Wednesday, January 26, 2011

"I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell" is just Hell

I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell (2009) 
105 min., rated R.
Grade: D

Tucker Max's best-selling autobiographical collection of binge drinking and womanizing anecdotes, which came from a confessional blog, is more shockingly riotous and no-bull honest on the page than it is here on the screen in the outrageous, mean-spirited, very R-rated adaptation of "I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell." It's advertised to be “unfortunately based on a true story” (accent on the unfortunate!). As an opening, we're treated to an episode out of “Cops,” where the po-po bang down the door to the infamous Max banging a deaf chick. 

A toeheaded Matt Czuchry with a maniacal, shit-eating grin is Tucker Max, an articulate law student and narcissistic, misogynistic asshole with “game” in getting the ladies who is the mastermind behind taking his soon-to-be-groom best friend Dan (Geoff Stults) for a bachelor party he'll never forget in Salem, Massachusetts to a strip club, along with cynical bud Drew (Jesse Bradford). Tucker picks up women, boinks midgets (sorry, I mean “little people”), insults bee-otchy prudes and ladies that have a little more body cushion than a model. No worry, he learns his lesson and all of his debauchery is given a last-ditch redeeming arc of sappy insincerity. 

Despite some rancid wit, the movie is a buzzkill without the likable sleaze and hilarious shenanigans of "The Hangover." Bradford's misanthropic character—fresh out of a hellish breakup—has such dyspeptic, foul comebacks and quips about date rape and such that are supposed to be ha-hilarious, but they just come off disturbing and abusive. However, his exchanges with a savvy but hot-to-trot stripper/single mom (Marika Dominczyk) register some of the film's smartest and only laughs. As for one of the filthiest, most disgusting comedy gags in filthy, disgusting movie history, ex-porn star Traci Lords hooks up with Tucker and the two of them have a beer, laced with eye drops, have rumbling tummies, clog up the toilets, and well ... let's just say the unappealing cad doesn't quite make it to the bathroom in a clean, fancy hotel. 

Director BobGosse doesn't so much direct as he amateurishly slaps scenes together with a muddy, ugly look and first-timer Nils Parker's script (co-written by the real Tucker Max) shows him off to be an abhorrent human being, but I'm sure he's more charming in person. If you want to find your inner douchebag and see bathroom humor taken to an astoundingly literal level, go to hell where you can catch the cinematic defecation that is "I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell." 

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

DVD: "RED" goofy fun from great, 40+ cast

RED (2010) 
111 min., rated PG-13.

Whereas the violent comic-book movie "Kick-Ass" had profanity-spoutin' Hit-Girl, the equally comic-booky "RED" has the visual irony of Dame Helen Mirren opening fire with big, semi-automatic guns. It may be a gimmick, but a damn fine gimmick. That said, the enjoyably knowing, skillfully cast action-comedy "RED" (standing for “Retired Extremely Dangerous”) is like "Space Cowboys" with guns and explosions. 

Old enough to be called “Grandpa,” Bruce Willis stars as Frank Moses, a bored and retired black-ops CIA analyst, who has a flirty over-the-phone relationship with a lonely Kansas City phone operator named Sarah (a loose and funny Mary-Louise Parker). Then after an assassination squad (conveniently) tries killing him, he flies to Kansas City and kidnaps the in-over-her-head Sarah. Not long after, the pair goes on the lam from bad guys and joins up with Frank's old gang of agents: Marvin (John Malkovich), an insanely paranoid victim of too many LSD experiments; Joe (Morgan Freeman), a wise old man in a nursing home, and the restless, royal housewife Victoria (Helen Mirren). They all come out of retirement. 

Director Robert Schwentke gives "RED" a brisk pace, a tongue-in-cheek tone, and the two screenwriters bring it a quirky blend of humor. He also has the ability of making the action sequences smoother and livelier than most. Sure, it's one more hectic “let-get-the-gang-back-together” action movie based on another DC Comics graphic novel, and the plot—connected to a Guatemalan operation cover-up—doesn't always make sense. 

But great casting really does make a difference, and the older cast still looks spry in their colorful spots and classes it up (from 43-year-old Parker to 93-year-old Ernest Borginine in a cameo as the C.I.A.'s records keeper). And although she's slighted by not showing for about an hour, Mirren gets to be a tough cookie here and even when shot, she shouts “Bugger!” in her white, elegant gown. Brian Cox and Richard Dreyfuss show up as well, respectively playing a Russian agent and a scummy businessman. They all may be slumming with the style-over-substance material at hand, but running around, having a blast, they're a hoot to watch.

