Saturday, January 14, 2012


It's probably a good thing for Matt King (George Clooney) that Hawaii seems like a more laid back place than the rest of the country. He has some serious issues. Firstly, he has an impending land sale, the last plot from his royal ancestors, that will affect the lives of everyone in the whole state. Even worse, a boating accident has left his wife Elizabeth in a coma. Her recovery is uncertain and Matt has to take charge of telling her friends and family along with caring for his two daughters Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alex (Shailene Woodley). He and his daughters aren't really close, Matt is "the back-up parent." To make matters worse it turns out that his wife was having an affair at the time of the accident. Not Matt's best week.

Matt decides to seek out the man this other man. Tagging along are his daughters and Sid (Nick Krause), Alex's sudo-boyfriend. He's a stereotypical Hawaiian bro. Matt doesn't like Sid but his presence keeps Alex civil and perhaps it comforts Matt to have another man around, even if he's an airhead. What Matt really hopes to accomplish with this trek is unclear. Obviously he seeks some sort of confrontation but he's not a vindictive man, it seems that he want's to console his rival as much as anything else. From his point of view, this is also someone who loves his wife, they have something in common.

It's also interesting how his daughters deal with their mothers illness. They where a bit dysfunctional to begin with: 10 year old Scottie swears too much, bullies classmates and acts out at school. 17 year old Alex has some substance abuse issues that are only hinted at. Director Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways) doesn't deal with the kids as fully as he should, which is a shame since both the actresses are quite excellent. Still we get some nice nuggets, such as when Scottie brings her bratty friend to visit her mother: "She is in a coma; I guess you're not a liar."

There's nothing necessarily "wrong" with this film. True, it starts off slow and never gains any real momentum, but it's a nice enough film. There are also some nice supporting performances. Robert Foster (Jackie Brown, Mulholland Dr.) scores the films best laugh as well as some pathos as Elizabeth's judgmental father, and Beau Bridges is always welcome. Fans of Paynes other films may find themselves disappointed, and while Clooney is good in the film, it's certainly not his best performance. It's a good film, a complex film, but there's no need to rush out to see it.

Grade: B


The horror comedy Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil is a great showcase of how much a small twist in formula can alter a movie. At first glance it would seem to follow the Dead Teenager Movie formula to a 'T.' A group of sexy, ethnically diverse teens go camping in the Appalachian mountains. They stop at a gas station (it's even called "Last Chance Gass") where a clerk tells them not to go on and a creepy hillbilly stares at them. When the get to the camp they find out that there was a massacre on that very spot "20 years ago today!" Then, off course, they go skinny dipping. During which, it appears that a member of their group, Allison (Katrina Bowden) is kidnaped by the hillbillies.

If you think you know what's about to go down, then director/ co-writer Eli Craig has a surprise for you. Those creepy hillbillies, Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine), are not murderous creeps but a couple of really nice guys who are themselves on vacation at a near by cabin. They didn't kidnap Allison, they rescued her after she bumped her head. But the remainder of the college kids have seen too many horror movies to give them the benefit of the doubt.

This basic confusion sets the tone for the entire film. The kids try and rescue their friend and, one by one, manage to accidentally kill themselves in the process, which only serves to further cement the misunderstanding. Tucker and Dale think the kids are enacting a bizarre suicide pact, which is a pretty good explanation considering the circumstances.

Tucker & Dale didn't make a lot of money when it came out last September, but I wouldn't be surprised if it became a cult staple. It's premise is simple yet ingenious, but the film doesn't bet the farm on it's reversal. Craig focuses very squarely on the warm friendship between the two main characters.

The film is well cast. Tudyks comic timing is well known to fans of Dodgeball and Firefly. I've never noticed Tyler Labine before, though Wikipedia leads me to belive he's had a some cult success. I can see why, he brings a great deal of charm to what is essentially the lead role. Bowdon, mostly known for the airhead Cirri on 30 Rock, is quite nice here too.

A major subplot deals with Dales inabillity to talk to girls. When Allison drops into his life, he assumes that she'll reject him like all the others. But as she recovers at the cabin, they form a friendship that has sparks of something more. He had assumed that he wasn't good enough for him. A sentiment her friends would likely share even if they didn't think he was a murderer. A sentiment that lead them to assume that he was a murderer. It's a good metaphor, but it's the warmth with which it's executed that keeps the film going when the joke would normally be wearing off.

