From the Editor
Thank you for checking out my movie review archive. I'm in the process of transitioning to something else, so I will no longer post new reviews to this blog. In the meantime, I will keep these reviews archived; these are from the fall of 2008 to April 2011. Please watch this blog for more info and keep in touch (you can still find me on Facebook and Twitter). Here's to more great movies!
North Texas Film Critics Association
Thursday, October 28, 2010
Hopefully this will be the final "Saw"
As the old saying goes, there is one way to come in the world and a million ways to die. As if that's not enough, the "Saw" horror franchise has made millions of dollars on that saying alone, coming up with new and inventive ways to torture and murder people. We fully realize the point of the films by now: Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) is a serial killer who exacts his own unique brand of revenge on all the bad people of the world, creating a game of traps that they must escape or die.
This supposedly final "Saw" installment, the 7th, is brought to you in glorious 3D and more gruesome traps than ever. Fans of this franchise will enjoy all the blood and violence as it brings back cast members from past installments; even with all these gimmicks, it's still an excessively violent, badly executed and unsurprising horror flick that exists solely to revolve around all the gory traps that highlight of the film. It's a mixed bag: there are absolutely no surprises but they're admittedly entertaining in a guilty pleasure sort of way.
"Saw 3D" brings back Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) from the first "Saw" film who survived Jigsaw's (Bell) brutal game but lost a leg in the process. This new film explains what happened to Gordon since the first film but also continues a new plot involving a fake Jigsaw survivor, Dr. Bobby Dagen (Sean Patrick Flannery) who has become wealthy by telling his fictional story of how he survived Jigsaw and gone on to a better life. He is captured by Jigsaw and must truly survive another deadly game of torture and violence. Meanwhile, Jigsaw's wife Jill (Betsy Russell) is hunted down by Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), who has become Jigsaw's new assistant.
"Saw 3D" is one of the weaker installments in the franchise, held together only by the traps, which have a life of their own by now. The plot is recycled, the violence unsurprising, the acting terrible as usual. The plot angle to bring back Gordon to the film is so baffling and contrived that it may have "Saw" fans scratching their heads in disbelief. The film is directed by Kevin Greutert, who helmed "Saw 6" and he does little to advance the story except elaborately film the traps set up to kill folks this time out, which involve everything from steel traps to chain saws to an old El Camino.
The "Saw" films, much like Freddy, Jason and Michael, will no doubt live on in some way, shape or form. Even if this is the final installment of this series, expect Jigsaw to be back in some reincarnated fashion. It's been an altogether disappointingly mediocre, bloody ride, and the 3D here, much like other films, doesn't help to actually make it a better film. This series has definitely run its course, but "Saw" fans should turn out, at least the first week, to see what it's all about. Let's hope for the last time. Yea right.
Sunday, October 24, 2010
"Stone" is an unconvincing, flat drama
You'd think a film with two well-respected actors such as Robert DeNiro and Edward Norton would be more energetic and believable, but their new movie, "Stone," a drama and sexual triangle involving a prisoner, his parole officer and the prisoner's wife, is bland, implausible, downbeat and just hard to buy into. Sure, there are moments of acting brilliance with a couple of hefty interchanges between DeNiro and Norton, but the rest of it is a forgettable tale of redemption and grace.
Parole officer Jack Mabry (Robert De Niro) has only a few weeks left before retirement and wishes to finish out the cases he's been assigned. One of his cases is Gerald "Stone" Creeson (Edward Norton), a convicted arsonist up for parole. Jack is initially reluctant to indulge Stone in the coarse banter he wishes to pursue and feels little sympathy for the prisoner's pleads for an early release. Seeing little hope in convincing Jack himself, Stone arranges for his wife Lucetta (Milla Jovovich) to seduce the officer, but motives and intentions steadily blur amidst the passions and buried secrets of the corrupted players in this deadly game of deception.
"Stone" is a stark, overly earnest yet well-acted drama about forgiveness and faith that is in need of a better script. DeNiro and Norton do their best to overcome the heavy-handed, contrived script (Angus MacLachan of "Junebug") and direction (John Curran of "The Painted Veil") that audiences will have trouble relating to. It's baffling why DeNiro's character, so close to retirement, would screw things up royally for himself and those around him. And miscast action star Jovovich ("Resident Evil") throws the film off considerably, she is simply not in the league of the rest of the cast. Watch for Frances Conroy ("Six Feet Under") in the movie's most believable and sympathetic role, as the put-upon wife of DeNiro's character.
Norton overracts but is still worth watching, and he and a low-key DeNiro have a few decent scenes together that pepper the earnest, slow-moving film. "Stone's" messages of redemption and faith are worthy, but the film is otherwise forgettable and a disappointment considering the talent.
"Howl": An offbeat, intriguing look at an unconventional artist
If you know anything about the late, noted beatnik poet and author Allen Ginsberg, you know that his work was anything but conventional and often pushed boundaries. "Howl" is the film about Ginsberg's 1955 provocative poetry work of the same name and the obscenity trial that it resulted in. Well-acted but fragmented, it's an unconventional but fascinating tale of a very unorthodox but gifted artist.
