Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Quick Look: DOGTOOTH

Dogtooth is a severe, uncompromising film about a father (Christos Stergioglou) who, along with his wife (Michele Valley), has kept his children locked up for their entire lives, feeding them a systematic drip of disinformation to better keep them under his total control. His son (Hristos Passalis) and two daughters (Aggeliki Papoulia and Mary Tsoni) are now in their early twenties but speak in odd clipped sentences and have strange gazes. They move awkwardly. They are extremely impressionable. They’re stunted; for all intents and purposes they’re still children. They’ve barely left the house and even then they don’t go any further than their secluded, walled-off backyard. Giorgos Lanthimos’s film is as intensely controlled as these children are, with framing that will often cut off heads and leave important information out of the frame. The camera holds back, rarely moves, and often lingers much longer than you’d expect. Disturbing, queasily intimate moments unfold in excruciating detail. Though many have acclaimed the film, which was a surprise nominee for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, I must admit that I found myself merely squirming in my seat. It’s not an easy film to watch, but it’s clearly not intended to be. This film’s stationary camera holds its gaze for interminable lengths of time on acts of horrendous abuse and frighteningly unhinged behavior. As an aggressively, claustrophobically uncomfortable metaphor for closed minds and building your own reality, it works in exactly the way it intends to. But its also a film that’s stifling, repetitive and without any sense of stakes. It’s a closed loop of awful behavior with really only one (1) great scene, a mesmerizing homegrown talent show that begins with a simply plucked guitar melody and ends in a complete spasmodic breakdown. Is Dogtooth worth seeing? Perhaps. It’s certainly unique and those who are intrigued may find it rewarding. Though I admire to a certain extent its uncompromising effect, and while I’m curious to view it again, I don’t need to see it any time soon.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Fight for Your Right (To Look Good Fighting): SUCKER PUNCH

For several years now, I’ve had Zack Snyder in my mental list of directors with untapped potential. He has a great command of visual style and seems to be continually on the verge of a masterpiece. In fact, some days I might go so far as saying that he’s a good director but not yet a good filmmaker. That is to say, he can create the visuals with incredible technical precision, but he can’t make them add up. For every film of his that truly succeeds in its own way – be it his zippy, surprising Dawn of the Dead remake or his fascinating, if a bit stiff, Watchmen adaptation – Snyder turns out a bloody mess like 300 or a ridiculous headache like last year’s Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole. That’s quite a mixed bag, but it is perhaps his most recent film, Sucker Punch, that finally marks him as a major talent. No, it’s not because it’s a cinematic marvel, but rather because it’s a film of such all-encompassing awfulness that it has to take major talent to conceive, create, and execute. It’s out of the ordinary, and it even has a faint glimmer of mad genius hidden somewhere, but it’s hardly good.

Sucker Punch plays out like a sticky, feverish doodle in the margins of a teenage boy’s notebook. It’s about a creepy insane asylum (run by Oscar Isaac and Carla Gugino) with an inmate population that consists seemingly entirely of sexy schoolgirls. One of these girls, Baby Doll (Emily Browning), imagines that it’s actually a kind of burlesque brothel and then further escapes from even her own imagination by going deeper inside her mind. She pretends that she and some of the other girls (Abbie Cornish, Vanessa Hudgens, Jena Malone, and Jamie Chung) are actually fighting giant ninja statues wielding machine guns and zombie steampunk Nazi robots and dragons and other robots! They, of course, are armed with samurai swords, biplanes, jet-packs, and flying rock-‘em-sock-‘em jet-pack machine gun robots and take advice from a walking fortune cookie who takes the craggy human form of Scott Glenn. Coherence is not a high priority here.

It’s a film all about escaping the constant threat of sexual violence by retreating into video-game violence, about removing the threat of being objectified by objectifying yourself before anyone else can. As you can probably tell, the movie sends mixed messages. It’s unforgiving and odd, all too willing to leer at the pretty girls in tight clothes and short skirts. Sure, it pushes in for slimy close-ups of the male figures as well (even someone as square-jawed handsome as Jon Hamm comes across as looking seedy), but the constant tension of being on the brink of horrible abuse never shakes free. This is a nightmare world of a movie that is all too content to sit on the surface and offer up nothing but dime store philosophizing as a potential escape.

