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
Thursday, December 30, 2010
Everyone's a critic, including myself and I don't pretend to be the expert of all experts when it comes to movies, but after having seen almost 200 movies this year, these are the best (and worst) that I've seen in 2010.
2010 wasn't the best year we've had in film, but latter part of the year came some great films (I don't have a single film before June on my list, sorry). Drum roll please...
Best Films of 2010 - My Top 10
(in no particular order)
The King's Speech
This fact-based story on King George VI is a complete, utter winner, with an unforgettably stunning and Oscar-worthy performance by Colin Firth as the stuttering king. Keep plenty of tissues for the ending.
Sure, boxing stories have some of the same, predictable themes: people get beat up inside and outside the ring. But the stellar, affecting performances from all in the cast made this gritty true story of Boston fighter Mickey Ward a must-see. Christian Bale is a shoo-in for the Supporting Actor Oscar.
This behind-the-scenes psychological ballerina tale from Darren Aronofsky is bizarre, twisted and sublimely performed by Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis and Barbara Hershey. You won't easily forget the stunning ending, either. Portman is a strong front-runner for the Best Actress Oscar.
Yes, the scene in this true story based on stranded hiker Aron Ralston where he chops his arm off is difficult to watch. But director Danny Boyle and actor James Franco succeed in making the year's most affecting, wrenching tale with grace, humor and charm.
The year's most original, mesmerizing movie is also the year's most difficult to understand. However, Christopher Nolan and his actor look-alike, Leonardo DiCaprio, have you hooked from the first scene to the most-provocative cinematic ending of the year. Worth multiple viewings.
I would have never thought I'd have a film made by and starring Ben Affleck in my Top 10 list, but Affleck has become a smart, astute filmmaker, and this tense, taut and believable heist flick works only because of Affleck's stellar direction (who delivers a decent performance here too).
The Social Network
Maybe a smidgen overrated by now, you can't deny the influence that Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook have had on our society. With smart, zippy dialogue and superbly acted by Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield, put this on your must-see list if you haven't yet.
The Kids Are All Right
A wonderful, touching story about a lesbian couple and their family, delivered sublimely by an A-list cast that included Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo and especially by Annette Bening, who delivers another layered award-worthy performance. Note to the Academy: please give Bening the Oscar already.
Toy Story 3
2010 was a great year for animated films, with "How To Train Your Dragon," "Tangled" and "Despicable Me," but Buzz, Woody and the gang were back for their most touching adventure yet. After the three-hanky ending, you'll need time to yourself.
Sure, this story about a back-woods teenage girl searching for her father was on the depressing side, but the unforgettable, mature (and likely Oscar-nominated) performance from newcomer Jennifer Lawrence was one of the year's breakthrough turns.
How to Train Your Dragon, True Grit, Despicable Me, Ghost Writer, Get Him to the Greek, Iron Man 2, Nowhere Boy.
Worst Films of 2010
(in no particular order)
Sure, it's easy to list this one since it just came out on Christmas Day, but this is not only an awful travesty, it's just plain awful. A 3D, all-star kids version of Jonathan Swift's classic story starring Jack Black seemed playful on paper, but on screen it's a painfully unfunny embarrassment to all involved.
Another star-studded miserable year-end experience. This woefully unfunny, unecessary and expensive sequel in the "Meet the Parents" franchise was its worst. Even the presence of DeNiro, Stiller, Owen Wilson, Streisand and Hoffman couldn't make this watchable.
Katherine Heigl and Ashton Kutcher are two of cinema's most handsome actors. Put them together and what do you get? One annoying, boring, lousy mess of a rom com about spies in the suburbs that's what. Brad and Angelina they're not.
Pair a hyper Brendan Fraser and some vengeful animals and you get what you might expect: a terrible, cheap, unfunny kids movie that even kids hated. After actually paying for this movie, you might want revenge too.
This offensive, sloppy comedy was the only time that Adam Sandler and all his comedian pals were on-screen together. With that in mind, you'd think there would be something actually funny to watch. Inexplicably, one of Sandler's biggest hits was one of his worst, which says a lot. Proves that all you have to do is grab a camera, some friends, act stupid and call it a movie.
Pensive but engaging celebrity tale "Somewhere"
The real question may be "Where are you?" The answer doesn't necessarily lie in Sofia Coppola's pensive, low-key new drama "Somewhere," and while the independently-made, superbly acted tale about celebrity status isn't always the most approachable film, it further reveals that Coppola remains one of cinema's more unconventional filmmakers.
Hollywood actor Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), nested in the luxurious L.A. hotel Chateau Marmont, is a stimulated man. Drinking, parties and women keep a creeping boredom under wraps in between jobs. He is the occasional father of a bright girl, Cleo (Elle Fanning), who may be spoiled but doesn't act it. When Cleo unexpectedly shows up for an extended stay, Johnny brings her along for the ride, but he may be forced to make changes to his privileged lifestyle.
Coppola's alluring, glossy tale of celebrity, "Somewhere" treads familiar Coppola territory; however, the slow-moving character study shows that fame doesn't necessarily bring relationships of substance. Some scenes are supposedly semi-autobiographical and based on Coppola's own famous upbringing, but it all has a familiar pensive air to it from other Coppola films, particularly "Lost in Translation," which examined similar issues. Still, Coppola is an interesting director who uses her elements well, while dwelling on the silence of a lonely road or the trinkling water in a swimming pool.
Most important, Coppola uses her actors well in what is essentially a two-character play, and it helps that both Dorff and Fanning give subtle but charming performances that carry the film. The Hollywood lifestyle is portrayed realistically but not sympathetically; it seems to be a lonely road filled with people who want to be around you for your celebrity. There are also some tunes from the folk rock group Phoenix that are integrated well into the film.
"Somewhere" may be in a lonely, sad place, and the provocative ending may leave you wondering if the characters ended up in the place they wanted to be. Coppola, a director of remarkable strength and intelligence, keeps you guessing.
Monday, December 27, 2010
Smooth Spacey performance in uneven Abramoff film "Casino Jack"
There's no doubting that infamous Washington D.C. lobbyist Jack Abramoff was a colorful character, given that he was the center of a corruption scandal for which he just completed a prison sentence. Abramoff's dealings are detailed in the new dramedy "Casino Jack," a choppy, redundant film that's in need of a better editing job. What is certain is that Kevin Spacy gives another of his brilliantly self-assured performances as Abramoff, and he's the chief reason to see the film.
Abramoff's Washington D.C. lobbyist and secondary business career is the focus of the film, which included some gross excesses, mismanagement and corruption that brought him and many of his colleagues, including Michael Scanlon ("True Grit's" Barry Pepper) and his political connections, down. One of his main clients that he defrauded was the Saginaw Chippewas tribe of Michigan, from whom he took over $20 million to pay for his excesses. A federal investigation finds Abramoff guilty for taking bribes in exchange for political favors.
"Casino Jack" is a well-acted but uneven film that details a fascinating, colorful life with a bland annoyance and redundancy given that most probably already know the outcome of Abramoff's story. George Hicklenlooper, director of the Oscar-winning documentary "Hearts of Darkness," can't get a great handle on the material, and it lacks a certain emotional payoff that something like this should have.
Spacey's affecting turn as Abramoff is the most memorable about the choppy film, which is evident from his recent Golden Globe nomination for the film. The film's narrative jumps between different events (including Texas's own Tom DeLay) before it reaches a climax that most are aware of if they've read the news.
"Casino Jack" shouldn't be confused with the actual Abramoff documentary released earlier this year, "Casino Jack and the United States of Money," which is far more effective in detailing Abramoff's career than this film, which fictionalizes certain aspects of the story. Abramoff's less than stellar legacy could've been given a more interesting treatment than what "Casino Jack" gives it, though Spacey gives it his all.
Likable, charming true story of "Made in Dagenham"
If you think you aren't paid enough at what you do, you should see the new British film "Made in Dagenham," a charming look at how some British ladies stood up and made a difference. It's predictable and unrevealing as a whole, but these ladies are so darn likable that you will be rooting for them the whole way.
It's the summer of 1968, and Rita O' Grady (Sally Hawkins) and her pals are enjoying the swinging '60s in Dagenham, England. They all work as sewing machinists for the Ford plant, sewing the material onto the car seats. But they are notified by their supervisor (Bob Hoskins) that have been categorized as unskilled workers and worst of all, are paid considerably less than their male counterparts. Rita stands up to the local Ford management for equal pay for the women, something that garners the attention of the British government and agressive Labor Department minister Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson), who pledges to help the ladies.