It's San Francisco in 1957, and an American masterpiece is put on trial. The film recounts this dark moment using three interwoven threads: the tumultuous life events that led a young Allen Ginsberg (James Franco) to find his true voice as an artist, society's reaction (the obscenity trial), and mind-expanding animation that echoes the startling originality of the poem itself. All three coalesce in a genre-bending hybrid that brilliantly captures a pivotal moment-the birth of a counterculture.
"Howl" is a mixture of several different elements: it's a nonlinear, unsentimental examination of Ginsberg's poem itself underscored with intermittent animation that helps bring it to life, a look at the obscenity trial that the controversial poem prompted, and a few brief biographical sketches of Ginsberg's life that inspired him to write "Howl." Some of it's fascinating, particularly of Ginsberg's background, but the brief film is uneven and redunant when it tries to blend the elements together.
Franco's star-making performance as Ginsberg is the highlight of the film, and his reading of the poem is both striking and original. The film's directors, Oscar-winning documentary filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman ("The Times of Harvey Milk" and "Common Threads: Stories of the Quilt") add some offbeat animation to help bring the poem life. It's a mixed bag, some of it works and some of it doesn't and becomes a little annoying by film's end. Also, it's a little redunant since Franco reads the poem twice, over the animation and then again later in front of an audience as Ginsberg.
Still, some of Ginsberg's background and experiences were fascinating, particularly his experiences with mental illness and his childhood. The last piece, the obsenity trial, is interesting but uninvolving. Jon Hamm ("Mad Men") and David Strathairn ("Temple Gradin") are the lawyers arguing the case, Bob Balaban the trial judge, while Jeff Daniels, Mary Louise-Parker and Treat Williams all cameo as witnesses who either help or hurt the case.
"Howl" is far from expansive but intriguing nonetheless, even if you know the outcome of the obscenity case. Stay over until the epilogue and you'll see real-life archival footage and photographs of Ginsberg.
Friday, October 22, 2010
"Paranormal Activity 2" - been there, done that
The low-budget horror-thriller "Paranormal Activity" became a phenomenon in 2009 after an internet campaign helped propel it to wide theatrical release and huge box-office returns. A few good scares and an original premise made the first one a huge hit, and unsurprisingly, it's inspired a uninspired sequel. There are a handful of decent jumps in the unsurprising, predictable "PA2," which is all it really has going for it, since the novelty and the chilling plot are well-known by now.
The film starts 3 months before the hauntings of Micah (Micah Sloat) and Katie (Katie Featherston). Katie's sister Kristi and her husband Daniel Rey move into a new home near Micah and Katie, and during this time Kristi's family begins to have suspicious feelings they are not alone in this house. Over time, creepier things begin happening over following nights. Strange things happen to their one-year old son Hunter along with their dog. The family realizes this isn't just a haunted house, but something far more sinister.
The demon thriller "Paranormal Activity 2" is an above-average, modestly chilling but unoriginal horror film that channels the first film, not to mention ripping off many, many other horror films, including "The Exorcist," "Rosemary's Baby" and even "The Amityville Horror." Sort of a prequel with events that happen concurrently with the first, there's not much to go on except the few scares it provides and the faux-documentary jumpy camera feel that grows tiresome after awhile.
There are absolutely no surprises with "PA2," and the supposedly shocking ending isn't that big of a shock. No spoilers here, but if you saw the first one, this one ends the same exact way and leaves it open, for yes, even more sequels. It does give a minimal amount of backstory to Katie and Kristi's upbringing, but it's all still a little fuzzy as to why all this is happening. Native North Texan actress Featherson's role is considerably smaller here, but she does play a pivotal role in the climax.
I enjoyed the first "Paranormal Activity" and while this one really isn't terrible, the formula is all the same, and a bigger budget ($3 million versus $15,000) gives the film a less personal, less tighter feel than the first one, which was directed by Oren Peli (who produces here to let Tod Williams direct). Horror-film enthusiasts should turn out the first weekend to make it a decent hit, but it's not as good as the first one.
Monday, October 18, 2010
Dour, slow "Hereafter" fails to make a strong connection
"Hereafter" is a unique film with a unique premise. A painfully dour, slow film dealing with the afterlife, it's certainly a change of pace for director Clint Eastwood and Matt Damon, who generally make more message-driven and/or action films. But the slow, uneven pacing is one of the central problems for the disappointing "Hereafter," a film that lacks a strong emotional core. Though it's thoughtfully acted, for a film about making a connection, it fails to deliver a connection with its audience.
"Hereafter" is a drama that tells three parallel stories about people who are haunted by death in different ways. George (Damon) is a blue-collar San Francisco native who has a special connection to the afterlife. A once-successful psychic, he's given up trying to connect with the afterlife to connect with the real world. On the other side of the world, Marie (French actress Cecile de France), a French journalist, has a near-death experience as survives a tsunami. And when Marcus (Frankie/George McLaren), a London schoolboy, loses his twin brother, he desperately needs answers. Each on a path in search of the truth, their lives will intersect, forever changed by what they believe about the hereafter.
"Hereafter" is a murky, unsatisfying and very cumbersome film that lacks insight into the afterlife or the characters in the film that are trying to make sense of it. It's one of Eastwood's most sensitive films to date but also one of his most disappointing. There's an underlying sense of poignancy to the story, but it never really grabs your attention; it opens with the stunning tsunami flood scene, but after that it's a pretty emotionless affair.
