Tuesday, November 15, 2011

300 LIGHT OR SUPERMAN SCREEN TEST? IMMORTALS Visually Stunning Though Dramatically Generic (Minor Spoilers)

To say Sin City and 300 were visual game changers in film would be a major understatement. Their CGI was specifically tailored to reflect the films' comic book (yes, "comic book", not "graphic novel") origins, giving them an otherworldly feel that is somewhat divorced from reality. Film is an escapist medium and that pioneering CGI did much to reinforce that state of unreality.  Immortals, directed by Tarsem Singh (The Cell), follows that trend.  It is visually stunning and perhaps one of the better representations of motion art in recent memory. Many scenes are shot as though they were paintings come to life.  Rich tones of luminescent gold and vibrant crimson red dominate the film, with darkest marble and dark blue hues supplied in contrast, especially to show the difference between the divine (the Greek Gods) and the secular (humanity). However, this approach works both for and against the film. Instead of a war of gods, we are presented with a superhero comic book film dressed in mythological attire. 

Evil Hyperion (a somewhat out of place Mickey Rourke), a ruler with a grudge against the Green Pantheon, seeks the Epirus Bow, a mythical weapon powerful enough to free their nemesi the Titans from the bowels of Mount Tartarus in order to bring about the Gods' destruction. The Gods are forbidden to interfere (though it is never explained why) unless and until the Titans are freed, so Zeus (Luke Evans), in mortal guise (John Hurt, doing his best Obi-Wan impression), prepares Theseus (Henry Cavill) to lead the world of men for the upcoming battle. With the aid of virgin Oracle Phaedra (Freida Pinto) and thief Starvos (Stephen Dorff), Theseus races to obtain the bow before Hyperion.

The film moves along at a furious pace with little by way of dead spots or unnecessary exposition. While this makes for flowing narrative it unfortunately sacrifices character development. Any emotional attachment seems cursory, the closest semblance to same comes in Theseus relationship with his mother (Anne-Day Jones), but it is in short supply. Even the requisite love scene between Theseus and Phaedra comes off as perfunctory. The score by Trevor Morris helps move the story along but the only thing it seems to inspire is foreboding, even in the quiet scenes. However, it is virtually indistinguishable from any other generic score, almost sounding like a Tyler Bates riff.

But then, this isn't an Ivory Merchant film production. What it sacrifices in emotional heft it makes up for in stunning visuals, combining CGI and actual set pieces. I've often said that slow motion bullet time is overused and overrated as a device, but at least here Singh uses it creatively by juxtaposing the fighting styles of the Gods/Titans with those of the human forces. The mortal fight scenes are gritty brutality whereas the Gods/Titans battles are stylized, CGI ballets. Kudos go to the fight choreographer as well as the sound master. The viewer is made to feel every blow viscerally with or without 3D (the version I saw was without) and there are very few films in recent memory that invoke that response.

Unfortunately, the Gods give us no reason to root for their survival. The Greek Pantheon were never presented as saints in literature so arguably they run true to form here. And according to Hyperion's  backstory he is justified in his actions against them to a degree. Perhaps if Singh had chosen to make the Gods more sympathetic by explaining why their proverbial hands were tied in human matters or at least show remorse for their inability to prevent tragedies the story would be more satisfying. However, it is a missed opportunity. If it weren't for the fact that Hyperion is a thoroughly unlikable character, they sympathies could have gone either way.  Also, it doesn't help that the entire Panthenon (and the majority of humanity in the film for that matter) look as though they've just come out of a session at LA Fitness or Bally's. Yes, they are Gods and the humans live in a brutal landscape that would engender various degrees of fitness. Yes, if one was Immortal and had the power to do so their desire for physical perfection would be a foregone conclusion.  Oddly, the actors do not project that feeling. They don't have the comfortable ease or ambivilance at their physical perfection. Instead, they strut and pose; especially the Gods, who don't quite carry of the fantastical garments that adorn them (Poseidon's "Princess Leia" helmet being the most humorously egregious).

Currently, Cavill is "Clark Kent/Superman" in the currently shooting Superman: The Man of Steel which is set for release in 2013. While it may be a tad inappropriate, it cannot be helped to consider Immortals as a hint of what Cavill will bring to the role. With his square jaw and being clad in a cloak worn in similar fashion as the Man of Steel, Cavill brings an old fashioned heroic earnestness to his portrayal. However, given the subject matter there is very little in the way of humor to his performance. He shows promise, but at times his performance here is one note rage; something which may be attributed to the direction. A speech that should have been rousing falls somewhat short, for example. Cavill tries with the material at hand but is inconsistent in terms of his success.

