Monday, September 27, 2010

Birds of a Feather Fight Together: THE LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS: THE OWLS OF GA'HOOLE

There is nothing surprising about an epic fantasy that follows a young potential hero who goes on a long journey to find help in overthrowing the forces of evil. It’s basic Joseph Campbell. What makes Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole stand out is that all of the characters are owls. Furthermore, these are family-friendly computer-generated owls directed by Zack Snyder, the man behind the zippy Dawn of the Dead remake, the tedious Greek battle 300, and the slavishly reverential graphic novel adaptation Watchmen. Replacing his trademark blood sprays with plumes of dislodged feathers, Snyder makes sure to include plenty of bombast and slow-motion so that we can enjoy every little piece of these birds.

At first, the ponderous owls, with their intense proclamations and complex mythology, charmed me. But then, sitting through scene after repetitive, formless scene, I quickly grew tired of the visual monotony and painfully thin narrative. This is a film that takes its anthropomorphic creatures very seriously. The characters move about more or less how I picture real owls would. They flap, they glide, and they swoop down to snatch up prey with their gleaming talons. Unlike real owls, these have learned how to become blacksmiths. They don metal helmets and sharp talon-extensions that glint in the moonlight as they dive down towards each other in grotesque imitations of human combat.

Why do these owls fight? I don’t really know. The harder I worked to figure out the varied political currents that run through the various owl species and kingdoms, the less I cared. It’s very clear, though, that the pure-white owl with Helen Mirren’s voice is evil of the worst kind. Her minions capture young owls from all over the land, including our hero, the one with Jim Sturgess’s voice. These captive owls are either brainwashed into brainless harvesters searching for flecks of metal or sent into intense training to become a soldier. Our hero escapes and sets off on a quest to find the Owls of Ga’Hoole, semi-mystical, possibly mythical, guardians of all that is good amongst fowl.

This is a movie that’s constantly on the move. Each scene careens into the next scene. The owls fly here and there and endlessly explain themselves. Then they find themselves in some kind of danger and – whew! – escape to fly somewhere else. I must admit that I often found the owls hard to differentiate. Looking at the credits, I would have a very hard time indeed informing you as to the difference between Gylfie (Emily Barclay), Otulissa (Abbie Cornish), and Eglantine (Adrienne DeFaria). (Though I’m pretty sure Digger (David Wenham) is the one that’s supposed to be funny because he flings dirt). It got so confusing I couldn’t even tell whether it was Geoffrey Rush, Sam Neill or Hugo Weaving with his voice coming out of a flapping beak.

That was hardly the end of my confusion. I never quite had a handle on why the evil owls needed all that metal, even, or especially, when they put it to use by making it shoot blue bolts of something. I also couldn’t understand the hierarchy of the owl world that seems to consist of different species (clans? families?) that had little or no knowledge of each other, except when it was necessary to advance the plot. With such wide-ranging evil being perpetrated by the villains, surely we wouldn’t need a scene where the hero needs to convince some other owls that this is happening?

Then again, I couldn’t follow the geography of this crazy place either. For all I know, these owls fly all the way around the world during the course of the story. This movie only really succeeded in giving me a headache. Note to future owl-epic authors: learn from the mistakes of Snyder and his screenwriters John Orloff and Emil Stern. When making a film about a world populated almost entirely by owls, at least let the audience understand the world to some degree. (Though it’s not without its problems, see 1982’s The Secret of NIMH for an example of mildly dark fantasy in the animal world done more or less coherently). The Owls of Ga’Hoole quickly lost me with its seemingly disconnected settings, thinly sketched characters, and its painfully obvious formula. Yes, it was sometimes pleasing to the eye, but it sure wasn’t worth sitting through the film for those rare moments.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Crime and Punishment: WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS

Oliver Stone’s 1987 financial thriller Wall Street worked because it pinpointed the human tragedies imbedded in the fluctuations of the stock market by placing a young stockbroker (Charlie Sheen) between his union-man father (Martin Sheen) and a slimy potential father-figure mentor, the financial tycoon Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas). The movie thrills with its juicy drama, electric script, and the almost tactile sense of the stock market as one giant game played only by the rich and the power-hungry.

