Monday, January 26, 2009

Doubt



I didn't enjoy Doubt because it was boring. Yes, Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams are three of the greatest actors of their respective generations and genders, and their performances are very fine, but it's all in service of a story that lies dead on the screen, attempting thematic nuance with all the subtlety of a battle axe, inspiring eye rolls where it aims for sympathy, and reeking with the overwhelming, fetid stench of Oscar bait.

It's 1964, and Philip Seymour Hoffman is Father Flynn, the relatively young, popular priest at a Catholic church in the Bronx. But Meryl Streep's Sister Aloysius comes to suspect that Flynn has molested one of the boys in the parish - the first black boy ever to join the parish, mind you! - albeit without a shred of evidence; all she has is her certainty.

Good lord, where do I start? Religion, clergy molestation, even racism, all housed in a period piece, with lots of shouting and crying by award-winning actors. It's a shame the title "For Your Consideration" was already taken. Doubt begs to be prestigious from the first frame, positively getting down on its knees and fellating the Academy by the time the credits roll, so it goes without saying that most critics happily ate it up.

The problem isn't so much that it tries to tackle controversial subjects as that it comes at them without any interesting viewpoint or conclusion. I'm well aware that love of Christ and love of underage cock are inextricably bound, and that as one dons the clerical collar, child molestation will follow as surely as night follows day. I don't need a movie to tell me that. Nor are the film's attempted ruminations on doubt and certainly via Sister Aloysius followed through with any interesting coda, only Meryl Streep breaking down and blubbering to Amy Adams through her tears that "I have dooouubbt!!", to make certain the theme is sledgehammered firmly enough into the viewer's skull.

Doubt throws a bunch of artsy prestige topics together onto celluloid, grinds it up like trail mix, and expects to be lauded for it. Well, not me. I "doubt" I'll ever watch this groaner again, delightful pun.


2 Stars out of 5

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Gran Torino



In lesser hands than Clint Eastwood's, the screenplay for Gran Torino could have been the blueprint for a mawkish cliché storm - the story of a racist, lonely old man who learns tolerance, love, and compassion in the twilight of his life. Indeed, Torino is preposterous on its head, written in broad, often predictable strokes with tired, played-out character arcs, littered with newbie supporting actors who just barely keep their dignity intact while trying to emote.

It's also one of 2008's sublime entertainments, an applause-worthy spectacle of political incorrectness, black comedy, unapologetic badassery, and Clint Eastwood growling his way to one of the best (and perhaps the most purely entertaining) performances of his career.

Clint is Walt Kowalski, a grizzled old veteran with a mile-wide mean streak, vulgar and racist, a man fully at home pointing a rifle and telling kids to "get off my lawn," who finds that his dilapidated Michigan suburb has become poor and populated almost entirely by Asian immigrants, with gang violence on the rise. But when he saves the Hmong boy next door, Thao, from a gang, he becomes a reluctant hero to the neighborhood and friend to his Hmong neighbors. His defenses break down and he gradually becomes a father figure, teaching Thao how to stand up for himself, get girls, and make his way in the world. But the gang eventually returns to pay their debt to Thao with bullets, and only Walt can save Thao's family.

The plot is trite enough to make you gag, but the reason the movie works - gloriously, completely works - is because it is hysterical. Clint Eastwood's cheerfully thrown bombs of "gook," "spook," and "zipperhead" towards every minority that crosses his path spit directly in the face of anything resembling common decency without shame or apology, and although we acknowledge what a horrible person Walt Kowalski is his obliviousness to the way you're supposed to talk and behave in civilized modern society is wickedly entertaining; Dirty Harry filtered through the lens of George Wallace.

Imagine any other elderly actor in the leading role, even a talented one, the movie falls to pieces. No, this movie absolutely had to have Clint Eastwood in it, delivering all his lines through sickening gravel, exuding a raw, classical masculinity long since lost to Hollywood. When he rasps out lines like, "Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn't have fucked with?!", "I used to stack fucks like you five feet high in Korea, used you for sandbags," or, "I'm no hero. I was just trying to get that babbling gook off my lawn!", without any hint of a smile, I guffawed drunkenly and it was all I could do not to stand and applaud.

Far from maudlin, Eastwood turns Gran Torino into one of 2008's great black comedies and delivers in Walt Kowalski one of American cinema's classic unadulterated bastards with a heart of gold. If this is truly Clint's final performance, he went out on a wholly delightful note. Gran Torino, for all its clichés and faults, is an unadulterated guilty pleasure that left me grinning like an idiot.