As Hyperion, Mickey Rourke seems lost half the time while on the other half he is appropriately menacing. But on the whole he seems bored with the whole thing. There is no real character here; just Rourke doing his patented tough guy shtick transplanted in a mythological setting. The only time he truly comes alive is when he is engaged with Theseus. He may be there for just for the paycheck, but when it really matters he delivers the goods and earns every penny.

In the end, Immortals is pretty to look at but it takes itself way too seriously. Even the recent remake of Clash of the Titans had moments of humor to offset what passed for the drama. If you're into a celebration of carnage with copious amounts of throat slitting and blood letting in better than technicolor, then this movie should satisfy. In terms of gripping drama and character development, you might be better off waiting for The Muppets.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

SCHIZOPHRENE - "J. Edgar" Cannot Decide What It Wants To Be

"Schizophrenia", as defined by the Merrian-Webster dictionary:
(1) a psychotic disorder characterized by loss of contact with the environment, by noticeable deterioration in the level of functioning in everyday life, and by disintegration of personality expressed as disorder of feeling, thought (as delusions), perception (as hallucinations), and behavior; (2) contradictory or antagonistic qualities or attitudes.
"Paranoid Schizophrenia" as described from the same source:
(1) schizophrenia characterized especially by persecutory or grandiose delusions or hallucinations or by delusional jealousy.

These definitions, figuratively, literally and meta-textually,  describe "J. Edgar", written by Dustin Lance Black and directed by Clint Eastwood. The story centers on the life of FBI founder J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) in non-linear fashion, jumping between time periods showcasing the most important moments of his life as well as his relationships with his mother Annie Hoover (Dame Judi Dench), lifelong secretary Helen Gandy (an almost unrecognizable Naomi Watts) and second in command/lifelong companion Clyde Tolson (Arnie Hammer).

Now, it would be kinder, perhaps more "PC" to state that the the overriding theme of the piece is duality, inherently epitomized by the eponymous character. After all, here was a man who, according to reports,  believed in the Machiavellian ethos of "the ends justifying the means", often circumventing the laws he was sworn to protect in order to safeguard the country. He was a fastidious man who wanted the adulation of the people even when he was quick to suspect them of treachery. He tried to project heroic masculinity even as he hung back and had other agents do the grunt work, all the while waging an internal war within himself regarding his sexuality. As Hoover, DiCaprio walks a difficult tightrope between empathy and loathing in the viewer. Nevertheless, he portrays the FBI powerhouse with single minded, dogged devotion to his profession. DiCaprio's Hoover is genuine, despite his boundless vindictiveness.  A crusader in youth, a Gollumesque power monger in old age, DiCaprio's Hoover is a study of contrasts.

But then, so is this movie.  For a film about one of the most powerful voyeurs this country has ever had, this celluloid treatise seems oddly cursory. The film examines Hoover's life but offers no judgments nor conclusions.  It offers hints at the origins of aspects of Hoover's life that have become legend. However, it does not delve too deeply into it's more controversial aspects. For example, it does postulate a reason for Hoover's penchant for cross dressing, but leaves it there. While implication is a powerful storytelling tool, here it seems almost cloying; as if shying away from controversy.

The film implies that Hoover saw the world in black and white, and Eastwood films it as such. Even scenes set in broad daylight are presented with muted, even graying, colors; a panorama of monotone that makes up the film's general feeling. Some scenes are filmed with a documentary graininess while others with a muted clarity, as if to emphasize the docudramatic nature of the piece. Unfortunately, there is little drama to be had. The time jumping structure actually undermines moments that could have heightened actual drama, such as a physical altercation between Hoover and Tolson. As prior scenes have established the bond between the two characters is life long, the confrontation looses any dramatic heft it could have had. While their relationship is a matter of historical fact, much of the movie going public may not be aware of it. Thus, a key dramatic moment is lost; one among many in this movie. Eastwood's direction is serviceable.  The film as a narrative whole is, in a word, flat.

This is not to say that the film does not have power. The power lies in the performances. As Annie Hoover, Dench makes MI-6's "M" look like a kindly den mother. Her portrayal makes it understood how Hoover could be construed to be a "mama's boy". Hers is also a performance of duality: Her diminutive stature belies the cold steel she is. Her delivery as to why a childhood acquaintance of J. Edgar's was called "Daffy" is among the most chilling expressions of racist homophobia ever filmed due to its cold, matter-of-fact banality.

