Monday, March 31, 2008

"My Blueberry Nights" -- * * 1/2

How much you like Wong Kar-Wai’s superficial, clunky, yet oddly alluring “My Blueberry Nights” will depend on your capacity for being won over by aesthetics above all else. It ultimately works better as a mood piece than a particularly satisfying narrative, and while I can't really defend it as an entertainment, it has a quality that grew on me (“what the French call a certain... I don’t know what”). If Kar-Wai had kept the visuals and the music, and chucked all of the dialogue, the film might have approached some level of brilliance. But at the end of the day, pretty much all you can say for it is that looks like a million bucks, and has a semi-satisfying sweet, sad, love-obsessed undercurrent that rubs off on you. Is that enough to recommend going out to see it? Not really, but it’s difficult to recall the last movie that felt this ideally suited for a rainy Sunday afternoon under the covers.

Adopting a patchwork structure that cares little about plot, the movie follows Elizabeth (Norah Jones) on a string of encounters she has after being dumped by her never-seen boyfriend. Book-ended with sequences of her apparently-supposed-to-be-romantic-but-kind-of-unsettlingly-creepy encounters with bartender/waiter/restaurant owner Jeremy (Jude Law), Elizabeth sets out on the road on one of those good ole soul-searching journeys to sort out her feelings about life and love. The middle segment of the film mostly focuses on her interactions with Arnie (David Strathairn), who’s turned to the bottle after being left by his whorish wife, southern belle Sue Lynne (Rachel Weisz). Soon after, and for much less time-- but just enough to make an impact-- she hangs out with trashy gambler Leslie (Natalie Portman). These stops give her a bit of clarity about the state of her affairs, so to speak, and her naivety slowly rubs off. All throughout, her and Jeremy write mashy, awfully-written postcards to each other.

In her motion picture debut, singer Jones proves to be a not very good actress. She’s not awful—and the camera loves her—but when asked to express real loss or emotion, she comes off as frivolously whiny. I wouldn’t write her off just yet, but this isn’t the most auspicious of debuts. As the bartender who creepily remembers people based on what their order, Law is pulling out his old bag of “Aren’t I charmingly British?” tricks, and it works just fine, even if we hardly get a sense of dimension from Jeremy. Weisz and Portman are both just fine, if nothing to write home about, though the former occasionally veers into shrill territory. Strathairn gives the lone performance in the film that's really something special. Like almost all the characters, Arnie is woefully underwritten, but Strathairn imbues him with a honest, worn-down sense of sadness and humanity that makes him feel three-dimensional.

The script itself is underwritten and overwritten all at once, never giving us enough to satisfy, while delivering dialogue that is eye-rollingly cornball, and not resembling anything someone might actually say. It’s filled with pearls of greeting-card wisdom (“When you’re gone, all that’s left of you is memories you left in other people’s lives”) that you eventually just learn to start ignoring. What gets you past that is the level of craft and supreme beauty on display in “Blueberry’s” best moments. The music, for one, is pretty much perfect for what Kar-Wai is trying to do. While it’s weirdly distracting to have Norah Jones songs playing on the soundtrack as she’s acting in a scene, they fit remarkably well with the material, as does “Try a Little Tenderness,” utilized a handful of times (most memorably during Weisz’s character’s entrance).

But what one remembers most of the film is the visual inclusions by cinematographer Darius Khondjis. Peppered throughout the film, starting with the opening credits, are borderline-pornographic close-up shots of pie filling. The shots, which initially appear grotesque until we realize what we’re looking at, have a strange kind of beauty to them that lingers more than any script machinations. There are plentiful beautiful images, and the directorial decisions imbue the movie with more intriguing elements than the content might have dictated. Kar-Wai includes close-ups of ice cream melting over pie intercut with a very odd kissing scene between Law and Jones, and he elects to shoot moments of violence (a barfight, a scuffle in a restaurant) through hazy, blurry lenses , among numerous other quirks. They may have made me scratch my head more than anything else, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t dig them.

Even with a noticeably shitty script, Kar-Wai’s thoroughly successful establishment of a mood, and d.p. Khondjis’s cinematography almost turn “My Blueberry Nights” into something worth watching. A sweet, meandering tone-poem more than anything substantive, the low-key, nearly plotless movie is just something you go with or you don’t, and it registers as a “near-miss” for me. I imagine this was intended as the filmmaker’s more "mainstream" picture with the simplistic, formula story elements, and the famous, pretty faces, but I can't imagine what the mainstream moviegoing populace would make of this if they bothered to see it. It’s just going to be too “boring” and aimless for the masses; I didn't particularly find it thrilling myself, but there's enough to appreciate to make me glad I watched it, if not exactly dying to watching it again.

"My Blueberry Nights" opens Friday April 4th on five screens in limited release (presumably in NY and LA).

Friday, March 28, 2008

"Stop-Loss" -- * * * 1/2

Though there has only been a handful, it feels like we've been inundated with "Iraq films" over the last 2/3 year or so; "Iraq films" is apparently a blanket term denoting any films that are directly or tangentially related to the ongoing war in Iraq, our country's history with Afghanistan, anything related to the Middle East, examine U.S. policies in recent years or feature September 11th as a crucial plot point/impetus. Though virtually all have had the best of intentions and politics relatively aligned with my own, these films were almost universally too intent on "saying something" that they either had difficulty forming strong viewpoints into satisfying narratives, or turned their film into a blatant "message" movie filled with speechifying or heavy manipulation. Kimberly Peirce's absorbing, incensed and demanding "Stop-Loss" arrives just at a time when I'd started to think perhaps filmmakers of today were just "too close" to the subject matter, and maybe we'd have to wait a few years post-war until we got one that resonated.

This film is just as passionate and full of feeling as "In the Valley of Elah" and "Lions of Lambs," but unlike those well-intentioned anti-war screeds, here those feelings are channeled into something meaningful, and always feels like it's coming from an honest place. With her second film (which we've had to wait nine long years for since "Boys Don't Cry"), Peirce is ultimately telling a personal, intimate story about the men involved in this war—not the policies— and does so with honesty, respect and complexity. She also does it in an incredibly involving, entertaining manner that will hopefully spare "Stop-Loss" the box office fate of "Elah," "Lions" and "Rendition." It's impossible to interpret the film as supporting the war in Iraq, but rather then alienating portions of the audience by hammering home a message, the film makes support/disdain for the war itself a non-issue and instead tells it as a human story of a soldier who feels personally betrayed by his government. Taking a profoundly empathetic viewpoint centering around "the troops," those looking to attack the film's "politics" will have difficulty in finding an angle.

Beginning in Iraq, "Stop-Loss" opens with a platoon, shortly before completing their tour of duty, finding themselves under attack while manning a checkpoint. Some are killed, some are wounded, and the rest unable to shake what they've seen. It's the latter that the rest of the film focuses on: Staff Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), Steve (Channing Tatum) and Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Upon returning home, the three have severe difficulty shrugging off what they've been through, with Steve and Tommy both prone to drunken fits of violence and delusional confusion of past and present. Still, all three are honored as hometown heroes and even thrown a parade and given public honor by a local Senator (Josef Sommer). Looking to put the past behind him, Brandon soon finds out he's been "Stop-Lossed," a sort-of backdoor draft utilized by the Army to mandatorily extend soldiers' tour of duties even after their contract and time of service is completed.

Believing he's already honored what he's owed/promised to the Army, and arguing that the Stop-Loss policy is only valid during the time of war, and the President never actually declared war against Iraq, Brandon goes A.W.O.L. Brandon, along with Steve's girlfriend, Michelle (Abbie Cornish), set out to the nation's capital—determined to seek out the Senator who honored him to explain the situation and find a way out. As they make their way, Brandon makes numerous stops to visit soldiers he's served with in the past, as well as A.W.O.L. servicemen "on the run" for the same reason as him. The further along the two get on their trip, the clearer it becomes that Brandon's going to have to decide between two infinitely unpleasant options.

