Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Conned Into Seeing Duplicity


In Duplicity, CIA officer Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts) and MI6 agent Ray Koval (Clive Owen) have left the world of government intelligence to cash in on the highly profitable cold war raging between two rival multinational corporations. Their mission? Secure the formula for a product that will bring a fortune to the company that patents it first. For their employers—industry titan Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson) and buccaneer CEO Dick Garsik (Paul Giamatti)— nothing is out of bounds. But as the stakes rise, the mystery deepens and the tactics get dirtier, the trickiest secret for Claire and Ray is their growing attraction. And as they each try to stay one double-cross ahead, two career loners find their schemes endangered by the only thing they can’t cheat their way out of: love.

I remember when movies once had a beginning, middle and an end, all in chronological order. What happened to those days? Why, as in Tony Gilroy’s Duplicity, must audiences today carry a pad and pencil to keep track of the excessive jumps of years to catalog who did what to whom - in order to determine what they’re doing to each other today? Give me a break! Most moviegoers don’t go to the movies to work; they want to be entertained. Presumably some directors think you can cast big stars such as Clive Owen and Julia Roberts who will make all that work pay off. As charming as Roberts’ affable laugh is or how charismatic we find the talented and good-looking Owen, these traits do little to further a story if it’s inconceivable or muddled. In Duplicity, Owen plays Ray Koval, an ex-MI-5 operative. He finds his assignments intermingled with those of ex-CIA operative, Claire Stenwick (Roberts). They have several liaisons in luxurious hotels all over the world while seemingly working together one time and scamming each other at another. The idea of savvy agents playing each other, I feel, could’ve made an intriguing film had Gilroy not spent so much time with the flashback jumps, leaving the audience to make sense of the story. After the third one, I was exasperated. I don’t care if the scenery location is Dubai, London or Rome. A great story can unfold in a soup kitchen. In TV interviews before the movie opened, the stars played up the idea about Duplicity being more a war-of-words type movie than an agent-action film and it failed. Roberts and Owen throw out snippets of conversation that feel like lines they must then make fit into the story. Neither seems believable as the characters they portray. I would love to see Roberts tackle something like Erin Brockovich again. Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti are wasted in pitiful roles of rival CEOs whose opening scene resembles something one might see in a Marx Brothers comedy -- and one presenting even more work to figure out how it fits into the plot of the movie, which boils down to everyone stewing over a new product that will change the world. It’s up to the audience to decipher the play between the sheets as real or pretend here. Those who like working a Rubik’s Cube might find it appealing. Yet with a lack of charisma, sexual chemistry (which never evolves because the characters are rarely together) or sizzle, Duplicity left me sadly disappointed. A saddened 2 on my "Go See" scale. 

Friday, March 27, 2009

Let Me Off Of This Bus. I'd Rather Kill Myself!

When Jules (Cameron Goodman) and Mel (Peyton List) return from a girls’ weekend vacation, they find themselves stranded at the airport, late on a rain-drenched night. Wanting just to get home safe and sound, they board an airport shuttle with a helpful, friendly driver (Tony Curran) for the short trip... that turns out to be anything but safe. With Shuttle,  comes a terrifying thriller about a night that starts like any other, and a ride home that descends into darkness. 

Next time, spring for a cab. Sadly, there may not be a next time for two young women and three men whose ride home on an L.A. airport shuttle (blue, but definitely not Super) goes hellishly awry. Lifelong friends Mel (List) and Jules (Goodman) and two horny guys they met in baggage claim (James Snyder and Dave Power) jump aboard a discount shuttle along with a mousy businessman (Cullen Douglas). Soon, the driver (Curran) pulls a gun, straps everyone in with seat belts that can’t be unfastened, and heads for an industrial part of town where there’s nary a car or cop in sight. First-time writer-director Edward Anderson piles on the plot twists, some of them clever and surprising, though there isn’t much joy in the telling. The interior of the shuttle is sometimes too dark to make out the action, and the film runs long. Still, the well-acted third act is effectively intense, if maddeningly illogical. But hey, we don’t go to these movies for logic, do we? About an hour into Shuttle, there is a moment of real suspense as we wait for Mel to whack her abductor in the head with a tire iron. Up to this point, she and her best friend, Jules, along with three other passengers, have been fairly passive in the hands of the maniac at the wheel of the airport shuttle van. Although they know this is a one-way trip to the grave, nobody has taken intelligent advantage of the escape opportunities. And neither, in this case, does Mel, who lacks the homicidal panache to finish off the driver when she has a chance. Writer-director Edward Anderson begins his competent but bland horror thriller with a lengthy scene at the airport that establishes Mel as the good girl and Jules as her morally compromised friend. By the time they board the van, Anderson has wasted a good 10 minutes of screen time letting us know that Mel, who has broken with her fiance, suffers from motion sickness, and Jules is prone to flirtations with strangers. Any hope this will be a normal shuttle ride home ends when the driver exits the freeway to detour through a rundown neighborhood. Then one of the passengers loses his fingers while helping the driver change a flat tire. Soon that passenger and the other young male on board have been killed, leaving the girls with the driver and an older man we suspect is an accomplice. For a story with such a limited scope, the script requires cleverness and imagination. Anderson supplies neither. Instead of suspense, we get frustration at the stupidity of the characters. Also, for a movie primarily set in the interior of a van, Shuttle is not nearly as claustrophobic as it should be. It has become the habit of horror films to cap off an hour of bloody chases with an excruciating reel in which the survivor is taken to a grimy dungeon and explicitly tortured to death. So when the driver takes Jules and his drill into a room to remove her tattoos, we expect the worst. In light of why he kidnaps them, which is part of the big reveal, it makes no sense that he would allow himself to be so badly outnumbered by the passengers, given that he also has to, you know, drive the car. There are so many opportunities for List, Goodman, and the others to turn the tables that an audience could scream itself hoarse advising them. Shuttle improves slightly when Curran’s reasons are finally clarified, and the friendship between the two women proves to be thornier than it initially appeared. Until then, it’s just an ugly thrill machine—poorly acted, absent of psychology, and not nearly as taut and exciting as it needs to be. When the payoff finally arrives, it seems tasteless not just because of its topicality, but because the shock feels unearned. This gets a 2 on my "Go See" scale. Don't even bother trying to go see it actually. It won't be around for long.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

This House Is Haunted!

Based on a chilling true story, The Haunting In Connecticut charts one family's terrifying, real-life encounter with the dark forces of the supernatural. When the Campbell family moves to upstate Connecticut, they soon learn that their charming Victorian home has a disturbing history: not only was the house a transformed funeral parlor where inconceivable acts occurred, but the owner's clairvoyant son Jonah served as a demonic messenger, providing a gateway for spiritual entities to crossover. Now unspeakable terror awaits, when Jonah, the boy who communicated with the powerful dark forces of the supernatural, returns to unleash a new kind of horror on the innocent and unsuspecting family.


Although the film never directly credits it, the real story of the Snedeker family—as chronicled in the book In A Dark Place by Ray Garton—serves as the basis for this tale about the Campbell’s, a family forced to take up residence in an old funeral parlor in order to stay closer to their son’s doctors. Teenager Matt (Kyle Gallner) is stricken with cancer and is undergoing a radical radiation therapy in an attempt to prolong his life. His mother Sara (Virginia Madsen) chooses the home despite some initial apprehension and his reformed alcoholic father’s (Martin Donovan) protests. Almost immediately strange occurrences begin around the house and bumps and thumps and shadowy figures lurk about in the dead of night. It doesn’t take Matt long to uncover the horrifying acts that have occurred behind the walls of this home. The question is, will he have the strength or the time to save his family from this unspeakable evil. Even as Cornwell’s film borrows—sometimes heavy-handedly—from many of the previously noted master cinematic ghost stories, the film still feels immediate and satisfying. Menacing, even with its PG-13 rating, Cornwell could have taken easy roads out—and the film does suffer some from an overloud score punctuating the jump scares it dishes out with a bit too much abandon. Still, instead the filmmaker crafts an interesting story with just the right amount of ookie and spooky. The house feels threatening in and of itself, and even if mortician tools laying to waste in a damp dark basement for the past 70 years look a little too shiny and new to be originals, the effect of the location and mood is still chilling. The film has a few problems including a fairly broad cast, including Matt’s female cousin Wendy (Amanda Crew) and two additional siblings that really lend no absolute necessity to the story. One kid could have sufficed to serve the storytelling needs and with two more characters running around, it just feels like the whole family is a tad underdeveloped. The film relies too much on those jump scares I mentioned earlier and the score is fine in its quieter moments but, its bombastic senses in the films key action sequences are almost mind meltingly brash. The final element of the story that leaves me a bit cold is the character of Reverend Popescu (Elias Koteas) who is nearly as expendable as Martin Donovan’s portrayal of the father. Both men suffer the same fate, they exist only to espouse plot device. In the case of the father the character adds fuel to the conflict fire. It’s unnecessary, but forgivable to an extent. Koteas’ character—a Revered who is also dying of cancer—is the worst cinematic offender. He exists only to provide a background story that could have been easily explained away in less obvious fashion. Popescu is a cheap crutch to help the audience and the characters connect the dots. It’s lazy storytelling in many ways and could have been another nail in the coffin of this film. You wouldn’t need a team of paranormal investigators to point out all of the obvious references that director Peter Cornwell and writers Tim Metcalf and Adam Simon trot out in their feature film. Collective moments and vibes lifted from films such as In the Mouth of Madness, Psycho, Poltergeist, Stir of Echoes and quite a few others are widely displayed. Still, despite the laundry list of influences featured in this “true” story, The Haunting in Connecticut might just turn out to be one of the better ghost stories of the year. Still, despite the many pitfalls that the filmmakers stepped in, The Haunting in Connecticut still comes off as a totally serviceable horror film. One that is deeply mired in traditions and struggling to find a distinct voice, but nonetheless an enjoyable way to kill a Friday night. This gets a chilling 4 on my "Go See" scale.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Monsters Aren't So Bad

