December 31, 2010

The Year in Review: 2010

As usual, it has been difficult to access a lot of the movies of 2010 that were worth seeing. Most of the smaller movies seem to open only in New York and L.A., which is enough to leave you howling with despair if you happen to live in Jacksonville. I'm thankful for Five Points Theatre, which has managed to get some of the smaller movies our way. Sometimes I'm frustrated with their lack of imagination when they do retrospectives, but I'm thankful that because of them I was able to see Howl, which was a flaky little movie but featured some magnificent animation, and also Get Low, which was a wonderfully dark comedy that seems to have been lost in the shuffle of the awards season (like so many others). I'm also indebted to Netflix, which has a large number of 2010 movies available for online viewing, and that's how I was able to see the fascinating documentaries Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work and Casino Jack and the United States of Money.

Rants & Raves of 2010:
Robin Hood, so underrated, was fine entertainment. Russell Crowe was an obvious choice to play Robin Hood, but that didn't change the fact that he was the best choice. The director, Ridley Scott, managed to make something new and exciting out of the old legend. Perhaps people have been blinded by 300 and Gladiator and other movies of that sort, and think Robin Hood has nothing those movies don't have, for as good as it was, Robin Hood struggled at the box office. 

This summer there were a lot of baddies, but I managed to have a good time at The A-Team, which was stupid but often hysterically funny. It was probably one of the lightest comic book movies of late, and it had enough spy-thriller content to make it truly fun, particularly thanks to actor Patrick Wilson's performance as one of the rogue CIA agents. Salt, which featured Angelina Jolie as a rogue CIA agent, was equally fun entertainment, from the director of The Saint, Phillip Noyce. Salt was a lean, fast-paced thriller that brought out Jolie's strengths as an actress: her toughness, her litheness, and her ability to intoxicate the screen. I also liked the oft-maligned Knight and Day. It was a lot more enjoyable than people were willing to give it credit for, possibly because it's currently chic to dislike Tom Cruise. However, He and Cameron Diaz managed to make a fairly unoriginal plot into an amusing adventure. 

The biggest disappointment of the year for me was You Again. There were such wonderful possibilities with a cast that included Sigourney Weaver and Jamie Lee Curtis (and Victor Garber as Curtis's husband, who's a fine actor), who were set up in the movie to be going at it like cats in a box. The movie was simply inept. It plateaued within the first thirty minutes, and I was holding my breath waiting for it to kick into full gear. It never did. There were scattered laughs, but my increased disappointment with the bad writing and the bad acting made them less and less funny. There were better and more frequent laughs in Aliens and Halloween H20 than in You Again. It was probably the lamest movie of the year (possibly tied with Jonah Hex).

Then there was Easy A, a breath of fresh air. Emma Stone was so effortlessly funny as Olive that you were willing to oblige the movie's excessive need to enshrine teenage drama and 80s movies into one big sacred offering. It was Stone's character who undercut the phoniness of the pharisaic teeny-boppers who declared her a modern-day Hester Prynne. A very fun movie, and my favorite comedy of the year (and probably the most fun I had all year. I was rocking with laughter throughout the movie).

I suppose I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge the most overrated movie of 2010, Inception. For everyone who wants to devote a day of fasting and celebration to director Christopher Nolan, I urge you to think through Inception again. Inception is the worst kind of inflated, bombastic nonsense because it tries to elevate itself to something greater, as though this were Nolan's attempt at Citizen Kane. Trashy, clunky movies like The A-Team succeed because of their refusal to take themselves seriously, but trashy, clunky Inception is deadly serious. It's so serious that it's become heresy to suggest that perhaps Inception was a misfire and not a masterpiece. 

Also on the worst list is the latest Twilight installment, the flickering, fluttering Eclipse, which somehow dulled a lot of people into thinking they were having a good time. People continue to chastise me that, "Twilight is meant to entertain teenage girls, and for them it's good." I disagree, because I don't think teenage girls should live with the assumption that Twilight is all there is, or that it's the best of what's new out there either in movies or in literature. They can think through a movie or a book if they're guided by someone with an affection for either or both, and they can see the relative merits and shortcomings of a piece of movie-making, given the right frame of understanding.

Every year I am tempted to write some treatise on the demise of movies, but then I realize that someone has written about that subject just about every year for decades. I encourage curious readers to seek out Pauline Kael's essay, "Why Are Movies So Bad?", which examines the way money has corrupted movies. If you look up the ten most financially successful films of 2010, they're all big productions, mostly geared toward younger audiences. It makes you wish that there was more intelligent stuff being marketed to them (with the possible exception of the Harry Potter movies). However, there are always good movies to seek out if we'll simply take the time to do so, and I hope you found this article insightful and interesting. Here's to 2011 and the good movies--not the bad ones--it will bring.

My favorite movies of 2010: The Social Network, Robin Hood, The King's Speech, The Ghost Writer, The Fighter, Get Low, The Town, True Grit, and Easy A.

Standout performances (in no particular order)
1. Bill Murray in Get Low
2. Emma Stone in Easy A
3. Cate Blanchett in Robin Hood
4. Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech
5. Helena Bonham Carter in The King's Speech
6. Olivia Williams in The Ghost Writer
7. Melissa Leo in The Fighter
8. Jeremy Renner in The Town
9. Barbara Hershey in Black Swan
10. Naomi Watts in Fair Game
11. Jeff Bridges in True Grit
12. Matthew Broderick in Wonderful World


Cheers,

Jacob

December 30, 2010

Black Swan

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) wants to be the lead in Swan Lake. Her obsession with being a perfect ballerina leads to some kind of psychological breakdown a la Roman Polanski's Repulsion. It's the weirdest movie of 2010, one that leaves you feeling cold and disturbed by its bizarreness. Director Darren Aronofsky keeps us up close and personal with Nina throughout the movie, and I don't think there's a single scene she's not in. Her creepy, conniving nemesis, Lily (Mila Kunis), seems innocuous except for the fact that movie keeps telling us over and over again that this is about Nina's destruction in order for another ballerina to take her coveted place. It's like All About Eve in terms of the mousy young novice snatching the spotlight from the aging star. Except, there's a scene in a bar where Nina tells a young man that she's a ballerina and he's completely disinterested in ballet and doesn't even know Swan Lake. So, Nina is obsessed with and being torn apart by something that no one cares about. It's an attempt at marrying "high" art (ballet) with "low" art (movies), and I think in the process they're both taken down a few notches.

The movie has moments that make you think Nina is possessed by a demon. Is this The Exorcist all over again? Then Nina takes some ecstasy at Lily's urging and it seems more akin to Aronofsky's earlier Requiem For A Dream. Black Swan is a movie about how truly beautiful and perfect art can only be so if you are willing to die for it, to be completely consumed by it. And the act must be completed to truly work. There is no half-hearted attempt at perfection. Perfection is death, we are told. Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) as the director of the ballet company, seems convinced of this, but it really just seems like he wants to get laid. He's been feeding such fiddle faddle to the previous ingenue Beth (Winona Ryder), who's forced into retirement by her age (and she's not content to exit the stage in a graceful manner). Beth winds up being hit by a car and disfigured, rendered ugly and useless. And so only the young can truly experience the perfect beauty of art. Those past their prime can die by their own hand but not by the perfection of their craft. 

Meanwhile, Nina has a really sordid relationship with her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), who reminds you of the mom in Carrie (Piper Laurie). The mother-daughter relationship seems to contribute to Nina's madness, but then Aronofsky doesn't seem convinced about what the cause of her madness is. Perhaps it's simply a combination of Nina's unhealthy relationship with her mother and her obsession with being perfect, of being the Star. Regardless, we are being prepped for some kind of Jeckyll and Hyde transformation throughout Black Swan. You spend the entire movie so mired in Aronofsky's cold, freakish world that you experience a feeling of relief when it's all over and done with. Sure it's affecting, but it's also pretty dismal.

