Monday, June 28, 2010

Knight and Day

Knight and Day suffers from what I see as one of the most egregious transgressions possible in the film world: being completely average. The most interesting films are almost always either A) great movies or B) unmitigated disasters worthy of tearing apart. Since Knight and Day isn't especially interesting, it doesn't fall into either category; James Mangold has made some impressive films before (Cop Land, Walk the Line, 2007's 3:10 to Yuma), but this isn't one of them. This film doesn't ask to be taken seriously, but it fails to convincingly bring us along for the ride.

Knight and Day
Director: James Mangold
Starring: Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz, Peter Sarsgaard

Much has been made of Tom Cruise's behavior over the past few years, but I've remained staunchly in the camp that appreciates his acting talents and still considers him an entertaining personality. He can do whatever he wants off screen, and as long as he entertains me when I buy a ticket to one of his films, I'll be pleased. Knight and Day was hailed as his comeback film - "Tom Cruise at his 'Jerry Maguire' best," the TV spots proclaimed - but so far it has performed poorly at the box office. Since the film's opening, there have been many articles written about how Cruise's career is over, proclaiming he's no longer the bankable actor he once was. Sure, he might not bring in as much money as he did in his prime, but I don't think Cruise is anywhere near the end of his career. The guy just got an entire film greenlit centered on Les Grossman, his character in Tropic Thunder. And he's still got the upcoming fourth installment of Mission: Impossible franchise. He's not going anywhere. Pajiba has a pretty good article up about this very topic right now, so head that way if you're interested.

Make no mistake, though - Tom Cruise makes Knight and Day watchable. The film certainly can't depend on Cameron Diaz to hold the movie on her shoulders; she's not offensively bad or anything, but she simply doesn't have the charisma that Cruise effortlessly exudes on screen. There's something about his affable persona ("I'm the guy! I'm the guy!") that makes him mesmerizing to watch. The Jerry Maguire connection can certainly be felt in lines of dialogue like the "With me...without me" repetition bit from the trailers, echoing the delivery style of his famous "Help me help you!" line from the 1996 film.

But try as Cruise might, even he can't manage to make this script believable. It's Mission: Impossible Lite, a spy story not imbued with any sense of danger and reliant on a script that increasingly tests the audience's ability to suspend their disbelief. Any time the main characters get into a predicament that seems insurmountable, one of them is drugged and then, through flashes of consciousness, the problem is miraculously solved off screen. This is the debut feature for writer Patrick O'Neill, and his lack of experience and creativity translates to the final product. Lazy writing prevents us from actually seeing the most interesting parts of the film, and even though Mangold tries to cover for it with out-of-focus blurriness and POV shots, it's painfully obvious that these scenes equate to a massive cop out.

There are other problems, too: Diaz's character is not particularly likable, and makes a series of bad decisions that make it hard for the audience to pull for her to succeed. Her chemistry with Cruise is present, but not overly convincing. There's a truth serum sequence that's been done to death in action comedy films long before this one (True Lies immediately comes to mind), and the ending - while shying away from a terrible finale I thought they would settle for - is cliche to the point of nausea. I'm guessing a sizeable portion of the film's budget went to special effects, which, for the most part, were disappointingly dismal. Also, the title only makes partial sense - you'll see why if you see the movie.

The supporting cast may as well not have shown up at all. Viola Davis is a one-note CIA chief, and Maggie Grace, who plays Diaz's character's sister, has little more than a cameo. Peter Sarsgaard (an actor I usually really like - he was fantastic in Shattered Glass) had one of the worst Southern accents I've heard in recent memory, and was just godawful as a fellow agent out to get Cruise's character. Paul Dano, a guy I consider to be one of the best young actors in Hollywood right now, was horribly miscast as a tech nerd who developed The Zephyr, a MacGuffin that moves the plot forward. Dano has done some really great work in the past, and the only reason I can figure he'd be willing to do this part is to fulfill a childhood fantasy about working with Tom Cruise. [Note - I have no idea if Dano actually had a childhood fantasy about working with Tom Cruise.] A lot of actors could have played this part, considering how little he actually appeared in the film; Dano didn't add much to it and I wish he used this time to fully explore his talents elsewhere. Combined, all of these supporting actors shared about ten minutes of screen time.