Grade: B+

Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil is currently streaming on Netflix Instant.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


In John Michael McDonagh's comedy The Guard Brandon Gleeson plays Sgt. Boyle, a small town Irish cop who's commitment to law and order is perhaps not above reproach. Over the course of the film he does drugs, has a threesome with a pair of hookers, helps smuggle guns, fondles a dead body and threatens to beat a small child. So why does this movie feels so sweet? Is Brandon Gleeson just that inherently likable? Perhaps.

Also likable is Don Cheedle who plays the straight laced FBI agent Everett who's hot-ish on the trail of a trio of crooks (played by Liam Cunningham, Mark Strong and David Wilmot) looking to unload $500 million worth of cocaine. Sgt. Boyle and Everett end up working together and grow to like each other despite Boyles general abrasiveness and occasional racism.

It wouldn't be right to call this film a buddy comedy. Cheedle and Gleeson make for an interesting pair, but their relationship is not central to the film. Instead McDonagh focuses more firmly on Boyle's character and his life outside of the police force.

The jokes in this film are dark. Many gags wouldn't be out of place in the first Hangover, and yet it's not always a laugh-out-loud funny film. Perhaps it's the understated delivery, or the greater character depth. Unlike many comedies The Guard takes place in something approaching the real world, it takes death seriously, sometimes more seriously than it's characters. That might put a damper on laughs from time to time, but the consistent tone helps balance it out and the added gravity works to the films benefit.

John Michael McDonagh is probably best known as the brother of noted playwright/Oscar winning filmmaker Martin McDonagh who wrote and directed the criminally underseen film In Bruges. This film has a lot of the same style and tone as that one. Very much the same sensibility.

I had a great deal of affection for this film. It has a enough to keep me engaged and invested in what was going on, but on the whole, it's a very light film. I can see it as a TV series. The kind of light, affable, BBC import they air on PBS friday nights when they can't find a concert.  Of course they'd have to take out all the swearing, most of the drugs and possibly the corpse fondling.

Grade: A-

Saturday, January 7, 2012


He loved the rain. Other Formula 1 drivers dread it, but Aytron Senna did his best driving in bad weather. Even without the rain he was one of the best who ever lived. Indeed one of the Joys of Asif Kapadia's documentary Senna is watching Aytron's mastery over his machine.

Let's backtrack a little. Senna was a nice Brazillian boy from a well off family. At a young age he demonstrated skill in go-cart racing and in the mid 80's transitioned to Formula 1. During his 6th race, he pulled a great upset in Monte Calro by nearly beating Alain Prost, a world famous French champion. The two develop a fierce rivalry. Even after they become teammates they are very much against each other. Their cars collide during the '89 Japanese Grand Prix. It seems as if Prost is able to manipulate the federation into suspending Senna, but it's a little unclear. It is clear that although Senna is better than Prost. Prost is better able to play the game and use the system for his own devices.

Prost's beefs with Senna aren't without merit. The two trade accusations and it's hard to know what's true and what isn't. It's a great irony that this documentary has so much footage of Senna but so few answers as to what he was like as a person. Is he reckless or just really good? Or both? We see that he's deeply religious, gives generously to charity. He feels genuine but distant. We see him with his family and with women but we aren't told much about his relationships. This film keeps it about the driving. That the film poses larger questions and doesn't try to fill them in is at times frustrating. There are times when it seems that Kapadia is shaping the narrative in artificial ways. That important things are glossed over or just plain cut out. 

But the footage on display is tremendous. F1 is such a media sport that every event is covered from so many different angles that there are many times where it's easy to forget you're watching a documentary. There's no need to have a talking head recount how Senna felt at such-and-such pre-race meeting when we can actually see the footage of Senna storming out and what lead to that. But nothing competes with the footage from Senna's helmet camera. The speeds achieved are amazing. The car whirring under him. There are times when his engine stops sounding like a car and starts sounding like a jumbo jet. Yet Senna has such deft control over his machine as too make the whole endeavor seem effortless. There may be a lot of ambiguity about Senna's life, but there is none when it comes to why he raced. It got him closer to God.

Grade: B+

"Senna" is currently streaming on Netflix Instant

Thursday, January 5, 2012


Brandon isn't an average joe. He's got a good job, financial means, etc. But he also has a problem with self-control. He is on a daily, sometimes hourly basis overwhelmed with lust. He is a sex addict. When he can, he hires prostitutes. If there isn't enough time, he watches pornography, often at work. As it often is with addicts, when he get's an urge, nothing else matters. He's good at picking up women, but will probably never be close to one. Brandon is played by Michael Fassbender and is the subject of the new film Shame by Irish director Steve McQueen.

