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Third Person (2014)

imagesPaul Haggis is the Oscar-winning writer/director of Crash, so a man not known for subtlety. And that can be fine, but with his latest effort, Haggis wastes his time on a sluggish triptych that doesn’t come together in any satisfying or clever manner. Like Crash, we follow multiple storylines that we expect to intersect or crisscross. Liam Neeson plays an arrogant author checked into a French hotel trying to write his next novel. He engages in a series of cruel and flirty games with his mistress (Olivia Wilde). Adrien Brody plays a fashion spy in Italy who grows a conscience to help an immigrant regain her daughter. Mila Kunis is a New York actress struggling to get her life in order so she can regain some measure of custody for her son. Right away, the characters are rather bland and remote, refusing to provide much depth or development. Then there’s the fact that the plot requires so little of them, falling into a deadly lethargy that it can’t shake free from. You keep waiting for something more significant to take place but the characters just dawdle, spouting dialogue that never feels authentic. I kept waiting for the twist spoiled by the trailer for Third Person, and by the time two hours passed, I had to note that it was not a mid-movie twist spoiled by the trailer, it was the twist ending. Did the marketing department watch their own movie? I’ve never seen that before; late plot developments, yes, but never the twist ending. There is a reason why these characters are so poorly developed but it’s still not a satisfying reason to watch blasé people blunder around with little direction for over two hours, especially when they have no discernible connection to one another beyond heavy-handed linked themes. Hey, at least Third Person has a favorable amount of Olivia Wilde nudity to keep your interest, if you’re like me. After that’s done, though, you can check out just like this array of substandard and morose characters.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

112446_galWes Anderson is a filmmaker whose very name is a brand itself. There are a small number of filmmakers who have an audience that will pay to see their next film regardless of whatever the hell it may be about. Steven Spielberg is the world’s most successful director but just having his name attached to a movie, is that enough to make you seek it out and assume quality? If so, I imagine there were more than a few disappointed with War Horse and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But Wes Anderson has gotten to that height of audience loyalty after only seven movies, mostly because there are expectations of what an Anderson film will deliver. And deliver is what the quirky, fast-paced, darkly comic, and overall delightful Grand Budapest Hotel does.

In the far-off country of Zubrowka, there lays the famous hotel known the world over, the Grand Budapest. The head of the hotel, the concierge, is Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), a highly mannered Renaissance man who caters to the every whim of his cliental. Zero (Tony Revolori), an orphaned refugee, is Mr. Gustave’s apprentice, a lobby boy in training learning from the master in the ways of hospitality. Gustave likes to leave people satisfied, including the wealthy dowagers that come from far just for him (Gustave: “She was dynamite in the sack,” Zero: “She was… 84,” Gustave: “I’ve had older.”). One of these very old, very rich ladies is found murdered and in her rewritten will, the old bitty had left a priceless portrait to Gustave. Her scheming family, lead by a combustible Adrien Brody, plots to regain the painting, which Gustave and Zero have absconded with.

115032_galFor Wes Anderson fans, they’ll be in heaven. I recently climbed back aboard the bandwagon after the charming and accessible Moonrise Kingdom, and Grand Budapest is an excellent use of the man’s many idiosyncratic skills. The dollhouse meticulous art design is present, as well as the supercharged sense of cock-eyed whimsy, but it’s a rush for Anderson to pair a story that fits snuggly with his sensibilities. The movie is a series of elaborate chases, all coordinated with the flair of a great caper, and the result is a movie over pouring with entertainment. Just when you think you have the film nailed down, Anderson introduces another conflict, another element, another spinning plate to his narrative trickery, and the whimsy and the stakes get taken up another notch. The point of contention I have with the Anderson films I dislike (Life Aquatic, Darjeeling Limited) is the superficial nature of the films. As I said in my review for Darjeeling, Anderson was coming across like a man “more interested in showing off his highly elaborate production design than crafting interesting things for his characters to do inside those complex sets.” With this film, he hones his central character relationships down to Gustave and Zero, and he can’t stop giving them things to do. Thankfully, those things have merit, they impact the story rather than serving as curlicue diversions. We get an art heist, a prison break, a ski chase, a murderous Willem Dafoe leaving behind a trail of bodies, not to mention several other perilous escapes. This is a film packed with fast-paced plot, with interesting actions for his actors, maybe even too packed, opening with three relatively unnecessary frame stories, jumping from modern-day, to the 1980s, back to the 1960s, and finally settling into the 1930s in our fictional Eastern European country.

The other issue with Anderson’s past films, when they have underachieved, is that the flights of whimsy come into conflict with the reality of the characters. That is not to say you cannot have a mix of pathos and the fantastical, but it needs to be a healthy combination, one where the reality of the creation goes undisturbed. With Grand Budapest, Anderson has concocted his best character since Rushmore’s Max Fisher. Gustave is another overachieving, highly literate, forward-driving charmer that casually collects admirers into his orbit, but he’s also a man putting on a performance for others. As the head of the Grand Budapest, he must keep the illusion of refinement, the erudite and all-knowing face of the luxurious respite for the many moneyed guests. He has to conceal all the sweat and labor to fulfill this image, and so he is a character with two faces. His officiously courtly manner of speaking can be quite comical, but it’s also an insightful indication that he is a man of the Old World, a nostalgic European realm of class and civilization on the way out with looming war and brutality. And as played by the effortlessly charming Fiennes (Skyfall), Gustave is a scoundrel that the audience roots for, sympathizes with, scolds, but secretly desire his approval, much like Zero. It is a magnificent performance that stands as one of the best in any Anderson film.

