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All reviews - Movies (204) - DVDs (1)

Crazy, Stupid, Love

Posted : 6 years, 3 months ago on 18 August 2011 07:35 (A review of Crazy, Stupid, Love)

If the poorly punctuated and terribly uncreative title were the only problem with Crazy, Stupid, Love, the film would still have the opportunity to exploit its potential to become a great film or at least one of the better “dramedies” of late. Unfortunately, sometimes less is more, and that’s definitely the case here. The film has a terrific central conflict, ripe with all the possibilities to work (on its own) as an insightful piece on the frustrations of middle age and the toils of marriage, but my gosh, the film adds so many annoying and artificial subplots to the point that they distract us from the plot’s central issue and ultimately make for a watchable, but very much unsatisfying, motion picture. Crazy, Stupid, Love consists of one heart-breaking central conflict that has unfortunately been sandwiched between some ridiculous, mind-numbing events.

Cal (Steve Carell) and Emily (Julianne Moore) have been married for over twenty years and live in a house with their 13-year-old son Robbie (Jonah Bobo) and their younger daughter. Cal and Emily are having dinner by themselves at a restaurant, and come dessert time, Emily blurts out that she wants a divorce. She confesses to Cal that she slept with one of her work partners, and she also says that she feels like she may be having a mid-life crisis. The film handles Cal’s reaction wonderfully well: he’s shell-shocked more than anything else. He doesn’t explode or go on a tirade, like we’re normally used to seeing in other films. Both still distraught, Cal and Emily arrive home, where their two kids are being looked after by babysitter Jessica (Analeigh Tipton), who is 17 years old. It turns out that little Robbie thinks he’s in love with Jessica. Sure, he’s 13 and she’s 17, but he reasons that, in a few years, their age difference won’t matter, and who could argue with him? Cal moves out of the house, and in his depressed state, he starts going more frequently than he should to a local bar. That’s where he meets the ostensible ladies’ man Jacob (Ryan Gosling) who seems to know exactly which lines to feed to women in order to get them to sleep with him. Jacob takes it upon himself to try to help the older Cal out of this slump and get him to start letting new women into his life.

The initial pleasant surprise is, of course, that this looks like it will be a romantic tragicomedy that features the problems of a middle-aged couple, which is something we see so rarely. But the honesty that comes across during those first 5 minutes or so soon vanishes as soon as all the other characters and subplots start entering the picture. Contrivances galore ensues. We’re asked to believe that a hunky schmoozer who’s surrounded by women at a bar would actually care enough to notice that there’s a depressed guy in his 40’s sitting on a corner in need of dating and fashion advice. Okay, that’s not so terrible so far. The next day, we’re asked to believe that a father who has just moved out of his own house and has only a limited amount of time to see his children would simply leave the kids in his apartment to go and take “lessons” from said schmoozer. Soon enough, we’re also asked to believe that a former alcoholic who is only five years sober would actually choose a BAR as a place to spend her evening. I wouldn’t be too upset if those were the only departures from reality in the film, but the problem is that they continue to spill into the film’s mostly ludicrous climax, though I can’t really keep listing them without spoiling the whole movie for you - yes, the movie is rank with falsehood throughout the majority of its running time.

The drama and comedy in Crazy, Stupid, Love simply don’t gel with one another. There’s a scene that is supposed to depict how Cal is still shell-shocked about his wife wanting to divorce him when he goes to work the next day, but it’s ruined by a completely cartoonish moment in which Cal’s boss and office partners start cheering and applauding: “Oh, it’s just a divorce?! We thought you had cancer. Haha, guys, it’s just a divorce!” I’d assume that the moment is meant to reflect the fact that people today have become nonchalant about divorce (since it’s so common), but the way the moment is played is simply too ridiculous, and worst of all, it takes away from the emotional impact we’re supposed to feel from Cal’s plight. Yet another aspect that frequently lessens the emotional impact is how horrendously predictable the picture is at times. When Hannah (Emma Stone), who has just recently passed the bar exam, is anxiously awaiting a marriage proposal from a douche-faced lawyer in a suit at a restaurant (in front of a bunch of his partners), I predicted exactly what he was actually going to say to her, and about 15 seconds before he even said it. The subplot involving young Robbie being attracted to his older babysitter had all the potential to be interesting, but of course, because it’s the type of material with which Hollywood has to be extremely careful, it’s very half-realized. To ensure that it all feels more sweet rather than inappropriate, the casting people did a terrific job at casting a kid with the shaggiest of haircuts and with the most puppy-dog looking eyes you’ve ever seen – I found it disgustingly manipulative. If you’re interested in watching a film about a teenage boy who falls in love with an older woman, I highly recommend Tadpole, which is a dozen times more intelligent a film than this.

It’s NOT that I’m saying that I PREFER movies about depressed middle-aged couples in which there aren’t any attractive young actors like Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone on screen as well. What I’m saying is that this particular film makes you WISH that it had only been about the two middle-aged characters, because they’re the only real people in it. The rest of the cast is composed of people who only exist in the world of the movies: 1) a recent law school graduate who seems to have both looks and brains going for her, yet has insecurities that the film doesn’t seem too interested in exploring on a deeper level, 2) a 13-year-old kid who seems to have memorized the book on sage of advice on relationships and shamelessly spews over-intelligent lines at the adults, who listen as if they truly believed he's an authority on the subject, and 3) a smooth-talking guy (with abs that really do look photo-shopped, by the way), whose approach to womanizing is depicted in a way that makes it all feel like a shameless succession in which girls are picked off one after the other. I’m not sure how the filmmakers believed that Jacob could be a likable character after delivering a line like “The battle of the sexes is over and we’ve won.” The women he picks up at the bars are like robotic bimbos who automatically respond positively to his flirty lines and go straight home with him. I’m not saying that there aren’t situations in which meatheads meet girls who are like that. I’m saying that the way in which the film chooses to portray them (especially in the montages in which it’s one girl after the other, after the other…) borders on insulting.

The film features one of those climactic sequences in which, all of a sudden, all the characters are together in one place and all the secrets come out. It’s the type of thing that has been done with tons of grace and wit in plenty of other films. In Crazy, Stupid, Love, all it does is give four clowns the opportunity to physically go at each other. As many problems as I’d had with the film up to this point, I certainly didn’t think it would descend into this level of ridiculousness at the end. To make matters more nauseating (yet helpfully revealing that this is nothing but a lame “white people movie”), two cops show up to break things up, and whaddaya know: one of them is Asian and the other one is black. Talk about a horrible attempt at being PC blowing up in your face due to how blatantly obvious it is. As I rolled my eyes at how fitting the title’s second adjective was for this climactic sequence in which everyone’s secrets are spoken right outside of a house, I was immediately reminded of the climax of last year’s dramedy City Island, which offered a much more fluid (and funny) version of the same type of situation. Oh, and it seems unnecessary to even mention this, because everyone will find it ridiculous, but there’s a revelation during this climax involving a character that’s laughable in the amount of contrivance it carries with it. Later on towards the end, there’s a painful sequence of scenes at a graduation ceremony that are meant to tie everyhing up, but they feel haphazard as hell. I thought I had already seen the worst graduation speech in a 2011 film after watching Jodie Foster’s The Beaver, but in Crazy, Stupid, Love, there are two such speeches that are giving it a run for its money.

