Monday, May 30, 2011

Your Ad Here: THE GREATEST MOVIE EVER SOLD

Hey! Have your heard about this thing called advertising? Yeah. It’s apparently everywhere you look. It turns out companies, all kinds of companies, big, small, and in-between, will pay money, sometimes lots and lots of money, to make or keep people aware of the fact that they exist. Sometimes this money even makes its way to those in the entertainment business in exchange for endorsements, commercials or, most shocking of all, product placement. Yes, that’s right: product placement. Filmmakers and show-runners will actually take money in exchange for having characters use certain products on screen.

I’m so glad Morgan Spurlock, the documentarian who has previously told us that eating only fast food is bad for you (Super Size Me) and that Osama Bin Laden is – oops, make that “was” – hard to find (Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?), has decided to reveal this side of the art/commerce divide heretofore unknown to the movie-going public. How could any of us have ever realized how much money from advertising is poured into the content we enjoy without his help? To make such an important discovery, Spurlock has made a movie called The Greatest Movie Ever Sold and decided to fund it entirely with product placement.

He interviews some people (Noam Chomsky and Ralph Nader, for example) who are around just for the sake of saying that advertisements are bad. The rest of the film is given over to Spurlock schlepping his concept from meeting to meeting trying to get the funding he needs to make and release the movie. The extent to which he succeeds should be evident by the fact that it is now a completed product playing out on movie screens across the country as I write this. The documentary is a self-referential, self-parodying advertisement for product placement that ends up feeling like its really only interested in itself.

Spurlock gets [company] to provide their [product] for prominent featuring in the movie. They also give him quite a bit of money to purchase the rights to above the title sponsorship, so I suppose the name of the movie is officially [Company] Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. This is a feature-length block of paid advertising that tries to rail against that very concept. At least Spurlock thinks it’s funny. He also gets help from [company], [company], [company], and [company], among others.

This is less a film and more of a publicity stunt. It’s fairly well concocted and Spurlock’s certainly an amiable presence on screen, but the actual content presented here is a series of tonally squishy screeds interspersed with winking ads and the types of gimmicks and stunts that even Michael Moore would probably find too over-the-top and unnecessary. I’m sure there’s an actual interesting documentary to be made out of the subject, but it would have to be interested in history, context, and economics more than surface observations that just about anyone who has ever seen a billboard or a stadium or a broadcast TV show has already made.

What the movie taught me most was that if you want companies to finance what you’re already planning on doing, you just have to ask. You hear that, companies featured in this movie? Go back and take a second look at the fourth paragraph up there. I’d be willing to remove one of those generic labels and name your company specifically if you just pay up. The amount’s thoroughly negotiable. I look forward to hearing from you.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Paws of Fury: KUNG FU PANDA 2

Dreamworks Animation’s Kung Fu Panda 2, like Kung Fu Panda before it, delivers lively action sequences (and slapstick) with choreography capable of equaling, even besting, live-action adventure. Animation has the possibility to be the triumph of imagination over practicality, and here that’s completely the case with characters flipping, punching, flying, kicking, and stomping through intricate hand-to-hand combat in ways that would simply be too dangerous and impractical to ask of real creatures. In the summer of 2008, Kung Fu Panda had the best action sequences you could find on the big screen. I’m not so sure 2 will end up in a similar place – the novelty’s gone, for one thing – but it sure is fun.

The first film, set in a medieval China populated solely by anthropomorphized English-speaking animals, featured Po (Jack Black), a roly-poly panda, discovering his true calling to be a kung fu master. He trained with red panda Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) to become one of a group of kung fu masters (a Lucy Liu viper, an Angelina Jolie tiger, a Jackie Chan monkey, a David Cross crane, and a Seth Rogen mantis) who protect a humble little valley. That film gained its fun and its momentum from the challenges in the training of the Kung Fu Panda as he prepared to help his new colleagues defeat an outside threat to their safety.

In good sequel form, Kung Fu Panda 2 ups the ante. There’s an evil peacock (Gary Oldman) who has become determined to take over China by harnessing the power of fireworks to blast away any kung fu challenge that comes his way. His first step towards this goal took place a couple dozen years earlier when, after receiving a prophecy that a black and white warrior would defeat him, he slaughtered a village of innocent pandas. One panda, a baby, managed to escape unharmed and was found and adopted by a noodle-cooking goose (James Hong). That panda was Po. So, this time the conflict’s personal, but only for the audience at first. Po doesn’t know where he came from, and his adopted father only knows so much. It’s a mystery to him.

Rather than merely recycle the plot beats of the earlier film, screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger (with uncredited assistance from Charlie Kaufman) take the opportunity to flesh out the backstory of the central character. Rooting the new plot’s impetus in Po’s past, along with his desire to learn more about it, helps to propel the emotions as well as the action, giving it a bit of pleasing depth. The fighting animals head off across the wilderness once they hear that this peacock has taken over his ancestral town and is planning to use it as a base from which to launch his dastardly deeds. With the mystery of Po’s origins weighing heavily on the plotting, exposition here is given a satisfying kick of emotion.

Under the direction of Jennifer Yuh Nelson, the animation is gorgeously rendered, tactile and fluid, beautifully lit in all the right ways. This could be a film just to look at, worth the price of admission just to stare. But luckily the story the visuals tell is worthy of attention as well, though it feels a bit too formulaic in its structure, which isn’t helped by the opening prologue that tells the audience all about the panda massacre which robs Po’s late discovery of much of it’s power. But he’s searching not just for information. Most importantly, he’s searching for a way to find inner peace. It may be trite, it may be an easy indefinable plot point, but it’s also a quest imbued with such elemental qualities that it’s hard to argue with it.

It’s not a film of zen meditation and grim personal history. There’s boundless irrepressible energy that pushes the whole thing forward. Not just a fast zip to the credits, this is a speedy sprightly delight with a surprising level of emotion. It’s a fun time even though, with an all-too-obvious structure and an inelegantly deployed ensemble (other than Po, characterization remains surface level), I felt the fun was ultimately a little less than what the first film dished out. This is shaping up to be a fine series of kung fu movies for kids, and one that feels respectful of the live-action genre used as inspiration. And if some of those kids, as they get a little older, feel driven to dive deeper into said genre, that could only be an added value to cinephilia.

