Saturday, January 31, 2009

Lakeview Terrace

Director: Neil LaBute
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Patrick Wilson, Kerry Washington, Jay Hernandez
Running Time: 106 min.

Rating: PG-13

*** (out of ****)

In Neil LaBute’s “neighbor from hell” suburban thriller Lakeview Terrace we’re teased with a deep, subtle character study before the film turns on itself to reveal the makeshift thriller you expected all along. This is particularly stinging if only because Samuel L. Jackson is given a fairly layered role for a change, at least for most of the running time. His performance could almost be described as restrained and realistic, bolstered by a script that really understands how people behave and react in certain situations. When everything flies off the rails in the last half hour (albeit in a pulse pounding, entertaining way), there’s still that lingering feeling something much deeper could have been done with the material.

The LaBute who directed 1997’s In The Company of Men would have given us that film, a suburban nightmare that could have been on par with the best in the genre. Instead, we’re left with the kind of film the two sleazebag main characters in that movie would have directed. It’s still successful mainly because of the performances and overall strength of the premise, but a lot more could have been done, or more accurately, less should have been done.

What starts as a serious examination of American suburbia degenerates into a game of baiting audiences into feeling as much seething hatred for its antagonist as humanly possible, which isn’t difficult considering the heft Jackson brings to the role. He slowly morphs from being merely abrasive and unlikable into the devil incarnate. The story is familiar in the best and worst possible ways. It struck a chord, which in the end, turns out to be all the movie was really aiming for. So it’s mildly successful, if not necessarily rewarding.

It’s an exciting time for Chris Mattson (Patrick Wilson) and his wife Lisa (Kerry Washington) who have just purchased their dream home in a picaresque Southern California community. Their next-door neighbor, widowed father Abel Turner (Jackson) is a take no prisoners L.A.P.D. police officer who’s just as strict and stern at home with his two kids (Regine Nehy and Jaison Fisher) as he is on the job. At first everything between the neighbors is fine, until the volatile Turner starts actively seeking out reasons for it not to be. Chris and Lisa accidentally make it easy for him with a risqué swimming exhibition for his kids late one night. That’s the trigger that sets him off, but if it wasn’t that he would have surely found something else. Then comes the uncomfortable comments and awkward situations that reveal Turner may not just be your typical angry neighbor, but a bitter racist with an axe to grind.
He starts slowly dropping subtly inappropriate remarks that imply he’s a lot more than annoyed that he’s living next door to an interracial couple. This is where the creative meat of the film and Jackson’s performance come into full view. The remarks are bad, but they’re not SO BAD that you’d avoid contact with this person altogether. They start as just plain strange and uncomfortable and you’d see at first why Chris would want to make an effort to get along with this guy before rushing to judgment.

Jackson’s intimidating presence conveys Turner as a man you don’t want on your bad side, but there’s a softer side that implies he’d have your back if he likes you. Wilson was the right actor to play opposite him because he represents Chris as the “everyman” who tries his best to get along with everyone, yet becomes flustered when his good intentions fail to yield the desired result. He handles the situation exactly how any of us would, which brings the film closer to home. As Chris’ efforts to reach a middle ground with Turner fail it brings to the surface some issues in his marriage and relationship with his father-in-law. Things may not be as perfect as he thought, but are they ever?

Much of the first hour is excellent because it focuses on these real-life issues and puts into the position of imagining how we’d deal with this situation. The issue of race boils to the surface and you can’t help but consider how we’d react if the characters’ races were reversed. It’s a sensitive issue. All these ideas. All this set-up. An intriguing Jackson performance. All the cards were in place. But instead of looking for real emotional truth in the film’s final 40 minutes someone thought it would be a better idea to descend into standard thriller territory.

Jackson tries to keep it as grounded as he can given the circumstances, but the longer this whole thing goes the more Turner starts moving away from being the complex, angry man we first met to resembling a movie character acting out the required beats of the plot. The intelligent elements that were present in the script earlier don’t seem that intelligent when viewed in light of the ending. An ending should make the events that proceed it seem more meaningful, not less so. An ill-advised scene meant to give Turner an involving backstory instead comes off as the film trying to apologize for his sociopathic behavior, or worse, urge us to feel sorry for him.
The third act feels very generic, reeking of studio interference and test screenings, which is a shame considering the many other interesting directions this could have gone. They took the easy way out but I was on the edge of my seat anyway because of Jackson’s performance and genuine hatred you build for his character throughout the course of the film. If this is a step up for him, it can’t be considered one for Wilson, but that’s only because it’s tough to top Oscar-worthy performances in two of the decade’s best dramas. Those films, Little Children and Hard Candy, dug deep into suburban moral decay in ways this film could have if David Loughery and Howard Korder’s script were ambitious enough. They also gave Wilson deeper, more flawed characters to work with. Here he’s just basically playing some preppy white guy who lives down the street. Despite being limited by the role he succeeds in making it seem more important than it is and is the perfect foil for Jackson.

At one point during the film Chris tries to convince Turner that he and his wife have a lot in common. I couldn’t help but laugh at that as I pictured them boring one another to death on a daily basis. This couple’s life and their personalities aren’t very exciting and seem to exist for the sole reason of drawing Turner’s ire and bringing his latent racist tendencies to the surface. We're lead to believe the friendship between Washington's Lisa and Turner’s teenage daughter will be explored as something meaningful. It isn’t. Both kids are all but discarded halfway through the story, disappointing because the performances from the young actors are actually pretty good.

As a thriller this delivers exactly what was advertised so there isn’t much to complain about on that front. It’s as a character study where it doesn’t reach its expected potential. Then again, from the trailers, I wasn’t expecting anything remotely resembling a character study to begin with so you could say the film over-performed slightly in that sense. It really all depends on your perspective and the attitude you approach this with. Since I tend to love suburban nightmare films this would have to do a lot more wrong to hit a sour note with me.

Like most, I gave up trying to figure out what’s happened to the career of LaBute after his 2006 remake of The Wicker Man, but the problems that exist here are primarily with the script, which he didn’t write. The film works for what it is and that’s mainly because of the performances, especially Jackson’s. Lakeview Terrace definitely could have been better but I strangely expected it to be a lot worse. It's at least somewhat smart for a dumb thriller.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Wrestler

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Ernest Miller
Running Time: 115 min.
Rating: R

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

Boxing has Rocky and Raging Bull. Basketball has Hoosiers. Football has Rudy. Now wrestling has The Wrestler. Only it comes at the highest price and is the darkest of victories. Now everyone knows. The curtain is pulled all the way back and at times it’s really difficult to watch. I kept trying to convince myself that director Darren Aronofsky was exaggerating for effect. It's a movie. It’s not really that bad. But let’s not fool ourselves. It is. We know because we’ve seen the long list of wrestlers who passed away too soon. The numbers don’t lie and neither does this film, an unflinching, brutalizing look at the life of a past his prime wrestler that’s about as uplifting as a funeral. The film starts dark and then it gets darker until finally it goes so dark it practically plunges itself into the depths of emotional hell.

Supposedly, Aronofsky took a trip up to Stanford, Connecticut to show the film to WWE chairman Vince McMahon. Why he even bothered I have no idea. Those who watch wrestling would seek the movie out anyway, with or without McMahon’s endorsement (more likely without it). Of course he despised the film and now after finally viewing it I find it hard to believe he didn’t hurl himself off the roof of Titan Towers. I’m sure he thinks this “exposes the business.” Damn right it does. The truth hurts.

