Thursday, December 30, 2010

Four Lions

FOUR LIONS (Chris Morris, 2010)

Comedies don’t get any nervier than director Chris Morris’s FOUR LIONS, which is built on the exploits of bumbling Islamic terrorists in a cell near London. By all appearances the group’s levelheaded leader Omar (Riz Ahmed) wouldn’t be involved with such a bunch. He has a comfortable middle class life with a loving wife and admiring son, yet there he is telling a bedtime story attempting to recast THE LION KING as a tale of jihad and groaning over the numerous outtakes from videos supposed to present them as fearsome ideological warriors.

Omar and the easily malleable Waj (Kayvan Novak) depart England for a training camp in Pakistan, but they make a hasty return home after demonstrating their ineptitude with artillery. During their absence, Barry (Nigel Lindsay), a blowhard incapable of keeping a low profile, meets a kindred spirit in Hassan (Arsher Ali), who tries to make a point about prejudice toward Muslims by pretending to be strapped with explosives at an Islamic relations panel. Barry invites Hassan to join him and the sheepish Fessal (Adeel Akhtar) in plotting some kind of attack.

The desire to put belief into action becomes more urgent when Omar and Waj reconnect with the others. They just need to determine the proper target, and no, it won’t be the mosque, no matter how much Barry insists that blowing it up will inflame their spiritual brothers to fight the heathens.

FOUR LIONS is merciless in its mission to find humor where few would dare seek it. Morris and co-writers Jesse Armstrong, Sam Bain, and Simon Blackwell present these modern boogeymen as buffoons and hold them up to ridicule for their vanity and tortured logic. The film’s point is neatly summarized in the scene with Omar contorting himself to convince his confused accomplice Waj that killing innocent civilians and themselves to promote their cause is a good thing that he wants to do. From an outside perspective, such talk would sound clearly insane, and it’s not simply because individual bombers in the group are dressed as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle and a guy riding an ostrich. In letting the characters accept such philosophical views as wise and noble, Morris and company highlight the absurdity of these positions to devastating comedic ends.

It may not seem very risky for the filmmakers to take potshots at terrorists. Who’s going to object? In FOUR LIONS the courage comes in putting front and center the disquieting notion that terrorism is as simple as any group of fools with the ability and desire to assemble and detonate rudimentary bombs. It’s easy enough to find the hilarity in those who would do us harm hurting themselves. It’s something quite different to be reminded that militaries and intelligence agencies aren’t necessarily fighting brilliant or deeply pocketed opponents. FOUR LIONS allows the audience to laugh at these dimwits, which has enormous cathartic power, yet in not sparing the deadly consequences of their beliefs and actions, the film adds an extra layer of resonance regarding what’s at stake in this clash of worldviews.

Boldness in and of itself in a comedy doesn’t mean the material is actually humorous; however, FOUR LIONS is packed with razor-sharp wordplay and glorious slapstick that make it an explosively funny and unsettling film.

Grade: A

Friday, December 24, 2010

Black Swan

BLACK SWAN (Darren Aronofsky, 2010)

BLACK SWAN ballerina Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) finally gets her shot at being a star, but the pressures may be more than she can handle. Nina comes off as quiet and unassuming, which makes her ideal for the virginal white swan in a new production of SWAN LAKE, but the director (Vincent Cassel) has doubts that she can also embody the bold and lusty black swan, qualities that she must show if she is to play the Swan Queen.

To claim the leading role, Nina takes actions that surprise the director and herself, which may be the first signs that she’s losing her mind. The paranoia increases when Nina suspects that Lily (Mila Kunis), the newest dancer in the company, is angling for her treasured lead role.

BLACK SWAN merges the sexual hysteria of Roman Polanski’s REPULSION with the ballet drama of Powell and Pressburger’s THE RED SHOES and throws in a generous dollop of Cronenberg-like body horror for good measure. Director Darren Aronofsky’s lurid mixture of high and low art makes for an often intoxicating film about creative risk and personal development.

At the center of it is Portman delivering a tour de force performance that conveys BLACK SWAN’S dualities. The tiny actress looks the part of a fragile dancer, like one that could adorn the top of a music box. She’s every bit mommy’s little girl, from having her mother (Barbara Hershey) undress her and clip her nails to inhabiting a child-like bedroom in her parent’s apartment. Nina acts and is treated like a pretty little princess. Portman wears this sheltered quality as though it is a comfortable straitjacket.

When Nina’s shadow self thrashes to escape this coddled existence, Portman’s transformative acting is thrilling in how it manifests the psychosis. Delicate technical precision and emotional control gives way to bold, forceful expressions, particularly in the SWAN LAKE scenes that conclude the film on a dizzying high. Aronofsky is completely serious about the fever dream that is BLACK SWAN, which is how he’s able to pull off material that is inherently unserious.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Love & Other Drugs


LOVE & OTHER DRUGS (Edward Zwick, 2010)

LOVE & OTHER DRUGS opens in 1996 with charismatic electronics salesman Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal) out of a job due to his influential way with women, especially one he shouldn’t be charming. He transitions into a job as a pharmaceutical salesman for Pfizer and is assigned to sell Zoloft in the Ohio Valley.

While posing as an intern and trying to persuade a doctor to switch from prescribing Prozac to the pill he’s pushing, Jamie meets Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway). Initially she is angered that Jamie violates her privacy in the doctor’s examination room, but his persuasiveness and mutual desire for a commitment-free relationship win her over while she also keeps him at arm’s length. Maggie has early onset of Parkinson’s and doesn’t wish to be obligated to anyone or anything long term.

Among the medications involved in LOVE & OTHER DRUGS is a certain little blue pill that Jamie sells like gangbusters when it reaches the marketplace. Strange how for a movie about a Viagra salesman, we don’t see the growth of the characters. Several featured scenes in the bedroom leave Jamie and Maggie’s physical chemistry undisputed, but evidence of their emotional attachment and development is far less obvious. Jamie begins to change because the screenplay demands it. Maggie opposes any deviations in their arrangement because the script insists so.

The film’s central relationship wouldn’t feel so prescribed if LOVE & OTHER DRUGS weren’t pitched at a sitcom level. Rather than allowing two non-conformists to find their own way, director and co-writer Edward Zwick makes sure they are altered to fit the formula. Gyllenhaal looks and feels too young for the role and seems too eager to please for the incorrigible type he’s supposed to be.

Whereas Gyllenhaal is all surface level, Hathaway suggests a flesh and blood being dealing with a multitude of issues spoken and unspoken. Performance-wise she fares better, perhaps because Maggie functions as the redeemer than the redeemed. The role is more complicated than the usual dreamgirl. Unfortunately the film is more interested in her slick, straightforward other half. LOVE & OTHER DRUGS is a cutesy love story tempered by an illness and a smidgen of commentary about pharmaceutical sales in the United States.

Grade: C-

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Faster

FASTER (George Tillman Jr., 2010)

Identified simply as Driver, Dwayne Johnson's protagonist stews during his time behind bars as he plots his revenge in FASTER. The tag references his getaway vehicle driving duty with his brother’s bank robbing crew.

Driver’s skills behind the wheel help them elude the police, but their misdeeds catch up with them when a rival group of thieves invade their home to take the stolen money. They kill Driver’s brother and leave him for dead with a gunshot wound to the back of the head. Miraculously Driver survives the point blank shot and emerges from the injury with a nasty star-like scar, a metal plate, and a prison sentence.

Upon his release, Driver hunts down those who did him wrong and takes justice into his own hands. In pursuit are drug-addled cop (Billy Bob Thornton) and an assassin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) hired to take out Driver.

If FASTER were made 35 years ago or by the French or Japanese, it would be one of those grimy, long forgotten films you expect Quentin Tarantino to be touting. In the beginning this lean piece of revenge cinema looks like it might be that kind of rough around the edges B-movie whose fun derives from its no-nonsense approach and hard-hitting action. It’s streamlined to the point where most of the main characters don’t have names, just descriptors.

Johnson and Thornton lead a surprisingly strong cast, which also includes Carla Gugino as Thornton’s by-the-books co-investigator and Tom Berenger as the warden. For something that otherwise resembles countless direct-to-video titles, there’s a lot of talent on screen.

