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Monthly Archives: April 2011

Ten Word or Less Review – Confident and sturdy and really, really boring.

Given a dunderheaded preview and dopey poster, Hereafter was sold as a sappy, overblown drama about people grappling with life after death.  Could Clint Eastwood still make something this hopelessly stupid looking?  While it looked painfully trite it turns out to not be awful, just little more than average.  An excessively lowkey drama about the after life, it’s a film watching experience which borderlines on the anemic.  Hereafter is such a small, tensionless affair one wonders what drew such high calibur talent to it’s bare bones story.

Hereafter is a three tiered story which beings with a French journalist drowning in a horrible tsunami.  In it’s only attention grabbing moments, Marie shops for souviners in an unspecified Southeast Asian street market.  As she looking for pretty trinkets the entire town is washed away in a flood and she dies, experiencing glimpses of an after life.  Shortly after being revived she returns to her life in France but finds she can’t let the memory of her experience go.  Paralleling this is the story of Marcus, a British boy whose twin brother James is killed by a car.  Marcus lapses into despondency in his brother’s absense, is given up for foster care by his drug abusing mother, and subsequently begins to look for a way to speak to his departed other half.  Tying this altogether is George (Matt Damon), a reluctant psychic who can commune with the dead of loved ones by nothing more than the touch of a hand. Weary of his gift/curse George has forsaken his ability and chosen to lead a quiet life of normalcy, free of psychic readings and the emotional turmoil of others. But as someone with a remarkable ability, he finds he can’t quite escape himself and his fate is connected to Marcus and Marie.

Hereafter doesn’t have overblown histronics or hysterical melodrama anywhere in it’s 129 minutes and that’s a fine thing.  Subtlety is an underpracticed artform in mainstream movie making and Eastwood has been a master of it in the past.  But over the years he occasionally drifts away from subtle and into a territory we can only call non-drama.  He puts his actors in front of the camera, they read their lines, what happens happens and that’s that.  Eastwood is so against attention grabbing technique that he forgets to grab our attention at all.  While fellow elder statesman Scorsese continues to grab movies by the throat and shake violently, Eastwood sits quietly and lets possibilites pass him by.

Going through its motions quietly and steadily, aside from it’s opening tsunami sequence, Hereafter never awakens or engages us. The characters are so earnest and decent, and the story itself so unburdened of stress, that the entire movie floats by with barely a flutter.  The fact that it has so precious little to say or speculate about life after death almost negates any point for it to exist at all.  It embraces the conventional views of warm lights and family members waiting for you and that’s about all.  When you die you’ll be okay, don’t worry.  The actors here are all fine and everyone seems invested in doing right by their legendary director, but I can’t imagine Damon and company didn’t yearn for something more than what they were given.

Much like Invictus before it, Hereafter is going to be know as one of those forgettable movies that Clint Eatwood has made in bulk over his vast and varied career. He’s too much of a craftsman these day to make a real piece of garbage but he’s running the risk of becoming a fossilized storyteller.  Eastwood commands a lot of respect and it’s well deserved, but for every Unforgiven or Letters From Iwo Jima there are scores of films like Hereafter.  Movies which cast no shadow, which have no vigor and ultimately leave you with little in return for your time.

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Ten Word or Less Review:  Super? Not so much.

Comic book culture has spent the last ten years becoming the corner stone of popular culture, to the joy of many but the dismay of some.  Comic book movies are often standard action vehicles tied into black and white morality, they reinforce overblown fantasy scenarios and besides being bankrupt of ideas they’re an over used cinematic event which always promise everything but often deliver nothing.  None of which means I don’t love a few of them.  Super wants to be the satirical, low budget anthesis to these inflated gas bags of over priced movie action.  More Taxi Driver, less Wolverine. But ambition aside Super roundly disappoints on many levels.  It isn’t particularly funny and its insights are fleeting.  It’s also so poorly executed that whatever message it’s sending lands with a comic book styled thud.

