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Column Fri Nov 20 2009
The Twilight Saga: New Moon, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, The Messenger, The Blind Side, Planet 51 and La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet
The Twilight Saga: New Moon
The first time we see vampire Edward Cullen (still pale with ruby red lips, and hair slightly less crazy than in Twilight), he's walking through a high school parking lot in slow motion, looking like he just stepped out of a goth band's music video. For about 90 percent of New Moon, Jacob Black (a beefed up Taylor Lautner) is walking around shirtless, wearing only tattered sweatpants, looking like he just stepped off a gay porn set. Never having read any of Stephenie Meyer's novels about the tortured romance between Edward (Robert Pettinson) and human heroine Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), I may be a little late to this revelation, but seeing Edward and Jacob at their best and worst in New Moon made me realize that this is a film about the classic female dilemma — does she allow herself to fall for the more stable but still temperamental, hunky jock (he's also good with machines), or does she stray to the dark gothy side of life, possibly even becoming a vampire herself (which she seems more than willing to do)?
But the version of Bella in New Moon actually made me dislike her intensely, which is bad news for the filmmakers (led by new and better director Chris Weisz). I didn't loathe Bella because she's a self-absorbed drama queen, mourning the loss of her runaway Edward ,who leaves her early in the film after he accidentally injures her while trying to protect her. No, I found her unappealing because she's terrible to those she cares about outside of Edward. Jacob helps her picks up the pieces of her shattered heart, ends up being her best friend, and naturally falls for her, which she seems OK with to a point. When he disappears for a time, she gets extremely upset and begs him to come back. But when Edward comes back on the scene, she tells Jacob to leave her alone. She's also incredibly, passively cruel to one of her high school buddies, Mike (Michael Welch), who has a crush on her, asks her out, and is systematically humiliated for his trouble. I get that she's a confused, torn 18-year-old, but that doesn't mean she gets to mess with people's heads and still have an audience like her.
There are two big revelations in New Moon. The first is that Jacob is a werewolf (which isn't really a revelation to anybody), and that he's a part of a group of young werewolves whose only mission in life seems to be to protect humans from vampires. Since the Cullens don't feed on humans, they are safe from werewolf harm. The second, far more interesting element to this universe is the Volturi, the ruling class of vampires who live in Italy and pass judgment on the behaviors of other vampires. If one of their rank gets a little too public, off with their head. You have to sit through most of the movie to get to the Volturi, but man are they worth it, and they are featured in the only segment of the film that would qualify as genuine fun. The great Michael Sheen (who is best known for playing Tony Blair in three films, including The Queen, as well as his perfect turn as David Frost in Frost/Nixon) plays Volturi leader Aro, and he knows exactly how goofy these stories are and clearly having a blast making googly eyes at everybody while speaking in a low-grade hiss. He manages to strike exactly the right balance between camp and danger, and god is he good. I also loved an almost unrecognizable turn by Dakota Fanning as the young, evil Jane, a Volturi vampire whose ability seems to involve inflicting a great deal of pain on someone with her mind. And she seems to really enjoy her work.
But what about the rest of the film? First off, Weisz has made a better-looking film that Twilight, which may not mean much to some, but it actually lends a lot to whatever credibility this series lacked due to the first installment. The effects are better, and the flow of the film has been improved upon (although it still feels remarkably clunky at times). Most of the blame for New Moon's ultimate failure to engage rests with the pedestrian script from Melissa Rosenberg, which blows me away a bit because Rosenberg is easily the best writer on the Showtime series "Dexter." The poor writing really stands out during Bella's god-awful narration, which comes across as the worst kind of immature diary writing melded with low-grade soap opera emotions. Episodes of "Dark Shadows" had more of an emotional pull than Bella's musings.
Perhaps the more obvious problem with the film is that the two male leads aren't very good actors. Pattinson shows no range or depth at all in his portrayal of Edward. He's angst-ridden from top to bottom, even when he's supposed to be happy. And with a much higher-profile role this time out, Lautner reminds us in no uncertain terms that he's an actor with almost no experience beyond his child-star roots. I'm sure he'll get better as the years go on, but probably not in time to save this series. It's clear he worked his ass off since the first film to build up his musculature to play this part more convincingly. Too bad he didn't bother to work to strengthen his acting muscle while he was at it.
