Monday, August 30, 2010

Life at a Funeral: GET LOW

Get Low is the latest example of how competent direction of a middling script can be elevated, even saved, by a host of great actors. The direction from Aaron Schneider, in his feature debut, is flat and flavorless. The script from Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell is full of phony cornpone sentiment that aims only at those with the most easily softened emotions. All involved in the creation of the film should be thankful that they attracted actors who can cut through the falseness to convey some emotion truth that would otherwise be nonexistent.

At the center of this modest little depression-era tale is the great Robert Duvall as a man who has lived like a hermit for 40 years. Naturally, he has also been cultivating an aura of mystery and danger among the gossiping people of the nearby town. He’s getting old and feels the weight of time and age pressing down. He heads in to town and asks the local funeral home to throw him a funeral party while he’s still alive so he can invite “everyone who has a story to tell” about him.

The owner of the funeral home is, of course, a welcome Bill Murray. He calmly sizes up the odd request and offers to get it done. Murray, and his young associate Lucas Black, set about setting up the party and grappling with the old man’s eccentricities and inconsistencies. There’s small humor to be found in the ways these three men try to get the invitations out by radio and by posters. Duvall brings to the role distant warmth that balances Murray’s sly, shifty subtlety and Black’s fresh-faced good-intentions.

The plot is wrapped around a profoundly uninteresting, though not entirely uninvolving, mystery about the true intentions behind Duvall’s self-imposed exile that is haltingly teased and ultimately revealed, but by then I cared even less. Early on, Duvall stares at a faded photograph of a young woman in a shot that fades into a close-up of a flickering flame, annoyingly telegraphing part of his past. She’s his old flame (get it?) that he has carried a torch for (get it?). Do you think the secrets in this old man’s past have anything to do with all of this flame imagery? If you do, don’t worry. Schneider won’t give you a chance to miss a thing, even if you try.

The hermit’s past is not as interesting as the film seems to think it is, but at least it gives a reason for Sissy Spacek and Bill Cobbs to enter the picture and remind us why they’re so good. Spacek has a nicely restrained emotion to her behavior while Cobbs towers over his scenes with a well-earned sense of command and a welcome melodious voice. Their performances are wonderful to watch. They even overcome the contortions the script puts them through to avoid revealing things prematurely.

Glancing back over what I’ve written, it sounds like I disliked the movie more than I actually did. At the time, I found it passably enjoyable. Only afterwards has my head been full of small complaints. This is a perfectly fine little film that’s quick and unchallenging. It’s a chance to see great actors working, using their craft in ways that go above and beyond that which this particular film calls for. It’s a nice 100 minutes with an amiable company of top-notch actors. It’s a pleasant enough diversion, enjoyable on its own terms, but it’s certainly nothing more than that.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Quick Look: I AM LOVE

I’m not the type of person to fall head-over-heels for Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love, but I am not wholly immune to its aesthetic power. And if you are the type of person who’ll flip for this lush yet chilly Euro melodrama, then you are certainly in for a treat I will not begrudge you. At best, this sumptuous story about a rich Italian family floated me into its ridiculously beautiful imagery on the swirling score culled from the work of modern composer John Adams. At worst, all the aural and visual sensations distracted and distanced me from the story, leaving me cold and uninvolved. Tilda Swinton as the main character, a repressed woman who slowly realizes the extent of her confinement as her appetites – and identity – are reactivated, is the main attraction. She’s a daring actress who plays some of the most perfectly realized, and varied, characters in film today, from Michael Clayton to The Chronicles of Narnia to Orlando. She’s a treasure. The rest of the cast members (especially Flavio Parenti as Swinton’s son and Edoardo Gabbriellini as a chef with entrepreneurial aspirations) are remarkable as well; no one strikes a wrong note or lets the filmmaking overpower performance. While the style of the film left me outside the emotion of the narrative, there is such beauty in it that I find myself with warm memories of the viewing experience. Often I Am Love hypnotized me with its filmmaking, but it was almost a disappointment every time I fell out of the trance and realized that there was an actual plot underneath.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Fish Called PIRANHA

Piranha in 3D is a disappointment in all three dimensions, though not for lack of trying. Alexandre Aja’s movie is a winking horror-comedy with a tongue so firmly in the cheek that it draws blood. It’s gratuitous in every possible way, up to and including its very existence, with something sure to offend every large portion of the general public, and yet the film never manages to generate any real transgressive charge. By the end of the run time, when the credits started to roll, I found myself thinking, “is that all there is?”

Aja’s always been a fine stylist of horror imagery, but I’ve found his prior works to be shockingly lacking, with High Tension and Mirrors containing plot holes so large and shocks so predictable that any sense of fun or danger is entirely missing. His small stylistic touches weren’t enough to alleviate my pure boredom with those projects. With Piranha, a remake of Joe Dante’s 1978 Roger-Corman-produced Jaws-inspired creature-feature, Aja has created his best film, but it’s still a disappointment. I liked just enough of it to wish it were better.

