Monday, May 31, 2010

The Third Man (1949)

I've praised old movies for having larger-than-life casts, and perhaps the largest of them all was Orson Welles - a genius underappreciated in his day and eventually immortalized as "The Brain" on Animaniacs.

I'm being glib. Welles was big - still is, as a matter of fact. Perhaps, then, Harry Lime is one of his best-known roles (after, naturally, Charles Foster Kane) because the character is like the man - seldom seen, always in the shadows, always in control, and of course larger than life. But I had a less than rapturous experience with The Third Man, which is not to say that the film was fantastically disappointing but rather that the experience of watching the film was.

Director Carol Reed handles a Graham Greene screenplay about American western writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) in bombed-out Vienna. Martins has come to find his friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles), who's offered him a job, but when Martins arrives he learns that Lime has been killed in a car accident. After meeting Lime's lover Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli) as well as a few of Lime's deeply suspicious friends, Martins learns that there was an unidentified "third man" present when Lime was killed. Martins follows the trail of evidence to a startling discovery and a knockout chase through the sewers of Vienna.

It's almost impossible to talk about the movie without spoiling the big reveal that initiates the final act of the film, though it's a spoiler that's as common knowledge as the identity of the killer in Psycho - Harry Lime's not dead. The two leads - Cotten and Welles (an inversion of the billing on Citizen Kane) - are dynamite here, with Cotten proving that he's fine as a leading man. Welles does a good job of stepping out of the limelight (no pun intended) and relegating himself to a small but highly memorable supporting role. Of the two, it's easier to favor Welles, who lives up to the film's hyping of his impending appearance; the crucial scene in a ferris wheel is riveting, in which Welles gets to deliver the most famous line of the film - the cuckoo clock speech.

I can also appreciate what Reed did in the making of the film - shoot on location in what was left of Vienna and shoot a compelling chase scene through the sewers. But for every point I can give Reed for his accomplishments, I have to dock him one for the film's shortcomings. The film is riddled with confusing close-ups angled sharply in a disorienting effect; if this had a practical purpose, it'd be one thing, but it seems Reed is tilting the camera just for giggles. More problematic is the film's pacing; while it's enjoyable to see how nearly everyone in the supporting cast looks guiltier than sin, the film drags for a bit while Martins investigates his friend's death. Between the discovery of the existence of a "third man" and the revelation of who that third man is, almost nothing happens; there's some wriggling about Anna's forged passport, but nothing of substance. The film, the audience, and Martins all meander through Vienna trying to figure out where the narrative thread has gone.

But I think my principal problem with the film is the fact that Welles is reduced to a near cameo. The cover of the DVD jacket, and the predominant image in cultural memory, is that of Welles half-turned in a shadowy doorway, poised to enter the film. But the real tragedy is that Welles is criminally underused here, appearing in only two scenes of significance (three if you count his wordless introductory shot). I suppose it'd be like watching an episode of 24 because you heard there was a president on the show; naturally, this character appears, but the star of the visual drama is someone else entirely. For that reason, I feel a little guilty saying I wasn't a big fan of The Third Man, because I watched it with a very heavy anticipation of what the film would be. Consequently, my disappointment is more with my expectations than with the film itself. I'm certain this merits a second viewing, but just give me a little time first.

More my problem than the film's, The Third Man was finely made but just not "to my liking" - at least, not in the moment that I watched it.
The MPAA only "Approved" The Third Man, but today it'd probably land a PG "for thematic elements and smoking."

I'd really like to see this movie remade, certainly without the zither score; put Hans Zimmer or somebody on it to really bring out the suspense of the shadowed Viennese streets. As for cast: Robert Downey, Jr. as Holly Martins, Casino Royale's Eva Green as Anna, and George Clooney as Harry Lime - with the caveat that we not advertise Clooney's presence in the film, to heighten the intrigue in the film as Martins pursues him through Vienna (a la Kevin Spacey's uncredited appearance in Se7en). Christopher Nolan could do a fine job directing.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

World's Greatest Dad (2009)

Ben Mankiewicz liked it, which should be your first clue that World's Greatest Dad isn't exactly cinematic gold. In fact, it's inordinately creepy from many angles.

Bobcat Goldthwait (yes, him) wrote and directed this little number about aspiring writer Lance Clayton (Robin Williams), who's both a high school teacher and a father. His son Kyle (Daryl "Spy Kids" Sabara) is a moody little snot with a chip on his shoulder and a predilection for auto-erotic aspyhxiation. When Kyle accidentally kills himself, Lance sanitizes the scene and stages it as a suicide, forging a suicide note. The note gets made public, though, and Lance creates more writing under Kyle's name. Ironically, his life -and his relationship with art teacher Claire (Alexie Gilmore) turns around.

I like Robin Williams, I really do; his stand-up is always outrageous and sends me into great big rolling fits of laughter. And for some reason that just never translates into his movie career. I thought Mrs. Doubtfire was loathsome, I couldn't bring myself to finish that robot movie he was in (indeed, I can't even remember the name of it), and the only movies of his I can rewatch are Aladdin and Insomnia (though that's more due to the Al Pacino/Christopher Nolan factors). World's Greatest Dad represents another entry in the "Robin Williams Canon of Unlikeable Protagonists." Lance Clayton is completely irredeemable (though the film tries desperately to do it, with baptismal imagery and a new family formed at the end), and Williams's performance is fairly flat. Where Matt Damon was putzy and at least amicable in The Informant!, World's Greatest Dad has none of the personality or moral compass that other "good people gone bad" movies have; consequently, Williams's performance comes off as very one-note.

Sabara, however, deserves a little more credit. On a visceral reaction, Kyle is a very unappealing and even repulsive character. He's foul-mouthed, governed by his hormones, and entirely unpleasant to be around. My instant reaction to the character was that I disliked him. He irritated me. That's when I realized how good of a performer Sabara is. To step inside a character that repugnant and to make him real in a way that the audience feels exactly the way about him that even his father feels - that's good acting. It's both a pity and a relief that he bows out of the picture so early.

The DVD cover lauds the film as hysterical and exuberantly funny, and I genuinely wanted that to be the case. I haven't seen a decent funny movie in a long time, and I'm beginning to wonder if real comedies still exist. (I'm still holding out hope, considering the city on the hill known as The Hangover.) World's Greatest Dad just isn't funny. It's tragic, it's pathetic, it's darkly ironic, and it's uncomfortably exploitative - but funny? Nope. There are more yuks in the internal monologue of an insomniac than in this movie. A few grins elicited here, a chuckle or two drawn out there - this is the sum total of the entertainment value of World's Greatest Dad. The film is more interested in the character of Lance Clayton, but it's an ambiguous characterization. On one count, his actions are entirely offensive, but "wrong" is a verdict the film is unwilling to render. Perhaps that's a matter of the writer being too attached to a character to label him immoral, or perhaps the movie wants the viewer to decide. Either way, World's Greatest Dad amounts to a tacit approval of behavior not far from despicable. Its worst crime, though, is pretending to be a comedy.

World's Greatest Dad isn't all that great. It's off-putting and uncomfortable in a way that might have been the creator's intention, but as it stands it's a primarily disturbing film punctuated with moments of pitch-black comedy.

World's Greatest Dad is rated R "for language, crude and sexual content, some drug use and disturbing images." This film has some of the crassest sexual dialogue I've seen in a movie, and I say that having seen Superbad several times. If there's a sex act out there, this movie talks about it in pretty graphic detail. Marijuana is abused a few times, too. And if you ever wanted to see Robin Williams completely naked, this is the movie for you.

(By the way, the aforementioned robot movie was Bicentennial Man. It would have bugged me if I didn't look it up.)

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

I'm a sucker for old movies; I think they were just made better back in the day. I'm a sucker for Clark Gable; I think he's a leading man in a way that today's top stars could never be. And I'm a sucker for a compelling villain; done rightly, an antagonist can steal a movie, as Charles Laughton does here.

I always feel a little silly writing positive reviews for movies long considered classics but which I'm only just now getting around to reviewing, and I always feel a lot silly writing up a recap. But a formula is a formula, and far be it from me to break tradition. Mutiny on the Bounty stars Charles Laughton as the sadistic Captain Bligh and Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian, the high-ranking crewman who opposes him. The Bounty is on a trading mission to Tahiti, whose sensual pleasures contrast starkly with the disciplinarian life aboard ship. It's not spoiling anything to say that mutiny ensues.

