Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World

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San Diego Comic-Con was a huge love fest for this, director Edgar Wright’s latest movie. (Previous beloved outings: Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz.) Some may complain of Michael Cera fatigue, but Scott Pilgrim gives Cera’s tender appeal some post-punk juice. This movie makes full use of Brian Lee O’Malley’s graphic novel source material (graphic renditions of feelings, quick short cutaways like individual panels) as well as its target demographic’s love of video games, anime, and epic epics of epic epicness. Wright fully commits to a style that is loud and bright and snarky and dynamic — and the key words here are “fully commits.” Even small reaction shots get a sound sting and/or an effect or camera move. Be sure to take your seizure medication before seeing Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. I’d say overall that the movie is about 90% style and 10% substance, but the style is so fully realized, so lush and different and dynamic, that it in itself becomes substantive.

Cera’s 22 year-old title character lives with the not-seen-enough Kieran Culkin and has a “fake high school girlfriend” named Knives (the adorable Ellen Wong), that is, until he meets Ramona Flowers (a detached Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Ramona is a punky funky fuschia-haired chick who has a League of Evil Exes that any new swain of hers must battle to the death in order to date her. Is she worth it? The movie doesn’t bother to answer that (hence the 10% substance). It doesn’t matter. Scott thinks she is. Not all the Evil Exes have supernatural powers, but some of them happen to. It’s pretty great how Wright can plop the extraordinary into a sea of ordinary and still keep his feet on the ground, even with this hyper-real video game-like world. I wonder what he might do with a franchise like X-Men. Pilgrim battles, the loser drops loot, achievements are unlocked, and his levels increase. Meanwhile he still needs to deal with Knives, his roommate situation, and the struggle of his band, the Sex Bob-Ombs. Sure, in real life we all struggle with multiple challenges, though little of it so publicly.

If you have watched or played Mortal Kombat and its ilk, or seen big one-on-one battles in anime movies, the visual language of the film will be clear enough. After seeing the film I was able to flip through one of the graphic novels, and the frenetic-but-never-frantic tone is dead on. If the last video game you played was a table-top console of Ms. Pac Man at a pizza joint, go with a high schooler who can translate between yelping “Pwned!” The story itself is pretty pedestrian, more like a quest than a full narrative with full characters. The people get a lot of pyrotechnics and fantastic editing behind their stories and performances — and by behind, I mean in the classic sense of upstaging. But really, the pleasure of this movie, and it is hyperactively pleasurable, is in digging the mechanics of it; the gamifying of life, if you will. The animations, the floating words and jump cuts and witty barbs, the funny villains and Cera’s unlikely but solid bad-assitude, these all make a potent and spicy sauce you may not have seen before.

Remember in Shaun of the Dead, the Requiem-for-a-Dream quick montages of Shaun getting ready to go out for the day? Take that pace and sense of overly vital importance, and add tons of insane anime-inspired fight scenes; then take script pages from Better Off Dead, Mean Girls, and Kick-Ass and put it all in a blender with Cera and Culkin. Did I enjoy it because it made me feel young and in touch with the kids today? More so I enjoyed its balls-to-the-wall full-on appropriation of the concept and the merry, antic pace for what is really just a sweet romantic comedy about nerds.

MPAA Rating PG-13

Release date 8/13/10

Time in minutes 112

Director Edgar Wright

Studio Universal Pictures

Winter’s Bone

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I have to say it — Winter’s Bone left me cold. The acting is very good, the dialogue is naturalistic, and the art direction paints a vivid, textured picture of rural Missouri that is both lost in time and vibrantly present. The lead, Jennifer Lawrence, turns in a steely, raw performance. So what’s the problem? I don’t know if Daniel Woodrell’s novel on which this is based is the issue, or if it is the screenplay adaptation, but this narrative was unnecessarily opaque and spins its wheels. Lawrence plays Ree, a 17 year-old girl struggling to raise her younger siblings, care for her catatonic mother, and support herself. Her absent father runs from the law, running meth labs and creating trouble.

