Friday, August 24, 2012

PREMIUM RUSH: As Silly As It Is Thrilling

(Dir. David Koepp, 2012)

We first meet Joseph Gordon-Levitt in mid-air as he falls in slow motion off his bicycle to the opening synth progression of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” in the first minute of this thriller.

We don’t learn how this accident came about until later in the movie, because this is one of those fractured narratives that backs up in time, moves forward, then back again, sometimes through the same scenes, but from other perspectives, with an onscreen clock popping up to let us know where we’re at.

It’s a gimmicky and self-consciously flashy approach, but it weaves as swiftly through the film as Gordon-Levitt does through the streets of Manhattan as a bike-messenger who just might have a death-wish, as his co-workers note.

You see, Gordon-Levitt, who dropped out from Columbia University's law school, doesn’t believe in brakes, and has fixed gears on his beat-up bike. His mind seems only set to quickly figure out the best route through traffic and pedestrians so we get to see his imagined scenarios for the disastrous routes he decides against, which is pretty neat. As are full screen shots of Gordon-Levitt’s GPS system, and CGI projections of the cityscape that show thick yellow lines representing his path.

Our hero’s dangerous job gets even more life threatening when he picks up an envelope that contains something that a corrupt cop (Michael Shannon) is after. This MacGuffin propels the big compelling cat and mouse game that is PREMIUM RUSH, an experience that’s engaging enough that one can ignore lame lines (Shannon actually yells: “Aw, come on! Give it to me!”), and a few overly contrived set-pieces.

None of that gets in the way of the fun. There’s spirited energy in the stunt-work (Gordon-Levitt did some of his own stunts - one of which led to a bust-up with a taxi), the sharp cinematography of the streets (shot by Mitchell Amundsen), and the largely likable casting, including Dania Ramirez as Gordon-Levitt’s tough girlfriend, WolĂ© Parks as his rival who's trying to woo Ramirez, The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi as a wise-cracking dispatch, and Jamie Chung as a scared young Chinese woman who’s wrapped up with whatever’s in that mysterious envelope.

Gordon-Levitt carries the movie with confidence, but in Shannon as the villain we just might have the best comic performance of the summer. I’m serious - his turn as the twisted sociopathic gambling-addicted cop chasing Gordon-Levitt is hilarious with his squeaky maniacal laugh, and cranky complaints about his pained predicaments. Shannon’s funnier than either Will Ferrell or Zach Galifianakis in THE CAMPAIGN, or nearly any other character in a recent comedy that I can think of. He obviously had a blast playing the part, and it's a blast to watch him steal every scene he's in.

The as-silly-as-it-is-thrilling PREMIUM RUSH isn’t premium entertainment, but it’s a good fast-paced piece of escapism for the late summer. When it cuts to a video clip of Gordon-Levitt taken right after he really smashed into the back window of a taxi during the end credits, you can see that even in injury they were laughing about it and having a great time. For a considerable amount of its 91-minute running time, I was too.

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Monday, August 20, 2012

These Indie Kids With Their Surreal Anti-Rom Coms…

This summer has been thankfully free of commercial romantic comedies.

There haven’t been any brightly-lit Kate Hudson or Jennifer Aniston vehicles in which they keep the Meg Ryan rom com fire going with the time-tested true-love-wins-in-the-end formula that I’ve been aware of.

There hasn’t even been a contender for all-star ensemble rom com like last year’s sleeper hit CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE.

But hold on, that’s at the multiplexes.

What about at the art houses? Well, there are a couple of movies that, at first glance, look like rom coms. Look a little closer, and you’ll see that they are anti-rom coms, that is, comical love stories, but layered with cynicism, realism, and existentialism. And then there’s the surreal element.

Like in first-time director Colin Trevorrow’s SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED from a screenplay by first-time screenwriter Derek Connoly, now playing at the Rialto in Raleigh.

