Friday, July 30, 2010

Movie Review: "Dinner for Schmucks"

The titular event in "Dinner for Schmucks" is actually referred to as a "dinner for idiots," in which a group of businessmen invite the most bizarre, off-the-wall folks they can find to a fancy feast and proceed to mock them.

I'm guessing "Dinner for Idiots" would have been a tough title to market. The word "schmuck" feels more innocent, lacking the mean-spirited connotation that comes with "idiot." I have no idea if the film was originally called "Dinner for Idiots," but it wouldn't surprise me if Dreamworks' marketing gurus changed the title to something nicer.

That might actually explain some of the reasons why "Dinner for Schmucks" isn't quite the farcical feast it could be. Here's a film with a skilled director and a fantastic cast that could have been a merciless, fast-paced screwball romp. Instead, "Dinner" manages to wrangle a few laughs and chuckles but feels oddly defanged, meandering and too, well, nice.

Tim (Paul Rudd) is a low-level financial analyst given the opportunity for his big break. The catch is that his boss (Bruce Greenwood) makes the promotion contingent on attending the dinner described above. Admitting that the affair is "messed up," Tim tells his fiancee (Stephanie Szostak) that he'll stay home. But then the universe drops Barry (Steve Carrell) into his lap.

Barry is an idiot. Blissfully sweet-hearted and clueless with no common sense or understanding of sarcasm, he's an IRS worker who spends his days creating "mousterpieces": photographs featuring dressed-up, dead mice. By the end of their initial conversation, when Barry showcases his rodent "The Last Supper," Tim knows Barry is his ticket to the promotion. One short miscommunication later and Barry is wreaking havoc with Tim's love life, ruining his business deals and threatening to topple Tim's life with each kind gesture."

Dinner for Schmucks" is a broad farce in an age where observational humor and frat house mentality rule the silver screen. I'll give credit to director Jay Roach ("Austin Powers," "Meet the Parents") for trying something fresh with this remake of the French comedy "The Dinner Game." Roach knows comedy and has a knack for making scenes work. A few set pieces - including one in which Barry fends off Tim's psycho ex-girlfriend and another at a posh business brunch - unfold with a solid sense of pacing, building on small gags until every small moment erupts into big laughs. Roach understands how to properly time and frame each of these moments and there are several big laughs throughout "Schmucks."

The lion's share comes from Carrell, who manages to play Barry broadly, but with a foot in reality. Carrell brings a likability to his role and there's a sweetness to Barry that makes his aloofness endearing. Barry may be an idiot, but he's a genuinely nice guy who wants to help out his new friend. He's stupid, but happy with himself in a world filled with smart, insecure and cutthroat men and women. He's loyal, but with the unfortunate side effect that all of his attempts to help cause chain reactions of chaos to erupt around Tim. Barry's a great creation and one of the highlights of Carrell's rapidly advancing career.

Rudd doesn't do much more than react to Barry's off-the-wall antics, but I wish that he'd been allowed to play the role a bit meaner. As written, Tim is basically a jerk, willing to sacrifice another person's dignity in support of his career, but Rudd plays him as a nice guy who can't help himself. I understand that we're supposed to like Tim, but I have to imagine that if Tim started the film a bit more dislikable, pompous and off-putting, there'd be a greater tension between him and Barry, leading to a stronger payoff. As it is, Rudd is playing the same put-upon nice guy he's played in everything from "Role Models" and "I Love You Man" and, as well as he does it, it's becoming a bit repetitive.

Roach helms some very funny sequences and Carrell is always a joy to watch - his revelation of why his wife left him is both sad and hysterical, and his elaborate art creations are bizarrely affecting. But the film tries juggling too many side plots and becomes bogged down when it should be fast-paced and lean. There are some chuckles in a subplot regarding Tim's belief that his girlfriend is cheating on him with an artist (Jermaine Clement), but it weighs the film down with a needless romance and causes the film to drag. With 30 minutes excised, "Dinner for Schmucks" might feel a bit faster, more frantic and be able to sustain the laughs throughout the entire runtime.

