Friday, May 30, 2008

"Sex and the City" -- * * *

No one would accuse me of being the world's biggest "Sex and the City" fan, so I can't quite offer the diehard's perspective on this four-years-later epilogue to the series; though I've seen every episode, I'm certainly not a member of the rabid base that was eagerly anticipating this film version. I thought the 1998-2004 HBO show was a consistently entertaining, amusing, fairly vacuous fantasy that never really made me howl with laughter or marvel at its emotional complexity, but it did what it set out to do well, and I usually enjoyed it. So, as a mild appreciator of the series, I was relatively satisfied and entertained by "Sex and the City," the movie, as it's basically an episode of the show, but longer. Truth be told, the film doesn't really justify its existence; we don't get a reason why this story needed to be told, nor does it really take huge advantage of its new cinematic form (though, to be fair, what possible limitations were left to break down?). It's just an excuse to see old friends again and revisit a show you may have missed these last four years. It's not an encapsulation of all that the series is or was, it's more of a bonus mini-season, which I expect will be enough to satiate fans' appetites.

For a show where plot was rarely important, a shocking amount of my friends have sworn to kill me if I dare "ruin" plot points from this movie, so I'll do my best to remain discreet and only reveal things that take place in the first 10-15 minutes. Clips from the show catch us up during the film's clever opening credits, and we're soon brought up to date on the goings-ons of Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), Charlotte (Kristen Davis) and Samantha (Kim Cattrall). Carrie and Mr. Big (Chris Noth) are still together, and he still looks like a suavely sexy amalgam of a falcon and Herman Munster; he proposes to Carrie almost immediately after the opening credits. Charlotte is still happily married to Harry (Evan Handler), taking care of their adopted Asian 4-year-old daughter who has a tendency to repeat everything she hears; Charlotte shrieks no less than three times in the first 15 minutes. Miranda still lives in Brooklyn with Steve (David Eigenberg) and their son Brady, and since she's Miranda, you know something is going to happen to destroy her happiness; factor in her telling Steve to "just get it over with" during sex, and you're well on your way to figuring out what. Samantha (Kim Cattrall) is, in a clever way of keeping Cattrall away from the other actresses as much as possible, living in Los Angeles with her actor boyfriend Smith (Jason Lewis); in a nice bit of Time-Warner synergy, their apartment is plastered with Smith-bedecked Entertainment Weekly covers. Oh, and she has a hot neighbor living next door, screwing all the women in town. There, I managed to avoid spoilers. See below if you want to know the shocking events of "Sex and the City's" second act:


Miranda doesn't wax her bush!
Charlotte shits her pants!
Carrie dyes her hair to become a brunette!
Samantha leers suggestively at attractive men!


The men, heterosexual and homosexual alike, are virtual non-entities. While I had a feeling they'd understandably get put on the back burner, there's an entire 45-minute-long chunk in the middle of the movie where neither Big, Harry, Steve nor Smith appear for even one moment. Harry, arguably the most interesting of the four gets the least to say or do of all; I can count his lines of dialogue on one hand. Similarly, the two token gays, Anthony (Mario Cantone) and Stanford (Willie Garson) get the short shrift; Cantone gets a few moments to shriek, but Garson is given, I believe, two sentences to utter in the entire film. For all the relationship drama on display, this is really a movie about the four women's friendship, not sex or relationships. Without spilling the beans, they're all given a mood to play throughout and a consistently-themed storyline/arc to go through; Miranda, still my favorite of the bunch, has a fairly moody one, and like the character, it feels the most real/recognizable of the four. Carrie's is sadsies, as well, and while Charlotte's is a happy one, Davis is given astonishingly little to do here. Charlotte shows up to beam once in a while and largely disappears. As usual, Samantha has virtually no substance, and her whole arc is literally about her staring hornily at her "sex on a stick" hunk neighbor. Needless to say, by the time the credits roll, all four are smiling and happy with themselves and each other.

The four actresses are damned good at embodying these characters by this point, and don't ever appear to be going through the motions, even if they are. At doing what Charlotte does (smiling and being appalled) and what Samantha does (being naked, and saying profane things in public), Davis and Cattrall do just fine, but neither requires much stretching of acting muscles. Nixon and Parker are asked to carry most of the emotional load here, and it's easy to see that they're the more talented half of the foursome. Nixon, as usual, makes decent material pop more than it would seem capable of; she gets a really good moment when confronting Steve outside of Carrie's engagement party that could have been too much, but isn't, thanks to her. SJP acts up a storm, and plumbs the depths of Carrie's emotions more than the show ever allowed. There are moments here that give "Sex and the City" something vaguely resembling depth, and they almost all involve her. And for what it's worth, Parker, Nixon and Davis all do a really good job of acting like they tolerate Cattrall.

One of the first things I heard post-screening from fans of the show was that the movie was more dramatic than it was comedic, and they're right. There are less laughs here than fans may be expecting (though still enough to label this a comedy) and the proceedings are more dramatic than we're used to, but the show was never hilarious, so it wasn't a huge deal to me. As I see it, the seasons all had their own little arcs and themes and tones, and since this is essentially its own season, I was fine with it, and it still felt like "Sex and the City" to me. Maybe the girls will have more chance for fun and playing around and laughing in the sequel, but for now, this'll do, and it serves as a better series finale than what we got the first time around. But aside from the tone, the one thing sticking out making this "different" than the show is the presence of Jennifer Hudson as Carrie's slave, doting assistant Louise from St. Louis (if you miss the "Saint Louise" allusion initially, don't worry, the movie will point it out for you a half dozen more times). Though not sticking out as an emphatic misstep, Louise's presence here is largely worthless, even if it is cute that "Sex and the City" is finally trying to acknowledge that New York City has black people in it.

The show's two chief indulgences were always fashion and sex, and disappointingly, the movie is a bit heavier on the former. While the labels 'comedy,' 'drama' and 'romance' apply, the film could also easily be labeled 'shoe/bag/dress porn;' it's as if the script was written to try to accommodate every fashion designer who wanted to have their dresses featured in the movie. It's hard to believe these women have enough time to worry about their relationships when they're so busy orgasming over expensive shoes and handbags, and there's at least a half a dozen extended fashion show sequences (which are fun, even if they crop up out of nowhere). By the time the film's Fashion Week fashion show centerpiece rolls around, it just feels like yet another clothes display than anything special. But where fashion-oglers get their fill, hornier audience members will find the amount of sexuality fairly light. Sure, we get some stray boobs, male asses, and the occasional shot thrusting, but this is a movie that cried out for unadulterated fucking and full-frontal shots. We get one poignant, quick, explicit encounter near the end and a glimpse of about one-third of a penis for half a second at the two hour mark, and it's just not enough to satiate this target audience's desire for equal-opportunity male objectification. It's worth noting that "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" used its prominently-displayed penis shots to far greater effect.

Writer/director/exec-producer Michael Patrick King is best regarded for the first of those three titles, and justifiably so; The bitchy one-liners and frank discussions were the show's strong points, and his writing seems to have matured along with the characters. Though a moment involving a character shitting their pants, and a running joke of a dog humping a stuffed animal may have you thinking Adam Sandler has temporarily hijacked the "Sex and the City" movie, King makes up for it by peppering the screenplay with witty observations, broadly funny moments, and clever meditations on NYC living and aging/maturation. There are no great sequences that everyone will be buzzing about ("She's fashion roadkill!"), but Carrie's assessment that -- I'm paraphrasing -- "your twenties are for having fun, your thirties are for learning your lessons, and your forties are to pay for the drinks" and Samantha exhaustingly tossing away a copy of "The Secret" ring true, and will resonate with much of the movie/show's core audience. Also, native New Yorkers will recognize the movie's little acknowledgments of the frustration of being dealt a 347 area code when there's no 917's left, the recent ever-presence of the iPhone and the warming comfort of the Big Apple's more insane liberal protesters (upon having her fur coat splattered with red paint, Samantha smiles and utters, "I love New York").

Much pre-release discussion about the film has revolved around its super duper running time, and early reviews declaring it too long (at least two attendees in my group agreed with that consensus). Now, maybe it's just because I'm used to watching a bunch of episodes at a time on DVD, but the film's 2 hour 15 minute running time wasn't that daunting to me. I won't lie, it doesn't fly by -- it feels like its 2 hours and 15 minutes -- but it's paced fairly well and I was never bored by it.The wedding you've all seen in the trailer comes at around the 45 minute mark, and the trip the ladies take to Mexico that lasts 15 minutes (one-ninth of the running time) may be a distant memory by the time the credits roll, but hey, it's more movie for your buck. Frankly, if a show that I loved was being turned into a movie after being off the air for four years, I'd want it to be as long as possible. So while it may be too much "Sex and the City" in one sitting for some fans, I suspect only for very few of them.

