Monday, June 14, 2010

Solitary Man

In the opening scene of Solitary Man, Michael Douglas stands in his doctor’s office, waiting for the prognosis of his EKG. Appropriately dressed in a bland, Used Car Salesman’s suit, Douglas presents his character as a nice, affable man. Cut to black. Cue the title card: Six and a half years later. Fade in on Douglas getting out of bed in his hot-shit apartment, getting dressed and hitting the streets. As Douglas struts down New York City, dressed like a midnight cowboy in a designer black suit, each step perfectly in synch with the beat of Johnny Cash’s “Solitary Man,” I had an epiphany: the Michael Douglas we love is back, baby. I dare you not to be charmed.

In Solitary Man, Douglas plays Ben Kalmen, a once-successful used car salesman in New York who, after learning about his troubling EKG, left is wife, corrupted his business, and has yet to go back to the doctor. Now he spends his days chasing far younger women, forgetting his grandson’s birthday parties and trying to convince everyone his business is now legit.

Describing plot any further will get us nowhere. Let’s focus our attention elsewhere. Do me a favor and think about this notion: what 65-year-old actor could possibly convince you that bedding his 18-year-old girlfriend’s daughter is not tasteless? The answer: Michael Douglas. Are we a bit shocked when we see the two making out? Of course. But are we repulsed? No way. That’s the brilliance of Douglas’s performance: this is a vile man, way beyond any form of redemption, yet we want to follow him.

Often times, a film relies solely on its lead performance to carry the entire movie (i.e. Crazy Heart). Such is not the case here.

Douglas is backed by such high talents as Mary-Louise Parker (who steals scenes as Douglas’s girlfriend, convincingly going blow-for-blow with each line of sharply-written dialogue), Jenna Fischer (miles away from her Office character as Douglas’s remorseless daughter), Susan Sarandon (who, as Douglas’s ex, proves she simply cannot deliver a poor acting performance), and a witty Danny DeVito as Douglas’s old college pal.

The film is written and directed by Brian Koppelman and David Levien who have previously proved that they are better writers (Rounders, The Girlfriend Experience) than directors (anyone remember Knockaround Guys?), but with the help of producer Steven Soderbergh, Solitary Man asserts both directors as powerhouses in depicting American struggle.

Let’s be honest, Michael Douglas hasn’t delivered a good performance since his one-two punch of Traffic and Wonder Boys in 2000. A decade later, he has two major films to help bring him back on top. You know he’ll shine in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street 2 later this year, reprising his Oscar-winning role as Gordon Gekko. But his work in Solitary Man is what will be remembered come awards time. Solitary Man is the best American film I’ve seen so far this year. 2010 has been dismal so far so I will repeat: Solitary Man is the best American film I’ve seen so far this year. A

Please Give

All of Nicole Holofcener’s films have a way of slowly evolving that is utterly convincing. In her last film, the wonderful Friends with Money, she presented four women in a way audiences were not used to seeing. They had depth, emotion, believable problems and troubling issues. In short, they were the anti-Sex and the City gals.

Her new film, Please Give may very well be her best yet. As is the case with every Holofcener film, Catherine Keener stars in the lead role, this time as a New York City woman longing to help others, but cutting corners to help herself.

Her and her amicable husband (Oliver Platt) purchase possessions from the estates of dead people for dirt cheap, then sell them for an exaggerated profit. Things we might value as useless, Keener and Platt can sell for $4,500 in their chic Village store. The two also have a quick-witted, heinously adolescent daughter (impressive newcomer Sarah Steele, who, unlike her Twilight counterparts, is actually believable as a struggling teenager.)

The family’s elderly neighbor is an inch away from death, which is good news for them, as they bought her apartment long ago in hopes of expanding their living space once she kicks the bucket. But bad for the old woman’s kind granddaughter (Rebecca Hall), who takes care of her nanny while her cruel, narcissistic sister (an incredible Amanda Peet) does spa treatments for rich people.

I’m having a hard time describing what the film is about because, essentially, it isn’t about anything. It’s a multiple-person character study that is best played out in front of your eyes, because what the characters do isn’t nearly as interesting as how the actors manage to pull it off.

Keener’s character wants nothing more than to help people, but pay attention to her during the scene where she watches several children with Down’s syndrome play basketball. She stands on the sidelines watching the kids play. It’s an innocent gesture, one that a lesser actor would do nothing with. But watch Keener’s face, look at what she is telling you with her eyes.

