Sunday, January 30, 2011

There's Always a Catch: NO STRINGS ATTACHED

It could just be the recent drought of good romantic comedies that is affecting my judgment, but I found No Strings Attached to be a surprisingly solid effort in the genre. It’s no great thing, and of course it falls back on cliché more often than it should, but the movie is stacked with a talented supporting cast and a likeable lead in Natalie Portman, all of whom are far too good to sleepwalk through what could otherwise have been a mediocre project. It’s not much, but its good enough.

It almost goes without saying that Natalie Portman is considerably more relaxed here than in Black Swan. She’s believable as an ambitious young professional who prefers one-night stands to commitment, believing relationships to be too complicated to mess with. This is the one small change screenwriter Elizabeth Meriwether brings to the genre, making the woman the lead who is afraid to commit to the relationship and the man the dewy-eyed heart-on-the-sleeve romantic who really, really wants to settle down with the right person. It seems like that should be an awfully trivial change for a 2011 rom-com, hardly worth mentioning, except that it points out how awfully retrograde recent efforts have been, especially if they starred Katherine Heigl.

But now that I’ve brought up the flipped genre-dictated gender roles I may as well mention the actor’s name. He’s Ashton Kutcher, every bit as bland as ever. Kutcher and Portman play characters who briefly met as kids at summer camp, saw each other years later at a University of Michigan frat party, and then bump into each other after a few more years, discovering that they both currently live in Los Angeles. After quite a bit of set-up, the two of them decide to start a relationship but keep it purely physical. This is treated in the advertising as an edgy, sexy plot development, but in reality the movie plays out as if this is merely a brief stop on the road to true love and happy endings. Or rather, it’s just a minor complication in the route of boy gets girl, boy loses girl, and…I won’t spoil the ending, will I? It feels much safer and much more comfortably ensconced in genre convention in practice than it sounds in theory. The end, for better or worse, upholds all conventional romance norms.

Portman and Kutcher have some nice chemistry. Luckily, the movie proves that Kutcher isn’t necessarily an inherent source of irritation, especially when much better performers surround him. Per rom-com dictates, each lead gets a group of loveably goofy friends and family. In this case, these characters are a group of comedy ringers who attempt, and often succeed, in wringing humor from even the stupidest of punchlines. Kutcher gets a goofy semi-celebrity father (Kevin Kline), a dotty co-worker (Lake Bell), a ditzy ex (Ophelia Lovibond) and two drinking buddies (Jake Johnson and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges). Portman’s even better off in the funny friends department, rooming with The Office’s Mindy Kaling and indie darling Greta Gerwig, Between the three of them, Portman, Kaling, and Gerwig have such a wonderfully warm and amusing relationship I almost wished the movie could have dumped Kutcher and followed these ladies into far funnier places.

Anyways, the plot’s awfully conventional – it’s gears turn far too slowly in the third act – but its pleasantly charming cast is committed to their roles. The tone of the movie is not hard-R raunchy, but more of a barely-R sweetness. After early attempts with uneasy crudeness, it settles down nicely. The romance at the core is believable, the actors are likable, the score by John Debney is quiet and pleasant, and the time passes by rather smoothly under the slick, professional direction of Ivan Reitman. I had long thought that we had left him in the 80’s, back when he made great comedy classics like Ghostbusters. After all, his output since has been spotty to say the least with such forgotten flops like Six Days, Seven Nights and My Super Ex-Girlfriend. He had aged out of his window of relevance and couldn’t recapture what made his own work good. No Strings Attached is a nice surprise, though I hesitate to call it a return. It’s a simple, predictable effort, and not nearly as edgy as it thinks it is, but it finds a nice tone and plays to the strengths of its cast.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Quick Look: RED

Red is a bludgeoning action comedy that, despite some small pleasure to be found in its fluid comic-book style, is most notable for its collection of slumming thespians that deserves much better. Bruce Willis is the most at home in this movie, starring as a recently retired CIA agent who is now marked for death by the very same organization. He figures out that it has something to do with an old mission, so he, and his mild-mannered kidnapping victim/girlfriend (Mary-Louise Parker) set off to find the other agents who were with him at the time. This involves crossing the country to pay visits to other retirees from Morgan Freeman and John Malkovich to Helen Mirren and Brian Cox. It also has something to do with a scowling Karl Urban, a devious Richard Dreyfuss, and two scenes with Ernest Borgnine. Director Robert Schwentke brings some pizzazz to the early action sequences, but even that wears out its welcome before the movie is even half over. The fun of seeing senior citizens in action sequences only takes the film so far and the filmmakers have nothing else to contribute. This is just sound and fury signifying nothing. If you’re going to let a collection of capital-A actors wallow in this kind of junky action-comedy, at least have the decency to make it good junk. I’m not mad; I’m just disappointed. Red is entirely uninvolving, but at least it’s not flat out irritating.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Quick Look: THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNETS' NEST

