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Anna Kendrick

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Prognosis Fair.


I promised myself I would stop writing six-to-eight-paragraph movie reviews here if one-to-four paragraphs sufficed. Jonathan Levine’s 50-50 is an excellent film to launch the new occasional brevity.

In short, this is a solidly successful attempt at infusing a cancer dramedy with Knocked Up-style Apatowishness — the lowbrow humor, the wry observations, the bromance — and it’s totally fine for what it is. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character here is mostly indistinguishable from his turn in (500) Days of Summer — he’s the good guy bad things happen to — and Seth Rogen’s character here is mostly indistinguishable from, well, Seth Rogen. Given this, your mileage may vary.

My main problem with 50/50 is that it telegraphs its characters’ arcs from the beginning. Gordon-Levitt’s original girlfriend, here played by Bryce Dallas Howard, is just a little too unsympathetic from Jump Street — you know she’ll be out the door by Act 2 — while Anna Kendrick’s helpful therapist is so gosh-darned winsome that it’s no surprise she eventually ends up taking her work home with her. 50/50 would’ve been more interesting, I think, if Howard’s character was a reasonably sweet individual who was just overwhelmed by the burdens of the situation. But that’s now how we’re playing it here.

Otherwise, 50/50 has its moments — I particularly liked JGL’s two stoner/chemo buddies, Phillip Baker-Hall and Matt Frewer (getting typecast as a cancer patient?) And, when the film grows darker in its third reel, it feels reasonably well-earned. All in all, 50/50 is a perfectly benign fall date movie.

Love in the Time of Konami.


Now that I’m back in civilization (and particularly given that my apartment is having power issues, and thus Berk and I are living like the Amish this week), time to catch up on the recent movies I’ve missed. First up, Edgar Wright’s fun and propulsive adaptation of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, based on the (vaguely problematic) indie comic by Bryan Lee O’Malley.

Sadly, it seems Pilgrim has already joined a film it shares a lot in common with in terms of visual inventiveness, the Wachowskis’ unjustly maligned Speed Racer, as something of a box office “bob-omb”. (That pun, by the way, was borrowed from one of the many Expendables fans on AICN strangely all-too-happy to dance on Pilgrim‘s box office grave.) And that’s really too bad. Because, even if I have some issues with the blatant fanboy (emphasis on “boy”) wish-fulfillment at its core, which I’ll get to in a bit, Scott Pilgrim deserves a wider airing.

For one, with its Wham-Pow! effusiveness and viscerally engaging superhero fights, it’s easily one of the most imaginative comic book renderings onscreen this side of Sin City. And comics are only half the story. From its 8-bit Universal opening (a la those great NES Pink Floyd mash-ups I linked to a few months ago), the movie also has one foot firmly entrenched in the world of old-school console gaming. If the dreamworlds of Inception felt like stages in a video game, this movie takes the conceit to the next level: Scott Pilgrim’s entire life unfolds in a Walter-Mitty-meets-Street Fighter, coin-operated Toronto (Trononto?) where g4m3r rules are a fact of life.

This allows for defeated villains turning into collectible coins, 1-ups around for psychic rejuvenation when needed, and — always a happy indication that the movie is about to get super-fun again — the Capcom “VS.” popping up whenever Scott (Michael Cera) must face off against another of his dastardly foes. Those would be the seven members of the League of Evil Ex’es, the sinister cadre of former significant others to the lovely Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) that have gathered together to block our hero from ever dating his dream girl.

And trust me — These Ex-Men (and one Ex-Woman) are no slouches. Among their number are not only Captain America (Chris Evans), here an action hero heartthrob and skater punk with a Jamie Madrox-style army of stunt doubles at his disposal, but the one and only Superman (Brandon Routh), now blonde, psychic, and, most dastardly of all, Vegan. (In the Pilgrimverse, Vegans operate like the Green Lantern Corps. Just ask Thomas Jane and Clifton Collins, Jr.) And they’re just the mini-bosses Scott will have to contend with before defeating Gideon (Jason Schwartzman, a bit anti-climatic, quite frankly — They should’ve sprung for Aldous Snow), the music biz impresario who still has an unholy thrall over Ramona, thanks to a chip implanted in the back of her neck.

