Movie Review: Hereafter

Hereafter is clearly an interesting choice for Clint Eastwood. It’s a supernatural drama, which isn’t exactly the genre you’d expect from the dude who brought us a decade’s worth of dour dramas grounded in reality. It’s kind of fun to see Eastwood stretch as a director to fit a more conventional genre of cinema. At times it really works for him. The opening sequence of the film – a terrifying tidal wave decimating a scenic beach-side market – is an excellent example of the skillful camerawork Eastwood is capable of. The sequence is momentarily muddled by shoddy water effects – no doubt a constraint of the film’s seemingly meager budget – but otherwise the directorial style gives the audience an effective first-hand glance at what it’s like to be swept down stream and nearly drowned by crushing water. It is effective in the same vein as a good chase scene in Jurassic Park: “Must go faster! Must go faster!” We’re along with the characters for the ride so it’s easy to get swept away in the action.

The main flaw of Hereafter is that there is so little action otherwise. We begin with three characters in different stages of life at different locations around the world. It should be no surprise to the average film-goer that these three individual narratives will no doubt intertwine at some point through a catastrophic or serendipitous and ultimately life-changing series of events. The problem is that the average film-goer is baited for so long that by the time the three narratives converge the event is greeted with the guttural grunt, “Finally!” This is not to say that the individual plot-lines and performances are uninteresting. Quite the contrary, they are very engaging and watchable for the most part, assuming you like slow-moving dour dramas. Those hoping for new insight into the afterlife can check their hopes at the door. This movie is about the characters, solely.

Bryce Dallas Howard plays Matt Damon’s love-interest in a sequence with a much-needed burst of sweetness that ultimately fades too soon. In fact, one might go so far as to say that between the three narratives – a young British boy who loses his twin brother in a fatal car crash, a French female news anchor trying to rekindle feelings with the preternatural after a near death experience, and Matt Damon as a petulant working class American psychic – Damon’s is the one that sticks out like a sore thumb for inappropriate inclusion. The other stories are distinctly European, work perfectly in coincidence of tone, and it is clear that inspiration from French filmmakers guide Eastwood’s hand as he shoots several sequences. Damon’s character quests for love, but every time he touches a woman’s skin, he connects with a bad memory from their past or a dead relative trying to make contact. Bryce Dallas Howard plays sweet and bats her eyelashes, clearly down to ride the Sarah Silverman express-line into Matt Damon’s bedroom. Damon meets her in a cooking class, and they immediately hit it off with lots of tasting, chopping and sexual tension. She exists solely as a character to express Damon’s inability to find love and inadequacies when it comes to intimacy, not to mention the fact that his psychic ghost-powers have great power and great responsibility. We spend so much time with Bryce, as well as with Damon’s shyster brother (a hungry Jay Mohr) that it almost seems completely arbitrary when Damon finally catches a flight to Europe and incidentally runs into the other two plotlines at the World Book Fair – probably the lamest third act set piece in film history.

There’s one really great moment where Jay Mohr finds out that his ghastly brother Matt Damon has flown to Europe through a letter. Mohr looks at the letter, then stares off at nothing and shouts angrily with all the fervor of a Home Alone actor who just realized that he left Kevin at home. This is incredibly funny, albeit not intentionally. This is one of the film’s few moments of humor. Once Damon actually meets the little boy that lost his twin brother, there are some great moments of acting as Damon acts like a hilarious jerk to a tiny emotionless child. It’s too little too late, but I will say this for Hereafter: it’s incredibly well-shot, well-acted and dementedly slow-paced. If you can put up with the unforgiving slowness, you’ll be able to enjoy the moments that follow, but for the most part this is one to catch on HBO.

Holiday Trailer Round-Up

There’s a lot of laughably awesome films on the horizon, so let’s check them out as a family, won’t you?

