Saturday, July 26, 2008

21

Director: Robert Luketic
Starring: Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, Lawrence Fishburne, Aaron Yoo

Running Time: 123 min.

Rating: PG-13


** (out of ****)


21 is a movie that shows us everything, yet doesn’t get us to feel any of it. I know you’re supposed to review a movie based on what it is rather than what it isn’t but I can’t help myself this time because the missed opportunities were just too great. As I watched I imagined what a Scorsese would have done with this material, which desperately needed to be presented as an R-rated character study if it was to be taken seriously at all. It’s probably an unfair comparison but there’s no escaping the fact that this feels like the made for television version of what should be a much better film.

Despite not knowing the first thing about the film’s topic and having never played Blackjack in my life, after seeing the trailer and commercials I was actually looking forward to seeing this. Which is why I’m so astonished how bad it is. Even if I had no idea going in the guy who made Legally Blonde directed it I would have been able to guess, which isn’t good. He’s in over his head here. It almost borders on complete incompetence as it’s clumsily directed, poorly written and paced and features a really terrible lead performance.

A film that should have been so much fun instead comes off as depressing and a big reason why is because the characters have no depth and aren’t likable. Chief among the offenders are a wimpy protagonist who’s a bland, passive loser and a college professor who belongs in a mental institution instead of an academic one. There is one character I liked, but I’m convinced it’s only because she looks amazing, which is fitting considering the film’s focus on emptiness and superficiality. Any pleasures to be had here are entirely on the surface. I may have never read Ben Mezrich’s best-selling novel, Bringing Down The House, from which this is based, but it says a lot about how bad this film is that even I thought it was obviously unfaithful to the source material.
21 tells the story of graduating M.I.T. senior Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) who has his heart set on attending Harvard Med School. With stellar grades he’s accepted but the problem is getting the $300,000 to go there since he has virtually no chance of getting a full-ride scholarship. But his mathematics professor, Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) sees great potential in Ben and offers him a spot on his secret Blackjack team consisting of 5 students who have mastered the science of card-counting, which they’ve been using to fleece Las Vegas casinos on weekends. Ben initially refuses but his desire to go to Harvard Med and also win the affections of team member and school crush Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth,) prove the offer to be too tempting to turn down. When they hit Vegas the real action begins and under Micky’s guidance the card-counting method raises the ire of Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne), head of security at Planet Hollywood, who will do anything to bring this team down.

The main characters may have been counting cards but I was fully occupied counting something else, namely missed opportunities and mistakes in a film that should have been great. Actually, forget about great. I would have settled for just good. The first of many problems is the casting of Sturgess, who beyond being just bland takes it a level further with a truly whiny and irritating portrayal. Imagine the shyest, most socially awkward and clumsy kid you’ve ever met. Now, magnify that by about 10 and you have Sturgess’ performance, which more closely resembles a puppy dog begging for adoption than any real college student. What’s the first thing he does when he enters the casino? He trips. Of course we know this is all set-up so he can be “corrupted,” which pays off later in the film’s most laughable scene.

Supposedly Sturgess had a dialect coach for the film since it’s far easier for studio executives to waste time and money hiring an actor with an accent only so they can teach him how to get rid of it. It didn’t work as he struggles mightily with his American accent the entire picture and I could swear I saw him concentrating hard at points. He even manages to give a bad voice-over performance in the many unnecessary segments of narration. The film also employs another narrative device that’s really been bothering me lately: the opening flash-forward. A movie opening at the end for no other logical reason other than that it can. Here we get that in conjunction with the pointless voice-over so it’s twice as bad. Memories of Sturgess' inspired work in Across The Universe is erased as he still has a long way to go before proving himself as a dependable leading man.

After suffering through nearly an hour of M.I.T. Ben stuttering and stammering through his social interactions when they all finally get to Vegas things don't improve much. Luketic, somehow manages to make Vegas look washed out and visually uninteresting, a rare accomplishment. We never get a clear idea of the counting scheme or how it works because he’s too busy showing off fancy camera tricks and as a result, the casino scenes don’t come off nearly as well as they should. He also adds a third act twist not realizing he delivered it about twenty minutes too late when viewers will be ready to pack up their bags up and go home. The movie runs just over two hours, yet feels much longer because it’s so poorly paced, as if scenes were thrown in at random. At least it features a great soundtrack, but again, that’s a superficial pleasure.

Since 1999 I’ve been waiting for Kevin Spacey to do something that’s maybe just half as interesting as his Oscar winning role in American Beauty. That wait continues. His Micky Rosa is essentially Lex Luthor teaching at an institute of higher learning. Spacey plays him in exactly that same style, a choice that can at least partially blamed on the script and direction. What kind of college professor would hang out with his students in Vegas over the weekend and help them rip off casinos? Just that question suggests all kinds of intriguing possibilities for Spacey’s character and the story, all of which go unexplored so he can be presented as a sneering egomaniac.

The man is so arrogant and unlikable it’s a miracle any student would listen to a word he has to say no matter how much money is involved. A smarter decision would have been to play him as an actual mentoring figure so the underused Lawrence Fishburne could shine as the chief heavy. The direction they take Micky late in the film is ill advised, not to mention laughably over-the-top. I'm not asking for a long back story on the guy but it would be nice if he wasn't presented as a stock villain and there was a trace of humanity in Spacey's portrayal, suggesting there's a real person in there.

This is the latest in a long line of poor choices for Spacey and he doesn’t have any excuses this time since he co-produced it. As usual, he drags his Beyond The Sea and Superman Returns co-star Kate Bosworth along for the ride, who I must say has never looked better. Also, for a change, she isn’t sleepwalking and appears healthy and motivated to actually try to give her first complete performance. But Luketic isn’t the kind of director who can wrangle that out of her and the script doesn’t give her anything to work with. We learn nothing about Jill, which is a shame because I would have actually liked to.

The relationship between Ben and Jill is written as a complete joke to the point where we're literally forced not to care about it. She understandably has no interest in this guy but about ten minutes and one trip to Vegas later she’s jumping him in a hotel room. Why? Luketic wants you to think it has something to do with Ben’s remarkable, overnight transformation into an arrogant stud, memorably depicted in slow motion shot of him strutting into the casino like the second coming of Tom Cruise. What an embarrassment. Of all the film’s flaws this scene is indicative of its biggest. That it fails to show us how this experience has changed these kids’ lives, specifically Ben’s. Instead it just tries to tell us... unconvincingly.

The movie caused some controversy when it was released because all the characters upon which this film was based were Asian-American. Here only two are (played by Aaron Yoo and Lizzy Lapira) and they’re relegated to bit, background roles. That’s especially a shameful in the case of Yoo, who was so funny and entertaining in his small role in Disturbia last year and could have really contributed if given the opportunity.
Normally, I would write off discrimination allegations like this as groundless and accuse everyone of being too sensitive since producers should have a right to cast whomever they like, but this time it’s a little different. I have no problem with them changing the ethnic background of the characters so long as it serves a purpose and the right actors were placed in the roles. Unfortunately, Sturgess is terrible so their excuse of “picking the right actor for the part” doesn’t fly and the other main players aren’t believably intelligent in a story that’s supposed to be based on it. Still, this might be more a case of Hollywood stupidity than discrimination. At least I hope it is.

This is one of the few films this year where as I was watched I actually thought all the blame should fall entirely at the director’s feet. Some feel it should anyway but I never subscribed to that theory when so many bad scripts are being written that no filmmaker could possibly save. This script, which is obviously weak, could have at least been salvageable if a director with just minimal vision were at the helm. I can understand how it had a strong opening weekend back in March since the commercials did a great job of promising us something Luketic just didn’t have the skills to deliver. Say what you want about Legally Blonde, but at least it was intentionally dumb. I’m all for losing myself in fun and mindless entertainment but 21 only fulfills one of those criteria well.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Random Ridiculous IMDB Thread Topics On The Dark Knight (With My Reactions)

Like a lot of people, I’m still trying to adjust to a movie landscape in which we’ve all finally seen The Dark Knight. It’s over and in the books, despite the fact certain scenes may be replaying over and over again in our heads. It currently holds the record for the highest grossing opening weekend in history and is currently ranked as the #1 film of all-time on the Internet Movie Database. The latter I wrote off as just a bunch of fanboys voting 10’s over and over again but it turns out you do have to have some kind of a voting history for your scores to count in the ranking. The Godfather has held that top spot for the past 10 years so this actually is somewhat of an accomplishment (although I’d still expect that ranking to level off considerably in the next couple of weeks and months).

