Friday, June 26, 2009

The Proposal

Some day the romantic comedy will keel over and die. Its rapidly cooling body will be hurled onto the junkheap of film history to lie with the detective movie and the western.

But if "The Proposal" is any indication, that day remains far away.

This standard rom-com does little more than follow a formula set forth by a hundred predecessors, yet it manages to entertain, engage and amuse. And in the end, can we really ask for anything more?

Sandra Bullock plays Margaret Tate, a demanding boss at a high-powered New York publishing firm. Young and handsome Ryan Reynolds plays Andrew Paxton, her hard-working, long-suffering assistant.

Meanie Sandra Bullock gets thrown for a loop when she is informed her work visa is expiring, for reasons never explained, and she will soon be deported back to the howling wastes of Canada. In a desperate attempt to stave off this disaster, she convinces her ambitious assistant to marry her. In exchange she will ensure his swift advancement in the publishing world. It will be a marriage only on paper, and in a year or two they can dissolve even that union. Everyone will be a winner.

Except...

(spoiler alert of the century)

...true love blossoms, throwing a kink into the best-laid plans.

What could be more predictable? Well, here's why the story works anyway:

Due to the attentions of a suspicious immigration agent (a ridiculous stretch), Bullock and Reynolds must fly to Reynolds' family home in Alaska to announce their marriage to his family.

Since Reynolds doesn't want his family knowing about the mercenary nature of their arrangement -- and how it reflects on his anything-to-succeed character -- he and Bullock must maintain the pretense that their love is real.

They have to sleep in the same room. They have to make up stories of how they first met. They have to dance. They have to kiss. They have to learn everything there is to know about each other.

This despite the fact that they start the story loathing each other deeply.

So it's a story of two people thrown together, forced to maintain a pretense of affection, who discover that the pretense is slowly turning into the real thing.

This is nice for a couple of reasons. First of all, it's ironic. The last person Reynolds would want to marry is the one person he's forced to marry. And vice versa. Irony always works in storytelling -- well, almost always. It works here.

Second, the situation allows the audience to be in on a secret. We know Bullock and Reynolds are lying about their relationship, but Reynolds' family, of course, does not. This is called having superior position, and it too almost always works in movies.

The rest is simply a question of getting the little things right.

Consider character names. Margaret Tate is a tough-as-nails, hard-driving career woman. Of course she is. Andrew Paxton is a handsome young man with a good heart. Perfect. His hard-working, no-nonsense dad is Joe Paxton. His affectionate mom is Grace Paxton. Every name works.

This movie does a lot of little things right.

And little things matter.

SCORE:

How Accomplished: 62/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 77/100 (caveat: I saw this movie in a theater packed with people who came to laugh)

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Moon

So David Bowie's son has an idea for a movie, and the next thing you know, we've got a movie!

Considering that's the pedigree for the new low-budget sci-fi flick "Moon," it's surprising the movie works as well as it does.

Sam Rockwell plays a technical expert with a three-year contract to work at a mining facility on the Earth's moon. He's a troubleshooter whose job is to keep the mining machines functional. He is completely alone save for GERTY, a computer voiced by Kevin Spacey in a direct homage to "2001"'s calm but ultimately problematic HAL 9000.

We join Sam at the two year and fifty week mark of his tour of duty. He is looking forward to going home and meeting the young family we see only in pre-recorded video messages.

But something goes wrong. On a service call to a twitchy mining machine, Sam crashes his moon rover and injures himself. He wakes up in the infirmary where he is informed by GERTY that he suffered a concussion but will recover.

And then... the twist. Those afraid of having the first plot point spoiled, avert your eyes.

Sam discovers he was not in an accident at all. Another Sam was. An identical clone. It turns out, Sam's employer is cutting costs by using an endless succession of Sam clones. Instead of returning to Earth when their tour is done, the Sam clones are incinerated.

In the course of figuring this out, Sam manages to save his predecessor from the damaged rover, so the movie consists of three characters: two Sams and GERTY.

More investigation follows, but unfortunately the Sams are slower to appreciate the ramifications of their situation than the audience is. We grasp at once that the Sams don't have a family waiting at home for them (only the long-departed original Sam does). We also grasp that the corporation responsible for the clones' existence will not be pleased to learn of their self-awareness, and therefore the approaching "rescue mission" should be avoided at all costs.

The Sams, however, take a long time to come to these conclusions, so the middle act feels much slower than it should. They spend a lot of time grappling with identity issues and being surly with each other, when in fact their full attention should be focused on the current crisis.