His denouncement was the first positive sign for me that Aronofsky had probably made a great film. But as someone who's been watching wrestling far longer than I have movies, I couldn’t help but be overcome with wildly mixed feelings. Thrilled as both a fan and filmgoer that the profession of “wrestler” and what they do has finally been treated with the respect and dignity it deserves on screen, but also at the same time thoroughly devastated with the cold reality that unfolds.
Mentioning this film alongside the best sports movies could seem blasphemous to many since wrestling is so often belittled as “fake” by those who don't understand the work involved. But its brilliance is in how it explores the toll that unfair label has taken on those who earn their living doing it, or in the case of this protagonist, struggle to. This isn’t a feel-good movie about redemption, overcoming the odds or even winning the big match. If pushed for comparisons, it comes closest in tone to the gritty Raging Bull, digging so deep and pulling so few punches that the professional wrestling industry as a whole had no choice but to disown it. The accolades and superlatives for that accomplishment belong to Aronofsky, and especially Mickey Rourke, drawing on a well-documented lifetime of pain and suffering to give a performance for the ages.

Rourke is faded 80’s wrestling superstar Randy “The Ram” Robinson, who at the height of his popularity was one of the most recognizable and successful professional wrestlers in the world. Now, twenty years later, his hearing is almost gone, he’s nursing a laundry list of wrestling-related injuries and instead of filling up arenas he lives in a trailer park where he can’t even make the month’s rent. He spends his weekdays working at the supermarket and the weekends wrestling local independent shows in New Jersey. The energy of the crowd (however small it may be) keeps him going but the closest he gets to his glory days is playing himself on an old 8-Bit Nintendo game with the neighborhood kids.

Following a brutal, hardcore match with crazed opponent Necro Butcher (Dylan Summers) Ram collapses in the locker room, suffering a heart attack. He’s told he can never wrestle again but how he’s given the news by the doctor is particularly cold and condescending, as if he views his profession as just a crazy side hobby he can drop at any time rather than what he does for a living. He can’t just "stop." It’s not that simple.

For Ram there is no life outside of wrestling. His only friend is a stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) but she has an invisible line she doesn’t want to cross with customers that prevents their relationship from going any further. His estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood) hates his guts and at the beginning we’re confused as to exactly why. By the end we’re not. Ram may be a force between the ropes but outside of them he’s essentially a wounded dog, discarded by the business (and it is very much a business) he literally gave his heart to. But he’s still got one match left to go, against his old arc-nemesis The Ayatollah (Ernest Miller”), if he can make it.
Afonofsky, bringing to life the vivid details of Robert Siegel’s script, shows us EVERYTHING. The blading. The steroids. The locker room. The promoters. The planned finishes. Nothing is left out and there are no inconsistencies to be found (and believe me I was looking). I was surprised not only how much wrestling action was in the film, but how good and seamless it looked. And now maybe after seeing close-ups of staples, thumbtacks and barbed wire removed from someone’s flesh, cynics may actually think twice before throwing that ridiculous “fake” label around. Aronofsky has finally done what I've always wanted to my entire life: Shut those people up for good. Pre-determined? Yes. Fake? Try taking a chair shot to the head. Doesn't hurt. I promise.

It’s often said a director or writer did their research before making a film but in the case of Aronofsky and screenwriter Robert Siegel it must have been exhaustive and the results are visible in every frame. There so many little, specific details that are thrown in that can’t be given away at risk of ruining the first-time experience. Besides being thrown right into the ring we’re given unlimited access to the locker room and the camaraderie that exists between the wrestlers. One of my favorite moments is Ram discussing the plans for his match with Butcher, who when you first see him in the locker room reminds you more of a tenured English professor than a hardcore wrestler. Then we see the match and can’t believe it’s even the same guy. After over 20 years watching I thought I had seen everything in pro wrestling but there were some moments here that were really eye opening and educational in shocking ways, like a sleazy promoter paying Randy chump change for a show in a high school gym. The saddest of all is a legends autograph signing where wrestlers are either in wheelchairs, hooked up to I.V’s, or asleep. Only a couple of fans show up.

Here's where I’m obligated to talk about the incredible comeback of Mickey Rourke. Since I'm criminally unfamiliar with much of his early work there’s no baseline for which I can judge his performance here against those, not as if there should be any need to. But I am fully aware of what happened to him and how far he had to climb to get back. And I can tell you, in this film, measured against any criteria, for 115 minutes MICKEY ROURKE IS A PRO WRESTLER. But don’t believe anyone who tells you he’s “playing himself.” If that's true how would you explain how he’s somehow more believable in the role than most of the wrestlers you’d see on television every week? This guy could headline Wrestlemania right now. But it's as Randy where he should earn his Oscar.
Discussing the merits of the film outside of Rourke’s performance is difficult but not because he overshadows it. In fact, just the opposite. He’s in every scene and must carry every moment but what sets his performance apart from Oscar rival Sean Penn’s in Milk is that Rourke makes everything and everyone around him better. While Penn’s work was technically staggering it wasn’t giving like this is. There’s something deeper going on and an emotionally draining ordeal that that could have easily turned into the cinematic equivalent of slitting your wrists is grounded in the warmth and sensitivity Rourke brings to the role. Inside the ring Ram is a maniac but outside of it he’s a gentle soul. He never plays Randy as pitiful cause, instead as a man soldiers on and rolls with the punches despite the obvious emotional pain he feels.

Watching him I got the impression I was witnessing the kind of performance that people will look back on 30 years from now as a standard-bearer in film acting, a Brando-level achievement. Him not winning the Oscar would be a flat-out horror and that’s taking into account that Penn gave arguably the performance of his career. Rourke is that great. The role had originally belonged to Nicolas Cage, who dropped out. To his credit, he knew this was Mickey’s part, or maybe he just wet his pants at the sight of a staple gun. Either way, Cage finally makes a career move we can all support.

As much as it may appear Rourke does it alone, he doesn’t. Evan Rachel Wood has maybe only two or three big scenes but they’re absolutely huge and it’s a powerhouse turn, much more restrained than you might imagine. The dichotomy between Ram and Marisa Tomei’s stripper Cassidy cuts to the very heart of the film. Both dress up (or in her case down) and put on a show. Neither is taken seriously when the show ends, nor do they know who they’re supposed to be when that curtain closes. Two lost souls kicked to the curb in the professions they love when they've reached their expiration date.

Gone are the stylistic and visual flourishes that have become hallmarks of Aronofsky’s films like Requiem For A Dream and The Fountain. The latter was perceived by many to be a failure. Not by me, but if you think he needed a "comeback" film after it this was exactly the kind of one he should have made and an even bigger challenge. Practically stripped bare of everything but Siegel’s script and the actors we find out what’s he really got.
Aided by documentary cinematographer Maryse Alberti the movie has a docu-style feel that's uncomfortable and at times even scary in its immediacy, but never drawing unnecessary attention to its method. We're taking this trip with him as it succeeds even beyond taking us with cruel intimacy into the ring and depicts an even more desolate, depressing world outside of it. A deli scene where Ram finally reaches his breaking point is so frightening I'm swearing off cold cuts for life. The ‘80’s soundtrack could easily double as Guitar Hero’s Greatest Hits, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And if you don’t get chills when Ram comes through the curtain to Guns n’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” it’s time to check for a pulse. Had Axl not given them the song for free it would have been worth every penny the studio paid for it.

Because it’s an Aronofsky film we know he won’t supply any easy answers or let us go with a pat ending. One of the few movies I've seen in recent years that ended perfectly. The beauty of the final minutes is how it can be interpreted as either tragic or uplifting. It stays with you. Why should you feel sorry for someone who chose to do this for a living? You shouldn’t, and like the protagonist the film never asks for your sympathy or sentimentalizes the situation. It just asks you to think about it....hard.