How was Stone to know that Douglas’s Gekko, the film’s villain, would become a hero of sorts to a generation of Wall Street employees? Gekko’s central, memorable speech, where he explains the virtues of unchecked greed (it’s, “for lack of a better term, good”) is chilling in context. Once ripped from the film, the speech entered the business lexicon. Rather than serving as a cautionary tale (Gekko eventually gets in big trouble for his shady dealings), good greed became the name of the game. The film is dated now and not just because of the fashions, the music, and the technology. In 2010, the financial crimes and outrages of 1987 seem quaint.

The time is exactly right for a follow up. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is set in 2008 in the moments leading up to the financial meltdown and the subsequent bank bailouts. Though following fictional characters, the basic facts of the crisis are left unchanged. There weren’t competing banks run by Frank Langella and Eli Wallach, but it’s not hard to assume that the nameless bank owners who sit in ominous boardrooms and backrooms stand in for those who really were partly responsible for running our economy into the ground. The milieu in which the film takes place rings more or less true.

It is the build up to this crisis that Gordon Gekko finds himself witnessing after being released from prison seven years before the film’s action begins. In the interim, he’s written a book and become a hit on the lecture circuit. There’s the sense that he’s merely circling his old stomping grounds, waiting for the right moment to get back in the game. He’s been burned before, but he’s learned from his mistakes. He may be older, but he’s no less ruthless. He may appear slightly softer, mildly gentler, but this is a man who still has deep reservoirs of danger and anger with which he can sting his enemies.

And yet, this is a film that will never really live up to the promise of its premise. Scenes involving slimy bankers, especially the suave sleaze of Josh Brolin’s billionaire investor, are often captivating in their rush of jargon and amoral greed. This is where we need to see Gekko. He needs to be going toe-to-toe with the people who make his villainy outdated. Instead, he’s working by proxy through Shia LaBeouf, a young ambitious suit who also happens to be the fiancé of Gekko’s estranged daughter (Carey Mulligan).

LaBeouf and Mulligan are perfectly fine in ill-conceived roles. Their respective struggles with the Wall Street game – LaBeouf wants to get in it while Mulligan is still dealing with the destruction it did to her family – are of some mild interest. But the relationship between LaBeouf and Douglas, though it has its moments, isn’t as deeply felt as the similar relationship between Sheen and Douglas in the first film. And Mulligan, despite all her considerable talent, is given little more to do than tear up from time to time and constantly refuse to have anything to do with her father. At best, the interfamily relationships, including Susan Sarandon in little more than a cameo as LaBeouf’s mother, are perfectly watchable and appealing. At worst, they distract from the real fun.

And there is certainly real fun to be had with Money Never Sleeps. Fueled by a score that includes great songs from Brian Eno and David Byrne, it’s effortlessly enjoyable when it follows its characters manipulating stock prices, schmoozing at galas, and engaging in tense discussions of economic and business policies. The ease with which the stock market can be influenced and the simplicity with which billions can be lost is real-world scariness channeled into rapid-fire thriller-speak. The film watches the fluctuations in stock prices, keeping the audience informed how the shapes of the graphs are being used for revenge, for greed, for the sheer dark pleasures of playing the game.

The script by Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff is not at all as sparkling as the writing to be found in the first film with its great monologues and memorable exchanges penned by Oliver Stone and Stanley Weiser. In fact, the sequel includes a lengthy speech that is clearly intended to be the new “greed is good” moment. Douglas delivers it well, but it goes on for far too long with no stakes involved and not one memorable line. Stone’s filmmaking picks up some of the script’s slack with its mostly solid craftsmanship. This is a fast, messy 133 minutes, despite occasional symbolic hiccups. It’s filled with genuine interest in the fascinating, infuriating machinations of Wall Street.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Take the Money and Run: THE TOWN

The Town, the second directorial effort from Ben Affleck, is more or less a standard cops-and-robbers thriller, albeit one tilted in favor of the robbers. Though it’s nothing revelatory, and riddled with plot holes, it’s the kind of movie that totally works as it unspools. Affleck stages some nice action, the performances are mostly stellar, and the cinematography from the great Robert Elswit is pristinely handsome.

