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Review: BEAR EATS GIRL (spoilers)

Friday, August 10th, 2012

When you’re young, you want everyone to talk to you – your parents, your dog, your teddy bear, your action figures. When you’re older, you want everyone to shut up. “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane brilliantly taps into this evolution with Ted, a movie he cowrote and directed about a sweet, lovable talking teddy bear that grows up to become a wise-cracking, bong-toking slacker. Just as Ted is John Bennet’s (Mark Wahlberg) ideal friend as a kid, keeping him safe from loneliness and thunderstorms, he’s also his ideal friend as an adult, keeping him safe from boring jobs and tedious girlfriends. It’s only when John decides (reluctantly) that it’s time to grow up that the trouble begins.

As you might expect for a movie with a premise this fantastic, the first few minutes of Ted are a pure delight. When John introduces his talking teddy bear to his parents, they react with abject horror, mom leaping up on the counter and dad screeching “Call the cops!” Soon after, though, the world embraces Ted as a Christmas miracle, and Ted is hitting the late night circuit. Needless to say, Ted’s 15 minutes don’t last more than, um, 15 minutes. Or, as a Stewie-alike voiceover explains, “No matter how big a scratch you make in this world, whether you’re Cory Feldman, Frankie Muniz, Justin Bieber, or a talking teddy bear, eventually, nobody gives a shit.”

Ted adjusts to adulthood the way many former child stars do, by planting himself on the couch and firing up the bong with clock-like precision. But after four years with his girlfriend, Lori (Mila Kunis), John starts to think it might be time to settle down. Sadly, that means kicking his best buddy out of the house forever. That’s not an easy choice, since Ted shares John’s love of rapid-fire stoner banter and the delectably cheesy 1980 movie Flash Gordon. Lori, on the other hand, has no discernible personality. She works at a posh publicity firm alongside a gaggle of dull, pretty women under the tutelage of a jerk who hits on her around the clock. Kunis sports the same saucer-eyed exasperation, framed by flat-ironed hair and caked-on black mascara, throughout the entire movie. Yes, Kunis is capable of much, much more, but her lines may as well have been lifted from a Katy Perry song (“I really don’t care as long as we’re together” “I just want you to know that I love you”) In fact, Lori’s  (responsible, successful) life as a publicist makes John’s (irresponsible, disappointing) life as a rental car employee and inveterate stoner look absolutely rich and satisfying by comparison.

For all of their manchild afflictions, most of which we’ve seen before in the combined works of Adam Sandler, Seth Rogan and Jonah Hill, Ted and John are a million times more vivid and interesting than pretty much every woman in the movie, from Lori to her dim coworkers to a smart-mouthed grocery cashier who befriends Ted to the prostitutes Ted invites to Lori’s house (one of whom has a bowel movement on her floor). Ted and John actually have a sense of humor, for one thing. They have opinions and ideas and things to say. They converse with each other and show each other affection. John’s life with his fluffy manchild friend is dynamic and fun. His life with Lori is a big downer. And thanks to an uneven script, Mark Wahlberg has more chemistry with a CGI bear than he does with the real life actress hired to play his girlfriend.

Once this enormous gulf between Ted and Lori has been established, not only is it impossible to root for Lori, but the whole picture becomes skewed. Even with a major soft spot for teddy bears and man-children and bong hits and parties at which Flash Gordon star Sam Jones gives out lines of cocaine, the proceedings here alternate between lively, Get Him To The Greek-style romp and dull-as-mud, humorless romantic comedy, with the lively fun weighed down more and more by the leaden, awkwardly directed, badly scripted scenes in between. Even the movie’s score sounds like a temporary placeholder for something better to come. In other words, Seth MacFarlane shouldn’t have directed this movie, and he shouldn’t have worked with other TV comedy writers on the screenplay. He should’ve taken his formidable skill for great concepts and funny jokes, and collaborated with some filmmakers who were likely to set the bar much higher. And yes, MacFarlane is absolutely talented enough to deserve a great collaborator or two. Next time, he should put his ego aside and go out looking for directors and screenwriters whose skills and experience in film are on par with his in television.

Because, by the time Giovanni Ribsi’s creepy bear-napping dad and his overweight son come into play in the film’s climax, any last shred of originality is squelched. Ribsi’s hilarious gyrating to Tiffany videos offers one last laugh, but it can’t save the sinking feeling that this movie could’ve been truly great, a comedy classic even, if only MacFarlane had given as half as much care to the scenes without the bear in them. Instead, Ted is that very typical modern movie that takes an amazing concept, a bunch of really great jokes, and one or two unforgettable scenes, and packs them into a relentlessly bland plot featuring lackluster supporting characters and impossibly empty twists. If only MacFarlane had wished upon a falling star that his Star Wars action figures would turn into Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze, this promising mess could’ve been a comedic masterpiece.


Thursday, May 10th, 2012

With “God Bless America,” Bob Goldthwait takes aim at slow-moving targets and shoots himself in the foot

The only thing worse than the sudden, crushing realization that much of American pop culture is vile, hateful, and stupid is watching a movie in which the main character has this sudden, crushing realization, then proceeds to lecture other characters on said realization. As a result, Bobcat Goldthwait’s “God Bless America” is pretty much doomed from the start, since our hero, Frank (Joel Murray), launches into his diatribe a few minutes after the movie begins.

To be fair, though, he’s up against a lot, even this early in the film. The very first scene of the movie, which I won’t give away, is supposed to be shocking but just comes off as juvenile, pointless gore. Next, we’re forced to sit through a lengthy scene in which Frank watches several fictional television programs that aren’t exaggerations or parodies of real programs so much as direct carbon copies of what we can watch on our own TVs in the real world. Thus do we witness “American Superstar,” a singing competition featuring a British judge who shouts “Do you have a mental problem?” at a fat, tuneless kid while a Latino judge and a black judge laugh along. Yes, this show is just like “American Idol,” only far less interesting or funny. Next, there’s the Fox News-like pundit and the VH1 catfight show, both of them more frantic but less colorful versions of the real deal.

By the time we meet Frank’s coworkers (who are uniformly idiots) and his daughter (who is a bratty, shallow jerk) and his boss (who is a mindless drone), we’re already flat-lining. Murray, who may be best known as Freddy Rumsen on “Mad Men,” isn’t particularly funny here, and instead of setting us up with some warped or exaggerated scenes to elicit our laughter, Goldthwait only manages to alienate us by having Frank imagine blowing away his coworkers with a handgun. Similar to the bland imitations of shows we’re forced to endure at the start of the film, these lackluster scenes come off like tone-deaf, repetitive versions of far better scenes from “Office Space.” Worst of all, though, Frank launches into a self-righteous outburst about “American Superstar,” of all low-hanging fruit. “Everything is so cruel now, I just want it to stop. I mean, nobody talks about anything anymore. They just regurgitate everything they see on TV,” he informs his cubicle mate, sounding remarkably similar to a Fox News pundit himself. “No one has any shame anymore, and we’re supposed to celebrate it!”

Now throw in a handgun and an unlikeable teenager named Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr) and our fate is sealed. Sadly, Roxy shares Frank’s passion for delivering lengthy lectures on the pathetic state of our culture — when she’s not raving about the super-coolness of Alice Cooper, that is. Of Cooper, she gushes, “Not only did he introduce macabre theatrics into rock, he also invented the power ballad with a little song called ‘Only Women Bleed.'”