FASTER has collected the right pieces, but director George Tillman Jr. and screenwriters Tony and Joe Gayton struggle to assemble them properly. FASTER’S set-up feeds on the guilty pleasure of vengeance, yet it resists giving in to that impulse. The reason for the solemn tone eventually becomes clear and reveals the film to have more going on than expected, but with so much of FASTER dedicated to righteous rage, withholding visceral satisfaction weakens the action and the message.

Muddling matters is the three part structure divided among Driver, Cop, and Killer. The assassin’s scenes seem to belong to another film altogether and merely take away time and urgency from the main story. FASTER also could use a healthy dose of humor to lighten the burdened tone.

Ultimately FASTER is a film at conflict with its own nature. Too contemplative to indulge its pure screaming id and too vicious to be swayed by the bigger philosophical questions it proposes, FASTER doesn’t satisfy the appetite for enlightenment or destruction.

Grade: C-

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Next Three Days

THE NEXT THREE DAYS (Paul Haggis, 2010)

In THE NEXT THREE DAYS John and Lara Brennan’s happy marriage is shattered when Pittsburgh police turn up at their front door one morning to arrest her for murder. Lara (Elizabeth Banks) is convicted to a life sentence, but John (Russell Crowe) holds out hope that the appeals process will ultimately free his wife. Eventually he realizes that the legal system will not overturn her conviction, so he plots to break her out of prison and escape out of the country with her and their son.

John’s singular focus and dogged mission planning propels THE NEXT THREE DAYS for a considerable amount of the running time. He’s a man obsessed with doing whatever he can in the hope of reuniting his family. The film hums from his intensity and the detail-oriented approach, even if it passes along as truth the MYTHBUSTERS-busted technique of using a tennis ball to unlock a locked vehicle.

Crowe delivers a lived-in, no-nonsense performance that has come to define his body of work. Although in comparatively few scenes, Banks is good at conveying her character’s weariness through this ordeal.

THE NEXT THREE DAYS co-writer and director Paul Haggis succeeds at exploring the psychological burdens of this situation while leaving some of the more interesting questions untouched. The audience may take it on good faith that Lara is innocent and wrongly imprisoned, but the film is less clear about that for an astonishingly long time yet doesn’t factor it into the equation. John is warned that he should be prepared to leave his son behind, but that doesn’t feel like a choice the film is ever committed to make.

The bulk of THE NEXT THREE DAYS consists of the build-up to the escape plan, which is probably just as well since this is a thriller surprisingly light on thrills. THE NEXT THREE DAYS mostly works as a dramatic study, but for a movie with a daring prison break, it needs more sizzle in the action.

Grade: C+

Friday, November 12, 2010

Unstoppable

UNSTOPPABLE (Tony Scott, 2010)

An unmanned runaway train carrying toxic materials speeds across Pennsylvania, and it’s up to Denzel Washington and Chris Pine to stop it in UNSTOPPABLE. Washington is Frank, a longtime engineer, and Pine plays Will, a relatively new conductor with family matters on his mind more than the job at hand. Once they discover that there’s a virtual missile on the tracks heading south toward their hometown, they commit to a risky plan to stop the train.

UNSTOPPABLE takes a simple premise and spins it into an entertaining film surging with pure energy. Director Tony Scott’s manic style is perfectly suited for this propulsive piece of action filmmaking. In addition to its exhilarating speed, UNSTOPPABLE’S efficiency is also an asset. The characters are introduced quickly and provided with a few key details to flesh them out. Washington and Pine are engaged in action hero work, not character studies, so getting the brushstrokes of their backstories is perfectly acceptable. Frank’s near the end of his career, Will’s near the end of his rope. That’s enough. And oh, by the way, they’re trying to stop a speeding train.

The performances hinge on the personalities of the actors, not their character’s origins, and the two leads work well together. Washington’s unflappable nature and Pine’s solemn determination complement each other when things get down to the nitty gritty.

Likewise, UNSTOPPABLE appreciates the spectacle of this tale, but it keeps the stakes high and takes them seriously, perhaps in a tip to its roots as a true story. The film climaxes with an audacious, last ditch attempt to bring the train to a stop that seems all the more exciting because there’s a real engine hurtling down the line.

Grade: B

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Megamind

MEGAMIND (Tim McGrath, 2010)

What’s a supervillain without a superhero?

In MEGAMIND the eponymous evil genius discovers that he has lost his purpose after defeating his square-jawed nemesis Metro Man. Like Superman, the Will Ferrell-voiced Megamind and Brad Pitt-voiced Metro Man are sent to Earth to escape destruction on their home planets. Their paths diverge when a young Metro Man’s pod lands in a mansion while wee Megamind’s is deposited in a prison.

As adults they square off repeatedly, usually due to Megamind’s abduction of TV reporter Roxanne Ritchie (Tina Fey), until Megamind bests his foe. Left to indulge his every whim, Megamind loses his zest for evildoing and schemes to create a new hero so he can get his mojo back.

The blue-skinned, wrong syllable emphasizing Megamind is less immediately sympathetic than Gru from this summer’s DESPICABLE ME. Consequentially, it’s harder to laugh at his diabolical antics. Megamind is established as a figure capable of causing real harm. While the film isn’t as dark as it seemingly sets itself up to be, it suffers from the miscalculation of centering a CGI-animated kids film on what appears to be, at least superficially, The Bad Guy.

Naturally, MEGAMIND tries to sweep this under the rug as fast as possible, but the damage has already been done. MEGAMIND is a visually sleek film, especially when viewed in 3-D. The sparkling, futuristic design combines with terrific depth of field to conjure a world in which good and evil do battle in and above the streets, but the look of the film is the main thing going for it.

MEGAMIND is dramatically and comedically inert. It fails to distinguish itself from other tongue-in-cheek superhero and supervillain cartoons mainly because the characters don’t impress as being all that unique. Simply put, MEGAMIND isn’t funny or interesting enough.

Grade: C

Friday, November 05, 2010

Conviction

CONVICTION (Tony Goldwyn, 2010)

Hilary Swank has gravitated to roles in which her character has a singular purpose and is vigilant in staying on course. In the fact-based CONVICTION she’s found another determined woman to add to her roster. Swank plays Betty Anne Waters, a high school dropout who makes it through a rough upbringing with her brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell).

Kenny has his share of encounters with the Ayers, Massachusetts police, but things get serious in 1980 when he’s brought in for questioning about a local murder. Three years later he is convicted of the crime despite his protestations of innocence. Betty Anne believes her brother and vows to get all of the necessary education to prove that he didn’t do it, no matter how long it takes.

CONVICTION’S title refers more to the dedication of Betty Anne Waters than the judgment rendered against Kenny. The film isn’t anything fancy and doesn’t contain much in the way of surprises, but it wields an enormous amount of power in depicting the bottomless love and devotion that a sister has for her brother. After Kenny was convicted Betty Anne earned her GED, Bachelor’s, Master’s, and law degrees and located the key evidence presumed to have been destroyed years earlier. All in all, it took around twenty years for her persistence to pay off.

Swank plays the role with a quiet intensity that beautifully conveys the selflessness and personal cost that such an endeavor must require. Director Tony Goldwyn and screenwriter Pamela Gray don’t shy from showing the toll Betty Anne’s decisions have on her life, but like Swank, they don’t oversell the sacrifices or thickly apply sentimentality.

This unassuming film features a moving story that’s well-told and well-performed. Instead of concerning itself with slick legal maneuvers and courtroom grandstanding, CONVICTION is unashamedly straightforward in showing how a lot of hard work and sheer willpower was able to correct an injustice.

Grade: B

Friday, October 22, 2010

Paranormal Activity 2


PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 (Tod Williams, 2010)

Rather than picking up where PARANORMAL ACTIVITY left off, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 goes back to explain where the demon that tormented Katie and Micah came from and what it wants. This sequel/prequel observes Katie’s sister Kristi Rey (Sprague Grayden) and her family, which includes husband Dan (Brian Boland), stepdaughter Ali, and their infant son Hunter.

