Saturday, April 30, 2011

Win Win

Win Win - Dir. Thomas McCarthy (2011)

Thomas McCarthy doesn't have one of the most recognizable names or faces. As a character actor, he's had supporting roles in films like Meet the Parents and 2012. However, he has won more critical acclaim as the writer/director of The Station Agent and The Visitor. McCarthy has specialized in telling stories about depressed outsiders forming an unconventional surrogate family. For his latest picture, Win Win, McCarthy sticks to his bread and butter, presenting his best movie yet.

Paul Giamatti is perfectly cast as Mike Flaherty, a New Jersey lawyer who practices in the matters of elderly care. He also doubles as the coach of a pathetic high school wrestling team with his partner Stephen (Jeffrey Tambor). Mike isn't pulling in enough money to support his wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan), and their two daughters. He finds what he believes to be an easy source of money in Leo Poplar (Burt Young), who is suffering from the onset of dementia. Unable to contact his family, Mike appoints himself as Leo's guardian in order to collect the $1500 a month from Leo's estate, then checks him into a nursing home so he doesn't actually have to care for Leo.

Mike's scheme seemingly goes off without a hitch until Leo's grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer), arrives on Leo's doorstep. Mike and Jackie take the boy in until they can contact Kyle's mother, Cindy (Melanie Lynskey), who is attending rehab and is estranged from her father. When Kyle shows off exceptional wrestling skill, Mike sees it as a karmic reward. He enrolls Kyle at the school for the chance to finally win a championship. Kyle's winning ways manage to inspire the adults around him as well as his lackadaisical teammates. Everything feels like it's coming around for Mike until Cindy shows up looking to collect her son and her father's money.

McCarthy's screenplay has a tendency to veer towards sitcom territory. It's formulaic and the complications are all wrapped up a little too conveniently. Yet, there's such a sweet-natured approach to the material that it's easy to go with the flow. Unlike other indie dramedies which are quirky for quirky's sake, the characters of Win Win feel genuine and likeable. The comedy ranges from over-the-top to low-key and each gag is never forced, coming naturally from the situations everyone finds themselves.

The cast also helps to elevate the film. Giamatti is the master of playing these sad sack roles, able to maintain an air of sympathy despite sometimes acting like a jerk (see American Splendor). Amy Ryan is excellent as the tough Jersey wife while Jeffrey Tambor plays the exact type of role you expect from Jeffrey Tambor. Rocky fans will be ecstatic to see Paulie himself appear in a small, but vital part. The real gem of Win Win is newcomer Alex Shaffer, who really is a champion wrestler in the Garden State. Shaffer manages to make so much more of a role that calls for the typical sullen and taciturn teenager.

McCarthy scores a definitive notch in the win column with Win Win. It's a funny and engaging film that stands as one of the best pictures released during the first half of 2011.

Rating: ***½ (*****)

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Scream 4

Scream 4 - Dir. Wes Craven (2011)

”You forgot the first rule of remakes…don’t fuck with the original.”

It's been fifteen years since a creepy voice over the phone asked a terrified Drew Barrymore if she liked scary movies. When Scream hit theaters in 1996, it revitalized the slasher genre, spawning two sequels and a litany of knockoff franchises. A decade has passed since the last installment and I doubt there was a huge demand for another Scream, aside from the Weinsteins. The former heads of Miramax have been looking to milk the cash cow of their previous successes. Scream 4 is the first of many sequels to come with a new Spy Kids coming out later in the summer as well as spinoffs of everything from Rounders to Shakespeare in Love in development.

Neve Campbell is back once more as tormented heroine, Sidney Prescott, who returns to her hometown of Woodsboro on a promotional tour for her memoirs. No sooner does Sidney arrive then a new Ghostface emerges to hack and slash his way through a smorgasbord of good-looking victims. Also returning for this latest R-rated Scooby Doo mystery is reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), who is still adjusting to small town life as the wife of Dewey (David Arquette), now the sheriff of Woodsboro. New to the film series are Sidney's cousin, Jill (Emma Roberts), and her best friend, Kirby (Hayden Panettiere), as one of the hottest horror movie aficionados ever. Replacing the late-Randy Meeks are Robbie (Eric Knudsen) and Charlie (Rory Culkin), two geeks who run the high school film club and record everything 24/7 with their webcam.

What set the original Scream apart from its pale imitators was the clever screenplay by Kevin Williamson, which played with the conventions of the horror genre. The movie was filled with self-aware characters ironically commenting on the very clichés they were occurring around them. It's not too much of a surprise that Wes Craven was drawn to the production as Scream came out two years after Wes Craven's New Nightmare, a meta-textual sequel in which Freddy Krueger stalked the cast and crew behind the movies.

After skipping out on the last picture, Williamson is back on scripting duties though Ehren Kruger (who penned Scream 3 in his absence) was brought on for last-minute rewrites. The final product still bares the Scream trademarks of self-aware humor, walking a thin line between satire and horror. A lot has changed since the initial film and Scream 4 attempts to address everything from the current state of horror movies to new technologies. Craven and company spread themselves too thin trying to tackle so many topics and come up short each time.

