Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Monday, April 25, 2011
THE CONSPIRATOR (Dir. Robert Redford, 2010)
Robert Redford's 8th film as director finds him again mining the political mechanics behind a well known controversial event. This time, it's the assassination of Abraham Lincoln with the focus being the lone female charged as a co-conspirator.
James McAvoy plays Frederick Aiken, a fresh out of law school lawyer who Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) suggests should defend the woman, boarding house owner Mary Surratt portrayed by Robin Wright.
McAvoy isn't interested in taking the case on because he thinks she's guilty, but as he gets enveloped into the back story, he begins to see the woman as a possible scapegoat.
Unfortunately the viewer doesn't get enveloped, as this is stiff glacially plotted material. It was first difficult to pinpoint exactly what's wrong with this film as surface-wise it's a handsome looking, well acted, and noble intentioned piece of work, but somehow it's a extremely dull experience in which history never comes alive.
Redford must have thought he was coming on too strong in LIONS FOR LAMBS (which he was), so he decided to delicately dramatize the proceedings here. Sadly so delicately that nothing has any weight to it, and all the player's parts are blandly rendered.
As Lincoln's Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Kevin Kline is the only one who carves out a convincing character, but he too is cornered inside this undercooked contraption of a non-epic.
As a by-the-numbers history lesson, THE CONSPIRATOR does put forth some undeniably important points about Constitutional rights and gives us a new angle on an ages old story, but Redford's hands off execution is too distant and dismal for the film to do anything but ultimately disappear.
Thursday, April 21, 2011
Just like KICK ASS, this movie wonders out loud 'why don't people actually try to be superheroes,' gives us an ordinary schmuck who dons a costume, and has him get his ass kicked before he ultimately saves the day. However, the tone of SUPER is completely different.
Rainn Wilson is our ordinary schmuck here, a short-order cook whose wife (Liv Tyler) leaves him for a slimy drug dealing kingpin played by Kevin Bacon. Rainn takes us into his deprssing existence by way of dry narration ("People look stupid when they cry" he says over a shot of him sobbing), with the film starting off darkly, but a blaringly bright cartoon credits sequence seems to announce that the film is going to be an outrageous romp.
It is and it isn't - there are some funny bits here and there, but once Rainn takes up bashing people's heads in with a wrench, the film's laughs get fewer and fewer.
As a comic book store clerk who is implausibly infatuated with Rainn, Ellen Page overacts like crazy, as if she's trying make us forget her graceful performance in last summer's INCEPTION. Page makes her own costume, which she poses in creepily, and despite Rainn's insistence that he needs no sidekick, asserts herself as "Bolty" - her Robin to Rainn's Batman.
In one of many unpleasant moments, Page forces herself sexually on Rainn - why on earth did the film makers feel they had to go there? The pathetic duo arm themselves with heavy weaponry to take on Bacon's thugs, and the movie's final act is a ultra-violent shakily-shot shoot 'em up in which the film beats its premise into a bloody pulp. It's an unamusing assault on the senses with a flimsy conclusion.
The only strength is Rainn's unwavering commitment to character. This guy definitely has more layers to him than Dwight Shrute, and Rainn fleshes them out intensely. It's a character that deserves a better more rounded narrative, not these worn out conventions.
On the sidelines Liv Tyler doesn't have much to do but look drugged out, Bacon seems to be having a ball probably because he could've done the role in his sleep, and as one of the heavies Michael Rooker just looks uncomfortable. Oh, I almost forgot the odd cameo by Nathan Fillion (Firefly, Castle) as a Christian superhero named the Holy Avenger that Rainn is inspired by when watching him on an religious cable channel.
Really don't know what the point of that means either. SUPER is a tired take on superhero pipe-dreams that has nothing new to say satirically. I rolled my eyes more than I laughed, and I cringed more than I smiled.
I guess those are fitting reactions to a film written and directed by the guy who wrote the live action SCOOBY-DOO movies.
Sunday, April 17, 2011
Saturday, April 16, 2011
Friday, April 15, 2011
Tuesday, April 12, 2011
Little girls kicking ass – we need more of that, right? This movie seems to think so. It introduces Saoirse Ronan as the title character as she stalks an elk in an icy forest in Finland. She takes it down with a bow and arrow, but the animal still breathes as it lies on the ice in front of her.
"I just missed your heart," Ronan says and then she produces a gun to finish off her prey.
Giant white letters on red announce HANNA, and we're off. Ronan lives in a cabin in the woods with her father (Eric Bana) who is training her to be a lethal assassin, complete with aliases and backstories. Bana tells her that if she flips a switch on a transmitter he has, the CIA will instantly know their location and immediately come to capture them.
Ronan, with fierce determination, flips it saying "come and get me."
