Sunday, July 31, 2011

Summer Movie Diary: The Smurfs

Date: July 30, 2011
Time: Not 5:25 pm (Actually, 4:40)
Place: Cinemark NextGen Stone Hill Town Center
Company: Derrick, Grayson, and Penelope
Food: Medium Coke, small popcorn with lots of salt, M&Ms (and a blue Icee for Penelope)
Running Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Rating: G
Director: Raja Gosnell

Quick Impressions:
Please don’t kill me, but I liked The Smurfs. Now let me be clear, do I think it is a great movie? No. But do I think it’s a horrible movie? Oh my smurfness, no!

Yes, there was a lot of blue humor (pun intended, of course, but statement also offered in earnest). And it probably does recycle a lot of material from movies like Alvin and the Chipmunks and Garfield, but I didn’t see any of those movies because they looked dumb to me, so I didn’t mind.

If you do not have children, you really have no business going to see The Smurfs, and if you do go without children, and you don’t like it, that’s your own fault. If you haven’t been able to watch the previews (which have been on TV and in theaters all summer) and determine that you wouldn’t like The Smurfs, then you’re the one who smurfed up for paying movie theater prices to see it. Smurf on you. (I meant that last “smurf” as a substitute for “shame,” lest you be too smurfed off at me.)

Wisely populated with TV stars and marketed to an audience that probably spends a fair amount of time watching network TV (i.e. parents who don’t get out much because they have small children), The Smurfs would be a superior movie if it appeared on TV (as I’m sure it will in the future, many, many, many times). When it does come on TV, people will watch it, and people will like it. They liked it in the theater. This is the first movie I’ve seen all summer that’s earned repeated raucous laughter and applause from its audience.

The Smurfs may not be the best movie ever, but as a fan of the Smurfs (i.e. someone who watched the cartoon faithfully every Saturday morning as a preschool-aged child), I can assure you with complete honesty that Raja Gosnell’s movie is ten million times better than the cartoon’s previous big-screen effort, Smurfs and the Magic Flute, which I saw with my parents in the theater back in 1983. I believe my reaction to that at the time was, “What the smurf???”

For those who haven’t seen it, the first Smurf film is much stranger than the cartoon, obviously dubbed from another language with characters who speak far, far too quickly. (Imagine, “It is Smurfzilla!” and you’ll get the idea.) The one bright spot in that movie was a character who kept saying over and over again, “Let’s smurf a party! Let’s smurf a party!” Maybe it’s not really a bad movie. Quite likely, its story has something to do with Mozart’s opera. But as someone who saw it as a four-year-old, I can assure you that it’s pretty far removed from the American version of the cartoon.

The Smurfs, on the other hand, stays pretty faithful to the American cartoon’s premise. Yes, the Smurfs have been needlessly transplanted to New York City, but the previews more than prepared any potential audience for this complication, so anyone who was unpleasantly surprised has been a victim of his or her own negligence. As always Gargamel is chasing the Smurfs, trying to capture them. We don’t see Johann, Pewee, or Hogatha. But Gargamel, Azrael, and a number of prominent Smurfs are in attendance, along with a few added humans. It’s not Citizen Kane, but let’s be honest, if you take a bunch of toddlers to a screening of Citizen Kane, how much laughter and applause do you think you’ll hear?

The Good and The Could Have Been Better:
Even though it did include some disgusting jokes (i.e. Gargamel mistaking a port-a-potty for a cauldron), I thought that overall the tone of the movie was appropriately sweet. The human characters had problems that will resonate with many young parents. (Surely every non-baby in attendance has had to deal with the emotional turmoil that a coming baby brings to a household. Even some toddlers know that when a baby comes along, it changes everything.)

Granted, the problems aren’t explained or dealt with in any depth. But this is a movie for little children. Anyone who is not blue, a wizard, or a digitally animated cat should not be alone on the screen for longer than two minutes at a time. Is the movie realistic? Do the characters convincingly portray adults trying to navigate the problems of life in all its complexity? No! Of course not! This is The Smurfs.

Best Action Sequence:
I loved the early scene where Gargamel is running amok in Smurf Village. The breathless chaos of this scene really resonated with me because my family accidentally arrived late to the movie, during a mix-up with the show times, and we were actually trying to find seats during this on-screen melee. Attempting to wrangle an excited toddler in the dark while at the same time not spilling our popcorn or her smurfy blue Icee was just as exciting as the action onscreen. Really, during this scene, I felt like the movie was in 4D (though I'm sure I'll experience that in earnest soon enough since both kids were intrigued by the Spy Kids preview).

Best Joke:
Throughout the entire movie, kids were laughing out loud (genuine, heart-felt laughter because they were delighted and amused, the kind of laughter only innocent children can produce). For me, the funniest moment came when Hank Azaria’s Gargamel took literally the figurative remark that “the competition will kill us.” (I also sort of liked his obsession for “emerging from the smoke mysteriously.”)

