Friday, July 16, 2010

Inception

Inception
Grade: A
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Ken Watanabe, Michael Caine
Director: Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan’s dashing mindbender Inception is doomed to wide and inaccurate comparisons to Stanley Kubrick.

I say this because every challenging English-language film that critics cannot immediately box draws comparisons to Kubrick. True, there is a mind-blowing zero-gravity fight scene with the weightlessness of 2001. Then again it could be Fred Astaire, dancing on the ceiling of the HAL 9000. Inception creates some odd visual marriages among its overspill of film references.

So is it wrong of me to say that too many observers are betting on the wrong psychedelic space-station mind trip? I think a more productive point of entry for Inception is Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris. What would it look like if Andrei Tarkovsky directed a James Bond movie? Inception would seem to be the answer.

Each film – Solaris and Inception – examines the relationships of dreams and art, ideas and memory and filmmaking, psychology and reality. The films suggest that artistic endeavor comes from public exposure of the subconscious mind; art is therefore both sparked and troubled by subjectivity, affected by the deficit between reality and our personal perception of it.

Their plots center on dead wives and dead realities, imperfectly rebuilt from the troubled psyches of guilty men. These copies can be brought to life, indeed, but never made whole and real. Time diminishes memory. Reality can never be known entirely or remembered perfectly. We can only see through our lens of love and hate, memory and desire, and most of all guilt. If there’s one word in this review to underline and remember, it’s “guilt.”

If there is a flaw with Inception it’s this – Tarkovsky was willing to lose himself in his own personal dream logic. Nolan remains cold and clinical, approaching the subconscious mind as an investigator. The English director keeps a precise, rational, drumbeat structure (the rational structure of a magic trick, a collective deception agreed to by a performer and an audience). Inception feels like an ego making a movie about the Id.

Now if you are not a Russian film scholar, or if you would rather watch an action movie than sit through three hours of ten-minute car rides and Russian poetry, then that’s understandable. More people will see Inception this weekend than have ever seen a Tarkovsky film. Those masses are unlikely to be disappointed. Tarkovsky directing a James Bond movie would still be a James Bond movie, after all.

The film takes place in dreams, and dreams within dreams, and dreams within dreams within dreams. One dream might have a deadly struggle in a hotel suite; at the same time, the next dream might have an Arctic snow battle removed from The Spy Who Loved Me. During a ski chase, you are left waiting for the Union Jack parachute to open.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb is an extractor, an agent who steals secrets from people’s dreams. Like many pros during a life crisis, his home life has started to harm his work. The manufactured dreams in which he operates are being compromised by the vengeful presence of his dead wife (Marion Cotillard).

To clear his name and return to his children, Cobb makes a deal with a Japanese tycoon (Ken Watanabe). Rather than steal an idea, he must do the impossible – successfully plant an idea in the mind of a powerful businessman (Cillian Murphy). His dream team includes an architect to build the dreams (Ellen Page); a sidekick thief (the quite great Joseph Gordon-Levitt); a forger (Tom Eames) and a sedation expert (Dileep Rao). Like The Dark Knight, Inception’s final 40 minutes shoot forward with the authority of a freight train, powered by the conviction of its own greatness.

We could chat about the high quality of Wally Pfister’s cinematography or Hans Zimmer’s score. We could talk about the film’s openness to interpretation, how it feels like another audience on the other side of the screen might be watching the same events, the same characters, but ultimately not the same movie. There are questions left to ask and answer, ranging from “What the hell was that?” to “Is Inception a modern way of saying Genesis?” As a critic I do not pretend to have the answers. OK, I do pretend to have the answers. But ultimately I only hope to direct you to the right questions.

Despicable Me

Despicable Me
Grade: B
Cast: (voice) Steve Carrell, Jason Segal, Russell Brand, Will Arnett, Julie Andrews.
Director: Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud

It’s wonderful when movies serendipitously converge with current events. But how often do current events play prelude to a coming cartoon?

Successful animation hasn’t been the calling card of the current do-nothing batch of Russian secret agents, milking Mother Russia for an American lifestyle. But successful animation is something achieved by Despicable Me.

Our Russian super-villain, Gru, is a sharp-snouted cross between Boris Badanov and the Grinch. He lives the typical suburban lifestyle of a gifted evildoer. He has a normal neighborhood home, if you happen to live in the Munsters’ neighborhood. Gru’s idea of interior decor comes from the Tower of London, circa 1670.

