Archive for the ‘Movie Reviews’ Category

Last Night (2011)

Thursday, May 19th, 2011
The possibilities and ramifications of infidelity get a thorough workout in Massey Tadjedin's moody romance Last Night. As both halves of a seemingly unhappy couple spar on the same night with potential affairs, this perfectly fine scenario settles too easily into an underperformed exercise in what-if. The promise of the film that this could have been is continually receding to the horizon the longer it goes on.

A well-attuned Keira Knightley, acquitting herself better than almost anybody else on-screen, plays Joanna, a writer who's published one book but has since settled into a defeatist cycle of doubt that keeps grinding out mindless fashion journalism while avoiding getting back to her real work. Her husband Michael (Sam Worthington, taking a break from battling aliens and mythological monsters) is a real-estate developer surprisingly not portrayed as a heartless philistine.

The film opens on an argument the two have after coming back from a work party where Joanna spots Michael's voluptuous co-worker, Laura (Eva Mendes), fawning all over him. They go back and forth, Michael's protestations of ignorance as to Laura's carnal intentions seeming willfully naïve. Then Michael heads off for a presentation in Philadelphia - with Laura, no less - leaving Joanna to stew in guilt (thinking she was wrong-headed about her husband) and writer's block in their smartly decorated Chelsea loft.

The film's more romantic interests come alive when that morning Joanna runs into an ex-boyfriend of hers on the street. Alex (Guillaume Canet) is a Parisian writer who shared a brief and flaring kind of affair with Joanna not long before she married Michael, somebody she never told her husband about. Now her husband's far away, she's maybe looking for a way to get even, and Alex is there on the street, smiling wistfully at her and asking what she's doing later. Tadjedin says a lot about Joanna's temptations just in the two sequences of her getting dressed - first for the party with Michael (toss on a sweater, makeup in the cab), second for dinner with Alex (good lingerie, heels, nice dress, long and lingering makeup application in the mirror). The filmmaker slips in a number of small observations like this throughout the film, but acute as they are, it's not enough to make up for some severely underwritten characters.

For all the film's bifurcated structure - Joanna secretly on the town with Alex while Michael boozes the night away with an increasingly seductive and manipulative Laura - it's obvious that Joanna's is the story that Tadjedin wants to tell. Michael and Laura's subplot runs mostly on autopilot, with his character coming off as little more than a chisel-faced blank. Similarly, Tadjedin doesn't give us much to hang on to with Alex, who spends most of the film in quietly grinning contemplation of Joanna, who he is unashamedly trying to woo away. The only male character of interest here is Truman (Griffin Dunne), a publishing friend of Alex's who parachutes into the film to provide some long-overdue edge with his bonhomie, needling questions, and the sly wisdom of a man whose current wife is clearly not his first nor his last.

Last Night pulls viewers in unexpected ways, which is more than can be said for most films of this kind. Its cool-toned visual palette is refreshingly free of the usual hip-Manhattan cliches, and the paralleling stories of fidelity tempted are heavier with anxiousness and worry than seduction. It will be exciting to see where Tadjedin goes next, but as well-executed as so much of it is, this is an exercise in suspenseful romance that doesn't quite know where to go with its story, or how to ensure that we will care much one way or the other.

On Thor and More – A Mid-Tour Mailbag

Tuesday, May 17th, 2011
You can't tell this just by looking at the type, but the fact is that I'm not writing this from home -- I'm writing this on the road, where I am currently on tour promoting my book. Touring is fun, but it also takes up most of the brain, leaving it incapable of thinking up big meaty column subjects. You know what that means: to the mailbag!

First question:

A couple of weeks ago, you posted a column about upcoming films and whether you were looking forward to them or not. Do you think it's fair to grade films like that, when you haven't seen them yet?

Sure, because I'm not grading the film itself; I'm grading whether, based on what I know about the films, they are ones I think I want to see. These two things are entirely separate. Is it possible that a movie that I'm not looking forward to will surprise me and I'll end up loving it? Sure. Not only is it possible; it's something I'd be happy to have happen. Conversely, there are movies which looking interesting to me that will disappoint when I get around to seeing them. That's the nature of expectation.

