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I hated this movie
I can see how "Kick-Ass" is gonna be popular...but, then, I can see how "Transformers 2" could be popular, too. Now that that's out of the way...
If you're someone who thinks it might be a lark to watch an 11-year-old corner a defenceless woman and stab her twice through the chest, this movie might be for you. There's also a scene where she puts a guy in a trash compactor and we watch for a couple minutes as he's squished to death. The guy wasn't a character before this scene (and I don't remember what relevance he has to the movie), so we're not watching the payoff to a joke, we're just watching...a guy getting squished by a trash compactor. The brutality of the scene is immediately undercut with the 11-year-old employing some nasty profanity, an easy joke that'll get an immediate reaction, doing away with the conflict I imagine (hope?) a lot of the audience will be feeling after the scene that preceded it.
The premise is: real people trying to be super-heroes (not a bad idea - I liked it in "The Dark Knight"). Dave is a comic book geek modelled, I assume, on most of the movie's target audience. He actually bears a closer resemblance to a Michael Cera hero, but, I'll get to that later. Anyway, he likes comic books, he decides to start "fighting crime" (which is always just around the corner in these movies) so he orders a suit and goes at it. He's not very good, and his friends make fun of him for the idea.
Meanwhile, an ex-cop (Nicolas Cage - very good) is turning his young daughter (the 11-year-old) into a cold-blooded killer, for our benefit. They're playing out a revenge scheme against the movie's chief villain, a mob boss played by Mark Strong. The plot in this movie sometimes feels like math: setup + action = payoff. Actually, that's exactly what it feels like. It's supposed satire is constantly undercut by its rigid obedience to its own formula. Since we can already guess, roughly, how everything will play out, I don't know why "Kick-Ass" spends so much time explaining itself.
When you hear the premise - real people trying to be superheroes - it sounds good, but watching this movie makes you think there are really only a few ways to handle it. There's "The Dark Knight" or "Iron Man" way, which is, more or less, taking it seriously. Or you could go for a satirical/darkly comic tone, which this movie tries for. If you were to do that, the best way to handle the violence would be to make it convincing, wouldn't it? Since, as the movie opens, it seems to make itself very clear that it doesn't take place in some phony superhero world? Instead, people get shot, they fall dead and CGI blood squirts out. You've seen one guy squirt CGI blood, you've seen 'em all - and it happens over and over again. The violence in this movie packs no punch, it's thoughtless and, supposedly, fun!, which makes it all the more disheartening when it's directed at the defenceless woman.
So it wasn't a very pleasant experience for me. Shift it an inch one way and you could've had a nice dark comedy (something by the Coens). An inch the other way you could've had a clever action movie (Crank & Crank 2). "Kick-Ass" is like a cautious kid, skirting the deep end without having the nerve to stick his toes in the water. It's not ballsy enough to take the father/daughter relationship to the logical, risky conclusion that it demands. It's not smart enough to question the motives of its boring protagonist - he's, basically, good (and he gets the girl). It's not original enough to offer us any "evil" that's not the cartoon kind we've already been tired of seeing in thousands of others movies. It's sense of humour is on the level of a disturbed child who likes to use swear words - which is one of its favourite jokes.
I said the movie's about real people trying to be superheroes. Not quite. It's about the "real people" you see in Hollywood movies, becoming superheroes. The "real people" played by Michael Cera or Shia LaBoef or Miley Cyrus. The ones who live in a glossy, safe world where they get what they want in the end. In this case, it's to have sex and kill a bunch of people. That could make for a great joke, except that, like those glossy Hollywood movies, it doesn't have the confidence to get you to actually think about it.
4/10 (Three points Nicolas Cage, one point Clark Duke. Otherwise, zilch.)
The Messenger (2009)
Thank God for the war in Iraq so that we can have movies as important as "The Messenger."
That's how it feels.
In the "The Messenger," Montgomery (Ben Foster) is returning home from the war only to be put on casualty notification work with Stone (Woody Harrelson). That's the setup. In the same way that Avatar's plot is the setup for special effects, The Messenger's is the setup for tears - tears bought, not earned. It promises to give us the real deal on grieving families and soldiers returning home, but in it's overwritten, overstylized way, it's really only about one thing: the audience member's susceptibility to shameless emotional manipulation.
