Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Dictator (2012)

The Dictator (2012)
Dir. Larry Charles

2.5 out of 5

The latest provocation from comedic gadfly Sacha Baron Cohen, The Dictator
starts from the template of slapstick-as-political satire immortalized by the Marx Brothers and Charlie Chaplin, and attempts to improve on it with jokes about masturbation and Osama Bin Laden's bathroom habits. Cohen combines parts of Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, and Kim Jong Il (to whom the film is "dedicated") in creating Admiral General Hafez Aladeen, the reigning despot of the fictional oil-rich nation of Wadiya. Unlike the eponymous characters of Cohen's previous films Borat and Brüno, Aladeen was not created to prank unsuspecting civilians by posing as a clueless amateur documentarian. Instead, he's the clueless star of a riches-to-rags tale precipitated by his uncle and top aide Tamir (Ben Kingsley), who uses Aladeen's appearance before the United Nations as an opportunity to usurp his nephew and install a look-alike in his place. When Aladeen narrowly escapes death by criticizing the torture methods of his overly sensitive assassin (a brilliant John C. Reilly), he begins his ruthless ladder-climbing anew - this time at an organic grocery store run by left-wing radical Zoey (Anna Faris) - as he scrambles to stop Tamir's imposter from signing a new constitution that distributes Wadiya's oil wealth to a handful of Western corporations.

The Dictator is Cohen's first entirely fictional effort since 2002's poorly-received Ali G Indahouse, and his first project in over a decade that's not based on one of his characters from Da Ali G Show. And while Aladeen's scripted antics lack the live-wire feel of his heavily improvised mockumentaries, Cohen's humor is no less outlandish thanks to the tyrant's hubristic appetites and bottomless bigotry. ("So, are you having a boy or are you having an abortion?" is a typical Aladeen-ism.) Overall, though, the jokes are scattershot and wildly uneven. It's more like a loose collection of sketches than a proper film, with only about half of them landing on the good side of bad taste. A fake media clip package introducing Aladeen gives way to a clumsy mistaken-identity plot that Cohen and director Larry Charles are only intermittently interested in pursuing. As such, worthwhile sequences like Aladeen's hostile takeover of operations at Zoey's store get a bit lost amongst pedestrian filler involving Aladeen's dimwitted, goat-herding double and the various schemes that Aladeen and his former top nuclear scientist, Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), hatch to depose him.

Cohen also spends a frustrating amount of time going after soft targets - Zoey is as much of a left-wing radical stereotype as Aladeen is a facist cartoon, and Faris is given little to do besides regurgitate liberal talking points and look horrified when Cohen spouts Aladeen's childishly abhorrent rhetoric. Every now and then, the film scores points with references to the institutional hypocrisy that allows free nations to criticize dictators while ignoring the less obvious sources of oppression within their own borders. But even that complex idea is handled with the same fleeting concern as the next dick joke, as if Cohen and Charles can't wait to set up the next joke in their unfocused menagerie of terrorist-themed humor. Even so, the movie is still an occasionally funny, if fleeting, diversion. One just wonders what Cohen could do if he had fully committed to making a political satire with character-based humor instead of relying on disjointed sitcom antics. The Dictator has a point to make, but no story to tell.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Jump Cuts: Francophone Action Flicks Edition

In my review of Lockout last month, I touched upon the prolific career of director Luc Besson, who started off in the vanguard of France's "Cinema du Look" movement of the 1980s with personal, lyrical films like Subway and The Big Blue. But by beginning of the 21st century, Besson started to limit himself to writing and producing the films of other directors, introducing several of them to the American film industry. By steadying his protégés - most of them fellow Frenchmen - during their first steps in Hollywood studio system, Besson established a new identity as the kingpin of slick, slightly off-brand action films with belt-tightening budgets (at least by major studio standards).

Besson's lineage extends to now-established helmers like Louis Leterrier (
The Transporter, Clash of the Titans), Pierre Morel (Taken), and the impossibly named Olivier Megaton (Colombiana) who have followed their mentor's path toward assimilation. Indeed, there's a Jump Cuts to be written solely on the Besson family tree. Yet Besson's preeminence - at least in North American minds - as a purveyor of Eurotrashy thrills often overshadows an entirely different set of Gallic filmmakers with action chops. As a handful of recent films has proven, there are plenty of foreigners more interested in importing pieces of the basic Hollywood thriller template to reassemble it on their own terms and on their own turf.

