Friday, January 4, 2013

The Catch-Up: Fall(ish) 2012

I try to review as many movies as I can within their window of release, either in press screenings or by plunking down my cash at the multiplex. But some films inevitably slip through the cracks. Here a few that I've caught up with recently...

Dir. Simon West

2.5 out of 5

The Dirty Dozen is often mentioned as a reference point for Sylvester Stallone's late-in-life franchise about about a team of muscular mercenaries, but The A-Team might be a better comparison.  While The Expendables 2 does return an impressive collection of high-wattage stars – Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Jason Statham, and Jet Li, to name a few – its approach is more reminiscent of a Saturday morning cartoon than a gritty provocation of Hollywood ultra-violence.  That's not necessarily a bad thing, as the film exceeds its predecessor when it indulges its cornier tendencies and better resembles a spectacular playdate for aging hyper-masculine film icons instead of a joyless, muddy slog through a third world shooting gallery.  

The man replacing Stallone in director’s chair, veteran action helmer Simon West (Con Air), could have something to do with the sequel’s newfound savoir-faire.  Adding Jean-Claude Van Damme to the mix as a sadistic rival mercenary definitely does.  Playing a villain named "Jean Vilain," he exudes oddball charisma while delivering ridiculous lines such as “Without respect we’re just people – common, shitty people” with a hammy flourish.  Unfortunately, the rest of the movie is rarely as colorful as Van Damme's performance.  The generic plot concerning a cache of stolen plutonium is a flimsy pretense to all the fighting, and a high percentage of its one-liners are surprisingly clunky for a film that’s supposed to be a throwback to the pithy, larger-than-life 80s action aesthetic.  The Expendables 2 clearly has its beefy heart in the right place, but it’s still a repetitive buffet of destruction that could have used less meat and more cheese.

Ruby Sparks (2012)
Dir. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

4 out of 5

The precious-sounding premise for Ruby Sparks - struggling novelist Calvin (Paul Dano) manifests his ideal woman, Ruby (Zoe Kazan), simply by writing about her - belies its true nature as a thoughtful romantic comedy that rebels against its advertising as a standard indie quirkfest.  Its iconoclasm begins with the titular sprite played by Kazan, who wrote the script as a vehicle for herself and real-life partner Dano.  No mere vanity project, Ruby Sparks is both a critique of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl formula and a cautionary tale about the difference between idealized infatuation and unconditional love.  The result is a cross between Stranger Than Fiction and Weird Science that's buoyed by strong performances from Dano, Kazan, and Chris Messina as Calvin’s supportive older brother, Harry.  Though sometimes too overt and preachy, the movie still makes an incisive point about male fantasies of “quirky, messy women whose problems make them endearing."  And despite an ending that compromises Ruby's central argument, Kazan, a first-time screenwriter, displays remarkable poise and a gift for brevity.  An intelligent, unassuming gem of a film, Ruby Sparks exceeds expectations as a modern-day fable that’s appropriately down-to-earth and bittersweet.

Dir. Paolo Sorrentino

2.5 out of 5

"You're not depressed; you're just bored," says the longtime spouse (Frances McDormand) of aging goth rocker Cheyenne (Sean Penn), who lives a sheltered life in his European mansion when he suddenly decides to track down the former Nazi concentration camp guard who once humiliated his father.  But honestly, how can she tell?  The squeaky-voiced protagonist of This Must Be the Place has a way of making his serious thoughts sound like rhetorical Zen koans ("Why is Lady Gaga?") that trail off without any attempt at transition.  Paolo Sorrentino's film follows suit, morphing from a deadpan comedy to a hybrid road/vengeance movie that asks the audience to tolerate its continuing non-sequitur weirdness.  It's an often frustrating approach that pads the movie with inexplicable scenes that bear no relation to what precedes or follows them, such a brief sequence that finds Cheyenne schooling two college kids at ping-pong.  Penn's nuanced, nonjudgmental performance carries a disjointed effort that's constantly demanding attention that it doesn't always deserve.  He deserves a lot of credit for managing to modulate Cheyenne's emotions despite being asked to deliver almost every line in a plaintive sigh.  The lack of thoughtful editing in This Must Be the Place makes it easy to empathize with the hero's weariness, but Penn's commitment at least makes Sorrentino's digressions bearable.

Anna Karenina (2012)
Dir. Joe Wright

3 out of 5

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy's wide-angle tale of love, sin, and hypocrisy among the social elite of tsarist Russia, receives all the benefits of the deluxe Joe Wright literary adaptation package: bright and sumptuous visuals, long tracking shots, and Keira Knightley as a period costume fashion plate.  Knightley plays the titular socialite and loving mother; married to a stern bureaucrat (Jude Law), she enters an affair with the dashing Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) at the risk of damaging her family's reputation.  A sweet parallel subplot examines the humble country aristocrat Konstantin (Domhnall Gleeson) and his determined courtship of Kitty (Alicia Vikander), Anna's radiant sister-in-law.  Working with award-winning playwright Tom Stoppard as his screenwriter, Wright deepens his commitment to the conspicuous theatricality glimpsed in his previous adaptations of Pride & Prejudice and Atonement.  He presents the movie as a stage production, with moving pieces of scenery serving as visual transitions and characters wandering into the audience and backstage areas.  

However, the vast scope of Tolstoy's novel - jumping from city to city and touching on the cultural upheaval in Russia during its 19th-century mad dash towards modernity - forces Wright to abandon this show-offy conceit early and often.  The film also has pacing issues, drawing out Vronsky's seduction without examining what makes him so irresistible   He's young and handsome, but is also a known playboy, and it is left to the audience to imagine why Anna would risk her life of privilege to play cougar.  The film at least captures the unjust double standard applied to the affair's participants, with Vronsky getting off scot-free while Anna suffers in social isolation.  ("I'd call on her if she broke the law," says a catty Moscow socialite, "but she broke the rules.")  Pretty but lacking in depth, Wright's attempt to enliven a classic piece of literature becomes too distracted by its own visual panache to pay enough attention to its heroine's conflicted emotions.

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