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

Saturday, February 20, 2010

St. John of Las Vegas - C

Rated R for language and some nudity, 85 minutes

Unlucky and unfunny "St. John of Las Vegas"

One of my favorite all-time movie lines comes from Clint Eastwood's "Dirty Harry" as he stands over a criminal with a huge gun and says "Are 'ya feelin' lucky, punk?" Luck is the main premise of the new low-budget independent comedy "St. John of Las Vegas" and unfortunately, the uneven film is unfunny in spite of the presence of Steve Buscemi, whose looks alone often inspire a comic presence, and comedian Sarah Silverman.

Buscemi plays John, a former compulsive gambler who fled Las Vegas for a better life working for an insurance company in Albuquerque, except he doesn't have much of a life. He has a crush on his co-worker Jill (Silverman), who has been having an affair with the shady owner of the company (Peter Dinklage). Since John is wanting to move up in the company, the owner assigns him a task of investigating a fraudulant claim with veteran fraudulant claim investigator Virgil ("Weeds" Romany Malco), who clearly has other things on his mind. The task is obviously new territory for John, and the whole process will either make or break him.

"St. John of Las Vegas" is a mildly funny but scattershot, often tediously quirky comedy that is fortunate to have Buscemi, or it'd be a total waste. It's a decent effort from first-time feature director Hue Rhodes, who's only experience to now has been with short films and his inexperience in setting up scenes is a painfully awkward one. Sometimes he cuts scenes too short or lets them go on way too long, and the bad editing job only reveals the thin material and wildly disjointed script.

Buscemi is a talented actor who's far better than the material allows, and his engaging performance is the best thing about the film. Malco is a decent actor in a woefully underwritten, unrevealing part, and Silverman plays against type in a bubbly but unnecessary role. Dinklage is a fine comic actor (he reprises his role in the upcoming remake "Death at a Funeral") who's given little to do, though the one scene he shares with Buscemi is a humorous one.

The film picks up a little in the last act, but otherwise there's little going in "St. John of Las Vegas" and most of it isn't that funny (the best scene: Buscemi in a brief scene playing cards). Are 'ya feeling lucky? Not so much after seeing this movie.

The Crazies - B

Rated R for bloody violence and language, 101 minutes

Spirited Romero remake "Crazies" provides some good jumps

You'd be crazy to remake a film from acclaimed horror master George A. Romero, and even crazier to think that it might be any good. But that's what has happened with the energetic horror romp "The Crazies," a remake of the 1973 Romero film about some people in a small midwest town acting strange after a mysterious toxin infiltrates their water. It's not a smart film, falling prey to some standard horror film cliches in the last act, but there are more than enough squeamish jolts up until then to lift it a notch above most in this genre.

Timothy Olyphant ("A Perfect Getaway") is David, a sheriff of an Iowa town, his newly expectant wife Judy ("Surrogates" Radha Mitchell) is the town doctor. People start acting strangely and a few dead bodies end up in the morgue. They soon realize that their water supply has been contaminated by a mysterious chemical that essentially turns people to a zombie-like state.

The U.S. government, fully aware of the situation, quickly puts the townspeople on lockdown and isolating those they fear are contaminated. David and Judy, along with David's squirrly deputy Russell (Joe Anderson) and Judy's assistant (Danielle Panabaker) they're on the run to safe ground before they're killed by the infected or by the military.

"The Crazies" is a jumpy, nutty horror reinvention of Romero's low-budget cult favorite with a few genuinely scary moments. And who would've thought this coming from a largely untested director like Breck Eisner, who's only major film was the flop "Sahara," not to mention the fact he's Michael Eisner's (yes, that Michael Eisner, the former Disney chief) son. And on top of that, it's not really an all-out zombie film per se, while the infected have a zombie demeanor they don't want to eat you, just kill you.

Romero (who served as executive producer here) probably envisoned something on a larger scale than this, yet as a horror film mixed with paranoid sci-fi notions a la "District 9," it doesn't work as well. It works better as a small-scale horror flick with survival as the real objective, and there's a scattershot of memorable scenes, most of which come early on. The tense, up close struggle in the funeral home, or that jumpy ride through a car wash or that tight struggle with two of the infected in a small room of the house, all of which provide the film with some lively moments. The single biggest (and most surprising) jolt, however, comes immediately following the car wash scene courtesy of a fighter jet which will leave you breathless.

Familiar second-string actors Olyphant and Mitchell are a solid horror film heroes , though largely unknown British actor Anderson nearly steals the show in a manic sidekick performance that's sure to draw notice ("You have to make sure," he says as he puts a round of bullets in a couple of the infected).

"The Crazies" is a flimsy paranoid government cover-up film, and it nearly falls apart in the film's last section, when it gives way to some standard horror film cliches (OK, let's go check things out in a big, dark truck stop, there's sure to be safety there, yea sure) that'll have you rolling your eyes or chuckling unintentionally. But up to that last section, "The Crazies" is actually a decent, skittishly bloody film that may find an audience on Romero's name alone.