115052_galThe fun of a Wes Anderson movie is the zany surprises played with deadpan sincerity, and there is plenty in Grand Budapest to produce smiles and laughter. It’s hard to describe exactly which jokes land the best in a Wes Anderson film because they form a patchwork that elevates the entire movie, building an odd world where oddballs can fit right in. It was under a minute before I laughed, and I smiled through just about every remaining minute of the film. I enjoyed a joke involving a dead cat that just kept being carried from scene to scene. I enjoyed a sexually graphic painting that just happened to be lying around. I enjoyed the fact that Zero draws on a mustache every morning to better fit in with the men of his day. But mostly I just enjoyed the characters interacting with one another, especially Gustave and Zero, which forms into the emotional core of the film. It begins as a zany chase film and matures as it continues, tugging at your feelings with the father/son relationship (there’s also a subtly sweet romance for Zero and a pastry girl played by Saoirse Ronan). One of the big surprises is the splash of dark violence that grounds the whimsy, reminding you of the reality of death as war and fascism creep on the periphery. In fact, the movie is rather matter-of-fact about human capacity for cruelty, so much so that significant characters will be bumped off (mostly off screen) in a style that might seem disarming and unsatisfying. It’s the mixture of the melancholy and the whimsy that transforms Grand Budapest into a macabre fairy tale of grand proportions.

The only warning I have is that many of the star-studded cast members have very brief time on screen. It’s certainly Fiennes and Revolori’s show, but familiar names like Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Jeff Goldblum, Lea Seydoux, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, F. Murray Abraham, and Bob Balaban are in the film for perhaps two scenes apiece, no more than three minutes of screen time apiece. Norton, Brody, and Dafoe have the most screen time of the supporting cast. Though how does Revolori age into the very non-ethnic Abraham? It reminded me of Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li (here me out) where, as she ages, Chun-Li becomes less and less Chinese in her facial appearance. Anyway, the brevity of cast screen time is not detrimental to the enjoyment of the film, considering all the plot elements being juggled, but I would have liked even more with the dispirit array of fun characters.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is Wes Anderson at his best, pared down into a quirky crime caper anchored by a hilariously verbose scoundrel and his protégé. Naturally, the technical merits of the film are outstanding, from the intricate art direction and set dressing, to the period appropriate costumes, to the camerawork by longtime cinematographer Robert Yeoman. The movie is a visually lavish and handcrafted biosphere, a living dollhouse whose central setting ends up becoming a character itself. The trademark fanciful artifice is alive and well but this time populated with interesting characters, a sense of agency, and an accessible emotional core. The faults in Anderson’s lesser films have been fine-tuned and fixed here, and the high-speed plotting and crazy characters that continually collide left me amused and excited. If you’re looking for a pair of films to introduce neophytes into the magical world of Wes Anderson, you may want to consider Grand Budapest with Moonrise Kingdom (Royal Tenenbaums if they need bigger names). In the end, I think Anderson more than identifies with his main character, Gustave, a man enchanted in a world of his own creation, a world better than the real one. Who needs the real world when you’ve got The Grand Budapest Hotel?

Nate’s Grade: A

InAPPropriate Comedy (2013)

inappropriate-comedy-posterVince Offer is best known as the successful pitchman for infomercial products like the Sham Wow and the Slap Chop. He’s less known as an amateur comedian. In 1999, he co-wrote and directed The Underground Comedy Movie, pooling all the favors he must have accrued with celebrities and struggling L.A. comics. You’d think after one resounding dud people would know better, but alas Offer and his friends have funded another sketch comedy movie, InAPPropriate Comedy. You see the title refers to the joke delivery system, namely Offer’s finger hitting apps on a tablet to start sketches. And if that inept setup doesn’t seem like a insightful indicator for the misery that is to follow, then allow me to confirm that InAPPropriate Comedy may be the least funny comedy I’ve ever seen.

I’m not saying that ALL people who find some measurable level of enjoyment from InAPPropriate Comedy are racist, homophobic, and sexist, but chances are, if you are all three things, you’ll probably enjoy the comedic abyss that is InAPPropriate Comedy. For the purposes of truly showcasing how comically bankrupt this enterprise is, overdosing on witless shock value and groan-worthy stereotypes, I will quickly dictate exactly what you get in this movie, sketch-wise. It’s really only about four reoccurring segments.

-Before the meat of the comedy begins we’re treated to the lamest, more obvious 127 Hours parody and the sight of tough-guy bikers riding around on bicycles. Does that mental image automatically make you laugh? If so, you’re in luck.

