I really wanted to like The Brothers Bloom. I loved Brick, director Rian Johnson´s previous film, a highly original piece of high school noir that has quickly become a cult item. I have a lot of admiration for stars Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo, two of the better American actors of their generation. Rachel Weisz is usually fun, even in the Mummy movies. But this film just didn´t come together for me.
A prologue narrated by Ricky Jay introduces us to the brothers as children: foster kids moving from home to home, Stephen concocts detailed con games which star his brother Bloom. The cons keep the victims in the dark and leave everyone satisfied, everyone except Bloom, who knows better. Thirty years later and the brothers Stephen (Ruffalo) and Bloom (Brody) are still con men, trained by Fagin-like Diamond Dog (Maximilian Schell), travelling the globe to perform detailed schemes that still leave everyone satisfied. Except for Bloom: he decides to call it quits.
But Stephen ropes him in for one more con, the old standby last job before he can finally retire. Their target is rich New Jersey heiress Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz). With the assistance of Bang Bang (Babel´s Rinko Kikuchi), the brothers will win her over and take her on a global adventure that might leave her a million or so lighter in her wallet, but will show her a grand time. Only problem: she gets a little too much into the adventure. And Diamond Dog, the brothers´ former mentor, is now seeking revenge.
The film looks great. Especially scenes shot in Prague, which is where the brothers stop for a good portion of the scheme. Lots of films have shot in Prague during the past twenty years, but few have captured the contemporary city so well. Costumes and set design are also excellent, giving off a bit of a Wes Anderson vibe, showcasing a filmmaker in control of the look of his film. The story here, however, is another matter.
The con man movie is a well-worn genre, filled with modern classics like The Sting and The Grifters (the initial con the adult Bloom and Stephen seem to be pulling is taken from here) and a good portion of David Mamet´s filmography. The best of these movies work because they convince us along with the marks: we´re drawn into the characters and their world, into believing something, and while we might know there´s a twist coming – in this genre, there always is – we´re still surprised. That´s the real con.
The Brothers Bloom doesn´t work like that. It´s a disarmingly straightforward movie that consistently kept me aloof: is she in on it? Is he in on it? Is this real or part of the con? It´s easy enough to follow but never provides the revelations we expect, and by the end they´ve built up to a disappointment. You might say the film works as a counterpoint to the usual con man movie, but I just don´t think it works at all.
I also had a problem with the character work. The actors are always watchable, but the characters they play feel unnaturally quirky and cool and keep us at a distance. It´s smug and self-satisfied movie that never grounds itself in anything real. While I was involved in the con I was never invested in the characters; by the end, an emotional response is expected, and it just wasn´t there for me. As the credits rolled, I was frustrated.
These are the same complaints I hear thrown at Wes Anderson´s films; films I´ve really connected with. It´s likely a personal thing. The Brothers Bloom has been largely well-received elsewhere, and it´s something I´ll be happy to revisit down the road.
Ugly is right. Following in the footsteps of What Happens in Vegas, The Ugly Truth continues a disturbing new breed of raunchy romantic comedy; it panders to members of both sexes, and manages to insult them equally. Here´s a film where the makers´ disdain for their audience is palpable; “you see these reprehensible characters on the screen?” they ask us. “That´s what we think of you.”
Katharine Heigl stars as Abby, a high-powered producer on a local news show; Gerard Butler is Mike, the macho host of The Ugly Truth, a self-help public access television show for men. They´re the opposites that come to blows and eventually attract, but really, they may as well have been playing Nurse Ratched and Leatherface (and I daresay we would more sympathy for them if that were the case): Abby is a flighty, faux-professional high-maintenance ‘dumb blonde´, while Mike is a just a sexist pig.
Two more unpleasant characters I couldn´t imagine, but just for fun, let´s spend 90 minutes with them in a light romantic comedy. To boost ratings, ‘shock jock´ Mike is brought on to Abby´s news program. They clash at first, as Mike introduces a new brand of infotainment that involves jell-o wrestling, but he soon cuts a deal with the desperate Abby: if he can help her in her love life (seduce her hot new next door neighbor), she´ll stop verbally assaulting him every chance she gets. This leads to some lovely scenes detailing a lesson on eating a hot dog in front of a man, and why you shouldn´t wear vibrating panties out to a company dinner. And bring the remote with you. And then misplace it.
What really struck me here is how far this film is removed from reality: if you´ve ever seen a decent movie about the inner-workings of a news program, like Network, or Broadcast News, or hell, even Anchorman, you´ll have some idea of how things work behind the camera. The Ugly Truth features off-script, entirely improvised news segments that the producers never cut away from, even when they go on forever, or bring the cameras on excursions outside the studio, or when the f-bombs start dropping. I´m not asking for journalistic integrity from this movie, but you´d think they´d throw it in just to look good.
