Sunday, June 26, 2011

Bummer Summer for the Movies

I've been to screenings of three of the summer's "big" movies over the past week and I must say I was mostly less than impressed. When I see a film that doesn't excite me intellectually—or even on a visceral level—it leaves me enervated. And a couple of these films were so cynical and formulaic, it really felt like an insult to audiences that the producers would even try to pass them off as entertainment.

An air of weary déja vu hangs over The Hangover Part II. Jumble the characters around a bit, transplant the action to Thailand, spin some variations on the raunchy jokes, and you have a feeble sequel to the surprise 2009 hit. This time Stu (Ed Helms) is the one getting married, having dumped his shrewish fiance from the original, and his new love is Lauren (Jamie Chung), a Thai-American, and the Wolfpack sets off for her home country for the wedding being held at her father's palatial estate.

Phil (Bradley Cooper) wants the boys to come out to the beach for a wedding eve toast, joined by Lauren's genius brother, 16-year-old Teddy (Mason Lee, son of director Ang Lee), whom Alan takes an immediate and inexplicable dislike to. Of course, they wake up in a sleazy hotel room in Bangkok with no memory of what had transpired the night before. Instead of a tiger and a baby in the room, there's a drug-dealing Capuchin monkey, and Mr. Chow (Ken Jeung) is introduced right away, naked, with another gag about Teddy is nowhere to be found, but his severed finger (identified by his school ring) is discovered, so the guys hit the mean streets of Bangkok to reconstruct the previous night and locate the kid, leading them to a series of misadventures that are ever-escalating in their awfulness.

If you've seen the first film, you pretty much know everything that's going to happen in this one. The setting is different, but the incidents are the same with—as I said earlier—slight variation. Instead of a missing tooth, Stu now sports a Mike Tyson-style tattoo on his face. Instead of a car trunk, Mr. Chow is thrown into an ice machine after he snorts a bump of cocaine and appears to die of a heart attack. And vicious thugs are coming out of the woodwork to attack them—but no one knows why.

Director Todd Phillips, along with co-scripters Craig Mazin and Scot Armstrong, seem to think that the characters need to be more extreme to be effective. As a result, Stu is an even bigger quivering mess and Phil is an even bigger asshole. Alan (Zack Galifianakis), who was a somewhat psycho but funny child-man in the first film, has become a complete psycho in the sequel, and it's more disturbing than anything else. Ironically, Jeung's pansexual, arrogant Chow actually comes off the best, as his character serves as kind of a Greek chorus, chanting "You all suck!" to the other cast members.

I didn't laugh once during the film...maybe a chuckle. I enjoyed the car chase, but otherwise the filmmakers' attempts at extreme grossness were just extremely gross without being funny, and some of the gags were pretty offensive. Oh—and the cameo that Mel Gibson was supposed to play was done by Liam Neeson, then reshot with Nick Cassavettes, and that's the one used in the film. And I guess they're going to have to digitally erase Helms' Tyson tattoo when the film comes to cable and DVD.

Today I saw J.J. Abrams' Super 8, a film I've discussed on this blog a couple of times, even speculating if it had the chance to be the summer movie of 2011. Well, the answer!

Super 8 begins as a charming-enough Spielbergian story of a bunch of kids making a zombie movie in a small Ohio town in the summer of 1979. While shooting a scene at a train station in the middle of the night, they hurry to take advantage of an actual oncoming train—"Production values!" cries the director (Riley Griffiths)—but they're horrified when it suddenly derails, boxcars piling up in fiery heaps.

Strange things start to happen (electrical blackouts, the disappearance of metal objects like car engines and microwaves) and the army invades. Meanwhile, the children, who've sworn not to tell anyone that they'd witnessed the wreck, try to figure out what's going on. But the film lurches abruptly from a Goonies-style adventure into strictly Michael Bay territory, with much headache-inducing slamming and crashing and huge pieces of metal being thrown all over the place. And,'ve read it other places, I'm sure, but let me also chime in to say that the denouement well and truly sucks.

Abrams' fawning attempt at a Spielberg film circa the late 1970s didn't take proper lessons from those films, and that's why it's not a success. Now, I confess I'm not a Spielberg fan—I find his films to be too heavy-handed (except Catch Me If You Can, which was a surprise), but if you've got fond memories of the movies Abrams is paying tribute to—Close Encounters, E.T., The Goonies (not directed by him but based on a Spielberg story), you'll find little to charm you here.

