Saturday, February 28, 2009

Having Two Lovers Is Sometimes To Hard To Handle

James Gray finally gives us a film without the crime element and it is remarkable. "Two Lovers" is a moving tale about the power of love on a man who is at best unstable. And at his best is a surprisingly gifted man. The power that one emotion can have over another person is scary at times but can be a beautiful thing. But even that can become old and tiresome. Two lovers dwells in this place, a place of love but one that is on the brink of destruction.

Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix) is a damaged, emotionally unstable man who has attempted suicide in his past, the film, ironically begins with yet another one. His life is dominated by a broken engagement, on medication for a bi-polar disorder, he's been reduced to living with his parents in the Russian and Jewish community of Brighton Beach, and is working in the dry cleaning establishment that's owned by his Pop, Reuben (Moni Moshikov). A friend of Leonard's father, Michael Cohen (Bob Ari) has a small chain of dry cleaners, and wants to incorporate Reuben's into his business. Cohen has a daughter, Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), whom the parents have set up with Leonard. He's only a little interested. But he does take her into his bedroom to show her some black and white photos that he has taken.

Later another woman unexpectedly appears, a new neighbor, the blond and dangerous Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow). Even at their first meeting in the hallway she's in trouble, being verbally abused by her visiting father. And from then on whenever Michelle calls on Leonard, however bad the time or awkward the occasion, he can never say no. She's pretty, even glamorous, but also unhealthy. She's been on drugs. Leonard can see her upstairs windows from his room, and spends nights sitting watching for her. Sandra, who knows his problems and wants to take care of him, and Michelle who uses and takes advantage, she uses Leonard in her troubles with Ronald (Elias Koteas), her married lawyer boyfriend. Michelle asks Leonard to join them at a fancy restaurant to meet Ronald, and size him up, to tell her if he thinks Ronald will ever leave his wife.

Instead, while Michelle's in the ladies' room, Ron asks Leonard to keep an eye out for her and see that she's not using drugs again. Then Michelle and Ron go off to his firms box at the Met and leaves Leonard to be driven home in the company limo. It's a moment that defines Leonard's life. Leonard at first seems like a quiet loser, in one scene Michelle takes him to a club, he tries to rap in the car while they are on the way, once there he goes onto the dance floor and is so serious about his dancing that he can't see what everyone else is thinking. Michelle goes outside and when he joins her, they talk about leaving, she says she wants to get her bag, but never comes back out. When Leonard can't get back inside he decides to just leave.

After the dinner and the opera that he has been shut out of, Leonard buys a opera disc, when he gets home he plays it, Sandra comes over and he realizes what is available before him and the two end up in the bed, the next morning, after Sandra leaves, Michelle calls Leonard up to the roof to ask what he thinks about Ronald, he tells her that he thinks Ronald won't leave his wife, and that he loves Michelle, what Michelle tells Leonard next breaks his heart. He tells Michelle that they shouldn't speak again. Leonard's mother Ruth (Isabella Rossellini) is always looking out for him, she hovers everywhere, always asking if he is ok, or if he wants to join the family at dinner or a party. At Cohen's son's bar mitzvah, Michelle calls Leonard and tells him she is bleeding, Leonard runs back to the house to take her to a hospital, she miscarries and Leonard takes her home, while he is in her bedroom Ronald comes in and Michelle has him hide behind the bedroom door, she tells Ronald to just leave, that she wants to be alone.

Michelle tells Leonard she is going to end it with Ronald, they talk about running away to San Francisco together, Leonard buys the tickets and then goes to buy an engagement ring, he is so rapped up in Michelle that he can't see what he has right in front of him. The day comes when Leonard and Michelle plan to run away, Leonard is waiting for her and is almost pleading with her to come to him, when she does, what she tells Leonard almost causes him to walk into the ocean once again. In what seems like a movie starting with and ending with a suicide attempt, slowly turns into an awakening for Leonard. When he comes to understand what he is throwing away he picks up the ring he bought for Michelle and takes it back home to give to Sandra.

I give Two Lovers a 3 and on my avoidance scale a 0, sitting watching this movie brought a lot of emotions up, anyone who has ever loved and lost will understand what Leonard feels, and maybe can understand just how strong loss can become if it is empowered. The ending is a scene that will be found rather emotional or rather sad. This is a small independent film and may require some searching for, but it is well worth the time.

Two Lovers is rated R for Language, some Sexuality and Brief Drug Use
Running time is 1 hr. 49 mins.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Fired Up about Fired Up!

In Fired Up, Shawn (Nicholas D'Agosto) and Nick (Eric Christian Olsen) are top scorers on the Ford High School football team…both on and off the field. When they hatch a scheme to trade their footballs for pom poms and join the school's most beautiful girls at cheer camp, the new team members actually give the girls' historically awful cheer squad a chance at success. And when Shawn falls for the head cheerleader (Sarah Roemer), the boys must learn some new moves and unleash their inner spirit to prove their intentions before the all-important cheer competition finals.

