Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

What’s Good: David Fincher + Brad Pitt = something cool is going to happen.
What’s Not: A lot. The love story for one. The shallow sentimentality for another.
Fake Peter Traverse Quote: A power keg tour de force through time. This is one Button you’ll want to try on!

Curiously strong. But more than that, curiously long. I’m so… torn here. Did I actually just see David Fincher’s make his first mediocre film. And, no, “Alien3” is not mediocre, it’s something else… that, um, I don’t know what… but not mediocre. “Button” falls into a similar no-man’s-land. I can’t dismiss it. Nor can I deny it. Nor can I like it. There are moments of beauty and heart tugging poignancy to be sure but, at the same time, so much shallowness and conventionality surrounds and ultimately chokes the truth out of this picture like a spiraling Louisiana black snake.

Throughout the decades (and, on our side, hours) a man ages backwards as his one true love grows older. Simple notion, yes, but a tricky notion to film because, as we all know, film is so literal and definite. As is is aging. But Fincher films it! Scenes of epic poetry (classic, sweeping Hollywood images consist of free roaming cliches like sunsets, tides of war, sinking boats, and unique touches like all those random shots of a guy getting hit by lightening) are married with new technology. Both classic and new iconography, however, find themselves torn asunder by a soap opera English Patient-y flash-forward set in a hospital (to quote Elane from “Seinfeld”: “DIE ALREADY!”) and horrible period movie cliches (hey, look, the aging wonder is catching The Beatles on Ed Sullivan… f-you!). David Fincher is among the best filmmakers working in America because, for one, he mines beauty and humor within decay and in darkness. This, though, isn’t a David Fincher film. Or, rather, “Button” is a Fincher film for people who don’t love Fincher. It’s beautifully dark to be sure –and beautifully shot– but it’s also a tepid and tonally confused “love story.” It’s told more in the rote storytelling tradition of a Robert Zemeckis (you are hereby warned of the shrimp-boat load amount of cloyingly quixotic biographical Forrest Gump-isms) crossed with older Spielberg which, admittedly, is better than younger Spielberg but… still.

Here’s the deal: “Button” is sentimental and Fincher is not. He’s a dark and ironic ass-hole and so am I and, well, that’s what you call love fest. This newer, kinder Fincher though is proving to be palatable to the average moviegoer and of course will be auspicious amung Oscar voters in the next few weeks. Good for Fincher… bad for Fincher fans. The filmmaker seems trapped by the romantic material on one side (he drops the ball there) the stylistic flourishes on the other (he raises the bar here) and 800-pound gorilla Brad Pitt’s delusions of actor-auteurisms on all other fronts (uh, hey, dudes, lets have a scene with Hurricane Katrina; uh, lets go to India to shoot a thirty second montage of me washing my clothes with Indians… der). The film opens with cascades of buttons but even this promising motif turns out to be a minor detail that gets lost in the literal sea of subplots and unfocused moments. An example of another one occurs when the two lovers, “meeting in the middle” of the age spectrum, swim in a lake and gaze at each other. Beautiful and all but this is not Terrence Malick. Fincher captures the look of time passing but not the feeling of it–the effect is temporal dislocation and that is indeed captured but it is also fundamentally at odds with the more traditional elements of the plot. As with the time-torn “Babel,” the love story between Brad Pitt and Kate Blanchett is not as compelling as it should be (these two have no chemistry and need to stop being in movies together!). In fact, the most stirring moment of romance in this picture occurs with Tilda Swinton, playing an aging housewife that rendezvous with Button every twilight in an empty hotel. Fincher flawlessly captures the mouse stirring desolation and romantic grandeur at play. Great stuff. Beyond that –and most the film is beyond that– this is simply not the classic love story many would have you believe. The film hinges upon the curious byplay between star crossed lovers who drift and drift and connect then drift and drift. How ironic is it, then, that the film is strongest when they are not together. This is more of a lone story than a love one.

Just a year after Fincher’s pitch perfect period piece obsession “Zodiac” came to furition, it’s nice to this filmmaker (a) get a film made so quickly (maybe he’s not the Kubrickian tyrant people say), and (b) get his proper dues in terms of mainstream and critical recognition. Better ten years late than never I guess. But at what cost? It’s hard to tell. The film’s strength, Fincher’s pure talent, holds its own against its many weaknesses. And, no, the outlandish conceit of the aging backwards plot is the least of the Button’s problems. In fact, it saves the film from really getting lost at sea. I write “saved” here because think for a moment how plain this button would be without a touch of fantasy.

grade: B

Review: Twilight


What’s Good: Almost gets a pass for being so innocent and simple-minded.
What’s Not: The state of films these days because I saw “Twilight,” “Bond” and “Rachael Getting Married” in a few day span and this was the best of the three. Scary.
Fake Peter Traverse Quote: Blood boiling romance with action that bites you in the danger zone.
 
 
Am I “Twilight’s” target audience? Lets see… XX Chromosome? No. Bored housewife? No, seeing as how I’m missing an X. Gay? No, not the last time I checked. Holding out for that perfect man, a literal child predator a couple hundred years my senior that will stalk me, then save me then be my master for all time? Ummmmmmm, no. Virginal? No thanks. Christian? No. Mormon? God no! Chubby. No but I’m working on that. Dateless? Nowadays, yuh-huh. Damn, got me on one–guess I better watch it.
 
