Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Paranormal Activity 2 - Zero Stars

For about the first half hour of Paranormal Activity 2, nothing happens. But then in the next half hour, nothing happens. Fortunately, though, it does close with something happening. Unfortunately though, that something is more nothing. Let me lay out the next ten theater-going Halloweens for you: people move into a house, have cute, innocuous dialogue exchanges, for some reason install cameras all over the house, an inanimate object falls over, the new tenants immediately assume that it's a ghost, they read up on demons, and then one of them gets possessed and throws somebody at the camera to end the film.

Paranormal Activity had its charms, and worked in certain areas because it felt genuine. 2 has cash-grab written all over it, and I hated it right from the opening message to the families of the deceased... lame. This one follows the sister of the girl from the first film, and the filmmakers try clumsily to invent a mythology for the demon in the films, which at times requires the people on screen to try their best at actually acting. The whole thing fails miserably, especially the part where nothing happens. Fuck this movie. Fuck this series.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

I Want Your Money - No

I Want Your Money is the first movie this year that I have walked out on, so I can't really rate it. Not fairly anyway, but I definitely saw enough to get the idea. It was sort of a rule for this project not to walk out on movies, but I'm not even sure that I Want Your Money is even qualified enough to be called a movie, so out I walked. For those unfamiliar with this thing, which I hope is all of you, it is basically a piece of propaganda that alleges that Ronald Reagan was the greatest president we've ever had, and that Barack Obama is little more than a dunce. It's director and narrator, Ray Griggs, uses random facts to create meaningless arguments: "When Ronald Reagan won the election, he won 44 states, Barack Obama only won 28 states in his election." What does that mean? Nothing! Nothing at all. What's worse is that Griggs desperately wants to be the conservative Michael Moore, so I Want Your Money consists mainly of random stock footage and poorly animated cartoons. The result is neither funny nor accurate, but rather infuriating both as a film fan, and as an American citizen.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Jackass 3D - Yes

There's really no way to rate Jackass 3D. It's not for everyone, but it happens to be for me, and I was glad to see that not only has it not lost its edge in the four years since Number Two, or the decade or so since it began, but it is maybe the third film that I have seen that actually takes advantage of 3D rather than simply making me pay an extra $4 to wear glasses and be distracted. That may sound like an overstatement, but that's because you haven't seen Bam Margera surprise people by pissing on them, with the camera at the base of his penis... the depth of frame is stunning, especially when he does it off of a trailer! Or when the dildo gets shot out of a potato gun and jiggles and writhes in super slow motion past miniature models of the Pyramids and the Eiffel Tower, through a glass of milk and into a guy's face! Is it art? Mmmmmmmmmmm... Sure. Or maybe not. But it's certainly all the glory of big budget immaturity you could ever hope to see in one sitting. That's got to count for something.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Friday, October 15, 2010

Notes 10/4-10/10

Monday 10/4:
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
The Social Network

Tuesday 10/5:
Daddy Longlegs
Mao's Last Dancer
Let Me In

You may have noticed that I changed a couple of ratings earlier this week from zero to half. I noticed that I was a little heavy on zero star ratings after seeing that I had more of them than any other rating so far. Now this is probably due to the fact that I don't have a lot of time to update consistently (right now I am approximately fifty movies behind), and shitty movies are just a lot easier, and a lot more fun to write about than good ones, and so I imagine the remaining fifty will probably balance everything out in bell-curve fashion, but nevertheless I realize I got a little carried away after sitting through a horrible double feature. While the films in question, Legend of the Guardians and You Again are completely miserable films in every way, I'm not sure they're on the level of the worst I've ever seen, or even the worst of this year. It's not necessarily that they had redeeming qualities... I actually can't think of any for either film. You Again actually did have about two funny lines, but that's not the point. The point is that they just weren't that difficult to sit through. They were more like steady pokes in the side, rather than a full on punch in the stomach like Brooklyn's Finest or Sex and the City 2. In other words, the experience of watching them was less awful than it could have been. I groaned, squirmed in my seat, took out my phone and yelled at the screen a lot less in these than I have in other films this year, and that does count for something, because that's ultimately what I base my opinion on... my experience while watching the movie. People always argue with me that a movie is good because it has a good story; a guy that I work with has been arguing with me for weeks that John Wayne was better than Clint Eastwood because Wayne's films had morals. Well, a movie can have a great story, observation, theme, message, moral, whatever, but if it isn't presented in a way that is at all entertaining, why do I give a shit? I don't think that people connected with The Hurt Locker so much last year simply because it had a good story. No, it was because that film was just pure, heart-pounding, visceral experience. Or at least that's what did it for me. And that's essentially what I look for in a movie, and what I try to relate when writing about them: my impression of what it's like to watch each movie. To analyze story and themes, or provide a bunch of non-essential details would probably just be boring to read, which is probably the reason that I am fifty movies behind. Most of them were pretty good, and it's pretty difficult to come up with something interesting or worthwhile to say about a good movie that hasn't already been said. But I'll get around to them. Sometime.

