Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Young Adult

Director: Jason Reitman
Starring: Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Patrick Wilson, Elizabeth Reaser, Collette Wolfe
Running Time: 94 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Young Adult is the sneakiest kind of great movie. The type that decides to stay and hang out a while. It doesn't seem like much while I was watching it or even a few hours after, but days later it crept up on me. I saw it a week ago and its been replaying in my head since. The plot can probably be summed up in a single sentence but the layers that can be peeled away from its main character seem endless. It's brave and gutsy, literally basking in its own pessimism since any other approach would just seem dishonest. A lot of viewers are going to have strong opinions about this protagonist who hits close to home in a very disturbing way. If you aren't her or at least possess a few of her less than desirable qualities, chances are you know someone who does. But as pathetic and despicable her behavior is, I can't remember a recent movie character I've felt deeper sympathy for or understood better. What happens with her is just awful and whether you can relate to her or not, there's no question this film ventures to uncomfortable, taboo territory most dramas, much less other dark comedies, refuse to go. Most will probably detest this character, but for me there were points where I wanted to reach through the screen and give her a hug. So it's a good thing the Juno team of director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody won't, remaining true to her cruel, funny, unsentimental journey of emotional self-destruction right up until the closing credits.

For many high school is remembered as worst time of their life. That divorced 37-year-old Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is desperately trying to recapture it should give you a good idea how empty her present situation is. The ghost writer of a once popular but now canceled series of young adult novels spends more time in her Minneapolis high rise sleeping, drinking liters of diet coke and watching reality TV than she does writing. She might also be an alcoholic. With the deadline fast approaching on what will be her last book in the series she receives news that her old high school boyfriend Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) is now married and his wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser) just had a baby. So with only her small dog Dolce and a mix tape she gets in her Mini Cooper and embarks on a road trip back to her hometown of Mercury, Minnesota to try to break them up. Stopping at nothing to reclaim her man, she runs into former classmate Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), who who was left permanently disabled by an attack in high school that made national news as a "hate crime" until it was discovered he wasn't actually gay. While he's as stuck in the past as she is, Matt isn't as delusional and seems to be the only one capable of seeing through her and telling it like it is. Even he knows her plan is a bad idea. But that doesn't mean there's anything he can do to stop her from humiliating herself and others.

The movie refuses to romanticize either side of the equation. It instead paints an unrelentingly sad and depressing portrait of failed dreams and small town life. Mavis' obsession with reclaiming her glory days (yes, like the Springsteen song) isn't presented as anything other than pathetically sad. There are no flashbacks presenting an idealized version of the past that would somehow justify her behavior to us. When she returns home to her old bedroom it's untouched since the early '90's. Any music used on the soundtrack from that era aren't obvious nostalgia-baiting choices and the ones that do pop up (like Teenage Fanclub's "The Concept" playing on a continuous loop during her drive) are meant to reflect the her delusion and obsessions more than anything else. Things back home aren't that great either. It would have been easy to show how exciting the locals' lives are so her actions would look worse and the issues would seem black and white. But nothing in this film is easy.

From Mavis' perspective we can kind of see how she'd view Buddy's life as "boring" from the outside looking in. Normal people living normal lives. Buddy never left his hometown, has worked at General Mills for years, married a cool girl who plays drums in a mom band for fun and changes diapers. Certain things are expected of you as you get older and most resemble what he's doing. Cody's script dares to ask why people make that choice and what happens to those who don't. Whether his life's exciting or not or whether she thinks he's happy is far from the point. He's moved on. So has her hometown. She hasn't. As mundane and unfulfilled she may think their lives are, the real problem is her inability to admit it's the life that slipped away. But doing that would mean actually coming to terms with her past instead of defiantly living in it.

Buddy's reaction to Mavis' return is odd and brilliantly ambiguous. We're not sure what he knows, or if he knows anything. Patrick Wilson's become an expert at playing "Mr. Nice Guy" and gets even more practice here. At various points we're not sure if he's pitying her, trying to be friend, completely repulsed, genuinely interested, stringing her along, or walking on eggshells with someone he thinks needs help. It may as well be all of them. Or none of them. The same could be said for his wife's reaction, which isn't one you'd expect considering her husband's old flame has just come charging back to town to steal him. Mavis' only friend and voice of reason turns out to be the kid whose locker was next to hers in high school, but she didn't bother talking to. Patton Oswalt's Matt is a lonely, but refreshingly honest character slightly reminiscent of the more tortured one he played a couple of years  ago in Big Fan. Only when that film's curtain was pulled back, it revealed itself as nothing but a joke with his hapless protagonist serving as the punchline, despite his earnest performance. Here he provides better, even more essential supporting work in a black comedy that doesn't chicken out. While Matt shares certain similarities with Mavis, he possesses a self awareness she lacks and his straight shooting with her is where most of the film's dark humor comes from. He knows what his deal is and thought he accepted it. Her return opens those wounds up, but he's the only person who truly gets what she's going through.

