From the Editor
Thank you for checking out my movie review archive. I'm in the process of transitioning to something else, so I will no longer post new reviews to this blog. In the meantime, I will keep these reviews archived; these are from the fall of 2008 to April 2011. Please watch this blog for more info and keep in touch (you can still find me on Facebook and Twitter). Here's to more great movies!
North Texas Film Critics Association
Saturday, October 24, 2009
"The Damned United" an enjoyable, winning British sports movie
Those in the United States will be pleased to know that there are other sports that exist outside of American football or baseball (try telling them that on a weekend in the fall, though). "The Damned United" is an enjoyable, winning sports movie about the hugely popular sport of soccer in England. A largely fictionalized account of the brief tenure of manager Brian Clough of the Leeds United team in 1974, it's well-written, well-acted and charming enough to please those that have little knowledge of the sport.
Previously managed by his bitter rival Don Revie (Colm Meaney), and on the back of their most successful period ever as a football club, Leeds was perceived by many to represent a new aggressive and cynical style of football - an anathema to the principled yet flamboyant Brian Clough (Michael Sheen), who had achieved astonishing success as manager of the Hartlepool and Derby County teams and building them in his own vision with trusted lieutenant Peter Taylor (familiar "Harry Potter" actor Timothy Spall). Taking the Leeds job without Taylor and with a club still regarded as Don's boys, would lead to an unheralded examination of Clough’s belligerence and brilliance over just 44 days.
"The Damned United" is an engaging, entertaining sports movie based on the fictional best-selling novel "The Damned Utd," with a dark but often amusing tone. The material is well executed by British TV director Tom Hooper, even if many across the pond will complain that it didn't go down this way. What is interesting about "The Damned United" is that is provides details of the management of a soccer team, something that many in the United States are unfamiliar with. Politics, heated rivalries and bickering are as much a part of soccer as just about any sport.
However, the center of "The Damned United" is brash, outspoken Clough, played with panache and skill by Sheen, who's again teamed with screenwriter Peter Morgan, writer of "The Queen" and last year's "Frost/Nixon," who again impressively tackles real-life folks and events, making them easily accessible to movie audiences. Clough isn't exactly portrayed as a sympathetic character during this time with Leeds (but then who was), but those familiar with the sport in England will know that he went on to far greater success after his 44-day stint with Leeds.
Also memorable in "The Damned United" are well-known British character actors Spall as Clough's close but wise friend who didn't accompany him to Leeds, Meaney as Clough's rival Revie and Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent in a small part as one of the club's owners. The film is jumpy and uneven as it goes back and forth in time, switching from Leeds to some of other Clough's prior experience in Derby and other places, which could lose those that are already unfamiliar with soccer. However, the best scene comes in the film's last act, when Clough and Revie finally meet on national television to discuss their differences, a humorous exchange (the expressions of both men tell how they really feel) you won't easily forget.
The game scenes in "The Damned United" provide much of the film's energy and charm, not to mention an excellent performance from Sheen. Even if you don't know much about soccer, "The Damned United" scores and ends up a winner, recommended for Sheen's performance alone. Stay over for the credits to see the real-life characters.
"This Is It": Entertaining but unrevealing MJ doc
"This Is It" bills itself as "Michael Jackson as you've never seen him before," which is partly right, given that we get a chance to see him in his final performances rehearsing for concerts that he would've given before he tragically died last summer. Michael Jackson rehearsing is almost as good as the real thing, right? Well, sort of. "This Is It" is indeed something new - the concert rehearsal film - and while there are some electric, entertaining moments, it doesn't shed any personal insights into the unique, multifaceted performer.
The documentary, which according to the epilogue, was intended for Jackson's private use, was culled from hundreds of hours of footage as MJ prepared for his series of comeback concerts, aptly titled, "This Is It," featuring a majority of his classic songs. Directed by choreographer Kenny Ortega, who helmed Disney's "High School Musical" movies and who was the tour director for this concert, the footage was shot backstage and at rehearsals at The Forum and the Staples Center in Los Angeles earlier this spring. The biggest surprise about the film is that the film's more memorable moments aren't provided by Jackson, but by the staging of the concert itself.
"This Is It" doesn't reveal anything new that we didn't already know about Jackson - that he was a gifted, passionate performer who was involved with every detail of his shows - and given that this is rehearsal footage, doesn't exactly show him at his very best as a performer. The restraint he shows here in preparing for the concert indicates he was preserving his energy for the actual performances later down the road.
It also doesn't show any signs of the troubled celebrity he was made out to be at his death, he appears to be performing quite normally (for him at least). Even with that, "This Is It" does show that Michael still had some moves as he exhibits potency in performances of "Thriller," "I'll Be There" (a touching moment), "The Way You Make Me Feel," and particularly with "Billie Jean."
Even more so, "This Is It" is more revealing when it comes to the actual production and some of the visuals that were to be used, which provide some of the film's more fascinating moments. We discover that new 3D footage was shot for "Thriller," not to mention incorporating MJ into a few brief scenes of the classic Rita Hayworth film "Gilda" as part of a "Smooth Criminal" performance (and a nice touch). And some of the special effects and sets used with "They Don't Care About Us" and "The Way You Make Me Feel" are visually stunning.
What can you do with all this rehearsal footage? Not too much, at least in giving us personal, close-up glimpses of Michael Jackson the person, obviously a different person offstage, but that may be saved for another film. "This Is It" doesn't show off Michael so much as it shows off the concert itself, which isn't a bad thing, just an unfortunate one, as the production would've probably made for a fantastic concert and a great career comeback.
"This Is It" is a decent backstage concert film and more fascinating for what could've been but more sad that Jackson's life was cut far too short.
