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Monday
Aug102009

Julie & Julia (2009)

Imitation Crab

Julie & Julia is the reason I created this blog. It’s not that I was inspired by Julie Powell’s story of becoming an Internet culinary diarist; I was repelled by it. Walking out of the theatre, surrounded by happy, chattering faces, I realized that this pathetic, over-long mess is supposed to represent entertainment for adults (as opposed to “adult entertainment”). It’s made for people who don’t go to movies; who don’t appreciate art or intellect; who consider Friends to be hilarious, groundbreaking television.

On the surface, the film has a lot going for it. It’s not a romantic comedy, though it’s certainly being advertised with the same rote, gooey commercials. Rather, it’s half biopic, half journey-of-discovery-movie, and all “comedy”. Julie & Julia begins in the late 1940s with Julia Child (Meryl Streep) arriving in France at the end of some sort of government career; she’s bored by long days of waiting for her husband, Paul (Stanley Tucci), to return home from his embassy job, and so decides to become a professional chef. Cut to 2002 New York, where government employee Julie Powell (Amy Adams) struggles with the boredom and heartbreak of handling insurance claims after 9/11. Frustrated by being the only one in her circle of catty, well-to-do friends without ambition or prospects, she sets about becoming a blogger, with a goal of preparing all 541 recipes in Juila Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 365 days.

If you’re a fan of romantic comedies—or just happen to watch a good deal of them—the rest of the picture will be utterly familiar and probably very entertaining. If you’re a fan of biopics, as am I, the rest of the picture will be like listening to a book report based on Cliff’s Notes presented by a cheerleader with short-term memory loss: it’s peppy and occasionally spunky, but all the really interesting, vital information is left out in favor of facile genre-defining plot points. Writer/Director Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail) has created a mash-up of Powell’s bestseller, Julie & Julia, and Julia Child’s book with Alex Prud’homme, My Life in France. The problem is that the Julie Powell story centers on an unpleasant, wholly uninteresting caricature of the New York woman, while the Julia Child story turns a very interesting, historic woman into a bird-voiced caricature of herself. Much has been made of Streep’s portrayal of Child, but watching the film, I couldn’t help but think it was much broader than it should’ve been; Ephron makes the fatal mistake of actually playing Dan Aykroyd’s Saturday Night Live skit—where he parodies Child—in the middle of the movie; keen observers may note very little difference between the quality of the two performances.

I understand that Julie & Julia is not a biopic, and that it is not meant to teach us anything about Julia Child; this is Julie Powell’s story—as such, I suppose it’s perfectly acceptable to treat the Child portions of the film as mere slice-of-life vignettes meant to mirror Powell’s own boring struggles. We never learn anything about Child, such as why someone raised in Pasadena, California sounds like a Dickensian schoolmarm on laughing gas; we never learn what compelled her to become a spy during World War II (in fairness, this information came out only last year); we don’t get anything substantive regarding her relationship with Paul, except that he’s much older and they apparently can’t—or won’t—have children (their relationship is so tender and yet so weird that it comes across as that of a sham marriage between two gay best friends). Instead, we get more Julie than Julia. We see her cry again and again about not having made anything of herself; she whines about her anxiety over boning a duck; we watch her type lame entries on her blog that have as much insight and humor as the average Carrie Bradshaw column—which is to say, none; one scene involving Julie falling victim to a pot of boiling lobsters reminded me of a Swedish Chef skit on The Muppet Show. It’s the filmmaker’s prerogative to ditch facts for whimsy, but, honestly, does it have to be this dumb?

Never mind that we never see Julia Child make the leap to television, where the majority of Americans grew to know and love her (which is akin to doing a Michael Phelps biopic without mentioning the Olympics). The last straw was the movie’s utter failure to develop a sub-plot involving Julia Child’s apparent snubbing of Julie’s blog. This fascinating nugget promised to bridge the two parallel arcs by bringing Streep and Adams face to face, but it was never expounded upon. Instead, the slight was mentioned and dropped, acting as nothing more than an excuse to watch Adams cry again.

There’s a fascinating Julia Child biopic waiting to be made by a writer and director with a real story to tell, and an actress who understands nuance. Julie & Julia is nothing like that film; it’s a fragrant, gorgeously presented quiche stuffed with rat poison.