Wait…a what? A chip, you say? That makes her a rather passive character, doesn’t it? Yeah, well, that’s the major problem with Pilgrim, which I attribute more to the source material than anything else. This is basically fanboy pr0n, and, in terms of the ostensible romance here, Pilgrim is as one-sided and overtly gendered a piece of rom-com wish-fulfillment as I imagine Eat, Pray, Love was in the theater next door. I mean, I get it: Saving the girl of your dreams from despicably evil forces has been a fanboy trope from Princess Leia to Princess Zelda (although, to her credit, Leia takes over the show as soon as she’s sprung from Detention Block AA-23.) And as one who’s eternally fond of Brazil, I’m not one to complain about a man going out on a limb for his dream-girl.

Still, something about Scott Pilgrim rankles. Sure, Michael Cera specializes in dweebs, but as George Michael in Arrested Development and in movies like Superbad, Juno, and Youth in Revolt, he still had a certain wry, self-effacing charm about him. But, as Scott Pilgrim, he’s just a lazy, whiny, self-entitled jerk, and seems unpossessed of any trait that would make him either desirable to the opposite sex or worth rooting for as a hero. (Well, I guess he does play the bass.) Meanwhile, Ramona is a very pretty cipher — She doesn’t bring much to the table either except Kate Winslet’s hair from Eternal Sunshine and the plot-driving baggage of seven evil ex’es. She’s more of a Macguffin than a fully-realized character.

Don’t get me wrong: There’s a lot of joy to be had in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, mostly due to Edgar Wright, after Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, and Hot Fuzz, really letting his freak flag fly. There’s almost always something fun and geeky going on in the margins of the screen or on the soundtrack, and the Brandon Routh fight and a later Battle of the Bands (between Scott’s outfit, Sex Bob-omb, and a pair of Japanese twins by way of Daft Punk) are both absolute showstoppers. (Maybe too much so, in fact — The final twenty minutes are muddled, and feel like a letdown after these earlier highs.)

Yet, despite the flaws of its titular hero, Scott Pilgrim is the most purely enjoyable roller coaster ride to come down the cinematic pike since Kick-Ass. And, sure, Scott Pilgrim probably doesn’t deserve the girl in the end (or maybe he does, given that she’s drawn as such a blank), but Scott Pilgrim vs the World definitely deserves your ten bucks regardless.

Pilgrim’s Progress.

After some wrangling on Facebook, the second trailer for Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is now live. Michael Cera, is, for better or worse, Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and her great big googly-eyes still seem pitch-perfect for Romana Flowers, and Chris Evans especially makes for an apt evil-ex. (Also along for the ride: Anna Kendrick, Kieran Culkin, Allison Pill, Brandon Routh and Jason Schwartzman.) Looks like it probably goes overboard on the geek wish-fulfillment, but I’m in. Update: Here are a few comic panel comparisons.

His Luck, a Two-Headed Cow.

Speakin’ in tongues is worth a broken lip for Michael Cera, as is the love of Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, creepily dead-on), in the new trailer for Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, with Chris “Captain America” Evans (I like that choice, btw), Jason Schwartzman, Kieran Culkin, Allison Pill, Brandon Routh, and Anna Kendrick. Between this and Kick-Ass, we’re getting pretty meta with our fanboy films now…but it looks like fun.

Na’vi vs. the IEDs.

Y’all are probably on top of this by now, but the 2010 Oscar nominations were announced this morning, and the big fight of the evening looks to be blue cats versus bombs: Avatar and The Hurt Locker led the pack with nine nominations each. (Before the meme sets in, it should be noted that former married couple James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow have been very supportive of each other’s films from the start.) Anyway, some quick thoughts:

  • Best Picture: Avatar. Out of the ten nominees, it’s a two-movie race, and this particular picture didn’t even make my personal top 20 for last year. There might even be a King of the World backlash after Titanic running the table in 1998. But I’m guessing, given its box office, that Dances With Thundersmurfs (in 3D) will win this pretty easily. Still, it’s nice to see A Serious Man and District 9 get their due. The biggest WTF here is The Blind Side. C’mon now, really?

