Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 11:59 pm on April 30, 2009

I’ve been pretty lax with the blogging lately, particularly with my movie reviews, so here’s another round of catch-up capsule reviews of eight films I’ve seen in the past few months. This is a lot of reviews for one post, I know, and most of them are longer than my typical capsulized summations, so here’s a handy index to jump directly to them individually:

Coraline (***) Duplicity (***)
He’s Just Not That Into You (*.5) Adventureland (***.5)
Confessions of a Shopaholic (*) Observe and Report (.5)
Sunshine Cleaning (***) State of Play (**.5)

One thing I’ve definitely gained from doing these reviews is a great respect for those who do this professionally. Even though I find it to be enjoyable, it’s definitely work, even at the relatively low volume at which I write them. Being now caught up just in time for the start of the summer blockbuster season, I hope to return to publishing reviews of movies more regularly as I see them, as well as doing more blogging in general; hopefully the other factors in my life that conspire to keep me otherwise busy will permit it.

  • Coraline (***) – Released theatrically 2/6/09; Directed and written by Henry Selick; Starring Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, John Hodgman, and Robert Bailey Jr.

    While I’m not sure how appropriate this film is for children (though I may be mistaken in assuming that is its target audience in the first place), I can say that this darkly playful adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s book is quite enjoyable for adults. Henry Selick’s vision is present throughout, bringing not only an animation style that’s similar to his earlier films (especially The Nightmare Before Christmas), but his demented sense of humor too. Dakota Fanning shows that she is quite capable of doing voice acting as well, bringing to life the titular character who discovers a Being John Malkovich-esque door to a bizarro world in her family’s new house after they move to the Pacific northwest. The passageway is symbolically vaginal, and when she passes through it at night Coraline (not Caroline, as her character often admonishes) finds herself and the rest of the people from her building reborn in fantastical ways. Foremost among these transformations is the one undergone by her mother, voiced really well by Teri Hatcher in an amusingly dichotomous role. This was my first experience with the RealD stereoscopic presentation, and I found it to add more depth to the movie, both figuratively and literally. The 3D effects are subtly used more often than not; there’s only one instance I can recall (and it was during the opening credits sequence) where a woah, look out, it’s coming right at you! gimmick was employed. The rest of the 3D tricks are used tastefully, only drawing attention to themselves in ways that are always aimed at pulling the audience into the movie, rather than distracting them from it, and they’re almost always successful. A lot of this film exists on the boundary between sweet and demented, and it treads the line admirably. There’s a great shot that will particularly resonate with any cat owner that exemplifies this perfectly, and it’s also one of the best examples of how the 3D effect adds to not only the visual aspect of the movie, but the mood of it as well. The animation style is very intriguing, smartly combining traditional stop-motion techniques with some non-intrusive computer enhancement. There’s some jerkiness to it that also complements the demented mood in a nicely nostalgic way. I’m not sure how well this movie will translate to video—it’ll presumably loose something along with the third dimension—but I found it to be fun and enjoyable to watch on a big screen while wearing plastic glasses.

  • He’s Just Not That Into You (*.5) – Released theatrically 2/6/09; Directed by Ken Kwapis; Written by Abby Kohn & Marc Silverstein; Starring Ginnifer Goodwin, Justin Long, Scarlett Johansson, Kevin Connolly, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Connelly, Jennifer Aniston, Ben Affleck, and Drew Barrymore

    This movie, based on Greg Berhendt’s book (which itself was based on an episode of Sex and the City that he wrote), purports to espouse a useful lesson to women who are unlucky in love: rather than thinking that your circumstance may be the exception to the rule, recognize that you most likely aren’t going to be the exception, and you will find enlightenment and happiness… or something along those lines. Justin Long’s stereotype of a bartender-sage character repeats this advice several times to Big Love‘s Ginnifer Goodwin, who passes as the closest thing to a protagonist in this ensemble cast. In order to prove its point, the movie demonstrates several women who become exceptions to the rule and find the love and happiness they were hoping for. It’s like telling somebody to be conservative with their money, but hey, did I mention that super-risky investment that totally paid off for me? The head-scratching “advice” is presented as what amounts to not much more than a jumbled mess: there are three or four plotlines that are loosely interwoven with each other, some storylines that are introduced with title cards (e.g., “If he’s not sleeping with you…”) intended to provide overarching advice, some that aren’t, and randomly-placed, way too contrived “people on the street” faux-interviews—not unlike those that were seen in the first season of Sex and the City—where supposedly “everyday people” talk about what the film would have you believe are very typical relationship situations. Most of the relationships’ plot lines go nowhere, though, and the characters are universally stupid, at the expense of any semblance of believability. There are a few chuckles to be had herein, but for the most part the writing is juvenile and fails to demonstrate its intended point more often than not. Ben Affleck and Jennifer Aniston serve as the lone couple in the movie that actually feels fully-developed, but of course theirs is the relationship that is explored the least. After setting itself up as no more than a series of slightly clever vignettes with very limited insight, the film in the end falls into the trap of becoming nothing more than a cheesy love story before finally wrapping things up all too neatly.

