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

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Animal Kingdom - B+

Rated R for violence, drug content and pervasive language, 113 minutes

Highly-charged, involving crime thriller "Animal Kingdom"

"Animal Kingdom" is a superbly-acted, explosive Australian low-budget crime thriller arriving late in the summer and will be a true crime if it's not remembered come awards time. It's an auspicious directorial debut, featuring universally stellar performances, including one debut from one young actor.

Melbourne, Australia teen Joshua "J" Cody (James Frecheville) has no family after the overdosing death of his mother, so he goes to live with his estranged grandmother Janine (Jacki Weaver), also known as Smurf, who watches over her boys, a group of armed robbers and thugs. The oldest, nicknamed Pope (Ben Mendelshon) is a dangerous thug who believes he controls the family; the middle brother Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) has a hair trigger and deals cocaine on the side; the youngest Darren (Luke Ford) debates his conscience of being involved in a crime family. J realizes that he's being drawn into something far more menacing than he ever thought, and to survive he must learn his place in the family and the business or be destroyed by them.

"Animal Kingdom" is a fierce, intense and entertaining tale of a crime family that plays similar to a low-level Australian Godfather. The story is a familiar one, but it's an often frightening tale about a family who'll do anything to get ahead, even destroy their own. The film is an auspicious feature film directorial debut from Australian filmmaker David Michod, who loosely bases his script on real-life events that occurred in Australian in the late 1980's.

The layered performances and the dark tone are the highlight of "Animal Kingdom." Newcomer
Frecheville grounds the film well in a subtle, low-key performance in his debut feature film. Mendelshon is also memorable in a fervent turn as the older brother who thinks he has it all together when we all know better. Guy Pearce, the only recognizable name here, also has a few good scenes as the good guy, a detective who has J's best interests in mind.

Most memorable of all the cast is veteran Australian stage actress Weaver as the deadly matriarch, who runs the family with a kiss rather than an iron hand; she has the film's best scenes in a subtle but menacing turn. She makes all the deals, knows exactly where everyone is at all times and is at the center of all the action. Weaver's excellent, wholly believable turn is award-worthy and hopefully will be remembered come awards time later this year.

"Animal Kingdom's" engrossing story and superb acting is worth a look for the independent film that's already been a hit in its native Australia.

The Girl Who Played With Fire - B+

Rated R for brutal violence including a rape, some strong sexual content, nudity and language, 129 minutes, in English and Swedish with English subtitles

Gripping, intense "The Girl Who Played With Fire"

There are millions of fans across the globe of late Swedish author Stieg Larsson's book series "Millenium Trilogy," and they'll be pleased to the see the absorbing Swedish-made second film installment, "The Girl Who Played With Fire," based on Larsson's book of the same name. The story, featuring tough-as-nails feminist character Lisbeth Salander, has become a worldwide phenomenon, captivating millions of readers and now moviegoers. While this isn't as fresh as the first chapter, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," this still has enough intensity to satisfy the legions of fans of the novel.

Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) returns to Sweden after spending a year abroad. Having returned, she falls under suspicion for having committed the murder of a journalist and his girlfriend as well as her guardian Nils Bjurman (Peter Andersson). Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) has to do what he can to find her before the authorities do.

The enjoyable, fun "The Girl Who Played With Fire" continues the dark travails of undercover researcher Lisbeth Salander, and it's because of Larsson's superb source material that the Swedish-made film is vastly engrossing. With a different director (Daniel Alfredson) and screenwriter (Jonas Frykberg) than the original film, the film could've gone in a completely direction, but film mainains the noirish tone of the novel and the first film.

Of course, the highlight of "The Girl Who Played With Fire" is Swedish actress Rapace's forceful performance as the aggressive, tough Lisbeth, a multi-layered character with some serious issues. "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" better outlined some Lisbeth's troubles, and this chapter continues to lay them out. Rapace's nimble performance and dead-serious glare (watch her take out a couple of bikers and then ride off on one of the bikes) that would put Angelina Jolie blush. Nyqvist is also strong as the detective who follows her and also has a relationship with her.

Those who aren't fans of the novels may want to either read them or get a CliffsNotes version (is what this critic did) to help you make sense of the complexities of the plot and some character traits and motivations. Unlike the first film, "The Girl Who Played With Fire" is more efficient (i.e. shorter) and the satisfying climax, like that film, is earnest and violent.

"The Girl Who Played With Fire" is an entertaining, well-acted dark crime mystery with a stellar, feminist heroine. These Swedish versions, already big hits overseas, will be even more scrutnized as the American version is underway, directed by David Fincher and featuring Daniel Craig as Blomkvist and newcomer Rooney Mara as Lisbeth, that will be released Christmas 2011. Well worth a look.

Get Low - B

Rated PG-13 for some thematic material and brief violent content, 100 minutes

Leisurely, well-acted "Get Low" spins an interesting tale

"Get Low" is one of those films that you should stay with until the end. Overly familiar, earnest, very leisurely but warmly performed, "Get Low" is affecting enough to leave you with some good moments. The highlight of the independently-made film is the award-winning, talented cast including Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray and Lucas Black, all of whom give genuinely winning turns.

Loosely based on real-life events in the late 1930's Tennessee, the film is about misunderstood Felix Bush (Duvall), who lives as a hermit deep in the woods. Rumors surround him, like how he might have killed in cold blood, and that he's in league with the devil. Ill and nearing death, the town is surprised when Felix shows up in town, demanding a "living funeral" for himself. Frank Quinn (Murray), the owner of the town's struggling funeral parlor, sees an opportunity for some money, and agrees to Felix's unusual request to let the townspeople tell their stories about Felix. However, get messy when an old mystery is brought back by Quinn's partner Buddy Robinson (Black), involving a local widow named Mattie Darrow (Spacek). When Felix's funeral rolls around, however, he'll tell the townsfolk exactly why he has been alone in the woods for so many years.