Monsters vs. Aliens has been digitally re-mastered into the unparalleled image and sound quality of The IMAX Experience® with IMAX DMR® technology for a truly immersive 3D experience. When California girl Susan Murphy is unexpectedly clobbered by a meteor full of outer space gunk, she mysteriously grows to 49-feet-11-inches tall and is instantly labeled as a “monster” named Ginormica. The military jumps into action, and she is captured and held in a secret government compound. The world learns that the military has been quietly rounding up other monsters over the years. Their confinement time is cut short, however, when a mysterious alien robot lands on Earth and begins storming the country. As a last resort, under the guidance of General W.R. Monger (voiced by Kiefer Sutherland) the motley crew of monsters is called into action to combat the aliens and save the world from imminent destruction.

The cute ad campaign for Monsters vs. Aliens does a grave service to the gleeful little movie behind it. It quickly moves beyond smart aleck-y quips and crude fart jokes into the sort of iconoclasm which characterized the Shrek films at their best--aided by a deep and abiding affection for classic 50s sci-fi that reverberates from every frame. It also contains a (very big) surprise: a female hero, the sort which hardly ever appears in movies like this. The filmmakers do her further justice by removing much of the tiresome "get a boyfriend to be happy" baggage typically carried by figures now seen in this day and age. Not that she'd have any trouble carrying it. She's 50 feet tall after all (and you REALLY gaet that feeling on the IMAX screen). There was this problem with a radioactive meteor, you see: it slammed into her on her wedding day and her groom-to-be kind of freaked out when she grew big enough to slam through the roof of the church. The government abducted her quickly thereafter, transporting her to a super-secret facility where they keep all of the Horrible Things That Should Not Be. The former Susan Murphy (voiced by Reese Witherspoon) is redubbed Ginormica--the name "people scream when they see you coming"--and introduced to a passel of colleagues: dessert topping run amok B.O.B. (voiced by Seth Rogen), the politely crazed Dr. Cockroach (voiced by Hugh Laurie), reptilian chick magnet Missing Link (voiced by Will Arnett) and the hideous but strangely cuddly Insectosaurus (voiced by Insectosaurus).  Ginormica adores her new buddies, but she'd much rather be "normal" and married to that sweet weatherman from Modesto like she planned. Of course, that's before the evil Gallaxhar (voiced by Rainn Wilson) and his army of Clones From Beyond The Stars touch down to wreak havoc, and the government springs its former monster charges in an effort to save the world. In the midst of it all, she learns that it's actually kind of cool to be 50 feet tall… much cooler than the Fresno anchorman gig her ex is coveting. Directors Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon spruce up their hero's journey with a lot of truly inspired humor. It helps audience members to be familiar with the monster movies it emulates, though not required; the nostalgia for such films comes across whether you've actually seen them or not. Monster vs. Aliens walks the fine line between adult sophistication and children's simplicity extremely well, aided by a boundless enthusiasm for its subject matter and unburdened by the fact that it apparently took a small army to write the damn thing. Indeed, for a screenwriting-by-committee project, it's surprisingly light on its feet, and while a certain smugness creeps into the corners from time to time, the very funny vocal cast staves that off admirably. Beyond the jokes themselves, Letterman and Conrad possess a singular asset that really helps Monsters vs. Aliens take off. Like Shrek, it understands what it is to be an outsider, delivered less in maudlin tones of woe but rather as a celebration of freaky individuality. Its heroes aren't just punchlines and funny visuals: we connect with them all, especially Susan who makes a winning and sympathetic protagonist. The film treats her no differently than it would a male protagonist in similar circumstances--quietly stressing how rare that assumption still is, which helps further remove it from business-as-usual family entertainment. To be sure, it remains family entertainment nonetheless, emphasizing a good time above all else and perfectly happy to provide ninety minutes' worth of pleasant distraction. Yet it does so with such a twinkle in its eye--such obvious relish at coloring outside the lines, if only just---that it endears itself to us far more readily than many of its peers. The fun is infectious and has a sense of the genuine to back it up: the feeling that its creators aren't just aping what they think the public wants. If they believe, then we believe, a fact which Monsters vs. Aliens rides quite handily across the finish line. Most adults assume that animated films are strictly for kids. But they’re only half-right. The best animated movies these days – as is true, really, of the best animation since the beginning of the form – is pitched as much at adults as it is at kids. Perhaps it’s that animators recognize that adults will be sitting through these films with their kids, so they want to make the experience less painful. Or maybe it’s just that, given how long it takes to craft an animated feature, the animators need to keep themselves amused while they’re working. Whatever. The point is you don’t need a child as an excuse to take yourself to see Monsters vs. Aliens, a delightfully goofy sci-fi spoof with a strong voice cast and a consistently witty script. On the other hand, the increasingly popular notion that 3D is the wave of the future baffles me. Here’s why: the glasses. Anytime you need special equipment to watch a movie, it becomes a gimmick. And gimmicks are inherently transient, impermanent. Until they can figure out a way to do 3D without forcing the audience to don eyewear, it will always just be an option – not a requirement. The best movies pull you so far into them that they might as well be in 3D, anyway. Which is another way of saying that you don’t need to see Monsters vs. Aliens in 3D to enjoy it. Take the kids – and stick around yourself. A joyous 4 on my "Go See" scale. 

Tell Your Best Bro How Much You Love Him

As his wedding day approaches, Peter Klaven (Paul Rudd) realizes he has no one to act as his best man. Through a series of ''man-dates,'' he finds Sydney Fife (Jason Segel), and the pair become instant friends. But as Peter's ''bro-mance'' with Sydney grows stronger, it threatens his relationship with his fiancee (Rashida Jones), forcing Peter to make a choice inI Love You, Man.

After Peter Klaven's (Rudd) proposed to Zooey (Jones), the girl of his dreams, the friends and family circle around them begin to notice that Peter doesn't really have any male friends. Even gay younger brother Robby (Andy Samberg) attracts more straight men, including dad (J.K. Simmons), than Pete does. Determined to fit into the macho model, Peter tries to find someone to hang with that might be best man material and finds a pal beyond his wildest dreams at one of his own open houses. Before too long, Peter will be able to confess to Sydney Fife (Segel) I Love You, Man. Cowriter (with Larry Levin)/ director John Hamburg ("Along Came Polly") flips the typical romantic comedy on its head for this cute bromance that showcases Rudd's comedic talents. Acting as the 'girl' character, Rudd does a balancing act between effeminate and nerdy that perfectly captures Peter's comfort with women and awkwardness around manly men (that his hair is cut every so slightly too short around his ears helps the illusion). As his new best bud, Jason Segel is a lot more laid back than in his own "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," and, thankfully, keeps his pants on. I Love You, Man is the buddy movie equivalent of a chick flick. Pete's the only one horrified at the breakfast table when his dad throws around some blunt sex talk and he is thoroughly grossed out when his high profile realtor cube neighbor Tevin (Rob Huebel) emails over a raunchy sex video, yet he's in his element preparing hot chocolate with pirouette biscuit straws when Zooey hosts girls' night. That's when he overhears cautions from Zooey's friends Denise (Jaime Pressly) and Hailey (Sarah Burns) that the traits that seem endearing now will seem clingy once married. Peter enlists help from his gym instructor brother and even mom (Jane Curtin) to go out on some man dates, but they prove problematic to say the least. An attempt to buddy up to Denise's husband (Jon Favreau) finds him alienated after cluelessly winning a high stakes poker pot, then projectile vomiting on his host after winning a beer chugging contest. After exchanging business cards with Sydney (note the female preference for name spelling here), Peter calls and leaves one of cinema's funnier voicemails suggesting a get together. Sydney bites, suggesting a beach bar, followed by the 'world's best fish tacos.' Zooey is perplexedly pleased when Pete shows up late and drunk. Pete soon finds himself a regular in Sydney's 'man cave,' complete with jerkoff station and band gear for jamming, but after some male heart-to-hearts cause pre-marital distress, the friendship's broken to save the nuptials. Segel makes a great straight man for Rudd, whose banter ('Totally, totes me goats') and nicknaming attempts (he's dubbed Pistol Pete) are nonsensical as whose every impression, be it Jamaican accent or tough guy movie star, comes out in Leprechaunese. Segel is like that perfect guy whom we're made to doubt (a slightly embarrassing toast at an engagement party, a request for a hefty loan) by a script that doesn't abuse romantic comedy convention while hitting all its touchstones. Segel's big-boned sprawl and ill-at-ease acquiescence to female rite (watch his procession down a wedding aisle) are the physical comedy opposites of what Rudd does. Rudd and Segel get fine support from the ever reliable Simmons, as well as Huebel as a glad-handing snake, Thomas Lennon as a man date expecting a real one and Lou Ferrigno as himself and one of Pete's clients. Favreau makes disdain amusing and Samberg flips the gay stereotype in a film about flipping the conventional. Female support is more of the window dressing variety - Jones repeats her 'Office' character of Karen while Pressly just classes up Earl's Joy. Curtain is forgettable, but Burns makes her needy singleton appropriately squirm inducing. I Love You, Man starts with a high concept that Rudd and Segel take to the finish line. This is a buddy movie that even women can enjoy, a surprisingly sweet take on male friendship that still has its testosterone intact. Hilarious beginning to end. I give this one a 4 on my "Go See" scale. Take your best bro and go on a man-date to see this movie. You may just come out saying, "I love you, man.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Brothers At War Is A Realistic Look At Courage

