Sunday, January 25, 2009


Review: New in Town
1.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Someone told me recently that I complain too much about movies lacking originality, to which I offered a rebuttal that has itself become a cliché, at least among critics: “There's a devastating shortage of inventiveness in Hollywood.” I hope my accuser – who simply shrugged at my response – is reading this review, because my complaints are about to blast through the roof. “New in Town,” the latest time-waster to show off Renee Zellweger's poor acting skills and freakish visage, is the most unabashedly unoriginal film I've seen in years. Its wholly derivative fabric – which, from rising action to climax, may well have been copied straight out of a textbook on standard script formats – is a quilted pattern of elements that stumble from unwatchable to cheaply charming to totally trite. Exploiting the same old story of a big city girl who finds love and self-fulfillment in a small town, the movie's alternate title could easily be “Sweet Home Minnesota.”

Comparisons to 2002's Reese Witherspoon rom-com are inevitable, especially since both “New in Town” and “Sweet Home Alabama” were written by C. Jay Cox (who here shares screenwriting credits with a fella named Ken Rance). One foundational difference between these two titles is that Witherspoon is likeable and Zellweger is not. However typical your movie may be, throw in a charismatic star and the result can be transcendent. Throw in Zellweger and you've got lemon juice on a wound. Anyone who watched this year's Golden Globe Awards can concur that this woman is surely turning into some type of alien, her zipper-tight pursed lips engulfed by a face that's endured one too many “Bridget Jones” fluctuations. But it's unfair to judge Zellweger solely on her progressively strange appearance; after all, it's the insincerity of her performances that leaves the viewer feeling detached.

In “New in Town,” she plays Lucy Hill, an enterprising, soon-to-be corporate executive living the high life in Miami. We meet her in the midst of her busy day-to-day routine via over-emphasized shots of stilettos, sports cars, and Starbucks cups. Scurrying awkwardly from scene to scene, Zellweger does about as much to convince us that she's a high-powered glamazon as Alicia Silverstone did to make us buy her as a superhero in “Batman & Robin” – she can't even walk the walk. When Lucy volunteers to whip a small, under-performing company factory into shape, the attempt to advance her career becomes a nightmare of privileged female discomfort. She hops a plane to a one-horse Minnesota town with a year's worth of luggage in tow. She braves the cold, inexplicably packs her mountain of Louis Vuitton bags into a rented mid-size sedan, rolls on to her destination, and whines a lot. When she meets the chipper, simple townspeople who talk openly about pets and Jesus, Lucy can't relate, and Zellweger plays the character's disconnect by staring blankly into the distance and making snide remarks. The painful-to-view first act is capped off by a surprisingly mean-spirited scene in which Lucy, after being invited to dinner by one of the natives, promptly insults an entire roomful of strangers. The ill-conceived bit is meant to establish a strong romantic rivalry between Lucy and Ted, the local union rep. played adequately by Harry Connick Jr., but instead takes the story from stale to sour.

Lucy, of course, begins to warm up to the chilly little community. She befriends the ladies she first saw as subordinate, finds merit in the factory workers she was sent to lay off, and falls for Ted, who was thankfully the only other soul around when she stranded herself in a snow bank in the middle of nowhere. When Lucy learns that corporate wants to shut down the factory, she predictably embarks on a quest to save it, commencing the use of a handful of pop songs that tell us how to feel. None of the plot developments are believable – not for a second. It's unclear how much time passes before Lucy comes around, but her conversion from bullheaded outsider to appreciative guest seems to happen in a blink. After a few homemade gifts and one down-home holiday carol sing, she's on board with the simple life, trading the use of big words like “mechanization” and “dialoguing” for the acceptance of Midwestern banter like “patootie” and “don't cha know?” And there's one post-makeover reveal involving Ted's teenage daughter that's so overused, it's even been spoofed in those repellent “Movie” movies. Cox, Rance, and director Jonas Elmer had to have known this going in.

