DVD Catch-Up: The International(6/17/2009)

            During the late seventies a paranoid streak began to emerge in Hollywood thrillers like Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View, this trend has widely been linked to post-Watergate cynicism that was going on throughout the country.  Nixon’s scandal had exposed the ability of the government and agencies like the CIA to secretly do all sorts of sinister things behind Kafka-esque webs of complication, secrecy, and intrigue.  This trend seems to have re-emerged as of late in films like Syriana and Michael Clayton, partly because of the forceful nature of the Bush administration, but the main reason has been the behavior of corporations who now more than ever seem hell-bent not only on fair profits but outright world domination.  There was plenty of evidence of just how powerful corporate institutions had gotten when The International began filming in the September of 2007; but the parallels of the world today seemed all the more prescient to the world of today by the time it reached theaters in the February of 2009, one month after names like Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and AIG began to be fixtures in the nations headlines.

             The antagonist at the center of the film is the fictional International Bank of Business and Credit, investigating them are an INTERPOL agent named Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) and a Manhattan Assistant District Attorney named Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts).  The bank is believed to be the financial institution of choice for organized crime, but it quickly seems that the extent of this bank’s corruption extends far beyond the mafia and into third world coups, first world assassinations, and the trade of advanced weapons to unsavory elements.  Their investigation brings them to Berlin, Milan, New York, and even Turkey; all the while they encounter a conspiracy of massive proportions. 

             One of the biggest complaints about Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana (another film that can claim to be part of the paranoid thriller’s resurgence) was that the story was labyrinthine to the point of incoherence.  Gaghan’s answer to the criticism is that the film is supposed to be borderline impenetrable in order to reflect just how complex the issues at the center are in the real world, that no one person can comprehend “the system” in its entirety.  There seems to be a similar notion at work here; the story is very hard to follow what with the alphabet soup of agencies and financial transactions that are in on the film’s central conspiracy, but this is deliberate.  About two thirds of the way into the film a character asserts that the “difference between fact and fiction [is that] fiction needs to make sense.”  I’m very fond of this line, it certainly conveys the frustration of trying to solve major problems caused in elaborate ways by astonishingly powerful forces, and this sentiment almost makes me want to forgive the script for all its convolutions. 

The problem is that this doesn’t have anywhere near the authenticity of something like Syriana, I think it has the right spirit but the deal breaker is that the forces here are significantly more trigger-happy than they would be in the real world.  There are two action sequences here that are real double edged swords, on one hand they seem out of place and unrealistic, but on the other hand they are very skillfully made and enjoyable as they occur.  The first is an assassination scene which adds new life to the cliché of the sniper on the roof, the other is a very tense and well choreographed shootout in the famed Guggenheim Museum.  Director Tom Tykwer clearly still has the eye for interesting stylistic decisions he had when he made Run Lola Run, but has matured from that effort and abandoned the kinetic overdrive that I think ultimately sunk that former effort.  In fact these scenes are refreshingly slow and careful, they don’t overload the sound mix and they have effective pauses for tension.  So the catch-22 of the film is that these two scenes are awesome and make the film worth watching on their own, but they are ultimately detrimental to the rest of the movie.

            Ultimately, this is a movie that delivers pretty much exactly what I expected from it.  It’s a well crafted, glossy thriller that isn’t wildly stupid even if it isn’t particularly insightful either.  I didn’t think Clive Owen was particularly well cast as he lacks some of the practical rage the part needs, but he isn’t terrible either and the rest of the cast is pretty good. The film shoots in a number of interesting locales and in a bunch of architecturally interesting locations.  I don’t think I would have recommended anyone see it for full price at a theater, but it’s pretty much perfect DVD rental material, just keep in mind that you’re renting an action flick and not a legitimately political thriller. 

*** out of Four

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The Hangover6/5/2009

I feel like I’ve been fairly careless about the way I’ve been throwing around Judd Apatow’s name whenever I review an R-rated comedy (this is the last time I’m talking about the guy in the first sentence of a movie he didn’t actually make).  He’s been such a dominating figure in his genre as of late that he comes up a lot even in reviews for comedies he has absolute no direct role in.  Apatow didn’t invent the idea of average joes cursing at each other and he didn’t invent the idea of raunchy comedies with a heart of gold at the center (Kevin Smith was doing both long before anyone had heard of Apatow).  Going into the newest R-rated comedy, The Hangover, I found myself pretty much expecting Superbad 2 and just as it was starting I realized that was sort of unfair.  Apatow did not write, direct, or produce this and none of the main cast had ever been in one of his movies.  Instead I was going to judge it by the standard of its real director, Todd Phillips, a man with a lower profile but arguably just as much influence.  Just look at the film’s main box office competitor Land of the Lost: it stars Will Ferrell who made his film breakthrough in Philips’ Old School and it’s a parody of an old T.V. show, a trend started by Phillips’ Starsky & Hutch.  I wasn’t a huge fan of Old School, so that wasn’t a that high a standard, but as it turned out this is a film that could have just as easily stood toe to toe with anything the much discussed Apatow has ever put out.

