Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Michelle Williams shines in buoyant "Marilyn"

My Week with Marilyn (2011) 
99 min., rated R.
Grade: B +
Marilyn Monroe is so iconic that it'd be impossible to replicate her. Anyone that knew Marilyn complimented her for being an astonishing actress, and the same could be said of Michelle Williams. Any drag queen can do a superficial impersonation of the famous bombshell, but Williams goes beyond mimicry. Never just a pop-tart caricature, the resourceful and committed actress gets under her creamy skin. 

"My Week with Marilyn" rests on the mystique of Marilyn Monroe, a cultural icon doubling as both a skillful actress and sex symbol. The film is fascinated with showing the celebrity and the human side of Ms. Monroe, but never checks off a bulleted list of events like a conventional, schematic biopic. It's not really a deep, complex portrait of this culturally identifiable woman—you might already know she overdosed on pills and suffered abandonment issues—but explores her codependent relationship with a starstruck Brit and what will later lead to Miss Monroe's downfall. 

In the film, the "my" applies to Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), a 23-year-old fresh out of university, and the "week" was in 1956, England. Set during the troubled shooting of Sir Laurence Olivier's minor comedy "The Prince and the Showgirl," this true story comes from Colin's published memoir. A self-proclaimed underachiever in his family, Colin finds solace in the cinema, especially films by Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), so he goes on the hunt for a job interview to prove to his family and himself. He persists in nabbing a production job by camping out every day at the same office, until running into Olivier himself who promised work to the young man at a party. Right away, Colin "joins the circus," becoming the gofer and third assistant director to the director/actor. Then, when Monroe arrives to England with her third husband, playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), the lovestruck Colin becomes infatuated with the perky Hollywood star. Outside of the spotlight, Marilyn is a mess of anxiety of problems. And once "The Prince and the Showgirl" goes into production, Olivier begins to regret casting Miss Monroe from her tardiness coming on set, total reliance on her acting coach, and blowing of takes. Soon, Colin starts getting private phone calls from Marilyn, and he becomes her closest confidante. Though only seven years apart, Colin and Monroe's unlikely relationship is perceived to be wrong by all of her hanger-on assistants.
Expectedly, like Meryl Streep, Williams always brings her 'A' game. As she's proven every time in her glammed-down indie performances, she can do anything and can now check Marilyn Monroe off her actor bucket list. Her portrayal is extraordinary. Though not a physical dead ringer, Williams not only re-creates the giggle and wiggle of Monroe, but embodies the vulnerability, neediness, insecurity, and anxiety, too. She plays Marilyn on different levels: the popular blonde starlet, the talented actress, and scared little Norma Jean. She makes it charming, layered, and heartbreaking. Even in the film's opening, Williams sings with her breathy voice and wiggles with her bodacious figure to "Heat Wave." 

Redmayne's Colin has a bland personality, which actually seems motivated for the character, and a boyish sweetness that would seem to reassure Marilyn. In a deliciously funny performance, Branagh conveys tight-lipped exasperation as Olivier the artiste and actor. The stellar supporting cast also makes an impression, including Dame Judi Dench, doing strong work as peace-making actress Dame Sybil Thorndike; Julia Ormond, lovely and yet vulnerable as Olivier's age-conscious actress wife, Vivien Leigh; Toby Jones reliably playing crass agent Arthur Jacobs; Zoë Wanamaker as Marilyn's coddling method acting coach Paula Strasberg; and Dominic Cooper as producer Milton Greene. Only does Emma Watson get saddled with the underwritten part of Lucy, the set wardrobe assistant who receives the brunt of Colin's neglect; their relationship comes out of thin air.

With a background of producing and directing British TV, Simon Curtis makes his feature directorial debut here and shows a buoyant touch. Screenwriter Adrian Hodges and Curtis capture a straightforward, briskly paced study of Marilyn Monroe that might not teach us anything new, but it's kept highly watchable and entertaining. The production design, even for a little, smaller-budgeted film, has an unerring eye for the re-created period in England. "My Week with Marilyn" is a marshmallowy but delicious dish, with Williams as the cherry on top. She lights up every scene.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Weirdly interesting touches can't save "Breaking Dawn"

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1 (2011)
117 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C +

The foreplay, er, the wait is over, folks. Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) are going to have sex. Finally! But after they take their wedding vows, of course. "Breaking Dawn - Part 1," the penultimate part of the fourth book to "The Twilight Saga," is being split in half, not because there's so much story to cram in but Summit Entertainment is getting greedy with ticket sales. The first three "Twilight" movies were what they were—compulsively watchable pieces of teen melodrama—but this one's merely a placeholder. Like Warner Brothers' seventh, two-part "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," this "Part 1" is the setup for "Part 2." While the "Harry Potter" movies improved with age, as they got handed over from director to director until finding a perfect fit, "Breaking Dawn" confirms that it's time to put away childish things. No matter what, rabid fanatics of Stephenie Meyer's series and the movies will line up in droves, with their "Team Edward" or "Team Jacob" tattoos. By now, you know who you are and will already know if Edward putting a baby in Bella will steal your interest or not. 