To be fair, this movie does have some good moments. The opening plane scene is very fun to watch, and there are a few "Tom Cruise running" shots across the rooftops of Vienna that will make solid additions to the montage videos on YouTube. There's also a sequence in which Cameron Diaz accidentally empties a full magazine of bullets from an automatic weapon, swinging her arm frantically in circles around Tom Cruise's character, who tries to dodge her erratic fire and - SPOILER! - narrowly avoids getting shot. It's a scene that sounds kind of stupid on paper, but works pretty well in the film; I've never seen it done before on screen, and in an action-comedy that seems content to be a mashup of True Lies, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and every other "couple spy" movie of the past few years, any new idea presented on screen makes me take note.

There were two parts that I freaking loved about this film. One involved a quick "Cool Guys Don't Look at Explosions" shot, but the other was a bit more complicated. Sarsgaard enters a train car where Cruise and Diaz were just minutes before and examines the window. Breathing directly on it, he discovers someone traced a circle with his/her finger on the glass. As Sarsgaard looks through the circle, he sees Cruise - wearing sunglasses, natch - in the busy crowd outside, standing directly in the center of the circle. Cruise then instantly disappears. Let's think about that for a second. For someone to have the foresight to not only know that his opponent is going to inexplicably breathe on the glass and draw a circle on it, and also figure out the exact angle at which his opponent would look through the aforementioned circle and stand in that exact spot is nothing short of amazing. For this feat alone, Tom Cruise's character should be given The Most Badass Guy in the History of Ever award.

Knight and Day reminds me of 2008's Vantage Point: that film had a great cast, an interesting premise, and was well-directed, but somehow ended up being almost totally forgettable. The whole was inexplicably not as good as the sum of its parts. This movie, despite having a decent cast and a competent director, just can't overcome a level of mediocrity that holds it down and prevents it from being one of this summer's better theatrical offerings. (Note: this summer has also been one of the most disappointing in years.) Save your money and catch this one on TNT in 2012. Until next time...

New Apartment Tour

For those of you who aren't Facebook stalking me on a minute-by-minute basis, I'm sure you're unaware that I recently moved into a new place in Los Angeles. You can see my first apartment tour video here, although I have no idea why you would want to do that since I'm not living there anymore. But hey - this is a democracy*, so do whatever you want. I'm just here to provide options.

In any case, here's the video tour of my new apartment. Forgive the shaky cam - this video was sponsored by Paul Greengrass and Peter Berg. Until next time...

Click this link for the video. I originally embedded it here, but it's too big for this blog so watch it in HD or whatever on YouTube.

*Democratic republic, whatever.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (A Second Look)

I've talked about this movie before (briefly), but since some time has passed since I saw it in theaters, I decided to revisit it. Part of the reason I write these entries is to serve as a time capsule of my own thoughts about movies, and this is one example where I look back at what I initially wrote and wonder what I was thinking the first time I saw this film. I appreciated the pacing much more this time around; what I first considered "slow," I now consider "deliberate," and even though general audiences will probably not easily connect with it, I believe this film is one of the finest commentaries on celebrity culture made in the past ten years.

The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford
Writer/Director: Andrew Dominik
Starring: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell

I missed the commentary aspects when it was released back in 2007: not because they are subtle - they aren't - but because I wasn't watching the film with a particularly critical eye. It's no mistake that talented writer/director Dominik cast one of the world's biggest stars as one of America's most famous historical figures; as anyone who has stepped foot in a grocery store checkout line over the past few years can see, Pitt - like James - has become nearly more renowned for the pop culture that has built up around him than for his actual deeds.