Yes, that teenager onscreen just said “macabre theatrics.” Naturally, this should be a set up for the next bit of macabre theatrics, preferably a scene in which said teenager is drawn, quartered, and fed to a pack of wild dogs. Instead, though, we’re meant to savor a multi-state killing spree, one in which our heroic pair predictably track down the people who appear in the limp imitations of TV shows we saw at the beginning of the movie and, after the people from the TV shows say things that aren’t very surprising or insightful or eye-opening, they get shot. Frank and Roxy don’t feel any remorse or anything interesting like that, but they do talk a lot about stuff that sucks. For example, “people who use rock star as an adjective” suck, and also “people who use the term ‘edgy,’ ‘in your face,’ or ‘extreme'” and “people who say Namaste” and “people who misuse the term ‘literally.'”

This is what we get instead of dialogue and plot: An unintelligent hipster’s Twitter feed. And the more these two decry the aggressive stupidity and meanness of the whole world, the more they shoot people in the face and run over them in their cars and laugh and high-five about it.

And that would be ok, really, if there were even the slightest hint of a wiser perspective on the situation. In Goldthwait’s “World’s Greatest Dad,” for example, we’re aware that Lance (Robin Williams) is fooling himself throughout most of the movie, and that he’s in a lot of pain thanks to his self-deluded state. This understanding makes Lance’s odd choices entertaining. If someone – anyone — would just acknowledge the fact that Frank and Roxy are taking part in exactly the sort of knee-jerk, idiotic, violent behavior that they claim to loathe so deeply, that would at least be a start. But hinting at such a thing would take a tiny thimbleful of cleverness or thoughtfulness or wisdom, and sadly, “God Bless America” has not even the faintest trace of any of these. Instead, Bobcat Goldthwait has succeeded in creating a movie exactly as vile, hateful and stupid as the culture he decries so vehemently.

Sure, maybe that’s the point. But if you want to revel in the supreme crappiness of America, do yourself a favor and rent (or rewatch) Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy,” which is just like “God Bless America” except with laughs, imagination, and entertaining strangeness where the pointless violence, tedious lecturing, and chafing teenagers go. Otherwise, prepare to sit through an edgy, extreme and in-your-face regurgitation of everything you see on TV.

Review: The Five-Year Engagement

Friday, April 27th, 2012

If the term “rom-com” is generally uttered with a demeaning tone, that’s because romantic comedies have followed the same downward trajectory as action adventure films and buddy cop flicks over the past few decades. The brilliance of “Annie Hall” and satisfying arc of “When Harry Met Sally” have been imitated and mimicked and reconstructed so many times that the results bear no relation to the original. Thirty-five years after Woody Allen and Diane Keaton chased lobsters around the kitchen, Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston are cashing checks for getting spray-tanned and flat-ironed, then smiling faintly at each other over fake Mai Tais.

“The Five-Year Engagement” marks a notable departure from the rom-com’s precipitous plummet. As tough as it is to raise the bar once it falls so low that it’s not even good for a comical, crotch-smashing limbo scene, Judd Apatow and his merry elves, Nick Stoller and Jason Segel, have transformed what might’ve been an Ashton Kutcher vehicle in less expert hands into a charming film about the rigors of long-term commitment. Instead of following the most typical formula (“Here are two selfish fuckwits who hate each other. Watch them fall madly in love!”), screenwriters Stoller and Segel wisely begin with a normal-ish couple who are already madly in love (awkwardly so, as befits Apatow’s nerdcore style). Tom (Segel) and Violet (Emily Blunt) are earnest and dorky enough that we don’t mind rooting for them, even though we’ll have to watch them fall to pieces, and then pick up the pieces and put them back together again.

Let’s face it, the rom-com Humpty Dumpty routine can get tedious. After an earnest engagement scene and a flashback with Tom trussed up in an enormous bunny suit, we can only brace ourselves for the bickering and the breaking of plates to begin. Thankfully, though, the writers roll out a charismatic psych professor (Rhys Ifans) , a bunch of misfit grad students, a knitting/hunting stay-at-home dad (Chris Parnell), and a disturbed sandwich-making oddball (Brian Posehn) instead. Soon, we’re treated to a volley of crude jokes, site gags with stuffed animals, and a steady succession of farcical twists and turns.

The successful rom-com never overestimates its own charms – or the charms of its superstar leads, for that matter. Rather than resting on their laurels, Segel and Stoller take inspiration from the best of the genre. They turn to the gags and goofiness of “There’s Something About Mary,” the darkness, neediness and commitment-phobia of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” the sheer buffoonery of “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” and the earnest poignancy of “Until Sunrise” to form a story that’s at once heartfelt and packed to the brim with hearty laughs. Scenes may swerve away from the central storyline – Tom goes deer hunting, Violet dreams up an experiment involving stale doughnuts, Tom and Violet babysit and fall prey to a preschooler with a crossbow – but as long as they make the audience laugh out loud (and most do), these diversions are more than welcome. If this everything-but-the-kitchen-sink formula means that modern rom-coms start to resemble manic, farcical sitcoms like “Community” or “Arrested Development,” that probably makes simple sense, considering that the best TV comedies have tended to outshine most of what can be found at the local cineplex for well over a decade now.

“The Five Year Engagement” might threaten to feel less like a story of two people in love and more of a zany ensemble affair, if not for the fact that Blunt and Segel manage to sell us on their star-crossed status from their first scene together. Instead of grappling with a smugly winking Kutcher or an faintly nasty Katherine Heigl, we’re treated to two fine performers who do a nice job of coming across as regular people. It helps that Jason Segel looks exactly like a regular person, of course. But he also gains traction with his willingness to show his ass (literally and figuratively) – rocking some seriously awful facial hair and playing the sort of needy come-to-bed role typically reserved for Teri Garr. Although it’s easy to spot Segel’s face on a movie poster and think, “Not this guy again,” he does have the humility necessary to deliver lines like “I think we both know that I deserve to get super-laid for this.” without making us hate him. (Jack Black could also sell that line. Seth Rogan? No way.) Oddly enough, our sympathy for this less-than-glamorous human reaches an all-time high when he’s forced to service a sexually ravenous 23-year-old. The tortured look on his face as she shouts orders in bed is worth the price of admission alone.

Emily Blunt, on the other hand, while almost so beautiful that it’s distracting, wins us over with an impressive performance. Every single scene she’s in, no matter how ridiculous, Blunt comes across as genuine and vulnerable. How she does this –blinking her gigantic eyes and pouting her cute lips without skidding into Kewpie-doll territory — is anybody’s guess. Admittedly, Blunt’s character may be a little bit underdeveloped. She’s sweet, ambitious, and slightly passive-aggressive, but doesn’t have any discernible flaws and makes only one (very understandable) mistake over the course of the entire film. Hopelessly lovable heroines are par for the course on rom-coms, but Segel and Stoller might’ve looked to “Bridesmaids” for a reminder that audiences are more than willing to embrace flawed, temperamental female characters, if given the opportunity to do so. Still, it’s hard to quibble when Blunt makes us believe in Violet as a real person as well as she does.

The excellent supporting cast of “The Five Year Engagement” steals more than a few scenes. Alison Brie (“Mad Men,” “Community”) may drop her fake British accent occasionally, but she’s otherwise hilarious and delightful as Violet’s best friend Suzie (and she does a mean Elmo voice, albeit one that veers into sounding like a Mandarin Chinese Elmo at times). Likewise, Chris Pratt (“Parks & Recreation”) is utterly convincing as Tom’s dopey guy friend; his may be the best wedding-day serenade in any film, ever. And Mimi Kennedy, who plays Tom’s mom, Carol, almost steals the whole movie when she finally lets loose on her son for screwing up his entire life and allowing his one true love to get away. (I think her speech might end with the words “Fuck you, dummy.”)