The screenplay, written by Peirce and Mark Richard, thankfully avoids hackneyed plot contrivances and establishes itself as more of a free-form tapestry whose plot grows organically. The dialogue also masterfully gets across numerous familiar truths and attitudes ongoing during this time of war. Particularly during the scenes set in Brazos, there's an emphasis on the fact that most civilians can't imagine what these soldiers have been through, and probably don't want to. We're shown parents cringing when details about warfare are recounted, and the most active concern someone shows is asking a recently-returned soldier, "We winnin' this thing?" When Brandon stumbles during an impromptu "inspirational" speech at a 'Welcome Home' parade, Steve saves it by poking his head in, proclaiming "We over there killin' em in Iraq so we don't gotta kill 'em in Texas!," giving the cheering crowd what he knows is the only thing they're interested in hearing. Throughout the proceedings, the dialogue feels real, as if we could actually imagine these words coming out of these peoples' mouths, but the script particularly shines during Brandon's protestation to his commanding officer about returning to Iraq (punctuated most memorably by "With all due respect, Fuck the President") and the way he responds to a mourning sibling bemoaning that his brother's life was "wasted over there." The film also handles its conclusion in an especially thoughtful, powerful manner, after seemingly painting itself into a corner.
With only one film prior to go on, it was difficult to predict how/if Peirce had evolved as a filmmaker over all this time, and "Stop-Loss" makes a significant case that hers is a voice that had been missed and needed in the film community in the years since her absence. Like in "Boys," she utilizes an intimate shooting style here, employing lots of illuminating close-ups, enriching the feeling of authenticity on display throughout. She also makes the decision to pepper the film with hand-held videos of footage from the P.O.V. of our soldier characters in Iraq, much of which are based on actual videos Peirce found on the web. Unlike "Elah," which utilized soldiers' camera-phone videos as a manipulative plot device, Peirce uses them simply to establish a sense of place, feeling and mood, and they really mesh with the tone of the film. The narrative occasionally feels a bit messy-- the stops Brandon and Michele make along the way are more the point than the actual journey-- but it only further establishes the rough-around-the-edges human element and the perhaps-undisciplined passion of the filmmaker, rather than serving as a distraction. Like in "Boys Don't Cry," the detailed etchings of characters and environment/location are pitch-perfect, but I was frankly, taken aback by how effective the film's opening battle sequence (our lone extended glimpse of war) was. Utilizing no background music, and careful camera angles/movements, it achieves a kind of visceral intensity that is very difficult to pull off when the territory has gotten to be so familiar; what's even more impressive is that the sequence isn't just random carnage, it's also a deftly succinct introduction to the identity of these characters.

The ensemble cast (featuring Timothy Olyphant and Ciaran Hinds in small, memorable roles) is aces across the board, and though some characters are lent more complexity then others, there's not a false note to be found. However, this is totally Phillippe's movie. It seems like ages ago when he was branded a vapid pretty boy (around "Cruel Intentions's" release), and he's done a pretty superb job of shedding that image, even though his pesky good looks don't seem to be fading. Rather than coasting on his appearance, as many actors with nothing else to offer do (*cough* Paul Walker, Hayden Christiansen *cough*), Phillippe has shown he has undeniable talent, and if "Breach" wasn't enough to ward off the naysayers, this should do the trick. Brandon is our way into this story, and Phillippe captures every nuance and sells us on his character's point-of-view. Brandon's not scared or worried about being sent back; he's profoundly pissed off, and the actor makes us believe it at every turn. It's ultimately his performance that really transforms this from an "issue" movie into one guy's story, and he even nails the ever-elusive Texan accent to boot. And not to make too big a deal of it, but as someone who previously dismissed the guy as wooden, I must say Channing Tatum has a scene late in the movie that he plays rather beautifully, showing the promise that some claimed to have seen in his work in "Step Up" and "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints."
"Stop-Loss" earns major points for tackling the subject of Iraq without being preachy, and being perpetually engaging and entertaining, however the movie does briefly and mildly trip into some of the pitfalls of previous Iraq films. While not quite crossing into "every Iraqi soldier who comes back will savagely murder his wife, dog or best friend" territory, it might have been nice to seen some balance among the returning soldiers. One character's fate seems inevitable from virtually his first scene, and even Brandon (the one who supposedly has his shit together) is occasionally prone to hallucinations. Also, the movie occasionally threatens to lapse into 'unfocused' territory-- particularly in the middle section. A couple sequences feel as if they could have been shuffled around and not a lick of difference would have been made. Still, the few elements that are familiar or unfocused are fortunately eclipsed by the ones that work tremendously.

Don't be fooled by the poster that looks like an advertisement for a highly patriotic brand of jeans. This is a tough, riveting movie that haunts due to its relevance, but will play just as strongly years down the line when this Iraq debacle is (hopefully) done with. More than just boasting a strong message or timeliness, it succeeds because it actually shows a devotion to its story, characters and showcasing the work of an incredibly talented, original filmmaker. Avoiding maudlin territory when it would seem inevitable (a visit to a fellow soldier—who lost an arm, a leg and his sight—is more powerful than sentimental), this is an immensely satisfying, yet troubling film made by people who have strong opinions, and actually care about what they're doing. The best thing one can say about "Stop-Loss" is that it's entirely free of bullshit.

"21" -- * *

Some of the early positive reviews for Robert Luketic's "21" feature pull-quote worthy praise that sound suspiciously fertilized with junket wining and dining, like "should appeal to anyone who's ever dreamed of beating the odds", from a jaw-droppingly ejaculatory review from Variety, and "it's a kick to watch Spacey and a gifted young cast use smarts to deal audiences a winning hand" from Rolling Stone. My similarly obvious metaphor-utilizing thoughts leaned the other way: like Vegas, "21" is flashy, fast-moving, lacking any sort of substance and leaves you feeling vaguely cheated.

Loosely (very, very, very loosely) adapted from Ben Mezrich's book "Bringing Down the House," "21" tells the story of six MIT math students who, under the training of their professor Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey), bilked Las Vegas casinos out of supposedly millions of dollars via card-counting at the blackjack tables. Our protagonist here is the brilliant, cash-strapped, eye-rollingly likeable Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess), who quickly lets his success go to his head, and manages, through all the gambling, to have a crush, back-and-forth patter, and ultimately dalliances with Jill (Kate Bosworth). There are two Asians with minimal dialogue (Aaron Yoo and Liza Lapira) and a jealous whitey with a propensity for argyle (Jacob Pitts) in the group also, but we spend most of our time with Ben and Jill. Complications arise in the movie's second half when casino security dude Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne) begins to catch on to the card-counting, plus he has an old vendetta against Rosa to boot (his character might as well just be named "Conflict").

I'm of the mindset that when a film is based on a true story, its adherence to the specific facts are borderline-irrelevant, and the movie should be judged on its independent merits or lack thereof. But with every TV spot and web banner touting "Based on a True Story," it's difficult to divest one's self from the fact that all these pretty, white movie stars are playing people who were Asian in real life. If not an indicator for outright racism, it does show a certain disregard, and is indicative of the dumbed-down made-for-mass-consumption nature of the film. But whether a film is based on a true story or not, it's imperative that you feel like a movie is taking place in reality and that the shit in it could actually happen. If this movie had taken place in the 1960s or 70s, I might have been able to buy the specifics of what these kids do and get away with, but all this supposedly happened just a few years ago. I know the movie version is heavily fictionalized, but still, come on. The movie annoyingly never really explains the card-counting mechanics (arguably the story's most interesting element), and our "genius" characters never adapt their signal system even after nearly getting caught numerous times.