Fittingly, the first thing the audience is presented with is a proscenium and a closed curtain. After the logos, the curtain pulls away, drawing open the world of the film. Snyder announces right off of the bat that this will be a film of arch theatricality, of base emotions writ large. Indeed it is, but this is a film that, pardon the pun, pulls its punches. It’s various settings (asylum, brothel, battlefields) are never utilized for their dramatic potential; the cuts between the various levels of reality are never not jarring, always carrying the feeling that important plot level detail has been skipped. We’re meant to be digging further and further into the psyche of these imprisoned and abused young women and yet every fantasy sequence takes us further and further from them.

In the end, this is a film that wants to invite you to leer and then scold you for it. It’s a film that wants to sit on the surface level of “Isn’t that cool?” and then pretend that it’s all about “you being your own key to freeing yourself” or some such ponderous claptrap that fills the concluding voice-over. It wants to have its skimpily clothed warrior chicks and respect them too (a feat that wouldn't be impossible under more capable directorial hands), much like that doodling teen might be able to draw a girl, but might not have a clue about who she really is. Sucker Punch is just a sleazy exploitation film that thinks itself too serious and moralizing (or maybe just too big-budget) to have the convictions to stand behind its barely buried id.

Friday, March 25, 2011

It's Hard Out There for a Wimp: DIARY OF A WIMPY KID: RODRICK RULES

When we last saw 12-year-old Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon), he had just started to get situated in middle school when summer arrived. That was the main emotional journey to be found in the sweet and funny Diary of a Wimpy Kid, a surprising delight that managed to be a fairly accurate portrayal, even if a bit cartoonish, of the life of a sixth-grade boy. Now here we are with a sequel, Rodrick Rules, which manages to surprise in an entirely new way. It’s a sequel that lives up to its predecessor. Of course the novelty is gone, but the charm hasn’t yet worn off. (It helps, I suppose, that they’re based off of the first two in a series of incredibly entertaining books by Jeff Kinney). It’s a pleasure to return to the world of these characters.

This movie is mostly devoted to following the sibling tensions between Greg and his older brother Rodrick (a nimble, energetic performance from Devon Bostick), a relatable brotherly mix of hate and love that’s buoyed considerably by the sweet chemistry between the young actors. The central tension hardly throws the focus of the movie off balance, however. The loose, anecdotal structure of the film, with its casual set-ups and pay-offs, keeps the various elements of Greg’s life in a nice balance. There’s still plenty of conflict to be found at school, where a cute new girl (Peyton List) is a source of Greg’s first real crush, at home with his parents (unfailingly amusing performances from Rachael Harris and Steve Zahn), and with his best friend Rowley (Robert Capron).

There’s a sense of comfort I found settling back into the rhythms of this representation of very early adolescence. It’s a bright, sunny, enjoyable time spent with lovable characters. About the first film, I wrote that “It simply tells a story at a child’s level and trusts the audience of kids and adults alike to relate to experiences that are, at some level, universal.” That’s true here too. There’s a sense that director David Bowers and screenwriters Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah have a nice handle on the mindset of kids. It’s exaggerated, but not wholly unrealistic. The interior life of Greg, who walks us through the story with judiciously utilized narration, is convincing and funny. His near-constant threats of social embarrassment (he’s like a kid-sized Ben Stiller) at school, a talent show, swimming pools, a roller rink, church, a retirement center, and even in his own home invariably arise from his constant self-centered momentum. And when he does learn lessons, there’s always a good chance that they just might stick.

As a work of adaptation, the filmmakers continue to find just the right ways to tweak the source material, keeping the highlights and adding mostly prudent moments that help with the flow. There’s little change between the first movie and its sequel as far as tone and approach are concerned, although this time around the gross-out humor is dialed back just a smidge, perhaps to make room for the one or two moments that had me laughing harder than I’ve laughed at any movie in several months. There aren’t very many fresh gags to be found, but rather old dependable gags played with enough variation and liveliness that they play good as new.