Added note: It’s a shame that a fun teaser of a final scene, that hints at a direction for a future plot line, is separated from the end credits by the words “The End.” Who do they think they’re fooling?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

How Low Can They Go? THE HANGOVER PART II

Say what you will about the 2009 surprise comedy smash hit The Hangover, it had a pretty great premise. Four guys head out to Vegas for a bachelor party, wake up the next morning with no memory of the night before, and find that they’ve lost the groom. It becomes a mystery comedy that involves stumbling through various clues to piece together enough memory of the night’s debauchery to find their missing friend and get him to the church on time.

Director Todd Phillips and writers Craig Mazin and Scot Armstrong didn’t use the great premise to make a great comedy. In fact, I would say they made a solid effort that succeeds to the extent that it does despite itself. They made a mystery first, a comedy second and that’s why it works. Sure, it can be funny, but that’s not the main interest for me. It’s filled with unexpected incidents and genuine surprises that bounce along and manage to cover over the ugly aftertastes of some of the jokes. It looks good and moves quickly and, at the end of it all, the mostly unlikable characters have learned their lessons and are now, hopefully, better people for all the torture and punishment they have to face as a result of the consequences of their actions.

And that’s precisely where The Hangover Part II starts to go wrong. These characters have completed their arcs. They have gone through a hellish party and a worse aftermath and have emerged with their flaws exposed and ready for mending. The sequel takes these same exact guys (Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, and Justin Bartha) and has them make all the same mistakes only much more dangerously and much more repulsively. It takes a once moderately enjoyable premise, runs it straight into the ground and keeps on digging.

This time it’s a wedding for Ed Helms, not Justin Bartha. This time, the wedding is in a small village in Thailand, the hometown of the parents of the bride (Jamie Chung). This time, the guys set off for Bangkok with the bride’s pre-med little brother (Mason Lee) in tow. He’s the guy who gets lost while Bartha manages to skip out unscathed so its once again Cooper, Helms, and Galifianakis stumbling through the city the next morning discovering the extent of the damage done. Turns out, the damage is more or less what you would expect if you’ve seen the first film, but uglier and much, much less humorous.

The events of The Hangover Part II are beyond unfunny. They’re actively repulsive and deliberately upsetting. Watching the movie is hardly enjoyable; it’s an act of endurance. It’s crass and putrid in its unquestioning giggling at a white, rich, heterosexual, ethnocentric, xenophobic, American male rampage through the squalor and poverty of the backstreets of Bangkok.

How bad is it? It’s a movie that has an extended gag about transgender sex workers with the full extent of the joke being “tee-hee, she’s a he!” There’s a joke about underage prostitution that goes something like this. Helms to a strip-club owner, asking about the missing college student: “We’re looking for a kid!” Owner: “How young?” The end credits include, among various still images, a shockingly jocular reenactment of a famous Vietnam War photograph of a close-up gunshot to the head. These aren’t jokes; they are lazy attempts to provoke laughter through ugly observations that are wrongly assumed to be funny just because they push buttons and cross lines.

What makes it all the more troubling is the relative skill with which the whole thing is put together. It’s a glossy Warner Brothers’ production with real skill in the cinematography, the editing, the set design, and in the casting, which even includes a part for the great Paul Giamatti, of all people. He gets a chance to play a Bangkok crime boss with great growly gusto that’s saddening in how much of a wasted opportunity it is. I would love to see the same performance fleshed out and put to good use in a much better movie.

All of this skill has gone down the drain and straight into the gutter with the material itself. This isn’t merely a comedy that fails through its lack of laughs or its lack of imagination (it’s practically a beat by beat transposition of its predecessor), though those are certainly big counts against it. The movie fails most of all in its mistaking vileness for standard, run-of-the-mill vulgarity and in mistaking flawed characters who learn something for beloved characters loved for their depravity. Though that last bit about why, exactly, some audiences like these characters so much may be truer than I’m willing to admit. If this makes as much money, or even nearly as much money as the first, here’s hoping that someone takes the advice of one Zooey Deschanel, who tweeted that “Perhaps hangover pt. 3 should just be called "intervention"”

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Quick Look: GNOMEO AND JULIET

It has made nearly 190 million dollars worldwide, played in the local multiplex for a few months, I just finished watching it on Blu-ray, and I’m still not entirely sure that Gnomeo and Juliet exists. I’m not losing my mind (of course it exists), but perhaps that’s the better alternative to acknowledging that (1) someone made a kid-friendly Romeo and Juliet starring lawn gnomes with a happy ending and (2) it was actually kind of popular. The CG animation is bright and colorful with appealingly rubbery textures that make the whole thing look like a Playskool toy’s daydream. I quite liked the colors, but beyond that my level of engagement with the material was somewhere ever so slightly above somnambulant. I simply didn’t care about the long-lasting feud between the red gnomes and the blue gnomes and all of the reasons that the lovers couldn’t be together. It plays out as if the screenwriters (all nine of them) and the director (Kelly Asbury) made a list of the worst tendencies in modern children’s animation and then proceeded to use said list as a checklist. There are annoying winks towards pop culture (even poor Bill Shakespeare gets dragged into this). There’s the eccentric panoply of celebrity voices (from stars James McAvoy and Emily Blunt to parts for Michael Caine, Maggie Smith, Patrick Stewart, Jason Statham, Ozzy Osbourne, Hulk Hogan, and Dolly Parton). There’s a reliance on cheap and easy humor. And, last but not least, there are endless dance sequences to 70’s rock. (Elton John serves as a producer and generously granted his music to be dishonored). The whole thing barely lasts 80 minutes before the end credits, but it manages to feel much, much longer. Perhaps kids will enjoy the movie, but shame on all of the adults who created it for believing that kids should settle for this.

Not a Happy Drunk: EVERYTHING MUST GO

Will Ferrell’s doughy features are most often seen twisted into caricature like his exaggerated masculinity in Anchorman and his endearing naïve innocence in Elf, his best comedies to date. When not seen in such embellished ways, he can take on a glum, locked-in quality. This is precisely what made his performance in 2006’s Stranger Than Fiction his best acting to date. In that film, he played a man stuck in a rut that slowly opens up though meta-fictional devices and allows him to learn how to better live life to the fullest. That film succeeds as much as it does through Ferrell’s endearing nature that allows an audience to see the possibility filtering through a sad-sack exterior.

