Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Dilemma: Tall Fat Guy or Short Fat Guy?

Ron Howard is a competent commercial director whose work might be best distinguished by its lack of a distinction, or discernible point of view. His movies appear to wander the map, encompassing masculine adventures like Backdraft and Apollo 13, family comedies like Parenthood, and literary adaptations like The Da Vinci Code, A Beautiful Mind and Frost/Nixon. (Did I just call Dan Brown "literary"?)

With The Dilemma, the erstwhile Opie takes on the buddy comedy, well-trod ground more than adequately covered by hipper directors like Judd Apatow. The first problem with the movie, evident from the trailer, is that the two lead actors aren’t sufficiently different in manner and appearance. You have a tall, chunky, unprepossessing guy (Vince Vaughn) paired with a short, chunkier, unprepossessing guy (Kevin James), and when they’re seated, it’s sometimes hard to tell them apart. Their pretty, dark-haired partners, played by Jennifer Connelly and Winona Ryder, are also rather interchangeable.

Upon this foundation of ill-considered casting is built a very conventional story, not as clever even as a single episode of Friends. The movie’s high concept is this: Ronny Valentine (Vaughn), a heartfully named Chicago car-design firm entrepreneur, spots Geneva (Ryder), the wife of his best friend and business partner Nick (James), canoodling with a tattooed young punker. Ronny, a fast-talking liar but overall good guy, spends the rest of the movie agonizing about whether to tell the sensitive, ulcer-prone Nick about his wife’s perfidy and risk a high-stakes deal the two friends are working on.

Their project, absurdly enough, is developing an electric motor for vintage Chrysler muscle cars that will sound as loud and throaty as an internal combustion engine — much like the Marx Za-Zooom Sound of Power Motor did for kids’ bikes in the ’60s. Ronny wins over the hearts and wallets of Chrysler executives — including a consultant played by Queen Latifah in yet another useless, ill-defined role — with a presentation that begins: “Electric cars are gay.” The movie exerts similar effort denying its own homoeroticism, trotting out multiple symbols of exaggerated masculinity, like muscle cars and professional hockey. At least Apatow’s “bromance” I Love You, Man poked fun at hyper-masculine male-bonding by having Paul Rudd’s character care more about making desserts and snuggling with his girlfriend than going out drinking with guys.

Ronny confronts Geneva, with whom he has some fleeting romantic history, and she responds by spitting vituperative threats. By concealing his problem and lying about the bizarre scrapes he gets into as a result of his painful knowledge, 40-year-old bachelor Ronny risks his own deepening relationship with his girlfriend Beth (Connelly), who thinks Ronny, a reformed gambler, has returned to his betting ways. After Ronny makes an embarrassing public toast (movie comedy cliché #144) at her parents’ swanky 40th anniversary party, Beth arranges an intervention for him (are people still doing that or, for that matter, buying Chryslers?).

The movie’s banal premise is hardly sufficient meat to fortify a two-hour movie, and the screenwriter, the well-regarded Allan Loeb, seems to have exhausted his creative energy after the introductory scenes, which establish the two couples’ jokey friendship, with Vaughn providing his trademark glib, wide-ranging monologues. As happens with so many Hollywood productions when they run out of ideas, things take a turn for the ridiculous. Ronny seems to descend into a kind of madness, following Ronny to an Asian massage parlor and stalking the faithless Geneva, even climbing onto a balcony to photograph her sex tryst and getting into a stupendously violent fight with her lover (Channing Tatum), the uproariously named Zip. And yet the movie doesn’t explore this madness, excusing Ronny’s behavior, no matter how psychotic, as understandable in the name of defending the holy institution of Male Friendship.