This is a fearless, tour de force performance from Charlize Theron that's not just easily the best of this year, but on par with her 2003 Academy Award-winning performance as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster that Roger Ebert famously called one of the greatest in the history of the cinema. Mavis is a different kind of monster but I think I appreciate Theron's work here even more because there's no physical transformation anyone can point to as an excuse. While ugly on the inside, she does change in and out of so many different outfits and tries out so many different hairstyles that they almost become costumes and masks, with the last being the most symbolic of all. There's a moment when Mavis eagerly waits at the bar for her reunion with Buddy in this low-cut black tank top, it's a credit to Theron that we completely understand why he isn't even tempted. Mavis' self-loathing, desperation and bitchiness pierce through the actress' eyes with every glance and eye roll. She cuts with every intentional or unintentional sarcastic put-down. At one crucial point when Mavis is told she's "better than this" we believe it's true because in even the smallest throwaway moments Theron still subtly hints at the potential lost. She's in bad shape but hasn't hit bottom. At least not yet. After a brief acting hiatus Theron comes roaring back with this and the sad thing is she probably won't even be nominated. Oscar voters can't ever seem to handle it when beautiful actresses take on ugly, challenging characters unless they physically disguise themselves. Otherwise it feels too real. Here's hoping they make an exception because she's nothing short of amazing. 

Add this to the already long list of great writer movies, as this script really nails the painfully funny details. Whether Mavis is staring at the blank page only to opt checking her e-mail or taking her laptop to fast food joints to eavesdrop on conversations, this is the kind of troubled, messed-up, inside-her-own head character that could only be an author. When she writes that a couple has "textual chemistry" you can't help but laugh knowing it's the same too hip and knowing dialogue that Diablo Cody was mercilessly mocked by the media for employing when she penned her Oscar winning script for Juno. When that opened casual moviegoers reacted as if they didn't even know what a screenplay was before and just realized movies are actually written by someone. She had a very specific, unique voice that turned off as many as it impressed. You'd figure that frustration had to weigh on Cody's mind when she created this character, supposedly inspired by all the probing media questions she faced about why a thirty-something woman keeps writing about adolescents. If this is her response it feels like a giant middle finger, this time using the protagonist's perceived coolness and cleverness as a mallet to club audiences. It's the anti-Juno. And for director Jason Reitman this is by a landslide his most compelling  work yet, marking a full turn to the dark side after flirting with edgy satire in Thank You For Smoking and Up in the Air.

It seems every year people like to say a certain film "hits the zeitgeist." The term is so casually thrown around nowadays it may as well mean nothing. But finally here's one that hits it dead center. It feels so timely, targeting our culture's current obsession with nostalgia and convincing ourselves that things were better back when we thought we were better, whenever that was. Like the celebrities we simultaneously despise and idolize, Mavis functions as the mirror in which we view ourselves at our worst and it isn't pretty. But it's honest. Whether we want to admit it or not, there's probably some of her in all of us. It definitely strikes fear in me. Here's a character slightly older than I am, listens to the same type of music I did and went to high school during my era. I always say one of the weirdest things for me is seeing peers from childhood as married parents. And you'd have to not be one to really understand why that's so. This film fully articulates that feeling.
Most go to the movies to escape people like Mavis Gary, not find out what makes them tick. It's almost as if the homewrecking villain in a romantic comedy were made the lead, but given actual motivation and complexity. We expect certain things in films and a likable protagonist is one of them. And if they're not, they at least need to experience growth of some sort. While it might be a stretch to say she achieves none, it sure isn't much. Instead she's given a final act "pep talk" that further feeds her narcissistic delusion. It's clear her road to recovery will be a marathon rather than a sprint, if there's even recovery at all. And yet, that's strangely reassuring. This isn't a coming-of-age story but instead a vicious, bracingly blunt character study that goes for the jugular, creating some cringe-worthy moments that only sting that much more because they feel real. Proof that it's always the darker, riskier movies like Young Adult that cut the deepest, unafraid of going to the brutally honest places misplaced sentimentality too often prevents.

Thursday, December 22, 2011


Director: Gavin O'Connor
Starring: Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton, Nick Nolte, Jennifer Morrison, Frank Grillo, Noah Emmerich, Kurt Angle, Kevin Dunn
Running Time: 140 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Not exactly Rocky, but not quite The Fighter either, Gavin O'Connor's mixed martial arts drama Warrior failed to make much of an impact at the box office when it was released in September, despite some surprising critical acclaim. Now, only two months later the film gets a second chance on DVD and its defenders are proven right. The movie definitely deserved better. Fully embracing genre cliches while also subverting them, it's the rarest of competitive sports movies, telling its story with intelligence and restraint. It's preposterous to believe a schoolteacher and marine could enter a mixed martial arts tournament with professional fighters and make it past the first round, much less to the finals. It's even more preposterous to believe that both could. And it's downright implausible that those two men would be estranged brothers with a grudge. But Warrior makes you believe. I never doubted any of it for a second because the film's so upfront and honest about its intentions. It doesn't cheat or play games, supplying instead the kind of implausibility we hope to experience when watching movies.