The bittersweet, superbly performed "Get Low" has a warm, familar feel to it along with a veteran cast, which is likely its biggest appeal. Duvall gives the film its heart in a performance as an old codger, ones that he's been giving for years now. He could very well be recognized for his affecting turn here as the misunderstood Felix. He and fellow Oscar-winner Spacek share some of the film's best moments in their few scenes together. They have a subtle, shorthand way of communicating as veteran actors do: with their faces, and you know exactly how they're feeling just by watching their faces.

If Duvall is the heart of "Get Low," the comic relief would unsurprisingly be Murray, who regularly steals scenes and can throw out one-liners with lax sardonic amusement ("in Chicago there's never a shortage of dead people," he quips), and it's a great deal of fun seeing both Murray and Duvall, who can also steal scenes with the best of them, go at it. Lucas Black ("Jarhead") is perfectly cast as Murray young protege who comes to care for Felix.

"Get Low," in spite of the great performances, is too slow in places and may lose those expecting lots of action and special effects, and the dawdling script could've been tightened to resolve the plot more efficiently. It ambles in too many places, particularly in the frighteningly slow second act. The ending is emotional, poignant, and fitting given the story.

"Get Low" comes recommended for the performances alone and see some veteran actors doing their best work. Stay with it until the end and you'll be rewarded.

The Last Exorcism - C+

Rated PG-13 for disturbing violent content and terror, some sexual references and thematic material, 87 minutes

Jumpy "The Last Exorcism" delivers a few chills

Admittedly, I was a little hesitant going to see "The Last Exorcism," but not necessarily due to the subject matter. On the plus side, one of the producers of the film is noted horror film director Eli Roth ("Hostel," "Cabin Fever"), but on the downside, it was PG-13 and shot in the jumpy faux documentary style of "The Blair Witch Project," or as I termed it, "The Blah Witch Project," since it was such a letdown in terms of genuine scares. In spite of a few eerie, tense moments, the uneven "The Last Exorcism" seems a tad watered down, trying too hard to make you believe it's true, when you know better.

"The Last Exorcism" concerns a charming but troubled Louisiana evangelical preacher named Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), who is undergoing a crisis of faith. He agrees to let a documentary crew follow him on his "last" exorcism to show what a fraud he and the whole exorcism thing really is. He goes across the state to perform his last exorcism on a young girl (Ashley Bell) who feels she is possessed by demons. However, Cotton soon realizes he is experiencing genuine possession and must genuine rely on his faith to get him through his biggest test yet.

Produced by Roth and helmed by German director Daniel Stamm, the tense "The Last Exorcism" provides a few good jumps and scares, though it's tame, restrained stuff compared to Roth's "Hostel" torture films. It's well-acted by Fabian and especially by newcomer Bell, who is literally stretched to the limits by the supposed demons (reportedly, there were no special effects in some Bell's amazing contortions) in what are the "The Last Exorcism's" highlights.

What's problematic with "The Last Exorcism" is the film's uneven narrative framework: the faux documentary style of "lost footage" ala "Blair Witch." That latter film popularized the supposed "true" nature of the documentary (don't worry, this story, like "Blair Witch," is pure fiction) and on that particular level, it doesn't work well, with annoying camera movements, lack of attention to detail and a story that takes too long to develop.

Once it gets there, there are a handful of eerie, intense moments and it is worthwhile to see a movie with this theme rely on lighting and body contortions rather than a load of gore and special effects, but the jumpy, baffling ending and the last 20 minutes don't seem to fit into the film well.

"The Last Exorcism" should be a modest hit based on the film's demons plotline alone, though some may be letdown at how restrained the film is in terms of pure horror. Sure, some of it's chilling, but producer Roth could probably make a far better R-Rated version of the film that would please even more fans. "The Last Exorcism" provides a few good PG-13 jumps but it could've been better.

Takers - C-

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, a sexual situation/partial nudity and some language, 105 minutes

Entertaining, ridiculous "Takers" has a handsome cast, little else

“Takers” reminds of a line in the turgid Barry Manilow ballad “Mandy”: “You came and you gave without takin’” except the movie comes and takes without giving much. Filled with a handsome, eye-candy cast and peppered with a couple of decent action set-pieces, the mildly enjoyable but ridiculous heist drama is as subtle as any Manilow song.

“Takers” is about a group of professional bank robbers in Los Angeles: Michael Ealy, Idris Elba, Hayden Christensen, Chris Brown and Paul Walker who specialize in spectacular robberies that has made them very wealthy. One of their former colleagues, the smooth-talking and fresh out of jail Ghost (rapper T.I.) talks them into a job with a big payday, though he’s likely to have something up his sleeve. Hot on their trail are two L.A. detectives with issues of their own (Matt Dillon and Jay Hernandez), who threaten to get in the way of their huge score.

Modestly entertaining, if overblown, “Takers” has a swift, masculine energy to it, particularly in its tense opening chapters, but it falls apart in a preposterous, laughable climax that veers off in too many directions. The film loses focus under an unoriginal script that rips off everything from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” to DePalma’s “Scarface.”

The biggest asset to “Takers” is its good-looking cast, including Elba (“Obesessed”), Walker, Christensen, Ealy and Dillon, but that is one of its chief flaws too. The messy, unfocused script attempts to give them equal footing but none of the actors genuinely grounds the film.

