erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2010 posts

Thursday September 02, 2010

Review: “Un Prophete” (2009)

WARNING: DEER-IN-HEADLIGHTS SPOILERS

“The idea is to leave here a little smarter,” Reyeb (Hitchem Yacoubi) tells Malik (Tahar Rahim), as the two sit on the edge of his prison bunk and Reyeb stirs his coffee. Reyeb has just found out that Malik, his fellow Muslim, is illiterate, and he’s acting solicitous toward him—suggesting he can always learn to read, telling him he’ll give him some books—even as he’s anticipating a blow job. Instead he gets his throat slit. Guess the joke’s on him, right? Guess he left there a little smarter.

But he doesn’t leave. He remains in Malik’s life—a palpable, matter-of-fact symbol of guilt—and his words linger. And after six years Malik will leave there a whole lot smarter than when he entered. He will leave a prophet. It’s prison as a means to both worldly and spiritual redemption. Kids, don’t try this at home.

“Un Prophete,” which was nominated for 13 Cesars and won nine, including best picture, director (Jacque Audiard), actor (Rahim), supporting actor (Niels Arestrup), writing, editing, and cinematography, is both gritty and uplifting, full of lessons of realpolitik and the unknowability of dreams and life. It’s a movie for anyone who thought nothing more could be done with the prison drama or the gangster life. It’s a film we will still be watching in 50 years.

Malik’s life begins when he enters prison. He has nothing but the scars on his face and the 50-euro note he tries to hide in his shoe; it’s found and confiscated. He’s stripped, shaved, given a pillow and a metal tray and a new pair of tennis shoes. In the prison yard, alone, the shoes are big and white and seem to gleam, and a second later he’s attacked and his shoes are taken. He gives back—he attacks his attackers—but gets beaten down again. The odds aren’t good. He’s alone with six years to go.

He might not have made it if Reyeb hadn’t shown up. The prison is divided between Corsicans, who are few but control the guards, and Muslims, who are many but control nothing, and Reyeb, about to testify in a trial against a Corsican, is targeted by prison don Cesar Luciani (Arestrup), whose boss, Jacky, has given him 10 days to kill the snitch. Easier said. Cesar moves through the prison with relative ease but he doesn’t control the Muslim section. Then he hears that Reyeb asked this new kid to suck him off, and, in the prison yard, he makes Malik an offer he can’t refuse: Kill Reyeb or I kill you.

We later learn that Malik didn’t have much of an upbringing. When asked if he spoke French or Arabic with his parents, he responds, “I wasn’t with them.” When asked about school, he replies, “The juvenile center.” We have sympathy for him the way we would a stray dog. He’s scared and confused, but watchful, and back in his cell, after Cesar threatens him, he tells himself, “I can’t kill anyone.” He tries to contact the warden but the Corsicans hear and nearly suffocate him in a plastic bag, saying, “We run this place.” In the sewing shop he joins in a beat-down of a helpless prisoner, hoping to get tossed into solitary, but Cesar hears of this and beats him down. He’s trapped. He has to do this thing.

It’s the palpability of the act that gets you: less the Peckinpahesque spurting of blood from Reyeb’s neck than the goopy way blood and saliva mix as Malik pulls the razor blade from his mouth, where he’s involuntarily cut himself. It’s his careful extrication from the scene: stepping over the blood; placing the razor in Reyeb’s hand; scrubbing the blood from his shirt in the prison bathroom. It’s the disconnect one feels despite this precision. Malik hears someone screaming; he sees flames falling out of a prison cell. What is going on?

Prison life opens up for Malik afterwards. He receives cartons of cigarettes from Cesar (“You’re under his protection now”), and, taking Reyeb’s advice, he learns to read (“Canard: Ca-nard”), but he’s still isolated. The Muslims view him as a Corsican while the Corsicans disparage him as a dirty Arab. His main companion is the man he killed. In his dreams Malik wrestles with Reyeb, as if he were the Archangel Gabriel, and in the morning Reyeb is there, a physical presence. Reyeb is the one who sings “Happy Birthday” to Malik in Arabic on the one-year anniversary of his incarceration. He’s the one staring with him out his cell window as snow falls on the prisoners in the courtyard.

