Friday, July 29, 2011

A Pleasant Surprise: Crazy, Stupid, Love.

 This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

For some, the idea of going to a "romantic comedy" is about as appealing as watching a six-hour PowerPoint presentation about fiscal growth. I don't run screaming from rom-coms, but I have to admit that the majority I see just leave me sad and/or angry, so "Crazy, Stupid, Love." was a pleasant surprise in a genre rife with mediocrity.

Steve Carrell and Julianne Moore star as Cal and Emily Weaver, a couple long-married and seemingly happy, until Emily bluntly tells Cal she wants a divorce instead of a dessert at the end of a date night.

Cal doesn't take this well, especially after Emily confesses to sleeping with her co-worker, Dave Lindhagen, (Kevin Bacon). Nonetheless, Cal leaves the house, gets an apartment, and starts to frequent a local pick-up joint, telling anyone who'll listen that his wife has had an affair with DAVE LINDHAGEN! (The name becomes a running punchline). Jacob, (Ryan Gosling), the bar's resident Lothario, takes notice of sad sack Cal, and out of pity, offers to take him under his tutelage, teaching him the ways of the pick up artist.

After your requisite makeover scene, and several failed attempts with the ladies, Cal eventually scores with a wild teacher played by Marisa Tomei. (Who is great in the role, although I am pretty sure I have seen her play this same character--the 40ish wildcat--more than once in the past few years.)

Jacob continues to sleep his way through the bar's clientele, eventually hooking up with a fiery redhead named Hannah, (Emma Stone), who ends up meaning much more to him than a one-night-stand, much to his surprise.

Meanwhile, Emily tries to come to terms with her singlehood, while also dealing with two kids, one of which, 14-year-old Robbie, (Jonah Bobo), is hopelessly in love with his 17-year-old baby-sitter, Jessica, (Analeigh Tipton), who is, in turn, in love with Cal.

This multigenerational set-up may sound like standard romantic comedy fare, but the movie is able to rise above the genre thanks to some great performances, and a clever script. In a refreshing change of pace from movies with upwards of five or more screenwriters, (see: "Cowboys & Aliens"), there is only one screenwriter here: Dan Fogelman, a writer whose previous credits include the animated films "Cars" and "Tangled." (There are, however, two directors: Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who directed last year's "I Love You Phillip Morris." )

It's a tough thing to write fast-paced banter that doesn't sound scripted or affected, but Fogelman manages to make the dialogue in the movie both clever and very real. The characters talk over each other, blurt out things you know they instantly regret, as people are wont to do, and even occasionally find themselves at a loss for words. It's a testament to the script that the most romantic moments in the movie aren't necessarily the big speeches about love, but little bits of conversation where two characters are able to reveal the comforts of familiarity, or the excitement of learning about someone new.

Of course, a good script is nothing without solid performances, and thankfully the movie's full of good actors. Steve Carrell is able to pull off sad sack as well as triumphant ladies' man while remaining sympathetic. Julianne Moore, well, come on. She's always good, so it's a tad disappointing to see her story relegated to the background for much of the movie.

Emma Stone won me over completely with last year's "Easy A," and she's just as funny and peculiarly pretty here. She has an off-handed moment where she imitates Lauren Bacall's High Point coffee commercials that had me guffawing. (Granted, I don't think many others in the audience knew what the hell that was about.)

But the real revelation here is Ryan Gosling. I've appreciated his combination of good looks and acting chops in such films as "Blue Valentine," "Half Nelson," and, yes, "The Notebook," but I was never really a gushing fan girl. Until now. He demonstrates such a wicked combination of sexual smoothness and comedic timing that by the end of the movie, I swear he had my underwear off too. (Apologies to my seatmates.)

Towards the film's climax, it does begin to veer dangerously close to sitcom territory, but it never really derails, and even manages to throw in some plot twists that took me by surprise. I don't think "Crazy, Stupid, Love." is a romantic comedy that will convert the staunchest haters of the genre, but I do think it's a good bet for those who always venture into such films with an undying sense of trepidation.