TRON LEGACY

Aside from the creepy pseudo-prosthetic CG keeping young Jeff Bridges in motion, everything in this trailer is mind-numbingly boner-inducing. It might be an after-effect of the robotic backwards walkin’ love slaves, or the fact that Olivia Wilde is constantly eying our main character like a slab of man meat, but there’s something markedly sexified about the new Tron. ‘Sexy’ isn’t exactly the word I’d use to describe the old Tron- maybe ‘awesome’ or ‘virginal to the point of embarrassment’- but this film’s imagineers clearly want geeks, gamers and lonely losers alike to flock in droves with the hopes of catching a stiffy from the mass quantities of silicon and silicone inherent in this picture. Sign me up, assuming this film hasn’t lost its sense of humor during the two decades of anonymity. Bridges may be mumbling for a paycheck, but he’s still more watchable than most stars even when bored to tears and wrapped in vestments from Space Mutiny. I’m at a loss for words when it comes to clearly sexist yet sexy pictures like these. You might as well treat the whole ordeal like a Katy Perry music video. Just turn the sound down and space out to the visuals as if you were a 7th grader discovering his erection to a Blink 182 album cover. (Also being really, really stoned couldn’t hurt.)

The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader

This is literally the most expensive looking movie trailer I’ve ever seen. The quality of the effects alone are enough to draw my interest. They really help me overlook the whole Jesus-Lion parable bullshit wreaking havoc on the narrative. Minotaurs and talking rats are always a plus, not to mention the overt sexual tension with an amorphous spirit goddess. I guess the past two movies were popular (I thought the first one was shit and didn’t see the second- I always liked that hokey BBC miniseries better) because the filmmakers clearly have enough dough now to throw wads of it at the screen with reckless abandon, like Kanye West hucking gold doubloons at his television to change channels. Let’s hope this movie has a decent enough story to justify the insanity of its budget (whatever imaginary number that may be) and that the filmmakers haven’t gone the Gore Verbinski or Raimi route and let the studio fund their movie under the auspices of dumbing it down to the point of statutory boredom. Then again, with all the Christian godliness at play maybe this movie could use a few trainwrecks. Spider-Man 3 dance sequences, anyone?

Red Riding Hood

Is this one of those parody trailers preceding Tropic Thunder? Did American McGee crap this out while doodling rape fantasies on the back of a napkin at Comic-Con? I can understand why Catherine Hardwicke would want to exploit her Twilight fanbase for another quick buck, but even she has to understand how shamelessly moronic this is. At least her visual style is improving, evolving from the too dour blandness of the Twilight saga to this oversaturated self-important nonsense. I could only stomach the first thirty minutes of her Twilight movie, but I have a feeling the warm colors and cinematography will make this picture slightly more watchable, even if the acting and story can’t. Little Red Riding Hood is all grown up, but she still has the emotional maturity of a third grader (that way teenage girls can relate). I just hope that when they cut Red and Grandma out of the Wolf’s belly it’s presented as an even-handed metaphor for the Planned Parenthood generation.

The Green Hornet

Michel Gondry and Seth Rogen’s frequently delayed foray into superhero action-comedy is finally about to hit theaters (maybe, probably, sometime soon, we promise), and it looks like there’s a decent chance that it might actually be watchable. While I’m still skeptical as ever that Gondry’s unique softness of style will translate well into American blow-em-up cinema, Rogen’s likability and charm may mask the obvious filmmaking flaws and allow audiences to overlook the fact that the guy playing Kato can’t fucking speak English. As usual, the marketing campaign seems myopically focused on Seth Rogen’s rich party-boy anti-hero (*cough* Tony Stark *cough*) and his pseudo-gay relationship with his live-in Asian man servant/bodyguard. Christoph Waltz and Cameron Diaz struggle to breathe from the cutting room floor, their exclusion serving only to benefit Christoph’s Oscar-winning credibility and Cameron’s lack thereof. I enjoyed Inglorious Basterds and What Happens in Vegas about equally, so I suppose I can survive this movie too. Ugly, bare-bones set design and 90s action-comedy gags might be the real nail in the coffin here, because aside from that guy who doesn’t speak English (who- Gondry or Kato?) there’s enough charm and personality here to make something fun happen. And if it’s bad, it’ll be easy to forget, because let’s face it- what superhero is more forgettable than The Green Hornet?

