Monday, November 29, 2010

The Expendables

Director: Sylvester Stallone
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Steve Austin, Terry Crews, Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis, Eric Roberts, Charisma Carpenter, David Zayas
Running Time: 103 min.
Rating: R

★★ (out of ★★★★) 

The Expendables offers up the opportunity to see a dream team of action stars on acting auto-pilot shoot people in a film destined to head straight the discount DVD bin. Sly Stallone wrote, directed, produced and stars, continuing the 80's action nostalgia comeback he recently mounted with Rocky Balboa and Rambo and I was really taken aback by just how lackluster it is since the idea of teaming these guys up had some potential. Everything that could possibly go wrong nearly does as the film plays just as if he gathered his pals and over a few beers decided to shoot an action movie for kicks. But it's biggest crime is that it isn't even any fun, which should be the absolute minimum expected from something like this. Stallone grunts his way through one of his least engaging lead performances without much support from the rest of the cast. The Disposables may have been a better title as only two actors emerge from it relatively unscathed, and that's only because they're given so little to do. Everyone else looks foolish for having even appeared in it, forcing me to actually applaud Van Dam and Segal for having the foresight to sit this one out.

The Expendables of the title are a group of six mercenaries consisting of Stallone's veiny, tattooed leader Barney Ross, bad-ass Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), height challenged martial arts expert Ying Yang (Jet Li), cauliflower eared Toll Road (Randy Couture), angry, unintelligible giant Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren) and the intimidating Hale Cesar (Terry Crews), who doesn't speak softly and carries a big gun.  They're hired for a dangerous assignment by the mysterious Mr. Church (Bruce Willis, in a church) to assassinate Central American dictator, General Garza (David Zayas), who's been running drugs with rogue CIA agent James Munroe (Eric Roberts). Initially given the offer because they're "expendable," Ross makes it personal when he kind of develops a thing for the dictator's daughter, Sandra (Giselle Itie), who loyally puts her country and its people ahead of her own well being. Mercifully for us, the script doesn't explore that potential relationship at all, as if there would be time anyway in the midst of all the gunfire. Despite vague attempts by the script to assign its members' clever nicknames, backstories and characteristics, for honesty's sake they could have easily just been called Stallone, Statham, Li, Crews, Couture and Lundgren and no one would have noticed. And I haven't even gotten to Austin and Rourke. It's obvious the big draw here is seeing all these top action stars on screen together at once for the first time and Stallone is so in love with the idea (in all fairness a pretty good one) that he decides to just rest on that, denying us a plot we can rally behind.

Arnold Schwarzenegger's much buzzed about cameo is indicative of the many missed opportunities to  give this all-star lineup interesting characters to play. His brief early scene with Stallone and Willis is pointless, existing only as an attention-grabbing distraction and a chance for a few old buddies to have a laugh while winking at the camera. Worse still, "The Governator" isn't even given any good lines before disappearing at the blink of an eye. No "I'll be back" or anything. There was a point where I actually thought the three would turn to the camera and start talking about how cool it is they're all onscreen together and how lucky we are to witness it, which could have been true had the scene meant anything. Mickey Rourke continues blazing his bizarre post-Oscar career trail with a turn as philosophical ex-team member, Tool, who's pretty much the Mr. Miyagi of tattoo artists. Rourke is Rourke, which is always good for some fun even in small doses. It's too bad Eric Roberts is still Eric Roberts and has long past the point where he's become a complete parody of himself. He's at his cheesy, scenery chewing worst here and it's a shame he felt the need to follow up a somewhat respectable turn in The Dark Knight with this. Despite being one of the weak links in that film, at least Nolan reined him in, but if he wants to be taken seriously as an actor again it would help to stop taking joke parts like this. As his right-hand man, Paine, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin is required mostly to stand there and look intimidating, which he does well, but knowing the life span of henchmen in action movies, don't expect to see him in the sequel. The female "love interest" is as bland as they come and the casting of Dexter's David Zayas as an evil dictator is laughably off the mark. Of the actual Expendables, only Statham entertains (particularly when disposing of some guys during a scene on a basketball court) but that's not surprising given that he can play the tough guy role in his sleep. Stallone instead literally plays it in his sleep, reminding us how bad he can be when saddled with a script (in this case his own) that doesn't given him anything to do but mumble and growl.