The movie starts promisingly enough with small-town sheriff Elisabeth Shue investigating a missing local (Richard Dreyfuss) and welcoming a team of geologists, led by Adam Scott, who are investigating recent seismic activity in the area. All of this is set against the backdrop of a busy Spring Break weekend that has brought hoards of idiotic amoral pleasure-seekers to writhe in the water. There’s a seedy carnival atmosphere taking over the town with slimy video producers (Jerry O’Connell and Paul Scheer) and a sleazy wet-T-shirt contest host (Eli Roth) playing ringmasters to the debauchery. It’s not a good sign that Shue’s teen son (Steven McQueen, Steve’s grandson) gets pulled into the craziness. And you know things are out of control when not even Ving Rhames with a bullhorn can command the crowd’s attention.

Of course, there are even bigger problems than crazy college kids. Those would be the thousands of starving prehistoric piranha that the aforementioned seismic activity has unleashed. Local scientist Doc Brown, I mean, Mr. Goodman (played by none other than – great Scott! – Christopher Lloyd) has grave pronouncements to make about the deadliness and danger brought by these aquatic killers. The opening scenes, and perhaps even half of the movie, alternate between scenes of ridiculously vulgar partying and swift, ominous shadows darting through the water. By the time the piranha attacks arrive, I was good and ready for some creepy-cool 3D comeuppances.

Rather than spacing them out through the length of the film, the majority of the deaths occur during one long bloody massacre of Spring-Breakers in what can only be described as the goofy gory centerpiece of the film. To be sure, some of the deaths are quite witty, like when a particularly buxom babe gets sucked underwater with, seconds later, two silicone spheres floating to the surface. It’s also a chilling rush to see hundreds of people thrashing through the water past their dying friends, capsizing boats and rafts while piranhas get blown away with shotguns and sliced to bits with boat motors. The water runs red with the blood of man and beast alike. But, after a while, what starts as horror-movie fun just grows sad. There’s a consistent, persistent intensity to this sequence that becomes literal overkill. The violence is so vivid and so sustained that it moves well past its purpose.

After the massacre we are given some perfunctory scenes of action and incident that are meant to resolve the immediate peril of the surviving characters. But then, it’s over. There’s a nice, shocking punchline that sends us into the credits (albeit one that’s front and center in the advertising), but the sense of disappointment is tough to shake. Sure, Shue’s family gives the movie a nice through line, but there’s little else of narrative interest. As the credits rolled, I found myself in a state of disbelief. The movie feels unfinished, like screenwriters Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg wrote two-thirds of story and then never got around to writing a proper climax. The massacre makes for an overlong climax when it really feels like it should be the midpoint. I didn’t exactly enjoy the movie, but I wish it were longer.

Then again, this is a movie that really only promises to give you people being eaten by piranhas in 3D. It succeeds on that count. But the violence would have gone down better if it weren’t so confined in mostly that one sequence. And when the movie comes stocked with such charismatic performers like Lloyd and Rhames, Shue and Scott, is it wrong to expect that they be given something to do? They barely have a chance to stretch their genre muscles. Aja has made a movie that’s in the spirit of all kinds of fun, trashy low-budget horror flicks, but he is much more successful at bringing the trashy than making it fun.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Quick Look: THE BACK-UP PLAN

I find Jennifer Lopez to be an appealing screen presence, but she makes it hard to defend her work when she appears in so many horrible movies. For every excellent movie like Out of Sight, she turns up in a half-dozen Monster-in-Laws. Her latest terrible effort is The Back-Up Plan in which she is a woman who gets artificially inseminated because she’s worrying about the ticking of her biological clock and her lack of a good man. In a wacky coincidence, on her way out of the doctor’s office, she meets The One (Alex O’Loughlin). This comedy-in-name-only tested my patience by consisting of nothing more than a pile-up of many bad, bland comedy clichés that I detest. There’s an overcomplicated, overreaching high concept. There’s unconvincing, unbelievable characters. There are reaction shots from animals as laugh cues, poorly executed pratfalls, lame sub-sitcom one-liners, and the belief that references to bodily functions are inherently funny. There’s even that all-too-common pregnancy test scene in which the character seems to forget that it is covered with urine. (Later, a secondary character has a birthing scene that is shockingly, aggressively, awful). Director Alan Poul and writer Kate Angelo take every opportunity to turn each scene into an endurance test. The whole movie is nothing more than one long, painfully obvious pregnancy joke lazily, boringly told.