The dinner party that everything culminates to is funny and fittingly absurd, particularly with Zach Galifianakis ("The Hangover") as Barry's boss, who believes he can control minds. The various characters who attend the dinner are fun to watch and there are some big laughs that I wouldn't dream of ruining, but just when the film should close, it meanders to resolve its romantic subplot. The film's epilogue delivers some chuckles on the way out, though.

"Dinner for Schmucks" isn't a bad movie, but it lacks the momentum, focus and edge that would have pushed it into hilarity. It's pleasant, with Carrell delivering a great comedic performance, but Rudd plays a bit too soft and Roach loses the narrative thread a few times. You won't necessarily regret RSVPing for "Dinner," but you're not going to miss out on much if you send a negative response.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Movie Review: "Salt"

Let's get this out of the way first: "Salt" is not a good movie.

The film is 100 minutes consisting largely of Angelina Jolie running through a plot that grows more outlandish by the minute. There's little logic, characters act irrationally, and the entire enterprise is just an excuse for Jolie to prove that she can still kick, jump, shoot and run as good as - or better than - any male action star.

To its credit, though, the film is never boring. As "Salt" jumps the rails with each twist, it turns into a spectacular piece of trash cinema. After the full-course meal movie of last week's "Inception," "Salt" is a trip to McDonald's - tasty and fun, but not nutritious in the least.

Then again, I like McDonald's. And as preposterous and shallow as "Salt" is, it's a fun little ride that entertains even as your brain scolds you for neglect.

Jolie is Evelyn Salt, a CIA agent celebrating her two-year wedding anniversary. She's ready to quit the spy life and settle down when a Russian defector comes into her office. During the interrogation, the Russian tells of a secret society of assassins, trained from childhood and planted in the United States to wait for decades until they are given permission to strike. Today, he says, one of those spies will attempt to kill the Russian president on U.S. soil. The name of the spy who will carry it out? Evelyn Salt.Naturally, Salt's employers get a little cautious concerning this information and try to lock her down. Believing she's being set up and fearful for the life of her husband, Salt breaks out of custody and runs, although the film hints that she may have darker matters on her mind. And so begins a movie that tries its hardest to outrun "The Bourne Ultimatum" and out-twist every spy movie ever made.

Jolie inherited the role after Tom Cruise left for this summer's "Knight and Day" and she's probably the better choice. Little information is given to the audience about Salt and for a good portion of the film's run time we're supposed to be in the dark as to whether she is being set up or really a dangerous assassin. Jolie has an edge that sustains that mystery and she's not afraid to get dark when she needs to; a star like Cruise would likely be portrayed as a hero from beginning to end, removing some of the film's fun. As she's proven in "Tomb Raider" and "Wanted," Jolie is game at big action sequences, a plus in a film that spends the majority of its time propelling Salt through car chases, shoot-outs and fist fights.

Along with the physical contortions, Jolie must navigate a plot that features twists and turns that even Jack Bauer would find over the top. While initially a fairly straightforward espionage thriller, "Salt" quickly lets its plot unravel so that heroes become villains, stakes are raised to absurd levels and characters change motivations at the drop of a hat, even when it contradicts everything else they've been doing throughout the film. The twists are there to make the film seem unpredictable and there will be some who think it's a show of intelligence that the film ties itself into so many narrative knots. The problem, however, is that none of the twists make any sense considering everything else that happened before, and destroy any pretense of logic the film might have had; I also believe several laws of physics are blatantly violated. By the time the film heads to the White House for its finale, the twists have become so outlandish that laughter could be heard with each new revelation during the screening I was at.

There's a part of that absurdity, however, that is endearing. After a certain point, you can either check out of the film entirely or decide to go along with the ride. Should you choose to shut off your brain, director Phillip Noyce ("The Quiet American") makes the trip quick and enjoyable. Once "Salt" starts moving, it doesn't let up and there's a great deal of energy in the film's action sequences, particularly a chase that starts on foot and ends with Salt jumping over trucks in a real-life game of "Frogger." The supporting cast, which includes Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor, is solid, especially Schreiber, who clearly has a ball in the film's most ludicrous scenes. And Jolie has such a strong screen presence that we'll follow her even as the film unravels around Evelyn.