Usually after I’ve finished watching and reviewing a film I’m ready to move on but I’ve found it isn’t so easy doing that with this one. A lot of people have been asking me whether I plan to watch it again and my answer to that is “No, not right now.” I just can’t risk having another nightmarish theater experience with it so I’ll wait for DVD. Already I’m suspecting I may have come down too hard on it because of my expectations but I’d need a re-watch before making that call. Looking back at some films I’ve given four stars to this does seem better than many of them, but that could just be because it’s so much more ambitious. It’s worth noting that I don’t think you can swing for the fences like this did without having some flaws.

I was also completely shocked at many of the decisions that were made, specifically in the third act. I never in a million years expected things to be left like that. With all the clips that were leaked to the media, they did do a good job covering up the surprises. And I definitely didn’t expect that we’d be talking about two supporting performances in addition to Ledger’s that deserve Oscar consideration. Of course speculation has already begun on a sequel, which right now looks like it’s happening and I may be posting my thoughts on potential casting possibilities with that soon.

In the midst of all this, I noticed the usual ridiculousness and stupidity over at the IMDB has reached even higher levels. Everyone knows how insane the postings can be over there, but I noticed they’ve really topped themselves this past week. Below (in bold) are real titles of IMDB message board postings on The Dark Knight and if these are just the thread topics you could probably imagine what’s contained in the actual post and the debate it’s caused. Now I know why I stick with MySpace. Some of these are pretty funny though. In parenthesis is my reaction.
Ledger’s Death Completely Overshadowed Eckhart’s Great Performance
(I hope not. Eckhart was amazing. This is also the first Batman film to handle multiple villains well)

BALE WORST BATMAN EVER!
(I’m sure George Clooney would be thrilled someone has that opinion)

Bale needs to work on the voice he sounds like the cookie monster
(Sorry, that one’s kind of true)

Unfair giving an Oscar to someone just because they died
(I agree. And that’s an irrelevant point here)

Why Does Everyone Like Bale So Much?
(Probably because he’s a great actor, but of the major players I do think he gave the weakest performance in the film

Katie Was easier on the eyes
(Maybe, but Maggie was easier on the brain)

Anyone here hate people who talk during movies
(Yes! You should have been in my theater)

Catwoman In Nolan’s Bat Universe is like putting Aliens in Indiana Jones
(I disagree. I think everyone wants to see Nolan’s take on Catwoman. Any casting ideas? I've got a few)

Good movie…but get it off of the #1 slot of Top 250
(It is too high, but I can’t view it as a negative that this film has struck such a chord with so many people)


NOLAN”S PENGUIN!
(From what I heard Nolan isn’t interested in exploring this character, but I am slightly curious to see what he could do with it)

So how do movie theaters make money?
(Um…by charging too much?)

I Have An Above Average IQ (125) and trust me, TDK sucks!
(Do I really have to respond to this?)
Ledger’s Joker Made Nicholson’s Look Like A Court Jester
(Agreed)

Forget Comparing Jokers, who was the better Two-Face?

(Give me a break)

This just in: Dark Knight is OVERRATED!!!

(Of course it is. So is just about every other movie. Your point?)

Why is Scarecrow in this?
(I don’t know but I don’t feel his presence helped or hurt the film at all. It was such a non-issue I didn’t even bother mentioning it in my review)

MAGGIE G. IS UGLY!
(watch Secretary, then get back to me)

I want to see Robin in the next Batman movie
(I don’t)

Remember when you were all upset about Heath Ledger as the Joker?
(Yep. I was one of those morons.)

The hardest PG-13 film I've ever witnessed.

(Me too)

Sequel? Let it die with dignity
(I can really see this point)

Rachel Turned Into An Old Ugly Woman in One Year
(No, she actually turned into a believable attorney)

I wonder what Tim Burton Thinks

(Probably that he just got his ass handed to him)

Kevin Spacey Is THE RIDDLER
(There are worse choices, but no thanks. I had enough of him in the dreadful Superman Returns)

Will Bale’s “assault” allegations harm this film?
(No, if anything, it’ll increase interest in it)

So, Our economy is doing OK?
(I thought the same thing when the box office numbers started coming in)

Sorry guys, but this film won’t be nominated for Best Picture
(Sadly, I think that's true)

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Dark Knight

Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman
Running Time: 152 min.
Rating: PG-13

*** 1/2 (out of ****)

So, finally, here we are. The years of ongoing speculation. The restless anticipation. The viral marketing. The endless hype. The off screen tragedy. And I’m actually a little shocked. The Dark Knight is a great, wildly ambitious film, easily one of 2008's best and by far the best film in the series but I don't think it's a masterpiece and it did fall short of my expectations, which is almost understandable when they're this high. Unlike many, I had some minor issues with it. This is probably going to be the most negative review you read for the film and that I'm still highly praising it should give you an idea just how good it is, as if you didn't know already.

Going in I’ve heard his film compared to such epic crime dramas as The Godfather Part II and Heat and that's a revealing point. At times writer/director Christopher Nolan really does seem to believe he's re-making those films rather than giving us a summer action popcorn movie and I found myself I wondering if such a treatment was almost too much for this kind of material. In crafting a Batman drenched in gritty realism, he's made a film so deep, textured and intelligent that it's almost intimidating. It's so ambitious and he jams so much in that I actually worried the movie would slip away from him and co-writers Jonathan Nolan and David Goyer in the third act. It didn't, but that doesn't mean it couldn't have used a trim. However, if that's is the only price I have to pay to get a cinematic superhero rendering of this quality, so be it.

If we hit the low point in goofy camp with Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin we've now gone as far as possible in the other direction and Nolan’s pitch-black vision has been pushed to the limit. I don't even know where we can go from here. Even if we could argue all day whether the film is overhyped, there's one aspect of this film that surely isn't as an actor leaves us with the ultimate gift. Heath Ledger's performance as The Joker is not only as great as you've heard, it's better, and just about the most frighteningly display off villainy you'll ever witness on screen. But there's actually another supporting performance that's hasn't garnered as much attention that almost equals it in emotional complexity.

No need to worry about spoilers here. The film’s plot is so multi-layered I’m not sure I could give it away if I tried and you could have filled the entire Batman series with the plots and sub-plots contained within it. And Shakespearean tragedies don't have this much going on emotionally. The sequel picks up where Batman Begins left off with mob crime in Gotham City escalating even further under Lieutenant Jim Gordon’s (Gary Oldman) watch, except a new criminal mastermind by the name of The Joker (Ledger) is cutting in and creatively robbing the mob of its earnings. His first appearance, an electrifyingly bank robbery unlike any you could hope to see on film, provides a strong, unforgettable introduction to the psychotic villain.

There's also a “White Knight” whose stormed into Gotham City, district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), a fair and honest legal crusader who wants to rid the streets of low-lives so there’s no longer a need for Batman (Christian Bale). He’s also dating and working alongside Bruce Wayne’s longtime love Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, taking over for Katie Holmes). Rachel wrestles with her feelings for the new D.A. while still obviously carrying a torch for Bruce. She’ll have a choice to make. Meanwhile, Bruce struggles with his identity as Batman like never before, wondering whether his presence is actually helping the city, or burying it deeper in crime.
The film creates an awesome parallel between Joker and Batman, much more alike than different. “You Complete Me!” he tells the Caped Crusader. And he’s right. He does. Gotham City truly isn’t big enough for these two and you’d figure this could only end one way. Nolan has other, bigger plans though. Most of the first hour plays like a mob movie and a lot of time (maybe too much) is devoted to build-up. But the real satisfaction comes from Ledger’s Joker bubbling just below Gotham’s underbelly waiting to explode.