Another aspect of this film I missed the first time around was the amazing supporting cast. Granted, back in '07 I wasn't nearly as familiar with these folks as I am now, but check out the names in this cast:

Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker)
Sam Rockwell (Iron Man 2)
Paul Schneider (Mark Brendanawicz from TV's "Parks and Recreation")
Garret Dillahunt (John Henry from TV's "The Sarah Connor Chronicles")
Zooey Deschanel ((500) Days of Summer)

Not only were these actors featured heavily in the film (save for Deschanel, who has little more than a cameo), they all gave outstanding performances. The men are part of the James gang, and do a great job of embodying separate characters rather than falling into the gang mentality that pervades many westerns where you can't distinguish one secondary character from another. They also avoid turning into one-note cliches: Schneider is more than just a ladies man, Rockwell brings depth to the role of an older brother, and Dillahunt displays exceptional range in a one-on-one scene with Pitt in an old cabin.

I was also off the mark with my original assessment that the train robbery sequence was somehow "boring." I have no idea how I once thought that - I was glued to my seat this time, immersed in the heist and nearly in awe of how well-executed the scene was as a whole.

One thing I did manage to get right in my first look at this absurdly-titled film was how amazing Roger Deakins' cinematography is. I perhaps understated it the first time around; this is some of the best cinematography I've seen in any genre, and a fantastic entry into a western genre hailed for its beautifully shot films. If you're looking for a gorgeous looking film, throw this bad boy on mute and put it on while you're doing your taxes or something - the images alone have the power to completely capture the audience and totally sucked me into the world Dominik created.

Pitt gives a powerful performance as Jesse James, blurring the line between the actor's real life struggles with fame and his character's similar issues. It's a brave performance that is too often overlooked. Affleck is phenomenal as Ford; his "annoying" voice (to use a phrase from my ill-thought-out first ramblings on the film) is a trait essential to the character. Affleck, age 30 while filming this project, had to convince audiences he was ten years younger. Cracking his voice and slowing his vocal delivery added an amazing amount to his overall character; even though he earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, I somehow feel his is another criminally overlooked performance.

Not only was Dominik's direction completely on point, his writing imbued the film with a sense of realism and a documentary-style authenticity that nearly made me forget I was watching a fictionalized take on the James gang. Take, for example, this exchange near the end of the film between Ford and his new girlfriend which serves as a commentary on the War on Terror:

Dorothy: Why did you kill him?
Bob Ford: He was going to kill me.
Dorothy: So you were scared, and that's the only reason?
Bob Ford: And for the reward money.
Dorothy: Do you want me to change the subject?
Bob Ford: Do you know what I expected? Applause. I was only 20 years old then. I couldn't see how it would look to people. I've been surprised by what's happened.

It's a shame Dominik has only directed one other film so far: 2000's Chopper, which I haven't had a chance to see yet. Thankfully, he's got a Marilyn Monroe film coming up with Naomi Watts attached to star. I'm looking forward to catching up with his filmography and continuing to keep an eye on him as he moves through his career. If you haven't seen this movie and are willing to delve into a deliberately-paced western, I'd say give this one a chance. Until next time...

Friday, June 11, 2010

They Live

This film is famous for the phrase "I came here to chew bubblegum and kick ass...and I'm all out of bubblegum." Naturally, I had to see it.

They Live
Writer/Director: John Carpenter
Starring: "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, Keith David

I recently watched John Carpenter's The Thing for the first time and was blown away by not only how fantastic it looked on Blu-ray, but the overall quality of the film itself. If you haven't seen it, add it to your queue - it comes with my highest stamp of approval. The suspense is incredible, the acting (especially from Kurt Russell, but also from a talented supporting cast) is top notch, and the story is excellent. The visual effects are very much of the time (the movie hit theaters in 1982), but the use of practical effects instead of an over-reliance on computer graphics allows The Thing to hold up much better today than it otherwise would.

