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The Last Kiss (2006)

Zach Braff has exploded in such a short amount of time. He was underappreciated on the perennially underappreciated Scrubs, but then his breakthrough came in 2004 with Garden State, an aloof, charming love story about personal awakening. After just one movie Braff is now a name-above-the-title headliner. For his second film, The Last Kiss, Braff stars as another young man going through another personal crisis. He even selected the radio-friendly songs for the soundtrack just like he did with Garden State. This new movie is actually a remake of a 2001 Italian film, adapted by Oscar-winning screenwriter Paul Haggis (Crash). But there?s one big difference between Garden State and The Last Kiss? Garden State is actually good.

Michael (Braff) works as an architect in Wisconsin. He’s having a bit of a crisis with the state of his life close to his impending thirtieth birthday. His girlfriend, Jenna (Jacinda Barrett), is pregnant with his child and the two are planning for their future, but all around them relationships are falling apart. Chris (Casey Affleck) feels crushed by the demands of his newborn child and wife. Kenny (Eric Christian Olsen) is looking for guilt-free sex. Izzy (Michael Weston) is a wreck after having his heart broken by his ex. Jenna’s parents (Blythe Danner and Tom Wilkinson) may be splitting after 30 years of marriage, not all of them blissful.

With all this in mind, Michael worries that his life seems too scripted now and deficit in surprises. Then along comes Kim (The O.C.‘s Rachel Bilson), a young flirty college student that shows a strong interest in Michael. He must decide where his life is heading and whose hand he’ll be holding.

One of the reasons The Last Kiss is hard to get into is that the film never really elaborates why this foursome of guys have it so bad. Chris complains about a dead marriage but maybe his wife would nag him less if he spent more time trying to chip in around the house instead of avoiding his fatherly duties. Kenny is all gung-ho about a hot girl who’s interested in relationship-free sex, but then he runs the other way when, heaven forbid, the girl mentions the idea of commitment. Next thing you know, Kenny is not only running away from this girl but he’s joining Izzy on his cross-country road trip. He’s laving the state because of the potential whiff of commitment. My fiancé, after we saw the movie, thought it was too stereotypical (woman: says one thing, wants other, man: scared of anything lasting). She suggested that Kenny slowly turns around his stance and wants to commit to this girl, who he obviously feels to be special. But that would mean The Last Kiss actually cares about the characters of Kenny and Izzy. These two serve more as a spare tire in a male relationship, and both their storylines are tied up with great time to spare.

Worst of all is Michael’s plight. He’s told by his buddies that he’s snagged the “perfect girl,” and from what we see she really is a lovely catch. Michael is freaking out because his life seems too tidy and empty of “surprises” now that a baby?s on the way. Boo hoo. So to jazz up his surprise-free life he has a fling with a college girl. Surprise! Isn’t your life better now, Michael? If it weren’t for the affable charm of Braff, who emits certain Dustin Hoffman Graduate vibes, the audience would feel no varying degree of sympathy for the dolt. Michael really bruises two innocent people just to needlessly reaffirm what he already knew. It’s hard to get behind all this. We don’t have to like characters, or their actions, but it hurts the drama when you’re simply watching one character hurt others for foolhardy reasons only evident to that character. In Unfaithful, we never really knew why Diane Lane had an affair but at least we saw complexity and strong repercussions.

There’s an element of maturity here and there with the screenplay, but twice as many moments of juvenile fantasies/fears (Look out, women will trap you and control you and expect equal work in return!). The movie has some adult material that works and hits its target, but it also falls apart with idiotic musings. The best moments seem to come from the examination of the fading marriage between Jenna’s folks. It’s an interesting slice of life not commonly seen in youth-obsessed Hollywood, and Danner’s outbursts about what it takes to hold a 30-year union together ring true. But this moment falls victim, like many, to a tidy, simpleminded answer. Almost every storyline in The Last Kiss ends with a bow on it all wrapped up. Michael’s told not to give up and he essentially sleeps on his porch, wearing down the anger of his girlfriend through dogged persistence. In fact, the ending reminds me a bit of Secretary, another romance that ended with one lover proving their devotion by staying in one place a really long time. It’s almost insulting that the film presents Michael behaving badly and then excuses him as long as he just sticks it out. It’s not the idea that’s insulting; it’s the fact that The Last Kiss uses this ending as a cheap and easy out.

One of the benefits of movies directed by actors is that they tend to generate good performances. Director Tony Goldwyn (A Walk on the Moon) has assembled a nice cast that gives more than the material they get. The real find is Barrett, who may just be the greatest alum of a reality TV show (she was on the London edition of MTV’s The Real World). She showed promise in 2003’s The Human Stain and The Last Kiss is really her declarative ascent. She might start getting a lot of offers that would have normally gone to a Meg Ryan or a Julia Roberts. She shows a range of emotions and her breakdowns are hard to watch because of how well she sells her distress. She handles has a natural ease about her, which pairs nicely with Braff’s laid back, unorthodox charisma. Bilson is cute and crimples her doll face in a way that makes her character seem more naïve than seductress. Braff plays his role a bit subdued. He flashes enough life to not seem like he’s sleepwalking though the same steps he plowed in Garden State. Still, it’s not a very remarkable performance for someone people keep tabbing as a potential voice of a generation (a term nobody could feasibly live up to).

