DVD Review: Youth in Revolt

There’s often nothing better than a strong dark comedy. Films like “Harold and Maude,” “Heathers” and “Ghost World” offer a visually striking and intellectually narrative perception of the mind of their screenwriters and directors. A great dark comedy is rare, and it’s disappointing to see someone attempt the genre and flounder in their work. New to DVD, the Michael Cera vehicle “Youth in Revolt” is a fine example of black comedic miscarriage.

Cera stars as Nick Twisp, a lower class romanticist virgin who has been looking for “the one” his whole life. Enter Sheeni (Portia Doubleday), a 16-year-old who’s into Godard and Gainsbourg and happens to be the love of Nick’s life. However, the only way he can really get her is to create a mustachioed “bad boy” alter ego named Francois Dillinger who has a penchant for blowing up cars and telling off Nick’s mother’s awful boyfriends.

There’s a good film underneath this mess of a movie, but it just missed its own point. It’s awkwardly pretentious and tries too hard to be subtle and instead just comes off as bored. Gustin Nash’s screenplay from C.D. Payne’s novel is too packed with dialogue and uninteresting narration. Nash attempts to trivialize his characters’ too-cool-for-school pretensions by having Nick say he loves Mizoguchi’s “Tokyo Story” to which Sheeni corrects him (“I think that was Ozu”), but it doesn’t exactly trivialize as it does show that the screenwriter himself may be trying to show off. It’s all superfluous writing – dialogue for dialogue’s sake. Whereas someone like Tarantino can get away with this because his long dissertations actually have a point, Nash never really finds his footing.

Michael Cera has proved in the past that he’s got some serious comedic talent but he doesn’t read his character’s story well, and when he channels Francois he plays it surprisingly flat. His portrayal of Francois is certainly something of a straying from his usual coy archetype but he really needed to prove he can do something else besides the “nice guy.” His foray into the comic book film world is coming up with his starring role in “Scott Pilgrim.” The character, again, looks too familiar – but in the hands of “Shaun of the Dead” director Edgar Wright – Cera may be forgiven. He really does need to kill this character.

Cameos by Steve Buscemi, Zach Galifianakis, Jean Smart and M. Emmet Walsh are wasted on this half-baked snooze-fest. The great Fred Willard even shows up a few times, but doesn’t help in the least. The character of Sheeni is so overtly pretentious that it sometimes hurts. Doubleday plays her completely flat, and in this genre she should either be palpably honest or entirely ironic. She doesn’t even look like the kind of girl who’s ever seen “Breathless.”

A painfully bad dark comedy. Plays out in a dull, banal way. No emotion, and only a few moments of intrigue due to some unusual cinematography and some actually interesting looking animated sequences. It’s hard to care about any of the characters, most especially Nick. “Youth in Revolt” could have been a terrific jumping off point for Cera into a whole new territory of characters, but instead starts to show he may be a one trick pony.

Grade: D

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Review: Jonah Hex

“Jonah Hex” is a stupid movie. It’s hardly worth reviewing or considering as entertainment for that matter. The role of the film critic is to put every film presented to him or her in a perspective of its merit as a film on its own, as a film in its genre and in its cultural significance. “Jonah Hex” is devoid of merit, it’s a laughable western and will be in the bargain bin at Wal-mart within months after its DVD release.

The semblance of a story revolves around Hex (played by the only person who seems to give a damn in the entire cast, Josh Brolin), a man seeking revenge on the evil mastermind Quentin Turnbull (a half-asleep John Malkovich) for killing his family and scarring his face. After hearing that Turnbull has in fact died in a hotel fire, Hex turns to bounty hunting. However, when President Grant (Aidan Quinn) is informed that a weapon capable of destroying the entire nation has been acquired by the once-thought-to-be-dead Turnbull, Hex is called upon to stop his nefarious foe.