I'm not the first one to point out that card games aren't compelling as cinema, so there needs to be other interesting stuff surrounding it to draw us in, and there really isn't here. Instead, the screenplay relies on every single cinematic convention you can think of, resulting in you being able to envision most of the scenes before they happen. You can predict every turn Ben is going to take (ohh, now he's going to neglect his friends for gambling, now he's going to get cocky and lose big, now he's going to learn his lesson), and a big part of that is the script's insistence that he be the most clean-cut likable guy ever. He always just wants to do the right thing, he only gets mixed up in this group to try to afford med school, and he even turns down his mom's money when she offers to help him with school. Me? I long for a brilliant screenwriter like Alexander Payne who dared to have his protagonist in "Sideways" STEAL money from his kind, elderly mother, yet we still loved him.

However, I don't mean to imply that any of the other characters are any less cliche; his nerd friends in particular, played by Josh Gad and Sam Golzari (a.k.a. The Omer-izer), are such dorky, sex-obsessed stereotypes, it's hard to belive them as real people. Gad, in the more demeaning role of the two, is asked to play the wacky fat guy in all its glory, which includes literally swallowing Twinkies whole. We don't even really get snappy dialogue to make the formulaic elements go down easier; there are, instead, lines that nicely punctuate a scene, but don't really make sense or mean anything when you really think about them (e.g.: "I think the best thing about Vegas is you can become anyone you want"). Worst of all, though, is the twisty, suspense set-piece conclusion that wraps the film up. It will be adequately "awesome" for a certain kind of audience member, but I found it to be incredibly stupid, manipulative and eye-rollingly ridiculous. I usually can restrain myself in a theatrical environment, but I actually muttered aloud, "Oh, you gotta be fuckin' kidding me."

Luketic's been a hit-and-miss director for me, honestly. Granted, he's never done any work that really made me acknowledge him as a talent to be reckoned with, but sometimes his style works for what he's doing. His broad direction was a contributor to the lameness that was "Monster-in-Law," but it meshed kind of nicely with the material in "Legally Blonde" and the underrated "Win a Date With Tad Hamilton." Here, he further establishes what kind of a director he is, and shows he can handle productions on a grander scale, but he makes more than a few decisions (other than the general approach) that made me ache. The film is nicely packaged and slick, but it's almost too slick. Everything is vacuously glitzy and shiny, as if to try and dull our senses, and the irritating 'whoosh' sounds and super close-ups used to try to make blackjack more exciting to inexperienced audiences just got on my nerves. There's also an alarmingly loud "trendy" glam-rock soundtrack that leads up to a horrible, horrible, horrible re-mix of "You Can't Always Get What You Want" playing over the closing credits. Other cliches employed are Bosworth's character making her first appearance walking in slow motion, and ... wait for it... an extended shopping spree montage.

Sturgess had a terrific singing voice to rely upon in "Across the Universe," but, while he's not bad here, it's all too evident that he doesn't have a whole hell of a lot of charisma, and his line readings come off as just that. It's also hard to ignore that he's simply too hot for the part he's playing. When he would whine and complain about not having any money for college, all I kept thinking was, "why doesn't he just become a model?" As for Bosworth, when is this girl going to do something to justify her career? The similarly criticized Sienna Miller at least finally fulfilled on her promise this past year or so with stellar, challenging performances in "Factory Girl" and "Interview." To this day, Bosworth's best work is, by far, her single-scene turn in "The Rules of Attraction" as James van der Beek's drunken fucktoy.

Okay. Now for the elephant in the room: Kevin Spacey. Am I the only one who feels personally betrayed by this guy? After delivering superb supporting work for years, he finally got an unbelievable starring role in "American Beauty," deservedly won a second Academy Award, and shot to the top of my 'favorite actors' list. But now, it's been almost a decade since "American Beauty," and his goodwill is nearly squandered, if it isn't already. Since then, he's acted solely in paycheck parts, vanity projects, outright pieces of shit, or shameless Oscar bait. The closest he's come to an inspired performance as of late was as Lex Luthor in the divisive "Superman Returns." I used to get excited about a project when I saw he was in it, but now I usually just take it as an indicator that the movie's probably going to suck. As Rosa (whose villainy is foreshadowed from his first scene), he delivers the same dry, sarcastic line readings he's been giving for the last ten years or so. To his minor credit, the screenplay doesn't give him a whole lot to work with; both him and Fishburne aren't playing characters, they're just devices created to serve certain purposes at various points. Spacey's executive producer credit makes it clear this was a financial endeavor for him, not a passion project, and maybe he's fine coasting, but if I were him, I'd work with an auteur FAST. If I were his agent, I'd desperately be trying to contact someone like the Coen Brothers or David Fincher as we speak.

"21" is nowhere near unwatchable, and certainly isn’t a chore to sit through; it's not even particularly boring (though it is overlong). It's just lazy, which is probably to be expected since the same old shit often sells again and again with audiences. Some folks will no doubt be entertained, and I'm sure word-of-mouth will be positive. It's a movie that's been carefully calibrated to be a profitable, inoffensive home run with the average joe set. There've been numerous other unoriginal or studio-mandated movies that still were made by people who clearly had their heart in the material or were trying to do something to bring it to life, and as a result, worked. Here, it's clear that every element has been tested, evaluated, and crafted to assure profitability and satisfy middle-of-the-road sensibilities. But anyone looking for a movie that (a) offers even a little bit of originality, (b) treats its audience with respect or (c) tries to do more than distract you with infinite gloss and glitz, would be best off seeking out their entertainment elsewhere.

"Run, Fat Boy, Run" -- * *

Most actors-turned-directors try extremely hard to "make a name for themselves," so to speak, with their debut directorial efforts. While not always succeeding, they usually try to announce their entry into filmmaking with something that really shows off their direction, either with flashy cinematography, shot framings, camera movements or clever manner of storytelling, be it via tonal shifts, twisting narrative, etc. Or if not the techniques, they try to tackle something weighty, "important" or something substantial. David Schwimmer has taken the exact opposite route with "Run, Fat Boy, Run," a thoroughly mediocre, uninspired sorta-romantic comedy that looks and feels like an extended sit-com and manages to actually leave your mind as you're watching it. To its credit, the movie is never painful to watch, but it's a little disappointing when it starts to set in that the filmmakers have no aspirations other than a tame, going-through-the-motions type thing with no real laugh-out-loud moments/lines.

Set in London, "Fat Boy" tells the story of Dennis (Simon Pegg), an unfit slacker who still hasn't recovered from leaving his pregnant fiance Libby (Thandie Newton) at the alter five years previous. Though still in touch with Libby, and very much involved in his son's life, Dennis every day regrets his decision to run away. Now she's involved with Whit (Hank Azaria), a douchecocky, successful businessman with killer abs. Whit, charitable as he is, runs marathons for charity; Dennis, now faced with the possibility of losing his love and his son, decides to train to run the London marathon alongside Whit to prove to Libby he's worth returning to (in the context of the movie, you actually go along with the line of logic). With the help of his fat Indian landlord (Harish Patel) and his fellow slacker friend (Dylan Moran), Dennis goes through a series of set-pieces, training for the impending marathon that makes up the movies final third.

As stated, Schwimmer's direction is meh. He gets how to properly handle the material, but he does nothing to elevate it or make it rise above the script. Almost all his directorial decisions are fairly obvious, and he imposes no creative stamp on the end results, but at the end of the day, it's a competent (if unremarkable) job, and I could easily foresee him helming other comedy features down the line if he has the desire to do so. He doesn't make any embarrassing decisions here, but he does employ a fairly generic score that gives off the feel of a TV movie, and his direction makes the scripts lame punchlines even more predictable (when a character asserts "Of course I have tickets! What kind of guy do you think I am?," you know there'll be a quick-cut to same character at said event shouting "Anyone got tickets?").

