Friday, December 31, 2010

Easy A (Will Gluck, 2010) -- D+

Easy A misses the ultimate irony about itself (despite incessant smarmy and cutesy perceptions from all of its intolerable characters) - it too, is a lie, much like those perpetuated by the student body of a netherworld high school about Olive (Emma Stone), whose embellished (and fictional) recanting of a sexual encounter snowballs into her becoming the school slut. Catch is, she doesn't actually fuck the guys, she just claims to, receiving gift cards in exchange for a rep boost to fledgling fat asses, virgin geeks, and closeted homosexuals. All of this is meant to riff on Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (Olive brands a red A on her new skank attire), but the film is not interested in dealing with sincere issues of adolescent sexual angst or double standards, making none of it convincing in the slightest. Moreover, there's a mean-streak running throughout which heaves even more bitterness atop the already wavering mountain of contrivance and dishonesty, a solipsism that does not mark critique or satire, but negligent Hollywood bullshit. There's nary an endearing or enriched, emotionally evocative moment to be found amidst the chic posturing. Emma Stone absolves herself nicely, but the writing provides no room for human comedy, just cynicism masquerading as coming-of-age wisdom, another nail in the coffin for subsequent generations who may be persuaded by this form of social sickness.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, 2010) -- B

Following his overrated cop epic The Departed with Shutter Island makes sense for Martin Scorsese. Working (and muffing) a gangster genre piece, his new film, based on the bone-chilling novel by Dennis Lehane, hybridizes horror and film noir, allowing one of cinema’s greatest masters to make a distinctive new entry into his 40+ year filmography, while integrating various, seamless homages. Shutter Island lets Scorsese be at both work and play, simultaneously.

Boston, 1954. U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) arrives via ferry with his partner (Mark Ruffalo) to a secluded mental asylum. The objective: find escapee Rachel Solando, one of the institution’s most dangerous patients. No one seems to know how she’s escaped. Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) explains: “It’s as if she evaporated, straight through the walls.” Encountering potentially supernatural beings and confronting his own demons, Daniels’ sanity becomes the crux of the film’s focus.

In taking on a project set in the mid-1950’s, Scorsese affords himself the opportunity to rack his movie knowledge. The string and horn score is indicative of nearly any of Bernard Hermann’s greatest, most notably Psycho. Flashback scenes, set during World War II, clearly recall Sam Fuller’s great The Steel Helmet. Visual motifs signal reverence; a spiral staircase derives from Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, one of Scorsese’s favorites. Even Kubrick’s The Shining gets a fabulous homage, especially in one of the film’s key scenes.

Thankfully, Scorsese does not let the references run amok. They are not impertinent to the story at hand, and certainly play runner-up to the gripping narrative, held tightly together by DiCaprio, in one of his good performances. He’s especially convincing here, featured in every scene, but maintaining a modesty that doesn’t make his presence tiring.

Shutter Island is a decidedly artistic effort, nowhere near the commercial vanilla that hurt the entertaining, but underwhelming The Departed. You’d have to go back eleven years and cite Bringing Out the Dead to find a truly comparable example from the director’s past films. There is rough material here, presented in a fairly abstract manner, especially in several flashbacks, the best sequences of whole piece. Familiarity with surrealism and expressionism will be required to understand precisely what Scorsese is getting at. The trailers depict fairly conventional horror tropes, but the actual film exorcizes much darker demons and it’s certain that many moviegoers may be turned off by this.

However, once the menacing music, DiCaprio’s vulnerable, but stern performance and the organic aura of despair set in, your blood runs cold. Regardless of being a bit flabby (at least two or three scenes could have been trimmed off) and having an over-explanatory ending, the grasp of Scorsese’s directorial hand grips squarely around the throat. He builds atmosphere, even at 67, like very few filmmakers are able to. Is it anywhere near as good as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver or After Hours? Of course not. However, it’s one of his strongest from the past 20 years and impressively demonstrates that he is still capable of churning out top notch work.