Sunday, October 18, 2009
Another Halloween, another bad "Saw" film
Horror film enthusiasts must salivate at this time of year, with new grisly horror films being released and re-released. Since 2004, when the low-budget and graphically violent horror film "Saw" became a huge hit, there has been a new "Saw" film every Halloween, and this year is no different, with the sixth installment of the popular horror film franchise featuring serial killer Jigsaw. Unlike the other "Saw" films, I'm not reviewing this one, since this one will be like all the other ones in this series: graphically violent, loads of blood, bad acting, writing and direction. There 'ya have it in a nutshell. Since these films are hugely popular, they don't screen them for critics since they'll likely be trashed and "Saw VI" was no different. If you must go see it, have fun with it, but this one I'll pass on, as I've seen it already 5 times. I've included the film's premise and a link for reviews and additional movie information.
Special Agent Strahm is dead, and Detective Hoffman has emerged as the unchallenged successor to Jigsaw's legacy. However, when the FBI draws closer to Hoffman, he is forced to set a game into motion, and Jigsaw's grand scheme is finally understood.
You can find "official" reviews and more of the new "Saw" film at the Rotten Tomatoes site:
"New York, I Love You": flat and uninteresting
Love happens in a variety of different ways, some good, some bad, which fittingly explains the new film "New York, I Love You." With 11 unrelated short films around 10 minutes by different directors and starring a wide gallery of actors, the film has a similar theme and structure as the 2006 film "Paris, je t'aime" ("Paris, I Love You") and produced by the same person, it should capture love happening against the backdrop of one of a famously romantic city. Instead, the intriguing premises is problematic, since the films aren't long enough (and some aren't that good) to have a big impact, and you end up with a messy but nice looking film but lacks sensuality.
Of the 11 shorts films, the more memorable ones include the one directed by Shekar Kapur ("Elizabeth") and starring Julie Christie and Shia LeBeouf and interestingly, an amusing one from Brett Ratner (yes, that Brett Ratner of the dreadful "Rush Hour" films) and starring Olivia Thirlby, Anton Yelchin and James Caan about a young boy (Yelchin) who gets quite a surprise with his prom date. And by the way, the one featuring and directed by Natalie Portman, is probably the worst one of the lot, a strange one about a woman's romance with a rabbi. The short segment featuring an annoying Ethan Hawke (but an amusing Maggie Q), would've been better had it been more substantial, which speaks to the film itself. And I was truly baffled by the odd segment featuring Orlando Bloom and Christina Ricci and turned off by the one with Bradley Cooper and Drea De Matteo.
Chris Cooper, Hayden Christensen, Rachel Bilson, Robin Wright Penn, Cloris Leachman, Eli Wallach, Andy Garcia, Justin Bartha and Blake Lively are the many other actors wasted in their segments, in mediocre films that don't have much to say or do. The premise, which worked OK with the aforementioned "Paris, I Love You" (and also featuring Portman), doesn't work as well here. Uninteresting, flat and unmemorable, it doesn't say much about relationships or love in general and worst of all, doesn't do New York City justice the way it should.
Entertaining, glossy "Amelia" skims the surface
Amelia Earhart was a true pioneer in advancing the role of women in society, not to mention her vast contributions to the world of aviation. The new biographical film "Amelia" is an affecting, handsomely-filmed look at a small part of her life, though it summarizes too many details and falls short in detailing her true inspiration to become a pilot. Well-cast and sublimely directed by Mira Nair, "Amelia" isn't completely satisfying but is worth a look particularly for aviation and history buffs.
It's the early 1930's, and the young Earhart (played by Hilary Swank) is slowly making a name for herself as a woman pilot. George Putnam (Richard Gere), is a successful promoter who takes Earhart under his wing and helps her become a celebrity in the throes of the U.S. Depression. The ambitious Earhart makes a name for herself but her real dream is to fly solo across the globe. She and Putnam become romantically involved during this time and they marry, and he secures a state-of-the-art Electra airplane, funded by Purdue University where Earhart was a visiting faculty member, to help her achieve her goal. After gaining considerable experience flying, in the summer of 1937 she finally sets out on her mission of flying solo around the globe, only to meet with ill-fated results.
"Amelia" is a sensitive portrayal of the aviation pioneer, and the top-notch, glossy production is both engaging and empty, and isn't quite a fully realized portrait of a towering figure. Earhart had such a intriguing life, particularly early on, that it's unfortunate that the film leaves out many, many details of her life, and skims over the real source of inspiration for her and how she got her start flying; it picks up in 1931 and focuses on her later career and her marriage to Putnam. Not that it's dull or uninteresting, but the foundation of Earhart's career seems to be missing.
Even with that, it's fitting that a skilled female director like Nair ("The Namesake") undertakes a challenging project like "Amelia." She's serviceable in handling the the flying scenes and some of the exchanges between Earhart and Putnam are emotionally engaging. It also helps that she has a great cast that performs ably: Swank gives another excellent performance and strikingly resembles Earhart, memorably evoking images of the real aviatrix. Gere, normally an acquired taste for many, is also well-cast as Earhart's promoter husband and he and Swank have decent chemistry together. Watch for recent Emmy winner Cherry Jones ("24") in a few brief, amusing scenes as Eleanor Roosevelt.
If you've read the history books, you know that Earhart went missing over the Pacific Ocean in July, 1937 and was never heard from again. It's unfortunate that Earhart's career was cut short. "Amelia" is a soft-edged look, it's entertaining and the handsome production elements, including music, costumes and photography, are all in place and it certainly evokes the feel of the 1930's. "Amelia" is a good film that could've been great, as it only treads the surface of the personal life of a legendary figure.
"The Vampire's Assistant" a carnival of dark energy, fun
Those who are eagerly awaiting the next "Twilight" film can take hope in "Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant," another film with a teenage vampire as its centerpiece that's based on a series of novels. A fun dramedy with energy, interesting characters and solid special effects, "The Vampire's Assistant" lacks the epic scope and edge generally seen in this genre, but it's vastly more entertaining and accessible than "Twilight."
