Black Swan (2010)


Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is part melodrama, part horror movie, a dark, gothic tale of obsession, madness, and fragility as personified by Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a young ballerina with a New York ballet company. Nina's years of dedication, of pain and practice, and singleminded pursuit of perfection come to fruition when she is offered the lead role in a new production of Swan Lake. In this reimagined take on Tchaikovsky's classic, Nina will play dual roles: the tragic white swan, and her evil twin black swan. The ballet company's artistic director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) likes to seduce his prima ballerinas -- Nina's fragile ego and timid demeanor leave her ill-prepared for his mind games. Further complicating her ascendancy are a free-spirited (i.e. slutty) new dancer Lily (Mila Kunis), who has black wings tattooed on her back, and Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder), the bitter ballerina forced into retirement and cruelly cast aside by Thomas. Nina's mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) messes with her head too -- she's a former ballerina who now lives through Nina's career, and she is by turns smothering and supportive, controlling and caring.

Aronofsky, working from a script by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin, transcends the backstage drama cliches: the professional and sexual rivals, the imperious director, the controlling stage mother, the dressing room treachery. He also embraces those cliches, and the ballet-specific ones too, focusing on the pain and physical suffering endured by Nina -- the ugly wounds that seem a requisite part of producing beauty in ballet (starvation, broken toes). There's more than the usual pain for Nina: strange grotesque wounds, mysterious scratches that appear on her back, fingers that bleed and peel. She hears voices. She sees doppelgangers, mirror images, twins, and encounters new parts of herself. She is consumed by her role as the Swan Queen -- the transformation is destroying her physically and mentally.

Cinematographer Matthew Libatique shot the movie with a handheld camera using grainy filmstock and video, giving the images both intimacy and a sense of being off-balance, a little dizzy and disturbed. The camera frequently follows Nina closely from behind, seeing what she sees, as she sees it, and experiencing dance through her. The technique adds emphasis to what is really going on in Black Swan -- as the spinning, pirouetting dancer spins out of control, she loses her grip on what's real and what's not (leading up to a trippy triple-twist of an ending). Once the movie slips inside Nina's mind, it takes flight. Pain, sex, fear, repression, ecstasy, blood, violence -- there's a dark malevolence to Black Swan, a vision of art as more than suffering. This is art as simultaneous self-creation and self-destruction. As a dancer, Portman is good enough to pass, and she's terrific as the timorous, tremulous, repressed Nina. Nina is a difficult character, one who is largely passive, absorbing praise, criticism, love, hatred. She dances  perfectly but, as Thomas tells her, without passion. She pours her passion into *being* a perfect dancer, but there's nothing left for the stage, or for her life off-stage. 

Black Swan inevitably calls to mind Powell & Pressburger's exquisite The Red Shoes (1948), another ballet movie in which life imitates art. It also calls to mind Aronofsky's last film, The Wrestler, and his first, Pi. Aronofsky specializes in obsession, self-inflicted pain, madness, and characters driven to extremes in pursuit of big dreams. What Black Swan is not is a rarefied or reverent look at the world of ballet. It depicts ballet, or at least this ballet company, as crushing, cutthroat, mutilating, and emotionally and physically brutal -- no place for a good girl who still sleeps in a pink bedroom full of toys. Black Swan is sometimes shocking, sometimes sexy, funny, and moving. As he often does, Aronofsky successfully mixes highbrow and low art in Black Swan, to make a psycho-horror-drama that doubles as ravishing arthouse artist's tragedy. 

20Dec2010

The Tourist (2010)


It is no easier to make a dull movie than an exciting one, generally speaking. But it can't have been easy to make a movie as lacklustre and wan as The Tourist with megawatt stars like Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, both eminently watchable actors. And yet, director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (The Lives of Others), working from a script he co-authored with Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects) and Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) has done just that. That's a whole lot of filmmaking talent gone meh.

But wait, there's more: Paul Bettany, Timothy Dalton, Steven Berkoff, and Rufus Sewell are also in The Tourist, and none of them manage to liven up the joint either, which is really quite remarkable. Venice, however, looks swell. I'm sure it's a lovely place to make a movie, which is, I suppose, reason enough to do it, even if the movie is The Tourist.

Venice is the setting for most of the action in The Tourist, a mystery-thriller about an ordinary guy getting mixed up in international intrigue and a case of mistaken identity, instead of having a nice, quiet little vacation abroad. It's the kind of film Hitchcock might have made (and did make), only Hitch would have made it a lot more fun and entertaining than this. Jolie, decked out in an assortment of formfitting retro dresses and elbow-length gloves certainly dresses the part of the old school femme fatale as Elise Clifton-Ward, a mysterious woman being followed by Interpol. She poses, she postures, she vamps, she's in love with a criminal. So she boards a train from Paris to Venice, and following instructions she receives in a letter from her lover, Alexander Pierce, she finds a fall guy in Frank Tupelo (Depp), a sad, timid math teacher from Wisconsin. 

Elise takes Frank to a luxurious hotel. Things get more complicated from there -- Venice is crawling with bad guys who think Frank is Pierce. Pierce stole money from said bad guys -- a lot of money -- and they want it back. So they want Frank. Meanwhile Scotland Yard wants Pierce because he owes back taxes on the stolen money.

The plot is fairly preposterous, but it ends up being fairly predictable too, which is far worse. A preposterous plot I can get behind, as long as it entertains and surprises. The Tourist goes through the motions of an exciting thriller -- dinner on a train, boat chases through the canals of Venice, rooftop pursuit, jumping onto a canvas awning efficiently combined with crashing into a fruit stand -- all the old chestnuts are there, but there is never a moment in the movie when it's possible to believe that either Elise or Frank is in genuine peril. 

The real problem with The Tourist, though, is that no one involved (except maybe Jolie) seems to know that this is not a movie to be taken seriously. The Tourist could have been livened up considerably with some zingy dialogue, a little witty patter, some comic romantic tension. Frank is awfully morose for a man being pursued by mobsters, Interpol, and Scotland Yard, while mixed up with a gorgeous dame who gets in all kinds of trouble -- he seems enervated rather than energized by the whole experience. He's the straight man to Jolie's vamp. Depp's no slouch in the vamping department himself (e.g. Captain Jack Sparrow, Willy Wonka, the Mad Hatter), but someone forgot to tell him that this much glamorous, cliche-riddled nonsense needs a leading man who knows that the straight man can't be played with a straight face.

12Dec2010

Fair Game (2010)



There are two stories in Fair Game, one big picture, one little. They're both about ambition, trust, devotion to truth, reality. Both are stories familiar in their generalities, and in their specifics. And both are stories about what happened to Valerie Plame Wilson.

Valerie (Naomi Watts), you may recall, was the CIA operative outed by the Bush Administration after her husband Joe (Sean Penn) accused the White House of dissembling about weapons of mass destruction during the march to war against Iraq. Joe Wilson, a former US ambassador, had gone to Africa at the behest of the CIA, investigated the alleged sale of the infamous "yellowcake" uranium, and found no evidence that Iraq ever bought any nuclear material. The conclusion of Valerie and her team of analysts at the CIA was that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. When the president, in his State of the Union address, claimed otherwise, Joe went on the warpath, ultimately accusing the administration of lying in a New York Times Op-Ed piece. Then, the story goes, Valerie's identity as a CIA spook was revealed -- her career at the CIA destroyed -- in order to discredit her husband.

