Dinner For Schmucks (2010)

★ ★ 1/2

Dinner for Schmucks
is the type of movie I usually despise. A hackneyed American version of a foreign arthouse film is about the last thing I'm likely to enjoy. I went in with that expectation, and I was pleasantly surprised. While the plot was as cliched as I'd imagined, they threw so much at the audience, that some was bound to stick. Putting Steve Carell, Jemaine Clement, and Zach Galifianakis together is likely to lead to some laughs. Add Ron Livingston, and laughs are assured.

The irony of Dinner for Schmucks is that while it was marketed as a Steve Carell movie, Carell wasn't the driving force behind the comedy. He delivered a lot of laughs, but had his fair share of misfires. The real star was Jemaine Clement. If you look close enough, you may recognize Jemaine (Kieran) from Flight of the Conchords. His character is an 'artist', specializing in grotesque portraits of himself. In short, it's the type of 'art' that an impartial observer would laugh at, but regularly appears at modern art galleries. It's a not so subtle jab at modern 'art', and Jemaine absolutely nails it.

On top of Clement's character, we also get entertaining performances from Hollywood's two leading pseudo-cameo artists: Ron Livingston, and Zach Galifianakis. Livingston (otherwise known as Peter from Office Space) doesn't have to do much to make me laugh. In fact, I burst out laughing any time I see him. Played by anyone else, his role would not have been funny--and wouldn't have intended to be. He's Peter from Office Space. He doesn't need to do anything to be funny. Galifianakis plays a 'mind controlling' IRS agent, who is Barry's (Carell) nemesis. Galifianakis makes Carell's role work. Most of the time.

I haven't mentioned Paul Rudd yet, and frankly, there isn't much reason to. He's the cliched leading man in a comedy, and we'll leave it at that. Dinner for Schmucks doesn't stand on it's own as a movie. It's more like skit comedy superimposed on a boring movie, and that's just fine with me.


Youth in Revolt (2009)

★ ★ ★ ☆

The downside of subversive movies is that they are often mistaken for crass appeals to drug addled teenagers. Such is the case with Youth in Revolt. Needless to say, I didn't see it during it's theatrical run. After re-watching Juno a few days ago, I figured I'd give it a shot. I'm glad I did. Youth in Revolt is entertaining, and insightful. It examines contemporary culture through the lens of an imaginative young man, who's grounding in art house culture has ill prepared him for his place in the lower depths of the post-internet world.

Few films have honestly dealt with the realities of modern teenage life as Youth in Revolt has. We now live in a world where many parents are little more than peons, totally disconnected from the realities of the information society. Like the first generation of universally literate children, teenagers today have greater access to the world than most parents. This asymmetry makes the parent/child relationship awkward, and often counterproductive. This is Nick Twisp's reality.

Nick (Michael Cera) lives with his mother (Jean Smart), and her latest boyfriend (Zach Galifianakis). After the boyfriend is caught for selling a defective car, the family is forced to flee to a trailer park. There, Nick meets Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday). Sheeni is an escapist, stuck in a trailer park with her zealous parents. She too is enthralled with art house culture, and dreams of travelling to France. Though she claims to have a boyfriend, they do become romantically involved. Through a series of unfortunate occurrences, Nick needs to leave the trailer park. Sheeni promises that if he can find a way to come back, she will date him. In order to make this happen, Nick invents an alter ego, whom he turns to for advice on how to con his way back into her life. He is a projection of what Nick believes Sheeni wants in a man. Micheal Cera with a mustache, a cigarette, and a bad attitude. Needless to say, things get out of hand.

During his quest to re-unite with Sheeni, Nick realizes that the adults who have ruled his life thus far are not so clever. Even the police have nowhere near as much control over his life as he'd thought. While he breaks the law on more than one occasion, the irony is that he is still less base than all of the adults in the movie. The police are corrupt; his mother is a tramp; Sheeni's parents are authoritarians. In short, his 'revolt' isn't entirely unjustifiable. Forces external (and unreasonable) are shaping his life, and he merely seeks to manipulate them to fulfill his normal teenage goals. Like John Hughes movies, it seeks to show that ungrateful teenagers actually are sometimes justified in their anger. A shady police officer is the bad guy, while his mother and father (Steve Buscemi) are Blase. The only moral guidance he has in life is from film, music, his peers, and his instincts.