"Made in Dagenham" is a pleasantly inspiring but bland look at how a few lower-class British dames changed history and made things better for women workers. If you know anything about the story, you already know how it turns out, but it's fun getting there. There are a few unnecessary episodes that give a padded, choppy feel at times, but it's still fun getting to the end. Hawkins is affecting as O'Grady, Hoskins is a sympathetic company man, and British character actress Richardson delivers one of her stronger, more memorable turns as the opinated Castle, who not only helped the ladies but also provided legislation later than led to the groundbreaking Equal Pay Act.
Director Nigel Fox, who helmed another true British ladies effort "Calendar Girls" a few years ago, handles the material well, though it likely would've benefited from a stronger, female director who didn't underestimate the power of the material. Good thing he has a strong true story and cast on his side to make the film better than it really should be, and it's also quite nice to see the actual (and now much older) ladies talk about their experiences over the film's credits at the end.
"Made in Dagenham" is an agreeable, if somewhat forgettable look at some graceful, plucky ladies who made a difference. You may not remember all of the movie, but you certainly won't forget the difference they made.
Well-acted, chilling but baffling “All Good Things”
“All Good Things” is a fascinating, well-acted but confusing thriller based-on-a-true crime story, which works in its favor but is also its biggest flaw. Based on the chillingly bizarre experiences of rich real estate investor Robert Durst, for some reason the story is given a fictional slant, an odd choice from the filmmakers given their stance in essentially implicating Durst of the crimes.
Ryan Gosling is David Marks, the son of wealthy New York City real estate investor Sanford Marks (Frank Langella). He meets the girl of his dreams, a pretty, smart blond named Katie McCarthy (Kirsten Dunst). When they get married, David leaves the family business as he and Katie buy a health food store named “All Good Things.” But David is lured back to the business, the two begin leading separate lives and Katie applies to medical school. However, David begins acting strangely and violently toward Katie and others, and Katie disappears. Through a strange series of events over the years, the now 20-year old case of Katie’s disappearance is re-opened.
“All Good Things” is an intriguingly murky, well-acted dramatic thriller whose real-life story seems to cast a pall on its effectiveness. It’s well-acted and “Capturing the Friedman’s” director Andrew Jarecki, directs “All Good Things” with an astute attention to detail, but it’s baffling as to why Jarecki and his screenwriters Marcus Hinchey and Marc Smerling didn’t just use Durst’s story outright instead of changing the names and a few minor details (even Durst himself - strangely enough - has approved the film).
Gosling and especially Dunst, in an understated, low-key role, are quite good as the couple with some problems, but the unrevealing, confusing script doesn’t provide insight into the notorious real-life case and explaining some of Durst's bizarre behavior, especially in the film’s last act. The title of the film, "All Good Things" itself is an odd choice; ironically it's the only thing about the actual Durst case not fictionalized in the film, the name of the health food store Durst and his wife had, but it's such a fleeting, minor part of the movie it seems an ill-fitting name. Sure, it’s supposed to be a metaphor for Durst’s life, though in reality it would apply to just one part of his life and not the case as a whole.
“All Good Things” ends up a vacuous, hazy tale of rich people acting badly, rather than intimately profiling an intriguing, somewhat appalling character as Durst, who as an adult was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, which isn’t even mentioned here. The unresolved missing person case of Kathleen McCormack, Durst’s missing wife since 1982, deserves a more fulfilling, powerful examination than “All Good Things” gives it.
Friday, December 17, 2010
In the wake of this failure, Black takes down the director, Rob Letterman, who serviceably helmed the animated hits “Monsters and Aliens” and “Shark Tale” but seems to let Black run amok here among the many fake, tiny model sets, along with wasting an A-list cast including Peet, Blunt, Segel and Connolly. Nicholas Stoller, director and writer of the recent, sharp “Get Him to the Greek” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” gets credit for the screenplay, but how much of his original script actually ended up on screen is debatable.
Don't bother with dreadfully unfunny sequel "Little Fockers"
Hollywood has a way of taking ideas and running them into the ground, and this has never been more annoyingly apparent with the dreadful new sequel "Little Fockers," the third (and by far worst) movie in the tired "Meet the Parents" franchise. There's not anything remotely funny about "Fockers," which throws out the same mean-spirited gags as the other films; if you've seen the trailers for the film, then you've seen the best parts of the film.
Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) and his wife Pam (Teri Polo) are now living in Chicago with twin children. Greg helps run one of the floors of the urban hospital he works at and while he seems successful, he has high hopes for his family. His in-laws, Jack (Robert DeNiro) and Dina Byrnes (Blythe Danner) come to visit and things get worse when Jack pushes Greg into taking more control of his family. Misunderstandings and other problems threathen to tear the once-happy family apart for good.
"Little Fockers" is an unnecessary sequel and a big waste: waste of time, talent and celluloid. Much of it falls remarkably flat this time out, given that the DeNiro-Stiller awkward in-law set up, was moderately funny the first time out, not so much since. Silly and contrived, this is a low-point for both talented actors and likely won't be included in any career retrospectives. This one was obviously done for money on both sides of the camera, with both actors giving seemingly disinterested performances.
It also wastes the other big-name talent attached to it, namely Owen Wilson (annoying as ever) and Oscar-winners Dustin Hoffman and Barbara Streisand, the latter two of whom make little more than cameos as Greg's unorthodox parents. Even the addition of Jessica Alba, Laura Dern and Harvey Keitel can't save this mess from crashing and burning early on. This time it just doesn't work: you'd think by now the DeNiro and Stiller characters would have things worked out given all they've been through. Also, whoever was the casting director on this thing should've been fired early on, the fact that the actors playing Greg's twins are obviously different ages makes it all the more unbelieveable.
"Little Fockers" is like a big family reunion where you're surrounded by people you don't like or don't know and you want it to end as soon as possible (and in case you wonder what you saw in them in the first place). Like any unpleasant experiences, you hopefully won't remember much of it, either. Put this awful and awfully forgettable film out of its misery and skip it all together.
Finely drawn drama about grieving, loss in “Rabbit Hole”
If someone close to you has died, you often need ways to channel your grief and deal with the loss. “Rabbit Hole” examines the impact that death, loss and grieving have upon a family and the different ways that people deal with it. This low-key drama based on a play is finely drawn, superbly acted and often painful to watch, but is great viewing for the acting alone, particularly Nicole Kidman. Not all of it works perfectly, but the director and actors make it worth seeing.
Upscale middle class couple Becca and Howie Corbett (Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) lose their child Danny when he is hit by a car. Months after his death they’re both struggling to deal with the loss in their own way. Becca chooses to remember him by developing a platonic relationship with the teenage driver who hit their son (Miles Teller) while Howie chooses a support group that Becca loathes. As Becca distances herself from Danny, Howie lives in the past by seeking refuge in outsiders. The Corbett’s find themselves adrift that will force them to make some choices about their future.
Slow-moving but understated with a nice, emotional pull, the compelling performances from leads Kidman and Eckhart highlight the film. The strong direction from John Cameron Mitchell also helps; Mitchell, director of such offbeat independent fare as “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and “Shortbus” makes for an unlikely directorial choice for a drama like this but it’s a pleasant surprise.
David Lindsey-Abaire adapts his Pulitzer Award-winning play for the film and while much of it works well, the play loses a shade of its intimacy and complexity on screen, though the layered performances from Kidman and Eckhart make it work. They share some powerful moments together and Kidman is particularly effective as the grieving mom letting go of her son in her own way. There are some stellar supporting performances too, particularly Dianne Weist as Becca’s concerned mother and Tammy Blanchard as Becca’s unstable younger sister.
“Rabbit Hole” may have limited appeal but is worth a look for an excellent Kidman turn and a great drama about grief.
Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of western violence including disturbing images, 110 minutes
Affecting, understated “True Grit” the real deal
If you’re one of those who think it’s downright heresy to remake a John Wayne film should take a gander at the superb Coen Brothers remake of “True Grit,” which sticks closer to Charles Portis’ gritty novel and is in many ways better than the 1969 film that won Wayne an Oscar and created an iconic character that he’s best known for. This “True Grit” is a slow-moving, well-acted and tense Old Western drama that shoots and ends up a winner.
Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is a determined 14-year old girl, out to avenge the cold-blooded murder of her father Frank Ross by low-level thief Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who’s been riding with a gang of bad guys led by “Lucky” Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper). Mattie manages to rustle up the cash to hire a crusty, alcoholic U.S. Marshall named Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track Chaney down. Along for the ride is Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Matt Damon) who has his own reasons for tracking down Chaney.
“True Grit” is more authentic Western than the original film from the Coen Brothers, who direct and write as if they’ve been making Westerns for years (“No Country For Old Men” was sort a contemporary Western, sort of). This version is less remake than just another version of the novel, which the film adapts more faithfully. As in the novel, the film is told mainly from the viewpoint of Mattie, the young girl and central protagonist. She hires Cogburn for his “true grit” though in fact she’s the one who possesses the character needed to pull off something like this.
