Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sister Act: RAMONA AND BEEZUS

Ramona and Beezus is based on the much-loved children’s novels of Beverly Cleary that follow the exploits of the fictional families who live on Klickitat Street in Portland, Oregon. Throughout the dozens of books, the main characters were, more often than not, the Quimbys and their friends. Though they are not without their fair share of problems, the Quimbys are rich in happiness; they’re always ready to make lemonade out of lemons.

Cleary’s first book was published in 1950. Through the screenplay adaptation by Laurie Craig and Nick Pustay, who pull plot points from many of the stories, and the direction of Elizabeth Allen, the film takes a 50’s sensibility and filters it through modernity. It achieves an effect that approaches timelessness. Ramona and Beezus is a sweet, wholesome, G-rated experience, but it’s not without some small nuance and genuine emotion. These positive qualities shine through even Allen’s small missteps, like with a handful of obvious music cues. This is a rare live-action family comedy that’s free of cheap innuendo and mean pratfalls.

This is a film that deals honestly with a sisterly relationship. Ramona, age 9, is imaginative and mischievous. She seems to get in trouble merely because she has too many ideas to fit in each day. Joyfully inhabited by newcomer Joey King, Ramona is an irrepressible creative spirit prone to flights of fancy and fits of exaggeration. She accidentally wreaks havoc, from an ill-advised car wash to pulling on a classmate’s fancy, bouncing curls. But she (almost) always has good intentions, and her big sister can see that when she’s not on the receiving end of the damage.

Her big sister is Beatrice, age 15, with a baby-talk nickname, Beezus, bestowed long ago by Ramona. She’s self-conscious, easily annoyed, and unsure of her own confidence. In other words, she’s directly in the middle of her awkward teenage years. She’s desperately trying to strike a balance, yearning to be older while wanting more time as a kid. Disney Channel alum Selena Gomez plays Beatrice with just the right level of complexity the movie requires. She loves her sister, feels protective of her, finds that they can confide in one another, but she is also quick to get upset by Ramona’s antics. This is a film that accurately finds the strain and strength in the relationship between sisters without ever making its observations broad or obvious.

The film also deals touchingly with parent-child relationships. Bridget Moynahan and John Corbett bring a weary love to their roles. These are patient, caring parents who truly, deeply love their children. Even a central economic crisis in the household can’t strain things too badly, though the tension it puts into an otherwise solid relationship is nicely handled. Other scenes that show simple interactions between parents and children feel wonderfully underplayed, touching where they could have gone manic, sweet where they could have gone cloying. Small moments between Corbett and King accrue a subtle power.

This is a movie that’s contagiously happy. It rarely rains on Klickitat Street. The imagery is sunny and the cast is glowing. Even small roles are delightfully filled by the likes of a beaming Ginnifer Goodwin as Aunt Bea, a charming Sandra Oh as a teacher, or a charmingly goofy Josh Duhamel as a neighbor. This is a movie filled with gentle laughs and soft sniffles. It’s refreshing to see a family film so simple and casual in its portrayal of good people with decent relationships. What could easily have felt monotonous and maudlin instead feels truthful.

It may be hard to believe sometimes, but some people have mostly happy childhoods. Some neighborhoods are essentially safe, pleasant environments to raise a family, even to this day. But that doesn’t mean these lives in these places are without incident or without struggle. This is a movie that feels true to these characters, true to real people who are like these characters, and true to the gentle, heart-warming spirit of Cleary’s original stories. It’s the sweetest, most welcome surprise of the summer.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Diminishing Returns: THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE

When experiencing a novel, the reader controls the speed. In the case of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl who Played with Fire, I found skimming to be the most enjoyable way to read the absurdly specific prose. In this novel, characters don’t simply drive; they take this type of car going south on this particular street so many kilometers and then turn left next to the small grove of trees next to a gas station. Characters don’t simply make a phone call; they pull out a particular brand of cell phone and dial a certain number. With the magic of skimming through the text, I still found the book to be lumpy and a slog, but I arrived at the occasional flashes of excitement much faster. It’s a mildly enjoyable summer tome.

In the theater, watching the movie version slowly slide through the projector, I wished for the same freedom to breeze past details. I didn’t much care for it’s film predecessor, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, either, but I found myself yearning for its comparatively greater pleasures. The Girl who Played with Fire doesn’t have anything that made me as mad as the earlier film at its most exploitative, but by the end I wish had a felt something other than boredom.

