Saturday, January 2, 2010

Stars Trapped in their Vehicles

Robin Williams, Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton and Nicholas Cage are no slouches but these releases fall short despite their best efforts, usually due to over-indulgent writers/directors. I’m giving all of these two shakers each.

A pre-heart attack Robin Williams shot “The Worlds’ Greatest Dad” in Seattle and although that’s good for our local economy I wish this black comedy worked for me. Written and directed by fellow frantic comedian Bobcat Goldthwait, both the comedy and Williams are surprisingly understated. In fact Williams is so quiet that he almost disappears performance-wise and that doesn’t help. As a high school teacher, aspiring novelist and single parent, his character Lance Clayton seems to do all badly. Lance’s teenage son is a pervy arrogant fool (well-played by Daryl Sabara) who meets an early death which earns both he and his father the fame that eluded them both while he lived. The reverence and whitewashing we give to the dead is a great topic for satire and this film almost works; however, even a black comedy must have laughs. Caught up in its own dour plot machinations it wastes not only Williams but the great supporting cast. Too many music montages, an over-reliance on cutting to the goth girl and what feels like a tacked on Hollywood ending eventually bring it down. It’s a shame because I think if Bobcat played it less safe we might have a comedy in the “Heathers” vein instead of a film as repressed as Lance is.

I’m not going to lie; I am not a fan of Quentin Tarantino. I find his movies over-hyped and ridiculous. Long b-movie speeches interrupted by sensationalized hyper-violence and not a touch of reality. His fan base eats them up though and I was curious how he’d take on a period drama in his latest: “Inglorious Basterds”. Weighing in at two and a half hours it’s a long haul but for a war film it had surprisingly less torture than I suspected, unless you count the twenty minute scene set in a basement pub to be audience torture. I feel if someone had been allowed to edit Tarantino the film would have worked better but perhaps not. When all the top brass for the Third Reich are attending an event it’s a bit surprising to see that only two guards are posted. We also are supposed to believe that the “Basterds” are a super squad of Nazi hunters but we see very little of their tracking and hunting, only Eli Roth (the fellow torture-porn director of “Hostel”) happily beating a Nazi to death with a baseball bat. Pitt’s portrayal is complete caricature, kind of like Foghorn Leghorn in a uniform. However the two female stars, (Diane Kruger as a German film actress/spy and Mélanie Laurent as a Jewish survivor who is living covertly as a local theater owner) outshine their material. But the breakout performance here and probable Oscar nom is Christoph Waltz portraying a nefarious “Jew hunter” SS Officer. Acting well and in four languages he represents the quiet evil of the Nazis better than most war movie heavies outshining even the Hitler in this one. If only the film lived up to his performance with a little less conversation a little more action. (Thanks Elvis!)

Another Oscar worthy performance trapped in a bad film is Tilda Swinton as the title character in “Julia”. It begins as a naturalistic character-driven story where Julia is shown as a hopeless alcoholic who sleeps around and finds it hard to hold down a job or to attend her AA meetings. However soon she meets her neurotic Mexican neighbor who wants to kidnap her son from his wealthy grandfather and the film begins to turn into a marathon of the improbable. This time director Erick Zonca steers the two and half hour ship as Julia makes one bad decision after another, abusing the ten year old in question endlessly before the film literally transforms into a Mexican soap opera where evil-looking gangsters scream “Puta!” a lot with drawn weapons. One twist too many for me and an unbelievable ending to boot, which is a shame since Swinton really shined through this overlong story.

Finally we have the newest trend in action films- full-out apocalypse! We know Nicholas Cage can act from “Leaving Las Vegas” but since then he has chosen films more for their paychecks which is a shame. In “Knowing” we have numerology, crazy psychic kids, Matrix-like aliens with shiny mouths and a shitload of CGI! Cage is a single parent whose son loses out when a fifty-year old time capsule is opened at his school; while the other kids in his class get drawings from the past students (kind of an expensive and wasteful school project no?) he gets a page filled with numbers written by a creepy girl in the film’s prologue. Cage cracks the code which turns out to be a listing of the time, locations and casualties of all the major disasters in the world. Frantically he races off to witness elaborately staged plane and subway crashes but seems only slightly perturbed. The biggest disaster is this film itself. You’ve been warned! Here’s to better DVDs in 10!!

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