It’s a wider, warmer movie than its predecessor, despite its slightly narrower focus. It doesn’t attempt to capture the entire sweep of a school year, but still manages to capture the pace of middle school (albeit slightly softened, aimed, as it is, at a demographic even younger than the main character’s). Greg is caught awkwardly in a time where little kids are awfully childish, but high schoolers are still a looming menace and adults can seem strangely distant. That’s not uncommon for kids his age, but it is uncommon to see it explored with such perceptiveness on the big screen. This is broad, immensely likable comedy. I can only hope the studio can make another movie or two with these young actors before they age out of the roles. These are rare live-action family comedies that are genuinely funny and sensitive rather than coldly calculated for maximum flatulence and CG animals spitting out pop-culture references.

Quick Look: THE TOURIST

Glamour should rarely be the sole purpose of a film, but in the case of The Tourist it’s very nearly enough. This is a laid back comic thriller with beautiful people in beautiful places. There’s Angelina Jolie as some kind of stylish criminal and Johnny Depp as a seemingly bumbling everyman. (There are also some nice supporting roles for the likes of Paul Bettany and Timothy Dalton). Together they become entangled, perhaps purposefully so, in all kinds of international espionage that takes place against the backdrop of stunning European scenery starting in Paris and ending up in Venice. Following up his heavy 2006 Oscar winning Stasi thriller The Lives of Others, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck capably directs with light professionalism. He’s a solid craftsman who should direct more often, if only for the pleasure of seeing his lengthy credit stretch out across the entire wide screen. The Tourist is all fizz, but it’s prime fizz. The screenplay by von Donnersmarck, Christopher McQuarrie, and Julian Fellowes, Oscar winners all, is a bit of a prestige-hued mess, but it’s on the whole a delightful throwback, perhaps even homage, to the lighter side of Hitchcock. I was reminded not entirely unfavorably of To Catch a Thief, a similarly enjoyably thin exercise in style, star power and glamour. When The Tourist arrived last December, it was generally derided by critics and considered a flop domestically (though it’s been quite the hit in international markets), but now it’s easier to see that all the fuss was misguided. This is not, by any means, a great movie, but it has enough diverting pleasure to entertain. It’s a classy popcorn star vehicle with plenty of beauty and surface contentment. The last shot is a nice Freudian sight gag served up with a line that could be seen, with a wink and a shrug, as the film’s summation of its own quality: “It’ll do.”

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Village of the Damned: RED RIDING HOOD

If I were to pick just one fairy tale ripe for reinvention in the Twilight mode, it would have to be Red Riding Hood. Werewolves carry with them the mythic trembling of the monstrous hidden within the confines of a normal human. Any story of a secret shape-shifter can easily be adapted into a enthralling metaphor for desire, which has definitely happened in the past with, say, Jacques Tourneur’s 1942 horror benchmark Cat People. But that’s certainly not the case with Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood, which is interested in exactly none of its potentially potent subtext.

In fact this is a movie that is inexplicably unbearable and surprisingly claustrophobic, especially given how often the camera pulls back to find wide vistas. It’s set in an isolated, vaguely European medieval village that has been menaced by a werewolf for years, much to the dismay of its residents, who seem so much like modern actors stomping around as if they’ve just recently wandered in out of a nearby Renaissance Faire. The village itself appears to be a cheapo backlot set with a thin covering of fake snow. An early scene features the menfolk traipsing off into the forest to hunt the beast and so they go scuffing through the wintry landscape with not a single coat amongst them. There goes believability. As if to compensate for the set’s shortcomings, Mandy Walker’s cinematography is visually garish, nothing but soft focus and blurry colors. The better to confuse us with, my dear.

Little red riding hood herself is the gorgeously talented Amanda Seyfried (what big eyes she has) who is only given the chance to tremble a bit. She’s painfully adrift here in screenwriter David Johnson’s stagnant stew of a plot that simply marks time with an uninvolving love triangle between two dull, hot, carefully coiffed, young guys (Shiloh Fernandez and Max Irons). There’s also some sort of inelegantly explained background involving her family which mainly consists of giving truly great actresses Julie Christie and Virginia Madsen absolutely thankless roles.

And just when I had gotten used to the fact that the movie was going to completely waste the skills of three (count ‘em, three!) immensely talented ladies, in rides some small interest in the form of werewolf-hunter Gary Oldman with an entourage of Moorish bodyguards who are pulling a giant metal elephant. How could that go wrong? Let me count the ways. Here’s a movie that is so completely terrible in every way it can’t even make good old-fashioned scenery chewing from such an expert chewer as Gary Oldman even partially enjoyable for more than half a scene.