Despite Ree keeping the family’s noses clean, the sins of the father are visited upon his children, though it’s not entirely clear why. When Ree goes out to find him in order to save the house, she encounters both kin and kith who have all manner of things to hide and basically mercilessly thwart and threaten her. I never could ken why she was in such peril from them, nor how a situation such as hers could even exist. It’s clear dad Jessup was an unsavory creature, and she harbors no sentiment for him, but why the neighbors close ranks against her is ambiguous.

The squalor of their lives seems impenetrable and incurable, yet Ree manages to keep their lives just barely together; in her daddy search, islands of downhome normalcy bloom at unexpected moments. It’s difficult to imagine these folks complaining about any first world problems you or I might experience just by dint of you reading this on a computer, like snowglobes being banned from carry-on luggage or the long lines for the new iPhone. These folks take free use of a log splitter as charity, and a brace of fresh squirrel as a feast. I admit I spent a lot of time stepping back from the interminable parade of mysterious roadblocks Ree encounters (sample paraphrase: “I done tol’ you not to come ’round here, you know why”) to marvel at the realism of the sets and the ground-in warp and woof of the characters. The people and places are so vivid, you can practically smell the naugahyde, lard, musty couches, and stale cigarette smoke.

I could not fathom the CIA-level security these trashy neighbors were employing to protect — or to punish? — a member of their community they clearly feel no regard for. As a result, I felt very left out and disconnected, even more so than by our lifestyle differences. In a climactic moment, Ree has a terrible experience I feel quite sure none of my readers ever will — and while Lawrence is giving us a great performance here, such that it never feels like she’s acting, I was so disenchanted by the dead-end-ridden story that I could not appreciate the full measure of her good work.

MPAA Rating R-drug materials, language, violent content

Release date 6/11/10

Time in minutes 100

Director Debra Granik

Studio Roadside Attractions

Dinner for Schmucks

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Dinner for Schmucks, a remake of the 1998 French farce Le Diner de Cons (The Dinner Game), reunites the extremely lovable duo of Paul Rudd and Steve Carell. Readers of Cinerina know my feelings on Carell — an actor even before he is a comedian, Carell can swing his characters out in a wide outrageous arc because he is able to ground them so effectively in reality. Schmucks definitely wants his character Barry to be so naïve, so socially inept as to be practically an alien from another planet. Carell saves the day. Barry has a weird hobby and a deep sadness, and the story needs him to be laughably ridiculous. Well, you don’t cast Carell as someone irredeemably weird — you cast Zach Galifianakis.

Director Jay Roach did that too — Galifianakis’ Therman is an alien, incomprehensively weird for weird’s sake and off-putting; Barry is a real guy who just misses all the cues life gives him. We can laugh at Barry because we also come to love him — and we can laugh at his effect on Tim (Rudd) because we kind of get why Tim deserves the inevitable disasters that Barry brings. Rudd is of course winsome, put-upon, and quietly stealing his share of the spotlight from Carell. Their onscreen chemistry is as always a pleasure, and the only real hurdle they have is the clumsy translation of the original to an American audience.

I haven’t seen the source film, but it seems that the places where this remake missteps the widest are either when it hews too closely to reproducing the original, or when it succumbs to the Hollywood pandergeist “we’re making a movie with Dinner in the title, there is gonna be a damn dinner!” I have learned that Le Diner De Cons does not actually include the titular meal; Dinner for Schmucks has chosen this dinner as a climax of wackiness. Le Diner was doubtless about Tim and the relationships in his life and how they were affected by the bad decision he made in agreeing to this dinner party. Dinner is about how weird Barry is, and then there’s all this legacy material.

A character called Darla (played awesomely by Brit Lucy Punch) throws a sexual monkey wrench into the already convoluted problems Barry is causing for Tim and also Tim’s relationship. Darla’s character confronting Tim’s girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak) is a huge set piece, and the additional distractions of Kieran, a weird and magnetic artist that Jemaine Clement was born to play, are clearly the original meat of the story. Without seeing the original, I can tell from the anthropological evidence here that Carell’s character was not meant to be the main event, Tim is. The result of all this is that we get a funny sex farce dominated incomprehensibly by a lovable weirdo — or we get a corporate prank comedy waylaid by random weird offside sexual antics. Two movies for the price of one, but the overall pacing becomes weird and not quite right.