But that’s just one of many, many sidesplitting scenes in “The Five Year Engagement.” Don’t be misled by the same old San Francisco skylines and predictable narrative set-ups that have haunted so many weak rom-coms of the past three decades, because this scrappy charmer is a far cry from those other bores. Segel and Stoller don’t just have a knack for great characters and over-the-top madness, they also understand the odd (and somewhat creepy) quirks of couples in love. When Tom tells Violet he needs time alone, then begs her not to leave, it’s a moment of codependent confusion that any lovestruck mortal can relate to. But while it might take five long years for Tom and Violet to sort out their love, Segel and Stoller will have you at “Hello” and then have their way with you until the credits roll.

“The Hunger Games” only leaves you hungrier – and that’s the point

Saturday, March 24th, 2012

“This is the time to show them everything. Make sure they remember you.” These words of advice given to Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) right before she’s introduced to the enthusiastic fans of the upcoming televised death match, might also have been whispered to director Gary Ross, he of Pleasantville and Seabiscuit. Taking on Suzanne Collins’ bestselling trilogy is certainly no small feat. Capturing the complex allegorical themes depicted in Collins’ book, portraying the anguish and ambivalence experienced by its heroine, doing justice to the impersonal elitism as well as the very personal violence and horror of this story: These would be enormous challenges for any director.

Of course, The Hunger Games will likely be declared a tremendous success on the basis of its box office receipts alone. Devoted fans of the books will be thrilled to see its characters on the big screen, and many will likely pay to do so more than once. Those who haven’t read the books may find themselves so transfixed by the dystopia depicted here — the manipulations of the state, the elitist savagery of urban sophisticates, the rage of the underclass – that they’re ready to declare this a good movie.

And The Hunger Games is a reasonably enjoyable movie, compared to most teen fare. How can it not be? You start with this fantastical story, rich with modern themes, featuring a compelling, fiercely lovable heroine. It’s a can’t-fail franchise: The book makes you want to see the movie, and the movie makes you want to read the book. When the next few months are over, book sales and ticket sales of The Hunger Games are sure to be astronomical.

Sadly, though, considering the richness and complexity of the source material, The Hunger Games falls far short of its potential. This could’ve been a transfixingly horrific, deliriously great film, something on the scale of Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men or Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan or Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures. While watching the bad cuts and dizzying action sequences of The Hunger Games, where it’s so hard to track the action that eventually you no longer care, I couldn’t help but think of that scene in Children of Men where Theo (Clive Owen) and his new friends are being chased through the woods by bandits with clubs and fire bombs. Suzanne Collins’ story is filled with similar scenes of suspense and brutality that would translate into heart-stopping sequences in the hands of a daring, artful director. Likewise, when we’re first treated to Ross’s flat Wizard of Oz pans of the denizens of The Capital, with their bright clothing and terrible hairstyles and sick, cynical laughter, I found myself thinking of how Aronofsky transformed the relatively mundane microcosm of New York City ballerinas into a hideous underworld of envious, fire-spitting she-demons through Nina’s paranoid perspective. And when Katniss encounters her fellow competitors (called tributes) in the woods for the first time and it comes off with about as much edginess as an episode of “Gossip Girl,” I naturally thought of how Jackson used breathtaking close-ups and horror-style zooms in Heavenly Creatures to bring the intimacy and contempt of two young girls to the boiling point and beyond.

A truly risky, inspired director might’ve taken the raw material of The Hunger Games and worked it into a mesmerizing, accomplished film. Instead, what we get is stiff, clumsy storytelling, with camera work that alternates between stagnant and dizzyingly frenetic. Even in the final action sequence of the movie, it’s impossible to see who is grappling with whom, who is gaining any advantage, or how anyone involved is reacting emotionally. Then we cut from this jerky, blurry close-up to a long shot that offers the opposite extreme: We’re too far away from the action and there’s so little contrast and color to the scene, that it’s as if we’re watching inert figures perform on a stage from the back row of a rainy amphitheater. Scene after scene, the layers of Katniss’s struggle to survive are reduced to jerky action and simplistic, leaden dialogue.

Obviously the brutality and horror of The Hunger Games has been softened somewhat to increase the likelihood that millions of tweens and teens will flock to the theaters to see it repeatedly. The challenge, of course, is to keep the interpersonal stakes high, pump up the suspense, and paint as vivid a portrait as possible within the limits of what a PG-13 audience can tolerate. Even though we may not see a lot of bloody violence, we should be able to feel the threat of it. We need to understand the ambivalence and dread that Katniss feels, and that her fellow tributes feel.

Oh, and we should probably know who these people are while we’re at it. Instead, we experiences most of the tributes as flat characters, with even Rue (Amandla Stenberg) presented as a likable, empty shadow, and Cato (Alexander Ludwig) delivering the same sneer in every scene, the dystopian version of that old “Welcome to the OC, bitch!” bully archetype. And we’re treated to repeated flashes of Gale’s (Liam Hemsworth) concerned face throughout the movie without even beginning to understand or appreciate his relationship to Katniss.

In fact, we get the sinking feeling about halfway through the movie that, not only is this a film that almost seems designed to feel empty without purchasing and reading the book, but we spend the final moments being set up for the next movie. All of the promise and emotional stakes set forth at the start of the story are for naught. Without spoiling anything, several foreshadowing remarks, in which characters tell us directly what their main focus is, never pay off. And in the final scenes, we’re not treated to anything remotely resembling an emotionally gratifying resolution. For a very long movie that’s essentially about physical and emotional torture not to provide some basic level of emotional connection at the end is simply unforgivable.

This ending, when paired with the uninspired, underwhelming filmmaking and half-baked character development throughout, makes The Hunger Games that all too common specimen these days: a reasonably enjoyable movie that could’ve been amazing, even unforgettable. Ironic, isn’t it, that an allegory about crass commercial exploitation of pure souls would itself succumb to such crass commercial exploitation? The sad thing is, when the ticket and book sales are tallied, Ross and Collins and Lionsgate will be hailed as heroes and they’ll never know how far short of memorable they stopped. Because for once, we don’t want to be strung along for the next installment. This is not television, this is the movies. This is the time to show them everything.

Review: Bad Teacher

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

Bad to the bone


Pill-popping nurses. Meth-cooking chemistry teachers. Pot-peddling moms. Homicidal detectives. Drunk daddies. Horrible bosses. It makes simple sense that the generation raised on syrupy, hugging-and-learning fare like “Love Boat” and “Eight Is Enough” would revel in corrupt characters. Rather than watching the same frazzled heroes rise to some grand challenge under duress, we’re treated to crestfallen types who cut corners, lie through their teeth and whine like children, smoking and swearing and driving too fast all the while.

Still, once the nurse passes out on her shift, the chem teacher gets someone killed, and the pot peddling mom gets pregnant with a drug kingpin’s baby, then what? As most people know from their experiences at spring break, writer’s conferences or extended bouts of unemployment, you can only wallow in depravity for so long before it starts to get a little tedious. Then the trick is to make salvation look satisfying – and let’s face it, Jesus himself was hard pressed to fulfill that goal.

This is the big problem with a movie like “Bad Teacher.” You start with a skin-deep concept — she’s a teacher, but she’s baaad! – and you’ve already backed yourself into a corner. Because once your bad teacher has napped during class, swigged from the little bottles of liquor in her desk, puffed on pot in the parking lot, cheated, lied, stolen and written “Stupid!” in red marker all over tests, what’s left?

