Thursday, December 30, 2010
Director: Phillip Noyce
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor, August Diehl, Daniel Olbrychski
Running Time: 100 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Watching Salt I couldn't help but be reminded of The American, also released this year. You know that near dialogue-free movie starring George Clooney as an assassin that everyone thought was too slow and boring, but I kind of appreciated for what it was. This, with its relentless, pulse-pounding action could easily be called The Anti-American (in more ways than one) so on the surface, it's an odd comparison. But their common link are movie stars unwilling to phone their lead performances for a paycheck even though they very easily could and no one would care. Without either star, the films wouldn't amount to much at all, but it's true to a greater extent here. The movie itself is just fine and has few noticeable problems other than a silly, familiar plot, but no one else could have brought what Angelina Jolie does to it. And no other actress is capable of carrying just one action movie, much less an entire action franchise. With all the outside attention she gets, it's easy to forget she's the most believable action star we have, male or female. Salt's essentially a standard actioner, but this finally settles it: Jolie is the best at what she does. And what she does is kick ass like it's nobody's business.
Jolie is CIA agent Evelyn Salt, who gets thrown for a major loop when when a Russian defector, Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) shows up at headquarters and spins a pretty unbelievable tale about how English-speaking Russian super agents trained from birth have been plotting to destroy the United States from within for decades and had a hand in key historical events like the Kennedy assassination. He says their next assignment is to kill the visiting Russian President in New York City and announces the person who will do it: Evelyn Salt. Shocked at the accusation she's a KGB spy Salt goes on the run in an effort to protect her German arachnologist husband, Michael (August Diehl) while being hunted by her colleagues, current partner Ted Winter (Liev Schrieber) and special agent Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor). If she isn't a spy then why run? Unless, of course, she really is. The answer to that big question arrives sooner than you'd think but other more complicated issues arise as Salt fights for her survival.
In a role originally written for Tom Cruise, who dropped out fearing it would too closely resemble his Mission: Impossible character (he's right, it would), Jolie absolutely kills it. Salt's name was changed from Edwin to Evelyn and I'm guessing that's where most of the rewriting ended since everything she does in this movie we're accustomed to seeing from a male Bond-type character. Her physicality is indescribable and watching you can tell that she did most if not all of her own stunts, which is just sick when you consider they include leaping from high-rise buildings and diving onto speeding vehicles. The performance is not only fearless, but limitless in terms of its physicality, and after showing a strong penchant toward action-driven projects in the past (most recently Wanted), her game is upped to a whole new level this time. She's believable as an overly competent CIA agent, a woman who could be a Russian spy, an assassin taking out hundreds of men, a wife torn between her marriage and her job, and when a disguise calls for it, even as a man. And when the story makes a sudden dramatic shift midway through she doesn't miss a beat and impressively adjusts every detail in her performance. With Liev Schrieber they picked the perfect actor to support her, being that he's as cool and controlled as she is intense.
The actual plot is ridiculous (though not entirely predictable), but give screenwriter Brian Helgeland credit for taking the script to the dark side and staying there right up until the end while director Phillip Noyce manages to keep things going at such a breakneck pace you hardly realize just how familiar the story and characters are. This may be action trash, but it's trash of the highest order and its lean, mean 100 minutes feel more like 10. Many have already complained about the abrupt cliffhanger ending clearly meant to set up a sequel but is anyone really watching a mindless action fest like this to see how it ends? Angelina's the only reason to watch and even just the tease she might reprise the role make the film's conclusion a success. I was initially a doubter but the hype is all true. She's that good. As an action thriller, Salt doesn't break any new ground, but there's no reason it should have to when Jolie can so effectively fool me into thinking it does.
Monday, December 27, 2010
Director: Lisa Cholodenko
Starring: Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasakowska, Josh Hutcherson
Running Time: 104 min.
★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
Liberal Hollywood is at it again, this time taking the time out to kindly remind us that yes, same-sex marriage unions do exist and sometimes those involved in them even struggle with life problems every once in a while. But I doubt the problems they struggle with bare much resemblance to the sitcom-level farce that plays out in Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right. Interestingly enough, the song "The Kids Are Alright" never once makes an appearance on the soundtrack which I guess isn't too surprising given the noticeable spelling change in the title to avoid a potential Pete Townshend lawsuit. That my thoughts frequently turned to music copyrighting issues while watching can't be a good sign (for me or the film), but sadly, it just might be the most interesting topic worth discussing. That title is unintentionally revealing as everything in the movie concerning the kids and their attempts to connect with their biological father is most definitely all right. It's the relationship between their cartoonish parents that's not. But don't feel too sorry for Annette Bening and Julianne Moore who, as talented as they are, sometimes seem entirely too comfortable lowering themselves with this material. It's easy to see why the film's been receiving a lot of praise but much of it has to do with its topic rather than what's actually on screen.
Jules (Moore) and Nic (Bening) are a lesbian couple living in California who may or may not be legally married (it's never made explicitly clear) and are raising their two teenage kids, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson). Each mother has given birth to one of the children by the same anonymous sperm donor, who Laser suddenly has the urge to track down and meet. Not yet 18, he has to rely on Jonie to make the call to this stranger who's their dad. The father turns out to be Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a likable, laid-back restaurateur who seems content in his freewheeling bachelor existence, having never known or cared to know about the responsibility that comes with being a parent. After an awkward first meeting over lunch he quickly bonds with the kids and becomes a part of their life, as well as the "moms," who have mixed feelings on Paul being suddenly inserted into the picture. Those mixed feelings become even more complicated when seemingly out of left field the friendship between he and Jules takes a romantic turn, threatening to rip this previously well-adjusted family apart.