Life opens up even more when these Corsican gangsters, like naughty schoolboys, are separated by powers outside the prison. Perhaps feeling sorry for Cesar, Malik, eyes alight with his secret, reveals that he’s learned Corsican over the years and the conversations he’s been privy to. Cesar stares at him, then hits him. Because he senses the pity? Because he senses opportunism? Because his private conversations weren’t private and this dirty Arab is smarter than he realized? Regardless, he soon comes to rely on Malik more and more, but there is no corresponding sense of respect. He keeps treating Malik like a dirty Arab.

Bad move. Both inside the prison, and outside on work-leaves, Malik makes contacts and accrues power. He gets involved with Jordi, the Gypsy (Reda Kateb), who deals hashish. He becomes friends with Ryad (Adel Bencherif), who is the beginning of his entré into the suspicious Muslim prison community. He does his jobs, straddles both worlds, acts the professional. There’s an unaffected quality to him, an ingenuousness. “Why is an Arab working for the Corsicans?” he’s asked. “I work for who pays me,” he answers. One realizes after a while: He doesn’t lie. He’s polite, and professional, and doesn’t lie. The world he lives in expects lies and he disarms everyone with honesty.

His first work-leave is beautiful. After three years he’s finally out of prison, and as Ryad, who’s done his time, picks him up, Alexandre Desplat’s music, “La sortie,” wells up and overwhelms any attempt at conversation, as if the music were Malik’s emotions. He feels the wind on his face, the sun on his face; then he does a job for Cesar. He gets 5,000 euros to retrieve a Corsican gangster from a Muslim gang. Then he does a job for himself. He retrieves 25 kilos of hash stored by one of the Gypsy’s men. “Five thousand euros and 25 kilos of hash?” Ryad asks him, stunned, when they hook up at dusk. “All in one day?” You know that scene in “The Godfather” where Michael suggests killing the Turk? Where Michael essentially takes over? That’s this. Malik doesn’t respond to Ryad’s question. He simply tells Ryad what they’re going to do:

We get guys to stock and sell. We supply. We use convoys and buy at the source. The Gypsy has contacts. We need three big cars. Paris-Marbella in one night.

When Ryad objects, saying he’s never done this before, Malik responds, “What’s the big deal? Neither have I.”

What do we make of the prophet angle and Malik’s vision of the deer? To what extent do we compare Malik, the prophet, with the prophet Muhammad? Both are orphans. Both get involved in the merchant trade. Later in the film Malik will go into isolation, solitary, for 40 days and 40 nights, and emerge more powerful than ever. One can call him a Muhammadian figure the way one can call Luke in “Cool Hand Luke” a Christ figure. Elements of the ancient religious story are used to tell the tale of a modern prisoner.

Would things have turned out differently, less Oedipal, if Cesar had treated Malik with any kind of respect? Actor Niels Arestrup has a mane of white hair and fierce blue eyes, and initially one thinks of him as a Godfather type, a Don Corleone in prison; but as the movie progresses and one sees his prejudices, his betrayals, his smallness, one realizes he’s more like the Black Hand. He’s the classless oaf that needs to be overcome. It’s Malik who becomes the Godfather. At one point Cesar nearly puts Malik’s eye out, telling him, “People look at you and see me. Otherwise what would they see? Can you tell me?” The implication is that Malik is nothing without him, but the greater implication, which Cesar fears, or is perhaps too stupid to realize, is that Malik is becoming him. Returning to his cell, his eye damaged by Cesar, Malik promises himself “I’m gonna kill you,” just as, earlier, he’d promised himself, “I can’t kill anyone.” It’s the promises to himself that he breaks. He does kill, Reyeb and others, but he doesn’t kill Cesar. He does something worse. He renders him powerless. By the end their positions are reversed: Malik is the prison don, respected in his community, while Cesar is the weak, isolated man in the prison yard, beyond the circle of power. Beyond contempt.