Never mind that the Frank-Sarah chase scenes are awfully familiar of this summer's "Killers" and "Knight and Day," but it's less expendable than Sylvester Stallone's "The Expendables" and with that cast, "RED" makes for some silly fun. 

Grade: B -

Saturday, January 22, 2011

"Company Men" well-acted and timely but flawed

The Company Men (2010)
104 min., rated R.
Grade: B

In the midst of our country's recent economic recession, movies having been looking at corporate downsizing straight in the face ("Up in the Air" and the doc "Inside Money"). While those films had us sympathize with the regular folks being laid off by company moguls, "The Company Men" has us alongside the top guys. TV-bred John Wells marks this as his feature writing and directing debut (after being behind shows like “ER” and “The West Wing”). 

"The Company Men" closes in on three executives from a Massachusetts-area shipping company dealing with the thousands of employee layoffs by their head GTX Corporations. Affleck plays Bobby Walker, an exec who's the first to take the hit. At first he's not too worried, but finds out tough it is to find a job in a hurting economy. Bobby attends an out placement service but still tries keeping appearances, even as he and his supportive nurse wife, Maggie (the always great Rosemarie DeWitt), are forced to sell the house and his precious Porsche. His brother-in-law, Jack (Kevin Costner), is nice enough to offer him a job at his small construction company. Rounding out the other players is Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), a VP at GTX, who thinks he's safe but he's pushing 60 and gets handed the pink slip. Outraged at all the job cuts, company cofounder Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones) has his job protected, next to the greedy boss (Craig T. Nelson) and the corporate ax (Maria Bello), but feels the most guilt and tries bringing help to his fired workers. 

"The Company Men" is a relevant and thoughtful film, and has a terrific cast, but it should've been more than just watchable. We should care about these characters and their plight, given the timely subject matter, but it's hard to identify with such well-heeled, obscenely wealthy people. Affleck's Bobby, living above his means with a Porsche and a golf club membership, is an arrogant, overly proud jerk. But Affleck makes his frustration relatable, and eventually he turns around. Cooper, as good as he is, plays too much of an unsubtle cliché. He's a hopeless, short-tempered man who drinks his life away and then throws rocks at the GTX building, and his fate is most inevitable. But Jones' character, while conveying a humane, three-dimensional conscience, has a subplot that comes out of nowhere and seems contradictory. Costner, as the blue-collar Jack with a sturdy job, is good here and rejects the pat sound-bites. 

Roger Deakins lends his do-no-wrong cinematography hand, making sure every frame shines and makes every location, both working-class homes and corporate abundance, look authentic. So while this is just schematic, meat-and-potatoes storytelling, "The Company Men" is still a workmanlike effort from a tyro filmmaker who directs real acting men. 

Friday, January 21, 2011

Formulaic "No Strings Attached" sweeter and funnier than most

No Strings Attached (2011)
110 min., rated R.
Grade: B

As of late, the romantic comedy genre has been lazy and fallible. It's only January, a month before Valentine's Day and a movie landfill, but "No Strings Attached" works as a sweet, fun, and funny representative of a 2010s romantic-comedy with a randy streak. No physical pratfalls, but the stars sure do get physical, and no surprises, but the premise sure is surprisingly sexually blunt. Snappily written by Elizabeth Meriwether and confidently directed by comedy vet Ivan Reitman, this is an enjoyable and pleasantly ribald rom-com. 

Adam (Ashton Kutcher) and Emma (Natalie Portman) met in junior high summer camp, and over the years their paths intersect. Now both in L.A., he's a production assistant on a "Glee"-type TV show and she's a medical intern at a hospital who wears her belief of “monogamy goes against our basic biology” on her sleeve. When Adam wakes up one morning on Emma's couch, he agrees to her idea of having no-strings sex anytime and anywhere as friends with benefits. No morning breakfasts, no cuddling, no emotional involvement, just boinking. They're both good lays, but eventually Adam gets closer to Emma than she'd like, as she's not ready for that next step. 

Portman and Kutcher, both attractive camera subjects, jell on screen as a couple by creating a nice chemistry and a down-and-dirty ease in the bedroom. Emma is written somewhat erratically (why exactly isn't she affectionate and doesn't like to commit?), but the versatile Portman is comfortable being loose and is surely having fun after losing her marbles and breaking her toenails in "Black Swan." She often shows up Kutcher, who's more of a Mr. Popular on Twitter than an actor, but he's charming and touchy-feely here, less of a lost puppy and not as unctuous as he has been in other rom-com roles. 

