Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Jane Eyre

Like Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre is one of those Gothic Romances that Hollywood can't get enough of filming. This latest version, though, emphasizes the Gothic part of the story.


This Jane is full of menace: Doors creak, curtains billow, things burst into flames. Mystery abounds as well. What tortures poor Rochester? Can a wealthy sarcastic gentleman find happiness with a caustic, homely orphan girl?


Is this the original bodice-ripper, or what? (It's not, of course, what with the Gothic tradition going back to Horace Walpole and, most famously, Mrs. Radcliffe. But I'll refrain from getting all English Major-y on you.)


So, yeah, this is a chick flick, but it's a good, pre-Ephron style chick flick, where the heroine isn't a whiny pain-in-the-ass. Mia Wasikowski (from Tim Burton's Alice) as plain Jane manages to be likable despite exhibiting very few pleasant characteristics. (She's also pretty good at being plain, though her profile in the movie's many "cameo"-type shots is just flawless.) Michael Fassbinder (300, Inglorius Basterds) similarly combined prickly with compelling. Billy Elliot's all-grown-up Jamie Bell (more recently in Defiance) is noble but unappealing when rejected by Eyre. Judi Dench—what else do I need to say besides Judi Dench?


I enjoyed it, though it was a bit slow in places; the spooky atmosphere gave the drama a little extra depth, and the story is particularly an apt fit for the supernatural-feeling elements. The Boy also enjoyed it quite a bit, which says something about him or the movie or possibly both.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Limitless

If you could take a pill that would make you so smart and prescient that you could predict and plan complex events far into the future, would you take it?

Of course you would. What are you, An idiot?

Limitless is the latest entry in the underserved human-given-super-intellect genre of films and it breaks from the tradition in some refreshing ways. The basic premise is that Eddie (Bradley Cooper of The Hangover and Case 39) a sort of a loser in life, due to his inability to focus on anything—unrealistically, he's not being distracted by the Internetwhen he runs into his ex-brother-in-law, a shifty "pharmaceutical salesman" and his magic pills. He slips our hero a free sample of a pill which he claims will turn things around for our hero.  


It's not too long before Eddie's hit the skids, and takes the pill out of desperation. Lo and behold, the pill works as advertised. Suddenly Eddie can write his long languishing novel, figure out his landlady and come up with some money-making schemes. Obviously, it's very addictive. 


Predictably, there are side-effects.


What sets this film apart from others in the genre is that most such films dwell heavily on the amazing-ness of super-intellect (Charley, Phenomenon) and what it means for humanity, for being human, Limitless is a thriller, and mostly centers around the magic pills as a MacGuffin. 


This leads to some huge cheats and paradoxes, but the resultant soup is fun and sometimes clever. 


I enjoyed it; it's a good summer flick in ... what month was it? February? March? 


The Boy said he completely disengaged his brain and had a good time, though he literally could remember nothing from the film subsequently. I was poking over pot-holes, and he was sort of acting like he hadn't seen any of the scenes I had talked to. He really disengaged his brain.


But he didn't seem too unhappy about it.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Inadequate Words

My dad died Sunday morning. The call from the hospital came in at about 3:30 and I pounded out a few thousands words, which I never posted because, in all, they seemed inadequate.

I have this problem when anyone dies. Last year Freeman Hunt's father died and I think I could only manage to choke out a short tweet of condolence, even though (or maybe especially because) I felt the loss deeply. Just as I do when DarcySport mentions her dad and you can feel the love and longing in the words. (One of my dad's favorite movies was Coppola's Peggy Sue Got Married, particularly when she goes back in time and sees her grandparents. I remember being singularly unaffected by that at the time and him saying something to the effect that I should wait a few years.)

So if you've sent condolences and gotten only a terse reply, understand it's not that I'm not grateful. I am, and thank you all for your support.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Win Win

Thomas McCarthy is an odd duck. A moderately successful character actor—one of those guys you say "Hey, he was in Law and Order or something, wasn't he?"—he's also directed three very successful little indie films.

What's truly odd about it, though, is that if you had to describe his movies, you'd be inclined to use words like "benign", "good-hearted", and even "moral". His debut was the unique slice-of-life film The Station Agent, and his follow-up was the widely acclaimed The Visitor.

