Archives for June 2009

My Sister’s Keeper

SOFIA VASSILIEVA as Kate and CAMERON DIAZ as Sara in New Line Cinema's drama MY SISTER'S KEEPER, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. The film also stars Abigail Breslin. Photo Courtesy of New Line Cinema

SOFIA VASSILIEVA as Kate and CAMERON DIAZ as Sara in New Line Cinema's drama MY SISTER'S KEEPER, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. The film also stars Abigail Breslin. Photo Courtesy of New Line Cinema

Kate Fitzgerald (Sofia Vassilieva) isn’t a celebrity, isn’t a supermodel. She’s a 14-year old girl who has lived most of her childhood suffering from acute promyelocytic leukemia. Her sister, Anna (an uncharacteristically thoughtful performance by Abigail Breslin), was engineered in a test tube at the suggestion of their physician, Dr. Wayne (Jeffrey Markle).

Some readers will want to shoot me for being at all critical about this film but whether this narrative has all the working pieces or not is a different question from having a frank conversation about death or cancer which, it should be commended, the film at least attempts to do.

Based on the novel by Jodi Picoult, My Sister’s Keeper is about a pact between sisters the nature of which you can see coming a mile away. It’s a tried and trusted plot device. Anna, now 11, seeks legal emancipation from her parents who she argues have been using her as a parts factory for her older sister’s failing body. If the last four words of the preceding sentence do not spell out for you where the plot is headed, read no further, see the movie, and enjoy it for the heartstring-tugging melodrama that it is. If not…

It’s customary to cast a beautiful actress, here Cameron Diaz as Sara Fitzgerald, in the kind of role that requires a high-powered attorney turned slaving housewife who gave everything for her child… including all the best care a high-powered attorney can afford. Not only that, but Brian Fitzgerald, Jason Patric in an arguably competent performance, happens to be a firefighter. A rich attorney marries a firefighter? What fantasy world do these caricaturesque parents live together, meet, fall in love and have kids in?

I’m not asking for a story about the struggling single mother of four about to be evicted from her hole-in-the-wall apartment. But what about the lower-middle class desk-jockey and his wife he met under less than cinematically serendipitous circumstances? Oh, that’s right… There isn’t much to work off dramatically there because it’s reality and studio executives, who themselves live in Xanadu, believe audiences will find these immediately relatable characters otherwise uninteresting. But I digress.

The film has its flaws and swims in meticulously crafted schmaltz, “I don’t mind my disease failing me but it’s killing my family, too,” yet also has well-conceived tender moments hiding in the fringes. In the same scene as the previous quotation, Kate’s voice-over mentions briefly how her brother was neglected as a result of her illness, “They barely even noticed Jesse was dyslexic.”

The narration flips around from character to character so we can hear what they’re thinking, including the attorney, Campbell Alexander (Alec Baldwin), Anna hires with the $760 she’s saved up. He has a dog in the office with him. He jokes, “I have an iron lung and Judge helps me steer clear of magnets.” Keep an eye on that dog. We suspect that there’s more to Alexander than any of the other characters, and I wish he were given more screen time. Alec Baldwin hits the right notes of a man whose motives are concealed.

There’s also an interesting, if slightly contrived romance that develops between Kate and another patient, Taylor Ambrose (Thomas Dekker, who seems almost 10 years too old for the young Kate). Gasps abound in the audience when they share an understated yet passionate kiss (in the most trite of places, the doorstep) and then more gasps when they have sex. Can you guess what happens next? Yes, you can. Ambrose, who serves as a brief glint in Kate’s otherwise miserable existence, seems to be plucked just as haphazardly as the character was assembled, from Ptolemy, “When I trace at my pleasure the windings to and fro of the heavenly bodies, I no longer touch the earth with my feet: I stand in the presence of Zeus himself and take my fill of ambrosia, food of the gods.”

And that, I think, is the central theme where the movie hits the few right notes. No one in the story is purely evil, and everyone has an explanation for why they became who they are. The father takes time to express genuine doubts about the ethics of their arrangement with Anna and Kate, in which Anna has had no say until now. You might ask yourself what you would have done in the mother’s position. Would you have exhausted every possibility and skirted ethics to save one of your children? Are you sure you would have made all the right choices? She did exactly according to her character, and the results weren’t perfect. That’s life.

