Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Rum Diary

The Rum Diary
Grade: B
Cast: Johnny Depp, Michael Rispoli, Aaron Eckhart, Giovanni Ribisi, Amber Heard, Richard Jenkins
Director: Bruce Robinson
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(Reviewer’s note: What do you when you really like a film but disagree with it? You write a review like this.)

I’ll start my review of The Run Diary with a short explanation of why I ceased to be a journalist some time ago.

Very simply, I never knew a journalist in his 40s who wasn’t a deeply unhappy person. They were all poor, burned-out, and resentful. I remember once sitting in a job interview with the bureau chief of the Associated Press and listening in on a phone call with his wife about how in the world they were going to afford a minivan. And this was 1999, when they were practically giving away minivans with two bottles of Pepsi. And this was the state bureau chief of the Associated Press!

That’s the first thing that you need to understand when you consider the self-righteous pose that journalists unfailingly assume. Because underneath that whole “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted” routine are a lot of people who regret the choices they’ve made in their lives. And so they soothe themselves with a cocoon of self-righteousness that’s really unrequited envy. That’s understandable, because serving as the public watchdog is essentially one long, repetitive kamikaze raid against unstoppable American carriers, except unlike kamikazes journalists don’t get the relief of dying and missing the next morning.

The Rum Diary is the adaptation of Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s novel about his times as a journalist in Puerto Rico, and Bruce Robinson’s film drips in newspaper ambience. Consequently, it’s very wise about newspapers and journalists. It has the wackjob cop reporter, the husky photographer who always appears to be sweating to death, and the harried editor beaten down by the demands of his job. It also gets the moral preening so right that it actually participates. While I really like the film for its amusing adventures and early-sixties-Mad-Men-tropical-division ambience, I come away with a very different take on the values it holds, for the stated reason.

With rum-soaked deadpan bemusement, Johnny Depp plays Kemp, a new reporter at the worst newspaper in Puerto Rico. Kemp is a talented writer and a talented drinker at a newspaper short of the former and full of the latter. His adventures in Puerto Rico range from drinking to cockfighting to bowling to drinking. He pools his poor pay for a crummy apartment with a pair of oddball newsmen (Michael Rispoli and Giovanni Ribisi) who get high, drunk, or both and watch the television through a window across the alley with binoculars.

The so-called villain of The Rum Diary is Aaron Eckhart’s slick real estate man Sanderson, and for the life of me I can’t figure out what he’s doing that’s so wrong. Kemp comes to regard him as a criminal, but Sanderson’s crimes against humanity appear to be building a resort, having a hot girlfriend, and not being such an inebriated junkie screw-up that he can’t get to work in the morning.

Seriously, what exactly does Sanderson do wrong in the film? He befriends a newcomer. He recognizes Kemp’s talent and invites him on a massive resort deal. He provides Kemp with a home, gives him a cool car, and pulls strings to bail him out of jail when his screw-up friends land him there. In return, Kemp violates his trust, swipes his boat and tries to steal his fiancée (The Pineapple Express’ Amber Heard, who’s pretty good at the ray of light part and not so good at the putting-emotion-into-her-line-readings part).

But here’s the real thing … Kemp doesn’t hate Sanderson. Kemp wants to be Sanderson. Honestly, he’s pretty cool with the whole high-life until his irresponsibility gets him kicked out of it. His self-righteousness doesn’t come from a well of conviction but from a well of sour grapes.

The film indulges in pouring some “lovable losers” sympathy on its journalists, generally a bunch of drunk and disorderly idiots, as if they are somehow ennobled by their failures. They’re losers, they’re practically the Chicago Cubs, and we’re all supposed to love losers, especially when squared off against sweet-smiled successes like Sanderson. Except I really rather hated them. I was supposed to be cheering them on, but mostly I kept thinking Kemp should kick them out of his life, get his stuff together, and beg his way back into Sanderson’s graces. Because it’s like watching the Big Lebowski, except The Dude has actual talent and he’s wasting it by bowling with Walter.

All of this means The Rum Diary is a movie about alcoholics who can’t figure out that their problem is that they’re alcoholics. This makes The Rum Diary Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia without the painful self-awareness.

Does that sound like a recommendation? Well, it is, even if it doesn’t. And a pretty strong one, actually. Good film.

Take Shelter

Take Shelter
Grade: B
Cast: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain
Director: Jeff Nichols
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Why are art films becoming horror films?

Art film directors are finding the best way to relate to our frazzled age is to mask it in the aesthetics of terror. Last year’s apocalyptic ballet movie, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, was a leading entry in this new trend. It might as well have had zombie dancers. This year it’s Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols story of mental illness, marriage, and prophecies of doom.

Shelter stars Michael Shannon as Curtis LaForche, a family man in small-town Ohio who may be having a prophecy or may be losing his mind. He keeps having visions of dead birds, murderous people, and a giant storm coming to wipe out his town. The film traces his crumbling relationship with his family as his vision turns to obsession. At great cost, he decides to expand his storm shelter to prepare for a storm that the sane world doesn’t see coming. The audience is left to question whether he is wise or deluded.

Have I liked any movies this year? I want to like Take Shelter more than I do. I do like it. But I want to feel that unconditional passion for a movie that I haven’t felt in some time.

I respect Take Shelter for taking an intelligent approach to mental illness. Its picture of a supportive marriage is refreshing. Shannon has a lot of great moments without saying much, and Chastain has more of an impact than her limited character might be entitled. However, for a film with an unusual plot (although very similar to Todd Haynes’ brilliant Safe), it’s strangely predictable. Its too-cute twist ending also undermines the rest of the movie without producing any gain.

Its supporters feel Take Shelter taps into the uneasy feeling we have of the present and the future we see on the horizon. We do live in an age where we wonder if today’s worst fears are tomorrow’s reality. At the same time, the apocalyptic visions here have not much antecedent in real life. They seem to matter more to the people in the film than they do to us.

The Texas Killing Fields

The Texas Killing Fields
Grade: B
Cast: Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Sam Worthington, Chloe Grace Moretz, Jessica Chastain
Director: Amy Canaan Mann
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As I watched The Texas Killing Fields, I had one question running through my mind: why don’t they make more films like this?

I don’t mean this in the Terrence Malick random-acts-of-genius sort of way, as in “why can’t every filmmaker take seven years in post-production to create a high-minded masterpiece?” I mean it in a “whatever happened to the if-it’s-Friday-it-must-be-a-new-police-procedural movie” sort of way.

Texas Killing Fields feels like it dropped out of 1986 with its spiked hair barely mussed. This film used to star Ellen Barkin as the fish-out-of-water detective from the city investigating a crime in the backwater. Or Mimi Rogers as the damsel in distress who needs protection from a killer after witnessing a crime. Or, if you’re really lucky, Ellen Barkin as the damsel in distress who needs protection from a killer after witnessing a crime. Someone like Al Pacino or Tom Berenger would star as the cop who crashed into the apartment just as the killer broke in. Killer dead. Mystery solved. Let the kissing begin.

In short, this used to be what adults did on Friday night – mom and dad get a little mystery, a little romance, and a chance to support the neighborhood economy by paying the babysitter. Yet I can’t remember the last time I saw a standard-operating-procedure cop film like this. When did a cop film become so rare that it could be treated as a bit of a prestige picture?

A cop movie about multiple murders on the Gulf Coast refinery town of Texas City, The Texas Killing Fields certainly embraces the genre clichés – the intense family man detective from a large city now working in the small town (Jeffrey Dean Morgan); the hard-knocks ape-in-a-suit partner with marriage issues (Sam Worthington); a complete weekly motels’ worth of transients who have probably done something wrong, even if none of them are the murderer. Nothing in Texas Killing Fields will seem unfamiliar, but there is a value to doing the old things the right way, especially when they are delicately written, acted with intensity, and capture the local flavor with some useful color. The Texas Killing Fields ultimately raises this interesting movie theoretical: at what moment does yesterday’s cliché become tomorrow’s classicism?

Beyond that, note that the director is Ami Canaan Mann, daughter of producer Michael Mann, and notice that extra-loud gunshots run in the family.

The Ides of March/Contagion

The Ides of March (d. George Clooney)
Politics moves so quickly now that movies can’t keep up with it. Production time mangles relevance. George Clooney's The Ides of March sits you in a John Edwards-like scandal with an Obama-like candidate. Riffing on political events of just a few years ago, The Ides of March nonetheless feels like a movie from a dusty past. Situated in an era of mass-protest spectacle, we get an insider’s story, of a semi-idealistic press secretary (Ryan Gosling) who finds out – get this – that politics is dirty business that’s not always what it seems. Directed and starring George Clooney, The Ides of March isn’t really a bad film, just very generic.
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Contagion (d. Steven Soderbergh)
A film for everyone who has ever suspected Gwyneth Paltrow will be the death of us all. Stephen Soderbergh takes the clinical approach to the deadly virus genre, extracting the natural grotesque hysteria and dread for a realistic government procedural, depicting a worldwide race between the viral nature of information and the viral nature of, well, viruses. Even the stars in the all-star cast meet abbreviated ends, while mid-level public health and Hollywood bureaucrat Jennifer Ehle saves the day. Then she goes straight back to work without a press conference or Oscar buzz. A 70s-style big topical film with an all-star ensemble, Contagion is that rare example of a movie that is exactly the sum of its estimable parts - nothing more and nothing less.


Grade: B
Cast: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright
Director: Bennett Miller
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No one wants to watch a movie about the Yankees.

No one wants to watch Throwing Money At It: Superstars, Dollar Signs, and Left-handed Relief Pitching. No one wants to hear the story about how the Pinstripes used their massive financial advantages to hire the best coaches, scouts and players in order to forge an American League dynasty – and guess what – they did it!