There are brief mentions about the lack of originality in Hollywood, the spate of remakes, and the rise of torture porn. At one point, Kirby lists nearly every major horror movie that has been remade in the past few years. Empty name-dropping seems to be the best they could do. One character comments that the old rules have changed, the kills have to be much more extreme. However, the kills in Scream 4 aren't very extreme or unique. Ghostface follows the same M.O. as always stalking unsuspecting victims then gutting them with a butcher knife. There are multiple scenes of victims running up staircases and kicking away their attacker.

As a part of the YouTube Generation, the young characters of Scream 4 are far savvier about technology than their predecessors. Everyone has an iPhone, but most of the gags about webcams and internet streaming feel like they were written five years ago. Not to mention these sorts of things have already been touched upon in other (inferior) movies like Halloween: Resurrection and FeardotCom. The one bit that does work involves a Ghostface App that allows callers to disguise their voice as the infamous murderer.

The filmmakers also try too hard to maintain the meta-textual elements that had already been exhausted by the previous installments. Characters drop remarks about how this is the point in the movie where everyone feels they're safe until the killer shows himself. And what do you know; everyone feels they're safe until the killer shows himself. There's an underlying layer involving the film's starlets, Neve Campbell and Courteney Cox. Their characters have become inexorably linked to the events of the original film and have yet to move past them. In particular, Gale Weathers has yet to break a new story to surpass the first Woodsboro murders. The actresses themselves have yet to achieve the movie star status predicted by many following the original Scream. The script also throws in a few heavy-handed comments about established stars who have earned their fame and the newcomers who have undeserved done so through viral marketing and reality television.

Scream 4 is also rife with plot holes and it's difficult to tell if the writers got sloppy or if they were an intentional callback to its inspirations. Where exactly are the parents? Evidently, the perfect time to leave your kids alone is when a maniac killer is on the loose. How does the killer get around so quickly on foot? Meanwhile, how do the cops never arrive in time despite driving around in police vehicles? Then again, considering the police department is run by David Arquette…

Most of the script problems can be forgiven due to a quality ensemble with many of them giving fantastic performances. The two best performances come from Hayden Panettiere and Alison Brie from Community and Mad Men. Sporting a short hairdo, Panettiere is wonderful as the sexy and sassy Kirby. She's the best she's ever looked. Brie goes for the gusto as Sidney's snarky, opportunistic publicist. Also good is Marley Shelton in a small role as spunky deputy with a crush on Dewey, of all people. You don't feel too bad when she meets an inevitably grisly fate. As the franchise's holy triumvirate, Campbell, Cox, and Arquette have become old hat at playing their characters and some of the most noteworthy scenes involve the three of them. There's also a cool opening sequence of false starts featuring a bevy of young beauties like Aimee Teegarden, Kristen Bell, and Anna Paquin.

Scream 4 does feel like the same old routine, despite promises of new decade, new rules. It may not be perfect, but it is a fun popcorn film that plays out more like a dark comedy than a straight horror movie. It largely ignores the events of the second and third pictures, making it a true sequel in spirit to the original.

Rating: *** (*****)

SPOILER WARNING: My thoughts on the ending in the comments section.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


Super - Dir. James Gunn (2011)

Shut up, crime!

The idea of ordinary folks becoming costumed crime fighters isn't a new one with the two most recent entries in the subgenre, Defendor (with Woody Harrelson) and Kick-Ass, seeing release in 2010. If you think loonies dressing up as superheroes in real life could never happen, just take a look at Mr. Extreme in San Diego or Phoenix Jones of Seattle. Let’s hope these kooks don’t imitate the ultra-violence perpetrated by the characters of James Gunn’s Super, which bears a superficial resemblance to Kick-Ass.

Rainn Wilson from The Office is perfectly cast as Frank, a short-order cook with a strong faith in god. God's existence is practically proven due to the fact that Frank is married to Liv Tyler as Sarah, a beautiful waitress and recovering addict. Frank's conviction is shaken when she has a relapse and falls into the arms of a slimy drug dealer named Jacques. After an extremely bizarre vision, Frank is literally touched by the finger of God (voiced by Rob Zombie) and creates the superhero identity of The Crimson Bolt. Armed with a mighty pipe wrench of justice, Frank gleefully dishes out brutal punishment to dealers, muggers, and child molesters. He even splits a man's skull open for cutting in line at the movies. Every good hero needs a sidekick and Frank finds one in Libby, an unhinged young woman working at the local comic book store. Libby fashions her own costume to become Boltie, whose first act as crime fighter is to nearly bludgeon a man to death for possibly keying a friend's Jetta. Even Frank (with an obviously tenuous grasp on reality) balks at Libby's gleeful disregard for human life.