The centerpiece of the film is a broad-daylight armored car robbery that is a crescendo into a symphony of squealing tires and bursts of gunfire. It’s not quite as good as a similar sequence in Michael Mann’s Heat, still the benchmark for modern urban shootouts, but it works well and ends not with a blast of senseless action but a quiet shot of a neighborhood cop, having stumbled upon the robbers just when they thought they were safe. He stares at them, and then, after a beat, slowly turns his head to literally look the other way.

This is a movie set amongst men with strong fraternal and filial loyalty in the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston, an area that the opening text informs us produces more bank robbers per capita than anywhere else in the country. Our antihero is Ben Affleck, the son of a now-imprisoned bank robber (Chris Cooper) who is now a career criminal in his own right. He’s the mastermind of a team of robbers that works for a menacing florist (Pete Postlethwaite).

Affleck’s best friend and partner in crime is Jeremy Renner. They have an intense, long time bond. Renner spent nine years in prison for a murder committed in Affleck’s defense. Affleck has had an on-again-off-again relationship with Renner’s sister (Blake Lively). Renner’s the type of loose cannon criminal who enjoys his work a little too much. When Affleck shows up at his house and asks him for no-questions-asked help beating up some local thugs, Renner responds with one line: “Whose car are we taking?”

This occurs after Affleck returns from his date with a new girl in Charlestown (Rebecca Hall), a pretty assistant bank manager left shaken by a recent robbery in which she was kidnapped and left blindfolded on the beach. This very robbery opens the film and we immediately see how fraught with potential danger this budding romance is, since Affleck’s crew was responsible for the robbery. Because the guys wore creepy Skeletor masks for the duration, Hall doesn’t know how she actually first met her new beau. For all she knows, they met at the Laundromat. A suspicious FBI agent (Jon Hamm, in a slightly underwritten role) will learn more about this relationship, making the danger greater than mere potential for a broken heart.

There are narrative and emotional questions that could be raised, picking away at the film’s slick veneer, but the presentation is so glossily enjoyable it doesn’t quite matter in the moment. It works through the requirements of its genre with style and speed, making the rusty old formulas squeak to life once more. The fine cast works to bring this life, with Renner, especially, imbuing his character with such vibrancy that he nearly becomes the kind of supporting actor who carries the whole picture. He has a scene at an outdoor café where he stops and chats with Affleck and Hall without knowing that Hall could identify the tattoo on the back of his neck and reveal their criminal secret. It’s a scene of great tension, partially because of the way Affleck, as director, blocks the shots, but even more so from the way Renner is so convincingly dangerous, so lively in his menacing unpredictability.

It is scenes like that, along with the fine action and solid performances, which allow the movie to add up to a reasonably enjoyable experience. It doesn’t break new ground, but Affleck’s confident, sturdy craftsmanship and Elswit’s images proving his greatness once again, help make the movie a little bit more than adequate. This is an entertaining two hours that goes by more or less painlessly.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Ugly Truth: I'M STILL HERE

It’s fair to say that, in 2008, when Joaquin Phoenix announced he would retire from acting to pursue a career in hip-hop, the news was greeted with much skepticism and some sadness. He’s a supremely talented and wonderfully intense screen presence. For a while, no one heard from him, though we were all aware of the fact that his brother-in-law, Casey Affleck, was making a documentary about the situation. He was occasionally spotted by paparazzi, letting the world see his weight gain and his unkempt facial hair. Then word would come that he popped up at some small club giving an awful rapping performance. Then he gave an uncomfortable interview to David Letterman. For a while, the news cycle treated Phoenix as at best a curiosity, at worst a joke.