Sure, Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist are back as Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist. They do a great job inhabiting these characters that are certainly striking in their details. The thin, short, pierced and inked hacker Salander, especially, is worthy of the praise that has been thrown her way. She’s a memorable construction, to be sure, but I can’t be the only one who wishes that she were given more to do.

In this installment she’s kept off screen for quite a while, and when she does emerge to impact the plot it’s in ways that seem too pat and predictable. Most of her scenes in the film involve her sitting and smoking or, if we’re lucky, she’ll be reading or writing on her laptop. I understand that research is important to the plot, but it’s hard to get excited about so much typing. Salander is the one striking aspect of the whole film and she’s nearly overshadowed by scene after scene in which hastily described characters flow in and out of the plot with little explanation. It’s a complex plot that’s blurrily, ploddingly, and confusingly told. By the time the film reached its climax with sordid discoveries and cliffhanger showdowns, it was too little too late.

Thrillers work best when they move like clockwork, effortlessly moving character and plot in perfect synchronicity. Here director Daniel Alfredson, working from the screen adaption by Jonas Frykberg, is content to show us where each gear is and then close up the clock forgetting to put the hands on the clock’s face. I can hear the plot ticking away, but it’s of no practical use.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Scary Spice: SALT


If nothing else, Salt proves that movie star driven filmmaking can still work when given a tight script, solid craftsmanship and an exciting premise. Luckily, the film does much more than that. It’s also an elegant, exhilarating spy movie, both a throwback to simpler times when the Russians were our clear-cut Cold War enemies and also a wholehearted embrace of cutting-edge techno-gadgets and shiny modern surfaces. But it’s mostly about the movie star who fills nearly every scene with megawatt presence.

The star in question is Angelina Jolie playing Evelyn Salt, a C.I.A. agent who is accused of being a Russian spy. She claims innocence, but then takes off running. She’s not an easy protagonist to like, distant and uncommunicative once the action gets going. We don’t see her in many soft moments, nor does she explain herself on the rare occasions that she stops to catch her breath. She always seems to be one step ahead of us, and it’s fun to try and catch up.

Jolie is much different here than her last solo action effort, the two Lara Croft: Tomb Raider movies from nearly 10 years ago in which she was called upon to do little more than fill a tight T-shirt while posing her way through elaborate special effects. Here Jolie delivers layers of ambiguity and holds her own in striking close ups that play up her high cheek-bones and her ability to look severe one moment and fragile the next. She’s a remarkably nuanced action hero, made all the more remarkable by how the movie is so willing to make her look so cool.

Evelyn Salt is a mix of LeCarre’s career spies and Jason Bourne, with a dash of The Manchurian Candidate for added flavor, but none of the above were clever, fashionable, capable women. She’s a striking image to see dashing across the screen. She’s running full speed through dangerous stunts, delivering punches and kicks while bouncing off the walls or darting through traffic. She’s clever and resourceful, pulling off surprising escapes. Salt is undeniably awesome. The movie may not always let the audience in on her plans, but I still really wanted her to succeed.

Salt is pursued by C.I.A. agents played by Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor, who happen to be two consistently undervalued performers. They bring weight and shades of gray to what could easily have become nothing more than a pair of forgettable foils. The way they balance out the conflicts in the movie (they have to catch her, but could they trust her claim to innocence?) reminded me of Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive. They’re not quite up to that level – the script doesn’t allow them that opportunity – but they’re close.

The film careens through tense action beats and all kinds of twisty spy skullduggery. (Even Lee Harvey Oswald is name-dropped). All the while, it makes good use of Jolie’s simultaneous vulnerability and distance, her essential apparent unknowableness. She’s both our anchor and our source of doubt. We care about her survival even though we don’t even know if we can belive her.

Director Phillip Noyce has made films across different genres over the course of his career while never enforcing a strong auteur vision on the projects. He has a fine eye for action and a good sense of narrative clarity. Here, he’s working from an enjoyable and efficient script from Kurt Wimmer. It’s a film with hardly any wasted space; the whole thing’s over in barely 100 minutes. This is solid, engaging action filmmaking.