Super is pure, low-grade shlock. Not surprising coming from a picture written and directed by a filmmaker who started out with B-movie purveyors Troma Entertainment. Gunn’s previous directorial effort was the underrated horror-comedy, Slither, with Super acting as something of a kindred spirit in terms of violent content. Whereas Slither was consistent in its attempt to create a throwback to early Cronenberg, Super is wildly uneven, shifting from tone to tone on a whim. Super opens with a cutesy animated title sequence (set to Tsar’s “Calling All Destroyers”) while the Crimson Bolt’s initial forays into vigilante adventures feature Three Stooges-level slapstick. That’s after the first few days when Frank spends entire nights sitting behind a dumpster waiting for crime to happen. His most exciting encounter being a cardboard box blown along the street. He vows to pick it up later. Shit gets real once we start seeing gaping wounds and gushing blood. After jumping from slapstick to dark comedy, the movie becomes just plain dark with a finale right out of Taxi Driver.

Gunn is hardly a subtle filmmaker and he tackles the film’s themes with the same blunt force trauma as the Bolt’s pipe wrench. Just as the masked protagonist continues to beat on his opponent long after he has been incapacitated, Gunn beats and beats his points and labored eccentricities. The “finger of God” sequence would have come off fine had it simply ended with a luminous shaft of light peering down on Frank. Instead, Gunn goes overboard in order to include hentai tentacles (badly rendered in CGI) clutching at Frank’s limbs while pulling his scalp open to expose his brain. There’s also a creepy scene involving Boltie seducing an unwilling Frank that’s supposed to symbolize the fetishistic sexual undertones of costumed superheroes, a topic already covered more deftly in Watchmen. When Frank inevitably kills someone, comic book style graphics pop up ala the 60’s Batman show as a further perversion of innocent iconography.

The fact doesn’t completely fail is in no small way due to the cast. Rainn Wilson is excellent as the sad sack hero, able to give a somewhat unsympathetic character a tragic edge. Every great hero needs an equally memorable villain and the Bolt does indeed have one in Kevin Bacon, who is hilarious as the smarmy Jacques. It’s true, everything is better with Bacon in it. Nathan Fillion is pure Nathan Fillion as a Christian TV superhero named the Holy Avenger, who serves as a muse for the Crimson Bolt. Without a doubt, the performance Super will be remembered for is Ellen Page as the homicidal anti-Juno. It’s a change to see Page play someone who isn’t the smartest girl in the room, but her part could have been better served with a little restraint.

The film also features cameos from Linda Cardellini, Zach Gilford, Steve Agee, Troma co-founder Lloyd Kaufman, and William Katt from Greatest American Hero.

Super is a little behind on the times when it comes to deconstructing the superhero mythos. This is a movie desperately searching for a consistent tone, funny one minute and appalling by the next.

Rating: ** (*****)

Sunday, April 17, 2011


Hanna - Dir. Joe Wright (2011)

Joe Wright established himself immediately as a director to be reckoned with following his first two films Pride & Prejudice and Atonement. Wright brought a visual flair that isn’t generally found in historical romantic dramas and became known for his trademark uncut tracking shots. Cinephiles knew the moment Wright turned his hand to the action genre, the results would be something special.

Inspired by fairy tale folklore, Hanna takes elements from the stories of Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood (among others) and transplants them into a globe-trotting Jason Bourne-style actioner. The Grimm Brothers by way of Luc Besson.

Saoirse Ronan (who was nominated for an Oscar at the age of 13 for her role in Atonement) stars as Hanna, a young girl raised in the snowy wilderness of Finland by her father Erik Heller (Eric Bana), a rogue assassin. Heller trained her in survival skills, hand-to-hand combat, foreign languages, and firearms. Hanna’s bedtime stories are readings from what sounds like a discount encyclopedia. Father-daughter bonding sessions consist of Heller sneaking up and trying to kill her. Baby bird can’t stay in the nest forever and Hanna embarks on her journey into womanhood…by murdering her father’s enemies.

Hanna’s primary target is Cate Blanchett as CIA official Marissa Viegler, the evil stepmother of the story. The Wicked Witch of the Neo-Cons, Viegler sports a bob of dark red hair, classy pant suits, and designer high heels. Yes, the devil truly does wear Prada. Heller flips a switch and alerts Viegler of their whereabouts. Heller flees while Hanna allows herself to be captured. Hanna escapes from custody and hitches a ride with a hippie family putting from Morocco to Spain in a beat-up Volkswagen van. Forced to take extreme measures in killing the Hellers, Viegler hires a loony Euro-trash hitman named Isaacs (Tom Hollander) to capture the girl.

As expected, Hanna is an exceptionally stylish film utilizing techniques such as varying camera angles and jump cuts. Hanna’s escape from a CIA holding facility is the film’s most exciting sequence and Wright dips heavily into the Run Lola Run playbook. The set piece becomes a music video unto its own, punctuated by the throbbing electronic score by the Chemical Brothers (likely to be one of the best scores of 2011). The editing is fast-paced and the camera spins around and around. Sometimes it feels like Wright is showing off, but he thankfully stays away from the overused shaky handheld shots. Of course, he doesn’t forget the long take as the camera follows Heller into a subway stop where he battles a group of armed henchmen. The action is crisp and superbly staged by veteran fight coordinator Jeff Imada, who employs a similar style to the one he used in the Bourne pictures.

