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Thursday
Sep102009

Sunshine Cleaning, 2009 (Home Video Review)

Clouded Judgment

Here’s another movie I avoided like the plague when it was in theatres, and it’s comforting to know that my instincts are sharp as ever. Sunshine Cleaning is that form of unmarketable film that is half crappy drama, half laugh-free comedy known as the Independent Film; I know not all indies are like this, but there have been enough bad ones in recent years to warrant instant skepticism—much like romantic comedies.

I can’t think of another film that is so well acted and so poorly written. Sunshine Cleaning is the story of Rose (Amy Adams), a single mother and maid who balances raising her son, Oscar (Jason Spevack), with her father, Joe (Alan Arkin), and sleeping with a married police officer named Mac (Steve Zahn). Rose’s misfit sister, Norah (Emily Blunt), lives with Joe because she can’t hold down a job long enough to live on her own. On Mac’s advice—and with his money—Rose opens Sunshine Cleaning, a crime scene cleanup service that pays very well. This is a fine premise, and the cast is more than up for the challenge, but writer Megan Holley mistakenly injects about five additional plotlines into the story and handles all of them poorly.

Half the problem is that none of the characters is redeemed by movie’s end. Nearly all of them are people who’ve fallen on hard times due to lives full of bad decisions and an overall lack of smarts. For example, when Rose and Norah visit a store that specializes in industrial cleaning supplies, the clerk asks them a series of questions regarding their license and the various processes they use to remove hazardous materials from crime scenes. The women are caught completely off guard, and I found it inconceivable that they would have done absolutely no research beyond slapping a logo on a used van and buying a few bottles of bleach and Windex. The scene is played as a meet-cute between Rose and the clerk (a one-armed model-maker named Winston, played wonderfully by Clifton Collins, Jr.), but there’s nothing cute about that kind of ignorance in the Internet age.

This scene also establishes what could have been a great conflict between Sunshine Cleaning and one of the other professional cleanup companies; a worker comes in, complaining about a startup that’s been “stealing” jobs. Rose and Norah listen worriedly while hiding in an aisle, emerging after the guy leaves. Fortunately for them—less so for we, the audience—the issue is never brought up again.

Another example of the film’s penchant for hinting at plotlines and then refusing to do anything with them involves Oscar’s getting kicked out of school. Rose gets called to the principal’s office and learns that her son has been spreading the story that Norah told him the night before; the last in a long line of bizarre offenses, the principal recommends Oscar be put on drugs. Rose refuses, and tells Oscar that they’ll try private school. She assures him that he’s just fine; it’s the faculty’s problem that they don’t understand him.

Fair enough. But Oscar continues to get into trouble throughout the film, and at no point do any of the adults discipline him; not even a simple, “Don’t do that.” Instead, we get tired inferences that Oscar is some kind of prodigy, as evidenced by an exchange with Grandpa that goes something like this:

“Are you bored in class?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you stare out the window a lot?”

“Uh-huh.”

“See? That’s a sign of genius.”

Or, it’s a sign you’re grandkid's a shithead. Now, I’m not for drugging up imaginative children, but the case for Oscar is flimsy at best.

The other half of the film’s problem is that it’s derivative of either bad sitcoms or bad parts of okay movies. Instead of delving into what it’s like to have to clean up after a murder or a suicide, we get a scene where Rose and Norah must carry a bodily-fluid-stained mattress out to a dumpster; it’s really heavy and awkward to maneuver, and I’ll give you one guess as to what happens before they make it to the trash. Then there’s the scene where Norah hangs from underneath some train tracks while the train rushes by overhead. It’s meant to showcase her rebellious inner turmoil; instead it demonstrates why she’s wholly unemployable (and lets us know she’s a huge Lost Boys fan).

I really wanted to like Sunshine Cleaning. Adams and Blunt—and even Arkin, who essentially plays a resurrected version of his Grandpa character from the terrible Little Miss Sunshine—are great in their misshapen roles. In fact, this appears to be a theme of Amy Adams’ career lately: starring in movies with a great premise and lousy execution (see Julie & Julia—better yet, don’t). I just wish the filmmakers had trusted that the adults who would show up for their small film would be savvy and hungry enough for grown-up entertainment that they wouldn’t feel the need to rely on sub-moron crutches.

The movie has been marketed as a cute indie film, but there’s nothing independent about it. Sunshine Cleaning caters to the same dumb herd that made The Final Destination the number one movie in America two weeks in a row. Talk about a crime.