Check my man card at the door and begin making fun of me because I am about to admit to completely enjoying Fired Up!. Yes, this is a movie about cheer camp and high schoolers and falling in love, and trust me as a professional film critic I feel all dirty inside liking it. Where is my high-minded attitude and my ability to stick up my nose at anything that doesn't involve at least two academy award nominated actors and a screenplay confronting the inner turmoils of man's soul? How can I like this film!? At least now I can empathize with the two lead characters, Shawn (Nicholas D'Agosto) and Nick (Eric Christian Olson), two high school playboys who decide that going to cheer camp will be much better than football camp because they can hook-up with more girls that way. Just like they must confront their perceived manliness, especially with Shawn falling for a girl and both of them actually liking cheer leading, I must confront mine for actually liking the movie. But wait, that plot only half sounds like a bad teen girl flick doesn't it? Two horny teenage guys trying to score with as many girls as possible sounds a lot more like a bad teen guy flick, doesn't it? Yea, it does. And the two lead's surprisingly funny repartee is mostly based around cussing, sex jokes and pop culture references. In fact even the film's montage is centered around hooking up with a bunch of girls, not falling in love with just one of them -- even though that does eventually happen. Yea, this is totally a guy's movie! It's fine then that I laughed at plenty of the jokes. It's not like the film is all that idiotic either. In fact much like another certain cheer leading movie which shall go unarmed but starts with the word Bring and ends in On, the film has a certain self awareness of its own general stupidity that elevates it above the normal drivel of a teeny-bopper movie. It's actually clever and funny in much of what it does, like the douche bag boyfriend who is pre-med, but still insists calling himself doctor and always pulls up blaring a song that anyone who lived through the 90's would agree is a douche bag song (Chumbuwumba anyone?). The film takes its many chick flick cliches, shoves them into a guy's movie and then makes fun of them all while remaining at its soul a chick flick. If that isn't a feat to enjoy and be impressed with, well then, I don't know what is. This isn't high art and we won't be seeing it nominated for any Oscars of course, but it is sharp and clever. Now that I've talked myself, and hopefully you, into believing that a cheerleader movie is actually a guy film and that said guy film is actually smarter than it looks I have to go back and check out every sequel to Bring It On. Who knows, I could have been missing comic gold, right? Yes, Fired Up is a crazy, teen sex comedy infused with the spirit of Animal House or Caddyshack, and it might not be as good as any of those (even though it does borrow from many similar movies), but director Will Gluck and writer Freedom Jones throw in enough smart references and funny moments to elevate the movie to a level above mediocre. It might not be original, but Fired Up makes you laugh. In between the homosexuality jokes, silly overacting, extreme sexual suggestions at each turn and every character being just a bit too dumb to live, Gluck and Jones find ways to mock the movie they are making, and D’Agostino and Olsen are more than capable enough to play along and get you to giggle. They share a good camaraderie, know how to show the bravado of two fast talking guys who usually get what they want, but also excel as Shawn and Nick go through the inevitable life changing moments. Fired Up gets too wrapped up in the obvious plot twists you can see coming from a mile and a half away, and you might get a good laugh out of pointing each one out as it pops up in the movie, but you can’t deny it has something going for it.
So funny I wanted to cheer.  I laughed my ass off from beginning to end. Even though it's highly cliched, it is still a comedy treat. A Cheery 3 on my "Go See" scale topped off with spirit fingers.

The Pink Panther Strikes Again

When the world's greatest treasures, including the Pink Panther Diamond, are stolen, only one man can solve the mystery: Clouseau (Steve Martin). Together with his partner Ponton (Jean Reno) and a team of international detectives, the bumbling detective must catch the thief and retrieve the artifacts -- without causing too much collateral damage in the process in Pink Panther 2. 

Martin once again trades his banjo for the kooky cop cap in his return to the Pink Panther franchise. The inherently 1960s concept—first developed by Blake Edwards and Peter Sellers—remains intact, with equal parts slapstick, high style and a whole lot of sneak-thieving and lady-ogling. Judged by those standards, Pink Panther 2 does fine, especially given that the audience is obviously kids. We open with Clouseau biding his time as a parking-meter cop in Paris, as meticulous as he is clueless about his demotion from le snoop extraordinaire. A new cat burglar named Tornado is padding about, stealing national treasures, and it's only a matter of time before Clouseau is literally plucked from the gutter to save the jour. He joins what amounts to a dream team both on- and off-screen, including the always-terrific Alfred Molina as a British master of deduction, Jean Reno as an admiring fellow French sleuth, sexpot Aishwarya Rai Bachchan as does-it-really-matter and Andy Garcia as an Italian. Of course, Clouseau bungles everything he touches, including physical evidence, a private audience with the pope and a fits-and-starts relationship with his pliant secretary, Nicole (Emily Mortimer). The result is the usual chandelier-swinging, costume-swapping, chimney-crashing and at least two scenes where the same restaurant gets lit on fire. And at one point, the legendary Pink Panther diamond has to disappear—again—because otherwise the producers would have to sit around thinking of some new movie title. But just when the stretched-thin plot seems ready to snap entirely, the cast or the script—cowritten by the very witty Martin—pulls out a zinger that manages to please everybody. The cast alone may be worth a ticket, if not a rental. A scene between Martin and Molina, in which the two square off on their deduction abilities, has the makings of an instant classic. They have a blast sparring, spoofing and doing word play with Martin and each other. Nothing here is gut-busting, but you will catch yourself laughing out loud on occasion and completely entertained by the comedy. By the way, if you’re tempted to pop up and refill the popcorn or hit the powder room, don’t do it during the scene at the Vatican. After the pontiff’s ring is stolen, a clueless Clouseau and the gang of detectives investigate. It is the funniest scene in a film full of them. Another highlight is Martin and old friend/comedienne Lily Tomlin doing some spot-on politically incorrect bits on political correctness. By my count there have been 11 Pink Panther movies. Originally a main character in a Blake Edwards heist spoof, the late Peter Sellers played Inspector Jacques Clouseau five times. Some viewed Sellers as a genius. Others—me included—didn’t find Sellers or his movies that funny. Comedian Steve Martin—modeling his interpretation of the character after Sellers—nearly put an end to a brilliant comedy career doing his vision of The Pink Panther. It wound up on lots of worst of the year lists in 2006. Though it isn’t likely to end up on anyone’s best list, after a long week of financial worries, children worries, job worries, The Pink Panther 2 hits all the right notes and is an excellent 90-minute escape. Go and see it and have a good laugh. A 3 on my "Goe See" scale.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

