Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Company Men

Spoiler alert-o-meter: Mild to medium spoilers ahead.

The Company Men perfectly encapsulates a very specific American moment, the months of late 2008 and early 2009 when the economy tanked and companies went bankrupt and homebuyers realized they had shitty mortgages and the big banks made like sneak thieves with taxpayers’ dough.

The movie follows three men who work for GTX, a multi-billion dollar shipbuilding conglomerate based out of Boston, chronicling how each is affected by the economic downtown. Ben Affleck plays Bobby Walker, a smooth alpha-salesman for GTX who takes home well over a hundred grand a year. He lives in a tony suburb with his blue-collar wife and two kids, drives a Porsche, and plays golf at the club. When he gets the axe, he can barely believe it. Not having a high-paying gig does not fit in with his lifestyle.

But he’s not the only employee at GTX to get laid off. When news spreads that Bobby’s been fired, his secretary’s first question is “Did they say anything about me?”  The film outlines Bobby’s descent into denial as he continues to drive the Porsche and keep up appearances to friends, neighbors, and family. He doesn’t want to stink of loser while struggling to find work.

Meanwhile, we get to know Chris Cooper’s Phil Woodward, one of GTX’s first employees who started out working 60-hour weeks as a daredevil spot welder. Now, forty years on, he’s a wasted pencil pusher, sure that he’s next to fall. No one’s surprised when Phil finally gets his pink slip. He’s sixty and has worked at GTX all his life. But he can’t afford to retire. It’s painful to watch Phil as he goes to a job interview. His craggy face and grey hair stand out in shocking relief against a waiting room full of recent college grads competing for the same job, ready to work for half the salary.

Then there’s Tommy Lee Jones’ Gene McClary. He’s a tough talking, no bullshit vice president. The right-hand man to Craig T. Nelson’s James Salinger, GTX’s CEO. They started GTX together back in the day, and have reaped the financial benefits. Aside from Salinger, these men carry the doomed look of the already-fired or about to-be-fired. I got shudders watching these scenes of desperate men as their settled world drops out from around them.

After Bobby’s severance package runs dry, he has to sell his Porsche, and, finally, give up his huge house and move in with his parents. This may sound trite and beg the question: who cares about the rich getting screwed? But director John Wells (who worked as a writer and producer on shows like China Beach, E.R., The West Wing, and Southland) brings the swift pacing and careful characterization of riveting TV drama and makes you care for these white collar workers. We care because we know they are only the first off a sinking ship of many.

Bobby starts working for his contractor brother-in-law, Jack—effectively played by Kevin Costner, all New England-y, thickened, and a hell of a long way from Dances with Wolves. Bobby doesn’t know a thing about hammering nails, but he can learn, and he needs the money. He learns to be grateful for the small stuff, like working a physically demanding job and rediscovering the pleasure of shooting hoops with his son.

Most of the plot points The Company Men hits are laid out in the movie’s trailer like a flowchart. But, regardless of whether or not you can see how the movie ends even before you see it, just go see it. It’s a satisfying blend of corporate greed, white collar paranoia, and the simple but riveting story of how these men recover (or don’t) from the shock of unemployment.

The performances are worth the ticket price alone. Affleck doesn’t make Bobby too much of a cliché, but just enough so that, after Jack offers Bobby a job doing construction and Bobby says, “I just can’t see myself building houses,” Jack whispers to his sister, “You’re husband’s such a dick,” and you know just how he feels. Costner’s part isn’t much more than a cameo, but he acquits himself well, even with an overcooked Boston accent.

Craig T. Nelson lends gusto to Salinger, a character who adheres to the bottom line while overlooking the human cost of layoffs. Tommy Lee Jones and Chris Cooper all do a great job bringing out the frustration, difficulty, and in some cases resignation as old men in a new world where changes to America’s manufacturing infrastructure are quantified in layoffs and site closures. 

