Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Only 67 Days Till "BHC"

Thursday, July 24, 2008

"Step Brothers"

Even if "Step Brothers" is the least of Adam McKay and Will Ferrell's three collaborations (it's preceded by "Anchorman" and "Talladega Nights"), it's also significantly funnier than about 85% of stupid comedies usually given to us and contains nary a scene where I didn't laugh at least once. Not all of it works -- I noticed quite a few more gags falling flat than in "Anchorman" or "Talladega" -- but fans of the Ferrell/McKay arsenal should be pleased as punch with the end result. It's a slightly darker, more free-form (not to mention significantly filthier) comedy than the previous films, and whether it's your cup 'o tea or not, one has to give the two comics credit for refusing to simply retread their past works, and continuing to have some of the weirder comedic sensibilities in mainstream filmmaking today. The movie tells the story of Brennan (Ferrell) and Dale (John C. Reilly), two 40-year-old unemployed infants who still live at home with their single parents. When Brennan's mom (Mary Steenburgen) and Dale's dad (Richard Jenkins) marry, the two tornadoes of immaturity become step brothers and are forced to live under the same roof. The two initially violently loathe each other, but when they start to realize how much they have in common and become friends, things somehow get even more problematic for everyone.

Sure, we get lots of broad stuff, and much of it isn't particularly envelope-pushing or subversive, but part of what makes "Step Brothers" stand apart from the pack is the two actors play Brennan and Dale as guys whose tendencies alternation between sociopathic and downright autistic. This is not simply Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly playing man-children yet again; these guys are fucked up. They don't administer noogies or have petty arguments; they attempt to bury each other alive and rub their testicles on the other's most prized possession. The fucked-up-ness doesn't stop with the boys; there's an early-on scene with Brennan's douchebag brother Derek (Adam Scott) leading his family in a car ride sing-a-long of "Sweet Child O' Mine" that's very funny at first, and escalates to a point where it goes on long enough to become downright disturbing. The "happy" conclusion we reach at the end of the film is a mixture of hilarious and horrifying, and I wouldn't have it any other way. The film is at its best in moments like this (watch for the virile lumberjack) when it revels in the absurdity that made "Anchorman" a hallmark film and gives in to its more bizarre impulses. Reilly and Ferrell have an unassailable chemistry that actually has me interested in seeing what they would do if paired together in a different kind of work. They can play these roles in their sleep, but it's a testament to them that they never do, and give in totally in completely to their characters' idiocy, joy and vitrol all at once. But while this is being billed as the Ferrell and Reilly show, nearly everyone in the supporting cast gets their moment.

Jenkins, hot off his fourth Oscar-worthy performance in "The Visitor," cuts loose with an increasingly manic performance, and single-handedly generates some of the funniest moments in the movie; his (apparently 100% improvised) "dinosaur" monologue near the end of the film is particularly great. Scott gets perhaps the biggest showcase he's had in a movie so far, and while seeming to be intentionally aping Tom Cruise's mannerisms, he turns Derek into a hilarious cretin you love to despise. However, the movie truly belongs to Kathryn Hahn as Derek's put-upon wife who's sexually reawakened after Dale punches her overbearing husband in the face. Currently appearing on Broadway in "Boeing-Boeing," Hahn is a fairly brilliant physical comedienne (her genuinely shocking moment with a urinal is priceless) and has a pitch-perfect delivery that takes the movie up a notch whenever she's on screen. On top of R-rated gags and inspired strangeness, the movie actually has some interesting things to say, about parenting and what value being "sucessful" or "normal" has, if you bother to look for them. But at the end of the day, this is just a blissfully stupid, deranged time at the movies that will make you laugh more often than not.

"American Teen"

Despite everyone flipping their shit over Nanette Burstein's documentary "American Teen" ever since it premiered at Sundance, I'm a bit torn about my own feelings on it. On the one hand, it's unquestionably entertaining; it's easy to connect to and get wrapped up with our five central teenage figures, and it presents an engaging narrative, hitting all the satisfying story beats a movie should. You will likely become attached to at least one of these kids, and you'll be thoroughly involved throughout the film; I know I wouldn't mind watching it again. My real problem with "American Teen" is that it was so obviously crafted to be a mainstream, accessible, generic, standard teen flick -- and thus, to make as much money as possible -- that it fails resoundingly as a documentary, and doesn't really attempt to offer any actual insight on the teenage experience. It's basically "The Hills" with less off-putting people. Starting out with the concept of finding real teens that fit into the "Breakfast Club" stereotypes of "The Geek," "The Jock," "The Princess," "The Rebel" and "The Heartthrob," Burnstein is so committed to sticking with this premise, that any elements threatening to make the characters/situations/ideas more complex than their brandings are pushed to the side.

From its airbrushing and shoving into the background of more interesting figures (e.g.: "The Rebel" Hannah's gay best friend) and issues (said friend's homosexuality in a small red-state town, the interplay between the social groups, genuine teenage concerns besides petty soap opera drama), the filmmakers frequently had opportunities to make a movie that really resonated, and instead opted for the most commercial route. The downplaying of more interesting content and the embracing of breakups, forced love stories and on-screen-displayed text-messages had me wondering, 'why bother even making a documentary at all?' Also, scenes were clearly, absolutely, no matter what anyone involved with the film says, staged. I'm sorry, but if a family situation is that the kid needs to get a basketball scholarship or join the Army, there is no way the dad is sitting the kid down and telling him that weeks before graduation. That is a conversation that certainly had been had numerous times way down the line (and the kid's blank reaction proves it) and was re-created for dramatic effect, and there's a half dozen more scenes in the film like it. Adolescence is a time in everyone's life that really deserves a decent documentary exploring it, and though thoroughly entertaining, "American Teen" seems far more interested in making its subjects fit into John Hughes cliche boxes than honestly documenting their emotions, interactions and concerns.