Cop Out - C-

Rated R for pervasive language including sexual references, violence and brief sexuality, 108 minutes

Morgan's a hoot in the tired police buddy comedy "Cop Out"

"Cop Out" is more of a sellout for the unconventionally funny director of such films as "Clerks" and "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back." That director, Kevin Smith, doesn't lack talent but you wouldn't know it by his latest forgettable big-budgeted Hollywood buddy comedy that wears thin after a few minutes. Willis is more of the straight man to "30 Rock" comedian Tracy Morgan, who provides "Cop Out" with its only genuinely funny moments.

Willis is Jimmy, Morgan is Paul, two veteran New York City cops. After a failed bust, they're suspended, which is bad timing given that Jimmy's daughter (Michelle Trachtenberg) is about to have a lavish wedding and he needs the funds to pay for it. Jimmy hopes to sell a rare baseball card but is held up by a petty, talky thief named Dave (Seann William Scott), who ends up selling the card to a drug dealer named Poh Boy (Guillermo Diaz). Jimmy and Paul risk life, limb and careers to get the card back and bring down Poh Boy in the process.

Flat, silly and a strictly paint-by-numbers buddy police comedy, "Cop Out" will entertain the masses for a minute or two and will be amused by Morgan's antics, which the film relies heavily on as it goes on. What is truly remarkable about the movie is how many talented actors it wastes in the process. Watch for the film's most unfortunate and most unfunny comedic bit, as Kevin Pollack and Adam Brody (yes, that Adam Brody from "The O.C.") as two straight-laced detectives running parallel to Willis and Morgan. The lovely Rashida Jones from "Parks and Recreation" is also wasted as Paul's pretty wife, whom he fears is having an affair; watch for Smith film alumnus Jason Lee in a needless cameo as the younger husband to Jimmy's ex-wife.

Willis phones it in playing a role he can play in his sleep, giving his usually grumpy performance, leaving Morgan, an often funny but largely untested comic actor, to carry the film on his shoulders. Whether spouting a myriad of movie catchphrases (including one of Willis') or crying like a baby it's his seemingly unforced humor that infuses "Cop Out" with some much-needed energy, even if he mugs for the camera too much. Scott, whose best moments are seen in the ubiquitous trailers for the film, has a couple of amusing moments in a very small part; by the way, he and Morgan make for the better buddy team than he and Willis (and stay over for the credits to see the film's funniest moment).

What is most unfortunate about "Cop Out" is the fact that such a seemingly sharp director as Smith helmed (he's made it clear he's only the director-for-hire here as if he knows the film is bad) such a poorly constructed film and a contrived, predictable script that starts out OK but falls apart in its mid-section and tries to come back together in the final, unmemorable shoot-out.

At least Willis and Morgan cuss a lot and seem to have fun jacking around shooting guns, a far better time than you'll have on a Southwest Airlines flight, but you didn't hear that from me. If you plan on seeing the forgettable "Cop Out" you may want to do so soon, as it may not be around long.

The Ghost Writer - B+

Rated PG-13 for language, brief nudity/sexuality, some violence and a drug reference, 128 minutes

Polanski channels Hitchcock in the stylish thriller "The Ghost Writer"

Acclaimed French director Roman Polanski's offscreen life makes the headlines more than his movies lately, and in spite of that, or maybe because of it, he's crafted a superb Hitchcock-flavored thriller in "The Ghost Writer." Captivating and complex, well-paced and bearing Polanski's own unique slyly dark touches, it makes old-fashioned suspense seem new again.

Ewan McGregor is a successful British ghost writer who's hired by the former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) to help complete his memoirs. It seems a daunting yet fabulous opportunity when the ghost writer (who's never given a name) arrives to help Lang in a huge beach front mansion on Martha's Vineyard after his previous ghost writer turned up dead as his body washed ashore on the island.

The following day, Lang is accused of war crimes by a former colleague and things seem to go awry. Lang finds himself in the middle of an increasingly complicated situation, made more interesting by Lang's loyal assistant (Kim Cattrall), his glib, highly intelligent wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) and a shady Harvard professor (Tom Wilkinson). The ghost writer must play detective and put together clues with the startling truth far closer than he ever imagined.

Polanski's well-crafted, well-acted intriguing political thriller "The Ghost Writer" is one of the better films of the new year. Polanski's stylish direction holds the film together along with a great, centerpiece performance from McGregor as the anonymous ghost writer who knows more than he should. Interestingly, the film is an interesting choice for the Oscar-winning director of "The Pianist," who hasn't done a thriller like this since his now-classic "Chinatown" and who essentially finished post-production for the film under house arrest stemming from age-old charges of his own.

You can easily forget Polanksi's personal troubles with the engaging, vastly entertaining "The Ghost Writer," which for his own personal reasons, was not shot in the U.S. but overseas (and if you pay close attention, Martha's Vineyard looks very European, one minor distraction). Based on Robert Harris' fictional novel "The Ghost" and loosely based on some of Harris' own personal feelings for the real former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, there are a obvious implausibilities (yes, the British government does have and read the internet) in the last act, but in large part it all comes together nicely.