Tommy Riordan (Tom Hardy) and Brendan Conlin (Joel Edgerton) are two estranged brothers who share certain similarities, but mostly seem to be cut from a different cloth. Their father Paddy (Nick Nolte) is a recovering alcoholic who physically abused their late mother and neither are ready to forgive him for it. Now sober and seeking redemption Paddy returns home one night to find Tommy on his doorstep back from the Marines and in Pittsburgh to train for Sparta, a winner-take-all single elimination mixed martial arts tournament taking place in Atlantic City. He asks his father to train him under the condition that their arrangement remain strictly professional and he makes no attempt to reconcile their fractured relationship. In Philadelphia, older brother and retired UFC fighter Brendan is barely scraping by as a high school physics teacher, facing foreclosure on his home despite he and wife Tess (Jennifer Morrison) working three jobs to support their two daughters.  Much to his wife's chagrin Brendan starts fighting again and hires his old friend Frank (Frank Grillo) as his trainer to come out of retirement and enter Sparta, knowing the winning purse could get them back on their feet. It's not a spoiler to reveal that the two brothers will clash in the finals and settle their differences in the ring. The most welcome aspect of the script is how it makes no attempt to hide that. It just builds and builds, raising the stakes until we finally arrive at the inevitable confrontation. And what a confrontation it is.

The movie is remarkable for just how little is revealed about what exactly happened to this family. At some point there was clearly a major sibling rift with Brendan eloping with Tess at a young age and Tommy staying to clean up their parents' mess and take care of their ailing mother. They never forgave each other, or their father. Something happened with Tommy in the Marines, the details of which become clear later. Details are unimportant here and other than a brief, heated argument on the beach the brothers are kept apart the entire film and little is actually discussed. There's too much pain in this family to even try that. They do all their talking in the cage. Tommy, the former high school wrestler, is a silent monster. No entrance music. With a single blow he knocks his opponents out and it's over within minutes. Brendan's the scrappy underdog. Beethoven is his entrance music. Every fight is a struggle, taking a brutal beatings until somehow finally squeezing out a submission victory. The dichotomy of their fighting styles couldn't possibly differ more and tells more about them as individuals and their past than any line of dialogue could. Director Gavin O'Connor knows this, wisely holding back to let the matches tell the story. And we do see a lot them. Arguably so many that you'd think you ordered a pay per view. With appearances from real life MMA fighters like Nate Marquardt and Anthony Johnson and pro wrestler Kurt Angle the movie seems like it should be watched with friends at a bar instead of at a theater or on DVD. And if any sport is prone to upsets and shockers it's this one, making the far-fetched scenario of the central premise actually work in the story's favor.

Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton look like they belong in the cage with them, especially Hardy who looks to have bulked up beyond belief for this part and could step in and challenge Brock Lesnar right now. Both he and Edgerton bring an intensity that perfectly compliment and inhabit their characters. Nick Nolte is given his most meaningful role in ages, a performance highlighted by an emotionally uncomfortable but riveting scene in the film's third act that's bursting with sadness and regret, showing the toll this entire situation has taken on him. Jennifer Morrison turns in above average supporting work in what's usually the very average, thankless role of a disapproving wife. But the film's smarter than that. Far from the screaming nag or shrinking wallflower we're used to seeing sports wives depicted as in movies like this, it never feels like she's around for the convenience of the plot. She legitimately fears her husband could be killed and intelligently argues why. And she's right. He could. Even the principal (Kevin Dunn) at the school Brendan works is presented and portrayed with an intelligence uncommon to the genre. He suspends a good physics teacher because it's his job, not because he wants to. And with each victory Brendan racks up, he's cheering as loud as anyone. Who wouldn't think it was cool their teacher's an ultimate fighter? All the little details are spot-on.

If someone told me they couldn't keep it together and tears flowed in the final minutes I couldn't say I'd blame them. All the emotion is earned. O'Connor expertly stages the final fight, where the built-up tension finally comes to a head and explodes like a powder keg when the two brothers face off. It's a prime example of how you tell a story with action. Every move and blow means something and besides being legitimate doubt as to who will win, we're not even sure who to root for. The film takes the well-worn cliche of the "big game" or "final fight" and flips it on its head, presenting a contest between two combatants equally deserving of a victory. How often does that happen? Like Moneyball, the other successful sports film this year, the actual outcome is irrelevant. These guys just have to just get out this out of their system, expressing themselves the only way they can, and with that comes the possibility of moving on. Warrior couldn't be a more accurate title, and the movie lives up to it.       

