Wednesday, June 29, 2011


A fun Norwegian rift on The Blair Witch Project, TrollHunter is a hand held mockumentary about lost footage shot by a group of film students where they followed a mysterious poacher as he hunted and killed trolls.  There's also a huge government cover-up over the existence of the menacing, fairy tale creatures, expanded by oily fix-it bureaucrats, a tiny bit of environmental commentary thrown in for good measure, as well as a few sacrilegious digs for humor.  A little meandering and boring in spots; really let's just get to the thrills of troll killing, but nonetheless a pleasurably silly and affable film, TrollHunter aims to please.  Self explanatory and for the most part to the point, writer\director Andre Ovredal is clearly aiming for a nerdy, worshipful midnight cult following, and more often than not is quite adept at mastering the cheesy monster movie genre.  Yet there's something special in the quality of the filmmaking, an almost unexpected sophistication in the smoothness and crystallizing of the camera movements, the surprisingly masterful sound design, and the imaginative effects work that teases the idea that if Ovredal were to grow up into more than B-movie rides, he could possibly become a major international talent-- there's already a rumored American version in development.  For the camera, even with such constant jerkiness is fine-lined with clarity; it's never headache inducing, a problem with the sub-genre of cheaply made horror hybrids.  And while this foreign nerd-friendly little ditty seems unlikely to expand outside the uber-movie geek universe realm, there's a small joy in watching this film that the big Hollywood summertime blockbusters have all but given up on.  No, not every film must be enriched with expansive character development or sophisticated stories; a finely and craftily made silly movie can generate its own sense of magic by the infectiousness of its spirit, of which TrollHunter has in spades.  Plus there's also such interesting troll factoids to treasure (for instance: rabies, a real problem), and the ludicrously enjoyable sights and sound of trolls turned to stone, and blowing up; Michael Bay- ante up.  B

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Bad Teacher

Perhaps as seen as a perverted commentary on the ill-fated state of the American public school system, Bad Teacher is a success.  The central character is a lying, manipulative, terribly unpleasant woman who could care less about her students, lazily resorting to revolving her lesson plans around watching classroom movies like Dangerous Minds, Stand & Deliver and To Sir, With Love, and who only resorts to actual "teaching" when there's a monetary incentive.  Perhaps as viewed as a wake up call to those who have the power to change a failing institution, this was a smart film-- I can see a wonderful opportunity here--perhaps a great marketing idea could be a deluxe edition of Bad Teacher and Waiting for 'Superman' sent in the direction of every school administrator, teachers union leaders, and parents as a call of arms for reform.  Perhaps, seen through that less cynical prism, there's was a point to this film, directed by Jake Kasden (a Judd Apatow protege, who honed his craft on episodes of Freaks and Geeks and Walk Hard.)  Unfortunately as summertime escapism, Bad Teacher barely gets a passing grade, despite game performances from a skilled ensemble, and the tease of joyously bad behavior that sadly just circles around without ever hitting its mark.

Cameron Diaz plays Elizabeth Halsey, a junior high English teacher, a careless coaster of the system, she's a foul-mouthed pothead whose main objective is to land a rich man so she can comfortably settle as an entitled trophy wife.  She sees a golden opportunity with the arrival of a handsome new substitute teacher (Justin Timberlake), a chipper trust fund baby.  The cure, according to Elizabeth, to win his heart and money is a boob job (his ex-girlfriend had big ones.)  A few other complications add to this particularly unfunny school year, including a rivalry between Elizabeth and a goody-goody teacher named Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch), and the affable, BS-free affections of a gym teacher (Jason Segal), whose financial standings offer him little shot at Elizabeth's heartless heart.  Plus there's some blackmail, sexual innuendo (including an uncomfortable dry humping segment) and hostile misogyny all transparently on display, most of which offers little amusement.  Which is not to say that there isn't a decent premise here (a raunchy little bit of inept, careless educators might have worked well in other hands) nor a fault of an ensemble who works tired punchlines and off-putting scenes with the right spirit.

Diaz, in particular, is tailor-made for a role like with this her girly charm and unabashed glee for naughty language, and she makes Elizabeth part vixen, part slacker, which with a sharper script probably would have worked.  It's unfortunate that as is, her character is so one note.  She's bad, we get it, but we could have cared about her, and none of her movie star luster radiates any empathy.  The problem with the character is her motive is particularly lame...the entire movie is rooted in Diaz's character getting a boob job, and what disappoints more than the fact that that is silly and more than a bit sexist, is that it's also incredibly lame.  Bad Teacher could have delved into a wonderfully dark comic anything with a more credible, or at least more interesting set up; her classroom scenes are kind of funny as stand-alones, especially in the beginning as a hung-over Elizabeth drapes a sweater over her head and passes out as her students watch past inspiring teacher movies.  Diaz has the gamesmanship and the appropriate mixture of naughty and nice physical goofiness at play; she's one of the few A-list beauties who sparkles best with vulgarity.  So, yes Elizabeth is unpleasant an inappropriate, but must she also be so vapid.  The payoff at the end would have hit far more strongly if the first two-thirds weren't quite so muddled and mindless.

The same is true for Lucy Punch as well, whose rival teacher is the most ingratiating character in the piece (and that's saying a lot); her Squirrel is a strange blend of Election's Tracy Flick crossed with the Road Runner crossed with a Disney princess.  Prudish and crazy, with a hyper type-A personality, Punch excels at being absolutely irritating every time she's on screen, and with the pungent, almost stinging annoyance she brings to her character, one must adhere that this must be a singular talent, and there is a sort of grand go-for-broke one-ups-man-ship in her feud with Diaz.  She's just as odd and incongruous here as she was as Anthony Hopkins' hooker friend in last year's You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, she's such a committed performer, that you kind of like her anyway.  The question becomes again that if the stakes were raised, and the premise weren't so silly, there could have been a great deal of naughty fun in store.  That their rival is in pursuit of Timberlake is a deterrent, for he's such a passively odd, and boring character.  Far better is Jason Segal, who in a glorified cameo, gives the right shade of naughty and nice to his character-- he smokes pot too, but he's also kind of a nice guy.

Again, I like the idea of social commentary of the bad ideals in public education as the primary goal of Bad Teacher.  Perhaps it was intentional that the film is kind of bad in that regard...think about it, a bad movie about bad teachers starring a major movie star with the subtle agenda of crusading against real problems in American schools.  Hopefully no one as callous as Elizabeth works for the school district today, but perhaps the film is here to point out a call to find out; if not for the children, than for discerning moviegoers who would prefer never again to spend time with a bad teacher like this again.  Silver lining.  C-

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Tree of...No Refunds!

A caution sign posted outside the Avon Theatre in Stamford, Connecticut.  Should we laugh or cry at this? 

Cars 2

There's an aching sadness and cynical sting I encountered exiting the theater for Cars 2, the first feature length animated feature from the all mighty Pixar that not only sucks but calls into question (for the very first time) the motives behind one of, perhaps the only, the great cinematic institutions in modern filmmaker.  The original Cars opened five years ago sandwiched between the great Brad Bird\Pixar concoctions The Incredibles two years before and Ratatouille the year after, it inevitably seemed like the weakest link in a fine legacy.  Yet with it's Route 66 nostalgia-soaked infusion of NASCAR, slightly awkward anthropomorphism and a fine vocal presence of the quietly graceful but authoritative Paul Newman, the original film, while flimsy, had a small charm of its own.  It was slight for sure, but not totally un-welcomed.  The sequel, a silly and throwaway affair, appears almost unrecognizable in terms of the great standard the company has set up for itself in their twenty-five year history.  What's missing is that sense of discovery, the un-rushed delicacy of finely crafted story brought to (near) life by indelible and soulful characters, the mad rush of adventure and magic infused with whimsy and intelligence, and the emotional response of all these elements melding together.  In an alienating, sadly full circle moment, director John Lasseter, the pioneer and man behind Toy Story, which earned him a special Oscar is also at the helm of his company's least.  It would be fair to say that most of the best original stories in modern filmmaker come courtesy of the artisans at Pixar Animation Studios.