Amazingly, this screenplay is credited to Michael Ian Black and Simon Pegg. Pegg is off the hook because apparently he just did a revision to transplant Black's American-set script to England, but Black's got some splainin' to do. With as warped and hilarious a mind as he has (as evidenced by "The State," "Stella" and "Wet Hot American Summer"), he has no excuse producing such by-the-numbers mediocrity that seems to have been written based off of a screenwriting how-to book with an emphasis on three-act structure and character types. You await Dennis giving a speech to his son, set to sentimental music, about how you can't/shouldn't run away from your problems, and sure enough, it' there. By the time you reach the race, you know exactly what's going to happen, but you've lost all capacity for caring. The title also promises something significantly sillier/funnier or more madcap, but what we get is rather tame and has difficulty rousing more than half-smiles. Said title also draws attention to the fact that our leading man, Pegg, is not in any way shape or form, fat. He supposed wore a little prosthetic tummy for the shoot, but even with this device, he's never more than a smidgen paunchy.

It's not that the jokes themselves are particularly awful, they're just extremely predictable and we've seen them all before again and again. The biggest reaction "Fat Boy" got out of me was a split-second cameo by "The Office"/"Extras" co-creator Stephen Merchant midway through, and even that's in the context of a joke that doesn't really work. But it's difficult to know what sort of audience this movie is even courting given how willy-nilly it goes back and forth between bottom-of-the-barrel dumbass comedy and "sweet" romantic comedy. For the latter we get cornball sequences of characters feeling guilt and making sad faces or googly eyes at their beloved, and for the former, we get gross-out jokes like a massive blister being lanced and squirting pus onto somebody's face ("That's the second most disgusting fluid I've ever had in my eye!") and a running joke that inexplicably keeps showing shots of a character's bare ass. I don't know who's going to be satisfied here; the rom-com crowd will be put off by the stupidness, crudeness and gross-out gags, while plebians looking for the latter will be bored by the pedestrian love story making up most of the movie.

Pegg is a tremendously likable presence, and brightens up anything he appears in, but it doesn't help that Dennis is a woefully underwritten role, and we're not really given any evidence that he'll be a decent husband, nor much reason for root for him in the race. He's mostly just competitive with Whit, and shows more dedication to running than to Libby. Most audiences will probably be rooting for Dennis anyway, thanks to Pegg's humor and charm, and the filmmakers should consider themselves very lucky they got him to be in it. Without him, this already-mediocre production would've gone down several notches. The one-dimensional asshole Whit, who spouts off sound bites about "success" and tells Dennis about sex with Libby, doesn't give the talented Azaria much to work with, but he's seemingly having a bit of fun in the little he gets to do. At the least, he has a chemistry with Pegg that makes me long to see the two paired together in something with a significantly funnier script.

Newton is given the least to do of all. It's kind of weird how she's alternating between shrill screaming/crying roles in "serious" works ("Crash," "The Pursuit of Happyness"), and the generic love interest in really broad, low brow movies like this and "Norbit," but hey, to each her own. In all honesty, I can't really evaluate her performance on any level, because I don't even recall if she has any lines; I just remember shots of her smiling or looking disappointed. It also struck me that it's sort-of sexist how this movie, and the formulas of convention, requires Libby to make a choice between these two guys; in real life, she'd walk away from both of them.

"Run, Fat Boy, Run" like many unsuccessful comedies of the past, tries to combine hip, funny actors and lame, conventional material, and the results are predictably incongruous. Pegg's past movies, "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz," so brilliantly specialize in satirizing exactly this sort of studio-assembled movie, that at times, I mistakenly assumed certain scenes were intended as irony or parody, only to realize that the surface all there was. It's not a particularly "bad" film, but it barely tries and as a result, doesn't succeed on any real level, even as fluff. I can't imagine anyone with with any modicum of standards leaving the theater satisfied.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Does Quality Lay Ahead? It certainly ain't behind us...

While we have a lot to look forward to, or at least I do, I'm finding this year to be a little lackluster so far. Granted, the January thru April period has never been known as being jam-packed with quality product, but there usually are a few small gems in there. Hell, this time last year, "Zodiac," "Black Snake Moan," "The Host," and "Reign Over Me" among others, had already had come out. This year, there seems to be a consistently lackluster output, where I'm having difficulty finding even "pretty good" things to recommend to people. There's only been three movies so far this year that I've been entirely won over by, and they hardly were universally well-received (for those curious, "In Bruges," "Be Kind Rewind" and "Cloverfield"). Other than those, there's just been a handful of cute/entertaining movies, some movies by exciting filmmakers that didn't quite reach their potential, and a whole lot of mediocrity-- and all I'll say is, this weekend's offerings don't look to offer much to break the trend. All I hope is that 2008 is just really rear-loaded with quality product. Looking at the year ahead, I've assembled a scattershot list of 10 things I'm really looking forward to; please let me know if there's anything I've missed or overlooked:

1. Burn After Reading

September 12th (wide)
(directors: Joel and Ethan Coen)
Cast: George Clooney, John Malkovich, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton
Synopsis: In this dark comedy caper, an ousted CIA official Osbourne Cox (Malkovich) finds his memoir/expose accidentally falling into the hands of two dim-witted D.C. gym employees (Pitt, McDormand), and a philandering Treasury agent (Clooney), intent on exploiting their find. Swinton plays Cox's wife.

2. Synecdoche, New York

(director: Charlie Kaufman)
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Hope Davis, Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener
Synopsis: A theater director (Hoffman) struggles with his work, and the women in his life, as he attempts to create a life-size replica of New York inside a warehouse as part of his new play. Writer Kaufman's directorial debut.

3. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

December 19th (wide)
(dir: David Fincher)
Cast: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, Taraji P. Henson, Elias Koteas, Julia Ormond
Synopsis: Adapted from the classic 1920s story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, telling the story of a man who is born in his eighties and ages backwards. We follow his story set in New Orleans from the end of World War I in 1918, into the twenty-first century, following his journey that is as unusual as any man's life can be. It is a time traveler's tale of the people and places he bumps into along the way, the loves he loses and finds, the joys of life and the sadness of death, and what lasts beyond time.

4. Australia

November 14th (wide)
(dir: Baz Luhrrman)
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, David Wenham
Synopsis: A romantic action-adventure set in northern Australia prior to World War II, the film centers on an English aristocrat (Kidman) who inherits a ranch the size of Maryland. When English cattle barons plot to take her land, she reluctantly joins forces with a rough-hewn cattle driver (Jackman) to drive 2,000 head of cattle across hundreds of miles of the country's most unforgiving land, only to still face the bombing of Darwin, Australia, by the Japanese forces that had attacked Pearl Harbor only months earlier.

5. Grey Gardens

(dir: Michael Sucsy)
Cast: Jessica Lange, Drew Barrymore, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Daniel Baldwin
Synopsis: With a subject already been made into two documentaries and a Broadway musical, the film will tell the story of the early high-society heyday and later reclusive, languishing years of Big Edie (Lange) and Little Edie (Barrymore), the eccentric aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Onassis who made headlines when the health department threatened to raid their flea-and-raccoon-infested 28-room East Hampton mansion.

6. Towelhead

August 15th (NY/LA)
(dir: Alan Ball)
Cast: Summer Bishil, Aaron Eckhart, Toni Collette, Maria Bello
Synopsis: "Towelhead" follows the dark, bold and shockingly funny life of Jasira, a 13-year-old Arab-American girl, as she navigates the confusing and frightening path of adolescence and her own sexual awakening.

