Sunday, August 26, 2012

COSMOPOLIS Is a Haunting, Nightmarish Vision from David Cronenberg


- David Cronenberg makes weird movies, movies that make you think, that can prove baffling, that haunt you. COSMOPOLIS is hardcore Cronenberg - the most extreme, hyperstylized, surreal, nightmarish movie he's made in years. This is a movie that will turn many off. You might hate it. I think many people in the theater I saw it in did. But as I watched, I did my best not to pay attention to others' reactions, and let myself get sucked in to the strange, nightmarish world that the movie presents. And man, did I get sucked in. I literally tossed and turned in bed that night, with scenes of the film playing over and over in my mind. This is a sticky one ... not easily forgotten or left behind. It's a movie of striking ideas and imagery. In short, this is classic Croenenberg - a mind-%$#@ of the highest order.

In Cosmopolis, Robert Pattinson plays Eric Packer, a young billionaire - a cold, almost emotionless asset manager who has become plugged-in practically 24/7 to his work, to his extravagant lifestyle, to the pursuit of money, power, sex, and material possessions. He lives in a bubble, sheltered as much as possible from the common people he shares his city with. That bubble is embodied in the film by Eric's tricked-out limo - a mobile fortress where Eric spends most of the film. We meet Eric exiting his towering office building, summoning for his limo to take him away, to go across town ... to get a haircut. But Eric's journey across town takes on the feeling of a waking nightmare. Eric is, at intervals, joined in his vehicle by business associates, mistresses, his personal doctor (he gets a daily physical), and other assorted people. All the while, he's tailed by his Head of Security, Torval (Lost's Kevin Durand), who is very concerned about his employer's well-being. The President, it seems, is in town, and an anarchist group has vowed to strike by causing chaos around the city. Supposedly, the President isn't their only target, but the city's wealthy elites - Packer, the ultimate one-percenter, might just be high on their list. As Packer's limo slowly wades its way through unmoving traffic, he also stops on occasion to meet with his equally cold and distant wife Elise, with whom he's yet to actually consummate his marriage of convenience, despite his strong wishes to do so. Meanwhile, the city is devolving into a hellish warzone as violence and anarchy escalates. Packer is mostly protected in his reinforced limo - but for how long?

As you can probably tell, COSMOPOLIS is not a straightforward narrative, per se. It's thick with metaphor, subtext, and ambiguity. The characters in the film talk in a hyperstylized manner - they seem robotic, alien, pre-programmed. The dialogue is written in a very unique manner that honors the style of the source material - the novel of the same name by author Don DeLillo. Characters talk in a hyper-formal dialect, using declaratory phrases, peppering their speech with repeated statements like "I do not know this." or "This is true." Some might get annoyed with the non-naturalistic speech. Personally, I found it fascinating. Cronenberg uses the formal dialect to paint a world lacking genuine human connection. People really do feel like automatons, struggling to communicate genuine feeling or human connection. This is exemplified in some of the great exchanges between Eric and his distant wife Elise. Eric can't understand why there's no physical or romantic connection between them, but he also doesn't seem to understand how to break down emotional barriers. Can Cosmopolis' protracted conversations at times get tedious? Yes, on occasion. But if you allow yourself to go with the unique rhythm of the dialogue and accept the artistic license taken, it becomes sort of fascinating.

There are lots and lots of big ideas in this film. At times, the dialogues the characters have do feel more like freshman-dorm-philosophy than legitimately substantive. But I think that's part of the point. These are characters who *think* they've got it all figured out, but don't. The underlying theme here though is that this is a world - an extreme mirror of our world - that is barely held together by a thin veneer of order. A world where men in ivory towers rule over society in a manner that just barely creates an illusion of democracy and individual freedom. But there are cracks. And when those cracks are made greater, when the shell is broken, all hell is poised to break loose. Cosmopolis paints a picture of two separate worlds on a collision course. On one hand is the world of the wealthy, the famous, the powerful, the good-looking, and those willing to sell their souls to be a part of that upper-echelon. On the other hand is the 99%, who grow increasingly restless, angry, rebellious, and desperate to reclaim their piece of the pie.

What's interesting about Eric's journey into the heart of darkness is that - even as he is strikingly cold and seemingly soulless, he keeps trying - sometimes half-heartedly, to dip a toe into the world that most people live in. He stops at all-too-ordinary diners for a bite to eat - perhaps trying to prove to himself that he can live just like everyone else, if he wants. And when we do finally meet his barber - played with old-world gusto by George Touliatos - we see that Eric clearly has a special affection for him because he's known Eric since he was a boy. He treats him less like an enigmatic billionaire, and more like a grandson - like a human being.

Robert Pattinson may seem like an odd match for David Cronenberg, but this is a part that the Twilight star is particularly suited for. The actor naturally has a sort of alien quality to him, and that otherworldliness makes him uniquely suited to play Eric here. Pattinson is engaging and does a great job with the distinct dialogue patterns of the movie. It's a performance that reminded me a bit of Christian Bale in American Psycho. Now, does Pattinson have quite the gravitas or range of Bale? No -  he does seem ever so slightly in over his head with how challenging the material is, and yet ... you can almost sense him getting better as the movie goes on. Pattinson really seems to find his footing in a climactic scene in which he plays a deadly game of cat and mouse with a disgruntled former employee played by Paul Giamatti. Giamatti is absolutely fantastic in the part - scary, manic, and pathetic all at once - and he and Pattinson play off each other brilliantly. The rest of the cast is very good, and everyone does a great job of playing to the off-kilter, left-of-center tone that Cronenberg is going for. There are some fun surprises, like Jay Baruchel popping up as an overenthusiastic lieutenant of Eric's, or Durand's slightly neurotic yet badass Security guy. I also thought Sara Gadon was a huge standout as Elise - despite being a frigid and aloof young woman, there's something absolutely hypnotic about the way Gadon plays her.