Unfortunately not this time, and for the first time it appears that dollar signs were the only thing keeping this machine afloat.  Time has passed since the first Cars, and lots have changed.  First off the original setting, a make believe slice of old school-blue state Americana named Radiator Springs gets shafted right away in favor of more internationally friendly locales (perhaps to better sell the film in foreign markets, says the skeptic in me, one can read into that whatever one would like to.) Our race car hero Lightning McQueen (voiced again by Owen Wilson) is off on a globe-trotting adventure all over the world, including Japan, Paris, Italy and England.  Also sidelined from the first film are the gentle American rhythms in favor a louder, higher-octane, more grandiose (and increasing ludicrous) story, involving espionage and a strange automotive infusion of James Bond and Inspector Clouseau, mixed with a subtle eco-friendly sermon wrapped around a predictable and stuffy be-your-own-car message.  The biggest sidestep, and the least attractive move made by Pixar in it's history, was giving center stage to McQueen's dim bulb tow truck pal Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy); the first Cars, the role was thankfully diluted enough to almost be seen as charming, here (and perhaps in a nod to appease the comic's blue-state fan base; again I could very well be wrong) his one-note buffoonery is the catalyst for the movie.  Most of the bad stench of the film comes along with the silly character of Mater, now given unnecessary star treatment.

The story itself is almost irrelevant and quickly forgotten.  It's harmless for sure, but that again is a failure from a company with such a grounded and firm reputation of mixing story with character so expertly.  We globe-trot with Lightning McQueen, here meeting his match in an arrogant Italian competitor named Francesco Bernoulli (amusingly voiced by John Turturro), both racing in the international World Grand Prix.  There's also some shifty and powerful (if less glossy) cars trying to throw the race with motives that might have seemed clever in a pitch meeting but fail to spark any ignitions on execution.  Enter super-spy Finn McMissile (voiced with classy precision by Michael Caine), and a Miss Moneypenny-like neophyte spy named Holley Shiftwell (voiced by Emily Mortimer.)  There's a silly case of mistaken identity, coincidentally which starts with what may be Pixar's first scatological joke, with a punchline that coarsely hits in a bathroom.  To make a long story short somehow Mater becomes a spy, and the movie grows tired and weak and stagnant.

I had a thought about halfway through, what if we dumped the silly car anthropomorphism altogether, threw Mater off a bridge, abandoned Lightning McQueen (the film does a fairly good job of that anyhow), kept Michael Caine and John Turturro, even Emily Mortimer, had them transform into people, or dinosaurs, or rats, or superheros, or whatever, threw out the tired and unfunny script full of stale joke and rote commentary.  We could keep the spy genre going...there's a few nifty and playful stunts, and while Pixar ran out of gas early on this one, the visuals are impeccable...maybe then there would be something, if not noteworthy, than perhaps fun.  Instead we get a sad, listless and increasingly desperate film.  C-

Friday, June 24, 2011

2011 Halfway Report

Hard to believe that this year is already halfway over, it feels like just yesterday I was kvetching about The King's Speech and it's awards run (oh wait, it was-- I have difficulty letting go sometimes), however it feels like a good time to check in on the offerings already tasted.  It's been a bit shaky so far, and there's a succinct scent of desperation running through the Hollywood machine.  Box office is down, a critical apathy and a feeling of growing pains throughout the cinema.  3-D may not be the cure, as evident by the showings of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and Kung Fu Panda, where the 2-D screenings had a higher attendance, and a sense of being ripped off by the steep surcharges for less than stellar viewing experiences...good luck to Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II (which is experiencing higher pre-sales for 2-D showings.)  There's been a great few truly desirable films to come out in the first six months of 2011, yes Midnight in Paris, Bridesmaids, Super 8 and depending of the time of day The Tree of Life were all welcome, but there hasn't much in the way of magic yet this year.  For example, this time last year had "A" quality filmmaking with Toy Story 3, Winter's Bone and Please Give.

Highest Grossing Films of 2011 so far:
  1. The Hangover Part II- $236 million
  2. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides- $223 million
  3. Fast Five- $207 million
  4. Thor- $176 million
  5. Kung Fu Panda 2- $147 million
  6. Bridesmaids- $140 million
  7. Rio- $139 million
  8. X-Men: First Class- $124 million
  9. Rango- $122 million
  10. Hop- $108 million
What we've got here is five sequels (or prequel, reboot whatchacallit with X-Men), five films in 3-D, four animated features, one obvious advertisement for another film (a few others perhaps less obvious), four original scripts (only one of which is live action, the only one that's a genuine surprise: Bridesmaids) and zero films that had less than two credited screenwriters.  One wonders the fate of these films in the long run.  If I were a betting man I'd suggest that based solely on number The Hangover will be granted a third entry (hopefully they'll go to rehab), as will Fast & Furious (Fast Six?), Pirates will hopefully be laid down to rest, as it's the lowest grossing flick of the franchise (though $200-plus million can hardly seem underwhelming, at least to anyone except for bitter studio execs), Kung Fu Panda 2, Rango and Rio might be nominated for an Oscar, more because the animated slate this year is sad. Thor will The Avengers, and that's it (hopefully Chris Hemsworth will be big though).  Hop will likely has already been forgotten.  X-Men: Fate Unknown and Bridesmaids will become a TBS staple forever and not the feminist revolt that pundits have branded it...whew!
Highest Per-Screen Averages of 2011 so far:
  1. Midnight in Paris- $99,834 on 6 screens\$23 million so far
  2. The Tree of Life- $93,230 on 4 screens\$4.3 million so far
  3. Jane Eyre- $45,721 on 4 screens\$11.1 million
  4. Bill Cunningham New York- $33,677 on 1 screen\$1.3 million
  5. Win Win- $30,072 on 5 screens\$10 million
  6. Kill the Irishman- $29,086 on 5 screens\$1.1 million
  7. Beginners- $28,268 on 5 screens\$1 million so far
  8. Cave of Forgotten Dreams- $27,820 on 5 screens\$4.1 million so far
  9. Evil Bong 3-D- $24,775 on 1 screen\$91,250
  10. The Hangover: Part II- $23,775 on 3,615 screens\$236 million so far
Any surprises?

While it's silly to think about end of the year kudos in June, it's fun to tinker with the idea of what's already at play.  Of course the sad truth is that it's not much.  Last year by this time, we had two Best Picture nominees already in release: Toy Story 3 and Winter's Bone, and two more in July: The Kids Are All Right and Inception; the year before both Up and eventual winner The Hurt Locker had already arrived.  This year, and especially due to the Academy's loopy new rules, it might be harder to gauge anything.  The Tree of Life has opened, it's fairly timidly started expanding outside major cities, may have a chance as it's a auteur-drive meditation with astounding visuals and coming from a major director.  It's top win at this years Cannes Film Festival can't be reflective of any lingering Oscar chance, but it does offer a bit of prestige to a film that, while divisive and frustrating (my take), will likely be remembered by the critics later in the year, plus it has a marketing pro in Fox Searchlight who just last year managed Best Picture nominations for two hard-to-sell films with 127 Hours and Black Swan.  That being said it's also a huge longshot for anything outside of Best Cinematography; if Emmanuel Lubezki is ignored this year, I imagine a small (and geeky) riot in the streets.

The safest bet right now must be Midnight in Paris, which has proven to be a warm summery surprise from America's favorite screenwriter.  And while Best Picture may be just outside this inventive, charming Parisian tales reach, one must never doubt Woody Allen as a threat in the Original Screenplay category, or who knows, perhaps even a Best Director threat.  Already one of Allen's highest grossing films (one has to journey back to the mid-1980s and Hannah & Her Sisters time to see a Woody Allen film perform so well) and critically and commercially admired, it's easily his best chance in a longtime for some Oscar love.  The main problem may come from the fact that this is such an ensemble driven film, one in which no single performer has been universally acknowledged with a best in show stamp, one in which Allen is clearly seen as the film's star that the film may struggle in other categories other than writing.  But critical approval, audience love, and the "comeback" angle (a weird statement for a filmmaker that delivers a film promptly once a year) may work, and Sony Pictures Classics is usually a shrewd, if cautious, awards marketer...they sure as hell have more to work with this year and with their last venture with Allen, last year's dreadful You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.

