R.I.P.D.: The Dude vs. the Dead

Originally published on Television Without Pity.

It was with cautious optimism that I went to see R.I.P.D. I’m not normally one for action movies — which, in the age of Transformers, have become heavy on the explosions and light on the everything else. But, R.I.P.D. does have a few things going for it. It stars Jeff Bridges and it has an intriguing premise, based on a comic book by Peter M. Lenkov. It also does not feature a talking snail… like Ryan Reynolds’ other movie that’s opening this weekend.

I ended up finding most of the film pretty entertaining. R.I.P.D. won’t become a classic of either the action or sci-fi genres, but it provides enough excitement and laughs to justify its ticket price.

Reynolds plays Nick, a Boston cop who recently got his hands a little dirty when he and his partner Hayes (Kevin Bacon) stole some gold from a group of criminals they busted. Despite this momentary lapse in morality, Nick is a good guy who’s just trying to find a way to make a better life for himself and his wife, Julia (Stephanie Szostak). Early in the film, Nick, Hayes and the rest of the Boston PD are called to a warehouse, where a wanted offender is hiding out. For some reason the warehouse is also on fire (or maybe just filled with explosions, it was hard to tell). In the ensuing chaos and fighting, Nick is shot and killed.

Read the rest of the article on Television Without Pity.

Grown Ups 2: Nothing Will Ever Be Funny Again

Originally published at TelevisionWithoutPity.com

I just want to make it clear I have never voluntarily seen a Kevin James movie before I watched Grown Ups. I feel it’s important that I disclose this in order to maintain my integrity as a movie buff and as a human being.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: How could I have missed Paul Blart: Mall Cop, or that historically important gay rights film I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry? Unfortunately, digging through James’ past oeuvre is a bit above my pay grade, so let’s get right to Grown Ups 2, a film that made me want to shoot myself in the face.

In the first Grown Ups, five middle-aged men (James, Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, David Spade and Rob Schneider) reunite at the funeral of their old basketball coach, and decide to spend a weekend reconnecting at Lenny Feder’s (Sandler) lake house. They all bring along their wives and children, and various lame gags and general poor taste ensues. The sequel takes place three years later. All the characters — except for Schneider, who apparently had the decency not to inflict himself on the poor souls who already had to watch him in the original — have now moved back to their home town to spend even more time being not funny together.

Read the full review at TelevisionWithoutPity.com

Oz the Great and Powerful

Originally published in the UMass, Amherst Daily Collegian

James Franco is a weird dude. He started his career as a too-cool teen on Freaks and Geeks, then played reluctant villain Harry Osborn in the mid-2000s Spider-Man trilogy. The final push towards conventional leading man status seemed to be Tristan + Isolde, a sappy, medieval-set romance that practically guaranteed Franco’s face would be plastered on the walls of many a pre-teen’s bedroom.

At that point it became clear that Franco had developed what I refer to as “Johnny Depp Syndrome.” Wanting to be taken seriously as more than just a pretty face, he began signing on to perpetually stranger films, as well as remaking his public image through a set of ever more eccentric ploys: playing a gonzo version of himself on General Hospital; appearing to be high while hosting the Oscars; commenting multiple times on his fascination with gay sex and culture; making a lot of very weird modern art. The list goes on and on … and on.

The latest stop on Franco’s journey toward self-mythification is Oz the Great and Powerful, Sam Raimi’s prequel to the classic 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. Franco plays Oz (full name: Oscar Diggs), an old-timey circus magician and all-around Kansan con man. Oz’s tricks get him in trouble with the ladies, as well as with their husbands. While running from the circus’s strong man, Oz climbs into a hot-air balloon and manages to float away from his pursuer … directly into the path of a tornado. He’s whirled around and around before finally crash landing in a fantastical, unknown land. Sound familiar?

Oz is enthralled with his new surroundings, which like the original film burst from black and white into color upon leaving Kansas. Raimi (who also directed Franco in the Spider-Man movies) is also clearly overexcited by the possibilities CGI has brought to modern film. Everything—wondrous flowering plants, tiny river fairies—looks a bit plastic, too smooth and neon to be believed. While Oz is exploring his landing site, he’s quickly discovered by Theodora (Mila Kunis), a self-described Good Witch. The Land of Oz is under siege by the Wicked Witch of the West, Theodora explains. A wizard who comes from the sky has been prophesied to save them all. Again, is any of this ringing a bell?