InAPPropriate Comedy Trailer 10-A parody of Dirty Harry called “Flirty Harry” where Oscar-winner Adrien Brody is a cop who speaks in nothing but overblown gay-centric double entendres (GAY JOKE #1). Is that half-assed twist on the name worth an entire ongoing series? It’s like you took one of the parody names from MAD magazine and then just called it a day. The second time around, Flirty Harry stops a robber and we see him in pink pants. He’s wearing pink pants. How could that not be hysterical? (GAY JOKE #2) The third segment doesn’t want to waste any time, so now Flirty Harry is getting his nails done at an Asian salon. You better believe these women are portrayed as nattering, horrendous, screeching caricatures (GAY JOKE #3, RACIST JOKE #1, SEXIST JOKE #1). Then Harry shoots a guy in the ass (GAY JOKE #4). Adrien Brody, why?

-The next ongoing sketch is a parody of MTV’s Jackass, and this one, with about as much wit as you’d expect, is called Blackass. It’s about a group of obnoxious, ignorant, lazy, foul-mouthed, angry black males engaging in rude and offensive behavior. These segments may be the most offensive in the whole movie because it is wall-to-wall negative stereotypes; the joke is that black men are not to be trusted and will harass white people, especially white women. The first time we see Blackass it has our characters running from the police. One of them even has a giant boombox over his shoulder because people still do that, right? (RACIST JOKE #2). These guys dress and behave exactly like the harmful misrepresentation your elderly grandmother has about black people. The sad part is that the festering stereotype of the black male up to no good can have serious and tragic consequences, coloring people’s judgments and assumptions.

Stepping down from the soapbox, the first segment involves the Blackass crew falling into a vat of raw sewage. The second segment involves them playing joust in shopping carts with lances made to resemble giant black penises (RACIST JOKE #3). The third involves the Blackass crew as the world’s worst babysitters, threatening a white woman in the process (RACIST JOKE #4). You see black people are terrible fathers, so this movie would argue. They talk about welfare checks and carry around 40s of malt liquor. The fourth segment has one of the Blackass guys and his white girlfriend antagonizing another couple in a hot tub before having anal sex (RACIST JOKE #5, SEXIST JOKE #2). The fifth segment has one of the Blackass guys in an abortion clinic waiting room. He harasses a young couple and offers to abort their pregnancy for cheap with a coat hanger (RACIST JOKE #6). The last segment involves the gang trying to lure a mouse by putting cheese on one of their penises. While it’s the closest in conception to an actual Jackass stunt, it’s still unfunny and much of the humor seems to rest on the enormous size of African-American phalluses (RACIST JOKE #7). Crap, I forgot about another segment where the guys blindfold a dude and have him get run over by a rhino. I don’t even get this one.

Screen-Shot-2013-01-09-at-10.12.25-AM-480x315-The longest and most painful of the reoccurring sketches is a parody of The Amazing Race dubbed The Amazing Racist. You might expect it to have something to do with the popular reality TV competition, perhaps people competing to see who is the bigger racist, racism across color, or even forcing two racists of different ethnicity to team up in competitions. Nope. It’s just co-writer Ari Shaffir and his unending improvisation. The first segment has him rant in front of the U.S.-Mexico border, and then he harangues a gas station owner and assumes any Hispanic present is an illegal alien (RACIST JOKE #8). The next involves him as an insulting driving instructor for Asian drivers (RACIST JOKE #9). The next involves him wandering a predominantly Jewish supermarket trying to gather signatures to apologize for killing Jesus (RACIST JOKE #10). The next segment involves Shaffir entreating black passerbyes on a beach to take a boat ride back to Africa (RACIST JOKE #11). Finally, Shaffir is abandoned in a Middle Eastern territory with armed Arabs. I guess it’s supposed to count as comeuppance but it sure doesn’t feel it. There’s a post-credit sequence where Shaffir is trying to lure Jews into a box to ship to Hitler from the future (RACIST JOKE #12). I later learned that the hidden camera aspect of Shaffir’s bits is another fallacy. The people onscreen are all actors, which makes The Amazing Racist even less amazing. It feels like Offer and Shaffir watched Borat and thought they could replicate what they saw.

-The only other repeating segment is a pair of film critics that specialize in reviewing pornography. The idea on itself actually has the most potential out of everything Offer throws onscreen. It’s got recognizable faces; Michelle Rodriguez and Rob Schneider are the critics. Their reviews, however, are just another excuse to make more racist and gay jokes. A porn they review is called “Sushi Mama” and it features two Asians engaging in over-the-top, badly dubbed sex (RACIST JOKE #13). Another porn they review is weirdly a parody of Swan Lake, with guys dancing around in tutus and eventually humping and ejaculating on a helpless victim (GAY JOKE #5).

There are two other sketches that have the luxury of not being repeat offenders, so to speak. Lord knows what Offer and company saw in the others. One involves Schneider as a sleazy therapist aroused by his client’s vigorous sexual history (SEXIST JOKE #3). Another is called “Things You’ll Never See” and purports that hot ladies would never date someone poor because all good-looking women care about is money (SEXIST JOKE #4). I haven’t even mentioned how all of these sketches are supposed to take place, literally, inside Lindsay Lohan’s vagina (SEXIST JOKE #5). It’s a nonsensical framing device. We zoom out in the end, meaning that Lohan has a treasure trove of unfunny sketches stuffed in her special place. She should probably consult an OBGYN.