Played as a sick hybrid of Clockwork Orange’s Alex and Sid Vicious of The Sex Pistols, Joker bares no resemblance to any villain previously committed to film. It's truly the definitive portrayal of this iconic character, with Ledger making Cesar Romero and even Jack Nicholson look like clowns hired for a children's birthday party. Every moment he's on screen is pure terror and Nolan is smart enough to know the right dose of screen time to give him. Not too much, not too little. Just the perfect amount. There really aren't words to describe what he does and to say it's the greatest performance contained in a superhero movie is an insult because this is no superhero movie, nor does it feel like a "performance." Heath Ledger becomes The Joker. He inhabits him. Nothing could have possibly prepared me for what he does in this role and if I didn't know who was playing the part beforehand I would have never guessed it was him. He's physically unrecognizable. What surprised me most was how funny he was. Not haha funny, but scary-funny. Like a serial killer he storms into Gotham without reason or warning and no backstory is required or wanted because Ledger provides everything. It stays with you. A posthumous Oscar nomination isn't just a possibility, it's guaranteed. I'm skeptical whether the Academy would have considered nominating him unless he died, but that speaks for my lack of faith in them and their bias against the genre, not Ledger's work, which deserves to win. Who knew he had this in him?

When I first heard Ledger was cast in the role I wasn’t thrilled, mainly because of my unfamiliarity with his previous work, but he’s proven me, and any other doubters, completely wrong here. When the final credits rolled I felt immense sadness wondering about all the future great performances we’d be missing out on. But had he not tragically passed away and just retired on this role, his legacy would still be secure. That's how spellbinding this is.

Aside from Ledger’s Joker, Nolan does a good job spreading the wealth among the various supporting characters, but I wouldn’t expect anything less considering the film’s gargantuan running length. Michael Caine’s Alfred and Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox, who both had little more than cameo roles in Batman Begins, get much more screen time and are fleshed out with greater importance. Both contribute in big ways to the story and it’s a welcome change. Even more welcome is the contribution of Gary Oldman as Lieutenant Gordon this time around as he’s given a superb story arc that deepens and complicates his relationship with Batman as well as the citizens of Gotham. Oldman slides into the role effortlessly and I couldn't believe how important the part was. It's essentially treated as being on the same level as Batman. No one could ever accuse Nolan of skimping on character development.

Bale’s performance as Batman, truthfully, I found to be just okay. I thought his solid work in the previous film was slightly overpraised and don't even get me started on that silly voice Nolan has Bale use when he's behind the mask. I was always amazed that no one has a problem with that. Bruce Wayne for the first time in the series’ history really comes off as arrogant and I think that's intentional because the movie is working in shades of gray. The two morally compromised characters in the film are actually more likable than he is. It's easily the darkest rendering of the character yet, but it does serve the many themes of the story well.

Part of why Bruce Wayne is so hard to root for may be because he isn’t the real hero of the film. Harvey Dent is. Its no wonder he is since Aaron Eckhart gives a performance that’s only a few notches below Ledger’s, suggesting a depth and complexity to Gotham’s righteous district attorney that couldn’t have been on the page. I wasn’t only rooting for this guy, but felt deep sympathy for him as he tries to do the right thing only to unintentionally dig himself deeper by the second.
I know it’s a staple in the comics and I’ll be ripped apart for saying this, but the two-sided coin came off as a little cheesy to me. In a film so grounded in gritty realism it seemed cartoonish having this D.A. go around flipping a giant coin to make a decision every second. I know fans would have been enraged but if it were excised I wouldn't complain. Nolan did such a good job depicting the theme of chance within the story that seeing it seems almost unnecessary.

The visual treatment of Two-Face is spectacular and a giant step up from Tommy Lee Jones’ embarrassing makeup job in Batman Forever. This version looks like he was ripped directly from the comics and that was definitely the right way to go. I fully expected Eckhart to blow Jones' cackling cartoon Two-Face out of the water but Harvey Dent is a big, big deal in this movie and the journey Nolan takes him on is fascinating. He’s a victim of circumstance and Eckhart acts his heart out to sell the transformation even if the script overreaches a little with him toward the end. Still, of all the characters in the film, I probably cared about him the most.

Not surprisingly, Maggie Gyllenhaal does a solid job as Rachel and brings more nuance to the role than Katie Holmes did in the previous film. She's an actress that brings something interesting to every role she plays and for the most part this is no exception, but something did seem to be just a little off. For instance, take the scene you’ve seen in the trailers with The Joker crashing the dinner party and threatening Rachel. It’s supposed to be frightening and intense but because Maggie plays the character as a fiercely independent and feisty woman who can't be intimidated I wasn’t exactly afraid for her. As much as it pains me to admit this, something Katie Holmes was always good at was conveying innocence and Rachel could have used a little more of that here. Since the rest of the movie is drenched in gloom and doom that juxtaposition may have been intriguing. But Gyllenhaal brings other attributes to the role that Holmes could only dream of. For one, she's actually likable. She's also much more believable as a hardened attorney and has excellent chemistry with Eckhart. Her chemistry with Bale is iffier but I think that has more to do with Bale's darker, aloof rendering of Bruce Wayne than Gyllenhaal's performance. I didn't get exactly what I was hoping with Rachel Dawes and despite the strides made here it's still Nolan's least developed and most poorly written character. No actress would be winning awards for this role.

Despite everything Nolan’s trying to do here the field doesn’t start to get too crowded until the last 45 minutes or so. There was a point the film could have ended but Nolan just keeps going and takes Two-Face’s story further than it should have gone without completing the Joker’s. As I loved Eckhart’s work it there’s no need to jam that much in when another film is going to be made that could easily cover that territory. Eckhart's performance as Harvey Dent was so compelling I almost didn't want to see him turn into Two-Face and part of me wondered the direction the story could take if he didn't because let's face it: His transformation is a big stretch. This film deals with some heady issues like the possibility of evil and corruption, national security, the burden of personal responsibility and the need for heroes, or rather if they really even exist. The final twist of the knife is not only surprising, but thought provoking and will leave you in a state of deep contemplation. How many times could you say that about a superhero film?  A major story thread is left dangling in the most literal sense and there's no way it could ever possibly be resolved. Perhaps fittingly.


The film runs 2 and a half hours but I can't say I thought it flew by like everyone else did. This is more a crime drama than an action movie and it requires your complete attention. There were a few points during the film where I was even getting restless and wondered why certain scenes (specifically in the first and last hours) weren’t left on the cutting room floor. The actions sequences were exciting and thankfully didn't rely on an overabundance of CGI, or at least didn't look like they did.

Mostly due to the viewing conditions (poor air conditioning and screaming kids) this was a grueling experience, rather than a thrilling one and I didn't come rushing out of the theater in a state of cosmic euphoria and excitement. In fact, it took me some time to completely gather my thoughts on the film and I had even written a review before this one that I had scrapped. Even now my thoughts on the movie are still very raw and it still probably needs a lot of time to settle. I was also unprepared for just how much the excessive hype would effect me going in. It really took a toll. "Let's get it over with" isn't the most desirable attitude to approach a film with but unfortunately the media put me in that position. I can tell myself all of these factors don't make a difference, but who am I kidding? It'll be interesting to see when I re-watch it on DVD whether the minor problems I had with it iron out or get worse.
I just recently ranked the Batman films and I wouldn't even dare place this because I don’t consider it a Batman film. Going in I didn't expect something more akin to Zodiac or There Will Be Blood than any superhero movie and I'm curious to see how this does in the coming weeks because this doesn't fit the textbook definition of mainstream, crowd-pleasing summer entertainment. I can't help but think something may have been slightly lost in taking this approach, as if the superhero movie was robbed of its virginity...at knife point. But I'll bite the bullet because it's too cinematically challenging to do otherwise. I don't know if it's a masterpiece as a whole, but many parts of it (specifically the work of Ledger and Eckhart) could qualify as such.

The friend I saw it with agreed with the general consensus that it was a masterpiece and the greatest superhero film ever made. Then I asked him if he had fun. He danced around the question, talking about the performances and the visuals until he finally told me it didn’t have to be fun, just faithful to Bob Kane’s original vision of the character. It became clear right then and there that the rules have changed. That we finally got what we've been waiting for and found out what would happen if all our previously held expectations of these kinds of movies were just thrown away. Only the bat suit and clown make-up remain. It's Batman, envisioned by Christopher Nolan. The Dark Knight changed the landscape and, for better or worse, we won't be able to view superhero movies the same way again.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Definitely, Maybe

Director: Adam Brooks
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Abigail Breslin, Rachel Weisz, Isla Fisher, Elizabeth Banks, Derek Luke, Kevin Kline

Running Time: 112 min.