Rainn Wilson (The Office) is Frank, an unspectacular man in just about every way.  If ever an actor could reflect the everyday sub par human, Wilson is the man.  His unchin, his weird hair and big brow, his barely average physic, they all scream schmo.  Wilson’s wife, dubiously played by Liv Tyler, is a recovering addict who leaves him for a drug dealer (Kevin Bacon), the fallout of which leaves Frank destroyed, hallowed out and mentally unstable.  After a freaky vision from God, Frank decides he must become a crime fighter.  Who?  The Crimson Bolt ! His slogan?  “Shut up , crime!”  His methods?  He hits people in the head with a wrench.  Frank begins a misguided quest for vengence against the drug dealer who’s bamboozled his wife from him and wrong doers in general.  He even reluctantly aquires a gung ho sidekick, Boltie (Ellen Page), a deranged comic book store employee who’s way to excited to mame her fellow citizen.

While Super has a lot of ambition it’s shoddy and painfully low budget.  Some low-budget flicks simply use what’s around to establish a believable sense of location, others seem to divorce themselves from reality through total lack of engaging environment.  I.E. it looks dull.  Super is the later type of low budget experience.  It feels like it takes place in an abandoned reality where no real people actually live. People have simply been shipped in to witness shenanigans.  Wilson routinely clobbers his victims in broad day light but never once does anyone seem to call the cops.  He flees the scenes of his crimes in his own vehicle in full view of scores of people, but no one writes down his licence plate number or takes his picture.  It’s things like this which sabotage any sensation of realism that Super should be striving for.  Director James Gunn is too hamfisted and budget constrained to give his idea any credibility or style.  A few scenes spark but most feel awkward, misshapen and strange.

Wilson is supposed to be the show piece here.  It’s a difficult part that requires him to fluxuate between sympathy and unhinged barbarism and we’re too often left somewhere in the middle due to Gunn’s uneven screenplay.  It never feels clear about how serious the viewer is supposed to be taking the material.  Sometimes it’s an outrageous joke.  Other times it’s critique of people too wrapped up in fantasy.  At some points it’s sincere, at some points its not.  Ellen Page really strains things as her hyper violent character throws herself into her sidekick role as if she had no life to embrace previously, something the movie makes quite clear isn’t the case.  And then in the end the film takes the oddest turn of all and somehow validates Frank’s outrageous behavior without a wink or a nod that it’s a put on.  Travis Bickle’s post massacre wrap up in Taxi Driver is often viewed as an end of life fantasy as he dies.  Frank’s crimes against people, and they are crimes, are never redressed.  He doesn’t get everything that he wants, but he does move onto a better and more fulfilling life thanks to his adventures in clobbering people with his mighty wrench.  Intent or not, it feels like a fulfillment of a weird, sick fantasy.

Super is so at odds with itself that it’ll probably leave most people flumoxed and put off.  Fans of schlock and oddball movies will embrace it for its no budget aims and anti-mainstream sensibilities, but just being odd is no real accomplishment in this day in age.  Super may be a unique and individual thing but it’s also cheap and in many ways just plain bad.  A better director with a more coherent idea could’ve nailed Super and turned it into something subversive.  As it is it’s just a strange movie about a weird guy who hits people with a big wrench and gets away with it.



Ten Word or Less Review: The not quite Lincoln Lawyer

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln is the kind of monumental event in U.S. history that echoes forever throughout our land.  An entire industry based around the life and death of our 16th President flourishes to this day, unabaited by time, always provoking discussion in new generations of followers.  With Lincoln’s assassination serving as a grim, sinister conclusion to the Civil War, this chapter of American history has and always will fascinate historians, scholars and on occasion, filmmakers.  Throwing his hat into the ring this time is screen legend Robert Redford, the sometime director tackling the trial of convicted Lincoln conspirator Mary Surratt.  With one of America’s most pivitol moments in its sprawling history at his finger tips, Reford has turned in a small scale court room piece that has big ideas driving it, but can’t muster up a sensation of being very important despite it’s many assertions to the contrary.  It’s more Law & Order: Civil War than compelling cinematic drama.

