Monday, June 30, 2008

The precision engineering of John Lasseter’s Cars (2006)

While Disney movies tend to ladle on the sentiment and patronize their young viewers, Pixar films (a subsidiary of Disney) are usually both visually and emotionally sharp. John Lasseter directed both Toy Story films, and through them he explored the disconnect between one’s inherited toy identity (Buzz Lightyear’s superhero status) and the inevitable diminishment that occurs when one realizes that one is merely a toy, and, even worse, when one’s owner loses interest and moves on. The films are a kind of meditation on the expiration date of the American dream, with the added benefit of crystalline computer graphics.

With Cars, Lasseter takes our omnipresent automobile culture and subtracts humans from it altogether, which suits the Pixar technology well because people often tend to look artificial when depicted in computerized animation. Even though its storyline drags slightly in the middle, Cars often moves like Toy Story on speed, and it keeps exhibiting unexpected depths, especially in its treatment of the decline of small town America.

The film begins with a tease. We first hear Owen Wilson as Lightning McQueen say the word “speed” and the screen gives us glimpses of a car racing from different angles with long black-outs leaving us anticipating the race that we can hear but can’t see. Then without explanation the film plunges you into an alternate media-saturated world where cars in the stands watch car racing, RVs inhabit the infield, and car announcer Darrel Cartrip makes cracks like “Oh, my oil pressure is rising. If this gets any more exciting they’re going to tow me outta the booth!” Given that we are surrounded by cars every day, it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to accept VW bugs as actual bugs, Model A’s enshrined as statues on town squares, and plump SUV’s in bad need of off-road military training. During a traffic court scene, the judge rises with the help of a hydraulic lift, and mere humans are no longer needed at all. Lasseter has created the ultimate Hot Wheels fantasyland.

In terms of story, arrogant red race car Lightning McQueen needs to learn humility after his disdain for visiting the pit stop forces two of his wheels to blow towards the end of a race, causing him to tie with two competitors. The Piston Cup officials determine that he needs to race again way off at the International Los Angeles Speedway, so his semi truck named Red/Peterbuilt (Joe Ranft) takes him on a long night’s drive west. Various misadventures later, Lightning finds himself alone and stranded in the small town of Radiator Springs in what looks like Monument Valley, Arizona, where he must find the value of friendship with a goofy old truck named Mater who has buck teeth and the voice of Larry the Cable Guy. For fun, Mater lures Lightning out to go tractor tipping in the dead of night. Each tractor acts oddly cow-like, so when Mater honks at them in their sleep, they tip over backwards helplessly until a big combine comes along to scare Mater and Lightning out of the field. As Lightning gets to know the locals, Lasseter explores how our current freeway culture has bypassed small town values in much the same way the many modern movies have dispensed with characterization in favor of set-piece action scenes.

Meanwhile, a slim light blue Porsche lawyer named Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt) teaches Lightning how to fall in love while cruising cinematically around waterfalls in slow motion. I found it funny when later Lightning finds himself day-dreaming of Sally (not to mention her pin-striping tattoo) in the climactic race. In an odd way, it makes sense that eroticism, car ads, and Porsches all mix together in the film’s subconscious.

After awhile, one notices that various models represent different generations and cultural differences. Paul Newman supplies the disgruntled voice of a former race star 1951 Hudson Hornet. There is a friendly rivalry between a hippie VW van and a military jeep, and various other characters slow down the first half of the film some as we get to know them, but in general I found Cars obsessively good right down to the mock references to Toy Car Story and Monster Cars, Inc. shown at a drive-in during the end credits.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Wanted and the taunts of a Russian bully

Are you a wimp, a baby, a pushover? Do you lead an Office Space life as an Account Manager under a petty tyrannical boss? Does your best friend sleep with your girlfriend after he finagles you into buying him an energy drink and some watermelon-flavored Trojans? When you Google your name, are there no entries? Do you suffer panic attacks when your monstrous anorexic boss browbeats you into breaking out in a cold sweat in front of your equally cowed coworkers? Can we assume that your life has no adventure, interest, or spine?

Such are the not-so-subtle questions that wunderkind Russian director Timur Bekmambetov asks of the viewer of Wanted, a film adapted from the graphic novel by Mark Miller and J. G. Jones. With the grace of a Moscow hoodlum, Bekmambetov films as others mug, forcing us the hard way, with Fight Club-style reproaches, to see the compromises of everyday existence.

How to best reinforce this point as the aforementioned Account Manager Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy) stands meekly at the counter of a drug store in Chicago and waits for his anxiety medication? Angelina Jolie appears at his side, looking gaunt, iconic, and grungy in a white dress, saying “You apologize too much.” Disdainful and contemptuous, Jolie slouches through Wanted with the same snide charisma she displayed as the sociopath Lisa in Girl, Interrupted. Her level of fame suits her role as an assassin named Fox perfectly, and I like the way she dresses down for the part, flaunting her tattoos, and greatly improving upon her preppier Tomb Raider action star persona.

What would she have to do with Gibson anyway? But once a supersensory assassin starts firing at them past the Honey Nut Cheerios, Fox obliges Wesley to join her in a high speed car chase through downtown Chicago. She forces him to steer as she lies down on the car’s hood and fires a shotgun. In Bekmambetov’s world, car chases often lead to one vehicle flying through the air, sometimes into the side of a bus or a train. While I could recognize the influence of Star Wars 4 and The Matrix in the screenplay by Michael Brandt and Derek Haas, I figured that someone liked The Dukes of Hazzard as well.

It turns out that Fox works for an organization of assassins called the “Fraternity,” led with quiet authority by Sloan (Morgan Freeman). Like Tobey Maguire learning of his Spiderman powers, Gibson did not know that he has the capability to speed up his metabolism to over 400 beats per minute and thereby shoot bullets in curves around Fox’s bemused face. First, he must learn to be a man by getting repeatedly beaten, stabbed, and thrown on top of Chicago’s subway trains at night where Fox smirks as she slides under bridges or jumps from car to car as Robert Redford did in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Compared to all of the cheesy therapy on display in recent films like The Love Guru and Get Smart, Wanted believes in old-fashioned boot camp psychological healing and maturation through pain. One of the men in the Fraternity calls himself the Repairman because he gradually fixes Gibson after a lifetime of wimpiness by tying him in a chair and punching him in the face. With a tendency to have human and animal corpses hanging around on hooks in the background, Wanted revels in the body to help Gibson get over the limitations of his mind.

Certainly, Wanted has its problems. Some of its actions scenes view too much like different levels in a video game, and the plot twists get increasingly unlikely as the film goes on, but Bekmambetov directs with humor, imagination, and flair, neatly unifying scenes around flies, rats, or the roar of the subway. He also speeds up or slows down every bullet or flying vehicle so the viewer can relish every ricochet or train crash.

Writing for Newsweek, David Ansen mocked Wanted for “offering mass murder as a cure for the 9 to 5 blues,” but he doesn’t fully acknowledge the extent of the problem of modern day everydayness. Bekmambetov takes pleasure in rubbing Americans in their own subservience to the work ethic and the many humiliations of living in an over-medicated, neurotic, repeat-stress-disordered America. By depicting hit men as wolves, Wanted already takes it for granted that we are the sheep, and the truth of that accusation stings.

Friday, June 27, 2008

The morbid pleasures of Poseidon (2006)

Hollywood casual mass death can be fun to watch. With disaster films, you rarely get much of chance to know any of the characters well, so there’s less guilt involved as you marvel over huge amounts of people sliding down the decks of careening ships, bumping into the furniture, and dangling on the edge of the guard rails like some massive jungle gym gone astray. I like the scene in Titanic when the entire ship gradually turns vertical in the water, and I remember being very much struck by the original Poseidon Adventure back in 1972, where a large wave flips over a cruise ship, converting a glittery New Year’s Eve party into a formally dressed fight for survival as the inverted ballroom starts to flood. The 1972 film is basically extravagant cheese, the Love Boat with corpses, but it has visual flair, lots of fun levels that foreshadow the challenges of video games, and a post-Watergate sense of revolt against any establishment figures who recommend that just stay calm down below and wait for help.