Gee whiz, a pretty simple western story arc – how on earth could they screw it up? A lot of fingers will most likely point to Megan Fox. Those fingers are correct. Fox plays Lilah, a prostitute who has no problems defending herself against vicious customers who want more than what they paid for, but is demure when naked around Hex – the love of her life. Fox is ridiculously cast, and with the likelihood of this film’s lack of box office potential – this could be an early termination of her career. Her lines, delivered by a 3-year-old with Bell’s palsy and a mean case of Tourette’s syndrome would sound eloquent compared to how she just spits ’em out. Fox, just answer Playboy’s calls and do what the world wants you to do.

Brolin is well cast in the role, but the whole film just falls over around him. Minor characters, like Lt. Grass as played by Will Arnett (“Arrested Development”) are laughable. Arnett is a huge comedic talent and watching him attempt dramatics is ridiculous. Michael Fassbender (“Hunger” and “Inglourious Basterds”) at least has some screen presence as Turnbull’s angry Irish cohort but should have passed on this turkey.

There are some interesting aspects of the film, but they are seemingly worthless in the middle of this nonsensical flimflam. Hex has the power to speak to the dead by touching them, and uses this power to interrogate. The CGI is these scenes is actually pretty terrific, but it was probably the bulk of their budget that would have been better served casting better actors – or at least more motivated actors.

The story is not embellished at all. It’s a simple revenge flick that attempts stylistics (in the way of Guy Ritchie or Joe Carnahan) through oddly lit sequences of Hex and Turnbull fighting in front of a single coffin. The scenes are supposed to intrigue, but are merely boring and unnecessary. The director, Jimmy Hayward, has a good track record as an animator for Pixar, but this first time making a live action feature must have been a real challenge. He appears to give up after the first five minutes.

In recent years, the western has tried to make a real comeback with great genre flicks like “3:10 to Yuma” and “No Country For Old Men.” If “Jonah Hex” is any sign of what’s to come, then it’s safe to say that a once revered and truly American style of filmmaking has gone down the toilet.

Grade: D

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Layout

My website has been having some layout issues. For some reason WordPress decided to remove menus from my layout, so I changed it and then found that my new layout had no menus either. Hopefully I’ll find something that works.

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DVD Review: Alice in Wonderland

Tim Burton has officially become a hack. He’s certainly one of the best directors of the late 1980s and 1990s, but in the past ten years he’s only directed one good film (“Corpse Bride”). His latest venture, “Alice in Wonderland” is yet another iteration of Lewis Carroll’s classic. Burton should have made this years ago, at least then it would have felt somewhat intriguing. Instead, it’s just stale and ordinary like what his career has become. Can’t imagine this would have been any more compelling in 3D (when will this fad end?) – just totally over-bloated with the stench of Hollywood involvement.

The story is of a 19-year-old Alice (Mia Wasikowska) who, afraid of being forced into a marriage of which she has no interest, runs off and falls into the rabbit hole into the world of Wonderland. She has a recollection through what she believes to be dreams, but soon finds out that her dreams are more than what they’ve seemed. Her dreams sort of come alive on her.

“Alice in Wonderland” feels like Burton is still stuck trying to appease the suits, making the Burton film that Hollywood expects from him – not the Burton film that one hopes he’s still capable of making. Also, it’s too obvious that Tim Burton should make the “Alice in Wonderland” film. Burton needs to surprise us again. It’s evident he doesn’t really have any more original ideas. He needs another “Ed Wood.”

The film is badly scripted with muddled and silly dialogue that never even bothers to intrigue or excite. It begins with a cliched frame story of a girl who is expected to marry against her will to achieve status and uphold the class structure. Screenwriter Linda Woolverton’s story frame attempts to mirror parts of the famous Alice storyline. It’s mildly interesting but further proves how upsetting and unnecessary this movie is. Danny Elfman’s score doesn’t sound like his usual sort, but it’s so conventionally boring that one almost misses his regular Burton-style sound.