Rating: PG-13

**** (out of ****)


For the past couple of weeks nearly everyone who knows my taste in movies has been telling me that I have to see Definitely, Maybe. It could be partially because they’re aware of my abnormally high tolerance for romantic comedies, or “chick flicks,” as they’re more commonly known. It could almost be described as an abusive relationship because although I enjoy watching them, I view them mostly as a joke. I almost look forward to the bad ones just for a good laugh because I find the ways that they’re bad fascinating and the reasons women love them perplexing.

So when the mostly positive reviews for Definitely, Maybe came pouring in and it was being referred to as a “chick flick for guys” I knew this could really be good for some more chuckles. What I wasn’t prepared for was that I’d have to check my jokes at the door for this one. It’s startlingly ambitious and almost epic in scope, going places other movies in this genre never do with a premise that’s brilliant and fun. Now, finally, I can recommend a “chick flick” without fear of embarrassment at all. I wouldn’t hesitate telling anyone I encounter how much love this movie.

At its center is a compelling mystery with an outcome that’s seriously in doubt and many guys watching will put themselves in the position of the protagonist and wonder what choice they would make. It’s the rare comedy that understands that sometimes we make the wrong decisions and have to live with the consequences. That life speeds by so quickly it’s often hard to catch up. That people come and go and disappear and reappear in our lives when we least expect it. Things happen. Paths cross. Timing is everything. And none of it seems forced or contrived, but develops organically from the situation.
The focus is on a protagonist who not only has an interesting love life, but an interesting life filled with people who are intelligent and we’d actually want to spend time with. Guys will see a lot of themselves in him while girls will no doubt relate to one or more of the women he’s encountered along the way. It also sees an opening to depict a time period that has been underexposed in movies and milks it for everything it’s worth. As a result, everything feels so fresh and original and the second I saw that the story was taking place in this era I nearly jumped out of my seat. For me it felt like going home again because it’s a period I feel a very close connection to. I was prepared for the possibility this might be good, but I never would have guessed I’d be this blown away. Critics and audiences have actually undersold just how much this film has to offer everyone.

38 year-old advertising executive Will Hayes (Ryan Reynolds) is going through a divorce and looks forward to the few days a week he gets to spend time with his 11 year-old daughter, Maya (Abigail Breslin). After her school implements a sex education program she starts probing her father to tell her the story of how he and her mother met and got married. After some initial reluctance he caves in, but tells the story under his terms, changing names and facts and leaving it up to Maya to guess which one of the three main women in his life becomes her mom.

There’s his college sweetheart, Emily (Elizabeth Banks) who he leaves in Wisconsin in 1992 so he can work in New York as a gopher on the Clinton Presidential campaign. While there, he meets Emily’s longtime friend, Summer (Rachel Weisz) a sexy, sophisticated journalist whose having a bizarre affair with famous writer Hampton Roth (a fantastic Kevin Kline). The final suspect is his best friend April (Isla Fisher) a free-spirited copy girl who wants to travel the globe. The film already has an intriguing premise in place but its what it does with that premise that’s so impressive. Will starts his journey as a young, idealistic go-getter determined to change the world and make his mark but the world has other plans.

There’s a certain naivety to him when he first arrives in New York and these three women not only play a huge role in changing the course of his life, but also defining who he is as a human being. The smartest thing director Adam Brooks’ script does is convince us that all three of these women could very well be “the one” for Will. A lesser screenplay would have just presented them as stereotypes, like “the brain” or “the slut” and it would have been obvious by about a half hour into the picture who he would end up with.

Too many times in today’s romantic comedies female characters are completely defined by being in a relationship with a man and can’t think or act for themselves. Here, the ups and downs in Will’s relationships with these women are partially caused by actions they took because they’re independent, strong and intelligent. But that’s not to say Will’s deluded idealism and desire to please doesn't get in the way as well.
Brooks makes it interesting for us because none of these women are the “wrong choice” for him necessarily; they’re all just very different. I’d be lying if I said there isn’t a favorite that the audience (both male and female) will naturally gravitate to and Brooks knows this and plays with it, but not in a way that feels the slightest bit manipulative. And because this is a film that actually does reflect real life for a change, we know that’s no indication that she’ll be the last woman standing.

Guys watching will have a strong opinion who the best choice is, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best choice for Will, or that he can even end up with her. Just when we think one of them is out of Will’s life for good they’re realistically pulled back in. Through masterful writing, Brooks puts the viewer in a situation where any of the three possible results would be a complete shock. This isn’t just a great setup because the pay off delivers in a huge way.

Then there’s Will’s relationship with his daughter, arguably the most important one of the film. I had gotten involved in this guy’s fascinating life that I almost completely forgot that his daughter was listening to all of this. That she had to hear all these things that he did and yet in a strange way, through these flaws, he actually looks like a better father to her. I had also completely forgotten that this story ends in divorce making the story that much more painful for this kid. What’s going to happen with that? There’s real doubt. This script is working well on so many different levels it’s almost astounding.

That’s not even mentioning the little life details it slides in, especially when it comes to the ripe, inspired setting of New York in the early ‘90’s. The city is a living, breathing character in itself informing Will’s life as much as the women in it and the Clinton era provides the perfect backdrop for his emotional virginity. As the administration wears on Will’s idealism understandably wears off and some disillusionment and cynicism sets in. The film tells us as much about our country’s mindset during this time period as it does his.
There are so many accurate and funny details concerning the early and middle part of the decade slid in I wouldn’t dare ruin them. One of the joys for me watching this was thinking back to what I was doing back then, which rather frighteningly at times resembled some things that occurred on screen (albeit at a far younger age). I’m sure I must have found this section of the film far funnier than most, but I bet more than a few would relate to it.

There's truth in the sketching of the most minor characters as well, like Kevin Kline’s drunken, pompous politico. You know that feeling when you’re watching a movie and you think, “I know someone EXACTLY like that.” Well, it's actually true this time. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve encountered just like this guy and after you’ve seen the movie and meet this character you’re probably going to feel really sorry for me. And Kline nails it, also adding considerable depth that's probably lacking from his real-life counterparts. I would have watched a separate movie about just him and his relationship with Weisz's character.

Ryan Reynolds has shown us glimpses of something recently with his work in The Nines and Smokin’ Aces, but this is the most fully realized performance of his career thus far. It isn’t the most dramatically challenging, but he seems effortlessly comfortable in it. It helps he’s an actor that doesn’t come with any preconceived notions. His Will comes off as a guy women would want to be with and guys would want to have a beer with and watch the game. He’s inoffensive and believable to every audience, a rare feat in a romantic comedy.

All three actresses are uniformly excellent in different ways. Elizabeth Banks has probably the least amount of screen time of screen time of the three but makes it count while Rachel Weisz brings an aura of sexy mystery to Summer, the woman who just may be out of Will’s league. In what seems like her millionth attempt in the past two years, Isla Fisher finally delivers in a role that requires much more than just standing there and looking pretty. I never got what the big fuss was about her as an actress, but I got it now. Reynolds shares the best chemistry with young Abigail Breslin, who gives a child performance that never seems cloying or forced and she even manages to get off many of the film’s most memorable lines.
At just under 2 hours, Definitely, Maybe could be considered long for a romantic comedy but it’s one of the few times I remember watching the clock and wanting it to slow down. I was hoping Brooks would come up with even more complications and obstacles to keep this going and prolong the mystery. I couldn’t wait to see what happens but there was another part of me didn’t want to find out. It’s a relief to finally see an ending that’s earned. This is a character went through hell and high water to arrive there and it wasn’t through the machinations of a contrived screenplay.

I’ve referred to this film many times as a “romantic comedy” but I should stop because it isn’t. It’s more of an entertaining, involving human drama with romantic and comedic elements mixed in. It would play well with fans of the television show How I Met Your Mother because it takes that high concept and expands it, bringing more depth to the premise. It’s much smarter and more involved than anyone could expect at first glance and I was surprised how much of it hit so close to home for me (unfortunately though not the part about choosing between three beautiful women).

