Monday, October 29, 2007

Across the Universe

Across the Universe is an ambitious project: A musical in which every single song was originally recorded by The Beatles. That ambition allows director Julie Taymor to create some particularly memorable moments, but it also ends up being her undoing.

Here's the story, set in the late sixties: An English lad named Jude (Jim Sturgess) travels from Liverpool to America (Princeton, specifically) to find his biological father, who he has never met. While on the Princeton premises, he meets Max (Joe Anderson) a lovable scamp who's part Ferris Bueller and part Zach Morris. Max brings Jude home with him for Thanksgiving, where two momentous things happen: 1. Max announces to his family his intention drop out of Princeton and move to New York City (his parents are understandably nonplussed), and 2. Jude meets and falls for Max's li'l sis, Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). Max and Jude move to the Big Apple, followed shortly thereafter by Lucy, where they meet Bohemians Sadie, Jo-Jo, and Prudence. Trouble ensues when Max gets drafted, and their differing reactions to this unpleasant reality drive a wedge between Jude and Lucy.

It all sounds pretty well put-together, but it's actually kind of a underdeveloped mess. It's underdeveloped because of the framework Taymor imposed on herself, and it's a mess because of some of the choices she made. We'll deal with each of these in turn.

First of all, there's the problem that, in a musical, most of the dialogue is lyrics, and in this musical, most of the lyrics are Beatles songs. This is not to disparage The Beatles, whom I hold in the highest esteem, but a lot of their early songs weren't that deep and a lot of their later songs weren't that comprehensible. Add to that the fact that some songs just don't perfectly fit, and Taymor is left trying to build a structure out of some combination of Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, and melted Legos.

I'll give a case in point for each. First, the early songs actually work the best (and it's probably telling that the musical loses focus part way through, when Taymor eschews everything pre-Revolver). And while "I Want To Hold Your Hand" looks and sounds beautiful when sung by Prudence (T.V. Carpio), it soon becomes apparent that the person she's singing it about will not appear again in the film. At that point, the song can only act as exposition for the character of Prudence, so--while Taymor does manage to add a bit of context through her visuals--all we really get is the fact that Prudence likes to hold hands.

The later Beatles corpus (post-Sgt. Pepper) does not hold up as well. The general abstractness of the lyrics of these songs is effective in evoking a mood or painting a picture, but does very little to move a story along, and the audience is just left scratching their heads as to why one of the characters is singing about, for example, "a soap impression of his wife which he ate and donated to the National Trust."

And then there are songs that work in part but not in whole. When Jim goes to confront a communist-leaning mentor/friend of Lucy's, the choice of the song "Revolution" seems perfectly apt. The verses do work beautifully at building the tension, but then Jim gets to the chorus and has to sing "Don't you know it's going to be all right" when he clearly does not believe this to be the case, and the whole thing just falls apart.

I don't want to give the impression that each and every musical number is an unmitigated failure, however. Lucy singing "It Won't Be Long" as she waits for her boyfriend's return works brilliantly, as does Jim's "I've Just Seen A Face" upon meeting (and falling for) Lucy. The greatest feather in Taymor's cap, however, is her handling of the song "I Want You (She's So Heavy)." Since the song has very few lyrics that go beyond the title, Taymor doesn't have too much directorial gymnastics to do, but she lands the small backflip she does perfectly: The "I Want You" of the song is sung to the just-drafted Max by posters of the finger-pointing Uncle Sam bearing the same three-word slogan, and the "She's So Heavy" is mournfully wailed by Max and his fellow new recruits as they carry the Statue of Liberty through the jungles of Vietnam. It's heady and symbolic and a bit trippy and somewhat reminiscent of Moulin Rouge, but it works.