Foster is a shell-shocked vet and Harrelson is a career soldier who's never seen action. Harrelson deals with his work through denial, Foster - the hero of the story - through a certain brand of, what I would call, "righteous nihilism." Foster had a girl he left home, played by Jena Malone, who shows up in the beginning for some nude scenes - shot from behind, with the nudity obscured just enough to keep this arty and tasteful. Malone and Foster have a conversation about marriage that turns out (in a clever gotchya! moment) to refer to Malone and her new fiancée, not Foster.
Foster was injured in the war. His left eye is dried out and he must give it constant eye-drops, providing a nice visual metaphor for a man who's been hardened and has to force himself to cry. Charlie Kaufman already used this image for laughs in "Synecdoche, NY," and I think he had the right idea. Foster apparently has another injury in his leg, but it doesn't seem to effect his walking and indeed it's rarely brought up.
The casualty notification scenes each come with their own gimmick. A dead soldier's pregnant girlfriend Foster and Harrelson have to awkwardly wait with while the soldier's mother comes home from the convenience store. A man who's surprised to find out his daughter didn't tell him she married the dead soldier before he left. A man who requires a translator. They accidentally run into a parent in a gas station, right before they were supposed to call on him, which in this movie is like the equivalent of a mad killer jumping out from the side of the screen in a horror movie.
They only have two standard runs that I recall, both with celebrities. The first is Steve Buscemi, as a father, who responds to news of his son's death by gazing tearfully off-screen and speechifying: "Look at that tree..." The second is Samantha Morton, as a widow. She handles it as politely as she can, and Morton handles the scene like a professional. A romance starts brewing between her and the Foster character. But it's forbidden, forbidden!
I knew I was in trouble about ten minutes into this dreck when Foster argues he can't do the work because he's not religious and Harrelson responds somberly, "You're not there for God. You're not there for heaven." Morton, later on, talks about finding her husband's shirt in the closet. This is what she says: "It smelled of rage and fear. It smelled of the man he had become." It's the kind of script that, if you had no taste, you'd think it deserved an Oscar nomination.
This mannered quality isn't only in the way it's written, but in the way it's shot. For the most part it's filmed with a stable, occasionally moving camera - except for the casualty notification scenes, which are straight-up hand-held shaky-cam. This is to communicate the...shakiness of the emotions, I guess. There's a long (and I mean long) conversation between Foster and Morton that's shot in one take, but it feels like the director was thinking, "I wanna try out one of those cool long take things like Mike Leigh does."
It's not all bad. The performances by Harrelson, Morton, Malone and Buscemi are effective (I'm still not sold on Foster, with his attitude, who comes off more like the lead singer of a really "dark" rock band than like a soldier who's seen action). The last half hour, when it leaves the casualty notification stuff behind and focuses on the main characters, works pretty well. There's a final monologue that illustrates what it's trying to illustrate without getting too poetic about it.
But by that point I was already too angry. I hated...most of this movie.
Neveldine and Taylor succeed on the strength of their images
Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor's "Gamer" had a near-mystical effect on me that I'd liken to Bigelow's "Strange Days," Bergman's "Fanny and Alexander," Fellini's post-8½ stuff and most of the work by David Cronenberg. What I mean is I was disturbed in the most viscerally enjoyable way.
The plot's your run-of-the-mill dose of futurism/cynicism. In America, in the future, death row inmates are controlled via nanobots in their brains by "gamers" for the purposes of a Pay-Per-View combat game called "Slayers." The inmates are hauled to these deserted cities or warehouses and basically act as avatars these settings bear a close resemblance in design to popular first person shooter games like "Halo." None of the obstacles exist for any reason other than ducking behind to avoid the shrapnel/splatter of exploding bodies.
In the "real world" the gamers game and millions of viewers tune in to watch the latest match. Kable (Gerard Butler) played by Simon (Logan Lerman) is the undefeated champion. A few more victorious rounds and he'll be set free. He'd be the first. So there you have the basic plot it's not wholly unique. What differentiates the movie from garbage like "Death Race" is the style and wit that's put into the images (and their implications). The sequences that take place in "Slayers" are brilliant in how they depict existing video games yes, in the movie these are real people getting blown apart, but it all looks the same to the viewer, so what's the difference?