I knew we were in for it when the film started with a scene of Jules and Nic in bed watching gay-male porn. Worse yet, it's followed up later with a scene of them explaining why to their kid and that human sexuality is a complicated thing blah blah blah. What are screenwriters thinking sometimes? If the film really wants to be about them being gay then by all means it should be, but if it doesn't, and wants to show how they're just like any normal couple with everyday problems, then do that. But you can't have it both ways by including a ludicrous scene meant to earn cheap laughs at the expense of their homosexuality. Maybe the scene's true to life. I have no idea. But that doesn't make it work any better within the context of the story being told on screen. That tonal clash runs throughout the picture so it's through little fault of Moore and Bening's that I never for a second believed they were a lesbian couple, especially when they're given such stereotypical characters to play. Nearly one word descriptions suffice. Jules is a new age hippie while Nic is a perfectionist control freak. The actresses do the best they can with the roles (Bening is a especially good in a memorable dinner table scene) but it's a lost cause when both are continually undermined by the sitcom machinations of what sometimes feels like a rejected Three's Company script. The preposterous affair that occurs between Jules and Paul feels completely arbitrary and manufactured for drama, and even despite the performers' best efforts, it just isn't believable in the slightest.
The sub-plots involving the kids and their adolescent struggles are much more realistic and Wasikowska and Hutcherson are both fantastic at conveying the confusion of whether to let this guy in and trust him, as well as their own uncertainty of who they are. Wasikowska (the Alice in Alice in Wonderland) is especially effective and I'd rather nominate either of them for acting awards than Moore or Bening, who never have a chance to take off with these silly characters. Luckily, that's not necessary because we have Mark Ruffalo who nearly saves this film with his performance as a man tentatively embracing a massive change in his lifestyle. He goes from being kind of open to the idea, to going with it and then to just totally freaking out when he realizes what it would mean, and sells it all believably. He also creates the kind of personality for Paul where you'd understand why the kids would find him cool and the moms would have major problems with it. Everything involving him and the kids works on every level and he find a way to elevate every scene in, appearing to do so effortlessly. Because of him, HALF this film is a success.
If the writers removed the gimmick at its center the movie would be more likely to be seen for the middling effort it is, and while it would turn out no better or worse, at least it would be slightly less patronizing. When you put all the pieces together, it's just a near-miss in terms of actual quality and I'm not trying to dismiss Bening's strong performance, but this is just the latest example of a cinematic public service announcement being rolled out for awards attention. Whether it's war, rape, discrimination, teen pregnancy, or any other timely social issue, we see this happen every year, but that doesn't mean it has to be so transparent or it can't be done well. The big question to ask coming out of The Kids Are All Right is if you replaced the lesbian couple with a straight one whether it would make any difference at all, and if it did, whether anyone would still care.
Thursday, December 23, 2010
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder
Running Time: 108 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
There's a scene in Black Swan where ballet director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) explains to star dancer Nina (Natalie Portman) why she just isn't right for the lead role of the Swan Queen in his production of Swan Lake. How her technique is flawless but she's too much of a perfectionist to let go. Too overly rehearsed and calculated. Concerned about hitting her mark each time instead of just giving in and freeing herself to the material. Sound like any actresses you know? Black Swan is 2 hours of director Darren Aronofsky trying to knock the acting out of Natalie Portman. He doesn't, but goes one better in converting all of her flaws as an actress into strengths, effectively rendering all her inadequacies nearly irrelevant. She gives a performance that's technically perfect, which is kind of a cruel irony considering the movie's central theme.
This might be the first movie that exists entirely as a critique on an actress's style and method with even the central performance itself acting as a commentary on the person giving it. It also brings up the fascinating question of whether someone who isn't necessarily a great actor can give an Academy Award worthy performance. Of course, the answer is yes (Sandra Bullock won last year for crying out loud) because Oscars are supposed to be given for individual performances, not as career achievement plaques or quantifiable measurements of talent. And with a track record of wrecking Star Wars, playing a poor man's Zooey Deschanel in Garden State and straining as the world's most uncomfortable stripper in Closer, that news should come as a relief for Portman. She usually falters when asked to leave her comfort zone, but Aronofsky was wise not to let her and the result will probably be an Oscar she's earned. A bit of a backhanded compliment, but there's little worth discussing outside her work and it's definitely not for a lack of other things going on. She is the film and without her it wouldn't have just not been the same, it couldn't have been made.
From the second it starts it's obvious exactly where Black Swan is going, how's it's getting there and even when. This isn't a mystery and its moves are as carefully choreographed as the dance steps but it makes little difference given how much more is on Aronofsky's mind. What happens in the final act isn't necessarily surprising but how it's presented is shocking, as is how far awesomely over- the-top and committed the film is to its own genre-bending insanity. There's little to discuss in the way of plot other than that Nina, overwhelmed by pressure from Thomas, the company's slimy director with unusually sexual teaching methods, and her overbearing stage mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), begins to physically and psychologically unravel when faced with the challenge of playing the lead in Swan Lake for a prestigious New York City ballet company. Having gotten the innocent White Swan down pat, it's the more sensual, aggressive Black Swan she struggles to grasp. Her potential understudy, Lily (Mila Kunis) does very much grasp it and their rivalry slowly evolves into something more as Nina's grip on reality continues to slip away and she slowly descends into madness. Kunis' role is also clear from the get-go (and she plays it note perfectly) but I wonder why more people aren't talking about Cassel, who's so frighteningly sleazy and believable as this maniacal director who psychologically stretches Nina further than she ever expected to go. Everyone's so taken by Portman's work that his memorable supporting turn has gone unnoticed, likely because of its subtle effectiveness. Much like her character in the film, she probably wouldn't have been able to give the performance she does without him pushing her.
