Friday, January 28, 2011

The Mechanic: Reasonably well tuned

The Mechanic (2011) • View trailer for The Mechanic
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, nudity, sexual content and relentless brutal violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.28.11

As William Goldman explained so well in his fascinating 1983 study of the Hollywood scene, Adventures in the Screen Trade, the presence of a star affects the core dynamic of a motion picture, while also influencing our expectations upon seeing it.

A movie fashioned for Brad Pitt will, of necessity, undergo serious changes if he leaves and subsequently is replaced by Hugh Grant. And our anticipation, when entering the theater – knowing what Grant is likely to bring to the project, as opposed to what Pitt would have brought – changes accordingly.
When a clockwork-smooth assignment suddenly goes sour, once again due to
clumsy behavior by Steve (Ben Foster, left), he and Bishop (Jason Statham)
are stranded on a hotel roof, with plenty of gun-toting thugs swiftly surrounding
their position. The only solution? Plenty of blood-spurting carnage, of course!

Charles Bronson hadn’t yet become a household name when he made The Mechanic back in 1972; that level of fame wouldn’t arrive until 1975’s Death Wish. If people recognized him at all, it was from long-running roles in television’s Have Gun, Will Travel and supporting performances in films such as The Great Escape and The Dirty Dozen. Even though Bronson was appearing in up to five Westerns and exploitation flicks per year, by the late 1960s, most weren’t doing anything for his mainstream cred.

The Mechanic, along with The Valachi Papers and one or two others, began to turn that around.

Tautly directed by Michael Winner, from a slick and intelligent script by Lewis John Carlino, The Mechanic proved a perfect fit for Bronson’s laconic bearing and weather-beaten features. And since Bronson wasn’t yet a star, and thus didn’t present viewers with any expectations, Carlino’s clever and well-calculated storyline could move in unpredictable directions.

Jason Statham, in great contrast, is a well-established action star. His films may not be top-drawer – indeed, sometimes are pretty bad (Crank 2, anybody?) – but he remains popular nonetheless. And fans know what to expect: plenty of mayhem, lots of martial arts-style beat-downs and plenty of ’tude.

Particularly the latter. Statham is cool. Way-cool, in the same way Steve McQueen was cool during his younger years.

So while Statham is a solid choice for director Simon West’s muscular remake/update of The Mechanic, the story’s essence has been altered, and quite seriously. We never knew what was coming from Bronson’s Arthur Bishop; he was utterly unpredictable. Statham, on the other hand, is completely predictable ... as is our suspicion of where this film will go, when it hits the third act.

The Company Men: Downsize this

The Company Men (2010) • View trailer for The Company Men
Three stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity and brief nudity
By Derrick Bang

Although made with good intentions and well performed by an earnest cast, The Company Men ultimately drowns beneath writer/director John Wells’ soggy sentimentality and contrived character dynamics.

Not to mention a Pollyanna “resolution” that will infuriate anybody suffering long-term unemployment as a result of the current economic downtown. At the risk of inserting a major spoiler, we all should be lucky enough to catch the attention of a well-heeled sugar daddy.
Although unemployed and facing no prospects, Bobby (Ben Affleck, right)
breezily refuses an offer of work from his blue-collar brother-in-law, Jack
(Kevin Costner), which merely reinforces the latter's belief that his sister
married a world-class idiot.

Wells tries to eat his cake and have it: utterly impossible, when dealing with a subject this grave, this immediate, this ripped from the headlines. If Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones) and Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) are intended to represent men downsized and left feeling impotent by the loss of their stature as primary family bread-winners, then Wells must remain true to this premise. Instead, he eventually opts for a jarring fairy tale outcome apparently intended to send people from the theaters with optimistic smiles.

Nonsense. While it’s true we usually seek solace and escapism from the movies, we also expect consistency and fair play on the part of the filmmaker. 2009’s Up in the Air felt real, and made shrewd, perceptive statements about the widening divide between greedy corporate CEOs and rank-and-file employees; The Company Men is trite, dishonest and ultimately insulting.

The story begins as Bobby, smugly confident of the good life he has provided for his family, arrives at work after an early morning round of golf, only to discover that he has been swept up in a fresh round of layoffs at GTX, a large manufacturing conglomerate with more than 60,000 employees (although not for long). Bobby simply cannot – will not – believe it: This can’t be happening to him.

Still, he’s bright, cocky and talented; he breezily insists, when joining the ranks at a local professional job placement service – funded for a few months, as part of the GTX severance package – that he’ll be “outta here in a few days.”