Because of the change in focus, the highlight of “True Grit” isn’t the hammy performance from Bridges, who literally has big boots to fill (more on that later), but the determined, confident performance from young newcomer Steinfeld, who is the real heart of the film and miles ahead of the annoying Kim Darby in the 1969 film. She takes the film from veterans Bridges and Damon and stands her ground in one of the year’s breakthrough performances (the scene in which she smooth talks a businessman is one of the film’s highlights). Fortunately, Bridges, in another stellar but flashy performance, doesn’t impersonate Wayne and gives the character more levity than Wayne’s didn’t have. Damon is also good in a low-key part and who’ll make you easily forget Glen Campbell, playing well off of Bridges’ larger-than-life presence.
The film drags some in the later going and misses a few beats here and there (Brolin is misused in a tiny part, a couple of small, bizarre Coen touches don’t fit and the climax is a bit anti-climactic given the premise), but overall this “True Grit” works better than the original, though it’s still not as rough and violent as it could’ve been. The Coen’s certainly don’t channel Eastwood’s reverent, elegiac “Unforgiven” in tone, but they still deliver an affecting, understated dramatic film that seems more drama than Western but works due in large part to Steinfeld’s layered performance that’s sure to garner accolades and attention.
The entertaining “True Grit” is a few notches better than the original film and is worth seeing this holiday season.
Gritty, layered boxing drama "The Fighter" is a winner
The new gritty boxing drama "The Fighter" comes up a winner and is the most memorable real-life boxing story since the Oscar-winning "Raging Bull." Starring Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale, the excellent performances, realistic fight scenes and stellar production elements lift it above what could've been another typical "Rocky"-like rags-to-riches story.
It's the mid-1980s in Lowell, Massachusetts, and boxer Micky Ward (Wahlberg) has been a moderately-successful boxer, trained by his older half-brother Dicky Eklund (Bale), a former boxer himself with drug problems, and managed by his bouffant-haired, loving mom Alice (Melissa Leo). After a series of setbacks causes him to quit the ring, the determined Micky attempts a comeback with new management and a new girlfirend (Amy Adams), which comes at a price both inside and outside the ring.
Realistic, believable and entertaining, "The Fighter" is a winner and a must-see for those who enjoy a "warts-and-all" drama and an uplifting, hard-knocks story. The believable, stellar turns from all in the cast lift the otherwise typical story into watchable entertainment. You'll most remember Bale's affecting, intense turn as the troubled, drug-addicted brother; his striking transformation (including the weight-loss) will change your perceptions of the British actor best-known for playing Batman.
Wahlberg continues to develop as an actor, and while his understated turn as Micky won't garner as much attention as Bale's showy turn, he's still the heart of the film, and you'll be cheering him every step of the way. Oscar-nominee Leo is also memorable as the controlling but loving big-haired mother, who only wants the best for her family, as is Adams, in a tough, different change of pace for the normally perky actress. Director David O. Russell ("Three Kings") is in fine, gritty Scorsese-like form, and his realistic recreation of the intense fight scenes should be lauded.
"The Fighter" was filmed on location in Lowell in some of the areas where the real Micky Ward (who along with Dicky is shown at the end) trained and lived, and it's filled with many great scenes inside and outside of the ring. "The Fighter" is one of the year's best films, and Micky and his story will stay with you long after you leave the theater.
Without hesitation, "The King's Speech" is one of the year's best
"The King's Speech" sheds new light on the Royal Family, and it's an inspiring one. Based on the true story of how King George VI (the current Queen Elizabeth's father) and how he overcame a stammer to lead England with courage during World War II. It's one of the year's most poignant, enjoyably uplifting and well-acted films, and expect it to earn some well-deserved accolades this awards season.
King George V (Michael Gambon) has successfully led England for years, but he becomes aged and ill and unable to lead his country. His oldest son Edward (Guy Pearce) is expected to succeed him on the throne, but he abdicates it due to his affair with a divorced woman. His next son, George VI (Colin Firth), then takes the throne, but his stammer and shyness make him an unusual choice. With the prodding of his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), he goes to Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian speech therapist known for his unorthodox methods, for assistance. With Logue's help, George is able to lead the country during World War II.
Vastly entertaining, superbly acted and crafted, "The King's Speech" is sublime, uplifting entertainment and one of the year's best films. The highlight of the film is Firth's amazing, touching performance as the royal who was known as Bertie and who received help from a regular man. Firth's transformation is credible, wholly believable and quite affecting; he's all but a shoo-in for this year's Best Actor Oscar, but his performance alone makes the film required viewing even for non-history buffs. Oscar-winner Rush is also quite good as Logue, who helped George overcome his stammer, and Carter, for once playing a normal human being, is poignant as the future Queen Mother.
The first-rate production ably recreates late 1930's England along with all the royal red tape that went along with being in this family. Gambon is a great, crusty old King George V, while "Harry Potter" alum Timothy Spall shines in a small but crucial part as Winston Churchill. Tom Hooper, who also successfully handled another historical figure in the miniseries "John Adams," directs David Seidler's with skill and keeps it from going the mauldin-illness-of-the-week route.
"The King's Speech" is an enjoyable, well-crafted and engaging film that comes highly recommended.
Taymor's uneven version of "The Tempest" a mixed bag
Leave it to good 'ol Bill Shakespeare to cause controversy at the movie box-office. The latest adaptation of his play "The Tempest" will no doubt cause some waves due to some major changes with the characters, though those changes are in fact welcome ones. Directed and adapted by renowned Broadway and film director Julie Taymor (best known for Broadway's "The Lion King"), the is superbly acted by most of the cast, though it suffers from some awkwardly staged scenes and uneven pacing.
Prospera (Helen Mirren), the duchess of Milan, is usurped by her brother Antonio (Chris Cooper) and is cast off on a raft to die with her young daughter Miranda (Felicity Jones). They survive, finding themselves stranded on an island where the beast Caliban is the sole inhabitant. Prospera enslaves Caliban (Djimon Hounsou) and claims the island. After 12 years, Alonso, the king of Naples (David Straithairn), sails back to his kingdom from the marriage of his daughter to the prince of Tunisia, accompanied by his son Ferdinand (Reeve Carney) and Antonio. Prospera, apprehending her chance for revenge, causes a tempest, wrecking the ship and stranding those on board on her island.
Those familiar with Shakespeare's play "The Tempest" will notice the crucial casting change from the play of Prospero to Prospera, now a woman played with agility and intelligence by one of our greatest actresses, Mirren. Taymor has succeeded in adapting the play with a woman at the helm and keeps much of the power from Shakespeare's play. Though is its most provocative change it's a welcome one and one she handles well; unfortunately, Taymor overdirects much of the film, and its suffers from plodding pacing, a few badly staged scenes and a couple of miscasting cues.
Mirren, Jones, Hounsou along with Alfred Molina and Alan Cumming are the highlights from the large, all-star cast. Cooper is a great, Oscar-winning actor who's miscast as Antonio; Cooper's contemporary sensibilities don't fit in here and he sticks out like a sore thumb. Ditto for Russell Brand, who's an inspired choice but one that throws the film off considerably; he's a major distraction in a film that may have trouble keeping those of us outside the English Lit set engaged.
Good for Taymor (who needs some good news, she's at the helm of the new "Spider-Man" Broadway musical, which is proving to be disasterous) she has Mirren, who ably carries the film and sizzles whenever she's on screen and is the highlight of an otherwise pallid, boring effort. The sets and the costumes are first-rate and I appreciate Taymor's willingness to change things up a bit, just too bad it will have a rather limited appeal.
"Yogi Bear" - you're kidding, right?
Well, it's official. Another classic animated cartoon ruined by Hollywood CG, as if that comes as a big surprise regarding the unfortunate new children's movie "Yogi Bear." Dumber than the average children's movie, it recreates it with a mixture live-action and CGI ala "Scooby Doo" and "Alvin and the Chipmunks" not to mention an all-star cast that must have been paid a pretty penny for their take-the-money-and-run performances. "Yogi Bear" is to put it simply, just terrible, and painfully so. With no plot to speak of, there's simply nothing funny about flying picnic baskets.
Jellystone Park is celebrating its 100 anniversary, however it may be for the last time, because attendance is down and Mayor Brown (Andrew Daly) wants to close the park and sell the land. If the park is closed, Yogi Bear (voice of Dan Aykroyd) and Boo Boo (Justin Timberlake) will lose their home. They join forces with Ranger Smith (Tom Cavanaugh) and his girl Rachel (Anna Faris) to save Jellystone from closing forever. Yogi must really prove that he is "smarter than the average bear".
