Your Weekend at the (Other) Holiday Movies

12/09/2011 9:52 AM |

... all alone on New Year's Eve, buck naked, drenched in champagne...
  • “… all alone on New Year’s Eve, buck naked, drenched in champagne…”

New Year’s Eve: Full disclosure: I have not seen all of New Year’s Eve. It started late and I had to rush to another screening, so I have seen the first 100 or so of its 115 minutes. As such, I cannot write a proper review and will simply offer my notes through the first eighty-seven percent of it:

-I believe this movie began as a semi-sequel to director Garry Marshall’s ensemble rom-com Valentine’s Day, intended to follow a few characters from that movie and introduce several new ones. At some point, this idea was scrapped, but a handful of cast members (Ashton Kutcher, Jessica Biel) return to play entirely different characters. This would be confusing if anyone remembered anything about Valentine’s Day except watching it while splitting a bag of Conversation Hearts with some similarly ashamed friends. On actual Valentine’s Day. Though I think on the sadness scale, seeing New Year’s Eve on actual New Year’s Eve would be more depressing, and I don’t even care that much about New Year’s Eve.

-Also included in the ensemble cast: no fewer than three Oscar winners. For Halle Berry and Hilary Swank, this is simply evidence that Hollywood has no idea what to do with women over 35 who don’t specialize in romantic comedies; their appearances are unfortunate, but not surprising. Robert De Niro, though, is a little moreso, simply because his paycheck gigs tend to lean more toward dude-friendly fare like Killer Elite. He plays an old son of a bitch, dying of movie cancer, where he’s sick enough to be hospitalized yet refusing actual treatment, and told he might have as little as twelve or fifteen hours to live despite remaining conscious and lucid while receiving this information.

-Cary Elwes plays De Niro’s doctor. Apparently a lot of casting directors watched Saw in 2004, and thought, man, that Cary Elwes is convincing as hell playing a doctor, because this is at least the third time since then he’s played another one. I like to think that he’s playing the same person across all of these movies.

-Speaking of which, Sofia Vergara recycles so, so much of her shtick from the TV series Modern Family that she, too, is essentially is playing the same role. Poor Michelle Pfeiffer, meanwhile, playing a put-upon record-label secretary (whose magical list of as-yet-unkept New Year’s resolutions sound troublingly more like a pre-suicide Bucket List), is basically a pre-Catwoman Selina Kyle. Essentially, this movie is The Flintstones Meet the Jetsons. Or given the grab-bag approach, maybe more like The Jetsons Meet Some of the People from Scooby-Doo, But Not the Dog.

-Between Pfeiffer’s secretary, Swank’s Times Square Alliance VP, and Katherine Heigl’s Type A caterer, the basic message of this movie is: working ladies be stressing!

-Still, at least some of them get to fall in love, sometimes with handsome younger men and/or Bon Jovi. The minorities in the movie are on hand almost exclusively to provide advice and/or commentary on the affairs of the whites. Halle Berry gets to have a noble overseas-soldier husband (ripping off a subplot from Valentine’s Day!); that’s about it.

-About a lot of middling-to-pretty-good directors, especially actors-turned-directors, you could say: they’re good with actors! I think at this point I’m willing to say that Garry Marshall is bad with actors. I mean, I’m sure he’s a peach to work with, because he obviously doesn’t make anyone sweat, but wow, he really fails to get a strong performance out of just about anyone in the cast, save junky-comedy mainstay Larry Miller, who is quite funny in his three or four minutes of screentime. Marshall is so inept at using his stars that Ashton Kutcher comes off no better or worse than any of the aforementioned Oscar-winners (well, maybe De Niro comes off a little better, but maybe I just love De Niro).

-Marshall is also bad at cross-cutting, which is too bad because cross-cutting and actors should be eighty percent of the work here. Instead, the horrible, horrible screenplay focuses on exposition. By the time all of the exposition is finished, the movie is more than half over.