Gru has only one goal in his dark little heart – stealing the moon out of the sky, using a homemade rocket and a shrink-wrap ray-gun. He is missing a mouse and a squirrel; for a rival he only has a nerd called Vector. Helping him along is a slave race of little yellow overgrown Mike-and-Ikes, called “Minions.” When he adopts a threesome of cute little orphan girls to further his devious plan, can it be long before they capture his heart, as well? Gag.

Despicable Me is a referendum on the concept of “cute.” Is cute a good thing? In puppy dogs, sure. Is it a cinematic virtue? Well, it worked for ET. How about in family entertainment? The answer to that question depends on your tolerance for saccharine.

Fortunately, Despicable Me has more than sugar to spread on its cereal. The Universal release boasts a scoop of cleverness, too, as well as sunny visuals and a very good score by the great Hans Zimmer. Scattering humorous references for all ages, some of it will fly over younger children’s heads, such as a visual reference to The Godfather’s horse’s head scene. But for the most part, it works as a weekend baby-sitter.

The Kids Are Alright

The Kids Are Alright
Grade: C
Cast: Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson
Director: Lisa Cholodenko

Does the American family need a good dick at its center?

A comedy focusing on a lesbian-headed family, The Kids Are Alright asks that question, whether writer-director Lisa Cholodenko knows it or not. And it seems to say so, before it changes its mind and says no. I don’t know, and I’m not sure the film does, either.

Joni (Alice in Wonderland star Mia Wasikowska) and Lazer (Josh Hutcherson)are the teenage children of a lesbian couple. They decide to secretly track down the sperm donor who gave them life. From behind door number three steps the amiable Paul (Mark Ruffalo). He is a motorcycle rider, a cool dude, and a little too talented at bedding women. The athletic brother and brainy sister worry he might be weird, but it turns out he’s a nice, welcoming man.

As the children spend time with their new father, it places stress on the relationship of the lesbian pair. They are already on the border of love and staleness, with low sex-drive, kitchen table bickering and three-drink alcoholism. The domineering physician (Annette Bening) finds him threatening. The more moon-beamy one (Julianne Moore) finds him intriguing. “Intriguing” might be a code word for something else.

Do the kids need a father figure? They certainly seem thirsty for a male presence. Lazer takes quickly to shooting hoops with him, and the teen responds to fatherly guidance with obedience. While the sheltered super-brain Joni has a girl-next-door personality, some of her behavior falls squarely within the stereotype of “the girl who grew up without a father.” One mother wonders, “Are we not enough?” For a while it seems like the answer is no, not entirely. That admission stands slightly at odds with the desire to put forth an overwhelmingly positive vision of a lesbian family unit.

As a remedy, the film gently turns the nice guy into a nice villain. It later apologizes and grants him a touch of unlikely redemption. One might look at this as generosity on Cholodenko’s part. I’m sure that’s how it is intended. But it feels more like she really doesn’t know where to go. Ultimately, that’s a fair description of The Kids Are Alright as a whole.

I’ll take a stab and assume The Kids Are Alright will be hailed as a groundbreaking and politely controversial film, a warm comedy placing before the American public a different kind of American family. That’s fair, but it is still undeniably a sitcom. Clever sitcom, funny sitcom, but sitcom nonetheless. And while you enjoy spending time with these people, their personalities are burned down to their tics, and their lives are burned down to the plot.

It will make you laugh. It will make you cry. It will make you wonder, “Where are The Who?” Then you will scratch your head and leave the theater.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Twilight: Eclipse

Twilight: Eclipse
Grade: C
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, Billy Burke, Ashley Greene, Kellan Lutz, Nikki Reed
Director: David Slade
Free Admission Granted

Loving a vampire really is forever. When the minister says Til Death Do You Part, it comes with a distant expiration date. Facing sex, marriage, and permanent transformation into a creature of the night, Twilight: Eclipse finds Bella and Edward exploring the neuroses of eternal love.

Should Bella Swan say sayonara to her human friends to be with vampire Edward Cullen for eternity? Shouldn’t Bella graduate high school before making eternal decisions? Will this puppy-dog romance ever bark its last breath? Twilight: Eclipse is the first in the popular vampire-romance series to see that love has a downside.

Take a look at the side stories: the film is haunted by images of eternal love distorted into something else. One vampire’s back story ends in revenge on an ex-lover while dressed in a wedding gown. “I was much more theatrical in those days,” she says. Then consider the motives of the widow Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard) – raising an army of newborn vampires to avenge the death of her lover. The red-headed villain is motivated by love and loss, the permanence of affection and the impermanence of existence.