"Yogi Bear" will be remembered, but only for being one of the worst films of 2010. The film is just as bad as the trailers make it look, but that likely won't stop it from being a big hit at the box-office. The film is another bizarre mixture of CG and live-action (any reason no other animals or humans are CG?) with some outdated, painfully unfunny gags that even the littlest of ones could see through. Even more unfortunate is the fact that Aykroyd, one of the sharpest comedians to emerge from the original "Saturday Night Live," voices the big brown bear himself, and while he does a decent imitation, he is wasted with the lack of sharp gags and script.
The only thing of value is it is suitable, silly humor, even if it isn't a bit funny. It's good, clean fun on that level and will provide a good escape for parents who can drop off their kids and get some holiday shopping done, like buying them a copy of a real gem, "Toy Story 3." A forgettable waste of time and should end up on many (including mine) Top 10 Worst lists for this year.
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Sweet but talky, overlong "How Do You Know"
I'll let you in on a couple of things before you go to the new romantic comedy "How Do You Know." First, the sweet, leisurely film is too talky for its own good and goes on too long, but its heart in the right place. Second, of all the high-caliber cast in the film, you will enjoy Paul Rudd the most. Yes, you heard that right. Rudd has never been more charming in this very expensive rom com ($120 million, with nearly half of that attributed to salaries of the major players) that has a lot riding on it.
Reese Witherspoon is professional women's softball player Lisa Jorgensen, who finds herself cut from the team and forced to find a new life. She soon finds herself in a love triangle with a self-absorbed professional baseball player Manny (Owen Wilson), a player on and off the field, and George (Rudd), a schlub from the financial sector who finds himself in legal trouble with his business partner and father (Jack Nicholson).
"How Do You Know" is a warm but overlong, heartfelt rom com that's heavy on the dialogue, unsurprising given the writer and director is noted director James L. Brooks, who over the years has channeled relationships to Oscars ("Terms of Endearment,") to TV cultural icons ("The Simpsons"). "How Do You Know" isn't one of his stronger efforts, but then it isn't a terrible one, either; it's a pleasant but unrevealing piece of puffery with a high-powered, expensive cast and production.
If "How Do You Know" is a failure (which, given its $120 million price tag, is a strong possibility), the one most to lose will unfortunately be the likable Witherspoon, very pretty here but then it's not a strong women's role, again a surprise from the guy who got an Oscar for keeping peace between Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger. Brooks' uneven script is one of his most flawed; it spends too much time on the Witherspoon-Wilson relationship (who display little chemistry here) and then Witherspoon's character goes on and on trying to make a decision the audience knows she'll make anyway by the end.
Thankfully, the other guy here is charming comic actor Rudd, who's the heart of the film and by far the film's most sympathetic character. Rudd's comic reactions and timings are perfect, and he continues to reveal a versatility that comprable actors would desire (namely Wilson, in another one-note variation of most of the roles he plays). Jack is, well, Jack; fortunately, nearly all of his scenes are with Rudd, and their warmth is the film's most palpable highlight. Nicholson, who's worked with Brooks several times before, also scores the film's biggest laugh (no explanation needed, you will know when that is).
"How Do You Know" is a pleasantly sweet, enjoyable, if not chatty, film. People talk on and on about doing things instead of just doing it and going with the flow. Brooks and company have their heart in the right place, but it tends to stay there too long deciding what to do. Let's hope audiences (and lots of them given its cost) will stay with it too.
While searching for clues, Sam is suddenly transported to the digital world of The Grid. Aided by the digital warrior Quorra (Olivia Wilde) and Tron (Bruce Boxleitner), Sam is reunited with his father and together set out on a journey to return home. Encountering vehicles, weapons, and landscapes that have become far more advanced than before, father and son must evade CLU 2, an updated version of Flynn's original hacking program (and really a younger version of Bridges), which will stop at nothing to prevent their escape.
Friday, December 10, 2010
You won't love the odd comedy "I Love You Phillip Morris"
The new comedy "I Love You Phillip Morris" is one of the most unusual films seen in recent memory. Not the fact that two mainstream straight actors, Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor, are playing gay men but the fact that the often bizarre low-budget farce is a true story, based on the exploits of real-life con artist and prison escapee Steven Russell, who's still serving time in Texas as this is written. Carrey's performance is the best thing about the odd, uneven movie.
The story begins with Russell (Jim Carrey), apparently on his deathbed, recalling the events of his life. He begins with his early adult years in Virginia Beach as a happily married police officer. He plays the organ at church, has enthusiastic sex with his wife (Leslie Mann), is a doting father, and spends his off hours searching for his biological mother, who gave him up as a child.
After a violent car crash, Russell leaves previous life behind, and goes out into the world as his true self, which is as a gay man that he has secretly lived for years. He moves to Miami, finds a boyfriend (Rodrigo Santoro) and begins living a very expensive lifestyle. The need for money causes him to turn to a life as a conman. When his con work finally starts to catch up with him, Russell is sent to prison, where he sees and immediately falls in love with Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor). From there on, it becomes the story of a forlorn lover who cannot bear to be separated from his soul-mate and will go to any lengths to be with Phillip.
"I Love You Phillip Morris" is an uneven, odd dramedy about Russell's exploits that's far more interesting on paper than played out here. It's had distribution problems and has been sitting on the shelf the last two years and was re-edited during that to make it more mainstream. Unfortunately, the newly re-edited film has lost a certain edge in the process and falters between dark, dark comedy and over-the-top farce with a little drama thrown in for good measure, with so much thrown at the screen to see what sticks.
The film's dark tone is unsurprising given that it's directed and written by the team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, responsible for a much better dark comedy, "Bad Santa." The highlight of the film is a great Carrey performance, who unsurprisingly carries the film on his back with his stellar comic timing and presence, though it's really nothing different than he's done before.
As good as Carrey makes the film, it makes you wonder how differently the film would've been shaded with a less comic actor and a more dramatic one. Carrey's schtick overtakes the film (as for poor Ewan McGregor, he's wasted in a much smaller part than Carrey's) and what could've been an inspired film turns into another Carrey comedy. Leslie Mann ("Knocked Up") has a few good moments as Russell's confused but loving ex-wife.
Surprisingly, "I Love You Phillip Morris" isn't as shocking or as graphic as it could've been, and it falters in delivering an emotional connection. "I Love You Phillip Morris," given the comic presence of Carrey and an intriguing real-life story, is unfortunately just a big disappointment.
Thursday, December 9, 2010
Glitzy but forgettable "Tourist"
You remember those T-shirts that used to say "I went to __________ and all I got was this lousy T-shirt."? The new movie "The Tourist" is kinda like that. It takes you to a far off land, weaves a complex story and then leaves you empty-handed. Slick, pretty but uneven and a little slow at times, some of it works, some of it doesn't and the twist at the end is a tad baffling. What's for sure, "The Tourist" has some great scenery, particularly two handsome, huge movie stars in Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, both of whom play it smart and low-key.
Depp is an American tourist in Italy named Frank trying to get over a lost love. He runs into Jolie, a lovely British woman named Elise who is in Venice searching for a former but mysterious love named Alexander Pearce, who stole some money from some very bad guys and is now on the run. He's being pursued all the while by an agent (Paul Bettany) for Scotland Yard who has connections to them both.
Uneven but glitzy, muddled but somehow crowd-pleasing, "The Tourist" is a weak effort given the talent involved, Jolie, Depp and director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, director of the Oscar-winning German film "The Lives of Others." The film wavers too much between thriller and dark comedy but comes up rather empty-handed on both, and given the twist at the end, much of it's unnecessary and contrived.
Jolie and Depp play it well in roles they've played much better in other movies, especially Jolie, who did this thing much better in "Wanted" and earlier this year in "Salt." She's slowly becoming typecast playing women like this, and "The Tourist" reveals her self-effacing traits too much; her English accent wavers in and out too much. Depp is a little better in a woefully underwritten, unrevealing role that's one of his weakest. Bettany is solid, as is Steven Berkoff as the slimy villain; cinemaphiles will enjoy the fact that Berkoff played the equally slimy Victor Maitland in the first "Beverly Hills Cop" 27 years ago.
The silly, contrived script is especially a disappointment considering it was worked on my von Donnersmarck and Oscar-winning screenwriters Julian Fellowes ("Gosford Park") and Christopher McQuarrie ("The Usual Suspects"). The "Usual Suspects"-type twist at the end is especially disappointing and out-of-place with the rest of the film. Venice is beautifully filmed as are Depp and Jolie, but the movie comes up short in delivering a strong story and sympathetic characters you really care about. You'll pay $10 for a forgettable movie like "The Tourist" and all you'll end up with is a silly ending and greasy popcorn hands.
