Sunday, October 30, 2011

Scream 4


Director: Wes Craven
Starring: Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Courtney Cox, Emma Roberts, Hayden Panettiere, Marley Shelton, Adam Brody, Rory Culkin, Erik Knudsen, Alison Brie
Running Time: 111 min.
Rating: R

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

I'll say this for Scream 4: It gets its most miscalculated sequences out of the way early. In its first few minutes to be exact. Opening with a movie within a movie within a movie, it's a self-referential stab (literally) at parody that ends up being a parody in itself as a number of characters bite the dust before the opening credits roll. Of course, we're not sure if they're actual victims or actresses in the fake "Stab" sequels inspired by Scream. But does that even really matter when you've already exposed the killer four times with nearly eight murders before the "real" movie begins? So when our old friend Ghostface does eventually show up it induces unwanted giggles and when he starts killing people "for real," I started doubting if it was. Part of the problem is highlighted in that crazy opening, as the film descends so far into parody that it's unclear whether they're even in on the joke. Director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson must have understood why their classic opening scene with Drew Barrymore in 1996's Scream worked. Right? If a really crappy sequel were released today it's easy to think Ghostface probably would be text messaging. Are they trying to make fun of movies that would do that by actually doing it?  Do their intentions even make a difference? It's almost maddening trying to distinguish this film from one of the Scary Movie sequels at points, except for the fact that this is might be unintentionally funnier and boasts what's easily the craziest ending the series has seen yet. At least I wasn't bored.

When bestselling self-help author and Ghostface survivor Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) returns home to promote her latest book she finds the town overrun with many more residents (i.e. potential victims) than when she left, as well as a new Ghostface slashing away on the fifteenth anniversary of the Woodsboro murders. So many new characters that a manual could probably be handed out before the film and it would still be fairly difficult to keep track of who they are, where they are, and all their various sub-plots. There's Sidney's cousin and the film's protagonist Jill (Emma Roberts), who along with her ex-boyfriend Trevor (Nico Tortorella) and pals Kirby (Hayden Panettiere) and Olivia (Marielle Jaffe) are the first to experience Ghostface's menacing phone calls. We also have the school's cinema club geeks Charlie (Rory Culkin) and Robbie (Erik Knudsen), basically assuming the Jamie Kennedy role from the first two films by explaining how the killer is now playing by the new horror movie "rules" established in the past decade involving reboots, remakes, torture porn and found footage.  Of course, there's the return of Deputy (now Sheriff) Dewey (David Arquette) and his wife, struggling author Gail Weathers-Riley (Courtney Cox). Their relationship is strained not only by her desire to break the case before him to resurrect her journalism career but by Deputy Judy's (Marley Shelton) crush on Dewey. There's also Sidney's overbearing publicist Rebecca (Alison Brie) who's determined to exploit her client's tragedy to become the next Gail Weathers. Needless to say, all these characters are set up as suspects. 

Over-plotted and needlessly complicated, this script was reported to have some major issues in pre-production and after watching what unfolds onscreen it isn't difficult to see how. Throwing an entirely new cast of young, fresh faces into the mix with the originals had to be done but the execution seems way off, with everyone fighting for screen time and more than a few characters not making much of an impression at all. One of them is unfortunately Campbell's Sidney, the supposed linchpin of the series who plays more of a mopey supporting role until the film's (admittedly exciting) climax. The psychological trauma of her coming home to face her past demons is touched on briefly, then discarded simply because there's just too much other stuff going on and the kills are occurring at a mile a minute. The increase is reasonable given the new "rules" but that doesn't change the fact that so many of them happening in such rapid succession lessens the impact and tension. The idea of the killer recording the murders this time around is a really good one, but clumsily introduced and not developed with enough consistency to pack the punch it should, which is a shame considering the interesting places they could have gone with it.

Say what you want about Campbell as an actress (and I happen to think she's an underrated one) but there's always been a strong, tough presence about her, along with with just the right amount of vulnerability, that seemed to make her the ideal scream queen. Maybe that's why Emma Roberts seems like such a lousy choice for the lead. Much more believable as Julia Roberts' niece than Sidney Prescott's cousin, she just doesn't have that presence Campbell had and looks to young for the part. Supposedly Twilight's Ashley Greene was originally considered for her role and with no familiarity of her work I'd still go out on a limb and say she could have possibly been a better fit. But it's of little difference since Hayden Panettiere feels like the true lead as Kirby, owning every scene she's in and out-acting everyone else in this enormous cast by just simply being real, which might be the hardest thing to do in this genre. The movie's biggest surprise might just be how much of an impact she makes with her limited screen time and the firm grasp she has on the material, especially evident in one sensational scene toward the end. Almost single-handedly saving this entire movie, I started to wonder if they'd actually be dumb enough to kill her off since her presence is clearly the best shot this series has at another installment. It's difficult recalling another character in the Scream saga I wanted to pull through more, knowing that the second she dies this franchise is probably going with her.