16-year-old Darren (Chris Massoglia) is a normal suburban teenage boy. He hangs out with his best friend Steve (Josh Hutcherson), gets decent grades, and tries to steer clear of trouble. But when he and Steve stumble upon a traveling freak show, things begin to change inside Darren. That’s the exact moment when a vampire named Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly) turns him into something bloodthirsty. Darren must become a "half-vampire" to save his friend Steve from a poison from a spider.
Newly undead, he joins the Cirque Du Freak, a touring sideshow filled with monstrous creatures from a Evra the gentle snakeboy (Patrick Fugit) to a bearded lady (Salma Hayek) and a gigantic ringmaster Mr. Tall (Ken Watanabe). As Darren develops his newfound powers in this new dark world, he becomes a treasured pawn between the warring vampires. Struggling for survival, one boy will struggle to keep their brewing war from devouring what’s left of his humanity.
Comparisons to "Twilight" notwithstanding, "Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant" stands on its own as an enjoyable, darkly amusing entry in the glut of vampire films and TV shows seen lately. Director Paul Weitz (usually teamed with his brother Chris), of "American Pie" and "About A Boy," seems an odd choice to direct and co-write the film, but he moves the film along with a fast-paced plot and engaging characters, though some of it lacks suspense and a dark edge seen with other vampire movies. And of course, the ending leaves it open for more movies, unsuprising given its source.
Based on the series of books called "The Darren Shan Saga" by Darren Shan, "The Vampire's Assistant" is actually based on the first three books in the series (there are 12 books total), and Weitz along with Brian Helgeland (writer of the recent "The Taking of Pelham 123") does a serviceable job of adapting the novels for the screen. The scope lacks an epic nature and blood - there's actually very little graphic violence here - for obvious PG-13/wide appeal reasons.
Still, Weitz handles the proceedings well, and the highlight of the film is the first-rate special effects, various freakish characters (including a huge, colorful spider), the detailed make-up and the grand orchestral music that adds texture to the film. The mixture of comedy and drama gives the film good balance not to mention some good performances from a large, eclectic cast.
Reilly is particularly memorable who proves he's adept at handling both comedy and drama (and please stay away from Will Ferrell), along with newcomer Massoglia, who reminds of a younger Ashton Kutcher with depth and acting abilities. As his counterpart, Hutcherson does well with an underwritten role, though Hayek is seen far too briefly as the bearded lady, and Willem Dafoe cameos in a non-essential role.
"The Vampire's Assistant" is what "Twilight" should've been: more amusing, entertaining and with better production elements. Some elements are predictable (the showdown between friends, one good the other bad) and obvious while others, such as the "half-vampire" idea provide for some intriguing moments and hopefully will be explored in future installments, which the ending clearly leaves it open for. "The Vampire's Assistant" could've been far darker, but it's still an enjoyable, pre-Halloween outing for those want to get their vampire freak on.
Colorful animated remake "Astro Boy" a blast for all ages
"Astro Boy" is decent entertainment for the young set and a good diversion while parents go see "Paranormal Activity." Actually, adults may enjoy the colorful, energetic "Astro Boy" as well and may remember it in its original U.S. or Japanese TV version back in the '60s. A solid big-screen remake with some zippy, clean visuals and a talented voice talent, "Astro Boy" is a serviceable animated effort.
Set in the futuristic Metro City, "Astro Boy" concerns a young robot (Freddie Highmore) with incredible powers created by a brilliant scientist, Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage), in the image of his son Toby he lost in a freak accident. Unable to fulfill Dr. Tenma's expectations, Toby, who now calls himself Astro, finds himself on a journey in search of acceptance, becoming part of a group of rowdy kids led by a girl named Cora (Kristen Bell) and supervised by their greedy, self-serving leader Ham Egg (Nathan Lane), before he returns to save Metro City to save the city from an evil politician (Donald Sutherland) who wants to rule the metropolis with an iron hand.
"Astro Boy" is an enjoyable, adventure-filled origin story that seemingly sets the stage for a series of these super-boy hero movies. Those who are old enough to remember the original TV series (you can check these out on Hulu.com, by the way) and comic books conveys the spirit of its source while making some contemporary updates. Astro Boy himself resembles the original wavy-haired character but updated with fresh gadgetry and characters, good given that its sci-fi "Pinocchio"-style premise is a tad creepy if you think about it too much.
Directed with zeal David Bowers of "Flushed Away," "Astro Boy" has too many elements of other movies and TV shows - "The Jetsons" and "Spider Man" come to mind here the latter particuarly when "Astro Boy" discovers his powers, not to mention a disjointed ending, but it's designed to appeal to the younger set, and on that level, it works fine. It also helps that the first-rate animation is crisp and bright, filled with energy and well-voiced by an A-list cast.
Astro is voiced with emotion by child actor Freddie Highmore of "The Spiderwick Chronicles" and "August Rush," who's partnered with the equally likable, peppy Bell of "Heroes." Add Donald Sutherland and Nathan Lane as the bad guys, Nicolas Cage as Astro's Dad, Bill Nighy as a caring scientist and Eugene Levy as a comical robot and "Astro Boy" ends up a worthy animated effort. Listen closely for Samuel L. Jackson and Charlize Theron in barely-there voice cameos that make their star-billing baffling.
There are some fun, snappy scenes in "Astro Boy," the best of which involves a big robot named Zog, and Astro fighting some robots "Gladiator" style and it runs smoothly until a badly conceived climax. It's an overlong, rather ostentatious battle between good and evil, but even with that its primary audience, the kiddoes, will have a blast as Astro saves the day. "Astro Boy" should be a modest hit, which should give way to more big-screen, high-flying adventures of our pint-sized hero.
Sunday, October 11, 2009
More dark comedy from the Coen's with "A Serious Man"
Joel and Ethan Coen have made some seriously dark comedic films over the years, including "Raising Arizona" and "Fargo" (in my estimation two of their best films), and "A Serious Man" fits perfectly into their repertoire. This film is black comedy with a Jewish flavor and a higher brow than normal, peppered with some darkly amusing moments. The uneven, very leisurely paced "A Serious Man" isn't their best but is well-written with enough memorable moments to keep it in the upper echelon of Coen Brothers films.