Sunday
Aug092009

Messengers 2: The Scarecrow (2009)

 Pumpkin Patchy

Messengers 2: The Scarecrow is at once the most frustrating prequel I’ve ever seen and the best direct-to-video thriller I’ve ever seen. Set about five years before the haunted farmhouse romp, The Messengers (starring a pre-Twilight, pre-bizarre-respiratory-disorder-as-acting-crutch Kristen Stewart), this film fills in the back-story of the Rollins family, most of whom we saw murdered at the beginning of the first film. Ostensibly, it promises to reveal the dark secrets of how the land on which two families staked their fortunes turned into a breeding ground for restless spirits (or at least how Norman Reedus morphed into John Corbett in half a decade), but by movie’s end, we’re left with the feeling that this is really a prequel to a prequel. 

While a quote on the DVD cover describes Messengers 2 as “The Shining gone country,” this film owes much more to the classic film, The Devil and Daniel Webster. John Rollins (Reedus), a struggling corn farmer, has had more bad seasons than he can manage; his credit is capped at the local grain store; his farm faces foreclosure; his irrigation system seems perpetually broken; swarms of angry crows demolish anything resembling a healthy crop. This causes tension between he and his wife, Mary, and their two kids, Lindsey and Michael. One day, John finds a dried out scarecrow inside a false wall in his barn. Little Michael warns him not to put it up, that it creeps him out, but Dad ignores this sage advice and erects the scarecrow in the middle of his dying field. Within days, mounds of dead crows litter the land, the water system begins working, and the banker who’d come to foreclose on the farm is run over by a semi-truck. 

By this point, because the movie had been given an “R” rating and gone straight-to-video, I thought I knew exactly how things would unfold; namely a series of grisly deaths, some half-assed mysticism about ancient ghosts and farmland, and the inevitable ending, where John goes completely berserk and kills everyone. But Messengers 2 is full of surprises—most good, one horribly, horribly bad—and I found myself engaged with many of the characters and their unfortunate circumstances. Just as The Mist isn’t really about other-dimensional monsters, Messengers 2 isn’t about ghosts or a possessed scarecrow; it’s really about the nightmare of having to provide for one’s family and maintaining dignity in the face of economic despair. I was so involved with Norman Reedus’ performance—and, to a lesser extent, Heather Stephens’ turn as Mary—that I was thrilled to see their dynamic play out for most of the film’s run-time; as opposed to, say, having to watch that stupid glowing-eyed monster on the DVD cover. The drama works, even if some of director Martin Barnewitz’s trippy camera moves representing John’s despair do not. If one were to take the supernatural elements out of Messengers 2, the result would be a perfectly satisfying middle-America hardship tale.

But who wants that, eh? Not when there’s a glowing-eyed scarecrow on the DVD cover! So, yes, the movie includes some rather depressing cinematic asides: the wise old farmer who happens to share a first name with the unseen killer in the tacked-on pre-credits sequence (wonder if he’ll turn out to be evil?); the mysterious, sexy temptress who’s more cup-size than performance; the inevitable rise of the scarecrow—ridiculous in concept, not bad in execution. It’s all a mess, but not one that derails the picture. 

One of the benefits of watching a DTV movie is being able to instantly re-watch it with the commentary track. Barnewitz and screenwriter Todd Farmer provide a lively, informative discussion about the origins of the film and the creative challenges they faced in shoehorning Farmer’s original draft (of a movie called, simply, The Scarecrow) into the Messengers franchise (we also learn that the whole film was shot in Bulgaria, and that every stick of furniture and every acre of corn had been scratch-built—each detail, wholly fabricated and convincing). Most importantly, they talk about the ending, which is a happy one, and which doesn’t mesh with what we know about the Rollins family from the “original” Messengers. An executive producer demanded that the film not be a downer, which is inexplicable considering how the movie was released—what, they were afraid that bad word-of-mouth would cripple their DVD sales (three words, “glowing-eyed scarecrow”; okay, I’ll let it go)? So we end up with a huge chunk of story missing between films—namely, why and how does John Rollins go insane and kill everyone? Were it not for the commentary track, I would’ve written this off as sloppiness on the part of the creative team; alas, it was an executive decision, which does little to soften the blow.

I would love to have seen Todd Farmer’s The Scarecrow made into a movie, without the burden of a sequel hanging over it. In fact, if you haven’t already seen The Messengers, I recommend skipping it altogether and sticking with the prequel (besides, any serious horror student knew John Corbett’s secret the instant he appeared on screen, and that was fifteen minutes into the picture). Though it has a number of pitfalls, the acting of the main cast and the writing is compelling enough to hold one’s attention—at least until…just look at the DVD cover.