"American Teen" opens tomorrow July 25th in five theaters in New York and Los Angeles, and expands nationwide in August.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

"Boy A"

John Crowley's "Boy A" is the sort of uber-serious, high-minded drama that is going to engender more respect and solemn appreciation than outright enthusiasm. I was initially tempted to shrug it off due to the familiarity of its themes and occasional predilection toward the dramatically convenient/coincidental, but there's a unique power to the arc its title figure goes through that's stayed with me since I saw the film at the Tribeca Film Festival in April. The movie follows a young man, Jack ("Lions for Lambs's" Andrew Garfield), who's just been released from prison for a horrific crime he committed as a child. As he attempts to begin a new life, having missed out on all the experiences one has while growing up, Jack receives tremendous support from his parole officer (Peter Mullan) while finding himself unable to escape the society that condemned him for what he did as a boy. While the movie is almost punishingly (if effectively) dour, there are also moments of levity and quiet joy that resonate, and the performances by Garfield and Mullan are truly great. I don't really know why this is being released in the summer, because these are exactly the sort of performances that could engender awards support at year end, and thus motivate people to see the movie.

I'm still torn about the movie's structure, which intercuts the present-day narrative with flashbacks that slowly lead up to showing us what Jack did. I like what it's trying to do -- revealing the crime after we've gotten to know the guy, making us question whether a criminal's past or present is more important, and asking what we can forgive -- but it also comes off a wee bit like exploitation, leading up to the money shot of a disturbing act of violence. You'll notice moments of cliche and elements you recall from similarly-plotted pictures, but what carries you through it is the the feelings you have for Jack and Garfield's refusal to make him someone you're entirely comfortable with. We deeply sympathize with this guy, but we also pity him and occasionally, are unsettled by him. The places the story goes ultimately resonate, and it's capped with a hell of a haunting final shot that's stuck with me more than anything in the film. Some people are going to love "Boy A's" emotional power and moral complexity, while others may find it a bit too relentlessly moody -- for the "Mamma Mia" crowd this is not -- but even during its familiar beats, it's never less than absorbing, and has more than enough merits to recommend it.

"Boy A" opens tomorrow July 23rd exclusively at the Film Forum in New York, Friday July 25th at the Landmark Nuart in Los Angeles, and expands to select cities in early August.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

"Mamma Mia!"

The ABBA-filled musical "Mamma Mia!" is so monumentally easy to make fun of, it's hardly even fun anymore. As a regular patron of musical theatre, I found the show to be a tremendously off-putting hunk of kitsch that seemed to have burrowed its way into the hearts of post-menopausal woman and Japanese tourists everywhere. However, regardless of what you think of the source material, the movie version (like the show, directed by Phyllidia Lloyd) is inarguably bad. There are abrupt cuts, continuity errors, confused all-over-the-place direction, and laughably ridiculous moments that were actually added for the film (e.g.: a moment involving water gushing up through a crack in the ground). It just makes no sense for a rational, let alone cynical, person to like this movie... yet here I am, grappling with the fact that I kind of enjoyed myself watching it. Though I was alternating between genuinely being entertained and laughing at it, I had a goofy smile on my face for much of the movie, even amidst the eye rolls. But I admit I'm likely the exception to the rule. If you have a feeling you're going to hate this movie, you probably will.

Some silly movies require you to just accept them for what they are to be able to swallow them; but even those with just a modicum of cynicism and/or good taste will have trouble getting through "Mamma Mia!" without wincing a bit. It's cheese-tastic and kitschy to an extreme that you can't even imagine, and takes at least 15 minutes to get used to. I'm glad I saw the movie -- it was a fun way to spend two hours -- but I was cringing or watching through my fingers for at least half of it. Like the show, the plot is thin as shit, and exists purely to hang 20 ABBA songs on that barely have anything to do with what's going on in the story at any given point. In fact, I wish they'd dispensed with the dialogue between musical numbers altogether, as they add an unnecessary 25 minutes or so to the proceedings, and are the only times when the movie drags. Technically, the movie's a disgrace. The cinematography practically burn your retinas; Everything's so bright, shiny and everyone's caked in makeup and shot in the most flattering light possible (I didn't detect a wrinkle on anyone). The bountiful energy showcased by the cast always feels a bit forced, but everyone involved seems to have had a blast making the movie (except for maybe poor Stellan Skarsgard), and they're really the reason why you'll enjoy yourself -- if you do.