The pro supporting players of sidekicks and best friends serve as a big plus and never miss a beat, particularly mumblecore darling Greta Gerwig lovable as Emma's truth-telling friend and fellow med student; the perfectly deadpan Mindy Kaling as another roommate; and Jake Johnson comically sharp as Adam's goofy roomie. Also, we have Kevin Kline (directed almost two decades ago by Reitman in "Dave") who's amusingly sleazy as Adam's father, a former child star who smokes pot and goes after his son's girlfriends, but even gives the character some shadings. Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges has some laughs as another one of Adam's wisecracking buddies, and Lake Bell is cringingly good as Adam's clingy, neurotic TV colleague. Frustratingly filling out the edges, some throwaways exist in Olivia Thirlby as Emma's younger sister and Cary Elwes, who might pose a complication as a doctor but nothing really comes of him as he's mostly in the background. 

Familiar of last year's "Love & Other Drugs" minus the disease and spawning a pattern with "Friends With Benefits" being released in about six months, the friends-with-benefits premise is just edgy enough to be a little offbeat and reflect our salty times. It gets its laughs and earns its romance without going for the really bad clichés. "No Strings Attached" doesn't exactly rewrite the rule books, but it's more about the journey than the obvious destination as the guy-gets-girl tradition goes, and for that it's worth a little attachment.

Friday, January 14, 2011

"Dilemma" is right

The Dilemma (2011)
118 min., rated PG-13.

Director Ron Howard's latest, "The Dilemma," already has two strikes against it. One, being that it's released during cold January a.k.a. a surefire burial ground for movie duds. And two, star Vince Vaughn got flack from the GLAAD for gratuitously calling an electric car “gay” in one scene. But pffffft, it's a Vince Vaughn vehicle to run his mouth for two hours and prove his bromantic love for his big lug of a co-star, Kevin James. Right? Wrong. About the movie itself, it has a big dilemma of its own that it never gets right. "The Dilemma" isn't really laugh material, as it's darker than the false ads suggest. In fact, it's an odd, noncommittal muddle that inconsistently doesn't have the courage of its own convictions. Tone really can make or break a movie. 

Vaughn and James play Ronny and Nick, best buds and business partners for an engine-design company. Ronny's the salesman with gambling problems, and Nick's the engineer who makes the cars go vroom-vroom and cracks under pressure, especially when they're about to make a big deal with an automotive company. While Ronny's out scouting the perfect setting to pop the question to his chef girlfriend, Beth (Jennifer Connelly), he spots Nick's wife, Geneva (Winona Ryder), getting intimate with a buff, tattooed younger guy named Zip (Channing Tatum). Right there, he realizes he has to tell his best buddy she's having an affair, but can't find it in himself to tell Nick. It's complicated. Why? Because there would be no movie if the confrontation wasn't delayed. 

Ron Howard's credentials as a worthwhile director aren't much use here with the material he's handed (Allan Loeb's screenplay). There is a better movie dying to break out of "The Dilemma" — it's like a dark, honest relationship drama in farce's clothing. Despite a funny, long-winded toast (about honesty) at Beth's parents' anniversary dinner by Vaughn doing one of his rambly Vince Vaughn monologues, you won't get many laughs here, unless gags about poisonous plants and painful urination scream out comedy. Or, Ronny's violent rumble with Zip (a cartoonish live-wire turn from Channing Tatum), breaking a fish tank and getting clobbered in the head with a baseball bat. These jarring, shoehorned slapstick bits would've been better left on the cutting room floor and might've tightened the strained run time. And Queen Latifah is given embarrassing material as a Dodge consultant who gets plenty of sexual innuendos in, none of them funny. Vaughn and Kevin James are fun and natural together as these hockey-watching chums who give each other straight, I-love-you-man glances; you do wish the movie was just about them. Much better is Jennifer Connelly, who's never been this loose and smiley, and brings more gravitas than to what the movie deserves. Winona Ryder performs well with what she's given, starting as an upbeat woman who loves her hubby (her early moments on the dance floor with James are sweet). But her Geneva is so underwritten and, with a flip of the plot switch, transforms into a scheming bitch (not even an interesting bitch) who doesn't garner much sympathy even when the affair is only half her fault. 

Alas, the movie is a dilemma of competing tones too sour for comedy and too broad for drama, considering nothing gets fixed until a faux therapy session. Even the on-location cinematography in Chicago is dingy. Despite some dramatic moments that work but would've worked better in a different movie, "The Dilemma" just doesn't know what it wants to be when it grows up. 

Grade: C - 

Mindless "Green Hornet" has larky, fun moments

The Green Hornet (2011) 
118 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C +

The sorry January release slot for "The Green Hornet" is obviously too easy and unfair of a reason to criticize why the movie is mostly forgettable fare. And that doesn't mean it's not mindlessly entertaining on some larky level. 