What always strikes me about old movies is how peppered with personality they are. The actors seem larger than life, and consequently so do their characters. Gable and Laughton loom like monuments over the picture, but in such a way that their presence is not distracting. It's the difference between George Clooney in Burn After Reading and George Clooney in Ocean's 11; in the latter, there's no question that George Clooney is playing himself and resting on his star power, but in the former it becomes apparent just why George Clooney is George Clooney, since he stands out while turning in a solid performance. Though Gable is a far cry from being British - indeed, I should probably be lauding him for not even trying - his Fletcher Christian is compelling nonetheless and makes for an upstanding pillar of morality. Laughton, then, is his perfect opposite number, the Joker to Gable's Batman, the Kantian force of cruelty and order dynamically opposed to the liberty-centric philosophy espoused by both Christian and J.S. Mill. Laughton is slightly hammy in that way that almost all villains of the 1930s were, but it's a plausible kind of hammy in a way that sets a precedent for both the character and the nature of antagonism in general.

At times the contrast between the two is a little overdrawn, again in a way that was common to the 1930s. As such, I can't hold a lack of subtlety against the film, particularly when the film is so good at the moments when it's not being entirely transparent. The acting dynamic between Gable and Laughton is slightly more subtle in a way that the visual language of the film is not; in a way, then, the relationship between the two of them is more palatable (particularly for modern viewers, who love a good bit of nuance) than the visual contrast between the worlds of the Bounty and Tahiti. Though I've not read the book on which the film is based, I imagine this is a matter for which credit belongs to the writers and the actors.

But director Frank Lloyd deserves a fair bit of credit for the film's success. One feature in particular that drew my attention was the film's astounding navigation (no pun intended) of chronology. A two-year voyage occurs overe the span of about an hour, but at no point is the narration confusing or in any way unclear. Deft use of fade-outs and montages make clear the prevailing attitudes aboard the ship in an easy-to-follow manner. The scenes aboard the boat, most filmed from just off-deck, are artful and elegant, making me wonder if Gore Verbinski had a peek at Mutiny on the Bounty before crafting his Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy.

In short, Mutiny on the Bounty just isn't a movie to rebel against.
Mutiny on the Bounty wasn't rated back in its day, but today it'd probably score a PG "for thematic elements and depictions of flogging."

Zodiac (2007)

I've had problems lately with movies which either weren't what I thought they'd be or which somehow transmuted themselves into something different around the second act. Zodiac marks another in that popular "gotcha" genre, in that it proposes to be a true crime mystery story but ends up telling more about the kinds of people who solve mysteries. And since it's David Fincher (Fight Club, Se7en, and The Game, as well as Benjamin Button) at the helm, it's a success.

Zodiac is the true story of the serial killings that terrorized California during the late 60s and early 70s, but it's more concerned with three of the main "investigators" on the case - cartoonist and amateur sleuth Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), world-weary detective David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), and driven yet tortured journalist Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.). As the Zodiac steps up his offensive and mounts a disturbing letter-writing campaign, the investigators step up their defensive, sacrificing personal and professional committments in pursuit of the killer.

I hadn't realized before watching Zodiac just how many David Fincher movies I've seen - six out of seven, and all of them quite good (though I've made no bones about Fight Club's notorious twist being extremely predictable due to ample evidence in the film's early minutes) - but I recognized an unconscious lure each of his movies possesses. They're all very dark cerebral thrillers with driven protagonists facing unseen evils. (Well, except for Benjamin Button.) In this regard, Zodiac is more of the same, but it's a good more. Where Se7en drives its protagonists to ultimate madness and psychological collapse, Zodiac is much more plausible and therefore inherently more palatable and artistically deft; our characters here don't all lose everything, though they come very close.

The characters are all very fully realized in Zodiac, a credit to the actors filling the shoes. Though I've admitted that Gyllenhaal is not a spectacularly gifted actor, Fincher seems to do for him what Sidney Lumet did for Vin Diesel in Find Me Guilty - that is, elicit a good performance from someone who shouldn't have had it in them. As Graysmith, Gyllenhaal is a fine Everyman, with whom the audience can thoroughly relate, though it takes some getting used to as the character perennially "looms" (RDJ's word) on the periphery of the action for the first third of the movie. Ruffalo is solid as the only real law enforcement represented beginning to end; his story arc falls just short of tragic, which separates him from the third name on our list - RDJ. RDJ seems to be making a career of playing well-meaning but tragically flawed characters with substance abuse problems, and I'd have a problem with it if he weren't fantastically consistent (and, as his turn in Tropic Thunder indicates, versatile beyond this character type). Paul Avery is the most compelling, the most personable, and the most fascinating character in the film, since the quest for Zodiac takes its most drastic and most personal toll on him. It's a shame that his critical character change comes behind a "X Years Later" title card, since RDJ could have worked wonders with that.

Zodiac is filled with other great character actors in supporting roles, who must be enumerated briefly. Brian Cox is celebrity attorney Melvin Belli, who's called in when Zodiac phones into a morning talk show to speak with him; this character is underused in the film, especially in light of what a fantastic actor Cox is, but I suppose that's a casualty of adhering to the historical facts of the case. Anthony Edwards of ER fame appears as Toschi's partner Bill Armstrong, a man whom I was apparently alone in suspecting to be the killer back when I thought the movie was about that sort of thing. Chloe Sevigny is Graysmith's put-out wife, and Sevigny does her usual good job of flitting in and out of the film when needed; Philip Baker Hall ("Joe Bookman" on Seinfeld) plays a handwriting expert whose credentials become suspect, and if anyone's perfected the surly professional type, it's Hall. John Carroll Lynch almost steals the show (but doesn't - remember, that's RDJ's job) as prime suspect Arthur Leigh Allen, straddling a line that makes even the most damning evidence seem uncertain, such that perhaps not every audience member will be as convinced of his guilt as some characters in this highly ambiguous movie.

The ambiguity may sound off-putting, but it is in fact one of Zodiac's best traits. The Zodiac killer inspired Scorpio in Dirty Harry (a fact alluded to in the film), but the real-life case didn't have such a clear ID on its perp. Consequently, the film never actually reveals who the killer was; there's strong circumstantial evidence, but with none of it beyond a reasonable doubt and with overtures to an arrest preceded by the could-be killer's fatal heart attack, it's up to the viewer to decide. But Fincher directs a few great scenes which overcome and indeed exploit the ambiguity of the film. The most memorable scene in the film comes when Graysmith realizes he may have stumbled upon the Zodiac killer's identity; the suspect claims a positive handwriting sample as his own, advances a strong theory for what the killer's signature logo means, and reveals that he owns a basement (a rare feature in California homes) - something the killer admitted to, as well. The slow burn of this epiphany, the gloomy lighting and ambient noises, and a taut performance by Gyllenhaal all make this a powerfully engaging moment in the film, a key example of why Fincher's such a well-regarded (and rightfully so) director.

Zodiac landed on a lot of "Best of 2007" lists, and while I'm not quite sure if it's THAT good, I'm ready to say it was a fabulous ride.
Finally, Zodiac is rated R "for some strong killings, language, drug material and brief sexual images." As a movie about a serial killer, the murder scenes are quite graphic. F-bombs litter the dialogue, and alcohol and some stronger drugs make negligible appearances, as do unrevealing covers to pornographic magazines.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Professional (1994)

In a way, The Professional was exactly the film I was looking for.

The Professional (also known as Leon) was near the top of my "I can't believe I haven't seen these movies yet" list, especially in light of the fact that its writer/director, Luc Besson, wrote Taken, one of my all-time favorite action movies. Followers of this site have already noticed that it's been a while since I rated a film as "to my liking," much less "a great film." The losing streak, dear readers, is broken, because The Professional is both.

Leon (a very subdued Jean Reno) is a hitman, a self-professed "cleaner" who takes in orphan Mathilda (a very young Natalie Portman) after her family is gunned down by drug-addled DEA Agent Nathan Stansfield (a very outrageous Gary Oldman). As Stansfield seeks to tie up the last remaining loose end - namely, Mathilda - in his spiraling descent into drug-fueled madness, Leon struggles with his own paternalistic misgivings about Mathilda's request to be trained to be a cleaner.