I know a lot of people have it out for Kristen Stewart, especially with her constant chronic hair tugging often substituting for an actual performance. But the fact remains that I've always admired her as an actor (watch the recent Adventureland to see how effective she can be full of gloom and doom). The way her character is written is as a lonely and brokenhearted teen who sits around her room for months and stays away from her friends. She also becomes an adrenaline junkie when she realizes that a memory-cloud version of Edward appears whenever she does something death defying. Lucky girl. Some of the things Stewart is required to do and say in this movie are downright embarrassing (her line to Jacob "So, you're a werewolf" comes to mind), but she handles the task admirably and clearly respects the character on some level.
It also hurt a little to once again see talented supporting actors utterly marginalized in this movie. A prime example is Anna Kendrick, playing Bella's best human friend Jessica, who has one decent scene in New Moon. But wait until you get to see her in a leading role in Jason Reitman's Up in the Air next month. She's unbelievably strong in that part and largely dismissed as a shopping-addicted teen in New Moon. Maybe that's the way her character is written in the book, but it feels like squandered resources. I feel the same way when I see Elizabeth Reaser and Peter Facinelli (ma and pa Cullen) or Graham Greene as the wise Native American Harry Clearwater. There are no small parts, I get it. But these talents deserve better material and more screen time.
The story seems like it simply alternates between depression and posturing. But the good news is that when the character of the clairvoyant Alice Cullen (Ashley Greene) returns to Bella's life and the pair head off for Italy to visit Edward with the Volturi, the film gets a whole lot more interesting. The promise of more Volturi alone gives me something to actually look forward to in future Twilight Saga installments. Unfortunately, New Moon continues the tradition of lameness that was firmly established with the first movie. And while I know I said this new film is an improvement, it's still not very good. I'm sure it will made assloads of cash. Have fun.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
Holy sweet Jesus dipped in molasses. OK, I had no freakin' idea that this film was going to kick quite this much behind. But knock your ass into your shoes is exactly what happens when you take a familiar title, turn it into a franchise (this is no remake, re-imagining or retread of the Abel Ferrara Bad Lieutenant film), and hand the reigns over to visionary Werner Herzog, who really has to go out of his way to make a bad movie these days. The biggest question mark from me wasn't whether Herzog could make something out of seemingly nothing, but whether Nicolas Cage was ready to put crappy movies behind him. I was actually a fan of Knowing and World Trade Center, but they weren't the slam-dunk vehicles Cage saw during his Adaptation-Matchstick Men-Lord of War-The Weather Man streak. Now, during that time, Cage also made his biggest hit, National Treasure, a movie I loathe as much as its sequel. But clearly during this span of time, Cage was in sync with audiences and critics alike.
I'm not in any way implying that Bad Lieutenant is going to catch on as a popular hit — I really doubt it will — but it's fascinating filmmaking, and Cage is at his loopy, manic best as Terence McDonagh, a New Orleans cop who has trouble with gambling, drugs, sex and just general living. In the end, this film will confirm every horrible thing you've every thought about society and the way people treat each other, while also giving you three or four more reasons to hate the world and all who occupy it for the time being. It's also one of the funniest movies of the year. Maybe funny is the wrong word, but I know I was laughing a lot at some of the film's more deviant moments. And there's a roster of some of the most interesting actors working today, including a few I haven't seen in a while doing great work in this story about the bottom feeders who occupied New Orleans in the time shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit. I'm not sure that William Finkelstein's original screenplay is anything special, but Herzog and his crew of game actors breathe a rich and pungent breath into this B-movie tale of a cop investigating a mass murder that takes him deep into the drug culture of his city.
After an establishing scene in which McDonagh and his partner Stevie (Val Kilmer) rescue a prisoner from his jail cell filling up with Katrina flood waters, we see a clearly pain-riddled Cage (from a back injury he sustained during the rescue) popping pain meds, placing bets with his bookie (Brad Dourif), meeting his hooker girlfriend (Eva Mendes) to do coke, stealing drugs from the police evidence locker guarded by a cop (Michael Shannon) who owes him favors, and shaking down club goers for whatever cash and drugs they might have on them. The guy is clearly a model citizen, and barely takes in oxygen without trying to find an angle on something.
When a case involving an apartment filled with five dead members of a Senegalese immigrant family, McDonagh uses the case to get more deeply involved with a drug operation headed by a kingpin named Big Fate (rapper Xzibit). Cage's character does not give a shit about five dead immigrants, but he will make everyone around him believe that he does if it gets him access to more money and more drugs. Not surprisingly for a Werner Herzog film, the best moments in Bad Lieutenant have very little to do with the primary story. There are countless side trips we take that are endlessly interesting. Every scene at McDonagh's fathers house is fantastic, with Tom Bower as the father and Jennifer Coolidge as the rarely sober stepmother, who is actually a calming influence on her stepson. There are a couple interesting scenes involving Fairuza Balk as a highway patrol cop and old friend of McDonagh's who he meets investigating a car vs. alligator traffic accident. And then there's the already legendary iguana cam shot that I will not even attempt to explain, except to see that they are freakishly cool.