Every time I go into a Documentary, I wonder if this is going to be THE one, the one I will walk away from and remember for a long time. "Brothers At War" is just that film. It is an intimate portrait of one American family during a turbulent time. Jake Rademacher sets out to understand the experience, sacrifice, and motivation of his two brothers Joe and Isaac serving in Iraq. The film follows Jake's exploits as he risks everything, including his life, to tell his brothers' story.

This saga of what one man will endure to show his love for his brothers is as amazing as watching your first child be born. This movie is often humorous, but sometimes it is downright lethal, Brothers At War is the story of one mans remarkable journey, when Jake embeds himself with four combat units in Iraq, we see the soldier's fears and we hear their stories. Many really do believe in the cause, some do it to ensure that their children or nieces and nephews will be able to grow up in a country where freedom is still worth having. Unprecedented access to US and Iraqi combat units take Jake behind the camouflage curtain with secret reconnaissance troops on the Syrian border, into sniper "hide sites" in the Sunni Triangle, and also through machine gun battles with the Iraqi Army.

Ultimately, the film follows his brothers home, where we witness first hand that the separations and life-threatening work, send ripples through the boys parents, siblings, wives, and children. When Jake gets home from his three week tour in Iraq, he doesn't feel any closer to his brother Joe, it's as if nothing has changed, Joe feels that what Jake has done is what needed to be done, but Joe says that three weeks isn't anything like his tour over there, this causes Jake to go back again, this time for several weeks.

BROTHERS AT WAR is a rare look at the bonds and service of our soldiers on the front lines and the profound effects their service has on the loved ones they leave behind. For anyone who has ever served this country, I can only say thank you. I have also served my country and Have been over there, when I was there in 1991 the brutality I saw was nothing compared to what is happening now. The soldiers today should be congratulated on their call to duty, their families should all be proud of their sons and daughters.

I give Brothers At War a 3 and on my avoidance scale a 0, this movie takes you places that you will never be, and never want to be, it takes a select kind of person to risk his life for others, for people he will never meet. The life of a soldier, any soldier is worth getting to know.

Brothers At War is rated R for Language and A Brief War Image
Running time is 1 hr. 50 mins.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Buck Howard Blew My Mind

Once upon a time, Buck Howard (John Malkovich) spent his days in the limelight. His mind-boggling feats as a mentalist extraordinaire – not to be confused with those of a mere magician - earned him a marquee act in Vegas and 61 appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. But nowadays, it’s clear to everyone but Buck that his act has lost its luster; he performs in faded community centers and hasn’t sold out a theater in years. Yet, with a hearty handshake and a trademark “I love this town!” Buck Howard perseveres, confident in his own celebrity, convinced his comeback is imminent. He just needs a new road manager and personal assistant. As it turns out, recent law school drop-out and unemployed, would-be writer Troy Gable (Colin Hanks) needs a job and a purpose in The Great Buck Howard.

No one does raging unlovability quite like John Malkovich, who’s a total gas when he drops the bombast that often bogs down his more serious roles. Not that Buck Howard, the once-great mentalist now playing to half-empty theaters in Hicksville, lacks for pathos — or for glory. His lounge act is excruciating, his standup terrible, but his one gift, locating his paycheck in the clothing of an audience member, has never let him down — until now, it goes without saying. Based on a magician known to writer-director Sean McGinly, this loudly dressed, insecure blowhard with a pumping handshake and severe anger-management problems may also be an ambivalent tribute to Jerry Lewis. Either way, Malkovich swallows up the screen, and when he’s out of frame, the movie feels slack and slow. Hobbled by lack of definition, Buck’s assistant and McGinly’s alter ego, Troy (Colin Hanks), a law school dropout with dreams of writing, comes across as pallid and passionless, while the talents of Emily Blunt as a go-getting publicist and Steve Zahn as a small-town fan go wretchedly to waste. Like so many cinematic young men before him, Troy (Hanks) has entered the world having no idea what to do with himself, and drops out of law school when he wakes up one day and decides he just can't do it anymore. He rather anachronistically goes to the classified ads to look for jobs, and finds himself at an interview with The Great Buck Howard, an illusionist who warmed Johnny Carson's couch back in the 70s, but is now limited to engagements at places like Cincinnati Town Auditorium. Full of catchphrases ("I love this town!" he pronounces at every show) and a foolproof routine, Buck is a larger-than-life presence who sweeps up Troy in his wake. Buck is a tyrant and a cheapskate, yes, but he becomes a kind of father figure to Troy while his own dad (Tom Hanks, naturally) disapproves of this new direction in his son's life. Things get complicated, and the movie finally takes a breath after an endless series of montages, when Buck settles in Cincinnati to pull a grand publicity stunt, performing an illusion that's never been done before. A comely PR rep (Emily Blunt) flies in from New York to help out, and when she and Troy begin a hotel room dalliance, it's only the beginning of the unforeseen troubles. Malkovich carries much of the movie's comedy with Buck's constant self-aggrandizing, but some help comes in from the sidelines from Steve Zahn and a kooky mustache, Debra Monk as an over-excited Cincinnati promoter, and even Adam Scott in a tiny role as Troy's predecessor. Near the end of the movie the celebrity cameos go a little out of control, for reasons I don't want to spoil, and Buck Howard goes from feeling like a shoestring indie to the Hollywood production it actually is. But for the most part the movie coasts remarkably well on charm, even during Troy's endless voiceovers that put much too fine a point on the generic coming-of-age themes of the movie. None of the ideas that Buck Howard is espousing are particularly original, but luckily Malkovich and the movie itself make sure you have a good time anyway. Slight but satisfying, The Great Buck Howard examines an over-the-hill performer with an objective eye that is borderline brutal. Yet this comedy softens the blow with laughs, heart and a lingering sense of mystery. This entertaing movie gets a 3 on my "Go See" scale.

Seeing Is Believing


The documentary film follows Jake Rademacher in his directorial debut as he sets out to understand the experience, sacrifice, and motivation of his two brothers serving in Iraq. Unprecedented access to US and Iraqi combat units take Jake behind the camouflage curtain with secret reconnaissance troops on the Syrian border, into sniper "hide sites" in the Sunni Triangle, through raging machine gun battles with the Iraqi Army in Brothers At War.


The Iraq war has a cameo in Brothers at War, a documentary shot mostly in combat zones with its scope trained squarely on its vain, loving, irritating, restless, impassioned, bonkers director Jake Rademacher, a civilian who rushes to the front lines to show his younger brothers (both soldiers) that he, too, can be in the thick of things. Yes, there are IEDs and bullets and bleeding Iraqis, but that's all secondary to Rademacher's "Wow, look at me in this flak jacket!" experience. His poor parents, with three sons to worry about now. But once you get past the premise, and Rademacher's bothersome screen presence, Brothers at War is actually a one-of-a-kind documentary, a chronicle not of war but of disconnect between brothers. It's a drama about sibling rivalry and reconciliation that just happens to be filmed under extremely dangerous circumstances. The Rademachers are a family of four boys and two girls raised in Decatur, Ill. Jake, the oldest, always wanted to be a soldier but didn't get in to West Point. He became an actor instead. Joe and Isaac both joined the Army, serving in the same unit, developing a strong bond with each other and the military. Intent on understanding his brothers and "the heart of the American soldier," Jake picks up a camera and jets to northern Iraq. It feels a little self-serving at first, like the only way the actor could get a film job was to make his own documentary with himself as the star. Jake rolls into Mosul and the first thing he says to Isaac is "I told you I'd [bleeping] make it," as if being in Iraq proves that he's as much of a "man" as his brothers. Jake suits up, puts on his prescription sunglasses, sweats through his shirts, hangs with the battalion and travels with a unit to the dusty, desolate Syrian border, where he sits, waits, watches and talks to soldiers about why they're there. The answer? Because they love their country, most say. One young soldier appears stumped by the question. Rather than delve into this uncertainty, into the "heart of the American soldier," Jake moves along in his own quest for his brothers' acceptance, preferring to paste his footage together with cloying music and wide shots of himself silhouetted on a dune, looking to the horizon, contemplating his experience. But when the camera is not on him, Brothers of War makes for a nice slice of life from two fronts: the war, and an American family that is responding to it in myriad, mysterious ways. After Jake returns home, Isaac and Joe still give off a vibe that seems to say, "You'll never understand what we go through." So Jake returns for a second tour of Iraq, this time to experience combat. Doubly bonkers, right? Or doubly brave? Probably both. Jake wanted to see the war, so he did. It's fascinating and frustrating, both his desperation to share in the experience and his brothers' implacability. There are much better Iraq documentaries than this one but Brothers at War does distinguish itself by peering out over the emotional chasm between soldiers and the families they come home to. That the film does not plunge into the chasm is mostly beside the point. Any cinematic perspective on the war adds something to the collective experience, even if that something is not nearly as moving, educational or revelatory as we'd like it to be. This gets a 3 on my "Go See" scale.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Knowing

Nicolas Cage stars as John Koestler in Knowing, a gripping action-thriller of global proportions about a professor who stumbles on terrifying predictions about the future—and sets out to prevent them from coming true.

