1/8/10

IT'S COMPLICATED LACKS COMPLEXITY AND REALITY


Love in the time of croissants!

It’s Complicated
Directed and written by Nancy Meyers

Universal, (rated R),118 mins.
* * *

It’s Complicated has hit theaters in time for Oscar season. It’s an enjoyable enough two-hour escape, though it’s as light and gauzy as a July breeze. Summer is the season the film should have been released as it’s entirely too inconsequential to be taken seriously for cinema prizes.

The film is written and directed by Nancy Meyers, among whose past credits is What Women Want. If we are to trust It’s Complicated, apparently one of the things women want is a filthy rich ex-husband whose divorce settlement includes enough dough to ensconce them in dream houses with ocean views on a peninsula near Santa Barbara, and the capital to open a string of upscale pastry shops! This film is being billed as a “smart film” about divorce and dating past fifty, but it’s about as realistic as Cher’s body. The film shows that Hollywood has no friggin’ idea of how an obscure tribe known as “Americans” actually lives!

The storyline is simple. Jane (Meryl Streep) and her philandering ex-husband Jake (Alec Baldwin) have been divorced for a decade. He’s now a successful law partner married to a much younger woman (Lake Bell) and the surrogate father for her monstrous son. He’ll also be a future dad if she gets her way, more than a problem as he’s already a father to three young-adult children by Jane. At their son’s graduation in New York—from Columbia, natch—no one in this film ever saw the inside of a state college—Jake and Jane’s mutual animosity is dulled by drink and they end up in the sack. Fabulous sex and shared history lead Jake to contemplate whether reconciliation is possible, while Jane seems more content to be a mistress.

That’s complicated, but it gets more so when Adam (Steve Martin) shows up. He’s the architect designing the “addition” to Jane’s home, one that’s roughly the size and budget of most rural townships. Jane and Adam are attracted to one another and are clearly a good match, but Jake won’t go away and Jane keeps falling for his moves. The humor of the film derives from sit-com setups such as trying to keep the secrecy lid on the affair, Jane sharing naughty tales with her girlfriends, trying to keep the kids in the dark, and attempting to keep Jake off Jane’s bod. The drama? Will Jane and Adam get together, or will Jane blow it?

There is a lot of self-indulgence going on here, starting with the cheap emotion that Meyers wrings from older women’s revenge fantasies of being the “other” woman in a triangle involving younger blood. But do we believe, for instance, that Donald Trump would dump his eye candy du jour to get back together with Ivana? And do we believe that anyone has a family as perfect as Jane’s? Her brood aren’t kids; they’re perfectly scrubbed wide-eyed puppies that are so darn cute we want to pet them. The youngest daughter goes off to college in Jane’s spare car, a pristine Prius, for heaven’s sake, and her older, recently engaged sister lives in a house big enough for half of California to party in. Thank goodness for John Krasinski’s fine turn as son-in-law-to-be Harley; he’s the only believable character among the younger set and he has fine comedic timing as well.

But wait, it gets more fantastic. Jane is also a world-class chef—she’s the Julia Child of paramours. The film is rated R for “sexual situations” and language, but it could have earned the rating for its food porn—piles of croissants, perfectly baked chickens, gooey chocolate cake, and refrigerator shelves groaning under the weight of comestibles…. The food scenes are great fun and, if you ask me, the concession stand should be serving √©clairs and veal scaloppini. But they are another measure of how this is Hollywood’s view of the world. Interestingly enough, all the women are thin. (Another Meyers fantasy?)

Still, the film is not a bad way to wile away time. There are a few chuckles and Streep is, as always, wonderful. She adds dimensionality to an underwritten character and is convincingly confused and conflicted one moment, and business-like competent and decisive the next. The film is really her vehicle and she drives it with professional skill. Also wonderful is Steve Martin, whose acting skills are much underrated. His manic energy is in check in this film, and he plays Jake as saintly, but vulnerable.

As for Alec Baldwin, mixed reviews. We must applaud his courage for putting his (considerable) body on display for laughs. He’s not porky; he’s fat! Not since Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler have we seen such male ruin upon the screen. He has a tough role to play in that he must convince us simultaneously that he’s bad news, but that he could nonetheless get the brainy Jane to follow her libido instead her smarts. Baldwin’s is a dance between charm and smarm. Mostly it works, but not well enough that we ever think that Jane should do anything other than take out a restraining order.

Our advice: partake of the film as you would Jane’s sinful pastries. Savor the sweetness, but don’t overindulge. And for heaven’s sake, don’t believe a moment of it.


UP IN THE AIR
Directed and (co)written by Jason Reitman
Rated R (language and brief dorsal nudity), 109 mins.

