Saturday, December 25, 2010

"King's Speech" calculated but Firth-Rush pairing makes it a joy

The King's Speech (2010) 
118 min., rated R.
Grade: B 

Get over the fact that "The King's Speech" looks like another stuffy costume drama and calculated Oscar bait. Only stuttering in the unsurprising nature of the story, it's a joy to watch if you revere language more than action. 

King George V's son, the Duke of York/Prince Albert (Colin Firth), has a speech impediment, which prevents him from standing up to the microphone to give a public speech. He conquers his nerves after his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) seeks out a speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a failed Australian actor fond of Shakespeare and music. He's an unorthodox therapist, even calling the prince “Bertie,” as he's known by his confidantes, and has him listen to Beethoven's Seventh without focusing on his words. When the King (Michael Gambon) passes, the throne is passed down to eldest son King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), and it proves short-lived when he resigns his duty to marry a divorcee. Next in line is Bertie, and taking the royal crown just might become possible to go on radio in 1939 to support the declaration of war on Hitler's Germany. 

A historically factual period piece, "The King's Speech" is approached with a laid-back charm by director Tom Hooper and screenwriter David Seidler. The relationship between Bertie and Lionel becomes the core of the film and, of course, the leading up to the king's speech. The only real villain, other than the upcoming war, is the microphone! It's a great story from a history book, with delightfully witty writing, but actually follows a tried-and-true formula—an underdog tale with a hint of a mismatched-buddy flick. Even Hooper shoots it rather ordinarily with cinematographer Danny Cohen's wide-lense, fish-eye framing. It's not that it looks flat; the film certainly glistens, but some shots too precisely stick by the rule-of-thirds. The costume design is (natch) first-rate as well. 

Truly, "The King's Speech" is a real actor's piece. All three actors carry their weight and bring the dry storytelling color and humor. Colin Firth has flawlessly mastered his stammering, where the tic never feels affected, and it's an endearing, moving performance without being mannered. When losing his cool, he warbles a symphony of (substitute “bugger”) cursing; it's a hoot and the only reason the film was released with an R rating. As the film comes to its climax (George VI's first wartime speech over the radio), we hold our breath and root for him. Firth finds his match in Geoffrey Rush, who's an irreverent treat. He's basically the comic relief and a king of sly, crackling wit. Also, sliding back into her costume dramas, Helena Bonham Carter brings warmth and sharp humor as Bertie's no-nonsense but adoring wife, the Queen Mum.

It might not have a lot of staying power after the Oscar season, as it's pretty safe, but for anyone's money, it's Firth and Rush who make "The King's Speech" enjoyable. 

Friday, December 24, 2010

"Four Christmases" not dreadful but never as funny as it should be

Four Christmases (2008) 
82 min., rated PG-13.

Bad Christmas movies tend to happen to good people, what with Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis in 2004's "Christmas with the Kranks," Ben Affleck in 2004's "Surviving Christmas," Matthew Broderick and Danny DeVito in 2006's "Deck the Halls," and Vince Vaughn in 2007's "Fred Claus." Yeah, that's a lot of sour egg nog. With "Four Christmases," the phrase of “the more the merrier” doesn't really apply here, as one Christmas would've been more than enough. This latest Yuletide star vehicle isn't dreadful, just mediocre; in fact, the film starts out with some fizz and zip that it's obvious where the committee of writers came in and mucked it up. 

As contrived holiday setups go, this one isn't bad. Brad (Vince Vaughn) and Kate (Reese Witherspoon) are unconventional protagonists: they have no children and don't intend to have any, and they've been happily unmarried for three years. These two self-involved San Fransisco yuppies aren't much for family, so, as usual, they plan to go away on vacation to Fiji to avoid visiting their four divorced folks. To make them even more unconventional or unlikable characters, Brad and Kate lie, telling their families that they're doing charity work in the third-world country. Once arriving to the airport, all flights are canceled due to foggy weather conditions and, worse, they're interviewed on live TV. Now, Brad and Kate are obligated to pop in to each home of their dysfunctional families for Christmas. Yes, they'll be having four Christmases, and it should be painless, right? 