4 Stars out of 5

Monday, January 19, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire



Slumdog Millionaire is a rare treat - a critical darling seemingly poised to sweep up the Academy Award for Best Picture that really is a legitimately great, genuinely delightful film. Okay, in all fairness, the Academy made very good selections the last two years with The Departed and No Country for Old Men, but they still have a lot of explaining to do before they're excused for Crash, apparently the greatest American film of 2005(?!!).

But Slumdog Millionaire, in stark contrast to the brutal cynicism of Departed and No Country, is a feel-good fairy tale from stem to stern (albeit one twinged with the same occasional violence and darkness as many fairy tales of old); a character study that's Charles Dickens meets City of God meets game shows with the very lightest gloss of crime story and mystery to it. If it does win Best Picture it will be a change of pace befitting this cautiously optimistic post-Obama era.

When an eighteen-year-old Indian slumdog named Jamal correctly answers his way to the final question on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? - yes, the very same sickeningly ubiquitous gameshow that went out of vogue a decade ago - he's plucked up on suspicion of cheating by a couple of cops who try to beat a confession out of him, instead getting his life story, told in flashbacks that take up the large majority of the film and explain how he had the knowledge to answer each question. It's a remarkably clever and original narrative structure.

The story of Jamal's life begins as the dark tale of living in violent, crime-ridden slums, something strongly reminiscent of City of God, but it gradually sheds its hard edge and mutates into a quixotic love story between Jamal and Latika, a lost love from his childhood. It's generic on its surface but executed with rare tenderness and emotion that, although it's not as original as the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? framing device, made Jamal and Latika form one of perhaps two or three cinematic couples from 2008 I liked well enough to genuinely root for.

The screenplay is wonderful and the actors are all very good, but it's Danny Boyle's energetic, lively direction that fills the movie with remarkable vibrance. At times the manner of shooting, American music, and rapid cutting even give it the light flavor of a music video, which I've heard some on message boards accuse of being gimmicky, but I found it superb. Award nominations for Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Editing are all warranted. Boyle milks the screenplay for warmth, emotion, and suspense and keeps things moving a crackling pace.

It's hard not to admire Boyle's uncommon genre versatility, tackling everything from drug cautionary tale (Trainspotting) to zombie horror (28 Days Later) to heartwarming family film (Millions) to hard science fiction (Sunshine) and now Slumdog Millionaire, his best film to date. Shred your cynicism when you see it, and don't overanalyze or take it too seriously because it is at its heart a crowd-pleasing fairy tale (for my part, the only real flaw in the film is that I thought the final game show question was laughably easy), and I think you'll find it as I did to be one of the better films of 2008.


5 Stars out of 5

Friday, January 16, 2009

Transporter 3



Jason Statham's Death Race was released in August and I went without shame, crackled in glee at the nonsensical carnage, and enjoyed, assuming it would be the warm-up to winter's real Jason Statham action treat: Transporter 3. Unfortunately, I was wrong. Believe it or not, Death Race is actually the better of the two films. Transporter 3 has its intermittent highs but it's ultimately a crashing disappointment.

Now for the record, I fucking love Transporter 2. Not only does it have Jason Statham at his most impossibly badass, but it has action sequences so surreal and ridiculous as to be among the funniest film scenes of the decade, martial arts galore, a hilariously over-the-top evil plot by an equally hilarious Eurotrash villain, one of the greatest henchwomen ever in Lola the Lingerie Assassin, hysterical cheeseball dialogue, and Amber Valletta. It's so bad it's good, yes, but it's so good via its badness that I think I love it without a shred of irony. It's extravagant action packaged exactly right for the 21st century.

And its sequel Transporter 3 starts decently enough itself - we get our first kills a minute or two in as a couple innocent bystanders accidentally stumble across the villain's plan, we meet Jason Statham, it's flowing. Then Statham gets in his first brawl and something horrible happens - shakeycam.

Yes, that excrementitious specter of The Bourne Supremacy rears its ugly head yet again. First it vomited its bile all over my beloved James Bond series in Quantum of Solace - a movie I enjoyed, but for the first time since 1962's Dr. No it was a 007 I enjoyed in spite of most the action scenes rather than because of them - and now it's attacked Frank Martin.

My grin immediately fell as the camera began wildly chucking and convulsing, ruining the fight choreography, with the editor helpfully cutting twelve times a second to fully obscure the vomitous mass. A sad day for action fans everywhere. Casino Royale and Iron Man blissfully ignored the shakeycam fad, but Transporter 3 is fully infected. Some of the chase sequences escape relatively unscathed but the martial arts battles are brutalized.

