04/10/09 9:00am

Happy assorted religious holidays! Here are some movies you probably don’t want to see during your family gathering, for which the younger members of your family might hate you a little (at least RE: Hannah Montana).

Observe and Report:I know it’s unfortunate for this movie’s box-office prospects that a sitcom version of its mall-cop-plus-hubris story opened a few months ago and became one of the year’s biggest hits so far, but I take some perverse pleasure that someone, somewhere, will probably go to this Seth Rogen comedy expecting a de facto sequel to Paul Blart: Mall Cop and come out, maybe before the running time is up, extremely disturbed. The filmmakers — responsible for the cult comedy The Foot Fist Way — have compared this to Taxi Driver; just imagine if that 1976 movie bore superficial resemblance to the plot of Rocky. That’s not to say that Observe and Report is a guaranteed success; I wanted to like Foot Fist Way but despite its well-observed milieu and performances, it’s not all that funny. This kind of awkwardness-based comedy can easily fall flat: attempts at transgression that just sit there on screen looking smug. In other words, nastiness with lots of pauses does not sophistication make. But maybe Hill pulled it off this time — the red-band trailer strikes a good funny/sad/disturbing balance — and at least Anna Faris is working with some comic professionals this time.

Hannah Montana: The Movie: Aren’t movie versions of TV shows, even low-budge cable TV shows, supposed to be, you know, bigger than the shows? I mean, even low-budge standard-bearer Lizzie Maguire sprung for a trip to Italy. But the trailer for Hannah Montana: The Movie (not to be confused with the Hannah Montana concert movie or, for that matter, the Hannah Montana sticker and activity book) brings to mind the immortal Simpsons gag about a Jim Varney sequel called Ernest Goes Somewhere Cheap. The movie appears to be about pop star Hannah Montana (alias Miley something) relocating to the country and living in a barn. What gives? Sub-question: if the movie is only going to have like four people in it, why does one of them have to be Hannah’s dad as played by Billy Ray Cyrus? (Possible sub-answer: Maybe Cyrus owns said barn?) Of course, the country setting probably serves to stress the property’s Disneyfied version of down-home values — but color me surprised those values aren’t coming wrapped in more big-screen gaudiness.

Dragonball Evolution: For awhile, I had this release confused with Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li. I wonder if Fox had a factory screwup where the movies on the direct-to-DVD conveyer belt were accidentally knocked onto the theatrical release conveyer belt, and the rest is the complete history of making Mortal Kombat look like a respectable movie.

Lymelife: Another leftover indie escapes from the festival circuit, but luckily IMDB is there to preserve incredibly vague festival descriptions like the one that explains how Lymelife is a “unique take on the dangers of the American Dream” as well as a “funny, sad, violent, and sometimes tragic look at first love, family dynamics, and divorce” that “weaves an intricate tapestry of American life during a time of drastic economic and emotional change.” Uh, huh. Still, gotta love (or, OK, kinda like) the cast: several Culkins, Alec Baldwin, Timothy Hutton, and Emma Roberts, who really was pretty excellent in the overlooked Nancy Drew remake (which will probably be outgrossed in one weekend by the Hannah Montana movie even if the latter flops). Apparently Martin Scorsese is “presenting” it, so maybe it’s worth a look.

Anvil! The Story of Anvil: I bet these heavy-metal never-weres are way more tolerable human beings than the Metallica we saw in Some Kind of Monster.

03/24/09 12:00pm

In which Jesse Hassenger reviews Knowing, the hottest comedy of 2009, and manages to take it rather more seriously than your editor probably could have.

Critics have become such practiced hands at absorbing and dismissing apocalyptic thrillers and quasi-cryptic mysteries that it’s easy to see how Knowing would get tossed into the recycling bin. Alex Proyas’ film is stepped in hokum: an unearthed time capsule contains a string of numbers that MIT professor (and single dad!) Nicolas Cage reads to correspond with fifty years’ worth of large-scale disasters — and maybe a few more to come. Are these predictions actually warnings and, if so, who’s responsible for them?

In answering those questions, the movie gives little thought to faking the math and/or science; no one asks, for example, what death-toll cutoffs qualify a disaster for the numbers list, or even why an easily cracked code is considered the most expedient warning method. It’s a puzzle movie without much puzzling, and plenty of straight-faced portent delivered by a typically committed Cage. Overeager ironic Wicker Man remake fans must, at this point, be wagging their tongues as they fire up their torrents.

But the sincere silliness of Knowing is preferable to the kind of theme-park cynicism that informs so many ensemble-disaster movies. Rather than Michael Bay playing to the cheap seats, Knowing has Proyas, the visually elegant director of The Crow, Dark City, and, in less visionary mode, I, Robot. Proyas has a flair for otherworldly eeriness — his outdoor scenes have a Guillermo Del Toro volume of falling leaves — and doesn’t cut his effects sequences into oblivion: he films a plane crash from ground view in a single horrifying take, and throws subway trains off the rails with a mixture of Hitchcockian build-up and Spielbergian spectacle.