There is one woman who does want to be close to him, his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). After Brandon ignores a series of her calls, Sissy comes to stay with him. He can't exactly kick out his sister but her presence is inconvenient given his lifestyle. They act out at each other and engage in a kind of emotional combat. For instance, she starts to take an interest in Brandon's married boss. Brandon wants nothing to do with her, perhaps out of fear. She just needs to have someone, anyone in her life.

Since Fassbender's breakout role in McQueen's previous film Hunger, he's been seen as the second coming of Daniel Day-Lewis and he does everything to bolster that claim here. His performance is both raw and restrained. He is able to suggest deep pain without displaying any visible pyrotechnics. Mulligan is equally good. She displays an amazing fragility that is at times hard to watch. Particularly in a scene where she delivers an unbearably downbeat rendition of "New York, New York." McQueen's camera refuses to cut until long after the audience looks away. Shame is a very detached film, but intentionally so. After all Brandon is a detached man, almost hermetically sealed. It might have been a better film if it where less self-consciously aloof than it's main character, but it would also have been even harder to watch. Also it can be debated whether or not the end is over the top or not.

There's no way around it. Shame is not for the faint of heart. It's one of the more depressing films I've seen in a long time. It is a portrait of two people who have led, will continue to lead, very painful and lonely lives. Those who choose to endure it will not find a hopeful message at the end. There is no redemption here. It is a portrait of two souls cast into Hell and Hell is a cold place.

Grade: B

Tuesday, January 3, 2012


The transition to sound cinema is full of many a tragedy. Clara Bow, the first bona fide movie star, looked fantastic, but when audiences heard her regional accent, it killed her carrer. But if there is one thing we like, it's the possibility of a comeback. That is the theme of The Artist, the new comedy by Michel Hazanavicious (OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies).

It's a story of two actors in love. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a giant star complete with lovable dog co-star and Clark Gable mustache. Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) is a spunky up-and-comer who gets her break due to Valentin's intervention.

There are two great scenes involving the duo. Both come in the film's first act. In one Valentin and Miller are shooting their first scene together, a quick tiny dance scene. Hazanavicious shows us the raw takes of their performances. By take 5, they are in love. In a later scene Peppy recalls how it felt to dance with Valentin with the help of his suit jacket and a little pantomime. Both scenes are breathlessly beautiful and warrant more love and analysis than I have room for here.

It seems like the two might become a couple. But then comes sound. Peppy embraces the technology allowing her star to rise. Valentin holds so firmly to the old ways that he refuses to transition at all. As a result, the two essentially flip stations. Peppy becomes the super rich national sensation and Valentin lives in greater and greater poverty, he even has to trade his Gable-esque mustache in for a more "civilian" model.

To say that The Artist is a retro film would be an understatement. It's impossible to discuss the film without mentioning that it is both silent and in Black & White. The film works best when it ignores this and focuses on being a good movie. But the film often finds Hazanavicious leaning too hard on his gimmick and as a result, The Artist is far too meta for it's own good. It's okay, even obligatory, to mention the lack of sound at least once, but the goal should be to allow the audience to forget that they're watching a silent film. Instead, Hazanavicious insists on constantly reminding us. The other problem is that the melodrama is laid on a little too thick. Some of the "downfall" scenes are fun, some are heartbreaking, but there are just too many of them. Many a silent film went over the top with the melodrama, but many of them where paced better too.

This is a film with a lot of heart. It's best asset are the two stars. Dujardin and Bejo have such a great natural chemistry together that the film is poorer when they are apart. The film is mostly charming and engaging and despite it's pacing issues, never truly missteps until the end when it abandons the wonderful score by Ludovic Bource and inexplicably uses a large chuck of Bernard Herman's 1958 score for Vertigo. The cue in question is perhaps one of the most famous and recognizable scores from a very different era of Hollywood. It may not bother non film-buffs, but if you're buying a ticket for The Artist there's a 86.14% chance you're a film-buff. This is a good film, and I'm glad something so odd exists, but it doesn't seem to warrant the "best film of the year" buzz it's getting. Also, if you're looking for an introduction to silent cinema, this is not a great entrance point. 

Grade: B