Thursday, April 30, 2009

Nothing to 'obsess' over

If you want a laugh, check out “Obsessed,” not that the film is a comedy. You’ll be laughing, but at the film, not with it.

“Obsessed” stars Idris Elba (currently on “The Office”) as a successful asset manager with a beautiful wife (Beyoncé Knowles) and baby who is fending off the pursuits of an attractive, but delusional office temp (Ali Larter, “Heroes”). This is a “Fatal Attraction” rip off without a single original moment in it.

The minute Larter’s temptress comes on screen it is clear exactly where this movie is going. A movie being formulaic isn’t necessarily a problem. We watch romantic comedies because we know in the end the couple will get together. It is the journey that is key, not the destination. In “Obsessed” that journey is pedestrian and at times boring.

Ultimately, the film’s raison d'être is the inevitable throw down between Larter and Knowles and it is one heck of a fight, but it is a 90-minute wait before you get there. The fight also seems out of tone with the rest of the film. Suddenly, Knowles' character seems like something out of a blaxploitation film.

The film is riddled with cheesy dialogue, but unlike something like the “Scream” movies, it is clear this isn’t meant to be a self-satire. Until the final fight scene where the film gives over to total camp it is evident that the film was attempting to be a serious drama and it fails at that. The inconsistent tone is just one of its problems.

The acting in the film ranges from good to adequate. Elba is quite strong in the lead. He has a definite screen presence and gives more credibility to his lines than they deserve. With a better film he could really shine.

Larter is good at playing crazy, but her performance is fairly one note. Knowles, who also was a producer, is fine, but it seems like she took the role solely for that final fight because she doesn’t truly come alive until those scenes.

The direction by Steve Shill is workman like, but he does create some suspense in places, even if it isn’t sustained for long. With a better script this could’ve been a decent thriller, so if we must put the blame for this film on someone it is screenwriter David Loughrey.

Loughrey writes script by the numbers, if you have any doubt compare “Obsessed” to last year’s “Lakeview Terrace,” which he also scripted. Both films center on a married couple being terrorized by someone who is mentally unstable and ends up in a confrontation that would seem more appropriate for a slasher movie.

As with his script for “Lakeview Terrace,” Loughrey had an intriguing premise with the potential to raise serious issues, in this case that men have to fight harder to prove sexual harassment. Loughrey’s script flirts with the issue, but settles for ham-fisted exploitation dialogue and cliché scenes.

This is a bad film, but for some people it will be so bad it is good. Let me be perfectly clear, don’t waste your money seeing it in theaters. Once it is on DVD and you’ve got nothing better to do on a rainy afternoon, perhaps lower your standards and rent it. You will laugh for all the wrong reasons.

Friday, April 24, 2009

'State of Play' is a top notch thriller

“State of Play,” a political thriller centered on the murder of a congressman’s aid, is a top-notch piece of intelligent filmmaking made for adults. This is a film that respects its viewer’s intelligence instead of spoon feeding them mindless swill.

Russell Crowe stars as a slovenly, but efficient investigative journalist in Washington, D.C. who begins finding connections between two seemingly unrelated murders, one involving his former roommate turned congressman’s (Ben Affleck) research aid. Slowly an elaborate and ever shifting conspiracy is unraveled.

On the level of plot not much else can be revealed as it would undermine the film’s best surprises. There are twists upon twists in this film, but each new turn is so carefully placed that the film never feels cheap or eye-rolling.

The film has an excellent pedigree. Director Kevin McDonald’s first film was the first rate “Last King of Scotland” and the cast is populated with some of the best and brightest actors working today.

The cast is so strong that even minor roles are populated by the likes of Jeff Daniels, Robin Wright Penn and Jason Bateman ("Hancock"), who appears late in the film to provide some comic relief, but also reveals some serious acting.

Helen Mirren (“The Queen”) is completely believable as Crowe's editor. Rachel McAdams (“The Notebook,” “Red Eye”) is a blogger that Crowe teams up with to research and write the story.

McAdams is one of the more underrated actresses in her generation and she and Crowe have a nice dynamic. The film thankfully never attempts to force a romantic subplot between the two. They are simply colleagues who learn to respect and trust each other.

Affleck, who after several years of bad career moves, is back on track. As he did in “Hollywoodland,” he has taken a supporting role in an ensemble film and proves he can act when he isn’t in a big dumb action movie.

The screenplay is written by Tony Gilroy, the writer and director of “Michael Clayton” and “Duplicity,” Billy Ray, who wrote and directed “Breach” and “Shattered Glass” and Matthew Michael Carnahan who wrote “The Kingdom" and “Lions for Lambs.” These are writers that write smart films that aren’t clear cut or black and white.

“State of Play” is based on a six hour BBC mini-series and the screenwriters deserve a lot of credit for finding a way to cut the screen time in third and still have a film that is coherent. The timeline of events is perhaps too condensed, especially towards the resolution, but things are never confusing. McDonald keeps the film moving briskly, but not at the expense of character development.

Given that newspapers are going bankrupt and shutting their doors across the country, many are wondering if this will be the last newspaper film. The film is aware of the current state of print journalism and authentically comments on it. Mirren has several scenes in which she struggles with whether to be gossip hounds or hold the story until it is accurate and solid.