It’s not often that a movie of any kind leaves me anxious for a follow-up, especially a non-franchise property like Salt (though I’d bet Sony is hoping for a Bourne-style franchise in-the-making), but I would have watched the sequel right then and there when the end credits stopped rolling. This movie has such a strong sense of momentum that it flies right into the credits while still speeding forward. Leaving the multiplex, I practically jogged to my car.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Quick Look: SOLITARY MAN

As written and directed by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, Solitary Man is a dispensable indie drama. It’s sleepy and bland from start to finish, despite a decent premise and a fine cast. It’s that very cast, however, that saves the film from being entirely worthless. It stars the great Michael Douglas as a car salesman who has driven his career into the ground while his personal life followed. The role is a caricature of a certain kind of baby-boomer who enters a mid-life crisis and doesn’t leave, using sex and booze as an attempt to cover up the realities of the march of time. Douglas is called upon to look great in a suit and act charming even when smarmy and grotesque. He brings a real charm to the role along with weight and humor that would otherwise, in the hands of a lesser actor, get swallowed up by the bitterness of the script. It also helps that Douglas is surrounded by some nicely tuned performances from the likes of Susan Sarandon and Mary-Louise Parker, a welcome Danny DeVito, and an impressive Jenna Fischer (who I’ve long suspected to be the strongest actor in the ensemble of The Office). While the cast does their best to elevate the material, the film remains uninspired. But at least it’s not unnotable.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The First Cut is the Deepest: WINTER'S BONE

Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone is a thriller that chills in ways that set it apart from most other thrillers. There’s a chilliness that sets in during the opening scenes, and before I knew it the chill was bone deep. It’s a chill that goes further than the film’s pale blue coloring and the wintry setting, with pale faces, crunchy steps and icy puffs of breath. It’s a chill that comes from cold actions and intentions, from cold hearts and harsh realities of the character’s lives.

The film is anchored by a powerful performance from 19-year-old Jennifer Lawrence who stars as a small-town Missouri teenager left by her deadbeat, drug-dealer dad to take care of her younger brother and sister and their invalid mother. The plot is set in motion when the sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) shows up to say that her missing father has a looming court date and has put up the property as his bail. If he doesn’t show, they’ll lose their house.

The teen sets out to find her father. At every turn the suspicious townsfolk who usually run in the same circles as the man claim they haven’t seen him in a while. But their eyes and demeanors hint at darker truths. This small-town society is closing in our lead. Even her uncle (John Hawkes) would rather forget about his missing brother than plunge into the question of the man’s whereabouts. There’s a conspiratorial nature that’s striving to keep secrets hidden, all the more dangerous for being a collection of people who all know each other, who have deep, tangled roots.

There are those who would keep the truth of her father’s location hidden. If she doesn’t find out the truth soon, her family will be homeless. They barely have the resources to survive as it is. They get by on luck, thriftiness, and the kindness of their neighbors. The menacing figures lurking around the plot are no more menacing than the threat of being pushed even further down the economic ladder.

There’s a realism on display here, building a picture of a community wherein crushing poverty is nearly as dangerous as the film’s central mystery. The specifics of the setting and character ground the frightening, chilling moments to come. It’s a subdued ache of a film that borders on becoming a slice of ice-cold southern gothic.

The restraint on display only heightens the anguish. It’s upsetting to see the girl beaten and intimidated, but it’s nearly as upsetting to watch the parallel story of their financial situation. They, and the people in their community, are endlessly trying to scrape up enough to keep living. This is not a film that looks down its nose in pity on the less fortunate. This is a film that locates their basic humanness and surrounds them with production design that feels just right. Too often though, Granik lets the local color overpower plot and character. Luckily such lapses don’t overpower the film as a whole.

The film builds to very disturbing scene, despite having the grisliest moments kept out of frame (small spoiler: it involves a rowboat and a chainsaw). But the scene that hit me the hardest is one of the smallest. After hunting squirrels, the lead’s 12-year-old brother scoops out a slimy handful of squirrel guts and asks his big sister “Do we eat these parts?” Her reply: “Not yet.”

Friday, July 16, 2010

Mind Games: INCEPTION

Christopher Nolan has always been interested in movie puzzles, movies which break apart expectations and examine why the pieces fit the way they do. His Memento follows a man with a brain injury that forces him to reconstruct the past from clues he leaves behind. The Prestige is about deconstructing magic, only to build it back up for a great twist. Insomnia is about a detective who finds that he is doubting his own memory of a shooting. Even Batman Begins and The Dark Knight aren’t mere superhero exercises; they’re interested in the tensions between chaos and order, how the dynamics of modern urban societies both foster and reject vigilantism with equal force. Now, with Inception, Nolan has plunged boldly and audaciously into the biggest puzzle of all, the subconscious mind. He has emerged with what is perhaps his finest film.

