Monday, April 27, 2009

The Soloist

Ah, the fifty.

The ol' fifty.

If you stopped me on the street and asked me how "The Soloist" was, I'd say, "It was fine. I dunno." I'll try to provide a little more detail here, but don't expect much. It's hard to muster a lot of energy for something this close to fifty.

"The Soloist" is about the friendship that develops between LA Times columnist Robert Downey Jr. and homeless, schizophrenic Jamie Foxx, who happens to be a highly-skilled classical musician.

This friendship has ups and downs. There are some funny moments. There are some sad moments. Mostly it's just a bunch of scenes we've seen a million times before in a story we've seen just as often.

If you're spending ten dollars to see "The Soloist," you really have too much time on your hands. But I guess "Wolverine: Origins" hasn't come out yet.

Speaking of "Wolverine: Origins," it's great to see that the ragin' cajun Gambit is going to make an appearance. He's the guy who supercharges playing cards with kinetic energy and fires them like bullets. He's a terrific character and it'll be nice to see him join the stable of movie mutants.

At first I didn't like Liev Schreiber in the role of Sabretooth, but the more I see of the trailer, the more I'm warming to him.

The same goes for the "Terminator: Salvation" trailer. At first it looked cheap and flavorless, like Terminator 3, but the longer trailers show more and more promise. The idea of a terminator that doesn't know it's a terminator is fascinating. McG is directing so it will probably be terrible. But at least there's a little hope in the air.

Helping matters is the billboard that's all over L.A. right now. It shows a toppled T800, stripped of its flesh, staring down at commuters with its glowing red eyes in a completely hypnotic fashion. Yes I want to see the movie.

Also around the bend is the new Star Trek flick. I've done a good job of not getting too excited about this, but the early reviews have been positive and the black and white billboard showing the original Constitution-Class Enterprise looks very cool. Going back to the original characters was a great idea. They were always the appeal of the show, not the universe and not the technology. What we really want to see is that old Kirk-Spock-McCoy chemistry.

Anyway, here's the score for "The Soloist."


SCORE:

How Accomplished: 51/100

How Much I Liked: 50/100

Friday, April 24, 2009

Crank: High Voltage

I almost liked "Crank: High Voltage."

It is misogynistic, racist, illogical, uninvolving and sociopathic. Its action is not implausible, it is outright impossible.

And I almost liked it.

It must be the swagger. "C:HV" has all energy and self-confidence of its main character, Chev Chelios (played by bad-movie magnet Jason Statham). It moves forward at full speed at all times. The camerawork is skillful and sprightly, the music is loud and effective, and the premise, while outlandish, has an undeniable appeal. Chinese mobsters steal Chev Chelios' heart for one of their ailing elders. Intent on harvesting all his organs, they implant an electronic pump in his chest, but he escapes their clutches, leaving himself with an hour to find his original heart before his artificial replacement runs out of juice.

The movie spares only a few lines -- on the go -- toward shoring up the believability of this situation. It is more concerned with following Chelios' mad dash through Los Angeles than explaining it. Fair enough. It's nice if a movie is smart and makes actual sense, but there are other ways of winning us over.

"C:HV" makes full use of those other ways, unleashing a torrent of bullets, an endless parade of naked women, and a series of bizarre characters to stun us into submission. Like I said, it almost works.

Ultimately the movie's sense of humor trips it up. A movie as absurd as this has to play things absolutely straight or it has to have a consistently successful sense of humor. "C:HV" goes for the latter, but the jokes don't fall. To paraphrase Errol Flynn, wresting your living heart back from the clutches of the Chinese Triads is easy. Comedy is hard.

Unredeemed by humor, "C:HV" begins to collapse under the weight of its brutaliy, its anger, its manic, juvenile imbecility. In the end the movie even turns on its own lead, foisting on Chev Chelios the same kind of agonizing demise that has befallen nearly everyone else. (Despite a credits coda that suggests a continuation of Chev's strange and violent life.)