Dillon comes the closest to giving the film some soul, a decent actor stuck in a one-note role; Elba is hampered by an unnecessary subplot (and wastes a terrific character actress in “Without a Trace’s” Marianne Jean-Baptiste); Walker, one of cinema’s best-looking worst actors, is (unsurprisingly) only in the film for his looks, while the whiny Christensen remains one of the most annoying actors on the planet (his exit is an unintentional hoot – particularly his facial expression).

Oh, and "Takers" also features singer Chris Brown (yes, that Chris Brown) in a charming but small role alongside the handsomely bland Ealy (their exit, much like Christensen’s, provokes unintentional laughter) while rapper T.I. (who also co-produced) has the most fun in a good/bad guy role that is seemingly an extension of his rapper persona. Unfortunately, it wastes the lovely Zoe Saldana from “Avatar” in a blink-and-you-miss her role.

“Takers” big climax is enjoyable enough but a letdown compared to Brown’s big scene, an extended, intense foot chase with him and Dillon that immediately follows, when Brown seemingly gets hit by every car imaginable and still remains standing.

All said, the film starts out well and ends up a bit of a mess, particularly in its final moments, raising more questions than answers. With a good-looking cast and some hefty explosions, the mediocre “Takers” may qualify as guilty-pleasure, trashy entertainment, but a great movie it isn’t.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Lottery Ticket - C

Rated PG-13 for sexual content, language including a drug reference, some violence and brief underage drinking, 95 minutes

Flat, unfunny "Lottery Ticket" isn't a winner

The chances of winning the lottery are about as good as getting picked up by a UFO, but it seems the chances are even slimmer of making a good movie about it. The sloppy, unoriginal yet mildly enjoyable new urban comedy "Lottery Ticket" comes up short of being a a truly great comic film, relying heavily on broad stereotypes, loud, busy schtick and way, way too many characters to keep track of.

The story follows Kevin Carson (Bow Wow), a young man living in the projects, wins $370 million in a nationwide lottery. Unfortunately, his opportunistic neighbors discover he has the winning ticket in his possession. With help from his best friends (Brandon T. Jackson and Naturi Naughton), Kevin must survive their greedy and sometimes even threatening actions over the 4th of July weekend before he can claim his prize.

The wildly uneven, slight "Lottery Ticket" has an interesting premise: what would happen if someone in the projects won the lottery. What would you do with it? Who would you help? Who would you even tell? Sure, there's some energy and some amusing moments along the way and leads Bow Wow and Brandon T. Jackson make for a solid comic pairing, but that's about the only thing worth seeing in the comedy that stumbles and tumbles down the stretch; some it seems to contrived and just filler, with too many characters we don't care about coming in and out of the film.

Loretta Devine (usually funny but shrill here), T-Pain (can't act), Charles Murphy (too much teeth), Ice Cube (annoying) and Mike Epps (if it's an urban comedy, Epps has to show up somewhere) are among the many mish-mash of stereotypes floating around these projects, and get 'em all together in a silly, predictable climax that takes far too long to get there.

Much like the bland comedy "The Switch," this is the type of late-summer filler starting to be burned off by the studios and savaged by the critics. "Lottery Ticket" isn't the worst film of recent memory (that'd belong to the spoof "Vampires Suck") but then it isn't all that great, either. If I had to choose between buying a real lottery ticket and seeing this film, I'd go buy a snowcone instead. It'll quickly melt if you don't eat it, but at least you'll get a good return on your money.

The Switch - C+

Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, sexual material including dialogue, some nudity, drug use and language, 101 minutes

Sweet but derivative "The Switch"

Take two charming lead actors, mix in a precocious kid and an overly sweet storyline, and you have the likable but bland new rom com called "The Switch." Starring two of cinema's most appealing actors in Jennifer Aniston and Jason Bateman, the new movie is a pleasant throwaway and what we used to call in high school: a good make-out movie. This modestly entertaining but pleasant piece of mediocrity isn't horrible but generally the forgettable stuff that studios start burning off at the end of the summer.

40-year old unmarried Kassie Larson (Jennifer Aniston) decides she wants to have a baby. Despite the objections of her neurotic, cynical best friend Wally (Jason Bateman), she chooses to do it alone, with the services of handsome sperm donor Roland (Patrick Wilson). Wally has always had feelings for Kassie, but as his friend Leonard (Jeff Goldblum) points out, he missed his chance and she put him in the "friend zone." But when Wally gets so drunk at Kassie's "insemination party" and accidentally spills Roland's semen, he replaces it with his own. Seven years later, Kassie returns to New York along with precocious-but-neurotic son Sebastian (Thomas Robinson). Wally forms a bond with this loveable mini-version of himself, but the bad news is that Roland is now in the picture.

"The Switch" is uninspiring, pleasant popcorn entertainment for the masses, which isn't necessarily a bad thing except this type of romantic comedy has been done in variations for years. Directed with unoriginal flair by "Blades of Glory" team Josh Gordon and Will Speck, it continues Aniston's string of mediocre films, though "The Switch" actually looks good by comparison to her last film, the awful "The Bounty Hunter." Aniston is a lovely actress who needs better material to prove she's more than a pretty face from that famous TV show she was on a few years ago.

The men fare a little better in "The Switch," but not by much, mainly due to a lackluster, derivative script and unsympathetic, one-dimensional characters from screenwriter Allen Loeb ("21"). Bateman can play the neurotic, cynical character in his sleep so this is no big surprise for him, while veteran Goldblum ("The Fly" anyone?) all but steals the show with the best one-liners.