It's something everyone does -- and something every movie studio tries to manipulate. All the trailers and posters and advance stories about the films are designed to make you hungry to see it. If a movie studio is going to go out of its way to try to influence my opinion about a picture before I see it, I feel perfectly fine in having an opinion in the first place. Like any opinion, it could be wrong in the long run. But in the meantime, I'm okay having it.

Next question:

When will superhero movies just die? I am so sick of them.

They'll die when people stop going to them, which is something they don't appear to be doing, given Thor's solid $60 million-plus debut and decent hold for a second weekend. Alternately, they'll stop when the movies become too expensive to justify, which is a real possibility, since the budgets regularly top $100 million before marketing. We've already seen the Spider-Man franchise scale back with a cheaper director and star and a (relatively) smaller budget, but not every superhero film will lend itself to downsizing.

There's also another option, which is that we'll see the end of the superhero movies when Hollywood exhausts the A-list stable of both the DC and Marvel universes and starts trying to build blockbusters off of marginal or second-string heroes. It's one thing to aim for a half-billion in box office with Batman; it'll be another thing entirely to try to do it with, say, Nightwing. It's not impossible, but that's not the same thing as saying it'll be a sure bet.

Final question:

Last week, you talked about things film can teach you about writing novels. What doesn't film teach you about writing novels?

Well, lots, actually. Films are visual media, so there's no real need, generally speaking, for films to focus on description. A film can show you in a few frames what an author might take several pages to describe -- the proverbial picture being worth a thousand words. Film's also generally not good at getting into the heads of characters, and, while it offers a form of omniscient narrator, the form takes shape via the placement and use of the camera, not (necessarily) via the skill of the writer. All of these things are useful for a novel writer to know and implement in his or her writing, and film's not going to be a way to learn these things.

None of this is particularly surprising; filmmakers and novelists overlap in terms of their skill sets and focus, but there's lots in each case that is not applicable in the other. It's why being a great author is no guarantee of writing a great (or even good or fair) screenplay and why so many wonderful screenwriters fail badly when they put their hands to long-form prose. They're disciplines that require work and effort to get done, and the more time you spend on one the less time you have to spend on the other. Usually, you have to choose which you like more. There are exceptions (The Princess Bride's William Goldman stands out as one), but they're called "exceptions" for a reason.

Q&A – Life As We Know It’s Katherine Heigl and Josh Duhamel on Adopting Babies and Stalking Potential Girlfriends

Sunday, October 3rd, 2010

Life As We Know It pairs Katherine Heigl and Josh Duhamel as polar opposites forced to put their differences aside so they can raise their best friends' orphaned child. While the situation sounds primed for a sitcom, the movie hits honest notes when it comes to parenthood, dating, and the difficulty of making sacrifices so that someone else can live a better life. When we sat down with these two gifted comedians, we discussed bad dates, good adoptions, and getting in tune with one's inner child.

Q: The movie begins with the two of you suffering through a nightmarish blind date. Were you drawing on personal experiences to make that scene believable?

Katherine Heigl: [Laughs] I've actually never been fixed up.

Josh Duhamel: Me neither. I've had plenty of awkward moments.

KH: Oh, yes, lots of those.

JD: But I was always in relationships. Dating always scared the crap out of me, for this reason. This is a good example of why I didn't date.

KH: But then how did you wind up in the relationships?

JD: Well, I had to make very sure that I wanted to date this person.

KH: So you would just stalk them for a while.

JD: Yes. I would do a complete recon.

KH: [Laughs] Dig into their background.

JD: Yes, and I'd make sure that I wanted to be with them before we started dating.

KH: That's so interesting and weird.

JD: No. Do you know when you really feel like you don't just want to say, "Oh, I might like her. I guess I'll go on a date"?

KH: So you never met anybody in a bar and just went out on a dinner date the next night and had a terrible time? That never happened to you?

JD: I'm sure it did. I was just so drunk from the night before that I don't remember. [Laughs]

KH: I have only one bad one. No, I've had a couple, but the worst was a trainer. I was eighteen or twenty pounds heavier and was trying really hard to work it off at the gym. My trainer asked me out. But he took me to Sizzler and he gave me his head shot and asked if I could get him into my agency. I knew it wasn't the extra twenty pounds that turned him on.

Q: The baby in the film is played by a set of triplets. What were they like as co-stars?