Theodora (Mila Kunis) has some pretty fucked up gender politics ... but a cool hat.

Theodora (Mila Kunis) has some pretty fucked up gender politics … but a cool hat.

Oz, then, is both the famed Wizard of Oz, and also a male Dorothy plunked down in the story some time before Ms. Gale and her house blew into town. L. Frank Baum, the author of the 1900 children’s novel on which the original film was based, actually wrote 14 books set within the Oz universe, many of which provide the back-story of the Land itself as well as of its most famous inhabitants. Though the Wizard doesn’t get an entire book to himself, his past is mentioned in several of the sequels.

Baum’s novels are in the public domain (as are all books published before 1923), but rights to the original film are owned by MGM, so Raimi had to tread carefully. There are no ruby slippers in this remake, and the skin tone of one Wicked Witch had to be carefully monitored so as not to come too close to the shade Margaret Hamilton was painted in 1939.

Speaking of witches, just who is this Theodora? She and her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) are witches of the Emerald City, and the pair quickly fills Oz in on the prophecy. Oz is more than happy to continue pretending to be a true wizard, as it means he gets to be king of Emerald City and owner of all its many riches. That is, until Evanora points out that to claim the throne he must first slay the Wicked Witch, Glinda (Michelle Williams). Wait, what? This is not how the original story plays out.

In fact, the only genuinely interesting part of Oz the Great and Powerful is the anticipation of finding out which of the three witches—Theodora, Evanora or Glinda—is actually destined to go green. Once the answer is revealed, about halfway through the film, there aren’t many other reasons to continue caring about the plot, which concerns Oz’s attempts to vanquish whichever witch is actually the evil one. Oh, and the explanation for why the Wicked Witch turns to the dark side? Being jilted by Oz. Oh, Dorothy, how I miss your girl-power message and strong leadership skills.

Glinda (Michelle Williams) and Oz plot together.

Glinda (Michelle Williams) and Oz plot together.

Franco, too, often seems unable to carry the weight of a full-length feature. In nearly all his previous work he’s played sidekicks or smaller parts, and these seem to be the roles at which he most excels (127 Hours being an excellent exception). Franco has decidedly modern cadences and mannerisms, and often appears unsuited to playing a turn-of-the-century character. The fact that Oz’s greatest motivations are acquiring wealth and sleeping with as many of the witches as possible also doesn’t make him a particularly appealing protagonist.

In the end, Raimi is preoccupied less with retelling The Wizard of Oz than with making an homage to film itself. Oz’s most brilliant trick involves creating a film (remember, he’s the Man Behind the Curtain). He also name-checks Thomas Edison, the inventor of the motion picture camera and of the first movie theaters.

Hollywood has always loved producing films that show off the its own wonders, and this trend has only grown in recent years, spurred on by the critical success of films like The Artist, Hugo and this year’s Best Picture winner Argo. Oz the Great and Powerful is the latest release to capitalize on Disney’s strategy of remaking classic, well-loved films. Remember 2010’s Alice in Wonderland? Another Disney release, it was the second-highest grossing film of the year. Oz the Great and Powerful has a similar $200 million budget. Clearly, the House of Mouse knows what it’s doing. Turning classic film nostalgia into big profits seems to be the greatest trick of all.

Capsule Review: Night on Earth

Jim Jarmusch stitches five vignettes into a single film in 1991’s Night on Earth. The intriguing setup follows five cabdrivers and their passengers through five international cities, shepherded along by Tom Wait’s jazzy score. As the settings move further east, it remains nighttime, placing the film in a kind of continuous witching hour. Each vignette, roughly thirty minutes, encompasses only the time the passengers enter the cab until they reach their destination. The camera remains in the taxi or in its immediate vicinity, never straying. The result is an episodic discourse on the interconnectedness and diversity of humanity. The taxis serve as confessionals, in which characters who might never otherwise interact end up sharing rather profound, or at least personal, conversations. Winona Ryder, whose youthful face shines out from underneath its layer of grease and grime like the moon itself, and Roberto Benigni, clearly having more fun than anyone else on set, play their cabbie characters with ragamuffin charm. The chapters hit different tones, moving from jocular to philosophical, but their motif of universal experience helps preserve the film’s sense of unity. Jarmusch, credited with inventing the American independent film movement with 1984’s Stranger Than Paradise, has used this structure before. The film values character and message far over plot, and by the fourth vignette the conceit can feel a bit stale. But Ryder and Benigni’s performances, as well as a short, wonderful diatribe by Rosie Perez in all her sharp-tongued, head-wagging brilliance, are worth sitting through some of Night’s slower moments.

