Category: James Owen

50/50

By , November 7, 2011 8:08 am

"Doc, I cannot get French Stewart's insufferable mugging out of my head."

Reviewed by James Owen

About once a year, Hollywood puts out a Death Film in which a Bad Person—corporate lawyer, heartless doctor, inattentive father—confronts death and learns to be a Better Person. Usually, the lesson is money isn’t everything and/or the roses should be smelled—think Adam Sandler in the last Seth Rogen Death Film, Judd Apatow’s “Funny People.”  A variation is the Death as Noble Conclusion in which a saintly character faces death with dignity and grace, ultimately teaching lessons to lesser people characters. Usually, a gorgeous actress—Debra Winger, Julia Roberts—is stricken with a terminal disease to show us that even movie stars can die, and that should make life worth living?

Can’t we just have a film about death being, per Mrs. Gump, “just a part of life”? A film about the general routine of ordinary people who are dying? That’s the goal of Jonathan Levine’s “50/50”, a film that tackles terminal cancer in such a sublime way that you can…almost forgive its soulless ending. While based on the experience of comedy writer and Seth Rogan pal Will Reiser, “50-50” wisely translates the story into that of average late-twenties Seattlite Adam (Jospeh Gordon-Levitt) who finds out he has a rare form of cancer that can only be tackled with surgery after chemo. He goes from being a journalist for Seattle’ NPR with his artsy girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard, cornering the market in the “be-otch” role) to someone with a death warrant.

Rather than go the Rob Reiner route and take up skydiving and safaris, Adam keeps working on his story about some volcano because, hey, he needs the health care coverage. He gives the girlfriend a chance to bail, but even this bitchy girl cannot honestly turn him away. His friend Kyle (Rogan) wants to take advantage of the situation by scoring sympathy on the dating scene. His mother (Angelica Huston) just becomes more overbearing and intrusive than before. His therapist (Anna Kendrick) is in residency working on her second patient. Pretty much, everyone around Adam is a bit of a mess about this. He’s terrified and worried about them, mostly, because he doesn’t have to become a better person—as he says in the trailer, he’s already pretty okay.  There’s no way he could get cancer because “doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, and recycles.” But, hey, cancer happens.

Adam confronts all this with his weapon of choice: talking it out. He does not avoid it, his friends do not avoid it, the older guys at chemo (Phillip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer) do not avoid it. Thankfully, instead of offering teeth-gnashing and melodramatic dialogue, are characters are clever and funny.  I won’t retell the best jokes, but Reiser clearly models his screenplay on Apatow’s “Knocked Up,” which specialized in coating serious themes banter about sex and drugs to help them go down a little smoother. Shoot, Judd Apatow’s Death Film—the above-mentioned “Funny People”—tackled death in similar ways. If he had not used it as a self-indulgent home video to show off his marginally-talented wife and kids, and run it on forty minutes longer than necessary, it might have looked like “50/50”.

What makes this film exceptional, rather than simply being better than an Adam Sandler “serious” movie from two years ago, is how the film uses gallows humor to examine death. For example, Adam shares some pot brownies with his fellow chemo patients. We’ve never seen that before, especially in a Seth Rogen movie! But then, Adam walks through the ward, meditating on different patients at different stages of their disease.  Adam—still high—walks by someone flat-lining, and all he can do is laugh.

In the movie theater, we laugh at otherwise objectively grotesque and cruel deaths in action and horror movies because it’s a release of our surprise and uncertainty.  But we also laugh to mask our fear of the horrible and unknown—which is exactly why Adam laughs at his fellow patient.  Levine turns two cinematic clichés into a poignant moment of a character whistling past his graveyard.  We don’t see Adam as cruel or simply high because we understand exactly why he’s laughing—it’s the same reason we’ve laughed with a movie about terminal cancer.

The film is full of moments like this, enough to forgive the film for a completely unbelievable and formulaic ending that does everything humanly possible to wreck everything that happened before it. Forget about its implausibility, it’s just disingenuously contrary to the tone of the rest of the film. If you can get past it, “50/50” offers enough complex emotion to be one of the best films of the year. Levitt and Huston deserve nominations. Everyone else in the cast deserves accolades. It would be tough to tackle a comedy about cancer, and certainly the film’s box-office results show the challenges in selling it. Next time out, perhaps if the cancer gave him super powers. That might have been a hit.

The Pitch:

2 Terms of Endearment

2 Terms of Endearment

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

2 Knocked Up

2 Knocked Up

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

4 50/50

4 50/50

4 50/50

4 50/50

Real Steel

By , October 25, 2011 8:50 pm

"Well, it was either refinance my mortgage or do this movie. This movie required less paperwork."

Reviewed by James Owen

If you’re going to make a sci-fi flick about fightin’ robots, then have the decency to make a crazily stupid film if you aren’t going to swing for allegory or social relevance. That is, unless you are hack extraordinaire Shawn Levy, and Richard Matheson’s short story easily translates into a vanilla paste-bland October filler movie. “Real Steel” and takes what could be an interesting story (really!) and makes it into series of sports movie cliches that lack any genuine…wait for it…punch.

It’s 2020 and technology has evolved to where robots have replaced humans in the sport of boxing. Did the sport have to do that for health or liability concerns? We never find out.  Does our society also use this technology to wage wars or supplement law enforcement—I mean, we’re sending Predator drones into sovereign airspace to shoot at whomever’s on our terror list! Unfortunately, the director of the Night at the Museum films isn’t much interested in anything other than…hey…fightin’ robots!

