Tuesday, December 27, 2011

EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE

Review: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
1.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund


The only thing about Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close that makes it seem as though it belongs anywhere near the current batch of Oscar contenders is that its pint-sized protagonist, the extremely loquacious and incredibly cloying Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), is a kind of kindred spirit to awards-season heroes Lisbeth Salander and Hugo Cabret (he's both an ultra-efficient, number-crunching loner with a photographic memory and the holder of a magical golden key he believes will help him unlock the secrets of his late father). By all other accounts, this needlessly self-important and hugely artificial post-9/11 weepie feels laughably out of place, and could just as well have been brushed under the rug with, say, the throwaways released in late winter and early spring. Like 25th Hour as directed by the Care Bears, the New York-set film attempts to use the ordeal of one to address the pain and interconnectedness of all in the wake of what Oskar calls "the worst day," yet it's presented in a cutesy, sterile, pristine package befitting the shelves at FAO Schwartz.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

ALBERT NOBBS

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


Albert Nobbs's opening sequence is a typical intro to the daily grind of a buttoned-up world, with suited staffers of a late-19th-century Dublin hotel readying the rooms and hallways, and the eponymous, cross-dressing waiter (Glenn Close) lighting a lantern that slowly illuminates her face. Accompanied by the title, this glowing image is intended to be the film's most telling shot, when in fact it's an empty promise, as light is never truly shed on this guarded, cagey character. Co-written and co-produced by Close, who worked on the project for 15 years after playing the lead in a 1982 play, Albert Nobbs contains a heroine whose paranoid reserve leads to near-total impenetrability, a fault primarily caused by Close's acting.

Monday, December 19, 2011

THE IRON LADY

Review: The Iron Lady
3 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund


The wonder and terror of Meryl Streep's performance in The Iron Lady is her formidable ability to nail the disheartening talents of not just Margaret Thatcher, but so many conservative politicians like her, who have a tremendous knack for changing minds and beckoning cheers while underlining their own rigid ignorance. As riveting to watch as ever, Streep is scarily convincing, just as Thatcher was, when offering growling, idealistic justifications for aggressive, divisive actions, like continuing to slash public spending and sending troops to die in the Falklands War on the apparent basis of bitter principle (her proud utterance of "I want [the Falklands] back" is followed by the revelation that it was Thatcher who arrogantly reduced the Islands' naval defenses in the first place).

READ THE REST AT SLANT MAGAZINE!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

YOUNG ADULT

Review: Young Adult
3.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund


With Young Adult, her third feature as screenwriter, Diablo Cody constructs a woman out of pieces of herself, pieces of who one can assume were her frenemies in high school, and pieces of a two-dimensional wackjob whose drastic instability comes with flat, long-standing tics like pulling out bits of her hair. Two of these personas lend themselves to brazenly perceptive, delightfully cutting 21st-century comedy, providing firsthand basis from which to launch into character study and pungent generational commentary. Love or hate her artistic output, 33-year-old Cody is clearly someone who's long had her eyes and ears wide open to pop culture, making her hyper-aware of how those in and around her age bracket have both sown and reaped the rampant spread of gluttonous commercialism, leaving many stunted and discontented to a radical extent.

READ THE REST AT SLANT MAGAZINE!

THE SITTER

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


Of today's working directors, is there a bigger genre-swapping sellout than David Gordon Green? After proving his mettle with dramas like George Washington, All the Real Girls, and Undertow, Green must have been growing tired of raves from Roger Ebert not translating into hefty box office, and when the stoner experiment Pineapple Express soundly broke that cycle, the luster clearly proved too sweet to abandon. That may be an oversimplification, but however much he's howling on the set, Green surely can't be finding too much personal fulfillment helming post-Pineapple Express drivel like Your Highness and The Sitter, two utterly worthless comedies that reflect the fatigue of the Apatow-spawned subgenre of rude, random, pop-saturated, pretty-fly-for-a-white-guy romps.

READ THE REST AT SLANT MAGAZINE!

Friday, December 2, 2011

ANSWERS TO NOTHING

Review: Answers to Nothing
1 star (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund


Answers to Nothing is tasteless and out of touch right down to its foundation, embarrassingly unaware that Crash-like, hyperlink narratives went out with bird-flu paranoia. Even Alejandro González Iñárritu had the good sense to get with the times and narrow the majority of his focus to a single character. But writer-director Matthew Leutwyler, who heretofore helmed Z-grade horror like Dead & Breakfast, and the VOD-bound The River Why, apparently gets his memos out of specialty distributors' five-year-old trash. Not even worth the time it takes to watch the trailer, his latest is a shoddy urban pastiche jam-packed with the same sophomoric, faux profundity of that irksome, half-ambiguous title, and it continually suggests he's long been living in a windowless box.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN - PART 1

Review: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1
1 star (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund


There are two parties equipped to enjoy, or even tolerate, the Twilight movies, specifically The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1, the hopelessly god-awful penultimate installment of the five-film adaptation of Stephenie Meyer's heavy-and-dumb-as-a-brick quadrilogy. The first includes the book series's fans (or "Twi-Hards," if I must), who've already sold their souls and would gladly follow Bella Swan and her devil/angel man candy into the grimiest bowels of hell. The second consists of those who've embraced the notion that this is all just the frivolous, vicarious fantasy of a sexually repressed, egocentric author, and should be casually digested as such, with the same abandon with which one catches an episode of The Real Housewives. But even for those hailing from the latter, Breaking Dawn offers precious few returns, and it continually punishes all who curb their cynicism for even a split second.

Friday, November 11, 2011

IMMORTALS

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


Dashing across the screen in all its bloody, gilded glory, the awesome and beautiful Immortals marks an all-win scenario. It affords art lovers a busy and clamorous actioner they can relish, gives boyish battle fans a splatterific fix that's actually of value, offers Tarsem Singh the budget to widen his already broad imagination, and allows producers to refresh the ever-burgeoning violent epic, transcending its banality thanks to Tarsem's singularly bold yet blockbuster-friendly vision. Turns out Tarsem is the man you call when there are no more new ways to employ bullet time, when CG "agent" programs no longer wow in their abilities to convey the breadth of an army, when fast cutting is finally recognized as an impact-diminisher in slick fight scenes, and when a dreadful swords-and-sandals script is picked up, but destined for oblivion in the wrong hands.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

THE GREENING OF WHITNEY BROWN

Review: The Greening of Whitney Brown
2.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund


For all those who've been patiently awaiting the definitive family horse flick for the tween set, there is, at long last, The Greening of Whitney Brown, a saddles-and-sass mash-up whose most telling image is an equine hoof painted electric pink. The gal of the title is a giddy, urbanized, emoticon-loving eighth-grader, and if you're not one yourself, it's best to try channeling the species if you hope to enjoy such a niche-targeted bauble. "I'm an American princess," chirps the tra-la-lollipop opening track, which accompanies a slideshow on a bejeweled pink iPhone, a pint-sized nod to Carrie Bradshaw. All wireless but for having the world on a string, prima donna Whitney (Sammi Hanratty) is class president at her Philadelphia school, has a Heathers-style posse of minions, is courting the new football star, and wants "nothing less" than Marc Jacobs couture for her kiddie prom dress. 

Thursday, November 3, 2011

TOWER HEIST

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


In Tower Heist, on top of some laugh-out-loud moments and a general theme of underdog triumph, there's a surplus of wink-wink catchphrase motifs, the kind that leave diversion-seeking viewers feeling like pigs in mud. But it's dead-hollow amusement that's offered by Brett Ratner's latest, a bland, schematic contrivance of a class comedy that never elicits any responses beyond the primitive and the childish. Defiantly graceless, Ratner—who, according to devastating new reports, is also in talks to direct the film version of Wicked—deals in loudness, haplessness, obviousness, and, certainly, crudeness, reminding you of his directorial presence with such inclusions as a scolded kid who tells his disciplinarian to "suck it."