For comparison, look at the opening brawl from Transporter 2. The camera is either static within its shot or smoothly pans and tilts to capture the action, the shot cutting no more frequently than it needs to - it's a thing of beauty. So why and how did objectively good filmmaking become passé? All I can say is fuck you Bourne Supremacy, you ruined everything.

Back to Transporter 3, our villain is an eco-terrorist / rogue capitalist who plans to coerce a European politician into signing a bill permitting the dumping of radioactive waste all over the country. He kidnaps the politician's redheaded daughter and Jason Statham, straps bombs to both, and forces Statham to transport her to the drop point under threat of detonation. What he didn't count on is the fact that Jason Statham is a badass martial arts superhero who kills his henchman and fucks up his plan real bad like.

(Curiously, as a side note, this is one of several 2008 films with eco themes, from the wonderful (WALL·E), to the mediocre (Transporter 3), to the apocalyptically awful (The Happening). Kudos to Al Gore; only a few years back his eco themes were sequestered to their own documentary, now they've permeated fiction.)

This plot begets the film's second problem though. She's freckled, she has red hair, she can barely speak English, and her name is Natalya Rudakova, the truly awful actress playing the kidnapped daughter. Action movie romantic interests tend to be forgettable at worst, but this performance is so hideous that it effectively grinds the movie to a screeching halt every time she opens her mouth, which is unfortunately a fucking lot seeing as she's in the car with Statham the whole movie. Did I mention that she's obviously not fluent in English and is just phonetically sounding out her dialogue?

Never mind what I said about Thandie Newton in W., in Miss Rudakova we have found 2008's definitive Razzie for Worst Actress. Now I've never cast a big-budget action movie, but I fucking refuse to believe that they couldn't have found an attractive Russian redhead who can fucking speak English and act. Natalya Rudakova is awful and annoying, and since this is a PG-13 franchise she doesn't even have the common decency to get her tits out.

Outside of the shakeycam and the politician's daughter, the film is fine, a mildly amusing action yarn. Jason Statham is badass beyond the furthest reaches of human reckoning and certainly the one man I would go gay for, and there are a few neat action sequences, especially one scene where a bad guy tries to steal Statham's car and kidnap the girl and Statham has to catch up to his own car on foot. But the shakeycam and that annoying chick permeate and undermine everything. Transporter 2 will live on forever as one of the decade's finest, but it is with a single, masculine tear and a heavy heart that I am forced to give Transporter 3 the thumbs down it deserves.


1 Star out of 5

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Bolt



Disney's Bolt represents a brazen act of self-cannibalism, Disney regurgitating the plots of two of their own early-mid 90s classics, Toy Story and Homeward Bound, and stitching them together into a Frankenstein beast of a film. The facts of the case:

Toy Story is about a toy, Buzz Lightyear, who has been led to believe with all his being that he is an astronaut. He is forced on a journey during which he realizes he is not an astronaut and comes to terms with being a toy. Homeward Bound is about a dog, Chance, who winds up separated across the country from his owner. With his two animal companions, including a sassy, sarcastic cat, he goes on an epic adventure, makes it home, and has a joyous reunion with his family.

Bolt is about a dog, Bolt, who has been led to believe with all his being that he is a superhero, and who winds up separated across the country from his owner. With his two animal companions, including a sassy, sarcastic cat, he goes on an epic adventure during which he realizes he is not a superhero and comes to terms with being a dog. He makes it home and has a joyous reunion with his family.

If the character and journey arcs of Buzz Lightyear and Chance got one another pregnant, their spawn would be Bolt. I realize that kids these days haven't even seen fucking Homeward Bound so they won't notice (and in a related note that I'm getting older by the minute), but come on now, Disney.

Outside of that, the movie's not bad. Not great, either, as the action scenes feel shoehorned in, it's predictable, there's no real conflict, and it just flat-out lacks the vibrant originality of Pixar's recent all-time classics like Ratatouille, WALL·E, and The Incredibles. But the animation is nice, the characters are fairly likable, and there's several funny moments interspersed throughout.

Make no mistake though, this is a kids movie, not a family movie. Children around five and six will enjoy it the most, laugh the most, and notice the flaws the least. I have no idea what the people on message boards I frequent ejaculating about Bolt being Pixar-quality were talking about, because it's not, but hey, I'm shocked to see Disney Animation Studios display signs of competence and something resembling a beating pulse these days too.


2 Stars out of 5

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Twilight



Edward Cullen appeared onscreen, his cheekbones sharp enough to cut ice, his hair more gelled than any mortal man, his skin coated in flour, and a million tween girls got wet for the first time. Make no mistake about it, Twilight is nothing if not family-friendly softcore gothic porn for tweens and lonely fat goth chicks to masturbate to for the first or five thousandth time, respectively, with the inhumanly gorgeous Edward Cullen at the center of it all, the camera drinking in his every feature in gently-lit soft focus to make America's collective vagina leak grotesque fluids onto the theater floor, the fish-scented aftermath to be mopped up all night by some unfortunate janitor.