  • Confessions of a Shopaholic (*) – Released theatrically 2/13/09; available on DVD and Blu-ray 6/23/09; Directed by P.J. Hogan; Written by Tracey Jackson and Tim Firth and Kayla Alpert; Starring Isla Fisher, Hugh Dancy, Krysten Ritter, Joan Cusack, and John Goodman

    Not that this movie has any relationship to Watchmen, one of the best examples of film adaptation there’s ever been, but it’s a striking contrast in the practice of adapting written works to the big screen, doing everything wrong in all the wrong ways. My girlfriend tells me that this is a combination of story bits and pieces from the popular series of books by Sophie Kinsella, and that certainly shows in its execution. The writing is extremely lazy, skipping around in time and glossing over seemingly-important story details, particularly its most prominent—the love story that we’re asked to root for, despite it coming out of nowhere and being incredibly superficial. The main character, the titular shopping addict with a mountain of credit card debt, is infuriatingly stupid, making even the always-lovable Isla Fisher nearly impossible to empathize with. There’s sloppiness in the story details as well; one example that stood out for me was when Fisher’s character’s parents (John Goodman and Joan Cusack, both in “they’re way too good for this movie” roles) buy a brand-new, fully decked-out motorhome with their life savings, and then at some indeterminate point afterwards mention that they just might maybe be able to sell it for something like 13 grand. Of course, if they got anywhere near what it would actually be worth (I’m guessing somewhere bordering on 6 figures), the whole forced dilemma they’re in with helping their daughter out of her debt problems would be non-existent to begin with, and this film doesn’t want to trouble itself with such details. Such is the style of storytelling on display here: don’t bother trying to make things realistic, just go for the emotional cop-out at all costs (and admittedly, Goodman provides the one example of any genuine emotion in the particular scene to which I’m referring). When the main characters profess their love for each other, it comes more as a surprise than as something genuinely touching, because we haven’t felt any building affection or been shown anything that a reasonable adult would mistake for blossoming love. And not that one would come to a movie like this looking for life advice, but that which is given is universally terrible, the end resolution seeming to imply that no matter what bad decisions one makes and no matter how deep of a hole one gets oneself into, a cute smile and the (unsubstantiated) affection of an attractive man will be all that’s required for the rest of the world to miraculously come to your rescue.

  • Sunshine Cleaning (***) – Opened in limited release 3/13/09, released wide 3/27/09; Directed by Christine Jeffs; Written by Megan Holley; Starring Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Jason Spevack, Steve Zahn, and Alan Arkin

    It’s unfortunate that this indie darling not only has the word “sunshine” in its title, but also employs Alan Arkin in the role of the gruffly frank father; it seemed that there was a tendency to dismiss it as a retread of 2006’s surprise Best Picture nominee Little Miss Sunshine out of hand. There’s not much more that the two films have in common, though, with Sunshine Cleaning tilted much more towards the somber than the humorous end of the spectrum—although it does have some pleasant moments of levity, too. Amy Adams and Emily Blunt play sisters who stumble into the lucrative but difficult field of crime scene cleanup while dealing with some family issues and struggling to take care of Adams’s character’s son (played impressively by young Jason Spevack). The two actresses take turns owning the emotional center of the film, with Blunt stealing the show for much of the first half of the movie before stepping aside for Adams some time during the middle act, who proceeds to thoroughly hit it out of the park. Her character is troubled and struggling in life and love, and Adams brings a depth of emotion to the role that’s both touching and heartfelt; it might be the best performance so far this year. The script, by first-timer Megan Holley, has refreshing depth and maturity, slowly building its tensions in not-always-overt ways, its characters arriving at revelations gradually and realistically. It’s nice to see a small, personal movie like this where the protagonist is not bailed out from her troubles, but rather comes to learn that she must deal with and accept them. The strength of the performances all around carry the film, and the story is good enough on its own to keep things engaging. Director Christine Jeffs shows a lot of maturity, too, avoiding the traps that a movie like Rachel Getting Married falls into while touching on a lot of similar subjects and situations. That the characters are more sympathetic and easier to root for certainly helps in this regard as well.