Weirdly enough, "The Dark Knight's" fight sequences seem to have been given more attention to choreography than this musical; the "dancing" here is entirely composed of people waving their arms in the air. Christine Baranski's rendition of "Does Your Mother Know" and Julie Walters' "Take a Chance on Me" are among the movie's highlights, and anytime Meryl Streep opened her mouth, I stopped rolling my eyes and was smitten. That's how brilliant she is as an actress -- she can make even this bullshit seem credible. I was convinced The Streep was having a genuinely good time, but then again, she could convince me of anything. She could have played Pierce Brosnan's character and likely have pulled it off. Speaking of Brosnan, the less said about his singing, the better, but I almost admire a guy with that awful of a voice putting it out there for all to hear. When he sings, the movie turns into a weird style of torture porn, but things get back into the swing of things when the ladies take center stage, and particularly during the delightful curtain-call closing credits. Like "Xanadu," "Mamma Mia!" is impossible to take seriously on any level, and functions better as airheaded, escapist entertainment than anything resembling decent moviemaking. It's all infectiously insufferable, off-putting you as you tap your foot to the beat.

Friday, July 18, 2008

"The Dark Knight"

For the past three weeks or so, not a day's gone by without a new review being broken lavishing "The Dark Knight" with ejaculatory praise, each review seemingly topping the last in superlatives. Seriously, I've been awaiting with bated breath the review that swears this movie cures cancer just by watching it. So, with all this garish enthusiasm and bar-raising of anticipation, it's no small feat that "The Dark Knight" even met my expectations, if not quite exceeding them. In all honesty, enough has been written about the film that further critique almost seems redundant (I wore out my interest in reading yet another identical rave review days ago). Anything that needs to be known about the film is already known by anyone who gives a shit, so I'll just give my take on what's already been said. Is it the best superhero movie ever made? Yeah, probably, though that's almost beside the point. I'm not sure yet if for good or for ill, but this movie's going to alter the reception/expectation of future superhero movies.

Is it too dark? Abso-fucking-lutely not. Christopher Nolan's made a movie that takes this superhero framework we're used to and not only plays it straight, but mines it for all the emotional and moral complexity it's worth. I found it compelling as hell, and if there wasn't a man in a cape running around, this would hardly be considered summer fare. As for reviews that said the removal of levity saps out the fun along with it, they're right, to a point; this movie isn't "fun" -- it's too disconcerting -- but it's insanely entertaining. Sure, you'll be nervous and/or upset here or there, but you're never less than gripped, and always feel like you're getting a hearty amount of thrills and enjoyment for your buck. The PG-13? Fucking ridiculous. This movie is disturbing, unrelentingly (and realistically) violent, and the Two-Face makeup alone should've earned this an R. The running time? The movie feels long, sure, but it's the sort of long feel that actually worked for the movie since there's so much going on; it adds a soak-it-all-in, epic-ness to it all that I really dug, and doesn't resemble bloat.

Heath Ledger, as advertised, is truly phenomenal here. He's alternately funny and terrifying -- and I'm not using that adjective lightly -- adding a surprising amount of complexity, and making everyone simultaneously giddy and nervous whenever he's on screen. It's a performance that completely lives up to what you've heard. The Oscar talk is dead-on; while the Academy would never even consider rewarding this sort of performance/film if Ledger was alive, whatever the reason is, I'll be thoroughly pleased when he gets the nomination. Aaron Eckhart is going to be the unsung hero of this movie, but he's terrific in an incredibly tricky part that's destined to be overshadowed by The Joker. There's been a lot of talk about Nolan's inability to competently shoot action sequences, but I didn't find that to be the case.... or maybe I just didn't notice. If anything, that's the triumph of what Nolan's done to this series/genre: he's wrapped us up in the ideas at work, that the action is incidental.

Monday, July 14, 2008

"The Wackness"

Writer/director Jonathan Levine throws a pot dealer angle and an early '90s setting onto a fairly standard coming-of-age story with "The Wackness" and, somewhat surprisingly, it's enough to make the movie not feel completely familiar. In fact, the film is more absorbing than it has any right to be and while it doesn't totally succeed, it's never less than entertaining, alternating between genuinely funny shtick and emotionally resonant observations. Centering around recent high school graduate and virgin Luke (Josh Peck), the movie follows his pot dealing and eventual friendship with psychiatrist Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley), and shaky romance with Squires' stepdaughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby). I liked what Levine was trying to say here about life's disappointments and shortcomings, and both the rap soundtrack and '90s nostalgia (with one exception, a forced bit about Zima) work really well, and add another layer of definition to the proceedings. Kingsley, while never, ever, ever, sounding like a convincing New Yorker, is having fun here for the first time in a very long while, and he's a surprising joy to watch. My one real issue with the film -- which limited me to muted enthusiasm rather than full-fledged recommendation -- is that I just couldn't, on any level, give a shit about its main character. He's a fine enough character to spend 95 minutes with (Peck didn't particularly annoy me), but we're never given any reason why should like him or care about him, or find him interesting for that matter. It's tough to build an emotional connection with a mildly unlikable blank slate, so when the film ended, I left satisfied more with what the movie and its director had done than anything Luke did.

"Meet Dave"

Prior to seeing "Meet Dave," a handful of critic friends of mine had told me that it was decidedly not good but better than the abysmal trailers indicated. While I see what they mean -- there are brief flashes of almost-funny here -- this latest in a long line of shitty Eddie Murphy vehicles is still nowhere near watchable. Casting Murphy in the dual role of a human spaceship (the movie originally had the much better title "Starship Dave") and the captain of a group of miniature aliens inhabiting him, the movie isn't torturous to sit through but it's altogether bland and feels like a second-rate sitcom that happened to net Eddie Murphy for its star. The movie attempts to have some moments dealing with how exposure to our society might have on these aliens, but instead we get the lesson that 30 seconds watching the revival of "A Chorus Line" will result in you turning into a full-blown queen with a lisp and a keen eye for hair and fashion. Ed Helms get some minor smirk-worthy bits as the captain's second in command, but he's the closest thing here to a bright spot. While this is nowhere near as bad as "Norbit,"something as truly awful as that monstrosity is easier to sit through than something like this, which is barely even trying and never rises above (or below) a vaguely unmemorable hum.