For the newbies: if you've not seen "Sex and the City" and are going to the movie just to see what all the fuss is about, you will not like it. Out of the half dozen virgin viewers I've spoken to, only one of them seemed to enjoy the movie (the others found it bland and/or torturous), and that's not a very good percentage. It's not really a stand-alone movie, and as I assess its virtues/problems, I guess that should bother me more, but it doesn't. This is an experience strictly for those that consider themselves fans of the show and enjoy vicariously living through four wealthy, attractive Upper East Side ladies in their mid-40s. As such, this is easily the biggest event movie for gays and women since "The Devil Wears Prada" and I'm sure it'll make a hefty bundle. Serving as an estrogen-filled counterpart to last week's "Indiana Jones," and relying just as much on nostalgia, it's a movie practically tailor-made for cosmopolitan-fueled girls night outs. And no matter how impervious you think you are to it, it's difficult not smiling the first time seeing these four together again.

"The Strangers" -- * * 1/2

Ever since premiering two months ago, the superb trailer for the new home invasion thriller "The Strangers" has been circulating, creeping the shit out of people. In theaters nationwide, it's been invoking gasps, particularly at the moment when we first get a glimpse of a masked assailant stalking Liv Tyler. For weeks now, I've had friends-- and I'm talking about people who rarely go to the movies-- asking me about that "scary movie with the people with the masks." While the movie actually manages to deliver what the trailer promises, that ends up not being quite enough. There are some remarkably effective touches here; the film has a fairly unsettling feel to much of it, and some good scares at that. However, it all too often wallows in cliche horror movie tricks, and its repetitive nature at times gives way to boredom. For a film that runs only 75 minutes to begin with, that's ultimately too many detractions (at least, for me) to merit a trip to the theater.

The movie opens with a sequence that seems to intentionally evoke memories of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," with two Mormon boys happening upon a blood-smeared house one morning preceded by a suspiciously John-Laroquette-sounding baritone voice telling us "What you are about to see is based on true events" that took place on February 11, 2005. We then flash back four hours earlier to Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) and James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) returning home from a wedding, with her still in her gown and him in a suit. He's set up a candle lit dinner and rose petals in the bathtub ahead of time, but judging by his frown and the dried-up tears on her face, it seems a safe bet neither is in the mood for romance. We don't quite know what happened initially, but yet another flashback tells us he proposed to her and she turned him down. As the two begin to have make-up sex at 4 a.m., someone pounds on the door. It's an adolescent-looking girl asking if Tamara is home, and she clearly has the wrong house. When James goes out to get something, the girl returns asking for Tamara again, only this time she's wearing a creepy store-bought mask and she's brought two similarly-attired friends, just in time for James to return. Though the motivation-less creepers stalking a pretty man-and-woman recalls Michael Haneke's "Funny Games," "The Strangers's" closest cousin is last year's very strong B-movie "Vacancy" with its "couple going through relationship problems terrorized by psychos" premise.

Like numerous films of this ilk (including "Funny Games"), the opening section, before anything actually bad happens, is the strongest. Slowly establishing the relationship/situation between James and Kristen, while building tension and atmosphere, the opening third puts us on edge without us really knowing why and incrementally involves us. At first it's not quite clear what's going on between the two, and even when we find out, we don't get details. Once Kristen starts getting scared/tormented, before the home is actually invaded, it's a lot more unsettling than what occurs when the shit hits the fan. Before it does, we don't really know what's about to come or when, and Bertino utilizes a lot of silence to maintain the tension. When we get out first big jumpy "scare," it feels earned and is a lot more effective for the way it's been built up. Over the course of the movie, we don't learn much about the couple, but their relationship is nicely established and they're not just disposable, empty-headed teens. Neither actor does gangbusters work here, but they're believable as a couple and if better-utilized, their relationship/situation could've been really effective overall.

Despite some questionable decisions as a writer (some groan-worthy character decisions and seemingly pro-Christian messages), Bertino is an unquestionably talented director. He clearly has an affinity for old-school horror mechanics, and understands that silence is scarier than big loud noises. Particularly in the first third, he employs lots of silence and little-to-no music, and even when the music kicks in later, its not overwhelmingly loud/jump-inducing. The film also has a low-lit and/or washed out look to it that keeps the atmosphere suitably murky. The movie's also refreshing in that there are minimal teases or 'gotcha' moments (e.g.: a cat jumping out of a closet); when you think something bad's about to happen, it usually does. My friend Ben responded to this, "so you liked that it was predictable?" and he has a point, but still, in horror movies, fake outs are usually the order of the day.

I'm a proponent of as much ambiguity in movies as possible, so maybe I'm a bit biased, but I found the amount of unanswered questions in "The Strangers" wildly refreshing. We know these are three people who knock on Kristen and James' door wearing masks and asking if Tamara is home, and that's all we're told. We don't get a scene where the mask-wearers' identities are revealed, and we find out Tamara's the girl who used to live in the house before her mother killed her, and etc. etc. Nothing (including the tormentors' motivations) is explained, and the ambiguity lends a creepy air to the proceedings. The film's admirable in its simplicity and allows the more successful moments to be their own raison d'atre and not be bogged down with exposition. The creme de la creme of those moment's is, predictably, the trailer-glimpsed one of baghead standing in the background while Liv Tyler smokes a cigarette in the kitchen. While it would have been great if we didn't already see this moment before seeing the movie, it's arguably a big part of what's getting butts into seats, and even spoiled, the moment isn't sapped of all impact. He stays in a background for a very long time, and the shot doesn't get any less armrest-clutching the longer it it goes on. However, Bertino's best trick is his usage of old-timey country ballads to incongruously play over tense moments, most effectively during an extremely tense unexpected-guest-arriving sequence scored to "Mama Tried."

Still, for every nod of the head Bertino gets with his good decisions, there are almost as many cringes induced by his employment of tired horror movie cliches. The film tries to establish itself as "real" with the opening crawl (despite being inspired by elements of five or six different crimes, not directly based on anything), but things consistently occur happen that can only happen in horror movie world. When James goes to retrieve something from the car, one of the strangers touches the back of his neck, and when he immediately flinches and turns around, there's no one there. Are they ghosts, or just have superpowers? Also, James' decision to leave Kristen alone in the house not once, but twice, smacks of something no real person would do, and the dialogue occasionally reeks of Horror Screenwriting 101 ("I'm so scared!" and "Don't go out there!" are both shrieked at various points). Managing to undo much of the good will generated by the earlier sections' quiet/tense strengths, the movie seems to indulge in loud, jolting music and sound effects the more it goes on, culminating in an inexcusable final shot that just might result in crowds leaving the theater justifiably angry.

This is a very small-scale, intimate horror film, and at first it seems clever and effective in its economy and simplicity, but then it does the thing it does well again... and again... and again. At about the two-thirds mark, it hits you: is this movie going to be all buildup? By the fourth sequence in a row of one of our leads creeping around for five minutes and hearing ominous noises leading into a jumpy scare of a masked person jumping out the shadows, I felt like shouting at the screen "Is that all there is?!" I guess it's logical that not much happens -- think about it, how much story momentum can really occur in a home invasion scenario? -- but the repetitive structure begins to get flat-out boring as the film progresses. It's effective to a point, but it loses said effect fairly quickly. Even in its stronger moments, the movie's never terribly compelling, and you keep waiting for it to jumpstart. The trailer turns out not to be a tease of what the film has to offer, but rather, a compressed 2.5 minute version of the film. That's all you get; no different types of scares, no other set-pieces, no further interaction between our creepers and our leads. It's disappointing, and may be the rare case where a trailer saps a movie of much of its impact.

As those who know me are aware, I'm somewhat of a cheerleader for the horror movie genre. I think it's so filled up with regurgitated half-assed shit and barely warmed-over, soulless remakes, that when something even a smidgen unique or inspired comes along, I tend to be more than a little appreciative (this year alone saw underrated gems such as "Cloverfield," "Teeth," "The Signal," "The Ruins" and "Doomsday"). And while "The Strangers" does some things right, these things are almost maddening because they hint at the potential that was there. Anytime an old-school, straightforward horror movie comes along, it's a step in the right direction in my eyes, but what we get here is an uncomfortable balance between effective atmospheric touches and settling for what's been tried-and-proven before. What you end up getting is a movie that won't terrify you while you're watching it, but just may put you on edge when you think about it while home alone later that night. The trailer will bring in a nice opening weekend at the box office, but with a little more care and craft, this could've been more than a modestly engaging, forgettable horror movie.

"Savage Grace" -- * * *

It's a shame Tom Kalin's "Savage Grace" couldn't have opened in time for Mother's Day, because it depicts what is probably the most depraved mother-son story you could think up (and it's all true!). It's also the rare movie that's cold and frigid in a good way, as it takes a rather insane story and doesn't ever seem to milk it for camp or exploitation. This may in fact be some people's primary issue with the film, complaining that it de-camps source material that is naturally campy, but this was probably the only way to approach this subject matter/story without turning it into a scintillating "Notes on a Scandal"-style soap opera. It still is a soap opera of sorts, but the cold, "classy" presentation almost unwittingly turns it into a more unsettling and ultimately horrifying one. In a season known for light, mindless popcorn movies, this is unconventional summer fare to say the least, but for all of its 85 minutes, I found it incredibly absorbing as I kept waiting for the next bad thing to happen. The icing on the cake is that it's all anchored by a return-to-form by the luminous Julianne Moore playing one of her most batshit roles. I've heard "Savage Grace" referred to as a "cautionary tale," but I don't know if it quite has a message to impart besides, "rich people are.... weird."