"C:HV" is a B-movie of the kind that are seldom made anymore. The recent "Punisher: War Zone" is a not-so-distant relative. But whereas "P:WZ" had an unerring sense of its own tone and a satisfying, if ridiculous, ending, "C:HV" sputters to an increasingly pointless anti-climax that drives the audience eagerly toward the exits.


SCORE:

How Accomplished: 22/100

How Much I Liked It: 43/100

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

State of Play

Foremost among the many stupid things pretending to be smart in "State of Play" is the title. I have to assume the phrase is well-known in British society, from whence this project originated, but to the average American (like this one) the phrase is opaque. I sort of get the double entendre -- "state" could refer to the government -- but I don't get the topmost layer.

Which describes my feelings about the story. I get that it's supposed to be a story about the tense intersection between journalism and politics, but what actually HAPPENS in the story is hard to pin down.

You see, there's this bad guy security corporation called Pointcore, which has apparently killed a young woman who was having an affair with congressman Ben Affleck. The story is investigated by journalist Russel Crowe, who seeks to protect his former friend, the aforementioned Affleck, and take down Pointcore.

Unfortunately the plot quickly descends into twist hell, where nothing is what it seems, and even if it were it wouldn't matter because you didn't understand it very well when it WAS what it seemed.

Most of the question marks involve what the bad guys are doing and why. Jason Bateman plays an archly humorous high-class pimp who ends up spilling his guts to Russell Crowe for plot convenience reasons instead of legitimate self-interest. Michael Berresse plays a ruthless assassin who loses his chance to kill Russell Crowe because he's too busy doing laundry. (Not an exaggeration.) Jeff Daniels plays a senior congressman so wicked and venal he nearly cries out for "Deep-lo-matic im-yoooooo-nity" in a South African accent.

None of it adds up to anything in the end, as (spoiler alert) Pointcore is exonerated, which makes no sense given their villainous behavior to this point, and blame for the murder falls to that laundry-loving assassin Michael Berresse who, it turns out, is crazy.

Arrrrrrggggghhhhh!

Stupid? Check. Pointless? Check. Ridiculous waste of time with a cop-out ending? Annnnnnnd... check.

These qualities are reminiscent of recent movies "Duplicity" and "Michael Clayton," which, strangely, were also penned by screenwriter Tony Gilroy.

To his credit, Gilroy also wrote the excellent Bourne movies, but when he goes bad he goes really bad.

"State of Play" is just not smart enough to be what it aspires to be, a timely political thriller a la "Charlie Wilson's War." That movie was full of genial insight into the ironies and nuances involved in the effort to motivate a bureaucracy as large as the United States Federal Government, whereas "State of Play" seems impressed with itself because it knows what a blogger is. In fact, whenever a character uses the word "blogger" you can almost hear the quotation marks. Ditto for "internet."

I haven't even mentioned any of the subplots because mathematicians haven't found a number large enough to encompass them, but if they did, there would be too many subplots in this movie by precisely that number.

The director is Kevin MacDonald, whom I have to blame for the disastrous performances from otherwise good actors Helen Mirren and Rachel McAdams. Even Affleck isn't supposed to be this bad. Crowe survives on sheer charisma.

I'm going to give this movie an 18, but I'd like to give it an "N" for sheer and utter nonsense.


SCORE:

How Accomplished: 18/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 18/100

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Observe and Report

It's nice to see a movie take chances.

It's nice to see a movie go for something edgy and different, to seek its own path toward a place original and meaningful.

Of course, the thing about taking chances is, sometimes it doesn't work out.

"Observe and Report" follows Seth Rogen's Ronnie, head of security at a mall being terrorized by a rotund, middle-aged, parking lot exhibitionist.

Ronnie devotes himself to catching the exhibitionist with the fervor of someone who has absolutely nothing else going on in his life. Ronnie's mom is a hopeless drunk, his only friends are his security guard subordinates, and the woman of his dreams, dim-bulb cosmetic counter beauty Anna Faris, is out of his league.

Ronnie convinces himself that all these problems will resolve themselves if only he can catch the exhibitionist.