Two other critics darlings of 2011 were Jane Eyre and Win Win, and both did fairly respectable business so one can't entirely write either of them off.  However both films already somewhat seem forgotten only a few months after release and it will take a major campaign (from Focus Features and the very busy Fox Searchlight) to reignite passion for both.  It will also take critics groups to focus on both films fairly strongly.  As of now, I would suspect Jane Eyre's best chance at a nomination might lie in it's Costume Design, and Win Win's only legitimate prospect is in Original Screenplay, one must think that writer\director Tom McCarthy was this-close a few years back with The Visitor and The Station Agent.
Other possibilities (outside of tech nominations for a few of big bad blockbusters or a few animated features and a potential Documentary nod for Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams) are pretty sparse at the moment.  It would be nice to think that Michelle Williams may have a shot for her quiet, luminous work as a frontier wife in Meek's Cutoff, but that will never happen.  At this point, I'd welcome the idea of Michael Fassbender possibly getting recognition for his pre-Magneto, Magneto in X-Men: First Class-- he's a major badass and jolts the film with any spark it has, and coming from an actor (who's seemingly been a breakthrough performer for the last three years with Hunger, Fish Tank, and Inglourious Basterds) of such intense distinction and dangerous bravado, he makes a role that could never be described as awards bait utterly captivating.  Another non-baity, but entertaining possibility is Ellen Page in Super, the little-bitty superhero parody indie that did little in terms of box office, and has no chance of anything, but there's something utterly remarkable about her performance, playing a highly caffeinated strange young woman, there's a daring rawness to her go-for-broke buffoonery that elevates the silly little movie and incongruously charms and alienates at the same time.  Another no-shot, but worthy performance is Elle Fanning's expressive, muse-like work in Super 8 (after Somewhere and this, she's definitely showing up older sister Dakota, I'd argue.)  Kristen Wiig, while wonderful in Bridesmaids, will likely have to settle for a Best Actress in a Comedy Golden Globe nomination, if my crystal ball is accurate.

However, there's really only one performance in 2011 that I feel has the strongest shot of lasting until nomination day: Christopher Plummer for Beginners.  It may feel like a longshot because the film itself, a bit uneven and meandering, it is a twee and sometimes achingly precious little tale, but Plummer is terrific, and his reviews have been wonderful (his screen partner Ewan McGregor is also very good, but he's in the more recessive role, one of which awards bodies hardly notice), and while it while the film will have to continue to play well this summer, with a nicely calibrated marketing campaign from distributor Focus Features, and critics prizes to make this claim valid, I feel it's the strongest bet of 2011 thus far.  Plus he's Christopher freaking Plummer, and he's playing, no less, a dying gay man, which has always been a source of salivation for the Academy.

My 5 Favorite Films of 2011 so far:
  1. Midnight in Paris
  2. Bridesmaids
  3. Super 8
  4. Beginners
  5. Meek's Cutoff
Why only five?  Well this years been fairly stingy with the goods, and while I could have included the nifty sci\fi puzzle Source Code, or the acid-like hallucination of The Tree of Life (a film in which my mood changes by the second) or the quiet humanity of Win Win, there's precious little to hold onto in the first six months of wish is for a brighter second half.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Bad Teacher, I Mean Car

It's a sad weekend in movie-land, as the most prolific release belongs to a wrong-headed sequel from a venerable, and dependable filmmaking institution.  I speak, of course, of Cars 2, from the world of Pixar Animation Studios (this year celebrating their 25th anniversary of unmatched excellence), and coming from a studio that has scorched such creative and successful heights, (even one that's made two sequels before; and has another one coming soon: Monster's, Inc.), cinematic history may show that for the first time in the company's tenure that they've sold out.  The original Cars opened in the summer of 2006 to respectable reviews and big money, however for the first time, it felt like a creative burn-out; the film with it's retro vibe and Owen Wilson-vocals was genial enough, but coming from such a creative powerhouse, one whose brand has always managed to incorporate groundbreaking and extraordinary visuals with rich, humane character studies, there was a whimper, a strange slightness with a sunny backdrop.  And for whatever reason-- laziness, greed (Cars merchandise was apparently a hot seller), otherworldly possession (my current hypothesis involves blackmail and dirty pictures), the one stain on an otherwise glorious tapestry is returning.  Sadly, this results in the worst reviewed full length feature on the Pixar resume.  In fact, according to the Tomato-meter (of which should always be judged with a grain of salt), the only films to score less 90% in critical approval are the two in the Cars franchise.  Perhaps it was inevitable, as every empire must fall, but it's still a bit sad, and in a summer (or year) in desperate and dire need of that old Pixar magic, the cinema pauses.

For a palette cleanser, the poster of next summer's Pixar film has been unveiled.  Brave, an action adventure featuring Pixar's first leading lady, a Scottish princess named Merida, to be voiced by Emma Thompson.  I wish it well.
Also opening this week:
  • Bad Teacher, or the latest R-rated raunch-a-thon (this one perhaps the least believable in concept, featuring Cameron Diaz plays an educator.
  • Conan O'Brien Can't Stop, or final suck it to NBC (in limited release.)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Dangerous Method

The most eagerly awaited film of the year (at least by me; really nothing else compares sight unseen) is A Dangerous Method.  Directed by David Croenberg, written by Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons, Atonement) and starring Viggo Mortenssen, Michael Fassbender (currently the best thing of the recent X-Men: First Class) and Keira Knightley, with a tantalizing subject matter-- the work of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, I'm positively giddy.  Thankfully, the nice folks at Sony Pictures Classics recently acquired the film, so a cozy (and likely awards friendly) 2011 release is all but assured.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Green Lantern

It isn't easy being green, especially in such a hollow, CGI'd fashion, devoid of personality.  So goes the joyless affair that is The Green Lantern, a paint-by-numbers comic book adaptation that appears less interested in itself than the sleepy audience watching.  Even with the loud-as-can-be sound mixing, the snores might drown it out.  Directed by Martin Campbell, a typically far more sturdy conductor of popcorn fare (The Mask of Zorro, GoldenEye, Casino Royale, all proficiently made if not quite artful) puts a polished sheen over the DC Comics hero, but it never soars, it stays stubbornly earthbound, and seemingly derivative of a million sub-par properties before it.  And while it may not be fair, especially coming from myself, a guy who has a grown-up appreciation, if not zealot fanboy lust for comic book superheroes, and as one who has never picked up an edition of The Green Lantern in his life, I ask the question: Is this guy supposed to be soooo lame?  With a mythology less synonymous in pop-culture than say Batman, or Superman, or even the X-Men, I, admittedly have little to back this up with, and while it may not be fair to expect more from the less doted on of masked men, this film is my first encounter, and perhaps also my swan song, I started rolling my eyes from the first bit of narration and shifting in my sit within the first reel.  A few years ago, a decent film was made up of Iron Man, a less-than culturally heralded of comic book hero, last year a decidedly different fate took from with a another hero in Jonah Hex; Green Lantern (aka Hal Jordan) falls somewhere in the middle, embracing its generic, if watchable mediocrity.

The exposition is pretty easy to settle with, and it's repeated a lot, so one never has to worry if they've missed it.  First it's explained to us, than to it's soon-to-be hero, than our hero's social circle, and recapped at the end...napping will not interfere with the plot, in fact it might be encouraged.  You see, there's this intergalactic police force of sorts known as the Green Lantern Corps; they oversee everything and there's a representative from each sector of the universe, who with a nifty ring, and by sure will govern the galaxy.  This ring chooses who the Green Lantern will be; one of those suspension of disbelief gags that you either accept or not.  The "one" (oops wrong movie) this time is Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds), a playboy pilot with an only-in-the-movies devil may care stride, whose physique belies charm or any sort of development.  He also has pretty messed up daddy issues, played up for false emotional cues.  He's got a lady friend, as he must, played with Gossip Girl-frigidity by Blake Lively, there to reprimand his irresponsibility and wait idly for when the script decides it's time for them to kiss.  He's the first human to join the ranks of the Lanterns, so Jordan, who spent the first quarter of the film as a Top Gun-tool must be worth it if the ring says so.

We get some backstory to Lanterns, led by all knowing group of elder types, reminiscent of Yoda, and a nondescript alien dude named Sinestro, played by British actor Mark Strong (the go to guy for big-budget intensity (of Robin Hood, Stardust and Kick-Ass fame) who speaks in similar vocal rhythms to that of Laurence Fishburne's Morpheus in the Matrix movies; every syllable is pointed and succinct; a speech therapist might be proud.  Their planet, all good and ruled by the will of the universe, which in turns powers the rings of the chosen ones, is a mist of green shrouding a grungy and dark (quite dark if you journey to this exercise in 3-D) land.  Visually reminiscent of everything from Tron, to The Flash, to last months Thor, there's a sense of a mechanical aesthetic behind The Green Lantern, which features plentiful special effects, many in which are fairly impressive, but it all adds up to "so what."  In moments where artificial magic seems a given, like Hal's first flight, or his training exercises showcasing the green-y splendor the ring's power, there's such a rushed, get-to-it sensation of the franchise machine at work, there's precious little time to dwell on mythic charms.  And while logic has no place here, it does seem curious that such an amateur at intergalactic hero work takes to it so quickly.