As much as I was convinced that Please Give boasted, arguably, Catherine Keener’s finest performance, I’d be remised if I did not mention the fact that Amanda Peet steals the show.

Glowing with a way-too-bronze tan and dressed to the tilt at every occasion, Peet dominates every scene she is in, whether through frank sexuality or brutally selfish dialogue. Peet has been stealing scenes for over a decade in films like The Whole Nine Yards, Changing Lanes, Igby Goes Down, Syriana, and the short-lived TV show Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. But in Please Give, she goes places I never expected her to go.

I understand that Please Give may seem like too slight a film to venture all the way to an independent theatre for. But that’s okay, because this is a movie you can enjoy in any setting. I promise, just simply watching Keener and Peet will be time well spent. A-

City Island

Based on its lackluster trailer and mediocre reviews, I hadn’t the slightest interest in seeing City Island. But then two things happened. First, a rising young Hollywood actress told me the movie was great, then I did a little research and discovered Emily Mortimer was in the film. Sold.

Andy Garcia, who may very well be the most underrated actor of his generation, delivers yet another solid performance as Vince Rizzo, a native of the tiny Bronx island, City Island. Vince spends his days as a prisoner guard – err Corrections Officer – but moonlights as a wanna-be actor in New York.

Given that each meal in the Rizzo household turns into an raging screaming match, it’s pretty clear that Vince can’t muster up the courage to tell his spitfire wife, Joyce (Julianna Margulies, deeply sexy in heavy eyeliner) that he has aspirations of being the next Brando.

As the film evolves, we’re presented with a family surrounded by secrets, unable to communicate with each other on almost every level. Joyce answers phones for a living, but eyes the Rizzo’s new houseguest with the lust of a desperate housewife. Their son is an apparent genius, but constantly skips school in order to feed his obsession with obese woman. Their daughter is kicked off her college scholarship for smoking a little weed, so she strips to make a living. Vince’s new prisoner turns out to be his long lost son, so he reprimands him into his custody without telling anyone his real motives.

The plot is a bit flimsy, but here’s what’s interesting: rarely do the characters take matters seriously, so we don’t either. City Island, I think, wants to be a comedy, but at times, strives to hit some real emotional depth. Enter Ms. Mortimer.

With her deeply poignant performance in City Island, Emily Mortimer proves to me, yet again, that she is the most underrated actress working in movies. (For examples, please see Match Point, Lars and the Real Girl, Transsiberian, Redbelt and Shutter Island.) She has a scene in City Island, in which she and Garcia have a candid conversation on a dock, that is worth the price of admission alone. Watch her face as she shares her most personal secret. Listen to the pitch of her voice. That, my friends, is acting.

The climax of City Island is an over-the-top, make-it-or-break-it romp. The scene, which starts with far too much slapstick brevity, and ends with a sincere amount of emotional candor, loses us slightly in its tonal shifts as the Rizzo's air out every last bit of their dirty laundry in the middle of the street. But if you’re willing to overlook the film’s faults, you’ll find some honest emotion, hidden slightly underneath the film’s joking exterior. What happens to some of these characters is hardly believable, but we’re glad things turn out the way they do. Which is another way of saying, we actually care. B

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Karate Kid

Beyond all doubt and suspicion, the new Karate Kid remake is actually good. I didn’t believe it would be, hell, even during the movie I was asking myself, “how is this happening?” How indeed.

The story is essentially the same. Instead of a sarcastic New York, Italian teen out of his element in L.A., we get a 12-year-old Detroit kid out of his element in China. The kid meets his building’s handy man, who soon stops the kid from getting the shit kicked out of him (again) by a slew of angry little kung-fu masters, who then agrees to train the kid for a kung-fu match.

To enjoy the film is not to compare it. The original Karate Kid is an ‘80s classic. The cheesy music, the over-the-top villain, the blond hairdos, an Oscar-nominated Pat Morita, and a final fight scene that still inspires. Nothing can live up to it (including its three sequels). And if you treat this new flick as its own, things go pretty smoothly.

Jaden Smith - who has Jada’s smile and Will’s charm – knocks his role out of the park. He’s got fire in the right moments, perfect charisma and comic timing in other moments, an impressively toned physique that shows he did his homework, and an emotional depth that we don’t expect. He’s a star on the rise. Watch out.