Aubrey Plaza, from the very funny NBC show Parks and Recreation, stars as a jaded young woman interning at a magazine in Seattle (Seattle Magazine, duh), who comes off like a spiritual descendant of Daniel Clowe’s Enid from both the comic book and movie GHOST WORLD. Plaza’s father (Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Jeff Garlin) thinks she’s in a funk (he embarrassingly thinks she’s a virgin too), and encourages her to get out and be social. So far, so rom com.

It veers off that well trodden trail, when our surly sarcastic heroine jumps at the chance to work on a story pitched by Jake M. Johnson (from the Fox Zooey Deschanel show New Girl) about what’s behind a classified ad that states: “Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed.”

Plaza discovers that a scruffy Mark Duplass (who appears to be in every other indie film this year) wrote the ad, so she applies for the time traveling companion position. Meanwhile, it turns out that the smarmy Johnson, who at least owns up to being a crass jerk, just took on the assignment so he could hook up with an old girlfriend in the not-as-interesting-but-still-fine subplot.

Sure, it’s predictable that Plaza will come out of her shell and fall for Duplass, but the snappy script and tuned-in tone make this an endearing film that never tries to be too hip or self consciously pop culture savvy, despite having a few STAR WARS references in it. It can’t help but have some rom com story beats, but its naturalistic rhythms subvert them. That’s very impressive, considering the plot hinging on whether or not some odd guy can actually time travel.

Less successful in its rom com subversion, is Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s RUBY SPARKS, now playing at the Colony Theater  in North Raleigh. 

Its surreal premise is simple: a young writer (Paul Dano) writes about his dream girl (literally from his dreams) and she comes to life in the form of the energetic red-headed Zoe Kazan (who wrote the screenplay).

If Dano writes that she speaks French - she speaks French, if he writes that she can’t live without him - she freaks out if he lets go of her hand, and so on. “You can make her do anything you want…for men everywhere - tell me you’re not gonna let that go to waste” Dano’s brother (Chris Messina, another indie actor who gets around a bit) implores of him.

Dano’s attempts to control her always backfire, which, of course, is the point, but RUBY SPARKS is maybe half of a good movie. A sleazy Steve Coogan as Dano’s agent bit seems like a conventional concession, and the film’s conclusion spastically beats its message into the ground - or Dano’s apartment floor as Kazan frantically jumps up and down yelling that he’s a genius, because that’s what he’s typing her to do. Okay, we get it.

It’s sort of ADAPTATION meets (500) DAYS OF SUMMER, but it’s not fleshed out enough to really hit its marks. Still, the attempt to comment on the egos and expectations in a relationship as well as rom com tropes (though I’m not sure it’s really the refutation of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl ideal that the A.V. Club claims) does yields some satisfaction, and it’s nice to see apt cameos by Anne Benning, and Elliot Gould.

It’s worth noting that one of the only movies close to a conventional commercial rom com this summer is David Frankel’s HOPE SPRINGS, starring Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones as an old married couple trying to get their groove back. That’s a nice little film that doesn’t need any sci-fi gimmickry or supernatural shenanigans in order to charm.

But if the idea of seeing A-list geezers getting it on puts you off, and you’re willing to give a surreal anti-rom com made by indie kids a try, go with SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED - it certainly has the edge because nobody would ever call Aubrey Plaza a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Not if they know what’s good for them.

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Thursday, August 16, 2012

OUR SCHOOL: an Important Work for American Film Students

This is a guest post written by Claude Kerven, currently the Chair of the 1-Year Filmmaking Program atthe New York Film Academy, where he teaches directing and screenwriting.

The subject of the Roma is surprisingly foreign to millions of Americans, college-age people included. While there are an estimated one million Romani people in the U.S., the communities are geographically dispersed, subscribe to a variety of religions and are not fully integrated into the general population.

The knowing exposure Americans can get to “Gypsies,” outside of the mischaracterizations in popular culture, are rare. Roma and non-Roma may shop at the same stores, sometimes go to the same schools or even attend the same churches, but the identities of Romani Americans are not readily apparent to others.