Former boxer Charlie Denton (Hugh Jackman) is supposed to be this unscrupulous, down-and-out robot shill that takes heaps of scrap to state fairs to fight bulls. (Yes, you heard me. Even this is treated with earnestness.)  However, that’s hard to convey to an audience when you look like Hugh Jackman with a close-shaved head.

But we’ve got a family sub-plot brewing. Through ridiculous legal wrangling, Charlie gets stuck with his son Max (Dakota Goya), whom he now takes him on the robot-battling circuit. Undeterred, we watch Charlie buy other junky robots and watch them get eviscerated comically. His robots get a particular thrashing from super-robot Zeus (yes, Zeus). Then, Max finds Atom, who somehow saves young Max’s life. Atom is some kind of practice robot who can take hits but not really dole any out.

Wow…he sounds like Charlie: life is always pummeling and he can’t seem to do anything about it.  While Dad is not sold on Atom, Max really does believe in him. Or it. And, even though he’s never had much of a relationship with dear old pop, the film strives to convince us this confidence will help Max believe in Charlie as well. They work on Atom, the audience is treated to training montages, and we watch as the story crescendos towards Atom taking on Zeus (yes, Zeus) in the climatic battle.

Think about, for a moment, where the screenwriters are trying to take this movie. It could be the ultimate conflict between man-made technology. You have this minuscule unit (with a namesake acknowledging its place in science) battling “the father of the gods.” The simple vs. the complex. The accessible vs. the powerful. The great thing about science fiction is its ability to play out contemporaneous concerns to extreme boundaries in order to challenge the audience. While the notion of fighting robots is kind of silly, there’s real potential. What would happen if artificial intelligence could challenge each other? Would it be better for humanity? Worse?

But Shawn Levy, whether he cares anything about sci-fi or not, knows what makes a studio executive happy. He knows how to craft a film into a good marketing campaign. Or is that the other way around?  Either way, he would rather not challenge when he can placate. This is a film about a father redeeming his image in the eyes of his son. This is about an underdog training for the Big Fight.  Both are tried and true formulas. Even with all the potential for provocative material, “Real Steel” fails because Charlie isn’t the one going into the ring. The robot is. So all the tension about whether Charlie will be redeemed as a father or an ex-boxer is pointless because HE’S NOT FIGHTING ANYONE! There’s a disconnect between his character’s arc and the outcome of the story because they are parallel, not convergent. Perhaps better filmmakers could cross these two paths. What we know is the guy who made “Date Night” sure can’t.

Compare this to the episode of The Twilight Zone that adapted the Matheson story. Lee Marvin plays the lead, which centers more on how man interacts with machine and how society has become sold on machine’s superiority.  It’s a little dated, but you can see the potential. The film could have evoked some ethical questions, like a low-rent “A.I.” Or it could have just been crazy fun. I hoped for misplaced ambition or something that would show Jackman thought this was as goofy as the rest of us. Nope, just a dull film geared for families with nothing memorable left for the kids or their parents. It’s about as offensive as what Warner Brothers did to the end of “I am Legend.”

Could they not have even called it “Reel Steel”? The extra “e” makes it fun in a stupid way. But no, the dude who gave us “Cheaper by the Dozen” couldn’t even have done us that favor.

The Pitch:

1 Battlebots

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 Michael Bay

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

2 Real Steel

2 Real Steel

Moneyball

By , October 22, 2011 9:51 am

A rejected "before and after" shot for the new Weight Watchers campaign

Reviewed by James Owen

Bennett Miller’s “Moneyball” looks like the ultimate “inside baseball” movie. As such, I shouldn’t like it. I was raised with a disdain for sports and haven’t developed patience for it as an adult (Except for you, fellas). But this Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin (!) adaptation of the  Michael Lewis novel isn’t so much about baseball as it’s about the Grand Idea—something so crazy that merely putting it into motion is legendary.

Usually, these films center on eccentric and/or obsessive characters who kick all life’s other responsibilities, including their loved ones, right in front of the bus of the Grand Idea.  This is easier to see in films about business, like Martin Scorcese’s Howard Hughes biopic “The Aviator” or the Sorkin-written Zuckerberg opus “The Social Network”. But this is also the root of underdog sports movies like “Slap Shot” or “A League of their Own.”  How else do you beat the odds without a Grand Idea?  I may not like sports, but “Moneyball” shows what’s possible in sports movies.

Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) was a phenom as a recruit, meh as a player, and now floundering as the general manager of the Oakland A’s. Despite (or because of) a successful 2001 season, all of the good players are bolting for the big money of the Red Sox and the Royals. Ha ha. Just kidding, Kansas City. I meant the Yankees. Beane has no money and, despite his pleas, will not get any money. His scouts are from bygone days, dispensing the same type of thinking they’ve done for decades. Beane rages against it without really knowing why. He tries to cut a deal with GM Mark Shaprio of the Cleveland Indians, who tries to yank good prospects from him based on the advice of his minion, the Yale-educated Peter Brand (Jonah Hill). Like any smart business man, Beane identifies Brand as a threat and offers him a job.

What makes Brand so good? His approach to prospect evaluation is different than the conventional wisdom. The scouts that so irritate Beane look at RBIs, stolen bases, and batting averages (and idiosyncratic details like basing a player’s confidence on the hotness of his girlfriend), where Brand looks at on-base percentages and other obscure-but-revealing statistics. This is too wonkish, too dorky, too new for a traditionalist sport like baseball.

Enter Moneyball! Having spent time in Lawrence, Kansas the home of Bill James, I had actually heard of this. James rose from obscurity in the early 1980s with tomes looking at baseball through a frame he coined “sabermetrics,” which focused on data-driven game analysis. Now, the film informs me James is a weirdo (a fair point) as well as, in the early part of the zero decade anyways, outside the conventional thinking.