There’s a similar quality to the performance in Everything Must Go, a film in which he plays an on-again off-again alcoholic who gets fired from his job and arrives home to discover that his wife has left him, changed the locks, and left most of his possessions on the front lawn. It just keeps getting worse from there. His bank account is frozen, his cell phone service is shut off, and his car is repossessed. Naturally, he decides to sit out on the front lawn and drink while stewing in his sadness.

His Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor (Michael Peña) is a police officer who gets him a permit for a yard sale, which gives him five consecutive days to pick up his life (and his stuff) and get moving again. While he gets this unexpected chance to reexamine his life, he chats with a neighbor kid (Christopher Jordan Wallace) and a woman moving in across the street (Rebecca Hall) with a brief sojourn to reconnect with an old high school acquaintance (Laura Dern).

The cast is given the chance to do some nice acting and writer-director Dan Rush, making his filmmaking debut, can craft a nice looking frame from time to time. This is a film that has its focus on small character detail, the way a glass of beer becomes a temptation, the way a gift of a used camera becomes a small spark of connection between neighbors, and the way people grow apart or get closer in the tiniest of ways. But with all of the focus on small details, Rush completely misses the big picture.

This is a frustratingly schematic film that clunks from point A to point B in unconvincing ways. I believed the characters but I didn’t necessarily believe their emotional journeys. This may have grown out of the unbelievable nature of the central premise. If Ferrell’s wife moved out, why leave behind a trail of traps and catch-22s that leave him on the brink of disaster? This makes her a cruel, one-dimensional villain painted in broad, ugly strokes. The fact that she has nary a second of screen time only enhances the one-dimensionality of her character which stands in stark contrast to the more nuanced female roles from the likes of Hall and Dern.

Perhaps these problems arise from the act of expansion. Rush’s script is an adaptation of the short story “Why Don’t You Dance?” by Raymond Carver. In that story, a young couple comes across a drunken middle-aged man sitting amongst his belongings sprawled out on his front lawn. They spend some brief moments with him and move on. It’s short, evocative, and emotional. But it’s also believable in the way that it’s framed through the eyes of someone who see this curious sight. We’re left to wonder how the man ended up on his lawn under these circumstances. Rush’s film tries to show us how a person could get to this place and fails to convince, tries to expand a one-note character and instead gives us a half-believable protagonist antagonized by a one-note character. I appreciated the nice acting (especially from Hall and Dern, but Ferrell’s quite good as well), but I had a hard time caring.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Drink Up Me Hearties Yo Ho: PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES

In 2003, when Walt Disney Pictures and producer Jerry Bruckheimer released Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, they had the element of surprise on their side. They had a hugely enjoyable crowd-pleaser, and a pirate film, no less, based on a theme park ride, an idea that then (and now) sounds improbable. Yet the film worked with its big rollicking set pieces, it’s playful treatment of the iconography of swashbuckling (Errol Flynn might have fit right in), and its lilting off-kilter star-turn from Johnny Depp as the instant breakout hit character Captain Jack Sparrow.

As a drunken, improvisatory scoundrel who loves being a pirate more than anything other than his own cleverness, Depp’s mumbling, mascara-wearing, stumbling swordsman was an unlikely hero. Hindsight, however, makes it all seem so inevitable. Depp can be a charming actor and in the film he’s given an infinitely charming character that he not only inhabits but also seems to have emerged fully created from deep within himself. He’s the secret genius amongst all of the characters, able to play people off of each other to achieve his goals while trying (or seemingly trying) to avoid doing the hard work. All he wants to do is to captain his beloved ship and he effortlessly steals away the show in the process, even if he’s actually a bit of a supporting character to the overarching damsel/hero romance between Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley.

The pure charm and excitement (not to mention the surprise) was dampened with a second feature, Dead Man’s Chest. With the sequel Disney via Verbinski attempted an expansion of the mythos of the first film that tried to retroactively turn that film into a trilogy starter. It’s nothing more than two-and-a-half hours of exposition with a few sequences of fun thrown in for good measure. It is, however, a booming, cluttered messy film of impressive, immersive design that is occasionally very enjoyable. It successfully moves the first film away from a standalone plot and puts it in a larger universe of details and characters engaged in and rebelling against various interconnected curses and codes.

By the time the trilogy ended with At World’s End, I enjoyed diving into the complicated, overextended, multilayered plotting. At three hours, the film is no quick, breezy blockbuster but Verbinski uses its heft to find voluminous weirdness almost hallucinatory in their meticulously odd construction. (There’s a lengthy sequence involving a topsy-turvy trip into Davy Jones’s Locker of all things, not to mention the climax that kicks off when a voodoo giant bursts into a river of crabs). Some find it tiresome; I find it exhilaratingly dense in its commitment to seeing just how odd a summer tent-pole release can get, how light on its feet a film can be while lumbering around with so many subplots and side characters.

After some time off, Disney has Depp back for more time as Captain Jack. By this point, he’s the clear backbone of the series. In this new film, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, he’s just about all that remains of the old mythos. The scene-stealer has become the focus. Most of the ensemble accrued over the course of three films has been stripped away. (Say goodbye to Bloom, Knightley, Stellan Skarsgård, and others). This is a simpler film, the simplest of all these Pirates, but it has some of the old pleasures without being nearly as bizarre or intricate. The biggest pleasure of these movies has been their denseness; this one's biggest flaw is it's relatively straightforward nature. It’s comparatively thin and, by the end, a bit anticlimactic; it’s eventful, but less epic in scope. Part of the fun of the bloat has been lost in the new focus on leanness, but I still found just enough to enjoy.

When Johnny Depp makes his entrance, I realized yet again what fun it is to see him as Jack Sparrow. I had forgotten how enjoyable he is to watch, the charmer, scamp, wobbly drunk and perpetual schemer. He commands the screen with ease. Here he’s positioned as the star of the show; he’s playing second fiddle to no one. What works, however, is the way he’s pulled into a plot that both could and couldn’t go on without him. In an opening sequence in London, he impersonates a judge, flees, is caught, and ends up in front of babbling fool King George (Richard Griffiths) who implores him to help his privateer (none other than Sparrow’s long-time rival, Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa) beat the Spanish to the Fountain of Youth.

This race to the fountain will be going on without Sparrow, but so many of the principal players seem to think he knows the way that he ends up accidentally helping out. But that’s Sparrow for you. He has a way of playing all sides against each other in a way that seems like he’d rather be anywhere else than amongst such intricate scheming. By not seeming to care (actually, he just might not care) he wriggles his way out of each situation, usually with the upper hand.