THE SON OF NO ONE

Review: The Son of No One
3 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund


If you've got genuine New York gum stuck to the bottom of your shoe, chances are Dito Montiel wants to shoot it. A model turned punk rocker turned adapter of his own gritty writing, the Astoria-raised multi-hyphenate has an infatuation with the decay and grime of his home metropolis, a self-reflective proclivity that yields a kind of pulled-from-the-gutter ambiance. With the crooked-cop drama The Son of No One, the guy who brought you the autobiographical, memoir-based A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints translates another self-penned story, and in the process offers an interpretation of New York that's consummately ugly. In shaky-cam shots that often seem to be spliced together with a knowing choppiness, Montiel captures bloody bathtubs, bum fights, low-income housing, and rooftop fellatio as if documenting some greasy nightmare, his pulpy, tactile visions less real than surreal.

Friday, October 28, 2011

LIKE CRAZY

Review: Like Crazy
2.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund


Like Crazy is an art-house romance about the pain and challenges of a long-distance relationship, and watching the film is itself a grueling exercise in yearning. You spend the entirety of the running time straining to care for the central couple, who meet and fall for each other while attending college in Los Angeles, then see their love and transatlantic flights ping-pong in tandem, as one remains in the States while the other is forced, due to a student visa violation, to return home to the U.K. There's tension established with the young lovers' conflict of circumstance, but the weight of their connection requires a wealth of viewer faith that's stretched to irredeemable limits. Never do you feel a strong attachment to, or sympathy for, this pair, as their chemistry is nonexistent and only one of them seems at all invested, or even interested, in their bond. This is a movie whose emotional power is confined, almost completely, to a single performance—that of Sundance breakout Felicity Jones, whose budding British journalist, Anna, is most certainly the duo's better half.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

THE MIGHTY MACS

Review: The Mighty Macs
1 star (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund


The Mighty Macs is a film from another planet, where stories are told, obliviously, in cryptic, nonsensical code, and people talk to each other in sugarplum proverbs no earthbound adult would ever inflict on another, not even on the set of a Hallmark Original Movie. Extraordinarily amateurish, it inadvertently shields you from fully grasping its narrative motivations, while simultaneously slugging your intelligence with thoroughly contrived scenarios, stupefyingly on-the-nose double entendres, and the ascribed importance of characters who have next to no development. Writer/director/producer Tim Chambers, who hails from the basketball drama's Philadelphia setting, claims to have received the full blessings of real-life chief subject Cathy Rush and the religious education institutions he depicts; however, what makes bashing this sweetly intended family flick feel less and less like a cruel act is that Chambers does a spectacular disservice to all involved with its true story, the supposed milestones of which aren't even articulated.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

FOOTLOOSE

Review: Footloose
3.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund


If the Footloose remake had its own signature dance, it'd be called the Push-Pull, as this hip-to-be-sorta-square movie, much like the small-town teens within it, has a mind for propelling itself toward a progressive future while continually being yanked back by cherished hallmarks of the past. The opposing forces are a direct reflection of the challenge undertaken by director and co-writer Craig Brewer, who only half sells out as he tries to leave an auteur's mark while remaining faithful to a source that's loaded with dated, studio-friendly hokum. What results is something stylish, modern, nostalgic, cheesy, and more than a little Frankensteinian, composed of surprisingly uninsulting contemporary elements and iconic re-stagings that reach varying levels of success.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

TRESPASS

Review: Trespass
1.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund


If not the apocalypse, home invasion certainly seems to be the go-to film theme of 2011, manifesting in everything from an Aussie reincarnation flick about the destructive boughs of grief (The Tree) to a whole host of horror movies with unwanted visitors both creepy (Fright Night) and crawly (Don't Be Afraid of the Dark). Into this swelling vat of timely tales, which explore the desecration of the common man's last symbol of self-worth and security, Joel Schumacher bends over and squeezes out Trespass, a jerky, clamorous domestic thriller that attempts, with nonsense and expletives turned up to full volume, to say something thrillingly profound about the depths of misery one can reach while doing financial damage control. Saying the movie fails in that attempt doesn't even begin to describe the rollercoaster of bad decisions Schumacher makes here, nor does it properly express why Trespass is the hack's worst film since, well, since his last one.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

DIRTY GIRL

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


For a movie hellbent on marketing itself as the seedy tale of a small-town tramp, Dirty Girl sure has an odd way of making good on its promise. There's a girl, and she's prone to dirty acts, but that's just one patch of this arbitrarily stitched quilt of white-trash, Bible-Belt transgression, which flattens under the weight of a truckload of half-realized ambitions. Writer-director Abe Sylvia claims the 1987-set film is derived from his experiences as an overweight closet case at his Oklahoma high school, and the daily debauchery of his promiscuous female classmate, who he desperately wished was his right-hand hag. With Dirty Girl, Sylvia dreamily concocts the friendship he always wanted, casting newcomer Jeremy Dozier as Clark, a sparkly eyed version of himself, and Juno Temple as Danielle, the campus whore whose fabulous authority-bucking is irresistible. But in this process of joining two outcast forces and telling their parallel coming-of-age stories, Sylvia lets the glitter fly like he's Michael Patrick King Jr., packing in so complete a roster of tacky queer clichés you'd think he somehow knew this would be not just his first feature, but also his last.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

50/50

Review: 50/50
3 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund


When we first see Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), he's jogging down the sidewalk, only to stop at a red light. There isn't a car to be seen, and another runner ignores the flashing hand and breezes past him. He's soon shown taking his grand old time with his daily routines, and we later learn that he doesn't have a driver's license because car accidents are "the nation's fifth leading cause of death." Directed by Jonathan Levine (The Wackness), 50/50 is a film about the tragic obliteration of youthful, everyday normalcy, expressed via the troubles of a perfectly normal 27-year-old who burns away minutes and holds life at arm's length before getting slapped with a rather grim cancer diagnosis.

READ THE REST AT SLANT MAGAZINE!

Friday, September 23, 2011

ABDUCTION

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


Odds are John Singleton doesn't know he's made one of the funniest films of the year. Extravagantly clueless in all its conspiracy-theory camp, "Abduction" swiftly morphs from your average teen-heartthrob vehicle into the most egregious source of unintentional gut-busters this side of Forks, Washington. Out of context, it's hard to convey the full, howling hilarity of so many numskull lines, as most don't come to full blossom without logic-defying, stone-faced delivery from the actors and Singleton's steadfast perpetuation of a tone that borders on slapstick. But know that this baby is a machine of quotability, a good one to catch if you and your friends like injecting gleefully horrendous movie dialogue into daily life.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

I DON'T KNOW HOW SHE DOES IT

Review: I Don't Know How She Does It
1 star (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund


Since she's click-clacked her stylish self to the top of Hollywood's list of can-do, metropolitan actresses, it's no wonder Sarah Jessica Parker was picked to fill the busy shoes of Kate Reddy, the multitasking, Boston-navigating working mom at the center of I Don't Know How She Does It, an adaptation of Allison Pearson's chick-lit bestseller. But in reality (a place of which this bumbling, regressive cartoon has nary the slightest concept), Parker is the worst choice for the role, and her casting is your first indication of the grating obviousness that bleeds through the entire operation.

READ THE REST AT SLANT MAGAZINE!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

CONAN THE BARBARIAN

Review: Conan the Barbarian
3.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund


Whether or not you can abide “Conan the Barbarian” will likely depend on how you react to its opening scene. Following a stock preamble of expository gobbledygook recited by Morgan Freeman (no gig too small!), a nameless woman is seen moaning in agony on a hellish battlefield, gripping her pregnant belly and begging to see her baby before she succumbs to war wounds. Enter Ron Perlman as the woman's brute husband, who proceeds to give a mid-skirmish C-section with a flick of his wrist, plucking out a son the wife names “Conan” in her dying breath. Perlman thrusts the bloody infant skyward, which leads to the fiery opening titles – a familiar logo run through with a broadsword. If the impromptu delivery lands its half-intended, holy-crap chuckle, you've come to the right place. If your first response is to throw up your hands (or your Junior Mints), best to head for the exit pronto.