At 18 and still a virgin, Bella is ready to risk her life marrying Edward, who's waited a century to have a faithful partner in sickness and in health. The wedding brings together Bella's divorced mom and dad, Renée (Sarah Clarke) and Charlie (Billy Burke), and the entire Cullen clan, along with a few members of the Quileute wolf pack. Jacob (Taylor Lautner) isn't present until the reception, where at that point Bella feels complete. That is until he gets into a tizzy when Bella shares the news that she and Edward will be having a "real" honeymoon. Which means she'll be deflowered and turn into a vampire, and Jacob will have to stay a virgin until he "imprints" someone else (read: finding a soul mate). Then it's off on their honeymoon, as Edward surprises Bella with a chic villa in Brazil on their own private island and proceeds to make sweet, passionate vampire love to her. After their wham-bam night of literal bed-breaking (cue the down feathers floating in the air), Bella is all roughed-up and bruised; Edward apologizes and refuses to let it happen again, but his bride wants more. Lots of chess playing and Bella trying on skimpy lingerie later, they finally do the deed again. Before you know it, Bella is craving chicken wings, suffering morning sickness, and realizing her period is late. That's right, the newly Mrs. Cullen is preggers! And the fetus is so quickly growing that it begins crushing her body from the inside out. Bella not only starts "showing," but her face gets sunken in and she looks like a heroin junkie. Meanwhile, Jacob separates himself from the Quileute tribe who plans to destroy the unborn child and then kill Bella. Will the immortal hybrid baby kill Bella before the wolves do? 

Screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg continues adapting these books to screen, but with "Breaking Dawn - Part 1," the story feels stretched thin and unable to be spread over two movies. Director Bill Condon (2006's "Dreamgirls") getting handed the baton to work from Rosenberg's script is like squeezing blood from a drained corpse. While he comes the closest to bringing an actual sense of horror to these movies, this self-serious, increasingly icky material could've used more of the filmmaker's bold touches. Early on, when Edward feels the need to tell his soon-to-be bride that he used to tear up the necks of serial killers circa 1935, a vintage flashback harkens back to old horror-movie monsters by being set in a movie palace that's showing "Bride of Frankenstein" (a nod to Condon's own "Gods and Monsters" from 1998). Then as a pre-wedding jitters nightmare, there's a stylishly morbid shot of Bella and Edward at the altar, atop a wedding cake-shaped pile of their dead ceremony guests. The wedding itself, an outdoor ceremony, is elegantly designed and well-shot, even more so than William and Kate's royal wedding. The pre-reception toasts are also quite amusing, especially when sharp-tongued classmate Jessica (Anna Kendrick) stands up to the mic. And later, the birth scene is as bloody, intense, and deftly edited as one could hope, vampire teeth C-section included. 

But in order to get there, one has to wade through a lot more soapy, love-triangle melodrama (why is Jacob still whining about Bella?) and giggle-inducing dialogue. The CGI werewolf effects are even more laughably cheesy than before, especially when they talk telepathically. Stewart still prefers to blink and do some hard contemplation with her eyebrows as Bella, but with the help of make-up, she makes "anemic and nearly dead" look convincing. There's not much to comment on Pattinson, as he is Edward Cullen and he's as good as he's going to get. Lautner rips off his shirt in rage the first time we see him, but trades actual emoting for his two-gear method acting of grimacing and smirking. 

"Breaking Dawn - Part 1" already has its presold fan base of prepubescent girls that haven't gotten enough of the smoldering, forlorn glances. For everyone else, it starts out fine, sags for a giant chunk in the middle, and then doesn't get twisted and really interesting until the final half hour. Incomplete as its own story but ending with an admittedly suspenseful cliffhanger, "Part 1" leads up to Bella's vampirization and Jacob "imprinting" newborn Renesmee (not to be confused with the moisture-rich shampoo Tresemme). Twi-hards are probably awaiting the vampire politics involving the Volturi, too, which is hinted at mid-end credits. Only time will tell if Condon can re-muster the envelope-pushing moments of this one for "Part 2."

Monday, November 28, 2011

DVD/Blu-ray: "One Day," "Another Earth"

One Day (2011)
107 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C -

The source material for a film rarely improves when it's taken to the screen. "One Day" seems to have lost something in the translation because David Nicholls' novel was a precious best-seller. To wit: this movie adaptation is a pretty-looking but uninvolving sudser. Never do you feel like the path-crossing lovers on display, played by the attractive Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess, should ever be together, let alone be friends. Not even Harry and Sally would buy it. Perhaps it's like in real life when you don't understand from afar why that girl would be with that guy, but it's a film's job to make us feel that passion and yearning. Danish director Lone Scherfig (2009's terrific, keenly observed "An Education") is a promising guide for this bittersweet material and author Nicholls adapts the screenplay, but it becomes problematic when, frankly dear, we don't give a damn. 

Meeting post-graduation at the University of Edinburgh on July 15th, St. Swithin's Day, in 1988, the bookish Emma and silver-spooned Dexter shack up in the same bed, solely as friends, and for the next twenty years remain friends. But on July 15th of every year, they either speak or see one another. Em dreams of becoming a novelist and living in Paris, but her literature degree isn't going to get her anywhere right away. Meanwhile, Dex works as a tacky TV personality, and his self-absorption really sets in. Tired of working as a sombrero-wearing waitress at a Tex-Mex restaurant, Em gets a visit from Dex in 1992 and they go on holiday. She lays down some ground rules, like no drunken cuddling or skinny dipping, so no physical contact will ruin their friendship, but they don't know any better. Over the years, these nearly-estranged best friends try staying in touch with phone calls and dinner dates. Eventually, they both date someone else, Em settling for a flailing comedian (Rafe Spall) and Dex finding his first wife (Romola Garai), but still count on one another when the going gets tough. They both love one another, but can't admit it. 

