Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Let's Face It: The Razzies Are Dumb

I understand that it's fun to goof on bad movies -- hey, I do it with Showgirls and Dog Lover's Symphony -- but to spend as much time as the Razzies spend doing it? Frankly, I just think it's lame. You can read my reasoning here.

(And if you don't know, yes, that's Sandra Bullock accepting her Worst Actress prize a few years ago for All About Steve.)

Monday, February 27, 2012

Do You Care If 'Act of Valor' Is "Realistic"?

That's the question I ask in this week's IFC Fix column, because I'm not entirely sure that a lot of authenticity adds much to Act of Valor's overall level of quality. But as I mention in the piece, realism (or at least the appearance of realism) is something audiences will find themselves craving from time to time -- whether it's in their found-footage horror movies or in the fact that Act of Valor uses real Navy SEALs. Anyway, here's the article.

Friday, February 24, 2012

'Gone' Review

Amanda Seyfried's latest star vehicle, Gone, isn't quite as terrible as Red Riding Hood, but it's another discouraging sign that she seems to have the wrong people making decisions about her career.

I reviewed the film for Screen International, where you need a subscription to read it. But here are a few random thoughts about the film that didn't make my review...

1. I found it interesting that Seyfried's character, still coping from barely surviving her own abduction a year ago, has her big final confrontation in a dark, scary forest. It's where she was kidnapped, and so Gone's big showdown quite literally forces her to face her old fears. There's something wonderfully fairy tale about that, and it's funny that it's the same setup as she encountered in Red Riding Hood. Both movies are essentially about young women who are afraid of the terror that lingers in the woods, which no doubt is meant to symbolize male aggression, adulthood, etc. I wonder if that symmetry appealed to her.

2. Gone is set in Portland, and I gotta say: I tend to give any Oregon-set film at least the benefit of the doubt. Something about those grey skies and that incredible scenery always gets to me. (For what it's worth, when my wife and I spent our honeymoon traipsing up and down the Pacific Coast, we both agreed Portland was our favorite city.) At the same time, I caught myself wondering how the amateur sleuth at the center of Cold Weather would have handled Gone's mystery.

3. Wes Bentley is in Gone. I sincerely hope he's on the road to recovery after so many years lost to addiction. It makes me sad to see him waste his time in mediocre stuff like this.

Paul Simon - "Congratulations"

For a lot of music critics, Paul Simon's album from last year, So Beautiful or So What, was a major comeback for the 70-year-old singer-songwriter. I think the album's solid but not quite spectacular. (I do love "Rewrite," though.) Anyway, So Beautiful sent me into a heavy Simon period last year, and I found myself in particular revisiting Paul Simon from 1972. Heavily praised at the time, it tends to get overlooked a bit now. Here's the closing track, "Congratulations." (And if you'd prefer to hear it on vinyl, here ya go.)

Thursday, February 23, 2012

'The Descendants' for Best Picture

Yes, it's been an Oscar-heavy week over here at Everybody's Got One. A few days ago, I offered up my Oscar ballot for Best Picture. Today, I lobby for my No. 1 pick, The Descendants, over at Deadspin. It's funny to think that not that long ago, Oscar bloggers thought it had a decent chance of winning the big prize. That seems like a very long time ago.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Defending 'Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close'

Every Oscar season, there are those few films that get nominated that most people absolutely cannot stand -- or, at least, they're the ones that are very fashionable to despise. For Gawker and Deadspin, I rise to the defense of one of this year's most popular whipping boys: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.

You can read the article here, but there's one thing I'd like to add: This is not one of those reactionary, contrarian pieces where I take the opposite viewpoint just because it goes against the grain. I first saw Extremely Loud right before the LAFCA vote in early December, which was weeks before it hits theaters or before reviews had come out. When I saw it, nobody yet had any opinion on the movie. I thought, despite its obvious flaws, that it was a very genuine, affecting work. So the amount of vitriol that soon greeted it caught me by surprise -- except not really, because it is one of those types of movies that invites such strong reactions. In preparation for this article, I went back and watched the film again in the theater just to see if my rosy opinion of it held up. It did. In fact, I felt almost exactly the same way as I had the first time. Just wanted to mention that. OK, here's the article.

(P.S. One other thing: This is my first piece for Gawker and Deadspin, which is part of a very exciting development. If, like me, you miss The Projector, you'll be happy to know that Will Leitch and I are back at it in a revised form for Gawker Media. Will explains it all here. We're both thrilled.)