Friday, December 3, 2010
Ridiculous, silly "Warrior's Way"
Within the first few minutes of the new kung-fu action "The Warrior's Way" the 'greatest swordsmen ever' is brought down, a baby is rescued, ninjas are killed in a bamboo forest and the main character ends up in an Old West town. This has the makings for a cool movie or quite possibly a disaster and one of the worst things seen on screens this year. A few nifty special-effects and fight scenes aren't near enough to make this the most ridiculous, worst-acted film of the year.
Yang (Korean film star Jang Dong-gun) is a warrior with a mission: to kill the last living member of an enemy clan. The only thing is, the last living member is a cute baby girl who Yang cannot kill, so he leaves his country to go to the American West, where a friend of his supposedly living. His friend is no longer there, but in the town he finds talky black small person (Tony Cox), the town drunk (Geoffrey Rush) and a young girl (Kate Bosworth) who Yang becomes attracted to and helps exact revenge on the man (Danny Huston) who killed her family years earlier.
"The Warrior's Way" is preposterously bad action-adventure flick that tries (very badly) to combine a Sergio Leone spaghetti-western with Korean kung-fu. Much like combining Italian food with Korean food, this is an absolute mess. It takes itself far too seriously to work even moderately well, and while the fight scenes and a few special-effects are decent, everything else about it is just plain terrible, from the acting, the story, to the fake sets, all of which make it look like a cheap soundstage. It all comes together in a way-over-the-top, stupid finale that makes little sense for even something like this.
Korean film director and screenwriter Sngmoo Lee and Korean action-star Jang Dong-gun are largely responsible for this mess, which was shot in early 2008 but has been sitting on the shelf for nearly 3 years. It certainly won't help the careers of anyone else involved, including Rush (whose awful, unnecessary narration is heard throughout the film), the once-it girl Bosworth in what could likely be a career-killer; her performance is the film's worst - even Dong-gun has the wisdom to keep his mouth shut most of the time - to Huston, who chews on scenery in his brief role as the slimeball villain.
This disaster is credited with being co-produced by one of "The Lord of the Rings" producers, Barrie M. Osborne, but he may not want much to do with "The Warrior's Way" after most people see how bad it is. This could be one of those "so-bad-it's good" cult-classics in years to come, but for now I'd take the high road away from "The Warrior's Way."
Wednesday, December 1, 2010
Affecting and action-packed "Voyage of the Dawn Treader"
"The Chronicles of Narnia" gets a boost with the latest in the series based on the C.S. Lewis novels of the same name. "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" is thrilling, action-packed and quite affecting in the last act (i.e. bring plenty of tissues), and may remind some as a "Lord of the Rings" for the junior set. Though suitable for the whole family, some of it is a little intense for very young children and while many prefer the first film, I think overall this is the best of the series so far.
Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmund Pevensie (Skandar Keynes) return to Narnia with their cousin Eustace (Will Poulter) where they meet up with Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) for a trip across the sea aboard the royal ship The Dawn Treader. Along the way they encounter dragons, dwarves, merfolk, and a band of lost warriors before reaching the edge of the world.
Magical, colorful and energetic, "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" makes for exciting entertainment, even if it starts treading "The Lord of the Rings" territory, particularly with its breathless, dragon-filled climax. It is a faithful adaptation of Lewis' novel (technically the fifth written but the third released), is the most poignant and best-acted of the lot by the three young children, who are growing up quickly. The new addition, U.K. actor Poulter as cousin Eustace, is the most memorable; his transformation from unlikable brat to hero will have you cheering the most.
Listen closely for the voices of character actor Simon Pegg ("Star Trek") as the heroic mouse Reepicheep and stalwart Liam Neeson as the head lion Aslan. "Voyage of the Dawn Treader" has the most emotional ending of the three, as the two younger children bid farewell to Narnia, so be sure to keep plenty of tissues on hand. Suitable for the whole family, but I'd be careful with anyone younger than 10 or so, as some of the creatures are a tad frightening.
"The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" is enjoyable, action-packed fun and a good night for the family for the holidays, and sometimes that's a good deal.
This is a brilliantly dark, twisted "Black Swan"
You will either love it or hate it. “ ” is one of those divisive films. A disturbing, twisted very dark psychological thriller from “ ’s” , Natalie Portman gives one of the year’s most sublimely intense performances that’s sure to be Oscar-nominated. Complex but mesmerizing, you won’t understand it all but you certainly won’t be able to look away.
“Black Swan” is about a New York City ballet company producing a version of “Swan Lake.” The company’s director ( ) replaces his long-standing prima donna ballerina (Winona Ryder) with a new, talented ballerina named Nina (Portman). Nina has issues of her own, living with an overbearing, controlling mother (Barbara Hershey), a former ballerina herself. Nina has the skill and grace to perfectly play the White Swan, but lacks the passion to play the sensual Black Swan, something a rival ballerina named Lilly (Mila Kunis) possesses. Nina begins exploring her dark side, something that could help her performance or destroy her personally.
Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” is one of the year’s most provocative, complex and entertaining films. Disturbing, intense and supremely dark “Black Swan” is a must see for Portman’s layered, powerful performance. Aronofksy’s moody script and direction, originally conceived as a companion piece to his 2008 film “The Wrestler,” is bizarre and downright strange at times, but much of it works brilliantly. The mesmerizing on-stage finale is brilliantly staged and executed by Aronofsky and highlights the film.
It’s also universally, superbly acted by the entire cast, with solid turns by Cassel, Kunis and in a brief but fiesty, serious turn, Ryder as a washed-up ballerina. Especially memorable is Hershey as Portman’s overbearing but loving mother, who has issues of her own. Hershey’s strong, searing deliverance should bring the veteran character actress another Oscar nomination for supporting actress.
“Black Swan,” however, gives Portman center stage and she delivers an amazing, complex performance as the uptight ballerina that will propel her to accolades and more A-list roles; she embodies the role of a ballerina to near-perfection, her intense ballet training for the film is evident with every turn. The movie’s most provocative scene has her in a lesbian drug-fueled dream sequence with Kunis that should please those that enjoy that type of thing. Aronofsky also peppers the film with some twisty, nifty special effects that help give life to some of Nina’s mental issues (paintings and tattoos come to life, along with different versions of herself).
“Black Swan” is a disturbing psychological drama that is a must-see, but also know the downbeat, heavy film isn’t necessarily for everyone (and you will not leave this movie happy). Textured, dark and serious, you won't understand it all, but in a bizarre, twisted way, "Black Swan" is one of the year's best films.
Saturday, November 27, 2010
"Inside Job" is a compelling, timely expose
You will leave the new documentary "Inside Job" angry, and rightfully so. An expose that details the global financial meltdown of 2008, this tells how how your investments, retirement funds and tax dollars were lossed and spent but it could've been avoided. More entertaining than you might think, documentarian Charles Ferguson ("No End In Sight") manages to make a dry topic engaging, gripping and wholly compelling.
"Inside Job" is the first film to provide a comprehensive analysis of the global financial crisis of 2008, which at a cost over $20 trillion, caused millions of people to lose their jobs and homes in the worst recession since the Great Depression, and nearly resulted in a global financial collapse. Through exhaustive research and extensive interviews with key financial insiders, politicians, journalists, and academics, the film traces the rise of a rogue industry which has corrupted politics, regulation, and academia.
"Inside Job" is a fascinating, thought-provoking and pertinent look at the financial crisis that still affects many as we speak. "Inside Job" covers much of the same ground that Michael Moore did with his 2009 documentary "Capitalism," but with much more exhaustive detail. Ferguson breaks his film into several chapters to analyze what went wrong, how it happened and what has happened since, and you won't like what you see. The fat cats who caused and allowed the crisis to occur still have their fortunes and aren't behind bars, as many feel they should be.
Not only is it interesting to see the many financial insiders Ferguson interviewed, but the many, many who refused to be interviewed for the film (if you were involved, would you?). It implicates the big financial instituitions for allowing the bad loans, ignoring the warnings that came from many experts and then running to the U.S. government for help, which itself is filled with former financial big wigs in cabinet or consulting roles. "Inside Job" is truly frightening (but unsurprising) as it details the corruptive influence of the financial companies within the government and educational institutions, and how a new U.S. Presidential administration didn't change things much.