She's Out of My League (Jim Field Smith, 2010) -- D+

Arriving post-Farrelly Brothers, post-Apatow, the new (by release date only) comedy She’s Out of My League attempts to combine moments of bodily fluid, crotch shot and man-grooming humor with a much sweeter side, showing that beneath the veneer of filth and cynicism its twenty-something characters blithely spew, lies more seasoned and mature adults, just coming to grips with their loss of adolescence. Problem is, nothing about either its characters or what they are saying constitutes anything that can’t be gleaned from countless other, better films. Or, for that matter, any college dorm across America. The discourse would inevitably be more astute.

Movies like this, not wanting to put forth any effort, depend on introducing character types, more easily establishing the fictitious (but real) world inhabited. Kirk (Jay Baruchel) has worked airport security with his buddies since he graduated from high school. His girlfriend recently dumped him, his friends and family make fun of him, he’s down on himself, etc.

What does a slightly awkward, down-on-his-luck guy need to turn his life around? According to She’s Out of My League, a hot (but nice, sweet) babe. Insert Molly (Alice Eve), the kind of woman that makes every man’s head turn. We know this because her intro is a slow-motion sequence, dance club music blasting, while each and every male (young, old, whatever) turns his head in confounded astonishment, relishing her beauty. Mouths fall agape, husbands get jabs in the sides from their wives – basically, the world stands still. Meeting her after a mix-up with her iPhone (so chic), Kirk’s living out the fantasy his friends say is impossible: He’s but a measly five, dating a ten.

A fundamental problem at the icky heart of She’s Out of My League is the utterly cut-and-paste viewpoint it takes on relationship mores and practices. Kirk’s friends talk like the scheming screenwriters who concocted them: all pizzazz, no veracity. Their dialogue works only as a type of vogue, blanketing the utter lack of connection with real world relationships.

Likewise, Molly and her pal Patty (Krysten Ritter) are allocated only enough screen time to keep the balance of power from completely toppling into the males favor. Why not a film from Molly’s point of view? Or, for that matter, how about a comedy where the woman is the five and the man is the ten? Unfortunately, Hollywood has a problem when it comes to such role reversals, so we’re stuck with yet another comedy pandering to its crowd, offering the underachieving male’s perspective.

Only, it isn’t any sort of discernibly honest perspective (how could it be when peddling easy gags about getting hit in the crotch with a hockey puck, a dog licking Kirk’s boxers after premature ejaculation or Kirk shaving his “man region,” a joke that was old when American Wedding did it back in 2003?). Nope, nothing too gut-bustingly funny about these old jokes and character types, thinly veiled and re-wrapped to try and squeeze every last ounce of comedy out of the already barren barrel.

Hot Tub Time Machine (Steve Pink, 2010) -- C

About half way through Hot Tub Time Machine, a new comedy from director Steve Pink, it becomes quite clear that nothing’s ever going to take any congealed shape. Content to let its characters bounce back and forth from lame sight gag to mildly amusing repartee, the script witlessly hurls its four burnt out protagonists into a high concept plot, without much intention of ever building any sincere rooting interest.

After Lou (Rob Corddry) tries to kill himself following a drinking binge, his former best friends Adam (John Cusack) and Jacob (Craig Robinson) decide he needs a bit of nostalgia; a trip to the ski lodge which officially marked the best times of their lives over 25 years ago. Tagging along is Adam’s nephew Jacob (Clark Duke), a chubby, smart-ass type, whose presence becomes wearying quickly. Perhaps not quite as quickly as Corddry’s pervasively foul-mouthed party monster, a character (a performance) unaware of anything approaching subtlety. Once there, boredom turns to euphoria when they discover a glowing hot tub, which, after a night of excessive drinking and nude male bonding (“Have you guys even seen Wild Hogs?”) they wake up miraculously, astonishingly 25 years in the past, at the very point in time their lives took a crucial turn for the worse.