Directed by Marcus Nispel, a go-to guy for needless remakes (see “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Friday the 13th,” or don't), this update of the 1982 Ahnuld favorite is gratuitous, shameless, preposterous trash, sure to offend cinephiles and squeamish types alike. The lead performance (from former Hawaiian model and current “Game of Thrones” star Jason Momoa) is the baffling sort that suggests the director sat on set with no instruction except to say, “Do it worse.” The violence is such that attempts at justification would be senseless wastes of breath, and one scene is so cower-in-your-seat repulsive that it's branded in my memory (let's just say it's nothing to sneeze at). As a taloned, nutjob witch with a receding hairline and incestuous tendencies, Rose McGowan is fearlessly embellished, serving SyFy-miniseries realness in a show-stealing car wreck of a performance. And all of this, dear reader, I say out of quite a bit of love.


As shallow as your basic superhero flick, but graciously freed of crippling self-seriousness, “Conan” isn't just the year's best worst movie, it's one of the better mainstream offerings of the summer, ardently and adamantly devoted to all its B-fantasy schlock. As my gore-averse adult recoiled, my sorcery-loving 11-year-old lunged for more, and in that sick synergy I found a kind of delirious satisfaction. What's the film about? Oh, what does it matter? Conan kills some men when he's young, kills a whole hell of a lot more when he's older, learns a thing or two about the “mystery of steel,” tosses a few topless slave girls over his shoulder (they're only too happy to be tossed), and squares off with Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang, prostheticized), the resident world-dominator and daddy to McGowan's witch, who offed Conan's father way back when. That's a full plate for Conan, and it's quite enough. As he tells Tamara (Rachel Nichols), a hunted, “pure-blooded” damsel who's laughably schooled in the ways of brutal dispatchment, “I live, I love, I slay, and I am content.”

Amen, beefcake.

I could labor on how the battle scenes are so poorly filmed that they create a clanging claustrophobia, or how the movie joins a new club of 1980s updates that seem to cater to a nonexistent under-25 fanbase (Coco is surely the Conan of that demographic). But to hell with all that. I'd rather sing the praises of uninhibited stunts, like the catapulting of a mutant henchman, with whom the camera soars along a la “Dr. Strangelove” as he plunges toward a caravan with a message tied to his chest. Or how about the dust demons McGowan summons with a whoosh of her Wolverine fingers? Or the super-sized hydra who's “a feast for [Conan's] sword?” Or the duel between Conan and Khalar that's set atop a sacrificial apparatus, itself wedged between two cavern walls while Tamara's strapped inside of it? That's what I'm taking about. In “Conan the Barbarian,” reason and taste are jettisoned for balls-out, ultraviolent, Saturday-matinee adventure, which is somehow quite refreshing. This year, there is no better summer camp.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

FRIGHT NIGHT

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


Can I send the latter half of “Fright Night” back? It's nagging at me like a nibble to the jugular. This who-really-needs-it remake of the 1985 horror favorite is drastically split in two, to the extent that I can tell you precisely which cut marks the divide. The first half is an initially commonplace, yet growingly tack-sharp, piece of badass minimalism, its intermittent, well-conceived and very well-staged thrills peekaboo-ing amidst an unembellished backdrop of old-fashioned suburb dread. The second half is same old, same awful: a contemporary barrage of pandering crudeness, birdbrained comic relief, obvious twists and tacky excess. One need only look to the movie's setting for indication of its blight. “Fright Night” takes place in a spotless, boxy neighborhood just outside Las Vegas, then moves within the City of Sin, and it's as if all that electricity and greed infects the clean and clever narrative the film starts out with. A warning against the ills of urban society? Perhaps. But, more likely, it illustrates a response to studio complaints that this deft little resurrection wasn't daft enough for the rude-boy bracket.

Since I really can't recall the last time I saw a film so bisected, it's best I slice the review in half, too – good things first, bad and ugly second. Featuring the same characters from the Tom-Holland directed original, “Fright Night” kicks off as a ladder-climbing high school flick, with Anton Yelchin as Charley Brewster, a geek getting his first taste of popularity thanks to a new coupling with Amy (Imogen Poots), a randy, sought-after blonde. Sadly, this means no more time for fanboy fun with ex-bestie Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a classic bully target who, by the way, knows via extensive research that Charley's new neighbor, Jerry (Colin Farrell), is a plasma-crazy vampire. “Jerry is a terrible vampire name,” Charley retorts when given this info. So it is. All the more reason why Charley's mom (Toni Collette) doesn't suspect a shred of crookedness, despite Jerry's strangely pasty complexion and animalistic sniffing at the air. For his own nosiness, Ed is swiftly turned into one of Jerry's ilk, in a backyard pool scene that, despite some goofy symbolism of a dropped cross falling toward the camera (loss of innocence – in 3D!), ably previews the sinking unrest to come.


Like a downgraded “Night of the Hunter” flecked with the nervy jolts of “Let the Right One In,” “Fright Night” starts to shape itself into a small gem of domestic terror in its earlier portions. Farrell is terrific as the neighborhood bloodsucker, his hunger-induced distraction and demonic facial tics offering glints of Heath Ledger's Joker. Serving blunt, comic conviction with lines like, “you're girlfriend's RIPE,” the underrated actor puts those dark eyes and eyebrows to work, and his bulked-up physique suits the character's hulking sexuality. There's really no question as to whether or not Jerry hails from Hell, so there's next to no time wasted on stalling skepticism. Once Charley sneaks inside Jerry's house, an unfinished mini-McMansion with blacked-out windows and freaky wall art, he gets all the proof he needs: the local stripper is locked up within a hidden hall of rooms, her neck still tender from Jerry's kiss of un-death. Tiptoeing around sheet-covered furniture while Jerry watches “The Real Housewives of New Jersey,” Charley labors to smuggle the victim out of the house, and in the film's very best scene (spoiler alert!), we follow the pair outside only to realize it's daytime. Already one of the damned, the stripper violently and shockingly incinerates in the sunlight, while Charley processes his futile efforts and Jerry knowingly laughs indoors. It's a totally arresting moment, great for its isolated impact and representative of the first half's towering superiority.

From there, we get a gaseous invasion of the Brewer home that's nearly as gripping and abrupt, and a desert highway chase-and-scuffle that's at once fierce and offbeat and deliberately nostalgic (Jerry hitches a ride on the bottom of the Brewers' fleeing SUV, and the camera zooms in on his clawed hand as it punches up through the floor). I wish I could tell you that the film maintains this surprising quasi-sophistication, that it doesn't fail to truly explore its sex-as-sin implications and the death of youth religion (Charley's faith is questioned once as a script requirement, but nothing more), and that it doesn't alarmingly devolve after a fine, post-battle horizon shot of Jerry's injured arm healing up in the foreground (hence that pivotal, aforementioned cut). No such luck. “Fright Night” shifts its attention to grating elements like Peter Vincent, a Vegas headliner and supposed vampire expert played by “Doctor Who” star David Tennant in an appalling bit of Russell Brand mimicry. Piloting a Chris Angel-style sham of a magic show, Peter is a vapid Brit-rock stereotype whose leather, liquor and “f—k you, guvnah” one-liners mask deep-seated Nosferatu trauma. Let it be known that Farrell's devilish contribution brings ample levity and amusement to “Fright Night,” and that Tennant would be crowding things even if he weren't so excruciating to watch. Let it also be known that Mintz-Plasse's McLovin-ized return as the undead “Evil Ed” negates the good work the typecast player brings to the first act.

What in the hell is all this stock diversion doing in a seemingly simple after-dark thriller? I dare say “Twilight,” everyone's favorite new punchline (you can bet it's employed here), ultimately boasts more restraint than “Fright Night.” Director Craig Gillespie, who's presumably rehearsing for his forthcoming screen rendering of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” seems to go from maverick to marionette, succumbing to the same fireball producing forces who brilliantly hired “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” scribe Marti Noxon to pen the screenplay. By the time the film is in the throes of a third bloody showdown, complete with a whole new batch of vampires and phoned-in cracks about eBay-purchased weapons, even Jerry's position as top antagonist is stripped of power and clarity. We're left with just another noisy mainstream mess, and if there's any audacity to the later segments, it's in the closing song, a twangy cover of Jay-Z's “99 Problems.”

