Friday, July 31, 2009

Review: 'Watchmen' (C+)

By Chase Kahn

As a devout follower of the graphic novel written by the bearded hermit Alan Moore, I had extremely mixed feelings going in to see Zach Snyder's Watchmen. Both leerily suspicious and fervently impatient, after seeing it, I remain firmly where I stood before I saw it. The film elicits so many mixed feelings that by the time it's over, you won't know what to think, except that the instant-gratification of the source material is not there.

The first hour of the film -- from the death of the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) to the origin of Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) -- is off-the-page Nietzsche-ian brilliance, mainly because Snyder has no agenda but to tell these characters' back stories and thus this section of the film is most tonally in tact, restrained and free of Snyder's impulsive testosterone.

Unfortunately, as the time passes -- scene by scene, minute by minute -- so does the integrity of Alan Moore's source novel until it's damn near full-blown nihilistic camp. You can thank Snyder and his fetishistic approach to style and violence for that, not to mention his taste in music. The brutish brutality of the opening Comedian murder -- somewhat grounded in realism -- soon takes a back seat to a half-cool/half-ridiculous prison breakout fight scene. Then, the final action set-piece has a near Matrix quality that's just inappropriately excessive. Keep in mind the beauty of "Watchmen" is that, with the exception of Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), these are all human beings with an edge, but none of them have superpowers -- The Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) even has a bit of a beer gut.

For all of its failures, Jackie Earle Haley's Rorschach is as sharp-edged, grungy, and enjoyable as the biggest "Watchmen" fan could ever hope for. The character is a sponge, he has soaked up all of the filth, anguish, and sins that the world has to offer. We feel that through Haley's work and it's easily the best quality of the film, the most searingly accurate translation to the screen in the 163 minutes, without a doubt. Next is the title sequence -- set to the tune of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin" -- which effortlessly captures the mood and the tone of the novel in about 4 minutes. What would the world be like with masked superheroes? We would win Vietnam in a week, the police would be useless, and therefore, disgruntled, and Nixon would be elected to a third term. Unfortunately, the majority of the film beyond this point and the exhaustive backstories (welcomed in this corner) is pure, dressed-up baloney. It's very clear that in adapting the novel to the screen, Zach Snyder made it a point to be as slavish to Moore's masterpiece as possible -- the result is something that never moves and feels like cohesive film.

On paper, "Watchmen" is a transcendant, medium-altering piece of fiction. On the big screen, its minor flaws are magnified and its successes are dwarfed, it's a story with big ideas handled with small-minded execution. -- at times, it's just as campy and convoluted as the superhero stories Moore was trying to indict back in 1985.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Review: 'Sunshine Cleaning' (C)

By Chase Kahn

A Sundance holdover from last year, Sunshine Cleaning was finally dumped off in theaters this weekend like a blood-stained article of clothing that Rose (Amy Adams) or Norah (Emily Blunt) would drop into a bio-hazard burn box, suspended over the air by one hand covered in a rubber yellow glove, the other hand stopping up the nasal passages.

It's no wonder that a star-studded, potentially marketable indie would be given such the treatment after seeing it, because Sunshine Cleaning just isn't very good. It can't be consumed as light entertainment -- simply to be enjoyed and dropped off afterwards -- because it takes itself too seriously, and niether can it be viewed as a drama because its meatier elements are half-baked and poorly executed.

Rose (Adams) is a well-intentioned single mother running a maid service and her sister Norah (Blunt) is a loaner, a sloth, unmotivated and emotionally weak. Naturally, the two start a crime scene cleaning business together called "Sunshine Cleaning" -- initially for money/stability/togetherness, but eventually for redemption, as we quickly learn the two had lost their mother when their were children, and they attempt (in the minimalist of ways) to somehow "help" these people in whatever capacity they can, which then opens the floodgates for the filmmakers to pound away with gushiness, hold that thought.

In this sense, the film kind of works -- we can buy these two lost women as half-saints who plant seeds of hope in the lives of the people they help (even if that "help" involves scrubbing the blood of their loved one out of thier ottoman). Where Sunshine Cleaning turns sour is in the execution and the subtext -- which, when in doubt, falls into a deep Sarlac pit of sentimentality and crocodile tears until it just loses its way and ends.