Complicating matters is the presence of Ray Liotta as a police detective with a cursory interest in the case and a more-than-cursory interest in Anna Faris.

This is a good set up, and the first half hour is both engaging and funny, especially when Ronnie and his underlings tighten their grip on mall security, going so far as to brutally assault a large group of teenaged skateboarders.

Alas, the exhibitionist refuses to reappear, so the story takes a major detour as Ronnie pursues his ambition to become a police officer. This kills whatever momentum had been built up in the first act, and the story arc isn't nearly as funny or clever as its predecessor (despite a very funny scene where Ronnie confronts a group of hardened drug dealers led by recent comedy staple Danny McBride.) By the halfway point a strong sense of disappointment has set in. It only deepens.

Eventually Ronnie is fired from his job, rejected by the police and betrayed by love interest Farris. None of this is terribly funny, and much of it is somewhat disturbing, as Ronnie's voice-over takes on a delusional quality reminiscent of the ramblings of those unbalanced wack jobs who go on killing sprees when their life takes a bad turn. In fact, during this stretch I became concerned for the safety of everyone around Ronnie. The comedy had threatened to turn into a horror flick. Not a good idea at the seventy-five minute mark.

The plot, and Ronnie, are saved by the sudden return of the exhibitionist, but this has a deus ex machina feel and only contributes to the feeling that we are not witnessing the interaction of a man with his world, but rather a fever dream where fantasy steps in to replace reality whenever reality gets too unpleasant.

"Observe and Report," which has a title as opaque as the movie's ultimate intention, is an interesting experiment and deserves partial credit for effort. Unfortunately, partial credit is all it gets.


SCORE:

How Accomplished: 42/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 30/100

Friday, April 10, 2009

Fast & Furious

Vroom vroom!

Screeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeech!

Kapshhh! Bumpadabumpadapumpada kaboom!

"Fast & Furious" plays like one of its race scenes. Frenetic, exciting, and for the most part easy to follow. It's the kind of movie Hollywood was made for.

Vin Diesel, a terribly limited actor, is perfect here. His throaty drawl and slow, look-at-me delivery can make even mundane lines feel, well, like this:

"I'm goin' to the storrrrrre..." Vin looks the female lead up and down suggestively. "...to pick myself up..." His mouth twitches with the slightest hint of a smile. "...a bag... of icccccce."

It would be ridiculous in a serious movie, but in a ridiculous movie it's compelling.

Paired with Vin is the uber-bland Paul Walker, known for staring straight ahead and speaking in monotone. Strangely, his utter lack of personality makes him a good fit with Vin, who has 'tude to spare.

The plot doesn't matter a hell of a lot. Vin's an outlaw with a code of honor, Walker's a Fed still trying to find his. The two formed a macho bond three movies ago, when definite articles were involved, so when they both end up hunting the same drug lord, it doesn't take much prompting to pool their efforts.

"Fast & Furious" has lost love, secrets, betrayals and crises of conscience, but most of all it has racing. Sexy, reckless, eight-hundred horsepower racing. Spoiler alert: cars flip in this movie. They crash. They explode. Drivers leap out of their own vehicles to commandeer a rival's. A movie like this is to actual racing (even actual drag-racing) what pro wrestling is to the Olympic Greco-Roman style.

And what's wrong with that? Absolutely nothing, provided you don't mind walking out of a theater drenched in testosterone and high-performance engine oil. I don't.


SCORE:

How Accomplished: 54/100

How Much I Liked It: 77/100

Monday, April 6, 2009

Adventureland

"Adventureland" is a wonderfully involving, heart-felt nostalgia piece a lot like "American Graffiti" in texture and tone.

Less an ensemble piece than "Graffiti," "Adventureland" follows twenty-two year-old James Brennan, our resident innocent, caught between college and grad school -- and yes, between being a boy and being a man.

An efficient opening gets James working a game booth at the Adventureland amusement park inside the first ten minutes. There he meets a variety of characters, each of whom feels deeply real.

This social environment is the essence of "Adventureland." It is well-observed enough to trigger our own social navigation reflexes, which makes for an immersive movie-going experience.