  Doug (Justin Bartha) is about to get married in two days, he loves his fiancé and has nothing but anticipation for the big day and even her family likes him.  Before the big day though, he plans to have an epic bachelor party in Vegas with his two best friends.  His two best friends are like opposites: Phil (Bradley Cooper) a pretty boy with a devil-may-care who’s ready to party, and Stu (Ed Helms) an over-cautious dentist who’s been thoroughly “whipped” by a mean controlling girlfriend (with a history of infidelity) who he inexplicably plans to marry in the future.  Also tagging along is Alan (Zach Galifianakis), Doug’s brother in law who seems rather… simple.  The film never comes out and identifies him as mentally handicapped but he has a habit of saying a lot of odd things.  The four share a toast and decide to have a wild night.  Flash forward to the next morning and the friends wake up in a totally trashed hotel suit complete with a chicken roaming around, a live Tiger in the bathroom, and a damn baby lying near the mini-bar.  The only thing missing from the room is Doug the bachelor, and no one can remember what happened to him.  Hijinx ensue as the four try to retrace their steps and find their friend in time for his wedding.

 This project doesn’t really have a lot of star power, none of the cast members were a big part of the Frat Pack or the Apatow crew, none of them are former SNL members, hell the most famous name here is Ed Helms, a former Daily Show correspondent with a supporting role on “The Office.”  None of these actors really standout, the film shows no evidence that any of them could carry a film by themselves, but together they have great chemistry.  I think the producers were willing to make this studio comedy without star power is that, unlike a lot of recent comedies, this focuses a lot more on plot than characters.  This isn’t a film about the characters coming to grips with their own mediocrity, or trying to struggle with the pros and cons of settling down, in fact no one really grows over the course of the film.  Instead the movie is entirely about seeing how these guys are going to solve the problem they’ve put themselves in. 

Usually people place a lot of the credit for comedies like this on the actors and their improvisations, but I suspect that a lot more of this film is derived from its script.  The story presents a pretty legitimate mystery/puzzle for the protagonists, which seems to take another wacky turn every step of the way.  The characters continuously react to these turns with increasing desperate wit.  This isn’t a comedy that’s of no value without the laughs; it has a story that can more or less hold its own.  The situations are almost as important as the reactions, in a lot of comedies it’s all about the reactions.

Vegas is a pretty good location for all this, it is after all the place dedicated to sin and excess.  Yet, as the characters pass the Las Vegas sign the soundtrack isn’t playing “Viva Las Vegas,” it’s playing an ominous Kanye West song called “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” from that point you realize this city has nothing but unpleasantness in store for these guys.  The film takes a pretty old school approach to the city, this place doesn’t look like a family resort, it seems like a shady place that can lead to no good.  The city seems mainly to be populated with hookers, disreputable celebrities, and cops sick of arrogant tourists causing senseless acts of drunken vandalism. 

My only major complaint is with the film’s ending which I feel is something of a copout.  I’m going to have to go into spoiler territory to explain this so avert your eyes from this paragraph if you don’t want to know the ending.  In the last fifteen minutes the characters are basically able to solve all their problems and the whole think is wrapped up into a perfect bow.  This is basically a get out of jail free card for people who have done nothing to earn it.  I’m not saying the film needed a completely grim ending but the ending it did have seemed completely incongruous with the darker version of Vegas seen earlier in the film.  The ending was such an abrupt left turn that I suspect it was a last minute change in reaction to test screenings or something.  This ending basically turns the menacing Vegas from the opening scenes into the consequence free playground that the cities advertising campaigns want you to think it is.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say this magical happy ending is disastrous, but it is a major flaw in an otherwise excellent comedy.

This is not really the easiest movie to analyze.  It basically comes down to the fact that it’s really really funny.  It’s a rowdy affair and if you dig these kinds of movies this is going to be worth your time, if you haven’t liked these kinds of movies this will be no exception.  I do like these movies, so I found myself laughing pretty hard the whole way through, these many laughs are more than enough to overcome its poor ending.  After the ambitious but disappointing Observe and Report this is exactly what I needed.

***1/2 out of Four

Drag Me to Hell(5/31/2009)

            This has been a pretty lame May for me movie-wise, I dug Star Trek but everything else that came out didn’t seem worth my time.  X-Men Origins: Wolverine looked like a blatant attempt to milk dry an already wounded series, Angels and Demons looked as stupid as the other Dan Brown properties, and Terminator: Salvation had a hack director whose intentions were only confirmed by the blatant sell-out of its PG-13 rating.  This trend of making movies PG-13 for no reason other than to make a little extra money is quickly becoming a major pet peeve of mine, I don’t demand extra sex, violence, and cursing but it’s indicative of a larger problem; one of trying to appeal to overly wide audiences and consequently making mild soulless movies made in marketing committees.  It’s beginning to seem like a PG-13 rating is like a stamp that has less to do with content and more to do with a lame attitude.  Shocking as that Terminator rating was, I was even more surprised when I learned that Sam Raimi’s new horror title, Drag Me to Hell, would also have this dreaded rating.  This shocked me first because this was supposed to be Raimi’s return to the hardcore and second because the film’s outlandish title seemed to indicate that this would be something that would revel in its content and wear a harder rating like a badge of honor.  I almost didn’t bother going to this, but unlike Terminator: Salvation, this still had a stellar director and solid reviews so I bit the bullet and went ahead to the movie.