Also, feel free to leave comments or email me or something, especially if you disagree with any of my opinions. I think the Twitter and Facebook information is on the sidebar somewhere. I'd be happy to argue with you, and it's also much more motivating to update this thing if I know somebody is reading it, and an argument is more fun than getting a text-message from a friend asking why I haven't posted anything in two weeks.

Weirdest Google search that landed somebody in Denzel, WA this week: people from Canada, Germany, Belgium, India, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, three different areas of Australia, and the Isle of Man searching for pictures from Cats and Dogs 2. Thanks for all your eight-second visits, International Pet-Spy Film Connoisseurs.

Secretariat - 1/2*

Secretariat features three different types of dialogue: 1) Obviously Expository: "I've got a meeting with Ogden Phipps." "Ogden Phipps... the richest man in America?" "Yes." 2) Expressions of Doubt Right Before Secretariat Wins a Race: "Why is he hanging back so long?" "I can't watch this." "We're done." 3) Trite Qualifiers for How Fast Secretariat is Running Instead of Just Showing It: "No horse can go that fast!" "Have you ever seen a horse run that fast?" "That's impossible!" "Unbelievable!" "I don't believe it!" And when the audience dozes off for a couple of minutes and misses the dialogue, the generic score will tell them exactly what's happening, like when Secretariat is making a move to win, or when somebody dies. So don't worry, you'll never be lost. If someone drags you to this thing, kill the popcorn and volunteer to get more, or take an extra long doodie and play some games on your phone, or better yet, YouTube the videos of the actual Triple Crown races that Secretariat won... I assure you you'll find a lot more excitement in those videos, and maybe even better cinematography, and Secretariat will definitely not cross the finish line to the tune of a Gospel hymn and a scripture reading.

Secretariat packs enough drama into any scene to launch a spin-off film, and when things aren't really that dramatic, they're made dramatic, like when Diane Lane's character, Penny receives a phone call with news that her (at least) seventy-five year-old mother passed away (peacefully), the news is shocking enough for director Randall Wallace to end the scene with a shot of her dropping the bowl of pancake batter she was mixing. They're not afraid to radically condense details, either, like when Penny sits down for breakfast in a diner, and someone comes in with a newspaper declaring Secretariat "Horse of the Year" and everybody stands up and cheers (Yay!), only to be followed by a friend informing Penny that her father just died (Aw, shucks). You'd think that Disney would have mastered the annual inspirational sports movie by now... They haven't. Not by a long shot.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

It's Kind of a Funny Story - ***1/2

Creating humor out of a group of mental patients isn't a very difficult task, but creating interesting characters who actually feel like real people out of a group of mental patients is. There may be a lot of fun to be had in It's Kind of a Funny Story, but there is a lot more truth in it. Though it may be a little formulaic in some areas, its flaws are more than overcome by its wit and intelligence, and by a somewhat surprisingly great performance from Zack Galifianakis, who is finally getting, and hopefully staying, away from just being the awkwardly quiet deliverer of one-liners in the background. The brilliance of the movie, and of all of its performances, is that the focus is less about comedy, and more about characters who happen to be naturally funny, which allows this material to breathe a little bit without being burdened with the task of churning out a laugh with every other line of dialogue. The result certainly happens to be very funny, but also honest and heartfelt.

