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Column Fri Aug 07 2009

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Julie & Julia, Paper Heart, Adam and A Perfect Getaway

Hey everyone. I just wanted to toss in a couple notes before we move on to the reviews regarding some recent headlines that have moved across my desk in the last couple of days.

For those of you who were at my Ain't It Cool screening of Public Enemies at the end of June, I told the very true story of how John Landis' The Blues Brothers and Michael Mann's Thief were the primary reasons when I was in high school that I wanted to move to Chicago. When the summer of 1986 came around, I had just graduated high school and was mentally preparing for my move from a suburb of Washington, D.C., to Northwestern University in an immediate northern suburb of Chicago. In June 1986, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, written and directed by the recently departed John Hughes, came out, and I went from planning a big move to Chicago to actually having a blueprint for some of the things I wanted to do when I got there. Chicago stopped being a big, scary city and became a place where I was going to have fun for a very long time. A year or so later, my all-time favorite Hughes film was released, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, an absolute holiday standard in my house every Thanksgiving.

Feel free to go to a thousand other sites to get a complete list of all the movies John Hughes directed, wrote, or otherwise had a hand in. But favorite films and favorite directors aren't about lists; they're about the personal connection you have to that person's work. And these two films hold a very special place in my life, as do many of Hughes' works. I vividly recalled seeing The Breakfast Club and immediately slotting in my friends into the different roles and types presented in that film. It also made me realize that it was OK for someone under the age of 18 to have grown-up thoughts. Even reading the David Bowie lyrics that open that movie made me shutter and think, This filmmaker knows me: "And these children that you spit on / As they try to change their worlds / Are immune to your consultations / They're quite aware of what they're going through." Indeed.

The far better news of the last couple of days is that those moronic TV personalities Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz, who replaced the Tribune's Michael Phillips and the Sun-Times' Richard Roeper as the hosts of the syndicated "At the Movies" film review show, have been unceremonious shown the motherfucking door. Phillips returns to the balcony, this time with New York Times lead critic A.O. Scott, who spent a great deal of time in Ebert's chair when Richard Roeper was still having a rotation of guest critics filling in for Roger. Please read my slightly more extended account of the firing and my response to the new hosts at Ain't It Cool. And now, on with the show.


G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra


I'll admit it, I don't get people sometimes, especially people who feel compelled to tear down something they haven't even seen or someone they haven't even met. Case in point: G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, a film that almost no non-studio person on the whole planet has seen as of this writing (although apparently the studio, Paramount, has shown it to a very select few online journalists, all of whom seem to like the film to varying degrees). I guess what I don't understand is why people seem so ready, giddy in fact, to see this movie be terrible and fail. Except for Harry Knowles' rather enthusiastic review (which I will read for the first time in its entirety after I finish writing this), there has been no advance buzz on this film — positive or negative — generated by anyone who has actually seen it. Yes, the first trailer was terrible, but it's hardly the first poorly cut trailer in the history of cinema. And I actually thought the second theatrical trailer was a much stronger effort and gave me a better sense of what the film was about.

I have zero stake in seeing this movie succeed. I don't own stock in Paramount or Hasbro (as can be surmised by my pretty scathing review of the recent Transformers sequel), and I don't know a single person personally who had a hand in making G.I. Joe. I heard all the same rumors as you did about the troubled production and post-production, about Stephen Sommers getting fired after the film tested ridiculously low (the testing portion of this story I know to be 100 percent false, by the way) and then rehired. I still don't know if there's any truth to the stories about Sommers, and you know what, I couldn't give a shit. Plenty of very bad movies have been made under the best of circumstances, and loads of good movies have been made on tumultuous sets.

This is not going to be a glowing review of a flawless film. What this will be is a very good review of a movie that most critics will shit all over upon release because they didn't get to see it early, and most audiences will devour with both hands. If I were the kind of critic that rated films on a 1- to 4-star system, I'd give G.I. Joe a solid three stars. I'm not much of a fan of the big dumb action movie; I don't enjoy turning off my brain for any cinematic experience. And fortunately I didn't have to to enjoy this movie. I was a regular viewer of the old "G.I. Joe" cartoon, where this film seems to have gotten its basis, but if you'd asked me to name five characters from that show from memory before seeing the big-screen version, I wouldn't be able to do it. What I dug about the series had nothing to do with character development or intricate plot. I liked the missions, the colorful villains, the weapons, the technology, the special armored outfits for every occasion. I guess I was a bit of a military buff as a kid; I read a lot of Tom Clancy at the time as well. So shoot me. Either way, I don't think I was particularly pre-disposed to love this movie. In all honesty, when I heard they were making it, I couldn't have cared less. Director Sommors is also hit and miss in my book. I liked his earlier work on retellings of The Adventures of Huck Finn and The Jungle Book, and I was impressed with his sure-handedness on Deep Rising and The Mummy. But everything since then has been underwhelming for me.

