Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

2010 Film Roundup, Part 3: Noteworthy Films

Scott Pilgrim Versus the World: This one might not be for everybody, but a certain crowd will really love it, and find it one of the most entertaining and creative films of the year. Director Edgar Wright was the perfect fit to adapt Brian Lee O'Malley's alternative comic book about young, slacker love, struggling bands and gaming culture. Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) falls for cool indie chick Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), but to stay with her, he must defeat – in single combat – her seven evil exes. Along the way, he starts to question both whether it's worth it, and his past romantic choices.

Cera's a bit miscast as Scott Pilgrim, who's supposed to be something of a player with the ladies, albeit the thoughtless versus malicious kind. He's also supposed to be, in the comic books, "The best fighter in the province!" (This is set in Canada, after all.) Still, Cera grew on me throughout the film, and he can handle Scott's befuddled neurotic side with ease. The rest of the actors are well cast, and the entire film is just great fun. Mary Elizabeth Winstead strikes the right mix of studied disaffection and fleeting sincerity as Ramona, Alison Pill is memorable as cynical drummer Kim Pine, Jason Schwartzman oozes sleaze as mogul Gideon Graves, and Ellen Wong as young Knives Chau is both lovesick puppy and furious woman scorned. Kieran Culkin, Anna Kendrick, Brie Larson and Aubrey Plaza have a blast trying to see who can be the most bitchy (some charmingly, some not). Chris Evans and Brandon Routh poke fun at their own superhero images (Routh and his special Vegan Powers is particularly funny). The action sequences are played for both comedy and kineticism, and they're very well staged. But Wright never loses sight of the characters and the heart of his story. Unfortunately, the film didn't do well at the box office, because it had the misfortune of opening opposite The Expendables, which was a surprise hit across multiple demographics.

The film's fun, but it does have a deeper core. Normally, I wouldn't quote an interview at length, but Edgar Wright's discussion with Elvis Mitchell about Scott Pilgrim being "The hero as daydreamer" is superb:

Edgar Wright: I like the idea – and this was a little bit in Spaced, but it's very much in Scott Pilgrim, I like the idea, you could really, you know, use the metaphor that Scott Pilgrim as a gamer, has kind of become like a solipsist, in a way, in terms of that, he's not a bad person, but there are several times in the film where he's thoughtless. And so there's a feeling that life to him is a game in a sense.

Elvis Mitchell: Yeah, and there's kind of a slacker narcissism.

Edgar Wright: Absolutely...

Scott Pilgrim is conducting his emotional business in a way, that, mistakes that he's made that he hasn't thought twice about, and peoples' feelings that he hasn't thought twice about, eventually come to haunt him. And one of the things Brian Lee O'Malley said about Scott Pilgrim as a character, which was kind of the perfect note for Michael Cera, was that Scott Pilgrim is the hero of the movie playing inside his own head. And in a way, the film – and this takes the Spaced thing a bit further, because Spaced had a lot of dream sequences in it, and fantasy sequences, but they would always wake up or come out of the dream sequence, and Scott Pilgrim is like the dream sequence that never ends. Someone said this, I'm not going to claim this myself, but somebody else said it and I was very pleased they made this reference, 'Oh, it's kinda like a slacker Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie at the start!' (Laughter) And I'm thinking, well, that is very high praise indeed, and I'm sure some people would disagree, but I appreciate that. But you could if you wanted look at a dream sequence about twenty minutes into the film and say, the dream sequence never ends. That what we're watching is Scott Pilgrim as a character, is like, he's very charming if not very naïve, and it's almost, I see the film as him starting out of the train window (laughs) thinking up this crazy sort of, like, his crazy version of events.

We may all be the heroes of the movie playing inside our own heads, but few films have taken that concept and run with it as well as Scott Pilgrim Versus the World.

(Here's Edgar Wright on The Treatment and Fresh Air. There's a bonus piece at the Fresh Air link.)