Of course, the idea of a movie aquiver with sexual tension and secret werewolf intrigue, all taking place within the confines of an uncomfortable small village should have potential to spare. I could see myself enjoying a campy supernatural horror siege Western acted out by a ridiculously capable cast. What I can’t figure out is why Hardwicke (who has yet to make a movie I like) so thoroughly and completely allows every last ounce of this potential to get away from her. Sure, the script is terrible, but her every directorial decision is so misguided and off-putting that I have a hard time believing that this movie was directed at all. It seems to have stumbled off of the backlot onto the screen. It gave me a headache just to keep up with all I that was hating.

For those who are still in a Red Riding Hood kind of mood, I highly recommend listening to this great 1966 song, “Li’l Red Riding Hood” by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, which is infinitely better than the movie in question.


Jagged Little Pill: LIMITLESS

In Limitless, a down-on-his-luck mostly unemployed guy (a convincing Bradley Cooper) is struggling to fulfill a writing contract that he had signed some months ago. After all this time, he’s still looking at a blank page. (“I know the feeling,” comes the mirthless response from the writers in the audience). He bumps into an old acquaintance (Johnny Whitworth), his ex-brother-in-law actually, who was a minor pill pusher but has now graduated to the majors working for some shady thugs. Anyways, he has a fancy pill that will allow the user to access not just some of the brain, but the entire brain all at once. This is no placebo, in other words. It’s some heavy duty chemical something.

So, this guy takes the pill and decides that he has become a genius. Or, more accurately, he gets really good at mental math and other such activities that simply lean upon having a great memory. Before you know it, he’s an addict, and it seems to be working for him. He becomes an expert pianist, learns several languages, starts and finishes his stalled novel, wins back his recent ex-girlfriend (Abbie Cornish), and lands a job working for a high powered titan of finance (a severely underutilized Robert DeNiro). But with his great powers of great memory carry some great danger. There’s those thugs his pill provider was working for and certain other ominous forces that gather about, waiting around for the third-act twist.

Now, forgive me for getting more intellectual than the movie at hand probably requires, but it was Friedrich Nietzsche who said, “Many a man fails to become a thinker only because his memory is too good.” Thus the plight of Bradley Cooper in Limitless boils down to that of a man who is supposedly the smartest person in the room trapped doing stupid things just to keep the plot pushing forward. He has a great memory, but is hardly a thinker. The thriller itself is far less intelligent than it thinks. It has a good memory, for a while, dutifully paying off its set-ups, but by the end of the film, which leaves at least two murders completely unsolved, it’s clear that the plot’s been in shambles for quite some time. It has a climax, sure, but it never really builds there. By the end, the film even seems to halfheartedly embrace putting a seal of approval on the protagonist’s addiction in an rather off-putting way.

So, I guess the blame for such a thoroughly underwhelming movie can lay at the feet of screenwriter Leslie Dixon, the same person who brought us such achievements as Look Who’s Talking Now, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Pay it Forward. She just can’t whip this killer concept into something manageably entertaining. Lord knows, director Neil Burger tries. He’s a solid director (I’m a big fan of his peculiar, stylistic 2006 film The Illusionist) and here he brings visual energy and even, at times, inventiveness that serves as a nice distraction for a while. I especially liked his handful of computer-assisted zooms that leap out of the realm of the possible and extend to trippier and trippier lengths.

This is a movie that could have easily been very smart but instead veers quickly into the realm of the cluttered and underwhelming. It’s can’t even live up to being a dumb B-movie, but let me go ahead and spoil the strangest, liveliest moment of pure goofiness to be found within the film. At one point, Abbie Cornish is pursued through a park and beats back her attacker by slicing his face with a pair of ice skates that are still being worn by a little girl. The sight of a woman wildly swinging a small child at an attacker is simultaneously the best and worst moment of the film. I stared unbelieving at the screen in awe of the sudden turn into complete unpredictable weirdness. But the moment passes soon enough, returning to the regularly scheduled disappointment. If the film wasn’t going to be smart, it could have at least made a stronger commitment to being appealingly odd.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Quick Look: MARS NEEDS MOMS

