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.