* * * * *

The opening moments of Up in the Air are as crisp as anything we’ve seen in recent cinema. As Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings sing a reggae-and-blues version of “The Land is Your Land” quick cut montages of aerial skyline photos flash by until they seem like so many interchangeable computer mother boards. Then Reitman takes us from apartment to a business class airline seat as Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) packs, checks-in, and waltzes through airport security as only a seasoned traveler could do. Clooney wields his roll-on case, slips off his loafers, and snaps open his laptop with the precision of a drill team.

This movie opens sharp and keep its edge. It is one of the smartest American comedies made in quite a while. Some viewers have complained that it doesn’t satisfy as a “romantic comedy.” Get over it and prepare to be challenged a bit—this is a black comedy along the lines of other Reitman projects such as Juno and Thank You for Smoking.

Like the latter film, Reitman’s target is cutthroat corporate America. Bingham is a buttery smooth sleaze ball, a for-hire terminator who delivers the bad news to employees whose companies have decided to fire them. Reitman doesn’t preach at us, but there’s little doubt that he sees Big Business execs as heartless bastards seeking to line their own pockets and using the recession as their excuse. Bingham lays on the smarm as he fires with amoral efficiency masquerading as dispensing new opportunities for those whose lives he’s shattering. In fact, he’s only happy when he’s on the road and spreading bad news. His only regret is the forty-three days per year he’s not traveling; in his bleak Omaha apartment he’s like a sleek panther in a small cage.

Bingham’s conceited complacency is challenged by two women. The first is Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga). Alex is in the same game and is so like Ryan that when she tells him, “Think of me as you, except with a vagina,” we know exactly what she means. The two have a torrid affair, geographical logistics notwithstanding. The second femme fatale is Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a whelp just out of college whose plan to rationalize the firing process threatens guys like Ryan and impresses their boss, Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman). Ryan is forced to take Natalie on the road, insecure in the knowledge that he might be downsizing himself if she succeeds.

It would spoil it to say how any of this plays out, but the details aren’t really what makes this film special. Early on, a man Ryan is about to fire looks him in the eye and asks, “Who the f**k are you?” and that’s exactly what we’re asked to consider. Are we what we do? What we know? Our values? (Tough in Ryan’s case as he’s a universe of one.) Who we love? What is need, and what is merely desire? These are questions with which Ryan grapples, especially when he’s doing his moonlight gig as a motivational speaker delivering a clich√©-laden spiel centering on a backpack. (Reitman leaves little doubt that he sees motivational speakers as charlatans preying upon morons.) There’s a subplot—not quite as crisply handled—in which Ryan is forced to reconnect with his estranged sisters. Will Ryan will have an emotional breakthrough bordering on values clarification? Stay with it; Reitman mostly avoids easy answers. (In fact, an awkwardly placed montage of recently fired workers, though based on real testimony, seems so mawkishly contrived that one suspects that Reitman simply doesn’t do sentimentality very well.)

There are gaps in the plot and a nitpicker would argue that five stars is one or two too many, but the performances and witty script overcome an occasionally frayed narrative. Clooney is superb as Bingham. He may be the most suave actor since Cary Grant, but he does something Grant seldom did: he plays against type. His Ryan Bingham is swathed in silk, but a crumbled Willy Loman lurks behind the eye bags. Farmiga plays Alex as an ice queen so smart and sexy that she freezes even Ryan’s cynicism. We smell a Best Supporting Actress Oscar here. Anna Kendrick has a harder role and would be a good candidate herself, if her comedic chops were more refined and less histrionic. Her Natalie Keener must convince us that she grasps much of the Big Picture, but that the missing 10% reveals her for what she is: a kid in adult drag who hasn’t found the boundary between surface competence and inner confidence. But give her credit for being noticed at all given the power with which Clooney and Farmiga command the screen.

See this film, but leave your warm fuzzies at home. It is screamingly funny in places, but there’s always a raised stiletto poised above the punch line. Indeed, as Reitman reminds us, in life no one gets out alive.

1/6/10

MARMITE THIEF NABBED


Friends don't let friends steal or eat Marmite.
From Kingsthorpe, England comes to woeful tale of Nicholas Welch recently nabbed for four separate mass heists of Marmite. For those of you living in a state of grace who have no concept of either what Marmite is or the pathetic nature of Welch’s crime, a small primer.

Marmite is a yeast-based product that’s akin to what one might get if one mixed congealed motor oil, library paste, sand, soy sauce, and salt. We’re talking lots of salt—enough salt to de-ice the wintery streets of a small town! For reasons known only to English people and God—though a spokesperson for the Deity admitted that even God has doubts—lots of folks in the British Isles and former colonies like the stuff. One spreads it thinly on toast, flavors cheese sandwiches with it, or dilutes it in water to serve as a hot beverage, presumably in parts of the U.K. where no one has heard of coffee. For most of the non-English world, Marmite is about as vile a substance as can be legally sold as food. To steal Marmite is on par with shoplifting Spam. No—check that; Spam is like prime rib when compared to Marmite.