While the entire plot of The Expendables is half-heartedly conceived, the routine action scenes at least look believable, lacking obvious CGI. I was never bored and Stallone (still a competent action director despite this misfire) keeps everything moving at a good clip. If he didn't, a movie that's merely lazy and uninspired could have easily turned unbearable. What started as a promising idea on paper plays onscreen as a "Planet Hollywood" reunion when so much more could have been done and all the tools were there to do it. Stallone's already rounding up the cast for The Expendables II, so here's hoping he eventually follows through with his original plan of paying tribute to high octane 80's blockbusters rather than honoring late 90's direct-to-DVD action movies starring Eric Roberts.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Best (and Worst) Movie Posters of 2010

I have to admit to being a little surprised at just how popular my annual movie poster list is but I'm thrilled because I love doing it and it's easily my favorite post to work on each year. While this isn't the best selection I can remember, there's still a lot to choose from and more than enough for me to justify doing it a month ahead of schedule. And the more I do these the more obvious it gets how a important film's poster is to selling a movie to the masses. Granted there are always other factors and sometimes your mind is made up whether you want to see it anyway, but when it comes to marketing there's no denying it's key role and studios would be wise to remember that. From an artistic standpoint they're always fun to check out and least for me. Below is the best, worst, as well as some others with my comments. You know the drill. Here it goes...


10. Best Worst Movie

The best worst movie gets the best worst poster. In case you're wondering, it's a documentary about what's widely considered the "worst movie in history," 1989's Troll 2. The makers of this obviously never saw Fool's Gold or Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. I have no doubt this film is better than any of those or Troll 2, and after looking at this perfect comic book inspired poster I kind of want to see it now. The approach has been done to death but that's only because it's so successful. 

9. The Runaways

Here's the quintessential teaser for a movie. With a single striking image that conveys the theme of the film it shows just enough to build anticipation and get the point across without overdoing it. The subsequent posters actually featuring Fanning and Stewart in character were boring and ordinary. There's nothing ordinary about this. They even faded the edges to make it look like a worn LP. That's commitment. Awesome tag line as well.

8. Carlos

"The Man Who Hijacked The World".... and a poster from the 1970's. The retro tactic can get tired if the design is lacking but this is so well done it feels more like an original print from that era than an homage or duplication (reminiscent of The Bank Job poster a couple of years ago) It just exudes cool and even though I have no idea what's the movie's about they've piqued my interest with this one-sheet. Sometimes simplicity really is best way to go.

7. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (Unofficial)

What was that I said about the comic book design being done to death? Well, no complaints here again especially since this really is a legitimate comic book movie and they'd be crazy not to use an action-packed illustration. I'm cheating a little here since this is an "unofficial" poster but what shocked me was the quality of the art work and just how damn good it looks, making me wish all promotional materials were hand drawn by real artists (in this case the great Martin Ansin). I'll soon find out if the movie can live up to it.

6. I'm Still Here

So here's a different take on the popular, familiar "floating head" poster. I'd say the floating head is excusable when that head belongs to an insane, homeless looking Joaquin Phoenix who pretended to be homeless and insane for a year so he could make this film. It seems impossible that a poster would be able to effectively capture that but this somehow does. It's oddly strange yet compelling how the title weaves in and out of his face. And yes, that's an observation I never expected to make when describing a movie poster. Ever.

5. For Colored Girls

Who said great work can't be done with watercolors anymore? You won't find this hanging on someone's refrigerator in the kitchen. You're more likely to see it in an art exhibit. It's that good. This is really classy and sends the desired message that it's a film to be taken seriously. I'd argue that message is more necessary than usual in this case considering it's a Tyler Perry movie, though you'd never know that looking at this. Major props to him for not plastering his name all over the poster and letting that unforgettable face against the stark white background speak for itself.