The crisis continues to have a ripple effect (especially if you've paid attention to what has happened in Ireland and Iceland lately) even today, and some believe it may happen again. "Inside Job" pulls no surprises and is a little redundant and preachy down the stretch (thanks to Matt Damon's narration, used effectively here); ironically the millions affected by the crisis may not get to see the film because they don't have the money to shell out to see it. Still, it's a must see, powerful film that helps break down what happened, not to mention the many confusing terms you hear in the media.
As one Chinese official says in the film, why pay "financial engineers" so much for building a dream when actual engineers are paid little by comparison for actually building bridges and roads. Those financial engineers changed so many lives, but not for the good, and we're still paying for it. See this film and do something about it.
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
Raunchy "Love and Other Drugs" falls short
By all accounts, I went into the new romantic dramedy "Love and Other Drugs" thinking I would love it. It has two lovely actors, Anne Hathaway and "what's his name" Jake Gyllenhaal and a solid director in Edward Zwick ("Defiance," "Blood Diamond"), but for some reason this raunchy film left me feeling a little empty. Sure, Zwick stages some steamy scenes with a naked Hathaway and Gyllenhaal, but does a handful of sex scenes necessarily add up to a great movie? Down beneath all the sex, there's not much there, and the weak story fails to deliver a strong emotional core.
Based loosely on Jamie Reidy's best selling non-fiction book "Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman" and it's set in the late 1990's. Gyllenhaal is Jamie Randall, a college grad struggling to find his way. He goes to work for pharmaceutical company Pfizer and does his best to eck out a living. Strong and handsome with chisled looks, he's never had a problem with women, until he meets free spirit Maggie (Hathaway), an artist struggling with some physical and emotional problems. They hook up, have hot sex, and engage in a "friends with benefits" type relationship until they begin falling for each other. Jamie realizes that Maggie is only using her problems as a shield to get in and out of relationships, but he must convey his true love for her.
Zwick and company deliver what has plagued many romantic comedies of late: a mediocre slipshod comedy with a few funny lines and moments. There are many mixed messages there - love in sickness and health - that are never really explored fully (and in one appalling scene a man whose wife has Parkinson's tells Gyllenhaal's character to promptly dump his woman and move quickly on because illness can destroy a relationship).
The uber-handsome Gyllenhall and the always warm, charming Hathaway (who bares just about everything here) perform well given the vacuous story, and while they're certainly eye candy, even their sex scenes have a cold, disconnected and very rehearsed feeling to them, lacking a certain hot vibe to make it genuinely steamy. And while the ending is heartwarming, you sorta know that these two would end up anyway ( see for yourself).
The rest of the cast is misused or underused. "21's" Josh Rad, way overused and largely unfunny; blink and you'll miss the cameos from George Segal and the recently deceased Jill Clayburgh as Randall's parents. Fine comic actress Judy Greer, hardly there. Handsome actor Gabriel Macht, not used enough. Pretty much explains the movie itself. It's certainly seeking a younger, edgier vibe with all the sex scenes, but as we know, good sex doesn't hurt, but it doesn't solidify a good relationship, or a good movie for that matter.
Given that a large part of "Love and Other Drugs" is about Viagra, the script could've risen to the occasion and toned down the sex and toned down the sex scenes and have these unsympathetic, cardboard characters work through issues we actually care about. But that would've been boring given the old addage that sex sells; in this case it sells the movie, just not a good movie.
“Burlesque” is campy, ridiculous fun
Veteran singer Cher still has it. Pop singer Christina Aguilera’s voice is stunningly powerful. They’re the main reason to see the predictably campy rags-to-riches musical “Burlesque,” which teams the two unlikely performers together. It seems evident that a creaky, old-fashioned story has been fashioned around Cher and Christina; both charmingly strut through the movie in video-music form and own the film, even when the weak script can’t keep up with them.
The premise for “Burlesque” is quite simple. Aguilera is a talented small-town girl named Ali with big dreams and even bigger voice. She comes to Hollywood on the first bus out and finds it difficult to break out. She eventually finds a job in an old-fashioned club called Burlesque owned by Tess (Cher) built around some sexy dancers, including Nikki (Kristen Bell) and Georgia (Julianne Hough). A rich businessman (Eric Dane) wants to buy up the place, but Tess feels it still has some life in it, particularly when Ali finds her way in the show and turns the place on its heels.
“Burlesque” is a cheesy, hokey nod to all those old-fashioned musicals of yesteryear, where the movie’s dated story clearly belongs. The energetic music and the dancing are, unsurprisingly, the best part of the film; everything else in between is largely forgettable. Cher and Christina make for a good time; in her film debut, Aguilera shows she has a stunning voice and is a sexy, electric performer. However, her acting skills need a little work, even if her energy and bland charm help carry the film. Cher looks fabulous as usual and is always good for a quip or two though some scenes she resembles a caricature of herself in drag queen form, but she’s still a a great deal of fun.
Of the large cast, only a couple makes a memorable impression. Kristen Bell (“Veronica Mars”) proves to be a decent singer and dancer, while the presence of Stanley Tucci, while fun, is only necessary for the benefit for Cher having a sidekick. Eric Dane along with Peter Gallagher, Cam Gigandet and Alan Cumming have little screen-time, or in Gigandet’s case, a powerful on-screen presence (Gigandet, of “Twilight” fame, is one of today’s blandest actors).
It’s also unsurprising that “Burlesque” seems like an extended music video with about as much depth; video music director Steve Antin’s unoriginal direction doesn’t add much emotional connection, though the film is directed in clear crowd-pleasing form. It’s unfortunate that Oscar-winner Diablo Cody (“Juno”) is credited with the weak script, though substantial revisions were likely made later on.
The songs, the dancing are bouncy, fun and will have your feet tapping by the “Burlesque’s” calculated ending. Cher and Christina are in full control the film, but you’ll hard-pressed to remember any of the story after you leave the theater.
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
Silly preposterous "Faster" is escapist, junky enterainment
The Oscar goes to…The Rock for “Faster”! You probably won’t hear those words this year, but the forgettable “Faster” is decent entertainment if you take it for what it’s worth: guilty-pleasure, junky entertainment and bloody fun taken in the right way. Some of it works, much of it doesn’t as it channels The Rock’s serious, darker side, but the preposterous “Faster” is a revenge flick that’s escapist entertainment at its best.
After 10 years in prison, Driver (Dwayne Johnson) has a singular focus—to avenge the murder of his brother during the botched ban robbery that led to his imprisonment. Now a free man with a deadly to-do list in hand, he's finally on his mission...but with two men on his trail—a veteran cop (Billy Bob Thornton) just days from retirement, and a young egocentric hitman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) with a flair for the art of killing and a newfound worthy opponent. The hunter is also the hunted. It's a do or die race to the finish as the mystery surrounding his brother's murder deepens, and new details emerge along the way hinting that Driver's list may be incomplete.
Taken as a serious film, “Faster” is a contrived, over-the-top mess. As low-brow junky entertainment it works far better if you don’t take it too seriously. Johnson is a better comic actor than a serious one, which is partly why “Faster” doesn’t work in addition to the rather uninspired direction from George Tillman Jr. (“Soulfood”).
Johnson lacks a range of emotion needed to carry this revenge movie off, especially paired against Thornton, playing his typically slimeball characters with great amusement as he chews on scenery. The final twist seemingly comes out of nowhere, but if you play close attention you’ll realize early on the connection that Thornton’s character has with Johnson’s. The car Johnson's car drives, a souped-up 1960s Chevy Chevelle, is by far the coolest thing about the movie.
“Faster” works best when it’s focused on Johnson’s singular mission to bring down everyone that had to do with the murder of his brother, after all this is a revenge flick. It’s when it incorporates the side story of the young rich hitman that it becomes too uneven, especially since you have to wait until the film’s final frames to find out truly why this guy is after Johnson too.
Bloody, silly, and utterly contrived, there are some good moments of violence and mayhem that will please audience looking for those things. “Faster,” much like its name, is quick and efficient, though it leaves a handful of things from its muddled story unanswered, making you wonder if he really got everyone on his list. If you need a quick escape from the turkey festivities this weekend, put “Faster” at the top of your list to see, though your food will be more memorable and flavorful than this.
Friday, November 19, 2010
"Tangled" is a smooth, witty, fun animated musical
Disney does it again. It's created a lively, colorful and charming new animated musical in "Tangled," a fun re-telling of the Rapunzel fairy tale. It comes as a surprise but a pleasant one, given that most of Disney's best work these days is done by Pixar. The fluid animation helps to advance the genre some even if the story seems a tad unoriginal, but this heartwarming tale will leave you with both a smile and a tear in your eye.