But the failure of "Hereafter" isn't necessarily all Eastwood's fault, but it's still a big disappointment for the handsomely-filmed A-list production. The overly-ambitious, nebulous subject matter isn't developed near enough by "The Queen's" writer Peter Morgan, and it brings up a few questions that it never really pursues, and most of the characters, particularly Damon's, are thinly written (George's backstory is very vague, which would've helped explain his reluctance to provide psyhic readings).
The most memorable storyline belongs to newcomer twin actors George and Frankie McLaren, who give natural, unforced performances in their acting debut. Their story most resonantes with those struggling with loss and mortality, and they have the "Hereafter's" most poignant scene in the last act. However, the romantic angle between Damon and the lovely De France is out of place, and the unsatisfying climax, which brings all three stories together, is a bit of a stretch.
As with many of Eastwood's productions, the lush production elements highlight the film, from the handsome photography to the detailed sets to the overly-soothing score provided by Eastwood himself (the latter is soothing to the point of sleep-inducing given the slow-as-molasses pacing to the film). Still, "Hereafter" is the season's first big disappointment: not only does it not provide any genuine insight into the afterlife, it's simply a bore.
Saturday, October 16, 2010
"Nowhere Boy" is affecting story of John Lennon's youth
Every famous person had to get a start somewhere, and the sublimely engrossing, engaging "Nowhere Boy" tells the story of a teenage John Lennon. Some of its mid-section lags, but the factual film is superbly acted, directed and written, and it tells some interesting stories of Lennon's youth and how he got his start with the music that eventually evolved into the global phenomenon known as The Beatles.
The young John Lennon (Aaron Johnson) is being raised by his stern Aunt Mimi (Kristen Scott-Thomas) and Uncle George (David Threlfall), in spite of the fact that his free-spirited mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff) lives close by. Family turmoil caused John to live with and be cared for by Mimi, which provides some challenges when John gets into trouble at school. As John becomes closer to his mother, Julia encourages him to take up music and he eventually learns how to play the guitar. He forms a group of his own, The Quarryman, and he meets a young Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodie Gangster), and history is born, though John has to deal with Mimi and Julia, who become his strongest influences.
"Nowhere Boy" is a superb, entertaining and often moving mini-biographical tale of the young Lennon, and will be best remembered for a trio of excellent performances from the leads. What's more, the movie, based on a biography from Lennon's half-sister Julia Baird, is remarkably accurate, making minimal changes to the story and less cinematic liberties than most movies in this genre do (think of the recent, enjoyable "Secretariat" which was good but made substantial changes to the facts). The movie is slower and lags in its mid-section, but once the young Lennon gets going with the guitar and his music, it will keep your interest.
Newcomer British actor Aaron Johnson (also seen in this year's "Kick-Ass") gives a poignant but low-key performance as the teenage Lennon, and shades him with the right amount of inflection that doesn't become a cariacture or just an imiation. Even better is the two actresses who play Lennon's aunt and mother, respectively, and show a study of different personality and parenting types. Scott-Thomas ("The English Patient") and British stage actress Duff (who's also married to actor James McAvoy) give Oscar-worthy performances as the two sisters who both love John and show it differently. The trio's shattering extended scene where John discovers the truth about his parents is the film's highlight.
"Nowhere Boy" is an auspicious big-screen directorial debut for Sam Taylor-Wood, who sublime skills should open more doors (as a sidenote she and Johnson are engaged and already have a child together). Both Duff and Scott-Thomas should gain more accolades for their parts, and they leave as much as an indellible image as Lennon and the Beatles did. Stay for the end and you'll see some poignant photographs of the real people, and you'll enjoy the soundtrack, filled with some actual Quarryman/Lennon tunes.
Friday, October 15, 2010
Music is best part of hokey "Pure Country 2: The Gift"
When I first saw the trailer for "Pure Country 2: The Gift" I thought it was a straight-to-DVD release and was a little surprised to find it was getting a limited release in theaters. The second-rate, hokey and cliched rags-to-riches story is a sequel to the 1992 film "Pure Country" that had George Strait in his only big-screen role, and much like that film, is only memorable for the music.
Bobbie (Katrina Elam, in her big screen debut) is born in Kentucky, but her mother dies in childbirth and she is raised by Aunt Ella (Jackie Welch). She is blessed with the gift of song by some angels (including Michael McKean and Cheech Marin) and she heads to Nashville as soon as she can to become a big-time country singer. She quickly rises to fame and love but with the help of a big country music star (George Strait), she realizes there's more to life than being rich and famous.
The cheap, slight but entertaining "Pure Country 2: The Gift" will likely have a longer life on DVD, which is really where it belongs. The rags-to-riches story was done better in "Coal Miners Daughter," as that film had much more charm, wit and Loretta Lynn. It also had a much better script and direction, which is what this film is in need of. Christopher Cain, brother of "Superman" Dean Cain (watch for him here briefly as a music video director) can't quite pull of the contrived, silly story, but he tries, infusing the film with too many simplistic messages about life, love and trying hard.