Lots of the comedy is physical. Some of the jokes are kind of…well…

Gargamel mistakes an ice bucket for a chamber pot in the middle of dinner at a fancy restaurant. Not exactly high-brow humor. (But, then, haven’t we all been on a date or at a business dinner that might have been substantially improved if something like that had happened at the restaurant—to someone else, of course.)

Best Scene:
The movie fired on all cylinders as the movie tried to escape from Gargamel in the toy store. But I actually liked a touching moment between Clumsy and Grace, when she told him, “Nobody is just one thing. You can be whatever you want.”

Given that all the Smurfs have attributes for names, and that name-calling is such a common feature of early elementary school, I thought that was a lovely little moral. The movie was full of diamonds in the rough like that, moments that could have sparkled if the script had just had a bit more polishing.

Best Surprise:
I loved the blue moon. For experienced filmgoers, that the blue moon rose and provided the perfect resolution for the movie’s two parallel story lines really should not be a surprise, but I was a little bit surprised at how pleased I felt to see it happening. The blue moon is beautiful, so is the camaraderie of the Smurfs, so is the love Patrick and Grace Winslow share, and so is Sofia Vergara. Let’s smurf a cheer!

Best Scene Visually:
Some of the action scenes were almost blurry, and afterwards, my husband and I wished we’d coughed up the money for the 3D (but it’s so hard to make that call when you’re not sure how long your two-year-old will wear the glasses). I thought what I saw of Smurf Village looked gorgeous, and the blue moon—how can you beat that? I’m a sucker for the moon even when it’s a more ordinary white or silver.

The Performances:
You really feel for the actors. The script is not exactly stellar (lunar, just when it counts, but never stellar), and they don’t have much to work with. They have to work hard, and they do.

Hank Azaria goes all out as Gargamel. He makes a much more convincing cartoon character than his animated feline sidekick, and I mean that as a compliment. He’s really fantastic as Gargamel, and I personally think it takes a lot of courage to go all-out in that fashion. If you’re doing it for an Oscar, that’s one thing. If you’re doing it for The Smurfs, that’s quite another. Not everything Gargamel did was funny, but not all of that was Hank Azaria’s fault.

Neil Patrick Harris did a perfectly good job as nervous father-to-be Patrick Winslow and an even better job of cheerfully promoting the movie in a seemingly endless series of First Looks and making-of specials. Jayma Mays was also perfectly charming as his wife, Grace. The actors seemed to enjoy being a part of The Smurfs. Granted that may have been due to their acting talent, but I’m not completely convinced. There were a lot of children laughing happily in that theater.

Sophia Vegara lights up the screen as Patrick’s difficult boss, cosmetics mogul, Odile. Her part doesn’t call for much range, but she does have wonderful comic timing (even when the comedy itself is…merely lunar).

The people voicing the Smurfs—most notably Katy Perry as Smurfette, Alan Cumming as Gutsy, Fred Armisen as Brainy, George Lopez as Grouchy, and Jonathan Winters as Papa—do seem to be having fun. A lot of little girls in that audience seemed to be loving Smurfette. And Anton Yelchin’s Clumsy is pretty adorable.

Is The Smurfs an entertaining, satisfying movie? The answer depends on how old you are. The kids in the theater loved it. I haven’t heard such a whole-hearted, full-bodied positive response to a movie in a long, long time. Kung Fu Panda 2 (by far the best children’s movie I’ve seen this summer) didn’t get that kind of response, and the only noise you heard during Cars 2 was little kids crying because they were bored and tired. My family laughed out loud during Winnie the Pooh, but we were pretty much the only people in the theater (not who laughed. I mean present).

Kids loved this movie, and in my experience, they usually love movies like this—full of lots of slapstick, silly moments, and jokes about going to the bathroom (which is a very important part of life for two-and-three-year-old children).

If pressed, I can't in honesty call it a good movie, but it’s a fairly innocuous one, and it was pleasant to watch, delightful at moments. Surely focus groups were involved since it contains everything kids seem to love—a toy store, a dog, balloons, the moon, fireworks.

If your kids want to see it (as mine did), you might as well go. They’re almost guaranteed to have an ultra-smurfy time. And if you find yourself bored or underwhelmed by the movie (as you might at moments), you can always close your eyes, plug your ears, and go, “Lalalalalalalalalalala!” It will all be over soon!

Facebook Updates Since We Got Home

Penelope: Oh, whatcha gonna watch, Gram?
Grandma: Masterpiece Mystery.
Penelope: Oh, I want to watch Poirot.
July 21 at 4:22pm

Penelope: Is this Poirot?
Grandma: No, this is Miss Marple. It's like Poirot. This one's going to have witches. (Later) There they are. But they don't look like witches.
Penelope: Maybe they're not bad witches.
Grandma: Well, they're not exactly nice. But see, she's a witch, and she's not dressed like a witch.
Penelope: But maybe there are two witches.
Grandma: Actually, there are three.
July 21 at 4:51 pm

Penelope (singing as her baby): Can I have a diaper change? E-I-E-I-O!!
July 21 at 9:36pm

