Sunday, November 28, 2010

R.I.P. Leslie Nielsen

Leslie Nielsen, most recognized for his comedic roles in the Naked Gun spoofs, Airplane, and George Romero's Creepshow, has died of complications from pneumonia at the age of 84. But despite all the laughs that Nielsen was known for, it was his "serious" role in Forbidden Planet as Commander J.J. Adams that we here at Love & Squalor will always remember him by.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Love: Tangled

The trailers for Disney's 50th animated motion picture, Tangled, tell a very different story than the film itself.  I have to admit, the initial teasers with the dull royal blue title backing and that irritating P!nk song bummed me out.  With each passing advertisement, I became more and more convinced that Disney had obliterated their credibility when it comes to weaving fairy tales.  Let's face it: the trailers make this movie look like a piece of schlocky, low-rent crap chock full of dumb sight gags and nonsensical animal sidekicks.  In short: it made it look like a Dreamworks movie.  The cutting room scraps from Shrek 3, if you will.  I was very nearly convinced that there would be no need for me to see this film.  That, in spite of all the early concept art and film geek buzz on the animation being engineered to look very much like a painting, this would be nothing more than a weak companion piece to offset the noise of a million cashiers ringing up long-haired Rapunzel dolls and plastic princess tiaras.   Yes, I believed this.  Me.  The kid who has been otherwise brainwashed by the Disney corporation (I admit this) into defending them even when they don't deserve the defense.  I was worried that we were dipping into an unfortunate low point where dumb humor counted more than story, a second coming of the Treasure Planet, Home on the Range era of forgettable fare.   That said: you have no idea how relieved I was when, roughly 10 minutes in, I realized that this would not be the case.  That, in spite of a relatively forgettable soundtrack, Tangled is a legitimate addition to the Disney Princess canon, as well as a beautiful progression for Disney's computer based animation. 
Tangled is, of course, not a straight retelling of the Rapunzel story.  It's been retooled and refurbished to allow for more action, more depth of character, and significantly less young damsel in distress.  Our new Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) is the other side of the modern princess coin thrown by Disney with last year's Princess and the Frog.  In that film, Tiana was a young, African-American girl with big goals and the drive to achieve them.  She was all business, literally.  Where Tiana was criticized for being at times just too serious (to the point of blandness), Rapunzel is your snarky, can't wait to have fun, teenager.  On her 18th birthday, she's been locked in a tower by Gothel, the kidnapper who has raised her as her own,  for as long as she can remember.  While Gothel claims the world is simply too dangerous for a ray of sunshine like herself, the back story is (and you'll have to see the film to understand why) that Rapunzel's hair possesses magical, regenerative qualities.  It can heal the sick and reverse the aging process, and Gothel is all about being eternally young.  While locked away, Rapunzel has not spent her time crying, idly wishing for companionship or a saviour prince.  Instead, she's cultivated an insane bevy of talents and kept herself on a rigorous (though obviously repetitive) schedule.  In our sing-song introduction to Rapunzel, she runs us through her average day. She reads, paints, plays guitar, cooks, bakes, charts the stars, exercises, holds extensive conversations with her pet chameleon Pascal, etc.  Her dream is not one of love, but one of just getting out of the house.  She wants nothing more than to see the source of the mysterious "floating lights" that appear in the nightsky every year on her birthday.  Gothel, her less obviously wicked, more textbook guilt-tripping narcissist surrogate mother, of course refuses.  Rapunzel, however, is a tougher cookie than that.
When Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi) climbs the tower in a desperate attempt to escape his captors, Rapunzel knocks him out with a frying pan (several times, actually), locks him in her closet, binds him in her hair, and interrogates him until they strike a bargain.  He becomes her unwilling guide to the outside world, and unlike Ariel or Jasmine, Rapunzel doesn't get a song about escaping her confines or desperate longing.  As they continue, it's clear she doesn't even need Flynn Rider.  If she knew where she was going, she could take care of herself.  He can't.  No, instead, her biggest trials initially stem from a more realistic combination of pure, gleeful excitement and total, guilt-ridden anxiety.  She is, 100%, your average 18-year old in the midst of doing that which she knows she shouldn't.  Of course, the romance comes later, but it's a slow blossom with more realistic attachments than a pretty face and a once upon a dream mentality.  This isn't love at first sight for either party.  The characters are allowed to exist in grey areas.  They're good, bad, and conflicted.  The relationship between Flynn and Rapunzel evolves in a logical way, and ends with each self-interested character (Rapunzel earns that title simply because she has had so few human experiences) discovering their own capacity to feel something about someone.  Even Mother Gothel, the obvious villain, isn't painted as entirely devoid of her merits. 
At the core of Tangled there is less fairy tale romance than a relatively straightforward delving into the mother/daughter relationship.  Where Disney tales have frequently bypassed the parents, killed them off, or painted them either jealous shrews (Snow White, Cinderella) or embarrassingly weak (Jasmine, Belle); Tangled is more nuanced.  Gothel is possessive in a way that feels alternately doting and abusive.  In a way, she does love Rapunzel.  She cooks for her, tends to her needs, encourages her in-tower pursuits, and will travel for 3-days simply to pick up seashells so that Rapunzel can grind them into paint.  You have to admit, it's a far cry from making her scrub the floors ten times a day in rags.  At the same time, however, Gothel is verbally (and eventually physically) abusive.  She's controlling, quietly mocking, and manipulative.  Rapunzel believes that Gothel cares for her, and Gothel does; if only because Rapunzel is the only embodiment of the magical component she requires to live her life the way she wants to.  Their relationship is complex, though it evolves into something maniacal and dangerous.  For adults, the glib, easy breezy psychology is a sort of treat.  There's a weightlessness to Tangled, an airy levity that permeates the narrative even in its darkest moments. The magic, though, is that this is accomplished without too many sacrifices to the maturity of the story.  Clever dialogue and smart banter abound in Tangled, and when juxtaposed against two fabulous, silent sidekicks, the balance of kid to adult is pitch perfect. 
Tangled, while perhaps not quite accomplishing the impressionistic visuals aimed for, is also visually dazzling in the manner of a well-illustrated storybook.  Its lush greenery and worn down stone gives way to scene after scene of surprisingly naturalistic imagery.  The songs, by Beauty and the Beast lyricist Alan Menken, are not quite as standout.  With Tangled, the score is unmistakably Broadway.  Within the scenes, they do the trick, but are obviously ill-fitting.  By my count, there are approximately 4 major numbers in Tangled, and perhaps what's missing, what makes them feel out of place and underwhelming, is simply that 4 is just about 3 too few to make this a real musical.  For some viewers, the long pauses between vocal eruptions may be distracting.  The few songs there are work fantastically as introductions or sneakily expository information, but it's possible Tangled would have worked without them.  Personally, I'm kind of glad they're there.  It just wouldn't be a Disney princess movie without a song or two, however fleeting.  I sense the nine year olds would agree with me.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Squalor: Burlesque

