Saturday, July 31, 2010

Get a Load of Despicable Me

Despicable Me
Directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud
Running Time: 95 minutes
Originally Released: July 9, 2010

* * * ½ (out of four)

For the past decade or longer, Pixar has cornered the market on exceptionally good animated family films. Few films in the genre have come even remotely close to possessing the wit and creativity found in a typical Pixar release. Over the last few years, however, that gap has been steadily closing. Although Despicable Me is not an absolute triumph, it is evidence that non-Pixar movies are at least headed in the right direction. What’s more, it does something that even Pixar hasn’t managed to do, which is to provide us with an instantly memorable onscreen villain. The villain in question is Gru, and he reminds us that it’s been all too long since an animated film gave us a bad guy worth relishing.

Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) is a supervillain, the kind of bad guy that has big, bad weapons and even bigger, badder aspirations. At first glance, Gru is evil to the core. He hands out balloon animals to children just so he can pop them in the kids’ faces and make them cry. The only thing preventing Gru from being wholly unlikeable is that he’s kind of a doofus. His evilness is offset largely by an inferiority complex that developed during childhood, when Gru’s mother showed little to no interest in her son’s accomplishments. This complex explains Gru’s desire to become the world’s greatest villain, a tough feat now that rival supervillain Vector (voiced by Jason Segel) has successfully stolen Egypt’s Great Pyramid. To top that, Gru needs to do something astronomical—steal the moon, for example. As luck would have it, that’s exactly what Gru plans to do. Having invented a shrink ray that miniaturizes anything it blasts, Gru intends to fly to the moon, shrink it, and pocket it, thereby proving that he is the greatest villain in history.

Helping Gru reach his goal are his minions. Little, yellow, and different, Gru’s minions are pill-shaped beings one can only assume originated from another planet. The minions speak in helium-infused gibberish, though they and Gru understand each other, which is good since the minions are to Gru what North Pole elves are to Santa Clause. And then there are Margo, Edith, and Agnes, the three orphaned girls who serendipitously show up at Gru’s door and try to sell him cookies. Gru has no interest in cookies, but he does take an interest in the girls once a certain light bulb goes off above his head. (We know this because Gru has a tendency of blurting out “light bulb!” whenever he has a good idea.) It seems Vector has stolen Gru’s shrink ray, and three innocent girls selling cookies door-to-door may be just the thing that allows Gru to circumvent the outrageous high-tech security system that protects Vector’s fortress. And so, after one short visit to the adoption agency, Gru is welcoming the three apprehensive children into his home as their adoptive father.

Where the film goes from there is fairly obvious, but that doesn’t stop it from being a wholly enjoyable ride. In many respects, Despicable Me is a one-man show, with Gru carrying the film almost exclusively on his own borderline hunchback shoulders. Fortunately for us, Gru is one of the funniest, most fun, and reluctantly charming animated characters to hit the screen in years. He’s certainly the best villain of the new century, and perhaps the only one that stands a decent chance of being remembered many years hence. In this regard, Despicable Me feels like a return to classical animated films, when the villains were iconic enough to transcend the movies that featured them. (When was the last time that happened?) Credit must be given to Steve Carell, who provides Gru’s voice and tactfully refrains from the kind of exaggerated silliness that would render Gru a conduit of slapstick. Instead, Gru is played overwhelmingly straight, which is what makes him so darn funny. With an accent somewhere in the ballpark of Russian, Gru’s clumsy use of contemporary idioms is a comedic highlight of the film. Were Gru portrayed as a bumbling idiot, such humor would have felt forced. Here’s to Carell, then, for giving such a spot-on performance. I dare say Carell has provided one of the most entertaining vocal performances in an animated film since Robin Williams’ turn as the genie in 1992’s Aladdin.

If there are criticisms to be had, one is that Despicable Me isn’t all that inventive, plot wise. Stealing the moon is a modestly clever premise, but it merely sets the stage for some pretty straightforward situational comedy as Gru strives to get his shrink ray back and pull of his stellar heist, adopted children in tow. That Despicable Me isn’t completely innovative hardly matters when you’re having so much fun watching it, but it does explain why the character of Gru is more memorable than the film itself. A second complaint is that the supporting characters are a bit on the dull side. None are particularly notable, though a couple of the vocal performances stand out. Segel adds life to an otherwise uninteresting Vector, while Kristen Wiig provides the next best performance to Carell, playing Miss Hattie, the subtly sadistic headmistress of the orphanage. And finally, although Despicable Me is consistently quite funny, it’s never gut-busting hilarious. For a movie that aims for the moon, the humor is never out of this world.

For the record, I saw the 2-D version of Despicable Me. It’s to the movie’s credit that I never realized I was missing anything, at least until the end credits, when the minions horse around onscreen in ways that are clearly meant to exploit the benefits of 3-D technology. Personally, I’m annoyed by the 3-D trend, and I’ve heard that it diminishes the vibrancy of a film, making the colors feel washed out even though the images are jutting into your face. I purposefully opted not to see the 3-D version of Despicable Me, and not only because I was taking small children with me who wouldn’t have handled the glasses well. That being said, Despicable Me is the first movie that has made me think the 3-D version might be worth trying. In hindsight, I realize there are quite a few moments when that would have been fun.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Whip It Stirs and Settles

Whip It
Directed by Drew Barrymore
Running Time: 111 minutes
Originally Released: October 2, 2009

* * ½ (out of four)

Life in Bodeen, Texas is anything but blissful for 17-year-old Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page). Wrapping up her senior year in high school and working nights at the Oink Joint, Bliss could use a little excitement in her life. The beauty pageants she dutifully participates in at the behest of her former-beauty-queen mother (Marcia Gay Harden) don’t quite fit the bill, even when Bliss shocks Mom and the judges alike by showing up with blue-dyed hair. Yes, there is tension between Bliss and her mother, which is why Bliss keeps it a secret when she decides to attend a gritty, female roller derby event in nearby Austin. There, Bliss finds herself transfixed by the tough-as-nails athletes who flaunt their sexuality with tongue-in-cheek stage names like Smashley Simpson (Drew Barrymore) and Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis). She also meets Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), who informs her that the Hurl Scouts derby team is holding tryouts the following week and encourages Bliss to participate. Inspired, Bliss does just that and, thanks to her speed rather than her strength, secures a spot on a team that has never yet won a match. Let the games begin.

Whip It has a much more exciting premise than its onscreen incarnation conveys. Featuring the bone-crunching sport of roller derby, where participants ruthlessly knock the wind out of each other and attempt to leave their opponents prostrate on the floor, the movie is surprisingly devoid of zeal. People are making quite a fuss over Whip It’s being Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, and she succeeds in almost every department except where it matters most—capturing the energy of the game. It is a subtle failure that arises from a string of near misses—the brutality of roller derby is understood by the audience rather than felt, the competitions are displayed rather than brought to life, and Bliss practices, rather than struggles or fights, to become a better player. Coupled with a fairly by-the-book script, these minor infractions make a big dent in the strength of the film. Although Whip It remains pleasantly upbeat, the sport of roller derby, with its cyberpunk veneer, demands more pizzazz than Barrymore delivers. The girls look and act mean, sure, but the derby competitions themselves feel more innocuous than they probably should.

It’s sad, really, that Whip It isn’t a better flick, because this one should have been in the bag. Page is a rare combination of girl-next-door charm, funky charisma, and down-to-earth intelligence; had Whip It packed more momentum or been even slightly less formulaic, one suspects Bliss Cavendar would have been a character to remember. As it is, this is the first time Page has been outshined by any of her co-stars, though it is primarily because Bliss is too blasé a character for Page to wow us with. Genuine kudos must be given to Harden, who shines as Bliss’s perfectly imperfect perfectionist mother. Daniel Stern also impresses as Earl, Bliss’ laidback but non-confrontational father, who all too happily lets his wife reign over the home. As the Hurl Scouts’ coach, Razor, Andrew Wilson is a likeable, less quirky version of his younger brother, Owen. (He reminded me of Owen Wilson before I knew he was a Wilson brother. In fact, I was going to describe him as a cross between Owen Wilson and Aaron Eckhart, which still seems appropriate.) As for the rest of the cast, the performances are fairly middle-of-the-road. This will disappoint fans of Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat, who plays Bliss’ best friend, Pash, but never gets the chance to flex her comedic muscles. Nearly the same can be said for fans of late night talk show host and Saturday Night Live alumnus Jimmy Fallon, who plays roller derby announcer Johnny Rocket. Fallon has ample opportunity to demonstrate his comedic chops, but he largely comes up short.

