Saturday, November 29, 2008

Australia (2008, Baz Luhrmann)

Baz Luhrmann's films have been distinguished less by a consistent style or subject matter than a "let us entertain you!" sort of propulsiveness, in which the auteur practically bombards the audience with incident and imagery in an effort to make his mark. And while this tactic has yielded mixed results to date- Moulin Rouge! is the apex, with Romeo + Juliet the nadir- he actually puts a lid on this tendency for large portions of Australia. After a very Luhrmann-esque opening reel in which he crams exposition in like a starving kid loading up at Thanksgiving dinner, the director goes more old-school, as demanded by his genres of choice this time out, the Western and the romantic epic. There are still plenty of eye-popping visuals on display, but gone are the insistent cutting style and theatrical anachronisms of his previous work- if nothing else, Luhrmann has set out to make Australia a MOVIE through and through. But frankly, I'm not sure this is an improvement. For one thing, the few "Luhrmann-isms" that do find their way into the story stick out like the proverbial sore thumb, especially his repeated references to The Wizard of Oz (Get it? Australia? Oz? GET IT????), which go way beyond the numerous versions of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" throughout the film, something which might have been more forgivable had Luhrmann not made such a big damn deal over it. No, he feels the need to take the reference even further, as when Jack Thompson's character arrives for the cattle drive in a mini-twister. In addition, I wasn't especially taken with the movie's view of Aboriginal peoples. From the outset, Australia attacks the government's longtime policy toward half-caste children, previously laid down in Philip Noyce's Rabbit-Proof Fence. However, aside from the "creamy" child Nullah (Brandon Walters), all of the Aboriginal characters, whether half-caste or full-blooded, exist predominantly to aid the white heroes. What's more, the intergration of Aboriginal "magic" into the storyline is a half-hearted attempt on the filmmakers' part to show "respect" for their traditions, but it ends up backfiring by turning the characters- especially David Gulpilil's "King George"- into the "Other." But the most basic problem is that without the whip-smash editing and unflagging desire to wow the audience, the film seriously drags in spots. The film's other issues might have been easier to take if only Luhrmann had kept the movie going at a steady clip, but since the story gets really saggy at various points, it gives us (me, anyway) plenty of time to think about all the rest of the stuff that's going wrong. A few other random thoughts: (1) Nicole Kidman's brittle and chilly onscreen persona doesn't seem especially well-suited to Luhrmann's world, does it?; (2) perhaps it's partly due to the central character being a woman, but it's been a while since I saw a big-budget epic take such a distinctly female gaze toward its male lead- Jackman is easily the movie's most potent lust object, whether washing himself in view of Kidman or making the sort of attention-getting party arrival normally reserved for ingenues; (3) is it just me, or is David Wenham essentially playing the Duke from Moulin Rouge! here? That Luhrmann's style of villain is so easily recognizable is more interesting than almost anything else in this mildly diverting but ultimately disappointing movie. Rating: 5 out of 10.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Happy-Go-Lucky (2008, Mike Leigh)

At first glimpse, Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is one of those unbearably chipper types who seem to take it as their mission in life to force their good cheer on the world. It certainly would appear that she’s that sort in the film’s opening scene, in which she visits a bookstore and tries to cheer up a clerk who clearly can’t be bothered. At this point, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, for Happy-Go-Lucky to turn into a story in which Poppy, sooner or later, gets that grin (metaphorically) slapped off her face. Thankfully, Leigh has other plans. Instead of making us anticipate his upbeat heroine get taken down a few notches, he actually lets us get to know her, and if there’s one thing we learn from our time alongside Poppy, it’s that her happiness comes from within. Rather than being one of those oblivious sorts who smiles because she’s too dense to comprehend the shit that surrounds her, Poppy’s happiness is born from a healthy sense of perspective- she knows her place in the world, and she doesn’t need anything more than that to be happy. This idea becomes clear during a scene in which she visits her little sister, who is married with a baby on the way and a new home, and who is as stressed out as Poppy is relaxed (this is also the most prototypically Leigh-esque scene in the film).

The trouble is that Leigh’s storytelling, such as it is, feels too neat, with the drama in the film centered almost entirely on Poppy’s interactions with Scott (Eddie Marsan), a bitter driving instructor prone to emotional outbursts. From their first scene together, Leigh positions Scott as Poppy’s polar opposite, and whatever tension can be found in Happy-Go-Lucky comes from the friction that builds between them. Which is fine, I suppose, except that (a) the difference in tension between the Scott scenes and the rest of the film makes the other scenes feel slight by comparison, and (b) by so neatly cordoning off the really dramatic stuff from the rest of the movie, much of the human messiness that can usually be found in Leigh’s work is lost. Aside from Scott, most of the other characters who surround Poppy tend to accept her as she is, even the ones who don’t really know her. And while it’s true that her kind of happiness is generally infectious, surely there are people who don’t always respond to it and aren’t complete psychos. By limiting the spectrum of human behavior this time around, Leigh has made the world he’s created with his performers far less varied, and consequently less interesting. None of this, however, is any fault of Hawkins, who manages the difficult feat of creating a character who’s genuinely warm and caring, and takes a role that might have been insufferable in other hands and makes her really lovable.