On The Road With Wendy And Lucy

Life takes many twists and turns, none worse than being all alone, on the road with little money, no job, no friends or family, and little prospects for anything better coming. Such is the story in "Wendy And Lucy". Life on your own can be difficult as it is when your only companion is a pet and you lose that connection, you will do anything and search as long as it takes to find that pet again, this is a sad look at one such search and the reality that maybe the pet is better off not out on the streets.

Hoping to find a job in a fishing cannery in Alaska, Wendy (Michelle Williams), travels to the Pacific Northwest from her home in Muncie, Indiana with her most endearing companion, a golden Labrador Retriever named Lucy. The film is set near the Oregon/Washington border in a small town that, with its roadside strip malls, gas stations, car repair garages, and convenience stores, is reflective of rural American cities and towns that have lost the character that once made them unique. As the film opens, Wendy is playing with Lucy in the Oregon woods, the only sounds heard are Wendy humming. While sleeping in her 1988 Honda on Walgreen's property, she is awakened by a security guard (Wally Dalton) who tells her to move on, but Wendy discovers that her car will not start. Wendy and the guard push the car from the lot onto the street where Wendy is able to park it. On a limited budget, she is shaken when the repair amount confirmed by the town mechanic (Will Patton) is greater than expectations.

Wendy leaves Lucy tied to a bike rack outside a small market while she goes inside. Trying to save some money, Wendy makes a serious mistake by stealing dog food at the store. Unable to convince a smug teenage clerk, Andy (John Robinson) to give her a break, she is taken to jail on a shoplifting charge. When released after paying a fine that costs considerably more than the dog food, she discovers that Lucy has disappeared and the film's focus turns to Wendy's frantic and lonely search for her beloved dog. As she pays a visit to the local pound, Wendy finds many dogs that have been abandoned or left to fend for themselves.

Wendy looks for Lucy all over town, putting up pictures of her and leaving the cell phone number of the guard who has befriended her. Yet the waiting drains her energy and her run-in with a deranged homeless man (Larry Fessenden) while sleeping in the woods waiting for her car to be fixed, frightens her to the core. Seeking some solace, she calls her sister back in Indiana, but meets only indifference, Wendy gets more sympathy from her sisters boyfriend. The sister talks in the background asking what it is that she wants now. Wendy tries to deal with the loss of Lucy while trying to get through each day, her car is her means of travel and Wendy is completely lost without it. Wendy feels lost already because her only companion is Lucy and she feels that she won't get her back. As each hour passes, Wendy slowly comes to understand that Lucy may be lost to her for good, one morning while Wendy is waiting for the body shop to open, the guard drives up to inform her that the pound had called the night before, it seems that they believe they have found Lucy, getting her hopes up Wendy calls and finds out that indeed the dog that was adopted is in fact Lucy, she is now more determined to go and get her dog.

Wendy goes to where her car is and finds out that what she originally thought was just the car needing a new serpentine belt is now something much more expensive, the car has cracked gasket heads and will cost two thousand dollars to fix. Wendy is devastated to find out that she won't be able to get her car out of the shop, her only solace is that she will have Lucy back, when she goes to the home of the people that adopted Lucy, she finds her in the huge back yard, Wendy is as happy as she has ever been, but slowly it dawns on her that there is no way that Lucy will be able to travel with her anymore, life without the car will be hard enough for Wendy, but near impossible for Lucy, Wendy makes the hardest decision she has ever had to make, she turns and walks away leaving Lucy in the yard. At the end of the movie Wendy is leaving town by herself, she is still determined to make it to Alaska. This movie is haunting, and will stay with you for along time.

I give Wendy And Lucy a 3 and on my avoidance scale a 1. ONLY because this movie won't be in theatres long enough to enjoy it there, but this movie should be watched whenever you can get hold of it.

Wendy And Lucy is rated R for Language
Running time is 1 hr. 20 mins.