The remake Poseidon begins well, but it views like Titanic in reverse. Many of the best disaster scenes occur right towards the beginning, and director Wolfgang Peterson (of Das Boot fame) has difficulty maintaining a plausible tone as a small band of random people try to work their way up the inverted ship.

In other words, the top notch production values keep getting undermined by the B movie script. Early on we meet Kurt Russell as Robert Ramsey concerned about his petulant daughter Jennifer (Emmy Rossum) sneaking off to sleep with her boyfriend Christian (Mike Vogel). Josh Lucas stars as Dylan Johns, the handsome lone gambler who initially doesn’t care about anyone else, but reluctantly teams up with Robert and a few others to climb out of the ballroom before the water comes crashing through the windows. I’ve seen Josh Lucas star in four films now (along with Stealth, Glory Road, and Sweet Home Alabama), and he always comes off as a charming but lightweight lead who doesn’t leave much of an impression. We also get to know a boy (Jimmy Bennett), his mother (Jacinda Barrett), and an aging Richard Dreyfus who plays a gay fellow named Richard who is broken up and suicidal over the loss of his lover. The filmmakers cleverly cast the Black Eyed Peas lead singer Stacey Ferguson as the New Year’s Eve singer, so we can enjoy the thought of the evil creator of “My Humps” drowning.

As our band of misfits work their way up to the disco and into an elevator shaft and beyond, they take moments to introduce themselves to each other with poignancy as the rising water rushes them along. They run into masses of dead bodies killed by a flash fire “that burns the lungs like rice paper,” according to former fireman Robert. As the ship contracts around them, they keep getting stuck. Fortunately, they all retain a plentiful supply of working flashlights so that we can see, and director Peterson makes sure that there is plenty of fire for good mood lighting and the occasional heart-wrenching death to remind us what is at stake. Young Christian asks his girlfriend to “just tell me that you love me” before what looks like a certain suicide mission underwater as her conflicted father looks on.

Will they make it before the ballast tanks flood? What will happen to the boy separated from his mother by a metal grate as the water floods his chamber? How many thefts from Titanic can the audience spot? I can’t say, but I confess I preferred the mass death of the beginning to the trite melodrama that came later.

Vacuum: Lost in Space (1998)

Soulless junk food for the eyes. The first sign of the apocalypse. Words fail me when trying to describe the shallow, frenetic, techno-sci-fi braindead torment of watching Lost in Space. I was numbed, dumbed, and increasingly exasperated. Would it be alright if I brought my Game Boy into the Cineplex? Lost in Space purports to be a summer moviezation of an old TV show that I just dimly remember. I haven’t watched enough Nick at Nite to catch up on my campy 1960s Star-Trek-meets- Brady-Bunch adventure serials, but I do remember wondering how the Robinson family always managed to end up on strange planets with breathable atmosphere.

Also there’s smarmy Dr. Smith and that nanny-like robot with the spastic arms flailing around. In the souped up movie version, we learn that the Robinsons must all go out on a space errand to find some water and breathable air for the Bladerunner-like earth of the future. In a world chiefly concerned with computer-generated special effects, fancy set designs, and explosively pointless plot complications, we vaguely get to know the Robinson family.

William Hurt embarrasses himself and his former acting career, looking a bit like James Cameron. He doesn’t pay enough attention to his son, Will (Jack Johnson) who turns to building time machines in a sulk. There’s a pubescent Winona Ryder-wannabe daughter, Penny, also sulky because she can’t shop in the mall lost in space. And there’s the evanescent Heather Graham playing the older daughter Judy, not to mention the studly Don West (Matt LeBlanc), the renegade pilot with a very broad chest who doubtless just failed to make the cut for Top Gun.

The whole gang gets in their Alien-style cryogenic pods and rise in the sky in what looks like a remarkably unaerodynamic silver Jiffy Pop container hatched from a retractable disco ball. Their spaceship is shaped like a Moon Pie warped by overexposure in the sun in the backseat of your car.

God forbid I should give the plot away, but rest assured there is a whole lot of plot. In fact, the filmmakers seem reluctant to leave you alone for a moment without some explosion, maniacal robot, or derivative alien to rampage around and threaten the poor Robinsons when they’re not busily talking through their 90’s dysfunctional relationships.

At times the old effects of the TV show (like the robot yelling “Danger Danger” or “Destroy the Robinsons” over and over) look comically incongruous within the fancy set design.

The bored viewer can count the thefts from other science fiction films or nod off during the theme park ride video game sequences. Don West keeps hitting on Judy Robinson, who retains her 1960’s TV show-era virtue. There are travel bubbles, exploding planets, videocamera watches, spider-aliens with lots of teeth, Exit signs on the side of the movie screen, and Indiglo lighting on my 1998 Timex watch telling me that this small eternity took 2 hours and 20 minutes to end.

You can spend your time asking questions. How did that robot with conveyor belt legs manage to climb up that cliff face? Why didn’t they go into hyperspace before plunging through the exploding planet? Why don’t they just freeze Dr. Smith like a popsicle in a cryogenic pod? Why don’t they just run out of fuel and slow suffocate and starve to death? No, that sensation is kindly left to the audience.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Visual sludge: the painful incompetence of The Grudge 2 (2006)

Soon after the big success of the Americanized Japanese horror film The Ring, a director named Takishi Shimizu cooked up the similar The Grudge, based on his Japanese film called Ju-On, which concerns two vengeful spirits and a haunted house in Tokyo. Since horror films tend to make money, The Grudge 2 was released by Columbia Pictures studio, and for some extravagantly dumb reason I went to see it.

The film begins with a possessed Jennifer Beals pouring cooking oil over her jealous husband, and then beaning him on the head with a frying pan before sitting down to calmly eat breakfast. Then the scene cuts to three teenage girls dressed in Catholic schoolgirl uniforms at the International School in Tokyo. With typical high school cruelty, they dare each other to enter a partially burned down house. For a joke, the two evil, more popular girls decide to lock the plainer, innocent, and more fearful one inside a small chamber upstairs, where she screams and finds the door will not open. Fortunately, they all get out of the building alive, but they don’t realize that they have all contracted a curse that will doom them for the rest of the film (not to mention their subsequent acting careers).

The curse involves a young woman who was obliged to take in the evil demons of others thanks to her witchy mom. She dies in a rage, and the curse carries on, metaphysically infecting anyone who visits the house. At some point in the past, a husband killed off his family before committing suicide in the domicile, so now the cursed are haunted by a blue Japanese boy who appears in odd places like underneath a desk, or inside a locker, or under the bedclothes. Also, the original murdered mother Kayako (played by Takako Fuji) tends to pop up with lots of black hair and bugged-out eyes in the most awkward places like inside of a jacket, a developing photograph, or a phone booth.

Did I mention that the star of the previous film, Sarah Michelle Gellar, appears briefly before the aforementioned Kayako obliges her to fall off a tall building and go splat in front of her sister Aubrey (Amber Tamblyn)? I think Gellar made a wise career decision to die off quickly here. Amber Tamblyn tries to show grief before she hooks up with a Tokyo journalist Eason (Edison Chen) to go find out what caused her sister’s death. Instead of acting like a star, Amber Tamblyn comes across as a sulky clunky young woman, petulantly working her way to doom with an extra heavy purse weighing her down. As the camera follows her around listlessly, I got the distinct impression that the director of the film, Mr. Shimizu, had a nervous breakdown during the shoot, or he was strung out on drugs, or something, because The Grudge 2 has the most leaden, amateurish quality about its individual shots.