Super 8 is too hard-edged and mean to be charming. It's not really a kids' film at all, yet it's too lame for adults. Most all of the characters are one-dimensional and cliches abound. Griffiths, as the budding director, is the prototypical "fat kid" with self-esteem issues and a houseful of obnoxious siblings. Elle Fanning, as Alice, the "girl from the wrong side of the tracks" has a weary mien and dark circles under her eyes that say more about her relationship with her abusive father than even the filmmakers may have intended. Joel Courtney, as Joe Lamb, son of the town's deputy sheriff (Kyle Chandler), who is grieving over his mother's accidental death, starts out appealingly, especially in his developing relationship with Alice, but he gets saddled with some of the film's most groan-worthy "twists."

I should've sensed trouble from the very beginning. It's during the wake at Joel's house after his mother's funeral. He's sitting outside on a swing, despondent, and an actress looking through the kitchen window at him with welling blue eyes and trembling lips is giving a really bad performance as she talks about how worried she is about him and how she's afraid his father won't be able to take care of him.

Super 8's biggest problem, though, is that unlike the 1970s films that inspired it, this film isn't necessary to ever see again. Once the ending has been revealed to you, and you've booed appropriately, it's all over. There's no friendly extraterrestrial to revisit or magic spaceship to watch rise again over the Devil's Tower. There's just a really stupid conclusion to two noisy hours that you'll never get back as Michael Giacchino's John Williamsy music swells on the soundtrack.

And that's the big difference between Spielberg's blockbusters and Super 8. No charm, no repeatability...end of story.

Easily my favorite of the summer movies I saw last week is X-Men: First Class. English director Matthew Vaughn (whose Stardust I liked a lot) takes the reins and gives much-needed, James Bondish boost of energy to the fifth installment in the series. Here we meet Xavier and Erik/Magneto as children and then again as young men, getting the backstory of how they were shaped into the hero/villain they eventually became.

James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are terrific as Xavier and Erik, sharing a nice bromance before they become mortal enemies. Kevin Bacon is a fun surprise as Schmidt, the concentration camp doctor who kills Erik's mother and years later evolves into Sebastian Shaw, plotting to destroy and enslave all the humans on earth so that the mutants can have free reign. At first they work together to assemble a mutant team to battle Shaw, but Xavier realizes that Erik is much too driven by anger and vengeance, and the two friends are driven apart. Shaw wants to make the Cuban missile crisis happen. Xavier wants to stop him and Erik just wants to kill him. All these strands of story converge in a pretty spiffing climax.

The film has its share of snappy dialogue, much of it quite amusing. The action sequences are enjoyably staged and take place all over the world, giving it nice movement and expansiveness. There are a couple of hilarious cameos to watch for: when Xavier and Erik are canvassing for mutants to join their team, they find Wolverine in a bar. Before they can even offer him their proposition, he snarls, "Go fuck yourself." In another scene, the jailbait Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) sneaks into Erik's bed to try to seduce him, and he tells her to come back in a few years. "Is this better?" she asks, transforming herself into—Rebecca Romijn!

I always have to mention when I'm writing about superhero movies that I'm not a follower of the comics they're based on, so when I see one that I find comprehensible and exciting without benefit of the original story, I have to compliment it. X-Men: First Class is one of those films. It's top-heavy with mutants, some of whom I knew and others I'd never seen before, but they were well-integrated into the story. I especially enjoyed seeing them as kids, learning to manage their powers under Xavier's tutelage.

Of course, the parallels between the mutants' longing for acceptance, the struggle for Civil Rights and the battle against homophobia are still there and addressed in sometimes amusing fashion. When government employee Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult) is inadvertently "outed" as a mutant by Xavier, he tells his human employer, "You didn't ask...and I didn't tell."

There's certainly a sequel coming for this one, and I welcome it. I've liked all the X-Men films, even—gasp!—X3 and X-Men Origins, but this arc of the franchise seems like it will have more philosophical and metaphorical subject matter to chew on.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

McGregor and Plummer Shine in "Beginners"

What do you do when your mother dies and your father comes out at age 75, only to be diagnosed with terminal cancer himself? You make a wonderful, cathartic autobiographical film about it, and Mike Mills has done just that with Beginners, his sophomore feature effort (after 2005’s charming Thumbsucker.)

Ewan McGregor plays Oliver, son of Hal (Christopher Plummer), a museum curator, and Georgia (Mary Page Keller), his spirited but frustrated wife. Their marriage has not been a happy one, and it’s had a lasting negative impact on Oliver’s own relationships. Oliver’s not a bad guy—he’s just afraid of commitment. And when Georgia dies, Hal reveals to his son that he’d been gay all along…and he’s eager to start the “second act” of his life. Oliver is surprised to see his father as a whole person for the first time, embracing his new lifestyle and even taking a younger lover (Goran Visjnic). But this happy time is short—soon Hal faces his own terminal diagnosis.

