Wednesday, June 30, 2010

MicMacs: Jean-Pierre Jeunet Makes Serious Fun

The latest film from French Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen, City of Lost Children, Amelie) once is again full of the type of whimsy that the director has become famous for. A young boy, Bazil, loses his father to a land mind; later, as an adult, he’s hit by a stray bullet while tending to his station in a video store. The bullet becomes lodged in his brain, leaving him susceptible to death at any moment. Due to the accident he loses his job, becomes homeless, and falls in with a troop of underground salvagers who restore discarded junk. One day, while hauling some salvaged scraps home, Bazil drives past a pair of buildings – arms merchants, both, responsible for the land mind that killed his father as well as the bullet in his brain – and hatches a plot to extract his revenge.

The underlying subject may seem both serious and timely – the arms merchants supply weapons to wars around the world, including terrorists and the states combating them. But MicMacs wants instead to revel in a comedy of underlings scumbling about to combat powerful bad guys (the CEO’s of the two companies). Essentially a Clay Shirky “Here Comes Everybody” treatise on the power of the individual to take down the corporation (the original translation of the title means “non-stop shenanigans”), MicMacs has our heroes assemble a series of intricate Rube Goldberg devices and improvisational theater out of salvaged parts and recirculated clichés, all to attack what the bad guys hold most dear (their possessions) and extract embarrassing confessions.

Jeunet’s style, ever so entertaining, is once again to pull together a Dada-ist ensemble of circus-like characters (including a contortionist, a human cannonball, and a woman who can measure distances and speeds by simple observation) along with flickering montages of seemingly re-used film clips and illustrated flashbacks. I found the effect of this film startlingly refreshing. Jeunet has been doing his art-house/clown-like approach to film for a while, but when you compare this movie with other contemporary fare (whether it be the serious animated melodrama of Toy Story or the knowing earnestness of film-festival favorites like Holofcenter or DeFelitta), the difference in approach and tone is dramatic. Where much of film these days has taken on a life-or-death seriousness, Jeunet insists on finding the play and whimsy even in the most serious of subject matters. That’s a strong point of view to hang out in the wind against the prevailing zeitgeist, and you may, as I did, really appreciate it. In comparison today’s self-serious fare, MicMacs may seem lightweight and even a bit silly. But it’s a very smart and calculated silliness – one designed to tickle our sense of life-and-death propriety (even the doctors operating on Bazil’s bullet take time to wax philosophic), while at the same time allowing us to indulge in our heroic revenge fantasies. It’s precisely this break from convention that makes this movie so satisfying as well as entertaining.

In the end, Bazil and his new-found friends enact an almost “Mission Impossible”-like dramaturge designed to extract their revenge on the two hapless CEO’s (who are both natural enemies as well as compatriots). When Jeunet reveals the set-up, he does so with the usual flair for amusing re-enactment, and the gag is well worth waiting for. In the end, Bazil has his revenge, as well as a new family – indeed, he has his life back. Since it’s at the expense of both CEO’s, Jeunet seems to be implying that this is a zero-sum game: that there are winners, and losers, and often power makes the difference.

This time, YouTube makes the difference, and the final sequence of amused web surfers is Jeunet’s most “realistic” portrait he’s given us of our modern world to date. Jeunet has always been the champion of the ordinary guy, a clown who wants us to understand the pathos and joy in the bumblers and the castaways, a giddy populist railing against the fat cats. This film is no exception, but perhaps, finally, events are catching up with him.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Invictus: Apartheid Meets Rugby In This "Inspirational" Film

Invictus was one of those movies that I intentionally missed watching in the theater but was curious to rent, and I was exactly right. An "inspirational" drama (you can hardly signal "inspirational" any more than by casting Morgan Freeman), it's one of those movies built around examining a noble social injustice (in this case, the election of Nelson Mandela to lead his country out of apartheid) by providing a stolid three-act structure that instructs the characters in how to overcome their unjust circumstances to be more than they are (in this case, how the South African mostly white Springbok rugby team can become world champions, and how the entire country - black and white - can be proud of them).