Meanwhile, over in Chicago, we get introduced to Jennifer Beal’s character’s new family where a parallel young dark-haired American boy discovers that something very creepy is going on in the apartment next door. A young woman with her face masked by a hood has started pasting newspapers all over the windows of her room where eyes appear in the night.

Cutting back and forth between Chicago and Tokyo, the film goes on in this way for an hour and 50 minutes. Instead of getting scared, I consulted my watch and doodled in my notepad. In the theater, the small teenage audience mocked what was on screen, or walked out, perhaps to go watch The Departed playing next door. Instead of developing a plot, The Grudge 2 continually rehashes the same standard horror film cliches—a black cat, a creaking noise in the night, and blue bugged out eyes appearing in weird places in the frame. If it is not the worst film I’ve seen all year, The Grudge 2 is a major contender. Perhaps director Shimizu had a stroke during filming and nobody noticed. At any rate, Entertainment Weekly predicted that The Grudge 2 may gross the most money of any national release this weekend. To think that this film will find a mass American audience--that's the scariest thought of all.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Love Guru and the therapeutic value of a wise man punching a midget

Many summer blockbusters leave the impression of a large complicated hangar with much frenetic motion, fuzzy CGI, and a hollow space in the middle, but now that The Love Guru has sunk to a 15% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes within 5 days of its release, and people are bashing it gleefully, I would just like to know what was going on in Myer’s head when he wrote this?

For starters, he needed a new persona. There were signs of Austin Powers wearing thin, especially when Myers created Goldmember, a static Swede character given to pulling scabs off his skin and eating them when he wasn’t rollerskate-boogieing like an extra in Xanadu. Some say things went wrong with the public dislike of The Cat in the Hat (2003). Of that vulgarization of Dr. Seuss' classic book, critic Mahnola Dargis wrote

"So all we could do was to

Sit!

Sit!

Sit!

Sit!

And we did not like it.

Not one little bit."

At any rate, Myers settled on a wafer-thin five minute sketch figure of a mock guru and, like summoning an aircraft carrier from a rubber ducky, built an entire would-be blockbuster around it. His Pitka resembles the Beatles’ Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the nominal subject of their song “Sexy Sadie.” The Beatles sought Yogi’s counsel for a period of time, and wrote much of the White Album while visiting with him in India. Eventually, I think John especially grew disenchanted with the guy, even though the Beatles continued to use the sitar in their songs.

Curiously, Myers does take Indian mysticism seriously, and that may be his big mistake. He is good friends with Deepak Chopra, and he inserts into The Love Guru semi-serious spiritual (?) lessons (mostly done on PowerPoint) with the testicle/penis/diarrhea/midget jokes that comprise his stock in trade. Myers simultaneously mocks the look of a Hindu holy wise man even as he peddles a series of self-help mini Sutras and phrases like "nowhere=now here," and DRAMA (as written on his hand like Love and Hate on Robert Mitchum’s knuckles in The Night of the Hunter). DRAMA stands for “Distraction, Regression, Adjustment, Maturation and Action.” I wonder if he thought of all that on his own or lifted some of it from some real guru?

To fit his theories, Myers concocted a throwaway screenplay about a professional hockey player Darren Roanoke (played by Romany Malco) who needs to confront his controlling mother so that he can win against the well-endowed Jacques Le Coq Grande (Justin Timberlake), the goalie for the enemy team. Jacques had managed to steal away Darren’s wife (Meagan Good), so now Darren gets the shakes when he should be scoring goals. It is up to Guru Pitka to counsel and heal Darren by learning to embrace his childlike side. Myers makes sure that everyone has proper motivation: in order to beat his rival Deepak Chopra, Pitka wants to appear on Oprah (treated like a deity of the film), and Oprah won’t allow him on unless he cures Darren.

Moreover, Jessica Alba plays the thankless love interest who also happens to be the owner of the Maple Leafs hockey team. Arguably, her biggest role is still the cowboy stripper in Sin City. Now, after such painful duds such as Awake and The Eye, she might have hoped to outdo Heather Graham of The Spy Who Shagged Me, and what does she get? Pitka admiring her “great rack” and inviting her to sit down with him to eat “nuts in a sling” for dinner. The dinner scene seemed the most telling: Alba barely chuckles politely at his testicles-dipped-in- warm-grease jokes before saying “I haven’t laughed like this in a long time.” She’s game enough, and she dances and sings well in the only good scenes in the film—the Bollywood musical numbers--but Heather Graham got to fight Dr. Evil.

Since The Love Guru has very little action aside from the conventional hockey sequences and one scene where Pitka is assaulted by a rooster, everyone mostly stands around as Myers perpetually mugs and smiles at the camera. When his stunt double jumps off of an elephant out of frame and then Myers appears, winking at the audience, he’s saying “Hey kids! I know you caught that cheap special effect.” I guess that he imagines that he’s yukking it up with the naughty PG-13 jokes for the youngsters. He likes to place things on his face, a plastic shield for his beard in the shower, dismembered rooster body parts, and cotton candy, but underneath it all he’s peddling another dreary LA exhortation to “love yourself” and allow yourself to be vulnerable, much as in the equally sophomoric/therapeutic Get Smart.

Basically, comedy is difficult and it thrives on cruelty. Living detached from the world in his wealth, Myers constrained his comic gifts in the name of mystical love, but you cannot mock and preach at the same time. It just makes you a didactic schizophrenic. As Austin Powers, Myers could be unrepentantly lecherous, but as Pitka there’s always that holy aura neutering him in advance, hence, perhaps, the film’s obsession with virility. At one point he tells Alba “There’s no such thing as failure, just early attempts at success.” Not with this movie.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Red-Eye: Handling air rage (2005)

“Travel is hell these days,” says a sweet little lady in Wes Craven’s efficient horror/thriller Red-Eye, and we have no problem knowing what she means. Anyone who has had to wait in an airport line, suffer a cancelled flight, or cram oneself into coach late at night with a bunch of overbearing strangers can easily identify with the opening premise of this film. Ever since Speed, we have gotten used to movies where swiftness of plot substitutes for characterization, but somehow the well-edited Red-Eye moves fast and gets us caught up in its characters because they understand modern urgency. “Swiftly adapt or die,” the film seems to say—travel requires Darwinian survival skills.

Wasted as a rich fiancée in Wedding Crashers, the attractive Rachel McAdams plays Lisa Reisert, a hyper-efficient front desk manager of the Lux Atlantic, a resort hotel in Miami. We first see her solving a hotel customer complaint on her cell phone while in a taxi enroute to the airport. Once she arrives, she bumps into Jackson Rippner (Cillian Murphy), a personable young man with striking blue eyes who appeared as a corrupt psychiatric administrator who uses drugs to drive people insane in Batman Begins. Jackson and Lisa find an easy rapport with one another as they negotiate their way past angry and frustrated middle-aged travelers. Someone spills a mocha down her blouse, but she changes into a white sweater, and for a moment as they flirt over nachos, we seem to enter romantic comedy territory. Once on the plane, Lisa again (surprise) finds herself sitting next to Jackson. No sooner do they take flight than he turns out to be what he has jokingly called himself all along—a killer who specializes in government overthrow, and she had better make the call he wants her to make or her father will get killed.

Fundamentally a horror director who learned with the Scream series the enormous satisfactions of pitting a strong, smart heroine against creative villains, Wes Craven slices and dices his genres in this film as he pleases. The film mixes together Airport and Diehard with a generous measure of Psycho, and one would never want to look for much depth in this concoction, but I found it surprisingly satisfying, in part because Murphy plays a smooth, likable villain in a celluloid world full of nerds. Moreover, Rachel McAdams’ Lisa brings the same problem-solving techniques she uses in her job to take on the terrorist plot to kill the new head of Homeland Security, and Jackson finds her endless resourcefulness exasperating. Locked within the close confines of a jet bathroom, or sitting too close to a villain in coach, she masters her grief and horror. Her quick thinking matches the film’s speed in keeping the audience’s expectations off balance.

