Monday, March 30, 2009


Review: Monsters vs. Aliens
2.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

While excitement-hungry kids are no doubt licking their chops, I'm having a hard time stomaching Hollywood's latest multi-million dollar attraction: an all-you-can-ogle buffet of 3-D animation flicks. For those of you who don't know the difference between stereoscopy and CGI, let me be clear: I've no quarrel with computer-generated marvels like “Wall-E” and “Finding Nemo,” which go down easy and pop your eyes without the aid of red and blue-tinted glasses. The tough-to-digest toons are the ones specifically created to be viewed in 3-D. These movies – which kicked off around 2007 and, according to DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, who announced that year that his company would no longer be dabbling in 2-D, are set to continue into infinity and beyond – often abandon art and story for the sake of sheer spectacle, forcibly probing the senses rather than cleverly stimulating them. DreamWorks' “Monsters vs. Aliens,” a basically harmless but undeniably ridiculous throwback to B-movies of the 1950s, is the first of a long roster of 3-D titles to be released throughout the year. Like a poorly written pop-up book, it's dazzling but disposable, and if it's a good indicator of the other buffet selections, I had better stock up on Tums.

In case you missed the galaxy-sized marketing campaign for “MVA,” which included SoBe beverage tie-ins and 3-D commercials during the Super Bowl, here's the 411 on this beastie battle royale: Susan, a wholesome Californian whose voiced by Reese Witherspoon but whose big eyes and toothy smile suggest Julia Roberts, is ecstatic about marrying her ambitious weatherman beau, Derek (Paul Rudd). But on the big day, Susan is hit by a massive meteorite containing Quantonium, a powerful substance we later learn is the most coveted in all the universe. The stuff turns out to be the ultimate growth hormone, transforming Susan into a 50-foot giant with super strength (and an unexplained rock star hairdo). This puts a damper on Susan's white wedding and, even worse, lands her in a top-secret government stronghold where other captured “monsters” have also been imprisoned. Branded with the codename Ginormica, Susan is forced to bunk up with Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie), a mad scientist whose experiments made him into a bug-man a la “The Fly”; The Missing Link (Will Arnett) a 20,000-year-old fish-man a la “The Creature from the Black Lagoon”; B.O.B. (Seth Rogen), a one-eyed wad of indestructible goo a la “The Blob”; and Insectosaurus, an odd amalgamation of a moth, a lobster and a gerbil that has the city-stomping temperament of “Godzilla” but might as well have been lifted from the doodles of a toddler. When Earth is invaded by the evil Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson), a multi-eyed, multi-tentacled and narcissistic extra-terrestrial who's after that Quantonium, Susan and her new friends are called upon as a last resort to save the planet.

To be fair, the description of this film doesn't sound any sillier than a panda who practices martial arts. But the crucial difference between “MVA” and last year's DreamWorks hit is that “Kung Fu Panda” took the time to develop its characters and its narrative. There isn't much of a story here, and the connection to the personalities on screen is even more threadbare. Homesick Susan supplies some human relatability, but even her character's arc feels rushed and unnatural, leaving the audience with no one to cheer for. And, let's face it, at least that panda was cute. Aside from B.O.B., who drums up a few aw-shucks points as the big, dumb lug, none of these monsters are very appealing, least of all that dreadfully uninspired Insectosaurus. So, these unattractive creatures that we don't really care about are dropped into scenarios that don't feel urgent. What's left? What else? Action and special effects.

“MVA” has some spectacularly rendered sequences, but they lack cohesion, arriving in showy, intermittent bursts. The first major battle feels like it could be the climax and the climax is notably anti-climactic. And all of said sequences, though fun and fast-paced, have clearly been borrowed from live-action pictures that were far more effective. When Susan sprouts to about ten times her natural height and crashes through the roof of a church, we think, of course, “Attack of the 50-Foot Woman.” When swirling cameras follow helicopters and jets as they whiz around the arms and legs of a giant robot, I, at least, thought, “The Empire Strikes Back.” And all those protective forcefields surrounding the alien spacecrafts scream “Independence Day.” Why is it that so many kids' flicks insist on being derivative, notoriously plucking from pop culture and pre-existing texts? This movie was written by five people, directed by two people, and it still leaves much to be desired in terms of creative vision, a void that no amount of flashy 3-D imaging can fill.