Elam is pretty and talented, but she's too inexperienced to carry a movie her first time out. Strait has just a few minutes of screen time in what is really an extended cameo essentially playing himself. There are a handful of amusing scenes (an Asian country band is fun) but down the stretch, "Pure Country 2" is simply too slight, badly acted and way, way too predictable. The movie itself is a bit baffling: the first "Pure Country" nearly 20 years wasn't exactly a classic and Strait is admittedly no actor himself.
The pop-country tunes are the most memorable thing, and you'll leave "Pure Country" with a few of your toes tapping, but you won't remember anything else about this otherwise forgettable, calculated tale of music and stardom.
"Jackass 3D" - is this really necessary?
The answer to that question would be a resounding yes from the millions of young twenty-something males who'll stream to the new "Jackass" movie and like the other two, make it a huge hit at the box-office. If you've seen the show and the other films, you already know what to expect: crude, low-brow stupidity and messing around, except this time the budget is bigger and it's in 3D. Speaking of which, the real jackass is the person who decided to charge an extra $3 bucks for the 3D for a piece of crap movie like this that doesn't need it. The folks at MTV will surely be laughing all the way to the bank after this one scores at the box-office again, surely propelled by that utterly ridiculous surcharge.
Starring Johnny Knoxville and the rest of the gang from the other outings who have become celebrities as a result, including Jason "Wee Man" Acuna, Ryan Dunn, Bam Margena, Steve-O, Dave England, Chris Pontius and Preston Lacy, this is more of the same boorish, immature and often gross stunts as before. The more entertaining moments (maybe a few minutes of the whole movie) come when things happen unexpectedly or unplanned, but then seeing Steve-O, who was supposedly sober this time around, throw up is fun only the first time around (the sweatsuit cocktail will make you gag too). One amusing stunt: a little person fight staged in a bar.
This is only for fans of the series and other movies, who really enjoy seeing the guys get hit, beat up, wet, stung, bit, rammed and everything else you can think of. If you really really enjoy seeing a guy fart out a dart at Steve-O's butt, having a pig eat an apple out of Preston Lacy's crack, or seeing Knoxville dress up as an old guy, then by all means run to the theater, throw on your 3D glasses and go for it.
It's obvious that the MTV folks gave the "Jackass" guys more money to be jackasses, as the stunts are bigger, more lavish (lots of slow mo) and let the guys dress up more. Forgettable stuff for sure and after about 5 minutes you'll start looking at your watch. These guys are getting too old for this stuff, but I'm sure MTV will find a way to get them back together again.
One of the more elaborate stunts has Steve-O, who gets lots of good screen time in this one, launched in the air in a porta potty. Much like that stunt, "Jackass 3D" throws a lot of crap at the screen, and most, if not all of it, stinks.
Friday, October 8, 2010
Uneven "Conviction" lacks heart, details
For a film called "Conviction," it lacks power and emotional resonance. Sure, the true story of a Massachusetts woman who spent years becoming a lawyer just so she could prove her convicted brother's innocence is inspiring. And while it's superbly acted, there are considerable problems with its sloppy narrative flow and lack of details that raises more questions at the film's end.
Betty Ann Waters (Hilary Swank) and her brother Kenneth (Sam Rockwell) were always a tight pair. They came from a troubled Massachusetts household and were shifted around to different foster homes growing up. Though they were separated, they formed a close bond even after both married. Kenny gets into some trouble and is wrongly convicted of a murder he didn't commit. Betty Ann goes to school and obtains her GED, her college degree and then law school to become a lawyer to get Kenny off. With the help of a colleague (Minnie Driver) and a well-known attorney (Peter Gallagher), they work to overcome insurmountable challenges to prove his innocence.
"Conviction" is a pallid, stale drama with a talented cast, uplifting story and vacuous, unmemorable execution. It's true, Waters' story on paper is inspiring. One woman sacrificing so much over a number of years just to prove her brother's innocence is indeed unique and will have you asking yourself if you'd do the same thing.
Oscar-winner Hilary Swank is affecting as Waters, proving again (for better or worse) that she's the go-to-girl for these true heartwarming strong women stories, as is character actor Rockwell ("IronMan 2") in a solid performance. But the direction from actor Tony Goldwyn ("Last House on the Left') and the script from Pamela Gray, who penned another true inspiring female story (the 1999 Meryl Streep vehicle "Music of the Heart") falters in giving Waters story some emotional heft.
To buy into this story, you need a few details, most of which the film glosses over to show Betty's journey. The details and the evidence are the case are downright vague, and the audience is left wondering what Kenny's involvement in the case was. Was he there? Was he an accomplice? Did he know the woman that was murdered? And we're told that a corrupt cop (Oscar-nominee Melissa Leo) has it out for Kenny, but why? What was her connection to Kenny? And exactly how does Betty survive over the years as a single mother, part-owner of a local pub and law school student?
These questions are never fully explored in the film as it jumps back and forth in time to tell the story. More unnecessary characters are introduced (Minnie Driver and particularly Juliette Lewis) and we're given Kenny and Betty's childhood backstory, when we needed more backstory to Kenny's case. If you know the real story, you know that Betty Ann was successful in getting her brother off and continues to help others. Waters is an admirable real-life person whose story, as told here, lacks grit or heart.