That's exactly how this movie works - from Act 1, when Mandela (Freeman) takes over the presidency and has to handle both the anger of the blacks and the resentment of the whites...through Act 2, when Mandela decides that rugby is the symbol that will unite his racially fractured country and gets behind coaching Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) into turning his team from a joke into a serious contender for the championship...through finally, an interminable Act 3, when all South Africa is united behind the Sprinboks as they battle New Zealand for the 1995 World Cup.

It's a predictable plot that moves along saved only by the deeply textured performance by Freeman (this movie, almost a gift to this talented actor, really displays why Freeman is such a movie fixture, and the effortless talent he can bring to disappearing into a fully realized character). Mandela sees not only the symbolism that the Sprinboks hold for white South Africans; he understands that only by transferring black anger against white symbols into sympathy for a new, racially integrated country can he hold together a country that's ready to erupt in racial resentments for past injustices. It's a shrewd calculation, and Freeman vividly illustrates the dilemma and characterizes a man who's own political vision has not been hardened, but rather...expanded, through years of imprisonment.

Damon is bulked up and serviceable as the rugby captain who's mysteriously tapped by the new president as the country's symbol of unity, and turns around his team...but there's not much to bring to a role that's essentially a symbol.

There's a single black player on the Springbok team, and naturally, this player - at first an Uncle Tom - becomes a hero to the black children of South Africa, inspired largely by Mandela's insight into the connection between childhood inspiration and sports. This seems to be the heart of the movie, and perhaps the most successful moment. Mandela essentially has saved a new generation of black youth by inviting the Springboks on a "cultural tour" to demonstrate rugby to them, turning them into fans. The new president - contrary to his advisers, who wish him to focus more on matters of state - has wisely seen the power of symbols to shape a country's joint destiny. Clearly, those advisers are there to provide some sort of tension for the film, but they certainly struck me as pretty inept at political symbolism. Given they way they're portrayed, it's hard to understand what Mandela saw in keeping them around.

It's also all too inevitable that the political drama that Mandela is managing gets ultimately turned into a rugby that we find ourselves having to observe South Africa's resolution through various scenes of black and white crowds cheering on the same Springbok team - or white policemen and black children hugging (in slow motion, yet!) and cheering as the Springboks win. Racial tensions are never resolved as easily as a football game, and the movie's simplified resolution is necessary to provide the essential third-act "inspirational moment," yet is also clearly false in terms of its simplistic social analysis.

Such falseness is why many avoid these types of inspirational movies in the first place. Yet I was curious to learn more about the Mandela moment, and about South Africa in general. The film does deliver that - especially through Freeman's fine performance. If you find yourself fast-forwarding through the maudliny false final scenes, however, you can forgive yourself....that's why you rented, instead of sitting in the theater. And you won't miss much.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Toy Story 3: Putting Away Childish Things

Eleven years have passed since Toy Story 2 (fifteen since the original), and in their decision to revisit this Pixar classic (the original was nominated for three Oscars), the studio clearly must have searched for some way to dust off these toys for a new generation of kids and their parents.

The most logical solution - and one that largely works - is to enter the story after a similar passage of time, so that Andy, the kid who owns the bevvy of come-alive toys, including the classically loyal Woody and the irrepressible Buzz Lightyear, is now a teenager, about to go to college. Like all boys who have grown up, Andy must put away childish things: including the gang of loyal toys, who are destined to go into the attic (except for Woody, clearly the favorite who will go with Andy to college).

That Andy isn't too bright, however. Instead of packing the toys into the box marked "attic" he carelessly puts them into a trash bag, and...well, you get the set up. The toys end up at Sunnyside Daycare - at first a seeming paradise of kids who forever play with toys, but looks can be deceiving. The Daycare is ruthlessly ruled by a big huggy bear named Lotso (Ned Beatty) who has the entire place under his thumb. The new recruits are sentenced to be battered by under aged toddlers (a fate worse than death), Buzz is rebooted into a prison guard, and it's up to Woody to figure out a way to rescue the lot.

