The Hammer

March 20th, 2015

In his film star debut, The Man Show and Loveline’s Adam Carolla plays an Olympic caliber boxer. At 18, Jerry “The Hammer” Ferro was a champion; now 40, his nickname underscores his job in construction. Casting pale, paunchy Carolla as a knockout king is odd. (Though his nasal drone is no more incongruous than Mike Tyson’s pipsqueak.) That Carolla wrote the script (along with Kevin Hench) brings the premise into focus, as does the film’s quick mention that in recent medal bouts the US has taken home one prize to Kazakhstan’s three. Besides, Carolla’s cheesy romance with a classy public defender (Heather Juergensen) is so ludicrous that in comparison, the boxing seems entirely credible. A better love match is between him and best friend Oswaldo (Oswaldo Castillo), a migrant worker whose scenes set up Carolla’s gift for riffing sharply observational and utterly LA ethnic humor. (Upon spending his birthday with Oswaldo’s rowdy motherland-toasting buddies, Carolla notes, “You guys sure seem to love Nicaragua . . . except for the part where you risked your lives not to live there anymore.”) As a comic actor, Carolla splits the difference between Adam Sandler and Rodney Dangerfield. His one distinct tic is to cram in four punch lines when most would stop at one; few are knockouts, but each packs a solid hit. Like the boxer himself, the flick is flabby but light on its feet, both ultimately exceeding expectations.

Click here for The Hammer in the I.E. Weekly

No Strings Attached

January 21st, 2011

Boys and girls have been falling in love in romantic comedies ever since Harold Lloyd derailed his crush’s wedding in Gun Shy. (They’ve been falling in love longer in the real world, though the odds of a happy ending are halved.) What to do when the audience is certain of a happily-ever-after? In this tale of two fuck buddies, director Ivan Reitman flips the script: Adam (Ashton Kutcher) and Emma’s (Natalie Portman) relationship kicks off at her dad’s funeral, lurches into sex and ends with their first time holding hands. This is modern romance as agonized over by cultural critics like Ariel Levy, the hand-wringing author of Female Chauvinist Pigs. At worst, it’s the gateway to Sodom and Gomorrah. (You know, if you’re into that.) At best, it’s the logical extension of this precocious practicality of a generation who prioritizes career and independence and compartmentalizes the vulnerable human heart. Writer Elizabeth Meriwether even gives Kutcher a monologue that links impersonal sex to the connected disconnect of texting and Facebook. Sure. But this is really a fantasy that seduces its audience: women who want to pretend that they’re a brilliant med student with Ashton Kutcher at their beck and booty call, and men who’d love to get a text from Portman (or anyone, really) that reads “Your place, 30 min.”

The requirements of the central love story are simply two pairs of dreamy brown eyes and decent chemistry—neither Kutcher nor Portman register as anything as complicated as people. (Though they’ve both spent years onPeople’s Most Beautiful list.) But Reitman’s crammed the movie with odd people and odd throwaway jokes: Kevin Kline as the alpha dad who poaches Kutcher’s ex-girlfriend, Lake Bell as his trainwreck boss on a Glee-esque show, Greta Gerwig and Mindy Kaling as Portman’s awkward roommates and even Cary Elwes in a near-silent role as a bearded, inexplicably magnetic doctor. The shaggy fringes of the flick get most of the laughs—for one, it’s absurdly obsessed with ’90s hip-hop, including a punch line where Ludacris waxes about a very special time listening to “Who Let the Dogs Out?” Scenes are shaped in situ with the looseness of improv; Reitman’s forever cutting in at the tale end of a strange story, leaving in random digressions or cutting away after a did-they-just-say-that murmur. And when Kutcher oversteps by making his girl a period-themed mixtape, the joke keeps going, cranking out a half-dozen song titles, including “Sunday, Bloody Sunday.” By sheer force of will—or really, willingness to wedge in a joke a minute—it works well enough that it won’t crush Portman’s chances at a Best Actress Oscar. Alas. But as Love Story argued, love means never having to say you’re sorry.