Green Lantern

This movie trailer is a crash course in killing credibility. Ryan Reynolds has so much smugness and goodwill built up in his jawline that it’s almost impressive how quickly the filmmakers are willing to date-rape their audience. I’ll admit that the effects look better on the big screen than the computer screen, but even given that caveat the big purple fucking face at 1:00 is an absolute career killer for all humans involved. Not only is the Tinky-Winky spaceman a disappointingly awful reveal, it’s also an indication of the absolutely dorky tone the filmmakers are taking to an otherwise interesting character. The Green Lantern is an everyman called to duty by a higher power. Sounds biblical, right? Kind of ruins that momentum when your godlike deity figure turns out to be the bastard love-child of Frankenstein and the California Raisins. If it had been Jar Jar Fucking Binks I would have been more excited, honest to God. Oh, and speaking of Episode One, here’s the rest of the goddamn trailer. Blake Lively vomits dialog at the epicenter of the movie’s shittiness, radiating shit tremors around her at a twenty mile radius. If this movie were a literal black hole, crushing credibility down to an unknowable quantum singularity, it would still be an understatement to say that she sucks. She sure is pretty though! And I’m sure that’s exactly what the film executives thought when they greenlit this monstrosity and released the nuke that killed us all. I don’t know if this movie is going to be any good, but I can guarantee that some kid is going to shove one of those Green Lantern action figures right up his ass. And that’ll still be the best thing to happen to this character all year.

Cowboys and Aliens

At first I thought this was a live-action adaptation of Red Dead Redemption, fulfilling my geekiest of fantasies by saturating its cast with eye candy (again Olivia Wilde) and elderly show-stoppers (Harrison Ford). Then I realized it was some shit with aliens. Whatever. Wild Wild West was a huge smash hit and Iron Man 2 was a stunningly cerebral triumph, so why shouldn’t this be perfect? I don’t know. I give up. I’m going drinking. (Also, the modern James Bond franchise is dead, so this is as close as we might get to Daniel Craig kicking real ass on the big screen for a while. Let’s just hope this goes the route of Men in Black instead of the route that its asinine title might suggest.)

Movie Review: The Social Network

We are entering a new plastic age of cinema. Not only are amusement park rides becoming full-fledged franchises (e.g., Pirates of the Caribbean, the soon-to-be remade Haunted Mansion), Battleship and Monopoly movies loom on the horizon. It is clear that brand reigns supreme in new Hollywood, meaning it is only a matter of time before the epic Clorox and Miracle Whip franchises duke it out on the big screen. The Social Network is a movie based on a website. A website. I can’t stress that enough. But beyond its obvious marketing tie-ins and greedy capitalization on a highly addictive, popular yet soulless service, The Social Network strives to do the impossible: To be a quality film with substance and heart in spite of its mediocre subject matter.

The Social Network is a labor of love from writer Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing). Deeply fascinating, complicated and flawed, this film is the result of a calculated and concerted effort from a very skillful wordsmith. Even acclaimed director David Fincher’s normally assertive visual style is shockingly muted in this picture, serving as the vessel for Sorkin’s staggering humor and wit. I would be remiss not to mention that this screenplay contains some of Sorkin’s most brilliant comic dialog, purveyed in a quieter and more lambent form than his trademark snark and walk-and-talks. Given the humble beginnings of our hero, morally ambiguous Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and the hero’s relatively exponential leaps to success, there is something wonderful about watching Sorkin shift from small-stakes social networking to make-or-break business deals on a casual basis, the intensity of Zuckerberg’s focus being his only constant. Much like his characterization of Zuckerberg, Sorkin seems unconcerned with the things that average people admire, focusing his efforts on wholly original, unique and creative goals. After all, his script reads like a theatrical play, and  how often can a screenwriter claim that?

There’s something Shakespearean and tragic about The Social Network, especially since it records a history yet unfinished. (It might be nice to see an aged Sorkin revisit Zuckerberg in his autumn years for Henry the IV, Part 2.) The basic thrust of the narrative takes place during Zuckerberg’s time at Harvard. He wishes to be admired by the public but on his own terms. After a nasty (yet smoothly written) break-up scene, Zuckerberg lashes out at the female university community on the internet- and thus, The Facebook is born. Zuckerberg’s ambition and myopic (read: robotic) focus on personal gain alienate him from the people that helped him achieve his first few steps toward stardom. The story intercuts between Zuckerberg’s rise to power and the legal proceedings that bookend his social life. Like a true tragic figure, Zuckerberg is left to wallow in the wake of his own creation, not as its king, but with the same dependent loneliness of the average person.