The performances are stellar. I've knocked Jean Reno before for being hammy or for simply not trying, but it seems that's a new trend. He's fabulously restrained as Leon. It's a role that could have gone two ways - cold and emotionless or entirely creepy. Somehow, Reno finds a way to create a sympathetic character who's more human than not, a man who never poses a threat to Mathilda, even though the audience may be worried that his intentions with her may be less than pure. Roman Polanski he's not; no one in their right mind could accuse Leon of exploiting Mathilda, whom he comes to regard as a daughter. The key other half of that dynamic is Portman, who proves how talented she really is. She's endearingly gruff, deceptively innocent, and completely in control of her emotional spectrum. Though she's only 12, Mathilda is perhaps the most mature character in the film, and it's because of Portman's gifted acting that the character even succeeds; she's both completely human and a prototype for Kick-Ass's Hit-Girl, a stunning combination. And while we're talking stunning, let's acknowledge Oldman, who's wildly over the top as Stansfield. This is a versatile actor we're talking about; he's played Sid Vicious, Dracula, Stansfield, Lee Harvey Oswald, Commissioner Gordon, and Sirius Black in the same career - and done all in such a way that he's practically defined those characters. Stansfield ranks as one of the best movie villains I've ever seen, downright spooky and at times frightening (especially when he pops his special but unnamed pills) but never cartoonish to the point of improbability.

High praise to Besson for melding a knockout script and dynamite visuals - to him belongs all the credit, since he wrote and directed it all on his own. While he owes a lot to his three fine actors, Besson deserves a hearty pat on the back for a freshly original story (even sixteen years later, it still holds up) which avoids predictability and never falters, even though almost no action occurs between Mathilda's adoption and the final confrontation with Stansfield. For this, we have the directing to thank; Besson is a prince when it comes to inventive camera angles, a master of pacing, and a pro at eliciting good performances out of already solid actors.

One thing I particularly loved about The Professional - aside from the downright stunning gunfight scenes and Jack Bauer-esque escapes - is the way that Besson creates compellingly human characters in Leon and Mathilda while establishing a key divide between them and Stansfield. Leon and Mathilda have backstories which inform their personalities, which in turn inform each other as to why the other one behaves the way he/she does. All of this is done in an entirely clear manner so that the audience never wonders, "Why is Mathilda doing that? Why didn't Leon say this?" Conversely, we have no idea why Stansfield behaves the way he does; he is, like Ledger's Joker, an absolute force of chaos blowing in and out of the movie. He's a DEA agent, sure, but why is he involved in drugs? Is it business or personal? On a scale of one to ten, how crazy is he? The characters that need to be human are, and are entirely, but the villain is more akin to a tornado than a mastermind. The clash of reckless madman and methodical hitman is golden, but it never feels overwrought. Indeed, the real heart of the piece is what is unsaid between Leon and Mathilda.

Simply put, The Professional is one of the best movies of the 1990s. Indeed, if I ever get around to making a "best of the decades" list and The Professional's not on it, call me out, and I'll eat my hat.
The Professional is rated a very hard R "for scenes of strong graphic violence, and for language." It's a movie about a hitman who kills a lot of people in very bloody shoot-outs, and several F-bombs trickle in along the way.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Invention of Lying (2009)

Ricky Gervais popularized the catchphrase "Are you 'avin' a laff?" on his sitcom Extras - to the extent that the line appeared on an episode of Lost - and so it's only proper to begin this review by answering the question... affirmatively. Yes, with The Invention of Lying, I'm having a laugh.

The Invention of Lying blends high concept with on-the-ball execution by introducting a world in which no one except D-list screenwriter Mark Bellison (Gervais) lies. The formula, then, is fairly simple: Boy (Gervais) meets Girl (Jennifer Garner as Anna). Girl is out of Boy's league. Boy loses Girl. Boy learns that he can get his way by being dishonest. Girl falls for Boy.

The conceit is fairly rudimentary - a man who lies in a world unfamiliar with dishonesty is automatically believed, no matter what - and it runs a very serious risk of being run aground. I'd been burned with Gervais's last theatrical outing, Ghost Town (also a high concept picture albeit with very poor and tedious execution), so I wasn't expecting much with The Invention of Lying; indeed, I was anticipating abandoning the film 30 minutes in. Imagine my pleasant surprise, then, when I felt compelled to finish the movie. Perhaps it was the result of lowered expectations (compounded by a series of really disappointing movies preceding this one in my moviegoing repertoire), but I'm inclined to believe it's because the film is really clever about its main premise. Rather than rehash the same joke like Night at the Museum (I get it - the exhibits come alive), The Invention of Lying takes the idea and runs with it. An example of world-building at its finest, the film takes every permutation of the premise and makes it real - secretaries, police officers, and bank tellers are all examined in a new light.

Maybe Lying soars where Ghost Town merely hovered because Gervais actually had a hand in writing and directing this one. Memo to Hollywood: Gervais is one of a talented few who excels at creating his own material. Perhaps that's because he's just a genuinely entertaining man. He has an infectious laugh, a funny presence, and a downright deft capacity to turn even a simple shrug into a punch line. I'd like to say the same for Garner, too, who I think doesn't get enough play, either because people have typecast her as "that girl from Alias" or because people have typecast her as "that girl who married Ben Affleck." But the truth is that she's a more than decent comedic actress, with good timing and a contagious smile. Putting the two together, then, seems obvious in hindsight.

Another delight in the film, aside from the clever and well-executed concept, is the overwhelming quantity of cameos from major Hollywood stars, all of whom must agree that Gervais is one of the funniest men alive. We've got Rob Lowe as Mark's rival screenwriter nemesis, and the poster teases the appearances of Jonah Hill and Tina Fey. But there are many other famous faces appearing here, though it might be criminal to spoil their presence. (Suffice it to say, I did not expect to see a major Academy Award winner in the film, much less as a bartender in only one scene). I will note, though, that Jeffrey Tambor - another one of those guys who can make me laugh just by standing around with his face hanging out - pops in for a few great scenes as Mark's spineless boss, who can't disguise his social awkwardness in this perma-honest world.

What's fascinating about The Invention of Lying is the social commentary that Gervais offers (with the help of cowriter Matthew Robinson). There's an atheistic subplot that develops when Mark tells a lie that balloons into the formation of his world's first religion, despite the fact that Mark tries to cover his tracks by denying the existence of a "man in the sky." More compelling, though, is the way in which Gervais suggests that many of our world's structure is founded upon dishonesty. Religion's on the list, according to the film, but common courtesy and social order also suffer when honesty is the order of the day. As distasteful as it sounds, our world is based in deception, the film argues, but an entirely honest world isn't perfect, either.

But when you boil it down, The Invention of Lying is just plain funny. Honest.

The Invention of Lying is rated PG-13 "for language including some sexual material and a drug reference." Since everyone's honest, there is frank discussion about whether or not people will have sex; as for the drug reference, drinking abounds, and one character mentions cocaine.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Couples Retreat (2009)

The less-than-fabulous streak continues here at The Cinema King with Couples Retreat, a predominantly joyless comedy marked by beautiful scenery and stars phoning it in.

Dave and Ronnie (Vince Vaughn and Malin Akerman) have a marriage that works and a circle of dysfunctionally absurd friends bringing down the ship. Joey and Lucy (Jon Favreau and Kristin Davis) are constantly bickering, and Shane (Faizon Love) is recovering from a divorce by dating a 20-year-old Foot Locker employee. Upon announcing they're mulling divorce, Jason and Cynthia (Jason Bateman and Kristen Bell) convince the others to accompany them on a couples' retreat, promising fun, sun, and much-needed time away. The retreat is governed by New Age crackpot Marcel (Jean Reno), who insists on less fun and more feelings. Hilarity, the trailers promise, ensues.

Only, it doesn't. I went into this movie with the best of intentions, fully expecting to like it. After all, out of six main cast members, five of them are near and dear to my heart (nothing personal, Ms. Davis, I've just never seen you outside of that Seinfeld episode where Jerry put your toothbrush in the toilet bowl). I'm not going to go through an itemized listing of why I like each of the people in the movie, but suffice it to say I've got very good reasons. With Couples Retreat, I've been burned.