And that’s it! That’s the movie, all 75 wretched, horrendous, soul-draining minutes. Did any of that, on the surface, seem funny to you, or, like most people with active senses of humor, did it seem overwhelmingly lazy and poorly thought out? The biggest problem with InAPPropriate Comedy is that it’s trying to be more inappropriate than funny. It’s confused shock value for actual humor. Having a troika of irresponsible black males playing into demoralizing stereotypes and fears isn’t comedy. Having a guy make fun of Asian drivers isn’t a sketch. Having a gay cop make forced double entendres isn’t a sketch. There’s no development here, no escalation, no twisting of the premise, no nothing. All Offer and his motley crew of comedic imbeciles do is take a one-joke premise and pummel it into submission, making the laborious sketches feel even longer. It just so happens that most of their one-joke ideas aren’t even ideas so much as mean slights against minorities, women, and gay people. There is no ironic distance to the joke telling; they are merely just being crushingly racist, sexist, and homophobic.

inappropriate-comedy01I am by no means a comedy prude. I love a terrific vulgar joke as much as the next guy. I think when comedy is concerned that nothing is off limits. You can make anything, no matter how horrific and offensive, funny under the right circumstances, but it takes work and able skill. The problem with Offer’s movie is that there is no consideration to context, setup, developments, let alone surprise. You’ll see every dreadful joke coming before it arrives. That’s because all this movie does is trade in pained, outdated stereotypes. The scenes themselves feel like improv jags that just go on endlessly, like Offer was trying to replicate the process of a Judd Apatow comedy. His faulty reasoning may have been if people just say enough offensive things long enough, then something has to arrive at funny. Comedy doesn’t work like that, and as a comedy writer I find it personally insulting. This is just rampant and pointless vulgarity without any parameters, no point of view, nothing to mask the fact that it’s just cheap shock value. What are the jokes here? Asians are bad drivers? Black men are reckless? Women are superficial? Do these sound like jokes or merely groundless insults? If you removed all the ostensibly offensive elements, there would be nothing to this movie whatsoever.

As a longtime detractor of the duo Friedberg and Seltzer, the men responsible for cinematic crimes against humanity like Epic Movie (my worst film of 2007) and Meet the Spartans (my worst film of 2008), I’m torn. Friedberg/Seltzer don’t so much create jokes as they do lame pop-culture references with built-in expiration dates (go on, try and watch one of their past movies and see if you recall everything). Whatever jokes they do foster are mostly broad slapstick, but it could be classified, no matter how charitably, as a joke. After watching Offer’s InAPPropriate Comedy, I may have second thoughts about the intensity of my screeds against Friedberg and Seltzer. Their movies are still terrible, still the cannibalistic, cinematic watery discharge I dubbed them, but Offer’s comedy may even be worse. There’s no way any of InAPPropriate Comedy could ever be funny. It’s so obvious and desperate that it confuses offense for smashing taboos. This is a black hole of funny, where funny cannot escape and instead gets smashed down to an atomic level. How could anyone making this find it even remotely funny? If I see a worse movie in 2013 than InAPPropriate Comedy, it will make me reevaluate the existence of a loving God.

Nate’s Grade: F

Midnight in Paris (2011)

Woody Allen hasn’t been this light-footed in a long time. Midnight in Paris is an effervescently charming film that flirts with overt sentimentality. But before you think Allen goes all gooey, the fatalist in him pulls back for some wisdom about the folly of nostalgia. Allen’s nebbish stand-in this time is Owen Wilson, assuredly better looking but on the same neurotic wavelength of his director. Wilson is a disgruntled Hollywood screenwriter visiting the City of Lights with his shrewish fiancé (Rachel McAdams) and her upper-class parents. One night a mysterious taxicab picks him up shortly after midnight. Wilson is transported back in time to his favorite era, 1920s Paris. He gets to rub elbows with literary and artistic giants, like Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Ernest Hemmingway (Corey Stoll), Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill), Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), and others. He even falls for a lovely lady (Marion Cotillard) from that time period who served as a muse for several artists. Midnight in Paris is a far more enjoyable experience if you have a modicum of education in the humanities. Identifying the artists of old, albeit exaggerated cartoon versions of themselves, is part of the fun, fantasizing about interacting with the greats. But Allen is also playful with his storytelling, and for a while Midnight in Paris becomes a highly refined cross-time romance (think The Lake House written by Tom Stoppard). Midnight in Paris has been catching on with audiences, becoming Allen’s biggest hit in 25 years, and it’s easy to see why. It’s whimsical while being literate and romantic without being corny.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Predators (2010)