How can I give THIS four stars? Easily because there isn’t a flaw to be found and it does what it’s trying to do perfectly in the most challenging of genres. It could have gone wrong in so many different ways but didn't. This movie isn’t going to change the world but it’s one of the best romantic comedies to come a long in recent years and with the amount I’ve seen I should know. Guys should consider themselves lucky if their girlfriends force them to watch this. Definitely, Maybe isn’t just a “chick flick,” it’s a great film.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Ranking The Batman Films (Worst To First)

After months of feverish anticipation, when The Dark Knight finally opens this Friday the big question likely won't be whether it's good, but HOW GOOD? Unfortunately, the hype is so out of control that anything less than a modern cinematic masterpiece would be considered disappointing. Me? I just want a great time.

Despite expectations being so high the good news for director Christopher Nolan is that all of the previous entries in the series (including his) are far from perfect and you could argue the definitive Batman film has yet to be made. Over the years the franchise has taken many forms and has had a rough history, proving to be a challenging character to efficiently translate to the big screen. So where will The Dark Knight rank? It could be at the top if Nolan avoids making the many mistakes listed below and sprinkled throughout various installments of the series. Of course, that’s easier said than done.

 

6. Batman and Robin (1997)
What Works:
Um…this is tough. Give me a second here. Well, Uma Thurman at least looks great in the Poison Ivy costume. I actually thought her performance wasn’t too bad either, and the casting of her and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze made sense on paper. The special effects and set pieces are impressive and Michael Gough does his best work as Alfred here. I guess it’s possible you can view it as the guiltiest of guilty pleasures if you’re in the mood. The unintentionally hilarious casting of George Clooney as Batman is good for a couple of points. At least now we can laugh. Yeah, I know, I’m grasping at straws here.

What Doesn’t:
How much time do you have? First off, Clooney obviously. Though in his defense there isn’t an actor alive who could have saved this and it's to his credit that he’s needlessly taken responsibility for the film’s failure in interviews. But he was the wrong choice and you could argue it’s the worst casting decision in the franchise’s history, with Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl coming in at a close second. And when did that character become Alfred’s niece?

Arnold is just plain laughable as Mr. Freeze. Chris O’ Donnell is wasted this time around as Robin. The dialogue is embarrassing, the special effects are just too much, nipples on the bat suit, the whole movie is a toy commercial, Elle McPherson. Yeah, that about covers it.

Verdict:
We all should all thank Schumacher. If he didn’t make this disaster the Batman franchise would not be experiencing the creative resurgence it is now.


5. Batman Forever (1995)
What works:
Val Kilmer does a decent job when in costume. Chris O’ Donnell is a great fit as Robin and his introduction is handled surprisingly well. Jim Carrey as the The Riddler works and Nicole Kidman’s Dr. Chase Meridian is easily the best love interest in all the Batman films, even if that's faint praise. It’s a visual feast that moves along at a spry pace and features a great soundtrack.

What Doesn’t:
Tommy Lee Jones gives the worst performance of his career as Two-Face. Aaron Eckhart should have an easy job wiping that painful memory away. Kilmer is wooden as Bruce Wayne. Carrey is annoying as Edward E. Nigma and his back story is ridiculous. Schumacher manages to find precisely the wrong tone for the franchise-all style, no substance at all. And what’s with that silly title?

Verdict:
Having recently re-watched and reviewed this, I was surprised it had some positive attributes. It could almost be considered a good movie, if you shut your brain off and look at it at for what it is. That said, this was the wrong direction for the series to go in and its follow-up proved it.


4. Batman: The Movie (1966)
What Works:
Adam West and Burt Ward are perfect as Batman and Robin (at least within the context and time period they’re presented). Cesar Romero, Frank Gorshin and Burgess Meredith steal the show as Joker, Riddler, and Penguin respectively. Despite cramming all those villains in the story manages to be very entertaining while effortlessly capturing the energy and spirit of the campy 60’s TV series.

What Doesn’t:
NO JULIE NEWMAR AS CATWOMAN. Lee Meriwether steps in and does about as good a job as can be expected, but Newmar’s absence is really felt. In fact, she currently holds the title for best performance as a Batman villain in the franchise’s history. In her prime she could show up in the Nolan films (or any of the others on this list) and just kill it. She was that good. The film is overcrowded with villains, the screenplay jams too much in and its tone prevents it from being viewed as anything more than a fun diversion or goofy nostalgia.

Verdict:
It’s a joke, but unlike Schumacher’s films, it’s intended to be. Part of me wonders what would happen if they re-made the ‘60’s TV series in this style today with current actors in the roles. Interesting fact: Cesar Romero actually refused to shave his mustache to play the Joker in both the show and the movie so they were forced to actually apply the make-up over it. C'mon Cesar, why so serious?


3. Batman Returns (1992)
What Works:
It's by far the most visually impressive Batman film of them all. The costume and production design deserve to go down as the some of the most memorable of the 90’s. When people think of what best represents Tim Burton’s visual artistry as a director this is always mentioned alongside Edward Scissorhands and it should be.

Michelle Pfeiffer is fantastic as Catwoman, but I think Danny DeVito is even better as the grotesque Penguin. Michael Keaton excels once again as both Bruce Wayne and Batman. A crazed Chistopher Walken, Danny Elfman’s score, a cameo from Pee-Wee Herman! What’s not to like? It’s the rare sequel that not only doesn’t suck, but builds on everything that was special about its predecessor.

What Doesn’t:

The screenplay. The scenes with Catwoman work well, but any with mousy secretary Selena Kyle and her ridiculous backstory don’t. The movie suffers from having to split time between her and Penguin and as a result, both villains suffer. Each really needed a film apiece to convey the depth of their stories and adding Walken to the mix didn’t help their cause. It has a “been there, done that” feel to it because Burton essentially made the same film as his original, but inserted different villains.

Verdict:
A lot of people consider this their favorite Batman film and I can see why. Despite the writing flaws, it’s mostly terrific.


2. Batman Begins (2005)
What Works:
The best acting of any Batman film. Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Tom Wilkinson, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy. It doesn’t get any better than that. You can tell Christopher Nolan took the job of resuscitating this franchise seriously and the results clearly show on screen. It’s a tight origin story to re-establish the character and almost flawlessly directed. Like Keaton before him, Bale is awesome as Bruce Wayne AND Batman. If Schumacher found exactly the wrong tone, Nolan's feels just right.

What Doesn’t:
I'll give you a hint: She's married to Tom Cruise. All Maggie Gyllenhaal has to do is show up and she’ll likely make a better Rachel Dawes than Katie Holmes. It’s not so much that Holmes gives a bad performance per se, just that she adds nothing to the role and shared little chemistry with Bale. But in her defense the Rachel character is thanklessly written and poorly developed, so it’s hard to distinguish how much of this can actually be attributed to her.

While played exceptionally well by Neeson and Murphy, Ra’s al Ghul and Scarecrow just aren’t strong, recognizable villains. Also, having two or more major villains never works as well as having a single strong one. It's a mistake that’s been made repeatedly in the franchise’s history and a potential problem to watch out for in The Dark Knight.

Verdict:
Nolan deserves a standing ovation. This was incredibly difficult to pull off, but he did and the film benefits from being completely unlike any other on this list. It really is a re-imagining, but I think he's capable of even more.



1. Batman (1989)
What Works:
Strong screenplay, strong visuals, Elfman’s score, Keaton’s performance, and it features the best looks for the bat suit, the batmobile and the batcave. Nearly everything clicks. It also proves why there should only be one main villain in a Batman film. And boy is it that villain ever a strong one.

At risk of eating these words later, I hope that regardless of what Heath Ledger does with his Joker,  that it isn’t lost on current audiences that Jack Nicholson really shines here. And no, I’m not among those who feel he “upstaged” the film or Keaton. When I think of Batman or Bruce Wayne I still think of Keaton immediately and while Bale may have been the best actor to play the role, he hasn’t changed that in my mind. At least not yet.

What Doesn’t:
Kim Basinger’s Vicky Vale, who’s a very bland, flavor-of-the-week love interest in a film that deserves better. Basinger’s performance is fine, but the character is a throwaway. To be honest, all these films have serious problems portraying strong female characters and this definitely isn't an exception. The movie hasn’t aged as well as I thought it would and that’s mainly because Burton has spent his entire career re-making it over and over again (most recently with Sweeney Todd), thus lessening its impact. His Gothic universe is really starting to wear out its welcome.

