I had to take a week off from movie going the week before last so there was no diary last Monday. Have no fear, gentle readers, I made it to four new releases on Friday and have compiled a new weekly movie diary for your edification, enjoyment, ridicule, or any combination of the three.
I largely enjoyed this sci-fi adventure yarn, but I didn’t lose my head over it. Duncan Jones’ alternate reality mumbo jumbo only works if you don’t think too much about it. Luckily everything is just interesting enough to distract us from the logical loopholes. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Capt. Colter Stevens who wakes up in the body of another man (yikes). He eventually discovers that this is all part of a government experiment where they send a subject (who meets some mysterious, ill-defined qualifications) into the mind of a recently deceased person. Supposedly the mind retains about eight minutes of memory after death and scientists have found a way to access this. They have sent Stevens into the victim of a terrorist bombing on a train in Chicago. Everyone on board was killed and, a la Groundhog Day, Stevens is sent back to the same eight minutes over and over again until he can identify the bomber to prevent a larger attack in downtown Chicago.
As far as it goes, I can buy all that (though why someone hell bent on mass destruction would warn authorities that a massive attack is coming by bombing a train is a little beyond me) and Gyllenhaal is effective, much more so than in his last action foray, The Prince of Persia. He is sympathetic and attractive while still believably tough without excessive machoness. More traditional action stars would have had a harder time selling his connection with Christina (Michelle Monaghan), which is rooted a deep sense of empathy
While the story mostly works, I never understood how capturing the memory of someone who is dead would allow someone else to wander around that reality and see things the dead man never saw. The scientist in charge of the project, Rutledge (Jeffery Wright), claims it isn’t real, but if Stevens can peak around a corner and see things unknown to the dead man or have conversations he never had, how would this be anything but time travel? – something Rutledge vehemently denies. And if it is time travel, how would this process work? It isn’t enough to say it’s super-complicated so you couldn’t possibly understand it. That’s a cop-out. In a less interesting movie that would have been a fatal flaw; here it is merely annoying. (Rating ***1/2)
Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is a New Jersey lawyer on the verge of financial ruin. His business is drying up and his office is falling apart. To make matters worse, his high school wrestling team that he coaches hasn’t won a match all season. Things begin to look up when he concocts a scheme to pocket $1500 a month from one of his elderly clients, Leo (Burt Young), suffering from early onset dementia. Mike gets the court to grant guardianship of the man (and his money) with the understanding that Mike will take care of Leo in his home. But Mike plops the old man in a nursing home and pockets what’s left over from the checks. Things get complicated when Leo’s grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) shows up, fleeing from an absent, drug addict mother in Ohio. Mike struggles between balancing on the needs of his own family with those of the family he has inadvertently adopted, especially the troubled young man Kyle.
Win Win shines when it explores Kyle’s tentative relationship with Mike and his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan), or the too few tender scenes where Kyle builds a relationship with his often incoherent grandfather who he has never met. We are less interested in the trials of Mike and his friend Terry (Bobby Cannavale), which takes up large chunks of time and diminishes our goodwill. Kyle’s journey into acceptance in Mike’s family and wrestling team is the heart and soul of this movie, so what do we care about Terry’s divorce and creepy need to recapture his youth? And Mike’s unethical actions lead to predictable and unnecessary results, feeling more writer-y than anything approaching the emotional strength of the relationships. I liked Win Win, but I wish it could have dispensed with gimmicky plot points.