Even better is veteran film composer Alexandre Desplat, who makes sublime use of violin and is "The Ghost Writer's" biggest homage to Hitchock himself along with sturdy performances from everyman McGregor and Brosan, doing a laidback but blowhard Blair imitation. Even better is Tom Wilkinson as the professor's who's clearly hiding something along with the always excellent Olivia Williams (seen recently and all too briefly in "An Education") as essentially a sinister, British version of Hillary Clinton. For those wondering about Cattrall, best known for "Sex and the City," she's micast here with a thin, wandering British accent, but she's still an enjoyable presence.

You won't easily forget the ominous ending to "The Ghost Writer," which is heard and unseen, after all, who'll believe the ghost writer, who was virtually anonymous all along. "The Ghost Writer" is enjoyable, enticing entertainment with Polanski leaving his huge imprint on the film and have you clamoring for more. If you can't get enough of him, rent "Chinatown," his best film, over a plate of pasta and good wine.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Shutter Island - C+

Rated R for disturbing violent content, language and some nudity, 138 minutes

Scorsese, DiCaprio up to their usual tricks in "Shutter Island"

The Martin Scorsese-Leonardo DiCaprio teaming has always been an unusual, albeit interesting one. The provocative filmmaker behind "Raging Bull," "Mean Streets" and "Goodfellas" paired with the intense, mainstream actor from "Titanic" produces entertaining yet uneven results for the masses, and the modestly enjoyable but disjointed psychological thriller "Shutter Island" is no different. Their new drama is their weakest effort together and likely their most divisive: those that will be entertained and those who don't enjoy being tricked. I'm hesitant to say it, but "Shutter Island" is a disappointment considering its prominent cinematic pedigree.

Based on Dennis Lehane's 2003 best-selling novel of the same name, it's about two U.S. Marshals, Teddy (Di Caprio) and Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) who investigate a mental institution on a remote island after one of the patients goes missing. The patient's mysterious doctors (Ben Kingsley and Max Von Snydow) seem to be hiding something, and it doesn't help that during the investigation Teddy keeps having strange dreams about his deceased wife Dolores (Michelle Williams). Things aren't what they seem and Teddy isn't quite himself, either, and he's unsure whether he'll ever solve the case or if he'll always remain on Shutter Island.

"Shutter Island" is a mildly entertaining, often preposterous, far-flung mess of a movie full of wild tricks that Scorsese and company throw at you, and they throw plenty of them. On one hand, you'll be mildly engaged, even entertained by the first-rate production, but then that's really unfortunate given the disjointed, weak script that expects a tremendous amount from its audience, especially when the final twist is revealed at the end, making the movie feel like one big contrivance. So much has been thrown at you until this point you're not sure whether to believe it or not.

The more memorable aspects of "Shutter Island" comes from the eerie sets, a few stellar supporting players and the wildly pulsating cello score from Canadian rocker Robbie Robertson that you'll have in your head long after the film is over. Of the large cast, Michelle Williams of "Brokeback Mountain" makes the biggest impression as Teddy's loving but imbalanced wife, and Ruffalo is a warm presence as Teddy's partner. However, Oscar-winner Kingsley seems to phone it in here, while Von Snydow and Emily Mortimer are wasted in very brief parts; watch for Jackie Earle Haley and Patricia Clarkson in cameos that seem trimmed way down in the editing room.

As for "Shutter Island's" big star? DiCaprio certainly has his following (don't count me as one of them, though), and while his intensity works well in some scenes, he lacks empathy to truly pull off the part, particularly in the film's final scenes, which lack heft. And as usual with Scorsese, you'll find copious amounts of blood splattered throughout, which neither hurts nor helps the film and seems to be added only for shock effect.

It isn't surprising that "Shutter Island" has been delayed; it's a messy, mildly enjoyable but often baffling movie that audiences may not know what to do with. Even mediocre Scorsese is still watchable, which will bring out his and DiCaprio's fans out the first week, until they walk out disappointed and like most audiences, feel a little tricked.

Creation - C+

Rated PG-13 for some intense thematic material, 108 minutes

You may not believe in this dull "Creation"

Whether team you choose - Team Creation or Team Evolution - you always believe in the power of love, which is the theme of the boring drama "Creation," which is part-biopic on famed scientist Charles Darwin, who penned the theory of evolution, and part love story. The handsome production features warm performances and is remarkably even-handed, but then that may be its chief flaw. It's a rather bland, tedious and depressing effort, which is unfortunate given the compelling subject matter.

"Creation" tells the personal story Darwin's theory of evolution, as written in his famous master-work "The Origin of Species." Darwin (Paul Bettany) and his conservative religious wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly) have confounding views, but still manage to be devoted parents to their many children. As Darwin continues to hone his theories, one of his children, the precocious Annie (Martha West) tragically dies at a young age, threatening to tear apart his faith, his ideas and his family.

"Creation" is an affecting but unrevealing portrait of the story behind Darwin's theory of evolution, whose ideas became famous after his "Origin of Species" was published. The highlight of "Creation" is the performances of real-life husband and wife Bettany and Connelly, who share some absorbing scenes together as Charles and Emma and who weather not only differing views on life itself but the death of their beloved young daughter Annie.