Friday, July 11, 2008

"Hellboy II: The Golden Army"

"Pan's Labyrinth" (my favorite film of 2006) alerted the world to what many of us have known for years, which is that Guillermo Del Toro is one of the most simultaneously visionary and joyful filmmakers working today. Though he alternates between more somber, unique, personal films (such as "Pan's," "The Devil's Backbone," "Cronos") and hyperkinetic, big-budget Hollywood action fare ("Blade II," "Hellboy," "Mimic"), regardless of which he's making, it's guaranteed to be strange, wildly creative and monsters will somehow be involved. The fact that "Hellboy II: The Golden Army" even exists is proof of his determination and integrity as a filmmaker; The first "Hellboy" hardly set the box office on fire, nor did it seem to develop a cult following. Certainly, no studio had any incentive to want to make a sequel, but Del Toro felt he had more to say and do with the character. Taking advantage of his recently-earned clout from "Pan's," he got this sequel made, and as such, it's a superhero movie/creature feature with genuine feeling and emotion -- the perfect balance of his two core sensibilities.

Hellboy (Ron Perlman) has always been an unconventional hero in every possible sense (his catchphrase is "Oh, crap"), and here, Del Toro gets a lot of mileage out of the character's almost-pathetic need to be liked by the public, and his sincere contemplation on whether humanity really deserves to be saved. When he's not battling giant fauna monsters or little "tooth fairies" that latch onto you and eat away at your teeth, bone and flesh, he's working out serious personal issues with amphibious Abe Sabien (Doug Jones) and his fiery main squeeze Liz (Selma Blair). There's much metaphysics, introspection and contemplation going on here, but Del Toro never misses opportunities for affectionately funny character moments. Where the first film had a considerable sense of humor, this installment is practically an outright comedy, and unlikely enough, the balance between the humor and the action completely works. The best sequences combine the two elements, like the soon-to-be-infamous Troll Market scene, with a different grotesque creature seemingly lurking in nearly every part of the frame.

Like the first film, the narrative thread holding everything together is noticeably shaky. The action scenes, while uniformly spectacular, are largely standalone set-pieces and don't really unfold organically. But this criticism is merely an afterthought; while the movie's going on, you're too caught up in the dazzling imagery (such as an angel of death with a dozen eyes adorning its wings), boundless creativity, good-natured humor and troubling moral complexity. Whereas even the more-admired of recent superhero fare has been fairly glib and simplistic, this is a movie made with a geek's sensibility and the sense of wonder and enthusiasm should be infectious to all but the most slack-jawed audience members (I heard a "That shit wuz stupid" on the way out). Del Toro has staged numerous things here that I never thought I'd see in a movie (Hellboy and Abe drunkenly singing along to Barry Manilow's "Can't Smile Without You" comes to mind), and it's hard to be anything besides appreciative. What general audiences will make of it, I don't know/care, but it's the sort of tremendously entertaining, unrelentingly strange popcorn flick you could watch multiple times and still be wowed by.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

"Journey to the Center of the Earth"

Eric Brevig's dopey, uninspired "Journey to the Center of the Earth," the first movie to be shot in Digital 3-D for Digital Projection, is the sort of movie that makes me feel like a grumpy old spoilsport. It's so dumb, high-energy and eager to offer cheap thrills that critics are inexplicably largely giving it a pass, and I desperately wanted to jump on board. I longed to be one of those joyful children-at-heart audience members who could just leave the theater saying "It was fun! That fish jumped out at me!" But, I'm sorry, so much needs to overlooked and excused to proclaim this any sort of worthwhile entertainment. Treacly sentiment disguised as character/plot definition only serves to eat up chunks of running time, while Brendan Fraser gives his umpteenth paycheck-grabbing, mugging-filled performance, cementing him as one of the top actors of our time who truly needs to go away. The 3-D is fun at times, sure, but not nearly enough to sustain an 85-minute running time, and never coming close to numerous other 3-D movie experiences to be released over the last year.

Using Jules Verne's novel of the same name as a jumping off point (this is most definitively NOT an adaptation), the movie follows the adventures of professor Trevor Anderson (Fraser), his little snot teenage nephew Sean (Josh Hutcherson), and mountain guide Hannah (Anita Briem) as they travel miles into the Earth for scientific exploration. It's really just lots of typical "adventure" set-piece scenarios pieced together with a "we all miss this dead guy" (Trevor's brother and Sean's dad) vibe hanging over everything. There's a T. Rex, carnivorous plants, magnetic rocks, giant mushrooms and a bottomless pit. Oh, and jumping piranhas and beautiful giant fauna.

The movie showcases the old-fashioned/lazy kind of 3-D (i.e.: just throwing things in the audience's direction), and while the results aren't the least bit inspired, they're easily the most entertaining part of the movie. Still, while some will let it slide due to the 3-D sheen, anyone paying attention won't be able to ignore that the effects themselves truly suck (watch for that T.Rex); best to focus on the gimmicky shenanigans. We get Fraser spitting out mouthwash onto us and an "ewwww"-invoking bit with T. Rex drool on the lower end of the spectrum, where a quick yo-yo moment is fairly cool, and a sequence with jumping fish scared the crap out of everyone in my audience. When things are flying at the camera, it's a fun experience for those who are especially young and/or stoned, but even they're likely to be bored by the filler. I jumped and/or smiled approximately four times, but even in its more 'thrill ride' moments, I just couldn't bring myself down to its level, and I'd imagine most over the age of ten will feel the same way.