Based on the book by Natalie Robins and Steven M. L. Aronson, "Savage Grace" (like the book) is framed with narrations of letters from Tony Baekeland (Eddie Redmayne) to his father, Brooks (Stephen Dillane), heir of the Bakelite plastics fortune. Beginning in post-World War II Manhattan and going well into the '60, the film chiefly documents the goings-ons after Brooks leaves the family for various reasons, thus strengthening the relationship between Tony and possessive mother Barbara (Moore). Impulsive, pretentious and more than a wee bit homophobic, Barbara develops a deep, disturbing bond with the openly gay Tony that reaches its apex during his teenage years. We begin with Tony as a small boy, and Barbara and Brooks married, and with a slow boil, are lead into the true-life story's infamous climax. Yes, I'm being intentionally vague.

While Barbara has nowhere near the depth of "Boogie Nights's" Amber Waves, "Far From Heaven's" Cathy Whitaker, "Safe's" Carol White, or even "The Hours'" Laura Brown and "Magnolia's" Linda Partridge, it still registers as one of the best, most fearless performances of Moore's career. After wasting away in paycheck vehicles like "Laws of Attraction," "Next," and "Freedomland," this qualifies as an unquestionable return to form for the four-time Oscar nominated actress. Though the character does allow Moore to chew some scenery, Barbara always feels like a real human being, if not an entirely three-dimensional one. The performance, as well as the character, is bizarre at times, and while the movie occasionally seems confused about who she is, that's because Barbara is also; whether flaunting her ideal-aristocratic-wife smile, or motherly whispering, "Inside voice!" as her son resists a handjob, you just can't keep your eyes off her. As a full-fledged movie star, this was a bold role for her to take, but Hollywood status aside, it's also a great one, and a reminder that even in a knowingly "big" performance, Moore's one of the best actresses we've got.

The film is paced very carefully, allowing things to slowly build and get worse and worse (in a way that reminded me of "There Will Be Blood"). Unless you know too much about the true life story going in, you don't know exactly where this is all leading, building the atmosphere without heavily foreshadowing things; those going in knowing nothing will have one of the more jolting movie experiences of the year. However, the incremental structure keeps the places we end up from feeling predictable or inevitable, without seeming like they came out of nowhere either. It makes it feel relatively real and allows us to be slowly enveloped, not just wait for the assumed mother-son dicking to happen.

As a film featuring all sorts of deviancy and decadence, sensationalism could have been gone for every step of the way, but Kalin allows the proceedings to be shocking in a quietly haunting, draining way, not resorting to brash melodrama. Both Fernando Velázquez's string-heavy score and the gaps of silence (the kind which say more than the dialogue) in Howard Rodman's script contribute heavily to this and both, honestly, are areas I initially expected to fall under the "too much" category here. Aside from just the content, this is kind of a strange movie, from the reserved approach, the handling of the character perspectives and the tonal escalation signaling foreboding doom. The fact that the latter continues even after the film's supposed climaxes lets us know things can only get worse. While the mother-son *cough* intimacy will be what gets the movie any attention coming its way, I was much more disturbed by little scenes like young Tony applying healer to Barbara's stitches on her wrists from her past suicide attempts, while she eats ice cream naked in the bathtub.

As engaging as "Savage Grace" is, it's exactly the sort of film that will draw a primarily elderly, arty audience and repulse them all with its content. I'm just imagining senior citizen patrons of my hometown's Cinema Arts Center muttering "My goodness!" and exiting the theater. An open mind will be required on both ends of the spectrum, and might make for a moviegoing experience where half of the audience finds it too trashy and debased and the other half finds it too conservative and tasteful. If nothing else, this is a film that's worth seeking out for Moore's stellar performance alone. The Academy isn't likely to go anywhere near this movie, so it's a performance likely to slip under the radar unless you make an effort to find it. You'll probably leave the theater with an awful taste in your mouth, but that's kind of the point. It'll certainly serve as a nice antidote for those sick of bubble-headed, middle-aged women babbling about shoes and bags.

"Savage Grace" opens today at two theaters, the IFC Center and Clearviews' 62nd and Broadway, both in New York, but depending on your cable provider, you can order it On Demand in the 'IFC In Theaters' section.

Friday, May 23, 2008

"War, Inc." -- * *

I try my best to not enter a film with a bias one way or the other, but I'm going to come clean here. When a ballsy, over-the-top, absurdist satire taking on Halliburton, policies in Iraq and war profiteering hits theaters, it kind of has me at hello. Factor into the equation that said film is John Cusack's self-professed "non-sequel sequel" to dark comedy-action-romance "Grosse Pointe Blank," one of my top 5 all-time favorite films, and you have a movie that seemingly has "Rob Scheer" as its target demographic, with everyone else a distant second. So it's with a heavy heart and a sulking disposition that I must report that the described movie, "War, Inc.," if not quite as bad as the buzz, doesn't really work at all. I really, really wanted to like this movie, and really, really tried to cut it any slack I could throughout. Sadly, the points it makes are obvious, delivery is with a sledgehammer, and the ideas are significantly more clever than the execution in almost every respect. I've read comparisons to Richard Kelly's "Southland Tales," which makes sense, considering that both are fairly out-there, messy, rambling satires inspired by our country's foreign policies and both are generally regarded as failures; however, I think "Southland Tales" is so fascinating, compelling and absorbingly strange on its own terms that the comparison really doesn't hold. "War, Inc." is ambitious, original and admirable enough to never be less than watchable, but much of it just leaves you groaning or shaking your head.

Cusack stars as contract killer Brand Houser, who works for the Halliburton-esque Tamerlane Corporation, whose CEO is a Cheney-esque former vice-president (Dan Aykroyd). Tamerlane is in the midst of paying for the current war in Turaqistan, the first war to be completely fought by corporate-financed batallions. Sent to Turaqistan, along with a hyper-efficient associate (Joan Cusack), Hauser must kill a local leader named Omar Sharif, because said leader wants some of his country's oil profits. Once there, his cover is to act as if he's producing a local trade show, and he must deal with liberal reporter Natalie Hagelhuzen (Marisa Tomei), who's attempting to figure out what's really going on. Making things more complicated is the arrive of Yonica Babyyeah (Hilary Duff), the Middle Eastern equivalent of Britney Spears or Jessica Simpson, who will be married to the son of an powerful local oil man as the finale to Hauser's "show." All the while, Hauser keeps having flashbacks to his wife/daughter's murder at the hands of a powerful Southern assassin Walken (Ben Kingsley).

I think, if anything, I'm being a little generous. I found the film endurable and interesting enough, a noble failure, but i have difficulty imaging anyone all out "liking" this thing, not with this screenplay (written by Cusack, Jeremy Pikser and Mark Leyner). It's hard to quibble with what Cusack's trying to do, but this doesn't feel like the Cusack who co-wrote "Grosse Pointe Blank" or "High Fidelity." It seems like the Cusack who went on an uber-serious angry diatribe on Bill Maher, wrote a drama with all the political ideas he was angry about and passed it along to his hack screenwriter friends to toss some jokes in (in fact, I'd guess this isn't far from the reality of what happened). The smarted-up, highbrow one-liners, such as one about Anderson Cooper's lineage, seems as if the movie's targeted specifically at a very niche audience: the most elitist 5% of The Nation subscribers and Air America listeners. While audience-excluding, this isn't a problem in and of itself, but it seems to be flaunting its political superiority for its own sake and to no particular purpose. And as someone who understood said jokes, they have a success rate that's awfully close to zero.

The gold standard (and obvious inspiration) here is "Dr. Strangelove," and while that masterpiece could never be matched, I liked the fact that the makers at work here were trying to create their own little version. But the film's political elements are largely pointless and repetitive, occasionally toothless, and for much of the movie, they're even forgotten about. So, Cusack seems intent on delivering a one-note diatribe. Fine, whatever. But then why does he keep getting distracted with this Yonica subplot? There's more focus on the assassination/Yonica/Natalie stuff than any political statements of any resonance, and on top of it just not being very interesting, it's just as comically tone deaf as the rest. The whole aimless middle section is dully stagnant and pretty much abandons about its politics. I didn't mind the ridiculous situations taking place-- that's the nature of absurdist satire-- but it's hard to ignore how unfunny they all are.

The ideas are significantly more clever than their execution (e.g. journalism-enhancing implants reporters receive upon entering a war "simulator," and a bit with tap-dancing amputees), and some gags are so stale and lame, it's mind-boggling how they made their way into a satire so willfully highbrow (one of Yonica's suggestive songs features the repeated line "I want to blow you... up!"). The best joke in the whole movie turns out to be simply Duff's character's name. Making the proceedings even less coherent is the fact that the movie doesn't decide if it wants us to look at these characters as real people or caricatures; And with all this bitter cynicism and satirization being flung around, we get a happy ending.... whuh? It's just a mess all-around, and one that can't decide what it wants to be; it doesn't mix/blend genres and tones, it awkwardly and jarringly jumps between them.