The movie isn’t always about kinetic action scenes, there’s a sense of tragedy and sweetness beneath the brutality of Hanna’s story. She has never encountered modern technology before. A short stay in a hotel room becomes a nightmare of sensory overload due to nothing more than a television and an electric kettle. Less frightening is the subplot involving Hanna’s friendship with the family’s daughter, Sophie (Jessica Barden), the first person her own age she’s ever met. Sophie is the stereotypical gum-chewing teenager and becomes fast friends with this oddball stray. This leads to Hanna’s first awkward (and surprisingly funny) encounter with an amorous Spanish boy.

Hanna isn’t bereft of problems. A gaping plot hole emerges when Hanna learns nearly everything about her background, her father, and top secret government projects in an internet café. This is in spite of the fact that she had an earlier freak out over a TV. The movie is also lacking a physically imposing villain, who might stand a chance against the superior fighting skills of the protagonists. The effete Isaacs isn’t going to cut it. He’s got a bad tan and wears eyeliner and velour tracksuits. Ludicrous fashion sense aside, once you see the stubby way in which he runs, you will be incapable of taking Hollander seriously as a bad guy. With her thick Texas drawl, Cate Blanchett comes off a little cartoonish as well. Most of the film’s over-the-top elements might be excused as a means to craft a modernized fairy tale. However, the point is driven in far too bluntly with a finale set in a run-down storybook amusement park.

”I just missed your heart…”

There’s something prophetic about that piece of dialogue used as the opening and closing lines of Hanna. She misses the mark from time to time, but still forcefully hits the target.

Rating: *** (*****)

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Your Highness

Your Highness - Dir. David Gordon Green (2011)

David Gordon Green cut his teeth on the independent film circuit with stunning tales of small town life. He won critical acclaim for his first two features, George Washington and All the Real Girls. It was with great surprise that Green stepped into the mainstream with Pineapple Express, a hilarious fusion of stoner comedy and action movie. For his follow-up, Green once again returns to the world of lowbrow stoner humor and combines it with the medieval fantasy. Co-written by Eastbound & Down collaborators Danny McBride and Ben Best, Your Highness is like watching drunken fratboys play Dungeons & Dragons. Imagine The Princess Bride or Willow filled with jokes about naked forest nymphs, Minotaur cocks, and pedophiliac wizards.

McBride is Prince Thadeous, a variation of the usual shiftless jerks he usually plays. Thadeous is an irresponsible jackass living in the shadow of his brave and handsome brother Fabious (James Franco). When Fabious’s virginal bride, Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel), is kidnapped by the evil sorcerer Leezar (Justin Theroux), Thadeous is forced to embark on a quest to rescue her and maybe finally grow up for a change. They are eventually joined by Isabel (Natalie Portman), a huntress also on a quest for vengeance against Leezar.

The cast also includes: Charles Dance as King Tallious, Rasmus Hardiker as Thadeous’s valet Courtney, Damian Lewis as Fabious’s right-hand knight Boremont, and Toby Jones as Fabious’s smarmy valet Julie.

McBride plays his role with aplomb while Franco sends up his pretty boy image. The real surprise has to be Justin Theroux, who is scene-stealingly funny as the villainous Leezar. Theroux portrays him less as a megalomaniacal necromancer and more of a LARP geek lashing out at the jocks who always gave him wedgies. Theroux also gets some of the movie’s best lines, ”If your vagina is anything like my hand…there’ll be no problem.” Natalie Portman may not have the fire to play a convincing warrior woman, but she looks absolutely phenomenal in a leather thong. Her well-toned buttocks so glorious that censors will forced to digitally cover it up lest unsuspecting audiences be overwhelmed by the pure beauty.

Unfortunately, a great deal of the humor in Your Highness falls flat. The film never takes the opportunity to lambaste the conventions of the fantasy genre. Fabious possesses a mechanical bluebird ala Clash of the Titans, but the joke never goes anywhere. Instead, McBride chooses the easy route by relying on all the requisite dick and fart jokes of an R-rated comedy while characters hurl anachronistic insults like ‘motherfucker.’ I haven’t even begun to get into the homophobic humor that borders on the repugnant. One of the movie’s most bizarre moments comes when the brothers seek advice from a hookah smoking muppet, who looks like he was thrown off the set of The Dark Crystal. Fabious has a bad trip and reveals he may have participated in Michael Jackson-esque slumber parties with the old wizard. The scene goes on way too long and strains the already thin joke. That pretty much sums up the whole picture.