It must've read more poignant on the page, the novel that is, because Em and Dex feel like sketches. Thus, Hathaway and Sturgess' performances are only as good as their material and they have very little to work with here. Hathaway has that lovely Audrey Hepburn quality working for her, albeit behind frumpy glasses in her early ugly-duckling phase, and sports an actorly British accent that's not as bad as most have ridiculed it. As Emma, she's fetching and brings tart wit, charm, and empathy to the part. As for Sturgess, charisma fails him here because either the actor was miscast or it was the way Dex was written. Dex is such a posh, narcissistic jerk that there's no way his parents gave birth to him; even his upper-class mum, Alison (Patricia Clarkson), tells him he's not nice anymore. In the long run, Dex still doesn't seem to grow or reform that much as a person. Clarkson shines in her touching, no-bull moments with Sturgess. Spall is even endearing as the underappreciated Ian, whom Emma (ludicrously) rejects romantically but lives with him anyway. 

Nicholls adapting his own material doesn't do much to heighten our emotional involvement, the same-day, different-year gimmick doing a disservice to his characters. We check in with Em and Dex every year on the July anniversary of their first meeting, but the structure is too episodic to flesh them out. And when the film deals with death, it feels like too much of a shorthand. If "One Day" does anything right, it does ring true in its passage of time forcing friends to outgrow one another. It's just a shame the friends don't feel like the dearest of friends to make the sorrow-filled developments land a deeper, more meaningful impact. 

Another Earth (2011) 
92 min., rated R. 
Grade: B

What if planet Earth had its own doppelganger? Not only that, what if there was 'another you' out there that mirrored yourself? "Another Earth," a low-budget Sundance-y film, poses such intriguing questions for characters that are wallowing in their own grief and hope to find salvation if given a second chance by another Earth. Actress Brit Marling and director Mike Cahill teamed up to write the screenplay, which is decidedly more earthbound indie drama than sci-fi disaster movie. 

Having her whole life ahead of her, brainy 17-year-old Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling) has a bright future after being accepted into an astrophysics program at MIT. She spends her last night celebrating with a few drinks and then getting behind the wheel. On the radio, she hears a newscast of scientists discovering another Earth that was hiding behind the sun and stares out her window at something blue in the sky, until crashing into a parked car. A woman and her son are killed instantly, while the husband/father slips into a coma, and Rhoda's potential grinds to an abrupt halt. Four years pass and Rhoda is released from prison, returning to live with her parents and brother in New Haven, Connecticut but nearly catatonic with guilt. Expressing that she doesn't care to be around too many people or talk a lot, the young woman accepts a custodial job at her former high school. Then after an insincere suicide attempt, Rhoda visits the site of vehicular manslaughter and later finds out where the surviving husband and father lives. She knocks at his door, ready to spill her guts but loses her nerve and pretends to be housekeeper offering a free cleaning. The middle-aged man is John Burroughs (William Mapother), a former Yale professor and music composer, but now just a reclusive homebody. He's stuck in a depression, wearing a ski hat all day and practically living on the couch with a drink in his hand. Internally, this is Rhoda's way of atonement for her unforgivable mistake. As Rhoda starts to regularly visit John and clean his house, the two become friends. Meanwhile, as the now-dubbed Earth 2 looms larger and larger in space, Rhoda enters into an essay contest to win a flight to Earth 2. Soon, the guilt-ridden woman and the grief-ridden man find hope in one other, but will the truth about Rhoda come out? And will she be able to reach out to this alternate Earth? 

Marling and Cahill find an interesting contrast with their metaphysical premise and the scaled-down, micro-budget aesthetic of their film. The Earth 2 stuff is really a backdrop for a melancholy, emotionally intimate drama about human tragedy, guilt, and redemption. Combining multi-hyphenate Cahill's grainy, handheld cinematography with his at-times too-cool editing, "Another Earth" is never as rawly naturalistic as it thinks it is. But it's still visually haunting, and the cool tones mixed with the dark, nocturnal shots are alluring. From the onset, we feel the full-on impact of the car accident. This is where Cahill doesn't let his editing tricks get in the way as much, pulling the camera back slowly and just letting the crash happen. Same goes with a shot, where Rhoda sits on her mattress on the floor as sunlight beams through the window and dust gently flies in the light. 

Though the situation Rhoda enters is contrived, emotions of grief and guilt are unrehearsed and wrenchingly authentic here. The naturally luminous Marling is a revelation (and the film's draw), moving, sympathetic, and thoughtful. Both Rhoda and John, heartbreakingly played by Mapother, are damaged goods just trying to find solace. Their first informal interaction is playing a boxing game on Wii, but after Rhoda and John sleep together and he speaks freely about his tragedy, the tension mounts. Some of the metaphors are handled too literally—like Rhoda "cleaning" to do penance—but "Another Earth" is all about mood, and it will surely change your mood and stay with you after watching it. The very last shot is beautiful in its simplicity but also an enigma that will raise possibilities rather than payoffs. 