Which isn’t to deny the inherent entertainment factor of watching a high school teacher ignore the imperatives of her career’s chirpy-nerd culture by showing up to class violently hungover and showing teacher-themed movies (“Dangerous Minds” anyone?) instead of actually teaching. “Bad Teacher” achieves its chuckles in no small part because Cameron Diaz makes a surprisingly convincing self-interested, shallow jerk. After watching Diaz play the sporty guy’s-girl and the lovable, goofy sweetheart for so many years now, it’s refreshing to see her sulking and cussing and rolling her eyes for a change. Not only are most of us about as sick of the plucky, aw-shucks romantic heroine as we once were with the earnest moralism of the ’70s and ’80s, but we’ve heard Diaz’s off-key singing and endured her heartfelt odes to meats on sticks already. Watching her embody a grumbly, self-serving catastrophe is every bit as enjoyable as the movie poster suggests, and it’s a testament to Diaz’s talents that she can make us root for Elizabeth Halsey, an awful person who spends the majority for the movie plotting tirelessly to raise money for a new pair of fake tits.

There’s nothing specifically wrong with the rest of the movie. It meets the minimum requirements to graduate, with some occasional A and B moments along the way. Somehow, though, things never quite transcend the realm of mildly enjoyable. Justin Timberlake shifts gears as dramatically as Diaz here, leaving his nefarious charmer role from “The Social Network” in the dust to play a dorky teacher prone to painfully geeky remarks about the incomparable joys of molding young people into honorable souls. Timberlake makes up for a blatantly Adam Sandler-esque love song with a hilarious dry-humping scene that’s exactly as queasily over-the-top as it should be.

Most of the other characters, though, feel like bland versions of characters from a Christopher Guest film. There’s the geeky principal with a passion for dolphins (John Michael Higgins), the geeky rival teacher who spouts bad puns and wears terrible costumes to spice up her classes (Lucy Punch), and the geeky rule-follower friend who supports Elizabeth’s ambitious quest for boobs but would never dare to color outside the lines herself (Phyllis Smith). Quirky geeks can be amusing, but without a commitment to revealing deeper levels of oddness or reveling in outright madness, you’ve got a succession of look-how-dorky scenes that you could find in any given scene involving the OCD guidance counselor from “Glee.”

If you’re going to make a movie that’s really a farce – because the characters are all caricatures, because the situations aren’t realistic – then it had better be packed with enough jokes or ridiculous situations to keep the audience laughing so loudly they don’t care how plausible the plot is. “Old School,” “School of Rock,” “Talladega Nights” – these are the sorts of movies where you expect pure ridiculousness and jokes and curveballs every few minutes. Instead, “Bad Teacher” features a scene where Diaz washes cars in slow motion, causing a gape-jawed preteen to sport a visible boner. If you really want to watch an extra-long Carl’s Jr. commercial, why bother leaving the house?

Of course, “Bad Teacher” itself is just a snappy pitch with no follow through, the sort of skin-deep idea that can get development executives (and audiences) interested without exerting itself unduly. “Cameron Diaz plays a drunk whore of a high school teacher, and Justin Timberlake is her goody-two-shoes love interest? Where do we sign?” Considering the total lack of a thoughtful plot, considering the dearth of memorable jokes or scenes or characters, “Bad Teacher” really isn’t that bad at all. And look, if you laugh out loud at Carl’s Jr. commercials, definitely go see this movie. But if you don’t, and you still wan to see a charming film about geeky regular folks, rent “Cedar Rapids” and give “Bad Teacher” a pass.


Review: The Tree Of Life

Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

The tragedies of our lives get buried. Almost immediately after something terrible happens, the burying begins. It’s only natural. If we look too closely at any loss, we tend to find ourselves contemplating the fragility of our existence a little more than we can bear. Like a rush of vertigo, tragedy fills us with the realization that everything we know could disappear at any second. The modern world may be built on the mundane reassurances of day to day novelties – News! Weather! Sports! — but in the big scheme of things, our continued existence (let alone our continued happiness) is anything but certain.

Terrence Malick‘s The Tree of Life rips open the seams of beauty and dread that lie behind one loss. Malick takes a small story about a family and transforms it into an existential voyage, through loosely connected images and music and dream-like moments that are designed to conjure a kaleidoscope of emotional responses. If that sounds hopelessly ambitious, well, Tree of Life is about as ambitious as it gets, straining as it does to capture the impossible beauty of life on earth.

It’s clearer than ever why Malick chooses images that are so pristine, so idealized. He makes films about how it feels to be alive – not what it’s actually like or how it actually looks, but how it feels, and how those feelings sparkle and shine in the haunting space of memory. When the sun sets behind the wheat in Days of Heaven or clouds and sunshine move across the grass in The Thin Red Line” we are made desperately aware of our own survival instinct. In The Tree of Life, Malick offers the impressionistic, evocative details that you find in the best novels, only he delivers them through sounds and images that are already wired into our brains so deeply that they incite a flood of emotional responses: the branches and leaves of a huge oak tree, whipping around in strong wind, boys laughing and running barefoot through empty neighborhood streets, the sound of waves crashing on the shore, a baby’s face in extreme close-up, then his hands, stretching to reach his big brother’s flinching face.

The film begins with a boy named Jack, growing up in a small town in Texas with his family. We flash forward and back in the boy’s life, then zoom in (to a specific moment of loss), zoom out (to the universe) and zoom in again (to a baby’s first cries). Riding along with Malick on this poetic rollercoaster feels heady and dangerous from the start. We know it’s going to be a wild trip, but we have no sense of where we’re going or how it will end. To say that Malick thwarts our expectations of the cinematic narrative is a little bit like observing that Michael Jordan is good at jumping. The central arc of The Tree of Life follows a process of reckoning that has few temporal moorings. The pace of the film isn’t just patient — there is no pace, because having some pace would assume a destination. The only thing that’s clear is that any revelation or resolution here will be hazy at best.

This departure from anything resembling a conventional narrative becomes more obvious in the unfolding of a little interval segment that encompasses… well, the dawn of creation, among other things. As tough as it is not to chuckle and smirk at the outsized ambition and head-swimming grandiosity in play here, it’s probably worth a try, because Malick has rendered the mundane so exquisite and surreal that we can’t casually reject it simply because his scope often transcends our ability to make sense of it. We quite naturally want Malick to meet us halfway, to serve up the beautiful shots of stormy skies and wind in the trees, but also to give us some more clues, some more dialogue to hang all of this free floating emotion around. And it’s pretty tough not to balk at some of his more audacious choices – the CGI rendering that might look more at home in a biochemistry textbook, for example.

But these efforts to place one boy’s life story in the context of the history of all time may amount to a rather elaborate attempt to put a tragedy into perspective. A glimpse of the sun shining behind the side of planet earth has a way of making human foibles look small and transient. With a wide enough lens, a whole lifetime can look like a brief favor, granted by the universe, and our stories can seem as simple and as concise as haikus. We light up like fireflies in the night and then go dark. We’re tossed around by the fates, but our biggest catastrophes aren’t even a blip on the cosmic radar.

What Malick does best of all, though, by zooming out to a wider universe, then zooming in to the buzz of a dragonfly lingering by a sad scene at a swimming hole, is mimic our own attempts at putting our stories in perspective. He captures the first decade of Jack’s life in flashes, the way we might remember our own childhoods: quiet images of a baby in his mother’s arms, a toddler walking through the grass on wobbly legs, a boy running behind his brothers through the woods. There are countless breathtaking shots that must’ve taken days or weeks to perfect. My favorite is a shot from the branches of a tree, looking down onto the grass, where the erratic play of two boys running in circles mirrors the motion of two dogs frolicking in the same frame. Malick slowly prepares us to take in just how whimsical and sensual and malleable the lives of children are, how they drink in everything around them without knowing whether it’s milk or poison.

