Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Switch (2010) ***

Sometimes it pays to listen to the critics, and sometimes it pays to listen to a second opinion. I completely wrote this movie off back when I saw the trailer for it. It looked like just another lame, romantic comedy, and critics didn‘t seem to care much for it when it was in theatres. Also, the premise: a guy hijacks his female friend’s artificial insemination, seemed too similar to some Jennifer Lopez movie that was also getting advertised back then. Fast forward to the present, when this movie, and all other movies dealing with artificial insemination, have been relegated to history. The DVD section of Entertainment Weekly had a good review of the DVD, suggesting that it is an overlooked gem, so my wife convinced me to give it a try. It turns out this really is a fun, little comedy.

Jason Bateman plays Wally, basically the same likeable, slightly awkward character that Bateman always plays, maybe a little more misanthropic and neurotic this time around. He is secretly in love with his best friend, Kassie (Jennifer Aniston), but lacks the walnuts to make a move. Instead he hangs out in the “friend zone” while they both suffer through one failed relationship after another, until Kassie decides to have a baby via artificial insemination. Rather than just having the procedure done in a doctor’s office, Kassie throws a party, where everyone gets to meet the handsome, Viking-like donor, Roland (Patric Wilson). A mixture of alcohol and Xanax puts Wally in a position to “accidentally” pour out Roland’s sperm sample, then replace it with his own. Thanks to the roofie-like effect of the Xanax, Wally remembers nothing the next day.

Thinking that New York might be a tough place to raise her son, Kassie moves back to the mid-west, leaving Wally to continue his string of doomed romances. When she moves back to NYC a few years later, Wally is delighted to meet her son, whose odd quirks seem hauntingly familiar. Meanwhile, Kassie strikes up a relationship with Roland, whom she believes to be the father of her son. Hilarity ensues, along a surprisingly tasteful helping of real emotion.

While there are some good laughs in “The Switch,“ it’s the emotional side that elevates the film beyond it’s hackneyed premise. Jason Bateman may not have the greatest dramatic range, but he has a genuineness that plays really well here. His interactions with his son, Sebastian (Thomas Robinson) hinge on the fact that Sebastian is rather precocious and doesn’t like being talked down to, while Wally probably wouldn’t know how to patronize a little kid even if he needed to. Here’s one classic piece of father-son dialogue:

Wally: So, how do you like your new school?
Sebastian: How come everybody asks me that?
Wally: Because you’re a kid. There’s nothing else to talk about.

Jennifer Aniston is also surprisingly good in this role. I’ve always found her quite charming, but pretty bland as an actress, but she really brings some personality to the role of Kassie.

“The Switch” is as formulaic as you might expect, and certainly not the best romantic comedy ever, but good acting saves the day. Your life won’t be missing anything if you don’t manage to rent it, but it is worth a watch if you get the chance.

3 stars out of 5

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Kick-Ass (2010) ****

It’s a good question, really. With all the fans of superhero comics out there, why doesn’t anyone ever put on a costume and go out to fight crime? This is the question posed by Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), the quiet high-school student who is the protagonist of “Kick-Ass.” Sick of being preyed on by local thugs, Dave buys a colorful diving suit, a mask, and a nightstick, then proceeds to get his ass handed to him by a couple of hoodlums and a hit-and-run driver. This would discourage most people, but Dave is motivated by something that I think many of us have felt: He is sick of seeing assholes prey on the weak while everyone else turns away. He heals his wounds, puts the costume back on, and manages to bumble into a situation where he actually helps someone.

The instant celebrity of the “superhero” known as Kick-Ass inspires the populace, even though Dave has no “powers” and doesn’t even have any athletic talent or fighting skills. His only edge is that his original injuries leave him with some nerve damage that supposedly makes him impervious to most pain. Other than that, he’s just a fed-up citizen with a nightstick. His activities do, however, bring him to the attention of a pair of more capable, if less likely, masked vigilantes. The mentally unbalanced Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) wears a Batman costume and takes his 11-year-old daughter Mindy, also known as Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz) along on his crime-fighting missions. Both are ridiculously bad ass experts in gung-fu, gun-fu, and everything in between, and they have no qualms about killing criminals. The pair have a grudge against a mafia boss, and Kick-Ass/Dave winds up in the middle of it.