7. The Brothers Bloom

October 24th (wide)
(dir: Rian Johnson)
Cast: Rachel Weisz, Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo, Robbie Coltrane
Synopsis: A con man (Brody) gets the tables turned on him by his girlfriend (Weisz), when he decides to perform one last con with his brother (Ruffalo) and their silent partner (Coltrane). From writer/director Rian Johnson ("Brick").

8. Tropic Thunder

August 15th (wide)
(dir: Ben Stiller)
Cast: Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr., Nick Nolte, Jay Baruchel, Steve Coogan, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Cruise
Synopsis: A comedy about five actors who go on location and find themselves relying on their boot camp experiences when they get stuck in a real war-like situation, Stiller stars as the headline actin star, Black plays an overweight gross-out comedian who's forced to kick his drug addiction while filming on location, and Downey Jr.plays the greatest actor of his generation and a four-time Oscar winner who has undergone controversial cosmetic surgery to play an African-American character in the film.

9. Iron Man

May 2 (wide)
(dir: Jon Favreau)
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Terrence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges
Synopsis: Based upon Marvel's iconic Super Hero, "Iron Man" tells the story of Tony Stark, a billionaire industrialist and genius inventor who is kidnapped and forced to build a devastating weapon. Instead, using his intelligence and ingenuity, Tony builds a high-tech suit of armor and escapes captivity. Upon his return to America, Tony must come to terms with his past. When he uncovers a nefarious plot with global implications, he dons his powerful armor and vows to protect the world as Iron Man.

10. Zack & Miri Make a Porno

October 31 (wide)
(dir: Kevin Smith)
Cast: Seth Rogen, Elizabeth Banks, Craig Robinson, Traci Lords, Jeff Anderson, Jason Mewes
Synopsis: This romantic comedy from writer/director Kevin Smith tells the story of Zack (Rogen) and Miri (Banks), two lifelong friends who are deep in debt and enlist the help of their friends to make a porno movie for some quick cash. But as everybody starts "doing" everybody, Zack and Miri realize that they may have more feelings for each other than they previously thought.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Movie Review Shortage...

So, yeah, another review-free week. I'm sorry. Last week, I saw stuff but was too overwhelmed with midterms and papers to write full reviews (I hope my capsules sufficed). This week was my spring break so I've been home in New York, and thus was not around Baltimore and missed the screenings for "Drillbit Taylor" (a few reliable sources have told me its mediocre drivel with few laughs), "Shutter," "Young @ Heart" and "Sleepwalking" (a reliable friend, and the trailer, have led me to believe its dull as dishwater).

On the plus, while in NYC, I've caught a bit of theatre, as well as "Snow Angels" (tremendous leading performances, but somewhat disappointing on a narrative level, particularly the last 25 minutes), "CJ7" (flawed but fairly fun, silly Stephen Chow kids film) and "Under the Same Moon" (wonderful for elderly folks looking for a 'nice picture' and hispanics looking for a movie that repeatedly and simplistically says we should open our borders to everyone, but nearly unwatchable treacle for the rest of us).

However, I shouldn't have another week like this until mid-May when my final Finals of college will hit. Until then, I'll do my best to review ever screening my schedule allows. I'll be back in the swing of things next Friday with reviews posted of, at the least, "Stop-Loss," "21" and "Run, Fat Boy, Run."

Monday, March 17, 2008

Summer Movie Trailers!!

So, we're just starting to get hit with all the trailers for the big (and not-so-big summer movies). Surprisingly, some of the biggest look like some of the best. Anyway, I'm more of a four-star guy, but for trailers, I'm going to utilize a five-star system. Anyway, please comment and let me know if you agree, disagree, or what you think about any of these releases based on the trailers:

IRON MAN trailer #2 (* * * * *)

I was fairly excited about this purely by the presence of Downey, but this looks really, really awesome. Very well-cut, excellent choice of music, and, well: the action looks cool, the jokes looks funny, everyone seems to be well-cast. Expectations are officially high.


Yeah, this looks really lame, generic and dull. And a homophobic joke tacked on the end just for good measure! Patrick Dempsey has evolved into a really, really boring actor (not that he was the most charismatic before), and this looks like a slog to sit through for anyone but the "27 Dresses" crowd.

REDBELT (* * *)

I can't exactly follow the storyline in this trailer-- not a good sign for the movie-- but I'll follow David Mamet anywhere (despite his recent case of the Conservative crazies), and put Chiwetel Ejiofor in a martial arts movie with Tim Allen, and I'm there.

SON OF RAMBOW (* * * 1/2)

This movie really looks really endearing, if a bit more "adorable" than the "hilarious" we were hearing when it first started screening at festivals. The trailer may focus a bit more on kiddie-targetting 'zaniness' in the second half (particularly with the music) but it looks really funny, cute, entertaining. Setting itself up as "Be Kind Rewind" meets "Millions," this seems to be the type of movie that will be up my alley, even if the trailer is selling it a bit younger.


Yeah, this looks pretty shitty. High-concept bullshit with two people who are really not very funny (Cameron Diaz and Ashton Kutcher). It also looks like it cribs a bulk of its premise from the underseen gem "Sour Grapes." Anyway, what do you guys think? Me thinky lame.

SPEED RACER trailer #2 (* * * 1/2)

I have a feeling this one is going to be a huge bomb at the box office (though my sentiments could change), but it looks like it's going to be a candy-coated ton of fun. Granted, I'd sleep a little easier if there wasn't a laugh-baiting monkey in the trailer (more than once!), but of now, I'm looking forward to this.


I admit, I don't like the first film, but even the images in this trailer weren't nearly enough to make me care about seeing the follow-up, or get my pulse quickened. I'll see it (and may even give the first segment a re-watch beforehand), but I don't really give a shit about this one. Tilda Swinton appears to be back again as the White Witch, but is that enough?


At the least, this is my favorite TITLE of the summer. The movie itself could go either way, but it looks like it has potential to be a fun, clever horror flick to serve as some nice counter-programming. We'll see. (update 3/27/08 5:45pm) I've just received word Lionsgate has pulled this from the summer and is currently seeking a new release date


Yeah, hearing the music again is enough to put a smile on my face, but no matter how I try, I can't build any excitement up for this. At age 65, shouldn't they be giving Harrison Ford easier shit to do, not bigger, more ridiculous stunts? It only makes it clearer how old he is. The jokes don't really work, the laughable shot of the American flag makes me cring, and I don't like Shia Labeouf's presence. Meh, it could be fun, but I can't get excited for it like some are. The one thing that's making me mildly anticipate it: Cate Blanchett as an over-the-top, mop-topped villainess.

WAR, INC. (* * * * 1/2)

While it may contain the most music changes in a two-minute span I've ever seen, I'm very excited for this. When I asked John Cusack a question about a "Grosse Pointe Blank" sequel in an "Ice Harvest" press conference, he elusively said him and his writing friends were working on a non-sequel sequel that wouldn't have the same characters, but was very much in the same vein. It would appear this is that movie. As someone who considers "Grosse" one of his all-time favorite movies, I can't help but be very jazzed for "War, Inc.," and this trailer looks very funny to boot.


I've been hearing for what seems like years how hilarious this movie is, and this trailer is, well... kinda funny. It looks like it's baiting the dumber crowd, and I guess there's nothing wrong with that. I chuckled a couple times, but it looks more indicative of a very funny movie rather than being a funny trailer itself. Nonetheless, I'm looking forward to the actual movie. Ferrell and McKay know funny, and McBride has been hilarious in supporting roles, so I'm sure this is the great showcase for him the buzz promises.

THE STRANGERS (* * * 1/2)

I've actually heard from people that have seen this, and almost to a person, they've relayed that it's a piece of shit. Nonetheless, I think the trailer is very effective, particularly the shot of the masked person creeping into frame with the wide shot of Liv Tyler. We'll see.