Finally the scene is set for Jack’s father – well-meaning, impatient, controlling, passionate – to step in and incite palpable fear and anguish in his children’s sweet bubble. What’s heartbreaking — and also courageous, and important — about Malick’s story is that Jack’s father (played by Brad Pitt) isn’t a terrible guy. Instead of serving up either Superman Daddy or Mean Daddy (“Which is he?” we wonder in spite of ourselves, conditioned by countless narratives to expect one of the two), we’re presented with a confusing blend of oppressive and warm and flawed. We develop an uneasy feeling about this man that mixes equal parts affection and suspicion, love and fear, longing and dread. The father here, like any adult, has strong opinions and ideals. He’s trying to teach something important. But he’s not in complete control of himself, so he tries to control everyone around him instead. “For the next half hour,” he says to one son at the dinner table, “will you not speak unless you have something important to say?” This is a man who makes mistakes, day after day, and obviously feels terrible about them. “You have control over your own destiny,” he urges his offspring, while he himself is tossed around like a toy boat on the high seas. He’s just like someone we know, just like our own fathers, just like us.

But from young Jack’s narrow perspective, of course, this dad is alternately a beloved role model and a force of pure evil: He comes into a peaceful house and turns it upside down with his barked directives, with his intolerance. Taken alone, this is a different story altogether. When pressed up against the context of the wider natural world, though, we’re forced to encounter these little accidents of fate, these insults, these injuries, all of it, as something tenuous and sublime. With his unnerving juxtapositions, Malick dramatizes the process of reckoning that is a central part of being alive: we are bold and then we compromise, we assert ourselves and then we retreat, we reject all that is not like us, and then we invite it in again. This imperfect state of affairs is encountered early in the film, when a grown Jack tells his father, over the phone from an elevator, “Hey Dad. I’m sorry I said what I said.”

Most films distill life down to a sequence of clever snippets of dialogue, leading inexorably toward one or two brief but ponderous exchanges. Here, we meander through a life conveyed through poetry and collage. The Tree of Life feels like a vivid waking dream, one that only hints at the path the protagonist has taken in contemplating his past. Despite ample talk of God in the film’s voiceovers, Malick’s ultimate vision seems distinctly secular: We have each other, we have this world, for just a tiny slip of time. Above all, Malick’s message is a compassionate one: we come into this world filled with joy and eventually, we become injured or distracted or greedy and we turn our eyes away from the divine grace of everything around us.

But the lowest moments in our lives, the greatest hurts, present us with an opportunity to take in the full scope of what we have without fear, to gaze at the truth of who we are and where we come from and what we’ve lost without averting our gaze. No happiness lies in wealth or power. There are no clear answers from on high. As the father tells his son, “You’re all I have. You’re all I want to have.” We only have today, to breathe in this life, to savor it for exactly what it is, before it’s gone.

Thor: The big, the blonde and the arrogant

Thursday, May 5th, 2011

Arrogance is bad. Arrogance is particularly bad when you have super-human strength and a hammer that flies around knocking off the heads of evil ice giants at your beckoning. And if you’re a big, flaxen-haired Adonis who loves to fight and is about to inherit the throne of the glorious kingdom of Asgard, arrogance is downright unacceptable. Powerful, good-looking people in charge of wealthy planets (or nation-states, or hit sitcoms, or start-up religions) should never be arrogant. A whole herd of bad examples – from The Donald to Charlie Sheen to Tom Cruise to Barney the Dinosaur – have already taught us that Big, Important Lesson.

But every superhero blockbuster must have its moral, so here’s Thor‘s Anthony Hopkins (as King Odin, Thor’s father) schooling us on the costs of arrogance once again. Hopkins has played the hot-tempered but sage patriarch so many times he really must sigh and roll his eyes whenever he comes to the scene where his character’s thoughtful lessons (“A wise king never seeks out war, but he must always be ready for it!”) are replaced by outraged bellowing. Still, Hopkins gamely retreads old ground, donning funny-looking royal hats and pointing jewel-encrusted royal scepters at his smug blonde son, who looks like he just got back from performing lap dances at a Chippendale’s “Norse God Fantasy”-themed bridal shower.

Sadly, instead of having twenties tucked into his man-panties, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) was just out breaking skulls on Jotunheim, home of the aforementioned blue ice giants. Although his slender, haunted-looking brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) warned him not to pick fights (“You know not what your actions will unleash!”), Thor didn’t listen. Or rather, he listened at first, then one of the blue guys jeered, “Run back home, little princess!” And Thor took offense. Because, fine, maybe he does wear his blonde hair all long and loose and pretty, and maybe he does favor a flowing red velvet cape not unlike those embraced by a number of Disney princesses. But that doesn’t mean he’s a girl, damn it!

As if to emphasize this point, King Odin tells Thor, “You are a vain, greedy, cruel boy!” Instead of naming his son the new king as planned, Odin sends Thor down to our scrappy blue marble, where life will surely be much more humbling for him. After all, who likes cocky blonde men with perfect abs on planet Earth?

Lucky for Thor, he doesn’t land in the middle of the Amazon or a Mumbai ghetto or a World Wide Wrestling Federation ring. Instead, he’s tossed into the hinterlands of New Mexico, where a gorgeous astrophysicist with incredibly long eyelashes immediately finds him. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is out trolling the desert with her older mentor (Stellan Skarsgard) and her snarky female assistant (Kat Dennings), gathering information about some mysterious cloudburst that’s been occurring in the area.

Like most astrophysicists, Jane lives in a stylish, round building surrounded by big windows that lies in the center of an idyllic 4-block-wide New Mexico town, the likes of which might inspire those passing through to exclaim, “My god, this place is just like a movie set!” Although we don’t know a thing about Jane, she does seem pretty damn passionate about… whatever it is that she does, which isn’t entirely clear. She’s also starting to develop a big crush on Thor himself, who has by now yanked off his shirt, and in so doing, rendered Jane, her assistant and even her gray-haired mentor speechless at the sight of his deliriously well-formed body. Even a rowdy IMAX audience in Los Angeles fell silent as Thor’s gigantic man-boobs and superhero six-pack molested our eye sockets in all of their 3D glory. Apparently this reaction isn’t uncommon: A quick Google search on Chris Hemsworth elicits the suggestions “Chris Hemsworth workout,” “Chris Hemsworth married” and “Chris Hemsworth gay,” and countless other exercises in wishful thinking. “You know, for a crazy homeless person, he’s pretty cut,” the wisecracking assistant mutters to Jane, and we all laugh a little too loudly and wipe our sweaty palms on our pants.

“I need sustenance,” growls Thor, by which we can only assume he means pancakes and eggs instead of, say, pig fetuses or handbag dogs. You never know. And really, it might be nice if Thor could do something a little unexpected, like eat the head off a live rat. Because as it stands, we feel like we’re watching a weak imitation of General Zod’s trip to earth from Superman II. (“Is there a renaissance fair tonight?” one federal agent asks another when he spots visitors from Asgard strutting through town in shiny warrior clothing.) But where Superman II featured some interesting characters and a lot of action and just generally kicked ass, Thor is alarmingly plot-free and action-free and outdated and the stakes are hypnotically low from start to finish. In fact, Thor should consider trading in his magic hammer for some Hammer Pants and calling it a day.

