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.

No Strings Attached

No Strings Attached
Grade: F
Cast: Natalie Portman, Ashton Kutcher, Greta Gerwig,
Director: Ivan Reitman

When does No Strings Attached lose all credibility?

When its second scene allegedly takes place at a frat house at the University of Michigan and the frat house is loaded with pretty California girls. I went to Michigan. There’s a longstanding saying at Michigan. Nine out of ten girls in the Big Ten are attractive. And the tenth goes to Michigan. (How do I account for Lucy Liu? I suspect she’s lying.)

The question about Natalie Portman’s career has always been how an actress can seem like such a natural as a child and then have such a hard time as an adult. The short quip is that Harvard ruined her. The longer answer and my current guess, as evidenced by her recent round of movies, appears to be that she is a good but limited actress who specializes in emotionally frigid characters and controlled personalities. That makes her perfect for a role like Black Swan.

In theory, it makes her perfect for the role of this film’s emotionally frigid and controlled doctor, after an emotionally-condom-covered sexual relationship with Ashton Kutcher. But it also makes the character all wrong for a romantic comedy. An actress might be able to pull it off if she could exude a reserve of likable warmth that makes her a rooting interest. That actress isn’t Portman. It doesn’t help that she’s paired here with indie it girl Greta Gerwig (of Greenberg), whose presence is immaculately natural.

Needless to say, “controlling” is not the first word in comedy, even if No Strings Attached offered any actual opportunity for it. Whenever there is a chance Portman shows no natural spontaneous instinct for it. Her actions always have the taste of Elizabeth Meriwether’s script. Whatever facility for comedy she showed in Garden State is not in evidence.

As for the rest of Ivan Reitman’s film: it’s not warm. It’s not sad. It’s not cute. It’s not funny. It’s not true. It’s not even enjoyably false.

It’s just not.

The Green Hornet

The Green Hornet
Grade: D
Cast: Seth Rogen, Jay Chou, Cameron Diaz, Christoph Waltz, Edward James Olmos, Tom Wilkinson
Director: Michel Gondry
Free Admission Granted

When small children lay their head on the pillow each night, do they dream of running into a phone booth to change into Seth Rogen?

A more popular figure in raunchy comedies than little boy’s daydreams, Rogen is one of the least likely Hollywood stars to play a superhero. Nevertheless, that’s what we get in the Green Hornet, occupied by Rogen as his typical directionless man-child. Accompanied by his mechanic/martial arts expert Kato, his archenemy isn’t so much the bad guy as maturity. At least we’re talking about the only superhero that drives a Chrysler.

In fairness, the Green Hornet might be a good fit. He has always been an imitation superhero living in the shadow of more popular zillionaire superheroes like Batman and Iron Man. The film’s plot contains the same father issues with the same idea of crimefighting as philanthropy. Yet you sense the shoddiness of the imtation, and the crimefighting seems more like a prank that got out of hand.

The mostly forgotten 60s camp television show is remembered for one thing – it launched the career of martial arts superstar Bruce Lee, plays Kato as the martial arts sidekick. Thus the film has plenty of slow-motion martial arts moves. Played here Jay Chou , the character’s subservience to his white master doesn’t fit well in the modern day.

The Green Hornet is directed by frequent Charlie Kaufman director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and it is best when it is weird. The problem is that Gondry has delivered a mostly by-the-book action-comedy that superhero fans would expect. The other notable thing is the first post-Basterds appearance of Christoph Waltz. A veteran bad guy of German movies, it rather kills the mystique of an Oscar to think it only buys you better opportunities to play better-paid bad guys in American movies.

The Green Hornet is the latest comic book hero to run into the perils of modern Hollywood casting. Having come to a point of popularity with comic book heros, Hollywood finds itself with a generation of Peter Parkers rather than Supermen. You can play this shortage for comedy for a while. However, eventually it turns a superhero just a man in a mask.