The same cannot be said about the absolute nadir of this film, a two-song montage tag-teamed by Bono and Eddie Izzard. For reasons never adequately explained, the gang gets onto a very Magical-Mystery-Tour-looking bus driven by Dr. Robert (Bono). Dr. Robert is on a mission to meet with a fellow counter-culture shaman, and he takes the gang along with him, stopping along the way to sing "I Am the Walrus" (which sounds cool, but adds nothing to the story). When Dr. Bono actually makes it to his destination, however, the person who is the entire reason he took this freaking trip won't meet with him. So Bono, inexplicably, just turns his bus around and drives away, leaving the main characters wherever they are. Wherever they are turns out to be the domain of Mr. Kite (Eddie Izzard), who shows the gang what I suppose could be construed as a circus performance set to the song "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite." This number, however, is both trippy and dull. It's musically somewhat cacophonous ("Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" is far from the Beatles' best work, and Eddie Izzard pretty much just craps all over it). And on top of that, the entire episode is even more pointless than Bono's pointless "I Am the Walrus" episode.

For all this mess, however, Across the Universe is still a memorable movie, and still a rewatchable movie (provided that the rewatching is done with the knowledge that you'll be viewing a series of Beatles' covers music videos, and not a totally coherent film). The numerical result of this unevenness is a 2, but it's not a 2 borne out of apathy. Rather, it's an averaging of the very good with a very bad, with a couple bonus points thrown on for the ambition of the project and its usefulness as an intro to the Beatles for those few human souls who don't know much of their work (as it was for my colleague, Wicked Little Critta).

Monday, October 22, 2007

Igby Goes Down

Initial Reaction: "Oh right! I have ice cream in the freezer..."

I'm what some might call a kind of movie purist. As some of you already know, I avoid watching a movie if I'm not in the mood for it. It must be completed from beginning to end in one sitting. Talking or any kind of discussion should not be taking place. Laugh at funny parts, cry at sad parts, but don't interchange the two (unless the movie is notably bad). If I watch a film that I've heard too much about before seeing it, it's been tainted.

Igby Goes Down was sitting on my kitchen table for weeks, waiting for my roommate to watch it before returning it to a friend. I'd never heard of it, but the cast caught my eye. The movie stars Kieran Culkin, Susan Sarandon, Claire Danes, Jeff Goldblum, Ryan Phillippe, Bill Pullman, and Amanda Peet. It was enough to make me want to watch, but not enough to make me carve out a chunk of time in my busy schedule. So I did the unthinkable: I watched it in pieces. Three pieces to be exact, and I'm not sure if this ruined the movie for me. But something did.

It's the story of Igby, the youngest of two sons in a rich yet highly dysfunctional family. He flunks out of schools, gets thrown into military school to teach him a lesson, and things start going, well, down. He's assumed the mantle of "problem child," and doesn't seem to be too upset about it. Igby is played by Kieran Culkin, and I'm not sure that was such a good idea. I can see what they were trying to do, Culkin definitely displays apathy well, but that's really all he's got. I'm not really sure what else there's supposed to be. At a couple of points it seemed as though he was torn or upset or something, but the two sides (indifference and despair) didn't gel. And there's something about him--not sure what it is--but it's like he should be screaming...hands on his face...pulling pranks on burglars...

The rest of the cast really surprised me. So much talent and quality to deliver so little. Susan Sarandon plays Igby's demanding, drunk, cold mother Mimi who seems more concerned with keeping up appearances (and keeping medicated) than dealing with the family problems. She, along with Bill Pullman grant us some quite good performances as Igby's parents. Pullman almost succeeds at breaking the heart of the viewer in his role of the frustrated, desperate father who eventually loses his mind (some of the best scenes include him). But, since we really have no idea what's going on with him, he elicits more pity than anything else.

Ryan Phillippe is Igby's brother, Oliver, and I think the best way to sum up his character is: bastard. He isn't the rebel in the family that Igby is, but he's far from being the good one. He treats Igby in some awful ways, and yet somehow you get the (small) sense that he cares. Just a little, though. I think Claire Danes as Sookie stands out to me the most, and seemed to be the most promising. She and Igby become friends and then lovers, and she starts off as the bright spot in the film. Then more crap happens, and she falls into the dumpster with all the rest of the characters. Oh well, she tried.

