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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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

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.

Click here for The Next Three Days in the IE Weekly


November 12th, 2010

Here’s what a train can do: hurtle down a fixed course very, very fast. Here’s what it can’t do: think, scheme or gloat about being the 70-mile-an-hour villain in Tony Scott’s thriller about a runaway coaster packed with chemicals that’s, as rail yard staffer Rosario Dawson yelps, “a missile the size of the Chrysler Building!” There are no bad guys, just bad engineering and bad PR (and, of course, bad luck underscored by the train’s slot machine name 777.) Not that Tony Scott doesn’t sweat for extra drama—under his throttle, the train roars and hisses like a killer dinosaur, who, as it’s powered by fossil fuels, could have its DNA pumping through the engine.

Speaking of dinosaurs, here comes Denzel Washington as a three-decade vet of the tracks sniping at newbie Chris Pine for general asshattery. They, their 25-car train, the murder train and the movie are all on a fixed course and the best thing about Scott and screenwriter Mark Bomback’s popcorn flick is that it chugs away as though it never notices the whole premise (and solution) is goofy and predictable. You can practically hear the editor huff, “I think I can, I think I can,” as he cranks up the suspenseful cuts and layers on loud, manic music. And it works well enough, thanks to a love of number-crunching that makes the audience feel engaged in a deadly algebra problem. Four miles! 2000 feet! Population 780,000! At the same breath, Scott makes fun of the heavy-panting local news and uses them to amp up the danger, say with their flash animation of just what would happen if the train fell off a bridge and onto a field of oil drums. Unstoppable efficiently trucks down the tracks, and if you don’t have a better place to be for two hours, you could do worse than spend it with Washington and Pine’s all-American heroes who hop off the train as if they’re just waiting for Norman Rockwell to make them famous.

Click here for Unstoppable in the IE Weekly

Morning Glory

November 12th, 2010

Rachel McAdams stars as a plucky TV producer in an old-fashioned comedy that respects brains, ambition and, as McAdams’ anchor dubs, her “repellent moxie.” The chipper humor is so classic Hollywood that when McAdams gets excited and balls up her fists, the victims of her cheery speeches ask if she’s going to break into song. With a gruff Harrison Ford macho-ing up the screen and a romantic subplot between McAdams and go-to Mr. Perfect Patrick Wilson, Roger Michell (Notting Hill) has directed as good a date movie as you’ll find in theaters today, a time when studios are repeatedly racing their heroines to the bottom of the shame index. (Poor Katherine Heigl.) And Morning Glory’s good-hearted charm could win it a broader fan base still-it’s a grower, not an opening weekend juggernaut.

Every morning, McAdams wakes up at 1:30 am, the time most young singles in the big city are slipping into bed. Fueled by coffee, she charges down to the IBS studios (an unfortunatedeliberate?acronym) and corrals her Daybreak team to pin down that day’s stories: host Diane Keaton’s On-Air pap smear, a psychic parakeet, Mario Batali’s lasagna. That’s infotainment! And it’s pumping through McAdams’ veins along with what looks like six cups of joe a day. This is also why her enforced new hireveteran journalist Harrison Ford, a man who once “laid a cool cloth on the forehead of Mother Teresa during a cholera epidemic”thinks she’s the new plague.

The fine print in Ford’s contract says he’ll lose $6 million if he refuses to do the network show. Unfortunately, it also says that he can demand a tropical fruit plate in his green room, have final say over TV promos and refuse to do any story he considers demeaning. Which on Daybreakis all of them.

Ford is hilarious and brooding, deeply wrinkled and deeply intimidating. He’s got the best lines, courtesy of screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna (of the repellent 27 Dresses and the much better The Devil Wears Prada) and his relationship arc with McAdams is more important to the script than her makeouts with Wilson, who plays a story producer Ford calls “Sir Dipshit.” As his co-anchor, Diane Keaton kills it in her smaller role as the show’s longtime host, a former Miss Arizona. Channeling her usual mania into a useful purpose, she’s a diva who only breaks out a smile for the camerashe can go from “Screw you!” to “Good morning!” in two seconds.

I’d like to see McAdams get more gorgeous go-getter roles. Heck, I’d like to see all of young, female Hollywood get decent parts, but at least when McAdams puts on a sensible suit, she doesn’t look like she’s playing dress-up. Her can-do TV exec is smart and capable and, unlike most hapless ingénues, she doesn’t walk into walls. (Though she does bang her head on them on purpose.) Comedies about driven career women stick them in teetering Louboutins and make fun of them when they stumble. For a scene or two, even Morning Glory is guilty of that, but by the end, McAdams lopes gloriously through midtown Manhattan on pink needle-heeled stilettos, just one sharp cookie inviting us to run with her as she chases her dreams.