So what is there to like in G.I. Joe? Let's start with the film's most impressive asset: the cast. By hiring a group of actors who are actually pretty much across-the-board solid actors, they are able to rise above some of the dopey dialogue. Channing Tatum (A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints), Sienna Miller (Factory Girl), an almost unrecognizable Joseph Gordon-Levitt (it doesn't help that we don't hear his actual voice for most of the film), Christopher Eccleston, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje ("Lost"), Rachel Nichols (Star Trek), Marlon Wayans (Requiem for a Dream), Jonathan Pryce and Dennis Quaid all put in pretty impressive performances that kept me glued to some of the more outrageous scenarios and sequences. And weirdly enough, I think I spotted Brendan Fraser in one early scene. I've deliberately put film titles next to some of the actors' names, in case you have trouble recalling why I refer to them as solid actors.

My love of all things gadgetry was in no way disappointed. There is some truly cool stuff on display here from both the bad guys and the good. Beginning with a nano-technology-based missiles that can destroy anything and are being transported for safe keeping as the film opens, to massive military strongholds built under the desert and the polar ice cap, there are enough blinking lights, switches, big guns, and flying machines to keep everybody happy. The body armor in G.I. Joe looks like Robocop and Iron Man had hot monkey sex all night and gave birth to these metal suits. There are explosions, vehicles flipping around in the air, more explosions, and one chase scene after another. You will be thoroughly entertained by this movie that simply never lets up on the action. For the most part, I thought the effects were solid as well, far better than I thought they'd be given Sommers' previous films (come on, the effects in Van Helsing and the second Mummy movie were god-awful).

As you might know, I'm kind of a stickler for plot, and one thing kept running through my head as I attempted to figure out the rather complex/sometimes convoluted plot of G.I. Joe: this film makes about as much sense to me as your average James Bond film, which is to say, I get most of it, and what I don't get probably doesn't matter anyway. As for my great love of some amount of character development, even in action movies, there actually is some in this movie. A few of the characters — including Baroness, Snake Eyes, Storm Shadow and Duke — are given fairly interesting backstories, something I was not expecting and something I'd like more of from some of the other characters in future Joe installments (which are set up quite nicely at the end of this first in a clear franchise bid). I'm not going to go into the plot because there are a few surprises that I don't want to bump against and ruin, but the film does indeed show us how COBRA was formed.

What's not so good about G.I. Joe? Some of the so-called plot twists are particularly difficult to figure out, and so moments that are designed to be big reveal won't exactly have you gasping for air in shock. Also, I was a little put off by Dennis Quaid's performance. I've always gotten a kick out of having him around in just about any size role in any movie, but he is barely going through the motions as General Hawk, who barks out a few orders every so often but largely adds nothing to the proceedings. Whatever you do, don't underestimate Marlon Wayans. While he does seem to take on the role of comic relief from time to time, he's actually pretty great when it comes time for ass kicking. Your entire liking or not liking of G.I. Joe may come down to whether or not you like the nano-weaponry at the heart of the threat against the planet. I thought it was fairly scary stuff, and the destruction of Paris sequence is one of the film's best.

Bottom line from me is that you shouldn't be dreading G.I. Joe. I'm not going to rush out and see it again, as Harry's headline indicates he will, but I will pay the film a serious compliment by saying I can't wait to see where Sommers and the characters take us next. Here's a crazy thought: actually go see the film before you decide whether or not to hop on the negativity bandwagon. There is a great deal to enjoy in this movie; if you don't believe me, go see for yourself.