And while Chris Hemsworth is certainly pretty enough to recall Brad Pitt‘s turn in his own girl-porn flick, Legends of the Fall (which also starred Anthony Hopkins as a wise/temperamental patriarch), Hemsworth really has far less flair or charm than Pitt. This lack of affect isn’t helped much by a series of scenes on planet earth that look like repurposed fiery sequences from RoboCop 3.

So what does Thor have to offer summertime movie-goers that’s new and fresh and exciting? Well, let’s see. The kingdom of Asgard is quite beautiful at sunset. Hmm. When Portman and Hemsworth kiss, they really seem to mean it – to such an extent that one wonders if Thor might be better reworked as a romantic comedy. What else? There are a handful snappy lines in the script. (When your budget is $150 million, they tend to spring on a few script doctors to punch things up.)

Aside from a few hearty laughs, though, Thor is astonishingly clunky, predictable and lackluster from start to finish, with almost no character development, very little action, not much romance, and basically next to nothing to keep audiences invested. Compared to any of the Batman, Spiderman or Iron Man movies, Thor doesn’t even rate. How this screenplay got made into a huge-budget summer movie is quite a mystery indeed. The lesson, for directors and producers and studio heads everywhere? Arrogance is bad. It might make you rich, but it’s still bad. The rest of us should remember King Odin’s words: A wise summer movie-goer never seeks out a mediocre movie, but he must always be ready for it!

Review: Your Highness

Saturday, April 9th, 2011


“Your Highness” is about as fun as a bag of schwag and an episode of Starz’s “Camelot”

Pot can make any movie better. Don’t forget, though, that you actually have to smoke the pot to achieve these results. Just watching a bunch of scenes where characters smoke pot won’t do it. This is a common mistake that Universal’s marketing minions might just be banking on with Your Highness, a film that beckons to current and former stoners like an extra-large tub of Chubby Hubby ice cream and an ’89 Grateful Dead bootleg (“Hampton, dude! They broke out ‘Dark Star’ that night!”). A tale of medieval princes who toke from jewel-encrusted 6-foot bongs, then slice up Minotaurs with their steely knives? Why, that sounds almost as good as the average plot of an epic Tenacious D jam! Sign me up!

But sadly, while current stoners will have the good sense to arrive at Your Highness pre-baked (like those plucky gentlemen I spied in the parking lot after my viewing, shrouded in a promisingly thick cloud of smoke), a sad old person like me can become confused into believing that watching other people get high and ramble incoherently might be just as good as getting high myself. Strong though nostalgia may be, it doesn’t quite compare to good weed. Or, if you prefer: A joint in the hand is worth 200 on the big screen.

But what’s truly surprising – not just surprising but utterly lamentable, really – is that, despite its title, Your Highness features very little a) punchy madness, b) incoherent rambling, c) absurd asides, d) pointless digressions, e) general-purpose trippiness, f) actual jokes, or even f) pot smoking. Yes, you could safely assume that a film featuring Danny McBride as a soft, awkward, ne’er-do-well prince who lays about, puffing on a medieval pipe all day, might just embrace an overall stonery tone or ambience. But Your Highness stubbornly rejects all giddy weirdness and bizarre leaps into the abyss (or even scenes where a character sucks in too much smoke and then coughs for 5 minutes — which, to a stoner, are just as good). For what? A steady flow of really bad dick jokes. So look not to Your Highness for the delirious oddness of, say Clerks, or Dazed and Confused or The Three Amigos. Aside from one perverted, hookah-toking wizard, this film is about as unimaginative as any pot-themed movie has ever been. In fact, your average room full of semi-confused, not-incredibly-bright stoners could invent a movie fifteen times more fanciful, exciting and unpredictable than Your Highness, and all they’d ask for in return is an extra-large Hawaiian pizza.

The trouble begins with Thadeous, McBride’s prince, who obviously demands some of the whimsical self-delusion of Austin Powers to really spark. This is a medieval fantasy, after all, why not get a little erratic and freaky? Instead, McBride offers up the same old hapless-manchild routine we’ve seen fifty million times before, in which a pathetic, pouting middle-aged dude flails and grumbles and kicks medieval cans in frustration. Though not utterly charmless, McBride’s subtle sulking feels totally flat here. How could our binger-happy hero be quite so colorless and crestfallen? Should we really have to coach the star of a pot fantasy on how to inhale?

In fact, the only person onscreen who actually seems all that high is James Franco, who plays McBride’s handsome, adventurous, sober older brother. Truth be told, Franco appears to have smoked an enormous bong-load before every single scene. He looks a little wan, his eyes are all squinty, and he seems to relish each and every moment, delivering his lines with the half-smirk of a snide jester – more specifically, a snide jester with a big bag of pot waiting for him in his trailer. Indeed, Franco looks exactly the same in Your Highness as he does in this recent “Colbert Report” appearance – you know, the one where he admits to Stephen Colbert that he was smoking weed backstage before he came on? And while it’s vaguely enjoyable to speculate how high Franco must be in this film, it will only make you long that much more for some Cannabis to make all of these half-amusing moments add up to more than a queasy feeling in the pit of your stomach.

After Franco’s prince Fabious falls in love with Zooey Deschanel’s virgin hottie Belladonna, he looks on in agony as she’s swept away by evil magical dude Leezar (Justin Theroux), who plans to take her virginity when the two moons meet. When Belladonna asks of Leezar’s manhood, “How do you know it will work?” Leezar replies, “Because I’ve tested it. And if your vagina is anything like my hand, there should be no problem.”

This is, quite seriously, one of the better jokes in Your Highness. The only other solid joke that’s not in the trailer, in fact, is the repeated reference to Leezar’s big night with Belladonna as “The Fuckening!” I’d be hesitant to offer up the only examples of real humor here, except that in this case, I consider it a public service to save you $8 and that 1 hour and 42 minutes of your life that you’ll never, ever get back.

So how is it even possible that Universal spent $50 million on a movie that features exactly three chuckle-inducing jokes and the plot of a “Scooby Doo” episode? I hate to be a downer, but this is the kind of movie that forces your guilty brain to consider all of the great public works and charitable efforts that could have been achieved with that money, instead of giving a few guys an excuse to wear tights and make cracks about jerking off. Shouldn’t it be a criminal act to sink that kind of money into a comedy blockbuster that’s far less funny than your average half-hour of “The Colbert Report”? (Click on the link to Franco’s “Colbert” appearance, above, to experience exponentially more laughs than those available from Your Highness.) But that’s no surprise. “Your Highness” has less laughs than most Bud Light commercials.

With growing curiosity, I went looking for some explanation for this bomb online, and found a few clues in a Your Highness set visit by’s Mike Sampson. “We’re not trying to make Spaceballs,” McBride told Sampson. “We’re trying to make a fantasy movie for real that just happens to be funny.”

Director David Gordon Green added, “I would debate as to whether it’s approached as a comedy at all. There’s no jokes in this movie, there’s just a bunch of funny shit that happens.”

A note to McBride and Gordon Green: Yours is no more a “fantasy movie for real” than my dog is a high-level alien ambassador from the planet Zambutron. Next time, consider replacing “funny shit that happens” with actual jokes. Because we need a rewarmed medieval manchild movie like we need an old bag of shake and last week’s rerun of Starz’s “Camelot.” In other words, next time? You should try to make Spaceballs.

Battle: Los Angeles – The Healing Powers Of The Apocalypse

Thursday, March 10th, 2011

Battle: LA delivers the alien Armageddon of your dreams – almost!