Still, Twilight is selling the mythologies of youthful love and youthful perfection. As such, the film plays up romance’s appeal and glosses over the problems in its werewolf-vampire-cockteaser triangle. Robert Pattinson’s steely cool softens Edward’s gentlemanly detachment. Taylor Lautner’s genial personality and burly physique deflect the fact that Jacob is kind of a manipulative asshole. And does Bella really love both men? Or does she love the fact that they love her? Twilight insists that it is driven by the purity of teen-age love, but in reality it is driven by the blindness of teen-age narcissism.

Perhaps I wouldn’t feel this way if not every thought revolved around Ms. Swan. Shouldn’t young men talk baseball? Instead they talk Bella. Yet we never feel why she’s so special, why so much is risked for her sake. Perhaps we would feel more if Kristen Stewart were improving alongside the rest of the cast, rather than being outdone by the help. Instead, Stewart seems lost, or stuck, or generally apart from the proceedings.

Directed by David Slade (30 Days of Night), Eclipse is the most normal of the Twilight movies. Catherine Hardwicke’s hormonal original rode the line between swoony and corny .New Moon’s Chris Weitz, oft criticized, brought a greater cinematic sense to the series. As his contribution, Slade turns the series to both horror and coming of age. While I appreciate its willingness to treat its characters as blossoming adults, very little of this film lasts. Will this ever-popular series ever produce a true winner? It’s losing daylight.

Winter's Bone

Winter’s Bone
Grade: A
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes
Director: Debra Granik
Free Admission Granted

As a reporter long ago, I worked a story involving illegal trash dumping in Georgia. After locating a popular illegal dump, I headed up the walkway to the nearest door. I was met by a shadow, a man I never quite saw, asking suspiciously about my business there. I identified myself. He told me to leave, with serious intent in his voice.

Walking down that driveway is the only time in my life when I’ve been convinced that a shotgun was leveled at my head. I didn’t see it. I couldn’t prove it. But I won’t forget it.

That unnerving feeling arose again as I watched the cavalcade of backwoods characters – meth dealers and hostile faces – in Winter’s Bone. Every conversation hides a lurking danger, but you have a hard time getting a handle on the smoky nature of the peril.

The 2010 Sundance Grand Jury winner shares with the year’s other great film, Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer, the formula of mystery deaths and amateur sleuths in over their heads. The Ghost Writer’s elite characters and Cape Cod setting are a socio-economic mega-leap away from this film’s Methamphetamine America.

That amateur sleuth is Ree Dolly, a resourceful teenager barely making it, encamped in an Ozark cabin coated by winter’s chill. I would call her poorer than dirt, but dirt has asked not to be associated with her lifestyle. She cares for a little brother and sister, surviving off the scraps of a neighbor. Her mother has been struck deaf and dumb by too much of something – drugs, death, life.

Her absent father, a legendary meth cook, has jumped bail, leaving the family home on the brink of foreclosure. Ree has one week to track him down for his court date. Smart but na├»ve, brave but vulnerable, Ree pushes into the business of the locals, all distant cousins, as she investigates her father’s disappearance. Her unstoppable search places her further and further into danger and grotesque secrets.

Winter’s Bone gets at something I’ve seen in person but never on film. Small towns are usually shown as either racist Hickvilles or as wholesome antidotes to city life. That is to say rural America is a constructed otherness that inverses attitudes toward city life at any one time. Yet, films only occasionally reveal rural America for its own sake.

Winter’s Bone presents a side of modern rural America rarely seen – one where addiction is replacing tradition and where criminal ties are replacing family ties. These wildly conflicting trends inform and destroy each other. The conflict is most wholly centered in the person of Ree’s uncle Teardrop (slyly played by John Hawkes), who must steer between rival codes of behavior.

Equal to this rough environment is its fringe-dwelling Nancy Drew, as well as the young actress who plays her, Jennifer Lawrence. Sometimes you wonder if it is the actress or the role that makes a great character. I have no doubt that Ree Jessup is a great character on the page, but Lawrence is such a natural steel wildflower. You might be shocked to find out that, yes, she is only a teenager.
If Lawrence becomes a star, it won’t be the first such launch for director Debra Granik, whose last film Down to the Bone brought Vera Farmiga into prominence. Granik mines the same “fringes of American LIfe” territory as Ramin Bahrani’s Chop Shop or Kelly Reichart’s Wendy and Lucy. Reichart’s film has definitely grown on me with time and reflection. However, there’s something in Granik’s film that seems less theoretical, less like a sociology experiment and more like a living story. The result is a wonder.