Earlier this evening...
Penelope (showing Grandma her baby doll): This is my baby. Her name is Penelope Jane Rayburn.
Grandma: Her name is Penelope Jane Rayburn, too?
Penelope: Yeah.
Grandma: How about we name her something else--like Rita Skeeter?
Penelope: Oh yes, that's much better!
July 21 at 9:38 pm

Penelope: Let me out!
Me: Are you ready to get out of the bath tub?
P: I want to get out so much but my duckie is making me stay because he lost his pocket book under the bubbles. He's diving and looking everywhere for his lost pocketbook, but there are so many bubbles, they get in his nose!
Me (clarifying): His pocketbook?
Penelope: Yes and his pocket watch.
July 22 at 12:44 am

Penelope (a moment later): He could never find it. He looked and he looked. I have to help him because he helped me wipe the snot off my nose. He is my best friend in the bath tub, and he needs my help so much. But we have looked everywhere! I don't know what happened to his pocketbook! He's so sad!
July 22 at 12:45am

Me: Did you have fun at Disneyland with me?
Penelope: Yes. We should go again. I want to ride Haunted Mansion again. Is it still broken?
Me: No, they probably fixed it by now.
Penelope: Oh good. Then we'll ride again when we go.
July 22 at 12:48am

Me: If we have a baby at our house, what should we name the baby?
Penelope: Baby Della.
Me: But what if it's a boy?
Penelope: No.
Me: But it might be a boy. Sometimes it's a boy.
Penelope (forcefully): Sometimes it's a girl!
July 22 at 12:50am

Penelope (first words on waking up): Hello, nice ghost! (smiles and waves at a shadow in the corner) I won't hurt you, little honey!
July 22 at 1:11 pm

Penelope (telling Grandma): When I first got on the lady bug ride, Bubby squished me, and I went, "Aaaaahhhhhh," and bonked my head!
July 22 at 1:22 pm

Penelope: Where is my blue present? It's for Dinah. It's her birthday. I also gave her this clock she can put up on the wall and know what time it is.
Me: It's Dinah's birthday?
P: Oh yes! I made her a cake with candles. She will be so excited when she sees it. It's chocolate.
Me: What color is the frosting?
P: White! Oh Dinah will be so happy! But she went out into the garden right now because she's so nervous!
July 22 at 1:53pm

Penelope: (urgently) Oh no, Bubby! There's a spider on the couch! He'll get you and eat you!!!
Grayson: Where?
Penelope: There! There!!!!
Grayson (finding her spider ring): Oh this? This is a fake spider!
Penelope (laughing): Oh, I'm sorry. That's my spider ring. (sneakily) How did that get there? That's a good guy spider. But the other day we saw a bad guy spider. Grandma screamed!
July 22 at 5:15 pm

Penelope: I have to give this to my sister, Bubby.
July 22 at 10:04 pm

Grayson: When Daddy puts the drops in, I have to count 120 monkeys. Like one monkey, two monkeys...That's how the doctor told me to do it.
Penelope: (to me) I don't have an ear confection, do I?
July 22 at 10:05 pm

Penelope (approaching with my old pirate knife from when I was a kid): May I please stab you? (She freaked her brother out because it looks very real!)
July 22 at 10:59 pm

Penelope (waving her toy knife at Grayson while he plays a video game): I'm going to cut you off in no time!
Grayson: Be careful with that knife.
Penelope (sweetly): I'm just cutting that shirt off a little bit, and that hair...and that nose...and those ears....
July 22 at 11:00 pm

Penelope (out of nowhere to my mom): The first time I went to the Rain Forest, I saw a snake coming up. And then I saw another snake again, coming up trying to get me.
July 24 at 1:18 pm

Penelope's currently chasing Grayson around the house wearing no pants, my R2D2 ears backwards and her wooden rosary and holding a dragon. She looks adorable, but I can't get her to stop long enough to take a picture!
July 24 at 6:38 pm

Penelope: Mommy, I don't want to be in the kitchen. I want to go to the movie theater.
Me: But we already went to the movie theater to see Pooh. And remember, I told you there isn't a Three Little Pigs movie. (She asked earlier.)
Penelope: Yes, but I want to see aliens.
Me: You want to see aliens?
Penelope: Yeah, I want to see aliens and those cowboys. I want to go right now. I can't wait. I'll get another Icee.
July 24 at 11:46pm

Penelope: Aww! Look at Orangey! He's so little, like a baby! Remember his Mommy, Marie? She's white and says meow? She went to H-E-B to get psketti and meatballs and cheese and milk! Orangey and Buppy are so excited! Aww! My kitty family is so adorable! What a cozy little family!
July 25 at 12:57 am

Penelope: Look, Mommy. Your owl is going in my boat. He's looking at the picture inside of Noah's Ark and Mrs. Noah's Ark.
Me: Where is he going?
Penelope: To Olive Garden. It's in Greece where you got him.
Penelope: Please help me put on my diamond shoes. I got them from Mercer Mayer. He's a witch! Oh no! There's an ant on my shoe!
Me: I don't see one.
P: Yes, there's two ants crying. Don't you hear them?
July 27 at 12:28 am