Maybe years down the line if wrestlers are ever respected as athletes and entertainers rather than demeaned as “independent contractors” we can look back on Aronofsky’s accomplishment as taking the first steps toward getting there. Wrestling now finally has its film and there’s nothing anyone can do to take it away. Not even McMahon. But what might be the saddest thing about The Wrestler, sadder even than the struggle of the title character, is that the wrestling business is unable to share in the victory.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Dark Knight Snubbed (And Other Oscar Thoughts)

Well, there was no need to get our hopes up. Viewers will probably skip the Oscars again this year as the Academy just assured itself more record-low ratings. I was optimistic things would would be different this time and they'd go out on a limb for a change but after looking over the nominations, I've got just one question: How many votes does Ernest Borgnine get anyway? Now I'm by no means implying they should be nominating pictures based solely on commercial appeal or popularity but if you have a film that's a huge financial success AND one of the best reviewed in a weak year, wouldn't it just make sense to nominate it for the big prize?

While I don't think the snub of The Dark Knight ranks among the Academy's all-time worst offenses (at least in terms of the film's actual quality), it's still horrifying for what it says about them and their tastes. I heard a film critic (to use the term loosely in this case) remark earlier today that there's "something for everyone" in today's nominations. If by "something" he means Holocaust dramas about pedophiles and by "everyone" he's talking about 75 year-old Academy voters, then he'd be right.

As for my predictions I struck out badly (as I'm sure most did), showing too much faith that they'd finally adapt a more forward-looking vision. Instead they set us back about 50 years. I scored a little over 72% in guessing the eight major categories with "Adapted Screenplay" being the only category I completely nailed. Had I correctly anticipated their elitist mindset there would spill into all the other categories I would have fared a whole lot better. But that's irrelevant. I would have gladly gotten them all wrong if it meant them making the right choices.

Some random thoughts:

"Mark My words: Angelina Jolie's getting snubbed for Changeling." Oops. My bad.

-"They'll see Brad Pitt's performance in Benjamin Button as an achievement in visual effects more than anything else." Oops again.

-"The only other outside possibility is Revolutionary Road's Michael Shannon but his buzz has completely died out." Oops a third time.

-Not even Nolan for Best Director? Wow. Harsh.

-Milk nominated for Best Picture. Seriously? Milk?

-Bruce Springsteen fails to be nominated for Best Original song. WHAT????!!!!! This is low... even for them.

-Kate Winslet nominated for lead actress for The Reader, the film for which she won a Golden Globe for Best... SUPPORTING ACTRESS. Huh? Make up your minds.

-They do the right thing in nominating The Visitor's Richard Jenkins for Best Actor and In Bruges for Best Original Screenplay. But, honestly, who cares? Why should I "congratulate" them for recognizing obviously brilliant work? Their missteps today were far outweighed those two selections.

-While I'm thrilled one of my favorite filmmakers David Fincher now has "Oscar nominated director" in front of his name isn't it kind of disturbing the Academy chose to reward his worst received film? I haven't seen Button yet but I haven't met many who think it's a superior effort to The Game, Fight Club, Zodiac or even Se7en.

-It's a cake walk for Slumdog Millionaire. Why not just announce it as the winner now?

What an embarrassing day for the Academy. They had a chance to really shake things up and get people excited about movies again. On the bright side, at least we still get to make jokes about how snobbish and out of touch they are.

Relive the horror below.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Academy Award Nomination Predictions

Whether it's Dreamgirls being shockingly snubbed for Best Picture two years ago or Tommy Lee Jones being announced as a Best Actor nominee for In The Valley of Elah last year the Academy Award nominations always seem to bring a few surprises. Some that no one can see coming. Just imagine the gasps in that auditorium if we hear the words, "DUSTIN HOFFMAN FOR LAST CHANCE HARVEY." Crazier things have happened. Or there could be no surprises at all. That's been known to happen too.

My choices for the five Best Picture nominees don't differ all that much from the prediction I made a couple of months ago, save for one. While I was dead-on in calling the meteoric rise of Slumdog Millionaire, I miscalculated with Revolutionary Road, which turned into a bigger awards disappointment than anyone could have predicted. Something like this is always tricky and almost requires a balance between playing it straight and taking some well-chosen risks. We'll see how I do.

Best Picture:
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
“The Dark Knight”
“Slumdog Millionaire”

Analysis: I have my fingers crossed that I'm wrong and the preposterously overrated Milk fails to earn a Best Picture nod, which isn't so far-fetched considering it's been losing a lot of steam lately. That's my one wish for the morning, as negative as it sounds. This category still isn't set in stone as The Reader, The Wrestler or even Gran Torino could easily sneak in. Doubt is also still a possibility. Button is the second most vulnerable. I haven't seen those four but I'm still confident any of them would almost have to be a better choice than Milk. I'm just not completely sold that voters will agree. And no, WALL-E isn't out of this yet.

Best Director:
Darren Aronofsky, “The Wrestler”
Danny Boyle, "Slumdog Millionaire"
Clint Eastwood, “Gran Torino”
David Fincher, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
Christopher Nolan, “The Dark Knight”

Analysis: The picture and director nominations NEVER MATCH (as little sense as that makes). This means someone's getting snubbed. It'll be Gus Van Sant who has the least "directorly" film of the nominees. Sean Penn's getting all the credit anyway so voters will probably just assume he directed himself. This opens the door for Aronofsky. The Wrestler probably peaked too late to get the Best Pic nod so they'll want to reward it for something other than the acting and song categories. Besides, with names like Boyle, Fincher and Nolan there doesn't it seem weird NOT to have Aronofsky joining them? Ron Howard was overloooked before for Apollo 13 and now it'll happen again with Frost/Nixon. Acknowledging Eastwood in the twilight of his career is just too great an oppportunity for the Academy to pass up.

Best Actor:
Clint Eastwood, “Gran Torino”
Richard Jenkins, “The Visitor”
Frank Langella, “Frost/Nixon”
Sean Penn, “Milk”
Mickey Rourke, “The Wrestler”

Analysis: This is pretty cut and dry with the exception of one surprise. Actors make up a large voting block so I'm predicting they'll find it impossible not to nominate Richard Jenkins' understated but brilliant work in The Visitor. It was just too good. They'll see Brad Pitt's performance in Benjamin Button as an achievement in visual effects more than anything else. That film is already on shaky ground as it is so it'll get hit here. In a repeat of 1997 when he had to stand by and watch Winslet grab all the glory, DiCaprio will be shut out for Revolutionary Road.

Best Actress

Anne Hathaway, "Rachel Getting Married"
Sally Hawkins, “Happy-Go-Lucky”
Meryl Streep, “Doubt”
Kristin Scott Thomas, "I've Loved You So Long"
Kate Winslet, “Revolutionary Road”

Analysis: Mark my words: Angelina Jolie's getting snubbed for Changeling. If she didn't get a nomination for A Might Heart (a better received performance) she sure won't be getting one for this. Every year it seems they like to honor a boring accomplished actress no one cares about in a performance nobody saw. So it's essentially a coin toss between Frozen River's Melissa Leo and I've Loved You So Long's Kristin Scott Thomas. While it's bad timing for Hathaway that Bride Wars hit theaters just as ballots were being mailed out, she's sitting pretty after the Globe co-win and is actually considered a front-runner along with Streep.

Best Supporting Actor
Josh Brolin, “Milk”
Robert Downey Jr., “Tropic Thunder”
Philip Seymour Hoffman, “Doubt”
Heath Ledger, “The Dark Knight”
Dev Patel, “Slumdog Millionaire”

Analysis: A.K.A. the four actors who will be losing to Heath Ledger. Here's one case where it is actually just an honor to be nominated. If nothing else, Dev Patel will at least have a wild story to tell his friends. The only other outside possibility is Revolutionary Road's Michael Shannon but his buzz has completely died out.