Aronofsky loves playing with the imagery of the Double. The movie is full of mirrors. We're beaten over the head with the doppelganger image. And pink seems like the color of death in Black Swan. A pink cake incites a bit of tension between mother and daughter. The hospital curtains in Beth's room are pink. The flowers filling the floor of her room are pink. The towel Nina uses to cover up an increasing pool of blood is pink. Pink, the most obvious and disinteresting symbol of innocent girlhood, becomes a cinematic device just like the mirrors to insinuate things that eventually come to the surface. It's all about Nina's sexual coming of age. The movie's much-celebrated eroticism is something out of a college fraternity boy's wet dream. Nina must find herself via sexual experimentation. She needs to "loosen up" in order to perfect her art. Her skill is brilliant but it's too forced, too skilled in fact, to really propel her into the realm of total emotional abandon. But it's all so creepy that you feel like the worst kind of voyeur for watching.

December 29, 2010

Wonderful World

Wonderful World is a movie about a man named Ben Singer (Matthew Broderick) who's really cynical and expects disappointment and negativity at every turn. Apparently he didn't always view the world this way, but then he got divorced and felt himself becoming alienated from his daughter and bored with his copywriting job (not to mention irritated at the perceived level of idealism of those around him). His only real glimmer of hope is his roommate, Ibou (Michael K. Williams), an African immigrant who goes into a diabetic coma early in the film, initiating Ben's journey down the road of not being such a grumpy pessimist. He meets Ibou's sister when she comes from Africa, and they enjoy a little romantic relationship while they're waiting for Ibou to wake up. It's The Accidental Tourist all over again, except they've replaced flakiness with foreignness. Sanaa Lathan, as the sister, is quite beautiful, and she has a natural warmth about her that makes her character really rather charming.

Matthew Broderick seems to gravitate toward parts where he's a perpetual loser. His pasty, frowning demeanor served him well in movies like Election and You Can Count On Me. In Wonderful World, there are moments when you wonder why on earth you're supposed to care about this schmuck, but his supreme annoyance with the world is somewhat understandable, and he's very believable as a grump. He just can't connect, but he's reawakened by African exoticism and values. Perhaps it's a bit much to believe, but okay.

Wonderful World has a remarkable slightness about it, although you feel compelled to watch anyway, if only to see what becomes of Ben. There's such an inclination that he will dig his own grave and bury himself too, and there's an inkling of belief that in fact Ben gets a kick out of being kicked when he's down. When he gets fired, he's forced to take a job as a pizza delivery man. He faces an uncomfortable moment when he delivers dinner to his former boss (William Ragsdale), who doesn't even seem to recognize him. It's humiliating and degrading, but even more it's a victory for Ben, confirming all of his worst notions about human nature. He's a man in search of such victories, and it's all too easy for him to discover them. He tries to sue the city for neglecting his roommate Ibou--another such search for confirmation that the world is vile and heartless. We're told that, yes, the world is heartless, but we shouldn't give up the ghost so easily. We should put on a happy face regardless and make the best of things.

It's a bit of a Hallmark message for a movie that wants so desperately to be an "indie" drama. Broderick's character, in one of his rants, makes an interesting comment about movies that they're only valued by how much money they make. Indeed, this little film has gotten virtually no notice by critics or audiences, and I think it deserves to be seen. Not because it's a great movie, but because it's interesting. Even as flawed as it is, it was more affecting than most of the high-grade junk that's produced from the studios. It's light even when it's heavy, and it's charming even as it reproduces scenes from other movies we've seen a million times. The movie is downright repetitive at times, but we're pulled into its games rather easily.

With Phillip Baker Hall, as the Man, who keeps turning up in Ben's dreams and marijuana-induced hallucinations. Written and directed by Joshua Goldin.

December 28, 2010

The Fighter

For me, boxing is about as uninteresting as good taste is to Kathy Griffin. I liked Cinderella Man but it's such a bland subject to me that much more is needed than the back and forth of the two prizefighters and the ever popular theme of an underdog triumphing over insurmountable odds. Apparently entire cities of people can rally behind a boxer as though he's a symbol of all their hard work, blood, sweat, values, etc., but how many times do we have to sit through a movie that's made of such subject matter before we're asleep with boredom? Director David O. Russell makes The Fighter less about boxing and more about the family of sleazy, opportunistic worms and their selfish investment in the career of son/brother Micky Ward, whose brother Dick had his time in the limelight in the 1970s against a fighter named Sugar Ray. Dick is now a crack addict, and the addiction keeps pulling him apart from his brother as both a friend and a trainer and mentor. Nevertheless, Dick's mom Alice, who manages Micky's boxing career, is blinded by Dick's past glory and is convinced that he's necessary to Micky's success. She's waiting for Dick to make his big comeback, and biding her time with Micky's boxing campaign. They're thrilled that HBO is doing a documentary on Dick until they discover it's a documentary about the horrors of cocaine addiction.

As Micky, Mark Wahlberg does a formidable job playing the emotional center of the movie. Wahlberg will probably not get the recognition he deserves for initiating The Fighter and for his performance, but he's quite good. The problem is he's not really playing anything new for himself as an actor. He's basically a nice guy. We feel confident that he can do what is needed to win, and we trust Wahlberg as an actor to carry the film. Christian Bale, as Dick, has the more extreme character. His glassy-eyed stares and wobbling swagger make him seem a bit nightmarish--he's trying to show us the ravages of addiction and in the process becomes something increasingly hideous. I wasn't even particularly sympathetic towards him. He seemed like a leech sucking away his younger brother's potential, urged on by the Mama Leach, Alice (Melissa Leo), whose part is probably the most delicious one in the movie (along with the parts of her seven dried-up, spaced-out daughters, who do pretty much whatever Mama tells them).

 This is probably one of the funniest movies of the year. Russell gives us such a bleakly comic look at this royally f***ed up family that it has the effect of watching an episode of Jersey Shore. They revel in the gutter as though it were lined with satin and roses, and their opportunism is so unveiled that you can't help but laugh at their efforts to protect their turgid family unit from outside invasion. Amy Adams, as Micky's girlfriend, represents the first real threat to the family's shell. She sees how much they're ruining Micky's chances to really succeed as a prizefighter, and she has the audacity to stand up to their "us verses the world" act.

The relationship between Dick and Micky is truly what drives the film's story. Without Micky's fear of letting go of his brother--of essentially betraying him by realizing how destructive Dick is to Micky's career and his life--he could easily move on to brighter pastures and recognize his potential. However, it's not as simple as Dick being a useless leach. He's got instincts that can't be ignored when it comes to boxing, and Micky realizes that he does still need his brother's help. Perhaps the dramatic tension is a bit predictable, but the movie's comic realism helps to lighten the load of the drama. We're already enjoying the juicy scenes of the family in-fighting more than the boxing anyway.

Overall I'd say The Fighter exceeded my expectations because it went so much against the grind of the typical boxing movie, and I was very thankful that David Russell and everyone else involved in making the movie took the care to be funny and realistic in their approach. With Jack McGee and Frank Renzulli. Written by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson.

December 27, 2010

The King's Speech

My expectations going into The King's Speech were low. It looked like Oscar-bait. It looked like a lot of scenes of Colin Firth making animalistic stammering noises to show us how painfully he struggled to improve his speech. While the movie had moments where it seemed to be aiming for an Oscar, the story it told was fascinating, and didn't need to be elevated into awards material. It's about British royalty, particularly British royalty in the 1930s, and so what it needed was to be taken down a few notches. Geoffrey Rush gives the movie this necessary derailing. He plays Lionel Logue, a speech therapist to whom the Duke of York (soon to be King George VI) goes for help with his impediment. Lionel is not impressed with the pomp of George's royal status and doesn't afford the future king any extraneous privileges.