Underlying all of this, Red-Eye plays with our fears since 9-11 of powerlessness in the face of the ease in which terrorists can turn our technology against ourselves. It also feeds on other simpler but no less aggravating frustrations, like how to deal with public rudeness or a cell phone battery going dead just when you need to make an important call. As Lisa’s Assistant Manager back at the hotel, Jayma Mays looks agreeably clueless as she takes on terrorists or, even worse, an irate couple who has a reservation denied them. While the latter half of the film dips a little obviously into horror movie conventions to resolve its plot strands, by then I didn’t mind because I liked being manipulated so well. The film is all about stress management and problem solving, and a knife-wielding killer chasing you through an airport seems like the logical extension of air rage.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Little Miss Sunshine: Despair in a VW bus (2006)

“Please don’t kill yourself tonight,” writes Duane to his uncle Frank after he has moved into his sister’s house early on in Little Miss Sunshine. Frank (Steve Carell) has just attempted suicide after finding his love for a male graduate student unrequited, so now he’s obliged to live with his sister’s highly dysfunctional family, and everyone’s way too preoccupied with his or her problems to adequately attend to Frank’s sorrows. When his sister Sheryl (Toni Collette) says she’s so happy he’s still alive, he says “That makes one of us,” and continues to stare remorsefully into the distance.

Given that modern-day American families are plagued by the threat of poverty, despair, divorce, professional failure, rising gas prices, obesity, rat-race competition, and deadbeat, self-involved baby boomer grandparents returning to the nest, one would think moviemakers could craft a good tragedy with these themes, but not a road movie comedy. Why would anyone want to see five eccentric characters fighting their away across the Southwest in a yellow VW bus just so the nine year old daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) can attend a grotesque JonBenet Ramsey-esque children’s beauty pageant? And yet, the film succeeds surprisingly well mostly due to an excellent cast and a witty original script that keeps using humor to avoid sentimental meltdown.

Made on a shoestring budget by a husband and wife team of directors (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris) over a five year period, Little Miss Sunshine might not have made it into theaters at all except for its enthusiastic reception at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, which persuaded Fox Searchlight studios to distribute the film. There’s very little obvious commercial appeal here. No glamorous main star anchors the production, although Steve Carell’s career took off with The 40 Year Old Virgin as this film was still mired in development. For a mainstream release, the movie is a deliberately ugly duckling. As the mother, Toni Collette mostly looks harassed. Alan Arkin enjoys himself as the unrepentant hippie granddad who routinely curses and snorts heroin (a role he will later win an Oscar for). He’s an entertainingly awful old coot, only living at home because he was kicked out of the retirement community, but it takes one a moment to realize that he’s also chiefly responsible for nurturing his granddaughter’s dreams of winning a beauty pageant. Greg Kinnear plays Richard, the most obnoxious family member due to his belief in his nine point system that “awakens and unleashes” the winner within. Richard cannot have a conversation at all without resorting to passive aggressive inspirational psycho-babble. In revolt against the whole family, his teenage stepson Dwayne (Paul Dano) has stopped speaking altogether, so he looks on glumly as his family argues over their cheap fried chicken dinner. At one point, he writes a note to Frank that says “Welcome to hell.”

Most importantly, tiny Abigail Breslin, who plays young Olive with large glasses and red cowboy boots, is not your typical beauty queen material. In her desire to become a star of the kiddie pageant world, Olive provides the emotional center of the film. Under her near-sighted gaze, the rest of the family becomes more self-aware of their selfishness. By getting them out of their heads and onto the road, she gives them a goal to strive for, even as California proves a delusory promised land.

Ironically, given its saccharine title, Little Miss Sunshine concerns the everyday despair of anyone who attempts to achieve anything amidst the traffic jams, convenience stores, and Budget Inns—all the junk culture that surrounds us. But just by acknowledging many of the pressures of modern life that other movies tend to leave out, this film has more impact in a bitingly funny way than many of the glossier fantasies coming out of Hollywood.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Get Smart and the decline of man

Essentially an nth degree rehash of Bond conventions in a story about a repressed bureaucrat, Get Smart joins The Avengers (1998) as another blockbuster violation of a decent TV show, in part because Steve Carell superimposes his 40-year-old virgin sweetness onto Maxwell Smart. As played by Don Adams, Smart was a bumbler, but he played his role straight and never let on to his ineptitude, and so he had a kind of dignity. Carell’s version of Maxwell is enormously self-conscious in his bumbling, so he has none. The film suggests that he may be “smart,” but the jokes are so weak, his intelligence becomes a moot point. I guess I should have found the movie funny, as Roger Ebert did, but much of the time I was more disturbed by its climate of (especially) male insecurity and therapeutic psychobabble. Repeated jokes about neurotic eating progress to several fat jokes, one concerning Maxwell’s past as a fat man that haunts him (brief images of Carell in a fat suit falling around an obstacle course), and another long sequence when he pulls out a fat woman from a crowd of women at a formal ball in Russia, and then dances with her at length as Anne Hathaway and a handsome Russian look on. At the end of the scene, the fat woman flips off the (jealous?) other women spectators, so that makes laughing at her okay?

I was also bothered by the besmirching treatment of Hathaway. As her career would seem to benefit from The Devil Wears Prada and Becoming Jane, now she reaches blockbuster status, and what kind of dialogue does she get? At one point, as she’s maneuvering her way through an elaborate and deadly grid of lasers, she looks over at Maxwell and says “Are you looking at my butt?” Smart replies with “yes,” “no,” “yes.” In terms of the Darwinian face off between the sexes, the stark contrast between Maxwell and Agent 99 would suggest that men are no longer needed. We see other sad examples: Bill Murray inside of tree in a short scene, saying “Who wants to talk to a guy in a tree?” The Jaws-like villain, straight from Moonraker, looks menacing until Maxwell counsels him therapeutically about his life and his wife, in the middle of a fight scene on a roof at night. Eventually, all of Maxwell's talk works his magic on the “bad guy,” so he drops his big piece of machinery and gives Maxwell a hug for his words of wisdom. Lastly, and perhaps saddest of all, we get to see James Caan as the bumbling president making a 9/11 reference as he tries to read a storybook to some kids in a classroom. As he messes up in reading, one boy says “I think you suck as my teacher.”

Curiously, the one actor who seems exempt from the general emasculation is Dwayne Johnson, who plays Agent 23. It’s hard to say why, but I think it helps that he’s not in the film all that much, and his brand of cartoonish machismo has somehow been enhanced by Disney success and his surreal role in Southland Tales.

From its theft from The Man Who Knew Too Much to its weird reunion of Carell and Alan Arkin from the superior Little Miss Sunshine, Get Smart struck me as symptomatic of masculine derangement and decline. Somehow guys embody the joke too much for it to be all that funny.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Family Stone: Christmas with the Liberal Elite (2005)

If you were Sarah Jessica Parker and had just finished an enormously popular HBO series about sex and New York City, what would you do? Get yourself cast against type in a sentimental Christmas flick. So, Parker chose to play a high-strung, anal-retentive career woman named Meredith whose boyfriend Everett (Dermot Mulrony) invites her to his home for the holidays. Decently made but predictable, The Family Stone allows us to join a quirky bohemian family of largely known actors in a big white house in snowy New England, the kind of Stuff White People Like place where younger daughter Amy (Rachel McAdams) drives a yellow Volvo station wagon and carries a book bag with NPR written on it. In contrast to the family’s easygoing camaraderie, Meredith acts self-conscious, talks too much, hunches her shoulders, and keeps unwittingly suggesting that she’s an uptight bigot. Amy Stone gives Meredith an especially hard time, mocking the way she clears her throat, and eventually she drives her out of the Stone family home to stay at a local inn for the night.