While most of the country is reveling in their Indiana Jones nostalgia, it was nice for me to see John Cusack playing a version of Martin Blank and still shooting people, karate-chopping and struggling with moral conflict again 11 years later. Both John and Joan, and Aykroyd are all "GPB" veterans, and while John's an assassin again and Joan once again spends most of her screentime befitted with a receptionist's headset, this time Kingsley fills the shoes of the "Grocer"-type character Aykroyd played last time around. There are numerous recalls to "Grosse Pointe Blank" and it breaks my heart a little bit that Cusack's return to the character-type/genre/material is such a missed opportunity. Still, personally I got a mild kick out of Cusack's little nods to the 1997 class; he even throws in an intentionally reminiscent scene where his object of desire inconveniently witnesses him stabbing a foe in the head with an unconventional weapon.

A great cast has been assembled for this misfire, and amazingly, none of them appear to be slumming or going-through-the-motions. John Cusack has done this sleepwalking-through-existence thing a bit too much for my taste, but for understandable reasons, he actually seems to be involved in this performance and not simply switched off (e.g.: "Must Love Dogs"). Hauser (white skunk spot in hair) says "If you really knew me, you'd despise me even more than you do," but, and maybe it's just my carried-over Martin Blank love, the way Cusack plays him, he's never that unlikeable a guy from the get-go, so it doesn't seem like he's experienced the progression the movie wants us to feel. Joan will probably be too irritating, familiar and over-the-top for some, and she's blatantly trying to punch-up the material with her over-emphatic delivery, but she still provided pretty much the only moments that made me giggle, and it reminded me she needs another "In & Out"-esque showcase performance. Tomei does her best to try to deliver the most fully-formed person on screen, but the character never materializes into something interesting. Duff is having some fun dirtying up her shiny, perky, white blonde girl image, but it'd be a stretch to call her "good." Meanwhile, Kingsley (with a particularly bad American accent) and Aykroyd barely register in their two-or-three-scene appearances as wacky, "eccentric" characters.

Last year, Cusack starred in a small, moving (if a bit dull) film called "Grace is Gone" that dealt with the toll this war has taken on the homefront, and this filmic one-two punch shows that it's a subject he cares passionately about; but while this is easily the more incensed project of the two, it's also the less effective one. At the end of the day, "War, Inc." doesn't offer any particular insight, nor is it funny or especially coherent, so it's difficult to amass what would be left to recommend. Having seen the movie, it now makes sense why it's been kicked around the release schedule for two years before finally being dumped in two theaters against the potentially-biggest movie of the year. It's well-intentioned as can be, but even those who agree with every ideological point *cough* may have difficulty staying awake, let alone laughing. The direction by Josh Seftel isn't very good, but it can't be solely blamed; the writing is weak all around, darting between overwritten and underwritten, and the one-sided observations aren't even particularly sharp or cutting. It pains me to say this, as "War, Inc." was one of my most anticipated films of 2008, but Cusack and company never really find anything to say amidst all this chaos, and combined with a lack of laughs, it adds up to a whole lot of nothing.

"War, Inc." opens today in two theaters nationwide, one in New York (the Angelika) and one in Los Angeles (the Landmark).

Thursday, May 22, 2008

"Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" -- * * 1/2

The heart (not to mention nostalgia) has a way of clouding one's view of all forms of art, most emphatically movies, and more specifically, sequels. Innumerable moviegoers' hearts/sentiments made them think they enjoyed the "Star Wars" prequels, simply based on the visceral pleasure of re-entering this beloved movie universe they'd dearly missed. Steven Spielberg's "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" is going to have much the same effect on people, mark my words. A year or so from now, dozens upon dozens of cinephiles will shake their heads at the time when they so foolishly thought/said/wrote that they "loved" the latest Indy movie. Just to be clear about my implication, rest assured: though a bit underwhelming, this is a much, much better movie than any of the "Star Wars" prequels. It's fun enough, and it's nice to see Indy back on the big screen again, but it's hard to ignore that the whole affair reeks of unnecessary... 'funnecessary,' if you will.

Wittily set in 1957, 19 years after the last film in the series (which came out 19 years ago), "Kingdom" opens with Indy (Harrison Ford) and his sidekick Mac (Ray Winstone) being captured by evil Russians led by Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), who are all seeking the mysterious Crystal Skull. After narrowly escaping those dastardly ruskies, Dr. Jones is accused by his government of being a Commie, and the dean of his college (Jim Broadbent) is pressured into firing him. Before he can skip town, he meets hair-obsessed greaser, Mutt (Shia LaBeouf) who needs his help. He's searching for his and Indy's mutual friend/mentor Professor Oxley (John Hurt), as well as his un-specified mother. Aw, who am I kidding? His mother's former Indy girl Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), and turns out Indy's his dad. The plot's just an excuse for some fun stunts and adventure sequences, but it all revolves around the remains of an alien and everyone's desire for the titular skull and the secrets it holds.

"Crystal Skull's" greatest asset is that even despite some going-through-the-motions moments, it's largely retained the series' sense of fun and exuberance; sure, the nostalgia feels a bit forced, but it works nonetheless. Starting off with a drag-race set to "Hounddog," Lucas's '50s-loving influence is indulged in some enjoyable ways, including a diner brawl scored to "Shake, Rattle and Roll" later on. But like any "Indiana Jones" film worth its salt, the best moments to be had here are the action-adventure sequences. It certainly helps that the movie opens with two great ones, an extended chase between Indy and the Russians in a contained warehouse, and our hat-befitted hero struggling to find a way out of a nuclear testing village. Despite some obvious green-screen work, a LaBeaouf-Blanchett swordfight with each balancing on a different moving vehicle is a lot of fun to watch. But perhaps the most effective sequence in the film is a relatively old-fashioned (i.e.: non-CGI equipped) one involving Mutt and Indy being chased through the pristine college campus on the back of Mutt's motorcycle, and ending up in the library. It couldn't be less important to the movie, but you'll have difficulty not smiling, I guarantee it. The movie's ridiculousness cuts both ways (more on the negatives in a bit) but a sequence involving man-eating ants is just one of a handful that makes you roll your eyes while chuckling at the same time. Logic or realism has never been this series' strong suit, so when the group, in their torn-apart truck, falls down a series of three waterfalls and pops back up, we don't question it.

Thankfully there's more to like than be annoyed by, but virtually every moment that falls under the latter category has the fingerprints of George Lucas all over them and vaguely recalls his "Star Wars" prequel trilogy of suck. I've seen the film twice now, and both times it was almost startling how increasingly silly the film gets in the second half, making one wonder if maybe Spielberg/Lucas split directing duties. In my eyes, there's a difference between whimsical and goofy, and when "Indy 4" goes for the latter, it has the effect of making you shake your head. I had a feeling something was awry when Spielberg cut to shots of cartoony prairie dogs three times in the opening 20 minutes, but the second half features far too many moments when the movie smacks of silliness, such as Indy steadfastly explaining the intricate process of quicksand to Mutt as he sinks. Shia unfortunately gets stuck with two of the films' dumber moments; one where he Tarzan-like swings on vines with hordes of CGI monkeys (I shit you not), and one where he has each leg balancing on a different moving vehicle and he keeps getting hit in the nuts by branches. Again, this reeks of Lucas, and someone should have just told him 'no.' However, without spoiling it, the film's single recall of Indy's fear of snakes is arguably the worst scene of the movie, and one of its prime examples of evoking misguided nostalgia. I can imagine audiences laughing/clapping at it ("Ha! He's scared of snakes! I remember that!"), but when looking back on it a few days/weeks/months from now, they'll have difficulty ignoring how stupid it was. Even the die-hard fans might also get restless during the film's exposition-heavy middle section-- there's lots of explaining of myths, hieroglyphics, etc-- but that's easier to forgive when the movie picks up the pace again in the third act.

Turns out the worries about Ford being too old were for naught. He's as spry as ever, and his age isn't ever a roadblock at all-- in essence, that's part of the problem (more on that later). Sure, it's ridiculous that a man of 65 could repeatedly bounce back up after enduring all this, but in the context of this series, we buy it. Purely in terms of performance, he's a delight, and this is the most fun he's been to watch in years. As an actor who frequently looks miserable and/or bored on screen, it would appear playing Indy again gave him a rejuvenation of sorts, whether that's the actual case or not. It's amazing, almost impressive, that over the course of four movies, this character has never been given a single ounce of definition, so emotional registering isn't really on the agenda; charm and physical prowess are the main standards of assessment here, and in both respects, Ford does the character proud. Similarly, Blanchett seems to be having a supreme amount of fun, and the feeling is infectious. As a thickly-accented psychic (or does she just think she's psychic?) from Eastern Ukraine, she's an over-the-top blast to watch, and I couldn't help chuckling at everything she did or said. Whether giving oh-so-intense glowers, or grabbing Indy's knees when interrogating him, reinforcing her dominatrix vibe, Spalko is a ridiculous character and Blanchett embraces that without becoming a cartoon. Okay, she's not intimidating at all, and never a real threat, but she's fun as shit to watch.