It’s always fascinating in such high concept comedies when the film has so little wonder about the process that has landed its mishap characters in an incredibly uncanny position. Add this one to the list. In fact, the lack of interest in either the premise itself or the mounting of comedic momentum makes it all the more disappointing. Trying to cram far too much into its 100 minute runtime, the film would have been wise to cut a few characters (namely Jacob, a needless inclusion) and really immerse itself in examining the regret and pathos felt by its three main characters. That, and eliminating jokes about digging car keys out of a dog’s ass, a urine spewing catheter, and several overtly homophobic gags.

The only bright spot comes in a small role from Crispin Glover as a long time employee of the ski lodge. I won’t spoil the running gag; it at least gets to the more bizarre, yet dopily inspired type of humor which sadly is in short supply here. Cusack gives it a run, charming and as convincing as any actor could be in such a role. Robinson also has charm, but he’s given far too little to do, usually the recipient of one of several over-the-top and in poor taste gags involving Corddry. Ultimately, without any sense of comedic timing in editing or plot construction, the actors struggle to wrestle laughs, or even mild amusement from the chaotic proceedings.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (Samuel Bayer, 2010) -- D-

Samuel Bayer’s soporific “re-imagining” of A Nightmare on Elm Street ultimately amounts to this: several blobs of talking skin, bone, and flesh (I guess these are supposed to be human beings) tell each other about their difficulties sleeping. They’re scared for one another. We see it in the blank stares. Monotone line readings help too. “Don’t fall asleep” is the general theme. If you didn’t catch it during its first 50 utterances, it’s stated once more for good measure. Well wouldn’t you know it, somebody falls asleep, but they wake up, barely avoiding Freddy’s grasp. “Take some pills,” one character says. “They’ll keep you awake.” Too late. Already asleep. Then Freddy slits, stabs, scrapes, punctures, and kills, bloodying his rusty but trusty glove-knives-hand thing. Rinse and repeat.

So passes the glory of Wes Craven’s shockingly inventive 1984 original, which placed a group of handsome, sexy, but modest teenagers in some semblance of an actual American suburb, only to have their middle-class comfort wrecked by Fred Krueger, the return-of-the-repressed personified. In Bayer’s film, beautiful people in their mid-20’s replace that original “average” looking foursome, displacing any sense of vulnerable teens. The star of Craven’s original, Heather Langenkamp, was just 19 during production. Her role in the update is player by a dreadfully dull Rooney Mara, 24 during the shoot. The change makes a significant difference, especially since these characters are supposed to be a clan of high school seniors, but beauty seems to trump logic nowadays.

To exacerbate already dire circumstances, the script (or lack thereof) by Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer contains nary an interesting sequence, scene, line, or moment. They aren’t interested in placing any effort whatsoever into meaningful character development, which would necessitate a conversation, at some point, not about trying to stay awake. If these teens had lives before Freddy, one wouldn’t know it from the film. So what’s at stake? Aside from blindly caring for a fellow (wo)man, they’re but ciphers, detached from any perceivable ethos.

Craven’s original keyed into middle class anxieties via the teens, who suffer the brunt of their parents actions. There is a true sense of shattered naïveté there, that violent actions, no matter how seemingly forgotten, linger in the unconscious of the transgressor, one day returning to haunt them. Freddy was a metaphor; a visually startling one, to be sure, but not the one-liner king a slew of dopey sequels turned him into.

At least the regrettable sequels opted for camp over solemnity. Played with an inept level of seriousness, this one’s too interested in being “a real film”, at least according to the perverted sensibilities passing as profound amongst the bulk of the MTV generation from whence Bayer comes. For instance, Freddy popped up in the original, scary for sure, but always within the film’s bounds. After killing one his victims in the new film, he gaily says: “You know, the brain still functions for up to seven minutes once the heart stops beating. We still have time to play.” In order to have a character speak such a depraved concept, a film’s got to earn it. There’s got to be something it’s getting at beneath the surface or using as irony. No irony here. The only thing on this film’s short-term mind is bad setup, kill. Bad setup, kill, seemingly ad infinitum. The fact that Jackie Earle Haley makes a passable substitute for Robert Englund is beside the point, especially once it’s clear the film has such flaccid, literal minded interests.