The Stones are easygoing but also insular and Hollywood-style liberal. They tend to use sign language because the gay younger brother Thad (Tyrone Giordano) is deaf. In case anyone in the audience has any problem with openly homosexual characters, the writer and director Thomas Bezucha supplies Thad with an African American lover (Brian White), and later they adopt an African American child. So, the Stones are not only winsomely eccentric, but also in-your-face politically correct.

As in a Shakespeare comedy, the plot of The Family Stone boils down to some girlfriend boyfriend-swapping on Christmas Eve. Everyone says the wrong thing, apologizes, learns about him or herself, and tears up because one Stone has a well-hidden mortal illness. Given the film’s sentimentality, mostly only the ensemble acting held my interest. Since I am acquainted with her excellent 1980s work with Woody Allen, it seemed creepy to see Diane Keaton (as Sybil Stone) look so grandmatronly with graying hair covering her temples and glasses. She suddenly resembles the elderly Ann Bancroft. Her character’s son, Everett, wishes for her to give him her mother’s wedding ring (hence the title Family Stone). He wants to use the ring so he can propose to Meredith, but she understandably balks at this idea.

As the laidback Ben Stone, Luke Wilson steals his scenes mostly by cheerfully doing nothing. Just before Meredith leaves for the hotel, Ben carries some coffee out to her car, and just stands there in his grey sweat pants and t-shirt, looking nonchalant. By underplaying his line readings, Wilson comes across as sane and enviably centered, if slightly useless. His mellowness grounds Sarah Jessica Parker’s histrionics. Meanwhile, Claire Danes, who plays Meredith’s sister Julie Morton, arrives on a bus, but since her role is underwritten, her romantic entanglements prove less plausible. As the bratty younger sister Amy, Rachel McAdams proves again that she can hold her own with anyone on screen, though her character flattens out as the film goes on.

Do you like your holiday cheer poured on like maple syrup? Do you like to join rich families as they laugh, cry, and spill uncooked casserole on themselves? Are you in the mood for allusions to Meet Me in St. Louis and It’s a Wonderful Life where the snow begins to fall at the key moment of a soul-searching Christmas eve? If so, The Family Stone has its virtues. While it lacks edge, it does have talent.

Music and Lyrics: Hugh Grant tries to be endearing again

Hugh Grant earned his stardom in such 1990s and early 2000s films such as Four Weddings and a Funeral and Bridget Jones’s Diary, but much of his act depended on youthful charm, so now in his later 40s his acting has become a mass of winsome tics. His self-deprecating smile, Paul McCartney crinkly eyes, and British stutter has begun to parody itself, and he hasn’t helped matters any by choosing rusty romantic comedy vehicles like Music and Lyrics where he plays a washed up eighties has-been pop star named Alex Fletcher who sings songs like “Pop Goes My Heart.” In a film that constantly takes pains to remind the viewer that he is a has-been, Grant seems perilously close to embodying the joke as he wiggles his rear end on stage for drooling menopausal women.

Insofar as there is one, the story of Music and Lyrics concerns Fletcher’s attempt to regain his former fame by writing a pop song for a hot young singer, Cora Corman (Haley Bennett), who likes to writhe around on stage like Shakira. Fletcher can write melodies, but he needs a lyricist, and it just so happens that his plant-watering servant Sophie (Drew Barrymore) has a knack for rhyming as she waters.

I spent much of the movie mystified as to why Drew decided to be in this lame flick. She already embarrassed herself by starring opposite Adam Sandler in 50 First Dates in 2004, so perhaps Hugh Grant looked good in comparison, but there’s still the basic problem that her role has very little substance. In his New York City apartment, Alex and Sophie develop a momentary rapport as they write a song called “A Way Back into Love.” Surprise (!) Cora likes the song and chooses it for her next mega-selling cd, but then Sophie turns out to have difficulties with her self-worth. When she was trying to make it as a fictional writer, her mentor and former lover Sloan Coates (Campbell Scott) wrote a best-seller that uses her identity without her permission. In the past, Sloan has called her a “vacant, empty, imitation of a writer,” which I thought was accurate, but Sophie cannot bring herself to curse the guy out, so Alex tries to help her confront him in a restaurant. Alex and Sloan get into a fight to the point where Alex has his head shoved into a dinner roll, but, as he says, it was a good thing that it wasn’t bread sticks, or they would’ve poked his eye out.

So, will Sophie find her self-esteem? Will Alex find his mojo again in the crass world of the contemporary music business? Would you like to watch Hugh Grant rotate his pelvis multiple times while singing fake pop songs in front of swooning middle-aged American women at an amusement park? Grant has the occasional witty line, such as his description of his performance before a fat farm as a “dietetic Altamont,” but the film meanders from plot point to plot point without a whole lot of discernable chemistry between its leads, yet with much cheesy music. Aside from blond-bombshell Cora, who doesn’t mind being a commodity, most everyone in this film suffers from a lack of self-esteem brought on from age, over-eating, or writer-anxiety issues. Perhaps love and a concert performance of a feel-good song will save them all in the end. I think not.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Politics of the Attractive: the Japanese Aesthetics of Aeon Flux

The year is 2415. An industrial disease virus has wiped out most of humanity, but there are still a few people left in the walled city-state of Bregna, where lots of nature-oriented Japanese design, new wave haircuts, and a thumping techno beat cannot quite mask the fact that something is deeply wrong. People keep disappearing without warning thanks to the crypto-fascist Council of Scientist government, so it is up to the Monican resistance to send women like Aeon Flux (Charlize Theron with black hair) into the central surveillance facilities to break the guards’ necks with extravagant judo-kicks. In her sleek black latex outfits, Theron looks spidery with long stork-like legs as she climbs buildings, dodges machine gun fire, and avoids stabbing herself in razor-sharp grass. An anime blend between Cat Woman, Lara Croft, and Vampirella, Ms. Flux only has her “mission” now that evil government goons killed off her family. Since there is such massive surveillance going on, the Monican resistance depends on having a “Handler,” a near-deity played by Frances McDormand with an extravagant red hair-do, give them orders inside of their brains like some sort of internalized Renaissance-era Jedi council. Whether or not a Monican operative would want to have Frances McDormand nagging her inside her head only begs conjecture, but still, with her trusty African friend Sithandra, who had her feet surgically changed to resemble hands, Aeon penetrates the government’s defenses in an effort to kill the Ruler of Bregna.

Yet, just when Aeon has the opportunity to kill Trevor Goodblood (Marton Csokas) as he practices a speech in the Forum, she finds she can’t quite do it because she recognizes him from some previous life. She gets captured. Strangely, he allows her to live, and pretty soon everyone from both the government and the Monican resistance are starting to question their oddly intimate relationship.

On one level, of course, one can see exactly why they shouldn’t die just yet—they are the two handsomest people in the film. Thus, while the fighting scenes are shot too close-up to really see what is going on much of the time, and as the plot gets muddied with shifting power-allegiances, the film floats and sinks purely on its visual style. You may groan at the dialogue, but some will enjoy Charlize Theron’s slinky minimalist pajamas or the way she whistles for a bunch of obedient metal balls to roll through the prison by themselves and explode to break her out of a cell block. Given the film’s sleek sheen, it is hard to care if most characters live or die, but one can always note the influences, such as the old film Logan’s Run and John Milton’s poem Paradise Lost. From what I hear, the original Aeon Flux fifteen minute cartoons on MTV were pretty abstract anyway, so why worry overly much about the glaring problems with the plot?

What matters here is that Charlize Theron had to work out extensively with trainers to fit inside her latex jumpsuit. Her green eyes look quite striking with dyed black hair, and it is fun to see her look on with contempt at armies of government soldiers with machine guns who have the effrontery to try to kill her. She can always climb up inside a dirigible that resembles a gigantic jellyfish in the sky. She must fight, and hide, and look winsomely macho in “the name of the disappeared.” For some, that will be reason enough.