Penelope: This is my owl now. I call him Bluey! His mommy made him olives, but he doesn't like olives because they're too spicy.
Me: What does he like?
P: Macaroni and cheese and carrots. And he likes to drink milk. Can his Mommy make macaroni, too?
July 27 at 12:45 am

Penelope: My owl likes milk, kind of like a baby. He looks like a baby. Look at his little nosey. He fell out of a tree and ran his nose into some bumblebees. Poor little thing. I got him from Greece. Now he's my pet owl now, and I don't make olives because he likes macaroni.
July 27 at 12:45 am

Penelope (eagerly running up to Grandma with a tape covered picture of Derrick, Grayson and me): When I was born, in the hospit...When I was little...When I was in the the hospit...I had this picture.
July 27 at 2:43pm

Penelope: (giving me a Cheetoh) Please have a Cheetoh, Mommy!
Me: Mmm. That's cheesy.
Penelope: Yeah, Chester Cheetah brought those. He's so cheesy!
July 27 at 4:50 pm

Penelope (bringing me Dinah): My kitty's hungry for tacos.
Me: What do you want on your tacos, Dinah?
"Dinah": Meow, meow! Maybe french fries and nuggets.
July 27 at 5:10 pm

Penelope (a few minutes ago): I was sitting here on the couch, and Daddy fell asleep, and another Penelope came. And I said, 'What????!!!" And she was from Haunted Mansion, and I went there, too, and I saw her, and she said, "What???!!!" And all the ghosts were singing!
Me: Really.
Penelope: Yes.
Thursday at 12:03am

Penelope (pulling a pair of my pajama pants over her head and pulling them completely over her face as she runs around laughing): Look at me!! I'm like a sock puppet!!
Me: Tell Daddy what you told me about the other Penelope.
P: Another Penelope came, and I saw a ghost.
D: Was the other Penelope the ghost.
P (as if he's crazy): No!
D: Well where did the other Penelope come from?
P: Mexico.
Me: What was she doing in Mexico?
P: Saying, "I'm in Mexico."

This story puzzles me increasingly as it unfolds.
Thursday at 11:18 pm

Penelope (in the bath tub): You go first. I'll go first, too.
Me: What are we doing?
Only reply--two feet waving in the air and lots of splashing.
Thursday at 11:49 pm

Me: Hello, Puddleduck.
P: I'm Penelope Jane Rayburn...and Susan Elizabeth.
Me: That's Grandma's name.
P: Yeah.
Me: What's my name?
P: Sarah Jane Jett.
Me: Rayburn. What's Daddy's name?
P: Derrick Duck.
Me: Hmm.
P: He says quack a lot.
Me: What's Grandpa's name?
P: Uncle Noah.
Penelope brought in my old Cinderella book. My grandpa used to read it to me. With a black felt tipped pen, he has labeled the mice Gus, Jack, Pete, Joe, Sally, and Loretta.
Penelope: (Frowning) I miss my bubba.
Me: Oh, I'm sorry. Maybe we'll see him today when we go to the movie.
Penelope: (smiling) He's my sister.
Me: No, lovee, you're his sister. He's your brother.
Penelope: NO! Jack's his brother!
Me: Jack is his brother, and you're his sister, but he's your brother. A boy is a brother, and a girl is a sister. That's how it works.
Penelope: Well, I miss him.
Yesterday at 11:55am

Penelope: Let's watch the pirate movie. (Pointing to the skull and crossbones on the box) Oh I remember him. What does he say?
Me: He says, "Dead men tell no tales."
Penelope: Oh yeah. I want to ride pirates again. And I want to ride Haunted Mansion, too. It says (in a creepy voice), "No windows and no doors."
Me: (laughing) That's right it does.
Yesterday at 12:23pm

Grayson: What should we watch?
Penelope: Mexico.
Me: Mexico??
Penelope: Do they have a movie called that? Can we watch it? Because I left my other Penelope there.
Me: She has an imaginary friend also named Penelope who looks exactly like her, and they've seen ghosts together.
Grayson: I see. And where is this Penelope now?
Penelope: At Mexico.
20 hours ago

We're watching Rango again with Grayson (who has never seen it). Penelope just told him helpfully, "Don't worry, Bubby. The birdie went to heaven when he died." Earlier today during Smurfs at the theater, she said, "Don't be scared, Bubby. It's going to be okay." Apparently, she thinks Grayson is easily distressed (or maybe she just wants to show him that she's brave).
19 hours ago

Me: (to Derrick) Penelope says she's gonna have a baby right now. That's what she told Grayson. She hasn't told us where it's coming from yet.
Grayson: I'm intrigued.
16 hours ago

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Summer Movie Diary: Cowboys and Aliens

Date: Friday, July 29, 2011
Time: 7:10 pm
Place: Cinemark NextGen Stone Hill Town Center
Company: Derrick
Trivia: My mom was under the impression that Penelope was going to see Cowboys and Aliens just because Penelope said so—(“I want to go to the movie theater and see aliens and those cowboys. I can’t wait. I’ll get another blue Icee.”)—but that was not the case.
Food: Large blue raspberry Icee (too much without popcorn but we'd just eaten), Reese’s Pieces
Running Time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Director: Jon Favreau

Quick Impressions:
I went into this movie with no expectations. To be more honest, I expected to write a bad review of a cinematic train wreck. I’ve long been suspicious of Cowboys and Aliens because of its much touted star power and insane marketing push. I’ve gone to the movies a lot this summer, and I’m pretty sure the only time I didn’t see a First Look segment about or preview for Cowboys and Aliens was before Winnie the Pooh. (And even then, the first thing my two-year-old announced when we got home from the decorated theater was that she wanted to see the movie about “aliens and those cowboys.”)