Jackie Chan fills in the role of teacher, which turns out to be a surprising choice. We’ve all seen Chan throw jokes and kicks around, but I’ve never seen him care. He has a scene in this film, in which he describes a terrible car accident, that may very well be the best acting he’s ever done. Sure Mr. Han doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as Mr. Miyagi, and he also lacks Morita’s candid humor. But Chan does have one brief line here that is delivered which such brilliant comic timing that it will have you laughing aloud, guaranteed.

The training scenes, somehow, are on par with the original film. Fast, enjoyable, and most importantly, believable. Like his father proved in Ali, little Jaden will have you convinced that he could seriously kick some ass.

Which brings us to the finale. Would this kid - whose only had, what, four months training in kung fu? – really be able to go pound-for-pound with young masters? Probably not. But oh well, that matters little. What remains is a compelling, adventurous remake, that, quite literally, everyone in the entire family can enjoy. Think some of the scenes are a little corny? Watch the original again (as I did directly after I got home from the remake), that flick is 100% cornball joy. Regardless how you feel after the new film’s well-executed 140 minutes, I dare you to not be hit with a brilliant wave of nostalgia as the final fight is concluded.

THIS is the ‘80s remake movie to see this weekend. Rock ‘n’ roll. B+

The A-Team

For the first hour or so of the film, which, somehow, goes by very very fast, I was completely oblivious to any mid-movie epiphanies I may have. But once the movie slowed down, it hit me.

After about the fifth action scene in this ‘80s re-vamp, I realized why I dislike the majority of American action films. It’s quite simply, really. There is too much perfect timing. Too much coincidence to make every little plot aspect work perfectly.

A few examples from this film. In the opening scene, one of the A-Team members is being held captive inside of a stack of tires. The bad guys light the tires on fire but the A-Teamer doesn’t flinch. “You’ll be sorry,” he says. Then right as the flames are about to reach his body BAM a car comes crashing through the barricades, saving the soon-to-be-burned A-Team member.

In another scene, an A-Teamer sits in a mental hospital, the military police hot on his trail, they walk over to him then BAM a truck comes smashing through the concrete wall, saving the soon-to-be-taken-into-custody A-Team member.

How about when another A-Teamer is flat on his back, the main bad guy standing in front of him, pointing a gun in his face. All the guy has to do is pull the trigger. Game over. But no, he sits there and talks and talks and then BAM an A-Teamer on a motorcycle comes flying through the air, and somehow manages to jump off the bike and tackle the would-be gunman.

And then, lastly, I promise, there is an entire action scene that is based around perfect timing and coincidence. If the semi truck the A-Team is hijacking slightly slowed down, a member would be squashed to bits. If the semi was going 2 mph faster, the lead A-Teamer wouldn’t have been able to swing in on a rope and jump onto the moving roof of the vehicle.

I get it. The people who pay to see these movies don’t care about little things like physics and reality, they just want to see shit blow up, which brings me to my final point. The A-Team is trash, yes, but it is, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, enjoyable trash. The cast does an amicable job with the very little dialogue they have and the action scenes (with the exception of the overblown finale) pop, but not without a little too much convenient use of time.

Was I annoyed by this movie? Yes. Was it better than any other blockbuster garbage I’ve seen so far this year? Yes. Do I think your money is better spent elsewhere? Yes. But, hey, if it’s trash you want, it’s trash you got. C-

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Exit Through the Gift Shop

Well, here’s something new. Several years ago, obsessive filmographer Thierry Guetta began documenting street art with his crappy home video camera. He taped any and everything, slowly building a name for himself within the super secret sect of street artists. With promises to soon release a feature length film of what he had captured, artists let Guetta tape their works, no matter the risk.

After thousands of hours of taped footage, Guetta finally made his way to Banksy, one of the most notorious street artists that’s ever lived. The intensely private Banksy was weary of Guetta and his obsessive, borderline annoying habits, and after a few years of Guetta following him around, Banksy demanded to see a rough cut of Guetta’s film.

Six months later, Banksy viewed a nearly unwatchable account of Guetta’s time as a documentarian. The film, which is like a 90 minute music video on crack, was nothing short of a disaster. So, Banksy decided to turn the tables on Guetta and make a documentary of his own. The result is the evolving and intriguing Exit Through the Gift Shop.

“I thought Thierry was a more interesting person than myself,” says Banksy on camera, cleverly shadowed in a hoodie in order to keep his anonymity. Essentially, Guetta gave Banksy all his hours of footage and Bansky made something useful out of it. But what develops is not only a rousing history of street art, but a window into a tortured man’s soul.