4. Black Swan (Take Your Pick)
The best thing about these four international art-deco style Black Swan posters? Natalie Portman isn't anywhere to be found (yep, I said it). For my proof just look here and here. Yeah I think we should stick with these since Portman in kabuki makeup really didn't work out so well last time. If I didn't know what these were and just saw them hanging in someone's living room, I'd be tricked into thinking they're valuable. And they are in a way since movie posters this ambitious and artistic don't come along every day. But how dare Natalie and her evil ballet movie even attempt to compete with....

3. The Social Network

Oh, what a surprise. 2010 may go down as the year when they finally cracked the code to making faces and heads look visually interesting on a poster.  I assumed it wouldn't even be possible to get me more excited for this film than I already was or possibly design a poster that could somehow do justice to a masterpiece but this Man Who Fell To Earth-style teaser gets the job done. Not that it should be a surprise considering the design company behind it (Kellerhouse, Inc.) were responsible for one of the decade's most memorable posters last year. Nice touch with the Facebook sidebar.

2. Buried

If you're going to copy an artist you could do a lot worse than Saul Bass. It's been done thousands of times before but who cares? It works, mainly because the best way to make your point is with striking simplicity. Of course, it helps when the film's premise lends itself really well to that technique. Had I not known anything about the movie before hand I could glance at this and tell you immediately that it's a suspense thriller about a man being buried alive. No poster this year gets its plot across cleaner and crisper than this, or is more fun to look at. The alternate poster isn't too bad either (see below).

1.  The American

Audiences hated it. Some critics love it. Say what you want about The American as a film but both camps would have agree that this movie got a poster way better the movie deserved and that's coming from someone who really liked it. It's almost as if someone sat down and studied the grainy, minimalistic style of all the classic 60's prints and put all their energy into reproducing it as accurately as possible. In fact, I have no doubt that's exactly how they went about designing this. Anyone wondering how a movie everyone seemed to hate still racked up so much money at the box office needs only to look above. Sure Clooney's good, but he's not THAT good. He had some help from the marketing department on this one. Retro reigns supreme again.

Runners-Up (Alphabetically)

The Black Waters of Echo's Pond

Buried (Version 4)

Happy Tears


Continuing the trend of visually striking floating head posters, it's a considerable asset when that floating head (along with those eyes and famous lips) belongs to Angelina Jolie. There's no other approach that would have made more sense here since it's all about her anyway, right? But there were still ways this could have gone all wrong, but didn't. And it sure beats her trying to eat a small child. I like the bold choice of not centering her. 

Saw 3D: The Final Chapter

We get one of these posters every year for each new installment and they all more or less seem the same. But this one for what's supposedly the "final chapter" is actually creative and inspired. The construction of Jigsaw. At least an effort was made to be different and completely break from the usually tired horror teaser trend.

Shutter Island

It's hard to justify why I find this so cool because on the surface it seems very ordinary and has an almost direct-to-DVD quality about it, but the visual and colors capture the movie so well. This other similar one isn't nearly as eye-catching, and that probably comes down to the color scheme. I'll be ripped for saying it, but I actually kind of prefer the haunting poster to the actual film, which I enjoyed by the way.

Tron Legacy

Youth in Revolt

"If Only The Movie Could Be Even Half as Good as This Poster" Award

Iron Man 2

Artist: Tyler Stout 

Frost/Nixon Award for Weirdest Poster of the Year

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Wasn't sure whether I should put this under "Best," Worst" or maybe both, but if I were a multi-millionaire sitting at my granite topped desk smoking a Cuban, reading the Wall Street Journal while drinking a scotch, this would be in a sleek custom frame hanging over my head. If in concept it's nearly identical to the portrait from 1986, why is this one so much funnier? Is it LaBeouf? It's tough to see here but I like the attention to detail in making it actually resemble a real oil painting. Totally insane, but a keeper.


The Bounty Hunter (Version 2)

The other one's pretty bad but this is worse. Aniston looks like a giant. Butler is either breaking her spine or sitting on an imaginary curb. It's one thing to have a pun that awful as your tag line, it's another entirely to be so proud of it that it annoyingly overpowers everything else on the poster.

