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Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Good Shepherd (**)

The Good Shepherd is Robert DeNiro's fictionalized account of the birth of the CIA. It stars Matt Damon as the head spy. He's married to Angelina Jolie, who he isn't attracted to at all. Say what? How could that be? One reason the movie gives is that Damon's character is a member of Skull and Bones, the Yale secret society. The Good Shepherd goes out of its way to depict Skull and Bones as an exclusive haven where affluent white boys get naked, lie on a stone table, confess their darkest secrets, and then take turns peeing on each other. The Skulls starring Joshua Jackson and Paul Walker painted a cooler and more heterosexual picture of Skull and Bones, if you can believe that. The biggest gripe I have against The Good Shepherd is that it's three hours long and it's fucking boring. Real spies can't be this uninteresting and I know movie spies are a hell of a lot cooler than this (see: Bond, James and Damon's own Bourne, Jason). Hell, I complained about it in MI:3, but The Good Shepherd could have seriously benefited from some latex masks, a lot of rappeling, and a helicopter chase or two. Also Damon has a perpetually nervous son in the movie who's about 10 years younger than he is. The Good Shepherd spans about 30 years of Damon's life but he hardly ages a day. What's his secret to perpetual youth? It must be the golden showers he received in college.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Juno (***1/2)


December 26, 2007
Every now and then -- not often -- but sometimes, you meet a character in a movie who just about makes your day. Juno MacGuff is one of those. I wish she were real and I wish I knew her because life would be richer with someone like her around. Ellen Page is probably the best actress under 25 we have in movies today and she makes Juno probably the most memorable lead character in any movie this year. Page is backed by a stellar supporting cast including Michael Cera, JK Simmons, Olivia Thirlby and Allison Janney. How fantastic was it to see Juno's parents be so well written and supportive of her? Parents of teenagers since John Hughes tailblazed the teen movie genre 25 years ago have either been emotionally distant strangers to their kids or willfully ignorant, barking ogres. Juno has a dad who loves her, doesn't understand how she got herself pregnant, isn't crazy about it, but stands by her daughter no matter what. Allison Janney is also really good as her stepmom, who feels the same way her dad does and provides the motherly support Juno needs, even after Juno spits blue slurpies in her urn after they argue.
As great as they all were, Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman as the prospective adoptive parents to Juno's baby almost stole the show for me. I was most impressed by Jennifer Garner's performance. She played a character who desperately wants to be a mother and nursed some deep pain about her failures both to conceive and adopt. Garner showed here she's a much, much better actress than the material she has chosen in the past allowed her to be. Juno is easily her best cinematic work yet. Bateman turns in a very sly performance where he slowly reveals the glaring hole in his personality that makes him kind of a creep. They walked a fine line in the budding relationship between Juno and Bateman but they cleverly avoided all the usual traps. Both Bateman and Garner's characters would have degenerated into standard villains if Juno were the standard crass, cynical, turd burglar Hollywood spews out. (Which includes superhero turds like X-Men: The Last Stand and Elektra, which criminally wasted the talents of Page and Garner, among many others.)
If I have quibbles with Juno, it's that I thought the first 15 minutes or so went a little overboard on the stylization of the dialogue and the characters. Lines like "Silencio, old man!" and "That's one doodle that can't be undid, home skillet." were more distracting than funny to me. But once Juno revealed her pregnancy to her parents (I liked how her stepmom kept hoping she was expelled from school) the movie took off.  And by the time Juno called the abortion clinic on her hamburger phone, looking to "procure a speedy abortion", I had warmed to the snappy banter by Diablo Cody. The dialogue really is quite good in the movie. What a treat to see a movie about teenage kids that's very funny but doesn't have the main character constantly screaming and swearing, unlike that other blockbuster comedy Michael Cera was in this year. The other thing that didn't sparkle with me was the folksy music on the soundtrack. All of the music conversations Juno and Jason Bateman had about bands like Sonic Youth made me wish they were on the soundtrack of the movie, even if Juno decided "it's just noise."
Juno is one of those movies that are all too rare; filled with smart, honest, emotionally complete characters, whip-smart writing, fine directing from Jason Reitman (Who's 2-0. First Thank You For Smoking and now Juno. What a career this guy is putting together), genuine humor, and love. The movie poster for Juno should have come with the label "made with love". Juno is a movie made by people who care. Who care about quality, about audiences, about their characters, about saying something sweet and genuine about themselves and about us. One of the best movies of 2007.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Charlie Wilson's War (***)