While Stephanie Meyer’s novel of the same name is not bad I find it to be far too self precious, spineless, inarticulate (as prose goes), and lacking in any sense of real danger. Also, the romance is muted and it’s hardly even a vampire story–when was the last time you saw a bloodsucker sparkle in the sunlight??? At it’s gooey core, the story lacks the emotional resonance of, say a Potter story (take your pick), a baroque Lestat melodrama or just about any teen drama written by someone with half a brain. That being said, the film version is better than the source material if you can believe it but only because when a real writer (Melissa Rosenberg, who has her name all over “Dexter”) adapts crap, the effect is polished crap. Not good, but one of those rare adaptions that improves if not redeems.
 
First and foremost “Twilight” the film feels outdated, and looks even worse; it’s as if a lost, dream-set episode of “90210” (the original!) or some forgotten camp vampire film from the 90s crept into the bosom of modern culture and was able to brainwash, er, I mean enthrall a legion of readers and, now, viewers. Having hungrily and happily consumed “Interview with the Vampire,” “Buffy” (my favorite-all-time-anything) and even creative new vampire lore such as “True Blood” I simply cannot spot anything special or unique or new about “Twilight.” The one thing the film version has going for it however is crude aura of total innocence and, stemming from that, likability. On every other count it disappoints–even when judged on it’s own level/genre/type it fails to elicit many sparks. Particularly in terms of tone. There can be no doubt that the film is serious about its subject matter but it is inadvertently silly about it too. And sloppy! Director Catherine Hardwicke has an aesthetically foolish fondness for close-ups (just try to get through the many false-start make out sessions, cheese ball vampire show-downs or basic exposition scenes where one may find themselves looking at skin pores and eye color rather than listening to dialogue). Bad music cues and wince worthy slow-mo style choices are equally haphazard and unnecessary. I found myself giggling like a schoolgirl at how overdone this turkey is. The filmmaking element is crude, yes, but pallet of emotions on display, though overwrought, is handled a lot more adroitly than the non-pallet of motion.
 
The story, pardon, saga of “Twilight” is all character based. I find this ironic because the characters are not terribly original to anyone who has browsed fictive themes of vampire stories or high school dramas. In the story’s universe there are of course “friends” and the “Fathers” (who is easily the best part of the film) and the occasional “local” that enters and exits the small Washington setting. And of course there’s the Romeo and Juliet of this film’s world. Innocent young girl meets troubled 200-year-old boy. The big show stopper (more like dribbler) for fans is Edward Cullin, the brooding vampire protagonist played by Robert Pattinson. He’s a vampire in love, you see, uh, with a human young girl who, in turns, falls even morein love and, wellllllll, that’s it as far as story goes. Ooh, but some “bad” vampires come into town and the Cullins (i.e. the good vampires) attempt to stop them from hurting the girl, Bella. They even play a spirited game of baseball but, yeah, there you go. Characters engage in a number of so-bad-it’s-funny vampire aerobics (besides tree frolicking, that vampire baseball setpiece just might be the dumbest scene of the year… and I’ve seen the Zohan catch fish in his ass!) and just as many wistful and vaguely creepy lines about “watching you sleep” because “it’s amusing.” I would tell this lad to get a life but he’s undead. Though dead, this lip bitter of a hero comes off as constipated and always on the verge of tears. The reason for all the torrid EMOtion is because his desire for nubile young flesh is a temptation and hunger that will always tests Edward’s resolve (der, is that a metaphor?). Edward’s marble mouth affect and attitude, though, is not ageless vampire hunk (which is what I think they were going for) but mush mouth dork. Bella is played by Kristen Stewart (a star-in-the-making since “Panic Room”) and she is the real hero of this story. But she has no discernible skills, weapons or intellect. Bella reminds me of the Princess from Super Mario Brothers. As she goes to school, rolls her eyes at her dad and makes tim with a reanimated corpse, Bella is nothing if not earnest. Boring is another adjective I would throw out were I in a particularly negative mood but I’m not so I’ll add that at least she’s not annoying.

This film doesn’t bite (to borrow my fake Peter Traverse quote), it would rather lull the viewer into submission. Angst replaces tension, young adult histrionics replaces reason and the supernatural is made almost natural on this film’s watch. But there’s a lesson in here. Primarily, it’s that the film offers a certain comfort to any viewer looking for vampire romance. Like a late night trip to McDonalds we’re not going to be tested or challenged or teased or prodded. We’re going to be fed an ass load of sweetness and a teaspoon of danger (here is an “event” film in which the big action finale takes place in a ballerina studio). Mediocrity is a powerful force and this is as mediocre as motion pictures get these days. As milquetoast too. But, you know, I didn’t find myself terribly bothered by this specimen of disposable art.

Grade: C+

Review: Rachel Getting Married

What’s Good: A great film… if you love watching people loading the dishwasher.
What’s Not: My god, everything!
Fake Peter Traverse Quote: “This is one wedding I’ll be RSVPing.”

I was soooo close to walking out and leaving the bride at the altar. Phony “reality” makes me want to kill myself–maybe not myself so much as everybody in or involved with whatever train wreck I happen to be watching. This particular train wreck plays out in the vein of the world’s worst Dogme 95 film (a 90s movement where a “natural” filmmaking aesthetic is upheld above all else) with the added bonus of being sketched out like a bad indie filmmaking exercise. The scinerio (notice I didn’t say story) is that Kym (Anne Hawathy) comes back form rehab for the weekend. It happens to be her sister Rachael’s wedding and Kym, a druggie/former child model (the two are exclusive), happens to have a lifetime of pent up issues that she’s got to work out at the worst possible time. Pardon, I should say worst possible times in the plural seeing as how the film tackles about one issue, crisis or repressed memory a minute. The fatal flaw here is that it is pretty much the same issue/crisis/repressed memory getting worked on then re-worked on every minute. “Rachael” drones on as if director Johnathan Demme rangled a bunch of overzealous theater students together, gave them this broken-home scenario, and said: GO!