The handsome Wilson, essentially a male version of Aniston, gives the most empty performance of his career as Aniston's sperm donor and later boyfriend; in addition, in a very small part, character actress Juliette Lewis is at her most annoying. The most memorable performance goes to newcomer Robinson, who gives a more layered, humorous performance as a lovable, smart but neurotic kid, a mini-version of Wally.

It's difficult to buy into "The Switch's" implausible story, particularly with the fact these dense characters don't see how much the kid is like Bateman's character. There are a handful of funny moments, especially when Bateman and Robinson share screen time and laughs together, with far more chemistry than Bateman and Aniston. Down the stretch, it becomes too predictable, oversentimental and takes too much time to unravel the major (and truly very thin) plot line.

Still, "The Switch" does have Bateman and Aniston, who are a bland, likable couple in a bland, likable film that won't likely be remembered much after Labor Day.

Vampires Suck - F

Rated PG-13 for crude sexual content, comic violence, language and teen partying, 80 minutes

"Vampires Suck" and so does the movie

I can sum up the dreadful new comedic "Twilight" spoof "Vampires Suck" in two words: don't bother. Overwhelmingly witless, asinine and really just a big bore, this ripoff is from the filmmaking team of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, responsible for other spoofs "Meet the Spartans," "Disaster Movie," "Date Movie" and more. That right there should tell you that the movie will suck big time, but those curiously seeking how they send up the "Twilight" films should make it a modest hit in at least its first week.

Teenager Becca (Jenn Proske) finds herself torn between two boys. New to the Sporks, Washington high school, she is befriended by the pale, mysterious vampire Edward Sullen (Matt Lanter). Their relationship comes to a head of sorts, and she falls into the arms of her childhood companion Jacob White (Chris Riggi), who has grown into a muscular werewolf. The three literally wrestle with life, love and prom and Becca is forced to choose between the two.

If you've seen the other Friedberg/Seltzer productions, you know exactly what to expect: painfully laugh-free, sucky productions with terrible young unknowns actors taking this far too seriously. With that in mind, one thing you can also expect with "Vampires Suck" is that will be on every critics list of worst films at year end. There are a couple of familiar faces: decent comic actors Deidrich Bader (ye of "The Drew Carey Show" and more) and Ken Jeong ("Role Models"), though their performances are clearly twinged with a "take the money and run" type of urgency.

The "Twilight" films seem to be an easy target for something like this - maybe too easy - and it will only serve to generate more interest in those films than in this one. Friedberg/Seltzer do have a way of ripping off other movies to the point of "how do they do that" in terms of cast and props, and the highlight this time is seeing newcomer Proske do a remarkably accurate imitation of "Twilight" actress Kristen Stewart. Everyone and just about everything else is a throwaway or sight gag so brief you won't really get if you haven't seen those earlier films.

"Vampires Suck" isn't memorable really in any other way except that lots of heads roll and the young girls on each side of the Team Jacob-Team Edward fence seem to be very, very energetic. I can't recall through any of the painful 80 minutes of this so-called parody that I laughed at all, and I don't believe you will, either. Unless you really want to inflict pain on yourself, I'd wait until it comes out on DVD; as a side note, somehow it leaked online, to the tune of about 100,000 downloads, but even that would be a waste. Stay far, far away.

Piranha 3D - B

Rated R for sequences of strong bloody horror violence and gore, graphic nudity, sexual content, language and some drug use, 89 minutes

"Piranha 3D" is...surprise!...entertaining fish food

As TV character Gomer Pyle often exclaimed: "Well surprise, surprise, surprise!" That would sum up exactly the feelings on the schlocky, violent, but vastly entertaining new horror film "Piranha 3D." It literally flies in the face of critics by not being screened in advance but still turns out to be quite fun and providing what you've always wanted to see in 3D: lots of boobs, blood and killer fish.

Each year the population of sleepy Lake Victoria explodes from 5,000 to 50,000 for the annual Spring Break. But then, a sudden underwater earthquake opens an underwater chasm, releasing an enormous swarm of mutant, ancient Piranha that have been dormant for thousands of years, now with a taste for human flesh. This year, there's something more to worry about than the usual hangovers and complaints from locals, a new type of terror is about to be cut loose on Lake Victoria.

"Piranha 3D" is a gory update on the bad "Piranha" horror films from the 1970's that interestingly helped give some early experience to a couple of noted directors: Joe Dante ("Gremlins") and James Cameron ("Avatar"), yes that James Cameron, who as a side note was fired during the filming of his "Piranha" film. What works in "Piranha 3D's" favor are some great special effects, well-used 3D for a change and a high-level of energy that keep the film moving at fast pace.

In addition, a serviceable horror film director, Alexandre Aja ("The Hills Have Eyes" remake), should be commended for assembling a decent cast, including Elisabeth Shue as a sheriff ala "Jaws," character actor Adam Scott, Jerry O' Connell as a slimeball porn director and Ving Rhames as a deputy. Watch for a handful of amusing cameos, including Christopher Lloyd, Richard Dreyfuss, sending up his "Jaws" character in a big way in the film's prologue and briefly, very briefly, watch closely and you'll also see horror film director and actor Eli Roth (director of the upcoming "The Last Exorcism").

Story, characters and dialogue aren't worth mentioning, but the nifty special-effects, those human-chomping fish, appear awfully big and mean and can bring down anything in a second. They chomp on everything that gets in the way, including the many big boobs that appear on screen and one male appendage that is particularly amusing. All of it's ridiculous, preposterous and ridiculously enjoyable, taken as cheesy, horror-film schlock.