The arc of its story is brilliant but it’s the details that stay with me—such as Malik’s first planetrip, sandwiched between two bored commuters, trying to get a glimpse of the sky out the window. He’s heading to Marseilles for a meeting, at Cesar’s behest, with Brahim Lattrache (Slimane Dazi—one of the many amazing faces in this movie), where, again, he’s the distrusted Arab courier, but where his vision of the deer saves his life. Afterwards the deer meat is washed in the Mediterranean, and Lattrache, eyeing him with new respect, is intrigued by this quiet, honest man who straddles cultures. “Let’s get sucked before you go,” he says, but Malik turns him down. “I’d like to stay on the beach,” he says. He wades out into the water. One senses he’s never seen the sea before. Back in the dark of his prison cell, he takes off his shoe, looks inside, upends it. Sand courses through his fingers.

I’ve seen this movie twice; I feel like seeing it again now.

Malik (Tahar Rahim), left, after earning a place on the bench of Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), in Jacque Audiard's brilliant prison drama “Un Prophete.”

Posted at 07:00 AM on Sep 02, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2010
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Monday August 30, 2010

Review: “Mesrine: L’instinct de mort” (2008)

WARNING: SPOILERS, PART UN

“Mesrine: L’instinct de mort,” the first part of a two-part movie on notorious French gangster Jacques Mesrine, which, in February 2009, garnered Vincent Cassel the Cesar for best actor and Jean-Francois Richet the Cesar for best director (but lost best picture to “Seraphine”), and which only now is being shown in U.S. theaters, is a zippy biopic about a brutal man who crammed a whole lot of activity into a short span of time.

At one point, for example, we see him, after an attempted bank robbery, walking into prison. The graphics inform us: Evreux Prison, 1962. His wife and daughter visit him there; he’s overjoyed to see both. He serves his time. When he gets out he goes straight. He gets a job at an architectural design company, working for a man named Tabacoff, has another kid, then a third. But times are tough, Tabacoff has to lay him off, and when he does Mesrine returns to a life of crime. His wife objects. In one scene she threatens to call the cops and he smacks her, then forces a gun into her mouth and tells her, “Between you and my friends, I choose them. Every time.” His young son is watching on the landing above. “Mama?” he says. “Take care of your kid!” Mesrine sneers, and goes out into the world. But his boss, Guido (Gerard Depardieu), tells him times are changing, Pres. de Gaulle is cracking down on their syndicate, so Mesrine has to get inventive. In the next scene he walks into a bar, and the graphics inform us: Paris, 1966.

You’re kidding. Four years for all that? How long does it take to serve time for armed robbery in France? How long does it take to have kids in France?

Initially I feared the film would justify this man’s brutality, and initially it does. In the army in 1959 we see Mesrine shoot and kill a helpless Algerian rebel—but only because his commanding officer ordered him to shoot and kill the rebel’s helpless sister, and this seems the better option. Mesrine berates his henpecked father—who was also a collaborator with the Germans during World War II. Mesrine kills another Arab, a pimp named Ahmed (Abdelhafid Metalsi), but only after Ahmed brutalizes Mesrine’s favorite prostitute. Mesrine’s a defender of women! Until, of course, he goes off on his own wife. But, of course, she threatened to call the cops on him.

At least the brutality throughout isn’t sugarcoated. When Guido and Mesrine take Ahmed for a ride, after promises of safety have been made, they slowly, sadistically, go from polite to insulting. “What do you say to an Arab in a suit?” Mesrine asks. “Defendant, please rise!” he answers, and Guido cracks up, then apologizes, then tells his own Arab joke. Ahmed’s eyes begin to falter as the ride continues. When it ends, in a desolate spot, they brutalize him. They beat him and strip him before an empty grave. Then Mesrine stabs him in his lower back and cuts up. We see the blade go into his skin, we hear Ahmed scream. It’s tough to watch. Finally, they roll him, still twitching, still alive, into the shallow grave and shovel dirt on top. These are not nice men.

