Thursday, October 27, 2011

'In Time' may have you clock watching

Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried play for time in a monotonous, one-note thriller.
The sci-fi thriller In Time takes place in a world in which the wealthy can extend their lives indefinitely and the rest of the population is programmed to die young.

In the movie's dystopian future, time has replaced money: Workers are paid in time, and people buy, sell and trade time in order to prolong life. Of course, time (like money) isn't easily acquired -- and some people steal it.

That's an intriguing premise, but writer/director Andrew Niccol, who also wrote The Truman Show and who wrote and directed the similarly chilly Gattaca, doesn't do enough with it.

Justin Timberlake plays Will Salas, a young man who -- since turning 25 -- has been scuffling to earn one additional day at a time. The plot contrives to put Will in the company of Amanda Seyfried's Sylvia Weiss, a rich girl whose father (Vincent Kartheiser) has accumulated vast amounts of time for himself and his family. He does this by exploiting the poor.

The movie goes to some lengths to mount a class-conscious social critique. The rich live abundantly in a zone referred to as New Greenwich. The poor are walled off in a ghetto where they're always borrowing time at exorbitant interest rates.

Not surprisingly, Timberlake's Will winds up on the run with Seyfried's Sylvia. A cop (Cillian Murphy) follows in hot pursuit. Seyfried's Sylvia gradually realizes that her life of privilege has been built on intolerable exploitation of the poor: She joins Will in a Bonnie and Clyde-style rampage.

Niccol gets amusing mileage out of the fact that everyone in this world looks 25. An example: Sylvia's father, mother and grandmother all appear to be the same age.

Additional interest is generated by the way in which people give each other time. They lock arms and transfer hours. (A luminous clock -- planted in an arm -- ticks off every hour and second of a person's life.)

Timberlake and Seyfried -- who seem to be vying to see whose face can reveal the least -- aren't exactly a combustible item, the score by Craig Armstrong tends toward monotony, and -- to tell you the truth -- I can't say I believed a minute of this coolly mounted tale.

I was surprised to learn that In Time is a mere 110-minutes long. For me, the movie seemed to expand time rather than make it go faster. What went wrong? Niccol does a good job creating a time-conscious world, but doesn't have a strong enough story to keep his movie ticking.

A stale helping of gonzo weirdness

By now, debauchery modeled on Hunter S. Thompson has begun to feel old hat.
Johnny Depp seems to have taken responsibility for honing Hunter S. Thompson's legacy. Depp, who played the gonzo journalist in Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), also helped draw attention to The Rum Diary, an autobiographical novel Thompson wrote in 1959, but which wasn't published until 1998.

Depp now stars in and serves as one of the producers of the big-screen adaptation of The Rum Diary, which tells the story of a dissolute young journalist (the Thompson surrogate) who learns to devote his life to fighting "the bastards," an all-purpose description for anyone who stands against truth, justice and the gonzo way.

Because Depp has played Thompson before, his portrayal of Paul Kemp seems like a muted preview of coming attractions for a character that would later blossom into a richer mode of bat-shit craziness. Still, the roots of big-time debauchery can be seen in Kemp, an apparently shiftless young man who lands a job on an English-language Puerto Rican newspaper called the San Juan Star.

True to Thompson's form, we meet Kemp in the midst of a ferocious hangover. We eventually learn that the aspiring journalist has prepared for his job interview at the Star by consuming large quantities of alcohol. The Star's editor (Richard Jenkins) hires Kemp to write horoscopes, and later complains about the way Kemp has abused his hotel privileges, downing something like 161 miniatures from the mini-bar in his room.

In the early going, director Bruce Robinson (Withnail and I) introduces the movie's eccentric cast of characters, which includes Sala (an excellent Michael Rispoli), the paper's photographer, and Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi), the paper's resident drunk, a surly fellow who refuses either to work or be fired and who sometimes listens to the recorded speeches of Adolf Hitler.

Much of this comes across as strained weirdness, which doesn't exactly serve Thompson or the movie well.

The screenplay - also by Robinson - throws Kemp into a plot involving commercial treachery. An American businessman (Aaron Eckhart) tries to arrange a land development deal that's bound to inflame the already simmering resentments of anti-U.S. locals.

Robinson puts Sanderson and Kemp into competition for a beautiful young woman (Amber Heard), who happens to be engaged to Sanderson. Heard's character - Chenault by name -- provides the movie with its seductive allure.

By now, Thompsonesque reprobation seems entirely too familiar to be more than mildly amusing. On top of that, Robinson keeps tossing off bits and pieces of movie: a crusade against greed, an early LSD trip, the seductive balm of an island away from the U.S. mainland and some broadly conceived comedy. A sight gag involving bizarre car ride in which Kemp winds up sitting on Sala's lap earned the biggest laughs at a preview screening.