And, boy, there sure is a lot of go. For two hours Rachael and co. fight, dance, play music, sing, cry in public and even find time for family competitions to see if the father (the should-stay-in-theater Bill Irwin) can load the dish washer faster than the black dude from TV on the Radio. Yes, a dish washer loading contest acts as a central set piece in this film. And this dish washer loading contest ends… in tears. Not of joy, which many of us dish washer loaders have apparently experienced, but, rather, tears of horror and profound sadness. I’m sorry but… what the fuck! Oh, sure critics laud this masterpiece but, really, it’s 2008’s year’s phoniest indie drama that blends “Family Stone” with “Pieces of April” with DISH WASHER LOADING (an act “April” also indulged in). And as a bit of trivia, failed actress and newtime (crappy)screenwriter Jenny Lumet is Sydney Lumet’s daughter!

“That is so unfair! That is so unfair!!!” Kym shrieks during a fight with Rachel. What’s unfair? The fact that Rachael announces she’s pregnant in the middle of an argument about Kym’s disastrous pre-wedding toast. So, then, mid-fight, the whole family (remember, ALL fights in this house are done publicly) jumps up, laughing and cheering… and then fighting. All at once. The writing, acting and directing departments all suck at conveying and transitioning the bi-polarity of emotions. I’m sorry, but when theatricalities ring false I go berserk. This family ensemble is not just dealing with the past (drugs, accidental deaths, divorce, lies, and two major car accidents) and the present (uh, did I mention how many dishes need to be cleaned in this household), but they dwell so much on the two as to beat them into the ground to a point of un-recognition. Their problems become not only redundant but a homogeneous mishmash. If you want to see a (good) film that thrives in the everyday chaos of our lives, a title where multiple layers of dialogue and drama are managed effectively, then I suggest you see “Happy Go Lucky.”

The lynch pin in this prefab madhouse is Anne Hawathaway and she’s going to get an Oscar nomination for her tour de fierceperformance as this total wreck of a human who must make everything about, her, her, her. And though her part is competently done (for what that statement is worth given how I feel about this film), the constant bickering, harping, shouting and emotional group hugs madethe performance feel as winded as her many heated conversations. Characters do not just talk, shout, eat, punch and bitch at Kym (and vice versa) but they talk eat and bitch at her as if the world is ending RIGHT NOW and they have to get it all out of their system at this time and in this house. The fistfight with dear old mom (Debra Winger) is so excessive that it boarders on ludicrous. With tears on tap and arms on flail, lives are lived x100 and Johnathan Demme captures the range of bourgeois emotion with a single camera, shooting his subjectsdocumentary style. With past credits that include “Silence of the Lambs” and the underrated “Manchurian Candidate” remake, Demme has been obsessed with non-fic docs ranging from subjects Neil Young to Jimmy Carter for the better part of this decade and, well, maybe he should stay in that field. The fatal error here is that the dysfunctional family tension is so contrived and bottled in this setting that the realistic shooting style only heightens the falseness at play. There’s a reason why Dogme 95 burned out and this naturally unnatural story highlights its demise every step of the way.

Rachael Getting an: F

Review: Quantum of Solace

 

  • What’s Good: Okay, if looked at as an action movie and not a Bond movie, it’s not thaaaaaat bad.
  • What’s Not: A week screenplay and story. After “Casino Royale” the lack real character development hurts.
  • Faux Peter Travers Quote: This Bond delivers the popcorn and funcorn! 

 

Mark Forester is neither a good director nor a bad one. This makes him ideal for helming a Bond film seeing as how the producers have a history of erring on the side of unremarkable filmmakers with little enough vision to tow the line but enough base-pleasing craftsmanship to keep the ordinary fun. That’s not a dig either for franchise safeness has allowed Bond to thrive throughout the years, decades and half-centuries. This installment’s filmmaker got off to a auspicious start with the impenetrability artful “Monsters’ Ball” but every other project since has been sellout melodramatic swill (“Finding Neverland”) with the occasional lapse of sellout hipsterism (“Stranger Than Fiction”). Not only is Markey Mark not a particularly memorable dramatic filmmaker (last year’s “Kite Runner” floated away), but this semi-incoherent Bond creation of his won’t win Forester any points as an action director either.

The same goes for Bond the character. I knew this project was in trouble when I saw the poster. Craig as Bond. Cool. Mugging: cool, fine. Wearing a suit: obligatory, but cool. Wielding an automatic gun in the desert: No! Bond, as the last film posited, is a government thug with a mysterious past and a penchant for giving in to lustful urges (sex and violence remain intertwined like two poisonous snakes in his psyche). He’s those things, yes, but he is not a big gun kind of guy (yes, I know he was in the closing moments of “Casino Royale” and it didn’t work there either). What makes things even more confusing is that Bond doesn’t actually wield such a manly gun in the film proper. This proves to me that, among other things, the film itself is not sure who Bond is (anymore) or what kind of Bond they want. The film reduces this iconic figure to a man who stands around, brooding one moment, drunk the next, ordinary all others.

This Bond outing is set immediately after the tragic, girlfriend drowning events of “Casino Royale” and carries over only one theme: revenge, which, of course is a titillating aspect that exists to facilitate hard boiled (or Hard Bourne) action sequences that are captured by the director and editing team with a hollow but captivating sense of style. Bond puts a lot out there in terms of angst but there’s no discernible desire to aim the focus back upon him. Even more confusing is the fact that the object of his revenge is secondhand, indirect and generally amorphous in this picture. What character moments we do get don’t belong to him at all! Matters of personality are reserved for the Bond Girl (Olga Kurylenko, who’s got a vengeance hard-on bigger than Bond and who is the first Latin character in the history of cinema ever to be played by an actress named Olga) and M (this is the best film ever… in which Judi Dench moisturizes her face for no reason other than to denote “character”ness).