Bana escapes, but Ronan is apprehended (not without a struggle, of course), taken to a safe house in Morrocco, and monitored by an evil CIA agent (Cate Blanchett, who appears to have modeled her American accent on Glenn Close).
Like Angelina Jolie in SALT, we are shown how bad ass Ronan is from how she can fight and kill her way out of a maximum security compound, so Blanchett and her men don't have the girl for very long.
Ronan hitches a ride with a family of tourists that includes a chatty teenage girl (Jessica Barden), and her parents (Jason Flemyng and Olivia Williams), as thugs led by the suave whistling Tom Hollander are closing in on her.
Also like in SALT, we learn that our protagonist is the result of a project to develop CIA super-operatives by altering their DNA.
This can't really be a Spoiler! can it? I mean I felt like a scenario like that was in place before I walked in.
The only surprise I can think of is that it's not based on some graphic novel.
HANNA has a real drive to it because of its incredible Chemical Brothers soundtrack. At first I thought it was going to be blah techno backing a la RUN LOLA RUN (which is definitely an influence), but it broadens into an immersive ultra-melodic experience full of snappy electronic beats, throbbing baselines, and eery vocalizing. It keep my feet a tapping throughout, and I had to download the soundtrack the second I got home.
Otherwise, I was a little bored by the familiarness of the action sequences (Lord knows we don't need another subway platform fight in which a single man lays out a gang of heavies), and often felt the film seemed like it was stitched together from other movies (a little KILL BILL here, a little LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL there, a bit of BOURNE, some of the before mentioned RUN LOLA RUN, and sprinkled with SALT obviously.
Ronan compellingly carries the film; her performance undoubtedly tops her work in ATONEMENT (directed by Joe Wright), and THE LOVELY BONES. It's a tough character to pull off convincingly, but she makes it seem effortless.
Blanchett and Bana acquit themselves well in their roles, but neither part is very distinctive or affecting. Their fates don't really seem to matter much.
Still, HANNA is enough of a riveting ride to recommend, and it sports the year's best soundtrack so far. If only it had more humanity, and inspired invention to it.
As anything but a serviceable on-the-surface action thriller, HANNA just misses the heart.
Saturday, April 9, 2011
That’s not to say that Russell Brand isn’t obnoxious in the role, don’t get me wrong. He really is.
His schtick gets increasingly more annoying as the film progresses through its lazily arranged set-pieces, that stick closely to the original’s basic plot points, even recycling key dialogue, and even touches on elements of the 1988 sequel (i.e. Arthur tries to get sober and get a job).
The film does have a handful of decent one-liners mostly in the exchanges between Brand and Helen Mirren as Arthur’s nanny, but they’re not enough to justify this rancid re-imagining.
So Arthur is stuck in the pickle of having to marry a woman he’s not in love with (Jennifer Garner) or else losing his family fortune of $900 million. Indie “it” girl Greta Gerwig gets mixed up in this in the role formerly played by Liza Minnelli, but the character is now an unlicensed NYC tour-guide instead of a shoplifting waitress.
It was an inspired choice, one of the film’s few, to cast the Oscar winning Mirren, in a gender/job title change from butler to nanny, as Hobson, the role that won an Oscar for John Gielgud way back in the day. Her stern and acidic performance really helps the film through some tedious stretches.
Gerwig does good work with what she’s given, but there’s zero chemistry between her and Brand. Her aspiring children’s book author character is just a convention, and the film really isn’t very interested in her. Nor Garner, whose part is pretty insulting especially in the film’s worst bit – a sitcom-style bedroom scene that has the actress in a metal corset stuck to the bottom of Brand’s magnetic bed.
For some reason Nick Nolte appears as Garner’s grizzled father, and I don’t think I’ve seen him invested less in a part. Ditto Geraldine James as Brand’s disapproving mother, a thankless role in a movie full of them.
None of those other roles matter, of course, because it’s Brand’s show. He gets to slosh around doing wacky things like dressing up as Batman with his chauffeur (an extremely mis-used Luis Guzmán) as Robin leading the police in a high-speed chase in the Batmobile, drive the BACK TO THE FUTURE Delorean (he collects movie cars, you see), and strut down the street wearing President Lincoln’s top hat, coat, and cane he just purchased at an auction.
Unfortunately none of this is very funny, and Brand can be funny (see FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL and bits of GET HIM TO THE GREEK), but this role which I admit looked good on paper, is just too broad, too obvious, and much too irritating to elicit genuine laughter. It’s just too painfully apparent and Brand just simply doesn’t have the ginormous charm that Dudley Moore had – I mean, the original was a vehicle completely built around that charm.
ARTHUR '11 is such a predictable conventional modernized rehash, that I’m surprised there wasn’t a remix of the theme song from the original (Christopher Cross’s “Arthur’s Theme ‘Best That You Can Do’”) with a well known hip hop artist rapping over it about his billionaire boy Arthur and how he rolls.