There are two particular scenes in Crazy, Stupid, Love that are a departure from the film’s general dishonesty and feel like they belong in a different movie. Jacob and Hannah decide to spend the evening together, and at first, it obviously looks like Hannah’s just gonna be yet another one of Jacob’s physical conquests, but their evening soon turns into something completely refreshing and unexpected. It’s the only scene that gives Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone the chance to shine here. Stone’s charms are very much underused throughout the film, which fails to explore the insecurities that her character seemed to be going through. Gosling has been receiving an inexplicable amount of compliments on his performance. The guy has proven elsewhere that he's a terrific actor, but Crazy, Stupid, Love is certainly not one of the brightest spots in his career. He does a lot of seductive stares and half-smiling, and that's about it. With that said, though, I can’t wait to see his work later this year in both Drive and The Ides of March. The other scene in the film that works wonderfully well is one in which Cal is secretly standing in the backyard of his family’s house and receives an unexpected call from Emily. This is one rare case in the movie in which a contrivance actually works – it’s contrived that Emily stands right in front of a window through which Cal can perfectly see her, but because the scene is so good, and the two actors are so wonderful, it works. Steve Carell has already proven that he can handle serious comedies perfectly well (see Little Miss Sunshine), and Julianne Moore is one of the best working thespians yet to win an Oscar, so the grade-A quality of their performances isn’t surprising.

I’ve now seen the two films that directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa have jointly directed so far. I distinctly recall that I didn’t write a review of I Love You Phillip Morris because, after watching it, I knew that something about it was off, but I couldn’t pinpoint it, and I didn’t think it was fair to write a review if I couldn’t even figure out what it was that I concretely objected to. But after watching Crazy, Stupid, Love, I think I now see where these co-directors are failing. You see, they are making films that attempt to mix drama and comedy, but they aren’t finding the right balance between the two. All too often, the comedic element veers into the realm of silliness, and when that happens, it’s way too difficult to take the (sometimes very serious) dramatic moments seriously. Countless other films (including most of the titles on Judd Apatow’s resume) have done a terrific job at establishing that balance, but Ficarra and Requa haven’t followed their example. Steve Carell and Julianne Moore embody characters who could’ve made for a terrific exploration of a marriage on the rocks, but they’re saddled by a ton of nuisances that make the film considerably less effective. As a result of that, the insight on relationships offered by Crazy, Stupid, Love is minimal, its humor only occasional, and its overall dramatic impact very limited. Oh, and by the way, having one of your characters react to a situation by saying “What a cliché” doesn’t make the situation any less of a cliché. We're not idiots, you know?


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30 Minutes or Less

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 13 August 2011 06:35 (A review of 30 Minutes or Less)

The bank robbery sequence in 30 Minutes or Less is very, very funny. If that sequence were a stand-alone YouTube video, I would've laughed my ass off, posted a comment remarking on its brilliance, and that would've been that. Unfortunately, this amusing sequence has been sandwiched into a movie in which the events that come before and after it are positively lame, severely lacking in comedic bite. For both director Ruben Fleischer and actor Jesse Eisenberg, this is a massive step down from Zombieland. What confounds me the most is that, while both films are quite economical in length (slightly exceeding the 80-minute mark), Zombieland packs SO MUCH MORE comedy, twists, entertaining action sequences, witty dialogue and strong character development into its 80-odd minutes than 30 Minutes or Less ever does. This film is the epitome of comedic laziness.

Dwayne (Danny McBride) is a lazy doofus who lives off his rich dad. His dad demeans him all the time (probably deservedly so), and there's only so much more of it that Dwayne can take. He talks to his equally inept buddy Travis (Nick Swardson), and they decide the best thing to do may be to kill his dad, so that Dwayne can just inherit all his money. But because they're so ridiculously dumb, they can't kill him themselves, so they hire a hit man. The hit man is charging them $100,000, which they don't have. So, they need to steal that sum of money, but again, because they're so dumb, they think the best thing is to force someone to steal it for them. In order to do that, the best idea they come up with is to beat up a guy till he falls unconscious, strap a bomb to him and then tell him he has to steal the $100,000 or the bomb will explode. The poor victim of Dwayne and Travis' ineptitude is Nick (Jesse Eisenberg), who works as a pizza delivery boy. Understandably scared shitless, Nick, with the bomb strapped to his body, seeks help from his friend Chet (Aziz Ansari), in order to obtain the money and get this problem (literally) off his back.

Yes, I know it all sounds like it's got all the perfect ingredients to make for a brilliant buddy comedy a la Pineapple Express, but the results are far from that. The script is witless, the performances lacking even the urgency to ooze humor, and there aren't even any intense or well-choreographed chase sequences. As the movie progressed, I honestly cared very little about whether Nick and his bomb blew up and about whether Dwayne's convoluted plan to get his dad killed would work or not. Oh, and let's call a spade a spade: this film is totally racist. Some of the references made about the stereotype of Hispanics as being all criminals and gangsters are positively lame, and perhaps the worst offender of all is the line "Shit just got real, slumdog" (and the fact that it's said to a woman makes matters infinitely worse). If you're unconscionable enough to find a line like that funny, more power to you. I find it lame and unfunny, and I'm not even Indian. All this did was remind me of the brilliant way in which the Harold and Kumar films handled racial jokes: the level of offensiveness was constantly offset by the film's witticisms, whereas in 30 Minutes or Less, it's all just "Oh, look, they made a joke about black people! Haha!".

If this year has proven something about Danny McBride, it's that his supporting role in Pineapple Express may have been a one-hit wonder. He was abetted by that film's terrifically funny script, but this year, with both this and Your Highness, he's embodied mediocrity. Again, let's call a spade a spade: this guy sucks. He's not funny. Hollywood may try to push him as hard as it wants, but it's not gonna work. As for Jesse Eisenberg, this is exactly the kind of movie you DON'T make after scoring an Oscar nomination. I don't have a problem with his performance, which doesn't ask him to do a lot. I have a problem with the fact that I know he could've been as great as he usually is if he had only told Fleischer "No, I won't star in your second movie unless the script is as good or better than Zombieland's script." It's too bad. There's a small moment early on in the film that I appreciated in which a quick reference is made to Eisenberg's character "not being on Facebook," but that's a small blip of funny in an otherwise unamusing affair.

The worst offender, I'm sorry to say, is Aziz Ansari, and come to think of it, the failure of 30 Minutes or Less is in large part due to his performance. You see, this should've been a fresh buddy comedy, in which his character and Eisenberg's got to play off each other and traded quips with one another. But Ansari plays it way too demonstratively. Literally, all he does throughout the film is widen his eyes and flail his arms about. Worst of all, when he delivers his lines, they sound so painfully memorized that it's cringe-inducing. There's a moment in which there's a sudden possibility that the bomb will go off, and Ansari's delivery of the line "Get me out of the car!" is atrociously bad. The reason why I say it's too bad that his work is so weak here is that I actually really appreciated some of the more minor work he's done in the past. I still remember reeling from laughter in I Love You, Man during the scene in which his character says, in a very deadpan way, that he and his buddies are heading over to Joshua Tree. Maybe the problem is that he's good enough for that type of role, but that his over-demonstrative schtick just gets too annoying for a full-length film. The fact that he plays it that way while Eisenberg plays it straight should've made for a delightful contrast, but instead, there's just a complete lack of comedic chemistry between them.