Rushed screentime is also parted to the villian; there's two in The Green Lantern.  The first a nebbish scientist type amusingly played by Peter Sarsgaard, who tops Hal Jordan's father issues with increasing mania.  Then there's an alien (or whatever) baddie named Parallex, a black blob composed of energy that's built on fear; one has the sense if they really capitalized on the cheesy potential here, this might be a fun, if mindlessly stupid enterprise.  But franchise movie-making is a serious venture, and all involved, including CGI villains must look steadfast in their professionalism.  Since character study, visual wonderment, or a perfunctory story take a back seat, there's enough time arch speeches of the power of will over fear (those two words in particular likely make up half the dialogue, credited to four screenwriters) and for veteran actors like Tim Robbins and Angela Bassett to stop by and collect paychecks; Bassett in particular distracts in a few brief scenes if only to agitate with memories of the few golden years in the early 90s when she seared the screen.

The silliest thing about The Green Lantern is that even with a premise made up entire of sci\fi hokum, there could still have a been a fun ride here.  Reynolds has a blank, sullen stare half the time, but is game enough, especially in the action sequences, and with a lighter approach it might have worked...Iron Man, for example, wasn't written off for having a sense of humor.  Instead, with its graver production, and perhaps graver movie-going environment, we're stuck with a joyless, flightless, altogether sodden superhero.  C-

Monday, June 20, 2011

Weekend Box Office

Am I alone in thinking that the summer movie season, a mere six weeks in, already feels kind of over.  Sure there's blockbusters on the horizon...Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II are a coming complete with retrofitted 3-D.  And Captain America will continue the ongoing Avengers advertisement, and who knows, maybe original properties like Cowboys & Aliens and Crazy Stupid Love will surprise.  But, by and large, it feels kind of over for Hollywood.  The dearth and blah comes with the top selling item this week:

Bad vs. Good

  1. The Green Lantern- Middling reviews, a terrible trailer, and misgivings over the profitability of any DC character other than Batman or Superman couldn't stop the Ryan Reynolds-magical ring comic from top the chart with a respectable (if earthbound) take of $52 million.  I love Manohla Dargis New York Times review, which sufficiently states..."The Green Lantern is bad," literary cred isn't always necessary.  Next weekend, and how it holds up will tell us how quickly the film fades.
  2. Super 8- Last weekend's champ, and the first Hollywood studio flick this year to work, in my opinion, but that's hardly a contest this year fell 40% in it's second weekend with $72 million overall.  Considering the film only cost $50 million to make, Paramount should be pleased...however audiences should be flocking to this joyously nostalgic picture.  A 33% increase in sales from Friday to Saturday is contrast The Green Lantern, in it's first weekend, fell 22% from opening day to Saturday.  Fanboys aren't the only audiences!!!!
  3. Mr. Popper's Penguins- Is it just me or doesn't the title sound a bit dirty.  I kid, this family picture adapted from the 1930s children stories (loosely adapted) made a ho-hum $18 million opening weekend.  Jim Carrey can still kind of open a picture, but one must assume had this opened in the late 90s, this would be a blockbuster.
  4. X-Men: First Class- In it's third weekend, the last incarnation of our favorite mutant superheros has amassed $119 million.  One has to think if 20th Century Fox isn't kicking themselves for not reformatting the flick to 3-D.  Of course that would be a huge mistake; I prefer a clear picture of Michael Fassbender.
  5. The Hangover: Part Two- Currently the highest grossing film of 2011, Todd Phillips frat-house frenzy dropped 45% in it's fourth weekend.  Total cume is $232 million.
  6. Kung Fu Panda 2- If disappointing that it hasn't out-grossed the original, this second outing with the martial artist panda has made $143 million in four weeks.
  7. Bridemaids- In what can truly be described as the sleeper of the year, Kristen Wiig's comedy in it's sixth weekend dropped a scant 25% and has earned $136 million to date.  Many in the industry might see it as a feminist bellwether...the greater truth might just be that the film is funny.
  8. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides- 2011's one billionth unnecessary sequel that squanders the good will and small virtues of the original has amassed $220 million in five weeks.  Yes, it's the weakest seller in the quad, and weakest on terms of attendance, but $200 million is ridiculous.  I miss Johnny Depp playing him!
  9. Midnight in Paris- A surprise and wonder, Woody Allen's latest has earned $21 million in five weeks.  To put into perspective, this is Allen's sixth highest grossing film (not adjusted for inflation) in his forty year career, and the widest release of any Allen film to date (it's currently playing on 1,038 screens.)  While always prolific, his films have never been huge money makers, even back in his heyday.  So the response to Midnight in Paris is staggering.  The question now is, since the movie is holding so beautifully, is to whether it will garner awards traction; and since the Academy is going into reactive, bad-shit crazy mode, could it stand a chance?
  10. Judy Moody and the Not So Bummer Summer- The tweener has earned $11 million in two weeks.
  11. Thor- In it's seventh week, and all but forgotten, the mighty hammer man has fallen out of the top ten, soon to be hitting DVD shelves, with a nearly final total of $176 million.
  12. The Tree of Life- Four weeks in, Terrence Malick's divisive tale of "it all" has earned nearly $4 million on 114 screens.  Fox Searchlight still appears tentative about releasing with wide (and that's fairly understandable for those who've seen it), but one wonders, when it happens, will the film have totally fallen out of the cinematic conversation.  Awards consideration is a mo does one sell this one outside a major city?

Saturday, June 18, 2011


The Chosen Ones

On the subject of the Academy, here the latest creatives they've invited to join...again possibly proving the point of a wrong-headed decision (at least partially)...some of these have to be jokes right?

Russell Brand
Gerard Butler
Vincent Cassel
Robbie Coltrane
Bradley Cooper
John Corbitt
Rosemarie DeWitt
Peter Dinklage
David Duchovney
Jesse Eisenberg
Jennifer Garner
John Hawkes
Nastassja Kinski
Beyonce Knowles
Mila Kunis
Jennifer Lawrence
Tea Leoni
Anthony Mackie
Lesley Manville (a piece offering for the snub of Another Year, perhaps)
Rooney Mara
Dominic Monaghan
Connie Nielson
Ellen Page
Wes Studi
Mia Wasikowska
Jackie Weaver

Gregg Araki
Suzanne Bier (winner of this years foreign film, In a Better World)
Lisa Cholodenko (also invited to the writers branch)
Debra Granik (Winter's Bone, also invited to the writers branch)
Tom Hooper
John Cameron Mitchell
Yojiro Takita (winner of 2009's foreign film, Departures)

Stuart Blumberg (co-writer of The Kids Are All Right)
Karen McCullah Lutz (Legally Blonde)
Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada)
David Rabe (Hurlyburly, Casualties of War)
Anne Roselinni (co-writer of Winter's Bone)
David Seidler (winner for The King's Speech)
Scott Silver (The Fighter)
Kirsten Smith (Legally Blonde)
Aaron Sorkin
Daniel Waters (Heathers, Batman Returns)

Geefwee Boedoe (Let's Pollute)
Alessandro Carloni (How to Train Your Dragon)
Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville, The Illusionist)
Javier Recio Garcia (The Lady & the Reaper)
Biljana Labovic (The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger)
Jakob Hjort Jensen (How to Train Your Dragon)
Tomm Moore (The Secret of Kells)
Teddy Newton (Day & Night)
Bob Peterson (Up; also invited to the writers branch)
Andrew Ruhemann (The Lost Thing)
Kristof Serrand (How to Train Your Dragon)
Shaun Tan (The Lost Thing)
Simon Wells (Mars Needs Moms)

Howard Cummings (I Love You, Beth Cooper)
Therese DePrez (Black Swan)
Guy Hendrix Dyas (Inception)
Judy Farr (The Fighter)
Jess Gonchor (True Grit)
Jane Musky (Something Borrowed)
Anahid Nazarian (The Virgin Suicides)
Lauren E. Polizzi (Cowboys & Aliens)
Gene Serdena (The Fighter)
Eve Stewart (The King's Speech)