With the release and distribution of OUR SCHOOL (2011, Dirs. Mona Nicoara & Miruna Coca-Cozma), some of that unfamiliarity can be diminished. Likely, it is the American film students who have been the first to see the documentary, perhaps for its style of reporting as much as for the cinematography. 

It is the nature of students of all the arts, film as much as acting and even animation, to look outside their culture and country, to discover those things that fascinate them.

In general, film students seek foreign experiences as a matter of course. Students at the New York Film Academy in New York have the option of studying in 13 other locations on four continents: Florence and Paris, Moscow, Abu Dhabi (UAE), Mumbai and New Delhi, Beijing, Shanghai and Kyoto, and Queensland (Australia). With certificate as well as degree programs, NYFA film school enables an easy, as-you-like-it approach to studying abroad, and many take advantage of those opportunities.

This may be of more importance to American-raised students who are studying film and the performing arts in general (based in Manhattan, the student population is as diverse as the city of New York). The predominance of American-created culture sometimes means that art forms, performers, techniques and story lines tend to be largely homegrown.

Foreign film “art house” theaters are found only in large cities and some university towns, far less than the ubiquitous suburban multiplex theaters that carry Hollywood blockbuster movies that have built-in mass appeal.

The nature of art students, including those involved in the cinematic arts, is to find and study work that comes from outside that culture.

For those who can afford it, a semester abroad remains an important part of the educational experience. But as higher education has become increasingly expensive, it is films themselves that provide the kind of exposure that many otherwise lack.

OUR SCHOOL may tell a story familiar to those who know the history of civil rights in the 20th century. But to younger viewers, even America’s history with discrimination is something they might not be familiar with. Until they see it on the small or silver screen,
the concept remains foreign – no matter which country the actual events happened in or where it was filmed.

- Claude Kerven

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Monday, August 13, 2012

Taking A Look Back At The Michael Cera Era

Remember the Michael Cera era? What, you don't?

C’mon, surely you remember that period, just a few years back, when it seemed like there was a new Michael Cera movie out every few months. Cera, who first captured our hearts as George-Michael Bluth on the cult TV show Arrested Development in the early to mid-aughts, was in a steady stream of movies, basically playing the same awkward yet lovable geek again and again.

The era began with the huge high school hit SUPERBAD in 2007, and ran through the audience favorites JUNO and NICK & NORA'S INFINITE PLAYLIST, but started to wane when the caveman comedy YEAR ONE, which teamed Cera with Jack Black, crapped out in the summer of 2009.

Then the era officially ended when Edgar Wright’s action comedy SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD, starring Cera as the title character, released in August of 2010, and flopped despite basking in fanboy praise when it premiered at Comic-Con earlier that summer. Cera hasn’t had a substantial role in a major movie since.

Feels like he just schlepped out of our lives.Around that time, rumors were swirling about a possible Arrested Development movie in the works. All the original cast members were said to be up for it, but Cera, remarked about the project: “I'd possibly play, I'd possibly put the script in my shredder.” Why would he have to go back to being a Bluth, when his movie career was riding so high?

In an episode of the NBC comedy drama Parenthood a season or so back, the rebellious teen Amber (Mae Whitman, also a Cera co-star in “Scott Pilgrim”) is helping her cousin Haddie (Sarah Ramos) with an alibi so she can go on a date unknown to her mother. They rehearse a scenario concerning seeing a Michael Cera movie - Haddie: “Well, I mean, it was okay. But Michael Cera was obviously hilarious.” “Obviously hilarious and cute,” Amber adds.

Even though that was only 2011, that dialogue has really dated. I mean, by then we had all moved on to Jesse Eisenberg. There were no new Cera movies in a multiplex near those girls anymore, right?

Cera himself addressed this when he went on the TBS talk show Conan not long after this, and joked about being constantly mistaken for Eisenberg. Conan O’Brien and Cera laughed about this, then when the next guest, Modern Family’s Julie Bowen, came out she said “Hey, you were great in ‘Social Network’” to Cera. Later O’Brien got a big laugh when he announced that the big guest the next night would be, yep, Jesse Eisenberg, to the comic frustration of Cera.