That’s it. I am officially through with Nicolas Cage. I accepted his decision to make entertaining fluff like the “National Treasure” movies. I even tolerated that execrable “Wicker Man” remake because I thought his performance (along with the rest of the film) might have been a joke. With “Knowing” it has become clear that the movies themselves aren’t the joke. Cage’s career is. Instead of building on his 1995 Academy Award for “Leaving Las Vegas,” he has wasted most of his time giving bad performances in worse movies. With only a couple of minor exceptions, Cage’s post-Oscar output has been abysmal. Knowing takes this trend to its own special level. Directed by “Dark City’s” Alex Proyas (who has also seen better career days) this is a strange, scatterbrained hybrid of disaster movie and theologically minded science fiction. It’s like “The Happening” with math. 1958: As the dedication ceremony for a newly constructed elementary school gets underway, a time capsule containing student drawings of the future is buried on the grounds and scheduled to be unearthed on the school's fiftieth anniversary. Instead of submitting a drawing, however, one little girl (Lara Robinson) scribbles a series of seemingly random numbers on her paper before it is buried. Fifty years later, the time capsule is unearthed for a new generation of students to examine. Young Caleb Koestler (Chandler Canterbury) is one of those students. The mysterious sequence of numbers falling into his possession, Caleb takes the paper to his father, Professor John Koestler (Cage) for examination. Studying the numbers, Professor Koestler soon discovers that they aren't random at all, but an encoded message containing the precise dates, death tolls, and coordinates of every major disaster since the time capsule was buried. Not only that, but the document also indicates that there will be three more such events, the last of which indicates a doomsday scenario that appears directly tied to Professor Koestler and Caleb. His desperate plea to authorities falling on deaf ears, Professor Koestler realizes that his only hope for preventing more lives from being lost is to take personal action. Though the author of the prophecies is no longer living, Professor Koestler is eventually able to track down her daughter Diana Wayland (Rose Byrne), and granddaughter Abby (also Lara Robinson), who reluctantly agree to aid in the investigation. As the final date on the list draws near, Professor Koestler enters into a frantic race against time to prevent destruction on a global scale, in the process realizing that in order to save millions of lives, he may have to make the ultimate sacrifice. Knowing doesn't blend genres so much as partition them and present them separately, in an odd film that becomes less effective every time it shifts gears. The movie begins as a surprisingly good mystery with supernatural elements, devolves into an adventure that you wouldn't rush out to see but might stick with if you caught it while channel-surfing cable before finally giving up the ghost as a special-effects-laden sci-fi head-scratcher. It's a shame, really, as director Alex Proyas gets a better performance out of Nicolas Cage than we've seen in ages. But Knowing eventually collapses under the weight of its ever-changing story. Proyas and the four credited screenwriters take a potentially clever idea and run backward with it, filling the movie with clumsy plotting and laughably bad dialogue. The characters’ actions make no sense, leaving Cage and his co-stars to fill the void with amateurish overacting. Some creepy sequences involve pale figures who could have walked off the “Dark City” set. The disasters are intense and creatively staged, offering some elaborate stunts we haven’t seen before. Actually, there are a lot of things in Knowing we haven’t seen before, but the stunts are the only good ones. The rest of the movie — especially the endless ending — is almost too ridiculous to process.In other words, it’s just like everything else Cage has done lately. And I’m through with it. A Saddened 2 on my "Go See" scale.

Monday, March 16, 2009

As Dumb As It Was, I Still Laughed At Miss March

Miss March tells the story of Eugene (Cregger) who awakens from a four-year coma to hear that his once virginal high-school sweetheart, Cindi (Alessi) has since become a naked centerfold in a men’s magazine. He and his sex-crazed best friend Tucker(Moore) decide to take a cross- country road trip in order to crash a party at the magazine’s legendary headquarters and win back the girl.

Everyone once in a while a movie comes around that most critics hate and I love. Well here is a movie that I thought was completely hilarious. I was actually dreading going to see this movie, thinking it was going to be another one of those stupid sex comedies. I remember a few weeks back someone mentioned to me that movie was hilarious and that it will be underrated. I just kind of laughed. Well, now I feel stupid. Here's what will happen though. The movie will open this weekend, much like Sex Drive, and make absolutely no money. It will go unseen and just be a waste of a good comedy. Then, in a couple of months we will probably see another Scary Movie or some kind of awful spoof movie like Date Movie, Epic Movie, Meet the Spartans and that will make number one at the box office. Is this a great movie? It has the same aspects as every sex movie where there are road trips involved and just gross out humor. For some reason though, I was dying laughing. It just hits really hard at moments and those moments are just absolutely golden. Miss March stars Trevor Moore (who looks exactly like Jim Carrey) and Zach Cregger. Let me say this, both Zach and Trevor wrote, directed and both star in the film as well. These guys are hilarious!The flick also stars the always funny Craig Robinson, Raquel Alessi and Molly Stanton. The plot line is not original at all but that is okay because it is the jokes that make it hilarious. Eugene (Cregger) and Tucker (Moore) are 2 best friends that happened to find a Playboy Magazine when they were young kids. Tucker being the horny one, latched on to it and became a subscriber when he was of age. Eugene on the other hand is the mature friend and when we meet him in high school, he is still a virgin, while Tucker has already had sex with 12 different girls. Eugene's girlfriend, Cindi (Alessi), starts putting pressure on him to have sex and when the big night finally comes, Eugene falls down a flight of stairs putting him into a four year coma. He wakes up four years later to find that everyone has left him, including his father. The only person who stuck around for him is his best friend Tucker. To make a long story short, Tucker and Eugene find out that Eugene's girlfriend Cindi is now a Playboy model so they decide to go on a road trip to Los Angeles. Eugene is still in love with her and wants her back. They get some help along the way with famous rapper, Horsedick.Mpeg (played hilariously by Craig Robinson). Remember, these kids are poor and Tucker is just insane. He happens to be running away from his girlfriend who he just had a bad sexual encounter with. Overall, this movie is just a gem in the comedy department. I received the dirtiest looks from people as I walked out of the movie. I couldn't stop laughing throughout the movie. I will say that the majority of the negative comments that I heard were people saying the film was too offensive. I think that is what makes the movie so great. It pushes the envelope of crude humor. If anything, I would compare it to Van Wilder in the fact that it's not the greatest movie ever but it will make you laugh your ass off. These two guys, Zach Cregger and Trevor Moore, are hilarious together. I couldn't believe when I read that they wrote and directed the film as well. That just blew me away because they are young guys. I wish the movie was getting more advertisements and talk because this is a comedy that everyone will enjoy. Listen, this is not an original premise and the flick will not win any awards but there were at least a dozen scenes where I was laughing so hard. I lost it! It is the style of humor where you are just grossed out beyond belief. They really pushed the R-rated envelope. I feel bad giving this film such a high rating but I am not going to lie. I was entertained and it actually made my evening. I would love to see it again right now. Craig Robinson really brightens the movie with his hilarious rapper character. Stupid beyond belief, but hilariously funny if you like this sort of movie. I sure did. A super funny 3 on my "Go See" scale.

WTF Moment: After the hilarious telling of Tucker's awful anniversary with Candace, if you look closely you'll notice that the marks on Candace's face move repeatedly. There is even an obvious moment late in the movie where Tucker talks to Candace face-to-face and you can see that the marks over her nose that were there earlier have disappeared but return in a later scene.

