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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Lars and the Real Girl (***)


October 17, 2007
Lars and the Real Girl tells the heartwarming story of an emotionally stunted man who buys himself a sex doll online, passes her off as his girlfriend, and somehow the whole town plays along. Ryan Gosling plays Lars. He's a deeply repressed man with serious abandonment issues (his mother died during childbirth) who becomes delusional. Also he dresses in ugly sweaters. Gosling plays Lars with constant eyeblinking, nervous ticks, and all wide, thin-lipped smiles. Because it's the dude from The Notebook playing him, a cursory glance of the ladies in the audience told me they were registering Lars as a sweet, attractive guy with a serious problem they wanted him to overcome instead of what I was seeing him as: a potentially dangerous time bomb. But then, I thought Rachel McAdams should have stayed with Cyclops in The Notebook.

Lars buys himself a Real Doll, which in the movie is called Bianca, although is/she looks a lot like "Stacy" on the Real Doll website (ah, research). He manufactures an entire backstory about her being an orphaned, wheelchair-bound Brazillian missionary to explain her to his brother and pregnant sister in law (Emily Mortimer). Lars also conjures Bianca as being deeply religious to explain why he doesn't actually have sex with his sex doll. But he's totally serious about thinking that she's real and she's his girlfriend. He eats its/her food for it/her and has one sided conversations with it/her. He even has fights with it/her. That's right, he argues with his plastic girlfriend but doesn't get the makeup sex afterwards. The guy is nuts.

Lars's brother has some touching scenes where he blames himself for leaving home and Lars too soon, which he fears eventually lead to his brother paying five grand for a plastic girlfriend he doesn't have sex with. Lars's brother is the only person in the entire movie who sees what's going on for what it is and fears for Lars believably. He and Mortimer take Lars to see the town shrink, Patricia Clarkson, and then they ask the rest of the town to play along and not upset Lars. From the intriguing problem set up, things start to go south.

In a meeting with the town elders, the local priest considers their situation and asks, "What would Jesus do?" It's tough to say, padre, but consider that Jesus might not have done what you guys did: take Bianca, give her a fake job, fake appointments, and basically all pretend that she's real. The entire town bends over backwards to make like this plastic love toy is a real person, so much so that it/she begins spending less time with Lars and Lars doesn't like it. Luckily, there's a real girl in Lars life, Kelli Garner (who's pretty hot in real life but they sure uglied her up here. She looks a step above Charlize Theron in Monster.) Garner patiently waits for Lars to work out his disturbing issues. The movie sets up from the outset that she likes him and she's the girl for him so the conclusion of their story is pretty rote and unsurprising. Garner doesn't seem to realize that with a little makeup and nice clothes she can do a lot better than that psycho.

I'm giving Lars and the Real Girl three stars, but on the lower end of that rating. They accomplished what they were trying to do, and Gosling gives a convincing performance as Lars, but there was potential here that was left unexplored, questions that could have been answered. For instance, Lars is crazy, but the way the entire town accepted Bianca as their own raised serious questions about the sanity of everyone else. The comedic possibilities were touched upon but could have been mined deeply. I began to wonder whether Lars was really just bullshitting everyone (he wasn't), why the townspeople were going along with it (because they all love Lars as Mortimer claimed? Doubt it), and whether or not people were afraid of him (they probably should have been.) As the movie progressed, the circumstances regarding how Bianca departs from the story are absurd and wildly stretch credibility. (No way 911 shows up and ambulances a sex doll to the hospital.) If the movie were more comedic-minded, they would have had more leeway to do the things they did in the last act, but the filmmakers were intent on playing Lars' plight as heartwrenching drama.  

Lars and the Real Girl however is an unbelievably persuasive advertisement for the Real Doll. The manufacturers of the Real Doll must be real pleased. Real Dolls aren't just for sex! Apparently, the Real Dolls are wondrous, miraculous creations that can not only heal the most emotionally disturbed of us, but they have the power to bring an entire town together. I know when the movie was over I wanted one. They handed out posters of the movie to everyone exiting the theater. What they should have done was hand out Real Dolls. If they did, I wouldn't be writing this review right now, I can assure you.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Elizabeth: The Golden Age (***)


The Enterprise of England

Elizabeth: The Golden Age is a two hour movie that feels like three hours. This is meant as a compliment. There's so much going on in the film, so much intrigue, war, and quasi-history, it feels like a miniseries, but I never found any of it boring. The sets and costumes rival last year's Marie Antoinette for splendid opulence, bordering on excess, but Elizabeth: The Golden Age tells a more ambitious, sweeping story and has far superior performances. For my money, this sequel is also better than 1998's Elizabeth. The Golden Age not only features Cate Blanchett in a tour de force eclipsing her previous performance, but supporting her is Clive Owen in place of Joseph Fiennes. That's like trading blended horse manure for frosty chocolate milkshakes.