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, the third and final film from the Swedish series based on the wildly popular Stieg Larsson novels, is about as interesting as 150 minutes of thumb twiddling. I haven’t liked the other films and thought the book was the weakest of Larsson’s installments, so why did I choose to see, let alone type out a few words about this last effort? I guess I just wanted the full experience to fully judge the upcoming Hollywood versions. Besides, what’s the point in reviewing only two out of three? I need to complete my trilogy of negative reactions to this trilogy. Anyways, in this version director Daniel Alfredson and screenwriter Ulf Ryberg pick up right where the cliffhanger ending of The Girl Who Played With Fire left off. They methodically set out trying to find every loose end the series has accumulated and tie it up tight. The plot sidelines its greatest asset, the great Noomi Rapace as the distinctive Lisbeth Salander, confining her to a hospital bed for at least half of the film. Luckily, the plot still manages to feature more than enough gratuitous sadism. There are also some dull thriller elements and a repetitive courtroom circus thrown in as an attempt to keep things interesting. But every time the film threatens to burst forth with excitement, the filmmakers dutifully steer safely clear of the opportunity. Each film in this inexplicably popular art house franchise has gotten progressively worse. This is the worst. It’s not merely bad; it’s deadly boring. The series concludes the same way it began, with exposition and a shrug.

Stage Fright: BLACK SWAN

Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan has the kind of opening scene that gives a good idea of the film to follow. It starts with a spotlight slicing through inky black surroundings. In the center a ballerina is perfectly poised with elegant movements. The music of Tchaikovsky begins to boom. The ballerina spins. As the camera draws closer, we can hear the ragged, athletic breaths of the dancer. This is all set to be a film that will scrape away the surface glamour of the ballet, but then a darkly monstrous figure begins to dance with her. Then, Nina (Natalie Portman) wakes up, the opening scene fading like a dream. The film’s truest intentions burst forth. This is a film that will clamber around inside her head, bumping into all kinds of unsettling, destabilizing elements that are eating away at her psyche.

She’s a hardworking perfectionist ballerina in a well-established ballet company and has just been given the lead role in a new production of Swan Lake. It’s a high-pressure moment for her, the wrong time altogether to lose her mind. (Though when would be a good time?) The people that circle around her life are all menacing figures. Her mother (Barbara Hershey) is a controlling, domineering force of emotional manipulation. Her ballet director (Vincent Cassel) is a sleazy, molesting presence of abusive power. An older ballerina forced to retire (Winona Ryder) scowls drunkenly from the sidelines while a young ambitious ballerina (Mila Kunis) seems all too ready to worm her way into the lead role.

This is a terrifying collection of characters made all the more unsettling because of the unreliable narrator Nina proves to be. Are all of these characters as dangerous as they appear to be? It’s possible. Nina thinks that is the case. Could it instead be the case that a rattled mind of a naïve perfectionist has developed a harmful persecution complex that causes her to lash out irrationally? It’s possible. At first glance, the characters can seem one-dimensional, shrill and without nuance, but in the growing craziness of Nina’s mental state, who can say with absolute certainty how trustworthy these portrayals are? The performers involved give wonderful intensity to their roles, but also show glimmers of other possible readings. What to make, for instance, of a particularly devastating shot-reverse-shot at the film’s climax that shows Nina’s mother sitting teary-eyed in the audience? What is she thinking? I, for one, take this small moment, rich with overwhelming emotion, as the most indelible moment with which to contemplate just how dependable the film’s characterization really is. I haven’t yet made up my mind.

Aronofsky accentuates Nina’s growing madness with small touches of unnerving hallucinations that flicker to life in unexpected moments, sometimes bold and obvious, other times lingering in the shadows of peripheral vision. Doppelgangers flit through Nina’s field of vision. Danger seems to sit in wait around every corner. Leering strangers and intimidating pretenders alike gaze at her with creepy, unknowable intent. All the while, Clint Mansell’s kaleidoscopic Tchaikovsky-infused score swirls around, the frames are filled with mirrors, and the dark, evocative grains of the varied film stocks seem to reflect the increasingly cloudy thinking of our protagonist.