Firth is somber looking in another tasteful performance (he was very somber and tasteful in 2009's A Single Man, as an English professor), but he manages to break through the clinched veneer of his character to let a little humor and a lot of vulnerability into his performance. As his wife, a young Queen Mother, Helena Bonham Carter has such a high amount of potential within her as an actress. You can sense the wit she carries inside herself as it comes through in little movements, facial expressions, and in the way she carries herself. It's quite fun watching her leading her husband around like a shepherd with one of his sheep, and yet never overtaking his station. She's quite lovely, and quite an intelligent, fiery actress. Watching her keep that fieriness in check is fascinating because she seems to be in such command of her performance.

The movie cannot resist giving us a bit of the World War II treatment, tapping into the tension that was stirring in Europe in the 1930s. Of course it's obvious that England needed a king who could get his way through a sentence without stammering incoherently, especially during a time of war, so WW2 gives the story weight and significance. After all, why are we to care about a privileged royal son's speech problems? Surely the sympathy belongs to the underlings of the empire who cannot afford the luxury of a speech therapist. Surely we are better off caring for Rush's middle class dwelling and his middle class family. And yet the Logues are never portrayed as greedy, pining opportunists trying to glom onto the king's prestige. They are content with who they are much more so than the king himself. There's a scene when the radio carries the news of impending war, and you get a sense of the fear in their faces that one or both of their sons may be summoned to fight for the Crown.

Colin Firth may get the bulk of the award recognition for this picture (and he is good here), but I believe it is Geoffrey Rush who carries The King's Speech, and Helena Bonham Carter as well. Their performances were among the highlights of the movie. The cinematography of Danny Cohen was another. At first I groaned because I was afraid the murkiness of the exteriors--London is known for its rainy, foggy days--would make the movie a dull, depressing drag. But Cohen manages to make it visually interesting and gives the material a fluidity that it desperately needs. You can't squeeze much juice out of crusty upper-class British drama without a little help, and it's partly to the cinematographer's credit that The King's Speech is so watchable. It's not only watchable, it's quite funny, with a particularly amusing scene of the king shouting profanities at the top of his lungs as a vocal exercise.

Also starring Guy Pearce as David, the eldest son of George V and briefly his successor (his philandering ways force him out of the throne), Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill, Claire Bloom as their mother, Michael Gambon as George V, Eve Best as David's American lover, and Jennifer Ehle as Lionel's wife. Written by David Seidler. Directed by Tom Hooper. 111 minutes.

December 26, 2010

The Tourist

The Tourist is an American remake of the French film Anthony Zimmer (2005). It stars Angelina Jolie as a British woman who meets an American tourist (Johnny Depp) while on a train from Paris. Depp's character, a banal, unwitting math teacher from Wisconsin, becomes the fall guy in Jolie's plan to help her lover, a career criminal named Alexander Pearce, escape from both Scotland Yard and a greedy gangster (Steven Berkoff) from whom Pearce stole around 800 million dollars. It's a simple adventure story, botched by three writers (Christopher McQuarrie, Julian Fellowes, and director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck) who don't seem to know what they're doing or how to make a good romantic adventure pop with suspense and charm. They don't seem interested in giving us a good time so much as filling time. Perhaps the writers were just sloppy in their construction of the story, or perhaps they merely translated a sloppily constructed story from French into English. Either way, what you have is a movie that is entertaining for a while until you start to think through it and become frustrated with the laziness with which it was all thought out.

Some random Scotland Yard agent is apparently an informant to the gangster mentioned earlier: he leaks the information about the man Jolie claims is Pearce (but is really the schoolteacher played by Depp). The movie rests on this little mishap and on the incompetence of another Scotland Yard agent, played by Paul Bettany, who keeps botching operations because he fails to do his homework thoroughly. At the climactic scene where the gangster is about to kill Jolie and Depp, it is this agent who refuses to let his men fire on the gangster and his goons because he's waiting for Pearce to show up. When Bettany's superior (Timothy Dalton) miraculously arrives on the scene, he orders them to fire on the villains, and the heroes are saved by a modern-day deus ex machina.


The Tourist reminded me of several movies. It seemed a little reminiscent of Charade and even North By Northwest, and more recently of another Angelina Jolie movie, Salt, and Knight and Day (also from 2010) which starred Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz. That movie was mindless but more engaging because the stars were I think a bit more relaxed. Jolie seems as inaccessible as ever with her cynical, exotic version of Audrey Hepburn-esque elegance. While I can totally buy their being a romantic pair, the movie doesn't give us enough of them together where they're actually able to fall in love with each other. In the end we discover why this seemed unnecessary to the writers, but until that time it's just bad writing and even worse disinterested writing. They didn't bother with a better script, possibly because they knew it would be Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp playing the parts. Depp is so reserved that you wish some of the magnetism of which he's capable would shine through, but he's forced into playing the inept, charmingly clumsy American tourist, so he's likable but boring. He becomes a puppy following Jolie's character around out of blind love. The movie is passably entertaining, but you long for so much more than that, and it becomes quite a disappointment in the end.

There were things I liked about The Tourist, however. There's a lightness to the movie that is much appreciated in an era when most filmmakers' approach to subtlety involves a megaphone and a sledgehammer. The simplicity of Depp's motivation is perhaps what drives his charm. As far as we know he's been deeply hurt before, and it's like he's a lost soul wandering through the city of love. Jolie's character, on the other hand, is ambiguous. We wonder what she's really up to, and her duplicitous behavior is the right contrast to Depp's character. The movie tried to use its Venice locale well, particularly during an exciting boat chase where Depp's character is handcuffed to the railing of one boat, and Jolie is rescuing him from Berkoff's goons. It's a marvelously well-done scene. I think it outshined the finale, which should have been even more exciting given the build-up with the chase scenes in the middle of the movie. It's the writing that messes everything up. The star appeal and the basic elements of the plot are alligned for a better movie than is given to us in the end.

December 23, 2010

True Grit

A plucky fourteen-year-old girl--who looks like Anne of Green Gables with brown hair--nags a grizzled old marshal into hunting down the man who killed her father in cold blood. Jeff Bridges takes Rooster Cogburn (the part that garnered John Wayne his only Oscar for the 1969 version of True Grit) and turns him into a comical force to be reckoned with. He banters back and forth with Matt Damon, who plays a Texas ranger who's hunting the killer for a different murder. You can tell Bridges was having fun with his part, and Damon's natural likableness comes through in his role even after a scene where he repeatedly welts the pesky little girl for her stubborn refusal to let them take care of her vengeance. She's determined to see justice served.

The Coen Brothers never fail to let the brutality of their characters come through. They seem to have a morbid fascination with bodily disfigurement, as I recall the knife in M. Emmett Walsh's gloved hand in Blood Simple. It's not just that he gets stabbed. Frances McDormand plunges it into his hand while he's stretching his arm out of one window and into another, so that he's stuck in that position in excruciating pain, and as sleazy as his character is, the audience groans in agony right there with him. In No Country For Old Men, we squirmed in our seats as Javier Bardem repeatedly dealt his own sadistic brand of "justice" with that strange oxygen tank device, which left little holes in people's foreheads. In True Grit, it's like the Greatest Hits of Movie Disfigurement. Hands stabbed, chests stabbed, eyes pecked out by birds, a tongue bit through, teeth yanked out with abandon, serpents nesting in a rotting corpse. There's a scene of a hanging early on in the movie, and we see the brutality of execution matched by the creepy fascination of the spectators who've come to it like it's a carnival show. The audience watches as the man in the middle makes a pathetic speech about being raised improperly and pleads for mercy with tears streaming down his face, and then has his head covered by one of those black sacks. When the native American on his right is about to speak, the executioner simply pulls the sack over his head and he's denied even the slightest bit of dignity.