As for the rest, Arquette and Cox slide back into their old, familiar roles with relative ease, even if Gail Weathers seems a bit more irritating than I remember. In addition to Shelton's deputy (undeniably a comic highlight) you can count Culkin and Knudsen's film geeks as two of the new characters that work well enough to wish even more could have been done with them. Much of the new cast isn't a disaster, with the exception of Tortorella's Trevor who's so bland he actually makes you miss Skeet Ulrich's Johnny Depp impersonation from the the original. Anthony Anderson and Adam Brody also show up as two bumbling cops and it's kind of a shame nothing is really done with the latter since Brody could have easily been set up as the logical successor or sidekick to Arquette's character if the series continues (a big "if" at this point). Then again, with a running time of only 111 minutes it's almost impossible to squeeze all these characters in with speaking parts. Two big name actresses provide an early cameo and I still couldn't help but think it was a total waste of their talents, even by cameo standards.

The ending's a hoot that's for sure. As far as the revelation of the killer(s) it stands among the more clever surprises in the series in that it holds up, partially eliminating some of the bigger story problems up until that point, with one performer somewhat redeeming themselves with an over-the-top turn I didn't think was in them. But the script jammed too much in until then and was already lost in meta nonsense to such a point that it eventually grows indistinguishable from what it's parodying by the finale. Count me among the few looking forward to a Scream reboot, anticipating enough time had passed for a fresh shine to be put on the franchise, especially if the key original cast members were to return, which they did. While I still think this was a great idea and it's not the weakest entry in the series (see the third), it's the first where the tone seems off, alternating unevenly between comedy and horror throughout. It strangely disappoints in a fashion similar to J.J. Abram's Spielberg throwback Super 8 from earlier in the year in that both films had massive built-in nostalgia that could have yielded greatness if only small mistakes were corrected at the screenwriting stage before they became bigger ones on screen. More closely resembling a limp third sequel of an ailing horror franchise than a full-on revitalization, Scream 4 is an entertainingly jumbled mess that had me wishing for more and wondering what should have been.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Pearl Jam Twenty


Director: Cameron Crowe
Starring: Eddie Vedder, Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament, Mike McCready, Matt Cameron, Chris Cornell, Neil Young
Running Time: 109 min.
Rating: Unrated

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Airing as part of PBS's American Masters series and available October 24th on DVD, Pearl Jam Twenty, Cameron Crowe's new documentary chronicling the journey of America's greatest alternative rock band, is all about the blurry line between art and entertainment. It's one group's tireless, twenty year quest to not "sell out." And even though those within the music industry and even many fans detest the term, count me among those who believe that "selling out" is real and that many bands do it. Remaining relevant in a constantly changing industry while continuing to grow as an artist is a delicate balance that seems almost impossible to achieve so they shouldn't be begrudged for using whatever means they can to stay afloat. But there's a reason this movie isn't about any of them and Pearl Jam's the last band standing from the early 90's Seattle grunge movement. They played by their own rules and refused to compromise, in the process redefining their group's identity and what they wanted to accomplish. Few could have guessed when they first broke that Pearl Jam would be running a marathon instead of a sprint, somehow meaning more now than they did then. You'd probably assume I'm a huge fan, but the truth is that even my admiration for them had to grow slowly over time, to the point that it was shock for me to discover just a couple of years ago that their music took up as much space on my ipod as Led Zeppelin's or Bob Dylan's. This film does a great job capturing why and explaining how their music has a cumulative effect that can't be measured by merely hit singles or album sales.

Crowe starts at the very beginning, taking us to pre-1990 Seattle and showing how Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard formed the band from the remnants of Mother Love Bone after the death of their charismatic frontman Andy Wood. Credited as the founding father of the 90's alt rock explosion, a lot of time is spent discussing Wood's influence (accompanied with some mind-blowing archival footage) before getting to the addition of a shy, distant lead singer named Eddie Vedder, who along with Ament, Gossard, guitarist Mike McCready and a revolving door of various drummers would make up Pearl Jam. Documented is the chart-topping early success of their debut album Ten, which spawned a huge hit single ("Alive") and a groundbreaking music video ("Jeremy") just as Vedder was starting to come out of his shell as a frontman. After forming a tight bond with Soundgarden's Chris Cornell, appearing in Crowe's 1991 Gen-X film Singles, jamming with Neil Young and being thrust into a "feud" with Kurt Cobain in the press, the band's popularity grew, along with accusations that they were selling out. It was a stinging allegation echoed by Cobain and one Vedder took very seriously, haunting him throughout his career and informing the band's future. Refusing to release singles or release videos, the band famously went head-to-head with Ticketmaster for their unreasonably high prices in 1994, becoming the faces of a major anti-trust lawsuit. Facing tragedy and becoming more involved in political activism in the following decade, they've managed to persevere, outlasting their contemporaries by rejecting fame and establishing themselves as an unpredictable cult band.