Naomi Harris' Helen Gandy is a cypher. Early on in the film as they engage in a first date, Gandy tells Hoover that she is loyal to her profession, and the film affirms that statement. However, there always seems to be something going on in Gandy's eyes, a hint that her devotion to Hoover is beyond the professional despite it being presented as totally platonic. 

Arnie Hammer is an actor to watch. Currently best known for his performances as the Winklevoss twins in "The Social Network" and soon to mask up in Disney's adaptation of "The Lone Ranger" alongside Johnny Depp's "Tonto", Hammer gives the film an emotional anchor. His Tolson is cocky, closeted charm with leading man good looks and a ready charismatic smile, yet he infuses it with the sense that he really does care for Hoover, in both the professional and personal sense. Despite the arguably horrendous aging make up (though arguably my reaction to the make up may be due to the dramatic difference between the character as represented in two stages of life), it is when he plays the older Tolson that Hammer truly shines.  He takes risks with the character, expressing a dignified vulnerability with minimal effort. So good is his performance that the audience feels his pain even as he attempts to mask it, to the point that one moviegoer at the screening I attended yelled an obscenity to Hoover on Tolson's behalf. DiCaprio and Hammer's chemistry, despite dangerously teetering into octogenarian caricature at times, is so spot on believable it draws one in.

This series of acting vignettes fine in an anthology film. However, these parts do not make "J. Edgar" a cohesively satisfying whole.  It's a weird instance where the multiplication leads to a quotient.  "J. Edgar" does not know what it wants to be. Like the film itself, I am torn. It is likable but not engaging. It somehow sterilizes a subject matter that should be rife with intrigue and titillation.  Its a film that seems to go far longer than it should but gives the audience very little to ruminate on. As engaging as it is at times, "J. Edgar" as a film is as clinical a dissertation as a cold case file and just as unsatisfying.

Friday, November 11, 2011


During my undergrad days I often tortured myself with early morning Saturday classes. I would prepare for the day with a morning coffee constitutional at the local coffee shop. On one of these Saturdays two men walked in; one was a young man in his mid-twenties to early thirties, the other was very frail and considerably older. They had come to meet with a couple of other people but the older gentleman soon broke away, moving to sit by himself. He wore a plaid shirt and tan slacks which fit loosely and accentuated his thinness, wisps of dark hair done in a comb-over on his shiny bald pate, his heavily lined face hinting at the type of life he must have lived. He seemed uncomfortably lonely despite his companion and the hustle and bustle of the shop; oddly disconnected from the reality he inhabited.

He moved to stand and dropped the coffee that his companion had purchased for him earlier, the contents splattering all over the floor. His embarrassment was palpable in his posture. His companion called to ask if he was all right, and the man said he was. Satisfied, the younger man returned to his conversation. From the nature of their talk and respective body postures I surmised that it was some sort of business meeting.

It seemed to me that the older man was not "all right." He stood there with a befuddled, forlorn expression as the shop's employees cleaned up the mess. I offered to buy him another beverage. He politely declined at first but then ultimately accepted my gesture. I was also moved to ask that he sit at my table. He introduced himself as "John" as he sat down. He had been a veteran of the Second World War. He began to tell me all sorts of stories. How he fought overseas, had seen combat. He told me about the sacrifices he made in service to his country, the friends that he saw killed. When he realized that I was actually listening to him, he became very animated in his verbosity as if my gesture had been a small crack in a dam and my attention had caused that crack to grow until the dam burst, the waters of his past being allowed to freely flow.

I missed a good part of my class that morning, something that was usually anathema to me. I felt compelled to stay and hear him out. This gentleman needed to release all these stories truncated though they were. He spoke as though this were his last opportunity to relate these experiences to anyone ever again. He recounted in stream of consciousness fashion stories of the friends he has outlived during and since the war, spoke of his family (his grandson was his companion), and how he keeps busy with ballroom dancing and even produced a free lesson card from the dance studio which was incidentally a block away from where I lived.

His grandson called out soon after, telling him it was time to go. John's face changed for a moment, betraying disappointment that this impromptu interview was coming to a close. With some reluctance, he got up and thanked me for my generosity with the coffee.

"John?" I said as he began to turn away. When he turned back around I took his hand in a firm handshake.

"Thank you" was all I said.

His eyes watered. He understood that I wasn't just thanking him for his company and the conversation. He was too choked up to respond but nodded his head in acknowledgement and smiled before he walked away. His grandson gave me a curious look as they both exited the shop.