After some fast-paced Sorkin-style whiteboarding, Beane puts together a team that causes a revolt with the scouts and consternation with the manager Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, so brilliant with so little).  Howe resists this new system because he must manage in a way “he can explain in job interviews after the season.”  This classic Sorkin line creates a sympathetic Howe because, well, you can’t really blame him. Lesser films would make him the bad guy, but “Moneyball” knows the Grand Idea doesn’t really have villains. It just has people who haven’t come around yet.

Where the tension lies in “Moneyball” is not in a protagonist-antagonist formula. It’s about time and pressure. It’s about watching the Grand Idea as it flounders and flops, is criticized and mocked. The opening of the 2002 season is a slow-burning agony;  Bennet’ pacing is slow and lingering, contrary to the David Fincher approach of squeezing two pages of Sorkin’s script  per minute in “The Social Network.” This goes to the purpose of this film: not to show the breakneck speed of an overnight success, but to make the audience question the outcome of something they should already know is true. Miller pulls it off with real style and skill.

Pitt wears the agony of losing like a tailor-made suit. He embodies the inherent contradiction of the film: his Grand Idea is predicated on rethinking a system so that it wouldn’t have picked him as a player out of high school. That failure drives this success—moneyball would weed out players like him. Some critics have complained Beane’s failure is not well-explained, but to my mind, it’s almost over-explained. If not for Pitt’s longing stares and defeated posture, it would be over-the-top. It’s not his just his rugged handsomeness without an expiration date that evokes Newman and Redford. He wears the emotional distress of his characters without beating us over the head. That’s an effortless movie star worthy of such comparisons.

Of course, things come around. This is perhaps a “spoiler,” but moneyball leads to the A’s to the longest regular season winning streak in America League history. Of course, critical sports historians will say the film omits the strength of the team’s pitchers. (Yes, I quoted NPR. I DON’T GET SPORTS!) But, folks, Grand Idea movies cannot cram in every fact.  This is not a movie about a competent pitching staff, and you probably couldn’t sell that at $9 a ticket.  The most gratifying part of “Moneyball” to watch Beane and Brand scheme and scrap their way toward realizing their vision from nearly two-and-half hours. They fire staff and trade players. They finesse the egos of some and blow off others.  We know Pitt can do this, but the revelation is Jonah Hill, who proves to be just as good in a sober, not exactly offbeat drama as he is in the angst-ridden Apatow comedies.

“Moneyball” is not flawless. After the climax, the film dwells on for another twenty minutes about post-season decision-making that requires less dramatization than it’s given. Plus, the actual story has a female drought, so the film creates a daughter and ex-wife to occupy the audience’s interest. Ex-wife Sharon barely registers, despite being played by the great Robin Wright. Beane’s daughter Casey (Kerris Dorsey) fares better simply because she’s in the film more, but her presence exists only to give “Moneyball” an emotional hook it doesn’t really need.

In the end, this isn’t what drives Billy Beane—he’s animated by the obsession to prove others wrong, to keep going until you win or go crazy in the process. You don’t need to understand sports to get that. I can stop everything I am doing to watch “Apollo 13” and not have to know anything about astrophysics. Same way with sabermetrics. “Moneyball” is a smart, well-acted film about the mechanics of obsession. That’s the real American pastime.

The Pitch:

2 Manager Joe Riggins

2 Manager Joe Riggins


 

 

 

 

 

 

 Plus

2 Deputy White House Communications Director Will Bailey


2 Deputy White House Communications Director Will Bailey


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

4 Moneyball


4 Moneyball


4 Moneyball


4 Moneyball

Ides of March, The

By , October 11, 2011 8:03 pm

One can only imagine what handsome, dashing men find funny.

Reviewed by James Owen

No filmmaker is better qualified to examine the guts of political campaigning than George Clooney, who worked on his father Nick’s unsuccessful 2004 congressional run in his native Kentucky.  In this way, “The Ides of March” is refreshing:  Many celebrities pledge “support” and raise money, but this Auteur actually talks about politics in an informed manner.  Unfortunately, Clooney’s film isn’t a policy argument in narrative form or a polemic about How Things Really Are, but a morality play about how cynicism is ruining politics and the country. Clooney, who adapted the film from former Charles Schumer and Howard Dean staffer Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North, tries so hard to make this rather obvious point that he misses the real point of the story.

“Ides” opens with junior campaign manager Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) alone on stage in an empty auditorium checking the sound by blandly mouthing his boss’ stump speech. Later, we hear Pennsylvania Governor and Democratic presidential candidate Mike Morris (Clooney) hitting every applause line in the speech—in fact, until the third act, Clooney seems to be filming a test run of a his own future campaign. These contrasting scenes embody the film’s theme:  a puppeteer of political theater and his pull-string doll whose voice fills the echo chamber.  Then we learn through handy exposition the primary is now down to two candidates: Morris and a conservative Arkansas senator (Michael Mantell), in the final battleground of Ohio.

Still, Clooney shrewdly boils down the action to the fight for one state’s delegates, where less assured filmmakers would have made everything BIG and blown the whole budget and pages of exposition on the entire campaign.  Rather, Clooney captures the claustrophobia of campaign life through Myers’ cramped offices and hotel rooms of Cincinnati.  He puts up with this unglamorous life because, despite working on a gazillion campaigns, he just knows there’s something different about Morris.

