The Switch, Josh Gordon & Will Speck (2010)

I think Jennifer Aniston is probably doomed to live under a certain glass ceiling.  Right now Tinseltown is talking about how she can’t open a movie on her own, how Jason Bateman isn’t a sturdy enough male co-star to open a movie with her, and the mediocrity of her latest film, The Switch.  But the real problem is simply that The Switch is too intelligent and mature for its audience, and that it’s being marketed somewhat disingenuously.  I finally went to see The Switch with relatively low expectations, anticipating a moderately successful comedy at best.  And I was shocked at how good it was.

Much of the problem is the fact that the movie isn’t really a comedy.  Sure, there are some comedic elements and moments sprinkled throughout, most of which have been included in the trailers.  You can’t have actors as intelligent, likeable, and honest as Aniston, Bateman, and co-stars Patrick Wilson, Jeff Goldblum, and Juliette Lewis, and not have them find the humanity or sense of humor in behavior, particularly when the set-up of the film has to do with a drunken sabotage of artificial insemination.  But the irony is that the film is sad, sweet, and beautiful.  And comedic hook aside, the rest of the film has little to with that kind of high contrivance.

There’s a scene where Bateman has a first date with a character played by Caroline Dhavernas that represents why, I think, audiences and critics are shunning this movie.  At the beginning of the conversation Bateman is charming and self-deprecating, talking about where a relationship between the two of them might go.  It starts amusingly, and his date flirts and laughs as Bateman picks apart behaviors and the way people can sell themselves short or cause their own self-defeat.  But he keeps going.  He keeps going to such a degree that it’s no longer flirty banter, and obviously comes from a place of emotional woundedness, of introspection, of regret.  It’s quite obvious that all of the character flaws he’s describing, all of the ways his personality can veer into self-sabotage and could potentially destroy a marriage, aren’t just off-the-cuff humor, but the result of well thought-out, existential meditations on his state of being.  Even when he  realizes where he’s led himself, and tries to end his observations with a hook of humor, at that point he’s gone too far and his attempt to soften his own negativity plays all the more sadly.  And his date swills her wine, nerve-wracked by what she’s gotten herself into and where it could lead, and there’s even a look in her eye that she likes this guy enough that she could potentially follow him into some doomed relationship, and suffer there with him.

The Switch is not a romantic comedy.  It’s not very romantic, and it’s more of a drama than anything else.  It’s certainly not Jennifer Aniston’s movie.  No, it’s a film that belongs to Bateman’s character, Wally Mars.  It’s about the way he sees the world, this neurotic, somewhat depressive, self-doubting, and often unliked character.  And it’s not that he’s a bad person.  He has a good sense of humor, and when the chips are down, he’s a stand-up guy.  Let’s just say he has a difficult personality, and he knows it.  He’s had a lot of bad breaks, not the least of which is that he’s in love with a woman who has emasculated him to the point that she doesn’t even consider him a viable sperm donor.  And he wears those wounds, and they color the way he acts and reacts in the world.

But the movie is so-well written, and there’s a determination there to be fair to every character.  Aniston’s Kassie Larson, despite the way she overlooks Wally, is never a shrew.  She’s simply a vulnerable woman at a crossing in her life where she has to make a tough decision.  And she’s not getting back what she needs from the men in her life, Wally included.  Patrick Wilson, playing sperm donor Roland, is certainly an archetype of the athletic golden boy, except that he’s not.  His own marriage has problems, and he’s emotionally vulnerable himself.  He could very easily have been written as a two-dimensional egotistical stuffed shirt, but the script is too smart and the actors too agile to let that happen.

This is a film that takes place in the real world, or at least a realist world.  At one point in the narration, Wally says that some people find love at first sight, and they get to live life inside of a pop song, and isn’t that great for them.  But for most people who aren’t living inside of a movie, life isn’t that easy; and the characters in this film reflect that.  So it makes sense how audiences coming into the theatre expecting a joke-filled light comedy, and are instead served up a cynical, questioning comedic drama, are having problems enjoying themselves.