Whip It is a fun movie with a thread of mediocrity woven throughout. It has all the right conceptual components, but the script itself skates too safely down the middle, taking all and only the obvious turns. The cast is talented and certainly seems to be having fun making the movie, but this only makes it more baffling that some of that energy doesn’t translate to the screen. Perhaps Barrymore’s personality has infiltrated the film more than it should have. At first blush, it would seem Barrymore’s trademark blend of sass and spunk would be a perfect complement to a movie about female roller derby, but somehow she makes the sport look more mischievous than menacing. For a movie that aspires to be a sports film with an edge, Whip It’s edges have been surprisingly dulled.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Grace is Gone, But Cusack is Back

Grace is Gone
Written & Directed by James C. Strouse
Running Time: 85 minutes
Originally Released: January 21, 2007 (Sundance Film Festival)

* * * (out of four)

I used to consider John Cusack one of my favorite actors. Since the turn of the century, however, he’s starred in a fair share of stinkers—Identity, Must Love Dogs, The Ice Harvest, Martian Child, and War, Inc. were all quite bad to terrible. Thus it is with great enthusiasm that I celebrate Grace is Gone, the best John Cusack movie (and performance) since 2000’s High Fidelity.

Stanley Phillips (Cusack) lives with his two daughters in suburban Minnesota. His wife, Grace, is fighting overseas, a soldier in the Iraq War. It’s not a situation Stanley is entirely comfortable with, but not because he is opposed to the war or to Grace’s fighting in it. On the contrary, Stanley is quite proud of his wife. It’s just that he’s somewhat lost without her, uncertain of his abilities as a father and quite literally the odd man out at the support group for wives of deployed soldiers. When Stanley is informed that Grace has been killed in battle, it’s as if he needs Grace to walk him through the grieving process herself. Of course, she cannot do this, and Stanley is emotionally paralyzed. He also finds himself unable to break the news to his daughters, 12-year-old Heidi (Shélan O’Keefe) and 8-year-old Dawn (Gracie Bednarczyk), opting instead to propose an impromptu road trip to Enchanted Gardens, a beloved Florida amusement park. The vacation is not so much an act of denial as it is a prolonged intake of breath while Stanley musters up the courage to speak words he’s hoped never to have the occasion to use.

With issues of war and death at its center, Grace is Gone traverses a minefield of emotional triggers that could easily blow up and destroy the sincerity of the film if writer/director James C. Strouse did not tread so lightly. Fortunately, Grace is Gone is a model of delicate filmmaking. There is no sensationalism in it, no preaching to the audience on the tragedies of war. There are some brief differences of opinion expressed between Stanley and his free-spirited (or maybe just lazy) brother, John (Alessandro Nivola), but the movie itself remains pleasantly neutral on the subject of war. One gets the impression Grace could just as well have been a firefighter or had some other inherently dangerous profession and the film would not have changed all that much. That’s a good thing. The focus here is on Stanley, Heidi, and Dawn, which is where it should be. For this family, Grace’s death is the loss of a wife and mother, not a political revelation. Strouse never pretends otherwise, and the film is all the better for it.

As noted, Cusack is the finest he’s been in years. In the role of Stanley, Cusack deftly captures the look and feel of an emotionally and physically tired middle-aged fragile father. It is so unlike any previous Cusack role we’ve seen that we might be amused had Cusack not carried it off so nobly. But as nice a performance as Cusack delivers, it is his onscreen daughters who steal the show. Grace is Gone provides the first and so far only cinematic roles for O’Keefe and Bednarczyk, who come off as seasoned veterans. O’Keefe is especially powerful as a pensive young girl whose maturity and wisdom is more a product of emotional survival than of raw intelligence. The character of Heidi intuits her father’s need for strength and consequently acts as a proxy second adult in the home. It’s a big role for a girl that could still be called little, and O’Keefe handles it more impressively than many actors who have done less and been nominated for an Academy Award in the process. Between them, O’Keefe and Bednarczyk deliver some of the best performances from young actors that I can remember. They alone make Grace is Gone worthy of a viewing.

With sadness permeating the storyline, Grace is Gone could just as easily have been depressing as tender. It succeeds at being tender because of the authenticity that Cusack, O’Keefe, and Bednarczyk bring to their roles. The sincerity of their performances breaks through the film’s somber shell and allows it to be about a family and not about sadness itself. Forgive the obvious pun, but the film is graceful. It feels very personal, but personal to the fictional characters onscreen rather than to the filmmakers, which is an accomplishment. In short, Grace is Gone is the kind of movie people have in mind when they speak of a film being a “gem.” It’s simple, it’s honest. It’s not groundbreaking, but it shines.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Tracey Fragments Not Worth a Clever Headline

The Tracey Fragments
Directed by Bruce McDonald
Running Time: 77 minutes
Originally Released: February 8, 2007 (Berlin International Film Festival)

zero (out of four)

If you’re going to read this movie review, I need you to take the following sentence very, very seriously. The Tracey Fragments is without a doubt one of the worst movies I have ever seen. Really. It’s that bad.

There are a few reasons I asked you to take the above pronouncement quite seriously. First, often when people say that a given movie is among the worst they’ve ever seen, they don’t really, really mean it. It’s just an easy way of saying that the movie was bad. That leaves it open for just how bad a film it really is, and that can vary greatly. Second, even when people sincerely assert that a movie is among the worst they’ve ever seen, it is all too easy for the listener to assume that the movie is better than it is, because you just don’t imagine movies being as bad as they can sometimes get. Third, in the case of The Tracey Fragments, the fact that a movie has won multiple awards from various independent film festivals may encourage you to take a disparaging review lightly. As such, I have no choice but to implore you to believe me—The Tracey Fragments is really, really, really bad.

Tracey Berkowitz (Ellen Page) is 15 years old and existentially lost. She’s ridiculed by her schoolmates, constantly at odds with her less-than-nurturing parents (Ari Cohen and Erin McMurty), and helplessly in love with a rock-star-esque new student, Billy Zero (Slim Twig). The only person who seems to extend Tracey any genuine affection is her nine-year-old brother, Sonny (Zie Souwand). Tracey has convinced Sonny that he’s a dog, and now he does little else but pant, bark, and chase tennis balls. At some point—the film is not told in a chronologically linear fashion—Sonny becomes lost. This puts additional strain on Tracey’s already-overburdened psyche, and she runs away from home in an attempt to locate Sonny. As might be expected for any runaway teenager, life away from home proves both emotionally and aesthetically destitute, not to mention hellishly educational. Tracey assures the audience she is fine—the film is largely a monologue that Tracey delivers straight into the camera—but we can see she’s anything but.

At this point, I feel I have already misled you by making the movie sound more coherent and structured than it is. In reality, The Tracey Fragments revels in its unorthodox presentation, much to the chagrin of the unfortunate spectator. Not only is the chronological order of the film put into a blender and spit out at random, but so are the visuals. Director Bruce McDonald thinks split-screen techniques are the greatest thing since sliced bread and overreacts accordingly. The Tracey Fragments is very rarely divided into less than two screens. More often, it is divided into five or six screens, and sometimes it is twice that or more. Each screen reveals a different part of the scene, though not often something important –Tracey’s transvestite guidance counselor’s shoes, for example, or a lonely donut sitting in a basket at the donut shop. Usually, two or three of the screens show the very same thing from a slightly different angle, and often the screens are just slightly out of synch with each other, creating an echo effect for the eyes and ears alike. It is clear what the filmmakers are trying to do here, which is to capture the fractured psychology of Tracey herself. What they get instead is a minimally clever but not wholly original idea run amok. Never has the phrase “style over substance” meant as much to me as it did as I watched this film. The Tracey Fragments is the very definition of self-indulgent, pseudo-intellectual, faux-artistic masturbation. It doesn’t deserve the talent that Page lends to it.