What Burlesque promised viewers was a good bad movie.  Whether or not it delivers on that promise is a matter of individual good-bad taste.  Movies like Burlesque can be impossible to effectively critique in part because, ultimately, the criticism does not matter.  When you gather Cher and Christina Aguilera for a film titled Burlesque, you're not shooting for a "good" movie, you're hoping for at least one solid showstopping number.  Plot isn't an issue here.  There is one, but it's a recycled piece of sugar dusted Styrofoam.  All that matters, all that's worth the price of admission, is exactly what anyone going to a film starring the Genie in the Bottle would want:  flash, pop, glitter.  Burlesque succeeds where a too tightly-corseted film like last year's Nine failed miserably:  it does not try to be artistically relevant, it does not spread itself too thin, it cast real, talented singers in its lead roles.  Burlesque is glitter vomit.  I say that in the best way imaginable.  It's a shiny, sparkly, wink and a smile spread over what would otherwise be an easily ignored pile of sick.
The aforementioned Styrofoam plot is the same old song and dance swiped from a million showbiz tales.  It's Showgirls without the soft-core flailing pool sex.  Ali (Christina Aguilera), a gung-ho little small town girl packs a couple bags and high-tails it to Los Angeles on a wing and a prayer.  We're not clear on exactly what sort of work she's looking for, but in a brief, cheap, walking montage we see her tries at dancing and singing gigs don't go so well.  Just by chance, she walks into an unassuming entrance and into a glittery other-world of scantily clad, lip syncing ladies run by Tess (Cher), a tough, devil may care type of broad whose cheeks never move.  The club is in financial trouble, so Tess has no time for Ali.  But, Ali, little pluckster that she is, commandeers a job as a waitress, lands on the bartender's (Cam Gigandet, Twilight, Easy A) couch, and repeatedly pleas for a shot at the majors week after week.  Things happen, and, well, soon she's strutting her stuff.  Obviously, the best moments of Burlesque occur on stage.  Director Steve Antin is the brother of Pussycat Dolls creator Robin Antin, and it shows.  When Ali and the other girls are doing their thing, the film is just like being swept up in a Pussycat Dolls (the original burlesque show, not the pop act) Vegas affair.  The acts are tastefully risque, campy kitsch in bold stripes and Swarovski encrusted lingerie.  The show within a show here captures the cheeky nature of the burlesque art.  It works.  Even the reluctant cinephile will probably surrender to the fancy VMA performativity of the song and dance routines. When the music stops, however, the ground gets a hell of a lot shakier.  
It should come as no great surprise that Aguilera is not really an actress.  There are points at which she really just tries too hard, and her enthusiasm is simultaneously an orgy of the cheesy and obnoxiously, embarrassingly cloying.  As our protagonist, her character receives the most screen time, though her character is woefully underdeveloped.  In essence, what we know about Ali is that she's a go-getter, talented, and the sort of naively comfortable exhibitionist who doesn't have a problem not wearing a bra while slumming on the sofa of a straight  male with an out of town fiance.  There's little else.  Her success comes easily, though it's suggested she has hardship in her past.  Ali is less a character than an energy.  Tess is less a character than a plot device.  Tess is there to act as obstacle, mentor, and whining mechanism.  Through Tess and her ex-husband (Peter Gallagher) we are constantly reminded that while the cabaret is a big bowl of cherries on the outside, the reality is the economic pits.  The talkie bits, too, those are the real pits.  The dialogue in Burlesque is the sort that can only be delivered by a self-aware actor.  Cher and Stanley Tucci are in the know.  As the venue's diva bitch, Kristen Bell seems to have some semblance of a clue as well.  With Aguilera and Gigandet, it's hard to tell.  They seem to be having a good time, but there are occasions where they're just too sincere.  Their sincerity, while manipulated well into silliness by Antin, has sort of the effect of watching a sexually precocious preteen construct a dialogue between their Barbie and Ken dolls.  Which is to say, sometimes it just feels wrong in a way less knowingly camp and more just creepily insipid.   
My two biggest problems with Burlesque were these:  the first that the film offers up a pair of downer ballads that seem to make no sense in context (do people go to a burlesque act to hear the griping of its aging grand dame? I don't.  It's not unheard of, I suppose, but really just lame), the second that its male eye candy, Cam Gigandet, seriously looks like a sketchy date rapist.  That's him just above.  Look at that guy.  He squints too much, his uniform is a vest with nothing underneath, he has hideous tattoos and an unflattering haircut.  He literally looks like he got his game from the the Pickup Artist and might throw a roofie in the drink you ordered.  Yeah, I just don't trust that guy.  Some men look good in eyeliner.  Cam Gigandet is not one of them.    