December 21, 2007
According to Charlie Wilson's War, Charles Wilson, a Congressman from Texas "of no particular importance" finagled a billion dollars of US funds for the CIA to finance Afghanistan's war against the Soviet Union in the late 1980's. Because of Wilson's efforts, the Afghanis had the weapons they needed to become the first nation on Earth to defeat the Soviet Army, which lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. This is all "based on a true story." Whatever may be true about this story is buried somewhere in a slick, talky, entertaining, 87 minute fluff piece with a lot of snappy patter and virtually no conflict or drama. Seriously, there's no conflict in the entire picture.

In Charlie Wilson's War, Charlie Wilson wins. Every time. Every single problem he faces, he immediately overcomes. Whenever he needs something done, he goes out and does it and nothing impedes him. He makes enemies who meet behind closed doors and complain about him, yet none of them do anything to stop him.

Charlie Wilson always gets exactly what he wants at no cost and with no sacrifice. Charlie Wilson needs to get Israel to work with Pakistan despite their mutual hatred? One meeting and it's done. He needs Egypt to work with Israel? One meeting in a nightclub with a belly dancer he brings in from Texas (!), it's done. He needs his boss Ned Beatty to sign off on giving a billion dollars to the CIA? A trip to Pakistan so Ned Beatty can see the refugees and it's done.

Even when Charlie Wilson isn't personally involved, it's done. According to the movie, the Afghanis had no trouble at all using the US-supplied weapons to destroy the Soviet Army. It was easy as pie. Look, Soviet helicopters and tanks! Just point the rocket launcher and BOOM! It's done. Just like Charlie Wilson taught them. Apparently, waging a clandestine war against the USSR and ending the Cold War was surprisingly easy.

The biggest threat to Charlie Wilson in the movie is a federal indictment pending because he spent a night in a fantasy suite in Las Vegas with a Playboy model, two strippers, a sleazy would-be Hollywood TV producer, and some blow. Not that Charlie Wilson did any lines. The pending indictment causes great consternation to his big boobied harem of assistants, including Amy Adams, Rachel Nichols, and Shiri Appleby, but Charlie Wilson isn't worried. Why should he be? Less than 20 minutes of movie time later, the indictment is dropped and Charlie Wilson skates by another problem that didn't actually pose a problem for him.

I did like Charlie Wilson's style, however. He has excellent taste in big boobied assistants, and even Emily Blunt shows up just to prance around in her underpants and show off her suprisingly hot body. But if I learned anything from the movie, it's that Shiri Appleby needs to be in more movies because she's ridiculously hot.

The engaging dialogue complete with walkandtalks and wink-wink jabs at Washington politics by Aaron Sorkin and the performances by Tom Hanks and Phillip Seymour Hoffman carry the picture. Sorkin sets a record for characters in a movie gleefully talking about how much they love "killing Russians". Hanks musters up all the charisma he has and all the credibility he loaned to the US Government in The Simpsons Movie to give us a very, very likable hero.

Although we're told Charlie Wilson is a drunken, promiscuous rascal (the biggest laugh in the movie is when the murderous President of Pakistan tells Wilson flat out he has character flaws), we never see him do anything wrong. He likes beautiful women and enjoys sex with them. Also, he drinks a lot. Those are his character flaws. Otherwise, he's a prince. Phillip Seymour Hoffman's CIA agent even marvels that Wilson's the "only honest politician" in Washington.

Hoffman does his unkempt, smartest and angriest guy in the room schtick and does it really well. Still, Hoffman might want to get 8 hours of sleep once in a while. Hoffman always looks like he's about to keel over from exhaustion in every movie. Hanks and Hoffman make a good team and there's a hilarious exchange where Hoffman bugged a bottle of scotch he gave Hanks as a present.

Julia Roberts, playing a plastic Southern rich lady version of Tess Ocean, is ostensibly the lead actress because she's Julia Roberts, but Amy Adams has a lot more screen time and is far more endearing as Wilson's number one aide. Since Amy Adams is on her way to becoming the new Julia Roberts, it might be time to retire the original.