For a film utilizing 3-D technology, the script here just barely reaches two dimensions, let alone three. Brevig has said in interviews that he wanted to make the film about more than just the visuals, and create genuine emotion and characters we could connect to, but I wish he just stuck with the cheap visual gimmicks; it still wouldn't be a good movie, but it'd be easier to recommend. Brevig offers us mawkish subplots, a backstory about Hutcherson's dead dad, swelling music and group hugs, but it all seems like it's done out of necessity to try to elevate the intrinsically B-movie material. Despite attempts, there's no real character development and we don't ever buy their relationships; Fraser and Briem climactically kiss at the end of the movie because he's the lead and she's a pretty lady, not because we've seen any sort of chemistry or connection develop between them.

While it's best to ignore logic in this sort of fare, my mouth was often agape at how fucking stupid some of the writing is here. The plot is predicated upon the idea that there are people who believe Jules Verne's writings as fact ("Vernians"), and everything -- from plot elements to performances -- is clearly pitched at those in the audience whose brains haven't fully developed yet. Fraser behaves as if he's a cartoon character the whole movie, and when faced with a carnivorous plant he... punches it. I won't dwell upon the concepts of a character getting cell phone reception in the center of the earth, or Trevor having dreams he's not in, but they don't help matters. But when at a loss for dialogue, the three writers just conveniently plugged in product placement; early on, there's mention of Mountain Dew, TiVo and "Family Guy" all in one line of dialogue.

"Journey to the Center of the Earth" was screened for all press in its 3-D format -- and thus, every review you read will be of the 3-D version -- but it's my understanding that about two-thirds of the theaters playing the film will be showing the 2-D version (most theaters are not yet equipped with Real-D 3-D). As a 3-D movie, you probably shouldn't see it; it's subpar, if watchable. As a 2-D movie, I can only imagine it'd be one of the more excruciating sits of the summer. While the 3-D "Beowulf" was unquestionably the way to see that film, the 2-D version was still a solid entertainment. The movie worked through and through, the 3-D only made it more exciting, visually stunning and enhanced the experience. Here, the only selling point is things flying at the camera, so I can't imagine who would enjoy it in 2-D. The movie is kind of pretty to look at, and fun to an extent (if inarguably for small children), but as a whole, it barely holds together as a movie. The experience most closely resembles a bloated, mawkish Epcot Center ride with lower production values.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Wow, more than halfway done.

So, we're about a week past the halfway point of 2008, and so far, the year's been a bit weak. Oh, we've had some strong stuff for certain, but it looks like this year's going to be especially weighted on the latter end. Ahead, we have new films from Christopher Nolan, Adam McKay, The Coen Brothers, David Fincher, Baz Luhrrman, Oliver Stone, Gus van Sant, Charlie Kaufman, Rian Johnson, Larry Charles, Kevin Smith, Fernando Meirelles, Alan Ball and Sam Mendes, so needless to say, I'm excited. Anyway, we've only had a handful of great films this year, but more than a few worth watching. Very, very few of these movies will likely make it on my end of the year list, but so far, at this halfway point, here are my favorite films of 2008:

1. "WALL·E "

2. "In Bruges"

3. "The Fall"

4. "Shine a Light"

5. "The Visitor"

6. "Cloverfield"

7. "Reprise"

8. "Young @ Heart"

9. "Be Kind Rewind"

10. "Stop-Loss"

11. "Son of Rambow"

12. "Forgetting Sarah Marshall"

13. "The Ruins"

14. "Standard Operating Procedure"

15. "Paranoid Park"

16. "Speed Racer"
17. "Kung Fu Panda"
18. "The Signal"
19. "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day"
20. "The Foot Fist Way"
21. "The Promotion"
22. "Roman De Gare"
23. "How She Move"
24. "Teeth"
25. "Leatherheads"

- Hiam Abbass, "The Visitor"
- Kate Beckinsale, "Snow Angels"
- Russell Brand, "Forgetting Sarah Marshall"
- Thomas Haden Church, "Smart People"
- Patricia Clarkson, "Married Life"
- Chris Cooper, "Married Life"
- Robert Downey, Jr., "Charlie Bartlett"
- Robert Downey, Jr., "Iron Man"
- Colin Farrell, "Cassandra's Dream"
- Colin Farrell, "In Bruges"
- Ralph Fiennes, "In Bruges"
- Brendan Gleeson, "In Bruges"
- Richard Jenkins, "The Visitor"
- Danny McBride, "The Foot Fist Way"
- Frances McDormand, "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day"
- Bill Milner, "Son of Rambow"
- Julianne Moore, "Savage Grace"
- Will Poulter, "Son of Rambow"
- Stephen Rea, "Stuck"
- Sam Rockwell, "Snow Angels"
- Catinca Untaru, "The Fall"
- Naomi Watts, "Funny Games"

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

"Hancock" -- * *

Like most misfires of this summer movie season, Peter Berg's "Hancock" begins with a great idea. Imagine if Superman or Spider-Man resented the fact that they were just expected to be super all the time, use their powers for good and go around saving people. What if they hated humanity, themselves most of all, and preferred to spend their days laying around getting super drunk. Will Smith's superhero movie smartly uses this concept as its jumping off point, and when "Hancock" is being the film it promises to be (i.e.: its first half hour), it works, and has audiences in the palm of its hand. From that point on though, it gets progressively worse, suffering from abrupt tonal shifts, a crippling aimlessness, alternating between head-hurting exposition, adolescent-targeting slapstick and jarring sentimentality. It's rare that I think a movie would've been better had it played it safer, but had "Hancock" stayed within its unique premise, it could've been something special. As it stands, it ends up just being a handful of numerous vaguely interesting ideas swimming around in a mess of a movie that never figures out what to do with them.