And good luck trying to get the image of Cage pinching off the oxygen supply to an old lady in an assisted-living home while calling her the C word, or holding a big-ass gun to the head of her nurse. The first thing that you must realize about Bad Lieutenant is that any impulse you have to laugh while watching it should be embraced. There is zero doubt in my mind that Cage is playing this for laughs even in the film's scariest moments. He's a frayed electric wire ready to shock anything that dares get too close, and watching his gradual self-destruction is an honor and a privilege. So here's the upshot: if you claim to be bored with formulaic Hollywood movies, this is a film custom made for you. Nothing about this movie is conventional, acceptable or easy to watch, but, man, is it insanely entertaining. I don't know who to heap the most praise upon — Herzog or Cage — so allow me to bow to them both and hope they make many more films together. They clearly belong together. And together, the two capture New Orleans so completely, you can actually smell the dank, moldy pockets that existed after Katrina. Just thinking about it gives me the vapors. Just go see this movie if you really need a cinematic experience that will take you way the hell out of your comfort zone and wake you the fuck up. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
So many of the films set in or made about the current wars in the Middle East have such broad and lofty goals, that they scare away audiences. What I appreciated about The Messenger, from writer-director Oren Moverman) is that it has such simple and clear motives. It isn't trying to tell every soldier's story through the two in this movie; it simply wants us to get to know these two men, faults and all, and understand them.
Ben Foster plays Will Montgomery, who has just returned stateside after being injured in a heroic effort in Iraq. He has been assigned the unenviable task of notifying the next of kin of dead soldiers. He is partnered with Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), who has done this job awhile and knows all the rules. The two men simply do not click, to the point where Will handles himself at these homes quite badly. But as he learns the emotional and psychological means to handle his awesome responsibility, he begins to be able to cope with what he went through while on the front lines. The Messenger is a tough film to watch at times, especially during the notification scenes. The film peppers a few familiar faces among the family members, including Steve Buscemi as the father of one dead soldier, and Samantha Morton as a now-single mother who Will latches onto, looks after (which goes against protocol), and eventually grows attached to.
There are no easy answers in The Messenger, and, in the end, this might be the most emotionally charged of all the Iraq War dramas; it's certainly the most satisfying. In his feature work, Foster tends to overplay his characters (see him in Pandorum, in theaters now, for proof), but he is beautifully dialed back for most of his time on screen and it shows a real maturing and understanding of the material on his part. It was bizarre seeing Harrelson in such an intense and focused role just days after whooping it up watching him play free and loose with the world around him in Zombieland. But the two work well together, and end up having the right kind of chemistry to sustain this working relationship and still draw the other out of their respective shells. The Messenger is a gripping work that you won't soon forget, and, along with The Hurt Locker and In the Valley of Elah, it may end up being a defining film about this war years down the road. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.
Visit Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with The Messenger writer-director Oren Moverman and star Ben Foster.
The Blind Side
In some very interesting ways, this true story about how a white family in Tennessee takes in a massive young black man and raises him as their own son is the flip side to the recently released Precious. The biggest different being that it seems like in The Blind Side that for reasons that are never really explained or explored, white people are practically tripping over each other to help Michael Oher, whereas in Precious, the world completely ignores and sees through the title character. Oher, of course, grew up to be a tackle for the Baltimore Ravens (he's in the midst of his rookie season this year), but this film highlights his high school years when he made the journey from living on the street with a crackhead mother back home to his becoming a much-scouted player.
Oher's story is actually quite fascinating stuff, but instead writer-director John Lee Hancock (The Rookie, The Alamo) has adapted Michael Lewis' book about Oher and made it the story of Leigh Anne Touhy (played not nearly as over the top as you might think by Sandra Bullock), whose young son S.J. (Jae Head) forms a friendship with "Big Mike" and decides to take an interest in the young man when she spots him wondering the Memphis streets in the cold one night. Without much discussion, the Tougys allow Michael to sleep and eat in their home, buy him clothes, eventually clear out Leigh Anne's work room to give him his own bedroom, and get to know this troubled, quiet young man with a low IQ but a highly protective instinct. There are times listening to Leigh Anne and her husband Sean (singer Tim McGraw), where their conversations and attitudes about Michael seem dangerously close to treating him like a fixer-upper or worse, a pet. But eventually Hancock pulls the story around and lets the real connection between this family (which is rounded out by daughter Collins, played by Lily Collins) and Oher really come through.