Wednesday
Sep092009

Valkyrie, 2008 (Home Video Review)

Achtung-Tied

My wife and I rented Valkyrie last night with some friends. It was the only thing playing On-Demand that none of us had seen (aside from Fired Up!, but who wants to watch a PG-13 titty comedy?). To our dismay, the movie was not the laugh-riot we thought it would be, and proved to be a bland historical drama with zero heft and even less German accents.

As you probably know by now, Valkyrie tells the story of a group of Brits determined to end the career of a dangerous egomaniac—but enough about Tom Cruise.

Sorry.

"Valkyrie" is the name of Adolph Hitler’s World War II contingency plan, an operation that would activate thousands of loyal soldiers in the event of his death or ouster. A group of conscientious Nazi officers (feel free to chuckle) decide to assassinate the dictator and use Valkyrie to over-throw the SS in a coup d’etat; using their newfound power, they would negotiate an end to the war with the Allies. Cruise plays Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, a war hero who lost an eye in Africa and must now wear a patch that has more texture than the actor’s performance.

I shouldn’t beat up on Cruise, I guess. I really want to fault him for not even trying a German accent (he plays the entire movie on the same note as he delivered his “You’ve never seen me really upset” line in Mission: Impossible), but he’s apparently just following orders: director Bryan Singer populates his film with a cast made of 99% British actors—all speaking the King’s, all playing Germans. It’s so distracting that at a certain point I became convinced that the Nazi high command had been infiltrated by MI6 and Hitler was just playing along. Singer tries to make up for this Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves shoddiness by hiring every Englishman working in Hollywood today, from Bill Nighy to Kenneth Branagh, but by the time Eddie Izzard shows up, you can’t help but think he’s got something against the German people—aside from, you know, the obvious.

The film’s central failing is that there’s very little in the way of suspense. Much like The Passion of the Christ, we all know how the story ends—or at least that Hitler wasn’t assassinated. The details of von Stauffenberg’s plots are interesting, and it’s cool to see how fate intervened in some key moments, but there’s a very even keel to the proceedings; so much of the movie involves people sitting around, smoking, talking, hoping not to get caught that Valkyrie’s version of “high drama” is an officer almost walking in on von Stauffenberg changing clothes. The bunker scene, which is the first of two very drawn-out climaxes, happens way too early and Singer mistakenly relies on the audience’s ability to pretend that we don’t know what von Stauffenberg’s men don’t know: that Hitler survived the attempt. This leads to a frustrating half hour of simply waiting for the coup to unravel and for everyone involved to be rounded up and executed.

I’m glad to have missed this in the theatre, which is not something I say often. The film looks great, and you can tell the production design team had a blast building bunkers and sewing swastikas, but the film is too cold to sustain anything but appreciation for the sets. Singer usually brings more panache to his projects—The Usual Suspects is still his high water mark for suspense, acting, and mood—and it’s disheartening to see him churn out Oscar Bait that would be upstaged by a History Channel production.

If you're looking for a genuinely thrilling World War II film, I recommend Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds--and please see it on the big screen. Though it's a tall tale, the details and drama are utterly convincing and--unlike Valkyrie--unforgettable. The highlight of the movie, as I've written elsewhere, is Christoph Waltz's SS-officer-on-a-mission; the actor's multi-lingual performance screams authenticity (unlike Cruise, who at one point pronounces Joseph Goebbels' last name "Go-bulls"), and it's a shame that both films could not have been released at the same time. We might have lost the careers of both Cruise and Singer in that scenario, with audiences leaving Valkyrie in droves to behold the work of a filmmaker and lead actor with both passion and a point of view.

Tuesday
Sep082009

Gamer (2009)

Tonight We Game in Hell!

Gamer would be a much more effective movie about video games if it hadn’t been made for the people who play them—specifically the First Person Shooter crowd. Full disclosure: I haven’t been interested in video games since controllers expanded beyond two buttons. And while I appreciate their artistry, I never got the appeal of FPS’s, like Halo, or rampage fantasies like Grand Theft Auto (I’m fine taking out my manly aggressions on a keyboard, thank you very much). But I digress. The new Gerard Butler movie has grit and blood to spare, but after awhile the lack of developed ideas and uneven characterization lead to an experience not unlike watching someone else play poorly while waiting your turn.

