Monday, June 29, 2009

Film Review: The Girlfriend Experience

The Girlfriend Experience
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Released May 22, 2009

There’s a tendency when it comes to independent films to be daringly experimental, and the idea that less is more is terribly enticing. Why bother with an expensive cast and detailed backgrounds when a camera lens and a bare, human performance can heap layers of meaning onto the thinnest of premises? Director Steven Soderbergh lives to have it both ways, alternating between awards (Traffic, Erin Brockovich) and box-office (the Ocean’s Eleven series) successes and smaller, art-house films (The Limey, Full Frontal) where he can really experiment with the form and see where film can take him and his audience. “The Girlfriend Experience” is unabashedly a purely investigational film, probing the possibilities of film without much of a plan for how to really pull it together.

Soderbergh’s first step in attempting to establish an untouched reality is casting porn star Sasha Grey in the lead role as a prostitute who operates her business while still maintaining a long-term relationship with her boyfriend, an ambitious physical trainer. The film meditates on fleeting moments to stress their importance, and the camera lingers on its characters, desperately searching for meaning in their elitist, superficial interactions. Plot is almost non-existent in “The Girlfriend Experience,” and the narrative is far from linear. The film’s brief 78-minute runtime almost ensures that nothing of substance can actually occur, and the purposely choppy editing seals the deal. It’s an incomprehensible experience from the start that only confuses itself more as the film goes on.

Documentaries consist of pieced-together interviews which shed increasing light on the subject of the director’s investigation. The reason for including interviews is because experts and witnesses can provide their relevant thoughts on why it is that something exists or works a certain way, and because further clarification can only be helpful. In the case of a scripted film, the characters should be able to do the storytelling, and viewers shouldn’t be forced to construct their own version of events and perception of relationships because the film refuses to do so on intellectual grounds. A narrative film can be artsy and take an indirect approach to its conclusion like “My Blueberry Nights” or “In The Mood For Love,” but there should be some point or concrete notion in sight.

“The Girlfriend Experience” employs nonprofessional actors in a flagrant attempt at capturing reality at its grittiest. Grey has only pornography experience on her resume, and therefore uttering legitimate sentences seems to take a great deal of effort. The actress’ transformation from sex symbol to legitimate performer doesn’t yield a stunning tour de force performance; instead, she’s maddeningly unimpressive. The same is true for the rest of the cast, who speak casually as if they’re perpetually responding to an off-the-cuff question from a reporter. Reality is great, certainly, and aiming to showcase it in its most unadulterated form is noble, but sometimes people talking is just people talking. Hidden meaning doesn’t suddenly arise simply because actors are trying not to give anything away. Movies are movies for a certain reason, and part of that reason is to dramatize events and craft something out of them. Here, Soderbergh leaves the pieces scattered as they are and expects his audience to pick them up. It’s substantially different from watching George Clooney and Brad Pitt steal from casinos in Las Vegas, but it’s about as interesting as talking to a new neighbor who just doesn’t have any particularly notable qualities to offer.


Friday, June 26, 2009

Film Review: Star Trek

Star Trek
Directed by J.J. Abrams
Released May 8, 2009

Updating the “Star Trek” franchise made sense. The show had been off the air for the first time in eighteen years when “Enterprise” got cancelled after its fourth season on UPN. Before that, “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” and “Star Trek: Voyager,” had all introduced new crews with different directives, bizarre alien races, and amiable personalities. In between (and during) this string of new shows and the end of the original “Star Trek” series in 1969, no less than feature films were released detailing the continued adventures of our future Starfleet heroes. An eleventh film was due inevitable. What didn’t strike everyone as common sense, however, was opting for a complete reboot. As casting news came out, this new “Star Trek” seemed like a teenage edition with each character seeming more cartoonish than the one before. This grandscale relaunch could have been a massive, all-out disaster.

Fortunately, 2009’s take on “Star Trek” is far from a disaster. With talented action / sci-fi director J.J. Abrams (Alias, Lost, Fringe) behind the wheel, this reboot is a grand reimagining of the origins of the Starship Enterprise and all of its crew. It’s perfect for new viewers, or rather those who would die before being called “Trekkies,” but it still contains reference after reference that can make a diehard fan go wild with joy. Even the plot is generally intact, with one major history-changing shift which is easily explained and even centrally important to the film’s story. The “Star Trek” of 2009 is a fresh look at the final frontier explored in the 1960s series, and it succeeds in crafting a completely new set of characters who aren’t all that different from their historic counterparts.