Now we have the fruits of that weirdness too little too late. It doesn’t help that the results are entirely uninteresting. The documentary I’m Still Here has been announced to be a piece of performance art, nothing more than an elaborate goof. It is like the more-fake-than-real Borat by way of the more-real-than-fake Exit Through the Gift Shop, in that I think this is supposed to be funny and making cultural commentary while having a fuzzy relationship with the truth. Unlike those films, however, I’m Still Here lacks a point of view, lacks a statement, and lacks any sense of comedy, shape, and coherence. I’m not even a fan of Borat (though Bruno certainly represented an improvement), but it’s even clearer now that Sacha Baron Cohen is a performance art genius, especially when compared to what Phoenix is pulling here. Unlike Cohen, Phoenix is working without a safety net. By playing himself, the lines between reality and fiction are blurred. No one would mistake Cohen for Borat or Bruno, but Phoenix runs the risk of people thinking he’s a jerk. He spends nearly all of the movie’s 108 minutes rambling nonsense, jealously lashing out at those around him, starting petty arguments, and basically becoming as deliberately off-putting as possible.

I don’t know if Phoenix is a jerk. I don’t know if Affleck is either, though playing some role in goading his brother-in-law into this act doesn’t make him look good either. What I do know for sure is that these two men are very talented actors. It has to take talent to create a movie this pointless, this reprehensibly terrible. Neither man walks away from this film with his reputation intact. This is a movie that is actively unwatchable. It’s a lump of inert nonsense playing towards pretension. It has no insight, no momentum, and no reason for being. There are only a handful of scenes in the entire movie that are not repellent, ridiculous, or ugly.

The movie has widely been called a hoax. I’m not sure what that means in this case. Was anyone ever completely fooled by Phoenix? The hoax of the movie is that it tricked us into paying attention to it in the first place. This is the first movie I’ve seen that I feel uncomfortable even dignifying with a review. While I respect the creative impulses that led Phoenix to try out such an audacious acting challenge, I feel nothing but sadness towards the lazy, self-indulgent, overlong, unconstructive, and misguided results. It’s a real shame we’ve all had to waste our time on such garbage. I’m glad Joaquin Phoenix is still here and I await his next performance. Let’s hope he has nowhere to go but up.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Rumor Has It: EASY A

Easy A is jet-propelled by so much comedic energy that it’s perhaps inevitable that the stress from the sheer force of hilarity would start to pull it apart by the conclusion. Luckily, the film never quite falls apart. In fact, it’s the most consistently funny movie I’ve seen in a long time and easily the funniest movie of the year by far. It’s blessed with a great leading leady in Emma Stone, the gorgeous and uproarious redhead best known for stealing scenes as a supporting character in comedies like Superbad and Zombieland. Here she becomes a star, holding a whole movie exceptionally well, appearing in every scene and serving as our narrator. She’s fortunate to be carrying a movie that’s perfectly cast in every role, with characters being funny because of who they are in addition to what they do. This is the rare comedy that is completely hilarious in nearly every scene, often funny line by line. I rarely laugh out loud while watching movies; I usually end up enjoying funny moments with small snickers or smiles. Reader, Easy A had me laughing loudly and often. By the time the credits rolled, my face and sides were hurting.

That all of this hilarity ensues in a broad teen comedy that also happens to deal fairly honestly with teenagers’ fluidity of identity and basic rumor-fueled exaggerated life-and-death scenarios of high school is only icing on the cake. It all starts when Stone lies to her best friend (Alyson Michalka) about what she did on the weekend. She should have been honest and said that she barely left her room. Instead, since she had turned down an invitation from said friend to go camping, she lies and says that she had a one-night-stand with a college guy and lost her virginity. Unfortunately, the school’s biggest self-important gossipy do-gooder (Amanda Bynes) overhears them and soon the whole school thinks that Stone’s a floozy.

The plot goes on to feature an escalation of ridiculous rumors that Stone tries to harness for her own personal gain. She trades her increasingly terrible reputation for favors, though at first it’s simple charity, like when she pretends to sleep with a gay classmate (Dan Byrd) at a wild party so that the jocks will think he’s straight and stop beating him up. Later, she will have less noble reasons, like gift cards, for continuing the charade, all the while risking that the one guy she really likes (Penn Badgley) will no longer want to have anything to do with her, especially with their increasingly scandalized (or envious) and increasingly boisterous schoolmates, including Twilight’s Cam Gigandet showing off surprising comedic talent.