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Horrible Bosses

Director: Seth Gordon
Starring: Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, Jason Sudeikis, Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston, Colin Farrell, Jamie Foxx
Running Time: 98 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

There's a great premise powering the laughs in Horrible Bosses and the best news is that the movie mostly delivers on it. But the main reason to see it are for the wildly entertaining performances of the three stars playing those bosses. Two of them have never played parts even closely resembling the ones they do here while the third may as well be considered an expert at it by now. Once you get past that the plot becomes kind of disjointed, but it's to director Seth Gordon's credit that he doesn't hold back or wimp out like so many other interchangeable R-rated comedies released each summer. At least it feels like a dark comedy and holds firm in that approach throughout.  If it's true that the most effective kind of comedy comes out of the absurdity that is everyday life than this already has a leg up since it's likely many will feel it strikes a comical nerve even before the opening credits start rolling.  

Office Space meets Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (or Throw Mama From The Train as one character hilariously refers to it as) when three longtime friends Nick (Jason Bateman), Dale (Charlie Day) and Kurt (Jason Sudekeis) plot to murder their bosses. While all three have wildly different superiors, Nick easily has it the worst. His boss at the financial firm is Dave Harken (Kevin Spacey) who cruelly dangles the carrot of an unattainable promotion in front of his face while emotionally abusing him. Whether he's berating him for being exactly two minutes late or tricking him into drinking liquor on the job, Nick's had about about all he can take. Dale, who's dream in life has always been to become a husband works as a dental assistant to Dr. Julia Harris (Jennifer Aniston), who sexually harasses him all day and threatens to tell his finacee they slept together unless, of course, he actually sleeps with her. Kurt is an accountant in a dream job until his beloved boss (Donald Sutherland) suddenly dies and the company is entrusted to his cokehead son Bobby (Colin Farrell). After consulting a hitman (played by Jamie Foxx) he suggests they kill each others bosses making the deaths appear to be accidents. Things don't go nearly as well as planned.

The screenplay faces a bit of a problem once all the cards are on the table and we meet the bosses and the convoluted murder scheme gets under way. Spacey, Aniston and Farrell are so entertaining and their antics so outrageously over-the-top we almost don't want to see them killed since it'll spell the end of their screen time. The movie cleverly works its way around this problem and as complicated as the entire plot gets the one thing that can't be said is that it's predictable. It's difficult joining three different sub-plots, cross-cutting between them and making sure each gets equal attention but for the most part it's successful. Spacey's performance as the tyrannical Harken is phenomenal because he's smart enough to know to go at it completely straight and deadly serious as if this were no less dramatic a part than the similarly abusive boss he played in 1995's Swimming With Sharks. 

Aniston has never been better in a comedy than here, completely letting loose as this vulgar, oversexed maneater, while seemingly relishing the chance to finally play a role that betrays her bland, cook-cutter image. It's a much needed change of pace and the biggest surprise is how comfortable she appears to be doing it. And kudos to the writers for openly acknowledging Dale's situation is awesome rather than "horrible," with his friends understandably wanting to trade places with him. Usually it's Jason Bateman who makes every comedy he's in better (and he still does as Spacey's hapless victim), but It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's Charlie Day who gives the film's best comedic performance, an impressive feat considering the talent of his co-stars. With a squeeky voice and a horrified expression, everytime Aniston disrobes or comes on to him Day makes you believe this is a truly horrible experience for naive, loyal, man-child Dale. Earning huge laughs with every line, Day proves he's more than capable of headlining a comedy on its own if it comes to that at some point, and it probably will. Unrecognizable with a beard, comb-over and pot-belly, the biggest complaint you can make about Colin Farrell and his sleazebag character is that we don't get to see nearly enough of him. A scene in which forces Sudekeis to choose between firing two employees is a real keeper.

As funny as many scenes are, it could have been even better constructed. The plot does start to fly off the rails once the scheme gets going and it's hard not to think a more solid result could have come out of a set-up this clever. But at least it doesn't hold back or wimp out in a year where it seems nearly every comedy, good and bad, have. The teacher in Bad Teacher really wasn't all that bad. The competing Bridesmaids in Bridesmaids become best friends. So on and so forth. All this has signaled the mainstream "wussifying" of American comedy, reinforcing the belief that audiences need to be sent home with a positive, life-affirming message in order for the movie to make money. That might be okay for a drama, but it's more problematic for a raunchy comedy. I just want to laugh. That's it. The tone here is spot on. Upbeat, but still retaining a spirit of anarchy. Horrible Bosses wisely doesn't shy away from depicting its title characters as unredeemable and one-dimensional, which is precisely why it works.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger

Director: Joe Johnston
Starring: Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Dominic Cooper, Neal McDonough, Derek Luke, Stanley Tucci
Running Time: 124 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★) 