These are the sort of questions Neveldine and Taylor are asking, as they did with their equally brilliant "Crank 2." They don't have any answers. Indeed, they tell their satiric/violent stories with an unbridled joy some would mistake for hypocrisy. It's not. Neveldine and Taylor are the voice of their generation, evaluating their detached, sadistic tastes while exploiting them to the enth degree. They're not making excuses for themselves, they're just being honest. It's to their credit their movies can be pulpy, exciting action yarns while sending themselves up so cleverly.
Even more interesting and visually brilliant than the "Slayers" sequences are those set in "Society," a Sims-like game where players utilize the same technology to control human beings in ultra-exaggerated social settings. The players are seen in dark rooms, getting their throws while their far more beautiful avatars engage in endless sex and partying in the "Society" universe. I can't properly describe in words how disturbing this is, you have to see it for yourself.
What the film satirizes most efficiently is our mindless mass servitude to the latest technologies. We don't think about implications, or slippery slopes, we just slide down them and faster and faster, the movie surmises. This leads to interesting anomalies, like Hackman (Terry Crews), a roid-raged maniac who joins "Slayers" "with no strings," simply, because he wants to. Also, there's a monstrous fat man who seems to sit in his apartment endlessly playing "Society," with Kable's wife (Amber Valetta) as his avatar. These two characters' first meeting provides the film's most repugnant moment. None of this comes off as particularly outlandish.
It's the Valetta character that provides the suspense of the film, which has a pretty standard story. It won't spoil too much to say that Butler escapes, hooks up with some revolutionaries (the "Humanz," who don't escape the film's satire either) and fights his way to the top: "Slayers" and "Society" creator Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall). Hey, it's an action movie. But at the same time, it's not.
An action movie is about choreography, stunts. This movie has that, but the engine that drives it is the cinematography the same could be said for the "Crank" films. It's the camera work and editing (a lot of it) that gives the movie its forward energy. You get caught up in it. There's probably a few hundred shots, and they're all all thought-out. They're connected with what came before and pull you into what comes next. This sort of visual dynamism in a B-movie is like taking a breath of fresh air after a decade of "Saws" and "Saw" cousins.
What can I say? Like the best movies, it wraps you up, wrings you out, and you're better off for it.
A great movie, but for who?
When I say that "The White Ribbon" is a great movie, I mean, only, that it's a movie made by a great director. And when I refer to Michael Haneke as a great director, all I'm really saying is, the man knows what he's doing. He's no hack.
My problem or, I should say, my issue is with exactly that: what he's doing. If I seem ambivalent or undecided about this review, it's only because that's how I felt about the movie. It's a mystery/drama about a town on the Austrian countryside right before WWI. It has the appearance of a regular, idyllic town, but, some really bad things start happening. People start getting hurt, when no one else is around. It's clearly more than one person perpetrating these crimes, which start to resemble ritual punishment.
So it's a mystery. But since this is a Haneke film, we know the "mystery" is unimportant. It's about what the mystery reveals about the town. This is the same storytelling technique he used for "Cache," a movie that a lot of people spend a lot of time trying to figure out. I can't imagine why the movie, like this one, offers no concrete solutions, only ambiguity, and since any definitive conclusions (about the plot) would draw too much from the viewers' imagination, and not enough from the film itself, such conclusions are rendered completely irrelevant to the film. It's sort of like the Philip Seymour Hoffman/Meryl Streep movie "Doubt."
Now, thematic conclusions those are abounding. And since Haneke pushes the plot so far to the side they can come off a little heavy-handed. This is my primary issue (problem?) with the craft of "The White Ribbon." Whereas "Cache" focused mainly on two wonderful performances (from Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche) that lent the film a certain precision, "The White Ribbon" is about an entire town's worth of characters. Each is allotted less time, and therefore, fewer dimensions and therefore, less precision, and more predetermination. They come off as numbers in a thematic equation Haneke is calculating, or trying to.
The "trying to" is the part I'm back and forth on. I haven't mentioned how starkly beautiful the film is, thanks to the black and white cinematography and compositions of Christian Berger. It'll remind you of Bergmans like "Through a Glass Darkly," "Winter Light" or "Hour of the Wolf." The film is so visually arresting, if it was Silent, I might call it a triumph. Even so, there are ways Berger (or Haneke) use their camera that disturb me, and not, I don't think, in the way they mean to.