JD: Before we started shooting, [director Greg Berlanti] had me go to Atlanta to acclimate myself with the kids and have them get comfortable with me. And that was huge for us in the movie because they really responded to me. Katherine was in the middle of adopting her own child at the time, so she couldn't come early. But I went out there and got to know these kids really well. It was helpful then because we didn't have to take them off the set all of the time. They could stay there and play and live on the set while we were shooting, which helped make them feel comfortable.

Q: And could it also be because all girls like you?

KH: They could be little boys. It doesn't matter. Children like Josh.

JD: I have an affinity for kids, and they seem to like me. I think it's because we can understand each other on the same emotional level. [Laughs]

Q: Katherine, how did you acclimate yourself once you made it to the set.

KH: I took control! It's an alpha thing. They just needed to know who was in charge. No, I'm kidding. Thankfully, I had just gotten familiar with the holding and comforting of a child, so I could do that mothering instinct a little bit, though it was still so new to me. But [Josh] was fantastic, working hard to get to know those babies, and I had to kind of do it cold, so they did not like me as much.

JD: That's not true.

KH: But at least I had one in my trailer who did.

Q: Speaking of that, because you were a new mother, did you sense parallels between your personal and professional life while filming?

KH: Yeah, it was all parallels. I was living on camera what I was living in my life, down to the tiniest little things. The outfits that they'd put the triplets in for a scene my daughter might have come to work in that day. I watched the movie recently and thought it was kind of a living journal because it reminds me of those first few months with this 9-month-old baby who was so new to me -- and I was so new to her -- and all of the little things that go along with that. What kind of diapers you use, what kind of wipes. We had the exact same pack and play as the one we used in the movie. It will forever remind me of that time. It was really intense and really glorious and certainly overwhelming. But my character, Holly, was me, and I was her. I didn't have to act.

Top Ten Prison Movies

Saturday, October 2nd, 2010

There's a prison picture for every mood and inclination, from trashy romps to hard-hitting exposes. Are you craving a little sleazy, teasey WIP (that's "women in prison," newbies) action? Feel the need to get your blood boiling with a fact-based story of justice denied? How about a lavish musical set behind bars? There's something on this list for everyone,

cagedheat-125.jpg10. Caged Heat (1974)
The quintessential "chicks in the slammer" movie, whose poster really did say it all, promising: "Women's Prison U.S.A. - Rape, Riot & Revenge!" 1970s exploitation starlets Erica Gavin, Roberta Collins, Rainbeaux Smith and Desiree Cousteau play mad, bad and under-clad inmates (the only way to better this line-up would be to add Pam Grier), and cult icon Barbara Steele is the wicked, wicked warden who eventually gets what's coming to her. 

turkey-shoot-125.jpg9. Turkey Shoot/Escape 2000/Blood Camp Thatcher (1981)
This quintessential slice of shameless Ozploitation unfolds in a dystopian future where "social deviants" are shipped off to prison camps for attitude adjustment. And if they're really lucky, they get sent to Warden Thatcher's hellhole, where a select few are given the opportunity to win their freedom by volunteering for a Most Dangerous Game-style hunt. All they have to do is elude a bunch of wealthy, heavily armed sadists, thrill seekers and nut jobs.

redford-brubaker-125.jpg8. Brubaker (1980)
Robert Redford plays progressive warden Henry Brubaker, who pisses off the establishment by cleaning up Wakefield Prison Farm, an Arkansas hellhole so contemptuous of its inmates that it doesn't even have guards -- who needs 'em when you can just arm the trusties? Though technically not a '70s movie, this is such a '70s message movie. But the cast is great and Redford's at his prime.

shawshank-redemption-125.jpg7. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Frank Darabont's adaptation of Stephen King's short story chronicles the unlikely friendship between a rich boy (Tim Robbins) who continues to swear he didn't kill his wife even after he's been convicted of double murder, and the sage lifer (Morgan Freeman, back in the slammer once again) who teaches him to navigate the brutal rules of prison engagement while holding on to his humanity.

jailhouse-rock-125.jpg6. Jailhouse Rock (1957)
Ex-con Elvis Presley gets thrown back into jail (unfairly, as it happens) and finds a life-changing mentor in a guy who teaches him to play guitar. It's a lavish, old-school musical that features the young, hunky Presley and a bunch of dancers gyrating around a cellblock set to lyrics like these: "You're the cutest jailbird I ever did see/I sure would be delighted you're your company."