Most action movies, and definitely most comic book movies, try to get a PG-13 rating to maximize their access to the teen audience. Not “Kick-Ass.” Between her foul mouth and her penchant for bloodshed, Hit Girl earns this film an R all by herself. Chloe Moritz is actually pretty awesome, and it will be interesting to see how she turns out as an actress. Nic Cage chews the scenery admirably in a movie that is actually suited to his bizarre talent. Aaron Johnson didn’t blow me away or anything, but he does alright in the title role.

Through a combination of sincerity and audacity, “Kick-Ass” manages to overcome its formulaic plot and genuinely entertain. I like that the movie doesn’t apologize for glorifying vigilante justice. A lot of good people would like to do exactly what Dave, Big Daddy, and Hit Girl do. I dig that this movie doesn’t do the standard, hypocritical, Hollywood thing of profiting from displays of violence, then throwing in a public service announcement about how violence is never the answer. (Batman, anyone?) You know what? Sometimes violence IS the answer. Yeah, I understand the dangers of vigilantism, but sometimes I want to watch a movie where a decent citizen who isn’t a cop or a soldier kicks the bad guys’ asses. “Kick-Ass” is that movie.

4 stars

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Pierrot, le Fou (1965)** and Breathless (A Bout de Souffle, 1960)***

This week we watched this pair of films by French New Wave mastermind Jean-Luc Godard, and I‘m not yet sure what I think of them. Godard was clearly a highly influential filmmaker. As part of the ‘60’s New Wave (Nouvelle Vague), he made an effort to break with the conventions of traditional Hollywood-style filmmaking. He used hand-held cameras, long tracking shots, curious cuts between shooting angles, and long talking scenes. The effect of his experiments is to sacrifice photographic perfection in favor of intimacy with the actors. This works, which is why so many of his methods have been adopted by modern directors like Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch, Richard Linklater and others. Unfortunately, once we get intimate with his characters, we find that there isn’t much to them. In these two films, at least, Godard seems to have focused on style at the expense of character and story.

“Breathless” is the better of the two, in my opinion. Jean-Paul Belmondo plays Michel, a small-time crook who hits the big time by killing a cop. He flees to Paris to collect some money he is owed and hook up with Patricia (Jean Seberg), an American girl with whom he is in love, to the extent that he is able to love. The film explores what it means to love someone, especially for an emotional midget like Michel. The film never manages to convince me that Michel is capable of viewing another person as more than an object to be used, but he does seem to love Patricia in that he is unable to drag himself away from her, even when staying puts him in danger of getting caught by the police. As for Patricia, I can’t really figure out what she is feeling for Michel. She allows him to make her an accessory after the fact to murder, so I suppose there is some devotion there, but in the whole affair I get the feeling that she is just watching herself from outside to see how self-destructive she might allow herself to be over a man whom she doesn’t even necessarily like. I suppose we have all been guilty of emotional confusion and delusion, and this was Godard’s way of exploring that. At the end of the day, I don’t know that Godard said anything extraordinary, but he does manage to make Jean Seberg and Paris look absolutely charming.

Godard worked with Jean-Paul Belmondo again in “Pierrot le Fou” (Peter the madman). Belmondo plays Ferdinand, a bored husband who casually leaves his family one night to run off with a crazy ex-girlfriend. Marianne (Anna Karina) is all mixed up with various criminal types, and she and Ferdinand wind up fleeing across France with a rifle and a suitcase full of money. This is a classic setup for a fun, action-packed, Bonnie-and-Clyde-style movie, but somehow the actors never manage to make life on the lam seem all that compelling. Any normal person would be wildly turned on to be on the run in the company of someone as sexy as Anna Karina or Jean-Paul Belmondo, but Michel and Marianne seem to be bored before the journey is even begun. I don’t think this is completely the fault of Godard’s script. Some interesting things happen to the two fugitives, but Belmondo in particular seems to be sleep-walking through most of the movie. It’s a shame, because “Pierrot, Le Fou” could be a classic example of New Wave film. There are some interesting uses of voice-over to create commentary and inner dialogue, unique cuts between camera shots, and the actors even break into song at times. The beginning of the movie has a particularly scathing scene at a high-society party, where all the conversation is in the form of commercials. (It is this party that drives Michel to run off with Marianne.)