There is no market in the American imagination for the Goliaths of Gotham. We love the Davids of Decatur (himself a David in a real sea of Goliaths). Our national mythology trains us to root for the little guy, to imagine ourselves as the little guy even when, for example, we’re the world’s dominant power. We glorify the innovators and rebels at the expense of the proven and traditional.

So we make movies like Moneyball. Moneyball is the baseball term applied to the overrated success of the millennial era Oakland As formed by general manager Billy Beane (played in an invitingly laconic big-star performance by Brad Pitt). These teams had a way of outperforming expectations in the regular season before dying in the playoffs. Beane achieved his success by elevating cutting edge statistical analysis over traditional scouting, allowing Oakland to compete with the monetary advantages of the big-market teams.

Baseball shows reverence for certain player statistics handed down through the generations. Moneyballers (like the film’s Jonah Hill) gained their success by asking whether these statistics really matter to winning baseball games. They favor on-base percentage and slugging percentage to batting average; average hits per 9 innings to ERA. They love walks, runs, and going deep in the count. They hate steals, bunts, fielding percentage, and fielding percentage again.

The new stats allowed the As to identify and sign undervalued and inexpensive players. These players excelled at getting on base and helping the team score a pre-determined amount of runs over the course of a year. This number of runs had been calculated as the number needed to win a division. (The Moneyball system is not designed to beat more talented teams in seven-game playoff series – hence Beane’s teams never won a title. The source book by sportswriter Michael Lewis is subtitled “Winning at an Unfair Game.” It could just as easily be “A Better Variety of Losing.”)

The more spiritual fault of Moneyballers – they re-evaluate the statistical basis for producing wins but never ask if the real success of baseball is winning. Certainly that’s the immediate demand for front office people wanting to keep their jobs. But do we really want a game of baseball with a bunch of statistically-approved on-base robots drawing abnormal numbers of walks? Is the real value of athletics to society the sense of collective victory? Or is it mythology? Is it taking something common and contemporary and delivering it to the realm of the legendary and timeless? To the credit of prominent screenwriters Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) and Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List), the script gets something like this, framing it as whether statistics rob the game of its sentimental romance (while the film’s dreadful pacing and Bennett Miller’s predictable, add-nothing direction nearly robs the film of its.)

In one of the year’s best films, the documentary The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, director Werner Herzog explores a French cave with the oldest-known cave paintings – recordings of the bears, lions and buffalo of the time. We also see the first sparks of narrative exaggeration – oversized horns, ferocious teeth, endless rumbling herds. We sense the tales of the great hunters, the legendary athletes of their time. We watch the creation of history, imagination, culture. We grasp the need of storytelling to our human essence. We also see the first impulses toward the larger than life.

Thinking about that cave, and thinking again about Moneyball, I wonder: are the statisticians a vanguard of clairvoyants for the new reality? Or are they, to borrow Herzog’s creative formulation, crocodiles staring into the abyss?

Thursday, September 22, 2011


Grade: B
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Oscar Isaac, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Christina Hendrick
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
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It boils down to this: Drive is a decent film but I find its critical adoration bordering on reactionary.

It’s fun to watch a team play in its throwback uniforms one game each year, and yes, Drive’s combination of sun-tinged neo-noir, eye-contact chemistry, gear grinding chases and silent leading man charisma makes chilling entertainment. But ever since its release at Cannes this May, the real attraction has been as a “man, they don’t make them like they used to” rallying point for filmmaking puritans, those who believe every good film was made before 1977 and see the current dominance of chaos cinema as a shooting offense.

These champions see the stripped-down action of Drive as a welcome course correction to that foreboding moment when Michael Bay was given a camera, possibly by Lucifer. As such there is a rush of hype to bill this Nicolas Winding Refn film as the future. In truth it is the opposite – a leather-glove grip on the past. Drive is cinematic oatmeal for those old-timers who just wish Tony Scott would quit doing donuts on their cleanly edited, visually elegant lawns.

Drive shares a number of plot points with one of the best examples of chaos cinema, Scott’s Man on Fire. A loner with a dark past finds his humanity through his surprise affection for a mother and child. When the poisonous vines of the underworld threaten the family, he fights nocturnal urban warfare to defend (or avenge) them. In Man on Fire, it’s a former CIA assassin in Mexico City. In Drive, it’s a mechanic and stuntman (Ryan Gosling) who drives getaways through the tangled Los Angeles streets at night.

Yet for all of its dream-like visual elegance and lean editing, Drive doesn’t have a lot to say. It attracts only the vague label of “existentialism” that often finds its way to quiet movies in which no one bother to name the main character. It doesn’t match the visual fever of Scott’s film, nor its moral provocation, nor its critique of the American view of the Third World, and not enough its aching heart.

I’ve written myself into a corner, because there is much about Drive to recommend. Refn’s hypnotic glaze simmers in the classic noir motif of a man against his fate in the indifferent city. Gosling makes the silence of the driver radioactive, and Mulligan enwraps years of suffering into a simple twitch of a lip. But as the film moves from cold style to heated violence, a rising cartoon tone undermines the alienated urban drama coming before. Not only does everyone turn out to be a killer – they all turn out to be experts at it, as if stabbing were passed down over firelight from father to son. Drive never quite decides whether it wants to be Taxi Driver or Dirty Harry, and is the less for its indecision.

The Debt

The Debt
Grade: B
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington, Tom Wilkinson, Ciaran Hinds
Director: John Madden
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Split between two settings, two time periods, and two casts, it’s no wonder that John Madden’s The Debt divides so easily into two levels of quality. There’s one part that I like to call a classy, sexy Cold War spy thriller. There’s another part that I like to call “the ending.”

Three Mossad agents share an apartment in East Berlin in 1966 – two men and a young woman. The cramped quarters in a hostile land breeds danger and romantic tension. Their job is to identify and take captive a Mengele-like Nazi doctor who tortured Jews in a concentration camp and blended back into society after the war. This leads to some of the creepiest moments in cinematic gynecology, as the young woman agent (Jessica Chastain of The Help and The Tree of Life) comes face to face (among other anatomical places) with the target.

The Debt is at its most convincing moments in this past, when it feels like the mature spy films and political thrillers of many years ago. The tension inside the apartment builds beautifully through looks, touches, and silences. Not for the first time, Chastain and Sam Worthington are particularly adept at saying a lot without saying much.

The sixties era feels like it should go on forever, or at least for two hours, whichever comes first. Unfortunately, it is bookended by the relative present (1997), in which Helen Mirren takes over for Chastain. The plot tries to pivot to issues of lies and regrets lingering from the mission. It’s here that The Debt goes from tight and plausible spy film to preposterous thriller with forced tensions.

It seems like the steady Madden (best known for Shakespeare in Love) and the writers are aware of the weaknesses and unsuccessfully try to shore them up with hackneyed suspense beats. If an already absurd scene of Mirren snooping through an office lacks tension, well then, let’s send in the after-hours canoodling couple to fool around. When you start trying to spread the jelly, it’s an admission that all you have is plain peanut butter.

The biggest hint that someone knows something is wrong – cars are everywhere. People entering cars, people leaving cars, quick stops, doors snapping open, ominous drives to ominous Ukrainian nowheres overlaid with ominous electronic music. As we reach a flat tire ending inside a Ukrainian mental hospital, it’s obvious that the spare isn’t the only thing being pulled out of the rear.

The automotive strangulation is so different from what’s so good about the sixties portion, so unforced and natural. Even being adapted from an Israeli movie, I would have considered removing a good portion of the modern story. I do recommend the film, but The Debt is a film where less would have been more.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Last Year at Marienbad

(Film Critic Kevin Bowen is visiting his hometown - El Paso, Texas - and attending the third annual Plaza Classic Film Festival. The festival, running from Aug. 4 to Aug. 14 features 80 classic films. Bowen will write sporadic reports on the classic films that he watches at the festival.)

Last Year at Marienbad
(1961, d. Alain Resnais)

A man and a woman discuss a statue in a French garden. In the male stone figure, the man sees a protector, cautioning his wife against a danger up the road. The woman sees it differently, that the female figure has a spark in her eye from something that lies beyond.

Is this a statue of doom or fascination? The camera circles the stone. It picks apart the figures, examines them piece by piece, hand, foot, head, all outside of the context of the whole. Then we pull behind the figures to find a vast pool of water in front of them.

What is this body of water before them? Have they reached the sea? Is this what frightens or fascinates them? No and no, of course. We know the context. We know it's not the sea, only a pool at a chateau, its position in front of the statue a seeming coincidence. How do we draw these lines of coincidence? Where does art end and reality begin? Where does the observer end and the observed begin?

Two men play a game. Set out on a table are cards, toothpicks, finally photographs. The only rule - the same man wins every time. The crowd spins theories as to this feat of domination. They try to wrestle this fact with words. The victories move forward, indifferent to explanation, game after game.

A woman receives a photograph. A man insists this photo was taken last year, maybe at Marienbad (maybe not), when the two were lovers (or were they not), when they spun elaborate plans to run away together. The woman insists she does not remember. The man must be mistaken. How can he remember it so well, and how can she remember it not at all? The photo could be anywhere, anytime. Isn't this proof? How can a woman staring at a camera grasp the entirety of a past?

They say one thing in one room, then run into the same words later on the balcony. The images have shaken free of the words, follow their own drummer, circle back on themselves. Times change. Colors change. Details change. Never the same. Who are this man and this woman? Did they really meet one year ago? Did it happen? Is it happening now, if there is even a "now?" Are they flirting? Avoiding suspicion? Is he only the romantic fantasy of a lonely wife? Is she only the fictional muse of an artist who has thrust himself into his own story?