Like I said, the absolute exception to everything I've said so far comes with the bank robbery sequence, which feels like it belongs in a completely different film. It starts out with a bit of clumsy awkwardness involving people passing a gun from one person to another. What happens when one of the money bags is opened is total hilarity of the silly variety. But perhaps the reason why this scene works so well is that the two characters are wearing masks the entire time, so it's like, for a moment, we forget about the lifeless and unfunny idiots who had dominated the film up to that point and get to relish in how funny the scene is. Too bad they take their masks off and the film continues. 30 Minutes or Less is a rarity because, while it may be short in running length, it feels terribly long, probably because one is impatiently waiting for the laughs to come. I was hoping that a hilarious final showdown would save it, but no such luck. The ending is haphazard at best, and I was shocked by how weak the very last scene is in terms of how the villain is finally dispatched. Gone is the incredibly fun, zippy energy that characterized Zombieland. The foursome in that film was infinitely more interesting and worth cheering for than the four depressingly lackluster losers who inhabit the decidedly unfunny world of 30 Minutes or Less. What a disappointment.


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The Help

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 13 August 2011 06:23 (A review of The Help)

How far are films willing to go in depicting the grimy, ugly side of tough social issues? I think it depends on how uncomfortable the filmmakers believe that audience members will be with it. Some of us would like to convince ourselves that filmmakers care more about making something artistically good than about satisfying the cravings of those who pay for movie tickets, but that's not the reality. Plenty of films have given us devastating, hard-hitting portrayals of the Holocaust. But that's only because the Holocaust is 1) something that people consider to be in the past, over and done with, and 2) something that everyone agrees was monstrous. I don't think the same can be said for films about the general struggle for racial equality. Problems of racism can't be considered to be "in the past, over and done with," because there's no doubt that they still take place today, and as for whether racial inequality is or isn't "monstrous," there are still people out there who don't believe that whites and nonwhites should have equal rights. Therefore, even though The Help covers events that took place decades ago, the film is never too harsh in depicting them; if it were, it's bound to make people uncomfortable, and that's the last thing we wanna do to our precious ticket buyers, right? However, because it's still an engaging enough and well-constructed dramatic offering, and because it features an astounding performance from Viola Davis, this still deserves a recommendation.

It's the early 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi. Eugenia (Emma Stone) is affectionately known as "Skeeter" among her family and friends. She hasn't exactly followed the conventional route taken by white ladies of this era. She went to college and hasn't yet gotten married. Writing is her passion - she'd like to be a journalist or a novelist, or both. Having graduated from college, she has now returned to her hometown, and she has discovered that the maid who raised her and took care of her is gone from the house. Her parents are hesitant to explain why. Perhaps as a result of this event, Skeeter starts taking a closer look at the dynamics between her white female friends and their black maids. The subjugation is evident as hell, and one gets the impression that Skeeter is only noticing this now because the college experience has opened her mind to this sort of thing. As a way of hopefully intertwining her interest in being both a journalist and a writer of fiction, Skeeter wishes to interview "the help," which is the name used to refer to the aforementioned maids, in order to get their point of view on the job they carry out and how they feel about it. Skeeter hopes to take the material she gets from the interviews and turn it into a set of stories in which, of course, she'll use names different from those of the real people. Understandably, though, the anonymity isn't quite enough to comfort Aibileen (Viola Davis), one of the maids that Skeeter wishes to interview. The possibility that something she says could possibly be traced back to her and that her boss may find out that she's talking about what her experience as a maid as like is simply too risky.

As you may have guessed from the above plot description, The Help is entirely a dialogue-based cinematic offering, but don't let it dissuade you, because the dialogue is constantly engaging and never hits a false note. One of the most glaring problems with the movie, though, is something that accompanies the dialogue much more often than it doesn't: in about 90% of the film's scenes, a score that is reminiscent of Hallmark movies of the week has been inserted unnecessarily. I understand that filmmakers sometimes may believe that films that are strictly dialogue-based need that, but The Help doesn't need it in the least bit. The strength of the dialogue and the terrific performances are enough to make this a completely lively and engrossing picture, so if anything, the over-sentimental score is a distraction. It's like a mosquito in the room, and in this case, the mosquito enters the film's several rooms much more often than it should.

Emma Stone makes the correct career choice here of showing that she's got range, without quite going too far in making a jarring change in the persona she usually plays. She displays the same infectious spunk that we've seen elsewhere, but she makes the right decision to downplay it and make it more serious this time around. As one of the other maids, Octavia Spencer is borderline hilarious in plenty of scenes. Bryce Dallas Howard plays one of the domineering white housewives, and while I have to admit that I've generally disliked her work in the past, she makes for a MOSTLY very solid villain here, although there are times (and this is more the script's fault than it is hers) that she inevitably feels like a caricature more than anything else - there's only so much gasping, lip-pursing and looking constipated that someone can do before it starts looking artificial. But The Help is Viola Davis' film. This is an emotionally deft, tremendous performance, and validation that her work in Doubt wasn't a mere fluke. It should also be mentioned that one of the film's strongest aspects is how Davis and Spencer play off each other as the two maids, one being the more serious and preoccupied one, and the other being the spicier and more comical one. I suspect I would've absolutely loved a film in which the two of them worked as maids in the same house and it all focused on the dynamics between them.

The Help is unnecessarily overlong and doesn't go too far into the dark and painful waters it could've entered. As I mentioned, Bryce Dallas Howard's villainous character at times becomes a caricature, and that's no accident. Since the issue of racism has yet to vanish, the film doesn't want to feel like too much of an indictment of those who are watching it. White audiences need a fabricated villain, in order to blame that person instead of themselves ("Wow, that woman is ridiculous! I'm totally not like her!"). Before I start sounding offensive, I should mention that I'm neither white nor black (nor American), and therefore, consider that I can give a reasonably objective assessment of this situation and of the way the film goes about it. In addition, this isn't really meant as me attacking the film's audience, but rather, as a way of evaluating why I think the film went about things the way it did in order to not stir uncomfortable waters. Still, the effectiveness of the film's dramatic framework, combined with Davis' wonderful work, is enough to trump all the sanitizing that goes on here, at least to the point of making it a worthwhile film.


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Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 13 August 2011 06:18 (A review of Rise of the Planet of the Apes)

Anyone who criticizes Rise of the Planet of the Apes for not developing its human characters as well as it develops its title characters is missing a few important points. First of all, the apes are the central characters here, and therefore, deserve to enjoy much more development than the humans on screen. Secondly, these apes are a thousand times better developed and display much more emotion than the dozens upon dozens of one-dimensional human characters who rear their ugly heads in multiplexes, especially during the summer. This second point is what makes the film work much better than we'd ever expect it to and to position itself above the mostly pedestrian fare that the 2011 summer blockbuster season has offered us. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a supremely entertaining cinematic offering, and the fact that, like Wall-E three years ago, it manages to accomplish that through characters who hardly ever say anything makes it even more of an impressive feat.

I expect a lot of people won't be aware of this, but this isn't the first time that James Franco has shared living quarters with an ape that is initially quiet and eventually starts talking. In 2005, he directed and starred in The Ape, in which he played a writer who moves to an apartment alone in order to have much-needed privacy so he can focus on his writing. But soon, he realizes that he's not alone in the apartment, because there's a talking monkey also living there. Human and ape form a turbulent relationship and it all goes ridiculously haywire from there. The movie went straight to DVD, so um, you can imagine how good it is. Thankfully, things are different (and much better) in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, in which he plays Will, a scientist who's performing experiments on apes to find a cure for Alzheimer's disease. Problems arise, the experiments are shut down, and an order is given to get rid of all the apes, but Will manages to save a newborn and take him home. We then discover that Will's participation in the experiments has a very personal layer to it: his father has Alzheimer's. Will and his father decide to name the ape Caesar, and they raise him as though he were a member of their family. As you'll predict, things get complicated once the years pass and Caesar becomes an adult ape.

