Sunday, October 25, 2009

AMELIA

Review: Amelia
2 stars
(out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

The memory and mystique of an American hero is reduced to family-channel folly in “Amelia,” director Mira Nair's gutless, ham-fisted biopic of Amelia Earhart. Calling it conventional would be kind, and comparing it to Martin Scorsese's “The Aviator” – which many journalists have done – is insulting to a true piece of cinematic art. Watching it is like witnessing a tragedy, and I'm in no way referring to the legendary pilot's enigmatic fate. It's one thing for a dumb comedy or a delirious actioner to leave you scrambling for a refund; it's quite another for a potential Oscar contender pregnant with possibility to disappoint so fully. Nair, whose filmmaking prowess has been beautifully displayed in movies like “Monsoon Wedding” and “The Namesake,” guides this featherweight craft through impossibly sunny skies, dodging every dramatic storm cloud in favor of safe, smiley, old-school fluff. Hilary Swank, who many believed would be vying for her third Best Actress prize, has a better shot at landing a Razzie for her work in the title role. Truth be told, “Monsters vs. Aliens” was more gripping than this dud.


“Amelia” does begin with a clean little opening credit sequence, in which the titles appear on the screen and then dissolve into thin air just like the doomed aviatrix. It's a nice touch, but it also marks the extent of this movie's subtlety. Before long, we get the first of many cornball voice-overs, which have our heroine offering affirmations like, “flying lets me move in three dimensions” (as if walking didn't do the same). Are these silly sayings the actual words and thoughts of Amelia Earhart? It occurred to me as I queasily jotted them down verbatim. “Amelia” is based on the biographies, “The Sound of Wings” by Mary S. Lovell and “East to the Dawn” by Susan Butler, but Earhart did author at least two books of her own. As we learn in the movie, such is how she met her eventual husband, George Putnam (Richard Gere), a publishing giant who commissioned Earhart to write about her experience as the first female passenger on a transatlantic flight. She went on to write another book after becoming the first woman to take that same flight on her own, an achievement that also appears in the film. But even if trite lines like, “I want to be a vagabond of the air,” were lifted directly from Earhart's memoirs, the filmmakers and actors lay them on so agonizingly thick that there's no hope for sincerity.

I'm certainly not a Swank fan, but an actress doesn't win two Oscars for nothing, and when handed fertile, more masculine roles (like this one), she tends to deliver. And yet, her performance here suggests that her talents have degenerated. With her short-cropped hair, freckled face and bright blue eyes, she no doubt looks the part, but that credit goes to the makeup department. And, granted, she is working from a laughable mess of a script by Ronald Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan (who've both penned a handful of screenplays over the last 20 years, but could've easily fooled me into believing they were previously employed by Hallmark). But Swank doesn't bring anything exciting to the table, and she reads all that clich├ęd nonsense – or “hooey,” to borrow a word from the film – with the flat, unconvincing strain of a novice. What I remember most about the performance are Swank's super-sized incisors, which she flashes so often you'd think someone was tickling her off-camera. Gere is no better, hamming it up big time and employing theatrical ticks and broad gestures reminiscent of an old Hollywood comedy. Together, the actors have very little chemistry, and intimate exchanges between their characters are embarrassingly banal.


Ewan McGregor appears in a supporting role as federal aviation administrator and TWA founder Gene Vidal (father of Gore), with whom Earhart had an affair. When this tidbit began to surface, I thought, “Finally! A little bit of juice!” But, alas, “Amelia” is so utterly devoted to keeping its characters and scenarios shiny and happy that anything even resembling negativity or actual tension is resolved or avoided in a snap. The affair ends as quickly as it begins, Putnam takes Earhart back without hesitation, and the couple even remains chummy with Vidal (which may have been the case, but I'm sure there was a lot more gray area, something this movie knows nothing about). Similarly, when Earhardt comes into a bit of trouble during that first solo flight across the Atlantic, there's the goofy diversion of an emotionally-forced flashback to her childhood in Kansas, followed by the wholly improbable, personal pep talk, “if Lindbergh could do it, you can do it!” And while it acts as an appropriate framing device, Earhart's final, 'round-the-world trek is equally innocuous (you can bet the filmmakers steer clear of addressing what may or may not have happened to the fallen icon).