The Blind Side also features a couple of my favorite character actors, which added to my modest enjoyment of the film. I particularly liked Kim Dickens as a teacher who first spots Michael's intellect and realizes that his ability to learn is tied to someone actually telling him the material rather than him reading it himself. Ray McKinnon plays Oher's high school football coach, who essentially has to teach Michael the game from the ground up (with much help from Leigh Anne). And sue me if you want, but whenever Kathy Bates (playing Michael's tutor Miss Sue) is in a movie, I get just a little more interested. Also, I don't know squat about Tim McGraw's country music career, but I've always enjoyed his acting in such works as Friday Night Lights (the movie), The Kingdom, and even the otherwise abysmal Four Christmases.
But most of the acting talk surrounding this film has been about Bullock's surprisingly underplayed portrayal of Leigh Anne Touhy — by all accounts a proper Southern lady with a ferocious mama-bear streak when it comes to her family. She's strong in will, meticulous in appearance, and will walk through fire (or in the case of Michael, the projects) for her kids. Bullock doesn't play up the accent or the attitude, and it's a quality performance however you measure it. But all of this talk of awards is nonsense; don't believe it. If you're a Bullock fan who has grown weary of her terrible romantic comedies and likes it when she plays it straight, you'll be in heaven with this The Blind Side. But this is not a game-charging performance. We're not getting a side to Bullock we've never seen; we're getting one we don't see often. It's a step in the right direction, but she's not winning or getting nominated for squat for this role.
In The Blind Side's final act, things get a little sidetracked and away from what makes the film strong. There's an NCAA investigation into how Michael was recruited, and fair questions are asked about his new parents' pushing him to go to Ole Miss, which they are boosters for and alumni of, and whether their eventually becoming his legal guardians was a recruiting tool. But we know what the outcome is going to be, so these scenes get old fast and go on far too long and lead to other scenes that are equally dull. A strong final act might have made me actually love this movie, and while I'm certainly not suggesting Hancock change history, this section doesn't make for interesting cinema. I'm still recommending The Blind Side because it's a curious story told well and acted with enough dignity and grace that it does justice to what this family accomplished. I also like the timeliness of it, coming at the midpoint of the real Oher's first pro season. These events didn't occur during the height of the Civil Rights movement or some other colorful era; they happened a few years ago and, to a degree, are still unfolding. As it stands, the movie stands solidly on its own, and I think you'll enjoy it without feeling like you have to make excuses for doing so. We're in the midst of the calm before the awards-season storm, and while The Blind Side doesn't mark the entry point into that time of year, it certainly makes for a nice primer.
With so many strides having been made in the last couple years in the field of animation (most, but not all, courtesy of the folks at Pixar), it feel a little bizarre to come face to face with a film that barely seems to be trying to break new ground. But such is the case with Planet 51, a work so decidedly lacking anything resembling inspiration that it makes Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs seem downright revolutionary. Sure, the notion to reverse the classic alien-invasion template of green monsters from outer space come to Earth to terrorize the American Way has some potential, but what writer Joe Stillman and director Jorge Blanco (along with co-directors Javier Aba and Marcos Martinez) have come up with is the worst kind of pandering. Broad humor (that resulted in zero laughs from me), uninspired voice work from some big names, and a soundtrack made up of '50s classics(!?) combine to give us, well, not much by way of originality or entertainment. It's actually kind of remarkable how disinterested I was in this movie from the opening shot until the final during-credits gag.
The ads for Planet 51 would have you believe that this is the story of American astronaut Chuck Baker (voiced by Dwayne Johnson, a.k.a. The Rock), who lands on a mysterious planet only to find it inhabited by little green men and women (along with an assortment of bizarre-looking other animals kept as pets, including a dog that looks a lot like a miniature version of the creature from Alien — it even pees acid!). The inhabitants of the planet seem to be living in a version of 1950s America, complete with the aforementioned tunes (how they ended up with the same music as humans is never explained) and a healthy dose of paranoia that aliens were going to land on their planet and eat their brains and/or make them zombie slaves. But this film isn't really about Capt. Baker. He's certainly a key character here, but the real focus is on an angst-ridden alien named Lem (Justin Long), an astronomer who I'm pretty sure still lives with his parents and has a massive crush on his neighbor Neera (Jessica Biel). And you know how much kids enjoy sitting through a love story.
