Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 9:10 pm on November 30, 2008

Status: In theaters (opened 11/26/08)
Directed By: Seth Gordon
Written By: Matt Allen & Caleb Wilson and Jon Lucas & Scott Moore
Cinematographer: Jeffrey L. Kimball
Starring: Vince Vaughn, Reese Witherspoon

A common problem with comedies is the inability of the writers to find an adequate balance between plot and character development and humor. Sometimes when the focus is more on storytelling (e.g., Knocked Up), the film can drag when the laughs are more spaced out. Focusing solely on the humor, though, gets old really quickly (as in any Will Ferrell comedy, most recently Step Brothers). Finding a novel approach to this dilemma might sound guaranteed to fail, but Four Christmases takes a pretty decent angle, albeit one that’s somewhat of a cop out: rather than trying to maintain a fully developed, multi-layered story arc throughout the film’s entire 90-ish minutes, the story is split into four main vignettes, introduced with a prologue and tidied up with an epilogue. The technique is mostly successful, if taken in context, although there’s nothing ground-breaking here… which shouldn’t come as any sort of surprise.

Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon play an affluent San Francisco couple, content to remain unmarried and without children, and happiest when spending time by themselves—particularly when that means not visiting their families for the holidays. When severe fog grounds all flights in and out of SFO (an occurrence that I can say from personal experience is not that uncommon), they find themselves attempting to spend Christmas with each of their divorced parents. Each of these four segments could probably stand on their own as a prolonged SNL skit, but for the two main characters they share, who go through a relationship crisis of sorts as the day progresses.

This structure has a couple of major benefits: each of the four visits exists as its own little sub-story, meaning there’s not much of an expectation for character development within them. It also means that each can rely primarily on a single joke without much worry of it becoming too stale: there’s the redneck father (Robert Duvall) and his amateur-fighting sons (Jon Favreau and Tim McGraw), the born-again mother (Mary Steenburgen), the wise old grandfather (Jon Voight), and the hippie single mom (Sissy Spacek). Each side of the family also has a perpetually procreating sister (Kristin Chenoweth and Katy Mixon), which serves as both fertile ground for humor as well as the basis for Witherspoon’s character’s progression.

This isn’t to say that this is the ideal way to structure a comedy; in fact, it’s sort of a lazy way to write a movie, but at least it’s somewhat better than throwing together yet another mindless bout of slapstick. Vince Vaughn is funny in his typical way, and there’s even a Swingers reunion of sorts when he and Favreau are joined by Patrick Van Horn in one of the movie’s funniest (and most awkward) scenes. (Having Favreau’s character and his family show up at more than one of the four Christmases, by the way, serves as a nice way of helping to add a sense of continuity to the overall story.) It’s also fun to see director Seth Gordon translate his modest success from The King of Kong into a more mainstream gig (and it’s very cool of him to cast Steve Wiebe in a small role). Overall this is basically a fun movie, though certainly not a great one. There’s no huge revelation it provides, but there are plenty of laughs, and the relationship between Vaughn and Witherspoon is cute, as is the conclusion they arrive at after their trying day spent with each other’s families.

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Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 2:51 pm on November 30, 2008

Status: In theaters (opened 11/14/08)
Directed By: Marc Forster
Written By: Paul Haggis and Neal Purvis & Robert Wade
Cinematographer: Roberto Schaefer
Starring: Daniel Craig, Olga Kurylenko, Mathieu Amalric

I remember reading when Die Hard With a Vengeance came out that screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh had originally written a standalone action movie called Simon Says, which was then adopted to fit in the character of John McClane and tie in his backstory in order to make it into the third Die Hard film. Quantum of Solace, the 22nd James Bond film, feels like it might have had a similar pedigree, although it does not. That is to say, this might as well not be a James Bond film, so little does it share with the other films in the franchise beyond the basic formula of “government agent fights international bad guys.” There’s not much to differentiate it from other recent thrillers that have become so in vogue in recent years (e.g., Body of Lies) except for style, and unfortunately director Marc Forster has chosen to go over the top in that department, to his film’s detriment.

This is supposed to be a direct sequel to 2006’s Casino Royale, though there is almost nothing in the plot that relates back to the previous installment, other than the fact that Bond (Daniel Craig) has suddenly lost—more or less— his libido, still mourning the death of his most recent love interest. The one exception to this character trait is a brief tryst with a diplomat named Miss Fields (Gemma Arterton), whose first name (Strawberry) we don’t learn until the end credits, for reasons unknown (I presume there was supposed to be a “Strawberry Fields” joke of some sort that got cut). I think this was an attempt at fitting into one of the traditions of the Bond franchise (that of Bond encountering—and usually bedding—women with silly, occasionally clever names), but it’s a really half-assed one if that’s the case. There’s also a return of the Mathis character from the previous film (Giancarlo Giannini), but it’s brief and unsatisfying.