A mystery wrapped in an enigma, baked into a delicate chocolate eclair, and placed in a vase at the center of a hedgerow maze for years, weeks, days, seconds, centuries – because really, when it comes to time, wouldn't an artist say it's all just a blink of an eye? - there is no way out of Alain Resnais' brilliant, maddening, and brilliantly maddening Last Year at Marienbad. We glide through corridors of an ornate chateau that seem to have no end. The music swells and sharpens, dies and sharpens. A voice repeats a paragraph, fading in and out of sound. Shadowy men and women circle, chat, freeze. Are they real, ghosts, unstuck in time?

The architecture imitates the circular nature of the human mind - the way we visit an idea, consider the possibilities, visit the idea, draw a conclusion, inject a meaning, visit the idea, reopen the book, change our mind. Marienbad prefers this psychological reality over a linear and material reality - a baroque collage formed from imperfect fragments of memory, knowledge, speculation, intuition, fantasy, desire, nightmare, art and context.

Alain Robbe-Grillet, the co-writer of this script, was a noted mid-century French writer whose work was often noted for attacking the use of symbolism, preferring to analyze each thing as itself rather than as a stand-in for another. Why should an object have a second meaning when we're not sure that it has a first? In writing, this meant long, descriptive passages about objects and a characters' movements. In film, I think he has gone about it another way - by making the audience aware of how each member - like the couple theorizing about the statue - projects a psyche, a context, and ultimately a meaning onto the work of art. The film undermines meaning by making it clear that this meaning comes from us and not from it. The most important question about Last Year at Marienbad isn't "what does it mean?" The most important question about Last Year at Marienbad is the question before - "Why does it have to mean anything at all?”

The Awful Truth

The Awful Truth

(1937, d. Leo McCarey)

(Film Critic Kevin Bowen is visiting his hometown - El Paso, Texas - and attending the third annual Plaza Classic Film Festival. The festival, running from Aug. 4 to Aug. 14 features 80 classic films. Bowen will write sporadic reports on the classic films that he watches at the festival.)

Faced with a prolonged economic calamity of devastating proportions, Depression-era America did the only sensible thing that a self-respecting bankrupt nation could do - it made an endless series of comedies about zany millionaires.

If in the thirties you lived in a tent in the Arabian desert and only knew America through its films, then you would be convinced that every American woman was an oddball heiress who probably owned an unusually spunky dog. The image that America sent into the world was quite different from its real domestic life.

If this wasn't exactly using art to capture the zeitgeist, it at least had the benefit of being damn funny. Among the best of these films - arguably the best - is Leo McCarey's The Awful Truth. The Thin Man might be more romantic and polished. Bringing Up Baby, wackier. The Philadelphia Story, more star-studded, His Girl Friday better known. But The Awful Truth runs on a wry series of ironic lines, arched eyebrows, knowing glances, and a genuine, recognizable emotional current that makes it stand out from its competition.

The Awful Truth has Cary Grant and Irene Dunne as a stylish and unfaithful New York couple who choose to divorce on a whim. They realize their mistake early, but pride keeps them from reconciliation. Each one gets engaged, and each one sabotages the new engagement – his with an heiress, hers with an awkward millionaire from Oklahoma who lives with his mother across the hall (Ralph Bellamy).

To understand what I like about The Awful Truth, you should first know what I dislike about The Philadelphia Story. In that 1940 comedy, Cary Grant does nothing to earn the heiress (Katharine Hepburn) except show up, sit around, be rich, wait for Hepburn to let her guard down and for the Hollywood star system to kick in. He doesn’t work for it at all, as he does in The Awful Truth. Grant may be polished confidence on the outside, but he’s a playful and vulnerable child inside. He wants what he wants, and he's willing to play ball to get it. One of the film's best moments is his cage match with a sitting room chair in the middle of a singing recital. He does the thing that a star can never supposedly do – he lets the chair win.

So much is written about Grant and not enough about Ralph Bellamy. The definition of “character actor,” Bellamy was formed out of some scientific goo as the Anti-Cary Grant. He spent the thirties playing that part in movie after movie. There was good reason that he served as the Anti-Cary Grant – he was darn good at not being Cary Grant. If his part were written today, he would be a high-rolling jerk who never listens to the heroine, shows up late, and says nasty things about her friends. As an oil-rich Oklahoman on a mission to the big city, Bellamy gives us a comic manufacture that’s alternately creepy and sweet without ever losing sympathy. We know he’s not the right guy for Dunne, but you never doubt there’s some sweet girl for him back in Tulsa.

There’s a famous nightclub scene in The Awful Truth, in which Grant lassoes Dunne into dancing with Bellamy. Ever the oblivious Oklahoman, Bellamy leads her in a vigorous dance in which she can barely keep up. The perfect look on Dunne gives to Grant screams, “Rescue me.” Grant obliges by having the band play the song again. It’s a moment that cuts through the games being played and tells us what we already know - that when the theses two are meant to be together. It’s hard to imagine this couple living out their lives entirely content or faithful. But you know they’ll spend a lifetime of chasing each other around the kitchen table.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

Grade: C
Cast: Guy Pearce, Katie Holmes, Bailee Madison
Director: Guillermo Del Toro

If we were loading cultural items onto a deep space vessel headed beyond the Milky Way and you wanted a prime example of the horror movie with a disturbed little girl (Bailee Madison) moves in with her father and stepmother in a threatening old mansion, a crazy secret murder in the basement, a grumpy groundskeeper who knows all the secrets, an oblivious father (Guy Pearce) who refuses to move even after the mutilations begin, a mother-bear maternal figure (Katie Holmes), an ominous teddy bear, little man-eating monkey-men crawling through the shadows, a lead character who always does the dumbest thing possible to move the plot along (Creepy voices slithering out of the furnace? I think I’ll open it!), and superbly stylish framing and editing, then your choice might be Guillermo Del Toro’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark might be the one you pick. It’s the Voyager II candidate of well-made derivative schlock.

One Day

One Day

Grade: B
Cast: Anne Hathaway, Jim Sturgess, Patricia Clarckson, Romola Garai
Director: Lone Scherfig

We've reached the point that a significant portion of the English-speaking world - that bankrupt, riot-helmented, penalty-kick-blowing island named England - has reduced all acting to one thing - the ability to perfect the British accent.

The land of Olivier has ceased caring about things like sympathy, emotion, delivery, comic timing. They are only interested in an American's ability to speak in their certain way, as if the rest of us are somehow deficient. It raises the question: why don' they do the rest of the world a favor and start speaking like us?

The vitriol over Anne Hathaway's accent in One Day has been enough to ask the Archbishop of Caterbury to intervene. British fans of the 2009 David Nicholls novel wonder why Carey Mulligan wasn't chosen for the role of shy Emma (presumably the filmmakers want a few Americans to actually see it.) It's true, Hathaway's accent is a little dodgy, and it comes and goes. The rest of it she delivers pretty well in this literate romance.

Directed by Lone Scherfig as her follow-up to sort-of breakthrough An Education, One Day is relatively low-key affair. It prefers character development and relatively subtle shadings of dialogue (at least compared to the comedies of this summer) to build a genuine emotional base. The film even has one great scene, a frank mother-son discussion between Dex (Jim Sturgess) and his dying mother (Patricia Clarkson) that's incredibly tender.
Emma and Dex, the shy, studious girl and the registered heartbreaker, spend the night together after their college graduation on July 15, 1988. Emma's record player kills the romantic mood, spitting out Tracy Chapman's "Talkin' Bout a Revolution." The perils of late-80s political awareness.

The pair decides to be friends, and they join each other for each subsequent July 15 (for saints' fans, that's St. Swithin's Day). He meets quick career success, becoming a television presenter on an awesomely cheesy early 90s music show, but his fame overwhelms his life. She becomes a waitress, a teacher, and eventually a children's author. We navigate with them through their trials and successes until the inevitable crown of their relationship.

You can measure the tone of an era in several ways. Scherfig's feel for period detail of the 1990s, one of the best things about An Education, remains sure - dingy flats, combat boot fashion, sleek surfaces. She also captures the strangely matched impulses toward art, intellect, and integrity on one side and partying its tail off on the other. When Emma reads a book on a nude beach, it's Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. That's exactly the book that that girl would be reading in that time and that place.

Does anyone really know why a romance works? I can observe good chemistry between the leads. I can say the peppered dialogue is a grade smarter than we usually get for romances, and the characters a grade deeper. I can say that One Day is so honest and roundly developed that you don't notice the conventions that it does indulge. When it finally goes for the big melodramatic moment, it feels like a violation, which is a measure of the film's overall success.

30 Minutes or Less

30 Minutes or Less

Grade: B
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Danny McBride, Aziz Ansari
Director: Ruben Fleischer

Like any good pizza delivery driver with a bomb vest strapped to his body, 30 Minutes or Less knows how to get there, get the job done and get it over with a second to spare.

When it comes to explosives, every second counts, and there aren't many films with such a clear-eyed grasp of its premise's lifespan. LIke a good pizza, it goes down with a smile before you can taste too much of it, before the cheese has a chance to get moldy and old.

Coming off of The Social Network, Jesse Eisenberg slides way down the food chain. He plays a pizza driver caught up in a murder plot hatched by the nincompoop son of a lottery winner (Danny McBride) who wantsto live the American Dream of opening a tanning store that doubles as a brothel. To pay for a professional hit, his accomplice locks a bomb vest on the pizza boy's body to force him to rob a bank, which drags in a friendly teacher (Aziz Ansari, a veteran of the Apatow circuit).

Director Ruben Fleischer, the writer/director of Zombieland, takes inspiration from action-comedies of the eighties and does a generally nice job with it. He gets another nice collaboration out of Eisenberg, whom I've never thought of as a genuine-article movie star, but maybe the mechanics are there. I don't get the cult of Danny McBride, though. He goes from movie to movie as a petulant dimwit with nothing else. He seems destined to ruin a Wes Anderson movie.

30 Minutes or Less might have the short lifespan of a meat lovers supreme on a table in front of a hungry teenage baseball team. But it will taste about as good.