After winning an Oscar last year for directing The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius is arguably as much of a known quantity as Besson, but that's quite the leap for a director who was best known for his glossy parodies of 1960s spy films.
OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006) takes its aesthetic and narrative cues from every James Bond movie starring Sean Connery, and infuses them with the comic sensibilities of Blake Edwards and Mel Brooks. Starring Jean Dujardin as a suave yet block-headed secret agent, Cairo is an impish satire of the golden age of espionage, frankly depicting the casual misogyny, racism, and ethnocentrism embedded within the Bond fantasy. Dujardin leaves few people unoffended whilst investigating the disappearance of a fellow OSS agent in Egypt, but remains blithely unaware of the deadly consequences, constantly arching his eyebrow and grinning like a fool.

Hazanavicius, like Besson, is clearly an Anglophile, but a much more skeptical one. This is clear from
Cairo, Nest of Spies and its sequel OSS 117: Lost in Rio (2009), which doubles down on the wackiness with Dujardin and his sexy Mossad counterpart Louise Monot hunting for exiled Nazis in South America, and foiling their harebrained plan to launch a new Reich in the jungle. The title is a bit of a misnomer, as the film drags the characters all over Brazil in search of their Adolf Eichmann-inspired quarry. As a result, Rio lacks focus, and though the jokes in Cairo are typically of the hit-and-miss variety, Hazanavicius' humor just feels forced the second time around. At least Dujardin's smarmy performance is still spot-on: he's a magnificently sad clown, and watching him struggle with the constant comeuppance of his chauvinistic worldview enlivens both films.

Whereas the
OSS movies are lighthearted riffs on the unflappable action hero, Point Blank (2010) is a gripping portrait of an ordinary man dragged into a life-or-death situation. While treating a man (Roschdy Zem) last seen fleeing from a botched robbery, student nurse Samuel Pierret (Gilles Lellouche) is visited by gangsters who kidnap his very pregnant wife Nadia (The Skin I Live In's Elena Anaya) to coerce him into springing their colleague from the hospital. But the situation is much more complex than Samuel initially assumes, involving the murder of a prominent businessman and a web of institutional corruption. The film packs a lot of twists and turns into a brisk 84 minutes and constantly keeps Samuel on the run from criminals and cops alike, not knowing exactly whom he can trust. Point Blank could use a little more room for its plot to breathe, but I think that would diminish the effect of the movie's breakneck pacing: unlike a lot of action films with time-sensitive stakes (a la Neveldine/Taylor's Crank films), Point Blank avoids cartoonish contrivances in its refreshing back-to-basics take on the "running scared" subgenre of thrillers.

The Congolese action picture
Viva Riva! (2010) imports its Gallic cred by way of Belgium, but it owes the most of all these films to Besson's American-influenced style with its unabashed nihilism. When Riva (Pashta Bay) arrives in fuel-scarce Kinshasa with a bounty of smuggled gasoline, he triumphantly bangs his way through the city's clubs and brothels, seemingly unconcerned by the Angolan thugs who are hot on his trail. Riva's poor judgment continues when he pursues Nora (Manie Malone), a local gangster's moll, adding to his list of enemies. But the film overcomes the empty sleaze of its Skinemax-inspired first half by methodically backing Riva up against the wall, orchestrating an explosive final confrontation set in motion by all that hanky-panky. Director Djo Munga also captures the exuberant spirit of Kinshasa while finding ways to comment on the economic and cultural divides within the region: Riva mostly speaks Lingala, the city's vernacular, but the violent Angolan crime lord César (Hoji Fortuna) always speaks a refined French that matches his impeccably-tailored suits. Doing his Continental colleagues one better, Munga successfully locates the sweet spot between international appeal and domestic verisimilitude.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Dir. Wes Anderson