The weak point is Jesse (Evan Ellingson). Little explanation or character development is given to him. We see inexplicably chopped up scenes of him wandering around town at night, but we have no idea what, if any, trouble he’s getting himself into. Maybe we don’t need to know…. but the way the scenes are inserted seems an afterthought as if only at the eleventh hour did the filmmakers realize they hadn’t elaborated upon the brother who knows the real story behind the litigation.

The film succeeds at making us care genuinely about each character, even the lawyer. However, it falls back on conventional mechanisms of storytelling and bland cinematography by Caleb Deschanel (The Right Stuff, The Patriot, Passion of the Christ) which begins with desaturated tones and slow motion revelling in sunlight to beat us in the head with all that is innocent—as if Vassilieva’s performance hadn’t already convinced us of that.

My Sister’s Keeper • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 • Running Time: 109 minutes • MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic content, some disturbing images, sensuality, language and brief teen drinking. • Distributed by New Line Cinema

Dolby and the double-D symbol are registered trademarks of Dolby Laboratories.

Year One

Jack Black and Michael Cera in Columbia Pictures' comedy YEAR ONE.  © 2009 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Jack Black and Michael Cera in Columbia Pictures' comedy YEAR ONE. © 2009 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Zed (Jack Black) and Oh (Michael Cera) are outcasts. The former because he ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the latter because, well, he’s the token sensitive guy (read: pansy). As hunter-gatherers, their primary objective is, according to Oh, to “find all the food with the least amount of bird shit on it.” A notable observation in an otherwise relatively bland film.

The story centers around Oh and Zed’s expulsion from the tribe and their subsequent effort to rescue Maya (June Diane Raphael) and Eema (Juno Temple), respectively Zed and Oh’s crushes, from the Romans. It’s a fairly standard Comic Journey of Enlightenment Movie—With Sidekick and Women Who Serve No Other Purpose than to be Lusted After. This raises some questions. Chiefly, how is it that Harold Ramis, writer and director of the endearingly humorous and simultaneously perceptive Groundhog Day, could only do so much here?

Let’s ignore for a second the historical jumble of periods. Granted, there’s some 500 years of history packed into one when we jump from a random hunter-gatherer tribe to the horticultural Cain and Abel using wheel technology—but if only Dramamine had been invented, then to the Romans and to their eventual overthrow by villagers rather than the Vandals in 476 CE, and the odd inclusion of jokes about female armpit hair while simultaneously sporting flawless dental hygiene. But nevermind. The problem is not the historicity, or lack thereof, in a comedy, but the uneven pace of the humor.

Take for instance The Hangover, which for all its pratfalls and lowbrow humor maintains a consistent level of comedy throughout. But for a few funny lines—mostly Cera’s, an abruptly abandoned gem of a character in Bill Hader’s Shaman, and the deliciously hedonistic High Priest, rapturously portrayed by Oliver Platt, we are left to return to center stage with Jack Black. Black is perhaps the least funny actor I have seen since Rob Schneider. He lacks subtlety, or at least the sensibly-paced buildup to manic hysteria that was mastered by Belushi, oft imitated, albeit poorly, by successors (the late Chris Farley comes to mind).

In one scene, where Black is examining feces to apply his self-professed tracking skills, he goes over the top licking the fake poop. Note how Cera, whose understated muttering is almost now a cliché of every Apatow film (including this one), at least deftly undercuts Black’s full-on mania quietly, “What difference does it make?” What can the dietary habits of an animal tell them about where they, or the story for that matter, need to go next?

While the film entertains, lightly so (I see a Netflix rental in your future), it doesn’t go where Ramis is capable of venturing. There’s potential for a conversation about the absurdities of virgin-sacrificing agricultural civilizations versus the economy of tribal living which would make Daniel Quinn proud, but this thoughtful discourse never takes place. Am I reaching here? I don’t think so. Comedy has always been a vehicle for getting away with subversive social commentary. There are instances where writer/director Ramis pays obvious reverence to Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Life of Brian, but seems entirely unaware of why the latter were hilarious. The Monty Python sketches and films were brilliant not because of their use of slapstick, but due to relevant social commentary that, unfortunately for contemporary Americans mired in an ever declining media haze, required a working knowledge of some sociopolitical history. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction. Nowhere is this more evident than in politics and religion, and the Python troupe exploited the hell out of this fact.