It does not surprise me that some people out there are applauding this film. Some people really go for this kind of crap. Some people treat anything even remotely avant-garde as necessarily brilliant. I imagine I could spell out the word “innocence” with children’s blocks, glue it to a piece of pink construction paper, then splatter it with blood, urine, feces, and semen, and I’d be considered the next great genius for some of these people. That’s the kind of creativity I see in The Tracey Fragments—nauseatingly pretentious, but just effortful enough for certain people to drop their jaws and start applauding. If you think something’s being unexpected precludes it from being obvious, The Tracey Fragments should disavow you of that opinion right quick. Of course, people who think this way aren’t likely to see what’s wrong with The Tracey Fragments. I’m not sure it’s worth the effort trying to pull their heads out of their butts long enough to convince them otherwise.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Exceptional Inception Falls Short of Perfection

Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan
Running Time: 148 minutes
Originally Released: July 16, 2010

* * * ½ (out of four)

Inception is the planting of an idea in another person’s head. If the idea is successfully to take root, it is imperative that the person in whom it is being planted not suspect that the idea comes from external sources—the idea must be considered one’s own, or the subconscious will expunge it.

And so we scratch the very dense surface of writer/director Christopher Nolan’s latest, Inception. Inception tells the story of Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a thief-for-hire who specializes in thought extraction. Yes, Cobb steals the contents of other people’s minds. How? By burglarizing their dreams, slinking in undetected and rummaging around in their subconscious for whatever information his client is seeking. It’s a delicate process, for as we learn early in the film, the apparent bystanders who populate our dreams—the extras who serve to make a city street or a sidewalk café look authentically crowded—are really projections of the dreamer’s subconscious. If the subconscious begins to suspect that something is amiss, its projections can turn violent, attacking anything—or in this case, anyone—it feels is trespassing. Get killed in a dream by someone’s subconscious projection and your gig is up—you’re awakened. Worse yet, get tortured or maimed. As we all know, dream pain can be very real. Taking a bullet to the foot in a dream won’t necessarily wake you up, but it is guaranteed to hurt like hell.

Saito (Ken Watanabe) is a highly-influential businessman. He wants Cobb to infiltrate the mind of a rival businessman’s son, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), who is poised to inherit his ailing father’s company. Rather than extract information, however, Saito wants Cobb to implant in Fischer an idea, namely the idea that Fischer should dissolve his father’s lucrative business empire. In exchange, Saito will use his connections to clear Cobb’s criminal record and allow him to return back from Paris to the United States to be with his children. It’s an offer Cobb can’t refuse, even though some of his associates think inception is an outright impossible feat. Cobb contends that it can be done—it’s just very difficult, requiring one to descend multiple levels into another’s subconscious, navigating through dreams within dreams within dreams. To pull it off, Cobb is going to need more than his usual partner, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt); he’ll also need Ariadne (Ellen Page), a gifted architect student who can manipulate dreamscapes and thereby evade a subject’s defensive subconscious; Eames (Tom Hardy), a counterfeiter whose talents extend to the dream world, where he can take on the appearance of others; Yusuf (Dileep Rao), who possesses the sedatives powerful enough to elicit several layers of synchronized dreaming; and Saito himself. Dream team complete.

Long before Inception, Nolan proved himself one of the most original filmmakers of our time. Nolan’s 2000 psychological thriller, the backward-flowing Memento, is a classic on par with the likes of Hitchcock’s Psycho. 2005’s Batman Begins took the already-popular genre of superhero movies and infused it with a healthy dose of realism, elevating the genre to a new level of cinematic sophistication. Nolan’s oft-overlooked 2006 flick, The Prestige, reaffirmed his genius, piecing together a compelling storyline and a smart script, which Nolan then brought hauntingly to life with all the delicate care of Dr. Frankenstein resurrecting his monster. Since that time, Nolan’s filmmaking scales have tipped decidedly in favor of big-budget action flicks, where the pursuit of adrenaline can sometimes suffocate the storyline. Such is the case with Inception, which begins as an arc de triomphe of filmmaking but gradually dissolves into being nothing more than a Hollywood action movie with a twist. This wouldn’t be so disheartening if Nolan hadn’t paved the way for something much, much greater. The first half of Inception is a masterpiece, both conceptually and visually. Nolan applies painstaking, philosophical precision to crafting and explicating the complex laws of space time as they relate to “shared dreaming,” the phenomenon that underwrites the film’s narrative. He then provides us with some of the most breathtaking visual effects in cinematic history, reminding us in the most literal way possible that dreams have a way of turning reality upside down. Looking only at the first 60 minutes of the movie, Inception could justifiably be described as a metaphysical wet dream. It is during this first hour that Nolan’s genius is on full display, pulling out all the stops to reveal what can happen in a dream world of, as one character puts it, “pure intuitive creation.” What a disappointment, then, that the carte blanche so graciously extended to the dreaming mind in the first half of the film is so sparingly utilized in its finale. And it’s not merely that the second half of Inception cannot live up to the grandeur of the first; it’s that Nolan altogether abandons the possibilities he so teasingly dangles before our eyes at the film’s outset, just when it becomes clear how such tricks would pay off in spades. It’s a baffling misstep for a movie that otherwise breaks boundaries. I imagine watching the finale of Inception is something akin to watching Michael Jordan practice free-throws. You may have some semblance that you’re beholding a genius at work, but it’s not because of what’s going on at that very moment. In a disappointingly ironic twist of fate, then, the ingenuity that makes the first half of Inception such a marvel to behold turns out to be the film’s inadvertent red herring.

Rich character development has been a trademark of Nolan’s former films, but is less pronounced with Inception. Given the intricacy of the film’s plot, this was probably a necessarily evil. To spend more time developing the characters would have stretched the movie well past the three-hour mark, and it’s probably best that Nolan didn’t attempt this. As Cobb, DiCaprio is as good as I’ve ever seen him, with the exception of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and the more recent Revolutionary Road. I still have a hard time accepting that the boy-faced DiCaprio is a fully-grown adult, and any role that depicts him as a father automatically requires some suspension of disbelief on my part. As Cobb’s wife, Mal, Marion Cotillard is at once distant and foreboding, probably too much so for a motherly figure. Mal plagues her estranged husband’s memory, often appearing in his dreams and attempting to sabotage his missions, the effect of Cobb subconsciously working against himself.

Per usual, Ellen Page tends to be one of the best things about the movies she’s in, even when those movies are exceptionally good to begin with. Cillian Murphy deftly tackles a role that didn’t require his level of talent. In that regard, it’s almost dissatisfying to see him put to such little use. Casting Murphy as Fischer is like renting a U-Haul to carry home a single bag of groceries. The remaining cast—Gordon-Levitt, Watanabe, Hardy, Rao, Michael Caine as the professor of architecture who recommends Ariadne to Cobb and is also his father-in-law, and others—are all well-equipped for what they do, which is play second fiddle to the narrative structure of the movie itself. As such, there is little new to complain about here.

Inception is a rare film in both good ways and bad. It is indeed one of the most innovative movies to hit the screen in years, and one that I heartily recommend. It also has the distinction of proving that even an amazing film can be overrated. Perhaps Christopher Nolan is just too good at his own game. It seems he has implanted in most moviegoers’ minds the idea that Inception is nothing short of perfection. I must say, it’s a pretty successful ruse. You’ll have to spend some time rubbing your eyes in disbelief before you suspect you’ve been the slightest bit bamboozled.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Keep Your Eyes on The Maid

The Maid (La Nana)
Directed by Sebastián Silva
Running Time: 96 minutes
Originally Released: January 17, 2009 (Sundance Film Festival)

* * * ½ (out of four)

I’ve seen several films lately that can’t be fully appreciated until the end credits begin to roll. These movies are slow-paced and require some patience on the part of the viewer. It is only by reaching the later parts of the movie that the seemingly uneventful scenes dominating the first half of the film reveal their significance, not because something more was going on than meets the eye, but simply because of the contrast that those early scenes provide to the ultimate direction of the film. The Maid is a prime example of this, starting off slow and serious and eventually proving a tale of redemption, self-respect, friendship, love, and belonging.