Directed by Seth Gordon (who made a splash with his 2007 video-game documentary "The King of Kong") and written by, perhaps, three too many credited screenwriters, "Four Christmases" begins with some surprise in its introduction of Brad and Kate, setting them up as a naughty couple role-playing at a bar and sharing a verbal war. Once that's over, the film sprinkles in a handful of tart, amusing moments, which deserve a more subversively cheerless whole. The execution is wildly uneven, as there are too many lowbrow laughs and a lesson on the true meaning of Christmas commercially wired into the gloppily sentimental, seasonally phony ending. Courtesy of Kate's dad Creighton (Jon Voight), we now understand the importance of family. The film is just a lump of coal, director Gordon insisting on predictable, noxiously broad slapstick and making some of the family members irritating caricatures. At his redneck pop Howard's (Robert Duvall) house, Brad is wrestled and clocked repeatedly by his aggressive cage-fighting brothers, played by Tim McGraw and Jon Favreau, which is more conceptually funny than the real thing. He also gets to fall off a roof while installing a satellite dish because idiocy and pain are always good for a laugh. There's also not one but two projectile-vomit baby gags involving Kate. 

The lead stars make a believable, bickering couple, but like their difference in height, Vaughn's mile-a-minute verbal shtick often outmatches Witherspoon. Luckily, there are standout moments and a few acerbic zingers emerging from the tired script. For one, Kate and Brad dress up as Mary and Joseph for a Nativity play to keep Kate's mother (Mary Steenburgen) happy since she's dating the over-the-top pastor (Dwight Yoakam). Then the couple stumbles upon some truth in a heated game of Taboo with Brad's hippie mother Paula (Sissy Spacek), who's robbing the cradle with her son's best friend, and his brother (Favreau) and wife Susan (Katy Mixon). "I don't want to talk ill about your mother on Christmas, but she's a common street whore," might be one of the film's better lines, especially how it's delivered from DuVall. 

Ultimately, there is the vague enjoyment of just watching this stellar cast, especially Mixon and the always-perky Kristin Chenoweth as Kate's baby-crazy sister. Then again, the thought of such a talented line-up being assembled and then wasted is just depressing. Also, there should be a law against squandering Carol Kane, who pokes in as Kate's aunt and says her two lines. "Four Christmases" surely isn't going to be a Christmastime staple to revisit every year, but it shouldn't make you yack like that poor baby, either. It's just that the filmmakers should've really worked on what makes an audience laugh rather than making us go, "Ooh, there's five Oscar winners having fun!" and taking a 180 into Hallmark Channel Movie Land.


Thursday, December 23, 2010

New on DVD/Blu-ray: "The American," "Barry Munday," "Salt," and "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps"

The American (2010) 
105 min., rated R.
Grade: B

Those expecting another Bourne or Bond action-thriller out of "The American" with George Clooney's star value will be disappointed. Very much the opposite, and to its favor, "The American" is a quiet, broody slow-burn with an artful, European style that makes it very un-American. A taciturn Clooney plays Jack (or is it Edward?), a hitman and arms specialist who just wants to live a normal life but keeps putting himself and his friends at risk. His stone-faced boss in Rome sends him to a small hilltop village in Abruzzo, Italy, instructing Jack to lay low, but he's an American. 

Though Jack is pretty much a cipher, Clooney dials down his cool Danny Ocean swagger into something dead calm and internal. The camera plays on Clooney's face, which emotes a lot of small, subtle feeling. Dutch director Anton Corbijn, whose filmography consists of music videos for U2 and Depeche Mode, makes beautiful use of the Italian countryside and the prologue's snowy Sweden landscape, and the women are sexy. Violante Placido is an alluring presence with mystery and sympathy as Clara, a prostitute Jack favors but questions whether or not she can be trusted. But Irina Bjorklund and Thekla Reuten, one as his former lover and the other a female assassin, are interchangeable in looks. Sparse on dialogue and action, "The American" boldly does what most hitman movies usually don't, let alone ones directed by music-video makers. Sometimes breaking the silence on occasion is a chase scene or the sudden sounds of a gun silencer, waiting for something to happen, but the film excels more in mood, atmosphere, and tension. 

Based on Martin Booth's novel A Very Private Gentleman, "The American" doesn't gain much interest with plot, and it's just as well, since it's another story about a hit man that can never retire no matter how hard he tries. A butterfly motif is on-the-nose and a tad silly but never knocks you over the head either. If you take "The American" for what it is, not a slam-bang actioner but a carefully assembled film with a powerful and satisfying ending that most Hollywood one-last-job assassin thrillers can't even conceive.

Barry Munday (2010)
93 min., rated R.
Grade: C 

Patrick Wilson, uncharacteristically cast, plays the title character Barry Munday, a nine-to-five office schmuck who drools over women like a horndog. After he loses his testicles in an assault by trumpet in a movie theater (don't ask), Barry gets dropped in by mousy but bitter Ginger Farley (Judy Greer), who claims she's pregnant with his baby. He has no recollection of this sexual conquest, but Ginger's only had intercourse once in her life. "Barry Munday" had potential to be an amusing, quirky romp, not because its premise is fresh—a whoopsy pregnancy with a loser—but the cast couldn't be full of more talented people with comedy chops. Jean Smart is warmly funny as Barry's earthy mother, but Cybill Shepherd, Malcolm McDowell, Chloe Sevigny, and Colin Hanks are stranded by this dumb material from first-time writer-director Chris D'Arienza (based on Frank Turner Hollon's novel “Life Is a Strange Place”). And wasn't one overplayed water-birth scene enough this year (Jennifer Lopez's J.Lo point in "The Back-up Plan")? 