Despite its moral complexity, Youth in Revolt is extremely accessible, and funny. Unlike most teen movies, it is very self aware. Yes, there are clicheed moments. However, they're balanced out by self mocking irony. It is a Michael Cera movie, after all. Miguel Arteta has proven that he's quite capable of fusing crude sexual humor, and teen angst. It's harder than it sounds.

Like Juno before it, Youth in Revolt is a serious attempt to examine traditional morality from the standpoint of a young person in today's world (in all of its vulgarity). While it didn't cut quite as deep as Juno, it is one of the most thoughtful teenage films of the last two decades (granted, the bar is low). Though its theatrical run has long passed, I strongly recommend picking up the DVD. You'll watch it more than once.

Salt (2010)

★ ★ ☆ ☆

Salt is an average action movie posing as a thoughtful psychological thriller. It seems like a strange cross between Jason Bourne and M. Night Shyamalan. Only explosions outnumber the plot twists. I'll grant that it was somewhat entertaining, but you've got to really suspend disbelief to allow for some of the physics defying stunts, not to mention the implausible plot line. Like I said, average action movie.

What is unique about Salt is the pacing. The plot twists are so frenetic that it seemed much longer than an hour and forty minutes. Coming from Kurt Wimmer, author of Sphere and Equilibrium, this isn't surprising. He's made a career out of throwing curveballs. Unfortunately for him, throwing the same pitch every game causes the hitter to adjust. And adjust, the audience does. Throwing in a plot twist every five minutes is distracting, not clever.

Director Philip Noyce did a reasonable job, given the script. Though the action sequences were unrealistic, they weren't lacking in suspense. My one criticism would be that sometimes it seems like snippets were filmed in fast forward. I think this was to disguise some of the lesser realistic stunts. There is at least one time where we see Angelina fly across the screen, and it's hard to tell what exactly happened to the man left laying on the ground. Now that I think about it, that was probably wise.

I haven't seen any of Angelina Jolie's previous action roles, so I really didn't know what to expect from her performance. Frankly, it wasn't bad. Some of her stunts were distractingly unrealistic, but she can't be blamed for playing the role that was written for her. I was surprised by how good her Russian pronunciation was (assuming that it was actually her voice). I'm usually annoyed when English actors pretend to be Russians, but she didn't seem anywhere near as contrived as other actors do. The rest of the cast (minus Liev Schreiber) was passable, including a solid performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor. As for Schreiber, well, he was as wooden as always.

I can't say that I'm disappointed with Salt. I expected an average movie, and that's what I got. Then again, anything is a pleasant surprise after The Sorcerer's Apprentice. For a summer movie, I'd say it's worth a watch. That is, unless you haven't seen Inception a second time yet.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice (2010)

★ ☆ ☆ ☆

There isn't much to say about The Sorcerer's Apprentice. It was awful. I don't know why Nick Cage gets messed up with junk like this. I can see Alfred Molina doing this for the money, but Nick Cage? Surely he could have found a better use of his time. Director John Turteltaub usually delivers above average action comedies. This is easily the worst thing I've seen from him. I'm not sure if I blame screenwriting pair Konner and Rosenthal more for their amateurish script (par for their course), or the casting director for finding the most annoying person on earth to play the lead. Seriously, am I the only person who wants to slap Jay Baruchel right now? The only thing that bothered me anywhere near as much as him was the generic teenage feel-good music that would burst out of nowhere, for no good reason every 8 minutes. I sat through this purely in hopes that there would be a few laughably bad scenes. It didn't even deliver that. There was no redeeming value to this movie.