The last film got under Bond’s skin so much so that it was as much of a character study as we’re ever going to get from this guy—the lack of a memorable plot was great because it allowed Bond to be the plot (Quantim is that, minus the character… so it’s nothing). What made “Royale” so satisfying is also evident in the way it ended: with the pronouncement of the character’s name, spoken by way of those infamous three words “Bond, James Bond.” It was as if he too just became the man we all knew he would. This markes a thrilling moment of owning ones destiny but it is the kind of emotional/fanboy climax (figuratively in the first sense, literal in the later) that, now, seems destined to never be reached again. Now that Bond is Bond I find it ironic that personal milestones are nowhere to be found. I was reminded of that scene in “Changeling” where authorities try to convince a (…overacting…) mother that her son is her son. Well, he’s not. She knows and so do we. Same goes for Bond. “Quantum,” whatever it is, is not Bond. 

In terms of the arid plot, all there is to this international adventure is Bond hanging around AT the villain’s (Mathieu Amalric) many parties (he’s a supervillian and an eco friendly entrepreneur you see), chasing other bad guys for “information!,” killing them in a blind rage just before getting “information!,” getting scolded by M every thirty seconds (you can set your OMEGA watch by that) for needlessly killing as if Lennie from “Of Mice and Men,” but getting a small clue that leads him to… another party to crash and boat/car/plane to chase. Who writes this shit? Oh, yeah, Paul Haggis. To say the plotting is over-the-top is an understatement. To say it’s mechanical and rote is merely a statement. This is the most active a Bond character has ever been while at the same time the most inactive he’s been… upstairs. In terms of personality, intelligence, sex appeal and charm, this Bond creation is as bottled up as Amalric’s character in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” His character is shaken and stirred, yes, but simply too watered down–and that’s not a dig at the plot, which involves oil tycoons, deposed dictators and an evil plot to deprive an off-the-map South American region of water so it can be delivered back to the people at a 60% price mark-up (muah-ha-ha!!!).

It goes without saying I never felt moved by what was happening. Not moved nor lost in the moment, just waiting for the next moment, which was always strikingly similar to the last moment. The stakes are simply not here. Sure, there’s a lot of talk about what’s at stake but nothing grabbed me emotionally, and that is especially true regarding Bond’s “tortured” soul which, reality check, isn’t so much tortured as it is a perturbed and slightly blue soul. Speaking of blue, allow me a few parting wards about James Bond’s requisitioned libido. He has sex once, off-screen—so far off-screen in fact that it occurred in your movie theater’s bathroom. Residing in M’s purse no doubt, Bond’s junk is so restricted that when he tries to kiss (just kiss) the Bond Girl/villain’s former prostitute(!) after saving her life a gazillion times, she backs away and gives him her best “uhhhhh, no way!” look. This makes Olga the first Bond girl that’s not… Bond’s girl. He’s not the only one with blue balls.

grade: C+

 

Review: Lakeview Terrace

  • What’s Good: Because “Lakeview Terrace” is a thriller first and political/social message second, it is a perfectly fine and fun piece of entertainment. With an edge! Were it a political/social polemic first and thriller second it would be insincere, cheep and, well, “Crash.” The intense aura Samuel L. Jackson gives off here as the racist cop named Able allows for one of his best (…and only nuanced…) performances since “Changing Lanes;” I like that this character is not the Evil Cop Next Door, he’s a good father at times and actually makes some good points about people owning up to things. His bulgy glares alone should get him an Oscar nom, though that will never happen. The dude keeps it real-real scary.
  • What’s Not: Contrived at times. And the cheesy Kane and Able/LA is burning metaphors juxtaposed with scenes of heated (get it!) racial hatred and brother vs. brother scenes are a bit much, no? Also, the cast is great except for Patrick Wilson’s wife played by Kerry Washington. She overacts, and this is a Samual L Jackson film, people, so that’s saying something!
  • Food Equivalent: Burned, surburbian made BBQ steak.
  • Made Up Hacky Peter Travers Quote: A high octane psycho thriller that will put you in the seat of the danger zone from zero to sixty, “Lakeview” sizzles!

I’m Samuel L. Jackson! I was in “Lakeview Terrace!” I got mad at an interracial couple moving to the suburbs! I make their lives a nightmare because I’m the man, not the movie “The Man,” which I want y’all to rent, but THE MAN as in the po-po, you dig! You’d expect me, a black cop, would be vibin’ with a white dude marrying a sista but I’m Samuel L. Jackson! I got mad at Ben Affleck in my other racially charged polemical thriller “Changing Lanes” and I’m damn-hell sure going to get madder at Patrick Wilson because he’s going to be in “The Watchman” and that’s the one film this year I’m not in! That makes me more mad than that time a Shark ate me in “Deep Blue Sea!”

grade: B

Review: Burn After Reading

The powers that be just don’t want the Coen Brothers anywhere near comedy. This matter is, or was, to such an extreme that the minute they reentered the crime genre last year they were meet with unanimous critical support, box office riches and a handful of Oscars. Make that TWO handfuls! The filmmakers have sensibilities so dark and askew that high drama is often the only way people can bring themselves to comprehend the events that transpire in their world. This film looks to break with tradition by being the first comedy hit of theirs since, um, “Big Lebowski,” which wasn’t even a hit when it first came out. What doesn’t so much break with tradition is the film itself as the Coens find themselves plowing familiar fields that include eccentric characters, funky haircuts, fat lawyers, love affairs gone explosively bad, shock deaths played for laughs, and a general cluster-f comedy style that favors dialogue from the Preston Sturges handbook (“Hundred bucks, all in – not counting my labor, and the… cost of the dildo” which, uh, sure, he could have written) and plots so deep and dark and cynical that you have to punish yourself for laughing.

