From the Editor

Movie Review Archive

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!

Wes Singleton

North Texas Film Critics Association

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Road - B+

Rated R for some violence, disturbing images and language, 119 minutes

"The Road" is a bleak but superbly crafted post-apocalyptic tale

There's simply no way around it: the apocalypse is not uplifting material. Just know that going into "The Road," the dreary, very heavy but affecting tale of post-apocalyptic survival of a man and his young son. While the recent "2012" had fun blowing up the world, the far superior "The Road" is in no way amusing, which isn't to say it's not entertaining, just in a far different way. "The Road" isn't a message movie per se, but it's stark reminder of what life after the apocalypse could be like makes it one of the year's must see films.

A father (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) walk alone through burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind and water. It is cold enough to crack stones, and, when the snow falls it is gray. The sky is dark. Their destination is the warmer south, although they don't know what, if anything, awaits them there. They have nothing: just a pistol to defend themselves against the lawless cannibalistic bands that stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a rusting shopping cart of scavenged food--and each other.

"The Road" is a dark, heavy drama of life in post-apocalyptic America, based on Cormac McCarthy's 2006 best-selling (and equally downbeat) novel. It's essentially a two-person film, ably carried by "Lord of the Rings" Mortensen, excellent as the wise, protective father who looks out for his son, and from young Australian actor Smit-McPhee as his sickly young son. Their pain, their struggles, are effectively and poiganantly highlighted thoroughout the film; it's dark, depressing tone and vivid shades of gray remind of the 1983 film "Testament," starring a wonderful Jane Alexander in a bleak film with similar themes.

"The Road" is quite effective at portraying a harrowing life of survival (particularly scary: cannibals who hunt people down). The Oscar-worthy photography is stark, memorably evoking what a nuclear winter is like (it's never specifically mentioned what really happened, but that is the assumption here). Director John Hillcoat ("The Proposition") elicits realistic, very natural performances from both Mortensen and Smit-McPhee, known only as Man and Boy here.

There are a few other notables in the cast, but they're too brief to make a huge impact. Charlize Theron plays the wife and mother and is seen only in flashbacks; Theron is very poignant but seen briefly in a role that's actually quite expanded from the novel. Blink and you'll miss Robert Duvall (hardly recognizable under a load of makeup) as an old, dying drifter, and Guy Pearce as a fellow father and traveler.

As you might expect with something like this, it isn't that hopeful, but the script tries to uplift when the two leads find pockets of food, a bath or warm clothes, things they now take for granted. As much as "The Road" tries to be hope, it really isn't, so don't go expecting to leave happy. But you'll certainly remember some of the film's stark images, not to mention the superb performances from the leads.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans - B+

Rated R for drug use and language throughout, some violence and sexuality, 121 minutes

"Bad Lieutenant" is an arresting portrait of one bad cop

"Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" is a hypnotic, often explosive story of a corrupt, drug-addicted cop in Post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. It's dirty, seedy and a little over-the-top (OK, maybe way over-the-top) but then that is its appeal. A very loose remake of the 1992 Harvey Keitel film "Bad Lieutenant," it also provides Nicolas Cage with a commanding, Oscar-worthy performance and his best in years.

Cage is Terrence McDonagh, a New Orleans Police sergeant, who starts out as a good cop, receiving a medal and a promotion to lieutenant for heroism during Hurricane Katrina. During his heroic act, McDonagh injures his back and later becomes addicted to prescription pain medication and becomes involved with a drug-addicted prosititute named Frankie (Eva Mendes). McDonagh quickly finds himself on the dark side of life, struggling with addictions and tangling with drug dealer Big Fate (rapper Xzibit), who is suspected of murdering a family of African immigrants.

"Bad Lieutenant" is a splendidly dark tale of the underside of New Orleans and the exploits of one corrupt cop. Directed with flavor by Werner Herzog ("Rescue Dawn"), the film is a very, very loose remake of an earlier 1992 film "Bad Lieutenant," starring Harvey Keitel, though it bears little resemblance to that seedy film. In fact, Herzog improves upon that uneven film considerably, held together by a mesmerizing, centerpiece performance from Cage, with his best role in years and a reminder of why he won an Oscar for "Leaving Las Vegas" 14 years ago. Given his penchant for annoyingly overacting in the worst way, I forgot that Cage can be an affecting, even hypnotic actor, but he delivers a terrific turn here, making you forget anything with "National Treasure" in the title (and hopefully overcome his current financial troubles).

Eva Mendes, another actor noted for more commerical roles, also has a strong turn as his junkie hooker girlfriend. Herzog has assembled some of the finest character actors to deliver some memorable scenes. Jennifer Coolidge (of the Christopher Guest films) is excellent as a blowsy, alcoholic younger wife of Terrence's father, as is Brad Dourif as a bookie friend and Dallas-site Irma P. Hall as a grandmother of a witness who's quite bothered by Terrence's questions (one scene with Hall, Cage and an elderly woman is one of the film's highlights). One disappointment: Val Kilmer is hardly there as a fellow corrupt cop, wishing he had more screen time.

The script takes some nice downturns down some dark alley's, and New Orleans never looked so gray, though the plot chases too many rabbits and some part of its mid-section don't seem fleshed out. And as mesmerizing as "Bad Lieutenant" is at times, it doesn't have a huge wide appeal; those who have become accustomed to Cage's action-hero roles will be quite surprised when they find out all the terrible things he does here. The film's final scene is a stark reminder that a leopard (especially a drug-addicted one) never quite loses its spots.

Every few years, Cage reminds us that he can still act. "Moonstruck," "Leaving Las Vegas," "Adaptation," and now "Bad Lieutenant." Let's enjoy it while we can before we get more bad hairpieces and saving the world action set-pieces like we saw with dreck like this year's "Knowing."