Casting is a major part of the film’s success. Newcomer Chris Pine is a perfect fit for the loose cannon, cocky Kirk, although unlike the character’s original portrayer, William Shatner, Pine can actually act! Zachary Quinto is a dead ringer for Leonard Nimoy as Spock, and his onscreen work with Pine is absolutely incredible. Neither Shatner nor Leonard Nimoy ever evoked as much emotion or fought quite as well as these two young actors. The rest of the cast includes capable rising stars filling the shoes of the crew, including a feisty Zoe Saldana as Uhura, a hilarious Anton Yelchin as Chekov, a spot-on Simon Pegg as Scotty, and a truly entertaining Karl Urban as Bones. The movie even allows in someone over the age of 35 to guide them, and Bruce Greenwood is a terrific choice as the courageous Captain Pike. An unrecognizable Eric Bana also makes for a good villain as the time-traveling, hell-bent-on-revenge Nero.

The film jumps right into the action in its opening minutes, foregoing what might have seemed like a necessary recap for non-Trek fans. It quickly establishes its own universe where Kirk enters Starfleet always due to pure chance, and the inevitable crew of the Enterprise is forged due to extenuating circumstances which drive the film’s narrative core. It’s an altogether exciting adventure dusted with humor at almost every spot. The spirit of “boldly going where no man has gone before” is still there; this installment in the franchise is just working its way there. Some were beyond concerned when the teaser trailer included shots of the ship itself being constructed on Earth, but this film doesn’t stay tied down to the ground. It launches its young cast into space quickly and easily, and while it’s not as heavy on the aliens as the original show was, it’s still a fascinating and fun exercise in restarting a franchise successfully. There’s little to complain about, as the film doesn’t really do anything wrong, and a sequel is already in the works. Consider this an extremely positive experiment, and an entertaining and enjoyable one at that.


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Crazy Change for Oscars 2010

It's out on the web that next year's Oscar ceremony will feature ten nominees for Best Picture instead of five, for the first time since "Casablanca" beat out 9 other movies in 1943. Nathaniel R has interesting thoughts on what this will mean, whether we'll see filler nominees like "Finding Neverland" and "Seabiscuit" or if this will open up the opportunity to honor films like "Eternal Sunshine" and "Wall-E" that were just never going to make the top five but might have had a shot at the top ten. I think this is a sort of cool idea, but then again I do like tradition and think that adding it this particular year is a bit strange and random. It's better than the Emmy decision to nominate 6 instead of 5 actors and shows in each category, but it's still just weird. I have no idea what movies might make it in this year, but last year probably would have seen "The Dark Knight," "Revolutionary Road," "Defiance," "Wall-E," and "Doubt" included as well. But for every organization that always announces a top ten, there's always a surprise in there. That could be cool for the Oscars, but it all just feels too experimental.

Thoughts, anyone? Is this a good change? Are you happy about it? What films could benefit and get recognized? "Up," maybe?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Film Review: Whatever Works

Whatever Works
Directed by Woody Allen
Released June 19, 2009

Any director who establishes himself inevitably starts essentially making the same movie over and over again. In some cases, an attempt to branch out is made, like Martin Scorsese, who moved from gangster pictures like “Mean Streets” and “Goodfellas” to period fare like “Gangs of New York” and “The Aviator.” Some, like Steven Spielberg, shed their fantasy roots of “Close Encounters” and “E.T.” to tackle important subjects in “Schindler’s List” and “Munich.” Those directors eventually come back to what they originally knew and loved – Scorsese with “The Departed” and Spielberg with “War of the Worlds” – but something’s changed, and it’s a positive thing. “The Departed” is hip and quick, and “War of the Worlds” is a thrilling action piece whose effects can at least be defended by most. Woody Allen tried fantasy elements with “Curse of the Jade Scorpion” and “Scoop,” and ventured into dark drama with “Match Point” and “Cassandra’s Dream.” Now he’s back to his original area, and, in his case, not much has changed.

Allen, now 73 years old, has perhaps realized that it’s a bit of a stretch for people to believe that he’s still some dashing, irresistibly handsome intellectual who can make young, pretty woman fall head over heels in love with him (not that he necessarily ever could, but his characters certainly imply that it’s the case). The story is still generally the same: an older man with a pessimistic view of life, who charms a young ingénue (with his lack of charm) into falling for him and his unique outlook. Characters, especially Allen’s lead, banter expectedly. It’s a traditional Woody Allen story, set in New York and following a distinctly Woody Allen character through his various highs and missteps. The trouble is, the slightly appealing Allen isn’t the one leading the charge.