Quick Look: CITY ISLAND

Every member of the family at the center of City Island has a secret. The blue-collar prison guard father (Andy Garcia) wants to be an actor. The mother (Julianna Margulies) smokes. The daughter (Dominik Garcia-Lorido) got kicked out of college and is now saving up money by performing at a strip club. The son (Ezra Miller) secretly sneaks peeks at the neighbor’s webcam peep show. That’d be enough to secrets to fill up a movie even if the father didn’t bring home a recently released prisoner (Steven Strait) who also happens to be his long-lost illegitimate son (which just so happens to be yet another secret in the mix). Writer-director Raymond De Felitta has all the elements in place for a rich farce, but then proceeds to deploy them in befuddling, inadequate ways. Awkwardly paced, the film trudges along with the characters, pushing the secrets along with them. There’s certainly little else of interest. The writing is flat, the performances adequate, and the imagery routine. Finally, as a climax, we get a scene that has all the skeletons come out of the closets at the same moment in a scene that’s embarrassingly contrived. There’s an appealing spirit about the film and the actors are certainly likable enough (they’re even joined by Emily Mortimer and Alan Arkin), but I still spent the entire 104 minutes wondering when it would get good.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Family Ties: THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT

Writer-director Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right arrives as one of the most acclaimed films of the year. While I don’t find myself in agreement with the most ebullient of raves, I can understand where they’re coming from. It didn’t entirely thrill me with its charm, but I nonetheless found the film to be a source of great enjoyment. As a portrait of a marriage, as a portrait of a family, I appreciated its honesty. As a comedy, I appreciated its wit. It’s well done.

On the plot level, I found the film to be surprisingly lacking. The film finds a family’s teenage daughter (Mia Wasikowska) getting ready to leave for college. It also finds fractures in its lead couple’s marriage. Both aspects of the plot are joined by its greatest inspiration, the introduction of the daughter’s, and her brother’s, “real” father (Mark Ruffalo), a sperm donor. What makes the film’s fairly standard family dramedey plot sing with small originality is the fact the parents are lesbians. Annette Benning and Julianne Moore are convincing as an aging married couple, with Benning delivering an especially rich performance.

While the film is about a gay marriage, it never lingers on that fact. It doesn’t become a parade of one-note scenes that chip away at an obvious message of tolerance. This sure isn’t a remake of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Instead, the film is simply a routine indie-comedy about a family, about parenting, about marriage. In fact, the sense of familiarity sometimes works against the film, but by keeping the message implied, Cholodenko ends up making the message even stronger.

Benning and Moore play characters that are not far from the parent characters in any other film of this type, but they have the added benefit of additional nuance. They’re a loving couple with small cracks in their relationship that will only be widened by secrets and ever-increasing busyness. Wasikowska and her brother, played by Josh Hutcherson, are perfectly normal teens. They push back against their parents while still finding themselves drawn to the comfort they represent. But, of course, they’re also curious about their donor-dad.

Ruffalo’s character feels more like a plot point than a character. Despite fine acting, the donor-dad is ultimately just an excuse for all of the other characters to react in ways that reveal their character through behaviors that aren’t always interesting. He’s an excuse for characters to reveal their thoughts and personalities without resorting to monologues. Ruffalo’s as charming as always, and the unknown donor angle keeps the movie fresh while giving it an attractive, intriguing hook. But I couldn’t help feeling that I would rather the film have just focused on the four most intriguing characters instead of becoming a subdued farce.

Yet, plot quibbles aside, the movie really works on an emotional level. I loved the tone of the piece, a melancholic lightness that feels just right for the last summer before the first child goes away to college. There’s a palpable sense of a family on the brink of change, a sense that’s only aggravated (almost unnecessarily so) by the literal plotting of the film. The editing is razor sharp; there’s a nice shape to the scenes. There’s an honest, good-natured randy quality to some of the humor that shoots through the relationships, a candidness in the family that is admirable and funny.

This is a picture of such generous clarity and truthfulness that, by the end, I didn’t care about the story at all. Instead, I loved these characters. I loved this family. I had a feeling that whatever happened to them, I’d love to watch. No story could squelch the contagious, warm-hearted goodwill these characters exude.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Grumpy Old Men: THE EXPENDABLES


The Expendables isn’t quite the battle of the action has-been all-stars that the advertising seemed to promise. That’s just as well, allowing this action movie to escape the fate of seeming like a B-movie sponsored by Madame Tussauds. As a muscle-headed action movie directed, produced, and co-written by, and starring Sylvester Stallone, it can’t help but play like a throwback to bad, overblown 80’s action, right down to the bad. It has one-liners so terribly unfunny that they loop right back around into being funny. It has a certain junky flair, and one or two worthwhile action sequences, but it’s otherwise dead in the water.