The movie ends on a hopeful note, but it’s impossible to forget that what came before was an all-too-real situation for many Americans, white or blue collar. In some ways The Company Men is the flipside to last year’s incendiary documentary Inside Job, which painstakingly mapped how the bottom dropped out of the American financial sector. Although slated for release last year (it still carries the 2010 copyright) this movie should be remembered next year at this time when the Oscars for 2011 movies are announced.


Theater location: Woburn Showcase, Sunday, January 23rd, 2:25 matinee. Price $7.50. Viewed with Liz. Snacks--Peanut Butter Builder's Bar.

Coming Attractions:

The Adjustment Bureau. Matt Damon stumbles upon an concurrent reality where exists the adjustment bureau, a league of fedora-wearing men who control to the flow of daily events. But Matt met a woman he shouldn't have, and now he and Emily Blunt are running for their lives. Or something like that. Inception lite.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Dilemma

Spoiler alert-o-meter: Beware, all ye who enter.

Vince Vaughn’s acting style channels the easy smarm of mid-career Burt Reynolds, the edgy goofiness of Johnny Knoxville, and a medicine show barker. And occasionally pushing through are the facial expressions and double-takes of John Belushi. Vaughn has fashioned a leading-man career from a certain patter originated in Swingers and honed to effectiveness in Old School and Wedding Crashers. Vaughn incorporates this signature stream-of-consciousness into most of his movies. He usually plays alpha males who don’t know when to shut up, when to back down, and when they’ve crossed the line from ambition to folly. He is best taken in smaller doses.

In The Dilemma, Vaughn’s quick-talk algorithm is used for evil. The movie is a humorless, cringe-inducing, toneless, shape shifting mess. And it’s Vaughn’s movie all the way. He’s in almost every shot. There is only one scene not shown from his perspective. This close first person narrative is a necessity of the story which finds two couples who, due to various motives, are hiding secrets from each other. It’s sit-com material writ large and overblown.

The plot has Vaughn’s Ronny spotting the wife of his best buddy and business partner Nick (Kevin James, looking like the lost grandson of Lou Costello) kissing some random guy. Hence the dilemma: should Ronny tell Nick or not? This sets off a series of miscommunications and threats, and other various situations that aren’t funny and that turn Ronny obsessed and paranoid. It’s an episode of Three’s Company as directed by Roman Polanski.

Upon seeing the trailer for The Dilemma, I wondered why Winona Ryder (playing Nick’s wife, Geneva) and Jennifer Connelly (playing Ronny’s girlfriend, Beth) signed on for what are essentially female sidekick characters. The answer is that as the movie goes along it gets more serious. (Or less funny—hard to tell since there wasn’t a laugh track and the ten viewers in the audience weren’t doing much laughing.) Director Ron Howard cast dramatic actors in the supporting roles to give the movie’s dramatic shifts some gravitas. A smart move, as more comedic actresses either wouldn’t have been able to handle the various tones, or the audience wouldn’t have bought comediennes going serious.

Connelly has the lesser female part as Beth, a cook who is hiding a secret of her own from Ronny. She gamely carries off the role of girlfriend just like she’s done in lots of movies lately (Little Children, Reservation Road, He’s Just Not That Into You) and here her character is boilerplate with no interesting bits for her to dig into.

Ryder has the meatier female part. When Ronny meets Geneva for coffee to tell her that he plans to tell Nick about her indiscretion, Ryder’s dramatic chops get a workout. She tells Ronny that she’ll deny everything and accuse him of hitting on her. This is where the film dabbles in something more along the lines of psychological drama. Call it Ron Howard’s dark materials.

The tone shifts again. The light and dark elements of the story mix when Ronny tracks and confronts Zip, the dude Geneva has been snogging. Played by Channing Tatum, Zip is a drug ingesting, gun toting goof (it’s a thankless part, which Tatum brings some gusto to). Ronny fights Zip, ruining the guy’s apartment. And it turns ugly as Ron Howard lets Vaughn slip into some deep end of anger and compulsion.

Ronny goes from bothersome nudge to psychotic freak, fashioning an aerosol can as a blowtorch to use as a weapon. It’s not one bit funny. And it’s not supposed to be. If anything, it’s a reminder that Vince Vaughn can still act and should try dramatic roles again. But why shunt the story down this dark, dead-end?