The early scenes in which the ape is being raised in Will's house benefit from never entering cartoonish territory, even in the scenes in which Caesar gets into scuffles with Will's neighbor. However, there's no doubt that the best material the film has to offer comes once it's discovered that Will has been keeping Caesar in the house, and is forced to put him in a place in which several other apes are kept together, especially because the always fantastic Brian Cox enters the movie at this point. The very best moments in the film are the ones in which there's no dialogue at all and the apes simply communicate with one another. There are times at which subtitles are necessary, but it never feels like a gimmick. The reason why these scenes are so great has to do with the fact that the CGI is truly top notch, and in the case of Caesar's role as the film's central character, the greatness is amplified by the fact that he's played by the fantastic, utterly brilliant Andy Serkis (who also gave unforgettable renditions of Smeagol/Gollum and King Kong, back when Peter Jackson was making great films just a few years ago). Serkis breathes so much life and fury into the protagonist that there are times at which it's almost too much to take.

The final act of the film is meant to embody the film's title, as the apes (including Caesar) escape from the place where they're being held and begin swarming the cities. There are plenty of effective aerial shots that depict said "swarming" as the stampede of apes move into the city areas. The final action sequence (which takes place on a bridge) doesn't quite have the panache needed to make for a searing last half hour, though I do appreciate the fact that the farewell that takes place during the film's final few seconds has JUST the right amount of sentimentality, and doesn't go overboard with it, which it easily could've done.

Like I said, while one could wallow in the criticism that the humans in the film don't feel as "human" as they should, it's hard to ignore the fact that these apes feel more like living, breathing characters than the average guy in tights who shows up on screens during the summer months. I understand the reasons that led Academy voters not to consider Serkis for a nomination for his masterful and humanistic work as Gollum, which made the character by turns hilarious, pathetic and frightening. But regardless of how much of it comes from the perfomance and how much of it comes from the CGI, Serkis has created some truly fascinating on-screen personas, and his work as the character that dominates the running time of Rise of the Planet of the Apes is further proof of that.


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Captain America: The First Avenger

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 22 July 2011 05:22 (A review of Captain America: The First Avenger)

There's a part of me that is VERY curious as to what will be said about the year 2011 if, a few years from now, someone makes an analysis of the summer movie seasons of each particular year. It's easy to feel excited about it RIGHT NOW because it's the year that's currently underway, but I wouldn't be surprised if the 2011 summer movie season ended up being referred to as a mere prologue to more important things. The summer of 2012 looks terrifically bloated with potentially incredible blockbusters, while summer 2011 films like Thor and now Captain America: The First Avenger have been more about prefacing, which is an interesting way of building up expectations of a seemingly impossible magnitude. We'll have to wait a year. For now, evaluating it as a stand-alone film, I can report that Captain America: The First Avenger is a reasonably entertaining and involving superhero film, though at times too old-fashioned and generic for its own good.

When comparing the quality of this film to that of the other superhero movies of the summer, it falls squarely between Thor and X-Men: First Class. It has the same sense of fun boasted by Thor, but doesn't quite achieve the perfect blend of action, comedy and human drama attained by that film. At the same time, though, while it deals with the issue of being an underdog, which was also treated in X-Men: First Class, its treatment of that issue is tremendously effective, and certainly not as forced and offensive as it was in X-Men: First Class (which is what ultimately made it impossible for me to recommend that film). Captain America: The First Avenger starts out by introducing us to a character that anyone who has ever felt not wanted or rejected will instantly relate to, and this aspect of the plot never feels simplistic or like it's being jammed down our throats.

World War II is nearing its apogee, and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, digitally modified in these early scenes to look short, limp and skinny) very badly wants to join the U.S. army in order to go and fight the Nazis. It's too bad that he's in terrible physical shape and keeps getting dismissed by officers who have no interest in exploring the other qualities he has to offer: they just see him as an asthmatic weakling, and nothing more. Steve has been bullied his entire life, but instead of running away from bullies, he's decided to constantly face them head-on. It becomes obvious very quickly that this is one smart and determined firecracker. A group of soldiers is given the task of lowering a flag that no one has ever been able to lower, and they all fail, but Steve comes up with a crafty, alternate way of doing it. And when a grenade is thrown to the group, all the other soldiers flee, while Steve would rather hog the grenade in order to sacrifice himself for his peers. Of course, the grenade is fake, but this event gives people the impression that Steve just might have more brains and guts than what all the other soldiers have in brawn. This leads him to be selected for an experiment in which a serum will be used to create "super soldiers." Steve becomes much taller and stronger as a result of it. Unfortunately, because the serum is stolen immediately after Steve is transformed, it seems like he's the only weapon to be counted on. But now that a good dose of brawn has been added to our protagonist, he becomes virtually unstoppable.

There's something utterly beautiful about the way those first scenes are handled and about the message that is delivered during them. As a character says, "a weak man knows the value of strength and compassion." Steve's experience as someone who has been on the losing side most of his life gives him more fortitude than any of the physical strength he may have received from the serum. But don't be dismayed - the movie isn't as perpetually solemn and serious as I'm making it out to be. There's plenty of humor, not least of which is found in Steve's absolute ineptitude at speaking to women. After the experiment, there are a couple of riotous moments during the first scenes in which Steve dons the Captain America uniform, and there's an uproarious, blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment in which Uncle Sam's face has been replaced with Steve's face in the "I Want You!" recruitment poster. Absolute brilliance.

There are positives and negatives to be said about the action sequences. On the one hand, there's not a single instance in which there's any sense of annoyance or repetitiveness that we get in so many superhero and war/action movies in which shooting goes on for 10 minutes (which is, of course, enjoyable for those who like that sort of thing, but headache-inducing for those who don't). There's a particularly suspenseful sequence on a train in a mountainous area. The sequence has an unexpectedly tragic ending that is handled extremely well, and not as over-the-top and dramatic as many other films would've chosen to handle it. On the other hand, there's nothing particularly original about any of the action sequences. Aside from how cool it is that the shield is used for things other than self-defense, there simply aren't any "Wow!" moments here, and superhero movies (or any action movie, for that matter) need those moments if they wish to be extraordinary.

The more problematic issue with the movie is that, as soon as the experiment is conducted and Steve becomes the full-bodied Captain America, the film concerns itself largely with said ordinary action sequences, thus causing the disappearance of the great emotional core we had gotten during the film's first act, when Steve was struggling with his physical disadvantages. Oh, and there's a romantic subplot, but it's VERY much a subplot, and not something the film seems to be terribly interested in (though that may have something to do with the movie's ending).

Chris Evans may not boast the irreverence of Robert Downey, Jr. or the gruff ruggedness of Chris Hemsworth, but what he does exude is a lot of humanity, which I think is ultimately more important. I seem to recall a comment about how ridiculous it seemed that, in 2012's The Avengers, Chris Evans would actually be giving ORDERS to Robert Downey, Jr. Obviously, it depends on how they decide to go about it, but I see no reason to be dismayed about it, because, if anything, it'll make room for a lot of comedic moments. Tony Stark probably wouldn't mind cheating to get something done, whereas Steve Rogers seems more like the type of guy who'd prefer to do the right thing - you've got the seed for humorous conflict right there, and conflict is, after all, a crucial ingredient in films. Evans combines virility and vulnerability better than I ever expected him to, and I think it'll be awesome to see him lead the pack next year.