Milo (who has the movements of Seth Green and the voice of Seth Dusky) fed the cat broccoli off of his plate and then tried to deny it so he was sent to bed without getting to watch TV. When his mom (Joan Cusack) tells him that her “life would be better if I didn’t have to play the nagging mom,” he snaps back that his life would be better without a mom at all. And here’s the remarkable moment that begins this mostly sweet little family film: Milo’s mom doesn’t respond but the camera holds on her face while tears well up in her eyes as she closes the door. Ouch. This is a family-friendly performance-capture CGI production from director Simon Wells (I vaguely recall enjoying his 1995 Balto when I was much younger) based on a children’s book by Berkeley Breathed. The movie is filled with all the requisite slapstick and bright colors but also happens to deal with a rather serious topic in a sometimes subtle and involving way. Martians kidnap little Milo’s mom and he stows away on her captors’ spaceship determined to rescue her. Along the way he runs into a sloppy human (Dan Fogler) with a tragic past that has left him stranded for a couple decades in the bowels of the Martian city. Later, he’ll meet an alien graffiti artist (Elisabeth Harnois) who is basically the Banksy of the endless gray corridors of Mars. But all of this sci-fi craziness springs forth from the simple emotional moment that opens the film. It’s a movie about learning that your parents are people too, that your words can wound them, and that just because they might punish you doesn’t mean they’ll love you any less. The narrative itself feels awfully undercooked and I left the theater with a dull sense of dissatisfaction. I can’t say I blame the people who’ve avoided the film because of its 3D surcharge, but it’s hardly worthy of its status as a colossal flop. It’s a nice, sweet movie with its heart in the right place. If there’s a 2D version playing in your area and you (and your kids) have already seen Rango once or twice, you could sure do worse than Mars Needs Moms.

The Good, The Bad, and the Lizard: RANGO

Rango is a computer-animated family film about a lizard with no name. He bounces out of the back of a truck and crash lands his terrarium on the side of a desert highway. Looking for signs of civilization he ends up in the pint-sized wild-west town of Dirt that’s populated by poor animals who are suffering from a terrible drought. They could also use a hero. So, this lizard says his name’s Rango, a rough, tough, capable gunslinger. Naturally, the townspeople make him sheriff. It’s not like they have a better option.

It’s a film that follows easily recognizable Western tropes, but it’s even more endearingly odd than you’d expect. This is a cockeyed postmodern western that’s a total delight in its energetic entertainment. It’s also a fantastically dark and fairly complicated look at the make up of identity. Rango himself puts on a new identity when stumbling into an animal Wild West town, playing his hero role as John Wayne by way of Don Knotts. He’s a thespian who builds his reality out of fiction, much like the film itself builds a glorious feat of originality out of gorgeous homage.

Directed by Gore Verbinski, he of The Ring and Pirates of the Caribbean fame, creates a world of starkly unexpected originality. From a script by John Logan, it’s one part kids’ film, one part Chinatown, and one part sophisticated revisionist Western. I never would have thought that was a combination that could be pulled off, let alone this well, especially coming from a director who, while clearly talented, had heretofore shown little in the way of personality. Though now, looking back on his other films, especially the three Pirates, I can start to see a bit of an auteurist thread in the way he freely plays with genre under the cover of crowd-pleasing blockbusters.

Is Rango crowd-pleasing? I’d like to think so. This is a film that’s certainly, for lack of a better term, weird. But it’s also a rather safe kind of weird. It’s not at all alienating in its unexpected strangeness. There’s great energy in its visual wit, in the inventive and spectacularly staged set-pieces that riff on classic Westerns in enjoyable ways while still remaining faithful to the colorful, accessible milieu of its own that is created. This is hardly a film so burdened down with homage that it becomes inaccessible to all but the amateur film scholars in the audience. This is closer in spirit to Tarantino; the references are there if you catch them, but they’re still just a part of a larger entertaining picture.

There’s also great energy and skill to be found in the hugely entertaining chameleon-like voice performances. It’s a rare animated film that has its big-name voice cast disappear into the texture. Other than the marquee name of Johnny Depp (the film is, after all, being sold as “Johnny Depp is…Rango”), who remains recognizable through his excellent voice work, the cast so thoroughly inhabits their parts that the end credits were a delightful surprise to find out just who had a personality provided by the likes of Isla Fisher, Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina, Abigail Breslin, Stephen Root, Harry Dean Stanton, and Bill Nighy. These aren’t camouflaged star turns. These are specific characters, detailed and quirky in their own specific ways.