Thursday, November 24, 2011

"Muppets" revival joyful and witty

The Muppets (2011)
98 min., rated PG.

"Forgetting Sarah Marshall" star Jason Segel and director Nicholas Stoller declared themselves monster Muppet fans after creating their inspired "Dracula" rock opera with Muppet-y hand puppets. Their collaboration for writing the screenplay, directed by James Bobin of HBO's Flight of the Conchords, revives Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo and friends, and reaffirms their relevance as pop-culture icons. "The Muppets" is such a joyful, irresistible, and enjoyably witty celebration for nostalgic baby-boomer fans of Jim Henson's beloved, late-1970s troupe that it's like the gang never left. 

In their small Americana town of Smalltown, U.S.A., Walter (a new Muppet inductee, voiced by Peter Linz) and his human brother, Gary (Segel), have grown up to be huge fans of the Muppets. Walter even owns a Kermy wristwatch. When Gary and his sweetie-pie girlfriend Mary (the effortlessly adorable Amy Adams), a schoolteacher, plan a trip to L.A. for their ten-year anniversary, Walter tags along to tour the Muppet Studios. But the trio finds the Muppet Theater to be decrepit and in perpetual renovation, with Walter overhearing oil tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) planning to tear it all down to drill for oil underneath and turn the sentimentally valued building into a museum. To preserve the gang's old homestead, the Smalltownians find Kermy (voiced by Steve Whitmire) in a moldy Bel-Air mansion and round up all the other Muppets, including Fozzie (voiced by Eric Jacobson) who's performing with a rip-off band called "The Moopets" in Reno. Back in L.A., the Muppets realize they need $10 million to keep their studio, but once a no-nonsense network executive (Rashida Jones) breaks it to them that they aren't famous anymore or relevant in the kids' market, putting on a telethon in tribute to "The Muppet Show" in their very own theater is their last chance. Also: a celebrity host is a must. Meanwhile, throughout all of this, Mary just wants to have anniversary time with her beau, and Gary and Walter will have to ask themselves individually, "Am I a man or a muppet?" 

The plot is mostly a combination of "getting-the-band-back-together" tropes with a "let's-put-on-a-show" spirit and, natch, an excuse for splashy musical numbers and plenty of "who's who" star cameos. None of the numbers get as hum-worthy or own up to the scope of the opening "Life's a Happy Song" in Smalltown. Adams gamely performs a cute ditty with "Me Party," where she embraces being by herself and sight-seeing in L.A., and "Mah Nà Mah Nà" is performed by the entire cast through the ending credits. Segel and Adams mostly stand in the background, grinning and clearly having fun, but are also very charming and get their chance to sing and dance. Playing against type, deadpan actor Cooper makes a fun meanie, literally uttering "Maniacal laugh! Maniacal laugh!" with his Muppet-y minions, and out of nowhere owns a hip-hop rap number "Let's Talk About Me." Jim Parsons (whom you know as Sheldon on TV's The Big Bang Theory) gives the most clever cameo; it's a hoot to see Emily Blunt reprising her snooty secretary character from "The Devil Wears Prada" now working for Miss Piggy (also voiced by Jacobson) at French Vogue; and Jack Black, as Mr. Black, actually figures into the plot. Keeping with the spirit of previous Muppet features, many other celebrities pop up for recognition sake, including Alan Arkin, Kristen Schaael, Sarah Silverman, Zach Galifianakis, Whoopi Goldberg, Selena Gomez, and Neil Patrick Harris. 

"The Muppets" is cleverly self-aware, as one Muppet suggests to wind the story up with a quick montage or "traveling by map," and consistently topped with meta jokes where characters break the fourth wall. Bobin's comic timing is sharp, despite a few draggy moments leading up to The Big Show, but a clucking version of Cee Lo Green's "Forget You" performed by Camilla and the Chickens is one of the most inspired bits during the telethon. Writers Segel and Stoller and director Bobin clearly have a deep reverence for their characters, recapturing what the Muppets have been for the last three decades. Just like the Disney/Pixar Toy Story short "Small Fry" that precedes the feature, our other old friends are back. Old or young, adult or child, fan or newcomer, you won't be able to wipe the smile off your face; the cheery, lively spirit of "The Muppets" is contagious. 

Grade: B +

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

DVD/Blu-ray Reviews of "Super 8," "Spy Kids: All the Time in the World," and "Conan the Barbarian"

Super 8 (2011)

Spy Kids: All the Time in the World (2011) 
89 min., rated PG.
Grade: C +

Multi-hyphenate filmmaker Robert Rodriguez engineered some fun, witty, imaginative kids' films with 2001's "Spy Kids" and 2002's "Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams," and less so in 2003's "Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over." It might've been game over for Rodriguez's kiddie-action "Spy Kids" movies after the second sequel, but after nearly a decade has passed, "Spy Kids: All the Time in the World" is just a painless, occasionally fun time-killer. Surpassing extremely low expectations, this fourth one doesn't stink; it's just goofy and nutty enough to achieve pleasant watchability. 