Stallone starts things off well enough, leading a group of mercenaries in a rescue mission, saving captive sailors from menacing pirates. A mix of current and forgotten action stars, Jason Statham, Terry Crews, Jet Li, and Dolph Lundgren, join Stallone as he blasts his way into a captured freighter. And when I write blast, I mean blast. Lundgren uses a gun so powerful it splatters half of a pirate against the wall. A little later, Satallone and Statham will take out nearly a dozen anonymous baddies in seconds. It’s likably absurd, but in all the gunfire I lost track of whether or not the hostages are saved.

No matter. I think the movie forgot about them too, for soon enough we’re back in the States. Stallone heads over to an empty church to meet with Mr. Church (Bruce Willis), a shadowy suit who proposes a new mission. Another mysterious tough-guy with a team of mercenaries shows up too, but he decides he’d rather not take the job. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays him. Willis, Stallone, and Schwarzenegger trade awful wisecracks and wink at the camera while standing in an awkward semi-circle. Believe it or not, it’s the campy high point of the movie, which sooner rather than later turns into depressingly generic fare.

The actual plot kicks in when Stallone and Statham head to a fictitious Latin American island to do some reconnaissance. They have a kind of awesome action moment in which they blow up a whole bunch of stuff in a cool way. (I’d rather not spoil it, but let’s just say it involves an airplane and a really big fireball). The actual plot will involve the guys gearing up to take out a slimy Eric Roberts as a rogue CIA operative who has a vaguely defined grip on the island nation and who hides behind his right-hand-tough Steve Austen.

The acting is mostly pose-and-scowl, but Statham carries the picture. He’s also the most talented actor in the cast to get any screen time of note. He’s dynamic and exciting to watch, even though his fight choreography is miles from his incredibly staged fistfights in the Transporter movies or the kinetic gory free-for-all of Crank. The movie is essentially a buddy movie with Statham and Stallone front and center for most of the action. Stallone, for his part, doesn’t let his painfully obvious plastic surgery distract from his wooden delivery. He’s too tough a guy to let apparent facial paralysis get in the way of his emoting.

Mickey Rourke wanders through the movie for a few scenes, spouting dumb dialogue and one nearly effective monologue. (It’s the one that starts “Remember when we was in Bosnia?”) I really don’t know what he’s doing here, but he certainly adds to the mottled ensemble that’s been assembled, as well as personifying the movie’s lack of knowing how to use the cast well.

The action smashes forward in ways increasingly dumb and dull. Terry Crews gets a very loud gun that’s good for a few interesting moments. Jet Li gets an obligatory martial arts fight that’s shot in a way that undermines its visual interest. Eventually, the movie culminates in a non-stop explosion of a climax that gets more and more incomprehensible the longer it runs. The violence, which starts strikingly exaggerated in its gore, becomes routine. The action grows wearing instead of exciting.

Still, The Expendables makes for a diverting couple of hours. It’s uncomplicated and proudly excessively macho. It’s goofy, sloppy, and ridiculous while still becoming a little too self-pleased with its perceived awesomeness.  It has its moments. Not many of them, but enough to make the movie a perfectly adequate watch on, say, a sleepy wintery weekend when it’s the only movie playing on cable that happens to be starting while you’re channel surfing.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Julia's World: EAT PRAY LOVE

Under the direction of Ryan Murphy, most recently notable for creating the TV show Glee, the popular Elizabeth Gilbert book Eat Pray Love has become a star turn for Julia Roberts who holds the screen with movie star style as she poses in exotic locations. This is a pretty travelogue with gorgeous scenery and well-dressed costars. What other leading lady in recent memory gets to be romanced by James Franco and Javier Bardem in the same picture? What other leading lady gets to indulge in lovingly prepared meals, walk through lush jungles and beautiful ruins, and look consistently endearing? This is a movie of wish fulfillment, allowing an audience to trek to Italy, India, and Indonesia with a beautiful travelling companion who lets us meet beautiful people.

It’s also a movie dripping in syrupy schmaltz, a gooey, sloppy mess that results in a movie that practically slides off the screen. This isn’t a chick flick; its a woman’s picture, but one portentous in the deep meaning it thinks it’s passing down to us. Roberts plays Elizabeth Gilbert, a writer who leaves her husband (Billy Crudup), has a fling with a struggling actor (Franco), and is all around unsettled. She tells her close friend (Viola Davis) that she feels disconnected from life, unsure of whom she really is. What she decides she needs is some time to get in touch with her appetites, her spirituality, and herself. Thus the eating, praying and loving that happens on her yearlong trek across three exotic locales.

Through her travels, Julia Roberts remains remarkably well put-together. She devours tempting plates of pasta that are sumptuously photographed. After many of those meals she mentions her need for wider pants, but when we get the shot of her struggling to button her jeans, she still looked skinny to me. She also stays remarkably clean, even when she tumbles off of a bike into a muddy ditch.

