Monday, June 27, 2011


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 fiancĂ© 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


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


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


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?