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Column Fri May 01 2009
X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Lymelife, Tyson, Sita Sings the Blues & The Merry Gentleman
X-Men Origins: Wolverine
It pains me to report that the first official film of the summer movie season doesn't even quite reach the level of so-so. Somehow actor Hugh Jackman, director Gavin Hood, and whoever else stepped in with the intention of making Wolverine a better, more exciting work, have instead created a film that is a patchwork plot populated by characters that we never get to know or care about. Remember when Wolverine was arguably the most interesting character in any of the X-Men film? I'm not sure what happened to that dude. What this film consists of is character after character trying to out-badass each other by looking meaner or dressing cooler than the next guy. The Black Eyed Peas' Will.I.Am in cowboy attire was more than I could take.
But let's put aside for a second the fact that many of these characters don't even belong in the same movie together because they never existed in the same timeframe in the comic books. Let's just look at what is here as a stand-alone piece. We begin in 1845, young Logan and young Victor (the boy who would grow up to be Sabertooth) were brothers. There's a strange and seemingly unnecessary sequence in which Logan is sick and the man he believes to be his father is trying to nurse him back to health. Then he finds out a different man is his father. If someone can explain why this is important, you're a better geek than me. Logan and Victor grow up together, and because they both possess incredibly healing powers, the aging process makes it appear that they never grow old; they do, they just grow old in very slow motion. Despite their being Canadians, they fight in the U.S. Civil War, both World Wars, and the Vietnam War, and it's clear that Victor (played as a savage adult by Liev Schreiber, one of the film's few genuine highlights) is evolving into a blood-thirsty animal, while Logan must work increasingly hard to keep Victor from entering into some kind of berserker rage.
The origin story shows the two men get work from a super-secret branch of the U.S. military that apparently has no rules. Other mutants are on the team, including Ryan Reynolds as the wisecracking Deadpool, maybe the only really interesting supporting character of the bunch, and naturally he's on screen maybe 10 minutes. But stay tuned until after the end credits why Reynolds might take such a small role in Wolverine. I was also kind of digging Kevin Durand as The Blob, but again, the guy barely registers in the plot. The twisted mastermind behind the team, and the eventual changes he offers Logan in order to get revenge on Victor for killing his girlfriend, is General William Stryker (Danny Huston, and played in later X-Men films by Brian Cox). He provides Logan the chance to become virtually indestructible by lacing his skeletal system with an impossible-to-destroy metal. Eventually the newly dubbed Wolverine goes against Sabertooth, and they claw the shit out of each other.
One of the problems I have with Wolverine is that it doesn't properly align itself with the first X-Men movie. Does it take place 10 years earlier? Fifteen or 20? The presence of a teenage Cyclops in the film, as well as an ill-placed cameo (that actually might make some people laugh) indicates a certain timeframe. But the equipment all looks so modern that even that assumption might be way off. One of the biggest disappointments of the film was Taylor Kitsch's portrayal of fan favorite Gambit. His Cajun accent is weak, and something about Gambit's power (to energize inanimate objects — including his favorite: a deck of cards) doesn't translate particularly well to film. He's throwing playing cards, for god's sake, and sometimes they go boom. Not much to it, really.
Part of the film's problem is that this doesn't really capture Wolverine at a particularly interesting time in his long life. That may seem like a ridiculous statement, but watching a character go from being ambivalent about his work to ambivalent with a side of moral conscience isn't that interesting, and Jackman doesn't seem that interested in acting as he does flexing his muscles and showing off his ass. Far more compelling is Schreiber, who is allowed to fully embrace his darkest elements and animal ferocity. I had a real blast watching him growing increasingly frustrated with having to hold back on military missions to being allowed to cut loose and kill innocents just to make a point.
The relationship between the brothers Logan and Vincent is meant to be the core element of this tale, but basically what happens when they're in a scene together is Wolverine yelling, "Victooooor!!!" and then Sabertooth snarls and jumps around with his naturally extended talons. The fight scenes are OK, especially one that appears to be atop the stack of a nuclear power plant. But the plot is so filled with both holes and unfinished threads. Why would Stryker spend hundreds of millions of dollars to beef up Wolverine's bones and then turn around and want to kill him? And I found myself asking these slightly obvious questions over and over again while viewing Wolverine. I was even in the mood for good escapist action entertainment; what I got instead was an absolute mess. I was a holdout even before I went into this; I thought it might actually be good. I'm man enough to admit my mistake.