His wife, Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt, delivering this film’s most sensitive performance), knows better. Although resolutely in her husband’s corner, she knows he’s but one of thousands of middle-age MBAs seeking new placement; she advises selling his beloved Porsche, canceling the country club membership and cutting back on “routine” expenses that have left them with absolutely no cushion.

The Rite: All wrong

The Rite (2011) • View trailer for The Rite
Two stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, sexual vulgarity, violence and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang

You’d better be careful, Sir Anthony, or your career will take the downward trajectory that turned Rod Steiger into such a cautionary tale.

Steiger garnered three Academy Awards nominations during a little more than a decade, and took home the gold for his starring role in 1967’s In the Heat of the Night. His moving supporting performance in 1981’s The Chosen proved to be his final truly respectable role; from that point forward, he was reduced to self-parodying comedy cameos and trailer-trash exploitation flicks along the lines of American Gothic, The Neighbor and (words fail me) Captain Nuke and the Bomber Boys.
Don't ever address the demon directly, Father Trevant (Anthony Hopkins, left)
warns Michael (Colin O'Donoghue), and don't ever look it in the eyes. But of
course the younger man does both those things throughout this laughable film.
This problem crops up repeatedly in The Rite, which routinely ignores or
violates the very "rules" established by its own narrative.

It was a grinding, embarrassing 20 years before we lost Steiger in 2001, by which time a new generation had grown up believing him nothing but a second-rate hack with – so it seemed – the worst agent in town.

Consider the uncomfortable parallel to Hopkins: a four-time Oscar nominee and winner, for 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs, who is much too content, these days, to deliver throwaway, self-parodying performances in dead-on-arrival projects such as Slipstream and the ill-advised remake of The Wolfman. And whatever the fan expectation for the upcoming big-screen version of the Marvel Comics superhero Thor, the discovery that Hopkins has been tagged to play the All-father Odin elicits nothing but snickers. And deservedly so.

All of which brings us to The Rite, a “January stiff” in every sense of the term. We know we’re in trouble, right from the top, when an opening crawl claims that Michael Petroni’s screenplay is “inspired by” actual events, and “suggested by” journalist Matt Baglio’s serious effort to document a controversial topic in his nonfiction book, The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist.

In other words, Petroni’s script doesn’t even try for authenticity, and this film lacks the honesty to call itself fiction. And when the final scene (mercifully!) fades to black, a final text crawl “informs” us what these “actual” characters are doing in our real world.

Yeah, right.

Swedish director Mikael Hafstrom, who did a reasonable job with the 2007 big-screen adaptation of Stephen King’s short story “1408,” gets full credit for an unsettling mood. Hafstrom has the Swedish sensibility for stark tableaus and gloomy establishing shots: abandoned playgrounds, dilapidated hotel courtyards and darkened, dusk-like skies.

And rain. Plenty of rain.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

From the archives: June 2009

Call this the month of redemption.

Director Tony Scott toned down the insufferable visual flourishes that had made such a mess of his recent films, and teamed with Denzel Washington and John Travolta for a solid remake of The Taking of Pelham 123. I was inclined to be skeptical, going in, having loved the original (still do). But Scott & Co. pulled it off; their Pelham is damn fine in its own right.

More surprisingly, Sandra Bullock erased several years’ worth of ill-advised movies with her marvelous comic turn in The Proposal, which re-ignited her career overnight. (In fairness, co-stars Ryan Reynolds and Betty White helped a bit.) This would prove to be the first half of Bullock’s comeback year, with The Blind Side still waiting in the wings.

Everybody politely overlooked All About Steve, her other 2009 film: a stinker of sufficient magnitude to win two of its five Razzie Award nominations. (Bullock, ever the good sport, collected in trophies in person ... while passing out DVD copies of the movie in question.)

But the movie I most remember from this month – the wonderful documentary that I’ve seen several times since – remains Every Little Step, a simply marvelous account of the casting call for the Broadway revival of A Chorus Line. I couldn’t believe it when this film failed to garner even a nomination for Oscar’s Best Documentary category, but then I’ve been annoyed for years by the arcane rules employed by the voters in some of these lesser categories. Every Little Step is a movie to own: to watch repeatedly. It’s irresistible.

As usual, the rest of the month was a mixed bag, starting with director Michael Bay’s overly bombastic and terminally stupid sequel to Transformers. Bay, I still believe, deserves full credit for doing his part to dumb down Hollywood fare.