To this day, I have not seen him again but that meeting left a great impression on me. Wars are fought and their merits are debated until the proverbial cows come home. However, our soldiers aren't faceless cogs in a machine but real people who make the ultimate sacrifices; many of whom never receiving the credit that they are due. To some, like John, two simple words may seem sufficient; to me, it's a humble but woefully inadequate gesture in the face of all that our veterans give in their service.

Today, whatever your thoughts on the current political climate, please be sure to remember our veterans, both living and dead, and say "thank you". Those two simple words speak volumes.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

RIDING HIGH ON A MAGIC SLEIGH RIDE - A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas

Has it really been six years since Harold and Kumar escaped Guantanamo Bay? Well, you couldn't tell from "A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas". Sure, the film establishes that Harold Lee (John Cho) and Kumar Patel (Kal Penn) have gone their separate ways: Harold has married Maria (Paula Garces), become a successful Wall Street stuffed shirt and moved to the suburbs of New Jersey, whereas Kumar has failed his medical exam and has split from his girlfriend Vanessa (Danneel Harris) who just happens to be pregnant with his child. The duo are reunited when a mysterious package addressed to Harold is left on Kumar's doorstep. In delivering the package, Kumar inadvertently destroys the prized Christmas tree of Maria's father, Carlos Perez (Danny Trejo in an inspired bit of casting), who doesn't like Harold one bit. In the search for a matching Christmas tree, the hijinks and hilarity ensue.

The film is not your average stoner comedy.  It pushes the envelope in terms of presentation and in its inherent randomness. This is as close as one can get to experiencing the randomness of being stoned without actually being stoned (not to say that this reviewer is either confirming or denying that he has ever been so, much less condoning such behavior...) however, given the sequencing of events that play out, one would assume this is the desired effect; an effect made more so by the 3D.  Ironically enough, this film makes the best use of 3D since James Cameron's "Avatar".  This very self-aware and self-referential film also pokes affectionate fun of the tropes of the season, such as holiday "claymation" specials and Santa Claus himself. 

Penn and Cho are so comfortable in their roles it seems like the six years in between film were only yesterday (though the film does provide sly in-joke references to what the actors themselves have been up to between the first and second sequels). Trejo provides comedic menace as the hard to please father-in-law and Elias Koteas appears as an Ukrainian mob boss out to get our heroes for a perceived slight against his daughter. Any danger they represent is treated almost casually. It exists to propel the story, as does the requisite message that friendships are forever and that change and growing up are inevitable but, in a stoner film, they seem disposably tacked on. As usual, Neil Patrick Harris (or "NPH") steals the show yet again, his small sequence bringing on the biggest amount of laughs.

The Harold and Kumar films are frivolously fun, and the latest entry is no exception. It is the most ambitious in its scope and presentation, but in the end its still a stoner Lucy and Ethel road trip film, one that unfolds with a "nudge nudge, wink wink" invitation to the audience to get in on the joke. The characters get high off weed, and the audience gets high off the laughter. All in all, a fair and equitable trade.

A POOR MAN'S OCEAN'S ELEVEN: "Tower Heist" Is Entertaining So Long As Logic Is Left At The Door

In Hollywood parlance, "A poor man's [fill in the blank]" is a term used to refer to a lesser version of an established brand noun.  For example, without meaning disrespect, for years Joan Collins had the distinction of being "the poor man's" Elizabeth Taylor; or (initially) the television series "Airwolf" being the "poor man's" "Blue Thunder" in the 1980s. Upon the death of actor/comedian Bernie Mac, George Clooney was reported to have said that the Ocean's series of films were done as he nor the rest of the cast could see them being made without the late actor. As that series of films were the most successful of the heist genre, it stands to reason a major void is left...one that Tower Heist attempts to fill though as a low rent (ironic given the story setting) version. 

Instead of Clooney's charismatic and charming Danny Ocean, we have nebbish everyman Ben Stiller as Josh Kovacs, the general manager of "The Tower", a high rise condominium for the super wealthy of New York, who makes the mistake of investing the pensions of his employees with Wall Street stock broker and the owner of The Tower's penthouse Arthur Shaw (played with smarmy charm by Alan Alda), who loses it all in a Ponzi scheme. However, through the auspices of FBI agent Claire Denham (Tea Leoni), Kovacs comes to find out that Shaw is in possession of $20 million in the penthouse and, with the help of disgraced Wall Street Broker Mr. Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick), Charlie Gibbs, bumbling concierge and Kovac's brother-in-law (Casey Affleck), newly hired bellhop Enrique Dev'reaux (Michael Pena) and sassy Odessa (Gabourey Sibide), they enlist the aid of petty thief Slide (Eddie Murphy, who also served as on of the film's producers) for a little larcenous payback.