Fair Game recounts all of that, but then shifts focus to create an intimate portrait of a couple facing a life-altering attack. As Valerie's career disintegrates, her marriage begins to collapse under the strain. What's interesting about Valerie and Joe is not that they are exceptional, but rather that they are, in a lot of ways, a fairly ordinary couple. Joe's older, already retired from his first career, now a stay-at-home dad starting up a consulting business. He gets the bulk of the childcare duty -- they have young twins -- while his younger, globetrotting wife, her career still in its ascendancy, works late in the night at a high-stress, demanding job. Temperamentally, they're quite different -- he's an idealist and a hothead for whom being right is more important than anything. He never leaves a dinner party without getting into at least one argument, while his cooler, more reserved wife bites her tongue and is good at keeping secrets. Joe spends his days in a righteous fury, tilting at windmills with all his might. His best weapon -- the truth -- is no match for White House operatives who decide what's true, and bend reality to suit their political purposes. Valerie, levelheaded, calm, and persuasive, is accustomed to analyzing data and interpreting reality. As ambitious as she is, and as devoted to the truth as she is, she's a team player, and understands that hers is not the final word. As the story is told in Fair Game, she gets caught in the crossfire between Joe and the White House.

Fair Game, written by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (based on memoirs by Valerie Plame Wilson and Joe Wilson), and directed by Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity and Mr. & Mrs. Smith), requires quite a bit of set-up, which the movie moves through briskly, with both Joe and Valerie hopping from one global hot spot to another. It helps, watching the movie, if you're already familiar with the basics of what happened in the Plame affair, and the political import of it all. The world is, of course, still dealing with the fallout of the Bush years, but Fair Game chooses to focus primarily on the personal consequences for the Wilsons. They are, in the big picture, small potatoes, just more collateral damage in the Bush Wars. But, as Fair Game reveals, no target was too small to be in the crosshairs of the venal, mendacious Bush operatives Scooter Libby (David Andrews, hatefully smooth-talking and self-satisfied) and Karl Rove (Adam LeFevre).

The movie mixes video clips from the Bush presidency (carefully selected to inflame old sentiments anew), with Liman's juddering handheld camera footage to create an unsettling, immediate sense of the floor falling out from under the Wilsons, and the end of the world as we knew it. Fair Game is a gripping, infuriating cloak-and-dagger political thriller about how all politics is personal, and how the petty, vindictive personal stuff and the neo-con world order stuff collided in the attack on the Wilsons. 

5Dec2010

Burlesque (2010)


By coincidence, just last night Funny Girl was on TV. There's a scene in that movie where Fannie Brice (Barbra Streisand) is in a big dance number with the Ziegfield Follies. She performs as a singing bride, but she doesn't like the song, so to protest, she appears as a very pregnant singing bride. That risque joke must have prompted an interesting conversation with the censors back in 1968.

Burlesque has two things in common with Funny Girl. Maybe three. One is that it is approximately as risque as Funny Girl, which is to say, surprisingly tame for 2010. The second is that it is very clearly a star vehicle for a legitimate singer, in this case Christina Aguilera. The fashion in movie musicals, of late, is to feature movie stars who are neither singers nor dancers. There is no shortage of perfectly good singers and dancers out there, many of them probably unemployed, so there isn't much reason for an audience to have to put up with iffy singing and awkward dancing in a musical. Third, Burlesque is another iteration of the apparently timeless tale of a gal who rises from obscurity with pluck and tenacity and a nice set of pipes, and becomes a star.

The gal in this case is Ali (Aguilera), a small-town Iowa waitress who buys a one-way ticket to Los Angeles with dreams of becoming a singer. After not very much struggle (apparently her dues were pre-paid back in Iowa), she talks her way into a job as a waitress at the Burlesque Lounge, a financially strapped nightclub where scantily-clad dancers bump and grind and lip-synch to songs from other, older musicals. Ali happens to walk in just as Tess (Cher), the proprietess, sings "Welcome to Burlesque." Perfect timing. Tess is about to lose her club to the bank if she can't pay the mortgage. Her ex-husband (Peter Gallagher) tries to talk her into selling the place to Marcus (Eric Dane), a wealthy real estate developer. Tess won't sell, and spends most of the movie wringing her hands and being alternately defiant and in despair (sometimes in song!). Her best friend and stage manager Sean (Stanley Tucci) commiserates, and they exchange wisecracks and hugs just like girlfriends (because Sean is gay, and effectively one of the gals). Any star-is-born story needs both backstage drama and lots of song and dance, and Burlesque has them both. There's also a little side romance between Ali and Jack (Cam Gigandet), the club bartender and a would-be songwriter, and Ali and Marcus. But really, nothing lights up Ali's life like being on stage.

The plot is economical and fuel-efficient, which is to say that if some seemingly random bit of information should come up in conversation, you can bet your bottom dollar that it will prove pivotal later in the movie. Thus, the plot of Burlesque is pretty predictable. Ali will be a star. The Burlesque Lounge will be saved. Love will find a way. Real estate deals will be signed. But originality and surprise are not the point of Burlesque. Writer-director Steve Antin has crafted an old-fashioned take on an old-fashioned musical, with just enough plot to fill the gaps between musical numbers. This would be a bad thing if Aguilera were not a very good singer, but she is. She's an adequate actress and dancer, which is all the movie requires her to be. Cher has two musical numbers in the movie, which is noteworthy because Cher, despite a lengthy singing career, has never been in a musical before. She's exactly the kind of dramatic, power-ballad singer who can be nicely framed by a musical, even one as slight as this. She's also a better actress than you'd know from the clunky plotting and dialogue of Burlesque, and the scenes she shares with Tucci are the most interesting in the movie.

The musical numbers are relatively tame by burlesque standards -- there's a fan dance, sure, and implied nudity, but Burlesque could have been filmed in a fig forest for all the naughty bits it reveals. (The musical numbers run the gamut from intimate to spectacular to physics-defying supersized, but none are set in a fig forest.) The movie's most salacious dance number features a woefully underutilized Alan Cumming (how can you make a musical with Alan Cumming and not put him in every single number?) and a dancer eating a banana. Anyone going to Burlesque hoping for another Showgirls will be sorely disappointed. Not that the world needs another Showgirls -- one was more than sufficient. If you miss Busby Berkeley musicals, on the other hand, Burlesque might be right up your alley. The anachronistic tameness and lingerie-clad sexlessness is sort of charming in a goofy, sparkly, innocuous way.

28Nov2010

The Next Three Days (2010)


There are two reasons to release a new movie against the unstoppable juggernaut that is Harry Potter: you've got a great movie and you're hoping to capitalize on counter-programming and grab the miniscule Potter Resistance audience, or, you've got a movie that's not especially good or marketable, and you're hoping to let it sink into obscurity without attracting too much attention. In the case of The Next Three Days, a jailbreak thriller starring Russell Crowe and directed by Paul Haggis (Crash), it is the latter. Sorry dudes, but I watched your movie.

The Next Three Days (based on the French film Pour Elle) takes about 15 minutes to establish the plot. John and Lara Brennan (Crowe and Elizabeth Banks) are a Pittsburgh couple with a young son. John teaches literature (Don Quixote, to be exact) at a community college; Lara is diabetic, and has an unspecified job, but importantly, she has a furious argument with her boss. The next day, she's arrested for murdering said boss, by bludgeoning her in a parking lot with a fire extinguisher. Slam, bam, three years go by, she's in jail, and all her appeals are exhausted. Did she do it? The evidence is against her: fingerprints, blood stains on her raincoat, the argument, motive and opportunity. John has faith in his wife; she grows despondent in the hoosegow. Thus begins John's transformation from shlubby, tweed-wearing professor to jailbreak mastermind. When Lara is scheduled to be transferred to the penitentiary in three days, John's planning goes into overdrive.