Crossing Over Looks Like A Sequel To Crash


Immigrants from around the world enter Los Angeles every day, with hopeful visions of a better life, but little notion of what that life may cost. Their desperate scenarios test the humanity of immigration enforcement officers. In Crossing Over, writer-director Wayne Kramer explores the allure of the American dream, and the reality that immigrants find--and create--in 21st century L.A


The struggle to achieve resident alien status, or gain full-blown citizenship in the United States, provides some thought-provoking material in this feature from director Wayne Kramer. Crossing Over is an ensemble piece that contains many overlapping storylines, most of which revolve around Max Brogan (Harrison Ford), a law enforcement official who specializes in arresting people who break stringent immigration laws. Joining Ford is Ray Liotta, who plays a corrupt immigration official who forces a wannabe Australian actress (Alice Eve) to sleep with him in exchange for a green card. The film also focuses on the rigorous guidelines laid down in post-9/11 America, with Kramer detailing the shocking maltreatment of a teenage girl who faces deportation after giving a misguided high school presentation on terrorism. These tales, and several others, all combine to present an intricate overview of the desperate and often overwhelmingly sad lengths people will go to so they can remain in the United States. Kramer’s film closely mirrors other harrowing ensemble pieces such as Paul Haggis’s Crash. Crossing Over carefully presents many different sides of this complicated issue and also examines how coincidence and good fortune can play a part in achieving resident status. Ford is perfectly cast as the downcast lead character who battles with the moral and ethical ramifications of his job, and frequently gets too close to the people he is required to prosecute. Kramer skillfully interweaves each tale and allows just enough screen time to each of his characters, with Cliff Curtis leading the supporting cast by playing an Iranian-American immigration official whose life is irrevocably altered by a series of tragic personal and professional occurrences. Crossing Over, Wayne Kramer's achingly earnest drama of immigrants (legal, illegal and on the road to naturalization) seeking their place in Los Angeles, feels an awful lot like the multicultural "Crash," complete with its crisscrossing stories, heavy ironies and even heavier moralizing. The film is more pedantic than personal, but Kramer puts on a good show of outrage as he slashes through the complexity of the issues with superficial stories and simple emotional responses. The expediency of ICE agents can be heartless and terrorist fears result in overreaction. Generational struggles between immigrant parents and their American-raised kids erupt in tragedy. Or redemption. Or whatever. With the film spread so thin over all these superficial stories, there isn't much time to get to know the characters beyond their symbolic value. And given the life-and-death stakes of the disenfranchised who came looking for a better life for their kids, it's hard to sympathize for the pretty, young show-biz hopefuls scheming to extend their visas. For all the bludgeoning insistence of Kramer's contrived plots and blunt direction, there's not much conviction to the outrage. Just wasn't as good at it could've been. A 3 on my "Go See" scale.

Can You Drop Me Off At Witch Mountain?

Walt Disney Pictures resurrects one of their time-honored franchises with Race to Witch Mountain, a family-oriented sci-fi adventure that tells the story of two alien visitors (AnnaSophia Robb and Alexander Ludwig) whose search for their spacecraft gets them caught up in an adventure with a cab driver (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) and a UFO specialist (Carla Gugino). As the group races toward the mysterious mountain in the Nevada desert that has mystified scientists and paranormal researchers for years, the government, gangsters, and an extraterrestrial bounty hunter attempt to prevent them from reaching their intended destination. Should the two planetary travelers fail in recovering their ship, an alien invasion will be launched against the entire planet.

Loaded with references to the 1975 Disney classic Escape to Witch Mountain, this completely revamped action movie is enjoyably watchable, even though there's not a moment of suspense in its squeaky clean plot. Jack Bruno (Johnson) is an ex-con taxi driver in Las Vegas, justifiably annoyed that the UFO convention is in town. And it gets worse when towhead teens Sara and Seth (Robb and Ludwig) show up in his cab, asking to be taken out into the desert. Soon government goons, led by the tenaciously evil Burke (Hinds), start chasing the kids, who are actually aliens from a distant planet and need to get to the secret Witch Mountain facility before an interstellar killer catches them. So Jack turns to a scientist (Gugino) for help. Despite quite a bit of violence, these filmmakers don't just aim at a very young audience, they underestimate them, over-explaining even the simplest elements of the premise and trailing every plot point miles ahead. They reveal every possible surprise in the opening few minutes, from which point the story basically writes itself. And the kids' alien powers seem fairly pedestrian, as if anything more complex might lose their core demographic. Fortunately, Johnson is on hand, as always, to liven things up with his offhanded acting and nearly overpowering physical charisma. And it's his gently bristly attitude, camaraderie with the kids and bullheaded good-guy toughness that adds interest to every scene. Even his chemistry with Gugino works better than expected. So it's a shame that director Fickman guides Robb and Ludwig to such stiff, predictably alien-like performances: big eyes, strangled dialog and eerie gestures. On the other hand, Fickman has a great time packing the movie with nods to the original, from small roles for original kids Richards and Eisenmann to the key appearance of a Winnebago. Fans who grew up with that film will get a kick out of these inside jokes, even if everything that made that film such a classic has been abandoned for a more pedestrian save-the-world action movie. The film lacks soul and is straight out of Disney cookie cutter land, especially the cheesy low budget special effects. But somehow the film works for me, I don’t know and can’t explain why, it’s just nice little lightweight film to watch, especially after watching the heavy and depressing stuff that’s been coming out in the theaters and on Blu-ray lately. This is the first “pure” family film that I’ve watched since Coraline. I don’t have a lot to say about Race to Witch Mountain. This film works because the kids and Dwayne Johnson are so darn likable. This gets a warm 3 on my "Go See" scale.

Cleaning Never Felt This Good

A single mom and her slacker sister find an unexpected way to turn their lives around in the off-beat dramatic comedy Sunshine Cleaning. Directed by Christine Jeffs (Rain, Sylvia), this uplifting film about an average family that finds the path to its dreams in an unlikely setting screened in competition at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Once the high school cheerleading captain who dated the quarterback, Rose Lorkowski (Amy Adams) now finds herself a thirty something single mother working as a maid. Her sister Norah, (Emily Blunt), is still living at home with their dad Joe (Alan Arkin), a salesman with a lifelong history of ill-fated get rich quick schemes. Desperate to get her son into a better school, Rose persuades Norah to go into the crime scene clean-up business with her to make some quick cash. In no time, the girls are up to their elbows in murders, suicides and other…specialized situations. As they climb the ranks in a dirty job, the sisters find respect for one another.

No one gives a thought to what happens with all the muck and gore left after a particularly messy exit: Murders, suicides, nasty accidents; someone’s gotta clean it up and that someone is Rose Lorkowski. Rose is a hard-working single mom, barely able to make ends meet as a cleaning lady when she receives the news that her young son’s eccentric behaviour has gotten him tossed out of school. Desperate times call for desperate measures now that her boy needs to go to a private school and Rose’s ongoing affair with a married detective leads her to an unusual yet lucrative new career. Sunshine Cleaning has plenty of potential for broad comedy when two disparate sisters decide to clean up nasty crime scenes for a living; thankfully the film is a lot more than that. Director Christine Jeffs gives us a modern nuclear family, with the Lorkowski patriarch himself a single parent who struggled to raise two very different girls. Hyper-responsible from an early age, Rose took on the role of surrogate parent to her little sister after their mother’s suicide. Norah, the younger sibling, is a rudderless ball of slack, who’s practically expected to screw up even the simplest of tasks and never fails to disappoint. Even in this new career venture, Norah knows she’s only working beside Rose because there was no one else to ask. The set up is ripe for recriminations and all sorts of drama we’ve seen before, but the difference with Sunshine Cleaning is the real and caring way the Lorkowskis interact; their acceptance and support of each other despite their character flaws manages to be heartwarming yet refreshingly light on schmaltz. The humour in Sunshine Cleaning is more dry than riotously hilarious, showing nice restraint by keeping the icky crime scene snickers to a minimum, while making the most of the cast’s sharp, yet wonderfully off-hand timing. Amy Adams and Emily Blunt are totally simpatico as sisters Rose and Norah, sharing a similar vibe regardless of their character’s differences making their casting as sisters perfect. Adams, as the capable, nose-to-the-grindstone Rose, only has joy in her memories of high-school glory days and in illicit meetings with her married lover. Adams’ hesitant delivery beautifully registers Rose’s shame when faced with an old schoolmate who married well and now hires the one-time head cheerleader to clean her palatial home. Emily Blunt as the ne’er-do-well Norah is hilarious and moving. For all her good intentions, whether it’s reluctantly becoming the other half of Rose’s messy new venture, babysitting and contributing to the delinquency of her nephew, or taking the awkward first steps of romance with a woman whose picture Norah finds in the home of a departed subject, the girl just can’t get right. Norah’s wide, kohl-smeared saucer eyes, stunned at times at her own foolishness, show a wounded, caring girl who nobody seems to have ever had any faith in, least of all herself. Balancing the slow burn that going into business together has lit between the siblings is a nice performance by Clifton Collins, Jr., as the one-armed owner of an industrial cleaning shop where the girls stock up after realising that a spritz of Fantastik might not be the most suitable option for removing blood stains. Collins’ kindly, gentle Winston serves as a reminder to Rose that even in unusual packaging, there really are men in the world who aren’t schmucks. Alan Arkin plays the girls’ father, a jack-of-all-trades salesman, always on the make for the next get-rich-quick scheme. Not far removed from Arkin’s Oscar-winning role as the grandfather of 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine, the gruff, senior Lorkowski dotes on Rose’s son and supports his two daughters, right or wrong, only rearing his head when there is strife between the girls. Whatever drama there’s been about the bad choices made in this family has already taken place long before our story and like any real family; the Lorkowskis are dealing with the here and now. A script that could have easily tread into Lifetime movie of the week territory is lifted up by skillful and heartfelt performances from its excellent cast. The utterly charming combination of Adams and Blunt are the icing on the cake of the sentimental and smartly funny Sunshine Cleaning. A great movie with a lot of heart. A definite 4 on my "Go See" scale.