I'm sort of dancing around I know. Let me talk about one thing that really struck me about Haneke's film: the way he depicts his "good" characters. There are a few of them. The story is narrated by the town's resident teacher, much older, trying to make sense of the events that shaped his personal history. The younger version is played by Christian Friedel, and he's seen as ugly, weak and completely ineffectual. It's not quite his fault (it's society's!), but there is some intended frustration caused us by the character's complete inability to alter the course of his life or his town's. Another character, a farmer, is perhaps the only one in the film with a rigid code of honor he apparently lives his life by. He's got a lazy eye. There's an extended close up on his face where the focal point is the bridge of his nose, and his left eye points to the left and his right eye points to the right and he comes off as practically inhuman. Is Haneke saying to live righteously in an authoritarian society you must be a freak, or abnormal? I don't know all I know is, if I was the actor with the lazy eye, I might be insulted.
To call the film misanthropic would be overstating the point, I guess. It's about bad people. I haven't said much about what the movie's actually trying to say, because, after saying it, it seems almost pointless. "Religious suppression and societal demand for perfection are the seeds of fascism." There it is, more or less (read Ebert's review if you want a really meaningful dissection of the film's themes). It's the kind of thing you can sort of nod your head to, I mean; it makes enough sense within the confines of the movie. Is it an important statement on German/Austrian history or the beginnings of Nazism? I don't know enough about the history to really say.
No one loves a movie, or returns to it, for what it's saying. "Avatar" didn't gross two billion worldwide because of its metaphorical criticism of outsourced American capitalism (well, maybe in some places ). It's because of the way it looked, and "The White Ribbon" will be embraced by cineastes for the same reason, I think. It's well-made. Like I said earlier, it looks beautiful. Is it a great movie? It looks like one.
I don't know. 7/10. I don't regret seeing it. It held my interest for the most part, if not rewarding it completely. How could it have, you ask me? I don't know. It's the right movie; it's the movie Haneke was trying to make. But I don't think I'd watch it again.
An Education (2009)
Lone Scherfig's "An Education" is an ugly movie that hides its misanthropy under the pretty face of its bright new star, Carey Mulligan. She very well could be the next Audrey Hepburn, but this is most certainly not her "Roman Holiday," no, not on storytelling or film-making levels. About a young girl who stumbles naively into a relationship with an older man (Peter Sarsgaard), it forgives her of everything while condemning the man, her parents and a handful of other characters. Like most big-screen products attached to Mr. Nick Hornby ("About a Boy," "High Fidelity"), it's almost proudly myopic.
So Mulligan is Jenny, a bright teenage girl in the 60's nearing the end of high school. Her parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) are dead-set on her going to Oxford, and she plays along, not without her own private yearnings. There's an early dinner-table scene between the three of them that highlights, in perfect clarity, the film's pro's and con's. On the one hand, Molina is likable as always, the timing is right and the dialogue makes you laugh. On the other, you're already looking at these people through the incredibly narrow vision of Scherfig and Hornby. Molina is an unsentimental taskmaster and Seymour is the typically dutifully silent wife. Mulligan is Beautiful and Charming and Smart and deserving of much better circumstances emotionally, intellectually and financially than her parents have provided her. I know it's Mulligan's story, and that is how her character might feel, but the movie in its condescending treatment of the Molina character seems to be one hundred percent on her side.
We see Mulligan at school and with a shy boy her age, who the movie mocks, like the Molina character, only to idealize in the end. On her way home, walking in the rain, Mulligan is picked up by David (Sarsgaard), a well-to-do bachelor with a sports car and an apparent knowledge which he makes immediately obvious of the "finer things." Mulligan sees the opportunity to quench her thirst for sophistication and takes it. David's intentions are perfectly clear from the outset and, though it is the early 60s, I can't imagine a girl like Jenny is so naïve that she completely misses them. She knows what he wants but she knows what she wants, too, and how she can get it.
What follows is not so much an "education" as it is a length of time we spend waiting for the Mulligan character to stop deceiving herself. This type of self-destructive behaviour is certainly not uncommon of teenage girls, and although the movie is moralizing by the end, I've still never seen it so romanticized as it is here. The music, the dresses, the cigarettes, the dancing, the alcohol, and, certainly, the sex (Mulligan sells her body for a trip to Paris) are definitely the point, despite all the reversals and lessons that come out in the last act.