The premise is intriguing. A few years into the future, a smarmy technical wizard named Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall) has developed advanced virtual reality games that allow average people to control the lives and actions of real, flesh-and-blood volunteers. The first game, Society, is like The Sims, if the cute, chirping avatars were paid actors instead of pixel clusters—down to the ability of the user to program their wardrobe. Following that success, Castle created Slayers, in which the characters are convicted felons who must survive thirty rounds of intense urban warfare in order to win their freedom. Gamer centers on Kable (Butler), the only Slayer to last more than ten sessions.

Yes, the movie is a rather shameless rehash of both The Matrix and The Running Man—with a hint of Ender’s Game and a dash of Batman Forever—and directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor pile on the annoyance with headache-inducing quick-cuts and too many ‘splosions. Sorry if I sound like a cranky pensioner, but it’s obvious from the get-go that Gamer is one giant smokescreen, masking other people’s ideas. From the slimy TV reporter (Kyra Sedgwick) who’ll do anything for ratings, to the revelation that the convict may actually be innocent, to the what-is-reality navel-gazing, Gamer spins its wheels, albeit stylishly.

Which is a shame because the movie looks great; there are more ideas proposed in the set design than in the screenplay. Kable’s prison is a giant rock pit in the middle of the desert, from which the Slayers are bussed to their combat zones. His user, a seventeen-year-old snot named Simon (Logan Lerman), is mostly only shown in his bedroom, where he controls his corner of the Internet via a virtual cloud of pictures and data while reclining on a giant memory-foam pillow. In the “real” world, Kable’s wife, Angie (Amber Valletta), works as a Society character, her office a sort of sex-filled corporate skate park. I really enjoyed these glimpses into Gamer’s world, but these were too infrequent to warrant any emotion beyond frustration.

On the plus side, Michael C. Hall was a blast. This role is a clean break from the oddly reserved neurotics he’s played on Dexter and Six Feet Under. He affects a mad drawl and the Joker’s grin in a performance whose sheer evil joy goes far in convincing the audience that he’s more than a one-dimensional villain. Hall certainly has more fun than Butler, who shoots and scowls his way through a part that has even less weight than his Leonidas in 300.

In fact, the only fun to be derived from this movie is playing “Spot the Actor”. From HeroesMilo Ventimiglia to James Roday and Maggie Lawson from USA Network’s Psych, there are some bizarre cameos in this movie; it’s as if Gamer were itself a giant VR game that any actor could pop into. Hands-down, the best appearance came from Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman; keep your eyes peeled and you’ll see him.

I don’t mean to make Gamer sound completely unworthy of your time, but it’s a renter at best. Had the filmmakers cared enough to expound upon their ideas, the project might have been salvageable. Much like The Matrix, there’s a definite stopping point for the story that occurs way before the movie ends. And it leaves anyone in the audience who bothered to bring their brain with them yearning for closure on at least five different plot points. Maybe, as the friend with whom I saw this suggested, I’m expecting too much. But I’ve always maintained that if someone is getting paid more than a thousand dollars to write a screenplay, they should—at the very least—provide a solid beginning, middle, and end, and not assume that the shiny objects on screen will mollify everyone watching. Then again, this movie wasn’t made for me.

Saturday
Sep052009

Extract, 2009

The Jury's Out, Judge

Mike Judge’s Extract is a refreshing, puzzling comedy that will probably turn a lot of people off. Much as I wrote that Rob Zombie’s Halloween 2 is a rebuke to fans of slasher cinema, Extract goes out of its way to give audiences the kind of comedy that they would absolutely not expect from the creator of Office Space, Idiocracy, and Beavis and Butt-head; that is to say one with few gut-laughs (or intended gut-laughs), but a lot of heart and values. This is American Beauty, minus the nude curls and murder.

If I turned your stomach with the phrase “heart and values”, please understand that Extract is a pretty filthy movie, albeit a devilishly low-key one. The plot centers on Joel (Jason Bateman), the founder/owner of Reynold’s Extract. He works long hours overseeing an assembly line of colorful misfits, and comes home to a sexless marriage with his wife, Suzie (Kristen Wiig). Joel spends much of his free time lamenting his fate at a local hotel bar, receiving terrible advice from the bartender, Dean (Ben Affleck); advice that includes taking horse tranquilizers and hiring a gigolo to seduce Suzie so that Joel will feel less guilty about sleeping with the new Reynold’s intern, Cindy (Mila Kunis).