Friday, March 13, 2009

I Watch The Watchmen!


300's Zack Snyder adapts Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' acclaimed comic book Watchmen for the big screen. Set in an alternate universe circa 1985, the film's world is an unstable one where a nuclear war is imminent between America and Russia. Superheroes have been forced to go into retirement due to the government's Keene Act, but the death of The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), an ex-hero commando, perks the interest of one of the country's last remaining superheroes, Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) in Watchmen.

There’s two kinds of people in this world : Group 1: The ones who look at the trailer for the new blockbuster Watchmen and get all breathless/pre-orgasmic at the thought of the seeing the world greatest graphic novel finally adapted for the big screen. And then there's Group 2 : The people that think, "Oh yeah that superhero flick with the giant naked blue dude… 'sup with that?" And lets face it both of you are going to experience this movie very differently. We're in an alternate 1985. Richard Nixon is still in power. The world is on the brink of nuclear war. Superheroes exist but they’ve been outlawed. And now someone it picking them off one by one - but behind the murders lurks an even more insidious plan. I like to think of Watchmen as the sweaty anxiety dream that Superman would have. It takes the world of Superheroes that we've become so used to via flicks like Spiderman and X-Men and - in a sense - rips them apart by exposing the flaws in the notion of vigelante justice. As a cinematic experience, Watchmen is quite stunning. Its a mixture of flashbacks, montages and a film noir detective story. Its often quite heartbreaking - particularly the backstory of the character Rorschach. Its quite sexually explicit (ie, don't take kids). Its gritty, bloody and you may or may not someone head get meat-cleavered. That said, much of the movie features dialogue sequences that go on for way too long. Many lines feel extremely clunky and for some reason the ending of the movie was quite rushed. All in all - Watchmen is unlike any superhero flick you're likely to see. Ok, let me be clear about the 3 hour(ish) epic that is Watchmen - it isn't a bad film. Lots of things work really well. Take for example, the opening montage of America's parallel universe with superheroes with the tune of Bob Dylan's 'Times They Are A' Changing' - it's a stunning sequence that forces you to instantly re-evaluate key moments like the JFK assassination or Nixon's Election. Can you imagine America today if the Vietnam War hand been ended cleanly by a couple superpowers. Just imagine the pride they would have without that cultural scar? Visually, the movie is obviously stunning, though largely that goes down to the source material. However, credit where credit is due, Director Zack Snyder has realised the Watchmen world in a way that is thrilling and terrifying. Particularly the CGI Dr Manhattan, whose vaguely translucent skin is so impressive you almost forget that the lip-synching to actor Billy Crudup is way off. In many ways the film is commendably uncompromising - the violence is bloody as hell (seeing people being eviscerated is powerfully horrifying). There are also moments that genuinely break your heart (Rorscach's backstory anyone??). But the best thing about the film is that it just covers such a fascinating mix of Religion, Politics, Modern Mythmaking and the politics and personalities behind vigilante justice. In Snyder's admirable attempt to remain faithful to the book, he's lost that spirit. By re-jigging and slenderising the plot he's stripped back a lot of those additional layers and the montage-like feel. In doing so, he has inadvertantly exposed many of the scenes and dialogue as being quite week and clunky. ("What happened to the American Dream?" anyone? I suppose that line was never going to sound good). And I also suspect that it prevented the actors from truly creating something alive and human with their roles - which frequently felt quite mannered and inauthentic. That said there were some killer performance moments, usually involving Rorschach. After some time thinking about it, I believe the storytelling-inspiration for this movie shouldn't have been conventional cinema - it should've been something more. It's not that the movie is bad - it's definitely not a bad film. The source material, however had the makings of a BRILLIANT film. Please don't misunderstand, this isn't the sound of an angry fan annoyed that someone's messed with his comicbook... this is the sound of someone who believes that Watchmen has the makings of stunning cinema. If anything, I wouldve preferred Snyder to pull a Peter Jackson and give Watchmen the trilogy treatment. All this said, at the end of the day Watchmen is an incredibly achievement and Snyder's commitment to the material cannot be questioned. It's a sight to behold and definately worth the watch (pun unintended). I'm not sad to say that I didn't really agree with what everyone had been saying about Watchmen being "The Best Graphic Novel Of All Time". I'm sorry folks. I found it quite boring, but the movie was actually a LOT better than I thought it was gonna be. I went in thinking that I was gonna be disappointed, but I'm glad to say that I was not. This gets a 3 on my "Go See" scale. 

WTF Moment : Dr. Manhattan's schlong? LOL No... Pay attention to the little things in Watchmen. Zack Snyder pays homage to his other comic book movie 300 several times during the movie. I noticed 2 times (but there may have been more). In the scene where The Comedian is murdered, you'll notice that his apartment number is 3001. When he throws his coffee mug at the masked murderer he misses and knocks the 1 off of the door leaving the 300. In the scene where Dr. Manhattan seemingly attacks New York, there is a man with a briefcase. When he dies there is a close up shot of the briefcase as it flies open. If you look closely you'll see the combination upside down and it reads 3-0-0. 

Saturday, March 7, 2009

All Is Revealed When A Young Girl Comes Home From The Nuthouse

Anna (Emily Browning) returns home after spending time in the hospital following the tragic death of her mother. Her recovery suffers a setback when she discovers her father (David Strathairn) has become engaged to her mother’s former nurse , Rachel (Elizabeth Banks). That night, Anna is visited by her mother's ghost, who warns her of Rachel's intentions. Together, Anna and her sister (Arielle Kebbel) try to convince their father that his current fiancée is not who she pretends to be, and what should have been a happy family reunion becomes a lethal battle of wills between stepdaughters and stepmother in The Uninvited.

What a nice surprise! A mind-bending, intelligent PG-13 thriller that's well worth seeing. The Uninvited has great atmosphere, fine performances and nice twist ending. Anna (Browning) has spent some time in a facility where she has been treated for a mental issue (she tried to commit suicide after her mother's death). Anna can't remember exactly what happened the night her mother died in a fire, but her therapist thinks she's ready to return home and begin life anew. When she arrives home, she first encounters her feisty older sister Alex (Kebbel), who tells Anna all about her suspicions regarding their father's new love interest. Steven (Strathain) is the father who, although he remains in mourning for the girls' mother, nonetheless tries to maintain a normal existence. He's an author, and has just finished a book that he dedicated to his girls. Rachael (Banks) also is living in the house now. Rachael is a nurse who tended to the girls' late mother until the fatal fire. Anna begins to see disturbing images that involve her mother. During the private conversations she has with Alex, she concocts a theory that Rachael may have been the cause of the fire, which may not have been as accidental as everyone thinks. Anna begins to try to coax the truth out of Rachael, who truly isn't a very nice or caring person. It's obvious that she has feelings for Steven, it's true, but it's also likely that she may realize he can provide a comfortable home for her. And maybe she'll eliminate anything along her pathway to matrimony with the smitten, grieving Steven. Banks and Strathairn are terrific performers, instantly recognizable to those who enjoy movies and fine acting. Strathairn adds a somber, sympathetic note to the proceedings. Banks as of late has become a staple in adult comedies. But she has a broader range and has a chance to show that off here. Need you ask? The Uninvited is that too-seldom-seen thing: a traditional psycho-horror movie made with smarts and style, which arrives at a creepy conclusion with its honor intact. Looking back on its artful feints and misdirections, you realize that the key to its knotty puzzle is as plain as the knife in your neck, if you'd only been paying attention. Which I guess I wasn't. Too creeped-out, maybe. The movie is a spirited remake of South Korean director Kim Jee-Woon's 2003 shocker, "A Tale of Two Sisters." This English-language version manages to approach the gorgeous visual design of that film — a considerable achievement in itself — while at the same time paring away or tightening-up some of its more ambiguous elements. Something's Not Right. If Mom's so dead, what's that thing oozing around in the corner? And those three corpse kids in the cemetery — why're they still traipsing about? And that nice delivery boy with the urgent news to impart — what ever happened to him? Did he stumble over one of the bulging bloody trash bags? As for Rachael, she may come on all step-maternal now that she's lassoed Dad, but she seems to whip out a snarl — and a syringe! — whenever he leaves the room. "She's like a crack whore without the dignity," Alex says. Please take your undead hand off my leg. It's not a picture likely to set off any large cultural tremors, but its smallness of scale is part of what makes it such an enjoyable watch. And anyway — dude, what is that thing crawling around under your skin? This gets a scary 4 on my "Go See"scale.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Another Street Fighter Letdown


On the streets of Bangkok, crime boss Bison instigates a wave of violence in the slum districts, grabbing power and land no matter what the costs to its residents. His ruthless tactics are met by a team of heroes consisting of Chun-Li, a half-Caucasian/half-Asian beauty who gave up a life of privilege to become a street fighter, battling for those who cannot fight for themselves; her kung fu master, Gen, once a feared criminal, who now fights for the forces of good; Interpol cop Charlie Nash, who has tracked the crime boss all over the world, and Nash's partner, gangland homicide detective Maya Sunee in Street Fighter: The Legend Of Chun-Li.

