Archive for the ‘IE Weekly’ Category

No Strings Attached

Friday, 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.

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The Dilemma

Sunday, 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.

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The Green Hornet

Sunday, 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

Sunday, 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.

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True Grit

Thursday, 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.

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Somewhere

Thursday, 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

Thursday, 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

Burlesque

Thursday, December 23rd, 2010

“Get your ass up, show me how you burlesque,” growls Christina Aguilera in one of this indulgent movie’s indulgent musical numbers that swagger with pearls, glitter and red lipstick—if not grammatical verb usage. Writer-director Steve Antin’s tarted up a great guilty pleasure that hews to the farm-girl-becomes-a-star framework, but adds extra flourishes. Don’t judge Burlesque by its clichés—it’s got ’em all and who cares. Note Antin’s extra shimmies: Stanley Tucci’s scene-stealing turn as the club’s man of costumes and advice, the grand entrance of Cher who nails her role as a diva shaded by pride, regret and untapped maternalism. Underneath the rhinestones, Antin’s made a character piece with credit due as much to casting as to his script. And he’s unrepentant about shoe-horning in moments for his cast to shine; you giggle at the lead-foot obviousness when Cher decides to practice her new ballad, ”You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me,” after hours, but damned if she doesn’t kill it with her warm, warbling forte as though with every note she’s apologizing for launching Auto-Tune. Kristen Bell is miscast as a sexpot who sees Aguilera as a threat, but Aguilera herself is damned decent in a performance that feels tailored to her limitations. She’s no actress—at least, not yet—but she can own a stage. Antin’s smartly crafted her role, keeping that voice under wraps from the other characters until halfway through the film. (“How do you do that!?” a fellow dancer gushes. “It just comes out,” says Aguilera, a non-answer so tossed off and true it can only come from someone born with a gift.) But the best move Antin makes is to muss up his heroine. She’s no naïf corrupted by the big city; she’s a scrapper who gives as good as she gets. Aguilera gets to smile when her successes come at other girls’ misfortunes, to hit back when they get catty. Even her crush (Cam Gigandet) is affianced to another woman, giving the mandatory romantic subplot some claws. She and the film around her work for what they want, even if we think their goals are cornball.  Like his leading lady does here, Antin must have also gone home at night to read stacks of books on burlesque. They might be picture books, but effort counts.

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Tangled

Thursday, December 23rd, 2010

First off: Rapunzel is not a princess. She considers herself a cloistered middle-class girl. Disney’s over that la-di-dah simpering; they want a beauty who can clonk a guy with a frying pan. Which Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) does the first time she meets Flynn Ryder (Zachary Levi), and with good reason. He’s a cocky thief who’s just broken into her secret tower—more proof that all the good ones are taken. (Though Prince Charming would probably be a jerk if Snow White and Cinderella had bothered to get to know him better.) If anything, Tangled is hommepowerment—one more step forward in Disney’s slow march to treat male suitors like equals, from its early nameless princes to the passing characterization of Princes Phillip and Eric in Sleeping Beauty and The Little Mermaid, to here, a dude with a full-on personality and nearly equal screen time. The flick itself is winningly formulaic down to this DisneyBot 2010’s cute animal sidekick (a lizard—but it’s the snotty horse who steals the show). In 3D, the animators do amazing things with Rapunzel’s hair, sending it winging around the walls like liquid gold. And after she braids it up with flowers to blend into the masses, mothers across the country will steel themselves for their daughters whining to have their hair fixed like that for school. Those moms will need to watch their step. The villain here is Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy), who, like the German fairy tale, has stolen the girl as a baby and raised her as her own. To keep her in the tower, she’s raised her to be insecure and timid, like a helicopter mom who won’t let her 16-year-old get a license. Their push-pull dynamic is the thrust of the movie—how hard is it to beware the woman who coos “I loves you”—and makes the flick feel more modern than we’re used to from a Disney flick, like a meaty episode of Dr. Phil disguised in a chirpy cartoon. Know a kid who can’t cut the apron strings? Buy them a ticket.

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The Next Three Days

Friday, November 19th, 2010

Russell Crowe and Elizabeth Banks play a pair of in-love parents who have their bucolic, Prius-owning marriage upended after Banks is arrested and convicted of murdering her boss. To the prosecution, it’s an airtight case: several witnesses saw them arguing just hours before the murder and Banks’ fingerprints are on the weapon and the victim’s blood is spattered on her trench coat. Everyone thinks she’s guilty—they just won’t admit it to Crowe who sets about trying to appeal her sentence with the passion of Joan of Arc. And when he runs out of higher courts, he turns to Liam Neeson as a jailbird Houdini who knows all the tricks. (Though, sadly, Neeson’s only got one scene before he escapes from the movie, too.) Crowe’s got a brainy glower and a bulky, clumsy menace that writer-director Paul Haggis plays up as the bourgeois husband schemes and slums to put together his best-possible plan. And Haggis knows that the question isn’t only can he do it, but should he? He’s believable as a school teacher driven to obsession, even if the age gap between him and Banks keeps us from buying their hot romance. Banks is given less to work with; her character flips from Donna Reed to depressed inmate without making us believe in the woman in between. She’s got the menace, but isn’t given the depth—instead she comes across like a Southern beauty queen who would swap her competition’s face cream with fake tanner. But Haggis has done well at setting up the stakes and the structure of a breakout—they’ve got just 35 minutes to flee the city before roadblocks lock them down—and when the clock starts ticking, we’re on the edge of our seats.

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