The Last Kiss is an unconvincing, simpleminded disingenuous drama populated by whiny dolts afraid of the good things they have. It’s hard to sympathize with any of these flawed characters when we never really feel like their gripes hold water. Michael can’t believe his life seems planned out with a wonderful woman who’s having his baby. Solution: screw it up for variety. While it may be the spice of life, it’s also a heedless decision for someone who needs to wreck everything in order to realize what he has/had. This would all be easier to swallow if The Last Kiss didn’t tie everything up with a happy ending that lacked the groundwork. In the end, according to the film, all bad behavior can be wiped clean if you just wear down your significant other. The drama feels forced and the conclusions feel inappropriate. All human beings make mistakes and so do filmmakers.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Last Samurai (2003)

The Last Samurai (2003)

Premise: Alcoholic Civil War vet (Tom Cruise) is hired by the Japanese emperor to modernize his army. After being captured by samurai, he finds solace and fights alongside his former enemy against the emperor’s modernized army.

Results: A miscast Cruise is not turning Japanese, no matter if he really thinks so. The Last Samurai is a conservative by-the-book epic the limply transports the framework of Dances with Wolves and effectively creates Dances with Japanese People. Don’t believe me? Let’s go to the videotape. Civil War vet (check) haunted by massacre of Native Americans (check), finds peace with a foreign culture (check), falls in love with one of the foreign women (check), and must battle the invading former culture that threatens his new happiness (check). The film does have lovely cinematography and production design, if that means something to you.

Nate’’s Grade: C+

Bounce (2000)

The romantic comedy genre is in a slum of development, it’s own personal ring of hell. It’s become a playing field with a paint-by-numbers coloring book. Color in this section blue for the ignoring bastard of a boyfriend that the heroine is attached to, color this section red for some “misunderstanding” to occur that shatters the perfection of the relationship for ten minutes before a wise-cracking best friend convinces otherwise and reveals their honest true feelings, color this part yellow for eccentric yet lovable colloquial supporting relatives… etc. You hopefully get the idea. It’s all been done before. But can you make a romantic comedy that sticks to the aforementioned rules but is still enjoyable in a non-brain sucking sort of way?

Ben Affleck plays a cocky ad guru with malicious flair. He’s brimming with confidence and a sly charm. One evening he encounters two strangers in an airport bar. One is a sexy blonde that Buddy works his moves to make his own layover. The other man just wants to get back to his wife and family for Christmas but his flight isn’t until the next afternoon. Buddy does the honorable win-win situation and gives up his ticket. The man cheerfully thanks Buddy for his generosity and beams about on his way toward the flight home. Buddy beams about on his way back toward a hotel bedroom. That is until he flips on the TV to see a news report of flaming wreckage that was supposed to be his plane.

The realization of his close encounter with death and the grief of sending another man to replace him takes its toll. Buddy becomes an alcoholic and belligerent at an awards special where his agency is responsible for spinning the crash for the airline. After some time spent to recover buddy feels the personal need to search for the widow of the man he exchanged tickets with and see if she is doing okay. His widow is played by a brunette Gwyneth Paltrow and little do each think that they will fall in love with one another.

Granted, the story and all the so-called surprises that happen in it are telegraphed much sooner than their arrival. We know he’ll fall for her, we know she’ll find out, we know they’ll be a blow out, we know there will be a reconciliation. We just know. What makes Bounce surge from the formula is the ability of the actors and the wit of writer/director Don Roos. The sophomore film from the man who gave us The Opposite of Sex and lesser screenplays shows controlled and understated direction when dealing with the emotions of his characters.

Affleck quite possibly is showing his finest acting work yet. His Buddy runs the transformation of cocky socialite to a man haunted by grief and weary of his advances on the woman he accidentally widowed. The chemistry between Gwyneth and Affleck is electric and they mesh together very positively. In my later review of Proof of Life I mentioned how because Ryan and Russel Crowe fooled around during film that it didn’t transpire to anything on film. Well the past relationship of the two leads here sure as hell allows for some sizzle. Paltrow is quite fine as a harrowed widow trying to raise her boys. A scene where she slowly discovers the truth of her husband’s fate is wrenching. She also looks good as a brunette.

Roos may have to still play by the rules of romantic comedies but at least he utilizes skill to come away with something that doesn’t seem like Pretty Woman meets Random Hearts. And you know what Random Hearts could have used to make it a little livelier? A supporting performance by Johnny Galecki of course. Well, then again nothing could save that movie.

Nate’s Grade: B

Tarzan (1999)

The next installment in Disney’s stranglehold on children is strikingly beautiful in its fluid animation, color, picture, and at times true excitement. But again it’s just more of the same.

Despite its rich animation, the story is again the lacking problem ringing in Disney’s big ears. Every word and action falls under the strict Disney formula code, which is restraining imaginative thought more than helping it. But that’s what you gotta’ do I guess if you wanna’ sell a billion of Tickle me Tarzan merchandise.

The plot is like a ghost of what Burroughs’ novel was originally, but with the typical Disney formula points; there’s the hero suffering from an identity crisis wanting something more, the fawn-like love interest who will eventually fall in love with the only available white man in central Africa, the treacherous one-note villain, and of course the bumbling sidekicks with comic relief and one-liners of slapstick and amusement for the kids. None of this was in The Iron Giant and it still managed to be a great film. Can we at least drop some of the items on the list?

The movie can get overly pretentious at times with the hammering of the ideals that nature… good, animals… good, man… bad. I’ve heard it all before, do I need it set to Phil Collins’ monotonous radio-friendly pop songs as well now?

Despite some flaws and the worse villain in a Disney movie of recent memory (a poor man’s Gaston) it is still enjoyable and worthwhile even with the creative constraint of the Mickey Mouse. Sure it’s already made millions but for my money Mulan was better.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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