What is most surprising about "Piranha 3D" is that it doesn't suck as much as you think it might be, given the cornball title, plot and characters. So, in a bit of a surprise, I actually do recommend it if you enjoy cheesy, fun horror and the sight of all those fish heartily chomping on their human food. Guilty-pleasure entertainment at its best, don't take "Piranha 3D" too seriously and you might end up having a good time.

Nanny McPhee Returns - B

Rated PG for rude humor, some language and mild thematic elements, 109 minutes

Charming, witty "Nanny McPhee" a decent children's flick

"Nanny McPhee” is a delightful, suitable children’s film starring Emma Thompson and a sequel to the 2005 hit “Nanny McPhee.” Overall, the first “Nanny McPhee” is a better film, but this will still please the many parents seeking a wholesome alternative to some of the questionable children's fare out today. Enjoyably offbeat and witty, the story occasionally falters under its own quirkiness, but it comes together nicely in the end with a predictable, emotional ending.

This time, Nanny McPhee returns to help another family in need. Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a harried mother of three during World War II in the countryside of Great Britain. She works at the senile Mrs. Docherty’s (Maggie Smith) market, and top of that, her boisterous children: Norman (Asa Butterfield), Megsie (Lil Woods) and Cincent (Oscar Steer) are soon joined by their cousins, Cyril (Eros Vlahos) and Celia (Rosie Taylor-Ritson), sent to temporarily live with them to escape wartime London. Isabel is also close to losing the family farm, with shady brother-in-law Phil (Rhys Ifans) constantly badgering her about selling the farm to cover his own debts. Nanny McPhee arrives just in time to get the children under control and help bring a family together during an important time.

Thompson’s colorful, funny and otherwise winning tale, “Nanny McPhee Returns” arrives in time in late summer to provide genuinely wholesome entertainment. Oscar-winner Thompson, wrote the screenplay and produces the engaging family film, a sequel to her hit 2005 “Nanny McPhee” and loosely based on the British children’s book series “Nurse Matilda” by the late Christianna Brand. The first film entry in this series is better, but this one has enough spry energy and humor to keep the young ones engaged and the adults happy for a short bit. The quirkiness (pigs fly, elephants get in the way and more) becomes a tad tiresome and the script meanders during the film’s second act, but it comes together for a three-hanky ending and a predictable climax that probably wouldn’t hold up in a lesser film.

The cast performs uniformly well. The children are all engaging in remarkably low-key turns, while Gyllenhaal does a decent English accent and a poignant turn as the loving but busy mum in need of a break. Thompson grounds the film well as the titular characters with her usual stoic charm. Watch for a colorful cast of supporting characters, most of whom you’ve seen with Thompson in the “Harry Potter” films: Oscar-winner Smith, Ifans (slimy but fun as usual) and in a very small but crucial part, Ralph Fiennes as a relative and high-ranking war office official.

The well-drawn sets, costumes and low-key special effects add to the charm of “Nanny McPhee Returns.” As a side note, the film is known as “Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang” overseas and is already a modest hit in the U.K. Enjoyable, colorfully offbeat and smart, “Nanny McPhee Returns” is a worthy kids film entry and comes recommended as above-average, wholesome entertainment for the entire family.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Eat Pray Love - B

Rated PG-13 on appeal for brief strong language, some sexual references and male rear nudity, 133 minutes

Go find yourself with Julia in "Eat Pray Love"

I must admit I've had a years-long love affair with Julia Roberts, in my mind at least. I've seen all her films, even the bad ones ("Valentine's Day" comes to mind) just so I could melt every time she smiles. She's as radiant as ever and commands the screen in her new romantic dramedy "Eat Pray Love," based on the 2006 Elizabeth Gilbert memoir about one woman's year-long global quest to find herself. Handsomely filmed but overlong and superficial, a glowing Roberts performance is the best thing about this watered-down female spiritual travelogue.

Roberts is Liz Gilbert, a successful New York writer with a seemingly happily marriage to Stephen (Billy Crudup). She realizes she's woefully unhappy in the relationship, and initiates a divorces, which Stephen contests. She enters into an affair with a younger actor (James Franco) but that doesn't provide happiness, either. She realizes she needs some time off to find herself, so she takes year off, spending four months in Italy enjoying fine cuisine (eat), then off to India for another four months to find her spirituality (pray), followed by four months in Bali to find balance (love).

"Eat Pray Love" is an ambitious epic chick flick, striving to conquer some serious themes of love, balance and spirituality, among other things. But the enjoyable film only skims the surface and takes far too long to get there. Roberts, the big movie star she is, gives an irresistible and exuberant performance that helps the film, directed and co-written by "Glee" creator Ryan Murphy, glide through its longer stretches. She makes Gilbert's journey palpable, even if doesn't achieve as much deep emotional connection as it strives for. Of the three sections, the lovely Bali section is the best overall, with the romance between Roberts and Javier Bardem (in a sensitive turn for the Oscar-winning actor) one of the highlights of the film.

Along the way, there are some fine supporting actors who help Julia's character in her jaunt of self-discovery. Billy Crudup is affecting as the ex-husband who won't give in; Viola Davis is memorable as the apprehensive best friend; Richard Jenkins is especially strong as the Texan she meets (and who calls her "Groceries" for all the food she eats) in India also trying to overcome some hurt, and a warm turn by unknown Indonesian actress Christine Hakim as a healer she befriends and helps in Bali. However, Franco's part is the weakest of all the characters, in a very brief, empty role that advances the story very little.