The Change-Up

The Change-Up

Grade: D

Cast: Jason Bateman, Ryan Reynolds, Leslie Mann, Olivia Wilde, Alan Arkin

Director: David Dobkin

This summer, we’ve reached a crisis point in the American comedy: why can’t Jason Bateman get promoted or laid?

The summer comedies are stocked with middle-aged men who dream of having sex but never do. That’s a healthy sign for marriage, I suppose. But if you’re a married dad who secretly wishes he could spread the seed again, do you want to spend $10 to go watch a movie about another guy who can’t, either? Where’s the fantasy? Where’s the edge? Face it, this has been one long, scalding summer of “Whatever you do, do not make me have sex with the babysitter!”

So the infidelity comedy has become the fidelity comedy, and other than the audience, no one seems to get the short end of the stick – so to speak – as often as Bateman. He is the only guy in Horrible Bosses who doesn’t receive an explicit come-on from Jennifer Aniston. A couple of years ago in Extract, he got Mila Kunis into a hotel room where he …. promptly fell asleep.

In The Change Up, he plays a lawyer and family man who switches bodies with his irresponsible best friend, a womanizer having a hard time kicking off his acting career— probably because he has made the ill-advised career choice of living in Atlanta.

Disembodied from the ball and chain, the family lawyer gets to sleep in, smoke pot and figure out reasons not to have sex with Olivia Wilde. The womanizer takes on family responsibility that he knows nothing about, a legal career that he knows nothing about, and a tricky marriage to Leslie Mann (a gifted comic actress with a weird attraction to movies with recycled television plots.).

The question about The Change-Up – who is sitting around Hollywood thinking, “What this world needs is another body-switching movie?” And who is sitting around Hollywood thinking, “You know who I have always wanted to see switch bodies – Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds!” I once knew a girl without any artistic taste. She thought that the live-action Rocky and Bullwinkle movie “was going to rock.” And even she thought body-switching plots were stupid.

There are two ways that this most tired television plot could have any chance of being worthwhile. One way is to do it with two well-established and opposite screen personalities. It might be enjoyable to watch this plot with, say, DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman in their prime.

The other possibility is the arty one – have the characters excel in their new lives. The characters find they’re better being the other person than they are at being themselves. Their spouses are completely satisfied. The people around them like them better. Then you create interesting questions about what our identity really means to us.

You know you’re not going to find that type of soul searching in a movie that starts with a father of twins taking incoming fire while changing diapers. While Wedding Crashers director David Dobkin launched the R-rated comedy wave, that the only launch that The Change-Up is likely to make.

Crazy, Stupid, Love
Grade: C
Cast: Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Julianne Moore, Emma Stone, Analeigh Tipton, Kevin Bacon,
Director: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa

I like marriage.

I do. At least in theory. I am unmarried, myself. But my parents are married. My friends are married. It seems like a good deal.

So why is it that more and more, I find myself rooting against marriages when I watch them on film? In real life, whether divorce re-invigorates miserable people is situational. As movies go, for better or worse, it usually frees them. I’m not sure why. Perhaps writers overdo the marital suffering so the revival seems more dramatic, not realizing it buries the romance for good. That is certainly the case with Crazy, Stupid, Love.

I have a simple rule about the success of an onscreen romance. A good one feels like a movie is conspiring to keep the couple apart. A bad one feels like the movie is shoving them together against the movie’s will. Crazy, Stupid, Love shoves like a school lunch line on chocolate milk Friday. The marriage of Steve Carell and Julianne Moore is cemetery dead, probably in a way that didn’t play to the writers on the page. The worst marriages are those that don’t just die but drown the two people with them.

Their separation sets in motion the best (and luckily, longest) part of the film – the My Fair Lady transformation plot between the serial ladies man (Ryan Gosling) and Carell, a henpecked father of two decked out in baggy jeans and New Balance sneakers. In My Fair Lady, professor Henry Higgins tries to turn Eliza Doolittle into a proper lady. Gosling’s challenge is to turn Carell into an improper man.

Freed of marriage, this section crackles with life. The men have chemistry, each has a handle on the character’s (admittedly one-dimensional) tics and tacs. As Carell learns the pickup moves with predictable speed bumps, the story has enough momentum to carry things. Why does it retreat into a re-marriage comedy, when no one wants Carell to sink back into that lifelong of despair? The film charges hard for the comfortable landing, with a schmaltzy final speech that makes you want to burn a wedding dress.

There is some attempt to make it an ensemble comedy, the type that requires you to draw arrows Glenn Beck-style between pictures of the characters. An office mate (Kevin Bacon) has a thing for Moore. The mouthy son (Jonah Bobo) has a thing for the babysitter (Analeigh Tipton). The babysitter has a thing for Carell, who loves and leaves his son’s English teacher (Marisa Tomei). Emma Stone is in there, too, somehow and somewhere. She’s a young lawyer who hangs out with her lawyer friends and lawyer beau. If you want to know how far off some of Crazy, Stupid Love is from reality, the lawyers wear tailored suits everywhere they go. In reality, young lawyers have already surrendered to baggy jeans and New Balance sneakers, too.

It’s hard to judge comedies anymore. The standard has slumped so far. So a film like Crazy, Stupid Love can be fairly funny, with more character development than its competition, but still feel shallow. It’s certainly better than a lot of Steve Carell’s recent summertime mass-audience comedies, but is it good or just better? You want to pat it on the head for making a little headway. Yet you don’t want to encourage it too much, either, lest you wind up with too many more.

The Guard

The Guard

Grade: B

Cast: Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, Mark Strong

Director: John Michael McDonagh

What is a veteran Irish policeman to do?

There he is, tending to his rounds of bar fights and domestic disturbances. Stealing drugs off car wreck victims. Indulging in lovely imported visitors from “the agency.” Thinking nothing of selling the IRA back their lost-and-found weapons.

His sleepy coastal town isn’t the first place that you would suspect for a major drug deal. But that’s what it comes to An international drug ring is running its goods through the town. It’s so big that it attracts an African-American FBI agent (Don Cheadle), whom Sgt. Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson) delights in engaging with racially-tinged deadpan banter.

Boyle Is a fabulous character to follow, a man who skimps on small moral matters but whose heart is in the right place on the big ones. His encyclopedic knowledge of his village grapevine plays out against the sophistication of the FBI.

Director John Michael McDonagh borrows Gleeson from his brother Martin (director of In Bruges) and gets a whale of a comic performance from him. He has different shades and levels in a way that an American comedy character would never have. Outside of the winning performances, McDonagh also gives us something comedies are often too afraid to give – a unique look born of the village in which it is set.

It’s a natural comedy, arriving from character and place rather than forced situations. It comes from comes from villagers who watch too much American television, philosophical criminals who cite Nietzsche as they shoot victims. At times, it might get caught up a little too much in Wes Anderson weirdness and homages to spaghetti westerns. For the most part, it’s a satisfying dark buddy cop action-comedy.

Captain America: The First Avenger

Captain America: The First Avenger
Grade: B
Cast: Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Hugo Weaving, Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci, Sebastian Stan
Director: Joe Johnston

Henry Ford did not invent the automobile. But he likely invented modern life. He then used his fortune to build Greenfield Village, a park dedicated to the preservation of the horse and buggy world he had nudged to the past.

The further we go with technology, the more we have a fascination with the past. As the future becomes more artificial, we come to know the past as the only thing more grounded and authentic. So if the kids go online to buy vinyl records or swanky fedoras, it makes more sense than it appears.

With all the technological wizardry in filmmaking, nostalgia and sentimentality are increasing forces in this summer’s movies. The nostalgia wave extends from the Spielberg-retro Super 8 to the artiest of arties – Tree of Life. Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, the surprise hit of the summer, is a study of the joys and risks of living in the past.
Captain America: The First Avenger is the summer’s final sweet indulgence in sentimentality, a 3-D tribute to 1940s retro-futurism and patriotic nostalgia. It shares imaginative space with Spielberg’s Raiders flicks and countless World War II movies. The tearjerking ending of this endearing truffle will almost make you stand and sing “We’ll Meet Again” without a hint of Kubrick’s irony.

Captain America ambles along in this glorified past, when America believed itself an Arsenal of Decency and the nation believed in better living through chemistry. American power is undeniably beneficial. Science advances with flying car optimism. Love is something delayed in the name of duty. It is as if revisionism never happened, warmly embracing the nation’s most idealistic values.

Captain America is born out of this innocent time, when a science experiment to create a perfect supersoldier would seem like a great idea. It’s all the better to fight HYDRA, the Nazis’ scientific division, headed by the mutant Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), who wants to teach Hitler a thing or two about mass murder. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a flimsy asthmatic chosen by a loopy professor (Stanley Tucci) to transform into a superhunk. Captain America becomes the model of humble power sticking up for the little guy.

With its amber-coated vision of burly GIs, saluting chorus girls, black-booted villains and a wildly pretty compatriot fighting in the perfect red lipstick, Captain America is something more than a fun summer ride. It’s a yearning for the innocence of yesteryear. Just as much, it yearns for the ways that movies used to make us feel.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Horrible Bosses

Horrible Bosses
Grade: D
Cast: Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, Charlie Day, Jennifer Aniston, Kevin Spacey, Colin Farrell, Jamie Foxx.
Director: Seth Gordon

Horrible Bosses pretends to be a movie for all people who hate their bosses, but really it’s a film for all people who hate film.

Directed by Seth Gordon and partly produced by Brett Ratner, it’s the a classic case of a movie that doesn’t seem that wretched, until you start to take it apart afterwards and realize how badly you wasted two hours. It has some funny moments, yes, but that barely hides the fact that it approaches a cultural disaster.