So, Burlesque is not a good movie.  It could, however, be your brand of good-bad movie.  For some, it will evolve into a comforting place to be revisited while sick at home or mildly depressed.  For others, it'll be a loathsome piece of nonsensical detritus.  For me, it was a good movie to watch on an otherwise uneventful evening; one that could be laughed at and with (though more of the former) without too much trouble, and one with a song or two that will likely wind up on my iPod.   It is what it is, and that's all there is to it.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Love: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows pt. 1

With each passing Harry Potter adaptation, the first order of discussion seems to always be: isn't this the most mature HP film yet?  And it's true.  One of the best features of J.K. Rowling's written series was that the books truly grew with their audience.  The writing, the emotional breadth, the complexity of the situations, the narrative slowly snowballed from the chipper friendships and perilous adventures standard to children's literature, and began to push at its boundaries to become an out and out epic.  The series does not remain in arrested development.  Its protagonist is allowed only the briefest moments of wonder at the point of discovering he is, in fact, a wizard.  In the wake of that, the narrative can only escalate.  The fifth book, Order of the Phoenix, allows Harry Potter a few hundred pages worth of adolescent rebellion.  He becomes selfish, irritable, and angsty.  He pushes those who care for him away and bemoans his lot in life, and, honestly, wouldn't you?  In Order of the Phoenix, Harry is forced to deal.  He must accept who he is and what it is his destiny to do.  He is the Boy Who Lived.  If he fights it, if he shirks his responsibility and turns to the 'dark side' of magic, the fragile balance of the world is at stake.  The best he can do is to embrace those around him, prepare for what's to come, and accept (with a touch of good humor), that this is the way it has to be.   So, yes, with each passing film, the narrative becomes increasingly more 'mature'.  We're not dealing in trifles any longer, my friends.  The days of classroom hijinks, magical ceilings, and butter beer have come and gone.  In this first part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, we cannot return to Hogwarts.  Dumbledore is dead, we're outside those fortress walls, and the real world?  It's a cold, cold place.
What this means, most notably for the film, is that the tried and true format is fractured.  There's no buffer or distraction in Gryffindor commons or on the Hogwarts Express.  The atmosphere has become electrified, and our heroes are on edge, relentlessly pursued by any number of turncoats and shady characters, wandering aimlessly in a literal war zone, listening to broadcast lists of casualties, hoping the loved ones they had to leave are not amongst them.  There's no kid stuff in this Harry Potter world.  Where last year's installment, The Half Blood Prince was a respite allowing the world to soak in melancholy and find beauty in the morose, this film is a cross-genre spectacle of intrigue and action.  It's as much political thriller as war film, has an element of Bourne-style action adventure while at times feeling less like fantasy than stark, magical realism.  There is, too, a truly stunning animated sequence illuminating one of the stories of Beedle the Bard, a first in the franchise.  The penultimate episode is dressed up as a rather serious film, and for those not in love with Rowling's novels, you may not see the payoff of its slow winding until it's paired with the conclusive chapter next July.  As Harry, Ron, and Hermione have lost the assistance found in all those supporting British acting legends, the audience is similarly defenseless.  It's a somber affair.  The beautiful melancholy of Half Blood has given way to decrepit tragedy.  If it feels as though I'm repeating myself, you're right, I am.  Let's face it, those who go in search of a review on a Harry Potter film are those who have not fully succumbed to the series.  For those still harboring that modicum of resentment or doubt, I cannot stress just how vital, how well-helmed, the book/film series is enough.   While this film suffers a fair amount of textual abbreviation and editing, what is most remarkable is how smoothly it is allowed to transition from that world of chocolate frogs and snowy owls to totalitarian allusion, political prisoners, and real, red blood on the hands of its young wards.
  In the roles they have, in essence, lived, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint prove that their time amongst the seasoned performers employed as their professors and parents (Now including Bill Nighy and Rhys Ifans) has paid off in full.  This is, perhaps, the first film that belongs truly to them.  Where Radcliffe's performance felt awkward to me in the last go, this time he has stepped up and cast away that doubt.  His shortcomings are acknowledged and used to the advantage of the character.  His odd, sort of dorky gait is mimicked in a way that not only allows the audience to laugh, but which also points out that look, this wizard is human, he's not just bumbling around the set, he moves this way.  Watson, too, can deliver an impressive range of expression in her face even when given the most tepid, expository of lines.  There are some weak spots in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows pt. 1, a little too much focus on singular characters and the excluding of others, but they're otherwise mostly the result of timing and director David Yates attempting to call upon the crucial plot points forgetful viewers may have already lost.  Ultimately,  in spite of some dragging moments in the wilderness and my own unhappiness that I have to wait another eight months, the film serves as a reminder of just how remarkable the series truly is.  The success it has found across formats is more than warranted.  This, my friends, is an out and out masterpiece of "children's" fare.   