Something tells me that if Earhart were alive today, this isn't the kind of movie she'd want to be telling her story. It doesn't play like a fascinating portrait of a life, but like an inauthentic, episodic, manufactured imitation of one. Save some poorly handled allusions to an alcoholic father, little is revealed about the woman, as the film hinges her identity on all that gooey “hooey.” Perhaps the only thing graceful about it is its cinematography (which, given the high altitudes and numerous exotic locations, is, of course, rather beautiful). Ultimately, “Amelia” commits the greatest sin a biopic possibly could: it dishonors its subject.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE

Review: Where the Wild Things Are
4 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Unlike what certainly seems to be the rest of the world's population, I didn't grow up reading Maurice Sendak's immortal children's book, “Where the Wild Things Are.” So, I can't say if writer/director Spike Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers have faithfully recreated the spirit of the beloved, 10-sentence tale in their new feature-length adaptation. I did, however, grow up building forts, playing in the woods, breaking rules, wanting to write my name on everything, creating new worlds in my imagination or with intricate miniature models, and desperately craving attention from my parents, my older sibling and her friends. It's these personal yet universal themes and cornerstones of childhood that Jonze and Eggers have so accurately and wildly captured, fleshing out Sendak's basic structure with an effervescent, heartfelt anarchy that seems to have sprung from the mind of a nine-year-old.

Such an approach is perhaps the best way this much-anticipated movie could have been made, since the bulk of the story is indeed a product of the imagination of nine-year-old Max (played by 12-year-old newcomer Max Records). We are almost always seeing the events from his point of view, and the filmmakers are savvy and sensitive enough to make that perspective relatable to anyone who remembers the competing feelings of wonder and frustration that come with being a kid. Max is introduced as someone who apparently has no friends, and who entertains himself by talking to imaginary playmates and constructing things like igloos in the snow. He's seen manipulating his older sister's friends into joining him in a snowball fight, but they're more amused than interested, and they take it too far, crushing Max's igloo and his feelings.


Max's mother (the always-welcome Catherine Keener) clearly loves her son, but she's a single mom with a presumably full-time job who can't give Max the amount of unconditional companionship he requires. On one particularly stressful night, Mom invites her boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) over for a dinner date and entertains him instead of playing spaceship games with Max. Fed up with being ignored, Max – dressed in tailed and whiskered wolf pajamas, just like in the book – makes a raucous scene in the kitchen and storms out of the house, barreling down his suburban street as the highly original, jungle-like music by Carter Burwell and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Karen O. echoes in the background with rising vigor. When he reaches a dark, wooded area, Max begins growling and howling, and we're led to believe he's unleashing the feral creature within. He finds a boat, crosses an unnamed ocean and soon arrives at a mysterious island, the home of other untamed beasts – the tall, furry, big-headed and beclawed “Wild Things.” Feeling unthreatened and finally among kindred spirits, Max willingly introduces himself and declares himself their king – the king of a land where, at long last, carefree is the way to be.

I admired the way Jonze chose to visualize Max's journey to the island, forgoing the obvious, “Wizard of Oz”-like dream sequence and instead heading in a more seamless, natural and earthly direction. It's a style that seeps into the rest of the production, from the unvarnished, topographically diverse shooting locations of Melbourne, Australia, to the dazzling sets (which, interestingly, are built before our eyes), to the creatures themselves, which are exquisite mash-ups of minimal CGI and animatronic suits by Jim Henson's Creature Shop (another staple of my youth). How refreshing it is to see a modern, multi-million dollar fantasy film that employs old-school effects techniques and isn't bogged down by frantic, ostentatious spectacle. Even cinematographer Lance Acord's homespun, handheld camerawork – an aesthetic I've been growing tired of given its overuse in the industry – feels right, communicating Max's dreamlike state and no-rules reign over his newfound stomping grounds.