Step into the Wayback Machine, and check 'em out:

Easy Virtue

Every Little Step

My Life in Ruins

My Sister’s Keeper

The Proposal

The Taking of Pelham 123

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Friday, January 21, 2011

No Strings Attached: Make a date

No Strings Attached (2011) • View trailer for No Strings Attached
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, sexual candor, vulgar humor, brief nudity and minor drug use
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.21.11

Once it settles down and turns into the film we all paid to see, No Strings Attached is an alternately hilarious and touching romantic comedy, positioned nicely a few weeks ahead of Valentine’s Day.

Rather earthy, as well.
When Emma (Natalie Portman, on the couch) and her roommates -- Shira
(Mindy Kaling, standing) and Patrice (Greta Gerwig) -- retreat into their
apartment because it's "that time of the month," Adam (Ashton Kutcher)
surprises them all by arriving with cupcakes and a rather unusual mix CD.

And therein lies the initial problem. For about the first 15 minutes, writers Elizabeth Meriwether and Michael Samonek try much too hard to enter smutty Judd Apatow territory, and the results are cringe-worthy. The first eye-poppingly vulgar one-liner, exchanged between a boy and girl at a summer camp, delivers a galvanic shock: Did we really just hear that?

(A more apt question: Would a boy that age ever say such a thing to a girl that age? Not for a heartbeat, which is precisely the problem. It ain’t funny.)

Similar raunchy comments flow during the next few sequences, which might be veteran director Ivan Reitman’s version of fair warning, and an effort to clear the theater of patrons too easily offended. But then an odd thing happens: The banter turns measurably milder – if still quite randy – and Reitman manages the deft trick so frequently attempted, without success, by American filmmakers.

He gets very close to the playfully erotic tone of a French sex farce.

Never a bad thing.

All the elements are in play, starting with nice guy Adam (Ashton Kutcher), a mid-level TV production company flunky forever standing in the shadow of his more flamboyant father, Alvin (Kevin Kline), an aging celeb still milking the signature line (“Great Scott!”) that netted him so much willing female companionship back when he starred on a hit sitcom. Not long into this tale, Adam suddenly discovers that his recent ex, Vanessa (Ophelia Lovibond, appropriately sultry) is boinking dear ol’ dad ... which leads to all sorts of uncomfortable questions. (“When did this start, exactly?!”)

After losing himself in an alcohol-fueled effort to find somebody – anybody – to bed that night, Adam wakes the next morning in an apartment shared by Emma (Natalie Portman) and her three med student friends, Patrice (Greta Gerwig), Shira (Mindy Kaling) and Guy (stand-up comic Guy Branum). Rather embarrassingly, Adam is starkers and stretched out on the living room couch; even worse, he has no recollection of the previous evening ... and the teasing descriptions supplied by Emma and the others do little to help him regain any composure.

Kutcher, it should be mentioned, does marvelous work in this scene. His confused, hooded, sidelong glances are priceless, his deft efforts to shield his dangly bits a masterpiece of towel manipulation. (Choreographing this scene, and getting it precisely right, must have been hilarious. Goodness knows, the results are suitably funny.)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

From the archives: July 2009

I can't help being impressed, while looking back on the summer of '09. It certainly put the summer of '10 to shame.

Nobody knew it at the time, but a little film called The Hurt Locker was about to capitalize on strong reviews and growing public sentiment, to become the Academy Award-winning picture of the year ... while also crowning Kathryn Bigelow as the first female best director Oscar winner (and garnering four more little gold statues). While by no means a perfect picture, it's strong in all the best ways; the awards are well-deserved.

Harry Potter's sixth big-screen epic proved a vast improvement over its predecessor, while the newest entry in the Ice Age franchise made excellent use of its 3-D technology  unlike so many 3-D films that followed  while delivering a fresh batch of laughs.

The month's prize, however, was an unheralded example of thoughtful sci-fi: Moon, a little film that deserved far better exposure. I hope for a healthy home-video afterlife; it deserves to become a genre classic, along the lines of Silent Running and Blade Runner.

The summer season offered its share of disappointments, of course, none worse than the insufferable vanity project misleadingly titled Funny People. And the ugly truth about The Ugly Truth, while reasonably engaging, is that it would prove to be one of Katherine Heigl's best romantic comedies. Very little of merit would follow, in the next 18 months.