Julie & Julia


I'm self-polarized when it comes to the works of Nora Ephron. As a writer, she's pounded out scripts like Silkwood, Heartburn, When Harry Met Sally and My Blue Heaven, and for these, you have to respect her. But as a director, she executed such travesties as Michael, Lucky Numbers, and Bewitched. Of course, she also wrote and directed Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail, which are indeed considered (for better or worse) some of the building blocks of the modern-day romantic comedies. Like I said, hit and miss. I'd heartily throw Julie & Julia in the "hit" pile; I believe Ephron achieves what she set out to do, even if she can't resist the temptation to insert false-note drama, whether it was there in real life of not.

As the film advertises, this is actually a story of two women. One story is a more traditional biography of author and cooking instructor Julia Child (Meryl Streep becomes Child instantly, and you forget that she's playing a role). The other half of the film is devoted to the more recent days of Julie Powell (Amy Adams, Streep's co-star in Doubt), an office worker in New York who wants to have a purpose in life, like many of her more successful friends seem to have. She decides to take Child's first cookbook (with more than 500 recipes) and make every recipe inside in the span of one year. She plans to track her progress on a blog, which was still a fairly new concept when these events took place. Her blog got such a large following that articles were written about her, and she even got an offer to turn her year-long adventure into a book, which she did. The construction of the film forces us to jump back and forth between the two women's tales, and Child's story almost can't help but be more fascinating and amusing.

Julia had a devoted husband, the diplomat Paul Child (Stanley Tucci, reunited with his Devil Wears Prada co-star), and has the chance to move a lot and live in many beautiful cities. While in Paris, she decides she loves French cuisine so much that she's going to enter cooking school, something that was simply never done at the time. Along the way, she meets two French writers, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle (Linda Emond and Helen Carey), who need an American's help finishing their book that attempts to teach everyday women how to make fine French food. Although Child certainly didn't have to work, her life was far from easy — she couldn't have children, she was easily bored, and her restless spirit drove her to do many new and reckless things.

Julie Powell, on the other hand, lived with her husband (Away We Go's Montreal husband Chris Messina) in a cramped apartment. The food project brings some much needed color and sensual food preparation to Julie's dull life. It's clear that she needs this project to survive and provide some balance to a job in which she has no power or decision-making abilities. Whether or not Powell was difficult on her husband during this time, one sequence where they have a prolonged argument feels entirely false. Her lunches with more successful friends also seem like they're pulled right out of a lesser film than this. I did like seeing Mary Lynn Rajskub from "24" in a couple scenes as Julie's friend who helps her out in preparation for a meal event in the cramped apartment. But just as quickly, she vanishes.

While I wouldn't go so far as to say I wish Ephron had just eliminated the modern story to make room for more Streep and Child's extremely interesting life, but when you see, for example, Jane Lynch in the Child sequences as Julia's equally gigantic and gregarious sister Dorothy, there's really no comparison as to which parts of the movie of more compelling. There isn't much more to say than that. I knew nothing about either woman's lives, so I just opened myself up to watching two very different lives acted out before me — one of which had a whole lot of depth and soul, and the other, much less so. The primary reason the Powell material works at all is the skill of Amy Adams, who captures the essence of a slightly neurotic New Yorker in a post-9/11 funk (Powell's job was connected to World Trade Center reconstruction), who is looking for something to make them not just feel grounded, but also important in the eyes of others. At its core, Julie & Julia is about two women who became famous for doing what they love and doing so almost accidentally, but willingly. The resulting film is largely a success as a piece of entertainment, as a history lesson, and as at least one truly magnificent portrayal of a woman who changed the world of cooking. I had fun watching this one, and other men shouldn't be afraid; you'll find a lot of what happens here strange and different, but still truly entertaining to experience.


Paper Heart


Don't spend too much time attempting to figure out what's real and what's not in the spirited and funny creation Paper Heart, from actress/performance artist/musician/comedian Charlyne Yi and filmmaker Nicholas Jasenovec. Just assume that the interviews with people other than Charlyne are real, and that everything that happens with her is faked... more or less. The truth is that it's more fun to play the guessing game as the relatively unknown Yi (who had a couple very memorable scenes in Judd Apatow's Knocked Up) travels the country with Jake Johnson (playing Jasenovec, her director) and a small film crew, interviewing various people about the nature of love. Yi has convinced herself that she is incapable of love, and the journey she takes is an exercise in determining whether there are others out there like her (trust me, there aren't) and whether she might change her feelings on the subject of love and relationships.