Frank Byers (Twin Peaks)
Patrick Cady (In Treatment)
Danny Cohen (The King's Speech)
Steven Fierberg (Love & Other Drugs)
Barry Markowitz (Crazy Heart)
Charles Minsky (Pretty Woman)
Lawrence Sher (The Hangover)
Eric Steelberg (Up in the Air)

Odile Dicks-Mireaux (An Education)
Sarah Edwards (Michael Clayton)
Danny Glicker (Milk)

Oscar Schizophrenia

Based on a study of the last ten years of the Oscars, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences have decided to change their format yet again.  Just when the misguided idea of a top ten Best Picture line-up was starting to jell with the obsessives, a new ruling now states that their can be anywhere from five to ten nominees for Best Picture.  There's a nugget of wisdom behind this latest change, as now it's required for each nominee to earn five percent of #1 ballots in order to receive a nomination, thinking of course that with ten automatically each year, a few "lesser than" choices will slip through the cracks.  And I suppose there's the added spectacle of having to wait until nomination day to know just how films will be nominated for Best Picture.  The new ruling was formed from a study of the last decade of Oscar balloting that seemed to indicate that there were more than five "mathematically" movies that deemed worthy of the highest cinematic honor, but also with the ten that has been in the last two years of the ceremony, there might be less than ten.  Oh, what I wouldn't give to spend a couple of hours looking at their statistics...really, if any of my readers work for PriceWaterhouseCoopers, I can absolutely be trusted; just an hour...I promise.

The question is why?  Why the sudden change a mere two years after the top ten was reinstated?  And this is what worries me, for it feels after eighty-three years the Academy is unsure of itself and feels a need to respond to every criticism.  This is an institution that's supposed the highest film accolade in the land, deeply rooted in tradition, and loved or hated, the Academy sets the standard...why the sudden flaky growing pains.  Is it a response to last years line-up, or something bigger.  Last years nominees were:
  • 127 Hours
  • Black Swan
  • The Fighter
  • Inception
  • The Kids Are All Right
  • The King's Speech
  • The Social Network
  • Toy Story 3
  • True Grit
  • Winter's Bone
All in all a respectable line-up...not my top ten, but it's the Academy's top ten.  And actually a nice group of films, all which were respected both critically and commercially in their own rights.  There's hardly a feeling with last years top ten that there's an embarrassment in the mix (the winner on the other hand!), nor a major cause for an entire overhaul.  Last years ceremony was a muddled mess of execution, rightfully critically lambasted, but it hardly seems fit to undo something that the Academy fought so hard to do two years ago.

When the initial change occurred two years ago, there was instant criticism that it was a mere ratings ploy, a chance to get some blockbusters back in the mix, and unfairly or not it must have been seen a response to the snub of The Dark Knight the year before.  The Academy countered that the top ten would open slots to a more eclectic selection of films, with the hopeful inclusion of independent, animated, foreign and documentary movies.  And while two years may or may not be a big enough time-span to truly see that pan out, there's a nice sentiment (even only if was for press purposes) to that idea.  But the idea of now going for a short lived format to a seemingly anything goes format seems even a bit more desperate, like the Academy is willing to jettison nearly anything now to impress it's detractors...for example the animated feature category now can have from two to five nominees each year, having to pass the "quality" litmus test of its members.

The strange thing is that the Academy, even back when there were only five Best Picture nominees, still nominated the same type of Academy-based movies.  Widening or shortening the list still won't account for taste.  Perhaps The Blind Side (2009) wouldn't have received a Best Picture nomination without ten that so much better or worse than Frost\Nixon (2008) or Chocolat (2000) receiving one with only five slots?  And perhaps a wonderful, if hard-to-sell indie like Winter's Bone (2010) wouldn't have made it in last year without the cushion, would it now?

A Better Life

With a resume that includes American Pie, The Golden Compass, The Twilight Saga: New Moon and About a Boy, perhaps director Chris Weitz wasn't the ideal choice for a harsh polemic on modern immigration, mixed with heart-tugging father\son sentiment.  Or perhaps screenwriter Eric Eason couldn't quite decide which path to choose in telling the story of an East Los Angeles gardener trying to capitalize on that still golden promise of an American dream while trying to protect his son, and wish for the titular offering.  A Better Life, a well intentioned, preaching to choir tale comes across heavy handed and undernourished because it lacks the proper backbone in really delving into a subject that ought to rouse and provoke and anger.  Because of this reticence, it stands as an astoundingly powerful subject in search of a better film, one that needn't rely on preachy diatribes of the less fortunate (made by people richly fortunate), or obvious asides on hard-luck inner city living.  Perhaps, had there have a more ballsier approach, or perhaps even a simpler one, A Better Life would have earned the greater emotional response it so craves (and hell, might even make a small difference in these timely days of border controls), and whether the miscalculation can be attributed to one or all of it's well-intentioned crew, the sad truth remains that this is nothing more than a small, quietly manipulative message film coasting on the sentiment of it's subject, rather than pulling us forward with the power of it's story or characters.

Demian Bichir (he was on Weeds, and played Fidel Castro in Steven Soderbergh's two-part Che) plays Carlos Galindo, an undocumented East LA resident.  He works as a gardener and is raising his fourteen-year-old son Luis (Jose Julian), a somewhat caricatured youth that's reminiscent of any adolescent-angst ridden television show or after-school special, the only difference here being the Latino bent.  Carlos, through gumption and a little charity buys a truck, thinking this will be the thing that will lead to a better life.  The early scenes are cross-cut with Carlos' attempts to purchase said truck, while Luis is confronted with possibilities of joining a neighboring gang.  The truck gets stolen.  There's perhaps a bit of an over-reliance of The Bicycle Thief, as Weitz juxtaposes the loss of an automobile as a metaphor for the entire modern immigrant experience, just as the masterful Vittorio De Sica used a bicycle theft for commentary of then modern 1940s Italian hardship.  Unfortunately here, the message overplays the drama and everything feels like mouthpieces for an agenda.

A bigger problem dramatically is that Carlos is not much of a character at all; he's rote and one-note, and while Bichir proves a gifted performer-- there's so little meat to it.  A more difficult, ballsier approach would never have made Carlos a man of such high minded (if naive) nobility.  Every scene shows the man taking the high road, and even while son Luis has bouts of anger and hostility, both characters are modulated with such uncomfortable passiveness.  Again, it speaks to an agenda.  Rather than a hard, sobering look at the challenges that many face in this country (and especially California) with a clear-eyed, warts and all humanity, A Better Life extols the images of saintly martyrs stuck in a maleficent system.  That might be enough to light the fires of the liberals with the guiltiest hearts, or perhaps even excite the fans of the similarly hot-headed Crash (2005), but there's an aching disconnect, and a sense of false sincerity to A Better Life that belittles all the good intentions.  C+

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Super 8

In a harsh climate of cynical franchise movie-making, it's easy to forget that the summer movie season is supposed to be fun.  And that movies themselves should be capable of registering a sense of magic, mystique and endless imagination.  The eagerly anticipated and excitingly teased Super 8 may not be the cure to mechanical big studio thrill rides that it was imagined, but what it does (and it does well) is remind of the great possibilities that the season should, and more often than not doesn't, deliver.  Lovingly rooted in the earlier days of popcorn movies, ones in which character development and emotional connection ran in tandem with technical showmanship, J.J. Abrams does little to hide his influences, nor should he.  An unabashed tribute to 1980s-era Spielberg (who produced this flick, and it's the first in a long while to adorn the old school Amblin Entertainment logo at the start), there's an endless affection on display.  A dash of E.T. mixed with The Goonies, gently seasoned with a bit of Stand By Me, it's the ultimate 80s movie mash-up, which many might unfairly call a crutch of sorts; that would be unfair, since even Spielberg admits to wearing his influences on his sleeve.  While elements of Super 8 surely must be perceived as a missed opportunity, the majority of the film is gracefully put together, tenderly and thoughtfully rendered, emotionally affecting, and in a few stellar and extraterrestrial moments works a sort of magic in it's own right.  And while Abrams (he of Lost and Star Trek and Cloverfield) has always been, perhaps, more a shrewd marketer than a great storyteller, there's never a moment in watching Super 8 where one doubts his passion or ambition.

