Saturday, May 29, 2010

Date Night (2010)

It feels a bit surreal getting a babysitter and taking my wife on a date to see a movie about a guy getting a babysitter and taking his wife out on a date. It just made me feel a little self-conscious. It’s a good thing “Date Night” is such a dead funny film.

Steve Carell and Tina Fey play Phil and Claire Foster, married couple in a rut. They get along great, and clearly love each other, but the day to day grind of work, commutes, and kids saps the energy that they once had for each other. They do the same things all the time, and have reached a point where they think they know everything there is to know about each other. What this couple needs is a night of excitement, and boy, do they get it! When they pose as a couple with a reservation in order to get a seat at a fancy Manhattan restaurant, they are mistaken for the targets of a couple of Mob hit-men, and the night takes off from there. Good times ensue all over NYC, including car chases, Tina Fey in a stripper outfit, and Mark Wahlberg without a shirt. Along the way - you guessed it - the Fosters learn some new things about each other and rekindle that old flame.

“Date Night” is fairly formulaic, but executed in a manner that shows why the formula works. It’s a combination of screwball, slapstick, and action comedy that manages to be sweet without being sentimental. Fey and Carell are wonderful at creating comedy that respects the characters. When the Fosters take time out to have a Big Conversation and get some things off their chests, it feels like a real conversation between real people, not trite at all. The movie also benefits from a pretty much all-star cast, including Wahlberg as an impossibly cool security expert, James Franco and Mila Kunis as a cute pair of scumbags, William Fichtner as a politician, and Ray Liotta as a Mobster. “Date Night” isn’t destined to become a classic, but it’s loads of fun and a great date movie.

4 stars out of 5

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Lars and the Real Girl (2007)

This is a movie with an edgy premise that turns out to be rather conventional. Lars (Ryan Gosling) is an odd, withdrawn guy with Avoidant Personality Disorder. He lives in his brother’s garage, and can’t bring himself to socialize even with his family, although he is able to hold down a job. One day his porn-obsessed cubicle mate shows him a site with extremely realistic sex dolls, and six weeks later the UPS guy delivers Bianca, Lars’s new girlfriend.

Shocked at first, Lars’s family takes him to their wise, small-town doctor (Patricia Clarkson), who convinces them to go along with the delusion and give Lars a chance to work through his intimacy issues. Pretty soon the whole town is in on it, and it’s just a beautiful image of small-town America, where everybody knows everybody, and the people are so tolerant that they’ll prop a guy up while he debuts on the social scene with his plastic sex-surrogate girlfriend.

I get that this is a fairy tale and shouldn’t be judged on a literal basis. It would be great if folks were really this compassionate and open-minded. It would be great if all family docs were just doing medicine as a hobby and could afford to spend an hour or so every week with the same patient, talking around his problems. My beef with “Lars and the Real Girl” is that it is, frankly, trite. Everything is quite predictable, and the whole thing is just syrupy sweet.

One thing I did like about “Lars and the Real Girl” is the way it depicted moderately religious people. I’m not religious myself, but I’m sympathetic to the complaint that Hollywood acts as if Faith barely exists. In a matter of fact way, this film depicts its characters as having a church community as part of their everyday lives, which is how it is in much of the country. It isn’t preachy about this; I only mention it because it’s something you don’t see much in movies anymore. In gratitude, God should have helped them make this a better film.

2 stars out of 5

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Invention of Lying (2009)

Ricky Gervais co-wrote and co-directed this little gem, so of course it displays his signature brand of awkward humor. “The Invention of Lying” also features a serious, philosophical side of Gervais which I really liked.

Gervais plays Mark, a downtrodden guy in a world much like our own, except that everyone tells the truth, all the time. People aren’t even aware that they could do otherwise, and there is no word for lying. One day, in dire straits, Mark hits upon an amazing idea: He says “something that isn’t.” He tells a bank teller that his account contains more money than it really does. She takes his word for it, of course, and assumes that her computer is incorrect in showing a much smaller balance. With a wad of cash in hand, Mark goes out to pay his bills and reflect on this new possibility he has discovered. Soon he is using lies to fool a cop, get rich, and further his screenwriting career, which was traditionally limited to recounting true events from history.