The same someone who called me out on my frequent gripes about the biz accompanied me to “New in Town” and told me it's the kind of movie that everyone wants to see made every year, over and over. “If that's true,” I replied, still coated in Obama inauguration afterglow, “then a little slice of my newly restored hope for this country just died.” That may sound a little extreme in regards to a seemingly harmless romantic comedy, but such overtly uninspired refuse can't really be what all those smart folks who elected the right president are seeking for entertainment – can it? All I know is, the last scene in this film shows a supporting character receiving a check for more money than she's probably ever seen in her life. I gave her to the count of three to faint. She keeled over at the count of two. There was a sea of laughter in the theater. Yikes.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


Review: Defiance
3 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

It's with guilty hesitation that I hail the true Holocaust survival story “Defiance” as truly entertaining. Based on Nechama Tec's book, “Defiance: The Bielski Partisans,” about a throng of Polish Jews who evaded the Germans and created a Sherwood Forest-like sanctuary, the movie version is action-packed, reasonably fast-paced, even laugh-laden. But, wait a minute, wasn't there supposed to be some profound historical commentary oiling this machine? Apparently not. “Defiance” is not a Holocaust movie enhanced by blockbuster adventure; it's a blockbuster adventure that just happens to be set during the Holocaust. Though directed (and co-written) by Edward Zwick (“Blood Diamond,” “The Last Samurai”), it feels like what “Schindler's List” might have become if Michael Bay had stepped in for Steven Spielberg. Zwick's insistence on molding his latest into little more than your basic popcorn crowd-pleaser forbids it from ever scratching beneath the surface of its sensitive subject matter. The only way it engages the heart is by getting the blood pumping.

The Bielskis of the book title are four brothers from Eastern Poland: Tuvia, Zus, Asael, and Aron, who are played by Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, and 16-year-old George MacKay, respectively. In the film's laughably exploitative opening sequence (which uses grainy footage to evoke realism but, realistically, only evokes B-movie gratuitousness), nearly all the inhabitants of the Bielski brothers' village, including their mother and father, are slaughtered by Nazis. Zus, Asael, and Aron escape, retreating into the surrounding forests of what is now Belarus, where they reunite with Tuvia who was off doing something rather immaterial to the plot. As their grief subsides, the brothers, who are soon joined by other refugees, struggle with what to do next. Some, like the hot-headed Zus, are hungry for vengeance, and head to the still-within-walking-distance ghettos to exact it not only on Nazis but on the traitorous Jews who helped them. Others, like Aron, fall mute, deadened by the shock of unfathomable circumstances. After having his own taste of revenge, Tuvia eventually decides that retaliation is not the answer and that simply staying alive is as bold an act of defiance as any. Like Robin of Poland or Tuvia of Locksley (take your pick), he assumes the role of forest-dwelling freedom fighter, and as word of his heroic leadership spreads through the Jewish underground, what began as a dozen fellow escapees turns into a hundred, then a thousand, and so on. Thus, the wooded shelter becomes the makeshift home to a struggling but self-sustaining community, complete with log huts, campfire meals, and “forest marriages.”

It's senseless to address the implausibilities of this story (such as where and how these penniless people got an arsenal of tools to build their bungalows) because it's all essentially born from truth. How those truths are handled, however, is another beast entirely. With the exception of the lush visuals by two-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Eduardo Serra (it's certainly the greenest title in the Holocaust canon), “Defiance” exhibits hardly a single ounce of grace. Zwick's and Clayton Frohman's screenplay adaptation is a prosaic assemblage of all the trappings of every densely-populated disaster flick this side of “The Poseidon Adventure.” There's a huge cast of secondary characters, many of whom are present solely for comic relief and all of whom participate in inevitable, annoyingly unproductive arguments. There are love interests, of course (the “forest wives”), the prettiest of whom land in the arms of the Bielski brothers, of course. There's plenty of crude humor that will amuse simpletons but insult sophisticates. There's cheap and obvious sentimentality that's wrung out of scenes like dishwater from a rag. There's bag-over-the-head symbolism prancing around like those ringside, bikini-clad babes who hold up signs at boxing matches. You want examples? When news breaks of Tuvia's wife's death (which is no spoiler if you've ever seen a film about genocide), violins literally begin to play. After a pseudo-alliance is made with neighboring Soviet partisans, Tuvia returns to his arboreous abode literally riding a white horse. You get the picture.