You'd expect one thing out of a movie with the words "street" and "fighter" in the title, and one of the greatest failures of Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li is how very little fighting actually goes on in its modestly convoluted plot about a young woman getting her revenge on a murderous Irish real-estate investor. Though to be fair, it does in fact feature more street fighting than 1994's Street Fighter, and this might be the only thing I have to say in favor of the new film over its predecessor. Both films, as you likely know if you're even vaguely interested in either of them, are based upon the tremendously successful Street Fighter games produced by Capcom. Both of them are also incredibly bad adaptations, even by the standard of video game movies. I don't honestly understand how difficult it can possibly be to write a screenplay for a fighting game movie: there's an underground tournament happening somewhere in southeast Asia, several people show up to take part, some of them are revealed over the course of the week or however long to have vengeful motives on the tournament's promoter. Good God, if Paul W.S. Anderson could do that right, in the 1995 Mortal Kombat movie, anyone with basic literacy ought to be able to do it. But no, in Legend of Chun-Li, we get no tournament of any kind, indeed nothing so much as a cameo from any of the dozen or so classic Street Fighter characters: we get a boilerplate "orphan out for revenge" plot that would function identically in every possible respect save the character names if you cut out the video game entirely. I'll not bore you with the details, but in essence, there's this talented pianist/martial arts fancier named Chun-Li (Kristin Kreuk) whose father was kidnapped many years ago for unknown reasons by a vicious man named Bison (Neal McDonough). Bison is an international criminal who, when we catch up with him in the present, has just overthrown the crimelord of Bangkok. His objective? Something something massive profits for razing the slums. Anyway, after her mom dies of cancer, Chun-Li travels to Bangkok and trains with the martial arts master Gen (Robin Shou), before finally confronting Bison and his lackeys over a MacGuffin that doesn't really follow any particular kind of story logic, but then, it is a MacGuffin after all. I'll cut to the chase: this is a wildly functional crappy action movie in nearly all respects, with a particularly grinding screenplay. The whole "Bison buys up the slums" plotline is a classic example of a screenwriting having the bones of a political idea (bad people want to exploit the poor), but not enough practical knowledge of the system he's describing to make sense of it all (anyone who's seen the film and can explain how exactly Shadaloo - no longer a crime syndicate, but an investment group - is going to make all that money, let me know). And of course there are the usual sprinkling of absurdities, my favorite of which is probably the unanswered question of why, if Bison's Irish missionary parents died when he was a baby, leaving him in a Thai orphanage, does he speak with a rich Irish brogue? And OMG, the other villains! Michael Clarke Duncan as Balrog? Smart. Taboo from the Black Eyed Peas as Vega? Stupid! Any fan of the games will tell you that Vega is a white male with blond hair. BLOND! LOL But, only in two respects does Legend of Chun-Li completely collapse. The first of these is Kristin Kreuk, of TV's Smallville, giving one of the most listless performances I have ever seen onscreen. Watching the trailers, it always seemed odd that Kreuk was never really present, nor did she ever speak; I wondered if that spoke to a reduced role in the film. HAH! The opposite, in fact, thanks in no small part to one of the most unnecessary voice-overs in a long time (one of those "because of what you just saw - which I'll describe in full - I had to go to this place that you're about to see" deals), giving us just about all the Kreuk we can handle. The real reason she wasn't in the advertisements, it turns out, is because she was apparently deceased for the entirety of the shoot, boasting one expression, one tone of voice, and only the most unexceptional ability to fake martial arts moves before her double steps in. The other truly horrid element of the film is the pair of fumbling cops out to stop Bison on their own: INTERPOL agent Charlie Nash (Chris Klein) and Bangkok police detective Maya Sunee (Moon Bloodgood). The "pair of cops working toward the same goal as the protagonist, but poorly" subplot has a long history, and it's nearly always the worst part of whatever film it features in; and yet the adventures of Charlie and Maya is exceptionally awful, as bad as the trope has been since its anti-heyday in the 1980s. This is mostly due to Chris Klein, who actually manages to save Kreuk from being the worst member of the cast. His performance is all oil and slimy charm, as though Nash were a globetrotting crime-fighting, car insurance salesman. Rarely do the movies present us with a putative hero so instantly repellent as this figure, whose very first moments in the film consist of leering at his new partner's ass. Thank all good things in the universe that the cops weren't also the comic relief, for that would have been more than my soul could have handled. The worst part about the film? It's just bad. The first Street Fighter, with a dying Raul Julia and Jean-Claude Van Damme failing utterly to sound remotely like an American, is a marvelous bit of campy fun, the kind of mid-'90s silly action picture that's goofy and idiotic and a breeze to watch (it's almost the equal of another famously wrong-headed video game adaptation, the bad-acid-trip marvel that is Super Mario Bros.). Legend of Chun-Li is just a boring, bad action movie - which, to be fair, means that it's one of the best video game adaptations ever made. Still, I can't imagine that anyone could get any legitimate kind of joy from this slog of a movie, which at 97 minutes feels twice as long, and can't even manage a full martial arts scene that's worth a damn. As a long time fan of the video games, I was highly disappointed. This just barely gets a 2 on my "Go See" scale.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

I'm a Shopaholic And I Gladly Admit It!


In Confessions of a Shopaholic, Rebecca Bloomwood (Isla Fisher) is a sweet and charming New York City girl who has a tiny, little problem that is rapidly turning into a big problem: she's hopelessly addicted to shopping and drowning in a sea of debt. While Rebecca has dreams of working for a top fashion magazine, she can't quite get her foot in the door-that is, until she snags a job as an advice columnist for a new financial magazine published by the same company. Overnight, her column becomes hugely popular, turning her into an overnight celebrity. But when her compulsive shopping and growing debt issues threaten to destroy her love life and derail her career, she struggles to keep it all from spiraling out of control--and is ultimately forced to reevaluate what's really important in life.

Making a shiny Hollywood film about the perils of shopping is like sending an alcoholic to buy wine for your party. Here, silks glow, furs rustle and getting in debt is fun and glamorous, which is why most of this film is about the slide into negative equity. Getting out again is drawn-out and dull. Here, it takes about 15 minutes. Still, if you want gritty realism, see an arthouse movie. Or shop in a pound store. As journalist Rebecca, Isla Fisher is silly and adorable – just like this adaptation of Sophie Kinsella’s novel (transposed, naturally, from London to New York). A fashion desperado with more overdue credit card bills than she has little black dresses, she gets a job under sexy Luke Brandon (Hugh Dancy) at his unsexy financial magazine hoping she can claw her way up to the company’s flagship publication, Alette. This is a fabulous alternative reality: editors of fashion magazines drop everything to take rookies shopping and even the debt collector has a sense of humour. And yet there’s reason beneath the nonsense. Rebecca is an addict: she lies and hurts those around her. She doesn’t even look right in her finery; unlike Carrie Bradshaw, she clumps along in her Louboutins like she has no right to them. And of course, she doesn’t. She’s a perfectly packaged product of the last boom, and the film knows so. Not that that gets in the way of having lots of escapist fun with the realities of Rebecca’s own private credit crunch. There’s a lesson there, and it’s not how to accessorise a Prada mini-dress. Mostly, though, "Shopaholic" is about fun. The fun starts with ridiculous costumes (most of the time, the bottom half of Rebecca looks like she's going to the Oscars and the top half looks like she's on her way to a hoedown). Director P.J. Hogan, whose "My Best Friend's Wedding" and "Muriel's Wedding" demonstrate his gift for fantasy-world farce, also keeps things moving at a brisk, bright pace. And he has chosen actors who can, like drops of vanilla, make a big impact in tiny quantities: Kristin Scott Thomas' fashionista is as delicate as a hummingbird, Joan Cusack is sweet as Rebecca's mom and John Goodman is just plain brilliant in a couple of scenes as Rebecca's wise dad. All of it hangs together because Fisher brings so much warmth to the potentially annoying Rebecca. Here's hoping her career goes more in the direction of "Blonde's" Reese Witherspoon than "Clueless' " Alicia Whatshername. Yes, Confessions of a Shopaholic's release in theaters seems ill-timed due to the current disastrous financial predicament we find ourselves in. And yes, this shopaholic's wasteful ways would have been better suited for a film released 10 years ago. But Fisher, under the direction of romantic comedy veteran PJ Hogan (Muriel's Wedding,My Best Friend's Wedding), makes us connect with this film that's ultimately about taking responsibility and admitting your faults. But put aside what it's about, forget trying to interpret the message, and just take Confessions of a Shopaholic for what it is – a goofy, likeable enough chick flick. Even I have a soft spot for chick flicks and this is one of them. A designer 4 on my "Go See" scale.