Review: 'Wanderlust'

In my heart of hearts, I was hoping that Wanderlust could be a modern-day Lost in America. You know, self-satisfied, well-to-do couple exit the rat race to "find" themselves, with hilarity ensuing. Alas, no, Wanderlust isn't so good. I don't have anything against Paul Rudd or Jennifer Aniston, but I don't necessarily love them as comic actors, either. (That will probably surprise you in regards to Rudd. Lot of people adore him. He's fine, but, metabolically, he's never quite been my rhythm.) Funny enough, I actually think Justin Theroux is the best part of the film as the commune leader who seems to have absorbed the spirit of a thousand hippy-dippy tree-huggers, acquiring their powers of massive pretentiousness. My review of Wanderlust is up at Screen International, where you will need a subscription to see it. (Sorry about that.)

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

My Best Picture Ballot for the 2012 Academy Awards

You know the drill: It's almost time for the Oscars, so here's how I would vote for Best Picture if I was a member of the Academy...

1. The Descendants
2. The Tree of Life
3. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
4. Moneyball
5. Midnight in Paris
6. Hugo
7. The Artist
8. War Horse
9. The Help

For my picks for 2011's best films and performances, you can check out my Village Voice ballot.

An Ode to the Heartfelt Oscar Speech

When you think about Adrien Brody's Oscar win, this is probably what you remember. And, sure, it was a classic Academy Awards moment, but do you recall anything about his speech? It's one of my favorites of the last 10 years: heartfelt, spontaneous, utterly overwhelmed by the magnitude of the situation. The Oscars are such a well-orchestrated, elegant affair that I find myself craving the small, human moments that occasionally crop up. For IFC Fix, I wrote about the Oscar speeches that have stayed with me. They're probably not the ones most people remember.

Friday, February 17, 2012

'Ghost Rider Spirit of Vengeance' review

I continue to take no delight in the slow-motion implosion of Nicolas Cage's career. Even while watching something dreadful like Trespass, I find myself quietly pulling for him, ever hopeful that maybe, someday, somehow he'll be able to pull out of this nosedive. But I don't see it happening any time soon, although I thought his Saturday Night Live cameo last weekend was at least a step in the right direction.

His latest is Ghost Rider Spirit of Vengeance. (Trust me: I want to put a colon in there, but you have to follow the punctuation in the press notes, people.) In this sequel, it's Cage being Cage, which seemed to delight a small portion of my midnight audience to no end. (They just loved every bug-eyed silliness Cage provided.) Me, I'd have been happier with the film if it was more -- what's the word? -- fun. My review of Spirit of Vengeance is up at Screen International.

Fiona Apple - "Red Red Red"

It's been seven years since Fiona Apple put out her exceptional Extraordinary Machine. While spending a wonderful Valentine's Day evening at home with my wife, I was shuffling through songs on my stereo and "Red Red Red" came up. Still such an unbelievably beautiful song. So here you go. (And, by the way, in case you never heard the original version of "Red Red Red," here it is. I far prefer the final, album version, but both have their merits.)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

'This Means War' Review

When people -- fellow film critics, specifically -- complain about how bad studio movies are, I always want to throw in a slight correction. I think studios still come up with good ideas for movies; it's just the execution that's out of whack. Already this year, we've had three perfectly clever concepts for marketable films: A group of crash survivors have to battle nature (and wolves) in The Grey; a loving couple are forced to reexamine their relationship after one of them gets amnesia in The Vow; and two ace CIA operatives (and best friends) find themselves using their talents to win over the same girl in This Means War. You can roll your eyes at any of those high-concept plots, but I'd argue that absolutely entertaining, engaging Hollywood movies could be made out of them. It's all in how they're made.

In the right hands, This Means War could have been a gleefully amoral romantic action-comedy that satirizes the American intelligence community's arrogance and disregard for the very people they're supposedly protecting. (The underrated, though uneven, Burn After Reading danced around this theme a little.) And casting Chris Pine and Tom Hardy as the CIA operatives and Reese Witherspoon as the object of their affection is hardly a recipe for disaster. But since the debut of the first trailer back in October, it seemed pretty obvious that director McG had gone about this entirely wrong. But trailers aren't movies, so I remained open to the possibility that This Means War might be fun.

