Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Runaways

I love women rockers.

Ann Wilson, Chrissie Hynde, Debbie Harry. And of course...

Joan Jett. There's something about female rockers that is more rock than male rockers. Maybe it's because the whole point of the genre is to overturn social convention. Who better to do that than a leather-clad vixen howling defiance into a microphone?

After all, a man might always be faking. He might just be trying to impress chicks. Heck, I imagine that's always the case.

But if you're a woman, that's not your motivation. No one's really attracted to a female rocker who wouldn't be attracted to her anyway. If you're a woman, you don't make a career out of rock and roll unless you MEAN it.

And that's what "The Runaways" is all about.

It tracks the story of a girl band formed in 1975 by producer Kim Fowley. Though the band had five members, the movie focuses on the most prominent two: lead singer Cherie Currie, played by Dakota Fanning, and lead guitarist Joan Jett, played by Kristen Stewart.

Both are desperate to get out of bad home situations.

So both jump at the chance offered by Fowley to be in a band. He crosses paths with them at a Los Angeles nightclub in tellingly different ways. Jett, a seventeen year-old rock junkie, recognizes Fowley and tells him she wants into the game. He hooks her up with drummer Sandy West, and the band that would become "The Runaways" has its nucleus.

Unlike Jett, Currie does no seeking out. She is discovered by Fowley, who knows the band needs a pretty face on lead vocals.

Jett and Currie are polar opposites. Jett is a musical perfectionist -- she writes all the band's songs -- who has found her calling in life. Currie is a conflicted beauty queen who misses her family. They should hate each other.

Instead they become the best of friends, and that's why the movie works so well. Jett and Currie ride the rollercoaster of 70's rock stardom together, bonding over a mutual interest in hard-core drugs and a mutual aversion to the tyrannical Fowley.

What they never bond over is music, since it is central to Jett's existence but only peripheral to Currie's.

This difference eventually splits the band apart, and it splits the friendship as well.

In the end, Jett is left without a band and without a career. Bereft of the pretty face that made the band a success, Jett has to decide what really matters to her: being successful or simply rocking out.

She throws herself into the serious business of rocking out, and of course success finds her.

Success does not follow Currie, who at present is a chainsaw artist. No, I'm not making that up. She still looks good, though, and she attended the premiere of the movie alongside Jett, as well as the pair's Hollywood doppelgangers.

Currie (co-) wrote the book the movie is based on. It's called "Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway." The book supposedly covers Currie's difficult struggle to overcome the drug addiction that started in her "Runaway" years.

While a drug addiction is a terrible thing, the way the movie allows Jett and Currie to indulge in drugs without condemning or condoning is smart and effective. If you're going to be politically correct, you're not going to make a good movie about a rock band in the 70's.

In "The Runaways," drug use is casual. The questions of identity and purpose are anything but.

This movie is in limited release. It goes wide April 9th.

See it.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 84/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 91/100

Friday, March 19, 2010

Green Zone

You think living the Hollywood dream is easy?

Here's a slice of life in show biz:

Paul Greengrass, the celebrated director of two of the Bourne movies and the amazing United 93, decided in 2005 he wanted his next movie to be a military/political thriller set in Iraq. His basic idea was to make a protagonist out of a fictional army officer tasked to find the weapons of mass destruction that justified the Iraq Invasion of 2003.

The army officer would grow frustrated with the apparent absence of WMD and the questionable intelligence reports that had him traipsing all over the country on a wild goose chase.

He connects with a CIA operative who shares his distrust of the WMD intelligence reports. Together they start investigating the source of those reports, a former general in Saddam's army named Al Rawi.

This investigation brings our army officer into conflict with a Pentagon Official named Clark Poundstone, who insists Al Rawi's reports are authentic -- which is odd since it appears he is engaged in a frantic effort to locate Al Rawi and kill him.

By interfering with this effort, our army officer falls into Poundstone's crosshairs himself.

Though intriguing, the story didn't come easily. Greengrass struggled with it until reading a then-new book about the US administration in Iraq called Imperial Life in the Emerald City. The book supplied a texture and nuance to life in the "green zone" that gave new impetus to Greengrass' efforts.

Still not entirely satisfied with his script, Greengrass brought in screenwriter Brian Helgeland, who has penned adaptations such as LA Confidential and Payback. Helgeland went to work on the script. When it was finished, it attracted movie star Matt Damon to the role of the army officer who starts to question his own superiors.