Describing this as a companion piece of sorts to The Wrestler (as Aronofsky has done in interviews) makes sense from the standpoint that both focus on how an artist's obsession with their craft can destroy them from the inside-out. Both require enormous dedication to technique and craft and it's fair to assume the amount of physical training Portman (who reportedly shed nearly twenty pounds from her already waifish frame) and Kunis underwent in preparation for their roles rival Mickey Rourke's for that film, minus the negative stigma attached to it. And it's also fair to assume there's as much (if not more) Portman in Nina as there was Rourke in Randy "The Ram," making the already uncomfortable scenes of her being sexually and verbally criticized even more uncomfortable knowing that Thomas could just as easily be talking about the actress, with her robotic frigidity called out for everyone to know about. Nina can't seem to channel the Black Swan and Portman wouldn't ever be able to tackle Kunis' role so it's odd seeing that fact basically acknowledged out in the open on screen and made part of the plot.
Just as The Wrestler wasn't "about" wrestling, neither is the Black Swan "about" ballet, but instead deeper themes, chiefly the futile, sometimes emotionally dangerous quest for perfectionism. But also how much people want from people who succeed and just when you think they're done they want more...and then MORE still. And just when they're gotten all they can they throw you away, as encapsulated by Thomas' treatment of his former Swan Queen and prima ballerina, Beth (Winona Ryder--of all people!), forced into retirement and driven to self-destruction and insanity. The whole film could basically be viewed as a running commentary on not only Portman but the plight of Hollywood actresses in general, cruelly discarded once they've surpassed their point of perceived usefulness and marketability. As I watched I thought how hilarious it could have been to cast Lindsay Lohan opposite Portman in the Lily role, but Kunis deviously owns it so well and there's more than enough campy shock value elsewhere.
As I left the theater I overheard many elderly audience members talking about how little they cared for the film. Of course, they didn't. If anything was ever bound to cause a generational split it's this since older viewers looking for art aren't likely to embrace the crazy 70's style horror detour taken when Nina sprouts feathers, mutilates herself, and picks shards of glass out of her skin (and that's not to mention the masturbation and lesbian sex scene). Younger viewers looking for that kind of craziness may find themselves getting restless during the extended ballet sequences (though I was surprised just how absorbing and suspenseful they were). What both parties can definitely agree on is that there's enough Portman for everyone, even if you're not a fan. Strangely, the performance just further confirms what I've suspected of her all along, only this time her one-dimensionality works in her favor like it never has before. But it still couldn't have been easy for her to put herself out there like this emotionally, especially as a character so uncomfortably close to how she's publicly perceived. We frequently praise actors and actresses for taking unexpected risks by leaving their comfort zone, but it's sometimes even more special when a performer is pushed to the limit within it, owning a role they seem destined to play. I'll probably never be a Natalie Portman fan and always fail to grasp everyone's fascination with her, but with Black Swan she's at least now earned my begrudging respect.
Monday, December 20, 2010
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ken Watanabe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger, Michael Caine, Dileep Rao, Pete Postlethwaite, Lukas Haas
Running Time: 148 min.
★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
In Inception writer/director Christopher Nolan presents ideas so intriguing it seems almost impossible for him to completely deliver on them. Yet somehow he mostly does. When you arrive late to a hyped-up film after everyone has already seen and discussed it, spoilers are practically unavoidable (as are certain expectations) but now after finally viewing it, I'm confused as to what could even be spoiled. Anyone who hasn't seen it likely wouldn't understand what you were trying to tell them anyway. It's not so much that the plot is hard to follow, but rather it's just a lot to process at once and the undivided attention required nearly mandates a second viewing. That's not something audiences like hearing, but in this case it's really true. Once you get past that it's pretty cut and dry and even the much-debated final scene isn't really all that debatable. If you think about it, how else could it end? The fun in watching and re-watching Inception is to admire the ways Nolan puts all the puzzle pieces in place for us to arrive there. While it goes without saying this is a meticulously crafted science fiction think piece on every level, I still can't help but think Nolan again falls slightly short of delivering an all-out masterpiece. But that's probably just me being greedy. This is about as close as it gets.
The story, every bit as ambitious as you've heard, centers around Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a dream extraction specialist who with the help of his right-hand man, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) enters the unconscious minds of his targets while they're asleep, invading their dreams and extracting valuable information for his corporate clients. Unfortunately many of Cobb's recent missions have failed, as the painful memory of his late wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard) infiltrates all his dreams, haunting him in the form of a subconscious projection. His only chance to return home" to the U.S. and reunite with his children comes in the form of an offer from Japanese businessman Saito (Ken Watanabe) who wants Cobb to deliver the near-impossible in "inception," or the planting of an idea in someone's dreams. The mark is Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy) and the objective is to subconsciously give him the idea of breaking up his terminally ill father's (Pete Postlethwaite) energy empire. To do this he assembles a team to join him, Arthur and Saito consisting of dream architect Ariadne (Ellen Page), expert "forger" Eames (Tom Hardy) who can impersonate anyone in a dream and sedation specialist Yusef (Dileep Rao). The latter must determine the best method to put everyone under long enough to travel an unprecedented three levels deep (a dream within a dream within a dream) to perform the inception and then somehow safely bring them back. Of course, complications arise.