Tellingly, when Eisenberg visited Conan the following evening, Cera wasn’t brought up at all. Somebody put the kibosh on that. Perhaps Eisenberg, or his agent, beforehand said ‘no Michael Cera jokes, huh?’ If that was the case it sounds like a reasonable request to me.

Apparently Cera decided against the shredder option because he is currently reprising his role as George Michael Bluth in the fourth season of Arrested Development now filming in LA.

Whether or not this new Netflix-produced reunion series (a movie will reportedly follow) will put Cera back in the spotlight it just won’t be the same as his first time around.

I am reminded of a classic episode of The Simpsons, “Bart Gets Famous,” in which Bart Simpson has a burst of fame for saying the same catch phrase over and over. After his fame fades, Marge shows him a box of Bart memorabilia she’s collected (hats, dolls, posters, etc.) and says: “I saved these for you, Bart. You’ll always have them to remind you of the time when you were the whole world's special little guy.”

You can celebrate the Cera era, when he was the whole world’s special little guy, at the Colony Theater in North Raleigh on Wednesday night, August 15th, with a screening of an original 35 mm print of SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD at 7:30 p.m.

SCOTT PILGRIM joins the Colony’s Cool Classics series which means it joins the ranks of such beloved film fare as LABYRINTH, THE PRINCESS BRIDE, EVIL DEAD II, PULP FICTION, and annual showings of THE BIG LEBOWSKI.

So take that Jesse Eisenberg!

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Friday, August 10, 2012

THE CAMPAIGN: Underwritten But Not Unfunny

Opening today at nearly every multiplex in Raleigh and the Triangle area:

THE CAMPAIGN (Dir. Jay Roach, 2012)

With Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis pitted against each other as political rivals, you’re bound to get at least a few big laughs, right?

Hell, with the state of comedy movies these days I’d settle for a steady series of mild chuckles, which means I’m settling with THE CAMPAIGN.

Set in my home state of North Carolina, but filmed in Louisiana, this film features Ferrell as a vulgar, womanizing, full-of-BS incumbent congressman from the fictitious 14th District of N.C. who is surprised to be challenged by an effeminate, sweater-clad, pug-loving small-town tour guide (obviously Galifianakis).

SNL’s Jason Sudeikis is Ferrell’s level-headed campaign manager who can’t control his candidate (“What are you pointing at? A book of bad ideas?”), while Galifianakis is assigned Dylan McDermott (who seems to be channeling Richard Gere’s slick beyond belief character in POWER), to be his ruthless advisor.

Dirt is flung, reputations are smeared, and a baby is punched in the face - in slow motion, no less. Through all the debates and negative ads, the comedy stays at the same level of amusing, no unexpected gags or overly hilarious lines; just two funnymen fulfilling their base quota of funny.

I giggled a lot more at Galifianakis than I did Ferrell, as Ferrell is his all too typical dumbass with a hidden heart archetype, and although Galifianakis’ character could be seen as just a slight variation on his DUE DATE shtick, he still made me laugh more.

Political satire is very hard to pull off, which is probably why screenwriters Chris Henchy andShawn Harwell (with story help from long-time Ferrell collaborator Adam McKay, who also co-produced) didn’t even try to go very deep with this material. They kept away from actual commentary or pointed digs at our current political process, and went with the cheap goofball angle. Which is fine, but the real election year shenanigins we're going through now is much funnier than this.

Only in the case of two power-mad election-buying brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd), who are behind Galifianakis’ run for office so they can in-source factory workers from China, do they come close to anything hard-hitting, but they don’t go very far with that either.

When one of the funniest things in your movie is Karen Maruyama as an Asian maid who is paid extra by Galifianakis’ father (an uncomfortable-looking Brian Cox) to talk like a Southern mammy, it’s heavily apparent that sharp political parody isn’t really your goal.