Action, cast make "Red" worth seeing
“Red” is great escapist entertainment and a serviceable action flick with an all-star cast based on a comic book series. Very loosely based on William Ellis’ best-selling comic series of the same name, “Red” opens up Ellis’ earnest comic series to the masses and makes the film version an entertaining dark action comedy with a superb cast. Even non-fans of the comic series (count me as one) will enjoy it though admittedly it grows tiresome considering the abundance of spy movies lately.
Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) is a former black-ops CIA agent, who is now living a quiet life. That is, until the day a hi-tech assassin shows up intent on killing him. With his identity compromised and the life of the woman he cares for, Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), endangered, Frank reassembles his old team ( , John Malkovich and Helen Mirren) in a last ditch effort to survive. Special CIA agent Cooper (Karl Urban) is hot on Moses’ trail, one of corruption that leads all the way to the Vice-President of the United States (Juilan McMahon).
“Red” is dark, entertaining and often hilarious, played well by an all-star cast that makes it considerably better than the predictable script. Directed with punch by “Flightplan’s” , the tone and pacing work remarkably well considering that many dark comedies in this genre generally don’t do well. Ellis’ serious comics are lightened up considerably and enlivened by great performances from the large cast, especially “Weeds” Parker, who gets in most of the best lines early on as Willis’ befuddled romantic love interest. Malkovich is also hilarious as the nervous ex-colleague who believes everyone is after him (he has one terrific action scene), yet it’s Mirren who all but steals the show when she gets behind the machine gun, she appears to be a real pro at it.
The handsome Urban gets a little lost in the proceedings, as do McMahon and Richard Dreyfuss as the bad guys, and Freeman is the only one of the leads who is unfortunately misused (and you may see hit exit coming from a mile away). Brian Cox is fun as a Russian spy, while crotchety old Oscar-winner (yes, that Ernest Borgnine, who’s been around forever) gets in a couple of fun scenes as a CIA records-keeper.
Spy movies are a dime-a-dozen these days, and some work better than others. “Red,” with it’s award-winning cast, source material and dark tone, is one of the better ones in the genre. It pulls no punches and no surprises, but it delivers some enjoyable action scenes.
Silly "My Soul to Take" lacks soul, originality
The only thing worth mentioning about the new horror film "My Soul to Take" is that it was written and directed by horror master Wes Craven. It's baffling that Craven would want his name associated with such a bad film, arguably one of his worst that he's both directed and written. There are a handful of decent jumps, but otherwise "My Soul to Take" is too long, not scary, terribly acted and just plain dumb.
In the sleepy northeastern town of Riverton 16 years ago, a serial killer called "the Riverton Ripper" with multiple personalities dies as he's taken to the hospital. On that same night, 7 babies are born prematurely, including his own son. Each year they celebrate the anniversary of their birthday and the Ripper's death, but his evil spirit has supposedly come back in one of the teens, when all start dying off. Is the person doing the killing really the Ripper's son, Adam "Bug" Heller (Max Theirot) or is Bug being framed for the murders by the real reincarnated killer?
You may not care much, given how preposterously dumb and contrived "My Soul to Take" is, and interestingly the film lacks real soul and originality. It starts off well with a chilling prologue, and there are a few scares along the way, but it won't take a rocket scientist to figure out the predictable ending, which might be figured out in the film's first few minutes following the prologue.
All the characters are types - the jock, the outcast, the Jesus Freak, the geek, the snob, the handicapped guy et al - stock characters that you'll find in just about any film in this genre. And the silly premise that all were born on the same day is even more implausible and just a silly gimmick to gather some teens up to kill.
Theirot, the fresh-faced actor and model from "Chloe" and "Jumper," tries to anchor the film as the outcast, but he can't do much with the Craven's bad script and even worse direction. The rest of the cast are unknowns and likely to stay there given they don't make much of an impression. It is worth nothing that the guy who plays the blind guy, Denzel Whitaker, is the son of Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker. Let's hope he moves on to better things than this.
"My Soul to Take" goes on much too long, only giving you ample opportunity to figure out who the killer is. Not only does it take your soul, but steals some of your time, as it will be wasted with this boring, awful and awfully dumb horror movie.
Wednesday, October 6, 2010
"It's Kind of a Funny Story" a lighter look at mental illness
If you've ever personally struggled with depression or another mental illness, you may not take kindly to people making fun of you. The smart new dramedy "It's Kind of a Funny Story" takes a more wistful, unsentimental approach to dealing with mental illness. It doesn't exactly make fun of mental illness, and while it's hardly a serious look at the subject it's a serviceable effort. Warm, offbeat but low-key, it's peppered with a handful of entertaining interludes: a lighter, cleaner more fun version of "One Flew Over the Cookoo's Nest" for teens.
Based on the 2006 Ned Vizzini novel of the same name, "It's Kind of a Funny Story" deals with Craig ("United States of Tara's" Keir Gilchrist), a clinically depressed New York City teen having a bad weekend. He checks himself into the local psych clinic but quickly feels he's better after seeing some of the unsteady patients there, including the wacky Bobby ("The Hangover's" Zach Galifianakis) and another teen with problems, Noelle (Emma Roberts). However, the clinic's doctor (Viola Davis) requires Craig to stay at least 5 days for evaluation. His short stay at the clinic helps him learn more about himself, his illness and the impact on those around him.