“Burn” involves a cast of characters so expansive and unlikable that the film, in addition to being uniquely Coen-esq, feels like a Elmore Leonard crime classic. Except it’s not really a classic; a fun dose of macabre humor with a dynamic but far from Cohen’s best shooting style. This is one of those madcap films where a single event (the firing of an alcoholic CIA analyst played by John Malkovich) sparks all the subsequent actions that envelope his cold wife (Swinton), her lover (a twitchy Clooney), his lover (Francis McDormand, doing an expanded version of her chatty Raising Arizona persona), her best friend (Brad Pitt, vibing effortlessly with the Cohen’s sensibilities), and his boss (a fine Richard Jenkins-the only sympathetic sucker in the film). When the hilariously clueless CIA higher ups try to extract meaning from a cloud of commotion that brings to mind Looney Tunes characters fighting so feaverishley that all we can see is a ball of dust and claws, just about the only thing the agents can figure out for certain is the fact that “they all seem to be sleeping with each other.” Right. This is that kind of film, where characters fornicate, pontificate and detonate. It’s also a political satire more tolerable anything George “Syriana” Clooney and Brad “Bable” Pitt have subjected us to. 

As screenwriters, the Coens have admitted that they pride themselves on nudging characters into a corner only to figure out new ways to get them out. This film is all corners. And the chain of events is comically haphazard; unlike their philosophical Oscar winner, the role chance plays on determining the outcome of events is negated here by the simple fact that everything about this film is stylized, predetermined and, thus, thoroughly announced its written-ness. Look, I would not, perhaps could not, consider myself a hardcore Coen fan. Don’t get me wrong, I love their darkness and am consistently fascinated by how they extract strange crystals of warped truth and singular uniqueness out of the material they work with. Example: whenever Clooney’s character, an ex US Marshal, enters a room he has a knack for staring at the floor, tapping it with his feet and trying to guess the composition of the wood. This never gets old. My problem, once again, though, is that this film does nothing to disprove the criticism that the Coens have no heart. It’s all surface causalites and clever writing that never quite gets beyond the clever stage if you ask me. Which isn’t a total negative seeing as how the Coens are making a film about contemptible people  functioning within a demoralized, decentralized, and desensitized system. Again, the jabs towards the myopic/moronic American “intelligence” apparatus and self-realization culture (even more moronic) are clever but nothing deep or profound. The lack of depth, heart and possibly even sincerity makes this comedy a fun weekend fix rather than an enduring comedy classic on par with “O Brother” and, in my view (and my view alone), that flawless gem known as “The Ladykillers.”

When the Coens addressed the academy and viewing public at the Oscars earlier this year they thanked the industry for “allowing” them to play in their sandbox. To be left alone with their thoughts. Well, the characters in this film seem as if they are trapped in that same proverbial sandbox along with the filmmakers. At once insulated from the world and, yet, just as equally alienated from it! When Mcdormand praises Clooney for abandoning his negative views, they both look at each other and dismiss all mortal frets and fears on earth by reducing them to being “all small things!” Perhaps we too should to lighten up and view things in a similar perspective. Then again, maybe not because the Coen’s are so detached from the human experience that everything is small.

grade: B

Review: The Happening

“The Happening” may be the strangest and most detached studio horror film to come out since Paul Schrader’s version of “Exorcist: The Beginning.” It manages to touch upon genre films like “The Signal” and “The Day After Tomorrow” while down right stealing plot elements from the superlative Steven King novel “Cell.” Yet unlike those busy films, here is a vision where nothing happens-which is totally strange considering the title. Actions scenes go as such: People stop. People die. The wind blows. Mark Whalberg winces and looks constipated. scene

M. Night Shyamalan, as we all know, got lucky, er, I mean found success with “Six Sense.” Since then he has reverted deeper and deeper into a self absorbed realm of pseudospiritual dementia. Post “Unbreakable” (a film I love and the last time things worked out for the director), every “a film by…” title has suffered from Night’s myopia (here is a director that takes zero input from the industry… and fans) and his off-putting insistence that he’s brilliant and destined for greatness. This is storytelling, here. Except the stories suck. Be it straining too hard to throw in heady plot twists that everybody seems to expect of this one hit wonder plagued by his ghostly twist to end all twists (“The Village,” “Signs”), trying too hard to be profound (see also: every film he has ever made!), or trying too hard to be timeless, mythical and Jesus incarnate (“Lady in the Water”). A narrative throughline is that the antagonist in each and every picture is not the spooky supernatural happenings that linger, loiter (narratively speaking) and seem to manifest themselves through fate, but Night himself. The writer/director has become such an amateurish storyteller that he makes George Lucas look like a team player. Theses days, pen strokes hit Night’s pages like a knife strokes. And this knife has a nasty habit of hacking (emph. on hack) into the heart and integrity of whatever shit story he may be telling–pardon, crafting.