Kick-Ass (Matthew Vaughn, 2010) -- D

After seeing Kick-Ass, it’s clear that director Matthew Vaughn is either the most droll satirist of our pop-culture times, or a façade of a satirist, intending to subvert and critique what have become comic book norms, but not having the cajones to carry out his mission. Claiming the former would be giving Vaughn far too much credit; it would assert seeming indulgence as poker-faced critique, an argument based solely on desire for such a result. Instead, what’s served up is less than half-baked, an incongruity of intentions, tones and misnomers. Satire, by nature, lambasts and critiques. Kick-Ass is unadulterated indulgence, carried forth with blithe disregard for its implications.

First off, let’s set the record straight: I have no inherent qualms with using an eleven year-old girl as an assassin, dismembering, maiming, and killing dozens of men. However, only when such a character has been put to proper use does it become excusable. Hit-Girl’s role in the film sort of epitomizes what’s wrong with it. Ideally, the character would be used to critique the violence she’s engaged in. Instead, Vaughn merely uses her character for titillation, mindlessly backing a climactic fight sequence with Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation.” Even the musical choice makes little sense as context. Rather than serving up irony as a means for off-setting extreme violence, Vaughn plays it up, hoping his viewer engages rather than detaches.

It’s a conspicuous lack of consistency for a film that earlier draws a parallel between superhero and serial killer. Lamenting his inaction, titular Kick-Ass deduces: “But like any serial killer, eventually fantasizing just doesn’t cut it any more.” It’s a pretty convoluted comparison, not the least bit subtle, but at least it’s an attempt at pop culture commentary, if a maladroit one.

Clearly, KA’s sensation on the internet as a knee-jerk fascination is meant as a comment on fickle moral sympathizing. Here’s a guy, a normal guy, who fights crime. Yet Vaughn fails to truly serve up any cohesive comment on how new age media enables the partaking of debased content. For instance: when KA’s friends watch as he and Big-Daddy are tortured and beaten, one of them gets a kiss from a previously platonic friend. Instead of being appalled or enraptured by the live broadcast of violence, their libidos still function. Now the time is ripe for a comment on sex and violence, how the two become intertwined when Faces of Death and hardcore porn are but a click apart. Vaughn, seemingly afraid to get his hands dirty, merely leaves it at that. Now, an argument could be made that as viewers, we’re supposed to revile at their actions, even though the film would have us believe they are meant as our identifiers. Certainly, several of the members in my audience identified, laughing at the character’s misplaced concerns. Anyone privy to such efforts, though, would be remiss to claim Vaughn acting as anything other than facilitator. Vaughn’s not a detractor of such practices. Apparently, he’s a fan.

Only a culture so pervasively disconnected from the real world atrocities committed against children could produce Kick-Ass as a piece of pop entertainment. How about the introductory scene of HG and BD, as their superhero belts conveniently abbreviate? Acclimating his young daughter to the unfortunate nuisance of getting shot in the chest while in the line of fire, the scene plays as a yuck, meant to inspire cackling rather than sobering realism. It immediately recalls the scene in Mateo Garrone’s Gomorrah, where young’uns are forced to take one in the chest to prove loyalty to the mob. In contrast, KA becomes a sick joke, or at least an ill-conceived one. Although, I might argue that Garrone’s film also used such imagery as an exploitation tool itself, but at least it’s driving for a significance that’s not even on KA’s radar. Every sequence of violence is meant to be relished, enjoyed, or engaged with. This isn’t inherently bad, but it seems sorely misplaced for a film that wants to reject comic-book lore. As a gutless exercise that merely adds to the laundry list of post-modern misfires, the content feels right at home.