Adding to the workplace drama, floor-manager-in-training, Step (Clifton Collins, Jr.), loses a testicle in a freak accident, which jeopardizes Joel’s plan to sell the business. Step decides to sue Joel, at the advice of Cindy, who turns out to be a con artist, playing all sides. If this seems a bit muddy, keep in mind that I haven’t mentioned the nosy-neighbor sub-plot or the fact that the gigolo (played by 90210’s Dustin Milligan as a wonderful dim-wit) falls for Suzie. It is a testament to Mike Judge’s writing that the storylines converge and expand without losing their integrity, especially since he’s willing to abandon conventional comedy to tell a particular story exactly the way he wants to tell it.

Which is where he may lose you. I’m tempted to compare Extract’s brand of comedy to that other Jason Bateman vehicle, Arrested Development, but that show was full of consistent laughs. This movie often feels as though Judge wanted to make a film about real people dealing with really strange problems. It’s not a documentary; it’s not a farce; it’s certainly not a drama; but Extract unspools all of those elements into a tapestry of the blandly bizarre. The key difference is that Joel, a prototypical Judge anchor, isn’t surrounded by cartoon characters as was Peter Gibbons in Office Space, or Joe Bauers in Idiocracy. Here, many of the supporting players are recognizable, every-day buffoons; but their cumulative awkwardness, prejudices and failures amount to a “wacky cast of characters”.

When I’d heard Judge was making a film that was purported to be the mirror of Office Space—with a more sympathetic view of management—this isn’t what I expected. I’m finding it hard to even categorize this as a comedy. It’s just a cute, pleasant movie packed with drugs and infidelity.

Part of that pleasantness comes from the fact that Extract is a very pro-American movie. Not in the flag-waiving propaganda sense, but in the way that it showcases the American dream of entrepreneurship. Of the movie’s many sub-plots, the lawsuit’s impact on the factory is the most poignant, and there’s a touching scene between Joel and Step regarding the fate of the workers that subtly announces itself as Mike Judge’s thesis. I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say that Extract provides the balance lacking in Office Space—the notion that managers and employees can actually come together to build something great.

I’m sorry if this review has been wishy-washy; I can’t enthusiastically shout, “Go see this NOW!” But I do feel it should be seen. Extract is almost impossible to categorize, and I think it could either be the beginning of something very important in filmmaking or a forgotten fluke ten years from now. Either way, it made me smile.

Wednesday
Sep022009

The Final Destination, 2009

I'll Be the King of Wishful Thinking

I knew The Final Destination would be an odd movie from the trailer:

“We’ve saved the best for…3D!”

Now, horror franchises have a fine tradition of trying to keep audiences awake by pumping up their third installments with 3D effects, but this is the fourth film. I thought that maybe New Line was trying to forget FD3, as have I—unsuccessfully, thanks to HBO. But, no, this is deliberate, and I would happily write it off as an utter failure had it not been so damned entertaining.

Please don’t take that as an endorsement of quality. My God, there are so many problems with this picture it’s as if the projectionist was screening the first week’s dailies. I’m talking about the fact that for 82 minutes, I laughed consistently and had the higher-functioning areas of my mind tickled more than once. I dare say that The Final Destination contains a workable thriller somewhere beneath the unconvincing CG gore and cynical script beats.

Anyone who’s seen Final Destination 3 knows that the script was, quite literally, a Xerox of the original film that had been modified only in the sense that all references to “airplane crash” were replaced with “roller coaster crash”. Even the character archetypes’ dialogue was the same. This holds true for The Final Destination, and our story begins with our four main characters, A, B, C, and D attending a NASCAR-style event. A has a vivid premonition of a car crash that sets off a violent chain reaction, which ends up killing him, his friends, and most everyone else in the venue. He wakes up from this daydream, freaks out, and ushers his friends outside, along with Neo-Nazi, MILF, Redneck Mechanic, and Black Security Guard (lest you think I’m being overly crude in these generalities, the end credits actually list actress Krista Allen as “MILF/Samantha”). The racetrack explodes in a firestorm of carnage, and everyone is—more or less—happy to be alive. This all happens within the first eight minutes or so, and it’s nice to see the fourth film break the cycle of aping the original by removing all elements of character and suspense.