Click here for No Strings Attached in the IE Weekly

The Dilemma

January 16th, 2011

Kevin James and Vince Vaughn are college buddies and co-workers in a start-up that engineers engines they pray will be mass-produced by Detroit. Twenty years ago, James married his undergrad sweetheart Winona Ryder while Vaughn set himself to carousing. All parties are now old enough that when Ryder says Vaughn has gone through every one of her single friends, she’s serious. The couple is Vaughn’s model of monogamy—he even uses the word “hero”—so he’s stricken when on the cusp of his own proposal to Jennifer Connolly, he spies Ryder dry-humping Channing Tatum.

To tell or not to tell is the question, but more interesting is: can you ever really know someone? That debate opens the flick and takes an interesting turn when Ryder defends herself against Vaughn’s quiet blackmail by whispering that he has no idea that James visits a massage parlor every week for a quick wank. Given the most attention, however, is the humiliation of the snooping, sanctimonious Vaughn, who is poxed with boils and bruises and even unmanned by Queen Latifah in a curious cameo as a car executive who thinks with her “lady boner.”

It’s uncertain how director Ron Howard planned to meld sentiment and slapstick. That humor exists only in France, a country that winks at adultery, and Eastern Europe, where comedies take it as a given that no matter what, we’re all going to die. Yankee studio executives drive a wedge between the folly of existence and a punch to the nuts. Never the twain shall meet, except in Jackass 3D. To balance the score, The Dilemma ends with 20 minutes of apologies, a round robin of regret that downshifts the film’s sputtering energy into park.

Click here for The Dilemma in the IE Weekly

The Green Hornet

January 16th, 2011

Oddball auteur Michel Gondry has directed scramblers (Human Nature), flops (Be Kind Rewind), modern classics (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and even comedy shows (Dave Chapelle’s Block Party). But The Green Hornet is new turf: a crowd-pleaser. (And a fine one.) Gondry was writer-star Seth Rogen’s big push—they had to convince the studio that he wasn’t going to make a $120 million superhero flick out of cardboard and sequins. What the dynamic duo did was remind Sony Pictures—and us—that Gondry upended action movies before he ever made one: in 1998, he invented “bullet time” for a Smirnoff ad and then glowered as the Wachowski Brothers poached his brainstorm for The Matrix.

His Green Hornet is solid workmanship shot through with playful tricks. When Kato (Taiwanese megastar Jay Chou) throws a bad guy over a car hood, the force makes the car quadruple, sending the villain skittering across like a skipping stone. And Gondry’s perfectionism means that the post-converted 3D is truly gorgeous—a first—giving the industry a chance to apologize to audiences burned by Clash of the Titans and The Last Airbender (assuming audiences are still willing to pony up for Hornet in 3D, which they should.)

The Green Hornet is one of the oldest and overlooked franchise heroes. He’s got 38 years on Wolverine and even three on Batman. In this updated origin myth, newspaper scion Britt Reid (Rogen) is Paris Hilton with a penis. When his estranged father dies, leaving him the Daily Sentinel, Reid sobers up enough to find out that his dad’s mechanic (Chou) can build a bulletproof car perfect for pranking Los Angeles’ street gangs. Why start a street war? Because therapy is expensive. The two ignite the wrath of über leader Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz), an aging, ambitious thug who kills for the PR. The big twist is that Britt and Kato pose as criminals to buy them more time from the underworld (they came up with the idea while drunk.) The better twist is that Britt is outclassed by Kato, an effortlessly cool Chinese orphan who can play piano, make espresso, design weaponry and dropkick a goon as easily as a hacky sack. What Kato can’t do is speak English, but Chou phonetically powers through in a breakout performance—he’s cooler than cool, even if he can’t pronounce “hubcap.”