Inception (2010)

★ ★ ★ 1/2

Christopher Nolan is a genius. Because of this, I hold him to a higher standard than the average director. Though Inception was intriguing, it was all but doomed from the beginning. Since I heard the initial concept, I have maintained that it would be nearly impossible to pull off. Though the architecture of the film was surprisingly coherent, the film was marred by weak dialogue, and unrealistic character relationships. This is one of the most beautiful failures ever to meet the big screen. But for curious flaws, it might have been great. Nevertheless, it is a failure.

I wanted to be captivated by Inception--I really did. I have loved every Nolan feature, and was hoping he would keep his streak alive. The first time I saw Inception, I was enmeshed in the architecture of the film (yes, I'm using Nolan's vocabulary). The logic of the film was reasonable. There were no Matix-esque inconsistencies to ruin the film. Still, I didn't feel any connection to the film. The lack of major logical inconsistencies was trumped by a failure to connect on any emotional level.

Through the multiple interviews I have read, I've gleaned that Nolan views this primarily as a classical heist film. On that metric, it is better than average. As a film about the the life of the mind, it fares poorly. Several commentators have pointed out the similarities with L'Annee Derniere En Marianbad, and Solyaris, not to mention his own Memento. All were far superior. Other films about dreams, such as Waking Life and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind were also much better.

The weakest link of Inception was the relationships amongst the characters. Ariadne (Ellen Page) seemed to exist for little other than to explain the logic of the film to the audience. Her conversations with Cobb (DiCaprio) about his relationship with his wife were often redundant, bordering on annoying. I'm also confused as to why she was given an obviously French name when it is clear that she isn't French. I'd have forgiven Nolan for working with the assumption that she's an American foreign exchange student.

Weaker still was the relationship between Cobb and Saito (Ken Wantanabe). They start out as enemies, though develop a curiously emotional relationship. There didn't appear to be anything in their relationship that would suggest a flourishing bromance. I could have seen the relationship between Cobb and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) evolving to this degree, but there would have been a basis for this--they're partners.

As far as DiCaprio performances go, this was certainly at the low end. Though the role was similar to his own in Shutter Island, he seemed unable to muster up the same level of emotion. Even the conversations with his dead wife (Marion Cotillard) fell flat. This is a shame, since Cottillard was strong, as always. She is arguably the most talented actrice around, and deserves a best supporting nod. Cillian Murphy put in a strong performance, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt demonstrated that he's capable of filling a major role. I'm left wondering if Levitt's role wasn't an audition for Nolan's Dark Knight sequel. Tom Hardy's role was fairly limited, but he was solid as expected. From what I hear, he's also in the running for a spot in Nolan's next Batman film. I can't think of a better Riddler. Watch Bronson, and you'll see what I mean.

For all of it's faults, the film was a model of technical perfection. The cinematography was excellent, and the film editing was masterful. Hans Zimmer's score was masterful, and was supplemented by the best leitmotif I've ever encountered. Edith Piaf's Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien was used as a cue to wake Arthur during extractions. This worked on many levels, especially given that Cotillard played Piaf in her Oscar winning role (La Vie En Rose).

The reality is that the film was hampered by it's subject matter. When you stray into the realm of dreams, you risk cutting off any connection to reality. This is why the 'train scene', for instance (you know what I mean if you've seen the film) didn't do anything for me. There was at least one way that this could have been pulled off, but Nolan would have had to rethink much of the DiCaprio/Cotillard plotline.

Most of the flaws in Inception are a result of making a complicated subject accessible to a mass audience that is accustomed to simplistic plotlines. This is why it is nearly impossible to make a great film with more than $100 million dollars. Superhero movies have proven to be the lone exception to this rule. With that in mind, I'm glad that Nolan is returning to comic books for his next two features. It's what he does best, and he does it better than anyone else. The third part of the Dark Knight series can't come soon enough.


Following (1998)

★ ★ 1/2

Christopher Nolan's Following may not be in the same league as his subsequent films, but it was an impressive debut. Especially with a $6000 budget. It is exactly as it sounds. A movie about a man who follows people. He isn't a spy, or a stalker. He just enjoys observing people. Though the premise is simple, it is immediately clear that the plot is far from it. The timeline is non-linear, and the relationships among the central characters are always in flux. Think of it as a beta version of Memento.