A baby princess named Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) is born to the King and Queen and her hair has magical powers. However, an evil witch named Gothel (Donna Murphy) steals Rapunzel from the palace in revenge for the royal family taking a magical plant responsible for saving the baby princess and her mother. Gothel keeps Rapunzel for herself for years locked away in a high tower as Rapunzel's hair keeps Gothel young. However, one day a thief named Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi) with the stolen royal crown in tow and a bevy of bad guys after him comes to her house, changing everything for Rapunzel, who's destiny hangs in the balance with Flynn's crown, which rightfully belongs to Rapunzel.
"Rapunzel" is a playful, often hilarious and entertaining fairy tale that casts its own spin on the Rapunzel story. The basic themes are in place, but those familiar with the tale will notice the significant changes, noticeably adding a love interest for Rapunzel with Flynn, and the addition of the fun songs. Most of it works well, though the story seems a little "Beauty and the Beast"-ish, which isn't surprising given the music, most of it emotional ballads, comes from Alan Menken, the guy who helped restore Disney back in the late '80s and early '90s with "The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin," and of course, "Beauty and the Beast."
The cast does well, particularly Tony award-winning character actress Donna Murphy, who nearly walks off with the movie as the evil mother. She's a hoot and she has a glorious, rich voice that lift the story and music to a better place. Levi and Moore are decent but bland, and upstaged at every turn not just by Murphy but by Rapunzel's pet frog Pascal and royal horse named Maximus who acts like a dog and has a love-hate relationship with Flynn.
"Tangled" best, most touching moments come near the end with a host of different "lantern lights" fill the screen quite beautifully. "Tangled" should be a hit, but Disney may have trouble marketing it to anyone other than pre-teen girls, but really everyone will have a good time. "Tangled" is Disney's best non-Pixar film in years and is miles ahead of last year's disappointing "The Princess and the Frog." Definitely worth checking out.
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Looking for nonstop action? Not in the uneven “Next Three Days”
You’d think that with Oscar-winning actor Russell Crowe and Oscar-winning “Crash” writer Paul Haggis along with a slick marketing campaign, that the new thriller “The Next Three Days” would be a sure-fire action-adventure hit. Well, at least partly so. This uneven, implausible and by-the-numbers movie is mostly heavy-handed melodrama with a sprinkle of action on top, with the action-adventure not figuring in until very late into the film; with that said it will be a disappointment for those expecting nonstop action from start to finish.
Crowe is John Brennan, a Pittsburgh community college English teacher whose wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks) is accused and later convicted of a murder of one her professional colleagues. Becoming frustrated with the legal appeal system and convinced of her innocence, John devises a plan to break her free, in spite of the fact he lacks the skills to execute a flawless plan.
“The Next Three Days” is more bleak, downbeat drama than rousing action-adventure, requiring the audience to sit through the depressing story for the film’s best sequence, when Crowe’s character finally goes through with his plan. A remake of a 2007 French Film “Pour Elle,” “The Next Three Days” is most troubling in buying into these uneven characters; it spends far much too much time in its initial chapters detailing what a normal schlub Crowe’s character is and his lack of skill and knowledge. Sure, it’s a departure for the “Gladiator” actor, but it misses a beat or two in showing a credible transformation he makes to smoothly execute such a plan in a seemingly short amount of time, stretching the story’s believability.
“The Next Three Days” is also flawed by Haggis creaky, heavy-handed direction and adaptation; he spends little time developing Banks’ character, and her inexplicable, baffling actions in the final act hurt the film (doesn’t help that Banks is also miscast here). The film also considerably underuses some terrific character actors, especially Brian Dennehy as John’s elderly father, who remains dialogue-free until late in the film, and lovely British actress Olivia Wilde, stuck in a one-note role as the parent of a child he befriends, who should’ve traded roles with Banks (look for Wilde in the upcoming “Tron” sequel). Oh, and blink and you’ll miss Liam Neeson’s very brief cameo as an expert in the field of…breaking out of jail.
The film’s best sequence is its final one, an extended cat-and-mouse chase scene through the streets of Pittsburgh, when Crowe and Banks (and the movie itself) finally hit the ground running. Until then, there’s very little energy in the otherwise downbeat drama with an unnecessary epilogue that attempts to put a pat ending for what the audience likely knows anyway. An open-ended ending leaving the audience to decide for themselves would’ve been more effective.
“The Next Three Days” isn’t a terrible film by any means. Just an uneven, drab one with a bait-and-switch marketing campaign that wants you to believe it’s a breathless, nonstop action film (far from it). And given the A-list cast and story, it could’ve worked far, far better. One of the fall movie season’s first big disappointments.
This "Potter" is a leisurely, dark but entertaining journey
“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1” is all about anticipation. Much like the classic Carly Simon pop song of the same name once used to describe ketchup of all things, it could also aptly describe the latest big-screen installment of J.K. Rowling’s literary icon. Slow, leisurely but embodied with a rich, distinct flavor, the first part of the finale serves its purpose well: to set up the penultimate installment next summer; saying that it leaves you hanging is an understatement. This Hogwarts-Quidditch-free outing is a stripped down one: less clutter, better acted, bleaker and more cerebral than previous outings, it takes its time; non-fans will feel the 146-minute running time, while true fans will only be more eager for Part 2 next year.
Voldemort's (Ralph Fiennes) power is growing stronger. He now has control over the Ministry of Magic and Hogwarts. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) decide to finish Dumbledore's work and find the rest of the Horcruxes, which are Voldemorts key’s to immortality and destruction. But little hope remains for the trio and the rest of the Wizarding World, so everything they do must go as planned.
The seventh film in the “Harry Potter” series, it is dark, low-key and the most understated of all the Potter films, if that’s possible. There’s still considerable entertainment value, even if some of it feels a little sluggish at times. Fans will love it, non-fans will appreciate it, if not endure it; all the while it prepares the audience for the final – truly the final – act of the book, which has spanned 10 years to Potter emerge into an adult. David Yates, who directed the previous installment, again tackles this one along with stalwart “Potter” screenwriter Steve Kloves, who has the unenviable task of condensing Rowling’s dense, thickest novel of the series into a film. This Potter outing takes it time, probably too much so at different points, but it comes together for a resounding climax that answers a handful of questions but leaves many more until Part 2.
The best thing about Part 1 of “Deathly Hallows” is that underscores the chemistry of the three leads, who anchor this film more than they ever have. This outing purposely reduces clutter and special-effects, taking it completely out of Hogwarts as more or less a road trip for the three, and becoming more of a character study, which accounts for some of “Deathly Hallows” slow-going. Radcliffe continues to develop Potter into a strong character, though Grint and especially Watson are effective as his pals, who get as much screen time and importance to the story. Of the rest of the large, mostly British cast, Fiennes makes the most memorable impression as the film's scariest character, the dark Lord Voldemont.
The production values are typically high, and the special-effects, sets and music are all first-rate. There’s a memorable episode that has the three taking on different bodies, and a scary one involving a rather large snake. As with the other “Potter” films, I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone under 10 years of age, and not just for the dark, intense content, but the extensive 2 ½ hour length that would make it a patience and endurance test for any young child and parent. The climax is exciting, but eager fans will literally be left dangling until next summer.
Anticipation can be a great thing. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1” only lays the groundwork for what will be surely be an explosive showdown between Potter and Voldemont, with death in the mix somewhere. This outing is an entertaining, albeit leisurely epic fantasy journey that’s about to end, so savor it while you can.
Saturday, November 6, 2010
Visual effects only thing memorable about the banal “Skyline”
If you’ve seen the trailers for the new sci-fi film “Skyline” then it’s evident that the visual effects are impressive, first-rate and exciting. After you see the film you won’t remember anything else. In other words, the movie itself sucks and you get a few eye-popping CG special-effects here and there that were obviously added in post-production. The notes for the film indicate the physical production cost around $500,000, while the visual effects around $10 million. That’s never more evident since the film seems to have been shot in one location, a high-rise apartment; you’re also in trouble if the cast is headlined by the third lead from the TV-show “Scrubs.”
After a night of partying, a group of friends, including Jarrod (Eric Balfour) and his new pregnant girlfriend Elaine (Scottie Thompson) and their friend, rap star Terry (Donald Faison of “Scrubs”) are distracted when beams of light awaken everyone in Los Angeles, that then attract every person like a moth to a flame. As the night progresses, they soon discover that once exposed to the light, they vanish into thin air, caused by extraterrestrial forces that later threaten to swallow the entire human species.
“Skyline” is the worst film to feature the best special-effects since the last “Transformers” film; the special-effects are the film, which isn’t a surprise given the film was made by the Brother Strause, Greg and Colin Strause, special-effects guru’s who’ve worked on many films, from “Avatar,” “Wolverine,” “2012” and “The Book of Eli.” The energetic, impressive special-effects are terrific; they literally come out of the sky and those mysterious terrestrial lights start grabbing hold of everyone in the film. Too bad the same thing couldn’t be said for the film, with the worst acting and writing this side of the latest Keanu Reeves and Megan Fox film, whose salaries alone would eclipse the budget of this film.
