Monthly Archives: June 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild — 4/10

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (2012, Behn Zeitlin): 4/10

For a second I felt like the only person not enchanted by this obnoxiously self-congratulatory, cliche-ridden, smugly directed ripoff — after all, it’s currently at an 85 on Metacritic — but then I did some research and found that luckily I’m not alone. This critic, while a bit too concerned with some vague connection Zeitlin has to Levi’s ads, nails the phoniness of the film’s magical realism and the revisionist attitude that Katrina didn’t actually bring out the worst in human nature (seriously, read the tales of what happened at the Superdome). And Deadspin does a good job identifying the film’s cliches, the most annoying of which is the pointless hand-held camerawork — which to me reeked of desperate grittiness. And while we’re ladling on the hate, I’ll risk being the jerk that points out Dwight Henry is not a good actor. I know this cast were all non-professionals, and sometimes that works — but professional actors work hard at being good at what they do, and for a reason; Henry pitches his drunk, sick father character at the same level throughout his screen time and it’s really grating. That said, there’s no professional substitute for the awesome charisma of Quvenzhane Wallis as Hushpuppy. Zeitlin struck gold in his search for the right vessel to play his innocent protagonist — but Wallis deserved better material than a C-grade photocopy of Terrence Malick and early David Gordon Green.

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Rock of Ages — 7/10

ROCK OF AGES (2012, Adam Shankman): 7/10

This whole Justin Theroux thing is interesting. He seemingly comes out of nowhere to be one of the few somewhat bright spots in MULHOLLAND DR., and gives another fairly dramatic performance in SIX FEET UNDER as a Rachel Griffiths love interest, then does this sharp turn to comedy — he’s hilarious in State-family films like THE BAXTER, THE TEN, and WANDERLUST, to the point where I think he missed his calling as a leading man screen comedian. And just when you thought he didn’t have any more range, he pops up as a screenwriter of TROPIC THUNDER and the curiously underrated IRON MAN 2, which, for all its faults, has so many clever zingers in it that you soon wonder if anyone *but* Justin Theroux could have written it.

Those same thoughts may pass through your mind during the gleefully satirical, indulgently campy, painfully formulaic, but often hysterically funny ROCK OF AGES, the latest Theroux script to no doubt be misunderstood and underrated by people mistakingly thinking it’s taking itself seriously. It isn’t. With comic tangents almost as transcendently absurd as Theroux’s luddite monologues in WANDERLUST, this ’80s hair metal musical is not the earnest, GREASE-like fable it paints itself as in the trailer. It’s dripping with irony, and almost contemptuous of its vapid stars — namely Julianne Hough (a professional dancer from Dancing With the Stars who does no dancing in this film, only acting and singing, both of which she’s terrible at) and Diego Boneta (a blank pile of cotton balls that makes you wish a 10-years-younger Justin Timberlake had been available to do the role).

Luckily, director Adam Shankman stuffs the supporting cast with highly qualified actors who absolutely kill it. There’s Paul Giamatti — who describes himself at one point as an Exxon oil slick, and plays the part to a tee — and Catherine Zeta-Jones (the star of the best-choreographed number in the whole film, as she leads a conservative church group in a boisterous rendition of Pat Benetar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”), and her on-screen husband Bryan Cranston, miles away from Walter White and just as focused. Then there’s the parade of comedians up to the task of delivering Theroux’s uproarious dialogue: his WANDERLUST co-star Malin Akerman as a horny Rolling Stone journalist, Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand as nightclub workers who couldn’t be more delightful… not to mention Will Forte and T.J. Miller (who nearly steals the show in one quick phone conversation scene).