The Noble Killer: Mark Walhberg in The Shooter

Up on an Ethiopian cliff, two Marines sit behind a very big gun as they wait to take out some enemy forces way down below. In grassy camouflage that makes him look like a shaggy dog, Mark Wahlberg plays Bob Lee Swagger, scout sniper extraordinaire in The Shooter, Paramount Studio’s adaptation of Stephen Hunter’s novel Point of Impact, a generic Tom Clancyesque best-seller.

While The Shooter delivers the kind of intrigue and explosions that one might expect from an unoriginal military-suspense thriller, the movie ends up being both moderately intelligent and astonishingly stupid, moving from one to the other as the film goes on. Soon after Bob loses his partner in a surprise helicopter attack, he retires from the force so he can live up on top of a mountain with his trusty dog who gets a bottle of Budweiser out of the refrigerator for his master. There, Bob could have spent the rest of his life shooting bottles for fun, but unfortunately Colonel Isaac Johnson (Danny Glover) arrives with members of his evil US government cabal to persuade Bob to prevent the assassination of the president. Understandably, Bob points out that he doesn’t like the president much, but Johnson appeals to his patriotism to at least go scope out where someone could, from a mile away, shoot our nation’s leader as he gives a speech in Philadelphia.

As Bob goes out to investigate, one learns all kinds of interesting things as macho Wahlberg mutters his lines under his breath. To shoot someone from the distance of a mile, you have to take into consideration the humidity, the wind, the curvature of the earth, even the gnats that might get in the way. Just when president arrives to give his speech, a cop shoots Bob, knocking him out of a window, and soon enough Bob finds himself falsely accused of murder and running from the FBI. For awhile, it’s entertaining to see the various ways in which Bob keeps himself alive and free from a nationwide manhunt by hanging on to the side of a barge as it coasts up a river or by buying sugar, salt, a water bottle, and a syringe so that he can replenish his lost blood. He eventually makes it over to Sarah, his former partner’s widow, so she can nurse him back to health (also so female viewers can see Wahlberg without his shirt on), and that’s exactly where the movie starts to go downhill.

Sarah, as played by doe-eyed Kate Mara, distrusts Bob at first, but then she becomes his loyal sidekick as he investigate just who is behind this government double-cross. As he says in his low, barely audible, brooding voice, “I’m gonna burn their playhouse down,” so he enlists the help of FBI man Nick Memphis (Michael Pena) in tracking down the various villains. As Bob and Nick take out about 100 soldiers on a Virginia farm with napalm and all kinds of sophisticated firepower, one of the bad guys kidnaps Sarah so that she can appear in her bra screaming for help. This villain likes to lean into her neck and mutter evil things in her ear to the point where I thought he might tie her to railroad tracks and start to twirl his mustache.

The film devolves into three or four conclusions where high-level government officials make ominous remarks like “The bosses knew what was happening in Abu Ghraib” and “Nothing ever happens without the approval of the government.” As one disgusted US Senator says, “Every now and again you get some man who thinks he can make a difference. You have to kill him to make him think otherwise. That’s the hassle with democracy.” Danny Glover turns to snarling lines like “I won. You lost” until one can almost believe that, given the corruption and venality of all those who hold power, killing can be a noble enterprise. The film desperately searches for a way to finish, without much success. Regardless, Bob Lee Swagger never lacks for a reason to shoot his gun.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

27 Dresses and the inbred formulae of romantic comedies

Romantic comedy formulae seem simple: show lots of weddings, show even more weddings, leave the heroine of 27 Dresses, in this case, Jane (Katherine Heigl) sad and lonesome because her ditsier blonder sister Tess (Malin Ackerman) has nabbed the man that Jane is secretly in love with, who also happens to be her boss, George (Edward Burns). Show a montage of wedding scenes. Cut to gleaming night shots of the Brooklyn Bridge with almost obsessive repetition even though most of the film was shot in Rhode Island. Show even more weddings, since Jane likes to help others have successful weddings (even to the point of holding the bride’s dress as she urinates) while she always remains a bridesmaid. To prove this point, Jane keeps 27 goofy-looking bridesmaid’s dresses that range from Gone with the Wind southern style to Gothic punk. Then, of course, the right man, in this case a newspaper journalist named Kevin (James Marsden) accidentally happens upon Jane’s filofax and decides to write a story about her for his wedding columns. The fact that Kevin works for The New York Journal is quaint enough, considering the near-death of the newspaper industry these days, but his role helps vaguely tie in the film with the newspaper films of the 1940s, notably It Happened One Night (which also concerns a journalist falling in love with the subject of his story) and Philadelphia Story.

In its deliberately conventional way, 27 Dresses is well made, I think in part because the writer of The Devil Wears Prada, Aline Brosh McKenna wrote this film, and because director Anne Fletcher does a skillful job. The actors uniformly prove equal to the task of fulfilling their roles, and I didn’t know their faces too well, which made viewing them relatively fresh. But 27 Dresses can be extreme in its derivativeness. At times, Aline Brosh McKenna lifts like crazy from other films. For instance, the hyper-efficient hard-working please-everyone-else Jane finally loses control of her car one rainy evening with Kevin and skids off the road. Kevin guides her to a bar, where they get drunk, and soon they find themselves singing Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets” over and over. They eventually sing standing on the bar before a cheering crowd of revelers, before they go sleep together back in the car. This moment of joyful release takes the same rock and roll artist of a similar sing along-scene on a bus in Almost Famous, only in that film the song is “Tiny Dancer” and their singing together reunites the band. The “Bennie and the Jets” moment also resembles another singing-in-public scene of “I Say a Little Prayer” by Dionne Warwick in My Best Friend’s Wedding, a film that also shares much in terms of its plot with 27 Dresses.

Curiously, when it comes time for Jane to proclaim her love to Kevin, she does it by jumping on to a night-lit wedding boat full of strangers (What other films involve a big leap of faith as part of character development?). Even though the boat isn’t that big, and she could probably easily find Kevin on her own, she commandeers the PA system and announces her love to everyone, whereupon Kevin appears and they get together. The scene leaves open the question—why did she feel obliged to make her love public? Then, I realized that this tendency to ramp up emotional scenes by allowing others to participate occurs quite frequently in the film, such as when Jane and Kevin dance on the bar. That stunt makes them local celebrities in the small town, as they discover the next morning. Kevin’s story about Jane being a perpetual bridesmaid comes out with bad timing, making her hate him temporarily, but it also turns her into a New York celebrity. When it comes time to wreak revenge on her sister Tess for stealing away her dream man, Jane chooses to present a vicious slide presentation outlining Tess’s flaws during a pre-wedding get-together with all of their friends and family. All of this behavior leaves the question—why does Jane compulsively seek an audience for her protestations of her feelings? Did Aline Brosh McKenna choose to convey these scenes this way so that their public nature gives the feelings more impact, or does the movie basically acknowledge how romantic comedies are all about the audience sharing in love and heartbreak vicariously, so why not make it overt on the screen?

So, even as I enjoyed Jane’s gradual realization that she needs to live her own life and no longer be a helpful bridesmaid to others, I was stunned by the inbred conventions of the film and its willingness to hype its emotions to multiple audiences. And if all else fails, the filmmakers know to show another wedding.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

What would Jane do? Romancing the novel in The Jane Austen Book Club

Yet another Jane Austen movie? After so many film versions of her work and the highly speculative “love affair” of the writer in Becoming Jane, one might think that the Austen stock would run out by now, but no. As directed by Robin Swicord from a novel by Karen Jay Fowler, The Jane Austen Book Club concerns several Sacramento ladies and one guy meeting once a month to discuss Jane Austen novels. The premise sounds sickeningly cloying and chick flicky, but by keeping the storyline rooted in the present, Swicord has crafted a surprisingly engaging film.