Best Supporting Actress
Penelope Cruz, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”
Viola Davis, “Doubt”
Taraji P. Henson, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
Marisa Tomei, “The Wrestler”
Kate Winslet, “The Reader”

Analysis: No surprises here either. It's possible Doubt's Amy Adams or Rachel Getting Married's Rosemarie DeWitt could sneak in, but not very likely. A really thin category this year.

Best Original Screenplay
Mike Leigh, “Happy-Go-Lucky”
Dustin Lance Black, “Milk”
Woody Allen, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”
Andrew Stanton and Jim Reardon, “WALL-E”
Robert D. Siegel, “The Wrestler”

Analysis: I'm not exactly sure how Dustin Lance Black's script for Milk is considered an "original" screenplay but it is, so therefore it'll be nominated (despite it being undeserving). Even scarier, it has a good chance of winning. I'll take it just so long as the film gets shut out of the Best Picture race.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Eric Roth, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
John Patrick Shanley, “Doubt”
Peter Morgan, “Frost/Nixon”
David Hare, "The Reader"
Simon Beaufoy, "Slumdog Millionaire"

Analysis: Voters won't be able to think outside the box enough to be able to acknowledge The Dark Knight in this category. It'll get a the Best Pic nod and a handful of tecnical accolades but miss out here to more "literary" endevours like The Reader and Doubt.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Appaloosa, My Best Friend's Girl

Appaloosa (**1/2 out of ****)
(Director: Ed Harris, Starring: Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renee Zellweger, Jeremy Irons, Lance Henriksen, Running Time: 118 min, Rating: R)

Ed Harris directs and stars in this methodical, lumbering character study. If you’ve ever wanted to see a movie focus squarely on two characters with a complete void of personality then this one’s for you. I love the Western as a genre and was thrilled to witness its resurrection last year with 3:10 To Yuma and The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, but with the comeback of any genre there are bound to be setbacks. This is the first. It doesn’t necessarily feel inauthentic and Harris has a good understanding of the material, but the movie spins its wheels and as a result comes off feeling more like a Lonesome Dove mini-series than a feature-length film. Still, you can tell it was made with a lot of respect and appreciation and he deserves praise for trying.

Harris is lawman Virgil Cole, who along with his longtime Deputy, Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), must defend the lawless town of Appaloosa from murderous Rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons). The arrival of comely widower Allison French (Renee Zellweger) is complicated for Virgil, as he must wrestle with the foreign concept of “feelings” when she slowly emerges as the town whore. To both the film’s benefit and detriment the story doesn’t go in the direction you’d expect. Allison doesn’t exactly drive a wedge between Virgil and Everett in the way you’d think and the situation involving Braggs doesn’t have your standard resolution. The issues with Braggs are infinitely more interesting and better handled than the sub-plot with Zellweger’s Ally, which at times feels more like a needless distraction.

Harris tackles the grizzled Eastwood badass lawman type role (think High Plains Drifter) well, but while he’s a gifted actor, he’s also a draining one to watch for 2 hours for obvious reasons. Not surprisingly, Mortensen gives the film’s best performance and even though he’s relegated to the background until the final 40 minutes he still makes a strong impression. The chemistry between him and Harris is a highlight despite the fact neither character is particularly exciting. Irons wages war with his accent. The casting of Zellweger seems slightly off, but that could be more because we’re not accustomed to seeing the depiction of a traditional Western woman on screen, faults and all. To her credit, she dives into the role head first, dirtying herself up (literally and figuratively).

Appaloosa can’t help but suffer from the release of two 4-star Westerns last year. There really isn’t enough here to sustain a film that’s appropriate in scope for the genre, despite Harris’ firm direction. Visually, it isn’t that interesting either as cinematographer Dean Semler won’t be mistaken for the next Roger Deakins any day soon, as impossible as that standard is to live up to. The film doesn’t work but in the very least it’s a noble near miss. Plus, you can’t go wrong with some Tom Petty over the closing credits.

My Best Friend's Girl (**1/2 out of ****)
(Director: Howard Deutch, Starring: Dane Cook, Kate Hudson, Jason Biggs, Alec Baldwin, Running Time: 101 min., Rating: Unrated)

We’re getting to the point where Kate Hudson should start reimbursing audiences for the money they’ve wasted on her films. But as much as I’ve disapproved of her career direction this past decade and the fact that it’s never a good sign when the actors somehow give a bad performance in the movie's poster, this isn’t one of the year’s worst films like you’ve heard. Not even close.

I’m guessing most critics went extra hard on it because it starred Hudson and Dane Cook. And who could blame them? Both have amassed an astonishing track record of awfulness in just a few years. But fair is fair and there’s nothing about My Best Friend’s Girl that sets it so far below other bad romantic comedies that it should land on anyone’s worst of the year list. At times I even forgot I was supposed to hate it. Its worst offenses are problems balancing tone and an illogical, overreaching third act, which would really put it at about the same level as Knocked Up. If nothing else, it just further demonstrates how difficult it is to make mix raunchiness and romance onscreen effectively. That Judd Apatow has proven to be the only filmmaker close to capable of doing it and even he’s missed a few times proves just how tough it is. But at least this does it slightly better (or less worse) than Cook’s last crude rom-com disaster Good Luck Chuck.

Similar to Chuck this film has a gimmicky premise in which “emotional terrorist” Tank Turner (Cook) is hired by guys to take out their ex-girlfriends and give them the date from hell. The idea being that he’s such a disgusting, perverted, self-centered pig that they’ll run back into their waiting arms, appreciating what they had. The opening minutes of the film surprisingly aren’t bad in setting this up. When Tank’s best friend Dustin (Jason Biggs) starts smothering his new girlfriend and co-worker Alexis (Hudson) she justifiably wants out. More accurately, she just wants to be “friends.” His solution? Hire Tank to traumatize her. It doesn’t work. He’s met his match, as Alexis could care less what a jerk he is. The last thing she wants is another relationship anyway. Then everything gets expectedly messy when Tank starts having genuine feelings for her, threatening his friendship with Dustin. And of course we get to hear The Cars’ “My Best Friend’s Girl” a couple of times (but you knew that).

The chief problem with the film is that it’s just too mean and nasty, uncomfortably co-existing with the sweet romantic comedy elements that are struggling to come out. Director Howard Deutch just can’t make up his mind what he wants to do and Cook isn’t helping matters. He plays the obnoxious jerk perfectly (perhaps too well) but when he has to display even just a shade of likability he runs into problems. His performance is grating, but most of the time it’s supposed to be. He's better off in supporting roles and this is a definite step-down from his surprisingly solid work in Mr. Brooks and Dan in Real Life. As for Hudson, she at least shows up to work this time with her game face on and actually does share chemistry with Cook. That chemistry, however, is the repulsive kind in a movie like this. She's also about as likable as Cook, which creates a problem . Biggs still has great comic timing, even if Deutch unwisely directs him to give off a creepy, stalkerish vibe.

There is a smattering of laughs (like when Tank takes an unsuspecting date to a offensively themed pizza restaurant) but most of them from the supporting players. Alec Baldwin is hilarious as Tank’s father, a “women’s studies” professor who takes that title way too literally while Lizzy Caplan impresses as usual in another thankless roommate/best friend role. In just her few scenes she suggests how much better the film could have been if she were given the lead instead of Hudson. Had either taken on a larger role it could have been enough to take this to the next level. Diora Baird also has a small part and a little of her always goes a long way in my book.