Very pregnant secret agent Marissa Cortez (Jessica Alba) is tracking the super-evil criminal Tick Tock (munchkin-voiced Jeremy Piven), but before the mission is over, her water breaks and she puts her spy games on hold. One year later, she's struggling with the life of being a full-time mom, raising a food-flinging baby girl and two step-children, Cecil (Mason Cook) and Rebecca (Rowan Blanchard), who loves playing pranks on Marissa and making sure she knows that she's just their step-mom. Dad, Wilbur Wilson (Joel McHale), has his own dilemma: he plays a spy-catching superhero on a TV show called "Spy Hunters," but hasn't caught a spy yet—or caught onto the fact that his own wife was never really an interior decorator. Meanwhile, a new villain called the Time Master threatens to speed up time and bring the world to Armageddon, so Marissa's boss, OSS director Danger D'Amo (again played by Piven), calls her back into action. Once Rebecca and Cecil realize they're in danger and that their house is installed with a panic room under the fireplace, they become the new spy kids. 

If slapsticky silliness doesn't annoy you, "Spy Kids: All the Time in the World" is enjoyable and innocuous enough, when it's not shooting a machine-gun of poop and puke jokes your way. (The movie was theatrically released in "4-D" with an "Aroma-Scope" gimmick, so you could scratch your sticker and sniff baby poop.) Rodriguez goes overboard on the time puns in his script, which sometimes hit and sometimes fall flat. But the platitudes about family togetherness, which have always been a wise constant in Rodriguez's "Spy Kids" films, don't fail here. The cast is clearly having a lark: Alba, oddly always showing more likability and less stiff acting ability when working with Rodriguez; McHale goofing off more than he does hosting TV's "The Soup" with some eyebrow-raising sound effects; and Piven getting to ham it up in multiple roles. Cook and Blanchard are brattier than the original "spy kids" but are cute enough. Speaking of the original, Carmen and Juni (Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara) return mid-story, introduced as Marissa's niece and nephew. But it's Ricky Gervais who gets all the laughs and kills it every time as talking, wisecracking dog Argonaut, who even poops out an oil slick and butt bombs when bad guys are on their trail. 

It could've merely been a chintzy, DVD-bin cash-grab, but reluctantly, this fourth "Spy Kids" still squeezes out some dizzy charm and more cool gadgets. You could do a lot worse, like schlep through Rodriguez's lamer "The Adventures of Shark Boy & Lava Girl in 3-D."

Conan the Barbarian (2011)
113 min., rated R. 
Grade: C -

Music-video-trained director Marcus Nispel has slicked up two pretty decent remakes of horror-slasher pics ("The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" and "Friday the 13th"). Lots of slick style but not an ounce of humor. Which initially sounds fitting for a pulpy re-imagining of Robert E. Howard's sword-and-sorcery comics and a quasi-reboot of 1982's "Conan the Barbarian," since Nispel is a vulgarian of style and violence. But it hasn't any fun, especially when we already have the ridiculously cheesy, epic-scaled Arnold Schwarzenegger version. Who really wants a self-serious "Conan the Barbarian"? 

It all starts with a pregnant woman in battle being stabbed and then her husband (Ron Perlman) giving her a C-section. And Conan, the Cimmerian warrior, is born! The young barbarian (played at youth by Leo Howard) learns the way of the sword from Father, right before evil warlord Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) shows up to slaughter the whole village except Conan. Some fifteen years later, Conan (taken over by Jason Momoa) has a thirst for revenge, going after Zym and his witch daughter, Marique (Rose McGowan), who both desire the Mask of Acheron (which resembles a face-hugging octopus). But the mask will only provide power to the wearer with the drops of a pure-blooded sacrifice. Lucky for them, the innocent Tamara (Rachel Nichols) has such blood, but they'll have to get through Conan first. "I live, I love, I slay, I am content" is his motto after all. 

Baywatch hunk Momoa is all glower, grunts, chiseled abs, and long-flowing, romance-novel cover hair, but his total lack of charisma makes for a boring Conan. Perlman is killed off in the first 30 minutes, which is a dirty rotten waste of his wit. Nichols, as the damsel-in-distress, is pretty and pretty tough, but also pretty bland when it comes to her character. He keeps calling her a "harlot," but they end up in bed together anyway. Lang is just a one-dimensional bug-eyed baddie, much like the one he played in "Avatar." McGowan seems to be having the only fun here as the hissable villainess, camping it up with her Freddy Krueger nails, receding hair line, and "Babylon 5"-inspired wardrobe. And Morgan Freeman narrates the first half, sounding like Morgan Freeman usually does, but he can't even bring any life to this story. The action is often muddy and chaotically staged but pretty workmanlike as these things go. Especially cool are two set pieces: an attack scene with mummy soldiers that rise up from the sand, and another with underwater serpents in a torture chamber. 

Slavishly violent and mostly joyless, this "Conan" never achieves enough camp to be a guilty pleasure. Sliced-off noses and bloody beheadings should be fun! When it's laughable, it doesn't try to be. If Conan only learned he should laugh at himself more often, this would've been a schlocky good time. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

"J. Edgar" rises and falls as overreaching but interesting portrait

J. Edgar (2011)
137 min., rated R.
Grade: B -

Leonard DiCaprio's boyishness holds him back from looking like the perfect choice for John Edgar Hoover—let alone Howard Hughes in "The Aviator"—but that never limits his gravitas. In fact, DiCaprio's powerhouse portrayal of Hoover is so complex and tragic that it never feels like an impersonation. What a pedigree "J. Edgar" has going for itself, being directed by octogenarian Clint Eastwood and written by Dustin Lance Black (who won an Oscar for his scrupulously crafted biographical screenplay "Milk"). A thoughtful biopic of the most powerful "G-Man" lies somewhere in here, but the film itself is less than great, its reach exceeding its grasp. 