Larry David made a name for himself writing “Seinfeld.” His later show, “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” picked up on the former’s theme of not having any real theme, save for Larry offending someone in some dastardly way at nearly every turn. David isn’t really an actor, simply uttering his humorous quips as he might deliver them at a dinner party or talking to his wife at home. On “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” it’s not a problem. No one is supposed to like Larry. But when David has the starring role in a motion picture where he’s not supposed to be playing Larry David, it gets in the way. Allen has a wonderful way of making the audience forget he’s so thoroughly obnoxious because there’s something inherently unthreatening and likeable about him. With David, that’s not the case. He’s constantly rude, and doesn’t seem to feel the need to impress even himself. Worse still, he’s supposed to be an elitist intellectual, which means that he knows he doesn’t need to work hard in any other area of life because he’s smart enough to get through on his wits alone. People like that may exist, but they don’t make for terribly interesting protagonists, especially when Allen’s screenplay is pretty much already written and polished in audiences’ minds before the token Allen credits roll at the start of the film.

David’s intrusive nature plagues the entire film since he is its critical center, but fortunately, a number of highly skilled actors pop up throughout the film to offer their dramatic abilities. Evan Rachel Wood adopts a Southern accent and dim-witted attitude which would probably be able to tame Allen, though she doesn’t have a shot against David’s perpetual ignorance of her. Patricia Clarkson earns her typical “best in show” award as Wood’s flamboyant mother, whose transplantation from Mississippi to New York transforms her in a radical way. Ed Begley Jr.’s brief role as Clarkson’s former husband is also fun, but Allen should really look back at his older films like “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Hannah and Her Sisters” to appreciate how he successfully used so many actors in small parts. Begley has little to do, and Michael McKean, who is capable of being flat-out hilarious, isn’t given a single scene to show off his talents. Allen’s characters have always been self-absorbed, and David’s Boris is so full of himself he takes up the entire movie. The tragic mistake there is that he’s its least interesting character, and he’s unbelievably familiar – a clear takeoff on so many past Allen incarnations. This film is more like last year’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” in the way that its premise makes for a fun trailer indicating cleverness, but once the movie gets going, it’s clear that it isn’t headed anywhere interesting. It contains a number of very funny lines, but they’re smushed together in the middle of an unexciting story and crammed into Boris’ rants like items on a checklist. The aimlessness of “Whatever Works” makes it seem like Allen just isn’t trying anymore. He’s content with what he’s produced in the past, and wants to make more. He likely thought, based on his history, whatever works.


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Film Review: Away We Go

Away We Go
Directed by Sam Mendes
Released June 12, 2009

Sam Mendes has only made four films to date, and they have been heavy-handed dramas (Road to Perdition, Revolutionary Road) often-twinged with a wicked sense of humor (American Beauty, Jarhead). He’s taken a three-year break between each of those, finely honing his very carefully put-together films. His fifth film comes only months after “Revolutionary Road,” and it’s a starkly different movie from the rest of his filmography. “Away We Go” is a simple story about two people who head on the road in search of the perfect family after discovering they’re going to have a baby. Mendes has focused in on couples before in “American Beauty” and “Revolutionary Road,” but never has he so clearly presented the characters they meet through their eyes.

Bart and Verona are quiet, unassuming people who live their lives without much flair but also without really interacting extensively with other people. Bart and Verona’s cross-country exploration is a search for the kind of world the couple would like to live in, since they exist in a very solitary sort of bubble, and they realize they should know what’s out there so that their child can be prepared for the world. Bart and Verona know each other well, but they’re still very prone to discover things about themselves along their journey as they encounter a wide variety of parental and family units. The subtle chemistry between Bart and Verona is the film’s driving heart, but there’s so much the film does right.

A fellow critic remarked that the film contains every independent film cliché as well as every family cliché. I cite that as a major strength for the film, in that it covers so much ground and allows Bart and Verona to see every possible future themselves through the lens of some wonderfully entertaining characters. The flow of actors goes from good to great, featuring Allison Janney as a tireless wacko, Maggie Gyllenhaal as an even crazier alternative-lifestyle mother, Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey as a functional couple, and Paul Schneider as a desolate father whose wife has left him. Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels ever stop by to play Bart’s off-kilter parents. The cast is so strong, and each of the characters are so richly developed despite appearing on screen for such a limited time.