Given the "And" slot in the credits, and a wildly silly entrance riding a motorcycle out of a cloud of smoke looking exactly like Brando in "The Wild One," LaBeouf is just fine, even if he seems out of place in this world and you never, ever believe him as a knife-toting greaser. Performance-wise he does okay, but it doesn't help that almost every 'silly' moment in the film involves his character. Then again, giving Indy a sidekick/son was a contrived idea to begin with, so prospects from the outset weren't promising. When Allen re-appears as Marion at the 65-minute mark, it's a genuinely nice moment (Indy's reaction upon seeing her is one of the movie's high points), even if she ends up contributing nothing to the movie. Boasting a frozen smile worthy of Laura Bush, she's a likable enough presence, but she mostly just stands aside and watches things happen. Winstone, Hurt and Broadbent all go through the motions in different ways, and have little-to-nothing to do.

Nostalgia has a tendency to go a long way, and this is a movie that's going to get by on a lot of good will and nostalgia, not exceptional storytelling. After hearing that George Lucas had, at the last second, nixed Frank Darabont's supposedly-great "Indy 4" screenplay, "Hot Fuzz" director Edgar Wright joked that apparently Lucas felt the script "wasn't disappointing enough." Wright was joking, but after the prequels and now this, it would appear Lucas almost has a penchant for letting down people. Credited with co-writing the story, Lucas has contributed to a film that's entertaining despite its underwhelming story and script (by David Koepp), not due to it. The fact that our action hero lead is about to turn 66 seemed to offer endless possibilities in terms of how it was dealt with in this movie... except that it's not really dealt with. There's two or three throwaway lines about Indy being old ("What're you, like 80?"), but that's about it; aside from that, it's the same old spry Indy that we remember and love from the original movies. It's not majorly problematic, but it feels like a missed opportunity. And that's emblematic of the movie's shortcomings. While Spielberg/Lucas deserve credit for not trying to make this the "ultimate" Indy movie, pulling out all the stops ad nauseam, it all feels like this was carefully tailored to be "another" entry in the series rather than something special. It's difficult not to think of the possibilities of how good (or at least interesting) Darabont or M. Night Shymalan's screenplays would have been if carried through. I won't delve too much into the finale here, other than to say that it represents new territory for the franchise (if familiar for Spielberg, Lucas and Ford), and I didn't like it. Like the finales of all the Indy movies, it enters a mystical realm, but to me, it seemed like too much and particularly jarring compared to what came before it.

Spielberg's directorial approach saves the movie from itself, and makes it as fun as it is; we haven't seen him direct a film like this in a long time, and there's a construction and choreography to the stunts and shot maneuvers that's a delight to watch. He may be able to direct a movie like this in his sleep, but that doesn't sap the fun out of it (it's a lot like "The Lost World" in that respect, though I'd argue that's a better movie than this), occasionally offsetting whatever grumbling we may have with the context. The movie looks and sounds great too; Spielberg's regular D.P., the usually flashy Janusz Kaminski tries his best to re-create the clean, straightforward look established by Douglas Slocombe in the first three films, although he occasionally lets his flashes-of-light impulses seep through. Spielberg's been talking up the lack of visual effects, and he should be; the practical adventure-driven stuff is the movie's strongest material. However, it's awfully noticeable that much of what we're seeing is CGI or in front of a green screen.

Careful measures have been enacted to make "Kingdom" not feel like a modern day Indy movie; effort has been made so it feels just like one of the old ones. As such, the nostalgia and memories of the older films set in rather effectively, and work to the movie's benefit. A big deal is made of Indy's initial putting-on of his trademark hat, and it's a nice moment, and the references to the other films are usually well handled. There's a visual gag of that gold thing from the end of "Raiders" towards the beginning that got applause from my audience, and it's quick enough to not be distracting. As for where this movie ranks in the Indy pantheon, I think it unquestionably places third of four, between "Last Crusade" and "Temple of Doom." The movie shares "Temple of Doom's" chief problem-- its numbing forward momentum-- but it doesn't succumb to it, and balances it out with what was strong about "Raiders" and "Last Crusade:" their sense of intrigue, mystery and plot mechanics. While I couldn't help feeling that "Last Crusade" was a nice send-off and maybe should've stayed that way, this doesn't tarnish the brand name.

Despite there being more to say about the negative, there's ultimately more to like than dislike here. Before it gets irredeemably silly, "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" is a tremendous amount of fun, even if it's more of a treat to see the character again than anything else. Though its "thoroughly-fun-with-flashes-of-stupidity" first half clashes considerably with its "thoroughly-stupid-with-flashes-of-fun" second half, there's at least eighty minutes worth of enjoyment lurking within this 123 minute beast of a movie, and that alone spares it from the franchise-denegrating suck of the "Star Wars" prequels. It isn't the Indy film you hoped for, nor the one you feared. It's just another one, with nineteen years of wear and tear on it, and that's... alright.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

"Postal" -- * 1/2

To call "Postal" Uwe Boll's best film to date would be to damn it with faint praise, but is it even that? It's tough to say, though at the least, it's his first movie I've watched all the way through, so I guess that's something. It's a pretty sloppily made movie with awful production values and a screenplay with no sense of coherency; it's only watchable for Boll's determination to throw whatever shit he can think of at us in the hopes something will stick and/or make us outraged. Nothing really does, but the mayhem is diverting enough that I was never bored, just occasionally irritated. It's loosely based on the semi-popular series of video games by Running with Scissors electronics (whose founder makes an awkward cameo appearance here) following a Postal employee who goes... postal. Boll's movie, his first intentional comedy, centers around a similar "postal dude" (oddly, not a postal employee) who is laid off from his job, and teams up with his cult-leader uncle Dave (Dave Foley) to steal Nazi money from a German theme park run by Uwe Boll himself. At the same time, Osama bin Laden (Larry Thomas) -- collaborating with George W. Bush (Brent Mendenhall) -- has a similar plan and, along with his men, is decimating everyone in his way.

The film's tagline "Some comedies go too far... others start there" could not be more appropriate. It starts off trying to shock us into being offended with its opening sequence (the terrorists in flight 11's cockpit on 9/11 arguing over the amount of virgins they'll be getting), and keeps going, that by minute two, we're not actually offended anymore, so we can't help but notice how unfunny all of it is. Sure, if this movie were ever going to be seen on any wide scale, people would be consistently offended. But watching it as a rational person, it has such an obvious, flagrant desire to offend (like a toddler who shits his pants to get attention) that in doing so, you'd really just be giving Boll what he wants and it doesn't seem worth it. By the time (around the halfway mark) Boll stages a sequence of small children getting mowed down by gunshot blasts, it's difficult to muster up anything, let alone outrage.

It uses the image of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center, and the splatter of the remains of a suicide bomber as visual gags. Bush calls Osama on his cell, calling him "you old fucker" and Osama calling him "Georgie." GWB plays with a toy airplane at his desk, crashing it into lego twin towers... hm, okay, that part did make me laugh. Bush and Bin Laden hold hands and skip, and the list goes on. It wants so badly to rouse you, but you become numb to it all right from the beginning. Look at the baby carriage getting run over by a truck. Yawn. A moment when a newscaster delivers a report called "Why the World Trade Center Victims Deserved to Die" perfectly encapsulates the feel of the movie: whether you find that offensive or not, it doesn't even seem like there's a joke in there, just an attempt to piss people off. Fat people are gross. Everyone hates Jews. Female Asian drivers should be killed. All fascinating insights from the inner recesses of Dr. Boll's mind.

But weirdly enough, it's this stuff that registers best in the movie; it may not be particularly funny, but at least it's something we haven't seen before (with good reason). The problem is moreso that Boll takes his time setting up jokes with payoffs so dusty, that they wouldn't pass muster even with Jay Leno. Bush having difficulty spelling? An "I wish I knew how to quit you" joke? Really? Even when he seems to have an inspired idea-- parodying himself as funding his movies with Nazi money-- he feels the need to hammer home the joke, spell it out, and drain it of any possible laughs. Whenever the political content wanes, Boll resorts to hackneyed scatological jokes, such Mini-Me get raped by hundreds of monkeys. Breathtaking. I don't think even Boll could come up with a reason why much of this is in here (Foley's full-frontal scene early on is particularly pointless).

What's most disturbing here is, based on interviews and press notes, Boll seems to think he actually has something to say and that his movie is ground-breaking on some level. He also seems to think the ridiculous ideas expressed in this movie should actually be enacted in real life (the man apparently really thinks female asian drivers should be murdered). He thinks this is incendiary political commentary, and he truly believes the reason that his film's release this weekend was tamped down at the last minute, from the initial 1,500 theaters to FOUR screens, is because the movie was too politically relevent and controversial for theater exhibitors to deal with.

"Postal's" poster brandishes a quote calling it "Live-action 'South Park'!" Well, it is not. "South Park" is clever, funny and well-written. "Postal" just tries to be offensive and think that equates it with "edgy." It doesn't, but it's almost worth watching to satiate one's morbid curiosity and see how far a disturbed filmmaker can go when given enough money to dredge out his inner political thoughts and enact them onscreen. In all honesty, I've always half-admired Boll as a filmmaker and found it inspiring that someone clearly blessed with so little talent and/or worth as a human being keeps stepping back up to the plate with new efforts, resources and determination. I hope, just for the sake of the underdogs, he continues to make movies and get funding, and I'm sure he will; I mean, I also hope when he makes said movies that nobody goes and he continues to lose money consistently, but his continuation of output is positively uplifting. Uwe Boll may be a horrible filmmaker, and an even worse human being, but he embodies what is great about America. That said, if you've never seen one of his movies, now's not the time to start.