Wednesday
Feb182009

Friday the 13th (2009)

Enhanced But Not Improved

This may be hard for many of you to accept, but Friday the 13th Part Twelve isn’t a very good movie; I know, technically, this is supposed to be Friday-the-13th-Part-One-for-the-Facebook-Generation, but this is one shabby excuse for a reboot (I’d call it more of a re-wet sock). Sure it’s got the requisite blood and boobs, but it also has boredom, a real problem when you’re dabbling in the slasher genre. 

Let’s begin at the beginning. It’s a dark and stormy night at Camp Crystal Lake in the year nineteen-hundred-and-eighty; a desperate camp counselor (denoted by the word “Counselor” written in large block letters across the back of her clingy, drenched shirt) is on the run from a deranged old lady. There’s a confrontation, spliced lazily in with the opening credits, and we get the dinner theatre version of the “Jason-is-my-son-and-today-is-his-birthday” speech. The counselor- who has been running away from this unarmed geriatric troll while carrying a machete- beheads her pursuer and scampers off into the woods. A few quick cuts and credits later, we see a little boy pick up a locket that the old lady had been wearing around her neck (it’s really easy to get off, by the way) and he, too, scampers off into the woods. Yes, this is little Jason Voorhees, alive and well; and if you’re wondering why his mother would go on a killing spree to avenge the drowning death of her clearly un-drowned child, then you’re officially too smart to enjoy this movie. 

Flash forward 29 years to the same woods. A group of randy, good-looking twenty-somethings has set up camp for the night, taking a break from their search for a legendary marijuana crop in the wilds of New Jersey (sounds like the screenwriters found it alright). Because someone in the audience might not have heard of Jason Voorhees, or may have been asleep for the previous five minutes of the film, the legend of Camp Blood is retold; it’s such a sexy tale that the campers go off to their tents and into the woods to “make love”, at which point they are butchered by a grown-up Jason (Derek Mears) wearing a bed sheet over his head. One of the campers, Whitney (Amanda Righetti), is spared and held captive by Jason because she bears a (remarkably unconvincing) resemblance to the picture of Jason’s mother from the locket. Yep, it’s a new century, kids, and Jason Voorhees kidnaps people now. 

Twenty minutes into the movie, “Friday the 13th” appears on the screen in big red letters. 

Six weeks later (stay with me), Whitney’s brother, Clay (Jared Padalecki), shows up in town, looking for leads in her disappearance. We get several scenes of him knocking on doors and being rejected by the locals and the county sheriff, along with extended shots of a new group of campers buying beer and pumping gas. In the film business, these chunks of blood-and-boob-free time are known as “character development”, i.e. “lifeless filler”. Honestly, there’s nothing else to describe here, plot-wise, because you all know the drill. Stalk. Slash. Stalk. Slash. The story’s all by-the-numbers and unfortunately so are the murders. Because the filmmakers wanted to create a modern-day mash-up of the first three (really, four) Fridays, they end up delivering poorly-staged Xeroxes of deaths that were spectacular thirty years ago. There was only one true “jump” moment in the whole picture, and that involved the one scene that wasn’t completely telegraphed from start to finish. And that gets at the heart of what’s so very wrong with this movie. 

Director Marcus Nispel birthed the Texas Chainsaw Massacre update a few years ago, and has essentially remade his remake here; particularly in the latter part of the film, when we’re taken deep into the killer’s lair (Jason Voorhees does not have a lair!), one gets the feeling that the boy Jason did drown years ago, and that Leatherface simply relocated to Jersey and took up hockey. There’s too much intelligence in this Jason, a fact that many are praising, but which took me right out of the experience. Jason has always been a big, dumb, lucky death factory; the argument could be made that this version of the character has yet to become Mindless Zombie Jason, but that’s like making a movie about Darth Vader where he’s not yet become the all-powerful bastard of the universe (oops). If Nispel or his screenwriters had any talent, guts, or imagination, they would have truly rebooted the franchise with a movie featuring Mrs. Voorhees as the killer; they could have explored whatever happened to Mr. Voorhees and tidied up the hole-filled mythology that has plagued the Friday films for decades. But, no, they had to have the guy in the mask wielding the machete; I’m not saying I want my slasher movies to be Memento, but they have to have a reason to exist beyond the easy stuff. After having been shot into space and fighting Freddy Krueger, planting him back in Camp Crystal Lake with the same crop of mentally deficient teenage Spam-shavings seems like a cruel joke (one that’s on us). 