Step into the Wayback Machine, and check 'em out:

Funny People


Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

The Hurt Locker

I Love You Beth Cooper

Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs


Public Enemies

The Ugly Truth

Whatever Works

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Green Hornet: Not much sting

The Green Hornet (2011) • View trailer for The Green Hornet
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for violent action, profanity, brief sensuality and fleeting drug content
By Derrick Bang

As also is true of Will Ferrell, a little bit of Seth Rogen goes a long way.

A very long way.

As a result, one’s ability to enjoy – or even tolerate – this crazed, quasi-satirical update of The Green Hornet will depend on a willingness to endure Rogen’s signature role, which never changes from one film to another: the amiable arrested adolescent with delusions of grandeur.
Having unwisely allowed their villainous adversary to trap them, the Green
Hornet (Seth Rogen, right) and Kato (Jay Chou) scramble to avoid being
crushed by several cement mixers, in one of this film's chaotic and often
unusual action scenes.

Suffice it to say, Rogen’s shadow looms quite large over this project. No surprise there, since he co-wrote the script (with Evan Goldberg) and took an executive producer credit, aside from making sure director Michel Gondry employed plenty of tight close-ups on his grinning, college-frat-boy mug.

Gondry’s involvement also raised numerous eyebrows, when this project was announced awhile back. The eclectic French director who brought us Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep has a surrealistic, dream-state approach to storytelling that seems at odds with the goofy atmosphere Rogen maintains during most of this film’s overlong (119 minutes) running time. Indeed, Gondry’s presence seems wasted: a “name” director brought in merely for his cult-film cred, rather than compatibility with the sort of mood Rogen clearly desired.

That said, Gondry gets to display his bizarre side a few times, during reality-heightened flashbacks when Rogen’s character struggles to employ the brain cells with which God endowed him at birth. (This effort at deep thinking generally is played for laughs, since an original idea would perish of loneliness in this man-child’s head.)

This poke at The Green Hornet joins last year’s Kick Ass and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World in what could be termed the nerd wish-fulfillment response to conventional superhero roles: the rise of the geek action star. Despite a lack of physical stature, dietary habits that blend alcohol with processed snack foods, and a pathological aversion to working out, somehow these habitually picked-upon social misfits can don a costume (of sorts) and effortlessly deck muscle-bound goons while collecting little more than bruises in return.

Nice thought.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Dilemma: Lousy choice

The Dilemma (2011) • View trailer for The Dilemma
Two stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for vulgar humor and fleeting nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.14.11

Don’t be deceived.

Universal’s marketing campaign paints The Dilemma as a light-hearted, giggly farce that matches big-screen funnymen Vince Vaughn and Kevin James against an ethical “problem” supposedly ripe with comic possibilities.
"The Dilemma" turns on a loaded question: How well do we really know our
best friends? Ronny (Vince Vaughn, far right) finds himself in an awkward
position after learning that Geneva (Winona Ryder, far left) is cheating on his
best friend -- and her husband -- Nick (Kevin James). Aside from wondering
whether to share what he knows, the whole mess makes Ronny second-guess
his plans to propose to longtime girlfriend Beth (Jennifer Connelly). Let the
laughter begin ... not.

Ah ... no.

This is a nasty, mean-spirited, tawdry little flick that attempts to milk humor from genuine pain. The laughs quickly become as desperate as the increasingly contrived plot elements that screenwriter Allan Loeb tosses into his inane storyline.

Director Ron Howard, wholly out of his comfort zone, seems to be trying for a modern update on the WWII-era screwball comedies that revolved around relationship ethics. To say that he misses would be grotesque understatement.

1940’s My Favorite Wife comes to mind: It finds Irene Dunne, long ago given up for dead in a shipwreck, returning to civilization after seven years to discover that former husband Cary Grant has remarried Gail Patrick. Things get more complicated when Grant, still deeply in love with Dunne, learns that she spent those seven years on a deserted island in the sole company of fellow survivor Randolph Scott.

Did they ... or didn’t they? And how can an increasingly frazzled Grant extricate himself from marriage No. 2 ... and does he really want to?

Hilarity ensues.

It worked, back in the day, because the characters in director Garson Kanin’s farce couldn’t be mistaken for real people; they were walking one-liner delivery systems. Feelings may have gotten bruised, but they weren’t battered, and the whole thing had the air of a well-executed drawing-room stage play.