One day the Reys come home to find that an intruder has wrecked their house, although the only thing that seems to be missing is a necklace Katie gave Kristi. Sufficiently spooked, they install multiple security cameras, but strange things happening around the house keep Kristi in particular on edge. Unexplainable noises awaken the baby. A pan is knocked from its secured storage spot. The pool cleaner mysteriously is removed from the pool overnight. Over time the disturbances become more aggressive.

Following the series’ conceit of presenting edited found footage, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 consists of house surveillance videos and some interactions caught by camcorder. Much of what’s captured on tape and hard drives is mundane, but it’s precisely the ordinariness and long takes in these scenes that can make them so unnerving when the supernatural element disrupts the tranquility. For instance, watching someone sit at a kitchen island isn’t inherently compelling, but the anticipation of something happening while patiently focusing on the scene pays off with a massive jolt when the cabinets and drawers explode open for no reason.

It’s in this manner that PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 consistently succeeds at constructing jump moments with deliberation during routine home settings. The scares in PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 aren’t as frequent or always as well built as the original film’s, but those that exist are still pretty effective. In day-to-day life, unseen things that go bump in the night, or the daytime for that matter, have a way of frightening the living daylights out of us. The same applies to the movies.

Grade: B-

Session 9

SESSION 9 (Brad Anderson, 2001)

In SESSION 9 a five man crew is hired to remove the asbestos from an old, abandoned Massachusetts mental hospital shuttered due to rumors of sexual and satanic abuse. Exhausted from having a new baby at home and pinched financially, crew leader Gordon (Peter Mullan) does whatever it takes to undercut the other bidders and secure the contract. His ambitious promise to complete the work in a week looks daunting, but a ten thousand dollar bonus is there for the taking if they are successful.

The domestic and work pressures on Gordon are readily apparent, and the rest of the crew is similarly on edge. Phil (David Caruso) and Hank (Josh Lucas) are not on the friendliest of terms since Hank stole the other’s girlfriend. Mike (Stephen Gevedon) is a law school washout treading water in a job below his skills and interests. Gordon’s nephew Jeff (Brendan Sexton III) has an abnormal fear of the dark. The dilapidated asylum with a spooky history may be a stressful place for a well-adjusted person to work, let alone for the tense and highly suggestible.

SESSION 9 is heavy on mood and light on narrative substance, but the pervasive sense of dread that it sustains trumps the slightness of plot. Credit a fantastic location and smart sound design for inducing a tangible state of fear. Viewed from above, the imposing mental hospital in the countryside resembles a bat with large wings. The interior’s decaying walls and broken tiles bear the marks of a place ravaged by psychological pain trying to escape.

SESSION 9 draws its title from the last in a series of doctor and patient reel-to-reel tape recordings that one crew member finds and becomes obsessed with listening to. The slight wobble in the playback enhances the unsettling nature of interviews conducted with the alters of a woman suffering from multiple personality disorder. These chilling talks play out as little more than theater of the mind, yet they’re as scary as anything the film depicts. The same applies to the telling of the reason for the asylum’s downfall as a working facility. Like a good ghost story around the campfire, the recounting of supposed atrocities is horrible enough to hear to give one goosebumps.

Since SESSION 9 opened in 2001, director and co-writer Brad Anderson has done a lot of TV work. He directed an episode of the anthology programs MASTERS OF HORROR and FEAR ITSELF and helmed seven episodes of FRINGE. SESSION 9 might have been tighter as an anthology short or an investigation into the paranormal on episodic television. The thinly developed characters wouldn’t be as much of a problem in those formats, and a shorter version could pare down plot misdirects that add running time and little else.

The one area SESSION 9 benefits from being a feature film is in how Anderson draws out the atmosphere and mystery in a manner that would suffer with commercial breaks. SESSION 9 may feel a bit incomplete or small in scale at film’s end, but even if the answer isn’t as compelling as the secret, it gets under your skin for the duration and digs a little deeper with a creepy concluding line.

Grade: B-

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Audition (Ôdishon)

AUDITION (ÔDISHON) (Takashi Miike, 1999)

After seven years widowed Japanese TV producer Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) feels that it is time to find a new wife in AUDITION. A co-worker offers to assist by putting out a casting call for a film no one intends to make and letting Aoyama pick thirty applicants. They will interview the women, which then gives Aoyama the opening to charm whichever prospective actress he selects as a potentially viable spouse.

Even before the audition, he is captivated by the submitted profile of Asami (Eihi Shiina). This demure young woman with an old soul possesses all the qualities Aoyama wants in a wife, and his enthusiasm for her is undisguised during the audition.

It isn’t hard to imagine a Hollywood film taking AUDITION’S scenario and making a drama or romantic comedy. A lonely man seeking love is a familiar set-up, and about the first third of AUDITION plays like a standard melodrama. However, AUDITION is directed by Takashi Miike, an unbelievably prolific filmmaker who is notorious for turning out movies that get placed under the Asian extreme classification. At some point things are going to take a wrong turn in AUDITION, and boy do they ever.

The drastic shift in tone and style is the film’s ace in the hole. When AUDITION changes gears, the main character and the audience are equally disoriented. It’s the rare film that provides the experience of being caught off guard on a consistent basis or acquires a feeling of danger because it doesn’t play according to the rules. That’s what Miike accomplishes with great skill in AUDITION and varying degrees of success in his other movies.

AUDITION’S second half is packed with disturbing surprises and a pitch black sense of humor. The climax is as unrelenting and difficult to watch as anything I’ve seen in a horror film because it embraces the pain that its counterparts never dare too. Whether reading AUDITION as a portrait of coming to terms with grief, a feminist revenge tale, or a graphic exploration of romantic attachment and idealism, it remains a terrifying film.

Grade: B+

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Never Let Me Go

NEVER LET ME GO (Mark Romanek, 2010)

NEVER LET ME GO follows the lives of friends Kathy H. (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield), and Ruth (Keira Knightley), who grew up together at Hailsham, a boarding school for special children like them. The film begins in 1978 with them as children and concludes in 1994 with the three as adults trying to make sense of the world. Kathy is the pensive one of the group, and her thoughts and observations provide the narration to NEVER LET ME GO. To say much more about the veiled truths in the plot would ruin the experience of discovering them.

The rich subtext in NEVER LET ME GO wouldn’t mean anything without the care given to the story. Screenwriter Alex Garland’s skillful adaptation of the fantastic Kazuo Ishiguro novel reveals the secret about these characters basically from the outset, yet the underlying science fiction aspect is treated as a canvas for the relationships and emotional turmoil instead of being the plot’s main focus.

NEVER LET ME GO can be about the soul, technological innovation, media messaging, or any number of things beyond what the plot spells out. While the characters are vessels for various interpretations of their existential crises, the main story regarding love and purpose plays well enough on its own.

NEVER LET ME GO also digs into the foundation of our beliefs and the astronomical impact of how we often accept unquestioningly what we are taught and what we view, especially as children. The carefully chosen euphemisms convey concepts with large implications for the kids, yet it is through such words that passivity is branded into them. Director Mark Romanek and cinematographer Adam Kimmel employ a nostalgic and otherworldly visual sensibility to evoke the golden years of innocence and ignorance. The film looks and feels like beautiful heartbreak.

Grade: A

Friday, October 08, 2010

Life as We Know It

LIFE AS WE KNOW IT (Greg Berlanti, 2010)

In LIFE AS WE KNOW IT married couple Peter and Alison Novak (Hayes MacArthur and Christina Hendricks) try to set up their best friends with each other, but the disastrous first date between Holly Berenson and Eric Messer (Katherine Heigl and Josh Duhamel) assures there won’t be a love connection in the near future.

During the next couple years Holly and Messer only cross paths when attending their friends’ parties and doting on Peter and Alison’s baby. One day news arrives that Peter and Alison have died in a car accident and left their two single friends with shared custody of their one-year-old Sophie.

Neither Holly nor Messer were aware of the big responsibility their friends were entrusting them with. The love for their friends and orphaned daughter transcends their dislike for one another, so they try their best to raise a child together and live under the same roof.

Reviewing films usually means assessing the stylistic treatment of a subject rather than critiquing the subject itself. LIFE AS WE KNOW IT is a special case where the core idea of the film is as off-putting as the way in which the premise is depicted. When it comes to films featuring characters engaging in controlling behavior from beyond the grave, LIFE AS WE KNOW IT ranks up there with the romance P.S. I LOVE YOU, in which Hilary Swank’s dead husband’s letters dictate her day-to-day life.