Mary Surratt was railroaded.  At least that’s what Redford believes.  The owner of the inn where John Wilkes Booth and his ilk, including Mary’s son John, conspired to kidnap Lincoln, Mary Surratt is given the benefit of the doubt here.  The Conspirator presents Mary Surratt as a dutiful and proud woman, always dressed in black, grimmly portrayed by Robin Wright Penn, willing to admit culpability to a point.  She knew Booth and company wanted and tried to kidnap Lincoln, but claims ignorance about Booth’s plot to assassinate the commander in chief.  Defending her is Civil War veteran Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy).  Stone cold sure in her guilt, Aiken begrudingly takes the case as a favor and fully expects to phone in a defense . As more information comes to light Aiken slowly begins to think that while Surratt is no saint, her constitutional rights are being stripped away out of a biblical need for vengeance on behalf of a pissed off U.S. Government, an effort being spearheaded by Secretary of War Andrew Stanton (Kevin Kline).  Surratt is tried with all the members of the conspiracy in a military court, a decision with merits still debated to this day.

Historical trappings aside this is all Grisham thriller stuff with swankier costumes. Conspirator has drawn a very capable cast together but the screenplay leaves everyone with a lot of arc dialogue to deal with.  Most don’t resemble characters so much as ethical points of view and obstacles to McAvoy’s Aiken.  Reford’s also stacked the historical deck completely in favor of Surratt.  Secretary of War Stanton, Surratt’s prosecutors and the generals in charge of her trial all seem like a pack of oily evil doers, a step away from twirling their mustaches as they plot to do in the vile traitor woman.  The events and characters surrounding Surratt and her prosecution are incredibly dense with details and motives and it feels like Redford has stripped away too much, simplfying things to the point that there’s no doubt about Surratt’s being ethically innocent and the wrong being committed is at the governement’s hands.  The details surrounding Lincoln’s killing are volumes in size and many points are open to scores of intrepretation.  Redford shuns the messier aspects of Surratt’s guilt or innocence and instead focuses on the fact that her trial may have been a violation of her constitutional rights.  While The Conspirator is entirely watchable this story makes for no more than a lot of transparent and manipulative drama we’ve seen many times over.

The Conspirator should leave viewers mildly satisfied in the end. History buffs will probably leave clamoring for more but those less concerned with history will probably get by with watching what is an okay court room flick. Court room dramas are like pizza, rarely terrible enough not to try once, but an underwhelming sensation can hang over it.  Redford’s choice to apply an incredibly small scope to a huge piece of American history leaves his film feeling like a distinctly minor accomplishment.  With an entire nation torn apart by conflict, hundred’s of thousands of people killed, cities burned to the ground and a nation’s leader slain in the waning moments of the war, the story of this vaguely knowable woman dressed in black who may or may not have had anything to do with anything seems trivial.


 

 

Ten Word or Less Review: $250 million of average

Did the U.S Government make this movie?   One would figure that a decade of development and a quarter of a billion dollars could produce something worth while, but Disney is apparently now in the business of mimicking a federal government agency.  All that time and money have produced a run of the mill princess exercise that non-Pixar Disney animation has absolutely been terrified of drifting away from for decades.   Because when they do drift away from it the results tend to stink.   Disney has been trying to reassert itself as an animation house beyond the Pixar brand, but why?  If you’ve got the Pixar in your corner let the rest of them play catch up.  Why look inferior in your own house?  I suppose Disney needed some new princesses to put on the merchandise, to reassure stock holders they could still sell the soap, and since Pixar doesn’t seem anxious to stoop into this creeky genre, we have Tangled.  And much like 2009’s princess product The Princess and the Frog, we don’t really need it.

I’m not going to bother regurgitating Tangled’s plot because unlike the title implies it isn’t complicated. If you’ve seen an animated princess feature from the mouse house, ever, then you’ve seen them all, including this one.   Except this time the princess is Rapunzel.  How many millions did that decision cost?   Tangled tries a different bit of window dressing here and there but nothing comes from out of bounds to surprise us.   The songs in particular are horribly mundane and unimaginative.  They feel distinctly like an after thought to the whole process.   The music from Disney’s early 90’s heyday, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, has been thoroughly picked over and redressed in painfully familiar lyrical and tempo clothing.