When a movie jumps the tracks as this one does, one’s mind naturally wanders to other topics, such as, how would this material play in the hands of a more artistic director? Woody Allen could make a fine movie about the problems that arise between two couples when a wife’s adultery is discovered, and it would never involve, as this movie does, anyone being pummeled, punched, threatened with a flaming homemade blowtorch, or two fat men writhing in loving friendship on the ice at a pro hockey game. A French filmmaker could take the same premise and create a soufflé farce that might eventually have Ronny realize that it’s Nick he loves, not Beth, and that’s why he’s dragged his feet in proposing marriage. Sacredieu!

The waste of good professional resources on this half-baked material is a shame. This is a very slick-looking production, with clever production design and impressive cinematography by Salvatore Totino with an emphasis on beautifully framed, gleaming night shots. Too bad the material doesn’t rise to the same level of artistry

(Review originally published on the Cleveland Movie Blog. Bookmark it!)

Twangin' With Gwynnie

By Pamela Zoslov

Sometimes a single scene in a movie provides a clue to what’s wrong with the movie as a whole. In Country Strong, a country-music melodrama in which Gwyneth Paltrow plays a superstar country singer attempting a comeback after an alcohol-fueled collapse, it’s a small jewel of a scene in which the singer, Kelly Canter, visits a cancer-stricken boy in his classroom as part of a public-relations effort with the Make-a-Wish Foundation. Paltrow’s gentle interaction with the star-struck child (Gabe Sipos), who’s bald from chemotherapy and wearing a little cowboy hat – is so touching, natural and sincere that it makes the histrionics of the rest of the movie seem irrelevant. If you do not grow a little teary as Kelly plays the boy a sweet song named for him (“Travis, May I Have This Dance?”) and dances him around the room, then you are made of sterner stuff than I.

The power of this scene suggests that Paltrow is miscast – willfully so — as a country-music star, as she was as an Englishwoman (Shakespeare in Love), a genius mathematician (Proof) and poet Sylvia Plath (Sylvia). One of the only roles for which Paltrow, with her inflexibly beautiful, patrician Faberge egg looks, seemed suitably cast was as the troubled daughter of a rich, eccentric family (The Royal Tenenbaums). However skillful her acting (and she does some superb work in Country Strong) and her carefully coached country-style singing, it’s hard to escape the impression that the beautiful blond post-debutante is slumming. Never was there a country star who looked like this – something you could not say about the plainer-looking Sissy Spacek as the hardscrabble Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter. Paltrow’s singing is serviceably good, but it lacks the distinctiveness that makes for country music greatness. How did this woman, we might well wonder, become a superstar?

We first encounter Kelly Canter in rehab, where she’s having a casual affair with Beau (Garrett Hedlund), a scruffy young part-time orderly and aspiring singer/songwriter. Her husband and manager, James (country star Tim McGraw), comes to collect Kelly before she’s fully rehabilitated, so she can embark on a big comeback tour, which will bring her back to Dallas, the site of a scandalous drunken onstage incident that caused her to miscarry their baby. So gentle is this damaged woman that she rescues a baby quail, which she carries around in a wooden cigar box. What caused Kelly’s breakdown is never clear, except that the burdens of stardom have taken their toll. “Love and fame can’t live in the same place,” the preternaturally wise Beau tells Kelly, a bit of wisdom belied every day by people who manage to be famous and loved (including, for example, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill).

James invites Beau to join the tour, along with ambitious, petite ex-beauty queen Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), who has her heavily made-up eye on a career as a country-pop superstar A rather predictable backstage soap opera unfolds, with All About Eve jealousies, drunken relapses, romantic entanglements, punches to the face, and a plethora of creditable country songs, many performed by the budding duo of Beau and Chiles, whose burgeoning romance, in contrast to her own troubled marriage, adds to Kelly’s sadness. Although she can still get it together for one big, spectacular performance (with rather ridiculous choreography that has her prancing about in very short skirts), Kelly, like Margo Channing in All About Eve , knows she’s finished. In a late scene, she provides the rising star Chiles with a list of advice managing her career – passing the torch, and saying farewell not just to stardom, but to everything. If this were real life, and not a corny show-business melodrama, it would be obvious that Kelly could remake her career along the lines suggested by her lovely scene with little Travis – go back to basics, record a bluegrass album, make records for children, or teach music.