Due credit must be given to the the film's uncommonly star-studded voice cast, all of whom turn in fine work despite the conditions. Though even she can't give Susan much of a heartbeat, Witherspoon, a truly genuine actress, is surprisingly endearing as a skyscraper-sized superheroine. Rogen, a truly loveable lug, is surprisingly charming as a blue bubble of ooze. Laurie, a truly hilarious intellectual, is surprisingly perfect as a brainy insect. And Wilson, a truly strange comedian, is surprisingly articulate as an archetypal villain. But none of these talented actors, which also include Kiefer Sutherland and Stephen Colbert, are able to bring much depth to this material. For all its 3-D embellishments, “Monsters vs. Aliens” is, not so surprisingly, one-dimensional.

Sunday, March 22, 2009


Review: Sunshine Cleaning
4 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, “Sunshine Cleaning,” an offbeat indie that targets your heartstrings and your funny bone with equal earnestness, has been leaving viewers and reviewers with a sense of dramedic déjà vu. Backed by two of the producers of “Little Miss Sunshine,” another ray-coated festival sweetheart, this close cousin has a lot of the same ingredients as the 2006 Oscar-winning hit. There's a precocious little kid, a van that calls to mind that iconic yellow bus and even '06 Best Supporting Actor Alan Arkin, back to play yet another outspoken, goofball grandfather. Oh yeah, and there's that title. It's easy to point out the similarities here and deride the new film because of them. But though the formula looks familiar, “Sunshine Cleaning,” directed by Christine Jeffs (“Sylvia”) and written by newcomer Megan Holley, has enough of its own quirky qualities and heart to still feel fresh and affecting. And it's helped immensely by two glowing performances from Amy Adams and Emily Blunt, two of today's most talented young actresses.

Rose Lorkowski (Adams) hasn't done much that she's proud of lately. In high school, she was the captain of the cheerleading squad and girlfriend of the star quarterback but, now, in her early thirties, she's a single mother who cleans houses to (barely) make ends meet. She still sleeps with the quarterback, in seedy motels on Saturday nights, except he's married to someone else and has kids of his own. As unhealthy and dead-end as Rose's circumstances may seem, her situation is a bona-fide success story compared to that of her slightly younger sister, Norah (Blunt), a textbook slacker who can't hold a job and still lives with their father, Joe (Arkin). When an incident forces Rose to seek better schooling for her ADHD-addled son, Oscar (Creepy-But-Cute Kids Club member Jason Spevack), she turns to the quarterback, Mac (Steve Zahn), for advice. Mac, now a cop, tells Rose to get into the “racket” of crime scene clean-up – the maid duty of the macabre – which, for some, rakes in up to $3,000 per job. Rose is game. She recruits Norah as her business partner, adopts the peppy moniker of the title as her business name and buys a cheap, old van to be her business headquarters-on-wheels. What follows is a somewhat obligatory but satisfactorily original road to giggles, tears and self-discovery.

Depending on your sense of humor, scrubbing blood off of walls and disposing of mattresses soaked in God-knows-what might sound like a sour mix for a heartfelt comedy, or a fail-safe recipe for genuine laughs. It's both, really, and while the naysayers have ample room to object, I found that the folks involved here did a fine, balanced job of making the thematic opposites attract. Holley's screenplay, albeit a bit too adherent to the indie-movie-oddity checklist (did Norah really need tattoos, drug issues, daredevil activities and a lesbian encounter?), has wit and charm and eventually makes profound human experience its chief focus. For these sisters, what was first a disgusting and degrading – and comical – enterprise becomes a window into the shattered lives of others and a way to finally achieve some personal growth and pride. (Moving moment alert: Rose quietly comforts an old woman whose husband's suicide left a mess in a bedroom. Later, Rose upstages her snooty high school pals at a baby shower/reunion by confidently describing her line of work.) The film has a rhythmic emotional energy, drawing you in on a wave of laughter and then sideswiping you with its poignant undercurrent. The transition is smooth, usually resisting melodrama, and the characters react realistically to their evolving scenarios. At the very least, Holley and Jeffs deserve points for choosing such an oft-overlooked profession as the vessel for their story. Really, how many crime scene clean-up crews do you know?