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Late Night Trailers: Green Lantern

I'm finally showing my age. There was a time when I could get behind any comic book movie, no matter how ridiculous, a time when I thought I would be one of few, if any, female comic book writers. If you weren't convinced before that Wilde.Dash was the cooler half of Love & Squalor, you will be now, when I admit that I own every season of Justice League and Batman the Animated Series, not to mention a few of the separate DC movies and the X-Men series from the 90's. But this...this I cannot get behind. I thought this Green Lantern had a budget, I thought it had a charismatic star (Ryan Reynolds), and one of my favorite unintentionally yet constantly evil actors (Peter Saaaaaarsgaaard) in the role of the bad guy. All I see is boring, boring, and boring, mixed with some painfully dorky effects.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Late Night Trailers: Red Riding Hood

It's pretty easy to predict what movies I'll see. As Wilde.Dash pointed out earlier in her Jane Eyre trailer post, anything involving history and English novels is a good place to start. I also have a rather insatiable fascination with fairy tales (the dark, nasty ones), particularly Little Red Riding Hood. Yet Catherine Hardwicke's poorly budgeted CW take above may be the final breaking point, no matter how hard I try to forget the disastrous Twilight and focus on Gary Oldman. Watching it, I can only think about how amazing it would be if Cuaron or Taymor had this project instead. "Breathtaking Vision?" Doesn't quite seem like it.

Love: Blue Valentine

Film is an odd reflection of our lives, the prettier, whiter smiled version of who we are, a concept beautifully articulated in Microsoft’s recent Windows commercials. But even when equipped with Avatar level motion capture or the most inexperienced unknowns, filmmakers rarely make an attempt to sincerely look us in the eyes, let alone succeed with realistic intentions even in the most indie of dramas. That is what we ask for. We don’t want to be reminded of the horrors and boredom of everyday life, content instead to watch the reimagining of our pain in the sawed off leg of a character in Saw or the end of a 20-something, artfully dressed hipster’s love of a pixie dream girl, *cough* (500) Days of Summer. We rely on that escapism to give us those familiar feelings in a fresh box, relatable yet detached enough to keep us interested. But Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine somehow undermines this whole Indie drama format, throwing its normally beautiful and darling actors in the midst of raw pain, unafraid to make them ugly, regular, and really believable (and I’m not talking about the level of transformation seen on Jennifer Aniston in The Good Girl with her mom jeans).

It’s not a particularly tense film (although it does have its moments), nor does it rely on a specific plot to drive the story forward. Nothing is tied-up in a nice bow, nor is it really explained. Instead it’s simply a snapshot of a relationship and the lives that fused to create it. Unburdened by the need to create action and emotion, Cianfrance simply allows it to grow organically, and in turn delivers a unique emotional sincerity. Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling) are not beautiful actors given a nice make-up job and a bad wardrobe. Nor are they a caricature, playing out what it means to be lower class with smashed dreams with near Vaudevillian melodramatics. Dean is a blue collar guy, a mover, painter, and later a drunk with 80’s glasses and thinning hair. But he’s not uneducated. He’s creative, charming, and beguiling, making it easy to understand the once intensity of the connection they once had. Cindy herself is not just the frumpy lost mother figure that in a better environment might have proved to be the first female president, but a full human being, as rounded out as Dean even when she expresses the common problems that many women experience on a daily basis.