It is this movie’s misfortune that the star is a better actress than singer, and the supporting cast (McGraw, Hedlund and Meester) are all better singers than actors (and McGraw, the cast's only famous singer, doesn't sing a note). Still, even with its clichés and improbabilities (how do they mount those lavish tour productions with no rehearsal?), the movie has a good heart, a healthy dose of original music, and an affecting performance by Paltrow. It's not a good movie -- you knew that going in -- but if a movie can overcome my aversion to two things – modern country music and Gwyneth Paltrow — it must have something going for it.

Originally published on the Cleveland Movie Blog.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Obligatory Year-End List

By Pamela Zoslov

I may as well confess, I never liked “Best” lists. My critical Sharpie is happier when analyzing and finding fault with things than with praising them, a job that’s better left to those of sunnier disposition. I'm a little more like Alice Roosevelt Longworth ("If you haven't anything nice to say about anyone, come sit by me.") And, of course, I didn’t see every movie released in 2010, avoiding stuff I’m not interested in, like sci-fi and animation, and missing films I dearly wanted to see, like The Tillman Story. Some things that make my list are movies I know are flawed (like Love and Other Drugs), and others that don’t are prestige films that were lauded beyond their worth (like The Social Network). I know that some of my bests will appear on other critics' worsts, and some of my worsts (Black Swan) are on their best lists. I’m obviously partial to documentaries and dramas about serious issues (though I also like romantic comedies that other people despise).

With those caveats, here are the movies I remember most fondly from this year.

1. Inside Job Charles Ferguson, who in No End in Sight exposed failures in the Iraq occupation (but not, alas, its mendacious justification), this year made an important documentary that dissected, in minute detail and with cathartic outrage, the reckless and villainous greed behind the global financial meltdown.

2. Life During Wartime The long periods between films by the misanthropic genius Todd Solondz are sadly bereft, but this year, Solondz followed up his 1998 masterpiece, Happiness, with a superbly mournful melodrama about the same dysfunctional family, entirely recast. (Paul Reubens, aka Pee-wee Herman, an underrated dramatic actor, is particularly affecting as the sad ghost of a man who committed suicide). The recasting is not surprising from a director who once had his lead characters played by different actors within a single film (Palindromes).

3. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work One of the rare films I wished would run longer, Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg’s profile of the 77-year-old comedienne revealed a smart, vulnerable and endearingly self-aware woman and performer who lives obsessively for her work. The movie me want to spend time hanging out with Joan.

4. Fair Game In a coup of perfect casting, Naomi Watts played Valerie Plame in Doug Liman’s penetrating drama about the covert CIA agent outed by Bush administration officials in retaliation for the exposure by husband Joe Wilson (Sean Penn, also excellent) of Bush’s lies to justify the invasion of Iraq.

5. Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer Alex Gibney, who chronicled U.S. torture practices in Taxi to the Darkside, turned his attention to the downfall of the brilliant, disgraced ex-NY governor, examining the machinations of powerful enemies, alongside reckless hubris, that brought down the onetime “Sheriff of Wall Street.” The sections delving into the demimonde of high-end prostitution were squirm-inducing, but it scarcely detracted from the film’s fascinating character study of the complex but admirably candid Spitzer, and revelations about politics and power in New York state and the U.S.

6. Catfish Call it the anti-Social Network; Catfish was a refreshing antipode to that overpraised bore about Mark Zuckerberg’s college days. Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost’s cyber-styled documentary about a young man’s journey to find the seemingly irresistible young woman he met on Facebook, is an absorbing study of the seductions and deceptions of social networking.It's not a big, life-changing movie, but it was compelling in its own right.