The characters are also remarkably ugly, vividly so. The animation, supplied by the special-effects studio Industrial Light and Magic in their first foray into feature length cartooning, is extraordinarily detailed. These are no rounded, soft, appealing prototypes for toys. These are realistically scarred and feathered creatures with ugly lumps and awkward gestures. They’re anthropomorphized, sure. But they’re much more grotesquely animal than we’re used to seeing in films of this type.

Which leads me back to Rango himself. His character is deeply, appealingly peculiar in his fluid identity and in his naked yearning for acceptance at any cost. It turns this enjoyable genre mashup into something a bit deeper, into a story about the power of constructed identity. It’s about, if I may be just a tad highfalutin here, the tension between who we are and what we say we are, a theme that crystallizes in a scene of chilly beauty as a distraught character contemplates committing suicide through a nighttime crossing of a dangerous road while long white-and-red streaks of taillights go soaring by. That’s rather deep stuff for what seems, at least on the surface, to be and is both a raucous Western and a rip-roarin’ animated family film. Indeed, I found the experience to be rather soulful amidst its jagged edges, western tropes, sand-scored scenery, and ugly folks. Much like last March’s How to Train Your Dragon, this is a film that builds its colorful entertainment from emotions instead of solely from flippant commercialism, proving that Pixar isn’t the only American animation company capable of high standards.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Boom Boom Pow: BATTLE: LOS ANGELES

To all those who complain about director Paul Greengrass’s shaky-cam style in his excellent Bourne thrillers, I offer up Battle: Los Angeles as an example of that style taken to an illogical extreme. This new sci-fi blow-‘em-up is nearly two hours of unmotivated shaky-cam that rattles around in a painfully futile attempt to cover up just how bereft of originality the movie is. It’s an empty spectacle that gives empty spectacle a bad name. Unlike the Bourne films in which Greengrass, with cinematographer Oliver Wood, used precise, intelligently planned staging to better integrate their strategically implemented low-level blur (essentially intensifying intensified continuity), Battle: Los Angeles is muddied and unclear in its imagery. But there’d be hardly anything worth seeing even if it settled down.

It’s more than just the shaky-cam. This is a movie that’s not merely bad; its every decision seems to betray a basic lack of intelligence behind the camera. Director Jonathan Liebesman, with cinematographer Lukas Ettlin, use a small range of focus and a quick-cutting style that obscures not only plot and character but even the special effects work, the only ostensible reason for such a film as this. And when that’s gone, what could possibly be left to enjoy?

But back before I knew just how bad things would get, the movie starts, after a brief prologue of chaos, with all kinds of swirling bombast and ominous portents. So far, so good. Then mysterious, half-glimpsed, alien spacecrafts land all around the globe and we’re deployed with a group of soldiers, almost entirely indistinguishable from one another, led by a statuesque Aaron Eckhart who, wouldn’t you know it, was just days away from retirement.

We follow them through the streets of L.A., or at least that’s what we’re told. The movie doesn’t utilize the juicy possibilities (satirical, political, or the like) that arise naturally out of staging an all-out intergalactic salvo on California. There’s just bland gray city streets covered with ugly gunmetal debris. It’s supposed to look frightening, but the movie never really gives us a good glimpse of a pre-combat L.A. There’s no real sense of danger when the enemy is mostly invisible and the stakes never feel less than fictional.

The fictional status is just as well, for this is a movie that is so unapologetically, glowingly pro-weaponry and hawkishly drooling over the military that even Jerry Bruckheimer might suggest taking it down a notch. It’s a thoroughly shining portrait that has no time for detail or nuance in portraying the men and women of the military. These aren’t people. They’re not even caricatures. They seem more boringly G.I. Joe than the soldiers in G.I. Joe. Even Eckhart, a fine actor who does the best with what he’s given, comes across as little more than a prototype for a bargain bin action figure. There’s a moment where he has to give a pep talk to a little civilian who has just lost his father that’s handled with such mawkish pro-war hogwash that I’m not at all surprised that it makes little emotional sense in the moment. If such an uncomplicated look at war were placed in anything but a fully fictional context such as this, it would be laughed off of the screen.