BTW this new ARTHUR does feature the inevitable cover of “Arthur’s Theme” by Fitz and the Tantrums, which now joins the film it graces in the bulging file of unnecessary remakes.
YOUR HIGHNESS (Dir. David Gordon Green, 2011)
Sometimes really funny people make really unfunny films.
The comic pedigree of the folks involved in this medieval mess is strong – director David Gordon Green, actor/co-writer Danny McBride, and actor James Franco were all key players in one of my favorite comedies of the last 5 years: PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, but this comes nowhere near the laughter level of that manic marijuana-tinged movie.
It sure tries to, with scores of drug, sex, and bloody slaughter gags, yet none of them elicited even as much as a slight giggle out of me.
Here’s the plot anyway – McBride is an oafish prince who reluctantly joins his heroic brother (Franco) on a quest to rescue Franco’s fiancée (a dim witted Zooey Deschanel) from the clutches of an evil wizard (Justin Theroux).
Along the way they encounter natalie Portman as a warrior princess, and they travel together taking on a five headed serpent monster, treacherous knights working for Theroux, and every profane expression known to be ever spoken by man.
On the surface YOUR HIGHNESS has everything necessary for a fantasy action comedy set during the Dark Ages – it’s got tons of sword play, silly sorcery by way of not-bad CGI, a horse-drawn chariot chase, severed limbs, gratuitous forest nymph nudity, and gorgeous locations in Northern Ireland.
Everything that is, except for legitimate laughs.
Reportedly much of the film was improvised, which makes sense because the dialogue is awful without any lines worth quoting.
McBride is simply doing his predictable slimeball schtick that he does on the HBO series East Bound And Down, and it wears thin really fast in this set-up.
All of McBride’s characteristics come off as clunky as the armor he wears.
Franco and Portman are both slumming it after their loftier turns in 127 HOURS and BLACK SWAN respectively, and it’s obvious they did this because they thought it would be fun, and I’m not doubting they had fun on set, but on screen they sadly look like they are wasting a lot of energy on extremely moronic material.
Deschanel seems detached from it all, maybe a result of certain substances that no doubt were passed around by the cast and crew.
As for the rest of the supporting players like Rasmus Hardiker, Toby Jones, and Charles Dance, I’ll let them off the hook – it’s bad enough for them to be in this film.
YOUR HIGHNESS is a crude cringe-inducing crap-fest devoid of wit and invention. I doubt even teenage stoners will laugh at it. I’m seriously surprised McBride, Franco, and Green think it would be funny, because they are capable of so much more comically.
“This quest sucks!” McBride complains at one point. I heartily agree.
Friday, April 8, 2011
I was a little worried during the first 5 minutes of this comedy drama. Mainly since it starts with a certain four-lettered word (the one that begins with “s”) being spoken by a little girl (Clare Folley).
For a few minutes the word becomes a bit of a running gag, and I feared I was in for a JUNO-type time with cutesy quirky humor, and over-simplified characters.
I needn’t have worried because director McCarthy (THE STATION AGENT, THE VISITOR) gradually shapes a realistic slice of small town life centering on Paul Giamatti as a worn down, yet still determined, New Jersey attorney who works nights as a high school wrestling coach.
But don’t expect THE BAD NEWS BEARS here. The film is more about the situations around those moves on the gymnasium floor, with Giamatti trying to figure out how to deal with one of his star wrestlers – Alex Shaffer (a former wrestling champ in real life).
Giamatti gets involved in the troubled teenager’s life when he becomes the guardian of a rich old man (Burt Young) just so he could collect a caretaker fee as his law business has been suffering.
Shaffer, as Young’s grandson, shows up trying to get away from his junkie mother (Melanie Lynskey), so Giamatti, and his wife (Amy Ryan) find themselves having to take care of the bleached blond boy.
In one of the film’s only comical contrivances, Bobby Cannavale as Giamatti’s best friend is constantly fretting over his ex-wife. However Giamatti and Cannavale’s exchanges are fluid and funny enough to make up for that.
Much better are Giamatti’s convincing relationships with Ryan and Shaffer. There’s also Jeffrey Tambor playing just the right note as Giamatti’s shrugging assistant coach.
Giamatti, which I believe is Latin for “good flick,” never disappoints in his sharp depictions of schlubby men on the edge of total defeat. His performance here is another winner (sorry), as his desperate (at times devious) dealings are utterly believable, sympathetic, and ultimately endearing.
When that initial fear of cringe-inducing quirkiness faded after the first few minutes, I was quite pleased at how McCarthy’s movie played out.
I predict audiences will be too, for WIN WIN is a fine underdog indie that doesn’t try too hard to get you on its side.