Ghosts of Girlfriends Past
You may want to sit down in anticipation of what I'm going to say next, but Ghosts of Girlfriends Past is a lot funnier, more decadent, and charming than I ever would have guessed. That said, it still has many of the major problems that most Hollywood romantic comedies have today, but they are tempered with some better-than-average performances from a couple of the supporting players and taking full advantage of the charms of Matthew McConaughey. And why wouldn't he take a role like Conner Mead? The man is a portrait photographer to the stars, with a reputation for getting women out of their clothes in front of and behind the camera. Hell, 75 percent of this movie is women throwing themselves at Conner and telling him or each other how hot the guy is. McConaughey has played characters like this before, but I don't recall him doing so with such abandon and a willingness to look like a absolute pig. One favorite early scene is Conner breaking up with three women at once via conference call.
The setting for the film is the wedding of Conner's brother (Breckin Meyer) at the estate of the brothers' late Uncle Wayne. Most of the bridesmaids have slept with Conner over the years, the bride (Lacy Chabert) is a nervous wreck, and Jenny, the woman who holds the title of Conner's one true love, is on hand to complicate everything for the noted philanderer. Now I'll admit, I never really got Jennifer Garner, and this film doesn't really help her case as being a strong actress or a great beauty, but I'll give credit where it's due. McConaughey does such a convincing job pining for her that I started to buy into her relevance in his life and mine, if only for a couple of hours.
It goes without saying that suspension of believe is a big part of this film since Ghosts of Girlfriends Past adapts the basic premise of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, and turns it into a story about believing in love rather than the holidays. First off, the ghost of Uncle Wayne (Michael Douglas, looking like Robert Evans and absolutely relishing in the skeeviness of playing one of the world's great womanizers). Almost every line this guy delivers is not only funny but also on some terrible level true. He tells Conner that three ghosts will visit him during the night before his brother's wedding (which Conner has managed to put in jeopardy in a matter of hours), and attempt to set him down the path to righteous relationship behavior and attitude. The first ghost is that of the girl Conner first had sex with in the '80s, played by the always-amusing Emma Stone (The House Bunny, Superbad). She shows Conner scenes from his life as a kid, including the death of his parents, his first meeting with Jenny, and some of the life lessons bestowed upon him by Uncle Wayne. These are some of the absolute best scenes in the film, end of story.
The middle ghost is actually Conner's personal assistant (Noureen DeWulf), who allows him to listen in on what the wedding party is saying about him while he sleeps — nothing really exciting there. The third ghost, a mute beauty that shows him why lies in store for him. If you're familiar with A Christmas Carol, you kind of know where this segment ends up.
A couple other supporting players worth mentioning including Robert Forster as the bride's ex-Marine dad, who manages to weave an ultra-bloody story about his days in Korea into his wedding toast, and Anne Archer as the bride's mother and the first of many women Conner hits on during the rehearsal dinner. Writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore have certainly improved their game since penning the god-awful Four Christmases from last year (and their upcoming film, The Hangover, looks even better). I kind of wish Ghosts has really been allowed to cut loose with some R-rated dialogue from McConaughey and Douglas, but what's here is mostly funny and functional. Director Mark Waters (Mean Girls, Just Like Heaven, The Spiderwick Chronicles) can't help but travel into the realm of physical comedy (an entire sequence built around a collapsing wedding cake just isn't that funny) and sentimentality (it is a wedding movie after all). Still, he allows his actors room to do decent work in most cases.
The real surprise here was McConaughey, who I've certainly enjoyed over the years — most recently in Tropic Thunder. He's doing something just different enough to keep me interested, while still being allowed to emit large doses of Southern charm and slick personality. Now someone explain to me why one brother has a Southern accent and the other doesn't. Perhaps another day. Ghosts of Girlfriends Past genuinely surprised me. It's not a great movie by any standards, but it is highly watchable thanks to some wonderful displays of male aggression and shameless behavior. The plain and simple fact is that I laughed quite a bit during this film, as did most of the men and women in the audience. All demographics will be satisfied to varying degrees. Put that on the poster!
