Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Beaver: Grade A


The Beaver (2011)

Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence; Director Jodie Foster.

Whatever you think of Mel Gibson personally, you have to admit the guy can act. In this surreal comedy, he demonstrates that, by playing an American suburban husband who suffers from depression. He is unresponsive to his family and especially his wife (Foster). Finally she boots him out of the house and he drunkenly attempts suicide in a cheap hotel room. By chance he regains consciousness next to a beaver hand puppet that was among his personal goods (for reasons never explained). He talks to himself about his disorder by using the beaver as an alter ego. Thus his depression morphs into a dissociative disorder, which would not happen in reality, but hey, it’s a movie.

By speaking through the beaver puppet, he is able to reestablish emotional contact with his family. He tells his wife it is a new kind of therapy and she goes along with it. He regains his dynamism as CEO of a toy company, again by talking through the puppet. The employees accept the puppet device, and the company becomes more successful than ever. Eventually though, the wife becomes impatient and demands the elimination of the puppet. The ending is grim yet satisfying.

The movie is not believable in any realistic sense. Rather you have to take it as an allegory for mental illness, but even at that, it is not accurate enough to be informative or helpful. So in the end this is just a dark, goofy comedy with a mental illness theme. As such it is quite successful, mainly because it is so original. The writing is excellent and acting by Gibson and Foster make it well worth watching. Especially entertaining is Gibson’s working class English/Aussie accent (think Geico Gecko). The substory of romance between teenager Yelchin and his high school girlfriend (Lawrence) seems like a different movie. Maybe it was an ill-advised attempt to add a note of realism to the strange tale of the man with the puppet. If so, it only partially works because it is not well woven. Foster’s directing is impeccable.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Bridesmaids: Grade B


Bridesmaids (2011)

Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Jill Clayburgh, Rose Byrne, Melissa McCarthy, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Ellie Kemper, Chris O'Dowd; Director Paul Feig.

This movie should be called “The Kristen Wiig Show,” because she carries the whole thing. She is in every scene and owns the screen. She also co-wrote and co-produced. The story, such as it is, is about her character (Annie) whose best friend (Rudolph) asks her and four other women to be bridesmaids at the forthcoming wedding. But Annie brings disaster wherever she goes, to the wedding shower, the rehearsal, the bachelorette party, and the wedding itself. Along the way she has a couple of disastrous romantic relationships. But in the end, all is well.

The story is an excuse for Wiig to invent and perform sketch comedy routines similar to what she does on Saturday Night Live, only with far more detail and intensity. Her brand of humor is unique. It is no trouble to identify exactly which scenes she wrote and which she didn’t. Many of them are truly memorable, largely because she is such a great physical actor. She has a rubber face to equal Jim Carrey’s and a thousand expressions to put on it. I laugh even now thinking of some of those scenes. There is one exceptionally crude and raunchy bathroom scene where the women all suffer food poisoning and compete for the toilet. The movie could have done without it, but I also know it will go down as a classic in comedy movie history.

Wiig is the star of this feature, which would be nothing without her, not even very funny, but there are some other outstanding performances, especially from the snooty rich girl (Byrne) and the coarse chubby girl (Melissa McCarthy), and her romantic interest (O’Dowd). Directing is flawless and so is editing. Wiig said on Charlie Rose she hopes the movie is a success so she could consider a career as a writer. Well, the movie is a huge success, but she will need a broader range, because while her gags are truly and deeply funny, they don't go beyond obvious situations and stereotypes and their success depends almost entirely on her own incredible performance.

Source Code: Grade B


Source Code (2011)

Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga; Director Duncan Jones.

Groundhog Day meets Matrix in this derivative sci-fi thriller. And throw in scenes, images, and ideas from Taking of Pelham 123, Unstoppable, Inception, and Apollo 13. It’s a pastiche, not original, but good looking and interesting enough to watch.

Military scientists have discovered a way to capture the brain’s brief post-mortem afterglow, and they can augment it with special software (the Source Code) into the illusion of full life for a brief time (8 minutes in this case). So Gyllenhaal does not understand that he is dead. Further, the computer reanimation can be assigned to different times and places (since it is just software, after all). Gyllenhaal is “sent back” in time, to right before he died, on a train heading into Chicago, where he lives a memory as if it were real (per Matrix, Inception, etc.). The train has a bomb on it. Can he find the bomb and the bomber? (Take a guess). He has only 8 minutes. On the train he meets Monaghan and tries to save her, but the train blows up anyway. No problem. He can be sent back again by the army scientist (Farmiga). He goes back repeatedly and blows up repeatedly, but learns a few new details each time, just as in Groundhog Day. Finally he does catch the bad guy, reports his identity to Farmiga, who arrests him in real time.