Never Let Me Go: Director Mark Romanek does a good job of adapting Kazuo Ishiguro's elegiac and very internal novel. Kathy, Ruth and Tommy are schoolchildren at a British boarding school, with something unusual about it. The secret is revealed soon enough – the children are clones, being raised to serve as spare parts for other humans. What may be most disconcerting to American audiences is how accepting the clones are of their fate. Instead of a thriller (like The Island), this is a film about relationships, reflection, and mortality, as we follow our trio as children into young adulthood. It's a love story in an alternative world. Kathy falls in love with Tommy, who treats her warmly, but Ruth has snagged him for her own, and occasionally taunts Kathy over this. The novel dealt a great deal with their young selves, and the ways girls indirectly slight and apologize to each other. That's hard to film, and Romanek wisely focus more on the young adult portion. Carey Mulligan plays Kathy, the narrator who grounds the film. As good as Mulligan was in An Education, she's even better here, an old soul in a young body who can convey tremendous emotion just under the surface with a few subtle expressions. She's definitely an actress to watch. Andrew Garfield was good in The Social Network, but he's better here, too, capturing Tommy's slightly goofy, carefree spirit, especially in his bouncing run to a boat. Keira Knightley channels her inner mean girl as Ruth, but also sells Ruth's more gracious moments. Sally Hawkins is great as an idealistic, caring teacher, and Charlotte Rampling makes for an imposing headmistress.

Like Kazuo Ishiguro's other great novel, The Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go is moving, sad and wistful, and centers on a second-class citizen (or three) who rarely question their station or consider rebelling. Instead, the focus is on the choices they make, their internal lives, and what they make of the lives they have. Ishiguro has said he doesn't much care about the sci-fi elements and didn't want a thriller or anything like that; for him, it's how people face their own mortality that was most compelling. Romanek does a fine job overall, typically favoring understatement, which is the right approach for this type of material. He violates this a few times, though, especially near the ending. Once is with an obtrusive crash of sweeping music at a key point. The second is with an amendment to Kathy's last speech – Kathy says something more explicit, and perhaps safer and more comforting, than what she says in the book. I'd like to see the film again to see how that choice in particular strikes me on a second viewing. That said, Romanek and Garfield absolutely nail a wrenching scene with Tommy in the road, and the cast and crew do a splendid job at delivering many intimate moments. True to the book's aesthetic, this is a lovely and moving film, but a sad one.

(Here's Mark Romanek on The Treatment and Fresh Air, plus a bonus piece from All Things Considered.)

127 Hours: It's basically James Franco and director Danny Boyle with a camera in a canyon. Most viewers will probably know the true story of Aron Ralston before going in, but if you're squeamish, you'd best know what's in store. Young Aron is a wild man, a free spirit and extreme outdoorsman. He takes off to go canyon climbing for the weekend, as he often does, but doesn't leave any information about where he's gone. He runs into two young women in the canyon, and shows them a cool hidden pond, but after that, he's on his own. Climbing down a canyon, he puts his hand on a small boulder, which slips, and so does he, and the boulder lands on his hand, pinning him. The bulk of the film is Ralston facing his predicament, trying to work his way out, remembering his life, talking to his video camera, and occasionally hallucinating. He's a smart guy, and he tries several promising approaches to freeing himself, but he doesn't seem to have the right tools for the job. He also faces his own personal shortcomings, and confesses them on camera, as his confronts his likely mortal end. The climatic scene could have been shot much more gruesomely, and Boyle shows some restraint, but it's still grisly stuff. However, despite this central event, 127 Hours is pretty uplifting overall. Knowing the outcome means we focus more on how Aron faces his fate versus the fate itself, and this is how it should be. Franco is charismatic and gives an engaging, moving performance. Boyle delights in all the tricks of cinema as usual, using water bag zoom shots and flashbacks and dreams to break us out of the canyon – and also to push us further in and feel Ralston's entrapment. If you can stand the climatic scene, this is worth checking out.

(Here's James Franco on Fresh Air.)