There isn’t a single moment in Horrible Bosses – an ensemble comedy about three dorks who decide to kill their obnoxious bosses – that is remotely cinematic. It has no eye whatsoever, nor any scale beyond sketch comedy. It’s not surprising that director Gordon, since his well-received documentary The Kings of Kong, has worked mainly in episodic television. There’s not a shot in the movie that doesn’t say “sitcom.”

Calling Bosses a sit-com is unfair to sitcoms. Even the average sitcom must create characters with a consistent personality and acceptable motives. Sometimes sitcom characters begin as a single joke, but sooner or later they get a mother and a father or maybe a quirky girlfriend. Jennifer Aniston’s Rachel had far more depth than Bosses’ randy dentist, a one-joke sketch comedy monster.

Would being pursued by a hot, sexually forward boss be enough to drive a man to murder? That’s what we’re asked to believe about the dental assistant played by Charlie Day (from the minor TV hit It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), a random comedy generator in the style of a poor man’s Zach Galifianakis. Why does it bother him? He loves his fiancée, of course! So if he wants to be with his gal forever, why does he risk the electric chair? And why does he spend all of his time plotting murder at the bar with his friends instead of half-watching Dancing with the Stars on the couch? Why, you almost get the sense that his fiancee exists as a flimsy prop so that he has a reason to hate his boss.

I usually value Jason Bateman’s put-upon-everyman-just-trying-to-hold-it-together routine. He’s quite good at it. But it may be reaching the point of being a signature tic rather than a fresh character. It also isn’t exactly a murderous personality type, even with a slimy, egotistical jerk of a corporate boss (Kevin Spacey). The only boss here that might invite a murder plot is Colin Farrell’s cokehead. But after this film and Hall Pass, Saturday Night Liver Jason Sudeikis’ middle-aged horndog persona has taken a remarkably short time to seem stale.

By the way, isn’t conspiracy to commit murder still a crime? In the happily ever after ending, the cops seem remarkably cool with it. Maybe they just want to leave the door open for future filmmakers to kill a similar project.

Transformers 3

Transformers 3-D
Grade: C
Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Rosie Huntington-Whitely, Josh Duhamel, John Turturro, Frances McDormand
Director: Michael Bay

A funny thing happened on my way to pan Michael Bay’s midsummer mecha monster mash Transformers: Dark of the Moon. It turned out that I liked about half of it.

Strangely that would not be the gargantuan 3-D final hour of demolished Chicago skyscrapers, impossible Special Forces stunts, flying glass, metal tentacles, and super-powerful interplanetary robots that could think of no better disguise than the cab of a truck. The evil Decepticons want to turn the human race into slaves, doomed to change out the 5W-30 every 3,000 miles for the rest of eternity. The Autobots with their Earthling allies fight to preserve the most essential human rights –like the right to have a girlfriend who’s 100 times out of your league.

Apparently against the good judgment of the entirety of the filmgoing world, I enjoyed the buildup that leads to that final hour of phony spectacle. Over the first hour or so, this film finally tastes the high-speed anything-goes comic sensibility that the previous entries miserably failed to find. It isn’t smart or gleaming enough to be true screwball, exactly, but it gets lost completely, admirably, in its own lunacy. This time the lunatic is on the grass (and if the band you’re in starts playing different tunes, I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon).

The joys of the film, too, are not solely found in its overwhelming touches of humanity (yes, joke). They lie in its willingness to stretch technology. Take even the first shot in the film, among its best shots, and it should be nothing – a simple establishment shot of deep space. But it looks like a DEEP SPACE that goes on FOREVER. Say what you will about Bay’s macho posing – he shakes the most out of the 3-D experience. In this long prologue, the “camera” defies gravity to move in and out of an alien spaceship as well as the mechanics of the robot inside, as if they are one.

Things go south when shifting gears toward the emotional assembly line. The integration of human physique with CG landscape is splendid, the integration of human emotion less so. Shia LeBeouf is considerably better at adventure and comedy than convincingly portraying his emotional bond with a classic seventies muscle car. He is only slightly better with his improbably stunning girlfriend (Rosie Huntington-Whitely, who replaces Megan Fox). Like so many other unemployed college graduates out there, Sam Witwicky has taken solace in the warm glow of a lingerie model. Even better, it’s a lingerie model who doesn’t mind him eating Cheetos on the couch all day.

So is this a better film than the other Transformers? How could it not be? Someone bothered to edit this one, for one. Rarely have so much skill and so much technology been put in the service of so much idiocy.

Cars 2

Cars 2
Grade: D
Cast: (Voice) Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy, John Turturro
Director: John Lasseter

Imagine that after Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace George Lucas ditched the whole Anakin/Vader storyline and turned Attack of the Clones over to Jar Jar Binks.

If you can imagine that without crawling into a mental fetal position, then you can imagine Cars 2. In this animated sequel from Disney’s Pixar studio, Owen Wilson’s neurotic race car Lightning McQueen turns over the keys to the two-ton four-wheeled village idiot Mater, the buck-toothed tow truck. Jar Jar, it’s your big chance!

Usually, keys get turned over after a few drinks; we can’t rule that out here. Effectively, they took the film away from a genuine comic talent in Wilson and gave it to Larry, The Cable Guy.
Perhaps they went fishing for a fresher tone. Or perhaps Larry’s schedule was surprisingly open. For whatever reason, the change inserts one-note comic relief into the role of the main character. While it has its cute moments, the hit-over-the-head-by-comedy feeling hurts like a five-car pileup on the far turn.

The plot itself is a bit of a two-car pileup of a pair of wildly different storylines. Lightning McQueen enters a worldwide racing series against an Italian rival. The races are part of a campaign to promote a new all-natural alternative fuel, made out of things that a bear would wipe his bottom with.

This is backdrop for the real plot, an espionage spoof in which Mater accidentally falls into international intrigue after being mistaken for a spy. The James Bond of British sedans admires his doggedness – somehow Mater never breaks his cover story of being a simpleton. This plotline begs the question, why would you make a film filled with James Bond allusions when the humor here wouldn’t be funny to anyone over six years old?

When it comes to animated films, and especially Pixar films, I usually shoot a little lower than everyone else. It’s best to judge relatively to other Pixar films, and I think Cars really is the weakest of the Pixar franchises. While the Pixar technical sheen is present (the movement of the animated race cars is slick and life-like), the project feels obligatory. After a few summers of celebrated animated features, you wonder if Cars 2 felt like a letdown to its creators. This summer’s two major animated movies (Cars 2 and Kung Fu Panda 2) are tricked-out 3-D sequels that have no reason for existing other than the fact that the first one made a ton of money.

The Green Lantern

The Green Lantern
Grade: D
Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively, Peter Sarsgaard, Mark Strong, Tim Robbins, Angela Bassett
Director: Martin Campbell

Have you ever gotten into a conversation – and for the life of me, I hope you haven’t – about the supposed fascist underpinnings of comic book superheros?

A film that accepts and teases this fascist nature is The Green Lantern. Test pilot Hal Jordan joins an interplanetary army built on the idea that pure willpower can overcome fear, making the universe safe for corrupt politicians, the military industrial complex, and Blake Lively’s two emotions (for which she has one tone of voice). Triumph of the will, indeed.

That’s not to say these Little Green Brownshirts are without their white hat moments. Their multicultural imperial army is open to purple warriors, elves with crew cuts, and anthropomorphic fish. And while all members share a green uniform and ray-shooting ring, in a modern concession to individuality they let Ryan Reynolds keep his perfect hair. They do fight evil, an evil so lacking personality that even these intergalactic stormtroopers look like the good guys, and so careless with strategy that its first instinct is to blurt out its evil plans to anyone who floats past.

The Green Lantern sees evil in every dark cloud (granted, a spooky planet killer with fangs and tentacles) but sees no evil in Lucas-level screenwriting. Nor does it hear evil in the way that every character catapulted through the air screams something like, “Wooooooooah, oooooooooh, …. Oh.” It also gives us a sub-villain who’s so unlikable, so physically repulsive, so naturally demonic, that he’s a college teacher. (Word to the Hollywood establishment: never dress your villain in a hoodie. It’s hard to feel too menaced by someone who still orders midnight pizza.)

The Green Lantern is bland fun for awhile in a goofy, corny sort of way. The hundreds of millions sunk by director Martin Campbell into 3-D, CG, and every other set of initials don’t go to waste. The script also has an occasional sense of humor about itself and the genre. These brief touches of humor show where The Green Lantern might have been more adventurous, more imaginative, more grotesque, and more genuine.

Beautiful Boy

Beautiful Boy
Grade: C
Cast: Michael Sheen, Maria Bello, Denis Leary, Meat Loaf
Director: Shawn Ku
free admission granted

It’s clear from the early stages of Beautiful Boy that a dish will be thrown.

The school-shooting/domestic drama is a classic example of a dish-thrower, the sort of movie where quiet but steady family tension eventually takes its punishing toll on the family tableware. Like ancient Greek actors, the dishes perform in the horror of not knowing if they will survive the shoot. If the props guys start shoveling innocent-looking cookies on top of you, you know your time has come.

Movie shorthand for inner turmoil, the thrown dish often inhabits the same habitat as a shrieking, hair-pulling husband-wife boilover. I have only so much tolerance for such scenes. They’re vestiges of deconstructing plays that wanted to puncture the happy ending in the name of reality. Frankly, their over-the-top-ness cracks me up. That said, Beautiful Boy owns a live one that operates in the realm of In the Bedroom. It grabbed my attention. After I stopped laughing for a second.

The tragedy gnawing at separating spouses Michael Sheen and Maria Bello is the college shooting rampage perpetrated by their son. Why the son goes bananas is a mystery. No one really ever knows why these things happen. (That said, has anyone examined the mental effects of being followed by a treacly piano score? Or prolonged exposure to living in a world of washed-out cinematography? ) Regardless, the self-examination and the guilt are vexing, real, and an unavoidable part of every day.