"Salt's" pleasures are all surface - even as I was thrilling to the action, I was laughing at the absurdity onscreen. To sustain the narrative and hide the upcoming twists, Noyce gives little information about who Evelyn Salt is, which robs the plot of any emotional grounding and fails to provide a protagonist we can invest in. In setting up a worldwide crisis in the final act, Noyce fails to provide any sense of a greater context; he keeps everything centered on the characters in the room and fails to create the sense that nuclear annihilation is imminent.

"Salt" is definitely a mixed bag, mainly due to an amazingly illogical and preposterous plot. But it moves with energy and speed, and is never dull. In many cases, its absurdity makes it fun. That might not be the highest praise, but in a summer that has regularly disappointed, it's not necessarily a bad thing, either.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Movie Review: "Inception"

Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” is a film brimming with brilliance, humming with energy and so packed with ideas that it’s probably impossible to compose a judgment on it after only one viewing.

Nolan, best known as the director of “The Dark Knight,” gained notoriety in Hollywood circles 10 years ago with “Memento,” the twisty noir about a man with short-term memory loss trying to solve his wife’s murder. The film still stands as one of its decade’s best, a brilliantly woven crime drama told through a narrative structure that shifts backwards, forwards and sideways as it heads to its devastating conclusion.

“Inception” makes “Memento” seem as straightforward and predictable as an episode of “Two and a Half Men.”

Once again, Nolan returns to the world of the mind, in a science fiction thriller about dream thieves, led by Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio). Along with his right-hand man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Cobb recruits Ariadne (Ellen Page), an architect who designs elaborate worlds for the dreamer to get lost in, a “forger” named Eames (Tom Hardy) who impersonates people in the mark’s subconscious and Yusuf (Dileep Rao), adept at mixing sedatives powerful enough to knock people into sleeps so deep that if they die within a dream, instead of waking up they’ll be lost in a limbo-like coma.

Cobb is hunted by agencies around the world for his illegal activities, which involve breaking into people’s dreams and stealing their ideas. When one theft goes awry, however, the subject (Ken Watanabe) chooses not to get revenge but instead proposes one last job: Cobb is to break into a young business executive’s mind and, instead of stealing an idea, plant one. The team balks, saying that inception cannot be accomplished, as the mind violently rejects any foreign ideas. Cobb, spurred by the promise of seeing his children again, takes the job. He may, however, not be in the right frame of mind (literally) for this project, as he’s hounded by guilty memories of his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) and their two children.

With that, I will lay low on plot details, except to say that “labyrinthine” is too weak a word for Nolan’s story. In “Inception,” cities fold in on themselves, dreams layer upon and crash in on each other and time shifts with each level of reality. In the same space of time the characters may be in different levels of reality, on different continents, involved in car chases, kung fu fights and James Bond-style fortress assaults all at once. We’re never quit sure of what’s real, what’s a dream or when and where we are—Nolan doesn’t stagger the chronology as with “Memento” but he trusts his audience enough to understand and keep up with the story he’s telling, even as its characters shift through layers of consciousness and reality.

After dropping the audience into the dream world in the opening sequence, though, Nolan does apply the brakes to give a primer on the film’s rules. He’s light on the details of how dream sharing technology works and instead uses Ariadne’s initiation to give us a lesson on how dreams are created, how they function and how the subconscious defends itself against intruders. By the time Ariadne’s subconscious causes Paris to explode in slow motion glory, we’re prepped enough to follow the film.

The film bursts with ideas but is never weighed down by its own brilliance. The plot is complex and puzzling and may take two or three viewings to understand every detail and thread, but Nolan attaches the story to the heist film formula so that audiences can follow the story’s main points even if they can’t wrap their minds around the plot’s intricacies. “Inception” dresses deep ideas up in genre clothing so that even if audiences have a hard time grasping what level of reality the film is currently in, they still understand the dangers immediately facing Cobb and his team in the form of subconscious assassins as they try to reach their goal of planting the idea in the subject’s mind.

