Friday, February 27, 2009

Two Lovers

There's a plot turn at the end of "Two Lovers" towards which the whole movie builds.

I saw it coming a mile away.

I enjoyed the movie just the same. While the plot may be predictable, the story is compelling.

Joaquin Phoenix plays a shy, conflicted young man presented with two possible romantic partners (you could say, Two Lovers): sexy, screwed-up Gwyneth Paltrow, and safe, stable Vinessa Shaw.

Paltrow is borderline unattainable for someone of Phoenix's modest romantic credentials, and even if she ended up with him she would never love Phoenix as much as he loves her. He would spend his life beset with jealousy and insecurity.

Shaw, on the other hand, is completely devoted to him. A life spent with her would entail comfort, closeness, unquestioned love, and a nagging sense one could have done better.

So what's your poison, Mister Phoenix?

The older I get, the more I like movies that portray human choice as fundamentally doomed. We make the choices our primate neuro-ware commands us to make, and we suffer the consequences. Welcome to the planet.

As the story unfolds and the time of choice draws near, the movie becomes all the more compelling for its grinding sense of inevitability. What seems merely simple at first becomes simple, effective and powerful late.

We know what's going to happen. But there's no getting up for popcorn until it happens.

This is reputed to be Joaquin Phoenix's last movie. He is now either mentally ill or playing an extended prank on everyone who follows celebrity misbehavior. It feels to me like a prank, and if so it's a funny one. It's also a great profile-raising career move.

Let's hope it's a prank. The guy is a perfectly adequate actor, and he doesn't seem to have the ego that comes with being a young star. That alone makes him worth supporting.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Fired Up

Movies are supposed to be fun.

"Fired Up" is fun.

You got a problem with that?

It may not be great art -- okay, it's definitely not great art -- but sometimes you're in the mood for a greasy slice of pizza. You know it's not good for you. You just want it to taste good. And "Fired Up" tastes just fine.

It ends up feeling too long -- most comedies do -- and towards the end the jokes get more and more strained, but what's amazing is how clever much of the dialogue is for most of the movie's length.

The listed writer is "Freedom Jones," which sounds suspiciously like a pen name. IMDB lists no other credits, and no information, for this person. I'm tempted to believe a well-known pro penned this thing and doesn't want credit for it.

The director is Will Gluck, a TV guy who does a very nice job with the pacing and tone.

Oh, I almost forgot, the plot. If you've missed the advertising, "Fired Up" is about a pair of girl-chasing football players who skip out on summer football camp to attend cheerleader camp instead. The movie's tagline is "300 Girls, 2 Guys. You do the math."

Dumb, yes. Gimmicky, yes. But fundamentally -- and structurally -- it's no different than the plot of "Wedding Crashers." I wouldn't be shocked to learn that "Freedom Jones," whoever that is, used Crashers as a structural guide.

There are also obvious similarities to the 2000 hit "Bring It On." There is a reference to this within the movie: the girls at cheerleading camp have all the dialogue to "Bring It On" memorized.

The two leads -- newcomers whose names are not yet worth knowing -- do well pairing shallowness with charm, and even evoke distant memories of Ferris Bueller, another high-school charmer with a talent for getting away with more than he should.

Helping matters further is the bad-boyfriend antagonist "Dr. Rick," (really a first-year medical student) who gets a laugh every time he's on-screen.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Friday the 13th

It's a strange thing to see a movie that is exactly what you expected, neither more nor less.

It's almost... unexpected.

The current remake of Friday the 13th is about -- spoiler alert -- a killer named Jason who slays horny teenagers at a woodsy haunt called Crystal Lake.

The film lives up to its premise. It chews up its share of teenagers and flaunts plenty of camera-conscious sex.

Strangely it does not combine the two. That was always the appeal of the original franchise. There was the unspoken message that unrestrained sex leads invariably to a violent, and fairly immediate, death.