Bert V. Royal’s script is overflowing with great one-liners and the supporting cast has uniformly impeccable timing. These lines flow right off the performers’ tongues, barely letting in spaces between the laughs. On staff at the high school is English teacher Thomas Hayden Church, guidance counselor Lisa Kudrow, and, most chillingly, principal Malcolm McDowell. As Stone’s parents, Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci, both fine, versatile actors, present the rare teen-comedy parents that are smart, funny, and accessible. They are involved in their daughter’s life, are warm, loving, and energetic. They sometimes say embarrassing things and fumble around while trying to give advice, but they very well may be the best screen parents of the year.

This film is a big step up for director Will Gluck, who was last seen with his feature debut, last year’s truly awful teen comedy Fired Up. With Easy A, Gluck has created a very good teen comedy. It just might, though it’s a little hard to tell from one viewing, belong on the short list of great teen comedies. It’s right up there with, and sometimes besting, some of the works of John Hughes, which this film occasionally references. Gluck shoots with effervescent energy and style that ultimately works towards setting up the jokes. He knows just when to punch up a laugh line or get out of his performers’ way. Neither he, nor Royal, ever finds a convincing way to reconcile the film’s competing tendencies towards winking snark and sappy sentiment. Nor does the film’s narration, built around a webcam confessional, ever truly pay off in any big way. But I hardly care. Those are just the kinds of nagging quibbles that happen when I’m too far removed from the constant blasts of pure laughter the film provides.

Friday, September 17, 2010

In the Details: DEVIL

The world of Devil is in trouble right from the opening frames. Gliding gray establishing shots of Philadelphia create an immediate sense of unease just by being upside down. The world is off-kilter. Something is very wrong. Narration from a skyscraper’s superstitious security guard (Jacob Vargas) tells us that the Devil can torment the damned while they still live by entering our world through spaces created by suicides. No sooner than the frame reorients itself, a person jumps out of one of the building’s high windows.

Soon after the policeman with a tragic past (Chris Messina) shows up to investigate, the real trouble starts. An elevator mysteriously breaks down leaving five people stuck suspended over twenty stories high. One is a sleazy mattress salesman (Geoffrey Arend). Another (Bokeem Woodbine) is one of the building’s security team, though it’s unfortunately only his second day. Also along for the ride are a spooked young woman (Bojana Novakovic), a suspicious elderly lady (Jenny O’Hara), and a guy with a sketchy beard of stubble (Logan Marshall-Green).

The cast remains stuck there for most of the movie as the plot unravels like Irwin Allen by way of Rod Serling. They aren’t exactly the most compelling bunch of characters, but the way they inevitably turn on each other is tensely exciting. The script by Brian Nelson, from a story concept by M. Night Shyamalan, is efficient, wrapping the whole thing up in a little less than 80 minutes. It turns out the deaths, and ratchets up the suspense, like clockwork. The lights go out. We hear ominous noises, punctuated by shouts and screams and various other sorts of exclamations. When the lights flicker back to life, there is one less person alive in that elevator. Who is the murderer? Spoiler alert: the answer is in the title.

The unconvincing pseudo-religious premise, which had me hopelessly wishing a third-act twist would reveal a real-world solution to the killings, is worn a little too heavily. But director John Erick Dowdle makes sure the proceedings move along quickly and creepily. The cinematography by the great Tak Fujimoto turns out surprisingly varied images, cannily exploiting claustrophobia and acrophobia. The movie has a strong sense of both confinement and extreme height that keeps the sense of danger omnipresent. I was much more unnerved by the feeling of being stuck in an elevator and the potential of a sudden drop than I was by any of the supernatural goofiness that adorns the plot.

The final moments overreach, as do various moments throughout the movie that border on just plain silly. A security guard talks about how everything in the building is going wrong this day and punctuates this by tossing a piece of toast in the air. It lands jelly side down. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t find wasted toast particularly frightening.