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Hard To Get On Board With Bourne Without Bourne

Opening today at nearly every multiplex in Raleigh and the Triangle area:

THE BOURNE LEGACY (Dir. Tony Gilroy, 2012)

In retrospect, maybe it was a mistake for me to re-watch all of the Bourne movies recently in preparation for the new one.

To have those three fine fast-paced films so fresh in my brain, hurt more than helped for me to buy into a fourth film featuring neither star Matt Damon, nor director Paul Greengrass.

Especially when the connective tissue is that THE BOURNE LEGACY takes place during the events of the previous film, THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM (2007), with return appearances by David Strathairn, Scott Glenn, Albert Finney, and Joan Allen, all wrapped up in the vast conspiracy that’s a lot more confusing this time around.

“Jason Bourne was just the tip of the iceberg,” says series newcomer Edward Norton, as the corrupt CIA bigwig in charge of, well, everything, to enforce the continuity, but it rings hollow as it was a line said in the last movie.

It’s the justification that co-writer and director Tony Gilroy, who was the screen-writer of the other Bournes, and his brother Dan, give us to expand the series’ narrative, that the network of entangled secret government programs has various agents in the field, and here’s another one who is in confused conflict with his superiors. And his adventures are just as exciting so let's put up the Bourne banner for him too!

Jeremy Renner, racking up his third franchise after MISSION IMPOSSIBLE and THE AVENGERS, is that other agent, who has been genetically enhanced by a regimen of little green and blue pills prescribed by a top-security scientist played by Rachel Weisz, who also doesn’t know the full scope of what’s going on.

Count me with her - despite the fact that this is by far the talkiest Bourne, a lot of the exposition about the clusterf*** of evil operations just goes in one ear and out the other, as it’s obvious the film is more about its fight scenes and ginormous motorcycle chase climax through the streets of Manila, Philippines than its perplexing plot mechanics.

The stoic Renner, who is just as indestructible as his predecessor, has some impressive moves - one unbroken shot of him running/climbing up the side of a house, jumping through a window and shooting somebody might be the physical highlight of the movie.

Trouble is the film is too drawn out - it takes a while to get going as it cuts back and forth between Renner training in the arctic, and the well-groomed evil old men in the corridors of power trying to get a handle on what Bourne brought down on them. Then when some momentum is built, the film stalls then starts again, then stalls…

Renner and Weisz on the run does amount to a few thrills, the slick stylish look of the film (provided by master cinematographer Robert Elswit) is attractive, and the fiercely focused performance by Norton as the stop-at-nothing antagonist certainly has its merits, but Bourne without Bourne just doesn’t cut it.

This errant adaptation of the first of Eric Van Lustbader's continuation of the late Robert Ludlum's Bourne novels doesn't have enough action to satisfy action fans, and the project never quite gels plot-wise.

THE BOURNE LEGACY isn’t a boring or bad movie, it’s just not inspired enough to get it up to par with the rest of the series.

Although Damon and Greengrass wanted to make another Bourne, maybe they should be glad they got out when they did. The Gilroy brothers - a third brother, John Gilroy, edited the film - seem to be tapped out on this material.

After watching all four films in the last week, I know I am.

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Streep and Jones rekindle romance in HOPE SPRINGS

Opening today in Raleigh and the Triangle area:

HOPE SPRINGS (David Frankel, 2012)

A frumpy Meryl Streep and a grumpy Tommy Lee Jones, as a long-timed married couple whose marriage has lost its spark, are both excellent in this film that really shouldn’t be mistaken for a oldster rom com.

At first, it can seem simple-minded, both drama and comedy-wise, to see Streep failing to get any action from her coldly set-in-his-ways husband Jones, who sleeps in a separate room, completely oblivious to his wife’s advances.

However, more and more, as it follows Streep through the motions of her passion-less existence, Vanessa Taylor’s screenplay has a good brain on its shoulders about these being real relatable people, and not caricatures armed with one-liners.