The stakes of James' summer at Adventureland go up when he falls for low-key teen siren Kristen Stewart (of recent "Twilight" fame), whose conflicting desires, unhappy home life and extensive sexual experience strike lots of notes that ring true.

Ryan Reynolds, AKA lottery-winner Mister Scarlett Johansson, plays an impossibly cool maintenance man slash soulful musical artist. This makes him an incredibly efficient woman-devouring machine, and a great foil for our more humbly-endowed James.

There's a beautiful element of craft in this movie. The deepest secret of the story, far from being hidden, is presented to the audience very early on. We know a crucial bit of information our boy James would dearly like to know, and that superior position gives every scene a tension and subtext it wouldn't have if writer/director Greg Mottola had held out on us.

Too often film-makers keep their cards face-down till the end of a movie. Partly thanks to M. Night Shyamalan's brilliant but fluky "Sixth Sense," everyone wants to pop a shocking surprise on the audience. Ninety percent of the time it's the main character who should be kept in the dark, not the audience.

Hitchcock expressed this by saying if he could show you a bomb under a desk, then have two men enter the room and discuss baseball for five minutes, the result would be a suspenseful scene.

He was right. "Adventureland" is a movie about a kid with a summer job at an amusement park, but it's more suspenseful than a lot of thrillers out there. It's also touching, sad, funny and complex.

"Adventureland" is a terrific flick.


SCORE:

How Accomplished: 86/100

How Much I Liked It: 90/100

Saturday, April 4, 2009

I Love You, Man

"I Love You, Man" takes its title from a thirty second Bud Light ad that aired in 1995. The movie fails to live up to its source.

For starters, the core concept is hard to believe. Paul Rudd plays a handsome, well-adjusted thirty-something who has just gotten engaged to a beautiful, well-adjusted woman. The core concept is: this man has no friends. None.

This makes no sense and also represents a squandered opportunity. A complete lack of friends could indicate a larger psychological issue that would give depth, and hopefully humor, to Paul Rudd's character. Instead the situation is written off as a result of the fact that "he's always had a girlfriend," which is so unsatisfying it's almost a non sequitur.

This lack of friends becomes a plot issue -- sorrrrrrt of... -- when Paul Rudd overhears his fiancee's girlfriends talking about how needy and clingy a husband without friends can be.

Personally I have never once heard, or heard of, this complaint. Does any woman want her husband to spend more nights out with the boys?

But whatever. Paul Rudd now has a goal in life. Make a friend. At any cost.

What follows is (sarcastic voice on) a string of wacky encounters with unlikely friend prospects, including one who must be ninety years old (!) and one who thinks he wants a gay romance! (sarcastic voice off) Once this interminable sequence, mandatory as a school lunch, concludes, Paul Rudd meets ordinary guy Jason Segel and the two almost immediately become friends.

Movie over, right?

Nope, it's only the half-hour mark. The next forty-five minutes, free of any need to advance a story that ended at the half-hour mark, proceeds with scenes of Rudd and Segel hanging out in ways that are clearly intended to be funny.

This violates the cardinal rule of humor, which is to never appear to be trying too hard. "I Love You, Man" strains for our approval like a teacher's pet. Every role is filled with a well-known comedic actor which only underscores how funny the action isn't. Just having Jane Curtin, Andy Samberg and BK Simmons on screen doesn't make a scene funny. The most egregious waste here is Jon Favreau, who is dying for a single decent line.

Here's a signature joke: Jason Segel's character has a dog. Guess what the dog's name is? Go ahead. Guess.

Anwar Sadat. The former Egyptian president. This joke has been brought to you by "I Love You, Man."

The writer/director is John Hamburg, who scored the break of a lifetime a few years back by coming late onto a script called "Meet the Parents." That story had everything this one doesn't. It was so good that John Hamburg will continue to be allowed to make limp, feeble comedy impersonations for several more years.


SCORE:

How Accomplished: 19/100

How Much I Enjoyed It: 19/100