I'm really not sure what else to say. I felt like I was being baited numerous times throughout Igby Goes Down, but with nothing to sink my teeth into. While the acting is great, character development is poor in all cases, and the result is a crappy main character in crappy situations stuck with crappy peripheral characters in his life. My initial reaction isn't an exaggeration: the movie is completely forgettable, because there's nothing to keep with you after you walk away from it. There was a lot of potential, though. There were so many times when I was thinking "Finally! we're getting somewhere. Tell me about this story. Show me this person." But it never actually happens. We're kept on the surface of things, and I cannot name one character from this large, talented cast with a distinguishable motivation.

This is surprising, because it's this type of coming-of-age tale that usually dives into the substance and persona of its main character. And so much happened to Igby, it's still hard for me to wrap my mind around the fact that I still don't really know who he was or why he did what he did. There were two, maybe three times that I think the director thought he was showing us the real Igby, but really, they were just disconnected emotional scenes.

Rating: -1

As much as I was disappointed by the film, I felt that the performances salvage it from complete failure. So much potential, so little substance, this colorful story with a jarring plot surprisingly delivers apathy at its most apathetic, so that's what it gets from me. Apparently, Igby goes down. Too bad.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Nativity Story

Given Mel Gibson’s success with The Passion of The Christ, it was only a matter of time before they turned another beloved Bible story into a major motion picture. I can just see the studio executives sitting around the table going “C’mon those Christians eat this stuff up, we’ll make a killing.” I can kinda see their logic, there were no good movies coming out and no new ideas for movies were being presented. Christians were guaranteed to see this movie (although I am sure that is not the only reason that it was made) to make up for falling movie profits. So New Line Cinemas came out with The Nativity Story in 2006. This was to be the classic story of the birth of Jesus Christ.
I must say I was rather excited to see this movie because of how often I had heard and read this story. However, as I began to watch the movie my excitement rapidly started to a nosedive. I did not believe any of the actors in the film. Keisha Castle Hughes presented us with a stoic and forgettable Mary. She played her not as brave or weak but just as not showing emotion. Oscar Isaac gave us a forgettable Joseph. Maybe they met on set and decided to be forgettable together. The rest of the actors were just bleh. I could see that they were trying to make this movie believable but I wanted to see the emotion, not the effort behind it (to paraphrase Center Stage). Given that this was such a classic story, I had high expectations for the acting, but I was sorely disappointed. In the previews it looked as though Mary’s parents were ashamed of their daughter’s pregnancy and confronted her about it. In the movie it just seemed like any old fight. I would expect more from people acting as parents whose unmarried daughter became pregnant at a young age.
Another problem I had with the movie were the three wise men. They served as the comic relief for the movie. While I have no problem with interjecting comic relief in to a drama, it wasn’t even that good! They weren’t that comical.
Overall, I was just sorely disappointed in the movie. The acting could have been better or at least less robotic and I think the dialogue could have been written better. This movie is definitely not up there with my favorite Christmas movies, if you are going to tell one of the oldest and widest known stories in the world, at least put some effort into it. Bad job New Line, you get a -14.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Knocked Up

Judd Apatow rules. As far as I’ve seen, he hasn’t taken a wrong step. The Ben Stiller Show, which he wrote for and co-created, was great, if short-lived. Freaks and Geeks remains one of my favorite shows, despite the fact that it was egregiously overlooked. I haven’t seen Undeclared, but I hear it’s excellent. Then there is The 40-Years Old Virgin, a hilarious movie with a supremely positive message, which is a feat nigh-unachievable by a comedy. And finally, there is Knocked Up, which Apatow again hits out of the park. The secret to Apatow’s success is his approach; he combines the bawdy, raunchy and crude with the uplifting, positive, and life-affirming. His movies have messages that my parents would thoroughly enjoy, but content (including foul language, nudity, and the uncommented use of illegal drugs) that they absolutely would not. It’s a shame that those things will stop certain people from seeing a movie that, unlike so many other movies, is actually beneficial to the world at large.