So call Rum Diary an act of off-kilter devotion on Depp's part: Thompson devotees may enjoy it, but - to me - Rum Diary felt like a movie suffering from a hangover of its own. This may be an attempt to bring an early Thompson work to the screen, but instead of feeling fresh, Rum Diary has the dispiriting taste of residue.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

A 'Big Year,' yes, but an awfully small movie

Owen Wilson, Jack Black and Steve Martin find a formula for blandness.
On the elevator leading to the parking lot after a preview screening of The Big Year, a woman asked me what I thought of the movie.

"Well, it certainly felt like a year to me," I said perhaps a bit too glibly.

My fellow passenger said she thought the birds were beautiful.

The birds? Yes, the birds.

Based on a book by journalist Mark Obmascik, The Big Year is about birders, enthusiasts who engage in a pastime that the uninitiated among us call bird watching. But some birders are more passionate than others, and the most passionate among them participate in a contest known as The Big Year. The winner: the person who sees the most species over the course of the year. The prize: The title, world's best birder.

Now, let me make something clear. I like stories about obsessive personalities. If birds are your obsession, I'm willing to listen for hours. But "The Big Year," a movie about passion and obsession, doesn't feel especially passionate or obsessive. It's a straight-ahead, mid-range production that neither annoyed nor thrilled me.

Director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) builds his movie around three characters:

-- Kenny Bostick, played by Owen Wilson. Kenny is the most competitive and compulsive of the birders in The Big Year contest. He's so committed to piling up numbers that he badly neglects the wife (Rosamund Pike). She's remodeling their house and having difficulty becoming pregnant, a task made more daunting by her husband's prolonged absences.

-- Brad Harris, portrayed by Jack Black. Harris is employed but has the kind of slacker look you'd expect from a Jack Black character. Brad's at odds with his father (Brian Dennehy) over a life that's consumed by birds. His mother (Dianne Wiest) supports the preoccupation that has taken on greater importance for Brad than his occupation. She even makes his travel arrangements.

-- Stu Preissler, played by Steve Martin. Stu is a successful New York executive who goes into semi-retirement to compete in The Big Year. His wife (JoBeth Williams) has an independent life of her own, and is totally supportive of her husband's efforts.

That's the rundown. The movie spends most of its time making points: The Big Year competitors are secretive; participation involves extensive travel, including to Attu, Alaska, a hardship post that's also a birders' paradise, Of course, no one can participate in something this consuming without difficulty.

Each of the three main characters has a basic problem: Harris needs money to compete; Bostick must decide whether he's willing to sacrifice his marriage to be the world's best birder; and Preissler must determine whether he's going to give up the corporate world for good and settle into the beautiful retirement home he and his wife have built in Vail.

None of these "conflicts" leads to anything especially heavy; the movie feels light and its attempts at humor are mostly mild.

So what's missing?

As it turns out, the author of the book, Mark Obmascik, was in the audience at the preview screening I attended. In remarks before the film, Obmascik said that after a life of writing about cops, felons and politicians, it was a pleasure for him to write about people he actually liked.

And these characters are mostly likable, but on screen, they're also bland. Preissler and Harris team up in an attempt to defeat the arrogant Bostick, but this is a movie of dull edges, underdeveloped subplots and undernourished secondary characters. The main performances? They're OK, nothing more.

Despite its stabs at conflict and laughs, The Big Year qualifies as the cinematic equivalent of easy listening. It's pleasant, which - I admit -- may be damning with faint praise. And, yes, the birds are beautiful.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Never boring, but not brilliant either

George Clooney's Ides of March wallows in fashionable cynicism.
Here's some shocking news: Politics can be a dirty business -- full of betrayals, double dealing and unholy bargains. If that comes as a surprise to you, you've probably never read an American newspaper, but this widely held and fashionably jaundiced view permeates George Clooney's The Ides of March, a story about a governor who's trying to win an Ohio presidential primary.

Clooney directed, co-wrote the screenplay and plays Governor Mike Morris, an idealistic liberal who's not afraid to admit that he's not a religious man. Clooney donned many hats to make the movie, but he's not its star. Instead, he cedes the spotlight to Ryan Gosling, who portrays Stephen Myers, an ambitious but idealistic campaign worker and political hotshot who works for Morris' more-seasoned campaign manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Based on Beau Willmon's play, Farragut North, The Ides of March resembles Clooney's previous directorial efforts -- particularly Good Night and Good Luck and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind -- in its snappy intelligence.

