Saturday, October 22, 2011

All For One and None for All

     In recent interviews, star Milla Jovovich has said this adaptation isn't your parents or grandparents' version of The Three Musketeers. And she's right about that.

     Director and producer Paul W.S. Anderson (Resident Evil films) is not unfamiliar to the action/adventure genre. He knows how to direct sleek and stylish action sequences, but that's not enough. Here, he egregiously fails at telling the story of the musketeers, which is perhaps the most crucial part of the film.

     In this light-hearted version, the three musketeers: Athos (Matthew MacFadyen, Pride and Prejudice) Porthos (Ray Stevenson, Thor) and Aramis (Luke Evans, Immortals) are down-on-their-luck swordsman, just trying to merge themselves back into society. That is until a run-in with the cheeky D'Artagnan (Logan Lerman, Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief) and they discover they still got it in them. They are quickly taken to see the King of France (Freddie Fox) where they are to be reprimanded, under the Cardinal's advisory (played by an underwhelming performance from Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds) for killing his men, but are spared. Soon after, the Queen's diamonds (Juno Temple, The Dark Knight Rises) are stolen and the trio and their young apprentice are asked to recover them from Milady (Jovovich). Orlando Bloom (Lord of the Rings trilogy) and Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale) round out this A-list cast playing the Duke of Buckingham and Rochefort, respectively.

     It's quite an amazing group of actors here, you have an Academy Award winner, a Bond villain, an action star, two very talented young actors and Mr. Darcy. It's a director's dream cast, but Anderson fails to use this to his advantage.

     I feel the fault here lies with Anderson, he can give us action, but hasn't learned the meaning of what it means to be an auteur of a film. This is harsh, I know, but I didn't get a sense that he knew he was telling the story of the musketeers, one of the most widely known and respected stories in literature, while watching this film. I give him credit for interpreting it in his own way; I'm sure Dumas never would have imagined his story be adapted into steam punk (Is that a flying ship?) And while I'm being nice, I'll add that Anderson was allowed to shoot in German locations, never allowed to be filmed before and the cinematography (by Glen MacPherson) is quite stunning at times, unfortunately it's not stunning enough to save the film.

     Between the jagged editing and awkwardly juxtaposed scenes, down-right cliche dialogue and overall lack of smooth narration, the film misses on illustrating a clear story. There were many secondary themes Anderson could have touched on and added depth to the story, but stayed away from, like Aramis' silent battle with his faith, Athos and Milady's love/hate relationship, a better background for D'Artagnan, or why Orlando Bloom is such a bad actor? There was just so much that was left to the imagination; the film chose to only scathe the shallow surface and left everything else in the deep.

     There's very little to admire here, but the film had its few moments. This version is a more light-hearted approach to Dumas' story with the occasional laugh here and there. That's thanks to D'Artagnan and Planchet (James Corden). The castles and exteriors were visually pleasing and an amazing array of costumes (by Pierre-Yves Gayraud) added the right look to the film. But as I said, it just wasn't enough to save the film from it's obvious fallacies and I would have to blame that on a lack of clear direction from Anderson and from a lack luster script by Alex Litvak and Andrew Davies.

     This isn't your parents or grandparents' version of the Three Musketeers. And unfortunately, I don't think our generation would want to take ownership of this adaptation either.

Rating: D+

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Clever Welsh Film about Coming-of-age

      Boy meets a girl, boy falls in love with girl, girl turns out to be more promiscuous than boy would have liked, boy is socially inept and can't deal well with his problems alone--this is the basic concept to most teenage angst stories told nowadays, but what makes Submarine different?

     This quirky drama from Wells seems to cover all the criteria that makes a good coming-of-age film: love, family, loss, heart-ache, witty dialogue, a "Catcher In The Rye" reference, unrealistic, yet amusing situations and of course angst. And truth is, you've probably seen it before, the film channels a little of the aforementioned criteria through other similar films: Igby Goes Down, Thumbsucker, Imaginary Heroes, Lymelife, etc.

     After Robert Redford's 1980 Best Picture film Ordinary People, there's been a slew of films, dealing with similar issues. Usually a troubled or shy teenage boy, falls in love with the wrong type of girl and runs into some very uncomfortable situations he has to deal with. In the past, such films have approached this differently. There's the offbeat/quirky tone, prevalent in Wes Anderson's hilarious Rushmore, also Rocket Science, and Running with Scissors. Then there's the dark/more satirist tones in The Squid and the Whale, Donnie Darko, Afterschool (very dark, indeed), and The United States of Leland. So, what makes Submarine stand out?
     Well, for starters it's from Wells. This might sound funny, but when was the last time you saw a good Welsh movie? You don't care? Alright, fair enough. It's a fairly simple premise then:

     Oliver (played by an incredibly amiable Craig Roberts) fancies Jordana (Yasmin Paige) and is adamant to win her over, but his shy/awkward manner prevents him from approaching her at first. Jordana takes control, as is her personality, and makes the first move. From then on, we see the slow and often funny relationship between the two develop, however, it's not all smooth sailing from then on. Meanwhile, Oliver plays arbitrator in his parents' relationship and tries desperately to keep his family together. What happens in between is a mix of laughter, clever dialogue, touching moments, and a general concern for Oliver.