In one client's home, Norah finds a small handbag with identification of the woman and presumably, pictures of her daughter. It kicks off a rather superfluous relationship between Norah and the daughter, Lynn (Mary Lyn Rajskub), in which nothing ever happens of any consequence and outside of Norah's ability to relate to her situation, the whole subplot is despensable fluff.

As are Rose's son, Oscar, and his frequent detours with the girls' father (played by Alan Arkin, doing his Little Miss Sunshine routine). Once again, Arkin is playing the grandpa who tells kids to keep their chin up, the world is stupid, you are the king, etc, etc.

In the end, the biggest downfall of Sunshine Cleaning is its insistence on maudlin melodramatics and scattershoot plotting. There are too many scenes that fall into this category -- including several flashbacks of the mother's death and the plot device of a CB radio serving as a gateway channel to speak to the heavens. It's all a shame, because through all of it there is one constant, and that's Amy Adams.

She outlasts the script, the filmmaking, the unwanted sentiments, all of it. She's a terrific actress, no doubts here. I wish I could tell you to see it because of her, but it doesn't outweigh the bad and Sunshine Cleaning is a film in need of an overhaul the likes of which Rose and Norah haven't even attempted.

Review: 'Sin Nombre' (B+)

By Chase Kahn

For those detractors to Danny Boyle's unnaturally optimistic portrayal of triumph in the face of adversity, there is a lot to admire here in Sin Nombre, the feature debut of writer-director Cary Fukanaga. A straight-forward but beautifully told journey set in the gangland slums of Central America (Honduras and mostly Mexico). It's indelibly shot and leisurely paced, opposed to the kinetic and visceral styles seen in both Boyle's film and Fernando Meirelles' City of God.

Here, the shots are allowed to unfold and soothe naturally and it's no wonder with the work the director and lenser Adriano Goldman have done. Shot almost entirely on location in Southern Mexico, Sin Nombre will go down as one of the most visually proficient and naturalistically beautiful films of the year. The juxtaposition of beauty and poverty is apparent in almost every shot. Director Cary Fukanaga said in a later interview that he was inspired by Terrance Malick's Days of Heaven and it shows -- the thing is just gorgeous without feeling like a rotating slab of bookstore postcards.

There are no narrative tricks or bouts of inauthenticity, either -- this is just a nicely written film about Mexican gang culture and the pursuit of happiness, complete with your standard villains, good guys, love interests, etc. All enhanced by the beauty of the film and the outstanding performance of Edgar Flores (and to a lesser extent, Paulina Gaitan). I can't express how well-done it all is, even a portion of Marcelo Zarvos' musical tones gave me chills. This is a brutal, extravagant achievement and another terrific immigration-road film.

Review: 'State of Play' (B)

By Chase Kahn

State of Play is a comfortable and easy-to-take politically charged journalist thriller that entertains and cuts in the predictable ways yet elevates itself with its investigation of the old-school bulldog, notepad-and-paper journalism versus the new-age cleanly spontaniety of internet media.

Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) and Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) represent these two sides of journalistic idealogies teaming up to uncover corporate devilry and the death of a congressional worker who was having an affair with co-worker and Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck). Along with a good turn by Affleck, the entire supporting cast comes to play -- Helen Mirren as a Washington Globe editor and Jason Bateman as a smarmy public relations rep are especially good.

Crowe, like the film, is predictable, which isn't to say he's not good here. There wasn't an aspect of his performance that I haven't seen from him before or that I wasn't expecting going in -- for what it is and for what kind of film this is, he's fine and ditto for his co-star Rachel McAdams. Cute and passable, she fills the role well. At a point where newspapers like the New York Times are soon to be extinct, this a film that rings as a timely, appropriate portrait.

State of Play is just perfectly watchable as a thriller, but as a swan song to an age where uncovering the truth and getting your hands dirty was more important than quarterly profits and microblogging, it's downright tragic.