Verdict:
A very close call but this edges out Batman Begins, if just barely. It still holds the top slot but its grip is slipping.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Stop-Loss

Director: Kimberly Peirce
Starring: Ryan Phillipe, Channing Tatum, Abbie Cornish, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Victor Rasuk, Ciarin Hinds, Timothy Olyphant
Running Time: 112 min.

Rating: R


**1/2 (out of ****)

Okay Hollywood, I get it. The war in Iraq is bad. Bad, bad, bad. Now can you please stop making these movies? Or at least just hold off on them for about 10 or 20 years when we’ve had time to let this conflict sink in. There were times I really liked and respected what Stop-Loss was attempting to do and wanted to recommend it.

Thanks to some outstanding performances and a focus on the more human aspect of the war it manages to partially avoid the pitfalls that other sunk preachy political films released recently. But unfortunately it becomes fairly transparent after a while that this just did a better job covering its agenda up. When the best cinematic effort addressing this subject still isn’t very good shouldn’t that be telling us this isn’t an issue studios should continue to explore right now?There’s a reason no one went to see this, not even the MTV audience it was marketed toward, yet Hollywood seems oblivious and continues to shove these politically charged dramas down our throats. I’ve yet to be convinced a good film can be made of this topic, at least not yet.

It’s been nine years since writer/director Kimberley Peirce’s breakthrough film Boys Don’t Cry and she should be congratulated for waiting to tackle a subject she felt passionate about for her sophomore effort (her younger brother served in Iraq). But she failed to make me feel as passionate about it and much of her script feels like it was written with an axe to grind and little else. As result, the talented actors have to do extra work to sell ham-fisted material and rescue Peirce from her liberal soapbox protesting. Surprisingly, they almost pull it off, and the only reason anyone should see this is for the performances.
Decorated war veteran Brandon King (Ryan Phillipe) and his childhood friends Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum) and Tommy Burgess (an underused Joseph Gordon-Levitt) return to their small Texas hometown after a tour of duty in Iraq and receive a hero’s welcome, parade and all. That celebration is short-lived, however, as Brandon finds out he’s been “Stop-Lossed,” a term Peirce holds a nice, long beat on to make sure we get the message. His discharge from the service has been waived and he’s ordered back over to Iraq. Justifiably Brandon is enraged and goes AWOL, taking Steve’s senselessly devoted girlfriend Michele (Abbie Cornish) with him on a road trip to Washington to state his case.

In one of the script’s more ridiculous and overtly political developments, Steve isn’t upset because Brandon and Michele ran off together but because he’s been brainwashed by the government into believing this war is right and wants to bring his friend home. I realize “brainwashed” is a strong term but that’s exactly how Peirce presents it, as if someone can’t think or form opinions for themselves after serving our country, which is almost insulting. With Brandon gone, Steve (who plans to re-enlist) can’t control the hot-tempered Tommy who’s descending into a bottomless pit of alcohol addiction and violence the second he returns home. Speaking of pits, Steve even digs himself one in the front yard because he still thinks he’s on the front lines. Subtlety isn’t Peirce’s strong point and these are caricatures that must rely only on these actors’ performances to bring them depth.
Aside from an electrifying and sometimes difficult to watch Iraq War opening, the part of this film that really clicks is the road trip with Brandon and Michele. It provides a nice break from Peirce’s patriotic proselytizing and shifts the focus to two people thrown together by a situation beyond their control. And sorry Reese, but Phillipe and Cornish do have legitimate heat onscreen together, made all the more impressive by the fact that Peirce (in a rare display of restraint) chooses not to go in that direction with their characters. Cornish surprised me here, conveying a tough vulnerability and a believable southern accent. It’s possible she could turn into an acting force down the line and not be eternally known for, you know, that other thing.

The pairing of Joseph Gordon-Levitt with a director of Peirce’s caliber should have much yielded much better results and it’s so silly the only reason it doesn’t is because he was given limited screen time. Not surprisingly, in the few scenes he is in he’s amazing and hints at a deeper anger and confusion in Tommy that's absent in Peirce’s script. I may be able to forgive her for going the way of Robert Redford, Paul Haggis and Gavin Hood before her with her flag waving fervor, but having probably the best young actor working today in your movie and pushing him off to the side is inexcusable.

Levitt was the one performer here who didn’t need even need a good script and Peirce still blew it. It almost felt like there was a nomination worthy performance that may have been left on the cutting room floor. Through no fault of his own his won’t be joining Brick and The Lookout in the JGL hall of fame, but it doesn’t really stop the winning streak either. I can’t blame him for taking the part and if anything it proves he’s still capable of shining in an underwritten, throwaway role.
Even in the film’s stronger moments, Peirce’s liberal agenda somehow seeps through. We see it in Timothy Olyphant’s Lieutenant Colonel unwisely played with as little compassion as his terrorist from Live Free or Die Hard. He’s just a puppet for George W. Bush. By now I’ve learned during these movies to look in the background on the wall and it’s inevitable I’ll see a picture of the grinning President. And sure enough, there it was. Even Brandon’s father (played by Ciaran Hinds) has to get a shot in as a dissenting voice. Out of no where he decides his son should report for this second unfair tour of duty for no other reason but for Peirce to pretend there’s a deep philosophical issue here.

Less would have been more and it’s a shame Peirce let her own passion get the better of her because the acting could have carried this through. There’s a scene with Victor Rasuk as an injured veteran that’s more powerful and moving than anything else in the picture because it seems to come from a true place and feels real. Then there’s an ending to the film that feels completely fake, like Peirce was trying to get her last licks in. She even flashes statistics about the Iraq War on screen undercutting her own efforts and message, making the whole picture feel more like a public service announcement.

In the middle of a fun summer movie season the last thing I want to do is take a trip in a time machine back to 2007, the year this film feels stuck in even though it was only released a few months ago. I think we should propose a new rule: The Iraq War and its ramifications should be off limits to any filmmaker unless they happen to be named Richard Kelly. I'm just crossing my fingers that when Bush leaves office Hollywood's desire to put out these politically tinged films will lessen considerably. If this, Rendition, Lions For Lambs, In The Valley of Elah didn’t convince Bush to send the troops home, nothing will. The best compliment I can give Stop-Loss is that of all these efforts, it’s at least the most noble.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

WALL-E

Director: Andrew Stanton
Starring: Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Fred Willard, Jeff Garlin, John Ratzenberger, Sigourney Weaver

Running Time: 97 min.

Rating: G


**** (out of ****)

Disney/Pixar have topped themselves… again. Except this time they’ve REALLY topped themselves. Last year I thought Ratatouille was great but Wall-E destroys it, and easily trumps every other Pixar film ever released. Not only is it a staggering visual accomplishment, a moving love story, and an intelligent social commentary, but it’s also a breathtaking work of science fiction.

It checks every box, covers every genre and calling it 2008’s best film so far would be a massive understatement. All those rumors you’ve heard about how great it is are true, but to classify it as animated in any way, shape or form, would do it a great disservice.

With Ratatouille, Pixar took a huge step toward creating more sophisticated animation and having the writing material to match. That huge step has evolved into a giant leap with a movie that's practically a Spielbergian achievement. And I mean the ‘80’s Spielberg. He tried to tackle a similar dystopian fantasy earlier in the decade with A.I. but fell short. Now comes that film he was trying to make.

It may seem strange that after seeing a Pixar release I’d feel the urge to compare it to such classics as Star Wars, Blade Runner, E.T. and 2001: A Space Odyssey but that’s just the kind of feeling this evokes. That’s no coincidence though since throughout its running time it directly references those works, but make no mistake, Andrew Stanton’s film is very much a masterpiece on its own terms. I’d love to say that Pixar isn’t capable of better, but now I’ve learned to just not say anything and expect the unexpected from them. But it is safe to say this is one of the most magical films in a very, very long time and if it doesn’t move you then I don’t know what will.
It’s the 2100’s and WALL-E (short for Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth- Class) is the last robot of its kind inhabiting what we used to call our home planet, now so overrun with waste and pollution that it can’t support human life. A major corporation, Buy n’ Large, (headed by Fred Willard in a cameo role) has managed to preserve the human race by shipping everyone off in executive spaceships where they’ve remained for centuries. They’ve also gotten really overweight and lazy, being waited on by robots all day and night without doing or learning a thing for themselves. WALL-E arranges the trash on Earth into neat towers and through 700 years of isolation has developed certain rituals, as well as a very distinct and endearing personality.