Fits of body horror both real and imagined grow in frequency. Nina scratches at rashes. She obsessively pushes her body to its limits, practicing a routine just once more and then again, and again, and again. She doesn’t just want to be perfect; she needs to be perfect. One particularly agonizing moment finds Nina picking away at a hangnail until her cuticle is covered in blood. She claws and claws until finally, terrifyingly, a thin ribbon of skin pulls up and away down the length of her finger.

Nina’s drive and madness congeal in a film that’s so confidently told with its declaratory sensationalism that it just barely covers up its messy, lurid, clammy, calculated insanity. I mean that as a compliment. This is a movie that grows progressively over the top in beautifully horrifying ways. Imagine the brutal, grueling realism of Aronofsky’s The Wrestler mixed with a bit of Cronenberg. This is a film of pounding sensations, a film of color and music and frenzied outbursts of sex and violence. It’s an intense experience, a horror film with a florid luridness and confident craziness.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Quick Look: THE KING'S SPEECH

The King’s Speech is a perfectly adequate piece of middlebrow Oscar bait stuffed to the gills with ridiculously talented actors. Colin Firth does a splendid job as George, the man who would be king, watching World War II loom darkly on the horizon while his older brother (Guy Pearce) prepares to abdicate the throne he only recently took from their freshly dead father (Michael Gambon). George is quite worried about the impending kingly status, since he is a seemingly incurable stutterer. With great love, and unceasing willingness to help her husband, his wife (Helena Bonham Carter) seeks out yet another speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush), wishfully, hopefully, prayerfully thinking that this one will be the one to bring an end to the stutter by unlocking the orator within. Tom Hooper, best known for his well-received, though unseen by me, HBO miniseries John Adams, directs with a light touch and framing that oftentimes leaves Firth in unexpected places within the frame. He’s a person who is uncomfortable and the filmmaking lets us feel that, augmenting framing with fisheye lenses and point-of-view shots that extend a stammering pause during a public speaking setting until it feels like it’s lasting forever. This is a film that is often suspiciously glossy history but is also a rather nicely done period-piece against-all-odds drama. The wonderful actors give weight to the human-interest plotline that writer David Seidler’s screenplay marches forward with a simple efficiency. I must say, though, that the more overwhelmingly positive comments I hear about the film, the more I feel alienated from the prevailing critical and public opinions, which tend to range from enthusiastic to over-the-top in their praise. I liked it just fine, thank you very much, but unfortunately that almost seems like damning with faint praise at this point. It’s a pleasant enough time at the cinema with charming performances and crisp writing, but I can’t say that anything about it ever really set my mild enjoyment ablaze with enough passion to rave. It’s a nice example of what it is, but it’s hardly more.

Funny Business: THE DILEMMA


The funniest thing about The Dilemma is that, despite being sold as director Ron Howard’s return to comedy, it’s not very funny. In fact, every time it tries to be funny in a broad, silly way, it falls embarrassingly flat. The comedy seems jammed up into the corners of a somewhat serious drama. If it weren’t for all the straining for laughs in Allan Loeb’s screenplay, this could be a much better film.

It stars Vince Vaughn as a man who plans on proposing to his longtime girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly), following the advice of his happily married best friend (Kevin James). As he scopes out the perfect spot to pop the question, a lovely botanical garden, he notices his friend’s wife (Winona Ryder) making out with some younger guy (Channing Tatum). He takes it upon himself to learn more and ends up sneaking around town peeping in windows and trying desperately to avoid revealing anything before he’s sure of all the facts.

Now saddled with secrets and questions, he squirms about and ends up making each and every social situation more and more difficult as he struggles under the pressure of being the only person in the room tuned in to all of the nasty subtext. So many comedies draw their laughs from the unspoken comedic tensions between characters, that it’s strange, but not entirely unpleasant, to see one throw away the comedy to focus solely on the tension.

After wading through deadly dull scenes of formulaic comedy windup, especially a nonstarter of a subplot involving an awfully miscalculated use of Queen Latifah, things get interesting. For the majority of its runtime, the film functions well as a compelling, wild-eyed melodrama, a darkly depressing look into seemingly normal relationships with deep dysfunction hidden just below the surface. Funnily enough, there are some genuine laughs found amidst the pleasurably agonizing drama in sequences of acute social discomfort. As the web of secrets that supports these characters’ interactions grows more prominent, the romances and friendships involved threaten to collapse altogether.

