I came to Friends With Benefits with the hope that writer-director Will Gluck would take aim at the romantic comedy with the same piquant mischievous zeal he displayed in 2010’s Easy A a film that earned him comparisons to such hallowed figures as Alexander Payne and John Hughes. And he does—for a while at least. The film springs from the gate with a fun revisionist élan promising to lay waste to the stale conventions that have long characterized the genre. A promise that in the end is sadly unfulfilled.
Attractive twentysomethings Dylan (Justin Timberlake) and Jamie (Mila Kunis) first meet as business associates—he’s a savvy web designer she’s a spunky headhunter who lures him to New York to work for GQ. Both happen to be recovering from nasty breakups (he was dumped by a Jon Mayer obsessive played by Emma Stone; her by a cloying slacker played by Andy Samberg) and they bond over their shared exasperation with relationships and romance.
One night wallowing in their mutual malaise over beer and pizza and an insipid rom-com (a fictitious film-within-a-film featuring uncredited Jason Segel and Rashida Jones) they hit on an idea: Why not use each other to sate our primal urges without all the hassles and complications that committed relationships entail? (That this is the first time either has pondered cohabitation strikes me as a bit disingenuous: Both rank among the upper-percentile of desirable people; surely the notion might have at least briefly occurred to them before?)
The pack is formalized by an oath sworn over a iPad bible app (the film is gratuitously tech-chic to the point of employing flash mobs as plot devices) and consummated in one of the film’s funniest scenes. Freed from any pretensions of romance and from any fears of embarrassment or rejection they approach the act from the perspective of two people seeking only to maximize their enjoyment. (He encourages her to look at it as a game of tennis.) They calmly recite their preferences idiosyncrasies and deal-breakers like agents negotiating a contract; during the deed they critique each others’ performance with utter candor offering helpful guidance when it’s called for. (She shows particular disdain for a technique called “The Tornado.”)
They’re hanging out they’re having sex; the only thing missing obviously is intimacy. It’s inevitable—at least in the peculiar moral universe inhabited by studio rom-coms—that one or both of them will come to crave it. And that’s when complications arise both for Dylan and Jamie and for the filmmakers. Faced with two roads Gluck opts to take the more-traveled one and Friends With Benefits gradually—and disappointingly—yields to convention affirming many of the rom-com tropes and clichés it initially seemed intent on skewering.
That the film is funny—wry and quick and (at least initially) irreverent—helps alleviate the let-down of its second-half surrender to formula. Kunis and Timberlake make for able verbal sparring partners their chemistry is real and their interplay natural and unforced. Accustomed to smaller roles and guest-hosting spots on SNL Timberlake acquits himself nicely in Friends With Benefits even if he at times appears outmatched by Kunis. I’m not quite prepared to forgive him for The Love Guru but I’m getting there.
Iron Man 2 Jon Favreau’s much-anticipated follow-up to his breakthrough 2008 blockbuster is less a comic book flick than it is a superhero version of Arthur the Oscar-nominated 1981 comedy that starred Dudley Moore as a drunken wise-cracking dilettante. In his second turn as Tony Stark Robert Downey Jr. recasts the billionaire inventor as the Dean Martin of industrialists strutting from one star-studded event to another on a bacchanalian victory tour dishing out choice one-liners and stirring up minor controversies for his exasperated babysitters Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and James "Rhodey" Rhodes (Don Cheadle) to quell. Whether gloating about his achievements at a defense industry expo upbraiding Senators during a congressional hearing or getting wasted and donning his armored powersuit to play DJ at his birthday party there's no telling what kind of madcap mischief Tony Stark will get himself into next!
The Tony Stark Comedy Tour for what it’s worth is a supremely entertaining ride (credit screenwriter Justin Theroux at the very least with crafting the genre’s most quotable film of all time) but I’m fairly certain Iron Man 2 is supposed to be an action film not the Marvel Follies Variety Show. Surely there must be a supervillain lurking in the shadows a frighteningly powerful menace preparing to unleash its destructive might upon the world?
There is — well kind of. The primary antagonist of Iron Man 2 Mickey Rourke's hulking Ivan Vanko (aka Whiplash) is certainly a fearsome beast baring his blinged-out grill and electrified tentacles but he gets all of five minutes of meaningful screen time in the sequel — hardly enough to establish him as a worthy foe for the great Iron Man. Perhaps producers found Rourke’s chosen dialect learned from John Malkovich's Rounders School of Exaggerated Russian Accents (“I vant my bort!” he furiously declares when separated from his pet parrot) to be less compelling in post-production.
More likely they became enamored with Sam Rockwell in the role of Justin Hammer Stark’s resentful business rival and Whiplash’s principal financial backer. It’s certainly understandable. Exuding the hubris and insecurity of a sardonic Mark Cuban (but capable of amusing us with more than just an underachieving basketball team) his performance is easily the best of the film surpassing even that of the great Downey. (Which makes perfect fodder for conspiracy theorists who wonder why Rockwell was the only member of the main cast not to get his own poster.)