Not so with The Dilemma.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Blue Valentine: Love lies bleeding

Blue Valentine (2010) • View trailer for Blue Valentine
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, nudity, strong sexual content, dramatic intensity and brief violence
By Derrick Bang

This isn’t a vicarious slice of entertainment; it feels more like the worst social event you ever attended, when some couple – maybe even good friends – unexpectedly lit into each other, each abusive comment getting louder and nastier.

If you’re unlucky enough to have endured such a ghastly spectacle, you know the uncomfortable feelings: embarrassment, pity, perhaps concern – depending on how vicious things get – but mostly an overwhelming desire to step onto a Star Trek transporter pad and beam somewhere else ... anywhere else. Just to get away.
Their first "date" having been a not entirely accidental meeting on a bus, Dean
(Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) take a late-night stroll through
the city, neither wanting the moment to end, but each uncertain what to do or
say next. Happily, Dean is about to break the ice by encouraging an impromptu
song and dance.

Blue Valentine is that raw, that intimate, that unsettling. I suppose flight still remains an option, but most folks have an investment with a movie: We paid for the ticket, we’ll gut it out.

The reward for such perseverance is an atypically powerful study of a relationship gone sour, fueled by two powerful performances and a director – Derek Cianfrance, who also shaped the script – who pushed his stars to their limit, and beyond, and isn’t afraid to let the loose, messy results speak for themselves.

This is indie drama at its most compelling: a sharp reminder that real people rarely possess the glib instincts and split-second timing for the snappy comebacks in light-hearted fluff such as, say, How Do You Know, nor are they as attractive and composed as Paul Rudd and Reese Witherspoon. Real people are disheveled, disorganized and frequently disconnected: often unaware of how to start each day.

Imagine what it would be like, if a camera crew caught you first thing in the morning: before breakfast, before coffee, before the application of a toothbrush. Cianfrance moves into and beyond that level of privacy; the result is heartbreaking, almost from the first frame.

This isn’t filmmaking in the coventional sense, nor did Cianfrance “write” this story in the usual way. The project involved a lengthy collaboration with Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, who went “method acting” one better by co-creating their characters and actually living their lives for a time, improvising scenes and dialogue, trusting Cianfrance to retain what helped and felt right, while excising anything that didn’t fit.

The results feel very much like director Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married, with its similarly painful performance from Anne Hathaway. If you couldn’t admire the dramatic heft of that 2008 drama – if it was more endurance test than character enlightenment – then I suspect Blue Valentine will be even tougher sledding.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

From the archives: August 2009

My goodness, what a month.

Rarely are we lucky enough to get so many marvelous films in the space of a few short weeks: thought-provoking sci-fi at its finest (District 9); a clever and thoroughly engaging kinda-sorta love story (500 Days of Summer); and an equally clever blend of biography and modern-day homage to great food (Julie & Julia). All three offer sterling performances – Meryl Streep once again demonstrating simply amazing skills of mimicry – and decidedly unconventional approaches to storytelling.

Nor was that all. Romance fans thrilled at the poignant adaptation of The Time Traveler’s Wife, and we got a taste of the future with the genuinely fun Bandslam (a precursor to television’s Glee phenomenon, which would erupt in a few short months).

It wasn’t all gravy, of course; the bewildering Ponyo was a major disappointment from the talented animator who brought us Spirited Away, while Post Grad proved – once again – that snatching the best parts of far better films is no way to make an “original” movie.

Step into the Wayback Machine, and check 'em out:



District 9

(500) Days of Summer

Julie & Julia


Post Grad

The Time Traveler’s Wife

Friday, January 7, 2011

Made in Dagenham: Sew fine

Made in Dagenham (2010) • View trailer for Made in Dagenham
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity and a bit of earthy behavior
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.7.11

Her features are plain but somehow striking: a ready, cheerful smile; flinty intelligence behind the eyes; the sort of quiet integrity that inspires trust and invites shared confidences. She’s dressed plainly, in clothes that come from bargain lots, although care has been taken to make do; her appearance is by no means sloppy.

Wife, mother ... factory worker. Merely one of many women in this film’s establishing shots, and yet somehow she’s easy to spot in director Nigel Cole’s camera placement: a woman of potential importance. Featured player in our story.
While Albert (Bob Hoskins) quietly cheers from the sidelines, Rita (Sally
Hawkins, center) builds to a quiet fury after her local union representative tries
to minimize her legitimate grievances with another condescending -- but
empty -- promise to "consider the situation" at some vague point in the future.

We in the States had our Norma Rae; England had its Rita O’Grady.