escape-from-alcatraz-125.jpg5. Escape from Alcatraz (1979)
Clint Eastwood does his whispery, sinewy, coiled-bundle-of-potential-violence thing as Frank Morris, the real-life prisoner who in 1962 masterminded an elaborate escape from the "The Rock." He and his two partners might -- just might -- have been the only escapees to survive both the breakout and the treacherous waters of San Francisco Bay.

birdman-alcatraz-125.jpg4. The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)
Inspired by the story of Robert Stroud, a hardened lifer with an unlikely love of birds, John Frankenheimer's movie is bad history and great drama. The real-life Stroud may have been a thug, but Burt Lancaster's portrayal of an angry man who discovers a humanity he never imagined he possessed is mesmerizing. Watch it back to back with Brute Force (No.1) and marvel at Lancaster's versatility.

midnight-express-125.jpg3. Midnight Express (1978)
Yet another fact-based movie that plays fast and loose with those pesky facts, Midnight Express is also an uber-cautionary tale. American tourist Billy Hayes (Brad Davis) is caught smuggling hashish out of Turkey and winds up in a prison that makes Alcatraz look like a luxury spa. It was written by Oliver Stone and directed by Alan Parker, so don't expect subtly -- but it sure is intense.

cool-hand-luke-125.jpg2. Cool Hand Luke (1967)
Stuart Rosenberg directed Paul Newman in the role of knee-jerk authority hater Luk, whose antics just don't fly in the deep south, circa 1948. He ends up in a prison campe, where, between alpha inmate George Kennedy and sadistic guard Strother ("What we've got here is failure to communicate") Martin, he gets beat to hell more times than a junkyard dog. And he's still so sexy it hurts.

brute-force-125.jpg1. Brute Force (1947)
Hell is called Westgate Penitentiary in Jules Dassin's bleak, nihilistic story. Burt Lancaster plays Joe Collins, a career criminal  who's locked in a war of wills with the sadistic Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn). Much of the movie's reputation rests on the no-holds-barred riot sequence -- it may be 60-plus years old, but that retribution by blowtorch/industrial press scene is still a shocker, especially since it's the good guys dishing out the pain.

Video – Justin Timberlake Sees the Irony in His Social Network Role

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

In the David Fincher-directed ensemble drama The Social Network, musician-actor Justin Timberlake plays Sean Parker -- the real-life controversial co-founder of file-sharing Web site Napster. Parker was Facebook's first president until his firing in 2005 for a cocaine-related arrest.

In the film, Timberlake portrays Parker as a hard-partying, smooth-talking Internet kingpin who teams up with Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) to bring Zuckerberg's start-up social-networking Web site to the next level with the help of venture capitalists.

When Napster debuted its free file-sharing platform in 1999, both Parker and his site were blamed by the music industry as the preliminary cause of nose-diving profits for record labels and musical artists.

Timberlake -- who found success and fame around 1999 as a member of the pop group *NSYNC -- told AMC News correspondent Jacob Soboroff that, as a musician, he saw the irony in taking on the role of Parker but that he didn't get "caught up in a projection" of Parker's status in the music industry and instead just played the part as written.

The Social Network

Thursday, September 30th, 2010
The major hullabaloo over David Fincher's The Social Network concerns its witty, intelligent screenplay, written by Aaron Sorkin, and the liberties it takes with the persons involved with the creation and meteoric expansion of Facebook. Based on a dubious non-fiction account, Ben Mezrich's The Accidental Billionaires, the film alters the story of Mark Zuckerberg, the 19-year-old whose drunken, post-breakup screed on LiveJournal tipped-off a string of events that led to the launch of Facebook in February 2004, to fit it into an expressionistic Shakespearean swarm of identity, betrayal, money and loneliness. In a recent New Yorker article, Zuckerberg submitted that he was afraid that the film, which he says he will not be seeing, would portray him as a brash, ego-maniacal and uncaring billionaire brat, a prototype of the presumably more mature Zuckerberg 2010 Edition.   

Whatever personal growth the internet icon may have undergone since the site's launch, it certainly sounds more appealing than the hyper-active Zuckerberg (a perfectly cast Jesse Eisenberg) does in the film's brilliant opening sequence. At a Harvard tavern, Zuckerberg rants about crewing, which is eventually decrypted as his need to get accepted into one of Harvard's beyond-exclusive finals clubs. So caught up is he in his own rambling, he barely notices when Erica (Rooney Mara) breaks up with him, comparing being his girlfriend to "dating a stairmaster." Back in his dorm, he gets drunk, makes fun of her bra size and creates a website that compares female Harvard students' looks with the click of a button; the site crashes Harvard's servers within a matter of hours.