Like I said, there are segments of Cosmopolis that may feel like a bit of a slog, but I think you have to go into it open-minded. This is not a typical movie. It's theatrical, dialogue-heavy, and filled with big ideas that are never clearly spelled out - leaving a lot up to the individual viewer's interpretation. But I also never really found the movie boring - some, especially those prone to ADD, might. But I enjoyed going down this particular rabbit hole, I enjoyed being intellectually challenged. I think there IS a lot of substance to this movie, and while some may dismiss it as pretentious or as pseudo-intellectual, to me, there's nothing pseudo about David Cronenberg. He's a guy who knows what he's doing, and who clearly loves to push the boundaries of cinema and experiment. But make no mistake, Cosmopolis is filled with tension. It's disturbing, haunting, and oftentimes downright shocking. The echoes to our own socio-political reality are clear, but this is a through-the-looking glass, darkest-timeline version of our world - a nightmare reflection of what could be. Not for everyone - but for those filmgoers who love the weird, groteseque, challenging, and mind-bending, this one's for you.

My Grade: A-

Thursday, August 23, 2012

THE EXPENDABLES 2: Stallone and Co. Are Back, and This Time ... It's Personal!


- Rarely have I felt more deflated after exiting a movie than after seeing the first Expendables. I was hugely hyped for it, and with good reason. It was an all-star assemblage of some of the greatest badasses in cinematic history. It came on the coattails of Stallone's one-two punch of a comeback - the surprisingly great Rocky Balboa and Rambo. And yet, The Expendables was a letdown - instead of embracing its old-school roots, it tried to be all nu-metal and cool and whatnot. There was quick-cutting and shakycam galore, with action that rarely satisfied. The tone was all-over-the-place (Mickey Rourke seemed to think he was in another movie entirely), and the plot instantly forgettable. That said, what fanboy in their right mind wasn't *still* primed and ready for a Part 2? I mean, the mere concept of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Willis, Van Damme, Norris, et. all together in one orgiastic bloodbath on a level not seen since the heyday of 80's action cinema? Hells to the yeah. So, the bad news is that The Expendables 2 is still sort of a dumb movie. But the good news is ... it's gloriously dumb in a way that makes it incredibly entertaining. The Expendables 2 is not good enough to stand side by side with the best action flicks from back in the day ... but it is more than enough to have fans of those movies smiling stupidly with nostalgia-fueled glee.

The main thing you need to know about the plot of The Expendables 2 is that Stallone's Barney Ross is back, along with Statham's Lee Christmas - and most of the rest of the original film's team of adrenaline-juiced meatheads ("Stone Cold" Steve Austin is, sadly, MIA). So yep, Dolph, Couture, Crews, and Jet Li are all back (though Li kicks unholy ass for like five minutes, then promptly and inexplicably leaves the movie). They're also joined by a young, ex-military sniper, Bill The Kid, played with starry-eyed, baby-faced boyishness by Liam Hemsworth - a stark contrast to the grizzled badasses surrounding him. In any case, after a harrowing mission to rescue a captured Trench (the Governator himself) Ross is contemplating calling it quits on the mercenary biz - and young Bill is thinking of doing the same. But then along comes Bruce Willis' Church - who is apparently some sort of government agent dude - who recruits The Expendables for one mo' mission. Church introduces the team to the slinky-yet-deadly Maggie (Nan Yu), who has the know-how to open a high-tech safe that's carrying a nuclear trigger device. If the device were to get into the wrong hands ... well, you know. In this case, the wrong hands are those of the absurdly (awesomely?) named Vilain (get it?), played with arrogant aplomb by the Muscles from Brussels, Jean-Claude Van Damme. Also, at some point Chuck Norris drops in as Booker, aka "The Lone Wolf." Yep, it's action-star overload to the nth degree.

Director Simon West makes this one much more entertaining that Part 1, by imbuing it with the sort of B-action movie sensibilities he brought to films like Con-Air. West keeps things feeling mostly old-school, and gets rid of the chopped-to-bits editing style of the first film. To that end, EX2 has some genuinely badass action scenes - from Jet Li's anything-goes ass-whupping toward the beginning of the film, to Jason Statham's videogame-esque knife-fight, to a suitably epic Stallone vs. Van Damme showdown which serves as the film's climax. And, praise the action-movie-gods, the film ends up being a pretty hard R - so there's plenty of blood, gore, and dudes being tossed into spinning propellers. Not to sound masochistic or anything, but I'm glad that this movie ended up feeling like The Expendables and not the Power Rangers.