Screenwriters Ian Deitchman and Kristin Rusk Robinson set up a scenario in which the loss of two close friends isn’t traumatic enough. Instead the protagonists must also rearrange their entire lives, give up their own places, and become unwitting caretakers to an orphaned child in their deceased friends’ home. No worries, though. It’s all to be accepted because those friends knew these two single people were meant to be together despite all evidence to the contrary.

Director Greg Berlanti’s romantic comedy approach makes LIFE AS WE KNOW IT’S rather repellent set-up even more unpalatable. The cutesy but chemistry-free banter, scenes of playing house, and Holly and Messer’s neighbors finding the situation so adorable are among the major miscalculations in tone.

In fairness, the film doesn’t ignore the strains on the main characters. It simply chalks them up to the worthwhile costs of Holly and Messer getting necessary life makeovers. The film’s comfortable sitcom-like form allows LIFE AS WE KNOW IT to settle into a groove in which the goings-on are taken for granted no matter how deeply dysfunctional this arrangement is. While Sarah Burns’ funny performance as a frazzled social services case worker deserves a better film than this, thankfully she brings the needed acknowledgement of how absurd the basis of it is.

Grade: C-

Sunday, October 03, 2010

The Black Cauldron

THE BLACK CAULDRON (Ted Berman and Richard Rich, 1985)

THE BLACK CAULDRON was Disney’s 25th animated feature, their first to use CGI, and the studio’s first PG-rated cartoon. At the time it was the most expensive animated movie ever made.

The fantasy adventure tells the story of Taran (Grant Bardsley), a boy who daydreams of being a great warrior while he goes about his work as an assistant pig keeper. He’s not watching after any ordinary pig, though. Hen Wen is an oracle capable of seeing where the The Black Cauldron is. The Horned King (John Hurt) wishes to capture Hen Wen so he can find the Cauldron and use it to reanimate an army of deathless warriors.

THE BLACK CAULDRON is based on the second book in Lloyd Alexander’s fantasy series THE CHRONICLES OF PRYDAIN and rooted in Welsh mythology. The source material offers a rich foundation for an epic quest not unlike THE LORD OF THE RINGS, but in attempting to spin a compelling tale for kid and adult sensibilities, the adapted screenplay struggles to satisfy either audience.

The characters, especially bland hero Taran, lack the personality found in the enduring and beloved Disney protagonists. THE BLACK CAULDRON is too frightening for younger viewers, and appeals to them, like a cutesy creature in a comic relief role that functions as a proto Jar-Jar Binks, throw off the tone in what is at heart a serious journey.

THE BLACK CAULDRON is much darker and more violent than expected from Disney or animated movies in general 25 years ago, which may explain why it was a commercial failure. In spite of its shortcomings, this is a film and series of novels ripe for remaking. From today’s vantage point, THE BLACK CAULDRON looks like it was ahead of the curve. A rip-roaring adventure that can be spread over several films and attract all age ranges fits perfectly into the franchise model that studios are following. Fantastical elements, like an army of the undead, can be better realized with today’s technology.

As is to be expected from Disney, THE BLACK CAULDRON is beautifully animated and has the added interest of using a darker-than-usual palette. It’s not a good film, but for one with the reputation of being the studio’s worst animated feature, it shows that interesting work is done in it.

Grade: C-

Friday, September 24, 2010

Legend of the Guadians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole

LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS: THE OWLS OF GA’HOOLE (Zack Snyder, 2010)

Sneaking off to improve their flying has terrible consequences for brother owlets Soren and Kludd in LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS: THE OWLS OF GA’HOOLE. The two barn owls, voiced by Jim Sturgess and Ryan Kwanten, tumble to the ground during practice and are abducted.

Along with other owlets, Soren and Kludd are told that their new family is with the Tytos, a parliament of warmongering pure ones led by Metalbeak (Joel Edgerton). Soren resists his captors’ persuasion and is sent off to be a picker while Kludd elects to be a soldier in Metalbeak’s army. Soren and a friend escape and set off in search of the legendary owls of Ga’Hoole, who they hope can save and protect everyone.

LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS: THE OWLS OF GA’HOOLE director Zack Snyder also made 300, which was virtually a live-action cartoon, and his love of super slo-mo action poses accelerated into full speed clashes is lavished on this CGI-animated film. In other words, LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS is the kids movie version of 300 featuring owls. It is short on story, which is actually a plus in this instance, and long on that full battle rattle.

The breathtaking aerial assaults convey a palpable sense of velocity and force, especially in 3-D. On-screen violence and its aftermath is suggested more than depicted so that the film keeps a PG rating, although the intensity may be enough to inspire nightmares in younger children.

Unlike Snyder’s humorless 300, LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS incorporates some lighter comedic moments, such as when the owlets pretend to be hypnotized by the moon to fit in with the other pickers and meet with a mystical spiny anteater who claims to know everything about them. The animation is top notch, with each barb in the feathers rendered in photorealist detail. The repetition fatigue that plagued 300 also weakens LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS, but otherwise it's an entertaining, action-packed fable.

Grade: B-

Friday, September 17, 2010

Easy A

EASY A (Will Gluck, 2010)

In the comedy EASY A high school student Olive (Emma Stone) has her reputation soiled when an overheard and misunderstood conversation in the restroom leads to rumors of her promiscuity. The gossip improves her social standing, so Olive doesn’t make an effort to clear the air. When a classmate asks her to fake having sex with him so he’ll stop being bullied due to his homosexuality, she finds herself as the sole provider in a cottage industry to help the school’s outcast virgins.

By dressing more provocatively and SCARLET LETTER-like through the affixing of a large A to her clothes, Olive embraces the notorious position she now has within the school . Meanwhile, sanctimonious classmate Marianne (Amanda Bynes) leads a group of conservative religious students in a campaign to ostracize their presumably promiscuous peer.

Stone earns high marks in EASY A for her confident and vulnerable performance. She displays a good sense of timing and reaction when playing the comedic parts of the role, especially when it comes to verbal sparring. Stone also hits the right emotional notes when it becomes clear that the scrutiny and judgment by Olive’s peers have begun to take their toll. Like Carey Mulligan’s character in AN EDUCATION, Olive’s intelligence can be her greatest asset and shortcoming, and Stone locates the pain that comes in having her cleverness get the better of her and the superficial apathy she wears.

With EASY A director Will Gluck and screenwriter Bert V. Royal undertake an ambitious effort to make a movie about teen sexuality and double standards. The dialogue is sharp and funny throughout, even when the writer is obviously a little too pleased with his own wit. EASY A treats the issues and social pressures with a seriousness uncommon in similar films, although it tends to retreat when beginning to dig into tough questions.

The role of technology in the rapid distribution of rumors and instantaneous ability to ruin someone’s life goes unexplored, which is a missed opportunity considering that EASY A is framed by a webcast Olive uses to explain her story to the entire school. Examining the effects of social media in such a situation would have been a better use of time than the self-reflexive John Hughes references that the filmmakers indulge.

The film also take a wrong turn when complicating matters with a more comparable SCARLET LETTER scenario than Olive’s circumstances. Despite its faults, EASY A passes due to Stone’s star turn and a knowing screenplay that needed a little more bravery to elevate it to a top achievement.

Grade: B-

Friday, September 03, 2010

Machete

MACHETE (Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis, 2010)

In MACHETE Danny Trejo plays the Federale who wields the type of blade with which he shares a name. An operation to take down a drug lord ends badly, and for the next three years the now former Mexican law enforcer must scrounge out a living with the other undocumented day laborers in Texas.

After Machete delivers an impressive display of cunning and brute force in a street fight, a stranger approaches him with the offer of a big payday in exchange for assassinating Senator McLaughlin (Robert De Niro), whose campaign demonizes illegal immigrants. Machete accepts the job but soon finds out that he’s being set up. He bands together with taco truck owner Luz (Michelle Rodriguez) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Sartana (Jessica Alba) to crush the bad guys and help his fellow downtrodden countrymen.

MACHETE originated as one of the fake trailers between the Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino features in GRINDHOUSE. Now expanded to feature length, this indulgent homage to exploitation films resembles its inspirations in good and bad ways.

