Saturday, June 30, 2012

To Rome With Love Review

Say what you will about Woody Allen—his personal life issues, his directing career of recent—you have to admire his work ethic. The man is 76 years old and he’s still cranking out a movie a year simply because he loves writing and directing. Sure you could say, why doesn’t he slow it down? Why doesn’t he make a movie every other year, since he’s also writing it? But Allen has always been about quantity over quality, and I don’t really see any problem with that.

Over his vast career Allen has made 48 films. Most of them are forgettable, a few are straight bad, and then there are a few that are great. A couple examples of these are “Annie Hall,” “Hannah and her Sisters” and last year’s “Midnight in Paris.” He wants to keep himself busy and if that means most of the movies are forgettable then so be it, because a great one (like “Midnight in Paris”) may come a long once in a while.

Is his latest film “To Rome With Love” as great as “Midnight in Paris?” Of course not. That’s like capturing lightning in a bottle twice in a row. But that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It’s mostly forgettable yes, but at the same time pleasant and mildly entertaining. It continues his recent tour of Europe, whisking us away to the city of Rome, so there’s a plus right there. 

The cinematography by Darius Khondji is lush and romantic. Allen shows us all of the major sites (The Coliseum, etc.) as well as the wonderful little cafés and bistros, the old winding cobblestone roads. Like in “Midnight in Paris,” Allen practically makes the city into a main character. The movie on a whole is like eating a slightly better than average pastry. It’s edible throughout, once in a while there are a few great little tastes and then you finish and move on with your day without looking back.

 There is a lot going on. The structure of “To Rome with Love” consists of four vignettes—two are in English, two are in Italian—and vignettes are always difficult to do, especially when they don’t intersect with one another. They all share about the same weight in substance, which is admittedly light and they all sort of depend on one another for a complete movie, even if some stories are weaker than others.

One is about an American architect named John (Alec Baldwin) who runs into a younger architect Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) who’s almost like a younger version of himself, going through a dilemma--involving a pseudo intellectual girl named Monica (Ellen Paige)—similar to a dilemma John faced when he was that age and lived in Rome. Then there is one that’s a little more farcical involving Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni), a typical middle class Italian who one day becomes famous for no apparent reason. There’s an amusing scene where paparazzi report on his weekly shave.

Meanwhile there is the young married couple Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) who get separated in the city and are both romantically tempted by other people, for Antonio a prostitute played by a sexy Penelope Cruz and for Milly a famous Italian movie star. And finally, in a more classic romantic comedy scenario, we have Jerry (Woody Allen), a retired Opera director coming to Rome with his wife to meet his daughter Hayley’s (Allison Pill) Italian fiancée, Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti). However Jerry discovers that Michelangelo’s father has an incredible opera voice, which leads him to promote Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato) and get his career going again. This is the first time Allen has acted in a movie since 2006’s “Scoop” and even though he gives his typical Neurotic Woody performance, seeing his presence, complaining about airplanes or Communists brought a smile to my face and brought back old memories of him in “Annie Hall” or “Hannah.”

The vignettes don’t always cohere with each other very smoothly and there are certain scenes within each that go on longer than they should and all four of the episodes aren’t resolved particularly well. But on the other hand, there are great little unique pieces to be found within each one. A notable example: The only way Giancarlo can sing beautifully is when he’s in the shower, so when he performs in front an audience a shower stall is brought on stage and he sings an entire Opera while in it. In addition, the screenplay by Allen contains plenty of his usual witty and sincere dialogue that’s continually been one of his greatest strengths as a filmmaker. And all of the acting is passable, nothing outstanding but no one is flat out terrible.

Other than that there’s not a whole lot else to talk about. “To Rome With Love” is by no means great and I’m sure it will evaporate in no time but I still found it to be a pleasurable experience. It’s easy going and takes advantage of a gorgeous location. And even if you don’t like it it’s not worth getting hung up about considering Woody Allen is already in preproduction for his next movie.

Maybe he’ll strike gold next time around.