The film takes the form of a documentary, but there are clearly large portions that are staged and/or improvised. Just before setting out across America, Yi meets a spindly young actor named Michael Cera (played by Michael Cera, in a bit of typecasting), and before she (or we) know it, the two start up a tentative relationship as the film is being made. The constant presence of the cameras certainly dampens some potentially romantic moments between the couple, and it's clear that Cera is bothered that the crew follows them everywhere, but that makes for some of the film's funniest moments. Bouncing from city to city, Yi interviews real people (as in, non-actors) who have a story to tell about the relationship they are presently in or out of. Rather than have us stare at talking heads during these stories, Yi brings to life each new story with a primitive, but somehow still elegant, puppet show that she performs. These are some of my absolute favorite and most charming scenes in Paper Heart, but the whole film exists almost as a dare that you not find everyone in it adorable on some level.

A big part of falling head over heels for Paper Heart is figuring out whether Li's persona drives you batty or not. I think she's a riot, and she hangs around with a funny crowd. In preparation to hit the road, she interviews a few of her comedy friends about her dilemma, and we get a quick parade of familiar faces like Martin Starr and Seth Rogen who offer her advice and support. Ultimately, we look to Yi's fictional(?) relationship with Cera for clues as to whether Charlyne will ever exit her love funk. The two make absolute sense together, and Cera's under-the-breath delivery of some of the film's funniest lines killed me. I'm not sure the film works as an absolute guide to all things about love, but that's not what it's attempting to be. This is a movie about one odd and loveable woman, and her search for the truth about her own shortcomings of the heart. I was also really moved by what is clearly a real friendship between Yi and Johnson that serves as almost the second emotional centerpiece of the movie. In fact, some people may leave thinking Yi might have better luck with her fake director. I found both the real and the unreal of the small gem that is Paper Heart equally entertaining and amusing. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Paper Heart co-stars Charlyne Yi and Jake Johnson.


Adam


All of the signs that this movie from writer-director Max Mayer shouldn't work at all are right there in the plot synopsis. A handsome young man named Adam (Hugh Dancy, recently seen in Confessions of a Shopaholic) with Asperger's Syndrome — a highly functional form of autism — has recently lost his caretaker father, and it's clear that Adam's sheltered lifestyle is at an end. He has a job that he can get to on his own, but basic stuff like buying food for himself are a little beyond him. Into the same New York apartment building moves a lovely young woman named Beth (Rose Byrne from "Damages" and Knowing) who takes a strange liking to this oddly charming young fellow. And while the film goes to some pretty sad places during its course, for the most part Adam is a romantic comedy that takes both its characters seriously. The result is an emotionally satisfying little film that, for the most part, succeeds in avoiding the pitfalls of disease-of-the-week movies and rarely enters into any of the standard rom-com trappings.

The success of Adam rests squarely in Mayer's hands. With only his second feature film (he's spent most of his career directing theater and a bit of TV), Mayer has done a surprisingly solid job of keeping the sentimentality at bay, which is not to say that he doesn't let the feelings loose when appropriate. It's fascinating to watch this bizarre courtship as Beth struggles to figure out Adam's behavioral shortcomings, and Adam attempts to pay close enough attention to Beth's words, since he's largely incapable of distinguishing or interpreting facial expressions, body language and other forms of non-verbal communication. To him, there's a big difference between someone saying, "I could use a hug" and "Adam, will you hug me."

As long as the film sticks to the story of this couple, I think it works. The problems begin when we meet Beth's parents, Peter Gallagher and Amy Irving, two fine actors stuck in a terrible subplot about Gallagher being under investigation for some white-collar crime nonsense. I get why Mayer thought these scenes might have been useful in informing us as to Beth's possible motivation for dating Adam (rebelling against her disapproving and apparently often-lying father), but the scenes are such a miscalculated distraction that they keep the movie from being great. On the other hand, Dancy has a couple of really nice scenes with Frankie Faison as Harlan, an old war buddy of Adam's father who has taken it upon himself to have lunch with Adam as often as possible, just to get the young man out of the house and to set him straight on a few life issues. Yes, Faison does seem to fulfill the role of the wise, older black man dishing out advice to the confused white kid, but Faison (perhaps best known from "The Wire" and all four Hannibal Lecter films) is so much fun to watch that I'm thinking of starting a fan club of one just to celebrate his abilities to make any film or TV show just a little bit better.