     Yes, while this film is like other teenage-angst films in many ways, it adequately covers the central message meant to be elicited by all these films and that's a genuine connection and affection for the protagonist. And Oliver is no exception. He's awkward--yes, and does he do things, I wish he wouldn't have?--of course, but he has a kind nature about him and there's no denying a connection here, even when you watch him mess up.

     Richard Ayoade directed and wrote this charming and clever film, based on the book by Joe Dunthorne. Ayoade has no problem communicating this story through funny interior-monologues, seamless back and forth editing and a consistent tone throughout. Ben Stiller executive produced the film, which probably helped it get distribution overseas (and if you look carefully you can see him make a small cameo).

     Overall, Submarine is the kind of tale I never tire of seeing. Its premise is nothing original, but seeing young directors and actors take on this challenge of reinventing such films breathes new life into it. Trying to navigate through the deep and murky waters of adolescence is tough, but Submarine manages to traverse just fine through it.

Rating: B+



Friday, October 14, 2011

Moneyball hits it out of the park

     If you're not a fan of the sport, it's hard to imagine sitting through a two plus hour film about the dynamics and statistics of baseball and actually care about it, but Moneyball manages to do just that and leave you with a new found respect for the game.
     Brad Pitt (Inglourious Basterds) stars as Billy Beane, an ex-Oakland A's player, who got the opportunity of a lifetime when he was drafted, and eventually turned General Manager for the team. Beane is looking to save his team from another season of losses. He wants to re-strategize, get rid of current players and switch them for new ones, but he doesn't quite know the right trajectory to take.

     That's where Peter Brand (Jonah Hill, Superbad) comes in. He's a Yale graduate, with a degree in Economics and a quiet, but powerful appreciation for the sport. It seems unorthodox to hire Peter to pick new players based on mathematics and statistics, but that's exactly what Beane does. He knows he's taking a chance, but in his position he has little to loose.

     It's difficult convincing everyone else at first, when they're used to the accepted practice of hiring players based on hits, pitch speed and how much they're worth, according to the industry. But Beane believes he doesn't need to pay $7 million for a player, based on Brand's calculations, when he can get a good player for a fraction of that. And considering Beane's budget, he doesn't have much of a choice.

     Not everyone is on board with the new tactic, especially not the A's coach Art, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote).  Beane just wants the coach to give some of the players a chance, but Art is not about to let the GM tell him how to coach a team.

     The film is a constant struggle and battle of wills. You wonder if the team will ever be the dream team Beane wanted to put together, if Brand's math is the right injection needed to give the Oakland team a much needed boost and if you're like me: you'll care at all about a sports film? I can't answer the first two, but it's a clear yes for the latter.

     Directed by Bennett Miller (Capote), the film effortlessly infuses baseball knowledge with a story about overcoming obstacles that is never boring or too pretentious for those who know little about the sport. In fact, you don't even have to have any prior knowledge about the favorite past-time. That's thanks to a clever and smart script (based on the book by Michael Lewis) by Aaron Sorkin (fresh from accepting his Oscar from last year's The Social Network), who not only makes it easy to understand the lingo and what's going on, but makes it fun to watch.

     Pitt is the powerhouse behind the film; his character has a sturdy determination and firm approach to everything he does, but hearing him talk about the romantics of baseball is perhaps the finest point in the film. He says, "It's hard not to be romantic about baseball." It's obviously not just a past-time, it's a lifestyle for both those in the industry and fans of the sport. And for those who've seen it, it's hard not to be romantic about this film.

Rating: A



Friday, October 7, 2011

Don't Mess with Hesher

     Whoever said modesty is the road to salvation, was fortunate enough never to share that road with Hesher.

     How do you describe someone who's rude, crude and above all else dangerous? Well, for starters, he's definitely not someone you'd want looking after your kids, but that's putting it lightly. Let's just say, he wouldn't qualify for Big Brothers Big Sisters of America any day of the week. However, that's exactly who Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) ends up becoming, a sort-of mentor to the film's protagonist, T.J.

     Struck with grief over the recent death of his mother, T.J. (Devin Brochu) is struggling to learn how to cope with the loss. His widowed father (Rainn Wilson, The Office) can't help him; he can barely take care of himself. And his sweet grandmother (Piper Laurie, Carrie) is too senile to understand the morbidity of the situation. He has no friends and is constantly being harassed at school. He eventually runs into Hesher, who, after much creepy stalking, eventually invites himself as a permanent house-guest with T.J. and his family.

     Soon after, his bad influence on T.J., quickly takes a toll on the rest of the family, as well. He swears profusely, smokes in the house, almost gets T.J. thrown in jail, commits arson on an almost daily basis and did I mention the swearing? Yeah, it's bad, but creative, might I add. "What's green and slimy, and smells like bacon?" Sorry, you're just going to have to figure this one out on your own.