What I do find frightening is how effectively this movie worked on me. It’s silly and inessential, but I can’t deny that it had me shivering for more or less the entire time. Fujimoto’s images got under my skin. Dowdle’s brisk direction of Nelson’s thin script moves along swiftly and keeps things agreeably eerie. This is a dumb little suspenseful horror movie that’s sheer simplicity works.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Quick Look: MAO'S LAST DANCER

Mao’s Last Dancer is one of those based-on-a-true-story films that take the complexities and drama of real life incidents and proceeds to whittle them down into a manageable middling middlebrow lump. Bruce Beresford directs from a script by Jan Sardi that turns the interesting story of a Chinese ballet dancer who defects while on a 1981 trip to America into a thoroughly bland movie. Chi Cao, a dancer in his film debut, is quite good as Li Cunxin, the dancer in question, but he’s stuck in a movie that doesn’t know how to help modulate performance or engage in any form of subtlety. The supporting cast that includes the likes of Bruce Greenwood and Kyle MacLachlan is similarly mishandled by the filmmaking. This is a movie that’s out to hammer home every emotion with capital letters and copious clunky dialogue. The true story is interesting enough to shock the movie to life for a few moments at a time, but I would recommend Cunxin’s memoir if that’s what you’re interested in. Beresford has made good movies before, with Tender Mercies and Driving Miss Daisy, among others, on his résumé, but this particular film is never anything more than watchable, and is too often just simple and sedate.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Bad Romance: THE SWITCH and GOING THE DISTANCE

If I had to pick just one genre that has had the worst 2010 thus far, I would look no further than the romantic comedy. The bar has been considerably lowered by the likes of The Bounty Hunter, The Back-Up Plan, Killers, She’s Out of My League, Valentine’s Day, Leap Year, and When in Rome. I got frustrated and disappointed just typing that list and I’m sure I’m forgetting some. Until now, I’ve overlooked The Switch and Going the Distance, two recent rom-coms that are fading fast at the box office. But, being who I am, I’ve caught up with them. After all, the genre’s downward trend has to break sometime.


Directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck follow up their middling Will Ferrell figure-skating comedy Blades of Glory with The Switch, a romantic comedy that hinges on Jason Bateman putting his ingredients in Jennifer Aniston’s sperm donor sample cup. It’s not as bad as it sounds. See, Bateman carries a torch for his platonic best friend Aniston, so when he gets drunk at her artificial insemination party, already jealous that she turned down his sample on account of his “neuroses,” he knocks over the sample provided by the athletic and confident Patrick Wilson. And really, does Bateman have another choice? Or, at least, is there another choice that a drunken jealous guy could think up?

Yes, the concept’s kind of icky and could easily go very wrong. Indeed, the first several minutes of the film, which sets up the will-they-won’t-they chemistry between Bateman and Aniston and then sets up the central concept, are definitely worrisome. The film seems to be treading towards an uncomfortable place (and not in a funny way), especially when the single-mom-to-be decides to move away. But then, a small miracle happens. The film skips forward seven years and gets good. Aniston moves back with a seven-year-old boy in tow, a precocious, neurotic, hypochondriac of a child. It’s clear right away who the real father is, but the movie doesn’t press the plot into hysterics or wild avoidance maneuvers. Instead, this becomes as calm and character-based as a standard high-concept studio comedy is allowed to be.

The film is slight without ever feeling disposable, amusing without ever becoming hilarious. Bateman and Aniston have a lovely chemistry and it’s their warmth and camaraderie that keep the plot from feeling uncomfortable. Why, they are as believable as you could imagine two oblivious soul mates that need a sperm-related mix-up and seven years apart to realize their true love. What is uncomfortable in the abstract becomes gentle and likable in the specifics on the strength of the cast (especially Jeff Goldblum, who brings some of his trademarked spacey syncopation to line readings) and the solidness of Allan Loeb’s writing. (Though Loeb does step wrong in forcing Bateman to recite some very terrible narration as a framing device).

But perhaps even more than the strength of the leads, the film works because of the great performance from Thomas Robinson as the little boy. Because the film is more about the boy and not his conception, it allows for a deeper resonance in the emotions. Robinson’s interactions with Bateman are charming where most cute-kid plots turn cloying. This isn’t just a romance between two friends who slowly realize their friendship runs deeper. This is also a romance about parenthood, about a father who grows to love his child. And that’s what sets it apart, making this otherwise airy, awkward film so enjoyable.