Thursday, August 11, 2011

30 MINUTES OR LESS

Review: 30 Minutes or Less
2 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund


Watching 30 Minutes or Less, a proudly stupid action comedy that's awfully lethargic for all its slam-bang propulsion, it's tough to pinpoint who exactly Ruben Fleischer thinks he is...

READ THE FULL REVIEW AT SLANT MAGAZINE!

Monday, July 25, 2011

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER

Review: Captain America: The First Avenger
3 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund


“What happened to you?” an injured soldier asks his long lost friend, a sickly-beanpole-turned-musclebound-superman now rescuing his buddy from behind enemy lines. “I joined the Army!” the friend replies, shuffling for an exit while triumphant music blares right along with the requisite explosions. The fearless friend is, of course, Captain America, aka Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), and, true to its hero's roots as the Uncle Sam of comic book headliners, “Captain America: The First Avenger” oozes can-do patriotism – a pulpy, endearingly ironic, and nevertheless sincere love of country, the sort that unapologetically idealizes the military as a wellspring of pure chivalry. It's a nice contrast to modern patriotism, which often seems to have been reduced to a mere tentacle of redneck ignorance; a weapon in the warped holster of an Alaskan politician; or an ugly impulse that causes millions of Facebook users to glorify the death of Osama bin Laden, their sick reverie counteracting cultural progress.

The star-spangled pride on display here is that of a very cinematic 1940s, a Nazi-fearing, near-sepia haven where women rock Veronica Lake hairdos and even the memories among Brooklyn pals are plucked from a Norman Rockwell painting: “Remember when I made you ride the Cyclone at Coney Island?” It's not particularly conservative, nor is it particularly liberal (unless you want to apply party-clash metaphors to the film's battle between the blue-wearing do-gooder and the villainous Red Skull, which you certainly could). Let's say it's feel-good flag-waving, without a whole lot of burdensome implications.

Which, naturally, makes it perfect fodder for a Hollywood blockbuster, whose other swallowable traits include factory-direct punchlines, boilerplate relationships, and a beauty (Hayley Atwell) so generic it's no wonder you feel like you've seen her in 100 places. Patriotism leads to some clever meta moves by screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (the “Narnia” series), who squeeze in sequences where Steve, a post-op, experimental super-soldier still yearning for the honor he craved as a tortured pipsqueak, helps sell war bonds by donning vintage Cappy gear and appearing on the covers of, well, comic books (“I finally got everything I wanted and I'm wearing tights,” he laments with a wink). But we also have The American Way to thank for what amounts to a largely indistinguishable film, for if there's anything we learned at the movies this summer in the good old US of A, it's that superhero films can be shuffled along the assembly line like nobody's business.


They can also, apparently, borrow from each other with the greatest of ease, and even make like their predecessors don't exist, all while inhabiting a “cinematic universe” that packs them with Easter eggs from similar specimens. What am I blabbing about? To begin with, “Captain America” may only surprise you in how very much it doesn't, treading upon heavily-treaded ground at every turn. Forget Steve's familiarity as a maverick willing to do what others won't – the common threads are much finer than that. Given the same cosmic protein shake as Red Skull (Hugo Weaving, doing his best Werner Herzog), Steve is told by his gingery nemesis that both men have “left humanity behind [and] need to embrace that,” making them knockoffs of Professor X and Magneto. And speaking of X-Men, isn't Wolverine's adamantium the world's most powerful metal, and not vibranium, the stuff of Cappy's shield? And what are the Fantastic Four – err, Three – going to do now that Chris Evans has ditched his Human Torch gig to join The Avengers? Sit on their butts, I guess.

Which, if you'll forgive the pun, is precisely where Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige wants everyone on the planet to be come May 2012, when he releases the “Avengers” movie, a four-hero collabo that's now been teased-at through five lead-up films. Pay attention in “Captain America,” and you'll note that the cube that gives power to hero and villain comes from Odin, father of Thor; that budding inventor Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) is in fact Iron Man's dad; and that the eye-patched black man in the final scene is, yet again, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who's become the Clint Howard of superhero cinema. To this mix of overlapping mythology, which already stars two cocksure jerks (Thor, Iron Man) and a rage case (The Incredible Hulk), Captain America brings an unassuming boyishness, and that's just what square-jawed, puppy-eyed Evans brings to the role. His performance is about as unremarkable as Joe Johnston's direction, but it's exactly what the movie asks for.

“I don't like bullies, no matter where they come from,” says a still-scrawny Steve, a seamless blend of body-double photography and “digital plastic surgery.” The ability of a weak man to appreciate the value of strength is the movie's driving moral, and it yields some definite charm. As a character, Steve is irrepressible, and his saintly, borderline-inept response to gaining power is all sorts of aw-shucks. Add to that the stylish, retro surroundings, and the first 40-odd minutes might remind you of “The Rocketeer” – Disney live-action in top form. By the time Steve returns from his first big moxie-proving mission (at which point the movie blows its wad way too early), you might even want to cheer “Captain America!” along with the crowd of soldiers he saves. But with so much recycled material on the screen, and so much inane fodder for mass consumption, resist the urge. Don't call him Captain America; call him Captain Obvious.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

PROJECT NIM

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


It takes a village to raise a primate in “Project Nim,” a documentary about the manipulated, and often sad, life of Nim Chimpsky, the chimp who made headlines in the 1970s for being the focus of a headline-grabbing animal language study at Columbia University. Directed by James Marsh, the British talent who brought you the Oscar-winning “Man on Wire,” “Project Nim” takes an assured stance in establishing the consequences of man's insistence on nosing into nature; however, it only dances around the thin line between man and ape it wants so desperately to blur. Through his pitiable existence, Nim is passed from one surrogate parent to another, and each parent, for better or worse, presumably establishes a bond with him akin to that with a human child. But even with some parents, like the first, casually admitting to things like breast-feeding (“It felt perfectly natural!”), “Project Nim” never startles you with any evolutionary revelations. And while its “Apes – they're just like us!” angle might have turned heads 35 years ago, it feels especially fluffy in the age of cloned sheep.

Nim – whose name, of course, is a riff on that of linguist Noam Chomsky – is seen being plucked from his mother's care by the grubby hands of science, turned over to one Herbert Terrace, behavioral psychologist and head of the Columbia project. Convinced that he and his team can teach Nim to communicate via sign language, Terrace is the Dr. Frankenstein of the story – the man behind the curtain who seems to stay at arm's length from his experiment of a son. The ones doing the majority of the hands-on work roll through the film like a suspects gallery, their faces fading out just as quickly as they're introduced. When the breast-feeder leaves the picture, matters grow more eerily organized, with Terrace turning a university-owned mansion into a live-in lab for Nim researchers. When one die-hard veterinarian leaves because of a devastating bite, another, leaping at the chance to “talk to another species,” steps in as if waiting on an assembly line. What Marsh certainly does capture is a cultural microcosm of pseudo-hippie scientists, their collective devotion to animal connection as integral to their demographic profiles as nonchalant trysts with colleagues and tendencies to spend long hours lying in the grass.

What Marsh fails to do is marry his inventive style to his topic, a topic that feels less like territory worth exploring than material for a filmmaker in need of a new project. A fine candidate for best documentary of the 2000s, “Man on Wire” had it all: a largely unknown story that champions heroism and defies expectations; an effervescent dream of a key subject; the brilliant structure of a nail-bating caper film; and seamless artistic tricks that augmented a treasure trove of priceless archival footage. You can sense in “Project Nim” that Marsh had this checklist handy, attempting to recapture the magic of his beloved balancing act. But from head to opposable thumb, his latest is a downgrade, a serviceable effort cowering in the shadow of former glory. There's a good bit of heart in “Project Nim” (the cuddly kind that can reach beyond the arthouse), and like any decent doc about old news, it ably informs viewers of a story that, for them, might have slipped through history's cracks. Mostly, though, it negates that gift of discovery, feeling like filler from a director lazily aping his own work.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

PAGE ONE: INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES

Review: Page One: Inside The New York Times
4.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund


Thank god for “Page One: Inside The New York Times,” a documentary that's far from flawless but pretty close to vital. It's our most comprehensive movie yet about the mercilessly volatile state of modern media – a metamorphic conundrum of communication for which there are no real answers, just varying plans of attack. That voracious appetite to fight in a forward motion, ever-mindful of the rationale-crippling spectre of a weak economy, is what “Page One” responds to. Its thesis is simple: In a climate where every media maker worth his salt is clamoring, often blindly, to stay ahead of the outlandishly accelerated digital boom, there needs to exist a journalistic institution that makes merit of content its top priority, not clicks, advertisers or 140-character witticisms. Such a conceptual entity is much bigger than The New York Times but, in America, there's no better prism through which to view the battlefield. The best scene in “Page One” is during one of many professional forums, wherein Times media reporter David Carr, the film's gravelly-voiced sage of a hero, silences Newser.com founder Michael Wolff by holding up a hole-filled printout of the site's catalog of articles – an arresting illustration of what Newser would look like had it not gleaned any content from bona fide producers like the Times. It's a warning for a world where the business of journalism is dashing out its principles.