"Postal" opens in four theaters in New York and Los Angeles this Friday.

I don't care...

...that there's bad buzz on it already (Wahlberg is rumored to give an awful performance). I don't even care that this looks like a big-budget remake of the awesome and underseen "The Signal." I still think this looks fairly cool.

Oh, and yes, I've seen "Indy." My review will be posted 12:01am on Thursday, making me officially the last internet writer to do so.

Friday, May 16, 2008

"Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian" -- * *

A little bit better filmmaking paired with less interesting content adds up to making "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian" just as bland and eye-glazing an experience as the first film was. The truth is I have never read any of C.S. Lewis's Christian allegory fantasy novels, so I have none of the attachments fans of the book may, and I enter as a lay man. So while I still am in disbelief that this is a movie people are "excited" for, considering how ho-hum it is, it delivers all the action, animals, fantasy and moralizing its target audience is likely anticipating. The technical elements present are still fairly solid, with pretty vistas/scenery, but they're unfortunately the most interesting thing on display. It's always a bad sign when a film bores me to the point of imagining characters from other movies wandering in; here, I kept thinking of the possibilities if Daniel Plainview were to show up and bludgeon a whimpering Price Caspian with a bowling pin.

To determine to what extent you should take my thoughts on "Prince Caspian" with a grain of salt, I think it's only fair to reveal how I felt about the first "Narnia" film. I don't hate it, not by any means; I think it has moments (most involving Tilda Swinton's White Witch), and at times is great to look at. But for the most part, I found it incredibly dull, leaden and heavy-handed. In a movie that purports to be about imagination and the magic of fantasy, yada yada yada, it never imparts those feelings, and always felt very wooden, lifeless and mechanized. I've given it second and third looks, to try to get all the fuss, but I just can't warm to it. I know that all the plot elements stemmed from the mind of C.S. Lewis, but so much of it smacked of a protracted silliness to me that, for instance, the "Lord of the Rings" films didn't have. Santa Claus delivering weapons? The Christ-like lion king who dwells in a big red and yellow tent? Look, I understand the folks who grew up on Lewis's books and were pleased with a film that adapted their childhood love faithfully/admirably. But the rest, those who went in cold and proclaimed the movie magical or enthralling, you just don't make sense to me.

Opening with screams of an excruciating childbirth, the first seven minutes or so of the movie center around an assassination attempt on the titular Prince (Ben Barnes). Caspian promptly flees into the forest on his horse and blows his magic horn, which summons back our kid protagonists, Lucy (Georgie Henley), Edmund (Skander Keynes), Susan (Anna Popplewell) and Peter (the statutory-riffic William Moseley) from their comfortable 1950s England. One year after their experiences in the last movie, the former Kings and Queens of Narnia discover that their single year has been 1,300 years in Narnia, and there's noticeably less adorable talking creatures running around. The four kids must help Caspian combat his wicked uncle King Miraz (Sergio Castellitto), and restore pride and glory to Narnia, with the help of a talking, sword-toting mouse Reepicheep (voiced by Eddie Izzard) and a red-bearded dwarf Trimpkin (Peter Dinklage, behind a lot of prosthetics). All the while, Lucy keeps seeing visions of beloved Jesus-lion, Aslan, but he ain't actually there-- or is he??

The prince is told by a wizard early on that "everything you know is about to change," and accordingly, those who haven't read the books may be taken aback that this feels like an entirely different type of movie than "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe;" the proceedings feel significantly darker, there's much more emphasis on battles and swords clanging than fantastical elements, and the first talking animal doesn't appear till the 26-minute mark (it's a badger, if you were curious). I liked the idea that Narnia has become (as Trumpkin says) "a more savage place than you may remember," but disappointingly, it doesn't make this installment any more interesting or involving than the last. Where the first film felt like a flavorless retread of other fantasy films we'd seen before, this one feels like a flavorless retread of sword and sandal movies we've seen before ("Gladiator" is invoked numerous times). With a plot filled with kings and sorcerers, and lots of horses galloping to intense music, my boredom had already settled in by the opening credits; it certainly doesn't help that it all runs a looooong 2 hours and 25 minutes. I know it's a repeated, oft-heard complaint, but these movies do feel like "Lord of the Rings" light (this one even has walking trees), and don't really carve out their identity or make the familiarity interesting.

The Christian stuff is ever-present again this time around; there's still obvious symbolism, overtones of the importance of faith and sacrifice, etc., and Jesus the lion once again utilizes his healing powers *SPOILER AHEAD* granting Reepicheep a new tail near the end. *SPOILER OVER* And while it may please that values-centric portion of the audience with its perpetual bloodlessness (even after penetrating a torso, no blood gets on Peter's sword), in no world should this be a PG movie. It's awfully scary at times and the violence on display-- including a decapitation-- is virtually non-stop. If anything, this serves as an example of the unfair leniency afforded big studio pictures by the MPAA. Perhaps to balance the violence out, though, we're given a villain, King Miraz, who is never a terribly imposing presence or a viable threat, and just comes off as kind of generic and weak. A villain should make an impression other than over-enunciating syllables ("I inn-tend to striiike bahhk!"), not be the least memorable element of a fantasy epic.

In comparison to the first movie, Adamson's direction is noticeably more refined (if still a bit cut-and-dry); things look crisper and the story flows a little more fluidly than the last time around. But some problems remain, some of which aren't necessarily Adamson's fault. Almost every "big" sequence or set-piece feels oddly self-contained and they all seem as if they could've been put in the movie in any order and not made much of a difference. Also, there needs to be some sort of studio-enforced mandate about slow motion shots in fantasy films; the utilization of slo-mo here is out of control, and only enhances the eye-rolling nature of moments that were cheesy to begin with (a charging-towards-the-camera screaming of "For Narnia!" will have some in giggle fits). Such sequences are not helped by Harry Gregson-Williams' score, which 75% of the time goes for bombast and over-emphasis than subtlety.

Doing their best to fill the void left by Swinton, and James McAvoy's Mr. Tumnus, and nearly succeeding, are Dinklage and Izzard, who give the movie some much-needed wit and "zing." I worried about Reepicheep, with his familiarity, and easy "adorable"-ness; his handling seems to intentionally invoke "Shrek 2's" Puss in Boots, even including a red feather behind his ear. However, Izzard-- who directors usually don't know what to do with when they get him in their movies-- makes the character one of the movie's bright spots, and actually made me laugh once or twice. Swinton's White Witch shows up about two-thirds of the way though, but I almost wish that she hadn't. Her 2.5 minute appearance (during which Swinton has maybe four lines of dialogue) only serves to remind you of the genuinely compelling menace this installment lacks, and she's a much-missed presence throughout the rest of the film.

Hottie Barnes (looking like a younger, more ravishing Timothy Olyphant) plays Caspian with a sincere conviction, even while hindered by a goofy accent seemingly inspired by "The Princess Bride's" Inigo Montoya. His dashing good looks paired with a steely-eyed nobility will have most audience members swooning and trolling their local Blockbuster for a copy of "Stardust." As for the kids themselves, they're just as blank as they were the last time around. They're rarely noticeably bad (though the pretty, effete Moseley strains to appear tough), but again, their inability to make these characters likeable or compelling keeps us from getting terribly involved.

For all its unremarkable elements, "Prince Caspian" is ultimately too bland to hate. I can't see anyone who disliked the first film experiencing a turnaround here, and for those who enjoyed the first film but haven't read the books, I could see them going either way. This one is on a grander scale, with a more "epic" feel and more stuff going on, but it abandons much of the "magic" for more conventional swords-clanging-together content. As someone who did not enjoy "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," I felt this one was about on par, a little bit worse in spots, a little bit better in others. It's an adequate follow-up, and considering the first film made $745 million worldwide, I'm sure that'll sit just fine with most "Narnia" fans.

Friday, May 09, 2008

"Speed Racer" -- * * *

Far from the disaster it had potential to be (though some will still make their case), "Speed Racer," the Wachowski Brothers' return to the directors' chair, is insanely entertaining, cheesy, whiz-bang fun for nearly all of its duration. The Wachowskis perfectly capture the tone and feel of the anime show on which its based, but the movie is most notable for the ground it breaks aesthetically. While some may find themselves inflicted with a headache or severe dizziness by the time closing credits hit, the movie is an undisputed visual feast that vaguely resembles being trapped inside a pinball machine for two hours. Letting you know what you're in for with a trippy swirl of colors preceding even the Warner Bros. logo, "Speed Racer" could best be described as a live-action Saturday morning cartoon, and it's a whole lot of fun, as long as you're willing to go with it.