They'll be those who criticize Crowe for spending so much time on the band's formative days in Seattle, perhaps at the expense of the some of their post-2000 work, which is admittedly skimmed over with some excellent live footage. But try as you might to explain it away, where Pearl Jam eventually ended up is very much entangled in what happened then, as the specters of Wood and Cobain seem to hang over the band throughout, a constant voice in Vedder's ear keeping them honest and focused. When Eddie performs Mother Love Bone's "Crown of Thorns" as a tribute to Wood at their tenth anniversary concert in 2000 and it sounds every bit as Pearl Jam as any other Pearl Jam song (if not more so) it's clear why Crowe spends so much time on the early days. While Vedder never met Wood and was never really friends or enemies with Cobain (although lost footage of them slow dancing backstage at the MTV VMA's is perhaps Crowe's greatest find), you're still left with the impression that they're inseparable in music history. That influence manifests itself most in the second phase of their career which saw rock fall out of favor with the mainstream around the time they released 2000's Binaural (the first featuring Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron) and the tragic incident at Denmark's Roskilde Festival where nine fans were crushed to death rushing the stage. Rightfully, this is depicted as the defining event for the band and the moment they decided they would abandon all pretenses of what's defined as success or failure to instead make the music an experience for those loyal enough to have hung around.

It's only when Pearl Jam fell out of the public conciousness and rock's popularity took a nose dive that they grew into the band they were meant to be all along with their crazy live set lists, experimental sounds, bootleg cds and political activism. Of everything, I'm glad Crowe didn't dwell on the latter, electing instead to just show the clip of Vedder's infamous 2003 Nassau Coliseum performance of "Bu$hleaguer," in which he impaled a flaming President Bush mask on his mic stand, grossly misjudging the audience's reaction.  Political context aside, what's lost amongst the silliness of the event but shines through now is just how creepy and demonic the song is, as radical a departure from anything else they've previously done. Many recording artists have pushed politics into their music but they're are amongst the few to incorporate it in such a way that at least doesn't damage the work or detract from what they do. If an argument can be made that the second half of the feature isn't as in depth, it doesn't feel like anything that couldn't be supplemented with a couple of bonus interviews or clips on the special features. If I was slightly disappointed it didn't go on longer, it's not necessarily for a lack of depth, but just simply because I didn't want the thing to end. We do get some alone time with the other members and in what seems like an impromptu moment at home, Mike McCready confirms on acoustic guitar why "Given To Fly" is just about the most awesome PJ song there is.

What really sets this documentary apart from so many others isn't necessarily obvious in form or presentation, but rather in seeing the 90's music scene portrayed with the kind of reverence usually reserved for the 60's in documentaries like Martin Scorsese's Bob Dylan: No Direction Home or his recent George Harrison film, Living in the Material World. Eddie Vedder emerges throughout this as a reclusive, almost Dylan-like figure in terms of his approach to his craft and denouncement of fame. With his unmistakable trademark baritone he's also always been criminally underrated as a vocalist, to the point that a legitimate case can be made for ranking him among rock's all-time greats. And that not enough people know that, or even know what Pearl Jam's done, is why this film feels so fresh. Watching the recent Foo Fighters documentary Back and Forth it occurred to me that besides tracking that band's history, it also spent as much time promoting their latest album. And why not? Where else can they promote it? Hardly any radio stations play rock music. MTV doesn't play videos. They really did have to make a movie for the public to even just pay attention. Vedder, Dave Grohl and Chris Cornell are the only three guys left carrying the torch and for those lucky enough to have been alternative rock fans during that era, it's an emotional release seeing the journey treated with such respect by Crowe, who's the perfect director for the job. His movies have always existed to service the music, making it next to impossible to envision one without the other. This feels like the project that's been waiting on him and the fact that it plays as an unabashed love letter to the band, abandoning all objectivity, only increases the impact. Whether PJ20 will convert the uninitiated or those who never cared for Pearl Jam's music is anyone's guess, but it sure is a thrilling celebration of why that shouldn't matter.

