Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Brothers Bloom, Paranormal Activity, Halloween II, The Girlfriend Experience

Got a little backed up with my movie watching of late so I figured the best solution was to post my thoughts on some films I've seen lately in capsule review form, rather than having to skip them entirely (especially considering I had a very strong opinion on a couple of them). I've dispensed with the star ratings for these and in its place offered a brief analysis. While I try not to make this a regular habit, don't be surprised if you see more of it lately since we're in a season packed with a lot of films warranting attention.

The Brothers Bloom

Director: Rian Johnson
Starring: Rachel Weisz, Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo, Rinko Kikuchi, Maximillian Schell, Robbie Coltrane

Running Time: 113 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)
Boy, did I love this. Writer/director Rian Johnson's follow-up to his brilliant 2006 high school noir thriller Brick similarly challenges genre conventions, only now with the caper film. We've seen this scenario many times before: A first-time filmmaker comes out of the gate swinging and uses all their newly granted creative freedom to completely indulge themselves in their sophomore effort, drawing on every influence they can to make the kind of picture they'd want to see. In this case, that primary influence seems to be every film made by Wes Anderson. Intentional or not, it's hard to miss the quirky Andersonian touches as it relates to tone, visual style, musical choices, voice-over narration (provided by magician and David Mamet regular Ricky Jay), and even set and costume design. They even share an actor in Adrian Brody, who before this appeared in Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited. Whereas some may find this approach a debit, I saw a movie that ingeniously used the influence to craft a unique work that has something important to say about the role stories play in our lives.

Unable to tell he difference between his real life and a scripted one, Bloom (Brody) wants his con man days to end but is reluctantly lured into "one last job" by his charismatic brother Stephen (Mark Ruffalo). They're joined by mute explosives expert, Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi). Things get very complicated when Bloom begins to fall in love with the mark, a socially isolated heiress named Penelope (Rachel Weisz). There's twists on top of twists on top of twists but what differentiates this from your typical caper movie is that the sleight of hand approach reveals the inner lives of its characters and just like Bloom we're never really sure where reality begins and the game ends, or if it does end.

I've heard some complain that the film goes on about twenty minutes too long with a series of false endings and red herrings but I couldn't disagree more mainly because it's just so much fun trying to figure out the characters' true feelings and motivations. Repeated viewings reveal that every detail was important, especially in the pivotal third act. It goes around and around until it finally lands at a blockbuster closing scene where I could only throw my hands up in the air and say, "Damn. he got me." Or did he? Nothing is what it seems.

As the sullen and introspective Bloom, Brody's never been better but it's the charismatic Ruffalo who steals the show in a role that's a total departure from anything he's done before. His performance is what keeps us guessing the whole time. And who knew Rachel Weisz was this skilled at comedy? A film that wears its quirky style on its sleeve like this is bound to be polarizing but for those who can appreciate a carefully constructed caper yarn with smart characters it's one to come back to for multiple visits. It's just a shame more people don't know about it. As a successor to Brick, it's a worthy one that didn't disappoint me in the slightest, further proving Johnson is a filmmaker to keep an eye on.

Paranormal Activity

Director: Oren Peli
Starring: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Mark Fredrichs
Running Time: 86 min.
Rating: R

★★ (out of ★★★★)

Hype can be a funny thing. Made on a budget of only $15,000, Oren Peli's independent horror film Paranormal Activity utilized "home video footage," a brilliant viral marketing campaign, a Halloween opening and extremely positive word of mouth to become one of the most profitable movies ever made. And now months removed from all that I can finally see the movie for what it is: A GIMMICK. It's a classic case of a very memorable "theater experience" that doesn't hold up on a home viewing because there just isn't much to it. Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat) move into their new house in San Diego and are haunted by a ghost that's followed Katie since childhood. That the ghost (or demon or whatever it is) is exclusive to the person rather than the home is something new. It's too bad that's one of the few elements in this that's original.

What's most perplexing is how few scenes involve the actual ghost and the terror its causing. Ignoring the cryptic warnings of a psychic (Mark Fredrichs), Micah plays games with the spirit and sets the camera up in the bedroom. Quite a few of those scenes while they're sleeping are scary, even if it seems to be the same exact scenes repeated on an endless loop. If I were in a packed, darkened theater during Halloween I could see where I'd gasp or jump at these. It does get tense, especially toward the finale. The real problem are the scenes during daylight, which largely consist of the couple bickering incessantly, to the point where I thought I was watching an episode of Dr. Phil. This is most of the movie mind you, with the night terror scenes thrown in between for some scares. They really need a couples counselor rather than a psychic. If their arguing doesn't chase away this ghost then nothing will.

