Alex, Ruby and the Coming Apocalypse

As the year 2012 approaches its end – but as the world, hopefully, does not – I am trying to catch up on the films I missed earlier, as well as watching the current ones in the theatre.

And speaking of my reviews of films, don’t forget the events of the summer that prompted my graphomania – feel free to read those reviews, some of which I’ll summarize when I wrap up the films of the year, in January.

Today’s blog entry covers two movies I just watched on DVD, and one that I (would rather not have) just watched at Bengies Drive-In. If you have never been to Bengies, I recommend checking it out, since the experience is fun, even if the movie is terrible. This weekend marks the end of its screening season, and the theater will reopen next year, when warmer weather returns.

Let’s start with Alex Cross, then, which was what I chose to see on Friday. Why. you may ask, since the reviews have been uniformly terrible?  Simple, dear reader!  I had already seen Wreck-It Ralph and Argo, the two other films playing that night, and though I liked both of them, I wanted to see something new. <sigh>

This poster is the best part of the movie . . .

This is, quite simply, one of the worst movies I have ever seen. I was mystified, actually, since it was directed by Rob Cohen, who at least knows his way around a camera, having made Daylight, xXx, and The Fast and the Furious, none of which are brilliant, but all of which are quite watchable and entertaining. I’m not sure what happened here, unless it turns out that Tyler Perry was secretly directing, with Rob Cohen as the puppet. Then I would get it. Or maybe Cohen just couldn’t get over the horrible miscasting of Perry in the title role. If only Idris Elba had not quit the role, the film might have had a chance. As it is, the specter of Perry’s overwhelming and constant mediocrity dooms the film from the get-go.

But it’s not just Perry who is bad. Edward Burns as the sidekick is excruciating, yet even he seems competent next to Matthew Fox as the psychopath bad guy. Still, none of these actors, had they brought their A-game (Perry, however, has no A-game), could have overcome the horrors of the script, filled with shallow characterizations and painful dialogue (or no dialogue, since so much of what the actors say sounds like the result of amateur on-the-spot improv – maybe they had nothing to work with).

One final note – watching the film, I was convinced that it had been shot (badly) on a digital format, perhaps at 30 or more frames per second, since it has that kind of unpleasant fluidity of motion that we don’t see in the filmic image, yet when I looked up the tech specs, I saw that it had been on 35mm. Which begs the question, why would one shoot on film and then do something in post that gives it a (bad) video feel? Then again, why would one make this film in the first place?

And now, on to the two films I watched yesterday on DVD.

In this Pygmalion-like tale, penned by Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of Elia), who also plays the titular character, Paul Dano conjures up his dream girl from the depths of his depressive imagination. When she turns out to have a will of her own, he writes her into submission, until finally, like any good author, he sets her free to enjoy the world and for the world to enjoy. At the end, he meets her once more, on equal terms (since her memory was re-set when he liberated her), and they . . . to be continued.

This was an enjoyable enough film, with an appealing performance from Zoe Kazan. Since she and Dano are a real-life couple, they have a relaxed and believable rapport with one another. As the author, Dano pushes the neurotic qualities of his character a bit too far, however, and it is difficult to root for him, since he’s such a wet blanket. Fortunately for the film, his brother is played by the extremely capable and always fun Chris Messina, who livens up the story with his grounded and funny performance.

The script manages to be both predictable and inventive, and there were scenes that I genuinely enjoyed, such as when Ruby first appears in the flesh, and when Dano and Messina test her existence by writing changes in her behavior. But once the novelty wears, we are faced with the fact that the main protagonist is just not that interesting. He’s a writer with writer’s block, a therapist, and mother issues. Get over yourself, dude.

The directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, whose previous film, Little Miss Sunshine, I adored, here do their best with the occasionally limited script, and sometimes succeed, sometimes don’t.

Oh, there’s also a cute dog.

I really wanted to like this film more than I did, since I often enjoy Steve Carell. Then again, I frequently do not enjoy Keira Knightley, though I do not loathe her. With a good script, the woman-who-looks-like-a-piranha can win me over. Unfortunately, this is not a great script. Nor is this middling script that well directed. The film has its moments of appeal, but overall it’s just kind of . . . present. If you want to see a better film – with a similar vibe – about the end of the world, check out Don McKellar’s 1998 Last Night (not to be confused with a 2010 film of the same title starring . . . Keira Knightley!).

Lorene Scafaria wrote Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, which was lightweight but enjoyable. Maybe that’s her thing, and she should avoid reaching for greater meaning . . . and failing. Or maybe she shouldn’t direct. In any case, with this film, she shows an inability to handle the whimsy that would make the gloom and doom more palatable (again, see Last Night, above, for a film that succeeds where this one fails).

The most egregious failure of the movie is the handling of the central romance between Carell and Knightley, which does not convince. They may say that they love each other, as the firestorm consumes the planet, and Keira’s chin may jut out (her specialty) as the tears flow, but the final moment is unearned, since the actors never connect, both through lack of chemistry and lack of character development. As I wrote, above, I enjoy Carell, but I am beginning to worry that he has but one shtick in his dramatic roles: the mooning puppy-eyed depressive. It worked in Little Miss Sunshine and in Dan in Real Life, but it’s beginning to get old.

What does work in this film are the opening moments of set-up and a few crazy scenes along the way (including Friendsy’s Restaurant), as well as the reconciliation between father (Martin Sheen) and son (Carell) that caught me unawares.  And – as in the previous film – this film has a cute dog, as well, which always helps.

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