4 out of 5

Wes Anderson’s fascination with child psychology isn’t exactly a secret – see the various parental hang-ups on display in The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited – but he’s never tackled the subject as boldly as he does in Moonrise Kingdom, a charmingly arch tale of preteen lovers who cause panic in their New England island community when they run away together in the summer of ‘65. The die is cast a year earlier, when Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) bumps into Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) backstage at a church pageant, and the two begin a relationship via a series of letters that progress from banal pen pal banter into a frank discussion of their unhappy home lives. Sam is an orphan who spends his summers on New Penzance Island, where he is the least popular member of an orienteering group called the Khaki Scouts. Suzy is a hot-tempered schoolgirl alienated by her emotionally distant parents (Bill Murray, Frances McDormand), two lawyers in a crumbling marriage who have no idea how to handle their “troubled child.” Their flight, as narrator Bob Balaban helpfully informs us, coincides with the landfall of a historically destructive Nor’easter, adding urgency to the search and rescue effort led by the island’s philandering sheriff (Bruce Willis) and Sam’s middle-manager of a scoutmaster (Edward Norton).

New Penzance is a parochial place, so while Sam and Suzy’s elopement is more like an unauthorized camping trip, it's quickly blown up into a dangerous expression of forbidden love. It’s a premise well suited to Anderson’s brand of highfalutin goofery. He and co-writer Roman Coppola (who also helped script Darjeeling) essentially turn the film's first half into a parody of chase movies, filtered through the director’s typically mannered characterizations. Anderson is especially sympathetic towards Sam and Suzy. Deep down they’re sensitive kids with creative means of escape: for her, fantasy novels that Sam quickly deduces are way overdue from the library and for him, oil painting (“Mostly landscapes, but a few nudes”) and wilderness survival play-acting. Sam’s rigid application of his Khaki Scout knowledge is his antidote for an increasingly confusing world. But as the movie frequently suggests, the kids might be alright after all. Even when the pair is caught as in flagrante as their poorly developed knowledge of sex allows, the scoutmaster takes the time to commend his wayward recruit on his exemplary campsite. In fact, Gilman and Hayward are so assured in their on-screen debuts that the adult characters seem one-dimensional by comparison.

Moonrise Kingdom indulges its youthful vigor at all costs. It's Anderson’s broadest and most slapstick-y live action film to date, with hokey special effects that wouldn’t be out of place in a Harold and Kumar movie. Still, that doesn’t mean this Kingdom lacks sophistication. Each member of the film’s ensemble – which features boisterous cameos from Tilda Swinton as an imperious civil servant and Jason Schwartzman as a petulant junior scoutmaster – delivers each line in a perfect deadpan. Each set is thoughtfully conceived. Each prop is meticulously arranged within the frame. Even Alexandre Desplat’s witty score is masterfully explicated in one of the best end credits Easter eggs in years. Moonrise Kingdom won’t convert those who already consider Anderson too clever by half, but the story should resonate with anyone who’s experienced the agony and ecstasy of young love. These characters deserve to spend as much time as possible in Anderson’s obsessively constructed and controlled playground – heaven knows things will only get messier from here.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Five-Year Engagement (2012)

The Five-Year Engagement (2012)
Dir. Nicholas Stoller

3.5 out of 5

The perfect is the enemy of the good in the relationship of Tom Solomon (Jason Segel) and Violet Barnes (Emily Blunt), the well-matched couple of The Five-Year Engagement. Tom has a blossoming career as a San Francisco sous chef and, within the film’s first five minutes, the ideal fiancé in Violet, a psychology postdoc banking on an offer from Berkeley. Their wedding plans are delayed when Violet is instead accepted into the University of Michigan, which precipitates a move to the Midwest and a thorough emotional inventory that causes the couple to doubt if they are truly prepared to take the plunge. The relaxed chemistry of the film’s two stars enhances its typical rom-com hijinks, even as it takes a more conventional approach to the material than Nicholas Stoller’s first collaboration with Segel, the hilariously angsty Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

Like many Judd Apatow-produced movies before it, The Five-Year Engagement benefits from a stable of comedic ringers that adds variety to the consistently funny script. The supporting cast runs the gamut from stand-up comics (Brian Posehn, Kevin Hart) to sitcom scene-stealers (Mindy Kaling, Chris Parnell) to droll screen veterans (Rhys Ifans), and they riff off one another with ticklish glee. Then there’s Chris Pratt and Alison Brie, who put their own lusty spin on supportive “best friend” stereotypes as a mismatched duo that falls into bed together and, several smash cuts later, stumbles into the lifestyle that Tom and Violet are trying so hard to obtain. Their performances embody how hard the movie works to avoid the obvious. Stoller constantly squeezes humor out of situations that most romantic comedies would consider sacrosanct – when it’s time for Brie and Blunt to have a serious heart-to-heart about the direction of their lives, they impersonate Sesame Street characters to disguise their tone from Brie’s children. (Who knew that Elmo’s voice could make advice sound more sensible?)