Even the scarier scenes start to lose their luster when you realize nothing's REALLY ever going to happen despite the fact that we're watching "found footage." Somehow the ending manages to be even sillier than I thought it would be, with an alternate ending on the disc just as equally silly. We go through an awful lot of nothing just to get someplace we knew we were going the whole time. Since Micah's supposed to be behind the camera, Katie gets most of the face time and is far and away the best part of the movie. Most literally "the girl next door," there's never so much as a hint she's acting in any way.

While I found the film manipulative and even boring at times, what I really dislike is the fact that it's been hailed as some kind of groundbreaking achievement. Didn't we fall for this once before?
I'm as sick of supposed "torture porn" as the next person but it's somewhat ironic that this beat Saw VI at the box office considering that the latter is superior on just about every level other than providing some carefully manipulated scares. This takes the genre too far in the other direction. I'd rather be excited and entertained than a "witness" to fake home video footage. I enjoyed it more the first time...when it was called The Blair Witch Project.

Halloween II

Director: Rob Zombie
Starring: Malcolm McDowell, Tyler Mane, Sheri Moon Zombie, Brad Dourif, Danielle Harris, Scout Taylor-Compton
Running Time: 105 min.
Rating: R

★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

It's come to this: Sequels to remakes of originals that already have sequels. We now have two Halloween IIs. But at least give Rob Zombie an 'A' for effort and also give him credit for getting involved with this project when he realized the studio would make a sequel with or without his involvement. Given the circumstances no one would have blamed him if he phoned this in for a pay day but he didn't, which says a lot. Surprisingly, it's easy to imagine this turning out far worse than it did and I can even understand how it's garnered some small scattered praise among hardcore horror fans.

Even with all its problems (and believe me there are many) at least real risks are taken and it's a legitimate horror film that made me feel SOMETHING. Freed from the creative confines of John Carpenter's original, Zombie takes the sequel to his 2007 remake in his own direction by attempting to explore the psychological connection between escaped killer Michael Myers (Tyler Mane) and his sister Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton). Also returning from the first film are Malcolm McDowell as Dr. Sam Loomis, Brad Dourif as Sheriff Brackett, Danielle Harris as his daughter Annie. Sheri Moon Zombie appears again as Deborah Myers in a brief flashback and in dream sequences.

For the first twenty minutes it picks up exactly where the previous installment left off (and stays true to the original Halloween II) with a recovering Laurie struggling to fight off a murderous attack from the newly escaped Michael Myers in the hospital. Then Zombie cheats and pulls the rug out from under us, taking a different path entirely. What doesn't change is his commitment to giving audiences as miserable and morally depraved an experience as is possible. This isn't just an homage to a 70's grindhouse slasher. It is one. And there's barely a single likable character, including the heroine, and the film doesn't shy away from depicting the now grungy metalhead Laurie as deeply disturbed and bi-polar as a result of her traumatic experience.

Taylor-Compton is given much more to do than just run and scream, giving a complex performance that far surpasses in quality the actual movie it's in. While only hinted at previously, McDowell's Dr. Loomis is now a full-fledged asshole, pimping out Myers' victims to promote his bestselling latest book and bolster his own celebrity. Just about anything involving Loomis and his book tour is (un)intentionally hilarious, specifically a scene where he completely loses it ("D-E-A-D. DEAD!") at a lecture. It's almost as funny as Margot Kidder's cameo as an obese psychotherapist. Say what you want, but Zombie's decision to take this character so far to the extreme took guts and McDowell looks to be having the time of his life hamming it up in the part.

It's too bad attempts to bring any kind of psychological depth to the story with white horse dream imagery and the apparition of Michael's mother feel thrown in (Zombie all but admits to such in the director's commentary). Nor is the film scary or suspenseful, just disgusting, with one brutally graphic murder after another, resulting in a gratuitous mess that proudly wears the "torture porn" badge. Also lacking is the exciting curiosity factor that helped carry the 2007 remake where anticipation built around how the film would re-imagine or possibly butcher Carpenter's classic.

Zombie has enough great ideas and a distinct enough vision to make me believe he'll make a great film someday, but I'd categorize this as a fascinating misfire still more interesting than many better movies out there. It's growing on me. It should be noted this is a review of the theatrical version, not the unrated directors cut, which I'd be curious to see since this seems like a rare instance where that could be a positive difference maker. As is, it's still superior to every original Halloween sequel.