As befits the title, Julia does plenty of eating, praying, loving and of course flashing that movie star grin that still melts even the coldest of hearts. She has fun, but what exactly does she accomplish in the end? And why does it take over two hours for it to unfold? Also, there's not much here that's really earth-shattering. The spiritual practices used in the film - praying, chanting and meditating - are nothing new, and eating is something that is done quite well right here in the U.S.

"Eat Pray Love" is filled with some entertaining moments (food can be that way) that will most appeal to women who long for self-discovery, and particularly wealthy ones such as Gilbert who can trek across the globe for a year to do so. To each his own. If it helps someone find genuine balance in life, then so be it. In the end, Roberts' effervescence and utter charm remain intact and my love affair with her continues. With that in mind, men may find this tolerable only because of Roberts, women should enjoy every minute of it.

The Expendables - B-

Rated R for strong action and bloody violence throughout, and for some language, 103 minutes

"The Expendables" is macho mindless entertainment

I will tell you up front, don't expect much from the new Sylvester Stallone action film "The Expendables." Don't take it too seriously, go in with low expectations, and you might actually have some fun. Preposterous, just plain silly and featuring more explosions than you can count, "The Expendables" seems both to parody the bad '80s films that Stallone was known for and take itself way too seriously, but then maybe that's the point.

Stallone is Barney Ross, leader of a group of highly-trained mercenaries known as The Expendables. His group includes characters played by Jason Statham, Jet Li, Randy Couture and Terry Crews. They're hired by the mysterious man known only as Church (Bruce Willis), who gives a bucket load of cash to bring down a ruthless South American dictator named Garza (David Zayas), but they soon realize that a former rogue CIA agent named Monroe (Eric Roberts) and a former Expendable named Gunnar (Dolph Lundgren) have already been weaving a very dangerous web of deceit and betrayal. The Expendables put their own lives at risk to bring down the bad guys and save the day.

Utterly ridiculous, loud and mindless at best, "The Expendables" is guilty-pleasure action-adventure fun in the right frame of mind. As a homage to those bad macho '80s action-flicks ("Rambo" anyone?), it works well; an entertaining piece of junk it is, but on any other level, not so much. Only Stallone, in post-"Rocky" washed-up form, would write something that gives him the best throwaway lines, the best stunts and the decades-younger pretty girl. The plot is preposterously murky, the acting and what dialogue there is - as expected - pretty awful, but there's enough gratuitous action, big explosions and violence to thankfully keep the film moving along at a brisk pace.

Also, Stallone has managed to gather some former and current action-adventure stars together that make "Expendables" worth a look. In film's highlight, Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis share a brief scene together that has the action superstars together on screen for the first time. It's a treat seeing all three together, albeit only very briefly, and listen for Stallone's line - the funniest one in the film - as Schwarzenegger walks off.

Current martial arts stars Statham and Li are energetic, Roberts chews on scenery as the bad guy, Mickey Rourke tries for tears in a supporting role, though Lundgren lumbers way too slowly and wrestler "Stone Cold" Steve Austin has no business trying to act. What will please the many fans who turn out for this will be the action scenes and the graphically violent fight scenes using big knives, lots of blood and an assortment of body parts.

It is what it is, "The Expendables" is big, dumb, loud and much more enjoyable than I had planned. His "Expendables" sequel should include the ones he couldn't get in this film: Steven Seagal, Wesley Snipes, and Jean-Claude Van Damme, who turned down the film because there wasn't "enough characterization." Are you kidding? Grab some soda and macho nachos and settle in for a evening of mindless action, blood, guts and washed-up movie stars.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World - B

Rated PG-13 for stylized violence, sexual content, language and drug references, 112 minutes

Energetic, quirky "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World" a treat

The energetic "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World" is an interesting hybrid: quirky, cynical independent film sensibilities mixed with an souped-up comic book adaptation (sort of like "Juno" on steroids). It's also a great deal of fun and features some of the best martial-arts fighting in some time, which should appeal to many age groups, particularly the young set. The wackiness of it all may not appeal to everyone, especially those who aren't familiar with the "Scott Pilgrim" comic book series, but there's enough to keep nearly everyone engaged for a bit.

Michael Cera is Scott Pilgrim, a Toronto-slacker twenty-something who plays in a grunge-style rock band called Sex Bob-omb with one of his former girlfriends, the punkish, deeply cynical Kim (Allison Pill), Stephen Stills (Mark Webber) with a roadie named Young Neil (Johnny Simmons) around for measure. Scott is dating talky oriental high school girl Knives Chau (Ellen Wong) until he meets and falls head over heels for Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a young American girl new to the area and who changes hair colors frequently. The two eventually hit it off until he discovers that in order to truly win her over, he must fight and defeat her seven evil exes (including Chris Evans, Brandon Routh and Jason Schwartzman), all part of The League of Evil Exes.

"Scott Pilgrim vs. The World" is a dark, offbeat comic-book adaptation primarily for the comic-con set but fun enough to win over some of us non-comic-con nerds. Directed with panache and bridled energy by Edgar Wright, of "Shaun of the Dead" fame, it has some above-average martial arts, decent special-effects and an unconventional love story. On the down-side, it may be too cynical and quirky for some, and likable Michael Cera channels the same nebbish slacker dweeb he plays in nearly all of his films, but in this case it works in the film's favor to have a different-style action hero.

The girls tend to fare better in "Scott Pilgrim," with Chow stealing scenes, Winstead is lovely as ever and even recent Oscar-nominee Anna Kendrick ("Up in the Air") throwing out some one-liners. Kieran Culkin also has a way of stealing a handful of scenes as Scott's young, gay roomate who's tougher than Scott himself. The film does brim with energy, and even those who aren't familiar with the story or may not enjoy the tone will enjoy the fight and action sequences.