All the Oscar talk for Charlie Wilson's War seems like overpraise. It's an entertaining crowd-pleaser but there's not a hell of a lot to it. It seems like all the actual dramatic parts of the story are missing, except for the one dramatic part that made it into the movie: Tom Hanks's bare ass. Thanks, Hanks.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Simpsons Essay


I love The Simpsons. It's been the major influence on me for as long as it's been on the air and it all but defined my sense of humor and worldview, for better or worse. I tend to be a Simpsons apologist (or justifier as I see it). I know the series is never going to be what it was 10-12 years ago. The Simpsons has been on for almost two whole decades. Along with its natural aging, shows like South Park, Family Guy, Futurama, and live action series like Arrested Development, The Office (run by former Simpsons writer Greg Daniels), My Name Is Earl, etc. have since stolen a lot of their thunder. But when they're on point, The Simpsons can still deliver.

I feel like The Simpsons Movie's long development distracted their best writers and animators over the last few years. It takes six months to create an episode from start to finish. The Simpsons Movie was five years in development and was being re-written and re-edited right up to its release date. The Movie's five year journey to theatres meant at least 5-6 seasons were affected by the series' all-star writers and animators having to split their time between the series and the Movie. I'm curious what the series will be like a year from now with their top talent back on the mothership, if you will.

I've been spending quite a bit of my free time lately watching seasons 4-7 on DVD with commentaries. These were the show's golden years and I'm fascinated by The Simpsons' unique brand of comedy writing. The commentaries are like master classes in writing comedy.

There are definitely aspects of how episodes are put together today (timing, editing, style of jokes) that are different from the golden years. One theory is that the newer writers just aren't as good as the original crop. There's a case to be made for that. However, there are also strange restrictions now placed on them by FOX borne of the current cultural climate that The Simpsons never had to deal with in the mid-90's. (For instance, there is currently a ban on The Simpsons being able to show Homer's (or anyone's) bare ass on the show. The nudity ban is what made them go all out with Bart's full frontal in the Movie. Also, it is now harder/more expensive to do big musical numbers which is why there have been so few in the last few years. On the other hand, they get away with any number of copyright violations -- Count Chocula, The Incredible Hulk Melon Baller that "shits out" melon balls to name two -- these days.)

The showrunner (head writer) for the last few seasons has been Al Jean. The showrunner definitely gets to determine the style of humor the series takes under his stewardship. The most popular years of "Who Shot Mr. Burns?" in the mid-90's were largely run by David Mirkin, who had a style different from Jean's. The episodes speak for themselves. I prefer Mirkin's style and his episodes. I feel Al Jean's run on the series has been more slapdash, although he has modernized the series to a degree (Homer Simpson having a laptop, cell phone, and knowing what YouTube is. The writers ten years ago steered clear of the Simpsons having such amenities so that Homer getting a computer or stealing cable were big deals. Times change, things change.)

The biggest change to me over the last few years has been in Homer Simpson himself. It's really amazing hearing David Mirkin, David Cohen (showrunner of Futurama), Greg Daniels, et al discuss their vision of Homer. To them, Homer "is the most positive guy in the world." No matter how crummy his life is, he's optimistic and happy. He keeps hoping for the best. Watch those seasons and see how loveable their Homer is.

Homer in recent years has veered away from that. He was always a jerk, but in the last few years he has not only acknowledged he's a jerk but takes delight in it. And today's Homer is miserable. He's almost always unhappy and complaining. In the old years, no matter what Homer did, his devotion to Marge and his love for his family was always the elastic that brought him back. Now, Homer regularly dreams of leaving them and even fantasy episodes set in the future have Homer and Marge separated or divorced, unthinkable a decade ago.

It's weird how different the Homer character is. He's still Homer, just with different textures. I personally prefer the older Homer. One of the things I admired in The Simpsons Movie is that they managed to merge all the various aspects of Homer together so the character embodied all of those dimensions in the course of the 90 minutes. I also loved that the Simpsons family unit was the crux of the story, which is rarely the case in the series these days.

Anyway, 2008 will be The Simpsons's 20th season. Imagine that. I'm on board as ever, but I wonder if my theory of The Simpsons Movie finally being in the rearview mirror will cause any noticable changes in the quality of the series.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

I Am Legend: The IMAX Experience (***)



The rightful winner of the Best Supporting Actresss Oscar for 2007 has been found. Her name is Abbey, she's three years old, and she plays Samantha in I Am Legend. That Abbey is a German Shepherd will disqualify her from consideration from those specists in the Academy. Speciesm! I hate speciesm. I don't care who gets nominated for the Oscar this year, Abbey's performance pwns all those other bitches. Show me a better supporting performance by a human actress in a motion picture this year. Even though she'll be robbed of an Oscar she deserves, it won't matter to Abbey. Abbey doesn't care about awards or the Oscars. She's a good girl. Good girl. Have a cookie. Christ, I loved that dog. 