The remainder of the movie is essentially a very detailed guide to how to break your wife out of jail in three days. The internet is a big help: you can apparently watch all kinds of detailed instructional videos about criminal activity on YouTube. John also interviews Damon Pennington (Liam Neeson, in and out of the movie in about ten minutes), an escaped con-turned-author who offers helpful advice about the tricks of the trade, and planning one's escape. Damon cautions John that Pittsburgh, with all those bridges and tunnels, is particularly challenging. If the movie had been set in Tuscon, it would have been a lot shorter. John works out a plan in meticulous detail, with the movie crew tagging along. I'm not saying that The Next Three Days is boring. It's moderately interesting, as a purely procedural movie, but it's also implausible, and since I don't anticipate needing to know how to break someone out of jail, the implausibility factors looms larger. Could a mild-mannered professor break his wife out of the Allegheny County Jail, escape Pittsburgh, and flee the country? Sure, I suppose. Go from a guy who needs to be shown where the bullets go in a gun (has he never watched a movie?) to a guy who can confront street thugs and meth dealers? Errr, I guess so. Can he do it without turning into Russell Crowe, Gladiator? I'm not feeling it. 

And there's the problem with The Next Three Days. It has a modicum of momentum, but no drama. It could be about the physical and psychological transformation of an average Joe into a desperate action hero, but the movie is so caught up in the mechanical details of John's activity that there's no room for anything else. As for Lara, she's practically a nonentity. It's not hard to believe that she's terribly unhappy in jail, but the movie tries, in the eighth inning, to play coy about the matter of her guilt or innocence, without providing the emotional or psychological substance needed to support either certainty or doubt. Everything depends on John's faith in his wife's innocence, but since John is himself an underdeveloped character, that's not a whole lot to go on. Banks and Crowe are both able actors who could create the substrate of character needed to give The Next Three Days some weight and believability, but they're never given the chance. What is it about John's personality that would make him capable of becoming a desperate outlaw? (Can't just be a too careful reading of *Don Quixote*, and the literary parallels there are both obvious and strained.) What is it about Lara that makes it either possible or impossible that she committed a cold-blooded murder?  

In the end, The Next Three Days turns into an action movie, with the requisite high speed chase. A trio of police detectives (Jason Beghe, Aisha Hinds, and Lennie James -- all actors the movie could have used a lot more of) exist to turn the gears and create some momentary speed and peril, but there's nothing particularly plausible about the way they almost instantaneously figure out that the game is afoot. Either the Pittsburgh police department is incredibly efficient, or they operate in a parallel Pittsburgh where time moves at a different pace. The Next Three Days is all about technique and mechanics -- and the movie itself is technically and mechanically sound until the turbo-boosted end, when the engine starts to groan.

21Nov2010

Morning Glory (2010)


Becky Fuller's got spunk. She's got spunk like Mary Richards (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) had spunk. And like the venerable Mary Richards, she's got spunk enough to talk herself into a terrible job as the producer of a terrible television news show. And to stride purposefully and confidently through the streets of the big city, and to leap for joy when she gets the job. Mary threw her hat in the air, but nobody can do that again. Not even ironically, and certainly not in a cheerily bland movie like Morning Glory, which is inspired partly by The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and partly, it seems, by the movie Broadcast News.

So Becky (Rachel McAdams) leaps, and lands her dream (or nightmare) job, producing Daybreak, the IBS network morning show, perennially in fourth place behind those other shows you've heard of, with their chipper co-hosts and cheery weathermen. (Maybe the show would do better if the network didn't have the same name as an unpleasant gastrointestinal disease -- if there's a joke there, the movie doesn't exploit it.) Daybreak has Colleen Peck (Diane Keaton) and a revolving door of co-anchors -- the position's current occupant is a pervert named McVee (Ty Burrell). Becky boosts staff morale and wins the respect of her team when she fires McVee on her first day, showing that she's tough and dedicated. Then she has to find a replacement, and through some contractual extortion (see, she's really tough), she lands Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford), a legendary, award-winning news anchor who is still fighting the hard news versus fluffy human interest news battle (there's the Broadcast News part). Another producer (Patrick Wilson), who becomes a tepid love interest for Becky, calls Mike the third worst person in the world (a joke that's pretty funny when you know who the first two are). Mike lives up to his reputation as a hard customer, and he is mightily misquemed* at having been shanghaied into a job that he unambiguously thinks is beneath him. He pretty much refuses to do anything except read "real" news stories in a grave, stentorian voice, and glare at his co-anchor.

Mike's still fighting the good fight, even though the battle is pretty much lost. Becky embraces the fluff, she defends the fluff, she thinks the fluff has value. It entertains. It makes people happy. Mike's not happy, and Mike doesn't care if anyone else is happy either. Will perky Becky get crabby Mike on board in time to save Daybreak from cancellation? Will her perkiness rub off on her torpid, ratings-challenged TV show?

Morning Glory accepts that frothy, forgettable, disposable entertainment is not only the norm, both on morning TV and in movies, but that it's just fine. The script by Aline Brosh Michell (The Devil Wears Prada) offers up funny dialogue aplenty for its paper-thin characters, but not much else. Becky is a peppy workaholic, stubbornly devoted to her job. She'll do just about anything for Daybreak. Mike is grumpy and hard-drinking and one mean old SOB who likes to cook eggs. Mike is a dinosaur, and though the movie gives him one last chance to roar and bare his teeth, there are no apologies made here for pushing the kind of fluffy, upbeat entertainment Mike abhors (even though he's the most interesting human interest story in the movie). The rest of the movie's characters have little going on, although the cast is terrific, and make the most of their roles.

Director Roger Michell (Notting Hill) keeps Morning Glory moving at a peppy pace, with lots of bright and insistent pop songs filling in the emotional gaps and leaving no feeling unemphasized. Morning Glory practices what it preaches -- it's a perky movie about the triumph of perkiness. 

*Misqueme means displease. It's an endangered word, a victim of disuse, and the Oxford English Dictionary has begun a campaign to save endangered words from extinction. You can adopt an endangered word by pledging to use it and keep it alive. I've adopted misqueme, so you can expect to see it again in the future. Get your own word at savethewords.org. 

Due Date (2010)



The odd couple road trip is a venerable, oft-repeated movie formula. Come up with a pair of guys who can't get along, find a crazy reason  -- the wackier the better -- for them to be stuck in a car together for thousands of miles, and your work is half done. This is precisely what writer-director Todd Phillips (with three co-writers) does with Due Date. The movie rips off (or pays homage to) Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987), and a host of other road movies in telling the tale of an anxious father-to-be and a shlubby wannabe actor on the road from Atlanta to Los Angeles. (Phillips is apparently a fan of the road trip formula, having already made a road trip movie, cleverly called Road Trip. He also directed last year's megahit The Hangover, and specializes in movies about men behaving badly, of which Due Date is also an example.)