Well ... sort of. Screenwriter William Ivory actually made “Rita” a fictionalized amalgam of several different people, compressing the militant activities of many into one. But the broad strokes are accurate, and the story itself is both true and a powerful reminder: Revolutions can have humble origins. All it takes is a crack in the dam, and eventually the pent-up water will break through and crumble the entire structure.

The setting is England in 1968, where Rita (Sally Hawkins) is one of 187 women employed by the British arm of the Ford Motor Company in Dagenham. Unlike their 55,000 male counterparts, who work in the automaker’s gleaming new facility, these women toil in a decrepit 1920s plant with a leaky roof and pigeons in the overhead rafters. During the summer, the stifling heat prompts them – young and old – to strip down to their frillies, out of sheer self-defense.

This causes all sorts of consternation for their easily embarrassed union representative, Albert (Bob Hoskins), who must avert his gaze whenever visiting “the floor,” accompanied by the warning call of “Man present!”

(Filming actually took place at an old Hoover factory in the small community of Merthyr Tydfil, in Wales: a plant that once employed 5,000 but was in the process of shutting down. The sad impact on the local community no doubt lent additional significance to the cast and crew, as this movie was being made.)

Country Strong: Laughably weak

Country Strong (2010) • View trailer for Country Strong
2.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for alcohol abuse, mild sensuality and dramatic content
By Derrick Bang

Call this one four characters in search of a coherent storyline.

Despite being able to draw engaging performances from her cast, writer/director Shana Feste hasn’t the faintest idea how to construct a lucid narrative. Country Strong is a mess; we’re dumped into the middle of an ongoing crisis, never given any back-story to justify the situation, and subsequently saddled with enough overwrought melodrama to satisfy several TV soap operas.
Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow), looking to boost her rather calamitous public
image, agrees to a photo-op at a children's leukemia ward. What could have
been played as a cynical bit of celebrity damage control instead becomes warm
and magical: one of this overly clichéd film's few "real" moments.

Characters behave erratically, their ill-defined allegiances to each other switching at a moment’s notice; dialogue is forced and tin-eared. People simply don’t behave this way: not with each other, and not in any sort of professional setting. Far too often, a given scene – or confrontation – seems to exist solely because Feste wanted to toss in another complication.

The result is cliché-ridden in the extreme, these four people responding less to familiar human emotions, and more in the manner of marionettes being jerked about by a rather inept puppeteer.

It’s all rather sad, particularly since we frequently want to like these people.

Then, too, familiarity truly does breed contempt. We’ve seen this story before, and quite recently; we’re still savoring the memory of Jeff Bridges bringing home a well-deserved Academy Award for his take on the “country superstar behaving badly” scenario, in last year’s Crazy Heart. While I can appreciate Gwyneth Paltrow’s attraction to the material – an opportunity to display her singing chops, while also delving into the juicy acting potential of such a troubled character – it would have been nice if she’d waited for a better script.

Paltrow’s Kelly Canter is introduced at a posh rehab clinic, where she’s trying to recover from a very public meltdown roughly a year back, when too much alcohol led to a catastrophe during a stadium concert in Dallas. It won’t do any good to wonder why Kelly started drinking too much; we’re never given that information. We only know what her husband, James (Tim McGraw), keeps telling us: She used to be tough as nails, and now she’s “fragile.”

Monday, January 3, 2011

From the Archives: September 2009

September can be a disappointing month, marking the conclusion of the boffo summer season, and therefore becoming something of a dumping-ground for films that studios decided didn't deserve the push granted prestige projects during the preceding four months. The indie bomb Extract and the ill-advised remake of Fame certainly fit this profile, as does the gore-laden waste of time dubbed Jennifer's Body ... a horror dud that marked the beginning of the end of Megan Fox's ill-deserved big-screen career.

At the same time, savvy filmmakers recognize that late summer can be an advantageous time for release, precisely because of the limited competition. Quentin Tarantino certainly struck gold with his audacious WWII "what if" flick, Inglourious Basterds, which is glouriously excessive in every possible way ... and an impressive showcase for Christoph Waltz, who went on to win a well-deserved Academy Award for best supporting actor.

My favorite of the month, however, remains The Informant: a hilarious, fact-based saga that gets better with age, and proves once again that truth is stranger than fiction ... and that satire probably is the best way to showcase dirty tricks in the corporate world. Fun, fun, fun.

Step into the Wayback Machine, and check 'em out:



The Informant

Inglourious Basterds

Jennifer's Body

Love Happens


Taking Woodstock