Archive for June 2012

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

June 24, 2012

Before the world does in fact end, you might want to track down a copy of 1998’s Last Night. The perfect Canadian retort to the bombastic Deep Impact and Armageddon of the same year, it was a relatively calm and, well, very Canadian ensemble piece about how various people responded to imminent global doom. If you haven’t seen it, you can be sure Lorene Scafaria has. She wrote and directed Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, an American companion to Last Night, and addresses many of the same issues as the earlier film. People rioting? Check. People diving into desperate orgies? Check (in both films, this is presented as less erotic or explicit than pathetic). People trying to decide whether to spend their last days alone or with loved ones? Check. I’m glad Lorene Scafaria seems to have watched and enjoyed Last Night, but most of her own film is a sweet but dithering road trip involving sad sack Dodge Petersen (Steve Carell) and flighty life force Penny Lockhart (Keira Knightley) as they Learn What Really Matters.

Despite Carell’s presence, this isn’t a comedy. He handles himself elegantly in drama, as always, though he seems an odd match for Knightley, who seems to be visiting from a different movie. She’s not bad, but her character is unformed, defined almost entirely by commitmentphobia. These two meet on the rebound — Dodge’s wife has left him, Penny has dumped her boyfriend — and, with planetary death by asteroid less than a month away, decide to leave New York so that he can reconnect with a lost love and she can catch a plane to her parents in England. With an abandoned dog named Sorry in tow, they hit the road, rather unconvincingly escaping a riot-torn New York unscathed. Almost every scene in which they encounter strangers or old friends feels synthetic, except for a bit in a restaurant called Friendsy’s where the waitstaff are so rabidly convivial they seem insane.

Fortunately, Scafaria has cast the supporting roles deftly; in an early party scene we get Connie Britton, Rob Corddry, Patton Oswalt, and Melanie Lynskey, all unhinged to a greater or lesser extent by what’s coming. We’re happy to see them, but they know they’re not going to be in the movie very long, so they lunge at their moments aggressively, resulting in an atypically coarse and cartoonish turn from the usually dependable Oswalt. Community’s Gillian Jacobs turns up in the Friendsy’s bit, and Derek Luke appears in the movie’s falsest scene as a survivalist who just hands Penny (an ex of his) the keys to one of his cars. Often, the film seems to tiptoe up to something potentially scary or disturbing and then backs away fast.

I don’t have to tell you Last Night did this smarter and better, do I? There’s even a bit in which Dodge, an insurance salesman, talks to a client on the phone about “the armageddon premium,” and all I could think of was a scene from Last Night in which David Cronenberg played a power-company owner who kept calling his customers to assure them the heat wouldn’t go off. Anyway, why is anyone bothering to call insurance companies? As Tom Lehrer put it in his classic nuclear-apocalypse ditty “We Will All Go Together When We Go”: “No one will have the endurance/To collect on his insurance/Lloyd’s of London will be loaded when they go.” Dodge’s phone should be silent, not ringing off the hook as we see here. The bit in Last Night, with Cronenberg’s gentle words of reassurance, fleshed out an idea we wouldn’t necessarily have thought of. In Seeking a Friend you have panicky idiots calling an insurance company for … what?

“And we will all go together when we go,” Lehrer also sang; “What a comforting fact that is to know.” That’s an idea more sophisticated than anything in this movie: that there’s some solace in the fact that in the end we are all paper in fire, ashes, extinguished, all equal finally. Rob Corddry does get a line about how nobody’s going to die alone because we’re all going to bite it at once. For the most part, though, Seeking a Friend could as well be a seize-the-day bucket-list flick about two dying people on the road, learning belatedly to embrace life. And, of all things, the plot device of the dog made me mad (especially since he’s more or less ignored for most of the film, and doesn’t have any bearing on the story other than to give the characters a cute dog to cart around). Who would abandon a dog at such a time? If that were my dog I’d fatten him on whatever food he wanted and play ball in the yard with him until the asteroid hit.