Peter Highman (Robert Downey, Jr.) is a tightly-wound architect. His wife (Michelle Monaghan) is about to have a baby, by scheduled C-section (a fact the movie delivers, but never explains). Soon-to-be-pater Peter runs into man-baby Ethan Tremblay (Zach Galifianakis) at the airport in Atlanta. Actually, Ethan runs into Peter, literally, and takes the door off his limo. This is but the first in a series of unfortunate events that eventuates in both Peter and Ethan being thrown off their flight, and placed on the no-fly list. Peter loses his wallet in the process, and is thus forced to ride with Ethan in a rental car, all the way to Los Angeles. Ethan is heading to Hollywood to meet with an agent. He's an aspiring actor. His aspiration is, primarily, to appear on the sitcom Two and a Half Men. Peter just wants to get home in time for the birth of his first child.

Ethan has a french bulldog named Sonny, and a coffee can containing his father's ashes. He also has "glaucoma," which he "treats" with copious amounts of "medical" marijuana, which he buys from dealers he finds on the internet. He's not a very good driver (which is probably true even when he isn't stoned), he's not very smart, and he's a terrible traveling companion. Among other things, both he and his dog masturbate a lot. In the car. Peter suffers a great deal of physical pain and injury, mental anguish, and legal trouble on the hellish journey, and lashes out at Ethan -- which Ethan completely deserves. All of this is a recipe for male bonding, no?

It has to be, because bonding is the point of the movie road trip. Peter (who isn't so good with kids, it turns out) is stuck with a big man-baby who is every bit as uninformed, self-absorbed, destructive, and oblivious to danger and social mores as the average two year old. This is the sort of character Galifianakis specializes in, and it isn't much of a departure from his character in The Hangover, although that guy both was a baby (figuratively) and carried around an actual baby. Ethan just carries his little self-pleasuring dog around. He is appalling, an oversized character in a clumsy, oversized body -- he's got quirks and personality to burn. At his core, he's innocent -- the damage he does is unwitting and unintentional. Downey's Peter, on the other hand, is an underwritten character whose  personality traits are fussiness about baby names and a tendency to get apoplectic when provoked. He is provoked frequently, of course. Neither of these guys becomes any less, or more, in the course of their odyssey -- they arrive at journey's end much as they were at journey's beginning, although Peter is much the worse for the wear. Much of the appeal of the movie, of course, is that Downey and Galifianakis are opposites in so many ways that they make the incendiary chemistry between Peter and Ethan credible, even if the circumstances of the plot are forced. Both actors are good enough that they even manage to sell (mostly) the warm and fuzzy ending to this buddy comedy.

The plotting of Due Date is hectic and extravagant, the comedy is uneven but fitfully funny. When it's funny, it's quite funny, though in a nasty, calculatedly outrageous way.

11Nov2010

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010)



I've grown a bit weary of Woody Allen's films, but no more so, I suspect, than he himself has. There's a real weariness to You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Allen's latest pessimistic epistle about love and marriage and ruin and people behaving badly. Maybe he'd have more fun making a neurotic zombie movie or something, because one gets the sense he's in a rut, and not really enjoying his own movies anymore. It's a rut of his own making -- he's been down this road many a time before.

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger follows two couples, one married, one recently divorced. Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) ended his long marriage to Helena (Gemma Jones) in a fit of anxiety about his own mortality (aka meeting the Tall Dark Stranger). Alfie takes up with an actress (aka a prostitute) named Charmaine (Lucy Punch). Helena tipples too much and spends a lot of time with a psychic named Cristal (Pauline Collins), who offers her sherry and prognostic succor. Alfie and Helena's daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) is married to Roy (Josh Brolin), a trained doctor who gave up medicine to write novels. Now he's a once-promising novelist in the agonizing throes of failing to live up to his potential. Sally wants to have a family, but she and Roy (who doesn't have a paying job) are financially dependent on her mother. Helena, consequently, feels free to drop in at any time and impart advice (mostly second-hand, from her psychic) and passive-aggressive criticism. Sally works for an art gallery, and has a crush on her charming boss Greg (Antonio Banderas), who is also in an unhappy marriage. Roy, meanwhile, begins a flirtation with Dia (Frieda Pinto), the young, beautiful musicologist who lives across the courtyard and apparently has forgotten how to operate windowshades. 

Allen hasn't appeared in a movie since Scoop (2006), but often, for whatever reason, at least one actor in his movies ends up practically impersonating him. Maybe it's the dialogue, which is, as always, distinctly Allen's, although not, in this case, particularly funny. Banderas and Brolin both, at times, act and talk like Allen in *Tall Dark Stranger*, but so does Watts, which is even weirder. 

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is mostly rather uncomfortable and unpleasant, but not in a good way. Brolin's Roy is angry and whiny, and his flirtation with Dia (who is engaged) is utterly unbelievable. He confesses that's he's been spying on her, which anyone else would find creepy and icky, but she finds it charming enough to  take him to meet her parents and contemplate calling off her marriage. Or maybe she has a thing for unkempt, unemployed peeping Toms. The relationship that does make sense is the one between Alfie and Charmaine -- she finds his money absolutely irresistible, and he wants a trophy wife, and a son. Punch's character is pretty simple: a gold digging dumb blonde who likes working out and nightclubbing. Allen's script doesn't give her a way to be sympathetic or interesting, but that's also true of Hopkins' Alfie, whose motives aren't sufficient to make him more than pathetic. There's even a joke about Viagra at his expense, which shows you how low Allen is willing to go for a laugh (about halfway, as it turns out). The movie is most sympathetic towards Helena, while also mocking her spirtiualist faith in soothsayers and reincarnation and  other wishful thinking  that helps her believe life is meaningful. The annoying narrator (Zak Orth) of the movie starts out by quoting Macbeth (life is "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing...") and ends with a verbal shrug of sorts, noting that the secret to Helena's happiness (in case the audience missed it) is her belief in illusions. All the others? Too messed up and too smart (or too dumb) to succeed in matters of the heart. The more desperately they chase happiness, the more it eludes their grasp.

4Nov2010

Hereafter (2010)


As an actor, Clint Eastwood has frequently played characters who have a causal role in shuffling others off this mortal coil. As a director, he seems often to have death on his mind too, so it should come as no surprise that in Hereafter, he contemplates (or is it confronts?) death again. The difference is that Hereafter looks at death from the point of view of survivors, those touched (but not fatally) by death. Eastwood has looked at death from both sides now.

Hereafter, written by Peter Morgan (The Queen), engages in some tentative speculation about the afterlife, but the story, about three lives that intersect, coincidentally, in the aftermath of death, is more concerned with the living. Marie LeLay (Cecile De France) is a French journalist who survives the Indonesian tsunami (chillingly recreated); she has the classic near-death experience -- white light, shadowy figures who beckon her -- as she is submerged by the epic, killer wave. She's haunted by her experience and, like a good reporter, endeavors to dig deeper and find out more. George Lonegan (Matt Damon) has had about enough of the dead -- he's a psychic, apparently the real deal, who communicates with the dead on behalf of the living who long to speak once more with their dearly departed. He considers his "gift" to be a burden. His entrepreneurial (and exploitative) brother (Jay Mohr) tries to talk him into cashing in on his talent, but he'd rather keep a low profile and work in a warehouse. Marcus and Jason are identical twin brothers (played by Frankie and George McLaren). The two boys keep their family together (mum's a mess), and they've got a unique connection to each other that isn't completely severed when one brother is killed.