Anyone who lives in Los Angeles secretly craves the apocalypse. Something about the landscape here, the vast urban sprawl stretching in every direction, cries out for an alien invasion the way some outfits cry out for a jaunty hat. To sit on that endless stretch of parking lot that is the 405 at rush hour is to long to be bathed in the cleansing flame of extraterrestrial war ships. Just please, alien menace, take the douche up ahead in the Escalade before you take me!

It’s telling that an embattled Los Angeles skyline – depicted in Battle: LA posters all over town — has no power to incite a gut-wrenching tug of sentimentality and nostalgia. We natives may love our pretty views, our taco trucks, our relentless greenery, our vastly superior sunsets, our maniacally optimistic neighbors, our supersized egos, our strong drinks, our isolation, our Mike Davis-fueled dystopian laments, our downward slides into what we romantically like to suppose are noir-esque bouts of apathy and depression (and other cinematically interesting moody spells). But if that round building downtown were to burst into flames? We wouldn’t say, “Oh God, no no no!” or “Heaven have mercy on us all!” No. We would say, “Whooa, dude! Did you see that? Holy shit, that was awesome!”

We would all say that, together, on the street, or huddled around our 72-inch high-definition television sets. It would be nothing at all like 9/11. (Those numbers alone, spotted on a digital clock, still give us a lump in our throats.) Here in Los Angeles, where overturning cars after a Lakers game is considered good, harmless fun, where the hills are on fire and then they collapse and slide straight into the ocean, we equate the apocalyptic experience with something roughly equivalent to an extended trip to a day spa — except with more Tweeting.

I guess that explains why the Marine heroes of Battle: LA don’t seem particularly concerned about the television sets everywhere (that part is realistic), blaring on and on about this strange meteor shower over Tokyo, even when the meteors materialize over several other major cities worldwide. Instead, our Marine buddies toss back beers and trade witty rejoinders (“This boy don’t know his ass from a hot rock!” [See also: First to die). As everyone else on the globe is collectively losing their tiny minds or packing their exotic pets into their Subarus or considering an end-of-the-world quickie, our faithful Marines are asking each other “You think this is some kind of a drill, or what?”

That’s probably adaptive, though. Because once the Friday Night Lights jittery cameras and stuttering and jangly indie heartbreak music are over, then it’s time for the District 9 jittery cameras and stuttering and pants-wetting to begin.

The slow reveal is nice, really nice. The meteors “are not hitting the water at terminal velocity.” That’s exactly the sort of spooky detail we need at the outset, to get that soothing, day-spa, “We are fucking toast right now!” feeling we covet so much around here. We catch eerie glimpses of the enemy. We hear the requisite lizardy alien sounds. (Note to screenwriters: Let’s have some bovine aliens, feline aliens, simian aliens, even. The lizard thing has been done to death, even with the on-board circuitry and the juicy, squirting see-through organs.) There are dead bodies in the street, and crumbled buildings, and lots of rooms where wires are hanging and stuff is dripping and… Look out behind you!

Naturally, here’s the inexperienced officer straight from officer training school, the sort of fresh-faced boy who’s sure to die soon. (The question is, will his death be cowardly or valiant?) Next we have the Generation Kill buddies, snarking through the horrors — but getting each other’s backs, no matter what! Here’s tough-girl Michelle Rodriguez, looking right at home in a helmet and snarling, “I didn’t get this far off my good looks. I’m looking for payback!” And of course, there are some pretty, crying children and a hot damsel in distress (Bridget Moynahan).

But best of all, here’s Aaron Eckhart, who has apparently become the GI Joe Action Figure version of himself for this role. Sadly, while his dimpled cheeks and chin do look awfully nice when sprayed with blood and dust, he does not remove his shirt. Eckhart does, however, 1) sigh deeply over the men he left behind “over there,” 2) briefly consider mouth-kissing Moynahan, 3) hug a small boy, and then 4) give a rousing “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose!”-style speech to his men. Above all, Eckhart’s Staff Sargeant Nance is a hero. We know this because heroic music plays whenever he’s onscreen.

And that’s sort of too bad. Because, in order to get the full apocalyptic spa treatment that we yearn for, we need some looming, wistful sense that everyone in this limitless dystopic landscape is about to get snuffed out like a light, not saved at the last minute by a handful of dimple-chinned men. Sure, maybe there’ll still be people in Kansas, crouching around their 32-inch regular-definition screens. But screw those people, they’ve never even tasted Korean BBQ tacos before!

You know that one trailer for Battle: LA that has the mournful music, sort of like the opening credits of Battlestar Galactica? That trailer gives the impression that we’ll get to bask in some romantically noir-esque, cinematically interesting bouts of melancholy and daydreamy regret. Yes, that can be tough to pull off, what with the enormous war ships blowing gas stations and high rises and freeway on-ramps to smithereens. And at least there aren’t any Carl’s Jr. restaurants exploding just as a guy gripping a fried chicken drumstick dashes out, screaming, “You’re gonna pay for messin’ with my lunchtime, bin Laden!” or the like. This isn’t a Michael Bay film, and for that, we shall give thanks. In truth, Battle: LA lives up to our eclectic high-low expectations. The aliens are scary, and not totally stupid. The plot doesn’t fall apart halfway through. Lots of stuff goes boom, and the shrapnel sounds just right as it whizzes by our heads. This movie is going to be a hit, no doubt about it.

And there are some hearty laughs. At one point, Nance delivers a dusty-sweaty-face-to-face man-rant about the pros and cons of leaving your men behind (Good men! Good Marines!). And then, when the room is still hushed, he says, “But none of that matters right now!” This drew a big laugh at the press screening, an environment about as conducive to big laughs as a cancer ward.

But this is a war film first and a disaster movie second. So, while we certainly feast on enough burning-round-skyscraper moments to feed the sick Angeleno on-board circuitry that craves such annihilation, we don’t quite get to savor the invasion horrors – local and global — as much as we’d like. Ideally, we’d prefer a little more disturbing CNN footage. We’d enjoy a really doleful bit of music, well-timed to coincide with the realization that everyone on the entire planet has been royally screwed by a well-armed, technologically advanced, lizardy menace.

Instead, we encounter heroes. Heroes who act heroically, and talk heroically, and give man hugs, and say perverted things to children, like “I need you to be my little Marine.” As much as we want Aaron Eckhart to be our little Marine, this doesn’t quite cut the cheese.

“We make our stand here,” Nance growls, “and let those bastards know who they’re fucking with!” But director Jonathan Liebesman has us all wrong – at least those of us here in LA. Call it the learned helplessness of the Angeleno, a calm, victimized state that comes from getting stuck on that tiny stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard that converts into a farmers market every Friday afternoon, except with pissed-off people in cars where the happy produce-purchasing pedestrians should go. Rather than vengeance, what we crave is to be crushed into the ground like bugs under the gigantic boots of our hideous alien overlords.

Or maybe we’re just so saturated with predictable heroic narratives that we recognize that the aliens are the gutsy protagonists of this story. Bravely setting out across the universe in search of much-needed natural resources? If we had such courageous colonists at our disposal, blowing life off distant planets and shipping their rivers of goat cheese and tanks of superior spray-tanning chemicals back to Earth, such daring talk would surely send a patriotic shiver down our spines!

Oh well, there’s always the sequel. “Battle: Planet Herculis” anyone?

Hungry, hungry egos

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

Oscar night unveils the predatory habits of egocentric monsters gone mad

In the old days, pulling out your gigantic ego in broad daylight was considered distasteful, if not flat-out perverse. An excess of pride, an inability to hide your blind ambition, an urge to gush about all the “wonderful attention” you’ve been receiving – these things weren’t just frowned upon back in the day, they were greeted with outright suspicion. People who stroked their huge egos in public were treated like Aqualung — openly courting the admiration and respect of the general public was seen as the rough equivalent of sending a mash note to a third grader.