It's like a Western mixed with Grand Guignol, and yet there's a consistent thread of humor that topples the brutality over like a heavy statue on loose, grainy soil. One minute we're absolutely frantic with the grotesque horror of it, the next we're laughing because Bridges is giving Matt Damon shit about being a Texas ranger who mounts sheep instead of horses or one of a hundred funny zingers that he slings at Damon's character (and vice versa).

As the girl, Hailee Steinfeld pulls off the difficult task of being the emotional heart of the picture. Her naive idealism and her stick-to-itiveness is charming even when the cynical reality is evident in the facial expressions and the words of the men. Josh Brolin plays Tom Chaney, the man who killed her father, and his entrance into the story is well-timed because it is so unexpected. He's totally scummy, an interesting change from his last Coen Brothers movie, where he was the hero we rooted for (even though he was an idiot at times).

The suspenseful scenes are well-crafted. They tug at our emotions and heighten our senses in a calculated sort of way, and the directors seem to have everything carefully in place emotionally speaking. The images are pretty--there's a lovely shot of the girl as an adult (Elizabeth Marvel, who also narrates) walking away from a field and her black silhouette is set against the sky. It's striking even if it's a deliberately cinematic shot. The opening shot is the gradual reveal of a clapboard house at night that's glowing from the oil lamps inside. It's very beautiful, and it captures the rustic image the directors were going for with this.

Charade

Cary Grant was 59 when he played opposite Audrey Hepburn (25 years his junior) in Charade, but his age isn't as much of a hindrance as you'd think. He's still able to pull off the image of a suave leading man (he'd also done remarkably well four years earlier in North By Northwest). He plays a stranger who comes to the rescue of a young widow in Paris (Hepburn) whose husband was the target of three ruthless goons (James Coburn, George Kennedy, and Ned Glass) who are after 250,000 dollars that he swindled them out of. Her husband is murdered (and his body thrown from a train) before the opening credits, and so Hepburn becomes the central focus of the goons' continued quest for the elusive money. (They're cartoonish and yet menacing, like sociopathic Coyotes and Audrey is the Road Runner.)  

Charade is like a vacation from the stodginess of Audrey Hepburn's other movies that seem to hoist her on a pedastal like Galatea (Roman Holiday, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Sabrina and then later My Fair Lady). She's at her best when she's allowed to be fun and intelligent, but also accessible. She's always one-upping Cary Grant, but she's never too good for him. She's wholesome without being a prude, and she's game enough for the fun of this movie, which is set completely in Paris. The city becomes a labyrinth for us to try and find our way out of, but once we become engrossed in the movie we're hard-pressed to want to leave.

Along with the comic suspense that makes Charade so engaging is Henry Mancini's music score. Mancini's music is positively creepy (it's so slick and sophisticated and yet incredibly menacing) when it comes to thrillers. So many early thrillers didn't get the music right. It was as though the composers were told to de-emphasize the terror and the suspense, so their music takes a frightening or exciting scene and turns it into sentimental corn. Mancini, on the other hand, isn't afraid to take the material and run with it. His work on Experiment in Terror and Wait Until Dark is fantastically freaky, and in Charade  he captures something of the allure and the magic of Paris and Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant and of the entire genre itself, and for that Charade is a better movie. It's the loveliest kind of trashy entertainment, and ironically enough it was not a hit when first released.

Directed by Stanley Donen. With Walter Matthau.

December 11, 2010

Rebecca


Alfred Hitchcock's first American film, based on an English novel (by Daphne du Maurier) with an English cast (Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, Judith Anderson, George Sanders, Nigel Bruce, Reginald Denny, Gladys Cooper and Florence Bates) and set in Cornwall. It's a modern-era Gothic and a camped up, tighter version of Jane Eyre. Fontaine is a pathetic little thing who falls in love with a millionaire in Monte Carlo named Maxim De Winter (Olivier). Maxim's first wife, Rebecca, died tragically a year before. When Maxim takes his young bride back to Manderley, his lavishly decorated family estate in Cornwall (right on the sea), she finds herself constantly being compared to Rebecca by the staff, especially the sinister head housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) whose long black dress accentuates her long arms and tall figure, making her a shape right out of Dracula or The Monk.

Rebecca is a story that displaces its heroine (she is awkward and naive and clumsy in such an elegant, sophisticated milieu) so that she can rescue respectable English society from wild women by being submissive and trusting to her husband, who may not have loved his wife as much as is indicated by popular gossip and speculation. The second Mrs. De Winter (she has no other name in either the book or the movie) pretty much goes along with things as they are, and while she doesn't fit in on the basis of her class and her mannerisms, she is forthright and obliging and caring. Perhaps breaking class barriers isn't as bad as marrying a woman who's completely deceiving and adulterous and insincere. Well, which is it? The movie is ambiguous, but the house burns down and Rebecca is dead before the story even begins, so perhaps it's a tie.

Regardless, Rebecca the movie is a fascinating and visually exciting tale, one that accentuates the creative style of its director Alfred Hitchcock, and is propelled by a finely crafted tale of suspense from the pen of Daphne du Maurier and the writers who adapted it for the screen (Philip MacDonald and Michael Hogan). It's such a good example of the Gothic that one can hardly care about its histrionics--they are part of the fun, and Hitch seems to be having quite a good time with the scowling Olivier and the simpering Fontaine and the positive uncanniness of Judith Anderson's performance. Franz Waxman's music score provides a perfectly syncopated pulse to this body, which is one of the best examples of 40s Hollywood gloss. 1940

November 26, 2010

Fair Game

Fair Game is a political expose first and a movie second. It's a documentary thinly masked as narrative, and director/cinematographer Doug Liman doesn't seem too care in which form the viewer receives his film as far as that goes. He does seem rather concerned with the image of his main characters. How does one evaluate a movie that's so politically charged? It deals with Valerie Plame, a CIA agent whose identity was outed in a column by writer Robert Novak in 2003. The issue was Joe Wilson, Plame's husband, who claimed to know for a fact that Iraq did not purchase uranium from Niger. And of course that all has much to do with whether or not Hussein had WMD's. Since Wilson's article, "What I Didn't Find In Africa" threw suspicion on the President's campaign against Hussein, conflict arose. In an effort to stop Wilson, his wife, Plame, became a target of Vice Presidential aid Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

If it sounds complicated, that's because it is. And the movie is based on books by both Plame and Wilson--drastically different from the way the media reported the scandal, often referred to as "Plamegate." In the lead role, Naomi Watts is surefooted and strong and poised and noble. She's accused by the media of being a nothing desk agent who stunk at her job, and she takes it all in stride while her blowhard husband (played effectively with that lovable loose cannon Sean Penn) whores himself out to the media in an effort to fight back. Whether you believe in Valerie Plame the Sacrificial Lamb or Valerie Plame the Incompetent depends very much on how much homework you've done outside of the film.

As entertainment, Fair Game is at its best when it deals with the story of an Iraqi doctor (played by Liraz Charhi), who is tapped by the U.S. to funnel information from her brother, a high-ranking scientist working directly under the Iraqi government.  Plame is spearheading the operative to get this information--using Charhi's character as a tool--and the whole deal goes bad when Plame is revealed as a CIA agent. That portion of the story is abruptly dismembered from the rest of the movie (perhaps this is in line with the real events, but it's frustrating regardless). The politics of war run deeply through the movie, and it's difficult to divorce such a vital strand from Plame's story of inner-torment as she copes with her worlds (marriage, career and social relationships) careening out of control.