Despite these impressive runs of choreography, Proyas isn’t a virtuoso of headlong visual storytelling like Hitchcock or Spielberg or, for that matter, Alfonso Cuaron or Christopher Nolan. He works so heavily with striking images that a movie with one foot (or at least a few toes) in the quasi-real world doesn’t play fully to his strengths. In Dark City and The Crow, his worlds were, on some level, the story; for most of Knowing, the characters are situated in more conventional surroundings, and the movie twitches with the desire to break away.

As such, its human concerns feel perfunctory, even detached, without adapting this stance as an actual point of view. Cage always brings humanity to eccentric, obsessive, or goofy behavior, but as with a lot of his recent studio work, he’s more or less left to his own devices by underwritten supporting parts. Knowing is far from heartless — if anything, its resolute lack of hipness will make it an easy snark target — but Proyas doesn’t seem to be seeking the kind of thrills, emotional or visceral, that would make it a satisfying genre piece rather than an enjoyable, visually interesting curiosity. Six features into his career, he’s still struggling with his immense promise and how to use it.

03/13/09 2:30pm

Welcome to Jesse Hassenger’s New New-Release Round-Up

This March actually has some promising new releases… if you ignore this weekend, which consists mainly of reheated 70s drive-in fodder. Still, there’s some indie stuff you might enjoy…

Last House on the Left: Lucky moviegoers get two Friday the 13ths this year, and with them, an extra horror remake. Based on Wes Craven’s low-budge original, it’s about a family given the opportunity to exact revenge upon their daughter’s killers (or maimers? I’m not really clear on this). It looks like it could actually have tension, which would set it apart from approximately eighty-five percent of all horror remakes, but the odds of it actually being good are slim, and I’m guessing it’ll fall through some box-office cracks: the title doesn’t have the cache of Friday the 13th, the execution lacks an awesome gimmick like 3-D, and the R rating leaves out undemanding thirteen-year-olds.

Race to Witch Mountain: Apparently this is a remake/reboot/whatever of an old Disney live-action franchise from the seventies, at least one movie of which I’m sure I’ve seen and couldn’t tell you anything about. It takes a special kind of Disneyfied perverseness to cast the Rock in an action movie where a couple of kids do all of the actual ass-kicking, though I imagine said Disney perverseness probably figures into enough kids’ daydreams to make some decent coin. It doesn’t look completely unwatchable, but the speed with which The Rock (er, excuse me, Dwayne Johnson) went from chintzy action pictures to image-spoofing family movies is alarming; it took Arnold about a decade, although he did make Terminator 2 after Kindergarten Cop, so maybe ol’ Dwayne will be roughing us up again soon. In related news, I miss Spy Kids.

Miss March: This movie, about a dude who wakes up from a four-year coma to find that his beloved girlfriend has become a Playboy centerfold, is written and directed by its two dude stars, who are guys from The Whitest Kids U Know, which I have never seen, but seriously, guys from a sketch show on IFC or something can get a movie now? What, then, could possibly be holding up a second Kids in the Hall movie? I do like the gag in the trailer involving renegade firemen pursuing the heroes, but the “regular guy plus gregarious, crude sidekick” formula isn’t doing much for me these days; why would sketch comics want to recreate the dynamic of a thousand schlocky studio comedies? In semi-related news, Brain Candy is awesome.

Sunshine Cleaning: I’ve actually seen this one, and kinda liked it, mainly for the easy sisterly chemistry between Amy Adams and Emily Blunt, who play upper-lower-class types who start their own crime scene cleaning business. It’s a bit less cutesy than you might think given that premise and its Sundance-also-ran pedigree — this is a warm-hearted movie, albeit with some storytelling gaps. Though described as a comedy-drama, it’s not particularly funny, maybe because the characters are offbeat in mostly realistic ways; they don’t function as quirk delivery systems. The bottom line is, I could watch Amy Adams do just about anything for ninety-five minutes; Sunshine Cleaning fulfills that requirement and throws in some other likable people, too.

Tokyo Sonata: Not to be confused with just plain Tokyo! The L’s Henry Stewart really thinks you should see this, so you’re going and that’s that!

03/10/09 11:50am

In which Jesse Hassenger displays far more equanimity than your film editor.

Like pretty much every nerd I know, I went to see Watchmen this weekend. Some analysts have wondered if it will have a massive second-weekend dropoff based on laypeople generating word-of-mouth akin to Ang Lee’s version of Hulk (although, I should say, in many ways Ang Lee’s Hulk is a more artistically satisfying film). This is ridiculous; it will have a massive second-weekend dropoff because approximately eighty-eight percent of the U.S. population that wanted to see this movie has now seen it.

Indeed, Watchmen is sort of the ultimate comic-book fanboy movie: such an expensive, elaborate mixed bag entwined with such beloved source material that it can be argued about, nitpicked, and overanalyzed even if your feelings are dominated by indifference. In that spirit, I’ve made some lists of stuff I like and don’t like about this Watchmen movie. Spoilers abound, but come on, you’ve already seen it.

Five (of approx. 200) Things to Like About Watchmen

1. Preservation of Rorschach’s bean-eating, which my comics-expert friend adamantly insisted was important. He’s right: some fans clearly consider Rorschach an avenging badass (or, in the paraphrased parlance of my buddy, “like he’s fucking Wolverine”); the biggest cheer at my opening-night IMAX screening came when he doused a fellow prisoner in fryer grease. So it’s heartening to see that the movie preserves evidence of Rorschach being, you know, essentially a sewer-dwelling hobo.