Friday, October 21, 2011

TV on DVD: Dexter (The Complete Fifth Season)


Writer/Producer: James Manos, Jr. 
Starring: Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Carpenter, Desmond Harrington, Lauren Velez, David Zayas, C.S. Lee, James Remar, Julia Stiles, Jonny Lee Miller, Shawn Hatosy, Peter Weller, Christina Robinson, Preston  Bailey
Original Air Date: 2010

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

How do you follow up one of the most exciting seasons of television to air in years? That's the challenge facing the writers of Dexter as they head into their fifth season. It would seem after the creative peak that was season 4, there's no where to go but down and while this is a step down it's at least not nearly as big of one as I expected. The cliffhanger ending of season 4 was shocking to say the least as they made a brave but necessary decision in killing off a major character who definitely ran her course. We're now just starting to see the results of that risky choice and it's still fair to say after viewing these 16 episodes that it was the right one. No one could argue John Lithgow's chilling guest performance as the Trinity Killer was the key to last season's success. The only problem with huge guest starring arcs is that we know the actor can only stick around for a season so their fate is practically predetermined, even if last season pushed the boundaries of that theory as far as possible. And when the performance is as brilliant as Lithgow's, a void is left that needs to be filled and the writers are faced with the unenviable task of topping themselves. Luckily, they knew the best thing to do in that situation was not worry about that and just focus on crafting an entirely different season that makes sense, but also advances the show's overall mythology. The only season that didn't do that was the third, which was mildly entertaining, but essentially a complete throwaway. If I were forced to rank the all the seasons from best to worst it would probably look something like this:

Season 4
Season 2
Season 1
Season 5
Season 3

That's totally bizarre and a testament to just how you really never know where things are going. And of all of them, this is the most convoluted from a narrative standpoint and takes the longest to get going. It's more an observation than a criticism (even if the first few episodes had me a little worried), but once it gets going it doesn't stop and reaches a more than satisfying conclusion. When we last saw Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) he had discovered the lifeless body of his wife Rita (Julie Benz) in the bathtub as baby Harrison sat crying in a pool of her blood, painfully recalling Dexter's childhood experience of he and his brother witnessing their mother's death. Trinity's gone, but not without claiming one last victim and the person most important in Dexter's life. As expected, he doesn't handle it well, or really even at all at first. In a cringe-inducing early scene in the season, he insensitively breaks the news to step-children Astor (Christina Robinson) and Cody (Preston Bailey) they're shipped off to live with their grandparents. It makes sense someone who spends most of his spare time killing serial killers wouldn't be able to grasp how anyone else deals with death. Of course, the only way Dexter can deal with death is killing people so it isn't long before he's back at it for therapy and an encounter with a creepy pest control expert (Shawn Hatosy) leads him to runaway Lumen Pierce (Julia Stiles). The sole survivor of a series of rapes and murders, Dexter may have finally found his soulmate, and someone just as emotionally messed up as he is. The challenge is trust each other long enough to pick off the killers and get her justice, before Dex's sister Deb (Jennifer Carpenter) and his co-workers at the Miami Metro police department follow the blood trail to them.

Julia Stiles is an interesting choice of actress to be burdened with the responsibility of following Lithgow. Skeptics will probably read her character as some kind of a replacement for Rita but that's completely inaccurate since we're not exactly sure she's being set up as a love interest. One of the best things about her story arc is that it takes a very long time to be sure and it could reasonably go either way. The connection between the two is definitely more psychological than sexual and is as much about Dexter exorcising his own demons and coming to terms with Rita's death by helping her. This is far different than the Miguel Prado nonsense from season 3 that served little purpose other than to give Dexter a friend to hang with in the kill room and on the golf course. Watching Stiles is a reminder we've seen too little of her lately and it's an understatement to say this is the most complex role she's ever been afforded the opportunity to play, big screen or small. She's always been at best when inhabiting strong-willed characters and Lumen is definitely that, though the most compelling part of her story arc is how she starts the season as a fragile basketcase, but ends it as someone far different. As a rape victim, murderer, sidekick and runaway she gets put through the wringer in a challenging part, but Stiles nails it with an emotionally raw performance, more than earning her Golden Globe and Emmy nominations. Comparing to Lithgow are pointless especially since it's delightfully creepy Jonny Lee Miller as motivational speaker and suspected murder ring leader Jordan Chase who has the pressure of following in his footsteps as the season's antagonist.