Set in the midwest in the 1960's, "A Serious Man" concerns Larry Gopnik (stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg, in a breakthrough film performance), a math professor at a suburban community college whose life is clearly unraveling. His wife Judith (Sari Lennick) is leaving him for a pompous older acquaintance named Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) mainly due to the fact that his inept, dense brother Arthur (Richard Kind, nearly stealing the movie) won't move out.
Meanwhile, an anonymous, vicious letter writer is threatening his chances at tenure at the university, while the attractive next door neighbor Mrs. Samsky (Amy Landecker) tempts him by sunbathing nude, and his reckless son Danny (Aaron Wolf) is a discipline problem. Larry attempts to get help by going to three different rabbi's, who don't help much. Can anyone help him cope with his afflictions and become a righteous person -- a mensch -- a serious man?
"A Serious Man," unlike some of the Coen's other efforts, is a dark dramedy, a mixture of serious with the comedic with several layers. One hallmark of the Coen's are well-written, well-developed characters, which are found here as well in abundance. Unlike their other efforts, this is one far more leisurely, far more talky and doesn't feature any big name actors, just a handful of character actors whose faces you may recognize. Tony-nominated actor Stulhbarg admirably carries the film in an excellent performance as the put-upon Larry that will rightfully earn him accolades.
The Coen's uneven, slow pacing isn't helpful in managing all the different subplots, another Coen trademark that doesn't work as well here. But there are still many memorable scenes and fun, ongoing jokes (one about the Columbia Record Club is amusing), and the scenes with the rabbi's are eventful as well. The prologue is a downright odd one and it takes a little time to get things going, but once you get in, you'll be hooked down to the humorous, well-handled finale.
"A Serious Man" isn't in the league of the aforementioned classic films "Fargo" or "Raising Arizona" but still a treat and recommended viewing.
Stale, unsurprising "Stepfather" a bore, waste of talent
Steparents beware: the new thriller "The Stepfather" doesn't exactly give a positive view of steparents, as in they're like, serial killers. That's the main premise of the insipid new horror/thriller that's a waste of time and talent. You know exactly who the bad guy is from the first frame, and it goes down hill from there.
Michael ("Gossip Girl's" Penn Badgley) returns home from military school to find his mother (Sela Ward) happily in love and living with her new boyfriend, David ("Nip/Tuck's" Dylan Walsh). He seems like the perfect father and husband to everyone - except Michael, who suspects that he isn't quite the man he seems to be. Along with his girlfriend Kelly (Amber Heard), his biological father Jay (Jon Tenney), and Susan’s friends (Paige Turco and Sherry Stingfield), they slowly start to piece together the mystery of the man who is set to become his stepfather, but they may be too late in getting to the truth.
"The Stepfather" is a second-rate, banal horror wannabe film that's remake of a bad 1980's horror film. It's altogether unsurprising and carries little suspense: the audience knows from the first frame that David is a serial killer, a very bad person, and someone who always carries a lot of cash. That leaves little mystery except to his new dense family he surrounds himself, who takes the movie to figure out who the guy really is.
Silly, predictable, badly written and acted, it wastes an attractive, mostly small-screen cast. Walsh, a decent actor on "Nip/Tuck," is hammy and miscast, and the film truly falters since it relies on him to carry the film and give it a little edge. Badgley is quite empty as the film's supposed heroine, and even supporting players Tenney ("The Closer") and Stringfield ("ER") are more at home on the small screen.
I do love me some Sela Ward though (she of "House," "Sisters" and "Once and Again") and she a beacon of warmth in a movie that is sorely need of intelligent writing, energy and a few real jumps. From her short 'do to her radiant smile, I wish this was a more substantial role (plus, she and Walsh make for an odd, misplaced couple) in a more entertaining movie than in this hackneyed, largely bloodless horror film without a sharp edge. Although Walsh's character does kill the annoying cat lady early on in "The Stepfather," even she deserves better than this.
Interestingly Badgley, of TV's "Gossip Girl," is the drawing card for the younger, hipper set, and they turn out in spite of the bad reviews (or lack of them, since it wasn't screened in advance for critics, never a good sign). It's unfortunate that "The Stepfather" is a laughable thriller that wastes one of my favorite actresses. Sela Ward, find yourself a better movie.
Enjoyable, wistful but empty "Where the Wild Things Are"
Everything about the new film "Where the Wild Things Are" is different. From the astonishing costumes to the snappy indie-rock score to the beloved source material itself, it wears its unconventional nature on its sleeve. Based on the popular but odd and very short children's book of the same name, the enjoyable but empty "Where the Wild Things" remains true to the offbeat, wistful spirit of the book even it's stretched and padded to fill 90 minutes.
Max (Max Records), a rambunctious and sensitive boy feels misunderstood at home and escapes to where the Wild Things are. He lands on an island with seven mysterious and strange monsters whose emotions are as wild and unpredictable as their actions. There's Carol (James Gandolfini), who has a temper problem; the bird-like Douglas (Chris Cooper), who's Carol's right-hand man; the couple Ira (Forest Whitaker) and Judith (Catherine O'Hara); a goat named Alexander (Paul Dano) that no one listens to; the menacing, silent Bull (Michael Berry, Jr.) and KW (Lauren Ambrose), the young voice-of-reason within the group of Wild Things.
The Wild Things desperately long for a leader to guide them, just as Max longs for a kingdom to rule. When Max is crowned king, he promises to create a place where everyone will be happy. Max soon finds, though, that ruling his kingdom is not so easy and his relationships there prove to be more complicated than he originally thought.
Based on Maurice Sendak's classic children's book, "Where the Wild Things Are" is a handsome, entertaining but somewhat vacuous production, but then it didn't come without its challenges. Director and co-writer Spike Jonze ("Being John Malkovich") does an adequate job in adapting Sendak's difficult, essentially unfilmable story, which is only 10 lines long, leaving quite a bit to be filled in over the course of a feature-length film. Some elements work, such as adding creature identities, while others, such as some of the inter-creature drama (not to mention a mud clot fight) seem like empty filling, lacking an emotional pull and poignancy to unify the story. If the story doesn't amaze you, then the special effects will.