By the end, when all is revealed in an incredibly unlikely intervention played (barely) for laughs, I just wasn’t buying any of it. If you’re a Kevin James fan, you will be disappointed to hear that he’s relegated early on to second banana. If you’re a fan of the actresses, rent some of their earlier movies. If you’re a fan of Vince Vaughn, then maybe you know something I don’t.

Skip The Dilemma.


Theater location: Lowell Showcase, Sunday, January 16th, 3:15 matinee. Price $8.25. Viewed solo. Snacks--mixed nuts, Large Diet Pepsi.

Coming Attractions:

African Cat. A nature flick from Disney. Like March of the Penguins, but with lions and tigers.

The Eagle. I forget what all the hubbub was about, so I'll quote IMDB: "In Roman-ruled Britain, a young Roman soldier endeavors to honor his father's memory by finding his lost legion's golden emblem." Like you do. With Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell.

Paul. A couple of UFO-obsessed Brits (Nick Frost, Simon Pegg) tour America hoping to learn more about Area 51, Roswell, etc., when they stumble upon a real alien named Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen). It's live action, and the alien looks like an extra from Close Encounters. Could be cute.

Take Me Home Tonight. Topher Grace (where ya been, buddy?) can't quite make it into the current decade, and stops at 1988 for some youthful shenanigans. He's trying  to impress the girl of his dreams, and that's apparently tough to do when you still only work at Suncoast Video. So he lies. Hilarity (as it always does when you lie) ensues.

Your Highness. "When Prince Fabious's bride is kidnapped, he goes on a quest to rescue her... accompanied by his lazy useless brother Thadeous." Natalie Portman plays straight lady to a goofy James Franco and Danny McBride. 

Monday, January 10, 2011

Black Swan

Spoiler alert-o-meter: Some spoilers ahead.  

Natalie Portman was always a precocious actress. Starting out in movies in her early teens, she was a natural in The Professional and Beautiful Girls, commanding attention from just a smile. Then she starred in the Star Wars retreads (or is that pre-treads?) and it was hard to see the actress through epic story and CGI. She played an emo pin-up girl in Garden State, and played teenagers in Anywhere But Here, Where the Heart Is, and Cold Mountain.

She started taking more interesting parts with V for Vendetta, The Darjeeling Limited (in the Hotel Chevalier prologue), Closer, and My Blueberry Nights. With Black Swan, Portman confirms that she’s at her best playing characters that have something to hide; that are lying, putting on an act, or are in denial. In Hotel Chevalier, she plays a young woman whom we know little about, except she is the fickle object of Jason Schwartzman’s character’s desire. She meets him in the titular hotel, and seduces him. In Closer she plays a stripper, and in My Blueberry Nights, plays a prostitute. Each is a character good at deception, each played by Portman as if they had something to hide.

Portman follows in the footsteps of other actors like Nick Nolte and Jessica Lange who mesmerize when they play characters who are themselves acting. Nick Nolte was great in Down and Out in Beverly Hills, as a man who becomes all things to a rich, spoiled L.A. family, ending up a reflection of what they want him to be. Jessica Lange shone in Frances, about Frances Farmer, the actress who went nutty.

Actors are supposed to act like they’re not acting. Portman’s never done that for me. I always see a young woman who is natural and beautiful, who may be technically perfect, but a depthless shadow of an actress. And this is why she will never play a role better suited to her, both physically and emotionally, than she does in Black Swan. I cannot imagine this movie with another actress. And that’s a rare and wonderful thing.

Black Swan works on multiple levels, each fascinating. On the plot level, it’s about a ballet dancer, Nina, who is up for the lead in a “new take” on Swan Lake, as conceived by director Thomas Leroy (French smoothie Vincent Cassel). Nina nails the white swan part but to land the lead in the production she must also nail the darker, more emotionally intense black swan part. She’s technically perfect (as is Portman in the part), but has trouble bringing emotional fire to the black swan. Nina rehearses hard to dance well, to dance perfectly. Her drive to be perfect as both white and black swans leads to her undoing.