And then, the movie deflates the tension quickly and clumsily. Tension falls away in favor of a queasily pat and tonally odd ending that feels like it belongs to the opening attempts at comedy instead of the moments it follows. It’s a movie that recovers very nicely from an opening stumble only to fall back into the same traps by the end.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Superhero Sting: THE GREEN HORNET

In theory the playfully fanciful French auteur Michel Gondry should be the perfect choice to direct a superhero movie. After all, it was similarly quirky cult favorite directors like Guillermo del Toro and Sam Raimi that helped make some of the genre’s best. Gondry’s take on The Green Hornet, star of a 1930’s radio serial who has also turned up in comics and TV shows in the intervening decades, is interesting, to say the least. He’s not given the possibility to go full masterpiece, like in his beautifully complicated Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or even full on goofy and heartfelt, like in his sweet Be Kind, Rewind. Working with a script by Seth Rogen and his buddy Evan Goldberg, who have previously written Superbad and Pineapple Express, and doubtlessly shaped by market-driven forces, the movie is popcorn filmmaking that is stuck to the formula of the superhero origin story. Gondry makes it a rough-and-tumble film, though, a quick, brawling source of hit-and-miss hilarity and appealing action. It’s a thoroughly sweeded superhero flick, a chance for talented fans to take over and provide an energetic good time.

But wait, I can almost hear you asking yourself if it’s true that the idiosyncratic and charmingly phantasmagoric Gondry and the king of the R-rated comedy Rogen have collaborated on a film. Indeed it is, and it makes for an odd mix, at least at first. Gondry’s films have a loose specificity and a handmade feel, as if they were literally knitted or paper-mâché crafted into existence. Rogen’s scripts and performances, on the other hand, feel shaggy and improvised. The styles don’t quite gel at the film’s outset, though the film is also burdened with its exposition.

Rogen stars as Britt Reed, wild child heir to a prestigious newspaper mogul (Tom Wilkinson) who dies just minutes into the film. Bewildered while facing new responsibilities, he decides to do something with his life. He’s been wasting his potential and disappointing his father, a point that is belabored early and often with the overbearing work-a-holic Wilkinson juxtaposed with his party-all-the-time son. By the time an ex-employee of the father, a genius mechanic who goes by the name of Kato (Jay Chou), shows up to help Reed with his coffee machine, the movie starts to sputter to life.

For some half-believable set of reasons, Reed and Kato become quick friends and decide to take the city’s crime problem head on after they inadvertently stop a mugging that interrupts their plans of vandalism. Through a combination of newspapering and superheroics, their legend grows. At the paper, they start to spread the word about the Green Hornet, a masked menace. Head editor Edward James Olmos is wary about running what appear to be fluff pieces about an isolated incident, but secretary/criminologist Cameron Diaz finds herself intrigued. As the Green Hornet, Reed is part likeable goof, part fanboy. He leaves the heroics to Kato, who not only develops all of their gadgetry, but also flips about in super-cool Gondry-style kung-fu moves that fracture the frame and control the speed of time itself. All of these dubiously good deeds attract the attention of the local crime boss (Christoph Waltz, who is just fine here in an odd role that’s no Hans Landa) and the District Attorney (David Harbour).

At first, I wasn’t too thrilled by the movie, which has a hard time finding a persuasive or smooth way of introducing character and conflict, which leads to a messy opening act. While it never shakes its messily constructed frame, the awkward set up leads to a mostly successful payoff. The film has fun energy and conviction and by the time it enters its final third it had totally won me over. Rogen’s goofball hysterics and Gondry’s off-kilter whimsy fall into harmony and pile up into a building collection of slam-bang action set pieces that sing with delightful visual wit. The finale, an explosive encounter in a printing press, is an exuberant and inventive cacophony that left me with a smile. Though Rogen’s coarse banter and Gondry’s vivid cinematic imagination don’t seem the most natural fit, they end up melding to the well-trod formula of the superhero origin story with, despite some uneasy tonal shakiness and aimless plot convolution, some surprisingly effective excitement.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Quick Look: HOWL