Silver Linings Playbook

Mental illness doesn’t seem like a likely subject on which to anchor a comedy. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates about a quarter of Americans are living with a diagnosable mental disorder—ranging from depression to schizophrenia to autism—but it’s not exactly a go-to film trope. Nevertheless, David O. Russell’s optimistic, joyful film Silver Linings Playbook manages to capture the experience of mental illness in a way that is both truthful to the reality of bipolar disorder, and a life-affirming portrayal of recovery.

The movie opens as Pat (Bradley Cooper) prepares to leave the mental institution where he’s been treated for the past eight months. Silver Linings Playbook relies on Pat to convey the experience of a healing mental patient, and Cooper delivers wonderfully. Pat’s determination to change, and his frustration when he backslides are portrayed with enough passion to be effective, but Cooper never goes overboard into melodrama territory. The actor, who is best known for appearing in the Hangover films has, through a series of smart choices, managed to elevate his career to that of Serious Actor. Pat’s mood swings and outbursts, which could have become overbearing in another actor’s hands, are instead moments in which the audience gains insight into his troubled experience.

Pat and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) come to see that they share the right kind of crazy.

Pat and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) come to see that they share the right kind of crazy.

Did I mention that this film is a comedy? Despite the heavy subject matter, Russell (who also wrote the movie, based on the novel by Matthew Quick) deftly sets up a narrative that is funny, engaging, and original enough that the last half hour is just as enjoyable as the first. A large portion of the jokes are dealt out to supporting players, including a surprisingly sweet role by Chris Tucker, in his first non-Rush Hour film in 16 years. Robert De Niro, who’s taken to phoning in most of his credits of the past decade, is less cartoonish and more honest than we’ve seen him in years. De Niro plays Pat Sr., a Philadelphia Eagles fan-turned-bookie so enamored with his hometown team that he literally only appears onscreen wearing Eagles paraphernalia.

And then there’s Jennifer Lawrence. Though she doesn’t appear until 30 minutes into the film, Lawrence quickly establishes herself as a major presence, and a perfect foil to Cooper’s character. She plays Tiffany, a tough, dramatic young widow who’s not particularly sane either. Both Tiffany and Pat speak entirely without subtext, voicing what everyone around them is thinking, often at inappropriate moments. Pat’s speech is spiced with psychiatric jargon, and his and Tiffany’s dialogue, particularly her righteous diatribe near the end of the film, is some of Russell’s best work ever.

Pat’s motivation for getting better is entirely based on reestablishing his relationship with his wife, who’s filed a restraining order against him after his breakdown. Tiffany promises to get a letter to her … if he’ll be Tiffany’s partner in a ballroom dance competition. I know this premise sounds a little weak, but Russell handles the story with clever delicacy, and the combative relationship between Tiffany and Pat becomes the backbone of the film. Lawrence elevates everything she’s in, and this role, for which she won a Golden Globe just last week, is no exception.

Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) tries to understand his troubled son.

Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) tries to understand his troubled son.

Lawrence isn’t the only one getting acclaim for Silver Linings Playbook, which itself has decent odds of winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards next month. Russell, who was also nominated last year for The Fighter, has again gotten a Best Director nomination in addition to a nod for Best Adapted Screenplay. Cooper, De Niro and Jacki Weaver, who plays Pat’s mother, are all nominated in their respective acting categories. In fact, this film is the first since 1981’s Reds to have a horse in all four acting races.

Much of the film’s brilliance can be attributed to Russell’s direction. He employs a risky filmic technique, whirling the camera around the actors’ heads and using a variety of quick zooms, close ups and rapid cuts. But the approach pays off. The camerawork wordlessly conveys Pat’s range of emotions, from anger to hysteria to love. Danny Elfman’s classic rock score, with just a dash of Jack White thrown in, builds upon the expert acting and direction to pull the audience further into this off-kilter endearing little world.

Silver Linings Playbook strikes a delicate balance, dexterously avoiding sappiness in favor of candid joy mixed with a touch of misery. Rarely have I emerged from a theater with such genuine happiness. Who would have thought that a film about bipolar disorder might just be the feel-good movie of the year?