All us virgins watching the movies the first time around had no idea if this was true or not. Maybe most sex acts DID end in death. That would explain why everyone seemed so uncomfortable discussing the subject.

In the new version, though, sex and death always occupy different scenes. That really dulls whatever edge this story once had.

You might have a decent "directors cut" with "seventy fewer minutes!" by just showing the actual murders, one after the other. Everything in between, like the dialogue scenes of a Skinemax flick (do they have those anymore?), is just tedious nonsense.

At one point I caught myself thinking, "Okay, how many kids are left? Three in the cabin, two in the truck, one wandering around. That oughta mean we're no more than forty-five minutes from the end."

Not exactly a terrifying film-going experience.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The International

What fun!

February's turned into the month where Hollywood shops its smart thrillers. Last year was Scott Frank's sensational "The Lookout." The year before that was Billy Ray's "Breach." This year it's "The International," from director Tom Twyker, who did "Run Lola Run" a few years back, and first-time screenwriter Eric Singer.

Any good thriller relies on a "bubble" of tension that continues to inflate as the story develops.

It requires constant writerly attention to maintain and protect this bubble. A single slow scene, a single deviation from the driving center of the story, can pop it. Once it's popped, you can never really get it back.

"The International" gets the tension bubble going in the first scene and doesn't let it pop until the last. That's very rare. Observe it as you're watching the movie -- and you SHOULD watch this movie. Observe how there's never a moment where you feel safe. There's never a moment where the characters seem on top in their struggle.

Clive Owen and Naomi Watts play an Interpol investigator and a Justice Department official, respectively. The casting is brilliant because both actors are scorching hot sex machines, but just within the range of what you might encounter in real life at a real job. Neither actor looks like a model. Nor do they look seventeen.

We join Clive and Naomi in the middle of their investigation into the sinister International Bank of Business and Credit. That's very topical, of course, but since the script has been in development for several years we can give the filmmakers credit for good timing rather than accuse them of ripping a story out of today's headlines.

Our well-dressed villains are dimensional characters: they are not immoral, just amoral. The amounts of money involved in their work have pushed them beyond considerations of morality, one way or the other. That makes for a good collection of baddies.

The plot is subtle, intricate and smart. At no point does Clive Owen say "I'd like to make a deposit" before shooting a bank president. It's almost hard to believe Hollywood made this movie.

That's not to say there's no action. There's a scene at the Guggenheim Museum that contains the best gunfight since the train station/baby carriage shootout in The Untouchables.

The movie may end imperfectly, but it's the kind of ending that gets you talking in the parking lot. We need more endings like these, not fewer.

I notice "Friday the 13th" scored 42 million this weekend, topping "The International"'s humble 10. That's too bad. If you're interested in a thrilling experience, I can almost guarantee "The International" is your bet.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Confessions of a Shopaholic

The first thing I did after seeing this movie was look up how many r's there are in the word "horrific."

Two. There are two r's in "horrific."

The most immediately fatal flaw in "Shopaholic" is our total lack of sympathy with Isla Fisher's main character, Rebecca Bloomwood. She is a pampered, frivolous creampuff of a person whose only defining characteristic -- heck, let's say that again -- whose only defining characteristic is a propensity for shopping at high-end fashion outlets.

Consider that. It's not even the clothes that she loves. It's not fashion. It's shopping.

(I know, I know, it's called Confessions of a SHOPAHOLIC. But can't it be a warm human being we come to know and like, who happens to be a shopaholic, instead of a hateful buffoon jabbering excitedly in every scene?)

By the ten minute mark I was begging for this movie to turn out to be the Friday the 13th remake opening the same weekend. If Jason had appeared in Rebecca Bloomwood's bedroom with a hand-axe, I would have leapt up cheering.

Didn't happen.

Instead, Rebecca Bloomwood takes a job at a magazine called Money Savers, a frugal living guide. There she writes an eight paragraph article about the evils of store cards, which vaults her to worldwide fame.

You think I'm kidding.

