Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Quick Look: 127 HOURS

One of Danny Boyle’s greatest skills as a director is his ease with unease. Through his throat-grabbing jump cuts and frenetic cinematography (mostly, as of late, from Anthony Dod Mantle), he summons up great dread. It’s not just his horror films (28 Days Later) or druggie portraits (Trainspotting) that utilize this skill. Even his most crowd-pleasing Slumdog Millionaire is a film with characters perpetually on the edge of potential destruction. Now, with 127 Hours, Boyle once again utilizes unease to maximum effect in telling the true story of Aron Ralston, the hiker who found himself alone and pinned to the side of a canyon in a freak accident when a boulder landed on his arm. James Franco, as Ralston, brings a laid-back charm to the opening scenes that nicely complement the dire circumstances he soon tumbles into. He’s a compelling screen presence, easily entertaining even in an increasingly desperate situation. Naturally, the film progresses with its protagonist trapped in one location, but Boyle surrounds him with a cacophonous visual and aural collage. It’s electrifyingly busy filmmaking that uses the character’s excruciating pain and increasing claustrophobic isolation and hopelessness to fuel a hallucinatory stream of consciousness with imagery and sound. After five days, when Ralston decides that the only way to be free is through self-amputation, it’s a highly charged moment of gore and viscera followed by a denouement of overwhelming, transcendent release. While the thematic elements of the film feel a bit schematic at times, the film’s pulse of emotion, deriving its power from the unceasing visceral unease and tension that course through the movie, leaves an undeniable impact.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Quick Look: BURLESQUE

The gaudy, bedazzled showbiz musical Burlesque, directed by Steve Antin, is Cabaret by way of Showgirls without the art of the former or the sleaze of the latter. It’s not good enough, but it’s not bad enough either. It fails to climb to the delirious heights of slaphappy camp to which it so clearly aspires. Pop star Christina Aguilera is in her film debut as a young Midwestern girl who heads off to Hollywood to become a star. It’s the kind of gee-whiz cliché that only works if the actress is charming. Aguilera, despite her considerable singing voice, brings nothing but dead air to her time on screen. The more the film focuses on her, the worse it gets. Luckily, her dream gets downgraded fairly quickly once she stumbles into a neo-burlesque club lorded over by its diva owner (Cher). The club is a kind of vaguely defined place with a sassy doorman (an overlooked Alan Cumming), a sassy assistant (the always welcome Stanley Tucci), a sassy bartender (Cam Gigandet), a sassy prima donna (Kristen Bell), and a sleazy regular (Eric Dane). It’s purple and glittery, but there’s no sense of atmosphere or style. The filmmakers may be in love with this place, but there’s no sense of why Aguilera wants so badly to be a part of it, or why we should care that this place is in financial trouble. Antin shoots in such a woozy cheap music video style that any sense of space and time is quickly negated. The numbers performed on the stage take on a nonsensical sheen, chopped up into little pieces that undermine any sense that these are actual performances. And, of course, working against the fun is the plot’s primary focus on the dreams and ambitions, vague as they are, of their dull leading lady. Making Aguilera seem all the worse, Cher, the singer-turned-actress who won an Oscar for the lovely Moonstruck and held her own against Meryl Streep in Silkwood, proves that, despite some recently developed facial mobility problems, she still commands attention. There’s exactly one remarkable moment in the film that finds Cher, all by herself, belting out a ballad that serves as a declaration and reminder of why she was a star in the first place and why she's better than the film she's in.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Long Beautiful Hair: TANGLED

Disney’s latest animated feature is Tangled, a retelling of the story of Rapunzel, the princess with the incredibly long golden hair. The film’s a straight-up fairy tale, no apologies. It doesn’t feel the need to wink at the audience, distancing itself from the formula for cheap gags or in a bid for elusive contemporary coolness. That kind of hedging and equivocating has infected not just Disney films, but many animated family films in the last decade. There was a rush to learn from Pixar’s example by using computer animation, while overlooking the true strengths of Pixar: sincerity and simple emotion, the same qualities that Disney itself once knew by heart.