Even without the romance angle, I think Adam might have worked at a certain level just as an examination of what a strange and unique condition Asperger's is. Part of the film involves Adam getting fired from his job (for being too detail oriented in his work designing electronics for toys) and then attempting to prepare for his first-ever foray into the world of job interviews. But in the end, the film's core is about Adam's feelings for Beth, which are not as clear as you might think. The film wisely takes its conclusion seriously, unlike most romantic comedies, and truly asks us to consider what kind of future these two would have and what the true nature of their relationship would be if they moved forward. Dancy's performance is startlingly good. He plays Adam as a man whose every waking moment after his father dies is something new and terrifying, but it's clear he's desperate to learn how to function on his own. And it's just nice to see Byrne in a role where she's not under siege or duress, as she often is in her roles. She's a great actress and a great beauty, and it's nice to finally see her in a role that allows her to utilize both of these traits. Adam isn't the rousing triumph it needs to be to capture the hearts and minds of all moviegoers, but I think people who have grown weary of the brainlessness of recent romantic cinema might find it a refreshing break from the formulaic garbage that has been flooding theaters of late. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interviews with Adam co-stars Rose Byrne and Hugh Dancy and writer-director Max Mayer, got to Ain't It Cool News.


A Perfect Getaway


Wow, OK, this one surprised me. Actually, the surprises built into the screenplay of A Perfect Getaway didn't surprise me at all; but the fact that I enjoyed being tossed around by this weird and wily little thriller kind of caught me off guard. The set up seems so simple as to almost be predictable. A young couple, Cliff and Cydney (Steven Zahn in slightly dorkish mode and Milla Jovovich looking hot but obtainable), are on their honeymoon in Hawaii. On their second day, they arrive at one of the islands where they plan to hike to a secluded beach. Along the way, they encounter another, slightly aggressive pair (Marley Shelton and Chris Hemsworth), but manage to shake them before things get possibly dangerous. Shortly after that exchange, they get word that there was a brutal killing on the island they were on the day before and the police don't have any suspects.

As their hike begins, they stumble upon a helpful ex-military man named Nick (Timothy Olyphant, in a perpetual state of full smoldering alpha male) and his lady friend Gina (Kiele Sanchez, perhaps most notoriously known as the ill-fated Nikki — of Paolo and Nikki infamy — on "Lost"). The four become friendly and decide to hike together, but they are also suspicious of each other in light of the killings, although the more dangerous couple would seem to be the more obvious suspects. You'll find out quickly that nothing in Perfect Getaway is particularly obvious.

Without giving too much away, we learn a whole lot about each of the six characters before the film is through. What I most appreciated about the film is exactly that: we actually do get to experience most of the characters (at least the main four) for extended periods of time just talking, or reacting, or initiating action. This is what we in the biz call "character development," and while I have some problems with the way writer-director David Twohy (Pitch Black, The Chronicles of Riddick, Below) structures his insane, but still fun, third act, A Perfect Getaway has a lot going for it, even with its flaws. I also loved that Cliff is a screenwriter, and so discussion of plot development and other writing devices are constantly being brought up, even as we are going through some of these twists and turns as they're talking about them.

Zahn and Jovovich play the naive, out-of-their-element couple A Perfect Getawayly, but it's Olyphant and Sanchez I found myself wanting more of. They are more difficult to read, but when Nick launches into another one of his almost unbelievable stories about being in the first wave of the Iraq War, you may not find what he's saying truthful, but you do understand what's important to him. When the two women talk together, the two women tell some pretty revealing stories about themselves that really deepen these lovely characters.

As I mentioned, the third act of A Perfect Getaway (the title itself is a trick) is kind of a wonderful, messy affair that includes lengthy black-and-white flashbacks and some pretty hilarious reveals and backstories that I'm not sure was entirely necessarily, but it sure is amusing. The fact that I found it a little too easy to figure some of the film's biggest twists probably means that most of you will as well, but for some reason, knowing the truth didn't curtail my enjoyment of the movie. The strength of the performances, the action scenes, and the commitment everyone seems to have to this whacky tale pulled me through and held my interest from beginning to end, and that's saying a lot for me, since I tend to get bored easily with poorly handled and lazy thrillers. A Perfect Getaway ain't that; there's a great energy to the whole work that swept me up. And things never get so ridiculous that you lose interest or stop caring where these characters land. There's a lot going on here — not all of it plausible — but it is all loads of fun. Give this one a try if you're in the mood for a decent suspense game that will keep you guessing.

 
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