Made in the tradition of Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Jane Austen Book Club begins with a funeral for a dog. As the assorted formally dressed guests linger in her living room after the service, Daniel (Jimmy Smits) gets exasperated with the whole thing, but his wife Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) says that, after all, Jocelyn “raised him from a puppy.” The handsome dog-breeder Jocelyn (Maria Bello) prefers bossing dogs around to the unpredictability of human romance. Meanwhile, Daniel promptly dumps Sylvia and twenty years of marriage for a coworker, saying “I’m tired of lying to you. I won’t give her up. That’s nonnegotiable.” Devastated, Sylvia gets help from her attractive lesbian daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace). I wonder if Allegra corresponds to any Austen character, not only due to her sexual orientation, but also because she likes to live on the edge. She skydives, climbs walls, and therefore ends up frequenting the emergency room multiple times in the course of the film, which at least as the advantage of bringing her estranged parents back together.

Among the more neurotic characters, Emily Blunt plays the French high school instructor Prudie who is unhappily married to a boorish sports-minded husband who would rather watch a NBA final than spend a week in Paris. Blunt stole many of her scenes as one of Meryl Streep’s tormented underlings in The Devil Wears Prada. Here, her character falls for high school hunk Trey (Kevin Zegers) so she spends much of the film debating whether or not she should sleep with him. As she says to Bernadette, Trey “looks at me like he’s the spoon and I’m a dish of ice cream.” While her character can be annoyingly prissy, her presence emphasizes how “Book Club” resembles French cinema in the way it develops erotic energy through sheer talk.

As the divorcee Bernadette, Kathy Baker cheerfully presides over the group, claiming that Austen supplies the proper “antidote” to life. While Bernadette tries to keep the group exclusively female, Jocelyn invites young Grigg (Hugh Dancy) to join them. Grigg has the bedroom eyes and beard stubble to make a good romantic lead, but he desires Jocelyn who, in turn, wants him to take out Sylvia. When he does invite Sylvia to lunch, Jocelyn can’t understand why she’s suddenly jealous, a plot twist much in the tradition of Austen’s Emma.

Crudely summarized like this, the film may look trite, for sure, but I liked the way the various women discussed men as if they were blundering bears largely unconscious of the subtleties of human interactions. In their monthly book club meetings, the gang discuss the novels, but much of what they say ironically reflects back on their romantic preoccupations and frustrations, adding layers of meaning to the dialogue. At one point Grigg says that they are treating Austen’s works as a “rule book” for life, and Bernadette replies that she’s seen worse. The film has its sentimental moments and its plot strands resolved in convenient ways, but it also celebrates novel-reading as an escape and a solace from modern mechanized life. In the context of most recent American cinema, that seems radical enough.

Time Travel in the Big Easy: Denzel Washington’s Déjà Vu (2006)

Apparently the people at Touchstone Pictures decided that what the American public really needs to see is a New Orleans ferry with a bunch of Mardi Gras partiers on board get blown to smithereens at 10:40 am. Thus does producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s Déjà Vu grab your attention with a big bang. This pseudo-scientific, terrorist-laden Denzel Washington thriller begins in the most manipulative way possible—no grumpy, ordinary people on board. No, director Tony Scott has to include lots of smiling families, children playing, and even one little girl dropping her doll into the murky water before she gets immolated in a great fireball as various burning sailors and SUVs plunge into the sea.

Fortunately, Firearms, Tobacco, and Alcohol Federal Agent Doug Carlin shows up to save the day. With his general ability to look more intelligent and dignified than anyone else, Denzel Washington can even make this slightly silly film look good just by walking on the scene wearing shades. In no time, Agent Carlin finds some bomb fragments on the ground as well as some black chemicals on the underside of a nearby highway bridge that greatly help the investigation of the crime. Oddly enough, a burnt body washes up on shore about a half hour before the explosion, so Agent Carlin goes to help out with the autopsy. He notes that the young woman Clare (Paula Patton) makes for an unusually attractive corpse. Carlin visits her flat in the French Quarter, and finds her refrigerator magnets spelling out the words “You Can Save Her.” Mystified, Carlin then runs into a FBI Agent played by the ever-jowlier Val Kilmer (I still remember back when he played a handsome Jim Morrison in the Doors movie). Kilmer’s character introduces Carlin to a top-secret government-funded time portal machine of sorts where one can look back in the past on a big screen, in this case about three days, and basically spy on anything in the New Orleans area. Now clearly infatuated with Clare’s moving image, Carlin directs the wise-cracking time portal crew to place the young woman under highly sophisticated time surveillance because he assumes, correctly, that she can lead all of them to the terrorist whose distorted sense of patriotism echoes the reasons behind the Oklahoma City bombing.

Déja Vu is clearly not overly concerned with the niceties of real-life terrorist investigations, but cinematographer Paul Cameron creates a pleasantly sun-dappled New Orleans with gold and blue filters, and there’s something endearing about watching Denzel Washington fall in love with the screen image of the not quite dead woman of three days ago who can sense that someone is watching her. Agent Carlin eventually figures out that they can actually send messages, and maybe even a person back in time to save both Clare and the ferry. Time travel movies (Donnie Darko comes to mind) have the ability to plant clues in the narrative that hint at an altered “time branch,” like the message saying “You Can Save Her,” and its fun to try to decipher why is that ambulance in a burnt shell of a building? What are those bloody bandages doing in Clare’s trashcan? A later journey through time will explain all.

The end of Déjà Vu circles back to the beginning where the same little girl drops her doll out of ferry full of people smiling. By the time Agent Carlin and the terrorist tangle on board, the film loses all sense of plausibility in its made-for-TV claptrap of contrived plot twists, but for a period of time anyway, Denzel Washington brings a curious sort of emotional honesty to his efforts to save Clare. Also, the filmmakers deserve credit for sticking with the New Orleans setting even after the Hurricane Katrina decimated the city in midproduction.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Big, green, and puffy: the aesthetic contradictions of The Incredible Hulk

Why, oh why, do these Marvel films like The Incredible Hulk always boil down to two Rock ‘em Sock ‘em gargantuan lunks throwing around cars and grunting things like “Give me a real fight!” and “You don’t deserve this power!” In 2099, people will look back at this time and wonder how is it that so many skilled professionals worked to make such puerile adolescent fantasies. Ever since Spiderman 2, the template for every superhero film since, the actors get better, the CGI visuals get more convincing, and yet the third acts remain so dumb.

The first half of The Incredible Hulk impressed me with its sharp cinematography by Peter Menzies Jr., and the early scenes wherein Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) hides out in the slums of Brazil have a compelling visual density. The Universal studio executives were smart to hire on the Parisian director of the Transporter series, Louis Leterrier to direct this film, because he brings both an excellent graphic sense and an ability to depict deft action scenes. Since Banner must continually evade General Thaddeus Ross (a cheerful William Hurt) who wants exploit Banner’s Hulk side for military purposes, much of the film has one chase scene after another, and Leterrier’s use of the slums as a backdrop recalls Paul Greengrass’s use of the crowded streets of Tangiers in The Bourne Ultimatum (which also carries a similar refugee on the run theme). For his part, Edward Norton spends much of the film looking depressed. He didn’t ask for this existential quandary—cut off from his love interest Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) and always subject at any time to have his id explode into giant green rage. In fact, Banner takes lessons in trying to control his anger and his pulse through deep breathing, but naturally once the General and his special-op soldier Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) track him down to a bottling factory, Banner changes as we knew he would, goes on a rampage, and eventually ends up by a mountain stream in Guatemala with nothing on except stretched shorts. Banner then has to beg to survive as he works his way back to the states, and I was impressed by how the filmmakers improved on the Spiderman narrative formula by making Banner not only sad but wan and destitute. Somehow, superhero films work best when the failure of the regular Joe stands in inverse ratio to the success of his superhero manifestation.

