To Be Is to Do, To Do Is to Be, Do Me Do Me Do Me: My Review of “The To Do List” (with Apologies to Kurt Vonnegut)

The To Do List

The To Do List (Maggie Carey, 2013)

“To be is to do” (Socrates)
“To do is to be” (Jean-Paul Sartre)
“Do be do be do” (Frank Sinatra)

I have always loved those t-shirts with that silly series of philosophical summaries. I did not know, at first, that it was Kurt Vonnegut who had come up with the idea. And now we have a movie that takes it one step further! Lucky us!

The tagline on the poster really says it all: “She’s going from straight A’s to getting her first F.” That’s right, this is yet another film in which the (of course uptight) smart and organized protagonist has to learn how to truly live. Because, you know, it’s not all about books. If you’ve seen The Heat, then you’ve already been exposed to this philosophy once this summer with its portrayal of Sandra Bullock’s character. Coincidentally (or maybe not), that previous film was also a female-centered gross-out comedy. I guess women really can’t have it all, in Hollywood.

Still, that said, let us applaud the following: here is a woman-written and -directed coming-of-age losing-one’s-virginity story, and since we’ve had plenty of such films with central male protagonists, it’s about time we had one with women. It can’t be entirely up to Lena Dunham and her cohorts to remind us that girls think about sex, too.

My problem with The To Do List is that it’s just not that funny. I laughed in some places, but I also cringed at how hard the filmmaker was pushing the gross factor. As in such recent films as BridesmaidsThis Is the End and The Heat, there seems to be an assumption that the more sexually explicit jokes are, by their very nature, funnier. For me, however, that is not the case. Even back in 1998, in There’s Something About Mary, I found the shot revealing what had happened to Cameron Diaz’s hair after she mistakenly put semen in it – thinking it was hair gel – much funnier than the shot of the semen, itself, hanging off of Ben Stiller’s ear. I guess I’m old-fashioned that way.

The To Do List, in short, is about how virgin high-school valedictorian Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza of “Parks and Recreation“) decides that enough is enough, it’s time to have sex. Being the borderline OCD character that she is, however, she makes a list, and proceeds to engage in all sorts of raunchy activities, one by one, leading up to the big act. Somehow, even though she’s supposedly brilliant and headed off to Georgetown in the fall, she’s working at her local pool as a lifeguard for the summer, so most of the action takes place there. That, for me, was the single dumbest plot point of the entire movie. Why isn’t she at some sort of political internship? If you can get over that, however, you might enjoy yourself.

Ms. Plaza deserves significant credit for truly throwing herself into the role, without vanity. I was impressed with her bravery, and would love to see her in more substantive material in the future. Maggie Carey, the writer/director, throws together a credible three-act narrative, with a clear beginning, middle and end, and some of what she writes hits the mark. I loved the scene with Andy Samberg and pineapple juice, for example (I will say no more). I did not need to see semen on Aubrey Plaza’s fingers, however. If you love that kind of stuff, then you’ll love this movie.

One final note – why set the story in 1993? It added nothing. Oh, and hats off to the production designer – that green bathroom vomit was very impressive!

Chronicle of a Senseless Death Foretold: “Fruitvale Station” Is a Masterful First Feature

Special noteI also reviewed this film on-air today, on WYPR’s Midday with Dan Rodricks. Check it out.

Fruitvale Station

Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler, 2013)

Fruitvale Station tells the tragic story of Oscar Grant III, an unarmed 22-year-old African-American man who was fatally shot in the back, at close range, early in the morning of January 1, 2009, by a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) officer in Oakland, California. Even if the film were not being released in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin case, it would still be a tremendously important work of cinema, and a must-see for all. It is almost unbelievable to me that this is but a first feature by a young director, since almost everything about it feels so self-assured. Perhaps the 26-year-old Ryan Coogler took his lead from his more experienced cinematographer, Rachel Morrison (who shot the film in Super 16mm, no less, for an eventual blow-up to 35mm – this is no digital feature), or perhaps he’s just that good. Beyond the excellence of the filmmaking, however, what is truly extraordinary about the movie, as my colleague Linda DeLibero commented after we watched it together, is the way in which it so (seemingly) casually puts the life of an ordinary young African-American man on the screen, without judgement, in all its mundane (and occasionally not so mundane) glory. In America, anyway, this does not happen very often.

Another thing the film does is to mix and match actual documentary footage of the shooting (and of protests afterwards) with the fictionalized material. The movie opens with cell-phone video of the real Oscar Grant’s shooting. We see it, and it makes no sense, given what we witness. The screen fades to black, and the story begins, 24 hours earlier.