The Girlfriend Experience

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Sasha Grey, Chris Santos, Glenn Kenny, Peter Zizzo
Running Time: 77 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

The latest Steven Soderbergh latest "experiment," The Girlfriend Experience, works as just that: An experiment. But it wouldn't surprise me if sometime down the line it's thought of as more than that because it is effective as kind of a time capsule for what's going on right now. Not to mention the fact that it has a way of staying with you and lingering in the mind despite not much occuring in the picture. If someone described it as boring I'd have a tough time offering up a solid defense, yet the movie is beyond defensible because it feels so real and of the moment. It could almost share double billing with likely Oscar nominee Up in the Air in that both deal with how people so well off and connected can be completely disconnected from life.

Shot in just two weeks with non-actors and mostly improvised dialogue, it featured an intriguing marketing campaign that offered up many more questions than answers. But the biggest attention getter was the controversial casting of real life adult film actress Sasha Grey as Chelsea, a New York City call girl who offers the full "girlfriend experience" to her high-end clients. She's less a hooker than an ear for these rich guys to unload all their problems on, most of which are related to the current economic crisis. The movie makes no bones about when it's taking place (the days leading up to the '08 Presidential election) and scenes are shuffled out of order and presented in a faux-documentary style to give us glimpses of her meeting with clients and discussing her business ambitions with a journalist (played by New York magazine staff writer Mark Jacobson). Chelsea's no dummy and is very serious about what she wants for herself. That much is clear from the very beginning and the casting of Grey slowly reveals itself as more than just a gimmick.

A big name actress, or even just a trained one, couldn't have played the role as effectively. The temptation would be there to give a "performance" when complete emotional detachment is called for instead. Grey has an unaffected, withdrawn demeanor to her that makes this a perfect casting choice. And in a movie with so much talking it really helps listening to someone who at least has an intelligent, interesting sounding voice.

The closest the movie comes to actual conflict involves Chelsea's crumbling relationship with her personal trainer boyfriend (a bland Chris Santos) due to her feelings for a client and a very creepy encounter with "The Erotic Connoisseur," an online assayer of escorts whose blog reviews can supposedly make or break their careers. In an equally bizarre casting choice, he's played by former Premiere and current online film critic Glenn Kenny, memorable in the brief role. In fact, he thinks he's so memorable that he hilariously VOTED FOR HIMSELF for Best Supporting Actor in year-end polls. And I can't say I blame him one bit. His character's cutting voiceover assessment of Chelsea at the end stings in surprisingly hurtful ways.

This is a sad, slow moving film to watch and anything longer than its brief 77 minutes would have probably been pushing it and the men Chelsea encounters and keeps company with aren't nearly as interesting as she is, though that's likely the entire point. We have a protagonist who doesn't know herself or feelings at all and men so incapable of forming emotional bonds that they have to hire someone to pretend that they can. We can only hope the movie's wrong--that people aren't this lonely. But that's probably wishful thinking. For better or worse, it's an experience that stays with you.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Up in the Air

Director: Jason Reitman
Starring: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman, Danny McBride, Melanie Lynskey, Sam Elliott, Zach Galifianakis

Running Time: 109 min.

Rating: PG-13

★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

And so the streak continues for George Clooney. After years of the media bending over backwards to push him as the the savior of American movies when his acting work didn't support that inflated claim, he's only recently turned a corner to prove himself somewhat worthy of the hype. It started with Michael Clayton in 2007, continuing shortly thereafter with Leatherheads and Burn After Reading. While each film resulted in varying degrees of success, they were smart, interesting choices that revealed further dimensions to him as an actor. His latest role in Jason Reitman's Up in the Air is as perfect a fit for him and his acting style as we've seen mainly because of how the material plays to all his strengths. For three quarters of the film it presents a lot of big, timely ideas but does so in a mostly black and white manner, glazing over the surface of what could be a deeper story. Then comes that ending.

Much of the way through Reitman handles a sensitive subject with intelligence, but also kid gloves, avoiding any shades of gray or pushing uncomfortable buttons that would compromise its mainstream appeal. Then come the final 15 minutes in which all of my complaints are addressed and the events that occur call into question the real purpose of everything that came before. In other words, Reitman takes those gloves off and only the most cynical of audience members need apply. All the accolades and likely awards the film will receive are almost exclusively earned in its final act. I appreciated the rare display of brutal honesty, as at odds as it is with the rest of the picture.

Clooney is Ryan Bingham, a "career transition counselor" who makes his living firing people for companies whose bosses don't want to do it themselves. Racking up as many frequent flier miles as he can in his quest to reach 10 million, he leads a life free of personal connections and relationships. In his successful motivational lectures across the country, he urges others to do the same and "empty their backpacks" of all people and things weighing them down. But when Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) a spunky 23 year-old hotshot fresh out of Cornell arrives on the scene, Ryan's boss (well played by Jason Bateman) takes to her brilliant new idea of laying people off via teleconferencing, a method Ryan believes is not only cold and impersonal, but belittles his achievements. Before he's taken off the road though he has to show Natalie the ropes and contend with his growing feelings for a woman named Alex (Vera Farmiga), another frequent flier, and maybe the only person who truly understands his transient existence and can tolerate his narcissism.