Black Swan co-stars Winona Ryder, Mila Kunis, and Barbara Hershey. So on another level, Black Swan is about the cutthroat world of actors. It’s the story of an aging beauty queen, Winona Ryder, forced to retire from the business to make room for the next generation of beautiful girls, as represented by Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis (as another dancer). Ryder is only in a few scenes as Beth, the aging dancer who was a star in her day, but like any athlete must eventually, she is forced to retire and make way for the younger generation. Winona Ryder is an excellent actress.

Her few moments on screen, especially her first scene where she wrecks her dressing room after getting fired from the company, work so well that I wanted the cameras to follow her around for a while. She is relegated to a hospital room for half the movie: a literal wreck after getting hit by a car. Barbara Hershey, whose face looks ravaged by time and facial surgery, plays Nina’s mom, who was herself a great dancer but who gave it all up to have Nina. And never lets her forget it.

But it’s not Ryder’s or Hershey’s movie. It’s Portman’s. And she’s riveting for the entire movie. Black Swan is told entirely from Nina’s point of view. So, we closely witness through her eyes her domineering mother, the intense rehearsals, the feeling of persecution that begins to dog her, and we feel keenly her psychosexual dramas unfolding in almost real-time as Nina can’t help but be attracted to both Thomas and the new dancer to the company, Lily—Mila Kunis as a tattooed party girl; the antithesis of Nina. But Nina’s not really attracted to them so much as drawn to them when they show the slightest endearment or attention.  

“You really need to relax,” Lily tells Nina at one point. But relaxing is just not in the cards, for Nina or for the audience. Director Darren Aronofky doesn’t let us off the hook, as the pressure Nina puts on herself to be the perfect black swan manifests itself in various ways. With unflinching composition, we get to watch as Nina worries her skin bloody. She comes to believes Lily is trying to get rid of her to take over her part. Nina lashes out at anyone who gets in her way. 

But toward the end, it’s not really Nina anymore but the black swan trying to fight the white swan for supremacy. For perfection. Ultimately there is only one way for Nina to find perfection in her performance. And this translates into exhilarating moments as Nina finally achieves the state of perfection she has been driving herself toward. 

Portman’s performance is based almost solely on her body and her ability to move within each frame. This is what I mean by her being perfect for the role. I almost felt I was watching Natalie Portman the perfectionist actor in a movie about herself playing a damaged character trying to become the perfect black swan. And, toward the end, during Nina’s debut on stage, Portman and Nina merge. And you see the transformation not just as the character Nina views it in close first-person narration sense, but also how those around her view it, and ultimately how the audience at the ballet (an extension of the movie audience) views it. And within this conceit, Portman, and the movie, nail it.


Theater location: Lowell Showcase, Sunday, January 9th, 11:35 matinee. Price $8.25. Viewed solo. Snacks--Peanut Butter Builder's Bar.

Coming Attractions:

The Adjustment Bureau. Matt Damon stumbles upon an concurrent reality where exists the adjustment bureau, a league of fedora-wearing men who control to the flow of daily events. But Matt met a woman he shouldn't have, and now he and Emily Blunt are running for their lives. Or something like that. Inception lite.

Water For Elephants. A Big McHuge Hollywood adaptation of the bestselling novel about a traveling circus, starring that guy from Twilight, Reese Witherspoon, and that guy who won best actor last year. Magical whooey.

No Strings Attached. Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher play friends who end up sleeping together. And, I'm guessing from the plot twists exposed in the trailer, that he falls for her and she just wants the sex because she has a busy life as a doctor and doesn't have time for more? Could be cute, since the stars are both cute. Not sure Portman's made a rom-com like this.

Cedar Rapids. Ed Helms takes a stab at headlining a Sundance-Cute comedy. "The plot revolves around a small town Wisconsin man (played by Helms) who, when his role model dies, must represent his company at a regional insurance conference in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where his mind is blown by the big-town experience.” Welcome back, Anne Heche! With John C. Riley doing Will Ferrell's role.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

True Grit

Spoiler alert-o-meter: Few spoilers ahead. 

