Sunday, July 26, 2009

Not Without My Daughter: There May Be Something Wrong with Esther, But There Isn’t Something Wrong With “Orphan”

Esther is one mean bitch! She is evil incarnate and she certainly shames little Damien from “The Omen.” Heck, even Macaulay Culkin from “The Good Son” would be crying for his mommy if he ever met Esther. Esther, a little Russian 9 year-old orphan, is played brilliantly by Isabelle Fuhrman. Dakota Fanning better watch her back cause a new child actor is in town! “Orphan” is an “evil child” movie in which a child, who is the main focus of the story does evil things and there’s a mystery to discover a) why a child is doing such evil things or b) figure out an explanation for why evil things are occurring. Of course when it comes to b, we the audience usually know what’s going on but the other characters don’t. In fact Orphan is pretty neat in that it gives us both a and b. We know there’s something up with Esther, but we don’t really know what. We know she’s bad and scary but we don’t know why. And we enjoy watching the other characters fumble around trying to come with an explanation about why children are getting pushed off playgrounds and why nuns are getting hammered. Literally.

We’re introduced to all-American Connecticut couple Kate and John (Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard) who has just lost a child. Kate recently miscarried and its taken a huge toll on her. We see her in therapy and we learn she is a recovering alcoholic. Even though Kate and John have two other kids - a young daughter named Max (Aryana Engineer, super cute and super good) who is almost completely deaf and an older son named Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) – they decide that they want to adopt a child. They end up at a local school for little girls and there is where they meet Esther. She paints instead of playing with the other youn girls; and there’s a reason. She Russian and she wears dresses instead of more traditional little girl clothes; and there’s a reason. She’s proper, articulate and intelligent; and there’s a reason.

Kate and John think they’ve adopted the nicest young girl on the planet but what they don’t know is that she’s a conniving little bitch who kills people and has serious mental stability problems. She even pushes a fellow schoolgirl off the playground when she’s made fun of early in class. What is great about “Orphan” is knowing right away that Esther is evil. We’ve all seen the TV ads, so we’re not surprised when ominous music begins to play whenever she’s comes onscreen. Why don’t know why she’s evil or where she really came from and that’s what makes the movie fun to figure out. First time screenwriter, David Johnson has actually crafted a pretty decent script for such a standard type of thriller. And Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra – who gave such a surreal and creepy vibe to the “House of Wax” remake – manages to wrangle out some pretty tense situations. His handling of certain scenes with the deaf Max, who Esther implicates in some of her dastardly crimes, is very well done. He even manages to make a labyrinthine playground a chilling location.

Of course don’t be fooled, cause there are going to be people who think this movie is garbage and over-the-top violent trash which revels in disturbing behavior caused by a preteens, but you know what? It’s well-made trash and has a few scares and even some pretty dark humor as well. Some of Esther’s lines are priceless and there are even a few scenes in which I was rooting on behalf of Esther’s badassness. I guess we can look at “Orphan” as an “anti-adoption” parable, but if Brangelina have so man adopted kids and not one of them has killed anyone, I think it’s safe to say that Esther is certainly the odd one out. GRADE: B+

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Fashion Faux Ha! “Brüno” Ist a Very Funny Film (and It’s Much Better Than Cancer)

Has it really been three years since Sacha Baron Cohen unleashed “Borat” on an unsuspecting America? My how time flies! Now he has unleashed the fabulous 19 year old Brüno, a hip flamboyant homosexual fashion personality. Bruno follows the same mockumentary style as “Borat” so in one way it sort of feels like a retread, but Bruno contains enough fresh and utterly shocking moments that certainly makes it worth seeing. Cohen is such a brilliant comedian that you never once think Brüno is a made up character. He’s even gone all out in all the marketing for the film and only appears as Brüno. He really sells this stuff.

Let me just get this out of the way first. Even though it’s only July I can easily say that “Brüno” is already a lead contender for the newly announced Golden Gallo Award category for Best Talking Genitalia Award. Enough said. The film begins in Austria, Brüno’s home country where he has his own TV show. After bad incident during a fashion show involving an outfit made completely out of Velcro, he moves to the United States in hopes of becoming a famous celebrity.