Captain Jack won’t help Barbossa and instead strikes off on his own and gets tricked into working aboard Blackbeard’s ship. This glowering baddie (played growly by Ian McShane) and his fiery long-lost daughter (Penélope Cruz) are foils for Jack’s half-planned bumbling. The daughter, especially, has it out for Jack, but mostly because years earlier she was all set to become a nun until she had an affair with him. On Blackbeard’s ship is also a captive missionary (Sam Claflin), just because there needs to be someone younger around to fall for a mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) who gets captured to provide a tear with which to activate the magic of the fountain’s water.

So, the whole thing’s a race (though a fairly rudderless one) and a somewhat overcomplicated quest. Gone are the elaborate curses and multitude of side characters from the first three Pirates. Screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (who’ve actually scripted all four of these things) are trying something new, plotwise. It more or less worked for me, although some of the action beats fall flat (swordplay isn't always edited for clarity or even impact) and the whole thing feels a little overstretched. But the cast is fully on board with the loud fantasy of it all and the proceedings don’t swallow them up. (Rush even does a fantastic bit of acting that involves readjusting his balance after he loses a bit of weight from one leg).

Speaking of new, the director this time around is Rob Marshall. He’s no Verbinski, but he handles the spectacle well. His 2002 film Chicago is, despite what Oscar might say, no Best Picture, but fun enough I suppose. This success had the unfortunate effect of causing him to think that he should be making Very Important Movies. His hollow Memoirs of a Geisha and god-awful Nine are a one-two punch in which he pushed his filmmaking to the limits of insufferableness and beyond. Here he finds his inner showman and stages the swordplay and effects with a degree of competency he has heretofore never displayed. (No, not even in the Academy Award winning Chicago).

Of course, that’s because Marshall is swallowed up in the machine. Bruckheimer and Disney are making product and while someone like Verbinski (take another look at this year’s Rango and you can see the kind of distinct vision he can have) could in some ways assert his own identity as a filmmaker, Marshall is just a cog. No one would let him mess this up too badly. There’s a sense that this movie could almost have churned itself out. But not quite. There’s a small wit and the occasional nice visual staging going on (the 3D is even used strikingly at times) and the action beats arrive on time. Some, like the series of escapes at the film’s opening and, later, a ship’s bewitched rigging tangling up mutineers, are done with a likable, unexpected, flourish.

The movie’s not great (I doubt the series will ever be as good as the original, and not just for lack of surprise) but it’s fun. Definitely not for those already tired of the series or cynical about this one’s very existence, it’s at least not too insistent about your approval. It’s sufficiently good-natured (relaxed, even) and I was pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying a film I was fully prepared to find unnecessary. Every buckle gets swashed (leaving lots of dangling plot lines for future installments) with a degree of energy that can make for a pleasant night at the movies.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

They Know Not What They Do: PRIEST

The strange thing about failed would-be cult-hit B-movies is the consistent way they have of casting one or two people who seem to be in on the joke, so to speak. In the case of Priest, a bad post-apocalyptic dystopian sci-fi vampire western from Scott Stewart, the director of Legion, last year’s bad fallen-angel western siege picture, Christopher Plummer, Alan Dale and Karl Urban do a good job of splitting the difference between earnestly stylized and overtly conscious scenery-chewing. They’re on the right half-goofy vibe but only appear in a handful of scenes and it’s a shame no one else involved in the production could join them.

This is a movie that takes place in a future aftermath of a war between humans and animalistic vampires that is neatly, quickly summarized in a nifty animated prologue from Genndy Tartakovsky. It tells us that The Church (presumably Catholic, but they never say so you never know) sent out priest warriors that beat back the vampires with their crucifix-throwing-stars and rounded them up into prison camps in the wilds of wherever they are. Now, however, the priests are disbanded outcasts. Maybe that’s because their faces are covered forehead to the tip of the nose are tattooed with blood-red crosses. You’d think the society would have more respect for the people who saved them, but there you have it.

The story proper opens on one particular Priest (Paul Bettany) who discovers that his brother and his wife, dirt farmers in the middle of nowhere, have been attacked by vampires. What’s more, their daughter (Lily Collins) has been kidnapped. Unfortunately the head clergy (Christopher Plummer and Alan Dale) won’t allow the citizens of their world to know that there are still some active vampires and therefore cannot allow the kind of person who knows all about fighting these monsters to investigate. No, it’s much better to leave that task up to the in-over-his-head local small-town sheriff (Cam Gigandet, who continues his habit of appearing in the worst projects he can find).

So, surprise, Bettany disobeys his orders and heads out to find his niece. Yes, this clumsy little effects picture is a covert remake of the all-time great western The Searchers that replaces all of the moral dilemmas and rich characterization with CGI vampire beasts and empty exposition. It’s so backwards looking, keeping an eye on its inspirations (not just the most direct plot lift, but also a little Blade Runner here, a little Star Wars there), and also so forwards looking, staring off at its own sequel on the imagined horizon, that it forgets to get down to the business of being its own thing. It's altogether mostly dull.

In the gray, monotonous unraveling of this yarn, it turns out that the monstrous vampires didn’t do the kidnapping. See, it was Karl Urban, this world’s first human vampire who once worked with Paul Bettany as a priest but now, something something revenge something. Somehow a big black train is involved. Also, Maggie Q shows up as another priest who kind of likes Bettany but they kind of sort of have to be celibate even though they’re already disobeying their higher-ups. So, yeah, it’s that kind of movie, violent, confused, and oddly routine.

I lost track of the amount of times characters scowled or tore off across the desert in a motorcycle. At only 87 minutes, the plot seems awfully repetitive and, for the amount of enjoyment I got out of it, it feels about 81 minutes too long. Even the vampire fighting, the supposed reason for the movie’s existence is dull and confused. There’s some striking imagery to be found here and there throughout the picture; it’s stolen completely from other, better, movies but when it works it works. There’s also those halfway fun turns from Plummer and Dale, who turn up once at the beginning and then again at the end. Urban has a bit more time, but not much. He hams it up whenever possible, though. It hardly matters. By the time the movie wraps up hinting strongly about a sequel it feels less like a promise and more like a threat.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Something Blue: BRIDESMAIDS

While the plot is set in motion by the announcement of an upcoming wedding, Bridesmaids is anything but a typical wedding comedy. It focuses not on the couple – the groom, in fact, has barely a line of dialogue in the entire picture – but on female relationships instead. It’s directed by Paul Feig (creator of Freaks and Geeks) and produced by Judd Apatow, but the true auteur here is Kristen Wiig, who co-wrote the film with her friend Annie Mumolo and stars as the maid of honor. This is a sometimes very crude R-rated film in which women are allowed to be raunchy and rowdy, to be both beautiful and silly, even in the same instant. It’s a broad comedy with nicely observed friendships and competitions between these recognizably human characters.