2. Jackie Earle Haley in general, in fact, gives an excellent performance beyond even his bean-eating virtuosity.

3. The opening credits sequence. This has already been called out as the best part of the movie; I’m not sure if that’s true, but it displays a certain playfulness lacking from Zack Snyder’s more reverential rest-of-movie.

4. The way the (virtual) camera zooms out from the bloodied smiley-face logo all the way up to the top of a building. Yeah, I have to say, on IMAX that was pretty damn cool.

5. Malin Ackerman. Not because she’s especially great as Silk Spectre II, but because she’s way better than I had been led to believe, which is to say she’s adequate, even if it seems pretty likely that she was cast for her physical resemblance to Silk Spectre and possibly her proven comfort with nudity.

Five (of approx. 200) Things to Hate About Watchmen

1. Slow motion. I thought about just listing “Zack Snyder” here because I’ve managed to lose patience with him just as he’s arguably made his best movie. But I have to give the guy credit in the sense that he must have been at least partially responsible for what I actually liked about the movie. That said, good lord, Snyder really should cool it with the slow-motion wankery. The thing is, it could’ve been effective if used sparingly — my 200 likes would certainly include the Silk Spectre’s slow-mo crime-fighting hair-toss. But it’s hard to separate satire and/or beauty when they look so much like action movie fetishization.

2. Ultraviolence. Speaking of which, why was this movie made more violent than the book? Oh, right, because Snyder kinda gets off on this stuff. Kind of a shame — again, the violence would be a lot more effective if it weren’t splattered everywhere with such a massive, uncontrolled brush.

3. Dr. Manhattan’s time-skipping origin is probably my favorite sequence in the book. It’s strikingly reproduced in the film, with a lot of sustained beauty and pathos. Only one problem: did anyone else notice how the movie sort of failed to drive home the fact that Dr. Manhattan is experiencing all of these flashbacks at the same time, all the time? And that he lives that way? All the time? I mean, they mention it in passing. But that seems like kind of an important point to me, and key to the heartbreaking nature of his backstory. Maybe a split-screen or weird overlapping editing or something would’ve been too showy, but it’s disappointing that this amazing bit of work by Moore and Gibbons didn’t inspire more than handsome faith from the filmmakers.

4. Maintaining the CGI cat creature thing. Use it or lose it!

5. “All Along the Watchtower.” Snyder futzes around with recognizable pop songs throughout, to varying degrees of cleverness and/or on-the-nose obviousness, but the way he blasts the Hendrix “All Along the Watchtower” as Rorschach and Nite Owl hightail it to Antarctica had me convinced that Snyder mostly knew the song from its appearance in somewhere between thirty and fifty thousand movie trailers in the eighties and nineties.

03/04/09 1:06pm

In which Jesse Hassenger sees music, in New York, as you do.

Usually I write about movies here, but I also go to what I think is an above-average number of concerts. I say “I think” because, as with moviegoing, you can always find a New Yorker who’s doing more than you (damn you, whoever saw Street Fighter: Legend of Chun-Li and at least one of those times the Vivian Girls opened for someone else cool! I am almost certain you exist, no matter how ridiculous you sound!). I saw a record (for me) twenty-four shows last year, mostly for fun, but a little bit for justification: I’m paying to live in a city where the Mountain Goats play two or three times a year, so I’m damn well going a bunch of those times, before I have kids and it’s ten years later and the Hold Steady reunion tour is my first show in I don’t even know how long.

That said, the get-it-while-you-can school of concert attendance can still backfire, in that you can go to more shows than you ever have in your life and still feel like you probably missed some good ones. It’s that urgency that informs my friend Nick Sonderup’s blog project 100 Bands, 100 Days. Sonderup has decided to, yes, go see 100 bands play in and around the city over the course of 100 days. He’s currently less than halfway through, although he’s one hundred percent through making the two gigs I’ve attended so far this year seem paltry and sad.

The site is fascinating less for gig reviews (since you can get those in mind-numbing detail all over the place now) than the state of mind and first-person observations about being tired, sitting through opening bands or not, spending a ton of money on concerts… basically, all of the reasons you don’t see a show every night. Most ridiculous, though, is that you can read all of this and still feel sort of vaguely jealous that someone is doing this crazy New Yorky type of stunt: this is what it must feel like to see every band you think you might want to see, to see every cool revival at Film Forum, to actually use your Netflix subscription wisely, to blow your New York income on New York.

In fact, I’m going to buy some damn Mountain Goats tickets right now.

02/20/09 12:00pm

Jesse Hassenger’s Hott Oscar Pixx! (Amused anticipation of all-time most hirsute host Hugh Jackman not included, for some reason.)

The Oscars are on Sunday, and all indications — mostly vaguely unpopular or vaguely disliked nominees; the deterioration of the network television audience; and, oh yeah, economic collapse — point toward no one caring. Indifference to the Oscars: it’s not just for snobs anymore! I’m making my predictions anyway, in case you want to come in fourth or fifth in your poorly attended office pool.