According to Ryan, the ability to lay someone off effectively goes beyond being just a skill. It's a very delicate art. And as depressing and difficult as it is to watch the many firings that take place in a variety of different scenarios (some in which real laid off workers are used), these are the most fascinating scenes in the film because they prove him right. Studies have shown being fired ranks right up there with losing a family member on the stress scale, which makes sense. If you've ever talked to someone who had to do the firing you'll notice they still have a look on their faces like they committed murder. He has an incredibly specific technique down for handling the situation in such a way as to absolve the company of any guilt while creating the illusion for these people that their lives aren't completely destroyed.

Ryan is an expert at laying people off in a condescending way without the condescension. This is in stark contrast to Natalie who attempts to implement Ryan's techniques but lacks the confidence and experience to pull it off, coming across instead as cold and robotic. When Ryan tells these people that great leaders sat in their position at one point you're tempted to believe him not only because he puts on a good show but because the facts actually back him up on it. None of these layoffs are presented in a cookie-cutter way as a lot of these scenes really are brutal, but in depicting Ryan's personal plight the script doesn't cut quite as deep, at times feeding us a rather simplistic message that someone's life is worthless without a spouse and kids to share it with. Such a broad generalization is almost as condescending as the firings taking place over the course of the film, but luckily, Reitman and co-writer Sheldon Turner's script (adapted from Walter Kirn's 2001 novel) proves to have more depth than that.

That Ryan is supposed to painted as a first-class jerk is a bit of a problem as well since, as played by Clooney, he comes across as a pretty cool guy and the carefree lifestyle he leads is depicted (unintentionally?) as being a lot of fun. The parallel between character and performer works to his favor here like it never has before, possibly at the slight expense of the film. From him, arrogance comes off instead as admirable bravado and this role would definitely fall more on the "movie star" than "actor" side of the spectrum, which is fine. He's called upon to do more at the end. It's ironic that the movie never explores the idea that Ryan's lack of connecting ties in his life could be what's making him so effective at this particular job. He's compassionate, but is able to keep a reasonable enough distance to not crack when firing someone. Relative newcomer Anna Kendrick is excellent as Natalie, the ambitious young underling learning the ropes from a pro and their working relationship evolves interestingly in that they have a lot to take from each other. Ryan can't seem to connect emotionally with anyone on any level while Natalie, as career-driven as she is, is too emotional in her personal life and it starts to spill over. It's a tightrope walk, but Kendrick aces it.

As the love interest, Vera Farmiga is less successful than Kendrick in developing a three-dimensional character mainly because she's given less to work with in terms of screen time, at least until the movie's shocking turn of events in the final minutes. She's fine in the role, but I can't help thinking her turn has been slightly overpraised just because everyone is desperate to see her land a great part after doing so much work that's flown under the radar for the past couple of years. This isn't that part. Nevertheless, she brings the right amount of class and intelligence to Alex and shares great chemistry with Clooney.

It isn't until Ryan comes home to Milwaukee for the wedding of his sister (Melanie Lynskey) and fiancee (Danny McBride) that the script starts to cash in on all the ideas it laid on the table. There's a point where the story is sure to be headed toward the most predictable destination possible, but then takes a sharp, unpredictable turn. Without giving away too much, Reitman had a choice in presenting things the way they would end in a movie or how they would REALLY end. He very wisely went for the latter and it changes the complexity of the entire story. This is one of those rare cases where the final minutes do really cause you to reevaluate everything. How? That'll largely depend on perspective, but the movie's message becomes muddled in a good way and is far from being as simplistic as I had it pegged it at the start. Forget about traveling. This ending is so depressing and painfully realistic it's more likely to have audiences wanting to jump off a plane than fly in one. It also enables Clooney the welcome opportunity to do some heavy lifting in the acting department. His natural charm and charisma may carry most of this, but at the end we're reminded how effective he also is when the material pushes him to do more.

This is about as slickly packaged a piece of mainstream, Oscar-friendly entertainment as you can expect at this time of year, directed by a filmmaker who lately seems to have had that market cornered lately with Thank You for Smoking and Juno. It was a nice surprise to discover the film contained more of Smoking's bite than I thought it would, with enough depth that it could easily hold up to repeated viewings. While I'd hate to see it rewarded just on the basis of dealing with timely, hot-button issues, there's no denying the topics explored do really speak to where we are right now in terms of downsizing and how technology has in many ways made us more disconnected than ever. It's one thing to introduce relevant ideas, but another entirely to present them well in in an engaging story that leaves a lasting impression. Because of that, Up in the Air rises slightly above the safe, audience pleasing picture it appears to be on the surface.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Jennifer's Body

Director: Karyn Kusama
Starring: Megan Fox, Amanda Seyfried, Adam Brody, Johnny Simmons

Running Time: 107 min.