     T.J. is young and confused, he needs some obvious guidance, but is unsure if his new friend/roommate/guy-I-should-have-called-the-cops-on-the-moment-he-stepped-in-my-house will be any help in his silent search for clarity and salvation. And during the film, I found myself asking the same question.

     T.J. is shy, a bit confused and needs direction. He wants to stand up for himself and learn to talk to the pretty cashier (Natalie Portman, Black Swan) at the local grocery store--that is if Hesher won't get in the way. Hesher's abrasive approach, mixed with his often malicious words of wisdom (and trust me, it's hard to watch sometimes) makes him a very dangerous influence. However, you begin to wonder if his approach isn't exactly what T.J. might need. It's a constant struggle throughout the film seeing which character will break first, but I promise you it's one worth watching.

     Hesher marks the directorial debut for Spencer Susser, who also wrote the script, along with David Michod, based on Brian Charles Frank's story. The tone of the film is dark and often depressing, but Susser and Michod's script adds some lively and creative dialogue through Hesher's character, which actually turns out to be some of the highlights of the film: wondering what he'll say next.

     At times, you wonder if you can take the film seriously with all of the snarky and obscene remarks, but then remember you're watching Gordon-Levitt playing this character and are well assured he can pull this off. And he does. And after his performance in Mysterious Skin, there should be no doubt you're in good hands when watching one of his films. Also, worth mentioning is Wilson's sensitive, yet solid performance, which is a big departure from his t.v. character (no mustard-yellow shirts were worn during this movie).

     Whether you love Hesher or hate him (and you'd have plenty of reasons to) you can't help but want everything to turn out okay. You start to see that underneath all the layers there's a real person in there and hope he ends up saving himself, while "helping" T.J. and his family.

Rating: B+

Sunday, October 2, 2011

50/50 makes cancer a laughing matter

     This cancer-comedy beats the odds and effortlessly intertwines the morbid aspects of being diagnosed with cancer all while poking fun at it at the same time.

     Inspired by a true story, 50/50 tells the story of a young twenty-something discovering he has cancer. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Inception) is Adam, a radio journalist, who recycles, doesn't smoke and doesn't drive because automobile accidents are the fifth leading cause of death (ironically, cancer is the second). After discovering, he has a rare form of spine cancer with only a 50 percent chance of survival rate, Adam continues trying to lead a normal life as best he can. His girlfriend Rachael, played by the stunning Bryce Dallas Howard (Eclipse) agrees to stay in the relationship and take care of him. His best-friend Kyle, Seth Rogen (Knocked Up), is shocked, but eases the tension by being the foul-mouth, comic-relief of the film. And after telling his mother, the oh-so talented Anjelica Huston, of his newly discovered tumor, ignores her calls and attempts to form a close relationship, urging her he is going to be okay.

     However, Adam soon discovers the grim realities of living with cancer, when he begins his chemotherapy sessions. The pain is intolerable, his nights are restless and it's hard to focus on anything, however he continues denying his situation is not anything other than fine. It's clear he's in denial, but his attitude towards his disease is soon challenged when he goes to see a therapist, played by the quirky, yet adorable Anna Kendrick (Up In The Air). The fact that his therapist is younger than him and not even out of school yet, does not help her case towards trying to help Adam accept the graveness of his illness (but boy, does she try). It's awkward at first, but seeing Adam open up to her and us seeing how smitten Kendrick is that she is helping him get there shows how well the two actors play off each other, but also makes it hard to watch when Adam refuses to open up too much. It's not hard to predict a break-down is well on its way.

     The film evenly balances the heavy issues associated with a possible terminal illness with the lighter side. In what is perhaps one of film's most memorable scenes, Adam--after much urging--takes a macaroon laced with marijuana from one of his chemo-buddies and walks out the hospital, while having a few laughs at what most would not consider amusing things to laugh at. Seth Rogen's character is the Yang to Adam's Yin and both actors balance each other very well. Kyle's witty and profane banter never ceases when he's on screen and adds much needed humor. Despite Kyle's remarks (and they are pretty funny), the film is constantly reminding us of Adam's impending fate throughout the film. As funny as his situation can be, when the situation gets dark there is little to find amusing.

     Director Jonathan Levine (The Wackness) marks only his third film with a pleasant atmosphere. He is able to tell the story of a cancer-patient without it being too somber that it overwhelms you with grief. He keeps it evenly paced and light-hearted, but never lets us forget the seriousness of what is going on. Will Reiser contributed (in more ways than one) by writing and producing the film. His humorous script is never dull and paces itself quite well. As crazy as the situations Adam finds himself can get, the film also has a genuine realism to it that I found more pronounced in the therapy sessions with Kendrick.

     Without giving too much away, the film is a clever balance of non-stop laughs intertwined with truly heartbreaking scenes. The shining moments in the film rest entirely on this amazing group of actors and seeing each one of them deal with Adam's cancer and how it affects them individually, as well. Gordon-Levitt excels in this role, as he does all his others, and makes us sympathetic towards his character's illness and well-being from the beginning and even well after the film has ended.

Rating: A-