For a solid 45 minutes, Predators is a fairly good genre movie. No, it’s a very good genre movie. We snap awake in freefall with a ripped Adrien Brody. A group of deadly warriors from all cultures find themselves stranded in some strange jungle. For that 45-minutes of goodness, the assembled killers (and Topher Grace as a doctor?) try and piece together their circumstances while exploring the foreign terrain. It’s a setup straight out of the Twilight Zone catalogue. And then, at minute 46, they find out they’re on a game preserve planet for the notorious alien bounty hunters, the Predators. The characters get picked off one-by-one and the patient buildup unwinds in a familiar and depressing bloodbath. Predators will work as a quick fix of junk food, but it teased a promising alternative that never came to fruition. The action is bloody but listless. The plot twists are seen from miles away (Topher Grace as a doctor?) and after all that badass macho posturing, the end credits blast the song… “Long Tall Sally” by Little Richard? It’s the most bizarre element in a movie with killer space monsters in dreadlocks.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Splice (2010)

Splice is a slice of freaky-deaky sci-fi horror done with enough style and weirdness to keep your eyes glued to the screen. Director Vincenzo Natali (Cube) takes a few notes from David Cronenberg in staging his creature feature. A scientific couple (Adrien Brody, Sarah Polley) are about to have their gene-splicing lab shut down, so they make a radical decision to start an experimental personal project. Utilizing human genes, they combine other DNA to create a new species. The moral ambiguity and scientific danger is thoughtfully addressed, with the couple quickly finding how easy it is to make moral compromises. Soon they become attached to the creature they name “Dren” and view her as a daughter. Things get even crazier when Dren starts exhibiting some Oedipal desires. Slick cinematography and seamless practical and digital effects help ensure that Splice is never dull. The movie seems two steps away from achieving true greatness. In the end, after all the intrigue and surprising amount of emotional subtlety given the premise, Splice devolves into a by-the-numbers slasher film. The final act is all about character poking around in the dark for the big scary monster. It’s not nearly as intellectually stimulating. In this regard, Splice reminds me of 2007’s Sunshine, another sci-fi film that started strong, had some style and brains, and then blew it by devolving into a clichéd horror movie where characters outrun a super-powerful slasher villain. As a fan of intelligent sci-fi, it’s frustrating to get teased with greatness and have to settle with pretty good, but I’ll gladly take the gonzo pleasures of Splice over any rote action thriller.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Brothers Bloom (2009)

Con movies work thanks to P.T. Barnum’s belief that the audience wants to be fooled. We all enjoy being conned to some degree. The excitement of con movies is being outsmarted and figuring out how it was accomplished. The Brothers Bloom, by writer/director Rian Johnson, one of the more exciting new filmmakers in Hollywood, is a con artist caper that understands the rules of the game and then aspires to transcend the game. Whether or not it succeeds depends on how much whimsy you can stomach in a two-hour duration.

Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrien Brody) are a pair of con artist brothers. Stephen has been drawing up elaborate schemes ever since childhood, and he always uses his brother as the face of the operations. The brothers have a third member to their team, the mysterious and mute Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi), who, we’re told, just appeared out of thin air one day and they expect she’ll leave in the same style. Bloom is tired of playing characters and roles and wants out, but his big bro comes back with one last con in the works. Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz) is rich, peculiar, and lonely, ripe for the taking. Bloom snares her with the exciting prospect of being apart of an adventure. There’s a globetrotting plot to profit from selling a book to some shady characters (Robbie Coltrane, Maximilian Schell), and it’s just what Penelope needs to feel alive and leave the confines of her large cage-like home. Naturally, Bloom falls for the “mark” and feels conflicted, but was this part of Stephen’s plan all along? Is he setting up some form of a happy ending for his little brother? Is Penelope in on the con? Who’s conning whom?

The Brothers Bloom is steeped in whimsy and at times runs dangerously close to falling into the inescapable gravitational pull of “cutsey.” Some have compared the film’s quirky, precocious style to Wes Anderson, but the movie reminds me more of the style of Barry Sonnenfeld, a filmmaker who made outsized whimsy seem like everyday reality; Anderson’s movies seem to exist in their own impeccably handcrafted worlds. I loved the opening 10-minute prologue which explores the childhood history of Stephen and Bloom, examining their first con on local rich kids. It’s quick-witted, snappy, and even has Ricky Jay provide narration, reminiscent of Magnolia or the David Mamet con movies. The Brothers Bloom has a sunny disposition that doesn’t come across as smug. Stylistically, the movie never crosses the line into feeling overly mannered. The Brothers Bloom exists in some unknown time period. The cars are modern, the clothes are from the 1930s (everyone wears a bowler hat with such flourish), and the sets look like they’re from the 1960s. There is no dependence on technology, just good old-fashioned brains and charm.

And yet this is more than an exercise in style. Just as he did with the adroit, neo-noir movie Brick, Johnson takes a genre and subverts its expectations. The Brothers Bloom treats cons more as storytelling, and it positions the film and its characters in an interesting new light. Bloom yearns for an “unwritten life” because all he’s known have been roles in his older brother’s games and cons, and the poor sap doesn’t even know if he has an identity beyond fabrication. Stephen has also begun to blur the lines between reality and his cons, and his life’s ambition is to stage the perfect con where “everybody gets what they want.” Get that? The Brothers Bloom aims for deception that gives everyone, including the deceived, a happy ending. It almost sounds like a charitable goal. Johnson has injected the con artist genre with some pathos and self-reflection. Too many con artist movies are only good for one viewing; once you know the particulars of the con, do you feel invested in watching it play out again? Johnson puts some melancholy into the mix and it gives the film more weight than being the sum of its many quirky parts.