Now, what deflates the movie is the mostly-terrible script. For one thing, the dialogue is atrocius, with most of the chuckle-worthy humor being of the unintentional variety (but not to worry, between the uniformly wackjob line deliveries of Schwarzenegger and Norris, there is plenty of hilarious, unintentional humor). I mean, come on ... all you really need in this sort of movie are great one-liners - both of the badass variety and the funny variety (or both). But this movie mostly fails at that, delivering some true clunkers that, surely, did not even sound good on paper (worst offender: Van Damme: "Man up!", Stallone's retort: "I'll man you up!"). The writers should be sentanced to a week of watching great 80's action movies like Predator to bone up on their action dialogue. Meanwhile, the actual plot is pretty threadbare, with only the vaguest notions of character. Again, do I need that much character-depth from a movie like this? Nope. But it would be nice to have some character motivations. Mainly, the through-line is Stallone and Hemsworth's questioning of the life they have chose. But Jason Statham? His main arc is how his girlfriend (Charisma Carpenter) has him by the balls.

The other main problem - and this is partly the script, and partly the direction - is that the tone of the movie is so all-over-the-place. Overall, the jokey, campy tone is a much better fit than the would-be seriousness of the first movie. Still, EX2 can deviate a lot from what works best. On one end of the spectrum, you've got overly-emo scenes, like a funeral scene that's heavy on melodramatic brooding, or a sort-of romance between Stallone and Nan Yu that completely fizzles. On the other end of the spectrum, the movie goes a little too cartoony with its winks and nudges. How many times in one movie does Ah-nold need to utter "I'm back" ...? And do we really need the theme from "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly" to play whenever Chuck Norris shows up, suddenly making it feel like we're watching live-action Looney Tunes? Meanwhile, you have to cringe at some of the stuff in the movie that would have felt dated even in the 80's. Like when Willis tells Stallone that this agent Maggie will be joining his team, and Stallone exclaims "a woman?!". I mean, this is a movie universe where a bunch of saggy middle-aged dudes are kicking ass left and right - how is there surprise that a young and badass female military operative could do the same?

Of course, the actors pull off the whole B-action thing with varying degrees of success. Couture is still totally wooden - and it's weird that he seems to, undortunately, do more talking than ass-kicking in this one. Norris, too, seems like a total blank. I know he was never an acting dynamo, but damn ... the years since Walker: Texas Ranger have not ben kind. Dolph Lundgren - gets some good goofy moments. Willis mostly just squints and looks bemused. Hemsworth is okay, but he doesn't bring quite the gravitas to the table that his brother might have. Stallone has always been best at playing serious, brooding characters - and he does that again here and does a good job of carrying the movie and giving it most of its dramatic weight. But it is a strange contrast to, say, Arnold, who's in walking-quip-machine mode here. Statham is good - he's a better class of actor than a lot of these guys, and he's a funny guy to boot (Crank, anyone?). I'd love to see him do a buddy-movie type thing with Arnold or Stallone ... but here, he doesn't get to do a ton aside from lay the smackdown a bunch. Terry Crews is a scene-stealer - I think it's time for Crews to have his own action movie franchise, actually, because the guy is a.) jacked, b.) charismatic as hell, and b.) hilarious (mildly funny here, but see Idiocracy for further proof).

As for relative unknown Nan Yu, she's pretty decent, holding her own in the action scenes, and getting in some good one-liners. But, in a movie of icons, it would have been cool to have someone of similarly iconic stature to the movie's male leads. Get those rumors of a female-centric Expendables spin-off a-rolling ...

All that said, the true standout in this one has to be JCVD. Here's a guy whose acting skills have actually improved a lot since his Bloodsport days, and who is clearly relishing the role of villain (er, I mean Vilain!) in this one. Van Damme basically owns it in this movie, crafting a loathsome villain who will roundhouse kick a dagger into your chest and then taunt you for being a pansy. Van Damme is the best part of EX2, and I only wish that the movie gave him more screentime. While his brawler-vs.-martial artist faceoff with Stallone is pretty sweet, there are some true dream matchups that could have been ... Van Damme vs. Li? Van Damme vs. Schwarzenegger?! Man, there was some crazy potential there for ownage.

The Expendables 2 has plenty of groan-worthy moments, but it's also got more than enough awesome - or so-bad-they're-awesome - moments that yeah, if you're an action movie fan, it's an entertaining must-see. It's easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer nerd-out factor of seeing so many icons together on-screen (and the movie is none-too-subtle about playing up the icon-factor). This is unquestionably better than the first movie - but I just think any future installments need to find the right balance of self-aware campiness and legit awesomeness. If there is indeed an Expendables 3, I want it to be not just an amusing nostalgia-trip, but a legit action-movie classic on-par with Predator, Rambo, et. all. For now, I can appreciate that while this one is a bit of a mess, it's also got enough badassery to be a fitting end-of-summer ride.

My Grade: B

Monday, August 20, 2012

PARANORMAN Is Creepy/Funny Fun


I really wanted to love PARANORMAN. The movie's retro-horror cold open made me smile with geeky glee. Its uber-cool 80's-synth soundtrack instantly got me doing the monster mash in my theater seat. And its visuals - oh man - the movie's gorgeous stop-motion animation is a sight to behold - pure eye candy from start to finish. I wanted to love this movie, and all the elements were there to make this a modern-day horror/comedy/animation classic. But the script and story, unfortunately, were just too all-over-the-place to make it all come together. The movie veers wildly from heavy-handed moralizing to Saturday morning cartoon-style humor and hijinks. And most of its characters don't amount to much more than cartoonish cliches. That said, I still think this one is well worth a watch - and kids will probably love its just-slightly-subversive humor and fun (and not-too-scary) zombie invasion storyline. Others may not get as much from the story, but anyone can appreciate the dazzling house-of-horrors visuals - especially in 3D.