Extraordinary Measures

The grumpy, transparent airbrushed ghost of Harrison Ford haunts Brendan Fraser. The saddest part is given the recent track record of both actors the movie was already down two strikes and desperately needed the poster to not look like this for anyone to even CONSIDER seeing it.

The Ghost Writer

Speaking of ghosts, one of the most overrated movies of 2010 gets one of the most poorly photo shopped posters, but even I'll concede the film is substantially more intelligent than this lets on. Strangely though, it does kind of capture how run-of-the-mill the whole thing felt. We even get a visual shout out to that ridiculous final scene.


Avatar 2 starring Matt Damon... and his Rounders haircut. 

The King's Speech

Rather than going through all the trouble on photoshop, I'm wondering if it just would have been easier for the designers of this poster to go to David Fincher's house and hand deliver him his Academy Award in person a few months early. This poster is for a potential Best Picture contender. Let that sink in a second while I write them a thank you note for securing The Social Network's victory. Supposedly a second superior poster is forthcoming but the damage is already done. And wait...doesn't this kind of strangely resemble a certain poster for a Kate Hudson rom-com a couple of years ago?  

Knight and Day (Versions 2 and 3)

Both of these are just so bad I couldn't choose, though if I had to the top would probably win (lose). Though I'm a fan of theirs, Diaz and Cruise haven't exactly been in audiences' good graces so to literally paste their bodies (and what kind of resembles their faces) front and center in silly action poses probably wasn't the way to go. Sadly, the first throwback-style teaser that didn't feature them at all was actually pretty good.

Morning Glory

Here's Mr. Grumpy again. On a note not entirely unrelated to this poster, why does Harrison Ford even bother appearing in romantic comedies? He always looks so miserable and embarrassed to be in them, to the point that even the fat pay check for it looks like it would do little to cheer him up. I really don't understand the multi-colored font choice and why this looks like a sixth grade art class project, with all due respect to sixth graders, most of whom would probably agree with me on its awfulness. There were two more of the same poster featuring Diane Keaton and Rachel McAdams but why does Ford's seem like the worst? On second thought, let's not answer that.

The Switch

So I guess this finally settles the debate whether Jennifer Aniston got botox, if there was one. Apparently, while she was there she also got a discount on airbrushing and photoshopping. I feel bad for Bateman, not just the sole highlight in the movies in which he appears, but now also their posters.

When In Rome

To answer the tagline, yes I have wished for the impossible. Unfortunately, I'm starting to think the "impossible" is Kristen Bell starring in a quality film that doesn't give off Kate Hudson-like vibes. As lackluster as When In Rome was it still deserved better than this lame treatment, as does she. It's as if they went out of their to make her look as ridiculous as possible and that bright yellow is almost always the enemy on any movie poster. The little car with a mini Josh Duhamel and friends really sends this one over the top. Hopeless.

I can't end on such a low note. While fully acknowledging my bias here, the following aren't actual movie posters (though they definitely could be) but a series of brilliant illustrations for The Social Network by artist David Ansin done exclusively for Wired magazine. And they're cooler than just about anything else I posted here.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Robin Hood

Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Matthew Macfadyen, Mark Strong, Oscar Isaac, Kevin Durand, Mark Addy, William Hurt, Danny Huston, Max Von Sydow, Scott Grimes
Running Time: 140 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Originally, Ridley Scott's Robin Hood was to be released under the title, Nottingham. That would have been a much better choice, one that at least doesn't conjure up early '90's images of Kevin Costner in the role and a certain Bryan Adams theme song. I wonder if they went for the safer, more obvious title because they feared audiences wouldn't know what it was. The only reason I'm mentioning this is because Scott is burdened with the incredibly thankless task of putting a fresh spin on a tale that's that's been told a hundred times over and can really only be told one way. At least a new title could have created the illusion that things might be different this time and a new approach would be taken. It would be something, because let's face it, any filmmaker will always be grasping at straws with a character as limited as Robin Hood. He isn't exactly deep or multi-dimensional, nor does his legend boast rich narrative possibilities that can go in a million different directions. Other than completely modernizing the story and setting it in the present day you're handcuffed with what you've got. Scott goes the only route he can, the safest and most predictable, and while this qualifies only as average entertainment at best, it's still better than it should be given the circumstances. While he falls short in his obvious attempt to duplicate adventure epics like Braveheart and his own Gladiator, I'll give him credit for perfect casting and some great battle scenes. It's mainly the overly familiar and somewhat uninvolving "untold" story that can't keep pace.