The film is constructed with three concurrent (but never confusing) storylines. In the first, we see the relationship of the preteen Oliver (Keegan Boos) with Georgia. Her husband is perpetually absent (Oliver is frequently asking, “Where’s Pop?”) but she’s an affectionate, indulgent mother given to fits of zaniness. In the second, we see the evolution of the relationship between father and son after Georgia’s death, beginning with Hal’s confession about his sexuality and culminating with his illness. The final storyline chronicles Oliver’s relationship with a beguiling French actress named Anna (Melanie Laurent) whom he meets just months after Hal’s death…and who also has serious commitment problems.

Not that Beginners is a relentlessly depressing affair; as a matter of fact, it’s got a lot of humor. With Thumbsucker, Mills proved himself capable of handling whimsy with flair, and Beginners comes close to being too cute for its own good, but somehow never crosses that threshold. As a matter of fact, the humor does much to help ease the melancholy and make it that much more poignant simultaneously. Mills’ background as a graphic designer and music video director come in handy, too—he incorporates montages of vintage photographs and images to show how people lived when Oliver’s parents first met in the 1950s, what they looked like—even a mini-history of gay rights throughout the decades. It’s an effective device that he uses sparingly throughout the film.

McGregor is onscreen for almost the entire running time and his portrayal of Oliver is wonderful. Although he looks physically the same in all of his films (unless you count 1994’s Trainspotting), he has that actor’s gift of inhabiting his characters and adapting their personalities. As I said earlier, his Oliver seems like a really good guy, but he’s put up a defensive shield to protect himself from pain. That shield starts to disintegrate when his relationship with his father changes and they’re able to really communicate with each other for the first time in their lives.

There’s a scene in which Hal tells Oliver that Georgia had known he was gay from the beginning, but promised to “fix” him. His eyes fill with tears as he tells his son how badly he wanted that to happen. It’s a remarkable moment, and it explains a lot about Hal’s frequent absences and Georgia’s melancholy.

Laurent (also in Inglorious Basterds) is appealing as McGregor’s love interest. She, too, is carrying serious baggage, and both actors can communicate what’s going on in their minds in scenes that have no dialogue at all. Visjnic, who had a recurring role on TV’s long-running E.R., gives dimension to Andy, a mildly flamboyant and unapologetically promiscuous guy who nevertheless truly loves Hal. Keller has only a few scenes to in which to sketch Georgia’s character, and she effectively offers a portrait of a woman who subsumes her unhappy marriage by indulging her only child. There’s an amusing scene at the art museum where Hal works (he’s not there, of course) where she studies a piece of sculpture and attempts to rearrange her limbs to mimic its shape, much to her son’s bemusement. Warned by a guard to stop, she asks, “What? Aren’t we allowed to interact with the artwork?”

And there’s a wonderful performance by a Jack Russell Terrier named Cosmo. You have to see the film to understand.

But it’s the veteran Plummer who really runs off with the film, grabbing one of those rare, juicy late-career roles and really running with it. Here is a man who’s been forced to conform to society’s norms his entire life, and Plummer is a joy to watch as Hal, a man who delights in each new day with a spirit that refuses to diminish, even with a death sentence looming over his head. Much like Hal Holbrook’s terrific turn in Sean Penn’s 2007 Into the Wild, I predict an Academy Award nomination.

Beginners is currently playing in selected cities but is scheduled to roll out to more screens. I hope it does. In a summer in which mutants, pirates, aliens and bridesmaids are are all struggling for box office domination, this quiet, poignant film is a real treasure.

Article first published as Ewan McGregor and Plummer Shine in Beginners on Blogcritics.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Great films about childhood

The best films about childhood are typically not for children. Instead, they're made for adults who are trying to recall—or to understand—that mysterious period between infancy and adulthood that shaped us into what we became. Three truly memorable films come to my mind, and I list them here in chronological order:

1. The 400 Blows (1959). Francois Truffaut's autobiographical classic grows in stature with each passing year, as its widescreen black and white cinematography delivers a stark vision of Paris far removed from the cafés and boulevards that are seen so frequently in other films. Jean-Pierre Léaud gives a precocious performance as Antoine Doinel, the only son of an adulterous mother and absent stepfather, whose rough treatment at school and neglect at home propel him into a life of petty crime, which causes him to be sent to a juvenile home by his uncaring parents.