Click here for Morning Glory in Boxoffice Magazine

For Colored Girls

November 12th, 2010

Tyler Perry makes melodramas. That’s not a bad thing–ask D.W. Griffith, Douglas Sirk or even Charles Dickens. But emotional manipulation’s gone out of style. (Except in Washington, of course.) Written as an Obie-award winning tone poem in 1975 by Ntozake Shange, née Paulette Williams, a well-off, well-educated feminist who adopted her Zulu name after a tough divorce, For Colored Girls is defiantly retro right down to its name. (The actresses seem to pause a beat each time they say “colored.”) That this florid weepie has made it to the screen at all - especially after Oprah cluck-clucked her disapproval - is a triumph of Perry’s will and his trust that there’s an audience out there for deeply felt tragedies about girls they might have known back on the block. Last fall, that audience spent $47.5 million in support of Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire, and Girls‘ high profile cast means Perry can bank on at least making his money back.

On the stage, For Colored Girls is a seven-woman ensemble reciting 20 poems about the toughest moments of being black and female. Here, their stories are compressed into a city block crowned by a five-story Harlem walk-up where man-eating bartender Thandie Newton, battered wife Kimberly Elise and snoop Phylicia Rashad live in three apartments on the top floor and try to keep everybody - including each other - out of their business. On the bottom floor, Newton’s teenage sister, Tessa Thompson, tries to slip loose of mom Whoopi Goldberg’s religious zealotry. Meanwhile, social worker Kerry Washington and floundering feminist advocate Loretta Devine pop by on their own passionately personal crusades while outside the brick walls, dance teacher Anika Noni Rose and fashion editor Janet Jackson are brutally schooled that you can’t trust a man.

In fact, in this neighborhood, you can’t trust anyone. Like Precious, this is a collage of terrible true things: rape, molestation, shame, abuse, addiction, promiscuity, abortion, murder, self-hate, cheating and AIDS, all pressed together so tightly as to block out the light. The enemies are men, even if you have to go back a generation to the original attack. Perry’s approach is to slap them all flat on the screen as if daring you to look away (or roll your eyes). There’s no depth or surprise in the assaults; their strength is merely that 35 years ago, Ntozake Shange demanded you know they exist - truths that have lost their power since Oprah, Tyra, Maury and Dr. Phil served up pain as TV’s daily diet. (And Perry’s adopted Precious‘ editing flourish of cutting to boiling food as a woman gets raped.)

At least we’re shepherded through this hood of horrors by a stable of great actresses. There’s not a weak link in the ensemble, though the face you take home with you is Kimberly Elise’s, who brings a raw, shattered nobility to her role as a wife and mother trying to make the best decision from her bad options. Miss Jackson is frosty, Thandie is screamingly beautiful (”I am the wrath of woman!” she howls), and while Whoopi is unshakably Whoopi, she manages enough menace to pull off the job. But the heartbreaker is soulful comedienne and stage actress Loretta Devine, a strong-shouldered single gal with a voice that aches with vulnerability. These are women of might playing women brought low. And while these two hours of hopelessness seem to argue that being an inner city black woman is the unluckiest roll of the dice, these ladies - even at their weakest - carry themselves with the confidence of winners, and we cling to their strength like a life raft.

Click here for For Colored Girls in Boxoffice Magazine

Hatchet II

November 12th, 2010

Mosquitoes bite. Gators tear. But only Victor Crowley strangles a man with his own intestines until his head explodes. Adam Green’s follow-up to the 2007 cult hit returns to the swamp where a hunting party shoots to see if the backwoods killer is man or ghost. Adam Green’s inventively gruesome slasher is the widest unrated release in 25 years. (”Your parents must be so disappointed in you,” an MPAA board member allegedly scolded Green.) Sure, the kills are surprising, but equally so is Green’s craft in sketching the human chum, a dozen distinct characters with their own personalities, motivations and secrets. Genre fans will love it; the question is will they buy enough tickets to spook the ratings board?

Hatchet II picks up right where the original ended. Crowley, an overalls-wearing bayou boy with a face like a gouged potato, slaughters everyone who dares enter his corner of the marsh. After a swamp tour gone wrong, Marybeth (Danielle Harris of the Halloween reboot) stuns Crowley (Kane Hodder) long enough to escape back to “civilization” (the nearest city is New Orleans) which Green introduces with a close-up of vomit. There, she enlists her Uncle Bob (Child’s Play director Tom Holland) and Reverend Zombie (Candyman star Tony Todd, swiveling like a charmed snake) and a pack of in-over-their-head hustlers to return to the muck to reclaim the bodies of her murdered dad and brother.

Can they take out Crowley, too? If audiences agree to believe their villains can be taken down but never defeated, fright franchises are giddy to reincarnate their killers. Director Green faces cliché head-on, transforming the question of Crowley’s immortality into a plot point, and concocting several competing theories about plausible means of death (including human sacrifice). He’s also given poor Crowley a back story that seeks to elevate him from man to myth, though he, like most horror directors, likes his death bringers to be strong, simple types, not wise-cracking Kruegers.