Rogen and Chou have breezy buddy-flick charm. When they clink beers, you wish you could invite yourself into their toast. And Rogen and co-writer Evan Goldstein’s script doesn’t shy away from their superior/salaryman dynamic. As Kato kicks ass, Reid demotes him from partner to sidekick, and writes him out of the headlines. Can a genius and an average Joe pair up and put egos aside to serve mindless adventure? Gondry and Rogen have. And their popcorn flick is pure, perfect entertainment.

Click here for The Green Hornet in the IE Weekly

Summer Wars

January 16th, 2011

From Japan comes this chirpy cartoon counterpart to Tron: Legacy. In the near future, there’s the world we know and the world of OZ, a social networking online über game where one billion avatars (a cupcake with a top hat, a yellow dog in a kimono) pay bills, send emails, attend work meetings and, say, if they happen to work for the U.S. military, store their passcodes to nuclear weapons (think Facebook in five years). Math genius Kenji is at home in OZ, until he’s duped into putting down his smart phone to join his pretty classmate Natsuki at her great-grandmother’s 90th birthday, a four-day family reunion on a former samurai warrior estate that goes horribly, immediately wrong when he’s forced to pose as her fiancé and then publicly blamed for a privacy attack that overtakes OZ and swallows up millions of profiles into an evil giant bunny named Love Machine. Armed with enough data to shut down traffic lights and scramble power plants, the monster is, literally, us. Director Mamoru Hosoda imagines the (inevitable) cyber apocalypse as bright, colorful and bigger than we can immediately conceive. Inside the program, Love Machine tips over rows of dominoes and breaks the ambulance call center. Though it won the Japanese Academy Award for Animation, the perky English voiceover used here has the ring of afterschool cartoons. The story’s been done better (and balder) in Die Hard With A Vengeance, but Summer Wars adds both a playfulness and a historical perspective—great-grandma survived World War II, and you better believe she stores her phone numbers in a book.

Click here for Summer Wars in the IE Weekly

Country Strong

January 16th, 2011

Country music makes for great melodrama. Its fans believe that a comeback is a Christian right; their superstar transgressors are forgiven faster than an ex-con rapper can yelp “Free Weezy!” Writer-director Shana Feste’s drama tracks a three-show tour where a stadium-filling alcoholic (Gwyneth Paltrow) self-destructs before her husband (Tim McGraw), ambitious opening acts (Leighton Meester and Garrett Hedlund) and the state of Texas, all of whom still remember when she fell off a stage, miscarried and flung herself into rehab. (The Heartland pardons her lost child only because most are too polite to mention it.) Both sincere and cynical in its view of country stardom, Country Strong is a charmer that makes you forgive all of its false notes simply because the talent plays them with conviction. The crowds who cheered for last year’s The Blind Side and rallied for Crazy Heart will help it make a little noise at the box office.

Gwyneth Paltrow is curious casting to play disgraced singer Kelly Cantershe’s associated more with microgreens than Merle Haggardbut she’s got the long legs, blond curls and big smile of a six-time Grammy winner. In fact, she bears a passing resemblance to movie husband Tim McGraw’s real life wife Faith Hill (Grammys: five). Kelly and husband James partnered up as teens: she sang, he booked the shows. Decades later, the tabloids still say they’ve got “the best marriage in country music,” though Kelly’s got a cheating heart and James’ favorite mistress is money. (One hopes the McGraw-Hills, subjects of the biographies Faith Hill & Tim McGraw: Soul 2 Soul and Perfect Harmony: the Faith Hill & Tim McGraw Story, are faring better.) When we meet Kelly she’s already pale and drained from her stint in rehab, and though James has shoved a mic in her hand, we know the curtain has dropped on her best days on the stage. Still, we see flashes of who she used to be: winning over a tough press conference, charming a boy with leukemia, writing smart lyrics on the spot, ordering her hairdresser to tease, tease, tease. In these moments, she still moves with a rarefied ease. Every other minute, she’s a mess.