As usual, anything concerning the sometimes laughably incompetent Miami Metro police, lead by Lt. Maria LaGuerta (Lauren Velez) and her new husband Sgt. Angel Batista (David Zayas) holds the least amount of interest, specifically when it's unrelated to Dexter, who spends much of the season on leave from the department. The season's other less involving investigation exists solely for the purpose of creating a feud between potty-mouthed Deb and LaGuerta, who inexplicably still has a job after some of the wild, borderline illegal decisions she's made in command, none more over the top than in this season. Give the writers credit for finally giving us the permission to hate her we've been waiting for all along, but what's great about Velez's performance is that as bitchy as she makes the character she still finds a way to ground it in reality and make her crazy behavior seem at least somewhat believable for a woman in her position. More interesting is Deb's partner and new boyfriend Quinn's (Desmond Harrington) season-long obsession with implicating Dexter in Rita's murder and linking him to Trinity, even going so far as to hire a slimy, crooked cop (played by Peter Weller) to help him do it.

It seems at the end of each season of Dexter I'm telling myself that there's no way the writers will be able to close everything out and tie up all the loose ends so it ends on a satisfactory note, but somehow they're always able to pull through and make it come together.  This season is no exception and the more I think back on how it concludes the more sense it makes, and even though many could be disappointed by how Stiles' arc ends, it's the only way it could have ended if you want to move forward. Whether Lumen she makes it through alive or not, I won't reveal. This season (its highest rated yet) has also given the great Michael C. Hall a chance to show a more somber, contemplative side to Dexter in the wake of Rita's death, continuing his struggle to exorcise his "Dark Passenger." As much as I hate to say it, we're at the point now where it's time to start thinking about how this all will end, as it's tough to imagine the series continuing at this pace for much longer than two seasons. At the emotional core of the series has always been the big question of how Dex's sister Deb would react to his dark secret and whether she'd still accept him for who he is. This season cleverly gives us our first tease of what that reaction could be. Even though there's this inescapable feeling the series peaked with season 4's finale, Dexter's writers have shown enough ingenuity to inspire confidence that more surprising developments are on tap before we reach the conclusion.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Thor


Director: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgard, Kat Dennings, Idris Elba 
Running Time: 114 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ (out of ★★★★)

Even if writing Thor off as a complete waste of time is probably something I should wait on doing until officially viewing The Green Lantern or Captain America: The First Avenger, the fact still remains that it's pretty underwhelming. It's yet another 2-hour commercial for Marvel Studios, who still seems more interested in promoting their other superhero properties than focusing on the task at hand. At this rate, considering the amount of time and effort they've spent promoting next year's The Avengers, that movie could turn out to be the second coming of The Dark Knight and no one outside its core fanbase would even care since it's been shamefully shoved down our throats for three years. They're at it again here, indulging in silly clues and distracting cameos. It's a big misstep, but hardly the worst of Thor's problems. Not when you have a sleep-inducing backstory for the protagonist, an overabundance of distracting CGI effects and a charisma deficient villain. Things get a little better once the story starts to play out and at least the most prominent role is well cast, but Marvel really needs to get its act together moving forward. As a mix of action-comedy and fantasy, Thor's somewhat original in its approach, but a disappointment just the same.

Most of the first hour is spent on Thor's origin story, and it's a drag. Information that could have easily been dispensed via voiceover or even a brief flashback over the opening credits feels like it's given nearly half the running length of the movie, in addition to those voiceovers and flashbacks. I understand the desire to give a detailed backstory so we care and it's commendable (it definitely worked for Christopher Nolan in Batman Begins), but the problem is that Thor's is silly. It's a weird and not entirely successful mix of mythology and comic books, with a Shakespearean style family feud thrown in for good measure. That the director is Shakespeare veteran Kenneth Branagh explains a lot, as does the presence of Sir Anthony Hopkins as King Odin of Asgard, father to Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston). When the quick-tempered Thor stages an attack against Laufey, the Frost Giant King, breaking a long-standing peace agreement, Odin banishes his arrogant son to Earth. He's discovered in the New Mexico dessert by scientists Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) and Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings). As he adjusts to life on Earth S.H.I.E.L.D agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) is brought in to investigate, while back on Asgard Loki looks to benefit from his older brother's misfortune, scheming his way to the throne.

The scenes on Earth work much better than those on Asgard, if only because there are some decent comic moments with Thor trying to get used to life in 21st century America and Hemsworth's performance, while not as spectacular as everyone's been claiming, is solid. He looks the part and has surprisingly decent comic timing so it's difficult coming up with alternative actor choices that could have worked any better. Hemsworth (known primarily for his brief role as Captain Kirk's father in 2009's Star Trek) does what he can with the material he's given, even if there's no escaping the fact that a lot of the lighter Earth-bound scenes contrast in tone to the mythological fantasy nonsense it's interspersed with. Hiddleston's Loki comes off as more of a whiner with daddy issues than any kind of serious threat and the intended love connection between Thor and Portman's Jane falls flat and feels thrown together and underdeveloped. If they really wanted to go in that direction it would have been better to eliminate Skarsgard and Denning's characters to narrow the focus on Jane, but considering Denning delivers the film's best one-liners, she may have been indispensable. Given how much she's improved as an actress over the past few years, it's a shame to see Portman take on such a thankless role, but a relief that it likely would have been just as forgettable in anyone else's hands.