Both Cindy and Dean are connected by their free-spirit natures without pandering to the audience. There’s no drunken karaoke, or watching airplanes, no bursting into song and terrorizing a gas station attendant, or any number of the clich├ęd, giddy love montages that grace every romantic drama out there (including even the more serious high-browed Sundance favorites ). Instead, what passes between them is entirely familiar to anyone that’s been in love, the small moments that play out on screen realistic yet full of the magic that you cultivate in your own mind from experience, not the magic conjured up in a cool film studio.

When their marriage does fall apart, the effect is equally stunning and engaging, like peeking in the opened window of a neighbor or looking in on your own fallen relationships. Gosling deserves the most credit here, as he never plays Dean with an open hand, expertly balancing his immaturity and frustration without making the audience forget why they’re bothering with him in the first place. Williams is subdued, but actively so, the peak of her emotion building throughout the film until it’s released with a simple, “I can’t take this anymore,” a line that in the hands of most would have come off as ridiculous and false. If the two of them don’t win Oscars this year, I swear, I’m giving up on the whole damn thing.

Blue Valentine is depressing and harrowing because of its lack of artifice. There is no detachment here, no escape, only an expert blend of memory and collective understanding, brilliantly translated for the audience by Gosling and Williams. It’s not fun, it’s not enjoyable, but it is comforting, the perfect film to watch during tough times,to remind you that you’re not alone, a true emotional connection instead of a way to forget it.

The 19th Annual Stella Artois St. Louis International Film Festival is still on! Check it out.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Love: Morning Glory

As a film, Morning Glory is the equivalent of your network morning news program.  It's a shiny piece of overproduced fluff to perk up your waking moments, give you something to focus on, and lure you in while you search for that jolt of caffeine.  It's not a serious film, it's frothy entertainment with lots of star power, human interest, and big smiles.  That said, despite its lack of gravitas or realism, Morning Glory is a bright, unsinkable comedy that manages (where so many others fail) to actually be funny without consequence.  There's no caveat to the humor; like a morning variety program, there's a little something for everyone here.  You want your physical comedy?  Check.  You want your dry sarcasm?  Harrison Ford has got it for you.  You want your bantering neurosis?  Yeah, you do realize Diane Keaton is in this movie, right?  Check.  You want Jeff Goldblum (what?  Goldblum is hilarious. All you have to do is look at Goldblum looking at someone else and that's comedy gold)?  Check.  Morning Glory is that rare film that's positive and idealistic without the sugar high, that flaunts its dark and bitter side in a way that's endearing, and that manages to somehow keep you interested in the silly, frustrating little trials of its chipper lead.  Don't get me wrong, the film is far from inspired.  Rachel McAdams could never trump Faye Dunaway in Network, and Morning Glory plays like a less somber Broadcast News filtered through the more cookie cutter pieces of The Devil Wears Prada.  Yet, what it lacks in satirical edge, it makes up for with the irrepressible charm of its actors, and by not sinking too deeply into the dregs of "career girl" romantic comedy.
Rachel McAdams stars as Becky Fuller, an excitable, oft over-perky, generally awkward young woman who lands a job as executive producer on the failing morning program Daybreak.  The show is on the verge on being cancelled, and with good reason.  The studio is in disarray, the hosts suffer from anxious delusions of grandeur, and they've been repeatedly scooped on every news story or guest star for seasons.  Fuller's can-do attitude is put to the test as she finds herself bending over backwards for her new host: Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford) a fallen hard-news titan who is roped into the program via contractual obligations.  Pomeroy is battle-hardened and tough.  His megalomaniac pretensions (not to mention the particulars stipulated in his 10-page rider) prevent him from stooping down to cover stories he deems unworthy, or to interact with those not up to his standards.  It may not be the performance of a lifetime, but it's Ford's best role in years, and he plays Pomeroy to a tee.  He grimaces, grunts, glares, curses and sneers at all the right moments;  we believe him as a pompous, diva Dan Rather.  We suspect that he may have similar opinions about starring in this little comedy.  To offset the absurdity of his seriousness, the divine Diane Keaton successfully shirks her repeat aughts role as family matriarch to play opposite him as a second, put-out news diva.  He thinks she's ridiculous, she thinks he's the most obnoxious, crabby individual on the planet, you know the drill.  The dynamic is nothing new, but Ford and Keaton are seasoned professionals with a deadpan rapport that's rather delightful to watch.  The biggest shame when it comes to casting is that ultimately Keaton is underused.  She never quite gets her chance to step in and up, though from all appearances it would seem that a movie about Ford and Keaton, minus McAdams, would have worked just as well.