Also, I’m not a big fan of westerns or of Daniel Craig, and I lost interest in the project when I heard that he’d be replacing Robert Downey, Jr. as the lead. Still, back in the days when the west was young, I liked Harrison Ford. More recently, I liked Iron Man. I even liked Iron Man 2, so I was willing to give director Jon Favreau a chance.

To my complete shock, I loved the movie. From the first scene, the story seemed compelling, and in the scenes that followed, we met a cast of irresistibly strong and intriguing characters. I’ve heard the movie described as a genre mash-up (not surprisingly, given its title). But as I watched it, I thought the genre was pretty clear—western. This really is not much like a science fiction movie at all. It’s just a western with a surprising and mysterious villain.

If another genre does influence the action, surely it’s not sci-fi but horror. As the movie progressed, it seemed increasingly like a nightmare to me. But it was a very pleasant nightmare, one I very much enjoyed watching.

The Good and The Great:
For the first time this summer, I noticed the score of the movie, and I liked Harry Gregson-Williams’s score a lot. Next I noticed the scenery. (It was hard not to notice. There wasn’t much dialogue for quite a while.) I liked the look of the scenery, too. And then when Lonergan arrived in town, I was hooked. I found the townspeople fascinating from the moment Percy Dolarhyde began aimlessly shooting up the place. What a wonderful part for Paul Dano, so well and convincingly played!

And I really cared about the townspeople, particularly Sam Rockwell’s saloon keeper, Doc, and his (presumably) wife, Maria. The sheriff surprised me by appearing on the scene as a strong man of the law in what had seemed to be a lawless town. Keith Carridane’s amazingly charismatic sheriff convinced me that an exciting showdown with Dolarhyde was coming (and that, given the sense of nervous anticipation for Dolarhyde’s arrival, he must be the character played by Harrison Ford.)

By this time, I was eagerly leaning forward, totally hooked. I would have been satisfied to watch the resolution of this deliciously set up conflict among the cowboys even if the aliens had failed to show up.

Then Olivia Wilde showed up seeming entirely too self-confident and assertive for a woman on her own in the Old West. She seemed to know something about Lonergan. I wanted to learn more about her.

The set-up of the movie was beyond compelling. But maybe there will be no follow through, I thought. Maybe the aliens will show up, and the entire thing will just unravel and fall apart.

But that didn’t happen. The story remained perfectly coherent, right to the end.

Granted, in order to enjoy Cowboys and Aliens, you have to take the movie on its own terms. Despite the campy title, this movie isn’t a joke. The men on the trail, riding in pursuit of their loved ones take their quest just as seriously as anyone in a John Wayne or Clint Eastwood western. If you want to consider yourself cynically above their somber stoicism, then by all means make fun of the movie—but you’ll enjoy it more if you don’t.

Best Joke:
This joke was on me. I recognized the names of screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman when they flashed on the screen during the opening credits, but I couldn’t place them. All through the movie, I kept waiting for the plot to break down into unintelligible nonsense or meaningless action that didn’t quite connect. But that never happened. I left the theater thinking, That was a very coherent, character-driven script, pretty well written, overall. Certainly, Cowboys and Aliens had a much better script than the most recent Transformers movie, or worse, that garbled mess, Transformers:Revenge of the Fallen.

Then I get home and look up the writers’ names only to discover that they had previously penned guess what movie? That’s right, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

Best Action Sequence:
Some of the best action in the movie has nothing to do with the aliens. Braceleted drifter Jake Lonergan exhibits such amazing hand-to-hand combat skills that he gives Jason Bourne a run for his money as cinematic history’s most lethal amnesiac protagonist. Surely he was trained in space, I thought when I first saw his highly effective, lightning quick moves.

There’s plenty of hand-to-hand, rifle-to-rifle, six-shooter-to-six-shooter combat. The movie also delivers fast-paced battles on horseback and even a good old fashioned Apache ambush. But the best action sequences do involve the aliens, of course.

The final showdown delivers plenty of nail-bitingly intense moments, but I personally find the sequence hinted at in previews, when the aliens first fly over the town, the most moving action sequence of the movie, mainly because it isn’t satisfying and isn’t meant to be. It introduces another layer of mystery and difficulty to the already complex situation.