To really understand Kelly’s past, look to her opener Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), a beauty queen who makes success look easy. With her sweet voice and guileless PR act (she’s very sincere about her faux naivety) Meester’s got that glow about her that makes record executives smile. She’s pure pop country and primed to get swept up into the machine. By contrast, fellow opener Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund) has the skill and the soul, but is too authentic to care about cash. A magazine deemed him the second coming of Townes Van Zandt, the flagrantly anti-fame songwriter who drank himself to death at 52. (It also dubbed Meester the new Carrie Underwood.) Hedlund was the male ingénue in Tron: Legacy, but couldn’t hold his own against the flashing lights and pummeling visuals. Here, in this quieter, simpler flick, we see he just might be a movie star. When not smothered by a synthetic extravaganza, Hedlund’s very casual, almost offhand, in front of a camera. He’s got a killer grin and scraggly chin scruff that his agent should let him keep, if only to distinguish him from every other buff, blue-eyed what’s-his-face.

As the foursome travels between Houston, Austin and Dallas for Canter’s comeback tour, they flirt and argue with savage selfishness. Shana Feste doesn’t trust us to understand their strugglesshe even tacks on a baby bird meant to represent Canter’s failed motherhoodbut while the cast gives in to her need to play it big, they pass off the clunky lines as people play-acting at their own emotional honesty. In one powerful scene, James walks away from his wife to sit and think and the supposed villain comes into focus as a man quietly carrying his own pain. These two couples are written flat, but in glimpses we see that they’re flawed and full; as Jeff Bridges did for Crazy Heart, this cast is feverishly giving life to schlock. ‘Course; sometimes there’s a time for schlock, especially when it sings.

Click here for Country Strong in Boxoffice Magazine

True Grit

December 23rd, 2010

“The wicked flee when none pursueth,” opens the Coen brothers’ bleak western, but the Proverbs quote is a red herring. Dumb and deadly Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) is on the run after shooting his boss in the back, only he’s being pursueth all right by the dead man’s daughter, Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld), a teen girl as relentless as a shark. (She’s even got the cold, calm eyes.) We never meet her father and we don’t have to; we get a sense of the bastard from watching Mattie roll cigarettes, bark orders and bargain bankers out of their money. But she can’t track and kill Chaney on her own—for one, it ain’t fully legal. Enter U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), famous for keeping one hand on a pistol, the other on a bottle of whiskey. John Wayne won an Oscar for originating the role, and it’s easy to love the one-eyed drunk—especially as the Coens know how to handle his mordant humor. On leaving a corpse to the wolves, he cracks, “If he wanted a proper burial, he should have got himself killed in summer.” All the details are right in this redo: the fat hot links dangling over Cogburn’s bed, a very funny gallows scene, Roger Deakins’ austere cinematography. But there’s a sense that the Coens have missed the meat for the sausages. These small pleasures linger, yet the big ideas about revenge and justice go untapped. Mattie’s tough, but is Mattie right? Elsewhere in the Bible, the law argues an eye for an eye. But as Cogburn doesn’t have an eye to spare, the movie needs to ask if their death quest is worth the risk.

Click here for True Grit in the IE Weekly

Somewhere

December 23rd, 2010

In Somewhere, Sofia Coppola plays anthropologist to track an actor through his native habitat, the Sunset Strip’s Chateau Marmont. Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) is sliding downward from his peak, the kind of imperceptible fall that’s cushioned by booze, flattery and women. The nearly silent first half plays like Nanook of the North, only the ladies are wearing a lot less clothes. With the invasion of 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning), usually a flickering presence in Johnny’s life, the flick gets louder, but not by much—Coppola might believe in redemption, but she’s no sucker for big speeches.

We meet Johnny Marco racing laps by himself in a sleek sports car. He’s going nowhere, but he looks great doing it. Later, two identically dressed exotic dancers do a routine on parallel stripper poles in his hotel room, proving that double the choreography halves the excitement—there’s no thrill when the girls are focused on the timing of “ass shake, ass shake, spin, spin, bend.” The punch line is that Johnny falls asleep, though most directors would let us first enjoy leering at the girls. Not Coppola. To her, decadence is dull and she asserts that with the conviction of an heiress. She’s more interested in the awkward clunk of the dancers’ heels as they pack up their bags and slink off (sound designer Richard Beggs masterfully deflates any unavoidable visual glamour).