For a dutiful 23 years, Raquel (Catalina Saavedra) has been the live-in maid for the Valdes family. You could even say she’s one of the family … sort of. She makes the family meals, then sits by herself in the other room and eats her own food, staring blankly ahead at the wall, her only dinner companion. It’s not that the Valdes’ don’t care for Raquel. They do—some of them more than others—but at the end of the day, she really is just the maid. Pilar (Claudia Celedón), the mother of the family, feels some loyalty toward Raquel, which is why she doesn’t want to fire her even though her performance has suffered lately, in part due to a series of dizzy spells, in part due to a negative attitude. Instead, Pilar decides to bring on some additional help, which still upsets Raquel. As additional maids are brought in, Raquel does her best to drive them away, and largely succeeds. Her favorite tactic is locking a new maid out of the house, then hurrying upstairs to vacuum so she can pretend she doesn’t hear the new maid pounding on the front door. Meanwhile, Raquel savors those few and far between moments when the Valdes family shows her some genuine affection. Most of this comes from the teenage son, Lucas (Agustín Silva), who still occasionally calls Raquel by the nickname he gave her as a boy and who remains susceptible to bouts of innocent horseplay. Little of it comes from Camila (Andrea García-Huidobro), the oldest child, whose maturity has displaced the naïve childhood sentiment that Raquel is anything more than an employee, a change in attitude that the maid resents. As such, Raquel likes to vacuum outside of Camila’s bedroom door first thing in the morning, especially if Camila has explicitly asked her not to.

The Maid is a character study, and a very interesting one in that the character under the cinematic microscope is one whose thoughts remain largely hidden from the audience. Raquel keeps to herself, saying very little to anyone other than the new maids, over whom she exerts her authority in short, barking bursts. The sad thing is, Raquel’s silence is a byproduct of her work environment. Despite being physically implanted in the Valdes’ family home, where she spends nearly 24 hours of her day, Raquel really has no one to listen to her. At the same time, being the Valdes’ maid is all Raquel has, and it is a position of which she is fiercely protective. She clings to her job despite the lack of emotional compensation it affords her, and as such, she has become embittered. A good portion of The Maid is spent on Raquel quietly seeking revenge on those who invade her territory, with Raquel’s actions sometimes being drastic enough that we question her sanity. Raquel isn’t pleasant company for the audience to keep, but wallowing in her misery proves a worthwhile venture for where the movie ultimately takes us. Without giving too much away, another maid, Lucy (Mariana Loyola), finally comes along who manages to exhibit some caring for Raquel. Set against the film’s earlier dreariness, this glimmer of hope nearly blinds us, as it does Raquel. The slightest sign of Raquel warming up to another human being is almost enough to make you stand up and cheer.

For her portrayal of Raquel, Saavedra has justly received several acting awards from various film festivals across the globe. She is nothing short of perfect, and she does more with a dejected stare than most actors can do with an entire movie. (The stare in question became the movie poster, though even having seen the poster, its appearance in the first minute or so of the film caused me to laugh heartily.) Hailing from Chile, The Maid itself has also won various best picture awards and was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2010 Golden Globes. The accolades are well-deserved. The Maid is an inspiring film. What’s more, it’s a film that, despite its acerbic beginnings, inspires friendliness and encourages us to be patient with those who are less than kind. It’s the kind of film I wish more people would see than ever will. While I give it only three-and-a-half stars due to a couple of technical flaws and some minor narrative issues, it may very well be that I am underrating it.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Mail Order Wife Is Quite the Surprise Package

Mail Order Wife
Written and Directed by Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland
Running Time: 92 minutes
Originally Released: March 11, 2005

* * * (out of four)

I don’t suppose anyone knows fully what to expect when they send off for a mail-order bride. Mail Order Wife both plays off of and lives up to that notion. Presented entirely in documentary fashion, the fictitious Mail Order Wife is a surprising, twisted, and surprisingly twisted comedy.

Adrian (Adrian Martinez) believes he has found the perfect woman—or at least, the catalog description makes her sound pretty good, good enough to cough up some dough and start a relationship with her. Adrian has decided to cut to the chase and forgo traditional dating, opting instead for the convenience—and, who are we kidding, the humble servitude—of a mail-order bride. Lichi (Eugenia Yuan) is the bride-to-be in question, a shy and quiet Burmese woman who, after several weeks of written correspondence, finds herself in Queens, New York, standing before a justice of the peace and, with a little help from her interpreter, saying “I do” to Adrian. Andrew (co-writer and co-director Andrew Gurland) is the documentary filmmaker who’s there to capture it all, fronting the courtship and wedding costs in exchange for filming rights. And what a show he’s getting. As soon as the nuptials are over, Adrian has Lichi cleaning the bathroom and making dinner, chanting mantras like “keep stirring, keep stirring” in her ear, just to make sure she gets everything right. As the movie continues, we learn that this is just the tip of the iceberg concerning Adrian’s domineering behavior. Adrian is not just chauvinistic, he is perversely disturbing. Andrew realizes this and the documentary suddenly shifts, focusing on Andrew’s attempted rescue of Lichi. But that’s not the end of the story, either. It turns out Andrew isn’t sure what he wants Lichi to be—a rescue victim, a lover, or a domestic servant of his own.

You may think I’ve told you everything about where this movie takes us. I haven’t. Mail Order Wife is divided into three distinct acts, each of which takes the film in an entirely different direction. There aren’t twists and surprises, exactly, just shifts in direction, and yet those shifts are substantial enough that you’ll spend a good part of the film in a delighted kind of stupor. Like listening to a good friend tell a story that you can’t quite believe, you’ll watch Mail Order Wife with “Really?” constantly echoing in your head. The genius is that Mail Order Wife responds with equal sincerity, “Yes, really,” and you can’t help but believe it. The events unfolding on the screen are just zany enough to ring true, and it has nothing to do with the documentary façade. As the movie illustrates, something both frightening and hilariously absurd about human psychology make this storyline a reality just waiting to happen. People are fickle creatures who are willing to go to great lengths to satisfy their whims. In both respects, Andrew is all over the map.

In my experience, faux documentaries—frequently referred to as “mockumentaries”—crash and burn if they ever feel scripted. On one or two very brief occasions, the characters in Mail Order Wife seem to be acting. Fortunately, those moments pass quickly enough that they don’t sabotage the film as a whole. Instead, Gurland and Martinez turn in by-and-large terrific performances, though it is Yuan who steals the show, particularly in those scenes where Lichi’s feistier side is revealed. (In one exceptionally funny scene, Lichi vehemently defends her decision to spend all of her personal allowance money on pig décor.) Ironically, parts of Mail Order Wife so successfully capture the look and feel of a documentary that they work against the movie’s success. For example, the first 30 minutes of the film, which are some of the most authentic, move especially slowly. And then there are the film’s darker elements. I don’t understand how certain disturbing aspects of the plot could possibly be interpreted as “dark comedy,” but through the lifelike lens of a mockumentary, these elements only prove more unsettling. Bottom line: proceed with caution. If you can make it past the dull and the disturbing, you’re in for a very beguiling treat.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Steer Clear of The Spy Next Door

The Spy Next Door
Directed by Brian Levant
Running Time: 94 minutes
Originally Released: January 15, 2010

* (out of four)

Every year, it seems Hollywood treats us to a minimum of two to three family comedies with this same basic premise: a macho man with little to no childrearing experience suddenly finds himself the primary caretaker of children. The only substantial difference between these movies is the lead actor and the profession of the character he plays, be it a Navy SEAL (The Pacifier), a former pro-wrestler (Mr. Nanny), or an undercover police officer (Kindergarten Cop). In the case of The Spy Next Door, the lead actor is Jackie Chan, and his character, Bob Ho, is a Chinese special agent on loan to the CIA. Unless you’ve somehow managed never to see one of these movies, you should now have enough information to imagine the movie from beginning to end with very little problem. For those who demand details, however, I’ll now provide a formal review.