Best Scene:
When the posse of trackers takes refuge from the rain for the night, the sheriff’s grandson hungrily and anxiously watches Harrison Ford’s Dolarhyde use a knife to pare and eat an apple. Especially because of the way Dolarhyde has just interacted with Nat Colorado, we really don’t know what his reaction to the boy will be. At this point, the audience is still trying to figure out Dolarhyde. Largely because he’s played by Harrison Ford, we suspect that underneath his gruff, menacing, sometimes misanthropic exterior, he’s actually a good man, trying to do what’s right. But we’re not completely sure.

Moments later, as the boy drops his knife when confronted by a mysterious assailant, we face the same situation again. At that point, we suspect that the assailant intends harm toward the boy, but we are not completely sure, and the assailant’s slow approach makes us doubly unsure.

I thought the juxtaposition of these two similar moments was brilliant. The story is still only beginning, and we, the audience, haven’t yet learned to discern our allies from our enemies with confidence. One of the movie’s central concerns is the redrawing of alliances in the face of a broader worldview, and I thought this series of interactions helped to put the audience temporarily in a situation as disorienting as the one the characters undergo as the film progresses.

Best Surprise:
Almost every surprise in the movie revolves around one of two characters. Of course, one of those characters is Jake Lonergan, and the mystery that surrounds him is the driving force of the movie’s plot.

The other character who brings about surprises surprised me chiefly because of how long the film managed to delay the surprise. Initially, I felt I had sized up this character accurately—and in fact, I had—but the movie made me wait so long before confirming my assumptions that I began to doubt my intuition. If I say any more, I’ll spoil the surprise.

Best Scene Visually:
Not surprisingly, some of the most memorable scenes in the movie involve the aliens, but to discuss these in any detail does spoil certain surprises in the plot. In perfect honesty, however, many of the scenes that rely on no CGI are just as stunning visually. The background landscape in several scenes is simply breathtaking, and I think the scene in which Lonergan goes after Ella, and both of them end up falling into the river is very visually rewarding. Some people might prefer some scenes in the Apache camp, but I thought some of those were a bit over-the-top.

The Performances:
As far as I’m concerned, this was a return to form by Harrison Ford, playing grizzled cattle rancher and former Civil War General Dolarhyde. At moments, he carried the surly, grizzled Westerner a bit too far and almost veered into Yosemite Sam territory, but I like Yosemite Sam, too, and Ford's underplayed moments made up for these over-the-top lapses. As I watched, I thought, Why hasn’t Harrison Ford chosen more movies like this?For too long, Ford has struggled to remain the undisputed leading man, getting the girl, no matter how bland his role and surroundings. He needs to take more parts like this.Cowboys and Aliens is the kind of movie Harrison Ford should be making.

I was delighted to see Paul Dano as Percy Dolarhyde, a role a bit different from those he’s previously played that allowed him to show some range. I thought he did a magnificent job as an unlikable character who laid the groundwork for Keith Carradine’s impressive entrance as Sheriff John Taggart. I loved both characters and thought the actors playing them were doing marvelous work.

I’m not ordinarily a fan of Daniel Craig , though I’ll acknowledge that he’s a good actor. You do not have to like Daniel Craig to enjoy this movie, however, and as Jake Lonergan, the stoic, physically gifted, amnesiac, Craig is very convincing.

Olivia Wilde is fantastic as Ella Swenson, exuding a focused confidence unusual in women of that era.

Sam Rockwell is a talented actor, but I normally don’t like the characters he plays. Doc was a bit more palatable than usual, most interesting in his interactions with his wife and Clancy Brown’s rather likeable Meacham. When the movie allowed Doc the shining moment it had led us to anticipate, people clapped (but not many).

I loved Adam Beach as Nat Colorado, and thought that the depth of his feeling for Dolarhyde might have seemed laughable or less significant in the hands of a less capable actor.

I found Ana de la Reguera very engaging as Doc’s wife Maria and wondered who she was. She didn’t have a large part in the movie (though her character was certainly significant), but when she was onscreen, she definitely made an impression as did Noah Ringer (unfortunately--for him, I mean--cast as Aang in The Last Airbender) as Emmett Taggart, the sheriff’s soulful eyed grandson.

The Negatives:
I liked this movie a lot, but I can guess why some people might not. I’m not a big fan of action scenes that don’t advance the plot or develop the characters, and this movie didn’t have many (really any) of those. People buying tickets to a summer blockbuster calledCowboys and Aliens might expect a bit more bang for their buck--by which I mean explosions, laser fights, aerial collisions, and the like.

I can also imagine that the movie might bore some people. I found the absence of frenzy in the pacing charmingly refreshing in a summer full of 3D explosions of super-heroic proportions. But the movie does seem suitable for an older audience, perhaps ideally an audience that first saw Harrison Ford in American Graffiti, remembers not only the time before MTV stopped showing music videos, but also the time before it started, and considers 3D, on the whole, an expensive gimmick designed to rip off the American movie goer. People who look at haggard, grizzled, General Dolarhyde and say to themselves, “Now there’s a young man who understands how the world really is,” will almost definitely like this movie.

