Thursday, January 28, 2010


Surrogates is the other movie this season where avatars play a huge role. It takes you a few minutes to get the gist of what's going on, but as soon as you see a 60's-something Bruce Willis with smooth skin and blond bangs, you'll say, "Whoa!" just like I did.

As it turns out, what we were seeing is Bruce's avatar, who happens to be a detective. The five-o'clock-shadowed, truly 60-year-old Bruce is really at home, and hasn't stepped out of his home for years. Surrogates are used by 98% of the population -- you feel the pleasure and excitement they feel, but without the pain or flesh degradation. Drugs are definitely an option, as you will feel the highs but not the lows. Bungie jumping, detective work, race car driving. One wonders why anyone would be an accountant in this world, and the world needs accountants.

Tom Greer (Willis) and his partner Peters (Radha Mitchell) are investigating a murder of a surrogate and the actual body of a college kid, when a stranger's blast from a weird weapon goes right through the surrogate's eyes and kills them both. This leads Greer, the human, to venture into one of the many human-only territories to investigate the murder.

It's a rather interesting idea, especially when human hosts are forced to come out of hiding and into the open air when their surrogates are massively shut down. And it's a double whammy, almost a horror show, when we see some of these hosts, played by those actors who also play their own surrogates. Some of the best science fiction is created when you change just one little thing in the world, and let human reaction take over. Relationships are now based on the most superficial things. Everyone is beautiful and everyone is shallow, and, hey, plastic. What has happened to Tom's and his wife's (played by Rosamund Pike) marriage seems inevitable.

Perhaps if the plot were that shallow we could figure out what's really going on. But it's circuitous, and puzzling, and in the end, despite Willis' and Pike's best, the whole movie falls rather flat. I liked the concept, but it really didn't go anywhere, and in the end, we weren't led to feel anything about our protagonists. It's sometimes shocking, but rarely engaging.

I am torn between just saying Thumb's down because the movie shows an interesting idea in an uninvolving way. Still, the chase scenes are amazing, and some of the surprises pay off, not spectacularly, but enough to keep you interested at a minimal level.

Thumb's up, but you've been warned.

Saturday, January 23, 2010


It's France right before WWI: beautiful cars, mansions and servants are in the lives of the courtesans of kings and millionaires. This story is about the later life of one of them, Lea de Lonval (Michelle Pfeiffer), a very successful courtesan who is past that age when she can demand favors from royalty. She takes on as a lover the 19-year-old son, Cheri (Rupert Friend), of a friend of hers, Madame Charlotte Peloux (Kathy Bates), and, to their surprise and against her better judgment, they stay lovers for six years. However, Madame Peloux has arranged a marriage for her son, and matters change for all.

Cheri is a May-December story that has disaster written all over it, something we sense from the beginning. This is a little more than a fluff piece only because it's Michelle Pfeiffer's latest film. Although there are no nude scenes of Pfeiffer, the viewer has the feeling that she's still "got it," because the camera seems to still caress her face and body even though both are showing signs of the years. The difference, however, between the older Pfeiffer and the younger is that her acting has benefitted from all those years, and we feel her pain.

Michelle Pfeiffer flirted with the theme of aging once before, in the delightful Stardust, but that was a comedy, and much to our surprise, she was quite adept at it. Cheri is quite a different manner, and even her presence can't save us from the stagnation of this dated Collette story.

One of the narrative problems of the movie lies in the fact that the most powerful messages are told to us, not shown. The fact that courtesans can't have any friends because no self-respecting woman or man would be seen with them. The denouement of the young Cheri. All in all, though, it all comes down to whether you're pulling for the lovers. Since Lea doesn't seem to have any redeeming qualities except for the fact that we all like the actress portraying her, and since Cheri is obviously a good-for-nothing loafer who is perfectly content to lounge on his mother's money without ever putting her in her place, there's no reason to hope for the best. Frankly, they deserve each other.

I would urge die-hard Michelle Pfeiffer fans to see Cheri, as she's still a wonder to watch. However, for the rest of us, thumbs down.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker is an amazing film, and perhaps the most forceful argument against U.S. presence in Iraq.