Being John Malkovich

Actors playing themselves has become the perfect comedic shtick to embody the overly ironic, self-referential, postmodern landscape that so-called innovative entertainment has become in the past decade. Matt LeBlanc in Episodes, James van der Beek in Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 and Neil Patrick Harris in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle all grinningly acknowledge their past television careers, even as these latest performances are projected from inside a tv set. Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm, and pretty much all of the many, many guest stars on 30 Rock, Entourage and Extras play at being mean or hugely egotistical or bizarre. These roles are meant to wink and nudge the audience. See, we’re not really like this. We’re so not like this that it’s funny to pretend we are! But if all this winking and nudging continues, someone’s going to get hurt as the fourth wall come tumbling down on top of them.

That’s not to say these TV shows and films aren’t entertaining. Most of them are really funny, at least for their first seasons. But what does it imply about the state of storytelling today that so many of our best shows sound like fanfiction about actors’ lives? Are we so obsessed with celebrity we’d rather just watch them play themselves? The fact that we get to be in on the joke is just an added bonus, a chance for our own egos to grow to celebrity proportions. Who wouldn’t want to be in on it when the jokester is Neil Patrick Harris himself?

I bring all this up because I recently re-watched Being John Malkovich. The film was released in 1999, just one year before Curb Your Enthusiasm’s first season, and long before having your character’s name match your Christian one was considered de rigueur. And seeing John Malkovich, two-time Oscar nominee play John Malkovich, luckless sucker, is quite a draw. I came for the Malkovich … but I stayed for more than that.

Craig (John Cusack) and Lottie (Cameron Diaz) become obsessed with controlling Malkovich's life.

Craig (John Cusack) and Lotte (Cameron Diaz) become obsessed with controlling Malkovich’s life.

Malkovich playing himself isn’t nearly the weirdest thing about this movie. Director Spike Jonze (Adaptation., Where the Wild Things Are) and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (also Adaptation., Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) make quite the team. I’m loath to think of a film with a more unique plot that holds together so well all the way to the end.

Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) is an out-of-work puppeteer who takes a filing job at the insistence of his frazzled wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz). Craig is hired by LesterCorp, whose office is situated on the 7½ floor of a Manhattan office building. Craig instantly falls in love with his new co-worker Maxine (Catherine Keener), growing more obsessed with her by the day, though she’s only toying with him.

One day at work, Craig moves a filing cabinet and finds a tiny door behind it. Like the door to the garden in Alice in Wonderland or to the chocolate river in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, this miniature entrance leads to a fantastical place. Specifically, to a portal into the mind of John Malkovich, where Craig can experience life as an acclaimed movie star for 15 minutes at a time. Craig and Maxine start selling tickets at $200 a pop.

John Malkovich ... as John Malkovich

John Malkovich … as John Malkovich

Kaufman, who said he originally just wanted to write a film about a man who falls in love with a woman who’s not his wife, has created a bizarre, unique little thought experiment come to vivid, more bizarre life. What would happen if you could be someone else? You still retain your own consciousness, but you are another person? John Malkovich, specifically. More ethical conundrums come up—Craig refers to his experience as a “metaphysical can of worms”—as he discovers he can control Malkovich, trapping the actor inside a body that no longer belongs to him. Making matters worse, Lotte falls in love with Maxine. But Maxine can only return her affection when Lotte’s inside Malkovich.

The actor as puppet is not a new idea—I think Hamlet had something to say on the subject—but Jonze and Kaufman’s film plays with it in new ways. Their second collaboration, Adapatation., is similarly mind-bending. Jonze’ direction is perfectly suited to the material, making the audience feel Craig’s growing uncertainty and Malkovich’s frustration. An Escher-inspired trip through Malkovich’s subconscious and a chimp’s repressed memory are two sequences that capture especially well the director’s distinctive point of view.

Though I applaud Jonze and Kaufman for filming their outlandish ideas in such a way that they don’t fall flat, I do have to say that Being John Malkovich can be an uncomfortable experience. Watching a man lose control of his own body is no picnic—Lotte’s reference to going through the portal as “the Malkovich ride” in particular made me cringe. And Craig’s less and less rational attempts to keep Lotte and Maxine apart begin to sicken the audience and embarrass the character. Additionally, when someone is being Malkovich, their point of view is shot through two eyeholes, which can become dizzying after some minutes. It’s hard to really fault the film for not getting it all right, though, when its concept is so thoroughly original and when it continues, scene after scene, to surprise you.