MACHETE starts like gangbusters with Trejo as a one-man Chop-O-Matic invading the villain’s turf. The pre-opening credits sequence blends extreme violence and riotously funny gags to perfection. There’s no question that Rodriguez and co-director Ethan Maniquis know they’re making trash, and they delight in being as outrageous and inappropriate as they can be.

Their no-holds-barred approach in MACHETE’S vengeance tale can be genuinely thrilling, but it also permits a lot of sloppiness. MACHETE’S less than rigorous direction and editing trim as much expository fat as possible so there can be more of the good parts, meaning one-liners and action and sex scenes. It’s not a coincidence that MACHETE first existed in trailer form. As a feature it unspools like a loosely connected highlight reel that starts to feel repetitive after awhile.

Fueling MACHETE is on-the-nose commentary regarding the immigration debate. It’s a more political movie than one might expect from an ode to junk cinema, although dabbling in the issues while trafficking in schlock fits in the tradition. Nevertheless, MACHETE’S blunt blade can be unsheathed more than is necessary to make a philosophical point. The lack of subtlety and discipline is what can make MACHETE a disreputable pleasure and less than a full success.

Grade: C+

Going the Distance

GOING THE DISTANCE (Nanette Burstein, 2010)

Drew Barrymore and Justin Long attempt to maintain a bicoastal relationship in the romantic comedy GOING THE DISTANCE. Long’s record label employee Garrett and Barrymore’s aspiring journalist Erin hit it off immediately, but they promise not to get too serious because in six weeks she’ll be leaving New York City for grad school in California. When the time comes for her to head west, Garrett and Erin realize that they want to continue their young romance in spite of whatever difficulties the distance might bring.

Not only is GOING THE DISTANCE a consistently funny romantic comedy, it possesses the rare wisdom to explore the relationship rather than contriving conflicts. So many films in this genre get bogged down in generating immediate artificial discord to split the couple apart for the inevitable big reunion. This strategy loses sight of developing a romance that stokes the desire for such a reconciliation in the first place. Building with scene upon scene of Garrett and Erin showing their funny, warm, and vulnerable sides, GOING THE DISTANCE lets the characters fall in love and gives the audience a reason to root for them before they have reasonable problems to overcome.

It helps that Barrymore either has a nose for the right script or knows how to tailor them to her strengths. She’s again playing a variation on her usual role of the down to earth free spirit, but why complain when she is so good at creating appealing and relatable characters like she does here?

GOING THE DISTANCE gives both elements of this film type equal weight. While the romance is nurtured, the laughs never wane in this sharply timed comedy. Director Nanette Burstein and screenwriter Geoffrey LaTulippe spread the wealth, and the raunch, among the strong ensemble, which includes Jason Sudeikis, Christina Applegate, and Jim Gaffigan. As Garrett’s strange, good-natured roommate Dan, Charlie Day swipes the most scenes, whether it’s by listening too attentively through the bedroom wall or conducting conversations with the bathroom door open. GOING THE DISTANCE is concocted from a familiar formula. It just happens to be a really good example of what can be done with it.

Grade: B+

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Expendables

THE EXPENDABLES (Sylvester Stallone, 2010)

THE EXPENDABLES combines two generations of action stars for an exponential increase in cinematic firepower. Among those joining director, co-writer, and star Sylvester Stallone are Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews, and Mickey Rourke. Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger appear in cameos to set the plot in motion.

THE EXPENDABLES draws its name from the Stallone-led band of mercenaries ready to be hired by employers with deep pockets. Their latest job takes them to a South American island where the Expendables are supposed to overthrow a dictator. As might be expected, the situation on the ground doesn’t exactly conform to how it was represented to them.

THE EXPENDABLES has one foot in ‘80s action films and the other in older tough guy movies like THE DIRTY DOZEN. Computer-generated effects take a back seat to the sheer brawn of the stars and the size of the explosions. As technology has granted filmmakers the ability to make almost anything on screen believable, it’s refreshing to see a return to the basics of action movies, in which physical presence and practical effects rule the day. If only THE EXPENDABLES were a better film.

The surplus of beefy heroes and villains leaves little room for turning these types into characters worth cheering or jeering. The hodgepodge plot, dominated by standard-issue mission details, is at once straightforward and yet jumbled to the point where it’s not entirely clear what’s going on. Most importantly, the fight scenes, while plentiful, aren’t memorable in the least.

The elite guns-for-hire premise doesn’t do much on its own in a year that has also produced the aptly named THE LOSERS and the erratic but overall entertaining THE A-TEAM. Despite it’s top shelf roster of action’s biggest from yesterday and today, The Expendables are more like The Unremarkables.

Grade: D+

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Salt

SALT (Phillip Noyce, 2010)

CIA agent Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) learns the hard way that it’s almost always a bad idea to hang around the office to handle a work matter that pops up at the last minute. Salt has her world shaken when Russian defector Vassily Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) spills the details about a forthcoming day of terror and her complicity in the plot known as Day X.

Orlov spins a wild tale of sleeper agents trained as children during the Cold War, yet the agency’s diagnostic tools indicate that he is telling the truth. The interrogation ends with a bombshell. The Russian president will be assassinated by a sleeper agent named Evelyn Salt.

While her co-worker Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber) considers the accusation to be ridiculous, CIA official Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor) insists that Salt be placed in temporary custody. Fearing that her husband may be in danger, Salt executes an escape that serves to make her look more suspicious.

The premise of SALT gets a credibility boost with the recent news of implanted Russian spies being arrested in the United States. Otherwise, thinking too much about the ins and outs of SALT will only highlight how ridiculous the film is.

As a nuts and bolts action movie, this is an entertaining piece of adrenaline-pumping entertainment. While the action can be chopped up a little more than is preferable, director Phillip Noyce weaves together chase scenes and gun battles that allow for greater comprehension of screen geography and practical stunt work. What’s happening in SALT may be implausible, but it’s shot and edited in a way that lets the action be visible rather than unfolding in an impressionist blur of smash cuts and whip pans.

SALT doesn’t spring many surprises, but settling for smartly staged setpieces over twists and turns in an action movie sounds like a square deal.

Grade: B-

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE (Jon Turteltaub, 2010)

In THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE Balthazar (Nicolas Cage) has searched for hundreds of years to find the rightful successor to his master Merlin. Balthazar was one of three apprentices to his legendary mentor. When one of them, his friend Horvath (Alfred Molina), joins forces with an evil sorceress and kills Merlin, Balthazar is entrusted with the responsibility of identifying the Prime Merlinian, who will be the proper inheritor of the Arthurian wizard’s powers.

In the year 2000 Balthazar finally stumbles upon him in the form of ten-year-old Dave, but the kid’s training is stalled when he accidentally releases Horvath from the Grimhold, a Russian nesting doll that imprisons evil sorcerers. Due to circumstances too convoluted to go into, flash forward ten years when Dave (Jay Baruchel) is now a physics major at NYU. Balthazar returns and begins training his protege to keep evil magicians at bay.

Whether intentional or not, THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE plays like Disney’s stalled attempt to launch a stripped down Harry Potter-like franchise. While the special effects are suitably impressive and Cage brings the occasional flourish of oddball humor to the affair, the film as a whole lacks a strong idea of what it should be. In trying to be everything to everybody, it amounts to a fitfully entertaining nothing.

In the best sequence, THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE calls back to the FANTASIA cartoon with Mickey Mouse that the film draws its name from. Dave uses magic to set the mops into action in the workshop with disastrous results. It’s one of the rare spots when effects, humor, and action work in concert. As for other highlights, a Chinese dragon puppet made flesh and blood and a Chrysler Building eagle turned into an unconventional mode of transportation are a couple of the visual effects technicians’ more inspired creations.

Nevertheless, a little bit of CGI sizzle isn’t enough to hinge a film on these days, especially when it’s so commonplace in big studio movies. As the 20-year-old brainiac Dave, Baruchel can be a nice foil for Cage, but he’s never given enough to work with to allow his twitchy nature from solely defining the character. That awkwardness served Baruchel well in the comedy SHE’S OUT OF MY LEAGUE, but here the trait is too prominent. In theory Dave’s training would be front and center, but it often takes a back seat, especially to a halfhearted romantic subplot about a reunion he has with a grade school crush played by Teresa Palmer.