For a movie that unfolds in a rather straightforward manner, the backstory of Paranorman is a bit convoluted. Essentially, young Norman is an elementary-school outcast, made fun of by his classmates and chastized by his father for claiming that he can, well, see dead people. But Norman does see dead people - ghosts, specifically. He chats regularly with the ghost of his dear, departed grandma, and, everywhere he goes, he sees all manner of specters and spooks floating about. As it turns out - and as the old saying goes - with great power comes great responsibility. By way of his creepy uncle Prenderghast, Norman learns that it's up to him to keep at bay the curse of a witch named Aggie, who was famously put on trial hundreds of years ago, and who supposedly resurfaces to terrorize the town every four years. The witch has since become a cartoonish mascot of the town, but her curse is no laughing matter - she plans to raise a legion of undead zombies to wreak havoc ... unless Norman and his pals can stop her. His crew includes his new friend Neil - a chubby kid who's defiantly nonplussed by the bullies who torment him at school ... Alvin, one of those bullies who gets caught up in Norman's adventure ... Courtney, Norman's cheerleader teen sister ...and Mitch, Neil's meathead teen brother (who Courtney has a major crush on, of course).

Where I found some fault with Paranorman was in a lot of the characters mentioned above. Norman himself is a capable kid hero, but the rest of his gang all felt like total cliches, with very little to subvert the stereotypes. You've got the goofy fat kid, the thuggish bully, the airhead cheerleader, and the dumb goofy jock. Yes, there is a twist around the jock character that is revealed at the very end of the movie ... but to me it felt more like the punchline to a running joke than an actual bit of characterization. In any case, it's a shame because there is so much about Paranorman that feels so genuinely fresh and creative. But it veers wildly from imaginative and clever to kiddy and cliched. The humor, too, has moments of legitimate brilliance (a gag where a guy being chased by zombies pauses to grab some chips from a vending machine, for example, had me rolling), but there is also a lot of more juvenile butt-joke type stuff. It'd be one thing if the tone of the movie was that of an over-the-top comedy, but Paranorman is sort of all-over-the-place. There's some very serious, very emo moments of moralizing and drama - which makes the more silly stuff stick out like a sore thumb. Point being, Paranorman sometimes feels like a few different movies smashed together into one. Unlike, say, Coraline (the previous product from stop-motion studio Laika) - which felt very much like a singular vision that had one, consistent tone throughout. But Paranorman - I mean, it's got everything: old-school horror homages, Saturday morning cartoon humor, darkness, goofiness, subtle humor, gross-out humor, and a story with a pretty crazy mythology behind it that feels both convoluted and undercooked.

And yet ... Paranorman is often a joy to watch, because it quite simply looks awesome. The stop-motion animation is some of the most gorgeously-crafted I've ever seen. The use of color is amazing - reminded me a bit of the Tim Schaefer-produced game Psychonauts. There's a acid-tinged, funhouse look to the film that is totally delightful. I loved the character design from a visual standpoint. And the sense of energy, inventiveness, winking humor, and creepiness in the direction is fantastic. Studio Laika has outdone themselves in this regard.

I'll also give a lot of credit to the star-studded voice cast of the film. Sometimes it can be frustrating watching an animated movie so filled with recognizable actors, because you end up spending half the movie playing "guess that actor." But the cast is utilized so well that you have to appreciate the talent on display. I've been a fan of Kodi Smit-McPhee from his work in The Road and Let Me In, and he's great here as Norman. Anna Kendrick brings some unexpected depth to Norman's ditzy older sister. Tucker Albrizzi has great comic timing as Neil (his "Don't make me throw this hummus! It's spicy!" line is a winner), and Christopher Mintz-Plasse is quite good as insecure bully Alvin. Casey Affleck has some funny moments as Neil's big bro. You've also got Jeff Garlin and Leslie Mann as Norman's parents, Elaine Stritch as his ghostly grandma, and John Goodman as his crazy uncle.

A mention should also be made of the score ... which is awesome. Like the movie's tone, it too is a little all-over-the-place, shifting from big orchestral stuff to Carpenter-esque horror-synth ... but in both instances, it's really, really well done.

Like I said, kids will probably go nuts for Paranorman. It's the perfect sort of horror-movie gateway drug for kids just getting into creepy stuff. Kids will laugh at the bathroom humor, but what will ultimately leave a bigger impression are the touches of harmless-but-still-spooky horror. And those moments are what worked best for me - when the movie hit that perfect sweet spot of creepy-comedy goodness that's like peanut butter and chocolate on Halloween. But when it devolved into kid-pandering stereotypes, or during its big, climactic (overly preachy, overly expository) showdown that felt lifted from some bugnuts Japanese role-playing game, it felt like the movie was losing its focus and going off the rails. Paranorman doesn't quite have the timeless charm to become an all-ages classic, in the vein of The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline, or much of the Pixar cannon. But it is a perfectly pleasant, spooky, funny, and visually-stunning amusement that's worth checking out.

My Grade: B

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

THE CAMPAIGN Is Funny But Lightweight Political Humor


- The Campaign is a really funny flick, but it's also a little frustrating. The movie has plenty of big laughs, and Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis are reliably hilarious. So why that frustration? Only because the movie seems to really want to be a biting satire of American politics, and it has moments that give us a glimpse of the sort of movie this could have been if it went just a bit darker and edgier. Most of the time though, the film is content to just be over-the-top and broad. That leads to some memorable gags, but it also makes the movie feel like empty calories when it might have had a little more meat. Earlier this year, I thought The Dictator was an underrated, fairly scathing satire that really nailed the balance between crazy comedy and on-point social commentary. This one feels a little tamer and a little more pandering to the cheap seats.