Now we have Win Win, the story of a struggling lawyer/wrestling coach whose life is changed when the teenage grandson of his ward wanders into his life.

When this movie was first promoted, I was saying "I wonder if Paul Giamatti will be John Adams cranky, Harvey Pekar cranky or Miles Raymond cranky?"

Probably the biggest shock of this movie is that Giamatti isn't cranky at all. He's genial. Amiable, even. He's a hugely decent New Jersey lawyer (!) named Mike Flaherty who specializes in helping old folks out. After regular hours, he coaches the local high school's awful wrestling club. And he's in some financial trouble.

Relief, of a sort, comes in the shape of Burt Young (who, at 70, looks healthier to me than he did in his 30s). Burt Young plays Leo Poplar, a rich old man whose early onset dementia requires a guardianship that can bring in a small amount of needed cash.

Mike is a really decent guy, so you're a bit taken aback—disappointed even—when he commits his sin. He maintains his decency in almost every regard (though he is forced to do some lying to cover it up, of course) and so you're almost inclined to give him a pass.

This feeling is reinforced when Kyle shows up. Kyle is the 16-year-old grandson of Leo, who's run away from home (sort of). His mother is in rehab and his mother's live-in boyfriend is an abusive jerk, so Kyle decided to come see his grandfather (whom he has never met).

Kyle ends up staying with Leo and his hard-bitten wife (Amy Ryan) and their two daughters, where he blossoms in a normal, healthy household environment. With Mike's sin sitting there in the background waiting to blow the whole thing to bits.

The first two thirds of the story has Kyle, who happens to have been an excellent wrestler back in Ohio, re-entering wrestling on Mike's team, and rediscovering his talents. Mike coaches the team with his law partner/office roommate (played by the inestimable Jeffrey Tambor) and brings on his rich high school pal (played by Bobby Cannavale, also of The Station Agent).

The wrestling stuff is both entertaining and inspirational, as the team gets better and better with Kyle's leadership.

Cannavale's character's Terry is an interesting counterpoint to the humble Leo. He's a wealthy guy; his wife has left him for a handyman, although not actually left so much as kicked him out of his massive house. He's got himself a condo which he's already fully stocked with furniture, a big TV and a Wii. But he's miserable. He was a terrible wrestler in high school, but comes to see coaching as the only way to take his mind off his troubles.

The contrast is wonderful, as both are completely oblivious. Mike's never even seen a Wii (the cheapest of gaming consoles). Yet you never get a sense of jealousy or bitterness from him. It never occurs to him to ask for help from Terry—the opposite, really, as Terry frequently finds himself envious of Mike.

The final piece of the puzzle emerges when Kyle's mother shows up. I found myself thinking, "Hey, this is the best acting I've ever seen Drew Barrymore do! But that's not Drew Barrymore." It was, in fact, Melanie Lynskey, an actress like Thomas McCarthy, in that you've seen her a lot but probably don't know her name.

Good acting all around, although I've seen some criticisms of young Alex Shaffer's performance as Kyle. I can only assume those criticisms come from people who have never known teenage boys, particularly those who have had traumatic backgrounds. I found his flat affect very recognizable.

The Boy and I both enjoyed this immensely. Interesting, deep characters involved in serious moral conflicts. Easy contender for best film of the year to date.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Cedar Rapids

Ed Helms, fresh off his portrayal as an uptight dentist who cuts loose in Vegas in The Hangover, plays an uptight insurance agent who cuts loose in Cedar Rapids in the indie comedy Cedar Rapids.

Heh. I just realized that connection as I was typing this.

This is an odd little comedy featuring Helms as a stunted insurance agent named Tim Lippe who looks up to the "high powered" agent in his little town of Brown River, Wisconsin, and who pines to marry his once-a-week lover—his former sixth grade teacher who treats him like a child when she's not using him for no-strings-attached sex.