Chinese spy Bob is in America, working with the CIA to foil a group of Russian (surprise!) terrorists, who have developed some kind of oil-devouring bacteria. (I can just see the executives at BP drooling over that one!) To preserve his cover, Bob lives in a suburban home under the guise of being a pen importer. In his spare time, Bob dates Gillian (Amber Valletta), the single mother of three who lives next door. Gillian’s kids think Bob is a total loser, but he hopes to change all that by proving himself an awesome babysitter while Gillian goes out of town to visit her sick father. The kids resist him, of course, doing their best to undermine his authority while Mommy is away. Fortunately for Bob, his spy savvy gives him the upper hand, at least part of the time. When four-year-old Nora resists going to bed and runs off down the hall, Bob uses some kind of high-tech miniature grappling hook to reel her back in. When the kids lock Bob out of the house after a grocery shopping trip, he uses some kind of high-tech grappling hook hidden in his belt to climb up on the roof and work his way inside. You get the idea. Grappling hooks, etc., and not that much of the etc. Really, the spy gadgetry is disappointingly uninventive in this movie. It would certainly have taken the film up a notch to have some fresh spy gadgets up Bob’s sleeve, something to dazzle us while the rest of the movie runs on autopilot. But no such luck here. Even when the Russians track Bob down, thanks to one of the children unknowingly downloading an important spy document onto his iPod from Bob’s computer, the movie remains utterly boring. As it turns out, being boring is the only thing the movie does marvelously well.

Speaking of being boring, the children may as well have been named This, That, and The Other for all the originality they possess. Farren (Madeline Carroll) is the moody 13-year-old who is on the cusp of her rebellious years and is particularly resistant to a new father figure. Ian (Will Shadley) is the brainy middle child who needs some lessons on how to be cool, which Bob unexpectedly provides. And Nora (Alina Foley), the four-year-old, is the obligatory cute one. There’s just one problem: she isn’t that cute. In fact, neither she nor her two on-screen older siblings have the least bit going for them as child actors. If a movie like this is going to work, the child actors who are involved must have talent and must be able to charm us despite the fact that we’ve seen it all a hundred times before. Unfortunately, the younger talent in The Spy Next Door is about as humdrum as you can imagine. Never has the word “forgettable” felt so applicable, the saving grace being that at least the kids aren’t bad actors, in which case they might actually be remembered for something. In all fairness, though, the script gives the young actors virtually nothing interesting to do or say. If they have more talent than they exhibit on screen, it’s not exactly their fault.

The adult actors don’t fare much better. Chan is especially stilted, and honestly, he just seems tired. Even the action sequences feel intentionally slowed down to accommodate him, which probably explains the lack of action sequences in the blooper reel that accompanies the film’s end credits. When Chan was becoming a household name in America, he was already 40. That was 15 years ago. That he’s slowing down a bit shouldn’t surprise us, but the sad truth is, Chan’s martial arts abilities are the reason he gets movie roles in the first place. When those skills start sagging—when the audience is painfully aware that the on-screen villains are going easy on the so-called hero of the movie—the gig is up. One gets the feeling Chan himself knows this. He doesn’t look like he’s having fun doing this type of movie—he looks resigned to it.

Equally deplorable performances are delivered by George Lopez, who plays Glaze, Bob’s CIA boss; Billy Ray Cyrus, who plays Colton, Bob’s partner and friend; Magnús Scheving, who plays Poldark, ringleader of the Russian gang; and Katherine Boecher, who plays Creel, Poldark’s sexy second-in-command. Scheving (whom some will recognize as Sportacus from Nick Jr.’s LazyTown), Boecher, and the aforementioned Valletta come off as particularly generic, although this is probably a matter of being less recognizable than Lopez and Cyrus, not necessarily less talented.

Even for a formulaic movie, The Spy Next Door is dull, lazy, and uninteresting. It is difficult to see anyone involved with the movie as giving any real effort. I’m sure there were many people working behind the scenes who gave it their all—caterers, electricians, and whatnot. I have no beef with them, although I can’t help wishing in this one particular instance that they had all remained unemployed. They wouldn’t have been out of a job for long, after all. They’re probably busy churning out another one of these atrocities as we speak.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Book Review: The Catcher in the Rye

Growing up, I knew that The Catcher in the Rye was considered a 20th-century classic. I knew the same thing of works by Jack London and John Steinbeck, and somehow I guess I lumped them all together in my mind. It didn’t help that the title of Salinger’s novel makes reference to grain. I never would have guessed that The Catcher in the Rye is such an urban and contemporary novel. For me, that was a pleasant surprise, one I hope to revisit in the near future.

The Catcher in the Rye unfolds by way of the first-person narrative of Holden Caulfield, a young man recounting his latest expulsion from boarding school and his subsequent journey home. I’m tempted to say the book takes place primarily in New York City, but that would be misleading. Holden’s own mind is the real locale, not because the events described are figments of Holden’s imagination—although, who knows, for Holden falls just shy of deeming himself a pathological liar—but because those events are of secondary importance to Holden’s interpretation thereof. The Catcher in the Rye reads like Holden’s personal journal, which it basically is. As such, the book has no explicit plot. Holden talks about school, about girls, about his family, about people in general. Everything you’d expect a 16-year-old to talk about in a journal. Even though Holden’s reflections are confined to those inspired by his voyage home and therefore maintain a strong sense of continuity and cohesion, the storyline from which they stem provides no more than a backdrop to understanding Holden’s psychology. The Catcher in the Rye’s brilliance is thus wholly dependent on the authenticity of its protagonist. Fortunately, this is precisely where the book excels.

I love Holden Caulfield. This doesn’t mean I view him as worthy of emulation, or as an ideal dinner guest. The love I feel for Holden is an utterly paternal one, but that speaks volumes about the efficacy of Salinger’s writing. Holden is cynical, diagnosing almost everyone he meets as pretentious, stupid, or phony—usually all of the above. Often, he is wise beyond his years. More often, he merely thinks he is. Holden doesn’t understand why people get so annoyed with him, though the reason stares readers in the face. Never does Holden seem quite as young as when he’s conversing with others. Just like a kid, Holden doesn’t get that he’s being somewhat of a pest at times. Yet despite it all, there is much we wish to preserve about Holden’s nature. He is not without conscience, and the fact that Holden seems perpetually crestfallen seems to have more than a little to do with his wish that the world were a more innocent and beautiful place. The young man who cusses in just about every sentence he utters is the same one who mourns at the thought that a little kid will read profane graffiti and forever lose her innocence. Holden is a pessimist, no doubt, but more than that, he is sad. If Holden doesn’t stir your compassion, you’re missing something.

The Catcher in the Rye could not be so emotionally profound if Salinger did not create a voice as genuine as any in literature. And sadness isn’t the only emotion Salinger stirs. The Catcher in the Rye is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Especially during the first several chapters of the book, I found myself laughing out loud almost once per page. When Holden bemoans the inanity of his fellow classmates, finding himself so downright perturbed at every little thing they do, I was thoroughly amused. Granted, Holden’s emotional reactions can be a bit absurd, but they aren’t without warrant. Likewise, Holden’s incessant use of profanity is assuredly ridiculous, but he sounds exactly like a teenager who’s so accustomed to swearing that he now includes foul language as a matter of syntax. In short, everything about Holden Caulfield rings true, over-the-top swearing included. As the book progresses, we come to appreciate Holden’s softer side, and by the end of the novel, we see Holden as an intelligent but naïve kid worthy of affection and in need of nurturing. I would think anyone who has, at one time or another, been all-too-well acquainted with melancholy will find something in Holden to love and to empathize with. Even as a 30-something adult, I recognize some of Holden’s emotional frailties as my own. Funny enough, I think only a cynic could fail to appreciate the lovable cynic that is Holden Caulfield.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Kids These Days

It’s 6:30 in the morning—do you know where your children are?

At 6:30 this morning, I knew where my kids were. First off, that’s a complaint on my part, because I don’t want to know anything at 6:30 in the morning. I want to be sleeping. At 6:30 this morning, however, I was not sleeping. Two of my children, including the as-of-yet unveiled Creegan, were just where they should be. Peter was asleep in his crib, and Creegan was chillin’ in the placental Barcalounger that is Melanie’s womb. Edison, on the other hand, was out in the kitchen, preparing breakfast. Melanie had warned me the night before that such an act of generosity might occur, for she had told Edison and Peter a bedtime story about two boys surprising their parents with breakfast. Edison woke up this morning wanting to emulate the boys in the story, and so it was that, after several minutes of preparation, Eddie came into our bedroom and handed both of us a bowl of cereal.