Welch’s one-man Marmite spree nearly shut down the trade in his area. In total he made off with at least six dozen jars of the brown sludge, forcing some stores to keep it under the counter where they keep things such as Zig-Zag papers for pot smokers. But now he’s been apprehended, Marmite is making its way back onto English shelves and calm has been restored to England’s mountains green and pleasant pastures seen. To Nicholas Welch we offer this free legal advice: seek a change in venue outside of the U.K. and plead insanity. There’s not a jury that would convict you!


1/3/10

AVATAR: HYPE OVER HEFT

Na'Vi defeats Marine Corps in titanic struggle.

AVATAR
Directed and written by James Cameron
Twentieth Century-Fox, 162 mins.
*

So now we have it—James Cameron’s Avatar. We’re told that that Cameron (Titanic) spent fifteen years developing the story and waiting for technology to evolve before filming his $300 million spectacular. For comparison’s sake, J. R. R. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings trilogy in two years and used a typewriter. Peter Jackson filmed all three Tolkien books for what it cost Cameron to make Avatar. What we learn from this is that James Cameron is no Peter Jackson and he’s sure as hell no J. R. R. Tolkien. This is easily the most-hyped film in recent memory; alas, it’s almost one of the most unoriginal, overrated, and boring.

Ty Burr of The Boston Globe was the first to observe that Cameron’s script is identical to that of Dances With Wolves. Replace the Indians with exceedingly tall blue creatures that are a cross between elves, humans, and bipedal hairless cats, and you have the Na’Vi, our good guys. Take the 19th century U.S. Cavalry and make them into 22nd century U.S. Marines and you’ve got half of your bad guys. Mix in dozens of Earth post-apocalyptic films, transport the Garden of Eden to the moon Pandora, let the human race collectively stand in for the serpent, and you’re most of the way there. Oh yeah, include a pinch from Utopian novels in which a cynical observer—Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in this case—slowly goes native. Then assemble a pastiche from other sci-fi projects—the man-in-machine suits from RoboCop and Toy Story, the mining equipment from Dune, spaceships from Star Wars, the oversized guns from Escape from New York, the piloted pterodactyls of Dinotopia, and armor-plate the fauna of Jurassic Park—turn the entire thing into a video game and a saccharine romance, call it the “next generation of computer animation,” and wait for the shekels and accolades to accumulate. It must be serious sci-fi, right? After all it has Sigourney-Alien-Weaver in the role of research scientist Dr. Grace Augustine.

The story that took fifteen years to tell? The Earth is a wasteland, but commerce continues. A valuable mineral—that does what, exactly?—is being mined on Pandora, 4.3 light years from Earth. The natives are in the way of progress and the military industrial complex—embodied in cowboy Marine Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) and corporate man-on-the-ground Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi)—want the problem resolved. Dr. Augustine has figured out a way for humans to transfer their brainwaves to cloned Na’Vi bodies, the avatars of the title. Jake Sully, a paraplegic ex-Marine, gets the call when his highly trained brother dies because his DNA is compatible with the avatar body. (Apparently Sully also got the assignment because of his ability to parse lines lifted from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness while channeling Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now.) His mission is to convince the arboreal Na’Vi to relocate, but because he’s also supposed to supply complete tactical information on the vulnerabilities of their giant (and we mean giant) tree homeland, what are the chances that gung-ho Colonel Quaritch will wait? Gee, I wonder if Sully’s going to find his sleek, mobile body preferable to his wheelchair? And do you think, just because it’s telegraphed from the start, that he and his female mentor Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) will fall in love? Toss in nature-based spiritualism that’s a horrendous stereotype of Plains Indians religion, give the Na’Vi a chant ritual that’s lifted from the Balinese monkey chant sequence in Baraka, and just for kicks give them the power to transfer the living essence of a dying being into the body of a Na’vi in ways that look suspiciously akin to a Vulcan rite in Star Trek, and all we can conclude is that it took Cameron fifteen years to plagiarize.

So how about the f/x? We suppose there is magic in some of this, though it hardly matches the ballyhoo. After a while, though, even Cameron’s fantasy world wears thin. Garish colors call attention to the fact that this is all CGI. It also signals what this film really is: a giant video game—cool, except that Cameron has his mitts on the joystick and we can do is watch. In the last quarter of the film lots of things go boom in a big way. The forces of Mordor gather—Oh wait, wrong film…. Will the evil Earthlings wipe out the peaceful Na’Vi? Will evil Colonel Quaritch kill Jake in a final mano e mano struggle? You can answer those question without taxing your grey cells. Avatar is nothing more than expensive paint-by-the-numbers filmmaking. From where we sit Avatar is titanic mess that left us feeling as blue as a Na’Vi.