Beat poet Allen Ginsberg has been on the periphery of several recent films. He was portrayed in a David Cross cameo for Todd Haynes’s 2007 experimental Bob Dylan pseudo-biopic I’m Not There. He showed up in archival footage and in an animated version with the voice of Hank Azaria in Brett Morgan’s criminally underrated Chicago 10. So, it was only a matter of time before he was the subject of his own film. In Howl, James Franco portrays Ginsberg. He has the glasses, the beard, and the cadences more or less right. Unfortunately, the performance is undercut by the movie itself, which is too jumbled for its own good. Written and directed by documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (between them, they have the Oscar-winning 1984 feature Times of Harvey Milk and the acclaimed 1995 Celluloid Closet on their resumes) the plot has Ginsberg speaking to an unseen reporter in New York while an obscenity trial concerning his poem “Howl” unfolds in San Francisco. The trial is populated with a host of wonderful character actors like David Stratharin, Jon Hamm, and Jeff Daniels. In between these two parallel threads are painfully obvious and clumsily inserted animated interpretations of the poem while Franco as Ginsberg recites its lines in voice over. Despite the efforts of everyone involved, scene after scene falls flat. There’s a lot of juggling going on and the potential impact ends up shattered.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Gods Inside a Machine: TRON: LEGACY

Tron: Legacy is my inner 12-year-old’s favorite movie of the year. It’s a slick, entertaining film, though in some ways a standard, solemn blockbuster. It’s also a rather stunning directorial debut for Joseph Kosinski, who manages to find some moments of visual poetry amidst the sleek, glow-in-the-dark sci-fi aesthetic. The first Tron, directed by Steven Lisberger, flopped upon its release in 1982. It has a fascinating concept but is unsure how far to push its garish kookiness, telling the story of a talented computer programmer (Jeff Bridges) who is sucked into the computer world he helped create for the shady technology company Encom. Built from once cutting-edge computer technology, the effects are no longer special. Indeed, they are now an impediment, but no more so than the collision between the real-world corporate espionage plot and the ugly computer world visuals.

With this late sequel, Kosinski makes the concept as cool as it should have been in the first place. He, along with former Lost writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, bring back Jeff Bridges for a film that stands alone, working better than its sequel status. In a prologue we learn that, though Bridges emerged from the computer to become a success in our world, he eventually disappeared, orphaning his young son (Owen Best). This son grows up to be a successful programmer in his own right, and by the time the story proper begins, he wants nothing to do with the company his dad helped create.

Now played by the woodenly earnest Garrett Hedlund, he broods and scowls. Not even pulling a prank on Encom’s Board of Directors brings a smile to his face. Soon enough, he receives a mysterious signal from his dad’s old office and shows up to investigate. Once there, no big surprise, he accidentally ends up inside the computer as well. There he must battle his way out of a gladiator lightshow complete with the Machiavellian maneuverings of programs that have rebelled against the user (also their creator), thus keeping Bridges trapped and exiled for all this time, powerless against the ageless program he made in his own image.

The film is driven forward by its marriage of sleek visuals to an insistent, driving Daft Punk score (a great piece of film scoring). Tron: Legacy is exciting, even in its moments of stasis and vagueness (most likely symptoms of Disney’s attempt to turn Tron into their next big franchise). This is a film of poses and moments, and I found both aspects equally striking. An early moment takes us from a grieving young boy’s bike ride to the angst-filled motorcyclist he becomes, spanning two decades of character development in one elegant cut. Criss-crossing neon beams of energy dot the 3D computer-world landscape, with its towering future-noir buildings and its arenas and highways that serve as stages for glowing spectacle. Later, Bridges will make a dramatic entrance into a tense situation backlit like an electric Jedi. The film is a fluid, shimmering sci-fi sensation, drawing from aesthetic influences like the Star Wars prequels, the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer and Matrix sequels, the blockbuster fussiness of David Fincher’s more fantastical films, and the somberness of Christopher Nolan’s Batmans.

The leads’ acting is merely functional (yes, even from the dependable Bridges), but the supporting performances are nicely honed pieces of genre work. An early cameo from Cillian Murphy is the most promising of the film’s attempts at sequel setting. Bruce Boxleitner lends some weight to the first-act exposition, reprising his role from the first film. Olivia Wilde struts about in a striking black suit that really pops against her artificial paleness. Michael Sheen brings the only comedy as he strokes a glowing cane and snaps off his snippy dialogue while strutting through his role as a campy nightclub owner. It’s all good fun.

Though hardly revelatory, Tron: Legacy is a refreshing event film that promises no more than it can deliver. It’s an eye-candy spectacle with top-of-the-line effects that manage arresting visuals and an addictive tone amidst the action. The film finds a sleek, cool groove in which to operate. I was pleasantly surprised to find myself so drawn into the pleasing charge of the imagery and sounds, and that my inner 12-year-old was so delighted.
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