  • Duplicity (***) – Released theatrically 3/20/09; Directed and written by Tony Gilroy; Starring Clive Owen, Julia Roberts, Tom Wilkinson, and Paul Giamatti

    When a movie’s intent is to surprise its audience with every turn, there’s a fine line to walk between keeping things genuinely interesting and falling into utter confusion. Tony Gilroy has proven that he has an innate sense of how to walk this line with finesse, as demonstrated by his Bourne screenplays. His newest feature, Duplicity, has a lot in common with his previous directorial effort, Michael Clayton, in that it’s a modern-day tale of intrigue, entrenched in the cutthroat world of corporate America, and primarily derives its suspense from keeping its audience in the dark as much as possible. Here he has also incorporated a playful love story to intertwine with the espionage, and his leads are up to the task: Clive Owen and Julia Roberts find themselves reunited from Closer, one of the best (and often over-looked) movies of the past decade. Roberts plays her character similarly to her role in the Ocean’s movies, a woman who knows more than she lets on and enjoys smugly capitalizing on that knowledge. The tone here is similar to those films as well, as is the style; there’s a lot of funk music tracks and multi-framed transitions and frequent, brief flashbacks that flesh out the story along the way. The story is at once a love tale and an espionage caper, and the manner in which it flashes back and forth in time reveals the full history of its characters gradually like an expanding telescope. Keeping everything light-hearted suits it well, most exemplified by the film’s big reveal moment in which the one-upsmanship of the world in which these characters exist climaxes with a hilarious dupe of epic proportions. The chemistry between Owen and Roberts is what carries the film, though, with their playful back-and-forth propelling the action forward at all times. The movie sets up and then gradually reveals several mysteries of the characters’ past and present, maintaining intrigue and suspense the whole way through.

  • Adventureland (***.5) – Released theatrically 4/3/09; Directed and written by Greg Mottola; Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, and Ryan Reynolds

    I went into Adventureland expecting a less hilarious, somewhat lamer rehash of Superbad, and ended up thoroughly and pleasantly surprised. While not as laugh-out-loud funny as director Greg Mottola’s earlier effort, this film—which he also wrote—is more touching, more resonant, and more genuine. Jesse Eisenberg, in the lead role that seems like it might’ve been written for Michael Cera (or at least with a Michael Cera-esque predisposition), embodies the sensibility of the movie fully: as a sort of successor to previous teen-angst classics like Dazed and Confused, the maturity here is increased accordingly, along with the characters’ station in life. Rather than high schoolers on summer break, here Eisenberg’s James Brennan is a recent college graduate stuck in a menial summer job that he hopes will help pay for grad school. A developing intellectual who has just earned an obscure B.A. in literature, James finds himself still a virgin and still unsure of who he’s growing to be as an adult, and spends his summer working on both while employed at a lame amusement park (run by the always-kitschy Bill Hader, in one of those Bill Hader roles, and his wife, played by Kristen Wiig, who also always seems to show up in roles like this—my favorite being her turn in Knocked Up, though she’s funny here as well). The script is insightfully smart, exploring several complex 20-something relationships from angles that always feel true to life. James, for instance, rather than harboring a puppy-dog love for a single female whom he pursues throughout the film before finally winning over in the end, instead attempts to parlay his newfound cachet among his coworkers into dating multiple would-be love interests, and as those relationships play out his character’s core is revealed in a less straightforward, more satisfying manner than is usually seen in typical young-adult romances. The scene-stealer here, though, is Kristen Stewart, who owns the frame in every scene she appears in, in a manner that’s somewhat reminiscent of Mila Kunis in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, though the role here is deeper, and Stewart is more than capable of bringing the required depth to the character. There’s also a very pleasantly surprising secondary role played by Ryan Reynolds, who shows again (as he also did in last year’s Definitely, Maybe) that he’s capable of a lot more than Van Wilder and adds yet another satisfying complication to the plot while wrenching some hearts along the way. There’s a great beat towards the end of the film involving Reynolds’s character talking about Lou Reed’s song “Shed a Light on Love” (he has the title wrong), and it’s one of those movie moments when everything comes together in a really subtle way that fills out not only his character but those he’s interacted with as well, while satisfying the audience’s desire to be given a little added insight that deepens the movie further. This film suffered from a poorly-conceived publicity run that made it look more like a mindless teen comedy than the serious rumination on early adulthood that it is (though there is a lot to laugh about here, too), but it’s well worth giving a chance, and is possibly the best film of this year so far.