Based on the speeches given to him by the screenwriters (Clooney, Willimon, and Grant Heslov) as well as the art-deco posters, let’s assume “something different” means “Obama-esque.” Here lies the problem. A young guy like Myers probably wouldn’t be the deputy campaign manager on a presidential race, and if he were, he’d have the experience to eschew this kind of wide-eyed optimism.  Otherwise, he’d have burned out on other political saviors.  The professional campaigner can be dazzled by his boss (who probably got into politics precisely because he’s so dazzling), but you can’t make it from job to job without a healthy dose of skepticism.  You have to be cool without being cold, but Myers comes across more like a starry-eyed activist than a steady hand.

From this cracked foundation, the film crumbles in the second act.  Details will not be revealed here, but Hollywood’s political scandals are rather predictable:  Republicans get in trouble for money; Democrats get in trouble with women. Though reality isn’t quite so neat, “Ides” doesn’t deviate from this basic set-up.  Besides, the scandals are merely a fact of political life—what’s important is how they’re “handled.”  This is the true litmus test of professional politicos:  Do they see the “handling” of scandal as an evil in itself, or is “handling” simply a by-product of the natural composition of politics?

While this debate is worthwhile for political neophytes at all levels of our democracy, Clooney doesn’t really follow through on the idea.  Rather, he has said his film is about betrayal: between people, between a person and her morals, between the politician and the voter. The film’s title gives that away, Brute.  Clooney’s conclusion is that the origin of political cynicism is in the disappointment with “saviors”; thus, because the nature of politics is compromise and politicians are human, “true belief” begets cynicism.  In Clooney’s view, this is the logical conclusion of a political process with real people at their center: anyone seeking power is going to do something bad to get it. If you thought power came from doing good, shelve your principles and get over it.

I didn’t need George Clooney to tell me that—and, in fact, his conclusion doesn’t really jibe with the facts on the ground.  Perhaps, having worked as and around political professionals over the past eleven years in a variety of different races, I have a rosier view. Sure, many are jaded, and the higher on the food chain you go, the more cynical they can be.  But that dances around the complex reality of politics.

People make a living running campaigns, and like most professional people, they gravitate toward working for like-minded people they genuinely like.  As with all of us, sometimes they work for people just to pay the bills. But sometimes they work for people they believe can make a difference. That’s not special to politics—that’s just business.  Ultimately, the job of the Stephen Myerses of the world is to make sure the person they work for gets the chance to make a difference.  And when the right opportunities come along, Stephen Myers works for people he wants to get that chance.  And as long as candidates have to solicit donations en-masse to mass-market themselves, that’s the system.

There’s nothing cynical about working within a flawed system to affect the greater good—but it can often feel that way, which is what breeds political nihilism.  This is what “The Ides of March” should have been about, rather than theme-checking the Shakespeare play most common to junior highs.  In fact, Farragut North is a much better title.  This is the mystical stop on D.C.’s Red Line, where the political consultants on K-Street meet to, as the film puts it, “pimp out ex-Senators to Saudi sheiks.”   Why are people so attracted to the chain-smoking, casual alcoholism, crammed inadequacy of the office space (even in presidential campaigns), and lousy pay this life offers?  This is no glamour in creating call lists, and many politicos end up looking exactly like Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti:  shrewd, but horribly unhealthy and terribly worn out.  These two claw at every bit of dialogue with the need to win and, more importantly, be right.  Why do so many talented people give themselves to this life?

Clooney may be qualified to make a very good movie about politics, but he may not be the right guy to answer that question.  Sure, he’s developed into a great filmmaker:  his dark minimalism captures not only the realism of political life, but also his themes about the work that happens in the shadows between a members of a closed society.  But, his approach is all wrong.  He is the starry-eyed Obama supporter in the age of debt ceiling hostage taking.  He is the son who had to watch his dad lose his Congressional race. His ambition is “The Candidate.”  But to paraphrase another classic from the 1970’s: “Jake, it’s just campaign management.”

The Pitch:

2 Good Night, and Good Luck

2 Good Night, and Good Luck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 Bob Roberts

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

3 The Ides of March

3 The Ides of March

3 The Ides of March

Hangover 2, The

By , May 30, 2011 8:28 pm

Galifinakis using yoga techniques to relax during salary negotiations.

Reviewed by James Owen

Here’s the dilemma for sequelmakers:  Do you continue the same story line with the same characters and themes?  This rarely works if the original isn’t conceived as part of a larger story.  So, Todd Phillips, following up the neatly tied-together “The Hangover,” had to go the second route: basically remake the original but BIGGER, and by merit of that BIGGERNESS, being BETTER! 

But what if the key to the original’s success is its thrills, or gags, or thrilling gags?  Like “The Hangover”?  When you re-do the same thrills and gags, they can’t generate the same reaction because those reactions themselves rely on surprise.  Phillips had to come up with a new angle for the sequel to have any chance at success.

His strategy is to use the same set-up and most of the same material, but steer it around edgy and, frankly, dark turns.  The Wolfpack (Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifinakis) head overseas for Stu’s (Helms) wedding, only to find the ante raised in the bowels of the drug and sex world of Bangkok.

As with the original, the city itself is the star of the show.  The most under-praised triumph of the original was its portrayal of Las Vegas: Phillips drags a drugged-out bachelor party out of the casinos and suites of Sin City, dumping it into the bright, desert sun.  He spotlights the flea-bitten apartments, sparse hospitals, and florescent-tinged police stations the “What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas” ads don’t show you. The look of the film is jarring to the audience as it is for the characters trying to piece together the previous night’s debauchery.

Phillips doesn’t create the usual travelogue that befalls many American-abroad comedies.  He films the dank alleyways and crouched hallways of Bangkok in a way that brings out a vivid, terrifying texture. The audience can smell the seediness; they can see the danger around every corner like trying to see the city through a microscope. Plenty will call the ugly depiction xenophobic, or even racist, but the cinematography services the tone of the film.