When Wally Mars finally meets the fruit of his loins, it’s an awakening for the character.  And there’s such pain and sadness, and simultaneously joy, and confusion, about how to step up and do the right thing, or at least how to simply acknowledge the irony of fate and the synchronous way miracles can happen, that it’s truly touching and even beautiful.  But light, disposable comedy it ain’t.  This is the kind of film that would probably need to have bigger names, be marketed as Oscar fodder, and released in the autumn to really work and sell.  Or to be marketed as Juno, but without the snarky dialogue.  But not as an end-of-the-summer release, being poised as a more conventional romantic comedy with a healthy side of broad, gross-out comedy.  That’s simply not serving the aims or content of the film.

Aniston seems to have this problem often, and I believe it’s because she has fairly good and eclectic taste, and is interested in real people and the kind of mature themes that we have to deal with in everyday life.  Sure, she’ll pump out her share of Hollywood pleasers, but unlike some starlets, she seems to get bored of doing only exclusively those kinds of movies, and is always looking for something more realistic and rooted in darker, more complex emotions.  The Break-Up.  Her section of He’s Just Not That Into YouManagementThe Good Girl.  These are films that portray their characters too honestly and complexly to function as mindless, disposable entertainment.  Yet Aniston seems to stay away from the truly dark and probing high-concept Oscar bait, the kind of films that would benefit from being marketed as counter-culture.  No, she has the unfortunate tendency to be attracted to material this is dark and honest, but still aimed within the world of the realistic, which doesn’t always translate to everyone’s idea of palatable.

Patrick Wilson’s Roland is too nice, well-meaning, and determined to win over Sebastian for him to be a jerk who can be easily written off.  Even though the audience is finally rooting against him, we like him and see how he could be the heroic protagonist if this were his film, and we even feel kind of bad about having to root against him.  He’s simply a guy who’s a bit lost and adrift, but who wants to do right, much like Bateman’s Wally.  And Sebastian himself is too complex a product of Wally’s genetic insecurities to be a disposable, typically-cute movie kid.  He’s still cute, but he’s also wounded.  And Wally is the only person who can really connect to him and see him.  There’s a beauty in that, a man who can’t find himself, finding himself through an unexpected son, learning to love and to ask for love by being shown something bigger than himself.

It’s a smart, honest, emotionally-astute and truthful script, and unfortunately the film is struggling to find an audience right now largely because it’s being done a disservice by the marketing campaign.  Patrick Wilson’s Roland talks quite a bit about the difficulties of life, and how it likes to throw us curve balls.  Mainstream audiences don’t like to be thrown curve balls, they want a nice easy lob across the center of the plate.  Perhaps in time, on DVD, The Switch will earn some respect and get its due as people are primed to expect that coming pitch.  But like the road that Bateman’s Wally has to take in the film, it appears it may be uphill, and require quite a bit of due process.

8/10

Published in: on August 31, 2010 at 2:07 am  Leave a Comment  

Biutiful trailer (12/17 release)

Writer Guillermo Arriaga and director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu made a trio of brilliant films together: Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel.  Egos grew, comments were made, and after the release of Babel in 2006, the partnership was severed.  In  2008, Arriaga went off to direct his first feature working from one his similarly-structured scripts, The Burning Plain, which went largely unseen.  This is the first thing Inarritu has directed since the dissolution of their partnership, and it stars Javier Bardem as a blue-collar family man.  It looks as truthful and poetic as anything he’s directed to date, but those tonal elements and the trailer’s focus on karmic responsibility appears to be concealing an extra-sensory or supernatural side to the film, which is all the more intriguing.