In fact, many critics have commented that it’s a miracle this film ever got made at all, that it managed to get funding and studio backing. One famous anecdote goes that at a pitch meeting, one bigwig asked, “Why can’t it be called Being Tom Cruise?”

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Everyone I know who loves film has had a similar experience, which usually occurs when they are young, probably in middle school. At that point in their cinematic careers they enjoy watching movies, enjoy spending single-sex sleepovers on their stomachs in front of the screen, and afterwards enjoy repeating back and forth lines absurd or poignant or both.

But then, often without meaning to, they stumble upon a film that’s different. That, for lack of a better term, “speaks to them.” This film has to involve teenagers and it has to be set in high school or camp or the summer after graduation. The film knocks these future cinephiles out cold. It takes all the ennui, the longing, the newly gained feelings of sexuality, the sheer joy and the unending awkwardness that is young life, and it makes them talk.

This film shows them that it’s cool, even wonderful, to be weird. To not understand yourself. To understand yourself too well, and hate everyone around you for it. To want to get out of your hometown so bad, but to be absolutely terrified of what lies beyond the borders of your childhood. This movie romanticizes all your feelings of not fitting in, and makes you feel like a rebel instead of a dweeb.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is this movie. I can imagine that, for many teenagers, it speaks to them. It also speaks to anyone else who’s been a lonely kid in high school. So, everyone.

PerksWallflower_620_091712

Patrick (Ezra Miller, center) is the heart of this tremendous coming-of-age film.

The film is written and directed by Stephen Chbosky, based on his 1999 novel of the same name. It follows 15-year-old Charlie (Logan Lerman) through his first year of high school.

In middle school, Charlie “got bad.” Perks doesn’t go into explicit detail, but insinuates that he suffered from some sort of depression or mental illness.

On Charlie’s first day he has nowhere to sit in the cafeteria. The only friend he makes is his English teacher (Paul Rudd). Similarly familiar tropes happen, until Charlie ends up sitting next to Patrick (Ezra Miller) at a football game. Patrick and his friend Sam (Emma Watson, in her first substantial post-Potter role) change everything. They take Charlie in, get him high, and introduce him to the Wallflowers, a fantastical group of misfits who, finally, get him. So perfectly damaged, over-it a group could only exist in the movies, but they’re endearing nonetheless.

Particularly notable is Miller, who plays Patrick with gleeful abandon that is tempered by moments of profound sorrow. Patrick could have turned into a caricature, the lonely gay kid who masks his anguish with kooky behavior. But Chbosky and Miller make him better than that, adding purpose to Patrick’s behavior and imbuing him with a deep, deep love for his ragtag companions.

Charlie (Logan Lerman) starts high school as a lonely outsider, before he meets an untraditional group of friends.

Charlie (Logan Lerman) starts high school as a lonely outsider, before he meets an untraditional group of friends.

Perks’ plot isn’t necessarily original—though the ending packs a punch the audience certainly won’t see coming. It’s not original because it’s set in high school, where the same events happen every year. Homecoming, graduation, freshmen getting bullied. But that doesn’t mean it’s not good. What’s important is that, for the kids for whom this movie was made, it can be an awakening.

My own awakening was called Empire Records. It was made in 1995—though I didn’t see it until some years later—and starred a slew of actors who would go on to have substantial careers, Renée Zellweger chief among them. Empire Records is about a group of young people who work in an old, independent record store. They love music, they love each other, and they are disaffected, angry, lost and beautiful. I saw the movie for the first time with my best friend when I was 13. After the film’s 90 minutes were up, we just sat for a minute. Then we popped it right back into the VCR for a repeat viewing.

Empire Records was a flop (though it has since developed a cult following), and the critics were unimpressed.  But to me, it will always be my first favorite movie, the film that taught me to want to stick out, rather than fit in. I’m sure The Breakfast Club, Dazed and Confused and Fast Times at Ridgemont High all inspired similar “first-time” declarations of love. The Perks of Being a Wallflower can be added to this list of great high school movies for Miller’s performance alone. Watson is lovely as well, and in many ways embodies a less extreme, perhaps more relatable high school experience. When she stands in the back of Patrick’s pickup truck, singing David Bowie’s “Heroes” out loud to the night, it’s hard to imagine anything more beautiful and alive.