And what lessons they are! Mulligan has a couple awkwardly-written scenes with Emma Thompson as a conservative schoolmaster who's views on female chastity are supposed to be seen as outdated as her (quite random) anti-semitism. Mulligan's mistakes are turned into some victory for progressive feminists. Hey, I'm all for making the best of your misdeeds, but, that usually includes actually learning from them. Instead, the movie blames Molina's character for not being onto Sarsgaard's operator from the start.
But since we didn't believe the scene where Molina allows Sarsgaard to "chaperone" Mulligan's trip to Paris it's played way too casually his apology comes off as nothing more than a shallow transitional scene in a badly-plotted film. Another strange thing: Sarsgaard's friends and partners in crime (Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike) seem to dodge all the condemnation the film doles out at the end why? Because they're a little more honest about themselves, I guess?
I think it's something else: they're Beautiful and Charming, like Mulligan they belong to the same club. Sarsgaard is awkward and creepy looking sorta like the boy Mulligan ditches in the first act. Molina is fat and ignorant, and Cara Seymour as his wife just comes off as cowardly and pathetic. Olivia Williams, as a frumpy schoolteacher, provides the moral centre of the film but as a plot device, not a character.
I know these weren't Scherfig or Hornby's intentions. Judging from the movie itself, I don't think they know what their intentions are. It's their principles I question.
Let me turn your attention to a shot in the second half: Mulligan, returning from Paris, plops a box of Chanel down on Williams' desk, as a gift. The shot is from behind Mulligan, eye-level with Williams, who tears up because she can't accept it. Now, honestly, watching the film, who would you rather be: the person who can hand out boxes of Chanel like turkeys on thanksgiving to her ugly friends, or the ugly duckling teacher who has to stifle tears because she's just too Morally Right to accept such a beautiful present?
But never mind. Do whatever you want to get whatever you want, and if you screw up, the people who care about you will bite the bullet. And you'll probably still get into Oxford, anyway. This movie made me feel icky.
Worth it for the actors
"Nine" isn't a bad movie. You might even like it - if you haven't seen Fellini's "8 1/2" in some time and don't remember too much of the story. If the original film is still fresh in your mind a lot of the passages in "Nine" will seem dull and lacking. If you're a big-time Fellini fan, or even know enough about the man's career, there's the possibility you'll leave the theater feeling insulted.
The story: famous Italian director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis of all people) is struggling to find some inspiration to write the screenplay for his next movie. The problem is he already has a producer, a star (Nicole Kidman) and a host of technicians on board, waiting for him. He's hounded by the press, his mistress (Penelope Cruz) is always showing up at the wrong times and he forgets his wife's (Marion Cotillard) birthday. Memories of his saintly mother (Sophia Loren) discourage him because he hasn't been much of a Catholic lately as is obvious considering the above synopsis.
The film doesn't do Fellini or his fictional avatar any justice. It pretends to be about an artist's inner battle of love versus lust, but in reality it's far more interested in the bodies of the many female stars. On that level it works quite well. Penelope Cruz has a musical number so sexy it's likely to win over any straight male who gets dragged to see this. Kidman, Cotillard and Kate Hudson (as a promiscuous reporter) light up the screen simply by stepping into it. Cotillard is unequaled here, conjuring emotions where there are none while selling the sex just as well.
There's a lot of style here, good cinematography, but it's marred by countless disappointments. The songs are instantly forgettable, despite all the energy obviously put into them. There's just not enough there to work with. The choreography of the dancers is pretty bland. None of the principles are even halfway convincing as Italians, making all the film's talk about Italian culture and cinema seem pretty hypocritical. Daniel Day-Lewis is why is he in this movie?
Did he want to pay homage to Fellini? Did he want to get to dance and sing in a gaudy musical? Was he just having a particularly generous day when he was offered the part? He should've seen he had no part in this story. He's far too focused, not nearly as preoccupied as he should be. Marcello Mastroianni, who played Guido in the original, always seemed out to sea, lost in his head. Day-Lewis is constantly holding his cards in our face, I'd almost say, "phoning it in."
But the women oh, the women. And I haven't even mentioned Judi Dench, who has a musical number of her own. It's not any good, but she is, and that goes for just about everyone in this film. Cotillard could get an Oscar nomination, and she'd deserve it. Cruz is wonderful as usual (check her out in "Broken Embraces," also this year). Kate Hudson is surprisingly good; she hasn't been allowed to appear in a movie of any quality in how many years? I knew she was a star, I forgot she was an actress.