Were this true satire, the characters, especially KA and his “have-to-be-cynical” friends would all be the problem. They would all meet gruesome fates rather than placid endings. Also, it would seek to reverse frat-boy notions of masculinity by eliminating a sub-plot about homophobia that’s played for laughs. It would turn KA’s girlfriend Katie into more than a superficial bitch. Ironically, the most subversive character is clearly Hit-Girl, but Vaughn can’t even muster enough guile to play with feminist notions of female agency. Nothing about his filmmaking indicates he’s approaching her character any different than he would treat an adult female, say Uma Thurman’s The Bride; a school-girl outfit for HG is shamelessly ripped from Kill Bill, and Tarantino undoubtedly ripped it from someone else prior. This is all third-rate kiddie shit, meandering and searching for a purpose, other than appeasing filmgoers who couldn’t accept anything truly subversive.

True Grit (The Coen Brothers, 2010) -- C

I never thought I'd see the day where it would be possible to similarly compare a Coen Brothers film with The Blind Side, but that day is upon us. Losing nearly every shred of their irreverence, philosophically saturated dialogue, and even narrative coherence, the dynamic duo to rescue American cinema from the pits of middlebrow hell now themselves appear to be headed in that very direction. They have made a film that should appeal to the base of Christian conservative sects, capitalizing on the precocious nature of a 14-year-old girl named Mattie Ross (an unconvincingly mannered Hailee Steinfeld) and the squirrely old-man shtick of Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to allow all too simplistic renderings of intent and purpose, while relegating a significant portion of the dialogue to exposition and often meaningless bickering. Everything about the film is subpar for the Coens. The opening proverb, "The wicked flee when none pursueth," plays like a disingenuous afterthought of the rigorously labored A Serious Man. No sequences of dialogue hold significance beyond mere narrative and overwrought character establishment (particularly an early scene where Mattie barters with a man for the price of a few horses - we get she's a feisty one quickly enough, yet the Coens seem insistent upon inserting numerous scenes to showcase it). Fleeting attempts at moral/ethical issues briefly come about, but to no avail (specifically an exchange about the difference between God-given and socially constructed morality). By not probing the very issues raised, the filmmakers are pandering to their worst instincts, forgoing the harder, complex questions for moments of crowd-pleasing nonsense, including several last second gunshots to save main characters, a little prayer said before a "miracle" shot, and even a guiding cheer for the viewer in case he's too slow on the uptick. The closing epilogue is telling, as it haphazardly rushes to the final shot, where the credit for the Coens as writer/director comes and goes within seconds, a bafflingly shoddy conclusion to an even more puzzling concoction, conservative through and through, from these consistently uncompromising filmmakers.

The Fighter (David O. Russell, 2010) -- C+

Aside from an intriguingly shot opening credits sequence, there's nothing about David O. Russell's The Fighter that stands out, with little demonstrating a nuanced presentation or understanding of the small Massachusetts town in which it's set, and constant preference of histrionics over character revelation. The "based on a true story" tale of Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg) attempts to integrate the grittier, neo-realist detail of Raging Bull (crack houses, domestic disputes and violence, self-destructive personalities), while retaining the sentimental and (phony) ethnic pathos of Rocky - ultimately an unpleasant hybrid, especially when Russell is in Aronofsky mode (not altogether surprising since the Black Swan director receives an executive producer credit), wielding broadly sketched characters, lead-pipe ironies and contrived scenarios (foremost a sweater-wearing wet rag who comments on an art film's "gorgeous cinematography"), a ploy to more easily and cheaply attain emotional response. Most laughable is a prison scene where Ward's brother Dickey (Christian Bale) prances into a screening room as HBO is about to premiere a documentary about his crack addiction. The inmates invariably cheer, high five, and laud the inexplicably popular inmate (emotional high), then turn on him once Dickey demands the film be shut off (emotional low). Much of the film unfortunately functions in this way, losing any middle ground for fluctuating extremes. The acting has garnered much attention (especially Bale and Melissa Leo, playing Ward's chain-smoking mother) and they fulfill their method acting goals sufficiently. However, it insufficiently compensates for Russell's overall disinterest, only sporadically displaying the verve and humanism present in his excellent Three Kings.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

