Sunday, July 26, 2009
Saturday, July 25, 2009
I Love You, Beth Cooper opens with its best scene though, given the quality of the movie, that’s not saying much. The stereotypically nerdy valedictorian proclaims his love for the prettiest, most popular girl in the school during his graduation speech by uttering the movie’s title. Played by Paul Rust, the character's speech is mildly amusing. The movie’s all downhill from there. It’s a comedy, supposedly, but I laughed a grand total of once, and smiled only a few times more.
Television star Hayden Panettiere plays Beth Cooper. She brings the pretty and the popular but she lacks the depth to pull off the character’s subtext. You see, popular girls aren’t perfect. Are you surprised? Beth Cooper shows up at the valedictorian’s house, where he and his best friend (Jack Carpenter) are having a small party, and proceeds to flee from her crazy military boyfriend (Shawn Roberts), nerds in tow. The movie is filled with all kinds of flat, unimaginative dialogue and self-consciously wacky behavior. It’s like a painfully awkward person who has intellectualized comedy but has no capabilities to perform it.
There are also all kinds of odd fight scenes between Rust and Roberts that are ostensibly humorous and filmed in a dreary sitcom style, but the blows are matched with painfully heightened sound effects. Each punch thrown lands with a booming thump that doesn’t match the damage we see on screen or make the moment funnier. It’s not funny to watch a nerd get beaten up, at least not any funnier than watching a Hummer plow through the front of a mansion or having a teenage girl (an embarrassing Lauren Storm) admit fairly disturbing facts about her life while looking into the foreground with a blank stare.
Chris Columbus directs with a flat, uninspired style that drums its way through the dull plot. Rust and Carpenter are vaguely entertaining – they have a commitment to the material that’s endearing – and there's a sweet little romance that barely develops between Carpenter and a girl played believably by Lauren London, but they can’t salvage the mess. This is a studio comedy that feels prepackaged and focus-grouped from the start. It’s light and harmless enough, I suppose, but uninvolving to its core, so desperate for laughs that it goes to the well of cheap animal gags not once but twice. The movie plays like a bad PG-13 Superbad rip-off, with best friends trying to fit in with some cool girls. But, unlike Greg Mottola’s wonderful, and wonderfully vulgar, teen comedy, Beth Cooper isn’t funny, isn’t original, and has zero emotional impact or relevance. It is a perfect closed system of a movie, originating and terminating within the Hollywood studio bubble without ever making contact with the real world.
Monday, July 20, 2009
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Monday, July 13, 2009
The film opens there with a delightful scene of macabre humor as Potter, in anger, expands his Muggle-aunt like a balloon (she had it coming). Then we’re off to Hogwarts where the students are all atwitter about the escaped killer, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), who is widely assumed to be hunting Harry. As a result of this new threat (more real-world than the more conceptual, fantasy threats of the first two stories) totally creepy guards known as Dementors, sucking all cheer and warmth from the characters – and the screen – with their very arrival, keep careful watch, casting a chill and setting the tone for fresher menace in this outing.
The kids’ skills have grown once again with the central trio of Radcliffe, Watson and Grint getting more talented as well as slimmer, taller, leaner, older. The adult cast continues to satisfy, each installment adding more and more perfectly cast character actors. This time, in addition to Oldman, who brings intensity to his several nice moments in the climax, there are Emma Thompson, as a greatly loony divination professor, Julie Christie as a weary tavern proprietor, and Timothy Spall, who has one scene and makes the most of it, turning his face into a ball of ticks and twitches.
But the new cast member who stands out the most is David Thewlis as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher (the school seems to have that position open every year). Thewlis has a warm, easy emotional relationship with Radcliffe. In their character’s conversations there’s a sense of real connection, a building relationship of trust that starts as mentor-student and turns into something closer to father-son. They form the emotional bedrock of the film.
Between films, Richard Harris, the man who so skillfully inhabited Dumbledore, passed away. He is replaced by Michael Gambon, an equally skilled but also very different actor. He brings to Dumbledore a slightly different spin but doesn’t stray too far from the conception of the character originated by Harris. I do not envy him having to walk the thin line between creating his own character and replicating what has already worked for the series, but Gambon is up to the task.