I’d like to close with a brief note about breasts. While it’s true that the new Friday the 13th has an abundance of female nudity, I must confess that nearly all of it had the opposite intended effect on me. The girls were uniformly attractive in this picture, but once their tops came off, I was faced with the oddest pairs of “enhanced” boobage that I’ve seen in quite awhile. Only one actress looked to have dodged the scalpel, but she was part of one of the weirdest, most poorly cut sex scenes in the series’ history. If you think this last paragraph is chauvinistic, you probably have a point; but it’s also the perfect illustration of why Nispel’s Friday is slasher porn for idiots: it opts for flashy freak fare when all that’s needed are the simple pleasures of the real thing(s).

Thursday
Jan152009

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Oscar-Mired Wieners, Part Two

A few years ago, I stopped going to the movies during Oscar season; I should clarify by saying that I only went to movies that I was fairly sure had no chance of being recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I couldn’t take the over-produced crowd-pleasing nonsense that passed for High Art; you know, movies like Slumdog Millionaire

Blasphemy! How could I have not fallen in love with the moving story of lovable beggar Oliver Twist—sorry, Jamal Malik. I’ll tell you how. Have a look at the film’s poster. You see option “D” in the multi-choice Who Wants To Be A Millionaire question? Well, the movie opens with a similar question and a similar set of options, except that “D” is “It Is Written”. Yes, thirty seconds into the movie, I said, “Oh, fuck” (to myself, of course). What follows is two hours of contrived back-story in which our hero answers a series of Millionaire questions whose answers relate—in chronological order—to his hard-scrabble Indian upbringing. Think of this movie as Forrest Gupta

It’s not all heart-strings and fanfare, though. Director Danny Boyle brings some great touches of savagery to the screen, including peasant children being blinded for the purpose of gaining more charity and Jamal’s torture at the hands of local cops. These scenes hint at a more genuine film, but every grasp is met with a scene-shift into either stereotypes (let’s laugh at the guilty white American tourists!) or falsehoods (what game show would allow the host and contestant to take an un-monitored simultaneous piss-break after the last—and most valuable—question has been asked?)…

This is a shame, too, as the cast is uniformly terrific. Dev Patel in particular plays the grown-up Jamal with passion and wonder; the script, however, paints his character as alternately a kind of autistic rube and a pissy brute that prefers slamming people into walls over reasoned discussion. Anil Kapoor, as the game show host, is sufficiently cheery and exciting; but he is undermined by a late-in-the-story plot involving his unease at being de-throned as the show’s reigning champion (not to mention the fact that he’s apparently some sort of crooked crime boss with enough pull to have the cops torture contestants in between tapings). I don’t know if such things actually occur in Dubai, or if screenwriter Simon Beaufoy is counting on my cultural ignorance to pull one over on me; either way, Slumdog Millionaire doesn’t make me believe that these things could happen or should happen…

I also don’t buy Jamal’s undying love for Latika (Frieda Pinto), another street urchin who grows up to be a mobster’s girlfriend and one of the most beautiful women in the world. Jamal pursues her for most of his young life, never quite putting together the fact that she’s been a prostitute for much of hers; the movie doesn’t even attempt to deal with this issue; she’s just, y’know, looking for love and stuff. In Boyle and Beaufoy’s India, the streetwalkers are all well-adjusted, kept women. Okay, maybe that’s unfair, but the film’s utter lack of context gives me nothing to work with, and certainly nothing to care about…

I almost forgot to mention Jamal’s brother, Salim . He’s the Bad Brother (Jamal’s the Good Brother, you see). Salim opts for the glamour and security offered by a life of crime, and his storyline ends on a laughable Scarface-esque note. Shortly after, we’re treated to a wholly out-of-place Bollywood dance number, and I suppose it’s Boyles only measure of restraint that we didn’t see Salim’s bulled-ridden corpse doing the Electric Slide…

Danny Boyle has made two great movies: Trainspotting and Sunshine. While not perfect, they firmly establish the other-worldly qualities of their characters and their lives. Slumdog Millionaire tries to have it both ways: it wants to be both a fairy tale and a gritty slice-of-life culture study. But the script—which, had it been written for the Hollywood studio system, would have been rejected by the B-staff of Full House—never gets on board with either idea. For a film like this to work, one must either remove the contrivances or head at them full-speed with stylistic over-kill. This syrupy pap just made me want to kill myself…

Thursday
Jan152009

The Wrestler, 2008

Oscar-Mired Wieners, Part One

It's a sad state of affairs when the sixth film in a boxing franchise is superior to an alleged tour de force original film about wrestling. But it's gotta be said: Rocky Balboa knocks the shit out of The Wrestler, the new Darren Aronofsky film starring Mickey Rourke that has garnered a lot of Oscar buzz (and recently netted a Golden Globe for its star)...