  • Best Actor: Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart. Oscar got four out of five right (Jeff Bridges, Colin Firth, George Clooney, Jeremy Renner), and of those, I’d probably go with both Firth and Renner over Bridges. But, if I had my druthers, Sam Rockwell would have been nominated and won for Moon. (He should’ve taken Morgan Freeman’s Invictus spot.) Anyway, I’m guessing Bridges is a lock.

  • Best Actress: Carey Mulligan, An Education. Unless voters factor in her youth against her, I’m going with Sally Sparrow. I haven’t seen any of the other films in contention in this category, but I’m guessing Helen Mirren (The Last Station) and particularly Meryl Streep (Julie & Julia) will be considered already amply rewarded, and Gabourey Sidibe (Precious) will lose votes on account of…

  • Best Supporting Actress: Mo’Nique, Precious. I haven’t seen the film, but from what I can gather, this is a lockity-lock. Given that the Up in the Air vote will split between Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick, the only real competition is Maggie Gyllenhaal for Crazy Heart. (Consensus seems to be Penelope Cruz (Nine) has been nominated for the wrong film, and she should be here for Broken Embraces.)

  • Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz, Inglorious Basterds. Like the rest of the categories above, this seems pretty set to me already. With the possible exception of Woody Harrelson for The Messenger, it’s hard to imagine any of the others getting close.

  • Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker. The consolation prize to losing Best Picture to Avatar, this Oscar will be richly deserved.

  • Best Animated Film: Up. Again, seems like a lock, given that it’s the only nominee also listed in the Best Picture category. Still, I’d rather see this go to Coraline or The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

  • Writing (Adapted Screenplay): This one’s more of a toss-up, and I get the sense it will probably end up being my bracket-buster. I kinda feel like I have to pick In the Loop, my favorite movie of 2009. But I could also see this being where District 9 or Up in the Air get their recognition for the evening. (Precious too might be a contender, but, again, will likely lose some votes on account of the Mo’Nique lock.)

  • Writing (Original Screenplay): Mark Boal, The Hurt Locker. I’m glad to see the Coens on here, but they’ve won this before, as has Quentin Tarantino.

  • Documentary Feature: The Cove. I want to see several of these, particularly Daniel Ellsberg: The Most Dangerous Man in America. But all word seems to point to dolphins in peril.

  • Foreign Language Film: The White Ribbon. Haven’t seen it yet, but I haven’t heard any other contender mentioned as often.

  • Music (Original Song): “The Weary Kind,” Crazy Heart. Take it to the bank.

  • Music (Original Score): Probably Up. It won the Globe, and it’s the only one of these films whose score I can even vaguely remember.

  • Costumes: It sounds like a two-movie race between Coco Before Chanel and Bright Star, although I personally wouldn’t mind seeing this go to Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus.

  • Make-up: Really weird category this year. Of these three, I’ll guess The Young Victoria edges out Star Trek.

  • Technical Stuff: With the possible exception of Editing and maybe Cinematography (The Hurt Locker), I’m thinking all of this goes to Avatar.

Stuck Inside of Mobile.

“You wake up at Seatac, SFO, LAX. You wake up at O’Hare, Dallas-Fort Worth, BWI. Pacific, mountain, central. Lose an hour, gain an hour. This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time. You wake up at Air Harbor International. If you wake up at a different time, in a different place, could you wake up as a different person?”

Sure, constant work-related jetsetting may have hastened Tyler Durden’s descent into borderline psychosis in Fight Club. But, if you need a second opinion, airports are the sea in which George Clooney thrives in Jason Reitman’s well-made but disappointing Up in the Air. I found it hard to pin down exactly why this movie bugged me at first, until I thought more about that memorable rant from Fight Club: “Everywhere I travel, tiny life. Single-serving sugar, single-serving cream, single pat of butter. The microwave Cordon Bleu hobby kit. Shampoo-conditioner combos, sample-packaged mouthwash, tiny bars of soap. The people I meet on each flight? They’re single-serving friends.

And Up in the Air? It’s a single-serving movie, albeit one you might get in business class — glib, pre-packaged, wrapped in plastic, and, alas, not as tasty, nutritious, or filling as it looks. (After coming to this realization, I discovered Stephanie Zacharek felt much the same: “The picture is brushed with a fine glaze of slickness, a product sealed in a blister pack. It’s like airplane air — it has a packaged freshness that isn’t really fresh at all.“) Sure, from moment-to-moment Up in the Air is engaging enough, but sadly it all adds up to the less than the sum of its parts. (And I have a sinking feeling the Oscar of Crash, Million Dollar Baby, and Slumdog Millionaire will love it.)