The only problem is Rockwell’s Hammer is a venture capitalist not a comic book supervillain and every second he spends on the screen — as enjoyable as it is — is a second that could have been devoted to dimensionalizing Rourke’s character or crafting a badly-needed action sequence to enliven the talky second act.
It’s little wonder then that Stark continues with his feckless self-destructive ways unconcerned with the threat posed by the Hammer/Whiplash collaboration. He's got bigger problems to worry about — namely his inability to find a suitable replacement for palladium the substance inside the Arc Reactor that powers both his suit and his heart and which also happens to be slowly killing him.
Thankfully Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. arrive at his compound to stage a kind of intervention bearing a powerful dual-pronged Deus Ex Machina device that instantly wrests our hero from his para-suicidal stupor — just in time to build the upgraded powersuit he’ll need to thwart the army of powerful robot drones that Whiplash is about to let loose upon on the unsuspecting citizens of Queens New York. Whew! Favreau steps up the action and delivers a suitably big finish but don't blink when Iron Man and Whiplash meet on the battlefield because you might just miss it.
Given that Iron Man 2’s director and writer have both spent the bulk of their movie careers employed as actors it comes as little surprise that they chose to focus the action on Downey and Rockwell as the two rank head and shoulders above the rest of the cast. I just wish they found room in between the one-liners for a few more explosions.
On the outside Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin) couldn’t be further from the mold of a “normal teenager.” He wears a suit everywhere he is precocious and he has a spring in his step that suggests oblivion to his high school surroundings. Of course Charlie isn’t really at all oblivious and at his core is very much that “normal teenager”: He wants only to be popular. After starting anew at a public school--because he got kicked out of yet another private school for distributing fake IDs--Charlie is promptly pummeled for the way he dresses by the school’s bully (Tyler Hilton). He complains to his psychiatrist whom his mother (Hope Davis) keeps on retainer. The shrink decides to put Charlie on Ritalin. Ever the entrepreneur Charlie tries to parlay his easy access to drugs into popularity and it works like gangbusters. Before long “Dr. Charlie” is listening diagnosing and prescribing drugs to the entire student faculty. He’s got the popularity the trust and the girl (Kat Dennings) the latter of which just happens to be the principal’s (Robert Downey Jr.) daughter. And that relationship--not to mention the slight legality issue of prescribing controlled substances to minors--threatens to ruin his whole operation. Yelchin (Alpha Dog) is a Hollywood rarity: He’s an ‘it’ boy because of his acting not his looks (sorry Anton). Rarer still is the fact that Yelchin’s actual age is near that of Charlie Bartlett and not since the days of Freaks and Geeks has that industry taboo been broken so successfully. It’s all a credit to the young actor who in the span of Bartlett oozes everything from vulnerability and precociousness to Ritalin-induced mania and the theatricality of a much older actor. There’s nothing he can’t do in this movie; the same goes for his acting future. And the same goes for his adversary in Bartlett Downey Jr. although that’s been abundantly clear for decades now. Downey Jr. is famous for making seemingly effortless work of a complex character which is precisely what he does with Principal Gardner--a concerned parent recovering alcoholic and dutiful high school enforcer/villain. He’s a force to be reckoned with on screen and when Yelchin’s Charlie finally squares off with him the scene is a thing of beauty. As an essential link between those two characters Dennings (40-Year-Old Virgin) is a credible charmer and refreshingly the rare non-ditzy non-clichéd high school-portrayed girl we’re used to seeing. Rounding out the cast is Davis (American Splendor) aka Laura Linney-in-waiting. Her clueless alcoholic mom is a source of laughs and ultimately sobriety--for the character and us. For the first time in his decades-long career Jon Poll trades the editing room for the director’s chair. And after seeing Bartlett it makes sense that Poll who has edited movies like Austin Powers in Goldmember and Meet the Parents/Fockers is a behind-the-scenes veteran but a rookie helmer. His debut is fresh and loose but also very sure-handed. The movie is constantly a pleasant unclassifiable surprise spurning both the raunchiness of teen comedies and the pretention of psychology dramedies. The result is something far less precious and opaque than Wes Anderson’s Rushmore--to which Bartlett bears a broad thematic resemblance--yet a sharp commentary nonetheless. To that end Gustin Nash’s debut screenplay is just as impressive as his director’s rookie effort. His writing is clearly steeped in satire namely how loose today’s doctors are with the prescription pads--especially when it comes to our children--but it’s also able to be sweet and real when necessary. It’s the most impressive screenplay debut we’ve seen in a while--gold standard Juno notwithstanding--and the directorial one isn’t too shabby itself.