“Pierrot, Le Fou” also showcases a general amorality that seems to be popular in French movies. In American movies, outlaws have a code of their own, and if they break that code or harm an innocent person, they are usually punished for it. In French movies, on the other hand, the stars will do truly rotten things to innocent bystanders and never be made to pay for their deeds. Some people think of the French as socialists, but judging by their movies, I think the French are naturally anarchists. Socialism may just be what it takes to keep those crazy bastards in line.

I feel bad that I wasn’t more into these movies, since Godard is considered such a master. My take on Godard so far is that he was an innovator of filmmaking style, who helped others make some truly great films. As for these two films, they are just okay.

Breathless - 3 stars
Pierrot, le Fou - 2 stars

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Iron Man (2008) ***

I’m probably the last person in the free world to see “Iron Man.” It was pretty much what I expected: a slightly better-than-average comic book movie that, despite competent acting, is still mostly aimed at 14-year-old boys. I’m sure you know the basic idea behind the movie and the comic it‘s based on: Billionaire inventor Tony Stark builds himself a high-tech suit of armor that allows him to fly and shoot various weapons from his limbs.

Robert Downey, Jr. plays Stark with humor and confidence, but I was actually disappointed that the film didn’t offer up more depth to this character. In the comics, Stark has a history of alcoholism. With Robert Downey, Jr’s addiction history, it would have been interesting to see him explore this territory, but the film doesn’t go there. Likewise, the all-star supporting cast (Gwyneth Paltrow as Stark’s assistant, Jeff Bridges as Stark’s business mentor, and Terrence Howard as his military liaison) lend a level of class to this action flick, but they don’t really get to develop their characters. This is par for the course for an action movie, but it isn’t just explosions that take up the time. “Iron Man” spends a LOT of time with Stark in the lab, developing his suits, and while I liked seeing this side of the story, it actually got to be a bit tedious. The movie could have easily been twenty minutes shorter if they had trimmed some of these scenes. Then there’s the ridiculous plot-line involving Stark having pieces of metal shrapnel lodged in his heart, so he has to wear an electro-magnet on his chest to hold the metal in place so he doesn’t die. It’s ludicrous.

My problem with “Iron Man” is that I went into it believing the hype about how Downey’s amazing performance made this a different kind of comic-book movie. It doesn’t. This is the same old song, just played by better musicians. There’s a lot of good material available in this story, but the filmmakers don’t bother to take advantage of it. There’s that alcoholism issue, for one. The film could have also delved more into Stark’s motivations for getting out of the weapons-design business. The movie does touch on this a little, and I like where they were going. Stark believes that there is nothing wrong with designing better weapons and selling them to the “good guys,” but when he learns that his weapons are getting into the hands of our enemies, he starts to view the enterprise as futile. If everyone is getting his weapons, then he isn’t really tilting conflicts in favor of the good guys, he is just profiting off making those conflicts deadlier. He comes to believe that if he applies his genius to peaceful pursuits, clean energy production for example, then he can make more of a positive impact on the world, and possibly make some of those conflicts unnecessary. “Iron Man” suggests all of this, but I think they should have run with it. They could also have done more to explain what drives Jeff Bridges’s character. Instead the movie sticks with pretty typical hero and villain archetypes.

Why am I quibbling about the narrative in a comic-book movie? I don’t believe we should have to settle for mediocrity in a story just because of its genre. We have always had stories about heroes and gods, beings with special powers who carry on the age-old battle between good and evil. Comics are just the modern incarnation of that tradition. Comic books and the movies made from them are targeted mostly at kids, which explains much of their shallowness, but there is nothing that says kids don’t deserve better. I think these stories deserve to be told well. “Iron Man” is better than most of the genre, but somehow it keeps the audience at a distance, and I wound up not liking it as much as, for example, the X-men movies. Like so many other action movies, and like Tony Stark himself, “Iron Man” has a problem with its heart.

3 stars