In THE CAMPAIGN, Ferrell plays Cam Brady - who is essentially Ron Bergundy meets Jon Edwards. Brady is a multi-term congressman who keeps winning elections despite his reputation for being a womanizing, bribe-taking, double-talking sleazeball. He's a local institution, and people tend to forgive him his sins because, hey, he's a consummate politician and talks a good game. Plus, there's the convenient fact that he's long run unopposed in his district. That changes when the wealthy Motch Brothers (obvious analogs for the Koch Brothers) decide to find themselves a puppet candidate to usurp Brady. They want someone who will carry out their money-grabbing plan to essentially sell off the district's land to the Chinese, making it ground zero for cheap labor and outsourced industry. To do their bidding, they select Marty Huggins. Marty comes from a prominent and wealthy local family - his father is a longtime associate of the Motch's. But Marty himself, as played by Galifianakis, is a total oddball - Ned Flanders meets Richard Simmons meets that one weird uncle you have. Huggins is a local boy who actually grew up with Brady, and he loves his home - so much so that his day job is working as a local tour guide. In any case, Huggins sees the Motch Brothers' offer as the opportunity to finally do his family proud and make something of himself (see: the plot of Chris Farley classic Black Sheep) - and he's too naive to understand the extent to which he's being manipulated by the businessmen brothers. Soon, Brady and Huggins are in a knock-down, dragout political battle, with Brady having to dig dep into his bag of dirty tricks, and Huggins being forced to go on the attack and match Brady at his own game.

Ferrell and Galifianakis are both in fine form here. While Ferrell's character resembles others he's played before (in addition to Ron Bergundy, I also saw a lot of Ashley Schafer from Eastbound and Down), he's so good at playing these sort of gassed-up egomaniac blowhard types that you can't fault him for going back to that well. But Ferrell's line-delivery, done in a John Edwards-esque drawl, is spot-on. Galifianakis gives Huggins an effeminate demeanor and a Sunday School teacher disposition, and he too is very, very funny here. Huggins is certainly the more multidimensional of the two characters, and Galifianakis does a nice job of making him more than just a simple goofball.

The supporting cast is also filled with A-list comedic talents. John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd play the Motch Brothers. Sarah Baker is hilarious and a huge scene-stealer as Marty's wife Mitzy. Brian Cox is always great, and he is great again here as Marty's gruff father. Dylan McDermot is quite good as the Motch's go-to hatchet man, who is brought in to run Marty's campaign and give him am image and lifestyle makeover. Jason Sudeikis pops up as Cam's right-hand man. And Jack McBrayer has a small but memorable cameo. Still, so much of the focus is on Cam and Marty that it does occasionally feel like supporting players get the short shrift. In particular, was hoping for some more great lines or moments from Lithgow and Aykroyd.

It's funny though, because while the movie's political satire feels a bit soft, it hits a homerun when it comes to pushing the envelope of shock humor. The movie's best and funniest scenes are when it goes blue, eliciting huge belly laughs from the perverse lengths it goes to comedically. Thought the dinner table scene in Talladega Nights was uproarious? Wait until you see the dinner table scenes in this one. Similarly, a raunchy campaign ad created by Cam Brady is a highlight - if only for how far it goes down the proverbial rabbit hole. Huge props go to Sarah Baker as Mitzi, as well as to the child actors who play Marty's kids, for delivering some particularly eye-popping lines with brilliant commitment and sincerity.

The movie starts out with a ton of momentum, and it continues to get big laughs as it enters into its second act. In turn, as we see Marty evolve his image, and Brady try to turn negative PR into a positive, we get some moments of genuinely funny and sharp political satire. As the film goes on though, I felt it lost some steam, especially as it started to become mired in cliches and multiple "big, inspirational speech" moments. Ultimately, the wind seems to have gone out of the sales a bit by the time we get to the closing credits. At first, the fact that neither Marty nor Cam knows a thing about actual politics is funny and part of the move's overarching joke. But eventually it wears thing, because it feels like a convenient way for the movie's comedy to avoid tackling any issues of substance. It makes the movie - as opposed to the Dictator, for example - feel a bit lightweight. Like everyone involved agreed that politicians were a ripe target for comedy, but couldn't figure out why, exactly, beyond the fact that politics tends to be more about style than substance.

The Campaign may not be brilliant satire, but it is plenty funny, and like I said, it's got some awesome gags that are more than watercooler-worthy. This is another solid entry in the Ferrell canon - but given the more pointed politcal stuff he's done (his George W. Bush parodies, for one), I was hoping for something with a bit more to say.

My Grade: B

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

THE BOURNE LEGACY Is Solid But Unspectacular Summer Action


- The Bourne franchise has always been notable for its genre-redefining aesthetics. When I think of what made the original Bourne flicks work so well, I think about the gritty, feet-on-the ground tone, the you-are-there cinematic style (embodied by Paul Greengrass' trademark shakycam), and the everyman-as-super-spy dynamic. What the first three Bourne movies never truly delivered though was a great mythology that you could sink your teeth into - they were content to keep things relatively mysterious for us, the audience - just as they were for Jason Bourne. So any new Bourne movie that seeks to restart the franchise is going to be inherently challenged - how to expand and build upon a mythology that was already pretty murky to begin with? The answer is: don't worry about it. Instead, load up the new, Bourne-less Bourne film with top-shelf actors and bouts of badass action, give some quick taglines about Jason Bourne being "only the beginning," and hope that that's enough. Is it? While it's not enough for this new Bourne to achieve greatness, it is more than suitable to make it into a very watchable - and occasionally kickass - action flick.