The voice actors who add life to the the surprisingly dimensional “Wild Things” are well cast, namely Catherine O'Hara as the hilariously cynical Judith, Paul Dano as the mild-mannered Alexander, and Lauren Ambrose as the aloof and free-spirited KW, who utters the highly advertised, climactic line, “Don't go. I'll eat you up I love you so.” Other voice talents include Chris Cooper, Forest Whitaker and James “Tony Soprano” Gandolfini, who grunts, grumbles and, eventually, even cries a bit as the beasts' temperamental and manic-depressive head honcho, Carol. Before his kingly powers are revealed as a sham, Max engages in plenty of uninhibited outdoor activities with his new friends, like the book's famous “Wild Rumpus” and an impromptu dirt fight. These scenes are perhaps the movies best because the characters approach the silly games with the sincere seriousness of playful children. And why shouldn't they? After all, we soon realize that the creatures are all manifestations of Max's own troubles and personality traits, each of which he must come to terms with if he is to grow and mature (psychologists will have a field day dissecting what each character represents).

If the film stumbles, it is over its insistence on being a little too somber, and there are also stretches where it's realized that the youthful frivolity, however insightfully depicted, can't really hold up to meaty drama and good, old-fashioned conflict. But the somberness is also a merit of the movie. This isn't a flashy flick for wide-eyed children, and while it probably won't scare them, it may leave them feeling pretty bored. This is, through and through, a movie for adults, many of whom will, like me, be touched by its rather heartbreaking ability to convey a believable nostalgia for the highs and lows of pre-adolescence. I found that the most remarkable thing about “Where the Wild Things Are” really has little to do with whether or not Jonze and Eggers have done Sendak's book justice (though I can only imagine that you, the rest of the known world, will be pleased). It's that both Jonze and Eggers somehow managed to tap into not only their inner children, but my inner child. Watching this movie, I often felt that what was on screen wasn't the product of the filmmakers' imaginations, but that of my own nine-year-old self. I don't think I've ever experienced that before.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

LAW ABIDING CITIZEN

Review: Law Abiding Citizen
3.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Moviegoers in and around Philadelphia will likely eat up “Law Abiding Citizen,” a fast-paced maniac-versus-the-system thriller that's set in the familiar metropolis, was shot on location, and could even be read as being celebratory of the city. Am I just reading it that way because I hail from a Philadelphia suburb? Perhaps. But I don't believe I've ever seen the City of Brotherly Love as handsomely or as expressly captured as I did in this film (no, not even in 1993's “Philadelphia”). No doubt attempting to emphasize the film's theme of justice (or lack thereof), City Hall, specifically, is painted as an imperial structure of Roman grandiosity, its limestone, granite and marble exterior scanned repeatedly by cinematographer Jonathan Sela with a kind of awestruck respect. Additional segments were filmed at the old Broadmeadows prison (a now-defunct facility in suburban Thornton that was built in the same panopticon style as Eastern State Penitentiary), Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse is incorporated, and even Mayor Michael Nutter makes a brief cameo in a pivotal scene. If I didn't know better, I'd think the movie was made specifically for Philadelphia audiences.


But what about those millions of viewers who dwell outside of the city and its surrounding areas? What will they make of it? I suspect they'll be highly entertained, though not exactly riveted, as “Law Abiding Citizen” is fine popcorn fare, but it isn't nearly as clever as it thinks it is. Since the man at the helm is superior action director F. Gary Gray (who made films like “Set It Off,” “The Negotiator” and “The Italian Job” far more virtuous than they would have been in less adept hands), the movie is a whoosh of a ride, packed with excitement and hard-edged fun (expect plenty of f-words, explosions, blood and dismemberments). But since much of the action is dependent on the mad genius of an idealistic criminal mastermind, the fact that we can anticipate many of his moves weakens not only the movie's tension, but its already shaky plausibility. It's a classic mistake, really: if the audience can see the twists coming, why can't the other characters? The predictable plotting of Kurt Wimmer's Hollywood-mainstream script is where the film takes the biggest hit, but Gray makes rounding those familiar bases a rather exhilarating blast.