The film pulsates with energy and visual brilliance. One of the complaints some critics had over Nolan’s work on his Batman films was that he couldn’t film a coherent action sequence. While I disagree, I think even the naysayers will be impressed with the drive and adrenaline he puts into each set piece, particularly in the last 45 minutes as realities threaten to collapse, threats pile up and the film hurtles towards its conclusion in a blaze of gravity-defying fistfights, bone-crunching car chases and an assault on a fortress clearly inspired by James Bond. And that’s not including the crumbling cities, flooding hotels and exploding elevators that punctuate the finale. If all the bullets and bombs were simply Hollywood filler, it would ring hollow but Nolan ties everything together so logically into the plot and makes it so easy to follow that every set piece pins viewers to their seats in anticipation. Like “The Matrix,” to which this film will inevitably be compared, “Inception” mixes big ideas and big events so perfectly that the film l feels like nothing that has come before it.

Unlike “The Matrix,” however, Nolan packs “Inception” with an emotional thread to keep audiences from being overburdened with tech talk and science fiction. DiCaprio plays a man not unlike his character in this year’s “Shutter Island,” haunted by a woman and ravaged by guilt. Cobb blames himself for his wife’s death and has turned in on himself so harshly that she literally stalks him in his dreams, threatening to undo his hard work and keep him with her. There’s a portion of Cobb that may be willing to stay in his dreams, where he can hold his wife again and avoid the pain of the real world. DiCaprio again shows that he one of the most versatile actors working today. He doesn’t play the same notes as in Scorsese’s thriller, but finds new depths of angst and guilt, creating a character well aware that he’s chasing an illusion, but also knows he might prefer that illusion to reality.

The rest of the cast is engaging as well, with Hardy and Levitt in particular supplying necessary energy and humor throughout the proceedings. Cillian Murphy provides just the right amounts of intrigue and earnestness as the team’s mark and Nolan regular Michael Caine shows up in a brief role as Cobb’s father-in-law to lend some class to the proceedings. Only Page feels slightly out of her element, not as in tune with the rest of the cast but that ultimately works in her favor because, as an outsider, Ariadne serves as the audience surrogate. Through her, we are introduced to this world.

I’ve come to the end of this review and I feel I’m just scratching the surface of a film that begs multiple looks. And that’s okay—with its narrative twists, reality-bending concepts and incredible set pieces, “Inception’s” surface is pretty darn great, alive in a way most films aren’t. But what’s even better is the feeling it gives that, like any good dream, there’s more to discover.

I have a feeling this is a film that will be argued over and studied by science fiction lovers and movie geeks for ages—there are surely hidden themes and symbols to uncover, character motives to question and even the film’s premise to debate over. And knowing that a movie can be that entertaining and that intriguing is what makes “Inception” one of this year’s best films.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Movie Review: "Despicable Me"

Anyone who ever thought an Austin Powers movie would be better if it focused on Dr. Evil and did away with the double entendres should be mighty pleased with "Despicable Me," the new computer-generated comedy from Universal Studios.

With his bald head and cloak, Gru (Steve Carrell) looks quite a bit like Dr. Evil. Gru is one of the world's leading super-villains, happy to jaunt around town making balloon animals for kids - which he then pops. He's also fond of using his freeze ray on anyone in line at the coffee shop, just so he can get his mocha in a timely manner.

Gru, however, is being outshined by uber-nerd Vector (Jason Segal), an upstart on the villainy scene with a penchant for making guns that shoot squids or piranhas. With his nasally voice and appearance that suggests an evil Bill Gates, Vector has stolen the spotlight from Gru by absconding with an Egyptian pyramid - which he has replaced with an inflatable one, in the film's opening gag. Poor Gru, berated by his mother (a growling Julie Andrews) returns home to his lair and informs his army of minions - little yellow beings that look like Cheetos with eyes - that he will reclaim his glory by shrinking and stealing the moon.

Unfortunately, a little trouble getting a loan from the Bank of Evil and the inclusion of three darling orphan girls tend to complicate Gru's plans.Just writing out "Despicable Me's" plot has me chuckling and, indeed, a comedy about the life of a James Bondian super-villain is filled with comedic potential.

Directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud find some fun gags in creating Gru as an evil mastermind living in suburbia, particularly in the film's opening sequence. There's great visual wit on display in Gru's and Vector's lairs, particularly with a shark roaming under the floor at the latter. And there are a couple of moments when the film's dark humor comes through, as when one of the orphans steps into a dart-filled sarcophagus with a juice box, leading to a surprising and hilariously dark sight gag.