It was really quite adorable. I was given a rather large cereal bowl, quite full of milk, with four or five bites of Cap’n Crunch’s Crunch Berries floating at the top. Roughly 120 seconds later, when Melanie and I were finished eating, Eddie began asking Melanie to go make him breakfast and serve it to him in our bed. It took a few minutes of coaxing—we weren’t exactly full of vim and vigor—but soon enough, Melanie and I were in the kitchen, cooking up one of Eddie’s favorites, a “frozen waffle sandwich.” (Melanie did all the work, while I stood nearby encouragingly. A frozen waffle sandwich, if you’re wondering, is just a frozen waffle, toasted, topped with butter and jelly, then folded in half. That’s how I prepare frozen waffles for myself, 97% of the time, though Eddie is the one who gave it a name.) Eddie happily ate the waffle in our bed, while Melanie and I tried to catch more Z’s. We both succeeded, especially me. I was grateful, for I had had a nasty headache, and more sleep proved a cure. When I woke up for the second time, I went to the fridge, got out the bowl full of milk that I had saved from earlier, and filled it with even more Crunch Berries. I had enough milk to go a few rounds.

Edison has thus far been quite a fun four-year-old. Peter has been a challenging two-year-old. Eddie and Peter together have been a challenge, too. Peter often seems in a sour mood, and I frequently feel like my attempts at being friendly to him are met with sneering resistance. That can be alternately heartbreaking and frustrating. He’s just picky about everything, which is especially hard when he has no idea what he really wants. If he does know what he wants, there’s no room for error. The most common example of this is that you must call him by whatever name he is currently interested in being called. If he’s pretending to be a firefighter or a kitty, you cannot get away with calling him “Peter.” You must say “firefighter” or “kitty.” That’s fairly normal, I suppose, but even when he’s not pretending to be something else, you are limited in what you can say. If I walk into the room and say, “Hey, buddy!” I will quickly be reprimanded. “No. I’m Peter!” Even something like “Peter boy” won’t fly.

As for Creegan, he and I are getting better acquainted. Last night was the first time I felt him kick. I felt him kick quite a few times, too, which is really fun. This is an exciting stage in the pregnancy. I’m looking forward to being more interactive with the little guy. Ask me how I feel six months from now when my already sleep-deficient schedule is completely screwed up! LOMFRAFOLAOL!! ;)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Smiley Face Best If You Provide Your Own

Smiley Face
Directed by Gregg Araki
Running Time: 88 minutes
Originally Released: January 21, 2007 (Sundance Film Festival)

* (out of four)

I’ve never smoked pot. I’ve seen it, twice. Only once was anybody smoking it, and it made me uncomfortable. I wanted to leave the situation, but I was stuck in the backseat of a car, wishing I had never agreed to hitch a ride with some high school classmates that I hardly knew and didn’t even like. Several years later, teaching college, I was clueless when a student asked me if I had celebrated “4/20.” (I was soon informed that “4/20” is the unofficial holiday dedicated to smoking pot, which apparently is common knowledge among college students.) Needless to say, I don’t fit the targeted demographic for a movie like Smiley Face, a stoner comedy about, you guessed it, getting stoned.

It may seem utterly unfair that I would even review a movie about a young woman so high on marijuana that she can do little more than pull funny faces as she scampers around Los Angeles, trying to score more weed. As someone who has never experienced first-hand the side effects of pot, watching Smiley Face may be a futile attempt at trying to understand an inside joke I was never meant to hear. That’s a legitimate complaint, I suppose, but I’ve been surprised before. I enjoyed 1998’s Half Baked immensely more than I expected to, for example. But, unlike Smiley Face, Half Baked didn’t require its viewers to be stoned in order to make them laugh. Or at least I’m guessing that’s what’s required in the case of Smiley Face, whose laughs are—for the sober person, at least—few and far between.

Jane (Anna Faris) is a wannabe actress; “aspiring” might be too strong a word, given that Jane reserves most of her energy for lighting up her bong, scarfing down tortilla chips, and playing video games on her laptop computer. She lives with a roommate, Steve (That ‘70s Show’s Danny Masterson), who gives her the creeps and speaks to her mostly via belligerent notes left around the house, reminding her to pay the bills and otherwise be a responsible adult. The notes don’t help much, of course. When Jane gets the munchies, she willfully disregards Steve’s handwritten request not to consume the plate of cupcakes he is saving for an upcoming party, only to realize soon thereafter that the cupcakes themselves were laced with marijuana. This poses a fourfold problem for Jane. First, she must replace the cupcakes. Second, she must get more marijuana to put into the cupcakes. Third, she must attend to her other responsibilities of the day, which include paying the power bill and going to an audition. And fourth, she must do all of the above while stoned out of her mind.

Hilarity ensues. Or at least that’s the idea. Fortunately for everyone involved, Faris is a proven comic talent who makes Smiley Face infinitely more likable than it otherwise would have been. With a knack for physical comedy and an unrelenting willingness to embrace her own geeky charm, Faris avoids the embarrassment that almost any other actor would have suffered as a part of this movie. A good deal of Smiley Face is comprised of close-up shots of Jane, either staring blankly ahead as if she’s just had a lobotomy or slack-jawed, befuddled, and panicked as she tries to evade the many folks she perturbs throughout the course of her journey. Faris pulls it off with her dignity intact, faltering only because the material she is working with is so far beneath her. Fortunately, Faris’ star is still rising, with the actress allegedly attached to the long-awaited Ghostbusters III and slated to star in the remake of the 1980 hit comedy Private Benjamin, originally starring Goldie Hawn. Faris, who has more recently been supplying vocal talent for animated films—Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, and the forthcoming Yogi Bear and Happy Feet 2—deserves the attention that such prominent roles will bring to her, and it is my hope that her résumé as a whole will spike in quality as a result.

Smiley Face features a surprisingly extensive and familiar supporting cast, with most of the roles amounting to no more than cameos. Among those who appear are Adam Brody, John Cho, Christopher-Guest-favorites Jane Lynch and Michael Hitchcock, Danny Trejo, Brian Posehn, Jim Rash, and Marion Ross. Of special note is John Krasinski, who plays the nerdy and solemn Brevin, a loser whose affections for Jane make him a last-ditch resource when Jane struggles to find transportation to a hemp festival in nearby Venice, where she is scheduled to meet her dealer. Aside from Faris herself, Krasinski proves the highlight of the film.

Smiley Face isn’t devoid of laughs. It features a handful of laugh-out-loud moments, but they arise only in the midst of an otherwise incredibly boring film. Bear in mind that, with Jane stoned throughout the entirety of the film, the movie is meant to be almost uninterruptedly funny. That means that a lot of humor is falling flat. As a case in point, what appears to be the filmmakers’ most concentrated effort at soliciting laughter from the audience—a banal instance of a dimwitted person suddenly delivering an articulate and rousing speech—feels more like an opportune time to take a bathroom break for all the humor it affords. Better yet, skip the film altogether and treat yourself to something you know you’ll enjoy. Cupcakes, for example. What you put in the cupcakes is entirely up to you.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Who Died and Made Me Ebert?

If you’ve looked at my blog during the past couple of weeks—and I’ll assume you have if you’re reading this now—then you’ve noticed that lately I’ve been posting nothing but movie reviews. I’ve always enjoyed movies, at least as much as the next person, but I started watching quite a lot of them when I was in high school. It helped that I had a handful of close friends who were equally keen on motion pictures. My friends and I used to go to the movie theater all the time, including many occasions when we should have been in school. (It helped that first-run matinee showings cost only $3.50 in those days, which is what the second-run “dollar” theater charges today, at least here in Tallahassee.) I wrote my first movie review for my high school newspaper, then wrote a few more, and after high school, wrote over 80 of them that can still be found online via the Internet Movie Database and Rotten Tomatoes. Some of those reviews are embarrassingly bad at best, but writing the reviews has always been something I’ve enjoyed. Even when I stopped writing reviews, I would often think about what I would say in a review if I were to critique a particular film I’m watching. Sometimes I feel like there is a lot to say about a movie, but I don’t usually bother saying it. Until lately, that is.

