Sunday, January 24, 2010

Maybe if you said you were an alien, she would have stuck around: "(500) Days of Summer"

I'd like to think not much surprises me. Not sure if it's my inherent street smarts -- those suburban cul-de-sacs weren't going to rule themselves -- or my infinitely open mind. Either way, I'm rarely caught off-guard. But I'll say this: I'm a little shocked that I'm becoming a Joseph Gordon-Levitt fan.

I mean, you saw this kid's hair in "3rd Rock from the Sun," right? Oh, man ... even though I didn't watch the show, that cut was enough to make me curse his very being. But lo, the junior alien visitor has grown up to become a Capital-A Actor. You may have seen his turn in "Stop-Loss," but where he really dazzled was in the little-seen film "The Lookout." I seem to recall raves for the earlier "Mysterious Skin," too, and we all know he's due for an Oscar nom for becoming the Cobra Commander in "G.I. Joe."

Kidding, of course. No, when it comes to last year, Gordon-Levitt's plaudits were for "(500) Days of Summer," the out-of-order tale of how he fell into and out of love with a girl named Summer (Zooey Deschanel) over the course of almost 17 months. The style is the story here, with viewers bounced back and forth in time to show the highs and lows of our hero's courtship.

The basics: Tom, a greeting card writer, believes in love and falls for Summer at first sight. Summer, a secretary at the same company, is more casual -- down for some fun with an interesting guy but not long-term material. Told in a linear format, this could be close to fatal. I mean, who cares, right?

Alas, we move in anything but a straight line, with director Marc Webb mixing and matching days from the span of the relationship to show -- sometimes bluntly and coldly -- how what once was good can turn kind of bad. If it sounds too cute, it almost is. And watching this requires some focus, or at least quick recall. I'll admit to patting myself on the back when dialogue from an earlier scene came up in a different context several scenes/days later.

Despite all that, I think it worked well. I guess I come down on "clever" vs. "cute," in large part because the two leads roll with it. Deschanel does her big-eyed thing and adds a dollop of bitchiness. Gordon-Levitt is better, playing a perfectly normal guy whose emotions are all over the map. The dance scene after he gets together with Summer is pretty funny -- the face winking back at him in the store window killed me -- and the down-in-the-dumps stuff seemed spot-on, too.

Throw in a great soundtrack and an ending that made me laugh out loud -- but likely made critics cringe -- and "Summer" was a success. Now if you're excuse me, I've got some old mix tapes to listen to while leafing through ex-girlfriend photos. It really is true ... love will tear us apart.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Elementarious!: "Sherlock Holmes"

I'll admit enjoying the trailer for this reinvention ... relaunch ... reboot ... ah, eff it ... new version of the old sleuth. There's Jude Law having some fun! Rachel McAdams is a cutie! And really, who doesn't love Robert Downey Jr. these days?

Downey's bizarro tales seem long gone, and he's always had the acting bonafides. He was the best thing by far in "Less Than Zero." If you haven't seen "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," please stop reading and rent it now. Hell, he was awesome in "Weird Science" and "Back to School!" So yeah, after his ascension to superstardom (via "Iron Man") while still being funny as all hell (in "Tropic Thunder"), Bobby D. gets the benefit of the doubt from me every time.

Our story: Sherlock Holmes (Downey) and Dr. Watson (Law) have just prevented a murder, and the baddie, some Lord named Blackwood (Mark Strong, the best part of "Body of Lies"), is set to hang. And hang he does, except ... darn it if he doesn't stay dead. That sets into motion the Case of the Curious Cadaver, as Holmes tries to figure out what Blackwood is up to. Well, besides killing more people. Complicating matters are (a) Watson's insistence that he be released from the duo to marry a nice lady, and (b) the stubborn appearances of Irene Adler (McAdams), an old flame of Holmes who happens to be his equal in the cleverness department.

It sounds a little thin, but there's enough plot to keep things moving, and really, you're in this for only two things: (1) the back-and-forth between Holmes and Watson, and (2) the BIG REVEAL. On that part, "Sherlock Holmes" succeeds. That's enough to make this entertaining, but definitely not enough to make it great.

Downey and Law are pros, and they make a natural pair in these roles. I confess to having a hard time understanding Downey's accent in a few scenes. But yes, the guy has the whole playful genius thing down, and I appreciated director Guy Ritchie slowing things down here and there to preview how Holmes would disable this bad guy or that one. Law manages the loyal sidekick well, although without more backstory, you did have to wonder why he put up with Holmes' crap so much.

Strong is OK but really doesn't have to act as much as use the low voice and sneer occasionally. McAdams is the weakest of the bunch, miscast as a confidence woman. She was sweet in "Wedding Crashers" and actually believable as a hostage-turned-fighter in "Red Eye." Here, though, I kept thinking we needed Angelina Jolie, Charlize Theron or someone else who could pull off dazzling and devilish. Sorry, Miss Notebook, but that ain't you.

In the end, "Holmes" is perfectly nice fun, and worth a big screen viewing for all the rough-and-tumble. At the very least, it will make do if Downey insists on refusing to use his new clout to link up with Anthony Michael Hall and Uma Thurman make the long-awaited sequel to "Johnny Be Good."