At the same time, neither was Ahmed. That’s why we need the kidnapping of millionaire Georges Deslauriers (Gilbert Sicotte). In ’68, Mesrine and his Bonnie-and-Clyde-esque girlfriend, Jeanne (Cecile De France), flee France for Montreal, and she finds them a gig as housekeeper and chauffer to Deslauriers. First we see the beautiful mansion. Then we see the kind, wheelchair-bound Deslauriers. I almost flinched the first time Mesrine pushed Deslauriers toward a pair of French windows, recalling Richard Widmark and a flight of stairs, but for months he simply does his job. Then Jeanne gets into a fight with the gardener, and Deslauriers, taking the side of someone he’s known for 20 years over someone he’s known for three months, dismisses the two. That’s when Mesrine gets angry. In the next scene, he and Jeanne are watching television in a non-descript, high-rise apartment, and slowly we become aware of noises from another room. So does Mesrine. He stands up, pissed off, goes into the next room, and browbeats Deslauriers, who’s tied to a chair, confused and helpless. That’s when I really turned on Mesrine. That’s when I wanted bad things to happen to him. They do.

“Mesrine” is a biopic so it’s inevitably as cluttered as life, but director Richet and writer Abdel Raouf Dafri (who also wrote “Un Prophete”) are remarkably quick and clever with their transitions. My favorite may be early on, when two men discuss an “easy bank job” with Mesrine, who looks doubtful but says, “I’m in.” Cut to: that walk into Evreux prison.

The post-kidnapping transition works well, too. When Jeanne and Mesrine go for the ransom, Deslauriers crawls through the apartment, breaks a window, gets help. The two gangsters return to see cops all over the place. Cut to: the Arizona desert, 1969, as six state patrol cars race after Mesrine and Jeanne in a convertible.

Extradited back to Canada, the two are proclaimed a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde by the counter-culture press, and Mesrine revels in the role. But not for long. In prison, he’s beaten, stripped, firehoused. He suffers sleep deprivation and hunger. I had two thoughts: “Really? Canada?”; and “OK, let’s not make him sympathetic now.” I wanted to hold up a sign: Remember Deslauriers!

Sympathy for Mesrine, or at least transference, is inevitable, though. We see this world through Mesrine’s eyes, he’s played by Cassel, who’s charming and handsome, and he’s doing what most of us sitting in the audience with our bucket of popcorn don’t begin to do: He acts out every impulse. Sure, he winds up in prison. But he also gets money and beautiful women and fame. “I go wherever I want,” he tells Jeanne when they meet. In prison, in fact, they don’t break him, he breaks out, using only his guile and a pair of wirecutters. Then, fulfilling a promise to a fellow inmate, he actually tries to break in. He returns in a Ford pickup truck and shoots it out with the guards. “Crazy Frenchman,” the inmate says, shaking his head with admiration. Mesrine is admired. His life is full. Hell, we’re watching a movie about him, aren’t we? How cool is that?

And yet: Remember Deslauriers!

“Mesrine” is a good film, or half of a good film, but so far it’s not a great film. For one, it’s hard to make biopics great. One also wonders: Why film this life of all lives? Because it’s exciting and absurd? Because audiences are always interested in gangsters, in men who do what they want, because most of us lead lives of quiet desperation? Because this is the way we can get a safe glimpse of what terrifies us—like at the zoo? Are we trying to understand him or be him?

Perhaps we’ll find out in “Mesrine: L'ennemi public n°1,” which, unless Music Box Films is a sadistic distributor, should be available in the U.S. in September.

The real Jacques Mesrine wasn't quite as handsome (or, one imagines, as charming), as Vincent Cassel.

Posted at 07:35 AM on Aug 30, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2010
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Monday August 23, 2010

Review: “The Other Guys” (2010)

WARNING: SPOILERS THAT ARE PERKY, FIRM AND YOURS

I had the two biggest laughs of the year while watching “The Other Guys” and neither involved Will Ferrell, who I think is one of the funniest men around. There was a backlash against him last year with “Land of the Lost,” and a bit the year before with “Semi-Pro,” but I liked “Semi-Pro” (more than “Step Brothers,” which did a lot better at the box office: $100 million vs. $33 million), and while “Land of the Lost” was an obvious stumble I figured he’d be back making me laugh again. He is. I’ve been waiting for this movie since the trailer hit the Internet last February.