Which is fairly ugly in itself—far nastier than the original.  Not only is The Wolfpack missing the bride’s brother, but he’s left a severed finger behind. They start a riot outside of a bar rather than just throwing a mattress off the roof. And the prostitute Helms’ character gets together with has one distinct difference from Heather Graham. And if you thought we got to see a lot of Ken Jeong naked in the first film, then wait until you see the camera lingers over him in “Part 2.”

 “The Hangover 2” will push you to the edge of your sense of humor and your sense of proper decorum.  But  it lacks genuine shock because you immediately recognize the rhythm and the pattern of the original. Phillips telegraphs the gags, so you fill in the blanks moments before Jeong’s naked body flies out of a previously locked compartment.  Forget about predictability sucking the fun out of the movie; we’re also deprived of the mystery element of “The Hangover 2”. The structure of the original was as fresh as the jokes and the audacious casting. But Phillips seems to go through the motions here, so even this very ingenious device also feels stale.

I am not in the business of second-guessing how you could improve upon a sequel to “The Hangover.” Phillips is certainly a good enough of a director to figure out the BEST way to do it. (The screenplay he cranked out with Scot Armstrong and Craig Mazin can be primarily blamed for this lazy cash grab). But when Galifinakis looks bored, you know the film’s in bad shape. When using a Danzig song to open your summer blockbuster is a simple retread, that’s toxic.

The Pitch:

1 1/2 Bachelor Party

1 1/2 Bachelor Party

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 Home Alone 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

2 1/2 The Hangover 2

2 1/2 The Hangover 2

2 1/2 The Hangover 2

Bridesmaids

By , May 29, 2011 7:33 pm

Sharing The Wonderful Secrets of P.T. Anderson

Reviewed by James Owen

You should always get nervous when people start telling you movies released in May have important social significance—especially a raunchy R-rated comedy. You may be thinking, isn’t “Bridesmaids” just the Judd Apatow formula applied to the “chick flick” template?

On the surface, yes, but it’s far more interesting. The film, directed by quirky-tv guy Paul Feig (The Office, Nurse Jackie, Parks and Recreation, Weeds, Arrested Development, Undeclared, and for ultimate cred, Freaks and Geeks), tells the story of a down-and-out thirty-something (co-screenwriter Kristin Wiig) finding herself as newly-affluent, life-long friend’s (Maya Rudolph) maid of honor. More than a set-up for standard-issue bridezilla gags, the film becomes a funny, bittersweet look at how weddings can become microcosms for class resentment and socio-economic pandering. Overdoing it a bit? Not any more than calling it an important step for feminism.

Wiig’s Annie, whose trendy Milwaukee store went under during the Great Recession, finds herself in charge of Rudolph’s Lillian’s wedding. Though raised in the middle class suburbs of eastern Wisconsin, Lillian moved off to Chicago (a source of Milwaukeeans’ dreams and sadness) and got rich. She has new friends like the horribly preened Helen (Rose Byrne) and Rita (Wendi McLendon-Covey, of the recently cancelled Reno 911), who will not let motherhood or a McMansion get in the way of her angry libido. Annie looks at an overpriced bridesmaid dress; the others are thrilled it’s on sale. Annie wants the bachelorette party somewhere quaint (i.e. cheap); everyone else wants Vegas. I won’t give away the funny but terribly inhumane door gift at the bridal shower.

Everything goes awry, of course, but unlike most “down on your luck bridesmaid movies” (which seems to get released every January), there’s a well-articulated anger between the two main characters. It’s not just class resentment (which is the overriding factor), but also their positions in life. Yes, our Annie is lonely and looking for the right guy—the film opens with Annie literally getting…ummm…screwed by a rich guy (Jon Hamm, playing the obnoxious jerk bit perfectly), who cheerily refers to her as “his number 3”. She then finds herself falling for Wisconsin State Trooper (Chris O’Dowd) after they Meet Cute and he proves himself to be nice, likable, Irish, and BLUE-COLLAR. 

That’s right: Wiig’s love interest is a Wisconsin state employee. For Annie’s sake, it’s a real shame Governor Scott Walker is going to pillage his pension but, at least, he’ll allow him to continue collective bargaining.

Because of little touches like this, I give more credit to Wiig and her screenwriting partner Annie Mumolo than to Apatow, though he tackled some of the same themes in the overstuffed “Funny People”.  In fact, it’s unfair to pigeonhole Wiig and Mumolo’s work as an Apatow Chick Flick.  “Chick Flicks” is a pejorative, the cinema ghetto for people justifying lazy and clichéd estro-humor that actually paints women as jealous and petty. “Bridesmaids” paints the same picture, but to Wiig and Mumolo’s credit, they don’t pretend that you should like them AT THE SAME TIME. The clichés here are so fleshed out that there’s nothing much lazy about the production. The result isn’t a preachy, socially-conscious movie that ends up turning people off its message.  It’s a “chick flick” that even a jaded, cynical guy can appreciate.  The next time some idiot tells me the new Katherine Heigl film is “funny” and “cute”, I can tell them it’s no “Bridesmaids”.

On a personal level, especially in our twenties before we’re really established, haven’t we all been asked to spend a little too much on somebody else’s wedding?  Not that it’s not a big deal and we’re happy to do it, but…it’s a lot of money to pile on top of that student loan payment.  “Gritty” and “honest” wedding movies like “Margot at the Wedding” and “Rachel Getting Married” usually don’t turn on these basic kinds of questions because everybody is comfortably WASP-y, so sibling rivalries and parent resentment and all the rest take center stage.  But I appreciate “Bridesmaid”’s insight, not to make this too personal.  Sorry, I’ve never been strung out at a multicultural celebration masquerading as a wedding before.  

