Sunday, May 29, 2011

Pondering Kate Hudson

A couple of weeks ago, before Something Borrowed was released, I saw the cover of Ent, the Toronto Sun's Sunday entertainment section and on the front of it it featured drawings of Jennifer Aniston, Katherine Heigl and Kate Hudson with the caption saying "The Women Who Are Ruining Romantic Comedy." These three choices peaked my interest and got me to thinking about each lady's respective career. Although she's been in some stinkers, I don't think Jennifer Antison is ruining romantic comedy and she's even been in some good films including the Good Girl, Rumor Has It..., The Switch and so on. And even when the movie is bad, she's at least likable.

Katherine Heigl is in the same boat. She appears in mostly bad movies, but she maintains her charm throughout them and I don't know but I found The Ringer to be a funny comedy as well as Knocked Up. I've never walked away from a romantic comedy thinking that Heigl had ruined it but yes, seeing her generally throws up a red flag to a movie's quality these days.

Now Kate Hudson. Hudson seems to represent a special case separate of the other two in that no one but she has been in a single movie as excellent as Almost Famous and no one but she has been in so many consecutive awful movies subsequent to the fact. And unlike the other two offenders, it is usually Hudson, more often than not, who is the very worst thing about it. Here's a roll call: How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Alex & Emma, Raising Helen, You, Me and Dupree, Fool's Gold, My Best Friend's Girl, Bride Wars, Nine and Something Borrowed. Kate Hudson, the most promising of young starlets has been in more bad movies than some actors every get to be in period.

This poses the question: is Kate Hudson the worst leading female star in America? And even more to the fact, who do you think is her male equivalent?

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Water for Elephants

There’s an uncanny shot in Water For Elephants that jumped out at me the moment I saw it. It involves the rising of a big top circus tent. Five men stand around a pole with sledgehammers and each hammer it in one swing at a time, moving in a clockwise motion while being filmed from above. It reminded me of one of those old MGM musical swimming pool numbers. What was uncanny about it for me was we’re so used to everything being done with computers and special effects that choreographing 5 men with sledgehammers is a rare treat that is easily taken for granted in this day and age.

The moral here is that it seems like there’s something decidedly old fashioned going on these days. The Adjustment Bureau was focused more on a love story than actio; Source Code put ideas first over all that boom boom pow stuf; Fast Five was a fun big budget B-movie with action sequences where one could see what was actually going on and now Water for Elephants gives us two great elements of American storytelling: Prohibition and the circus. It’s not a great movie, but it easily brings to mind the greats that made us fall in love with going to the movies in the first place.

Jacob (Twilight’s Robert Pattinson) is on the verge of graduating from veterinary school when he catches wind of his parent’s death in a tragic car crash. Distraught and lost, Jacob packs up his few belongings and heads for the train tracks. The train he hops on just so happens to belong to the circus.
Here Jacob meets two key people in his journey: Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) the beautiful star of the show and her husband August (Christoph Waltz) who is also the ruthless owner of the circus. Jacob convinces August to hire him on as a live in vet, something that those Ringling Brothers don’t have and Jacob quickly becomes August’s right hand man.

However, the relationship isn’t smooth. When August orders Jacob to repair the leg of Marlena’s star horse he diagnoses the situation as a lost cause and kills the animal to relieve it of its pain. This incident forces August to invest in a new star attraction: an elephant that Marlena and Jacob both love and bond over but August believes to be a dumb beast that better make his investment back for the struggling road show and who he treats with cruelty and anger.

As the story goes, Jacob is horrified by August’s treatment of the elephant while also falling in love with Marlena and trying to hide an affair from August that would set him off, prompting one of his favourite pass times which involves throwing passengers off the moving train.

Director Francis Lawrence and his cinematographer do a good job of capturing the beauty and magic of both the American countryside as well as the circus itself, which brings to mind fond memories of Fellini’s best films about the circus as well as Hal Ashby’s illuminating cross country depression tale Bound for Glory.

It ultimately makes sense that most of the film’s pleasure is derived from its ability to be nostalgic without becoming a simplification, which is helped greatly by present day bookends as the invaluable Hal Holbrook narrates the tale. The story itself is run-of-the-mill and drags in the centre when there’s a lot of training of an elephant that, to be honest, doesn’t have much personality. And yet the film captures the freedom and dread of a time period in which riding the rails, having no connection to anything but the next stop and the next show, was both majestic and frightening because, although freedom has it’s certain poetry, it also comes with the harsh reality that a time will come when one either has to grow up or die off.