Hopping from scene to scene is a real treat as each story event provides palpable drama and a backdrop for hilarious, taut dialog. The only flaws stem from the natural inadequacy of the film’s story structure. How can Sorkin sculpt a proper dramatic ending for a young and still-living public figure? He attempts something subtle and dramatic on his audience in the end, but after a long and emotional narrative, the subtlety may be lost on a crowd expecting more bang for their buck. Sex and hedonism abound in this tale of self-deprecation, indulgence and promiscuity, but don’t be mistaken: this is a thinking man’s frat party. Few characters, including the villains, are allotted few enough traits as to be flat or one-note, save for one deceivingly shallow girlfriend who makes a bizarrely cornball switch from sanity to pyromania in the second half. My personal favorites were the Winklevoss twins, two preppy yet believable douchebags who incite the fire for Facebook in Zuckerberg’s belly only to double over in agony when they realize that the ‘berg stole their idea and made millions. Both played by the same oddly named actor, Armie Hammer, the twins’ Parent Trap-style doubling is one of Fincher’s few masterfully executed visual gags. For the man who flew his camera through a coffee pot in Panic Room, I expected more tricks outside of the few stray beer bottles, but maybe the director intentionally reeled back his cinematographic enthusiasm to draw reverence to Sorkin’s story. In any case, the tone and execution work on a massive scale, and aside from the necessarily muddy nature of the ending, this is an enjoyable film and clearly one of the year’s best.

Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg is without a doubt his finest performance to date, leaps and bounds beyond the average joe schtick that made him famous in Zombieland. His acting is refined, nuanced and another great example of why Fincher is an ace in the hole when it comes to direction. Even as the director’s love for CGI and camera-movement is restrained, his skill as an acting coach pays off in a big way. Rooney Mara’s all-too-brief screentime is populated by a deeply human and relatable performance as Zuckerberg’s first college girlfriend. Her teary-eyes are heartbreaking. Justin Timberlake manages to play a hateworthy dick convincingly (somehow), a true shame considering his abilities as an actor have greatly improved over the years. (I was really disappointed he didn’t get Green Lantern. His knack for physical comedy would have sold the character for me. After all, how many superheroes can Ryan Reynolds play?) The best and most surprising performance might belong to Andrew Garfield, last seen pissing me off in Dr. Parnassus, and soon to be the latest actor to take up the red pajamas of Spider-Man. After his empathetic and dweeby turn in Social Network as Zuckerberg’s socially maligned and malnourished best friend, it’s clear that this boy can fill the shoes of a superhero as well as many more challenging roles to come.

The Social Network is a triumph of character-based dialog but a few notes stray of a perfect symphony. Maybe it’s the nature of the story being told (it’s about a goddamned website, people) but the partnerships at work here are masterfully executed, and I think it would be a mistake not to team Fincher with Sorkin again in the future, perhaps on subject matter that didn’t beat out Lycos or Dogpile for the fast-track. A cerebral and interesting ride, The Social Network proves that even brand-based filmmaking can result in quality entertainment and palpable drama, so long as there’s a foundation of talent to keep everything grounded.

Movie Review: Piranha 3D

This review has taken me a long time to write (mostly because of how difficult it is to spell Piranha) but it is without a doubt an important one to read. Piranha 3D may be the best summer movie of 2010- due in no small part to the dearth of quality entertainment in this year’s cinemas, but also due to the shockingly watchable direction of Alexandre Aja and the remarkably well-structured screenplay by Pete Goldfinger & Josh Stolberg. While not exactly Hitchcock or Shakespeare, the film offers no pretense of haughty intellectual aspirations, instead hitting its comedic and narrative beats with surprising aplomb, not to mention reverence to summer movies history. Rather than providing us with a bare-bones rendition of an obvious premise (hint: piranhas attack!), Piranha somehow manages to do the impossible, making us care about its characters and regret their gruesome deaths, no matter how small or irrelevant their roles may be.