I’m getting off track. Oh well, no hurry, right? “The Happening” takes end-of-the-world tropes and mixes them with subtle elements of paranoid horror and environmental revenge. Is this wave of mutilation that befalls the east coast a result of Government experiments? Global warming? God punishing us for popularity of “The Hillz?” Either way, the “monster” or, more accurately speaking, force is as invisible as Night’s plot structure; this makes “The Happening” the first in the silent fart horror genre. I wont spoil the cause of this soon-to-be pandemic demise except to say that it’s NOT the monster from “Cloverfield.” I will however say that at one point in the film, the pervasively passive voiced protagonist stops and begs a house plant not to kill him. If ever there was an anti-twist in a movie, “The Happening” is it. Night does everything he can to resist expectations except, in the process, he also resists making anything interesting. Actually, I’m wrong, the most interesting thing about “The Happening” is how uninteresting and un-engaging it is (I’m 100% serious, too). Speaking of passive, I’m not sure if it’s interestingly atypical or deadening that no character in this film is in a rush. The supposedly ominous killer drifts through New York like a John Carpenter “Fog” or Frank Darabont “Mist” and causes a wide-scale evacuation in the first act. A subsequent scene takes place at train station and the vibe is as leisurely as the Apple Store on a slow day. It’s like Werner Hertzog got his hands on the actors and extras and told them to react to such events as if comatose.

Feeling the bad vibrations (get it?), high school science teacher Marl Whalaberg is introduced talking to a class about the phenomenon of missing bees. He says there is no known causes for such a cataclysmic bio-anomaly , except, uh dummy, there is and it’s cell phones. But if Night posited that theory then he would surely bee sued by Mr. Steven King’s estate. Instead, the film deviates from King’s cellphone-made-zombie premise and enters into a plot that’s far more standoffish and lackadaisical. As a protagonist, Whalberg is at his most infantile and whiny. And this is coming from a Marky Mark fan! When accused of thuggery by a crazy old lady he reacts in a stoner’s whisper, saying “heeeeey nooooo” like the old bag just stole his Flaming Hot Cheetos. Along for the countryside journey to nowhere is his self-described emotionally stunted wife (Zooey Deschanel, because, yeah, the one thing this film needs is less personality) and a mute little girl whose father (John Leguizamo) just abandoned her. A potential argument on behalf of the film is that this isn’t about the end of the world but, rather, the creation or birth of a new family bond. Except… no, the family in question here is so shallowly drawn that going with this argument would do more harm than good to the film in terms of intentionality and quality. So, where does the family go and what do they end up doing? Nothing and nothing. Okay, then how do they react to the constant sight of death? Well, let me just say that this is the first apocalyptic film in which the lead characters are more annoyed and put off by the turn of (non)events than horrified. That makes two of us.

grade: C

Note: it’s really more like a hard-D in terms of quality but I’m going kinda easy on the film because it stridently and stubbornly rejects any SIGNs of plot conflict and genre expectations. Also, the kid from The Kid makes a cameo. And finally, Mark Whalberg is so blitzed out that his performance is a (I Am Not) legend; watch for the jaw droppingly (more like droopingly) strange big emotional climax where he tries to make his wife jealous by describing an even in which he “almost” bought, like, a six dollar bottle of cough syrup from a pharmacist because she was hot.

Review: The Incredible Hulk

  • What’s Good: William Hurt phallicly munching on a cigar.
  • What’s Not: ARGH, GREG… BORED.
  • Food Equivalent: Green eggs and hammy acting.
  • Faux Peter Travers Quote: A thunder-clap of a good time. Hold on to your seats because this Green Machine is on the scene!

So they did a quasi sequel to Ang Lee’s quasi reviled “Hulk.” Fine. Whatever. Nobody asked for one but we got it anyways. And, yet, everybody involved in this hardly-hyped new version seemed to forget that what sunk the first Hulk’s hull was that ANGsty film’s tendency to overdramatize/overemphasize Bruce Banner’s mortal (and moral) struggle. I like story development as much as the next person but, with this particular brand in mind, I pay for a film bearing the title “Hulk” for one reason: to see a thing called Hulk. To see him angry. To see him turn. And to see him smash the holy green hell out of everything in sight. Okay, that’s more than one. Whatever the case, one reason I’m not particularly compelled by is the prospect of more Bruce Banner. This “Hulk” serves up Banner as a humorless scientist who goes all emo on us by bitching about his “power” and agonizing over his domestic entanglement with the General’s daughter Betty (played here by a never worse Live Tyler–all plumped lips, pouts and screeching). Huh(ulk)?!

In “The Incredible Hulk,” the enormous subject in the falsely stated “Incredible” part of the title is used more as a garnish than a central set piece. In fact, the first half of the film features only one sighting of Hulk! In the Green Goliath’s stead the film (probably under diva Ed Norton’s request) features the lifeless and constantly posing Norton as he researches, does push-ups in Brazil with his shirtless and bellydancing trainer (hum), learns Portuguese from a book, huffs and puffs out new age breathing techniques (yes, breathing is a main plot point in this film!), and checks a sports watch that is connected to his heart-rate because God forbid Banner allows himself to get angry and turn into Hulk–that might actually be fun. When the last Banner (an equally miscast Eric Banna… is everybody too dim to see that Jason Stathem is the best choice for the role?) described his mind/body transformation, the character’s famous quote is “I like it…” When this one transformed it is described by Norton as kinda sucking and feeling “like battery acid in my brain.” Hey, mine too! So, then, this film’s idea of “fun” is too many research montages (see above), too many close-ups of Norton’s beard (and that’s not a gay joke, although this film is plenty homoerotic–“I want what’s INSIDE you” he is told), too many stretchy pants discussions and shopping sprees in Mexico (I’m serious), waaaaay too many redundant chase scenes where the somewhat meek human form of Banner –a scientist no less!– is consistently able to outrun an elite military squad lead by Thunderbolt (a cigar chomping William Hurt), a and number of (though, this time, not too many) comic nerd-boy easter eggs surprises including appearances by Samuel Sterns (future villain?), Doc Samson (therapist to the Marvel stars) and Tony Stark (you know you’re in trouble when the best part of “Hulk” is Iron Man). Anything else? Oh, yeah, how could I forget the endlessly irksome and over-the-top puppy dog love glances between Banner and the heavily emoting Betty–I’m talking “Titanic” grade cheese here.