Figure and cleanliness aside, Roberts brings some small nuance to a role that, as scripted, has very little nuance inherent. She stands before breathtaking vistas, bikes through dripping, green rainforests, and meditates at an ashram in the heart of bustling India. She’s a great surrogate traveler for the audience, experiencing great beauty at every turn.

At each location, she meets people who help her along on her journey of self-discovery. The most intriguing is the sixtyish man from Texas whom she meets in India and is played by the always welcome, always excellent, Richard Jenkins. He has a moving background and a warm screen presence. Later, in Indonesia, Javier Bardem enters the picture and nearly steals the whole thing away with his effortless charm.

Yet, for all its amazing sights and charming cast, the film is frustrating in its lack of introspection. This is a story about a woman’s self-discovery, a woman coming to terms with whom she is, mentally and spiritually, finding a perfect balance and a sense of completeness. And yet, this is a film that gives us almost no sense of her interior thoughts. Sure, we get a few passages of on-the-nose narration, but we are otherwise left stranded with only occasional quivering lips, moody flashbacks, pensive eyes, and, maybe, a single tear rolling down Robert’s cheek. It’s a film that goes out of its way to convince an audience that this woman has learned Big Lessons on her journey, lessons that will change her life, change her outlook, for the better. And yet, as the credits rolled, I remained unconvinced.

Still, I found Eat Pray Love to be an agreeable experience. I liked the scenery and I liked the actors that I had to share it with. As the movie started, I found myself resisting it. I found it too maudlin, too episodic, and too full of polished imagery covering up its hollowness, it’s hodgepodge spirituality, it’s reductive view of foreign culture and it’s navel-gazing dullness. But the film outlasted my will to resist. While my early complaints still stand, by the film’s end I found myself lulled into a sense of small pleasure. It’s a shiny, big-budget, continent-spanning film with fine actors and a nice look, pleasant and undemanding. Robert Richardson’s sun-soaked cinematography is consistently lovely and the cast is enjoyable company. The film is far worse than it thinks it is, but much better than I was expecting, hardly necessary, but certainly watchable.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Level Up: SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD

The first thing I noticed about Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was that it’s a movie with interesting haircuts. The actors have hairdos that stick out in unnatural flips and strange angles, curvy bowls, supernatural spikes and neon colors, though not all on the same person at the same time. These are endearingly odd hairstyles. But that’s losing track of the point of the movie, isn’t it?

This is an aesthetically daring and improbably successful pop-art confection. Based on the cult comics by Bryan Lee O’Malley, unread by me, Edgar Wright’s film is a heady mash-up of influences, from manga to Mortal Kombat and from musicals and kung-fu movies to indie rock, Looney Tunes, and Super Mario. Far from being a woeful jumble of colliding reference points, the film adds up into a surprisingly effective cohesive experience, an arch actioner nestled inside a soulful comedy.

It’s a film in which the character’s strongest emotions manifest themselves externally, in the form of superpowers portrayed with zany cartoon embellishments and video-game trappings. Hence the dramatic supercharged duels that pepper the plot. It’s both a comment upon and a celebration of a certain youth culture that filters life’s experiences through pop culture.

At the center is Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera), a 22-year-old in a struggling garage-band that doesn’t even have a garage to practice in. He’s a pathetic guy, “chronically enfeebled” according to his sister (Anna Kendrick). On the rebound from a devastating breakup, he finds himself dating a clingy high school girl (Ellen Wong). His sister tries to talk him out of the relationship. His bandmates (Alison Pill, Johnny Simmons, and Mark Webber) think it’s a bad idea. His platonic gay roommate (Kieran Culkin) warns him against it. I think even Scott, deep down, knows this new relationship has no future.

Enter Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). She’s gorgeous, alluring, smart and funny. Scott is immediately in love. Soon, the two of them take tentative steps towards dating. But Ramona’s weighed down by the burdens of her past relationships. And this is no ordinary baggage. If Scott wants Ramona, if he truly loves her, he will have to fight and defeat her Seven Evil Exes, who have formed a League of Evil Exes under the command of the nefarious Gideon (Jason Schwartzman), oft mentioned, but unseen until the climax.

The movie proceeds in video-game style, with the pitch-perfect comedic timing of the characters’ interactions periodically intersected with fights that erupt with a visual brio that varies depending on which ex (or “level,” if you will) Scott is currently trying to beat on his way to the final Boss Fight. There’s a battle where the weapon of choice is sound waves; another finds Scott’s punches and kicks accompanied by big bold onomatopoeias (Bam! Pow! K.O.!). When defeated, the adversaries explode in a shower of coins.