The only thing that really escalates Tangled a notch above the rest of the pack is it’s luminous animation.  Unquestionably the central reason for it’s inflated budget and endless development, it’s in this aspect that Tangled excels.  People simply wishing to gawk at Disney’s new shiny can do so happily.   While in style it’s pretty much in line with what we’ve come to expect from CGI kiddie flicks, all round angles, the animation has a fluidity and aura to it that’s hard not to appreciate.   All that CGI R&D money practically glows on the screen.  Calling it groundbreaking would be too much, but it’s certainly some notches above your average, undistinguished Dreamwork’s vehicle.

If you have some kiddies driving you nuts and you want to put on a movie which should keep them glued in place for 100 minutes then Tangled will work.  There’s a cute horse and a zen chameleon as sidekicks which they’ll love.   Adults won’t have much to grab onto but it’s grade A animation helps the boring pass in a painless way.


 

 

Ten Word or Less review: McConaughey movie doesn’t require vomit bucket to watch.

I say blame J-Lo.  Matthew McConaughey had a decent career path as an actor until he worked with the annoying blight that is Jennifer Lopez.   2001’s The Wedding Planner marked McConaughey’s first foray into romantic comedy territory and it was shortly after this that everything went to shit for the guy.   The lure of cheap, crassly designed laughter, faux romance, and big paychecks, which relied strictly on his appeal to women, was too much for the tan one to turn away from.  Not long after Planner was a success the world was handed increasingly awful horror shows like Failure to Launch, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Fool’s Gold.   Even attempts to work outside this realm were losers: Two for the Money, We Are Marshall, Sahara.  He even wound up in a straight to video embarrassment.   After starting off by working with directors like Spielberg, Zemekis and Howard, McConaughey was slumming it with the likes of Adam Shankman.   This all brings us to his new vehicle The Lincoln Lawyer.   After a solid decade of junk McConaughey has found a vehicle for himself which doesn’t appear to be self indulgent garbage.  While it’s lightyears ahead of most of his output from the past decade Lawyer is no reinvention of the wheel, but it plays.

McConaughey’s is Mick Haller, a lawyer who doesn’t quality as ambulance chaser, nor is he regarded as an icon amongst his piers.   He’s a slick lawyer with an army of tricks up his sleeve and an strong desire to make bank.  Of course McConaughey would seem slick if he wore a suit made of sandpaper so we still can’t call Lincoln a stretch.   Mick’s got a reputation for getting very guilty people off the hook and getting well paid to do it.  One hustling afternoon he’s directed to a rich kid named Roulet (Ryan Phillippe) being held for attempted murder of a prostitute.  Roulet claims his innocence, telling Colter another man beat the girl and the two are out to blackmail him.  Of course things get more complicated, twist follows turn, turn follows twist.  A mandated surprise takes place late in the game.  You’ll probably leave stirred though not quite shaken.

What The Lincoln Lawyer really is is a b-grade thriller with an over talented supporting cast.   William H. Macy, John Leguizamo, Josh Lucas, Marisa Tomei, Bob Gunton, Bryan Cranston, etc. all get in on the ensemble legal thriller train and enjoy the ride.   If you were movie watching in the 90’s then this style of Grisham inspired thriller should be vaguely familiar to you, it’s where McConaughey started, and most of Lawyer will feel old hat.  But there’s nothing wrong with an old hat, especially when its comfy.  Lawyer is actually surprisingly spry in its first half.   It bounces along on a vibe of high energy, good editing and quick performance which is tricky to maintain, and it doesn’t, sadly.   Lawyer settles into the well worn trappings of courtroom thrillers and it doesn’t dislodge from there.   A good central character is predictably dispatched which also drains some of the momentum.  Director Brad Furman deserves some credit for taking what could easily have been a very rote experience and makes it hum as well as it does.  It’s not perfect, I don’t even think it makes sense when it’s over, but it gets the job done well enough.