Never boring and full of intriguing moments, Ides of March gets its best work from a terrific supporting cast: - Paul Giamatti (as the campaign manager for the opposition); Hoffman (as Morris' veteran campaign manager); and Evan Rachel Wood (as a flirtatious young intern working on the Morris campaign). Gosling is at his best before the script turns the tables on his character, forcing him to decide whether he's going to wallow in the dirt along with the rest of the pols or keep his self-respect.

Clooney's Mike Morris isn't much of a character; he's a kind of walking position paper, and the script --- predictably, I think -- contrives to find ways to challenge Morris' status as a liberal icon. The central plot twist is best discovered in a theater not in a review, but I found Morris' inevitable act of hypocrisy to be less than shocking, an obvious attempt to evoke an incident with which we're all depressingly familiar.

And by the end, it seemed to me that Ryan had adopted a kind of single-minded approach to his character that might have benefited from some shading.

But what surprised me most about The Ides of March is its hermetic quality. The movie lacks the infectious bustle and noise of a campaign; it's fine when the exchanges between characters tend toward intimacy, but it misses the rambunctious excitement of politics. The movie resembles a tune that's all melody and no harmony.

That's not to say that Ides of March is a bore; it's not. The best thing about Ides of March is watching its various characters jockey to prove who's most in the know. Still, it felt to me as Clooney & company never allowed the story's cynicism to bubble urgently from its core. I enjoyed Ides of March, but couldn't entirely shake the feeling that Clooney was playing a game that had been rigged from the start.

Robots could have written this script

The robots are fun, but the script never gets beyond cliches
In Real Steel -- a movie about boxing robots -- Hugh Jackman looks as if he's about to jump out of his skin. Forced to compete with tons of clanging heavy metal, an amped-up Jackman always seems to be trying for a knockout as a former boxer who now competes in the world of robot pugilism. The sport, if that's what it is, looks like a cross between cage fighting and professional wrestling.

Look, robot boxing isn't a half bad idea for a movie: Set in the near future, Real Steel suggests that we've reached a point where men no longer beat each other to a pulp, but use robots to channel their aggression. Too bad, a woefully unsophisticated script ties robot boxing to a sappy and overly familiar father/son story.

Jackman plays Charlie, a neglectful father who, during the course of the movie, gets to know his 11-year-old son (Dakota Goyo). It seems Charlie, an archetype of irresponsibility, skipped out on the boy's mother when he learned she was pregnant. After Mom's death, Charlie agrees to spend a summer with his son, providing the boy's uncle pays him off.

You needn't have studied film theory to know that the initial testiness between father and son will develop into something more affectionate. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but director Shawn Levy, best know for his work on the Night at the Museum series, doesn't exactly demonstrate a deft touch.

The supporting cast includes Hope Davis, as the boy's aunt, and Anthony Mackie, as a fight promoter, but people are secondary to the boldly presented smash-and-crash robot fights that develop as Charlie and son advance the career of Atom, a discarded sparring robot that earns a shot at the title.

Real Steel is far too predictable to garner much respect, but it did leave me with one question: Why wasn't it released during the summer, when it's a lot easier to forgive noise, immaturity and an onslaught of cliches?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

'Drive' is stylish, but where's it headed?

A compelling Ryan Gosling needed a better movie.
Ryan Gosling is an actor who's capable of projecting an unsettling sense of stillness. Gosling's thin half-smile can be difficult to read, a mixture of beneficence and menace that easily could spring in either direction. Like many great movie actors, he excels at holding things back, which gives him a quality of wary intelligence, as if he senses things that might be beyond ordinary reach.

Watching Drive -- a thriller from director Nicolas Winding Refn -- I kept waiting for a movie to materialize around Gosling, who easily holds the screen as a Hollywood stunt driver who also drives getaway cars. As a getaway driver, he gives his clients five minutes of total commitment, and then ... well ... all bets are off.

As Refn's camera wanders across Los Angeles' seamy side, the screen fills with deftly executed visual gestures, but Refn's movie ultimately lacks the brash invigoration of breakthrough style or the heft of real substance.

As it turns out, Drive may be most notable for giving Albert Brooks, a very funny actor, an opportunity to play an evil character. Brooks brings a relaxed sense of amorality to a low-life criminal who offers to back Gosling's character's career as a racecar driver.

Gosling's character -- he's never named -- seems a pure movie creation, an increasingly ferocious avenger who becomes a protector for a vulnerable woman (Carey Mulligan) and her young son.

If you think of Drive as a darkly hued noir meditation, you may find some artsy kick in it. I wouldn't say Refn totally has stumbled, but he hasn't gotten Drive into a consistently credible gear, either.

As has been pointed out by other reviewers, the movie's opening sequences qualifies as its best, largely because Refn understands that skillful driving involves knowing when to slow down, as well as when to speed up. Despite such interesting touches and some shockingly explosive violence, Drive proves a letdown. Maybe it's too damn minimal for its own good.