If magic relies on misdirection, then THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE knows well enough to be distracting enough to divert attention for awhile. If only there were a satisfying payoff to the feature-long trick.

Grade: C

Friday, July 09, 2010

Despicable Me

DESPICABLE ME (Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, 2010)

It’s hard out there for a supervillain when someone else snatches the Great Pyramid and thus steals your thunder. For Gru, voiced with a Russian accent by Steve Carell, his competition’s monumental theft is a call to step up his game in DESPICABLE ME.

Gru has his heart set on plucking the moon out of the sky, but first he needs to steal a shrink ray. After all, celestial bodies won’t fit in the overhead compartment. Gru’s crew swipes the shrink ray, but before long it’s in the hands of Vector (Jason Segel), the nerdy nemesis who one-upped him with the pyramid scheme. Gru is unable to breach Vector’s complex and retake what wasn’t his. When he sees that a trio of orphans selling cookies can get in through the front door, he adopts the girls. Becoming a parent brings unexpected consequences, though.

DESPICABLE ME may place a bad guy at the center of the movie, but this is a light and sweet kids’ film that keeps things offbeat and fun because it’s a little naughty. Gru’s furniture is made from endangered species, and he finds joy in the small things, like using his freeze gun to cut in line at the coffee shop. Gru welcomes his adopted daughters into his home by pointing out the sheet of newspaper he’s laid out for bodily functions and the water and candy bowls to sustain them. This slightly inappropriate silliness goes a long way in spicing up what eventually becomes a fairly predictable story about the love of children melting Gru’s heart.

DESPICABLE ME is more of a kick when it indulges its anarchic comedy impulses. After all, the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote never needed to get sappy. DESPICABLE ME could have stuck to Gru and his minions trying to outwit and outdo Vector. Gru’s little yellow assistants provide a stable of versatile sight gags in their own right and would have permitted the film to cut loose in ways it can’t with child characters in the line of fire.

Animated films have accrued a certain amount of artistic credibility to the point where calling DESPICABLE ME a visually clever cartoon might sound like a backhanded compliment. It shouldn’t. This breezy movie is more fun when it doesn’t worry about saying anything important and lets the zany antics unwind.

Grade: B-

Thursday, July 01, 2010

The Last Airbender

THE LAST AIRBENDER (M. Night Shyamalan, 2010)

The world is in conflict in THE LAST AIRBENDER as the Fire Nation runs roughshod over the Air, Water, and Earth Nations. The only one capable of restoring harmony is the Avatar, who can bend all four elements. Trouble is, the Avatar has not been seen in one hundred years.

Brother and sister waterbenders Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) and Katara (Nicola Peltz) just might have located this savior when they find and release a boy frozen in an icy bubble that was submerged deep in local waters. Twelve-year-old airbender Aang (Noah Ringer) soon attracts the unwanted attention of the Fire Nation’s Prince Zuko (Dev Patel). The exiled royal has been tasked with delivering the Avatar to his father, Fire Lord Orzai (Cliff Curtis), to restore his honor. As Aang’s exceptional skills are witnessed, speculations run high within the tribes that he is indeed the chosen one.

THE LAST AIRBENDER is swollen with portentous mumbo jumbo and realized in the most simplistic and mundane ways imaginable. From the outset writer-director M. Night Shyamalan piles on mythological gobbledygook that likely only makes sense to fans of the source material, the Nickelodeon animated series AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER. The film mistakes dense backstory for plot and character development and then tries to make it all coherent through terrible dialogue that is over-explanatory yet clear as fog. There’s a distinct George Lucas-like quality to the clunky verbiage and equally stilted performances.

Compounding all of these problems is the realization that THE LAST AIRBENDER is merely table-setting for a potential trilogy. Shyamalan’s stretch of four films beginning with THE SIXTH SENSE and lasting through THE VILLAGE marked him as a compelling artist in command of atmosphere and the twists and thrills of genre filmmaking. With the total bust that is THE LAST AIRBENDER and the hilariously awful THE HAPPENING, he’s making it tough for defenders to stand by his increasingly maligned work.

His strength with visuals remains in portions of THE LAST AIRBENDER yet is notably diminished overall, not the least of which is due to the retrofitted 3D conversion. The largest offense, though, is how exceptionally boring it all is. Who knew an epic martial arts fantasy-adventure could be this tedious?
Grade: D

Friday, April 30, 2010

The Human Centipede (First Sequence)

THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE (FIRST SEQUENCE) (Tom Six, 2009)

Ladies and gentlemen, step right this way! Come inside and cast your eyes on the twisted creation of a surgical mastermind, if you dare! But first, I should warn you that what you will see is not for the faint of heart or those with moral objections to the marvel of this ultramodern medical procedure! However, for those with iron constitutions and open minds, prepare to gasp at the horrific ingenuity that is THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE (FIRST SEQUENCE)!

The lure of danger, of watching something too intense for most viewers, is the irresistible melody of THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE'S siren song. I confess that it snagged my curiosity, and I'm not especially fond of gorehound movies. The notoriety of writer-director Tom Six's film is such that when I received the offer of a screener for review, I decided I had to see for myself.

The wisp of a story finds American friends Lindsay (Ashley C. Williams) and Jenny (Ashlynn Yennie) on vacation in Germany. When their car breaks down while driving through a forest at night, they venture out to find help. The young women stumble upon the secluded home of Dr. Heiter (Dieter Laser), who invites them inside and agrees to call for assistance.

Of course, the creepy doctor has no intention of letting them out of his lair. He drops roofies in their drinks, and when Lindsay and Jenny come to, they find themselves strapped to gurneys and hooked up to IVs. Their waking nightmare has just begun.

Dr. Heiter explains why he has these women and a man restrained in his basement operating room. Having worked as a preeminent surgeon in separating conjoined twins, he now wishes to fulfill his dream of making the human centipede. (He's already succeeded at doing this with his dogs.)

In the most disturbing use of an overhead projector presentation outside of get-rich-quick seminars, Dr. Heiter lays out what is entailed in bringing the human centipede into existence. Essentially, the plan is to sever each person's knee ligaments and connect the gastric systems of his test subjects by sewing them mouth to anus.

The operation is delayed when the abducted man is found not to be a tissue match with Lindsay and Jenny, but it isn't long before Dr. Heiter captures a Japanese man whose genetic qualities make him ideal for this evil scheme.

THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE is sufficiently disgusting, although I'll wager that what one imagines based on the description is far worse than what is actually depicted. The HOSTEL films, two of many potential examples, are certainly more graphic. The doctor is briefly witnessed at work with his scalpel, but Six avoids showing the extent of the surgery.

How thankful you are for the lack of explicitness depends on your appetite for gore, although surely the target audience wants more than Six serves. Therein lies the problem. Like a carnival barker, THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE entices the adventurous with the promise of a repulsive display that begs to be seen but fails in its delivery of gory one-upmanship.

Without a doubt this is an unpleasant film, but the most shocking thing about THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE is how boring it is. The scenario is inherently immune to surprises. Once Dr. Heiter has made his fantasy a reality, what's left? There's barely any text, let alone the semblance of subtext. Six asks us to consider how terrible it might be in the victim's situation. Yeah, it would be pretty terrible. And the point is...?

The clinically detached tone and static style attempt to elicit psychological horror, but the one-dimensional performances shatter the illusion. Rather than being frightened, I felt bad for the actors and the humiliation they must have endured during production.

THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE is a repellent film, but that's exactly the condemnation it needs to advance its reputation as a transgressive work. Being disreputable is the film's only distinguishing characteristic, even if in this case its offenses have been overhyped to Barnum-esque proportions.

Grade: F

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Ebertfest 2010: Closing day

The last day of Ebertfest tends to be a little more low key. Since the festival attracts a significant number of out-of-town attendees, some choose to head home rather than fit in one more movie. Late nights are a given, so weariness may be setting in even for those not staying up most of the night writing like yours truly. Perhaps this is why the festival's closing day has traditionally featured a musical or music-related film. There's less heavy lifting for a taxed system when music is the focus.