The story in The Golden Age weaves between sexual intrigue in Queen Elizabeth's court and the labyrinthine plot by Catholics King Phillip of Spain and Mary Queen of Scots to have Protestant "godless bastard" Elizabeth assassinated. (A plot referred to in the film as "The Enterprise of England".) When the big reveal happens of who betrayed whom, who really did what and why, in the words of Homer Simpson, it's "a plan fiendishly clever in its intricacies."  

The Golden Age is an (attempted) murder-mystery in its first half (it's no spoiler to reveal that Queen Elizabeth is not assassinated) and a naval war movie in its latter half. The Spanish Armada sets sail to invade England in full-scale war, only to be miraculously defeated by the outnumbered English forces. (Hey, it's history.) By the time Clive Owen as Sir Walter Raleigh leads his galleons to a fiery victory against the mighty Spanish Armada, I half expected Captain Jack Sparrow, Will Turner, and Elizabeth Swann to show up and lend him a hand. (Captain Barbossa Geoffrey Rush returns as Elizabeth's spymaster Walsingham but his feet remain firmly planted on dry land.)

Blanchett is fantastic as Elizabeth, even more comfortable and commanding wearing the crown. It's a slam dunk nomination for a Best Actress Oscar, especially for the ways Blanchett lays bare Elizabeth's buried fears, jealousies, and secret desires. She also looked pretty damn sexy in her royal suit of armour. Owen is as good as I've ever seen him as the charming pirate Sir Walter Raleigh. Owen delivers an electrifying monologue where he describes for the Queen what it's like to cross the ocean on a ship searching for the New World. Film is a visual medium with a hard and fast rule of "show it, don't say it" but Owen proves a rare case of how much more effective it can be when an actor is allowed to describe something with just words and his talent, allowing the audience to join the Queen in visualizing what he's saying with our minds' eyes.

Samantha Morton delivers an unearthly performance as Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. Morton portrays Mary which such sympathy, dignity, desperation, and regality, especially in how she faces her execution, that if I were Blanchett's agent, I'd have lobbied to have her cut from the movie. Morton gets the Best Supporting Actress Oscar if I have anything to say about it (and I don't.). Geoffrey Rush, meanwhile, is as reliable as ever but isn't given a whole lot to do besides skulk around the edges of scenes spying and then apologize twice, to his traitorous brother and to his Queen, for not being all the spy he could be.

It's not all good news for the acting though. Abbie Cornish as Bess, Elizabeth's ward and favorite maiden-in-waiting, doesn't fare too well with her attempts at an English accent. On the Costner Scale, Kevin Costner as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves being a 10, she's about a 7. It was also distracting how Bess, whom everyone in the court knows is the closest person to the Queen, is somehow able to wander around London unescorted whenever she wants, visiting pirate ships and the homes of her cousins, known Catholics and conspirators against the Queen. And maybe I'm mistaken, but part of the movie's R rating is for nudity. I believe we were promised some boobies. I'm looking at you, Cornish. (The bare ass of Blanchett's body double doesn't count.) 

The Golden Age ain't shy about its ambitions as full-fledged Oscar bait for Best Picture and Best Director, but it won't be getting either trophy. The performances carry the picture. The Golden Age is spottily edited, has some questionable and distracting camera work, and has an obnoxious score that in quieter moments works to practically sabotage the actors. Director Shekhar Kapur might as well have hopped in front of the camera periodically and waved, "Look at me, everyone!" And everyone would have yelled back, "You suck! You can't direct!" Still, one thing I can't fault Kapur for is that he really seems to love Queen Elizabeth I. The Golden Age is the second of his planned trilogy of Elizabeth movies. I suppose William Shakespeare will make an appearance in the third Elizabeth. That's cool with me as long as everyone loses Joseph Fiennes' phone number.