So if you like musicals as a genre and you're a fan of two or more of the women in this one, I guess "Nine" is worth seeing. If you're a Fellini acolyte, tread at your own risk. If you're expecting much from Day-Lewis
forget it. No passion. The film could've taken advice from one of its biggest songs: "Be Italian." 6/10
Looks great, I just wish I cared what happened in it
"Avatar" is not the next "Star Wars" or "Lord of the Rings." It might be the next "Matrix," though. Or, perhaps more accurate, the next "Matrix Revolutions." It's technically groundbreaking craftmanship put to work on a story that was played out after "Return of the King." There are a lot of bad guys, a lot of good guys, and sooner or later they're all gonna meet on the battlefield. The little details are not-so-shockingly unimportant, since nothing could stop, change or even, really, comment on the unstoppable trajectory of this film's story.
It's the future. An Evil Corporation is parked on distant planet Pandora, mining the planet of all its precious minerals. The native population, big blue humanoids called the "Na'vi," aren't too happy about this. The corporation has hired scientists to create avatars of Na'vi bodies to be controlled by human brains, in order to communicate to the Na'vi that...they better move, lest be bulldozed by the evil Col. Qautrich (Stephen Lang).
Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is flown in to Pandora because his twin brother, who had an Avatar made specifically for him, is dead. The coincidence is an obvious plot device so that we can have a newcomer to Pandora to share in our amazement. Oh, and he's paralyzed, so running around in his new alien body is rather freeing for him.
I don't feel as if I need to continue with the plot description. You know what'll happen. You've seen "Dances with Wolves" and "The Last Samurai." Heck, even "Dead Man." The Na'vi represent nature, the (all-American) corporation represents destructive technology. Quatrich has a Southern accent and says things like, "we have to fight terror with terror." The Na'vi are clones of Native Americans - filtered through the imagination of a white liberal. It's all very obvious.
The question, of course, is whether or not it's entertaining. Well...sometimes. It certainly looks good. Some sequences - especially those with the winged beasts - are eye-popping. Lang makes a fun villain. Pandora is more derivative than original, it reminded me most of Skull Island in Peter Jackson's King Kong. All the monsters have a plastic-y look to them that make them feel too well-done. The 3D is distracting at times and I had a headache before the movie was over.
But there are scenes and individual shots that pop with ethereal beauty. It's worth seeing for that reason, but I don't think it'll be as fun after multiple viewings. The great thing about "Star Wars" was the characters: Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, R2-D2, Darth Vader, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda and so on. They embodied the other-worldliness of the story, taking the weight off the effects.
In thirty-two years, I don't think anyone will remember "Jake Sully." 6/10
Interesting, but not entertaining
"Shadowboxer" is a strange movie, perhaps one of the strangest I've seen, and although it doesn't quite work it's still worth watching if you want to see a filmmaker take huge risks, fail, but still succeed at making something...unique. It's the kind of movie that's best to watch late at night, falling asleep. In that dreary state its numerous quirks and idiosyncrasies may make more sense, may seem connected, while enriched by your imagination.
Like many Lynch or Jarmusch films it's a genre piece with a hand-made feel, which adds a certain surreal quality to it. It stars Cuba Gooding Jr. as slave/lover to his stepmom, played by Helen Mirren. She's a super assassin, and so is he. They get hired by lunatic crime boss Stephen Dorff to knock off his wife for him, but when Mirren (who's dying of Movie Cancer) sees that the wife (Vanessa Ferlito) is pregnant, she takes mercy. Her, Gooding and Ferlito run off together, forming a strange family unit, while Dorff goes on for years believing the job's been done.
The bulk of the movie takes place in the house shared by Mirren, Gooding, Ferlito and eventually her newborn son. Fuelled primarily by Mirren's desire for some sort of redemption they're forced to bond, and bond they do, although the characters are so underwritten the movie is forced to rely on the personalities of its actors to make up for it. This works to various degrees...Gooding ultimately comes off the best, he's far too good-natured to play a badass, but that's sort of the point.
Mostly the movie is about people constrained by their own horrifying natures. Greed, lust and hatred are the overwhelming emotions, although as the family unit progresses they're slowly joined by loyalty, tenderness and even, sort of, love. Gooding finds an unexpected companion in Ferlito's son and Mirren squeezes some real feeling into the tail end of a life that seems bereft of it. Dorff is his own worst victim, as is made clear when he meets his son for the first time.