Knocked Up’s main character is Ben (Seth Rogan), a 23-year old loser who doesn’t have a job, smokes a lot of pot, and is trying to start a website with his four loser roommates. Simultaneously, there is Allison (Katherine Heigl), responsible and smokin’ hot AP for the E! channel. She gets a promotion to on-screen personality, and goes to a club with her sister Debbie (Leslie Mann) to celebrate, where she meets Ben. After imbibing copious amounts of alcohol, they have sex. Ben doesn’t use a condom, and nature takes its course. Allison only realizes what happened eight weeks later, when it’s too late.

Actually, it’s not, as Allison’s mother points out. The A word is presented as an option to both characters, and they both reject it. This simple thing is what makes the movie so great and amazing, and elevates it above “funny movie.” If abortion weren’t talked about as an idea, and then rejected, this movie would have no reason to exist. That it was made my rating of this movie go up about 10 points. It's what makes me call this movie "life-affirming." Ben and Allison have their ups and downs, then their way-downs, and then their daughter is born, and the movie ends on a way-up for them. Knocked Up is very vulgar and crude, but also very honest in its approach. Rather than gloss over the bad things in life, and deny that people like Ben and his roommates exist, it revels in the comedy of the fact that they do exist.

Judd Apatow is one of those directors who likes to use the same people in all his movies. Nearly everyone in Knocked Up is also in Freaks and Geeks, The 40-Year Old Virgin, Undeclared, Superbad, or a combination of those. Since I’ve seen most things Apatow has done, I have a sense of familiarity with these actors, so I can buy into their characters without much difficulty. I feel the movie could have been more lean and focused had some of the subplots been excised, like the one about Martin’s beard or Debbie’s realization that she is, in fact, old. On the other hand, the subplot about Debbie and her husband Pete’s marital problems was important to Allison’s doubts about (insert spoiler here). On the other other hand, a deleted scene about Ben trying to present another idea about the website to his roommates was important to Ben’s (insert ‘nutha spoiler here). So I guess it balances out.

The roommates (Jason Segal, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, and Martin Starr, all using their first names) are the funniest thing about this movie, so funny it hurts. Seth Rogan demonstrates great range and ability with Ben, who was so natural and real. Apatow newcomer Katherine Heigl is a lot more than just a pretty face, but the face (and rest of her) was quite a distraction. Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann are believable as a struggling married couple. There are also great cameos from Firefly alum Alan Tudyk and SNL alum Kristen Wiig as good cop/bad cop TV people, and also from Steve Carell as himself.

Knocked Up is a solid addition to Apatow’s filmography, and I can’t find a lot wrong with it. For a comedy, it has surprisingly few laughs, mostly at the expense of minor characters, and the meat of the movie isn’t all that funny. That’s definitely not a problem, though. It’s a little more serious that Virgin, and less sweet, but presents a more applicable message. Apatow is a rare talent, because he presents values we can all agree with in a forum we can all relate to, whether or not we like to admit it.

Iconic Lines:
“Don’t let the door hit you in the vagina on your way out.”
“Marriage is a tense, unfunny version of Everybody Loves Raymond, only it doesn’t last 22 minutes; it lasts forever.”
“If any of us get laid tonight, it’s because of Eric Bana in Munich."