Here, we see Brüno’s many attempts at celebrity. And I think this is really what the film does best. We all have an idea of what makes a “celebrity” and how celebrities are born. Sometimes celebrities are born because they are good looking, or because they have their own TV show, or they’re caught in a sex scandal or even because of their humanitarian efforts. Brüno’s various attempts basically mocks every celebrity cliché out there and it is downright hilarious trying to see Brüno’s failed attempt after failed attempt.

His first attempt is to have his own TV show in the United States. He films a show and brings it to a test audience. And lets just say it bombs. These people, who we’re supposed to believe think this is actually real, are completely disturbed at what they see including interviewing someone about whether Jamie Lynn Spears should abort her baby or not and dancing naked for camera and “interviewing” Harrison Ford. In fact one person in the test audience says the show is worse than cancer. Brüno even attempts to make a sex tape with none other than US Congressman Ron Paul, who he mistaks for drag queen RuPaul. He even flies out to the Middle East to help solve the conflict between Palestine and Israel. And there he confuses Hamas with hummus. He even insults a terrorist by telling him that Osama bin Laden looks like a dirty wizard. This is all shocking and hilarious, and I’m still amazing Cohen made it out of there alive.

Brüno then figures if Brangelina and Madonna can adopt children from Africa why can’t he? He goes on a local talk show hosted by Richard Bey and bring out his Black baby (complete with “Gayby” T-shirt) whom he names a traditional African name: OJ. The entire Black audience is hilariously outraged and Brüno even gets his child taken away by child protective services. After his child is taken away, he figures if he really wants to be famous he should become straight. After all some of Hollywood’s biggest celebrities are straight like manly men John Travolta and Tom Cruise. There Brüno meets with a Christian “gay converter” and learns how to repress his homosexuality. There he enlists in the Army and even spends some quality heterosexual time with a group of hunters in Alabama. These scenes are absolutely hysterical and show how ignorant some people in this country really are.

The film culminates in one of the movie’s most shocking and outrageous scenes as a cage fighting match turns into a gay love fest between Brüno and his assistant’s assistant. I can’t even tell you how disturbed this dumbed-down middle American audience really is and it’s actually pretty disturbing to see their reactions. How they couldn’t tell that the whole this is staged is beyond me and guess there are most stupid people in the world then we realize.

Overall, and while it follows pretty closely the style and plot of Borat (which makes sense since Larry Charles directed both and they share some of the same writers) there are enough outrageous and shocking moments that certainly makes Brüno a welcome addition to this summer’s line up. The film is under 90 minutes long and you’ll most likely be either laughing our sitting there with your mouth agape. It is offensive, trashy, un-PC and utterly ridiculous. In short, it’s uber-funny and a great time at the movies! And please do me a favor, please slap your head when you watch Paula Abdul actually sit down on a Mexican person who has been forced to become a piece of Brüno’s furniture. GRADE: A-

Friday, July 03, 2009

New York Stories: Woody Allen Finally Returns to the City That Never Sleeps in “Whatever Works”

Woody Allen’s last four films have taken place in Europe. He has said the reason he has shot so many of his recent films in England and Spain was a purely fiscal: it was cheaper to shoot in Europe. His clever “Match Point” was even written to take place in the Hamptons, but was able to modify it to London once he realized no American studio wanted to give him money, basically whatever works. So is the philosophy of his new New York City set flick “Whatever Works.” He had no money, so he went to Europe. He mad some pretty decent movies over there and now he’s returned to his old stomping ground for a mildly engaging “feel bad” comedy, that mostly works.

In this new movie Larry David (creator/star of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”) is Boris Yellnikoff, Allen’s latest onscreen alter ego. Yellnikoff is a New York intellectual who has no time for “inchworms” or stupid people like you and me. We know this because he speaks directly to the audience, however, the other characters don’t seem to see us sitting there. He’s miserable and crabby and super ADD – he sings Happy Birthday, out loud, twice while washing his hands. Life sucks so much for him that when he tried to kill himself it didn’t work. He even divorced his wife simply because they were a perfect match.

Enter Melodie. Melodie (played by Evan Rachel Wood) is a young woman from the South. I almost want to say this is the first time such a stranger foreigner has garnered such a large role in one of Allen’s films. She is sort of cliché… she’s dumb and naïve. But what is true, is that’s how New Yorkers view Southerners. But Allen has a point in turning Melodie into a cliché because his characters even have full-on conversations about clichés. So because Boris, god bless his cranky heart, is such a nice guy and his philosophy is whatever works, he takes this homeless girl into his and gives her some food and even lets her crash there. He even shows her the ways of the busy intellectual New Yorker and they form an unlikely friendship and maybe even more…and then Melodie’s mother shows up.