The legal thriller doesn’t get taken for a spin nearly as much as it used to.  I think Grisham started writing about Christamas and pizza.  The genre has also faded in the wake of CGI spectacles, teen trash and kiddie flicks.  When done right this kind of film can provide a solid diversion at the movies, one worth a few bucks and a couple of hours of your time.  The Lincoln Lawyer follows the ropes too closely too closely to be considered great, but sometimes good is good enough.  Maybe we can start to take McConaughey serious again?

 

Ten Word or Less Review:  A head trip.  Literally.

Source Code is likely to drive detail oriented people up a wall in multiple dimensions.  Time travel movies are always a slippery slop of logic and implausibilities and Code ups the ante considerably with a concept which isn’t really time travel as much as mind travel.   Though many will quibble about what kind of sense it ultimately makes, probably none, Source Code is an entertaining science fiction work which keeps the mind working and the senses stimulated with a story that goes more than just boom. Though going boom is at the center of the story.

Jake Gyllenhaal is Colter, a man who wakes up on a train across from a pretty girl, Michelle Monaghan, and is utterly befuddled how he got there.  She knows him.   She’s telling him about herself as if she knows him fairly well.   But Colter is at a total loss as to how he arrived at this point.   After fumbling around he winds up in the toilet looking at the mirror and seeing another man’s face in the reflection.   With no idea what’s happening Colter thinks his grasp on reality is slipping away.   Then things get really weird . The train explodes killing everyone and Colter promptly wakes up inside a capsule being asked questions by a woman in army garb named Goodwin, (Vera Farmiga).   His last memory before the train is of being in a helicopter in Afghanistan.   What’s slowly explained to Colter is that he’s participating in a time experiment and the clock is ticking.  A terrorist has detonated a bomb on a train on its way to Chicago and is now threatening a much larger explosion.  Colter’s mind is being transported to the mind of a man who was on the train before it exploded.  While there he can observe everything for the 8 minutes prior to the explosion.   Colter is tasked with finding the terrorist before he strikes again.   And if this makes no sense to you at all don’t worry, it’s all put together with a lot of conviction and determination to making it feel legit.   Even though it probably isn’t Source Code never feels like a cheat.

Source Code is brought to us by newcomer Duncan Jones.  Jones appeared the year before last with his first feature Moon, a wildly overpraised sci-fi film which was transparent, dingy and tensionless.  Some thought it was genius.   I thought it was akin to looking at drab wallpaper after too much to drink.   Source Code is a far more involving and emotionally accessible piece.  While the logic that drives it forward seems wholly questionable, it plows ahead secure in its concept.   Sometimes the best thing a sci-fi gimmick like this can have is unwavering confidence in itself.   Getting bogged down in logistics and minutia can quickly strangle things.   Jones goes for a more emotional through line which pays off more than a logical one.   Having a good cast helps things remain convincing and grounded.

Jake Gyllenhaal adds another high caliber performance to his roster.   The movie takes his character to some strange places, weirdly echoing Donnie Darko in a spiritual sense, minus Donnie’s teenage gloominess.  Michelle Monaghan, woefully misused in Hollywood, has a part which seems pretty thankless.   She basically has to play the same scene over and over with varying differences but still manages to instill a lot with redundent stuff to work with.  Vera Farmiga (The Departed) creates an empathetic character by having little more to do than stare into a camera for the duration of the film.   And Jeffrey Wright skulks around with a cane, ostensibly playing the mad scientist out to prove his contraption works.

Source Code will be dismissed by some because it’s not that hard to dismiss on a certain level of coherence.   Instead of following the emotions at work they’ll get entangled in the web that is its time travel scenario and once lost in the finer details throw a fit at the movie’s expense.   I doubt Jones and company really care all that much if their movie holds up to intense scrutiny, what’s more important is that the film work within the emotional demands that the story sets out in front of them and in that case I think it works quite well.   You can spend all day worrying if things make sense but if you don’t care who it’s all happening to, then what’s the point?