The dazzling creatures in "Wild Things," impressively created by The Jim Henson Creature Shop with a mixture of CGI, animatronics and suitmation (basically the actors in enormous suits with their expressions added over the creatures faces in post-production), is the clear highlight of the film and what you'll remember it for. Somehow all of this works, even if it slightly overwhelms the story; it's also unnecessary for the actors to contribute physically when voice work and a few expressions would've sufficed. Still, they all do an admirable job, with young newcomer Records carrying the film well, and Dano, Ambrose and O'Hara the standouts of the Wild Things.
Also a standout in the "Wild Things" production is the folksy, energetic indie-rock score by director Jonze's ex-girlfriend Karen Orzolek (or just Karen O, as she's commonly known) of the punk rock band Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs that memorably adds to the unconventional tone of the film. The single "All Is Love," heard in the trailers and over the end credits, is a catchy, downloadable tune that should be a hit.
"Where the Wild Things Are" is an impressive, handsomely filmed (and expensive) production that would have hit a home run had it connected emotionally to its audience. The mid-section in particular is too slow and it lacks a strong, emotional hook and an overriding theme to take home. This a decent effort from director Jonze and company (the creatures and the music are both Oscar-worthy): it's entertaining and wholly suitable for the family, even if you won't get much out of it.
Monday, October 5, 2009
Original but thin "The Invention of Lying" has some fun moments
"The Invention of Lying" is a high-concept comedy with an original premise but a weak plot and thin story. There are some engaging moments along the way, unsurprising that its star, co-director and co-writer is British comedian Ricky Gervais (he created the U.K. version of "The Office"). Given that many might find a mixture of romantic comedy and religious satire an awkward one (it is), its appeal may be limited.
"Lying" is a comedy set in a world where no one can tell a lie and you know exactly how everyone feels. Gervais a hapless, single screenwriter named Mark who has trouble with relationships, to say the least. He goes on a date with the beautiful and successful Anna (Jennifer Garner), who isn't attracted to him. His secretary (Tina Fey) despises him, and he is generally unliked by his co-workers, including Rob Lowe and Jeffrey Tambor. Then one day Mark realizes that you can actually lie, and people will believe it. He becomes rich, successful and popular the world-over telling lies that he feels people want to hear.
"The Invention of Lying" is a fun comedy that is funniest when it stays focused on its premise and people tell the truth. When it veers off into romantic comedy and other subplots, it loses focus and humor. Gervais is a genuinely funny fellow, though, and its because of him that the movie works as well as it does. Just know that the tone may be viewed as sacrilegious and offputting to some, but it skewers all religions (Gervais, by the way, is an athiest, if that wasn't obvious). His version of "the Ten Commandments" is written down on a couple of pizza boxes, if that gives you any idea how all this works.
Gervais and Garner have good chemistry, but one mistake that Gervais makes is loading the film down with too many cameos and stunt casting parts. A load of actors including Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Guest and Jason Bateman all have walk-ons, some more successful than others (Hoffman - funny, Norton - not funny) while a load of other immensely talented actors are underused, especially "30 Rock's" Tina Fey, who has loads of good one-liners in a small role as Gervais's secretary ("You don't have any messages because I told everyone you were getting fired," she says.)
The mix of romantic comedy and religious satire in "Lying" is an uneven one, and the romantic comedy scenes don't really fit; it would have worked better had it focused strictly on the no-lying premise. Gervais is a talented, award-winning comedian, though "The Invention of Lying" isn't one of his better efforts. This may be for hardcore Gervais fans only, which is a limited appeal at best.
"Paranormal Activity" a genuinely frightening experience
There's been lots of buzz and hype surrounding the new film "Paranormal Activity," a low-budget horror "mockumentary" made for $15,000 by a novice, unknown filmmaker that's still awaiting wide release. Something similar happened 10 years ago with the horror film "The Blair Witch Project," or as I call it, "The Blah Witch Project" for its inability to produce any real scares, but "Paranormal Activity" is a legitimately scary, often terrifying film that much like "Blair Witch," plays on our fears of the unknown.
"Paranormal Activity" centers on a young San Diego couple, Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat), who are haunted by a demonic presence. Katie has been haunted by a demonic presence for years, and wherever she tends to be, strange things start to happen. Micah becomes fascinated and begins documenting everything on camera, especially at night, when really weird things take place. Hoping to help rid Katie of the presence for good so they can go on with their lives, Micah's "project" of documenting all the creaks, noises, shadows and other unusual activities may do more harm than good.
"Paranormal Activity" is a genuinely creepy, eerie film that produces some decent chills and thrills without elaborate special effects, makeup or loads of gore that mainstream horror films rely on far too much. Even more remarkable is the fact that the film was made - both directed and written - by Oren Peli, a filmmaker with no formal film training, for $15,000 and a hand-held camera over a 7-day shoot. That by itself may be a draw, but "Paranormal Activity" easily evokes the original "The Haunting" fused with elements of "The Exorcist" and "The Amityville Horror" and far, far more effective at building suspense than most contemporary horror films.
Peli plays on our fears of the unknown, of those things that go bump in the night, and remain largely unseen. Unlike "Blair Witch," we see a little more of the entity here, but not much, over each nighttime episode. With that in mind, "Paranormal's" creepiest and most unsettling scenes are those that, unsurprisingly, happen at evening. The lights go out and all you see are the night vision-esque lights of the camera, which cast a terrifying glow on the sequence of events and makes all those noises and shadows all the more frightening. "Paranormal" isn't without its flaws: there's too much chatter and talk, particularly in the first 20 minutes, but it eventually and effectively builds to a chilling, somewhat startling climax that you may or may not see coming.