Jonah Hex

Jonah Hex
Grade: C
Cast: Josh Brolin, John Malkovich, Megan Fox, Michael Fassbender
Director: Jimmy Hayward
Free Admission Granted

The comic book is to this age what shoot-em-up Westerns were to an older time – an outlet for children’s heroic fantasies. So perhaps Jonah Hex – a combination of the two – was inevitable.
This DC Comics Western slyly refers to this fact, as a frontier father watches his son read an illustrated Western storybook by candlelight. The father tells him it isn’t highest literary material. He can feel his son’s brain turning to mush.

The father is Jonah Hex (Josh Brolin), who witnesses his son and wife burned to death in their cabin as revenge for a Civil War betrayal. Driven by a need to avenge his family, Hex turns into a deadly bounty hunter after the war, with a bullet hole in his right cheek for his trouble. His arch-rival, Southern general Quentin Trumbull (John Malkovich), falsely believed dead, plots to re-start the Civil War with a top-secret super-cannon. The government hires Hex to track him down. (Did I mention that Jonah Hex walks with the animals and talks with the animals, too? Not to mention his habit of speaking to recent corpses.)

Directed by Jimmy Hayward, whose background is in animation, Jonah Hex attempts a stylized version of a Clint Eastwood Western – anti-heroic violence mixed with a self-indicting moral indifference. But what starts as intriguing ode unravels into mere aping. Brolin’s leathery performance slowly slips from homage to mimicry.

The film has all of the trademarks of the DC Comics brand for lesser known comics. A lesser-level star (Josh Brolin). A starlet (Megan Fox) who can handle action. A revenge story. A bright-crayola War on Terror metaphor. Thrown into this formula is Tom Wopat. It’s always good to see one of the Duke boys getting in on the action. Too bad this Civil War film had no role for General Lee.

Another trademark of DC Comics films – the set-ups raise expectations that the resolutions rarely meet. Jonah Hex wears down from a buyable premise to a yawn of an action ending. If you can stand the violence, there are amusing parts along the way before it sticks its foot in its grave.

Please Give

Please Give
Grade: B
Cast: Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall, Amanda Peet
Director: Nicole Holofcener
Free Admission Granted

Layered in the tiny personal details of its quietly odd characters, Nicole Holofcener’s Please Give falls in the category of “slice of life.” It doesn’t inflict drama. Nor is it smitten with anti-drama in the manner of some indie films, that nagging feeling of falsely repressing emotion with a goal of being different. The film’s vibe just “is,” ambling along at its own little pace and its own little scale.

In keeping the volume down, Please Give is notable for the things it doesn’t do. An affair doesn’t explode into a domestic crisis. A death doesn’t lead to life-changing reflections. A budding romance isn’t an escape into bliss. The romance doesn’t even receive an ending. It only goes as far as it goes.

If I ever compile a volume of film reviews, I plan on titling it, “And Cathy Keener plays the Kooky Wife.” It’s a personal joke, based on the actress’ reliability, repeatedly displayed, to do just that. Please Give deepens that role. She plays a Manhattan used furniture dealer who collects and re-sells the furniture of the dead. As a bleeding-heart extraordinaire – unable to pass a street bum without handing him a twenty – her job makes her guilty.

Despite her goodness, she also has mixed feelings toward her 91-year-old neighbor living next door in her Manhattan apartment. No one likes to admit that a bitter 91-year-old woman living out her final days is an unlikable person. And no one likes to admit that she and her husband (Oliver Platt) are awaiting someone’s death so they can expand into her apartment.

Caring for the old woman are two grown grandchildren. The first is a tall wallflower (a superbly gentle Rebecca Hall) who visits everyday, a devotion that causes her own life to suffer. The other is a sharp tongued flirt (Amanda Peet) who lacks a filter for her mouth. As acts of spite, she openly discusses her grandmother’s coming death right in front of the old lady.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. This sounds like a story that needs a teenage ordeal with pimples and a dose of family politics over buying expensive designer jeans. Well, you’re in the right place. Your wish is the film’s command.

Holofcener’s style is most similar to short stories. The style is breezy and tender. Small things have larger meanings. It dwells in small questions, such as what we owe people in need and why we feel that way. In its own quiet way, it is compelling.
Princess Ka’iulani
Grade: C
Cast: Q’orianka Kilcher, Barry Pepper, Will Patton
Director: Marc Forby
Free Admission Granted

So things never did go well for Linda Manz.

The 16-year-old girl at the stem of Terrence Malick’s 1978 masterpiece Days of Heaven, she met the ill fate of many young actresses who give performances-for-the-ages. She soon disappeared, left to glance back on her one indelible performance, certainly with pride.