Rock of Ages

June 17, 2012

It might have been cool to check out Rock of Ages, the original musical, when it premiered in L.A. in 2005. Its cast included, among others, Tenacious D’s mighty warrior Kyle Gass and geek comedian Chris Hardwick. Aside from that, there’s a lot that’s artificial and, well, stagey about this material that probably worked better on the boards. On the screen, it feels eerily remote, and it spends what feels like hours on a down-in-the-dumps middle section that makes the last act of Boogie Nights look jubilant. The story is an extremely basic parable about the power of rock and the importance of not losing your soul to fame. Except for the second part, that was handled far more winningly in School of Rock, starring Tenacious D’s other mighty warrior Jack Black. In fact, I would almost rather have seen School of Rock 2, picking up the kids ten years later, with Black as their manager.

But enough about imaginary films. The actual film under discussion has moments of light charm, and if you fetishize ’80s rock as much as I do, there are worse ways to spend two hours than to listen to the songs of (but generally not performed by) Def Leppard, Twisted Sister, Poison, Guns ‘n Roses, and, God save us all, Quarterflash. The thing is, if you’re into the songs, you can listen to them at home on your iPod for free and not have to witness Twisted Sister joined in a contrapuntal shotgun wedding to Starship. The story involves two fresh-faced youngsters, Sherrie (Julianne Hough) and Drew (Diego Boneta), struggling to make it in L.A. and uphold the standards of rock, which in this movie mostly means hair metal and power ballads. When Drew, late in the film, is obliged to front a boy band¹, the pop they produce sounds not much different from the “rock” as it’s arranged here.

It’s more than a little depressing that the ’80s are long enough ago that 1987 is seen in Rock of Ages — and not entirely inaccurately either — as an era as desperately naive as the ’60s era in Hairspray, an earlier and much better movie musical by Rock of Ages director Adam Shankman. Hairspray, by way of John Waters’ original script, was rooted in something serious: the racism of the day. The new movie seems to riff on parents’ and politicians’ horrified reactions to heavy metal — Catherine Zeta-Jones camps it up as the mayor’s wife, whose mission is to shut down the Bourbon Room, where all the bands play. As a theme, it feels wan and dated, even though people like Zeta-Jones are still very much with us, except they go after rap and video games now.

The two central kids sing well but are nearly completely without interest dramatically, so our attention turns gratefully to the pros whenever they’re on: Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand as the Bourbon’s owner and his right-hand man, respectively; Paul Giamatti as a slimy manager; Mary J. Blige, who isn’t asked to act much either but whose voice is powerful enough to make up for it; and mainly Tom Cruise, as Stacee Jaxx, a dissipated rock god who’s lost himself in excess. On the evidence of Magnolia, Tropic Thunder and this film, Cruise’s real future as an actor — rather than as a grip-and-grin star and action figure — is in small, vivid roles as part of an ensemble. As Stacee (the role originated by Chris Hardwick), Cruise is weirdly quiet, coming up underneath his lines; the character is little more than a caricature, but Cruise breathes idiosyncratic life into it. (He’s not a bad singer, either, though he and others — notably Malin Akerman as a Rolling Stone reporter — are likely autotuned.) Towards the end, when Stacee walks across a crowded room towards the woman who has (via the Foreigner ballad) made him know what love is, Cruise wears an expression of smitten torment that recalls his best work in the underrated Vanilla Sky. You may think he’s a dingbat in real life but you shouldn’t count him out as a force to stay interested in at the movies.

There’s a scene between Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand that almost redeems the whole overlong movie; you should look it up on YouTube in a few months. Bizarrely, Sherrie is obviously named after Steve Perry’s 1984 hit “Oh Sherrie,” but the song appears nowhere in the film (it did in the stage musical), though we get a few teasing notes of it. Your response to how the music is used in Rock of Ages depends largely on how seriously you take the music, how tangled in your teenage memories it is; the film kicks off with a dreadful rendition of “Sister Christian,” and generally any scene in which the characters are delivering the songs in the vacuum of a soundstage sucks the life out of them (except for the Baldwin/Brand interpretation of “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” of course). In the few instances in which the songs are “performed live” — i.e., in front of an audience of extras — the music makes a little better sense and suggests why the stage musical might be a fun night out. The film, though, already feels like a made-for-VH1 movie.