I could forgive this movie, somewhat, I think, if Christopher Bertolini's script was merely content to grind past character so quickly that it barely fleshes them out with cliché, as long as it were on its way to giving me some passably enjoyable spectacle. I still wouldn’t have liked it all that much, but at least it wouldn’t have been so aggressively bad that it got on my nerves. Honestly, all I expected was some decently staged action. But this is about as far down to the bottom of the barrel as big budget explosive sci-fi filmmaking gets without going straight to DVD. Frantic and mind-numbing (literally, I think I nodded off once or twice) this is a non-stop visual and aural assault merely pretending to be exciting.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Quick Look: THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU

Screenwriter George Nolfi, who has worked on a couple of superb genre films, namely The Bourne Ultimatum and Ocean’s Twelve, makes his directorial debut with The Adjustment Bureau, a film that casts such a fragile spell that it could be easy to dismiss. After all, this is a movie that unashamedly declares itself to be about true love, free will, and destiny. Furthermore, it posits that Fate is controlled by a group of dapper men (in fedoras!) that takes orders from a mysterious “Chairman.” It’s a sincere romance with a light touch of sci-fi that’s perpetually poised on the brink of silliness, but it never quite topples over. I found it to be an involving film of modest charms. Matt Damon is an ambitious politician who has just lost his race for the U.S. Senate when he has a chance encounter with an alluring stranger, played by the lovely Emily Blunt. In this brief scene, Damon and Blunt set off crackling sparks of flirtation during their brief moment together. She’s a rising star in the dance scene. He’s an established politician. Their conversation is part debate, part duet. When they meet again the next day, the Adjustment Bureau (with members including Mad Men’s John Slattery, the underappreciated Anthony Mackie, and the distinguished, grave Terence Stamp) steps in. You see, this couple may have fallen instantly in love, but they aren’t meant to be together. When Damon stumbles upon the Bureau at work, they eventually let him in on the secret: if he sees that woman again, both of their dreams die. The movie’s plot unfolds as a romance with a rattling tinge of paranoia with crisp cinematography from the great John Toll. Damon and Blunt are charming, and the sight of noir heavies walking into a modern political romance tickled me. I also found myself enjoying the exploration of the notions of predetermination and free will, even though the ending feels like a cop out and the Bureau ends up being never more than vaguely menacing ciphers. Ultimately, disappointingly, it feels thoroughly disposable, with plenty of loose ends twisting in the breeze, but it’s also a comfortable way to pass the time with a little bit of romantic, philosophical, earnest sci-fi goofiness.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Quick Look: TAKE ME HOME TONIGHT


It’s Labor Day 1988 in Michael Dowse’s Take Me Home Tonight. There’s a big suburban house party being thrown by and for recent college grads as a sort of impromptu early high school reunion arranged by those who were in the popular crowd. Topher Grace goes hoping to impress his high school crush (Teresa Palmer) even though his MIT diploma has so far only landed him a minimum-wage job at Suncoast Video. (Remember those?) His sister (a curiously muted Anna Faris) is there as well because her long-time boyfriend (a strangely low-key Chris Pratt) is the host. This is all affable enough, at times, though Dan Fogler as Grace’s sloppy best friend seems to be in an entirely different movie, falling all over situations of poorly executed slapstick and incongruous sex-and-drugs gags. It’s a frustrating, distracting underbelly to an otherwise pleasant movie that takes place all on one night, mostly in and around this one party overflowing with 80’s music in the speakers and 80’s fashion on the extras. I appreciated the movie’s good-natured romanticism, which is presented in ways that are totally cliché, but at least it’s not a self-conscious and rancid 80’s nostalgia comedy like last year’s Hot Tub Time Machine, a movie that I find curdling in my memory. It’s not making fun of the 80’s or using its period-piece trappings to poke easy fun with anachronistic winks. If it weren’t for the modern cast it could almost pass as a minor 80’s rom-com. But “minor” is the key word here. Though there’s much to like and a little to tolerate, the movie is never more than a minor diversion. It’s sweet, but never charming. It’s likable without ever really getting around to being more than forgettable. It belongs to a certain category of movies that exist in the mind of the viewer just until the credits roll and not too long after.
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