Captain America: The First Avenger is Marvel's final puzzle piece in building toward next year's The Avengers, a movie everyone but me seems to be greatly anticipating. Perhaps if they hadn't botched every other film leading up to it by treating each as a full-length trailer I'd have taken a more optimistic view. As it stands, Captain America (I refuse to refer to it again by its clunky sub-title) is probably the best of the bunch. Or rather the least worst. Or at least better than Iron Man 2 and Thor. Yet something still seems to be missing, despite an effective lead performance and a decent story from which to draw from. But don't get me wrong. I'm not saying 1990's hilarious direct-to-video Captain America (starring J.D. Salinger's son!) is better. It's worse in every possible way. But given the choice of inviting friends over and having a bad movie viewing party featuring that forgotten stinker or watching the new version again, you can take a guess which I'd choose. One was clearly made with passion (and maybe a special sense of humor) but is dreadful. The other is a slick, safe, well-oiled, special effects machine that isn't completely passionless, but is kind of an empty spectacle with little re-watch value. Pair both up and you'd have really interesting double feature.

This story takes place in 1942 during World War II with underweight asthmatic weakling Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) dreaming of enlisting in the Army to serve his country. He's patriotic and motivated but his physical limitations are too big an obstacle to overcome. That is until he encounters Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) whose latest scientific experiment to create a "super soldier" turns him into a much stronger, buffer Steve. His full transformation into superhero gets underway when he goes from selling war bonds under the guise of the costumed "Captain America" to battling the sadistic Johann Schmidt A.K.A. Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), the leader of a Nazi-like organization called HYDRA that plans to influence the outcome of the war and take over the world. Or something like that. At his side fighting the good fight is best friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), British agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and Col. Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones).

By far the most intriguing aspect of the film is everything before Rogers actually becomes Captain America, especially the impressive CGI work that was done to believably make Evans look like a 90- lb. weakling for the movie's first act. This is the kind of special effects work that shows what happens when digital technology is used effectively to suck you into a story rather than take you out. If I didn't know who Evans was I probably wouldn't have been able to detect that this was anyone but a really skinny actor and it's a testament to that technology that when Roger's transformation arrives it feels important and substantial. Then everything goes completely downhill from there as the story evolves into a more common action adventure with poorly realized characterizations and a sanitized  Hollywood version of World War II that feels like it takes place in the present rather than the 1940's.  Granted we don't to superhero movies expecting historical accuracy, but is it too much to ask that the film at least looks like it takes place in the past?  It's just strange seeing what's so obviously modern special effects and sets when we're supposedly in another era.

That this was directed by Joe Johnston who brought us 1991's classic superhero adventure The Rocketeer, is a surprise. It had an authenticity and old fashioned sense of fun this lacks. But in his defense, that's the problem facing all current comic book/superhero movies. They want to stay true to the story, but at the same time everything has to be streamlined to make money and cater to the masses, causing certain elements to be sacrificed. It has to be PG-13. It can't be too violent. Supporting characters can't be too developed. That's how I'd explain what goes wrong in the second half and why it feels so goofy. Very few movies in this genre can achieve that balance and of recent ones only The Dark Knight (and to a far lesser extent Iron Man) have been able to have their cake and eat it too, though an argument can be made both had richer source material from which to draw.  

Chris Evans does a commendable enough job as the lead, even if there's a certain blandness to him that's hard to describe (part of me still thinks the alternate choice of Jon Krasinski would have been more interesting). That the success of the movie doesn't even seem to rest on his shoulders is only indicative of how many other problems there are. Tommy Lee Jones collects a paycheck as the underdeveloped Col. Phillips while Hugo Weaving's Red Skull doesn't get nearly enough face time or attention considering his character's supposed to be the lead villain. I guess we should be grateful he at least has a cool look to him this time around. Hayley Atwell seems to have gotten a lot of attention for her role as generic love interest Peggy Carter and I haven't a clue why since she brings little in the way of charisma to a part that feels tacked on to begin with. I get what the writers were going for in trying to make her a modern military woman in a 1940's action-adventure but since the setting feels inauthentic and the casting is off it ends up not registering at all. What does make a lasting impression is Rick Heinrich's production design and Shelly Johnson's cinematography, both of which make the movie look way better than it actually is. From a technical standpoint, there's no denying everything is top-notch. Whether it needed to be, or it even helps the film, is an another debate entirely.