Friday, February 13, 2009

3D Ocean life is amazing

Viewers of UNDER THE SEA 3D will get the best look at ocean life that they can get without snorkels or scuba gear. This release makes full use of the IMAX format in its theatrical release, revealing the underwater wildlife of Australia, New Guinea, and the rest of the Pacific in vibrant detail. But this beautiful documentary doesn't just show the amazing inhabitants of the ocean; it also reveals the effects of climate change on them and their environment.

From the people who gave us the Imax nature documentaries Into the Deep 3D and Deep Sea 3D comes a new immersive journey, Under the Sea 3D. Director Howard Hall was the first guy to take an IMAX 3-D camera underwater with the California kelp forest documentary Into the Deep (1994), the most successful film made with the technology. This time, Hall and crew head for more exotic waters — coral reefs off the coast of Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Australia, including the Great Barrier Reef. Like its predecessors, Under the Sea is family-friendly viewing — the great white shark swims by, as opposed to tearing prey to shreds. Its goal is to show biodiversity and offer information on how reefs grow, reminding us of threats to these environments. This is no documentary version of Finding Nemo: You can't follow a family of giant cuttlefish like you can lions, polar bears or wolves, although the dramatic feeding and mating behaviours of the odd-looking creatures make them the lead characters in Under the Sea. What we do get are captivating sequences of animal behaviour — a phalanx of sea snakes "standing" like weeds to feed on passing critters; fish that resemble lumps of colourful coral until they snatch their prey; a sea turtle closing its eyes as it chows down on a jellyfish in order to avoid getting stung. No fishy film would be complete without a mammalian cameo, in this case Australian sea lions who mug for the camera. And the filmmakers save the most delicate, alien creature for the grand finale: the Leafy Sea Dragon, which looks like a sculpted bonsai branch with tiny transparent fins. Super weird and cool. Narration is delivered by Jim Carrey, who regrettably plays it straight, although I suppose the message would have been overshadowed by smart-aleck comments. The best thing about high-quality Imax movies such as Under the Sea 3D is that they take us to the world's most beautiful and fragile places so we won't wreck them. The 3D effects are genuinely impressive, ensuring that the experience of watching the film is as close as possible to actual deep sea diving – young children in particular will be delighted and even adults will be hard pressed not to find themselves reaching out and attempting to touch the creatures as they swim in front of you. That said, it's a good thing that the film is only 40 minutes long, because it's hard to focus on some of the scenes and you might end up with a slight headache. Jim Carrey proves a surprisingly decent narrator, though, happily, he does throw in a couple of jokey comments for good measure. The film's environmental message is also hammered home with just enough force, without being over the top. The only real problem with the film is that its child-friendly certificate prohibits any exciting 3D footage of great white sharks in action. It's genuinely thrilling to be up close and personal with a great white shark, but you do end up hoping it will attack a seal during the impossibly cute seal moments. I nice little treat even if we don't get to see the sharks in action. This gets a 3 on my "Go See" scale. It's educational enough for all ages and the 3D is well worth it. 

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Release Your Inner Fanboy

In this riotous new road movie from producer Kevin Spacey, a group of friends who are avid Star Wars fans travel west to see the Holly Grail of all sci-fi movies, Star Wars: Episode I. The year is 1999 and for these death star dorks, the Star Wars films are more than just movies; they are a way of life. So, after one of the group takes sick it is nothing short of a moral imperative that the friends break into George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch to watch the seminal sci-fi picture together before its release. Enlisting the help of an estranged friend, who has traded in his Darth Vader mask for a proper day job, the adventure lays way to some extremely funny situations, including an outrageous brawl with some hard-core Trekkies.

Even geeks enjoy poking fun at geeks. And they really know how. In Fanboys, opening today, several real Star Wars geeks (writer, director and producer) take affectionate and pointed shots at their own kind. With the aid of some major geek heroes (William Shatner, Carrie Fisher, Kevin Smith, Billy Dee Williams) the self-aware mockery is often funny. It’s 1998. For Star Wars fanboys, it’s been 15 years in hell, waiting, waiting, waiting, for the long promised Star Wars prequels. The last of the original trilogy, Return of the Jedi, came out in 1983. In 1993, Star Wars creator George Lucas revealed that a prequel trilogy was actually going to happen. Now, at last, the end is in sight: Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is set to open May 19, 1999. But for small town Ohio buddies and dedicated geeks Eric (Sam Huntington), Hutch (Dan Fogler) and Windows (Jay Baruchel), there is a disturbance in the Force. A real one. Their fellow fanboy, Linus (Chris Marquette), has cancer. He may not live to May 1999. Waiting another year is not an option.  These four friends, now in their 20s, grew up on Star Wars. To them, planet Tatooine is more real than their hometown. Emperor Palpatine, not President Clinton, is the ruler. For Linus to die without seeing the new movie would add insult to tragedy. So the friends climb into Hutch’s beat-up Star Wars van for an insane cross-country road trip, geek style. They know their plan is absurd: drive to northern California and break into Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch and steal an early cut of The Phantom Menace. But this is their Death Star, the impossible challenge they have to take on out of love for Linus. They may be nerds ill-equipped for the real world, but these fanboys have a guardian den mother in practical, attractive gal pal Zoe (Kristen Bell). She’s going along to keep them out of trouble and because, well, she’s a bit of a fangirl herself (and she's in love with Windows). Their trip takes them, among other places, to Riverside, Iowa, “future birthplace” of Star Trek Capt. James T. Kirk, where they have a geek-to-geek run-in with a team of Star Trek fanboys (“We’re Trekkers, not Trekkies”). The Trek leader (Seth Rogen, who plays three cameos in the movie) is dressed in full Star Fleet admiral regalia as tour guide of Riverside’s Capt. Kirk statue. Another stop is in Austin (though not actually filmed there) where they meet up with fanboy supreme Harry Knowles (Ethan Suplee), creator of Harry is rumored to have the secret plans to get into Skywalker Ranch. Along the way Zoe and the boys also cross paths with Shatner (as himself), Fisher, Billy Dee Williams (as a judge with an inside-joke name) and Clerks characters Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith). Co-screenwriters Ernest Cline and Adam F. Goldberg do a great job of blending outrageous humor with tongue-in-cheek and witty humor from the very first scene until the last, although there are a few scenes that tend to fall flat with recycled and forced humor. In one particularly outrageously funny scene, the guys accidentally end up in gay bar and strip in front of patrons. There’s no denying that avid fans of Star Wars will get a kick out of hearing all of the in-jokes about Star Wars and seeing certain special cameos, none of which will be spoiled here. If you’ve ever wondered what happens when a Star Wars aficionado confronts a Trekkie to compare Star Wars to Star Trek, now’s your chance. Essentially, Fanboys feels like a tamer version of Sex Drive. The actors seem to be having a great time in their roles, so their comic energy and enthusiasm often radiates from the screen. It manages to be an outrageously zany, razor sharp comedy and a must-see for Star Wars fans young and old. If you're among those Star Wars fans, then let the LAUGHTER be with you! A hilarious 4 on my "Go See"scale.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