The exes are often funny, featuring interestingly weird turns from the likes of Brandon Routh and Chris Evans. They’re one-note characters, but it’s fitting, given that Scott is fighting less the actual exes and more the idea of them. He’s fighting people he doesn’t even know for the love of a girl. He’s fighting to be better than all that she’s had before. And isn’t that an essential truth of relationships?

Sure, the plot gets clumpy and episodic. Its risks don’t always pay off as well as they should, but this film is still a blast. The cast is up for anything, trusting that their deadpan stylistic line readings and wild gesticulations would match up and make sense in the context of the whole explosive CGI-frenzy of the visual style that’s as rich and complicated as the characters are thin. They’re well served by Edgar Wright’s sure grasp on the tone and his nimble mingling of the visual and emotional. Together they create a brisk and winning film, surely the most formally challenging big studio picture since Speed Racer.

Scott Pilgrim is at its most satisfying when it’s at its most dizzyingly original and inventive, turning the stuff of low-culture into high-concept entertainment. After his excellent Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, Wright has created yet another B-movie with a big heart, a scruffy genre outing with shiny surfaces.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

In Your Face: STEP UP 3D


Step Up 3D is hardly innovative on the plot level. How many other modern dance movies feature dancers who need to win the big competition to meet their goals? How many other dance movies feature fresh-faced kids conquering all problems through their smooth moves? Over the last decade we’ve seen the same basic patterns of against-all-odds, wrong-side-of-the-tracks dance-battle uplift repeated in such unmemorable would-be spectacles as You Got Served, Stomp the Yard, Step Up, and Step Up 2 the Streets. Those movies saddled their dancing with too much dumb plot and then chopped up the dancing into bits of visual stimulation that flew by without a chance to appreciate the talent and physicality in the performers’ movements. Step Up 3D works better by downplaying the plotting, and toning down the dumbness, while foregrounding the glorious dance, holding shots (sometimes) long enough for us to truly appreciate the choreography.

I saw and immediately forgot the earlier Step Ups, so I entered this movie with only vague memories about what happened in earlier installments. It turned out, that works just fine. This movie seems to have almost no narrative connection to its predecessors. It follows a kid nicknamed “Moose” (Adam G. Sevani) and his best friend, but not girlfriend, Camille (Alyson Stoner) as they arrive at NYU’s freshmen orientation. They’re the breakout stars of the picture. For me, they were the two members of the cast most adept at navigating the often clumsy dialogue. They had as much of an ease with the acting as with the dancing, something that could not be said for almost anyone else in the cast.

Early in the movie, Moose’s dad gets to solemnly look at his son and express happiness that a future engineer won’t also be a dancer. That’s good for a laugh. Moose almost immediately gets into a dance battle while wandering away from the campus tour. He’s subsequently drawn into the plight of a cool dance crew that desperately needs to win a dance competition in order to pay the back rent on their warehouse that has been converted into a combination house and practice space.

Led by an aspiring filmmaker and dancer (Rick Malambri), the dance crew contains a bunch of young, talented, barely differentiated dancers that also happen to be a good cross-section of various demographics. They’re mostly background for two romance plots. Malambri falls in infatuation with a new member of the dance crew (Sharni Vinson) while the friendship between Sevani and Stoner might become something more. Those plot threads are in turn just a device to draw us in to the competition, in which there’s substantial financial stakes and a rival dance crew that wants to win at all cost. That too, is ultimately just a backdrop for the dancing, just as it should be.

Under the direction of Jon Chu, the movie looks good, with the 3D actually enhancing the content in surprising and engaging ways. Sure, those dancers are dancing right at you, but the camera’s more locked down than usual. As a result of planning and shooting in 3D, and using it well, the shots and editing are mostly planned for clarity and impact. I loved the choreography and the chance to appreciate the skill on display. Of course, I would be lying if I said I didn’t get a kick out of the 3D effects, which had me smiling while leaning back to avoid all those dancers getting up in my face.

This is a movie that’s plenty entertaining, driven by nothing more than a desire to delight. The direction is stylish; for once I felt the 3D really enhanced a live-action experience rather than distracting. The performers are engaging and their dancing is excellent. It doesn’t even matter that the plot is all second-hand clichés and 3D gimmicks taped together in an earnestly silly way. Underneath all the popping and locking, behind the thumping, toe-tapping bass of the soundtrack, Step Up 3D feels like a throwback. It’s best sequence is actually set to the welcome sounds of Fred Astaire and features a long, unbroken shot of two characters dancing down a New York City sidewalk, paying homage to the steps and spirit of the old-school studio-era musicals. There’s a charm and innocence to a movie that simply wants to dazzle with dance and actually achieves it.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Bad Cop, Bad Cop: THE OTHER GUYS