Best Supporting Actor:
Josh Brolin, Milk
Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt
Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road
Will Win: Without wanting to sound crass, this would be a pretty intense competition if Heath Ledger were still alive. But he’s not, and as such, he’s a lock.
Should Win: I’m fine with rewarding Ledger, a brilliant actor who remade an iconic character, although the implication that posthumous awards recognition is about anything beyond making the voters feel better about themselves gives me the willies. Really, this is one of the strongest categories of the night; Shannon, Downey, and Ledger are all especially deserving.

Best Supporting Actress:
Amy Adams, Doubt
Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Viola Davis, Doubt
Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler
Will Win: Everyone predicts Penelope Cruz, and Woody Allen certainly has a way with supporting actresses, but I’m not so sure she’s a lock: Bullets Over Broadway and Mighty Aphrodite both got screenplay nominations, signaling broader love. So did Deconstructing Harry and Sweet and Lowdown, for that matter. Plus, this category is upset city; I’m thinking voters will remember the one killer Viola Davis scene, and give it up for her.
Should Win: I rolled my eyes when Judi Dench won an actual award for her Shakespeare in Love walk-on, but Davis’s five or ten minutes of Doubt are actually a lynchpin of the movie — excellent support indeed.

Visual Effects:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Iron Man

Will Win: Sometimes, this category goes inexplicably off the rails, like when The Chronicles of Narnia won over Revenge of the Sith, or The Golden Compass triumphed over Transformers and Pirates 3 (say what you will about those last two, but they have pretty nice special effects). If we’re looking for the movie with middling but numerous effects, Iron Man would seem to fit the bill, but it’ll be hard to ignore The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; the weirdness of the effects keeps them from the kind of pure invisibility that sometimes screws the best work.
Should Win: No matter what you think of the movie, the Benjamin Button effects are extraordinary.


Tom Stern, Changeling
Claudio Miranda, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Wally Pfister, The Dark Knight
Roger Deakins and Chris Menges, The Reader
Anthony Dod Mantle, Slumdog Millionaire
Will Win: Slumdog Millionaire, and at least it’s not the kind of mountain-heavy scenery-mongering that usually takes this prize.
Should Win: The Dark Knight.

Art Direction:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
The Duchess
Revolutionary Road

Will Win: Benjamin Button, unless enough bluehairs saw The Duchess.
Should Win: I’m usually all about Batman-related set design, but while The Dark Knight‘s was excellent, its use of actual Chicago locations is a tad less impressive than the immersive worlds created by the Burton films. So Button works for me.

Costume Design:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Duchess
Revolutionary Road

Will Win: “Best” is often equated with “most” when the tech categories are put to a general vote, so maybe not a lot of people saw The Duchess, but they’ll go ooh and aahh anyway and give it the prize. Get those “Academy Award Winner” stickers ready, whatever company distributed The Duchess!
Should Win: I swear I often have an opinion on categories like this, but I’m not sure that’s happening this year. Usually I go with whatever most resembles science fiction so… Australia?

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Will Win: Unless there’s a revolt about the assistance of CG techniques, I’m guessing Button
Should Win: … and with good cause; remember how Brad Pitt is in his forties, not his twenties, and old-man babies don’t exist?

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Slumdog Millionaire

Will Win: Conventional wisdom says that this goes to the eventual Best Picture winner, and Slumdog‘s combination of flash and flashbacks certainly fits the profile. But upsets in this category typically come from big, well-liked action-type movies that the Academy was apparently too sheepish to nominate for the big prize: Bourne Ultimatum for one, The Matrix for another. [This is one of those “best=most” tech categories you were talking about, wasn’t it. -Ed.] I have a sneaking suspicion that The Dark Knight will pull off such an upset, though it’s by no means a sure thing.
Should Win: The Dark Knight — the movie proceeds at a breathless pace and the editing plays a huge part.

Original Screenplay:

Courtney Hunt, Frozen River
Mike Leigh, Happy-Go-Lucky
Martin McDonagh, In Bruges
Dustin Lance Black, Milk
Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon, Pete Docter, Wall-E
Will Win: It’s between Milk and Wall-E (though part of me thinks that In Bruges could sneak in, with so little Best Picture competition in its way). I love Wall-E, but it’s hard to imagine the more literal-minded voters going for something with so little dialogue — plus even the best animated movies have that written-by-committee stigma. I’m guessing Milk will get whippersnapper Justin Lance Black a statue.
Should Win: Wall-E is a great package, but in terms of individual, scene-by-scene writing, I might have to favor In Bruges.

Adapted Screenplay:
Eric Roth, Robin Swicord, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
John Patrick Shanley, Doubt
Peter Morgan, Frost/Nixon
David Hare, The Reader
Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire
Will Win: In a stronger year, something else could probably snatch it away from Slumdog, which works more because of its direction than its screenplay. But I’m not seeing what could take it down, so it’s more or less a lock.
Should Win: Slumdog, by elimination more than anything: Button rests more on direction than Gump-derivative writing; Doubt feels like a pretty close adaptation, as does Frost/Nixon, which is undermined by a few of the directorial choices; The Reader is perfunctory at best.