While not acting as the planet’s trash compactor he keeps himself entertained by playing with his Rubik’s Cube and watching a scratchy old videotape of Hello, Dolly! to which he knows all the songs. When the largest of those executive spaceships, the Axiom, lands he encounters the pod-like EVE (Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) sent to Earth to look for signs of plant life. Its pretty much love at first sight, at least for WALL-E and what unfolds is surprisingly one of the most effective and touching romances to be captured on film in years.

You’ve probably heard a lot already about the first 40 minutes and how it’s a silent movie. Stanton relies on bleeps, blurps, eye movements and robotic gestures to convey the robot’s feelings and tell the story. There’s never any doubt as to what he’s feeling or what’s going on and you could probably count about 50 different emotions this robot shows in his eyes alone. Not a word is spoken, but action and visuals tell the entire story.
I hate using hyperbole, but it’s called for here. This is truly the most fully realized animation in Disney’s storied history and the first half hour of this film is as awe-inspiring an experience as you’re likely to witness all year on a movie screen. It helps that WALL-E, part Charlie Chaplin, part R2D2, is the most adorable onscreen creation since E.T. All the details of his personality and how they’re conveyed onscreen are amazing, like when he shakes uncontrollably and collapses himself into a box to hide when he’s frightened. We recognize his quirks, relate and empathize with him as if he were real, and the story becomes that much more involving because of it.

A certain sadness and isolation engulfs the opening of this movie the likes of which you haven’t seen in a Pixar or Disney film. 2001 is an obvious influence and the first half of the picture feels very much like a Kubrick film crossed with a Buster Keaton-era sensibility. Gone are the bright, vibrant colors we’ve been used to in Disney films and replacing it are dark brown hues and rust, visual details that recall Star Wars: Episode IV. Supposedly, Oscar nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins was brought on as a visual consultant to make sure the images could look exactly how they would in real life. Do they ever.

Without spoiling anything I’ll say that in the second hour the film goes in a completely different, but equally brilliant direction, turning into a mind-blowing space adventure. It also turns into an emotionally relevant satire that features some superb voice work from Jeff Garlin as the seemingly dim-witted but good-hearted Captain of the Axiom. He'll prove he’s nothing at all like any of his predecessors.

Some talking heads in the media have complained about this second section of the film, which only proves that people can complain and be offended by just about anything these days. The issues (involving the abuse of our environment and our dumbed down mass consumerist culture) cut very deep, but they’re NOT political, as they’d want you to believe. But they are brilliantly ingrained into the fabric of the story with such subtle perfection that if you wanted to shut your brain off and just enjoy it as a family film, you could easily.

The kids won’t pick up on those deeper issues, which is fine, because they’ll be so mesmerized with Wall-E, EVE and their adventures that they won’t care or notice. When they’re older the film can then take on twice as much meaning as they see the importance that was buried underneath the fun and visual treats.

I hesitate categorizing this film as either adult or children’s fare because that would imply that one of those two groups would somehow feel shut out watching it. It has to be viewed as playing in the same ballpark as something like The Wizard of Oz or E.T., family films that transcend all ages and genres. If I had to pick though, I’d say adults would take more out of it because they would fully appreciate the two different levels it’s working on.

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences created the Best Animated Feature category in 2001 I thought in the back of my mind that it wasn’t a good idea. I considered the possibility that an animated film could come along that breaks all barriers and the Academy could justify not nominating it for Best Picture because of this new category. Now I really worry those fears will come to pass and WALL-E will have to settle for what may as well be considered the light heavyweight championship of the Oscars.
That, combined with the fact it was released in the dreaded first half of the year, creates a nightmare scenario for its Best Picture chances. I’ve whined and complained for a while that the Oscar season is too short and should include films released throughout the ENTIRE YEAR and this is the best evidence why.

I can practically guarantee there won’t be five movies better than WALL-E this year and if there is, well then, that’s frightening. This deserves to compete with the big boys for Best Picture and Disney owes it to themselves as a company and to moviegoers worldwide who love this film to pour every resource they have into its Oscar campaign. They owe it to the late, great Walt Disney whose entire vision of what movies should be is encapsulated in every single one of the 97 minutes of WALL-E. All I can do now is cross my fingers and hope that this can hold on and we don't have a repeat of last year when Academy voters engulfed themselves in art house depression.

I’ve heard and read many calling this one of the greatest motion pictures they’ve ever seen and while I don’t have the guts to make such a statement yet, as a hardcore science fiction fan, this film means  a lot. It wears many influences and homages, yet never feels like a rip-off because the story is so completely original. At the end of the screening I attended there was a lot of applause and even some tears.

One particular scene induced emotions in me I didn’t think I was capable of having watching an animated feature. When it ended I knew I saw a four-star film but it didn’t really hit me until maybe about 6 hours later that I saw a four-star film of the highest caliber. Or more accurately, a work of art. WALL-E is a special experience and a groundbreaking film that will be appreciated and loved for decades to come.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Vantage Point

Director: Pete Travis
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Matthew Fox, Forest Whitaker, William Hurt, Edgar Ramirez, Sigourney Weaver

Running Time: 90 min.

Rating: PG-13


**1/2 (out of ****)


I really can’t stand it when a film’s trailer gives away a key plot point, especially if revealing it serves no purpose other than to stifle the viewer’s enjoyment of the movie. In the case of the Rashomon style mystery thriller Vantage Point, the twist in question happens to be incredibly far-fetched and dumb and the movie probably would have been more effective without it. Still, revealing it was unwise. I just sat there looking at my watch waiting for the moment it would occur, rather than being on the edge of my seat. Why the studio would do that is a rant for another time, but truthfully, it really doesn’t make a huge difference because the whole thing doesn’t quite work anyway.

At best, Vantage Point is a well-acted, technically slick film with a few good performances and at worst, an achingly repetitive exercise in pointlessness. I suppose that’s to be expected when you show the same event 8 times from 8 different viewpoints without revealing any new information until the final half hour of the film. What the filmmakers forgot was that they didn’t have a story nearly deep or interesting enough to warrant the use (and subsequent abuse) of such a risky device. You shouldn’t need a detailed field guide to keep track of events and characters in a movie. It doesn’t start to get its act together until the end and by the time the pieces come together in a satisfactory manner it’s just too late. We’re too tired to care. In trying invoke Rashomon, the film instead comes off as just a poor man’s sequel to Brian DePalma’s Snake Eyes.

In Spain, United States President Ashton (William Hurt) is giving a speech at an anti-terrorism summit in Spain when an assassination attempt is made on his life. Covering the event is a news team led by a demanding, but effective producer (well-played by Sigourney Weaver). The first (and best) ten minutes of the film depict the event from their viewpoint and then the story flashes back to reveal the viewpoints of various other characters including the President himself, a veteran secret service agent (Dennis Quaid) returning to the job after taking a bullet, a tourist (Forest Whitaker) who captures Zapruder-like footage of the event on his camcorder and a mysterious police officer (Eduardo Noriega), who may be involved in the assassination plot.

There are many other periphery characters whose vantage points are explored, very few of which are particularly gripping or interesting. The movie gets so overloaded with characters we forget to care about the actual mystery and worry more about just keeping up with not only them, but also the shaky hand-held camera work. Making matters worse is the aforementioned big twist (which I won’t give away) that comes midway through and takes the story in a different, inferior direction, somewhat negating the purpose of the entire story.

A movie with this much going on can’t be an acting showcase but with little screen time she’s given Weaver proves she should have been given more to do while Hurt is unsurprisingly very believable as the President, though it hardly matters given the circumstances of the plot. Whitaker ends up being a slightly more important presence than first appears but through most of the picture you could argue he's wasted. I couldn’t help but feel bad for him having to just hold up that camcorder in the same position for what had to be hundreds of takes of the same scene.

Another equally ridiculous twist comes into play later but at least this one results in a thrilling car chase that almost saves the film as the focus wisely shifts to the only character in this whole mess we actually care about. It’s ironic that only when director abandons the different points of view that the movie finally finds its pulse. Quaid and Lost’s Matthew Fox as his partner end up being the only two actors who have something substantial to show for their screen time and deliver the two best performances. It’s unfair, really, because they were easily given the meatiest material to work with.