The film spends far more time in looking at Darwin's personal life than his actual theories, and while it in fact had impact on his ideas, the film spends little time looking at the actual development of his theories, much of which were already in place by the time the film took place. The devastation of the death of his daughter is perhaps overstated as well, though Bettany, a fine actor seen in the recent horror film "Legion," conveys his agony and illness memorably. Connelly, with less footage than her husband, also shows the finer points of why she's an Academy Award winner, in a more delicate performance.

Director Jon Amiel ("Entrapment") tries to tie all of Darwin's sad life at the end to produce his famous work, though it fails to show the considerable impact it had on his family following its publication, which would've been more dramatic than "Creation's" downbeat script. The film lacks a strong emotional core and could've been far more powerful than what ends up on screen, though Bettany and Connelly are certainly worth seeing.

A Prophet - B+

Rated R for strong violence, sexual content, nudity, language and drug material, 155 minutes
In French with English subtitles

Compelling yet overlong French mob film "A Prophet"

The dark new film "A Prophet" is something similar to an Arab-French version of "The Godfather" as imagined by Martin Scorsese. Scorsese doesn't direct the film, but it's new wave feel, with fast edits and energetic mood music, is reminiscent of his "Goodfellas" but with a Michael Corleone-type character who rises to power within the confines of a prison. The film is a little uneven and overlong, but is an entertaining, often compelling look at the Arab mafia in France.

Sentenced to six years in prison, young man Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) is alone in the world and can neither read nor write. On his arrival at the prison he falls under the sway of a Corsican Mafiagroup, led by Luciani (Niels Leistrup), who enforce their rule in the prison. Malik toughens himself and wins the confidence of the Corsican group, following Luciani's orders to kill a fellow prisoner. Luciano eventually arranges 12-hour leaves for Malik, in which Luciano sends him on missions, including murder. Malik learns how to read and write, and uses all his intelligence to discreetly develop his own network. His power grows and he finally realizes he's no longer on Luciano's side, but able to stand for himself.

"A Prophet" is an engaging, convincing and complex examination of Arabs in the French and Italian crime movements, a fictional story from acclaimed French director Jacques Audiard. The first half is the more fascinating as it probes Malik's rise to power, while it's midsection lags too much, giving way for a more fast-paced, engaging and bloody last act. Audiard's film isn't without its flaws, though: it's too long, repetitive and has too many secondary characters (some of whom don't make their entrance until late in the film) that aren't essential to the familiar "Godfather"-style plot, and some might complain it doesn't provide much backstory to either of the main characters.

Otherwise, the acting and direction are first-rate, with a stellar, wholly believable performance from French newcomer Rahim as the Michael Corleone-type character, and veteran French actor Leistrup as a crime boss who calls the shots from inside his prison cell. It's an interesting contrast to see the change in the characters, as Luciani's power dwindles and Malik's rise to power. Two of "A Prophet's" more memorable scenes involve Malik and a lot of blood: his first, very graphic kill in the prison, and a shootout inside an SUV in the film's last section. The two character's final scene, in which Luciani attempts to approach Malik to speak to him, that underscores "A Prophet's" themes of how power, especially in the crime world, is transferred.

The epic film, nominated for the Academy Award this year for Best Foreign Film, has already won a slew of awards, including the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes last year and Best Actor for Rahim at the European Awards. The first-rate production, particularly the editing, music and acting, make this film a must-see for those who enjoy a twist on the crime drama.

"A Prophet" opens in Dallas in March.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The White Ribbon - B+

Rated R for some disturbing content involving violence and sexuality, 144 minutes
In German with English subtitles

Chilling, affecting "The White Ribbon" makes you wonder who's minding the children

The German drama "The White Ribbon" isn't necessarily a horror film per se, but it's unnerving, dark and filled with some stark imagery. The Golden Globe winner for Best Foreign Film and nominated for the Best Foreign Film Academy Award, it's a chilling, downbeat and heavy film about children who exact revenge on the adults in their own way. And if you've ever been in a store with an upset child, you know that everyone takes notice.

Strange events happen in a small village in the north of Germany during the years just before World War I, which seem to be ritual punishment. The abused and suppressed children of the villagers seem to be at the heart of this mystery. A doctor is severely injured when his horse trips over wire stretched out between two trees. A barn burns down. A handicapped son of a midwife is attacked and nearly blinded. The midwife later goes missing. Animals are wounded and crops are destroyed. A schoolteacher begins to suspect some of the village children are the cause, though that notions causes considerable discord among the adults.

Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke ("Cache," "Funny Games") has crafted a hypnotic, low-key and well-acted drama that's German version of "Bad Seed." Restrained and subtle, Haneke's delivers a fine film that's both message-heavy and at times heavy-handed. It's a bit of a stretch to tie the children's actions to the atrocities that played out in the first World War and is far more effective as a character study.

With that in mind, "The White Ribbon" isn't a huge mystery as to who the culprits are, and the film spends far more time examining the motives of the children. Are they just mean or was it all learned from their parents? Probably a bit of both, though his script wants you to believe the latter far more from the abusive adults - a baron, a pastor and a doctor, all who abuse people in their own way - laying the groundwork for the bad behavior of the children. All of which to say the regardless of who's responsible, the behavior is unacceptable.