Rating: 6 out of 10.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Role Models (2008, David Wain)

(originally written for a work newsletter)

When I first heard the premise for Role Models- a pair of slackers get ordered by the courts to become mentors to troubled youth- I didn’t have much hope for it being good. It seemed like something out of high-concept Hades, reminiscent of a cheesy 80s-era sitcom. Yet somehow, Role Models makes it work. With a game cast, it’s that rarity- a comedy that’s not just funny but legitimately likable.

Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott star as Danny and Wheeler, a pair of thirtysomethings who pay the bills by hawking energy drinks in public schools. Depressed after being dumped by his longtime girlfriend (Elizabeth Banks), Rudd crashes the company truck, landing them in court with two options- a month of jail, or community service. Naturally, they choose the second option, and wind up in the "Big Brothers/Big Sisters"-esque "Sturdy Wings" Program, where each is paired up with a "little". Wheeler’s young charge is straight out of the comedy playbook, a ten-year-old named Ronnie (Bobb’e J. Thompson) with a mouth like a sailor. But Danny’s "little" is more surprising- a high school social leper named Augie, who devotes all of his free time to a medieval role-playing society that requires its members to dress up and do battle with makeshift swords and axes. Needless to say, the court-ordered mentors have their work cut out for them.

The film’s story is formulaic enough that the ending is more or less a foregone conclusion. However, there’s a lot of fun to be had along the way, provided you’ve got a taste for raunchy humor, including plenty of profanity from the young scene-stealer Thompson. Most of the movie coasts along on the strength of its jokes and gags, which hit more often than they miss. But it’s in the final reel or so that Role Models kicks into overdrive, as Augie enlists Danny, Wheeler and Ronnie for the "Battle Royale," in which all of the members of the role-playing society take the field to fight each other to the simulated "death." I’d go into more detail, but I’d hate to spoil the fun.

And in the end, Role Models is a lot of fun, courtesy of its talented stars and a handful of ringers in the supporting cast. After years of dependable supporting work, Rudd makes the most of the lead role here, and Scott is better than he’s been since the American Pie movies. Among the supporting players, Jane Lynch is memorable as the founder of "Sturdy Wings", who has an alarming tendency to bring up her old drug addiction at inappropriate moments. But best of all is Mintz-Plasse, who became a cult figure as Superbad’s "McLovin", here playing an even more awkward character this time around. Like Danny, we can’t help but look at him with dumbstruck awe when we first meet him, but as the story progresses, we grow to really like the kid and his unorthodox hobby. Role Models is a nice surprise, not least for all of you unreformed KISS fans out there. You know who you are.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

Quantum of Solace (2008, Marc Forster)

(originally written for a work newsletter)

What makes a James Bond movie different from a regular action movie? Bond movies have always been famous for their stunts, their chases, their gadgets, their villains, and their women. But then, you can find these in just about every action movie. No, I think what really distinguishes 007 from the everyday high-octane thriller is its style. From the beginning, Bond has been about wish fulfillment, in which audience members who yearn for globetrotting, high-rolling adventure (all in the service of one’s country, of course) can feed their fantasies, safely, for the price of a movie ticket. No matter what actor plays the role, the style has always been the most important element of a Bond movie, and it’s what’s most lacking in the series’ latest installment, Quantum of Solace.

What makes this especially disappointing is that the previous 007 adventure, Casino Royale was a high-water mark in the series, a fusion of the classic Bond style and the grittier, more hard-edged feel of the modern action movie. However, this time out the scales have tipped too far in the latter direction, with Daniel Craig’s lean, mean 007 reduced to an bullet-headed action figure. Making matters worse is the film’s over-reliance on the kind of frenzied, choppy action sequences that have been in vogue after the popularity of the Bourne movies. The fights and chases become little more than incoherent messes of motion and color, and more than one potentially exciting scene is squandered because it’s almost impossible to make out what the heck is happening onscreen.

As in any James Bond movie, there are a handful of worthy moments, including some lovely locations, and a few returning characters from previous adventures, most notably the invaluable Judi Dench as the long-suffering M. Yet for the most part, I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that I’d seen most of Quantum of Solace before, and done better. In the past, Bond movies have set the pace for the action genre, so it’s a little upsetting to see the series ripping off other hits. I’ve seen all of the Bond movies at least once, and although I’ve sat through a number of subpar ones (you can’t convince me that Moonraker wasn’t meant to be a comedy), I’ve never been bored with any of them until now. To my eyes, 007 movies are about entertainment, and by failing to be much fun, Quantum of Solace fails the first- and most important- test of the series. Disappointing all around.