Bella Swan moves to Forks, Washington. She's a thin, attractive, husky-voiced supermodel by any standard, so of course she's lonely and unhappy, if only so that the aforementioned three-hundred pound seventeen year old girl with the Hot Topic sweatshirt and nose ring can relate to her. Then she meets the vampire clans who make nest in Forks, and specifically the impossibly dreamy Edward, who the camera devours in constant, pornographic detail. The two have an illicit, torrid love affair and he battles evil vampires to save her. That rumble you felt just now is our obese goth teenager causing a 5.6 magnitude earthquake as she swoons from the romance of it all.

These "vampires" drink blood and have super strength and speed, but other than that they happily skirt every convention of the genre. They don't need to sleep in a coffin. If garlic or silver hurt them the movie makes no mention of it. Animal blood nourishes them just as well as human. They sure as hell don't need an invitation to enter. And perhaps most outrageously, sunlight has no ill physical effects, merely making them glitter like a fucking Christmas tree. Indeed, the solitary ill effect of vampirism in the Twilight universe seems to be permanent pasty white makeup and ruby-red lipstick.

Honestly, the first two-thirds of the movie achieve a heightened kitsch value that almost makes them grotesquely entertaining, with Edward leering at Bella while she sleeps like a psychopathic stalker and it being depicted as romantic, explaining the absurd "rules" of this universe's vampires in exhausting detail, and giving an absolutely hilariously over-the-top monologue to Bella about how he can't stand to be around her because of how good her blood smells and how much he wants to eat her. The kinky sexual tension builds to fiery levels and the smell of tuna lingers strong in the theater.

Then comes the baseball scene. The fucking baseball scene.

The Cullen vampire clan brings Bella out to a field where they play "vampire baseball," and, Jesus fuck, I can't believe a human being came up with this and removing myself from my body and looking down on myself I can't believe I'm fucking typing these words because Jesus Christ, the vampires have to play baseball during thunderstorms only because they are so strong that the sound of their bats hitting the baseballs is too loud and they need thunder to mask the noise from the town! We witness an absolutely horrifying three-minute music video where the vampires hit the baseballs miles into the outfield and the basemen run with super-speed special effects straight out of the latest episode of Smallville to catch them. Mouth agape in abject horror, I couldn't believe what I was witnessing, my howls of laughter met with glares from the tween estrogen brigade.

Then some evil vampires show up and decide to make Bella their snack, and we witness a godawful fight scene that I have never seen before, unless of course you count the latest episode of Smallville again, and we're subjected to dreadful dialogue like "You're faster than the others... but not stronger!", followed by "I'm strong enough to kill you!" from Edward. I'm not making this fucking shit up, you can see it yourself at the end of the trailer.

Then, after Edward saves Bella, we follow up with a fucking prom scene, and end with Edward and Bella making out in a fucking gazebo. Bella asks Edward to bite her neck and turn her into a vampire too, he leans in like his going to do it, and then kisses her neck instead. Two dozen girls in the audience cum. Fade to credits, and I'm left in awe of what I've just seen. I honestly never heard of this Twilight saga until about two months before the movie came out, and I feel like I'm in some sort of Twilight Zone (no pun intended) alternate reality where this is actually considered to be "the next Harry Potter," but if stupid shit like Eragon can become popular, I guess anything is possible. Even so, vampire baseball, what the shitting fuck.

To be fair and give whatever credit where it is due, Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson acquit themselves just fine in the leading roles, seem to be good actors, and have decent enough chemistry despite the howlingly awful dialogue they have to work with. Twilight will probably skate just clear of my bottom ten movies of 2008 thanks entirely to them. Okay, them, and the fact that this shit was fucking hilarious. They say a sequel, New Moon, may be coming as soon as this winter, and I'll be standing right there at the front of the line alongside our fat goth teenager friend, because this fucking shit is too outrageous to miss. Vampire baseball. Seriously. Kill me now, fiction can never top this.


1 Stars out of 5

Friday, January 9, 2009

Role Models



Role Models is actually a really funny movie! I'm cheerfully surprised to be able to report that, because the trailer was pretty generic, as is the film's plot, but execution trumps idea. It's got consistent laughs from one end to the other and it actually earns them through clever writing and well-sketched characters rather than aggressive and constant vulgarity - there's nudity and profanity, sure, but strip the nudity and profanity from Role Models, you'd still have a funny movie, strip the nudity and profanity from Zack & Miri Make a Porno, you wouldn't have anything.