Eastwood, in his typical, understated way, makes a typically understated movie that's intriguing and moving, although oddly disconnected. Death, of course, comes for us all, and in that we are all connected, all one in the human condition. But that's not much to hang a narrative on, and in the end, Hereafter just kind of runs its course and fades out. It dies a natural, quiet death, so to speak, which is an atypical sort of death in the movies.

Despite the title's intimations of revealing a glimpse of the great beyond, it is scarcely concerned with the afterlife, and more concerned with life. Lacking any particular narrative momentum, the movie instead lingers on moments, on day-in-the-life stuff that happens to the characters. Marie can't focus at work, so she takes a leave of absence to write a book about the life and death of Francois Mitterand that turns into a book about death, and life after it. The movie follows her through a series of vignettes -- business meetings, intimate dinners, conversations. George listens to books on tape -- he's a big fan of Dickens -- and takes an Italian cooking class, where he meets flirty, sweet Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard), who gives him a glimpse of what a "normal" life might be like. He is self-protective, seeking to shield himself from the voices of the dead, but it requires him to sometimes be cruel to the living. Shy, lonely Marcus longs to be with his protective brother Jason again, and seeks out a series of charlatans who claim they can communicate with the dead boy. The natural, solemn, sometimes awkward performances by the McLaren brothers takes what might have been maudlin material and makes it clear-eyed and melancholy, but not pitiful. 

The same is true of the rest of the movie. Eastwood deftly avoids the pitfalls of sloppy sentimentality -- a real danger given the subject matter -- and maintains a certain equilibrium, and a cool distance. The movie sympathizes, foremost, with the questioning, the curiosity about death, rather than with the grieving. It takes its lead, it seems, from the dead, who, when George speaks for them at least, are all business. They've got things to say, important messages to convey, but they're not gonna get all weepy and mushy, or waste time (which is odd, since it is presumably timeless there in eternity). Their message for the living: get on with your lives. And that, in the end, is what Hereafter does too -- its a quiet, unassuming, anti-nihilist reflection on living in the face of death, on continuing in spite of the inevitable. In the midst of life, we are in death, so carry on.

28Oct2010

RED (2010)



At 55, Bruce Willis is a little young to be playing a retiree. I thought 70 was the new 60, not the other way around. But no matter. Willis is Frank Moses in RED, and Moses is a retired CIA black ops specialist. Maybe the working lifespan (if not the actual lifespan) of a spook is shorter than average. 

Someone wants to considerably shorten Moses' lifespan in RED. RED is an acronym for "Retired, Extremely Dangerous," which is what Moses proves to be (hey, it's stamped right there on his file -- in red). When several heavily armed men break into his suburban Cleveland home to kill him, Moses comes out of retirement and lays some extremely lethal defensive maneuvers on them. This is not a terrible thing, because it turns out Moses was pretty bored in retirement. The whole attempted assassination thing kinda brightened his day a bit. After dispatching the assassins, he trots off to Kansas City, where he had a tentative date with Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), a bored federal employee in a pension processing office whom he had been kind of flirting with on the phone. With armed men trying to kill him, he figures he has to kidnap Sarah and take her with him, for her own safety. She grudgingly obliges, and admits that it's not the worst first date she's ever had. What starts out looking like another quirky Mr. Wrong romantic comedy soon morphs into something else -- an AARP buddy action comedy with a little love on the side.

Moses, of course, isn't the only retired assassin out there looking for a little excitement. So it takes little effort to persuade his pals to come in from the pasture and join him in figuring out what's going on and who's responsible. His old buddy Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman), who is dying of liver cancer and spending his last days in a retirement home, wants to go out with a bang. (Will the movie oblige him? Who could say no to Morgan Freeman?) Paranoid conspiracy-theorist Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich, dialing up the crazy, even for him) has a conspiracy theory to contribute -- and he's right! Ivan Simonov (Brian Cox) is an old KGB frenemy who is so bored with the tedium of post-Cold War bureaucratic life that he's willing to switch sides. Victoria (Helen Mirren, having a fine old time) has a beautiful waterfront home in Maryland, but she really misses all the killing. Ernest Borgnine, who really is old enough to be retired (but happily, isn't), turns up a few times to wax nostalgic as the CIA's keeper of super-duper secret files.

Meanwhile, young CIA assassin William Cooper (Karl Urban) is hunting Moses, with a veritable army of heavily armed agents at the ready to wreak havoc. If this sort of thing routinely happens in the CIA, they do a really good job of keeping it quiet. Cooper doesn't know that the anti-Moses conspiracy concerns some long ago dirty business in Guatemala involving the vice president and his puppet master, a powerful defense contractor (Richard Dreyfuss) who bears a passing resemblance to a certain former, snarling vice president with a bad heart (insert joke about him actually having a heart here). That's about as political as RED gets -- the plot is really incidental. The point is simply this: "old" people shooting big guns, blowing things up, and laying a beatin' on young whippersnappers who dare to call them "grandpa." This is kind of how you imagine Clint Eastwood would spend his retirement, if he wasn't so busy making movies.

It is, of course, all in good fun, and RED, based on the comic books created by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner, and directed by Robert Schwentke (The Time Traveler's Wife) takes a cartoonish approach to the violence, and everything else. The good guys mostly recover from gunshots fairly quickly, the bad guys and their minions mostly get blown to smithereens. It's pretty simple, unsophisticated, zippy, and darkly funny. RED doesn't really have a message, or even much of a point -- there's nothing serious in there about the wisdom and value of elders, although apparently you can't discount experience as a serious advantage in the spy game. Having big guns helps too. And you're never too old to have fun vaporizing your enemies.

Maybe there is a mesage in there after all -- retirement is a drag, so don't despair, all you zoomers who watched your 401(k)s evaporate. You'll be happier if you just keep working.

21Oct2010

Let Me In (2010)


There is a certain anticipatory dread that accompanies the arrival of an American remake of a splendid foreign film. In the case of Let Me In, that dread is warranted, not because this is another sloppy, dumbed down, hyperactive remake, but because it is faithful to the original, a dread-steeped, marrow chilling story of the horrors of prepubescent adolescence.

Let Me In, based on the Swedish Film Let the Right One In (2009), in turn based on John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel, is a kind of vampire love story, but it departs radically from the dominant romantic vampire paradigm of the moment, with its lust, sex and noisy supernatural battles between werewolves and vampires (true of both the teencentric Twilight movies and the hyper-sexy, hyper-violent HBO series True Blood). Let Me In zeroes in on a different variety of pre-teen and pre-sexual anxiety and violence, exploring the rage and terror of bullied, tormented, 12 year old Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee), whose everday existence is filled with dread even before he meets the vampire girl next door. 

Owen's parents are divorcing, and he's lonely, bored and fearful. It's 1983, in Los Alamos, NM. Reagan is on TV talking about evil empires, and Culture Club and David Bowie are on the radio (and in the movie's soundtrack). Owen lives in a shabby apartment complex with his mother, and spends his evenings killing time in the snowy, bleak courtyard, gorging on Now-and-Later candies. His Now is something he's desperate to escape, but what Later does he anticipate in chilly Reagan-era America? Surely not the arrival of an interesting and mysterious neighbor, a 12 year old girl named Abby (Chloƫ Grace Moretz), who quickly informs him that they cannot be friends. For Owen, it hardly matters -- he'll take what friendship he can find, even if it's of a strange and tentative kind. Abby, for her part, feels protective of Owen, and he desperately needs a protector, as the bullies who torment him at school become increasingly vicious and predatory.