Rating: 4 out of 10.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (2008, Tom McGrath and Eric Darnell)

(originally written for a work newsletter)

2005’s animated hit Madagascar was a pleasant surprise, taking a relatively standard-issue fish-out-of-water storyline and jazzing it up with vibrant animation and a surprisingly heady nature-vs.-nurture theme. Now the original Madagascar gang is back with the sequel, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, in which our heroes’ disastrous attempt to return to New York City causes them to crash-land in the African savanna. All of the major characters are back again this time, not just the central foursome (Ben Stiller as Alex the Lion, Chris Rock as Marty the zebra, Jada Pinkett Smith as Gloria the hippo, and David Schwimmer as Melman the giraffe) but also returning favorites like the lemur King Julian, voiced by Borat’s Sacha Baron Cohen, and a quartet of resourceful no-nonsense penguins. Frankly, all this familiarity makes the movie feel somewhat stale, with many of the jokes coming off as retreads of the original movie. There’s even a fairly gratuitous and distracting subplot involving a group of American tourists who are forced to fend for themselves, with the group led by the same feisty granny who beat up Alex with her handbag in the first installment of the film.

In addition, once the gang reaches the savanna, each character gets its own storyline, with varying levels of interest. The lion’s share of the screen time (sorry) goes once again to Alex, who is not only spectacularly unsuited to life in the wild- another plot point from the original movie- but now finds himself reunited with his alpha-lion father, nicely voiced by the late Bernie Mac. However, I was much more entertained by the subplot involving Marty and the pack of zebras, who not only look exactly like him but act and talk like him as well, creating no small amount of confusion. That said, the animation is even more eye-catching this time around, with lots of vivid color and inventive (though hardly realistic) character design. And there are still plenty of funny moments, most memorably those involving the scene-stealing King Julian (Sacha Baron Cohen is priceless as ever) and those crazy penguins. Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa won’t win the franchise any new fans, but it should please most people who enjoyed the original film, especially kids.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Rachel Getting Married (2008, Jonathan Demme)

I think the moment I realized exactly what a masterful achievement Rachel Getting Married is came during the rehearsal dinner. In this extended sequence- almost an entire reel long- director Jonathan Demme shows speech after speech, each one creative and sincere, and warmly received. Then we get to Kym, sister of the bride and maid of honor, played by Anne Hathaway. Up to this point in the film, Kym has been something of a fly in the ointment, getting released from rehab to come to Rachel’s wedding only to promptly run roughshod over the proceedings. But in her mind, her speech at the rehearsal dinner is her chance to make everything right. She gets up and throws out some tart one-liners, but nobody laughs. Then she takes a chance to make amends to the pain she’s caused her sister, but no one is really buying. It’s in this scene that we really begin to feel how deep the wounds are that separate Kym from the rest of her family, and even if her speech had been a success, it would’ve taken much more for her to heal them.

The trailer for Rachel Getting Married suggests a story in which Kym reconciles with her family, hugs are exchanged, and everyone parties till dawn backed by a samba band. But don’t let this fool you- it’s pretty strong meat. At various points in the story, it’s hard not to hate all of the characters at least a little bit- Kym for bringing her family such misery, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) for not trying to understand where Kym is coming from, their dad (Bill Irwin) for being ineffectual, their mom (Debra Winger) for running away when she’s needed. Hell, even the wedding itself seems too good to be true, like a liberal wet dream of a multi-culti secular wedding. It’s just so perfectly planned (by Rachel and her prissy best friend Emma, no less) that it feels like a rebuke to the messy, down-and-out life that Kym has been leading ever since she got involved with drugs. Watching Kym navigate her way around the wedding is a reminder of what it can be like when everyone seems to be enjoying themselves except for you.

Like Robert Altman before him, the Demme of Rachel Getting Married knows that sometimes, it’s better to let character establish themselves by the ways they interact with each other than to simply announce who they are to the audience. By plunging headlong into the story, the film completely immerses the audience in the dynamic of the Buckman family. Because of old wounds and tragedies, they just can’t connect as they should, so that even the most innocuous and oblivious gestures (like Kym handing dad a stack of plates) can be blown completely out of proportion. In lesser hands, the situation around which Rachel Getting Married is built might have come off as a comedy of discomfort in a Ricky Gervais vein, but here the laughs don’t come. Here, as Octave said in Rules of the Game, “the great tragedy of life is this- everyone has his reasons.” In a way, Rachel Getting Married plays like the humanist counterpart to the misanthropic Burn After Reading- in both films, the characters get so caught up in their own blinkered versions of the world that they can hardly be bothered with empathy.