Monday, October 1, 2007

The Kingdom (***)


October 1, 2007
"We'll kill them all."
Whatever Stephen Sommers is up to with his G.I. Joe feature film, The Kingdom has already beaten him to the punch. The Kingdom is basically a G.I. Joe movie set more like the original Marvel Comics written by Larry Hama in the 1980's: a small elite team of American specialists enter Saudi Arabia to investigate the destruction of the American compound and track down the terrorists responsible, who are Saudis and not Cobra. The plot descriptions of The Kingdom I've seen often state that Foxx's FBI team are sent to Saudi Arabia. This is inaccurate. Jamie Foxx actually goes renegade and inveigles his team's way into Saudi Arabia to investigate the bombing after being banned to do so by slimy U.S. Senator Danny Huston (always great in every role). Once in Saudi Arabia, Foxx's team is stonewalled left and right in their investigation by their Saudi handlers until they form a bond and understanding. From there Americans and Saudis work together to find the true culprits responsible for the bombings.
The Kingdom opens with the most entertaining opening credit sequence since the opening credits of David Fincher's Se7en, explaining the history from 1931-2001 of Saudi Arabia striking oil and the United States' becoming the largest oil consumer in the world. With the enemies being a Saudi terrorist cell, The Kingdom takes great pains to paint the Saudi characters in the movie as three dimensional people and not all evil, suicidal monsters. The Kingdom shows the simple things even terrorists have in common, like love for their families, separated into murderous intent by misguided ideology. The bond Foxx forms with his intitially hostile Saudi counterpart Faris Al Ghazi is touching, as is Foxx's relationship with his young son and his habit of visiting the sons of his dead partners. By the end, lessons are learned, people are changed, but the problems aren't solved, nor should they be. Critics have complained that The Kingdom simplifies or "dumbs down " the complex issues of terrorism in the Middle East. At the end of the day, The Kingdom is an action movie and first and foremost has to perform as one. It touches on the issues, raises questions, but must solve its story dilemmas with action and violence. By the end, The Kingdom convincingly argues "we'll kill them all" can't be the answer.
The action is depicted as realistic, although Foxx, Jennifer Garner, and Jason Bateman take on more superheroic action movie traits in the final 30 minutes. The Kingdom has probably the best use of Jennifer Garner I've yet seen in a movie. Playing on her five seasons as a secret agent on Alias and two comic book movies as Elektra, Garner survives a brutal fight scene that logically should have killed her and Bateman. To its credit, The Kingdom's characters are all very human. They bleed, they feel, they argue, they grow, change, and understand.
Fresh from portraying Tubbs in last year's Miami Vice, Foxx seems happy to be the center of attention without his erratic partner Crockett. Foxx relishes the command role and doesn't have to worry about any of his partners disappearing to Cuba for a sexy getaway with Gong Li. The Kingdom confirmed suspicions that Miami Vice would have been better if it were more about Tubbs than Crockett. Garner frowns a lot, provides gravitas and tank-top clad boobies, although as a coroner, it turns out she couldn't do her job since Muslims freak out if a woman touches Muslim corpses. But without Garner there, the movie couldn't highlight how fucked up Muslim attitudes are towards women. Bateman gamely gives comic relief and serves as the audience's window into the story ("What am I doing here? This place is scary. I better crack some jokes"). When Bateman is kidnapped by Muslim terrorists, I was reminded a similar thing already happened to him and Gob in Iraq during season 3 of Arrested Development. Chris Cooper is a calming presence amidst the chaos. But Ashraf Barhom as their minder and later partner, Col. Faris Al Ghazi, steals the whole show.
The Kingdom was like watching Friday Night Lights except with guns, terrorists, killing and explosions instead of football, right down to the ambient soundtrack by Danny Elfman perfectly mimicking W.G. "Snuffy" Warren and Explosions in the Sky's FNL scores. Worked for me. I love Friday Night Lights, I like Peter Berg, I like Jamie Foxx, I like Jennifer Garner, I like Chris Cooper, I like Jason Bateman, I like guns, killing, explosions, and action movies. Therefore, I loved The Kingdom. And I especially loved the cameos by Friday Night Lights's own Kyle Chandler and Minka Kelly. If there was a way to squeeze Connie Britton, Aimee Teegarden, and hell, the whole town of Dillon, Texas into The Kingdom, by God, Peter Berg should have done it.