It’s a great concept for a comedy, and it’s right there in the trailer’s low, gravelly voiceover: In the toughest city in the world, nobody fights crime like these guys... Cue squealing tires, impossible stunts, and nonchalant quips by action stars Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson.

Cut to: Det. Allen Gamble (Will Ferrell) typing happily at his desk, humming “The Theme from ‘S.W.A.T.,’” and infuriating his partner, Det. Terry Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg).

And then there are the other guys...

The other guys are, in other words, the ordinary guys, the misfits, the fuck-ups, forever found wanting in comparison with star cops like Highsmith (Jackson) and Danson (Johnson). They’re us, sitting in the movie theater with our bucket of popcorn, and forever found wanting in comparison with the stars on the screen.

Which brings me to the first of the big laughs.

Highsmith and Danson are on the trail of professional jewel thieves but lose them via zipline on top of a 20-story building. As they stare at the bad guys getting away on the street below, they have this typical action-star exchange:

Highsmith: You thinking what I’m thinking?
Danson: Aim for the bushes.

Then they leap off the roof in slow motion, arms and legs pinwheeling, and the camera follows them down. In the audience I kept wondering why bushes or anything that might break their fall didn’t come into view. And then: SPLAT! Right on the sidewalk. Cut to: A funeral.

Man, did I laugh. I laughed so hard I missed a lot of what followed, and what I caught—Hoitz and Gamble whispering to each other about “What were they thinking anyway?” and “There wasn’t even an awning nearby”—made me laugh all the more. It’s always dangerous dissecting humor, but I think this scene is funny because it’s both unexpected and it lays bare the lie of 100 years of Hollywood action movies. They really can’t really do what they do.

The laughs keep coming. After the funeral, during the quiet dignity of the wake, the cops, particularly Martin and Fosse (Rob Riggle and Damon Wayans, Jr.), now jockeying for the high position Highsmith and Danson held, whisper insults to Gamble and Hoitz, and Martin and Hoitz get into a whisper-quiet, rolling-on-the floor fight, screened and surrounded by a phalanx of cops, who whisper rather than shout the usual testeronic encouragements. Even when Capt. Gene Mauch (Michael Keaton, using the name of the old Phillies/Twins/Angels manager) comes over and orders them to knock it off, he does it via whisper.

By this point, half an hour in, I’m thinking “The Other Guys” is the funniest movie I’ve seen in 10 years. Then the law of averages kick in.

Most comedies are uneven, possibly because most are spoofs, and spoofs invariably give in to, or buy into, the tropes of the very genre they’re spoofing. Happens here, too. The first part of the movie shows us the absurdity of action-hero cops, but the rest of the movie is about how the other guys, the guys like us, become the action-hero cops they always wanted to be. Hoitz gets into an epic, slow-mo gun battle in which he slides down a conference table on his back with both guns blazing, while Gamble, in his Prius, is great at high-speed chases. “Where did you learn to drive like that?” Hoitz asks. “’Grand Theft Auto!’” Gamble replies. The audience’s identification with these budding heroes is complete. They are us and heroes. Shame. Would that they had just stayed us.

Other tropes include Gamble and Hoitz 1) stumbling upon the true criminals, who are 2) high-powered investment types surrounded by men with guns, and then pursuing these bad guys despite 3) no support, and even interference, from gray-haired higher-ups in the police department. Not to mention the whole “opposites as partners” motif.

Wahlberg, whom I slammed 10 years ago, but who’s impressed in many movies since, plays a pretty good straight man. He even gets off a great line impugning another’s manhood: “The sound of your piss hitting the toilet sounds feminine!” he tells Gamble. Ferrell is hilarious as always.