Abby is pale and peculiar, a barefoot child who looks poorly cared for by her weary, middle-aged guardian (Richard Jenkins). He acts as a procurer, an unwilling serial killer whose task is to find blood for Abby -- she's a vampire -- and thus to keep her hidden from the world. He's not very good at killing, which brings him to the attention of a dogged police detective (Elias Koteas), investigating the recent rash of what he suspects are satanic cult killings.

The film is evocatively dark and shadowy, and the cinematography by Greig Fraser beautifully communicates the isolation, bewilderment and directionlessness of Owen and Abby, two kids who, for different reasons, find themselves uprooted, unmoored, unsettled, and vulnerable. Moretz (Kick-Ass) and Smit-McPhee (The Road) are both hauntingly effective in their depictions of the very specific isolations of Abby and Owen, and their mutual, quietly desperate yearning for non-sexual intimacy and love.

Let Me In was written and directed by Matt Reeves, whose last film, Cloverfield, was a hot mess, a tiresome, gimmicky faux home movie about the destruction of New York -- and a handful of stupid, annoying characters -- by monster. Let Me In -- although it makes somewhat more liberal use of special effects than its Swedish predecessor -- is more evocative of the angsty, yearning TV drama Felicity, which Reeves co-created, than Cloverfield. The director's affinity for stories of adolescent intensity and fragility is ideally suited to the eerie, moody Let Me In, a delicately, emotionally haunting horror story that is only incidentally about vampires, and at its heart is about the horrors of being twelve (and even worse, for Abby, forever twelve). Let Me In resists mythologizing vampires and youth -- two things pop culture is perpetually intent on mythologizing and glamorizing -- and in so doing, it is memorably, poignantly chilling.

The Social Network (2010)



          A movie about Facebook sounds, to me, about as interesting as Facebook itself. Which is to say, not very. I'm a bad Facebook friend. I don't obsessively check Facebook to find out what's going on with my "friends." I completely reject the use of the word "friend" as a verb. Once a noun, always a noun, that's my motto. I don't update more than a couple of times a year. Until I saw The Social Network, I had never really thought much about Facebook, but suddenly, I wondered: how the heck does Facebook, a free site, make all those billions of dollars? Turns out it's advertising (how mundane!), and turns out I never even noticed the ads on the right side of my Facebook page. They are either really good ads, subtly worming their ways into my subconscious mind, or they are really bad ads that have utterly failed to attract my notice. (Whatever algorithm Facebook is using to ascertain which ads will make me click is a little off. For instance, I noticed an ad there for Christian Louboutin shoes. While it’s true I wear shoes, and in fact like shoes very much, Christians are several notches above my paygrade. And the heels are way too high for me.)

            The Social Network is no Facebook ad. The movie immediately grabs the attention, with a barrage of dialogue -- penned by Aaron Sorkin -- that's fast, sharp, smart, and combative. The conversation the movie drops into is between Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), future billionaire and Facebook founder, and his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara). They're in a bar, and rat-a-tat-tat, rapid fire words fly across the table -- some of them hurt, some of them are meant to hurt, some of them are just further evidence, for Erica, of Zuckerberg's obsession with status, and his thinly veiled disdain for her lack thereof (she only goes to Boston University, while he's at Harvard). There is always collateral damage when Zuckerberg starts talking. Erica sums up his character in one word. The fight, and the beers he drinks, and his quest for vengeance have Zuckerberg blogging into the night, and then taking it out on every female student at Harvard. He creates a website publicly ranking them all as hot or not. It's mean-spirited, it’s an instant hit, and it crashes the university's computer network.

            A few months later, Facebook is born, but not before Zuckerberg makes a few more enemies. By the end of the story, he'll have made even more, and betrayed his best (and only) friend. The irony, the paradox, the incongruity of the story is that the man who launched millions of online friendships has no friends, no people skills, a level of social ineptitude and insensitivity that's almost pathological. Zuckerberg comes across as the smartest guy in the room, but also the most clueless, someone who, if he cares at all about other people, doesn't (or can't) show it. Eisenberg, who typically plays affable nerds and losers (Adventureland, Zombieland) is anything but affable here -- he plays Zuckerberg as someone who's intensely, competitively brainy, but missing certain essential character traits -- a sense of decency, loyalty, empathy, a conscience, the ability to listen. You know, the sorts of things one would look for in a friend. Confronted with uncomfortable truths, or socially difficult situations, or people he thinks are beneath him (that’s almost everyone), Zuckerberg goes eerily blank, like he's withdrawing into that void in his soul. The Social Network is the story of a man who, pathetically motivated by petty revenge, creates a medium for human beings to connect with one another, and Zuckerberg simultaneously reaches out to and pulls back from human contact, while the movie thoroughly resists trying to make him attractive or sympathetic or even self-aware. Every time he opens his mouth, something awful comes out. The only person who seems to really get Zuckerberg is Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the Napster and Plaxo creator who is a slick, slippery, paranoid Svengali-like business guru to him. Parker manages to insinuate himself into the Facebook fold just in time to cash in.

            The Social Network  is based on Ben Mezrich's book *The Accidental Billionaires*. It interweaves the account of Facebook's beginnings with two depositions for lawsuits against Zuckerberg. His best friend and Facebook co-founder and financier Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) is suing him. So are Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer, playing both as comically perfect creatures -- rich, handsome, athletic Harvard men), who claim Zuckerberg stole their idea when he created Facebook. Cameron and Tyler represent the old elite, born into privilege, hobnobbing with royalty, reeking with class and status. Their adversary represents the new elite, powered by microchips, with the online masses at his back.

            Sorkin's script is a great one -- it crackles with intelligence, wit, emotion, and psychological insight. Director David Fincher, drawn as always to dark material, creates an intensely heady, brainy modern-day tragedy that hits on Shakepearean themes of friendship and betrayal, human frailty, ruthlessness, power and ambition, loneliness. The Social Network builds momentum as it moves through the astonishingly meteoric rise (there's yet to be a fall) of Facebook's fortunes. Fincher toggles back and forth between a dark and oppressive Harvard (it's never looked so gloomy on film, all shadowy and cold) and brightly lit corporate offices where Zuckerberg faces his accusers and their lawyers. How to make an interesting movie about words, computer code, ideas, cloud relationships? Fincher and Sorkin do it, first by capturing the thrill of creativity and genius as a small cadre of visionary computer hackers conquer the world with one really simple, really big idea, and then by creating an uncomfortably close, disquieting account of the casualties, of the real, flesh and blood friends who get slaughtered. The movie tells a particular version of the Facebook origin story (a fictional one, according to Facebook, Inc.), and it's utterly fascinating, hurtling through the details of how the biggest club in the world (one in 14 humans are members) got started in a dark, angry dorm room at Harvard University. The Social Network is a digital age morality tale, a tale of cruelty, betrayal, triumph. We see daily the maliciousness and viciousness of mobs cloaked in the anonymity of bits and bytes. The Social Network suggests that the callousness was a kind of original sin, written into the code by the creators. They unleashed a monster, the evil twin of the webtopian unifier of humanity. Zuckerberg didn’t create the monster; he just created a new place for it to hide in plain sight, surrounded by friends.