The Ugly Truth was written by three women (!), who seem to have based the personalities of their lead characters off a domestic disturbance call from an episode of Cops: “y´know, I hate these awful people, but they´re the ones coming to see our movies.” The director was Robert Luketic, who made the Jane Fonda/Jennifer Lopez misfire Monster-in-Law and Legally Blonde, which at least knew what it was and let the audience in on the joke.
Heigl and Butler are talented and likable performers; at least, in other movies. Here, they´re annoying caricatures, and for most of the film they´re downright unpleasant to be around. The lone bright spots in the cast are John Michael Higgins and Cheryl Hines as an unhappily married news team.
Heigl gained some notoriety for her comments on Judd Apatow´s Knocked Up in an issue of Vanity Fair, where she called the film “a little sexist”; I´d really like to know what she thinks of this one. All those abhorrent characteristics on display The Ugly Truth, including rampant sexism, are representative of the film as a whole. The message here: Abby, the successful but romantically-challenged producer, needs to be repeatedly humiliated and knocked down a few pegs before she can win a lovely misogynistic beau like Mike. Ugh.
I hated this movie with such a passion that I almost want to doubt my objectivity on the issue. Others seem to have given it a pass, but proceed with caution.
In the Final Destination movies, a member of a group of teens has a premonition that allows the group to survive a tragic accident that would have otherwise killed them all. Death ain´t too happy about this, so he starts picking them off one-by-one using Rube Goldberg-like devices that usually involve sharp and blunt instruments acting in tandem on their own volition. There´s four of these movies now, each nearly the same as the last – they´re not really sequels but remakes, with little chronological significance between them.
None of these films have been much good; I didn´t care for the first or third (both directed by James Wong), but the second (from David R. Ellis) had an appropriately campy tone and the best sequence in any of the films, a massive highway pileup. Ellis has returned to direct for the awkwardly titled The Final Destination, which is the weakest in the series in terms of plot and character but precisely delivers what the core audience is looking for: two-thirds of the running time here seems to be devoted to watching the elaborate, overly-complicated (if not particularly inventive) death traps unfold. And it´s all in 3D.
The film starts off at McKinley Speedway: teens Nick (Bobby Campo), Lori (Shantel VanSanten), Hunt (Nick Zano), and Janet (Haley Webb) are watching a race, when tragedy strikes: a rogue screwdriver causes a massive accident, sending cars and auto parts into the stands, which begin to collapse and kill them all. It´s entirely implausible, and looks ridiculous in action, but that´s part of the fun. But wait! It was all or dream, or premonition, by Nick: he returns to his senses before the crash happens, and rustles his friends and a few other stragglers out of the track, sparing their lives when tragedy inevitably strikes.
So now, death has to kill them, one-by-one, in the order that they were supposed to die, using ridiculously complicated methods. As they´re picked off, they try to plan how to cheat death and survive. But after four of these movies, I´m not so sure how the rules work, and I don´t think the filmmakers are either. But nevermind the plot; it´s purely a background detail.
Watch! A ceiling fan slowly unhinges! Hand lotion is spilled onto the floor! A cold drink forms moisture! A bottle of hair spray slowly makes its way across the table! And the scissors – well, they just sit there menacingly, waiting for the right time to strike. Watching The Final Destination is like watching some Rube Goldberg videos on YouTube, except at the end, somebody dies.
And yet, I was surprised at how well these scenes mange to sustain interest, if not a mild level of suspense. They just work: as the devices are unfolding, it´s almost as if you´re watching a documentary on how so many things can go so terribly wrong. At a beauty salon, a swimming pool, or (my favorite) a car wash. Ellis brings the same campy tone here that befit the second film in the series, which is appreciated. This is, ultimately, more comedy than horror. Most everything else is subpar, from poor CGI to bland cinematography to poor acting.
The 3D, however, is entirely competent. It´s best in the early scenes at the racetrack, with cars zooming by us and objects flying at us, and there´s a sense of depth throughout the film. It´s a notch below the work on My Bloody Valentine 3D, however – I felt true dimensionality in some scenes there. Here, we usually just have sharp actors and objects in the foreground set against an unfocused background. Knock off at least half a star from my rating if you see this in 2D.
Also opening: The Pagan Queen (showtimes | IMDb), a Czech-US co-production directed by Constantin Werner and starring Marek Vašut, Pavel Kříž, Veronika Bellová, and Winter Ave Zoli. Screening in English with Czech subtitles.