There’s a lot of nice bits throughout: Gamble’s Little River Band (LRB) fixation; Captain Gene constantly, unknowingly, quoting TLC lyrics; the whole “Capt. Gene” thing, which Mauch says makes him sound like the creepy host of a kid’s show; Mauch’s open, friendly, unembarrassed face when they find him moonlighting at Bed, Bath & Beyond. Keaton brings something good here. He plays it low-key but funny. You see his early comedy chops on display again. Welcome back.

Has anyone written about the brilliant end-credits? A peripheral theme of the movie is ponzi schemes, and with early ’60-s-style animation we’re informed, while the credits roll, what they are, and how Bernie Madoff’s in 2008 makes the original in the 1920s seem like that of a piker. We’re shown just how much the $700 billion TARP bailout from 2008 was, and how the tax rate for the wealthiest has gone down over the last 30 years while the take-home pay of the wealthiest has skyrocketed. It’s fascinating, populist stuff that everyone should stay for. Bonus: post credits, there’s a final scene between Wahlberg and Ferrell.

When Patricia and I left the theater, we were preceded by two girls who were still laughing, uproariously, bodies bent over, about the closing-credits song, “Pimps Don’t Cry.” It’s a reference to Gamble’s back story: why he is who he is; why he’s a police accountant working a desk. Back in college, when the tuition went up, he basically became the pimp for a number of co-eds. He called himself “Gator” and acted the role. His dark side came out. That’s why he’s so timid in the present day; he doesn’t want to “set Gator loose.” To me, it was one of the weaker jokes of the film, but these two girls obviously disagreed.

For me, the funnier backstory is Hoitz’s. That, in fact, is the second of the two huge laughs I had during the movie. Hoitz is attending a group therapy session for officers who have discharged their weapons, and while the others relay their stories, bragging and high-fiving rather than tearily revealing tragic results, Hoitz sits quietly in a corner. The therapist then tries to get him to reveal his story but the others moan and bitch and don’t want to hear it. We soon find out why.

It was before Game 7 of the World Series and Hoitz was working security. He was in the long hallway before the locker room when a silhouetted figure approached. He told him to stop. The man didn’t. He repeated himself. He drew his weapon. He warned one more time. The man kept coming. So he fired and the figure fell out of the shadows and into the light: Derek Jeter wearing an iPod, now clutching his leg. “He shot Jeter!” one of the cops in the therapy session yells. “We lost the championship!” another shouts. Me, I laughed and laughed. Talk about wish fulfillment. I'm not proud of it, but I might have to buy “The Other Guys” for the sheer pleasure of watching, in slow-mo, Derek Jeter getting shot in the leg, again and again.

Posted at 06:28 AM on Aug 23, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2010
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Tuesday August 17, 2010

Review: “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” (2010)

WARNING: SPOILERS AND STUFF

Have I ever felt so old watching a movie?

“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” does what it does well. It’s hip and irreverent and sometimes funny. It skewers Bollywood, sitcoms and video games. OK, so it’s more of an homage to video games. OK, so it is a video game. Video games allow dweeby guys to compete—and prosper—in rock ‘em, sock ‘em matches that involve levels and “health” and “life,” and “Scott Pilgrim” allows Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera), a dweeby guy in Toronto, to compete and prosper in rock ‘em, sock ‘em battles to the death with the seven evil exes of his new maybe girlfriend, Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Each evil ex is a different level and each level involves more points: 1,000 for taking out the first evil ex, 3,000 for the third, etc. And what happens when he reaches the final level? Epiphany. Of a sort.

The movie starts with all of Scott’s friends giving him shit for dating Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), a 17-year-old Chinese girl. (He’s 22.) Trouble is, Wong looks about the same age as Cera, and she’s twice as attractive, so it seems a step up. Thankfully, they have her act young so you can see their point. And it leads to this good bit of dialogue with Scott’s sister, Stacey (Anna Kendrick)

Stacey: A 17-year old Chinese schoolgirl? You’re serious?
Scott (abashed): It’s a Catholic girls school, too.