Being the fruit of the Apatow comedy tree means that Engagement comes with built-in criticisms about its lengthiness and meandering pace. Several early scenes drag on uncomfortably long, and an entire act where Tom embraces his weird inner woodsman after an initial fish out of water period goes for incongruously broad laughs. But most of the extra time is well spent logically and colorfully fleshing out Tom and Violet’s evolving feelings toward marriage. It’s quite refreshing how film doesn’t pull punches in depicting the problems even the most compatible couples will have on their way to the altar. Sure, The Five-Year Engagement wanders a little too much on its way to comedic nirvana, but that’s tough to hold against a film about two people slowly realizing that a bit of growing apart is an unavoidable – and ultimately necessary – part of growing together.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Dark Shadows (2012)

Dark Shadows
Dir. Tim Burton

2.5 out of 5

Dark Shadows is the eighth collaboration between Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, a partnership that endures thanks to Depp’s ability to immerse himself in Burton’s increasingly facile brand of make-believe without losing his pathos underneath all the pancake makeup and wild hairpieces. Burton’s more recent efforts have been criticized for lacking the depth of his earlier movies, but without the skill of a star like Depp (who has now starred in the director’s last four films) they’d be even harder to justify as something other than pretenses for weird, gothic dress-up. And while Dark Shadows is by no means an unwatchable film, it’s immensely telling of how the creative heat has transferred from director to star over the course of the past 20 years.

Based on the supernatural daytime serial of the late 1960s, the film concerns the lovesick vampire Barnabas Collins (Depp) and his attempts to resurrect his aristocratic family’s fishing business in the Maine hamlet where he first arrived as a boy in the 18th century. His task is complicated by the fact that he’s been taking a dirt nap for almost two centuries, entombed by angry villagers after he was saddled with the curse of vampirism by former lover and vengeful witch Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green). While Barnabas struggles to adapt to the late-20th century and its twin plagues of hippies and McDonald’s, Angelique has used the intervening years to build her own seafood empire that makes the barely hanging-on Collins concern feel like a fading memory.

The swinging ‘70s are a boon to Barnabas’ libido, however, and it’s here where Dark Shadows surrenders to dull melodrama despite the best efforts of its committed cast. Even after murdering his parents and his betrothed, Angelique still has her sights set on Barnabas’ heart, and their impassioned romp destroys the witch’s ultramodern boardroom in one of the movie’s giddiest sequences. But the film is unfortunately hamstrung by the chemistry-free pairing of Barnabas and Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote), a stoic woman who’s the spitting image of his long-lost fiancé. Seth Grahame-Smith’s disjointed script also squanders the talents of Michelle Pfeiffer, Jonny Lee Miller, and Chloë Grace Moretz as the extended Collins clan, stranding them in subplots with no momentum and undermining what little development they achieve with a contrived ending full of empty twists. Credit Depp’s performance for giving Dark Shadows a friskiness that many of Burton’s recent projects have lacked, but it’s just not enough to breathe new life into the movie’s moribund soap opera shenanigans.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

God Bless America (2012)

God Bless America
Dir. Bobcat Goldthwait

3.5 out of 5

Like a middle-aged Travis Bickle in a series of ugly sweaters and Hawaiian shirts, Joel Murray dreams of washing the scum from the streets in Bobcat Goldthwait's pitch-black comedy
God Bless America. But Murray isn't interested in hustlers, pimps, and petty thugs. His wrath is fueled by the ignorant mopes that fill the world around him - hateful religious fanatics, fear-mongering political pundits, and anyone who fails to practice proper movie theater etiquette. Fired from his job and facing the prospect of a long battle with brain cancer, a suicidal Murray embraces a macabre form of therapy when he turns his gun on those who aggravate him the most. By gunning down his first victim - a spoiled reality show princess - he impresses a similarly disgruntled teenage sidekick (Tara Lynne Barr) and the pair embarks on a cross-country murder spree, punishing all the people who made Murray so desperate to end his life in the first place.