Unfortunately, if the plot contained any more holes than it already has, the film would fall under its own weight. But such things are par for the course for director Brett Ratner, he of the Rush Hour film series, where the laws of physics and geometry (not to mention common sense and credulity) are continually violated; increasing in both transgression and enormity as the film goes along.  However, one of Ratner's paltry strengths lie in story progression, visuals, and performances. Its these elements that  moves the film forward with aplomb. Even the quiet, somber moments (one in particular involving Lester the doorman (Stephen Henderson), who epitomizes the fears of those about to enter into retirement) hold your interest and propel the events forward.  The Tower (which is "Trump Tower" in New York) is filled with gaudy ostentation, a world wherein the "hired help", despite working within its confines, are outsiders. The film makes good use of juxtaposition between the "haves" and "have nots", tapping into the collective rage epitomized by the current "Occupy" movement to justify the larceny the protagonists engage in.  All the best entries of the heist genre have the audience rooting for the protagonists; in this case "Tower Heist" succeeds.

To be honest, Ben Stiller has not been among my favorite performers; his ersatz "lovable/nerd loser/impotent rage" shtick having long since worn out its welcome. However, Stiller has matured and branched out of that acting safety net in recent years. While Kovacs still maintains a bit of the trademark Stiller "schlub" quality (it is more implied than anything else), Stiller infuses Kovacs with a restrained manic capability. The would be thieves liken themselves to Robin Hood, but in truth Kovacs is a knight who willingly does whatever it takes to right an enormous wrong; and how far he'll go by film's end is surprising. He may not have Danny Ocean's scoundrel savoir faire, but both characters share a sense of righteous indignation and, more here than in any other film he's done previously, Stiller earnestly delivers the goods.

Casey Affleck brings Ocean's Eleven street cred but few laughs in his role as the substandard but earnest employee trying to hold on to tenuous employment, but he does crystallize the fears many working Americans have in this current economic client.  Michael Pena channels his inner John Leguizamo in his role as the bellhop. Tea Leoni does a fine job in her role as FBI agent Denham who develops a grudging respect and attraction for Kovacs. Unfortunately, that role is criminally underused. Her arc comes to a certain point, then abruptly stops as though the screenwriters didn't know what to do with her once the main story had run its course. There was a lot that could have been done here and the proverbial ball was dropped; which is a shame as Leoni and Stiller share a nice chemistry that could have been developed further. Anyone born in the 80s and beyond might have trouble believing this, but Alan Alda was once considered to be one of the top sex symbols of the 1970s, and this film gives a faint reminder as to why.  His Arthur Shaw is a charismatic robber baron, oozing an easy avuncular, ingratiating charm that snares even in the face of irrefutable guilt. The film opens with an online chess game between Kovacs and Shaw (implying a greater relationship between the two outside the realm of The Tower) and the film becomes a game of strategic oneupmanship.  Stiller and Alda have an easygoing chemistry with each other that implies years of thin camaraderie. When the extent of Shaw's malfeasance becomes clear, the betrayal Kovacs feels is palpably felt...an effect that couldn't be made without said chemistry. Shaw is the worst type of villain: the banal everyman. It's apt that Mr. Fitzhugh is never given a first name, as Matthew Broderick simply transplants his version of The Producers" Leo Bloom onto this character, however Broderick does not phone in the performance herein, minimizing the comparison between the two characters.

However, two performances carry this film, elevating it beyond the mediocre. As Odessa, the safe cracking Jamaican maid desperately in need of a work visa, Sibide brings a welcome female empowering sauciness, in some respects being even more self-possessed and capable than the men. However, this film is Eddie Murphy's forum; the declaration of his manifesto heralding the return to the angry edginess that catapulted him to superstardom.  "Slide" is more an angrier Reggie Hammond than he is Axel Foley, and at particular moments in the film disturbingly so. But moments of the nicer, affable Murphy show, most specifically in the totally improvised safe cracking scene he shares with Sibide and a meeting with the building manager (played by the ever-reliable Judd Hirsch in what amounts to an extended cameo), is the character's saving grace. Whether Murphy will sustain his mission statement beyond this film is neither here nor there.  He brings the biggest laughs in the film, and when he is absent the energy is decidedly muted.  However, this hodgepodge of dramatic and comedic talent work in the film's favor. They are so engaging that they distract from the aforementioned plot holes and contrivances.

Tower Heist is not the best representation of its genre, and logic is not its strong suit, but it's timely, highly enjoyable and imaginatively stretches a premise without going overboard. At the end of the day, I didn't feel as though the money had been stolen from my wallet.