How to escape this dilemma? Scott dreams of another girl, Ramona, with dyed pink hair, then sees her the next day. She’s literally the girl of his dreams. The movie keeps doing this. A rock band literally blows the roof off the place, Scott literally gets a life. Is there a point to this or is it just a laugh?

Scott’s pursuit of Ramona is clumsy, as such pursuits often are, but they work, as they often do in the movies. Then the trouble starts.

Scott plays bass for a garage punk band, Sex Bob-Omb, and in the middle of a battle of the bands, the first evil ex, Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha), shows up, dressed in bizarre Bollywood crap, and they duke it out in comic-book, aerial, martial arts fashion. That Scott can do this causes no one to blink. Massive battles take place, enemies are literally pulverized, but there are no real consequences for the hero. Nothing is felt, you just get to the next level.

Most of the evil exes feel specific to this generation. We get a lesbian (from when Ramona was bi-curious), silent Japanese twins (male version), a skateboarder-turned-movie star, and a vegan/bassist. These last two are played by actors who have actually played superheroes: Chris Evans (the Human Torch/Captain America), and Brandon Routh (Superman).

The final evil ex, at level 7, is a more universal type: Gideon Gordon Graves (Jason Schwartzman), a slick record-company exec, who holds some kind of power over Ramona, and who actually defeats and kills Scott. Ah, but there’s that “life” he got at the previous level, which allows him to redo the fight with greater knowledge and understanding. It allows him to fight Gordon not for LOVE (which is apparently weak), but SELF-RESPECT (which is apparently strong).

Is that the great lesson of this generation? Before I saw the film I hoped that once Scott was victorious, as we knew he would be (the film can’t skewer that trope), he would decide that Ramona wasn’t worth it; that once he battled not only the ex-boyfriends but his fears he would be able to move on. The movie beat me to the punch but in a weak way, using a weak word like “self-respect.” Scott can’t move beyond fear because he never really has it. This is a gamer’s universe so there’s no fear because there are no consequences. There’s just embarrassment (with girls) and victory (in simulated battle).

I worked in games—four years at Xbox in the early 2000s—and I’m not much of a fan of that universe, which is without consequences and generally without sympathy. Look at the other characters here. They veer between the shrugging doofus (Comeau, who keeps showing up at parties) and the self-amused instigator (Scott’s gay roommate, Wallace, Kieran Culkin channeling Robert Downey, Jr.), without much in-between these two uncaring extremes.

Scott racks up the points. GOOD! COMBO! PERFECT! He wins. He gets the girl. But the victory is without consequences. And the girl remains unknowable.

Posted at 06:20 AM on Aug 17, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2010
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Wednesday August 04, 2010

Review: “The Kids Are All Right” (2010)

WARNING: SPOILERS

The kids may be alright but the adults sure are screwed up.

One gets that feeling five minutes into the movie. The teenage boy, Laser (Josh Hutcherson), may hang out with a jerky friend, and the teenaged girl, Joni (Mia Wasikowska), may be too timid to move beyond Scrabble with the boy she likes, but at least there’s something open-ended and possible about their personalities. At least they don’t have 20 years of a relationship grinding and truncating each personality into a parody of itself. At least they didn’t name one of their kids ‘Laser.’

The couple in question is a lesbian couple but it may as well not be. Nic (Annette Bening) is the dominant, male figure who returns home from an important job (she’s a doctor), tosses off an exasperated line about the difficulty and importance of that job (“17 thyroids today”), then minimizes wifey’s contributions. She dotes on her baby girl, now 18. She acknowledges the girl is 18 but continues with the baby talk. She wears sleeveless T-shirts. She drinks too much.

Jules (Julianne Moore) is the passive-aggressive, female figure who allows herself to be minimized, then resents that minimization. She wants to do something, start a landscaping business, but doesn’t know where to begin. To be honest, she’s afraid to start. Plus she gets no support in the matter. She’s a bit loopy in a west-coast way, and knows it, and resents it. During sex, she goes down on the dominant figure.

Is this an inevitability in relationships—that we grind each other into parodies of ourselves? I don’t know, but the beginning of the movie felt false to me in the way that first episodes of TV shows, where the characters are more broadly drawn than what they become, feel false. I would’ve appreciated a finer touch here.