As with the cast and casting, the score, design, and costuming continues to be top of the line (John Williams even uses the occasion to write the single best theme ever composed for a Potter movie), but what makes this installment so distinctive and compelling is Cuarón’s direction. He and screenwriter Steve Kloves realize they are making an adaptation, not an illustration. They are not supplanting the book, merely telling the same basic story in a different medium. The plot is tweaked and condensed to become a more cinematic rendering even if it crashes through plot points at times. And through it all is Cuarón’s relentless specificity.
This is a deliriously detailed and tactile picture, packed with background information and scrupulous attention to every corner of the screen with grace notes of whimsy, like a tree shaking snow off of its branches, an aunt appearing in the background sky, and the camera floating (symbolically) twice through the gears of a clock. Cuarón allows the camera a fluid grace to glide through the world which is just as magical but has a greater realism in feeling and tone. This movie gets under my skin. The fantastical realism extends to the feelings of awakening adolescence within the young characters. Cuarón understands the yearning, the mystery, of aging and depicts the vivid mental states by understanding that magic does not make these kids any less like kids. One of the best scenes, and one of the simplest, involves a group of boys eating candy and joking with each other in a way any group of 13-year-olds might. The best effect of the film is the sound-effect accompanying a very satisfying punch thrown in the face of a bully.
Cuarón makes the fantasy a wild extrapolation on the characters' uneasy, awkward steps towards adulthood, finding the intrinsic link between basic human experiences and the phantasmagorical tales we tell that is the hallmark of all great fantasy from Grimm to Rowling to Pan’s Labyrinth. This Potter is the first of the franchise to not just delight and entertain, but to sting and resonate as well.
Sunday, July 12, 2009
Saturday, July 11, 2009
By 2001, the Harry Potter books were a full blown cultural phenomenon, with four books published and three more on the way, each published book setting records on the bestseller lists. And they were good, too. Critics, children and parents adored author J.K. Rowling’s imaginative look at a young boy, Harry Potter, and his experiences at Hogwarts, a magical British boarding school, and the deft mixing of Dahl-like macabre with the swift thrills of a modern blockbuster. So it was only inevitable that the books would become modern blockbusters. The first, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, was released in the fall of 2001 and quickly became one of the biggest hits of the post-9/11 weeks.
Now, eight years later, I returned to this movie, wondering what I would find. The movie is older and so am I. Which one of us has changed? Despite my trepidation, the movie holds up remarkably well. Director Chris Columbus directs with a crisp, storybook style that’s rather unremarkable but has the benefit of showing off the resplendent production design by Stuart Craig. The walls of Hogwarts are vibrant and wondrous with floating props (and ghosts), shifting stairs, and a vast population of moving artwork. There’s a real feeling of magic here, awfully entertaining, but is capable of being awfully generic. More inventiveness went into designing the costumes and sets than finding ways to film them.
But this is, after all, an introduction. We, as the filmmakers themselves, are getting our bearings in the cinematic world that is being spun from Rowling’s words. This is the first time we heard the notes of the tremendous score by John Williams, a work of cinematic scoring that equals his great themes for the Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Superman series. This is the first time we’ve seen the charming child actors who are the leads. Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson are almost impossibly charming – and cute – little actors, fully capable of the task before them: holding their own against a solid cast of British character actors. Richard Harris (Dumbledore), Maggie Smith (McGonagall), and Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid) are the lead adults inhabiting their literary characters with warmth and perfection. (Speaking of perfection, there’s Alan Rickman as Professor Severus Snape. In a perfectly cast film, he’s the most perfect). Among all the cast the lines are performed with perfection, tripping across the tongues in melodious British flavor. Between the score and the cast, this would be a movie great just to listen to if the visuals weren’t so strong.
This is the first time the camera has shown us the accoutrements of this world, a vivid and imaginative world that has rightfully taken its place among the greatest fantasy settings in cinema history, the kind of settings that cause reverence and awe among filmgoers both young and old. This film has a childlike sense of wonder at its world, and also a more kid-friendly tone. As such, the story is slighter than the others to date; the pacing is a little awkward. What works in the book doesn’t always work on the screen. The filmmakers would gain confidence in later movies to bend and condense more than they did here. Scenes of exposition drag and the finale is a bit too puzzle-like to be truly engaging.