A sees more premonitions, these geared specifically to the eventual demise of the other survivors; sure enough, they each die in the order that they should have at the track. The means of execution are invariably complex confluences of events that set in motion gruesome death traps—someone knocks over a bottle, which trips a switch, which turns on a fan, that yadda, yadda, yadda…man gets impaled by a propane tank and his torso is forced through a fence, creating perfect diamond-cut chunks of meat. The kills are unspectacular, especially one that was shamelessly ripped off from Chuck Palahniuk’s short story “Guts”. What sets this movie apart, however, is its frequent use of red herrings: on a number or occasions, what you think you’re seeing isn’t what you think it will turn out to be (and that includes some of the trailer’s money shots). This brings me to the end of the plot synopsis; barely the middle of the story, I know, but do you really need me to go any further?

I’d like to focus instead on the key things that make this movie amazing—not worthwhile, remember, but a hoot nonetheless. First, it’s the flattest-looking 3D movie I’ve ever seen. Forget that all of the great dimensional effects are wasted on cheap nails-flying-at-the-audience gags; I’m talking about the regular scenes, the non-gotcha stuff. Cinematographer Glen MacPherson ruins every scene by giving every person, set, and object of interest the exact same importance—and when everything’s important, nothing’s important. There’s no foreground or background to the movie, only copious amounts of gloss—imagine a Dilbert comic filmed as a Mentos commercial and you’re halfway there; I’m tempted to call this an “MTV” look, but it’s closer to a Barbara Walters Special. It sounds like a minor complaint, but I was constantly distracted by how bland everything looked—and it’s only half fair to blame the cast.

The Final Destination also wins the “Best Weightless Rubble” award, mostly for the racetrack disaster that opens the movie. It’s so painfully obvious that no practical effects people were allowed near the set; all the kills in this thing are digitally created non-events that must have sounded great on paper (“couple cut in half by flying car debris!” “Girl flattened by airborne engine!”), but the combination of lousy camerawork, CG, and flimsy acting didn’t amount to anything. Even several minutes of concrete pillars shattering and crushing people fail to evoke anything other than memories of Roadrunner cartoons.

Speaking of cartoons, did someone mistakenly tell all of the actors that they were filming Scary Movie 5? I swear, every line of dialogue was delivered with either dinner-theatre earnestness or Zoloft-stupor ennui. The Final Destination plays out like a MAD TV parody of Final Destination 3, with characters putting things together way too quickly or emoting on all the wrong beats. At one point, MILF/Samantha tells her two bratty kids, “I’m gonna keep my EYE on you!” Right before she gets a bullet-strength pebble to the EYE. The first three Final Destination films gave us at least one good or semi-accomplished actor apiece, from Ali Larter to A.J. Cook to Mary Elizabeth Winstead. The best this picture can offer is a former Cinemax-After-Dark icon (Allen) and a never-was MTV host (Nick Zano, who plays C).

The thing that fascinated me most about FD43D was its subtle (?) racism. If you think that’s a hefty charge, let me pose this question: What do you call it when the only characters of color in a major motion picture are a black homeless man, a black construction worker with two lines of dialogue, a black theatre usher with one line of dialogue and a black NASCAR security guard who ends up getting killed (twice)?

On second thought, there is another ethnic character that shows up in a hospital scene toward the end of the movie: a guy named “Chinese Orderly”.

Lacking any discriminatory memos on studio letterhead, I’m willing to give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt here and just assume they’re fans of really old movies. *

Earlier, I hinted at some moments of mental stimulation in the movie. For all its faults, I must give the creative team credit for the little touches—sight gags, really—scattered throughout. While some are real eye-rollers (“Destiny Towing Company”), others are nifty callbacks to the original film (a security camera displays the number 180, the doomed airplane’s flight number). There was on opportunity, though, that was painfully left dangling: wouldn’t it be cool if one of the survivors murdered one of the other survivors? They would act as the agent of death, rather than death having to set up another ridiculous Rube Goldberg scenario. This is suggested in a scene between Neo-Nazi and Black Security Guard, but I guess one doesn’t attend these movies for fully formed ideas.

This isn’t a very good movie, but it’s a worthwhile experience, especially if you plan to see it with friends. The Final Destination is a great end-of-summer, end-of-franchise picture full of laughs and mediocrity, the rare sort of movie that makes you proud to pay full price for the privilege of wasting time on over-produced, fourth-generation trash.

* For those who’ve seen the movie, you may argue that the dragging death of the Neo-Nazi was an empowerment kill, a turning of the tables between two cultural stereotypes. While it did make me giggle a bit, I contend that the aforementioned argument holds more sway than this minute-long scene.