That's why it's a shame no one can really work any miracles with these buffoonish characters and meaningless gags and side trips. The funniest moments in the film involve Barry at a testicular loss support group, featuring a cameo by Kyle Gass, and then Greer's facial punchline at the end of a sex scene. There are attempts at the lead bumbling idiot making a life change to be a cuddly dad and to make us feel sorry for Ginger. But by then it's too late: "Barry Munday" hasn't the cajones.

Salt (2010)
93 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B

“Who is Salt?” the tagline on the poster and all the billboards asks. Why, she's like a Bourne or a Bond with breasts. Going in, you know you'll have to suspend disbelief and that it's going to be unabashedly ridiculous, but "Salt" is an exciting and entertaining action yarn that goes good with popcorn, like the sodium-heavy condiment. Angelina Jolie plays Evelyn Salt, originally written for a male lead, a top CIA agent in Washington, D.C. who's accused of being a Russian spy by an interrogation subject. From there, it's run, Eve, run. 

"Salt" is a solid showcase for Jolie who, though playing a cipher, throws herself into any over-the-top chase stunt and brings a primal athleticism; it was reported she performed most of her own stunts. The straight-faced, pillow-lipped Lara Croft anti-heroine owns the screen, whether she's leaping off a bridge onto a moving semi, or ingeniously getting a cop to drive with the help of a stun gun. Director Phillip Noyce finesses the action well, without much apparent CGI, and makes sure it moves like a speeding bullet. Kurt Wimmer's script has some twists and surprises, one of which isn't all that surprising when you have a good actor cast in a thankless role. Sure, it could've been less self-serious and you can call balderdash!, but do it and miss most of the fun. 

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010)
130 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B -

The iconic Gordon Gekko is on his way out of prison and he's back, babe, in Oliver Stone's watchable, albeit uneven and overstuffed, sequel "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" to his timelessly seductive 1987 portrait of greed and money on the Street. He's finished a 8-year sentence in pre-9/11 2001 for insider trading and financial corruption, and jail, he says, is the best thing that ever happened to him even if he still gets that gleam in his eye when it comes to getting rich. 

Douglas owns this role with the same slickness, and not coincidentally, the character calls up the actor's real life of cancer and his son involved in drugs. Shia LaBeouf holds his own, though lightweight against Douglas, as Jake, a green but ambitious market trader promoting green energy, idolizing his Wall St. boss and father figure (Frank Langella), who commits suicide. After attending a lecture of Gekko peddling his new book, Jake finds a new mentor in his sociopathic future father-in-law that thinks “greed is good.” Jake's engaged to Gekko's estranged daughter, Winnie (dewy-eyed Carey Mulligan), a “lefty Web site” muckraker who hates Wall Street (and you know why). Mulligan is lovely, honest, and nuanced as Winnie, Josh Brolin gets a juicy turn as a billionaire partner at a rival investment bank (the new baddie), veteran Eli Wallach is great as a whistling insider, and Charlie Sheen makes an amusing cameo as Bud Fox from the original. Susan Sarandson isn't put to sufficient use as Jake's real-estate mom but gets in some scenery-chewing, and Langella's presence haunts the film even after he signs out. 

Despite goosing it with propulsive energy, Stone has to work with a convoluted script that dabbles in a little bit of everything, and some oddly overdone editing choices like split-screens play against his direction. There are heavy-handed touches (bubble symbolism, Langella superimposed next to LaBeouf in a mirror), but cell phones get some good laughs here, from the opening sight of Gekko's so-'80s cell it might as well be an artifact, to Jake's "The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly" ring tone. Also, the happy ending is too easy and compromising for this story and too gutless for Gekko himself. Best of all, this movie looks great with a glossy sheen. The world didn't need a "Wall Street" sequel, though there are worse sequels out there, like the much-belated "Basic Instinct 2" (with Douglas's former co-star Sharon Stone), and though it pales against its predecessor, "Money Never Sleeps" is still entertaining and relevant: out with the old and in with the new.