The star of this one is the great Jeremy Renner as a new character (but with a similarly movie title-ready name), Aaron Cross. Cross was a part of the same top-secret government program that yielded Jason Bourne - a genetically-modified, chemically-enhanced super-soldier who's essentially been bred to be a war machine. The film takes place concurrently with The Bourne Ultimatum, and so even as Uncle Sam scours the globe for Bourne, the pressure is on to hide all other traces of the program and eliminate all of the other operatives in the field - lest they, too, should go rogue and/or become exposed. And so, while on a training mission in a remote, frozen tundra, Cross is targeted by his own bosses. Cross narrowly escapes (in a pretty awesome sequence ... let's just say that WOLVES are involved), but finds himself on the run and without his "chems" - the multicolored substances that maintain his mental and physical faculties. Cross goes off in search of Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weiss), who used to oversee his government-sponsored chem injections. Cross - in frantic, Flowers For Algernon mode - is desperate not to lose his abilities - and Shearing is the only one who may be able to help him - and who he thinks he can trust. Meanwhile, a cabal of government operatives - led by an amped-up, uber-determined Edward Norton - are hot on the trail of Cross, aka the one (other than Bourne) who got away.

First off, let me say that Jeremy Renner is a great actor and a believable badass, and I actually like him in this role as much, if not more so, than Matt Damon. To me, the discrepancy between Damon's boyishness and Bourne's badassery always seemed to demand a backstory that never materialized, in order to rationalize the contrast. But Renner's face tells you what you need to know - the guy is an angry, haunted, tormented, pitbull ... that you don't want to mess with. He does a great job of carrying the film, but he's also got a phenomenal supporting cast to play off of. Rachel Weiss, for example, is an actress who you wish could be cast in every movie part that calls for a classic beauty who's also believably smart and intellectual. She nails the part of Dr. Shearing, and does a great job of conveying the kind of fear and in-over-her-head anxiety that a scientist would have after getting caught in the crossfire of a government-sponsored hit-squad. Plus, she has a very natural chemistry with Renner that is evident beyond what's necessarilly in the script. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast is top-notch. One huge scene-stealer is Zeljko Ivanek, as a scientist coworker of Weiss'. He is front and center in the movie's most memorable, chilling scene - and Ivanek's surprising, gripping turn is what makes the scene as haunting as it is. You've also got the great Stacy Keach doing what he does best ... being the grizzled, no-nonsense badass. Plus, Edward Norton gives the movie a lot of electricity, with his energetic, dynamic performance. Bourne series regulars like David Straitharn, Albert Finney, and Joan Allen all make cameos as well, firmly planting this one in the middle of the Bourne universe.

Director Tony Gilroy, who wrote all the previous Bourne films, and who's directed some showstoppers (Michael Clayton, for one), takes the reigns here. He foregoes the uber-slick shaky-cam of Greengrass, and instead goes back to an aesthetic more in line with the original film. The movie still feels sleek and gritty, but also a little more old-school than some of the other films. There are some nice action scenes (and the entire final act is essentially one long chase scene) - but, there's nothing quite as take-your-breath-away awesome as some of Greengrass' best sequences from the last two films (Bourne dispatching badguys with a magazine and a towel, anyone?).

Honestly, the biggest issue here is the plotting. The movie gets off to a compelling start, with Cross in a desolate, frozen wasteland with shades of The Grey from earlier this year. But as we meet Norton and his government cohorts, the movie bombards us with noise and jargon that feels like a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. We're teased with backstory - but again, there's not much to latch on to. Why exactly did the government go to such lengths to create these supersoldiers, and why is the fear of exposure so great that they'd so abruptly end the program by killing off all of the soldiers? We get lots of bits and pieces, but it's mostly just filler. The same goes for the science behind the experiments. And most importantly, the same goes for Cross and his particular motivations. Who was he before the experiments - how much does he know / remember? What would happen, exactly, if Cross didn't take his "chems?" The consequences are never truly established to the point where we feel a real sense of urgency around his mission. A lot of compelling questions are raised here, but the movie doesn't seem all that interested in answering most of them. That sort of ambiguity was okay in the original three films, which told more specific, more tightly reigned-in stories. But here, the purpose of the movie is, in many respects, to pull back the curtain on the world of Bourne - to expand the universe. And The Bourne Legacy is only mildly successful in that regard.

Now, would there be some thrill out of getting a future sequel where Bourne and Cross team up to take down their common foe? Sure. And The Bourne Legacy certainly leaves that option open as a possibility. But that also means that Aaron Cross' journey in this movie doesn't feel wholly satisfying. For one, we never get deep enough into his character - or into the shady government program that spawned him - to really understand what's at stake here. For another, the overall arc of the film feels like it's about establishing Cross as a badass - which it does - but it's all foundation-building. Without knowing what, if anything, it's building towards ... it's hard to get all that excited. And some of that ambivalence stems from my overall feelings towards the franchise. It always feels to me like the plots of these films get drowned out by the action, aesthetics, and everpresent angst of the main characters. But the lead - the fact that THESE ARE GENETICALLY-ENGINEERED SUPER-SOLDIERS CREATED IN SECRET BY THE GOVERNMENT FOR SOME UNKNOWN AGENDA - gets repeatedly buried. A lot of folks who just come for some cool action won't care, and hey, it's not like that prevents these films from being damn good action movies. But it does, I think, prevent them from being truly *great* films. Again, just not enough to sink your teeth into. And it's not like these are Hong Kong-style action movies that are all *about* the action, either. There's more than enough downtime between action scenes, more than enough technobabble and behind-the-scenes espionage stuff to make you yearn for better plot and better backstory to go along with it.