With my lightened summer schedule, Melanie and I have taken to watching a movie almost every night of the week. I’m sure that sounds indulgent to some, but I’ve long since abandoned the notion that watching movies is somehow a shameful activity of choice, as if movies are necessarily frivolous entertainment. Some movies are frivolous, but so are the abilities of some people to appreciate movies. Sometimes you get out of something what you put into it. I put a lot of mental thought into watching movies, and thus I get quite a mental reward out of watching them. And with very few exceptions, I would much rather watch a movie than two hours of television. During the normal school year, I’m usually too busy to watch movies, and if I actually have time to watch a movie, it sounds too mentally draining to do so. I need frivolous entertainment between September and May. If I’m going to watch something during those months, I probably want it to be short and light. So there is a time and a place for normal television. But for now, in the splendor of summer, I’m enjoying catching up on as many movies as I can.

I know one or two of you have been reading the reviews, and that’s cool. I don’t expect everyone to, and that’s fine by me. I write the reviews because I enjoy it, not because I think I’m making a difference to anyone. As it is, my mom and sisters are the only people who are likely to be influenced by anything I have to say, and if I think they should see a movie, I can just call them and tell them so. No, I’m writing the reviews mostly for my own sake. Which probably sounds strange because reviews are primarily aimed at informing someone of something that that person doesn’t already know. Oh well. It’s not like I’ve been writing a review of every single movie I watch, even since my review-writing renaissance began back on June 28th. I’ll write as much or as little as I want, I suppose. At least while I can. Which will be for another few weeks. So, to anyone who enjoys them, I hope you’ll enjoy what’s yet to come. And don’t worry—I’ll squeeze in some non-movie-related posts now and again. I promise.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Single Man Has Mixed Success

A Single Man
Directed by Tom Ford
Running Time: 99 minutes
Originally Released: December 11, 2009 (limited)

* * * (out of four)

At one point in the film A Single Man, the main character, George, says something to the effect that the only times he feels truly alive are those in which he really connects with another person. Something similar can be said of the film itself, which resonates with the audience only occasionally, but shows great promise when it does.

Colin Firth stars as George Falconer, an English professor in 1962 whose lover of 16 years died in a car crash just eight months earlier. Since losing Jim (Matthew Goode), George has become something of a robot, waking, dressing, lecturing, and living each day as if by rote memorization. A Single Man centers on just one such day in George’s life, though it is really about more than that. The events of George’s day are frequently interrupted by flashbacks, typically because George himself is reflecting back on the last decade and a half of his life. It’s a life he plans to end, suicide providing a solution to the meaningless monotony that has replaced his once romantic life. As George attends to his daily duties whilst simultaneously preparing for his ultimate departure from the world, he has a series of brief interactions—with his maid, with an English-department secretary, with a colleague, with the little girl that lives next door, with a male prostitute—all of which are fairly innocuous, though some prove more meaningful than others. Then there are the prolonged encounters, one of which is with Charley (Julianne Moore), George’s longtime, equally-lonesome female friend, who takes comfort both in alcohol and in momentarily pretending that maybe somehow George can love her. Another encounter—a series of them, actually—is with Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), a student whose unwavering attention during class may be due to an interest in more than just English.

Firth turns in a first-rate performance as a man suffering deeply on the inside, but so rehearsed at keeping his professional and socially-acceptable composure that no one blinks an eye. Hoult, whom some will remember as the awkward 12-year-old who seeks friendship from Hugh Grant in About a Boy, is also terrific. Everyone else plays their roles just as their supposed to, but they feel of secondary importance to director and co-writer Tom Ford, who puts more effort into infusing the film with a certain aesthetic quality. It turns out Ford is a fashion designer, with A Single Man being his first foray into filmmaking in a capacity not specifically related to clothing. It shows, as much of the film is a prime example of style over substance. It doesn’t help that so much of the style Ford employs is of the ostentatious variety. One particularly invasive example is the way in which Ford either heightens or lowers the intensity of color on the screen in order to reflect George’s mood. This could have been an effective technique had it been handled delicately, remaining almost imperceptible to the audience. Instead, Ford bathes the screen in Technicolor vibrancy the very moment George strikes up any pleasant conversation whatsoever. The change is so abrupt, you’ll think something is wrong with whatever copy of the film you happen to be watching at the time. Only on repeat occurrences do you realize that the sudden blushing of color is intentional. In my eyes, this demonstrates a weakness on the part of the filmmakers, who clue you into George’s emotions with all the subtlety of a flashing sign that says “George is happy now!” Such steps shouldn’t be necessary. I should be able to tell George’s mood has lifted without the characters onscreen suddenly looking as if they’ve overdosed on beta-carotene.

The style problems don’t end there. The film’s score, by composer Abel Korzeniowski, is heavy-handed, a melodic melodrama in-and-of itself, complete with stinging violin solos that, while calling to mind certain dramatic music of the 60s, strikes modern ears as garish. Then there is the dialogue itself, which sometimes sounds a bit too much like it was lifted from a novel. Granted, A Single Man is adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s novel, and we should expect that much of what is said on camera is taken verbatim from the pages of Isherwood’s book. My problem is when it is all too apparent that one or another element of a movie has been transplanted from elsewhere. Movies and books (and stage plays, for that matter) each have a unique feel, and sometimes what works for one medium feels stilted or out of place in the other. There are flickering instances of that in this film.

One gets the feeling that A Single Man is exactly what the filmmakers wanted it to be, which I suppose qualifies it as a success. It’s not quite what filmgoers want, at least not consistently and not on all accounts, but there are moments of grandeur that make the film worthwhile overall. When George is first informed of his lover’s death, then told that he is not welcome at the funeral, we seethe that George must respond so politely. By the social politics of the time, George is not allowed to grieve, and Ford deftly conveys this by drowning out George’s lamentations with a rainstorm. We don’t hear a sound from George, who wails alone, even as he collapses into Charley’s arms, the only person to whom he can turn. Yes, A Single Man has its moments. In the end, however, the title of the film proves more than poignant; it is prophetic. For, it is indeed a single man—namely, Colin Firth—who redeems this film.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Peacock Allures and Woos

Directed by Michael Lander
Running Time: 90 minutes
Originally Released: April 20, 2010 (direct to DVD)

* * * ½ (out of four)

John and Emma Skillpa live a reclusive and highly routine life in 1950s Peacock, Nebraska. Every morning, Emma prepares a hot meal of crisp bacon, over easy eggs, and toast. She covers it to keep it warm until John appears, promptly at 8:15. After John devours his breakfast, he places his dishes in the sink for Emma to wash, grabs the lunch Emma has packed for him, and heads to work at the local bank. On his way home from work, John likes to stop and relax on an old tire swing fastened to a neighborhood tree, where he may read the note in his pocket from Emma, asking him to stop at the market and pick up a few things. When John gets home, Emma will have left him a note explaining how to heat the dinner she has dutifully prepared for him. You see, though Emma takes good care of John, the two don’t spend a lot of time together. But that’s because John and Emma are really the same person.

As you can imagine, John has many problems. As a child, John’s mother was severely and perversely abusive. As an adult, John is so uncomfortable in his social interactions that he can scarce make eye contact and struggles to raise his stammering voice loud enough for anyone to hear him. In some regards, this makes him a dutiful employee, since he works alone behind a desk and doesn’t mind skipping his lunch breaks. It makes him a poor town celebrity, however, which he begrudgingly becomes when a train derails and crashes into his backyard. Unfortunately for John, who very much wishes to maintain his privacy, Emma is out hanging clothes when the incident occurs. Neighbors are surprised to learn that John is married, or so they immediately assume. Meanwhile, a local politician wants to hold a rally in John’s backyard in order to prevent his opponent from turning the accident into a political pun—the train wreck, you see, was of the candidate’s own promotional train. To make matters worse, the normally isolated Emma finds that she enjoys the newfound companionship of her fellow townswomen. This causes quite a rift between John and Emma as the former learns that his presumed wife has befriended the mayor’s wife and agreed to the rally in his backyard.