Other actors quickly expressed interest, and soon Ray Winstone was aboard as the CIA agent and Greg Kinnear came on as the slippery Pentagon official.

The movie would cost a fortune to make, but backer Relativity Media believed in the picture enough to foot the bill.

One never knows how a movie is going to come out, even when it is based on a solid script with a solid director and a solid cast. In the case of Green Zone, the movie came out wonderfully. It is a tense, thoughtful thriller with rounded characters and equal parts action and drama.

It was released March 12 on 3000 screens and was promptly crushed by the second-week performance of Alice in Wonderland.

Its fourteen million dollar haul means there is virtually no chance of anyone recouping their investment in the movie. It also means relatively few people will see it, which is a shame because Green Zone is terrific.

But making a terrific movie, which is almost impossible, isn't enough. If you want to be successful, things have to break your way. When Greengrass thought up this movie in 2005, there was no way to predict that fantasy movies would be all the rage five years later and nothing not rendered in 3-D stood any chance at the domestic or international box office.

Greengrass made an excellent movie about the wrong subject at the wrong time. And it got buried.

No, living the Hollywood dream is HARD.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 84/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 86/100

Monday, March 15, 2010

Alice in Wonderland

What an effective adaptation.

I can't imagine a more daunting task than turning Lewis Carroll's clumsily titled Alice's Adventures in Wonderland into a live-action feature film. Like Tim Burton, I'd take full advantage of modern CGI and a 3-D format.

It would look trippy and it would look cool.

But what about the story?

For those not up to speed, the original Alice is about a seven and a half year-old British girl with blonde hair who has a dream wherein she tumbles into a rabbit hole, encounters all sorts of bizarre creatures talking all manner of gibberish, then wakes up and goes about the rest of her day.

It's not an exaggeration to say that IS the plot of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

The sequel, which is drawn upon in the movie, offers little extra help, plot-wise. This time Alice dreams she steps through a mirror, encounters more bizarre creatures talking gibberish, then wakes up and goes about the rest of her day.

From this material, screenwriter Linda Woolverton somehow weaves together an hour and fifty-five minute story that is coherent, sensible (well, all things considered) and thoroughly modern in tone.

I don't know how she did it.

But this is step one: instead of portraying a seven and a half year-old Alice, or the eleven year-old in the Disney animated versions, movie Alice is of her majority. She is played by twenty year-old Mia Wasikowska, a mostly unknown Australian actress who is marvelous here.

We open in London toward the end of the nineteenth century, where twenty year-old Alice is feted at a Jane Austen-y quadrille. There she receives a marriage proposal from a flabby and loathsome aristocrat. Everyone counsels Alice to accept this lucrative proposal. Instead, she chases after the strange rabbit apparently only she can see. Before she knows it, she has tumbled through the rabbit-hole and found herself in CGI-land; I mean, Wonderland.

As in the books, Alice meets every variety of strange creature, but right off the bat a Hollywood plot has been laid over the story. Wonderland is an unhappy place, you see, tyrannized by the diabolically insane Red Queen, whose power rests upon the invincible might of a dragon-ish creature called the Jabberwocky.

As a devotee of the Hollywood storytelling formula, I think this is magnificent. Alice now has a movie goal because only Alice, wielding something called a vorpal sword, can slay the Jabberwocky and free Wonderland.

Between now and then she encounters the famous Mad Hatter, played with a great mix of panache and pathos by Johnny Depp, the Red Queen herself, played by Burton muse Helena Bonham Carter, and the White Queen-in-exile, played by Anne Hathaway.

Alice insists throughout that she cannot slay anything, much less a Jabberwocky, but her adventures awaken her to a sense of her own power, and by the end she's wearing a full set of knightly armor, wielding the vorpal sword and looking to kick some serious ass.

There's more to life than slaying Jabberwockys, of course, and Alice learns that power exists in many forms. When she returns to nineteenth century London, she has an answer for the loathsome aristocrat's marriage proposal that surprises everyone except those of us in the audience.

She also embraces her true destiny, that of becoming an independent businesswoman poised to make a fortune on the East India spice trade.

And I'm not even joking.

There's some serious female empowerment going on in this version of Alice, and that adds a layer of meaning and substance that has been missing in the story till now. Here, Wonderland is not an escape from reality. It is a thoughtful reconsideration of reality and all its possibilities.

If I had daughters, this Alice in Wonderland would be on their required viewing list.