The movie opens with a high-speed, gun-equipped freeway chase being dealt with by police. Cut to our "hero" Hancock (Smith) asleep on a bench. Alerted to the situation by a little kid who calls him an "asshole," Hancock -- drunk in the middle of the day -- grudgingly launches off and flies to the scene of the crime, killing some seagulls and almost knocking out a plane in the process. At the end of the day, he takes out the bad guys (they make the mistake of shooting his liquor bottle), but only after causing $9 million in damage, continuing his public perception of being an asshole. He doesn't give a shit what people think, and certainly doesn't care about being nice; he tells an old lady who looks his way in a bar, "I will break my foot off in your ass, woman." But he's just misunderstood, you see. He has a cloudy past that he occasionally gets misty over; something to do with two ticket stubs for "Frankenstein" he keeps hidden away. One day, when he saves the life of nice guy publicist Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman), dubbed "The Bono of PR," Embrey offers to, in return, help Hancock clean up his imagine. Ray's bitchy wife Mary (Charlize Theron), who dislikes Hancock for some reason, thinks he's wasting his time, but Hancock soon falls in line, even reluctantly agreeing to willingly go to jail when a warrant is issued for his arrest (and he's condemned by Nancy Grace). He sits in jail for a bit, till the chief of police needs him, and then... well, then the movie kind of rambles around a bunch. The key here would have been to stretch out these first 45 minutes to a feature length running time. Nothing really significant happens. We get a really non-threatening bad guy who is in a total of three scenes. We get a twist. Then the movie turns into a drama. Then it ends, and everyone walks out scratching their heads, wondering what happened to that movie they started watching.

The opening 30 minutes do a great job giving us an idea of seemingly what kind of movie this is going to be and who Hancock is. It shows our protagonist in action, saving people, pissing people off, being rude, meeting Ray and setting the story in motion. It's filled with effective action (there's even more train destruction than the third act of "Wanted") and is consistently funny. For a PG-13 family-targeting Will Smith superhero movie opening on July 4th weekend, it's surprisingly, refreshingly not afraid to be naughty, using its one "fuck" in the first few minutes in a particularly hilarious, rude one-liner. There are moments that are funny in and of themselves, but they also establish what a jerk Hancock is (in response to a woman's complaint, "I can smell the alcohol on your breath," he responds "Cuz I've been drinkin', bitch!"). The plot starts moving fairly quickly, as Hancock's already in jail and being trained to say "good job" to the law enforcement officials he shows up to help by the half-hour mark. This first act fulfills on the promise of the film's concept, cast and filmmmaker, and had me thinking it was on track to be a well-made, crowd-pleasing, clever, original movie. Sure, it could accurately be summed up by "Will Smith curses and destroys stuff" but it's a lot of fun, and lets us know right away that this is going to be a more innovative and edgy summer blockbuster than most.

Around minute 30 (once Hancock is in jail), the comedy starts to get alternately more sitcom-like and significantly dumber. I found it kind of distractingly implausible that people would keep taunting and picking fights with someone they know has superpowers, but hey, the studio needed a 'Will Smith beats up people funny' moment.Things were fairly broad from the outset, but once we have our hero following through on his promise to shove one convict's head up another's ass, we've officially entered Mike Myers/Adam Sandler territory, and it just doesn't fit with what's come before it; to top it off, the "Sanford and Son" theme song inexplicably kicks in (perhaps to underline how shuck-and-jive pandering the scene is). Still, while I hated that specific sequence, the way my audience responded, you'd have thought Jesus Christ and Tyler Perry had collaborated and told them the funniest joke in the world. So, at the 60-minute mark or so, while the quality-level had come down a bit, I thought "Hancock" would be more than just a hit, but a huge blockbuster and have killer word-of-mouth. It may have been compromised, but it was still for all intents and purposes, a comedy. But while this middle portion burns up only some of its good will, the third act takes care of the rest of it.

At about this two-thirds mark, you start to realize, "Hey, nothing's really happened, and there hasn't been any real conflict." At this point the movie completely goes off the rails, shoe-horning in a half-assed villain, focusing almost entirely on Hancock's convoluted origin and mythology of "his kind," and becoming this really odd, sentimental drama. In theory, I'm okay with shifts in tone if they work for the movie, or are the result of some sort of progression. I don't need my movies to be tidy and fit neatly into a box, but a tonal shift could've been pulled off without feeling so strained, so abrupt, so flat, so what-the-fuck. The scenes that flounder here would be bad in any context, not just in contrast to what comes before them. Hancock's backstory/mythology/origin is extremely confusing, vague and silly all at once, and things start to go seriously awry during an out-of-place, special effects heavy, property-destroying fight between two characters. Without giving too much away, the final portion shares much in common with the third act of "Superman Returns" (i.e.: Superman in hospital bed) and do you remember that being a part of the movie people were happy with? It's all very stark and serious and laughably sentimental, leading into a jaw-droppingly happy ending that'll have most people wondering "How did we get here?" Walking out of the theater, I momentarily had the mindset that I had hated the movie, until I remembered how much I was enjoying it a mere hour ago.