After he failed as a filmmaker, Guette quickly went into creating high-level street art. He wanted to put on the biggest exhibition L.A. had ever seen. The result was a financially pleasing display of, mostly, overworked garbage that had several notable street artists scratching their heads. Why do people like this shit? And more importantly, why are they paying thousands of dollars for it?

Exit Through the Gift Shop may not be the most thrilling movie of the year (it slugs on in the middle), but it is a unique look at an underworld most of us know nothing about. Oh, and did I mention it’s hilarious? Near the end of the film, through all his puzzlement over the success of Guetta, Banksy slyly remarks that, “I used to encourage every single person to create art. Now… well… I just don’t do that anymore.”

I’m curious to see if Exit Through the Gift Shop gets any awards attention. How would an anonymous director accept an award for Best Documentary? B+


So imagine a completely absurd premise wrapped in a repulsive film that actually, somehow, manages to be mildly entertaining. Hmmm.

Scientist couple Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley decide to create a new being by combining DNA from several different creatures, including human, to benefit all of mankind (the new being’s DNA will apparently cure the most incurable of diseases).

After a few failed attempts, a little, spunky, ugly… thing is produced. The creature, soon dubbed Dren (Nerd backwards, get it!?), grows rapidly in body and mind, but becomes more agitated and restless with each passing day. After a few weeks the couple moves Dren, who is now human size, has kangaroo-like legs, and an alien-like face, to an abandon barn.

Now, let’s kick up the gross factor. And yeah, shit gets pretty nasty. We all know where the plot is going: Dren is going to lash out, revolt. The whole pet-project-gets-a-mind-of-its-own-and-goes-crazy, thing. You may be expecting that tired plot device, but the stuff in between is what will get you stirring in your seats.

I don’t want to give too much away but let me just say, it’s probably not the best idea to have sex right in front of your new, intelligent, alien-like being. She may… you know, get ideas.

Brody and Polley work well together, but the movie doesn’t really amount to much. Director Vincenzo Natali, who’s best known for the trippy flick Cube and the worst segment in Paris je’taime (the vampire one with Elijah Wood), leaves you with plenty to be grossed out by, but not much more.

And that’s what Splice has to offer: plenty of nasty shit that you will talk, and think about, days after you leave the theatre. It just may not be a conversation you want to have. D+

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Get Him to the Greek

Am I the only one that thinks the Apatow takeover of American comedy is getting a little old? The dude started with a hit (The 40-Year-Old-Virgin) followed with another (Knocked Up) but hasn’t delivered, as a director or producer, since. In short, his films are turning into romantic comedies for men.

Funny gimmick is introduced. Funny gimmick is carried out and talked about for an hour. Funny gimmick hits a road block. Tears and screaming ensue. Everyone makes up. All is well. Fade to black.

That’s how simple the plot development for his films are becoming. In Get Him to the Greek - the less-than-stellar, quasi sequel to the very stellar Forgetting Sarah Marshall - the standard Apatow format is well in tow.

Lame music exec Aaron (Jonah Hill, please go away) is sent to London by his relatively insane boss (Sean “P Diddy” Combs, defining over acting) to retrieve rockstar nut job Aldous Snow (Russell Brand, so good in Marshall) so he can put on an anniversary concert.

With a plotline so simple, I’m amazed director Nicholas Stoller managed to make it so overdone and uninteresting. Aaron and Aldous have a wild night getting drunk and stoned. They wake up and continue to do it all over again. And again. And again. Okay, we get the point. And what’s with all the over-direction? The spinning camera, the imposed heads on the screen, the fast cutting; it’s all a bit too much. And lest we forget the “three-way” that takes place during the end of the movie. A scene in which its participants have about as much chemistry as three senior citizens drinking coffee.

Honestly, Get Him to the Greek isn’t all bad. Some jokes pop (sorry, I… can’t remember which ones, but I know I laughed…twice?) And a few performances are well done, namely by Rose Byrne (one of the most underrated actresses currently working), who plays Aldous’s ex. But for every joke that hits, there are five that miss. Take P Diddy’s explanation of how he is a brilliant “mind fucker”.

“I’m mind-fuckin’ you right now, can you feel my dick all up in yo brain?”

What the hell? How is that funny?

It’s a shame that the best character from Forgetting Sarah Marshall is put little use when given his own movie. Except of course to bring on the typical everything-little-thing’s-gonna-be-all-right Apatow catharsis that we’re all growing weary of. Sorry Judd, I think you need to go back to the drawing board. Your cookie-cutter comedies are spent. D