Founding and becoming the first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover (DiCaprio) was revered for being a leader of high intelligence and power, despite some considering him a monster. In 1919, as a 24-year-old agent, Johnny hunted for Communists and anarchists, and was then promoted to the chief job at the Bureau. He revolutionalized law enforcement with centralized fingerprinting databases, and worked under eight different presidents. Hoover gave himself credit where it was not due; embellishing stories and personally claiming to taking down notorious outlaw Machine Gun Kelly and bank robber John Dillinger and then handcuffing the man responsible for kidnapping and murdering Charles Lindbergh's baby; and collecting dirt on Martin Luther King Jr. and others in confidential files. He had no friends or lovers, and still lived with his Mommie Dearest (well played by a frosty Judi Dench). Hoover showed no attraction to women and attempted to overcome a stuttering problem, but rather than being nurtured by his mother, she was his biggest critic. "I'd rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son," Anna Marie Hoover says to J, calling her son's light-in-his-loafers orientation a "condition." Upon meeting Bureau typist Helen Grandy (Naomi Watts), Hoover proposed to her and she refused but remained his lifelong personal secretary. Though not fitting the strict criteria for Hoover's FBI agents, he recruited tall and handsome Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) as his deputy director, who soon became his right-hand man and loyal confidante that always accompanied J. Edgar for lunch and dinner in their corner booth. 

By the very nature of a cinematic biopic, the filmmakers have to pick and choose specific events. Hopscotching back and forth from 1919 to 1972, with a "present-day" framing device set in the late 1960s, "J. Edgar" gives us a jumbled history lesson of facts and some false narration that bites off more than it can chew. DiCaprio's Hoover is made our unreliable narrator, as he recalls his diluted thoughts that are then translated onto paper by young agents, and the device pays off by the end as he's called out for his lies. Black's ambitious, expansive screenplay covers a lot of ground, touching on times in history and Edgar's personal life. It more than just suggests his repressed sexuality but only vaguely hints at the central figure's proclivity to cross-dress, triggered by his mother's death. Structurally, the film is a lumbering mess, with flashbacks and double flashbacks, and the dense, nonlinear approach offers nothing had it been told in chronological order. There are also some loose ends. For example, in an early scene at the Hoover's dinner table, we see John's niece, but never hear from his brother; and nothing is really spoken about the fate of Hoover's mental-case father, who's introduced then forgotten about. With the messy story structure comes issues with sporadically laggish pacing and overlength. 

Without a shadow of a doubt, DiCaprio astonishingly immerses himself into the role of J. Edgar. He captures the man's paranoid, maniacal side with nuance and complexity, and finds the madness to Edgar's method of always desiring control. As number-two man Clyde Tolson, the strappingly handsome Hammer (who believably pulled off playing the Winklevoss twins in 2010's "The Social Network") has great star quality. He and DiCaprio nail the chemistry between Tolson and Hoover that the passion practically burns the screen. One scene, where they're off to the horse races and end up sharing a room, starts off as flirty gossip, until Tolson's jealousy spurs on glass-throwing, some punches, and culminates in a kiss that finally breaks the ice. Even the sight of Hoover panicking after Ginger Roger's mother (Lea Thompson) asks him to dance in a nightclub is pretty amusing. Watts, as Helen Grandy, is underused, but she's the most faithful character on screen and finds more depth than what's given to her. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, Shirley Temple, and President Richard Nixon all show up, but the only impersonation that really stands out is Jeffrey Donovan's RFK. 

Most effective of all, "J. Edgar" looks great, from the period detail to the painstaking production design of its art directors. The desaturated tones and noir-ish, shadowy lighting bring it a weightiness that feels substantial and germane to Edgar's own secretive demons. The make-up ages DiCaprio convincingly enough, giving him jowls and making him look like a bulldog that J. Edgar was, but the artists did a failing job with Hammer, making him look like an embalmed mummy with liver spots. And why does Dench look the same when John is a young boy as she does when she's on her death bed? 

When it's all said and done, the love story is what makes up the film's spine and helps give Hoover some sort of humanity. It's this "elephant in the room" that holds the most emotional pull and tension. Hoover buried his heart in his work and celebrity, but his love and commitment toward Tolson were always constant and felt much more than brotherly. J. Edgar was such a complicated, powerful, and controversial man that he deserves a more cohesive portrait than this, but "J. Edgar" is still an interesting albeit flawed effort.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Reviews of "Like Crazy" and "A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas"

Like Crazy (2011)
90 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C +

Drake Doremus' small, handmade, from-the-heart "Like Crazy" has received quite the enthusiatic buzz, winning the dramatic Grand Jury Prize at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Too bad it only halfway lives up to that critical acclaim, predominantly from the fresh-faced presence of Felicity Jones, whose lead performance won her the Special Jury Prize. Convincingly acted but cloying and annoying, "Like Crazy" is a story about first love and a long-distance relationship that just might drive you crazy. 