As good as the story and acting are (the children - mostly young German and Austrian actors - are perfectly cast) the standout of "The White Ribbon" is the handsomely stark black-and-white cinematography from Christian Berger that's also Oscar-nominated. Originally shot in color and then changed in post-production, the stark imagery is only enhanced by the photography and serves as a metaphor for good and evil; Berger and director Haneke purposely create dark shadows and contrasting images that give the film an ominious feel.

"The White Ribbon" is a little too long and repetitive toward the end, working best when it's focused on the children, but it comes recommended as a message for adults with children to watch their actions and words, as they are certainly picked up, both in good and bad measure, by your young ones. My early prediction is that it will also likely win the Oscar for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards next month.

Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief - B

Rated PG for action violence and peril, some scary images and suggestive material, and mild language, 119 minutes

"Percy Jackson" is familiar but energetic fun for the family

Those who are excited about the upcoming Winter Olympics and enjoy a good action-fantasy film, then "Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief" may be for you. Considering it's mid-February, "The Lightning Thief," based on a series of popular children's books of the same name, is decent fun with a kinetic spirit and is often visually stunning, even if it all feels way too familiar, in a "Harry Potter" sort of way.

Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman) is a typical teenager who has a love for water and is also ADHD and dyslexic. Through a series of unusual circumstances, he discovers that he's a demigod - part human, part Greek god - and is actually the son of Greek god Poseidon (Kevin McKidd). The gods, led by Zeus (Sean Bean), accuse him of being a lightning thief, stealing one of Zeus's bolts. Zeus wants his bolt back, or the gods will break out in war that will threathen all of humanity. Percy, along with his friends Grover (Brandon Jackson), a satyrm (half goat/half man) and Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), the demigod daughter of Athena, journey to the Underworld to get to the gods to save mankind and his mother (Catherine Keener), who's been kidnapped by the gods.

"The Lightning Thief" is fast-paced, boisterous fun that's designed to be the next big franchise. Director Chris Columbus, who helmed with first two "Harry Potter" films, provides a nice kickstart, with a handful of big, action-set pieces and some memorable visuals with what is largely a faithful adaptation of the novel, with a few minor changes that still retains the heart of Rick Riordan's novel while expanding on its visuals.

The film is best in its initial sections, introducing us to Percy, his friends and a colorful cast. Columbus also benefits from an inspired cast, with Lerman grounding the film as a slightly older Percy than the books. There's also a host of talented actors that provide stellar support: Pierce Brosnan as the half man/half horse, "Lord of the Rings" Sean Bean as Zeus, the warm Keener as the mom, Steve Coogan as Hades and especially Uma Thurman, who almost walks off with the movie in a brief part as the ravishing Medusa.

"The Lightning Thief" falters in its mid-section as it drifts off during the trio's journey, not to mention it all has a busyness and an overly familiar "been there done that" ring to it. With Columbus at the helm, it has a Harry Potter-esque feel to it and the comparisons are inevitable - three young heroes, the central one of which is a young boy, all of whom possess special powers, not to mention all the interesting characters and visuals that surround them. Even with some enjoyable special-effects and a breathless finale, you still seem to wait for Harry Potter to arrive on the scene at any moment.

But then, that's probably the point, since this appeals toward that same Harry Potter audience. That's not to say "The Lightning Thief" doesn't have its entertaining moments (my favorites: Thurman's Medusa, Coogan's rock-star Hades and the multi-headed dragon), there are plenty of them and this could satisy the appetities of those clamoring for a big action-fantasy film until the next Harry Potter film is released later this year.

The Wolfman - C-

Rated R for bloody horror violence and gore, 105 minutes

"The Wolfman" is messy, jolty entertainment

It's never a good sign when a film is delayed multiple times, even big action-horror-thriller remakes like "The Wolfman," based on the 1941 classic Lon Chaney film of the same name. While it's provides a handful of sizable, jumpy scares, "The Wolfman" is a messy, empty exercise in Hollywood filmmaking that will disappoint fans of the original film. The story has been considerably altered from the older film to amp up the action, losing the real heart of the story: the inner struggle between man and beast.

Set in 1880's outside of London, England, Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) is reunited with his loving but distant father Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins) following the mysterious disappearance and possible death of his brother Ben. A Scotland Yard detective named Aberline (Hugo Weaving) arrives to investigate further, and they learn that some with quick, brute strength and an insatiable appetitite for blood has been killing many in nearby towns. As he becomes attracted to his brother's fiance Gwen (Emily Blunt), he himself falls under the curse that is at the center of the brutal murders and learns that it's been far closer to him that he had ever expected.

"The Wolfman" is an unfortunate big-budgeted disappointment that relies heavily on its special effects and action set pieces to deliver a great movie, which it fails to do. The movie has gone through several directors, many script rewrites and multiple delays, and it shows on screen. Though the transformation from man to beast is an impressive one courtesy of Rick Baker (Oscar-winner for his werewolf makeup in the scarier and funnier "An American Werewolf in London"), the updated story is a disjointed, unrevealing mess.