If forced to classify it, this version of Robin Hood could be considered a prequel of sorts, or more accurately, an origin story.  When King Richard (Danny Huston) is killed in a siege, his common archer, Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe) must return to London to inform the Royal Family of the king's death and witness the coronation of the deceased's younger brother, Prince John (Oscar Isaac). The evil, self-absorbed John wastes no time abusing the throne with unfair tax demands and appointment of Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong) as the collector, though he's secretly an agent of the French King using his new position to stir up a Civil War in England.  Upon arriving in Nottingham, Robin assumes the identity of slain knight Robert Loxley (Douglas Hodge), a knight who's dying request was that he deliver a sword to his blind, aging father, Sir Walter (Max Von Sydow). Loxley's also left behind a widow, Marion (Cate Blanchett), who's slow to warm up to her husband's replacement, but of course we know those cold feelings toward Robin won't last long. In fact, we already know a lot of things and that's the problem. The few details we didn't know could have just assumed, not shown to us in a prequel. From a literal standpoint, this portion is "untold," but it's also unnecessary, doing little to add to the legend of Robin Hood or Nottingham, or cause us to re-think our previous perception of the character. We do get some mileage seeing familiar faces in a slightly different capacity like a pre-"Maid" ass-kicking Marion, the somewhat goofy Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew Macfadyen) before he becomes a major villain, Friar Tuck (Mark Addy) as a beekeeper and Robin's "Merry Men," Little John (Kevin Durand), Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes) and Alan A'Dale (Alan Doyle). But most of the thrills come from the battle scenes which, aside from ripping off Braveheart, are exciting and well choreographed, and the noticeably authentic set, costume and art design. But that should almost be the minimum requirement for a period adventure like this anyway, particularly one helmed by a filmmaker as experienced as Scott.

With both actors pushing past the forty year mark I'm sure many will complain that Crowe and Blanchett are "too old" for these roles. That's nonsense and I commend Scott for going against the grain by casting mature, experienced performers instead of someone like a Robert Pattinson or a Kiera Knightley in a misguided attempt to go younger, which could have easily tarnished the entire film. I'd imagine the pressure from the studio to do that was strong considering this is supposed to be a prequel, but such an approach would have been inappropriate for the material, and this wasn't ever going to reel in the younger crowd anyway. Prequel or not, Robin and Marion should be a man and woman not a boy and a girl and the versions we get here actually come closer their authentic origins in how they look and behave. As played by Russell Crowe, Robin is more of an action hero than he was in the past which I don't take issue with since there aren't a whole lot of other things the character could be at this point that we haven't seen already. But what's most surprising is how likable, funny and relaxed Crowe seems a role that you'd expect to be a Maximus retread and regardless of the quality of the material, he's continues to be an actor who's never given less than a top tier performance in anything. A true highlight is his witty banter and chemistry with Blanchett, who's one of the few actresses (other than maybe Jolie) capable of bringing the necessary elegance and grace to Marion, while at the same time also being believable as a feisty, strong-willed warrior ready to suit up for battle (as she does in the climactic showdown). The long overdue modernization of a character depicted in previous incarnations as merely a damsel in distress is one of the smartest details in the script by Brian Helgeland, who interestingly enough previously wrote and directed A Knight's Tale. Also helping is the presence of not just one, but two formidable villains with Oscar Isaac making an especially slimy and detestable King John.