And everything - even the deepest recesses of Gooding's quiet character - is made clear by the end, but to very little effect. The movie is not convincing enough for us to believe wholeheartedly in this new family, but occasionally an idea or a feeling will seep through and find us. Director Lee Daniels, who's said his heroes are Jon Waters and Pedro Almodovor, should direct more to his tastes rather than the hip hop/martial arts implications of the movie's title. As a thriller, this film is limp.
But as a drama, it could've worked.
Hilariously serious high school noir
"Assassination of a High School President" is a pleasant surprise: a high school noir comedy where the joke is how seriously it takes itself. It never leaves the classroom - nothing that happens in it is too ridiculous - but it maintains a consistent sense of epic importance that successfully subverts, and is subverted by, its own fairly mundane story. On that level it's sort of brilliant; we understand how important the events of the story are to the characters while never losing track of how comically meager they are to us, the seasoned moviegoers. Now, just reading that, I can't imagine a more effective way of representing secondary school.
The story is this: (wannabe) star reporter of the school newspaper Bobby Funke (Reece Thompson) gets a puff piece on student body president Paul More (Patrick Taylor) at the same time a stack of SATs are stolen right out of Principal Kirpatrick's (Bruce Willis) office. Kirpatrick appoints Bobby as his head investigator and it turns out the two stories are deeply connected. More than that I will not say, although keep in mind this film is closer to Wes Anderson than James M. Cain.
And another thing it isn't is Rian Johnson's "Brick." Its 2005 genre predecessor and "Miller's Crossing" rip-off, that was the film where Joseph Gordon-Levitt was a down-and-out student playing two high school gangs against each other. It's the movie this one has been most compared to, unfavourably, although the two are nothing alike. "Brick" was a film of dead weight, a leaden "drama" with aged and dreary characters and a story meant to confuse and depress you. It was a gangly, nearly incomprehensible movie that's gained cult status mainly, I think, because most of its fans don't understand it. It was a movie with a story and setting that never came together, and with a sensibility and technique more heavy-handed than the worst Hollywood message movie.
"Assassination" just wants to make you laugh, and, in the process, laugh off the petty issues that plague high school life (I can see it being almost therapeutic for kids facing those problems today). It sparkles with an understated wit and has a real atmosphere to it; with stylish, brooding cinematography and dialogue that's one third noirspeak and two thirds teenage dirty-mindedness. It never plays above or below its own maturity level, at once broadly funny and fiendishly clever.
It's also a showcase for a host of young actors who are likely to become the Steve Buscemis and Robert Downey Jr.'s of their generation. Reece Thompson is note-perfect as Bobby, a classically straightlaced gumshoe-in-training who can't seem to catch a break. He holds the movie on his back and shows some real star power. Taylor is hilarious as the air-headed president, and Bobby's three stoner friends - Tanya Fischer, Luke Grimes and Vincent Piazza - inject their scenes with a put-upon camaraderie. Mischa Barton, Adam Pally and Melonie Diaz also shine.
The old pro's have a lot of fun with the material: Willis, Kathryn Morris and Michael Rapaport. Willis is particularly strong as the scene-stealing principal. He's a deadly serious, tough-as-nails man who can't stop talking about his tour of duty in the Gulf War - perhaps not the most appropriate coaching technique for a group of adolescents. His dialogue is spotless, timing perfect and intensity - palpable. Every scene he appears in elevates the material to a heightened level of pulp/pop culture craziness; you almost can't believe that's actually Bruce Willis standing there, having so much fun, almost impersonating himself. I'd go so far as to say Willis deserves a Supporting Actor nomination for his work here.
It's an effective comedy and an interesting mystery. It has a lot of fun with its premise instead of sticking to it with an almost dutiful monogamy like "Brick" did. It's well-made enough to make its director, Brent Simon, someone to watch out for. It's not perfect, the conclusion lacks some umph, but that only makes sense considering the film's last line: "Forget it Bobby, it's High School." 8/10
Whatever Works (2009)
Well-made and funny; Allen's smartest movie
Woody Allen's best comedy since "Manhattan Murder Mystery," maybe even since the seventies. Maybe his best comedy, period. It's precise, broad, subtle and totally endearing, with over-the-top characterizations with honest (and very personal) feelings bubbling underneath. It's a comic triumph and an emotional one, and apart from all that, it's visually perfect. That means, every colour is right, every shot is on point and even the choreography and blocking of the characters work toward a certain purpose. And it's got the right soundtrack. The title is "Whatever Works," and it seems Allen's finally figured that out for himself in creating what's got to be his most assured and artistically confident film to date.