The plot is too clever by a half, and the action sequences are devoid of realism, but it still manages to draw in the audience. Frankly, the cinematography was far better than the average movie. The lead actors, Jeremy Theobald and Alex Haw, were surprisingly good for a pair of unknowns. Haw has since to play a role, and Theobald only brieflly re-emerged as "Younger Gotham Water Board Technician" in Batman Begins. Lucy Russell (The Blonde) has made a career of being an adjective. Her roles have included "Female Restaurant Guest" in Batman Begins, as well as "Classy Shopper 3" in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Rather a shame that none of them has ever landed a major role.

Though the film isn't terribly important on it's own, it gives us an interesting glimpse into the psyche of Christopher Nolan--or perhaps his MO. It is the only one of his films that didn't really delve into notions of truth and justice. There were hints at those themes, but they never quite developped into anything coherent. He opted instead to focus on the boundaries between curiosity, obsession, and perversion. I can't help but wonder wonder how many random people walking in the park have ended up inspiring his films. I'm not sure if this is an examination of the theme of obsession, or an elucidation of his own. Either way, it was a worthy debut.


Sugar (2008)

★ ★ ★ ★

Sugar follows Miguel (Algenis Perez Soto), a young pitcher from the Dominican Republic as he attempts to work his way up to the Major Leagues. Unlike nearly every sports film I've seen, its primary focus is on the characters, rather than the game. Baseball is merely the backdrop. Far more interesting than the outcome of any single game is the struggle of Dominican players trying to turn pro. They live in strictly controlled dormatories, earning virtually no money. Unlike their American counterparts, there are no scholarships; no frat parties. Either they make it big, or they're back to the slums. The writer director team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have portrayed the struggles of latino immigrants in a way that is both candid, and hopeful. Unless you count wrestling as a sport, this is easily the best sports movie I've ever seen.

**Spoilers Below**

Like The Wrestler, Sugar can hardly even be considered a sports movie. Games come and go without us knowing, or caring who won. When Miguel joins Kansas City's minor league affiliate, he has a rough, and at times comical transition into American life. His English is so bad that even ordering breakfast is a struggle. The Higgins', his adoptive American family (Ann Whitney, Richard Bull) are fanatical about their baseball, and have taken in several latino ball players on behalf of their local squad. Miguel can barely communicate with them, though he constantly feels pressure to perform well for them. He is alone, save his Domincan friend Jorge (Rayniel Rufino) in rural Iowa, hardly a place where you can get by on Spanish. He takes an interest in Anne (Ellary Porterfield), the Higgins' grand daughter, who attempts to recruit him into her all white church group. Awkwardness ensues.

American baseball proves to be different from how young Dominicans picture it. There is no quick route to success, and Dominicans do not rule the game. Miguel has a promising start to the season, but is sidelined by a minor foot injury. Jorge is cut from the team, and decides to move to New York. When Miguel returns to the team, he is unable to return to his previous form. Encouragement from his teammates, particularly Johnson (Andre Holland) keep him going for a while, but a combination of frustration and a single experiment with painkillers put him on the chopping block. Instead of accepting a relief position, he fled to New York to find his friend Jorge. Dreams rarely die with a bang; they usually end with a thud, and a shrug of the shoulders.

Miguel's savings quickly evaporate in New York, so he begins to work under the table at a diner where Jorge used to work. The two are eventually re-united, and play together in a men's league filled with former Dominican farm team players. The film ends with a tribute to these men. Dominican boys who came to America chasing the dream of major league baseball, only to default into a pursuit of the American Dream--or a reasonable facsimile thereof. Likely service workers, and likely in the country illegally, they find happiness acting out their childhood dreams on a modest field in the Bronx. It is the quintessential American story--a story that hearkens back to the days when the poem at the base of Lady Liberty was more than just an inscription.