Beautiful Boy has a lot to recommend it. It develops real characters. It treats them with generosity, and offers a rare portrayal of an amicable divorce, in which the spouses still care but are no longer in love. Unlike Gus Van Sant’s Elephant and reportedly unlike Lynne Ramsey’s upcoming We Need to Talk about Kevin, it doesn’t aestheticize school violence. Debut director Shawn Ku seems more interested in a sensitive portrait of the minutia of suffering.

Michael Sheen is winning wide praise for his role as the father, a corporate careerist lost in some other world. He does a splendid job of entering and sustaining his character. Yet even his subtle scenes have the scent of an actor who’s looking for The Big Moment. He has the subtlety of someone saying, “Look at how subtle I can be.” I came away more impressed by the performance of Maria Bello. I do wonder, however, is it necessary for Bello and Amy Ryan to coordinate schedules and make sure someone is always on duty, in case an indie housewife role walks into the store?

There are two ways to consume Beautiful Boy. Part of me says this is the sort of small, thoughtful, worthy filmmaking that the indie scene exists to promote and preserve. And part of me wants to check the listing for the next showing of Bridesmaids. It’s not my idea of a Friday night. But I do respect it. And that’s enough for an honest day’s work.

Kung Fu Panda 2

Kung Fu Panda 2
Grade: D
Cast: Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffmann
Director: Mark Osbourne, John Stevenson

Kung Fu Panda 2 breaks new ground in the history of cinema. Everyone knows you can’t use 3-D in the second movie in a series. You have to wait until the third one. Then again the second movie strategy makes sense. All the better to hold up helpless parents at the box office, I suppose.

Breaking the 3- D sequel custom appears to be Panda’s lone innovation. Otherwise this is one of the laziest sequels that you can imagine. Take a lovably clumsy warrior panda, add some daddy issues with a long-necked father goose, and mount the latest chapter of the epic eternal struggle between panda and peacock. Arm the peacock with a cannon that shoots Happy Fun Ball to devastating results. Add sweet and sour sauce. Steer the story by that very famous Chinese proverb, “Give them more of the same.”

What worked for the first film was its touch at spoofing kung fu and action films. In between the animated action were light moments that sent up the silliness of the genres that inspired it. In this sequel, such moments are so far between, in this more straightforward action cartoon with less comedy, or at least with less comedy that works. Perhaps the only thing that does work is a fun sequence in which Po the panda and his kung fu friends disguise themselves as in a bug costume from a Chinese parade. To overcome their enemies, they “swallow” them at the mouth and pass them out the other end.

My favorite part of the film? The part where the film stopped, the lights came on, and we found out we were in the middle of a tornado warning. Now that was an innovation. Unfortunately for you, I don’t think your screening will have that part. But if you are stuck in there, you might pray for some nasty weather.

Tree of Life

Tree of Life
Grade: A
Cast: Hunter McCracken, Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn, Laramie Eppler
Director: Terrence Malick
free admission granted

Absence grows mystery.

If Terrence Malick is a saint of cinema, then this is his holy lesson. Over a four-decade career, the mercurial American visionary has mastered absence and flowered a daunting mystery. After making one of the most impressive debuts in American film history, 1973’s Badlands, he quit talking to the press. After the dreamy masterpiece Days of Heaven five years later, the perfectionist dipped a toe back in and quickly removed it. He then famously disappeared for 20 years.

Swathed in stunning cinematography, pieced together by mood and memory (rather than linear story), The Tree of Life is a radical contemplation of mystery. These mysteries take forms from childhood curiosities to cosmic riddles, stretching from the Big Bang to a fifties Texas family and on to the end of time.

Michael Phillips, the Chicago Tribune critic, calls The Tree of Life “an infinitely more forgiving 2001: A Space Odyssey.” Critics and viewers will find a natural similarity with Tree’s centerpiece, an already famous 20 minute pre-historic spectacular, sketching the origins of the universe and the planet Earth. Stars, cells, seas, volcanoes, trees, sharks, jellyfish and, yes, dinosaurs. This section, though, seems to be a critique of 2001 rather than agreement. If Kubrick were still with us, he might feel the need to reply.

As a philosophy student at Harvard and Oxford, Malick studied the German thinker Martin Heidegger. Like a philosopher, Malick interprets 2001’s “Dawn of Man” sequence, aka “the part with the apes,” as an imagined “state of nature.” When Kubrick’s ape strikes another with a bone, the notorious pessimist suggests human consciousness arises from intelligence and violence. In reply, Malick’s dinosaur comes across a partner and thinks about making a meal of it. Instead, it senses its suffering and moves on. This is the “Dawn of Empathy,” and The Tree of Life gives us consciousness born of love. We soon jump-cut across eons not to an orbiting military satellite but to a pregnant woman’s belly.

Still, it’s not all sunshine and dandelions and epic amounts of oak wood. Love arises as the twin of suffering and the realization of death. Why do we suffer? Why do we love if it only ends in suffering? Malick’s characters live a precarious distance from the divine. They can sense it through love and beauty, but feel estranged from it due to loss and death. Playing the film’s angelic mother, the flame-haired actress Jessica Chastain points to the sky and tells her child, “That’s where God lives.” This is a myth we tell children to make concrete those things that, if they exist, hide in a divine realm. In other words, mystery.

“What are we to you?” she demands, as she bears the loss of her grown son. Without words, she wanders through the streets and lawns of her neighborhood. We skip quickly between images of comfort and distress, as Tree of Life opens with a potent rush of grief and nostalgia. The editing makes clear these are moments imagined years later by a spiritually fried architect, crawling through a maze of glass towers in a modern Texas city.

In a moment of unspecified anguish, the architect Jack (Sean Penn – you can tell Malick puts much more thought into his metaphysics than his character names) dwells on his mother’s suffering after the death of his brother. In endlessly beautiful images from cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, his memory collects images of his youth with his three brothers, enjoying bike rides and throwing footballs deep into the gigantic sky. The splendor of youth is presided by the sweet light of his mother, who he thinks is a saint. I don’t mean figuratively. He envisions her floating in the air near a tree. It is through her, he says in voiceover, that God first spoke to him.

His father (played by an all-in Brad Pitt) is a loving tyrant. He pushes the boys with strong discipline, especially the oldest, believing it will toughen them for the real world. As he grows, Jack (played as a child by Hunter McCracken, whom everyone feels obliged to call “jug-eared”) struggles to reconcile the world’s beauty with hardship, injustice, and his first taste of death. Confused by life’s random pitfalls, he tells God that he wishes he could see the world as He does.

Different observers have different things to say about this portrait of family life in small-town Texas, a Book of Job drawn from Malick’s real life. What strikes me is the seriousness that children place in their first experiences. Every first time seems like a miracle or a sin. Every small event has cosmic importance. Every act seems like a weighty revelation of the soul.

Religiously, I would place Malick as a skeptical Christian. At times, he seems like a man from another time, a monk slaving over a text in a medieval monastery (which would deprive him of his mammoth gifts as a filmmaker). While open to all, his films like spiritually rich biblical stories from the modern age. It’s like the Bible never stopped. We simply stopped writing it.

In this, I think The Tree of Life shares a mission with 2001: Each is an effort to resolve ancient wisdom and modern thinking. It does so by introducing us with renewed eyes to a world of beauty and suffering. It promises the meaning of life. It substitutes the awe of experience.


Grade: B
Cast: Lubna Azabal, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette
Director: Denis Villaneuve
free admission granted

The thriller Incendies, a 2010 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film, is a Canadian product spoken in French about events that took place, fictionally speaking, in Lebanon during its infamous civil war.

The death of Canadian immigrant with a secret past, Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal), places the burden of discovery on her twin children. The daughter, Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin), is a graduate student in mathematics at a Canadian university. The son, Simon (Maxim Gaudette), has idled his life while taking care of their sickened and peculiar mom.

In her will, the mother leaves the children two envelopes to deliver before they can bury her. One goes to a brother they never knew they had, who is lost in Lebanon. The other is to the father they never knew. Soon thejounrey leads Jeanne to Lebanon, where she negotiates the landscape and her murky family history.

From there, Incendies gradually unravels the mother’s trying path through Lebanon’s years of Muslim-Christian strife. In depicting this time, the film spares few brutal details. The one that stands out most is a massacre of a busload of Muslims by Christian militiamen. The doomed passengers are first treated to a hail of bullets and then set on fire. Only a cross on a necklace saves the woman from being burned alive.

Incendies resembles the noble tradition of politically-aware films of the 70s and 80s, where outsiders must travel into the dangerous centers of international strife on a personal mission. Think Missing or The Killing Fields. Even think the soap opera of The Year of Living Dangerously. But Incendies feels more gripping and real. The style director Denis Villanueve carries that dusty, gritty verisimilitude achieved so often in modern international cinema. He tosses in an eerie Radiohead track from time to time to relieve that claustrophobia.

The film, based on an acclaimed 2003 play by Wajdi Mouawad, reaches for a shock ending that feels like it might work better on stage. Whether or not that’s true, it doesn’t work for the film. Until that moment, Incendies is an intriguing and realistic journey through a time and a life.

Pirates of the Caribbean 4

Pirates of the Caribbean 4 On Stranger Tides
Grade: D
Cast: Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Geoffrey Rush, Ian McShane
Director: Rob Marshall
free admission granted

I don’t know if it’s a funny thing, a sad thing, a tragic thing, or really nothing. But the thing about Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides is that it is an improvement for the series. If anyone still cared. Which no one still does.

The box office will argue with me. A disturbing number of zillions of dollars will pile into the bank accounts of Disney, Jerry Bruckheimer and new director Rob Marshall this weekend. Thousands of multiplex zombies will show up out of some weird sense of obligation and need to see the next big thing that’s really the old big thing all over again. But they will leave it in the theater like so much bubble gum on the bottom of a seat.