Rating: Unrated

★★ (out of ★★★★)

The teen horror/comedy Jennifer's Body does little in answering the big question percolating in everyone's minds: Can Megan Fox act? What it does instead is somehow make that question even less relevant than it already was before. Whether or not she has any talent has never been more beside the point than it is this mess of a film that no actress of any ability level could have salvaged, despite one trying her very best. It's written by that infamous Oscar-winning screenwriter of Juno, Diablo Cody, but we may as well just credit her as the director as well since everyone is probably going to place the blame primarily on her for this debacle anyway. Except this time they should.

An exercise in self-indulgence at its worst, all the problems that plague the film can be traced to the brain dead screenplay. I only call this a "teen horror comedy" out of a lack to come up with any other description for it. But as a horror movie it isn't scary and if it's a comedy then there's hardly a laugh to be had. As a satire of high school and teenage life it also fails, if that's even what it's aspiring to. Worst of all, the film seems genuinely in love with its own sense of perceived hipness and its central concept, which is seriously flawed. It's as if someone just decided on a whim to sit down and pen a script paying tribute to '80's teen touchstones like Heathers and The Lost Boys, without thinking through how to do it. The idea is that we're supposed to see great irony in Megan Fox playing a sexy cheerleader possessed by demons and devouring teen boys. Or something like that.

Nerdy, insecure doormat Anita "Needy" Lesnicki (Amanda Seyfried) and hot cheerleader Jennifer Check (Fox) have been an unlikely pair of BFF's since childhood, with Anita worshiping the ground Jennifer walks on like most every guy at school. One night Jennifer drags Needy away from her boyfriend, Chip (Johnny Simmons) for a night at a hole-in-the-wall club to see the EMO-style band Low Shoulder, whose lead singer (The O.C.'s Adam Brody in a surprisingly fun turn) she's infatuated with. When a huge fire erupts in the middle of the show that claims the lives of many of their peers, Needy escapes with Jennifer who disappears into the back of a van with the band. Thinking she's a virgin (the only laugh in the entire picture) the group offers her up as some kind of sacrifice, but things quickly go very wrong. She returns as a possessed demon who feeds on teenage boys to maintain her beauty. When she hasn't eaten she starts to get cranky and look tired and ugly, or at least as Needy puts it, "ugly... for her." It's now up to her to try to put an end to her former best friend's killing spree.

The only thing scary and funny about this movie is that you'd be able to tell that Diablo Cody wrote it without even glancing at the credits. It was kind of a give away when the main character referred to the make of vehicle as an "89 Rapist." Despite its award notices, Juno received a lot of hate when it was released two years ago and though much of it stemmed from the unreasonable amount of critical praise heaped on it, an equal share stemmed from Cody's dialogue, which I didn't have a huge problem with at the time. At least I believed the characters in that world would talk like that and the underlying story and direction had enough substance to make up for it. That's far from the case here.

The two central characters are thinly drawn sketches and the world they inhabit never once feels like an authentic high school of any kind, with the script straining to make any kind of satirical point, which is surprising and disappointing considering Cody has stated in many interviews her love for this genre. But it seems like she deliberately tried to write a cult classic as a result of that appreciation rather than craft a clever genre film first and work from there. You half expect, given the talent involved, for this to go in the smart direction of Mean Girls, in which both actresses appeared. You wouldn't anticipate a Megan Fox starring vehicle to provide a deep commentary on female empowerment and high school life, but if it's not going to be that, shouldn't it still at least be exciting?

This was released theatrically with an "R" rating (this version I'm reviewing is unrated) but with the exception of the well publicized Fox/Seyfried lesbian kiss it could easily pass as a soft PG-13 slasher when gratuitous "torture porn" is clearly called for given the B-level plot. Not to say that would have salvaged this but the approach would have at least been consistent with the material. When casting Fox as a demon dining on male flesh you're practically obligated to go all the way or not even attempt it at all. It
felt like I was watching a Twilight movie, which is especially insulting considering I've never even seen any of them. This moved me an unwanted step closer.

Seyfried is saddled with the seemingly herculean task of carrying Fox through this, which may not be as difficult as it seems since Megan looks like she went on a hunger strike and lost about 30 pounds in preparation for the role. She plays Jennifer as completely wooden and vacant and it's tough to determine whether that's attributable to just poor writing and direction or Fox's performance, or rather a lack of one. Seyfried is genuinely affecting as Needy in a movie that has no idea what to do with her and fares better than anyone has any right to expect given what she had to work with. Whatever comes close to clicking in this film (and it isn't much) is due to her and the scenes she shares with her boyfriend hint at a smarter movie hidden underneath somewhere in a script written by someone else. She's also believable playing a nerdy, ugly duckling when we all know she's anything but.