This is Truffaut's first feature, and it is indeed an assured début. It's a founding film of the French New Wave of the 1950s and '60s, and like its predecessor, Italy's neorealism of the 1940s and '50s, it emphasizes realism over artifice and authentic locations over soundstages. Who cares if some of the people passing by in the street are looking at the camera? It only serves to drive home the point that the filmmakers are creating a piece about a real human being.

Léaud is unforgettable as Antoine, who serves as a stand-in for Truffaut as a child. He loves to read Balzac—so much so that an essay he writes at school is deemed plagiarism, leading to more trouble for him. He also spends a lot of time at the movies to forget his miserable life for a few magic hours.

Truffaut would make a total of four Antoine Doinel films: this one, Stolen Kisses (1968), Bed and Board (1970) and Love on the Run (1979). Just like a fictionalized version of Michael Apted's documentary series following a group of children from age seven through 49, they follow the life of Antoine from troubled youth to married novelist.

2. My Life As A Dog (1985). Lasse Hallstrom's utterly charming and powerfully emotional ode to childhood is, like The 400 Blows, another film that bears repeat viewing. I first saw it on its U.S. theatrical release in 1987, and I probably watch it every five years or so because it's ironically become a nostalgia piece for me, even though it's not about my childhood.

Anton Glanzelius stars as Ingemar, a young boy living in Sweden with his bullyish older brother and sick—in the medical sense—mother (Anki Lidén). What she is suffering from is never specified, but it appears to be tuberculosis. Ingemar is very close to his mother and is pained to see her health deteriorate and her ferocious fits of temper when he and his brother misbehave. The other love of Ingemar's life is his dog, Sickan.

The doctor recommends peace and quiet for their mother to recover, so they boys are sent to relatives for the summer and Sickan is shipped off to a kennel. Ingemar goes to live with his Uncle (Tomas von Brommsen) and aunt in the rural province of Småland, which is inhabited by a village full of happy people who also seem to clearly be out of their minds. Here, Ingemar gets his first taste of affection and companionship since his mother had become ill, and he revels in it.

When autumn comes, he and his brother are returned to their mother, but it doesn't last long. She is taken by ambulance to a sanitarium where she will spend her last days, although Ingemar doesn't know it. He's convinced that she doesn't want him anymore. When he returns to Småland, he's distressed to find that nobody there wants him around, either. Another thing that his relatives aren't telling him is that Sickan has (probably) been euthanized. His repeated requests to his uncle to have the dog sent for are awkwardly dodged, and when the reality of the situation becomes clear to him, his world comes crashing down around him.

Some critics complain that the Småland sequences are too corny and slapstick to fit in with the sober subject matter of the rest of the film, but I enjoy them—they're a light in Ingemar's otherwise grim life. His uncle is slowly and methodically constructing a summer house on someone else's property while playing a Swedish-language record of "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts" over and over again, which drives his wife insane. The elderly Mr. Arvidssen, who lives downstairs, frequently calls on Ingemar to read descriptions out of a women's lingerie catalogue to him. One of Ingemar's classmates has green hair, which is never explained. And the potential romantic interest in his life is Saga (Melinda Kinnaman), a tomboy who uses elastic tape to hide her developing breasts so that she can continue to play on the boys' football team.

Hallstrom's film is heartfelt and obviously a labor of love. It, too, benefits from lots of location work to give it that "you are there" feel. I don't think he's made a film anywhere near as good since, although What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993) has its charms. But the real key to Dog's success is the magnificent performance of 11-year-old Glanzelius. With his shaggy eyebrows and impish grin, he's like a Swedish Eddie Munster, and he really carries the film. Amazingly, this is only his second appearance before the cameras, and it's hard to say if he could have had a long career because—according to IMDB—he's now a producer for Swedish reality television!

Here's Glanzelius attempting to overcome the language barrier while being interviewed in New York by a woman with serious '80s hair:

3. Léolo. "They say I am French Canadian, but because I dream, I am not. They say he is my father, but I know I am not his son because he is crazy. Because I dream, I know I am not."

By far the grimmest entry here is this 1992 French Canadian film from Jean-Claude Lauzon. The best way I can describe it is as a primal scream about the horrors of childhood. I saw it during its original theatrical release and couldn't believe what I was watching: a shocking—and shockingly beautiful—work of art.

Maxime Collin is Léo Lauzon, a boy who lives with his dysfunctional family in a squalid tenement in Montreal and preserves his sanity by living an active fantasy life in which he is not the son of his father but is in reality Léolo Lozone, child of a Sicilian peasant and destined to return to his homeland, the beautiful hills of Sicily.

As I said, Léolo's family is bonkers and they all take turns spending time in the mental hospital, except for his tough, determined and enormous mother (Ginette Reno). Both she and her husband (Roland Blouin) are obsessed with shit, constantly dosing their children with laxatives and making sure their bowel movements are full and regular.