A final letdown is that the film doesn’t do much with the concept of a power hungry military apparatus willing to sacrifice its citizens to tap into the biological potential of this genetically altered human “weapon.” “As far as I’m concerned this man’s body is property of the U.S. Army” Thunderbold growls while making goo-goo eyes towards Banner and his rival. Which reminds me: the military acts as the central obstacle Banner must resist and, ugh, outrun, sure, but the real heavy (and I mean HEAVY) is Tim Roth as a Russian soldier… raised and trained in England… that’s now and American soldier… that’s now a exoskeletal hulk soldier/monster gone all Cloverfield in New York. Sure, it’s fun to see Hulk pound and get pounded by this scaly Abomination but the payoff comes too late in the picture, at a time when I’m too exhausted by bad storytelling, tepid acting (save Hurt) and a horribly generic musical score. By the time New York was reduced to rubble I didn’t even care that little if any attempt was made to make this Hulk topical given the politically charged climate because, well, first: this is no “Iron Man.” Second: the film is about as articulate as the Hulk himself when he grunts “Hulk… smash.”

I got to hand it to “Transporter” director Louis Leterrier and actor Ed Norton for producing a film in which I glanced at my watch as much as Banner did. The differences are twofold: (a) I was looking at the time instead of a pulse; and (b) there was never any danger of my heart rate going up.

grade: C-

Review: Cassandra’s Dream

 

More like Cassandra’s nightmare. This “Dream” marks the year’s biggest tragedy. You could say I’m talking about the plot that sees two brothers played by Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell contemplating murder for personal profit but I’m actually talking about the film’s dismal reception and performance. Namely, it came, it went… and it died. Those who bothered to see and/or review the film received with a resounding meh. The reason?: same old story I’m afraid. Allen, a master in each and every decade he has worked in, is faulted for not making a “perfect” film every year. But not simply faulted, assaulted! Salon called the director out of touch (original) while Permiere accused Allen of “waisting his actor’s time” (what, like they could have better spent it on sequels to “The Island” and “Miami Vice”?). Roger Ebert even noted that Lumet’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” a film with a similar brother-centric plot, acts as “a master class in how Allen goes wrong.” Well, I say perfection is boring and, if anything, Allen schools Lumet by showing him that a crime story can be simple and modest and still grab you. The filmmaker is out to explore avenues that interest him, not blow your mind with razor sharp tragety or comedy. Granted, Allen’s blade may have dulled a bit but it’s steadier than ever and still capable of inflicting deep wounds. 

So, yeah, this is notthe crime masterpiece that “Match Point” is. So what?! The film holds its own as a profound mythlogical (instead of Russian novelistic) tragedy where fatalism is the order of the day–while the consequences of murder are served as the main course. “Quick, simple… no witnesses. Just let it fade into history” McGregor tells his brother before crossing a moral line in which he can never return. This film shows how nothing fades into history because the fates wont let it. I suppose viewers were underwhelmed by the oh so slight nature of this simply spun family morality tale. After all, the careful narrative lacks surprises and gimmicks. I, however, found myself enthralled by the dark shades that Allen paints. I saw the film a year ago and feel it has yet to faded into history.  

This is a story of two British brothers of a humble beginnings. Their fates are intertwined even if their personalities are not. One dreams big, wants to drive nice cars, live in nice houses, date high profile women and, of course, desires to “make it” in California. The other is a salt of the earth mechanic who is content with his small dwelling, small town girlfriend and small gambling problem. Okay, a big one. This notion of gambling grabs hold of the film’s plot and theme after his “lucky streak” do what lucky streaks tend to do: end. Now he’s down 90k and desperate (Ferrell has a face made for brooding). Enter a rich and decident relative played by Tom Wilkinson who makes the boys an offer they can’t refuse but would sure like to. Now one has a shot of making it while the other has a shot of making it… out of the hole.
At one point characters discuss the nature of tragic Greek myths and it would certainly be in keeping with Allen, an atheist, to play the role of a jokester god in his film’s universe. Look on the bright side, there’s no ironic Greek Chorus a la “Mighty Aphrodite” but we can almost feel one just off to the side of the screen. As characters marching inevitably towards their own destruction, digging their graves with each action and passing moment, it soon becomes ourconscious that act as the surrogate Greek chorus. So be ready for lots of woes and hos (of the boat variety of course as boats and the ocean inform the film’s deeply symbolic narrative). Allen also weaves in a hearty Biblical allegory that finds one brother motivated by greed while the other ruled by desperation and a sense of what is right. So if Brothers + the Bible is any guide, I’m sure you can see where things end up.  
grade: A-

Review: Indiana Jones

  • What’s Good: Fun! Family! Flying objects! Great cinematography too.
  • What’s Not: Plot issues get in the was and Blanchett’s acting for the first time since “Shipping News” (and before that: ever) sucks. 
  • Food Equivalent: Snickers tie-in “Adventure Bar.” Look, the Snicker bar is perfect but throw in some coconut and you got yourself a mouth party (ewwwww). Sooooo good it’s better than the movie. 