The Wrestler starts out interestingly enough, walking the audience through the life of professional bruiser Randy "The Ram" Robinson. He's got a hearing aid and a bad case of plastic surgery, and spends two days a week competing in the equivalent of off-off-off-Broadway matches (the other five days are devoted to clerking in a local grocery store). These competitions range from standard bounce-off-the-ropes fights to low-rent cage matches, where the object is to apparently make running stabs at the opponent using several sharp and illegal weapons without blacking out (this constitutes not only a brutal scene, but the only one of true invention in The Wrestler: Aronofsky teases us by beginning with the end of the fight, where The Ram is being treated for several gaping wounds and then flashing back to show--in full Passion of the Christ mode--how he got them; the audience's sighs of relief turn to gasps of horror in one very slick turn). We also see The Ram encouraging young fighters and showing up to micro-conventions to sign autographs for a handful of eager fans. The near-documentary quality of the film's first third promises a gripping look at this failed character...

Unfortunately, Aronofsky went gold-statue fishin' with a tackle box full of Oscar bait, which means The Ram has to have a series of tearful encounters with people as damaged as himself; these generic props are stipper-with-a-heart-of-gold Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) and Ram's daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). The Ram wants to go out with Cassidy, but she has a kid and is afraid of getting hurt and...you can fill in the rest with a 99.9% chance of accuracy. Stephanie, who hasn't seen her father in years, is a college student majoring in drama (this is my theory, based on the fact that she has about three minutes of screen time where she's not crying or screaming). These characters derail The Wrestler because they are not given anything to do beyond the demands of the film's trailer. If you are surprised by any of the developments in their storylines, I congratulate you on being a fan of Quantum of Solace. Tomei and Wood are wonderful performers, but there is almost a misogynistic bent to their roles: they are the ingrates, the whores who are unable to prop up our hero in his darkest hour--until it's too late. Spare me...

Back to The Ram. He is offered a re-match against the foe whom he faced in his last big fight, twenty years ago. After suffering a heart attack, he gives up on the match; then he decides to fight after all. He quits his job at the grocery store (in a scene that is supposed to be empowering, but which really makes him look like a dumb, bitter asshole), and, against doctor's orders, enters the ring. By the time the credits rolled, I really hoped that something awful would happen to Randy "The Ram" Robinson. It wasn't just that the movie had let me down, but Rourke's portrayal was so grating, so selfish, that I just couldn't stand to look at him anymore (it's the same reason I couldn't watch any film starring Catherine Keener for about eight years); I suppose this is a testament to Rourke's ability to bring any poorly written character study to life and make it believable, but I want to be able to cheer for the person I'm supposed to like, not hope they die penniless and alone...

Which brings me--at last--back to Rocky Balboa, the perfect sequel. One can easily (and happily) discount the second through fifth installments of the franchise and simply view Rocky and Rocky Balboa as two movies made thirty years apart. Sylvester Stallone imbued in Rocky a desperation to succeed that felt real, and set him in a rough Philly neighborhood that served to keep him down. In Balboa, he's back in that neighborhood after years of fights and personal loss; we know that he retired because of health reasons and opened a restaurant to keep busy and happy; he's estranged from his son, who struggles to make it in the business world and prove that he's more than a famous last name. The movie is filled with actual characters who have arcs and sub-plots of their own. When Rocky enters the ring against an opponent forty years his junior at the end of the film, we know that he's railing against depression and the notion that with age comes softness; in The Wrestler, The Ram comes off as a conceited dumb-ass who can't follow directions...

The key difference between the films--aside from the likability of the main characters--is that The Wrestler provides zero context for its hero's current condition. The Ram was once a major wrestler, with action figures, video games, endorsements, marquee matches. He had to have been a millionaire; twenty years on, he lives in a trailer. Did he gamble away his money? Snort it away? What happened to his family life, what caused the rift with Stephanie? On top of that, are the matches in which he competes legal? Is he part of some underground wrestling network that secretly converts school gyms into Fight Clubs on Saturdays? The movie is so full of questions that it needs an hour's worth of flashbacks just to help me give a shit. It's like watching a Donald Trump biopic in which he's living under the Brooklyn Bridge in the year 2029, hoping against hope to get into a small-business expo--except that we're only given an opening-credits montage showing him building a multi-billion dollar real estate empire; what happened to all the money?

I have no problem with movies like this being made, because they're easily forgettable and tend to remind me of better movies--and why I love them. My beef comes from the hype and praise that boost ticket sales and convince people that they should be moved by drivel that's not good enough for the Hallmark Channel. It's like being stuck in Aronofsky's far superior Requiem for a Dream in which everyone in the wold seems to be dangerously high...