy operators. While these roles put food on his table, he’s a smarter actor and I wish he would do other things more often. Winstone eats everything and licks the plate as a wine-sipping man with no identity. William Monahan’s dialogue does crackle from time to time, giving Gibson and the chubby Englishman something delectable to ooze at each other.

It is rather shocking to see Gibson nowadays looking like an aging Robert DeNiro. There’s something Fred Astaire in the Towering Inferno sad about watching such a gigantic movie star reduced to playing in a bland revenge thriller.

As a grieving father lit with rage, Gibson remains a feral avenger. After eight years on the other side of the camera, he dons the uniform, straps on the pads and hits the holes. Yet it’s like watching aging male stars paired with Audrey Hepburn. There is a sadness watching him go through the motions, a star painted into a corner with nothing else to do and nowhere else to go.