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).