Johnny is a passive character, a prop, in his own life. People tell him where to go and what to say, and when he can’t figure it out—say, at an Italian awards show where he’s ambushed by dancing showgirls—he just smiles and nods. He’s been made so impotent by handlers and maids and room service and a banquet of available women that he can’t even be bothered to bone. Scene after scene, he falls asleep while still half-dressed. In the animal kingdom, he’d be a panda: popular, photographed and useless.

It’s fair to call Coppola a boutique filmmaker interested only in the poor-me problems of the privileged. (I’d rather she direct what she knows than mimic the middle-class.) But though her world view is narrow, it’s also deep. She’s a keen and sensitive observer of her world, and in Somewhere, she seizes the details that make us understand and empathize with Johnny’s inertia. Two special effects mask makers slather him in plaster and leave the room, his best friend (Jackass’ Chris Pontius, well-cast) throws parties on his tab, the endless hours of Guitar Hero that pass for bonding with his daughter, the comfort with which she orders cooking ingredients from room service.

There are very few big moments in Somewhere but the melancholy sticks with you for days like a layer of SoCal smog. As the film ends, we leave Johnny back in his sports car but now speeding straight down the highway, destination unknown. And when even that’s not enough, he pulls over, gets out, and lets his feet hit the pavement.

Click here for Somewhere in the IE Weekly

Tron: Legacy

December 23rd, 2010

Remember the last time you yelled at your computer? It does. Twenty-eight years have passed since software genius Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) created his personified programs—bytes that become men inside the matrix—and they’re still mad at their maker. Three decades, the lifespan of ten modern laptops, is a long time to carry a grudge against the Users who order them about with a clattering on their keyboard. Especially when the programs won.

In Joseph Kosinski’s update, the computer swallowed Flynn in 1989 and sentenced him to exile in their matrix. Hidden in his secret laboratory, untouched by power outages, his computer gathered dust in our world while within its circuits, hacking program CLU 2 (a Bridges hybrid) claims to be a liberator who herds his underlings thorough a hermetic revolution, bloodless only by biology. (Death is but defragged pixels.) Think Kim Jong Il meets Caesar, plus a few lines of code from Bill Gates.

In 1982, only 8.57 percent of Americans had a home computer. The first Tron stumped audiences who couldn’t grasp that the plastic box wasn’t one genius, but a house for small, smart, individual programs. Revisiting Tron feels archaeological. When Kevin Flynn’s son Sam (Garret Hedlund) unlocks his dad’s shuttered arcade, the plastic tarps flutter over the old stand-up games and the jukebox blasts Journey. He’s Indiana Jones of our distant yesterday—only in a lightning-speed world can our own childhoods feel ancient.

Before you can say, “Don’t click Enter!” Sam finds his dad’s computer and is zoom-swooshed into Tron Town. His body bursts into bytes and the screen goes black and green and gorgeous and 3D—it’s the boldest brave new world moment of the movies since Dorothy blew into Oz. Director Kosinski started his career as an engineer and architect and it shows.Tron: Legacy is a beautiful machine. Aristotle wrote, “The mathematical sciences particularly exhibit order, symmetry, and limitation—and these are the greatest forms of the beautiful.” I’d love to sit next to him in the multiplex watching Kosinski paper his world in hexagons and detonate fireworks that explode into puffs of spheres and squares. The light cycles are glorious, the new light planes nearly as cool. The sound design rattles the seats and if a scene in Tron can be shot thorough through a pane of glass, he’ll do it for the shiny 3D depth.