Paul Giamatti is fine, but the real stars are Alex Shaffer, Burt Young (who is always welcome in any movie I’m watching), and Amy Ryan, all of whom overshadow the movie’s star. Young Shaffer is especially impressive in his film debut, creating a flawed by goodhearted young man through his monosyllabic grunts and inexpressive face. He is a young man who has been forced to fend for himself and opening up is difficult. He keeps all his feelings, good and bad, bottled up inside, but as he builds relationships with Mike, Jackie, and Leo he slowly lets his guard down (which makes Mike’s double dealing so deadly dull – we know where it is leading and where it will end up in this formula). Performances like these in a limited release movie from March are usually forgotten come Oscar time, but I hope they will be remembered. (Rating ***1/2)
This is a rotten movie. I know it’s a kids movie, but that doesn’t mean a paint by numbers script is acceptable. Worse than being predictable Hop is painfully unfunny, even with Russell Brand voicing E.B., the Easter Bunny dauphin. Brand was one of the few successful choices of the filmmakers. The only smiles (not even laughs) come from what we suspect are Brand’s ad libs, not anything inherently funny in the dialogue or the plot. The story of the Easter Bunny’s heir apparent who wants to be drummer and not take over as the Easter Bunny and an unemployed, though hunky, slacker (James Marsden) who team up to …? I’m not entirely sure why they team up, but the script says they must so they do, forcing Fred O’Hare (Marsden) to get E.B. to an audition for a talent show hosted by David Hasselhoff before the elite guard of the Easter Bunny, the Pink Berets, can return E.B. back to Easter Island and thwart his dreams. The entire premise of the movie is as flimsy as they come – they even have to awkwardly insert an uninspired villain to stretch things out. But it becomes even flimsier when we ask ourselves this simple question that could have ended the movie after 10 minutes: why can’t E.B. be a drummer and the Easter Bunny? Easter is only one night a year. By the time everyone works this tricky equation out, we’ve wasted an hour and a half of our lives. (Rating **)
It’s hard for me to describe how insulting Sucker Punch is. Aesthetically it reconfirms Zack Snyder as a visionary directory, but not a great story teller. That combination would have made for a merely boring movie, but Snyder’s faux-profundity ends up sucker punching the audience with a corrupt comment on women in culture and society that only ends up confirming the repression and exploitation the movie should be attacking. Film critic Scott Mendelson has assumed the dubious honor of defending the movie’s philosophical and critical grounding (though he admits to not loving the movie, only liking it in his essay). Mendelson, who I often enjoy reading at Mendelson’s Memos, contends that Sucker Punch is “an angry feminist screed” and “a critical deconstruction of the casual sexualization of young women in pop culture, the inexplicable acceptance of institutional sexism and lechery, and whether or not images of empowered females on film can be disassociated with the sexual undercurrent of those same images.” This all sounds good, but I think he is conflating the intention with what’s on the screen. I didn’t see much to support the “feminist screed” tag when the movie takes every opportunity it can to squirm out of truly dealing with these issues in favor of a boring and narratively pointless action sequence.
Snyder may (or may not) have intended on commenting on these high-minded issues, but instead of grappling with them he turned them into any 14-year-old boy’s masturbatory fantasy, mingling the violence of modern video games with flimsy excuses to get beautiful young women to take off as many clothes as possible without getting an R-rating. Is this really “a critical deconstruction of the casual sexualization of young women in pop culture”? No, it is casual sexualization. It’s a great trick to do everything an exploitation pic would do, then step back and claim the movie is critiquing those exploitation pictures. The audience gets all the same titillation, then can feel good about “getting something” out of it. If anyone, including Mr. Mendelson, can explain where the movie explicitly critiques casual sexualization of women in pop culture, I would love to hear it.
Everything happening on the screen is meant to be in the mind of Baby Doll (Emily Browning), a young woman unjustly confined to a mental institution. If this was a serious “feminist screed,” why would her fantasies look like an X-Box game? Isn’t it more likely that this woman would want to directly attack the sources of her imprisonment – her lecherous stepfather or the exploitative orderly Blue (Oscar Isaac)? I know I’m generalizing here, but let’s face it, these are male fantasies – adolescent male fantasies at that. Of course a woman could come up with these violent fantasies but there was nothing to indicate this particular young woman would. Furthermore, there was nothing to indicate that she had long been a victim of a patriarchal society. Her ordeal is specific, her hyper-stylized revenge fantasies are not.
In the end, I can’t buy that this is any serious attempt to interrogate the exploitation of women in culture and society. If it was, Snyder should have stuck to the story in the mental institution, which was always much more interesting than the bizarre and pointless fantasies in the bordello or the action sequences with giant Chinese warriors, sleek robots, and steam-propelled zombie soldiers in the trenches of World War I. But leaving the women in the mental institution would have limited Snyder’s perverse obsession with action and forced him to truly wrestle with how women are portrayed and exploited. I think it’s telling that Zack Snyder wrote (with Steve Shibuya) and directed the movie, and of the seven producers there was only one woman, Zack’s wife Deborah Snyder. This is a movie made by men for boys. It’s odd that anyone as intelligent as Scott Mendelson would get anything deeper out of Sucker Punch. (Rating **)