This is how it should be done!

Against the advice of locals and police, Clay (Jared Padalecki) scours the eerie woods surrounding Crystal Lake for his missing sister. But the rotting cabins of an abandoned summer camp are not the only things he finds. Hockey-masked killer Jason Voorhees lies in wait for a chance to use his razor-sharp machete on Clay and the group of college students who have come to the forest to party.

Chi chi chi chi.. Ha ha ha ha.. Repeat these words in a whisper around any horror film fan and they will instantly recognize the “sound” of Friday the 13th. The first film in the series was released in 1980 and featured an unknown Kevin Bacon. In spite of a run of 10 successful sequels the powers that be at Paramount have decided to go back in time and introduce a whole new generation to the world of Jason Voorhees. After a brief prologue which fills the audience in on the legend of Jason (a young boy drowns at summer camp. His mother blames the oversexed counselors for not paying attention and goes on a killing spree only to be beheaded by the last surviving counselor) the words “20 years later” hit the screen and we are introduced to five happy go lucky campers who head to the old Camp Crystal Lake grounds in search of good times and an apparently unlimited supply of marijuana, which grows wild in the woods. Faster than you can say “hold on, let me get my pants off” they are dispatched by the hulking Jason in very creative ways. Clay Miller (Padalecki) is a man on a mission. It’s been more than a month (actually six weeks, as the onscreen credit tells us) since his sister Whitney (Amanda Righetti) and her friends disappeared while camping near Crystal Lake. Unhappy with the job the local police is doing, he is traveling the area on his motorcycle putting up “missing person” notices. At the local convenient store he comes across another group of happy go lucky kids up for a visit. He earns the sympathy of Jenna (Panabaker) who takes a flier and agrees to keep her eyes open. As Clay heads to the next telephone pole to staple a flier the kids head off to their cabin for a weekend of fun. Chi chi chi chi. Ha ha ha ha. I can still remember seeing the original “Friday the 13th.” An above average horror film that set the standard for gore in a mainstream movie thanks to the genius of makeup master Tom Savini. Kevin Bacon with an arrow through his neck. Betsy Palmer’s head rolling on the ground. Pretty tame stuff now in the world of “Hostel” and “Saw,” but 30 years ago it was horrific and terrifying. As the series progressed it followed the same formula of irresponsible kids meeting up with the hockey mask wearing Jason who, despite the fact that he “died” in 1958, moved around pretty well. The new film does a fine job of capturing the terror of the original while distancing itself just enough to stand alone. Director Nispel does a fine job setting up his victims as well as the audience. Rather than use the standard camera angles (character slowly turns into the shot to reveal hulking monster behind him) he paces the scares, keeping the audience alert and on their toes. The cast, as in many films of this genre, is attractive and fun loving. Padalecki does get the chance to show some emotional range and Aaron Yoo mines some genuine laughs as the chronically pot smoking Chewie. Kudos also to Mears, who follows in the footsteps of the great Kane Hodder. Mears, though silent throughout, manages to convey the inner workings of Jason without a single word being uttered. Good job. The special effects are quite good and fairly imaginative, though really there are probably only a few ways to impale a head on something. I was thoroughly pleased. The best horror movie so far this year. A murderous 4 on my "Go See" scale.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The International Bore

In the thriller, The International, Interpol Agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) and Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts) are determined to bring to justice one of the world’s most powerful banks. Uncovering myriad and reprehensible illegal activities, Salinger and Whitman follow the money from Berlin to Milan to New York to Istanbul. Finding themselves in a high-stakes chase across the globe, their relentless tenacity puts their own lives at risk as their targets will stop at nothing – even murder – to continue financing terror and war.