"Little Fockers" just a fockingly unfunny retread

Little Fockers (2010)
98 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: D 

Ten years ago, "Meet the Parents" was a nice comedic surprise from the inspired coupling of Ben Stiller and heavy-hitter Robert De Niro. The strain started to show in its 2004 sequel "Meet the Fockers," but it had the loopy casting of Gaylord Focker's rents (Barbara Streisand, Dustin Hoffman), making it a moderate hoot. Now here we are with "Little Fockers," the hat trick of this supposed trilogy, but it's more of a one-trick pony stretching a by-now lame joke to the focking breaking point. The last name “Focker” just isn't funny anymore. Neither are enimas, projectile vomiting, or 5 ½ hour erections. Nor is a family dinner turning into a gorefest as Greg carves open a turkey, slicing open his finger and blood spurting all over everyone. That's comedy for you! 

"Little Fockers" has Samantha (Daisy Tahan) and Henry Focker (Colin Baiocchi, a younger-looking Angus T. Jones), but they're so marginalized, except for reaction shots, that they add nothing to the party. If the jokes were funny, the story wouldn't matter, but the jokes are stale and desperate groaners, and there's no real story. Prior to Greg and Pam Focker's twin children turning five, Greg is appointed the patriarch heir (“The Godfocker” as he calls it) by ex-CIA father-in-law Jack Byrnes, who's arriving with wife Dina to Chicago to celebrate, after Dr. Bob (the other son-in-law) has an affair. The old gang's back with most of the same jokes from the first two movies, only now they're even more obviously telegraphed by Paul Weitz's direction (taking the reigns from Jay Roach, who wisely called it quits after 2). It reverts back to square one: Greg gets himself into so many more misunderstandings with Jack who still gives him the stink eye. "Little Fockers" culminates to them physically duking it out in a bouncy castle and ball pen. 

Teri Polo as wife Pam stands on the sidelines this time around, much like her little ones, but a mugging Jessica Alba's newly on hand, playing a flirty minx of a drug rep named Andi Garcia (yes, like the actor) who's peddling a new erectile dysfunction pill and throws herself at Greg. Laura Dern also joins the cast as the earthy headmistress of a school, and she mistakes father and son-in-law for gay lovers (Ha). For a late grumpy-old-men reunion with De Niro, Harvey Keitel has a bit role as a miffed contractor. Streisand and Hoffman literally dial in their parts, her Roz the host of a sex show and his Bernie practicing flamenco dancing, and are finally shoehorned into the proceedings at the twins' big birthday blowout. Admittedly, the duo again makes every moment count. There's also more tension between Greg and his wife Pam's former lover, Kevin (Owen Wilson), who now practices Eastern medicine. Only Blythe Danner, all patience and understanding as Jack's wife Dina, really comes away with her dignity still intact. 

But this tiresome screenplay, by John Hamburg (of the first two) and Larry Stuckey, just reeks of annoying desperation with more sitcom contrivances and subplots that don't pay off and don't earn laughs. None, nada. "Little Fockers" is the epitome of a lazy-ass, lowest-common-denominator quick buck that gives the people what they want for the holiday season, but the people deserve so much better. And can someone just focking give Stiller his focking Clown of Humiliation Comedy Award and get it focking over with? 

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Exhausting but well-acted "Blue Valentine" full of emotional truth and pain

Blue Valentine (2010) 
112 min., rated R.
Grade: B

Woody Allen has made a whole round of movies about marital turmoil that felt honest, but "Blue Valentine" lacks a sense of humor or a sliver of hope. In fact, it achieves something Hollywood romances do not: it's a heavy, adult love story. A merciless love that runs its course and implodes, but a love story nonetheless. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams give the performances of their careers, both feeling lived-in and emotionally raw. Co-writer and director Derek Cianfrance observes with grim exactness and depth the birth and death of a relationship. And he gives us an achingly honest acting exercise. 

Gosling and Williams, playing with every inside feeling and outside emotion they have, are Dean and Cindy, a working-class Pennsylvania couple with a young daughter. Dean is a house painter who stars off the morning with a beer. Cindy is a nurse working up in her career. When we first meet Cindy, as she's taking care of her grandmother in a nursing home (Dean working across the hallway), she asks her grandmother about love. Her advice: “You gotta be careful that the person you fall in love with is worth it.” 

"Blue Valentine" moves between past and present, from when they first fell in love to when they start to fall out of love. Cianfrance's film works in leisurely long takes, but despite some uneventual stretches, the story is at the service of the characters (rather than the other way around) and allows us to feel what they feel. We understand both characters' point of view, why Cindy doesn't love him anymore and why Dean still loves her, and it's inevitable that the marriage is doomed. This Scranton-Brooklyn love tale was shot on high-def digital video for the “present” and Super 16 mm for the “past.” To both styles' effect, the film captures a gritty, scrappy cinéma vérité style and Cianfrance has cinematographer Andrij Parekh shoot it tightly when need be. For instance, when the couple “presently” gets away to drink and have sex in a tacky futurama-themed motel, you feel the cramped claustrophobia of the ill-fated relationship reaching its foregone conclusion. Other times, it's just proving that it's an indie film. 