In the great Colombian author Gabriel García Marquéz’s 1981 novella Chronicle of a Death Foretold, we are told at the outset what the outcome of the story is: a man dies. And yet we read on, fascinated and horrified to see how the death happened, and how close the man came to not being killed. We know it is foreordained, so our interest lies in understanding the details of what led to the result. In Fruitvale Station, there is a similar fascination and horror, yet by the end what strikes us most is how un-foreordained Oscar Grant’s death was. There is, in fact, no logic to the outcome. True, Grant was no saint, and had even served prison time. In fact, as the film begins, we see him with a big bag of marijuana. We also see that he has issues with responsibility and with anger. But – just as in the Trayvon Martin shooting – none of these details are in any way relevant to the events surrounding his shooting. None of us are perfect. Do any of us deserve to die because of our flaws?

At least one reviewer – Geoff Berkshire of Variety, one of the rare critics who did not like the film – has argued that the movie spends too much time making Grant look like a hero. I disagree. I think that Coogler – scribe as well as helmer – takes pains to show us the many sides of the complex individual known as a human being. We see him be sweet to his daughter and to a dog, but we also see him grab his former boss almost too roughly by the arm. We see him kiss his girlfriend with great tenderness, yet we also know he has cheated on her. This is, after all, a scripted drama, not a documentary (in spite of the cell phone footage). I’m sure that not all events in the last day of Grant’s life transpired as portrayed, but that only adds to my respect for Coogler’s talent. He has written a brilliant and nuanced script, and then adapted it almost flawlessly for the screen. As another academic colleague of mine, Hollis Robbins, commented after the screening, there is something quite Shakespearean about the way Coogler brings all of the film’s characters – main and ancillary – together on that fateful train. And if it worked for Shakespeare . . .

Beyond the writing, directing, and cinematography, the acting is also superb. Michael B. Jordan (most famous, so far, for his role as Wallace in Season 1 of “The Wire“) inhabits the role of Oscar Grant with great charm and emotional power. As his girlfriend – and mother to his child – Sophina, Melonie Diaz (whom I remember first seeing in the marvelous 2002 Raising Victor Vargas), is lovely and strong. And Octavia Spencer (Best Supporting Actress Oscar-winner for The Help) brings her usual quiet authority to her part as Oscar Grant’s mother. Finally, the young Ariana Neal, as Tatiana, Grant’s daughter, is heartbreakingly cute and moving. Somewhere out there, right now, is the real Tatiana, mourning her father.

The film is not perfect. There are a few scenes that do not quite work for me. But who cares? The overall feeling is one of great mastery, and gratitude that such an intelligent and capable filmmaker has made this movie, which tells its story with love and respect, not only for its subject, but for all of us watching.

Go Big Red: If You Liked the First One, You’ll Like “Red 2”

Red 2

Red 2 (Dean Parisot, 2013)

<sigh> I wish I had a more substantive film to write about for my review today. But that’s what comes of vacation. If you’re traveling, you can’t take advantage of the press screenings . . . And believe it or not, I still haven’t seen either White House Down or Pacific Rim. I know – incredible, right? I’m slipping.

So what’s on the agenda for Friday, July 19? Red 2. Masterpiece of masterpieces. Cinematic event of the summer. Go. See. It. Now.

In all seriousness, however, why not go see it? This is a completely unpretentious, relatively well-crafted piece of action-adventure comedy, starring good actors who are having such a grand old time of it that one can’t but help grin along with them. Between this and The Lone Ranger, pick this. Easy. If you’re going to see a forgettable piece of fluff, it’s good to see one in the company of people you like. And if you saw Red and enjoyed it, I can almost guarantee that you’ll like this one at least as much. Plus, this film has one significant selling point that so many other summer movies do not: over half of its stars all qualify for AARP membership. Go Seniors!

Red 2 reunites us with Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), a fugitive super spy now in a committed relationship with Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker who, born in 1964, is the third youngest of the main stars, and does not qualify for AARP), a woman he met in the first film when he was hiding out under a secret alias. Their domestic bliss is shattered when Frank’s old pal Marvin (a delightfully hammy John Malkovich) shows up to warn them of a new danger. It turns out that some more government thugs are after them – and they may not be just from our government – and so off the three go to find out who’s trying to kill them this time. Their adventures take them to Paris, where they cross paths with Katja (Catherine Zeta-Jones, the second youngest main star, born in 1969, who for some reason wears tons of dark pancake). They also run in to a Korean hit man, Han (the very muscled Byung-hun Lee, who, born in 1970, is the youngest of the main cast), hired to kill Frank, adding to the already considerable mayhem. From there, our friends hop over to London, allowing for a reunion with British assassin Victoria (the always marvelous Helen Mirren), and a meeting with a new cast member, Bailey (Anthony Hopkins). Finally, they end up in Russia, in the arms of the affable Ivan (Brian Cox). One thing I really like about both Red and Red 2 is this world it creates of competing secret agents who all know and respect each other, even if they’re frequently also trying to kill each other. Fun!