I'm not a massive fan of the show, but I enjoy it enough to look forward slightly to the movie. That said, this trailer's pretty awful. I don't know if it's representative of the movie itself, but it makes it look like a PG-rated version of the show's raunch, and has subverted its semi-edginess into a lame, sentimental romantic comedy with almost no humor, let alone laughs. I think the studio needs to release a red-band trailer A.S.A.P.


This trailer barely had me at first, looking like yet another mediocre CG-animated film. It may, in fact, still be that. But the "Kill Bill"-referencing second half kinda sold me on it, and it looks like it might at (at the least) slightly better than the norm of this type o' flick.


Sure "Chuck and Larry" may be evil, and the Sand-man may make his occasional piece of shit, but I've been a defender of his in years past, and this looks like it might be a return to insanely stupid, absurd form. I laughed more than a few times here, and it looks just batshit odd enough to have potential. I know I'm in the minority here, but I hope this is good.


Sure, the American trailer may play like a parody of an M. Night Shymalan film rather than the genuine article, but this International teaser looks genuinely unsettling, and provokes just enough to make you (or at least me) interested.


Meh. I'm looking forward to this re-do on Ang Lee's film with Edward Norton in Eric Bana's place, but I was kind of underwhelmed by the trailer in almost all respects. It looks fine, but there's no real "hooked me" moment, via the acting, storytelling or the special effects, to get me excited.

GET SMART (* * * *)

Even with the utmost potential for conventional middle-of-the-road blandness, this actually looks like it has the chance to be very, very good at what it's supposed to be. Though, honestly, I'm biased whenever Carell's in anything-- I love him-- I laughed out loud about a half dozen times while watching this trailer. I'm surprised how funny it looks, and it seems they're going to actually nail both the action elements and the tone of the show it's based on. I make no guarantees, but this one just shot higher up my list of anticipated high-profile summer movies.


I laughed aloud at the "Then my mom got a job line," but I'm a little disheartened by how lame this looks. It looks like a re-tread of all of Myers' trademark Austin Powers jokes and not even the funniest ones at that. Most of the stuff included here left me staring vacantly. Alba's presence doesn't help matters, and Timberlake looks WAY off with his comic attempts. As with anything Myers touches, this totally has potential to be unexpectedly hilarious, but things aren't looking good based on this.

WALL*E (* * * * *)

I'll always anticipate anything Pixar creates, but this looks particularly wonderful. It looks like a mixture of the wit that made "Ratatouille" so terrific and the broader, more accessible charm that made "Finding Nemo" and "Monsters Inc." all-encompassing crowd-plowers. I'm very excited.

WANTED (* *)

There's a lot of effort made here to show "cool" images/sequences, but despite some hip/fast music, I don't really care, and can't muster up any capacity for caring. Even with the presence of the delicious McAvoy, this doesn't look like there's a ton to distinguish it. My audience went "dayum" a few times during it, but I'm waiting for SOMETHING about it to surface to get me even a little bit pumped.

HANCOCK (* * *)

Friends of mine have read the script for this and swear it's very, very funny. I don't know. I laughed at Bateman's "Greenpeace does" line at the end, but that's it. It looks like there's potential here, I will say that. Smith is capable of being a funny dude, and this is genuinely a funny concept. And with Peter Berg (who some don't like, but I do) at the helm, I'd bet on the side of this one being good.


I was a sincere fan of the first "Hellboy," so was looking forward to this one purely on principle, but it actually does look pretty damn cool. I think it's interesting that the first half of this trailer makes the film look like "Pan's Labyrinth 2" rather than "Hellboy 2" but I guess that's to be expected after "Pan's" recent success. Either way, Del Toro's boundless visual flair and creativity seems to be strongly utilized here yet again. It'll probably be one of the most weakly-performing "blockbusters" this summer, but who cares?

THE DARK KNIGHT (* * * * *)

Yeah, yeah, we've all watched this trailer two dozen times by now. We're all excited. That doesn't lessen the fact that it looks like Nolan has fucking slammed it out of the park again. I will say, I'm trying to keep my expectations in check, and I'd advise everyone else to do the same. Does anyone else remember a little thing called "Spider-Man 3" that everyone was sure was a "can't miss" thing? Also, with Nolan's interviews revealing that the movie's more about Harvey Dent than The Joker, I'm already having previsions of people complaining "there wasn't enough Joker." Still, yet again, this trailer is fucking phenomenal.

MAMMA MIA! (* * *)

"Mamma Mia" may be the worst Broadway musical I've ever had the cringe-inducing displeasure of watching, and this movie looks like it's EXTREMELY faithful. That said, I have a morbid curiosity of watching the greatest actress of the last 25 years sashay her way through it and come out of it intact. Seriously, this is cheesy trash to the highest degree, but in a weird way I'm looking forward to the experience of watching it, if only to laugh AT it. And there's no denying *grumble* they're assembled a pretty splendid cast to enact it (Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgard, Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Christine Baranski).

STEP BROTHERS (* * * * 1/2)

Like I said, the real Will Ferrell movies to look forward to are the ones he collaborates on with Adam McKay. Sure enough, this trailer seems to further illustrate that. I laughed at least a dozen times in a two minute span, more than I did in the entire 90 minutes of "Semi-Pro." The gags looks alternately creepy/weird and over-the-top wacky, butalways absurd and silly. From the use of Hall and Oates to just enough injection of Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins as the parents, this is probably my most anticipated comedy of the summer (followed closely by "Tropic Thunder").


This looks lame, and isn't very enticing to anyone out of the first movie/book's fan base. Then again, the first one looked lame also and I was surprised how much I liked it. This teaser, as lazy as it is, seems to indicate that the sequel offers everything the first one did and more, so I'll still be there (if not with bells on).

Friday, March 14, 2008

Opening this weekend: 3/14/08

Sorry for my tardiness folks. This has been a hugely, hugely shitty week, filled with midterms, massive papers and other assignments of the like. Reviews merely weren't a possibility. Neil Marshall's "Doomsday" wasn't screened for critics-- I'll be first in line at the matinee showing tomorrow--- but I've offered short reactions on the other films opening today, just for those of you trying to figure out what to see this weekend:

"Funny Games" ( * * * 1/2)
Quick take: I've seen Michael Haneke's original German film and this is basically a shot-for-shot English language remake. Both are incredibly interesting, compelling works that take a real look at how we react to violence as entertainment and why. Like his original, the remake is a film that repeatedly, and intentionally, infuriates and off-puts its audience. Thusly, I can't think of many people I would recommend it to, nor do I have much of a desire to ever put myself through it again. Nonetheless, I think anyone who considers themself interested in what movies are capable of, and examining that, have no right not to see this. Unpleasant as it may be (and it is very), it's-- to put it mildly-- a hell of an experience.

"Horton Hears a Who" ( * 1/2)
Quick take: Most critics seem to be giving this one a pass, saying it's "cute" and pleasant, and excusing it on the basis that it's better than Mike Myers' "The Cat in the Hat." While that may be true-- a bad case of crabs is more pleasant than Mike Myers' "The Cat in the Hat"-- that doesn't really excuse the laziness and sub-par script on display here. While the movie's irritating nature eventually just tapers off into bland territory, that's not really something to be proud of. Jim Carrey's voice work is annoying and incongruous to the material, while Steve Carell is his usual charming self. There's an obscene amount of mediocre padding here, which is necessary I guess, considering the book was about 10 pages long. The animation looks very nice, and kids will enjoy it, but it struck me as relatively crappy and soulless, a denegration of the wonder and magic Dr. Seuss's words are capable of.