Is the story particularly compelling? No. The thin plot is really besides the point here, but it works well enough. Like the television show, "Speed Racer" focuses on the retro-futuristic-world-set adventures of our titular hero (Emile Hirsch), an extremely talented, good-hearted racecar driver still numbing from the death of his brother, Rex, years ago. When Speed kindly rejects a lucrative offer from the maniacal Royalton (Roger Allam), the head of Royalton Industries, he also uncovers a secret that the company fixes races and manipulates top drivers to boost profits. Furious, Royalton vows Speed will never cross another finish line. With the help of his parents (John Goodman and Susan Sarandon) and his bowlcut-befitted girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci), Speed must collaborate with former rival, Racer X (a blank-but-effectively-stoic Matthew Fox) to defeat Royalton, rescue his family's business, and restore goodness to the sport he loves, all culminating in him competing in the race that took his brother's life, "The Crucible."

There's just no getting around the fact that this movie looks fucking amazing. It was first film to be completely shot with Sony's new F-23 HD Camera, and the Wachowskis seem to have wanted to utilize it to the extreme. The color palette is unlike anything I can recall in recent cinema, with an emphasis on day-glo bright blues, purples, yellows and reds (fuschia factors in greatly as well), but it's not just the look of things that impress, but the whole visual style. With superfast editing, and cameras and backgrounds that have a tendency to swirl around characters, it's as if the Wachowskis made a list of everything they wanted to attempt stylistically/technically and tried to include it in here. They also employ a confounding, yet oddly hypnotic, technique of utilizing close-ups of talking heads zipping across the screen, as if on a conveyor belt, as shot transitions. Infused with lots of trippy moments, and with nearly every scene being a visual marvel, the movie seems to almost encourage ADD; for much of the first hour, every time I tried to focus on what was going on, I couldn't help being distracted by how amazing everything looked. The cinematography by David Tattersall (who photographed the "Star Wars" prequels) is top-notch, and the insanely fun, jaunty score by Michael Giacchino, which occasionally incorporates the show's theme song, seems to never ever stop, and only enhances the enjoyably frenetic experience.

Aside from just the colors and filmmaking techniques, the look here is stylized to the extreme, with scarcely anything looking remotely real. Explosions, planes, etc., nothing vaguely resembles how such a thing would look in the real world; everything is intentionally slightly "off" (even Susan Sarandon's bosoms look somewhat inflated). Even simple images, such as static shots of people standing in a vista of green grass and bushes, are jaw-dropping to look at here, but the racing scenes are obviously the money shots, so to speak. Keeping with the overall tone, there's not a smidgen of attention paid to realism, with cars jumping high in the air, spinning around, and often coming equipped with weapons, hyper-hydraulics and wheels that can flip 180 degrees. We never feel like anyone is in legitimate danger, but the races are still inexplicably exciting (one on an icy speedway is particularly cool). The locations of said races are almost as distractingly impressive visually, with settings ranging from deserts to tropical islands. The flick reportedly cost between $100 and 120 million, but based on how fantastic everything looks, I can't believe the figure was actually that low. IMAX has to be the way to see this, and I would imagine it'd make for even more ideal high viewing than "Harold and Kumar."

Those who show up to "Speed Racer" only based on the Wachowski's past violent, R-rated works like "The Matrix" trilogy, "Bound" and "V for Vendetta" (which they wrote, but didn't direct) might find themselves scratching their heads at the candy-coated squeaky-cleanness on display here. The filmmakers have stayed remarkably true to their animated source material, right down to the look, tone, feel and dialogue. There's not a wink of self-referencing, irony, or nods to pop culture, and there's only the occasional, intentional flouncing of the show's G-rated nature (we get two uses of "ass," a "damn," one un-bleeped "shit" and a "retard"). The dialogue is, for the most part, cheesetastic to the extreme, with characters saying things like "hubba hubba," "holy moley" and "I'm so impossibly proud to be your mom." The flashes of humor are kept appropriately juvenile, and a late film interruption to warn of cooties will evoke laughs from the young'ns and nods of approval from fans of the show.

Still, while there may be an absence of irony and embrace of all things cheese-driven, the script has some very clever sly acknowledgments of the proceedings, without crossing the line into distracting self-awareness. After a particularly schmaltzy monologue about family, and racing being "like a religion," our villain responds, without missing a beat, "I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that sickening schmaltz," and there's a refreshingly anti-corporate message hammered home with lines like "This kind of company scares me" and "Major sponsors are like the devil" (never mind that the movie's being distributed by Time-Warner). But while the script is happy to keep the story thin and characters simple (though one character's decision near the very end is intriguing), there are frequent flashes of nutso-ness that keep things interesting. Though a seemingly inexplicable scene of vikings rubbing pelts on their faces confused me, Spritle and Chim-Chim's brief subtitled kung-fu sequence is inspired, as is their ride through the Royalton factory hopped up on candy to the strains of "Freebird" (quote from kid sitting behind me: "That was craaaaazy!"). And hey, any movie with a sequence of John Goodman singlehandedly wiping the floor with ninjas is alright with me.

The Wachowskis have assembled a very good cast, but performance-wise, there's not really much to talk about, honestly. All the actors do what they're supposed to do, but they're almost incidental. Hirsch is still looking Christopher McCandless gaunt, though a bit less rough and ragged than last we saw him; like everyone, he seems to have a plasticized sheen. Beyond that, there's not a lot to speak of; if he wanted a role to change the minds of people who think he's bland and overrated in the talent department, this won't be the character to do it. Sarandon and especially Goodman provide proper levels of warmth to their characters, while Allam is clearly having the most fun here as Royalton, just as over-the-top spittle-flying evil as he was in "V for Vendetta." Despite getting a racing scene of her own midway through, Ricci gets the least to do here of anyone, mostly just (literally) standing on the sidelines.

I've been reading through some of the pans of "Speed Racer," and the chief complaints have a tendency to be right on the money (All style and no substance? Check.) In his review, David Edelstein hilariously wrote, "The film is like a nightmare in which you’re trapped in an arcade with screens on all sides and no eyelids," and I can't necessarily disagree. That's clearly how some people are going to feel. The movie is exactly what it is, and you'll either find it hella-fun or hella-excruciating. I could easily see someone being worn out by what the Wachowskis are doing here, or feeling pounded into submission aesthetically. Personally, I was dazzled pretty much all the way through, prodded along with lots of "wow," but that's just me.

Noticeable, though, is the movie's length of 135 minutes; given the nature of the proceedings, this is a movie that probably would have been optimal running at 90. At its current running time, it IS unquestionably too long (there might be one too many pivotal races), but it thankfully doesn't drag, and never slips into "oh my God, it's still going" territory. When it ends, you'll likely leave the theater roused, not wearied. Content-wise, only two real issues come to mind. One is the Speed-Trixie romance that only serves to grind things to a halt, but it only takes up two scenes, if that. And, though it may be faithful to the series, that doesn't make much of the Spritle and Chim-Chim stuff any less irritating. Both characters have a tendency to mug non-stop, and occasionally lower the movie's brow a bit too much (Chim-Chim actually flings poo at one point).

Sometimes I'm good at forecasting these sort of things, but I have no idea at all how "Speed Racer's" going to do at the box office. Families could flock to it, or it could be a massive, money-losing bomb; wiser minds than I are already betting on the latter. It's ideal for kids, and those who can put themselves in that mindset, but it's likely to divide critics and adult audience members. But either way, it's remarkably successful at what it sets out to do, and I, for one, had a blast watching it. Whether its everyone's bag or not, no one could accuse this of being an assembly-line studio product, and it's a pleasure to see filmmakers like the Wachowskis taking genuine joy with their craft and clearly having fun with experimentation and breaking ground. Visually astounding for every second of its running time, "Speed Racer" is the ultimate filmic cotton candy, and I mean that in the best possible way.

"What Happens in Vegas" -- *

Sure, Tom Vaughn's "What Happens in Vegas" looked shitty from the trailers, but it seemingly also had the potential to be a kinda-fun, entertaining crowd-pleaser to serve as counter-programming to the flashy, expensive boys club of the early summer. But alas, it was not to be. Instead, making last week's "Made of Honor" seem like a cakewalk, it emerges as a really broad, dumb version of the brilliant "War of the Roses" that most succeeds at putting a bad flavor in your mouth. The thought process seems to have been to take two shrill, loud, annoying young stars, pair them together in a lame sitcom-level project and wait for the cash to pour in. The flick may, in fact, turn out to be a modest hit, but the adjectives that came to mind during it were "loud" and "shiny" more than "funny."

When Jack (Ashton Kutcher) is fired, and Joy (Cameron Diaz) is dumped, the two independently head to Vegas to forget their troubles, him with his best friend Hater (Rob Corddry), her with her Amanda Peet-clone friend Tipper (actually some girl named Lake Bell). When the two pairs are mistakenly given keys to the same hotel suite (which never, EVER happens outside of movies), Jack and Joy end up getting drunk and getting married. When they wake up the next morning, they mull over their hypothetical avenues of separation, when Jack wins $3 million dollars on a slot machine with Joy’s quarter (a plot point stolen from the underrated “Sour Grapes”). With the two arguing over how to split the money, a judge (Dennis Miller) sentences them to six months of “hard marriage” to try to work their relationship out before he will decide how to divide the money. Predictably, rather than trying to live amicably with each other reasonably for the six month period, the two try to one-up each other in making the other one miserable in a serious of mean-spirted, wacky shenanigans. As would naturally happen while two people are trying to inflict horribleness on each other, the two realize they like each other and start to fall in love.