And that’s all you really need to know. The plot is ridiculous, and yet there are a few surprises along the way that keep it interesting. It’s all very tongue-in-cheek, and if that’s the kind of film you’re looking for, you’ll have a great time. I did.

One last note. This is the second film of the year where Bruce Willis ends up in Moscow as a formerly grand agent who, it turns out, has still got the moves. This is better than the first one, by far. Enjoy!

What a Difference a Real Actor Makes: Sam Rockwell in “The Way Way Back”

Way Way Back

The Way Way Back (Nat Faxon/Jim Rash, 2013)

The Way Way Back opens today in Baltimore – a week after its release in major markets like New York and Los Angeles – and it has met with almost universally positive reviews from critics and moviegoers, alike, so far. It’s a sweet-natured coming-of-age tale about a misfit teenage boy who must find his way in spite of the neglect and contempt around him. This is hardly new cinematic (or any kind of storytelling) territory, but such narratives speak to all of us, in spite of their clichés, since we have all suffered through the pains of adolescence (some more than others). Furthermore, in a summer filled with overblown and script-weak blockbuster fare, it’s nice to see a relatively small “independent movie” (I put that in quotes because the film is from Fox Searchlight Pictures, which is, after all, a subset of a major studio), which delivers its goods without a single explosion or special effect (none visible, anyway). Co-written and co-directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash – making their directorial debut, in fact – who, along with Alexander Payne, won the Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award in 2012 for The DescendantsThe Way Way Back has definite charms. Unfortunately, those charms are only present in half the movie. Whenever the actor Sam Rockwell is on screen, the film sparkles. The rest of the time, it’s a slog.

The Way Way Back tells the story of 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James, of AMC’s “The Killing“), whose divorced mother, Pam (Toni Collette), is dating Trent (Steve Carell), who has a teenage daughter of his own. The film opens as the four of them are in Trent’s station wagon, heading to the beach for the summer. While the women sleep, Trent mercilessly berates Liam about his wasted potential in an effort to . . . what . . . bond/dominate/bully? And so the problems in the narrative begin. Right from the outset, it is never clear what motivates Trent to be such a jerk, except as a script device to give the angry and confused Liam someone to run from. After all, Collette’s Pam has to have seen something in Trent before this trip, right? He can’t be all bad, can he? Except that, as far as we see, he is. Which makes the casting of Steve Carell especially unfortunate. Carell has many positives as a performer, but try as he might, he simply does not have the range to pull this off. He plays mean, but it’s all surface, without any depth. Add to this the fact that he and Collette have absolutely no on-screen chemistry at all, and suddenly the film begins to buckle under the weight of its miscalculations.

There is an early bright spot, however, in the form of AnnaSophia Robb (Because of Winn-Dixie), who plays Susanna, the daughter of Betty (Allison Janney), Trent’s alcoholic beach neighbor. Just a few years older than Duncan, and a lot nicer to him than Trent’s own daughter, Susanna holds out hope that the summer may not be a complete waste. And AnnaSophia Robb, in a wonderfully understated performance, holds out hope that the movie may not be a complete waste, as well.

But then one day, Duncan, depressed, wanders off exploring, and comes across Water Wizz, a 1970s-era water park in need of some repair (yet still in full operation). He sneaks in out of boredom, and sits, moping, in a corner, where he is discovered by the park’s manager, Owen (Rockwell). And . . . the movie finally takes off. How delightful it is to watch a real actor at work. I like Carell, most of the time, and Collette, as well, but in this movie they do nothing of interest. The Way Way Back belongs to Rockwell. He plays Owen as an overgrown party-boy with just enough melancholy beneath his blustery good humor that you can understand why he would take an interest in Duncan. He’s irresponsible (consistently frustrating his assistant manager and love interest, played by Maya Rudolph), yet also deeply committed to making sure that all who come to his water park have a good time. He may be more jester than king, but both Water Wizz and the movie, itself, belong to him.