Seth Rogen plays Britt Reid, the spoiled rich slacker of a stern millionaire newspaper publisher (Tom Wilkinson) who can't keep himself out of the papers as a party animal. After his father dies from a mysterious hornet sting, he inherits The Daily Sentinel, which he has no idea how to run. Then he teams up with Kato (Taiwanese singer/musician Jay Chou), the family mechanic, weapons designer, and cappuccino maker, and comes up with a stupid idea: they can fulfill their potential by fighting crime, posing as criminals but being the good guys. He, of course, becomes the mask-wearing Green Hornet that steals the headlines of his own newspaper. 

Rogen, no longer the adorably schlubby Pillsbury Doughboy, has slimmed down, but his Britt is a doltish jerk and simply incongruous as a superhero. The actor himself is miscast. Chou fares much better as the sidekick who's like Jackie Chan's minion with ever-so-slightly better English. Christoph Waltz is often cartoonishly amusing as the bad Chudnofsky, who's frequently told he's not scary enough, and James Franco in a hilariously juicy cameo as a club meth dealer is arguably the movie's highlight. As for Cameron Diaz, playing Mr. Reid's brainy temp assistant, she has no real reason to exist in this movie. It's a waste of her reliable comic energy, but at least she's not playing the obligatory love interest. 

French director Michel Gondry, who has made some inventive, pretty offbeat pictures like "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," is the right fit for this material, this being his first real mainstream picture. Although his tone is all over the lot, Gondry shows off some visual creativity and pop-art invention that he's known for in occasional bursts. Instead, it's Rogen and writing partner Evan Goldberg (of "Superbad" and "Pineapple Express") who don't really suit the material as well. Based on the 1930s radio serial show, the script is jokey, with the writers' coarse humor slipping through, and there's a whole joke about Britt thinking he's of Batman caliber and does all the work (Kato obviously does everything). There's just not much to care about that a story feels so incidental. 

One slo-mo fight scene with street muggers, where Kato's mind slows down as he prepares to kicks ass, is probably the coolest, more inspired moment the movie has to offer. There are also some little things that count, like the green-gas gun Kato single-handedly invents and Britt's failed spitballing of Kato's sidekick name, but "The Green Hornet" gets more of a buzz from all the clattery, conventionally edited car chases (one in which the “heroes” wreck a cop car with the cop inside). And paying extra for the 3-D glasses adds nothing visually. Sure, Robert Downey Jr. made Tony Stark more interesting in "Iron Man," but "The Green Hornet," like Britt Reid, just wants to party. His Robin-esque sidekick Kato upstages the lead hero (Britt Reid who??), and next time, if there is a next time, these green wannabes should just leave the crime to the bigshots. 

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

"Seven Pounds" a sad, slow slog

Seven Pounds (2008) 
118 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C -

The slow, depressing morality tale "Seven Pounds" stars Will Smith as Ben Thomas, an enigmatic rocket scientist-turned-IRS tax collector seeking redemption. In just the first few minutes, we get a flash-forward of Ben calling 911 and reporting a suicide, his own. 

As Grant Nieporte's script unfolds, Ben creeps into seven strangers' lives—including a blind beef salesman (Woody Harrelson), a woman dying of congenital heart failure (Rosario Dawson), and a battered mother of two—and tries helping them in whatever way he knows how, no matter how extraordinary the length he goes. Dawson is soulful and touching as Emily, who knows her death is imminent without a found donor but takes a liking to Ben. Smith essays the heartache of Ben, being the fine actor he is, but can't seem to get a handle on the complex, impenetrable character, nor can we the viewer. 

This contrived, “life-affirming” sob story of guilt, redemption, and sacrificial love is presented in nonlinear fashion, but it doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out where it's ultimately going. Even though it takes much too long to get to its inevitable, hopeless conclusion, the revealing of the central mystery—Ben conceals secrets about his personal tragic past—is unsatisfying. 

Good grief, Dawson can cry, there's no arguing that, but since the story feels underdeveloped, it's hard to care as much as we should even when tears are wept. Director Gabriele Muccino (2006's affecting "The Pursuit of Happyness") makes a lot of moments shine between Dawson and Smith that it's a shame some plot points, illogical, manipulative, and outlandish (did someone say jellyfish?), detract from the emotional core of the film. 

And what does the title of the movie even mean—seven pounds of flesh, a seven-pound infant, what? Oh thanks, Internet Movie Datebase: it's a “Merchant of Venice” reference to the number of people Ben helps directly. 