Each of the two women gave birth to one child—Nic to Joni, Jules to Laser—and now that Joni’s 18, and at the urging of Laser, who is probably craving a male figure in his life, they search out the sperm donor, from back in ’92 or ’95, who was anonymous. Considering all of the messy possibilities they hit the jackpot. Paul (Mark Ruffalo) is a not-bad-looking, scruffy, laid-back dude who runs a restaurant using organic, locally-produced food. He rides a motorcycle. He exudes interest and passive sexuality.

The initial meeting between kids and donor is clumsy, as it should be, and Laser comes out of it disappointed, but Joni is jazzed and wants to see where it leads. Nic and Jules, of course, are horrified. Nic, the dominant figure in the household, is particularly upset that another bull is sniffing around outside, but she lets him in to diminish him. “Let’s just kill him with kindness and put it to bed,” she says. Except she’s the one who gets diminished. She can’t hold her wine and comes off as small and combative, while he comes off as mellow and reasonable. He gives Jules both encouragement for her landscaping business and her first job: fixing up his backyard. There, they bond over the word “fecund,” while she apologizes for all the double-takes because “I keep seeing my kids’ expressions in your face”—a fascinating area of inquiry that is all but forgotten when the two, more alike than not, fall into bed together.

At first it seems a one-shot. Then it happens again and again. Meanwhile, Paul is also bonding with both Joni, who gets to ride on the back of his motorcycle from the organic farm, and Laser, to whom he gives good advice about his jerky friend. Nic? Nic is working. She’s being nudged out of the picture.

The movie lost me when Paul gets serious about Jules. Yes, an argument can be made that while Paul’s personality is essentially unserious the kids have made him more serious, so now he’s ready to get serious. But I still didn’t buy it. I didn’t buy it particularly because at that point he was also sleeping with the most beautiful woman in the world, Tanya (Yaya DeCosta), the hostess of his place. DeCosta is a fine actress but it was tough believing that someone that beautiful even exists, let alone that she’s schtupping Mark Ruffalo, let alone that he then throws her over for Julianne Moore. (No offense to Julianne Moore.) For me, it was one “let alone” too many.

Tanya, by the way, gets off the best line in the movie, which is an early candidate for best line of the year. When Brooke (Rebecca Lawrence), the organic farmer, flirting with Paul with a basket of fruit, says “I thought you should have first taste,” Tanya, after Brooke leaves, mimics her, “I thought you should have first taste...” and then, in her own voice and under her breath, “...of my pussy.” I roared.

There’s been a lot of buzz this year from the filmfest circuit on “The Kids Are All Right,” and I liked it well enough but wasn’t blown away. It’s partly that broadly-drawn beginning. It’s partly the sense of privilege that permeates these characters in their busy, eating-outdoors lives. Back in the early 1990s, Steve Martin’s “L.A. Story” tried to be a kind of L.A. version of Woody Allen’s New York, but “Kids,” from writer-director Lisa Cholodenko (“Laurel Canyon”), pulls it off better than “Story” ever did—and that’s not wholly a compliment. Again, it’s the sense of privilege. These are people who have the time to be neurotic.

That said, Bening is a wonder and deserves another Oscar nomination, and possibly, finally, the statuette itself. Hutcherson sure has grown up fast (was “Bridge to Terabithia” really three and a half years ago?), while Wasikowska has something like true beauty about her.

The movie has buzz because of its unconventionality—a lesbian couple! looking their age!—but that unconventionality is wrapped in a conventional story and lesson. Family is hard but sacrosanct, and woe to he who violates that sanctity. Is the usual sanctity-of-marriage crowd objecting to this movie? Ironic if they are. It’s such a pro-family movie. In its quiet, forgiving end, in which the family is fortified against outsiders like Paul, I, identifying with Paul, the childless fortysomething, experienced regret at not knowing that feeling; at not having started my own family.

The kids are alright; the adults still need work.

Posted at 08:34 AM on Aug 04, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2010
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