An Incredibly Bad Design Flaw: Cowboys & Aliens

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

"Cowboys & Aliens," the genre mash-up from director Jon Favreau, is a curiosity in that it has so much going for it--great actors, a crazy set-up, action, aliens, fights, blood, Daniel Craig's abs--but still manages to fail completely.

The movie starts out in promising form, with Craig's amnesiac Man With No Name waking up in the desert, shoeless, with a weird metal contraption attached to his wrist.

He's soon surrounded by outlaws that he easily overcomes before making his way to the western town of Absolution. Here he is greeted by the town's population of cliches, such as the wimpy saloon owner (Sam Rockwell), the sensible sheriff, (Keith Carradine), a pistol-packing lass, (Olivia Wilde), and the spoiled, drunken son (Paul Dano) of a ruthless rancher, (Harrison Ford).

Turns out the Man With No Name has a name--Jake Lonergan--and a Wanted poster. But before the sheriff can collect a bounty, the town is attacked by low flying saucers that shoot up buildings and kidnap their kin; Lonergan quickly learns what that metal wristband is good for.

From this point on, the movie starts to plod, with the townsfolk teaming up with Longergan to defeat the "demons" and get back their kinfolk. Last year, after seeing the Coen brothers' "True Grit," alongside the John Wayne original, I came to the realization that my longstanding self-proclaimed hatred of westerns was, in fact, a lie. I don't hate westerns; I hate bad westerns. And, unfortunately, the western half of "Cowboys & Aliens" is a bad western.

Sadly, the sci-fi half isn't any better. The aliens the cowboys fight are only memorable in that they have an incredibly bad design flaw: a pair of extra arms that are, essentially, lung-arms, which means whenever said arms are extended, the alien's inner workings are made vulnerable. Other than that, they're generically boring and maddeningly inconsistent. Sometimes guns can take them down, and sometimes bullets just bounce off of them.

As the band of cowboys (and one mysterious cowgirl) make their way to the alien lair, they are attacked by, and eventually align with, an Apache tribe, who have also lost some of their own to the aliens' lassos. Thus the movie becomes "Cowboys & Indians Vs. Aliens."

There is some attempt at historical commentary here, with the aliens' invasion and quest for gold (yes, gold) mirroring America's "manifest destiny" and slaughter of the natives, but that kind of heady thinking is cast aside pretty quickly, in favor of several shoot-outs, and the inevitable, "I need to get to the heart of the alien craft, where the inevitable weakness is, to set off the bomb!" set-up. It took eight writers to come up with that?

Daniel Craig is his usual bad-ass self, all sinewy muscle and piercing blue eyes, and I appreciate his not going overboard with an accent. (In fact most of the cast stays away from that, and it was kind of refreshing not hearing the usual heavy fake southern accents that tend to populate all westerns.) But a little too much burden is placed on Craig's shoulders to carry the movie, and I don't think he entirely succeeds.

Which brings me to the bigger star in this movie: Harrison Ford. His character is supposed to be a mean, ruthless, sonofabitch, but aside from a few early minutes of torturous interrogation of a ranch hand, he's anything but, and comes across as more of a cranky old man than a man to be feared.

After seeing this and last year's "Morning Glory," in which he played a cranky old newscaster--badly--I'm beginning to wonder if Harrison Ford was ever actually a good actor. Don't get me wrong: I loved him as much as the next Gen X'er did in their youth. But perhaps he really, really, benefited from being in some great movies. Place him in a mediocre movie, and there's nothing he can really do to save it, and this one is no exception.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Perfect For Airplanes and Grandmas: Larry Crowne

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

"Larry Crowne" has been giving me the skeeves ever since I saw the first trailer in which Tom Hanks locks lips with Julia Roberts. There is just something so very...unsexy about that sight, I couldn't believe a movie was being built around it.