Like all the best science fiction, Inception quickly draws viewers into its world, explaining the rules efficiently and easily. In the world of this film, almost entirely like our own, there is a secret technology that allows for dreams to be shared and constructed. Nolan uses this imagined technology to construct an elaborate boxes-within-boxes plot driven at its center by an epic, meticulous dream-world heist that seems to take up most of the run time. There are a team of characters that wish to enter the mind of a certain man (Cillian Murphy) through his subconscious, laying out a dream that they designed. They wish to escape with a secret buried safely in his mind. This is all played out in fast-paced, carefully designed detail that allows Nolan to stage action across varying levels of reality and unreality. Funnily enough, what would seem like cause for confusion is handled nimbly and clearly. Here, Nolan stages the best action sequences of his career.

At the center of the film is a haunted performance by Leonardo DiCaprio as a man who has made a career out of infiltrating dreams. He’s a man who has been forged in the subconscious minds of others and yet is continually brought up short by his own. He’s haunted by memories, real and dreamt, half-remembered and half-invented. Every time he enters into another dream, he finds himself further removed from reality despite being fully aware of the artifice and possessing the tools to change the circumstances. Even his wife (Marion Cotillard) found herself seduced by the logically illogical fantasies of the mind.

DiCaprio grounds the film in an emotional truth, just as the heist plot keeps it hurtling forward. Through the planning of the heist, we get to learn how the creation of the dream-world will allow the characters to control to a certain extent the realities that they are creating, the stages on which their subject’s subconscious will play out his inner dramas and store his deepest secrets. Because the characters are enforcing their own vision on the subject’s dream, the film never tips into overtly symbolic psychedelic surrealism. These are professional people performing a job. They design a dream that will allow them to perform their task. Joseph Gordon Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, and Dileep Rao are excellent as the young professionals who set out helping DiCaprio, as is Ken Watanabe as their mysterious bankroll. Together, they add up to a formidable team, cool, smart and efficient.

Once in the world built for the heist, the film takes what we’ve learned about the rules, what we’ve seen the team planning, and throws in twists and swerves. It doesn’t all go according to plan, but because we are aware of the plan, and the stakes, it’s not so hard to keep track of the plot. Still, Nolan’s film requires concentration. It’s constantly on the move; there’s no easy spot for bathroom breaks. Nolan is not interested in holding the audience safely in a comfort zone, excessively explaining every plot detail. Here he is only interested in providing a hugely entertaining rush that is proudly imbued with the potential to baffle.

While Nolan arranges the pieces of the puzzle he is building, he keeps the pacing relentlessly exciting. This is one of the most endlessly thrilling action movies I’ve ever seen. The editing and style are energetic and slickly rewarding. The levels of reality, and surreality, involved in the physics and locations are convincingly real and satisfyingly odd. Staircases turn into M.C. Escher mazes; a train roars through a traffic jam; gravity slides; cities fold in on themselves. There are great unexpected twists to the action, like a very slow-mo fall that serves as a countdown clock of sorts, a sudden ambush on an packed city street, and an incredible sequence of hand-to-hand combat in a hotel with a suddenly constant shifting sense of up and down. I usually hate it when a critic falls back on the metaphor of a roller coaster to describe the experience of seeing a movie, but this one fits the description.

Through the unrelenting action, woven with deep emotion, Nolan creates a film with considerable power, both as an intellectual puzzle and as a feat of sheer filmmaking prowess. The cinematography presents a vision of industrial dreaming, of glossy specificity to this real-world artifice where the dreams are all the more unsettling for being so close to how we experience what we call reality. These are not loopy, wildly colored and bizarrely populated dreams of the kind we are used to seeing represented on screen, and it’s all the creepier for their relative sane insanity. The film creates clearly delineated levels of existence, of sleep and wake, or experiences both real, remembered, created, dreamt and suggested and then proceeds to push even further, blurring the lines in subtle ways. And yet the editing keeps things totally clear. It’s unceasingly exciting, hurtling through its complicated plot at breakneck speed, but I always understood where we were and what reality was understood to be. I think.

The film moves with a visceral velocity. I felt like I was being pulled forward by the force of the filmmaking. I found myself leaning forward trying to catch every detail on the screen, straining my ears to better hear. Like the victim at the center of the film, Nolan had me totally immersed in his fiction, in this world of his creation. It has the kind of great sci-fi hook that is used as a starting point for exploring deeper concepts and harsher truths, all the while thrilling with fantastically gripping action. It so thoroughly transported me that I hardly realized time had passed before the credits appeared. As I walked out of the theater my mind was racing and my heart was pounding. And when I walked down the hall to my apartment, for a brief, fleeting moment, I thought I could feel the walls move and gravity shift. It’s been a few hours now since the movie ended and I’m still racing with excitement. Inception is the biggest thrill of the year so far.