I happened to see this film at a vulnerable time - while visiting my mother in the hospital at my childhood home - so the film's themes of childhood lost and toys being torn asunder struck me, perhaps, a bit more than it might otherwise. There's no pulled punches here as the film pulls out all the stops: old dogs grown fat, pet horses with wide eyes crying as their friends say goodbye, a lost city of unwanted toys with all the pathos of Spielberg's AI. The movie seems a bit relentless and I suppose I'm not the only one feeling unexpectedly (and perhaps a bit unpleasantly) touched.

However, despite the wide praise for re-imagining the truisms of age, growing up, and separation, the movie is at its most inspired when its reprising the Sixties classic, The Great Escape: Woody comes up with a plot to distract the monkey guard (the monkey, who alerts Lotso with a maniacal clanging of his cymbals and a wild look in his eyes whenever he spies an escaping prisoner, is the best joke in the movie), while his compatriots plot to cross the prison yard patrolled by Tonka trucks and a sparkly purple squid.

This movie feels very influenced by Pixar's latest success - Up - another picture that dealt with the changes of life and which was able to capture the sadness of life's passages with prickly characters, a clever metaphor and vivid imagination. Toy Story 3 doesn't have the piquant succinctness of Up - it's an ensemble picture rather than a character study - so instead of building toward a deeply moving reconciliation, it needs to tug insistently on our heart strings every so often in between frantic, half-comic run-ins with life and death. This both makes it more serious and deep than earlier Toy Stories and not quite as deftly good as Pixar has become with movies like The Incredibles and Up. This Toy Story may in fact be both a little dark for younger kids and a little young for adults. One almost wishes it didn't have the history of the first two Toy Stories behind it: the approach here is to try to get at something more serious this time, but since we already know the characters so well, the movie suffers a bit from not letting us get to figure out what these toys still have to learn about each other.

Even if it's uneven, and not quite emotionally pulled together, it clearly illustrates the facility that Pixar has learned for this kind of thing. First The Increadibles gave us a comic riff on rekindling the magic in middle-age. Then Up delighted us with the pathos and rejeuvination that comes with old age. Now Toy Story 3 gives us a treatise on growing up and a lesson in leaving childhood behind. That studio has really become the most effective storyteller of life lessons in well over a generation, of the likes we haven't seen in ages - a postmodern Frank Capra. And they do it all with clever animation. Incredible, indeed.

Friday, June 18, 2010

City Island: New York Family Saved by Acting

The cute and quirky City Island is certainly one of the best films playing in this lightweight summer season.

Set on the Manhattan redoubt of City Island – an island in New York sound that’s officially part of the Bronx and easily accessible to Manhattan, but has more the characteristics of a New England fishing village- this film follows the hidden ambitions of Vince Rizzo (Andy Garcia), a New York City correctional officer with dreams of being an actor, and his family of unhappy misfits. One part Moonstruck, one part Bullets Over Broadway, and one part Ugly Betty, the story weaves together Vince’s desire to break into acting with the effect that finding his long-lost 24-year-old son (now a petty thief) has on his family.

Vince’s newly found son, in fact, is a convict in his jail – one of the many too-pat set-ups that give the film the light lilt of situation comedy. His wife has no idea that he’s studying acting at night – she thinks he’s off playing poker, the kind of thing a correctional officer should be doing. Meanwhile, his teenage son has a feeding obsession with fat women and his daughter has dropped out of college to become a stripper. They’re the types of goofy character ticks they teach you to come up with in screenwriting class; and the movie has all the Sundance bonafieds needed for a young director to be making his mark, including a bevy of experienced actors who bring a lively improvisation to their craft (especially difficult when precisely these acting techniques – such as long pauses – are being highlighted in Vince’s class). That is to say, we believe this family, even if they’re impossibly broad. When Vince’s teacher gives the class the assignment of giving a monologue about their deepest secret, Vince decides to take custody of his long-lost son and bring him home to live with his family (without telling them who he is, of course) as a way of confronting his own deepest secret.