On the plus side, he involvement of S.H.I.E.L.D.(Avengers plug #1) Clark Gregg's Agent Coulson wasn't quite as distracting as I expected, but still kind of insulting when you realize we haven't been made to care about Thor to begin with.  As for the inevitable Samuel L. Jackson cameo (Avengers plug #2) as Nick Fury, it at least takes place after the film, avoiding the nightmare that occurred at the end of The Incredible Hulk a couple of years ago when a huge, showboating cameo in the final scene nearly upstaged the entire picture, pissing on the title character for the sake of promoting you know what. But there is a cameo during this film from an Oscar nominated actor (Avengers plug #3) that I won't reveal, but that I had to check what character he was and why he was there probably doesn't bode well for the impact it had, at least for more casual viewers who actually want to see a movie about Thor.

Over the closing credits there's actually a message (Avengers plug #4) reminding viewers to "See Thor in The Avengers." Thanks for the heads up. I'm willing to bet most of the people reading this review (and many others) don't even know what The Avengers is. If Marvel really wanted to promote that film a good start would have been to make this one as good as possible so we'd actually look forward to seeing Thor in it. This does some things right, but there's this inescapable feeling of it being just a teaser for something else, which isn't okay since that's what trailers are for. All movies are made to make money, but I shouldn't be able to tell that while watching them and those decisions shouldn't adversely affect the product on screen. The downside in the entertainment industry to the economic crisis is that everyone's playing it safe, not looking how they can creatively improve the movie they're working on, but promote the next one they haven't gotten to yet. And that, despite some inspired direction by Branagh, is the main problem with Thor. It feels like it exists to generate revenue for the studio rather than excitement for audiences watching it.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

50/50


Director: Jonathan Levine
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard, Angelica Huston
Running Time: 100 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
 
Cancer movies are tough. That could help explain why there's so few of them, and why so few are comedies. It's not exactly the easiest topic to navigate, nor one that'll have audiences rushing out in droves to see it, no matter how skillfully it's handled. Go for the comedy and risk coming off tasteless and tone-deaf. Go for the  drama and risk being sappy and sentimental. You're walking a tightrope. The general advice has always been for screenwriters to just steer clear of the dreaded "C word" altogether, so you'd figure a comedic drama exploring the issue would really be a recipe for a disaster.And that's not even taking into account how you end it. The last thing anyone wants to see on screen is someone dying from cancer, yet you can't have them pull through either because that's pandering to the masses with a "feel good" ending that may not be true to life.That's why it's such a surprise Jonathan Levine's cancer dramedy 50/50 works so well.  Intelligently written and skillfully performed, it succeeds by picking a tone and committing to it the entire way without wavering. It just simply decides to be honest, punctuating it with the right kind of realistic humor.  

Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a 27-year-old Seattle public radio editor who's just been diagnosed with an extremely rare form of spinal cancer. After coldly being delivered the 50/50 survival prognosis he must inform those closest to him of the news, all of whom react differently. His best friend and co-worker Kyle (Seth Rogen) sees the diagnosis as a golden opportunity for both of them to party and pick up women at bars. His girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) insincerely swears to stay by his side as if she's trying to convince herself. His mother Diane (Anjelica Huston) is in hysterics, calling every hour and threatening to move in, all while still caring for Adam's Alzheimer's afflicted father. In coping with the situation Adam befriends chemo patients Alan (Philip Baker Hall) and Mitch (Matt Frewer) and schedules weekly sessions with painfully inexperienced therapist Katharine (Anna Kendrick) who reveals he's only her third patient ever. As Adam starts opening up and sharing his feelings about the diagnosis, the two begin to take more than a professional interest in one another as he struggles to battle his illness.