It's as though all the actors and actresses are holding back their talents - or worse, phoning it in. What's even more frustrating is that we get tantalizing glimpses of the underlying talents, but they remain unfulfilled; Vaughn, for example, only runs wild two or three times, a shame considering how funny he was in Wedding Crashers when he was let entirely loose. Ditto for Favreau, who's earned a reputation for playing gruff yet well-intentioned characters; he only plays the jerk card once or twice here. And though there is meant to be tension between husbands and wives, it seems the ladies are only in the picture to look good; no character has any real depth, but rather they're all flat, one-note cardboard cut-outs.

Pile onto this the fact that Couples Retreat is predominantly uncheery. It's not depressing in the way that some would-be comedies are, but it's hardly the laugh riot it's being advertised as. Oh, sure, there are some funny moments - Dave and Ronnie's youngest son continually mistakes display model toilets for the real deal - but they're like mile markers which only appear every twenty minutes or so. In between, there are some limp attempts at characterization, cheap attempts for laughs at things that just aren't funny, and some downright unforgivable scenery-chewing (et tu, Jean Reno?). But it's such pretty scenery that maybe this shouldn't be counted as a fault.

On second thought - Yes, it should. When I come to a comedy, I expect to laugh, not roll my eyes. Nice try, Couples Retreat, but you're guilty of the same crime your main characters are - complacency. A lazy attempt at comedy, Couples Retreat takes its audience for granted.

After this string of movies I'm just not enthusiastic about, maybe it's me who needs therapy.

Couples Retreat is rated PG-13 "for sexual content and language." This is your basic sex comedy, so act accordingly.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

It's Complicated (2009)

If Alec Baldwin had a fan club, I'd join it. If Meryl Streep had a fan club, I'd join it. If Steve Martin had a fan club... well, I'm not sure I'd join it, but I'd at least leaf through the literature. It's not complicated to understand, then, why I rented It's Complicated.

Jake (Baldwin) and Jane (Streep) Adler have been divorced for ten years, but there's no animosity between them; Jake's remarried, and Jane runs a bakery. When the meet up at their youngest son's graduation, amicable turns to amorous when the two begin to carry on an affair, telling themselves it's not completely wrong. Aside from the complicating factor that Jake is married to a much younger woman, Jane's starting to fall for her architect, fellow divorcee Adam (Martin). It's love soup, and it's complicated.

A movie like this needs to be grounded by strong performances for it to have any chance of success, and on that count It's Complicated scores two out of three (which, if the Meat Loaf song is to be believed, ain't bad). Baldwin and Streep are at the tops of their respective games; Streep is entirely believable as the conflicted Jane, and Baldwin is uproariously entertaining as lothario Jake. The two have fantastic chemistry, so it's not difficult to believe the two were ever married, nor is it a stretch to understand why they'd want to get back together. Martin has some chemistry with Streep, too, but it's nothing compared to the way Baldwin commands the screen. Of the two Adlers, Baldwin is slightly better in It's Complicated, since he's just that little bit funnier. Every scene he's in found me grinning like an idiot; once he actually did something, then the laughter began. Little quirks like the ones that have made him uber-famous on 30 Rock abound here, making him the star of the show, even if as third-billed he has to steal it. Martin is weaker than the other two here, but this is a recurring theme for him; like Nicolas Cage, Steve Martin seems to have run out of creative steam - that is, if The Pink Panther is any indication. (Exhibit A, your honor)

Fortunately, Martin's not in it all that much, and a terrific supporting role by John "Jim from The Office" Krasinski forms an effective substitute in the laugh quotient. For each scene Steve Martin has in which he is not funny - indeed, often he comes off as entirely pathetic, schleppy in a way that makes Patrick Wilson look like Humphrey Bogart - Krasinski is hilarious, having honed his comedic timing on primetime NBC. Krasinski plays son-in-law-to-be Harley, who becomes wise to the ongoing affair but must conceal it from the rest of the Adler clan. His role in the film is small, but it'd be a scene-stealing supporting role if it weren't for the presence of Alec Baldwin.

That's the good news. The bad news is that It's Complicated is just a teensy bit too long and a teensy bit more uncertain about what it wants to say about adultery. With one leg of the comedy tripod dropping the ball (I'm looking at you, Steve Martin), there are parts of the movie that just aren't funny; for example, a dance scene featuring Martin goes on a bit too long and seems designed simply to evoke an earlier time when Martin's antics were funny. Here, though, it just comes across as tired. As for the issue of adultery, this is (appropriately enough) complicated. For most of the movie, the affair is treated lightheartedly; our protagonists are likeable people, and they like each other, so despite Jane's reservations there's not much to worry about. Moreover, we're trained to dislike Jake's new wife Agness (Lake Bell) because she's fickle and shrewish with a child from a previous relationship, yet a few scenes near the end of the movie align us a little more closely with Agness than perhaps is comfortable. Of course, I'd likely be griping if the film had made Agness a cardboard baddie, but I guess what I was looking for was something a little less complicated than what I got.

For the most part, though, It's Complicated is an uncomplicated romp with some fine performances captaining a pretty funny ship.
Rated R "for some drug content and sexuality," It's Complicated contains a few scenes of pot smoking and, of course, people having an affair.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Forgive me for having never seen a Wes Anderson movie before Fantastic Mr. Fox, but I think I get the gist. I appreciate Fantastic Mr. Fox for what it is, but I think I get a sense of how fast some of Anderson's themes would get old. As it stands, Fantastic Mr. Fox is a "small doses" film and does a fine job as such.

I love Roald Dahl, almost as much as I love Batman, so I needed to see this movie - especially considering that Matilda is one of my all-time favorite book-to-movie projects. I'm also a big fan of George Clooney, who voices the aforementioned Mr. Fox, an animal version of Danny Ocean off on the biggest heist of his life - robbing local farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean (the latter of which is voiced by Michael Gambon) against the wishes of his reform-minded wife Felicity (Meryl Streep).

I had a little difficulty with the voice cast in this film, mostly because they're SO recognizable; Clooney and Streep have unmatchable (and, if a YouTube search is any proof, inimitable) voices, so it becomes problematic for me to see their voices coming from things that don't resemble them. Similarly, when I listen to Bill Murray, I don't instantly think "badger," but apparently Wes Anderson did. Fortunately this jarring effect is only temporary, and by the end of the film it all feels better.

I like what Anderson & Co. did in terms of expanding the story from Dahl's original book. Here, Anderson's version really imbues each character with an arc and a sense of purpose, and it does so without the audience feeling strongarmed into sympathizing with these creatures. Particularly the Foxes' son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) has a compelling storyline in which he struggles to fit in amid the competition provided by his cousin Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson). It's the kind of storyline that could have felt forced or even overplayed, but Fantastic Mr. Fox pulls it off smoothly.

A lot of the film's success is due to its runtime - slightly more than 80 minutes. Short and sweet, Fantastic Mr. Fox doesn't have time to run out of steam. Instead, the focus is on the plot and on the characterization. However, I'm not eager to see more of Anderson's films after this one; themes of alienation, problematic family dynamics, and individuality seem like they'd be overplayed if given more than 80 minutes of consideration. So while I'm happy with Fantastic Mr. Fox - indeed, surprisingly so, since I hadn't expected to enjoy it - I think I'll take Wes Anderson in small doses.
Courtesy of the MPAA, Fantastic Mr. Fox is rated PG "for action, smoking, and slang humor." All of that is just silly business. They do, however, substitute the word "cuss" for almost every swear word imaginable in this film, so think about that when you give the DVD to the kiddies.

Observe and Report (2009)

The problem is that it's just not funny.

Observe and Report is perhaps best known as "the other mall cop movie," since it was released in fairly close proximity to Paul Blart: Mall Cop, starring Kevin James. Observe and Report is the considerably darker of the two, with Seth Rogen starring as bipolar head of mall security Ronnie Barnhardt. Ronnie becomes determined to catch a prowling flasher after the pervert exposes himself to Ronnie's sort-of secret crush, make-up counter girl Brandi (Anna Faris). As Ronnie aspires to be a real police officer and apprehend the pervert, he crosses paths several times with Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta), who quickly becomes his nemesis.

I wanted to like this movie - honest, I did. I rented this one with the full intention of watching it with my father; after all, we've seen almost all of Seth Rogen's other movies together, but he scoffed at the idea and declined to watch it with me. He was the wiser of us. Observe and Report leaves a bad taste in your mouth like coffee that's been near a fish. The laughs are tragically sparse, nothing meriting the respect of any expression beyond a soft "hah." Aziz Ansari, rapidly becoming one of my favorites, appears for a small cameo, and he's funny as always, but the rest of the film just doesn't measure up to my comedic standards. The script is flimsy, comprised of equal parts scientific improbability and obvious filler.