Could another one of Woody Allen’s actresses earn yet another support actress nomination come February? As Melodie’s crazy bible thumping mother Marietta, Patricia Clarkson simply radiates. She shines so bright I needed sunglasses. Ok that was super lame, but I really enjoyed her. And no only is she a funny scene stealer (who tries to hook her daughter up with square-jawed Brit Henry Cavill of “The Tudors” and ends up in a threeway relationship), but it’s fascinating to see her character’s story arch. Say what you want about any one of Allen’s personal life, but what he simply does best is create dynamite roles for women. And for that I simply can’t complain. If you’re a female actress you need to get yourself into a Woody Allen movie stat.

I wouldn’t easily describe “Whatever Works” as an instant classic. It’s a decent enough comedy although I’m not so sure it feels like this is the movie that should have been his big return to New York, but I will take it. He has some really genuinely funny moments, mostly because of a) Boris’ shrill view of life and b) Patricia Clarkson. I am and always will continue to be a huge Woody Allen fan, and for me “Whatever Works” works. So whatever. GRADE: B

Note: I’d be lying if I said I sort of wish (and nothing against David’s great performance) Allen himself had played the role of Boris, but whatever works.

American Gangster: I’m Not Too Big a Fan of “Public Enemies”

There is nothing really technically wrong with Michael Mann’s John Dillinger crime saga “Public Enemies.” Let’s just say I wasn’t living in gangster’s paradise. In fact, there were some parts where I could barely keep my eyes open. But maybe that was because I was tired (I went to a 4:50 PM showing ha!) or because the surround sound wasn’t quite right. I’m officially convinced I could have recreated a better audio experience with my Blu-ray home theater system, but I digress. Besides the fact that the flick, at times, looks like something you could easily access for free on YouTube, Public Enemies will appeal to fans of classic gangster pictures, of which I’m completely indifferent about.

I’m a fan of Michael Mann’s Collateral because it is suspenseful and draws you in from the opening scene. Even Mann’s early Hannibal Lecter flick “Manhunter,” which sort of gets forgotten about since Anthony Hopkins became Hannibal, is completely enjoyable. I’m going to go on record by saying, and I don’t think I’m alone here, that “Miami Vice” was completely and unabashedly horrendous. So in comparison to that movie, Public Enemies is amazing. And yet I felt mostly underwhelmed by the experience. I mean, Johnny Depp as John Dillinger is great, which really isn’t a surprise. Christian Bale is good as well, although he’s not really around that much. And I enjoy Oscar winner Marion Cotillard who, as one of the film’s few female characters, shows up here as Dillinger’s love interest. Apparently according to the credits Stephen Doff is in there but I didn’t even recognize him.

I think the biggest problem here was that I just didn’t care. I think that’s really a problem that I have to deal with though. I enjoy when movies let you “root for” the “bad guy” but I guess I really didn’t think John Dillinger was all that bad. So he robs banks, who cares. By today’s standards he’s practically Gandhi. I didn’t really care if he got caught or got away. In most of these types of movies you’re supposed to be on the side of the bad guy, but like I said, I didn’t care much. and when movies like this take place in this time frame where everyone is practically dressed the same it’s sort of difficult to figure out who are the cops and who are the robbers. Ehh.

I appreciate the film’s look a lot. It’s cool that a studio would pay to produce a big epic period piece and make it look like your Uncle George’s wedding video. According to imdb the film was shot with a mix of traditional 35mm film and video, which is the same as Mann’s previous movies Miami Vice and Collateral. You can really feel the intimacy and really puts you into the action. Although I guess it totally didn’t work on me since I could hardly keep my eyes open. And some shots were so video looking, I almost cringed. It felt like I could have been the camera operator.

I guess the problem ultimately lies with Mann’s not-too-special script who he co-wrote with Ann Biderman and Ronan Bennett and that’s a shame cause Biderman wrote one of my favorites “Copycat.” I just didn’t find this story fascinating, but I could see how others would. The film is technical achievement in terms of the recreation of the 1930s, but for me for you dawg, it was just ‘aight. (And Billy Crudup who plays J. Edgar Hoover, doesn't even cross dress once! Talk about historical inaccuracies...) GRADE: C