In this exhaustive detailing of the beginnings of a new tycoon, Sorkin and Fincher's Zuckerberg joins a select group of great cinematic misanthropes whose entire fiscal enterprises are built on the hopes of regaining an emotional tranquility, a certain comfort; the resemblances to Citizen Kane are innumerable. And like Welles's towering tyrant, Zuckerberg's eventual enemies originally count him as a friend or a partner. The most prominent of these adversaries turns out to be Eduardo Saverin (a very good Andrew Garfield), Zuckerberg's roommate and business partner. Saverin was the original funder of Facebook, which was born from an idea to create a MySpace made exclusively for Harvard students; the idea arrives at Zuckerberg via a triptych of Porcellian members, Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) and the Winklevoss twins, Cameron and Tyler, who are both played by Armie Hammer.  

The film rotates between a linear narrative and two elongated scenes: the birth and rise of Facebook and two separate depositions, Saverin vs. Zuckerberg and Narenda and the "Winklevii" vs. Zuckerberg. But neither the lawyers nor plaintiffs affect Zuckerberg nearly as much as Sean Parker (a rousing Justin Timberlake), the creator of Napster and a nightmare future vision of Zuckerberg with a more expensive wardrobe. It is Parker who will eventually set in motion the betrayal of Saverin, whom Fincher and Sorkin portray as the holy man in a valley of assholes, a half-truth in a film built from half-truths. Zuckerberg's problems may be understandable, but it's absurd to think that an unbiased and honest portrayal of these incidents could ever be produced, and the mogul himself  seems oblivious to the irony that his invention's most visible trait is its obfuscation of reality.          

Though not nearly as immersive and ragingly investigatory as Zodiac, The Social Network regains Fincher's precise, artistic detachment which clashed with the saccharine emoting of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a technically astonishing film with a thoroughly pedestrian script. The Social Network maintains Fincher's technical virtuosity: It took a second glance at the credits to confirm that Hammer played both Winklevosses, so seamless was Fincher's direction and Kim Baxter and Angus Wall's editing. This parallel charting of factually-based narratives concerned with the movement of information while using advance movie technology started with the homegrown, techno-freak terrorism of Fight Club, but The Social Network sees Fincher more ambitious in his narrative choices than ever before, his visual and thematic ideas seemingly multiplying uncontrollably within each frame.

All of Fincher's films are transmissions from the digital age, mapping our transition from an essentially time-based and physically located reality to the artificial and imagined communities on the web, and The Social Network, certainly the movie of the year, essentially reveals that Zuckerberg's invention has allowed people not only to create specifically produced and edited versions of themselves but to also create their own community that, especially in Zuckerberg's case, can be completely controlled by the individual. Whether or not Zuckerberg finally feels at home in this home inside his home is another question altogether.  

Let Me In

Thursday, September 30th, 2010
There is only one problem with Let Me In -- it has the unfortunate luck of being a remake of Let the Right One In.  Indeed, had that brilliant Swedish horror film not shown up in 2008 to completely change our perception of the vampire genre, Matt Reeves's take on John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel would be hailed as a masterpiece.  As it stands, this US update is equally flawless -- expertly filmed, beautifully acted, and retaining much of the original's sense of sadness and dread without resorting to a literal recreation. Some will still balk at the idea of a redux, finding it pointless and counterproductive. They couldn't be more wrong.

It's the early '80s in Los Alamos, New Mexico. We meet young Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) a very sensitive boy with an absentee father and a drunken mother. Mercilessly picked on by bullies at his school, our distressed hero loses himself in a world of imagined vengeance and lonely days on the apartment complex playground. One chilly winter night, he runs into the barefooted Abby (Chloë Moretz), his new neighbor. Owen is initially intrigued, but the girl makes it very clear the two cannot be friends. Meanwhile, a nameless policeman (Elias Koteas) is investigating a rash of ritualistic murders in the area -- and the clues seem to lead to the man (Richard Jenkins) who acts as Abby's guardian. Soon, Owen discovers the truth about his accidental playmate, and the connection between the two grow stronger...and quite sinister.