The International scampers all over the place, but it's alternately frantic and a little slack, with a hole in the middle where some interesting characters ought to be. Screenwriter Eric Warren Singer based his script on the Bank of Credit and Commercial Intl., a Pakistan-born institution that specialized in money laundering, arms dealing and financing rebel armies, mercenaries and terrorists from the 1970s until its demise in 1991. The fictional bank in question here, the IBBC, has a formidable, ultra-sleek HQ in Luxembourg and seems to function equally as an assassination bureau and a broker for weapons sales among unsavory parties. Having witnessed a colleague drop dead in Berlin after nearly uncorking a deal for a sophisticated missile guidance system between the Chinese and some undesirables, it falls to sweaty, grubby, pushy Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Owen), formerly of Scotland Yard, to finger the bad boys, who are all well-groomed, overly serious Euros expert at hard stares and putting on airs of steely superiority. For reasons glided over too quickly to sink in, Salinger is paired with New York Assistant District Attorney Eleanor Whitman (Watts) to pursue their suspicions. European officials suddenly become extremely uncooperative when they find out who the pair is investigating, even after another high-profile murder and a political assassination in Milan bear the IBBC signature. Nearly an hour in, the action shifts to New York City for the sole purpose of staging the film's major violent setpiece on the curving ramps of the Guggenheim Museum. After a wildly coincidental chance sighting of the assassin, cutely known only as the Consultant (Brian F. O'Byrne), Frank Lloyd Wright's Upper East Side masterpiece is turned into a war zone as it gets shot to pieces by philistines wielding very heavy artillery. Taking performance art to new levels of mayhem, Tykwer moves his shooters amid ever-changing wall video installations as they maneuver up, down and around the gallery. As orchestrated chaos ensues for 14 minutes, you mostly wonder how the sequence was filmed, if a combination of the real place and sets was used and why the Guggenheim would have allowed it. The answer is that, except for some establishing shots, the sequence was entirely staged on a massive, utterly credible re-creation in an old railway roundhouse in Berlin. Salinger's spirited tag-along crimefighter Whitman is one of the few roles to which Watts hasn't been able to bring anything special, because there's nothing remotely suggested about her inner-life or past. By contrast, Armin Mueller-Stahl's titan of corruption at the center of IBBC has been loaded with a ripe former career to help explain his malfeasance, just the latest example of how much more interesting it can be to play complicated bad guys rather than one-dimensional good ones. Scripter Singer latched onto a good subject for a thriller but paid more attention to connecting the dramatic dots than to delving beneath the surface of international business or personality. Dialogue is generally mundane with functional intent. What is puzzling about The International is the way it frequently switches between being US studio-smooth and Euro-pudding awkward. It takes the trouble to set up a Silvio Berlusconi-like character with a party called Futuro Italia (in the same way as its evil arms-dealing bank is a BCCI-alike called The International Bank of Business and Credit) and swishes between Luxembourg, Berlin, New York, Istanbul, Lake Garda and Milan, but the sound quality is often 80s-murky. And the dialogue itself seems to come from Karate Kid: "Sometimes," Owen's Interpol detective tells Stasi-chief-turned-banker Armin Mueller-Stahl, "a man meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it." So enamoured is Tykwer/writer Eric Warren Singer of this line, they have Mueller-Stahl repeat it back to him later. The proceedings kick off in Berlin's newly-built Hauptbanhof train station where Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Owen) has been working in an elaborate international operation with Manhattan DA Eleanor Whitman (Watts) on one of Luxembourg-based IBBC's senior officers to turn state witness. It all goes quickly awry, however, and Salinger and Whitman must now work to unravel IBBC's murderous and all-powerful network together, an obsession which has predictably destroyed Salinger's life and almost ruined his career. The International is certainly ambitious, with Tykwer introducing multiple characters, plot strands and locations on the way to a zinging shoot-out in the Guggenheim Museum. This sequence isn't exactly logically played out but it does give The International the shot in the arm it so badly needs at this point before descending again into hammy dialogue and lovely-looking locales. It's always a pleasure to see Armin Mueller-Stahl, but at this point he practically has "monster" tattooed on his forehead when it comes to English-language productions, and the denouement (again, shot in Istanbul) never seems less than inevitable. Owen's out-of-shape Interpol agent frankly doesn't seem bright enough to keep up with the international network of evil that is IBBC; his facial expression runs from puzzled to baffled to exhausted as he puffs down a Manhattan street. But it's not easy to say "sometimes bridges are better off being burnt" with a straight face. Twkyer may well find he's set a few alight here. Too bad that this wasn't as good as it could've been. A saddened 2 on my "Go See" scale.

Friday, February 6, 2009

I Should've Been Pushed Away From This Movie

Push burrows deep into the deadly world of psychic espionage where artificially enhanced paranormal operatives have the ability to move objects with their minds, see the future, create new realities and kill without ever touching their victims. Against this setting, a young man and a teenage girl take on a clandestine agency in a race against time that will determine the future of civilization.