"Never Back Down" ( * * )

Quick take: Yeah, this fighting flick is about as dumb as you'd expect, but it's also decently fun for a good amount of its running time, and enjoyably homoerotic. That said, it's not really worth paying to sit through, but you could do worse if dragged. When it embraces its cheesy "let's fight!" bullshit, it's kind of entertaining, but too often it gets bogged down in character redemption, plot mechanics and striving for lame-ass resonance. You could do worse, but for real guilty-pleasure enjoyment, you'd be better off with "Step Up 2 the Streets."

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Five Films of PTA... A Tribute

Hat's off to the editor of this... truly.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Life? Me no likey...

Never been quite so stressed by schoolwork in my entire life. Why does every single professor insist upon giving either a massive paper or a comprehensive midterm during the EXACT same week as every other one? Currently, I'm contemplating what level of self-inflicted mutiliation will get me an extension on my papers without actually killing me.... needless to say, reviews/blogging must be put on the back-burner for a few days so I can attempt to not (literally) fail out of school.

But, in case you were wondering, here are some quick takes on some movies I've seen in the last few days that you probably won't be seeing reviews for. I'll try my best to get up reviews for "Funny Games," "Horton Hears a Who" and "Never Back Down" (all of which I saw last week) by Friday, but I make no promises:

Paranoid Park: B+
I haven't been digging on Gus Van Sant's last few pretentious, esoteric films, and this one sort of fits comfortably into that group, but it's the first one that really worked for me. Yes, "art" film lovers will likely spontaneously ejaculate in the theater, but this is the first one of Van Sant's in a while that I think offers something to the rest of the moviegoing populace, while still never coming close to 'mainstream.' The construct and sound design may rub some the wrong way, but I think it's completely successful in putting us in the mindset/writings of a character, and I was gripped, even while nothing much was happening.

10,000 B.C.: D-
Obviously I didn't have any level of expectations for Roland Emmerich's latest, but this was so much worse than I could have imagined. I honestly don't even know who this movie is for, or who would enjoy it. It manages the rare feat of being really weird and really dull at the same time. The only time it approaches enjoyable awfulness is during an extended chase by a killer ostrich... yes, you read that right. The rest of the time I just wanted to go to sleep and dream sweet dreams of slapping Emmerich.

College Road Trip: C
Yes, this movie sucks, but it genuinely surprised me with how watchable it was. I hate Martin Lawrence and I hate these sort of Disney movies, but the movie is merely bad and not horrendous. It mildly diverted me for 80 minutes, and is significantly better than something like 'The Game Plan.'

Married Life:
Great central performances by Chris Cooper and Patricia Clarkson, solid relaxed work by Pierce Brosnan and a bland, forgettable piece of acting by Rachel McAdams in her first role in two years are all featured here. This twistier, lighter 40s dark comedy/suspense/drama in the vein of 'Far From Heaven' is an entertaining enough 90 minutes, but keeps feeling like it should be more than it is. It's totally an easy sit, but everything surrounding Cooper and Clarkson is only operating on about half their level.

Friday, March 07, 2008

"Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day" -- * * *

A fast-paced, completely enjoyable Cinderella story, Bharat Nalluri's "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day" is the kind of old-fashioned charmer we don't get a whole lot of these days. There's admittedly not much to it, but the movie is almost aggressively endearing, cute, and surprisingly touching, even as it escapes from your mind on the way out of the theater. Offering two terrifically vintage star turns from two of the best actresses working today (one a veteran, the other just starting to break out) and sending you out of the theater with a smile, it's a lovely bit of escapist entertainment.

Based on Winifred Watson's obscure (well, I'd never heard of it) 1938 novel of the same name, "Miss Pettigrew" tells the grown-up fairy tale of the titular frumpy governess (Frances McDormand) whose single day interaction with a social-climbing actress/singer Delysia (Amy Adams) impacts both their lives. Opening with a sequence showcasing the unfortunate nature of Pettigrew, who's been relegated to eating in soup kitchens and sleeping on the streets, she nonetheless connives her way into one more highly-sought-after job. Thinking it's another typical nanny position, she finds out the position is "social secretary" to the fairly slutty Delysia. Where the latter is flighty and filled with boundless energy, Pettigrew is always sensible, grounded and fairly helpful.

Delysia has three different boyfriends, you see: Nick (Mark Strong), the one who owns the apartment she lives in, Phil (Tom Payne), the boyish producer of a West End show she wants a lead in, and Michael (Lee Pace), the poor piano player who loves her for who she truly is. Though it takes her nearly all day to figure out what we know from the beginning, Pettigrew immediately assesses the situation correctly. Over the course of the day, while helping Delysia juggle her affairs (figurative and otherwise), Pettigrew is promptly made over to look presentable, gets an extended taste of high society, and finds a little bit of romance for herself with Joe (Ciaran Hinds), a suave lingerie designer.

This is the kind of thing that lives and dies by the actors' charms and talents, or lack thereof, and thankfully, two of the most delightful around have been employed. There is such goodwill present for both of these actresses, that it's difficult not to give the movie the benefit of the doubt right at the outset. Turns out the two actresses play wonderfully off each other, and their obvious contrasts/disparity makes them a delight to watch. They have the sort of natural chemistry that makes their interactions fluid and perfectly matched, and not like they're acting in two separate movies, which often happens with roles/performances like these.

McDormand plays up the comic bits brilliantly, showing off her oft-utilized wit, but she also gives Pettigrew a profound sense of dignity and compassion. A staunch realist, but equipped with intractable initiative, McDormand beautifully plays Pettigrew's potential misgivings, while pulling off her shift in appearance and attitude once she's made over around the 35 minute mark. Whether amusingly taken aback by Delysia's questionable actions ("I'm feeling fraught with moral complexity") or explaining why she's never treated herself to fine things before ("I suppose I've never felt I really deserved it"), McDormand turns Pettigrew into a three-dimensional human being and allows us to share in her sadness, joy, and bountiful determination.
Though this is unquestionably McDormand's show, she is equally matched by Adams, in a role not quite as simple as it appears to be initially. Some have expressed concern that Adams is starting to appear typecast, consistently playing one-note naive, upbeat women, but I think that assessment is a bit premature. While yes, she is infectiously delightful here, as she was in "Enchanted" and "Junebug," all three characters have different shades of definition and she's certainly more fleshed out here than she was in the Disney flick. Adams seems to have taken an intentional cue from Marilyn Monroe's turn in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," and if she had played that the entire film, it might have started to grate. But Delysia is soon revealed as more than just the vacuously chipper social-climber she appears to be; it's explained she has a past she longs to escape, and Adams makes us sympathize with and almost root for her success.

Among the various men in Pettigrew and Delysia's life, Payne deserves credit for baring his ass early on, but Pace and Hinds are both the two standouts as Adams' and McDormand's respective white knights. They're not very fleshed-out characters, but these two actors make them feel more than just "types." Pace will make most audience members unashamedly swoon and wish they had one of him to call their own, while Hinds gets a chance to show why he's been getting cast in virtually every interesting movie to come out lately. In just the last four months alone, he's appeared in "There Will Be Blood," "In Bruges," "Margot at the Wedding," and now he's here, and in the upcoming "Stop-Loss," all while appearing on Broadway for the last four months in "The Seafarer," as the devil himself. In this, his most substantial role of the group, he makes it clear why he's been so prominent as of late; he's the guy you put in your movie as the character you keep wanting to see more of.

"Miss Pettigrew" is unlikely to do blockbuster numbers at the box office, but what I imagine will keep its moderate niche audience flowing in consistently for the next month or two, is its successful execution of an old-fashioned entertainment feel that keeps things upbeat, and is bound to create positive word-of-mouth. I personally have never experienced the thrill of a makeover, or an embedding into high society, but this film allows you to indulge in those hypothetical delights, and all set to the hits of Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer. When not dabbling in its serious moments (more on those coming up), there's an unrelenting jaunty, jazzy feel here-- including the music-- that's a big part of why this movie works. Another reason is the production and costume design, which spectacularly re-create the aesthetics of the time period. Amidst all this fluffiness, the film's title hangs over the proceedings, indicating that this day of high-class delight will end. It does, but the film thankfully leaves open the possibility for happiness.