Rating: ** (*****)

Friday, April 15, 2011


Arthur - Dir. Jason Winer (2011)

The original 1981 Arthur has its share of fans, who consider it to be a comedy classic. The titular Arthur Bach, a spoiled and drunken playboy, was Dudley Moore’s most memorable and celebrated role. Personally, I never understood the appeal. The idea of a middle-aged Moore portraying an overgrown man-child was slightly creepy, but I can see how his incessant cackling and never-ending stream of quips might be considered charming…sort of.

The 2011 remake plugs Russell Brand into the lead role. Brand’s Arthur isn’t too much of a departure from hedonistic rock star Aldous Snow from Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek. But, it’s a much kindler and gentler version of the Russell Brand persona, just like the remake is a kindler and gentler version of the original. In this modern world of political correctness, alcoholism is no longer something to be mocked or glorified. It’s also a completely different New York City, a gentrified, post-Giuliani Big Apple. As such, this new Arthur must predictably go to rehab and can no longer trawl the streets for prostitutes. The adult contemporary soft rock music by Burt Bacharach and Christopher Cross is replaced by a modern hipster soundtrack by Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard. And yes, there is a cover version of Cross’s “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)” by Fitz and the Tantrums, which plays over the end credits.

Arthur is an irresponsible gadabout, who was raised by his stern nanny Hobson (Helen Mirren) rather than his icy CEO mother, Vivienne (Geraldine James). Arthur frivolously wastes his unearned riches on wild parties and other nonsense. He bids against himself at high-class auctions and runs roughshod through Wall Street in the Batmobile. The ultimate waste since it was the Schumacher Batmobile and not the cool one from the Tim Burton films (or even the Adam West TV show). Vivienne has grown weary of her son’s idiotic behavior and forces him into a marriage with Susan Johnson (Jennifer Garner), the daughter of a wealthy construction magnate (Nick Nolte).

Arthur is against the arrangement until he is threatened with being cut off from his $900 million inheritance. His fortunes change when he literally bumps into Naomi (Greta Gerwig), an unlicensed tour guide and becomes inspired by her self-made, blue-collar work ethic.

The original Arthur was written and directed by Steve Gordon, whose only prior experience was in television. Warner Brothers chose not to tempt fate and hired Jason Winer, an executive producer for Modern Family, to direct the remake. Winer worked from a script by Peter Baynham, one of several credited writers for Borat. Along with Brand, they do an admirable job in making the movie a lot better than the tepid trailers made it appear. Not exactly a winning endorsement, but Arthur has its moments. Brand’s humor is hit-and-miss and so was Dudley Moore’s. However, Moore had an air of spontaneity while Brand’s jokes feel overly scripted. Also, he looks a little odd clean-shaven. While Brand may not shine in the starring role, his supporting cast provides excellent back-up.

Sir John Gielgud won an Oscar for his portrayal of the original Hobson, Arthur’s loyal and ever-patient butler. The remake has cleverly switched genders, making Hobson a nanny (and surrogate mother figure), and allowing the addition of Helen Mirren to the mix. Mirren isn’t as condescending as Gielgud, but she more than matches his dry, sardonic wit. Greta Gerwig is infinitely lovable as the pixie in a scarf and fedora Arthur falls for at first sight. She brings the same warmth and effervescent smile that she possessed in Greenberg. Not to be outdone by her co-stars, Jennifer Garner is cast against type as the aggressive social climber with Nick Nolte in full Nick Nolte mode as her intense daddy.

Russell Brand shared the spotlight with Jonah Hill in Get Him to the Greek, but Arthur is his first real chance at top lining a major studio release. While Hop (featuring the voice of Brand) has done strong box office, Arthur opened to an anemic $12.2 million. Perhaps, American audiences haven’t yet warmed up to Brand’s unique sense of humor. Arthur isn’t the best showcase for his talents, but it’s not the worst. It’s strictly middle-of-the-road entertainment and a few notches above the typical romantic comedy.

Rating: ** (*****)

Monday, April 11, 2011

Source Code

Source Code - Dir. Duncan Jones (2011)

Duncan Jones obviously has a great passion for sci-fi having made a spectacular debut as a filmmaker with Moon, one of the best films of 2009. He must have had a unique childhood as the son of David Bowie, who was like a science fiction character come to life. Not surprising that Bowie was chosen to play an alien in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth.

While Jones has several original projects in the works, Source Code is based on a script by Ben Ripley, whose only previous credits include Species III and Species: The Awakening. Not exactly an illustrious resume. Jones’ second film follows the trajectory of many new directors. Source Code is a more mainstream movie with a bigger budget and bigger stars. Often times, those aren’t necessarily advantages, but Jones doesn’t fall into the sophomore slump even if Source Code isn’t as strong or thought-provoking as Moon.