The stubborn soul of the movie, Carr does often sound like someone's crotchety grandfather (all the more reason to juxtapose him with blogging-prodigy-turned-Times- employee Brian Stelter, who Carr wryly insists is “a robot” made by the company to “destroy” him). But in his adamant old-schoolness lies the lucid reasoning of which the stereotypical, print-denouncing webhead seems detrimentally ignorant. A strikingly capable journalist who can apparently beat the curve even when he avoids it (he steered clear of Twitter for as long as he could, only to later master its philosophies), Carr, who wrote about the Oscars before manning the media desk, comes off as a prophet, his unwavering bias toward the Times eclipsed by the implied ability to calmly see past the industry's flurry of what's-next paranoia (“I know what it's like to come out the other side when the odds are stacked against you,” he says, referencing the crack addiction that left him leaner in frame but broader in perspective).

This is not to suggest that paranoia isn't justifiable, and “Page One” does surely suffer by ill-advisedly arcing to a last-act optimism that doesn't necessarily exist. But what Carr brings is what this whole big conversation tends to lack: balance. It would certainly appear that there aren't nearly enough people like him in the fray. People who can actually yank the reins and look around. People who can handily utilize new tools but recognize the necessity of editorial organization. People who can listen, but also scoff, when Steve Jobs and Rupert Murdoch hastily hail the iPad as the undeniable future of the biz. “Now there's a great reading experience,” Carr says, thumbing at his iVersion of the Times through an 8-by-10-inch viewfinder. “You know what it reminds me of? A newspaper.”


Perhaps unintentionally, “Page One” itself is reminiscent of a newspaper, its focus darting to and from the biggest media stories of late: Twitter. WikiLeaks. The iPad. The recession. And, indeed, the very guts of the industry. Critics – including one from the Times – have given director Andrew Rossi a lashing for a supposed lack of clear direction; however, his entire structure proves reflective of the freeing, yet contained, experience that endless clicks can't seem to replicate, and that people like Carr cherish about publications like the Times. The turnoff of the film is that it's often sharply slanted to exalt The Gray Lady, with Rossi exhibiting more courtesy than curiosity. With its string of highlighted accomplishments and good judgment calls (partnering with Julian Assange, winning a Pulitzer, running a damning story on the Tribune Company and calling out a major network for a bogus Iraq-exit broadcast), the movie aims for a show-and-tell of the triumphs of on-the-front-lines journalism, but it simultaneously delivers jolts of arrogance (even amidst the acknowledgments of scandal-makers like Judy Miller and Jayson Blair).

Its most revealing and poignant drawing-back of the curtain pertains to layoffs, and how the suddenly par-for-the-course vulnerabilities of the business have infiltrated this hallowed workplace just like any other. “I feel like we should be symbolically wearing butcher smocks around the newsroom,” then-executive editor Bill Keller says in regard to the 100 Times employees who'd lost their jobs by the end of 2009 (Keller himself has since stepped down from his position to be a writer only). “Page One” doesn't exactly demystify a corporation, but it does an exceedingly fine job of encapsulating a moment in time, sensibly surveying where we stand and what the ground looks like. Surely a movie after Carr's own heart, it yanks the reins and looks around. And if it doesn't come up with answers, it honors the spirit of its subject by laying out the facts.

Monday, June 27, 2011

BAD TEACHER

Review: Bad Teacher
1.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund


In order to revel in a movie like “Bad Teacher,” you've got to at least be able to get on the baddie's wavelength – to enjoy vicariously flipping off the shiny, happy people, if not join in on ripping them new ones. This film doesn't give you that option. Instead, it follows around a one-dimensional woman who's fundamentally heartless, and it asks you to be heartless, too, by laughing at how she spreads her misery. Short of the occasional stone-cold remark (“I'd rather be shot in the face,” she says to a colleague's concert invitation), there's no fun to be found in this woman's feature-length tirade, not even the sinful, subversive kind. And there's next to no plausibility to her background, motives, or current circumstances, leaving her not just an unimaginable human, but barely even a conceivable monster. She's like an ultra-bitch attraction trapped behind glass in some sick circus, when she should be the sanctity-defying poster girl for guilty-pleasure rage, irresistibly beckoning you to get honest with your bad self.

It's through little fault of lead star Cameron Diaz's that the movie doesn't work. Though better known and beloved for her giggly-girl routine, Diaz has always been linked to the ruder side of comedy, be it via her hair-raising breakthrough in “There's Something About Mary” or her penis-serenading escapades in the underrated femme farce “The Sweetest Thing.” She can wield a raunchy attitude with the best of the boys, and toss out a cutting insult or a “whatever, man” with bitter nonchalance. But in “Bad Teacher,” she's working from a script (by “Office” writers Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky) that gives her character no identity beyond the indecency, and reserves her no redemption for her world-hating ways. In “Bad Santa,” the movie whose stick-it-to-the-institution premise this one aches to follow, Billy Bob Thornton's booze-swigging St. Nick wound up bettering the life of the fat kid who drove him crazy, if only in his own foul-mouthed, roundabout way. Diaz's junior-high teacher Elizabeth Halsey essentially betters nothing, not even indirectly. How – or, for godssakes, why – she came to be a teacher in the first place isn't mentioned, but her goal in life is to be the trophy wife of a rich idiot, a goal that's thwarted when her mansion-owning fiancé smartens up and kicks her out. Back to the blackboard, she sets her sights on Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), a squeaky-clean and curiously loaded new teacher, whose love of Double Ds sends Elizabeth scrambling for boob-job money.


So there's your setup. The movie then fills the proceedings with truly hateable people, Elizabeth hardly being the worst. Miles away from your average playboy, Scott is a kumbaya half-wit in a cow neck sweater, whose campy earnestness Timberlake basically nails, but who's altogether stomach-turning nonetheless. A lousy mishmash of precious oddities, he's shown gushing over Elizabeth Gilbert's “Eat Pray Love,” childishly decrying the horrors of slavery and thrusting his way through a bout of dry-humping, one of two scenes in which director Jake Kasdan (“Walk Hard”) offers a profoundly unfunny and deliberate crotch shot (Did you see that? It's a boner!). All of the authority figures who might derail Elizabeth's criminal quest to fund her plastic surgery – from the dolphin-loving principal (John Michael Higgins) to the easily-duped racist who produces standardized state tests (Thomas Lennon) – are conveniently drawn to be morons, facilitating the impossible scenario in which Elizabeth doesn't do a lick of teaching, just drinks, smokes bowls and shows movies.

But by far the most abhorrent, can't-even-watch-her grotesque is Elizabeth's foil, Amy Squirrell (Lucy Punch), a happy-crazy superteacher and the worst film character of 2011. A ready-to-erupt loony with a veil of unbearably peppy prudishness, Amy's every line tickles your gag reflex, and Punch plays her as if sent from the underworld. The portrayal goes far beyond a successful villain embodiment; it's a despicably written role brought to shrill, demonic life – the stuff of nightmares, really. Sneer as she spews sticky hokum about an Annie wig and “the sun not coming out tomorrow.” Cringe as she freakishly bares her teeth and squirms about like a toddler. Shudder as she sits on a urinal and offers the twisted kiddie proverb, “'Later we all die,' said the gator to the fly.” (How about sooner?)