What is most unfortunate about "The Wolfman" other than its story is the fact the big-name cast fails to deliver. You'd think with two smart actors in Oscar-winners Hopkins and Del Toro that it'd generate some electricity, but it doesn't. It hardly explores the troubled father-son relationship, plus Hopkins, in a hammy take-the-money-and-run-quickly performance, chews on the scenery too much, nearly devouring Del Toro with it. Speaking of which, he's a real disppointment too considering that he's inspired given his naturally hairy, dark features. Emily Blunt, as the romantic angle here, is given little to do in a smallish but sympathetic role, while "Lord of the Rings" and "Matrix" stalwart Weaving scowls as usual on cue.

Director Joe Johnston ("Jurassic Park III") handles the terrific action pieces well, and they pop with energy and force (and graphic violence too: if you don't enjoy seeing heads roll, this isn't for you), but everything in between is a bit of a bore. At least the make-up and special effects are first-rate (the wolfman is far more nimble and mobile than in the original) and the lush, handsome sets evoke the period well. Danny Elman's gothic musical score is also well-placed but seems overly familiar in a dark Batman-esque sort of way.

By the time "The Wolfman," or "Wolfmen" considering the plot twists, gets down to the Hopkins-Del Toro clash at the end, it literally crashes and burns in an anti-climactic way, and certainly leaves it open for more of these installments, but without Del Toro and Hopkins. After this misfire of a movie, let's hope they put a quick silver bullet through that idea. The original film is cheesy-scary, but still far better than this.

Valentine's Day - C

Rated PG-13 for some sexual material and brief partial nudity, 125 minutes

The pleasant, forgettable "Valentine's Day" an endurance test

If the '70s TV show "The Love Boat" were remade into a contemporary land-locked romantic comedy, it would be the new Garry Marshall film "Valentine's Day." That TV show was a schlocky guilty pleasure featuring loads of stars pining for love on a weekly basis, and likewise, "Valentine's Day" is a much-too-long schlocky guilty big screen pleasure with loads of pretty actors doing and saying icky, sappy things that only happen in movies like this. An enjoyable, sweet cream puff of a movie, "Valentine's Day" doesn't approach greatness by any means, but it does provide time- filler for the big V-Day date night out.

"Valentine's Day" features a myriad of different storylines tied together by the L-word (and I don't mean lesbian). Reed (Ashton Kutcher) owns a family floral shop. He proposes to his girlfriend Morley (Jessica Alba) but she dumps him. His co-worker buddy at the shop Alfonso (George Lopez) saw it coming but didn't say anything. His best friend Julia (Jennifer Garner) is in love with a married doctor (Patrick Dempsey).

Meanwhile, Julia's friend Kara (Jessica Biel) works as an publicist for pro football player Sean Jackson (Eric Dane) with a secret life. She meets sportcaster Kelvin (Jamie Foxx) while he's covering a story on Sean and the two hit it off. Sean's agent (Queen Latifah) is too busy for love, while her assistant Liz (Anne Hathaway) is attempting to balance a boyfriend with the company mail clerk (Topher Grace) and moonlighting as a phone sex operator. All the while Holden (Bradley Cooper) and Kate (Julia Roberts) are getting to know each other on a plane while returning home to the chaos of their respective lives.

Got that? And that's only about 1/4 of the assortment of bland storylines that run amok in the overlong cheeseball of a movie called "Valentine's Day." I didn't even mention the Taylor's (Lautner and Swift) or Emma Roberts or Shirley MacLaine and Marshall regular Hector Elizondo, who appears in all of Marshall's films, or the cameo from Kathy Bates, who literally walks on and off to bookend the film.

Marshall attempts to tie all of these storylines together to make you believe some sort of business about how love binds us all together. Love may also blind you to what a great movie is, and in spite of a handful of fun, winsome moments, "Valentine's Day" isn't particularly memorable. Marshall could've trimmed about 3/4 of the storylines for a more efficient (i.e. shorter) film, and it probably would've still been too much. Foxx and Hathaway are charming, and I desperately wanted to see less of Kutcher and Garner and more of MacLaine, Emma Roberts and her aunt, Julia, who has the most heart-tugging scene in the movie, and if you stay over to the credits, the funniest line, from the gag (blooper) reel no less.

Unfortunately, many actors get lost in the fray (Biel, Grace and Alba in particular), and other storylines are just too predictable (Cooper), some are annoying (anyone named Taylor or Ashton) while others are just completely unnecessary (Dempsey, Latifah). I admire Marshall for the effort in juggling all the actors and storylines, and he throws in a couple of fun tidbits (watch closely for the names on the signs in the airport to see if you know who it is - hint - Marshall directed the TV show years ago), but considering the massive star appeal, it's rather disappointing.

What do you get when you take a bunch of movie stars and mix them up in a movie about Valentine's Day? A flavorless, lackluster "Love Boat" remake docked on ground, with Kate Hudson noticeably absent. Guys, it's that time of year to man up. Endure the pleasant, forgettable "Valentine's Day" and you'll be in good standing, for a few hours at least.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

District 13: Ultimatum - B

Rated R for some violence, language and drug material, 101 minutes
In French with English subtitles

Stylish, bloody "Ultimatum" a French "Lethal Weapon"

District 13: Ultimatum” is an energetic, high-flying and often fun French action thriller. In French with English subtitles, it’s a sequel to the 2004 Luc Besson-produced hit “District 13.” The new film has a bigger budget, a bigger cast and bigger fights and explosions than the original and it will certainly please fans of the first film, even if the well-worn and predictable story is otherwise forgettable.