Set in the summer of 1979 in small town America (Lillian, Ohio to be exact, but it might as well be a stand-in for anywhere middle-America) we're introduced to a young man named Joe (Joel Courtney.)  He's recently lost his mother, like many a Spielbergian hero, and the only son to the town's sheriff (Kyle Chandler, Friday Night Lights), a good man whose lost his way.  The only spark to Joe's existence is the movies he shoots with his friends, a rag-tag group of misfits, and all boys club, a loving gesture to the producer's own childhood.  Making cheap little monster movies, there's a palpable excitement in watching a movie so clearly and delightfully in love with making movies.  The director, Charles (Riley Griffiths), a bossy, but industrious young filmmaker calls the need for bigger production values and bigger stories.  Enter Alice (played with preternatural grace by Elle Fanning), a girl with a big heart and messier upbringing, and the boldest location shoot for these young middle schoolers at a nearby train station.  By happenstance and a tingling sense of danger there's a crash, a big one, and an even bigger mystery surrounding it.  All of the sudden the military is involved and really weird things start to happen the sleepy little town.  All that bonds the kids is the hope to finish their little zombie movie, and the everlasting curiosity of youth.

The first half of the film plays out the strongest, perhaps due to Abrams long-standing achievements as a television show runner-- he lays the groundwork beautifully (landing the dismount is a bit more problematic), by elegantly pacing this modestly budgeted coming of age nostalgia trip; it both teasing and playful.  The great and unexpected thing, and one that too many summer filmmakers of late neglect, is that we start to care for these kids, and the sheriff...hell even Alice's deadbeat dad elicits affection.  It helps that the child actors, most of them neophytes, come across so natural, with beats that feel like normal childhood rhythms. And while even the most popular of Spielbergian fare has been reduced to schmaltz more than a few times (and I have little doubt the same feeling come around here sooner or later), there's a palpable emotional undercurrent to Super 8 that feels earned, rather than a cheat.  It may perhaps be because Abrams is just as familiar with television as with films that plays a slight disservice to Super 8, whereas the first half of the film is almost too good, too thoughtfully staged that the second half (where the action\sci-fi\genre takes charge of the loveliness of truthful coming of age) feels a tad rushed, a bit under-cooked.  It's as if all that was there was a great idea.  On shows like Lost and Alias, Abrams could tease and play out an idea for years and keep audiences hooked and guessing...Super 8 has and an hour and fifty minutes.

And so it's when the sci\fi-genre-creature conventions overtakes the carefully-layed out character portraits that Super 8 gets into a bit of trouble.  It almost feels like a side plot that's given too much time.  The mystery of the story revolves around an alien, again of nostalgia-based origins.  Part E.T., part Close Encounters, with a hint of War of the Worlds mayhem; the creature itself feels almost haphazardly designed and far less ingenious than the kids' zombie creations.  Sort of ugly and devoid of a personality in film rich with one, it feels a bit like a missed opportunity for pure popcorn alchemy.  As does the military interference, more a device and distraction.  What good does come out of it a marvelous and spellbinding climax, that while perhaps not quite earned, does register an old school sense of filmmaking magic that mixes the grand showmanship of technological possibility with real world emotion.  I'd be hard pressed to say I didn't leave the theater with a gently moist cheek and grin on my face.  Again, whatever there is against Abrams the filmmaker, passion and ambition are there in spades.

For the full circle effect of honoring a great filmmaker in his youth, who famously made his own monster super 8 films, only to end up producing the most affectionate ode to them, is while a bit of the meta-fun, there's enough sparkle in it's own right to celebrate Abrams trip.  For sturdy filmmaking (he's a fan of flares, so Star Trek fans will rejoice) and carefully developed, emotionally invested characters may be the rarest of things for summer movie offerings, it's also the richest.  There's a lovely even fuller full circle moment in Super 8, where Joe is applying make-up to Alice.  She rolls her blonde hair up into a perfectly coiffed bun, reminiscent of the classic Hitchcock model.  Abrams wears his Spielberg influence in his heart, the same way Spielberg wore his Hitchcock influence on his heart.  Whether it was intentional or merely a fluke, there's a sense of the filmmaker paying nods on more than level at once, and any fan of magic of cinema can embrace that.  B+

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Opening This Week


  • Super 8- After endless teasing (sometimes I feel that's all director J.J. Abrams is actually interested in), the world can lay there eyes on his latest, a sci\fi coming of age tale that's rooted in 80s cinematic nostalgia.  Early reviews have been mostly positive, but hype like this was always going to be troublesome.  Whatever the response, it's the movie of the moment, and likely weekend champion, as no other major release is coming out this weekend.
  • Judy Moody and the NOT Bummer Summer- The latest in tween entertainment adapted from the successful book series.  Co-stars Heather Graham, who has one of the strangest careers in history by now, I'd say.

  • Bride Flight- Period drama about three women from different backgrounds, forever changed after immigrate to New Zealand as war brides.
  • The Trip- The latest experimental comedy from all-over-the-place filmmaker Michael Winterbottom (9 Songs, The Killer Inside Me, Tristan Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story, A Mighty Heart, The Road to Guantanamo, 24 Hour Party People-- really his resume is a trip in itself.)  Anyhow, his latest stars Steve Coogan and is based on a six part British television series.
  • Trollhunter- Norwegian genre film featuring the best title of any film so far in 2011. It's like The Blair Witch Project remixed as a grindhouse comedy.
For those left out of the dark so far, Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris opens wide this weekend, expanding to 942 theaters.  Check it out, it's still the best thing out there this summer so far.

X-Men: First Class

There's always been something special about X-Men, something that distinguishes it from the countless comic book franchises, something personal, and while perhaps far from deep, a somewhat universal understanding of acceptance.  That the stories are tapped out for popcorn fun is most of the appeal, but there's always been a small nugget of substance in the tale of mutant superheros, that could easily resonate with anyone whose ever felt marginalized.  It's in that these mutants could be stand-ins for anybody.  It's with that nugget of substance that has always permeated the films as well, fairly well especially in the first two directed by Bryan Singer, the misguided third film directed by Brett Ratner, as well as the off-putting Wolverine stand alone are probably best forgotten, and so the latest iteration is for the most part a welcome return, despite indifference in marketing and a clear exploitation of the machine at work.  X-Men: First Class, a sequel, a prequel, a reboot, and whatever else starts at the very beginning, and while cluttered and full of endless beginnings and teases, two functions work splendidly: the introductions of Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr, would be adversaries played with skillful precision and utmost appeal by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender.

The latest adventure, directed by Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, Stardust, Layer Cake), a nifty stylist if less sturdier storyteller, is also the first, though the character chronology is somewhat wobbly.  Its the 1960s, and Charles (not yet Professor X) is a swinging Oxford graduate, more interested in using his special telepathic gifts for hitting on women than anything else.  And Erik (not yet Magneto) is a full of rage survivor of Nazi torment, hellbent on using his special powers for vengeance.  We meet a bunch of other soon-to-be mutant powerhouses, all still in pint-size form, plus the introduction of the confused interest from the government, plus there's a baddie in the form of Kevin Bacon.  There's a lot of beginnings and as the sort with films of this kind made at this point in Hollywood history, much of X-Men: First Class is exposition; there is a little bit of X-Men: Episode 1 syndrome, and at times it plays like a very intriguing television pilot.  The magic so to speak is in the relationship between Charles and Erik, both powerful and also both right, which makes them so intriguing.  McAvoy brings such quiet dignity to the role that pronounces the diplomacy in achieving acceptance, while Fassbender brings such intensity to his mindset that it's the rest of the world that should change.  The dueling agendas and opposing styles are the soul of the film.  These two are the flip side of the same coin, and whenever the somewhat messy First Class gives these two the stage, it works, and the machinations of comic book movie plotting and endless franchise juxtaposition are put aside.

The rest of the mutants sadly don't fare quite as well.  For every nice touch, like Jennifer Lawrence's sensitively layered, angst-ridden portrayal of Raven (soon to be Mystique), there's a bland and slightly vacuous one, like January Jones as Emma Frost, who seems to let the nifty special effects act for her (much like she does with the nicely draped dresses on Mad Men.)  It goes without saying that perhaps not everyone deserved an origin story of their own.  With so much carefully plotted exposition on hand, the threat of X-Men: First Class seems almost arbitrary, the principal bad guy is a megalomaniac with world control on his mind, and shares a back story with Erik, he's played with an oily grin by Kevin Bacon, and while intimidating, the film spends so much time with his character, Sebastian Shaw, on the back burner, it feels especially more and more like filler.  The best aspects of the X-Men films have always been the inner conflict anyway.  Which is not to say the action is at a loss here at all-- there's a neat underwater action sequence with Erik and a submarine (that provides a nice meet-cute moment for Erik and Charles), and even cooler missile attack later in the film, that does the rare thing in an action spectacle in that it also works as cathartic character moment.