While there is a decent amount of music in the documentary SONG SUNG BLUE, the focus falls on the relationship of Mike and Claire Sardina, otherwise known as the Milwaukee lounge act Lightning & Thunder. Lightning sings Neil Diamond songs and plays up his resemblance to him, but he doesn't appear to be an impersonator. His wife, Thunder, specializes in Patsy Cline songs. The film claims that the duo was very popular--local TV news reports indicate they were well-known in town at least--and the couple has high hopes that bigger opportunities may await in Las Vegas.

Those dreams are scuttled when a car runs off the road and hits Thunder while she's in her front yard. She loses part of a leg. Financial struggles and other health problems hit the Sardinas hard, but they soldier on and keep performing as the act is their primary source of income.

While SONG SUNG BLUE went over extremely well with the Ebertfest audience, I confess that I wasn't similarly enthusiastic. Maybe it's because I didn't have any foreknowledge of these singers and thus wasn't already predisposed to be enchanted by them.

Part of the problem is that director Greg Kohs lets others tell us how great Lightning & Thunder are, but I never felt like I saw the magic that is supposedly in their act. From how he's crafted the film and what he expressed on stage, it is clear that Kohs feels passionately about this family. He's not holding them up for ridicule whatsoever. Could his closeness to them have been a hindrance in making the doc? In the post-film Q&A he mentioned one shoot in which he was actively involved as a roadie, yet what he thought was a thrilling experience didn't translate on the tape he showed his wife. To me that describes the film as a whole.

On a side note, I'm curious how many of Lightning & Thunder's fans had ironic appreciation for them or enjoyed the kitsch value. That seems like a big unspoken factor, but it's never clear why (or how) popular they were.

Like ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL, SONG SUNG BLUE has the underdogs climbing uphill to achieve their goals and often coming up short. The difference between the films is instructive. The members of Anvil may seem like they have their heads in the clouds, but there's also reason to believe that they could be one break away from realizing some of their aspirations. With Lightning & Thunder it's much harder to envision what they do leading to something greater.

After the film Thunder took to the Virginia Theatre's stage for three songs and roused many people to get up and dance to Patsy Cline and ABBA. While I hate to sound like a grouch/jerk/killjoy/you-name-it, this mini-concert confirmed the doubts I had from the film. I don't begrudge her from continuing to put on shows; I just don't see and hear what's so special.

-SONG SUNG BLUE: C/48

I'll wrap my coverage of the 12th Ebertfest (and my 10th) with an entry that includes stray observations and thoughts that haven't made it into my other daily reports. But for now, it's time to leave Champaign-Urbana.

Ebertfest 2010: Day 4

Seasoned Ebertfest attendees know that lining up early outside the Virginia Theatre before the day's first film is critical to obtaining the seat you want. Problem is, this crowd has plenty of early birds, so showing up forty minutes before the doors open likely means that the line has snaked down Randolph and onto University. Since I've been up to 3 a.m. every night of the festival, this is not to my advantage. Luckily, I've mostly been able to sit where I prefer, albeit with a little help. Remember how I mentioned friendships formed in my pre-Ebertfest entry? There's the secret.

Since all of the films are shown in a single location, the festival excels at making connections between attendees. For instance, I vote in The Muriel Awards but have never met fellow voter Jim Emerson (or most of the others, for that matter). In a fine example of 21st century communication technology, I was able to give him a heads-up via Twitter that I might be searching him out. Vadim Rizov isn't at Ebertfest but saw my tweet and recommended tracking down Ali Arikan, who is present. Ali replied with his location after one of the films. A jammed stairway and an outburst of rain put the kibosh on meeting up then, but I was eventually able to catch up with Jim and Ali and be introduced to Matt Zoller Seitz, one of Ali's fellow writers at The House Next Door.

It's not just passholders who form new relationships at Ebertfest. Ramin Bahrani and Werner Herzog met at a previous festival and have since collaborated on the excellent short PLASTIC BAG. It must be a thrill for Roger Ebert to see how his festival brings together people whose work he admires and leads to exciting new projects such as this. While PLASTIC BAG wasn't officially announced on the schedule, Ebert found room for the short before one of the day's films.

As for the regular program, BBC production I CAPTURE THE CASTLE played in the festival slot that has normally been reserved for a free children's matinee. As far as I can tell Saturday's first space in the schedule still served that purpose without being billed as such. While anyone operating under the assumption that this selection is a family film, they're basically correct, although one shot of a topless Tara Fitzgerald isn't what one expects in this kind of fare. (Apparently this is the lone reason for the otherwise innocuous film receiving an R rating.)

I CAPTURE THE CASTLE deals with a family in which the father is mentally unstable, and his two girls are naïve to the ways of the world, especially those pertaining to romance. Set in the mid-1930s, the British gals are intrigued by the two American brothers whose family owns the castle that this eccentric lot calls home. Proposals are wished for, hearts are broken, and so on and so forth.

Rooted in the tradition of quality, this coming-of-age period romance delivers the hats and heartaches one expects. It's all professionally done and throws a slight curve at the ending, but the focus and character motivations are so scattered that big plot developments are lacking in dramatic impact.

Romola Garai does solid work here as the younger daughter. I'm interested in comparing her character in I CAPTURE THE CASTLE with her eponymous role in Francois Ozon's ANGEL, but the hour is late and it's been far too long since I saw her outstanding performance in the latter.

Ebert likes to have some local flavor in the festival. Judging by the reactions, he found a winner in the documentary VINCENT: A LIFE IN COLOR. Vincent P. Falk may be Chicago's unique individual, but he is the kind of character many cities have.

Vincent wears brightly colored suits and puts on what he calls "fashion shows" for boat tours. From the bridge he waves at the people below and does a shuffle, spin moves, and coat twirling to put a smile on people's faces. (While this is done for the benefit of the boat tours, it seems Vincent will do his routine just about anywhere if he's moved to do so.) Since a local television station does its morning news broadcasts in front of a glass window, Vincent gets some airtime by standing in the background in those unmistakably loud clothes.

The first question that comes to mind is what is wrong with this guy or what is his deal? Going purely by his appearance, from the squinty eyes to the garish suits and uncommon behavior, one's initial impression is that he may have some mental problems or deep, dark issues. I like the fact that director Jennifer Burns lets the people she interviews state their reservations about this strange guy they see in public. They are amused by him, but they are also uncertain how to process his atypical conduct.

Crosscutting between his seasonal performances and life story, VINCENT: A LIFE IN COLOR peels back a fairly interesting tale involving the orphanage, legal blindness, high aptitude for computer work, and a love of public performance. Vincent defies many of the assumptions we might make about him while passing him in the street or seeing him on television.

Director Jennifer Burns and editor Christine Gilliland let their subject shine, but I'll reiterate that I think it's important that they allow people to voice their hesitations about Vincent. For a film that is clearly fond of the man, it would be easy to push the idea of accepting him without question, but in reality I think most of us would go out of our way to avoid getting too close.

The Ebertfest audience was very appreciative when Vincent came on stage after the film and gave a demonstration of his spin moves and such. I liked the film for what it is, but I think it faces an uphill battle for attention outside of Chicago.

Am I crazy or does it seem like regional American cinema has waned in the past decade? James Mottern's TRUCKER isn't a throwback to 1990s Amerindies, yet it feels like it comes from the same place.

Michelle Monaghan stars as a truck driver who willingly let her ex-husband have custody of their son and doesn't know what to do with the boy when she is forced to take care of him for an unknown amount of time ten years later. Monaghan's Diane is tough and decidedly non-maternal. She admits as much. The circumstances may require that she make alterations to those qualities, but any changes won't occur like flipping a switch.

Monaghan, who was so terrific in the action-comedy KISS KISS BANG BANG, shows a flair for drama with her textured performance in TRUCKER. I particularly liked how Diane isn't the nurturing mother--and doesn't want to be--yet slowly resigns herself to the situation she's in. It's an instinctive performance that doesn't have showy scenes, which is what makes this seriously conflicted woman feel like a real person.

TRUCKER is a film of many small virtues. Mottern's writing understands that a lot of backstory isn't essential, so he keeps the film nice and lean. He isn't trying to take Diane from A to Z in 90 minutes but from A to B, which is usually how people adapt. Mottern trusts his lead actress to communicate the most important information in ways other than explicative dialogue.