Aside from the film being just plain not funny, each and every character is completely and utterly repulsive. Ronnie's not easy to watch, because his bipolar disorder makes his character uneven in an unmanageable kind of way; when he's up, it seems artificial, and when he's down we'd like to believe that's not the real Ronnie. His mother is a drunken mess, and his partner Dennis (Michael Pena) is irritating until we learn he's actually a bad person. Brandi is wholly repugnant, engaging in substance abuse, vomiting, and exploiting Ronnie whenever possible; kudos to Ms. Faris for creating such a wholly detestable character, but jeers to the filmmakers for suggesting that Ronnie's love for her is anything but pathetic. As for Harrison, I just feel immensely sorry that Ray Liotta's career has fallen so far; this is the same guy who was brilliant in Goodfellas?

The overall tone and spirit of the film is epitomized in several entirely unsubtle and brutally grotesque scenes that remind us how pathetic Observe and Report truly is. In one, a sex scene between Ronnie and Brandi blurs the line between consent and date rape. It's obvious the filmmakers are going for a cheap laugh, especially when there's a heavyhanded attempt at making the whole thing innocuous by revealing that Brandi's only asleep, but by then it's too late; any viewer with a modicum of decency has already turned away with a sneer of disgust. Later, when Brandi compliments Ronnie, he lashes out at her, shouting, "If anyone here wants a girl to have sex with you and then to [have sex with] your enemy, go to Brandi! Because she's the girl that does that." Rogen's delivery here gets a quick chuckle, but then we realize just how sad his situation is, and it's just not as funny anymore.

But the moment that sums up everything I hate about this movie is the treatment of Nell, a handicapped food court employee. In one unforgettably atrocious scene, Patton "Spence" Oswalt mercilessly teases Nell because her leg brace prevents her from functioning properly; this moment lasts far too long, it's uncomfortable, and it's a reminder of the mentality that governs the whole film. Nell declares herself a born-again Christian, vowing not to have sex before marriage, but Ronnie labels that "a promise I'm going to make her break." This is the man we're supposed to root for, a man who aims to corrupt the only thing innocent about this whole ugly picture? When the movie's not busy being unfunny, it's mean-spirited and sometimes downright corrupt. If Ronnie Barnhardt is the hero this world needs, stop the planet - I want to get off.
Observe and Report is rated R "for pervasive language, graphic nudity, drug use, sexual content and violence." The language is filled with F-bombs, the flasher is shown several times in fairly explicit detail, prescription pills and alcohol are repeatedly abused, and the film includes some exorbitant shots of gore exaggerated for effect.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

9 (2009)

The names "Tim Burton" and "Timur Bekmambetov" appear on the promotional material for 9, but don't let that fool you; 9 bears little resemblance to works from either canon. It's visually arresting, but there's little else of note in 9.

9 is adapted from the Oscar-nominated short film of the same name, both directed by Shane Acker. Given life by the scientist who created him, 9 (voiced by Elijah Wood) awakens in a post-apocalyptic world where mankind has destroyed itself during a last great war. After 9's first friend 2 (Martin Landau) is kidnapped by a strange beast, 9 recruits the help of 5 (John C. Reilly) to save him - against the wishes of the king, 1 (Christopher Plummer). Along the way, they meet 7 (Jennifer Connelly) and awaken a terrible new machine which threatens the remaining life on the planet.

When I'm watching a movie about nonhuman characters, my first point of analysis inevitably centers around how human the filmmakers are able to make these characters. In 9, most of the characters are given personalities and mannerisms that quickly and solidly establish them as character types. Reilly's quaver and 5's posture establish him as the cowardly one, 6's appearance makes him the nutty one, and the silent 3 & 4 (my personal favorites) are quickly characterized as intelligent and overcommitted. And Plummer as 1 is perfectly haughty and power-mad, though this character slips into a forced redemption as the film ends. Unfortunately, though, 9 and 7 - the two main protagonists - aren't given solid characterizations; 9 is inventive, and 7 is kind of rugged, sure, but for the most part we're told to root for them rather than arriving at that decision voluntarily.

When it comes to the villains, 9's visual flair really shines. From the skull-headed prowler to the caterpillar-like abductor, there's no question who the bad guys are in this film. While the heroic nine doll-like heroes are all cutesy and fairly one-note as far as design is concerned, the baddies are as varied as an 80s wardrobe, allowing the creative team to really flex their ingenuity muscles. Often, the first appearances of these villains is arresting, such that their unique appearance gets that extra oomph added to it.

Where the film is long on visual creativity, though, it leaves a lot to be desired as a story. The parable that overarcs the film is ungainly, distracting from the basic plotline of the movie; whenever flashbacks or newsreel footage explains the fall of man, it feels forced and jammed into the movie in spite of itself. What's more, since I had a hard time getting behind 9 for any reason beyond a sense of obligation, I found it difficult to enjoy the plot; it moves from "search and rescue" to "fixing my mistake" with little dramatic necessity. What's more, neither of these two plot threads are particularly original. Visuals aside - and please pardon the pun - we've seen this before.
Rated PG-13 "for violence and scary images," 9 would probably have been rated PG if it were made ten years ago. The creature designs are a little frightening for younger viewers, but really - it's pretty tame.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Stepfather (1987)

In anticipation of Sunday night's big LOST finale event, I thought I'd go retrospective for a little bit and look at one of Terry O'Quinn's older roles. Having loved The Man Who Would Be Locke (and also UnLocke) in Alias and The Rocketeer, I realized I was long overdue for The Stepfather, probably his highest profile role before coming to that infamous island.

Recently remade with Dylan Walsh (a remake now on my radar), The Stepfather is perhaps best described as a Lifetime movie that acquired sentience and decided to become a mildly satirical horror picture instead. O'Quinn stars as Jerry Baker, the perfect father with the perfect family - a wife (Shelley Hack) and a stepdaughter, Stephanie (Jill Schoelen). It seems like the perfect life because it's Jerry's second attempt; he murdered his previous family when they "disappointed" him but managed to elude police. As Jerry's former brother-in-law closes in on him, Stephanie starts to grow wise to the fact that her stepfather isn't as perfect as he seems.

The premise is, twenty years hence, nothing remarkably fresh (2009 remake notwithstanding). But the script by Donald E. Westlake is at least marginally clever, and it gives O'Quinn a lot of room to really get into Jerry Baker's mental landscape and wreak some gleeful havoc while doing so. The rest of the film is fairly fluffy, and O'Quinn is the only element of the film that doesn't fall into some banal horror film trope. We have the unwitting spouse, the suspicious child who lacks credibility, the helpful doctor who meets a grisly fate, the driven hunter character, the family pet, the gullible next victim, and the one-liners.

Oh, the one-liners. It's here that Westlake's script really has fun with itself, as does O'Quinn. The gags - "I really don't think this house is for you" or "You should call before you drop by next time" - seem corny and overplayed, but the fact that they only appear when Jerry is at his most deranged suggests a commentary on the terrain of horror pictures. There is real horror bubbling under the surface of everyday life, the movie suggests, but Hollywood handles it by laughing at it. Jerry loses a lot of his menace when we're laughing at him; that's why he's much spookier in the "Who am I here?" scene, in which his mingle-mangle of identities begins to catch up with him.

O'Quinn's performance aside, the film is pretty terrible. The other performances just don't measure up, the plot relies on several coincidences that stretch the definition of the very term "coincidence," and the film is on the whole extremely formulaic. If it weren't for O'Quinn's presence and the strength of his performance - really a joy to watch - I'd relegate this one to the discount bin with all the other horror duds (like Prey, some horror movie [which I didn't see all of, admittedly] about lions menacing tourists in Africa. Oy.).
Rated R, The Stepfather comes from an era before the MPAA began justifying their ratings. The film includes some shockingly gory violence, one or two uses of the F-bomb, and two quick scenes of (unnecessary) nudity, both rear and frontal.

Lord of War (2005)

I went into Lord of War expecting not to like it. Even as the FBI warning flashed across my screen, I settled into the couch and thought, "This is gonna be bad." I was expecting a cheesy accent, over-the-top emoting, and a film that generally deserved a better star.