"Blue Valentine" has caused quite the fuss about its original NC-17 rating (mostly from its frank, somewhat graphic simulated sex scenes) and more understandably the intense, daring rehearsal period its actors undertook. In a key moment, Gosling was ready to jump off the Manhattan Bridge without alerting the director or Williams (and without a net). Gosling and Williams perform an impromptu duet to “You Always Hurt the One You Love” (he sings and plays the ukulele, while she tap-dances). Even though Gosling's strangulated-cat falsetto warbling is tone-deaf, it's easily the sweetest and most endearing moment in the film. As imagined, "Blue Valentine" is not always easy to watch and a pretty exhausting experience, but the painful emotion it brings hits closer to home than anything in recent memory.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Rubbery Carrey makes "Phillip Morris" worth seeing

I Love You Phillip Morris (2010)
100 min., rated R
Grade: B +

Based on the incredible true-life exploits of Steven Russell and adapted from the book by Steve McVicker, I Love You Phillip Morris is sort of a gay Catch Me if You Can that showcases an interesting performance by Jim Carrey

Steven Russell (Carrey) was brought up as a conservative Christian in a small Georgia town, but showed his inner con-man early on working as a policeman and using the database to find out his birth mother put him up for adoption. Then he has an epiphany after a car crash: he's gay! Ditching his devoutly religious wife Debbie (Leslie Mann) and job, he packs for Miami and gets a lova (Rodrigo Santoro). Steven discovers “being gay is really expensive,” so he turns to fraud to fund his lavish lifestyle. When he goes to state prison for his crimes, he meets and falls for his fellow cellmate, the blond, soft-spoken Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), who becomes his soul mate. Once Steven gets out, he schemes to spring his lover out of the slammer too and keeps on conning. 

With his big smile and elastic face, Carrey slips into his manic rubber-faced shtick once in a while, particularly during the con games. It's still showy Carrey, but his Steven is a challenging nut to crack. The slippery, conniving character runs in circles, swindling, getting caught, escaping jail, and then repeating the process. 

Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the Bad Santa writing team making their directorial debuts, have a good story based on fact to tell. Now their script may whizz through some of the details, but it matches Steven Russell's mask, portrayed through Carrey: he's a man who's always living a lie. With a guiding hand, their pinballing jump in tone is appropriate for this story, making the film a bit of a scheme itself. 

Starting off brisk and outrageously funny with an offbeat jokiness, I Love You Phillip Morris gets more tragic and does sometimes take itself seriously but rightfully so. 

McGregor assumes a fragility and sweetness to Morris, but his character is lied to by Russell, just sitting at home and answering to his man, that their devotion to one another doesn't always make sense. Luckily, Carrey and McGregor share a believable chemistry that does up the emotional component so we care about this narcissistic man and his lover. 

I Love You Phillip Morris is a tricky piece of work, and Carrey should've been reigned in for more Steven Russell and less Carrey mania, but both he and the film are well worth well checking out, even if its release was held back over a year for being “too gay” for distribution.

"Black Swan" waltzes like a delirious, unforgettable dream

Black Swan (2010) 
110 min., rated R.

You won't find the Sugar Plum Fairy here, but Darren Aronofsky's backstage performing-arts nightmare "Black Swan" is one mesmerizing, breathlessly intense, and seriously nutso delirium. Mirroring "The Red Shoes" by way of "Suspiria" and "Repulsion," it's a literalization of "Swan Lake," a ballerina's journey of self-criticism and sexual awakening, a psychological horror film with David Cronenberg's bodily undertones, and altogether quite the wild head trip. 

The film follows Nina (Natalie Portman), the most obsessively dedicated and talented dancer at a ballet company who lives under the thumb of her doting, invasive stage mother (Barbara Hershey) in a cramped Upper West Side apartment. Even Nina's room is dressed like a little princess's with pink teddy bears and a music box. She strives for perfection in her controlled pliés and regimens, and to be cast as the lead in a stripped-down production of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. While the whip-cracking French director Thomas (played with roguish arrogance and sexual ooze by Vincent Cassel) knows Nina will make a flawless White Swan, he thinks she lacks an inner fire for the Black Swan: she's all technique and no feeling. But once Nina snags the Swan Queen part through a little willful seduction with Thomas, Nina soon replaces Beth (a tragic, live-wire Winona Ryder), an aging prima ballerina who's retiring against her will. Overworked and paranoid that free-spirited new dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) is stealing the role from her, Nina gets worked up and loses sight of her sanity. And let the swan metamorphosis and downward spiral begin. 