With barely a 15 minute difference between the theatrical and unrated cut, I viewed the theatrical one and it's hard to regret that decision since a running time of just over two hours feels right whereas two and a half would seem to be unnecessarily pushing it. While it's unlikely an extra scene or two would have made the story feel any fresher or more inspired, I'd almost be curious enough to find out. The film works best as a teaching tool for directors on how to cast properly since this could have easily turned into a total disaster without talents like Crowe and Blanchett carrying it. It was an honest attempt by Scott who's onto something here since there is a joy in watching an old fashioned adventure epic that relies on story and character rather than distracting computer generated effects. I just wish the story were better and I actually cared what happened to the characters. It's a closer call than I expected and judging by the conclusion a sequel almost seems inevitable, or would have been had this made more money and anyone liked it. Maybe they can call that Nottingham.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Winter's Bone

Director: Debra Granik 
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Garret Dillahunt, Lauren Sweetser, Dale Dickey, Shelley Waggener
Running Time: 100 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

If The Hurt Locker and Precious conceived a movie offspring that grew up poor in the Ozarks, physically and emotionally abused by scary townsfolk against the backdrop of an unforgivingly bleak landscape at every turn for over an hour and a half, her name would be Winter's Bone. For better or worse, it's hard not to be reminded of those two films while watching this and even more difficult to decipher whether that's a compliment. While not as exciting as the former or as controversial as the latter, it deals with a timely, hot-button issue in the most depressing way possible, to the point that many viewers will probably be wanting to reach for razor blades when it concludes (if they can even make it that far). And to put icing on the cake, it's directed by a woman. Saying this project has "Oscar" written all over it would probably be an understatement.

Every year it seems there's a little seen, low budget independent film that cleans up on the festival circuit and critics everywhere begin championing it as their "cause." What starts as an underdog (or "slumdog" in some cases), can overnight turn into a film we're sick of hearing about. They often feature a nominated performance from a complete unknown, marking the arrival of a major new talent, whether their name is Carey Mulligan, Gaborey Sidibe or Jeremy Renner. This time we get one from a newcomer and another from one of the best character actors working today. Winter's Bone tells a story as old as the mountains where it takes place, offering nothing new or exciting, but benefits from not doing anything wrong and containing performances that are too powerful to write off, redeeming what's otherwise a depressing dirge to sit through. It's a well directed, beautifully shot acting clinic but nothing more. And that ends up being enough.

Burdened with the responsibility of taking care of her comatose mother and two younger siblings after her drug dealer father disappears, 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) learns he's put up their Missouri Ozarks home as bail bond. With only a week until they're all kicked out, she sets out on a  treacherous journey to find him that exposes her to the seedy underground of local crime and its dangerous townsfolk, chief among them her own downright scary uncle, Teardrop (John Hawkes). With each stop she's given just enough information to keep going but not enough to quit and the closer she gets to the truth the more she starts to realize some things may have been better left unknown, at least for her own safety and survival. From a narrative standpoint it's clear early on exactly where this is headed, and while there's a fair amount of tension, there's nothing particularly thrilling about how anything unfolds. It's more of a slow burn that builds momentum toward its conclusion. The movie consists almost entirely of Ree's terrifying confrontations with these criminals who could care less how bad she and her family have it because in their minds they have it just as bad, if not worse, and need to do whatever it takes to protect themselves. They hold all the cards, to the point that even the local sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) is too afraid to help her, yet preoccupied about anyone finding out that fact.

Jennifer Lawrence is this movie. She's the driving force, appearing in every scene with her character going through hell in most of them. This is a challenging part on every level and no matter how ordinary the movie plays as a whole, there's absolutely nothing ordinary about this performance and she's earned all the high praise she's been getting for it. Lawrence's gives the film its only inkling of hope by playing Ree as a girl who just refuses to give up and perseveres despite every grueling obstacle put in front of her. While Lawrence acknowledges but effectively conceals Ree's fear, never hinting at even a trace of self-pity, which is essential to her whole story working and us rooting hard for her. She also has to help cover for some of writer/director Debra Granik's more questionable calls, like a third act plot development seemingly more suited to a low budget horror movie than a human drama. There won't be five female performances better than this all year and barring any shocking miscarriage of justice, Lawrence's nomination is a lock, regardless of how few people even see or know about the film.