Fussing about the hybrid script aside, I laughed a good deal, as did my companion. Barry’s mouse dioramas are totally freaky but quite beautifully done by Joel Venti. Barry’s heart is poured into these whimsical, incredibly crafty creations, and they play a huge part in establishing both his weirdness and his sympathetic qualities. Overall I would call the film more amusing than funny, and more sweet than anything else — like Despicable Me, the unbelievably awesome cast and their incredible improv brilliance elevates the film past the available potential of Jay Roache’s often-misguided directorial choices and the awkward Hollywood Frankenstein of the story.

MPAA Rating PG-13

Release date 7/30/10

Time in minutes 114

Director Jay Roach

Studio Paramount / Dreamworks

Grease Sing-Along

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If you haven’t seen Grease, somehow, but intend to break yourself in with this sing-along, be prepared to wonder what all the fuss is about. Grease is a girlhood rite of passage, a high school theatre staple, and a cheesy classic, but it is quite terrible. The film version of course being better known than the stage version, 1978’s Grease has even infected stage productions to add the movie-only songs (You’re The One That I Want, most egregiously). It’s amusing to watch the leader of the rival gang The Scorpions (nonexistent in the play) sport scars for acne his character should instead be aflame with afresh. It’s campy fun to see Frankie Avalon make mid-twenties actress Didi Conn swoon and to worry about 34 year-old (!) Stockard Channing get knocked up by her 28 year-old boyfriend. (And people complain about Glee’s 21 year old stars!)

These are known quantities, though I confess it had been so long since I had seen it (the DVD, a gift, remains shrink wrapped) I had forgotten much. It all comes swirling back, though. It’s certainly still got that good ol’ Rydell High spirit, fun costumes, and that terrible message. And fun, energetic dancing which was definitely out of vogue in 1970’s movies.

As for the Singalong part, well, it’s new and special all right. Has it been a while since you had to recall “rama lama lama, kadingety ding de dong, shoo bop shoo wadda wadda yippity boom de boom?” The lyrics are up there, in distracting yet fun and kicky animations. (Personal favorite: editorial commentary on Channing’s Rizzo’s virtue: TRASHY!) The Sound of Music Sing-along, which resembled nothing so much as a lush big-screen karaoke with discreet white block lettering, focused on the movie as the draw. Grease Sing-along pulls out the stops with hearts floating up and out of “devoted,” words getting kicked by dancers, and unnecessary extra bits like flying calendar pages and moons and huge fonts. Anyway, it’s fun, but it kind of feels like it’s trying too hard. It’s less a gift to the fans than an attempt to engage new, very young ones. You know how some movies do a cutesy little scrapbook or yearbook thing for the end credits, chockablock with really blatant and obvious jokes? That’s this. Inexplicably, the opening Barry Gibb theme song “Grease is the Word” has no screen lyrics.

Again, Grease is a romantic musical comedy from a simpler time, depicting an even simpler time. Blazing through the divorce-frenzied disco era came a sweet, slightly raunchy musical set during the innocent 1950’s, where girls are still girls and boys are still boys, where Frenchy shouldn’t pursue her feminazi dream of becoming a beautician, where Sandy has to change who she is in order to keep the man who’s not brave enough to admit to his friends that he did love you as you were, where your dates discard you like the Kleenex from your bra when you get home from semi-consensual drive-in petting. Grease sparked the 50’s retro craze that contributed to the new wave/mod look and reminded 1970s’ and 1980’s teens that they weren’t the first teenages: the Boomers were. It was our primer for romantic angst and negative peer pressure, and it’s still a rockin’ fun time, even if a slightly tarnished one.

MPAA Rating PG-13

Release date 7/8/10 (originally 1978)

Time in minutes 110

Director Randal Kleiser

Studio Paramount/Insurge

The Last Airbender

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Armed with only a slight awareness of the premise, but accompanied by a pretty hard-core fan, I fought my way through the hordes of Twihards to be in a very different fan-base room for this screening. The film starts with a basic premise of the universe the story takes place in — four nations formerly at peace, now under siege by one, and an Avatar, reborn in turn to each nation, who can balance the peace. Some people can bend their nation’s element, and all four nations’ magic is contained within one Avatar, who was lost a hundred years ago. It’s chock full of lovely eastern philosophy, spirits, and flavors, and various graceful martial arts moves. The cast is pan-ethnic (with a distinct dearth of what Americans would consider Asian), which has raised some ire with some fans.