Best Actor

Richard Jenkins, The Visitor
Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn, Milk
Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
Will Win: Frontrunner Sean Penn does make sense; he’s playing a real guy, against his own broody type, in a politically minded movie with an emotional core. But I’ve got a feeling Rourke will get votes because it’s a better story, and ’cause Penn already has one of these.
Should Win: Rourke, for exactly those reasons, plus others. Penn is wonderful as Milk, but the movie doesn’t show us much of him before he became a political leader. We don’t see much of Randy the Ram’s early years, either — except in Rourke’s eyes and worked-over face.

Best Actress
Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Angelina Jolie, Changeling
Melissa Leo, Frozen River
Meryl Streep, Doubt
Kate Winslet, The Reader
Will Win: Some have suggested Meryl Streep will step in since Winslet is up for a weak movie, but it still feels like Winslet’s year. Winning for a performance inferior to at least half your body of work is sort of an Academy tradition. I guess it comes down to whether supporters of Revolutionary Road (a.) exist and (b.) will vote for Winslet because they liked the other performance so much or vote for someone else because they don’t want to reward The Reader.
Should Win: Kate Winslet… for Revolutionary Road (her buddy Leo met the same ridiculous fate a couple of years ago, scoring a nomination for the forgettable-if-you’re-lucky Blood Diamond rather than The Departed, for which he totally deserved to actually win). In absence of that performance, and not having watched the Netflix copy of Frozen River sitting on my coffee table (right next to The Visitor), I guess I’m kinda rooting for Anne Hathaway, who I don’t even particularly like. She’s the only one of the four that I’ve seen who can claim to have never been better. [Sally Hawkins. WTF. -Ed.]

David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon
Gus Van Sant, Milk
Stephen Daldry, The Reader
Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
Will Win: Boyle. I don’t know if voters will think about how the same guy made Trainspotting, A Life Less Ordinary, 28 Days Later, Millions, and Sunshine, or if that would even count in his favor, but Boyle has a magic combination of brash newcomer and established vet (sort of like a Best New Artist Grammy, heyo!).
Should Win: Danny Boyle, because anyone who I would’ve nominated for an Oscar when I was a junior in high school should obviously go on to win one.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Reader
Slumdog Millionaire

Will Win: Slumdog Millionaire; nothing else really has a shot.
Should Win: Now I know how regular people feel about the Oscars: faintly indifferent! My favorite of the five is Benjamin Button [Hey, mine too. Wait, what? -Ed.], which I did not like nearly so much as non-nominees The Dark Knight [Gak. That’s more like it. -Ed.], Wall-E, In Bruges, and on and on. Slumdog is a good movie, and so is Milk. [If by “good movie” you mean “Good movie subsequently talked way out of proportion by people who only see five movies a year,” and “Bad movie towards which it is impossible to feel anything but goodwill,” respectively. -Ed.] Hell, the Ron Howard movie was perfectly enjoyable. A surprise would be nice, but not if it’s The Reader. Maybe something super-shocking, like a four-way tie. Or a movie no one knew was nominated because it was written in invisible ink and only Oscar voters were given the decoder glasses. Or a promise that next year’s nominees will be easier to care about.

[Best Foreign Language Film:
The Baader Meinhof Complex (Uli Edel), Germany
The Class (Laurent Cantet), France
Departures (Yojiro Takita), Japan
Revanche (Götz Spielmann), Austria
Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman), Israel
Will Win:
Waltz with Bashir. Topical!
Should Win: It’s not a bad choice, actually, general annoyance at the Old Jewish Vote’s continued chokehold over this category notwithstanding.
The Class is a terrific movie and you should see it; Revanche is a very well-made interlocking crime movie, according to a lot of people who’ve seen it at festivals. (It’s at Lincoln Center next week, if you’re interested.) In truth I’ve long stopped caring about the fact that I don’t care about Best Picture — Hey, Jesse, let me try out an all-reasonably-high-visibility-English-language-films list on you: Gran Torino, Happy-Go-Lucky, Synecdoche, New York, Wall-E, Wendy and Lucy. See, rumors of my curmudgeonly snobbery have been greatly exaggerated — but the shocking unfamiliarity with world cinema that informs this category still depresses me, I can’t help it. -Ed.]

02/10/09 10:00am

Is it possible to not like a movie star? Jesse Hassenger considers the dreadful possibility.

Over the weekend, I discovered a use for He’s Just Not That Into You — the movie, not the book, although I imagine the book would make an okay projectile, especially if it were lit on fire. The movie version, while incompetent at comedy, romance, psychological drama (eek, it kind of tries!), or insight beyond “jerky guys are jerks, but aren’t you also kind of an idiot, you jerk?” did help me zero in on my instinctive dislike of Jennifer Aniston.

Usually if I’m explaining why I don’t like Jennifer Aniston, I say it’s because she’s often cast as someone who is supposed to be smart and funny, and is mostly pretty terrible at conveying either of those qualities. But this new movie, even with only a supporting amount of Aniston, highlights what gets in the way: so many of her film roles are steeped in self-pity.