"It's Kind of a Funny Story" is a relaxed, unassuming unconventional comedy with heart and a great cast. Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the team behind "Half Nelson" and "Sugar," the film isn't a serious look at the subject; it too often treads water and skips around its serious subject matter, providing some too easy pop-psychological answers for Craig's problems.
As slight as the subject matter is handled, it's enjoyable and well-acted, especially by the fresh-faced Gilchrest, who anchors the film well in an affecting turn; his best moments: pretending to be David Bowie and his ability to throw up at the worst moments. His interchanges with Galifianakis (in a mostly restrained performance) provide the film's best moments. The rest of the cast performs well too. Jim Gaffigan and Lauren Graham appear briefly as Craig's befuddled parents; Oscar-nominee Davis his warm doctor, Roberts his love interest and the lovely Zoe Kravitz (Lenny's daughter) as his female obsession.
"It's Kind of a Funny" story doesn't pretend to have all the answers, "Sybil" or "The Three Faces of Eve" it isn't (though it does have some cool, nifty drawings, or "brain maps" as they're called). People struggle with depression, everyone handles it differently, and it's OK to laugh at yourself occasionally. As the old saying goes, you must laugh to keep from crying, and "It's Kind of a Funny Story" does that well.
Tuesday, October 5, 2010
Feel-good "Secretariat" emerges a winner
If you're looking a feel-good sports movie based on a true story, Disney's enjoyable, winning "Secretariat" leads the pack by a few lengths. Telling the true story of the 1973 Triple Crown winner and its owner Penny Chenery, "Secretariat" is a slick, manipulative film if there ever was one and unsurprisingly takes considerable liberties with the actual story. But with a strong turn from the luminous Diane Lane as Chenery and an uplifting-against-the-odds true story, this is a crowd-pleaser you're rooting for from the get-go.
Lane is Chenery, part of a horse-breeding family from Virginia. When her mother dies and her father Christopher (Scott Glenn) becomes ill, she is encouraged by her brother (Dylan Baker) to sell the farm and the horses, which have been losing money for several years. Instead, Penny decides to manage the farm herself and at the encouraging of a family friend (Fred Thompson) hires an unorthodox trainer named Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) to train their new racehorse, Secretariat, or as many called him, Big Red. Faced with heavy taxes and the loss of the family business, Chenery bets the farm and then some that her beloved Secretariat will emerge a Triple Crown winner.
If you know the real story of this famous horse, then you already know that Secretariat emerged a big winner, and so does the entertaining, engaging movie "Secretariat." Directed by Randall Wallace, who wrote "Braveheart" and "We Were Soldiers," it's a slick, well-made Disney package that should have no trouble finding an audience and it also helps having the lovely Lane in the lead, who shines as the strong, determined horse owner. The film is loosely based on sports-writer William Nack's (portrayed in the film by "Entourage's" Kevin Connolly) book "Secretariat: The Making of a Champion," though it takes considerable liberties with the real story, the details of which vary widely from the story portrayed here.
Still, there's much to enjoy with "Secretariat," and not just the pretty horse (played by several horses, actually) and the beautiful Lane. Malkovich is a big ham as the trainer with the loud clothing, and speaking of ham, it's nice seeing James Cromwell ("Babe") as a rich guy who nearly buys up Secretariat. But the most memorable turn comes from Texas character actress Margo Martindale ("Million Dollar Baby"), who steals every scene she's in as Chenery's wise-cracking and wise secretary named Miss Ham (yes, her real name) credited with naming Secretariat (listen closely, she has the film's best line in her witty reply to a competitor).
Most important, it all matters how you finish, and "Secretariat" will have you cheering by the time Secretariat completes the big win (a huge win, if you know anything about what actually happened) at the final leg of the Triple Crown at the Belmont Stakes. Sure, the playing of the gospel hit "O Happy Day" is a heavy-handed bit (we get it, it was a glorious day!), but don't underestimate the importance of Secretariat's place in history. Also, watch closely and you'll see the the real Chenery (who's still living at age 88), in a cameo in the film's climactic race scene.
You may already know this (spoiler alert!), but Secretariat wins the big race. And "Secretariat" the movie comes out a winner too. An enjoyable, uplifting crowd-pleaser.
Saturday, October 2, 2010
Icky sweet, forgettable "Life as We Know It"
"Life as We Know It" is one of those films. One of those romantic you can tell what will happen just by seeing the trailers or even the prints ads for it. In spite of its handsome leads in Katherine Heigl and Josh Duhamel and a few entertaining moments, "Life as We Know It" is utterly forgettable: overly sweet, highly implausible and overlong. Icky rom-coms like this are a dime a dozen and fall in the "Red Box Rental" category.
Holly Berenson (Heigl) is an up-and-coming caterer and Eric Messer (Duhamel) is a promising network sports director. After a disastrous first date, the only thing they have in common is their dislike for each other and their love for their goddaughter, Sophie. But Holly and Messer are forced to put aisde their differences when Sophie's parents are tragically killed in a car accident. Juggling career ambitions and competing social calendars, they'll have to find some common ground while living under one roof.