Predators (2010)

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Predators is unwatchable. I walked out around 20 minutes in. The third time Topher Grace yelled out "what is going on" seemed like an appropriate cue for my departure. It seemed like they were trying to balance humour with suspense, while achieving neither. How 65% of critics on Rotten Tomatoes were able to come up with positive ratings for this is absolutely baffling.

The only good thing that can be said about the movie is Adrian Brody's performance. From what I saw, he was solid as usual. Given that he's starred in the two worst movies I've seen this year, I'm starting to think that he's turning into Kevin Costner. Fine actor, terrible judgment.

Don' bother wasting your time with this one. It doesn't even qualify as so-bad-it's-good. It's just bad. It's too bad they didn't bring back Carl Weathers for some comic relief. The movie was a joke anyways, so they might as well have made it funny.


Jonah Hex (2010)

★ ★ ★ 1/2

There are few things are likely to make me question my sanity as the only critic other than Armand White to find fault with a film. It's ever weirder being the only other critic to positively review a movie. I went into Jonah Hex expecting a laughable failure. There are few things more enjoyable than a movie that's so-bad-it's-good, and that's what I expected. Only 7% of top critics at Rotten Tomatoes rated it positively, so my expectations seemed justified. I was extremely confused coming out of the movie. I hadn't read any full reviews, but I couldn't understand what critics hated about it. Frankly, I loved it. As with any great action film, it only took about 5 minutes to figure out I was in for something special. Once again, the critical consensus is dead wrong: Jonah Hex is the best action movie so far this year.

Jonah Hex (Josh Brolin) is a Confederate soldier turned bounty hunter. Having been on both ends of heinous acts, he has been outcast from polite society, emerging only to do the dirty work of post-bellum law enforcement. He is very much in the mold of a Leone anti-hero. He roves from town to town, mercilessly dispatching anyone who does him wrong. He has an undefined relationship with Lilah (Megan Fox), a prostitute in one of the many towns he floats through on occasion. On one of his infrequent visits to Lilah, he learns that an old enemy (John Malkovich) who he'd thought to be dead had resurfaced, and is plotting to destroy the post-bellum peace. Hex, with his curious ability to confer with the dead, is the only person who can stop him.

There seem to have been two principle criticisms of the film. First, some claimed that it 'had no plot'. Second, many of the elements to the plot (or lack thereof?) seemed to be loosely stitched together. There is some superficial basis to these claims. To the extent they're true, they are virtues rather than vices.

The critics were oblivious to the subtleties that undergirded the film. The film drew heavily from a handful of genres: steampunk, superhero, western, and a splash of poetic realism. The steampunk genre requires observers to suspend belief about history and technology. Some, like Roger Ebert were not willing to do so. The superhero genre requires further suspension of disbelief, both in terms of physics, and the relative importance of the character. One shouldn't be flummoxed by a superhero bringing someone back from the dead, or being called into the oval office. These are the type of things that happen in superhero movies. It's like complaining that James Bond gets the girl, or that Garfield eats lasagna.

Ultimately, Jonah Hex is a character study. Characters who have been so abused by history, that they are almost unrecognizable. From the obvious deformity of Jonah's face, to the deadness of Lilah's eyes, it is clear that their humanity has nearly been extinguished by circumstances. Their ambiguous relationships reminds one more of two frostbite victims huddling together than a pair of lovers. Brolin and Fox were almost mechanical in their roles, and that is exactly as it ought to have been. Any moral progress Hex makes is almost accidental; a side effect of his drive for revenge. He is constantly walking the line between catharsis and damnation.

Jimmy Hayward has shown that he is not simply one of the best animators on the planet, but also a very capable director. It's ironic that the third installment of the Toy Story franchise (he was animator for the first two) came out on the same day, with the opposite critical reaction. Hayward deserves credit for taking a risk, and creating a film that didn't aim for the lowest common denominator. This is a film for cinephiles. It contains a plethora of subtle references to legendary genre films, while eschewing the excesses of the Tarantinos of the world. I only wish it had a long enough theatrical run for me to see it again.