The supporting cast is also solid. Stanley Tucci shows up during the first act and displays even further thespian skills than we've seen before - his accent is fantastic. Hayley Atwell makes the right choice not to overplay the stern nature of her character in early scenes, yet during later scenes, she also avoids descending into the "weak girl" cliche that so often plagues superhero films. Not surprisingly, the supporting player who deserves most credit is Tommy Lee Jones, who can play serious moments while delivering deadpan humor better than almost any actor I've seen.

As the movie draws to a close, there's a fade-out moment, and as soon as it's over, a new scene begins and basically sets everything up for next year's The Avengers. I won't spoil anything about it, but I will say that the sequence is intense and ends the film on a very strong note. Now, don't let that make you get up from your seat immediately! Despite the fact that that final scene feels like the only epilogue we need, there is, as usual, another sequence after the credits, so be sure to wait for it. There's little reason not to have high hopes for what'll be accomplished by The Avengers. Part of me fears that character development may suffer because of the large amount of people populating the film. Of course, those of you who could care less about character development won't mind it, but if you're one of those people, you probably haven't read this far into this review anyway. :) Still, I think it's completely possible to make an organic and masterful ensemble piece with all these characters, and if anything, I think all the right people for the job have been cast, so that's good reason to be optimistic.

I do have to admit that I'm a little bit sorry that I have to rate Captain America: The First Avenger a notch lower than I did Thor and the Iron Man films. There's just a certain spice that the other films had to them that I feel is lacking in this one, despite its many virtues. It's still solid summer entertainment. Marvel hasn't produced a masterful film since 2004's Spider-Man 2, which featured a dizzyingly astounding balance between humanity, action, romance, comedy, tragedy, and well, just about everything. While none of the preludes to The Avengers have quite reached that zenith of perfection, there are still plenty of reasons to expect that something terrific may be produced once all of its storylines converge in just under 12 months.


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Friends with Benefits

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 22 July 2011 05:09 (A review of Friends with Benefits)

During the first few minutes of Friends with Benefits, something wildly unrealistic happens: a character played by Andy Samberg breaks up with a character played by Mila Kunis, and she stands there outraged and frustrated, rather than just turning around and walking towards the sea of guys who'd fall to their knees if she gave any of them the time of day. In case you're wondering why I find this unrealistic, I suggest you take a second look at a picture of Samberg and Kunis, and then get back to me. The good news is, though, that the lack of realism pretty much ends in that initial scene. While the final act of Friends with Benefits is tainted by two or three inevitable Hollywood cliches, the film offers a genuine, refreshingly funny and zany exploration of a guy and a girl who decide to have a strictly physical, romance-free relationship.

Considering that there has been a sudden barrage of movies about this exact same subject, the film's freshness deserves special commendation. At the end of last year, we got the surprisingly good Love and Other Drugs (which I liked so much that I couldn't resist including as an honorary mention for 2010), and then once the new year began, we got No Strings Attached, which lied to us, by basically claiming that it was a film about "friends with benefits," yet all it really has is a montage during the first act that featured quick, clean snippets of the two leads having sex, and once that was over, it all descended into standard romcom material. Thankfully, the same doesn't happen with Friends with Benefits. Sure, it eventually descends into similar territory, but at least it uses the MAJORITY of its running time (rather than just 10 minutes) to explore the pros and cons of having a sex-only relationship. What makes the film even better is that instead of having sanitized montages like the one in No Strings Attached, it's actually interested in some of the funny/awkward things that anyone who's had sex is aware of, even if most romantic comedies are afraid to show them. The two characters warn each other about the body parts where they're ticklish and the like, and there's an uproarious scene that captures the all-too-true complications of needing to pause the sex in order to pee and then realizing that it's kind of difficult to pee with a hard-on. Some may consider these things crass, while I think of them as a breath of fresh air, because of their authenticity.

Dylan (Justin Timberlake) lives in Los Angeles and works as the art director for a very successful blog, which has had millions of views over the last month. But after his girlfriend dumps him, it seems like maybe he wants to try something new and get a fresh start elsewhere (even though he claims he doesn't really need it), so he goes to New York for a job interview for a position as editor of GQ Magazine. Jamie (Mila Kunis) is the recruiter in charge of Dylan, so she goes to get him at the airport to take him to the interview. Quickly after Dylan gets out of the interview, he's offered the job. Great - but now it's nighttime, and Dylan doesn't know anyone else in New York. Jamie offers to take him out to walk around and get a drink. Before you start rolling your eyes, I should tell you that the scenes that follow aren't those typical cute/romantic "walking next to the river" scenes in which the two leads magically fall in love in two minutes. The scenes feel exactly like what it would be like if someone you recently met in a city is taking you out to have some fun for the night. Once Dylan has settled into the new job, he starts becoming friendlier with Jamie, and they talk about how they wish they could just be with someone without all the emotional baggage. And that's how the titular relationship gets started.

In the midst of the inevitable clumsiness involved in Dylan and Jamie's attempts at keeping it all physical, there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. Two of the technology-related ones (one involves an iPad that actually has a bible in it, while the other involves an iPhone application that can tell when a woman is on her period) had me in stitches. Patricia Clarkson makes a delightful appearance as Jamie's sex-crazed mother, and the running joke involving the mysterious ethnicity of Jamie's father hits the right note every time it's delivered. And credit has to go to Timberlake for having no problem poking fun at his singing days in plenty a scene during the film. There's an effervescence to the scenes between Dylan and Jamie that works well particularly because it isn't dragged down by those initial overly-cute moments that we see in the first half of most romantic comedies. Those moments are substituted here by frank conversations about sex/relationships and by some occasionally hilarious gags. One of the plot-related reliefs that we get here is that, because Dylan is a newcomer to New York, he doesn't really know anyone or have any friends there, which means that we don't have to be exposed to the cliche we often get in romantic comedies in which the guy has two or three buddies who are used for purposes of inserting slapstick humor into the proceedings.

There are times at which Friends with Benefits tries to set itself up as an anti-romantic comedy. Comedic actors Jason Segel and Rashida Jones have a particularly funny cameo, playing the stars of the romantic film that Dylan and Jamie watch and make fun of. The scenes are over-the-top and rife with all the predictable lines of romcoms, and it's obvious that Segel and Jones had a riot of a time filming them. My problem is that the film uses this as a means of criticism, but then does some of the same things in the final act: is it because the film simply relents and decides that it should still end as all romantic comedies do in order to satisfy the mainstream, or is it some deeper form of criticism? When the movie that Dylan and Jamie are watching ends and the credits start rolling, the song "Hey Soul Sister" by Train starts playing, and Dylan wisely and wittily remarks on how silly it is that these movies end with a song that has nothing to do with the movie, in order to "make people feel like they had a good time." But curiously enough, the same tune plays over the end of Friends with Benefits. Is it meant to be ironic, or do they actually think that they NEED to make the audience feel like they had a good time?

If it's the latter, it may have something to do with the fact that, as you'll predict, the film's second half does devolve into standard territory in which true feelings start to spark and things seem to start leading up to a final scene in which the two lovebirds will embrace and all will be right with the world. The reason why Friends with Benefits still deserves a passing grade is that, by this point, it has still at least done a good job of creating sizzling chemistry between Dylan and Jamie, and we've also had plenty of laughs in the process. What I definitely don't understand, though, is the insistence of romantic comedies on always having the male lead's father be a source of trouble that inevitably leads to a redemptive moment that somehow serves as the engine for the "Go get her" moment. As much as I appreciate Richard Jenkins' presence in the cast (and his performance is predictably great), this aspect feels a little bit too familiar.