Fortunately, I was mostly wrong. Lord of War is, in spite of my preconceived notions, enjoyable, and even Cage himself is pretty good here.

Narrated by its protagonist, Lord of War is a demi-biopic of arms dealer Yuri Orlov (Cage), who finds himself adapting to a new geopolitical climate after the fall of the Soviet Union. With his brother Vitaly (Jared "Paul Allen" Leto) as his partner, Orlov grapples with competing arms dealer Simeon Weisz (a smarmy Ian Holm), allies himself with Liberian dictator Andre Baptiste (Eammon Walker), and woos the girl of his dreams, model Ava Fontaine (Bridget Moynahan) - all while doding Interpol and its persistent agent Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke). The film is a standard rise-and-fall story, with a moralistic twist at the end that turns it into a little something more.

I have a love-hate relationship with Nicolas Cage's films. Early Nic Cage - Raising Arizona, for example, and Honeymoon in Vegas - demonstrated a flair for comedic timing while playing offbeat characters with quirky and well-played mannerisms. A funny thing happened on the way to the modern day, and somewhere Nic's career fell to splinters, culminating in what I affectionately call the "Trilogy of Terrible" - Ghost Rider, Next, and The Wicker Man (my personal favorite "bad movie"). Recently, though, he seems to be on a bit of an upswing; the National Treasure franchise won't win any Oscars, but they're at least watchable, and I thought Cage was fantastic as Big Daddy in Kick-Ass. Lord of War brings Cage another step closer on the path to redemption, though he has a long way to go if I'm to forget the (in)famous line "How'd it get burned?!"

The rest of the cast is, for the most part, interchangeable. No actor or actress leaves a truly indelible mark on the film such that the roles couldn't be played by anyone else; as pursuing Interpol agent Jack Valentine, Hawke is fine, but any other actor could have done one step better (I'm thinking of Denzel Washington, but I don't know why). As Ava, Moynahan often bemoans her status as just another pretty face in this film, but I'm wondering if there's a bit of metafictional irony behind that, since any other "pretty" actress could have been just as good here. The only exception, as always, is Ian Holm, who does a fantastic job embodying arms dealer Simeon, once the top in his field and now struggling to retain his position - but I would have liked to see more of him in here, since his appearances are delightful but few and far between.

Though I'm labeling this as a "good" film and "to my liking," I should go on record as saying that the movie falls apart once it runs into the stereotypical "arms dealing is bad" moralism that ends the film. What began as an entertaining flick with a conscience turns into a conscience with moving pictures; suddenly the audience is preached at, with heavyhanded talk of "necessary evils" and closing title cards that indict members of the U.S. government and the UN Security Council for being worse arms dealers than Yuri Orlov. Huh? I don't know what it is about me, but I'm running into problems with films that start as one thing and end as another without successfully transitioning between the two.

Consequently, the film - and Cage - seems to run out of steam by the end. Cage seems tired, the plot careens into a highly politicized direction, and the film ends with none of the joy that it bore in the first 90 minutes. Perhaps that's the point; gunrunning is a joyless occupation. All right, but the film changes its focus to attempt to highlight the international gunrunning scene when we've previously focused only on Yuri; this switch is sudden and virtually ineffective, leaving only a jarring sense and the feeling that we're watching a different movie than the one we started with.

Lord of War bears an R rating "for strong violence, drug use, language, and sexuality." The violence is particularly graphic here, and the language is pretty strong. Drug use is limited to a few scenes surrounding cocaine, and sexuality includes fleeting moments of nudity as well as a pronounced presence of adultery and prostitution.

Friday, May 21, 2010

In a Lonely Place (1950)

I love Humphrey Bogart, and I "get" deconstructionism, but In a Lonely Place proves that the two just don't belong together.

Director Nicholas Ray helms this self-conscious, self-reflective look at Hollywood during a changing of the guard - the younger generation is starting to take over, much to the chagrin of aging screenwriter Dixon Steele (Bogart). Looking for a hit to revitalize his careeer, Dixon finds himself adapting a dud of a novel while romancing the girl next door (Gloria Grahame) and dodging a rep as the prime suspect in the murder of a hatcheck girl who went home with him. That's the film in a nutshell, but factor in the defining character trait for Dixon - a temper a short as the mayor of Munchkin City.

In many ways, In a Lonely Place could be described as a cross between The Big Sleep and Barton Fink. There's the same MacGuffin of a mystery with the character-driven focus on a Hollywood screenwriter. The difference is that both films in comparison were intentionally purposeless, with the ambiguity and off-kilter nature as a functioning element of the work, not as a distraction. In a Lonely Place begins as a murder mystery, becomes a romantic dramedy in the middle, and concludes as a dystopic dissection of the relationship between Bogart and Grahame, but it does so unevenly, with the audience just settling into the idea of the film as A before the film becomes B. As such, it's difficult to get a bead on the movie.

Bogart's performance is grade-A, as always. Though the plot meanders, there's something compelling about Bogart's performance; the switch from hard-boiled noir to simmering violent passion is a little more palatable in the deft hands of an actor of Bogart's impeccable credentials. Grahame isn't bad, but it's fairly obvious (and subsequently disappointing) she's subbing for Lauren Bacall, who I think is fabulous - especially when paired with Bogart. The rest of the supporting cast float in and out without any real significance; indeed, the roles could have been played by anyone.

What's most problematic about the film is its script. Chekhov has that wonderful line about guns in plays - if it's on the wall in the first act, it has to fire by the time the final act is concluded. In a Lonely Place never actually fires a lot of guns that it hangs on the wall. For example, the murdered girl cries "Help! Help!" several times in Dixon's apartment before she leaves for the evening; though Dixon expresses worry that she'll be heard by the neighbors - particularly because we know at least one is spying on him - no mention is made of this vital clue that might convict Dixon in the eyes of the police. Later, an unseen character is described as a UCLA student; when newspaper headlines carry a story about a young man from UCLA being beaten by one of the principal characters, one would expect these two story threads to intermingle, but no soap. Consequently, larger plot threads get dropped prematurely; the murder mystery all but disappears until a confession that comes in the final minutes of the film, problematizing the viewer's relationship to this A-to-B-to-C flick.

I'd hardly give In a Lonely Place an A. Bogart's performance is top-grade as always, particularly if you like to see him playing against type. Me, I prefer him as his type; there's a reason that "the Bogart character" has become archetypal, and deconstructing that archetype seems like a blatant exercise in intellectualism. The social critique of the changing tenor in Hollywood is intriguing and merits further study, but I'm not sure that Bogart needed to be anatomized the way that he is in this film. He does a good job, but ultimately it's not his strongest work.

The MPAA weren't handing out letter grades in 1950, but by today's standards In a Lonely Place would probably rank a PG for mild violence and moderate thematic content.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Robin Hood (2010)

One can always count on Ridley Scott, Russell Crowe, and historical epics to combine for a reasonably solid summer blockbuster. And that's precisely what Robin Hood is: reasonably solid.

As a concept, the "truth behind the legend" genre is starting to limp on its last legs; King Arthur was a bit of a dud, and prequels in general are often a bad idea. But with Scott directing Crowe as the famous outlaw before he donned his famous hood and led a band of merry men in Sherwood Forest, something clicks. In this incarnation, Robin Longstride is an archer in the army of crusade-happy King Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston). When things take a turn for the worse, Robin and his comrades return to England in time for Prince John's (Oscar Isaac) coronation as the new king. Posing as a knight, Robin meets Marion (Cate Blanchett) and her father-in-law Walter Loxley (Max von Sydow) before becoming embroiled in a French invasion scheme piloted by the nefarious Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong).

In a nutshell, Robin Hood can be boiled down to "Gladiator meets Braveheart." It's a facile comparison, and it's not particularly thorough, but you get the point. Robin Hood takes all the classic Ridley Scott themes and imagery - one man at the epicenter of national political crisis, with dazzling explosions and battles that encompass an entire populace - and throws in that Braveheart-esque battle cry of "FREEDOM!" There's nothing particularly surprising about the film - we know Marion and Robin will fall in love, even if they don't - but it's staged well, even if it doesn't play by the normal rules.