The action, which arrives at once and rarely lets up, serves the movie well in that it draws the attention away from the pitfalls. The effects and stunts are exciting and explosive and filmed as well as – or, perhaps, better than – one would expect from a movie of this magnitude. But, despite my pounding pulse, I felt a huge wave of remorse crash over me while being entertained by all this, like I was a willful spectator in the sport of these people's misfortune. “Defiance” doesn't play like it's faithfully telling an amazing story and honoring its subjects. It's more the sort of thing that uses history as a springboard to fire off rounds and blow stuff up. However well intended and however well staged (and, at times, well acted – Schreiber is excellent), the finished product feels terribly contrived, leaving the impression that Zwick had more regard for the ticket holders than for the forest community's descendants (of which, we learn at the end, there are tens of thousands).

The one concept “Defiance” does manage to drive home effectively is that not all European Jews went quietly to their deaths during WWII. It not only illustrates this fact but repeatedly reinforces it in the dialogue. It's the one true thing that eeks its way out of the fray of gimmicks and gunshots because, ironically enough, it's more powerful than both. Why didn't anyone tell the filmmakers?

Sunday, January 11, 2009


Review: The Wrestler
4.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Those of you who'll be participating in an Oscar pool with friends or colleagues this year would be wise to check off Mickey Rourke in the category of Best Actor. Like Charlize Theron's serial killer in "Monster" or Forest Whitaker's dictator in "The Last King of Scotland," Rourke's starring role in director Darren Aronofsky's painfully human character study, "The Wrestler," is one that comes around once in a lifetime. That he tears through it like lacerated flesh and has emerged the comeback kid of 2008 (sorry, Robert Downey Jr.) are only further incentives for Academy voters to take notice. If anyone's poised to rob Sean Penn of his second gold statue, it's Rourke, who you'd think spent his time away from the spotlight consulting the ghost of Laurence Olivier. As Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a washed-up and broken-down pro wrestler still clinging to his glory days in the '80s, Rourke creates an unfeigned, audacious self portrait. What Aronofsky and writer Robert D. Siegel create is a low-budget flick that's more captivating than most multi-million dollar blockbusters.

Best known for the daredevil stylistics of “Requiem for a Dream” and “The Fountain,” Aronofsky proves equally capable of stripping things down to their gritty core. Often shot with handheld cameras and finished with Eastwood-like minimalism, “The Wrestler” looks and feels as bruised and battered as its central character. It's a tactful aesthetic decision by Aronofsky, whose intuition to step back and let Rourke's acting and Siegel's writing flex their muscles is a model of restraint. His movie, set in the unremarkable city of Elizabeth, NJ, plays like the tragic memoirs of a dying king. He opens it with a credit sequence that's bursting with '80s nostalgia, from the tacky wrestling propaganda posters to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle font. When we meet Randy in present day, he's in his weather-worn 40s, and he's gearing up for a wrestling match in a...high school gym. Such humdrum gigs are the only ones he can land nowadays and, since he apparently lacks any other skills, the poor demand is taking its toll on his wallet. He's been evicted from his trailer for failure to pay rent; he's got a part-time deli job that's more appropriate for a college freshman; and he can barely afford to maintain his image via tanning, steroids, weightlifting, and bleaching his shoulder-length, rock star mane. Oh yeah, and he's got a daughter who he hasn't seen in years and to whom he surely isn't sending monthly checks.

But he has wrestling. Aronofsky and Siegel do an incredible job of illustrating the world of performance fighters with documentary-style fascination, exposing the behind-the-scenes choreography and the lengths to which these guys will go to put on a good show (Randy keeps a razor blade stashed under his wrist tape so he can create real blood effects – a.k.a., cut himself). Whether or not everything that's depicted is accurate is up for debate, but it certainly got my attention. There's something very raw and true about sports that take place within a ring, which is probably why the movies about them are the greatest sports films of all time. Caught inside that roped-in square, under blinding spotlights before a screaming crowd, is humanity at its most animalistic – bloody, sweaty, carnal, and vulnerable. It's powerful enough to make stories about baseball seem childish in comparison. In this tradition, “The Wrestler” stands among classics like “Rocky” and “Raging Bull.” In a more literary sense, it resembles immortal works like “Oedipus” or “Death of a Salesman.” Randy is like the Willy Loman of pro wrestling, refusing to let go of unreachable dreams while the rest of his life crumbles around him. A sudden heart attack after a particularly gruesome match brings him a much-needed moment of reflection, and it brings the movie a perfectly-timed opportunity for greater depth.