Unfortunately, the movie is unsuccessful in all the ways that studio movies are unsuccessful these days. McG and his cast have taken a juicy premise and infantilized it. Pine and Hardy are best friends, but, of course, they're amazingly diametrically-opposed best friends: Pine is the swinging ladies' man, while Hardy is the sensitive guy with the son and ex-wife. And, because this is a movie, Witherspoon's character looks like Reese Witherspoon but yet somehow can't find any men -- any at all -- although she lives in Los Angeles. Through silly coincidences that are always easier to swallow when they're accompanied by sharp, witty banter -- which this movies tries so hard to achieve -- both guys discover they're dating Witherspoon. But rather than discussing it maturely -- or telling her that they know each other -- they concoct an elaborate set of ground rules that, of course, will be violated rather quickly.

This Means War is one of those films that finds it endlessly amusing when certain characters are tricking other characters into falling in love with them. Come to think of it, this has sort of been the M.O. of a lot of romantic comedies over the last 10 years, which inevitably leads to that predictable third-act moment when the unsuspecting person learns the truth and there are lots of earnest confessions from the other character along the lines of "I wasn't trying to hurt you -- I didn't expect to fall in love!" Something like that kinda happens in This Means War, but if you're looking for advice from this film in how to smooth over such a predicament, the answer seems to be, Put the woman's life in danger as quickly as possible and then rescue her. Yeah, chicks fall for stuff like that, bro.

Naturally, the makers of This Means War would object to such criticism, insisting that it's "just a movie" and that people "shouldn't take it so seriously." Which would be fine, except for the fact that This Means War achieves the rather astounding feat of making three very charming performers rather repellant. Pine is no stranger to playing cocky, but in comparison to his more winning turns in Star Trek and Unstoppable, his character in This Means War is just a jerk. He never quite gets around to understanding that a conceited ladies' man is only enjoyable if there's some sort of deep insecurity underneath it all. As for Hardy, he's a cliche of a romantic doormat, but not, y'know, a funny cliche of a romantic doormat. And Witherspoon is completely adequate as the high-maintenance love interest, although I'm considering offering a huge reward to Hollywood if I can watch just one mainstream romantic comedy whose female character isn't high-maintenance. But none of these stars' inherent likability is worth a lick since they're forced to play petty, glib, self-absorbed characters whom, I gather, I'm supposed to relate to because, doggone it, love is so complicated, huh?

While suffering through This Means War and its rather inane portrayals of both sexes -- which is to say nothing of its inane vision of what married life is like -- I flashed on a rather unlikely double-bill partner for this film: In the Company of Men. It's not all that similar -- in that one, two vindictive creeps decide to date the same woman to break her heart -- but there are some of the same power dynamics going on. In Company of Men, one guy is all confident charisma, while the other is more of a sweet pushover. And the poor woman, who's just looking for love, has no idea of the larger game that's afoot. That movie had a pretty great concept, and look how well they developed it. As for This Means War, it appears that everybody involved fell in love with the concept and left the details to the marketing people.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Denzel Washington, on Autopilot

It's been a long time now, but there was once a period when Denzel Washington was my favorite actor. Can anyone make that claim now? Sure, he still stars in hit movies, but when's the last time he did anything really spectacular or surprising? Inspired (or, more accurately, very mildly impressed) by Safe House, I wrote a piece for IFC Fix about Washington's predictable career choices of late. You can read it here.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Shins - "Simple Song"

When you write about music, you have to be a realist. Bands break up and get back together all the time, and quite often it has to do with money. No one should be surprised by that: To paraphrase someone I once interviewed, you have to remember that "music" isn't the most important word in the phrase "music business." Still, I found myself deeply annoyed when it came out that Shins main man James Mercer was firing his bandmates a few years ago. There's something undeniably communal about the Shins' music, which rides high on its vulnerable, delicate humanism. Well, I thought so, anyway. But Mercer claims the lineup change was an "aesthetic decision" -- "I started to have production ideas that I wanted to do that basically required some other people," he said in 2009 -- although to me it feels like divorcing the wife who stuck with you during the tough times and marrying the actress once you get famous. But, like I said, it's completely silly to hold grudges about things like that.

This brings us to their new song, "Simple Song." By all rights, it's a very conventional Shins song: pretty melody, lilting vocals, big chorus hook. Couldn't the old members have done it just as well? That's not for me to say. But I confess I can't quite shake off a bit of bitterness about the whole thing. That's my problem, not Mercer's -- but I do wonder if other old-school fans like me aren't feeling the same thing at the moment.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

'Amadeus' Blogathon: The Agony of Defeat

Note: Bilge Ebiri recently launched a blogathon in honor of Amadeus. This is my contribution.