The supporting cast is stellar, but the stars of the film are equally tremendous. John Kraskinski, who appears weekly as sweet prankmaster Jim Halpert on “The Office,” sheds Jim’s overconfidence and need to cause trouble and embodies an entirely sentimental Bart, who gets exciting in the least apparent of ways and, despite his own hang-ups, does everything he can to support his pregnant girlfriend. Krasinski proves that he’s made of more than just “The Office,” and watching the comedy series after seeing the movie proves that Krasinski has in fact stepped out of his shell, and succeeded gloriously in the process. Maya Rudolph gets a similar opportunity to abandon her comedic upbringing, leaping far away from her “Saturday Night Live” stint and her role in 2006’s “Idiocracy” to play a mild-mannered woman who can crack jokes without stealing attention from showier players. Verona accepts things as they happen, and Rudolph is marvelously gracious in her silent reactions. The chemistry between Krasinski and Rudolph is unspoken, but it feels just right for Bart and Verona.

The film does have a decidedly independent feel, but that takes the pressure off of Mendes, who usually infuses his films with serious music and lavish sets and cinematography. Simple titles and a smart script peppered with fantastic actors in small parts makes for a terrific experience that can leave an unsuspecting viewer extremely surprised and satisfied. “Away We Go” defines its story in its title, and it’s a magnificent adventure that doesn’t try too hard to proclaim itself. Mendes knows how to make a stinging drama, but he’s also capable of a quirky dramedy that doesn’t take itself too seriously and still packs a delightful punch.


Thursday, June 4, 2009

Film Review: Up

Directed by Pete Docter
Released May 29, 2009

Pixar’s latest release is being hailed almost unanimously as its best effort to date, and rightly so. It’s hard to believe anything could top the animated offerings of the past two years, “Ratatouille” and “Wall-E,” but it appears that’s happened. What’s truly fantastic is that, even after all the hype, “Up” really is a terrific, wonderful film.

“Up” follows in the tradition of “Wall-E” as a quiet, mature production with just the right tinge of fantasy to drive its story forward. In its first few minutes, it weaves a heartbreaking story about a couple’s entire lives, favoring images and music over words, much like the famed no-dialogue start of “Wall-E” did. It’s a fabulously sentimental beginning, and fifteen minutes in, a wonderful story has already been told, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg for one grumpy old man headed for adventure.

“Up” is very much like a children’s version of Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino.” A recently widowed gruff elder cannot stand his daily life and the careless way in which his neighbors treat his once-fabled street. He is pestered by a friendly young kid who just wants to do something nice for him, and he can’t accept the friendly gesture. While Clint stuck around and faced racial tensions and gang violence, Mr. Fredricksen, the protagonist of “Up,” decides to fulfill his lifelong dream of traveling to a legendary locale in South America, and goes out in style. Clint may have had a nice car, but Mr. Fredricksen takes his whole house with him on his journey, courtesy of a whole bunch of balloons.

There’s just the right amount of fantastical elements driving “Up” to make it heartwarming and endearing without becoming overbearing or senseless. Kids will be amused by the dogs with collars that enable them to talk and get distracted by the frequent sight of a squirrel. Adults will watch in awe as Mr. Fredericksen pulls his house by the balloons to place it in the exact spot he and his late wife always dreamed of living. The story is reminiscent of so many things at once – this is the best flying house since “The Wizard of Oz,” except this time the hero is in control of where he’s headed. The film’s title is also very appropriate, and Mr. Fredericksen’s lost childhood aviation hero has a story that recalls Amelia Earhart. The balance of youthful humor and adult themes of adventure and exploration is extremely impressive, though it should come as no surprise to anyone who’s seen Pixar’s previous films.

It’s hard to find much to complain about regarding “Up.” The film is entirely engaging and bounces along to a wonderfully inspiring score. The 3-D version doesn’t appear to add much, but the illusion of flying in the clouds is wholly worthwhile. Additionally, recent 3-D releases have too much emphasized the effects and made the movie seem trivial and empty (see: “Beowulf”). That’s not a problem here, and the already wondrous ride is likely all the more enchanting seen bursting out of the screen. “Up” is a very simple film, and its story can easily be summed up in a few sentences, but it’s a heartwarming journey that won’t disappoint.