The Pitch:

2 A Wedding

2 A Wedding

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 1/2 Laverne and Shirley

1 1/2 Laverne and Shirley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

3 1/2 Bridesmaids

3 1/2 Bridesmaids

3 1/2 Bridesmaids

3 1/2 Bridesmaids

Thor

By , May 13, 2011 3:53 pm

Thor's homage to the mashed potatoes/kitchen table scene in "Close Encounters of the Third King."

Reviewed By James Owen

What was going through Marvel Studio executives’ minds when, in trying to figure out who would helm their film adaption of “Thor”, the name Kenneth Branagh came up? “Ummm…1991 called and they want their Orson Welles wunderkind back”?  “What? Is John Madden too busy getting the Weinstein brothers tea and crumpets?” (This John Madden, not this one)

Julie Taymor was another counterintuitive consideration, but you can see how her provocative style, as in her adaptations of “Titus” and “The Tempest,” would fit Marvel’s visions for “Thor.” Then again, Taymor was too busy getting fired by Bono. I was thinking about Joe Wright, whose “Atonement” has both the action set pieces and literary sensibility “Thor” aspires to.  Instead, he kicked butt with the sixteen year old Finnish girl assassin movie “Hanna.”  

Perhaps Branagh is next on the list.  Marvel conceived “Thor” as a kind of high-minded myth, a superhero owing as much to Shakespeare as the Nordics.  And sure, Branagh’s Shakespeare is brash, but by now, it’s dated. Besides, hasn’t Branagh done irreparable damage to his reputation by directing Alicia Silverstone in “Love’s Labour’s Lost” and by playing the weird Steve Martin-sounding bad guy in “Wild Wild West”?  Could Branagh reinvent himself for an age where comic book myths aspire to higher art?

Thor (Chris Hemsworth and his abs) are from Asgard, which I thought was on some other planet, but a comic book dork informed me is from part of this world…sort of.  Branagh hardly bothered with the distinction, so if it didn’t interest him, why should it interest me?  Anyway, his father is King Odin (Anthony Hopkins), who helped Norway defeat the Frost Giants back in the 10th century. The Frost Giants sound like a cereal and look like random bodyguards of Jabba the Hutt, which is to say they don’t seem unusually menacing.  Odin seeks peace with these nasty-looking critters and hopes either Thor or his other son Loki (Tom Hiddleston) will ascend to the throne with that purpose. That doesn’t go well, resulting in an epic battle between brothers as well as their father. While Thor is the natural choice, he’s a little too gung-ho about war. If Odin is George H. W., think of Thor as George W. Loki as Jeb. I guess.

This sounds vaguely Lear-ian, with a touch of the Henry histories, but it also sounds like hack comic-book stuff.   Branagh’s job is to turn this into more of the former and less of the latter. His first success is with Hopkins, who is not below taking a paycheck in a lame pseudo-mythical blockbuster. Though used sparingly, Hopkins’ line readings in “Thor” clearly show he’s taking this seriously; this is not Sir Alec Guinness rolling his eyes at OB-Wan’s dialogue. His second success is pairing Hopkins with Hiddleston, who has done Shakespeare on stage AND THE RADIO! Branagh films them tight two-camera coverage, creating an intimacy and a real sense of theater.

All of this is surrounded, however, by CGI-nonsense and hyper-stylized exposition.  And Chris Hemsworth in space (or some other dimension or whatever) when Thor is banished to Earth. He hooks up with “brilliant physicist” Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, who made twenty movies during the various “Black Swan” production hiatuses). She is followed around by creepy European Stellan Skarsgård (who also takes “Thor” more seriously than any real actor should) and Kat Dennings as an “intern” whose duty includes getting coffee and providing comic relief. The interaction between Thor and the earthlings is mostly lame fish out of the water trappings, but “Thor” also includes a conflict centering on the odd interaction between myth and science. Branagh doesn’t seem to know what to do with this; rather, he takes more pleasure in filming the actors’ performances than using the full screen to create tension or develop ideas. While his style is unique to an action film of this size, Branagh lacks the sense of motion and visual artistry of a Christopher Nolan or Bryan Singer.

Still, Branagh intense focus and willingness to take the story seriously gives “Thor” a slight edge all the same.  It ain’t Shakespeare, but it ain’t Brett Ratner, either.

The Pitch:

2 Clash of the Titans

2 Clash of the Titans

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 Much Ado About Nothing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

3 Thor

3 Thor

3 Thor

Super

By , May 10, 2011 12:20 pm

Shrute steps up his efforts to get Michael Scott's position at Dunder Mifflin.

By James Owen

James Gunn’s “Super” ventures down the new-ish path in the superhero genre: the average person as crime-fighting avenger.  Predecessors include Zach Synder’s 2009 “Watchmen,” which portrayed adults as fragments of their own damaged childhoods, mending their inner children in the shadow of nuclear Holocaust by exacting vengeance or justice or whatever. Matthew Vaughn’s 2010 “Kick Ass” imagined adolescent pain as cartoonish maiming, as if Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold mowed down bad guys instead of innocents.  Though their themes differed, both films were hyperstylized and granted its heroes fighting prowess and gadgets not available to the public. 