The Fantastic Mr. Fox - B+

Rated PG for action, smoking and slang humor, 87 minutes

Inspired, original "Fox" near fantastic

Who would've thought that the guy who directed such offbeat fare as "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums" would make a thoroughly enjoyable, inspired and slyly amusing children's film such as "The Fantastic Mr. Fox." But an unconventional director like Wes Anderson is seemingly a natural choice to direct Roald Dahl's unconventional children's book in colorful, stop-motion form. "Mr. Fox" is energetic, affectingly voiced and its themes suitable for everyone, though the dialogue-heavy plot may lose some of the younger set it's intended for.

The story concerns Mr. Fox (George Clooney) and his wild-ways of hen heckling, turkey taking and cider sipping, nocturnal, instinctive adventures. Since he started a family with Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) and now has a son Ash (Jason Schwartzman), his wild days are behind him and he must do what fathers do best: be responsible. However, given his rebellious foxy ways, he's going to try "just one more raid" on the three nastiest, meanest farmers that are Boggis (Robin Hurlstone), Bunce (Hugo Guinness) and Bean (Michael Gambon). It is this quest for one last great adventure that opens the door for some major problems when the farmers begin their hunt to destroy Mr. Fox, his friends and their way of life below the ground.

Magical, inventive and fun, "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" is brought to life with fresh imagination from Anderson, who carefully adapts Dahl's (he also wrote "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "James and the Giant Peach") ingenious children's novel but adds a goofy, pleasant humor not usually found in those novels. Anderson bookends the film with his own original scenes while remaining faithful to the source through the rest of the film.

Anderson also adds some of his usual touches - family dysfunction, lots of dialogue and those yellow placards which come upon the screen to introduce us to another chapter. All works well with the story, except Anderson's dialogue isn't kid-friendly and may be lost on many of the younger ones in the audience, who with no doubt will enjoy the stop-motion animation and the amusement of it all (my favorite: some sleep-inducing blueberries that Mr. Fox throws to the beagles).

"The Fantastic Mr. Fox" is voiced with natural ease by all the actors; the suave Clooney is especially an inspired choice for the title role, while Streep is a wistful, gentle Mrs. Fox. Anderson regulars Schwartzman, as nerdy son Ash, and Bill Murray, as the Badger, are among the highlights of the film (the Murray-Clooney exchanges are particularly memorable). Gambon (of the recent "Harry Potter" films), Owen Wilson (also an Anderson regular) and Willem Dafoe all have a few fun moments as some colorful characters in Mr. Fox's world.

However, the real star of "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" is the seamless, bright stop-motion animation, which seems remarkably smooth and crisp compared to other films. It's an inspired choice to make Dahl's film this way but also a risky one, given that the Tim Burton-produced "James and the Giant Peach" remains one of the most fantastic, vivid stop-motion films ever seen.

"The Fantastic Mr. Fox" is near-fantastic in its fresh approach to appeal to all ages: the kids will enjoy the superb animation, the adults will enjoy the dialogue, not to mention the underlying messages of community and family. "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" is a pleasant, enjoyable movie-going experience that the whole family can enjoy this holiday season.

Ninja Assassin - B-

Rated R for strong bloody stylized violence throughout, and language, 99 minutes

Buckets of blood and fun in "Ninja Assassin"

"Ninja Assassin" arrives in timely manner for the holidays, when turkeys are carved and served with sides of cranberry sauce and dressing, as there's plenty of slicing, dicing and flying appendages in the new martial arts film. With loads of fast-paced fight scenes and more blood than Jason or Freddy could ever dream up, it's far more entertaining than you might think. Don't get me wrong, the Wachowski Brothers (of "Matrix" fame) produced film is pure hokum and ridiculously over-the-top, so much that it’ll end up an end-of-year guilty pleasure over much more serious movie going fare.

Raizo (Rain) is one of the world's deadliest ninja assassins, having been kidnapped as a child and raised by the Ozunu Clan, believed by the world to be a myth. When Raizo's friend is executed by the clan, Raizo flees into hiding. He later reemerges, seeking revenge. Meanwhile, Mika Coretti (Naomie Harris) is a Europol agent who investigates money linked to political murders and finds that it is linked to the Ozunu Clan. She defies her superior, Ryan Maslow (Ben Miles), and retrieves secret agency files to find out more. The clan, finding out about the investigation, attempts to assassinate her, but she is rescued by Raizo. Hiding in Europe, Raizo and Mika must find a way to take down the Ozunu Clan.

"Ninja Assassin" swoops in at a time when the martial-arts tank has run dry and masters like Jet LiJackie Chan or aging or taking a different direction. If you think you've seen it all, then you should see "Ninja Assassin," a preposterous, messy but energetic film that comes with some eye-popping fight scenes and featuring excessive amounts of violence, gore and bright red stylized blood. Director James McTeigue ("V for Vendetta") gets things going early on in a jolting, splattery prologue that sets the pace for the rest of the film.

There's not a single subtle thing about "Ninja Assassin" and in some respects that isn't a bad thing, after all there's nothing worse than a boring martial arts film. A weak back story told in flashback nearly drags it down, but a few action set pieces midway through, including one in a parking garage, rev up the film. As for the rest of the movie, it's a bit of a mess: the thin story is barely there, character development is marginal at best and the acting, well, there's not much to it, all of it held together by those exciting action sequences and a dark tone that befits the story.

South Korean pop singer and model Rain plays "Ninja Assassin's" lead role with essentially a series of poses, but he handles the big knives and weapons well, while Naomie Harris' (a U.K. actress who may be recognizable from the last two "Pirates of the Caribbean" films) role is largely nonessential, adding beauty and some comic relief to its remarkably downbeat feel (and how she miraculously escapes any injury is as big a contrivance as any sword used in the film).