There's a lot of real news footage in Fair Game that further takes us out of the narrative and into the documentary. Actors playing political officials like Libby and Fleischer and Rove cannot compete with the real footage of Bush and Cheney and Rice, et. al. It's fascinating, but you wonder why Liman didn't just go straight for a documentary format. Maybe he's hoping to collect some Oscars on his mantel (the Academy does love important work, and Fair Game reeks of importance). Watts may even land herself an Oscar, although Penn's bombastic performance is the one that really leaves you on edge. He's positively frightening in one turbulent scene after another, and when he's not losing his temper, he's a live wire waiting to do so, grinning like a prophet and a politician roled into one.

Liman's camerawork, by the way, is more than a little dizzying at times. Perhaps he was trying to create camerawork that was as fuzzy and convoluted and headache-inducing as this whole scandal.

With Ty Burrell, Sam Shepard, Bruce McGill, Brooke Smith, David Andrews, Noah Emmerich, David Denman, Polly Holliday, Geoffrey Cantor, and Adam LeFevre. 108 min. ½

November 24, 2010

The Ghost Writer

Director Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer is a mystery yarn of the spell-binding variety, in which Ewan McGregor plays a ghost writer who is hired to finish the memoirs of a former British prime minister named Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). Lang's last ghost writer died of an apparent suicide while working on the book. Meanwhile, Lang is being investigated by the British government for war crimes. (He allegedly authorized the torturing of terror suspects). McGregor becomes immersed in the mystery just like his predecessor, bringing us along for the ride.

This is by far the most enjoyable movie I have seen in 2010 (or rather, it's tied with Robin Hood and The Social Network and Easy A). It's a sharp and tingling political thriller with a subtle sense of humor that keeps it from being unpleasant. Polanski's artistic touch is here too. There's a wonderful seen at the end where McGregor hands an incriminating note to another character at a large gathering, and it passes hands about twelve times as it goes from him through the crowd to the recipient.

McGregor does a nice job in this, and it's a really first-rate movie, a liberal's political thriller. Viewers to the right will likely think Lang was just doing his job, but the movie attempts to ruffle our political outrage while keeping us on the edge of our seats. Tom Wilkinson has a nice and ominous part as one of the heavies, a shady academic with ties to the former PM--he has some wonderful double entendres (his presence is always a trifle menacing and severe) that add to the tension of the movie.

Just about everything in The Ghost Writer is subtle. The movie develops in layers. We get glimpses of the tense relationship between Lang and his wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams) and the underlings (including his personal assistant/mistress, played by Kim Cattrall) who work for him at his home on a private island off the coast of Massachusetts. Lang, as we come to learn, acted in the favor of the U.S. on numerous occasions in his political decision-making. (The only non-subtlety in this movie is that Lang is a stand-in for Tony Blair).

There's certainly something to comparing this movie to Hitchcock. It has an unnamed double, like the second Mrs. De Winter in Rebecca, and it has a bit of the everyman-on-the-lam theme that fueled North By Northwest among other Hitchcock movies. However, The Ghost Writer doesn't operate like a hacky imitation of another director's work. (Polanski doesn't have to do such things, after all). It's a movie that taps in quite successfully to the political, technological and thematic current of the early 21st century. The movies are starting to integrate the tech-savvy habits of humans with less awkwardness, although it's still a bit strange seeing McGregor's character doing research on Google. It almost takes you out of the picture for a moment (not to mention the fact that he finds exactly what he's looking for, which is so improbable).

Also worth mentioning is the lovely score by Alexandre Desplat--it reminded me of Bernard Herrmann's score in that trashy De Palma thriller Sisters (1973). The xylophone dances on top of the suspense scenes with an intriguing boldness. It somehow manages to both lighten the mood and drive the film's organic sense of mystery and intrigue.

Based on Robert Harris's novel, The Ghost, it was adapted for the screen by Harris and Polanski. With Jon Bernthal, Robert Pugh, James Belushi, and Timothy Hutton. 128 min. ½

The Next Three Days

In The Next Three Days, which was filmed on location in Pittsburgh, Russell Crowe looks puffy and inept as a high school English teacher who devises a plan to bust his wife (Elizabeth Banks) out of jail. She was convicted of murdering her boss three years earlier, but Crowe's character isn't interested in whether or not she did it: he just wants his wife back. Crowe is the movie, because Banks spends most of it stuck in the slammer awaiting his visitations, and while she gives a successful performance, it's Crowe's task to make this movie believable.

The improbabilities that bog this movie down are manifold. It's hard enough to believe that Crowe's character could successfully break anyone out of jail, but the movie covers that problem by letting him fail, frequently. He tries to find people in Pittsburgh's ghettos to get him fake I.D.'s and winds up getting his face smashed (and his pocket picked). In fact, you get the feeling that his own lack of street-smarts will dissuade him from undertaking the operation altogether, but he persists, even when it seems impossible to prove his wife's guilt.

The movie is suspenseful and keeps your stomach in knots, but it's the moral ambiguity that makes The Next Three Days a little more interesting. You start to think that Crowe's character has gone bonkers just like Don Quixote, who comes up during a discussion in his class, and provides a clumsy impetus for our understanding of Crowe's transformation. He simply refuses to accept the reality of his wife being in prison for murder, so he opts for an alternate reality. Quite interesting, but the movie doesn't have the strength of its convictions. [SPOILER] We're let off the hook at the end because Bonnie and Clyde turn out to be nice and innocent, not mean and cold-blooded. Crowe makes it work, but the movie is just a heartbeat away from being an absolutely inconceivable mess. With lesser talents it would have been just that, but as it is, I liked it for the most part.

Adapted from the French film Pour Elle (Anything For Her) (2007). Directed by Paul Haggis. With Liam Neeson, Brian Dennehy, Jason Beghe, Olivia Wilde. 125 min. ½

November 23, 2010

Morning Glory

I'm sure that in retrospect the studio executives behind Morning Glory regret releasing it so close to the premiere of the latest Harry Potter installment. Morning Glory is slight and episodic, light and fluffy entertainment that doesn't have much umph to it: Rachel McAdams plays Becky Fuller, an endlessly energetic but naive young producer who is handed the task of salvaging Daybreak, a morning talk show that no one watches.

It's sort of about how McAdams's character grows from being a career-obsessed single woman to a more well-rounded, on top of the game, mature woman who's willing to let a little romance (provided by Patrick Wilson) into her life. It's also sort of about her struggle with a grizzled, iconic anchorman (Harrison Ford, looking as lively as a corpse) who is forced to co-host Daybreak much to his chagrin. Ford's character, named Mike Pomeroy, feels that such trivial subject matter is beneath him, while his co-host (played by a marvelously funny Diane Keaton, who's given less than she deserves but does wonders with it) revels in seeing the beloved newsman taken down a notch.

McAdams has a very likable quality that sustains an uninteresting character. She's Mary Richards without the gutsy spunk that made her character grow from timid to tough. She's not sassy enough to be Murphy Brown, and she doesn't have the nerdy humanness of a Liz Lemon. (Notice that all these characters come from television.) I don't think we'd care a wit about Becky Fuller if someone less charming and sympathetic and likably idealistic were playing her. But McAdams pulls it off at least to a point, and we're willing to root for her, but the movie doesn't really give us much to root for. Becky's dream of being offered a job at NBC on The Today Show will clearly have to be sacrificed so that she can preserve the familial quality she facilitates when she takes over Daybreak, but there's so much squabbling and chaos between the crew and the personalities on the set that we never really see that growth: it's all bombastic lunacy fueled by angry jibes at each other until suddenly they're this big, warm, oozing family that needs each other and can't bear to part with each other, but the movie doesn't really bridge the gap between these two points. Call it laziness or a lack of focus on the part of the writers.