Now, Tom Hanks is a very likable guy, both on and off screen. But Tom Hanks is not a sexy leading man. He is a lovable uncle. It's true that at one time, his comedic gifts and everyman good looks could spell romantic lead, (see "Splash," "Sleepless In Seattle," etc.), but I would submit that contrary to popular belief, not all leading men get sexier as they grow older. Not all men are Sean Connery.

I am not sure if it is the combination of comedy and age that sucks the sexy out of some actors, but it seems to follow that rule. (I got equally skeeved out by the thoughts of Steve Martin having sex with Claire Danes in "Shopgirl," and had to look away any time they kissed.)

After seeing "Larry Crowne," I've come to believe that I'm not the only one who feels this way about Tom Hanks. I'm pretty sure Tom Hanks feels this way too, and as such, he has created a movie that is the very definition of bowdlerized.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. "Larry Crowne" tells the story of an uncomplicated, middle-aged guy who works at a thinly disguised version of Walmart and Target. He seems to really, really love his job, which might lead the viewer to think the guy might be...special, in a "Forest Gump" kind of way. But no. He's just a simple guy who likes his job, and has been awarded eight Employee of the Month honors as a result. Unfortunately, he's also a simple guy without a college education--20 years in the Navy got in the way of that--and as a result, he's deemed unpromotable, and therefore expendable, by the suits in charge.

Poor Larry Crowne has roughly five minutes of despair at his situation--divorced, middle-aged, unemployed, undereducated, and with an underwater mortgage to boot--before he cheerily starts to look for a new job. When no option presents itself, he decides to go to community college.

Trading in his gas guzzling SUV for a scooter, he is initiated into a "gang" of scooter-riding twentysomethings by an unfailingly perky fellow student named Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). She gives Larry a new name, (Lance), a new haircut, (possibly dyed black), and a new wardrobe, (which includes skinny jeans and a wallet chain...seriously).

Julia Roberts is Mercedes Tainot, (the pronunciation of her name is one of the film's feeble running jokes), the English professor heading Larry's Public Speaking class (one of only two classes he seems to take, the other being Economics, headed by George Takei, doing an excellent George Takei impersonation).

Mercedes is in a perpetually bad mood, because she doesn't think her students care about her classes, SHE doesn't care about her classes, and she's married to a "blogger," (Bryan Cranston), who stays at home all day looking at "porn." (Last time I checked, porn was not defined as pictures of women in bikinis). Unsurprisingly, she has a fondness for margaritas.

That Larry and Mercedes develop a romance is not a surprise. What IS surprising is how absolutely chaste and G-rated that romance is. I don't think it's a spoiler to say they only kiss twice in the entire movie, and one time is when she is completely drunk, and Larry--nice guy that he is--puts an end to the evening before anything really happens.

So, if their romance isn't the center of the movie, what is? I really, sincerely, don't know! The film touches on some very trendy issues--unemployment; having to start over in the middle of one's life; the state of upper education--but there is never a feeling of anything huge at stake.

We never get a real sense of who Larry Crowne actually is. An ex-wife is mentioned, but she is nameless, and their break-up unexplained. He spent 20 years in the Navy as a cook, and when it's suggested he go into the culinary field again, he scoffs at it, even though that is exactly what he ends up doing as a part-time job. And, in fact, we never really know WHAT Larry wants to do with a degree if he does get it. Go back to fake Target and become a manager?

Hanks directed the movie, with a script he co-wrote with Nia Vardalos, she of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" fame. It's only the second feature he's directed--the first being the fun "That Thing You Do"--and he's not bad at it. Given a better script, I think he'd be a fine comedic director. He understands comedic timing, and gets some good performances from his cast. But what he's working with here is so light, so inconsequential, and so mild, it's like it was created exclusively for airplanes and grandmas.