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Charm Offensive: THE SORCERER'S APPRENTICE

It’s not every day that you can see a big summer action-adventure based on a Goethe poem that was previously adapted into a short segment in the beloved Fantasia, but that’s exactly what you get with The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. It’s loud and expensive, much like other Jerry Bruckheimer productions including the dumb National Treasures which share, in Jon Turteltaub, the same director as this new feature. They also share the same star, Nicolas Cage, but Sorcerer’s Apprentice has the good sense to embrace the actor’s loopier side.

Looking through a mess of long hair and a floppy fedora, with a long trenchcoat flapping behind him, Nicolas Cage certainly looks the part of a more than one-thousand-year-old sorcerer now living in Manhattan, who trained under Merlin and has spent centuries searching for his master’s replacement. Cage hams it up, bugging out his crazy eyes and strutting through each scene with a magical confidence. He’s also hilarious. Early in the film, following a statement made by Cage, a character asks “how do you know that?” Cage spins and fixes a wild gaze on the character while shouting “because I can read minds!” Total commitment to a ridiculous role is the name of the game here, and the film is better for Cage’s participation.

It helps that Cage is facing off with a rival ancient sorcerer played by Alfred Molina, who brings an equal commitment to his suavely villainous cheeseball. He makes a grand entrance, forming out of a squirming mass of cockroaches. Out of all the actors in the world, perhaps only Molina could look so effortlessly nonchalant about a cockroach crawling up his nostril in his first big close-up. He’s having a ball, chewing on all his lines with clear satisfaction and infectious fun.

The two sorcerers are after a nesting doll that contains the trapped essences of various evil magicians from centuries past. Cage wishes to keep it out of the hands of Molina, who wants to free the evil in order to raise an army of the dead. To further complicate matters, this hunk of magical wood was inadvertently lost a decade earlier by college student Jay Baruchel, who may just be the one true heir to Merlin’s powers. Cage suspects as much, so he takes the lad under his wing to teach him the ways of using sorcery for good, not evil. And, of course, he’ll need his help to battle all the encroaching forces of darkness. What would a summer blockbuster be without encroaching forces of darkness?

This all sounds complicated, but the film wears its mythology lightly, preferring instead to go right for the big, splashy, effective set-pieces involving all kinds of kinetic magical danger and derring-do. Mixed in is a healthy dose of humor. This is a movie that is faintly aware of just how ridiculous it own story is. Cage and Molina aren’t the only ones having a ball. Baruchel is charming and funny as a geeky asocial guy who only cares about this girl (Teresa Palmer) that he’s loved since he was ten and with whom he just might be making a connection. She might even want to, you know, date him. And then all this crazy stuff about legends and curses and magic and good and evil? It’s almost more than he can take.

I went into the theater with very low expectations and, while I wasn’t blown away, I was pleasantly surprised. This is a mostly fast moving and enjoyable experience. The effects are convincing and are put to good use. It’s genuinely exciting and amusing. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is not great, but it’s much better than the majority of this summer’s offerings from this genre, and it’s certainly just right for an uncomplicated couple of hours at the multiplex.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Quick Look: CHLOE














In Chloe, Julianne Moore feels emotionally cut-off from her teenage son (Max Thieriot) and suspects that her husband (Liam Neeson) is cheating on her. Rather than rest on her suspicions, and yearning for a way out of the loneliness and distance she feels growing in her familial relationships, she hires a prostitute (Amanda Seyfried) to flirt with her husband, befriend him, and see if he’ll have an affair. From that bare-bones plot description, it sounds like the film’s interests lie only in its more prurient scenes. While, yes, the film is interested to a certain extent in what goes on between sheets, it is a film that is much more interested in what goes on behind closed doors. And that is an important distinction. The film is not about sex; it’s about secrets. It’s not about affairs; it’s about what we assume. It’s not about what we see; it’s about what we think we see. Director Atom Egoyan is keenly interested in the darker side of human nature, the self-destructive, impulsive desires lurking in the corners of our minds. Chloe is no Exotica or The Sweet Hereafter, to name two better Egoyan efforts, but it’s still a dark, gut-twisting thriller about these characters and the way they interact (or don’t). It’s an exceedingly well-crafted exercise, well-acted and handsomely shot, but one that’s at its best the further it strays from standard thriller tropes. Funnily enough, the film only gains tension the more it gets away from questions like “who knows what?” and “what’s around the corner?” Egoyan’s film falls apart in the last act, with Erin Cressida Wilson's script giving in to its latent thriller tendencies in some fairly goofy ways. But isn’t it funny that the film shares the same downfall as its characters? They, too, find it hard to resist the allure of that which could leave them worse off than before.