I don't particularly care for Gerard Butler, the Scottish actor who rose to super-stardom after his lead performance in “300” was seen by every geek on the planet, and whose other film credits in 2009 – “The Ugly Truth,” “Gamer” – have been anything but stellar. But Butler is engaging and persuasive as Clyde Shelton, an engineer whose wife and daughter are brutally murdered in front of him by burglar Clarence Darby (Christian Stolte, greasy and gross) in the film's opening scene. Darby and his accomplice (Josh Stewart) are caught; however, the hotshot assistant D.A. on the case, Nick Rice (a superb Jamie Foxx), agrees to a plea bargain whereby Darby will serve a measly five years for testifying against his less-guilty partner, who'll suffer the death penalty. Consumed by grief, Clyde tearfully protests the decision, but Nick resolutely informs him that the deal is done (“some justice is better than no justice at all,” he says). The film then jarringly jumps ahead an entire decade in a flash, and soon shows Clyde taking justice into his own hands by tampering with the accomplice's execution device – to worsen the pain, not to stop the process – and gruesomely murdering Darby. Clyde turns himself in, but he's “just getting warmed up,” and from within prison walls, the “expert planner” and former spy initiates a deadly cat-and-mouse game that threatens the lives of everyone who worked on the case and ultimately holds the city under siege.


Clyde insists his actions aren't motivated by revenge, but by his unswerving belief that the justice system is corrupt beyond repair and needs to be upended. This stimulating notion is where “Law Abiding Citizen” finds its strongest narrative foothold, and it's the closest the movie comes to delivering a message deeper than “buckle up and hold on tight.” It's certainly an efficient means of inspiring audience involvement – challenging viewers' morals and causing them to perhaps question the ways of society. After all, Clyde's methods of seeking justice are beyond extreme, but what man wouldn't want to right the wrongs of a legal system that failed him after his family was slaughtered before his eyes? Right? These are the questions the film asks in obvious, yet resonant ways. There's a great courtroom scene in which Clyde, acting as his own legal counsel, insists that he's not a flight risk and that he should be allowed to post bail since the prosecution has no evidence of his guilt. When the judge (a dry, no-nonsense Annie Corley) agrees with Clyde's statements, he laughs and verbally assaults her for proving his point that killers can go free with scary, remarkable ease. It may just be the predominantly surface-level movie's harshest, truest moment.

Beyond that theme, what we've got is a sleek thriller that, for every eye-roll-prompting element – the predictability, the soon-to-be-dead characters' obligatory parting monologues, Butler's inexplicable nudity (isn't that what “300” was for?), and, yeah, Nutter's silly appearance – offers positives that rectify and satisfy. Usual-suspect side players Colm Meaney, Bruce McGill and Michael Kelly provide strong supporting work, as do the newly-dramatic Regina Hall (free from the “Scary Movie” series) and Oscar nominee Viola Davis (“Doubt”), who, as the city's mayor, boosts her budding career as a professional scene-stealer. The remote gadgets and gizmos that Clyde dreams up to wreak havoc from behind bars are nifty in a “Saw”/ “Final Destination” / how-else-can-we-creatively-kill-people kind of way, and they factor into some impressively-staged sequences. Though awash in those inescapable filter tones of cool blue and gun-metal grey, the photography is excellent – crisp, pristine and fluid, as the camera loops and swoops around the recognizable streets and landmarks. For Philadelphians, “Law Abiding Citizen” is enthusiastically recommended, and for everyone else, only somewhat less so.

Monday, October 5, 2009

THE BOYS ARE BACK

Review: The Boys are Back
3 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

In the right hands, movies about families in crisis-aftermath mode can be breeding grounds for captivating drama. There are countless examples of such, but the one I'll cite is last year's “Rachel Getting Married,” in which director Jonathan Demme found the harmonic heartbeat of a dysfunctional, emotionally-bruised brood and exposed their highs, lows and secrets with an organic, warts-and-all vitality. Though admittedly aiming for a slightly lighter tone, “The Boys are Back,” an Australian film about an oft-absent father who must buck up and embrace the challenges of single parenthood after his wife's sudden death, slips up considerably in this regard. There are no great truths revealed, no real profound lessons learned, and the meat of the story is rather flavorless. Therein lies the biggest problem: this movie isn't bad, or even boring, per say, just hopelessly bland.