Oh, how times have changed! On Oscar night this year, rather than celebrating the imagination and innovation we saw on the big screen in 2010, audiences were assaulted by a non-stop barrage of ravenous, clumsy egos, from the two bumbling hosts, whose inflated notions of themselves were at odds with each other (and with entertaining the folks at home) to a few key presenters and recipients.

Most memorably, we witnessed the rather impressive acting range of Melissa Leo, who dragged her Extreme State of Shock face onto the stage and made us all join in her in her bubble of near agonizing delight at winning. The suspension of disbelief the moment demanded was shocking – we were meant to forget that Leo took out a full-page ad urging the Academy to “Consider” her, to forget that she won the Golden Globe (yes, we’re quite familiar with her Extreme State of Shock routine by now), to forget the many times over the past few months that she rambled happily about the dizzying, topsy turvy madness of Oscar season on various talk shows and, best of all, to forget that she claimed, minutes earlier on the red carpet, that she dearly wanted fellow nominee and costar Amy Adams to win. After all of that, Leo expected us to join her in her ecstatic Never Neverland of victory. Yes, it’s true, there were “a lot of nice people who said some pretty nice things to me for several months now” (i.e. Leo had some tiny inkling that she was the favorite, but aw, she just thought people were being charitable!) Gosh, who knew that she’d actually win? (Except for, say, every human being on the planet, particularly the bookies.) (“Bookies, what are those? Golly sakes, there’s people who place bets on this stuff, too?”) Amnesia in the service of the almighty ego: this is what our current cultural moment demands.

Remember when it was sort of fun and exciting to watch actors win awards on television? Those days are long gone. Why? Because actors, the great pretenders of the universe, have never been worse at pretending to be humble. They just aren’t very good at acting like regular mortals. They stink at it, in fact.

Guess what kinds of people know how to act like regular mortals in front of a live audience? Comedians. That’s why comedians are the best hosts for the Oscars. Along with offering some comic relief and a genuine tone of self-effacement, comedians inject the proceedings with a much-needed dose of skepticism. Billy Crystal, Steve Martin, Ellen DeGeneres, Ricky Gervais — any of these hosts could’ve saved us from our misery by gently popping some of the many oversized ego bubbles that threatened to swallow the 83rd Academy Awards whole.

Instead of respite, we were treated to the cringe-inducing faux-swagger of two young actors. Here was Anne Hathaway, aw-shucksing and clapping and golly-geeing her way through the festivities with so much self-conscious dorkery, she made the night feel as sophisticated and fancy as a small-town tween beauty pageant. James Franco, on the other hand, chose to present himself as some terrible flavor of Too Cool For School zombie, refusing to a) chuckle b) speak c) emote or d) glance in Hathaway’s general direction (OK, considering the delirious sorority mixer grin plastered across her face, we can’t quite blame him on that front). And instead of taking out some of the bloviating ego monsters around him, he made fun of… the Sci-Tech recipients? (“Congratulations, nerds.”) If only Alec Baldwin had schooled those two on the basics instead of sucking down a juice-box of Ambien in the only highlight of their middling skit. Rather than focusing on entertaining the audience, Franco and Hathaway appeared consumed by their own misguided notions of how they Should or Should Not come across. Unfortunately, Hathaway’s persona (Down-To-Earth Country Cousin High On Life) and Franco’s persona (Too Sexy [And Wry!] For My Shirt Movie Star High On Unidentified Sedative) were destined to get each other in a choke-hold until both fell to the floor in a crumpled, gasping heap.

Likewise, a few actors made valiant attempts to appear mortal before stumbling and falling on their faces. During the red carpet pre-show, Halle Berry, known for her own over-the-top ego antics in 2002, appeared absolutely stricken over Lena Horne’s death – which was touching until you recalled that Horne died back in May of 2010. (I suppose if Leo can conjure two months of utter, mind-shattering shock at all the attention, Berry can comfortably feign nine months of unrelenting grief.) Colin Firth’s comment – “I have a feeling my career’s just peaked” – sounded pretty humble at first, until you consider that winning an Oscar is a pretty remarkable peak for any acting career. (Oops.) Christian Bale was doing fairly well – considering he’s Christian Bale – until he got so caught up in his own moment that he appeared to forget his wife’s name.

Then there was Kirk Douglas, perhaps the most charming gigantic ego in the mix, if only because he embraced his chosen role — I Am A Legend And Have Recovered From A Stroke And Therefore Deserve to Lose The Thread, Even As Millions Wait Forever For Me To Find It Again – with so much unselfconscious gusto that he actually gave the audience at home a tiny bit of fresh air to breathe before Melissa Leo marched onto the stage to bludgeon us to death with her oh-so sincere thanks to the Academy for “selling motion pictures!” (Get it? She’s an artist and a realist!) but more importantly for “respecting The Work.”

Oh, Christ. The Work! Do you know, actors, what happens when you thank the award-givers for rewarding “The Work”? You offer us a rare peak into the realm of extreme solipsism. Imagine believing that when you win an award, it’s because the voters overcame their prejudices, their pettiness, their confusion, their small-mindedness, and saw straight through to The Work! But when others win? Well, then, the voters clearly got distracted by age and race and flashy marketing campaigns and other stuff that should never, ever come into play – but it does, gosh darn it! That stuff stands in the way of The Work so often!

Let’s be realistic. Was it The Work that won Leo an Oscar? Or was it a gigantic blonde hairdo and a great Boston accent and a flashy, gritty, working class role, the likes of which are the modern-day equivalent of pulling back from the brink of “full retard” (to quote Kirk Lazarus in “Tropic Thunder”)? It must be invigorating, to be able to place yourself at the center of the universe so effortlessly.

It was telling that Aaron Sorkin, he of legendarily bloated ego, and Trent Reznor, he of wanting to fuck you like an animal, came across as two of the most polite, least odious humans onstage on Sunday night. Sorkin almost convinced us that David Fincher is “the nicest guy in the world” – only a perfectionist like Sorkin could refer to a fellow perfectionist like Fincher in such glowing terms – while Reznor almost convinced us that he had arrived at the event straight from finishing school.

Meanwhile, Harvard grad and perennial snob Natalie Portman, who was impossibly good in “Black Swan” and impossibly bad in countless other films, pulled off her Oscar moment with the most impressively human-like mix of humility and gratitude. And on a night when young, hip stars Franco and Hathaway referred to youth and hipness more often than the average middle-aged mom lost at a Lady Gaga concert, the slyest humor of the night came from the broadcast’s two oldest participants – 94-year-old Douglas and 73-year-old Best Original Screenplay winner David Seidler (“My father always said to me I would be a late bloomer.”).

These were the only real surprises on this night of narcissistic nights. All of the favorites won, giving us dispiriting proof that it is possible to predict the Academy’s behavior, even as it becomes increasingly difficult to predict the behavior of its honorees.

At least the moral to this story is painfully clear: Never loose an unholy hoard of actors on the world without the aid of a worthy exorcist. Next season, we won’t stand for anyone but Ricky Gervais, the one man merciless enough to rip holes in every self-congratulatory statuette-gripping human in sight. The taint of blind ambition and relentless self-promotion may have fouled up our workplaces, our internets, our social networks and our culture as a whole, but at least one man can keep the Oscars safe from this scourge of self-love. Help us, Ricky Gervais. Lead us out of the dark shadow cast by our own enormous egos!