The most interesting aspect of Quantum of Solace is the character of Camille (Olga Kurylenko), with whom Bond establishes a relationship that is very un-Bond-like: they partner with each other to foil the plans of Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), a power-hungry environmentalist on the surface with diabolical schemes to control the natural resources of Bolivia for his own profit. Bond and Camille develop a rapport that feels more brother-and-sister than love interest, and indeed they function as partners in crime-fighting rather than romantics. There is an attempt to establish a dichotomy between Bond’s recent heartache and Camille’s backstory, but it feels very tacked-on in the sense that the characters’ immediate motivations and actions would be no different if these aspects of their stories were completely unknown. Nevertheless, the story works well enough to drive the action

Stylistically, Quantum of Solace oscillates between big-budget action spectacle (or perhaps a Bourne wanna-be, in an ironic twist) and film school experiment. Forster, along with editors Matt Chesse and Richard Pearson, play sophomoric games during a couple of the major action sequences, inter-cutting between the events that are driving the plot and overtly metaphoric yet unrelated ambient goings-on. There are ways to do this effectively; what is on display here is not one of them. Instead it just feels like an artificial injection of confusion, trying to add excitement that the primary action isn’t providing on its own. There is action here in spades, though—generic as it may be—and the global scope of the story (and the myriad exotic locales) keeps things interesting enough, while maintaining the modern Bond feel. It’s just that there’s not much to distinguish it from a non-Bond movie, and somehow that makes it not as intriguing as its contemporaries, despite their similarities.

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Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 2:45 pm on November 30, 2008

Status: No longer in theaters (opened 10/24/08)
Directed By: Gavin O’Connor
Written By: Joe Carnahan & Gavin O’Connor
Cinematographer: Declan Quinn
Starring: Colin Farrell, Edward Norton, Noah Emmerich, Jon Voight

I’m having trouble thinking of a good example, but I could swear I’ve seen plenty of movies like this before: an Irish family of cops in a big city (in Pride and Glory‘s case, New York), struggling with coming to terms with the generational divide that effects their differing senses of duty and morality. The patriarch (Jon Voight) is an old school, been-around-and-seen-it-all type, who wants his sons to follow in his footsteps as NYC cops who look out for their own. The elder brother (Noah Emmerich) is equal parts career man and family man, who protects his brothers, his daughters, and the officers who work for him above all else. His brother (Ed Norton) is a strictly by-the-books cop, to the point of naivete, but he’s been through some shit, man—he even has a really bad-ass scar to prove it, not to mention an estranged wife (Carmen Ejogo) who can’t be with him anymore because the aforementioned shit he went through changed him, man.

Then there’s the brother-in-law (Colin Farrell), the black sheep of the family who does things his own way, man. He plays so far outside of the rules that he makes the criminals he confronts look like innocent victims. Director and co-writer Gavin O’Connor is obviously going for shock value with some of these scenes, and they’re so over-the-top that they’d be comical if they weren’t so disturbing—I can’t imagine there’s a way to portray threatened baby torture tastefully, for instance. Farrell’s character is the gang leader of sorts to a group of dirty cops within the department, and as the film progresses their exploits move from deplorable abuses of power to just downright stupid machismo.

The main setup of the movie is that there is corruption within the NYPD, and Ed Norton’s character is tasked with stomping it out. He gets pushback from Noah Emmerich, who plays the higher-ranking officer whose knee-jerk reaction is to defend his men before he learns the facts. Farrell’s dirty cop uses this to his advantage, and it’s no surprise when the obvious conflict of interests is what O’Connor relies upon to drive his plot. I don’t think many people would go into this movie expecting anything all that original, but unfortunately even given that it still manages to disappoint with such a generic premise.

There are pretty solid performances throughout, though, at least enough to keep things somewhat entertaining; I’ll admit that I thought Edward Norton and Colin Farrell would themselves serve as sufficient ingredients to automatically give this film a leg up from the get-go, but not unlike Righteous Kill, the screenplay here manages to write itself out of this advantage. The film’s third act has three pivotal scenes, all of which are attempts at ratcheting up the drama as the storyline races to its conclusion, but which play out, in turn, as boring (Voight half-assing his way through a cliched speech), hilariously bad (Norton and Farrell randomly engaging in a fistfight in a bar out of nowhere), and infuriatingly stupid: The big surprise curveball of a climax that requires such an onerous setup that we don’t even care when it comes, except to feel insulted that we’re expected to buy it.

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Posted by mike in Politics at 11:57 pm on November 4, 2008

There’s no questioning that history was made tonight (and, as I said yesterday, I’m extremely pleased with our country’s ability to make the right decision after its recent track record of not doing so). But make no mistake about it: we also saw plenty of evidence of just how far our country still has to go before realizing a truly equality-based society.