A maudlin, irritatingly sweet "Odd Couple"-like rom-com that is best remembered for the cute babies and the caustic neighbors, "Life as We Know It" pulls no punches, no surprises and is geared mainly for Heigl and Duhamel fans only. Heigl, who also co-produced this yucky film (along with her mother Nancy, who cameos as her Mom in the movie), tiresomely plays the same role she's played in her last few films: the uptight control-freak single professional, something that's becoming quite annoying. Duhamel is handsome but has never been more bland than he is here.
The babies, played by the Claggett triplets (Alexis, Brynn and Brooke) are the cutest thing about the film, along with a couple of other supporting players. "Mad Men's" Christina Hendricks shines in a few brief scenes as Sophie's mom, while Melissa McCarthy (Molly of the fun new show "Mike and Molly" and Jenny McCarthy's cousin) steals every scene she's in a wise-cracking neighbor with a Southern drawl.
If only "Life as We Know It" were as much fun or interesting as McCarthy. You simply won't buy into the baffling reason these two selfish, immature people were chosen to raise a kid, about as much as you did with the similarly-themed also forgettable Kate Hudson flick "Raising Helen" a few years ago. Heigl's character makes some original, unique and quite lovely cakes during several occasions in the film. Too bad you can't say the same for this tiresome, bland and flavorless rom-com.
Stale, unoriginal "Case 39" should be closed
If you haven't heard of the new horror-thriller "Case 39" you're not alone. Originally filmed in 2006, the film has been sitting on the shelf for a few years and it's easy to see why. Starring Oscar-winner Renee Zellweger, this "Carrie" ripoff is boring, dumb, overlong and wastes a talented cast. A decent premise isn't fully explored while other moments are just laughable.
Zellweger is case worker Emily Jenkins. Her most recent case, her 39th, is investigating the family Lilly (Jodelle Ferland). Her imbalanced, somewhat crazy parents (Callum Keith Rennie and Kerry O'Malley) seem to neglect and Emily herself has overheard her parents want her dead. Emily and her friend Mike the detective (Ian McShane) arrive to Lilly's house just in time before her parents are trying to inexplicably kill her. Lilly's eventually taken away but persuades Emily to take care of her before being assigned a foster family. Emily realizes over time that Lilly has been hiding some awful secrets and that her real parents may not have been that crazy to kill her.
Ridiculously awful, hardly scary and just plain silly, the slow-moving "Case 39" does have a handful of creepy- jumpy moments but otherwise it's a waste of time. This will be included among Zellweger's worst films, "Case 39" showcases Zellweger's worst traits as an actress: her pitchy, whiny voice and squinty facial features. Directed by "Pandorum" writer Christian Alvart and written by "The Crazies" writer Ray Wright, it all goes laughably wrong early on in a slower-than-molasses first act. In the end, it rips off everything from "Bad Seed" to "Carrie" and doesn't fully explain why or how the girl is possessed or what her real purpose is.
Canadian actress Ferland (Bree in the "Twilight: Eclipse" film) provides the film's only real memorable moments, as the demonic young girl with the special ability to control the grown-ups. McShane is totally wasted in a brief part, as is Zellweger's real-life boyfriend Bradley Cooper, who has the film's genuinely fun horror scene involving a bunch of hornets. "Case 39" goes on way too long and the climax may instill a few laughs instead of thrills.
"Case 39," unlike a fine wine, has not improved with age sitting on the shelf collecting dust. Somewhere along the way (likely post-production and the awful editing) it's fallen apart into the mess that ended up on screen. No reason to see it unless you have some time to kill.
Friday, October 1, 2010
Compelling, provocative but flawed "Waiting for Superman"
They say that sex, religion and money are not great conversation starters. After seeing the new documentary "Waiting for Superman," you may want to add education to that list. Entertaining, thought-provoking and often times sad, it's hardly a balanced look at the flaws of American education and it certainly doesn't provide any hard and fast answers, but "Waiting for Superman" may have people analyzing the system that's increasingly becoming a hot topic.
Documentary filmmaker Davis Guggenheim ("An Inconvenient Truth") investigates the failures of the American education system through the eyes of several children: Anthony, Francisco, Bianca, Daisy, and Emily. They range in ages from first grade through middle school and attend various public schools across the country that have failed them. However, they're pining their hopes on getting into different charter or boarding schools that have proven to be more successful than their public counterparts.
With "Waiting on Superman," Guggenheim provides a provocative, stirring look at a relevant subject that's been a hot topic the last few years. It's most fascinating when reviewing the statistical data that proves that America's education system has been failing our children then seeing how it's affected the real-life examples that are examined in the film: Anthony, the pre-teen being raised by his grandmother or the bright young girl named Daisy who's already chosen her college.
The flaws with "Waiting on Superman" may be the challenging, expansive subject itself. Many, many issues are raised - everything from bad teachers, tenure, "tracking" of students, lack of funding, to the teachers unions - but no genuine hard and fast solutions are presented to the many problems. The closest it comes is when it examines the actions of Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools system, whose tough, ruthless and often unpopular approach in repairing one of the worst school districts in the country have made her one of the most talked-about educators of recent memory.