First, some credit: I’m fairly sure I remember reading criticisms of Aniston along these lines in Entertainment Weekly from Lisa Schwarzbaum, but I can’t for the life of me find the particular review. But good show, Ms. Schwarzbaum; I’m seeing it now more than ever. I’m not sure if this observation came before or in the midst of Aniston’s tabloid hell, and I don’t mean to conflate tabloid-assigned roles with even her onscreen persona, much less her actual personality which, obviously, I don’t know and never will. But it’s difficult to avoid the low-key burdens that weigh over much of her work, mimicking her marketing in the tabloids.

In Bruce Almighty and The Break-Up, she refashions the stock “long-suffering girlfriend” part with undue emphasis on the suffering; in Rumor Has It and many of her other romantic comedies, she’s the single gal who can’t catch a break. Even in better movies like The Good Girl or Office Space or Friends with Money, she has to suffer through a tedious job with miserable coworkers and/or friends and/or beaus who don’t understand her (at least those movies place her glumness in places that vaguely resemble a believable world).

He’s Just Not That Into You makes the most of Aniston’s limited screentime in the sense that it saddles her with a long-time boyfriend who doesn’t believe in marriage; a young sister who’s getting married before her; crass extended family members who humiliate and hit on her while being totally ugly and stuff; and immediate and in-law family members who selfishly ignore her sick father and let poor Jennifer — I mean Beth — do all of the cooking and cleaning and caring.

The movie kinda sorta lets us know that her marriage-or-nothing ultimatum to her perfectly reasonable boyfriend isn’t quite right — before endorsing it with a “surprise” post-contrition proposal that makes both parties look like manipulative creeps. But moreover, we never once see Beth doing or saying anything remotely interesting. She just stands with her arms poised in that prickly, Jennifer Aniston pose, her face in a petite little mini-grimace, suffering in a way that might be called deadpan or wry if she was, you know, actually funny.

Clearly, certain audience segments respond to this quality, and it dovetails nicely with her “real-life” role as the spurned gal next door. (I have to wonder, too, crass as it is, if Brad Pitt has some kind of victim fetish. Angelina Jolie often plays invulnerable ass-kickers… except in her recent “serious” gigs, where she suffers bigger, harder, and nobler than Aniston.) But the lack of genuine humor and intelligence, for me, makes the put-upon act just plain off-putting. Aniston’s characters never come off as particularly smart or witty, so the jerks around her have to be cartoonish and dumbed-down.

Maybe that’s why her guest turn on 30 Rock felt so liberated: she got to just loosen up and act like a self-centered lunatic, and we weren’t prompted to go “aw, poor Jen” or anything. Maybe that’s why He’s Just Not That Into You can’t even succeed on its own terms, either: it’s more interested in pity than romance or comedy.

02/05/09 12:16pm

Jesse Hassenger faces a crisis of American masculinity, sort of.

I’ve been seeing ads for He’s Just That Into You: The Movie for a bunch of months now, and there’s something that nags at me apart from the fact that it looks generic, sitcommy, and faintly dated (there is something epically sad about a joke that involves someone explaining MySpace to Drew Barrymore in 2009). The movie is an ensemble rom-com, so it necessitates casting a bunch of guys and a bunch of girls, and I’m repeatedly struck by the ridiculous imbalance between the all-star women and the men who look like they could collectively sign on to a TV pilot in, say, fall 2010.

Taken on its own, a romantic comedy featuring a higher-powered female lead isn’t so odd; these movies, for better or (usually much much) worse, are about the woman or women, on screen and in the audience. Of course, the best (or even the semi-proficient) romantic comedies have equally memorable leads, but there are plenty of popular entries where you couldn’t name the male lead off the top of your head.

He’s Just Not That Into You, though, seems to be specifically predicated on women flummoxed by uninterested, unavailable, or hard-to-read guys. The trailer soft-pedals this a little – only a few of the men are made to look like real heels – but it’s still the ladies getting all twitterpated over voicemails and, uh, MySpaces. In other words, if you’re making a movie about guys who just aren’t that into a bunch of girls, shouldn’t those guys be, you know, desirable?

Let’s take a closer look at the pumped-up lady cast:

Jennifer Aniston: Look, I never really got this, but apparently she’s America’s Sweetheart, plus she’s coming off one of the biggest hits of the holiday season.

Drew Barrymore: Maybe she’s a little past her prime, but Barrymore has starred in a ton of female-appeal hits; she’s arguably the most consistently popular member of this entire cast.

Jennifer Connelly: Two of my best friends in college, one male and one female, both considered Connelly one of the most absolutely beautiful women in the world. I might not go quite all the way there, but she’s certainly known for her amazing beauty. Also her ability to stand on docks mournfully.

Ginnifer Goodwin: She’s the least well-known of the bunch, but possibly the most adorable (though I’ll take the less skinny 2004 version any day). Even in supporting roles in the likes of Win a Date with Tad Hamilton! and Mona Lisa Smile, she’s shown natural sweetness, energy, and charm.

Scarlett Johannson: Many of us are a little nostalgic for Scarlett’s more sweater-y Ghost World days, but whatever, the sex-bomb version is pretty much universally acknowledged as smoking hot. Also, she’s sort of an underrated comic actress, by which I mean I liked Scoop even though no one else did, plus she was funny on several SNL appearances.