While both leads are tremendously irritating, there is a silver lining in the fact that they're perfectly matched, so there is a modicum of chemistry. Both Diaz (so good in "Vanilla Sky," "In Her Shoes" and "Being John Malkovich") and Kutcher (so good in, er... "The Butterfly Effect"?) seem to be innately inclined to broadly overact, over-enunciating every syllable for maximum "comic" effect. As such, Jack and Joy come off as loud, annoying cartoons, and are never convincing as human beings. Diaz's appearance doesn't help matters; she's makeupped and sheened and bronzed to the point where she looks like a Muppet. While her broad comic acting in a sequence where she's supposed to be hopped up on an energy drink/powder during a business meeting is borderline-painful to watch, Kutcher narrowly wins the 'who's more irritating' contest by employing his "shouting everything like I'm delivering a punchline on 'That 70s Show'" style. Still, he fits more comfortably in his role, dumb yelling fratboy slacker, than she does in hers, uptight businesswoman, where she strains credibility. Fans of Kutcher and Diaz may enjoy themselves watching their antics on display here, but those of us who've found them tiresome time and time again will not be converted.

I had read an early positive review or two that said “What Happens in Vegas” had the feel of a 1930s screwball comedy. Bullshit. Sure, there’s non-stop physical/crude comedy, but it’s all tremendously stupid and bottom-of-the-barrel, placing an emphasis on ‘loud’ and ‘frantic.’ Aside from numerous gay and lesbian jokes, always the sign of a clever romantic comedy, we get characters named ‘Jack Hoff’ and ‘Dick Banger.’ Yeah. As for most of the other jokes, you almost can’t believe how incredibly dusty they are. OMG! His apartment’s messy! And stinky! It’s difficult to imagine anyone, no matter how lame-brained, finding jokes about men leaving the toilet seat up fresh or funny. With “Vegas,” we get our SECOND movie with a peeing-in-the-sink gag in the last two weeks. With all the broad physical humor, the movie still manages to never explore its madcap potential, and instead seems content with people yelling and getting hit by things. Though I should’ve been clued in by an early sequence of our four central characters shrieking, spraying mace while running around a hotel room running into things and falling down, my eyes only began to glaze over when Jack and Joy were racing through Central Park swinging baguettes at each other, tripping and falling down intermittently. If this all sounds appealing to you, have at it.

How loud and shrill the movie is would be less of a problem if everything wasn't so generic and by-the-numbers. There's not one original joke or emotion on display, and by the time we make it to the hackneyed, cheesy, lame "You bet on me" finale, you may want to punch someone. But through it all, the soundtrack clues you in to how lazily pieced-together this movie is, and how quickly it was rushed through the studio system (by-- who could've guessed it-- soulless, quality-less, money-grubbing 20th Century Fox). I was worried instantly, with Mika's hella-catchy "Grace Kelly" being used incongruously over the opening credits/sequence, in a desperate attempt to capture the flavor-of-the-week; it was only a matter of time before it got used in a shitty romantic comedy, I suppose. The movie also features predictable, lame uses of "We Are the Champions" and "What a Feeling," but it's not until JET's "Are You Gonna Be My Girl" kicks in that it confirms its status as the most generic soundtrack ever.

And then, of course, there's the sentimentality. In a film like "The Break-Up" (which "Vegas" only superficially resembles), the balance of comedy and drama worked because the characters felt grounded in reality, AND we kind of liked them. When Gary stood up Brooke at the Old 97s concert, our heart broke with her (or at least mine did). There was a familiarity there, and a genuine attempt to define those characters and those situations. Here, when these two obnoxious cartoon character assholes jarringly shift into 'I love you' and 'you've changed me' speeches that seem like they came straight out of a parody of harlequin romances, it's completely wretch-worthy. It only hammers home how little hack screenwriter Dana Fox (who also shit "The Wedding Date" out of her vagina three years ago) thinks of us as audience members. For the first half, it's clear that Fox is desperate for as many cheap and easy laughs as she can get; for the second half, she feels the need to follow the formulaic, sentimental path to avoid challenging the expectations of her audience, just in case she risks having them remember this movie by next week.

While the movie comes equipped with a fairly strong supporting cast, it wastes almost all of them, with only one (Corddry) actually rising to the level of ‘scene-stealing.’ Corddry plays his typical supporting role—“guy who makes lame-ass movie funnier”—while everyone else seems to just either be confounded about how to thrive in this swill, or had their funny scenes deleted. Dennis Farina, as Joy’s boss, and Treat Williams, as Jack’s dad, look happy to be cast in a major motion picture again, even with nothing to do. Queen Latifah, in three or four scenes as Jack and Joy’s marriage counselor, seems to just be wondering (and evoking the question from audiences) “What the fuck is Queen Latifah doing in this movie?” Meanwhile, Miller, the unfunniest Republican around, makes the most inexplicable film appearance by an HBO host since Bill Maher in “Tomcats.” Conversely, the filmmakers should be embarrassed to put the brilliant Zach Galifianakis in their movie and not give him anything funnier to do/say than “She is so effing hot!” A scene midway through that features Galifianakis, Corddry and Kutcher does nothing but provoke the question “Which one doesn’t belong?”

Reminiscent of other, better movies, "What Happens in Vegas" is a putrid waste of time no matter how you look at it. Tone-deaf with respect to its comic moments, and ham-handed in its dramatic ones, the one positive to emerge is that it's blissfully forgettable (I highly doubt this one will make it into even the most non-discriminating sorority girl's DVD collection). I've often thought about Kutcher and Diaz's career choices in a 'chicken or the egg' scenario; do they just pick bad projects, or do they make mediocre projects more irritating by starring in them? In the case of "Vegas," at least, both factors seem to be essential to its shittiness. Sometimes the presence of sincerity can compensate for the lack of originality (or vice versa), but there's not an ounce of either present here. This movie thinks you're dumb, and is banking on you proving it with your dollars this weekend.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

What You Should Be Seeing...

There are three films currently in limited release, slowly expanding around the country, that are probably the best things out there right now. Finals and end of semester/college activities have been fairly all-consuming, so I regrettably haven’t been able to get around to writing full, in-depth reviews for them, but I strongly recommend the following movies. When asked by someone ask of late what movie(s) they should go see, these three are the first titles out of my mouth:


A heartfelt, subtle film that functions as both a tremendously moving story of the possibilities implicit in basic human connection, and low-key tackling of our country’s ever-present immigration situation (in a much less nauseating, sentimental manner than “Under the Same Moon”), Thomas McCarthy’s follow-up to “The Station Agent” is really something special. It doesn’t hit you over the head with messages or bombastic emotion, but it always resonates as it tells the story of an introverted, buttoned-down writer/professor’s (Richard Jenkins) slowly evolving friendship with an immigrant couple he finds squatting in his Manhattan apartment. After years of playing scene-stealing bit parts, character actor Jenkins anchors this quietly compelling gem, and gives what is easily the best leading male performance so far this year. “The Visitor” is unquestionably a small film that doesn’t shoot for grand statements or widen its focus as it goes along, but it’s a rich character piece that really connects emotionally, and is the sort of film people complain we don’t get enough of.


I admit, I was resistant to this documentary purely on the basis of its gimmicky concept/trailer of adorable old people singing rock songs, but I wasn’t at all prepared for how touching, and rarely manipulative, the film itself is. The smile/chuckle moments are there (seeing a gaggle of geezers singing “I Wanna Be Sedated”), but this is ultimately a movie about a group of people who spend their remaining time learning various rock songs to challenge themselves and prove to everyone (not least of which themselves) they’re still alive, and won’t go quietly into the decrepitude of senility. Excelling in its human moments (e.g.: a friendship that develops between three seniors forced to carpool together) as much as in its stirring concert performances, I’d be remiss I didn’t also mention that this movie made me weep for about half its duration. I doubt you’ll see much more affecting moments in a movie this year than one of the group’s members (with breathing tubes coming out of his nose) singing a beautiful Johnny Cash-esque rendition of Coldplay’s “Fix You,” dedicated to two recently deceased chorus members.


Making a perfect companion piece with Michel Gondry’s “Be Kind Rewind,” Garth Jennings’ immensely charming, quirky ‘80s-set paean to filmmaking centers around two seemingly incongruous elementary school outcasts, quiet Will (Bill Milner) and delinquent Lee Carter (Will Poulter). Despite Will’s family’s deeply conservative religious forbidding television and film-watching, the two eventually collaborate on their own makeshift, homemade sequel to “First Blood;” the pair experience numerous complications along the way, chiefly the interference of too-hip-for-the-room French exchange student Didier (Jules Sitruk). By turns whimsical and sentimental, “Rambow” is more about the friendship between these boys and how they’re bonded through the filmmaking process than wacky “Rewind”-esque remake shenanigans, and that makes it more emotionally resonant than I was expecting (and it helps that both young leading actors are excellent). Coming equipped with an effectively oddball sense of humor, it’s probably not a movie for all tastes, but at the least, the last few minutes should put a lump in the throat of film aficionados and outcasts alike.