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

But you still gotta do something about those eyebrows, man ... : "In Bruges"

Are you sitting down? (He asked sarcastically.) I'm not a big fan of Colin Farrell. Kind of like I'm not a big fan of having my family jewels struck by one of those grazing shots that cause a hell of a lot more agony than a full-on blast. (You know this is true.)

So it was with some trepidation that I followed my pal Louie's recommendation from a while back to see "In Bruges." Yeah, I know Farrell won a Golden Globe. But c'mon ... have you seen this so-called star's filmography? Forget all that "Alexander" and "Miami Vice" bullsh*t. I've seen more Farrell movies than I care to admit, including "S.W.A.T." and (cringe) "Phone Booth." I can safely say that he was OK in "Minority Report" and at his best in ... wait for it ... "Daredevil." Seriously, even though he looks like Andre Agassi, he's the best thing by far in that movie. Well, besides Jennifer Garner's cleavage.

Are you sitting down? (He asked in all seriousness. I mean it ... find a chair.) Within the first 10 minutes of "In Bruges," I loved Colin Farrell. And unlike "Daredevil," he had a real movie around him this time, and one that you should see.

Our man from Dublin plays a young Irishman -- stretch -- whose new career as a hitman is derailed by him shooting a young boy on his first job. He and his partner, the consummate pro Brendan Gleeson, are exiled temporarily to the Belgian village of Bruges, which their boss (Ralph Fiennes) thinks is rather charming. Gleeson goes along with this. Farrell, not so much, and his initial comments are pretty funny.

Despite the pall of this boy's death and these guys' unsavory jobs, we get a dark comedy that more than once reminded me of the highly entertaining "After Hours." Just as Scorsese treated Griffin Dunne to weird episode after weird episode, our duo get tangled up in some oddball stuff. Things are more violent here, but that gives this movie a nice edge that works quite well.

All three leads are really good. Fiennes eats up the hothead mob boss part, similar to Ben Kingsley in "Sexy Beast." Menacing? You betcha. Gleeson is the pensive veteran hitman, trying to enjoy Bruges while managing a tough situation. Farrell is just trying to make sense of what happened, oscillating between petty bickering and a total breakdown. And dammit if he isn't pretty good.

Yeah, you could say I was surprised by how much I enjoyed "In Bruges." Throw in a dwarf on horse drugs who hangs with prostitutes, and you can't lose, even with those out-of-control eyebrows on the moody man from the Emerald Isle.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Feeling too festive this holiday season? Here's the cure!: "The Road"

Funny ... I haven't heard this fun little tale pop up in the banter about big holiday movies. Maybe because the story is enough to make you simply give up and hang with the in-laws instead.

I was late to the game when it came to reading the Cormac McCarthy novel "The Road." The big reason was I pretty much think of McCarthy as the pretty horses guy, and that didn't do much for me. True, I thought the movie version of "No Country for Old Men" was good, and I may read the book at some point. But it wasn't until I looked more closely at the story of "The Road" and saw the trailer that I figured the book was worth a try.

Good thing, since it's the best book I read in 2009. Yes, besting even "If You Give a Cat a Cupcake." Based on that distinction, I was reasonably excited about the movie, which has seemed to saunter into theaters amid the "Avatar" and "Twilight" noise.

Our story: A man and his young son try to survive in the post-apocalyptic world, trudging along a road to get to the coast. Why? Why not? There's really nothing else to live for. We don't know what happened, but it was several years earlier, it was very bad, and it left the world dead. Witness the bare trees -- at least, of those standing -- the slate sky, the abandoned buildings, cars, etc. Of the few people who remain, many have turned on each other, and let's just say that those South American rugby players who crashed in the Andes had the right idea.

So yeah, it's a little grim. And grimy. The man (Viggo Mortensen) and boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) walk on, looking for food, dodging hazards and making discoveries -- terrifying and uplifting. Meanwhile, we see earlier times through flashbacks featuring the woman of the house (Charlize Theron). Whatever left the world in this state didn't set well with her, it becomes clear.

It's a simple story, and director John Hillcoat -- who helmed the little-known but worth-seeing "The Proposition" -- paints the bleak picture in spades. Along with the washed-out colors and permanent layers of dirt, ash and who-knows-what, there are the sounds of a dying world: falling trees, earthquakes, random creaks and cracks. In this environment, every sound resonates, include silence.

I don't want to diverge into a book review here, but it's worth noting that McCarthy does a masterful job of just plowing ahead with the simple story and letting some of the larger themes -- mainly what this all means when it comes to hope and spirituality -- just kind of trickle out. In the movie, this was a little trickier, and it only kind of works.

The film version is largely faithful; I can't think of any big changes. But despite the potential with a doomed future with almost everyone gone and those who remain being rather unsavory, this is no "I Am Legend," "Mad Max," "28 Days Later," et al. That's not a bad thing, but it's not all good. In short, this is a tough story to turn into a home run, no matter how much you nail the visuals.

Still, a decent effort, and even knowing what was coming didn't keep me from wanting to see it through. Viggo is good but has been better at least a few times, Smit-McPhee a little less so. Our supporting players include Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, Omar from "The Wire" and the always-compelling Garret Dillahunt, and they're perfectly fine, too. Nothing's wrong with "The Road," but it really could go only so far to begin with. Hmmm ... there's probably a Frost poem somewhere in there.