Even with all its faults Captain America still positions its title character well heading into The Avengers and this is the first Samuel L. Jackson/Nick Fury cameo that seems to exist as part of the narrative rather than as a cheap plug. Even the appearance of a young Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) seems organic to the story. With Rogers' awakening in the present-day after a 70-year cryogenic nap, there's at least a time capsule, fish-out-of-water aspect to this character that makes for a compelling cliffhanger, differentiating him from the other Marvel superheroes. Though I had to laugh at the third act development of Fury trying to convince the time traveling Rogers he was still in the 1940's. It couldn't have taken much considering the retro clean version of that period the film presented seemed so modern anyway. As a prequel to what should be an overwhelming popular superhero gathering next year, this gets the job done. But therein lies my problem. Every one of Marvel's features feels like a prequel to whatever comes next rather than any kind of standalone achievement. We'll find out next spring if that strategy pays off. 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Descendants

Director: Alexander Payne
Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Judy Greer, Beau Bridges, Matthew Lillard, Robert Forster, Nick Krause, Amara Miller 
Running Time: 115 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

It's rare to see a movie as informed by its setting as Alexander Payne's The Descendants. Watching, you get the impression the story couldn't have taken place at all if it didn't take place in Hawaii. The characters wouldn't feel what they feel, do what they do and the entire mood, atmosphere and pacing would seem off. The Hawaii we're presented with here isn't one we've been made aware of before, at least in movies. The opening voiceover even let's us know that much. It's more depressing than exotic, so unlike the vacation destination we've seen on postcards that it doesn't even register as the same place. If only Hawaiian locals only went to the beach all day, rode waves and had drinks with little umbrellas in them like we we've been told they do for years. This is the first time it hasn't been depicted as pure paradise and in doing so Payne fittingly humanizes this film's setting as much his characters, showing real flaws and imperfections that somehow lead to a greater appreciation of both.

While people who live in paradise still have problems, they're hopefully not as big as the ones plaguing real estate lawyer Matt King, played by George Clooney in a dialed down performance sure to net him another Oscar nomination. With his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) laying in a coma after a boating accident, the wealthy lawyer has been entrusted to a large, lucrative piece of land passed down from his ancestors. With the state and his family waiting on pins and needles he must decide as sole trustee whether the family should sell to cash in or hold on to the property. Coming off the bench as the "back-up parent" he has to deal with his two daughters. 10-year-old foul-mouthed Scottie (Amara Miller) is acting out at school and at home while her angry, rebellious 17-year-old sister Alex (Shailene Woodley) returns from boarding school, giving Matt the shocking news that their mom was cheating on him.

Moving at a methodical, appropriately laid-back pace for most of its running time the story really starts finding its rhythm when the big revelation about Elizabeth's infidelity arrives. That's the turning point. From then on the story takes some twists and turns with the land sale figuring into the personal story in a way that's unanticipated without feeling forced. What's interesting is that despite being on life support in a hospital bed the entire and never even being seen in flashback the narrative forces the viewer to form strong feelings about Elizabeth as we watch those closest to her react to the news of her betrayal. It wouldn't be off base to say that the more we learn about her the less we like, to the point I could honestly say I hated her. That's a strange declaration to make when the offender in question is already laying in a coma but that feeling seems to be exactly what Payne is going for since the characters struggle with that as well. Matt is in shock, plagued by the insatiable urge to track down the man she was cheating with, a sleazy island realtor named Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard, a long way from Scream). Or rather it's assumed he's sleazy from a single fact and it's kind of funny how it seems we know everything about him before the actual introduction, or want to believe we do.

The quest to find Speer turns the movie into a road trip with Matt, Scottie, Alex and her dim-witted boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause), who shoots off wildly inappropriate comments at the worst moments. They have to contend with Matt's grumpy father-in-law Scott (Robert Forster) who blames him for his daughter's accident just as he faces increasing pressure from cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges) and his extended family about the land sale.  Anticipation builds for the family's eventual encounter with Speer, a meeting that somehow surpasses expectations. That's when things really get crazy. And I haven't given anything away. It all could have easily played like a soap opera (which it kind of is) but there's a brutal honesty and truthfulness to the scenes that keep it from going into shallow territory. It's a thin line to walk but Payne never crosses it, nor do his actors.

Sad and weary-eyed, wearing old man khakis and flowery shirts, Clooney downplays the movie star charisma he's famous for, just as he did in last year's The American. As a parent completely defeated by life, he brings a depressed vulnerability and hangdog physical presence to Matt we're not used to seeing from the actor. If it's not his best performance, it's sure way up there and will easily net him another Oscar nomination. And if he wins I can't say I'd have a problem with it. For all the jokes about his popularity and "Mr. Hollywood" persona these past few years, he's been taking on more meaningful projects and pushing himself in different directions as an actor, refusing to ever take the quick payday when he very easily could.

If Clooney does win, he can probably give cut the statue at its waist and give half to Shailene Woodley, who rises to the near impossible task of making us not only understand Alex, but see how her actions could actually be justified under the circumstances. Saddled with the film's most emotional scenes, she slowly peels the layers away to reveal Alex is far from just the spoiled brat we'd assume from her initial introduction. Equally strong and vulnerable, she gives a beyond her years performance that never tells the audience what to think or feel and seems in perfect harmony with the script. That she's only been known until now for starring in ABC Family's The Secret Life of The American Teenager, of all things, stands as proof that undiscovered talent can come from anywhere at any time, and all it takes is one performance in the right project.