The film completely flies off the rails and loses its head in the final act, rushing and forcing a conclusion that isn’t necessary and getting there in the most ass-backwards way possible. It does have one great moment though. A Dane Cook slow-mo entrance set to Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around.” For just a brief moment Deutch accomplishes the impossible in making Cook briefly seem cool, suggesting the movie we could have had. That ends quickly. My Best Friend’s Girl is bad but it’s not THAT BAD. Still, it doesn’t say much for Hudson or Cook lately when two and a half stars is considered a major accomplishment.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Eagle Eye, Righteous Kill, Ghost Town

Eagle Eye (** out of ****)
(Director: D.J. Caruso, Starring: Shia LeBouf, Michelle Monaghan, Billy Bob Thornton, Rosario Dawson, Running Time: 118 min., Rating: PG-13)

Rather than actually review Eagle Eye I was contemplating instead sending out a distress signal hoping maybe someone could explain to me a single thing that happened in it. It’s a relentless assault on the senses, fusing the worst work of Michael Bay and Tony Scott, but boasting a script far stupider than either of those directors’ worst efforts. Sadly, that Steven Spielberg executive produced this mess doesn’t come as nearly as much of a surprise as it should after enduring Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I know it’s too late to strip him of his Oscar, but can we do something about that Cecil B. DeMille award he just won? If asked about the film, I can actually picture him rambling on about how it evokes memories of North by Northwest or The Manchurian Candidate. It doesn't. At all.

Jerry Shaw (Shia LeBouf) is an unmotivated Stanford dropout who unwittingly finds himself in the midst of a massive government conspiracy. He returns home to his apartment to find weapons and bomb making ingredients and is soon on the run as a wanted terrorist. He and single mother Rachel Holloman (Michelle Monaghan) are brought together and by a mysterious cell phone voice that somehow controls all forms of transportation and communication. They must complete a series of VERY complicated tasks if Jerry wants to live and Rachel wants to see her kidnapped son again. And not a lick of it makes any sense at all. I couldn’t explain to anyone anything that happened and if I were given a quiz (even multiple choice) on the film’s events I’d undoubtedly fail.

The nicest I can say for director D.J. Caruso (who directed LeBeouf in 2007’s Disturbia) is that he keeps things moving at such a breakneck pace that you have no time to think about how absurd and illogical the screenplay is (which is incidentally credited to about 50 writers). Shia runs fast and screams his head off. It isn’t much of performance. Monaghan is worst than that as her character may as well just be referred to as “SINGLE WHITE FEMALE” playing Rachel with a blandness that doesn’t even live up to that meager description, surprising since I usually like her.

There’s no chemistry at all between the two leads and I don’t even necessarily mean romantic chemistry (the movie is at least smart enough not to try that), but the chemistry that should exist between two characters thrown together in a perilous life or death situation. An attempt to give Jerry an emotionally compelling backstory involving his twin brother goes up in flames as does any attempt to humanize Monaghan’s single mother. Billy Bob Thornton and Rosario Dawson collect paychecks as government agents with the former playing the sarcastic, grumpy Bad Santa card yet again. The final minutes are especially preposterous and unbelievable even for a movie like this. Sure, Caruso’s Disturbia had some issues, but it could be considered a certifiable masterpiece next to this. Shia really needs to re-think his game plan moving forward because this won’t work long-term, despite what the box office receipts say now.

Righteous Kill (** out of ****)
(Director: Jon Avnet, Starring: Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, Carla Gugino, Running Time: 101 min., Rating: R)

Here we go again. I’ve made it no secret that Jon “The Hack” Avnet is among my favorite bad filmmakers and found his 88 Minutes to be a fun, goofy guilty pleasure. While this film does feature shades of that endearing Avnet goofiness and probably would have been far worse with another director behind the lens and without the two legendary leads, it’s one of his limpest efforts. It actually accomplishes something I didn’t think was possible from an Avnet picture in that it’s kind of limp and dreary. Normally, he at least has more fun than this. Something tells me movie buffs salivating over the thought of DeNiro and Pacino re-teaming, a Direct-to-DVD rip-off of a gritty ‘70’s cop thriller that you’d catch on Cinemax at 1 a.m. wasn’t what they had in mind. And the thought of Pacino calling his pal in the middle of the night after wrapping 88 minutes and telling him he has to work with Avnet is too funny for words.

The ridiculously nicknamed “Turk” (DeNiro) and “Rooster” (Pacino) who have been partners and best friends for years, are now on the trail of a serial killer who preys upon criminals who have unfairly gotten off on technicalities. A videotaped confession that opens the film and reappears rather clumsily as a framing device throughout the film suggests that Turk is the murderer. Detectives Perez (John Leguizamo) and Riley (Donnie Wahlberg) start to put the pieces together while Carla Gugino gets in on the action as Turk’s girlfriend Karen, a police forensics expert who likes it rough. The “big twist” is telegraphed literally 5 minutes into the picture and when the reveal finally comes one character (or rather Russell Gewirtz’s pedestrian script) is overcome with the desire to spend the last 15 minutes of the film needlessly explaining it.

Both DeNiro and Pacino give serviceable (if unspectacular) performances under the most thankless of circumstances and it helps since those two at half-speed is still better than any other actors would have given in the roles. The film isn’t quite as awful as you’ve heard and falls on the higher end of 2 stars, although that’s coming from someone with an unusually high tolerance for Avnet’s junk. For these two icons it’s an embarrassment. DeNiro’s probably done with but I think Pacino still has one masterpiece left in him somewhere. But it isn’t Righteous Kill, which should be coming to a Wal-Mart bargain bin near you soon.

Ghost Town (*** out of ****)
(Director: David Koepp, Starring: Ricky Gervais, Greg Kinnear, Tea Leoni, Running Time: 102 min., Rating: PG-13)

Whenever a brain dead romantic comedy like Fool’s Gold finishes first at the box office we’re left scratching our heads asking, “Why?” So what a shame it is that finally a smart, enjoyable comedy geared to all ages and genders is released and no one goes to see it. While Ghost Town doesn’t re-invent the wheel it’s a textbook example of how to execute a romantic comedy well and a reminder of how enjoyable this genre can be when the right script, sure-footed direction and likable lead performances converge. It’s a surprise (no scratch that, a flat-out shock) that it was directed and co-written by Spielberg’s got-to scribe David Koepp who cruelly inflicted the aforementioned Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull on us. But the real story here is the charming performance of Ricky Gervais. If you’ve enjoyed his antics on awards shows recently, know that it was just scratching the surface. This guy needs to star in more movies immediately.

Cranky, anti-social dentist Betram Pincus (Gervais) awakens from his routine colonoscopy to discover that he died for approximately seven minutes before being miraculously revived. This near-death experience has given him the ability to see dead people, really annoying dead people who have unfinished business. Chief among them is Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear) who wants him to break up the impending marriage of his widow, Gwen (Tea Leoni) to smug do-gooder Richard (Billy Campbell). The humorless Richard may or may not be a complete jerk but Frank certainly was one when he was alive having cheated on her. Pincus is no better (if not worse), but the plan is for him to charm her just enough so she has doubts and calls off the engagement. It’s a tall order, especially when he’s stealing her cab or letting elevator doors slam in her face. Of course she eventually warms up to him and they start to fall for each other.

Gervais has to sell a difficult transformation here, going from pretty much the most unlikable person you’d meet to someone who slowly breaks his walls down, allowing love into his life. He pulls it off perfectly and manages to be equally funny doing both, impressively juggling the off-color and warmhearted humor. It’s a rare event when Leoni even co-stars in a film but a very welcome one because she always raises the level of any material she’s handed and projects a natural, down-to-Earth quality most actresses have to work hard at projecting. I wish she’d work more because few actresses play this type of part better. All three stars have great chemistry, which helps carry the admittedly run-of-the-mill premise to a satisfying and smart finish with ease.