Aw, screw it. This Alice in Wonderland should be on everyone's required viewing list.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 76/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 82/100

How Accomplished Considering Level of Difficulty: 93/100

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Brooklyn's Finest

The story behind the story:

Former film student Michael C. Martin found himself working for the New York City Transportation Authority as a subway flagger. In his mid-twenties he was sidelined by a car crash. While rehabbing his injured back, Martin completed a screenplay which he entered into a contest.

He made the finals of the contest, but did not win. In a familiar twist, however, the script was passed along to a producer, who got it into the hands of Antoine Fuqua, the director of another cop thriller, Training Day.

Once the director was involved, the script soon became a movie. That movie is Brooklyn's Finest.

This is a classic rags-to-Hollywood-riches story. A much better story, in fact, than the one chronicled by the script itself.

Said script follows three different cops, played by Richard Gere, Ethan Hawke and Don Cheadle. I can't show you a picture of them together because the characters are never in the same room. Not even in the end. So here's a picture of Gere.

This is the most maddening flaw of the movie. There are no plot connections between the three characters. At the climax of the story, they end up in the same apartment building, but it is sheer coincidence and none of them are ever aware of the others' presence -- or existence.

Take a second to digest that.

The cops are not all working different aspects of the same case. Gere is at the apartment building to rescue a kidnapped girl. Cheadle is there to get revenge on an unrelated drug dealer who killed his friend. And Hawke is there to rob the money stash of yet another unrelated drug dealer.

That's right, there are multiple drug dealers as well as a kidnapper/rapist in the same apartment building. And they are never aware of each other, even as bullets start to fly in separate plots.

The only reason you have compartmentalized stories like this within one script is that you can't develop any one of them into a compelling story of sufficient length.

It's a cheap out. One of the oldest in the book.

Compounding matters is the hideously bad job of casting throughout. A laundry list of well-known faces -- in addition to the marquee actors, Ellen Barkin, Will Patton and Wesley Snipes have prominent roles -- water down whatever authenticity the script originally had, which wasn't very much.

The relentlessly bleak tone creates a grim vision of mean street law enforcement that is one hundred percent Hollywood fantasy. Its unvarying vision of a near-apocalyptic borough is melodramatic and one-dimensional, and rings false false false.

You can't get away with crap like this in the wake of the groundbreaking tv show The Wire, which created a fully-rounded fictional universe within the bleakest crime sector in the US, drug-ridden east "Ballmer."

Within the agonies of mindless violence, ruthless careerism and a rotting societal infrastructure, The Wire presented an endless parade of characters on both sides of the law with rich internal lives: hopes for a better future, doubts about their actions in the present, and hugely fascinating relationships one would never expect.

One of the most foolish moves of Finest was to cast Michael Williams as one of its scumbag drug dealers. This is foolish because Williams played one of the iconic figures of The Wire, the legendary gay vigilante Omar.

Omar forever inhabits the subconscious of anyone who has watched The Wire. The last thing in the world a flimsy potboiler like Brooklyn's Finest should be doing is calling attention to the fact that it theoretically resides in the same genre as The Wire.

As Omar himself might say, "Come at the king, you best not miss."

Right you are, Omar. As usual.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 22/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 19/100

Monday, March 1, 2010

Cop Out

I made the mistake of taking a day before starting this review. The details -- heck, even the broad outline -- of Cop Out has already faded from memory.

As I recall, it was a comedy starring Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan as bickering detectives. Let's see if I can find a picture somewhere on the internet.

Yep! Tracy Morgan and Bruce Willis were definitely in it.

There was some clever early stuff about Bruce Willis trying to recover a stolen baseball card. That quest led him and his partner to cross paths with a dastardly Mexican druglord with dreams of expanding his empire to cover the entire east coast.

Bwahahahaha!

This is one of those movies where the overall story is pointless. All you're really hoping for is a funny scene with some funny dialogue every now and then. Cop Out generally satisfies this humble requirement. I'd say one out of three scenes work.

That's not a terrible ratio. It's also not a great ratio. It lands Cop Out very near the middle of the hundred-point scale, and it explains why it failed to leave any real impression on me, good or ill.

It also exceeds expectations, given that it was written by low-level tv writers Robb and Mark Cullen and directed by confessed "bad director" Kevin Smith, whose last good movie was his first, 1994's Clerks.

Smith is a profane and charming raconteur who does very well on the college lecture circuit. I am a fan of Kevin Smith's personality. But as a director, the man is passionless and lazy, and he's taking up directing slots others might do something with.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 51/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 49/100