Like Steven Spielberg shuttled over to much darker and dense territory, Let Me In is a revelation. It's a work of stunning power, visionary in its use of mood and atmosphere, subversive in the way its story crawls under your skin. Like a carefully controlled poem, director Matt Reeves meticulously crafts every scene to fit within the others, nearly turning the film into a cinematic verse epic in the process. With a cast that carries his minimalistic approach to sublime levels and a story that's both slightly familiar and yet completely innovative, it's like watching the original film with totally new eyes. We know where things are going, but Reeves wants to take us there in a new and inventive way.

From the start, the main leads argue for their ability to anchor a film. Smit-McPhee, rather unimportant in the bland adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, is a marvel here. He is so thin, so part of the period being depicted that he's almost iconic. Every time we see him, we sense another avenue of understanding and emotional dimension opening up. He's the fulcrum around which this entire project revolves. Without him, Let  Me In would be less than a success. Luckily, Reeves also cast Ms. Moretz as his supernatural lead, and while not quite as ethereal as little Swedish darling Lina Leandersson, she's her own unique version of the ageless member of the living dead. The vampire element is underplayed here -- it's given mandatory moments of macabre bloodletting, but never really viewed as a true threat or supreme evil. Instead, we are supposed to view the horror of the real world as seen through the eyes of these children and marvel at how they could possibly survive.

In fact, Let Me In is one of the best, boldest coming of age statements ever. It centers on the angst that drives the pre-adolescent, the uneasy feeling of being an outsider and alone in your nonconformity, and then highlights its harmful aftereffects. That said sentiments are expressed in torrents of blood instead of silly psycho-babble proves this film's brilliance. Fans hoping that Reeves would merely avoid screwing things up can finally exhale. Let Me In is one of the best films of 2010 -- with or without its celebrated source material. 


Thursday, September 30th, 2010
Sometimes you can have all the best people working on your side and still end up with a film that hardly lives up to its promise, or even its title. The idea behind this omnibus creation was to have six of the greatest American documentarians film some of the stories from Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner's surprise 2005 bestseller which spun quirky number-crunching scenarios into (theoretically) mind-altering ways of looking at the world. The result is too much of a Frankenstein creation to either solidly deliver the book's thesis or exist as a film in its own right -- the differences between Morgan Spurlock and Alex Gibney are just too great to be contained by any one film.

Seth Gordon (The King of Kong) was put in charge of the introduction and interstitial pieces, which set a strangely giddy tone right from the start that jars mightily with some of the more serious material. To a bubbly, Carl Orff-ripoff musical backdrop, Gordon interviews poised and Gen. Petraeus-like Levitt (as the film would have it, a "rogue" University of Chicago economics professor) and the rumpled Dubner (the journalist who helped humanize Levitt's theories) about what Freakonomics is all about. Levitt puts it all down to utilizing data to illustrate different examples of his dictum that "human beings respond to incentives." The idea is that pouring metrics into different situational molds can create surprising results or lead to insights about human nature. That the Steves get along famously is well evident from Gordon's pieces - why he thought we needed these chummy introductions to the meat of the matter is hard to fathom.

Things continue on their rocky way with the first segment, A Roshanda by Any Other Name, by Morgan Spurlock. The Super Size Me one-trick artist shows his most irritating side in this facile rumination on baby naming conventions. Starting with the uncontroversial idea that reading parenting books isn't going to help new parents that much (the fact that they've bothered to read those books is more an indication of how they'll be at raising children), the piece sideswipes into an ill-considered tangent on the differences between names for white and black children, helped not at all by Spurlock's decision to stage reenactments for some of his anecdotes, and try for cheap humor during the whole bit.

Although directors Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing bring their usual empathic style (used so well in the harrowing Jesus Camp and revelatory 12th & Delaware) to the self-explanatory segment Can a 9th Grader Be Bribed to Succeed?, the final result is hardly more memorable than Spurlock's. The piece follows an experiment run by Levitt's department at a beaten-down Chicago high school where the freshmen are paid cash prizes for good grades. Grady and Ewing follow a couple of students -- one particularly dead-end skate kid who just figures he'll join the army after flunking out, and a precocious underachiever who matches an AP-potential brain with a Mad TV mouth -- through the ups and downs of the experiment, but don't get much of anywhere in the end. Their slow-burn style needs more room.