So basically: several big names, several extremely attractive women, and some overlap between the two. Whereas the men barely deserve their own bolded paragraphs.

First of all, the best one is Ben Affleck. I don’t have much hate for Ben Affleck; he does SNL a lot, he’s good in a bunch of Kevin Smith movies, and he directed Gone Baby Gone, which was excellent. Me and Affleck, we’ve put Daredevil and Pearl Harbor behind us. He’s a perfectly acceptable match to Jennifer Aniston, and even outclasses her a little because Affleck can, occasionally, be made to seem like an intelligent person, something Aniston struggles with constantly.

But Affleck is by far the movie’s biggest male “get” which would make a lot more sense if this were the year 2002. The movie also offers us, as a male equivalent to any number of actual stars, Bradley Cooper. For serious? You may remember him as the transparently assholish villain-beau to Rachel McAdams in The Wedding Crashers, or as the generic best friend in a bunch of other movies. If you haven’t seen him, just picture someone named “Bradley Cooper.” That is more or less exactly what he looks like. If you picture that guy’s bro-date to the T-Pain concert, you get Kevin Connolly. I had to look up who this guy is. Apparently he’s on Entourage. None of the women in this cast are on Entourage. Ginnifer Goodwin is on Big Love, which, like Entourage, I have never seen, but, unlike Entourage, doesn’t look or sound insufferable.

Justin Long is on hand too, presumably as the funny one, and again, OK, I can see him as fourth lead, but here is a partial list of dudes who have appeared in romantic comedies and are either funnier or better-looking than Justin Long, or both: Ben Stiller. Owen Wilson. Paul Rudd (so both!). Vince Vaughn (oh, how he could’ve rocked the “or both” in his heyday!). John Krasinski. I know Jason Bateman might’ve turned this movie down, but would it have killed them to really pursue Ryan Reynolds?

I don’t mean to get into superficialities here. Maybe the men and women of this movie are equally charming/appalling, or maybe I should take it as a sign of actress power that they don’t need more interesting male co-stars. But when you think how often decent female actors have played nothing more than the love interest, it’s telling how many of their male counterparts just aren’t that into doing the same.

02/03/09 12:17pm

In which Jesse Hassenger concludes an experiment in which the movies studios release movies while they think critics aren’t looking.

National Horror Month comes to an end with The Uninvited, which offers relative class and restraint in a complete misreading of the January horror business plan. Actually, the movie’s deadliest restraint is in its timing: last one out of a four-horror month will typically make the least unless you’re dealing with a Saw movie, and so it went this weekend with the decidedly Jigsaw-free Uninvited.

Sporting by far the toniest cast of this year’s horror crop, The Uninvited follows young Anna (Emily Browning), returning home from a mental hospital following the death of her mother in a terrible accident. She commiserates with her older sister (Arielle Kebbel), clashes with her father (David Strathairn!), and eventually comes to believe that her father’s new girlfriend (Elizabeth Banks) may be a creepy murderess, aided by her dreams of Asian horror movies, er, ghostly children.

Browning, who played Violet in the Lemony Snicket movie, makes for a believably skeptical kid, and Banks is savvy at modulating the menace she allows to creep into her sunny gal-next-door façade. None of this is to say that The Uninvited, adapted from, yeah, a Korean film, is the spooky, well-made antidote to horror schlock. In fact, it’s not particularly spooky or particularly schlocky, neither a soulless PG-13 slog a la The Grudge nor likely to satisfy hard-R gorehounds. It’s a reasonably tasteful, well-acted horror movie that nonetheless doesn’t really work.

I will here issue a spoiler alert not because I plan to discuss the plot twist in particular (or because I imagine anyone would be aghast over my doing so) but because to be even faintly aware that there might be a plot twist is to give the average moviegoer enough of an alert to figure out what it is — so maybe the spoiler alert would be better placed up top, when I reveal that The Uninvited is a horror movie (the trailer does that, I guess, and performs an admirable job of light misdirection, moreso than the movie itself — as does the title by having little-to-nothing to do with anything that happens in the movie). I do not pride myself on the ability to beat movies to the punch, and I still called the first half of the twist during the first ten minutes, and the rest of it within half an hour.

To the movie’s credit, the plot turns are guessable because the movie more or less plays fair, at least as far as I can remember. Funny though, that the movie’s more logical, grounded approach doesn’t make the twist much more interesting or less hacky; it makes the whole movie sort of like studying for an IQ test.

So what are horror fans left with after the early-’09 bumper crop? It’s dispiriting to see how little one, two, four, or eight modern horror movies can add up to: One disposable gimmick slasher, one deeply silly (but highly enjoyable, at least) medieval werewolf fantasy, and, with The Unborn and The Uninvited, two failed straight-faced attempts at all-ages chills. Neither of those last two fit perfectly into the biggest horror bins of the day (speaking of which, the rest of the spring has remakes of Friday the 13th and Last House on the Left); they both just fall through the cracks, lacking the point of view — from which one can more readily derive things like dread or foreboding — of less widely seen horror pictures of recent years: Let the Right One In, May, or the more influential (though still less popular than, say, Saw IV) 28 Days Later. But hey, take a look at the 2010 release schedule: a U.S. remake of Let the Right One In is next year’s January fodder. In other words, be afraid.