It’s evident the money for “Skyline” was spent in post-production, adding all those space-ships and lights that come down from the sky, supposedly over 800 visual effects shots were added. The cheap feel of the production is evident given the vantage point is essentially from one luxurious high-rise apartment building in L.A. (the apartment building of one of the film’s directors).
It’s admirable that the Brothers Strause completely filmed the physical production without the assistance of the major studios. It’s unfortunate that “Skyline” is largely a waste of time without those special-effects, which doesn’t make the film that special at all. If you’ve seen the trailers for the film, then you’ve seen the film, don’t bother.
Rated R for language and some disturbing violent content/bloody images, 95 minutes
Intense, enthralling, inspiring "127 Hours" is a must-see
“127 Hours” will make you think twice about hiking in the mountains alone. Telling the incredible true story of hiker Aron Ralston, who became trapped on the side of a mountain for 5 days in Utah and had to amputate his arm. Gut-wrenchingly intense, moving and even peppered with some humorous moments, “127 Hours” is one of the year’s unforgettable cinematic experiences. “Slumdog Millionaire” director Danny Boyle skillfully brings Ralston’s story to life and is sublimely performed in essentially a one-man show by James Franco (“Eat Pray Love”).In spring of 2003, the unmarried Ralston (Franco) goes hiking in some Utah mountains alone. An experienced hiker and guide, Ralston knows the area and how to navigate it. He slips and falls in the crack on the side of a mountain and becomes trapped as a huge rock lands on his arm. He somehow survives for 5 days but believing he will be left to die there, sees his life pass in front of him. Determined to live, Ralston eventually amputates his arm and hikes back to civilization.
Amazingly gripping, entertaining and enthralling, “127 Hours” is an extraordinary film based on an extraordinary, simple story, thanks to the masterful direction and writing of Oscar-winner Boyle and the commanding presence of Franco, in an Oscar-worthy performance. The film’s most-talked about scene, the realistic and detailed amputation scene, is well-handled and nothing short of amazing when you think that Boyle shot it in one take; it’s bloody but not overdone and surprisingly brief.
Equally impressive is the production itself, stunningly photographed, peppered with humor and some memorable music, including the original score from A.R. Rahman, who worked with Boyle on “Slumdog Millionaire.” The opening scene with jaunty, energetic music, takes you right into the flow of the situation. Listen closely and you’ll also hear songs from Bill Withers and even Edith Piaf that work well as Ralston sees his life in flashback. Amber Tamblyn, Treat Williams, Kate Mara and Kate Burton also appear briefly as family and friends, but in a story about Ralston, Franco’s the most memorable one here.
The touching, inspirational coda to the story shows the real-life Ralston surrounded by his new wife, baby and family members as the man who once said he “cut off his arm and gained his life back.” This could’ve been sentimentalized in a maudlin movie-the-week way, but Boyle and Franco refuse to that happen, and “127 Hours” rises to the occasion to become one of the most intense but moving films of the year. A definite must-see.
"Unstoppable" an entertaining non-stop joyride
In the entertaining new action-thriller "Unstoppable" you already know who the villain is: a runaway train. Starring Denzel Washington and "Star Trek's" Chris Pine and directed by Tony Scott, the film's action set pieces are breathless, exciting and white-knuckle, even if the story (inspired by real events) has a predictable "been there, done that" feel to it, not to mention a highly implausible but fun climax.
Pine is a newbie conductor named Will assigned to a train with a veteran engineer named Frank in Southern Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, at a nearby train station an error by an employee causes a train to spiral out of control at 70 miles per hour unmanned and carrying loads of toxic chemicals. Along with help from a disapatcher (Rosario Dawson), Will and Frank try to stop the train from crashing that would essentially wipe out a whole city.
"Unstoppable" is a enjoyable, action-adventure popcorn flick that could've easily been released during the summer movie season, when most films in this genre come out. Director Scott and his most-used leading man, Washington, re-team for the fifth time and their second outing together involving a deadly train (they worked together on last year's similarily-themed "The Taking of Pelham of 1-2-3"). Both films work near-perfect with Scott's usual fast-paced, frenetically edited, jumpy style, this even more so than "Pelham."
Based on real events that occurred in Ohio in 2001, the trains and the action take center stage in "Unstoppable" with characterization and story largely thrown out the (train) window (and once things get going, you don't really care). This is essentially "Speed" on a train, with Washington and Pine taking the Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves roles; you might also remember the 1985 Jon Voight thriller aptly called "Runaway Train," but "Unstoppable" runs the same colorful tracks as "Speed."
The film speeds predictably to a pat yet over-the-top climax, but there's no denying that "Unstoppable" provides some decent edge-of-your-seat entertainment that will likely make it a big hit. Washington gives his normal, stalwart performance that the veteran actor is accustomed to, while Pine continues his string of big action movies following his turn as the new James Kirk in the updated "Star Trek" films.
With the new "Harry Potter" film looming on the box-office horizion, this one will have a modest box-office take the first week and could be quickly forgotten, so enjoy it while you can.
Monday, November 1, 2010
Low-budget "Monsters" doesn't have many of them
For a movie about and called "Monsters," there sure aren't many of them. On one hand, the movie is efficient, no-nonsense and intriguing, on the other hand the film's low-budget is never more apparent, given there's very little of the actual monsters. A NASA probe sent out to gather samples on alien life crashes in Central America, mainly in Mexico, and it becomes an "infected zone" since the place is crawling with some huge, awful alien creatures that cause considerable death and destruction.
Visual-effects producer Gareth Edwards debut feature film, "Monsters" shows promise by providing some tension and not relying too much on gore to make a point. Still, Edwards doesn't show the creatures enough, and we're stuck with a boring story of an American journalist (Scoot McNairy) escorting a young rich girl (Whitney Able) to safety through the infected zone. "Monsters" has an original story and the potential to be the next "District 9," but it's low-budget hampers the film, as there are large, large chunks of the film that are creature-less. The special effects are impressive for the small film, but it's not until the final scene that we truly get to see the creature up close and personal, something most impatient audiences won't enjoy.
Part sci-fi and part post-apocalpytic world, "Monsters" is an otherwise dreary, depressing film, as if "District 9" were written by Cormac McCarthy. However, Edwards is a director and writer to watch, and could do better work with a better cast and bigger budget.
Wake up to see the spry, witty "Morning Glory"
“Morning Glory” is the spry, cutesy new romantic comedy starring Rachel McAdams, Diane Keaton and Harrison Ford. Slight, predictable but still energetic fun, it revolves around the backstage of a “Today”-esque national TV morning show. This thing has been done before and better (James Brooks’ “Broadcast News” comes to mind) but McAdams game energy and the Keaton-Ford chemistry make this an above-average entry in the genre.
McAdams is Becky Fuller, a producer of an early, early TV morning show in New Jersey. She’s fired due to budget cuts but ends up getting the job as an executive producer for the national morning show “Daybreak,” currently in last place in the ratings. She has the unenviable challenge of turning the show around, and brings in a veteran award-winning TV news anchor Mike Pomeroy (Ford) to help add a little credibility, and sparks soon fly as she has to play go-between Mike and long-standing “Daybreak” co-host Colleen (Keaton), putting everyone’s job on the line.
“Morning Glory” is as cute and calculated as you might think, but it’s worth a look for the Keaton-Ford bantering and McAdams’ spunkyness (as a friend astutely noted during the movie, she literally runs everywhere, which is true). The behind-the-scenes look at TV has been done before and this is really just a more comical version of the aforementioned “Broadcast News,” with McAdams in the Holly Hunter role. Roger Michell, who’s directed many from Peter O’Toole in ”Venus” to Julia Roberts in “Notting Hill,” stages many scenes well, especially the fast-paced environment of a TV studio, and the Keaton-Ford scenes.
Ford’s cynical grumpiness plays well against the perky Keaton and their bantering provides some of the film’s highlights. The script pulls no surprises and some may even call it misogynistic in its treatment of the women characters (Keaton in particular, whose role is clearly secondary to Ford) but there are fun moments along the way; add Patrick Wilson for love interest-eye candy and Jeff Goldblum throwing in a few barbs as Becky’s boss, and you have something for everyone.
“Morning Glory” is completely unsurprising and ends as you might expect it to, though in real-life it’d be hard to find any producer who would turn down the opportunities that McAdams’ character does here. Enjoyable, entertaining and mildly forgettable, “Morning Glory” is a good night out.