Of the movies have tackled the topic of cancer before, most have chosen to incorporate it as plot point or sub-plot, never the main course, perhaps in fear that it's just too difficult or uncomfortable a topic to broach over a nearly two-hour time span on screen. What then usually happens is that it feels tasteless, thrown in where it has no place and used as a ploy to evoke sentimentality. Here the cancer is the story and it's written by Will Reiser, a friend of Seth Rogen's who was really diagnosed with a malignant spinal tumor and the screenplay's unusual in how it seems to hold nothing back, but still finds ways to be hilarious. Stranger still is Levine's gift at presenting the material in such an honest, matter-of-fact way that we don't feel the slightest bit awkward laughing along with what happens since the characters are also. It'll be tempting for many to say the film gets a lot of tiny details right but without experiencing something like this firsthand or know someone who has, that's too big a declaration to make. More accurately, it feels true by not sugarcoating any of the grimmer aspects, but still recognizing it's still okay to mock the absurdity of it all. Every situation can be absurd, it's just most movies lack the guts to go there, and when they do, the tone feels off. That isn't an issue here.

However you may feel about Seth Rogen as an actor there's no doubting he can say just about anything and get away with it. He's often hit or miss but this is one of the few times everything he says hits the mark and gets huge laughs at just the right moments. Only everyday schlub Rogen could make Kyle's attempts at using Adam's condition to try to get them both laid seem almost sweetly inoffensive and get away with a Patrick Swayze cancer joke. If Jack Black or Will Ferrell tried any of this they'd come off as creeps so his contribution shouldn't be overlooked. It helps he and Levitt have such great chemistry together that you actually believe these two have been best friends all their lives. As for JGL, it's fairly astonishing how well he meets both the physical (he actually did shave his head on screen in one take) and emotional requirements of a role that was originally supposed to be played by James MacAvoy (really?) until he dropped out just before filming. Levitt plays Adam as a great guy who got a raw deal, which, as simple as it seems, is sometimes what happens. There's nothing about what he does that seems overly sympathetic or attempts to pull on the heartstrings, which isn't a surprise since he's proven long himself an actor incapable of giving a dishonest performance if he tried. 

A mark of a smart script is often that the secondary characters are depicted with precision and given realistic motivations. It takes a certain type of person to stick with someone through a cancer diagnosis and it's clear almost immediately that Adam's girlfriend Rachael isn't that person, but without giving too much away it's interesting how Bryce Dallas Howard's complicated performance makes it about more than just that. It's not easy having to play who many will rightfully consider "the bitch" of the movie, but she transcends that, making her an almost pitiable character. I believed someone would do what she did and exactly how she did it. Anna Kendrick's Katharine isn't what she appears to be at first either, her analytical, by the books approach to Adam's situation eventually giving way to her real desire to just go ahead and let him spill his guts. Since she excels at playing characters who use their intelligence as a defense mechanism, at times it feels as if Katharine's holding as much back as he is.

There are no surprises to be found on the way to the finale or when we get there, nor does the film necessarily reinvent the wheel in any department The surprises are in how deftly it handles a topic that's been botched by so many inferior efforts before it and avoids insulting the audiences' intelligence. And the saddest part is that no matter how smart and entertaining I tell someone it is they still won't see it because it's about cancer and I can't really blame them, even if they're missing out on the rare good one. It's one of those chronically uncomfortable topics that people go to the movies to escape so it's difficult to wrap our heads around the idea that a movie exploring it could be both brutally honest and life affirming, rarely succumbing to your typical disease movie sappiness by knowing it's a comedy first. Reading its synopsis, 50/50 would seem to be the least likely audience pleaser you could find, but luckily the results on screen prove otherwise.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Drive


Director: Nicolas Winding Refn 
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, Bryan Cranston, Oscar Isaac, Christina Hendricks, Ron Perlman 
Running Time: 100 min. 
Rating: R  

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

I guess there really is a first time for everything. Watching Drive I was so shocked by the nature of the violence I nearly had to turn away. This seems like a strange reaction given there isn't necessarily a huge amount. Many movies have more. It's all about context. Slow, methodical and hypnotizing, the film builds a groundswell of tension, meticulously exploring every character and emotion until the violence finally arrives. And when it arrives, it's scary as hell. Because we care about the characters, the over-the-top carnage becomes that much more unsettling. Half set-up, the other half pay-off, director Nicolas Winding Refn uses spare parts from decades past to construct a compelling crime drama that's substance is its style. A likely modern classic that actually places demands on its audience, it's a virtual a love letter to the movies that couldn't come at a better time. Those claiming the film's enamored with its own coolness aren't completely wrong, just neglect to mention it earns the right by actually being that cool.

