Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Not long for Boston: The Lady, Detention, and L!fe Happens

I'll keep this short because these movies really aren't long for Boston: The Lady will be hanging around with half a screen at Kendall Square next weekend, but Detention and L!fe Happens won't be hanging around past Thursday. A shame; although Detention is the only one of the three I can really recommend whole-heartedly (and that with the "it may move faster than old farts like us can handle caveats). They've all got something to recommend them, though, and if you've got Thursday evening free, you could do worse than my Sunday evening double feature.

The Lady

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 April 2012 in Landmark Kendall Square #8 (first-run, 35mm)

In addition to directing his own films, Luc Besson has spent the past decade or two writing and producing action movies tailored to their stars; Michelle Yeoh was arguably the biggest female action star in the world during the 1990s. So it makes perfect sense that they would team up for the biography of a pacifist who sticks to her principles. They do surprisingly well, though, at least to a point.

In 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi (Yeoh) is living in Oxford, married to historian Michael Aris (David Thewlis), when she gets a call that her mother has had a stroke back in Burma. When she arrives, she gets more scrutiny than usual from the security services, because as the daughter of martyred national hero Aung San, she could rally the country's pro-democracy movement. She tries to stay focused on her family, but a crackdown that spills into the hospital has Suu Kyi drawn in. Of course, while she makes sure to adhere to the law, the military junta has no such compunctions.

Suu Kyi, as portrayed here, is pretty close to a saint, and saints can be difficult to get a handle on - a constant stream of doing the right thing in the right way for the right reasons is the way we would like the world to work, but it can be kind of dull, dramatically. What Besson and writer Rebecca Frayn do that makes it work is to underplay Suu Kyi is the daughter of a martyr doing something extraordinary as opposed to a good woman making an almost reflexive attempt to help. Comedic cutaways to Michael having trouble with household tasks or the kids being average teenagers help this - it makes Suu Kyi someone we can understand rather than an unattainable paragon, smoothing over the irony of someone who is effectively a princess leading a campaign for democracy.

Full review at EFC.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 15 April 2012 in AMC Boston Common #7 (first-run, DLP)

Some things about Detention make me think that director Joseph Kahn isn't just making a movie for young audiences, but taunting ones my age. A movie that asks "how hard is it to be cool in 1992?" (my high school graduation year) while moving at such a relentlessly 21st Century pace will either trigger early onset Grumpy Old Manism or challenge us to catch up with the next generation (or over-praise it to look like we're not dinosaurs). I opt for the second; Detention may be flawed, but not for being frenetic.

After a fourth-wall-obliterating opening gambit leaves the most popular girl at Grizzly Lake High School dead, attention shifts to Riley Jones (Shanley Caswell), a loser with her foot in a walking cast and a crush on boy-next-door Clapton Davis (Josh Hutcherson). That classic underachiever is dating 1990s fetishist Ione (Spencer Locke), to the consternation of raging jock Billy Nolan (Parker Bagley), who intends to beat Clapton to a pulp after school. Despite being suicidal and not thinking much of Sander Sanderson (Aaron David Johnson), the guy who does like her, Riley fights back when the killer targets her next. With nobody believing she was targeted, she's going to have to find the killer herself, and a movie-copying serial killer isn't the strangest thing going on in this school.

Really, not by a long shot. Kahn and co-writer Mark Palermo have kids building time machines, reports of flying saucers, Canadian debate champions, kids who have had Saturday detention for decades and principal Dane Cook. The theory appears to be that everyone in the audience knows the basics of a high-school-set film even if they're old enough that the real thing is a fairly distant memory, and any time that might otherwise be spent telling people what they already know can be spent on something that is actually entertaining. This isn't always a great idea; sometimes, that seeming filler would be pretty useful for making Riley's suicidal feelings come off as something more than a tacky plot device, and some of the tangents are just a different kind of bloat. More often than not, though, it means that something not just funny or exciting (or at least going for that), but unexpected, is happening during every minute of the film.

Full review at EFC.

L!fe Happens

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 April 2012 in AMC Boston Common #6 (first-run, DLP)

Krysten Ritter tends to make everything she's in better, and as a result she's been a go-to girl for best friends and sidekicks in romantic comedies and the like. It's steady work, but if an actress doesn't take her career into her own hands, it's all she'll ever have, even if she's got the charisma and talent for lead roles. Ritter seems to have figured this out, co-writing and producing her own star vehicle in Life Happens.

About a year ago, Kim (Ritter) and Deena (Kate Bosworth) found themselves with a guy in each of their bedrooms and just one condom between them, so now they're not just sharing a house with roommate Laura (Rachel Bilson), but Kim's son Max. On the surface, not much has changed, but Max's surfer father heading out on tour and her boss (Kristen Johnston) not liking babies as much as dogs means she's leaning on Deena and Laura more and more, and when she meets a nice guy (Geoff Stults) who might not be looking for a single mom, well, what's a little white lie?

Kim may not be a great role, but it's a good one, and Ritter clearly knows her own strengths. Both her expressive face and sharp tongue are put to good use; she can get more laughs out of rolled eyes and self-deprecating one-liners than others can get from pages of material. She's good at the sort of self-centeredness that can be grown out of, and her particular charm is neither abrasive not based on being any sort of shrinking violet. She's funny and sweet and adds life to every scene she's in.

Full review at EFC.

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