True Grit: The Coen brothers team up with Jeff Bridges again, this time in a western. Based more on Charles Portis' book than a remake of the 1969 John Wayne flick, True Grit centers on a young girl hiring a federal marshal to hunt down the man who killed her father. But while the marshal, Rooster Cogburn, does have "true grit," he's also a drunkard, and a very tarnished knight. Bridges overdoes the mumbling, but otherwise makes a good Cogburn, nailing his crusty, cynical, darkly comic nature. ("Ground's too hard. Them men wanted a decent burial, they should have got themselves killed in summer.") He also handles the lighter comic moments with ease, as well as those few instances when his better side shines through all the tarnish. Young Hailee Steinfeld is fantastic as the plucky, unswayable Mattie Ross, who insists on accompanying Cogburn after the killer, Tom Cheney (Josh Brolin). Stanfield handles the mannered period prose with deftness and relish, and her horse-trading bouts with a local merchant are a particular joy. Matt Damon does a nice job as LeBoeuf, an initially standoffish Texas Ranger who teams up with Cogburn to catch Cheney for a reward on his head. The banter's sharp, and the Coens have a great feel for the western aesthetic, helped immensely by the impeccable cinematography of Roger Deakins (long overdue for an Oscar). This True Grit has its humor, but it's much less sentimental than the John Wayne flick. That's most welcome, but unfortunately, the ending scenes feel emotionally disconnected from what's preceded. The murder of Mattie's father is also barely shown at the start, which is odd considering it's the inciting incident. Despite a few misfires, though, this is a solid film, well worth checking out for Hailee Steinfeld if nothing else.

(Here's the Coens on Fresh Air. I particularly like this line about Steinfeld: "To a large extent, 99.99 percent of the girls who auditioned for this role just washed out at the level of the vocal qualities, and not being able to get their mouths around the language." Damn, do I love good vocal work.)

Toy Story 3: Andy is going off to college, and struggles with saying goodbye to his beloved troupe of toys, who are anxious not to be abandoned. A series of accidents leads our crew to Sunnyside Daycare, where they're greeted by the grandfatherly Lots-o'-Huggin' Bear (voiced by Ned Beatty). At first, they're encouraged by what they see, and Barbie is especially excited to meet Ken (Michael Keaton), and tour his dream house. But all is not as it appears. Our heroes are stuck with the youngest kids, who treat the toys savagely. Lotso is not as kindly as he first seems, and something odd has happened to Buzz. Toy Story 3 becomes a prison break film (as were the other two, to some degree), and an awfully entertaining, inventive one at that. This film is definitely the last of the series, and the very end was too protracted for my tastes. However, the opening sequence is a sheer delight, and many of the other bits, like Spanish Buzz Lightyear, are great fun. It's a solid entry in the Pixar canon.

(Here's the filmmakers on Fresh Air.)

How to Train Your Dragon: How can you say no to dragons and Vikings with Scottish accents? How to Train Your Dragon is the tale of misfit Viking Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III (voiced by Jay Baruchel), a scrawny kid with a talent for tinkering, who has the misfortune of being the son of Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler), the most studly of all the stubborn town's dragon-slayers. Stoick tries, but he just doesn't understand his son Hiccup, and Hiccup's erstwhile mentor, Gobber the Belch (Craig Ferguson) doesn't fare much better. There are many varieties of dragons, and learning about them is one of the fun things about the movie. But no one has ever seen the rare and deadly Night Fury. During a nighttime dragon attack, Hiccup hits one with his homemade net gun, but no one believes him. He goes in search of it, but when he finds the sleek, cat-like creature, he can't bear to kill it – and thus begins an unusual, slowly growing friendship. As Hiccup shouts out later, "Everything we know about them is wrong!" How to Train Your Dragon winds up being immensely fun. We've seen coming-of-age stories countless times before, but it's well-handled here, as are the elements of friendship, budding romance, the special bond between a boy and his dragon, and most of all the sheer joy of flying. Jay Baruchel makes a good reluctant hero, and the supporting cast of buffoons, warriors and wannabes have plenty of fine moments. I actually enjoyed this more than Toy Story 3, and it's hard to believe how many directors this film went through and how last-minute changes it saw, since the final result seemed pretty smooth.

Fair Game: Chronicling the real-life trials of Valerie Plame Wilson, Fair Game walks us through a sordid scandal that should have claimed more heads. Valerie was a CIA agent, deep undercover, and her outspoken husband Joe was a diplomat who served in Iraq and several African nations, including Niger. The CIA sent Joe Wilson to Niger to investigate Bush administration claims about Iraq obtaining uranium from there. He concluded they were bogus. After the war started, he wrote an op-ed in The New York Times, "What I Didn't Find in Africa," which exposed one of the central lies the Bush administration used to justify invading Iraq. As a result, the Bush White House launched a campaign to discredit and destroy him, which included outing his wife's cover – Karl Rove reportedly said she was "fair game." Naomi Watts and Sean Penn are very good as Valerie and Joe Wilson. Joe is well-intentioned and loves his wife, but he's also got a big ego and is a bit of a blowhard. In contrast, Valerie enjoys doing a great job with no recognition outside the CIA, and positively hates the limelight, and the attention Joe brings on their family. Joe only knows that a great wrong has been done, and he's crusading for justice, but the resulting fallout threatens both their jobs, and their marriage. There's a scene near the end which felt a bit forced and treacly to me, but apart from that, Fair Game is filmmaking for adults. Director Doug Liman manages to capture a fairly complicated story and make it digestible and understandable in a narrative film. It also shows the Wilsons, warts and all, which is a nice dose of realism. Fair Game might not be everyone's cup of tea, but seeing the Wilsons' relationship, and the human cost of political perfidy by extremely powerful men, is what makes it compelling.