Paul Rudd plays the same droll, sarcastic guy he plays in everything, Seann William Scott plays Stifler with a different name again, Christopher Mintz-Plasse (aka McLovin) plays a nerd, Elizabeth Banks plays the supportive girlfriend, and so on. Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott are apathetic losers who cause an accident and are forced to mentor two kids for a month or go to jail. They resent the idea at first but come to care about their kids and everyone comes out of the experience better people, happy ending, roll credits, applause and tears, etc.

Generic as I said, but it's all forgivable because the whole thing is funny. The characters and actors are funny, the situations they find themselves in are funny, the dialogue is funny, with a hint of surrealism to some of the proceedings. Paul Rudd in particular continues to be MVP of any comedy he's in, and no other actor alive as far as I'm concerned can deliver a dry and sarcastic line the way he can; a snide, vaguely-douchey observation, a self-loathing aside, whatever it is Paul Rudd knocks it way out of the park. It's nice to see him as a main protagonist.

The movie does have a unique crux in that the kid played by McLovin is involved in LARPing (live-action role playing), something I've never seen in a big-screen movie before, where teenagers and lonely middle-aged men dress up in Dungeons & Dragons outfits and go to war. Paul Rudd's character inadvertently stirs up the inner politics of the LARPing community and causes a mess, and is forced to join the war along with McLovin to try to put things right. It all leads to one of the most ludicrous and funniest climactic sequences of the year, a sort of parody of the big fantasy battles in Lord of the Rings (and the shitty knockoff battles in Narnia and Eragon and so on) that had me laughing for fifteen minutes straight.

So if you like Paul Rudd and like laughing, then check out Role Models and you won't be disappointed. And if you don't like Paul Rudd, then seriously, you have bad taste in things, don't read my blog.


3 Stars out of 5

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Zack & Miri Make a Porno



Kevin Smith's Zack & Miri Make a Porno is a mildly enjoyable filthy comedy, not up to the standards of his past classics like Clerks and Chasing Amy or the best of the recent glut of R-rated comedies, but worth a dozen or so hearty laughs. It exists firmly in the "romantic comedy for men" genre Knocked Up recently made hot, making the presence of star Seth Rogen entirely appropriate.

Comedically, Smith takes the approach of flinging as much filthiness as he possibly can at the wall and hoping it all sticks - and I'd say at least half does. For a movie that attempts a dirty joke every few seconds for more or less much the entire runtime, that's not bad. Fucking, dicks, boners, anal sex, blowjobs, shit, piss, cum, vaginas, and of course the titular pornography, over and over, at a constant fever pitch and as graphically as Smith can make it in the dialogue, through the entire movie. Juvenile beyond a shadow of a doubt but somewhat funny if you're so inclined.

The romantic portion of the film, as Zack and Miri realize their feelings for each other amid shooting their dirty movie, drops the ball a bit. It's just barely excusable, but more on the strength of Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks as actors than on the screenplay, which is a little weak and generic. The problem is that Kevin Smith still isn't great at writing women and Miri comes across as having very nearly exactly the same personality and voice as Zack, just marginally feminized. It's a little weird to watch the same person fall in love with each other.

But as I said, Rogen and Banks are talented actors, and they both handle both the comedy and drama well. I've been a big fan of Rogen even before Knocked Up and continue to be. But it's Craig Robinson of The Office and the doorman in Knocked Up fame ("Can't have a bunch of old, pregnant bitches runnin' around") who steals the movie. He's impossibly dry and pulls off comedic self-loathing as hysterically as any movie character from 2008.

The strangest editorial choice in the movie, and in fact probably in any movie I saw in 2008, is Kevin Smith's decision to tag the real ending to the movie after some three or four minutes of credits. The film's love story is resolved before we go to credits, several minutes roll, and then we come back for the real conclusion that details what happened to the characters' financial woes and pornographic endeavors - not a cute little tag, but a full, multiple-scene, five minute sequence that resolves nearly all of the film's plot.

The tragic irony is that 90% of film audiences get up and bolt for the exit when the credits roll like the theater is on fire, so nearly everyone who saw Zack & Miri will never see or know the film's ending. I'm not sure what Smith was thinking, but it was a bad decision.

However, credits weirdness and romantic flatness aside, it's still a funny comedy. No all-time classic, but fans of Seth Rogen or ninety minutes of sustained dirty sex humor will probably enjoy it for its quick duration. I wasn't exactly impressed, but I had some laughs.


2 Stars out of 5