Robert Christgau, the Dean of American Rock Critics, once summed up perfectly the secret to any critic's success. "There are two parts to being a good critic," he said. "First, you have to know what you like. And, second, you have to be able to explain honestly why you like it -- even if the reason is completely disgraceful." The second part is harder: Critics of every stripe are deathly concerned with acting as if their pronouncements are based entirely on aesthetic principles and deep analytical musings. But we all have to admit that some works of art affect us on a visceral, emotional level that goes beyond being moved or getting misty-eyed. Some films simply have our number to such a degree that we can't shake them. They understand us, they get us -- hell, they own us, whether we like it or not. Such is the case with Amadeus for me.

As you no doubt know, Amadeus (which won eight Oscars, including Best Picture) was adapted from Peter Shaffer's Tony-winning play, which was itself based on a 19th century play that later got turned into an opera. The 1984 film is now probably the best-known version of the fictionalized feud between Antonio Salieri (Oscar-winner F. Murray Abraham) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce), the young upstart who arrives in Vienna near the end of the 18th century, quickly proving himself to be one of the world's finest composers. But Amadeus is not the typical biopic in which a great man overcomes hardships and resistance in an inspirational way: It's actually the story of a bitter, small man (Salieri) who does his best to undermine a genius -- an obnoxious, conceited genius, to be sure, but a genius all the same.

The different iterations of Amadeus came into my orbit in an unusual way. I first saw the work through Shaffer's revival of the play in 1999, which came to Los Angeles with David Suchet as Salieri and the then-relative-unknown Michael Sheen as Mozart. I still consider this the superior version of Amadeus, although I have great admiration for the film, which I initially caught in its "director's cut" version during its 2002 theatrical run. The reason why I prefer the stage version is that I think it drives home the work's essential point: Like it or not, we're all Salieri. In the play, when Suchet delivers his final monologue, absolving "us" of our mediocrity, the panel of mirrors behind him turns so that the audience sees themselves. Now, compare that to the ending of director Milos Forman's film:

Salieri isn't lumping the audience in with those "mediocrities": He's talking to all the other people in the loony bin, not us. It's a small but crucial difference that keeps Forman's film (which was written by Shaffer) from being the devastating social critique that it should be.

At a writing salon where I teach, I use Amadeus as a reference point on how to create great villains. And the reason why I do so is because the film illustrates a basic principle of indelible antagonists: They think they're the heroes of their story. Watching Amadeus, it's easy to assume that Salieri is the hero. (From a simplistic Robert McKee perspective on Hollywood writing, Salieri is the active character who drives the narrative forward.) But look at what Salieri represents: envy, pride, stubbornness, moral corruption. These aren't the qualities of your typical "good guy." But can Mozart be the hero? Sure, he produces all those great musical works, but he's a brat. He's conceited. He refuses to act the way a proper hero should.

And this is where Shaffer's story derives most of its power. Who are we to relate to in Amadeus? Is it better to be Salieri, a "proper" gentleman who has devoted his life to behaving the way he believes that he "should"? Or is it better to be Mozart, who acts childishly and impetuously but will be forever remembered throughout history for his masterpieces? And are those the only two choices we have in life?

When I look at some of the movies I consider the greatest of all time -- Barry Lyndon, Hoop Dreams, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, There Will Be Blood -- one of their overlapping themes is the fanatical male competitiveness that consumes their main characters. Obviously, most movies feature a protagonist who wants something, but these films (as well as Amadeus) are chiefly about competition as a ruling principle of men. Competition defines winners and losers in these movies, and woe be to those who end up the losers. Most critics agree that these films are superb for a lot of reasons, but I can't deny that this particular theme resonates so deeply that I can't quite separate my personal response to that theme from the movies' overriding attributes.