In the film, Wiig plays a woman whose longtime best friend (Maya Rudolph) is happily ready to be married. But, unfortunately, Wiig’s life happens to be falling apart. She’s closer to 40 than 30. She has a failed business, a dead-end physical relationship with an emotionally distant jerk (Jon Hamm), and two deeply strange roommates (Rebel Wilson and Matt Lucas) who would very much like it if she could either pay the rent or move out. Her mom (the late Jill Clayburgh in her final role) isn’t much help. That last thing Wiig wants to do is move back in with her mother, but that seems to be an increasingly necessary option.

She clings to her relationship with her soon-to-be-married friend, even as it picks up a slight strain under the pressure of the impending ceremony. Weddings can be expensive and are full of situations ripe with the potential for massive social embarrassment. Wiig plays a woman completely unprepared for this stress, especially with the added strain that comes in the form of Rudolph’s new friend (Rose Byrne), a wealthy, glamorous lady for whom party planning and social graces seem to come naturally. It’s clear from the moment that their characters first meet that Wiig and Byrne are on a collision course.

The film walks through the various events leading up to the big day, from an engagement party to dress fittings, the bachelorette party and a wedding shower. At every turn, events get weird. Propriety breaks down. Strange faux pas pop up. Feelings get hurt. Along for the ride are the rest of the bridesmaids, a naïve newlywed (Ellie Kemper) thoroughly dazzled by the concept of a wedding, a weary mother (Wendi McLendon-Covey) who evokes the state of her chaotic household by mentioning that the other day she broke a blanket in half, and a jolly goofball (Melissa McCarthy) who seems to grow ever more cheerfully strange with each passing scene.

This isn’t exactly a great comedy, but it’s one with several great scenes, the kind of hilarious moments that provoke squirm-in-the-seat, tears-down-the-face, jagged-breathing laughter. There’s an engagement party toast that becomes a slow build of increasing hilarity, as it becomes an elaborate game of one-upmanship between Wiig and Byrne. There’s a pristine, glowing, high-end dress shop which is the perfect setting for a sequence of unbelievably, hilariously gross mass gastrointestinal crisis (“I need to get off this white carpet!”). There’s a flight to a bachelorette party destination that becomes the perfect enclosed space for a jittery flyer to devolve into crazier and loopier goofiness. These sequences start small and are allowed to build momentum until part of the humor is that the embarrassment is still going on.

Through all of these moments, the very funny cast of scene-stealers keeps stealing scenes out from under each other, but Wiig looms large above them all. She has a rubbery elasticity, not just to her face and physicality, but to her emotional state as well. She’s a normal person with a life that’s falling apart, being slowly driven insane by extra pressures of social situations going horribly awry. It’s very comical, but what makes it all the more funny is that it’s built upon believable character relationships. Wiig and Rudolph have an unforced naturalness that seems to spring from a real, deep friendship. Wiig and Byrne clash in ways that feel specifically truthful in the passive-aggressive ways they play out. (There’s even a sweet romance between Wiig and a lovely cop played by Chris O’Dowd that is surprising in both its effectiveness and its relative lack of screen time).

This is a movie about women that actually seems honest about who women are while still managing to be funny, often incredibly so. Unlike terrible recent wedding-themed comedies that are, at least partially, about female friendships, like Bride Wars, which plays like some man’s awfully reductive and retrograde concept of how women relate to one another, Bridesmaids is a comedy by women and benefits from the sparks of truth that drive the story. It’s a bit long, sometimes uneven, but it more than makes up for it by laying out convincing groundwork for sequences of high flying vulgarity that occasionally turns into complete and total comic pleasure.

Love Story: BLUE VALENTINE

Blue Valentine tells a story that could be told easily, simplistically. After all, how many couples have the same story in its broad outlines? A man and a woman meet. They fall in love. They get married. Time passes. They grow apart. A relationship that starts with playful sparks ends with burns. What elevates this film is its unflinching specificity, its searing emotional intensity, and its marvelous performances. It’s all in the telling. This is a story of love, but it’s not exactly a love story.

When we first meet Dean and Cindy, they’re married with a small daughter and a missing dog. They converse and through their seemingly routine morning conversation it is clear that their relationship is falling apart. Their words crackle and bite at the edges of polite behavior. Tension hangs in the air between every space and silence of the dialogue. Every word spoken feels like a careful yet hasty step into a field of landmines. They agree to a romantic weekend. He books a hotel in a themed hotel with a suite poignantly called “Future Room.” It’s unclear whether or not their marriage has one.

It wasn’t always this way. We see them years earlier. They’re younger, fresher, smoother, two young people maneuvering around each other in the first, gentle steps towards romance. He comes on strong. She resists. They talk. Each word seems to slip carefully, inexorably towards comfortability. He serenades her. She does an awkward little dance. They grow closer. They feel safe together, as if all of their problems will disappear just because they love each other enough to make it work. They’re falling for each other.

Writer-director Derek Cianfrance (with his co-writers Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis) takes the beginning and the end of this relationship and weaves them together creating interesting resonances and comparisons but serving, most of all, to add layers of tension to an already wrenching portrayal. The film’s structure makes the romance bittersweet and the break-up all the more painful. In the “Future Room” Dean puts in a CD and plays a song – “You and Me” by Penny & the Quarters – in a late attempt to reopen the romance. Later, we’ll hear the same song again. Dean plays it for Cindy early in their relationship, introducing it as “their song.” Indeed it will always be their song, but, as we see all too clearly, the meaning is all too fluid.

We’re a step ahead of the couple when they’re starting out, prematurely pessimistic as they see nothing (or almost nothing) but potential. Then, we’re right with the two of them as their relationship breaks apart. Their past weighs heavily on the current tensions. The break-up is for the best; it has to be. We have plenty of evidence to think that their marriage is untenable, dangerous even. But the dissolution doesn’t feel easy.