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Published in: on August 30, 2010 at 2:17 am  Leave a Comment  

127 Hours trailer (11/5 release)

The year of the Franco continues.  Much like Buried, 127 Hours should spend most of its running time with one character trapped in a single location.  It’s the kind of set-up that can be painful for an audience if not done exceedingly well, but with James Franco as the lead and director Danny Boyle at the helm, it should simply be compelling.  This one is based on a true story, that of hiker and mountain climber Aron Ralston.  Ralston made some very poor choices a few years ago, and hopefully the film’s portrayal of him will be as critical as it is sympathetic.  Boyle seems to be employing a cinematography very similar to the way he shot Slumdog Millionaire, and the desert certainly looks gorgeous with all of the bright oranges and blues.

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Published in: on August 30, 2010 at 1:53 am  Leave a Comment  

Centurion, Neil Marshall (2010)

If there’s one thing complimentary thing you can say about Neil Marshall’s Centurion, it’s that it avoids the kind of glaring outrageousness that made Doomsday into a joke.  However, it’s still nowhere near the brilliance of The Descent; and even Marshall’s Dog Soldiers, where he attempted to pack as much creativity into his low-budgeted debut as possible, was a better film overall.  And still, for all of the many problems of Doomsday, at least that film was often entertaining and fun.  Here Marshall, in a seeming bid for some kind of legitimacy, has crafted a relatively boring, tepid affair that still isn’t without its problems.

A fairly solid cast is led by Michael Fassbender, as the film’s centurion protagonist, and Dominic West playing the Roman General; and they do all they can with the material.  Both Liam Cunningham and David Morrissey give honest and dependable performances as surviving members of the Roman Ninth Legion.  Olga Kurylenko, as the Pict tracker, is everything Marshall seems to have envisioned of the character.  In fact, the acting is the strongest thing Centurion has going for it.  Much of the problem is that Marshall is essentially a fetishist.  It’s quite obvious that the most important details to him are the Picts’ costume and make-up, and the variety of ways he can splice or skewer a head.  There’s a battle scene about a third of the way through the film that finds Marshall in his element, and he nails it.  But for most of the film Marshall exercises restraint rather than letting loose his inner crazed, genre madman.

So whenever he’s not splicing or skewering heads, he’s created something fairly lifeless.  The characterization is minimal and the dialogue is spare, leaving just the narrative to carry the film; but there are too many instances where an advancement in plot happens illogically, where information is revealed or a character does something rash for what only seems to be plot contrivance.  And when the plot isn’t suffering these occasional forced forward-pushes, it’s quite simplistic and threadbare.  Even the cinematography has issues.  Some scenes are so blue they seem to have been color-adjusted for the sake of stylization; other scenes are dark and under-lit and the characters appear almost fuzzy or slightly out of focus.

Marshall’s cause would surely be helped if there was a point to all of his war-torn bloodletting, but he seems to actively resist courting a theme of any kind.  There are certain elements present that could have been developed into something compelling, or at least used to give the film a purpose.  There’s the loyalty and brotherhood between soldiers, as well as society vs. the outcast.  However, Marshall never pursues any of these opportunities to build them into something that would actually give his film meaning.  They’re just a few dangling hangers in an otherwise empty coat closet.  And if Marshall’s only real goal is to make simple escapism and purposeless entertainment, he’d be much better off showing less restraint and showcasing his pure creativity.  That’s probably his greatest gift as a filmmaker, and in Centurion it’s a source that goes virtually untouched.

5/10

Published in: on August 30, 2010 at 1:42 am  Leave a Comment  

Tamara Drewe trailer (10/8 release)

Kudos to Gemma Arterton for making another interesting career choice, 180 degrees from The Disappearance of Alice Creed, with both serving as vital counterpoints to the Hollywood trappings of Clash of the Titans and Prince of Persia.  This looks to be the sort of liberal English farce we haven’t gotten much of since the early 90’s, and a welcome respite from the recent crop of darkly-themed releases.  Additionally, the production’s cross-Atlantic origins guarantee that it can go a little deeper and take more risks that the standard American romantic fodder.  And it looks like the perfect material for Stephen Frears to handle expertly at this point in his career.  It’s been awhile since The Queen, Cheri went largely unseen, and it feels like it’s the right time for his career to show yet another face.