Once back in the states, Banner actually delivers pizza at one point (another Spiderman reference) before bumping into his long lost love Dr. Elizabeth Ross. Leterrier skillfully conveys their hopeless love for one another, since she is, awkwardly enough, the daughter of General Ross. At times, especially after the Hulk shelters her from a fireball by holding her in his big green arms, she seems to prefer his more muscular green side. In contrast to Lou Ferrigno’s version of the hulk on the TV show, this puffy CGI Hulk is markedly handsomer than Ed Norton, with a more youthful face and better black hair, so one can’t blame Betty too much. They have a King Kong moment together by some cave durng a rainstorm, where for a moment Hulk rages King Lear-like at the elements. Later, once Banner returns, she asks him about how much he’s conscious of what’s going on when large and green. He answers vaguely when I was hoping he would say “It’s my id, frankly, and we’re living out a bizarre Freudian psychodrama with your dad,” but no such luck.

Ultimately, the more we get to know Mr. Hulk, the more lunkish he appears, and the more clumsy the movie gets. Like one of those rubberized dolls or a figure made of Play Doh, the Hulk does not seem to have any bone structure. The more the film relies on computer-generated fight scenes, the more he reminded me of a well-built Pillsbury Dough Boy from Ghost Busters, too plushy to feel much pain. With all of the combined acting and directing talent on display, it’s bizarre to see, just as in Iron Man, how all ambiguities are resolved by yet another elaborate World Wrestling bout between good and evil.

Killing Romance: the Tedium of Smokin’ Aces (2006)

Never trust a film that hypes itself as Smokin'. Writer/director Joe Carnahan managed to parley the modest success of Narc (2002) into making the turbo-charged hit man flick Smokin’ Aces, but something went wrong once he assembled his talented cast with their many guns around a hotel in Lake Tahoe. For one thing, there are simply too many hit men and women to go around, and the film takes an unbelievable 45 minutes to introduce the viewer to them. Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven), voted five times Las Vegas’s premier entertainer/illusionist/stand-up comic, has dabbled in the gangster world by engaging in an armed robbery and other crimes, but now he’s threatening to turn state’s evidence on the last major Mafia family run by the elderly Don Primo Sparazza (Joseph Ruskin). Sparazza has in turn placed a million dollar bounty on Buddy’s head, so every hit man and woman has congregated in Lake Tahoe to try to kill him while the FBI sends in two agents, played by Ray Liotta and Ryan Reynolds, to try to save him.

Made in the tradition of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Guy Ritchie’s Snatch, Smokin’ Aces has much sass and attitude, but also very little reason for the viewer to get engaged with all of its pyrotechnical shoot-outs. The film makes one realize that there is a reason why Elmore Leonard’s crime novels usually focus on at the most five characters. If you pile too many gangsters and cops on, they all start to blur together, and why should one care if some of them die? Some of the stand-out killers include a pair of African American hit women played by Taraji Waters and Alicia Keyes, who channel the 1970s blaxploitation style of Pam Grier. I also liked the Tremor brothers, a group of Nazi redneck anarchists with tattoos and bad teeth, who kill Ben Affleck in a drive by shooting before dumping his body in the lake.

In the midst of the bloated plot, Carnahan finds a creepy tenderness in conversations between killer and victim. For instance, one of the Tremor brothers (Chris Pine) takes a moment to have Ben Affleck’s deceased character “forgive” him by moving his mouth in such a way so that he seems to speak from heaven. Also, another hit man named Pasqual Acosta carries a retractable dagger up his sleeve that he abruptly plunges into the chest of a head of security in mid-conversation. As his lungs fill with blood, the security man slumps forward, not yet understanding what happened. As he holds him up, Pasqual calmly tells him: “Close your eyes. Think of something wonderful. Don’t make this face the last thing you ever see. Heaven may hold it against you.” Then Pasqual sweetly lowers him to the ground. In the midst of the many shoot-outs in various lobbies and elevators, these scenes are oddly affectionate as their characters lose their macho mask in the midst of dying.

With its nihilistic ballet of guns, blood, and the occasional chain saw, Smokin’ Aces may have virtues that one could appreciate more on DVD, when you can pause the action and focus on the details, but in the theater the film comes across as so macho it seems insecure. Smokin’ Aces overdoses on its own sensationalism, and too many of the actors come across as glanced-at cartoons. At one point, Taraji Waters makes an indignant speech about how the various semi-nude women who haunt Buddy Israel’s penthouse suite are no more than “meat for male consumption.” In their bloody fashion, so are most of the characters in this film.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Sleight of hand: the filmmaker’s illusions in The Prestige” (2006)

It’s funny how often Hollywood comes up with two very similar movies almost simultaneously. Two studio executives suddenly said—“Let’s greenlight a film on Truman Capote!” So now we can compare two Capote films. Similarly, The Prestige looks very much like The Illusionist. Both period films concern turn of the century European magicians, but while The Illusionist relies heavily on special effects and a revenge fantasy of a man returning to Vienna to win back his girl from an evil nobleman, The Prestige lays bare the mechanics of magic tricks to much better effect. Famed British director Alfred Hitchcock worked his best suspense by calling attention to the various filmic devices at his disposal, and in The Prestige, director Christopher Nolan pulls off a similar stunt by starting the movie with a discussion of the three parts of a magic trick. By letting us know how magic works, and by involving the audience in a rivalry between two magicians who want to know the other’s secrets, The Prestige continually cons the viewer just as a magician diverts our eyes from what is really going on onstage.

The fact that Nolan also has the combined acting talents of Hugh Jackman (playing Rupert Angier) and Christian Bale (as Alfred Borden) doesn’t hurt either. Clearly Jackman is ready to move beyond superhero roles, so he plays not only Angier, but also his drunkard double with skillful charm. As the more working class Borden, Bale reminds me too much of a younger Tom Cruise, but he also conveys the obsessive gleam needed for the role.

Early in the film, when the two younger men learn their craft by assisting another magician in tying up Rupert’s wife (Piper Perabo) before lowering her into a glass container of water, Borden tries out another kind of knot on her wrists that causes her to drown. When Rupert, in his grief, asks Borden what kind of knot he used, Borden answers with “I don’t know,” thus setting off a series of recriminations between the two men throughout the rest of the movie. Since their magic tricks are often elaborate and potentially deadly in the same vein as Harry Houdini’s work (who presides like an unacknowledged master over the film), they find convenient ways to hurt each other. When Angier slips a real bullet into a bullet-catching trick that lops off two of Borden’s fingers, Borden replies by breaking Angier’s leg in multiple places.

In this respect, The Prestige is curiously vicious. While other movies tend to have one sympathetic character with whom the audience can identify, neither Rupert or Alfred are very likable in their competitive and sneaky ways. What are magicians anyway? Show offs who like to impress people by misleading them for profit. There’s something manipulative, nasty, and ruthless about their whole world, a point that Nolan emphasizes by showing us how a bird in a cage disappears from atop a table. The bird vanishes because the magician collapses the cage inside the table so that the dove is instantly killed.

While Nolan handles the two leads well, the female roles are less successful. As Alfred’s wife Sarah, Rebecca Hall sulks for much of the film because her husband trades off his love for her with his love for magic. As the magician’s assistant Olivia, Scarlett Johansson plays a sexy ornament to the action in a way that is quickly becoming a cliché in her many recent roles. Esquire magazine anointed Johansson the “sexiest woman alive,” so she shows up to give this film and others such The Black Dahlia an erotic kick. While she can hold down a lead in such films as Lost in Translation, Johansson somehow underwhelms as a busty supporting character.

Regardless, The Prestige mostly concerns itself with male rivalry. Michael Caine adds class just by appearing as a friend to both magicians. David Bowie has an odd cameo as the reclusive scientific wizard Nikola Tesla who invents a Frankensteinian machine that shoot sparks in all directions. While one can criticize The Prestige for a being a little too much like a Rube Goldberg contraption that keeps harming people and small birds, it does have an ingenious ending that ties many loose ends together while leaving some mystery behind. The viewers of the movie, like the magician’s audience in the theater, want to be fooled, and by illustrating this point repeatedly, Nolan meditates on the parallels between magic and filmmaking.