Since Carpenter wrote and directed this film, I was expecting something similar to The Thing in terms of quality, but was surprised to find something completely different. Upon first glance, They Live looks like a typical B-movie: wrestler Roddy Piper in the lead role, Keith David as a sidekick, and a story about aliens disguised as humans in the 1980's. Carpenter makes some interesting choices as a director, but perhaps his most effective is convincing his actors to play it straight the entire time through. Of course, their stone-faced seriousness adds to the ridiculousness of the insanity of this movie and turns their dire situations into an intentional comic farce for the audience, which made me appreciate this film even more.

But just below the surface you'll find an admittedly heavy-handed satire on 80's culture and consumerism wrapped in the schlocky disguise of an action flick. The violence and one liners come second to the message: as Roddy Piper's character (who is given no name in the film, and consequently credited as "Nada") discovers when he puts on a special pair of sunglasses, every piece of advertising in the world serves as a platform for subliminal messaging of the most subversive order. "Obey," "Marry and Reproduce," and other slogans replace titillating images on billboards when viewed through the sunglasses, and money no longer features the heads of presidents but instead text that reads, "This is your God." Oh, and lest you think Piper's character views the world through proverbial rosy-colored glasses, it's the exact opposite: the world is reduced to black and white when looking through the lenses, a connection Carpenter hopes the audience will establish with the movie screen itself; he wants us to buy into his message so badly, he's willing to take the allegory to extreme levels to bash the message home. "I'm not like them," Carpenter seems to plead. "Let me show you how it really is."

It's unfortunate that he's a bit too zealous with these points because they truly are the only things he wants us to take from his movie. The story is laughably bad, a horror-comedy-action mashup of 50's science fiction and terrible 70's action films. The hero perpetually wears a long sleeved plaid shirt, has a mullet, and is an enlightened vagabond wandering the streets looking for work. He stumbles across a society of homeless people who live near a church, where he discovers a rebel force trying to alert the world to the presence of aliens and "wake them up" like something out of The Matrix. Did I mention he can see the aliens' true identities when he's wearing the glasses? Yeah, it's THAT kind of movie. The aliens look like us, but they're all successful bankers, lawyers, entertainment professionals, and people of authority. Through the glasses, though, their faces look scaly and prehistoric - clearly plastic masks that the costume department didn't feel the need to enhance in any way.

I won't get into the details - you really should just sit down and watch this movie, since it's only 93 minutes long and I'd venture to say it's something you'll never forget - but there are some moments in here that had me beside myself with laughter (that's still a phrase, right?). Random explosions that come during the middle of quiet sentences, people being defenestrated in the Hollywood Hills, alien communication devices that are literally the exact same prop as Egon's PKE meter from Ghostbusters, extraneous love interests, and a brilliant fight sequence that I will embed below for your viewing pleasure.

Amazing, right? I thought so. If you dug that, then I'm sure you'll get a kick out of the rest of the movie. I think this one is an underrated satire from Carpenter that's not even approaching his best work, but isn't nearly as bad as people would have you believe. The acting is atrocious, but it's so incredibly audacious that it's mesmerizing to watch. If you're a fan of ridiculously cheesy action films that might be featured on MST3K, then give this one a shot. Until next time...

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Get Him to the Greek

Comedy is perhaps the most subjective of all film genres. It's nearly impossible to create a film that is universally regarded as hilarious, so I would imagine filmmakers simply decide to make something that they themselves would find funny. I really enjoyed Nicholas Stoller's debut feature film, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, so it stands to reason that I'd be excited for a spinoff featuring one of the funniest characters of that film, Russell Brand's eccentric rock star Aldous Snow. But can the British comedian-turned actor hold an entire film on his own?