Jake Gyllenhaal is cast as Capt. Colter Stevens (an awesome action hero name), an Army helicopter pilot previously stationed in Afghanistan. He is shocked to awaken inside the body of a high school teacher named Sean Fentress, who is on board a Chicago-bound train. Before he can understand what is happening, the train explodes and Stevens finds himself strapped into a capsule where he is greeted by Air Force Capt. Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga). Stevens is a part of a bold new experiment called Source Code, developed by the cold Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright). Source Code isn’t time travel, but it does allow the subject to relive events (eight minutes in length) by building from the final memories of the dead. Everyone on the train was killed by a bomb and another will go off in the city unless Stevens finds the culprit. Disoriented with little information to go on Stevens is hurtled back and forth until he can complete his mission. At the same time, he must also unravel the mystery of how he came to be apart of the Source Code project.

The best way to describe Source Code would be a melding of 12 Monkeys, Memento, and Groundhog Day. There’s also a dash of Quantum Leap thrown in and they even cast Scott Bakula for a brief voice-over cameo. It’s a high concept actioner in the vein of Inception. Unlike Christopher Nolan’s magnum opus, Source Code isn’t bogged down by endless exposition. Its inventor succintly states Source Code involves quantum physics and would take weeks to explain to the layman. There is just no time to science lessons when a nuke is about to kill millions. Honestly, the whole idea doesn’t make a lick of sense if you really think about it, which means the movie has to keep you engaged long enough so that you don’t poke through the plot holes.

At approximately 90 minutes, Source Code moves at a quick enough pace that the audience doesn’t have time to question the very nature of the Source Code. Each “do-over” is varied enough to avoid tedious repetition. The lead characters are well-defined with Jake Gyllenhaal doing an excellent job at playing the idealistic hero. Michelle Monaghan is also good as Christina, a friend of Sean’s who gradually becomes the love interest for Stevens. Warm and sweet-natured, it’s easy to see why he would fall for her. Jones grounds the film’s outlandish plot by focusing on the love story between the two. Both Jeffrey Wright and Vera Farmiga turn in strong performances, despite their brief and clichéd roles. Aside from the main players, the film noticeably lacks a memorable supporting cast. Unlike the comparable Speed, the other passengers on the train lack distinct personalities as such there is a lack of sympathy for their fates and a loss of dramatic tension in the mystery of the bomber.

Source Code has a unique premise and a powerful opening sequence, but features an ending that leaves more questions than it does answers.

Rating: *** (*****)

SPOILER ALERT: Click on comments section for discussion of ending.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Rabbit Hole

Rabbit Hole - Dir. John Cameron Mitchell (2010)

”God had to take her. He needed another angel.”
“Why didn’t he just make one…another angel. I mean, he’s God after all.”

Rabbit Hole deals with the unimaginable pain that comes from the death of one’s child. The film is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by David Lindsay-Abaire and its original Broadway production starred John Slattery and Cynthia Nixon. Nicole Kidman (who also served as producer) and Aaron Eckhart take over the roles of Becca and Howie, a married couple still reeling from the loss of their 4-year old son, Danny. The boy ran into the street to chase the family dog when he was struck by a car.

Howie and Becca slip into empty routine to put on a mask of normalcy, but each one is on a completely different wavelength when it comes to handling their sorrow. Becca donates all of her child’s clothes to charity and wishes to sell the house. Any little reminder is too much to bear. Howie clings to those same reminders and obsesses over one in particular, a short video recorded on his cell phone. He dutifully attends group therapy sessions, but finds no solace while Becca in these touchy-feely pity parties. Unable to communicate with his wife, Howie grows closer to Gaby (Sandra Oh), a member of the group whose own marriage seems to mirror the problems of the protagonists. Meanwhile, Becca enters into an oddly comforting confrontation with Jason (Miles Teller), the teenage driver who accidentally killed Danny. Jason draws upon his part in the tragedy (along with his experiences with an absentee father) to create a comic book involving wormholes and parallel universes.

Rabbit Hole was directed for the screen by an unlikely choice in John Cameron Mitchell, known more for flamboyant pictures like Hedwig and the Angry Inch and the art-porn Shortbus. Mitchell gives the film a somber tone without devolving into soap opera melodrama. Yet, Mitchell cannot hide the stage-y nature of the piece. Rabbit Hole sometimes feels less like a film and more like an actors’ showcase. As such, the performances are strong and make up for the lack of a cinematic feel.

Nicole Kidman (looking less plastic than usual) gives one of her best performances in years as a grieving mother filled with sorrow and misplaced anger. She snaps at her own husband, her pregnant and irresponsible sister (Tammy Blanchard), and another mother at the supermarket. She also offers one of the film’s highlights, a darkly comic moment responding to a mournful parents’ comfort in God. Dianne Wiest co-stars as Becca’s mother, Nat, who is still trying to come to grips with the death of her own son from a drug overdose years ago. It’s a performance largely forgotten during awards season, one that doesn’t dip into buckets of tears or histrionics. Yet, Wiest is there to convey the sense that sorrow never goes away and that “bearable” is likely the best anyone can do.

Rabbit Hole isn’t an entirely successful film. It is dry drama, but can be poignant and powerful at times.