A great deal of the movie's naturalness can be credited to Adams and Blunt, two women who are more than capable of truthfully conveying a vast range of emotions. Separately, we've seen both actresses excel at comedy (Blunt in “The Devil Wears Prada,” Adams in “Enchanted,” among other things) and drama (Blunt in “My Summer of Love,” Adams in “Doubt,” among other things). Together, they are a dream team of cinematic and sisterly chemistry, feeding off of each other's cues with believable comfort and ace comedic timing. Individually, too, they are outstanding. Both are given private scenes of humor and heartache that contain some of the film's best moments. A tender backstory involving Rose's and Norah's late mother effectively establishes an unbreakable bond much like the one seen in 2005's "In Her Shoes" with Cameron Diaz and Toni Colette. Adams and Blunt are the best screen sisters since, even bringing depth to bits that should have stayed on the cutting room floor (such as a cute running joke about a CB radio that runs a little too far). Kudos to the casting director for landing these two lovely ladies in one place.

Shame on the casting director for tapping Arkin to play the grandfather, an obvious ploy to attract fans of that other “Sunshine” film. Arkin delivers a carbon copy of his Academy Award-winning performance, right down to the unconventional wisdom he offers his eager grandchild, the only person who takes his wack-a-doo behavior seriously. Is it entertaining? For sure, but it's distractingly reminiscent and it's proof-positive that the 76-year-old's victory two years ago was little more than an honorary bone tossed to an esteemed veteran. (Unless, of course, he scores a nomination for his work here as well, which is unlikely.) Moving on, more gratifying are the other supporting players, namely Clifton Collins Jr. (“Capote,” “Traffic”) as a mild-mannered, one-armed cleaning supply store clerk who builds model airplanes and becomes a sort of surrogate father to Oscar. Collins Jr. gives a sweet and subtle portrayal that adds a new dimension to his increasingly impressive filmography. Still, he's no match for Adams and Blunt, the winning dynamic duo who put the sunshine in “Sunshine Cleaning.”

Sunday, March 8, 2009


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

Adapting a beloved text to the screen is a daring, treacherous task. In addition to satisfying critics and new, unaccustomed audiences, one must also consider the sometimes millions of well-established fans and face the common collective belief that “the book is always better than the movie.” Especially tricky are the translations of popular comic books, which carry armies of geek followers who are often more cutting than the most astringent film reviewers and more protective of their babies than a cornered lioness. More sensitive still is the case of “Watchmen,” a limited edition, 12-part superhero serial by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons that was originally published in 1986 and has since become a hallowed fanboy bible. Its road from cells to celluloid has been long, hard and full of detours – rewrites, directorial changes, battles over ownership – that plagued the project all the way up to weeks before its release. Now, it's finally here, and it's a slick, beautiful and bad-ass piece of cinema.

I've only flipped through the particularly graphic graphic novel once or twice, so I can't say if director Zack Snyder (“Dawn of the Dead,” “300”) and screenwriters David Haytre (“X-Men”) and Alex Tse (“Sucker Free City”) have made a worthy adaptation or if disgruntled Watchmaniacs are already flooding the blogs with wrathful complaints. But I have seen enough movies to comfortably proclaim that, by marrying the best aspects of modern masked-men motion pictures (the post-“Matrix” stylings of “V for Vendetta” and “Wanted,” the coarsely realistic world view of “The Dark Knight”), Snyder and company have created one of the best comic book films ever. Its only major downside is that, at a hair under three hours, it demands a bit much from those who aren't ga-ga over the source material.