There's a reason Smith is the biggest star in America right now, and that's because he seemingly respects his audience enough to never phone it in, and makes movies where he gets to radiate charisma, likability and skills. Despite him playing "unlikable," he's charming even as an asshole, and makes this hodgepodge work as well as it does (which has me shuddering to think how it would fare without him). He manages to be convincing both as a superhero and as a drunk who takes a whiskey bottle to the bathroom, and regardless of how the movie's received by the public, his Hollywood star cred shouldn't take any sort of hit from it. As for the other leads, "Arrested Development" geeks like myself will be giggling throughout, as "Hancock" gives us the reunion of Michael Bluth (Bateman) and retarded Rita (Theron). It's a terrific showcase for Bateman, giving him the opportunity to do his effortlessly funny thing (he tells Hancock, "It's not a crime to be an asshole, but it's very counter-productive") and weirdly, he has the most fleshed-out character. He does some great work here, and should prove to the Hollywood powers that be that he can anchor his own movie again. Theron's fine, but she's fairly bland here. For a special-effects-heavy, brainless piece of entertainment, she doesn't seem to be enjoying herself at any point. However, until she slathers on some hooker-looking makeup for the last third, I think this is the best she's ever looked in a movie.

Berg's been a director I've always liked a whole lot, and the concept here, at the outset, seems to mesh well with his former films, while allowing him to work on a much grander scale (a career trajectory not unlike Jon Favreau). From his underrated poisonous gem "Very Bad Things" to the best sports film of at least the last ten years, "Friday Night Lights" to last year's "The Kingdom," Berg's shown narrative and stylistic growth as a filmmaker each time out, and I hoped "Hancock" would continue the pattern. But while Berg does some interesting things here, his approach seems to clash with some of the content on display here, and overall (especially the stuff that seems to be the result of studio-mandated re-writes, re-shoots, etc.), it seems to go against his core impulses as a filmmaker -- notably, that smiley-face ending. He infuses the film with his Mann-protege director style, including his trademark "shakey cam," which occasionally boldly and effectively gives the movie an aesthetic superhero films normally wouldn't dare brandish, but at other times, verges on unnecessary and annoying (e.g.: randomly drawing attention to itself during a dinner table scene).

There's a story turn that bears heavily on the third act, which the ads have gone out of their way to avoid (almost no footage from the last half hour has made its way into the promotional materials), yet everyone involved with the movie has been making sure to hint at whenever they make a television appearance. It's being held as a "twist" and I won't reveal the nature, but I found it to be so incredibly telegraphed that it should barely count as such. On top of you knowing that an Oscar-winning actress of Charlize Theron's stature would never take a simple housewife role where she just stands in the background the whole movie, she gives Hancock a knowing look in literally every scene she shares with him that clearly says, "We have some sort of past history that will come into play at the two-thirds mark." When, sure enough, it does come into play, it's tough to greet it with any sort of surprise. In this kind of movie, it didn't matter to me that the twist is kind of silly -- it's fine -- but the movie employs it in perhaps the most uninteresting way possible.

I would recommend studio executives and filmmakers go see "Hancock" to see the ultimate example of why staking a claim on a release date before a movie's even been shot has potential to destroy that movie. Based on the long-gestating, supposedly brilliant screenplay "Tonight, He Comes," the script here by Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan (writer of the truly awful "Home Fries") was rushed into production once Will Smith became attached, and I'm convinced the committed-to release date of July 2nd, 2008 is almost entirely the cause of the mess we ended up with. This thing was reportedly re-written and re-written and shot and re-shot a dozen times over (supposedly, a reshoot of the ending took place just a few weeks ago), and it shows all over the screen. The movie never finds its footing in what it wants to be, changing its intentions from scene-to-scene. It's blatantly evident that it's been edited to death (a "super ejaculate" sequence much-discussed in numerous test screening reviews is nowhere to be found), with subplots and backstories missing entire chunks, and the whole affair running a meager 85 minutes. There were varied reports of different versions/scenes being tested and shot a handful of times over the last couple months, and that sort of haphazard, rushed re-tooling is just not the way to get a decent finished product.

It's a fascinating, and dispiriting, experience to watch a movie self-destruct before your eyes, but that's exactly what happens here. "Hancock" is ambitious and original enough to stand out in a summer full of sequels and franchises, and manages to never be boring; however, by the last third, you're watching it through your fingers. No matter how great your love for Will Smith, it's tough to ignore how intensely the air seeps out of the movie by the time the credits roll. Not that it should matter much; Smith is such a huge, unstoppable star, that no matter what reception it receives, "Hancock" is virtually guaranteed at least a $200 million gross. It'll have a huge opening weekend for sure, but it'll be interesting to see how it holds up in the following weeks. Who knows, I might be an idiot -- my friends at the screening all seemed mildly positive, and the audience clapped at the end -- but I think the movie's going to lose people as it goes on, or at least, diminish their enthusiasm; it tries to be all things to all people, but as a result, might have the opposite effect. Personally, I'm curious to see the version that Smith and Berg signed on to make, but sadly, we'll never have that opportunity.