“State of Play” is very much in the tradition of “All the President’s Men” and while that film may have more of a dramatic edge since it was based on true event, "State of Play" is in many ways its equal. This is compelling, surprising drama that is well worth your time and money.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Owen and Roberts shine in 'Duplicity'

Julia Roberts and Clive Owen bring their considerable star power and charm to writer/director Tony Gilroy’s light-as-a-feather but largely satisfying comic thriller “Duplicity.”

“Duplicity” feels like a lighter reworking of Gilroy’s terrific debut “Michael Clayton” with corporate intrigue replacing legal intrigue. Where “Michael Clayton” created a complex web and gripping drama, “Duplicity” creates a just as intricate web, but plays things for low-key laughs.

Roberts and Owen play former spies turned lovers who set up shop in opposing corporate companies in hopes of playing the companies against each other and in the process steal an idea that they can sell to the highest bidder.

The rival companies are headed up by Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson, who in a fabulously funny opening scene fight it out on an airport runaway while their handlers look on in shock. Giamatti and Wilkinson are always reliable character actors, and they give fantastic supporting performances here.

“Duplicity” is a throwback to light comic thrillers like “Charade,” or more recently the “Ocean’s” movies, where the film is more about the stars’ chemistry, charisma and banter than the plot itself.

These are films that create elaborate plots with so many twists and switcheroos that the audience just has to go along for the ride and smile at the filmmaker’s audacity. These are films that intentionally play with the audience.

As a screenwriter Gilroy is probably best know for his work on the “Bourne” franchise, but his work here is closer in spirit to his script for 1992’s “The Cutting Edge,” about a hockey player paired with a figure skater. That film had the same sort of clever, combative dialogue-masking attraction that is on display in “Duplicity.”

Gilroy has the comic dialogue down cold, but when he has to switch to the straight romantic scenes he loses his edge and goes cliché. This held true in "The Cutting Edge," and it remains true today.

There’s a scene where Owen and Roberts proclaim their love for each other that goes on for far too long with dialogue that didn’t need to be spoken. Gilroy should’ve trusted that the audience got that they were in love.

Roberts and Owen, who worked together previously in “Closer,” have a palpable chemistry together and play Gilroy’s dialogue just right. While their scenes together in “Closer” were comprised of acidic barbed banter meant to devastate, here the repartee is just as sharp and quick, but is now playful and affectionate.

Owen has been in a lot of heavy thrillers and gritty action pictures recently, and it is nice to see him dial down the intensity and play up the charm. He reveals a fine comedic touch and slides nicely into a Cary Grant mode.

Roberts is simply required to be Roberts, and she still does it well. It is also nice to see that she is allowing herself to age gracefully. It doesn’t appear that, as with so many of her colleagues, she has started to nip, tuck and pull.

“Duplicity” is not a demanding or challenging film, but it is fun. And with locations such as Italy and the Bahamas as the backdrop for several scenes, it is pretty to look at. It is a soufflé — light, fluffy and delicious, but not very substantial. It goes down easy and offers quick pleasure.

Friday, April 10, 2009

'Fast & Furious' is running on fumes

“Fast & Furious,” the fourth installment in the street-racing franchise, isn’t an awful movie, but it is so inconsequential that it is hard to even be bothered to write anything about it. But I have already wasted 90 minutes watching it, so I guess I’ll waste more time.

The film made $72.5 million its opening weekend, the highest opening of a film released in April. It would appear that fans were eager for the return of the four principle leads from 2001’s “The Fast and the Furious” after only Paul Walker returned for two and Vin Diesel made a cameo in three.

Diesel, Walker, Michelle Rodriquez and Jordana Brewster all return this time, but the film’s “New Model, Original Parts” tagline is a misnomer. Fans excited to see the dynamic of the four leads again will be disappointed because the female leads get substantially shortchanged. Rodriquez’ appearance is not much more than a cameo, and Brewster only fairs marginally better.

Then again, “The Fast and the Furious” was always more about Diesel and Walker’s relationship than their love interests. In fact, if you want a quick laugh, search “The Fast and the Curious” on youtube for an amusing reworking of the trailer for the first film.

Seeing Diesel and Walker’s chemistry together again may be enough for fans to give the film pass, but for anyone else it is a messy bore.

The plot has something to do with drug trafficking, and naturally street racing factors into the mix. Diesel is wanted for various nefarious deeds and Walker is now working for the FBI, but both have motivations for taking down the drug kingpin, and they make an uneasy alliance to do so.

There are two worthy sequences in the film. The best is the film’s opening featuring Diesel and his crew attempting to steal gas tankers as a trucker makes his way up a winding road. It is pretty spectacular and offers something different for the series, but after that it is back to more of the same.

The other noteworthy scene is the inevitable Diesel and Walker street race, which despite being undermined by an annoying GPS gimmick that makes much of the sequence look like a cheap video game, does excite. It is a well directed, if completely ludicrous race.

Unfortunately, the rest of the car sequences rely too heavily on mediocre and obvious CGI. One setting, tunnels through a mountain, is used twice. The first time through it is mildly interesting; the second time it is mind-numbingly dull.

This is nothing more than a shameless cash-in. All the careers of the four leads aren’t doing too well, and this was a guaranteed hit. Unsurprisingly, the door was left open for a sequel, which chances are we’ll get. The producers already removed “the” from the title; maybe next time they can get rid of “and” too and simply call it “Fast Furious."