I Am Legend is pretty solid all around. Sometimes terrifying, kind of despressing, exhilirating but not too exhilirating, yet generally effective and satisfying. Unfortunately, the final act isn't nearly as good as what came before it. The movie never quite recovers from the pivotal tragedy that ended the second act. However, there is a palpable feeling of dread that creeps in as things fall apart for Robert Neville, the Last Man on Earth, and it becomes clear he's more screwed than he was before. 

Will Smith was really good. Big Willie delivers one of the best lead performances in a big budget sci-fi action thriller that I've seen in quite a while. It was a bit of a pill to swallow that Will Smith was a brilliant scientist trying desperately to cure the viral infection that turned 90% of the world's population into vampires, but he's a hell of a lot more convincing than some other actors and actresses Hollywood has asked us to buy as brilliant scientists.

Beyond his relationship with his wonderful dog, the best stuff Smith did was convey how the three years alone with his dog in Manhattan drove him insane. His life is an endless series of routine designed to keep himself and his dog alive: wake, exercise, hunt for meat, forage for supplies, broadcast emergency SOS and look for other survivors, back home before dark, set up defenses, try to sleep while 5 million vampires party outside all night. Beyond that, Smith's Robert Neville carries the agonizing guilt of being partly responsible for the virus and for the death of his wife and daughter. Coupled with his loneliness and desperate need for human contact, this is some of Smith's best work. When he traps a vampire female, brings her back to his lab, and tests potential cures on her, it feels like he's not so much trying to be the savior of humanity as he is hoping she'll wake up and provide a dinner companion that doesn't eat off the floor.

Robert Neville's insanity due to his isolation was quite interesting. He goes to video stores during the day and rents DVDs of the Today Show so he can hear human voices and maybe pretend things are the way they used to be. He has conversations and relationships with mannquins he dressed in clothes. When you compare what Neville has to what Tom Hanks had in Castaway, a soccer ball named Wilson, Neville is far better off but still, being the Last Man on Earth is really depressing. I also liked that despite his routine and his precautions, Neville was getting careless. The first time we see him he's chasing deer around Manhattan in his Shelby Mustang and runs head long into a pride of lions escaped from the zoo. Later we see he's staying out later and later, barely making it back to his home by sundown. It was inevitable he'd lose what little he had left by his own behavior and carelessness. It's actually amazing Neville and Sam lasted the three years they did alone in Manhattan surrounded by vampires.

An idea that didn't quite get across as well as it could have was that the vampires were watching Robert Neville and learned from him. The pivotal event of the film begins when one of Neville's mannequins suddenly appears at Grand Central Station and this cracks Neville's fragile psyche. How did "Fred" get there? The movie was a little unclear about it. At first I believed that Neville had simply forgotten he had moved "Fred" and he walked into one of his own vampire traps. I later realized what had actually happened: the "Alpha" vampire that Neville encountered previously saw how his vampire trap worked and set one for him.

The vampires were not well explored in terms of their behavior and whatever "culture" they had. That makes sense since the audience's POV was with Robert Neville. We only see what he sees and know what he knows about them. No one can blame Robert Neville for not descending into the dark vampire hives to do studies on how they spend their days. (The most frightening sequence in the movie is when Sam runs after a deer into a hive warehouse and Neville has to go in after her.) All we know about vampires is that they're hairless, pale, UV light is fatal to them, the CGI used to make them wasn't so great, and they're superfast and superstrong like movie monsters are these days.

Still, there are many questions about the vampires that were left unanswered, especially about what they retained of their human personalities, memory capacity, and identity. The Alpha vampire was more overtly "villainous" than expected by the end. He really seemed to have it out for Neville. Maybe he heard Neville dubbed him and his vampire pals "dark seekers" and thought it was a dumb name. One of the best parts of the novel "I Am Legend" by Richard Matheson was that the vampires knew Robert Neville; the ones who stalked him were once his neighbors and friends. At night, they'd pound on his doors and call his name ("Neville! Come out!") and the female vampires would behave in sexually suggestive ways to entice him to come out. I'd have liked to have seen some of those aspects from the vampires in the movie.