And yet, even the presence of this gallery of rogues can't send any sympathy Elizabeth's way, as she remains steadfastly unworthy of audience support. The closest she comes to being of this world is during some tough-love scenes with the class dork, whom she feeds harsh zingers about not bothering with the school hottie, while the film fails to integrate little shallowness epiphanies (cuz, you know, she was that hottie, too). And what does she get in return for her misdeeds (which, apart from being perpetually vile, include rigging test scores for cash rewards, pocketing car wash money and stealing from parents)? She gets Jason Segel, whom I never thought I'd call the highlight of a movie. He plays Russell, a gym teacher whose bad taste and anti-establishment views align with Elizabeth's, which means a) she's not interested, and b) she'll end up with him. Save Lynn (Phyllis Smith), a kindly colleague who's basically irrelevant to the film, Russell is the only palatable persona in this whole ant farm of creeps, so much so that he seems sunny by comparison. You don't want him anywhere near Elizabeth, and when he finally lands her, it doesn't feel like some match made in jerk heaven; it feels like the movie's just twisting the knife. If Russell had any sense, he'd turn his back and live by the only moral “Bad Teacher” generates: Misery may love company, but that doesn't mean it deserves it.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

THE TRIP

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


In the comment thread of a recent article I wrote for a friend's web site, a reader called me out for snobbery, taking me to task for a few semi-snide remarks I made about popular comedies and the folks – or, more specifically, the men – who love them. Polite and articulate, the reader posed a perfectly valid complaint, and I owned up. Surely, in this very space, I've spat my share of venom at mainstream, male-targeted comedies that I found uninspired and utterly witless, if not totally insufferable. As a gay man (or maybe just as a broad-minded moviegoer), I'm sensitive to the oft-narrow focus of Hollywood, a pandering to a presumed demographic of rude, boorish, stereotypical heterosexuals that's nowhere more prevalent than in comedy. Masked by the powers of nyuk-nyuk diversion, it creates a false sense of satisfaction and, in turn, perpetuates a vicious cycle. I'll admit that, in general, I'm especially tough on these movies – for better or worse, I've come to consider that a part of my critical voice. But even with all of the above aside, most would agree that comedy is the hardest genre to tackle well, and many of the Hollywood films in question seem disobliged to put up an effort.

This is basically my very long way of saying that “The Trip” is not one of those movies, and that no venom will be spat here. Frequently hilarious, “The Trip” is a movie for friends and frenemies, foodies and film buffs (and, yes, men), all of whom can breathe a collective sigh of relief that Hollywood has virtually nothing to do with it. Though I hesitate to say this, lest I spoil the specialness of British comedy (see “In the Loop,” right now), it is a model of a movie that U.S. studios would be blessed to emulate – a movie that's accessible, but far from witless; rude, but not overtly crass; and decidedly male, but aimed at men with average (not abysmal) IQs. Directed by Michael Winterbottom, the Revolution Films production (released stateside through IFC) stars comics Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, both of whom also appeared in Winterbottom's “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.” It's an edited cut of a six-episode BBC sitcom series and, like “Tristram Shandy,” it sees Coogan and Brydon play (largely) fictionalized versions of themselves. Wanting to impress his American squeeze, a much-younger foodie named Mischa (Margo Stilley), Coogan accepts an offer from The Observer to tour the restaurants of northern England for an upcoming food column. When Mischa backs out, Coogan invites Brydon, a colleague and obvious longtime acquaintence whom Coogan, in a dishonest display of superiority, treats like a woeful last resort.


Odds are you've been one of these men, or maybe both. Like Coogan, you've probably had a friend who's always been loyal but, for whatever reason, just doesn't fit into your selfish, high-school notions of who your friends should be. You might spend the weekend with him, but talk ill of him to those who better fit the mold. Or, like Brydon, maybe you've had a friend who only calls you on occasion, and even then is sure to let you know that “no one else was available.” For whatever reason, you find value, even pleasure, in these interactions, and you're able to see past the other's feigned insistence that there isn't any (all without sacrificing your dignity). Clearly, Brydon is the more sensible and likable of the two – a settled family man with the gift of contentment who's learned to embrace Coogan despite it all. His big flaw is that he is, perhaps, too wrapped in that contentment, shielding himself from the bigger world with, say, his perpetual stream of celebrity impersonations (more on those in a bit). Coogan is more your typical middle-aged single-male success story, a Peter Pan whose relationship problems are really existential ones, and who still shoots for imagined ideals instead of accepting what's in front of him (there's talk of kids, who, naturally, are neglected). Through the course of “The Trip,” each man brings out a bit of self-realization in the other, but the film handles it all so suavely and discreetly you barely realize it's happening. That and you're way too busy laughing your ass off.

Highly improvisational, the movie keenly exploits Coogan's and Brydon's odd-couple dynamic right away, shacking them up together in a single-bed hotel room at the first tour stop. Brydon couldn't care less, but Coogan is livid, calling his assistant and appealing to the hotel clerk with smug condescension (“Just call me Steve,” he tells her, “none of that 'Mr. Coogan' nonsense”). Coogan's self-deprecating egotism is probably the first source of major guffaws, such as when he bumblingly starts to seduce said clerk amidst patches of awkward silence. The first meal reveals both men's talents for impersonation, leading to one of many hysterical duels that feature the uncanny vocal cameos of Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Al Pacino and Anthony Hopkins, among others. There's a terrific element of competition in terms of who has more talent, with Coogan insisting he's the better actor when, really, he's simply more famous (in private, he deliciously tries to practice some of Brydon's bits). Then there's the cuisine, which, of course, gives the men a common target to love, loathe, or merely examine (“Nothing like a lollipop made of duck fat,” they muse, or, “The drink's consistency is a bit like snot”).

The journey is peppered with fun detours, be them Coogan's dreams about his inadequacies (one of which is the funniest scene in the film), or the pair's traversal of the moorlands, where a great many character details are nicely emphasized. They visit the former home of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who, the guide tells Coogan, “couldn't cope with the domesticity of life.” They reach a point with a collection of outdoor cliffs, and Coogan opts to climb them while contented Brydon sits it out. They reach a creek, and Coogan walks a line of stepping stones, only to fall in halfway across. Brydon tells him, “It's a metaphor! You got stuck halfway to your destination!” Never does one man acknowledge what the other means to him, not even when they both mockingly discuss each other's funerals. There's certainly an air of melancholy to the film, which remains palapable unto the final shot. But it's mostly an acidically sweet road movie, which never stoops so low as to point that it's actually about food for the soul. With its gourmet dishes and offshore talent and Euro flourishes, it'd be easy to label it an uppity affair – a comedy befitting a snob. But it's not. It's a comedy for all who, instead of that false sense of satisfaction, prefer a fine sense of sustenance.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

SUPER 8

Review: Super 8
3.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund


The most inspired aspect of “Super 8,” J. J. Abrams's heavily shrouded Spielberg homage, is the giddy, geeky celebration of an ongoing lineage of imagineers – budding, sponge-like filmmakers bent on squeezing what they've absorbed from their predecessors into movies of their own. Spielberg was such a person, as is Abrams, as is Charles Kaznyk (Riley Griffiths), the pudgy, authoritative 14-year-old maestro of “Super 8,” whose tunnel-like devotion to craft Abrams effectively lampoons. The unofficial leader of a gaggle of teens living in the fictitious town of Lillian, Ohio circa 1979, Charles is a resourceful, but constantly stressed, visionary who's breathlessly driven to complete a zombie movie for entry in an amateur film fest. With only his friends' help and a Super 8 camera to boast, the mini-George Romero complains a lot about his lack of “production value,” which puts him at a competitive disadvantage and forces him to be doubly creative and opportunistic. The parallels to Abrams, who wrote and directed “Super 8,” and Spielberg, who produced, are more than evident, as both big-budget dreamers started out as no-budget backyard shutterbugs, Spielberg emulating the likes of James Whale and Ray Harryhausen, and Abrams emulating guys like Spielberg. That's the magic to be found here – the multi-generational championing of impassioned, homespun storytelling whose nitty-gritty seeds can sprout cinematic greatness.