7. The Fighter Christian Bale, who lost weight to the point of gauntness for the part, is superb in David O. Russell’s raw, roistering biopic about welterweight boxing champ Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), whose career was sidetracked by the machinations and missteps of his manager-mom (a vivid Melissa Leo) and brother/trainer Dicky (Bale), a fighter who once knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard and later succumbed, for a time, to crack addiction and crime.

8. True Grit Rare is the year when a Coen brothers movie doesn’t make my year-end list, and this year the siblings presented a lyrical adaptation of Charles Portis’ Western about a 13-year-old girl (Hailee Steinfeld) who enlists the services of a hard-drinking U.S. Marshal (Jeff Bridges) to avenge the death of her father at the hands of a drunken rogue (Josh Brolin). The movie demonstrated of the sublime harmony of the Coens’ team — Joel and Ethan’s writing and direction, Roger Deakins’ stunning cinematography and Carter Burwell’s subtle, note-perfect scoring -- and a needed literary corrective to the 1969 True Grit, which turned Portis’ story about a tough, determined girl into a boisterous romp about John Wayne.

9. The King’s Speech Tom Hooper’s lovely film starring Colin Firth as King George VI and Geoffrey Rush as the Australian actor-turned-speech therapist who helped him overcome a career-crippling speech defect was a beautifully appointed two-hander, exceptionally well acted by both stars. Though I would have preferred to have watched the roiling constitutional crisis taking place mostly offstage than on Bertie's speech therapy, this was a nicely carved cameo brooch. If Firth, who humanized this reluctant monarch, does not win the Best Actor Oscar, I will eat my pack of commemorative Kings and Queens of England playing cards.

10. Love and Other Drugs Reviled by some critics, Ed Zwick’s movie about a reprobate pharmaceutical salesman who falls for a Parkinson’s patient (Anne Hathaway), was no masterpiece, but it was clever, funny and unexpectedly touching. It earns a place on this list for subversively disguising its devastating critique of Big Pharma as a sexy romantic tragicomedy.

Worst of 2010

To paraphrase Tolstoy, every bad movie is bad in its own way. Some movies are just inherently and unsurprisingly bad: Little Fockers, for example. Others are bad in proportion to their pretensions to quality: Black Swan, the year’s worst “good” movie. Some bad movies I have probably blotted out from memory, but here is a lineup of the guilty parties whose effluvium lingers.

A Bucket of Syrup It was a good year for fans of novelist Nicholas Sparks, with two adaptations of his godawful books. The worst was The Last Song, a sticky tearjerker that highlighted the nonexistent acting skills of pop singer Miley Cyrus, and the sticky Dear John, which squandered the considerable skills of director Lasse Hallstrom and some actual actors.

Comedy Crud Bad romantic comedies will always be with us, but a couple that really pushed the boundaries of badness this year were Garry Marshall’s wretched ensemble thing Valentine’s Day, which not only inflicted Ashton Kutcher on us, but ran about as long as The Sorrow and the Pity; and You Again, which teamed Sigourney Weaver and Jamie Lee Curtis as rival moms in a numbingly moronic slapstick romp. But for awfulness in comedy, few movies surpass Grown-Ups, in which Adam Sandler and his aging pals taxed our endurance with a flabby, grimly unfunny middle-aged reunion farce that tried to wrest laughs out of pee-in-the-pool jokes and other puerile plop. And god help any children exposed to Marmaduke, an atrocious live-action family comedy allegedly based on the famous panel comic, with Owen Wilson voicing the surfboard-riding Great Dane. So bad it hardly qualified as a movie.

A Lamentation of Swans Tchaikovsky had a rough time of it in life, dying of either cholera or suicide or suicidal cholera, but thankfully he’s not alive to see his music hijacked by Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s masturbatory fantasy focusing on – allegedly – the world of ballet. The movie, basically Carrie in a tutu, was a psychosexual farrago so putrescent it has to be seen to be believed. Why this generates swoons rather than laughs (the New York Times' A.O. Scott was captivated by it) is beyond understanding. Different strokes for different folks.