The Coen Brothers are good storytellers and good filmmakers. True Grit gives them an opportunity to tell a good story well. They are stylists but here their style does not get in the way of this simple story of Mattie Ross who hires U.S. Marshall Reuben Rooster Cogburn to hunt and bring to justice Tom Chaney, the man who killed her father in the American West of the 1870s. 

Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn with perfect pitch, and acting chops he can probably summon in his sleep. He delivers, playing Rooster as drunk, crusty, and with a heart still beating under his gruff exterior.

The movie—a drama, with dollops of humor—is smart enough to veer away from the 1969 version and steer closer to the novel by Charles Portis. The Coen Brothers, in their fifties and playing the studio game for a while now, are craftsman. The directing is clean, the visuals often stark and clear in keeping with the American West landscape;  mountains and rugged valleys in the winter, snow in the mountains, cold mornings, dead men hanging from high branches. 

Mattie is fourteen, but as played by Hailee Steinfeld, she is preternaturally precocious as she takes to task anyone who won’t help her track down Tom Chaney. Chaney is played by Josh Brolin as a dense man who sees killing as just another occurrence that he stumbles through. He joins forces with Lucky Ned Pepper’s gang, and Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper – any relation?), while a ruthless robber and killer, lives by his own code. It may be the wild wild west, but even killers have priorities.

Mattie is happy enough to track Chaney herself but when Rooster takes her up on her offer, she insists on accompanying him. Mattie talks quickly, does not suffer liars and fools, and displays an intellect that outshines any adult. She travels with a gun, and is ready to use it, but talks of contacting her lawyer whenever she feels slighted. She’s a fish out of water, in a rough land, with killers. She has nothing in common with anyone, yet she somehow gets most people to help her, to see her points. It’s easy to forget she’s only fourteen, growing faster than she could ever imagine.

She ends up with not just a U.S. Marshall in her corner, but a Texas Ranger. Played by Matt Damon, the ranger is full of himself; a fly in the ointment that comes through in a pinch. It’s fun to watch Rooster try to outgun the ranger in a competition to hit cornbread used for target practice. It’s an old-fashioned kind of scene in a truly old-fashioned genre. This is not a revisionist Western, not a Wild Bunch or even an Unforgiven. It’s a straight up Hollywood Western, made by filmmakers paying tribute to the genre, not reinventing it for a new generation.

The movie, in the end, is not a comedy and not for the kiddies. The violence is depicted as sudden and real, showcasing just how dangerous America was during this period. It brings to mind other contemporary Westerns, including the Coen’s own No Country For Old Men with its violent characters in a violent land, the killer Anton Chigurh a sign of fate unavoidable. In True Grit, violence is explicit as a means to an end. In this context the gun play is meaningful. Mattie is searching for her father’s killer: Justice must be served. 

Topped off with great performances and uncluttered writing and direction, the Coen Brothers’ True Grit is funny, true, violent, bittersweet, and above all entertaining.



Theater location: Lowell Showcase, Saturday, January 1st 2011, 1:10 matinee. Price $8.25. Viewed solo. Snacks--Twizzlers Cherry Pull N' Peel, Coke Zero.

Coming Attractions:

Country Strong. Popular and drunk country music singer (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) learns that country music can save your soul and make you sober. Just watching this trailer made me want a drink. Although Tim McGraw = Handsome dude.

The Rite. The Exorcist meets Anthony Hopkins, and brings this kind of devil-lives-in-innocent-kids scare tactic to the 21century. "An American priest travels to Italy to study at an exorcism school." Wow, what a boring IMDB description.

Season of the Witch. More Nicholas Cage goofiness. Has everyone forgotten this guy can really act?

Transformers, Dark of the Moon. More fun from Sir Michael Bay. Sigh.

The Mechanic. I'm not a big fan of Jason Statham, but this looks like a cut above his usual B-movie action fare. Also, is this a remake of the '70s Charles Bronson flick? Discuss.

Rango. Johnny Depp is the main voice talent for this animated kid's movie. Lush looking. Slick as money can buy.