The high point in a film of mostly low ones is Taxi to the Dark Side director Alex Gibney's lacerating Pure Corruption. A beautifully composed study on the microlevel of what happened in Japan when rampant cheating in sumo wrestling was uncovered, morphs into a larger examination of cheating on a worldwide scale. While it can seem a stretch to equate the 2008 market meltdown to nearly-naked giants tussling in arenas, Gibney and his interviewees do a fine job deciphering what lies behind the posed question of "what happens to markets when people cheat?" One answer posited by this neon-lit, haunting piece is that as long as cheating is hidden from view and the pride of purity (whether in a nationalistic sport or a free-market fantasy) is kept intact, cheating may actually be good for business.

The most controversial equation in Levitt and Dubner's book was the chapter which argued that the stark falloff in American crime rates that started in the early 1990s could have been attributable less to societal changes or shifts in policing policy than it was to the legalization of abortion in 1973. (The fewer unwanted young males hanging around some two decades later could likely be responsible for the drop in crime.) Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight) puts a curiously flat spin on this inflammatory theory with his half-successful It's (Not Always) A Wonderful Life. Gravelly narration by Melvin Van Peebles lays out the stark facts against a distracting animated backdrop and a footage collage of Rudy Giuliani soundbites and shots of revolution in Romania (whose 1966 outlawing of abortion, and subsequent doubling of the birth rate, is posited as having led to the overthrow of Ceaucescu).

Some brain-teasing moments rise above the clutter in Jarecki's segment, but like the film as a whole, it never gels into anything even resembling an intellectual discourse -- or even a particularly solid argument. While this can't be blamed on the (mostly) sterling band of filmmakers gathered for the experiment, it remains odd how ill-formed most of their work was -- one directorial vision would have been a better direction.

Where's Errol Morris when you need him?

Barry Munday

Thursday, September 30th, 2010
Barry Munday is one of those movies where all of the characters creep you out, dress in ridiculous outfits, act in ways no normal person would act, and stand around mugging for the camera. Know why they do that? Because the filmmakers were bankrupt for ideas. Several films have fallen prey to this affliction in the past and spotting one is as simple as using one's brain to think logically. If the material isn't funny, then the actors have to strut around wearing goofy mustaches and shag carpet dresses. If the inherent ideas are funny on their own, then there is no need for otherwise respectable actors to pose as utter buffoons. Barry Munday is full of buffoons.

Chief among them is Barry himself, played by Patrick Wilson in some sort of impersonation-slash-homage to Will Ferrell's more ridiculous characters. Barry is a schmuck insurance salesman who looks like a reject from Napoleon Dynamite. Yet he fashions himself a ladies' man -- and quite a successful one at that, if we are to believe Barry's on-again off-again narration, in which he waxes with quasi-perspective about the unfortunate setbacks that have befallen him.

"What kind of setbacks?" you might now be asking. Well, Barry has lost his balls. Literally. Out on an impromptu date with a much younger woman, Barry's scrotum is viciously attacked by the girl's father, and he later wakes up on a hospital bed only to discover he is missing what the film frequently and joyously refers to as his "family jewels." The bad news doesn't end there, however; once Barry finally gets back on his feet, he is provided a cruel reminder of the "wild and crazy guy" he once was when he is slapped with a paternity lawsuit from a woman who claims Barry impregnated her.

The woman, Ginger (Judy Greer), is a dorky spinster who claims her encounter with Barry was her first sexual experience. For Barry, who can't even remember the night in question, the news is unfortunate and suspicious, but he nevertheless steps up to support Ginger and the baby. There are several tedious and futile attempts to extend the film's running time, from Ginger's mysterious and nosy Asian neighbor (might he be the real father?) to her sister, inexplicably played by Chloe Sevigny as one of the most annoyingly contradictory supporting characters of all time. At its core, though, Barry Munday is an obvious and off-putting comedy about how "testicles don't make the man." As noble a sentiment as that may be, the world surely doesn't need these unsavory characters to demonstrate it in such an ineloquent manner.