A Throwback That Should've Been Thrown Back

A spaceship crash in 1957 California leads to the escape of the Ghota, a murderous monster bent on destroying all life forms. In order to capture the Ghota, a benevolent alien named Urp takes over the body of an astronomer (Eric McCormack) and enlists the aid of a waitress named Tammy (Jenni Baird) . But, unless Urp and Tammy are successful, mankind is doomed in Alien Trespass.

Coming soon to a theater and drive-in near you: Alien Trespass, a thrilling sci-fi adventure from three-time Golden Globe winner and five time Emmy Award-nominated director/producer R.W. Goodwin (The X-Files) and brought to you in glorious color! Alien Trespass is a homage to the great science-fiction movies of the 1950s, the post-war boom period when the country was filled with great hope and prosperity and, at the same time, lived under the threat of nuclear annihilation. The story begins in 1957 in the star-filled skies above California's Mojave Desert. It is a special night for noted astronomer Ted Lewis (Eric McCormack), who is preparing a special dinner for his beautiful, adoring wife Lana (Jody Thompson) to celebrate their wedding anniversary. In another part of town, Tammy (Jenni Baird), a waitress at the small local diner with big plans for the future, looks out her window and is excited to see a shooting star, which she takes as a good sign for her dreams. But what Dr. Lewis and Tammy assume is a shooting star, is really an alien spaceship. The fiery ball hurtles toward earth and crash-lands on a butte in the desert. The only witnesses are Dick (Andrew Dunbar) and Penny (Sarah Smyth) who are necking in a nearby lovers' lane. A tall, metallic alien named Urp emerges from the craft unharmed, alarmed to discover that the monstrous Ghota, who was also on board, has escaped. The menacing one-eyed creature's unquenchable appetite could mean the end of civilization as we know it. Urp is the only one who knows how to stop the hideous extra-terrestrial, but to do so he has to take over the body of Dr. Lewis and enlist the aid of Tammy, the only human in town willing to believe and trust in his mission. The local police - including police Chief Dawson (Dan Lauria) and officer Vernon (Robert Patrick) - are confirmed skeptics and offer little help. Together, Urp and Tammy must hunt down the Ghota and neutralize it before it consumes all the local inhabitants and uses the human fuel to multiply and conquer the world! Some snacks, or maybe a stiff drink, might have increased the fun level for Alien Trespass, a deeply silly movie that pays homage to the 50s classics in a way that would be welcome at Disney World. Director R.W. Goodwin and writer Steven P. Fisher have concocted a deadpan homage to the flying saucers of the past, and while it's clear they love this genre a whole lot, there's no telling what exactly we're supposed to appreciate about it. Sure, the overblown dialogue and deliberately bad special effects are fun for a while, but watching the trailer for the original Day the Earth Stood Still would probably give you the same amount of laughs. The production is lucky to have found Eric McCormack to play the lead, jutting out his square jaw and playing both the dashing astronomer Ted and the alien creature Urp, who takes over Ted's body when his spaceship crashes outside a desert California town. But Urp isn't alone-- he's accompanied by a big blue monster called a Ghota, and while the Ghota chews its way through most of the town's innocents, Urp and a clever waitress named Tammy (Baird) try to track him down and save the world. This small town is populated by all kinds of oddballs, including an intense cop played by typically intense Robert Patrick, a weathered cop played by typically weathered Dan Lauria, and a gaggle of fresh-faced teenagers who seem to be giving deliberately bad performances. They and a handful of others are threatened, and some devoured, by the Ghota, and if there are any other subplots beyond that one, I've already forgotten them by now, a few days after the screening. One subplot does stick, being Tammy's desire to get out of town and make something of herself. Either because Baird is so gifted or because Tammy is the only character who seems remotely real, her emotional connection to Ted/Urp sticks with you, and her moment of triumph at the end genuinely sweet. On the other hand there's Lana (Thompson), Ted's sexpot wife, who makes bedroom eyes at the camera and seems shoved into frame directly from a pinup. Alien Trespass might have been able to capture a little more of that innocent monster movie fun if it had stuck with effects more like the Ghota, which is a goofy rubber suit making no attempts at realism. But the flying saucer at the beginning is CGI, as are occasional flames, and the movie's claim of being a "forgotten classic" gets less believable as the effects start looking more realistic. CGI is probably cheaper now than even the worst looking fake blood of yesteryear, but the cheesy special effects were always a key part of the fun. There's fun to be had in Alien Trespass, especially for anyone who's already seen all the old classics and is dying for a new one. But most anyone else would probably be better served watching one of the actual originals. This gets a 2 on my "Go See" scale for just being too damn cheesy for my tastes.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Hurt My Daughter? I'm Gonna Kill YOU!

The night she arrives at the remote Collingwood lakehouse, Mari (Sara Paxton) and her friend are kidnapped by a prison escapee and his crew. Terrified and left for dead, Mari’s only hope is to make it back to parents John and Emma (Tony Goldwyn and Monica Potter). Unfortunately, her attackers unknowingly seek shelter at the one place she could be safe. And when her family learns the horrifying story, they will make three strangers curse the day they came to The Last House on the Left.

Masters of horror Wes Craven and Sean Cunningham revisit their landmark film that launched Craven's directing career and influenced decades of horror films to follow: The Last House on the Left. Bringing one of the most notorious thrillers of all time to a new generation, they produce the story that explores how far two ordinary people will go to exact revenge on the sociopaths who harmed their child. The remake of Wes Craven's notorious rape-revenge shocker is a crowd-pleaser rather than a grim moral lesson about the price of doing very bad things, and as long as the downbeat lead-in doesn't put them off, the third-act payoff will have audiences cheering. Pampered, slightly naïve Mari Collingwood (Sara Paxton), who's spending the summer with her parents, Jack and Emma (Tony Goldwyn and Monica Potter), at the family's isolated lake house, hooks up with her pal Paige (Martha MacIsaac) at the general store where Paige works. City girl Mari is a straight-arrow who channels her energy into competitive swimming, while the small-town Paige is a little wilder and less goal-oriented; when scruffy, baby-faced stranger Justin (Spencer Treat Clark) offers to sell them some good weed, it's Paige who leaps at the offer. Mari tags along in the spirit of being a good sport, and frets when she realizes the rundown motel where Justin and his family are staying is out of cell-phone range—she's the kind of kid who actually checks in with her mom when she says she will. A storm gathers, Paige and Justin party and Mari hangs out gamely, but the fun screeches to a halt when Justin's family comes home early. Justin's fugitive dad is a sadistic sociopath named Krug (Garret Dillahunt), who was en route to a maximum-security prison when his brother, Frank (Aaron Paul), and girlfriend, Sadie (Riki Lindhome), engineered his escape, cold-bloodedly killing two police officers in the process. The fugitives are big news and their pictures are everywhere: They need to get out of town fast and need Mari's SUV, but the girls have to go. Krug and company take off with the teenagers in tow, taunting and abusing them as they drive. Though terrified, Mari keeps a cool head and, after steering her abductors onto a road tantalizingly close to the sanctuary of her parents' house, makes a bold attempt to escape. It fails dismally: Frank and Sadie catch Paige just before she makes it to a busy construction site, and her desperate show of bravado so enrages Krug that he stabs her and rapes the virginal Mari, while Justin watches in mute horror. As Krug and his minions regroup, Mari makes one last break for freedom, diving into the nearby lake and attempting to swim to safety. Krug shoots her in the back and leaves her to die in the water. With the SUV damaged and the storm intensifying, Krug and his bleeding, bedraggled crew make their way to the nearest shelter, which just happens to be the Collingwood house. Jack and Emma welcome them with food, drink and medical attention—Jack is a doctor—but it's only a matter of time before they realize they're sheltering the beasts who brutalized their beloved daughter. What will they do? Well, the fact is pretty much everyone knows what they do, either because they're familiar with the original film or because they've seen the trailers for the remake, which give away the whole plot, right down to the last gruesome fillip that's tacked on to the end like a roadshow square-up reel. So it's no spoiler to reveal that Jack and Emma wreak bloody vengeance, torturing Frank, Sadie and Krug as cruelly as they did Paige and Mari. You can see why Craven got behind a Last House remake. The trouble is that the tweaks and tucks made by the new Last House team—director Dennis Iliadis and screenwriters Alleca and Ellsworth—all undermine the brutal directness of the original. They include the totally extraneous invention of Mari's late brother, Ben (presumably to raise the stakes on the Collingwoods' investment in their surviving child); the fact that Mari has sworn off smoking dope (read: she's an unambiguous good girl) and lives to make her way home (not a spoiler, by the way—it's in the trailer); and the recasting of Justin as an innocent and fundamentally decent kid helpless to resist his domineering dad. Put it all together and you have a film designed to make audiences root for the Collingwoods to give Krug, Frank and Sadie exactly what they deserve, a satisfying thrill ride rather than a downbeat examination of the ways in which violence—even when morally sanctioned—eats away at the souls of the perpetrators. None of which will have much to do with the success or failure of the new Last House: If it can bring in both genre buffs familiar with the original film's reputation but unwilling to watch old movies and thrill-seekers whose curiosity is piqued by the atrocities promised by the tell-all trailers, it should do just fine. This gets a grisly 4 on my "Go See" scale and think about what you would do if someone hurt the one that you love? Oh, revenge can be so sweet!