One of the many elements that director Scott Hicks insists we soak up and then basically hangs out to dry is the literally messy, female-free living conditions of the father and his two sons, who inhabit a pigsty of a house in the Australian countryside that feels and is treated more like an elaborate, carefully cluttered set than an actual, increasingly yuck-ified man-cave (or “hog heaven,” as it is affectionately called). “The Boys are Back” could use more mess, in forms both literal and beyond, to spice it up.


The father is Joe Warr (Clive Owen), a hotshot sports writer who travels the world to report on the greatness of all-star athletes like Michael Phelps and the Williams sisters. When wielding his laptop in press boxes at major events, Joe is an ace, churning out his witty copy with the lickety-split speed of the pros he profiles. At home, however, Joe's stats are sub-par. Years ago, after his first marriage failed, he abandoned his son, Harry, in London, thinking it best that the boy stay with his mother. It was about that time when Joe met Katy (Laura Fraser), who he married and with whom he moved to Australia and had another boy, Artie, who Joe rarely sees given his hectic schedule. After Katy unexpectedly and rapidly falls ill and dies from a wicked form of cancer, Joe decides to hone his parenting skills his way: by loosening the leash and cutting back on rules. He lets six-year-old Artie (Nicholas McAnulty) do cannonballs in bathtubs and ride on the hood of an SUV. Eventually, at the request of his mother, the now-teenage Harry (Rupert Grint clone George MacKay), who carries grievances to match the other males' grief, flies Down Under and also crashes at “hog heaven.” And there, together, all three characters will presumably grow and heal.

While it doesn't dig deep enough or ring quite true enough to be all that moving, “The Boys are Back” – based on the 2001 memoir, “The Boys are Back in Town,” by Simon Carr – could have easily been a sticky sap-fest, and it's a credit to screenwriter Alan Cubitt that at least most of it isn't. On the whole, the dialogue, albeit pretty generic, isn't smothered in weepy sentimentality. And, in particular, there's an eerie, harsh reality to the way these people, specifically Artie, grieve over Katy's death: an initial disconnect that's too odd and unsettling to be read as false. There are some exchanges and passages that edge into mush (such as during the entirely unnecessary scenes in which Katy appears to Joe and counsels him from beyond the grave), and others that are simply awkward (such as when characters like Harry or Laura, Joe's potential new love interest played by Emma Booth, dish out bold, provocative statements and actions that ultimately lead nowhere). But, in general, I was just grateful that the filmmakers didn't try to forcefully syphon my tears from their ducts.


What's awfully overstated is the cinematography by Greig Fraser, who also shot Jane Campion's ravishing “Bright Star.” Captured on location in Hicks' homeland of South Australia, the imagery here is also gorgeous, but gratuitous, as the director uses every opportunity – transitions, you name it – to milk every glowing sunbeam, every crashing wave, every soaring bird, and every stretching horizon for all they're worth (which, of course, in effect, makes them worth much less). There is such a thing as too much beauty, especially if it detracts and distracts from the narrative. I found it impossible not to think that Hicks, an Oscar nominee for 1996's “Shine,” was overcompensating, or, perhaps, overindulging his affection for his stomping grounds. I also found myself wondering what I was missing while repeatedly gazing at the Australian landscape, and whether at least half of those shots could have been replaced with tidbits of juicy, gritty drama – because heaven knows this movie is in need of it.

The only real zing “The Boys are Back” boasts is that of Clive Owen, a fantastic actor of such hard-boiled emotional power, he could read off the items on a take-out menu and make it riveting. Joe is a different kind of role for Owen (one in which he smiles and laughs more than he runs and yells), but the 47-year-old Brit – who also executive-produced – brings to it his usual high level of intensity, yielding results that are better than the movie itself deserves. Owen, who always seems to be conflicted but confident, is one of the few film stars who can convey substantial character depth with only a look. Even as we're buzzing along with what too often feels like ho-hum happenings in “The Boys are Back,” we want to know Joe, what he's thinking, what he's feeling. And that's all courtesy of Owen's fine work.

The adage that Joe adopts as his new parenting slogan is “Just Say Yes,” a relatively carefree philosophy that, again, is underscored by Hicks and then isn't fully explored. My advice to you, reader, is, “Just Say No” to this film. Its heart may be in the right place, but it's only half open.