From a technical point of view, the film’s greatest asset is the presence of Christoph Waltz, who so deservedly won his best supporting actor Oscar for Inglorious Basterds and is now, one film at a time, proving himself an invaluable presence. August is more of less the drive that keeps the story going as he represents the drama that exists between the two star-crossed lovers. What Waltz does is not so much make August a villain, as a man who so determinedly knows nothing but his own way and that way is force and cruelty. Although August is manipulative and heartless he is never evil so much as he is a desperate man trying to keep afloat in a desperate time. It’s the one human element that allows the film to rise above simple nostalgia and be good in its own right.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Something Borrowed

Something Borrowed starts with a problem right out of the gate. Let’s explain the story first. Rachel (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Darcy (Kate Hudson) are best friends and have been so for just about all their lives. Rachel has just turned 30 and Darcy is engaged to Dex (Colin Egglesfield, doubling for Tom Cruise circa 1985) who went to law school with Rachel. Thing is, as these things must go, the passive Rachel never told the hunk Dex that she was madly in love with him because, well, guys like him aren't interested in girls like her, despite the fact that he never told her that he felt the same. Now he’s with Darcy, the loud, alcohol swilling, extrovert, but having doubts and no one knows what to do, especially after he sleeps with Rachel.

The problem is that Darcy is so insufferably stupid, selfish and vain that there is never one reason to honestly believe that Rachel would be best friends with her or Dex would want to marry her. The point of a plot like this is the tension created by the common moral dilemma of wanting what’s right for all of the characters but not quite knowing what that should be. In this case the answer is simple: Dex should tell Darcy the truth about Rachel and both of them should get the hell away from her as quickly as possible and live happily ever after.

But as the plot continues to twist and turn upon itself one realizes that not since Closer have three characters so thoroughly deserved one another. Something Borrowed is so clueless that it wraps all of this up into a what is supposed to be accepted as a cute little romantic comedy although it’s hard to laugh at people who are so dumb, so oblivious and just make you want to run up to them, grab them firmly by the shoulders and smack some sense into them.

There’s also a fourth character, Ethan, played by The Office’s John Krasinski who is a friend of Rachel, male, single, not gay and apparently only along for the ride to be charming support. Right. Krasinski could indeed be charming in his sleep and in turn walks away with the film, but apparently neither Ethan nor Rachel have seen any bad romantic comedies before because if they did they would recognize that whenever a name is cast in a major role, especially the fourth player in a love triangle story, they ain’t around to sit and watch from the sidelines. And if you consider that a spoiler you're giving the movie too much credit and yourself not enough.

But of course neither of them knows that, because nobody in this movie knows anything. The story, taken from the New York Times Bestseller of the same name, revolves around what Roger Ebert commonly refers to as the Idiot Plot in which twists and turns are laid upon one another despite the logical realization that if just one character would say one thing the entire story would crumble to pieces and a lot of headaches would be saved.

The movie was written by Jennie Snyder whose previous work has all been in TV, which makes sense as she constantly pushes the characters around into different directions with no real insight or clear vision of where any of this is going, except to build to a cliff-hanger before breaking for next week’s episode. We are therefore treated to sloppy, incompetent plotting. Take for example Ethan’s big scene, the only honest one in the entire movie, where he reveals something that should naturally take the plot into its logical conclusion, only to have him drop completely out of the film. But of course, God forbid any of these characters redeem themselves and their stupid, foolish actions and end up with the person they actually should be with.

In essence, for a story like this to work, which keeps getting more and more complex as each new revelation pops up, it needs to be tied around an object, which is something that keeps the story grounded and acts as its centre. The plot of Something Borrowed is woven around a ball of smoke which quickly evaporates as the film weaves an emotional tapestry around nothing at all until it arrives at a conclusion that I won't reveal but that I'll tell you is dead wrong. But hey, some people: if they don't know, ya can't tell 'em.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Fast Five

Fast Five ends with a chase sequence about as ridiculously improbable as you can imagine. It involves two cars and a huge safe chained to the back of both of them. They speed down the streets of downtown Rio, where there is remarkably little traffic in the way, while every corrupt police officer in the city is in hot pursuit.

Logic dictates that this is not humanly possible; that the safe would be so heavy that it surely it would jerk the cars right off the road. Yes it would, and don’t call me Shirley.

The point is, there’s a lot of stupid stuff that happens in Fast Five, and it’s to be cherished. Bad movies will leave you with no other desire than to pick them apart; their every idiocy glaring. But a good movie will leave you having too much fun to care and Fast Five is high-wire, pedal-to-the-metal, guilty pleasure type stuff. Finally someone got the memo that action movies can be fun again. The thing to cherish about the first 2 Fast & Furious movies was that they had A-movie budgets with B-movie minds. They didn’t have a brain in their head and made that a quality not a downfall. The series has finally found that again.

It also helps that director Justin Lin (behind the wheel so-to-speak for the third time) has finally mastered the car chase. It’s a delicate art and although Lin’s hand is not as smooth and assured as Rob Cohen or John Singleton before him, he’s finally learned, after the depressingly awfule Fast & Furious, the value of the long shot and how it’s okay to be able to see everything that is going on.

The most important element at work here is also that Lin finally appreciates the importance of distance and space.