Wilson is a fine actor, one who typically selects challenging, meaty roles. And in spite of the material, his particular characterization of this loser is good for a chuckle. One curious note, however, is his apparent attraction to films where he loses his manhood, both literally and figuratively. Most obviously there is Hard Candy, where his sleazy sexual predator falls prey to the imaginary scalpel of Ellen Page, but also Little Children, where he portrays a tail-between-his-legs immature family man who briefly flirts with emotional freedom, or even Watchmen, where he was a "castrated" superhero robbed of his social significance.  His choices have been solid and his reasons are all his own, but Barry Munday might be proof that this particular thematic obsession has been suitably depleted of quality.

The same could be said of the film's form, which takes Uncomfortable Indie Awkwardness to an unnecessary extreme. Barry Munday's screenplay, by successful Broadway scribe and first-time feature film director Chris D'Arienzo, seems to forget the notion that simply parading losers in front of the camera and filming them at odd angles does not make a movie funny or interesting. It isn't funny that Judy Greer wears giant glasses and tacky dresses, nor is it funny when Patrick Wilson sings about his awesomeness while scrubbing his nether regions in the shower (okay, maybe that is a little funny). With characters this grating, one wonders how much better Barry Munday might have been had all these good performers just acted normal.

Case 39

Thursday, September 30th, 2010
It should surprise no one that the "new" Renee Zellweger thriller Case 39 has sat on the shelf since finishing production back in 2006. Sure, there was an obligatory release to England and the rest of Europe last year, but for the most part, Paramount has little faith in this supernatural fright film...and with good reason. While the basic premise -- lost little girl who might actually  be a demonic presence -- has more than enough potential, the execution is weak and the performances are beyond bland.

Our star plays Emily Jenkins, an overwrought social worker trying to maneuver the maniacal bureaucracy of her glorified governmental position. Already handling 38 stress-inducing cases, she is nonetheless larded with number 39 -- 10-year-old Lillith Sullivan (Jodelle Ferland). With her grades dropping and signs of neglect everywhere, Lilith becomes an instant priority, and when Jenkins shows up with cop buddy Mike Barron (Ian McShane) and discovers the parents trying to lock the child in the oven, the girl is immediately rescued. Concerned that the state will not protect Lillith, Jenkins takes the unusual step of fostering the girl herself.

Without warning, odd things start happening. A young boy who Jenkins works with murders his parents. Then, a child psychologist friend named Douglas Ames (Bradley Cooper) dies mysteriously. It's not long before Jenkins is thinking that Lillith has something to do with these deaths. A visit to the prison holding the girl's parents confirms her worst fears. It is now up to our heroine to destroy the evil entity before it swallows her soul -- and then finds another adoptive family to infiltrate and destroy.

Nothing good has ever come out of a delayed release -- and Case 39 is limping, languid proof of such an industry adage. Director Christian Alvart obvious sparked some studio interest with his German crime drama Antibodies. He was immediately tagged to take on this Zellweger vanity project, and then moved on to attempt the Event Horizon rip-off Pandorum. In both cases, his ambitions couldn't match his moviemaking acumen. Case 39 is overlong, clocking in at nearly 110 minutes, and underdeveloped. We expect a combination of The Bad Seed and The Exorcist. What we get instead is lots of Zellweger's puffy pout, her slit-eyed superficiality, and way too many CG hornets. We want to see pre-adolescent fire and brimstone. The final cut only offers flatness and boredom.

Granted, there are individual moments here and there where Alvart gets things going. When Jenkins discovers the truth about Lillith and locks herself in her well barricaded bedroom, the wooden door stand-off with the kid is sensational. Similarly, the paranormal payback our villainenss bestows upon her parents is terrific. But these are limited examples of movie macabre splash. For the most part, Case 39 is a drawn out deconstruction of child welfare and those who struggle within the system. We know almost nothing about how Lillith became "possessed", or perhaps more directly, how she became a Satanic spawn. The ethics over playing guardian for such a little Lucifer? We learn them by rote.

A few years back, multi-Oscar winner Hillary Swank headed down similar scare territory with her Beelzebub-on-the-Bayou effort The Reaping. Clearly, Case 39 could learn a thing or two from that earlier Revelation-based spectacle. It's always better to show your impending doom than talk about it incessantly, and yet Zellweger and co. can't help but yak away mercilessly. Before long, we wish the mean ol' Mangoat himself would appear just to shut everybody up. Unlike a fine wine, Case 39 did not benefit from sitting around in storage. Instead of being creepy, it's corked.