The sequel begins three years after the events of the original film, and authorities are attempting to restore law and order to the ravaged section known as District 13. The death of gang overlord Taha Bemamud has left a considerable power struggle and total control of the area is now being fought over by five rival territorial gang lords who want to step into Taha's position. Undercover cop Damien (Cyril Raffaelli) and former gang member Leito (David Belle) return to District 13 to bring peace before the President (Philippe Torreton) and some corrupt cops take drastic measures to solve the problem.

“District 13: Ultimatum” is modestly enjoyable, low-grade entertainment, filled with energetic, fast-paced stunts and martial arts that’s the clear highlight of the film, making it seem like France’s version of the “Lethal Weapon” films. Acclaimed filmmaker Besson, with director Patrick Alessandrin, make it enjoyable, though the story is too calculated and implausible to occur in real life. As well, some plot details are a little fuzzy: there are too many characters to keep track of, not to mention it’s often difficult to distinguish the difference between the good guys and the bad guys.

One thing is for sure, though: handsome athletic French actors Belle and Raffaelli (who seems to be France’s version of Jason Statham) are clearly the good guys and are up to much of their antics from the first film. They’re not required so much to act as to nimbly run, jump and kick, and they’re at their best when paired together, particularly in one action set piece that has them surrounded by bad guys, thrown out of a building onto a car, they get the car and literally drive it in and out of the same building. The opening sequence, with Raffaelli taking down some bad guys in drag and fighting with a Van Gogh in one hand, is one of the film’s more humorous moments (and you won’t easily forget the backside – or lack thereof – of his outfit) and reminds of something Mel Gibson might’ve done in the “Lethal Weapon” films years ago.

If you enjoyed the first “District 13” you’ll enjoy “Ultimatum” too, and it doesn’t disappoint with some colorful visuals and stunts to keep you engaged until the efficient, predictable ending that leaves it open for another installment. For essentially a reworked, American version of “District 13,” check out the recent Travolta flick “From Paris With Love,” which was produced by Besson and directed by Pierre Morel, who directed the first “District 13.”

"District 13: Ultimatum" opens in Dallas in March.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Frozen - B-

Rated R for some disturbing images and language, 92 minutes

Simple but chilling "Frozen" will stick with you

The new horror thriller "Frozen" is efficient, simple and haunting. It's about three college kids who get stuck on a ski lift at night and must survive the nastier elements of nature. Harrowing, heartbreaking and suspenseful, it's a flawed overly familiar film that is really an icy version of "Open Water," minus the sharks.

Parker (Emma Bell), Dan (Kevin Zegers) and Joe (Shawn Ashmore) go on a weekend ski trip as a break from their classes. They don't have enough cash for the lift so they pay the operator a few bucks to let them take a ride up to spend a day of fun on the slopes. They convince the operator to let them take the last ride up, but a mix-up leaves them stuck alone on the side of the mountain at night, and the resort won't be open again until the following weekend. What follows is an intense, chilling tale of survival that leaves the three fighting for their lives.

"Frozen" is a simple but above-average horror thriller whose antagonist isn't a person, but nature itself. It's well-directed by horror film director Adam Green, who manages a few thrills on a low-budget and a largely unknown cast who seemingly braved the cold. Bell and Zegers are largely TV actors while Ashmore is the most familiar face, ironically enough he played Ice Man in the X-Men films, and all three, especially Bell, give believable performances that anchor the film well (they attempt small talk to keep their minds off what's happening to them).

The snow, the frostbite, the bloodthirsty wolves nearly get the best of the three, as they're stuck high above in frigid weather. Could this happen? Possibly. Would it? Probably not. There are a couple of things that simply don't ring true: the fact that none of the three - and all college students at that - do not have a cell phone between them is the hardest thing to believe. And then a huge resort such as this clears out in a matter of minutes with no one around to help is also a stretch.

But the film is hardly a waste. Those wolves are pretty nasty and provide the "Frozen's" more entertaining, taut scenes, as a couple of the students attempt to go for help, both with unfortunate results. The ending is more hopeful than you might think, and one of the three even survives, though I won't say who, you just have to see for yourself how they manage to do so.

"Frozen" is an above-average thriller with some nice chills, but it doesn't exactly make you want to go skiing anytime soon.

Dear John - C+

Rated PG-13 for some sensuality and violence, 105 minutes

Sappiness abounds in the tearjerker "Dear John"

Nicholas Sparks is slowly becoming the Stephen King for romance movies, having most of his books either made into movies that women adore and men ha...well, tolerate, especially around Valentine's Day. If men know what's good for them, they'll take their significant other to see the latest Sparks adaptation, "Dear John," an oversentimental, sappy but well-directed romantic tale of long-distance love.

The story begins in the South around 2001 on a beach. John Tyree (Channing Tatum) meets Savannah (Amanda Seyfried) when he dives in the water to retrieve her purse. They strike up a conversation. become friends and eventually fall in love over a 2-week period, until Savannah goes back to college and John goes back on active duty in the Army. On top of that, John's relationship with his distant father (Richard Jenkins) has its challenges due to the fact that his father has a form of autism that's never really been diagnosed.