  • Observe and Report (.5) – Released theatrically 4/10/09; Directed and written by Jody Hill; Starring Seth Rogen, Anna Faris, and Ray Liotta

    Seth Rogen has commented in multiple interviews that he was shocked when he heard that they were being allowed to make Observe and Report, and frankly I completely agree with him. I assume he is referring to what he considers to be its “dark comedy” stature, but while I readily see the dark part of it, there’s virtually nothing here that feels to me at all comedic. The film is essentially one long, repetitive attempt by Jody Hill and his cast to shock their audience, in overtly juvenile ways that are consistently transparent and surprisingly uncreative (the Middle Eastern guy is called “Saddam,” for instance). Rogen’s mall cop is Hill’s view of what happens to high school bullies and roofie-toting frat boys when they’re finally forced to get a job and attempt to interact with the real world, but his script is unjustifiably in love with its subject and continually goes out of its way to glorify him for the completely stupid ass he’s depicted to be. Hill has the ability to do this well, as he’s demonstrated with the HBO series Eastbound & Down (featuring Danny McBride, who I normally have an extreme distaste for, in a role he was born to play; McBride makes a cameo here that, despite his listen to me as I recite my lines style of delivery, provides one of the few scenes that strikes a successful balance between messed-up darkness and actually-kinda-funny comedy). Here Hill’s constant attempts to one-up himself in the “shockingly funny” department just feel like a comedian completely bombing on stage, repeatedly attempting to redeem himself by thrashing in the proverbial quicksand. I think what Hill is going for here is a startlingly blunt portrayal of a deeply disturbed and delusional man struggling to make sense of the harsh reality of his world, but he betrays himself with an utter disregard for anything resembling reality (if you know anyone who’s assaulted an entire police department and then been permitted to recover from the ensuing beating he takes at home in his own bed with his mother attending to him, I’d love to hear about it). Anna Faris plays her typical ditzy blonde role, complementing Rogen’s character with a base and unsympathetic character of her own who encourages him to “don’t stop” in the middle of being date-raped (isn’t that shockingly funny?), and Michael Peña adds a caricature-like portrayal just to round out the mix. Most out of place here is Ray Liotta, who plays his cop completely straight up and feels like he might’ve thought he was in a different movie than the rest of the cast. Along with the unredeeming script, the filmmaking style is correspondingly amateurish, feeling like a boy who was given more money than he knew what to do with to play with toys he didn’t know how to use; there are awkward and fitful pans employed sporadically, an overzealous use of strange high angles, and sloppily blaring music tracks that feel like somebody going out of his way to put his buddies’ songs in his film just to draw undue attention to them. Also, there’s a lot of dick in it.

  • State of Play (**.5) – Released theatrically 4/17/09; Directed by Kevin Macdonald; Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray; Starring Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, and Robin Wright Penn

    Coming into a movie like State of Play, you pretty much know what you’re going to get: there are few formulas of the modern-day murder-mystery genre that aren’t adhered to here, but they’re mostly done well, delivering on the promise of a suspenseful thriller with an underlying point (or two) to make. Russell Crowe’s old-school newspaper reporter has to come to terms with the emergence of the brave new world of online journalism (and “journalism”), as embodied by his blogging young coworker, played by Rachel McAdams. Crowe fits all of the stereotypes of a down-and-out, past-his-prime stalwart who’s nonetheless still got a knack for breaking a story. He’s an overweight, slobbish veteran of his profession who retains his axe to grind, living in a small messy apartment, driving a total beater, and tirelessly working his D.C. beat to get to the bottom of his story. He’s counterpointed by Ben Affleck’s character, his former college roommate who has gone on to become a politician and finds himself embattled by scandal when his recently murdered aide is revealed to have also been his mistress. Whereas McAdams is serviceable in a role that, along with the whole newsprint-versus-web pages subplot, feels a bit like a thrown-in afterhought, Affleck’s performance is somewhat surprisingly deep, particularly when he depicts his character breaking his thick politician’s facade and allowing his true emotions to show through. The smaller roles additionally help to flesh out the world in which this movie takes place: Jason Bateman as a sleezeball fetish club promoter, Jeff Daniels as a bull-headed political adversary, Hellen Mirren as the no-bullshit editor-in-chief, and most of all Robin Wright Penn as Affleck’s character’s wife, who stays with him in a manner that feels very Mrs. Spitzer-ish. The story, of course, has a lot of twists and turns, going out of its way to catch its audience off guard on several occasions, some of which work better than others. The film also goes out of its way to depict its love of the dying newspaper industry (perhaps most genuinely during an end-credits fugue to the printing press), but its story wouldn’t change without this aspect of it, which ends up feeling more like a tacked-on divergence than an integral part of the plot. Nevertheless, as I’ve said, this film delivers sufficient twists, turns, and betrayals to keep its audience in suspense, and it’s done well enough to make the ride worth the audience’s while, though none of the surprises are particularly shocking when they’re revealed, save for one: Crowe’s character is a hard line Irishman named Cal McAffrey, who toasts with a “sláinte,” and yet, during the film’s denouement, we learn that in his desk at work he keeps a bottle of… Jack? That might be even more blasphemous than the young blogger deciding that a major piece of news is “big enough” to wait for the morning edition.