Of course barely anyone's noticed, since by all accounts and purposes it's "just another Woody Allen movie." People toss a phrase like that around casually, not like they would say, "just another Hitchcock," or "just another Bergman." Woody Allen's been one of the most prolific and consistently adventurous American directors for more than forty years and he still doesn't get the credit he deserves. Maybe critics are so familiar with him, year after year, that a new Woody Allen movie doesn't seem like much of a discovery. I don't know. He's made a strange run this decade, starting off with light, old-school comedies and then descending into dark waters with "Match Point," "Scoop," "Cassandra's Dream," and "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." "Match Point" might be the best movie he's ever made, but apart from that, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" gets most of the praise out of his 00 releases.
But "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" was a flat, mechanical sex comedy, tired and disinterested in its characters. Not a bad movie, and the performance of Penelop Cruz makes it especially worthwhile, but it seemed more of an intellectual exercise than a real artistic statement. Perhaps he was just warming up Because "Whatever Works" is a sex comedy that, well, works. It's less about the physical charm of its characters and far more interested in their feelings, opinions, beliefs and self-deceptions. Nobody is posing here, or interested in it. The protagonist is Boris Yelnikoff, played by Seinfeld-creator, comedian and non-actor Larry David. He's a cold, condescending, intellectual brute talking down to everyone, his friends, enemies, even you, in the audience. An ex-physicist, ex-husband, he now inhabits a shabby apartment he makes his fortress of solitude, keeping himself safe from the outside world, which he deems as not intelligent enough to deserve him. He's your typical over-thinking, depressed cynic, grown to full potential in his own age.
In walks Melody (Evan Rachel Wood), a young Southern runaway about one-half as "smart" as Boris thinks he is and a hundred times more in touch with her emotions. If you think you see where it's going well, of course you do. Is it a male fantasy? Yes, but not for Woody Allen it's more of a reality. He's writing about what he knows, and Wood's performance, along with the writing, make it impossible to see her as any sort of victim. She might not be keen enough to see David's "intellectual" as the cynic that he is, but she's sharp enough, emotionally, to sense another wounded soul, a man insecure and abandoned, and when she responds to him emotionally, she recognizes and understands that response.
So they get married. The septuagenarian and the twentysomething. And it's happy, for a time, before Melody's zealous fundamentalist parents (Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley Jr.) come knocking at Boris' door. These two, and the paths they take, are where Allen demonstrates the titular theme to its logical destination. It's not a very profound or complicated message "whatever makes you happy" but like many movies, it takes something we already know and shows us, in a new way, exactly what that means. It may be frightening, to some. Christians may be offended by its treatment of their beliefs, but they should ask themselves if the type of Christianity Clarkson and Begley's characters are practising in this movie is particularly healthy for them and, by extension, people like them that exist in real life. And there's a bit of homosexuality that comes as a surprise late in the film, that might make some straight males in the audience a little uncomfortable, but I say good! Let them face it, rather than ignore it.
Where the movie is most subversive is in its treatment of Boris Yelnikoff, the narrator. You know people like him. The movie starts with a four-minute monologue delivered by him into the camera. He's mean, and smart enough to know when and how to be mean to inflict the most hurt, while always keeping himself the logical centre of any argument. Unfortunately, in his old age, that's all he knows, despite his constant assertions that he's the smartest and everyone else is an "inchworm" or a "mental midget." David's delivery is hammering, but always with traces of a smile, he's a fairly insecure fellow. Really, he just wants to be liked, and his brains are clearly the only way he thinks he can make that happen. Allen and David never allow him to show a trace of vulnerability, but that is their strategy, and one extended close-up is particularly shattering (you'll know the one I mean).
In the end Boris must face - and accept - something that renders all his brains and beliefs totally useless. It's the only way he can be happy. His change is handled off-screen, casually, but you'll sense a big difference in the final scene. He's been humbled. And Allen's taken us there in a movie that's funny, occasionally mean (but to an honourable purpose) and visually intricate. There are tiny touches that evoke Bergman, particularly "Persona," "Saraband," and especially "Fanny and Alexander," of which this movie is practically a remake of. See it.