If you don't have the stomach for this kind of thing (and you may not if you eat too much holiday food), then you're better off with the scrubbed PG-13 "Twilight" set, as the violence here, while clearly video-game inspired along with some added CG effects, pops with a lot of fervor, and in a couple of scenes (particularly one in a restroom) may cause some discomfort. Still, without it, "Ninja Assassin" wouldn't be near as fun, including the cool way that some characters can appear and reappear during key battle scenes. The overlong climactic battle in "Ninja Assassin" is enjoyable, predictable and overdone, adding guns to an already crowded mix of swords, knives and any other type of blade that can be used in battle.

Martial-arts enthusiasts - no pun intended - will get a big kick out of this and may clamor for sequels if the film becomes a big hit. "Ninja Assassin" is mindless, escapist entertainment and worthwhile for those wanting to enjoy the holidays with some blood and a few high kicks.

Old Dogs - C

Rated PG for some mild rude humor, 90 minutes

"Old Dogs" offers nothing new: same 'ol dumb, silly fun

The new Disney comedy "Old Dogs" starring Robin Williams and John Travolta is nothing new, especially if you've seen the trailers for the film, or any other Disney comedy in the last 10 years, for that matter. Williams and Travolta make for a pleasant comedic team in an otherwise forgettably silly, hit-or-miss film that should please the popcorn movie-going masses this holiday season.

Two best friends and business partners -- unlucky-in-love divorcee Dan (Williams) and the other a fun-loving bachelor Charlie (Travolta) -- have their lives turned upside down when a former flame of Dan's (Kelly Preston) shows up and they’re unexpectedly charged with the care of his children, 7-year old twins (Conner Rayburn and Ella Bleu Travolta) all while on the verge of the biggest business deal of their lives. The not-so-kid-savvy bachelors stumble in their efforts to take care of the twins, leading to one debacle after another, and perhaps to a new-found understanding of what’s really important in life.

Lacking any sort of fresh comedic sensibility, "Old Dogs" is mildly amusing and slightly entertaining at best but has an air of sadness stemming from its casting and the fact it features Bernie Mac's last screen role. Travolta's wife Preston plays Williams love interest, while one of the kids is Preston and Travolta's real-life daughter Ella Bleu, which makes for a nice family affair until you remember their son Jett's unexpected and tragic death since the film was completed. Even more unfortunate is that "Old Dogs" will be remembered as Mac's last screen role, sad given the fact that his very brief role in it isn't very good or all that funny.

It's not all Mac's fault, though, as the movie lacks many laugh-out loud moments, peppered with only a few mildly amusing gags. It really comes down to the star pairing of Travolta and Williams to carry all of this and while they work well together, their lazy, collect-a-check performances bring to light the worst parts of "Old Dogs": the lousy direction from "Wild Hogs" director David Becker and the maudlin, predictable script that Disney so likes to churn out these days. It's all safe, silly and suitable fun for the family, though you can't help wonder why these characters are so dumb - from mixing up medication to excessive tanning to breaking and entering - all of which seems like filler to pad an already weak story.

With that in mind, it's also easy to see why they also packed "Old Dogs" with so many cameos at every turn, a stunt casting trick that ends up a mixed bag here. They range from sharp (comedian Amy Sedaris is onscreen for less than a minute and still earns a laugh) to moderately amusing (Rita Wilson as a cross-eyed hand model) to plain unfunny (Matt Dillon and Justin Long as camp counselors) to completely wasted (Ann-Margaret, appearing drunk). All that's missing is a cameo from Tim Allen, who's made a decent living by appearing in numerous middling Disney films over the years, a route that Travolta himself seems to be taking as well, with a forthcoming "Wild Hogs" sequel.

Even with this, "Old Dogs" isn't a complete waste of time. Seth Green adds some goofy energy as their co-worker (and the scenes with a gorilla you've seen in the trailers is one of the more memorable bits), and you can impress your friends by answering a trivia question as to what's happened to Lori Loughlin, one of the co-stars of the '80s sitcom "Full House," appearing here briefly as Travolta's love interest.

Take a couple of big movie stars past their prime, add a few gags, insert a few tears and wrap it up, put a falsely nice happy-ending bow on it and you have another mediocre Disney package. "Old Dogs" is not completely awful but then it could've been much, much better given the talent.

Friday, November 13, 2009

An Education - B+

Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving sexual content, and for smoking, 95 minutes

Smart, touching "An Education"

"An Education" is an intelligent, touching coming-of-age British dramedy with superb performances that could see awards consideration in the near future. Inspired by true events, "An Education" is all about making the right choices at the right time, sometimes before its too late. It's also a poignant reminder that it's not too early for teenagers and young folks to carefully consider their career paths before they go down the wrong road.

In the early 1960's, sixteen year old Jenny Mellor (Carey Mulligan) lives with her parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) in the London suburb of Twickenham. On her father's wishes, everything that Jenny does is in the sole pursuit of being accepted into Oxford, as he wants her to have a better life than he. Jenny is bright, pretty, hard working but also naturally gifted.

Jenny's life changes after she meets David Goldman (Peter Sarsgaard), a man over twice her age. David goes out of his way to show Jenny and her family that his interest in her is not improper and that he wants to expose her to cultural activities which she enjoys. Jenny quickly gets accustomed to the life to which David and his constant companions, Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike), have shown her and Jenny and David's relationship evenutally turns romantic. However, Jenny has to decide if her life with David is worth forgoing her plans of higher eduction at Oxford.