“Watchmen” is as American as “Superman,” as noir as “Sin City” and has as much balls-to-the-wall bravado as both “Kill Bill” flicks combined. Deemed un-filmable by its champions and creators (a stance still held by Moore, who removed his name from the movie's credits), the elaborate story's controversial content includes volatile international relations, societal collapse, nuclear war, grisly gore and – most taboo of all – superhero sex. Its vision is one of an alternative America, the history and conditions of which have been tweaked by the presence and consequences of folks like the Watchmen, a band of superheroes who live among the general public. The year is 1985 (though there are also several flashbacks). The place is – where else? – a cold, wet and shadow-enshrouded New York City. The Watchmen aren't the first superheroes (a painterly, nostalgic opening credit sequence provides a glimpse of their predecessors), but they will be the last according to President Nixon, who's demanded they hang up their capes even after they led him to a Vietnam victory and five consecutive terms in office.

Now in early retirement, Nite Owl (the appropriately all-American Patrick Wilson) is a humdrum homebody who wears thick-rimmed glasses and trades war stories with an aged colleague. “World's Smartest Man” Ozymandius (Matthew Goode) has capitalized on his image and high I.Q. to become a billionaire business mogul. Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) still prowls the streets, disgusted with their decline in the Watchmen's absence. Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) lives a sheltered, pseudo-domestic life in a government stronghold with the almighty Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup and lots of digital makeup). And The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) spends his sleepless nights watching TV and smoking cigars until he's hurled out of a high-rise window in the film's gorgeously rendered first scene. His killing jump-starts the plot's key strand (wherein Rorschach initiates his own renegade murder investigation), which operates within a larger, doomsday component involving Dr. Manhattan and the trigger-happy Soviet Union.

There's not a whole lot of superheroism taking place in this superhero tale, at least not of the typical “it's a bird! it's a plane!” variety. Graciously, much more emphasis is put on legitimizing the characters and their circumstances than showing them shooting laser beams from their eyes, etc. The only Watchman who even possesses supernatural abilities – the others are highly trained in combat and weaponry but still very human – is Dr. Manhattan, whose early exposure to atom-crushing forcefields in a nuclear test facility transformed him into a blue-skinned god-weapon who can do just about anything (teleport, replicate, manipulate matter, walk on the Sun). (Originally contracted by the federal government, he's the reason for the U.S./Soviet tension.) All-powerful but irrevocably all alone, the Doc is seen withdrawing from humanity when it needs him most, thus pushing Silk Spectre into the arms of Nite Owl. He's also seen, as in the comic, completely naked, and Snyder's full-frontal faithfulness to this detail will surely provoke many a conservative gasp (there was a small chorus at my screening). The nudity isn't indecent, it's logical, and it's one of many brave and brilliant choices made by the director, whose graphic style is an ideal match for this material. Snyder shies away from nothing. “Watchmen” is ultra-violent, explicitly sexual and uncommonly grim, but it is still supremely sophisticated.

The actors are all commendable aside from Goode, whose inability to hide his British accent leads to some muffled, distracting line deliveries. The best performance comes from Haley, a gifted character actor who rebounded in 2006 with an Oscar nomination for his work in Todd Field's “Little Children.” Haley brings some serious psychological depth to Rorschach, a pitiless vigilante whose ever-changing inkblot mask is a fun metaphor for his inner demons. Rorschach unearths a turning-point conspiracy, inspiring his fellow Watchmen to come out of hiding and seek justice once more. The prolonged delay of the rock 'em, sock 'em gallantry makes its arrival rewarding, but it comes around the two-hour mark, by which time the film has just begun to wear out its welcome. It's conceivable that Snyder tried to include as much as possible to please the die-hards but, in doing so, he robbed his movie of its perfection. Exciting, smart and offering a cultural perspective through a kind of dirty pop prism, “Watchmen” is a titan of its genre. If only its running time didn't loom as large.

Sunday, March 1, 2009


Review: Two Lovers
4 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Having seen the coolly composed trailer for “Two Lovers” – as well as a certain David Letterman interview – prior to my screening, I had every intention of opening this review with something like: “You won't find any of Joaquin Phoenix's recent bizarro behavior in his latest – and, reportedly, last – film.” But, lo and be dazzled, you will, and this sober romance piece from writer/director James Gray is all the richer for it.