Wasikowska has a wonderful look for the film, but she almost seems to be phoning it in. For an actress who should be one of those “it girls,” she certainly should have knocked it out of the park whereas her major debut is merely a bunt. There’s a difference between looking the role and playing the role. She has a certain appeal, but she almost appears to feel out of place in the part.

At least Helena Bonham-Carter isn’t playing the stock character (for the most part). She seems to at least be having fun as the Red Queen – and with her role in the “Harry Potter” films it appears as though her foray into villainous characters is something of a true calling.

Stephen Fry voices the Cheshire Cat, but lacks presence and is forgettable. Also, why is Crispin Glover in this? Paycheck. Anne Hathaway could have been a breath of fresh air, but her appearance is laughable.

Johnny Depp is pointlessly cast as the Mad Hatter, and after his first major scenes it becomes apparent that he’s only here because he’s Johnny Depp. Depp’s falling into a horrible pattern of playing these “goofy” characters that always feel like a watered down Jack Sparrow. He’s become the king of phoning it in. He seems to be enjoying the role, but really only to a point. Depp can be absolutely brilliant when he keeps the performance subtle (“Finding Neverland”) but when one can tell how uninterested he is in the part, it really shows. Depp knows character, however this one just sort of fell flat.

This “Alice” is not entirely unwatchable, but still sadly antiquated in terms of its superior source material and former adaptations. Some of the imagery and make-up work is actually quite impressive but too few and far between to make a difference. It’s clear that a lot of hard work went into the film, and there’s possibly a good film underneath this mess – but the pieces just didn’t fall into the right places.

This is a thinly veiled story of the search for identity through lost childhood that never reaches fulfillment. At one point, the Mad Hatter tells Alice that she’s lost her “muchness” – her ability to find the wonder in Wonderland. Burton, too, has lost his “muchness.” He could have actually made a great Alice film had he not been held back by an unabashedly boring script and sleepy performances. My second grade production of this story was more interesting and watchable than this lackadaisical hogwash. Dear suits, please give Tim Burton his creative control back.

Grade: C-

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Thoughts on “Nowhere Boy”

Sorry I haven’t posted anything in a while. I have some half-written reviews on the back burner and wrote a review recently for another publication that I’ll be able to post once it’s published.

I just really wanted to express my opinion on the upcoming independent British drama – one in a long line of similar films based on the life of the teenage John Lennon.

I try to watch the trailer for “Nowhere Boy” every once in a while to see if I get excited or interested. I don’t. They’ve made this movie so many times before, that particular part of John’s life has always been interpreted and written the same way for screen adaptation. He’ll never be portrayed as a despicable bastard, always a dreamer – which he was, but a woman-hating asshole dreamer. There’s a film about the break-up in the works, maybe it’ll be good. Probably not. Until they stop making near-fictional stories about the boys and show them for who they really were and not as they are perceived by through their ideal poppy “A Hard Days Night” charm, a film about their existence and meaning is still unfulfilled and almost irrelevant. I want a Beatles film that everyone will hate because its not what they expect.

However, there is an option that Hollywood or even independent film has yet to tackle.

I understand wanting to have a film about the Beatles that puts them in a positive light in terms of how we appreciate them as the greatest band of all time. In order to do this, everyone’s favorite Beatle (and mine) must not be the focus. John is a fascinating character, but screenwriters have never really been able to capture his rage and always try to romanticize his formative years. The best way to do this would be to write a film from the perspective of the “luckiest man in the world,” Mr. Ringo Starr. Even during their hardest times, Ringo seemed to be the least affected by turbulence of what was going on between John and Paul and George. There’s certainly enough information and interview footage and Starr is still alive and coherent enough to include his input. If we want to idealize the story, this is the only option. Paul’s ego is too big to fit on the screen, George became a little too bitter and we know that John’s tale is too complex.