            The film is about Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), a loan officer at a bank branch in Southern California.  She’s good at her job, but her boss (David Paymer) feels that she’s been a bit too generous with people and is thinking about giving a big promotion to the suck-up rookie officer Stu (Reggie Lee).  Under pressure from the money chasing parents of her caring boyfriend (Justin Long), Christine sees an opportunity to prove she can make “tough decisions” when an old gypsy woman named Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) comes into the bank asking for a not so reasonable extension on her sub-prime loan.  Christine denies the loan to the approval of her boss, but the gypsy feels she’s been shamed and makes a scene.  Later that day, the gypsy attacks Christine and places a curse on her… with spooky results.

            You did read that right, the villain of this is a gypsy curse… gypsy.  Do they even have gypsies in this country?  It doesn’t matter; this movie is obviously taking a campy approach to the genre.  The film reminded me a lot of the George Romero/Stephen King collaboration Creepshow, which was based on old EC comics.  This is a heightened world with heightened morality; Christine is punished for her immorality toward the gypsy woman in a very ironic way.  That the film can get very predictable at times, especially regarding the very last twist, sort of goes with the territory.  What Raimi does not do is go as far into the realm of tribute as something like Grindhouse, this doesn’t feel like it should be set in the fifties and the production values are just as good as the budget allows it to be.  I do question the sometimes excessive use of CGI and not very good CGI either.

            So how is Mr. Raimi going to scare anyone without gallons of plasma?  Well he’s going to makes stuff jump out at you unexpectedly… a lot.  You know those websites that people trick you into going to that make you focus on some sort of puzzle and concentrate before some sort of creepy picture suddenly pops out and a loud noise plays and sort of give you a heart attack?  The whole first act of this movie is sort of a chain of those sorts of scares, creepy things jump out at the character often accompanied by very loud music, these blatantly manipulative tricks have often been called the horror equivalent of a pie in the face, they’re effective but cheap.  Granted, Raimi does these more effectively than most filmmakers out there, but I expect a little more from him and for a decent portion of the movie I was afraid that was all I was going to get. 

Fortunately the film improves dramatically in the film’s third act where its inner Evil Dead kicks in and the curse begins to manifest itself in more tangible ways and Christine’s predicament starts to take precedent over the jump-scares which incidentally are becoming less effective around this point.  Many have said the movie is just as good without the blood, but I’m not as willing to give him a pass as some have been.  There is one scene in particular (it involves an anvil) which almost certainly would have benefited from legitimate splatter elements.  I’m sure this release is a big opportunity for Raimi’s horror shingle Ghosthouse Pictures, and he clearly wants to get as much money out of it as possible, but it’s clear he’s sacrificed the opportunity to make as much money as possible.  But is this really a wise decision even on a financial level?  I’d think the audience for something called “Drag Me to Hell” would want over the top violence.  Sometimes marketers are too busy chasing the 13-17 market that they forget that gore sells (just ask the producers of the Saw films) and you are sacrificing an audience when you do things like that.  Raimi tries to make up for this with material that is generically gross in a “Fear Factor” way without actual violence, but this mostly just comes across as crass.

A lot of people have been receiving Alison Lohman’s performance pretty negatively.  I’ve liked Alison Lohman’s work ever since her excellent performance in Ridley Scott’s Matchstick Men.  Frankly, I think some people might be a bit too suspicious of attractive blonde women in horror films; maybe they just confused her with Lindsay Lohan whom Alison bears no relation.  I think Lohman portrays her character just fine; this is a broad performance in a genre film, it isn’t going to win Oscars or anything but it works for the film.  If anyone is annoying here it is almost certainly Justin Long.  I’ve had a firm dislike for Mr. Long for quite a while and this confirms all my suspicions.  Someone of this age being a University Professor is about as unlikely as Katie Holmes playing an ADA in Batman Begins (which isn’t to say such an achievement is impossible in either case).  Long just sort of plays himself, as he usually does.  More interesting is the work of Lorna Raver as the Gypsy woman, she totally commits to this crazy role and brings a lot to the project.

There’s a lot wrong with this movie… a Lot.  But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a very good time with it.  This in an unashamed B-movie in the classic sense of the word, and it is a whole lot of fun.  There are a lot of bad movies that claim to have a fun factor which overcomes whatever flaws they have; the problem is that they aren’t really fun they just think they are because they could cram a lot of special effects and explosions into every frame. Many reviews will compare this film to a rollercoaster, and rightfully so.  There’s a legitimate energy that makes you forget about the problems while you’re watching it, it’s one of the few movies that really earns the right to ask you to leave your brain at the door.  I saw it as a Sunday matinee and that’s probably the best place to experience it.  This probably needs a big screen and a great sound system to make the jump-scares really work, though I’m not sure I’d be happy to pay full price for it, it is a B-movie after all. 

*** Out of Four