Everything is going swell until Mark finds himself facing his mother on her death-bed. She is terrified of facing “an eternity of nothingness.” To ease her passing, Mark makes up his biggest lie yet: He tells her that rather than nothingness, she is going to a wonderful place when she dies, with a mansion, and she’ll get to see all the people she ever loved who have died. The fib works wonders, as Mark’s mom dies happy and peaceful, but the doctors and nurses overhear his story and spread the word about this “new information about what happens when we die.” Soon, Mark finds himself at the center of one gigantic, worldwide, snowballing lie.

“The Invention of Lying” could just as easily have been titled “The Invention of Religion,” and the point of the film, of course, is that the two are essentially equivalent. The film is not at all subtle in saying that religions are just a bunch of stories that people made up to make everyone feel better about death. No new philosophical ground is covered here, but “The Invention of Lying” deals with the subject quite amusingly, and you have to admire Gervais’s chutzpah. Hollywood frequently pretends that religion doesn’t exist, but it’s a rare film that directly espouses atheism.

Will religious people be able to enjoy this movie? I guess it depends on the person. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops rated “The Invention of Lying” as "O - morally offensive" calling it “venomous and pervasively blasphemous.” You can take the Bishopric at its word (full review at or check out the surprisingly open-minded review at a site called Christianity Today. (

Beyond the religion angle, “The Invention of Lying” obliquely explores some interesting ideas about the nature of social interaction and imagination. I found it interesting that the people in the fictitious world of this movie don’t just tell the truth when asked, they blurt out whatever is on their mind. When Mark and his date Anna (Jennifer Garner) enter a restaurant, the hostess says to the gorgeous Anna, “Hello, I’m threatened by you.” Mark’s secretary greets him with, “I’m thinking of how overqualified I am for my job, and how incompetent you are at yours.” People say these things without any malice or thought for how the other person will take it. It’s as if everyone in Mark’s world is semi-autistic. I think that co-writers Gervais and Robinson meant to suggest that the missing element in these people’s brains is imagination. They cannot imagine what another person might feel upon hearing a harsh comment any more than they can imagine saying something that isn’t so. When Mark unlocks his ability to lie, he uses it for personal gain, but he also starts telling little white lies and even holding back hurtful comments to spare others’ feelings. To circle back to the religion angle, Mark’s new ability to lie could be a metaphor for the biblical Fall. In Genesis, the Apple gave Adam and Eve awareness of Good and Evil, bringing them from an animal state of innocence to a more complex, more human state. Once he tells that first fib, Mark also steps up to a more human plane of existence, where he is more aware and more responsible for his own actions and for the effect they have on others.

There’s also a love story in here (Isn’t there always?), as Mark tries to woo Anna. The romantic angle in this film is nothing special, but I did like that Mark makes it a point not to use lies to win the girl because, as he later tells Anna, “It wouldn’t have counted.” At the end of the day, lies are only useful if they serve some kind of truth, and Mark wisely realizes that it is Anna’s love that he craves, not a facsimile of her love based on lies.

“The Invention of Lying” is not a perfect movie, but it is thoughtful and a lot of fun. In general, if you are a religious person, this film has the potential to make you uncomfortable. If you can handle it, I suggest you give it a watch.

3.5 stars out of 5

Saturday, May 08, 2010

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

I have seen worse movies than this, but I don’t think I have ever been more disappointed by one. This is one of the beloved films of the science-fiction pantheon. Arthur C. Clarke himself supposedly listed it as one of the ten best sci-fi movies of all time. I was full of anticipation for this one, but watching it, I wondered how a poorly-acted, almost action-less, stilted B-movie production became so widely praised.