Where that leaves us is here: The Bourne Legacy is uber-competently made, superbly-acted and cast. It's a rock-solid action-thriller and well worth a watch. But this, also, is franchise filmmaking in search of a purpose for existing.

My Grade: B

Monday, August 13, 2012

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD is a Powerful, Moving, Modern-Day Fairy Tale


- Haunting, lyrical, poetic, funny, and visually-stunning, BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD is a stunner that is among the best films of the year to date. This is a movie that shouldn't work. It's a modern-day fairy tale told in a magical-realism style - a tale of a great flood in the Louisiana bayou, crafted by twenty-something NYU grads. It features non-professional actors in its two most important on-screen roles. It's incredibly ambitious - thematically and visually, yet limited to an indie-film budget. This shouldn't work. But somehow, director Behn Zeitlin and co-writer Lucy Alibar make it work, and craft a poignant, powerful story - a movie that is both strikingly original and timeless.

As mentioned, the film plays out in a surrealistic, fairy-tale fashion. Beasts tells the tale of a fictional swampland village known as The Bathtub. The film takes place in a version of reality - maybe the future? - where The Bathtub is completely cut off from the rest of the civilized world. Beyond concrete gates and levees, an industrialized society - grey smokestacks and drab buildings - is visible. But within the confines of The Bathtub, a stubbornly isolationist community lives off the land. They grow and hunt their own food, make their own clothes, and live in ramshackle shelters cobbled together by hand. The community's children go to their own school, where they learn a mix of practical survival skills and passed-down folk wisdom. The people of the Bathtub are fiercely independent, and set in their ways - determined to continue living off the land and remaining apart from a world that's, mostly, left them behind in the swamp.

We learn about The Bathtub from the wide-eyed POV of young Hushpuppy, a scrappy six-year-old girl. Raised by her father, Wink, Hushpuppy has never known life beyond this place - and she's also never known her mother - who left for the outside world after Hushpuppy was born. As Beasts progresses, two things happen that shake up Hushpuppy's world, and that, eventually, force her on a far-reaching journey outside of her home. One is the long-prophecied storm - the great, fearsome storm that the people of The Bathtub knew would come, but that most stubbornly refused to flee or properly prepare for. The storm completely floods the village and forces those who stay into a deadly game os survival. And - for the outside world, the flood is an excuse to finally tear apart The Bathtub - to force its residents to relocate, and interrupt the years of isolation that the community has enjoyed. Of all the 'Tub's residents, it's Wink who's the most stubborn about not leaving. And that is the second thing that shakes up Hushpuppy's world - the fact that her father is becoming even more of a loose-cannon than usual - he's becoming unhinged, even deranged, driven mad by the outside world's encroachment on his home. More so than that, he is sick - maybe even dying - and Hushpuppy has to figure out how to survive in a world that, very quickly, has been turned totally on its head.

As Hushpuppy, young Quvenzhan√© Wallis is amazing. It's one of the best kid-acting performances I've seen - she makes Hushpuppy a pint-sized epic hero - inhumanly brave, yet all-too-terrified of what's happening to her formerly idyllic life. And her chemistry with Dwight Henry, who plays her father, is fantastic. Henry in general is just awesome as Wink - an unhinged force of nature. To think that he was not even a trained actor going into this film is mind-boggling. Somehow, Henry - a New Orleans resident - tapped into something inside himself and just unleashed it in this film. He makes Wink both noble and terrifying, a hero and his own worst enemy. This is one of my favorite film performances of the year so far - and I would love to see Henry receive a nomination come Oscar time for the remarkable work he does in this movie.

Visually, the film paints a vivid, dreamlike picture of both The Bathtub and the ominous outside world beyond its borders. It's a very immersive movie - thick with atmosphere. And when the Big Storm hits - it feels like an eruption of biblical proportions. Speaking of which, the other major thread in the film - and its most surreal plot-point - involves the mythical beasts known as the aurochs, who have been awakened from their ancient slumber by the coming of the storm. Reinforcing the idea of The Bathtub as a primal place, the movie flashes on occasion to the rising of the aurochs, and their migration back to their home from across the globe. Again, what might have been cheesy in lesser hands is instead awe-inspiring here. The visual f/x are fantastically done, and the mythological component of the film is elegantly integrated into the main story, adding to its epic nature.

My one complaint with the film, from a visual standpoint, is one that I've seen echoed by others: the overuse of shaky-cam. While appropriate for some scenes - like during the chaotic storm - oftentimes I felt the shakiness detracted from the storytelling, when more steady cinematography would have been more impactful.

But where I give this film a ton of credit is how deftly it balances its characters, story, and overarching themes. As I said, there was probably reason to be skeptical going in to this. Knowing the backgrounds of the filmmakers, and knowing that they were looking to make something very authentic to New Orleans culture ... you had to wonder if they could pull it off. You wondered if the film would come off feeling cloying and cliched. But I think Zeitlin and co. smartly avoid these traps. For one thing, the actors help to infuse the film with the authenticity it needs - no question. And for another, the surreal, fairytale storytelling style makes this world and everything in it - from the down-home accents to the cutesy character names - feel appropriate given the context. Point being: if you rolled your eyes when you heard that the main character of this film is a six-year-old named Hushpuppy, don't prejudge. In the context of the movie, it works.