Thursday, June 28, 2012

Where do We Go Now Review

The tone of Nadine Labaki’s “Where do we Go Now?” is for the most part comical and upbeat, which is surprising considering it’s about the conflict between Muslims and Christians in the Middle East. The movie takes place in a remote, unnamed village in Lebanon, where both Christians and Muslim’s co exist with each other. They’ve been at peace for some time now but all it can take is one little feud to cause a bloody dispute.

As much as Labaki’s picture is about religious differences the final conclusion I got from it is that: The men in this village are dumb, aggressive babies who are incapable of solving their own disputes. After hearing a report on the radio and television that an attack happened somewhere else in the country resulting in a few Christian deaths, the woman in the village cover the situation up the best they can, other wise the dissenting religious men will fight and most likely kill one another. The graveyard located outside of the village mostly contains men (husbands, brothers, sons etc.). At one point someone remarks that the village has more dead than living. In an odd way I was reminded of an episode of the “The Simpsons” in which Marge tries to hide from Homer the fact that there is a Chili festival in Springfield because she doesn’t want him to get drunk and make a fool of himself and her.

In order to cover up the situation the women try a number of non-violent tactics. This is how the comic and upbeat-ness comes about. They hire a group of young prostitutes to distract and tease the men, and later on bake a bunch of hash and pills into baked goods to get them all stoned. I know, I know these things seem more appropriate in an American teen stoner comedy, but I must admit I somewhat enjoyed these little comic intervals. They give the picture a sense of energy and vitality that’s unexpected. To add more comedy there’s plenty of bickering amongst the townspeople and physical gags.

Now, I don’t have an issue with this picture’s negative view on males but Lebaki and co screenwriter’s Rodney El Hadded, Jihad Hojeily and Sam Mounier make every single man in the village, a dumb, aggressive baby. They start out as caricatures and stay as them and because there’s no development they eventually mold into one big blob of…dumb, aggressive, babies. The women have to break up their fights and make them apologize to one another. I find it difficult to believe that there wouldn’t at least be one man smart enough to see the stupidity and work with the women.

Labaki and her writers make a worthy effort with “Where Do We Go Now?” The acting (which includes Labaki herself in a leading role) is decent enough, although none of the performances, even those of the females, are all that memorable. And I applaud their attempt at trying to present a serious issue in a comic light (even though there are peculiar shifts in mood and emotion, from funny, to sad, to funny again). But in the end the movie has a too narrow and bitter view of its men. We’re not all dumb, aggressive babies.


Ted Review

Ted, the little (artificially) furry guy at the center of “Ted”--a raunchy comedy from Seth MacFarlene, making his directorial debut—is one vulgar, vulgar teddy bear.  I never thought I would write “vulgar” and “teddy bear” in the same sentence. He drinks, has sex with hookers and smokes an awful lot of pot.  Ted is the result of a childhood wish made by his owner John. As a child John had no friends and when he was given the bear for Christmas he wished that it would be alive and remain his friend forever.

It’s funny to think how an innocent childhood wish could turn into something so rude and obnoxious. MacFarlane (who is known as the creator of the cartoon satire show “Family Guy,”) voices him with a heavy Boston-ish accent and boy does he utter the f-word a lot. The character also got me to thinking just how the wish really works. He drinks, smokes and screws all the time but how does his cotton filled body sustain that damage? Is he capable of alcohol poisoning? Can he OD? Can he contract sexually transmitted diseases? And while we’re on that subject since he doesn’t have a you-know-what how does that work? Why would women want to have sex with a  teddy bear?

Oh, Look at me; I’m questioning the logistics of a living stuffed animal in a comedy film. “Ted” is simply just a raunchy comedy about a teddy bear, that’s it. So it’s just magic I guess.

The story takes place long after that Christmas miracle, for a little while Ted was a celebrity but, like most celebrities over time, is now old news. John (Mark Wahlberg, showing yet again that he can do comedy fairly well) is now thirty and works at a car rental place. He still lives with his teddy bear so he’s a man-child and a loser. Most of the movie involves Ted and John hanging out, having a beer, and hitting a bong while occasionally having some crazy or freaky adventure. The running joke throughout the entire film is the fact that a grown man hangs out with a teddy bear and also the fact that everyone else has simply accepted Ted as a regular citizen. And I must admit, I found that funny, mostly because it’s amusing to think about afterwards.