Friday, January 7, 2011

"Rare Exports" is that rare Christmas horror treat

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)
84 min., rated R.
Grade: B +

You better watch out for this Finnish import, "Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale." Here's the “Badder Santa” with an instant cult following ahead, and the good kind unlike the controversial killer Santa movie, "Silent Night, Deadly Night" (1984). It's a funky, creepy, coal-black, fiendishly entertaining holiday horror tale not for those who still believe in Santa. It's the day before Christmas in the far Arctic north, where a British archeological dig on the Russian border of Finland has 24 days to open up a burial mound. Young Pietari (Onni Tommila), who's spied on the drillers weeks earlier, lives on a reindeer ranch with his widowed dad, Rauno (Jorma Tommila). Then their Christmas gets rocked by the excavation on the mountain. Reindeer are killed. All the town's children go missing except Pietari. Potato sacks are stolen. The live cargo happens to be a bearded, scrawny, unclothed old man, whom Rauno and his hunter buddies see as a crazy old man, but Pierari knows it's Santa Claus entombed and out to punish the naughty. 

Based on the writer-director's own 2003 short film "Rare Exports Inc.," Jalmari Helander's first feature is also deliciously stylish and beautifully shot. Although it's Christmas with Gingerbread cookies, reindeer, and Santy Claus, this is "A Christmas Story" and a Santa origin story by way of "The Thing" that might've been written by the Brothers Grimm. The Coca Cola Santa is a fraud we're told. The film has a heart too, with a conclusion nice rather than all naughty. We're actually touched by Pietari's hardheadedness and obligation even as a little boy. The only slight disappointment is a disjointedness, probably from the slender run time; we only get a quick glimpse of Santa himself, indelibly played by Peeter Jakobi. "Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale" is that rare horror package, à la "Let the Right One In," not from Hollywood. Have a merry Christmas. 

"Rabbit Hole" goes down with grace and power

Rabbit Hole (2010)
92 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: A

A film about a couple grieving over the loss of their child and its strain on their marriage is not in hopes of reaching a “feel-good” factor. But "Rabbit Hole" is so beautifully done with grace and power that it resists being a drippy dirge and taps into the human condition. 

Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart visibly show the sadness as a once-idyllic couple who are in their grieving process after their 4-year-old son Danny chased the family dog into the street and struck by a car. When we meet Becca and Howie—she always working in her garden and declining a neighbor's dinner party—they have already Danny eight months ago. The couple tries a support group but it doesn't work for Becca. Their sex life is gone. Another personal knife in the gut is the pregnancy news of Becca's wild-child younger sister Izzy (Tammy Blanchard). Becca and Howie grieve differently over Danny's death: she takes his pictures and drawings down and gets rid of his clothes, while Howie still watches family videos of him. Becca spots the teen Jason (Miles Teller) that hit Danny and they secretly begin having park-bench meetings where there's no blame and the guilt is lifted. Becca's even touched by Jason's handmade comic book, “Rabbit Hole.” 

Directed by John Cameron Mitchell, in an eclectic, weighty change of gears after offbeat originals "Shortbus" and "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," he never lets "Rabbit Hole" settle into a grim, maudlin TV movie. In fact, the story doesn't wallow in the sorrow and Mitchell heals the grief, under the circumstances, with a glimmer of humor and light at the end of the tunnel. Never precious or pretentious, it's a simmering, insightful, and emotionally vivid film. David Lindsay-Abaire adapted the screenplay from his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play, and there's a hint of its play roots but the director does a fine job of opening it up. And Anton Sanko's musical score helps that it's not melodramatic garbage: it's lovely without being manipulative. This is a real actor's film. 

Kidman, in one her strongest performances in years, is a powerhouse, nakedly honest as Becca who's rigid and even a little bit cruel and icy. Eckhart gives his most accomplished performance to date, not only plugging into Howie's arc of grief and reconnection into his marriage. Their screaming-match scene verges on histrionics from Eckhart but still feels like a real couple's explosion of emotions. The great Dianne Wiest is touching and even funny as Nat, Becca's mother, who has also lost a child at age 30 but to a drug overdose (a comparison to Danny's death that infuriates Becca). Blanchard is also fine as Izzy, who resents the fact that Becca thinks she might not deserve having a child. Newcomer Teller is a real find as he can express so much with his face and brings sympathy to the role. Sandra Oh is even wonderful in a supporting turn as another grieving parent that Howie takes solace in. 

By the end of "Rabbit Hole," nothing is fixed with an easy solution or shortcut, like real life, but takes us down a consistently moving and cathartic journey.