The best scenes in Inception come early when we're teased with all the excitement and potential possibilities the central concept has to offer and learn the very specific rules of the world the characters inhabit, which reflect our own preconceived notions and questions about dreaming. How do you come out of it? How do you KNOW you're out of it? Or in your own and not someone else's? How much time passes? What if you free fall? What if you die? The answers aren't what you'd expect and that second question is the foundation on which Inception is built. And that isn't even to speak of the idea of planting a concept in someone's subconscious and all the potential ramifications of that, which are explored, shown and discussed in intricate detail, amazingly without ever slowing the narrative of the plot. How "the smallest seed of an idea can grow" in the mind is really the genesis for the entire story and Cobb's tortured, complex relationship with his late wife Mal is where the film gets its emotional and intellectual kick. As many have already pointed out, this main sub-plot bares much more than a striking similarity to another DiCaprio thriller from this past year, Shutter Island. Exactly how I can't reveal but even knowing a lot going in I was still surprised just how many details the two stories had in common.
Despite featuring one of the most talented ensemble casts in years, this isn't an actor's showcase, but rather an idea showcase where the actors fill certain utility roles that drive the story. No single performer runs away with the film as Heath Ledger did in The Dark Knight. That opportunity just doesn't exist in something this plot driven, but if I had to choose, DiCaprio and Cotillard come the closest to doing it, since they have the deepest, most complex roles, and in the case of DiCaprio, the most important. He's probably given better performances but I can't ever remember him seeming as in command on screen as he is here, as Cobb alternates between leading fearlessly and completely losing his grip on reality. It would be a shame if this performance and the one he gave in Shutter Island cancel each other out in the minds of some because of their similarities since they're actually very different. DiCaprio is so consistent in a non-showy way in everything that many probably take for granted just how good an actor he can be. The memorably haunting Cotillard has the even the tougher role since scene-by-scene she has to adjust and act in whatever way the protagonist chooses to view her. Her character's essentially a fake projection, but she has to play her real.
Of the other supporting players, Joseph-Gordon Levitt (in maybe his highest profile role to date) was an inspired choice to play Cobb's point man since the actor always kind of seemed like a younger version of DiCaprio in terms of his acting style so watching them work onscreen together for the first time is fascinating. Unsurprisingly, JGL skillfully fleshes out what could have easily been a forgettable role in the hands of a lesser performer, and excels at intelligibly delivering a lot of expository dialogue. Some will undoubtedly criticize the casting of Ellen Page (whose contribution was about a thousand times larger than I expected) but for a change it's nice to see her playing a character who doesn't just think she's smart, but actually is. As our entry point into the story, she shares the film's most memorable sequence (the awe inspiring street folding scene), which serves as a lesson in dream building for her and a primer on the film's concepts for us. Tom Hardy has a smaller role as the forger but brings a lot to it, adding his quick wit and dry humor at unexpected moments. The always reliable Michael Caine has what amounts to little more than a cameo as Cobb's father-in-law and plays it as only he can while Tom Berenger (!) effectively fills the Eric Roberts "WTF is HE doing here?" spot as a sleazy business executive.
On an initial viewing the main job of Cobb's team seems like some of the same organized crime filler Nolan discarded bigger ideas for in The Dark Knight but a second, closer look reveals the corporate espionage plot to be an important cog in the machine that powers the entire plot and its themes. There's tons of action (my favorite: the third act Ice Station Zebra inspired snow fortress shootout) but the script does an excellent job of always making it feel like there's something at stake despite all of this action taking place in a dream world. There are real world consequences to everything these characters do and we feel the weight of them throughout. This isn't in any way comparable to garbage like The Matrix which used its "ideas" as an excuse to pummel the audience with cutting-edge technology. Here's a screenplay that's actually about what it purports to be about all the way through and when CGI is used sparingly, it's for the right reasons, calling attention only to the story unfolding in front of us (the now infamous zero gravity hotel corridor scene being the best example).
The potential connection between our dreams, reality and existence (and where each begins and ends) is the driving force that propels the psychological journey of the film's tortured protagonist, as well as our own fascination with the entire concept of dreaming. The is one of the few science fiction screenplays where it actually seems as if a fair amount of of actual research was required to write it and it's a high compliment to Nolan that he bothers to invest a premise this fanciful with realistic, concrete details. It's becomes a completely different film on a second viewing and may just play differently each succeeding time after. It's also tighter edited, more focused and considerably less sloppy than The Dark Knight was. In a genre where it's often easier to copy then create, Nolan creates. Any way you choose to spin it, Inception is a huge achievement likely to loom larger each time you watch.