 

Da-da-duh-duh-da-da-duhhhh! Indy’s back and somehow I seem to care. The first is a classic and one of, oh, say the 100 best films ever crafted while the second also belongs to a list: that of the 20 worst. The third was rock and roll when it came out but tedious and old fashion from today’s perspective. So, then, by my calculations “Crystal Skull” gets the series back to a .500. It made me miss a series I didn’t know I missed.

Besides nostalgic window gazing I really wanted to see what Spielberg would do with a fourth “Indy.” A hard and maybe even harsh critic of Mr. Spielberg, I have been intrigued (if not always buying into) the director’s blue period that includes the Kubrickian “A.I.” and “Minority Report,” the apocalyptic “War of the Worlds” and the audacious “Munich” (Spielberg’s lone good film made in my lifetime). Another note is the fact that all the “Indy’s” were made pre synthetic CGI and, thus, retained the perfect pulpy adventure feel. How will (or, indeed, how can) the b-movie luster of the series’ tone hold up against the ultra crisp aura of prefab and, lets face it, plasticy Lucas Ltd. digital? Action set pieces such as whirling paranormal events and ant chases (WTF?!) may belong more to a “Mummy” movie but the technical crew strikes gold with near silent film chase sequences equipped with charming choreography (Indy jumps, falls and crashes from car to truck to car boat), sword fights, whip flashing (hehe) and good old fashion archeological death traps that include poison dart shooting natives (“savages” are so un-PC it’s funny) tumbling down waterfalls and even some vine swinging action. What more can you ask for?

… uh, how about a plot for one. The story is set some years later from the WWII setting that defined the previous two entries (chronologically speaking). Twenty years down the river, Indy seems to have grown up (and grown old) along with history. This film now locates the lovably atonal Dr. Jones smack dab in the Cold War. Evil, godless Russians fill in quite adeptly in place of godless Germans. Both do plenty of squinting and grinning and neither comes close to upstaging the heroes. The beauty of the series is that it is both set in its own hermetically sealed time and place and very much apart of real times and places of the past. In that sense, history clashes with fantasy in ways “The Da Vinci Code” and “National Treasure” could never pull off. When a character describes “not space, the space between spaces” he is referring to a key plot point but might as well be talking about the series its self.

 

 

That quote, by the way, occurs at the tail end of the film when the plot literally flies off the rails and into dimension X (I tried to forget it directly ripped off the final hilltop moments of the “X-Files” movie). But Spielberg’s idiosyncratic genre shifting surprise related to that crystal skull’s origins wins me over if for no other reason that I’m a sucker for goofy sci-fi pap (hope that’s not too much of a spoiler). All I’m saying is that “Indy 4” has a lot in common with “Close Encounters”/“E.T.”/ and “War of the Worlds.” The plot also weaves in a fare number of nods to past films as well as nice little family dynamic that sees *minor spoiler* Dr. Jones Jr. teaming up with and slapping some sense into what turns out to be Jones Jr. Jr. Spielberg’s crush, er, I mean ingénue, ack, I mean, uh, just Shia LeBeouf (side note: ribbing Speilberg’s unwholesome fondness for glistening young boys never gets old) comes across as a Fonzie version of Indiana Jones who wealds combs and switchblades instead of whips and guns. An arrogant but not altogether terrible performer, Shia’s douchebaggery burns only at 80% in this film. Also joining the reunion is Indy’s love interest from thirty something years ago. Karen Allen reprises her role and is so happy to be in a movie –any movie– that her enthusiasm damn near breaks the fourth wall. New characters include Ray Winstone as Indy’s cockney British cohort (god, I love that guy), the crazy Don Quixote-ish Oxley, John Hurt, who holds all the film’s secrets in his insane mind. The big bad Russian heavy is played by the small, sleek and chiseled Cate Blanchett who sports Javier Bardem’s haircut. She’s also a psychic soldier or something. Of course the Russian femme fetal stands in everyone’s way and rides Indy’s accomplishments all the way to the bank (damn near every treasure hunting sequence if followed by guns being pointed at Indy, then an escape, then more treasure nabbing etc.). Look, I’m not looking for logic but the screenplay errors big time when both good and evil characters ultimately end up in the same place, at the same time, and have the same goal. Isn’t Indy supposed to oppose the bad guy or something? The actress is of course one of my favs but she’s too broad and gimmicky here as a villain. 

Yes, this is a big dumb summer movie but Spielberg’s DP should be singled out. Perhaps one of the best visualists of our time, my theory is that anything good to be had in Spielberg’s post “Schindler’s List” films is thanks to Janusz Kaminski. Here he adds a retro gloss and glow that practically preserves the film in “Jurassic Park’s” golden amber. The jungle greens can practically be smelled while the signature earth tone pallet vibrates; as do Kaminski’s playful visual metaphors such as the way Indy is introduced by his shadow and, on the topic of shadows, the way a silhouette of Indy’s head bounces off a mosquito net and casts its image over his entire body. Okay, I suppose I should give Spielberg some credit too. It’s going to be short but here it goes: the director lightens up on or perhaps even transcends his erstwhile blend of cynicism subverted by schmaltz. But, even here, not entirely. There’s a buttload of schmaltz in this Indy, with the difference being that it seems almost… earned. Harrison Ford and Indiana Jones (is there a difference?) is so iconic and warm that to see him return is to want to give him a big ol’ hug. The film works better as a semi-sendoff to the character than a springboard for his son’s future adventures. If saying goodbye to this character is not schmaltz worthy than I don’t know what is. And, sure, he’s called “Gramps” this time around by that young greaser prick of a son (it’s interesting how Indiana Jones in this film is almost playing the Sean Connery part from the last film) but I got to hand it to the guy for silencing all those who counted him out.

 grade: B-