As already well proven with her TV work and an impressive lead turn in last year's unintentionally hilarious Mamma Mia! Seyfried clearly has a natural charisma that Fox has yet to reveal and is the real star of the picture, whatever the advertising tells you. Fox's deficiencies as an actress were nicely covered up (when the rest of her wasn't) in the Transformers movies, but in this she's asked to play something other than eye candy opposite a far more talented co-star, which does her no favors. In a way, it's an interesting test for Fox but even she deserves better material than this to work with. And even though it's a prerequisite that high school kids be played by performers in their mid to late twenties, both these actresses seem way too mature for these roles and should definitely be moving on by now.

The director of this disaster is Karyn Kusama, who previously made an acclaimed little movie called Girlfight that I've never seen. This doesn't have me rushing to add it to the queue. But it almost doesn't matter who directed this because the script is so unfocused and its ideas phoned in from such a long distance that it likely couldn't have been have salvaged by anyone. It's a bad idea executed poorly, but its biggest sin is it just isn't any fun. The only good news is that no long term damage will result from Jennifer's Body since it was probably good for Cody to fail just to get it out of her system... and ours. Seyfried will go on to do huge things. And Megan Fox can just continue being Megan Fox, which is all she seems to be interested in being anyway. Everyone wins.... except those unfortunate enough to have watched it.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

My Favorite Performances of the Decade (Actresses)

It's time for Round 2. Having already revealed my choices for my 30 Favorite Male Performances of the Decade in a photo tribute, the actresses are up next. As unpopular a stance as this is, I think it was a far better decade for acting than actual films. And that's never been clearer than with the selections below, as many of these performances are actually far superior to the movies containing them. I found myself able to rattle off at least over 50 female performances deserving of the highest praise quickly enough that those claiming there are "no good roles for actresses anymore" may want to seriously reconsider that position. Narrowing it down to 30 was a challenge, as was limiting myself to one performance per actress.

The choices were so strong that even performers I'm normally not a fan (in some films I'm not even a fan of) still managed to strike gold once and show up on here. In fact, as a whole, you could argue this crushes the actor list by a considerable margin. What's so funny about it is that with the exception of a few choices this is exactly the kind of list I'd probably be mocking as "elitist" and "snobby" if someone else posted it. But let's be honest---all these performances are often mentioned as the best simply because it's true. And here they are:

Naomi Watts (Mulholland Drive)

Reese Witherspoon (Walk The Line)

Kate Winslet (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)

Charlize Theron (Monster)

Kate Hudson (Almost Famous)

Ellen Burstyn (Requiem for a Dream)

Jennifer Connelly (House of Sand and Fog)

Nicole Kidman (Dogville)

Michelle Williams (Wendy and Lucy)

Scarlett Johansson (Match Point)

Ellen Page (Hard Candy)

Kirsten Dunst (Marie Antoinette)

Q'Orianka Kilcher (The New World)

Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton)

Uma Thurman (Kill Bill Vol. 1/Vol. 2)

Evan Rachel Wood (The Life Before Her Eyes)

Melanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds)

Kim Basinger (The Door in the Floor)

AnnaSophia Robb (Bridge to Terebithia)

Cameron Diaz (Vanilla Sky)

Maggie Gyllenhaal (Secretary)

Natalie Portman (Closer)

Sarah Michelle Gellar (Southland Tales)

Zooey Deschanel (All the Real Girls)

Katie Holmes (Pieces of April)

Anne Hathaway (Rachel Getting Married)

Diane Lane (Unfaithful)

Frances O' Connor (A.I.)

Gwyneth Paltrow (The Royal Tenenbaums)

Shannyn Sossamon (The Rules of Attraction)

Monday, January 4, 2010

World's Greatest Dad

Director: Bobcat Goldthwait
Starring: Robin Williams, Daryl Sabara, Alexie Gilmore, Evan Martin, Henry Simmons
Running Time: 99 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

"I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It's not. The worst thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone."

Every once in a while an unknown movie comes out of left field and leaves me so dumbfounded that all I can do is just throw my hands in the air and ask, "How can someone write something so smart?" It's rare for such a movie to be a comedy, but even rarer for it to star Robin Williams, whose been frustrating audiences for years with his awful choices in roles. World's Greatest Dad is a reminder of how gifted an actor he is when handed intelligent material that doesn't necessitate him having to try so hard. If I were to judge this movie based solely on the level of difficulty in executing story and juggling different tones it would stand as the best of 2009. What it pulls off is nothing short of a miracle given the challenging and polarizing material it's taking on. It's the riskiest American comedy in years and the only recent one comparable to it in terms of ambition is Observe and Report, but I'd argue this even takes things a step further.