"An Education" is an affecting, relevant coming-of-age movie about the choices we make early on in life. Danish director Lone Scherfig helms a script by Nick Hornby ("Fever Pitch") that's actually based on autobiographical events of British journalist Lynn Barber, whose memoir is the inspiration for the film. Scherfig elicits sensitive, tender performances from the cast, especially Sarsgaard as Jenny's older romantic interest.

But it's young British actress Mulligan who is a revelation as Jenny, a teenager who gets an education in real life; she yearns for romance but also wants to do the right thing. Character actor Molina ("Spider-Man 2") contributes an outstanding supporting performance as Jenny's protective father, who's also living vicariously through his daughter and wants the best for her. Watch for Olivia Williams ("Dollhouse") and Oscar-winner Emma Thompson in small but key roles as Jenny's teacher and principal, respectively.

Most important are the director and script's fair treatment of the main character; it doesn't look down on her but does its best to show Jenny has good intentions in what she does. The initial chapters are a bit too leisurely, and it takes too much time to develop the story, but Mulligan and Sarsgaard are both engaging actors that you want to spend time with. You'll see a couple of plot twists coming if you play close attention, but Mulligan's expressions when she discovers the truth about David is one of the film's highight.

The ending of "An Education" is predictable but uplifting and an appropriate test that Jenny passes with flying colors. Both Mulligan and Molina are possible Oscar nominees for their fine, textured performances. "An Education" is an enjoyable experience and comes recommended as a better choice than vampires or werewolves this weekend.

The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day - C-

Rated R for bloody violence, language and some nudity, 117 minutes

"Boondock Saints II": Far from heavenly, an entertaining mess

A friend introduced me to "The Boondock Saints" (1999), lending me his DVD of the film about two vigilante brothers that became a cult hit on video. Even more interesting was the fact that its director and writer, Troy Duffy, was working as a bartender shortly before he made the film. The first film's appeal came through the bloody entertaining, fun story and comedic banter between the leads. Ten years later, Duffy is finally releasing the sequel, "The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day," an unnecessary sequel that's missing much the charm of the first one (not to mention Willem Dafoe); it does have a few fun moments and laughs, but is hammy, surprisingly second-rate and hastily produced.

For the last 8 years the brothers, Connor (Sean Patrick Flanery) and Murphy (Norman Reedus) have been living with their father on a sheep farm deep in isolated Ireland. One day their uncle tells them that they have been framed for the murder of a Bostonian Catholic priest. The boys must return to Boston to not only clear their names but find the men who framed them, one of them (Judd Nelson) who has a connection to their past. They get help from a new partner, Romeo (Clifton Collins, Jr.) along with their old detective pals at the Boston Police Department: Rocco (David Della Rocco), Greenly (Bob Marley), and Duffy (Brian Mahoney), not to mention a fast-talking, head strong Southern FBI Special Agent Eunice Bloom (Julie Benz) who has nifty tricks up her sleeve to solve the case.

"Boondock Saints II" is a fast-paced, bloody entertaining mess of a movie that's both watchable ridiculous. It reunites most of the cast (sans the aforementioned Dafoe), primarly Flanery and Reedus as the Irish vigilante McManus brothers. There's no denying their charm, though it's been so long (ten years) since they've been onscreen, it may be helpful for even fans of the first movie to rewatch that one before seeing this one. The story is a flimsy, contrived one at best, but even worse, some audience members may pick up on a creepy, homoerotic undercurrent between the two brothers (never married, always together and give each other tattoos - maybe all coincidences).

You also won't miss the addition of two new colorful characters in "Boondock Saints," that of Collins and Benz, who are enjoyable but give two of the hammiest performances seen in recent memory, particularly Benz, who has trouble holding down that fake Southern accent for long. The rest of the cast overacts just as much, if not more. You can stop wondering what happened to "The Breakfast Club's" Judd Nelson, wasted in a small, one-note role as one of the bad guys, and if you stay through the bloody, overlong and over-the-top climax, you'll get a chance to see a fun cameo from a miscast Peter Fonda, who does a worse job with his Italian accent than Benz did with her Southern one.

"Boondocks Saints II" is hardly subtle but fans of this may still enjoy it, even if Duffy's forgettable production that ends up as both cheap and offensive. Duffy himself comes across as a one-trick pony, having done no other films except these and seemingly gearing up for a third installment. "Boondocks Saints II" may end up being guilty-pleasure entertainment and could find a bigger audience on DVD, where this should've gone in the first place.

The Twilight Saga: New Moon - C

Rated PG-13 for some violence and action, 130 minutes

Dull "New Moon": Vampires vs. Werewolves, teenage style

OK, I'll admit up front that I haven't read Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" series of books and thus not a fan. I didn't like the overly simplistic, angsty feel to the first film but the second installment, "New Moon," continues on with a different director and (thankfully) a bigger budget, hoping to attract a wider audience. Since I do enjoy a decent vampire story from time to time, I went into "New Moon" genuinely giving it a chance really, really hoping I'd like it, but came away once again disappointed that I still don't find the story all that appealing.

Talky, dreary and slow, "New Moon" has a few energetic scenes but otherwise doesn't have much to work with except showcasing the bulging biceps of new hunk Taylor Lautner, which may be enough for some. Accept "New Moon" for what it is: a dull, empty and overly hyped exercise in franchise movie-making that's directly aimed at young teenage girls, who'll propel it to even bigger box-office returns than the first one.

Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) is still very much in love with vampire, Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). She's become pals with Edward's sister (Ashley Greene) but the vampires still thirst for Bella at the sight of her blood. Trying to avoid danger, Edward takes the Cullen's away to Italy to find some solace, which breaks Bella's heart. Thrown into a deep depression, Bella exempts herself from most social activities, until she finds herself spending time with childhood friend, Jacob Black (Lautner). As usual for Bella, things aren't what they seem, and newly buff Jacob has been hiding his own secret that he's now a werewolf. This causes some problems when Bella and Jacob begin falling for each other, all the while realizing she's still deeply in love with Edward, who's facing his own challenges with a new set of vampires, the Volturi.