Rating: ** ½ (*****)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Red Riding Hood

Red Riding Hood - Dir. Catherine Hardwicke (2011)

Twilight is officially now a verb and I don't mean, "I ate some bad Mexican food and had to take a major Twilight." Hollywood execs sit around the boardroom looking at tried and true stories, then ask themselves how can we Twilight it? That means taking a classic like Beauty and the Beast and turning it into a love story about mopey teenagers (Beastly). Red Riding Hood may be the best (worst?) example of turning a well-known story and giving it the Twilight treatment. Warner Brothers even hired director Catherine Hardwicke, who works off a script by David Johnson (Orphan and the upcoming Clash of the Titans sequel).

Amanda Seyfried is Valerie, who lives in the village of Daggerhorn, nestled deep in the forests of some nebulous European countryside. Valerie is arranged by her mother, Suzette (Virginia Madsen), to be married to Henry (Max Irons), the clean cut son of a wealthy blacksmith. However, she is in love with the mussy haired Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), a humble woodcutter. Evidently, in ye olden days blacksmiths made more money than lumberjacks. The villagers make regular sacrifices to appease the werewolf who stalks the night during a full moon. The fragile peace is broken when the wolf murders Valerie's older sister. The townsfolk go on the hunt, but are sadly lacking in pitchforks and torches. As the werewolf claims more victims, the desperate people call upon noted werewolf hunter, Father Solomon (Gary Oldman), a religious fanatic with silver fingernails.

Though she's mostly known for directing the first Twilight film, Hardwicke made her debut with Thirteen, a critically praised coming-of-age tale about a teenage girl played by a young Evan Rachel Wood. Red Riding Hood is like some absurdist combination of the two. The set design is one of the main problems. Daggerhorn is a place that could only exist on a soundstage, but isn't stylish enough for you to buy into it.

The themes of Red Riding Hood are about as subtle as the spine-chilling howl of a wolf at the moon. Valerie is clad in the flowing crimson robe that has become a trademark of the titular character. Not exactly the wisest choice if one wants to remain inconspicuous, but it represents the character's sexual awakening. When the heroine pops her cherry, she does so by literally rolling in the hay with the brooding bad boy. Hardwicke shoots the love scene like a 1980's perfume commercial caught in a dream-like haze. There's also an odd pagan luau (set to Fever Ray) that just might rival the orgy rave from The Matrix Revolutions in terms of perplexing debauchery. Aside from the soap opera love triangle, Hardwicke hammers home themes of religious and government oppression through the character of Father Solomon. He fosters suspicion and distrust amongst the villagers and tortures innocent people. Didn't we already get a better version of this in The Crucible? And do we really need allusions to Guantanamo and the Patriot Act in a teen romance picture?

Hardwicke has cast some decent young actors to play the leads, but their performances are bland due to thinly drawn characterizations and leaden dialogue. The rest of the ensemble is filled by recognizable talents, who aren't exactly utilized to their fullest potential. Virginia Madsen and the great Julie Christie (as the Grandmother) are wasted while sci-fi fans will wonder what the heck are Battlestar Galactica's Michael Hogan and Stargate SG-1's Michael Shanks doing in this. Without a doubt, Gary Oldman is the best thing in the movie. He's menacing, but restrained. This is the sort of role begging for maniacal lunacy ala The Professional.

It's cheesy as cheesy gets, but Red Riding Hood can't even be appreciated as a campy cult film. This Big Bad Wolf has given us a big bad movie.

Rating: * (*****)

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau

The Adjustment Bureau - Dir. George Nolfi (2011)

The Adjustment Bureau is a love story set against the back drop of lofty, metaphysical ideas. The film is very loosely based on a short story by Philip K. Dick and deals with the same recurring themes of free will and destiny found in his work.

Matt Damon plays David Norris, a rising star in political circles, who has just lost a bid for the New York state senate due to some embarrassing photos making the media rounds (he drunkenly mooned people in college). David hides in the men's room of the Waldorf Astoria while trying to come up with his concession speech. There, he meets Elise (Emily Blunt), a beautiful dancer hiding out from security after a crashing a party. David is inspired by her candor and free spirit, but fails to get her number before she splits. By pure chance, he pumps into Elise months later while catching the bus to work. He also happens to stumble on a group of mysterious men who have frozen his co-workers in time.

These dapper men dressed in well-tailored suits and fedoras are the Adjustment Bureau and they have been empowered by the "Chairman" to guide mankind on the proper path. Sometimes slight adjustments are called upon to correct the course. Whenever you lose your car keys, spill coffee, or forget to set the alarm clock, blame the Adjustment Bureau. They can also magically use ordinary doorways to travel great distances. The Bureau threatens to reset (lobotomize) David's mind should be attempt to expose or discuss what he's seen. They also tell him he can never see Elise again. As it turns out, David and Elise were never supposed to meet again. Their union was not meant to be and any potential romance between the two will lead to ruin for both parties.