The film is so beautifully done, exquisitely haunting, emotionally exposed and harrowing. Like two perfect short stories dancing together, one all beginning, the other all painful end, the film moves between its separate yet intertwined plots with an intuitive, expressive ease. The couple is played by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams in performances of such emotional openness and raw conflict and romance that it doesn’t seem like mere acting. No, this is instead a duet between two performers fully inhabiting their characters at two separate moments in their lives. The way they navigate their characters’ internal feelings towards one another and externalize this in painfully raw intimacy is some of the finest screen acting in recent memory.

Watching Blue Valentine doesn’t feel so much like a typical story of a relationship as told in the movies. I felt like I was eavesdropping, looking in on a slow-motion wreck of a relationship while knowing far too much about its beginnings to remain impartial. It feels, at times, queasily personal. This is a film with characters that keep no secrets from us. It’s unflinchingly honest and emotionally draining. When the credits rolled I had to sit in my seat while my heartbeat could normalize and my hands could stop shaking. This is not just an excellently structured drama with amazing performances, though it is. This is a full emotional experience.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Love is All They Need?: JUMPING THE BROOM


Jumping the Broom is the kind of warm comic drama in which personalities can clash and long-held secrets can be exposed but all is ultimately forgiven for the sake of a wedding. In this case, the bride’s family is a wealthy family with a mansion on the beach at Martha’s Vineyard while the groom comes straight out of Brooklyn. They’re madly in love but – surprise, surprise – their families aren’t.

The bride (Paula Patton) and groom (Laz Alonso) recede into the background of their own story. There’s the typical last minute fighting and cold feet and declarations of love for the two of them to act out, but the movie is smart to find much reason to showcase the eccentric families. With a movie this comfortably predictable, it’s a pleasure to find that the ensemble is stuffed with enjoyable performers. They’re given far too little to do, but they fill out the gaps in the humor and pathos far better than you’d expect.

Angela Bassett and Loretta Devine are the dueling matriarchs presiding over all sorts of wedding related silliness while the wedding’s guests include the likes of Mike Epps (a reliable source of humor), DeRay Davis, Tasha Smith, Romeo, Megan Good, and Valarie Pettiford. All the while, the uptight wedding planner (Julie Bowen) finds herself in a perpetual state of cultural confusion. This is a mild farce with characters sent careening into each other in the typical fashion of both wedding movies and culture clash movies in which big social events are cause for people to find new love and, just maybe, new ways to think about others.

The movie is broad and drawn in quick strokes. It’s stretched thin, rambling across any number of themes (race, economics, religion, sexuality) without much depth given over to any one of them. I suppose it would be too much to ask for such a feather-light comedy to be a serious commentary on the state of modern America, and that’s not what I was expecting. But the nods towards deeper subjects in the screenplay by Elizabeth Hunter and Arlene Gibbs serve to hobble a picture that’s otherwise blandly sweet and not exactly nuanced, making it feel like it’s playing it a bit safe.

There’s a simple likability to Jumping the Broom but neither the comedy nor the families’ dramas are pushed far enough. It's not altogether unagreeable, it’s just slightly less than good. The director, Salim Akil, is a veteran sitcom director and it shows. I don’t have anything against the form; I enjoy good sitcom work, but I wouldn’t want to watch one in a theater. Akil, drawing on that experience, capably directs the traffic involved with having such a large cast and he keeps the movie moving along with a nice, bright polish. I didn’t exactly have a good time but I didn’t have a bad one either, and by the time the credits rolled I found myself entirely unaffected by the experience.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Hammer Out Danger: THOR

The latest Marvel superhero to make it to the big screen is Thor, to my knowledge the only superhero with origins as a Norse God. That might seem tricky to assimilate into the ever-growing on-screen overlap between the various Marvel properties, especially with more Earthbound sci-fi heroes like Iron Man and the Hulk, but this big flashy summer tentpole is up to the task, especially with its nimble mixing of genres. The director is Kenneth Branagh, a fine actor, member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, turned director most notable for his Shakespearean adaptations, some of them quite good. With Thor he mixes a bit of high drama with a bit of low comedy and, to my surprise, it works quite well. It may not make a lot of sense some of the time, but it sure is fun while it lasts.

After a little teaser of an opening scene, the movie dives straight into mythological bombast and fantasy spectacle with the dramas of Odin (a fun Anthony Hopkins) and his royal court. He’s a Norse God who rules over Asgard, a kingdom set up in a towering mountain that emerges out of a cloudy nebula in space. (You read that right). He is a wise warrior who has successfully beaten back the Frost Giants of Jotunheim. This is the kind of movie that throws out crazy names and elaborate backstory without a second thought but is ultimately better off for it. This is a movie that starts with a fast pace and then keeps it up throughout, thundering towards its conclusion. No need to linger on nomenclature and fantasy semantics when there’s matters of grave importance to get to, namely the matter of the royal lineage in Asgard.

Odin has two sons and heirs. One is Thor (Chris Hemsworth), strong and impetuous, who has flowing blonde locks, a heavy magic hammer and a billowing red cape. His brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), slim with slicked-back hair and dark attire, is a jealous conniver. We can practically tell good and evil by nothing more than hairstyle and costuming but Hemsworth and Hiddleston are a bit subtler with their roles than you might expect. They do, however, fit perfectly in the oversized world in which they live.

Theirs is a big glittery world with sweeping colorful vistas and gleaming flying buttresses and a portal to other worlds that sits at the end of a rainbow bridge and sends these Norse God warriors off in a cloud of dust and lightning. After some Frost Giants sneak into the palace (and are promptly vaporized), it’s through this mode of transportation that Thor and some warrior pals show up at Jotunheim and beat up on them for breaking the treaty. Furious that Thor would try to provoke a new war, Odin banishes him to Earth, stripping him of his Godlike powers in the process.

Once on Earth, the movie plays out on parallel tracks. Thor finds himself in a fish-out-of-water story in a small New Mexico town. There he is found by a scientist (Natalie Portman) who has been studying the strange patterns of the night sky of the kind that he arrived in. With her mentor (Stellan Skarsgård) and intern (Kat Dennings), the three of them provide a mortal chorus of skeptics and incredulous observers to counterbalance the rush of entertaining gobbledygook that forms the opening sequences.