07Oct2010

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole (2010)


It can be a great distraction to have read the book when you see a movie adaptation, and I don't often do it. But the youngster and I have read Kathryn Lasky's fine Guardians of Ga'Hoole: The Capture, the first book in a 15 volume series about an heroic young barn owl named Soren. The first three books have been adapted into the animated movie Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole. The movie is sufficiently different from the books that it's best judged on its own terms -- the characters have the same names, but the story is stripped of much of its psychological depth and horror, to make for a zippier, streamlined adventure movie that ends with an epic, violent battle. The first book is dark and bleak, but hopeful, with a sophisticated socio-political theme. The tone of the movie is quite different. It is still frequently dark and menacing, but considerably simpler, and the timeline far shorter, so as to pack three book's worth of story into a 90 minute film.

Soren (voiced by Jim Sturgess) is a young barn owlet who lives with his parents, his older brother Kludd (Ryan Kwanten), and his adorable fluffball of a baby sister Eglantine (Adrienne DeFaria). One day, Soren and Kludd fall from the family's tree, and are kidnapped by patrols from St. Aegolius Academy for Orphaned Owls. They're taken to a barren canyon, where they and hundreds of owlets of many species are held captive and "moon-blinked," a form of brainwashing, and forced to work. St. Aggie's is a concentration camp for the Pure Ones, evil owls with a delusions of superiority bent on destroying all the inferior owl kingdoms. Kludd sides with his captors, but Soren and a tiny Elf owl named Gylfie (Emily Barclay) escape and seek help from the legendary Guardians, a mythical band of noble protector owls said to live in a vast Ga'Hoole tree. Their traveling companions are a snooty, singing grey owl named Twilight (Anthony LaPaglia), and goofy burrowing owl Digger (David Wenham). Kids who like knock-knock jokes will think Digger's a hoot.

Legend of the Guardians is beautifully and vibrantly animated, and creates a really nice, immersive, bird's-eye-view sense of flight with its effective use of 3-D. The characters (most with Australian accents and mostly voiced by Aussie actors) are nicely expressive, although they've got more visual depth than psychological depth. Excellent CG animation is the rule rather than the exception these days, so the visual quality of the movie alone is not enough to recommend it. On the other hand, the CG *Roadrunner* cartoon short that precedes the movie is pretty comprehensively lousy and artistically pointless. It looks like a poorly rendered video game. (I've never been a fan of that pesky bird anyway.) 

Director Zack Snyder has a strong and original visual style, as demonstrated in 300 and Watchmen (although both of those movies, which blended live actors and CG, looked a lot better than they were, taken as a whole). Legend of the Guardians is Snyder's first fully animated movie, and it exhibits some of the director's stylistic flourishes, including ample use of slow motion, and an emphasis on bold action over conceptual or symbolic content. The story as told in Legend of the Guardians moves briskly, motivated more by plot than ideas -- older and more sophisticated youngsters with a sense of history might appreciate the political subtext, but it is not particularly prominent or important in the progress of the story, so younger viewers will have no trouble keeping up, and will be charmed by the heroic characters and funny sidekicks. The movie doesn't particularly dwell on the emotional impact of the rather distressing developments in Soren's young life, and regularly lightens things up with humorous interludes. The drawn-out climax, however, while not visibly bloody, is violent enough to warrant parental caution.

26Sep 2010

Going the Distance (2010)


Going the Distance combines the bromantic comedy and the romantic comedy in a snappy, unsappy package that is a refreshing change for the genre. Romantic comedies typically go one of two ways, divided (supposedly) along gender lines. The "chick flicks" are sweet and slapsticky, with a cute, bickering couple who don't know how right they are for each other. The bromances are rude and crude, but deep down kinda sorta sincere, and, I suppose, meant to get the guys into the theatres without too much fuss. Team Apatow specializes in the latter, and Adam Sandler dabbles in them. Going the Distance manages to successfully combine the bromance and romance, with a cute couple (Justin Long and Drew Barrymore) who are kept apart not by some manufactured, only-in-the-movies plot development, but rather by something uncomfortably familiar and real: their jobs.

Garrett (Long) works for a record company. He loves music, but hates his job (because he loves *good* music). (There's a lot of good music on the movie soundtrack, by the by.) Erin (Barrymore) is a summer intern and aspiring newspaper reporter at a New York City newspaper. She's getting a late start in her career, and has apparently hit her stride just as newspapers are massively downsizing. When she and Garrett meet, she is just weeks away from going back to San Francisco to finish grad school, and he is fresh off his latest breakup (apparently he has commitement issues). They meet drunk and surly, but are brought together by their mutual love of vintage video arcade games and cheesy 1980s movies (and dope). Next thing you know, he's running through the airport to tell her... well, just to tell her he hopes he can see her again sometime. Post-9/11 airport security has really taken all the rainbows and unicorns out of airports. Erin and Garrett have their heart to heart chat at the check-in line, the uninspiring threshold that is the scene of the modern day airport farewell.

Going the Distance is enough of a genre-bender to get the airport scene out of the way early in the movie, and to make it but a teaser for the real complications that follow from this hopeful, against the odds romance.

And the odds are bad. Erin wants to live in New York, wants to be with Garrett, but economic forces beyond her control (the recession, the job market, the slow dying of old media) keep her in California, where she lives with her clean-freak sister (the hilarious Christina Applegate). Garrett is tethered to New York by his job, but also by his close relationships with Box (Jason Sudelkis) and Dan (Charlie Day), his weird, potty-mouthed buddies (for her part, Erin can swear like a sailor -- and drink like one -- too). 

The movie, directed by Nanette Burstein and scripted by Geoff LaTulippe, takes the classic romantic comedy conundrum -- Will they or won't they? Can they or can't they? -- and makes it meaningful and realistic. A continent is a big distance to travel, but the more difficult terrain Garrett and Erin have to navigate is vastly more significant: it's the land where you follow your dreams (in an individualistic, uncompromising way), and make a living, and find your true love, and live happily ever after. Having your cake and eating it too (and never getting fat from eating all that cake) is the American dream, and it's just the sort of dream that a reporter like Erin might write a nice feature about. Of course, it'll be about how that dream is dead, or dying, or something like that. Going the Distance is smart enough to take that dream seriously, but also to recognize it for the quixotic fantasy it is, and to recognize, as well, the way movies push that delicously sweet, cakey ideal. Going the Distance ices the cake with a big dollop of reality, but it's also charming and funny, and the characters are appealing enough that, gosh darn it, you really hope those two crazy kids can find that happy ending, even if it means racking up the frequent flier miles.

12Sep2010

The American (2010)



George Clooney specializes in two kinds of roles of late: rascals (see Ocean's Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen), and a-man's-gotta-do-what-a-man's-gotta-do types (Up in the Air, Michael Clayton), and sometimes both (Fantastic Mr. Fox, Burn After Reading).  In The American, he's a man's-gotta-do type, an assassin, a lone gunslinger, and an artisanal gunsmith who goes by several names, including Mr. Butterfly. 

He works for a slippery character named Pavel (Johan Leysen), who sends him an assassin named Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) who needs a very special rifle for a job. He doesn't know what the job is, and doesn't care, but he plans to quit the business when the assignment is finished. Unknown assassins are gunning for him, so he hides out in an Italian mountain village where he meets a nosy priest (Paolo Bonacelli), drinks coffee, exercises, works on the rifle, and eases his loneliness with a prostitute named Clara (Violante Placido). He's understandably paranoid, given that someone is trying to kill him. 