The incident allows Aronofsky to shift “The Wrestler” into a lower gear, inviting in two additional characters to colorize his dark palette. Marisa Tomei, an actress who seems to get better with every film, plays Pam, a local stripper and single mother whose alias, “Cassidy,” isn't the only falsehood she uses for self-defense. Evan Rachel Wood, an actress who's bound to mature one of these days, plays Randy's estranged daughter, Stephanie. For better or worse, the two women awaken things in Randy that were long buried beneath his blind ambition and delusions of grandeur. Particularly, the relationship he forms with Pam reminds him (and her) how to live life as it happens, and the exchanges between the actors are highly realistic and quietly tender (watch for a brief scene inside a bar where the two bond while reminiscing and the whole world seems to fall away). Tomei convinces you that Pam is a living, breathing, struggling person and her ingenuous skills are well suited to the material. Wood exhibits growth as a performer but still has a long way to go; her turn is a bit noisy even for a noisily written character, and it's all the more conspicuous in a film that's as notable for its subtleties as it is for its brutality. Rourke remains the main event throughout, clawing his way through scenes like a world-weary grizzly bear. His indelible performance is layered with laughs, tears, truths, and surprises, and he keeps you hooked right up to the film's decidedly unsentimental final moment.

“The Wrestler,” admittedly, is not for everyone. Squeamish viewers and those who like their movies nice and pretty are better suited for a date with “Benjamin Button.” But in the pursuit of great drama, passing by this carefully nurtured gem would be a big mistake. Similar to the bar scene with Randy and Pam, it wraps you up in its gripping story until the rest of the world falls away. Aronofsky, who won the Golden Lion for Best Director at 2008's Venice Film Festival, and Rourke, who's collected a slew of critics' awards and nominations, both deliver career-best work, collaborating on a project that's the cinematic equivalent of a body slam.

Sunday, January 4, 2009


Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
4 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Let's not kid ourselves. Regardless of what's written about it, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is THE movie to see before the Oscars. Heralded throughout the year and bound to be up for numerous awards (including Best Picture), David Fincher's epic ode to life, death, and special effects is the one prestige film to which the most viewers will be flocking. And so they should – while it's still in theaters. This is a movie that deserves to be seen on the big screen in all its splendiferous glory. Beautifully rendered, it's the source of some of the year's most extraordinary cinematic images. Yet while it excels in inventive eye candy, “Benjamin Button” lacks in satisfying storytelling, and its failure to deliver the “Titanic”-sized sweep it promises drops it just below 2008's best films.

A vast expansion of the 1920s short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the movie uses a narrative device much like that of James Cameron's sinking boat saga: at the end of her life, an old woman looks back on the romance that defined it. The woman here is not Rose but Daisy (the great Cate Blanchett, buried beneath one of many makeup department miracles), a 90-something New Orleanian on her death bed, and the significance of her memories is not historical but fantastical. During what's presumably her final hospital visit, Daisy's daughter, Caroline (the under-worked Julia Ormond), reads to her mother the diary of Benjamin Button, Daisy's old flame who burned out before Caroline's dad came into the picture. As Caroline reads, so begins the titular journey, as narrated – after a voiceover shift – by Benjamin himself (Brad Pitt), who just happened to age backwards. We travel back to 1918 New Orleans when Benjamin was born a wrinkled, arthritic infant to a wealthy – ahem – button manufacturer (Guy Ritchie favorite Jason Flemyng) who, horrified at the thought of raising a freak, abandons Benjamin on the stairs of an old folks' home. The establishment is owned by Queenie (“Hustle and Flow”'s Taraji P. Henson), a benevolent mother hen-type who finds Benjamin, sees past his shocking exterior, and raises him as her own. As the miracle of nature grows up (er, down), we follow him through his entire counterclockwise life, much of which consists of the relationship with Daisy, whose existence runs parallel to his but in the other direction.