I may not make any friend on Long Island with this review, but I really don't give a shit. But I am truly sick and tired of people who grew up on Long Island — working class or filthy rich — trying to convince me with their films that their lives, no matter what their station in life, were so much deeper and more miserable than the rest of us. And I say this as a fan of many of the films made featuring messed up or otherwise dysfunctional characters whose only source of trouble turns out to be growing up on Long Island. Their daddies were distant or drunks or cheating on mom; moms were self-medicating lunatics would could never get enough tension or material goods. Again, there are plenty of good or great films that are birthed from the land that's not quite New York City, but has twice as many neurotics as the Big Apple, but I'm tired of them. Or at least I will be after Lymelife finishes its run in theatre because it's pretty darned good, so my future boycott on this micro-genre will be put on hold for a bit longer.
Lymelife is about a late-'70s clan with overprotective (possibly nutzo) mom (Jill Hennessy); overworking, horny, cheating dad (Alec Baldwin); older brother in the military (Kieran Culkin); and younger, 15-year-old brother Scott (Rory Culkin), whose loneliness and frustration at his parents' bile-fueled arguments are tearing his brain apart. I've always thought Rory was the best actor of the Culkin bunch, and this is the best work I've ever seen him do. Kieran is no slouch either, and he pulls off a remarkable, alternating combination of sweet and vicious during the course of this film that actually made me see him as a strong adult actor for the first time. And the brotherly interaction, shockingly enough, feels pretty genuine. A playful smack to the face while driving, the constant ribbing, it all seemed totally authentic.
The family's best friends are a family who are of a lesser status than Baldwin's. Cynthia Nixon play's his co-worker and mistress; a scarily subdued Timothy Hutton is her husband who has been rendered mildly brain damaged thanks to the long-term effects of Lyme disease; and their daughter Adrianna, who is played remarkably well by Emma Roberts, who has been doing pretty much nothing but tween films until now. (Remember Nancy Drew or Hotel for Dogs? Me either.) Here, Roberts performance is a revelation, and I hope she never makes another young adult movie again. Even though her character claims to be a virgin, she's eager not to be and maintains a steady stream of off-color statements about sex and other very adult topics. And because she just turned 18 in February, I can say that she does all of these things while looking extremely cute. (Oh wait, that means she was how old when she filmed this? Never mind!)
The core of Lymelife is the friendship and ill-timed attempts at a love match between the younger Culkin and Roberts. It's easy to believe these two as best friends, and a solid couple despite her crushes on bad boys and his overblown jealous behavior. The interactions between the parents are extremely well acted but don't seem as unique and special as the great interplay between the teens. Writer-director Derek Martini never quite reaches the ridiculously awkward levels of suburban angst as Noah Baumbach, but it's pretty damn close, and in many places this film is a lot more believable as a family drama. People yell, cry, publicly embarrass each other, you name it, because you've seen it all before. But because Martini seems to care about his characters so much, that they almost speak for themselves even without much dialogue. Lymelife is a stunner to be sure, but a stunner in the right direction. Now if I could just find a way to stop these young filmmakers to stop basing these kinds of stories around people from this relatively small corner of the world, my life would be in a better place today. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
I genuinely can't remember the last time I felt as torn about a documentary's subject matter as I did after watch director James (Fingers, The Pick-Up Artist, Black and White) Toback's penetrating and sometimes scarily intimate profile of former boxing champion Mike Tyson — he of the rape conviction, ear biting and bas-ass face tattoo. It's clear from the extensive interviews that Toback conducts that Tyson, now in the early 40s, is still somewhat confused and torn about his past, and he seems somewhat eager to set the record straight while still confounding us with his views on women, money, boxing, family, and his fractured state of mind.