Chase sequences work off the premise that, first, the audience feels motion, which is created by swift and extended camera moves and logical editing that creates some sort of reality so that we understand where all the players are in the action and where they are in relation to one another. The importance of camera movement is that action works on the excitement of motion and since the audience’s only connection to the action is that camera, the camera must work with what it is capturing in order to give the audience the sensation of being part of the movement.

The second thing action must do is create danger. One of my favourite action movie shots is in Casino Royale as James Bond chases a baddie atop a high crane is Madagascar. The camera flies in with a shot of the crane as the pursuit goes on. The shot is long and wide and flies over top of the hero with the ground always being visible. It’s more exciting than anything else I can think of. They are really up there and they could really fall.

Fast Five opens with an amazing action sequence that involves stealing cars off a speeding train. You know you're in good hands when you get the wide shot as the camera flies in towards the train. As cars are taken off the locomotive in an ingenious and improbable scheme we see all the possibilities from all sides: the ground speeding by below, the desert landscape, the bridge coming up, the drop just beyond it. The real stuff that could kill you that exists outside of this impossible moment. It’s the perfect package. That’s action.

The reason I bring boring old theory into the equation to discuss Fast Five is that a film such as itself needs theory as the only way to justify such ridiculousness. This is a film in which men ramp cars out of speeding trains, take free falls over cliff sides, jump from rooftop to rooftop, barge through concrete walls and glass panes in rabid fist fights and yes, drag a safe down the streets of Rio. If it wasn’t made well it would be a disaster. It’s made very well, with a wink and a nod, and we cherish, not only that we needn’t take it too seriously, but that it takes itself just seriously enough to be made with precision and quality. The film knows what it's doing.

So now the story in brief: After springing Domenic Toretta (Vin Diesel) out of jail he and O’Conner (Paul Walker) escape to Rio where they plan on doing one last job (the train job). Problem is, they partner with a local drug kingpin who has every corrupt cop in Rio in his back pocket so when the job goes south it leads to two subplots, one of which is exciting and the other, at 130 minutes running time, is overkill. The first is that the men, on the run from the Rio goons decide it will be their really last job to rob the kingpin of his savings which is kept in a safe at the local police station. They call up colleagues from former endeavours along with some new faces and get a team together.

Meanwhile, the cars stolen belonged to the Feds so they ship in Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson),a tough-as-nails, no BS, get-the-job-done type of cop who’s t-shirt always seems about 2 sizes too small over his bursting muscles and who's forehead always looks like it just came out of a torrential downpour. Although Johnson’s presence into the serious is more than welcome and he plays Hobbs on that thin line between driven and comedy (walking away with the film’s best line), he feels like an afterthought and spends the entire middle section of the film off screen.

There’s only really so much you can say about a film like Fast Five. Either you buy it and go along for the ride or you don’t. Maybe what I cherish most about this series is that A) Lin injects a nice amount of human scenes into the film that allow it to slow down, take a breather and make us care about the characters and (B), when it gets fired back up, even though it does employ CGI, for the most part the stunts and chases feel authentic. They may be ridiculous, but we feel like they are actually happening. And really if you don’t know what your going to get by the fifth time around you maybe never will. I went in looking for a hell of a ride. That’s about what I got.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

One MInutes Review - NIghtmare on Elm Street

No one, I think, with a logical mind will be able to accept anything that happens in the remake of Wes Craven's popular slasher flick Nightmare on Elm Street. That was a problem with the original too, but at least that one had a sense of fun about it and was derived from an interesting concept. This new one pads all of it's illogical wanderings with a cold and ugly palette to boot.

The problem is Freddy Kruger. He doesn't make sense and with no rules to govern his existence and power he's less a horror movie villain and more a convenience for a screenwriter who wants to make it up as he goes along. The first scene takes place in a diner. A kid follows a waitress into the back only to find Kruger. He wakes up at his table, his hand bleeding from the dream attack. This scene of course presupposes (maybe correctly, but regardless) that everyone will be familiar with the character and understand his existence. Then the kid is greeted by a teen girl. He tells her he hasn't slept in 3 days until nodding off and stabbing himself in the throat in front of her.

Now here's the kicker. After the funeral, 3 other teenagers all start getting haunted in their sleep by Kruger. If we're to believe the plot (Spoilers if you care) they have all, unbeknowst to them, known each other since grade school, where they all came into contact with Kruger before he was murdered by their parents. Weird. Have they not been sleeping since; did they just not realize Kruger was in their dreams until today; or did he just magically decide that hey, now that one's dead, I might as well take the other 3 now as well?

This is all wrapped up into an incoherent mess by a music video director who directs the film as if each dream is one in a sequence of vignettes until each teen is picked off one by one by this mysterious force who comes and goes as he wishes, follows no logical arch as a character and goes through the motions that we've all been accustomed to since the original film dropped in the 80s.