This is one of those movies where real-world logic goes kablooey in order to quickly and easily satisfy the demands of plot. In Rebecca's case, the writers were determined that her shopaholicism would turn itself into a virtue at Money Savers, because she knows the dangers of excessive spending better than anyone.

They accomplish this by showing Rebecca at a keyboard typing. Then they show her turn the article in to her boss. Then every character we meet over the next ninety minutes fawns over the article, as well as every successive article she writes. Unfortunately, we never get to read the articles. We don't really know what's in them. And even if it were the best prose since Dickens, it's still just writing an article, which -- in the larger-than-life world of movies, anyway -- is not a huge accomplishment. Yet it opens practically every single door that can be opened to a person the rest of the movie.

This presents a huge problem. Movies exist to make life tough on main characters, but "Shopaholic" is relentlessly generous to Rebecca, giving her lucky breaks and warm receptions wherever she goes. This undeserved good fortune greatly exacerbates the sympathy problem. We turn on people who are luckier than we are. Our hearts go out to those who are unluckier. The hardest lesson a writer learns is to never -- ever -- give your hero a lucky break. Your villain? Sure. Never your hero.

Plunging us further into lunacy is the fact that Rebecca Wormblood, or whatever her name is, comes off like a functional illiterate. She's a total ignoramus in every way, but we're expected to believe she's a brilliant writer. Since the entire plot hinges on this fact, it's hard to shrug off.

As if sensing that the overall story is crap, each scene tries really hard to be as outrageously funny as it can be. Consequently, every line is spoken in a "funny" tone of voice, followed quickly by a clever wink. As always, this comes at the expense of character and authenticity, which reduces any future chance of getting a laugh, so those scenes have to work harder still, and the vicious cycle feeds and feeds.

Lots of people are going to see this movie hoping for an experience similar to "The Devil Wears Prada." Those people are sad fools in for a crushing disappointment.

Remember the first scene in "Prada" when Anne Hathaway was getting dressed for her interview, and she threw on jeans and an old sweater, whereas all her fellow interviewees were pulling on tight, chic couture and plucking their eyebrows? We immediately fell for Hathaway's character. We're all sweater-and-jeans girls inside. And when Hathaway stuck up for herself in scene two despite being terrified of Streep's Anna Wintour, we were sold on the character.

"Shopaholic" is like following around one of those competitors for Hathaway's job that we hated.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Class

This movie is brilliant.

If it had been made in English with Hollywood money, "The Class" would be a best picture nominee with a real shot at taking down Slumdog Millionaire. Which is not to say it's as good as Slumdog. It's certainly not as uplifting! But it's of the same high caliber.

The story follows a young male teacher at a bustling Parisian public school. He is called Francois because he is played by the screenwriter Francois Begaudeau, who based the screenplay on his own memoir about his actual experiences as a teacher.

The kids are animals. At times. They're also vulnerable at times. They're stupid and they're bright. Their infuriating contradictions never ring false.

Remarkably, Francois' script depicts himself as anything but perfect. He's not Robin Williams from Dead Poets Society. He tries to be a good teacher and he cares about his students, but his efforts and his compassion have limits. No one stands on their desks at the end of "The Class."

Interestingly, the story does not delve into Francois' personal life in the slightest. I can't think of a single scene that does not take place at the school. There is no romantic subplot. The central relationship of the story -- the only relationship -- is the complicated one between Francois and his class. Nothing else is allowed to get in the way.

The naturalistic performances from the kids make the movie feel more like documentary than drama. There's a scene where two fourteen year-old class reps whisper and giggle their way through a faculty meeting that is so damned realistic I can't imagine how the director got the performances out of the kids. I wouldn't know how to start.

Though set in Paris, "The Class" feels like it could, and does, take place in any American city.

In fact, I imagine the American remake will hit screens within the next couple years. It will star Matthew McConaughey and it will be terrible. And you will think, "Neil's an idiot. That movie sucked."

Don't wait. Check out the French version now.