Far from your typical action thriller it stars Ryan Gosling whose nameless Driver finds himself at the center of a gathering storm. The plot is as bare bones as it gets, relying on a unfortunate coincidence that spirals out of control. As a mechanic and part-time stunt driver for B-movies who moonlights as a getaway man, Driver's precision and attention to detail is on full display in a brilliant prologue where he helps two burglars evade the cops. The entire sequence, set to Cliff Martinez's retro infused synthesizer score lays out the ground rules and takes us into his isolated world, soon to be shattered. Just as he falls hard for his new neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and befriends her young son Benecio (Kaden Leos), her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is released from prison and wants to make amends, but he's made a few enemies who are now threatening his family's safety. Out of unspoken loyalty to Irene and Benecio, Driver agrees to a dangerous robbery that goes horribly wrong, engulfing him in a cat-and-mouse game where he must risk his life to protect them. At the same time he's also recruited to do some racing for friend and boss Shannon (Bryan Cranston) who makes a crooked deal with former movie producer Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and his sleazy associate Nino (Ron Perlman). 

When you strip the narrative down to its bare essentials it's a crime thriller populated with the kinds of characters we're used to seeing take a backseat to computer generated effects, high-speed chases and explosions. We get dozens of those every year, some worse than others, with only a few standing out from the pack. Refn instead takes a methodical, atmospheric approach and there's a good chance more casual moviegoers used to being slammed with action in the face at a mile a minute will find it slow and boring. They're entitled to their opinion, but may want to consider the alternative which would have provided a quick high before completely fading from the memory. If anything, this is the kind of film guaranteed to grow in stature over repeated viewings since it's only after you've witnessed the mayhem unleashed in the second half does everything leading up to it seem that much more tragic.

Driver is an action hero in the mold of a Steve McQueen or Clint Eastwood in that he lets his actions do the talking but Gosling does something different with the character that goes well beyond that. He suggests Driver could be a shy introvert that behaves how he does not as a tactic, but because it's who he is. You get the impression something may even be socially off with him and that the emotional connection he forms with this mother and her son could be the closest thing he's had to a real connection with anyone in his life. In fact, he's so quiet and reserved there are moments where we question whether he has feelings for Irene at all beyond just helping, and if he does, whether he's interested or even capable of acting on them. There are a lot of ways to read their relationship and it helps having two top pros in Gosling and Mulligan, conveying more in long stretches of silence than most other actors can with pages of dialogue. Just him stopping over at her apartment for a glass of water feels like an epic event.

While Gosling isn't big in stature, he registers just the right kind of intensity for the role, never making Driver seem flustered, even when he's delivering or receiving the bloodiest of beatdowns. One of the biggest downfalls of recent action movies is the rise of the "pretty boy" plugged in as an insufficient lead to sell tickets instead of kick ass. He proves here beyond a doubt he isn't that and after teetering on the brink of super greatness for a while now, gives the performance that pushes him over the edge into the upper echelon, solidifying him among the best of his generation.  Many have already pointed out that Mulligan seems miscast as Irene and that's exactly the point. It's an intentional miscast meant to throw us off balance as no one would expect the actress who radiates as much warmth and innocence to be trapped in the middle of this dirty, sadistic L.A. underworld. Had anyone else played the role it's likely I wouldn't have cared but her presence transforms a part that's too often one-dimensional in crime thrillers. It's no mystery why Driver seems to instantly fall for her and is willing to sacrifice everything to keep her and Benecio safe.

Cast even more heavily against type, legendary comedian Albert Brooks is absolutely terrifying as mob boss Bernie Rose. He's only in a few choice scenes, but boy are they disturbing, especially one he shares with Cranston so tense it's almost difficult to watch. Abandoning his usual comic persona, his character's the embodiment of pure evil and his slick, cold, business-like demeanor is the antithesis of Gosling's everyman hero. Given the rare opportunity to sink his teeth into a vastly different kind of role, it's a thrill seeing Brooks subvert expectations, providing an uncomfortable contrast in a film that completely revolving around uncomfortable contrasts. It wouldn't be off the mark to describe it as an 80's style romance that careens into blood soaked tragedy. That Refn can make those two wildly divergent genres co-exist in perfect harmony is perplexing but the neon pink opening titles and retro electronic pop soundtrack (featuring Kavinsky's "Night Call" and even more memorably College's "A Real Hero") not only fit right in, but feel just as integral to the story as the characters themselves.

This is exactly the kind of movie you can picture Quentin Tarantino kicking himself for not attempting. Could he do it as well?  Possibly, but he'd have to curb his penchant for having his characters talk about how cool it is they're in it rather than building tension and suspense. This is the result when the right director, cast and material all come together at once, and it's poor box office performance isn't a huge surprise given the polarizing risks Refn takes. It's just too challenging, representing the type of film mainstream audiences have been programmed to hate after being weened on truckloads of generic Hollywood garbage each year. Now when something's finally done right, it feels wrong, if only for daring to be different. Drawing from a myriad of influences that suggest it was transported from another era, Drive still feels wholly authentic and original, proving that action and violence mean little without an investment in the characters.