Quick Look: THE BOUNTY HUNTER

As written by Sarah Thorp and directed by Andy Tennant, The Bounty Hunter is a film entirely lacking in interest. It’s a thriller with no thrills, a comedy without laughs, a romance without chemistry or even an ounce of genuine sentiment. This is a shrill, snarky mess that moves slowly and dumbly from plot point to plot point, grinding down any talent to be found in the cast or any goodwill to be found in me. Gerard Butler is a bounty hunter who is hired to track down his ex-wife, newspaper reporter Jennifer Aniston, who just skipped bail. This is a painful, odious comedy which sends two characters that convincingly dislike each other hurtling through set-pieces of uninspired slapstick and then expects us to believe that they fall back in love. Not even Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell could have made such inanity plausible. Could we reasonably expect more from Butler and Aniston? The supporting cast is filled out with talented, likable, funny people like Christine Baranski, Jason Sudeikis, and Jeff Garlin, but the movie is so overlong, ugly and unconvincing, that they don’t make much impact. To see this movie is to nearly drown in ferocious stupidity, gasping for the rescue of the end credits.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Night of the Hunter: PREDATORS


With Predators, director Nimrod Antal continues his streak of consummate B-movie craftsmanship, following the better-than-you’d-expect Armored, by making his creature feature chill and thrill with efficient, streamlined artistry. Of course, his film is no less silly at its core than its Predator predecessors, but it still manages to work, on average, better. It’s certainly not Antal’s fault that the film ends up not that great. It runs out of stream just when it should be ramping up, but for the majority of its runtime, Predators is just diverting enough.

The film transposes the original’s earthbound alien hunter concept into a more otherworldly setting. It opens with Adrien Brody, as an ex-military mercenary, waking up while plummeting from the sky, wearing a parachute that automatically opens. When he lands, he finds himself joined by other tough figures from around the world. There’s the grizzled Danny Trejo, the tough Alice Braga, the overwhelmed Topher Grace, the slimy Walton Goggins, the gruff Oleg Taktarov,the stoic Louis Ozawa Changchien, and the strong Mahershalalhashbaz Ali. They’re all deadly – well, except for Grace – and they’re all very angry. It soon becomes clear that they’ve been kidnapped and dropped onto an alien planet to be hunted by the Predators. Why does it become clear? Because Adrien Brody’s a really, really good guesser.


For most of the film, the characters dodge traps, shoot at aliens and try to survive. Antal deploys the special effects with a surprising visceral force. The mix of practical and digital effects is very convincing; the images have a heft and danger that is hard to achieve in this age of cheap, easy CGI. When the actors tumble down a hill, avoid falling spikes, or splash over a waterfall, it looks and feels like real people performing physical stunts. This extra spike of old-school danger is enhanced by Antal’s great eye for compositions and ability to hold a shot for longer than modern schlock usually allows.

And the movie’s certainly schlock. The Predator series strikes me as having one of the most limiting concepts of any franchise. I mean, once you’ve seen one ugly alien hunter stalking a group of people, you’ve seen them all. But, it’s to Antal’s credit, and to the credit of screenwriters Alex Litvak and Michael Finch, working from a concept by producer Robert Rodriguez, that this picture moves and thrills as much as it does. It’s convincingly exciting and scary, moving with a slimy speed that zips things along. The movie really works, bringing the low-rent summer fun in mildly satisfying, if often unsurprising, ways.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Duplass Filmmaking: CYRUS

I’m sure it’s a backhanded compliment, or, more likely, not a compliment at all, to say that the films of the brothers Duplass always leave me with a deeply felt sense of nothing. From their first film, the light but likable road-trip film Puffy Chair (2005), to Baghead (2008), their sophomore effort and experiment in meta-horror, I find their work to be slight whiffs. They’re not entirely without merit, and I basically enjoyed them both, the former more than the latter, but they don’t stick. With their new film Cyrus, the brothers have made a step into mainstream filmmaking, of a sort, with a pseudo-indie featuring big names (John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, Marisa Tomei, Catherine Keener) while keeping the shaggy slightness of their previous films entirely intact. In fact, Cyrus is probably the best of their three features, despite ending one scene too soon where Puffy Chair found satisfying open-endedness and Baghead became self-defeating in overambitious genre tweaking.