The cases of mistaken assumptions and ultimate payoff that the movie is headed for is obvious way too early, but City Island keeps us enchanted with its original take on the old chestnut of breaking into the biz and self-actualizing one’s deepest desires. It’s actually a young man’s story – the idea of coming either to New York, or from New York, and breaking out of one’s family ties to find one’s true calling. City Island asks us to imagine this now as a middle-aged man’s story, not so much a mid-life crisis as a reawakening. Much of the credit for the success of the film goes to the actors, who dig into these characters to find true feeling. From Ezra Miller as Vince Jr., the bubble-butt obsessed snarky teenager, to Emily Mortimer as Vince’s acting partner, Alan Arkin as his grumpy teacher, or Strait as the hunky son who throws the household into a tizzy.

That son is like Vince’s younger self come to life – virile, sexy, and a bit dangerous. He not only gets Vince’s wife hot, he breaks down the daughter’s defenses, enables Vince Jr. to express his true desires, and gives Vince a career-changing monologue, to boot. Not bad for one day’s work, but the elegiac Strait seems up to the task. What makes this movie hard not to love is how modest yet earnest are the character’s desires, from simply being appreciated to making it as an actor – and how the movie goes about steadily rewarding all of them. Everyone in this movie starts out as an Island (they all are smoking in secret, believing that everyone else in the family disproves of smoking). But once the shirtless, sweating Strait enters the household, neuroses and secrets start to be revealed, and the messy passions of the City start to come to the fore.

There are clearly things about this movie that could be improved but are largely the acceptable deficiencies of a small-budget breakout film: the music is wrong (no music budget), the editing often misses the right moment for a scene cut (not enough money for multiple takes), there are moments that go on a bit too long or metaphors (musclesucker / clamdigger) that seem a bit too strained (could have used one more script polish). But despite all that – or perhaps, because of it – we’re treated to a film that actually cares about writing, acting, and family enough build some deeply felt, humorous insights about all three. In a summer of Iron Men and “Abu-Dhabi-Do,” that’s a real accomplishment.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Sex in the City 2: Slipping In to Decade Old Shmata

For the first, time, Cincritic divides its recommendation - for non-fans of the series:

Fans of the series:

In a way, what makes Sex in the City 2 stand out over the deadly dull original movie is exactly why I've split the recommendation - the movie, and the actors, now both completely know the audience for their creation (metrosexual women of a certain age and their gay cohorts - probably those that have few straight female friends of their own), and they pull no punches going after it.

This time, the movie makes absolutely no effort to be good, or even create a script to hang its hat on (yes, Carrie runs into her old flame, Aiden, but like that unintended kiss, it's meaningless). Instead, its just a series of estrogine-soaked cat-nip: fabulous gay weddings, Liza Minelli in drag as herself, girls in tizzies trying on outrageous clothes, panning crotch-shots of bikini clad rugby players, world travel, fabu hotels, shopping sprees, girls creating tension with fake couples crises, and excuses to show naked boy-butts grinding sex with the now way-to-old characters. If that sounds delightful to you, you might want to check it out. If it sounds painful - stay away, far far away.

There's absolutely nothing else to this movie other than distilling down the essential elements of the original HBO hit series from the 1990's and giving all of us aging girls another romp through the expensive indulgences. For fans of the series, this is, in fact, better than the first movie - which had to spend way too much time winding up old flames, resolving unresolved plot-lines, and creating an excuse for spending two full hours with these tiring chatterboxes. This time, no excuses: just catnip. Prrrrr.

In Sex and the City 2, time has not marched on: the characters are the same self-seeking hollow city-girls that we new and loved back when the internet was a cute novelty and online dating meant sending someone an email. The only difference: now they're all married. But you would hardly think so, given the way they all carry on. In order to get them all out of the house, the film concocts a few excuses: first, Carrie Bradshaw's two gay friends get married in Connecticut. Next, she and her newfound husband John ("Mr. Big" - Chris Noth - of the series) argue about staying in too much, so she heads out on the town to simulate a movie opening (media glamor is always just another kind of sex for this city). Finally, Samantha comes up for an excuse for the four girls to travel on a private jet to spend a weak lounging in United Arab Emirates. However, Sarah Jessica Parker (as Carrie Bradshaw) should be well on her way to wearing "bubbie" on her gold necklace, not just figuring out how to share a bedroom with a man, and Kim Cattrall as Samantha has to wear way too much makeup to keep that face from sagging, and her humping buff thirty-year-olds is starting to seem creepily well beyond Cougar and into borderline necrophilia. Listen, honey, we're all breaking down (sometimes I can't walk down the stairs anymore...I should be one to complain) but most of us aren't still acting like star-struck twenty-year-olds in a New York that's way-too-rich and just about to spit up gold-stardust into the streets.