There are jokes here, but they’re all made by (or at the expense of) these pigs brought to the slaughter. Comedian Colton Dunn gets in some good laughs as a broke charmer who sings songs about chicken and biscuits, and scored nearly as many chuckles when he and another victim were sawed in half by a chainsaw built for two. When the hatchets start swinging, there’s a death every four minutes. But casually–and dare I say, elegantly–Green has laced the swamp with betrayals and lies so that each character realizes another has done them wrong before Crowley stomps in for the final insult. His fanciful fatalities will get the hoots, but Green’s craft cuts deep–he’s a smart, brutal puppet master who knows the power in his strings.

Click here for Hatchet II in Boxoffice Magazine


November 12th, 2010

Imagine this: California is struck by a late September heat wave the same week that popsicle prices drop by a quarter. Coincidence, you ask? But an economist would wonder if it’s correlation or causality: are grocery owners simply tracking the official start of fall to make room on their shelves or are they seizing an advantage to push product to the shocked and sweaty consumers? There’s a reason for everything we do. In fact, there’s more reasons than realities, and the job of an economist is to use numbers to tease out the truth. Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s 2005 bestsellerFreakonomics asked why drug dealers still live with their mothers and whether Rudy Giuliani can really take credit for New York’s ’90s crime drop. Their answers became pearls of quirky common wisdom, and now they’ve become a fun, fleet film directed in chapters by six of today’s hot documentarians: Seth Gordon (The King of Kong), Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight), Alex Gibney (Casino Jack and the United States of Money) and Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp).

The facts haven’t changed, but there’s a satisfaction in live-action number-crunching that feels like you’re lifting up your skull and giving your frontal lobe a scratch. Since four million people have already read the book, what’s new in this retelling is seeing the presence of the directors in shaping the statistics. Spurlock’s A Roshanda By Any Other Name, best captures the breezy feel of the book, while Gibney’s high-drama investigation of corruption in sumo wrestling is NCIS: Tokyo. Jarecki’s segment is sprightly, but thin; Ewing and Grady may be the best interviews in the business; and Gordon’s gifted at tying the whole film together with his between-chapters illustrations. Sometimes, Freakonomics has all the answers. More often, it just asks the right questions. And in today’s 24-hour froth of insta-pundit analysis, we need curiosity more than certainty.

Click here for Freakonomics in the IE Weekly

Let Me In

October 2nd, 2010

What’s grim, gorgeous and white all over? This American remake of the Swedish horror drama Let the Right One In which airlifts the story 5,158 miles to Los Alamos, New Mexico where lonely, bullied only-child Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee of The Road) crushes on the new girl in town, a frozen-in-time preteen vampire who says she’s, “Twelve, more or less.” Abby (Chloë Moretz, Kick Ass’ Hit-Girl) needs human blood, but she outsources the killing to her companion (Richard Jenkins) who poses as her father but moons over her like an ex-boyfriend. In the original, Abby’s caretaker was a jealous bungler—Oscar-nominated Jenkins sees his pathetic protectiveness, and the tragedy in his character focuses the film’s themes of desperation and the myopia of puppy love when you’re young enough (or undead enough) to feel immortal. Cloverfield’s Matt Reeves directs, and this quiet, controlled chiller is 180 degrees away from that mess. Reeves keeps the camera’s focus so close that the world past your fingertips is a blur. Adults barely register, like Dracula designed by Charles Schultz. What matters is immediate—the film exists in that margin between kid and teen when every day is a drama and every tumble is a catastrophe, when the thug in your class is the boogieman and a girl you play Mrs. Pac Man with could be your girlfriend, even though you don’t yet know what that means. But Let Me In is wise beyond its years, even if only the grown-ups in the audience bear witness to pain that the preteen stars can’t see.

Click here for Let Me In in the IE Weekly

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

September 23rd, 2010

After nearly a decade in prison, guards have given Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) back his gold watch, his gold ring, his gold money clip and his freedom. Watch out world. Flash-forward seven years to 2008 and Gekko’s written a book, Is Greed Good?, and become the hero of the lecture circuit with his fanged tirades about a financial system gone bonkers. He’s still a wolf in wolf’s clothing. The question is: How big is his hunger? Gekko’s the predator circling Oliver Stone’s sequel. The stars—or prey—are his estranged daughter Carey Mulligan and her live-in boyfriend Shia LaBeouf, an idealistic trader trying to scare up money for alternative energy. Stone’s two major themes (three if you count the nods to his 1987 original) are bubbles and extinction, two ways Wall Street could have—and should have?—collapsed that fall of ’08 when Americans learned we’d double-mortgaged the foundation of our country. The first half of the film is as fine a movie as you’ll see all year. Stone humanizes ticker tape. Frank Langella is the face of old-style trading, Josh Brolin is the new-style villain, and their confrontations with other suits have the frisson of powerful deals and the pleasure of a pack of hunters fighting over a kill. They’re in it because money is glory and glory is fun—and the bloodier the better. But Stone needs Hollywood hyenas; our stock market schadenfreude demands a satisfying ending. Only how can he give us one when we know the bad guys won?