The acting across the board is superb. Ruffalo is his typically low-key yet engaging self, and he seems sincere even when you know he isn’t. His love and concern for his little brother is touching. His schemes are all for his brother to get out of his shell and experience some level of happiness. Brody embraces the weariness of his character. He is confused and tired and feels like he cannot trust human connections; he’s paranoid that all roads lead back to some machination from his brother. His affection for Penelope is like an awakening for his character, and yet he cannot fully give into it because is it genuine? This incredible level of uncertainty with every aspect of life casts a heavy toll, and Brody convinces you of that toll. Kikuchi (Babel) makes great use of physical comedy and has a lot of fun with her mysterious character. She’s mute for practically the entire film yet manages to communicate plenty. But it is Weisz (The Fountain) that steals the movie and steals your heart. Her screwy eccentric is deeply lonely but radiates a ditzy glow. She fully embraces the prospects of adventure and bounces in glee. This woman is powerfully adorable.

There are a handful of missteps in the narrative. The movie likely lasts twenty minutes longer than it needs to, with false endings and even a false third act. Audiences are used to con movies revealing the larger scope by the end after a bevy of last-minute twists. This is not the case with Bloom. The movie gets more muddled and introduces new conflict that isn’t ever really resolved. Audiences expect clarity by the end of the third act, not confusion. I feel like I’m missing something with the duplicitous Diamond Dog character (Schell), and maybe that’s the point; perhaps I’m supposed to be in the dark about his connection to the brothers Bloom. I won’t get into spoilers, but I was expecting more reveals at the end of the movie, perhaps Stephen showing one last final box, and the movie gives you nothing. I suppose the purpose is to play against con movie conventions and the surprise is that there is no real surprise by the end, no “I was in on it” or “It was all part of the plan” a-ha moments of ironic revelation. That’s nice but it doesn’t always make a movie more satisfying. The ending would be more moving if the audience didn’t already feel spent by the time they have to process something more emotional.

Johnson’s follow-up to his immensely entertaining debut is a solid winner, though it leaves you hanging and wanting at the end. The movie is quirky and heavy on the whimsy, and yet it also squeezes in some pathos. Yet the movie falls short of its ambitions and the talent of Johnson. The Brothers Bloom will seem enchanting to some and insufferable to others; it defies expectations and genre conventions, and sometimes would be better off adhering to them. It’s an amusing caper comedy but it could have been something even more special. It just needed a little less narrative sleight-of-hand.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

I’m starting to think Wes Anderson may become his own worst enemy. The man seems trapped in his precious, idiosyncratic style that revolves around intricate, dollhouse-style production design, slow-motion and simple pan shots, clever-to-smug characters, family dysfunction that coalesces somewhat by the end, and a soundtrack full of hip, retro songs. I like Wes Anderson; I loved his first three films, was rather lukewarm on 2004’s Life Aquatic, but The Darjeeling Limited is pretty much a bland rehash of the same. Instead of a father reconnecting with his long-forgotten son it’s three brothers reconnecting in the wake of their father’s death and mother’s abandonment. The humor is fairly subdued and while the movie is brief it seems to run out of gas early on and get repetitive. I think Anderson is more interested in showing off his highly elaborate production design than crafting interesting things for his characters to do inside those complex sets. I didn’t feel a blip of emotion for any of the character, all of who have some lasting fear of women ever since their mother ran out to become a nun. There’s kind of an unsettling misogynistic vibe in the movie against women, which is an unfortunate surprise. There’s a spiritual quest that some may relate to but I found it superficial at best, intended to gloss over the plot holes and character miscues. I wish Anderson well, but his next venture behind the camera might work better if he threw out his fraying filmmaker playbook.

Nate’s Grade: C+

King Kong (2005)

Has there been any movie this year that’s had a bigger hype machine than Peter Jackson’s King Kong? Coming after his Lord of the Rings trilogy, about two billion in revenue and a slew of Oscars in tow, Jackson decided to recreate the movie that captured his imagination as a child. It was King Kong that made Jackson want to become a filmmaker, so now he is returning the favor. Universal ponied up a staggering 200 million dollars for a budget and paid Jackson a record 20 million to sit in the director’s chair. Like his Rings series, this Kong clocks in at a gargantuan 3-hour running time. Will audiences share Jackson’s adoration with the story of a woman, a big ape, and a bigger building?