Even notwithstanding an 11th hour jag that makes for a more satisfying landing than I originally suspected, there’s a lot of rote here: the obligatory wedding scene, the standard-issue epiphany in the middle of a public speech, the in vino veritas, letting-the-hair-down night among co-workers (set to not-so-Young-anymore MC); the Elliott Smith-scored nostalgic reminiscences of those days gone by, etc. etc. Up in the Air is impressively made and a Quality Production™ through-and-through, but it’s also over-stylized and curiously hollow, and it too often feels like a movie conceived by a marketing department. Imho, it needed more of that ragged, hand-crafted, DIY flair that marked the other two recent Clooney flicks this year, The Men Who Stare at Goats.

To give credit where it’s due, Up in the Air does boast one of the more memorable credit sequences I’ve seen in recent years — lovely aerial shots of the American landscape, set to a funked-up version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” (by Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings.) But things get gloomy pretty quickly thereafter, with — ripped from the headlines! — a lot of people like you and me finding out that they’ve been given the axe. (Reitman apparently put out ads in Detroit and St. Louis looking for recently laid-off folks — It’s as close to home-spun as Up gets.)

Anyway, holding the handle is Ryan Bingham (Clooney): A professional firer by trade (when he’s not giving motivational speeches on the side), Bingham spends his days breaking employees the bad news so their bosses don’t have to. This job keeps him on the road pretty much constantly…which is fine by Bingham — he’s an Airportman, never happier than when he’s lounging at the American Airways VIP club, or checking into a hotel for a layover, or cruising at 50,000 feet above the heartland. (In his defense, he does live in Omaha — would you want to go home? Also, his travel experiences generally seem a lot less shoddy than almost all of the ones I can remember, but perhaps that’s a function of the miles.) In short, for Bingham transition is bliss: He’s a ship always at sea, never reaching port, and being a million miles from home only means he’s got nine million more to go.

But, naturally, new forces threaten Bingham’s airline Eden. Perhaps most importantly, his squirrelly boss (Jason Bateman) has recently made a hire out of Cornell — Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) — and she has the bright idea to start firing people over the Internets — Thus, no more endless junket. (To which I say, good idea! If I were getting fired either way, I don’t see how having smug-ole-George Clooney hand me a packet in person is going to improve my mood about it.) For another, his little sister (Melanie Lynskey) is getting married (Danny McBride), and their honeymoon plans (and the nagging family responsibilities they confer) make it harder for Bingham to pack light, as is his wont. And confusing the situation further, Bingham meets his female counterpart in Alex (Vera Farmiga), an eye-catching gal who shares a fondness for traveling constantly and in luxury. Does all of this mean it’s time for Ryan to put down some roots and live like the rest of us, or has he had the right idea all along?

In my Best of 2006 list, I said of Reitman’s amiable but botched take on Thank You for Smoking that “[w]hat Smoking needed was the misanthropic jolt and sense of purpose of 2005’s Lord of War, a much more successful muckraking satire…But Smoking, like its protagonist, just wants to be liked, and never truly commits to its agenda.” Well, Up in the Air has the same sense about it. I haven’t read the Walter Kirn novel this is based on, but I’m willing to bet Bingham probably comes across as more of a jerk therein. It sometimes seems that the sharp edges of this tale — “fly the unfriendly skies” and whatnot — have been filed off here. Similarly, I don’t want to give away the ending, which you deserve to experience unspoiled after sitting through the interminable high-school-nostalgia and wedding scenes. But it also feels a bit like Reitman flinched from the material in the end, or even that the finish we get isn’t the one he’d have liked to be building to.

I’m probably being harder on this film than it deserves, but if I was complaining about Cormac McCarthy’s relentless misanthropy just the other day, Up in the Air veered too far for me in the other direction. As in Reitman’s Juno, everyone’s likable and well-meaning perhaps to a fault, even when they’re acting horribly. And, when things go south, well there’s always some sugary-sweet, anesthetizing indie ballad that can soothe the pain and take you to commercial. It’s a sales job Bingham would be proud of.

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