22 Rating: 16

Particle Man

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Shoot 'Em Up

A man sits at a bus stop in a sleazy part of town, eating a carrot. A hysterical pregnant woman runs past him, followed by a man with a gun. The mysterious stranger follows the two of them into a warehouse, where he dispatches the man in a manner I've never before seen in cinema, and the woman goes into labor. Thugs dash into the warehouse, Nirvana's "Breed" starts playing on the soundtrack, and what happens for the next 84 minutes turns the gun-fu genre upside down.
Shoot 'Em Up is the film I've been waiting for all year. It was nice to see a movie so irreverent, so violent, so kickass, so much more dangerous than the crap like Pirates 3 that we've been force-fed virtually all summer long. The plot is simple, to the point where it makes The Bourne Ultimatum look like The Big Sleep. Mysterious Stranger (Clive Owen) comes into the possession of a baby born to the aforementioned pregnant women, who dies in labor. MS & baby are being pursued by sadistic hitman Hertz (a scenery-devouring Paul Giamatti), and MS enlists the aid of D.Q. (Monica Belluci), a hooker who specializes in lactating/baby fantasies to help him care for the child while he gets to the bottom of the mystery of the child.
Shoot 'Em Up is the first film I think I've ever seen where the plot served as some kind of uber-MacGuffin, and it works. There is a lot of stuff in this film that works, that almost shouldn't, or definitely wouldn't in lesser hands. First of all, the film is well-written and well-directed, with snappy dialogue and sight gags that the like of Tarantino should be PAYING ATTENTION TO, SO THEY CAN MAKE GOOD STUFF LIKE THIS INSTEAD OF BLOATED CRAP LIKE DEATHPROOF. Ahem. The actors also take a lot of credit. One would think that Clive Owen would shy away from roles like this, which would almost seem like a parody of his performance in Sin City, but he didn't, and good for him. Mr. Smith plays like Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name crossed with American Splendor writer Harvey Pekar, with a dash of Bugs Bunny thrown in for good measure. I feel that with this role, Owen has cemented his place as this generation's Humphrey Bogart. Monica Belluci holds her own with Owen competently, and Paul Giamatti owns the ridiculous and disgusting Hertz. The music in this film is also great, with AN ENTIRE SHOOTOUT set to Motorhead's "Ace Of Spades." AC/DC is also represented, and the score is an apropros mix of modern influences, with a hint of Morricone thrown in. But director Michael Davis has plenty of action sequences in which the impossible happens, and you find it 100% believable anyway. This is in contrast to "realistic" movies with absurd (not absurd enough?) set pieces (looking at you, Transporter 2....) that just don't work. Shoot 'Em Up works. It also works as a discourse on bad and annoying habits, via Owen's "Mr. Smith."
Did I talk about gunfights? This movie has the most insane gunfights I've ever seen. And yet, the language never seemed pervasive to me (think Scorcesee), and the violence never seemed excessive. It might sound to some people like SEU is just a send-up of films like Hard-Boiled or Die Hard.....and it is in some ways. Giamatti has more than one line of dialogue in the film where he says something that audiences have been thinking throughout countless action movies. This is not a dumb film. But SEU is also a love letter to those movies, and revels in the glorious excess of the action genre more successfully than any movie I've ever seen. There were a lot of critics that trashed the hell out of it......I think A.O. Scott of The New York Times called it a "worthless piece of garbage." Then again, I don't think that Davis made this film for genteel types like Scott.
Out of all the films I've reviewed for TMBC, I had the hardest time trying to rate this movie. I thought, and thought, and thought, and I couldn't find much fault with it. I guess they could have made the characters a little bit cooler, but maybe that would have been trying too hard. Shoot 'Em Up is perfect the way it is......or close to perfect. I give Shoot 'Em Up an unprecedented 21 out of 22 on the 22 scale.

Memorable Quotes:

Mr. Smith: I hate it when parents hit their children.
Woman in Museum: Let go of my arm!
Mr. Smith: Not until you stop hitting your kid.
Woman in Museum: I will discipline my child as I see fit.
Mr. Smith: How would you like it if I spank you?
[Smith spanks the mother]
Mr. Smith: See? It doesn't feel so good, does it?

Mr. Hertz: Does anyone know what a Jimmy Cagney love scene is? It's when Cagney lets the good guy live.
[lobby of henchmen laugh]
Mr. Hertz: [growing serious] And if that happens in this show, I will do a lot more than ask for my money back.

Mr. Smith: Do you know what I hate?
Baby's Mother: [in pain] No!
Mr. Smith: I hate these fourteen year old jack-holes wearing ponytails. That pony tail doesn't make you look hip, young, or cool.
[Smith shoots a ponytail henchmen in the head]

Mr. Hertz: Guns don't kill people! But they sure help.

Mr. Hertz: My god. Do we really suck or is this guy really that good?