Cowboys and Aliens really isn’t for children (so my two-year-old will just have to wait) and might honestly not be fast-paced or violent enough for most teenagers. (Also despite an all-too-brief moment in a nearly see-through top, we don’t clearly see Olivia Wilde nude or behaving in a sexual way, which is bound to be a crushing disappointment to a certain hopeful demographic.)

Another problem with the movie is that its relentless marketing push almost certainly created some unrealistically high expectations in fans. The story does make sense. The mystery of Jake is solved, and everything is resolved in a way that actually does follow reasonably logically. But this might not seem like enough to some people. In general, I think that people tend to want too much from movies, looking to fill a void that popular cinema isn’t capable of satisfying. To those expecting to find something life-altering in a summer blockbuster, I can only suggest attending the premiere of a movie starring Tom Cruise and finding a way to speak to him privately afterwards.

This movie isn’t meant to change your life. There’s plenty of meaning to be found inCowboys and Aliens, but most of it comes from the human relationships, not some extra-terrestrial source. Sure, the answer to Jake’s mystery could have been something much, much cooler and more complex than what it turned out to be. Of course, the movie could have been better. But (take it from a cynic), it also could have been much, much worse.

I’m just happy that it provided a coherent story, interesting characters, and a decent sense of closure.

Some of the more emotional moments may not resonate with everyone. By the end, the movie had completely won me over. I was on its side. But even I thought the sentimental scenes between General Dolarhyde and his worthy son, the moment that the Doc finally followed through with what we’ve been expecting, the instant when the boy finally became a man—these scenes all hovered on the brink of hokey. One second you thought, Brilliant!The next you worried, Too far?

And yes (I’m not reading other reviews, but surely I can’t be the only person who thinks this) the ending is a bit reminiscent of the most recent Indiana Jones movie, but I really think the best way to proceed is just to be happy that Shia LaBeouf doesn’t swing by on a vine and ruin the moment. And the scene in which Harrison Ford comes to Daniel Craig’s rescue inside the ship—as far as I’m concerned, in that moment, the movie got a little too carried away for its own good. But some people might like it.

The one real flaw with the premise was that the citizens of the cleverly named Absolution were not nearly freaked out enough by the arrival of the aliens. Yes I realize that they’re cowboys, that they do what they must and don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves. But still. Come on. Aliens.

When they spent the night in their very unlikely refuge from the rain, only the Doc seemed to find that course of action objectionably peculiar—and he’s the one who let some whiny little idiot throw his glasses on the ground, so we all know that he freaks out too easily. And even he didn’t freak out nearly enough.

In fairness, though, as I thought about that, I began to suspect that it was not so much an error as a tonal choice. As I said before, the movie unfolds like a nightmare. In a nightmare, we go from place to place, from objective to objective because we must, because we are compelled. It all makes sense within the confines of the dream.

I liked Cowboys and Aliens. I didn't expect to like it, but I did. In fact, I thought it was one of the better movies I’ve seen this summer, maybe because it actually managed to be different from most of what is currently playing in theaters. It was far from a perfect movie, but it was even farther from the train wreck I was expecting. Even if the premise perhaps promised more than the movie could deliver, the film was intriguing, extremely well-acted, and even to someone who doesn’t particularly like Westerns, at all moments entertaining. I’d see it again.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Summer Movie Diary: Friends with Benefits

Friends with Benefits
Date: Tuesday, July 26, 2011
Time: 7:10 pm
Place: Cinemark NextGen Stone Hill Town Center
Company: Derrick
Food: Medium blue raspberry Icee, medium popcorn, Reese’s Pieces
Running Time: 2 hours
Rating: R
Director: Will Gluck

Quick Impressions:
The movie was great, though I find myself wondering why we had to sit through five fairly intense horror previews before watching it. I’ve wanted to see this movie since I first heard about it back in January in an article comparing Friends with Benefits to No Strings Attached (which to me looked dumb, but in fairness I haven’t seen it). To me, the premise of Friends with Benefits didn’t matter. Will Gluck was directing it, and I loved Easy A so much that I was eager to see anything directed by him. Plus, I’ve always liked Mila Kunis, and I’ve developed an appreciation for Justin Timberlake after his many Saturday Night Live performances and his arresting supporting turn as Sean Parker in The Social Network.
Friends with Benefits was the last movie of summer that I actually had high expectations for, and it didn’t disappoint me. Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis make charismatic, highly watchable leads, and the actors playing the secondary characters turn in some magnificent performances. As a comedy, Friends with Benefits delivers with a brisk pace, consistently funny dialogue, some zany situations, and well developed (in many ways) likeable leads who have enough chemistry to make the love story believable. But its well-played dramatic moments really make the movie great. More than just entertaining fluff, Friends with Benefits tells a story that has real heart.

The Good and The Great:
Friends with Benefits manages to be consistently funny without being crude or disgusting despite a plot that (as the title suggests) involves two frustrated and like-minded people who attempt to have a sexual relationship without being in love and without ruining their friendship. The movie makes lots of jokes about sex, but they make you smile more often than they make you cringe. The “benefits” amuse primarily because of their realistically awkward logistics. But at the heart of this racy comedy lies a very amusing drama about two friends. In such a situation, we expect to see a rather cliché ending about falling in love with your best friend, but the clichéd concept doesn’t limit the movie.