But, before I go any farther, it must be asserted that Cyrus is in fact an often enjoyable movie. Opening with Reilly as a depressed divorcee, drunkenly seeking a new girlfriend at a party to which his ex-wife (Keener) invited him, the movie immediately makes clear that the loose, improvisational, often casually funny Duplass style has remained intact. Singing obnoxiously along to the hosts’ stereo and comparing himself to Shrek somehow wins Reilly the affection of a very warm and caring woman (Tomei). They start dating, but the other shoe drops, as it must in screen romances, when it is revealed that Tomei has, in the form of a casually threatening Jonah Hill, a 21-year-old unemployed mama’s boy living with her. Their relationship is very close and Hill is not about to let some interloper trash it.

I laughed enough at Cyrus, but the comedy seems almost beside the point. The acting here creates characters that feel raw and untamed. The exchanges and interactions between them, reportedly heavily improvised, are fumbling and offhandedly, almost accidentally, humorous. Reilly and Tomei create characters that are immediately sympathetic and understandable. It is this sympathy that pulls me through, rolling over my quibbles with the plotting as the film finds a comfort zone in its plot points then seems to get stuck on repeat for a bit before it can move on.

I liked the leads; it’s what kept me watching. But what kept me interested was Jonah Hill who is funny, yes, but also a creepy and deeply strange character here. The son’s attempts to insert himself between his mother and her boyfriend to slowly sabotage a burgeoning relationship are subtle and devious emotional manipulation. It’s to the credit of all involved that the film never goes broad with his antics. It’s slowly creepy and scarily simple the ways he unsettles Reilly and plays with Tomei’s emotions.

So this is a funny, odd, enjoyable little movie, well-acted and worthy of attention. That much is worth reiterating before Cyrus becomes doomed to be known as that movie with the crazy zooms, as some cinephiles would have you know. But those zooms are weird, often seemingly unmotivated and distracting in their eagerness to suddenly leap back or plunge in. At the movie’s best, the zooms are barely noticeable; at its worst, they’re off-putting.

I first saw Cyrus at a festival screening some months ago, catching up with it again just the other day as it moves through an expanding release. Both times, I found myself having a good time, more or less, but the months between found my memory of enjoyment evaporating. This is a movie that delivers fun on impact, but fades fast. In that way, this film is definitely of a piece with the Duplass brothers’ other films. They’re charming guys and smart filmmakers. I look forward to the day they make a film that lingers.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Dastardly Deeds: DESPICABLE ME

There’s some Peter Sellers in Steve Carell’s voice-performance as Gru, the Inspector Clouseau of supervillains who is the focus of Despicable Me, the latest computer animated extravaganza, this time from Universal instead of the usual animation houses. Gru speaks in an indeterminately Slavic accent as he bumbles his way through elaborate schemes that only occasionally work by accident. He’s not even considered to be a great villain. He’s certainly not as great as Vector (Jason Segal) who just stole the Pyramids. In fact, on the morning of the great Giza heist, Gru was popping a kid’s balloon and later using a freeze-ray to shorten the line at Starbucks.

Despite help from an elderly mad scientist (Russell Brand) and an army of little scene-stealing yellow nugget-creatures – Minions, he calls them, though I would bet they share some part of their DNA with the Oompa Loompas – Gru is considered to be a hopelessly ineffective villain. Why, none of his schemes have ever turned a profit. His new scheme does look promising though, especially since he has adopted help from a nearby orphanage, three extremely adorable little girls.

All of this is relayed quickly and charmingly in the opening scenes of Despicable Me, which never reaches the heights that other recent family films have, but moves with such energy and style that it’s hard to resist. The plot is a little predictable. Of course those three sisters will melt Gru’s heart. Is that even in doubt? And of course the voice cast is ridiculously overqualified, with people like Julie Andrews and Kristen Wiig given only a few lines each. But the animation is appealing and the pure zaniness of the proceedings is certainly welcome. This is the kind of animated movie that spins out sight-gags and loopy visuals with a Loony Tunes inspired rapid-paced visual wit (even if it doesn’t approach the breakneck speed of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs).