The film plays fast and loose with historical fact and with the legend itself, but it's all in good fun and none of it is too disconcerting. The Magna Carta plays a pivotal role as a kind of MacGuffin, though it gets a new backstory. There's a French invasion which doesn't quite jive with the history of Anglo-French conflict, but the only problematic creative liberty is Marion's presence on the battlefield during the climactic fight scene; it's in there to appease the PC crowd, to be sure, but it's distracting and feels incredibly forced. The film also casts Robin Hood as a kind of Jack Bauer figure - a perfect shot, always right, and distrusted by most authorities until he's proven to be always right. But for the most part the story is the one we know; Kevin Durand plays a streetwise Little John, and Mark Addy is perfectly and impeccably cast as Friar Tuck.

What's refreshing about Robin Hood is the presence of a new villain, Sir Godfrey. It's become almost a cliche to pit Robin Hood against the Sheriff of Nottingham, so it's a breath of fresh air when Matthew Macfadyen stumbles onto the screen as an inept Sheriff who is helpless in the face of farmers who won't pony up their (un)fair share of taxation. Enter Mark Strong, who's become awfully popular in the past few years - mostly as a villain, as in Kick-Ass, Sherlock Holmes, and RocknRolla, to name a few. His Sir Godfrey is menacing in the first degree, with a penchant for brutal sacking and a battle wound that gives him a perpetual sneer. As the climax hurtles toward us, it's impossible not to cheer for him to meet vicious vengeance.

There is a significant misstep, however, in the middle of the film. In true Ridley Scott style, the film opens and closes with knockout battle sequences, but the middle third of the film slows to what appears to be an actual halt in the narrative flow. As Robin is introduced to Nottingham, the film becomes an odd combination of Dark Ages domestic sitcom and bawdy soldiers-on-shore-leave humor, such that one almost expects Cyndi Lauper to come in on the soundtrack with "Archers Just Wanna Have Fun." All the while, the merriment is tempered by continued reminders that "The French are coming! The French are coming!" as personified by William Hurt's character William (easy name) Marshall, who seems to exist only to give an emotional tether for the audience to the political drama. But it doesn't quite work because we don't know who William is when we meet him, nor is his plotline particularly gripping. Of course, at this moment, Robin's plot isn't going anywhere at all, since he's nowhere near outlaw status in Nottingham just yet, and so the film falls into about a twenty-minute lull.

But the film rebounds nicely. Just as it opened with a bang, Robin Hood closes with an even bigger one. It won't be spoiling anything to say that the film closes with a (fairly obvious) nod toward a sequel, but the conclusion of the film wraps up all the major conflicts in an abundantly satisfying manner. Robin Hood is, I'm sure, the best new release out this weekend (really, competition from Letters to Juliet and Queen Latifah's Just Wright? Please.). A solid cast and crew turn out a solid production which might not be particularly memorable but at least is more than enjoyable.

At any rate, it's better than that 1991 Kevin Costner trainwreck Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, which could only boast the combined presence of Morgan Freeman and Alan Rickman.Robin Hood is, fortuitously for moviegoers with younger kinfolk, rated "PG-13 for violence including intense sequences of warfare, and some sexual content." The violence is standard stylized Ridley Scott fare, though most of it plays out bloodlessly and involves more clubbing than slicing; arrows fly quickly and almost never miss their fleshy targets. As for sexual content, bawdy dialogue (as is typical in most Middle Ages flicks) ensues but might fly over the heads of some young'uns.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Funny People (2009)

I'm off to a bad start. Out of three movies I've reviewed since my big return for another season of moviegoing, two of them have been complete duds. If it weren't for Robert Downey, Jr., I'd feel like a voice crying out in the wilderness.

But I'm not here to weep over my bad choices. I'm here to help you make good ones. I've sort of already played my hand here, but this weekend I had a chance to catch Funny People, Judd Apatow's latest. In short, despite being punctuated by some clever and classic Apatow moments, Funny People is anything but, overlong in some places and tragically predicatable in others, with a cast that could do - and has done - a heck of a lot better.

If you've seen the trailer for this, you've seen the whole movie and all its highlights. Adam Sandler plays dying comedian George Simmons, who hires newbie funny person Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) and gets a new lease on life when his disease goes into remission. With his second chance, George decides to pursue former flame Laura (an underused Leslie Mann), despite the fact that she's married to Aussie businessman Clark (Eric Bana). Hilarity, you'd expect, ensues.

Unfortunately, it doesn't. While the trailers - as well as the title and the track records of Apatow & Co. - suggest that the movie is a laugh riot, I didn't find my sides splitting. Instead, I found myself staring at the movie in disbelief - disbelief that I'd been so horribly duped, disbelief that the movie wasn't over yet (at two and a half hours, it's not for those with a short attention span), disbelief that so many funny people could be assembled in such a droll production. Perfect example - Aziz Ansari, who appears for a quick cameo role which consists primarily of him delivering his stand-up routine about how absurd Coldstone's size names are (particularly "Gotta Have It"). While Ansari is hilarious on his live album, in Funny People he's just not funny. I don't know why that is, but it's as though the movie is draining itself of humor in order to feed its own spiraling runtime.

I'm not quite sure what went wrong on the way to this movie. Maybe it's casting genuine funnyman Seth Rogen as the second banana to Adam Sandler, who for my money has never actually been funny (granted, I've never seen Happy Gilmore or Billy Madison, but I just can't believe the hype). Maybe it's the fact that Leslie Mann only gets one scene in which she's allowed to be funny; the rest of the time she spends playing a highly cliched "girl who got away but remains conflicted about it all." Maybe it's the fact that the movie could have been ninety minutes without sacrificing any of the story's heart; instead, the film is protracted and brutally long, especially in the decidedly not-funny first hour or so in which Adam Sandler is dying.

Part of the problem is that Funny People is two different movies: the life-and-death drama and the get-the-girl comedy. But where some films might be able to consolidate those two concepts into one distinct package, Funny People is fragmented almost precisely in half, and the fragmentation is so palpable that it's difficult to believe that the George Simmons playing CandyLand with the kids is the same George Simmons who was popping pills earlier and asking Ira to kill him. Nor is it easy to accept Laura's on-again-off-again flip-flop on her husband's philandering; one minute she's peeved that he's cheating, the next minute she doesn't even think about it, and the whole thing never really makes too much sense.

There are some lights in the film. Seth Rogen delivers a few of his trademark one-liner quips, often nonsensical and non sequitur, but it's an art he's mastered, and so bully for him that he can still throw a punch (metaphorically and, in the case of the film's climax, literally). Apatow's children Maude and Iris (last seen in Knocked Up) also appear, little bundles of spontaneous energy that light up whenever they're on screen. But the problem is that the film is so bloated that these shining moments seem like stars in the sky, exceptions to the rule. Sure, the many ways George and Ira lampoon a doctor's thick accent are hysterical, but they're buffered by twenty minutes on either end of just downright unfunny material.

At the core, the film's problem is false marketing. Perhaps, then, this review would have been better if the film had been entitled Marginally Funny People (in many less than funny situations). At least then I wouldn't feel cheated.
Funny People is rated "R for language and crude sexual humor throughout, and some sexuality." If you've seen one movie with any of the cast or crew involved, you know what's coming - F-bombs galore, sexual dialogue up the ying-yang, brief violence played for laughs, and a sex scene with fleeting nudity.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

New York, I Love You (2009)

It seems that the older I get, the shorter my attention span becomes. Maybe I'm just a jaded filmgoer, maybe today's flicks have run out of pizzazz, or maybe I'm being overdramatic about the whole getting-bored-quickly thing.

At any rate, the beauty of an anthology film is that you only have to invest about ten minutes in any given story. New York, I Love You represents the second in what is apparently a franchise devoted to vignettes about love in important world cities. I was initially only aware of the first "Cities of Love" film, Paris je t'aime (which really ought to be reviewed herein), a film near and dear to the romantic in me.

Before I go any further, I should preface this review by noting that by definition an anthology of any kind is naturally going to be hit or miss. Even Paris je t'aime has a few duds in the bunch. But unfortunately New York, I Love You is primarily a batch of misses with only a few hits. In honor of the anthology format, I'm going to shake things up and review each short separately and then think globally, with the caveat that New York is much more fluid, with its untitled segments intersecting and mingling much more than in Paris.