It has slowly become apparent to me that Adam McKay is one of the best directors currently working in studio comedies. That’s not to say he alone is responsible for all of the recent great comedies, far from it, but he’s far beyond the typical style of a studio comedy that does little more than set a camera in front of funny people and wait for the magic. McKay’s a skillful filmmaker. He is at his best when he has plenty of genre or period bric-a-brac to play around with like the cool 70’s vibe of Anchorman or the deep-fried NASCAR-crazy South of Talladega Nights. He pushes the styles and production design so heavily that by the time his dialogue grows increasingly off-the-wall with bizarre one-liners and the plot slips towards the surreal it feels like a natural outgrowth of the surroundings. (Maybe that’s why his last film, Step Brothers, didn’t work as well for me, as it contained the same level of weirdness rooted in a world more like our own).

With The Other Guys, McKay gets a chance to direct a buddy-cop action-comedy.  With the help of cinematographer Oliver Wood (who has worked on the Bourne films, Face/Off, and Die Hard 2 in his career), it contains enough good-looking slam-bang spectacle to rival a Bruckheimer production, but it deploys its set pieces with skill and energy that could only arise from comedy. The film opens with a literal explosion of action-packed hilarity with super-cops Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson careening through a car chase gun-battle that is both thrilling on an action level and hilarious in its (barely) exaggerated presentation. Collateral damage flips around the frames that catch shattering glass and bullet impacts in the same moments as the overheated machismo of its two cops. By the time the sequence reaches its fiery conclusion, the movie had me in its grasp.

Jackson and Johnson do a fine job inhabiting, and poking fun at, the types of overblown action heroes they typically play. They’re quickly cast aside, though, in favor of the movie’s real heroes, the cops who sit in offices far more than cop cars and fire up computers far more than weapons. Yes, police partners Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg never patrol much farther than the water cooler. Ferrell’s okay with that, preferring to remain in his comfort zone as a meek, nerdy police accountant and going home every night to his plain wife (Eva Mendes). Wahlberg, however, is boiling inside, ready to spread his wings and soar as the hero he knows he is. After accidentally shooting a famous person (a funny cameo), regaining his dignity may be harder than he thinks. Soon enough, the mismatched pair get sucked into a larger conspiracy involving all kinds of very real threats, which include, but are by no means limited too, a mysterious Australian thug (Ray Stevenson), a slimy lawyer and SEC employee (Andy Buckley), overzealous colleagues (Rob Riggle and Damon Wayans Jr.), a creep of a Wall Street big-shot (Steve Coogan), and, of course, the police chief (Michael Keaton) who’s always saying that they’ve gone too far and then threatening to confiscate their weapons.

Under the direction of Adam McKay, from a script he co-wrote with Chris Henchy, The Other Guys has the specifics of a cop movie down perfectly. It’s full of fun supporting turns (between this and Toy Story 3, I hope we’re at the start of a Keaton comeback), funny little moments of detective work, and well-used action beats. But the film also manages to use the genre as a springboard for the kind of weird digressions that make McKay’s films so memorable. This film stays closer to what’s expected from a buddy-cop film, with the weirdest moments having nothing on the equivalent moments in, say, Anchorman’s news-team brawl or Talladega Night’s meal-time prayer. Here, the bizarre slips in through the flashbacks to Wahlberg’s shooting accident and Ferrell’s unpredictable part-time job from his college years, the phrase “I’m going to break your hip” spoken as a token of affection, a charming series of economic charts during the end credits, or a night of drunkenness portrayed through a frozen tableau of weird and (kind of) wonderful sight gags. It also fills up all the cracks in the dialogue with odd asides and goofy monologues, not to mention the way the action set pieces sometimes include dazzling moments of the ridiculous sailing in from left field.

Ferrell and Wahlberg make a great team as comedy, but a horrible team as cops. They manage to botch nearly every major moment of police work they take on, and yet because of the likability of the two leads, there’s always the hope that they’ll succeed one of these times. It’s strange to watch a movie where the two protagonists manage to mess up nearly everything they try. These two cops are always trying to figure out the central mystery, but can never quite get there. It’s almost like what might have happened if, say, Luis Buñuel helped direct The French Connection.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Quick Look: DINNER FOR SCHMUCKS