Monday, December 13, 2010
Director: Edgar Wright
Starring: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kieran Culkin, Ellen Wong, Alison Pill, Mark Webber, Johnny Simmons, Anna Kendrick, Brie Larson, Eric Knubsen, Aubrey Plaza, Satya Bhabha, Chris Evans, Brandon Routh, Jason Schwartzman
Running Time: 108 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Talk about biting off more than you can chew. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is so ambitious that at moments I wasn't even sure what I was watching. I didn't really care what happened to the protagonist, it doesn't work as an action adventure, super-hero, romance, coming-of-age movie, or an indie comedy and seems to have nothing important to say. It does work as a comic book and video game, but considering it's based on the former and literally interprets the latter that isn't exactly a huge surprise. Yet something clicks. It probably has something to do with the film existing in its own self-contained universe that seems to make up its own rules as it goes along, giving me something I can't honestly say I've seen onscreen before. That's the hardest thing possible for a filmmaker to do so it's a credit to writer/director Edgar Wright that the world he creates for this 108 minute stretch that feels more like 5, occupies that special space. It's such an unusual accomplishment you're almost tempted to just go with it and forgive its many flaws because even the flaws are kind of endearing as would be expected when the aim is this high. Taking a battering ram to conventional storytelling, it's also as relentlessly annoying, overly hip and juvenile as its lead actor has been accused of being so in a way it's the ideal vehicle for him. Call it the era-defining Michael Cera since none of his movies have as accurately captured the enigma and ongoing debate over his skills as a performer. It's kind of a big deal so all his haters should brace themselves because they're in for their worst nightmare. I've always fallen down the middle on Cera so it's almost appropriate I fall right down the middle on this also, respecting the hell out of what it's trying to do, while still realizing it doesn't quite get there.
Awkward, mop-haired 22 year-old Canadian Scott Pilgrim (Cera), bass guitarist for the garage band "Sex Bob-omb," hasn't exactly had the best luck in relationships of late, mourning his painful break-up with rocker Envy Adams (Brie Larson) by dating overly enthusiastic high schooler Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), much to the shock and disapproval of his friends. That is until he literally meets the girl of his dreams in rollerblading Amazon.ca carrier Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who changes boyfriends as often as she does hair color. Smitten and obsessed, he's convinced himself she's "the one" and is wiling to do anything, including breaking up with Knives, to win her affections. During a concert he's attacked by the first of Ramona's ex-boyfriends, Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha) and discovers that in order to officially date her he must defeat seven evil exes (or X's) in video game style fights. If he can he'll then earn the honor of being her nicest boyfriend, even if he's not exactly sure that's a compliment.
How I describe this, the whole plot almost seems sensible and straightforward, but it's far from that in presentation, almost as if Wright took TRON, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, (500) Days of Summer, The Wizard and a teenage version of Crank and threw them all in a blender to see what would happen. What happens is a glorious mess that's impossible to take your eyes off of but gets tiresome after a while and makes little sense. The film appears to exist in a normal reality and while no one's sucked into a video game per se, the entire film and the protagonist's daily life functions as one. Complete with title cards, 1960's Batman "Bam!" and Pow!" graphics and meters indicating characters' bodily functions as well as their thoughts and feelings, it's all an extension of Scott's existence rather than something that just comes into play when he meets Ramona and faces his challenge. Some will say the ending is garbled (and it is) but that's actually being kind since everything is a garbled mess from beginning to end, but just too much fun visually that you forget you're supposed to care.
The film is fully-loaded with talent like Anna Kendrick as Scott's gossipy sister, Alison Pill as bandmate Kim Pine and Chris Evans as one of Ramona's more memorable exes, a big name actor action star, and a perfectly cast Jason Schwartzman is Gideon, the centerpiece of "The League of Evil Exes" who wields more control over Scott's fate than he'd think. We also have an Arrested Development reunion of sorts as Mae Whitman appears alongside Cera again as Ramona's fourth evil ex, the "bi-furious" lesbian ninja Roxy. But the two actors who most impress are Kieran Culkin as Scott's gay roommate and an unrecognizable Brandon Routh as the most arrogant of Ramona's exes, a vegan bass player with psychic powers. With his brillaint brilliant delivery of the housekeeper dialogue Routh deserves a free pass to continue playing Superman for the rest of his life. Both do the most while seemingly trying the least, which is no small feat in a movie starring the most apathetic actor of them all.
At the risk of beating an already tired issue into the ground, Cera is Cera again in this but his droll, deadpan delivery finds its comfiest home yet amidst all the craziness surrounding his character. He'll never win any Oscars but as I've said before there is something admirable about his refusal to stretch dramatically and just stick to his strengths, as well as a comfort in knowing exactly what we'll get from him. After teasing us with a departure of sorts in Youth in Revolt (a smarter, more mature film than this actually) he's back to his old tricks again and if nothing else he's always been consistent, giving us the choice to either take him or leave him. His reward for not stretching at all? Co-stars like Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who returns to the screen after a three-year absence, which is a relief since I was worrying she didn't survive that encounter with the mechanic at the end of Death Proof. After that and her role in Live Free or Die Hard, this feels like a regressive move. It's really a high school part even though Ramona Flowers is supposed to be 25 (truthfully, both leads are too old for their roles) but what it does at least offer her is the first on screen opportunity to convey emotional depth and inner turmoil, and she does, to the extent it's allowed. Hidden behind crazy hair, her usually obvious beauty for once isn't the centerpiece. Still, another variation on the unattainable "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" character feels beneath her, even having not really gotten a read on her full talents as an actress. But at least she's back and can hopefully use this increased exposure as a stepping stone to better roles.