But last, and never least, is the reason to see ROCK OF AGES: Tom Cruise. I’m not sure if Cruise will ever be appropriately lauded for the actor he is. He’s too big a movie star, too extreme a celebrity (with extremely batshit Scientology views), and seemingly too full of himself. But the guy can fucking act. He throws himself into his roles 100% — energetic, fierce, charismatically believable. This is his cockiest and most charged piece of narcissism since PT Anderson’s MAGNOLIA, and he relishes every moment he gets on screen: from his introduction (Giamatti’s journey to Cruise’s dressing room is like Martin Sheen going to meet Marlon Brando in APOCALYPSE NOW) to his hey-love-interest-Akerman-hang-on-a-sec-while-I-make-out-with-this-groupie expression of sheer comedic charm. I’ve read somewhere that people think Tom Cruise always plays Tom Cruise on film, but I have no idea what those people are watching. Comparing his drunk rock star God complex in this film with his steely hitman in COLLATERAL, his repressed, responsible doctor in EYES WIDE SHUT, his afraid, over-his-head divorced father in WAR OF THE WORLDS, and his tortured, bipolar lovestruck maniac in VANILLA SKY reveals the kind of range Cruise can really offer. Adam Shankman may not be able to rank alongside Stanley Kubrick, Brian DePalma, Martin Scorsese, John Woo, Ridley (and Tony) Scott, Rob Reiner, Michael Mann, Neil Jordan, Cameron Crowe, Steven Spielberg, and Oliver Stone (but I mean seriously, can you think of a single actor in the history of American cinema who has worked with that diverse and high a level of directorial talent — ever?), but he knows how to shoot a musical number and how to get the best out of a movie star that’s about as good an actor as you’ll find in the category.

I could have done without the two-too-many scenes of Julianne Hough roughing it as a stripper with the holy-shit-does-she-suck-at-acting Mary J. Blige, and without the wide-eyed window-pane of insipidness that is Diego Boneta, but I can overlook the two black holes of interest at the center of this film because I was so entertained by Theroux’s magnificently cheeky writing and the sheer enthusiasm this considerable ensemble was able to bring. And whether I think of Brand describing the Bourbon Room crowd as “a hot, fecund soup of estrogen and testosterone,” or of Zeta-Jones reminiscing about becoming “a woman — sure, a woman tied up and dripping with whipped cream and Wild Turkey, but a woman nonetheless,” I know that ROCK OF AGES is very aware of its place in the genre of camp musicals, and it’s way smarter — and funnier — than almost anyone will give it credit for. Then again, after seeing the reviews of IRON MAN 2 and WANDERLUST, I shouldn’t be surprised.

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Prometheus — 6/10

PROMETHEUS (2012, Ridley Scott): 6/10

A gorgeous-looking atmospheric sci-fi horror film, which is nothing new for Scott. There are also some extremely effective suspense sequences, most notably a self-performed C-section with a terrifying result — giving fans what they expect from a Ridley Scott ALIEN movie. But the character work leaves a lot to be desired here: only Idris Elba’s captain has rounded edges with a great sense of humor (he has one wordless expression here so winning that I was laughing aloud in the theater for a good 10 seconds), whereas everyone else is crushed by the weight of Scott’s loftier big-universe goals — a story about no less than the creation of mankind, God, the past, and the future. These conceptual pillars dwarf the human story and smother any emotional investment we might have. And this kind of cold, robotic approach is probably why Michael Fassbender, playing an android, gives the best performance in the film.

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Chronicle — 3/10

CHRONICLE (2012, Josh Trank): 3/10

I have two big problems with this movie. First of all, the found-footage thing… can we stop with this shit yet? When the format works to enhance the film (usually in the horror genre e.g. THE LAST EXORCISM and the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY films), I’m fine with it. But doing it just to do it doesn’t make much sense, especially when you have to spend a good chunk of the screenplay inventing reasons for the format. I mean seriously, people in this film constantly explain why they’re filming it, and then cameras appear out of nowhere to justify the footage we’re seeing. But why? With CHRONICLE, it’s pointless. Does it add realism? No. Does it add tension or fear? No. Does it make a comment on our media fascination and YouTube culture, a la the extremely clever and painfully ignored film THE VIRGINITY HIT? Not in the slightest. Secondly, I guess the message of CHRONICLE is that “it’s a good thing superheroes aren’t whiny, emo losers with anger management issues.” Look, I’m all for unlikable antiheroes. But this kid isn’t even an interesting one. Dane DeHaan’s Andrew is a pathetic stick-in-the-mud, even after he becomes a superhuman, psychokinetic marvel. I wanted the film to follow anyone but him. Unfortunately, our good-guy identifier is played by Alex Russell, an even worse actor who can’t manage a believable emotion even when he simply has to laugh. Trank’s premise is a decent one, but almost everything went wrong in the execution, including one of the most poorly staged action climaxes in years (good special effects are wasted on ridiculous direction hampered by the found-footage gimmick) complete with a hilariously terrible villainous roar from DeHaan. Trank probably wanted us laughing at three kids playing football above the clouds, but the last 15 minutes are far more risible.

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