Gay is the new black.

Despite the fact that we’ve taken a major stride tonight in overcoming our country’s long-standing tradition of racism, we’ve simultaneously taken steps to ensure that we continue to immediately replace that racism with another form of bigotry. It’s as though we just can’t stand to not have some group to discriminate against. Those who were the last to concede that their racism was no longer going to be accepted in our society have been among the first to redirect that hatred towards homosexuals.

Arizona and Florida have voted tonight to ban gay marriage in their states. California, somewhat shockingly, appears to be doing the same, reversing its Supreme Court’s decision from earlier this year. This only increases the number of states that explicitly deny rights of their citizens in a manner eerily reminiscent of the kind of treatment interracial couples received only a handful of decades ago.

And let’s not forget about that bastion of forward thinking, the great state of Arkansas, which has voted to disallow gay couples from adopting (the fact that they cannot marry in that state already being a foregone conclusion).

That’s a full sweep for the anti-gay-rights movement in 2008. It makes it hard to read and listen to all of the self-congratulatory rhetoric about the outcome of this Presidential election without feeling pangs of falsehood behind the declarations of an age of equality. The Chicago Tribune, for example, said that “Obama’s victory is one of those events that reveal [sic] how far the nation has traveled.” This, of course, is indisputable. But the other results we’ve seen this evening also reveal just how far we still have yet to go.

Gay and straight drinking fountains

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Posted by mike in Friends,Politics at 10:22 pm on November 3, 2008

Tomorrow we’re going to learn a lot about our country and what its citizens are made of. To say that it’ll be an “historic” occurrence seems trite (isn’t every Presidential election “historic”?), but I do feel (along with pretty much everybody else) that we’re at the biggest turning point as a nation of my lifetime, and probably much longer than that. This is a major fork in the road, and tomorrow we’ll see which route we’re going to be taking for many years to come.

Like CK, I’m happy to say that I’ve voted for Barack Obama twice—once as a resident of Illinois to represent my state in the U.S. Senate, and now once as a resident of California to lead our country, finally, into the 21st century. I’m not as big of a supporter of his as are a lot of people (he occasionally disappoints me with his willingness to politic his way out of every situation that arises), but I feel that he’s clearly the no-brainer choice, as Chas so concisely pointed out.

The truth of the matter is, when making a choice for President, you can judge these books by their covers. I was completely flabbergasted that anybody would take some hayseed simpleton seriously as a candidate—much less actually elect the dumbass—and remained even more shocked when he was re-elected after living up to precisely the comically low assumptions I’d held of him all along… How can 59,054,087 people be so DUMB? and since then, he’s only gotten worse, as we’re all painfully aware of by now. It’s an infinitely small consolation to be able to say “I told you so” after eight years of watching this fool bumble around in our name on the world’s stage. The point, though, is that we now find ourselves in an even more exaggerated version of the same predicament we faced in 2000: John McCain is such a sad shell of a once-strong man that he’s impossible to take seriously as a potential leader unless you’re a) completely mindlessly partisan, b) a huge racist (overtly or not), or c) not only obscenely greedy and self-centered to the point that you vote based solely on the consideration of a potential tax increase but also so obscenely out of touch that you still believe that tax cuts help our economy in the first place. And on the other side, as Ben so eloquently spelled out, is the complete opposite: somebody who actually fits the role of Leader, somebody who at least looks, acts, and speaks like he belongs in the highest office we have. And this isn’t even getting into the VP candidates, where the disparity gets even greater.

And yet, despite how obvious the choice we’ve been presented with seems to be, I remain doubtful of our country’s ability to make the right decision, given our recent track record. We have more to overcome than just latent racism, not the least of which is the kind of shenanigans that the Republican party has become experts at over the past few elections. It’s hard to watch Recount—which I’ve done more than a couple of times in recent months—without wincing throughout, not just due to a sense of “what could have been,” but also due to a fear of reliving one of our country’s saddest periods over again. Luckily, all indicators point to this one not even being close, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

Tonight in my house we’re going to watch V for Vendetta, a film that three and a half years ago gave us hope that maybe the masses can band together after all, no matter what they might be up against, and take their country’s destiny in their own hands. Hopefully the U.S. can do it at the polls tomorrow in a decidedly less dramatized fashion, but the result just might end up being as world-changing as that depicted in the Wachowski brothers‘ adaptation of Alan Moore‘s story.

Thanks to the phenomenon of early voting, my personal decisions have already been officially made (including, importantly, my opposition to state-sanctioned bigotry), which leaves me free to watch with bated breath tomorrow until the results become official. To say it makes me nervous is an understatement; to say that it’s exciting even more so.