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, this movie feels definitely and solidly meant for kids. Whether the source material book and cartoon is as simplistic as the script for this movie, I cannot say, but I for one, coming in cold, felt like it was talking down to me and over-explaining a lot. A whole lot. And poor southern Asians (you might think of them as Indians and Arabs)! Even in a Shyamalan movie they are all relegated to playing the patently baddie Fire Nation, getting their Sarumon groove on with their smoking ships of evil looking nastiness. More than a few moments remind one of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and not necessarily in a complimentary way. The visuals are very cool — the element bending of fire, water, air, and earth is gorgeous and feels really real. The balletic moves, each based in a different discipline, are very faithful to the animated ones fans are used to.

I have no quibble with the cast everyone appeared to deliver their wooden lines with the best conviction they could, except perhaps one white-haired princess. The only recognizable faces to me were in the Fire Nation (including almost distractingly the Daily Show’s Aasif Maanvi), but the newcomers struggled valiantly with a clumsy script that made me sigh multiple times. The fans were glowing all around me, though, so hopefully the whitewashing of the cast was forgiven in bringing their beloved world to live-action life. The locations are amazing, all over the globe and full of beautifully rendered graphics.

Noah Ringer as Aang— an actor apparently actually of Asian descent, more evident in his photos on than in the film — has to do most of the heavy lifting in this film, and he carries the film on his sincere, athletic 13 year-old shoulders. His performance is all in his body and face, and thankfully the words sound less…awkard coming out of the mouth of the child who was frozen and lost, unaware of all that has happened in the intervening century. This is not the same as Jackson Rathbone, who is not only subjected to having to be the elder of a band of adventurous children, he also has to endure being in a pointless semi-romance with the aforementioned princess (Seychelle Gabriel).

I trust my companion’s assertion that he was not disappointed, as a fan, but I stand by my experience which was that I was pretty annoyed by the dialogue and impatient with the over-explanation. The film covers all of Book One: Water, or season 1 of the cartoon, and it did make me want to know more about the source material, but boy, I am glad I did not pay full price for the movie.

MPAA Rating PG

Release date 7/1/10

Time in minutes 103

Director M. Night Shyamalan

Studio Paramount/Nickelodeon

The Karate Kid (2010)

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Talk about a movie that needed never to be made. If they had made this movie exactly as it is, but never tried to tie it to the original franchise of the 1980’s, it might have slipped your notice, but it wouldn’t have had to live up to the idea of a remake. Leaving aside that the martial art demonstrated through out this film is Kung Fu and not Karate, despite the fact that the funny winking sound cue in the preview does not happen, if you ignore the sheer lack of necessity for reviving this franchise, The Karate Kid 2010 is a sweet, gentle bit of entertainment with some pretty cool sequences.

First of all, Jaden Smith is a likeable, vulnerable kid, a skinny black preteen thrown onto the streets of Beijing, rather than just dealing with obnoxious American leg-sweepers. He has inherited full doses of both his parents’ onscreen charisma. Jackie Chan, while forced to play his Mr. Han with a little too much Ancient Chinese Secret, generally gets to be funny and warm and emotional, while giving us a reminder of the powerhouse he used to be before he became a walking kids movie. And China itself (all manner of staggeringly beautiful locations and vistas) is a character too, a huge mysterious land of peace and beauty and focus and rebirth. We don’t learn much about the culture or traditions of China, but we can still admire the artifacts of same as window dressing for this sweet tale.

It doesn’t take long for the Only In A Movie extremes to set in — immense kindness and good fortune in making friends and obtaining skills clashes with intense, motivationless malevolence and unregulated dangers. Watching a cool, confident, cornrowed Detroit kid get pummeled by sleek Chinese street toughs is hard. Waiting almost 50 minutes for the most cursory beginning of any martial artistry is harder. I was fortunate to have a martial arts instructor as my companion, so I can say that the fights are solid and impressive. There is a scene for us old-school Chan fans wherein he gets to do his awesome use-of-the-environment fighting style. Chan may be 56 but he’s still a sinewy and focused dancer in combat. Tight & quick editing keeps us from enjoying the movies as much as we could.