Rating: 9 out of 10.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Changeling (2008, Clint Eastwood)

A quick look at Eastwood’s filmography will reveal a tendency on his part to make- or even star in- movies that show a distrust of traditional institutions. Whether it’s Dirty Harry’s shunning of due process or Million Dollar Baby’s climactic scene which finds Eastwood stepping outside both the medical system and the teachings of his faith, Eastwood’s films tend to favor finding one’s own solutions to problems instead of leaving it in the hands of others. And with Changeling , Eastwood finds his most dramatically-fertile example to date- the real-life case of Christine Collins, who after her little boy was kidnapped was presented with another child by the LAPD and thrown into a mental hospital when she insisted he wasn’t hers. It’s such a corker of a story that it would be nearly impossible for a director of any skill to mess up, and while Eastwood’s deliberate style sometimes feels overly ponderous, it still works for the material. That’s not to say that more could’ve been made of this story with a somewhat pulpier treatment- imagine what a writer like James Ellroy could make of the Collins case- but Eastwood’s direction is unobtrusive enough that it doesn’t overwhelm the story. Trouble is, the focus is so limited to the story that Christine tends to get lost in it at times. And while I find it refreshing when a movie has no use for gratuitous subplots (love interests and the like), Collins never comes off as much of a character here. Part of it is no doubt due to Angelina Jolie’s limitations as an actress- she’s too modern, steely and self-conscious to work in a period context, for one thing. But while I understand that Christine Collins lived a fairly average life, the film appears to take her as little more than a blank slate, defined almost entirely by her son, first in his presence, then in his absence. If we’re supposed to get involved in Collins’ quest to find her son, we first have to care about her, and I just wasn’t feeling it here. That said, it is a pretty damn great story, and the movie doesn’t piss all over it, so I was interested throughout. I only wish I cared more.

Rating: 6 out of 10.

A Girl Cut in Two (2007, Claude Chabrol)

As a moviegoer, there’s something to be said for “the thrill of the new”- discovering a talented neophyte, becoming immersed in a unique style, and so on. But there’s also real pleasure to be found in the work of a longtime veteran who has nothing left to prove. When a filmmaker has a style that’s firmly established, a truly talented filmmaker who’s not simply coasting will begin to tweak that style in his later years because he’s confident enough in his filmmaking gifts that he knows how far he can venture from his comfort zone. I kept thinking of this while watching A Girl Cut in Two, which seems at a glance to be a textbook Chabrol film, but turns out to be one of his darkest and most perverse films in years, and his best in over a decade. Of course, all of the expected ingredients are there- upper-class decadence, the trappings of high culture, and an outsider character who’s fascinated with these things until she actually gets a taste of the diseased lifestyle they come with. On the surface, Gabrielle (Ludivine Sagnier) is simply faced with a choice between spoiled, erratic heir Paul (Benoit Magimel) and doting, married, older author Charles (Francois Berleand). But once this initial premise has more or less played out, that’s when it gets really interesting. A lesser film would take one side or the other re: Gabrielle’s future, but in Chabrol’s world, they’re both fairly rotten, mostly because they’re rich enough that they’re out of touch with the rest of the world. Each man in his own way dominates Gabrielle, Charles by only meeting her at his convenience and stringing her along by promising to leave his wife, and Paul by virtue of his, shall we say, unstable personality. Meanwhile, what’s going on with Gabrielle? In some ways, she’s manipulated, but she never really thinks of simply leaving them. Each man comes along when she needs him, and she’s too weak-willed to cast them to manipulate them back. And she lacks the knowledge or the wisdom to realize that, in either case, she’s doomed. As the plot becomes ever more convoluted, Chabrol only reveals what he really has to, and the plot points he keeps vague (does Charles’ wife ever know? An enigmatic bit of dialogue involving a set of keys would indicate that, but you never quite know) become endlessly tantalizing in retrospect. And all the while, there’s the pleasure to be gotten from the exquisite cast- this is almost certainly the best-acted film I’ve seen this year- and the director who knows exactly what to do with them. Magimel’s leading-man good looks are offset by his bizarre clothes and hairstyle, and the aesthetic clash helps him create a memorably unhinged character. Sagnier is much bubblier than the typical Chabrol heroine, but then, the character exists to have her effervescence robbed from her by the storyline. And what else can be said about Francois Berleand, who is becoming one of my favorite character actors? To be sure, he’s an unconventional choice for the role of a sexually-liberated older man, but he and Chabrol use his hangdog face and sadsack presence to give the character a strange serenity of a man who with age and success has gotten used to getting what he wants out of life. He can’t really be blamed for his eventual fate, I suppose. After all, he couldn’t have known that it was out of his hands.

Rating: 8 out of 10.