Mottern and Monaghan were present for the post-film Q&A and made it worth sticking around rather than rushing out to get some much-needed food. The most interesting tidbit to me is that Monaghan insisted that to play this part she needed to earn her commercial driving license, which she did. When she's seen driving a big rig in the film, she's really doing it. Monaghan's comfort in operating the truck does read on the screen.

The night's last film was BARFLY. I'm not well-versed in the writings of Charles Bukowski, so I was pleasantly surprised to find Barbet Schroeder's 1987 film has so many laughs. I was expecting another downbeat film about drunks. Instead BARFLY is unusually funny and direct about alcoholics. The film portrays these folks with great warmth but doesn't glamorize their behavior, which seems to have crept into some Bukowski appreciation.

As Henry, Mickey Rourke delivers a dynamic performance in which he carries himself like the king of the gutter. He's immensely likable throughout his self-destructive actions, which is probably due in large part to the sensitivity he invests in this lout.

The clock reads 3:15 a.m., and I'm running seriously low on fuel. So, I'm going to call an end to this recap.

-I CAPTURE THE CASTLE: C+/58
-VINCENT: A LIFE IN COLOR: B-/60
-TRUCKER: B-/64
-BARFLY: B+/77

Ebertfest wraps on April 25th with SONG SUNG BLUE. I'll file my report from the final day within a day or two of returning home.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Ebertfest 2010: Day 3

In my eagerness to post my Ebertfest 2010: Day 2 report, I overlooked the fact that the panel discussions started at 9:00 a.m., not 9:30. So I was a little late rolling into the Illini Union for the first topic: "Do Film Students Really Need to Know Much About Classic Films?" Populating the panel were a couple film students and some professors, including Ebertfest regular David Bordwell.

The consensus opinion seemed to be that rigid adherence to the canon is not beneficial or instructive. Considering how expansive the canon is these days, I don't know that it is this oppressive, inflexible list. Still, I think it's a mistake to avoid some of the landmarks--*cough* CITIZEN KANE *cough*--just because their statuses as the all-time greats have been cemented for such a long time. Younger viewers may balk at them, in part out of contrarianism, but I think it's important to have a foundation in the classics because their fingerprints continue to be all over what we see today.

The second panel featured Roger Ebert's "far-flung correspondents". On his blog and Twitter, Ebert has championed several film bloggers based in locations all around the globe. He extended that generosity by inviting them to the festival and having them participate in the panels and post-film Q&As. Ebert's medical problems in recent years have forced him to take a reduced role in those areas, but in showing up to introduce these guests and staying for the discussion, he emphasized how glad he is to have these people here.

The correspondents talked about their home countries and the film cultures there. While it was interesting to hear their stories, I took off early in the hope of getting over to the Virginia Theatre for a decent spot in line. It didn't happen, even with the rainy morning.
The day's film schedule kicked off with the Oscar-winning DEPARTURES (OKURIBITO). I was, and remain, disappointed that it beat THE CLASS (ENTRE LES MURS)--which I still contend is a better film--but DEPARTURES proved to be a good film, and one that went over exceptionally well with this audience.

In this gentle film, director Yôjirô Takita examines the work of Japan's encoffiners. These individuals prepare corpses for being placed in coffins and conduct the ritual in front of the departed's family and friends.

The entry point into this world is Daigo (Masahiro Motoki), a cellist who loses his orchestra job and doesn't exactly know what he's getting into when he accept a want ad seeking help in departures. The character mentions that his grandparents died when he was young, his mother's funeral occurred while he was out of the country, and his father has been out of his life since he was little. Daigo has never seen a dead body, and he's not sure he's cut out for this work.

DEPARTURES is a sentimental film about how the living cope with the loss of their loved ones and have their pain eased through the ceremony that encoffiners perform, but it's not a soppy one. The film is serious and earnest, but those qualities are never burdensome or false. It's sort of shocking to see a film that treats its subject, this one in particular, directly and softly. Perhaps the film cheats by having the deceased mostly consisting of those who have died many years before their time--these are "pretty" bodies, for lack of a better way of putting it--but some concessions have to be made to the audience. I certainly wouldn't want to watch a film in which these men attend to highly decayed corpses, and I bet you wouldn't either.

As unpleasant as this may all sound, the film is respectful and matter of fact about what encoffiners do. The comfort that the ritual gives to the surviving family also translates to the audience. Takita also finds spots for humor, such as the encoffiner instructional video, to deflate any discomfort viewers may feel about a subject that many don't want to reflect upon.

The Alloy Orchestra are regulars at Ebertfest. Typically their accompaniment of a silent movie is among each festival's best moments. This year they played along to Dziga Vertov's MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA (CHELOVEK S KINO-APPARATOM). The three-man band's scores favor percussion, which is a perfect match for a film that often looks at the industrial and technological marvels of its day.

MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA has the organizing principle of a day in a Russian city, but this film can be seen and enjoyed context-free. It's montage, montage, montage done with such vigor and imagination that this 81-year-old film still feels fresh and exciting. The superimpositions, quick cutting, and meta qualities are mind-blowing in their imaginative use. A woman blinking her eyes is crosscut with the opening and closing of blinds. Vertov often shows his man with the movie camera in a stylistic choice that rolls the making-of material into the film proper.

Vertov's dazzling display of technique is pretty compelling. Married with The Alloy Orchestra's live accompaniment, the film is lifted to transcendent heights. If this isn't the most kinetic film ever made--it charges out of the gate and picks up speed crossing the finish line--it has to be up there among the adrenaline shots of pure cinema. That the musicians can keep up with the frenetic pace and enhance the experience of watching MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA is a credit to their considerable talents.

The last film of the third day was SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK, which Ebert is proclaiming to be the best film of the '00s. I liked the film when I saw it during its intial release in 2008, but I was also overwhelmed by the ambition and challenges it contains.

SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK writer-director Charlie Kaufman penned the screenplays for mindbenders BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, ADAPTATION, and ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. (Those three previous films all landed on my year-end Top 10 lists.) This film, his first in the director's chair, again takes place in a strange world that looks a lot like ours yet behaves differently.

It's important to make note of the person behind SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK because it's best understood as a piece of Kaufman's reflexive body of work. Kaufman takes a scenario to its most absurd limits and aggressively deconstructs it in search of the primary level of truth.

At heart SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK is about examining the shattered pieces of a broken relationship and trying to find where it all went wrong. In typically Kaufman-esque fashion, here it means years of staging and re-staging mundane conversations and arguments in hopes of divining shards of revelation.

The word synecdoche means to substitute the general for the specific and vice versa. The film can be understood as the main character's failed marriage viewed through the filter of all his relationships, which he pores over with obsessive, writerly focus while missing the broader picture.

SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK'S tone is too mournful to call it a comedy, or what I associate with the term, yet funny elements are sprinkled throughout the film as it folds upon itself. Despite the metaphorical clouds that hover over Philip Seymour Hoffman as the playwright Caden Cotard, hope endures that the sun will emerge.

SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK is an audacious and uncompromising film, which in non-criticspeak means it requires a lot of patience and an open mind. It sounds trite to condense the film into a statement that all anyone needs is love, but that's the simple thesis buried under this mountain of philosophizing.

Having now seen the film a second time, I find that it opens up and is revealed to be simpler than it appears to be. SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK lets loose a steady roar of neuroses--loneliness, self-doubt, self-loathing, fear of disease, fear of death, fear of missed chances--but Kaufman shares these things not to wallow in them but to convey that we all have the same things banging around in our brains. The beautifully sustained final twenty or so minutes were enough to make me want to lay down and absorb all that this film has to offer.

Kaufman has resisted requests to explain the film in more concrete terms, and he continued that stance in tonight's post-film Q&A. He still had plenty of interesting and funny things to say about his movie, and I think he's correct in ducking attempts to lay out what the film means. SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK was likened to a Rohrschach test, which is an apt comparison. The film isn't a puzzle to be solved but a mirror that shows something different depending on when we look at it and what state of mind we're in at the time.

-DEPARTURES: B/68
-MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA: A+/100
-SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK: A/89