Quiet maintenance man Mr. Han is the new Mr. Miyagi. Besides Chan’s obvious action movie pedigree, he is a great actor choice for this role. He’s warm and intense, funny and serious, and clearly bristling with experience and inner power. We all know he’s going to teach the boy kung fu, but we’re left in the dark as to his methods and his reasoning. This is good only because it affords us plenty of times to see the beauty of the world Smith has been dropped into.

This movie is not so much about narrative surprise (nor about setting the world on fire) as it is about being a sweet, solid, serenely-paced bromantic — no, paternomanti – action comedy. It’s so feel-good there isn’t even any conflict between teacher and pupil. Smith is great being a popular kid and not altogether good at being one whose self-esteem has been crushed like a bug, but we don’t have to wait that long of course. Knowing Chan will turn that bug into a grasshopper is a given, but watching them together is the pleasure.

MPAA Rating PG

Release date 6/11/10

Time in minutes 126

Director Harald Zwart

Studio Columbia Pictures

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

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If you have ever played/watched the video game Prince of Persia, you know that it is a lush-looking sandbox game with various devices for clambering around the medieval streets of Persia, picking up stuff, and getting into fights. A unique do-over aspect of the game manages to wend its way into the plot of this one, at least justifying the specific adaptation of this video game. The game tries to lamely create character through contemporary, somewhat wise-cracking dialogue; the film dispenses with this horrible concept as well as any notion of recreating game play, and instead tries with sweaty desperation to be the next Pirates of the Caribbean. In terms of elevating the source material into an actual closed narrative, Prince succeeds. In terms of actually being the next Pirates, it mostly fails.

Let’s go over the symptoms: PG and even G-rated danger in a normally extremely dangerous and exotic setting; Oscar nominees and winners hamming it up in a Bruckheimer film; Wonka-size eye candy; big epic quest plot with a modicum of desexualized romance based on quipping; absurd, kid-friendly bad guys; art-house darling impishly seducing men and women into accepting him in a huge action movie; fabulous set-pieces. Here, Prince of Persia succeeds.

Unlike the first Pirates film, which was directed by the whimsical then-no-one Gore Verbinski, this movie was directed by Mike Newell, best known for Four Weddings and a Funeral and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Newell keeps his romantic comedy skills intact while again keeping his action-movie camera pulled way far out. I often complain that action movies try to insert the camera in the pockets of those in combat, but Goblet of Fire and Prince of Persia are more like watching the big game on TV instead of in the stadium. There’s no sense of involvement with the audience.

Also, I’m sorry to say it, Johnny Depp can get away with crazed impishness and unlikely wigs far better than tortured and fretful hound-faced Jake Gyllenhaal, even with those lickable arms. His character comes alive in those moments he can wring out a wry grin, but mostly he’s called upon to be serious. He’s good at serious — so the movie gets all serious under his care when it could have been as fun as every moment Alfred Molina is on screen. After Molina’s buttoned-down turn in An Education, it’s fantastic to see his feathery comedic touch again (see also: The Imposters). Gemma Arterton as the beleaguered princess is a lyrically lovely woman, and mostly isn’t relegated to mystical love object or squealing rescue object. Her role is so agonizingly earnest and focused that her character sucks all the fun out of the movie. In the brief moments she’s given to be in disguise or witty, she gleams like a jewel, but generally she’s just a motivational force for Prince Dastan’s capable biceps. At least she’s not incredibly annoying like her PS3 counterpart.

The action is solid, the screen story is interesting enough to justify the means (though in the beginning it just felt like it was in the way). Sir Ben Kingsley and Coupling’s Richard Coyle are lovely as our hero’s uncle and brother. Once the plot smoothed out its wrinkles they were also allowed to do a little acting. Prince of Persia is a serviceable summer movie with few surprises, fewer Great Moments In Big Films, and is an inevitable franchise-starter. Let’s nip this series in the bud and save our money, shall we?