This is the kind of movie we go to to see good actors climb into juicy characters and take pot shots at each other. We get that to some degree, but Morning Glory never makes up its mind: is it a cute, romantic working comedy or something leaner and smarter or something preachier? It dabbles on all sides, and so the result, while passably entertaining and at times laugh-out-loud funny, is mixed, if not uneven. Jeff Goldblum does some wonderfully funny work as Becky's boss--he's got such a good deadpan delivery that you enjoy his character ragging on Becky -- it gives her something to fight against. Keaton and Ford have some enjoyable tension but it's like a less intense version of Walter Mathau and Jack Lemon squabbling and hurling insults at each other in Grumpy Old Men. ½

November 05, 2010

Howl

I like James Franco because he makes interesting career choices. I won't say his choice to do General Hospital last year was daring, or provocative, or interesting, but it's refreshing to see an actor doing what he wants to do. On the other hand, Franco's newest movie, Howl, is kind of daring. Howl is about Allen Ginsberg and his phantasmagorical poem ("Howl"), which was accused of being obscene.

The movie traces the trial in which David Strathairn and Jon Hamm face off as lawyers on opposite sides of the case, while a cartoonish-looking Bob Balaban sits sternly at the bench with his gavel. Interspersed with the courtroom drama story, which is the most mainstream thing about Howl, are scenes of Franco as Ginsberg, being interviewed by an unknown person, talking about his writing style, his thoughts on art and the creative process, his homosexuality, his relationships, and his mother, who died after she underwent a lobotomy.

The standout in Howl is the animation: a visual representation of Ginsberg's poem, which is the third part of Howl's intercutting story. It's vividly mad and madly vivid, a fascinating realization of Ginsberg's rambling, chaotic, sensual style. Such an ambitious attempt at uniting poetry and film makes Howl worth seeing, although it's probably not going to find much of an audience. It's more of a documentary than a piece of narrative, and the courtroom drama section of the movie is, despite being the most traditionally dramatic aspect of the movie, not the emotional center of the film. Is it an attempt to ingratiate the movie's form with mainstream audiences? I'm not sure, but I think it does provide a bit of respite from the trippy animated scenes and the scenes where Ginsberg talks to the camera like it's his shrink. Franco has a sort of droll, blase way of reading the poem (and speaking in general) that is charged with an energy that comes from his chest and seems to force its way out of him. His voice is a strange combination of lethargy and passion: he's like a stoner who's simultaneously mellow and unhinged.

Jon Hamm and David Strathairn don't really have much to do other than defend their side of the "obscenity in literature" argument, and while they are good actors who do convincing work, it's not very challenging work. Hamm is easy to like, so of course it's not hard to put him on the side of open-mindedness, and Strathairn does a good job playing the stuffy, wormy conservative villain who wants to outlaw what he doesn't understand. The judge's decision isn't really very momentous, but then we're left with the impression that this was never the point of Howl. Instead, it seems more an attempt to give a voice to someone who had trouble being understood but struck a chord with his incoherency. Ginsberg's poetry has been compared to jazz in its rhythm and its style, and indeed it seems like linguistic jazz--seemingly unstructured and unpredictable, going against the rules of form and style, but penetrating the senses with its dark, deep and fluid imagery.

Directed and written by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. With Jeff Daniels, Mary-Louise Parker, Treat Williams, and Alessandro Nivola. ½

October 23, 2010

The Beyond

Last night I went to the Five Points Horror Movie Fest and saw Lucio Fulci's 1980 shocker The Beyond. My familiarity with Fulci's body of work extends only to his 1979 walking dead flick, Zombie, which was marketed as a sequel to George Romero's Dawn of the Dead in Europe (Dawn was released to European audiences under the title Zombi, and so Fulci's film was appropriately titled Zombi 2, although it has no real connection to the Romero film aside from the common bond of zombies walking the earth).

I knew from my viewing of Zombie that I was in for two things: lots of gore and very little logic. The Beyond delivered these in spades: it's set in Louisiana where a New York woman (Katharine MacColl) inherits a creaky old hotel that apparently serves as one of the seven gateways of Hell. Such a foreboding curse should be enough reason to vacate the premises, but MacColl's feeble-minded character seems intent on staying, despite some strange deaths that occur rather soon after her arrival.

Fulci and his technicians aren't big on subtle horror: everything is glaring and pulsating from the synthesizers to the the oodles of blood and gore. The movie fetishizes violence and dismemberment (particularly to human faces and eyes even more particularly), and the camera seems like a vehicle through which Fulci can revel in the ecstasy of shock.

The drunk guy sitting behind me actually bolstered my enjoyment of the movie. Most of us in the audience were laughing at it, shaking our heads, making comments to friends about the idiocy of the whole spectacle. However, the guy sitting a few seats to my left --adorned in a Beyond shirt-- probably left the theater shaking his head, exclaiming to himself, "They just don't get Fulci!"

Sweeping generalization: American audiences want logical movies. They want things to flow succinctly, smoothly, and clearly from one shot to the next. Italian audiences seem less interested in this kind of composition if their horror filmmakers are any indication. Fulci, Dario Argento, and Mario Bava all seem to forgo the necessities of plot for the galvanizing display of gore.

It might be acceptable if the characters weren't so stupid. David Warbeck, as MacColl's half-hearted love interest, must shoot ten zombies in their torsos before finally realizing that only head shots will destroy them. And yet, he continually wastes ammo making below-the-head shots. This happens so often that you throw up your hands in exasperation at the ineptitude of the movie and its characters.

The worst part is the death of the guard dog...he's the only character in the movie you care about, and the only actor who didn't volunteer to be in this crummy enterprise, so you feel rather cheated that Fulci would do the dog in. Alas, the only justice of this movie is that the dumb characters get what they deserve for being so dumb, and the audience is able to have a good time laughing at their stupidity--and the film's.

October 16, 2010

Zodiac

With Halloween nearing, I thought it appropriate to revisit a movie that's particularly chilling this time of year, the David Fincher-directed Zodiac (2007), which I think is one of the finest movies of its decade. Fincher is perhaps better known for directing the grisly thriller Seven (1995) and more recently The Social Network.

Zodiac is based on the book by Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle who's there when the first letter from the Zodiac, a serial killer who first struck in the Bay area in the late 1960s, arrives, confessing to a recent murder and to a double murder from a year earlier, and taunting the press and the police with a bizarre cipher revealing some important but ambiguous information about the killer's identity.

Fincher doesn't present the movie as a prying look into the deranged mind of a serial killer. Instead, the movie taps into the fascination of the public with true crime stories. Graysmith (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) becomes obsessed with the case to the point of losing his job and alienating his family. Likewise, a reporter named Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) languishes in a life of drugs and boozing after he is unable to figure out the identity of the killer (who begins sending him ominous letters--including a Halloween card containing bloody cloth from one of the victims-- after Avery suggests in an article that the Zodiac is a "latent homosexual").

One of the things that struck me about the Zodiac movie when I first saw it was the way it so meticulously recreates the look and feel of 1960's San Francisco--or at least, the way I imagine San Francisco looked in the late 1960s. (Not having been alive or in San Francisco at the time, I suppose I'm not the most qualified judge of Fincher's skill at period detail).

Watching it again, it began to register how much the movie focuses on the horror of obsession over the horror of the crimes. The crimes are displayed fairly prominently in the first hour, but Fincher doesn't revel in the violence. The editing and the lighting make it look real without the need for plunging knives and exit wounds--and our minds do the rest. We imagine the horror and pain of the victims, and it in turn horrifies us.