"Waiting on Superman" does have a point that it makes quite compellingly, particularly in the poignant, heartbreaking final moments when the families await word if they've been accepted in the better schools: make improvements or essentially see the future of our country go down the drain, as Superman won't fly in and save the day. Guggenheim's liberal slant won't appease everyone, but it does something most films don't do these days: make you think.
“Let Me In” a haunting, chilling vampire remake
“Let Me In” is frightening, slow-moving heavily stylized vampire tale that has you wishing that you had a vampire as a bodyguard. An American remake of the 2008 Swedish horror-thriller “Let the Right One In” which is based on a Swedish novel of the same name, it’s suspenseful, bloody and often terrifying. The original foreign film is still superior, but those who enjoyed that film will also get a kick out of this one.
Twelve-year old Owen (Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee of last year’s affecting “The Road”) is viciously bullied by his classmates and neglected by his divorcing parents. Achingly lonely, Owen spends his days plotting revenge on his middle school tormentors and his evenings spying on the other inhabitants of his apartment complex. His only friend is his new neighbor Abby (Chloe Moretz from “Kick-Ass”), an eerily self-possessed young girl who lives next door with her silent father (Richard Jenkins).
A frail, troubled child about Owens's age, Abby emerges only at night and is always barefoot, seemingly immune to the bitter winter elements. Recognizing a fellow outcast Owen and Abby form a unique bond. When a string of grisly murders puts the town on high alert and a policeman (Elias Koteas) comes to investigate, Abby's father disappears and she’s left on her own, revealing a powerful secret to Owen.
“Let Me In” is a superbly terrifying, violent and grim horror-thriller from Matt Reeves (co-creator of TV’s “Felicity”). He Americanizes the story and makes a few minor changes here and there to the original movie and story, but otherwise keeps the dark tone and violence intact. The Swedish film is still superior in its ability to shock, but Reeves does a decent job and makes the story a little more accessible for American audiences.
The touching performances from the young leads, McPhee and Moretz, are one of the highlights of the film, in addition to the film’s washed-out colors that add to the film’s stark feel. Reeves adds some nice ‘80s touches with Rubik’s Cube, Ronald Reagan and Pac-Man that nicely evokes memories of the early ‘80s. The film has pacing problems i.e. it’s too slow in places, making the violent images, when they come, even more enjoyable.
Overall, “Let Me In” stands on its own well-enough to be an above-average, well-acted horror flick. Also know that it isn’t for everyone but vampire enthusiasts should enjoy it, even if the first film is better.
Compelling, entertaining, relevant "Social Network"
"The Social Network" has quickly become known as "the Facebook movie" as it tells the early, tumultuous days of the social networking website. In reality, it's just one version of the story, but what an entertaining, absorbing and provocative story it is, and given how Facebook has significantly impacted society, "The Social Network" is perhaps the most socially-relevant movie to be released this yeear.
Based on Ben Mezrich's 2009 nonfiction novel "The Accidental Billionares," the story begins at Harvard, Fall 2003, where Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) are schoolmates. Dumped by his girlfriend, Zuckerberg creates a "Hot or Not" site that nearly brings down Harvard's network. Zuckerberg is placed on probation but attracts the attention of handsome, athletic twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer) who have an idea for a social networking website to keep in touch with their friends. Zuckeberg is inspired to create a similar site expounding on their original ideas, and with Saverin's financial help, gets the site going. As the new site grows, Zuckerberg attracts the attention of Napster's Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), who advises him to continue to expand.
"The Social Network" is a slick but fascinating drama of one version of the events, much of which has been idealized, altered and even fictionalized (these are geeks, after all), but it's an absolutely relevant story given how much Facebook has changed our society. The film has a sublime pedigree, directed by David Fincher ("The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"), adapted for the screen by Aaron Sorkin ("The West Wing") and executive-produced by actor Kevin Spacey. Fincher in particular handles the film with skill and the script is fairly even-handed in its portraits, showing unflattering sides of everyone involved, though it's the impressive performances from its young cast that'll leave most talking.
Indie character actor Eisenberg (best known for "Zombieland") especially anchors the film well in his first lead performance that should garner him acclaim. It's not an impression of Zuckerberg but a nuanced, even unsympathetic portrait of a very sharp technical mind, and it shows that Eisenberg continues to mature as an actor. British actor Garfield, recently cast as the new Spider-Man, is also superb as the CFO who's eventually forced out as the site grows. Timberlake, the best known of all the cast, is charming as the showboat Parker, portrayed as a great businessman who likes to party (but whose role is largely overstated by the film). Unknown Hammer (part of the wealthy Armand Hammer family) is also memorable as the angry Winklevoss twins, who want credit for their ideas.
"The Social Network" isn't perfect. The story doesn't always flow evenly as it jumps back and forth too much; it's also baffling how some details were included (a chicken, for example) while others were considerably enhanced for cinematic effect (sex, drugs and rock-n-roll). Understandably Zuckerberg and his Facebook staff didn't cooperate with the filmmakers, which isn't surprising after you see the movie.
"The Social Network" doesn't have to make an important statement; the website itself has already done that. The film is an absolutely absorbing, relevant look at how a website not only changed our relationships but also the relationships of its founders. A must-see and one of the year's most memorable films.