Review: 'Sugar' (B+)

By Chase Kahn

The writer-director tag team of Ryan Gossling's Oscar vehicle Half Nelson are back with their follow-up in Sugar, an immigrant tale by way of sports drama. Whatever pre-conceived notions you have towards movies of this ilk, drop the cynicism at the door.

Sugar is (in contrast of its title) never completely interested in the physical and mental battle on the field. It's far more interested -- and successful -- in showing the cultural and social challenges of these Dominican, Cuban and Puerto Rican-born ballplayers who quickly realize that performing on the diamond is just half the battle.

Algenis Perez Soto plays the title character, a hot-shot pitcher with a live arm who moves to the U.S. in the Kansas City system (no, not the Royals) and starts at Single-A Bridgeport, Iowa after shining at a Knights-run Dominican baseball academy back home. Soto plays the character so genuinely, it wouldn't come as a surprise to me to read he actually was a minor league prospect and still is. Sugar has a great deal of humor and coming-of-age scent about it, but the tone never really wavers from a tragedy -- bleak and brutally honest.

One beautifully subtle scene early on in the Dominican shows Miguel (aka Sugar) chatting with an older kid who says that he threw 98 in AA for the Dodgers. Miguel calls his bluff and asks him what he's doing back home -- the man's cocky grin turns blank and Miguel turns his attention towards the beer in his hand. Sugar is here to tell us that these baseball imports, regardless of talent or confidence, have no recollection towards the cultural and social challenges involved with making it to the big leagues -- the ugly truth is that most of them won't even get close.

Review: 'Knowing' (F)

By Chase Kahn

Even those on the lower-end of the gene pool looking for a dumb Nic Cage detour are in for a rude awakening. Alex Proyas' Knowing is too crazy, spacey and obsessive in its science for these people's receptors. Unfortunately, it's also utterly ridiculous and too unintentionally comedic for anyone else's -- so I'm not really sure who the film was targeting -- Roger Ebert, maybe?

All of the various trailers and promotions have promised that Knowing is about pre-determination based on a series of numbers written by a creepy girl in 1959 with deep black eyes to match her charcoal hair. The numbers predict various disasters, complete with a death toll, coordinates, and dates.

It's this portion of the film (the promised, expected version) that works okay -- mainly because director Alex Proyas, if nothing else, shows that he knows how to stage and film a badass airplane crash. Or a subway derailment if that's more your thing. Even though the first half is mildly entertaining, it's also severely hindered by a quadruple-attack of screenwriters and Nicolas Cage and his son, Caleb (played by Chandler Canterbury).

Full of equal parts odd, shockingly inauthentic human behavior and drippy, cornball schmaltz, it's clear what we're in for with Knowing -- it's got cool effects, an okay but conventional premise, bad acting, etc. Whatever, it's all good for a two-hour pentaly kill, right?

That was the case, until the final inexcusable turn of events which is preceded by Cage discovering that the final set of numbers could spell the apocalypse for his world and ours. Throughout, it feels like nothing less than the end of humanity as we know it.

The final scenes -- at their most fundamental level -- consist of filming a played-out, worn-down, science-fiction cliche and treating it like the second-coming of Stanley Kubrick's "Star Child". Not to mention the fact that Cage and his son have a complex sign-language exchange that illicits and deserves laughs. At the conclusion, one has to wonder whether Proyas even intended to film any of this aside from his already talked-about plane crash. Even his use of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 feels trite, a year too late.

Review: 'Star Trek' (B)

By Chase Kahn

It's true what they say about Abrams' reboot of the classic 60's Gene Roddenbury sci-fi series, which has held up as a major property of geek culture even through its tumultuous television and theatrical run over the last twenty some-odd years. It's fast, sexy, young, appealing and glossy -- a new series for a new generation.

Essentially, the biggest beef I have with it is its incessant and uncontrolable bounty of winks and nods to the original series and everything inbetween to the point where it harldy registers as its own entity. It's part homage, part parody and part badass. Not all of it works, but more often than not it's engaging and thoroughly enjoyable.