"Scott Pilgrim" comes to an interesting but fun climax as Scott strives to save the day and win over his Ramona. I think it'll be a modest hit and likely inspire more Scott Pilgrim entries.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Twelve - D

Rated R for strong drug content, alcohol abuse, language, sexual material, brief nudity and some violence - all involving teens, 93 minutes

Heavy-handed, overly familiar "Twelve" is a drag

Having grown up in church, there's the familiar joke that goes "I had a drug problem when I was young...I was drug to church every Sunday by my parents." Unless you're drug to the film "Twelve," I wouldn't bother seeing it. Based on a controversial novel about rich, self-indulgent Manhattan teens, "Twelve" is uninvolving, heavy-handed and tries too hard to channel every Bret Easton Ellis story.

Chace Crawford is the story's central protagonist named White Mike, a rich teen whose Mom dies of cancer and whose Dad all but disappears in his work, and he ends up dropping out of school and dealing drugs to his former classmates. He lives with his cousin Charlie (Jeremy Allen White) and Hunter (Philip Ettinger), both of whom are involved in drugs. White Mike's life begins to unravel when Charlie is murdered by Lionel (50 Cent), one of White Mike drug dealer acquaintances. Some of the wealthy, spoiled teens that White Mike deals to are having a big party that will permanently alter everyone's lives, including Molly (Emma Roberts), a clean, pure girl who's in love with White Mike but doesn't know his real life.

"Twelve" is a vacuous, uninteresting mess of a movie directed with a heavy hand by noted director Joel Schumacher ("Batman and Robin") that wastes a decent cast, among other things. "Twelve," based on Nick McDonnell's 2002 controversial, powerful novel, is frought with big problems. For one, it relies on "Gossip Girl's" Crawford, hardly an actor of depth, to carry the film. Woefully miscast and out of his league, the most memorable thing about the part is that his heavily styled hair looks good (and none too ironic that Crawford plays a drug dealer here and who in real life was just arrested for possession of marijuana). Second, there's little emotional connection with the characters, most of whom are so shallow and unsympathetic that by the time the film reaches its violent conclusion, you may not care about their fates.

Above all, the worst aspect about "Twelve" is the heavy, ostentatious and excessive use of voice-over narration throughout the film provided by Keifer Sutherland. Narration is something that has to be used carefully in film, but Schumacher annoyingly uses it everytime a new character appears or a major plot development occurs. Most audiences should be able to determine what's happening without being told; it doesn't help that Sutherland's narration is overbearing at best.

"Twelve" is seemingly a depressing rip-off of anything Bret Easton Ellis has ever done, or worse, a seedy remake of Schumacher's own "St. Elmo's Fire." There are a few good moments, but otherwise this is a forgettable, unfortunate big-screen interpretation that lacks power and instensity. I would remake with Lee Daniels directing, Ryan Gosling as White Mike and without a single bit of narration; unlike this version of "Twelve," it would be one to watch.

Middle Men - C+

Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, language, drug use and violence, 105 minutes

Dark uneven comedy "Middle Men" falls flat

If you've ever felt a little guilty about looking at something on the internet that you shouldn't have, "Middle Men," the new dark comedy about how internet porn got its start back in the 1990s will certainly remind of you that. Based on a true story of one of the film's producers, Christopher Mallick, it starts out as an edgy, fun comedy but too many subplots and characters hamper the film in the later going.

In the mid-1990s, back when music was still sold in stores, VCRs were in every home and the internet was just a glimmer in the world's eye, Houston businessman Jack Harris (Luke Wilson) had a beautiful family and a successful career fixing problem companies. In California he meets two brilliant but troubled entrepeneurs, Wayne Beering (Giovanni Ribisi) and Buck Dolby (Gabriel Macht) who all but invented internet porn. Jack helps to channel the men's energies into a legitimate business, an internet billing company that makes all three men very wealthy. But a seedy lawyer (James Caan), not to mention the Russian mob and the FBI become entangled in a very glamorous, addictive and very dangerous lifestyle that may destroy all involved.

"Middle Men" is an uneven, predictable dramedy that has some fun, unnerving moments, proving that much like sex itself, getting in the adult film business is easy but pulling out is difficult. It's jumpy opening moments reminds of an energetic Scorsese/"Goodfellas"-esque flavor but it becomes filled with too many characters and a busy, calculated last act. Based on the experiences of Mallick, the Hollywood interpretation of how internet porn got started is a huge oversimplication, but often a fascinating one.

"Middle Men" has a good story and a talented cast going for it, giving Wilson his best role in years, and Caan is always a terrific slimeball, though some of the others are a mixed bag. Ribisi and Macht are initially engaging but become vastly annoying as two men who were both brilliantly smart and idiotic at the same time. They scream, shout, throw things and fight but after awhile you really, really, really want them to stop.

The enjoyable film is filled with nudity, sex, shady deals, blood and violence, but the muddled story gets lost in the stylistic busyness of it all. In the end, some of the fictional aspects of "Middle Men" are ridiculous in the same way Oliver Stone's "JFK" was and its impact of the story is somewhat minimized by the fact we may never know how it truly all came down. "Middle Men" is entertaining but slight, unsatisfying in a guilty-pleasure, dirty sort of way.

Step Up 3D - D+

Rated PG-13 for brief strong language, 107 minutes

Dancing only thing worthy about "Step Up 3D"

The "Step Up" movies and Adam Sandler have something in common. Based on their strong box-office receipts, both prove that movies are made to please audiences and not the critics (Sandler's recent summer flick, the dreadful "Grown-Ups," has grossed $150 million). "Step Up 3D" is the newest lame dance flick sequel that really isn't a movie, but a colorful, energetic dance video filled with young, pretty bodies floating across the screen. Pointless, plotless and just plain stupid, "Step Up 3D" is completely forgettable except for the dancing (duh!) and one young breakout cast member.