-I will say that one romantic pairing in the movie genuinely surprised me. And I like the weird, nerdy voice Abigail Breslin seems to have developed. She’d be a pretty cool voiceover choice.

-Actually, next time any actors are offered a Garry Marshall ensemromcom, maybe they should think about whether they can make some voiceover money instead.

The Sitter: You can read my review for a more detailed take on why I think this movie is worthwhile. One thing I mention only in passing is how great David Gordon Green’s comedies look. They’re not as immediately striking as his earlier indie dramas and thrillers, but thanks to cinematographer Tim Orr, you can tell a DGG movie, even one of his sillier comedies, within a few minutes of looking at it. Even when they’re photographing oft-seen sights like the suburbs, or dark NYC streets, or sketchy house parties, there’s a burnished tactile beauty to Green and Orr’s images. There’s a different kind of beauty in letting Ari Graynor act like a total selfish a-hole and Sam Rockwell go over the top even for him. I’m ready for DGG to explore some other genres and tones, but his detour into 80s-flecked slacker comedy has been more productive than some of his critics let on.

Young Adult: Let me begin by saying that one of the biggest misconceptions about screenwriting I notice, in educated laypeople and even sometimes actual film critics, is that it mainly involves dialogue. Don’t get me wrong: I love good dialogue. I feel absurdly grateful when I realize a screenwriter has written smart, interesting, or realistic dialogue. But it’s not the whole thing. A script can be good based on story or structure or dialogue or characterization or any number of things. This is why James Cameron or even George Lucas are not the worst screenwriters in the world. As storytelling, Titanic actually has a really good script.

This is also why Diablo Cody has somehow become semi-underrated as a writer. You hear a lot about Juno and its cutesiness and “honest to blog” and all that, and yeah, there are a few moments where the wisecracking turns a little smarmy or samey. But apart from most of the rest of the wisecracking stuff being really funny, it’s the way the Jason Bateman/Jennifer Garner part of the story is written (and, yes, performed and directed) that makes Juno work as a movie. The sympathy-flip Cody pulls off in those characters’ relationship with Juno may seem obvious in retrospect, but is actually really savvy characterization and pays off beautifully at the end. This is all to say that I’m looking forward to Young Adult because of Cody, not despite her. Jason Reitman, for all of his brevity, snappiness, and facility with actors, did his best work with her screenplay, and Young Adult looks like both of them have taken a cue from later-period Noah Baumbach. Throw in Patton Oswalt and obviously they’ve hooked me.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: Tomas Alfredson’s two-hour version of the John Le Carre spy thriller must have less plot than the five-hour BBC miniseries adaptation from the late 70s, but it still ties up plenty of knots as it chronicles the subplot-laden search for a mole in British intelligence. Gary Oldman plays George Smiley, a retired agent charged with finding the mole; he leads an ensemble of quiet performances with perhaps the quietest and the stillest. The official suspects include familiar faces like Toby Jones and Colin Firth, but they have less to do than some of the younger side characters, including Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, and the delightfully named Bendict Cumberbatch (I eagerly await the opening of the manliest yet most British law firm ever conceived: Hardy, Strong, and Cumberbatch! They fight for YOU, old chap!). Strong in particular is a revelation for anyone accustomed to him filling out stock supporting parts in the likes of Sherlock Holmes and Green Lantern. The result is a mole hunt where you don’t much care about who the mole actually is (or at least, I didn’t), but you do get wrapped up in the lives of the characters who do. Save a few tense scenes, this isn’t a particularly suspenseful movie—despite Alfredson’s chops, it’s a little too dry and proper for anything so exciting—but it is an exceedingly well-made, careful, and smart one.

I Met With You: I have a screener of this that I keep meaning to watch but haven’t yet. I think I’m thrown off by this not being an eighties-retro rom-com a la Take Me Home Tonight. Then you look at the cast, and it’s Tom Jane, Piven, and Rob Lowe, and I start to assume it’s some kind of a low-rent Hurlyburly. I’m sorry, I would’ve watched it for this column, but it’s the busy season.