Naturally, David disobeys the ominous warnings of the Bureau to be with his one, true love.

The Adjustment Bureau is entirely beholden to its outlandish premise. There are a lot of silly and arbitrary rules to explain the powers of the Bureau. Most of it won't make a lick of sense if you actually sat down to think about it. Luckily, the film doesn't get too wrapped up in wild concepts, instead choosing to focus on the romance between its leads. Matt Damon is likeable and charming enough to carry the movie as the protagonist. It's not as showy as his roles in True Grit or The Informant, but it’s a strong performance. As his love interest, Emily Blunt is sexy and free-spirited without devolving into the manic pixie dream girl archetype. However, you can pair up to of the most talented actors in the world and it won't amount to a thing without chemistry (The Tourist, anyone?). That isn't the case here as Damon and Blunt work exceptionally well together.

The supporting cast is great as well with Anthony Mackie as a sympathetic member of the Bureau who teaches David a few new tricks and Terence Stamp as a no-nonsense trouble shooter who is eventually called in. To no surprise, Mad Men's John Slattery fits right in with the retro-50's look.

Screenwriter George Nolfi, who worked on Ocean's Twelve and The Bourne Ultimatum, makes his directorial debut and does a solid job. He's helped greatly by veteran cinematographer John Toll, who gives New York City a slick look reminiscent of Inception. Many critics have complained that the stakes of the romance weren't high enough. That their dreams would be shattered was not enough to build dramatic tension. Personally, I found it more than adequate and didn't feel the need for something more melodramatic, such as their kid becomes the next Hitler. The one spot where Nolfi truly stumbles is the anti-climactic resolution. The film builds to an exciting foot chase as David and Elise jump from famous NY landmarks (Yankee Stadium, Liberty Island) with the Bureau doggedly on their trail. From there, it fizzles out as Nolfi scrambles to find a way out and chooses to go with the very definition of a deus ex machina.

The Adjustment Bureau could best be described as Dark City with the creepy goth atmosphere replaced by modern Manhattan chic. Despite a weak ending, the film is worth checking out due to its strong cast and great production values. As Philip K. Dick adaptations go, it's no Blade Runner, but it's way better than Paycheck or Next.

Rating: ** ½ (*****)

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Another Year

Another Year - Dir. Mike Leigh (2010)

"You can't go around with a big sign saying don't fall in love with me, I'm married."
"Well, most people wear a ring."

British auteur Mike Leigh has a way of weaving complex layers into seemingly mundane conversations. Unlike most filmmakers who work from a fully fleshed out script, Leigh works hand-in-hand with his cast to build their characters beforehand and employs an improvisational style during filming. His movies never feel overly written or phony. The dialogue appears fairly ordinary on the surface, but Leigh has always been able to weave underlying complexities to his words. There are genuine and insightful emotions in his latest film, Another Year, which drops us into the lives of Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a married couple who have been together for over 30 years. There is no straightforward narrative to Another Year. Events unfold in an episodic nature to coincide with the changing of the seasons, from a hopeful spring to a cold and bitter winter.

Tom and Gerri are the classic hippies who have aged into contented suburbanites. Tom works as a geologist while Gerri is a counselor at a medical center and sometimes she takes her work home with her. Their home becomes a way station for their damaged and disillusioned friends. The most prominent of which is Mary (Lesley Manville), a co-worker of Gerri's, who is a talkative ball of neediness. With a drink frequently in hand, Mary allows a never-ending stream of ramblings to flow from her mouth. It seems Mary fears the moment she becomes silent is the moment she is no longer the center of attention. But, behind her mask of perkiness lies a lifetime of pain and failed relationships. Growing more and more desperate, Mary starts flirting with Tom and Gerri's son, Joe (Oliver Maltman), who is half her age. It isn't that Mary is a cougar; just that she sees Joe as the only means to become a part of this family who has it all together.

Another friend who drops by is the overweight Ken (Peter Wight). After a boisterous dinner, Ken reminisces late into the night about his lot in life. He bemoans his dead end and how everything in life is now for "young people." Much like Mary, he attempts to drown his sorrow in a good, stiff drink. In fact, Ken has a thing for Mary, who wholeheartedly does not reciprocate those feelings proving that even at rock bottom, beggars can be choosers.

While performances are strong across the board, it is Lesley Manville who has garnered the lion's share of notices. There have been several notable performances in Leigh's past work such as Blenda Blethyn in Secrets & Lies, Imelda Staunton in Vera Drake, and Sally Hawkins in Happy Go Lucky. Manville's powerhouse portrayal of Mary turns a potentially unsympathetic, one-note caricature into a tragic figure. During the rare moments of silence, Mary can't help but hide the accumulated sorrow of her past as her eyes sink into a sullen state of despair.

Not as fatalistic as Naked or Vera Drake, Another Year is tonally close to the hopeful optimism of Happy Go Lucky. All the while the kitchen sink pessimism that has been one of Leigh's trademarks periodically knocks on the door.

Rating: *** (*****)