Still, Morning Glory is a simple, successful entertainment.  It hits enough of the right marks to make it a satisfying trip to the theater and it never panders to the Heigl-tested devaluing of our lead character's identity via the all-important romantic entanglement (don't worry, we're not drifting that far from the mold, Becky's boyfriend is there (as Patrick Wilson), but he's on board with her and the chaos).   The material is handled with a light touch and delivered by deft hands.  Ultimately, Morning Glory is quite simply likeable.  It's the pretty girl in class with the 4.0 GPA and the good nature.  You can try and hate it, but really, there's just not much to despise. 

Late Night Trailers: Jane Eyre

I'm not going to lie, I was sort of waiting for M. to get around to this, since the Merchant Ivory type period piece is a tad more up her alley than it is mine.  Also, I feel a little bit like a hypocrite extolling the merits of Jane Eyre, a book which I once wrote off in a college paper titled "I Don't Believe in Desolate Fairies" (I can't remember what the full title was) as a piece of frothy nineteenth century chick-lit (it is, indeed, part of a class of 'governess' novels that was quite popular in that era) that had since been canonized as a classic.  My argument was, in part, that it was both ironic and ridiculous that we raised authors like the Brontes up while haughtily scoffing about the state of our own pop fiction.  Jane Eyre, in my paper, was akin to Bridget Jones or Devil Wears Prada.  Yes, yes, shake your head and disagree with me.  Whatever. I'm just sayin', it was written for glorified babysitters to read and identify with.  Moving on: while I can't force myself to fawn over Jane Eyre, I find it a relatively enjoyable old gothic romance and would prefer it nearly any day over the works of that woman I have a much bigger beef with (Jane Austen.  I don't want to hear it. Don't even start.).  I will be seeing this film adaptation for sure, as it would seem Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre) has amped up the dark atmosphere and made it a grand old time on the moors. Throw some of Goblin's Suspiria score in there, give me some Michael Fassbender, some Dame Judi Dench (she's a badass), and I'm a happy camper.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Squalor: Due Date