Toback manages to find a rather unconventional way of telling his story conventionally. This is a fairly straightforward, chronological oral history of Tyson's life, told with his words only and featuring no other interviews outside of archival footage. The real sticking point for many people as to whether they even want to see this film — forgetting whether they like it or not — is Tyson's rape conviction. It made me wince to hear him refer to former beauty queen Desiree Washington (the victim) as a "despicable swine," but if you believe Tyson's version of the story, you can understand his outrage. He admits to so many other deplorable things in his life that it's hard to imagine that he'd continue lying about this incident. That's the most memorable example of how Tyson refuses to provide easy answers to any portion of his life. One moment he'll be crying about the loss of his first trainer and best friend, later he's rambling on about his sexual aggressiveness and how he has so much love to give but refuses to accept any love in return. It's as scary as it is pathetic.
The one thing I can guarantee you about Tyson is that whatever your opinion of the man might be going into the film, odds are that it will be different after you watch it. I'm not even saying they will be better, just different. Toback's style is clear, concise and features every highlight from Tyson's mixed bag of successes and failures. I loved the handful of moments when he overlaps different portions of interview over each other, as if to indicated Tyson's slightly altered state. The man in these interviews is not the same raging fool in the older news footage, the one who would say to a sports reporter during a press conference, "I will fuck you until you love me, faggot!" That was the old Mike Tyson. This new one is easy to listen to — despite his mangling of the English language — and there's a part of me that wants to give this aging athlete a chance at redemption. Then there's the part of me with a functional long-term memory. But Tyson never shies away from bad publicity, like the kind his ex-wife Robin Givens provided him during a pre-divorce, joint interview with Barbara Walters. There is nothing he brushes off as a subject he's not comfortable discussing, and as a result Tyson is filled with a man in full contradiction mode on some subjects, while also getting it so right when it comes to his kids and second ex-wife.
Perhaps the greatest moment in the film comes in an interview clips of Tyson immediately after what was to be his final fight, in which he admits to taking the fight for the sole purpose of paying bills. When he tells the reporter that he has lost the fire to box, he does so not as a man defeated but as a man relieved that he's finally ready to move on with whatever comes next for this man who has been referred to as a beast or animal, a rage-a-holic, a man who belongs in a cage. One thing I'm pretty sure of is that Tyson is a man who responds to his environment. When he allows himself to be surrounded by conniving management and promoters (such as Don King), he became devious. But when he is surrounded by good people, he shines. In the end, I think Toback's film does more harm than good to Tyson and certainly to us. But odds are you won't have a clue how to look upon Mike Tyson, which in no way is a discouragement to this extremely important film. Quite the contrary, you should attempt to see this on a big screen. Downtown audiences will have to suffer in silence watching this movie, since it opens at the AMC Pipers Alley theaters, the bane of my existence. But it's worth it to see such a bold and vengeful piece of great filmmaking. Check this one out, even if sports in general and boxing in particular aren't that night.
Sita Sings the Blues
One of the sheer joys and true discoveries for me at Ebertfest last weekend was director Nina Paley's magnificently celebratory animated work Sita Sings the Blues, a film that has been making the festival circuit for a while now. But the best things about it is that you can watch the whole movie... for free... right now... LEGALLY! More on that later.
Sita is several different but thematically similar stories of devotion, heartbreak and rejuvenation. But the real fun of the film is Paley's blending of different animation styles, use of era-inappropriate music, and her undeniable sense of humor in the face of suffering. Now, I'm going to try to explain a little of the story(ies), and then you're going to go see the film anyway. Paley actually recommends seeing the film as a 35mm print because the sound mix is far more dynamic, but honestly, she doesn't care how you watch it as long as you watch it and tell your friends to watch it too. Go to thirteen.org and you can either stream it or download it. It's well worth it. Back to the movie...
Part of the film focuses on the retelling of Paley's own emotional journey with her now-ex-husband. The young and passionate couple lived in San Francisco until he gets a job that takes him to India for six months. She stays behind, absolutely heartbroken, awaiting his return. When his contract is extended for an addition year, he suggests that she move to India, but by this time, he has grown distant, and when she returns to the states briefly, he tells her in an email not to come back. Ouch! Paley's story is cleverly interwoven with shadow-puppet narrators telling the ancient Indian tale of Ramayana and a devoted woman named Sita (animated with curves that would have made Russ Meyer proud). The shadow puppets are a riot, since their voices are clearly those of three Indian-Americans attempting to remember the details of this famous story, often getting the details wrong and constantly correcting each other. Paley simply captures a three-way conversation, and turned it into a comedic history lesson. Not surprisingly, the tale itself is also animated in an ancient Indian style featuring fierce demons and spirits, human characters with blue skin, and lovely women who value purity over all other things.