It's easy to see why this flopped. This is aimed squarely at two niche groups: Comic-book geeks and hipsters (key target age for both: 25 and under). So as someone failing to meet the age requirement or fall exclusively into either category, this turns into a film I can respect from a distance rather than love. Is the movie making fun of people who like these kinds of movies or is this really supposed to be that kind of movie? Does it even matter? But those groups are passionate viewers that deserve great movies made for them because even if their impact is sometimes overestimated in terms of box office drawing power, they've got great taste. Those who read Bryan Lee O' Malley's graphic novels would know better than I how true this is to it, but judging from the cult response to the film, I'm guessing that in spirit and tone it probably did. But even I can tell there are a number of people who will really connect with this. It's fun, but I can't claim it had anything important to say, at least to me. And that's fine. For many it'll feel as if it were made just for them. But I already had that movie this year, so the biggest joy watching Scott Pilgrim will have to be in knowing it's someone else's favorite movie of the year and recognizing they owe me no explanation as to why.
Friday, December 10, 2010
Director: Danny Boyle
Starring: James Franco, Amber Tamblyn, Kate Mara, Clemence Poesy, Lizzy Caplan, Treat Williams, Kate Burton
Running Time: 94 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
There's a moment in 127 Hours when adventurer Aron Ralston tells himself to keep it together as he passes the 24-hour mark in an isolated canyon with his arm pinned under a boulder, and it revealingly might be the only piece of advice anyone needs to remember in a life or death situation like that. Through sheer will and determination he'll hang on for 5 days until doing the unthinkable to finally free himself. "Could I do it?" is the question most likely to be on everyone's mind when the credits roll and the most compelling aspect of the film is how it makes you look inside for the answer. In trying to solve the riddle of sustaining maximum interest in a single location survival story where we already know the ending, director Danny Boyle uses a whole bag of tricks to tell it, but what surprised me most was just how little that bothered me. It fits the story's tone well and when the sounds and images are this technically impressive and memorable (many unshakable long after the film's conclusion) he's entitled to a little showing off. But who most entitles him to it is James Franco, easily one of the most likable and talented actors working today, showing everyone what he's got by responding with the performance of his life.
Based on the Ralston's autobiography, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, the film depicts 27 year-old Aaron's (Franco) April 2003 hike in Utah's Blue Rock Canyon where after helping out lost hikers Megan (Amber Tamblin) and Kristi (Kate Mara), he falls through a crevice, a heavy boulder tumbling on top of him and trapping his arm. With little water and even less food he's forced to come up with ways to not only prolong his life, but keep his sanity as he starts to physically and mentally deteriorate. With a small camcorder among his few belongings, Aaron records his thoughts and feelings on the situation, which turns into a kind of a video will for his family. After exhausting all reasonable options to escape he's finally forced to use the cheap, dull knife he got as a present from mom in a way he couldn't have anticipated.
Academy Award winning director Danny Boyle pulls out all the stops using split screen, voice-overs, flashbacks, flash-forwards, dream sequences, montages and odd musical selections. The best thing about these hallucinatory sequences (aside from their obvious visual intensity) is their lack of context, with one so mysterious and mesmerizing it may have actually been better off without the full-on explanation it gets at the end. And without knowing you'd probably be able to guess this was made by the director of Slumdog Millionaire since the colorful, eye-popping prologue sequence, the score and the visual and storytelling style throughout are almost identical to that film. That's of little surprise when you consider Boyle's team of screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (who deserves to be nominated again here) and composer A.R. Rahman reunited for this. It's overly reductive to say he remakes that movie in a canyon considering the differing subject matter, but a direct comparison (which actually favors this film) is called for and anyone who sees it would agree. I do think this will play better for those who haven't seen Slumdog, or did, but haven't a clue that the same person made it. In Boyle's defense, when you have to tell a exciting 90 minute story of someone stuck under a boulder, you almost have to make some wild stylistic choices and few very filmmakers would have made them work as interestingly as he.
Since the book covered Ralston's entire life, not just those 127 hours, that had to be conveyed somehow, even if I can't help but wonder what we'd have gotten if his original wish to have his story optioned as a docudrama came to pass and we were spared all the bells and whistles Boyle provides. Would the story be more or less moving? Would it be any different than a National Geographic or Discovery Channel reenactment? The only thing we know for sure either way is the pure power of Franco's performance, creating Aaron from the inside-out, his words and actions making us understand how the character finally arrives at the mental place necessary to make the brave decision that saves him, as well as the series of mistakes that led him there. When Aaron says he feels as if that boulder was waiting for him his entire life we completely believe it and understand what he means because of Franco. Aaron starts the film as as a cocky, free-spirited adventurer and ends it as a different person entirely but Franco has no problems getting us to root for him right away (he's also very funny, especially in the video diary scenes). This movie is his show and aside from him, not many others get screen time, though it's worth noting that Tamblyn and Mara aren't easily forgotten after they've left. As for the infamous self amputation scene, it's definitely graphic but not gratuitous and feels more like an emotional release or the culmination of a journey than anything overtly gross or disgusting. Anyone who thinks they can't watch it (some audiences have reportedly passed out) can remind themselves Ralston brought himself to somehow DO IT without passing out, which kind of puts things in perspective.
It's tough bringing a true-life survival story like this to the screen but even tougher when it's ending is uplifting and inspiring and Boyle does lay it on pretty thick in the final minutes. Comparisons to the more tragic Into The Wild come to mind as the film races by, even if that really wasn't a survival story, but something more. And in a way this is more too as the careless protagonist also has to discover he really can't go at everything alone. My only minor quibble is that when so much is happening technically you runs the risk of remembering all the things the movie does before the story. A couple of years and a few more viewings should determine whether I'm wrong. 127 Hours is almost exactly as great as I expected it to be. No better, no worse. But the most impressive thing about it is how much is constantly going on in a story where you wouldn't expect anything can.