¹The boy band appears in a video directed, in a cameo, by none other than Eli Roth, in perhaps the film’s best joke: here Roth is again, presiding over the torment of young men.


June 10, 2012

The elegantly designed Prometheus asks the Big Questions — where do we come from? who, if anyone, made us? — and kinda-sorta answers them. But if the movie is really about anything, it’s atmosphere. Director Ridley Scott, returning to science fiction after having made two of the genre’s classics (Alien and Blade Runner), brings a pleasant big-movie heft to the visuals, an almost cruel burnish only possible with lots of money and teams of well-paid techs. The look is handsomely antiseptic, much like the character David (Michael Fassbender), an android aboard the titular spaceship Prometheus. Passing the time (two years) waiting for the crew to wake up, David becomes enamored of Lawrence of Arabia, coloring his hair to emulate Peter O’Toole. It’s heartening, I guess, that in 2093 we will not only still exist but also remember 20th-century art; another character, the captain (Idris Elba), plays an accordion once owned by Stephen Stills.

These hints of personality and leisure have to last us a while, because most of Prometheus is about delving into — as mission director Vickers (Charlize Theron) puts it — “a godforsaken rock in the middle of space.” Our intrepid crew of scientists seek evidence of “the Engineers,” aliens worshipped by various unconnected ancient cultures. The Engineers, we’re to understand, created us. But why? For that, I think, you’re supposed to come back for Prometheus 2 and 3; this film is reportedly the first of a projected trilogy, though whether it’ll make enough bank to justify sequels is a more urgent question than any the movie asks. The maybe-part-one-if-enough-of-you-see-it aspect may explain why Guy Pearce appears underneath pounds of old-man latex as Peter Weyland, who funds the mission. I’m assuming the grand plan is to have the unlatexed Pearce return in a sequel or prequel as a younger Weyland; otherwise why didn’t they just hire an older actor?

The heart of Prometheus is the believer Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), whose entire career seems to hinge on proof of, well, intelligent design. I’m not quite up on what Richard Dawkins might say about this; whether we were created by a white-bearded Christian god or by strange-looking aliens gargling goo at the dawn of man, the point the film takes for granted is that we were created. Someone in the film snarks about two hundred years of Darwinism being chucked out the nearest air lock, but that’s about all the skepticism we hear among this cadre of scientists. Anyway, the impassioned Noomi Rapace is much the best thing about the movie; as in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels, she moves on an angular, headlong trajectory, and Shaw is about the only character visibly capable of horror and awe, sometimes both at once. (Charlize Theron, meanwhile, plays her second ice queen in as many weeks, and seemed to have more fun last week.)

Logic will not avail us here. Forget whether it’s plausible that a species of unpleasant baldies manufactured us for reasons as yet known only to them; what about the scene in which a character takes a series of running leaps when her abdomen was lasered open and then stapled shut only hours before? Not to mention the sequence in which two crew members, deep inside the womb of the godforsaken rock, suddenly decide to head back to the ship, then promptly get lost. They only exist, we gather, as alien fodder. Yes, here be dragons, or at least phallic slimy things and a big beastie worthy of Lovecraft at his most febrile. For weeks now, the marketing for Prometheus couldn’t figure out whether to sell it as a prequel to Alien or as a stand-alone scientists-meet-monsters epic. It is, if you must, a story that takes place in the same reality as Alien, and the final shot, much derided by Alien fans, strengthens the link. If you want to rewatch Alien and not think of the mysterious “space jockey” as what you pray to on Sunday, you might want to steer clear of Prometheus.

The movie wasn’t giving my brain much of a workout, but my eyes got a nice buzz. Prometheus is straight-up gorgeous, especially in 3D; Scott has conceived the shots for the added dimension, employing it with subtlety and for the occasional matter-of-fact spectacle. If the ads have intrigued you visually, go. Just be prepared for a plot that reminds me of various reviewers over the years admitting “I’m not sure whether this movie/book just rips off some Star Trek episode I never saw.” It’s an atmospheric thrill ride, though short on thrills until near the end, and certainly neither as intense nor as tight as Alien. It’s best perceived as an experiment by a director returning to the franchise he created, not by making a direct sequel but by drifting off to tell a related story. On the evidence, though, Scott can’t scare us any more, and his characters recede into the vast canvas of his own intelligent design. We can’t really care about who made us if most of the people onscreen aren’t us.