"New Moon" is a vampire vs. werewolves film that needs far more bite, energy and a better script. I don't really blame Chris Weitz ("The Golden Compass," "About A Boy") who took over directing duties from Catherine Hardwicke, who's a competent director to handle the story. I also don't blame the lovely Kristen Stewart, an intelligent, capable actress who's inspired casting as Bella and the best actor in the film. Meyer's tremendously popular but mediocre, simplistic books are the real culprit, which lack a certain inspiration and complexity to turn into great films.

The initial chapters of the movie "New Moon" get off to a rough start too: slow, talky and very downbeat. Pattinson leaves and is gone for the most of the movie (as in the book) except for his Obi-Won-like spirit (an obvious trick to keep him more in the film) and Bella sulks way too much. Things do perk up when Lautner shows up on screen, gets a haircut and goes shirtless for most of the film, showing off an impressively sculpted body and a lack of real acting skills (as if he needs it). His stale, lifeless line readings indicate he's spent way too much time on the California waves than honing his acting skills ("like, we're here to protect you" he tells Bella).

It's also quite disappointing of all the talk building up Dakota Fanning's role in "New Moon," but her scant role quite late in the film amount to little more than a cameo, though Michael Sheen ("The Queen") has fun in a small part as a demented, powerful vampire, and his role will likely be expanded in future films. The decent CG special effects of "New Moon," primarily the werewolves, give the film much-needed energy in the film's last act and show an improvement over the first film.

I've accepted that in spite of what critics say about "New Moon," legions of young girls and "Twilight" fans will turn out and see this vacuous, uneven adaptation anyway. Fans of the novels may not be pleased with this disappointing version (especially the ending, which is really part of the third book), though the young girls will more easily overlook the film's obvious shortcomings (icky dialogue and bad acting) and be eagerly awaiting the next time Lautner shows up on screen.

In the end, "New Moon" is really just a mediocre teenage soap opera about a girl in love with a werewolf and a vampire, lacking the edge, suspense and fun I was hoping for, namely a bloody, climactic fight between vampire and werewolf. So I leave another "Twilight" film a little bummed, a film who's plot could easily be summed up with a quote from an '80s Def Leppard song: "Watch out, love bites..." Could also very well describe how I feel about the "Twilight" series in general.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Planet 51 - B

Rated PG for mild sci-fi action and some suggestive humor, 90 minutes

"Planet 51" is familiar but zany fun for the kids

My dad had an old saying for someone who was out of place: "They're like a brown shoe at a black tie convention," he'd say. The new animated movie "Planet 51" is for those brown shoes who feel a little out of place. From the writer of the "Shrek" films, "Planet 51" has serviceable CG animation, a familiar, predictable feel to it and is slow out of the gate, but there are enough energetic, witty moments near the end to keep the kids and maybe even their parents interested for 90 minutes.

The film follows a human astronaut, Captain Charles "Chuck" Baker (Dwayne Johnson) who lands on Planet 51 thinking he's the first to set foot on it. However, he discovers it's inhabited by little green people who live in a white picket-fenced world reminiscent of 1950s America. This freaks out the aliens, who think he's an alien. He quickly makes friends with teenagers Lem (Justin Long), Neera (Jessica Biel) and Skiff (Seann William Scott), who work to get him back to Earth safely before General Grawl (Gary Oldman) and Professor Kipple (John Cleese) get to him for alien experiments.

"Planet 51" is both comical and campy, predictably silly, a smidgen bland and an interesting premise but in no way matching the color of the Disney/Pixar films; kids should enjoy the merriment of seeing an alien that looks an awfully like a human. It attempts to channel those goofy-bad sci-fi alien flicks of the 1950's, not to mention giving nods to many other sci-fi movies: you'll notice fun references to films like "E.T.," "Alien" and "Star Wars" - not to mention many adult-style humor jokes - all of which will likely to go over the heads of the young set (one in particular will have kids asking what a suppository is). All familiar fun and unsurprising given the writer of "Planet 51" is Joe Stillman, who penned the first two "Shrek" films filled with the same style humor.

It helps that "Planet 51" has a decent voice cast to give more colorful to the film, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson ("The Game Plan") delivers his lines with some comic fervor, as does Oldman (heard in the recent "A Christmas Carol"), who always makes for a good bad guy, while Johnson's "The Rundown" co-star Seann William Scott is good for a few funny lines as a nerdy comic book lover. However, the movie is nearly stolen by two canine-like characters who speak no lines, an alien dog that resembles a miniature version of the "Alien" creature, and Chuck's robotic companion Rover, who has an affinity for rocks and stomping on annoying, smaller creatures (a genuinely funny but mean-spirited moment).

The initial sections start out a little slow but it picks up mid-way through, with a memorable but unnecessary costume party dance to the song "Greased Lightning." You can predict exactly what'll happen as the green aliens help the human alien home, but the crisp animation has enough energy to keep the kiddoes engaged through a couple of bags of popcorn.

You've seen this before in other films (the shade of green used is so "Shrek"-like it's a little eerie), but an uplifting ending and a heartwarming message of helping others regardless of what they look like is good enough to make "Planet 51" make you feel accepted as a pair of brown shoes at a black tie convention.