"Somewhere" marks Sofia Coppola's second-best work

Somewhere (2010)
97 min., rated R.
Grade: B +

Sofia Coppola, being the daughter of Francis Ford and in a family of other showbiz kids, must've always been a visual learner living in a different environment than most children. She has her own patient rhythm and knows the Hollywood world that she writes it with familiarity. Coppola's fourth film, "Somewhere," is really going to split filmgoers as nothing really happens. Maybe it depends on your glass being half-empty or half-full. But if you're familiar with the female director's unique style, you'll get lost in the melancholy ambience and eloquent visuals. For about the first 15 minutes, "Somewhere" feels precious, slow, and borderline-pretentious, as Coppola has a thing for holding shots far longer than is comfortable. She never busies her frame; it's all about our eye seeing Miss Coppola's observations, and she takes her sweet time showing rather than telling with deadpan subtlety and precision like a European art film. 

Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), a dirty-sexy movie actor in his 30s, is introduced at the start by the car he drives. A sporty black Ferrari races around a track, while the restful camera just captures the endless loop for a few minutes. Same goes for two scenes with a pair of hot blonde twins doing a pole-dancing routine, as Johnny watches them right from his bed. These long takes are metaphorical for Johnny's empty routine. He holes himself up at West Hollywood's Chateau Marmont hotel, walking in on parties right in his own suite, falling asleep during sex with beautiful strangers, and mostly just floating through a life of tedium. We even get a slow crawl toward Johnny's head covered in plaster of Paris, as the makeup artists let it try for 40 minutes, and we just hear his breathing. Suddenly, his bright 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) drops in on him, as her mother has to go away, so he makes the best of the situation. They spend their days long and free, bonding for the first time, and gradually Johnny learns what it's like to be accountable for another person. 

"Somewhere" is the complete opposite of fast-food Hollywood filmmaking, even though it observes Hollywood with living-breathing legitimacy. Coppola captures the ennui, alienation, and hollow lifestyle of the rich and famous, with universal themes of family and personal crisis, that viewers will feel like a fly on the wall. A scene where Cleo ice skates to Gwen Stefani's “Cool” is lovely and the last scene with Cleo in the car is poignant. There's also an amusing surprise when Johnny gets a new (and male) masseuse with a “different” method for massages. But two recurring plot threads (Johnny receiving nasty text messages and the same car always following him) are purely filler. The film isn't driven by narrative but by character and mood, very much like the director's "Lost in Translation," as she affirms her individual style of deliberate pacing and careful timing in all of her films along with some self-indulgence. 

Coppola's film wouldn't work as well without its pitch-perfect actors. Dorff is understated, in the grabbiest role of his career, and Fanning is enchanting, acting with her eyes and smile. The bohemian Chateau Marmont is a character in itself, too, representing a state of mind. This is Coppola's most intimate and personal work as a filmmaker, and like most of her films, "Somewhere" feels like a passion project more than an assignment and that's so refreshing. Casual moviegoers will probably find it tedious, but really, it's a quietly perceptive and beautifully made tonic for cinephiles to savor over. “Who is Johnny Marco?” one asks at a press junket for the star's new movie. Well, the narcissism of the privileged is nothing new or surprising, but we leave Johnny differently than how we found him: he's human.

"127 Hours" is a triumph--hold on!

127 Hours (2010)
94 min., rated R
Grade: A

You should always tell someone when you go away. Especially somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Aron Ralston didn't. Big oops! 

James Franco is ideally cast, with kind of a surfer-dude freespiritedness, in his one-man show as a thrill-seeking engineer and outdoorsman who decides to go hiking, biking, and climbing in Blue John Canyon, near Moab, Utah, for a weekend in April 2003. He videotapes a daily video diary during his adventure. Aron runs into two backpacking strangers, Kristi and Megan (the vivacious Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn), and agrees to be their tour guide. 

Shortly after they part, one slip sends Aron toppling down a rocky crevice, where a boulder pins his arm and traps it against the canyon wall for 127 hours. With food and water supply running low, Aron flashbacks to family (Treat Williams and Kate Burton as his parents, and Lizzy Caplan his sister) and an old girlfriend (Clémence Poésy) and ultimately hallucinates from dehydration. No one can hear him scream.

It's a true story and writer-director Danny Boyle, co-adapting with Simon Beaufoy adapts survivor Ralston's book “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” pulls out all the stops, maintaining energy even as Aron lies stuck in this static situation. Franco doesn't make Aron a hero, but a lone wolf and a hedonist in a perilous situation that realizes his selfishness and mistakes. He shows every nuance of his range, from the deep despair to some trippy comedy during Aron's thirsty stage when he makes up a radio show while stuck. 

You'll be glad you have hands to cover your eyes during the intensely powerful scene when Franco performs a self-amputation on his hand with a dull blade out of desperation and courage. (Viewers have been known to walk out or faint at early screenings.) 