Of course, that’s probably wrong for me to say. For the first time in the sequels, Johnny Depp actually seems to care again. There’s a sparkle in his eye that’s been missing. Several of the action sequences require deft physical slapstick comedy, particularly a fun chase through London that starts in Buckingham Palace. Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were not only the first comedians; they were the first stuntmen, after all. And in its best moments, Pirates, Depp, and his doubles share that spirit.

It’s also probably wrong for me to say about Penelope Cruz, because she definitely cares, which is a lot more than we could say for Keira Knightley. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t believe the Spaniard has been in a blockbuster previously. So finally set loose as the first mate on the evil Blackbeard, she brings the same sort of relish that Cate Blanchett brought to the last Indiana Jones. She also creates a sexy edge that’s been wholly absent from previous voyages.

But the sailor’s yarn of Jack Sparrow’s quest for the Fountain of Youth is bedeviled by the way it uses its action beats as a crutch. The ADD chases, swordfights, CG mermaid attacks, etc. go off on a tight schedule, and become increasingly less effective by repetition. We can feel the way that modern Hollywood executives are held hostage by their fear of the American teenager’s attention span. They don’t need to be memorable so long as they are distracting.

So we finally wash ashore on this conundrum. If this were the second Pirates film, rather than the fourth, it might get a pass as the good ship of summer fun. (I say might, because it remains a ridiculously modern pageant of distraction ) But coming so late in the series, it just seems like more of the same.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Fast Five

Fast Five
Grade: B
Cast: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Jordana Brewster, Dwayne Johnson (The Rock), Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Gal Gadot.
Director: Justin Lin
Free Admission Granted

It’s the moment that we’ve all been waiting for!

No, not when Vin Diesel and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson throw each other through a series of windows, as they sweat nails in a scuffle only missing a cage. (The moment when The Rock spits out broken glass is precious.)

It’s rather the moment when, after surviving an urban warfare ambush in a armor-plated Humvee, these two macho adversaries lock Marine-thick forearms to climb off the ground in a show of respect. It’s the sort of pure man moment that touches every guy’s id. Director Justin Lin even lathers it in slow motion. You think about that first wheelie on your bike. You think about peeling out your first car. And damn it, for a brief moment you allow the words “best movie ever” to tickle the inside of your lips.

It’s at that instant that we reach the hyper Man-mageddon toward which the Fast and the Furious series has been driving since its beginning in 2002. I’m not sure if the movie is actually any good, but it does seem to reach some kind of an ideal.

As ideals go, it’s not ashamed to be a lizard-brained one. The only apparent logic appears to be the male id. This is an ideal of fast cars, machine guns, stringy babes, roadway smashups, somersaulting buses, a deadly double-cross by the richest man in Brazil, and a plot to steal millions from the vault of a Rio police station. It’s like the filmmakers read all the scholarly feminist criticism and shouted “Hell yeah!”

Diesel, Paul Walker, and Jordana Brewster return from the four previous adventures. A cast of all-stars (audible air quotes) return from the scattered remains of the previous outings. That sound you hear isn’t the screech of wheels. It’s the sound of the air quotes digging in around the word “stars.” No one in this five-film series has gone on to more success, and this is a profitable refuge for a number of them..

If the good guys are the protons in the nucleus of the testosterone atom, then it was inevitable that they would attract Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, as a take-no-prisoners federal agent. All buff, goateed, and camp, he’s perfect for the role. His vein-bulging intensity has a way of being scary and comic at the same time. One of the film’s small drawbacks is it spends too much time on the supporting team and not enough on The Rock.

There are three deliciously unreal action set pieces. The first is a fantastic piece of work, a superb car heist from a moving train at 100 miles an hour in the desert that keeps upping the ante. The second, a rooftop to rooftop chase through the favelas, stands out by having three different sides – good guys, bad guys, and cops. In the last, a moving bank vault takes out half the storefronts in Rio as the anti-heroes try to outrun the cops. This is the weakest of the three – the editing is poor, and it’s too easy to see the moviemaking rather than the movie magic.

The Fast and The Furious first appeared in 2002, it came at the end of two decades of steroidal male action heroes. By then the exhaust was coming from something more than the tailpipe. But everything old becomes new again. In an era in which shrimpy nerds like Jesse Eisenberg or Emile Hirsch vie for leading man stardom, the muscular escapism of Fast Five feels like a delirious relief.


Grade: D
Cast: Rose Byrne, Patrick Wilson, Ty Simpkins, Darth Maul
Director: James Wan

There are two good things about the indie horror flick Insidious, directed by the original Saw helmer James Wan. One is the awesome retro-Bernard Hermann-style score, all nutso violins in the key of Psycho. The second is that it’s always good to see Darth Maul getting work again. The years after Return of the Jedi were so hard on Chewbacca.

Other than that, there’s not so much to say about a pretty conventional schlock horror story that might as well be made by a studio. Jennifer Connelly would play Rose Byrne as the harried mother moving into a strange new suburban house. David Straitharn or Peter Sarsgaard or heck, Patrick Wilson would play Patrick Wilson as the cursed father. A child actor from the Disney pod factory would play the boy going into a mysterious coma. The creepy noises and creepy voices would play themselves.

The only difference is that Insidious uses pretty back-to-basic spook stuff built around a family drama to get the job done. The ghosts and demons don’t do much CG contorting. They just open and close doors, wear eerie lace gowns, and hover ominously in dark rooms. Let’s just call them method spooks. I’m glad there are still spooks out there who love and respect the work enough to work on an indie budget.

I remember how much Poltergeist scared the living tar out of me when I was 10 years old. It took me a while to look at trees or television the same way. I’ve been looking for (or more likely hiding from) that same feeling ever since. Insidious builds nicely, until it tries to make itself make sense. When the psychic and her comic cohorts start slinging around paranormal explanations, it loses power by the second. It never lost me entirely, but I cared less and less.

Sucker Punch

Sucker Punch
Grade: NR
Cast: Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Carla Gugino. Vanessa Hudgens, Scott Glenn
Director: Zack Snyder

What, exactly, have video games done to us?

That might not be the question that Zack Snyder meant to ask with Sucker Punch, the lustful, bizarre adolescent fantasia, billed by the 300 director as “Alice in Wonderland with machine guns.” But for me, that question certainly rises to the top.

I’ll submit this early answer so that it doesn’t get buried – video games have allowed us to become the heroes of our own myths. Technology has reached the point where we no longer must long for the legendary glories of others. In doing so, they have encouraged our culture of narcissism.

Sucker Punch is shaped as a quest story, a search for five items that Baby Doll (Emily Browning) must find to set her free. Imprisoned in a mental asylum, she uses fantasies to escape her dour surroundings, first into a swanky bordello and then a video game fantasy. In doing so, she empowers herself to take over the center of the story.

This may be one of the more insane comparisons I can make. But it’s an insane movie, so here goes an insane comparison. Sucker Punch reminds me of Max Fischer and Rushmore. Hold it for a moment. They share a curtain-opening motif, like a play, that winks at their artificiality. They both center on the narcissism of teenage sociopathy (albeit Max has a friendly, familiar variety).

Each character deals with their isolation by creating imaginative spaces where they are the heroes of their own story and others are bit players. Max and Baby Doll reach the same epiphany – that there are other people in the world living their own lives, and that they are not always the star of the story.

None of that is to say that Sucker Punch approaches Rushmore in quality. It really is high-sheen absolute crap in many ways. And that linear description of a deeply buried theme doesn’t give the real sense of this weird, reckless, and sometimes fascinating vanity project.

The film has enough levels of dreams to make Inception’s Dom Cobb a little loopy on the giggle juice. In the bordello, Baby Doll and her fellow inmates dress like sluts and dance like slaves. When Baby Doll dances, she slips into the sooty video game world, where the women fight giant samurai, World War I zombie Germans, and James Cameron’s lost dragon, while searching for five objects that will set them free.

The problem is that this 16-year-old girl dreams like a 16-year-old boy. A boy whose notions of history and reality have been formed from video games and too many Bjork videos from the 1990s. The fantasies focus on girl power, machine guns, and Abbie Cornish’s chest. Somehow this young woman has managed to dream in the male gaze.

Despite its rather serious flaws, Snyder and his team really are gifted filmmakers. Aside from the head-swimming detail of his visuals, he’s such a swift technician and editor. Take the scene where the girls try to steal a knife from a cook as Baby Doll performs a cutting table dance. glides through a quick montage of six or seven shots so well-chosen that we feel we know every inch of the room.

His style is also slightly different than other CG overlords. Some directors prefer their CG to create verisimilitude. Others, particularly in Sin City knockoffs, go for high contrast, in which the characters seem alien to the surroundings. Instead, Snyder creates a stylized batter that’s smooth until you run into chocolate chips of real objects. These dreams are built with the metal of reality.

Interesting visual style isn’t enough to save it. Not with the flammable dialogue sending up the wooden performances (of the women, only Abbie Cornish has done enough good work to be disappointing). Not with the lack of human moments (something that Watchmen served to balance the violence). Not when the most human moment is a dragon checking on its dead baby (if it’s a greensreen, then it’s got to have a dragon). Snyder does more with the greenscreen than many other directors. But sometimes it feels like he’s really doing less.

Win Win

Win Win
Grade: B
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Alex Shaffer, Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, Burt Young
Director: Tom McCarthy

Tom McCarthy’s Win Win is the sort of well-meaning, well-considered indie movie with crisp dialogue and perfectly modulated performances that no one will ever watch twice. Not even the projectionists, who are in the break room trading ideas on how to take shelter. That said, the one single viewing – the only one that you will ever want or need – should be a modest delight.

The title itself is the catch phrase of situational ethics. More often than not, the phrase serves as a mental and moral lubricant. When fingertipping through an ethical thornbush, the benefits to each side outweigh the disadvantages of conventional morality. It might be the right thing to do, given the situation, but it’s not something you’d brag to your mother about doing.