Aronofsky makes ballet hurt like the bloodsport that wrestling was in his last work, "The Wrestler," capturing the acute pressures and discipline of dance inside a psychological nightmare. He shoots the film with a frenetic handheld camera, courtesy of cinematographer Matthew Libatique, bringing a dark menace to dressing rooms, subway platforms, ballet stages, and a symbolism to mirrors everywhere. Intensifying the “what is real and what's not?” bridge even more, the dizzying camera follows and spins around Nina's bunned head. What Nina experiences, we experience, and this includes grotesqueries such as scaley skin rashes and broken fingernails. Portman is amazingly brave, vivid, and devastating as Nina, a physically and mentally demanding close-second to her role in "V for Vendetta," embodying the frigidness, fragility, grace, and virginal innocence of Nina (and the White Swan). She's a real tour de force. The actress, who trained in ballet as a child and practiced hard for a year, graces us as she did most of her own dancing on pointe. Kunis's Angelina Jolie-esque perf is fiery and sexy as Lily, and both she and Portman are fearless and sexually frank in their much-ballyhooed lesbian scene. Hershey is more subtle than you'd think as Nina's mother, caring and cheery but shrewish as her only means of living is through her daughter. 

Coupled with Aronofsky's gliding direction are Clint Mansell's operatic fever-dream score, a backward, distorted variation on Tchaikovsky's music, and the stunning production design. The film's bending of reality and fantasy also bends high melodrama with high camp, especially when it comes to some of the digital effects in the transformation scenes, but it's done with such artful, gloriously intoxicating style and passion. Like a wildly effective horror flick, we do get some shock cuts, and Nina keeps seeing a doppelganger of herself in passing or in mirrors. As hypnotic as it is luridly absurd, this whacked-out fairy tale for adults is so alive you can feel Nina's nerve endings and calf muscles cracking. "Black Swan" isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea, especially if your last cup was "Burlesque," but it's a high-pitched whirlwind of beauty, brilliance, and sheer insanity that might leave you shaken, much like Aronofsky's unforgettable "Requiem for a Dream."

Saturday, December 18, 2010

"How Do You Know" is agreeably cast but dull and overlong

How Do You Know (2010)
116 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C -

"How do you know when you're really in love?" is the question posed by writer-director James L. Brooks' romantic-comedy "How Do You Know." But the real stumper is, how do you know when a James L. Brooks film is a stunningly flat, chemistry-free dud? Although agreeably cast and costing an outrageous $120 million, it's dishearteningly clear early on, as many scenes just sit there, with the pacing so “off” you just wish Brooks had given the “OK, let's wind it up” finger motion. 

Reese Witherspoon, radiant and perky as all get-out, plays Lisa, a 31-year-old pro softball player who's cut from the team by a man and thereafter feels lost. She's casually dating Matty (Owen Wilson), a pitcher for the Washington Nationals whose beliefs in monogamy run loose. Set up by a fellow softballer, Lisa meets non-athlete George (Paul Rudd), a decent-type businessman who's just been dumped, is on the outs with his short-tempered father (Jack Nicholson), and currently under federal investigation. So she's torn, but who will she choose? Too bad it never feels like there's anything at stake. 

"How Do You Know" is so talky with a rambling script and characters always talking in circles about what's on their minds, even when they're not drinking. Added to the tiresome near-two-hour run time is a supererogatory subplot involving Nicholson's very pregnant assistant, played by the funny Kathryn Hahn. Even as the wrong guy, Wilson is still clownishly charismatic and earns the film its funniest moments, while Rudd amps up the neurotic tics so much as the sadsack everyschlub that he's more annoying and gooey than endearing. After a blind-date dinner with her, where neither party speaks, George is completely smitten by her, but it makes no sense. Lisa is too wishy-washy, whiny, and undefined of a character; she keeps post-it notes of pat can-do sayings on her mirror, and that's the only other thing we know about her. Bottom line: we don't really care which guy she ends up with. Thankfully, she's played by the appealing Witherspoon who's in good shape here. 

Even shark-grinning Jack (who won Oscars for two of Brooks' previous movies) is made into one dull boy, appearing in maybe five scenes as George's self-absorbed crook of a father whose subplot comes from another movie. The only consistently bright effort is that it's flatteringly shot by Spielberg cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. Under Brooks' steerage, "How Do You Know" could've been another sharp romantic-comedy, like "Broadcast News" or "As Good As It Gets," but it's far from as good as it gets.