Peacock is a taut psychological thriller that revels in its own subtlety. It seems the less that is happening on screen, the more powerful the film manages to become. So it is that the movie loses some punch as it reaches its less-than-knockdown crescendo, with John and Emma both trying to satisfy their own motives while keeping the other in the dark. Much better are the film’s first 30 minutes, where the richness of John’s personalities are fleshed out in scenes of near silence and very little action, and the complexity of his psychology is revealed with such delicacy that, more than once, we find ourselves doing the mental equivalent of a double-take at what we learn. Adding to the tone of the film is the cinematography of Philippe Rousselot, whose dark and dour shots of the interior of John’s home are contrasted with luminescent shots of vibrant green fields, where the grass—unlike John—grows, develops, and is full of life. Much of the film is awash in neutral tones, symbolizing an existence as monotonous and unexciting—but for John, just as comfortingly familiar—as a manila folder. Color is used sparingly, signifying empowerment and vitality, from the splash of color Emma’s makeup brings to John’s face to the red wrappers on the Clark bars John keeps hidden under a displaced porch step, a vestige of his long-lost youthful innocence.

The first and foremost reason to see Peacock is for Cillian Murphy’s mesmerizing portrayal of John and Emma. John and Emma are not the polar opposites of each other, but they are wholly distinct characters that Murphy plays with equal brilliance. It is to Murphy’s and screenwriters Michael Lander (who also directs) and Ryan O’Roy’s credit that John and Emma share key personality traits—submissiveness, for example—for it not only makes their ultimate unity more believable, but it allows Murphy to demonstrate his finesse as an actor, capturing the characters’ similarities without bleeding the two together (their shared circulatory system notwithstanding). With Peacock being a straight-to-DVD release, Murphy’s performance is ineligible for an Oscar nomination, which he probably never would receive for this film, anyway. Peacock just isn’t the kind of movie that garners the attention of highfalutin awards shows like the Oscars, but make no mistake, Murphy is outstanding. He garners sympathy for both John and Emma, even as we question who is friend and who is foe.

In supporting roles are Susan Sarandon as Fanny Crill, the mayor’s wife who runs a women’s shelter and nurtures Emma’s ever-growing assertiveness; Josh Lucas as Tom McGonigle, the sympathetic police officer who helped John gain some independence after John’s mother died; Bill Pullman as Edmund French, John’s supervisor who is all too encouraging of John’s workhorse tendencies; and Ellen Page as Maggie, a down-and-out single mother who has a disturbing past connection to both John and his deceased mother. Maggie reenters John’s life after reading about the train accident in a newspaper and is quickly befriended by the motherly Emma, much to the chagrin of John. I consider myself quite a fan of Page, and though she performs admirably here, her role seems better suited for someone older, someone less wholesome and less healthy in appearance.

Peacock is a great film, though for being a psychological thriller about a man with dissociative personality disorder, it would have benefited from a greater attention to psychology. Murphy is fantastic, but even so, John’s mindset remains significantly closed-off, even to the audience. The movie would have been all the more riveting had John’s mentality been even slightly less opaque, something that could have been accomplished by showing John in a wider range of situations. Perhaps it is this desire to understand John more than we do that leaves the film feeling just a tad bit hollow at the end—like there could have been more to it, all along. Thankfully, what there is to Peacock is enough to garner my hearty recommendation. In fact, I’ve half a mind to watch it again tonight.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Well-Set TiMER Goes Off, But Not Without Hitch

Written and Directed by Jac Schaeffer
Running Time: 99 minutes
Originally Released: April 26, 2009 (Tribeca Film Festival)

* * ½ (out of four)

Low budgets can be a double-edged sword in the world of cinema. On the one hand, low budget films can feel more authentic—the casts are largely unfamiliar, the cinematography is down-to-earth, and the script is unadulterated by studio moguls who insist on molding the film into something with commercial viability, which usually entails making the film more clichéd. On the other hand, these very same elements can sometimes give low budget films a very made-for-TV feel. TiMER vacillates between the good and bad of independent film, ultimately providing a charming and quirky, if not amateurish, romantic comedy.

Weeks shy of hitting the big 3-0, orthodontist Oona O’Leary (Emma Caulfield) wants desperately what everyone else seems already to have. No, not love—just a date. No, not that kind of date. Just the date—the month, day, and year—when she will meet her one true love. Oona’s request is not so outrageous, for this is precisely what is promised to those who pay the $79.99 fee to have a Timer-brand timer implanted in the wrist of their dominant hand. Timer, the company, is eHarmony with a sci-fi bent, the overwhelming majority of Americans having a Timer-brand timer installed in their wrists when they turn 14. The timer displays a countdown to the very day when its owner will meet his or her soulmate, at which point the timer “zeroes out,” thereafter to beep in confirmation only when the paired soulmates make eye contact for the very first time. There is one catch, however. A timer will not display a countdown unless one’s soulmate also has a timer installed. This explains Oona’s frustrations—her timer has never displayed a countdown, though not for want of trying. When Oona meets an eligible bachelor who has never had a timer installed, she immediately drags him to the nearest Timer store and has the device implanted, hoping it will zero out immediately and thereby signal that she has found her one. So far, this has proven fruitless, save that the Timer store employees know her by name and she can quickly summarize the waiver her prospective suitors must sign before having their timers installed.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Oona’s half-sister, Steph (Michelle Borth), whose timer tells her that true love is decades away. The film raises the question of which is worse, knowing that true love is a long way off or not knowing when it will come at all. Steph is clearly disenchanted by her timer, though she does her best to console herself with a series of frivolous one-night-stands. And then there is Mikey (John Patrick Amedori), the cute, young grocery store cashier and drummer whose timer displays a modest four-month wait until true love comes knocking. This doesn’t stop Mikey from flirting with Oona, however, who finds herself wondering if a momentary fling is better than nothing at all.

TiMER is replete with interesting philosophical puzzles. Is it cheating to date someone when you know your soulmate is someone else, whom you’ll be meeting in the relatively near future? Can a romantic relationship have value if you believe it is ultimately doomed? Is it better to know love is a long way off than not to know at all? (We still haven’t answered that one!) TiMER lets these questions percolate naturally, which is a plus. The movie never feels too enamored of its own creativity or cleverness, and this is precisely what makes it such a delight. Its intelligence is subtle, couched in a straightforward romantic comedy with universal appeal.

That being said, TiMER is not without flaws. If writer/director Jac Schaeffer is ever guilty of trying too hard, it is in the film’s more serious moments. When trying to create tension on the screen, Schaeffer opts for edgy handheld cameras and profane outbursts from her characters; these are familiar cinematic devices, but there is something conspicuously deliberate about Schaeffer’s implementation of them. They can make TiMER feel more like a film school project than Schaeffer probably intends. Further fault lies with the actors themselves. Caulfield and Borth both have a tendency to deliver lines in a memorized fashion, making some interactions between them feel particularly scripted, especially early in the film. One can’t help but wonder if Caulfield, whose credits include extensive runs on TV’s Beverly Hills, 90210 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, was the right choice for the lead role. Even at her best, Caulfield isn’t irreplaceable, and it admittedly takes a hefty suspension of disbelief to accept that Oona is only 29 years old. The latter complaint may be petty, but the occasionally awkward acting is not. Fortunately, Caulfield’s (and Borth’s) performance is often buoyed by the actors surrounding her, especially Amedori. Amedori’s ease in front of the camera is a bright spot of the film, and Amedori himself proves to be one exception to TiMER’s apparent rule that the smaller the role, the better the acting.

For all its weaknesses, TiMER is probably a much better film than it would be had it been given a Hollywood makeover. It is easy enough to envision this picture with the likes of Jennifer Garner in the lead, but I shudder to think of how dumbed down and gimmicky it would have become. Schaeffer, who proves a better screenwriter than director, instills TiMER with a subtle realism that allows its plot to remain thought-provoking and its characters sincere, even when it otherwise stumbles. Hollywood would have glossed things up a bit, but only at the expense of whatever depth TiMER has to offer. As it is, I’d much rather spend my time here than in Hollywood.