Lillard's cheating Brian Speer doesn't build up as much disdain as comatose Elizabeth, at least until we meet his wife. Then viewers will want to wring his neck. That's because she's played by Judy Greer. Unarguably the most underrated, instantly recognizable actress working today, she's finally freed here from the shackles of the "best friend" in romantic comedies as she steps up to the plate in a third act dramatic role that isn't necessarily any larger than those those, but ten times more complex. It's difficult to get into without spoilers but you can argue the story doesn't fully register until Greer arrives, going toe-to-toe with Clooney and turning what could have been a cliche of the scorned wife into the character I walked away caring what happened to most. Here's hoping this part helps break her through into the leading lady ranks where she's belonged for a long time.  I'd say I wished the entire movie were about her, but it in many ways it actually is. Or rather it's about how sometimes a life situation gets so bad you're left with no choice but to let go, rather than risk the anger completely consuming and destroying you.

It's becoming increasingly difficult going into a movie knowing it's a big awards contender and hearing about Oscars even before seeing the results on screen. While the problem should be that it puts more pressure on the film and sets unreasonable expectations I instead frustratingly find that the opposite is true. These movies almost seem to have an unfair advantage from the start since it's common knowledge that the best films are usually reserved for the final two months of the year. This makes it easier for the movie but a bigger challenge for the critic who has to throw out all that other information out the window strengths and weaknesses.

The Descendants isn't perfect, but it's close. Coming from someone who thinks voiceovers often get a bad rap, I still have done without Clooney's over-explanantory narration since it just doesn't point out anything we can't see for ourselves. Also, a noble attempt to develop the Sid character doesn't seem to register like it should. This is the first film to use exclusively authentic Hawaiian music in lieu of a traditional movie score and it makes a big difference in terms of conveying mood and atmosphere, even if there's this small part of me that wanted one huge music moment. For some reason it seemed like a classic Cat Stevens song would have fit in perfectly. It's just that kind of movie.

It's still unclear how it ranks against Payne's previous efforts like Sideways, Election and About Schmidt but it already feels weightier than those and more substantial. There's something about it's style and approach that stays with you even though the story, with a few surprise exceptions, is fairly universal and basic. Given it's been 7 years since his last film, it's a credit to how skilled he is at telling human, truthful stories that the wait felt even longer than that. In a way this is my favorite type of film: an intimate writer-driven piece interested in exploring real people dealing with actual problems. It sounds like a cliche, but in the right hands it can be the most satisfying form of entertainment because it tends to stick around after you've left the theater. It's easy to see what all the fuss is about since The Descendants is the kind of intelligent adult drama that's increasingly hard to come by.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Muppets

Director: James Bobin
Starring: Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, Rashida Jones, Jack Black
Running Time: 103 min.
Rating: PG

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

I knew within the first ten minutes of watching The Muppets that co-writer, star and lifelong Muppet fan Jason Segel nails it, putting to rest any doubts a new movie couldn't capture the true spirit of Jim Henson's original creation. Segel plays Gary and it makes perfect sense he would have grown up with a puppet brother named Walter. Of course they'd still live together as adults. And of course Gary would have a girlfriend named Mary who couldn't be played by anyone other than Amy Adams. And she'd worry that he still shares his bedroom with a puppet. This is the Muppets universe and Segel nails it even before they show up. A genuine joy from start to finish, the film asks whether there's still a place in our cynical world for the Muppets. Have we moved on? While the question is kind of horrifying, it's sadly not without merit considering how long they've been absent.

Attributing any favorable reaction exclusively to nostalgia would be kind of silly though, considering that's exactly what the movie's plot is built on. While kids will probably love this the movie's central concept leaves little doubt the primary audience just may be grown-ups who remember what it's like to be kids. That feeling is brilliantly conveyed through the new character of Walter who gets to tag along with Gary and Mary on vacation to Muppet Studios in Los Angeles. Now run-down and dilapidated, it's discovered the studio is being purchased by greedy oil tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) who plans to tear it down and drill unless the Muppets can raise 10 million dollars to buy it back. So now Walter, Gary and Mary have to track down Kermit and the gang and convince them to reunite for a telethon.