Monday, December 6, 2010
Director: Lee Unkrich
Starring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Ned Beatty, Don Rickles, Michael Keaton, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Estelle Harris
Running Time: 103 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
In the minds of many it's a travesty that Pixar doesn't have a Best Picture Oscar yet, even if I don't necessarily agree. And that's not because I believe animated films are incapable of carrying the same impact as live action (though there may be some small truth in that) but rather because I've found that as technically proficient and emotionally moving as they can often be, they just don't hold up very well on repeated viewings. Last year they earned a Best Picture nomination for Up, a forgettable action-adventure barely worthy of a mild recommendation and ironically their weakest effort to date. Despite only being recognized to make up for the snubs of Ratatouille and Wall-E, it brought to light some problems with these films I couldn't previously pinpoint. It might be a stretch to say Pixar's grown complacent, but whether it's toys, fish, cars, rats, robots or grumpy old men and boy scouts, you can't help but get the feeling that they're making the same movie over and over again. The advantage they have is that they do it so well there's little reason to complain and audiences can also plead guilty in taking their artistry for granted, expecting a home run each time out.
I still had little interest in seeing their latest horse in the race, Toy Story 3, despite it ranking as the second best reviewed film of the year (what else is new?) and the highest grossing animated film of all-time. That is until I overheard a description of the plot, which took me aback in its maturity. But I should have sensed this coming being that over the past few years these movies have been handling more mature topics and can no longer be written off as just for kids. They're thematically substantial films being made for a mass audience and now the far-reaching ambition that propelled Ratatouille and Wall-E is being applied to what was always Pixar's most juvenile property, and the one that put them on the map. In what's kind of a relief, this isn't as ambitious as those two, eclipsing its predecessors as the strongest in the series and working on an entirely different level as a meditation on the passage of time, moving on and growing up.
Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and most of the rest of the gang are back but not seeing nearly as much action this time around with their now 18-year-old owner Andy (John Morris) about to head off to college. Having been stored away in his room and not played with for years the toys have outgrown their usefulness and face a couple of options for their future, none of which are particularly promising. It's either a lonely life confined to the attic, being donated to day care, or obviously worst of all, the trash. Only Woody is selected to take the trip to school with Andy but a mix-up sends the attic bound Buzz, Woody, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris), Barbie (Jodi Benson), Jesse (Joan Cusack), Bullseye, Rex (Wallace Shawn) and Hamm (John Ratzenberger) to Sunnyside Daycare, which at first looks to be a paradise where toys are spoiled and played with all day long. But it isn't long before they discover they've arrived at what's essentially a maximum security prison ruled with an iron fist by a bitter purple bear named Lotso (Ned Beatty) and his two henchmen, the giant, really creepy looking Big Baby with a lazy eye and Ken (Michael Keaton), of Ken and Barbie fame. Now Woody and company have to somehow find a way to escape and return home to Andy before he leaves for school, and potentially leaves them for good.
It's unnecessary even discussing the animation in these Pixar films anymore. It's always incredible, and this is right on par with the previous two in that regard. Like Up before it, this was released into many theaters in 3D but I can't imagine it made much of a difference either way since the real point of interest is the story's unexpected depth. It's as much about Woody letting go of Andy as Andy letting go of Woody, plus a lot more than that. Whereas Up contained a 10 minute prologue so emotionally moving the rest of the film couldn't follow through on it, this has an opening that cleverly misleads you into expecting silliness, only to pull the rug out. The story keeps building and building until pulling the emotional trigger in the final minutes and earning it. There are action excursions to be sure but unlike Up they service the themes and plot that cleverly spoofs so many different genres of film and contains so many in-jokes you'd have to be constantly paying attention at the risk of missing anything. The rendering of Sunnyside as some kind of evil dictatorship for toys is clever, as we're a witness to many memorable scenes, such as a late night poker game and Buzz being interrogated under the hot lights. And it's worth repeating just how creepy looking that giant baby is (we're talking Child's Play kind of creepy). All the toys are embodied with distinctive characteristics and personalities by the voice actors and while Hanks and Allen are perfect as usual as our two heroes, the legendary Ned Beatty projects a certain grandfatherly warmth in the voice of Lotso that makes his villainous nature harder to comprehend, giving greater thematic weight to his actions. Helping further is the script containing a flashback sequence for this character so well thought out it could easily compete with most live action dramas in its storytelling reach.
Those who call this the best film of the year just need to wait until that feeling passes and it'll probably pass quickly, as it has with just about every other one of Pixar's past efforts. But I am curious how it'll hold up down the road and whether my admiration will dwindle as steadily. It really goes for the jugular in those final act as the story moves dangerously close to the "beyond" part of the phrase "To Infinity and Beyond" in a unanticipated way. It's been over ten years since the previous Toy Story sequel and it proves to be worth the wait, with time gap working in the favor of a story that deals entirely with the passage of time and letting go. The toys have aged and so has their owner, both arriving at the inevitable crossroads where they're forced to move on and there's no turning back. Kids who may have felt shut out or bored by the narrative sophistication of Ratatouille and Wall-E will probably have more to cheer about with Toy Story 3, while adults can appreciate acknowledgment of their daily struggle to somehow recapture the same happiness their toys once gave them.