Friday, December 17, 2010

"And Soon the Darkness" routine but tense enough

And Soon the Darkness (2010) 
91 min., rated R.
Grade: C +

And soon American girls will learn not to travel, but not soon enough, in "And Soon the Darkness," a routinely watchable babes-in-torture-chains thriller based on the 1970 British film with the same moniker. Despite its unpleasant opening and sleazy plot points about American sex slaves, it looks like "Hostel," "Turistas," and the rest but it's not really a slasher gorefest. Nor is it "The Lady Vanishes." Amber Heard and Odette Yustman are Steph and Ellie, one blonde and responsible, the other brunette and playful, are on vacation in Argentina. But after their last night at a bar, they wake up late and miss their bus. So they go to a place that sounds relaxing and Ellie goes missing. She's abducted, but the cop and locals can't help Steph, so she enlists the aid of a stranger (Karl Urban) to locate Ellie before night falls. 

After a long setup and perfunctory attempts at character development, "And Soon the Darkness" works up a decent head of steam. Heard and Yustman are tough and Urban is a suitably mysterious red herring. Mostly trading for clichés and exploitation, director Marcos Efron manages some suspense and satisfying thrills in this harsh, competent xenophobic thriller. 

"TRON" reboot a long but fun blast

TRON: Legacy (2010) 
126 min., rated PG. 
Grade: B

Disney's 1982 light-show video-game "TRON" was, in its day, visually spectacular and technologically cutting-edge in its live-action/animation effects but hardly a classic. But all that glitters is gold and same goes for the effects in "TRON: Legacy," the sleek, exciting reboot/sequel that's had a long life in development. Now, if getting stuck in a computer or a video game is your idea of fun, "TRON: Legacy" should make a solid razzle-dazzle ride. Jeff Bridges reprises his role as Kevin Flynn, a famous virtual world programmer who mysteriously disappears into The Grid, again, now leaving his rebellious 27-year-old son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) since he was 7. After a late night visit to his father's owned arcade, Sam also gets sucked into the Grid, realizing that his father has been trapped by his dictating avatar Clu (also played by Bridges via motion-capture technology that makes the actor look waxy and creepily de-aged). 

Bridges is obviously having fun, playing both Flynn and Clu, bringing his charisma and even some of his Dude-ish jokiness from The Big Lebowski ("You're messing with my Zen thing, man"). Unfortunately, the original's second carry-over, Bruce Boxleitner, as Tron/Alan Bradley makes an early appearance and then vanishes. Hedlund is hunky, pretty stoic and cocky, but a good enough hero. Olivia Wilde is sexy and scrappy in black, skin-tight leather as Kevin's loyal companion and Sam's new sidekick, Quorra. And the most lively is Michael Sheen's brief but flamboyant turn, a campy channelling between David Bowie and Alan Cumming, as Zuse, a frosty-haired entertainment club host. 

Overlooking the nearly indecipherable story and thin characters, "TRON: Legacy" moves well and looks hyper-cool. For his feature debut and for what is essentially a cinematic video-game, director Joseph Kosinski shows a real visual clarity for the chase action and immerses us into this futuristic realm. The cyberspace effects are gorgeously rendered and the artificial space is excitingly staged, but the rules and stakes inside this world and The Grid itself are cursorily conceived. The super-speed, neon-light Frisbee throwdowns are neat, where a disc can shatter a gladiator into glassy fragments. Perfectly integrated into the environment is the pounding musical score by electronic/rave French duo Daft Punk that brings an awesomely funky '80s vibe. 

As expected for a style-over-substance exercise as this, nothing is really going on below the surface with little emotional involvement in the father-son relationship or anybody else. However, with that said, gamers should embrace "TRON: Legacy" with robust enthusiasm, and even for a lot of smoke and mirrors, it's a giddy poporn-movie blast.

Layered, tough "Fighter" rounds up terrific performances

The Fighter (2010) 
115 min., rated R.
Grade: A -

“Irish” Micky Ward may be the boxing hero but he's the least showy; that would be Dickie Eklund, his crackhead half-brother and trainer. Though it's hard to not compare this with "Rocky" or "Raging Bull," David O. Russell's true-life boxing drama "The Fighter" is a tough, gritty, all-around convincing knockout. Not only does it have the ring scenes but plenty of character nuance and dysfunctional family dynamics/hysterics. 