Going the Distance, however, is not a good example of the romantic comedy, continuing the year’s dispiriting trend. In fact, this is a movie that slowly, methodically drove me nuts with a torturous drip of underwhelming scenes. It’s about how a recently dumped record-company employee (Justin Long) and a struggling reporter (Drew Barrymore) meet cute at a bar’s arcade game, start a whirlwind romance montage, and then spend most of the rest of the movie in a long-distance relationship. The pieces are there for a good movie that doesn’t materialize. It’s never bad in any spectacular or notable ways. There’s just a dull ache of missed opportunities that curdles into a desire for a fast-forward button.

The movie dies a death of a thousand mediocrities. By the time, much to my relief, the credits showed up, I realized I could count the number of times I smiled on one hand. Most of the fleeting enjoyment came care of Christina Applegate, Jim Gaffigan, Charlie Day, Jason Sudeikis, and Ron Livingston, who are each given just one note to play. Documentarian Nanette Burstein makes her fiction-feature debut here. She should stick to documentaries if she can’t get a better script than this. Geoff LaTulippe’s screenplay is thoroughly unimaginative, falling back on standard rom-com moments (Long actually runs through an airport!). From time to time we get lucky and the script falls back on bad dialogue, bland raunchy discussions, or montages instead. There’s still hope for the rom-com genre, but none to be found here.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Schlock and Awe: MACHETE


The latest film from Robert Rodriguez, this time sharing director’s credit with editor and special-effects artist Ethan Maniquis, is Machete. It’s based on a fake trailer that he created to show before Planet Terror, his faux 70’s exploitation film that was half of Grindhouse, his genre double-feature throwback collaboration with Quentin Tarantino. But you don’t need to keep up with all the levels of meta filmmaking at work here to enjoy Machete. Sure, it’s loud and sloppy, simultaneously overstuffed and underdeveloped, but this movie is alive, ambulatory with a crazed B-movie spirit and chockablock with goofy, groovy grindhouse gore. It’s the type of movie that, when you hear a doctor explaining the length of the human intestine, you know that it will be valuable information in an upcoming action set-piece.

The great, craggy Danny Trejo slashes his way through the film as the mysterious man known only as Machete. He’s out for revenge on not just one, but two clearly defined revenge paths. Machete’s out to avenge the death of his wife at the hands of an evil, samurai-sword-wielding Mexican drug lord (Steven Segal, of course) and out for revenge against a double-crossing political slimeball (Jeff Fahey). Then again, to put the plot so simply is to ignore great swaths of exposition that are occasionally relevant to the forward momentum and ultimately needed for the film’s big shootout climax.

This racing explosion of schlock and awe manages to work in plot threads about a sort of Underground Railroad for illegal immigrants led by Michelle Rodriguez and a government agent who is on her tail and is played by Jessica Alba. There’s also a group of vigilante amateur border patrollers led by Don Johnson and a red-meat xenophobe senator, none other than Robert DeNiro, who whips up his supporters with ugly racism. After all of that, there’s still room enough in the movie for the troubled wild-child played by Lindsay Lohan and the Catholic priest played by Cheech Marin. One of them is playing against type.

The cast gets to riff on their personas just as much as the movie itself riffs on its inspirations. Trejo steps up and ably fills a role to which a career of playing tough-guys has led him. Lohan’s entrance is great, as is her character’s arc, which is a perfect metaphoric blueprint for a comeback. Segal is the most purposefully entertaining he’s been in a long time, maybe even ever. Fahey, fresh off his scene-stealing stint on Lost, is a perfect growly villain, DeNiro is fantastic, if a little underused, and Don Johnson is made exceptionally sinister with his eyes constantly hidden behind gleaming sunglasses.