These were much more commercial vehicles.  In contrast, “Super” wonders out loud if its characters aren’t just scarred, but are they even sane. Frank D’Arbo (Rainn Wilson) dons a mask and grabs a monkey wrench to fight crime because his beautiful yet drug-susceptible wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) dumped him for the local crime lord, a charmer named Jacques (Kevin Bacon, enjoying being Kevin Bacon). Believing his wife never saw him as more than a loser fry-cook, he intends to reform his image as well as go after the bad guys who hold her in their HQ.

Gunn develops an interesting concept in Frank’s development from schmo to The Crimson Bolt, one that’s alluded to but never overtly discussed in the comic book universe. Part of his inspiration is The Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillon), a Christian channel character who saves high schoolers from sloth and heavy petting brought about by Satan himself (played by the director but looking like Alan Cummings.) In the superhero genre, the villains are so obvious that the superhero doesn’t play the arbiter of right and wrong, not because he doesn’t—but because the answers are self-evident.  By taking his cues from Christian television, this elision is brought to the surface, setting up a potentially fascinating critique of the very premise of the superhero genre. 

But Gunn himself quickly elides this premise and puts Frank/Crimson Bolt’s plan into action, which takes an extreme view of Christian morality.  Or, perhaps, Frank is just psychotic with tinges of religiosity, or maybe his sidekick Boltie (Ellen Page) is a little too thrilled after a bad guy takes that monkey wrench to the forehead.  Sure, “Watchmen” had some pretty unstable characters, but at least they raised the moral questions surrounding their work. In this film, Bolt and Boltie exact horrific justice, without distinction, on child molesters and violators of common courtesy alike.  Frank’s explanation is simple: “The rules have never changed. Don’t deal drugs. Don’t cut in line.”

This should trouble the Christian mind—Frank eradicates Dante’s levels of hell and tosses the despots of The Phlegethon in with the virtuous pagans.  The unflinching nastiness of Frank’s violence takes the film closer to horror than action. But Gunn loses his conviction and tries to sugarcoat Frank, who always has some sincere reason for his actions.  Gunn invests substantial screen time in Frank and Sarah’s relationship, making it clear from the opening shot to the last sequence that this is the heart of the film. In fact, Frank would be a deranged loser if not for this central motivation.

It may not be sweet; “Super” is not that kind of movie. But the relationship makes the film more effective than the aggressively juvenile “Kick-Ass.”   It’s also the best thing Rainn Wilson has ever done. Normally, I think of him as an unfunny, creepy weirdo. Now, I just think of him as a creepy weirdo with good intentions. That’s what I would call building his fan base.  Dwight Schrute would agree; it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there.

The Pitch

2 Defendor

2 Defendor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 1/2 James Gunn's Divorce from Jenna Fischer

1 1/2 James Gunn's Divorce from Jenna Fischer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

3 1/2 Super

3 1/2 Super

3 1/2 Super

3 1/2 Super

Best Actor, Oscars 2010

By , February 26, 2011 9:56 am

James Owen breaks down the Best Actor nominees.

Javier Bardem, “Biutiful”

Bardem is the weary center of the feel bad hit of the season. Yes, I am counting the dead kid movie, the guy cutting off his arm movie , and “Blue Valentine”. Nothing will make you feel worse than Alejandro González Iñárritu’s detailed view of the grimy underbelly of the new global economy. Bardem uses his haunting facial features (mostly, deep forehead creases and dreary dark eyes) to convey the weight of the death surrounding him. He is a physically imposing force on screen; his sturdy frame but expressive face dominating every moment. He doesn’t have to overact to convey something significant.  But Bardem’s emoting just does not come from his physicality; he’s got the Oscar hat trick: he’s not only hurting from economic inequality, but as a down on his luck father and a cancer victim. Trifecta!  Plus, he’s a good-looking guy who has no reservation with making himself ugly. But Bardem got a statue three years ago, and he’s not won any awards that would indicate a win here.  Still, he solidifies himself as one of our Great Actors right now and will get his shot at a Lead Oscar soon enough.

Jeff Bridges, “True Grit”

Perhaps I will be struck down by the classic movie gods, but I caught the 1969 version of the Charles Portis novel and was struck by how…ridiculous John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn seems. Could be the actor’s cadence and demeanor has suffered from over imitation, or it could just be Wayne always played the same character no matter what the role required. Sometimes that worked (“The Searchers”), but sometimes it needed a better actor (Almost every other John Wayne move).  Here, Bridges plays his performance to the rafters like Wayne, Bridges’ Rooster maintains a stoic dignity despite the drunken antics and preposterous dialogue. In this, Bridges creates a compelling portrait of the post-War Confederate hangover the permeated the Old West—you know, kind of like John Wayne in “The Searchers.  Make no mistake, Wayne didn’t win that award because he did a great job in “True Grit”; he was headed toward the twilight and this seemed like the last shot to give him an Oscar. That’s where Bridges found himself last year in a great performance in the very marginal “Crazy Heart.”  A testament to Bridges’ ability, he’s back, but as great as he is, there’s no way he’s going to get to join the back-to-back Oscar club with Spencer Tracey and Tom Hanks.    