Kunis and Timberlake are terrific. What I like about Kunis is that she plays sassy characters who actually have interesting things to say - she doesn't coast on attractiveness alone to carry herself through films, as so many other actresses who look like her do. Timberlake is often extremely funny, and obviously not ashamed of poking fun at himself, though he's had more chances than Kunis to display his acting prowess in other, better films (see Alpha Dog and The Social Network). The film works more often than it doesn't, thanks to their chemistry and to some solid humorous moments. Like I said back when I reviewed No Strings Attached, what I'm more interested in seeing is a more serious film that explores the toils and troubles of what it means to really try to go through with a sex-only friendship. But Friends with Benefits deserves much credit for milking the funny awkwardness of the titular situation as well as it does, despite the fact that, during the final act, it devolves into the same type of material that it had earlier criticized.


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Good Neighbors

Posted : 6 years, 5 months ago on 4 July 2011 02:06 (A review of Good Neighbors)

The somewhat loopy nature of the three characters who dominate the screen time during GOOD NEIGHBORS makes it a more interesting film than your average potboiler. You see, I have a hard time controlling my rage when Hollywood keeps delivering thriller after thriller in which the characters are not only unrealistically good-looking, but also unrealistically inept. I welcome the fact that the three title characters in GOOD NEIGHBORS are awkward people with particular quirks and who don't always know the right things to say. It's not just the fact that the film feels more honest; it's also that I can relate to them more easily. The result of that, in the case of a mystery/thriller, is that it makes it easier to feel more interested in knowing what the fates of the characters will be, and it makes for a higher impact whenever you discover secrets about them, which is something that happens frequently in this film.

Louise (Emily Hampshire) is a waitress who lives in a lower-middle class apartment in Montreal with her two cats, with whom she has a friendlier-than-usual relationship: as soon as she gets home, she starts talking to them as if they were real people about how her day went and about the things she needs to get done. Her only other friend seems to be Spencer (Scott Speedman), who also lives in the building. He's a paraplegic, but before you start feeling too sorry for him, you should know that, in the first scene we see him, he's feeding one of his pet fish to a piranha-like fish that he seems to have bought expressly for the macabre purpose of watching it eat his smaller fish. Finally, there's Victor (Jay Baruchel), a school teacher who recently moved into the building. He seems to develop an immediate romantic interest in Louise, though it's hard to tell if his fidgetiness is due to being nervous around her, or to other reasons. Spencer reacts with much sarcasm and "Just kidding!" jokes to Victor's obvious approaches to Louise, and we can't quite tell whether it's because Spencer is simply jealous, or if there's something else brewing here. You see, amidst this little triangle, there's something else going on: there's a serial killer in town. Louise becomes obsessed with reading news related to the killings, even more so after one of the waitresses who works with her becomes one of the victims.

The trailer for GOOD NEIGHBORS suggests that one of our three protagonists is the serial killer and that the film's mystery is to discover which one of them it is. The good thing is that the film's mystery isn't as straightforward as the trailer makes it out to be. It's not really a whodunnit - it's something else, but obviously, revealing it here would constitute a major spoiler. All I'll reveal is that the one scene in which we actually see someone commit a murder is delightfully unconventional and, to be frank, it's even funny (and not in a bad way). One gets the feeling that this scene depicts the awkwardness and the clumsiness of what would REALLY happen if you actually went about killing someone.

As I mentioned, the desire to find out what will happen at the end of GOOD NEIGHBORS is heightened thanks to the fact that Louise, Spencer and Victor aren't pristine stock figures. The natural way in which they interact with each other, particularly at the mini-party that Spencer agrees to throw in his apartment so that all three of them get a chance to hang out, makes them living, breathing characters that one can actually take an interest in. As the film goes from there, things get weirder and weirder, and we start discovering unexpected facts about all three of them. Why is Louise so obsessed with the news articles about the serial killer? Why does Spencer not want to use the ramp for the handicapped? Why does Victor suddenly start lying to other people in the building, telling them that he and Louise are engaged?

Correctly doing what all low-budget thrillers should do, the film takes advantage of small details to elevate the level of creepiness. There's one particularly nice touch (at two separate moments in the film) that features Victor continuously marking off exams with a red pen. But the most interesting aspect of GOOD NEIGHBORS is the plot dilemma that emerges during the film's final minutes. One of our three characters has to decide which plan to go with: the plan proposed by one of the other two characters, or the one proposed by the other one. Each plan would have a completely opposite effect than the other. There are no initial indications as to which direction will be taken by the character who has to make the decision, which makes it all the more intriguing. It's certainly not as great as something out of a Hitchcock film, but it's a nice attempt at emulation.

Emily Hampshire gives a delightfully offbeat performance as Louise. It's difficult to know what page she's on, and while that may be off-putting to some people, I love it, because it makes her character all the more interesting to watch. Scott Speedman goes from amiable to snarky to creepy (and back and forth, at times) without missing a beat. The lone weak link in the performance department is Jay Baruchel, who I do feel overplays the nervousness sometimes. It gives me the impression that he's better suited continuing to play dweeby, apprehensive characters in comedies rather than participating in a more serious genre like this one.

I know it sounds strange to say this, but GOOD NEIGHBORS benefits a lot from its weirdness. I prefer this infinitely more than the average thriller in which mentally-challenged characters take ages to realize that something out of the ordinary is going on, and in which the cops wait until the VERY second after the action is finally over to make their appearance. In addition, the film benefits from the fact that, contrary to what the trailer tells you, it's not really a straightforward whodunnit. Oh, and if you have a background in visual arts or editing, you may have a different opinion than me on this, but as someone with amateur-level knowledge in that field, I thought the final credits sequence was terribly cool.


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In a Better World

Posted : 6 years, 5 months ago on 4 July 2011 02:02 (A review of In a Better World )

Moral dilemmas, even age-old ones, won't ever get old in cinema, because they easily provide one of the central elements that all films must have: conflict. If you've got a moral quandary, and you've got one character who leans in one direction, and another character who leans in the opposite direction, you've at least got the potential for a solid plot. The issue in controversy in IN A BETTER WORLD is one we've seen, heard of and talked about a dozen times: if someone is physically or emotionally aggressive towards you, should you try to deal with them civilly, or should you just let your animal instincts dominate you and allow you to become physically aggressive towards the offender? Ancient as the question may be, IN A BETTER WORLD is anything but trite, because it examines that question with amazing nuance. It is a constantly affecting, occasionally devastating, cinematic experience.

Claus (Ulrich Thomsen) recently lost his wife to cancer, which means he's now alone in taking care of his son, Christian (William Johnk Nielsen). As a way of trying to move on, they've decided to move to a different location, which means that Christian will now be attending a new school. When Christian arrives at his new school, the first scene he lays eyes on is that of fellow classmate Elias (Markus Rygaard) being bullied severely by some of the bigger boys. Christian and Elias become quick friends, and Christian, who seems to be driven by a sense of angry rebellion as a result of his mother's death, is all about helping Elias physically defend himself from the bullies. Things get out of hand when Christian badly beats one of Elias' bullies and even threatens to use a knife. The boys' parents are called to school, and we meet Elias' father Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), who starts trying to teach both boys how to try to resolve conficts with a peaceful, non-physical approach. Unfortunately, his attempts don't produce the desired results, and the friendship between Christian and Elias becomes turbulent, as the first boy grows more and more prone to using dangerous weapons to resolve things, while the weak Elias is torn as to whether to follow his friend or his father.