In general, though, “magic” and “greatness” are, sadly, not the words I'd reach for when discussing “Super 8,” despite its being an extremely well-made and briskly paced summer creature feature. Already widely hailed for the simple fact that it's not a remake, reboot or sequel, the film seems to also be getting a pass for its billowing plumes of nostalgia, which afford it charm out the wazoo as well as an instant connection to film buffs of a certain age and persuasion. Abrams has no shame in playing up the varying sources from which his story was culled, namely Richard Donner's “The Goonies” and Spielberg's own “E.T.” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” The town of Lillian is a very short stone's throw from Mayberry, its honest citizens taking great pride in their tight-knit conformity. They sigh out of their doily-curtained windows when young Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) loses his mother in a factory accident, and conservatively muse over whether or not Joe's deputy dad, Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler), can manage sole parenting duties. They're only mildly aware of the pastimes of their kids, who make adventurelands of their neighborhoods and through whose eyes we primarily view the events. A sensitive (and obligatorily damaged) maker of model trains and such, Joe, the protagonist, is on Charles's film crew, as is Carey (Ryan Lee), the braced and buck-toothed pyro; Martin (Gabriel Basso), the lean and handsome nerd; Preston (Zach Mills), the skeletal, awkward Other Guy; and Alice (Elle Fanning), the newly-recruited leading lady.


Though initially humdrum, the rapport among the kids becomes a major asset, one that, these days, is not nearly utilized enough. The premise of the film, of course, is that while shooting scenes for the zombie flick at the town train station – just as a train is noisily passing through (“production value!”) – the group witnesses, and catches footage of, the train's violent derailment, subsequently becoming the select few with inside info about the supernatural weirdness that follows. Suffice it to say, sleepy Lillian sees its dogs disappear, its everyday gadgets disappear and its sheriff disappear before a government-run military unit and a certain scaly something turn the place into a veritable war zone. All the while, Charles and his entourage find themselves embroiled in the mystery behind the madness, and wind up working out the kinks of their relationships and childish concerns amidst impossible phenomena. In this respect, Abrams is especially successful, allowing built-in comic relief to naturally manifest during the teens' energetic spats, and briefly returning the summer movie to an audience of children interested in more than just explosions (however young or old those children might be). He draws an excellent performance from young Griffiths, who's funny and aptly overheated as the man behind the camera, and he boosts the talents of Fanning, who, among other things, might just give the best in-film faux audition since Naomi Watts in “Mulholland Drive.”

Even the way Abrams shoots the sky – that big, heavy vanilla sky so indicative of summer – has a wondrous air of youthfulness to it, and it's just one example of the technical skill he pours into “Super 8.” Surely the most visually accomplished of his three features (the other two being “Mission: Impossible III” and the far superior “Star Trek”), this labor of nerdy love is a throwback fantasia flecked with what have fast become Abrams's digital trademarks: the perfectly fluid crane shots, the highly workable and forgiving digital focus, and those beautiful blue lens flares that stretch across the frame. It's a gorgeous experience to watch “Super 8,” a cool hybrid of old-school imagery and sound caught with new-school methods. We hear Michael Giacchino's evocative, harp-tinged score, and see the comfortably eerie Americana of open fields and remote gas stations, but all through a crisp and modern lens. The notion that Abrams is being groomed as the next Spielberg grows more and more vivid – a fine craftsman with the master's sensibilities, but a new and revamped digital approach.

Yet, for all his formal savvy, Abrams is not a Spielberg. He is not a visionary. He is not an innovator. He's created highly addictive television series like “Lost,” but unlike Spielberg, he hasn't squeezed those juices of his predecessors into any sort of dramatic revitalization. “Super 8” taps into a certain cinematic spirit, yes, but as a film it is ultimately little more than a benign, polished collage. Aside from the actual filmmaking, there is nothing here – not a thing – that you haven't seen countless times before, and decades ago, no less. If you wanted to, you could watch this movie in a “count the tropes” sort of way, and run out of fingers within the first few scenes. Nostalgia isn't a strong enough subject to carry a film – it's more of an endearing crutch, and Abrams puts precious little effort into walking without it. We even see him gathering familiar bits from Spielberg's more recent filmography, such as the angry creature attacking folks in a stranded vehicle, and the very WWII-era visual of fearful masses lumped together in panic. But never do we see a story spark that seems to come solely from Abrams himself. He may be very good at what he does, but to say Abrams is the maker of the summer's most brilliant blockbuster is a gross misconception. He is but a collector with a camera, a pop archivist with a good memory...and enviable production value.

Monday, June 6, 2011

THE TREE OF LIFE

Review: The Tree of Life
4 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund


The greatest thing about the films of Terrence Malick is that they're always grasping for something colossal well beyond the confines of the medium – a transcendence that not even a filmmaker of Malick's glorious grace and mastery can capture. His movies do not explore mere themes, but immeasurably lofty chunks of the very essence of life experience. At 29, he took on the nature of sin with “Badlands,” channeling it through the apathetic deeds of a lonely, besotted young couple. “Days of Heaven” biblically traversed the steep hills of man's need to work – and to pursue comfort and security – through the eyes of a thick-skinned young girl aged by circumstance. In “The Thin Red Line,” frailty, and the precarious mortal edge on which we all stand, found its vessel in a band of WWII soldiers privately dealing with their collectively dire straits. If not love and exploration, then a oneness with the earth – a spiritual connection to it – was surveyed in “The New World,” a symphonic epic guided by the perfect point players of John Smith and Pocahontas.


Never has Malick's reach been more ambitious – his limbs more outstretched, if you will – than with “The Tree of Life,” his breathlessly awaited fifth feature, which forgoes chunks and strives to explore just about everything. There is, again, a grounded, intimate scenario that serves to juxtapose, but the scales are drastically tipped in favor of the less tangible this time out, as Malick sets his sights on existence itself. More than seven years in the making, the Cannes Palme d'Or winner is a breathtaking, if imperfect, achievement, both for maker and for viewer. I say that not only because the film has been so torturously delayed, not only because its latter portion has an indulgent pace that requires a certain endurance, but because it delivers a sense of affirmation that's very rarely accomplished through picture and sound. It's miles – light years – away from a movie that's simply watched.


It begins with a flame, or maybe the interior of a womb, then proceeds with 138 of the most stunningly photographed minutes 2011 is likely to offer. There is no delay to the unfurling of knockout compositions, which through the course of the picture include everything from schools of shimmering jellyfish to stretches across an endless desert to the back-to-back orange imagery of bubbling magma and splitting cells (in addition to DP Emmanuel Lubezki, some of the visuals are credited to a handful of commissioned cinematographers). Indeed, the movie starts to play out like “Planet Earth” as made by a cinematic poet, and it's easy to see why certain critics have booed it for pomposity. But rarely, if ever, does a shot feel unconsidered, or unsuccessful in its underscoring or exaltation of a mood or deeper purpose. With the violent surge of waves and rivers, or the gentle sway of sunflowers, we get the tumult and beauty of a 1950s Texas family, who live on a suburban street encased in a cathedral-like canopy of green trees. Early on we learn that one of the family's three sons has died. The father (Brad Pitt), Malick's stern embodiment of “nature,” and mother (Jessica Chastain), his angelic embodiment of “grace,” react in the ways their roles designate. In modern day, the grown eldest son, Jack (Sean Penn), is still struggling with the loss of his brother. From here, Malick zooms out and winds back to depict, if not the birth of the universe, then at least the start of life on earth, envisioning gaseous activity in outer space, the development of fetuses, the rise and fall of the dinosaurs and the emergence of sea life.