Carl Denham (Jack Black) is a filmmaker feeling studio pressure. The suits want to reel him in before he even starts shooting his next picture. Carl scrambles to get his crew and equipment onto a boat before the studio can shut him down. He?s on the prowl for a new lead actress and spots Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), a hungry out of work vaudeville actress. He quickly convinces her to be apart of his movie and hurries her aboard, the selling point being that Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) has written the story. Carl practically kidnaps Jack and they all set a course for the mysterious Skull Island, a place only rumored to exist. The ship’s captain and crew are wary but sure enough their vessel washes ashore on an exotic island. But this is no sunny getaway, as the crew is immediately besieged by hostile natives and Ann is taken prisoner and offered as a sacrifice to Kong, a 25-foot gorilla. Jack leads an expedition to retrieve Ann, who begins to bond with her hairy captor (Stockholm syndrome, anybody?). Kong rescues Ann from dangers, be it bug or dinosaur, but flies into a vicious rage when she’s plucked away from him. Carl realizes an even bigger attraction: a giant ape to headline Broadway and line his own pockets. His schemes come true as Kong is knocked out and transported back to New York City. However, no stage is too great for Kong, as he busts free and looks all over for the love of his life, Ann.

The sweet love story gives Jackson’s update a surprising emotional richness. In the 1933 original, Fay Wray never stopped shrieking until the big guy toppled off the Empire State building. She had no emotional connection to her furry captor and his unrequited love. In the 2005 King Kong, the strength of the movie is the relationship between Ann and Kong. Jackson of course stacks the deck of his story to all but guarantee an audience will fall in love with the big brute (he appreciates sunsets, how romantic!). There?s not much choice whether or not to sympathize with Kong, especially those moments where we stare into his soulful eyes welling up with emotion. King Kong has always been a tale of exploitation with man as the true monster. By administering time to fully develop a convincing relationship between beauty and beast, it makes the later scenes of exploitation have a larger sense of tragedy. Immense credit goes to Watts for selling this relationship and spurring our sympathy for Kong, instead of making their bond something for snickers and eye-rolling. Poor Adrien Brody though. It’s pretty bad in a romantic triangle when you’d rather pick a giant primate than Brody.

The performances go a long way to adding to the enjoyment of King Kong. Watts is a luminous actress and a natural beauty. It’s because of her that the second half of the movie has a beating heart and some kicks to the gut. Brody is ho-hum but given little to work with as a, wait for it, second banana. Black works wonders to make his villainous role so charismatic. Denham is a huckster that would step over his dying mother to make a buck, and yet Black’s charming and funny even at his most dastardly and cowardly. I don’t think King Kong would have worked the same with different actors; few could bring the heart and emotion Watts emotes, and few could bring Black’s comic virtuosity that makes it plausible why others would follow his showman character. Colin Hanks (also along side Black in Orange County), as Denham’s assistant, imparts a favorable impression. I’d like to see him paired up with Topher Grace sometime. Give it some consideration, Hollywood.

King Kong is a spectacular vision by one of cinema’s greatest visionaries. Jackson has lavishly recreated the excitement of his youth, bringing the story of Kong into the modern age with studly panache. The film is marvelously beautiful to take in and has plenty of moments that will reawaken the child within you, transporting you to an age when movies truly seemed larger than life. During the epic battle between Kong and the T. Rexes, I knew the exact curiosity and excitement Jackson felt when he saw the 1933 original. The action is intense and rarely lets up once our adventurers reach Skull Island. The special effects are some of the best movies have ever seen. Kong moves with expressive accuracy that goes a long way toward expressing his humanity, whether it is in a sigh or a tantrum. Andy Serkis has yet again brought life to another entirely CGI character. King Kong is well worth the price of admission just to sneak a peek at the Jackson’s limitless imagination.

With Jackson’s beefed-up recreation, he has also brought with him a terrible amount of bloat. This King Kong runs a frightful 3-hours plus, and most viewers will just feel exhausted by the time the lights go back up in their theater. Jackson’s love affair with his material is indisputable but it also seems to cloud his judgment as far as pacing is concerned. Numerous scenes seem to stretch longer than necessary and lose their point of interest, the first hour seems too drawn out and prosaic, and the movie haphazardly mixes in the serious with the soapy (Kong on ice?). Some scenes lose their sense of believability the longer they stretch on, even in a movie filled with giant monsters. Certain subplots have set-up but no follow-through, like all the added attention to Jimmy (Jamie Bell), the ship’s teen that wants to experience danger too. Jackson even makes sure we catch that he’s reading Heart of Darkness. So where does this character go? Nowhere and very slowly at that. The character has no bearing on anything that happens with the plot and is dropped entirely once they leave the island. There’s no point. Did something get cut from the inevitable 8-hour extended edition DVD that will prove how pivotal Jimmy really was? I doubt it.

Some nipping and tucking and a comprehensive editing overhaul would certainly make King Kong a better movie, but it would lose its sense of spectacle. I can’t complain about length too much since Jackson packs such a wallop of entertainment like few others, so while King Kong certainly is a bloated and exhaustive film, it’s also an artistically bloated, exhaustive film. Jackson sure does have reverence for his source material (some lines and scenes are directly lifted), though he may have overlooked the 1933 King Kong‘s 100-minute running time.