Push should be pulled from theaters. One long mistake from start to finish, this is a film that never gets its rhythms or bearing right. It always feels off, from the often clumsy performances to its by-the-numbers plot revelations to the big action scenes that are completely devoid of thrills.  The film's one great distinction is that it stars Dakota Fanning, and she is absolutely terrible. Fanning, veteran of more than 25 films at the ripe old age of 13, has never managed to even be mildly irritating in a role, much less actively bad. In this way, Push accomplishes the heretofore impossible. Watch her play drunk. Watch her play tough. Watch her tromp around in absurd punk boots. Wait a minute -- don't actually watch any of it. It's too embarrassing. Fanning plays Cassie, a psychic, one of many-many-many people here on Earth with paranormal gifts. She teams up with Nick (Chris Evans), who can move things with his mind, to rescue Kira (Camilla Belle), who has the ability to insert thoughts and beliefs in other minds. Somehow saving Kira is going to free all the imprisoned paranormal folks our government has in a hidden cage somewhere. Because Kira has been shot full of an experimental super-drug which ups her powers. Dastardly government bad guys -- does the government ever have good guys in movies anymore? -- are of course hunting Kira, and Cassie and Nick, and they've got superpowers of their own. For reasons that are never explained but likely have to do with tax incentives, all this takes place in Hong Kong. Which doesn't help it make sense but does keep things colorful. "Movers" can fling things around just by thinking it; "Watchers" can see the future; "Pushers" put ideas into people's heads, etc. Apparently, nations across the globe have been trying to create a race of super-psychics since the 1940s, except that every attempt ends in death. Before countless rooms and buildings are smashed, Chris and Cassie meet characters who can heal wounds, track suspects by following their scent or burst people's blood vessels by screaming really loud. That last one is especially relevant, as director Paul McDuigan amps up the visuals with a hyper-annoying mind's-eye effect, though there are a few kicky fight sequences involving flying objects and hurtling bodies (guns floating through the air, alas, look as silly as they ever did). More frequently, however, there's a lot of psych-speak, clunky backstory about a mysterious briefcase and Evans' rehearsed nonchalance. Maggie Siff has an eye-catching cameo as a healing femme fatale, and Hounsou glowers convincingly, but Belle is somehow even worse than she was in "10,000 B.C.." Watching Push, the viewer is free to get caught up in the exotic surroundings; Hong Kong is shot from all angles as a gritty, exuberant world unto itself. Growing to care about the human element is a tougher sell, not because the characters aren't worthy or likable, but because there is little payoff to them or their relationships. Instead of spinning a tale with a beginning, a middle, and an end, director Paul McGuigan is distracted with the possibility of having a franchise on his hands. Thus, as a whole, Push feels unfinished, its ultimate destination accounting for nothing more than a shrug. There is a fair amount to like here, and just as much to resent for how much better it could have been. A saddened 2 on my "Go See" Scale. This could've/should've been so much better.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

....If He's Not Calling You...

A group of interconnected, Baltimore-based twenty- and thirtysomethings navigate their various relationships from the shallow end of the dating pool through the deep, murky waters of married life, trying to read the signs of the opposite sex--and hoping to be the exceptions to the "no-exceptions" rule. Gigi (Ginnifer Goodwin) just wants a man who says he'll call--and does--while Alex (Justin Long) advises her to stop sitting by the phone. Beth (Jennifer Aniston) wonders if she should call it off after years of committed singlehood with her boyfriend, Neil (Ben Affleck), but he doesn't think there's a single thing wrong with their unmarried life. Janine's (Jennifer Connelly) not sure if she can trust her husband, Ben (Bradley Cooper), who can't quite trust himself around Anna (Scarlett Johansson). Anna can't decide between the sexy married guy, or her straightforward, no-sparks standby, Conor (Kevin Connolly), who can't get over the fact that he can't have her. And Mary (Drew Barrymore), who's found an entire network of loving, supportive men, just needs to find one who's straight.