Since that mid-nineteens indulgence and extravagance would seem way out-of-place if set in the Great Recession New York of today, the producers of SITC2 wisely move the action to Abu Dhabi - the last place in the world where extravagant indulgence can seem "in" and harmless. Never mind that Abu Dhabi has nothing to do with the plot, that Arab states repress women, or that Samantha's trip to meet with a sheik there turns out to be a fashion red herring designed for no other reason that to give the girls a weekend overseas. Where else --except possibly at a gay wedding -- could four women spending insane amounts of money on clothes, sex, and shoes possibly make sense these days? Even if they have to do it all underneath a burka.

The actors clearly feel the same way. All four treat the roles with an ironic detachment, like these characters are some kind of old Nineties thing they've found in the back of the closet and have decided to slip on, for old times sake. For those of us who enjoyed the characters the first time around as a kind of secret, non-intellectual indulgence, that insouciance gives the movie some of its real pleasure: no one takes this stuff seriously, least of all the people behind it. So just shut up and enjoy the soft-core porn. However, given how ratty its starting to seam and how much none of us fit into it anymore, I kind of fear this may be the last time we try this dress on.

Yes, that extravagant gay wedding scene is insultingly over-the-top to gays, just as is the idiotic Abu Dhabi fling to fifty-year-old women and Arabs, even if the clothes and the naked butts are fabu in both.

No, PC this movie is not - and a two-and-a-half hours, you may think you've literally entered a time warp - but if you're looking for a...well...certain kind of escapism this summer, you'd be hard-pressed to find as many Liza Minellis in one place or as many R-rated dicks standing at attention than you'll find in this movie.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Get Him to the Greek: A Sex & Drugs, Rock-n-Roll Detour

This Apatow-sponsored flick written and directed by Nicholas Stoller opens with Sean “P. Diddy” Combs playing a music producer looking to rehabilitate his sagging music industry revenue flows. “We’ve got to thicken my ***n’ flow,” he declares to his team of sad-assed wannabes (including Apatow regular Jonah Hill as the assistant with the bright idea), and the half-caricature / half-insight tells you all you need to know about where this film is going. Basically, this is a movie about a wide-eyed young music producer's (Hill's Aaron Green) bright idea of rehabilitating the career of rock disaster Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), and how he's sent to England to transport the party-boy back to L.A. for a ten-year reunion concert meant to save both the label and the artist. The movie has all the rock-legend feel and sassy vulgarity of Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous without the nostalgic nuance.

Despite its simplistic take, this is actually one of the better rock-and-roll flicks of the last couple of years. The movie has a real feel for the idiom, not just of rock-and-roll but the entire spectrum of celebrity music culture, from the street ironies of rap (a rapper and his manager have a debate over pink Izod versus leather zipper jacket which is “one zipper away from Thriller”) to the Entertainment-Tonight bubble-gum antics (captured with aplomb in the opening number, “African Child”), all the way to rock music inspiration (nicely summarized with the closing bad-drug-trip-inspired “Furry Walls”). While the tub-tapping music itself is one notch beneath parody and makes its point with but a few repetitive chords, it hits the satire dead on.

The script mostly follows tried-and-true rock-and-roll drug-and-sex stereotypes: Aaron is immediately stymied in his intentions when Aldous takes him to have drinks with his mates, then sex at a club, and so on – barely making their flights to New York, creating a comic mess on the set of the Today show (with some well-placed cameos from random celebrities such as economist Paul Krugman), then on to yet another drug-detour in Las Vegas. Stock stuff, to be sure, but done with both a tinge of wit and evident love for the rock scene: only a true music fan would slip a still of the Chelsea Hotel into a transitional montage of NY music venues or position the climactic moment in a hotel balcony overlooking Sunset Boulevard.