Boyle infuses his vibrant signature style of clever, kinetic camera work (with shots slurping through water bottles), split screens, and a rocking soundtrack without any of it becoming distracting: it's a sensory feast. His previous cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle with Enrique Chediak shoot incredibly within a small space and their camera flies through the air (a fast tracking shot showing that no one, not even a plane, can find Aron), capturing the beautiful vastness of Utah as well as the desolate isolation. 

Editor Jon Harris knows exactly where to cut and A.R. Rahman's score powers the film. 

127 Hours is a harrowing, riveting, invigorating cinematic experience that one may only want to see once, but it's a triumphant survival story punched up even more by a great filmmaker. 

"True Grit" good and gritty but not great

True Grit (2010)
110 min., rated PG-13
Grade: B +

If you reckon True Grit is just another Western, you be dead wrong. It's truly a Coen Brothers' movie, gritty and fresh you betcha. Joel and Ethan Coen do justice in their reinterpretation of the original source material, Charles Portis' novel, first made on screen in 1969 with John Wayne (earning him his only Oscar) and Kim Darby. 

Relative newcomer Hailee Steinfeld plays 14-year-old Mattie Ross, a precocious, headstrong pioneer girl who travels to Arkansas to collect her pa's body after he's robbed and killed in cold blood by vagabond Tom Chaney. She wants revenge and seeks out the toughest US Marshal she can find. Enter Rueben J. “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a one-eyed drunkard, whom (as she's heard) has “true grit.” Mattie firmly says she'll pay Cogburn $50, but asks to accompany him to the Indian territory on her horse Little Blackie to find Chaney. 

True Grit has the filmmakers' distinctly deadpan voice amidst the interesting odyssey of storytelling. And the piquant wit still flows with bursts of harsh violence. Just because it's PG-13 doesn't mean it's “Little House on the Prairie.” 

All three actors are stellar and bring their characters to vivid life with color. Rather than showing up The Duke, gravelly-voiced Bridges has a bit of the “Dude” Lebowski still in him as Rooster. He's even more enjoyable here than his damaged Bad Blake in Crazy Heart. Matt Damon delightfully puts his own stamp as a cocky Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (that's La Beef, not like Shia) whom joins Mattie and Rooster because he's also after Chaney for shooting a Senator in his home state. 

Steinfeld, in her first feature role, is a discovery. She's persuasive and self-assured, delivering Mattie's mannered language and mature vocabulary with outspoken poise and feistiness. Her Mattie guides the story as narrator and heroine like a female Huck Finn with Dorothy Gale braids. 

Josh Brolin plays Chaney, but he's less threatening than Barry Pepper as Lucky Ned Pepper, one of his comrades. 

The other star of the film is its impeccable look, as usual, with the dusty Western cinematography by the helmers' right-hand-man Roger Deakins. The setting is authentic enough to taste and shot in New Mexico and West Texas that it recalls a bit of No Country for Old Men. 

Now the Coens are known for their coldness, but here, they try to move us in the coda with Elizabeth Marvel playing 40-year-old Mattie, and it just doesn't give the kind of catharsis that it should. The showdown with Chaney is also a bit of a letdown, but a fateful set-piece in a cave with skeletons and snakes tensely makes up for it. 

Even if it's less quirky than most of their other work, True Grit is still an ever-stalwart piece of filmmaking that the Coens can call their own.

"Tourist" not thrilling but enough star power to entertain

The Tourist (2010)
102 min., rated PG-13
Grade: B -

Alfred Hitchcock used to handle you've-got-the-wrong-guy espionage caper plots with suspense and wit, and Cary Grant and Grace Kelly provided the star power. Two of the biggest movie stars on the planet—Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp—are fun to watch, but director/co-writer Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (in his first Hollywood film) achieves more of a pretty, glossy star vehicle than a crackling Hitchcockian thriller. 

Jolie, purring and slinking by in glorious gowns, is the British agent fatale, Elise, and Depp, with his beard and electronic cigarette, is the innocent Wisconsin math teacher, Frank. While under surveillance by Scotland Yard, Elise boards a train from Paris to Venice and ropes Frank (by random) into posing as her on-the-lam lover, Alexander Pearce, an international man of mystery who's stolen billions from mobsters. 

The “strangers on a train” scenes have a light, playful touch with witty, rat-a-tat-tat banter between the stars, although the romance is a fizzle. When Elise and Frank start saying they love each other, nothing ignites.

Jolie looks sultry and classy, and the camera loves her: she is a strikingly beautiful creature. But there's no real character to Elise. Though more interesting at playing a kooky oddball or a madhattered nutso, Depp's likably goofy, clueless turn is an understatedly welcome change of pace as this bewildered Everyman. And Venice! Veteran cinematographer John Seale beautifully lenses the Italian scenery into mouth-watering postcards. 