Through the film we watch three Army soldiers, members of an elite bomb-disposal unit. Staff Sergeant Will James comes to the unit when they lose their leader, and surprises the other two when he seems reckless and totally dismissive of them. James, while seemingly indifferent to death, has a real artist's feel for the explosive device, while Sanborn is a play-it-by-the-book guy who can't take the lack of communication, and Eldridge is the new guy, constantly afraid of dying or screwing up and causing others to suffer.

The team is a microcosm of any soldier's exposure to the dangers of Iraq. The film eloquently explains to us that no Iraqi is safe or even friendly unless they want something from the soldier. Every rock unturned could be an explosive device which endangers not only every soldier but also every Iraqi civilian. And that, in spite of the fact that each soldier, and especially this team, risks their life every day, no one on the Iraqi side cares or appreciates their efforts. And, in fact, most of the onlookers pose their own potential risk to the men: no one can be trusted.

We catch Bravo Company on its 39th day of current deployment, and we follow them to the day when they're shipped home. It's a grueling, fascinating and urgent journey. While I was watching, my heart rate never slowed down, I never lost interest, and I was in constant fear for these characters' lives. Actor Jeremy Renner, especially, is the point to watch. His fascination with each armed device, a fascination which sometimes hurls his comrades into mortal peril, is the focus of this film.

This film will surely be nominated for Best Picture of 2009. The violence is almost palpable, so watch at your own risk. This is war.

Thumb's up.

Friday, January 15, 2010


Joshua is a movie released in 2007 that offers nothing special by way of plot of action. Then why see it? Because "Joshua" is played by then-9-year-old Jacob Kogan, who recently played young Spock in the new Star Trek movie. Kogan was so charming on stage at a recent Star Trek convention that I thought I'd take a look at his only other released film.

However, while not dreadful, it's dreary. Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga (lately of Up in the Air) give birth to a baby girl and her older brother, Joshua, is all but forgotten, particularly by the mother. Jacob, who is very much on the precocious side, starts to do a few little things around the house to make them wish his baby sister had never been born.

I think the movie could've been improved by showing us how Jacob prepared for some of the things he perpetrated on his unsuspecting parents, a film technique that was probably tossed aside in the sake of surprise. There isn't much surprise left, however, after about the first 15 minutes when we realize that Joshua is not the kind of kid you mess with.

Many of us older filmgoers are familiar with Patty McCormack's Bad Seed. Joshua is one step beyond that. We assume at one point that Joshua has done some internet research to find out what law enforcement agencies might do about a bad parent. That's almost fascinating, but we have no sympathy for a mother who doesn't seem to care. We do care, however, about the father, ably played by Sam Rockwell, who's destined for bigger roles in bigger films. Joshua, however, is just a point of fascination, not of caring or sympathy. Nothing in this drama makes us care at all about him, just wonder about him.

It's a rather boring journey to a very dark place. Thumb's down.

Up in the Air

Up in the Air starts out as a delightful comedy that becomes a serious treatise on life and what it means. It's still delightful, even at the end, because by that time, even though we find ourselves envying incessant air traveler Ryan Bingham, just a little bit, we feel a bit sorry for him when we realize that even his own family can't relate to him.

In his quest for 10 million air miles, Ryan Bingham fires people. In person. That somehow lessens the blow. This means that Ryan spends most of his waking hours in an airport or airplane, and that's where he feels most comfortable and alive. When young MBA whippersnapper Natalie comes in and convinces his boss to do the dirty deed virtually and cut all that flying from the budget, Ryan is incensed and insists she travel with him so that he can show her how it's done.

There are several really funny if not hysterical scenes in the beginning when we're learning about Ryan and what's important to him. He meets cute with Alex in a businessperson's hotel bar, and they share their acquired "wealth" of frequent flyer goodies in a very funny scene. He and Alex continue what appears to be a perfect union -- no seriousness, no promises or responsibilities, all wit and glamour.

I don't need to tell you that Clooney is perfect in the role, because, well, Clooney IS perfect. Not a hair out of place, not a smile ungenuine. The guy is golden in this part, and it takes a little bit of selling to convince us that Ryan does not have the perfect life after all. Vera Farmiga as his road girlfriend is also perfect, very charming and seductive but probably a very successful business woman. I found Anna Kendrick less convincing as Natalie, but perhaps because Natalie IS less convincing.

I don't envy Ryan Bingham. But I sure would love to be able to pack like him.

Thumb's up.