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Published in: on August 28, 2010 at 4:34 am  Leave a Comment  

Black Swan trailer (12/1 release)

Is there really anything more that needs to be said than this is the new film from Darren Aronofsky?  Natalie Portman has been with this project quite a long way through its development, and I have a feeling it’s really going to show by being some of her best work.  Both she and Mila Kunis have the ballet background that should help give their performances some authenticity, and Aronofsky is notorious for really pushing his actors.  In fact, I’m still hesitant at the casting of Kunis, but I’m just going to trust Aronofsky on it.  Overall, the film feels like it belongs somewhere between Argento and early Polanski, but I’m hoping the trailer doesn’t give too much away regarding the nature of the rivalry between Kunis and Portman.  Huge bonus points though for the casting of Vincent Cassel as the artistic director, as well as for Barbara Hershey as Portman’s mother.

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Published in: on August 28, 2010 at 4:18 am  Leave a Comment  

The Other Guys, Adam McKay (2010)

Like a lot of Will Ferrell’s movies, The Other Guys is both hit and miss.  There are moments when a gag played just right or a genre cliche turned on its ear will elicit genuine belly laughs.  But then there are the bits such as Michael Keaton’s police captain unknowingly quoting the lyrics of TLC songs, Ferrell’s past as a college pimp, or his relationship with wife Eva Mendes, that not only fall flat but bring the rest of the movie down a notch or two in the process.

What does work really well is the general set-up: a pair of cops who, in most movies, would be the stooges of the department while the movie follows the exploits of the precinct’s resident supercops.  In The Other Guys, those supercops are played full-out and over-the-top by Sam Jackson and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and they get a few genuinely funny bits, even if their action sequence that opens the movie is really poorly-done green screen work.  Ferrell is a paper-pusher and desk jockey, and Mark Wahlberg is his hobbled supercop-wannabe partner who longs to have a shot at solving real cases and seeing real action.

McKay has designed a comedic role that fits Wahlberg exceedingly well, and the fairly natural, if unlikely, chemistry between Wahlberg and Ferrell takes the movie a long way.  So does the supporting cast, which also includes Steve Coogan, Ray Stevenson, Anne Heche, and sketch vets like Rob Riggle and Rob Huebel.  Huebel’s scene, in which he describes how a group of homeless guys defiled Ferrell’s stolen Prius with an all-male orgy, is one of those moments that completely kills and will have you on the floor laughing.

But nevertheless, for all of the moments that hit, there are plenty of moments that miss.  And even though McKay may be much farther along as a director than the guys helming most of the Adam Sandler movies, and shows a certain amount of visual sense and flair, the action here is still middle-of-the-road.  The script, while not as throwaway as it could have been, doesn’t create any really impressive set pieces or build to a truly memorable climax; this isn’t a film meant to add to the genre or redefine it, but simply a comedy intended to ape it well enough to fit in some funny gags.  And to that extent, it succeeds often enough to be a fairly enjoyable distraction.  Certainly not the most glowing recommendation, but much like the film, it is what it is.

6/10

Published in: on August 28, 2010 at 4:06 am  Leave a Comment  

Vanishing on 7th Street (release date tbd, likely Fall 2010)

Try to ignore the fact that this stars Hayden Christiansen for a second and concentrate on the fact that it’s directed by Brad Anderson.  Anderson is one of those directors who has worked under the mainstream radar for years, starting with Next Stop Wonderland.  Pretty much every subsequent feature he’s directed has been flat-out amazing in one way or another, and he’s probably one of the top 10 directors working today in my humble opinion.  Happy AccidentsSession 9The MachinistTranssiberian.  Anderson is at his best when working with genre fare and finds a raw, emotional truth with his actors while utilizing a spare, naturalistic, low-budget style.  This past television season he also became one of the primary directors on Fox’s Fringe, putting out most of the series’ best episodes.  The end result is that his game seems to be at a whole new level, and he has more artistic freedom than ever to make the kinds of movies he makes best.