The American is directed by Anton Corbijn (Control), and adapted from the Martin Booth novel A Very Private Gentleman. Corbijn, a photographer and music video director, has an artistic sensibility when it comes to lighting and composition. There's a beautiful visual precision to the movie. The languorous pace of the film, and the unnerving way the camera tracks through lovely, lonely landscapes, enhances its menace. It slowly and subtly builds tension throughout, creating a sense of something sinister lurking in the cobbled alleyways of Mr. Butterfly's village hideaway, in the sun-dappled forests, in a quiet (too quiet?) cafe. Some of these places are utterly benign, but the movie is disquieting, discomfiting in a way that makes the viewer uneasy, like Mr. Butterfly, of things that are too perfect, too tranquil, too picturesque. 

The American is quiet, contemplative, and meticulously crafted, much as Mr. Butterfly is quiet and contemplative, and a meticulous craftsman. What is never entirely clear is what Mr. Butterfly, or the movie for that matter, is really contemplating. He says little, and little is betrayed by Clooney, who plays this role as a mostly grim-faced, scowling, strong but silent type. The American is a character study disguised as a tense yet leisurely thriller, but by the end of the film, not that much is really known about the character under study, except the obvious. This is perhaps by design. Mr. Butterfly's survival depends on his ability to be anonymous, to blend in, to disappear, but his camouflage may be too good. What he lacks, and what he longs for, is human connection, yet the movie holds him at arm's length. This may be a perfect example of a movie that is aesthetically and narratively indistinguishable from its protagonist: attractive, taciturn, anxious, polished, proficient, distant. 

5Sept2010

Get Low (2010)


In a movie career of nearly five decades, Robert Duvall has gone from playing a menacing, mysterious hermit (Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird) to playing a menacing, mysterious hermit In Get Low. And everything in between, of course: cops, robbers, cowboys, soldiers, astronauts, doctors, Joseph Pulitzer and Josef Stalin. In Get Low, Duvall delivers another memorable performance as Felix Bush, a Tennessee recluse who decides to throw himself a funeral.

Get Low is based on a true, unlikely story that has become the stuff of legend. Felix "Bush" Breazeale was a Tennessee farmer who, in 1938, made headlines when he decided to have a funeral party while he was still alive to enjoy it. Thousands attended. Life Magazine covered the event.

In the hands of Aaron Schneider, a cinematographer directing his first feature, and screenwriters Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell, Get Low is part backwoods tall tale, part solemn tale of redemption, part low-key comedy, and part mystery.

Bush lives in a rustic log cabin in the woods, with only his mule Gracie for company. He's feared by the locals who take seriously his threat to shoot trespassers. He's a mysterious bogeyman about whom little is known. When he receives news that an old acquaintance has died, it gives him something to think about. He decides to throw himself a funeral party, and invites the entire county to come and tell their stories about him. He finds a desperate funeral parlor director named Frank Quinn (Bill Murray), who is happy to take Bush's "hermit money" and throw him a grand soiree. Quinn and his assistant Buddy (Lucas Black) become Bush's party planners, publicity agents, stylists, and chauffeurs, but not his confidants. Bush keeps his motives close to his vest, even with Mattie (Sissy Spacek), an old flame who knew him before he was a secretive loner. As the story unfolds, the mystery deepens, but it becomes apparent that Bush has his own story to tell, and he's looking for a way to tell it. In his pre-death, Bush leaves his solitude, and rejoins the community -- the life -- he so long shunned. 

Get Low is unexpectedly offbeat, charming, and funny as it meanders along towards a sentimental and not entirely unexpected conclusion, dropping numerous hints along the way of the coming revelation, of a distant tragedy, and a lost love, and Bush's redemption. The performances by Duvall and Murray save the movie from mawkishness -- both men bring ornery, lively wit to their characters. Duvall is fascinating as Bush, a man of few but carefully chosen words. Duvall teases out the quirky, twinkling sense of humor, the deep old hurt, and the emotional volatility behind the ZZ Top beard. Even though the movie can't help but telegraph, well in advance, where it's going, Duvall makes Bush a character who is captivating enough to make it worth following him. Murray is dodgy and sly as ever -- Quinn is almost as mysterious as Bush, and to the very end, it's impossible to know if he's on the level, or up to no good. Both men bring an acerbic edge, and a measure of authenticity and richly human complexity to their performances, which elevate the movie and pull it back from its occasional cornball tendencies. 

2Sept2010

Nanny McPhee Returns (2010)


When last we visited Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson), she was helping frazzled widower Mr. Brown (Colin Firth) to manage his unruly mob of children in Victorian England. Nanny McPhee was a stern, menacing and mysterious figure who dispensed disgusting medicines to malingering little ones and found ways to give wicked kids a taste of their own medicine too. Though she dressed (more or less) like Mary Poppins, she was warty and blobby and had unfortunate teeth. She did not sing. But she was patient and loving, although for Nanny McPhee, love means teaching children to do what's in their own best interest (and to be kind and helpful and all that).

Nanny McPhee is back, warts and all, in Nanny McPhee Returns, although the setting is now the English countryside during World War Two. Nanny McPhee (Thompson) looks none the worse for her decades of caring for misbehaving miscreants. This time around, she's summoned to assist Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a frazzled mother  who does her best to keep the family farm afloat while her husband is off fighting in the war. Her three children, Norman (Asa Butterfield), Megsie (Lil Woods), and little Vincent (Oscar Steer) are a bit naughty, but they turn into violent monsters when their haughty, snooty cousins arrive from the city. Cyril (Eros Vlahos) and Celia (Rosie Taylor-Ritson) are ill-mannered brats who instantly judge the farm to be a sea of poo, and their cousins to be poo-wallowing hayseeds. Meanwhile, Isabel is constantly pestered by her brother-in-law Phil (Rhys Ifans), who wants her to sign over her family's half of the farm. Phil's got some hilarious heavies (Sinead Matthews and Katy Brand) leaning on him for the deed to the farm. As has become traditional in *Nanny McPhee* movies, illustrious British thespians make right fools of themselves playing English caricatures. To wit, Maggie Smith is family friend dotty old Mrs. Docherty (who has a secret identity) and Ralph Fiennes turns up as a stodgy, stern, stiff upper lip military man.

Nanny McPhee Returns, written, like the original movie, by Thompson, lacks some of the menace and also some of the charm of the first movie, but this might be in part because the story's essential mystery is gone. The movie's a bit tamer too -- as directed by Susanna White, it lacks the acid colors and vinegary bite of the first movie and opts for a more muted, earthy palette to go with a slightly gentler approach to herding children. One hates to think that Nanny McPhee is becoming a soft touch! 

The movie goes for a broad, slapsticky brand of comedy, involving a great deal of barnyard animal waste, and Nanny McPhee makes more liberal use of her unspecified supernatural powers -- she can make children want to behave, but she can also make a motorcycle fly, and, for that matter, she can make pigs fly too. The movie makes more liberal use of compter-generated special effects as it hurtles through the plot and the life lessons. Nanny McPhee Returns, like its predecessor, is chockablock full of twists and turns and antic, frantic activity, embracing the kitchen sink approach to storytelling. Nanny McPhee is always the calm eye of the hurricane,  while everyone around her swirls and spins and frets and breaks things, and burps. Did I mention the burping blackbird? His name is Mr. Edelweiss, and he figures prominently in the story's wacky conclusion.

My 8 year old companion to Nanny McPhee Returns is a huge fan of the nanny, and she was not disappointed by the sequel. It's funny, and sweet, and endearingly quirky, with cute kids, cute pigs, and much agricultural mayhem.