Snow White and the Huntsman

June 3, 2012

If it’s a darker, grittier Snow White you’re looking for, allow me to point you to the little-seen 1997 effort Snow White: A Tale of Terror, a justifiably R-rated version starring Sigourney Weaver as the complexly jealous wicked queen. Fifteen years on, we’ve now had two competing Snow White run-throughs in the same year: last March’s much lighter Mirror Mirror, and now Snow White and the Huntsman, though a more accurate title might be Charlize Theron Chews Every Available Scrap of Scenery (Also Starring Snow White). A Snow White, it seems, is only as good as its evil queen, and Theron gives an instant-camp-classic performance destined to be cloned by drag queens from sea to shining sea this Halloween. It’s a grand, startling turn in a grim, plodding movie that, without Theron, would be fighting Snow White for room on the slab by the end.

Not that there’s much perceptible difference even before Snow White officially points her toes up. (I am writing to a reader who knows the basic story, right? This isn’t a spoiler.) As Snow White, Kristen Stewart tries; occasionally she bestirs herself to smile and even laugh, which must’ve required a basket of kittens licking her feet off-camera. I do not hate this poor young woman, whose Twilight role has propelled her to everlasting fame whether she wanted it or not (I’m guessing she didn’t), but she’s such a tabula rasa I can’t see how she could arouse emotion in anyone one way or the other. When Snow White has to inspire the oppressed villagers against the queen, Stewart gets her voice up, but only to be heard in the back row, I think; there’s no passion in her speech (not entirely her fault, as the three credited screenwriters don’t come near the ringing poetry of the St. Crispin’s Day speech, but then who could?).

A first effort by Rupert Sanders, yet another commercial director, Snow White and the Huntsman tries and fails to hold our attention with a lot of hacking and hewing. Much of it is done by Chris Hemsworth as the semi-titular huntsman; Hemsworth seems to have a lot more fun as Thor, who doesn’t labor under a Sad Backstory involving a dead wife. At one point, our noble huntsman says he was a worthless brawler before his wife changed him, and now he’s reverted to form; suddenly we’re in Unforgiven Lite. We also have eight dwarves, all played by conventionally-proportioned actors (Ian McShane, Nick Frost, Bob Hoskins, etc.) digitally shortened and, I kept thinking, stealing work from eight actors of lesser height. Peter Dinklage is widely considered the jewel in the crown of HBO’s Game of Thrones, but he is a glowing exception; most little people have to make do with low-comedy roles like the guy who went around junk-punching everyone in Project X. At least Mirror Mirror employed little people as the dwarves (including the Project X guy).

There’s a good amount of dark magic and light magic: tree limbs made of snakes, a massive stag that turns into a flock of birds, various faeries capering about or riding on bunnies. It’s visually diverting but feels inorganic — just CGI demo reels plopped in for Kristen Stewart to attempt to look upon with awe. The best effect, aside from the magnificently seething Theron, is Sam Spruell as the queen’s viciously nasty brother with an equally nasty pageboy haircut. A better script would give Spruell space to gallop away with the scenes that don’t involve Theron, but he does what he can, right down to the obligatory bit where he informs the huntsman that his wife screamed his name before she died. And what name would that be? “Huntsman”? Oh, according to Wikipedia it’s Eric, though I don’t recall hearing it in the film. It could’ve been momentary deafness caused by intense boredom.

You know what has to happen: Snow White has to defeat the queen, especially in a movie that cost somewhere near $170 million. At the climax, when Snow White informs the queen “You cannot have my heart,” Kristen Stewart makes it sound as though Snow White is declining the queen the use of her Blackberry. The queen dies of wrinkles caused by intense boredom, and Snow White is crowned the new queen. There’s no king for her yet, though there is a William, a childhood friend who shows some vague affection for her, and there’s Eric the huntsman, and dear god, is this thing setting us up for a sequel in which Kristen Stewart has to negotiate yet another love triangle? Snow White and the Huntsman and Some Guy Named William, coming to a theater near you in 2014.