Not only is Friends with Benefits funny (always important in a comedy), but the two friends in question are complex, well-developed, and endearingly flawed individuals still trying to figure out their own lives and identities but yearning for the physical comforts of the type of relationship they don’t feel quite ready for emotionally. At the beginning of the film, Jamie’s ex-boyfriend tells her that she’s emotionally damaged, and she is. During the film we come to see why. Dylan’s ex-girlfriend says that he’s emotionally unavailable, and though we don’t understand the depth of the accusation at first, as the movie progresses, suddenly these issues make sense. These exes are deliberately made comically unappealing. But even Jamie and Dylan recognize that their criticisms (however much they might rail against them) are uncomfortably accurate.

Best Joke:
One of the things that makes the movie so funny is its repeated use of running jokes like Dylan’s struggles with math or his secret love of Harry Potter. The movie is replete with this kind of call-back humor, and the best of these jokes is surely Jamie’s mother’s increasingly muddled recollections of her father. At first, these remarks are just funny. Then before long they begin to seem a bit distressing, sad once you stop laughing. But they actually culminate in the poignant revelation that Jamie is the love of her mother’s life, a bittersweet moment well-played by both actresses.

Best Scene:
I thought the movie became something more than a summer diversion when Justin Timberlake’s Dylan decides to have a steak with his father in the airport. Several significant threads tie together at the moment when Dylan follows advice Jamie gave him and finds a way to show his father that he still respects him as much as he did before he developed Alzheimer’s. In the airport, we see how Dylan and his father think alike. We also see that Jamie has genuine insight about Dylan’s difficulties. Her advice to him works because the two of them have a deep bond and understand each other, even if they don’t always understand themselves. (Oh, and we also see that in spite of his difficulties, Dylan’s father still knows best when it comes to helping his son.)

The Performances:
This movie has a great script full of complex, colorful characters who in a lazier film could easily become offensive jokes. The promiscuous, unstable mother, the gay friend, the father not in full possession of his faculties—all of these fascinating individuals successfully deliver jokes without ever stooping to becoming human punch lines. And the supporting cast members turn in some amazing performances.

Patricia Clarkson is perfect as Jamie’s highly imperfect mother. Lorna has some of the funniest lines in the movie, all expertly delivered, but Clarkson pulls off something far more difficult, managing to be amusing and disturbing at the same time. We can easily see why Jamie, though repeatedly disappointed and hurt, can never close her heart or her home to her charming-if-a-bit-too-whimsical mother.

Woody Harrelson is also pretty great as Tommy the sports editor who, after recovering from the disappointing knowledge that Dylan isn’t interested in any “benefits” turns into an amusing and often very helpful friend. My husband seemed to laugh at every one of his lines which he delivered with irrepressible panache.

Richard Jenkins gave one of the best performances of the movie as Dylan’s father in early stages of Alzheimer’s. He managed to be funny, touching, sad, and courageous in a very real, nuanced performance.

Shaun White was also hilarious as both the exceedingly polite and puzzlingly enraged versions of himself.

Jenna Elfman is very good and believable as Dylan’s sister, giving a performance far more subtle than she is in some of her more famous past roles.

And Nolan Gould from Modern Family brightens the screen as the young magician whose tricks often seem to be performing him.

As I said before, Timberlake and Kunis are highly watchable and each gives a very good performance. I don’t think I’ve Justin Timberlake exhibit such a range of emotions in a movie before; he handles the more dramatic moments of the story just as well as the comedy. And Kunis manages to be just as engaging and almost as funny when in distress, perfectly playing a character who uses humor as a defense mechanism.

The Negatives:
If you go into this movie expecting a movie similar in tone to Easy A, and you liked Easy A, then you will like Friends with Benefits. The real limitation of the movie is that it has a completely predictable plot with a predictable outcome. Watching Friends with Benefits wondering, Are Jamie and Dylan going to realize they’re in love with each other, is like watching Romeo and Juliet and asking, Do you think they’ll both kill themselves this time? As far as I’m concerned, the barebones plot device doesn’t really matter. What makes the movie good is the interesting and well-developed characters and how they grow by interacting with one another.

The major flaw I can see with this movie is that it’s an R-rated comedy called Friends with Benefits, so people going may expect a shock comedy or raunch fest, when it’s really a quiet, surprisingly moving little story about people in some heart-wrenching situations who have very good (if a bit off-kilter) senses of humor. If you don’t know what you’re getting going in, you may go out not liking what you got.

I thought Friends with Benefits was great, just as good (and actually a bit better in terms of pacing) than Easy A. It won’t blow you away with its original plot. It won’t make you laugh out loud and wince in horror over and over again. But it will make you smile and laugh out loud occasionally. It might even make you cry. If you like movies like the one I’ve described in this review, then go see Friends with Benefits. I loved it.