More doubtful for awards consideration but no less deserving is John Hawkes as Teardrop and anyone who doesn't know Hawkes by name most definitely knows his face by sight ("Oh, it's THAT guy"). A gifted character actor for over twenty years, he's appeared in films like A Perfect Storm, Identity, Miami Vice and American Gangster as well as TV series' such as Deadwood and most recently Lost and Eastbound and Down. And that's only scratching the surface. Mostly known for playing meek, mild mannered minor characters, he's a chameleon in how he can fly under the radar and slide into any role but here he's the most unrecognizable he's ever been, transforming into this monster of a man ready to snap at any moment. Without speaking a word he conveys this quiet rage and menace that's terrifying, but when he does speak, it's even scarier. That this is the only person Ree can depend on (and he's a family member no less) says a lot a lot about the characters populating this story and how poverty has destroyed them. And when you slowly realize Teardrop wasn't exactly who you thought he was, you gain even more appreciation for what Hawkes brought. For me, there's nothing better in movies than seeing a under-valued, hard working supporting actor or actress break through after decades with the perfect part that finally gives them the opportunity to show everyone what they've got. This is that part for Hawkes and few actors could be more deserving.The film's most tensest scene (and Hawke's best) is a road side confrontation with Dillahunt's sheriff that could go anywhere but still ends in a way you wouldn't expect. Fittingly, Dillahunt also played a sheriff in No Country For Old Men, the film this is most comparable to, at least in terms of its depiction of a depressive American landscape. That took a while and a few viewings to really grow on me so at least there's that.

Winter's Bone won't ever be mistaken for a chase film or a mystery of any kind but it's tightly wound character piece driven by dark, gothic elements, as well as its haunting score and impressive cinematography . It's a noirish thriller that makes up for in atmosphere whatever's lacking in actual thrills. I wish I appreciated the film as much as the two performances that carried it, but it's doubtful that could have been possible given the high quality of work put forth by Lawrence and Hawkes. The impression they leave cuts deeper than a story we've seen many times before under a variety of different guises, no matter how timely or socially concious it is. Winter's Bone is technically skillful piece of filmmaking that wears its depressing realism on its sleeve, but I can't help but wonder if maybe we should start receiving awards for surviving viewing experiences this bleak and hopeless.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Get Him to the Greek

Director: Nicholas Stoller
Starring: Jonah Hill, Russell Brand, Elizabeth Moss, Sean Combs, Colm Meaney
Running Time: 109 min.
Rating: R

★★ 1/2 (★★★★)

Russell Brand's hedonistic, self-destructive rocker Aldous Snow from 2008's mostly forgettable Forgetting Sarah Marshall probably wouldn't top my list of supporting comic characters I'd like to see spun off into their own film. That he's joined again by Jonah Hill still doesn't do much to raise my excitement level, at least on paper.  On the bright side, neither of them were close to being the most annoying aspect of that film, or even its most unlikable character so thankfully Get Him to the Greek isn't a direct sequel to that. Here again, both actors are far from the problem and do a terrific job fleshing out parts that should have propelled a great comedy. At times it shows glimpses that it could be, but despite being a slightly smarter effort than Sarah Marshall and considerably more ambitious, it suffers from nearly the same exact problem that film had: A tonally awkward mix of comedy and drama. One second this film's a riff on celebrity pop culture, only to turn around the next and actually try to make some kind of serious social commentary on it.  It all comes to a head in a messy third act where you can literally sense two separate movies fighting for onscreen dominance, with neither winning side winning and the audience suffering slightly for having endured the battle. Because of this, and a tired satirical target, it's only sporadically amusing. There are some bright spots but just too much is thrown together in a haphazard way for it to be considered a comedic success.