But still, I was enchanted with the imagination of the proceedings, the red-blooded adventure, the charm of the visuals (even the few effects that now – already – feel dated), and even the nostalgia that is already settling around the film, cloaking it with a protective layer of memory. There’s real magic here, though, in the way little moments charm and big moments cause the heart to swell. It doesn’t always work moment to moment (every so often it looks like a movie about people in funny hats) but it settles satisfyingly in the end. It’s a solid start to what has shaped up to be a great franchise.
Stay tuned to this very blog for further posts on previous Potters which should pop up like clockwork through the new release, culminating with a review of the new film late next week.
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
There has been talk lately of Michael Bay as an auteur. This is healthy discussion as it does good to remind us all that acclaim is not a prerequisite for an auteur and talking about a director in such terms is not necessarily an endorsement. This thought came to me while watching, of all things, The Proposal, choreographer-turned-director Anne Fletcher’s third film after Step Up and 27 Dresses. She makes films in a flat, unremarkable style centering on female characters whose professional drives cause them to neglect their personal lives. Her films aren’t good – I’ve yet to like one of them – but they share this theme. Is Anne Fletcher an auteur? Maybe so.
The Proposal isn’t a good film despite the (diluted) presence of likable comedic performers Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. The set-up is crisp, clear screwball template: career-woman Bullock will be deported and demoted unless she can get a green card. The door opens and there stands Reynolds, her handsome assistant. She can’t get deported, you see, because they’re getting married. (If he doesn’t go through with the ruse, she tells him behind closed doors, she’ll ruin his career.)
To prove it’s a true marriage to a steely-eyed government official, the two of them take off for Alaska and Reynolds’s hometown. Lots of tomfoolery occurs and it’s nice to see so much of the comedy (initially) rest on the faces of the leads. The first several minutes of the movie is fairly entertaining as Bullock and Reynolds can bring down the house with the smallest shift of their expression. It’s not so nice to see these quick-witted, likable actors saddled with a dreary plot that cares more about the coincidences and contrivances than the characters or the chemistry between them. I never bought that the two of them would fall in love. Nor did I believe Reynold’s twinkly-eyed sitcom family, including big-hearted but cold-shouldered dad Crag T. Nelson, warm and loving mom Mary Steenburgen, hottie (and nice! and smart!) ex-girlfriend Malin Akerman, and too-good-to-be-true grandma Betty White.
This is all sitcom-ready casting and material, but this is no half-hour pilot. The movie drags on for nearly two hours with limp, hokey slapstick and unbelievable leaps and changes within the characters. That I uniformly liked the cast made it all the more disappointing. With this cast, and this situation, this could have been an overheated, tightly-wound screwball comedy (or at the very least a door-slamming farce) but it was not to be. The movie never gets the right momentum for takeoff.
By the end of The Proposal, I began to rethink my initial thought about Anne Fletcher as an auteur. Sure, she’s returned to the same theme three times now but is blandness a distinctive enough style? After sitting through an overlong supposed comedy (you can tell it’s funny because the poster is white with red letters) that neither worked as intended or irked, I came to only one firm conclusion about Ms. Fletcher. I’m not ready to defend her until she makes a film that’s worth my time.
Sunday, July 5, 2009
The key to decoding Land of the Lost comes from a 70's pop song, played three-fourths of the way into the movie, that croons, among other lyrics, “summer breeze makes you feel fine.” The movie is nothing more or less than a summer breeze, a sweet-and-sour candy confection, lightweight, insubstantial, and not at all good for you. The movie takes the basic concept of the cult-favorite 70s show (and the mostly forgotten 90s series remake) and turns it into a freewheeling, goofball Will Ferrell plot with googly-eyed pop-art set design by Bo Welch and stylish direction from Brad Silberling. This isn’t a great film but it works, at least some of the time, on its own terms.
Ferrell plays Dr. Rick Marshall, a washed up paleontologist who lives in shame from his outburst on The Today Show, a scene that opens the movie with a funny performance from Matt Lauer and great callbacks to a certain movie star’s appearance on the same program. Marshall is encouraged by Holly (Anna Friel), the only scientist who believes his theories about time warps, to test out his theories. They meet up with Will, an ambitious redneck carny (the always funny Danny McBride), for a routine expedition that soon encounters the greatest earthquake ever known. The three of them end up in the Land of the Lost, a funky world where lizard-people, monkey-people and dinosaurs coexist with other strange flora and fauna, not to mention the copious cultural detritus like a hotel, mannequins, and an ice cream truck.
