Saturday, June 23, 2012

A Good, Old-Fashioned Orgy (2011) **½

 Everyone knows that folks in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s did some serious swinging, and from what you hear about young people today, you get the impression that they only stop slurping each other’s privates when they take a break to send each other naked pictures on their cell phones. So what happened to people like me, who came of age in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s? AIDS, that’s what. We grew up hearing that sex was a scary, dangerous thing that could kill you. It didn’t completely stop us from having sex, but it probably did cut down on the debauchery. “A Good, Old-Fashioned Orgy” is the story of a group of 30-somethings who set out to remedy that.

 Eric (Jason Sudeikis) and his group of high-school friends, which consists of several cute chicks and an assortment of dorky guys, have grown up partying at Eric’s dad’s beach house. When his dad puts the house up for sale, the friends see the end of not only their epic parties, but of the free, irresponsible chapter of their lives. (Which, given that they are about 30, they have stretched out pretty far, anyway.) Eric convinces the group to see the beach house off with one, last epic soire, a good, old-fashioned orgy between friends.

 You see the title of this film, and you figure it will be a fun sex-romp, and eventually it is, but they do take their time getting there. This is a story about 30-year-olds belatedly coming of age, so first they have to set up the many characters and their first-world issues. This is less a story about an orgy, and more a story about people realizing that they can only stretch their adolescence out so far, and I wish the film had either done a better job exploring that theme or just focused on the sex. In any event, it’s a moderate amount of fun. Sudeikis plays a funny, charming ladies’ man, and Tyler Labine is pretty good as his fat, crude sidekick. There’s one really funny scene that makes the whole film, where the guys do some research in an underground sex club. Basically, much of the movie is a less good-looking, less funny version of “The Hangover.” Also, in keeping with the modern trend, there are more naked, male buttocks on screen than naked, female breasts, and my wife points out that the male buttocks aren’t all that great. “A Good, Old-Fashioned Orgy” is fairly fun and funny, but if you are looking for soft-porn you will do better with “A Game of Thrones.”

 2.5 stars out of 5

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Descendants (2011) **

“Friends on the mainland think that living in Hawaii must be like living in Paradise….Well Paradise can go fuck itself.”  These are the words of a guy who is having a really bad time in a really beautiful place.  Matt King (George Clooney) is a well-to-do lawyer whose wife is in a terminal coma after a boating accident.  Their daughters Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller) are both acting out, and then Matt receives the bombshell that prior to the accident his wife had been having an affair and had planned to ask for a divorce.  Meanwhile, Matt is the hereditary, legal trustee of a large, extremely valuable hunk of  Hawaiian beachfront.  He and his cousins are all heirs, but he has legal control of the property, and changes to the law have made it necessary for them to sell the place.

Watching Matt sort through all this should be more interesting than it is.  The setup of a failing marriage being interrupted by a coma provides rich emotional grist, and Clooney does an okay job portraying the complex emotions, but the script makes a mockery of the situation.  Matt winds up stalking the real-estate agent with whom his wife was cheating, even following the guy to a different island.  I’m not saying that no one would ever do that, but I don’t think that an intelligent, contained lawyer like Matt King would do something so stupid and useless.  Then the way they have Matt handle the land sale feels very perfunctory and arbitrary.  Finally, the goodbye scene between Matt and his comatose wife is pure dreck, mostly ruining the rest of the movie for me.

There are a couple of bright spots.  Shailene Woodley has gotten a lot of hype, and deservedly so.  She is a beautiful and talented actress and holds her own quite well against George Clooney.  Robert Forster is quite convincing as Matt’s asshole father-in-law.  His character is not really likeable, but the way he handles his grief is convincing.

“The Descendants” also has an important social message in its discussion of advanced medical directives.  These are legal papers that someone prepares detailing what their wishes would be should they ever be severely ill or in a coma, including the conditions under which they would want to be removed from life support.  The decision to withdraw care from Matt’s wife is made much easier for the family because she had an advanced directive.  This is a good message for people to hear.  I wish it could be presented in a better movie.

2 stars out of 5

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life (2010) ****

I knew nothing about French musician Serge Gainsbourg before watching this biopic, and it’s possible I still may not really know much, since this is a highly stylized, fictionalized version of his life.  Still, the movie is a delightful and sexy ode to the man and his art.