As the film continues, we go back and forth between Water Wizz and Trent’s house, between fun and glum, until the predictable showdown at the end between the two surrogate father figures in Duncan’s life. It’s no contest who wins. It’s too bad, though. It might have been nice if it had been a contest. With Carell’s comic talents, perhaps Trent could have been conceived as a less obvious creep, and more as a blustery manipulator: less blunt Stalin, more seductive Mephistopheles. Then there could have been some real tension over the battle for Liam’s soul. Instead, we get half a movie. True, that half is delightful, and probably worth the price of admission, alone, but it’s hard to remember that as you sit through the blundering other half.

Hi-Yo, Big Mess: “The Lone Ranger” Needs a Silver Bullet to the Head

Lone Ranger

The Lone Ranger (Gore Verbinski, 2013)

In the spirit of what would become an almost intolerable movie experience, the preview screening of The Lone Ranger began with a trailer for what looks to be a God-awful Delivery Man, the American remake of the delightful French-Canadian Starbuck. Where the latter was charming, the former appears crass. And so the tone of the evening was set.

Which is too bad, because the film started out quite well. For the first 20 minutes or so, I thought we might be in for another Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (i.e., the first in that series, also directed by Gore Verbinski), which combined great action sequences, campy humor, and a terrific performance by Johnny Depp into summer action-adventure magic. Instead, what we get is either Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest or Pirates of the Caribbean: At Wit’s End (sorry, “At World’s End“) – you take your pick, they’re both really the same horribly bloated movie.

<sigh>

Full confession: I have never been a particular aficionado of any of the many manifestations of the Lone Ranger character, whether in radio, film or television. All I really know is that he is a white cowboy who wears a mask, has a Native American sidekick named Tonto, and says “Hi-yo, Silver” or “Hi-ho, Silver” (there is some debate as to which one he says) when he gets on his horse. That’s it. I guess that’s not a bad state of innocence to be in when confronting a series reboot. One has no pre-conceived notions.

The Lone Ranger opens in 1933 in San Francisco, with a little kid – wearing a Lone Ranger mask – wandering into a Wild West exhibit at a carnival, where he discovers that the Native American on display is not a mannequin, but is the very alive – though ancient – Tonto (played – young and old – by Johnny Depp). Why 1933? That was the year that the original Lone Ranger radio series was launched. It seems odd that the characters in the series would already be legend within that same year, but no matter. This is merely a framing device, after all. Once the boy and Tonto begin their conversation, we flash back to 1869, and will continue – throughout the film – to cut back and forth between the two time periods.

In 1869, we find ourselves on a well-designed Western set (I thought, “Wonderful, this looks good!”), with Tom Wilkinson playing a railroad magnate about to complete the first transcontinental line. A train from the East is on its way, carrying Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), a vicious criminal, who just happens to be chained to the young Tonto. On board is also John Reid (Armie Hammer), younger brother of the local marshal, Dan Reid. John has just completed his legal studies, and is returning to the town of his youth (where he will be ridiculed for not believing in guns). Lo and behold, Cavendish’s outlaw gang attacks the train, and what follows is one of the two best set pieces of the film, after which everything goes downhill until the movie’s final – also terrific – set piece (which also takes place on a train). In between we encounter hammy acting, too many special effects, serious narrative bloat, a lot of completely unnecessary supernatural and mystical silliness, and horrible one-dimensional portrayals of Native Americans (I’m not the only one who think this). It is, in a word, a complete and utter mess.

If you have a strong stomach for excess, there are some positive elements beneath the mire, however. Tom Wilkinson is quite good (as he always is). Ruth Wilson – an actress I hadn’t noticed before – as Rebecca Reid, Dan’s wife, brings strong emotional intensity to her scenes. And Helena Bonham Carter – delightful, as ever – won me over as a one-legged brothel madam. The look and feel of the film, in terms of Western landscapes – much of it was filmed in Monument Valley, like John Ford’s Westerns – is also good. When, during the opening battle on the train, we see cowboys on horseback burst through the frame to the sounds of Hans Zimmer’s Ennio Morricone-like score, it is quite a stirring experience.

But the script – including the inexcusably ridiculous portrait it creates of the central Native American character – and the two main actors – Depp and Hammer – are out of control and in need of some serious restraint (Hammer, especially). There’s just too much junk on the screen, whether it’s dumb dialogue, over-the-top acting, or a super horse standing in a tree branch (you’ll have to see the movie to understand that reference). I recommend that you go for the opening, duck out and do something else for the next 90 minutes (The Lone Ranger runs a total of 149 minutes), and then return for the finale. You won’t miss the muddle in the middle.