When we do catch up with Kermit, Fozzie, Gonzo, Animal and Miss Piggy it's relief to find out find out they return with their Henson era Muppet Show personalities intact. After Henson's death the property lost its way in the 90's with Muppets in Space and Muppet Treasure Island failing re-capture that magic, instead shoehorning them into parody. They've really been gone a lot longer than anyone's willing to admit. It was never that the public didn't want them anymore but rather they didn't want many of the misguided latter projects in which they appeared. What was always most endearing about the Muppets was how life-like each seemed, easily recognizable by not only their names, looks and mannerisms, but individual characteristics. As strange as it sounds to say of puppets, they seemed to have personalities that reminded us of ourselves at our best and worst, and that's where much their appeal came from. Those later movies took that away, and once you do that, there really isn't much left. Segel and Stoller bring it back, which becomes clear when we see Kermit again, reacting to news of a potential reunion exactly how Kermit should and would. Always the ringleader of the group and rallying the troops, this is the first time we've ever seen the character in a state of total hopelessness. In an empty, secluded mansion reminiscing of fun times with the gang that seem long gone (poignantly realized in the musical number "Pictures in My Head"), it's Kermit in need of inspiration this time. As for the rest, Fozzie's a failed comic, Animal's in anger management therapy, Gonzo's selling toilets and Miss Piggy is a fashion editor in Paris. It all seems in the spirit of how we remember them. 

It's one thing to be true to the original characters, but it's another for director James Bobin, Segel and co-writer Nicholas Stoller to somehow all these years later be able to recapture the exact tone and humor of the Muppets, which is very distinctive and fairly difficult to duplicate. It's a mistake, if not an outright betrayal, to have them be edgy or cynical, but the humor can't seem too juvenile either, as it's always featured inside jokes aimed at adults. Here the entire plot practically demands it. As was done in the original variety show and movies the fourth wall is broken to let the audience in on the fact that the characters get it. Early on, in response to Kermit's refusal of a reunion, Amy Adams remarks it's going to be a really short one. When it's time for a montage Segel's more than happy to let us know we're getting one. Chris Cooper's sneeering villain verbally brags (and at one point even raps) that he's the sneering villain. It's exactly that self-awareness and sense of fun that most of the post-Henson projects lacked and what made the 80's era projects such a communal viewing experience.

The Muppets being rooted in past provide some of the best in-jokes such as Kermit flipping through his old Rolodex looking for a celebrity guest and Walter being told it isn't 1978 anymore. And I'd say it's about time everyone be re-introduced to the awesomeness that is Starship's "We Built This City," as a pop song long derided as soulless corporate rock is redeemed here as the exact opposite, finding its place as an inspirational Muppets anthem and finally sounding like the nostalgic guilty pleasure it was meant to be all along. Segel and Adams, while ceding much of the spotlight to their puppet co-stars, seem to effortlessly slide right into this world. Not only does it feel very natural seeing them act alongside them (which can't be easy) but they're great together and look like they're having the time of their lives, especially during the many musical numbers. Segel has stated being able to make and act in this is a childhood dream come true for him, but what caught me off guard was just how much the performance reflected that. He's like a giant kid in a candy store and doesn't once hit a false or insincere note. Chris Cooper may own an Oscar but now he can say he played the villain in a Muppet movie. Take a guess which I think is the bigger accomplishment. There are many guest appearances and cameos, with two key roles going to Rashida Jones as a TV exec who thinks the Muppets are yesterdays news and Jack Black playing a version of himself. 

If I have a complaint about the film (and it's admittedly a really small one), it's that I expected bigger stars to cameo from what I read and heard about the production. Whether they weren't available, didn't want to appear or certain scenes were left on the cutting room floor I have no idea, but the filmmakers did the best with what they had, as many were cleverly placed and completely in sync with the Muppet tradition. But what's most in in sync with that tradition are the original songs written and produced by Flight of the Conchords' star Bret McKenzie, that meet, if not surpass, the standard of excellence set by classic Muppet songs like "The Rainbow Connection" (which of course also shows up). The two real standouts and likely Oscar nominees for Best Song are the infectiously catchy "Life's a Happy Song" and "Man or Muppet," the latter featuring a musical number so subversively hilarious it wouldn't seem out of place as an SNL Digital Short.

While we all know the two characters who will ultimately take center stage, and justifiably do, I have a feeling the puppet creation that may be most remembered from this movie is Segel's original one. It's a risky move introducing a new Muppet, but it's even riskier making him, not necessarily Kermit or any of the others, the protagonist of the story. Walter's no Jar Jar Binks. Performed by puppeteer Peter Linz and providing many lump in throat moments, he's a brilliantly realized character that not only stands in for all Muppet fans, but children and adults who must overcome a lack of self-confidence to face their fears. One of the more interesting aspects of Walter is his age, or lack of it. That's not a coincidence. He seems to be teetering between childhood innocence and adulthood, with the resolution of that struggle coming to a head emotionally at the end. It's the sophisticated writing of this character's journey that really takes this film to the next level making it a benchmark in family entertainment that should be enjoyed for years to come. And the finale actually warrants discussion in that it isn't exactly what you'd expect, but in a good way. I think. The final few minutes kind of reverses expectations to a point that it almost becomes confusing. Is it happy? Sad? Both? I don't know and it doesn't matter. What does is that this feels like The Muppets and it's great to have them back.