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Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 8:11 pm on November 2, 2008

Status: In theaters (opened 10/31/08)
Directed By: Kevin Smith
Written By: Kevin Smith
Cinematographer: David Klein
Starring: Seth Rogen, Elizabeth Banks, Craig Robinson, Jason Mewes

Kevin Smith’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno—his first film to take place outside of New Jersey (in Pittsburgh) and second to depart from the View Askewniverse (along with Jersey Girl)—is an easy movie to enjoy: it’s funny and raunchy, sweet and touching, clever and sarcastic. Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks are both great as the titular characters, showing us people we can relate to who happen to get themselves wound up in a crazy scheme to pay off their debts and get their utilities turned back on. Said scheme—as you just might have guessed—is to make and star in their own porno movie. From here, I guarantee you that almost all of the assumptions you make about the remainder of the movie are going to be correct. As I said, it’s easy to enjoy, but it certainly is predictable.

There are several things that Smith does well, starting with the frank and snappy dialogue that we’ve come to expect from him. There are a few pleasant surprises here that are somewhat unexpected, too, like more sophisticated camera movements from cinematographer Dave Klein than we’ve seen in previous collaborations between the two (although they showed signs of this development in Clerks II). Smith, as director and editor, still prefers the most basic of styles, though, as has been his low-budget trademark throughout his career: characters speaking to each other are either seen in a simple two-shot, or are cut between in basic medium shots that alternate along with the lines of dialogue. This isn’t supposed to be a very visually stimulating movie, though, the ample screentime of pornstar Katie Morgan and a full-frontal view of Jason Mewes notwithstanding.

Smith’s writing seems to have actually devolved with this iteration, perhaps as a result of moving out of his Askewniverse comfort zone. The basic storyline here is almost identical to that of Clerks II, but more simplified: instead of the main character (Dante in the earlier film) having multiple relationship complications to resolve (with his best friend, his fiancĂ©e, and his lover), here we have Rogen as Zack who faces but a single relationship problem (he’s in love with his best friend Miri, and she with him). The storytelling is remarkably linear throughout, in fact—which isn’t really out of the ordinary for a Kevin Smith film—and the simplicity of the structure, complications, and resolutions make it all feel much less mature than we’d expect from an experienced writer-director’s 8th film. The most obvious similarity to Clerks II comes with the “shock moment” that signals the arrival of the final act, an attempt by Smith to gross out his audience amidst all of the raunchy dialogue and debauched plot with a sight gag, which occurs while his main character is having a personal revelation (sound familiar?). As with the rest of the film, though, this is a simplified version of the similar sequence in Clerks II, involving a shorter setup and a much shorter payoff (somewhat famously, a 12-frame half second) with none of the inter-character resolution occurring simultaneously.

This isn’t to suggest that Zack and Miri (as the prudish ads and showtime listings call it) is necessarily a bad film; it’s just not that great, and feels like more of a retread of familiar ground than a movie with such a seemingly unique premise should. There are some areas that Smith handles surprisingly well, most prominently a love scene that is shockingly touching and might be the lone signal here of his maturation as a writer and director. Banks repeats a Julianne Moore line from Boogie Nights, giving it a totally different connotation here that embodies the scene so well it almost spoils the rest of the movie, so thoroughly do we get what’s going on (and will go on as the movie proceeds) between her character and Rogen’s. It’s a really nice moment, highlighted by the use of a Live song that fits perfectly, as Smith’s knack for highlighting his material with popular 90s music continues.

No discussion of this movie can be complete without mention of Craig Robinson, who’s seemed to show up as a backseat character a lot over the past couple of years (e.g., Knocked Up, Pineapple Express) but here gets to take a step into the foreground, and provides an extra dimension to the humor of the film, which helps round it out a bit. Smith uses his presence to try his hand at racial humor for the second consecutive film, and the result is acceptable, although nothing as shockingly funny as Randal’s “porch monkey” diatribe.

In fact, in several ways this movie is toned down by Kevin Smith standards, perhaps as an attempt—whether conscious or not—to open himself up to more of a mainstream audience, undoubtedly helped by the wider appeal of his stars, particularly Rogen (although from the trailers I saw preceding this film, I’m pretty sure Banks is set to go on a mid-90s Tommy Lee Jones type of run, appearing in no fewer than six movies this year). It’s the lack of creativity that is the most disappointing, an area in which Smith has never had trouble exceeding expectations previously (it’s hard to believe that Star Whores was really the best he could come up with for a fictional porn title). And while I don’t want to give away how the film is resolved (although I highly doubt that it’ll come as a surprise to anyone), let me just say, as an example of the sort of half-assed writing that is occasionally on display here, that if you find yourself wondering “why?” when the “Three Months Later” card comes up, you’re not alone. The best hope is that you’ll have spent enough time laughing by that point that you won’t care enough to be upset by it. Which, fortunately, is somewhat likely.

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