The movie plays as kind of a cross between Roxanne and The Sixth Sense with a dash of Heart and Souls thrown in as Pincus tries to win over Gwen with Frank’s help and the sub-plots involving the ghosts pestering him is wisely underplayed, only showing up at the right moments and actually handled poignantly at the end. In fact, it's surprising how restrained the finale is considering the circumstances. It didn’t end how I thought it would, which is a good thing considering the paint-by-the-numbers screenplays lazily churned out by studios these days. Ghost Town is definitely "mainstream fluff" but this time I actually mean that as a compliment. It’s fluff done well and it’s difficult to think of any reasons why someone wouldn’t enjoy this.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Seven Pounds

Director: Gabriele Muccino
Starring: Will Smith, Rosario Dawson, Woody Harrelson, Barry Pepper, Michael Ealy

Running Time: 123 min.

Rating: PG-13

*** (out of ****)

As much as I can’t stand it when movie trailers give too much away, it pales in comparison to my annoyance with people determined to spoil a film for me. I say this because in the case of the humanitarian mystery-drama Seven Pounds everyone I encountered seemed almost determined to ruin the “big secret” at its center, almost as if it was their civic duty. Worse yet, after reading a review in my local paper that shared even more info without so much as a spoiler warning, I unwittingly told others, unaware of what I was giving away.

Would my opinion of this film be any different had I not known the secret? I don’t think so. I’d like to believe I would have figured everything out about halfway through (if not sooner) anyway and any film that dependent on one piece of information probably wasn’t much of a film to begin with. In a way, knowing freed me up to step back and view the picture more objectively without the element of surprise. But I’ll be extending you a courtesy that was not extended to me in revealing only what’s absolutely necessary, which isn’t much.

The film is kind of a one-trick pony but it executes its one trick well. It’s one of those movies that the second it ends you think you liked it a lot then upon further reflection you realize there were definitely some issues, but surprisingly, not nearly as many as you’d think. It’s shameless and makes no apologies for what it’s trying to do, at least gaining points for brave earnestness. The end result is an uneasy mixture of inspiration and creepiness, with that latter rearing its head probably a little more than was intended. Almost like a Hallmark card… wrapped in a body bag.

The film doesn't necessarily break Will Smith’s streak of wearing screenwriters’ sins on his sleeve as he’s once again he’s called upon to elevate very difficult material, this time burdened with maybe his heaviest lifting. The "Seven Pounds" in question may as well refer to the weight of this script. It’ll be to no one’s surprise that he delivers once again, but it’s his leading lady who really impresses and shows us something we never knew she had. I kept hoping the film would catch up to them. It doesn’t quite get there, but there’s still enough to admire.
Smith is mild-mannered I.R.S. agent Ben Thomas, a man who sets in motion a mysterious master plan involving seven strangers, the details of which at first make sense only to him, but come into full view for us (and them) later. He behaves bizarrely and for unclear reasons cruelly harasses a blind telemarketer (a cleverly cast Woody Harrelson) as the first step. He then insinuates himself into the life of Emily Posa (Rosario Dawson), who’s dying of congestive heart failure, doing so in a way that goes well beyond the parameters of your typical audit. She’s trying to figure out why he’s being so nice to her. So are we. His excuse: He has this feeling that she really deserves it. He’s right. She does.

In the midst of his emerging relationship with Emily he consults his longtime friend Dan (Barry Pepper), who apparently owes him a favor, and along with Ben’s brother (Michael Ealy), he seems to be the only other person privy to his special situation. As the story progresses and flashbacks reveal new information, the pieces of the puzzle start to fall into place and head toward a conclusion you sense (and practically fear) is coming. When it does though, it packs an emotional wallop. No matter what you think of the central conceit, you can’t deny it inspires debate and introspection after the final credits have rolled.

The movie is essentially the romantic relationship that develops between Ben and Emily and if this didn’t work the entire film would have collapsed under the weight of its own ambitions, which are arguably too lofty as it is. Smith and Dawson must sell two strangers completely falling for one another in an unreasonably short amount of time and absolutely nail it. Every second they share on screen together and the sparks they ignite are a joy to experience, almost as if they born to play opposite one another. It’s the perfect match. Muccino’s film moves at a snail’s pace but I hardly cared because it just meant I would get to spend more time with these two likeable people as the mystery slowly unfolds. While it could have been exhausting watching a tireless do-gooder for 2 hours, their connection makes it more than bearable.
I really believed this woman was on borrowed time both physically and emotionally, which is no small feat for an actress to pull off. There will be those complaining its impossible for anyone to “look that good” if they’re dying, but I’d argue it’s statistically impossible for only bad looking people to get sick. They try their best to make her look as sick as possible (and do a passable job) but Dawson’s performance is completely independent of that irrelevant detail. She captures the soul of someone who’s at the end of her rope just looking for someone to cling to, but too strong and proud to actually ask for help. The “dying woman” is the most thankless clichéd role an actress can possibly be saddled with in cinema, yet she finds a way to make it resonate deeply. How great is she? Smith, giving his best screen performance here since Ali, can’t even compete with her. It’s a career best.

Smith may be coasting lately with his questionable film choices, but at least he never phones his work in after he makes them. Of all his performances this one reminds me most of his breakthrough dramatic role in Six Degrees of Separation in that he’s playing a seemingly normal individual hiding a life-altering secret. He’s so good at hinting at the awkwardness and trepidation Ben feels as he gets closer to Emily, knowing the closer he gets, the closer he is to losing her. You can debate whether Ben’s master plan can be viewed as selfless or selfish, but those in the latter camp should consider that the film isn’t endorsing his actions but instead asking you to consider why he feels the need to do this.

It’s also questionable whether what he does is even legally feasible, which Grant Nieporte’s script acknowledges but wisely doesn’t dwell on. When stacked against Smith’s recent safe choices like The Pursuit of Happyness, I Am Legend and Hancock this would finish at the high end of the curve. Compared to that mainstream fluff it could almost be considered downright ballsy in what it’s asking the audience to contemplate. At least the film boasts an original premise we haven’t seen before and leaves you thinking about its consequences. When was the last time you left a Will Smith movie thinking about anything?
Muccino, who directed him previously in Happyness came to these shores after helming the original Italian version of The Last Kiss. To the disappointment of some, he’s embraced the type of mainstream entertainment I’ve complained Smith gravitates too much toward. But this works effectively drenching what could have been a pedestrian story in a fog of mystery. Even if you can’t get past the far-reaching, ambitious premise in the script you have to admit that it’s tight and all the cards fall right into place. Is it manipulative? Yes, but no more manipulative than, say, Milk. At least this dramatizes its manipulation in an interesting way and isn’t masquerading as an inspirational Oscar masterpiece of a film that will change the world. It isn't shoving an agenda down our throats.

There’s a growing cynicism I’ve noticed among critics these days in that they resist embracing anything scripted to provoke an emotional response, even if it inspires thought. Maybe some are embarrassed to admit they were moved by the ending of the film. I’m not. Much of that had to do with Smith and Dawson’s performances. The philosophically polarizing nature of the film reminded me of a book a friend once lent me outlining a bunch of different moral scenarios that asked what you’d do in each. I couldn’t put it down. This story feels as if were ripped from its pages.

It’s funny how most casual moviegoers I’ve spoken with liked the film a great deal but critics ripped it to shreds. That makes sense because it wasn’t made for them, but the failure of movies like this is bad news for the film industry as a whole. It suggests that sometimes we tend to overanalyze and as a result potentially lose out on a fulfilling experience. Movies should have me leaving the theater thinking and feeling. Seven Pounds accomplished both.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Pineapple Express

Director: David Gordon Green
Starring: Seth Rogen, James Franco, Danny McBride, Amber Heard, Gary Cole, Rosie Perez

Running Time: 110 min.