Calling the film "timely" is an understatement. It literally has its finger directly on the pulse of interpersonal issues facing society and how we view mortality. And it has the guts to say that when someone dies often no one REALLY cares. Or at least not in the way we should. Instead, we tend to mythologize the dead and try to fit that person's passing neatly into our own little emotional box so that we can feel better about ourselves. That's a brave stand for any picture to take, much less a comedy, and it's no wonder one this subversive wasn't able to connect with the mainstream. That's a shame because every aspect of this dark satire is pitch-perfect, never stumbling on its way to a knockout finale and taking place in a universe filled with supporting characters so fully realized in writing and performance that each could carry their own film. I didn't want the movie or my time with any of them to come to an end, and this despite the fact they're all liars or fakes. It's shocking, inspirational, vulgar, touching, sad and hilarious. But even more surprisingly, it's all written and directed by Zed from the Police Academy movies a.k.a. crazed comedian Bobcat Goldthwait.

Lance Clayton (Robin Williams) is a single father and failed novelist teaching unpopular poetry classes at the high school where his bratty, perverted teenage son, Kyle (Spy Kids' Daryl Sabara all grown up) attends. His relationship with pretty art teacher Claire (Alexie Gilmore) seems to be going nowhere since she refuses to get serious with him or even publicly acknowledge they're dating. Even worse, she seems to only have eyes for her "friend" Mike (Henry Simmons), the charismatic creative writing teacher taking all of Lance's students. Just as Kyle's behavioral problems at school and at home further escalate, tragedy strikes when he dies in a freak masturbating accident. It's a credit to the film that when Kyle's self-inflicted death (the silliest kind imaginable) occurs it really does seem genuinely tragic, resulting in an emotionally poignant scene carried by Williams.

I'll have to tread carefully in explaining what happens next as to not spoil the pivotal turn the story takes and the film's many surprises. Let's just say it involves Lance concocting a major ruse to cover up the embarrassing circumstances surrounding his son's death that results in new found popularity and respect for him, as well as the posthumous, mythological rise of his son into a cult hero in the school community. It helps that we're given a lot of time (nearly 40 minutes) to get to know the anti-social Kyle through his strained relationship with his dad and that the script doesn't shy away from showing us just how ugly and repulsive his behavior is. But this isn't an exaggeration for shock value. Rather, it's a no holds barred depiction of how a troubled teenager would actually act that could prove uncomfortable for many watching because it's the truth. And it's such a credit to Daryl Sabara's raw, real performance that long after his character has expired we're left wondering what he would think and say about everyone's reaction to his passing and his dad's actions. No doubt it would include a myriad of profanities. That underlying curiosity never left me right up until the gutsy stand the film takes in its final act.

It's difficult to watch this without thinking of the similarities to the public reaction surrounding Michael Jackson's recent death. As awful as it is to admit, dying was the best possible image rehabilitation he could have had. Only a week before his passing he wasn't primarily known as the "King of Pop," but rather "Wacko Jacko," an alleged child molester more famous for his disastrous plastic surgeries and reclusive behavior than any of his contributions to the music world. It was only in death that he was able to receive the ultimate acquittal and given the comeback he could never have if he were still living. An even more accurate example would be Kurt Cobain, who in death achieved an immortality and inflated perception of his accomplishments that for many greatly overshadowed any potential shortcomings in his character or personal demons he battled. Nirvana's legendary reputation (deserved or not) owes a great deal Cobain's premature death. It's not a coincidence that Nirvana's Krist Novolselic briefly cameos in this film, as the ideas brought up in it had to have struck a nerve.

Often, instead of trying to recognize the good in people while they're alive we instead try to make up for it by distorting their legacy after they've died. This is exactly what happens with Kyle in this movie.As big a jerk as he was, Kyle wasn't going through anything necessarily more monumental than any other deeply troubled teen and did deserve better than being remembered as someone he wasn't. It's in the school's response to his passing and their sudden whole hearted support of Lance where the film becomes a scathing high school satire comparable to Heathers or Election. It's fitting this is "A DARKO PRODUCTION" since the themes the teen apathy and adult hypocrisy that ran rampant through Donnie Darko are also very much present here. The actions Lance takes following Kyle's death (which will go unrevealed by me) starts as a noble attempt to spare his son embarrassment, but quickly cross the line into something else that becomes more important and reveal some ugly truths about human nature.