Studying at a Los Angeles university, Anna (Jones) and Jacob (Anton Yelchin) meet as classmates. She's an intelligent Brit who aspires to be a writer, he likes designing furniture, and they fall deeply in love (apparently). But the time comes after graduation for Anna to go back home to the U.K., which means having to wait two and a half months until seeing Jacob again. They can't even spend a week apart, they're so in love. Come morning, Anna decides to stay back in America, against all legal immigration laws, and overstays her student visa. Once her summer spent with Jacob comes to a teary-eyed end, Anna gets in trouble and is put back on a plane to England. The two try to keep in touch through text messages and awkward phone chats, but their schedules and time zones collide, as Anna joins the staff of a British fashion magazine and Jacob starts his own furniture business. When Jacob flies to London to see Anna, he feels like he's not part of her life anymore. So when he goes back home, he's hooking up with a pretty co-worker, Sam (Jennifer Lawrence), and Anna becomes involved with her hunky neighbor, Simon (Charlie Bewley), but even after looking through moment-in-time scrapbooks and sending "i-miss-you" texts, the two loons just can't shake that feeling that they're still in love like crazy. Big deal! Get over it! Move on with your life! 

Writer-director Doremus (2010's "Douchebag") and co-writer Ben York admirably tell their dramatic love story without tacking on water work-ready terminal illness or misunderstandings. Instead, they make a few missteps that lend to us caring less and less about whether Anna and Jacob will stay together. In fact, "Like Crazy" might've worked had the couple broken up, stopped pining, and stayed apart, tracking both of them in the happiness of new relationships. But no, we have to slog through Anna and Jacob's long, tough trip back into each other's arms. From the start, Jones and Yelchin share a giddy-in-love chemistry as they canoodle in bed and all over Santa Monica (insert long "endless summer" montage of bumper cars and lovey-dovey things), but it's never clear why these two supposedly smart kids are so enamored with one another. More scenes of emotional groundwork that would've defined who Anna and Jacob are as people seem to be missing from Doremus' shot list. There's not much to them beyond their relationship, which is reduced to sharing a palate for upscale whiskey, and Anna liking the dull, wooden writing chair Jacob makes for her. Whether or not it was the filmmakers' intent to want these kids to just move on, you do; they're still young. 

If anything, Jones establishes herself as a lovely, charming, and candid specimen. Yelchin is a charismatic actor, but as Jacob, he's very passive. Lawrence (who clicked with Yelchin in "The Beaver") portrays Sam as a cool, smart, fun young lady that Jacob would be silly to give up, but she's betrayed with limited screen time. The fact that no script was set, just heavily outlined, and the actors improvised their dialogue does give "Like Crazy" a raw immediacy. The scenes in Anna's flat, when she discovers something on Jacob's cell phone and anger is unleashed, feel very authentic, as do the times spent with Anna's cool, levelheaded parents (Oliver Muirhead and Alex Kingston). Even the gauzy, woozy cinematography has a heartbreaking melancholy. And there certainly is some pang of relatablity to this bittersweet study in puppy love of yearning and later forcing a feeling that is no longer there. But after the breakup and then their marriage and then another breakup, the characters' stop-and-start romance becomes aggravating to watch. 

Only heartsick teens that have never been in a relationship before will fall in crazy, stupid love with this Sundance indie favorite. In the trailer and over the film's ending credits, Stars' sad, mopey tune "Dead Hearts" suggests we've just witnessed a romance that matters, but really, it's just petty. 

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas (2011)
90 min., rated R.
Grade: B

As Christmas songs, twinkle lights, and TV holiday specials are already upon us, why not join in on the cheer with "A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas"? Whether or not a third "Harold & Kumar" movie—let alone one in 3-D—was high on your wish list, this cheerfully naughty, merrily rude third entry is kind of a blast. It's the most wonderful time of the year, but with utterances of "chode" and "queaf," Winter Wonder Weed, a Claymation penis, a prosthetic penis stuck to a cold pole "Christmas Story"-style, and the real Santa Claus (played by the real Richard Riehle) being shot out of the sky. Directed by first-timer Todd Strauss-Schulson and again written by John Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, "A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas" is less witty than 2004's "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle" but less scattershot than "Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay." 

After feeding their munchie fix with some White Castle burgers, and being jailed and escaping from Guantanamo Bay, the once-inseparable slacker-stoner duo Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) have grown apart, at least for now. Harold is now a Wall Street big shot living the suburban life and trying to have a baby with his wife, Maria (Paula Garces), so he's put down his bong in case of infertility. Kumar, on the other hand, has failed a drug test into medical school and gets high all day, just like old times, but his girlfriend has just dumped him for being immature and messy, and reveals that she's pregnant. A mysterious package gets dropped on Kumar's apartment doorstep, addressed to Harold. Meanwhile, on Christmas Eve, Harold's intimidating, adamently traditional father-in-law (Danny Trejo) and Maria's extended Hispanic famiy are visiting, but the patriarch wants his twelve-foot Fraser Fir Christmas Tree to be decorated by Harold. Once the good buddies reunite, the package is unwrapped to find a blunt that burns down the tree, and Kumar helps Harold go on a desperate search for a new one before Maria and her relatives return home from mass. Their misadventures involve attending a virgin's house party and getting entangled with her father, a brutal, headline-hogging Ukranian gangster (Elias Koteas). 