More than 10 000 people are smuggled into the United States for sexual exploitation per the nonprofit organization Free the Slaves. Inspired by a New York Times Magazine article Trade focuses on the attempts of traffickers to smuggle a group of women and children across the U.S.-Mexican border. Director Marco Kreuzpaintner wastes no time introducing us to the two victims he intends to follow from their kidnapping in Mexico to their auctioning off in the United States. Adriana (Paulina Gaitan) is snatched from the street as she rides the bicycle she just received from her brother Jorge (Cesar Ramos) for her 13th birthday. Single mother Veronica (Alicja Bachleda) arrives in Mexico City from Poland believing she’s there to meet with the people she’s paid to arrange her with safe and legal passage to the United States. Only she’s been duped by the traffickers. Adriana Veronica and a handful of other abductees then begin their terrifying journey to the United States under the watchful eye of trafficker Manuelo (Marco Perez). On their trail is Jorge who feels responsible for Adriana’s kidnapping. He risks life and limb to follow the abductees across the border. Once on U.S. soil Jorge crosses paths with Ray (Kevin Kline) a Texas cop who’s trying to break up the trafficking ring for personal reasons. Ray reluctantly pairs up with Jorge to track down Adriana before she and Veronica are sold off to the highest bidder via the Internet. More gentleman than action hero Kevin Kline’s not the obvious choice to portray a police officer hailing from the Lone Star State. Ray’s the kind of law-enforcement bloodhound Tommy Lee Jones can play in his sleep. Heck Kline only halfheartedly attempts a Texas drawl and even then he drops it minutes after his late entrance. This could be overlooked if Kline lent Ray some intensity. For someone on a crusade Kline strolls through Trade without a care in the world. As Trade reaches its inevitable showdown between the traffickers and their pursuers Ray’s faced with a life-or-death choice that would compromise all he stands for. Kline though looks about as conflicted as someone trying to decide what he wants for lunch. Luckily Kline’s presence doesn’t negate the fine work done by Ramos Gaitan and Bachleda. Ramos perfectly captures the guilt of a troubled young man—one embarking on a life of crime—whose ill-gotten gains has cost him dearly. If Ramos offers a study in redemption Bachleda goes to great pains to show the ease with which someone with so much grit and determination can bend and break under the most extreme of circumstances. Gaitan doesn’t endure as much abuse but she’s still one tough cookie. Perez refuses to allow Manuelo to be a mere profit-minded monster—he provides Manuelo with a conscience or what passes for one in his business. Trade is a tale of two countries. While in Mexico director Marco Kreuzpaintner examines the sex-slave trade in an incisive and uncompromising manner. He sheds light on how these trafficking rings acquire their slaves and smuggle them across the border. He puts us on edge the moment Adriana and Veronica fall in their captors’ hands. We’re never sure as to what will happen to them. We know they need to be kept alive. But in what condition? Many of the abductees are drugged beaten and raped. The violence isn’t exploitative—Kreuzpaintner just needs to show the cruelty inflicted upon these victims of the modern-day slave trade. And it only makes us fear more for Adrian and Veronica’s safety. Once Trade reaches the United States Kreuzpaintner and screenwriter Jose Rivera start pulling their punches. Yes there are some moments that make you sick to your stomach. But the moment Kline arrives on the scene Trade gets weak at the knees. There are too many coincidences for Trade’s own good. The sudden death of one character is forced and absurd. And Kreuzpaintner doesn’t know how to extricate Kline from the untenable situation he’s placed in during Trade’s climax. This all leads up to a pat ending one that even the Lifetime TV crowd would find unbelievably spineless.
In the vein of Field of Dreams Astronaut Farmer is about building the seemingly impossible. Thankfully in this case it’s simply a rocket in the barn not a ballpark in a cornfield where ghosts of baseball heroes past can play the game. That is a bit far-fetched. Instead we meet Charles Farmer (Thornton) a man who was once on track to be an astronaut but was forced to leave NASA to save his family farm. He still wants to go into space however and so sets out to build a rocket inside his barn. By the time the movie starts the rocket is pretty much put together so we aren’t burdened with how he gets his supplies. All Charles needs now is 10 000 pounds of fuel which shoots up a big red flag with the government--a government that now considers Charles a threat--while the media look at him as a big story. But no matter the odds nothing can deter Charles from his dream to break through the atmosphere and orbit the earth. It’s refreshing to see Thornton as a loving father who wants to inspire his kids rather than make them go get him another beer. Of course Charles Farmer isn’t all sweetness and light—he’s an obvious eccentric whose obsession to launch into space effects the entire family—and it’s definitely a role right up Thornton’s alley. Virginia Madsen does an admirable job as the loving and supportive wife who nonetheless puts her foot down when things get out of hand while Bruce Dern plays the grizzled but equally supportive father-in-law. There’s also a supportive lawyer played by Tim Blake Nelson. In fact besides the big evil NASA chief (J.K. Simmons) and two bungling FBI agents (Mark Polish and Jon Gries) everyone supports Charles in his crazy dream. How could he fail? From the writing-directing team of Michael and Mark Polish (Northfork) Astronaut Farmer is pure old-school—an unassuming throwback to those feel-good movies of the ‘40s and ‘50s. In fact Thornton told Hollywood.com he considers this his “Jimmy Stewart” movie. While the Polish brothers based Charles Farmer on their own eccentric father and obviously harbor their own boyhood dreams of being an astronaut the guys still follow a nice and simple formula finding some good actors to carry it out and adding cool visual effects when they can. Yes the more cynical moviegoer may look at Astronaut Farmer as completely improbable and trite. But those willing to be taken back to a simpler time--when movies were about walking out triumphant--should find watching Astronaut Farmer a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.