Anchoring all of this is is an unusually restrained Williams, turning in his most nuanced performance since his dip into the dark side in 2003 with Insomnia and One Hour Photo. He really tends to overdo it when asked to play broad comedy (i.e. Flubber, Patch Adams, License to Wed, Old Dogs) and the material drags him down, but when handed a meaty role with real dramatic purpose, few are better. This is exactly the kind of part I've been keeping my fingers crossed that Williams would eventually take again and he balances what's required of him perfectly. As deftly skilled as he is at handling the lighter, more comedic moments in the screenplay he's just as believable as a grieving dad forced to make a desperate decision.

There's a difficult scene on a talk show where Williams has to run a gamut of emotions (and we're not even sure exactly which) that may as well just be sent to every voting Academy member. We've all wanted to root him on as an actor for the longest time, but he just makes it so difficult by always signing on to material that's so far beneath his talent level. Now he finally has a performance that deserves to be mentioned alongside his best work.Aiding Williams is a supporting cast that's actually a true SUPPORTING cast, helping to hold the film together and enrich each scene. Unlike other lesser comedies, this feels like a real ensemble with Goldthwait's brilliant script investing every character with depth and enabling each performer to make important contributions regardless of screen time.

Alexie Gilmore's Claire is about as far away from your typical throwaway movie love interest as it gets, playing a monumentally important role in the plot and appearing in nearly every scene. It's unfair to even refer to her as a "love interest" or "girlfriend" because we're never quite sure if that's what she is at all. Does she even care about Lance? What did she see in him to begin with? Is she just stringing him along? Is she cheating? Is she really as awesome as she appears or just a superficial bitch? Any other movie would serve these answers up for us on a silver platter, but here the audience is trusted to come up with the answers themselves and Gilmore works to retain that sense of mystery. A bundle of energy, Claire's in nearly every scene with Gilmore having considerable lifting to do as an actress to keep the tone light when the story veers in darker directions. She's most of the reason why this is a comedy, infusing her character with an intelligence, wit and sophistication we're not used to seeing in a female supporting role like this. Not to mention she shares great chemistry with Williams, Sabara and everyone else in the cast. Even when we think we have Claire all figured out at the end, we still can't be completely sure.

The character of Mike, Lance's opponent for Claire's affections, is treated with similar intelligence. He's liked by everyone, but for good reason because he's actually a pretty cool guy and not the stereotypical jerk you'd find in most a mainstream comedies fighting for the girl. Like Claire, we're left second guessing whether he's just that cool or a player. Henry Simmons (who reminded me of Dwayne Johnson) cleverly plays him like he doesn't know either. His facial reactions to Lance's change in fortune in the second half of the picture are classic. Even the principal (Geoffrey Pierson) isn't depicted as an arrogant blowhard but as somewhat reasonable and understanding to Lance's situation. Every single person, right down to the grief counselor and a kooky neighbor, are given a human dimension to them that adds to the story and makes you want to learn more about them.

Ironically the smartest written character just might be Kyle's only friend, Andrew (Evan Martin) who was treated like dirt by him while he was alive. He seems to be the only person with a firm grasp on reality in a community full of posers. The brilliance of the script is how you're essentially forced to choose between two evils: Lance's lie and his "friends'" completely disingenuous support that results from it. If it's hard to watch the film without thinking of Michael Jackson or Kurt Cobain it becomes nearly impossible to see it without also considering David Carradine, who died under the same embarrassing circumstances Kyle did. And when I heard that news I remember thinking how I was given one more piece of information than I wanted and it would now undoubtedly affect my perception of this brilliant actor. Would we have been better off being lied to? There are no easy answers but this film dares to answer them, or more accurately, lets us attempt to. The ending isn't brave because of what happens but HOW and where the blame is assigned. In death Lance becomes closer to his son than he ever could while he was alive. Bonus points for a perfect pop soundtrack (as well as a hilariously memorable musician cameo) and a score from Gerald Brunskill that feels like a character in the film.

While going largely unseen and unfamiliar to many, the movie has received relatively strong critical support but even those praising it don't seem fully aware of how many different ways it could have gone wrong and the touch necessary to make it work. Goldthwait takes a premise of a kid who kills himself masturbating and not only turns it into a hilarious laugh-out loud comedy, but a scathing, subversive parable about our society and how we treat each other in life and in death. This feels more like an adaptation of a great novel than an original screenplay. It's tough to believe this hasn't attracted the attention it deserves, despite the controversial subject matter. Maybe it was the film's title. Or the presence of Robin Williams. More likely it's just that no one heard about it and those who have don't like their drama and comedy mixed to this extent. Whatever preconceptions there are should be checked at the door because World's Greatest Dad is a satire no one should miss.