In terms of filmmakers who could churn out something like this, there are only a few that I believe could do the job. I would immediately recommend Scorsese, because he could inject a little negativity whilst still keeping the story optimistic. However, I fear that after Marty’s abysmal “Shutter Island,” the once great director may be losing his footing. Spike Jonze could also be a good candidate but then we might not see the film for a long time. Cameron Crowe would have been a good choice about nine or ten years ago, but his efforts since his only good film (“Almost Famous”) have been dismal. As much as I love Wes Anderson, only a handful of people would enjoy the film. This needs to be a universally loved film – a timeless classic not just about The Beatles – but about rock ‘n’ roll.

Hollywood, get on it.

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My absence

Hello readers, if you’re still reading – although I’d imagine not, since I haven’t updated in four months. I’ve made some life changes, and have moved back home for now. I don’t have my own computer right now, but that should be remedied soon – and my writing shall restart. I’m happy right now, and really motivated to write. I have a long overdue “Best of the Decade” list that’s almost done and hopefully still relevant on this, our attention deficit world of internet film criticism. I am also working on a review of the excellent new rock film, “The Runaways.”

So have no fear, I have returned and am more passionate about film than ever.

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Top 5 Films of 2009

I didn’t get to see a lot of films this year, a combination of a lack of motivation and money. Dear movie theaters, lower your prices – thanks! Well, here’s my top 5 favorite films, for you to enjoy (One note, #6 would have been Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” read my review in the previous entry).

5. (500) Days of Summer

An exciting entry into the romantic comedy genre, that both embraces and rejects the rules of its categorical definitions. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is quickly becoming our generation’s Dustin Hoffman. Zooey Deschanel is well cast, as she is the dream girl, or the “Summer” of every twentysomething who has been obsessed with her since “Almost Famous.” The film is quite untraditional in that it doesn’t envelop its audience in romanticisms – instead it sets up early on that it is not a love story, yet only a story about love – and an honest one at that. A brilliant script, utilizing motifs to show both the rise and fall of the young couple’s relationship – “(500) Days of Summer” is further proof that independent film is able to break the mold of any generic category of film. It’s also refreshing that even after the passing of John Hughes, there are filmmakers that are still able to plug into all the pain and sorrow of youth and decode those emotions through the medium in such a new and original way.

4. District 9

The best success story of the year, as it not only cost very little to make – but made huge piles of money, and did so deservedly. In the past decade, science fiction has been artistically strong for sure (see “WALL-E,” “Children of Men” and “Paprika”) but not popular among average American audiences. Three films last year changed everything. The first film on this list, “Avatar” (which wouldn’t even make it on my top 10 list – even though it will change the movie-going experience, but whatever), and “District 9.” Any worries that theater audiences would miss out on consummate science fiction were dashed away with the release of unknown director Neill Blomkamp’s visionary film. Produced by Peter Jackson (not directed, as many people have come to believe due to the film’s advertising campaign), “District 9” presents the story of a species of aliens, known by the derogatory term “Prawn,” whose mother ship stops over the city of Johannesburg, South Africa. Its misguided protagonist Wikus van de Merwe, portrayed in a debut performance by Sharlto Copley, learns through extreme measures the sociological implications of xenophobia and segregation. Copley delivered one of the best performances of the year, using improvisation in a genre that rarely allows it. Needless to say, it won’t be the last we see of him.

3. The Hurt Locker

A taut action drama that, like “(500) Days of Summer,” is able to both utilize the great techniques of its genre while finding a way to reject and neutralize the tension. The performance of up-and-comer Jeremy Renner, who has gained a small amount of street cred in the film industry by appearing in mostly independent works, is quite powerful. While the film holds the audience to their seats – the tension mounting as these brave soldiers put their lives in danger – Renner’s character SSgt. William James eases the tension by approaching life without fear and with blind confidence. He never learns from his mistakes, because he always saves the day. It’s a glorious metaphor for the American engagement in the war, thus the most honest portrayal of our involvement in Iraq set to film yet. Katheryn Bigelow’s film takes the war seriously, both in rejection of its horrors and in praise of its heroes.