There is however a feeling of a missed opportunity, one that applies to all the X-Men films in fact, in that something special and cosmic about the characters, one that First Class scarcely has room to include, aside from a few heavy handed lines of dialogue.  There's always been a light social commentary in the story, that these mutants are stand-ins for anyone every left behind, be it by age, race, gender, orientation, or what have you, but it's never quite been properly exploited.  One could remove one of the hundreds of beginnings and linger a bit at smaller moments like Mystique finding liberation in her blue skin, or perhaps meditate a bit longer on the burden of being special.  Of course this is a summer blockbuster, and not a character study art flick, of which I understand, but there's a certain sadness that a film, that in many ways feels and certainly looks carefully and thoughtfully made, there's still the nagging baggage of the Hollywood machine working full tilt. 

Every scene and every character entrance practically teases the premise of the next X-Men movie, just like every other big Hollywood film.  The problem is we are watching this movie.  It's in that tease and modern filmmaking template (one of which isn't the fault of director Vaughn nor six credited writers) that needs to be abandoned.  A film of nothing but beginnings can be promising, but never completed, nor transcendent.  And all the charms of X-Men: First Class, and there are many behind the two superb men gracefully filling out superhero roles including fun production values and rousing mutants-in-training vignettes, there's even time for a few nifty cameos, there's also a vacuum.  And in a modern movie age where everything must be started, and re-started and the longest running franchises require two-part conclusions, one must call uncle and perhaps pray for a day when a film is graced with the privilege to finally end.  B-


It's never too late to find yourself, or surprise yourself may be the ultimate message in Mike Mills' new film Beginners, an almost eternally adorable comedy-drama about a man and his recently out-of-the-closet father.  And what the film may lack in subtlety-- at times it certainly feels like it belongs in the ever-expanding box-set of quirky, film festival-endorsed family dramedies that make for big acquisition deals at Park City and Toronto-- it more than makes up for in generosity of spirit.  What may have begun as cinematic therapy (Mills based on the film on his real-life experiences with his father) has such a firm, but sensitive emotional pulse, that even when Mills embraces overly precious writer-director flourishes (which play as both self aware and self conscious), it never takes away from the heart of the his bewitching film, nor take away from the quiet gracefulness of its performers.  This flourishes include: an adorable Jack Russell terrier (who speaks no less; subtitles are given), a pixie-ish French girl (who doesn't speak; she has laryngitis), countless (and slightly redundant) visual gags, and the ever-enduring staple of independent film: the clever voice-over work, the film even turns into Exit Through the Gift Shop for a quick break from the proceedings..  However, to Beginners credit, none of these diversions take away from the heart and soul of the work, or distract in the way that is has is oh-so-many cleverer-than-thou indie quirk-fests.

What's mostly appreciated is the fine work of Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer as father and son.  McGregor plays Oliver, a tentative graphic artist overcoming the loss of his father to terminal cancer (not a spoiler), this just a few years after discovering that his father, Hal was gay...he came out of closet at the ripe age of 75, shortly after the death of his wife.  What is clearest of all is that both Oliver and Hal are newbies, both discovering and surprising themselves, shortly after coming out Hal takes up with a much younger lover named Andy (Goran Visnjic); shortly after his father's death Oliver takes up with a beguiling French actress (Melanie Laurent, Inglourious Basterds), and the back-and-forth narrative structure informs Oliver's present, but artfully presents a rich relationship between father and son, one that may have truly peaked after death itself.  With such ripe reflection, Mills displays something raw and personal, but also truly affecting.

What's quietly revelatory about the character of Hal, not just in how Plummer plays him, but in how he's presented is that here's a senior gay character in a movie that not only granted permission to exhibit some form of sexuality, but that none of it used for comic fodder.  There's a aching and liberated joy in Plummer's performance, perhaps akin to a kid in a candy store, that for the first time, this man is who he wanted to be in the first place.  In the history of cinema, gay characters have always either been comic relief or sources of tragedy (at it's most offensive, they've been nearly sociopathic), and while political correctness has changed a bit in the past decades, replacing the tragic with unearned nobility (the comic relief has always stayed in fashion), what's refreshing and altogether graceful about Beginners is that Hal is allowed to date a younger man, and it's treated as no big deal, and that while Hal may make various nods at caricature (as when watching The Life and Times of Harvey Milk with his senior gay pals, or reveling in gay pride memorabilia, or putting out a gay personal ad), he never becomes one.  Nor is he left off the hook for perhaps not being the greatest father to Oliver as a child.  The film leapfrogs from the past to present to near present, informing us and Oliver of all the baggage on the outset of his new relationship with the girl he obviously really likes.  The role likely would have been unbearable (no offense to the director, who it's clearly modeled on) if not for the charismatic sparkle of Ewan McGregor, who in one of his strongest performances to date, gives Oliver, a painfully shy reserved man, a deeply felt sense of longing and melancholy.  B+

Friday, June 3, 2011

Liz & Dick: The Movie?

Earlier this week news broke that Paramount Pictures is in talks with Martin Scorsese to direct a film about the love affair of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, based on the book Furious Love by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger.  And sudden chills ache my entire body.  Hollywood lore is endlessly fascinating, and I'm fairly sure not only to the cinema-obsessed like myself; Scorsese has he own lore attached to him, which only adds to the excitement and possibilities of a project (still in the earliest of development stages) that could wind up being absolutely killer.  Taylor and Burton famously met and started their torrid love affair on the set of the ill-fated 20th Century Fox disaster period epic Cleopatra (1963), a film that almost bankrupted the studio, but nonetheless still earned an Oscar nomination for Best Picture that year anyway (the film won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects, beating out the groundbreaking and amazing work on Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, which irks me beyond reason, but alas is off topic.)  The two fell hard for each other, and though both were married at the time, their love affair was and still is likely the definitive Hollywood romance, with Burton, a serious, trained actor of the highest caliber (and master of the Shakespearean tongue), and Taylor, one of the few ultimate voluptuous beauties Hollywood ever had, it must have been Brad and Angelina times a million.

If Scorsese really does this after all, it could end up being the ultimate show...he's famously a cinema buff, and as recently as The Aviator (2004) proved a great showman at recounting old Hollywood, my favorite scenes in the very long, slightly uneven biopic.  The ultimate question (aside from whose brave enough to write this is the first place; no screenwriter has been announced) is who can possibly be cast in these roles.  These are beyond larger than life roles, and simply put, they don't quite make them like they used to.  The acting styles of the days of Burton and Taylor have changed, both on and off set.  The easiest first guess at Taylor would probably be Angelina Jolie, no stranger to scandal or love affairs, or critics dismissing her acting over her looks.  But that may appear too easy.  And what of Burton, an actor of his gravitas almost appears unfathomable today.  Whatever the case, let the casting games begin.

Any ideas?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Opening This Week


  • X-Men: First Class- The lone wide release this first weekend of June is the fifth film incarnation in the X-Men canon.  Of course, it may be easy to be confused as to whether this film (which goes back in time to Kennedy-era, pre-mutant establishments) is a prequel, re-boot, stand alone franchise, free-floating comic-book adaptation.  Whichever it is, we'll meet Professor X and Magneto as lads, played by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender.  Directed by Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, Stardust), who coincidentally was slated to direct the third installment (X-Men: The Last Stand), before handing the reins to Brett Ratner, in what was considered by most to be the blunder of the franchise.  Bryan Singer, the director of the first two, serves as producer, and the cast includes Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, January Jones, Nicholas Hoult and Kevin Bacon.  After Thor, this marks comic book adaptation number two in summer 2011.