Rating: R

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

Remember that scene in Dumb and Dumber when Harry found out Lloyd traded their sheepdog van for a little scooter and tells him just when he thought he couldn’t be stupider, he goes off and does that….and completely redeems himself. That would sum up my feelings for Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen right now. When Pineapple Express ended and that awesome Huey Lewis title song was blasting over the credits I was trying to figure out why I loved the film so much. Then it hit me. It was the first Apatow-produced comedy where I finally didn’t have to think why I enjoyed it. Even though the story it tells would seem to be at first glance very comfortable in the Apatow universe it lacks the lofty ambitions and inflated sense of self-importance that were holding all of his movies back. Freed from those shackles we’re finally allowed to let go and have fun, ironically resulting in the most substantial film his name has been attached to.

On paper the story looks familiar and the script doesn’t cover ground that’s completely unlike most Apatow projects so you have to believe the true difference maker here was the director, David Gordon Green. The acclaimed independent filmmaker best known for small-scale poetic dramas like George Washington, Undertow, All The Real Girls and the recent Snow Angels (which I’ve yet to see) was the oddest of directorial choices for this. More shocking than the fact that he was asked was that he took it, answering the question of what would happen if a gifted filmmaker of the highest rank were handed a dopey stoner comedy. In this case the results are astonishing, as he does the unthinkable in actually elevating the material to his level, providing an almost surreal viewing experience for those familiar or even unfamiliar with his other work.
Make no mistake about it. This isn’t a Judd Apatow comedy. It's actually very much a David Gordon Green film. And that’s why it works so well. He eliminates all the negative and self-indulgent qualities that have ran through most of Apatow’s previous output and focuses on what matters most: the laughs. Gone is the unnecessary exploration of characters’ feelings, an over-reliance on too realistic situations lacking humor, and messy, overlong third acts. Yes, I’m looking at you Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Knocked Up. Nothing about this feels the slightest bit like an Apatow movie and it’s the best thing that could have happened. For once, he picked the right guy who was able to do with this kind of comedy what none of his other directors-for-hire could: Stick a perfect landing. Every joke hits. Every performance works. The tone is dead-on and consistent. It also features the best action scenes of the year and a supporting turn from an actor worthy of having his name read alongside Heath Ledger’s when the five supporting actor nominees are announced next week. In a year full of big disappointments, Pineapple Express is exactly the right movie at the right time, raising the bar for its genre.

After a black-and-white prologue explaining the myth behind a rare strain of cannabis known as “Pineapple Express,” we’re introduced to 25-year-old process server Dale Denton (Rogen), a lazy slacker who when not “working” spends his days scoring weed from his dealer, Saul (James Franco) and visiting barely legal girlfriend, Angie (Amber Heard) at her high school. When Dale attempts to deliver a summons to a drug lord named Ted Jones (Gary Cole), he inadvertently witnesses Jones and a corrupt female police officer (Rosie Perez) murder an Asian gang member in cold blood. He clumsily flees the scene but not before leaving a damning piece of physical evidence: a roach containing the legendary “Pineapple Express.” Jones immediately identifies it and sends his two henchmen (Craig Robinson and Kevin Corrigan) to threaten Saul’s dealer Red (Danny McBride) into giving up the identity of the buyers. The chase is on and what unfolds is a nearly perfect action comedy that at times had me laughing so hard I was in physical pain.

The thing about stoner movies (at least the really good ones) is that their success depends on the degree in which the experience is effectively conveyed through the hazy worldview of its baked protagonists. Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle was able to do it, while at the same time, being a surprisingly deeper than expected buddy picture. This does all that, and then more. When stoned (so I’ve heard), everything takes on a greater importance and little everyday details are exaggerated to hilarious effect. That’s why in hindsight, Green, though untested in these waters, was actually the perfect director for this kind of material. He understands those little life details and it’s in those details where the best comedy comes from. This film is loaded with them. Take for instance a scene where Dale shows up at Angie’s high school in a suit to meet her. It doesn’t come off creepy as it would in the hands of another director, but funny. Green keeps a firm, tight grip over tone, something all Apatow movies have seemed to struggle with (some more than others). Or when he arrives for dinner with her parents (Ed Begley Jr. and Nora Dunn in hilarious cameos) and they’re not only not the slightest bit thrown by him or his situation, but insinuate themselves into it without missing a beat. Then they escalate it.

The entire plot reverses, subverts or distorts expectations at every turn and even if you didn’t know beforehand Green was the director you’d be able to tell. Relying on his usual cinematographer, Tim Orr, this movie by far boasts the highest production values of any Apatow entry. I couldn’t believe how good the movie looks for a comedy. It’s actually (insert gasp) a well-made motion picture that’s tightly edited and doesn’t needlessly fill time to sell unrated DVD’s. When it shifts into 80’s action territory it does so without missing a beat and succeeds where this summer’s Tropic Thunder couldn’t in milking graphic gore for comedy.
Besides earning laughs instead of winces, Green proves that if he ever wanted to he could quit directing human dramas right now and move on to big budget action vehicles. Michael Bay would have to watch his back because this film’s thrilling action send-up finale could easily compete with the best action sequences of the past few years. How often can you praise the technical aspects of a comedy? It also felt so nice to not be looking at my watch wondering why it isn’t over yet. An Apatow movie that isn't too long! Finally!

If there’s a reoccurring theme that’s prevalent (sometimes too much so) in the movies either written, directed or produced by Apatow it’s of man-children being forced to grow up and take responsibility. Except this time it’s a little different. Whereas all those other films felt the unnecessary need to tell us they were about that this one just IS ABOUT IT. For a change, Apatow wasn’t on the couch with me as I watched, shaking me and telling me what to feel. Even with the 40-Year-Old Virgin and Superbad (my two favorites) I still felt the strings being pulled just a little bit. Not here. Much of that credit goes to Green, but the rest of it goes to Rogen and Franco.

Just look at Franco during this film. Look at his eyes. He’s gone. He must have gotten completely fried in the trailer before stepping onto the set. For insurance purposes though I’ll assume he didn’t, which means his Saul is the most indelible cinematic stoner since Sean Penn’s Spicolli in Fast Times At Ridgemont High. Robert Downey Jr. and Tom Cruise’s supporting turns in Tropic Thunder were hilarious but that’s the extent of it. I never got the impression that there were three-dimensional people under those disguises. That’s what separates Franco’s performance from theirs and why he deserves the Oscar slot one (or both) may get. There’s an underlying sweetness and humanity to the character that’s rare to this kind of comedy and not many actors could have subtly projected it while still surrendering to the absurd zaniness around them.

As for Rogen, I was surprised just how refreshingly laid-back and charming he was as the lead. His ability to carry a film up until now was questionable but he proves the doubters wrong here with his most assured performance. Most would have expected each actor to be playing the role the other is but once again a clever reversal of those preconceived expectations yields shockingly effective results. This is the first time Rogen and Franco have shared the screen since they co-starred in Apatow’s dearly missed cult TV series Freaks and Geeks and also the only time since where what made each stand out on it is translated in its entirety to the big screen. The talented McBride perfectly completes the trifecta as the conniving, but ultimately very likable Red, stealing every scene he’s in, specifically the most important ones.
I watch comedies to laugh, not be burdened by characters’ life problems. How is it that Green, who up until now specialized in films dealing entirely with serious life problems, is the only director who gets it? It’s probably because he understands human relationships and knew enough not to force the issue and let Rogen and Franco do their thing, trusting the cards to fall into place. They did. I cared about these guys and by the end (if not before that) their friendship means something and finally the high water mark these Apatow comedies have been reaching for is met. This is the one I’ve been waiting for from him, he just needed to find the right filmmaker to execute it. Green seamlessly makes the transition to the mainstream leaving no independently honed skill behind. It's the antithesis of “selling out.”