Saturday, December 4, 2010
Director: Dennis Dugan
Starring: Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Chris Rock, David Spade, Rob Schneider, Salma Hayek, Maria Bello, Maya Rudolph, Joyce Van Patton
Running Time: 102 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Adam Sandler just can't seem to catch a break, can he? In last year's commercially unsuccessful dramedy Funny People he even made it a point to spoof the fact that everyone thinks he makes bad movies for big paychecks. And that's sometimes very true, but unforgiving audiences have so soundly rejected every attempt he's made to stretch out of his juvenile comfort zone, that's he's often left with little alternative. Except many of Sandler's comedies aren't bad at all and throughout his career he's always had a strong grasp on what's funny. Grown-Ups is vintage Sandler but with a slightly mellower and laid back twist and as is the norm with his work, it's better than it's being given credit for. With a comedic line-up consisting of Kevin James, Chris Rock, David Spade and Rob Schneider you could call it The Expendables of comedy (or a 90's SNL reunion) in terms of star power, except co-writer Sandler and director Dennis Dugan don't just gather the talent up and call it a day. While containing very little plot there's still a lot going on, but it's balanced well and boasts a sharper script than expected. More importantly, it succeeds in providing laughs all the way through without taking itself too seriously, allowing it to rank on the higher end of recent Sandler efforts.
Lenny (Sandler), Eric (James), Kurt (Rock) Marcus (Spade) and Rob (Schneider) are four childhood friends who fell out of touch but are reunited as adults when they hear about the recent passing of their junior high school basketball coach, "Buzzer" (Blake Clark) who led them to a state championship in 1978. His advice to them was to live their lives like they played the game but now as "responsible" adults it's clear that advice has flown over some of their heads, or at least they could use a healthy reminder. Lenny is a high-powered Hollywood executive married to famous fashionista, Roxanne (Salma Hayek) with whom he has two spoiled kids. Eric is unemployed but lying about it as his wife, Sally (Maria Bello) still feels the need to breast feed their 5-year-old. Kurt is hen-pecked by his controlling wife, Deanne (Maya Rudolph) and constantly mocked by his mother-in-law who gets enough insults from him in return. Marcus is a lifelong bachelor who refuses to abandon his womanizing ways while eccentric vegan Rob is primarily concerned with pleasing third wife Gloria (Joyce Van Patten), who's over thirty years his senior. Now all reunited, Lenny rents the lake house for the Fourth of July weekend for the guys and their families, but saying the film consists of them dramatically reassessing their life priorities wouldn't be accurate, which is a relief considering that was my main worry going into this.
Your level of tolerance for the four lead actors goes a long way in determining how much (or little) you get out of this, but despite sporting an unimpressive cinematic track record of late, are all surprisingly likable here and some (Schneider, Spade) are even the least annoying they've ever been. To the movie's advantage, the plot is an afterthought as the enjoyment comes in watching these guys just hang out and goof around. That seems like an insult but isn't when you consider the majority of the jokes and gross-out gags click in a big way and a potentially sappy message about "growing up" isn't rammed down our throats like it usually is. Sandler's past the point where he can keep playing angry juveniles so this material finds a nice middle ground for his persona, allowing him to act like a relatively normal adult while still retaining the immature goofiness that's been his trademark. His pairing with Hayek seems off-putting at first and they'll probably never be completely believable as onscreen spouses, but they still work surprisingly well together, or at least well enough for me to suspend disbelief and temporarily buy into it. Even the subplot with their spoiled kids who act like entitled adults plays just right in striking a timely chord without sacrificing any laughs. It was an interesting decision to cast fairly well known actresses in Hayek, Bello and Rudolph, filling supporting slots that aren't usually given the time of day, a tactic that pays off as potentially thankless wife parts come off feeling more important than they otherwise would. While the roles are predictably underwritten, they're at least sharply written and none of the actresses' talents are necessarily wasted, a small miracle considering this is a guy-driven comedy. Kevin James is the most likable (and maybe funniest overall) of the four, David Spade's suitably slimy and unlikable, a restrained Chris Rock gets some good digs in, and in the biggest surprise, Rob Schneider is not just funny in a movie, but at times borderline hilarious. His sub-plot carries the film and has some unexpected developments along the way. They're are also some smaller cameo appearances from Steve Buscemi, Colin Quinn, Tim Meadows and Norm MacDonald, most of which feel unforced and are actually funny.
Say what you wish about Sandler as an actor or comedian but he knows what's funny and also knows that when you're making a comedy, you're aiming to make audiences laugh and do little else. That should be obvious, but unfortunately too many "comedies" (namely Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and most recently Get Him to the Greek) try to go all sappy and dramatic and this comes dangerously close to skirting that line in the final act. Luckily, Dugan and Sandler seem to know this and pull back, even putting a somewhat unexpected twist on "the big game" at the end, finding the right tone that other writers and directors seem to be struggling with. Grown-Ups is fairly safe and predictable, and definitely doesn't reinvent the wheel in terms of comedy, but still fits nicely under the banner of his Happy Madison production company, which boasts more creative misses than hits, never quite recapturing the magic of his two most successful comedies that inspired that name. Grown Ups doesn't either and likely wouldn't hold up at all on a second viewing, but it's smartly written and made me laugh hard, which at least qualifies it as better than most of what's currently out there.