Not to spoil things too much, but "Paranormal Activity" is a work of fiction, though it's an impressive feature film debut by Peli (who's already garnered the attention of Spielberg) and well-acted by the two unknown actors, who convey a real sense of fright and interplay well with each other. But the biggest question about the film isn't the subject matter but all that buzz surrounding it. Does it live up to all the hype? The answer is both yes and no. Much like anything that is overhyped, "Paranormal Activity" doesn't live up to the internet claims of the scariest film ever, but a thoroughly disturbing and unconventional horror film that gets under your skin, the answer is a resounding yes.
"Paranormal Activity" is very effective at leaving you with a disturbed, uneasy feeling that stays you with long after you leave the theater. Is this particular story real? Maybe not, but the fact that it could be leaves you with a squeamish feeling in the pit of your stomach. "Paranormal Activity" comes recommended, though to get the full value out of it, you must stay all the way until the very end. A perfect Halloween feature, hopefully it'll have a wide release by then.
Tiresome "Couples Retreat" isn't as fun as it looks
"Couples Retreat" should have everything going for it. A talented cast, headlined by Vince Vaughn. A scenic tropical location. A script written by Vaughn himself and pal Jon Favreau, director of "Iron Man" who also co-stars in the film. Then why does it plummet to mediocrity so quickly? In spite of a handful of reflex laughs you've already seen in the trailers, this thinly- drawn and predictable comedy is so tiresome you'll be worn out by the end. Oh, and it's also not that funny.
"Couples Retreat" centered around four couples who settle into a tropical-island resort for a vacation. The couples have gone at the encouragement of Jason (Jason Bateman) and Cynthia (Kristen Bell), whose very structured marriage is on the verge of collapse. They'll get a group price if the rest of their friends go. Dave (Vaughn) and Ronnie (Malin Akerman) are a busy couple with two young kids; Joey (Favreau) and Lucy ("Sex and the City's" Kristin Davis) married at a young age and need a break; and newly divorced Shane (Faizon Love) will use it as a getaway to impress his young girlfriend Trudy (Kali Hawk).
They believe they'll go to have fun in the sun while they help support Jason and Cynthia. Wrong. The part of the island they're on is basically a big couples therapy session designed to help strengthen a marriage, but could end up destroying all of their relationships in the process.
The film's weak premise starts out modestly well but has nowhere to go and suffers under a couple of crucial mistakes. The first is having another Vaughn pal, Peter Billingsley, who is best remembered as the cute Ralphie from "A Christmas Story," direct; his glaring lack of flair for comedy and inexperience shows in the mishandling of the material. The other big mistake is Vaughn and Favreau's lackluster, unoriginal script, filled with unlovable, one-dimensional characters and predictable setups (sharks, swinging single and muscle studs) that you can see coming from a mile away.
Sure, Vaughn is a funny guy who makes most dialogue seem better than it really is and some of his usual overreactions highlight the film (but he's still annoyingly chatty, unsurprising given he wrote the script). But the premise of "Couples Retreat" grows tiresome, repetitive and unfunnier with each episode, going on about 20 minutes too long trying too hard to wrap everything up in a nice package. A braver, more realistic ending could've worked far better instead of the falsely happy, insincere ending that the writers opted for.
Of the other couples in "Couples Retireat," most are underwritten and largely unsympathetic, it's no wonder these folks are unhappy marriages. Malin Akerman ("Watchman") is beautiful but empty; the rest - Bateman, Bell, Favreau, Davis and Love - are all likable but play people you really wouldn't want to be around for more than 5 minutes, evident in those excruciatingly awkward couples therapy scenes that are in no way fun to watch.
Some may enjoy "Couples Retreat," and there are a few entertaining moments, but this tiresome, weak comedy is just basically an excuse for Vaughn and his friends to throw a mess of a movie together, stumble around a tropical island and call it a "comedy." Vince Vaughn is engaging, but after this misstep of a movie and last year's woeful "Four Christmases," he's becoming vastly overrated.
Friday, October 2, 2009
"My One and Only" all too familiar trip
"My One and Only" is the new romantic comedy starring Renee Zellweger as a woman who hits the road in search of a new man, tired of her wayward husband. Part comedy, part romance, part road trip, it's a rather stale, thinly plotted movie with the supporting players more memorable than the normally likable Zellweger, who phones in a flat performance in an unoriginal movie.
Zellweger is a self-absorbed 1950s woman named Anne Devereux who leaves her philandering band-leader husband (Kevin Bacon) and takes her two teen-aged sons George (Logan Lerman) and Robbie (Mark Rendall) across the country, searching for a new husband who's worthy-and capable-of supporting her and her family. In their bittersweet cross-country adventure, they find they must pull together as a family and overcome the unexpected pitfalls of the road.
"My One and Only," based on the life of George Hamilton's mother, is a hackneyed, predictable attempt with an entertaining but unfocused premise. On one hand, it's admirable that director Richard Loncraine ("Wimbledon") and writer Charlie Peters attempt to provide a strong part for a woman, but it's so cliched and unsympathetic that it's an unfortunate waste. Speaking of which, Zellweger gives a likable but stilted, implausible performance that's hard to connect to. The plot goes from one sad episode to another as Anne goes through imbalanced, psychotic or altogether loserish men.
The more memorable performances come from the supporting players, particularly Lerman (from "3:10 to Yuma") and Rendall as her sons; Lerman gives a strong turn as the wiser-than-the-parent sibling who's the voice of reason, while Rendall is fun as the more flamboyant, stage-loving son. Watch for character actress Robin Weigert (of TV's "Life"), who steals a few scenes in a small part as Anne's negative, sarcastic sister. The men in her life are just as unsympathetic and underwritten as Zellweger: Steven Weber, Chris Noth, Eric McCormack, David Koechner and especially Kevin Bacon barely make an impact in all-too brief roles.
The last act of "My One and Only" is too predictable and too pensive, and is surprisingly more of a downer than you might think. The characters don't really change much, or don't do much of anything different than they did at the beginning of the film. "My One and Only" isn't a terrible film, just an unfocused one that lacks power or poignancy to be a truly great film.