Peter Jackson’s King Kong is an epic, epically grandiose, epically imaginative, epically action-packed, and epically bloated. The update is a bit exhausting but Jackson packs more entertainment per minute than few others in the film business, even if he has too many minutes to work with. Watts really sells her tender relationship with Kong and gives the film a surprising emotional heft absent from the 1933 original. Because of our emotional investment the film has a greater sense of sadness and tragedy as it plays out. King Kong was the 800-pound gorilla of the movie year and Jackson knows how to deliver a visual epic, even if he tiptoes into self-indulgence. While I can protest the length, pacing, and some subplots that go nowhere or strain credibility, it’s hard to argue that King Kong is the popcorn spectacle of the year. Your bladder may hate you by the end of it but you won’t want to miss a second.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Jacket (2005)

In The Jacket, Adrien Brody plays a mentally disturbed soldier sentenced to spend his days in a treatment facility. He gets strapped into a straight jacket and locked inside a morgue drawer as part of his “therapy.” Inside these closed quarters, for whatever unexplained reason, Brody has the ability to travel through time. This got me thinking about some other weird/lame ways people travel through time in films. In 2004’s The Butterfly Effect a bearded Ashton Kutcher is able to jump through time by reading his childhood journals. Sure this is weird, and may give false hope to a nation of gloomy journal-scribbling teenagers, but when it comes to incompetent time travel techniques, 1980’s Somewhere in Time is number one with a bullet. Christopher Reeve’s character desperately wants to travel back to 1912. So he removed all modern furniture, clothing, and anything post-1912. Then he lies down on his hotel bed and keeps repeating to himself that he’s living in 1912. Somehow this works and Reeve gets to embark on romance, 1912-style y’all.

Jack Starks (Brody) is a helpful and well-meaning guy that just can’t catch a break. As a soldier in the 1991 Gulf War, an Iraqi kid he was trying to befriend shoots him in the head. When he returns home he starts a long trek through the Northeast. Starks helps out a mother and daughter whose car has stalled. He befriends the non-gun wielding little girl, Jackie, but her drunken mom nearly accosts Starks and they drive away. Then he gets a ride with a drifter (Brad Renfro). They get pulled over by a cop. The drifter kills the cop; Starks gets knocked out and framed for the murder. He’s sentenced to spend the rest of his days in a clinic for the mentally disturbed. And you thought you were having a bad day.

The operator of the clinic (Kris Kristofferson) has some unconventional methods of therapy, like locking Starks in a straight jacket and sliding him into a morgue drawer. Inside this confined space Starks can zip through time to 2007. In the future he goes home with an angsty young woman (Keira Knightley) who, surprise, ends up being an adult Jackie, the girl he helped at the side of the road. They’re both confused and freaked out, but what spooks Starks even more is the knowledge that he dies on New Year’s Day, 1993. Starks must now get into that jacket so he can visit 2007 some more, fall in love with Jackie, and piece together clues to prevent his soon-to-be death.

Brody seems to be having as much bad luck post-Oscar as Halle Berry and Nicole Kidman. He’s in some funk playing glum character after glum character. Brody and his gaunt figure do have a natural haunted quality and he does excel at emoting grief and horror (hence the 2002 Best Actor Oscar for The Pianist). Brody gives the film more intensity than it deserves.

Knightley is a decent actress but has little to work with. Her role is wrapped in a slab of Gothic traits posing as characterization. When she talks it sounds like she has a cold. I don’t know if this is because of her attempted American accent, the glum character, or maybe she just had a cold from all that outdoor shooting in the snow.

Director John Maybury has the irritating habit of filming scenes entirely in jagged close-ups. Two people will be talking and then -WAM!- huge close-up of an eyeball. Then -POW!- giant mouth filling up the screen. Then -WAM! (again)- more of the same. This editing decision is a distraction but it also lacks purpose. It doesn’t effectively communicate character emotion or scene tension; it just annoys the crap out of you.

The Jacket is fairly interesting for a good while. The premise is almost ingenious: a man must travel to the future to collect information to prevent his mysterious death in the past. The Jacket adds further intrigue with the question of whether Starks really is traveling through time. Maybe he truly is disturbed and this is all in his head. Sadly, but as expected, The Jacket disproves this tantalizing possibility after an hour of tease.

When the film does transition into its final half, the possibility it showcased seems to go slack. The answers seem either overly tidy or simply anticlimactic, like the truth behind Starks’ death. The Jacket opens strong and strings us along with some intriguing prospects but the end results merely peter out the film’s potential until The Jacket seems completely drained of blood.

Their relationship also has some unexpected creepy moments. Starks, in 1992, visits the little girl he will eventually have sex with in 2007. Yes she’s an adult when they take their tussle in the sheets, but having him later visit her when she’s a child is just plain cre-eeeee-py.

For a while, The Jacket aims to be an intelligent mind-bender but the film squanders its potential. The answers don’t seem nearly as thought-out as the film’s initially intriguing questions. Brody gives the movie more brooding intensity than it deserves, and Knightley shows why she should never be allowed to film a love scene again (in a case of life imitating art, Brody and Knightley are currently dating). The Jacket is irritatingly directed, alternating between pale shots of white wilderness, extreme close-ups, and overkill on style. The Jacket seems like a nice fit for a while but becomes too frayed to be memorable.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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