This is easily Rodriguez’s best film since Spy Kids, though that says more about the weakness of Rodriguez’s last decade of work. Machete is a rush of junky influences with a spirited 70’s vibe. With so many plot threads and character types mingling with the brute-force efficiency of the bloody action beats, the movie is inescapably messy. But those action scenes are more fun than not, hyper and stylish while still perfectly understandable in construction. And the movie’s a wicked satire that’s, you know, about something real, current and tangible and actually dares to draw blood with its bite. This is sledgehammer-satire that moves with a force and purpose that agitates for basic human rights and sensible immigration policy. The satire’s not exactly coherent, and it’s certainly not clearly explained, but it’s sharp and hilarious nonetheless and the images have lingering power. A priest’s bank of surveillance monitors is arranged like a crucifix. A senator’s racist rant of a campaign commercial intercuts footage of border crossings with extreme close-ups of wriggling insects. A heavily armed Machete walks unharmed into a villain’s house because the guards think he’s the gardener. This isn’t exactly great art – it’s not even an entirely consistent piece of action filmmaking – but it has a raw excitement that carried me along and kept me entertained.


Sunday, September 5, 2010

Mystery Man: THE AMERICAN

George Clooney is often unfairly accused of coasting on his twinkly-eyed Cary Grant charm. That’s because even when he plays characters disaffected with their lifestyle or disconnected from human interactions, like in Syriana, Michael Clayton, and last year’s Up in the Air, his naturally stylish sparkle shines through. Looks can be deceiving, as they say. Though his characters may not always have things figured out, they can put up a good front, a distraction from the hollow aspects of their personalities.

In The American, Clooney takes this darker persona and pushes it into darker, subtler areas. Here he is less Cary Grant and more Alain Delon. As a graying professional assassin, Clooney is slim and weathered, with his expressive eyes taking on haunted qualities. Slipping into the role with startling ease, he finds great power in stillness and in economy of gestures. This is a character that is developed and changed so subtly and simply that a cursory glance could too-easily lead a person to mistake this quiet film’s contemplative nature for lack of interiority.

The film’s icy moodiness and chilled atmosphere is established in the opening Sweden-set moments that find sudden violence shattering the tranquility of an undisturbed snow-covered field. A mission has gone wrong, ending badly and deadly. The rest of the film follows Clooney to Italy where he hides in a small village as he prepares for his next job. As he sips coffee in small cafes, tinkers with metallic objects that will add up into deadly machinery, and moves deliberately through cobblestone streets, he comes into contact with three figures of shifting importance to the plot.

There’s a jovial local priest (Paolo Bonacelli) who takes an interest in this mysterious solitary foreigner and pleasantly offers conversation. There’s a prostitute (Violante Placido) from a nearby brothel who finds herself drawn to find the true man behind this secretive loner, her newest client. And there’s the eerily composed businesswoman (Thekla Reuten) who quickly and crisply delivers the specifications for a firearm that she will need from him in order to complete some unknown task of violence that he only wants to eventually discover from the newspapers. These three characters serve to both illuminate and reflect the nature of the inscrutable presence that is Clooney’s slick, mostly silent, and deadly cautious character. Otherwise, we would only have the carefully composed long shots of this single figure, or perhaps his vehicle, moving purposefully across a gorgeous, dominating landscape.

Though nominally a thriller, director Anton Corbijn is not too interested in fulfilling the genre’s requirements. His first feature, after work on music videos and still photography, was the 2007 Ian Curtis biopic Control, an austere, charily unfolding and somewhat distancing visual work that was nonetheless mostly successful in its goals. To The American, Corbijn brings a similar sense of a story sparsely sketched and coolly told. This is to the film’s ultimate benefit. On a plot level, the film’s script by Rowan Joffe is fairly routine spy stuff, falling back on clichés about heart-of-gold hookers and shady spy-like double-crossings, which are in turn hampered by some easy symbolism and on-the-nose dialogue. On a filmmaking and storytelling level, however, the film crackles with an impenetrable mystique that coats the cliché in a slick layer of cool, distinctly European atmospherics and a beautifully sustained mood of melancholy suspense.

All of Corbijn’s impeccable visual skill rests on the capable shoulders of Clooney, who ends up delivering one of his best performances, and the nicely nuanced work of the small supporting cast. This is a small, stylish, moody film that deserves to find an audience that is willing to be rewarded for patience and tolerance in watching such a smartly visual film quietly and deliberately unfold.
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