So to save their marriage, Streep signs her and Jones up for a week of couples’ therapy with a famous sex therapist (Steve Carrell) in the town of the title in Maine. Jones is resistant to leave their home in Omaha, but catches up with Streep at the last minute on the plane. “I hope you’re happy now” he says, and, like in a few other instances in the film, I swear Streep gives the camera a knowing look.

Because, you know, it’s Steve Carrell, I kept thinking he was going to steer the movie into different comic territory, but he plays the role completely straight. Carrell’s soft-spoken character is vague with no back story, yet figures in nicely with the very spare cast.

Elizabeth Shue has what amounts to a cameo as a bartender that chats up Streep when the couple spends a day apart, in a scene that tells us ‘hey, everybody has the same problems.’ For Streep’s benefit Shue asks for a show of her patrons’ hands: “Who in here is not having sex?” Of course, everybody’s hands go up.

Yes, bits like that make this come off like a big screen sitcom at times, and the film does get goofy with too much oral sex humor (there’s a movie theater scene that should’ve been deleted), but the writing is truthful about aging relationships, and there’s a undeniable warmth throughout.

Enough to make one ignore the safe choices on the soundtrack (Annie Lennox, Van Morrison, Lenny Kravitz, Al Green, etc.), and the Nancy Meyers-ish trappings, and take in a couple of ace actors in a small simple story about a couple of 60-year olds rekindling their romance.

If that doesn’t appeal to you, there’s plenty of CGI-ed spectacle with cartoon characters out there this summer that probably will.

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Saturday, August 04, 2012

The TOTAL RECALL remake really ain’t right

TOTAL RECALL (Dir. Len Wiseman, 2012)

With its dark rainy dystopian cityscape full of video-billboards, flying cars, cyberpunk people with neon umbrellas, and Asian architecture, one could be forgiven for thinking in the first five minutes that this is a remake of a different Philip K. Dick adaptation: BLADE RUNNER.

But then what little plot there is kicks in and we are stuck inside this big over-caffeinated mess of a movie that’s a much looser take on the 1966 short story (“We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”) than the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenneger/Paul Verhoeven version.

In this one, which takes place in 2084 (the same year the ’90 one was), Colin Farrell plays Doug Quaid, a robot factory assembly line worker married to Kate Beckinsale, who decides to give a memory-implanting service, the Rekall company, a whirl.

Things get all screwy and the secret agent vacation he’s purchasing reveals that he actually is a secret agent named Hauser, a bad ass who didn’t even know he was (see: Jason Bourne) that can kick the asses of legions of robo-cops.

So from there it’s essentially a bunch of high octane fight and chase sequences tied together by the thin thread of what used to be a cool sci-fi scenario.

Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston livens things up a bit, but his role as the evil Prime Minister who is after Farrell is as generically written as every other element here. Of course, Cranston has a convoluted political plan to, uh, let’s just say to rule the planet and become the all-being master of time, space and dimension. Yeah, let’s go with that.

Jessica Biel, who obviously has the same hair dresser as Beckinsale, who is just here to add more sexy acrobatics to this only action-minded atrocity.

A major sequence that features a chase through a ginormous elevator system made of accelerating cubicles gets close to being exciting, but the clutter of fast-acting CGI and overabundance of washed out looking backgrounds kept me from being in the moment with the characters.

To be fair, Farrell does a good job with what he’s given. He’s a guy that gets more interestingly nuanced as he gets older - I really hope to see him in something more interesting soon.

The humorless nature of this movie is disheartening because the 1990 original had a satisfying satirical spark to it, and it had the smarts to keep the sleaziness at bay until the second half on Mars.

This one doesn’t go to Mars, but this starts off sleazy - for example the infamous three-breasted prostitute (yeah, no way they could leave her out) is brought out much earlier. Why wait, right?

One of the biggest laughs in the whole movie was in the first few seconds when the name of one of the production companies appeared: Original Film. Yeah, as if!

Never thought I’d laud a over 2 decades old somewhat schlocky Schwarzegger movie so much, but before this new Wiseman-helmed waste - the Verhoeven version wasn’t close to being a classic.

After seeing this though, it sure as hell looks like one.

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