In many ways, Piranha is a knowing homage to Jaws. Both films rely on their characters to provide distractions from the occasionally cheesy or overwrought special effects, and both movies center around a small beach town community overrun by a sea-dwelling menace. It’s fairly obvious that the filmmakers adore horror history and wanted their movie to be both referential and cutting-edge, so allusions and surprises abound. What separates Piranha from its predecessors is its borderline NC-17 sensibilities. Not since the Roger Corman films of yore have I seen such blatant exploitation of the female form in a theatrical release. That being said, it’s both sexy and lesberiffic! (Note: This quote available for back-of-DVD.) Beyond the valley of the boobies, there is a jaw-dropping amount of gore in this picture. The blood splatters range from hilarious to horrifying, and despite the piranhas’ adorable design they still bring a cringe-worthy tension whenever they approach their prey.

The cast of characters is packed to the brim with bit players, each with their own unique and likable schtick. Only Jerry O’Connell martyrs himself as the sole hate-worthy player in this picture, simply because his rendition of a Joe Francis-esque purveyor of Girls Gone Nuts entertainment is equal parts hammy and spot-on. Adam Scott often looks confused as to whether he should be grinning more often, and Elizabeth Shue is the only hold-out in an otherwise perfect set of tongue-in-cheek performances. Even the young lead actors in the cast, Steven R. McQueen and Jessica Szhor, provide compelling performances within obvious type roles. Brooklynn Proulx and Sage Ryan- both terrific examples of why you should not let your parents decide your stage name- are an adorable pair of tots hugely reminiscent of Bart & Lisa Simpson in terms of chemistry. Usually it’s the cheap newcomers in horror movies that make the films so tedious to watch, but here it’s the young talent that really owns the picture, occasionally making the more experienced elders look old and out-of-place.

There is plenty to love in Piranha 3D. The creativity of the deaths should delight horror fans, as should the number of nods to horror history, the badass cameos- thank you, Mr. Eli Roth- and the insane duration of the massacre sequence, which somehow manages to eat up (excuse the pun) half the movie. Let there be no mistake, this film is violent, raunchy and sadistic, but beneath its garish and off-putting exterior there is a sweet caramel core that infuses the movie with heart. I never expected to care about any of the characters in this movie. I expected to meet an assortment of hot, young douchebags whose deaths I would giddily anticipate. In Piranha, even the slutty and repugnant characters are worth mourning, because their pre-mortem dialog is amazingly affable. The deaths are so disturbing and omnipresent that you have little room to gasp before another actor bites the big scaly bullet. You begin to hope that someone, anyone will survive. That’s right. This is a horror movie where you actually root for the protagonists instead of the murderer!

By the time Christopher Lloyd showed up, I realized I was watching the perfect summer movie. In the same way that Jaws and many of Spielberg’s films embraced schlock while reinventing it, Piranha embraces its cheesy b-movie roots while never bending over backwards to placate anybody or undermine itself. This is still a movie, and there is never a point where anyone looks at the camera sheepishly and says, “This bites, literally!” That in itself is an accomplishment under the new Hollywood regime, hellbent on incapacitating its audiences with plotholes, shameless formula, and an absence of edge or originality. Piranha pushes every possible boundary it can get its fins on, often at the expense of decency and good-taste but never to the point where its narrative integrity crumbles. The 3D effects are better and more convincing than Avatar’s and probably the best example of why 3D doesn’t suck that I’ve seen outside of How to Train Your Dragon. While a completely different genre, tone, and type of film, I might rank this movie a little ahead of Inception in terms of fun. There’s nothing cerebral or inventive cinematographically in Piranha, but the fact that the movie is competently shot and directed (another rarity in horror) places it leaps and bounds ahead of Nolan’s attempts to revive the dying spy movie genre. You mean to tell me that someone made a tongue-in-cheek homage to b-horror-movies that holds its ground against classics and new releases alike? Sign me up for the sequel (as the guy whose brain gets eaten first).