With Tangled, Disney finds its way back to its sweet spot, building on last year’s good first step with Princess and the Frog. Their latest film is sweet and charming. It’s not exactly innovating, but it’s fresh and surprisingly powerful. In Dan Fogelman’s script, Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) has been locked in a tower for her entire childhood. The evil Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy) has raised her as her daughter after kidnapping the infant princess. You see, Rapunzel’s hair is a fountain of youth. Now, on the precipice of adulthood, Rapunzel yearns to explore the outside world. Of course, for all this time, the king and queen have been searching for their missing daughter. Gothel knows that to let Rapunzel leave the tower would mean to lose youth forever.

The film is filled with rich mother issues. It’s essentially a stand-off between an old view of femininity that tells women to stay locked in a domestic setting, useful only for their physical qualities, and a modern view of women as complete, resourceful individuals of great inherent worth, with talents and insights well worth sharing with the outside world. Rapunzel’s small, personal rebellion against her “mother” consists of secretly cultivating myriad talents. Gothel knows the girl paints, bakes, reads, thinks, and dreams (for starters), but does she know how well? And does she even begin to realize the girl’s potential? She keeps Rapunzel captive by subtly undermining her self-esteem. The film sits on this conflict, deepened by the sense of awful betrayal at the center. Rapunzel has a love for this maternal figure that is painfully sad to us in the audience, aware as we are of the kidnapping.

Dropping into the tower to complicate the plot is Flynn Ryder (Zachary Levi), a thief who, by ditching his thuggish partners-in-crime (Ron Perlman), has just barely escaped the royal guards chasing him. To Rapunzel he represents both a novelty and an opportunity. He is the outside world and all the promise and danger that entails. She talks him into escorting her outside the tower, so together they climb down, kicking off a plot that is a well-oiled machine consisting of various overlapping chases. Mother Gothel’s on the hunt for Rapunzel while two groups, both the royal guards and the cheated thugs, are on the trail of Flynn. The film develops into a bright and sunny chase picture with plenty of funny little detours and zippy, exciting action sequences.

It’s never a possibility to forget that it’s a Disney picture, filled as it is with the trappings of the Disney formula, but that’s hardly a burden in this case. Rather than feeling rote, these elements soar by being exceptionally well done. Co-directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard have made the best animated feature to come out of Disney since 2002’s Lilo and Stitch and the studio's best fairy tale since 1991’s Beauty and the Beast. The animation is a gorgeous, rounded CG style that is a close approximation to the traditional Disney 2D style. (It even uses the new 3D technology to lovely effect). The songs are delightful (if not immediately catchy), the supporting characters are likable, and the animal sidekicks are more than ready for their reaction shots. A goofy little chameleon is surprisingly subdued for a sidekick, with cute, nonverbal expressiveness. Even better is a mute law-enforcement horse that engages in a single-minded pursuit that gallops through the film bringing only hilarious antics.

And, of course, what would a Disney movie be without a romance? The relationship between Flynn and Rapunzel develops with admirable restraint, emerging slowly and cautiously out of the characters themselves. There’s never a sense that she needs a man to rescue her. (If any saving happens in the film, she saves him, or they save each other). Nor is there a sense that the romance is what’s driving her curiosity. She learns that she’s self-sufficient. Her romance develops along with her love of the outside world.

More than the average family film, and certainly more than anything Disney has done in a decade, Tangled packs plenty of emotion into a breezily entertaining romp. It’s pleasantly complicated and surprisingly touching. This is a film of direct, earnestly simple, skillfully playful, and self-assured storytelling that builds (in advance of its very satisfying climax) to one of the most beautiful sequences to hit the big screen all year. It starts with a tear running down a monarch’s face and ends with hundreds of floating lanterns surrounding a pair of potential lovers in a rowboat. It's surprisingly moving sequences like this, especially when they hit with such unexpected force, that make the movies worthwhile.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Quick Look: LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS

Love and Other Drugs is as bad as it is ambitious. Here’s a sexy romance, a goofy comedy, and a disease-of-the-week tearjerker with aspirations of being a semi-satirical commentary on pharmaceutical companies. It’s basically a duller Up in the Air with an extra layer of pretensions ladled on top and it comes out looking too cluttered for its own good. The various competing ideas cancel each other out. The script, from director Edward Zwick and co-writers Charles Randolph and Marshall Herskovitz, follows Jake Gyllenhaal as a young, wide-eyed pharmaceutical representative and ladies’ man. In the course of his travels, he meets Anne Hathaway, and the two fall into a relationship fairly quickly. Hathaway, despite a severely underwritten role, acts circles around Gyllenhaal. Though the film is preoccupied with his job and family life, we barely see what she hopes to do with her artistic talents, how she’s living with her early-onset Parkinson’s disease, and why she can afford to pay for her medical care in rolls of big bills. These elements are brought up and dropped at the whims of the plot. She’s a moody cipher, meant to bring love and drama into the life of a charming-but-cold yuppie. It’s a shame. Hathaway does so much with so little that it would have been nice to see her in a role that respected her talents. The film is more or less dead when she’s off the screen, little more than a collection of moments that engendered little more than eye rolling from me. I particularly loathed a subplot involving Gyllenhaal’s sloppy brother (Josh Gad) that’s so miscalculated that it seems to have stumbled in out of an even worse film. Also disappointing are the cruelly underused talents of Oliver Platt and Hank Azaria who could have turned their small roles into gems of character acting if given just a little more screen time. Edward Zwick, usually at work leaving me unmoved with big somber epics like Glory and Blood Diamond, finds little of visual interest in the film, carries along the blandly sloppy mess with just enough skill to make me wish it were better. When, in the span of a few scenes, you’re careening from a serious look at the ramifications of Parkinson’s into overextended gags about Viagra side effects, you know the film is simply adrift beyond repair.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Catching Up on 2010: Epic Yawn Edition

There’s no good reason for Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood to be so dull, with the exception of copious development problems and the decision to make an overlong origin story that pushes all that is fun about the character past the end credits and out of the picture entirely. There’s also the thudding predictable epic-battle stylistic rut that Scott has found himself in (he’s basically recycling his own Gladiator) that cannot lift the tattered script. And, of course, there’s the fact that Russell Crowe, an actor with some nice range, is woefully miscast. On the scale of screen Robin Hoods, Crowe’s better than Kevin Costner, but he’s no Errol Flynn (or even Cary Elwes). This is a turgid epic that looks like little more than a high-priced game of dress-up as extras clop around muddy forests looking as grim and miserable as I was watching them. Not even the combined talents of Cate Blanchett, William Hurt, Danny Huston, Max von Sydow, Matthew Macfadyen, and Mark Strong (a “how could this go wrong?” kind of cast) can scrape up more than a little entertainment value. Don’t get me wrong, this is as slick and dumbly watchable as empty failed epics get. The money was well spent on the production values. Where the film is bankrupt is where it counts: story, emotion, character, and excitement.

Another failed summer epic at least has the dignity to go a little crazy. It’s not any better than Robin Hood, but Mike Newell’s video game adaptation Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time at least has Alfred Molina racing ostriches and Ben Kingsley as a man who knows all about procuring poisoned cloaks in between his mustache twirling. Oh, and a miscast Jake Gyllenhaal’s hanging around too, though despite his status as the lead of the film, he leaves very little impact. He’s the orphan-turned-prince who stumbles into possession of the Sands of Time that are conveniently held inside a goofy dagger. They turn back time, but they can only turn back as much time as there is sand in the dagger. (I think). So, for a convoluted set of reasons, the prince marches around the desert with the blank beauty love-interest Gemma Arterton while they figure out how to conquer the forces of evil and protect the world from the villainous forces that would use the sand to…I don’t know what exactly, but let’s assume it’s bad. Though, really, I spent about as long wishing they would use the sand to go back to a time before the movie started and try again. The film’s all red-blooded matinee fun, or at least it would be if it weren’t so frequently incomprehensible in the action scenes. Not only does CGI cloud any sense of physical space in the acrobatic flips and spins, but the magic is oddly rendered and decidedly hokey. The characters are bland, the plot is cardboard, and the filmmaking is just flat and affectless. I was bored or confused for most of the movie. It’s bland, but at least it’s not entirely without flavor.
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