Gyllenhaal and Farmiga are a pleasure to watch. However, the CGI shots outside the train cabin are so bad they bump you completely out of the story. The explosions are explosive and the music is ordinary. The ending is highly predictable but I won’t give it away in case there are viewers new to this genre. The story is fundamentally weak nonsense, as sci-fi stories usually are. But this one is done well enough to hold frame-to-frame interest and is above average for its type.

Small Town Murder Songs: Grade B


Small Town Murder Songs (2010)

Peter Stormare, Martha Plimpton, Stephen Eric McIntyre; Writer-Director Ed Gass-Donnelly. (Some archaic Mennonite German translated in subtitles).

In a small Mennonite town in Ontario, Canada, Walter (Stormare) is chief of police. He is old, slow-moving, slow-talking, but we get the sense he is highly experienced. A dead, naked woman is found by the lake and circumstances point to lowlife Eric (McIntyre), who lives with the chief’s ex-love-interest, Sam (Plimpton).

In brief flashbacks we get the idea that they broke up because the chief had committed some extremely violent act or acts in the past. We don’t know what they were or what the context was, but he has rejoined the church and believes his temper is now under control. But when it seems like Sam is lying to him, he goes right up to the brink of violence again. So the larger story is about the ability and the determination to change one’s character.

This Canadian film is very well acted and directed. The script is original and the cinematography stands out for its thoughtfulness. The only sour note is the dreadful sound track which I gather is authentic Mennonite church music. To my ear it was quite unpleasant, and not because it was unfamiliar. I like the unfamiliar. Rather, it sounded simplistic, droning, arrhythmic, repetitive, narrow in range and tone, and incomprehensible (in German). It did not add “atmosphere” as the Okie singing did, for example, in Brother Where Art Thou. But I guess that’s a matter of taste. Othewise, the film is well-constructed and executed, worth watching.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Rango: Grade A


Rango (2011)

Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy; Director Gore Verbinski.

The animation in this feature is as good as anything out of Pixar or Dreamworks. It is done by Industrial Light and Magic and puts them in the first tier of animators. The characters are fully rounded wire-frame animals, with excellent emotional capture. ILM animators have completely mastered the computationally difficult rendering of fur, water, glass, and other supposedly impossible textures and flows. The film is a triumph of animation technology if nothing else.

But there is much else: it's a good film. The characters are desert-dwelling animals living in a run-down western town called Dirt, where the economy is based entirely on water. Their taps have gone dry and even the reservoir in the bank is desperately low. No consideration is given to rainfall or aquifers – they seem to be on city water of some kind, but never mind that.

A histrionic chameleon named Rango (Depp) wanders into town, strutting and bragging about having killed the whole Jenkins gang with a single bullet. He ineptly and luckily saves the town from a killer hawk with a tin beak. He is acclaimed and named sheriff. But the evil mayor (Beatty), who is diverting the water for his own project, hires Rattlesnake Jack (Nighy) to kill Rango. There is a showdown. Meanwhile a romantic interest develops between Rango and Beans (Fisher).

The story line is formulaic, a pastiche of dozens of westerns. There is no dramatic tension, not even the manufactured kind in Cars, for example, and the romantic relationship is unconvincing, nothing like the one in Wall-e, for example; there isn’t even cheap sentimentality, as in Finding Nemo. I don’t know if kids care about those things. For adults, though, what makes the movie great is its sheer creativity. The script is funny and the excellent voice acting (the range of Depp's vocal expression is astonishing) is a treat. Also to appreciate are the beautiful and witty animations, enjoyable music (Los Lobos), and wink-wink allusions to other movies, from Clint Eastwood in Pale Rider, to Star Wars, The Fugitive, Chinatown, and many others. Those references are enormous fun for movie lovers.

Because it lacks a good dramatic story, the movie might not catch on with kids, but because of all its other virtues, I think it will become a classic in the animation genre.