We soon discover the reason why Anton was so adamant about teaching the two kids to steer clear of violence. Anton is a doctor, and he frequently travels to Africa to attend victims of a terrorist known as "The Big Man." In adding this thread to the film's overall story, the film challenges the belief that being a part of war will lead you to be aggressive, whereas having nothing to do with it will make you a non-confrontational saint. In fact, the film takes the opposite viewpoint, by telling us that perhaps being a part of war actually makes you more sensitive, because you get a first-hand look at the potentially devastating effects of being physically aggressive, whereas being divorced from it may mean you simply have no clue of the potential impact of that.

The most interesting thread of the moral questions presented throughout the film comes about when Anton is faced with the decision of whether or not to treat the so-called "Big Man" who was wounded during one of the scuffles, and has been brought to him for medical attention. (As a side note, the touch involving the maggots is brilliant in its raw gruesomeness and in the sense of realism it gives to the proceedings.) In determining what to do now that "The Big Man" has been brought to him for attention, Anton has a lot to consider: Should he follow the same advice that he gave his son and his duty to help EVERYONE in need, and treat this horrendous villain? Should he simply wash his hands, do nothing and leave him to die? Should he toss him over to all the families of the wounded victims, so they can have a field day torturing him? Should he just kill him himself? In a matter of a couple of scenes, all these questions surface, and the film is terrific in the way it handles them. The even more interesting aspect here is that, once those scenes end and those questions are answered, there's another question that the viewer should ask him or herself: Did what happened satisfy or bother you? Or do you just not care? Some audience members will probably be ashamed to admit their answer.

Meanwhile, back home, the two boys' continue careening towards darkness and tragedy. Christian grows more and more convinced that the way to teach people their lesson is by physically hurting them, and Elias is perpetually conflicted as to what to do. The film works tremendously well because of how deftly it intertwines both storylines, and because of how devastating the final act is. One unfortunate thing here is that, precisely because these closing scenes are so devastating, some of the performances (from child and adult actors alike) occasionally become a mite over-sentimental. In addition, the very last frames of the film are entirely irrelevant and feel like they've been pulled out of a UNICEF commercial - it seems like an unnecessary attempt to give a level of international relevance to the movie, and it makes little sense. Were it not for these hiccups during the film's final few minutes, I'd gladly give even higher praise to IN A BETTER WORLD, which triumphed at last year's Oscars in the Best Foreign Film category and has now gotten its release in 2011. Still, it's got all the ingredients needed to make for a powerful and unsettling dramatic offering, and that's much more than what can be said for most of what's been released so far this year.


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Midnight in Paris

Posted : 6 years, 5 months ago on 24 June 2011 03:36 (A review of Midnight in Paris)

Woody Allen's latest film is the cinematic equivalent of going to dinner at an ultra-fancy and elegant restaurant at which finger foods are the only items on the menu; there may be a certain charm to the classiness of the whole experience and it may be visually appealing, but there's no doubt that it won't offer the substantial satisfaction and nourishment that you're craving. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS has a cute little premise and it's at times nice to look at, but golly, it's one wildly superficial movie. Not once does it go beneath the surface in its examination of love and nostalgia, and what's worse is that this is coming from a director who HAS succeeded at offering profound explorations of those subjects, which inevitably makes one wonder whether the superficiality here is on purpose, or if Allen has simply turned lazy.

Gil (Owen Wilson) and Inez (Rachel McAdams) are two Americans who are engaged to be married. Gil leads a financially comfortable life, thanks to the fact that he's been working as a screenwriter for Hollywood films over the last few years. But he feels that his true passion may be for novel-writing, and he finds that, in the U.S., he can't quite get the inspiration he needs to write his book. So, when Inez's parents decide to go on vacation to Paris, Gil decides that he and Inez should join them on the trip, thinking that perhaps the enchanting European city will help his prose start flowing. Once they're in Paris, Gil indeed seems to get a spurt of inspiration, but much to his chagrin, he and Inez soon run into another couple: Paul (Michael Sheen) and Carol (Nina Arianda). Gil is clearly hesitant to spend any time with this other couple, and we soon find out why: Paul is one of those pretentious know-it-alls, and the fact that Inez seems to be so impressed by Paul would render anyone jealous. One evening, the two couples plan to go out dancing, but Gil is, of course, not excited at all about the idea, so he stays behind. As he's walking the streets of Paris alone, an old car passes by and its passengers encourage him to get in. He accepts, and as it turns out, the car is actually a portal that takes Gil back in time to Paris in the 1920s.

If you asked me to reduce the experience of MIDNIGHT IN PARIS to a few words, I would say that it's an exercise in name-dropping. You see, as soon as Gil enters the 1920s, he runs into the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dali and T.S. Eliot. Sounds wonderful, doesn't it? It's too bad that the execution isn't wonderful. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS consists of Gil having incredibly lackluster conversations about life and love with these artists from the past. One must imagine that Allen admires at least some of the artists that he has made characters in his film, but in all seriousness, if he thinks that these people were as bland conversationalists as he depicts them here, then I wonder what he really thinks of their work. The most severe problem here comes with Corey Stoll's performance as Hemingway - his baritone line delivery is at times dreadful, almost as though he were reading from a teleprompter, and the actor's portrait of Hemingway as this brooding guy with an eternal blank stare feels awfully exaggerated. I was watching the film with a large audience, and I did hear occasional reactions from them, but I soon realized that the reactions were along the lines of "Oooh, look! It's Gertrude Stein!", and that there wasn't any sort of response to the film's wit or its character dynamics, because both of those things are hit-and-miss at best.

Throughout the film, the protagonist goes back and forth from the present to the 1920s, and I wish I could say that the scenes in the present that depict Gil and Inez's devolving relationship at least make the film better, but I can't. Quite the contrary, actually. The whole dynamic with Gil's jealousy of Inez's admiration of Paul quickly turns cartoonish. There is a scene at a museum in which Paul is spewing information about the pieces of art they're looking at, and as soon as Gil tries to intervene to offer equally insightful information, Inez immediately interrupts him to say: "Shh! I'm trying to listen to what Paul has to say." Childish script-writing at its finest, and the fact that it's from Woody Allen's pen makes it all the more disconcerting. Oh, and we're helpfully told early on in the film that Inez's parents are right-wing Republicans that we need to immediately hate and dismiss as close-minded - I'm as liberal as can be, but as a cinephile, I can't help getting pissed off when a film picks such an easy target and portrays it so one-dimensionally. All this kept making me constantly want the film to go back to the 1920s scenes, because vapid as they are, at least they aren't as painfully forced as the scenes that try to capture Gil and Inez's failing relationship.

The film does begin with a really nice long montage featuring several locations of the titular city. This is deceptive, though, because it may give the viewer the impression that MIDNIGHT IN PARIS will function as a love letter to the French capital, but the truth is that, once that montage is over, we see less of Paris' vistas than we do of Owen Wilson's face smiling and smirking. Wilson's performance isn't bad by any means, though - this is different material than he's had to handle before, and I'll concede that there are scenes in which he could've gone over-the-top and correctly goes for subtlety instead. Rachel McAdams was apparently asked to simply act as shrill as possible, and if that was the goal, then I suppose she deserves all the credit in the world, though it's of no help, especially in many of the ridiculous hard-to-believe scenes that depict the problems faced by the film's main couple.

If there's something positive to be said about MIDNIGHT IN PARIS is that its ultimate moral is at least interesting. The film believes that, no matter what happens, one will always have a certain level of dissatisfaction with one's "present" and that it's inevitable that there will be a yearning for the past. When we think about the past, we often only think of the good things, so it's easy to delude oneself into thinking that the past was better, even though it probably had just as many shitty moments as the present does. I also give credit to the film for being humble enough to tell us that this is only "a minor insight" and not trying to pretend as though it has made some sort of discovery. If MIDNIGHT IN PARIS had offered this message through an intelligent script and with interesting character dynamics, I'd easily call the film a winner.