The “prodigal son” underdog of this story is Micky (Mark Wahlberg), a 30-year-old street sweeper in Lowell, Massachusetts who is being groomed to be a “stepping stone” boxer. He trains in the gym with an '80s local legend, his older half-brother Dicky (Christian Bale), a self-destructive crack addict and former pro Welterweight boxer that supposedly knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard. There's a theory that Sugar Ray may have just tripped. Hovering over Micky are the expectations of his town of hard, bruised trash, especially his clinging family, led by mama grizzly Alice (Melissa Leo) and backed up by his seven sourpuss sisters. To make matters worse, Dicky is unreliable, living in a crack house of crazies, and Micky has to ask himself if his biggest ally is actually his greatest liability. 

Credible and fight-ready in and out of the ring, and capable of more range than he's estimated, Wahlberg (who trained for four years and also produced, it being near home to his Boston birth place) is the dimmest but most appealing of his screaming tribe. Disappearing into the role of Dicky, Bale is scary-phenomenal, conveying the live-wire humor and manic depth. And having shed weight (again, after The Machinist diet), this Batman looks hard-lived and gaunt. And wow, Leo is utterly unrecognizable here, in a bleach-blonde poof, tacky wardrobe and nails, as she's transformed into the feisty-as-all-hell mother Alice, accompanied by her Irish chorus of foul-mouthed, big-haired daughters. She makes sure her Alice never succumbs to caricature, even if it's a steely, over-the-top performance. Amy Adams, formerly playing friendly ditzy roles, is at her smartest and toughest as college dropout-turned barmaid Charlene, also Micky's new girlriend, with an attitude and a backbone. Bullied by Micky's sistas and called a “slut” and an “MTV girl,” her scene of throwing a punch at one of them in the kissa is a crowd-pleaser. These are all commanding, three-dimensional performances. Even the mostly unknown seven playing Micky's gaggle of sisters, who sit around the living room housing Budweisers, are colorful but feel real and are perfectly cast (one of which is Conan O'Brien's sister, Kate). Also, the real Mickey O'Keefe plays himself as a police officer and Micky's fight trainer. 

Director Russell (when it was to be originally helmed by "Black Swan" director Darren Aronofsky) immerses us in this rough blue-collar New England town, where the look and feel of it are so vivid you can nearly smell the flavor and atmosphere. The fight scenes throughout are shot in the style of HBO-TV and are so realistic and ('scuse the pun) punchy, showing the brutality, that they feel voyeuristic. One minor nitpick is during Micky and Charlene's date, where a Citizens Bank can be seen in the background, but the logo didn't come around until around 2005, going against the movie's '90s period. "The Fighter" is still a richly satisfying film, despite being wrapped up by the predictable Big Fight (Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby" rejected this). And stick around for the ending credits to see footage of the real Mickey and Dickie.

"Yogi Bear" no pic-a-nic

Yogi Bear (2010) 
82 min., rated PG.

Churning out Saturday morning cartoons into live-action movies is like producing new colors of Gummi Bears at the theater concessions. "The Flintstones" is really the only evidence, committed to memory, that worked. But there's money to be made and we have "Yogi Bear," a dull, lazy, thoroughly disposable movie that should've remained in hibernation. Surprisingly, the three writers behind this bore have penned an even more witless effort than the only-mediocre "Scooby-Doo," "Garfield," and "Alvin and the Chipmunks" movies. Anyone could have done it but Dan Aykroyd lends his voice to the 1958 Hanna-Barbera cartoon Yogi, the talking, tie-wearing brown bear that steals “pic-a-nic” baskets from families in Jellystone National Park. At least Justin Timberlake cutely (and unrecognizably) voices Yogi's sidekick Boo-Boo. Tom “desperate-for-work-after-TV” Cavanagh earnestly plays Ranger Smith, who's losing his park to a crooked mayor (even though the park is nationally owned). But with the help of a perky documentarian (smiling-until-she's-blue-in-the-face Anna Faris) and his bear-y pals, you know the conflict and tension will be resolved with a happy ending.

One point for "Yogi Bear" is that it's predominantly light on crass humor (one booger and one pee joke were counted) and no pop-culture name-dropping, but then again it's light on humor altogether, and all the silly slapstick and green-screened action exists for the 3-D nuisance (a white water raft adventure sequence!). Yogi and Boo-Boo dancing to the now-outdated “Baby Got Back” might arouse the one smile, but even that's an easy, uninspired joke. And T.J. Miller offers plenty of idiot shtick as a boy-scout's-honoring ranger. If you remember that Yogi originated in “The Huckleberry Hound Show,” you aren't the target audience. "Yogi Bear" will be lunchbox fodder for the small fries and not quite the pic-a-nic for their adult chaperones. Maybe Snagglepuss will show up in the squeakquel, but let's keep our paws crossed there isn't one in pre-production because already after this, "The Smurfs" is next in line. Families are better off sticking with this summer's berry rewarding "Toy Story 3." 

Grade: D +