With a fun high concept and, with Paul Rudd and Steve Carell, two of the most consistently funny comedic actors working today, it would be easy to assume Jay Roach’s Dinner for Schmucks (based on The Dinner Game, a 1998 French film) would be at the very least a serviceable comedy. That assumption would be wrong. This is a flat movie with no flow. It proceeds in awkward, ill-fitting chunks of plot. There are funny lines sprinkled here and there, but none achieve any real lift in the movie’s overall atmosphere. This is dismal, unfunny stuff: awkwardly placed broad shtick mingling freely with uncomfortable sentimentality. Rudd is asked by his boss (Bruce Greenwood), as part of a vetting process for a promotion, to find an idiot to bring to the company’s regular secret dinner where the execs make fun of the goofier side of the populace. Naturally, Rudd decides to bring Carell, a dim, amiable amateur taxidermist, after they meet in a traffic incident. The movie never goes too mean in its humor; neither the schmucks nor the ones planning on mocking them come under much withering comedic fire. The movie is watchable and pleasant, in an inoffensive way that would play best on TV late at night while everyone watching is half-asleep or passed out. That way the small smiles it sometimes inspires would feel a smidge more welcome, especially if you woke up in time to see one of the small, slightly funny moments given to someone like Zach Galifianakis, Kristen Schaal or Jemaine Clement. The movie bumbles along for far too long (nearly two hours!), coasting all the way on the talents of its leads while giving them very little chance to excel. There’s a sense of genuine camaraderie and chemistry between the two men that the movie never really gets around to exploiting, instead choosing to focus on funny voices and stupid misunderstandings. It could have been an updated Odd Couple, but is really just another one of those movies with the funniest bits in the commercials.

Prison Power: A PROPHET


A Prophet is a French prison movie that slowly becomes a subdued and subtle variant of the gangster genre. The central character could easily be a young Al Pacino from The Godfather or Ray Liotta from Goodfellas, but director Jacques Audiard is not interested in retracing the character arcs that have been so well traced by those earlier films and their many weaker imitators. Here the protagonist Malik, a young Arab, is moved to a prison from juvenile detention. He is drawn into the web of Corsican gangsters who rule the prison when he is recruited to kill one of their rivals, a gay man recently placed in solitary confinement. There is none of the nostalgia of Scorsese's film and none of the familial angst of Coppola's. This first coerced request for an act of violence draws our protagonist into the gangster life through intimidation and out of necessity. He kills to be safe within the walls of a prison that has guards who will look away from wrongdoing at the request of the Corsicans.

In a performance every bit as good as Pacino or Liotta, Tahar Rahim brings Malik to life with a totally immersive power. He is the character. Rahim communicates vast complexities with the subtlest of postures, the smallest of movements: a shift of his eyes, a twitch of his mouth. It’s an impressive work of acting. As Malik moves closer to fulfilling his first task for the Corsicans, we can see how it will change him. He’s in prison, but he’s not yet toughened in the ways he will soon find necessary.

When the kill comes, it is presented in a sickening way that is far removed from the typical gloss placed on gore. The build up to the act is agonizing as our lead sits with a razor blade hidden in his cheek. His victim, who is under the impression that he is being seduced, is, if not sympathetic, kind, offering a cup of coffee and some conversation. A thin trickle of blood leaks out the side of Malik's mouth. Then, quickly and yet eerily slow, there is lunging, grappling, cutting, slicing, and then a sick geyser of blood splattering the wall and pooling on the floor. Being a gangster is not easy.

The leader of the gang, Niels Arestrup in a tough and empathetic performance, rules with a pathos-infused gusto. He’s a dominating presence of an old man who glowers and growls his orders, strolling with his men through the prison's courtyard, confidently ruling the roost. Arestrup has a way of overcoming his short stature to appear to be literally looking down upon anybody he deems inferior. And yet he has a deep insecurity that begins to sneak in around the edges of his rough persona. He’s old. He’s respected. He’s powerful. He sees how it all can be taken away if he’s not careful.

As an Arab working for the Corsicans, Malik improbably and uneasily begins to rise through the ranks of the prison, having won their respect. His interactions with Arestrup are infused with a tension that arises from their initial affiliation of necessity that grows into an uneasy working relationship. Theirs is an uneasy partnership.

Audiard’s film contains several bravura sequences. The early murder is only the first. Another sequence includes a remarkable scene late in the film that sets the site of a hit on a Parisian street. One of the hired killers glances in a shop window, his eyes drawn to a tempting display, as the tension is drawn out, ratcheting higher and higher. This is a film that achieves an epic sweep by building from, and focusing on, the smallest of observations. As the film continues, any chance to escape the claustrophobic confines of the prison feels liberating from a visual standpoint, but the stakes of each scene on the outside kicks the suspense even higher.

Occasionally A Prophet slips into a pensive mood that puts quite a bit of slack in the pacing that’s otherwise racing. Other times, Audiard gets vague with his symbolism, muddying the intent. I found the conclusion of the film to be particularly vexing, mostly because I didn’t find it as powerful as it seems like it should be. But for most of its run time, the film is a feat of stirring, near-virtuosic filmmaking. It creates a character and setting that are invigoratingly memorable in a film that both twists and fulfills its genre requirements to equal degrees and equal success.
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