The Blind Side - B

Rated PG-13 for one scene involving brief violence, drug and sexual references, 120 minutes

With Bullock on the team, the conventional "Blind Side" is a winner

The new film "The Blind Side" opens with that now-famous 1985 scene of New York Giants lineman Lawrence Taylor shattering Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann’s leg and his NFL career. Much like that scene itself you’ve seen everything in the winning “The Blind Side” before: player rising above challenging circumstances to become a star with help from those around them. But unlike other sports films, the differences with "The Blind Side" reside in two words: Sandra Bullock. The engaging Bullock commands every scene she's in, and she's the primary reason to see the crowd-pleasing but otherwise conventional sports film.

"The Blind Side" tells the inspirational story of Baltimore Ravens linebacker Michael Oher (newcomer Quinton Aaron), who grew up poor and mostly homeless in the projects of
Memphis. Through the help of an acquaintance, he gets into a private Christian school where the children of the wealthy Sean (country singer Tim MacGraw) and Leigh Anne Touhy (Bullock) attend.

When the Tuohy's learn of his difficult circumstances, they take him in, giving him food, clothing and a place to stay, eventually becoming his guardians. They help him shore up his athletic abilities to get him on the football team and hire a tutor named Miss Sue (
Kathy Bates) to help him get his grades up in order to stay on the team. Michael becomes a star player in the process, highly recruited by many big universities, though his rocky past threatens to hinder a bright future.

"The Blind Side" is an entertaining, heart-warming but clichéd sports movie that is prime example of what an actor can mean to a movie, for without Bullock, this would easily drift off into its own sappiness and old-fashioned ideas. More so, it's a sports movie that's not really about sports and it wears its message of people overcoming obstacles to achieve their true potential loud and clear, and Oher certainly had big problems: essentially no family, no home or even clean clothes. The fact you’ve seen all this before is only helped by the flashy addition of Bullock, who struts in, pours on the Southern charm and gives it some emotional connection.

The camera is clearly in love with her in “The Blind Side,” wearing a blonde wig and dressed sharply as the wealthy, feisty and opinionated
Southern Belle with a heart of gold who also packs heat in her purse. The role isn't really a stretch for Bullock - she's played many strong women before - and notions of Oscar talk would be even more of a stretch (but we can forgive her for the dreadful “All About Steve”). That's not to say she isn't good, she ably carries the movie on her shoulders, which is saying a lot given Oscar-winner Bates’ huge presence as Oher’s tutor. "I have something to tell you," she breathlessly says upon meeting Leigh Anne, "I'm a Democrat."

Director John Lee Hancock, who helmed the similarly-themed sports film "
The Rookie,” is wise enough to let Bullock do what she does best and handles the sports theme serviceably, managing the football scenes with enough energy and humor to appeal even to the non-sports fan. However, Hancock's script falls prey to the usual rags-to-riches clichés and dramatic liberties with the timeline, particularly having Oher become an overnight sensation with a host of college coaches knocking at his door (played by a gallery of actual college coaches as themselves - including Nick Saban, Lou Holtz and Phil Fulmer - a humorous gimmick to attract sports fans) when in fact all this took a little time to unfold.

Newcomer Aaron gives a low-key, sensitive performance that represents Oher well; MacGraw is decent though the script considerably undervalues Mr. Tuohy’s role in this, while Bates makes even the smallest of roles fun. The ending is remarkably and emotionally even-keeled, though you'll still need a few tissues, particularly in that final embrace between Mrs. Tuohy and Oher, and stay over for the credits to see all the real-life folks in video and snapshots.

Hancock could've trimmed "The Blind Side" as it goes on a shade too long, and while this clearly isn't a movie about racism, it doesn't fully explore the racial implications of a story that plays like a deep South version of "
Diff'rent Strokes" that is too good to be true, except that it is true. But after you’re entertained and suitably inspired by Oher's story and the lovely Bullock, that may not mean as much.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

2012 - B

Rated PG-13 for intense disaster sequences and some language, 158 minutes

"2012": Who knew world destruction was so entertaining?

The ads for the new disaster film "2012" state: "We Were Warned." Well, you've been warned: "2012" is guilty-pleasure entertainment that makes the apocalypse enjoyable. Directed by Roland Emmerich, the guy who brought you calamitous events in "The Day After Tomorrow" and "Independence Day" goes for the jugular in this one: total world destruction, taking an all-star cast down with it. Completely, totally and utterly ridiculous, overlong and overwrought at every moment, it's also ridiculously entertaining.

"2012" is inspired by the idea of global doomsday coinciding with the Mayan Long Count Calendar's current cycle on December 21, 2012. With these apocalyptic events predicted by the Mayan Calendar, it's 2009 and all the world's government's are aware of the events, including the U.S. President (Danny Glover) and his top scientist, Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who despite their best attempts, are unable to prevent it from happening in 3 years. The governments have worked together to build indestructible "arks" to repopulate the Earth after its destruction.

Flash forward to 2012 and caught up in the apocalypse is writer and sometimes limousine driver Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), who ironically wrote a book on the end times. Spending sometime with his kids on a camping trip in Wyoming, he runs across a weird radio host and end times expert Charlie (Woody Harrelson), whose been aware of the coming events all along. Before long, California starts to fall off in the ocean and he must rush home to get his estranged wife (Amanda Peet) and her new boyfriend (Thomas McCarthy) and then race against time in an unforgettable adventure to get to the arks to save their lives.

"2012" is preposterous popcorn entertainment for the masses, but there's strange enjoyment and merriment in destruction and people running for their lives, we'll be up a creek if this really happens, which may be a stretch in this case. Inspired by the events supposedly foretold by the Mayan calendar, which is in fact untrue and largely a Westernized myth to stir up trouble. But what watchable entertainment it makes in "2012," even if none of it is remotely plausible.