Saturday, April 2, 2011
EVEN THE RAIN (Dir. Icair Bollain, 2010)
In FrançoisTruffaut’s DAY FOR NIGHT (1973), the famous French director (playing a fictional famous French director) said: “Making a film is like a stagecoach ride in the old west. When you start, you are hoping for a pleasant trip. By the halfway point, you just hope to survive.”
As the producer and director of a low budget film about Christopher Columbus in Cochabamba, Bolivia, Luis Tosar and Gael García Bernal can relate to that sentiment greatly.
The "Cochabamba Water Wars" of 2000 are raging, and García Bernal just happened to cast the leader (Juan Carlos Aduviri) in the demonstrations against the water hikes to play a pivotal part in his film - Hatuey, the Taínotribe chief who led a rebellion against the Spaniards in 1512.
Tosar and García Bernal fret about how this conflicts with their filming, but Aduviri simply states: “There are more important things than your movie.”
Scenes from the film within a film about Columbus are often presented without the film makers or crew visible, with documentary style recordings from the actual protests interspersed throughout so a jolting juxtaposition occurs.
We feel the stress in the faces of the extras hired on the cheap as they are unable to take a break from the reality that plans to privatize their vital water supply will threaten their already poverty stricken existence.
Aduviri, is aware of being exploited by the film makers, but is determined to push on for his cause. His passion rivals theirs, as well it should, and the fragility of a threadbare film project contrasted with the escalation of rioting demonstrators is striking to say the least.
By the time the finale comes around, the historical context of both events in Garcia Bernal and Tosar's film, and the overwhelming severity of the strike against the Bolivian goverment is tightly intertwined.
Director Bollain is sympathetic in her storytelling drawing vast humanity from the performances of Garcia Bernal, Tosar, and especially Aduviri who definitely steals the film.
EVEN THE RAIN is a powerful film that illustrates just what it means to survive, whether through cinema or through the strength of one's convictions.
Friday, April 1, 2011
SOURCE CODE (Dir. Duncan Jones, 2011)
So Jake Gyllenhaall is jarred into consciousness on a Chicago commuter train sitting across from Michelle Monaghan who’s in mid conversation mode.
She thinks he’s somebody else, and from his reflection in the train’s restroom mirror – he is somebody else.
While still scrambling to figure out what’s going on, a massive explosion destroys the train and kills him, her, and hundreds of people. Then Gyllenhaall wakes up again, but this time in a dark chamber in some sort of laboratory with Vera Farmiga in a dark blue military suit on a video monitor.
Farmiga explains to Gylennhaall that he is on a mission to inhabit a specific passenger’s mind the last 8 minutes before the train is blown up in order to identify the bomber and thwart future attacks.
Therefore Gyllenhaall is thrust into the same scene again multiple times, GROUNDHOG DAY style.
This is a juicy premise that comes equipped with some tasty twists. Gyllenhaall, who is revealed to be a army helicopter pilot, is a smart guy so it’s fun to watch him try to figure out the suspects and manipulate the situation, all the while flirting with the playful Monaghan.
As Farmiga’s superior, a stodgy Jeffrey Wright is sternly looking over her shoulder spouting out the necessary exposition about the source code that they are utilizing: “It’s not time travel; it’s time reassignment.”
As the second film of director Duncan Jones (whose first movie MOON is seriously worth checking out), SOURCE CODE is stylishly paced, elaborately assembled, and is filled with stunning visuals, but it has one fatal flaw that is really difficult for me to wrap my brain around.
Thing is, to reveal that flaw would be committing a major Spoiler! crime, so I’ll just say that this film is close to 80 maybe 85% of a superb surreal action thriller.
It's one of Gyllenhaall's most appealing performances displaying the right amount of tension and humility. By this point he doesn't have to prove that he can carry a movie, but it's still cool seeing him again give it the "old college try."
Farmiga shows that even with her lips prudishly pursed, wearing a drab uniform, and with her hair pulled back into a bun is still collassally cute. Her performance ain't bad either - she conveys a restrained sense of urgency throughout.
Monaghan doesn't have much of a character despite being the love interest, but she makes the most of it. Wright as the handicapped "source code" scientist, is all sinister in his cold calculations in a predictable "heavy" manner, but although he's mainly a device - he's not a narrative problem like the one that keeps me from being 100% on board with this movie.
So much of this film is so good that I definitely recommend it, but that one particular plot hole (that I'm dying to go off on, again - Spoiler! city) just keeps bugging me.
I know I over-think these things, and that most folks will see it as a slick serviceable popcorn picture and go about their day, but SOURCE CODE is so close to absolute brilliance in its meticulousness that I can't help but zeroing in the one element that almost derails the entire endeavor.
However, maybe getting wrapped up in that one glitch in the system is just as much fun as getting wrapped up in the rest of it.