Chris Pine and Zach Quinto should both be household names and big budget stars within 5 years -- they have major appeal and I'm honestly shocked that this is Quinto's first feature film since playing Sylar on "Heroes" back in 2006, which I believe is the only reason anybody watches that show anymore. Plus I can see both of them headlining an EW article in two weeks titled, "The Hunks of Star Trek".

Abrams, who obvioiusly is a major player on TV with the cult smash "Lost" and the very underrated sci-fi series "Fringe", knows exactly what he's doing from the first frame here. This new Star Trek is going to glisten, amuse and move at warp speed. Every scene aboard the Enterprise is so vibrantly lit it's blinding, with firecracker lens flares that are either horribly amateurish or cutting-edge cool -- I haven't decided yet.

One thing he's sure about is that this new youthful barrage of characters is going to have fun. I told someone that I saw it with opening night that tonally, it was not what I was expecting at all. This Star Trek is flooded with jokes and one-liners, most rather obviously directed at encouraging the audience to join in. I think a little more danger and a little less sitcom could have been practiced, but it's not like "Star Trek" has traditionally been a straight-laced saga -- at least it doesn't go the route of unintentionally funny like George Lucas' own attempted 21st century reboot.

In the end, it's pretty impossible for someone like myself -- who is just a marginal Trek fan but a bigger science fiction nerd -- to not enjoy the proceedings. Even though Leonard Nimoy is overexposed and this new version seems geared at the CW demo at times -- you have to respect a product that is required to meet the approval of such a vast and ecclectic variety of viewers. In that regard, it's a rousing success -- assuring that a sequel is inevitable.

Review: 'Two Lovers' (B+)

By Chase Kahn

Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) arrives home to his two parents preparing dinner, and he's being told that the Cohen's are coming over with their daughter Sandra (Vinessa Shaw). Upon their arrival, Leonard appears more comfortable joking and performing magic for the Cohen's young 13 year-old son than with their beautiful daughter more his age. It's this kind of density and craftsmanship that persistently appears throughout James Gray's Two Lovers.

It's a classy, high-minded drama/character study about lost souls in working-class Brooklyn and it moves without a false step. Joaquin Phoenix, obviously making headlines elsewhere these days, shows even more evidence of an apparent hoax-in-progress, as he is simply too good here to be calling it quits. Playing a crazy, nervous wreck with a discouraging past and personality disorders abound, it's apparent at that first dinner scene that he's a kid in that 35-year old body -- Tom Hanks in Big.

Clearly being safeguarded by his well-wishing but overbearing parents, they set Leonard up with the Cohen's daughter (Shaw) in attempt to get their son back on track. Thrown in the plans is a neighbor, Michelle, played by Gwyneth Paltrow. She's a bit of a wild one, a loose cannon with a lust for a married man (Elias Koteas) and an attraction to Leonard -- whether it's as a friend or a lover is never certain.

James Gray, in making a seemingly cut-and-paste cop/brother drama We Own the Night, showed glimpses of real promise in an otherwise decent, yet forgettable film. Here, he's at the top of his game. Brooklyn never looked so dispiriting and bleak -- filmed with almost all of the color sucked dry and replaced with stark greys and blues.

The outdoor scenes, especially the numerous roof-top chats with Michelle and Leonard, are framed and captured exquisitely. The performances couldn't be more appropriate as Phoenix finds some nervous, immature child inside himself that we really haven't seen from him. Gone is the beard, the glasses, the gum and Casey Affleck -- within 10 minutes I had almost forgotten all about it. Paltrow plays the mid-life crisis participant Michelle with an endearing quality despite the feisty emotions. Shaw, playing the Jewish daddy's girl, is wholesome and sweet, the antithesis of Leonard's desire.

The final moments of Two Lovers pits Leonard in a situation where he inevitably must make a decision on which of the two women will rescue him from his solitary bedroom, his persistent, but loving parents and his monotonous, wandering and allegorical laundry deliveries. Both women represent two radically different lifestyles, two radically different people. It's very clear which person/ life he would like to choose, but the choice isn't merely a flip-of-the-coin. As a result, the closing moments are sneaky and poetic in their implications.