The catalyst for the story is that the high-powered agent is found dead (in his bathroom, a victim of auto-erotic asphyxiation) and Tim has to represent his company at the Two Diamonds award ceremony in the big city—Cedar Rapids. Before he leaves, his boss (Stephen Root) warns him away from insurance pariah Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly) who's already set about poaching clients from the asphyxiated agent.

When he gets to Cedar Rapids, he meets his roommate—also his first black person, apparently—mild mannered Ronald Wilkes (Isaiah Whitlock Jr., of "The Wire", which is a running gag), and gets to experience his upgraded suite at the low cost of having to share the room with another roommate.

Well, you see where this is going: It's none other than Dean Ziegler, a crude, foul sumbitch, who seems intent on offending the conservative Christian promoter (Kurtwood Smith) and groping anything remotely female. Anne Heche rounds out the crew as the oddly sexy agent from whom Cedar Rapids represents her one chance a year to cut loose.

The movie proceeds in this fashion from a sort of Woody Allen-esque awkwardness to a wild not-quite-Hangover-esque bacchanalia to something sort of like a caper film. It's a genial (if not rollicking) trip, made pleasant by the general good-nature of the main characters and the clear delineation of the film's few villains.

Particularly touching is Tim Lippe's recounting of how he came to want to be an agent. Where the others seem to have fallen in to it, or done it after failing at other things, Lippe sees agents as heroic—a view of agents we do not get much these days, but one which is far more valid than that of the agent as rapacious pirate of others' misfortunes.

Also satisfying is Lippe's growth from idealistic, naive child to real man with real ambitions—becoming more aware without becoming cynical or losing his ideals.

I liked it and The Boy was also not displeased.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Rango

Johnny Depp is! some kind of gecko-y lizard-y thing in the new hot mess from Gore Verbinski, the guy who brought us Mouse Hunt, The Ring, and a crapload of pirate movies.


Depp is a Hollywood-type (actually wears his shirt from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, or maybe it's Benicio Del Toro's shirt) who takes the advice of an armadillo (Alfred Molina) to go wandering out in the desert, whereon he has a vision of Clint Eastwood (Timothy Olyphant) and runs into a female reptile, Beans (Isla Fisher) who takes him to her town, a place called Dirt.


Through a series of wacky mishaps, our hero becomes "Rango", sheriff of Dirt, whereupon he immediately unwittingly facilitates the robbery of the last of the parched town's water from the bank. (Well, almost the last: The town's mayor (Ned Beatty) seems to be pretty flush.)


A posse is formed. Rango's thespian skills come in handy. A chase ensues. Bats explode into flames. The plot twists. Truths are revealed. The hero faces his demons. Clint Eastwood appears in a golf cart. Englihtenment is achieved. A villain appears. Another villain is revealed. The Heimlich maneuver. A bullet. Hans Zimmer scores.


Mariachi owls narrate.


This is the Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man's Chest of animated films. It's wild, hallucinogenic, dense, willing to sacrifice nearly anything for a gag or a cheap effect but, unlike Dead Man's Chest, Verbinski's frantic style actually harmonizes well with the animation. (The Pirates movies are cartoonish, but not actually cartoons.)


Besides The Flower and The Barb, I also had their friends with me, and a good time was had by all, though none of them came out saying this was the Best Movie Ever!


As I said, this movie is dense. It's kind of fun, as a movie geek, to spot all the movie references. I would expect the younger kids to just sort of laugh at the sight gags and otherwise think "huh?" at a lot of it.


Primarily, it's a spaghetti western, which at times reminded me of The Professionals, The Good The Bad and the Ugly—the title evokes Django, but I've never seen that. The plot is Chinatown. The chase scene is Road Warrior. I've mentioned the Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas connection. Bill Nighy appears as a ferocious rattlesnake at one point, evoking the pirate movies themselves in his confrontation with Depp.


It's all amiable enough. At points it seems to lose touch with its already tenuous grip on sanity and reason. It sacrifices a lot of potential for heart in the service of heavy stream of gags—which is a perfectly acceptable approach to fun kids movie, but don't expect a Toy Story or a Despicable Me.


All in all, I liked it, and I can't give it a full critique as I was wrangling four kids with heavy popcorn (and some potty) demands, but I won't mind seeing it again and trying to catch what I missed.

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