Likely to be a common opinion upon watching "Pettigrew" is just how theatrical it feels. The opening act is particularly farcical, but throughout, characters enter in and out, seemingly on cue, and we're given plenty of delightfully sentimental declarations, innumerable costume changes and zany coincidences that rarely take place in the real world. The performances ground everything for us, but the movie doesn't really try to hide that this is a not-hugely-realistic real-world fairy tale, and it's best to just go with that. Even including a musical number (there's a romantic duet of "If I Didn't Care" near the end), it's easy to imagine this all as a live production, and I have a feeling that if it came to pass, it would be a fairly sizable stage hit.

Realistic or not, the film's farcical elements do in fact give way to emotional and character-driven depth, as breezy as the fluff around it may be. There's always the threat of poverty for Guinevere, and the WWII-set story elements rear their head every so often. From a newspaper headline about Hitler early on to air raid sirens during an otherwise jovial celebration, these elements seem like a blatant attempt to add "resonance" to the proceedings. They don't really work, especially since the movie seems to have no intention of doing anything with them, but I understand why they're here. The intention is to acknowledge the reality going on while our leads dabble in the make-believe quest for happiness, but it's not really delved into, so it bears little impact on the movie. Either way, it's a minor quibble.

"Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day" is kind of forgettable, but that's also kind of the point. This whirlwind of high-brow delight all takes place in a single day, and is gone in an instant, but that doesn't lessen their highs. Lasting only 86 minutes, the movie is worth seeing, if only to witness the immense talents and charms of our two leading ladies, but it has more to offer than just that. Though it occasionally threatens to evaporate in front of your very eyes, "Miss Pettigrew" is an altogether charming experience, and one infused with enough feeling to come off as more than just a trifle.

"The Bank Job" -- * *

Okay, I guess I'm going to be alone on this one. Roger Donaldson's "The Bank Job" is a slick, no-frills true story heist movie, and that seems to be enough to be garnering it praise as a solid 70s-esque crime flick. But while there's probably a certain crowd that's going to eat this up, it left me with one of my trademark blank, disaffected stares on my face for most of the duration. It's not a bad movie per se, it's competently assembled and never feels lazy; it just never once gripped me and I kept waiting for it to come to life or show any attribute to make it feel fresh. Perhaps I've been spoiled by the flashy, style-over-substance "Ocean's" films; and movies like "The Score," "Heist" and "The Italian Job" were hardly hugely original, but they all had more of a devotion to the entertainment factor, and were made significantly more interesting by clever scripting/dialogue and actors seemingly enjoying themselves.

Based on a 1971 robbery of the Lloyds Bank in London, "The Bank Job" tells the story of Terry (Jason Statham) and how he's manipulated by Martine (Saffron Burrows), a girl from his old neighborhood, to ransack all the bank's safe deposit boxes. She needs something in one of them, and if he assembles a crew and gets her what she needs, him and said crew can reap the spoils. What Terry and his gang of predictably bumbling thieves (wittily referred to as "villains") don't know is (a) the needed items in question are photos of Princess Margaret engaged in illicit acts, and (b) this is all being orchestrated by the British government, through Martine, who plans to lock the criminals up as soon as they have what they need. Needless to say, things don't go as planned.

For a film that is intentionally, and blatantly, trying to emulate the crime flicks of the 1970s, there's not much of an attempt here at a '70s feel, in terms of style, direction, construction, performances, anything. The contrived thriller score is emphatically '90s, and the one or two '70s-esque close-ups or camera movements only serve to make you where they were for the rest of the movie. In fact, the most old-school element of "The Bank Job" is its poster, and it must be said that it is a truly awesome one (and of course, the studio neglected to use it for the newspaper ads). It evokes a feel the film does not, and seems to hold promise for a fast, fun, cinematic-renaissance-evoking heist movie, rather than the straightforward, mediocre beast that it is.

The trailers and TV spots are selling a very fun, witty movie, so some may be disappointed at the mostly self-serious tone that permeates the film, shooting for "suspense." The first hour, in particular, settles one into a dull stupor with its reminiscent heist mechanics, i.e.: the job itself. I was, personally, reminded of the first act of "Small Time Crooks," were it drained of laughs, but to each his own. The last 45 minutes or so, with the post-heist repercussions, with the squabbling, blackmail and confusion, are slightly more diverting, but by that point, the movie had totally lost me. Statham himself has long been regarded as fairly "awesome," and he's perfectly fine here, if not terribly likeable. It should be noted that this is his least physical or "badass" performance, and it also provides him with less witty/smart-alecky deliveries than usual. I commend him for branching out to a new kind of performance, but in a film like this, I doubt his acting is going to get much/any attention.

I suppose "The Bank Job" deserves more credit than most of its ilk for not pandering to the styles/sensibilities of the successful films within this genre as of late, but you can tell a familiar story in a manner that doesn't make it seem like you've seen it a dozen times before. And ultimately, the best I can muster is that it's "watchable;" it's really only set apart by the 'true story' and government manipulation elements, and barely at that. Even with an opening involving skinny-dipping and a threesome, all set to T-Rex's "Bang a Gong," it's a strangely flavorless movie that does little to distinguish itself from the pack in a genre that's been done to death.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Everyone's A Little Bit Racist...

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Just when I thought I'd been milkshaked out...

Opening this weekend (3/7/08)... reviews and such

Hey all. Fairly crowded weekend coming up, should have a couple reviews for you, but won't have everything covered. Just providing this in case you would wonder why I don't have anything for the two biggest movies opening:


"10,000 B.C." (3,300+ theaters) -- The only screening for Roland Emmerich's latest is Wednesday night, during which I have to attend a thing for class. So thus, I will have no review, and will pay to see this on Friday. But if they're waiting till two days before opening to screen it, I would guess it's a piece of shit.

"College Road Trip" (3,000+ theaters) -- Same as above. The only screening is Wednesday night, I have to go to a class thing, so no review. It's probably also a piece of shit. Whoda thunk.

"The Bank Job" (1,350+ theaters) -- I saw this over the weekend. I'll have a review up for you by Friday

"Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day" (450+ theaters) -- Saw this last week and will get a review up by Friday.


"Snow Angels" (2 theaters) -- I've been really looking forward to seeing the latest David Gordon Green flick, but as of yet, no screening has been set up. I believe it's only opening in New York on Friday, so that may explain why. As soon as this is screened by me, I'll get a review up, but nothing yet.

"CJ7" (12 theaters) -- Stephen Chow's follow-up to 'Kung Fu Hustle' has been unseen by me yet, and frankly, I'll be surprised if it ever screens for press around here. Given the mediocre buzz and unlikelihood of expansion, I'm not counting on getting a chance to see this one before DVD.

"Married Life" (8 theaters) -- This tamer, breezier take on the '40s/'50s in the vein of 'Far From Heaven' starring Pierce Brosnan, Chris Cooper, Patricia Clarkson and Rachel McAdams is opening in, I'm guessing, just in NY and LA, and I caught it a few weeks back. I will try my best to have a review up sometime this Weekend.

"Paranoid Park" (2 theaters) -- Gus Van Sant's newest film focusing on slender, sexually ambiguous teenage boys opens Friday exclusively in 2 theaters in New York (IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza); I've had a screener of it lying around for a few weeks now, and have yet to watch it. Whether or not you see a review posted will let you know whether I did eventually; I'm going to try to get to it tomorrow and have a review up somewhere in the viscinity of Friday to Sunday.