Ten Word or Less Review: I can’t take you seriously with no pants on.

Love and Other Drugs is a film which required the deft hand of a filmmaker who could skillfully toggle between sweet and serious.  The guy who made The Last Samurai isn’t that man. While there’s a lot of sugary pieces here the serious stuff seems softpeddled and tacked on.  Bait for respectability which it never deserves.  What should be hardhitting is fleeting and something we should want to invest more in can’t shake a feeling of artificial.  Superficial emotions and idiotic pratfalls keep cheapening the experience.

In Love and Other Drugs two good looking people, Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway, meet and then fuck as only they do in celluloid.  They meet cute, swap some barbs and then start knocking over furniture in the act.  In the real word this fantasy is what’s made up for Penthouse Forum readers.  Gyllenhaal and Hathaway flaunt their ballyhooed physiques for erotic purpose in scene after scene of lustful gyrating.  They’re two actors who seem beneath being cast for their bodies but alas, here they are, toned, naked and hot for each other.  To gussy it up and supply dramatic weight Anne’s character, Maggie, has stage 1 Parkinson disease.  But that’s not important at first because all they do is screw and that’s all they intend to do.  Of course feelings start to run a bit deeper and the usual complications arise. “I’m shallow let’s screw” “I’m fine with that”  “I love you.”  “I’m sick.  Go away.”  “Okay I’ll leave.  Wait.  I still love you. I’m not leaving.  I want to stay.  I don’t want to be shallow anymore.”  “Okay. I love you too. Stay.”  On that level it’s no different from the other 500 movies of its kind but because a serious disease is involved we’re supposed to lend a bit more attention.

LAOD would like to be a shiney romantic comedy as well as a meaningful drama and marrying the two desires creates a mash up of movie mush.  Gyllenhaal and Hathaway have an affecting enough chemistry together.  Their back and forth is passable, even enjoyable at times, but the movie only feels meaningful in a few places.  The Parkinson’s angle is dealt with as honestly as a movie like this will allow but other things keep ruining the landscape.  A scene with people who actually suffer from parkinsons puts the rest of the movie to shame.  They defiantly drop f-bombs on skills which they can no longer perform.  Director Ed Zwick foolishly piles on peppy montages of the glory that is these two hot bodies nailing each other, as well as the greater glory that is Gyllenhall selling pharmaceuticals.  So much so that both acts are repeated to the point of redundancy. The movie has a mixed mind regarding this ethically questionable industry that is drug sales.  While it pokes and chides the proliferation of Viagra culture in small quantities the producers seem more than happy to take Pfizer money and flaunt thier products unabashedly.  In the end the film seems scared of its own shadow in many ways, hopelessly addicted to the very conventions which it’s trying to rise above.  Calling it gutless would be mean but not off base.  It want’s things both ways.  Nibbling at the hand that feeds it but never actually biting.

Really screwing up things is Josh Gad, a pudgy, unshaven stand-in for Jack Black.  In a casting decision which can only be described as clusterfuck, this slovenly grub is cast as Jake Gyllenhall’s multimillionaire brother.  This is supposed to be related to this?  And the later one is rich and successful?  Superman flying around the Earth to turn back time was easier to swallow.  His character is a pathetic schlub in the middle of a life crisis and his every scene throws things completely out of whack.  He shows ass crack, get’s caught jerking off, sits around in week old PJ’s and never leaves his brothers apartment.  There’s an acknowledgement of some of this nonsense but it’s still ridiculous.  He contributes nothing to the narrative and his complete exorcism from the movie would’ve helped supply a little more credibility to things.

Love and Other Drugs tried not to be middle of the road but despite its admirable intentions that’s squarely where it wound up.  It doesn’t have the courage to follow through with it’s stronger elements.  Had Zwick and company committed themselves to making something a little edgier a gutsier story would have emerged.  As it is we have an overly polished movie highlighted by great looking people having magnificent movie sex.  If that’s fine with you go forth and enjoy.