Since "Shrek" appeared 10 years ago, computer-generated comedies have been go-to ground for comedians, although many of the films tend to use those talents simply to create animated versions of the funnymen and women. "Despicable Me's" strongest asset is that the actors are allowed to disappear into their roles and have fun with the characters instead of playing the same roles they've been placed in throughout their live-action careers. With his Eastern European accent and grumpy demeanor, Carrell is farthest away from "The Office" that he's ever been and it allows him to create a character we wouldn't normally see from the actor. This may also be the only film kids are able to see featuring Russell Brand, who elicits a few chuckles as Gru's henchman Dr. Nefario. I wasn't even aware Andrews was the voice of Gru's mom until I saw the credits.

Coming so soon after the near-perfect "Toy Story 3," it can feel like a bit of a letdown to realize "Despicable Me" doesn't have the emotion or depth these stories sometime surprise us with. Unlike Pixar's masterpieces, "Despicable Me" is paced more like a Looney Tunes episode, veering from gag to gag at breakneck speed, and more concerned with making audiences laugh than making them think.

More often than not, the film is successful, particularly when focusing on the bizarre, mischievous minions employed by Gru. Kids will love the slapstick pratfalls and there are plenty of jokes aimed squarely at adults (the Lehman Brothers gag will cause grownups to chuckle) to keep everyone entertained. Like too many of the Dreamworks films, however, "Despicable Me" depends too much on fart jokes and pop culture humor to keep it afloat, and never really embraces its dark side as much as it could. There's a Tim Burton/Charles Addams vibe that wants to come out and play, but it keeps being shoved to the side in favor of tired catch phrases and random dance sequences. The result is a film that is entertaining and pleasant, but never really hits its full potential. A shame, because the voice talent is so committed and the visual artistry on display is so fun. There are a few moments where the film unfolds with a "Spy Vs. Spy" anarchy, only to be reined in by storytelling conventions.

I will say, however, that "Despicable Me" tends to be one of the few successful uses of 3D in recent months. Animated films, which can be made expressly for the format, are usually better at incorporating the technology and "Despicable Me" has fun with the gimmick. Audiences who shell out extra for the feature will be rewarded with one of the more enjoyable end credits features of the summer.

Kids will likely get a kick out of "Despicable Me," and enjoy its zany humor and slapstick gags. Adults will probably be entertained but wonder when the movie's going to surprise them. It's no "Toy Story 3," but really, few movies this year can be. But thankfully, it's no "Shrek 4" either.
Originally published in the July 11, 2010 edition of The Source.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Movie Review: "The Last Airbender"

Dear M. Night Shyamalan,

It's not me, it's you.

When we first met, you were the director of "The Sixth Sense." You swept me off my feet with a terrifying, yet touching supernatural drama featuring a final twist that made me woozy. You impressed me even more with your superheroes-in-the-real-world drama "Unbreakable" and continued to charm with "Signs," in which you wove a scream-inducing tale of faith amidst alien invasions. While others panned "The Village," I defended it as a clever political cautionary tale with a "Twilight Zone" twist.

Then you began to change, and I wondered if the accusations of pomposity and limited range were true. I felt betrayed when you directed "Lady in the Water," a fable that squandered creative potential in favor of turgid exposition, clunky dialogue and ham-handed symbolism. I was willing to say it was just a phase, the one slump that all geniuses have. Then you made the movie where Mark Wahlberg talked to a rubber tree.

I hoped that your next project would restore my faith. "The Last Airbender" seemed promising. Based on the popular children's program, it has a rich mythology and an intriguing cast of characters. The premise itself - what if there were people who could "bend" the natural elements to their will - is interesting fodder for a rousing action adventure. And it has that mixture of myth and spirituality that you have tackled so well in your best work. This project, I believed, would be the perfect comeback for you, enthralling us with a gripping, exciting and adventurous narrative.

And yet, after viewing the film, I realize you are no longer the filmmaker I so admired. It hurts to say this, but you've taken an idea that should have been easy to spin into a thrilling adventure and turned it a dull, incoherent mess. I'm telling you this for your own good: I think you have forgotten the basics of storytelling and it may be wise to step out of filmmaking for awhile.