But Amadeus is perhaps the thorniest of these particular films because of how it forces the audience to look upon Mozart as "the other": the inexplicable genius that we'd like to be but simply cannot. But if we can't be Mozart, who are we? It's more explicit in the play, but the film also suggests that by default we're all Salieris -- and it's up to us to decide how we'll behave in the company of brilliance. Will we be gracious enough to acknowledge our betters while admiring our good fortune to be around such a prodigy in our lifetime? Or will we try to tear down that person in a vain attempt to fool ourselves into thinking that somehow he isn't as preternaturally gifted as we feared? On one level, Amadeus flatters us by letting us join in with Salieri's vindictive glee, but also notice how the movie is noticeably mum on these issues I've just raised. In its own way, the movie figuratively holds up a mirror to the audience in the same way that the play does literally. We're all blessed and cursed to be around extraordinary people who have talents and gifts we wished we possessed. But will we let their gifts define us -- and, in turn, destroy us? That's why Amadeus stays with me: It won't absolve me from these questions.

'The Vow' review

Sometimes I wonder if Rachel McAdams wants to be a star. After her breakthrough in The Notebook and Wedding Crashers, she seems to have mostly drifted from mediocre choice to mediocre choice. (She was good in State of Play, though, while I thought she was the weak link in Midnight in Paris.) Now she's in The Vow, which the radio DJ who hosted last night's screening helpfully mentioned would "make your girl cry." So, you know, watch out for that. She and Channing Tatum have some chemistry, but, seriously, this is a wasted effort for all involved. (If you ever wanted to see Sam Neill act like a smarmy member of the 1%, here's your opportunity.) My review is up at Screen International.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Oscar Nominated Short Films 2012

It's become an annual tradition I love: writing about the Oscar-nominated shorts for The Village Voice. For the second straight year, the theatrical series will include live-action, animated and documentary shorts, and in my review I cover all three categories. If you want a little spoiler, the animated field is the best of the bunch -- as it seems to be each year. In particular, seek out Wild Life, a poetic, sad little rumination about an Englishman who decides to reinvent himself amidst the harsh Canadian prairie. You can read my thoughts about Wild Life, and the rest of the shorts, here.

'Journey 2: The Mysterious Island' review

Hollywood produces lots of bad movies, but there's a particular type of bad movie it does that makes me positively uncomfortable. That would be the children's/family action film in which everybody on screen stands around and either smiles too broadly or delivers lame quips too strenuously. It's like a living version of a laugh track: Everything here is so highly entertaining, the film seems to be saying. Why aren't you having fun? It's so painfully artificial that I have a hard time watching the screen. It's a way of promoting an inane version of real life to young people who aren't old enough to know it's total malarkey.

These were the thoughts bouncing around my brain for most of the 90-something minutes that constitute Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. It's probably silly to have expected anything from this film. Sure, we all love Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson -- sure, Michael Caine can be a hoot -- but the aggressive mediocrity of the whole endeavor is numbing and insulting. But, boy, do people quip with a vengeance.

In my travels, I had neglected to see the first Journey -- that one, Journey to the Center of the Earth, had Brendan Fraser in it -- but that doesn't matter. The two films are linked together by young adventurer Sean (Josh Hutcherson), who this time teams up with the stepfather (Johnson) he can't stand to find an uncharted island that's been discovered by his Indiana Jones-like grandfather (Caine). Sean's love interest (Vanessa Hudgens) and her father (Luis Guzman) tag along, too, and soon the gang is being chased by big lizards and bees and electric eels.

Journey 2 was directed by Brad Peyton, who previously brought us another unwanted sequel, Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore. (Like Journey 2, that was also in 3D.) If Peyton's not careful, he's going to wholly corner the market on fitfully dull kids' action movies. This one has a little more excitement than Kitty Galore, but like too many action flicks geared to younger people, it walks this weird line between simplistic emotional manipulation and adult scariness. (Way too many critters jump at the camera for shock value.) From moment to moment, I wasn't sure what audience Journey 2 was going after, although it is my sincere hope that some boys on the cusp of puberty will adopt the Rock's advice to Sean about popping your pecs to impress a girl. Anything to help get our nation's kids in shape.

And since the film isn't sufficiently fun or exciting or clever enough to sustain interest, my mind wandered all over the place. Geez, the effects in this thing are pretty substandard. Wow, Vanessa Hudgens' people must be thrilled that she walks around this whole movie wearing a cut-too-low tank top. Man, Hutcherson was so good in The Kids Are All Right and such a waste in this. Why does Johnson have such a low opinion of his talent that he agrees to these sorts of throwaway films? And when is this thing over so I can go home?

Friday, February 03, 2012

The Weeknd - "House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls"

If you listen to only one song from Abel Tesfaye (a.k.a. the Weeknd), make it this one. (What Philippe Petit has to do with any of this is beyond me.)