But there were a number of crimes the Zodiac confessed to that he didn't do (likely, more than the ones he did commit). The red herrings are in fact equally as creepy. (Gyllenhaal winds up in the home of a possible Zodiac suspect, and it's the most chilling moment in the movie). Mark Ruffalo, a San Francisco cop who's trying to solve one of the murders, is equally caught up in the sensationalism of the crimes, until he too is burned out by the labyrinthine angles and clues and possibilities and the bureaucratic miscommunication between multiple police departments.

At the end we have a movie that taints us with the fascination of the Zodiac--we are left with the elusiveness of the story, and we have shared in the obsession of the main characters. It's a terrific movie, and one I'm always eager to revisit.

October 01, 2010

The Social Network

Perhaps the timing of the movie of how Facebook came into existence is itself a statement about how fast things move today: It's remarkable that only seven years after its inception, Facebook and its founder are the subject of a movie. As Mark Zuckerberg, Jesse Eisenberg accentuates the characteristics that the public has picked up on through various media about the computer-whiz-kid-billionaire, namely the social awkwardness (ironic for a guy responsible for creating a social networking site, and yet, not so) and the abrasive cockiness that alienates him from every social circle he idolizes. It is this alienation, this supreme idolatry, that motivates Zuckerberg, we're led to believe.

Eisenberg as an actor is one who disarms you: he's scrawny and geeky but also likable and he has a fresh face, and good comic timing. We were rooting for him in The Squid and the Whale even when he plagiarized that Pink Floyd song, and we wanted him to survive the frenetic madness of Zombieland. Here, however, his likability disintegrates. It seems all too obvious that he (as Zuckerberg) means what he says exactly how he says it: he's not a victim of bad social skills, he just doesn't make the effort to follow the same rules as the world he lives in. (One character puts it best: "You're not an asshole. You're just trying so hard to be one.") He's a Harvard student who has the intelligence but not the charm that so often goes hand in hand with the world of good breeding and old money and suits and ties. (Rather than the jeans-and-hoody apparel Mark dons throughout the movie; from the classroom to the corporate headquarters, he has no airs about dressing toward a certain perception.)

The supporting cast is headed by Andrew Garfield, as Mark's only true friend and business partner, Eduardo Saverin. Eduardo isn't willing to take the risks that Mark is, and his cautious lip gets him in the end, but ultimately it's Eduardo we identify with: he's the one we care about, while Mark is left holding the bloody knife. Justin Timberlake plays on the sleaziness of his own persona as Sean Parker, the founder of Napster (in real life his name is Shawn Fanning), who oozes with the kind of seedy, shameless, suaveness Mark wants. When Sean enters the story, he tears them apart, but he makes Facebook stronger. Good business and bad friendship go hand in hand. Armie Hammer and Josh Pence play twin brothers (both Harvard students) who file a lawsuit against Mark for allegedly stealing Facebook from them.

As a movie, The Social Network captures both the condescending upper-crustiness of ivy league culture and the sexy, glittering allure of fame and fortune. If you want the former, we're told, you can finish your degree at Harvard and participate in exclusive final clubs and do crew and get a job in N.Y.C. The sexy glittery stuff, however, is L.A.'s department. Indeed, The Social Network captures the fascinating rift between these two cultural centers, places of such stylized, unyielding self-importance that they are gulfs apart from each other in the ways and means of achieving it.

 One of the best things director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin do is limit the exposition. If you need to know who Mark Zuckerberg is and what Facebook is, you certainly don't need to watch The Social Network. Rather than spoonfeed the audience such details (one of the benefits of filming this so promptly), the makers go back and forth between the execution and the arbitration. We see the details unfold, and we see the rift that has occurred at virtually the same time. The storytelling power isn't in finding out what will happen so much as finding out how it does. The opening scene between Eisenberg and the girl he wants, the girl who in effect sets the events into motion for him, allows us to instantly dislike his character, so there's not really a question of reverberating loyalty. We're in it for Eduardo, even though he should have seen things as they were. His niceness--his blindness--gets in the way.

The movie isn't mean--it's pretty objective. Eisenberg may not be likable, but you don't really feel yourself hating him, either. He's like Ebenezer Scrooge in a way--you feel sorry for him after you see the events of his life, many of which unfolded the way they did because of his greed. And yet, he gets the gold in the end. This is the fairy tale where they didn't all live happily ever but they didn't care because they had enough money to fill in the unhappiness.

With Rashida Jones, Joseph Mazzello, Rooney Mara, and John Getz. Adapted from the book The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich. 120 min. ½

September 26, 2010

The American

The American is James Bond minus the camp. George Clooney, who is himself beginning to show his age, plays Jack, an assassin in hiding, who relocates from Sweden to a rural Italian village after his cover is blown. There he falls in love with a prostitute (Violante Placido) while working on his latest assignment: designing a very complex weapon for a hit that somebody else is going to make.

Jack feels at odds with his age. There are scenes of him trying to maintain his virility (working out, making love to his new-found girlfriend, and carrying out some impressive stunts as he flees the occasional trigger man on his trail). It's like Paul Newman in The Drowning Pool: Clooney's no spring chicken but he can still put up a good fight.

The movie is in as much conflict with itself as Jack. It looks and feels European (and not just because of the filming locations), visually speaking. The visually arresting images take their time, and the dialogue comes only in spurts. We're made to endure Clooney's paranoid unraveling as though we had nothing better to do. The impending tragedy of Jack's empty life as an assassin is only marginally interesting: Clooney is better when he can talk his way through a movie, so after a while, we get restless, bored of the endless scenes of Jack looking stoic and going through the motions. Only during his moments of paranoia do we get even a shade of his emotions, which appear to have dried up long ago. And I suppose that's the point of it all, but getting the audience to feel empathy for an assassin is uphill work, and the director (Anton Corbijn) doesn't really pull it off.

A few scenes between Jack and a local priest (Paolo Bonacelli) seem like obvious and contrived attempts at being deep. Jack's was never to be a religious salvation. The action scenes are quite exciting, but they are few and far between. (And perhaps they're more exciting because the rest of the movie is so slow.) It's not a complete failure, but The American probably won't please those seeking non-stop thrills, and those looking for something very deep might be left scratching their heads. The script is by Rowan Joffe from Martin Booth's novel, A Very Private Gentleman. ½

September 25, 2010

The Town

The Town is the kind of intense, gritty cops-and-robbers drama that has flooded television networks, but because of its ballsy, brassy energy, it commands our attention more than something we might catch while flipping channels. Here was I, so eager to banish Ben Affleck to that circle of hell reserved for actors who make movies like Gigli, and then he comes along with The Town. It's not the kind of movie for needless hyperbole. It's simply a gripping movie that succeeds in getting us to feel sympathy for the bad guys. There's never a moment when we want the main character, Doug McCray (Affleck, who also directed and co-wrote), to get caught by the relentless FBI agent (Jon Hamm) who's determined to see him die in prison.

When McCray develops a romantic relationship with a former hostage (Rebecca Hall), he decides to give up the dangerous criminal life he's led for so long. But walking away from a career of bank robbing isn't easy when there are other parties involved. The conflict isn't very original, but fresh-faced Hall makes it believable that McCray would want to leave his criminal life behind. Jeremy Renner, who turned in such a strong lead performance in The Hurt Locker, commands the screen in every scene he's in as one of McCray's cohorts, the one who's unhinged and trigger happy (partly because he's served nine years of his life in prison).