It could be possible Ramis had a better film in mind and the studio was eager to steer him into base humor appealing to the least common denominator. We can’t know exactly who to blame, but there are moments where you think they made the mistake of letting Jack Black ad lib some of his lines. Forget it. The man isn’t funny. Humor requires the juxtaposition of diametrically opposed elements or situations to build tension and then release. Bill Murray is an expert at this, because he’s so deadpan you can never be sure of the intention behind his words. No such adept talent exists in this film to elevate it from pablum.

Year One • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 • Running Time: 100 minutes • MPAA Rating: PG-13 for crude and sexual content throughout, brief strong language and comic violence. • Distributed by Columbia Pictures

Dolby and the double-D symbol are registered trademarks of Dolby Laboratories.

The Taking of Pelham 123

John Travolta in Columbia Pictures' action thriller THE TAKING OF  PELHAM 123, also starring Denzel Washington.  Photo credit: RICO TORRES

John Travolta in Columbia Pictures' action thriller THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123, also starring Denzel Washington. Photo credit: RICO TORRES

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, based on the novel by John Godey and related to the 1974 film directed by Joseph Sargent, begins with an establishing shot of New York that looks beautiful for about three seconds, until it is interrupted by a typical Tony Scott opening credits sequence—loud music, fancy title effects swishing back and forth, in and out of frame, intercutting with images of people on the subway. You know how you can tell the kid and his laptop will be relevant? The shot lingers on him for more than a tenth of a second before the next cut.

Cut to a subway rail control station, where Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) is hard at work monitoring the city’s subways. When Garber sees something on his monitors that doesn’t look right, his first reaction isn’t one of puzzlement, but suspicion. This is either bad writing, bad direction, bad acting or a combination of the three. In minutes, a plain-clothed transit police officer gets shot by the gunmen on the train. He is the first of a couple people just dying to be martyred.

John Travolta plays Ryder, the dramatic (read: theatrically bad) villain sporting a Fu Manchu—a modernized Snidely Whiplash. His primary purpose is to act hysterical and googly-eyed throughout most of the film. James Gandolfini plays the wealthy, grandstanding mayor who, it can be surmised, is a loose reference to Michael Bloomberg. There’s even a line about having left his Giuliani suit at home.

Garber makes a connection with Ryder, which Ryder believes he can exploit for sympathy. The two try to psychoanalyze each other. “This is just about money,” says Garber. Ryder replies, “Is it ever about anything else?” We find these types of interactions intriguing dramatically. But in real life, would a criminal so clever as to have orchestrated a controlled abduction of a subway train really want to be talking with Garber? The character’s motivations end up taking a back seat to a cat-and-mouse game in which Garber, with the FBI behind him and a SWAT team at the ready, tries to keep Ryder distracted. It’s all very familiar… but it is kind of fun to see Travolta flip out and issue suggestive non-sequiturs, “He’s got a sexy voice, this man. He’d be my bitch in prison.” You almost begin to wonder if he knows it’s fruitless to take himself seriously in a film such as this.

Everything in this film seems to be on steroids. From the kicky title sequence, to the nauseating title inserts periodically freeze-framing to tell you—BAM—how many minutes remain before Ryder kills his hostages, to the oddly-muscled police cars and motorcycles in the convoy delivering the $10 million ransom. Even the mayor wonders why they didn’t just use a helicopter. But that wouldn’t consume screen time… nor would filming at normal speed—inexplicable slow-motion shots interrupt otherwise technically competent cinematography. Also, I’ve never seen more police cars crash in a single movie than this. NYPD officers are apparently worse drivers than Imperial Stormtroopers are marksmen.