But there’s little disorder—a.k.a. life—in this matrix. One of the biggest laughs comes when CLU 2’s henchman, the silicone-mohawked Jarvis (James Frain) accidentally knocks over a vase. Newcomer Hedlund has a heroic, tiresome steadiness; his crush Quorra (Olivia Wilde, a promising talent) is a robot. It’s up to Bridges to give the film the human touch in tone deaf stoner quips, describing one of his discoveries as “Digital jazz, man,” and later griping, “You’re messing with my Zen.” It’s as though Kosinski looked down at his graph paper and decided to unleash The Dude.

In the film’s last minutes, it reaches for philosophy. Just as God created Satan, who’s really the problem when a program goes bad? (Those of us who’ve ever cursed out our laptop know that minutes later you feel a pain of hypocrisy and guilt.) But the movie is ambitious only in its beauty, not its brains. It’s a numbing, entrancing pleasure, and it’s fleetingly perfect in those moments when Daft Punk’s blippy soundtrack switches on and the green grid stretches to the horizon. Frank Capra once said, “Film is one of the three universal languages; the other two: mathematics and music.” And Tron: Legacy speaks each language well, even if it’s not saying anything important.

Click here for Tron: Legacy in the IE Weekly

All Good Things

December 23rd, 2010

In 1982, Katie Marks disappeared. Vanishings happen every week in New York City, but newspapers took particular note because Katie was blonde, pretty and married to David Marks, the third generation of a family who made millions from midtown Manhattan real estate, and wasn’t shy about shaking rent from the scum who still ran 42nd Street. Director Andrew Jarecki’s 2003 documentary Capturing the Friedmans positioned the director as Hollywood’s family therapist, and here he works out the kinks of Katie’s unsolved disappearance in broad strokes that point to David, and back further still to David’s childhood under the cold thumb of dad Sanford (Frank Langella). And it’s the truth, or at least an educated guess, what happened to the real-life Katie Durst who went missing after marrying into the Durst real estate dynasty. But this is a soap opera that stands at a distance from its characters (that distance being the length of a lawyer’s briefcase) and, though handsome and capable, feels as inert as mannequins in a shop window. Expect mild interest, moderate acclaim and small box office. As Douglas Durst, brother of the accused, told the New York Times, “Fortunately, this movie will be seen by so few people that litigation would be superfluous.”

Ryan Gosling plays David Marks, née Robert Durst, a poor little rich boy who saw his mother commit suicide when he was 7 years old. The film opens with his last happy birthday as his mom, with help from the maids, brings out the cake and beams before traipsing out of reach. In the corner, dad (Langella) glowers. Jarecki’s quick cut to the adult Gosling loitering at a liquor store in a tuxedo is disorientingthe family’s fortunes have fallen, but by how much? Little, we later realize. Dad and brother are fine, it’s just David who’s drowning.

But with the entrance of Kirsten Dunst as Katie, a blue-collar blonde from Long Island, David starts to see himself through her eyes. He’s no black sheep; he’s a knight in shining armor. And she’s naïve enough to play along with the charade: she laughs at his jokes and looks to him with the adulation of a politician’s wife. And Jarecki’s a shrewd enough study of human nature to realize that Katie’s hero worship of her whirlwind hubby is doomed to drive them apart. David can’t measure up to her high expectations (though he even gives scream therapy a try) and when his flaws emerge, he disengages and then detonates.

But Jarecki’s not free to show a knife to the neck. And with the real Katie gone and the real Robert uncooperative, he can’t shape them into people. Gosling and Dunst are just pawns in his reenactment. They’re fine, but they’re never fully alive, and while their battle scars feel true, they’re also the stuff of cliché: a coke habit, a lost child, a Daddy complex. Gosling’s emotionally crippled killer is especially adrift, so much that when his character goes off the rails entirely, it hardly makes a splash. Langella has a slimmer, but stronger turn as his fiercely WASPy pops, the type of suit who could hob nob with senators and still know a guy with a shiv. And after all of the blood and two more bodies, it’s still not clear what Jarecki is driving at: a puzzle he’s hungry to solve or a good-looking j’accuse!


Click here for All Good Things in Boxoffice Magazine