Of course, the other good thing to be said about MIDNIGHT IN PARIS is that it's at least better than a lot of the utterly mediocre stuff that Allen has put out in the last couple of years. When compared to something as pretentious as MELINDA & MELINDA, as lame as SCOOP, and as wildly unfunny as last year's lifeless YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER, this film seems much better, but of course, that doesn't mean it's good. Back in 2005, MATCH POINT offered some hope that perhaps the writer/director's brilliance was coming back - that film's script was so nuanced, its performances so on the nose and its dramatic/suspenseful core so well-built, that one couldn't be faulted for suddenly developing high expectations. It's too bad. I'm still waiting to see whether he'll ever offer us something as great as CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS again, but I'm growing more and more skeptical of it ever happening.

If you're interested in seeing a film that offers a profound exploration of the themes of life and love, whilst photographing a beautiful European city, I heartily recommend BEFORE SUNRISE, which is a true masterpiece of dialogue, emotion and acting. On the other hand, when stripped down to its essentials, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS is nothing but a somewhat good-looking exercise in name-dropping. I'm sorry to say it like this, but I find it dispiriting to hear someone say they think a movie is cool because "OMG! Pablo Picasso was actually a character in the movie!" Anyone can sit down and make a movie that features artists from olden times as characters. The question is whether you can make the whole thing organic and interesting and give it a dramatic flair that will make the film worth seeing for at least two or three reasons other than the presence of those particular characters. That's certainly not what happens in MIDNIGHT IN PARIS. To add insult to injury, but without spoiling anything, the film's final few minutes are incredibly contrived. It's been a while since I've rolled my eyes so manifestly as soon as the credits started rolling.


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Rubber

Posted : 6 years, 6 months ago on 10 June 2011 05:31 (A review of Rubber)

And now for something completely different. One of the things that depresses me the most as a moviegoer is the fact that, although there's SO MUCH room in the film medium to do things that are original, interesting and even mind-blowing, filmmakers hardly ever go that route because they know that audiences prefer being fed what they're comfortable with rather than having to deal with understanding something new. Roger Ebert has said that the film medium is the best type of art out there, because it can encompass all types of art, seeing as, in a movie, you can hear music, and see people singing, dancing, etc. While I'm not sure I entirely agree with Ebert's assertion, since I think other types of art (as viewed outside of film) have their own merit, I do agree that the film medium is probably one of the most ripe for potential to DO a lot, whether it's visually, audibly or emotionally (or all three, in some great cases, like MULHOLLAND DRIVE). But since that potential is hardly ever even half exploited, originality in the film medium often has to be found in the realm of small independent films like RUBBER, one of the quirkiest and most interesting films of 2011.

If you've heard anything at all about RUBBER, you've probably heard that it's about a tire that kills people. Yeah, a tire that kills people, not by running them over or choking them or anything, but by telepathically blowing their heads off. That's all I knew about RUBBER before seeing it, and it's exactly why I opted out of seeing it in theaters - I thought it would simply be one of those dumb low-budget indie horror films. But on a friend's recommendation, I rented the DVD, and as it turns out, there was another key element of RUBBER's plot that I was completely unaware of. In fact, it's an element we're exposed to right at the beginning of the movie, before we even meet the murderous tire. RUBBER is an indictment of the movie-watching community. It's a criticism of that majority of ticket buyers who have told the movie industry that they don't want quirkiness or creativity in their films: they just want as much of TRANSFORMERS and TWILIGHT as filmmakers can shit out.

We know we're in for something terrific as soon as RUBBER gets under way. A police man gets out of a car trunk, stands right in front of the camera, and immediately starts addressing us. He tells us that "All great films, without exception, have an important element of 'no reason' in them." What this means is that, in all great films, there's an aspect of the plot that doesn't really make much sense, but it's there anyway because it's necessary for the story to move forward. Of course, the character offers us several examples of films in which we see this, but I won't spoil them for you here, because they're simply too good. All I'll say is that the references to JFK and THE PIANIST are utterly hilarious. The character informs us that "This film is an homage to the 'no reason' because life itself is full of 'no reason'." Of course, the point throughout RUBBER is that there's no need to wonder HOW or WHY a tire is capable of moving and telepathically killing people. It just happens.

But that's not all. Before the film's plot even starts kicking in, we see a group of people gather together, and we soon discover that these people will be "watching" the movie that we'll also be watching. All the inconveniences that those of us who hate having to sit in a crowded room with people to watch a movie are familiar with emerge here: a kid complains "It's already boring" and his dad responds "It's just the beginning, it's gonna pick up". Soon, those audience members (and us as well, obviously) start getting to know our protagonist, who is, indeed a tire that meanders through a desert-like area, occasionally running into people, and yes, telepathically killing them by blowing their heads off. In a very commendable move on the film's part, these moments are never gratuitous: they just happen, as if they were of little importance.

However, just because the tire takes up most of the film's running time, don't think for a second that the film forgets about our little "audience" of folks who are supposedly watching the film along with us. The scenes in which these people show up serve as an incredibly effective criticism of gullibility. Let's face it: most people like bad movies. That's why they keep getting made. You might know that bad movies are sometimes referred to as "turkeys"... and well, I won't include any spoilers here, but what RUBBER does with that reference in this movie is nothing short of pure brilliance, and I have to admit, absolute hilarity (though it's comedy of the darkest type, of course). We soon start getting a spree of awkward and undoubtedly funny scenes in which the actors in the movie (mostly cops who are trying to stop the murder spree) start wondering whether or not they should continue working on the movie or if they should just go home. What's most interesting about this is that we never see a film crew or cameras. We just see the audience and the actors, which means that there are times at which you could reasonably argue that there's a blur between what's supposed to be part of the film and what isn't. And that's, of course, interesting and different.

The culmination of the above explained awkwardness comes with what may be the film's best moment, in which one of the audience members literally gets to interact with the actors in the movie. Have you ever been frustrated with a movie because you know that what a character is doing makes no sense, or even worse, that there's a much easier way to accomplish what he/she is trying to do? If you have, then I have no doubt you'll laugh knowingly at this scene.

The film does make the curious choice of repeating the same lines that were spoken at the beginning of the film at some point during the middle, despite the fact that there doesn't seem to be much explanation for doing so other than perhaps feeling a need to remind viewers of its main point, though I certainly don't think it was necessary. There are also some questionable aspects regarding the events during the film's final few minutes. A shot of the Hollywood sign feels like an all-too-obvious way to inform us of the direction in which the film's satirical arrows are aimed.

Still, there's little doubt that this is one of the most refreshingly creative pieces of celluloid I've seen in recent times, certainly a dozen times more boundary-pushing than anything else I've seen in 2011 thus far. Before watching RUBBER, I thought perhaps the only effect it would have on me would be to make me scared any time I looked at my car tires, but that's far from the case at all. The object that kills people in RUBBER happens to be a tire, but it may as well have been any other object. The fact that it's a tire is of little importance. The truly important aspect of the movie is that effort to play around with people's expectations and viewpoints on what a work of cinema should and shouldn't contain. The film is terrific because it deals with that subject admirably while never letting go of its inherent quirkiness. If you think that this film and the things I've talked about here sound stupid, fear not, for the third TRANSFORMERS movie is only a few weeks away. To everyone else who's open-minded enough to marvel at what the film medium can accomplish, especially on a budget as small as the one that went into this film, RUBBER is highly recommended.


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