But Emmerich is becoming the Irwin Allen of this generation, with a fascination in destruction that Allen had in the 1970's with "The Poseiden Adventure," "The Towering Inferno" (my favorite of these films) and "Earthquake." Emmerich, much like Allen, assembles an all-star cast of familiar A-list names from Cusack, Peet, Harrelson (who seems to have the most fun), Glover, Thandie Newton, Oliver Platt, among many other familiar faces. Heck, he even managed to include '70s movie star George Segal ("Rollercoaster" anyone?) in all this, as if you've been wondering whatever happened to him. But the real star of "2012" are the loads and loads of impressive but busy special effects with total, messy destruction in mind (it is fascinating to see chunks of California fall into the ocean); those quality CG visuals are truly the most memorable part of the film.

Even more so than his own "Independence Day" and "The Day After Tomorrow," Emmerich stages so many over-the-top, ridiculous scenes, mostly involving Cusack, of just barely making it before the world cracks open or blows up that you'll get a kick out of it, particularly in the film's first fast-paced sections, when the world falls under earthquakes and tsunami's. The last act, in the race to get to the ark's (yeah, right) is so overwrought you'll be tired by the end, until you realized you've been holding onto your seat for 2 1/2 hours, which is far too long but at the same time goes by so quickly.

Emmerich tries and fails badly at staging some sort of emotional, human drama - it just doesn't work; throw story, character and plot development out the window as you won't need them here, after all "2012" is a disaster flick and disasters take center stage. This brand of forgettable event movies gives Hollywood great pleasure in making, and the masses will likewise enjoy "2012" but hardly remember it the next morning.

Get comfy in your theater seat and enjoy your popcorn and drink, after all the world's about to end, and you won't want to miss it.

Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire - A-

Rated R for child abuse including sexual assault, and pervasive language, 110 minutes

Dark, emotionally charged "Precious" will stay with you

“Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" is a harrowing film experience, with heavy, downbeat subject matter that's not easily accessible to the movie-going masses. Difficult to watch, it's an intelligent, powerful low-budget film that's rightfully been garnering acclaim on the festival circuit during the last year and likely to win many more awards. It also features two of the year's most riveting performances from comedian Mo'Nique and newcomer Gabourey Sidibe.

Morbidly obese, illiterate 16-year-old Claireece "Precious" Jones (Sidibe) lives in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem with her dysfunctional family; she has been impregnated twice by her father, Carl, and suffers constant physical and mental abuse from her unemployed mother, Mary (Mo'Nique). The family resides in low rent housing and subsists on welfare. After becoming pregnant again, Precious is encouraged to attend an alternative school called Each One Teach One where she hopes that her life can change direction.

Precious fights to find a way out of her taunting world through her imagination and fantasy such as music videos and walking the red carpet as a superstar. Through the help of her teacher at her school, Ms. Rain (Paula Patton) and a social worker (Mariah Carey), she begins to read, discover her talents and learn more about her past. But she must get past her monstrous mother and other huge challenges before she can find real acceptance.

"Precious" is an exceedingly dark but courageous film that explores many relevant societal topics - poverty, literacy and education – along with more taboo subjects such as incest and teenage pregnancy. An adaption of the 1996 novel "Push" by Sapphire, actually tones down the intensely explicit sexual nature of the book but still gets its message across vividly. Directed by Lee Daniels, director of "Shadowboxer" and producer of "Monster's Ball," he handles the challenging source material superbly, crafting a dark piece of work that's still peppered with some humor, especially in the way Precious escapes from her awful world, through fantasies of being a musical superstar (not to mention the fact that Precious can literally pack a punch herself when she wants).

Told through the eyes of Precious herself, it's really all about a young woman's escape from the war zone she's known to be her life for acceptance and genuine love, and the film is essentially broken into three parts. Precious before her journey out, Precious learning to find her way out, and then Precious escaping. Her biggest challenge is getting past a monstrous mother who's largely responsible for it all: the rapes, the babies, the poverty, illiteracy. The first and last sections have considerable emotional heft with the middle section slightly weaker with difficulty getting past some after-school special contrivances and stereotypes.

"Precious" really boils down to a two-person showdown, between her and her mother, played out astonishingly with two devastating, Oscar-worthy performances from newcomer Sidibe, in the year’s breakout role, and the film's most-talked about performance from Mo'Nique as the mother from hell (you'll absolutely gasp at her abuse). Sidibe is absolutely convincing in a brave, moving performance that anchors the film, who really just wants a better life and who realizes what she must do to get it; the look of anguish and pain on her face is so easily understood that Daniels stages many wordless scenes just by focusing on her face.

Mo'Nique will have heads turning in a powerhouse, startlingly realistic turn as Precious' brutally abusive mother, with the fun-loving comedian playing sharply against type. The pair's final, heartbreaking scene, where Precious discovers the truth behind all the madness and pain, is one of the most shattering scenes seen in recent memory and of itself Oscar-worthy.

Without Mo'Nique and Sidibe's unflinching portrayals, "Precious" probably wouldn't be near as good, as the script from newcomer Geoffrey Fletcher doesn't quite flesh everything out in its weaker midsection. Still, the supporting cast lends a few memorable scenes as well, with Patton contributing a warm performance in an underwritten role, while pop singer Carey - yes that Mariah Carey - is actually quite serviceable in a small but key role. The only one who doesn't really belong is another singer, Lenny Kravitz, whose unnecessary, seemingly truncated role as a male nurse is largely eye candy.

"Precious" has attracted even more attention after it caught the eye of two influential names - Oprah and Tyler Perry - who have championed its cause. The compelling, emotionally charged "Precious" is a cause worth championing, a must-see and one of the year's best films.