2010: Film Report Card

Though the year is not even close to being "finished" for myself in terms of films seen, here's a look at how my grades stack up thus far. I will be updating as I plow through it:

A+

A

A-

Inception
Piranha 3D
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
Vincere

B+

Exit Through the Gift Shop
Fish Tank
Frozen
I Am Love
Life During Wartime
Please Give
Runaways, The
Social Network, The
Wild Grass

B

Black Swan
Ghost Writer, The
I’m Still Here
Jackass 3D
Jonah Hex
Killer Inside Me, The
Predators
Prodigal Sons
Salt
Shutter Island
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

B-

American, The
Chloe
Crazies, The
Cyrus
George A. Romero’s Survival of the Dead
Greenberg
Last Station, The
MacGruber
Milk of Sorrow, The
Mother
October Country
Ondine
Town, The
Youth in Revolt

C+

127 Hours
Bluebeard
Fighter, The
Get Him to the Greek
Grown Ups
How to Train Your Dragon
Human Centipede, The
Kids Are All Right, The
Other Guys, The
Splice
Toy Story 3
Vengeance
Winnebago Man
Winter’s Bone

C

Book of Eli, The
District 13: Ultimatum
Edge of Darkness
Expendables, The
From Paris with Love
Hot Tub Time Machine
Iron Man 2
Prophet, A
True Grit


C-

Alice in Wonderland
Date Night
Enter the Void
Green Zone
Mother and Child
Yellow Handkerchief, The

D+

Easy A
She’s Out of My League

D

Brooklyn’s Finest
Cop Out
Daybreakers
Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The
Kick-Ass
Losers, The
Repo Men

D-

Nightmare on Elm Street, A

F

Monday, December 6, 2010

Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010) -- B-

To laud Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan as a great film (tempting as that might be for some) would be to forsake its cinematic antecedents - forsake, because Aronofsky misunderstands what makes them so great (The Red Shoes, Suspiria, Carrie, Possession, and Mulholland Dr. are all in play here) while opting for a connect-the-dots game of pop-Freudian psycho-drama cum monstrous-feminine posturing. There's so much wrong with the film, one doesn't know where to start; but the wrong is also what makes it ever so close to right - if only the director were able to massage a little more nuance and a whole lot more satire from the all too neatly situated proceedings. Opening with aspiring ballet dancer Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) haunted by a nightmare, Aronofsky (and the screenplay by three relative newbies) can't help but explicitly announce what's happening at every turn. Repressed Nina is watched over by her domineering mother (Barbara Hershey) - and has suspicions that newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis) may have it out for her. We know this because Nina literally projects herself onto Lily (seeing the dark side her instructor (Vincent Cassel) encourages her to unearth), or even the look-a-like she passes in a dark alley. Mirrors constantly double her - her alternate, uninhibited self is yearning to be freed - a metaphor the film makes literal as her body transforms into a beast. The simplistic psychological renderings are alleviated somewhat by the sheer exuberance of Aronofsky's filmmaking - it does not excuse the comprehensive risibility of the film, but does make for memorable sequences, including Nina's face-down masturbation on her bed, a rave scene which should have gone on much, much longer, and the denoument, as Nina takes stage as Swan Queen. What's missing from the film, however, is an honest sensibility towards understanding Nina's drive and passion as an artist, something that does not consistently indulge the easier, perhaps sexier route of hellbent obsession leading to madness. All Aronofsky really seems to be interested in is seeing sexy women go nuts - a plight I would wholeheartedly endorse were he able to at least bring an interesting visual ideology to the film, which is not to say Black Swan isn't well shot or composed; it is. Yet, Aronofsky's surface abilities and musings, while good for an energetic romp, fail to yield anything that would warrant further consideration.