Cho and Penn have already settled into these characters and continue their loose, bromantic chemistry. But after all these years, the initial outgrowing of their friendship feels necessary. Even a cute reference to "working in the White House" (like Penn taking a hiatus from acting to campaign for President Obama's administration) sneaks itself into the movie. The real high point is Neil Patrick Harris playing a debauched version of himself again, this time making his grand entrance as the toy-soldier centerpiece of a TV holiday-musical extravaganza. Since this is the first "Harold & Kumar" movie to have NPH since his coming-out, he has tons of wicked fun riffing on his "gay" image, complete with his significant other David Burtka being in on the joke. Danny Trejo, in cheesy Christmas sweaters, is also funny casting as Maria's adamently traditional father. 

In the amiable/prickly spirit of Terry Zwigoff's deliciously vulgar "Bad Santa," this "3D Christmas" shakes up those trumped-up, ultra-sentimental Christmas movies. There's a hilariously mean faux-infomercial of a "Wafflebot," the hot new item for under the tree; a clever claymation holiday-horror sequence that H and K hallucinate after ingesting some drug-infused egg nog; and a gleefully inappropriate bit where the baby daughter of Harold's lame friend (Thomas Lennon) inadvertently keeps getting high as a kite on weed, cocaine, and ecstasy. Even the use of 3-D (yes, 3-D, that cash-cow gimmick) is actually the best seen in a while, gimmicky and self-aware and it makes "'Avatar' look 'avatarded'." Ornaments, glass, egg yolk, and beer pong balls are flung at you, and pot smoke is repeatedly blown your way. The R-rated, politically incorrect outrageousness isn't anything shocking or new, but "A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas" is a jolly (bong) hit of festive decadence. Like the best Christmas movies, it's about the importance of tradition without losing sight of togetherness with friends and family…and a joint.

Monday, November 14, 2011

One-note "Sleeping Beauty" needed to be put to sleep

Sleeping Beauty (2011)
104 min., rated R.
Grade: D

"Sleeping Beauty" premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where critics received an early-bird screening and praised the courageous performance by Emily Browning. Naturally, it's touted as "courageous" because she gets naked and just lays in a bed to be fondled by wrinkled men that could be her grandfather. That might be considered fearless and brave from an acting standpoint, but either way, the film itself deserves no such praise. Backed by filmmaker Jane Campion, "Sleeping Beauty" is the feature debut of Australian novelist-turned-filmmaker Julia Leigh, who also wrote the script, but collapses under the weight of its own artistic intent and strange exploration of psychosexual ideas. By no surprise, the film was not selected for the Palme d'Or. 

Independent university student Lucy (Browning) works menial jobs to come up with her apartment rent. Her odd gigs include playing guinea pig to medical experimentation (a string is inserted through her mouth and into her gullet), making copies at an upscale office, and waitressing at an eatery. When she's not working, she accepts lines of coke from strangers in lounge bathrooms and prostitutes herself to men that have to flip a coin for her body. Her morning ritual consists of visiting and caring for her only friend, Birdmann (Ewen Leslie), an agoraphobic alcohol who takes vodka in his cereal. When her roommates threaten to kick her out of the apartment, Lucy answers an ad for more work. Clara (Rachael Blake), the woman that welcomes and interviews Lucy, informs her that the job requires absolute discretion and confidentiality. After having Lucy strip down to her underwear and inspecting her body, Clara offers Lucy the kinky position as a lingerie waitress for private parties and tells her to go by the name "Sarah" when on the job. Her serving talents will come with a promotion: she will be drugged and unconscious in a bed so old clients can have their way with the "sleeping beauty." "You will go to sleep. You will wake up. It will be as if those hours never existed," Clara tells her. But there is one rule: no penetration, because Lucy's "vagina is a temple." That apparently hefty pay better be worth it. 

Leigh's film is handsomely made, with her glacial pacing and precise static shots and head-on framing, but she is too coy in her messaging and too muddled in her storytelling. She seems to be saying that young women are sexually submissive when they're asleep and naked, and old men are still dominant and able to excite their fantasies. You don't say! Nothing feels germane to anything else, and character relationships are left opaque and we hold only the most clinical connection to them. Browning has such an expressive, porcelain-doll face and a fair-skinned innocence that it's a shame she's given so little to work with in the part of Lucy. She's merely the object of the male gaze and touch. Lucy isn't complex or interesting, just inscrutable, financially strapped, and morally loose. If she is self-loathing, why not find a job that gains her self-respect? We discover that Lucy's mother is an alcoholic, but answering a phone call from her, Lucy spouts off a credit card number from memory. Is it her own account information? Is it even real? Who knows? After finding cigarette burns on her neck, Lucy decides to buy a micro surveillance camera that she sets up in the sleeping chamber to find out what the men do with her while she's out. But to what end? 

Only associated with the Brothers Grimm fairy tale by its title, "Sleeping Beauty" attempts to pass itself off as an erotic art film. But really, it's just masturbatory filmmaking and pretentious nonsense. Like an abstract piece of art you'd find in a museum, "Sleeping Beauty" will only be appreciated and understood by its artist. It's icky when it should provoke something other than off-putting titillation.