Beautiful but sad "Bright Star" worth a look
"Bright Star" is a period romance that's based on the true story of the romance between English poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne. The slow-moving but handsome film is exquisitely photographed, sublimely acted by the two attractive leads and superbly directed by "The Piano's" Jane Campion. However, the overarching theme is a sad one, and the pensive tone may keep some away, but it's a must-see for those familiar with Keats work and those who enjoy period romances.
It's London, 1818 and a secret love affair between Keats (Ben Whishaw) and the outspoken pretty girl next door, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). This unlikely pair begin at odds, he thinking her a stylish minx, while she was unimpressed not only by his poetry but also by literature in general. However, when Fanny hears that Keats is nursing his seriously ill younger brother, her efforts to help touches Keats and when she asks him to teach her about poetry he agrees. The poetry soon becomes a romantic remedy that works not only to sort out their differences, but also fuels an impassioned love affair.
When Fanny's alarmed mother (Kerry Fox) and Keats' best friend Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider) finally awake to their attachment, the relationship has unstoppable momentum. Intensely and helplessly absorbed in each other, the young lovers are swept deeply into powerful new sensations. Together they ride a wave of romantic obsession that only deepens as their troubles mounts, especially as Keats himself falls tragically ill.
Campion's "Bright Star" is worth a look for the photography, costumes and performances alone. The story isn't exactly an inviting given its tragic outcome, and while the romance isn't as steamy as it should be, the true story itself is highly romanticized. Whishaw and Cornish have nice chemistry, though Cornish in particular gives a powerful performance as the opinionated girl separated from her lover. Schneider provides some much-needed energy as Keats' best friend, someone who is despised by Brawne and who enjoys teasing her.
"Bright Star" will likely be remembered more for its handsome production come Oscar time, with detailed, elegant costumes and lush photography, and perhaps Cornish, who has a solid chance of being nominated in a poignant turn. The film moves slowly, perhaps too slowly for some and since this thing doesn't turn out well in the end, you'll want to have plenty of tissues with you. The title, by the way, is a reference to a sonnet that Keats wrote while he was with Brawne: "Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art."
Likable, entertaining "Whip It" a serviceable directorial debut for Drew Barrymore
"Whip It" is an entertaining coming-of-age-story on skates, taking place in the rough-and-tumble world of women's roller derby. The uneven but likable, easily accessible film, marking the feature film debut of Drew Barrymore, doesn't always work perfect, but there's enough energy, enjoyable moments and a great cast to make it an early fall crowd-pleaser.
In Bodeen, Texas, an indie-rock loving misfit named Bliss (Ellen Page) finds a way of dealing with her small-town misery after she discovers a roller derby league in nearby Austin. Bliss is constantly being pressured to enter beauty pageants by her overbearing mother (Oscar winner Marsha Gay Harden). Realizing that isn't her calling, the underage Bliss joins a roller derby group called the Hurl Scouts without the knowledge or consent of her parents. Initially, she has no idea how to skate but her teammates Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig) and Smashly Simpson (Barrymore) help develop her into a roller derby star named Babe Ruthless. Everything is moving along smoothly, until a very competitive rival player (Juliette Lewis) along with her disapproving mother threatens to permanently derail her new passion.
Modest and conventional, "Whip It" is filled with some amusing, colorful scenes and a serviceable directorial debut for Barrymore, who's been films for nearly 30 years and just now getting around to directing. The downsides are craggy, awkward pacing, an overlong running time (over 90 minutes is pushing it with the thin material) and a script by a novice screenwriter that lacks sharp edge and wit given the premise.
Based on the novel by actual roller derby athlete Shauna Cross, who also writes "Whip It's" screenplay, the book and movie fictionalize Cross's experiences on skates. With this in mind, the film's more entertaining scenes come in the roller derby ring, while outside the ring things get a little unsteady, with Bliss's (played by the immensely likable and droll Page from “Juno,” less sarcastic here but grounding the film well) transformation from inexperienced athlete to roller derby star feeling empty and unconvincing, though you're still rooting for her the whole way.
The banal dramatic and romantic scenes (the latter is especially misplaced) throw "Whip It" off course a little, and Barrymore's novice direction (not to mention a mediocre editing job) can't help the film get a solid footing in its mid-section, particularly when she throws in a needless, clumsy food fight as filler. Harden (“Mystic River”) is a wonderful, award-winning character actress who's miscast as Bliss’s overbearing mother; her whiny, fake Texas accent makes it evident she doesn't belong here. Also a bad idea: substituting Michigan for the Lone Star State.
Even with its awkward, uneven edge, there are still things to like about "Whip It," namely an inspired supporting cast and the roller derby scenes, which pepper the film with energy and bring the film to life. Most memorable of the large cast: "Saturday Night Live's" funniest star Wiig is good for a few laughs as a teammate, as is the perfectly slutty Lewis (where has she been lately?), Andrew Wilson (Luke and Owen's older bro) as the frayed but lovable derby coach and newcomer Alia Shawkat as Bliss's longsuffering friend. Not so good: enduring the unfunny, overrated Jimmy Fallon as the derby announcer, while rapper Eve is underused as a teammate, and Barrymore herself seems to be trying too hard in a supporting role.
Barrymore’s off to a solid directorial start: it's amusing and will leave you with smiles but few genuine laugh-out loud moments. She could develop into a decent director with better, more fully developed material. Fortunately, “Whip It” has the likable presence of Page and Barrymore’s energy that may lift it into a modest, crowd-pleasing hit.
Rated R for horror violence/gore and language, 80 minutes
“Zombieland” a good, bloody road trip
If you enjoy road trips and lots of zombies, then “Zombieland” is an entertaining, funny and graphically bloody thrill ride. The dark comedy isn’t for, uh, everyone’s taste’s and the diseased zombies here are truly scary, gnarly and enjoy running in the vein of the “28 Days” ones. Well-cast, inventive but thinly plotted and one-note, the unrevealing story doesn’t go in any new places, but one thing is for sure: you’ll jump and laugh plenty.