Left in the everyday world of small moral crises, win-win becomes a lifestyle for getting by. How someone fixes a boiler or cuts down a tree has deeper moral implications. The formula is flavored by the performance of Paul Giamatti, whose bald head and earnest style attract our affection for a friendly neighbor, even as he does slightly crooked things.

These moral issues circumnavigate a small town life of courtrooms and wrestling. As a New Jersey lawyer and high school wrestling coach struggling to make ends meet, Giamatti draws a rich client (Burt Young) in the early stages of dementia. Needing the money, he volunteers to serve as the stranger’s guardian, shuffling grandpa to a nursing home against his wishes. Everything is going perfectly diabolically when the man’s grandson (Alex Shaffer) – a champion high school wrestler – shows up on the doorstep, looking for a place to live. You know how this goes. It’s the cinematic law of conservation of generosity. Every shady lawyer has a saint of a wife. (Amy Ryan, doyenne of the indie movie that no one will ever watch twice).

McCarthy’s last film – the unduly celebrated The Visitor – indulges in that precious downer vibe that sours too many indies. Win Win reverses this formula and stays remarkably upbeat (too upbeat at times – with a soft landing for an ending). It finds honest rewards from messy situations, without shortchanging the personal awakenings or moral seriousness.

If it sounds like a short story, that description isn’t far off. Films of such minute focus – like those of fellow traveler Nicole Holofcener – can feel like they are failing to use all that cinema offers. When done right, as here, such small details aren’t small. They are the finishing touches on an overwhelming grasp of life.

The Adjustment Bureau

The Adjustment Bureau
Grade: D
Cast: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, Terrence Stamp
Director: George Nolfi

Few actresses know the torments of fate quite as much as Emily Blunt.

Not many actresses are more affected by the proverbial “shortage of great roles for young women” than this English not-quite-a-star. Each time someone writes a news story on this perpetual topic, it should include her photo. Five years since people took notice in The Devil Wears Prada, one of the best young actresses around is still looking to stamp herself on a signature role.

She adds grace and spice to The Adjustment Bureau, an otherwise silly sci-fi romance of fate, flukes, and magic fedoras. It only takes a single meet-and-makeout in a ritzy hotel restroom for her free-spirit dancer to entrance Matt Damon’s bad boy politician. While you watch her carry her few scenes, you wonder about her destiny. Is it her fate to spend an entire career in films that are not as good as she is?

If it’s a matter of fate, then it fits with The Adjustment Bureau, loosely based on a Philip K. Dick science-fiction story that contemplates free will. The movie imagines the hierarchy of angels as a bureaucracy of men with hats headquartered in a New York skyscraper. They travel the earth observing important people, keeping them in line with God’s plan. When life distracts their subjects from the right path, the adjusters return it.

Damon’s politician is just such a man. Blunt’s dancer is just such a distraction. The adjusters are determined to keep them apart and Damon on the path to his rendezvous with destiny.
Yes, Damon and Blunt project chemistry. But the performers have more of it than their characters, who are ciphers headed for predictable ends. The look of the film, directed by George

Nolfi, conjures the technical filmmaking term “looks like crap.” Besides, romances are hard enough. There are enough normal obstacles. Why do we need men with hats?

Hall Pass

Hall Pass
Grade: D
Cast: Owen Wilson, Jason Sudeikis, Jenna Fischer, Christina Applegate
Director: Peter and Bobby Farrelly

During their heyday in the nineties culminating in There’s Something About Mary, the Farrelly brothers had the power to shock you into submission.

It wasn’t just that the films made you laugh. They made you laugh involuntarily. They made you laugh against your will. Which is the best sort of laughter.

They were often made of disgusting raunch, yes. But the brothers also had a clever eye for satire, one that seems to have disappeared while watching Hall Pass.

Too bad, really. The skills might have been a promising combination for the premise of Hall Pass. Two horndog husbands get permission from their wives to take a week’s holiday from marriage. That’s an idea in search of surprising satire.

The brothers seem to have lost all their sense of daring. They left a predictable film in its place. Has there been a movie lately that takes so much time to go to the safe place that it’s obviously going? There is no danger that anyone is going to do anything that they regret. The brothers have lost all their daring.

Hall Pass is a fantasy of emasculation. It traffics in the currently vogue sitcom notion of grown-up men as dorky weaklings. It’s a cheap gag, to make men seem hopeless, and there’s something enormously unappealing about it. This doesn’t feel more real than watching Dork and Dorkier frog march toward the inevitable moment when they beg for their wives’ pardon. It makes marriage look like a prison. Worse, it makes marriage feel like a prison. The only real prison, though, is this movie.

And that’s what really stood out amid all the flat characters and phony predicaments and stale hijinks that barely deserve the words hijinks. Why would anyone want to spend two hours watching these de-balled men. Why are men such easy targets? Why stretch the caricature until it’s no longer amusing? Men may be hopeless. But they’re not this hopeless.

Cedar Rapids

Cedar Rapids
Grade: C
Cast: Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, Isaiah Whitlock Jr., Sigourney Weaver
Director: Miguel Arteta

Cedar Rapids, by Kevin Bowen (with help from Carl Sandburg)

Corn feeder of the world!

A city smelling of insurance, the cleaner of messes, where accidents are always accidents, even naked in bathrooms at the end of slackless ropes.

Temptress of lusts, shaker of souls, the moral poisoner of overgrown children,

City of the weak shoulders.

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I see your painted women, drizzling outside convention-center hotels, luring the insurance salesmen.

And they tell me you are crooked, and yes, I have watched annual awards for moral business practices pass neatly for wrinkled travelers checks,

And they tell me you are wanton, dear Iowa, and yes, I have watched your drunken midnight swims in hazy pools, with no lifeguards or rings or memories of family.

And they tell me you are funny, and I say yes, but not quite enough Fargo and a little too much The 40-Year-Old Virgin.

Randy (Sigourney Weaver),

Dirty (John C. Reilly),

Anonymous (Isaiah Whitlock Jr.),

Building (Ed Helms), Breaking, Rebuilding (Anne Heche)

A movie that is proud to be funny, but not quite enough Fargo and a little too much The 40-Year-Old Virgin.

The Last Lions

A review of the Oscar-nominated nature documentary The Last Lions.
The Last Lions
Grade: C
Cast: Four-legged
Directors: Derreck and Beverley Joubert


A review of the Oscar-nominated nature documentary The Last Lions from a screening interrupted halfway through by a fire alarm?


True, it’ might not be best to review a movie that you’ve only seen halfway. But that’s one of the beauties of nature. The plot is pretty straightforward, and there are not a whole lot of unforeseen plot twists. If you get confused, you have the soothing FM voice of Jeremy Irons to cover the lost ground.

The documentary, by South Africans Derreck and Beverley Joubert, lays down the “man encroaching upon natural habitat” card a little thick. Wild, evil lions, driven from their normal habitat, kill papa lion and drive our relatively friendly lioness out of her domain. She hustles out her cute little cubs across the savannah to an island in an African river, where she tries to make an animal living. There’s a lot of stress that comes with trying to put enough wild buffalo on the table.

We think of certain types of audiences for geek movies, superhero movies, or romcoms. But I’ve noticed that’s there’s a certain high-minded audience that always makes preview screenings for Africa films. I have to say that I’m a little fascinated. They wear furs. They drink wine in the theater. And not going to a movie since Titanic has dulled any previous compunction about speaking loudly in the theater. It’s not that I wanted the loudmouths next to me to be overpowered by smoke inhalation. But I probably wouldn’t feel much survivor’s guilt, either.

The Last Lions does offer a lot to soak in. There are some spectacular African vistas and raw footage of chases, clashes, and cute little lion cubs doing cute little things. Still, nature shows dominate cable television and it’s not clear what makes it worth paying an additional $10 to see what you can see for ….

What’s that ringing? Again ….

The Rite

The Rite
Grade: C
Cast: Colin O’Donoghue. Anthony Hopkins, Alice Braga, Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones, Rutger Hauer
Director: Mikael Halstrom

If you walk into The Rite without ever having seen another exorcism movie, then you might have a hell of a time.

The odds are that isn’t the case. These films have an unholy way to multiply. As such, we know most of their moves. The habits of these films are now old hat on Linda Blair’s spinning head.
Have you ever wondered how The Exorcist looked in 1973? For an audience raised on musicals, what would it have felt like to watch such shocking horror? When I watch films from that era, I’m always curious how those films played to the audiences of the era, and how that’s different from the way they are perceived now. I don’t think you could re-create that feeling.

Why do audiences flock to exorcism movies? Besides the naturally scary material, exorcism stories stand at the collision of the metaphysical and material reality. If there is a devil, you can at least take comfort in the fact that there is a God, and that our sense of a battle of good and evil has that metaphysical reflection.

That sort of material proof is what Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue) needs. Having entered the seminary, he is losing his faith. In a last ditch effort, he agrees to attend a program at the Vatican, where the Catholic Church is assembling a sort of A-Team of exorcists. There, Kovacs finds his skepticism challenged by events. Little things like a pregnant woman contorting spitting up nails have a way of doing that. Anthony Hopkins, playing a veteran Welsh exorcist, teaches him the craft. I have no doubts about the existence of Anthony Hopkins. I ham, therefore I am.

The Rite is supposedly “based on real events.” It asserts that Kovacs is one of 14 exorcists working in the United States today. The profession of reality is one of those habits of exorcism films. Come to think of it, it is a staple of horror stories generally, from the time you shared them over a campfire. No one wants to walk into a horror film and hear, “This is totally fake.”

There’s not a lot to say about The Rite. It’s an adequate Friday night freakout. But if you have seen one exorcism, you have seen them all.