01/27/09 1:08pm

Jesse Hassenger on new offerings from the worst of the studios, which perplexing also gave the world Hamlet 2 (holla!).

20th Century Fox is known as one of the whoriest, least filmmaker-friendly big studios. Recent Fox atrocities presumed and confirmed include Bride Wars, Marley & Me, The Day the Earth Stood Still, What Happens in Vegas, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Babylon A.D., Jumper, Epic Movie, Date Movie, Meet the Spartans, Eragon, and the Fantastic Four movies. When they occasionally get something very right, like those first two X-Men movies, they tend exact revenge on anyone who might’ve breathed a sigh of relief by doing stuff like X-Men: Ratner’s Turn.

Granted, you can make just about any major studio look like the lowest-rent purveyors of crap around with this kind of selective listing, but the closer you look at the list of Fox’s recent achievements, the more the likes of Moulin Rouge look like a fluke.

Fox’s overachieving younger sibling is Fox Searchlight, which distributes and/or finances the kind of movies Fox Classic treats with outright hostility: Slumdog Millionaire, The Wrestler, Juno, The Darjeeling Limited, Sunshine, Once, The Savages, Millions, I Heart Huckabees, Garden State, Sideways, Napoleon Dynamite, 28 Days Later, In America… not everyone loves all of those movies, but you can be too cool for all of them and still admit that they seem like exactly the movies their writers and directors wanted to make. That is pretty awesome.

Which brings me to two trailers.

Obviously this 500 Days of Summer movie, which just played Sundance, is being sold to me: Joseph-Gordon Levitt and Zooey Deschanel and she sings and it’s bittersweet and romantic and sad and stylish. I’m the target market, same as I was for Garden State and Juno, movies where I was a little disturbed by how much I pre-liked them — how affectionate I felt towards their damn trailers, before I saw anything else. Same goes here. This trailer is a cute girl with classes sitting by herself in a coffee shop reading comics; it can’t be real, can it? Did I participate in some market research last year and forget about it?

On the other hand, I do still like Garden State and Juno — backlash isn’t inherently more honest, fellow members of my generation! — and part of me is already constructing defenses against the inevitable blogicles about the commoditization of Zooey Deschanel, or the alt-weekly (wait, this movie comes out in the summer — so let’s make that online, I guess) reviews railing against the superficial navel-gazing twentysomethings who will fall for this movie, at least some of which will be written by dudes who just turned twenty-nine-and-a-half and have secretly spent a lot of time convincing themselves that Waltz with Bashir is fascinating. Seriously, I saw that movie over the weekend, and halfway through I was wondering how many of the people who reviewed it actually sat through the whole thing.

Anyway, I guess the point is, I’m a little disturbed by how charming this movie looks. Also by the trailer voice guy. It’s cool that they’re using a trailer voice guy I haven’t heard before, but I don’t know how it will play in a theater. I can imagine giggling.

Over at Big Fox, the studio who thinks you can’t take a joke when you tell it to stop saying “that’s so gay” as a pejorative, and also punching you in the arm, we’ve got this trailer:

This trailer for 12 Rounds may require additional explanation. Michael Cena is apparently some kind of wrestler. Not the poetic Jersey suburbs kind that wins you Oscars. Not yet, anyway. More like one of those guys scuffling over who gets to be the next Schwarzenegger, which is sort of like scuffling over who gets to be the next Demi Moore, isn’t it? A couple of years ago, Cena starred in a movie called The Marine which did not make very much money, probably because on opening day, its target audience went to Best Buy and got really confused when it didn’t meet them there. I highly recommend watching The Marine on cable sometime when you’re in the mood for Commando.

What’s hilarious about 12 Rounds (or at least the trailer) is that it appears to be more or less a remake of The Marine: someone kidnaps Cena’s wife and his Cro-Magnon version of Jason Bourne is unleashed. It also appears to have a touch of Saw, and, you know, the other two billion movies with a taunting psychopath. The trailer appears to assume that its audience hasn’t seen The Marine (fair enough), or they have and are dying to see a virtual remake.

As the trailer implies somewhat obliquely by referring to “the director of Die Hard 2,” this also marks the return of one Renny Harlin to the realm of high-octane, theatrically released trash. He made a brief detour, you see, with Cleaner, a Sam Jackson vehicle that was low-octane, direct-to-DVD trash. I personally love Renny Harlin because he made Deep Blue Sea and that movie is at least four kinds of awesome, but I’m a little appalled that he can still get hired given that it was also his last decent-sized hit, followed as it was by Driven, Mindhunters, Exorcist: The Beginning, and The Covenant. I mean, I haven’t even seen most of those. Me. The guy who saw The Marine. So while 12 Rounds seems like it should be the last chance for Cena, Harlin, and, hell, whoever plays Cena’s kidnapped wife this time, they’ve probably all got at least three more crap movies in them before they have to stop making more than I’ve earned in my life for a month’s worth of work.

This being Fox, even the awesome dumbness of 12 Rounds has to come from a bad (worse) decision: They let Lionsgate take over the Stath business, but felt a de facto sequel to an unsuccessful eighties throwback would be money in the bank.