When the film concludes, Pulp Fiction-style, in a diner over breakfast with the perpetually stoned characters discussing the insane events that transpired in the film you realize just how smart Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s script really was. How it subverted expectations and how the characters are, in a way, us. They tell the story how we would and realize how fun it is that they were involved in it. The myth told at the beginning is officially replaced by theirs. It’s the first movie for stoners as envisioned by stoners, yet you don’t have be one to enjoy it (though I’m betting it couldn’t hurt). Rich enough in details, it should hold up very well in subsequent viewings and amass a cult following, as if it hasn’t already. As days have passed I still can’t stop quoting it and laughing at certain scenes. Pineapple Express is the rare comedy you can love and it will love you back.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Mama Mia!

Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Starring: Meryl Streep, Amanda Seyfried, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard, Dominic Cooper, Julie Walters, Christine Baranski

Running Time: 108 min.
Rating: PG-13

*** (out of ****)

What’s wrong with me? How could I like this? Incompetently directed, broadly acted and almost unbearably cheesy it would almost be too easy for me to slam Mama Mia! I don't even like musicals. The movie is an atrocity and a cinematic train wreck of grand proportions yet I still caught myself jumping up and down in my seat with giddy excitement. There are more laughs in this than all the year’s comedies in the past year combined. The only question: Does it still count if many of them are unintentional? When it concluded I joked with people that it’s nearly impossible to assign this a star rating. It almost doesn’t qualify as a movie, but rather a camera coincidentally capturing insanity in action. It’s so crazy and incoherent that it could be categorized as the Mulholland Drive of musicals.

Criticizing the film for being campy and over the top will get you no where since that’s the sole reason for its existence. No one could possibly argue that its in any way unfaithful to ABBA’s music and claiming their song catalogue deserves better than the treatment it gets here would be an especially ridiculous statement. Shamefully though, long after the final credits rolled I found I just couldn’t get those catchy songs out of my head. And against my will, amidst all the nonsense that unfolded onscreen, I did actually like many of the characters and cared what happened to them, a miracle considering various plots and sub-plots appear and disappear seemingly at will. Plus, I love it when big name actors star in something really silly and you can tell that they know it. Just seeing Meryl Streep’s floating head in an insanely staged psychedelic dream sequence is well worth the admission or rental price, but I want to find director Phyllida Lloyd and give her a giant hug for not only casting Pierce Brosnan, but making him do his own singing. And they say filmmakers never have the audience in mind.
What there is of a plot involves Sophie’s (Amanda Seyfried) upcoming marriage to Sky (Dominic Cooper) on the remote Greek island she’s been raised on her entire life by her single mother Donna (Streep). After reading her mother’s Diary she discovers that there are three possible men who could be her father: businessman Sam (Brosnan), banker Harry (Colin Firth) and adventurer Bill (Stellan Skarsgard). The goofy two-second flashbacks showing us what they looked like back in the day, while completely predictable, are nonetheless hilarious.

To her mom's surprise, Sophie invites all three men to her wedding in a covert attempt find her real father in time for him to give her away at the wedding. Their presence triggers a trip down memory lane for Donna, who reminisces in song about her romantic foibles and leans on her two best friends and former band mates, Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski) for emotional support. In details hysterical in their randomness, Rosie is a bestselling cookbook author while Tanya is a presented as some kind of “cougar” on the prowl for younger men, the latter of which results in one of the film’s funnier musical numbers (“Does Your Mother Know”). Both actresses ham it up appropriately in their roles, especially Walters. Of course, Donna is awful slow in figuring out her daughter’s agenda and a quickie paternity test would have probably been far easier, it wouldn’t have nearly been as much fun as the horrendously choreographed song and dance numbers we’re treated to, as well as the bizarre sub-plots.

A minute didn’t pass during this film where I wasn’t laughing, but the biggest laughs came when Brosnan sang, or at least attempted to. Fresh off the early rounds of American Idol and looking as physically uncomfortable as possible, the sounds he makes less resemble singing than the torture of a live animal. But you know what? He doesn’t care and is clearly enjoying himself. You’ve got to respect that. And it is kind of fresh and different having an actor who sings about as bad as we (or at least I) would in a musical. I have to admit though the second he opened his mouth I hit the floor. It takes some getting used to but the good news is you’ll have some time because the amount of singing Brosnan has to do at the end of the film is insane. This would be a heavy load for someone who COULD SING and Lloyd (who must be a sadist) burdens him with long, difficult solo (“When All Is Said and Done”) Christina Aguilera probably would have struggled through. Skarsgard and especially Firth fare much better in the singing department, though neither is particularly impressive. It hardly matters since both have passable voices and believably convey the necessary emotions.

There are two performances of real, genuine value here and thankfully they come from the actresses playing the two most important characters. Streep (a self-professed fan of the musical) clearly knows what she’s gotten herself into and responds the only way an actress of her talent level should in a thankless situation like this: By just letting loose and overplaying everything. She also has a much better singing voice than you’d expect. But the real star of this is Seyfried, who has a VERY bright future ahead of her if this role is any indication. They couldn’t have found a better fit for Sophie as she lights up every scene she’s in with her smile and infectious, playful energy. You’d understand why this guy would want to marry her and each of her mom’s former lovers would want to stake their claim as her father. As far as singing, she’s easily the best of the lot. It’s a star making performance at the highest level.

The entire cast is game but I’m not sure first-timer Lloyd (who helmed the stage play) was ready for this. Her philosophy just seems to be “point and shoot” as she basically just stages a play on film with rapid, distracting cuts and garish cinematography, never really exploiting any visual possibilities (though that it does make Greece look like a desirable vacation spot). Some stage directors make the transition to film with ease but it doesn’t seem as if she bothered to make one at all. This movie has no ambition other than to entertain, which it happens to do very well.

It’s a good thing this film was as successful as it was because if it wasn’t we’d never see Lloyd directing a full-length feature film again. Actually, we may still not. I’m afraid to know what it says about the musical as a genre that it can be this cluelessly directed and turn out well. If a better, more experienced filmmaker were behind the lens the results would probably be far less satisfying. What Lloyd lacks technically she makes up for in actually understanding what the tone should be. In that sense having the same director as the stage version helped considerably.

While most songs in musicals exist to advance the plot here the plot is treated as an afterthought and an excuse to pack in ABBA’s greatest hits But thankfully the movie makes no apologies for that, nor does it hide its agenda. And of course we get the classics that even non-fans will recognize immediately such as the title track, “Dancing Queen” and “Take a Chance on Me.” In the third act the plot is given up on almost entirely as if everyone in the cast and crew threw their hands up in the air and said, “Screw it! Let’s just do whatever the hell we want.” And it was the right call. I thought Brosnan’s “singing” was hilarious, but that was before I saw him don ABBA’s trademark sequined jumpsuit during the closing credits. Would Tom Cruise do THAT? Brosnan has balls of steel for taking this role and whatever he was paid isn’t nearly enough for the humiliation he gleefully endures. What a pro.

My faith is now restored that movie executives still have brains when in a brilliant and ridiculously brave counter programming strategy they decided to open this against The Dark Knight, the reasoning being that it was the only movie that could compete against it because the target audience was so drastically different. The result was the highest grossing musical of all-time here and the highest grossing MOTION PICTURE OF ALL-TIME in the U.K. (beating Titanic!) Go in with that in mind and you’re destined for disappointment. Approach this knowing it's supposed to be stupid and you're fine. Yet strangely, I can see how it’s done so well financially because it’s just pure 100% fun and is one of the few movies released this year that knows what it wants to do and actually does it.

Making a really good bad film is a lost art that takes a lot of talent, or rather a special kind of lack of it. Someone could make a case for this being on either their best or worst list of the year and be easily able to present a strong argument for both. I’m almost tempted to give this a higher rating but just can’t, at least not publicly. It’s too embarrassing. Mama Mia! definitely ranks among the guiltiest of guilty pleasures.