But that gobbledygook is turned into the stuff of pseudo-Shakespearian drama back in Asgard, where the other track of plotting is given over to Machiavellian scheming. Loki wants the throne for himself and the question of lineage and politics weighs heavy on the Asgardians. In gilded rooms featuring the perfect combination of regality and gaudiness designed by Bo Welch, Thor’s warrior pals (including great cinematic tough-guys Ray Stevenson and Tadanobu Asano as well as relative unknowns Jamie Alexander and Josh Dallas) fret and scheme about how to ensure Loki doesn’t end up sitting on the throne.

The constant juggling between earthbound conflicts – a mysterious (though recognizable from the Iron Mans) governmental organization has set up camp outside town to research a strange hammer that fell in the desert – and the epic tale of Asgard merges nicely. It’s a potentially unsteady mix, but it works because of the seriousness with which the filmmakers take both the drama and the comedy. Never once do they condescend to their own material. The film uses the humans to comment on the oversized nature of Thor in a little coffee shop or Asgard’s warriors strutting down Main Street, but it doesn’t stop these larger-than-life characters from feeling perfectly scaled to fit their homeworld. Both realms are filmed in deep, rich colors with the striking cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos making liberal use of oblique angles that join the realms with a similar sense of slinking dread. There’s a feeling that something is rotten in Asgard and it could escape to infect Earth where Thor better learn how to get his powers (and hammer) back in fighting shape.

This is a movie of zippy action mixed with genuinely funny laughs, but it never undermines itself. It frontloads a lot of dense exposition but manages to make it entertaining. It’s a movie with a high silliness quotient and sets out to prove that it’s worthy of using its set-up for some hammer-slamming, breastplate-knocking battles and some not entirely insignificant drama. It’s not primarily a movie of action, though it fulfills that promise, more or less. This is a movie of plot and noise that pays attention to its mood, off-kilter ponderousness that, when mixed with a healthy serving of intentional comedy, ultimately makes this lively effects-heavy blockbuster fairly addictive.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Vroom Vroom: FAST FIVE

I don’t recall enjoying any of the previous Fast and the Furious movies, those four oddly named films that provided an excuse for fast cars and manly scowls. But still I showed up at Fast Five with something close to anticipation for I’ve found that this is the rare franchise that can get me kind of excited each time around, as if all those hours spent gazing in apathy at cars zooming around in their dumb little plots were somehow not as bad as I remember. At this point, ten years removed from the first movie, I’m starting to think I should rewatch them all to see if I’d like them any better now. What strange effect the allure of these movies has on my memory and judgment.

It is to my surprise, then, that I didn’t altogether dislike Fast Five. Director Justin Lin (working from a script by Chris Morgan) does a good job of juggling the massive, bloated 130-minute runtime by staging some exciting action sequences and not lingering all too long on the labyrinthine character histories. I thought I was in trouble, though, just a few minutes in. I’m not up on the ins and outs of the Fast and Furious mythology. I couldn’t tell you in too great of detail what even happened in some of the installments let alone how exactly all the characters know each other. When the movie opens with Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) sentenced to prison and promptly escaping with the help of his sister (Jordana Brewster) and her boyfriend (Paul Walker) and then follows that up with a lot of talk about events past, I had a hard time keeping up. Soon enough, though, the movie swept me up in its preposterousness when a car is pulled out of a moving train and speeds across the desert.

Of course, Fast Five is about paying off the fans’ knowledge of the series and about bringing back as many characters from old installments as possible. It kind of feels like a reunion with personalities I didn’t even know I missed because I didn’t think they were enjoyable the first time. In every scene it’s clear that this is a movie that likes its characters as much as I'd imagine fans do (part of what makes me a bit curious to revisit the earlier movies). After a long-winded first act, the movie introduces the need to bring in Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris (unseen since 2 Fast 2 Furious), Sung Kang (from Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift) and Gal Gadot (from Fast & Furious) to help with that hoary old criminal plot: the “one last job.” Yes, after four movies of flirting with a heist plot, Fast Five just goes right on ahead and commits to it. That’s just what this series has been looking for all this time.

Despite the large ensemble, this isn’t about the people. It’s about the plot. It hardly matters who the participants are. As one character says to another, about an upcoming robbery, “I need an extra body.” This isn’t a movie about character; really, this is a movie about careening, about bodies in motion, spinning vehicles and live ammunition down city streets. It’s about slamming through ridiculous close calls and making tight, fast turns through narrow spaces, about pulling off daring robberies in broad daylight with maximum destruction but minimal collateral damage. I kid! With a movie this fast and furious there’s nothing minimal about it, especially when, in its climactic slam-bang heist, two cars are dragging a ten-ton safe down a busy street in the middle of Rio de Janeiro.

Where the movie most succeeds, in my estimation, is its introduction of Dwayne Johnson, continuing his long-awaited reentering into the action genre after last fall’s surprisingly entertaining – and bluntly efficient – Faster (no relation to this series). His blocky, muscled charisma is channeled into an all-business roughness and gruff determination playing a law-enforcement agent who arrives in Rio on Toretto’s trail. He’s a sweaty, hulking piece of overheated machismo that moves right up to the precipice of parody without falling over. (When Johnson and Diesel finally clash in a battle of the sweaty muscles, its some kind of tough-guy showdown that feels much sprightlier than, say, last year’s wax museum of Stallone’s Expendables).

Johnson commands a group of indistinguishable underlings just as effortlessly as he commands the screen. He makes the most out of every line given to him in a movie where most characters are lucky when they get more than a dozen words to say at any one time. In fact, he seems to be the only character that knows just how much sense the movie makes. “You know what makes sense?” he asks an inquisitive underling. To answer his own question, he rips the case files out of her hand and tosses them to the floor.

Even though I found much to enjoy, I still felt like I was sitting at a remove from the movie. I admired the stunt work and the general air of straight-faced ridiculousness, and the last twenty or thirty minutes or so are a nice piece of sustained action filmmaking, but I never really felt completely comfortable. Maybe because it was building on a foundation that was mostly forgotten to me, or maybe because it’s strange tone (its very somber about its silliness) was so weirdly wobbly I never fell into the right groove. Still, I had my pulse raised or a goofy smile provoked (sometimes both at once) just enough times that I can’t be too hard on it.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Tweenage Dream: PROM

Disney’s latest attempt to promote the high-school experience to tweens nationwide is the relatively low-key dramedy Prom that takes the manic fantasy of the High School Musical efforts, adds a dose of realism (by way of predictability) and dials back on the goofy tries for fun. It’s not a particularly good film, but it makes a few awkward stabs at becoming one.