Also, the genre dictates the friendly computer turn homicidal at some point, but that never happens. Somewhat inexplicably, GERTY remains helpful to both Sams to the very end. While this is a nice departure from cliche, it also removes most of the jeopardy and therefore much of the dramatic tension from the movie.

In movies there are only two kinds of danger: 1) immediate danger and 2) whatever kind of danger exists at the concession stand, because that's where the audience is going to be spending their time in the absence of immediate danger.

So all movie long we've got the ominous "rescue mission" on the way, but until it arrives there is no real threat to our characters. Hackneyed though it would have been, GERTY should have made some attempt to liquidate at least one of our Sams.

Also, the clones are designed to physically deteriorate and then die near the three-year mark, so one of the Sams is growing increasingly sick and weak. This is a bad mistake dramatically, since it removes the tension of which clone "deserves" to live more than the other. (One of them must remain on the station to fool the arriving rescue mission.) It takes away the possibility of the clones existing at real cross-purposes. A dying man, after all, has few enemies since his stake in the world (and the future) gets less and less by the minute.

In the end, Sick Sam stays behind to die, Healthy Sam (well, for the next three years, anyway) takes the escape pod to Earth, and the diabolical rescue mission shows up too late to do anything about it. It's an anti-climax.

I once read a short story called "Think Like a Dinosaur" with a premise similar to Moon's but with a much sharper situation.

In it, the human operator of an alien teleportation technology (which humanity now depends on) makes a subtle mistake in the teleportation of a human female. The way the process normally works, a copy of the traveller is made and sent across the cosmos. Simultaneously, the original "version" is disintegrated to prevent two copies of the same person existing at one time -- a situation our alien benefactors (the dinosaur-like creatures of the title) deplore.

But this time, the original version of the traveller is not destroyed. She is alive and well and wondering why she hasn't teleported. When the operator realizes what has happened, he knows he must kill the woman at once, lest the aliens revoke the technology because we failed to follow their rules for its use.

Of course, the woman doesn't want to die, and acts accordingly.

This is a difficult situation there is no getting out of, and it makes for good drama. The conflicting lines in "Moon" are much fuzzier. As a consequence the movie fizzles out just when it should be reaching a thunderous crescendo.

Having said all that, it's still fun to watch a moon rover slowly bounce its way across the crater-ridden surface of the Earth's only natural satellite.

SCORE:

How Accomplished: 58/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 71/100

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Land of the Lost

It's become a Hollywood pasttime to ruin cherished memories from childhood. "Land of the Lost" is the latest in that line of destroyers.

The TV show on which the movie is based was a creepy kids show about a family stranded in the prehistoric past with an unpleasant twist -- the presence of otherworldly, bipedal lizards named Sleestaks, which are decidedly unfriendly.

By turning this premise into a comedy, Universal Studios has ingeniously stripped it of whatever entertainment value it once had. And by throwing Will Ferrell into the lead role, they have taken an inherently outlandish premise and pushed it into total caricature.

The result is an unfunny farce composed of one clunker of a gag after another.

Will Ferrell is peculiarly unsuited for the role of scientist Rick Marshall because it puts him in the position of being smarter than the other characters (likeable dim bulb Danny McBride and bland tv actress Anna Friel.) Smart has never been where Ferrell gets his laughs. He gets his laughs from being dumber than everyone around him, and by remaining supremely confident in his abilites despite all suggestions to the contrary. (Okay, the amazingly funny "Celebrity Jeopardy" sketches aside.)

This uncomfortable casting is typical Hollywood thinking. The movie got made off the following pitch: Will Ferrel in a comedy version of Land of the Lost. Okay, fine, so all kinds of money gets spent, but what role can Ferrell play? He's suited to the McBride role, but because he's an A-lister he has to take the lead, which is properly the scientist character who is responsible for everything that happens.

It would be possible to rewrite the characters to better reflect Ferrell's skills, but in a slapped-together project like this, that would take way too long. Instead, Ferrell is squashed into his role, whatever believability might have existed is sacrificed, and we're left with a series of unrelated and uninvolving scenes performed by actors making wildly exaggerated facial expressions in a desperate, Jim Carrey-esque attempt to be funny.

Nice try. But not really.

SCORE:

How Accomplished: 33/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 33/100

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Hangover

Finally, a comedy that's more than just a series of skits.

"The Hangover" works for two reasons: 1) the situation is so damn simple and 2) the characters, for all their flaws, remain likeable throughout.

The situation is this: Three friends -- newly-minted movie star Bradley Cooper, sitcom fave Ed Helms and standup comic Zach Galifianakis -- take a fourth friend, Justin Bartha, the nerdy sidekick of the "National Treasure" movies, to Vegas for a night of debauchery just before his wedding.