On the other hand, Sissy Spacek used her role in Malick’s Badlands (and later Carrie) to propel a storied career. Granted she was 24 somehow playing 15 (born Christmas day, 1949)m but the acting instincts on display would later launch her path to fame.

In 2005’s The New World, Malick maximizes the strong eyes and dewy natural innocence of newcomer Q’orianka Kilcher, taking her on a journey from lovestruck child to an emergence as the Mother of America. Writing last year in The Guardian, the English critic Peter Bradshaw said The New World was “anchored by a perfomance so instinctive and note-perfect by a teenage non-pro called Q'orianka Kilcher that I almost hope she never acts again.”

For five years, Bradshaw had his wish. Now with Princess Ka’iulani, it is Kilcher’s turn at the verdict of fate. Will she be a Manz or a Spacek?

It seems clear that writer-director Marc Forby has seen The New World. In story structure, Princess Ka’iulani recalls that film to the last ripple of water. Amid political turmoil, the last princess of Hawai’i is sent from an idyllic tropical kingdom for stodgy old England. Staying with friends and attending a boarding school, she faces British snobbery and falls in ooey-gooey love with an Englishman. This will force an eventual choice between her affections and her allegiance to her people.

The setting is Hawai’i during the political turmoil at the turn of the 20th Century. The Hawaiian king and queen are pawns of British and American colonial interests. American-born landowners plot a revolt that will bring Hawai’I into American possession. The fate of the Pacific is at stake.
Princess K takes advantage of its beautiful natural setting. (Obviously, it’s Hawai’i. Just stick the camera somewhere and start rolling.) It layers its characters in attractive, sun-dappled photography often in twilight, presenting figures as shadows in nature.

Princess K has noble aspirations, playing the traditional role of historical corrective. However, it does so in a very conventional culture-clash way. Too often, the princess and other characters break into portentous speeches. They pose and enunciate as if they know they are in a historical moment.

I’m reluctant to criticize a 19-year-old actress too harshly. How good were you at your job when you were 19? Would you have wanted the whole world to watch your professional performance at that age? However, at times Kilcher simply appears to be reciting lines. While she adds a charge to her angry moments, it’s too much too often. However she does have a sense of photographic presence, as well as an expressive side. All is not lost.

Get Him to the Greek

Get Him to the Greek
Grade: B
Cast: Jonah Hill, Russell Brand, Elizabeth Moss, Sean Combs, Rose Byrne
Director: Nicholas Stoller
Free Admission Granted

Dear Judd Apatow: You rock. I suck. Thank you for putting me in my place.

As I cower in the corner clinging to what’s left of my former dignity, you may ask, of what am I speaking? Get Him to the Greek, the latest dirty-minded, XXL-sized laugh riot to emerge from the Judd Apatow factory.

I’ve worked so hard to sharpen my resistance to this brand. I deplore its arrested development. Its reduction of manhood to pornography and video games. Its pinballing view of women as either whores or sources of male validation. Yet this little charmer is so overwhelmingly likable and manly that even I felt a surge of testosterone. Briefly.

I can’t say I didn’t try. One look at its embarrassingly juvenile poster sent a shiver. I thought I knew what I was in for. But who knew that Russell Brand would so delightfully balance happy-go-lucky charisma with randy excess? Or that director Nicholas Stoller would find such gentleness in the usually prickly Jonah Hill? Or that the film would irresistibly translate what men love about the fantasy of rock’n’roll?

Aldous Snow, amiable dunce rock star, has lost his mojo. His wife leaves. His album sucks. His most recent single, designed to raise awareness for beleaguered African children, is called the worst thing to happen to the Dark Continent since Apartheid.

Not all his fans have given up hope. Record company stooge Aaron Greene (Hill) convinces him to perform a comeback concert at LA’s Greek Theater. That part of the mission is easy. The hard part: getting him there clean, sober, and ready to perform. Aaron spends three crazy days of long drinks, loose women, anal hideouts for heroin, and epic rock and roll fistfights in Vegas hotel rooms with fur walls. That’s showbiz.

Get Him to the Greek has fun with cliched rock-and-roll horror stories. It also lets men believe what they want to believe about rock stars. Sure, they might be assholes who demand that concert promoters take all the green ones out of a bowl of M&Ms. But deep down, they’re really just cooler versions of our own best friends.

That vibe turns Get Him to the Greek into a pretty dirty, highly amusing man party. It remains to be seen if another result is status as the sleeper hit of the summer.