Pirate Radio - B-

Rated R for language, and some sexual content including brief nudity, 129 minutes

"Pirate Radio's" groovy, ficticious take on '60s UK pirate radio

"Pirate Radio" is a comedic look at what life was like on a 1960's U.K. pirate radio ship. Fun, well-cast but often pointless, there are a few inspired moments based on real events. Those familiar with '60's pirate radio in Britain may be disappointed that it plays pretty loose with what really happened (Britain never really "banned" rock music as the ads proclaim), but it's primary purpose is entertainment, and on that level it succeeds, highlighted by a groovy rock soundtrack full of tunes from the era.

"Pirate Radio" is an ensemble comedy that revolves around the romance between the young people of the '60s and pop music. It concerns band of rogue DJs that captivated Britain, playing the music that defined a generation and standing up to a government that somehow preferred jazz.

The large, colorful cast of characters includes: The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a big, brash, American god of the airwaves; Quentin (Bill Nighy), the boss of Radio Rock -- a floating pirate radio station in the middle of the North Sea that's populated by an eclectic crew of rock and roll DJs; Gavin (Rhys Ifans), the greatest DJ in Britain who has just returned from his drug tour of America to reclaim his rightful position; Dave (Nick Frost), an ironic and funny co-broadcaster; and a fearsome British government official (Kenneth Branagh) out for blood against the drug takers and lawbreakers of a once-great nation.

"Pirate Radio" is bawdy, silly and often enjoyable entertainment that simply uses '60's British pirate radio as the backdrop. Very loosely based on Radio Caroline, a popular UK Pirate Radio station at the time, it's directed and written by "Love Actually's" Richard Curtis, and like that film, uses a large ensemble cast and fills it with a few storylines. Likable but thin, colorful but overlong, it lacks insight into the time period and the script isn't nearly as memorable as the rocking soundtrack full of 1960's British and American tunes, including the Stones, The Kinks, The Beach Boys, The Turtles and Jimi Hendrix and is "Pirate Radio's" chief highlight.

The huge, ensemble cast performs serviceably, with "Notting Hill's" Rhys Ifans the highlight as a cool-cat, womanizing DJ, with Nick Frost of "Shaun of the Dead" providing some genuinely funny moments as an overweight but intelligent DJ with a thing for the ladies. Branagh is a truly grumpy top British official trying to shut down the radio pirates, while as one of the few Yankees on the ship, Hoffman keeps up with his bawdy British counterparts very nicely. It's also fun to note that Nighy, who played a very bad pirate in "The Pirates of the Caribbean" films, plays a different sort of pirate here.

Amusing, silly fun, though it doesn't really amount to much, and know that this should not be taken as a serious, factual account of the time period, though one of the ships used in filming was indeed an actual pirate radio ship. "Pirate Radio" (also known as "The Boat That Rocked") goes on way too long and the merriment doesn't always keep the film afloat, but sit back and enjoy some of the fun and some nice, classic rock-n-roll tunes.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Box - D

Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some violence and disturbing images, 116 minutes

"The Box" doesn't push the right buttons, ends up a mess

Whatever you do, don't open any mysterious packages left on your doorstep by a man with half of his face gone. That's basically the set-up for the sloppy new horror sci-fi thriller "The Box" starring Cameron Diaz and James Marsden and directed by "Donnie Darko's" Richard Kelly. Lacking any compelling mystery or coherency, it isn't well-executed on any level; it starts out well and then falls apart halfway through the film under a series of ridiculous, new-agey twists.

Norma (Diaz) and Arthur Lewis (Marsden), a suburban couple with a young child, receive a simple wooden box as a gift, which bears fatal and irrevocable consequences. A mysterious stranger ("Frost/Nixon" Oscar nominee Frank Langella), delivers the message that the box promises to bestow upon its owner $1 million with the press of a button. But, pressing this button will simultaneously cause the death of another human being somewhere in the world; someone they don't know. With just 24 hours to have the box in their possession, Norma and Arthur find themselves in the cross-hairs of a startling moral dilemma and must face the true nature of their humanity.

"The Box" is a thriller without an absorbing, involving plotline and lacks a subdued creepiness that something like this should possess. "The Box" has intriguing source material: it's based on a 1970 Richard Matheson short story "Button, Button" that was featured in the 1980's TV version of "The Twilight Zone." The couple receives a box. Press the button and you get a million dollars, someone they don't know dies. Easy as that, right? Kelly's wildly uneven, unfocused script has too many ridiculous new-agey, sci-fi turns and has difficulty in fleshing out the characters.

It doesn't help that the lead role in "The Box" is played by Diaz, an engaging actress who lacks depth and acting skills to pull the movie off. Her inconsistent Southern drawl comes and goes so frequently in the film that it throws the film off-kilter and by the time it reaches its totally preposterous climax you might actually be happy with her character's fate. Marsden is an equally empty but likable actor in the vein of Ben Affleck, while Langella gives a hammy, take-the-money-and-run performance as the disfigured bad guy. Fine and funny character actress Celia Weston steals a few scenes as Diaz's straight-talking mother.

Kelly has been trying to duplicate his success from the brilliant "Donnie Darko" a few years back, and while "The Box" is more accessible than his genuinely awful "Southland Tales," it comes apart halfway through (you'll know exactly when, and it involves a lot of water), making it even more difficult to buy into the premise with already unsympathetic characters.

Kelly is a gifted but unfocused director who mishandles a few scenes to the point that they become unintentionally laughable (you'll get a kick out of some weird people following Marsden around in a library - funny but not creepy as it was intended). It doesn't help that the music, editing and set design seem cheesy and second-rate, and it's largely unnecessary to have the film set in the 1970s when it could've taken place at any time period.

"The Box" is another unfortunate mess and another misfire from the director, who hasn't been able to achieve the success from "Donnie Darko." Don't bother with "The Box," a movie that pushes all the wrong buttons.