“Zombieland” takes place in a diseased zombie-filled land where a mysterious virus has overrun the United States, turning the vast majority of the population into the undead. There are a handful of survivors left, looking for areas untouched by the undead. Their hope is a bleak one, except for a few humans who’ve named themselves for their destination. There’s Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), a young nerdy college student who’s managed to survive through his own fear and a list of key “survival rules” that will help you to instinctively outwit the undead.
Then there’s Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), an AK-toting, zombie-slaying' bad ass whose single determination is to get the last Twinkie on earth. They join forces with Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), who have also found unique ways to survive the zombie mayhem, they will have to determine which is worse: relying on each other or succumbing to the zombies.
“Zombieland” is a colorful adventure that’s a new twist in the zombie genre: road trip. The premise works well though it’s thinly drawn and doesn’t have many new places to go, but it’s fun getting to this unique destination. Directed by Ruben Fleischer in his first modestly budgeted feature film, it’s often a dark, bleak world but then with the land overrun by zombies, what do you expect.
For a zombie feature to be memorable, it’s a requirement the zombies must be pretty frightful, and scary indeed they are, the most vivid part of “Zombieland.” Diseased, ugly, bloody and very athletic, they come at you with a forceful speed ready to chomp in a second. Without them, the film wouldn’t amount to much, but it also helps the film is well-cast and who have great chemistry.
As the few normal humans left in “Zombieland,” Eisenberg, Harrelson, Stone and Breslin all have some amusing moments, particularly Harrelson, who thoroughly enjoys blowing away the zombies with zest, who is a good balance to the nebbish, nervous Eisenberg, who’s still managed to survive with smart instincts. Watch for a delicious, surprising cameo from a veteran comic actor playing himself.
The theme of "Zombieland" is fairly simple. Ride some. Talk some. Stop and blow away some zombies. Drive some more. Talk some more. Kill more zombies. The ending doesn't surprise but may leave some with a thirst for more. "Zombieland" isn't a perfect film, but a fun, entertaining one. Sit back and enjoy your ride through "Zombieland," just load up on lots of twinkies and weapons.
Entertaining "Capitalism" makes it point but lacks fresh ideas
You never know what you're getting into with a Michael Moore film. The director of such documentaries as "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "Bowling for Columbine" knows how to stir up trouble in a New York minute, and his new documentary "Capitalism: A Love Story" takes square aim at the evils of an age-old American ideal known as capitalism, or the free market system. Entertaining, disturbing but overlong and overly simplistic, Moore's target this time, unlike health care, politics or gun control, seems a bit more than even he can handle. Whether you agree with him or not is one thing, but it is fun to watch him in action.
“Capitalism: A Love Story” explores a taboo question: What is the price that America pays for its love of capitalism? Years ago, that love seemed so innocent. Today, however, the American dream is looking more like a nightmare as families pay the price with their jobs, their homes and their savings. Moore takes us into the homes of ordinary people whose lives have been turned upside down; and he goes looking for explanations in Washington, DC and elsewhere. What he finds are the all-too-familiar symptoms of a love affair gone astray: lies, abuse, betrayal...and thousands of jobs being lost every day.
According to Moore, capitalism is an evil that should be replaced with democracy, a prickly idea that’s idea to stir up more controversy, something the popular documentary filmmaker is familiar with. As typical with his films, Moore examines what’s wrong with many of our American ideals. Slickly edited and featuring colorful visuals, the first half of “Capitalism” is better as it explores a handful of disturbing but accepted practices by many U.S. companies, including taking out life insurance policies on their employees and then profiting from it upon their death, once instance in which Amegy Bank profited $5 million from one employee’s death.
He spends the latter half of the film detailing the $700 billion economic bailout of 2008 and how it benefited such companies as Goldman Sachs and Bank of America, not to mention the unethical practices of such companies as Countrywide that contributed to the bailout. The bailout, still fresh on people’s minds, has been so well-documented that much of it is repetitive.
Moore is most poignant when he looks at specific case studies of what’s gone wrong. How Wal-Mart profited $81,000 from the death of one young woman; the aforementioned Amegy bank employee whose death earned the company millions or a couple unfairly evicted from their home; even Moore’s own Dad is interviewed to explain how things have changed in the Flint/Detroit area with the collapse of GM. Some will spark outrage, others may inspire, such as the group of employees in Chicago who stood their ground last winter after being laid-off and eventually won a settlement, or the few co-ops who run their businesses democratically where everyone has a vote.
But there are a few flaws with Moore’s approach in “Capitalism.” First, as entertaining as it is to see Moore roll out crime scene tape around such companies as B of A, Chase and Goldman Sachs and then walk up and demand bailout money back, it doesn’t provide insight on what his plan would be, except to “replace capitalism with democracy,” an idea that could at its worst, put millions out of work. Second, it’s a big oversimplification to blame much of this on the Reagan and Bush administrations (the latter coming as no surprise), when really the expanding U.S. government’s reliance on big corporate lobbyists the real problem. Third, his interviews with many politicians veer toward the one-sided, as he interviews a spate of congressman who agree with him but none who disagree with him (not that any Republicans would agree to be interviewed by Moore anyway).
Moore’s real plan is to inspire enough to rally the troops around changing what seems to be a broken system, a decent but overly idealistic idea. This is especially so in “Capitalism’s” overlong, ponderous second act, when he inserts a long, unnecessary FDR clip espousing the “Second Bill of Rights” and spends an inordinate amount of time explaining the differences between democracy and socialism rather than providing new ideas. We get the point: the system is broken, now how do we fix it?
“Capitalism: A Love Story” is entertaining and often compelling, particularly in its first half, before it bombastically rolls into its bailout-heavy second half. It lacks fresh ideas and details, except maybe to share in the millions that Moore will likely earn from the film.