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Published in: on August 28, 2010 at 3:21 am  Leave a Comment  

Buried trailer (9/24 limited release, 10/8 wide)

The trailer might not be too much to look at, but word on the street is that the film itself is no small accomplishment.  It’s the story of an American contract truck driver in Iraq taken hostage and buried alive in a coffin with only a lighter and a cell phone.  Details are sketchy on whether the audience ever sees outside of the coffin, or if we spend the whole film confined in it with lead Ryan Reynolds.  Likewise, details are also sketchy on the plot and whether it’s a relatively simple ransom story with a new angle, or if there may be additional twists along the way that transform the story.  Either way, it certainly looks original and innovative.

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Published in: on August 28, 2010 at 2:30 am  Leave a Comment  

The Expendables, Sylvester Stallone (2010)

The Expendables is genre action at its most generic.  Stallone brings along a sense of professionalism and elevates the material through workmanlike directing into something that feels a step above a straight-to-DVD release, which is more than can be said about the quality of his script.  And for their part, the crew of action actors all contribute performances slightly beyond what you might expect.  Dolph Lundgren is actually pretty good as a hopped-up, drugged out mercenary, and wrestler Randy Couture has a few small acting moments to play.  These guys are obviously jumping at the chance to be in a theatrically-released film, and making the most they can of the opportunity.  Then there’s David Zayas, playing a South American dictator, who’s worked so much lately on Dexter and other premium cable shows over the last few years, becoming such a solid and dependable supporting actor in the process, that he really knows how to walk a tightrope and find the right balance to make his character something beyond the skeletal archetype he’s been given to play.  And of course, Eric Roberts is the king of delivering a good, or at least a non-embarrassing performance, no matter what he’s surrounded by.  And that’s the big problem here; Stallone the director works well with his actors, but Stallone the writer has given himself nothing but garbage to work from.

Not only are the setup, dialogue, and plot generic, but anything resembling character development is laughable.  Jason Statham’s character Lee Christmas is the one who gets a love interest.  But all that involves is two scenes: one where he comes back after having been out of town for awhile on a mission only to find his girlfriend with another guy, and a second where he discovers the other guy has hit his ex-girlfriend so he goes and beats the tar out of him.  Other than this proving him loyal, hot-headed, and violent, qualities which we already know the character has, this whole little romance serves no purpose.  Most of what we learn about these muscleheads is that they ride motorcycles, smoke cigars (or in Mickey Rourke’s case, a really long pipe), hang around in a tattoo parlor having knife-throwing contests, and date women who look like strippers.  There’s really only one true acting moment in the script, and Stallone is smart enough to know that it’s out of place amid the rest of the film, so he puts Rourke in such extreme close-up that all we’re left with are the words themselves, and it’s slightly easier to suspend disbelief and take them to heart without being faced with the ridiculously 80s action cliche  setting surrounding them, which would sabotage what little truth there is in the speech.  At point Jet Li says he needs to make more money for his family, and it seems there might in fact be one instance of a little character development.  But later while being chased he confides to Stallone that he doesn’t really have a family, and Stallone replies “I know.”  Potential character development terminated.

The action is decent, but generally completely forgettable.  Statham and Li have one pretty cool fight scene together.  There’s been some disappointment about the fact that the movie really focuses on Stallone, Statham, and to some extent Lundgren and Li, and isn’t the big action team movie it’s being sold as.  All of that is true, but it hardly matters.  Either way, Stallone has served up such a bland, empty product that you’ll hardly remember much of what happened by the time the credits roll.

3/10

Published in: on August 27, 2010 at 6:17 pm  Leave a Comment  
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