What also makes the film work as well as it does is that there is, in fact, a real subtlety and evenhandedness in its themes. It's part of the brilliance of the Wink character - in some ways, you root for him. There is a nobility in his refusal to join the modern world, and in his desire to keep his daughter's experience pure and uncorrupted. But there is also a paranoia and madness to him - in being so stubborn, he's dooming himself, and potentially his daughter. He's not necessarily *right* in his conviction to stay in The Bathtub despite all reason - but he does, in his own way, have a *point.* And there is a certain, undeniable purity to the way he lives his life. When Wink and his fellow villagers are, eventually, forced away from Bathtub, there's an almost Tarzan-like quality in how out-of-place, afraid, and alienated they feel in the civilized world.

What I loved most though about BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD is that it's just filled with big, memorable, cinematic moments. I don't mean big, necessarily, in the blockbuster summer movie sense (though there are some of those), but big in terms of sheer dramatic power. As we watch Hushpuppy's perilous, coming-of-age journey, there are moments of terror, sadness, triumph, and adventure - moments that will make you misty-eyed, moments that will give you chills.

To that end, run out and go see what may well be one of the big, underdog cinematic stories of 2012.

My Grade: A-

KLOWN is a Kult Komedy in the Making!

KLOWN Review:

- Every time I tell people about KLOWN - the outrageous Danish comedy that is like Curb Your Enthusiasm on crack - people ask me the same thing: "but how can it be funny ... if it has subtitles?" Well, I don't know, but it is. That's what happens when you've got jokes as expertly conceived and as shockingly executed as Klown's. If you're a fan of Curb, Louie, and other comedy that keeps things low-key, before building up to gut-bustingly funny punchlines, then you owe Klown a watch. This is some funny, memorable, quotable stuff - that brings the funny in hefty doses.

Klown is an offshoot of a Danish TV show of the same name. It's slice-of-life, Curb-style comedy that pairs two forty-ish guys in classic, Odd Couple fashion. Frank is our lead character - he's soft-spoken, dorky, neurotic, and tightly-wound. He earnestly tries to do the right thing, but he's often too dimwitted to realize that his efforts are going to somehow end up totally screwing him and pissing off the same people he's trying to make good with. Worse, Frank constantly seems to be led astray by his best friend Casper. Casper is the classic bad influence - though he's married, he is all about the neverending quest for girls, booze, and general debauchery. And he's always dragging Frank into his schemes. As KLOWN kicks off, Casper's latest scheme - a guys-only canoe trip designed by Casper to booze it up and meet women of loose moral fiber - comes at a particularly bad time for Frank. Frank's wife has about had it with him. She's sick of Frank's association with Casper, and wants him to grow up. She wants him to prove that he's ready to be an adult and be a father. Otherwise, she's threatened to leave him. So Frank makes a rare bold move: without consulting Casper, he decides to take his ten-year-old nephew Bo on the canoe trip. Frank wants to prove that he can be an adult and a good role model, and thus win back his wife. Only problem is: Casper is still 110% determined to keep the trip as debaucherous as ever. And so ... ten-year-old Bo is about to get the experience of his young lifetime, despite Frank's mostly-failed efforts to keep things clean.

Klown's premise is simple, but it is a great setup for all sorts of jaw-dropping moments of shock-humor. What makes it all work is the contrast between Frank - a mild-mannered, well-meaning guy - and the absolute craziness of the situations he somehow gets dragged into.

Now, there is a very TV-esque / episodic feel to Klown, and that means that sometimes, the movie does go for stretches without huge laughs. It also means that the movie can feel a bit meandering at times. But ultimately, the big joke payoffs are more than worth the slow build-up, with some truly WTF, "I can't believe that just happened" moments. What's refreshing is that, in an American comedy, you'd typically only get away with these sorts of big, shocking jokes in the context of a very big, broad, over-the-top comedy. But since much of Klown is played very straight, the crazy moments are that much more hilarious, and genuinely jaw-dropping.

I'll tease some highlights for you: in the course of Klown, Frank and Casper ... piss off a bunch of teens on a high school field trip, have a strange and perverse encounter with a cabin-dwelling woman, accidentally defile Frank's mother-in-law, and humiliate poor Bo in ways that no ten-year-old should ever be subjected to.

Another reason why the movie succeeds is Frank Hyam and Casper Christensen, playing fictionalized versions of themselves. The two have a natural, easygoing chemistry - again, similar to Larry David and Jeff Garlin on Curb - and the believability of their friendship helps ground the film. The kid who plays Bo is also a find - his hilairously stoic facial expressions and reaction shots are often priceless, and give the excalamation point to many of the film's best jokes.

Klown sometimes does feel like a Danish twist on American cable TV comedy, but the jokes and characters are sharp enough to make it work on its own merits - and it goes to places that I've seen few other comedies dare go. It's definitely got cult classic potential. And mostly, I selfishly just want people to see it so I can quote some of the best lines and have people know what the hell I'm talking about. The film is available on VOD and iTunes to rent, and in select theaters, so check it out now and see that - who knew? - the Danish can be funny!

My Grade: B+