"Kit Kittredge: An American Girl" -- * 1/2

Not only did I borderline-hate "Kit Kittredge: An American Girl," I'm flat-out disgusted with the critical community that is largely giving it a pass. Look at some of the review pull-quotes from Rotten Tomatoes: "While the script feels a little stiff and moralistic at times, it's hard to fault a film with such an intelligent, good-hearted heroine." Am I the only one who feels nauseous? This is the type of fare critics are supposed to encourage; it says and does all the right things. It's extremely sweet, innocent and has positive messages for young girls and moral values up the wazoo. It's so wholesome, I was shocked that it dared to feature a character saying "Holy cow" at one point. However, it's also so earnest, unrelentingly dull and devoid of entertainment, it's virtually impossible to sap any enjoyment out of it (and believe me, I was trying). It's as if the filmmakers assembled a bunch of Hollywood actors to be in the most gosh-durn, swellest, positive values film for young girls growing up in the 1950s. Those who found "WALL-E" too clever, too filled with ideas, and just too damned entertaining will have a ball here, but anyone else will likely find difficulty being engaged by "Dry Toast: The Movie."

Opening on May 2, 1934, our movie centers around 10-year-old middle-class Kit (Abigail Breslin), an aspiring reporter, and her various whimsical shenanigans. There's lots of talk about the depression, hobos, soup kitchens, saving leftovers and financial support. Kids at her school taunt and laugh at the poorer kids, since you know how caught up elementary schoolers can be with other kids' families' economic statuses. Most of the movie's "plot" has to do with what happens after Kit sees her dad at a soup kitchen and mom has to sell eggs and take in boarders (including Joan Cusack, Stanley Tucci and Jane Krakowski). All the while, Kit befriends two young kindly hobos, whom everyone tells her is bad news. When one of them (adorably homeless teenage ragamuffin Max Thierot) is accused of a series of crimes, it's up to Kit to prove what she knows in her heart, solve the case and show everyone the truth. Life lessons are learned.

Some friends have shrugged off my dislike for this film by saying I'm not its prime demographic, but fuck that logic. Fuck it right in the ear. I dig chick flicks, kiddie movies, Afro-centric fare, the list goes on. I like all sorts of films, and as long as a movie works on its own terms, I'll enjoy it. I don't believe in grading movies for certain demos besides myself "on a curve," and I can't imagine 8-year-old girls being any less bored by this than I was. This is insulting pap for audiences of any age, and I may not be a girl, but I know when I was a wee one, I didn't like being talked down to, nor did I like being bored into a stupor. Apparently these 'American Girl' dolls and books are huge and I'm just oblivious, but their love for a doll should hardly be able to get them through this Depression-era package of bland earnestness.

For such a pandering, flavorless cash-grab, "Kit Kittredge" has a surprisingly strong cast, none of whom do anything resembling work they'd be proud of. Breslin fares the best, since she merely continues playing her 'upbeat-yet-weepy girl' archetype she plays in every movie, and does fine. The problems with the character aren't really her fault; besides her wig being distractingly terrible, Kit is supposed to be this incredibly intelligent, adult-acting young girl, but she's impulsive enough to comment on a fellow kid's big ears, and balk at her mother's egg-selling necessities. She's also an incredibly un-engaging protagonist, but it's no surprise that darling Kit is so boring, since she's the offspring of the blandest parents ever, Julia Ormond and Chris O'Donnell.

It's always a delight to see Glenne Headly, even though she looks like literal death here; Seriously, it's never a good sign when actresses look sickly enough to inspire sympathy, and for you to check IMDb for their age and health status (for those concerned, she's only 53). The movie however, disgracefully, manages to make two of my faves, Cusack and Krakowski, incredibly uninteresting to watch. Tucci comes the closest to being mildly entertaining out of anyone; he has two or three moments when I almost chuckled. All the actors here clearly just showed up to do a nice movie for their kids and pick up a paycheck; there's no evidence of character embodiment or strong acting prowess on display.

With a 95 minute length that feels at least twice that, it seems like audience-taunting have a character utter the line "Your eyelids are getting heavy, you can barely keep them open" at the halfway point, but then, this isn't a film that has much regard for its audience. And I'm not saying all people should be as cynical as I am, but are there really people that could withhold chuckling at moments like our little black kid character (played by *spoiler alert* Will Smith's daughter, Willow) saying, "That'd be swell, Sterling!" or music turning somber right before a character reveals mid-story "...and then the influenza came." The "humor" is leaden, with the big "laugh" moment being someone walking in on someone doing an impression of them... yeah. When all else fails, a character with a monkey is introduced.

"Kit Kittredge: An American Girl," executive-produced by Julia Roberts, is competently made for sure, and I'll admit it's nice to see a movie made for girls that's written and directed by women. But I'd rather those efforts had been put toward a work that actually had a semblance of originality, creativity or -- dare I say it? -- fun. Some (i.e. Conservative Christian Suburban mothers who complain they don't make kids movies like they used to) will be pleased with this completely joyless, entertainment-free vanilla romp, but for most audience members, it'll be more of an eye-rolling, slack-jawed endurance test of a movie. For all the talk about the immorality of movies like "Wanted," for me, this movie is much more of an embodiment of what is wrong with modern American cinema.