Get Him to the Greek
Writer/Director: Nicholas Stoller
Starring: Russell Brand, Jonah Hill, Sean Combs, Elizabeth Moss

Aldous Snow (Brand) has fallen on some hard times since the release of his latest album "African Child," hailed by the press as "the worst thing to happen to Africa since apartheid." The bad reviews caused a rift with Snow's successful model/singer girlfriend Jackie Q (Rose Byrne), so Snow has fallen off the wagon and returned to the drug-fueled escapades we saw in Sarah Marshall. Aaron Green (Hill) is a record company intern and a huge fan of Infant Sorrow, and pitches the idea for a reunion show to his boss, Sergio (Combs). Green is tasked with retrieving the eccentric rocker from England and getting him back to the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles in 72 hours.

Jason Segel is a co-producer on this film, but it lacks the charm and heart of Sarah Marshall, which Segel starred in and wrote. Stoller wrote and directed Get Him to the Greek and tries to recapture the sweetness that FSM had, but never quite achieves that goal. The characters aren't as endearing and the comedy isn't as organic. Even with a concept as ludicrous as a character going on a Hawaiian vacation and running into his ex-girlfriend at the same resort, Segel knew how to infuse Sarah Marshall with a reality that seemed believable and genuine; Get Him to the Greek plays like a gauntlet of events that the characters must barrel through to reach their final destination.

Sure, there are funny moments in this movie, and I'm not claiming that I didn't enjoy it. But the pacing was so unbalanced I found it jarring at some points. Aldous Snow in particular experienced instantaneously wild swings of emotion that felt unnatural and poorly set up. It was the type of thing you'd find in a poor romantic comedy: shifts in emotion that are unjustified except in their ability to superficially progress the story. The film also occasionally falls into the Apatow formula of crass humor for the sake of being crass, which is something that I personally don't find all that funny. Like I said, film is subjective.

To answer the question posed at the beginning of the review, I don't think Aldous Snow's character can hold an entire movie on his shoulders. Part of the reason everyone loved him in Sarah Marshall was because Segel knew how to show some restraint - by having Snow appear intermittently, the character's wild actions were fresh and unexpected. Here, the film highlights his exploits and loses some of the surprise factor that made him so funny the first time around. Jonah Hill, whom I normally don't care for, actually did some pretty good work here and played against type as the straight man to Snow's drug-addled rocker. But with a premise like this, I don't think the humor and drama ever found the right balance; the two leads deal with love interests and career choices in storylines that seem at odds with each other instead of complementing each other.

Elizabeth Moss (Mad Men) was believable as Green's girlfriend Daphne, a nurse who works bizarre hours and wants to move the couple to Seattle so she can have better hours and spend more time with her boyfriend. They have a spat before Green takes off, and Daphne understandably doesn't take kindly to his philandering with Snow. I won't spoil it, but one of the film's most uncomfortable scenes involves her character evening the score after Green returns to Los Angeles. Rose Byrne was quietly effective as Jackie Q, Snow's ex-girlfriend. Her relationship with Aldous seemed to be the most realized of any on screen, and although I wish we could have seen a bit more of her, I appreciated the outcome of their situation.

Sean Combs was surprisingly funny as the overblown record executive, but the rest of the supporting cast was criminally underused. Comedians Aziz Ansari and Nick Kroll were featured in only one scene and easily could have been utilized in various points throughout the film. Kristen Bell's cameo was expectedly short but, as much as I love her, kind of uninspired. I appreciated the random appearance from Ricky Schroder (Poolhall Junkies), but thought they could have done a bit more with Bell's character.

I dug the first half of the film, but it fell apart in the third act with strained storyline conclusions and a pretty typical ending. The comedy also got weirder as the movie progressed, featuring a lot of "humor" revolving around Jonah Hill's rectum. Yeah, it was disturbing, and sometimes disturbing things are funny, but those sequences didn't do anything for me. I much preferred the "2 Fast 2 Furious" scene, with its non sequiturs and escalation that reminded me of that famous brawl in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy.

Get Him to the Greek lacks the soul of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but it's still worth a watch on DVD or Blu-ray when its released. It's relatively harmless, but didn't live up to my (admittedly too high) expectations. What did you think of it? Leave your comments below.