I didn’t get the character depth I wanted to see in the first half—too much cutting before we could read the actors faces. Watch the medium to wide shots in Dog Day Afternoon for an example of effective character development in a hostage situation. Some of the stylistic choices in cinematography, editing, pacing, film speed and depth of field were kind of obtrusive but by the second half of this film it got more interesting. By the time Garber leaves the control station to meet Ryder, they could play it either way. It’s watchable as entertainment, but puzzling why Garber would care enough to follow or shoot Ryder by the time the hostages are rescued. I’m sure most audiences won’t particularly nitpick on that point…

One thing kept bugging me, however. How many more movies are there going to be where the black cop or other authority figure is on the take (think Samuel Jackson in The Negotiator) and his motivation for doing so is to take care of his family. Compare this to when a white cop is on the take in an action film. He’s portrayed as absolutely corrupt. On the surface this seems like it’s more unfair to whites but the subtext is this: Whenever a character is portrayed as a corrupt monster, it’s easier for audiences to dismiss him as a kook—exception to the rule. When a character is potrayed as though being corrupt is just part of looking after his family, it’s as if we’re saying “this is normal for them” and that, to me, is an affront to the intellectual capacity of minorities everywhere.

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 • Running Time: 106 minutes • MPAA Rating: R for violence and pervasive language. • Distributed by Columbia Pictures

Dolby and the double-D symbol are registered trademarks of Dolby Laboratories.

The Hangover

(L-R) Alan (ZACH GALIFIANAKIS), Stu (ED HELMS), Doug (JUSTIN BARTHA) and Phil (BRADLEY COOPER) in THE HANGOVER, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.  Photo by Frank Masi.

(L-R) Alan (ZACH GALIFIANAKIS), Stu (ED HELMS), Doug (JUSTIN BARTHA) and Phil (BRADLEY COOPER) in THE HANGOVER, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Frank Masi.

Even a formula can exceed expectations now and then. That’s what I discovered watching The Hangover, a film about, of all things, a foursome who travels to Vegas on their bachelor party. After the wedding montage, we cut to the disheveled group and Phil Wenneck (Bradley Cooper, looking like a cross between Ralph Fiennes and Brian Phelps of “Mark & Brian In the Morning”) makes the call (yes, that one) to the groom’s wife, “We fucked up.” Immediately the hackles go up.

This is the customary set up for a bachelor-party-gone-haywire comedy, in the style of Peter Berg’s equally-ludicrous Very Bad Things, followed by the flashback to two days ago. What transpires from there can only be described as a series of attempts to keep upping the ante on gross-outs, one liners, animal gags, and slapstick that doesn’t add up to any kind of elaborate comedy. But I’m not even attempting to compare Todd Phillips, writer and director of Road Trip, to Billy Wilder.

The story you know. The characters seem somewhat familiar, but each with his own deviation. Phil is the responsible private schoolteacher, who happens to be morally flexible enough to give his pre-teen students a share of the winnings. Stu Price (Ed Helms) is the yuppie dentist (or so we think) and his absolute harpy of a girlfriend, Melissa (Tracy Garner). The bride’s brother, Alan Garner (Zach Galifianakis), is a certifiable pedophile—opening a door to unusual, if unsavory, jokes which, in a film replete with absurdity, stop oddly shy of pure evil. Doug Billings (Justin Bartha), the groom, is hardly in the movie. He’s effectively the MacGuffin of the film. By the time they do find him, it takes a beat or two before you realize he’s been without food or water for 48 hours.

Everything is set into motion when, after taking Jaegermeister shots on the rooftop of Caesar’s Palace, the four awaken to a tornado of peculiarities strewn about their $4200-a-night suite. It isn’t superlative slapstick, but it is oddly watchable if only for the perverse curiosity toward how much more ridiculous can circumstances get. When the valet pulls up with a police cruiser instead of the vintage Mercedes they were driving, it might in any other film be entirely unbelievable.. but we left reality when Stu first appeared with a sweater draped over his oxford longsleeve, Louis Winthorpe-style. Instead of a false crisis, the guys work out a creative solution with the police that ends up hurting them anyway, but at least one fat, blonde-haired kid gets his revenge. Confusing? It won’t make much more sense if I describe the context. Either you’ll go with it, or you’ll rent Some Like it Hot.