  • Beautiful Boy- Drama about a husband and wife grappling with the news that their 18-year-old son committed a mass shooting as his college before taking his own life.  Stars Michael Sheen and Maria Bello, in a film that made the festival circuit last fall.  On a side-note, what became of Maria Bello...a few short years ago she made such an imitable and striking (and awards-worthy) presence in such films as The Cooler (2003) and especially A History of Violence (2005), she should have an amazing career going on now...what happened?
  • Beginners- Quirky dramedy from director Mike Mills (Thumbsucker) that stars Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor, centering around an older father coming out of the closet late in life and his son. The trailer hints at a probably very-acted, bittersweet comedy, that might prove overly precious.  That being said, with terrific actors like Plummer and McGregor, this will likely be another strong player in the limited release market.
  • Love, Wedding, Marriage- Directed by Dermot Mulroney, in his debut, this indie romantic comedy stars Mandy Moore, a soon-to-be-married gal unraveling while her parents (played by James Brolin and Jane Seymour) announce their separation.  Twilight-glarer Kellan Lutz plays her intended groom.
  • Submarine- A hit at last years Toronto Film Festival, this British quirkfest comes courtesy of Ben Stiller and The Weinstein Company in a tale of idiosyncratic teenage love.  Also stars Sally Hawkins and Paddy Considine.
  • Midnight in Paris- Woody Allen's latest and best in years is expanding in it's third weekend of limited release from 58 screens to 147.  It's already making a huge dent on art-house returns, even netting the highest per-screen average of the year in it's debut weekend.  Let's keep it going, it's a wonderful movie.
  • The Tree of Life- Terrence Malick's latest, and polarizing effort is expanding from 6 screens to 20.  It's first weekend per-theater average netted the second highest of any film in 2011.  All should check it out, and keep the debate alive.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Tree of Life: Part Two Watching the Film

In a film that runs for two-hours and eighteen minutes, with years (decades?) in development\production from one of cinemas most finicky and iconoclastic filmmakers as notorious backstory, The Tree of Life has so much to live up to that no film treatment could possibly-- not even a film that charts the evolution and meaning of existence itself-- give it proper justice.  Directed by Terrence Malick, whose four-decade career has spawned five feature films and a reputation that would put most to shame, cobbles together a superbly well-photographed piece of experimental filmmaking that's unabashedly and irrefutably remarkable, while also tedious, insufferable and perhaps a bit too on the nose in it's symbolism.  And while the wind-blown shots of grass and epic shots of nature (a Malick staple forever) are awe-inspiring, one must also ask the question, as to whether the famed and famously press-shy filmmaker ever intended The Tree of Life, obviously a rare and personal project, to be anything more than a delectably choreographed home movie, a pet film of sorts.  And while there's certainly nothing wrong with inaccessible pieces of work that are meant to provoke, challenge and awe, ones rooted in pure auteur sensibilities, there's a nagging second question evoked by Malick's latest pretty meditation: Is it provoking or challenging?  Does the film grab emotionally or intellectually?  Is the full besieged by the power of it's parts?  All of those questions are, of course, answered by the eyes of the beholder, each likely to see and feel something entirely different.

What I saw was a meticulously crafted, beautifully filmed piece of gobbledygook.  Malick's powers as a filmmaker and visual stylist\poet are unparalleled on American shores, or international ones as well, but there pretty images all lead up to a strangely distancing film that always appears to keep its audience at arms length.  The Tree of Life is a singular, and maddening exploration (perhaps) of the meaning and origin of life as seen through the prism of a 1950s nuclear family.  Mr. O'Brien (played with maturity and strong willed precision by Brad Pitt) is the breadwinner, and a signifier for the harsher, crueler aspects of the universe, thus the films representation of nature.  He teaches his three young sons to be tough and that to get what they want out of life, they must demand the respect and intimate the belittling forces outside.  In perhaps a Darwinian sense of irony, Mr. O'Brien is a bit of failure, a dreamer and owner of several patents never seen to fruition, giving up his big plans for a better future for his young children.  He's also a harsh disciplinarian, demanding much from his young sons (perhaps too much) and emphases the powers of strength, mostly externally.

On the other side, and I suppose the counter force of the film is Mrs. O'Brien (played with soft and loving gestures by Jessica Chastain) who represents grace.  Doting and motherly (perhaps so much so that it falls into caricature), Mrs. O'Brien is ethereal and all pleasing, extolling kindness and tenderness to her three young sons.  This is seen is exquisitely bright montages of her playing and chasing and running around with her children.  I'm not quite sure what the intention Mr. Malick really had for the Mrs. O'Brien role, a cipher and idealized; she comes across as a mixed between a 1950s sitcom mom with her pretty dresses and well-managed hair-dos crossed with a Disney princess (there's a scene where animals are drawn to her that might be the closest thing to levity here), always with arms extended...she's practically going to break down in song at any second.  But, by design, the words that are said (and there's not very many) in this magnum Malick opus are mostly voice-overs, and likely inner prayers as opposed to human interaction, another one of the experimentally distancing motifs in the film.

The opposing forces of Dad's nature versus Mom's grace hit son Jack (Hunter McCracken, a delightfully non-professional acting presence) the hardest as he's grapples both sides.  The middle of stretches of film encompasses Jack's childhood with a serene elegance, both as boys-will-be-boys enchantment and loss of innocence.  An early childhood tragedy at a local swimming pool is potent is its immediacy, as is the curiosity of random of boyhood mischief.  A later years tragedy proves more problematic, as seen by the eyes of a grown up Jack (Sean Penn), a dour, seemingly aimless man in search of a higher being (as visually expressed by a seemingly endless upward elevator ride.)  And while perhaps not a faith-enriched film (at least not one that could count on a religious uptick in ticket sales), the search and approval of God appears throughout The Tree of Life (the film opens with a quote from Job), whether directly or such esoteric, inaccessible pet projects like this, nothing may be quite it appears.  And as the film starts, or ends, or whichever side it appears to on, perhaps the ultimate meaning behind this mad-director-gone-wild experiment is that the creation of human life may be tantamount to creation of life itself.

And this may the root of the absorbing, exasperating sequence in which Malick explores just that.  Enlisting the aid of special effects royalty Douglas Trumbull (who worked on the awe-inspiring, non-computerized imagery for 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film that could be seen as an influence, depending on the beholder's eyes), Malick starts at the very beginning, and the nifty, and again, the absolutely visually absorbing sequence charts the Big Bang and various eras of the universe, complete with a cameo appearance from a dinosaur.  What could be seen as showboating, or pretentious, or a filmmaker's ego gone full tilt (and\or all of the above) is nearly as achingly beautiful and tedious as everything else that surrounds The Tree of Life.  But again, the mystery evokes, as to what the whole thing means, and why is it here?  For a film that intentionally gives very clues as to it's true essence, a sad fact permeates that perhaps it all adds up to not that much at all, and as nature and grace battle it out for supremacy, there's little in store for real, substantial human drama.  That The Tree of Life, with it's compelling and meticulous craftsmanship offers but a tease of provocation both emotionally and intellectually.  Perhaps it all amounts to the most ambitious nature documentary ever filmed.

Not that that means nothing, for the production elements are top drawer across the board.  Using the same cinematographer he used for his last film The New World (2005), Malick clearly has hit alchemy with Emmanuel Lubezki, whose pristine and fluid photography is breathtaking in its scope and limitless in its ambitious.  Lubezki previously brought other hard sell films like Children of Men (2006), Y Tu Mama Tambien (2002) and Sleepy Hollow (1999) an inimitable style and flow that's evocative, new and also kind of poetic, and this film certainly reminds why the Mexican-born cinematography is such a favorite of prickly auteurs and a visionary in his own right.  And perhaps a vexation to his films editors (The Tree of Life had five!)  Longtime Malick collaborator Jack Fisk (Mr. Sissy Spacek-- the two met on Malick's first feature, Badlands) does his typical superior job in production design, both with the more real environments that beautifully detail idyllic Americana and the stranger ones.  The score by Alexandre Desplat is so shaped by the other classical pieces of music in the film, that one would be hard pressed to tell what exactly is original and what isn't...another staple of Malick filmmaking.

What does one do with a film like this?  It's as easy to throw it away as it is appreciate it for what it is.  For everything that feels misguided (which would include most of the Sean Penn-modern-age stuff) or juvenile (the story or lack of one, or tease of one, full of holes, either intended or discarded) or boring (perhaps the entire film in its entirety), there's another nagging feeling that perhaps The Tree of Life will creep itself into the cinematic mind-frame and live forever, that there's clearly a method in Malick's madness.  But until that happens (at least for this patient, and attentive moviegoer), I suppose what I have to appreciate is the idea of filmmaker on limitless ambition and scope, and mad brio making a film that no one else could have possibly ever entertained the idea of ever making, the hope that it lingers and settles the way some films need to, before making it's ever-lasting legacy, and of course those pretty pictures.  For now, I suppose I do what fans of Terrence Malick are prone to doing...wait.  C+
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