There’s an off-kilter charm to the set design and special effects. I was thoroughly delighted by Enik, a lizard-scientist who greets our heroes and agrees to help them return home. The plot seems almost incidental to these characters that stumble and bumble around this strange land. There’s no real reason for them to be there, so thoroughly ill-equipped to handle the zaniness around them. There’s a palpable disconnect to the style that has these people starkly standing out from the background, the semi-fake scenery and the collision of the kiddy humor and adult innuendoes. It is this very disconnect that provides an uneasy tension and a source of humor. This doesn’t play out like a good-natured spoofing of a classic show, nor does it roll out as a slick fantasy thriller. Rather, the film shuffles through a combination of the two with truly odd commitment to both halves. It’s a film that never really comes together, but the odd tension at its center (driven by a bongo and banjo score by Michael Giacchino) makes it compelling and entertaining.
Friday, July 3, 2009
12 Rounds (2009, Renny Harlin)
On Blu-ray 12 Rounds, the creaky B-movie actioner from hit-and-miss director Renny Harlin, has some clear imagery and fine booming explosions, but those do nothing to mask the horrid noise the plot makes as its gears turn. It stars John Cena – a professional wrestler with solid screen presence – as a police officer who runs afoul of a criminal mastermind (Aidan Gillen) who creates a series of convoluted scavenger-hunt style traps, most involving morality lessons, stuff that blows up, or both, for his foe to navigate. Though Cena holds his own as a competently compelling action star – it’s no worse than early Dwayne Johnson stuff like The Scorpion King – the villain never seems threatening, nor does there ever seem to be any real menace behind any of the traps. By giving us the outline – 12 rounds – in advance, it never seems to matter what happens moment to moment. The gears turn. On to the next round. I barely cared enough to shrug.
Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience (2009, Bruce Hendricks)
The filmed Jonas Brothers concert (aptly called Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience) is not a great concert film. There’s no thought or artistry behind the presentation (like Stop Making Sense or The Last Waltz), no immediately obvious historical importance (like Woodstock or Gimme Shelter), but it looks good. The boys are polished performers and their songs are catchy enough even though their sometimes antic movements (spins, flips, and cartwheels) ring false and their lyrics err on the side of bland. In Blu-ray, the image really shines. The lights, fireballs, water and smoke pop off the screen in vivid, dazzling ways. Freed from the burden of being forced to watch the film through a hazy 3D veneer, the image is beautifully striking.
The movie’s shoddily constructed, though, with dumb clips of crazed fans and staged moments that are awkwardly inserted and quite unnecessary. A chase sequence that opens the film harkens unflatteringly to the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, a film – and group – with infinitely greater energy and style. A clip package of hysteric fans seems to border on poking fun at these people who are ostensibly the movie’s target audience. Another package of clips showcases Jonas Brothers impersonators. Why are they in this movie? I doubt even the director has insight into this inclusion, with no possible motivation other than padding the runtime. During the performance itself, an oddly phallic symbol is brought out – if you see the film, you’ll recognize it – but luckily it’s discarded fairly quickly. Surely, though, someone amongst the Disney/Jonas Empire would have been juvenile enough to point it out before it made it to the tour, let alone get recorded for a film.
Beyond all that, though, are great visuals and sound that dance across the screen and speakers, capable of creating a superficially enjoyable experience for the open-minded viewer. If you walk in hating the Jonas Brothers, there’s no hope for you. It’s strange, though, to note that the Jonas Brothers seem to be as slickly commercialized, and often robotically disengaged from the pure act of performance, as the Rolling Stones in last year’s equally callously corporatized Shine a Light. (Though, to that film’s credit, it also looked and sounded great, with the added benefit of some of the best cinematographers in the business and a better, more diverse, catalog of songs). Have the Jonas Brothers been hollowed out so soon by corporate interests? Let’s hope not. They have genuine talents and I sincerely hope they get a better chance to use them.