Lem endures one missed opportunity after another to ask Neera out, and eventually the apparently easily distracted Neera is swept away by a hippie (a nod to the rising tide of protest of the early 1960s, I guess) named Skiff (Seann William Scott). After it's firmly established that Lem is a lover of outer space that doesn't believe in aliens and that society's greatest fear is an attack from outer space, down drops the astronaut who has almost no reaction to landing on a planet full of life other than his own. And his module happens to land in Lem's front yard.
The "invasion" is naturally met with hostile military forces, commanded by Gen. Grawl (Gary Oldman), and an overly paranoid scientific community, represented by Prof. Kipple (John Cleese). Naturally, Baker ends up having to depend on Lem to hide him and get him back to his ship so he can return home while the Kipple and Grawl attempt to capture him for research... on his brain! So most of Planet 51 is an idiotic chase film, punctuated by a lame love story and little insight into what made '50s-style sci-fi freakout films so much fun. If you want to see a movie that understands this genre, go rent Monsters vs. Aliens. At least I laughed during that film. And Planet 51 features something that I absolutely despise in all types of movies: seemingly smart people doing very stupid things. This one is nothing but that, and it drove me up the wall. There are scientists, astronauts, military generals, and otherwise educated citizens of the world all running around acting like morons. With rare exceptions, that just isn't funny. There are ways to make smart people hilarious, but his film doesn't get that at all. Now, idiots acting like idiots — that's funny.
To make matters worse, Planet 51 is a completely uninspired work in its look as well as its story. There's nothing particularly interesting or captivating about the animation style here. The aliens are these chubby little green humanoids that look more like something you'd get out of one of those arcade vending machines with the claws than anything really thought out by artists. The design work seem like it was done by committee to make the aliens as less likely to scare or otherwise creep out the little kids who will inevitably flock to see this film. In a animation landscape that has brought us Up, Ponyo, and, yes, even Monsters vs. Aliens and Meatballs (and I'm not even getting into the latest wave of brilliant stop-motion animation work, such as Coraline, Mary and Max and the soon-to-be-released Fantastic Mr. Fox), it seems a shame that we even have to view such subpar efforts, whose fate should have been decided on a DVD shelf and not on the big screen. Loathing is such a strong word for a film that is simply trying to appear to families, but I really didn't enjoy a minute of Planet 51.
La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet
As strange as it may sound, I'm less a fan of watching a documentary on a subject I'm more familiar with than I am one about a subject, person or event about which I am I'm utterly and blissfully ignorant. So to say that I'm completely unaware and uneducated on the subjects of ballet in general or the Paris Opera Ballet specifically would be an understatement of an incredible magnitude. But any subject that the nearly 80-year-old master doc filmmaker Frederick Wiseman (Titicut Follies, High School, Welfare, Model, Public Housing, Domestic Violence) takes an interest in and sets his cinema verité style of shooting upon is one I'm willing to watch despite most of his recent work running well past the 2.5-hour mark. Wiseman doesn't interview subjects, and he spends weeks in their presence watching their day-to-day activities before he even introduces a camera into the situation, to get his subjects comfortable with having him in their lives every waking minute. By simply presenting a series of vignettes of various lengths showing, in the case of La Danse, everything from rehearsals and performances (as you'd expect) to costume and set construction, dancers warming up, meetings about special benefits the Paris Opera Ballet will give its top sponsors, the janitors who clean up the beautiful long-standing building at night, as well as static shots of the structure's vast and winding corridors and stairwells, and a complete picture begins to take shape.
I couldn't tell you who a single dancer, instructor or choreographer in La Danse was, but by watching their work and interaction with each other, it becomes clear who the most respected individuals are. I found it as fascinating to watch the troupe's artistic director attempt to set the top dancers' schedules for the coming two or three years or a meeting of all dancers to discuss administrative issues as I did to see some of the unbelievably creative and graceful finished performances. The rehearsals are the main focus of La Danse as we see the meticulous and grueling process, and we are able to watch the detailed crafting of dance after dance, as we get to know the individual styles of the various choreographers and body-perfect dancers. This is clearly a subject close to Wiseman's heart, since he covered the European tour of the American Ballet Theater in 1995's Ballet, but La Danse seems more about capturing to almost-mythic quality of both the splendid building and work being accomplished in it. As raw and bare bones as the film gets, it's still an exercise in elegance and beauty, and to miss the opportunity to see this particular Wiseman exercise on the big screen would be a huge mistake (most of his recent works premiere on PBS). Just see it and support a king of documentary filmmaking whose eye for detail, quite frankly, puts all others to shame. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre, and to miss it would be a crime.