The plot isn't exactly airtight, with a preposterously flimsy twist ending, but none of that really matters. Frank's use of speaking Spanish is amusing and a rooftop chase between Frank in his pajamas and two inept Russian henchman is fun. 

If you're undemanding and fancy a vacation in Italy with Jolie and Depp, The Tourist works as a diverting escapism.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

"The Unborn" unfathomable as a horror film

The Unborn (2009) 
87 min., rated PG-13.

This laughable nonsense of dark mental institutions, exorcisms, Auschwitz twin experiments, and freaky mirrors may as well be a spoof of "The Exorcist" since it inadvertently has a higher ratio of giggles over chills. In "The Unborn," Windy City college student Casey, aka Hot Young Thing (Odette Yustman, sort of a body double for Megan Fox), has a weird dream involving a missing glove, a pooch wearing a paper mache mask, and a buried fetus. She also starts seeing a zombie-looking boy that leaps out at her from her medicine cabinet, and finds potato bugs when she cracks eggs. What could it all mean?! Well, Hot Young Thing discovers from her widower father (James Remar) that she had a twin brother nicknamed Jumby (any relation to Gumby?) who died in utero before her clinically depressed mother (Carla Cugino) committed suicide. Then her Holocaust-survivor grandmother (Jane Alexander, who's mainly a voice box for convoluted exposition) explains that an old dybbuk, or spirit, runs in their family and is out to possess hot, young Casey in an attempt to cross over into the real world by way of her unborn sibling. Wait, what? 

"The Unborn" has a few would-be shocks, such as a canine with an upside-down head as well as a geriatric patient doing a Linda Blair crabwalk up the stairs, but they're mostly smoke and mirrors. Pure lunacy culminates to a climactic exorcism, where Gary Oldman looking rightfully confused as Rabbi Sendak (laughably) blows a long animal horn ... come on, Gary, this is so beneath you. Jumby the Evil Twin must be very good at finding the power boxes too in every big mansion he terrorizes, and who knew glory holes in night club restrooms could be so darn frightening? Miss Yustman spends most of the movie waltzing around in her skimpy undies showing off her derriere and cute figure. It's also funny how absent James Remar is for all of the movie; he seemed to have walked on set, said “Sure, I'll play the father for two scenes,” and is never heard from again, as Casey and her friends seem to live in large, stately homes all by themselves. The only genuine fright during this idiotic, unscary production is that it's not another remake of an Asian film, but rather that American co-scribe David S. Goyer of "The Dark Knight" actually wrote and directed it, and actually expected us to get the heebie jeebies. 

Grade: D +

"All Good Things" falls short of good

All Good Things (2010)
101 min., rated R. 
Grade: C +

Arbitrarily titled after a Vermont health-food store, "All Good Things'" true-crime story about notorious murder suspect Robert Durst and the disappearance of his wife Kathleen McCormack is certainly an intriguing one. This dramatization alters the names, Durst now being “David Marks” and Kathie now “Katie McCarthy,” but recounts the non-fiction story between a trial-testimony framework. Unfortunately, this darkly fascinating material would've been better served in a more satisfying movie. From Andrew Jarecki, whose debut was the disturbingly powerful documentary "Capturing the Friedmans," this could've been called “Capturing the Dursts” if only Jarecki's first fiction feature actually captured its subject in the doc format. 

The first 80 minutes work rather well as a cautionary mystery about the person you share a bed with being a stranger. David (Ryan Gosling) meets Katie (Kirsten Dunst); he's the son of a wealthy real-estate mogul and she's a common girl putting herself through med school. They fall quickly in love and are married a year later, but David begins changing and Katie takes notice, until she goes missing less than ten years later. While never convicted of a crime connected to her going missing, David is suspected of two other murders. Gosling's performance is pretty aloof, and perhaps that's the point, but he doesn't make Marks a particularly interesting or undestandable enigma. On the other hand, in one of her most impressive pieces of work to date, Dunst is so vividly heartbreaking as Katie that the film flails after her character's absence. 

When the film's point-of-view shifts from Katie to David, it's hard to connect with David. In first-time feature writers Marcus Hinchey and Marc Smerling's script, Marks remains a cipher acting out with erratic motivations and without any clear transition; he goes from quiet man to psychotic with the flip of a switch. His posing as a woman (to avoid the spotlight) rings of Norman Bates but isn't very believable. Frank Langella plays cold and overbearing well as David's father but his performance here is disappointingly one-note. Also, notably playing against type is Kristin Wiig who gets to show equal dramatic and comic chops in a small supporting role as Katie's coke-snorting gal pal. "All Good Things" is a solid try and, despite factual evidence, otherwise proves that truth really is stranger (and more interesting) than fiction, so the results are frustratingly uneven.