But the most extraordinary thing that Paley accomplishes are musical interludes featuring Sita singing about her love, pain and devotion. But rather than fill the theater with sitars, cymbals, and looping voices, the voice that comes out of Sita (animated using Flash for these segments) is that of 1920s singing legend Annette Hanshaw. You may not know who Hanshaw is or what her voice sounds like, but I guarantee after seeing Sita Sings the Blues, you'll want to own her recordings (good luck finding them; her masters were destroyed decades ago and the only record of her work are surviving 78s in the hands of record collectors around the world). This mixing of jazz-era songs and Paley's stunning visual style might sound odd in theory, but the end result is magnificent and perfectly stunning.
As radical as Paley's distribution methods may seem (you can actually download a file of the movie so large that it can be transferred to 35mm — assuming you have the money to do so), her film relies on the most basic of premises. She never forgets to be inventive and wildly entertaining. Paley's designs for the human characters are often as demented as some of her creature creations. And the film's creative visuals will have you watching, mouth agape, as you allow wave after wave of awe-inspiring beauty to flow into your eager eyes. There are few things in the film world right now — maybe ever — as much fun and fantastic as Sita Sings the Blues. It opens for a weeklong engagement as the Gene Siskel Film Center beginning today.
The Merry Gentleman
I openly and unapologetically love films like this — quiet, contemplative, films that aren't about much more than spending time with fairly interesting people in transitional times. Often films such as these have a sweetness to them that you could, by definition it seems, never find in mainstream productions, if for no other reason than the bigger studio films never take the time to get to know their characters. The Merry Gentleman, directed by and co-starring Michael Keaton, begins with Kate (played by the lovely Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald, using her real accent) leaving her abusive husband (Bobby Cannavale) for a city that looks a lot like Chicago. Rather than simply hide from the world, Kate gets an office job and takes small steps at being social with her coworkers. The men in her workplace flirt with her a bit, but she keeps them at a distance, deciding for the time being to only befriend and hang out with a female officemate.
One night leaving the office, Kate looks up and sees a man standing on the ledge of the building across the street. Just as it appears he's about to jump, she screams and he falls backwards onto the roof of the building and out of sight. The man was actually Keaton's Frank Logan, a professional hitman who has just killed a man and is feeling suicidal. Because Kate never gets a good look at the guy, she's not much help to the cops in solving the murder or in identifying the potential jumper. Frank deliberately plants himself outside Kate's apartment to see if she recognizes him, and instead ends up helping her lug her Christmas tree up to her unit. The two form an unlikely friendship, perhaps built upon a shared sense of being at the end of their respective ropes but deciding to give life one more shot. Frank is a bit of a brooder, but it's his strength and protective nature that appeal to Kate, especially when her husband finds her. He claims he's discovered Jesus and wants to get back together to start a new life. She wants none of it; Frank takes her cue. One of the most interesting relationships in the film is between Kate and the cop investigating the hit. They go on one particularly awkward date that sours things quickly, but their interactions don't stop there.
Even if you don't like The Merry Gentleman, there's no denying that it's a stark and beautiful work. Each shot is carefully constructed to the point where you could freeze the movie at any point and frame the image on the wall. I found myself mesmerized at times just watching how lovely each scene is. But I also got lost in the quiet desperation of Kate and Frank, neither of whom go through massive transformations during the course of their time together. Instead they draw just enough courage and spirit from each other to keep moving forward. Whether the two end up together isn't especially important; what matters is that they become better, more fortified people as a result of their time together. I can believe that far easier than a whirlwind romance or some such nonsense. I know there is supposed to be some level of suspense generated from not knowing if Frank is going to kill this witness to his crime, but I never relied on that to propel the movie forward. It doesn't seem nearly as important as giving these characters room to breathe and grow. There's a dignity to The Merry Gentleman that won me over, and I think you'll find it inspiring. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.