2. Where the Wild Things Are

A film that permeates the mind, and allows one to discover their inner child in a way you’d never expect. The attainment of innocence and one’s inner child is impossible to exact in a completely genuine way – but one single viewing of Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s book will transport its viewer (if not for a single night) to a place they’d wholly forgotten. The tragic loneliness of childhood – the inability to let out one’s deep emotional pains because you lack the education to iterate it through metaphor – is portrayed, something I’ve never seen in the medium. The innocent intelligence of a child’s mind which only exists within that mind is actually achieved in Jonze’s brilliant script and through the performance of Max Records. And that’s only the first fifteen minutes. Sendak’s original book was relatively thin in terms of characterization, but it spoke loudly in terms of the explosive potential of a child’s imagination. Jonze and screenwriter Dave Eggers name and explore the actual wild things, utilizing each beast’s personality as a reflection of the complexities of a child. The voice work is phenomenal (watch the film, then check IMDb and be amazed at who played certain characters) as is Karen O and Carter Burwell’s inspired score – the best in terms of cinematic relevance since Jon Brion’s score or “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” While the film has become something of a hipster’s wet dream, it should not be ignored as it is artistically important and singular in a new genre of film – the inner child’s film.

1. Star Trek

Not necessarily the best film technically, or in story or in character – but the most unabashedly fun and fearless film of the year. J.J. Abrams has gone where no one has gone before and made Star Trek not only fun again, but achieved the greatest act of desegregation since the Civil Rights Movement (although you might want to Wikipedia that…). The film re-introduced us to characters that have been reserved to the dreams of Trekkers and Trekkies – Kirk, Spock, Bones, Uhura, Scotty, Sulu and Chekov. As a Trekkie, I was hesitant to this film. Who wants an O.C. version of one of the greatest shows of all time? All fears were brushed aside by Abrams incredible ability to entertain, and in the best casting calls of all time. Zachary Quinto seemed an inspired choice to play Spock as he looks disturbingly like a young Leonard Nimoy. Not only was the appearance inspired – the performance was too. Quinto played an emotional Spock, and inhibited Spock haunted by both his human side and his Vulcan side. Watching his breakdown is heartbreaking. However, the best performance of the film and of the year is that of Chris Pine – who surprised every single fan who had doubts from the very beginning. As I wrote when I first saw the film: Pine doesn’t re-imagine Kirk, nor does an impression of William Shatner. Instead, Pine’s Kirk is a more charming leader and something of an accidental hero. Pine’s depiction is raw – a force of nature. He’s a leader you can follow, who has flaws anyone can identify with, most importantly the control of ones ego. Pine fleshes out the character of Kirk in a way no one could expect anyone other than Shatner could. This film will make Pine a star, and deservedly so. As I’ve watched the film five or six times since seeing it twice in the movie theater, I find myself seeing so much more to Pine’s performance. There are moments that feel Brando-esque, most specifically in Pine’s first scene of the film. Pine remains in control during the entire bar fight scene even as he’s getting the snot beaten out of him. I really hope that Pine’s talent is not wasted on the blockbuster. “Star Trek” is the rare blockbuster that actually promotes fine acting under the veil of SFX. Abrams needs to step up to the plate. The first film is, without a doubt, a fantastic space adventure that takes audiences (no pun intended) to no place they’ve gone before. However, it lacks in the most essential aspect of science fiction. Sociologically, the film does very little. It had the potential, had the villain Nero (Eric Bana) been a little more developed as a character – but the film really doesn’t achieve what other science fiction films have. “Star Trek” did a lot for Star Trek, but very little for what science fiction is definitively. With his next installment, Abrams must realize this. This is a very delicate situation, where something like the addition of Klingons could be either a great idea or could come off as cheesy. It worked as cheesy in the series, but Abrams new film sets up a more serious Trek so he must act accordingly. Needless to say, there’s very little doubt that Abrams will make a consummate sequel.

Thanks for everything 2009, you certainly taught me more than I could have ever been prepared for. 2010, please hold back on the sequels and remakes – unless you’ve got something to say, I’m not wasting my time on you.

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