(Here's The Business on the film, and a 2007 Fresh Air interview with Valerie Plame Wilson.)

Kick-Ass: Kick-Ass is a dark, violent comedy, definitely not for kids, despite the age of some of its heroes. Young Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) decides he wants to be a real-life super-hero, sets out to fight crime, and promptly gets severely injured. The treatment he receives leaves him resilient to pain, and he returns to fighting crime, still awfully naïve and earnest, but a little wiser and more skilled than before. Along the way, he meets the super-hero father-daughter team of Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage) and Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz). They want to take down the local crime boss, Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong), whose son Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) desperately wants to impress his father. Cage has great fun playing a Batman clone, clipping his speech and generally acting like a well-intentioned but obsessive loon. Moretz is amazing in a breakout performance. The film fully exploits the shock value of a young girl swearing profusely, and going full ninja with extremely gymnastic, intricate and violent moves. It's all terribly wrong, but awfully entertaining. Johnson is good as Dave/Kick-Ass, and what gives the film its core is his basic decency, including his sweetness with the girl he pines for, Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca). Director Matthew Vaughn, who also directed Layer Cake, has a good feel for outsiders, teens, action and black comedy. Kick-Ass is a nice tonic to the more overblown super-hero flicks, but it is a solid R, and certainly not for all audiences.

(Here's Matthew Vaughn on The Treatment.)

Inside Job: It's a film about the biggest heist in history – and the bad news is that it's real – and the villains have gotten big paydays versus going to jail. Inside Job looks into the 2008 global economic collapse, and what – and who - caused it. You might have to watch this documentary (winner of Best Documentary Feature) in small chunks if you value your blood pressure. If you've followed these matters closely, some of what Inside Job shows won't be new. However, it still supplies some revealing moments, especially in the steady stream of on-camera denials (and self-denial) from men (they're nearly all men) who claim to see no conflict of interest in issuing "expert" opinions without disclosing how they financially benefit from them. The style is mostly talking heads, but it's well done, and one of the best single primers on the whole affair. The disc has plenty of extended interviews that couldn’t be included in the final cut. (Director Charles Ferguson also made the excellent Iraq War doc No End in Sight.)

(Here's Ferguson on Charlie Rose and the film's website.)

Marwencol: This documentary focuses on Mark Hogancamp, who was beaten nearly to death by several men outside a bar, and suffered significant brain injuries. He simply can't remember key portions of his own life. When the money for therapy dries up, he decides to focus his energies into building Marwencol, a fictional town in Belgium in WWII. Using G.I. Joes, Barbies and other dolls, he populates the town with a version of himself and other people he knows in real life (and also some fictional ones). His avatar/counterpart is an American soldier, lost behind enemy lines. He connects with the Belgian resistance, and opens a bar in a the town where everyone can have a good time. His attackers, naturally, are portrayed as Nazis, who abuse the citizens of the town, and capture and torture him. His Marwencol tales center on violence, sex and camaraderie. Marwencol is an odd but memorable film, and it's one of the best portraits of art as therapy, as Mark tries to express and exorcise his demons through his increasingly elaborate town. Director Jeff Malmberg, normally an editor by trade, worked on Marwencol between other projects over the course of several years. In the film, he slowly unveils more and more about Mark himself, changing our views of him somewhat. This film was very hard to catch in theaters, often playing at an art house venue for only a single weekend, but it's worth a look. Some of the proceeds from the film go to help Mark Hogancamp.

(Here's filmmaker Jeff Malmberg on The Treatment, a segment on The Business about marketing it, and the film's website.)

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