I know it seems unfair to blame such a debacle solely on you. But you were its writer, producer and director. I still don't understand exactly what world this takes place in. Is it the future? The distant past? We're told that different nations are at war - but why? What are the stakes? Who are the two Eskimo children, Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), that we should frame the movie around them? Why should we care when they discover little Aang (Noah Ringer), the chosen Avatar, who can master the elements and bring peace to the world? By the end of the movie, is the Fire Nation's Prince Zuko (Dev Patel) a hero or a villain? Why, exactly, do all the characters end up at the ice city at the end?

You've plopped us into this world without giving us context or grounding. We're not told the rules or given any back story. When you try to widen the scope, you do it through expository dialogue that lands with a thud instead of showing us the betrayals, sacrifices and tragedies that have placed these characters together - you know, the exciting stuff we go to movies for. The oldest maxim in writing is show, don't tell, and yet the film consists largely of characters delivering stilted dialogue to explain things we'd rather see for ourselves.

Scenes come and go with no context or coherence; it often takes a few seconds just to understand where the characters are and what they're doing. Entire arcs are explained away with narration or a simple expository line. When a hero makes a sacrifice at the end there's no emotional impact because we haven't gotten to know them as a person. There's a love story that has no resonance because instead of seeing two characters blossom and grow, we simply get a narration telling us "they became friends fast" and then see them make googly-eyes at each other. Aang is supposed to inspire the world, but you give us a few short sequences of him doing martial arts and then move on without ever letting him have any impact. Aang hints at having some conflict as to being the Avatar, but quickly shrugs it off and embraces his position, although I'll note that he never looks too joyful about it. In fact, I don't think anyone smiles in this cold, detached movie. Aside from when they're making googly-eyes, that is.

Night, you may have written one of film's most oft-quoted lines with "I see dead people," but your dialogue now reads like unused takes from "Attack of the Clones." Although you've directed Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment and Mel Gibson to fantastic performances, your actors here have all the nuance and personality of a middle school drama club production. The teens speak in flat monotones, exuding no charm or excitement, and the adults chew the scenery as if it were coated in sugar. Poor Dev Patel, so winning in "Slumdog Millionaire," alternates between angry scowls and giggle-inducing outbursts. I couldn't tell whether he was a tragic hero, a villain or just holding his place until the inevitable sequel. Maybe the fans of the series know about Prince Zuko's history and role in the mythology, but the uninitiated don't have any clue about what's going on. What's worse, by the end, we don't care.

You said when you took on the role that you were a fan of the "Last Airbender" mythology. But there's certainly no sense of joy or emotional investment to your work here. I can't figure out why. There's a good idea here. I'd watch a good movie with this plotline, characters and mythology - but it would require actually creating characters we liked and a mythology that had some sense of awe and importance.

I'll give credit where it's due, though. You've made a pretty film. I like the ice worlds, and the use of forests and mountains in the Earth kingdom. The action sequences have some style and I'm glad to see someone using long takes in martial arts sequences. Given that your only other experience with special effects was that horrible alien at the end of "Signs," you show some flair for the fire and water-bending sequences, and the movie twitches slightly to life when the characters shut up and start fighting (although, given the film's Buddhist leanings, that may not have been your intention). Maybe you should put the story-telling on hold and go into business as a cinematographer or a second unit director.

I will say that I'm not mad, as I was with "Lady in the Water." With that film, you were egotistical. Here, it's obvious you just don't care or, worse, don't have the chops. The film reminds me of "The Golden Compass," another adaptation that lost all of the energy and excitement of its source material in favor of boring us with exposition. Your film also seems to exist just to set up a series of sequels. What you fail to realize, though, is that by the end of this, we're so happy to be leaving the theater that promising us a second film is tantamount to the IRS promising an audit.

So, Mr. Shyamalan, I think it's best if I don't see your films for a while. Perhaps you'll want to take a break and hone your skills. Perhaps I'll want to see good movies. And perhaps one day you'll recapture the spark you once had and I'll be able to look at this letter as just a bump in our cinematic relationship.

Originally published in the July 4, 2010 edition of The Source newspaper.


About Me

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.