Last year, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed The Hangover.  Prior to its release I'd thought it looked decent in spite of myself.  Lets face it, in early 2009, Zach Galifianakis was essentially a no name outside of the mild internet stardom afforded to him by "Between Two Ferns," Bradley Cooper was still hampered by his "that guy from Alias" reputation, and director Todd Phillips seemed to specialize in comedies with limited appeal outside the frat house.  Phillips went from Road Trip, Old School, Starsky and Hutch and School for Scoundrels to Apatow level comedic credibility with a single film.  We can probably all agree The Hangover was a tremendous success.  It was the rare comedy that managed to be as funny to a teenage boy as it was to my Mom, and that alone is pretty major.  Now, Phillips has taken on the burden of following up The Hangover with Due Date.  On paper, I'm sure Due Date looked like the ideal project: all hail the triumphant return of Galifianakis fresh off his overnight A-listing and paired with the ever charismatic Robert Downey Jr. in the midst of a wild, massive streak of blockbuster successes.  Have no doubt, I was excited.  I believed, just last week, that there was no way Due Date could fail.  In some ways, it flies high.  In others, it's disappointing how flat it falls.  Pancake flat.  Squirrel tail roadkill flat.  Runway model flat.
Due Date's small triumphs come from the risks its director and actors are willing to take.  The plot is nothing unfamiliar; two strangers have a run in at the airport and wind up grounded and searching for an alternate means of transportation.  Yada yada, commence roadtrip...  Yada yada, car crash... Yada yada, shenanigans.  In this particular case, Peter (Downey Jr.) is anxious to get back to Los Angeles for the birth of his first child and Ethan (Galifianakis) is the absurd individual (perm wearing, pot smoking, sleep masturbating, struggling actor) who repeatedly throws Murphy's Law into full effect.  Ethan is, without a doubt, 100% annoying.  His character's ignorance is at a grating level for Peter and the audience.  The only thing that saves Ethan Tremblay from being the type of character that makes people throw their hands up and walk out (see Sandra Bullock in All About Steve) is that he's played by the remarkably capable, easily sympathetic Galifianakis.   All this aside, what makes Due Date a slightly riskier comedy is that despite the wife/kids/no wallet/stuck with Ethan angle, Peter himself is not your traditional "put-out" hero.  He has his own faults, and in many ways they should work against him to make him about as unlikable as Ethan.  Peter has a violent temper.  He's snide, glib, and judgmental.  In what may be my favorite scene of the film, the guys stop by a drug dealer's (Juliette Lewis) house so Ethan can pick up some "medical marijuana" and Peter is asked to watch the woman's kids for five minutes.  The kids are brats.  Peter, instead of allowing himself to be stepped on by the brats, winds up knocking the 8-or-so year old boy onto the floor.  As the kid gasps for air, Peter looks on, totally over the situation.  So, two self-centered men get into a car with (disregarding the actors themselves) few of the qualities that would draw us to them as characters.  What are we watching?  Raw charm.  Ultimately, that's what Due Date has to offer: proof that its leading men are, simply put, charismatic stars with fantastic heads of hair.    

The problem with Due Date is that otherwise, it's just not very interesting.  The story's more emotional twists and turns feel like imposed tidbits thrown in as an afterthought.  Where The Hangover allowed itself to indulge in raw vice and mania without stressing too much about the bride-to-be back home, Due Date is hung up on external plot lines.  What we get instead of a no-holds-barred road trip with control freak, angry man Peter and semi-gay, dimwitted Ethan is a trip through their dark sides and insecurities.  Do we need fears of foul play in Peter's marriage?  Do we need the never ending details on Ethan's deceased dad?  Not really.  Of course, these motivations are supposed to add dimension to the characters.  It's how we learn to like them, to excuse their behavior, or, you know, something like that. It's not that convincing... 

Really, what happens instead is that we see a fair amount of persuasive argument, a little too serious acting, and we lose track of the film's primary function.  What we wind up with is a series of disconnected events that just don't make sense.  It's like the script for Planes, Trains and Automobiles was accidentally shredded and a room full of writers with different ideas on the definition of 'humor' attempted to piece together what they thought its purpose was.  We shoot from silly to crude to flat out stupid to violent to saccharine, etc, etc.  It's a comedy which, while goofy, is just never that funny.  There are only a few laugh out loud moments, and a couple of those are already in the trailers.  Another one, I've already described to you.  The rest is a battle of wills that's ultimately unsatisfying, frequently forced, and far beneath the obvious skill level of both of the actors involved.  I love seeing Robert Downey Jr. in comedic roles.  His timing is spectacular.  But, I think this collaboration would have been more successful had he just stopped by for a four minute stint on "Between Two Ferns."  

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