The veteran character actor Murray is perfectly cast as an unusual breed of anti-hero, his folksy cadence and sideways smile lending a strange warmth to what is obviously Goldthwait's own meticulous list of pet peeves. Though his invective starts off harsh and uncompromising - "Why have a civilization anymore if we no longer are interested in being civilized?" Murray asks a doltish co-worker - he quickly gains perspective once the bullets begin to fly. He's only willing to kill people who "deserve" to die, unlike the more impulsive and ego-driven Barr (a good actress who is unfortunately saddled with Goldthwait's more condescending rhetoric). Their relationship is the most enjoyable part of the film. In one of many instances of Goldthwait echoing
Taxi Driver, Murray is a principled but unstable older man futilely obsessed with preserving a modicum of innocence in a teenage girl who is already far too mature for her age. (There's even a scene of Murray buying guns in a motel room that eerily matches Scorsese's beats.)

While God Bless America's satire is mostly a success, it's sometimes undercut by the sense that Goldthwait has chosen the easiest targets. A discomfiting air of superiority settles over certain parts of the film, particularly those that lampoon the news media, as well as Barr's arrogant rant about the greatness of Alice Cooper. Overall, though, God Bless America is just crazy enough to work: you have to admire a movie that makes a running joke of the wildly inappropriate (and decidedly one-way) romantic tension between the leads ("So we're platonic spree killers?" whines Barr). It saves its greatest disdain for the irredeemably mean and inconsiderate, the people who have no idea of how their words and actions affect others. In that, God Bless America isn't particularly groundbreaking, or even that shocking. What does impress is Goldthwait's outrageous way of articulating his many frustrations, and his ability to make sick behavior seem like an appropriate remedy for an equally sick society.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Avengers (2012)

The Avengers (2012)
Dir. Joss Whedon

3.5 out of 5

A lot of things fall into place with The Avengers, the culmination of a historically expensive promotional campaign that included feature-length advertisements like Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America. It's the ultimate payoff to Marvel Studios' efforts to build a cohesive cinematic universe for its well-known comic book characters, an ambitious project reliant on a volatile mix of anticipation and expectation. Marvel upped the ante even further when it tabbed Joss Whedon - a geek icon who has inspired equal amounts of devotion from his fans and indifference from the mainstream - to write and direct. The result is a movie with real-life stakes almost as big as the fictional ones: when Earth is threatened by the Norse trickster god Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the planet's greatest heroes (including franchise keystones Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), and a bevy of other slashable names) must pull together and stop Loki from opening an interstellar portal to facilitate an invasion of hostile aliens.

When you have as many headliners as The Avengers does, the difficulty lies in giving each of them their due without making it seem like you're just spinning plates. Whedon turns this potential weakness into a strength by devoting a good chunk of the film to the team's wrangling of egos and questioning of allegiances. Predictably, there's an alpha struggle between the sarcastic Stark and the straight-laced Rogers, but Thor (Chris Hemsworth) seems to be the biggest wild card, as it isn't obvious that joining an organization devoted to protecting a foreign planet is in his best interest. Whedon gets a little overzealous in creating quips for the famously witty Stark, but he nails the flavor of each team member's personality without leaning on their one or two stereotypical character traits. A simple scene like Stark and a show-stealing Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) commiserating over their shared love of science perfectly captures the appeal of a movie about a supergroup of superheroes and validates the laborious process that made it possible.

But while much of Whedon's script has a satisfying snap, there are still plenty of places in The Avengers' two and a half hour running time when things start to drag. There's a glaring contrast between the film's intriguing exploration of character dynamics and its more conventional fistfights-and-explosions portions. Although the action is bold and colorful, it has a tendency to exhaust with its frequent cross-cutting, especially in the film's climax around the streets and skyscrapers of New York City. Such divided attentions mean that super-spy Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) and expert archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) don't really get a chance to shed their ancillary labels, though at least there's no shortage of other, more compelling characters. Despite its slightly uneven quality, The Avengers successfully raises the bar for successive superhero adventures, impressively tying up the first batch of Marvel films while suggesting that there's still much to be explored.