Though somehow he’s landed a girl, Lori (Mila Kunis, who voices the character of Meg on “Family Guy) who’s smart and successful. They’ve been with each other for four years. Why? What does she see in him? I guess it’s that John is sweet and sensitive, but I’m not certain. MacFarlane sort of glosses over the origin of their relationship. Anyway, Lori wants more from John and the relationship, in other words: kick the bear out and get his act together. But that’s not easy; the two have been inseparable for more than twenty years.

The script by MacFarlane and fellow “Family Guy” writers Alec Sulken and Wellesley Wild is very uneven. It has a nostalgic appreciation for pop culture, making numerous references (a major one being Ted and John’s obsession with Flash Gordon) and at the same time MacFarlane’s own negative views on politics and entertainment can be seen all over. On the other hand there are too many weed, sex and bodily fluid jokes. Also certain sequences (like a party where Mr. Flash Gordon himself, Sam Jones, shows up) go on too long. Even worse the serious stuff in the plot, involving John and Lori’s relationship, is handled sloppily and turns into cliché. The movie is at its very best when it goes for stupid out of nowhere humor, like in one scene that involves Ted interviewing for a job at a grocery store.

Despite the fact that ‘Ted” is a bit of a let down, I’m still curious to see where MacFarlene will go next, if he makes another film, that is. He is a funny guy and “Family Guy” is funny (although not compared to shows like “South Park”). But as I’ve said, “Ted” is simply just a comedy about a naughty teddy bear, nothing much else.


Magic Mike Review

I feel like Channing Tatum’s (still young) acting career has been building up to his performance in “Magic Mike.” Up until this year the 32-year-old actor has been bland and mediocre, mostly starring in lackluster action flicks like “The Eagle” or “G.I. Joe” and others that don’t exactly require good acting. However, for whatever reason, with “Magic Mike” and the three other movies he’s been in so far this year he’s finally beginning to find his footing and slowly but surely turning into a good actor.

In “Magic Mike” we have a perfect balance for Tatum. On the one hand his muscular physique and chiseled face go well with the fact that his character (known as Magic Mike) is male stripper. But he’s a male stripper who wants to do more with his life. He wants to open up a custom furniture shop; he wants to be an entrepreneur.  Magic Mike has substance to him, as opposed to just being a slab of attractive meat.

Tatum--with his newfound acting abilities--brings a lot of energy and personality to the role. He feels alive. When he comes out onto the stage, shirt off, showing his glorious six-pack, wearing a thong, and dancing to a crowd of cheering women, you can’t help but crack a smile and feel giddy with excitement. This is by far the best he’s ever been.

The movie itself is not what you would expect initially coming in. The ads make it look like a campy, sparkling romantic comedy, and while it is a comedy (for a while anyway) and there is romance it’s anything but campy and sparkly. It has a look and feel more fitted for an indie picture. The movie is directed by Steven Soderberg and if you’ve seen any of his previous efforts— recently, the spy action thriller “Haywire” that came out earlier this year, or “Contagion,” about a flu epidemic, that came out last year—you can recognize his visual touches.

The picture has a yellowish tint to it and there’s quite a bit of hand held camera use (although not blatantly) that gives the film a distinctive and stylish seventies/eighties Euro pop look. The many stripper dance numbers throughout have both an old fashioned glamorousness to them and—when the movie gets more serious—a raw seediness. Not only that, the movie moves at a leisurely pace, it’s not in any hurry to move from one plot point to another. Soderberg keeps his camera on his actors for extended periods, letting them perform and letting us take in the emotions as opposed to zipping from one scene to the next.

The central story focuses on the friendship of Mike and Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a nineteen year old who doesn’t know what to do with his life. So Mike takes him under his wing and teaches him to strip, or as Mike describes it: “To party, pick up woman and make easy money.” And then through that comes Adam’s sister Brooke (Cody Horn doing the best she can with a naggy, uptight character), the love interest who’s skeptical of her brother’s new job.