MPAA Rating PG-13

Release date 5/28/10

Time in minutes 115

Director Mike Newell

Studio Walt Disney Pictures


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Did you see Spy Kids? Sky High? Kick-Ass is most assuredly not those movies. I expected some comedy, some teen angst, some great stunts, and I got them. Oh yes, I got them. I did not expect mob bosses, crazed double crosses, intense and squibbulous violence, a classic revenge plot, and a pretty decent little love story. Nor did I expect to enjoy Nicholas Cage as much as I did. If this movie seems like anything close to your thing, go see it immediately. Kick-Ass pulls no punches, which one might expect from a movie with teens and pre-teens. It goes for full-on verite of consequences (even as it traipses gaily through romantic farce a little). Just when you expect a little ABC Family reprieve here and there, you do not get it.

Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) is a perfect American self-invented Harry Potter of a lead: he’s a nerdy, adorable, well-intentioned, and genuinely altruistic outsider, hopelessly misunderstood with goo-goo eyes behind wire glasses. His friends (Clark Duke and Evan Peters) are funny nerdy foils to his dreamer persona, serving as Greek chorus and comic relief (both kinds of comic). Enter sheltered rich sociopath Christopher Mintz-Plasse and the dynamic duo of Hit Girl (Chloe Grace) and Big Daddy (Cage), and the fun starts. Red Mist (Mintz-Plasse) may remind you of Batman, and Kick-Ass may remind you of Spider-Man, but their origin story is definitely very Millenial Generation.

Nicholas Cage needs to do some serious legwork to redeem himself for allowing the end of Knowing to happen, but he made some good headway with Big Daddy. BD is weird, crazy, and deadly serious, even going to the trouble to disguise his normal vocal cadences. His daughter Mindy, or Hit Girl, may have lost her mother and her childhood, but her 11 year old character is surprisingly deeply performed. Sure, she comes off with some profanities and badassery, as shocking as a rapping granny, but then she has some really great moments of childishness and maturity. Every girl at Comic-Con is going to be dressed as Hit Girl, which will only increase her weird sexualization. She’s so cool and pretty you forget she’s really tiny and young, until it matters most. Our villains are so cartoony that some of them are named after the Spice Girls, and while Mark Strong nestles tightly back into his pigeonhole, they balance the earnestness of our leads.

Our hero’s hero, Kick-Ass, sets a certain expectation with his name; lacking any real training or equipment, he surpasses our realistic expectations. Asses are most definitely well and truly kicked, good guys’ and bad. The cell phone YouTube viral video Facebook culture is the perfect milieu for an altruistic nerd to flourish instead of die, anonymous, in an alleyway. The soundtrack is a delicious Simpsons generation(s) mix of fun and exciting. Kick-Ass is a fun, incessantly violent vigilante film. Director Matthew Vaughan (Stardust and Layer Cake) brings you a comic book adaptation that will entertain you and draw you to the comic. Check it out.

MPAA Rating R-strong brutal violence throughout, pervasive language, sexual content, nudity and some drug use – some involving children.

Release date 3/16/10

Time in minutes 117

Director Matthew Vaughn

Studio Lionsgate

Green Zone

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In March 2003, all of America was worked up into a lather — half slavering to bomb Iraq and the other half struggling to restrain the first half. On the ground, soldiers did what they could and the facts trickled slowly into our consciousness back home. Green Zone benefits from seven years of hindsight and “new intel” and somewhat from a more receptive and disenchanted audience as well. Matt Damon plays the chief of an army unit whose missions are to find and dispose of all those super double confirmed for sure WMDs. You remember those, right? So does director Paul Greengrass. Damon’s character is in a position to really see the value of the intelligence reports that sent us into Iraq, and you might not be shocked to find that he’s not buying it.