This portion, and all that leads up to it, play out as more song than movie, more poem than film. It's a style that's common for Malick, but it's never been more pronounced. Images are fused together in lyrical fashion, and captured by a camera that seems to never stop moving. We glide from the minute to the divine, the domestic to the wild, then catapult into an extensive Kubrickian sequence in space, which may give fuel to the naysayers, but is gorgeous and awesome in all its existential weight. A soul-shaking score by Alexandre Desplat (and a host of greats like Bach and Mahler) accompanies much of what we see, roaring and sweeping and then settling in moments of serenity. The story – which is to say the tale of the family and the tale of all of us – is vocally conveyed through Malick's signature inner-monologue narration (the mother and Jack are often talking to God), and dialogue that's direct, but not directly expository. As if to express the racing transience of life, the film's first half or so has no time to pause for conversation, or even to show a person speak. Spoken dialogue is generally heard while the character's feet, back, surroundings or interactions with others are in view. If not to maintain a disconnect to support the film's universality, the lack of facial freeze frames works to augment Malick's roundabout, impressionistic storytelling, which adamantly meanders while barreling forward. The more we yearn for some sort of a traditional narrative, the more the film seems to avoid it.


And yet, for all its restless fluidity, “The Tree of Life” does lose its momentum, precisely when it yields to those yearnings. Malick narrows his focus onto the family, showing the birth and growth of the boys and, specifically, charting Jack's formative adolescent years. Amidst production designer Jack Fisk's meticulously recreated small-town Americana, Jack witnesses his first death, crosses paths with societal outcasts, experiments with violence and struggles with hormones, all while questioning God and faith. He embraces the grace of his mother and clashes with the hard nature of his father, two opposing forces that stick with him for life. Malick certainly digs up a whole lot of basic truths with this storyline, and, as always, his unabashed presentation of religion is not specified preaching, but a voicing of the same quandaries that eat at every human being. I, however, had a hard time abiding the leisurely mode the film adopts, even with the knowledge that it's a deeply personal project (Malick's own Texas upbringing is reportedly a key inspiration). Interest wanes as we linger on the family, and even the power of the images is lessened (it's like walking through the Vatican's art collection – the sheer overabundance eventually desensitizes you to the beauty). Things appropriately culminate with an ethereal vision of the afterlife, but, by that point, there's an ultimate impact that's lacking.


Still, this string of criticisms should in no way undersell the movie's marvelous peaks. Perhaps most excitingly, “The Tree of Life” seems to represent the apex of Malick's own narrative, which itself reads as being mystical and momentous. A philosopher who studied at Harvard and Oxford before graduating from the AFI Conservatory, the uncannily talented director has remained an enigma throughout his career, refusing interviews and famously disappearing for lengthy periods (two decades passed between the releases of “Days of Heaven” and “The Thin Red Line”). But however wide the professional gaps, he returns to a spiritual through-line that's woven through his works, each of them part of a bigger picture. At the simplest, most obvious level, we receive nuggets – bread crumbs – that lead us to the following chapter. There's much talk of a “new world” in “The Thin Red Line,” and “The New World” ends with a skyward shot of a tree, from trunk to outstretched limbs. The bread crumbs in “The Tree of Life” have yet to reveal themselves, but with a chapter this all-encompassing, the question stands: what can Malick, who's already lined up his next effort, possibly explore next?

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

THE HANGOVER: PART II

Review: The Hangover: Part II
3.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund


The work-backwards mystery of “what the hell happened last night?” is the best thing both “Hangover” movies have going for them, so there's little room for detail dissection in a review of either film. The details, after all, become clues as to why the nocturnally cursed trio of Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Alan (Zach Galifianakis) wake up on the scummy floor of what's more crime scene than room – nothing wiped clean but their memories. To spill the clues would be to spoil the fun that's terribly precious to this, shall we say, accidental franchise. Thus, in regard to “The Hangover: Part II,” I can't explain to you how the film dimwittedly, offensively and hilariously evokes “The Crying Game”; how a crack about a monkey and a penis scores some surprisingly infectious laughs; why a line about P.F. Chang's is the film's best; why marshmallows are significant; what, exactly, a severed finger has to do with all this; and why, oh why, Paul Giamatti's name is in the credits.

So, what shall we chat about, then? Let's start by acknowledging that, along with whatever else they ingested to land them in round two of WTF hell, Phil, Stu and Alan – collectively and obnoxiously known as “The Wolfpack” – apparently swallowed up the lightning in a bottle that director and co-writer Todd Phillips captured with 2009's “The Hangover.” A rude hack who deals in the unapologetic “coolness” of aggression (see if you can count how many brooding, angry and expletive-laden tracks he crams in this time), Phillips proves ill-suited for high demands and shows a rather pitiful lack of inspiration, structuring his sequel in just about the exact fashion as its predecessor. Again, I won't divulge the particulars of how the mirror-imaging ultimately disappoints, but even those who proudly subscribe to Phillips's brand of middle-fingers-in-the-air humor (“It's a bad man's world,” plays the opening song) will sense the dragging of the filmmaker's feet.

It's no spoiler to say that the comparisons begin with another wedding. Following the nearly-ruined nuptials of Doug (Justin Bartha), the group's tame and sidelined member, it's time for Stu to make it official with his exotic, impossibly stunning fiancée, Lauren (Jamie Chung), whose highfalutin family has planned a picturesque vacation wedding in Thailand. The locale prompts Phillips to gracelessly show off his increased budget, stringing together swooping crane shots of tropical shorelines with the same boorishness afforded the soundtrack arrangement. A whoosh across a jungle road and a rise above a tree line reveal a swanky beachside haven, where Lauren's father, the male Amy Chua, waits to hurl insults at Stu while lauding Lauren's whiz-kid brother, Teddy (Mason Lee), a brilliant cellist and pre-med student ripe for corruption. Reluctantly, Stu, who's “still putting the broken pieces of [his] psyche back together” after his two-year-old trip to Vegas, brings the whole Wolfpack to join the well-to-dos for the blessed occasion, including Alan, whose singular social deficits, we learn, can be partially credited to his being a “stay-at-home son.”


Galifianakis handily runs away with this movie, bagging up the spotlight even more enjoyably than he did in “Part I.” What started as an unsubtle showcase of an edge-of-fame star has become an almost effortlessly uproarious one-man show of awkward comic greatness. Intimately and eerily aware of the twisted gears that make his Baby-Huey-from-outer-space character tick, Galifianakis is better than he's ever been, responsible for most of the sequel's plentiful crack-up moments. Not to be undersold is Helms, who, hot off his terrific turn in the very good “Cedar Rapids” earlier this year, keeps up his enviable talent for imbuing Average Joes with riotous befuddlement (his reactions to “Part II”'s ever-mounting mishaps are never less than priceless). The two second-billed funnymen cast a shadow over man-of-the-moment Cooper (whose penchant for playing handsome, cocky pricks is looking more and more like one-noteness), and their ace contributions are reasons enough to recommend this movie.

This is coming from someone who didn't much care for “The Hangover,” an average-at-best fluke that ranks among Hollywood's most overrated and undeserving success stories. Never mind the fact that Phillips – along with his fluctuating grab-bag of co-writers – can't develop a decent female character to save his life (the guy ain't exactly interested in stretching far beyond his target audience). The real sin was that the 2009 phenomenon wasn't all that funny. Shocking attractions like a diminutively-endowed Ken Jeong (who also appears here) made a splash, and the setting of Vegas lent much to the material (another virtue of the sequel, which mainly unfolds in seedy, merciless and atmospheric Bangkok). But honest viewers will admit that “The Hangover” was a mindlessly viral, communal triumph, not one of genuine wit or craft. It's the kind of movie that's howled at and revered because of some unspoken, inexplicable social requirement. That, and because it taps into the layman's thrill of drinking to forget, and then straining to remember. At the “Hangover: Part II” screening I attended, a sponsoring radio station staged a “hangover contest” in the front of the theater, where two young women had to act out their best morning after, mock-vomiting into a microphone and feigning memory loss and migraines. The crowd cheered and the girls received prizes.

I'm not going to turn this into some sort of preachy indictment, as I don't blame Phillips for the sad display in the theater anymore than I blame Nicholas Sparks for the widespread acceptance of abysmal melodrama. Let's just say I rest my case as far as illuminating how an unworthy beast became a box-office juggernaut. As for “The Hangover: Part II,” similar returns can be expected, only this time there's more to boast. The humor is much bigger and much better, even if it's inexorably snuffed out by a same old, same old framework. Why is there a monk wearing Teddy's hoodie? Why do events lead to a scene with a 9-year-old getting a tattoo? Why does Stu claim he has “a demon” in him? The devil truly is in the details.