Monday, May 16, 2011

The Switch, Unstoppable, It's Kind of a Funny Story, How Do You Know

You may have noticed I've fallen a little behind lately. I figured this was the best solution. Below are a few capsule reviews of the movies I've been catching up on.

The Switch

Directors: Josh Gordon and Will Speck
Starring: Jason Bateman, Jennifer Aniston, Patrick Wilson, Juliette Lewis, Jeff Goldblum
Running Time: 101 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

The theory that Jason Bateman's capable of saving anything in which he appears is put to its biggest test yet in The Switch (originally set to be released as The Baster, a far better title). The good news is it's not nearly as awful as you've heard and isn't exactly the goofy rom-com it was advertised as, at least partially. The bad news is sadly once again Jennifer Aniston texts in another lifeless "Rachel from Friends" performance, causing the romance at the film's center to fall-flat while many other elements work surprisingly well. The premise is original and clever and if only a major portion of the plot didn't depend on the romantic chemistry between the two leads, it would be a success. Even as is, it's only a slight miss thanks to Bateman and a slightly smarter than usual script.

Stuck in the "friend zone" with best pal Kassie (Aniston), the neurotic Wally (Bateman) is horrified at her plans to have a baby by being artificially inseminated by sperm donor Roland (Patrick Wilson). After a drunk Wally pulls replaces Roland's sperm with his at her "insemination party" we fast forward 7 years as Kassie returns to New York with son Sabastian (an adorably precocious Thomas Robinson), who's basically a mini-me version of his real dad. Wally and Kassie reconnect and he not only has to come to terms with his true feelings for Kassie, but also find a way to drop this bomb of a secret, just as Roland re-enters her life.

The script excels when focusing entirely on the relationship that father-son relationship that develops between Wally and Sabastian and both learning to deal with their anxieties rather than the tired love triangle, third act reveal and inevitable fake break-up and make-up we now know to expect in these movies. While it's executed a little smarter than usual here it still doesn't help that Aniston (her face now unrecognizably botoxed) is a blank slate, offering absolutely nothing in the role and forcing Bateman to do all the heavy comedic lifting, of which he's more than up to the task. Any laughs come from him, but that this plays as a coming-of-age dramedy for middle-aged adults rather than a typically tired rom-com counts as a plus. Going into The Switch with low expectations helps, but not enough. Here's hoping Bateman moves on to better projects. That he almost single-handedly saves this says a lot for him.


Director: Tony Scott
Starring: Denzel Washington, Chris Pine, Rosario Dawson, Ethan Suplee, Kevin Corrigan, Kevin Dunn
Running Time: 98 min.
Rating:  PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Director Tony Scott and Denzel Washington's latest mindless, but pretty damn fun, action collaboration Unstoppable could easily be described as "Speed, with a train," and that's a compliment. Armed with a really engaging, pulse-pouding premise, I was still surprised just how much suspense the film was able to muster up and credibly sustain over the course of its running time. Washington is reliable in basically the same action part he's been playing for his past ten movies with Scott but this ranks as their best work together in a while. The real star though is the train and the Scott deserves credit for knowing that, often ominously shooting it in slow motion and fast forward as if it were a fire breathing dragon careening down the tracks to claim its victims.

As the unmanned, half-mile long runaway locomotive barrels toward Scranton, P.A. due to a railway employee's error it's up to veteran West Virginia engineer Frank Barnes (Washington) and his new rookie partner Will Colson (Star Trek's Chis Pine) to stop it. At the station yard Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson) calls all the shots but must contend with "corporate," as slimy railway head Galvin (Kevin Dunn) seems more concerned with cutting costs than an entire city being wiped out. The script presents it all really believably and solves problems logically (Dawson's character is especially well written) before the unrelenting suspense kicks in for the final 40 minutes.

Attempts to flesh out these guys' personal lives seem thrown in but that hardly matters since Washington and Pine play off each other so well. That said, I was kind of disappointed that the movie didn't seem to know how good it was and felt the need to tack on a final "where are they now?" music video style montage that better suits a lesser film. For a while it was approaching the quality level of Speed in that we cared and were invested in the characters, but Scott apparently thought he was making something goofier than that. Sure, it's goofy, but not THAT goofy. I was hoping he'd take it to the next level, but there's this nagging feeling that he felt the need to remind us, "Hey, I directed Deja Vu and Man on Fire. Cut me some slack." If there was ever a time for him to aim higher, it was here. Either way, Unstoppable is a must rent and a technically sound action spectacle that at times flirts with greatness. You'll forget about it an hour after you've seen it, but it's sure fun while it lasts.