Green Zone dares to fictionally find the source of the reports and have Damon go after it, action hero style. I’m not meaning to say that this film sacrifices the already-plenty-heroic vérité of our armed forces for cinematic slickness. By no means does it do that. Bourne sequels helmer Greengrass merely continues his grand tradition of You! Are! There! camera work which can occasionally artificially elevate a stroll around a smooth road into something very exciting. At times, this makes the film feel gritty and real, like the footage from an embedded press corps, but at other times it flows like a latter-day James Bond film with choppy editing and overly tight shots, covering up the lack of purpose with adrenaline. Even the pencil pushers Greg Kinnear and Brendan Gleeson exist in a clippy and exciting world. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (United 93 and The Hurt Locker) lets the camera roll, bounce, jitter, and get up his actor’s noses. In the claustrophobic horror of United 93 (also Greengrass) or the nerve-jangling inside of a bomb-wired car, that makes more sense than in a war movie in open terrain with trained soldiers. One of my companions got seriously motion sick, so if you had trouble with the Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield, maybe you should wait for video.

That said, the pacing was strong, the casting was perfect, and the Message made for an interesting premise. The Moroccan and Spanish locations felt real and aquiver with danger. Is it a true story or wish fulfillment/justice fantasy? Screenwriter Brian “spotty resume for an Oscar-winner” Helgeland based the story on Washington Post reporter’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone, which does not have a story like this in it. Helgeland clearly got the tone and environs and political disconnect from here but Damon’s heroic chief? The fiction is embedded deeply in a very real story, which makes for fun storytelling. I enjoyed it from my mournful “we told you so” perspective as the salute it was; as an action movie it delivered what I needed but did get a little tight on the shots even for my taste. Green Zone is probably not for everyone, but it is a solid piece of entertainment.

MPAA Rating R- violence and language

Release date 3/12/10

Time in minutes 115

Director Paul Greengrass

Studio Universal Pictures

The Last Station

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Despite the Oscar-nominated actors and performances, despite the moving themes of loyalty and love, the drawing of strength from a cause or from your heart, despite all this tasteful Quality, The Last Station was a bit meh for me. The things I really loved best were Helen Mirren and the props. Sofya Andreyevna Tolstaya (Mirren) lives in 1910, at the precipice of Victorian-like modesty and the stirrings of Free Love. Helen Mirren excels at these sorts of roles; her natural brazen confidence and her innate regality make this one look like child’s play for her. Sofya struggles in her marriage to Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer), who is torn between leaving his politically radical and influential works to his family or to the people of Russia. The Last Station plumbs all sorts of interesting inner circles, such as the near-cult of Tolstoy followers swarming in direct contrast to the actual man and his life.

As an allegory — nay, a corollary — to misguided practitioners of organized religion defying the very ideals they push to uphold, the film is vivid and deft. Personifying the misguided practitioners is the nasty and manipulative Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti). The People, and their inevitable fall from the fever of their Tolstoyan idealism, is represented by the charming and earnest James McAvoy. He enters the inner circle of Tolstoy’s house from the fundamentalist commune life of the author’s followers. He is the purest of Tolstoyans, having taking every precept literally and deeply to heart. In the presence of his idol, the realities of life and love confuse him. As a result, McAvoy is imprisoned by the freedoms his new life presents him. He has a wonderful romance with a member of the society, and watching it cautiously unfold is lovely and romantic.

Love is the foundation that the followers are missing, losing that basic message in the words. Love and knowing one’s own mind is a simple principle to explain but harder to enact. To see so many people fall over themselves to the point of actual cruelty to own and control the legacy they have so misinterpreted is sad but fascinatingly vivid. Plummer, as Tolstoy, does a warm and believable job but he gives nothing we haven’t seen before. Mirren and McAvoy had more interesting things to do with their characters than Plummer or Giamatti.

Once I left the theatre, however, I found myself unable to hold on to those deeper truths, instead just crushing on Mirren and fervently admiring the production design. The props in this film are astounding — when I notice impressive props and am drawn away by the story by them, it is sometimes not the story’s fault. Andreas Olshausen has found beautiful and pristine Russian typewriters from the Fin de Siécle, amazing cameras and lamps. 1910 brought such an explosion of modern technology, and in those days Russia could still keep up. I ruefully considered that some government office probably still uses that typewriter every day.

The Last Station is indeed well done, very moving, and informative, but it left me a little cold at the end. Perhaps I just felt frustrated at how little the world changes even when people with good ideas come along.

MPAA Rating R-a scene of sexuality/nudity

Release date 1/15/10

Time in minutes 112

Director Michael Hoffman

Studio Sony Pictures Classics