John and Savannah communicate regularly through letters (you know, Dear John letters), learning more about each other, until 9/11 occurs. John decides on an extended tour and during this time unexpected circumstances cause the pair to break up, even after they've declared their undying love for each other.

"Dear John" is big overemotional chick flick puffery, though in fact that statement may be redundant. I won't completely trash "Dear John" for a couple of reasons, the first is that the film is directed by acclaimed director Lasse Hallstrom ("My Life As a Dog"), who tries to keep things balanced with Sparks' mauldlin material and two pretty but vacuous leads, but more on them in a moment.

Second, it has one of my favorite character actors, Oscar-nominated Richard Jenkins ("The Visitor"), who's superb as John's father and conveys more emotion in a few glances and body movements than the rest of the cast put together (and he and Tatum's final, very wrenching scene together is the best in the movie, have plenty of tissues handy). Watch for Henry Thomas (yes, the "E.T." boy all grown up and looking very different) in a small but key role as a friend of the lovebirds.

Speaking of which, the two handsome leads are the main appeal for "Dear John" but they're the biggest flaws. Seyfried, best known for "Mamma Mia!" and TV's "Big Love," is serviceably bubbly, but it's the bland Channing Tatum ("G.I. Joe") who again, with his rote, emotionless line readings and blank stares drags the movie down. Even a skilled director like Hallstrom can do only so much with an actor who's limited acting range resembles Ben Affleck's, and the film falters when the film is put on Tatum's back to carry (as Seyfried is gone for a sizeable chunk of the movie); it clearly reveals that he just isn't a strong enough actor at this point to do so.

"Dear John's" initial chapters are the more engaging, until the gooey, slower second act kicks in with a couple of icky twists that aren't well integrated into the film. But "Dear John" isn't Hallstrom's fault necessarily, but the cheesy Sparks novel on which its based, and a lack of a strong actor as its emotional core. "The Notebook" at least had Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling and "Message in a Bottle" had Kevin Costner.

"Dear John" is one of those critic-proof films that will be a hit regardless of what I think, so ladies carry on. Men, know what to expect.

From Paris With Love - B-

Rated R for strong bloody violence throughout, drug content, pervasive language and brief sexuality, 92 minutes

"From Paris With Love": Over-the-top fun and lots of blood

Paris is undoubtedly of the most romantic cities in the world, and the new action-thriller "From Paris With Love" even has the "l" word in it, though it has little, if anything at all, do to with love, unless you love over-the-top gratuitous violence. It's a mindless shoot-em-up with an excessive amount of blood, bullets and car chases all of which packs in some enjoyable moments, not to mention a charismatic lead, a bald Travolta who packs some serious heat and kicks some serious tail.

A personal aide to U.S. Ambassador in France, James Reece (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) has an enviable life in Paris and a beautiful French girlfriend, but his real passion is his side job as a low-level operative for the CIA. All Reece wants is to become a bona fide agent and see some real action. So when he's offered his first serious senior-level assignment, he can't believe his good luck until he meets his new partner, special agent Charlie Wax (John Travolta).

A trigger-happy, wisecracking, loose cannon who's been sent to Paris to stop a terrorist attack, Wax leads Reece on a very fast-paced spree through the Parisian underworld for 48 hours that has Reece wishing for his old desk job. But Reece discovers he’s far closer to the terrorists than he ever imagined, and he has to rely on his new friend to ensure the terrorists are brought down in whatever way possible.

From acclaimed producer Luc Besson ("The Fifth Element") and "Taken" director Pierre Morel, "From Paris With Love" is a non-stop and very bloody action thriller that takes you on a fast-paced, exciting ride for this time of year. Besson's pat, simplistic, unrevealing script and Morel’s uneventful direction its chief flaw, but you can forgive that just a little when the ride is so entertaining.

Travolta, in one of his more fun, hammier performances, struts around hairless and shouts more obscenities than necessary, but he's clearly in command of the screen in "From Paris With Love," and he's always the one to watch. He's well-paired with the handsomely bland Jonathan Rhys Myers of TV’s "The Tudors" and the two have decent chemistry together when Travolta isn't chewing on the scenery. Myers’ role is clearly secondary to Travolta and his attitude is far more serious than Travolta, who seems to have much more fun, doing majority of the shooting and fighting (and in one explosively impressive scene, Travolta literally brings down an entire gang by himself and with no bullets fired).

There are a few well-paced and well-executed action set pieces, from a big car chase/explosion near the end to a shoot out in an apartment complex, until it literally speeds to a twisty but predictable conclusion that you’ll see coming if you play close enough attention. With that in mind, "From Paris With Love's" big twist is really not such a big twist, and quite silly for such an intelligent character as Reece.

Predictability aside, not to mention the fact that Travolta absolutely loves the "f" word with "mother" attached to it, "From Paris With Love" is modestly enjoyable, brutishly violent entertainment and reminds moviegoers that, much like Denzel Washington has already reminded us earlier with the equally violent "The Book of Eli," that older guys like them can still kick some butt when it comes down to it.