The film starts with Gainsbourg’s childhood in Nazi-occupied France.  Despite being Jewish, Gainsbourg managed to get a good art education in painting and music.  He was also rather precocious with the ladies.  He eventually focused on the music and the women, and it’s hard to say which he is more famous for.  For him, the music and the seductions were practically inseparable.  He bedded and wrote songs for such famous beauties as Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin.  He eventually became an infamous drunkard and died at 62, leaving behind a rich, influential body of French pop music.

“Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life” focuses on Gainsbourg’s inner life, particularly through the use of an imaginary friend who follows him around his whole life.  The character, whom Gainsbourg refers to as “my ugly mug,” has a gigantic nose and represents Gainsbourg’s strongly Jewish features, which he must have been made very aware of growing up under Nazi occupation.  In the film, this “mug” represents the voice in Serge’s head driving him to be a better musician, but also tempting him to leave whomever his current woman is to seek freedom and new conquests.  There are periods when Gainsbourg is able to deny his worst tendencies for a while, but in the end his Mug always gets his way.

There are some books and movies that just perfectly capture what it is to be an artist, both the good and the bad.  “The Doors” does this for Jim Morrison, and Patti Smith’s book “Just Kids” does it for her and Robert Maplethorpe.  “Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life” is one of these.  The film eloquently depicts the man’s triumphs and failures not just as formative events that made him a great artist, but as the natural consequence of his being an artist to the core.  For anyone who enjoys artsy films and experimental music and doesn’t mind reading subtitles (The movie is in French.), I highly recommend this one.

4 stars out of 5

Sunday, June 03, 2012

X-Men: First Class (2011) ***½

I really want superhero movies to be good. I don’t know why, but the geek in me gets off on these stories about battles between superpowers. Unfortunately, most of them aren’t worth watching, which is why I am always so happy when a new X-men movie comes out. They always manage not to suck.

 The most recent installment, “X-Men: First Class” is no exception. This one is a prequel, telling the origin stories of Charles Xavier, Magneto, Mystique, and some other mutants. It turns out that Xavier (James McAvoy) and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) grew up together as childhood friends. As they grow into young adults, Xavier becomes a professor of genetics, while Mystique becomes increasingly bummed out over having to hide her natural, blue-skinned form from the world, using her shape-shifting abilities to make her look just like Jennifer Lawrence. Most girls would love to be able to look like Jennifer Lawrence, but Mystique understandably wishes that somebody, perhaps Charles Xavier, would find her beautiful as she really is. Anyway, the two get recruited by the CIA to combat the cold-war shenanigans of Dr. Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who turns out not only to be the Nazi doctor who experimented on the boy who would become Magneto, but also to be a mutant himself. Xavier uses his telepathic abilities to find other mutants, and they form a team, along with Magneto, to battle Shaw and his mutant posse. Great fun ensues.

 “X-Men: First Class” is chock-full of quality actors, including Michael Fassbender as the adult Magneto, Rose Byrne, Oliver Platt, and January Jones in her underwear. Jennifer Lawrence is particularly good, as her character Mystique explores the schism between mutants who look outwardly normal and those who have obvious physical differences. Michael Fassbender and Kevin Bacon steal the show from the younger actors, however, lending a gleeful darkness to their characters. They don’t quite have the gravitas of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, but then again, who does?

 Besides consistently being a lot of fun, the X-men movies are, in my opinion, superior to the other current superhero movie franchises. I’ve been thinking about why that is, and it may come down to the central themes of these series. The Spiderman movies are based on the premise that “with great power comes great responsibility.” Peter Parker is constantly learning the lesson that he can’t have any personal hopes and dreams, because the world needs him out there slinging webs and kicking villain ass. Batman’s underlying theme is that this man with a dark past has to draw on his rage to help drive him, but he has to constantly be on guard against letting it overcome him, lest he go on a murderous rampage. Both of these franchises can be fun at times, but neither series of movies has bothered to develop these themes or the main characters enough to make me care that much. The X-men movies, on the other hand, take the time to develop their characters and their motivations. Particularly resonant is their central theme about mutants being feared and hated by regular humans, and the various responses these mutants have to this, ranging from self-loathing, to a desire for reconciliation, to a desire to dominate humans. The mutants are often seen as a metaphor for gays in our society, but they could represent any minority group, and the series tells their stories ably enough to make the whole thing work. “X-Men: First Class” continues the tradition, and I’m looking forward to sequels featuring this group of actors.

 3.5 stars out of 5