What I really didn't like was A) all that Shrek in the movie (Neville really likes Shrek but I really don't. I've never seen a movie use dialogue from another movie to convey its characters' motivations quite like Legend does Shrek.), and B) Anna the plot device and Ethan, the boy who never talks. The appearance of Anna the plot device right when Neville has lost his best friend and his will to live is right out of the deus ex machina playbook. Anna the plot device doesn't even make any sense: she and Mute Boy somehow survived the vampire apocalypse yet they seem to have stepped out of central casting. They don't look or act like survivors. They have no weapons, no training. Their story was full of holes. They were driving up the East Coast to the last human colony in Vermont and heard Neville's SOS? How the hell did they get onto the island? The flashbacks clearly established all the bridges were destroyed. Assume all the tunnels were as well. Anna is so jarringly out of place and is so clearly a device, it's distracting. We don't care about Anna and her crazy "God told me to drive to Vermont" stories. We don't care about Mute Boy surviving. We care about Robert Neville. We wanted to see Robert Neville set foot in the survivor colony and teach the last humans to get jiggy wit it Big Willie Style. The ending is ultimately a letdown.

If there's one important lession I Am Legend teaches us, however, it's that Emma Thompson will destroy human civilization as we know it. It's all her fault. Somebody stop her before it's too late.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Atonement (****)


Atonement stunningly brings to life England in between the World Wars, and both England and France during World War II. Director Joe Wright palpably recreates a bygone era only some of our grandparents have memory of and fuses it with a dreamy, tragic otherworldliness. Above all, Atonement shows the cost of how one terrible lie can ruin the lives of innocent people.

The details throughout the movie are extraordinary, from the strange singlet swimsuits men wore back then to chocolate bars wrapped in silver paper soldiers carried in their kits to the pneumatic red tubes used to send mail. The production design and costumes are fantastic. Wright uses the percussion beats of an old manual typewriter like the sound of a ticking time bomb and weaves between different point of views of critical scenes to show us how reality differs from what one naive, imaginatively vengeful 13 year old girl perceives.

Atonement's first half immerses us in life in an English country manor, showing the classism between the wealthy owners and their servants, complete with lies, hidden raw eroticism and sexual intrigue. The second half takes place during the war, showing the devastation of France at the hands of the Nazis as well as the cost of the Blitz when the Nazis bombed London, with hordes of wounded British soldiers arriving in the hospitals, met by nurses performing triage. (The grittty authenticity of the war scenes additionally bring to mind what a bullshit cartoon Pearl Harbor was.)

Wright also attempts to match the amazing single unbroken take in Children of Men with his own, showing James McAvoy and his companions arriving on the beach in Dunkirk, the camera sweeping along with and past them across the vast expanse of men and machinery in one amazing unbroken shot.

The cast of McAvoy and Keira Knightley are superb, but for all of Knightley's top billing and Oscar hype, I was most impressed by the two actresses who played Briony Tallis: Saorise Ronan, Briony age 13, and Romola Garai, Briony age 18. Both actresses shared the same mannerisms to convincingly portray the same character five years apart. Ronan's combination of a young girl's naivety and vindictiveness is beautifully matched by the older Garai's silent regret and intention to sacrifice herself to make amends.

The finest scenes in the movie for me are when Garai's Briony attempts to comfort a fallen soldier with the worst headwound imaginable, and the scene where Garai confronts Knightley and McAvoy and attempts to atone for the lie she told that ruined their lives. Both are incredibly staged and performed. Then Atonement gut-punches the audience when Vanessa Redgrave shows up as terminally ill Briony in her 70's and finally tells the whole truth once and for all.

As relentlessly tragic as Atonement is, it's better than something like Babel in that the characters are aware of the tragic turn in their lives and spend the entire movie fighting against fate to restore the happiness they know in their hearts they deserve. McAvoy and Knightley are torn apart by the lie her sister told yet never give up on each other or the dream that they can get back the time stolen from them. Garai is just as tragic as she lives with the guilt of what she did and the cowardice in her heart for her entire life.

Haunting, hypnotic, moving, classy, and ultimately, inevitably crushing, Atonement is one of the best movies I've seen this year.