This time around, instead of playing an obsessive resort employee Hill is Aaron Green, an entry-level talent scout for a major recording company that's rapidly losing money. When his boss, egotistical Segio Roma (a very funny Sean "P. Diddy" Combs) needs a game-changing idea, Aaron comes up with the idea of Aldous Snow (Brand) and his band Infant Sorrow playing a show at L.A.'s famed Greek Theater commemorating the tenth anniversary of their most famous concert. Now Aaron has to travel to the U.K. and find a way to get him there, which is more difficult than necessary considering the hard-partying Snow's 'round-the-clock schedule of sex and drugs. That's only escalated by the depression surrounding his recent break-up with longtime girlfriend, pop star Jackie Q. (Rose Byrne), and his shaky relationship with his estranged father (Colm Meaney). As a longtime fan, Aaron's investment is also personal as he tries to repair the career of a faded rock star who's last single, the politically incorrect and offensive "African Child," was blasted by music critics as the "worst thing to happen to Africa since the apartheid." He also has a relationship problem of his own with a rift growing between him and his overworked live-in girlfriend, Daphne (Mad Men's Elizabeth Moss) who he rarely gets to spend any time with because of her busy schedule.

This entire premise is about as thin as it gets but I was surprised just how much mileage writer/director Nicholas Stoller gets out of it. Maybe too much.  He takes a big risk trying to spoof something that's already a spoof of itself and choosing a starring actor in Brand who's essentially portraying a character indistinguishable from whom we perceive him to be as a celebrity. Try as you might to avoid it, this guy (and many other celebrities like him) are shoved in our faces everyday no matter what channel you flip to or magazine you read and it's puzzling to think why anyone would want to see a comedy revolving around a subject already overexposed to death as it is. This is one of those cases where you have a timely concept but also a stale one since there's no way to possibly approach it from a fresh angle.  And as ridiculous as the Aldous Snow songs and videos are, they're still much less ridiculous than a lot of the pop/rock stuff that's being put out today and probably of higher quality, so what's this spoofing exactly? They're making a joke out of something that's already a big mockery and didn't need much help to begin with.  Far from the most inspired, original idea for a comedy, for a while it at least knows enough not to take itself too seriously, which is when it works best.

The biggest mistake comes when it stops goofing around and actually asks us to feel sorry for Brand's character. This continues the tiresome trend in all these Apatow-produced comedies of trying to teach moral lessons about guys having to grow up and take responsibility. It was much more tolerable in films like Role Models and I Love You, Man which never lost sight of their mission to provide laughs and knew not to take its message seriously. But as he already proved with Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Stoller can't juggle tone at at all so every crude joke seems to be followed by semi-serious scene trying to apologize for it. By the last third of the movie everything completely flies off the rails and turns into a misguided mish-mash of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Almost Famous, even going so far as to crib a scene directly from the latter. The shame is whether they're just playing variations on their own personalities or not, Brand and Hill make a great comedy team and do gel really well together on screen, with Brand proving he's capable of going to darker, more interesting places as an actor if he's called on to do it. This shouldn't have been that time and requests for us to feel any kind of sympathy for such a flimsy, one-dimensional character should have been off-limits. As surprisingly good as Brand is here, he can't be expected to work miracles or act in two entirely different movies at once. Rose Byrne is frighteningly dead-on as his pop star girlfriend but she's another character who suffers in the laughs department because she actually seems respectable compared to current talentless music stars making headlines. Unsurprisingly, Elizabeth Moss is likable and funny as Aaron's girlfriend but Stoller's script undercuts her efforts with a creative decision in the third act so ill-conceived and tonally out of place I had to check and make sure I was still watching the same movie.

At only 109 minutes the film feels overlong, as if many of the jokes were simply repeated to stretch out the running time (How many times do we really need to see Jonah Hill drunk and puking?) Scarier still, when it was over I discovered I actually viewed the theatrical version, not the EXTENDED Unrated director's cut. What more could possibly added to something like this? Why would you want to add anything? And therein lies the problem. So many of these comedies are just too ambitious, trying to do a million things at once when just providing some laughs is good enough. The script does occasionally cut loose and do that really well  (particularly during a "Today Show" sequence and a bad drug trip in Vegas involving Diddy's character) but Stoller's desire to "say something" is always annoyingly present, ready to intrude. But even as messy and unfocused as Get Him to the Greek is, it's still slightly better than Forgetting Sarah Marshall. I'd rather see a likable comedy fail to work as a drama than a depressing drama posing as a comedy.