There’s a charm to the movie’s whole-hearted embrace of cartoon physics and slapstick violence devoid of consequences. Rockets explode, gadgets backfire, Minions – and Gru – are squished, smushed, and shot at, yet the worst that ever happens is a coating of soot. But, when the big climax comes and characters we’ve grown to like are in danger, it’s kind of frightening, albeit still in a safe, cartoony, thoroughly kid-friendly way. This climactic danger is heightened by the 3D effect, which amplifies the distance found in a mighty threatening drop. This is the rare movie that actually uses 3D’s added dimensionality for good effect. Rather than merely diminishing a 2D film (The Last Airbender) or applying a barely-noticeable 3D gloss (Toy Story 3), Despicable Me uses the extra space for some gags, some danger, and some added goofiness.

In this summer of cynical, bludgeoning, failing blockbusters, a summer that’s been, with few exceptions, a disappointment, a film like this is refreshing. This is a good-natured, light-hearted, high-energy crowd-pleaser. It’s uncomplicated in its entertainment value. It’s sweet, simple, silly, and satisfying.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Air Master: THE LAST AIRBENDER


M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender, adapted from a well-regarded Nickelodeon cartoon unseen by me, arrives with breathlessly negative reviews. Going into the theater, I was well prepared to witness a complete debacle, wrongheaded in every decision. Having now seen the film, I can only assume that the wave of overwhelming negativity arose from a combination of Shyamalan’s diminished reputation and the reportedly terrible quickie 3D-conversion cash grab applied in post production. I saw the movie in regular old 2D and I still view Shyamalan as a filmmaker of talent and promise. I admire the earnestness he seems to bring to each new project. The Last Airbender is a flawed movie, to be sure, but it’s not nearly as bad as some – okay, most – are saying. I don’t doubt the sincerity of the bad reviews, just their intensity.

I could talk about all the flaws of the film. I could say that the acting is wooden, the dialogue is weak, the exposition is burdensome and omnipresent, and the rules of the fantasy world are poorly explained. That’s all true, but I’d rather start by talking about what I liked about the film, which has plenty of matinee charm.

Shyamalan conjures an interesting fantasy world (even though I assume he lifted it faithfully from the cartoon series). It’s a place where different tribes worship different elements. The special among them, the benders, can control these elements. The plot of the movie concerns the reappearance of, in the form of a young boy, a special bender who can control all of the elements. The fire people, who have long ago slaughtered the air people, rule cruelly over the water, and earth people. This special boy threatens to overthrow the ruling fire people and bring about a more harmonious existence for all of the elements and their people. Naturally, the fire people want to stop him.

It’s in the not-so-grand tradition of the mid-80’s explosion of post-Star Wars fantasy-based copycats like The Beastmaster and Willow. Though, granted, The Last Airbender is better than the former and about on par with the latter. The movie is fairly typical fantasy stuff about tribes and kingdoms, warring factions, Chosen Ones and magical powers. But Shyamalan has a good eye for composing interesting shots and a good sense of pacing. The movie looks good and moves nicely. (It’s even blessed with a very likable score from James Newton Howard). I enjoyed admiring the costumes, creatures, and vehicles, especially a many-legged flying beast and strange steam-powered battleships, which are used by the people of the film’s universe. I liked their powers and the ways in which they are used; tendrils of water and bursts of fire pop nicely in the slick style of the production (at least in 2D). It’s a nicely rendered place that seems consistent with its own rules.

But those rules are also a big problem. Shyamalan doesn’t lay them out clearly or efficiently. Instead, exposition weighs heavy on every scene, coming unceasingly and not often convincing or palatable. It’s enough to give a viewer mental indigestion while trying to process every new back-story, legend, and piece of magical knowhow. It all feels just strange enough to need additional decoding and just familiar enough to not need any points belabored.

Of course, Shyamalan isn’t helped by having an especially wooden cast of central protagonists any more than the cast is helped by having to recite his creaky dialogue. The young bender at the film’s center, played by newcomer Noah Ringer, fits the look of the part but adds little else, adrift in the condensed silliness. He’s given help by a couple of young water people (Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone) who also do little more than read lines and stare off at the effects. The older members of the cast fare a bit better. I particularly enjoyed the attempts at scenery-chewing villainy from dependable character actors Cliff Curtis and Shaun Toub as well as Dev Patel (of Slumdog Millionaire) and Aasif Mandvi (a current Daily Show correspondent).

On the whole, The Last Airbender is not a film worthy of intense scorn. It’s a pleasant fantasy adventure that’s messy, goofy, and deeply flawed, yes, and it’s probably not as good as its source material, but it’s hardly the worst movie of the year. It’s not even the worst movie in wide release this weekend. I like what Shyamalan’s up to with this film, with his attempt to branch out from small-scale character-driven supernatural thrillers and get into epic mythmaking of a grander design, even though I don’t entirely like the result.
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