Studio chief Rich Ross has publicly said that he wanted Prom to hark back to the kind of authenticity found in the films of John Hughes like The Breakfast Club. That’s a tall order and I suppose the influence can be seen in the up-to-date soundtrack but director Joe Nussbaum and screenwriter Katie Wech would have been wise to listen to what Hughes told Roger Ebert in a 1984 interview. He said, “People forget that when you’re 16, you’re probably more serious than you’ll ever be again. You think seriously about the big questions.” Prom is not a serious film and it doesn’t need to be, but it should be serious about its characters.

This is a movie that plays as if it is smarter than the kids we’re watching. It’s an ensemble of high-school-age characters who are eagerly awaiting prom night, sweating about dresses and tuxes and who they’ll go with. It’s the center of their world, and yet, the movie itself seems awfully blasé about the actual event. I mean, you and I and every other person who has graduated from high school knows that life doesn’t begin and end with prom night but these characters don’t have the same level of perspective. Towards the beginning of the movie, a group of girls drool over the poster announcing the big date, babbling about preliminary plans. This moment is played for laughs when one character, finding his locker blocked, moves the poster to the opposite wall while the girls blindly follow it, chattering all the way. Why should we care that these kids care when the movie itself uses their emotions for cheap laughs?

The movie is an accumulation of rote exposition setting up dull cliché. The various threads are made up of such conventional teen-movie conflicts like the girl (Yin Chang) who needs to tell her boyfriend (Jared Kusnitz) that they aren’t going to the same college next year, the boy (Nicholas Braun) who just can’t find a girl to go with, and the girl (Kylie Bunbury) with the boyfriend (DeVaughn Nixon) who seems just a little too sleazy to really have given most of the girls’ soccer team a ride home the other day, thereby excusing the earring found wedged in his jeep’s seat cushion. These plots fade into the background, simply because they aren’t given as much time as the featured characters.

The class president (Aimee Teegarden) is improbably forced to work with the misunderstood bad boy (Thomas McDonell) in order to repair the prom decorations that were mostly destroyed in a fire. Meanwhile, a cute-as-a-button sophomore (Nolan Sotillo) has a crush on his lab partner (Danielle Campbell), who is being wooed to go to prom with an older guy. These two relationships were the most compelling to me, simply because they were the points at which the filmmaking and the characters' emotions seemed most in sync. They weren’t appreciably less predictable, but they got the closest to reaching me. Moments like when a kid climbs a tree to make a last-minute plea to his crush, or when a girl realizes that she’s fallen for the bad boy who may not be so bad after all are cliché. They know it and we know it, but that doesn’t mean we won’t feel it. Teegarden, McDonell, and Sotillo, especially, very nearly sell the emotion of these moments.

But I just wish the movie felt emotional more often. It’s always unsurprising, but for the majority of its runtime it wobbles between the satisfying and the unsatisfying, skipping through its ensemble, and then finally, sadly, tilts permanently to the side of unsatisfying. It’s various plot threads are too misshapen and half-hearted to truly run with the emotion that flickers untapped below the surface. It’s a movie about characters who think high school romance is the end-all-be-all of their social lives, but the movie stands back and knows that its not. There’s a tension there that goes unexploited, resulting in a movie that doesn’t really seem to care one way or the other.

By the time the movie arrives at the big climax at the actual prom itself, it’s pulled off just well enough that it made me wish the whole film took place that night with all the conflicts put in a pressure cooker of one small slice of time. But then I realized I was basically wishing for American Graffiti. Now, that’s a great end-of-high-school movie that works at a level Prom can only wish it was working.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls: WATER FOR ELEPHANTS

Water for Elephants is based on a bestselling novel by Sara Gruen that has been recommended to me on a handful of occasions. For all I know, it’s a good read. The movie adaptation scripted by Richard LaGravenese, however, is a total snooze. I felt myself leaning closer to the screen, trying desperately to connect with the movie and yet enjoyment stayed frustratingly out of reach. The story seemed to be of interest but the telling muddles it.

It’s an awfully pretty movie, though, featuring gorgeous cinematography from Rodrigo Prieto who has also contributed his skills to such other (better) pretty features as 25th Hour, Brokeback Mountain, and Broken Embraces. It’s also a fairly charming throwback, a circus picture, or to put it even more accurately, a run-away-and-join-the-circus picture. To get away with this narrative, the story is set in the Great Depression. Star Robert Pattinson plays a young man who drops out of college due to tragic circumstances within his family and hops the rails, ending up on a train carrying a circus from town to town.

This particular circus is struggling, but luckily Pattinson has just the skills necessary to help them out. He didn’t drop out of just any college; he dropped out of a veterinary program. This endears him to the abusive owner and ringmaster (the great Christoph Waltz) who hires him to take care of the menagerie of animals, including a difficult new acquisition in the form of an aging elephant. The trick rider in the circus is the owner’s younger wife (Reese Witherspoon), who grows to love the elephant almost as much as she does its new caretaker.

I thought this kind of Hollywood filmmaking had gone extinct after it peaked somewhere between Disney’s 1941 Dumbo and DeMille’s 1952 Oscar-winner The Greatest Show on Earth. This new film is a handsomely mounted romance set against the danger and spectacle of an equally extinct form of showbiz. They just don’t make the circus like they used to, which was dangerous and a bit of a rip-off. They just don’t make these kinds of movies anymore, either. I guess that Hollywood has forgotten how. Or more accurately, this specific collection of talent can’t make it work this time.

The stiff script buries its leads under its underwhelming leadenness. Pattinson, who has been stuck in the Twilight series, has yet to prove his acting chops and is given no help here. Witherspoon, without her typical bubbly charm, barely registers. Waltz, Hans Landa himself, is quite good but muted as the film’s source of menace. There’s a tepid love triangle that develops between the three of them, but it barely registers. It’s a plot that’s acted out rather than felt.

The blame here would have to fall to director Francis Lawrence. He can stage a good-looking film but he doesn’t do anything to elevate the script he’s given and doesn’t do much to help his cast navigate it. The film’s a bit of a departure for him, though, with his previous feature being the good 2007 Will-Smith-is-the-last-man-on-Earth thriller I Am Legend. In that case, Lawrence used a simple, gripping plot, created a nice tone and had basically one actor to work with. Here he has a larger cast and a duller script. It’s a film of pictures and moments rather than momentum and emotion. It wants to be a three-ring middlebrow melodrama but I could barely muster up one ring’s worth of interest.
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