On paper, the concept of “Benjamin Button” reads like a dizzying headache of impossibilities. To ground the story, Fincher and screenwriter Eric Roth (the structurally similar “Forrest Gump”) minimize the fantasy element as much as possible. After the initial wow factor, virtually none of the film's supporting characters make much of Benjamin's “unusual circumstances” beyond the occasional mention of him as a “special person.” He divulges his “case” to those he chooses (folks such as an early lover played by Tilda Swinton are completely unaware of it), he's never hassled by the press, he's never scrutinized or even approached by need-to-know medical scientists. He simply goes about life as anyone would, eventually journeying out into the unknown and letting his experiences and encounters with others mold the man he will become. Such an approach is a bit jarring to the viewer (even we begin to forget about the reverse maturation), but it holds the film in a tangible realm of reality, almost welcoming the possibility that something like this could actually happen.

It certainly looks real enough. There are incredible special effects in “Benjamin Button” that are unlike any you've ever seen, namely those that transform Brad Pitt from an 80-ish, height-challenged weakling to his former, wrinkle-free self. (At one point, he's the spitting image of himself circa his blazing, “Thelma & Louise” debut, and it's in that moment when we realize that the male heartthrob of our time was the only choice to play a role in which the stages of youth and beauty are not only addressed but personified.) The transitions were achieved through a plethora of state-of-the-art techniques, including digitally painting Pitt's made-up face onto the bodies of smaller actors. What surrounds Pitt is equally marvelous, as Fincher (“Se7en,” “Zodiac”) is no stranger to creating worlds so intricate and comprehensive, they envelop the audience. The 46-year-old director has become an atmospheric master of Ridley Scott-caliber talent. For his – and the year's – most ambitious undertaking, Fincher and cinematographer Claudio Miranda make magnificent use of the medium, capturing within their frames the breadth, splendor and sorrow of life itself. Whether in scenes that stretch to far-off horizons or in carefully chosen interiors, the film is drawn with tremendous detail and literal depth, leaving you hardly aware of the nearly three-hour running time.

The things that are great about “Benjamin Button” are stalked by the things that aren't. As much as I'd love to wholeheartedly praise this movie, its flaws are tough to ignore. Fincher's and Roth's decision to play down the miracle aspect is commendable for relatability; however, it presents the viewer with a needlessly exhausting struggle. Too many elements – such as how Benjamin can account for the events for which he was not present or the ways in which the final stages of the character's physical arc are depicted – are asked to be accepted as fantasy while still belonging to something that's clearly trying to cement itself in reality. There's a constant tug-of-war between the real and the impossible that eventually proves to be unworthy of wrapping one's head around. Then there's the overpraised performance by Taraji P. Henson, which will probably earn an Oscar nomination. A shameless bit of comic relief, Henson's character is the most cartoonish contender since Renee Zellweger's Ruby from 2003's “Cold Mountain.” Worse yet, the nature of Queenie as the archetypal black “mammy” is borderline offensive in racial terms. Also undeservedly lauded is Brad Pitt in the title role. He may have been the perfect choice, but Pitt's performance is cold, monotoned, and vacuous. Even after all the places we go and things we see with Benjamin, we're never really able to get inside his head and, thus, never truly able to care about him.

If “Benjamin Button” were any other film, I'd probably let its shortcomings slide. It's a rather huge achievement and a personal triumph for Fincher. But this is THE movie of 2008 – the one that claims to have it all, the one that's billed as a rapturous romantic masterpiece, the one that was built up incessantly and withheld until Christmas day. A film with so many self-induced expectations is all the more reprehensible when it fails to live up to all of them. What few notions it evokes about human nature fade almost immediately after it ends. True movie lovers would be foolish not to catch “Benjamin Button” before it finishes its theatrical run, but many will find that the experience burns out faster than an old flame.