Jesse Eisenberg, “The Social Network”

David Fincher has said that the first reading for Aaron Sorkin’s 162-page shooting script took three hours. He knew it had to go quicker, never mind the general rule one page equals one minute of screen time.  The dialogue is tricky, but for the film to hum and click, the actors would have to break from convention. The result was a unique tone that made for a breathtaking cinematic experience. Whatever else you might say about Eisenberg’s characterization of Mark Zuckerberg, he had to wrap his mouth around Sorkin’s grandiose dialogue and work under the director’s demands (pretty irrational if all accounts of Fincher are believed). His rapid-fire delivery gravitated the audience into this timeless piece of theatrical cinema.  Can he win? If there were two front runners for this spot, the young guy might have a chance. But there only seems to be one front runner…

Colin Firth, “The King’s Speech” –

 ….and it’s this guy. It is hard to imagine Firth won’t win; he’s won every other award, and there are a lot of voters who wanted to see him win for 2009’s  “A Single Man”. I am going to get over my irritation for this film and acknowledge Firth does awkward befuddlement better than any Brit since Cary Grant. In today’s Hollywood, there’s no other competition, unless Hugh Grant—who’s better in darker roles—took himself more seriously. As for comparisons to Cary Grant, Firth hasn’t worked with directors like Hitchcock or George Stevens to develop his range. Furthermore, I’m not sure what Firth brings to this role. His King George VI is mostly just reacts stoically to bigger things going on around him. There’s not much to do other than seem vexed and stammered.  But it’s a lock. Bet on it.

James Franco, “127 Hours”

This guy is Exhibit A in the argument that all actors are weird.  What do you expect from a profession where people make money pretending to be someone else? But Franco has turned his career into something else entirely, and it doesn’t seemed staged, like a conscious piece of performance art or an experiment for his graduate study thesis. He’s just a weirdo, as he proves in his role as Aaron Ralston.   He carries an entire film without any other significant characters—something only a few real movie stars can pull off. Danny Boyle, a recent Oscar-winning director, said he would have Franco do fifty takes in quick succession to give the performance’s physicality more urgency.  The result is that Franco gives us something alternatively harrowing and funny and inspiring. In a town of odd ducks, they regard Franco as the oddest. Wait till he really nails a juicy biopic. Then, he’ll get his.

Best Supporting Actress, Oscars 2010

By , February 23, 2011 8:44 am

James Owen breaks down the Best Supporting Actress nominees.

Amy Adams, “The Fighter”

She’s the foul-mouthed and sassy Barmaid…with a Heart of Gold! Like most of David O. Russell’s film, Charlene is borne from sports movie archetypes—but Adams creates character from the template.  Sure, Adams is “tough” and “salty,” but her motivation is clear-eyed and sharp, at once charming and convincing even with a Massploitation accent. It speaks to “The Fighter”’s strength with the Academy voter that Adams was picked over other exceptional performances (Or it could be that I really loved “Never Let Me Go” and think Carey Mulligan and/or Keira Knightly got completely robbed?).  There’s some evidence, seen in several anonymous reports and its sheer volume of nominations, to suggest that older Academy voters are picking “The Fighter” rather than choose between “The King’s Speech” and “The Social Network.”  What’s clear is voters wanting to celebrate this flick will go with Melissa Leo. 

Helena Bonham Carter, “The King’s Speech”

Quite like Geoffrey Rush, for what this film is trying to accomplish, there’s nothing wrong with Carter’s performance as Queen Elizabeth. The depiction is appropriately stoic and polished, and fits into the personal affirmation theme of the film. Not that this is Bonham-Carter’s fault, but a less boilerplate narrative would have been more interesting and historically accurate. But, as it stands, she feels like perfunctory garnishment—you know, like her role in all of Tim Burton’s movies. A pity, as she is a far more interesting actress than that. Perhaps there’s more to the performance on the cutting room floor, but her relevance to Tom Hooper is as the determined and doting wife.  If “The King’s Speech” sweeps, Bonham-Carter could get caught up in it. She’s been nominated before and has a sheen of class older voters like. But I will overrule her stateliness for the trashiness of…

Melissa Leo, “The Fighter”

Watching Leo mold into Alice Ward wasn’t so much a performance as an endurance test for the audience. She is so maniacal, so destructive, and so trashy. She is the perfect villain: the bad guy who thinks she’s the hero of the story. No doubt that Alice has real love for her son and wanted to see him succeed—she just didn’t know how. But anyone who said different was ripe for the woodcutter. Sure, it’s a traditional showbiz parent role, but one done with gritty realism. A lot of people had love for Leo in the little-seen “Frozen River,” and that performance is probably driving the buzz on her as the sure winner.  But Adams could split her votes. That’s probably the only factor keeping this from being a sure thing.  

Hailee Steinfeld, “True Grit”

Many critics compared Steifeld’s Mattie Ross to Jennifer Lawrence’s Ree Dolly, but Dolly is more of a real character than Portis’ literary concoction. This character’s tricky, twisted dialogue on the concept of Western Justice would be tough for a seasoned veteran like Jeff Bridges or Matt Damon. But Steinfeld makes her debut with this film.  And she’s more central to film than those two actors, and her character is more fleshed out than the original.  It should be noted Kim Darby was twenty-two when she played the same role. And wasn’t nearly as good.  Still, Stanfield’s nomination as a supporting actress feels like an Oscar campaign trick.  She’s in almost every frame of the film, but the chances a child actor would win for a leading role is slim (Not to mention that the Lead Actress category this is year as strong as it’s been in awhile). If Leo and Adams split votes, it’s entirely likely the tactic will work.  

Jacki Weaver, “Animal Kingdom”

Straight from the art-house ghetto to the National Board of Review and LA Film Critics Association awards, Weaver seems an unlikely choice for an Oscar. But the Supporting Actress category likes odd ducks, and her Melbourne crime matriarch is the most memorable part of this pitiful crime flick. Whether it is awards-worthy is a valid question. She has minimal screen time (not that there’s a limit, right Judi Dench?) and, despite the surprising depth of her nastiness, her “Smurf” is a bit of a one-note performance. But credit the effectiveness of these earlier awards in building up an Oscar campaign. If not for the astute academics of the NBR, you would not have heard of Weaver or “Animal Kingdom” after the summer. As it is, crime film enthusiasts need to check it out.

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