Phoenix plays Leonard, a heartbroken, Bipolar antihero with the emotional development of a teenager and the selfish, delusional quirks of an alcoholic. An aspiring photographer and not much more, Leonard returns home to live with his welcoming parents in their Brooklyn apartment after his fiancée leaves him high, dry and suicidal. It's revealed that the split was a result of reproductive complications, but it's conceivable that she left because he's a man-child; not of the “Big” variety, but of the “I-can't-take-care-of-myself-let-alone-anyone-else” kind. Leonard sleeps till noon and goofs around at his father's dry cleaning business where he works part-time. He sneaks out of the house at night needlessly. He can't concentrate. He lies, double-books engagements and hatches impossible schemes, all of which cause him the sort of subsequent grief that most seasoned humans have learned to protect themselves against. In short, he's a paradigm of immaturity, and Phoenix's bittersweet portrayal is the most unguarded of his career. The two-time Oscar nominee is so at home playing an awkward, on-the-fringe noncomformist that one can't help but wonder if those “public performance” rumors regarding his new beard-and-shades persona are, in fact, true.

Leonard is first introduced after having just been fished out of the river by some good samaritans – the aftermath of what we learn from Mom (a heartbreaking Isabella Rossellini) and Dad (Israel's Moni Moshonov) to be one of many suicide attempts. The parents – a classic Jewish couple – are as loving as they are lovable, but they remain at an arm's length from Leonard, fearing that one wrong move could be the excuse he needs to do the unthinkable (there's a quiet anguish in both of their faces that suggests years of doctors' appointments and therapist visits). Their ultimate effort to save their functional-but-unstable son is to set him up with Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the saintly, kosher daughter of their best friends. Sandra is everything that Leonard needs: she's nurturing, non-judgmental and she's genuinely interested in him. This, of course, makes him less interested in her and more drawn to the toxic pursuit of Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), his gorgeous, unattainable neighbor with his same faulty wiring. Like an adolescent boy, Leonard leads Sandra on for safe keeping while he pines for Michelle, who in turn is sleeping with a married man and wears the obligatory blinders of a mistress (“he's going to leave his wife,” etc.).

The two simultaneous relationships are vastly different. Sandra, who sees Leonard's character flaws as an outlet for her compassion, invites him to dinner with her and her family. Michelle, who can't see Leonard's character flaws because she has so many of her own, invites him to dinner with her and her hitched boyfriend (to his dismay, Leonard remains Michelle's platonic confidant through much of the movie). But both women are almost immediately taken with Leonard and his irresistible boyish charms. He may be a novice in the game of life, but he's clearly experienced in the game of courtship, and Phoenix is especially good at vitalizing this aspect of his character. There's a remarkable segment in which Leonard joins Michelle and her friends for a night on the town. En route to a club, he tries to impress the gals by spitting rhymes, drawing a playful comparison to Phoenix's supposed new vocation. Once inside the bass-laden night spot, Leonard heads straight for the dance floor and breaks into a quick routine that's both slightly embarrassing and surprisingly skillful. The whole portion is brief but outstanding because Phoenix's work is so loose and free, as if the camera – which has a dance of its own and puts you in the party – weren't even rolling.

Gray has directed Phoenix twice before, in “We Own the Night” (2007) and “The Yards” (2000), but never like this. Though also set in Gray's home of New York, the previous movies were both crime dramas, while “Two Lovers” has the mood of a French film – and not just because of the exquisite music choices. The characters, like the plot, are fostered slowly but surely. Gray and co-writer Ric Menello layer these people with believable complexity, allowing them to become familiar but never wholly predictable (specifically, Leonard's rocky temperament creates moments of unexpected suspense – when his fantasies begin to crumble, we're uneasy and unsure of how he'll respond). And Gray gets great performances from the rest of his cast as well. Paltrow, her golden locks strewn about like heaven-straw, lights up the film the moment she appears and has the power to darken it, too. Shaw, a Hilary Swank look-alike who's leading lady material all the way, makes you wonder why the most you've seen of her lately is in bit parts in fare like “3:10 to Yuma.” And Rossellini and Moshonov create a screen duo to be cherished.

But the spotlight is rarely pulled away from Phoenix, the film's indisputable star. Throughout “Two Lovers,” I couldn't stop thinking about what a shame it is if Phoenix truly means business when he says he's quitting his.