 The first half, “Magic Mike” is mostly comedic, which is a good place to begin a story about strippers. Soderberg and screenwriter Reid Carolin embrace that aspect wholeheartedly, everything from the awkward day-to-day situations to the straight up ridiculousness of some of the dance numbers. And all of the actors have their fun. Tatum can do comedy with ease; that was made clear mainly from “21 Jump Street” and a little bit in “The Vow.” He’s oafish and sarcastic, which can be off putting at first but since Magic Mike is a stripper (therefore, known more for his looks than his brains) it seems appropriate. Pettyfer, who’s just 22, has more growing to do as an actor but since he’s Tatum’s protégé his lesser acting also feels appropriate. And then there’s Mathew McConaughey as Dallas, the veteran stripper whose arrogant and charming qualities fit right at home with the rest of the movie. Except for Cody, everyone in the movie feels right.

However, at about the halfway point the movie gets serious real fast. The women, money and good times eventually catch up to Adam and before he knows it he’s in the business of selling illegal pills and partaking in them himself. But that doesn’t affect the movie in any negative ways. If anything it gets better and the actors are up for the challenge. Despite the money and the glamour, stripping ain’t easy. Soderberg lets that sometimes harsh reality play out without any comic distractions, at the same relaxed pace as the first half. It’s a nice unexpected turn, adding depth and authenticity to a premise that could easily turn into cheese.

Sure, “Magic Mike” isn’t devoid of flaws but the only complaints I have are minor and not worth getting into. It will be interesting to see how audiences react to it. The picture has a different look and feel and right from the start it doesn’t go the way you think it will go. And that doesn’t always go over very well with the general audience. But the film still has Tatum, which means at least the female audience members will go nuts. With “Magic Mike” he manages to be both good looking and a convincing actor. That’s hard to do.


Friday, June 22, 2012

Seeking a Friend For the End of the World Review

The romantic comedy is one of the most challenging film genres of the modern film world. The ending is always inevitable, so a filmmaker has to find a way to create interesting and likable characters and make the journey-- from the beginning, when both the man and the woman are single and ready to mingle, to the end when they fall in love after the man has chased the woman down at the airport…or something like that—worthwhile.

 In Lorene Scafaria’s directorial debut, “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” that journey has never been more fun and touching and free of the major rom-com clichés (such as the third act fight, followed by the reconciliation). It’s a romantic comedy set on the eve of the apocalypse. It brings two people together; who probably would never have met each other in any other circumstances. It’s one of the most refreshing romantic comedies I’ve seen in a while.

The picture has a sort of ordinariness and blandness to it, which seems appropriate for a movie about the end of the world. In the opening scene we are informed that a meteor is headed for earth and it can’t be stopped. In twelve days it will collide with earth completely destroying it. Not exactly a lively situation.

This scene is also where we meet our main man Dodge, played by Steve Carell. At this point Carell can practically play geeky and pathetic in his sleep, so the character of Dodge isn’t a stretch by any means. But like a lot of actors who are attuned to playing the same kind of character in each movie, he’s damned good at it. Dodge has been in a funk lately. Besides the fact that the end is nigh, he’s had three wives in his life and they’ve all left him and so he’s alone.

However, Dodge—with a dorky haircut, wearing an ugly sweater and walking with a slump—still gets up every morning and goes to work, at an insurance company, selling Armageddon packages  (again, a perfect touch in a movie about the end-of-days). During a staff meeting he, along with what little staff remain, are told if they want to be CFO then now’s they’re chance.

In this first part, the movie seems to be in two mindsets. One: “The end may be nigh but dammit we’re still going to go about our daily routine.” (For example, there’s a brief scene of a man mowing his lawn.) And two: “If you want to do anything you haven’t ever done before… like heroine --here’s your chance.” This doesn’t sound very amusing, but it’s because the situation is so miserable that Scafaria is able to find humor. It’s so sad, that it’s funny.

However, when Dodge encounters Penny (a wonderfully crazy Keira Knightley), a nutty woman who’s also alone, the mood changes. A riot breaks out where they live, so the two decide to go on a cross-country road trip to find Dodge’s first wife. “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” is an example of a movie that starts out pretty well to begin with but gets even better as it goes on.