That's just the beginning. To clinically enumerate all of the shocking and revolting scenes in Léolo would put it in a category with John Waters' Pink Flamingos, yet it all comes together to become an unforgettable sort of fetid poetry. There's a sequence in which Léo dives into a river's filthy water to retrieve tangled fishhooks and re-sell them to the fishermen that becomes, in his mind, a search for a chest full of sparkling treasure.

He calls his obese, insane sister Rita (Geneviéve Samson) "The Queen," and they share secret time in a filthy, vermin-infested space under the building where he gives her his laxatives in exchange for her shit, so he can throw it into the toilet to prove to his father that he's functioning normally.

I sounds absolutely revolting and it certainly doesn't paint a pretty picture of the human condition, but just when you think you can't take any more, Lauzon throws in a scene of stunning grace and honesty that makes you swoon. And if you've got Tom Waits' "Frank's Wild Years," you've practically got the entire soundtrack album! Collin is another one of those inexperienced child actors who nevertheless manages to deliver a devastating portrayal, and with material like this, it must have been quite a challenge. Did I mention the masturbation scene with the raw beef liver?

Side note: when the Encore movie channel was launched here in the States sometime in the mid-90s, it would repeatedly air Léolo during the daytime without any kind of parental warning whatsoever. I guess the programmers saw a picture of Collin in the promotional materials, said "It's a kid's movie," and threw it on!

Tragically, Lauzon died in a plane crash in 1997, denying us the opportunity to see what other kinds of worlds he could bring to us. However, Léolo is an unforgettable, fitting epitaph.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Will "Super 8" Be The Summer Movie?

I commented in an earlier post that, while I'm mildly interested in the J.J. Abrams/Steven Spielberg Super 8, I feared that it was going to be too much like the Spielberg films of the '70s and'80s—you know, featuring endless shots of people staring in awe at the spaceship/cute alien/ectoplasm, etc. Well, it turns out that's exactly what it is. Variously described as Abrams' love letter to Spielberg's early films and The Goonies meets Cloverfield, Super 8 is jumping on the nostalgia bandwagon big-time.

I witnessed the birth of the blockbuster. I saw Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. theatrically when they were originally released. I enjoyed Jaws, with its vicious shark attacks and pop-up scares, but the other two just dripped with too much of that Spielberg "childlike wonder" treacle for me to stomach. That, to me, is Super 8's Achilles heel. Some people love that schmaltz, but it makes others gag.

It's certainly being marketed to bring in the audiences from three important tiers. You've got the original Spielberg generation—those who originally saw Jaws, Close Encounters and E.T. in theaters and wax nostalgic about the good old summer days. You've got the home video generation—the twenty-to-thirty-somethings who discovered them on cable and VHS, along with other kid favorites like the aforementioned Goonies, Gremlins, Explorers and Poltergeist. Finally, you've got today's generation who learned about those films in utero, andjust to be sureSuper 8's trailer seems to have enough contemporary-looking Transformers-style crashing and smashing to get their attention.

To top it all off, it's really on its own when it opens Friday. You might count Judy Moody and Her Whatever Summer as competition, but I sure wouldn't, despite the drawing power of Jaleel White.

A major challenge Super 8 faces (besides the schmaltz factor) in becoming the summer's big blockbuster is staying power. These days, hit movies top the box office for a week...maybe two. The Spielberg smashes of yore had legs that wouldn't quit and just ran on and on and on. Jaws, widely considered to be the very first summer blockbuster, played for months and enjoyed frequent revivals in the days before pay cable and home video. Super 8 will easily make back its production budget and P&A, but a true summer blockbuster must earn many times its budget to get that crown.

Green Lantern and Mr. Popper's Penguins are lurking June 17th to knock Super 8 off the top of the charts, but I don't really think either one has the necessary oomph, although Lantern is much more of a threat than Penguins. Even the middling Thor made $170 million domestically while—well, let's face it...Jim Carrey's marquee value is pretty much over. All that remains is for him to do a pathetic sequel to The Mask.

Positive word of mouth is vital to achieving blockbuster status, and early user reviews on IMDB are enthusiastic except for one thing—their reaction to the ending ranged from mild disappointment to outright hostility. It may be pushing the Spielberg warm-and-fuzzy angle a bit too hard, and if viewers hate the ending, they're not going to see it again...and social media makes it completely impossible for studios to "hide" details of their releases.

In my opinion, the jury is still out. There's lots of anticipation and it has a fairly solid 84% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, but if the ending is that much a problem, it remains to be seen how long it can stay on top.


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