Based on the wildly popular bestseller from Sex and the City scribes Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo, He's Just Not That Into You tells the stories of a group of interconnected, Baltimore-based twenty- and thirtysomethings as they navigate their various relationships from the shallow end of the dating pool through the deep, murky waters of married life, trying to read the signs of the opposite sex... and hoping to be the exceptions to the "no-exceptions" rule. If you've ever sat by the phone wondering why he said he would call, but didn't, or if you can't figure out why she doesn't want to sleep with you anymore, or why your relationship just isn't going to the next level... he (or she) is just not that into you. When Gigi (Goodwin) -- who might as well have "desperately needy" tattooed to her forehead -- doesn't get a call back from Conor (Connolly) in the requisite 20 minutes after their date has ended, she has to go into counseling with her friends/co-workers, Beth (Aniston) and Janine (Connelly), and eventually with Alex (Long), the bartender in the joint where Gigi goes to stalk Conor. While Gigi's friends talk her off the figurative ledge, it's Alex who lets her in on a few things, such as how to tell if a guy is never going to call, even though Gigi has a hard time getting any of this through her pretty little romance-ladden skull. It's all a matter of expectations, and perhaps fear of fulfillment: Mary (Barrymore), for instance, is the ad manager for a gay Baltimore magazine whose guy-pals help her through one love trauma after another, most of them virtual. She's got unanswered emails and voicemails and MySpace and Facebook friends, but love is elusive. And so is Mary, if you count face-to-face encounters. There's far more insight into the female characters, but they, too, are full of foibles. Gigi doesn't know when to back off. Neither does Janine, whose marriage to Ben (Cooper) seems OK at first, although she's a freak about his smoking -- which upsets her even more than what transpires between Ben and an overripe tartlet named Anna (Johansson), a would-be singer who's also been leading Conor (remember Conor?) around by the nose. Beth, meanwhile, learns that her sister is getting married, which throws her seven-year relationship with Neil (Affleck) into disequilibrium: Is he ever going to marry her? No. So she leaves him. And another planet spins out of control. Despite its layer of darkness (Connelly gives a really rich performance as a woman whose principles back her into a corner), "He's Just Not That Into You" is a fantasy. No one has a problem except romance. Neil sails a yacht. Ben and Janine are giving their Baltimore apartment an overhaul that would embarrass Architectural Digest. Perhaps that's the point. yesIt isn't quite an ensemble piece; it feels as though Goodwin and Long are the frontmen; Aniston, Connelly, Cooper and Connolly are the backup band; and Barrymore and Affleck are the chick singers. Johansson, as usual, is in her own movie. But the pic may also be the first contemporary escapist comedy that feels fully aware of its place in the economic vortex. The lushness, the leisure, the vicarious wealth are all balms to soothe our savaged selves as we look away from the news and onto the screen. Given the state of things, such a movie almost seems like an act of charity toward the public. It's not screwball comedy, but the underlying sentiments are the same. This one gets a 3 on my "Go See" scale. It's not great, but it's good enough. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Taken by surprise

Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) has only recently given up his government career as what he calls, a "preventer" to be near his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace), who lives with Bryan's ex-wife Lenore (Famke Jenssen) and her new husband. To make ends meet, Bryan joins some former colleagues for special security details (like guarding a pop diva), but most of his time and energy are spent re-connecting with Kim. But, when Kim requests his permission to spend time in Paris with her friend Amanda (Katie Cassidy), he reluctantly consents. Bryan's worst fears are realized when Kim and her friend Amanda are suddenly abducted - in broad daylight - from the Paris apartment at which they've just arrived. Moments before Kim is dragged away by the as yet unseen and unknown assailants, she manages to phone Bryan, who begins to expertly piece together clues that will take him to the darkness of Paris's underworld, and to the City of Light's plushest mansions.

Taken suggests we should never underestimate what a father would do when his daughter is in peril -- especially when that father is a retired government black-ops CIA agent who knows he has only 96 hours before his recently kidnapped daughter will disappear into the sleazy Parisian underworld, a slave to the thriving sex trade. Throw in the fact that this highly efficient operative is played by Liam Neeson, an actor we’ve always considered in a class above the Hollywood action stars typically featured in genre pictures like this one, and Taken ends up being a highly entertaining action piece. The film opens as we meet Bryan Mills (Neeson) who recently retired from his super-spy government job and now occasionally moonlights as security detail for various events, the most recent of which finds him in charge of a threatened pop diva (Holly Valance). A bit melancholy but not yet ready to dedicate himself to building birdhouses for the rest of his life, he’s just plodding through the days pondering what could have been. Seems his devotion to a career that found him on covert assignments all over the globe not only cost him his wife (Janssen), but also robbed him of a relationship with his teen-aged daughter Kim (Grace), for which he hopes to atone by reentering her life. The worst fears of a father who has seen the world’s dangers first hand come true when Kim and her friend Amanda (Cassidy) are almost immediately kidnapped from their hotel room upon arriving in Paris. Knowing the police will offer very little hope for finding the missing girls, Mills jumps into action mode and learns that an Albanian prostitution ring is at the center of the tragedy. He also learns that 3 or 4 days is about all the time he has before they’re gone forever. Things get fun for the audience when Neeson quickly morphs from sappy father figure to no-nonsense killing machine. His list of worldly skills get put to good use when he coolly and calmly tells the kidnappers, via Kim’s stolen cell phone, “I will look for you, I will find you. And I will kill you.” Despite his cuddly father-figure looks and almost sheepish demeanor, we believe him. But apparently the Albanians don’t. Where Neeson excels -- and what really makes the whole movie work for that matter -- involves how seamlessly he handles both ends of the action hero spectrum needed here. It’s important that we’re drawn into his character by the gravity and complexity he lends to the role. We must understand what drives him and care about his plight. But on the other hand, he must also convincingly deliver on the martial arts sequences. It works… and we’re convinced. Once the action movies to France, the film’s frenetic pace keeps us from thinking too much about what’s believable and what isn’t. Language barriers only become an issue when important to getting out of a corner, and the baddies must be using bulletless machine guns. But Taken is a great ride for action junkies and those who like to see the enemy get the raw end of a deal. It would have been nice to see what the filmmakers could have done with an “R” rating, but even so, for a “PG-13” feature, brutal savagery and guiltless violence are on high display, even though blood, guts, gore and sex aren’t. This movie will get the blood pumping for any action movie fan. I really enjoyed this movie. Definitely a must see. A hardcore 4 on my "Go See" scale.