The funniest sequence in the entire film, here borrowing prior art for parody rather than vacancy of ideas, arises out of a mishap whereby the Chinese man in the trunk of the Benz—don’t ask—turns out to be a gangster and demands $80,000 they allegedly stole from him, in exchange for Doug, whom he has kidnapped. Alan finds a gambling how-to book, and inspired by the film Rain Man, the scene cuts to Alan dressed in a grey suit descending an escalator, accompanied by Phil, looking like Raymond and Charlie Babbitt—set to that catchy cover of “Iko Iko” by the Belle Stars. We next see him at a table mumbling to himself as mathematical formulae swirl around the frame. It was heartening to see that most of the film’s target audience understood this reference. It would be a misplaced gag in a film directed at a younger audience such as Bender and Spink’s American Pie.

Question: What do Mike Tyson’s tiger, a chicken, a horrible, effeminate, Chinese stereotype naked in a car trunk, a stolen police car, a baby, a missing tooth and Phil Collins’ music all have in common? Answer: Nothing, but within 100 minutes this movie finds a way to juxtapose and explain all… well, except for the chicken.

The Hangover • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 • Running Time: 100 minutes • MPAA Rating: R for pervasive language, sexual content including nudity, and some drug material. • Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures

Dolby and the double-D symbol are registered trademarks of Dolby Laboratories.

My Life In Ruins

L- R: Nia Vardalos and Alexis Georgoulis. Photo Credit: Teresa Isasi. ©2009, Fox Searchlight Pictures.

L- R: Nia Vardalos and Alexis Georgoulis. Photo Credit: Teresa Isasi. ©2009, Fox Searchlight Pictures.

I still can’t figure out how or why movies like this are greenlighted. From the opening, postcard-styled titles, Georgia (Nia Vardalos) nearly beats us to death with exposition for the subtextually-impaired. “People come here from all over to see the ancient ruins,” says Georgia. You don’t say? I thought they went to Detroit for that. In Greece, she tells us, “They find their kefi.” Kefi is greek for “mojo”… “mojo” is American for “This is going to be another terrible romance-comedy with infatuation, a misunderstanding, sage wisdom at the two-thirds mark, and a boost in tourism for the shooting location.”

The infatuation is, of course, unknown to her at first. Georgia, a travel guide, is beset by misfortune and unhappiness… But enter a strangely-bearded bus driver named Poupi (the first in a number of excruciatingly bad attempts at humor), who starts out looking like a homeless man and, as you can guess, progressively looks more like Yanni as the film goes on. Why not Demis Roussos? But nevermind. Yanni— er, Poupi… isn’t alone. Stereotypes abound, strangely, in a film that is marketed as being “from Nia Vardalos” (though she has no producing, writing or directing credit here). There are the loud, obnoxious Americans (Rachel Dratch and Harland Williams), the uppity brits (Caroline Goodall and Ian Ogilvy), the sex-crazed latinas and a group of friendly Canadians—the gag being they later lose their cool… the list goes on. Oh, and there is the tour guide for the Canadians, Nico (Alistair McGowan looking like a cross between Joe Flaherty and a bottle of Brylcreem), who competes with Georgia to put on the best tour.

Georgia’s problem, as Poupi sees it, is that she takes the history of Greece too seriously. I didn’t find fault with that. Can I be the only person who would go to Greece to actually learn something about its architecture, culture, people, and history?

Poupi keeps dropping hints that he likes Georgia, but of course this is a romance-comedy and there must be a misunderstanding. One of the tourists, Marc (Brian Palermo), inadvertently becomes her target of lust when he gets sunblock in his eye and starts blinking. Has there ever been a lazier Meet Cute running interference in a plot? It gets worse…

The pacing and scenes are so choppy and uneven, one gets the impression there were two whole movies that were whittled down to two half-movies instead of one cogent narrative. Irv (Richard Dreyfuss wasting his talent), a retired widower, is on the vacation he and his wife never got around to taking. Immediately after relating this story to us, Georgia interjects, “Let’s go shopping!” The film’s only tender moment, and only thoughtfully-crafted character, are undercut by the desire to get the rom-com adventure back on the rails. Leave it to Hollywood to take a bad idea and make it terrible.

My Life In Ruins • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 • Running Time: 95 minutes • MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual content. • Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures

Dolby and the double-D symbol are registered trademarks of Dolby Laboratories.