The movie is surprisingly funny even in the midst of the most horrific circumstances. Renner has the look of a mad genius, and Affleck is cocky but cool: he always has one more trick up his sleeve and is bolstered by a unique ability to keep calm in any event. Hamm, who doesn't take any crap from anybody, has a natural light-heartedness (seen more fully in his 30 Rock appearances) that mixes unexpectedly with his stern good looks.  Also starring Blake Lively, Owen Burke, Pete Postlewaite, and Chris Cooper.

September 24, 2010

You Again

What do you get when you combine Jamie Lee Curtis, Sigourney Weaver, Betty White, and Kristin Bell with a bad movie? A bad movie with Jamie Lee Curtis, Sigourney Weaver, Betty White, and Kristin Bell.

You know you're in for it when the lead character (Bell) is overshadowed by the other characters, none of whom are well-defined beyond some shallow caricature. Bell, who had pimples and glasses in high school and became the class scapegoat, has turned her life around nearly ten years later as a successful public relations analyst who's just been handed a big promotion. But her brother (James Wolk), a schmaltzy pastiche of a 50's goody goody and an 80's yuppie, has become engaged to the girl (Odette Yustman) who terrorized her during her ugly duckling phase. Soon the rest of the plot unravels before our eyes: Bell's mom (Curtis) was the one-time BFF and later the arch nemesis of Yustman's Aunt Mona (Weaver). Some kind of catfight showdown is surely on.

The plot is promising, but the script by Moe Jelline is ill-conceived: it's a bad mix of some wedding weekend gone awry and some high school nostalgia piece. If the actions of these characters were even a little believable or made even a little sense, we might be more inclined to forgive the scattershot laughter and the limp jokes. The presence of talent does not guarantee that the talent will deliver the movie from incompetence, and to see such a waste here (how do you get Cloris Leachman and then only show her for 30 seconds?) is truly disheartening.

September 18, 2010

Easy A


In Easy A, Emma Stone gives the kind of performance that makes it seem impossible for anyone else to have played the role of Olive, a perceptive but overlooked high schooler who dreams about being noticed, until her reputation takes a change for the notorious. A seemingly harmless tale of a one-night-stand (contrived in order to get her pushy best friend off her back about being such a home-body) launches her from forgotten nothing to the school's hottest topic of gossip. Then, an old friend asks her to help save his reputation (he's terrified of his homosexuality being outed to the viscous jocks), so they stage a little bedroom scene while at a party. Pretty soon Olive is every male virgin's go-to-girl: someone who will lie for them and improve their prudish reputations. But her notoriety comes at a price, and the high school Pharisees (led by Amanda Bynes, who inhabits her role with wonderfully poised bits of Bible thumping madness) engage in a little picketing, some light ostracism, and more than a bit of genuine hellfire and brimstone sermonizing, all at Olive's expense.

Easy A is one of the most original adolescent comedies in years, conceived by newcomer Bert Royal and directed by Will Gluck. Casting is heaven-sent: Stone is easy to like, and she has a natural flare for comedy that comes out in quirky facial expressions and a comic timing that operates in its own dimension: it works on such a wonderfully unexpected level that you find yourself laughing and not being able to stop. The script itself is chock full of funny moments, some of which are so subtle that half the audience isn't even aware of them. As Olive's funny, loving, and very laid-back, understanding parents, Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson seem to be having more fun than they've had in a long time. They're the kind of parents you wish you'd had, although it's more than probable that such parents don't even exist in real life. Thomas Haden Church and Lisa Kudrow are among the high school faculty, Malcolm McDowell is the grizzled principal, Aly Michalka is Stone's BFF, and Penn Badgley is the obligatory sensitive, smart, funny, gentlemanly stud who sees beyond Olive's faux reputation. Besides being original, Easy A taps into the trendy technique of referencing movies of the past (particularly John Hughes films), and also sends a healthy nod to Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (which Olive's English class is studying during the events of the movie).

August 29, 2010

Get Low

Get Low begins with a burning house on a dark, deep Tennessee night, and suddenly a figure moves from the left side of the frame toward the middle and then to the right until it vanishes just as quickly as it appeared. It's the story of a hermit named Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) who has been the focus of much local gossip and story-telling for the forty years that he's lived in seclusion. Suddenly in the winter of 1938 he comes to town and announces to the local mortician (Bill Murray) that he wants to throw a funeral party to which the whole town is invited.

The dark comedy and the Southern gothic have never made a more peculiar match than in this aged-in-wood "tall tale," which presents a perfect opportunity for Murray, whose deadpan brand of humor is so well-suited to this particular vein of comic movie-making. As Felix's life moves from intensely private to suddenly public, the relationships between he and Murray (and Murray's assistant, played by Lucas Black) become strangely compelling and sympathetic, despite Felix's gruff, pushy, stubborn behavior and Murray's opportunistic money-grubbing.

In the midst of Felix's quest for a public, "living" funeral--one where he can finally lay to rest some of the demons he's been living with for forty years--he rekindles his friendship with Mattie (Sissy Spacek), who remembers him as he was--charming, handsome, and much deeper than the taciturn persona that has developed about him through years of gossip and unanswered questions.

The movie is slow, but on the other hand, it allows us to live with the absolute solitude the characters seem trapped within. It's got the look of a Southern-fried nightmare at times: scenes pulsate with eeriness, and yet this isn't a horror movie (although it's a bit of a ghost story, in a way...without the actual ghosts, perhaps). It's also palpably sensual: You can almost smell the rabbit cooking in Felix's kitchen, the trees as he chops through them with an axe; you can almost feel the dirt under his fingernails and the chill of the ghostly winter, as a faint but persistent aroma of smoke wafts through the landscape. The delightfully sarcastic humor saves it from being stagnant, and the humanizing performance of Robert Duvall transforms Felix from ominous to endearing.

With Bill Cobbs and Gerald McRaney. Directed by Aaron Schneider. 103 min.

August 22, 2010

Deep Red


Profondo Rosso (Deep Red) (1975) is an Italian giallo thriller (in Italian giallo means "yellow" and specifically refers to the yellow covers of popular Italian mystery and crime novels). It's about a psycho killer running amok, and a musician (David Hemmings) who sets out to determine the killer's identity after he witnesses one of the slayings. Inevitably, Hemmings winds up at each crime scene and becomes incriminated in the murders himself.

The movie was directed by Dario Argento, whose body of work often emphasizes outlandish style over narrative structure or characterization. The excessive, exuberant violence and gore will more than likely alienate most viewers other than those who enjoy that sort of thing. Despite the dumb, sometimes incredulous aspects of Deep Red's plot, there's something about the movie that stays with you long after you've seen it. If you try and think about Deep Red, you will see through its plot holes and be left feeling cheated. If you try and feel your way through Deep Red, you will experience it as it was intended to be: a visceral sensation, like something out of a nightmare. This is not to let the movie off the hook for being essentially a stupid thriller with lots of red herrings and characters making idiotic mistakes. But I think it's too easy to dismiss the movie altogether for those reasons, particularly when you realize that the movie had a profound effect on the horror genre in America. 

Deep Red's fingerprints are all over movies like John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) and the myriad "slasher" movies that become popular fodder for young audiences in the late 70s and early to mid- 1980s. Most of these movies are bottom-of-the-barrel trash, from the bad writing to the creaky acting and even creakier production design. Deep Red is at the head of the pack in a way. The garishly red, comic-book blood doesn't look real, and yet, we're left just as unsettled because of the way the camera lingers, even enjoys, the violence (which is usually directed against women). There's a fetishistic obsession with human disfigurement that is at times disturbing, but all of this is aimed at eliciting that visceral reaction from the audience which I mentioned earlier. Nowhere more than in an Italian horror movie is the audience member both the primary victim and perpetrator of the gruesomeness. ½