 It's Kind of a Funny Story

Directors: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
Starring: Keir Gilchrist, Zach Galifianakis, Emma Roberts, Viola Davis, Zoe Kravitz
Running Time: 101 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

It's Kind of a Funny Story kind of lives up to its title, though it's more dramedy than comedy. Marching proudly through quirky indie tropes (depressed emo teen, manic pixie dream girl, voiceovers, hip soundtrack) some will find grating, the movie works anyway, but the big story coming out of it is the supporting performance from Zach Galifianakis, who proves if he could have a career as a dramatic actor if he ever wants one. Revealing a dark side we've never glimpsed, he could have had a shot at a nomination if the film wasn't so small and unseen, and it were a less crowded year. What this script does understand to a tee is what it's like to be a teenager and how everything feels like an overwhelmingly huge deal as it's happening.

Our main character, 16-year-old Craig (Keir Gilchrist), kind of a kinder, gentler Holden Caufield, is depressed and suicidal, ready to jump off a bridge when the movie opens. Immediately regretting the idea, he checks himself into a mental institution much to the surprise of his parents (Lauren Graham and Jim Gaffigan) who don't have a clue what's going on in his life. That life includes being enrolled in a school he hates and obsessively crushing on best friend Aaron's (Thomas Mann) girlfriend, Nina (Zoe Kravitz). Upon admittance for a five-day observational period he strikes up a friendship with bearded misfit Bobby (Galifianakis) and potential love interest, Noelle (Emma Roberts), both of whom struggle with emotional issues arguably more serious than his.

Craig's storyline with Bobby works better than the romance because of Galifianikis, who's his usual funny self but then has these moments where he snaps, going to this dark, angry place that feels completely real. The performance seems almost Belushi-like to me as we have a comedic actor giving off this unstable vibe that's he capable of handling grittier material if necessary. Gilchrist is perfect as the the shy, awkward Craig even if the romance between him and Noelle feels a little too convenient to pack the punch the filmmakers want it to. Roberts does fine with the role even she's still playing a variation on a character we've seen before under different guises in various films.

There are some interesting dream and fantasy sequences, specifically a major one centering around Queen and David Bowie's ubiquitous "Under Pressure," and others involving Craig seeking refuge in his artwork with drawings that coincidentally(?) resemble Tom Hansen's architectural designs in (500) Days of Summer.  There isn't a lot that's original here but the most impressive feat that directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck pull off is delivering an uplifting coming-of-age tale in a mental ward, balancing comedy and drama without the clashes in tone you'd expect. Craig isn't suicidal and never was. He's just a teenager. That the movie understands and acknowledges this is the best thing about it.

How Do You Know

Director: James L. Brooks
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson, Jack Nicholson, Kathryn Hahn
Running Time: 116 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ (out of ★★★★)
How do you know you're watching something awful? In this case, it's definitely not by the credits since the talent both behind and in front of the camera have about ten Oscar nominations between them. That's why it's so surprising that James L. Brooks' How Do You Know is as uninspired as it is. And overlong. Clocking in at an excruciating 116 minutes that feels more like three hours the film starts running on fumes before the first is even up, filling time with who knows what. Only mildly humorous in spots and making poor use of talented actors, the script tries to juggle two storylines, neither with much success at all.

The best that can be said is that Reese Witherspoon (who deserves better) is credible as Olympic softball player Lisa Jorgenson, who gets cut from the Team USA for being over-the-hill at the age of 30.  She starts dating womanizing Washington Nationals pitcher Matty Reynolds (Owen Wilson) and as believable Witherspoon is as an Olympic athlete,Wilson isn't as a pro baseball player. I know this is a comedy, but the sight of him in uniform couldn't have been intended to get the laughs it does. Matty's kind of a jerk but a likable one and she must choose between him and goofy blind date George Madison (Paul Rudd), an executive who's the target of a criminal investigation in his father's (Jack Nicholson) company and could be looking at jail time.

The boring details of George's alleged corporate malfeasance is sadly what eats up most of the film's running time. You'd be forgiven for wondering what it even has to do with Lisa's relationship with Matty and George and how it's even pertinent to the plot, which is all over the place. It's purpose seems to be to give Nicholson his most embarrassing role in years, overplayed and underwritten as if he were appearing as a favor. Rudd, usually gold in everything, is wasted since George spends most of the film neurotically whining. The script accidentally presents him as a creepy stalker rather than a viable candidate for her affections.  Only Witherspoon escapes from this unscathed since she's so ridiculously likable and can do this in her sleep, but we're left wondering how her character could even consider being with either of these guys, if that's even what this story's supposed to be about. I'm still not sure. A mess from top to bottom, How Do You Know is so lazy it didn't even bother to put a question mark at the end of its title. If only that were the worst of its problems.


Erich Kuersten said...

Just stumbled on your blog, Jeremy... and it's pretty damned good. You write as if you've been writing longer than six years (?) - keep it up, soldier!

Erich Kuersten said...

Dude, stumbled can't be the right word. was this called something else? What's going on?

jeremythecritic said...

Stumbled works just fine. I've been writing for five years but have been on blogger for about three. Thanks for the kind words. I'm a big fan of Acidemic.