Director Jiang Wen has the first segment, which stars Hayden Christensen as a thief who picks Andy Garcia's pocket. After being smitten by passer-by Rachel Bilson, Christensen finds out that his quick con on Garcia isn't as easy as it looks. This vignette starts off as a cliche, and the fact that Christensen can't really act doesn't help. But when Garcia and Christensen share the screen, there's something better afoot, with each trying to one-up the other in a game of wills.

Mira Nair directs a more romantic tale about two salespeople (Natalie Portman and Irrfan Khan) married to other people but who fall in love with each other regardless. This segment is unfulfilling, carried by solid acting but lacking any dramatic resolution beyond a clever use of visual language which suggests that these two will always love each other.

Shunji Iwai gets one of the most romantic parts of the film when he brings musician Orlando Bloom together with receptionist Christina Ricci by using Dostoevsky. Props on that one and on creating an ending to their story which feels neither forced nor hackneyed.

Yvan Attal directs two segments, both of which are marked by narrative twists and compelling dialogue which conceals something important beneath the surface. Both are set outside restaurants with their characters on smoke breaks; in the first of these, Ethan Hawke propositions Maggie Q about the inevitability of their romance based on one chance encounter, while in the second Robin Wright Penn plays a jilted wife looking for a change when she meets Chris Cooper and propositions him. The parallel is less pronounced than it seems.

Brett Ratner's segment is my absolute favorite in the film and really the only portion I'd consider rewatching at least once. After breaking up with Blake Lively, Anton Yelchin (one of my new favorites after Charlie Bartlett) agrees to take pharmacist James Caan's daughter to the prom. There's one catch - the daughter (Olivia Thirlby) is in a wheelchair. Don't be fooled; whimsy ensues, and Yelchin's big wish comes true. This one has a fabulous twist; if you only watch one segment, watch this one.

After appearing in a few interstitials, Bradley Cooper co-stars with Drea de Matteo in Allen Hughes's narrator-heavy story about a regrettable one-night stand. This segment flops because it doesn't quite go anywhere, and the ending is abrupt and inconsistent with all but the title of the film.

In the most puzzling segment in the film, Shekhar Kapur directs Anthony Minghella's screenplay about an opera singer (Julie Christie) who returns to a hotel in New York and has separate encounters with two bellhops (John Hurt and Shia LeBeouf). If anyone can make heads or tails of this segment, please let me know what you've decided, as I can't wrap my head around it.

Natalie Portman steps behind the camera to direct a segment about a father's (Carlos Acosta) day in the park with his daughter (Taylor Geare). This segment is cute and fluffy but ultimately forgettable. Portman does a fine job writing and directing it, to the extent that I'd be curious what she can do with longer material.

Fatih Akin directs an empty segment about a painter (Ugur Yucel) who falls for Chinese herbalist Shu Qi and then dies. Burt Young peeks his head in as Yucel's landlord. Huh? That's about all this segment amounts to.

Joshua Marston writes/directs the final full segment, in which Eli Wallach and Cloris Leachman celebrate their 63rd anniversary. The dialogue in this segment is well-played and flows at a leisurely pace, but if you're looking for a conventional narrative you won't find it here. This segment feels very personal and personable, and it's a comfortable way to close the film.

Throughout, Randy Balsmeyer gives transition scenes which feature various characters entering taxicabs together; Emilie Ohana plays a videographer whose role in the film seems only to be to unite the characters. One interstitial in particular, though, is memorable, with Eva Amurri and Justin Bartha quarreling about how they never vacation together.

The DVD includes two deleted vignettes, one of them directed by Scarlett Johannson and starring Kevin Bacon as a New Yorker with a bad case of wanderlust. These deleted scenes, though, have rightfully been omitted, as they are entirely lifeless and protracted. Perhaps Ms. Johannson should stay in front of the camera looking pretty, which she's very good at doing if Iron Man 2 is any indication.

Taken separately, there is a fair amount to like about New York, I Love You, but taken together as a 103 minute film there is a lot of disappointment. The choice to more deliberately blend vignettes - Drea de Matteo visits James Caan's pharmacy, and Chris Cooper meets Maggie Q at a dry cleaner's - makes the film difficult to follow in points; it is often unclear where one story ends and another begins. This trademark of the first film is evident only in the film's most successful segments - Iwai's and especially Ratner's. On the whole, though, Ratner's segment is the only standout feature in an otherwise disappointing follow-up to Paris je t'aime.
New York, I Love You is rated "R for language and sexual content." This being a movie about New York, F-bombs pepper the dialogue; this being a movie about love, sex comes up in conversation and is depicted twice without any nudity to speak of.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Iron Man 2 (2010)

If you're expecting a negative review, turn around now. Iron Man 2 combines three of my favorite things: summer blockbusters (a sure sign that my summer review series has kicked off again), comic books (whose adaptations I review all too often) here, and Robert Downey, Jr. (whose movies aren't reviewed often enough here). And it does so successfully.

Iron Man 2 picks up literally right where the first one left off: Now that Tony Stark (Downey) has outed himself as the metal-suited superhero Iron Man, he has to face new sharks in the water. A bevy of enemies accost him, including the smarmy looter Senator Stern (Garry Shandling) and business rival Justin Hammer (the underappreciated Sam Rockwell). The real foe here is Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke, blending elements of Iron Man foes Whiplash and the Crimson Dynamo), who possesses technology similar to Iron Man - tech he plans to use against Stark. Along the way, Tony Stark is off-again with secretary/love interest Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and buddy Lt. Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle, replacing Terrence Howard), on-again with new aide Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johannson), and on-the-fence about S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson and his eyepatch) and his Avengers-related offer.

Fans of the first movie will have plenty to smile about here. Iron Man, you'll recall, came at a time when "The darker, the better" was the order of the day in the comic book adaptation world. Enter Tony Stark, sauntering into the comic book world with a drink in one hand and a punchline in the other. Iron Man 2 continues that tradition, with the one-liners coming as fast as machine gun fire. There's only one scene that borders on over-the-top, comedically speaking, and that's Tony Stark's birthday party, which he hosts while in full Iron Man gear and while completely intoxicated. But the scene survives - and the film thrives - because of Downey's personality; he's impeccably cast here in a character who's larger than life, just like his personifier. If there are such things as roles one was born to play, this is RDJ's.

The rest of the cast is in fine form, too. Paltrow and Johannson, both of whom have been known to turn in less than stellar performances, have real chemistry with RDJ, and the action scenes with which Johannson's tasked are pulled off with Alias-style sangfroid. It's always a delight to see Sam Jackson, and Cheadle does such a solid job as "Rhodey" that you'll almost forget about Terrence Howard. While Rourke and Rockwell aren't on the level of Heath Ledger's Joker, as far as villainy goes they're as good as the best of the Marvel baddie crew (i.e., Willem Dafoe in Spider-Man and Ian McKellan in X-Men), though Rockwell is a bit campier than some may care for. Even director Jon Favreau steps in front of the camera for a fun turn as gregarious driver/bodyguard Happy Hogan, who gets a terrific action sequence of his own.

The movie, though, is rightfully Downey's, and Iron Man's by extension, and so fans will be relieved to know that - despite this film having a much larger ensemble cast than its predecessor - the focus is still very much on Tony Stark and that metal suit of his. Even shout-outs to Captain America and Thor (that is, other Marvel films in the pipeline) are done in the context of their meaning to Tony (it's not spoiling anything to say that they mean absolutely nothing to the narcissistic playboy). Action sequences revolve around him, too - and, boy, are they dazzling. The effects are top-notch, and the aerial combat scenes will have you on the edge of your seat.

But in spite of all the razzle-dazzle, Iron Man 2 is just plain fun, with as much to enjoy, if not more, as the first film offered. And that's really the best review I can offer for the movie. I could go into a lengthy "Tony Stark as John Galt" analogy, or I could spend paragraphs oohing and ahhing over how great Scarlett Johannson looks in black spandex (but seriously...), or I could even ruminate on the significance of the film's praise of a privatized military-industrial complex. But I'd be overlooking the fact that the movie makes the popcorn taste a little better. It's a summer blockbuster with a sense of humor and an intelligence beyond a high school graduation equivalent. It's well-done, made by people who know what they're doing - and, more importantly, who know how to entertain an audience.

Iron Man 2 carries an MPAA rating of "PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, and some language." Lots of robotic beings blow up, and guys in metal suits fight a lot, menacing each other along the way. Language -and the assumed innuendo - is pretty tame.

As Tony Stark says, "Oh, it's good to be back!"