When Dodge and Penny are on the road, the movie feels the most focused and genuine. Sure, the two run into a few obvious comic situations, like stopping at a restaurant called Friendzies, “Where everyone is your friend” but for the most part the movie stays on path without getting too sidetracked. The film is 101 minutes and yet it feels like about 80. There was never a moment where I got bored or restless. When it gets down to it, the movie is fairly simple, but that also means it’s completely devoid of unnecessary rom-com filler.

And as it gradually reaches its emotional finish the picture makes time for serious interactions (Dodge reconnecting with his dad) without comic interference.

 Before this, Scafaria worked as a writer (she wrote the script for “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist”) and her screenplay for “Seeking a Friend” is one of the best things about it. Instead of going on a bunch of adventures and jumping through outrageous hoops to get to know one another, Dodge and Penny just talk to each other most of the time. And Carell and Knightley exchange Scafaria’s dialog with great ease. Who would have thought these two would work in the same movie, let alone have great chemistry together?

In the end, even though “Seeking a Friend” is a romantic comedy, it’s more about—as the title suggests—friendship. Yes, we know Dodge and Penny are going to get together romantically but they are also simply looking for a companion--whether it’s romantic or not—to spend the final days with. There is romance in the movie but it’s not Scafario’s number one focus. It’s a bonus for an already funny and sincere movie.


Brave Review

“Brave,” the new film from Disney/Pixar—directed by Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman and Steve Purcell—is a welcome return for the famed animation studio, which has made some of the best animated films of all time but which, some would say, faced a bit of a misstep with last year’s “Cars 2.” While I agree that “Cars 2” was lesser Pixar and like some many sequels unnecessary, it still didn’t deserve the harsh treatment it received from a number of other critics. Compared to the crop of mainstream animated films from last year, “Cars 2” was hardly the worst.

“Brave” should put Pixar back in critics’ (and audiences’) good graces. It’s a step in a completely new direction for them. It takes place in medieval Scotland, so there’s a lot of talk of Scottish folklore and magic. We get massive, sweeping shots of the beautiful, majestic Scottish landscape, featuring famous landmarks such as the Callanish Standing Stones. Even the music is heavy with bagpipes and tenor drums.

On top of that, “Brave” is the first Pixar movie to feature a female protagonist, named Merida (Kelly McDonald). With flowing, frizzy red hair and sporting a bow and arrow, Merida is brave and resilient. She’d much rather play around in the dirt and explore the forest by herself than have ladylike manners and settle down with a male suitor. She clashes on a daily basis with her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), whose views are more traditional. She wants Merida to sit up straight, wear skintight dresses, and find a nice strapping young lad, even if it makes her unhappy.

This angers Merida obviously, so one night she runs away from home and stumbles upon a witch (Julie Walters) who gives her a potion that she thinks will change her mother’s mind. Instead, Elinor is turned into a bear  (yes, you read that right), so now Merida must find a way to break the spell before it becomes permanent.

That’s it. That’s the whole story. Very simple, right? In fact it may be too simple. The advertisements for “Brave” make it look like an epic, rousing adventure taking place all over Scotland and for a while it heads in that direction. But ultimately the movie stays confined within and around the castle where Merida lives. Pixar is known for producing movies where the main characters go on quests and run into an array of colorful characters and with “Brave” I couldn’t help wanting more from it. Considering how much the movie makes a fuss about Scottish mythology and folklore there’s not very much in it. And there are a few supporting characters, like Merida’s mischievous triplet younger brothers that are one note and get old shortly.

However, at the same time, for how simple the story is, the film tells it well. As always with Pixar, “Brave” focuses more on developing the central characters and relationships and achieving comic moments out of that, instead of going for easy laughs. And it still comes to an emotional finish that should leave you feeling good. Not surprisingly, the animation is top notch, particularly the facial expressions.

I don’t think “Brave” is quite enough to put Pixar back on the map as the dominant animation studio yet. Studio Ghibli’s “The Secret World of Arrietty” is still the best-animated film of the year so far, but it’s a fine start.