The 8 different vantage points gimmick doesn’t help the film because the central story is too weak to contain it. It would have worked far better to instead show different versions of the assassination with different suspects and let the viewer attempt to uncover the perpetrator, kind of like the movie Clue. At least this way we wouldn’t be forced to watch the same scenes over and over with the same result. It tells us nothing about how different people perceive reality, which I’m guessing was the point of the entire exercise. I'm still waiting for this method to one day be used appropriately in relation to the story being told, but more importantly, be executed well.

I’m intrigued by films about assassination attempts and this premise had a ton of potential, but no one involved in the making of this saw that and rather than keeping it simple, the screenwriters poured too much in. It also would have helped if I didn’t have to use the word “assassination” loosely when describing the crime. Director Pete Travis seems to be holding out hope that after the puzzle is solved everyone will want to go back with new information and appreciate how nuanced the performances are, or view the film in a different light. But who would want to waste their time doing that? Vantage Point does an awful lot of work, but by the end, there just isn't enough to show for it.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Happening

Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Lequizamo, Ashlyn Sanchez, Betty Buckley
Running Time: 91 min.

Rating: R


*** (out of ****)

“This better be as bad as everyone says it is.”


It’s a shame I found myself muttering those words as I entered the theater to watch M. Night Shyamalan’s much-maligned ecological thriller The Happening. That’s never the mindset anyone should be forced to approach a film with but unfortunately it’s been an unavoidable situation with this one. For the thrashing Shyamalan and his actors have taken over this I was hoping they were justified because I don’t like seeing anyone thrown under the bus for no reason.

Sometimes it’s bad come to a film late after everyone’s verdict has been handed out, but this might be one of those rare cases where it's a hidden benefit. Knowing every detail of the plot and being prepared for every aspect of the film that people had serious problems with I was able to just sit back and analyze. That’s exactly what I did, but much to my surprise, I also had a really good time. Sure, Shyamalan struggles with tone from time to time and he’s still a better director than writer, but this works for what it is.

So no, The Happening doesn’t even come close to being as bad as everyone’s made it out to be. In fact, taken as a good old-fashioned B-movie chiller, it more than holds its ground. It isn’t nearly as effective as The Sixth Sense (which is overrated) or Unbreakable (which isn’t) but it tops Signs and especially Lady In The Water. I guess you could say that puts it on par with The Village, which I actually enjoyed. But forget about all that. What I really want to know is how the public would react to this picture if Shyamalan’s name weren’t on it.
Elliot Moore (Mark Walhberg) is a Ned Flanders-like New York City high school science teacher who is forced to dismiss class upon hearing news that a deadly airborne toxin has somehow been released in the North East. Exposure to it results in a catatonic trance-like states immediately followed by strange (and at times far too creative) suicides. The opening minutes are clearly meant to shake us with 9/11 imagery, as citizens hurl themselves to their deaths out of high-rise buildings. Elliot and his distant wife Alma (a very wide-eyed Zooey Deschanel), join his co-worker Julian (John Leguizamo) and eight-year-old daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) in fleeing the city by train to Pennsylvania, where the pandemic has yet to hit. That relief doesn’t last long.

The immediate suspicion as to the cause of this disaster is bio-terrorism but the physical evidence soon shifts to something more environmental in nature. Frequent Shyamalan detractors may be relieved to discover there’s no ”big twist” in this one. Without giving too much away I’ll just say this catastrophe involves plants and the wind. In other words, Al Gore was right.

This film benefits heavily from being somewhat realistically grounded, at least as far as thrillers go. An airborne toxin being released actually isn’t far fetched at all and in the past it has actually happened (pardon the pun). Here, the results of it are obviously way exaggerated and at times presented preposterously but at least it’s more believable than a giant sea monster attacking the East Coast.

As for it looking silly that characters are running from something that isn’t there, it doesn’t seem to bother anyone when actors against a green screen run from fake looking CGI, so the way I see it, this is a step up. I found it refreshing and original to see characters running from something actually in nature for a change, and at least Tak Fujimoto’s cinematography makes it interesting to watch. Trust me, if there were actually a neurotoxin in the air you would haul ass also.

It’s a relief Shyamalan has a premise with some realism that hits close to home because his iffy writing does create a few problems. Like how he has Alma pause at the most inconvenient, life threatening time imaginable to discuss her potential extra-marital affair or how everyone seems a little to eager to watch and listen to graphic suicides on cell phones. In a stupid studio marketing campaign probably meant to further sabotage Shyamalan’s career, this movie has been ridiculously trumpeted all over trailers and commercials as “HIS FIRST R RATED FILM.”

If anything, the R rating is a distraction and the really graphic scenes don’t exactly mesh with the rest of the picture, particularly one involving a gruesome lion attack. That and a memorable lemon drink line delivered by Betty Buckley’s crazed survivalist were the only two moments that caused me to laugh aloud. And I’m convinced that latter outburst only occurred because of a great review I read beforehand mentioning it. Had the rating been PG-13 and not showed as much the film probably would have been more suspenseful and flowed better, but that’s my most serious quibble.
Since the studio justifiably wouldn’t let Shyamalan appear in his film this time around some think that Buckley, whose character doesn’t care about the world and complains the world “doesn’t care about me,” is a Shyamalan surrogate. Since he wasn’t allowed in the movie he squeezed his way in through Buckley. Good theory, except the problem is the world seems to actually care way too much about Shyamalan… for all the wrong reasons.

Plus, after checking the credits I saw he already cast himself as “Joey,” Alma’s secret boyfriend, despite never appearing in the film. I’ll take that any day over him having a huge supporting role as a character whose “words will change the world.” This film may as well be Citizen Kane compared to Lady In The Water.

Despite popular opinions to the contrary, Wahlberg and Deschanel give performances that are completely appropriate for the material for which they’ve been given. I’d even go further and say they rise a level above it. I thought it was great to see these two actors playing against type in roles we never get to see them in and Wahlberg is believable as a passive, geeky high school teacher (particularly in an excellent early scene). As usual, Deschanel brings her natural, down-to-Earth quirky charm to the role and I really thought the two actors shared surprisingly nice chemistry together as spouses.

Maybe I was just relieved to see Zooey in a role other than someone’s best friend or sister and finally be given the chance to headline a big studio film. At the very least, it's a huge departure from anything else she’s done and if another actress were playing Wahlberg’s wife I guarantee you I wouldn’t have cared as much about the character or the story. I’ve actually heard some people say the fallout from this will destroy her career, which is just complete nonsense. This was a necessary next step for her, regardless of its immediate consequences.

While I wouldn’t put either actor’s performance on their highlight reel, they did a good job and in no way deserve the bashing they’ve received. I commend both for making a risky choice and they’ll make it past this just fine.
The exciting and suspenseful third act of the picture really benefits from Blakely’s energetic performance and many moments between Wahlberg and Deschanel’s characters that work really well, particularly a beautiful scene in a field at the end. It’s obvious the movie has a message, but it doesn’t feel like a message movie so much as an intelligent parable. The film is a little like last year’s The Mist in that it points out how the human race can fail each other in the face of a legitimate catastrophe. In its best moments there are also echoes of Hitchcock’s The Birds, an obvious inspiration considering the film’s theme of nature turning on man.

This is one of Shyamalan’s more introspective, restrained efforts and James Newton Howard’s haunting score helps the creepy cause, even if the tone occasionally conflicts with it. The film doesn’t completely get to where Shyamalan wants it to, but how many of his movies actually do? It probably could have benefited from an outside, objective eye at the screenwriting stage but even if you view it as a misfire (which I don’t), it’s easily his most interesting one. What works is suspenseful and what doesn’t is hysterically entertaining. For anyone who hates it no explanation is necessary because there are some admittedly funny scenes, but I just took it for what it was and enjoyed myself.

Am I guilty of going in with lowered expectations? Maybe, but I like to think if I went in cold I’d have the same reaction. I’d also like to believe anyone who doesn’t surf the internet regularly or closely follow the writer/director’s career bumps would enjoy themselves, and its box office performance supports my theory. If The Happening does end up ruining M. Night Shyamalan’s career it's not because it’s a terrible film, but because he’s being graded on a harsher curve than everyone else.