In the vein of all Judd Apatow produced flicks, this is also a bromance. Hill’s Aaron has to learn to loosen up, while Aldous needs to re-connect with his passion for music, so the two are thrown together in this road-movie of outrageous antics so they can learn these lessons from each other. In the middle is Daphne, Aaron’s girlfriend (played by Elizabeth Moss of "Mad Men" fame as a bit of sly casting), an overly tired intern who’s trying to negotiate career moves with Aaron. The three actors are nicely matched: Brand’s cynical insouciance is a great counterbalance to Hill’s uptight earnestness (on the road, they’re a kind of modern Martin and Lewis), while Moss adds a touch of sensible-yet-badass sweetness. There’s a quite icky but nicely handled three-way that activates all these characters into their closing resolutions and ties up the movie in a nice post-modern, metrosexual bow.

Apatow meets Sid and Nancy, then, seems to be the formula: a post-modern, rap-rocker mash-up that’s probably two-parts stereotypical cliché to every one part media satire. For a fun, summer flick, you could do worse.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, Kernels of Popcorn

Disney has clearly set its eyes on creating a land-locked version of its Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, so it’s no surprise that this movie comes out feeling like the blueprint for an amusement park roller coaster set amongst the sand dunes. Since money needs to go to sprockets, protein shakes for Jake, co-promotions, jumping-jack stage sets, and posters, there must have been little left to spend on a script, so they’ve apparently lifted this one whole cloth from the Laura Croft franchise and substituted a little bit of Sephardic boy action to give it that Arabian feeling.

Not too much feeling, however. Leading boy Jake Gyllenhaal creates a Persian persona by adopting an upper-class British accent. Actually, all the characters do, which gave me a bit of cultural vertigo watching this odd cultural mish-mash that thinks its Middle-Eastern setting is the most successfully recreated when it resembles the video-game its based on rather than any actual representation of history or the Middle East.

All that being said, the story set- up isn’t half bad: a wise Persian kind adopts an orphan boy from the market one day (that celebrity habit apparently started early). Dastan become a part of King Sharamon’s family – the youngest of three brothers who, upon growing up, each have their own bone to pick with Dad. There’s also Nazim, King Sharamon’s brother, who lives in the shadow of the King after having saved his life when they were younger. The brothers and uncle are decamped in the hills surrounding Alamut, a holy city housing some mysterious time-bending maguffin that activates the plot. After the capture of Alamut and the looting of the maguffin, Dastan finds himself set up to take the fall for someone else’s plot for power, and this sets the wild chase through the desert in motion.

The rest is well-directed, visually popping predictable summer pabulum, filled with the requisite amount of goofy sidekicks, nefarious villains, and mystical assassins. There’s not much care to be culturally relevant (the assassins are more Ninja than Persian), unless by relevant you mean giving a nod to contemporary politics (there’s a long Tea-Party like discourse about taxes on the small businessman given by an ostrich-racing entrepreneur, which feels completely incongruent. I’m surprised they didn’t name the guy Joseph ben Plumber.)

The aim here seems to be to capture some of the campy fun of the Pirates franchise, but Gyllenhaal is too sincerely goofy to pull that off, and the rest of the cast doesn’t seem to have been let in on the joke. While the film is well edited and there’s some nice swordplay and sorcery action to entertain the kiddies, the whole thing feels a bit like an amusement park dramaturge catering to bored roller-coaster riders waiting for the next car departure. Even the time-bending effects feel a bit like last year’s canned Adobe filter (as does the editing, which has that clichéd tendency to speed up the action in mid-swoop and then pause for a second just before the final jab – like we see now in soda commercials and wrestling ads).

Nothing worth noticing here, then (and there’s only the briefest flash of Gyllenhaal ’s abs if that’s what’s pulling you in), though it does suggest Gyllenhaal might be interesting casting to play against the next Croft number.