Before hitting the town, Bradley Cooper raises his glass to toast "A night we'll never forget."

Smash cut to the next morning. The three friends wake up with no memory of the night before. All they have are clues -- a free-range chicken, a toothy Bengal tiger, an infant in a babyseat -- and a problem: there is no sign of groom-to-be Justin Bartha.

The trio must retrace their steps from the night before to discover what happened to their friend, whose fiancee keeps urgently calling.

Needless to say, many hijinks ensue, but the spine of the story is so strong that even the most bizarre detours from logic and plot continuity somehow do not feel episodic. George Lucas said the success or failure of a movie is determined the moment its core concept solidifies. "The Hangover's" core concept gives it a huge margin for error.

Happily, this is not all the movie has going for it. Our three protagonists each bring a different perspective to their adventure. Cooper, though a selfish ladies man type, has a fairly standard set of emotional reactions and we experience the story mostly through him, even if he is a little better looking and a little cooler than we will ever be. Helms plays the prig, the squeamish type whose abnormal discomfort with the entire situation is a reliable source of humor. And Zach Galifianakis plays a dude who is just plain weird.

There are unsavory aspects to these characters, and in a different context they might not be the most sympathetic of men. But over the course of their Vegas adventure they are so consistently abused and humiliated we can't help but root for them.

A great example occurs when the trio is in the car. They hear a thumping noise coming from the trunk. Concluding they have accidentally locked their missing friend in the trunk of their car, they immediately pull over and open the trunk. To their surprise, a naked Chinese man springs out, swinging a tire iron and screaming indecipherable curses.

The naked Chinese man proceeds to beat the hell out of our main characters, leaving all three writhing on the hot Vegas ground. The movie is full of such promising opportunities that turn into steps backward along the quest, a surefire way to increase sympathy as well as dramatic tension. One of the greatest failings of the amateur writer is the desire to make life easier on the protagonist. "The Hangover" makes things continually harder, and profits by it.

Given these factors, the movie can easily withstand Heather Graham's bad acting, Mike Tyson's worse acting, a few tonal inconsistencies (including a "Eureka" moment for Ed Helms that could have come from an episode of Scooby-Doo) and a final ten minutes (excepting a clever credits sequence) that does not really work on any level.

"The Hangover" is a perfect summer concoction, a story about a disastrous night in Vegas that ends up being so much fun it makes you want to go to Vegas anyway, consequences be damned.

SCORE:

How Accomplished: 82/100 (comedy is hard!)

How Much I Enjoyed: 82/100

Friday, June 5, 2009

Drag Me to Hell

Sometimes everything runs according to plan.

A master-level director (Sam Raimi) takes a break from his obligatory and oh so lucrative superhero franchise (Spider-Man) to return to his horror-movie roots, to spin a simple yarn about a pretty young girl on the wrong side of a nasty curse, and the result... is a ton of fun.

That pretty much sums up "Drag Me to Hell," and if it doesn't, this will: the pretty young girl is Alison Lohman, who plays Christine, a loan officer bucking for a promotion to assistant manager. Eager to please her boss, Christine denies a payment extension to Mrs. Ganush, an aged gypsy with a temper-control problem and a passable familiarity with the darker spirits of hell.

After a funny, frightening and disgusting fight scene in a parking garage, Mrs. Ganush lays down the curse that sets the plot in motion. Christine is doomed to be "dragged to hell" by an evil spirit called a lamia at the end of three days time.

The rest of the movie concerns Christine's attempts to avert this fate, with the help of her nice-guy boyfriend Justin Long, an Indian street psychic named Rham Jas and the heavy artillery he calls in, medium Shaun San Dena.

DMTH is not a horror classic, but it's not trying to be. It's a down and dirty screamfest that works on those terms. Inevitably it falls into excess -- an excess of sudden, blaring sound for scares and an excess of gross-out bile and vomit for shocks -- but that's the genre. Cheap horror flicks are not known for their subtlety, nor should they be.

And there are some really fun scenes, notably (spoiler alert) the diner scene where Christine tries to find someone despicable enough to give the button, and hence the curse, to. Another great scene occurs when Christine goes to the cemetary to dig up the body of Mrs. Ganush and kick some ass. That moment in the horror template where the hero stops being afraid and starts being angry is always a fun one, and it is played to great effect here.

The ending is a hackneyed bit of cliche. It is also perfect, given the genre and given the title of the movie. Anything else would have been a disappointment. And the one thing DMTH does not do is disappoint.

SCORE:

How Accomplished: 72/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 80/100