"Step Up 3D" follows Robert "Moose" Alexander (Adam G. Sevani) from "Step Up 2" as he goes off to NYU with his best friend Camille (Alyson Stoner). The lanky Moose says he's given up dancing to focus on his engineering studies, but it doesn't take him long to get drawn back into the dance crowd, and finds himself along side Luke (Rick Malambri) and Natalie (Sharni Vinson), a group who calls themselves "The Pirates" as they compete to win the big dance off and prize money to help save Luke's club he has built as a safe haven for struggling dancers.

"Step Up 3D" is a stale, flimsy film at best with some of the worst acting since Paul Walker's last movie. It would undoubtedly be the worst film of 2010 if not for two things: the energetic dancing scenes and 18-year old breakout newcomer Sevani, who stole "Step Up 2" and is by far the most talented of the cast here too. Though he doesn't possess the chiseled looks of earlier "Step Up" star Channing Tatum, he could go on to great things with his comic mannerisms and wiry dancing ability. With the right parts and better material, he could have a career similar to another classic comic dancer, Donald O' Connor, Gene Kelly's cohort in "Singin' in the Rain."

Though all the dancing is good, Sevani and co-star Stoner (who have worked together before) share the film's only genuinely magical scene in the second act, an old-school dance in the streets that is out of place with the rest of the movie but reminds of those whimsical "Be a Pepper" Dr. Pepper commercials (if you grew up in the '70s you know what I'm talking about, the rest of you You Tube it).

Otherwise, "Step Up 3D," featuring more needless 3D to cover up the fact that it's a terrible film, is pure nonsense. And it doesn't help when the leading man, the handsomely bland Malambri, can't dance (and not much of an actor, either); he's supposed to the leader of the pack but on the dance floor he's barely seen. One term he uses in the film is "BFAB," or Born From A Boombox. How about "MRME" - Most Ridiculous Movie Ever, or "GDPM" - Great Dancing Pointless Movie?

"Step Up 3D" is colorful, forgettable fun for the masses and a dreadful experience for those expecting a great film. In a month or so, you'll be hard pressed to remember anything about "Step Up 3D,' except for fresh face Sevani, who deserves a better career than this.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Other Guys - C

Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content, language, violence and some drug material, 104 minutes

Mediocre "The Other Guys" strictly hit-or-miss

Well at least it's better than "Land of the Lost." That isn't much of a compliment if you know anything about that 2009 Will Ferrell turkey, though in fact it is a true statement. His latest film, the comedic cop buddy spoof "The Other Guys" is a better film even if most of it is forgettable, incoherently written and wildly hit-or-miss. While there are some amusing moments, it proves again that Ferrell either needs new material or is just plain overrated.

NYPD Detectives Christopher Danson and P.K. Highsmith (Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson) are the baddest, most beloved cops in New York City. Two desks over and one back, sit Detectives Allen Gamble (Ferrell) and Terry Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg). They're clearly "the Other Guys" in the background with little to offer. But every cop has their day, and Gamble and Hoitz stumble onto some high-level crime involving a seedy investment banker (Steve Coogan) who's close to stealing everything Gamble and Hoitz have worked for. It's up to them to save the day, though they may better off saving themselves first before someone gets hurt.

"The Other Guys" is a mediocre, flat comedy that ends up all over the map, throwing out as many gags and jokes as possible to see what sticks, which isn't much. It isn't hideously awful but then not terribly original, either. Ferrell’s bumbling man-boy goober character is the same one he plays in almost all his movies. This type of broad, physical comedy is seemingly both Ferrell's strength and weakness; it's funny for about 5 minutes but beyond that, it becomes very annoying.

This time his dweeb of a character drives a red Prius, listens to "LRB" (Little River Band), has a way of attracting hot women, including his ravishing wife (Eva Mendes, lovely but truly wasted) and calls his captain (Michael Keaton, also wasted) by his first name. This provides the easy set-up for most of the tired jokes that "The Other Guys" you’ve already seen in the trailers for the film: the bad cop-bad cop bit, the Wahlberg ballet dance and a run-in with one of Ferrell's former hot girlfriends (which is actually creepy and scary). The one genuinely funny bit has Ferrell explaining his former life as a college-age pimp.

As for Wahlberg, he is what you might expect: unfortunately miscast. He shouldn't give up his day job because he simply isn't that funny, which is painfully obvious next to Ferrell in a performance that ranks as one of his worst, proving only he can shout and break things on cue.

It doesn’t help that frequent Ferrell collaborator Adam McKay ‘s ("Stepbrothers" and "Talladega Nights") direction and script is lazy at best. It starts off with a clever prologue with Jackson and Johnson in hilarious form as the macho police guys Allen and Terry look up to, but their early exit is McKay’s biggest mistake with “The Other Guys.” A showdown between the men would've been the film's highlight, but instead we must tolerate a couple of lesser actors (Rob Riggle and Damon Wayans, Jr.) as the foes. In addition, a muddled, threadbare plot has the film veering off wildly and incoherently, excessively relying on what Ferrell does best – making an ass of himself - until it stumbles to a baffling conclusion amid bullets and flying papers.

Truth be said, I believe Ferrell is a decent comedian who would fare better with smarter material. "The Other Guys" will likely be a hit based on the bland Ferrell/Wahlberg teaming, but considering all that went into it, it’s a big disappointment.