The film begins with a UFO, which announces its presence to the earth by circling the globe, then landing in a Washington, DC park. Surrounded by soldiers and police, the saucer sits there for a while, and then a guy in a spacesuit emerges. And I mean a GUY in a spacesuit. No pointy ears, no third eye, nothing alien about the guy at all. He calls himself Klaatu, but he looks like an insurance salesman, which, in a way, is what he turns out to be. Klaatu comes to us in peace, with a message of warning to stop our warlike ways. He wants to give this message to all the leaders of earth, but he soon is told that earth’s leaders are too belligerent to agree to meet in one place. Klaatu decides that earth’s scientists might represent a better audience, so he embarks on a mission to get THEM together to hear his message. He needs a place to stay while doing all this, so he rents a room from a sweet old lady and bonds with his new single-mom neighbor.

There are all sorts of ways that this story could have been made funny, subversive, scary, or just interesting, but it is really none of those things. The anti-nuke, anti-war message is very straightforward, in an After-School-Special kind of way. The dialog and characters are just plain hokey, without a trace of wit, and the only suspense I felt during the film was, “When will it end?”

That image of a visored spaceman that you see on the movie posters and DVD packaging? That’s not Klaatu; it’s his invulnerable robot, which is powerful enough to destroy the entire earth. Imagine all the cool sci-fi action fun the film could have with such a being! Now keep on imagining it, because it doesn’t happen. The robot does very little, and hardly gets any screen time. I don’t mind that the special effects are cheesy, but they should have DONE SOMETHING with them. Let’s see that robot rampage through the city and do battle with the military! “The Day the Earth Stood Still” gives us none of that.

The most bizarre aspect of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is that the Earth doesn’t actually stand still! A space alien lands on earth, and yet the citizens of the city where he lands just read about it in the paper, then go on to their regular jobs and schools. The president sends a secretary over to chat with Klaatu rather than going himself! If this was supposed to be some clever plot device, like the grandfather who considers vampires just a local annoyance in “Lost Boys,” then it is played so straight that it goes right over my head.

I believe that “The Day the Earth Stood Still” was successful in 1951 because it tapped into a political and philosophical backlash against McCarthyism and the Cold War. The dominant mood of the country then may have been hawkish anti-Communism, but there were a significant number of peace-niks and, frankly, Communists, especially among academics and in Hollywood. (Actor Sam Jaffe, who played Professor Barnhardt (an obvious stand-in for Albert Einstein) was an admitted communist and was blacklisted.) “The Day the Earth Stood Still” was a movie for them and for anyone who felt sympathy for those ideas. The movie goes beyond a general call for peace and international cooperation, however. The film plays on the idea that individuals and even nations cannot be relied upon to behave, and must be overseen by some benign, all-powerful, secular entity. Producer Julian Blaustein admitted that he intended the film to be an argument for a strong United Nations. Even the U.N., of course, is an institution of men, and therefore fallible. What Klaatu offers is an army of invincible robots that are immune to corruption or politics and that will swoop in to punish any act of hostility or war, ensuring peace throughout the universe. What a classic Liberal fantasy! In counterpoint, the movie version of “The War of the Worlds” came out in 1953, two years after “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” although, of course, the famous radio broadcast preceded both films. H.G. Wells wrote “War of the Worlds” well before the Soviet Union existed, but audiences in 1953 doubtless viewed the bloodsucking invaders as symbols of the Russians. In “War of the Worlds” the aliens are defeated by an earth virus, an act of Divine intervention evocative of the Conservative fantasy that God would save us from the Communists.

This dichotomy was to become the standard blueprint for Science Fiction. Aliens were either evil invaders who had to be fought off (“Independence Day” “Aliens” “V”) or the bringers of enlightenment to benighted Earthlings, often threatened, as Klaatu was, by the violent paranoia of humans (“E.T.” “Star Trek: First Contact” Arthur C. Clarke’s “Childhood’s End”). The type of sci-fi that appeals to you may be determined, in part, by whether you have an essentially Liberal or Conservative world view.

Of course, the biggest determinant of which sci-fi stories you will enjoy is, and should be, the quality of the storytelling. That’s where “The Day the Earth Stood Still” falls short. The movie feels like a cheap comic book. Plenty of people will disagree with me on this, but even for 1951, this movie is not a classic.

1 star