I could almost see this film being co-opted by this year's high school seniors and college freshmen as the movie that totally defines who they are, like a Juno or a (500) Days of Summer, but the difference between this and those is that this never sacrifices its integrity for unnecessarily over-cute dialogue exchanges and directorial flourishes. Instead it's just a simple portrait of a teenager unable to decide what he wants to do with his life. The course that the film takes to figure this out is definitely odd, but it's honest, and it's fantastic.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Jack Goes Boating - ***1/2

It doesn't seem that a film like Jack Goes Boating should work nearly as well as it does. It's really bizarre. It's as if a really funny script is being played with the utmost seriousness by four brilliant actors, which somehow makes it even funnier. Or at least I hope the laughs were intentional, because there were so goddamn many of them. The film is essentially a master class in awkward tension and brutal comedy. For about the first half I wasn't sure what to make of it. There doesn't seem to be much going on, but less a story than a character study of four people who do not know how to act in each other's presence, as though they bring out each other's flaws. But at the same time I found myself identifying with these people, and really caring for them, and beneath all of the awkwardness, the weirdness, and the tension, Jack Goes Boating ends up being really sweet, though it takes the most absurd path to get there.

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole - 1/2*

Crises pop up everywhere in Legend of the Guardians, crises that are solved almost immediately. It's actually astonishing that the film made it to feature length. Honestly it's surprising. There is about three minutes of character introduction and development: two young owl brothers who can't fly yet practice floating between a few branches. One can do it, the other can't. Guess who the jealous one is... bingo. One night he pushes his brother out of the tree and they land on the ground and are swept up by mean owls bent on owl-world domination and flown to a mountain where a "pure" army is being assembled and slaves are being "moon-blinked" into a zombie-like state after staring at the moon before they go to sleep. Or something like that. Bad Brother betrays Good Brother and joins the evil army, while Good Brother avoids a moon-blinking and vows in a rousing inspirational monologue to spend every unwatched minute learning to fly, even if it takes him the rest of his life, so that he can escape and bring help to the others. Luckily this happens the next day.

Nonsense this pure and narrative convenience this extreme are rare, especially in combination, but poorly thought-out easy plot resolutions permeate the entirety of Clumsily-Titled Owl Movie. In addition, the human expressions put on the owls' faces are creepy, the movie is pretty ugly to look at, all of the voices sound exactly the same, and the soundtrack is obnoxious to its core.

And when I wasn't preoccupied with any of that, all I could do was wonder why this story was told with owls. There is no reason I can come up with to explain it. I don't even understand the world in which it is set. There are no natural predators of owls, just other owls, who have somehow fashioned helmets and sword-claws for themselves. It lacks creativity of any kind, not to mention cinematic craftsmanship, coherence, and fun. It's an epic adventure story that completely skips over the journey, or characters bonding, or even characters at all. And other than talking animals, there's really nothing in it that even a kid would enjoy. Anything positive that I may have taken from this film I have already forgotten. Hopefully I can do the same for the rest of this bullshit.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

You Again - 1/2*

The lazy writing in You Again produces bad jokes, boring characters whose motivations are largely unclear, rich people who can be bribed into doing things they do not want to do for twenty dollars, tired cliches, silly coincidences, the expected unexpected reconciliation between characters who hate each other, poor narrative devices, and characters with apparent on-and-off memory loss that are all very convenient for the film. Unfortunately it's inconvenient for anyone that has to watch it all in one sitting.

The Karate Kid - ***

The 1980s are cool... again. Or at least that's what Hollywood thinks. 80s throwbacks, homages, updates, re-makes, reboots, and spoofs are all the rage these days, and the new Karate Kid had all the potential, and expectation, to simply be lumped in as another generic rip-off of a popular 80s classic. Surprisingly that's not what it actually is. Instead it's not only a worthy re-make, but also a really good film in its own right. The best thing that I can say about the The Karate Kid is that it feels new. Though it tells the same story as the original film, but in a different way, which is always nice, despite what fans might think. Why bother watching a re-make if it's exactly the same as the film on which it's based? Maybe it's just that the story is transplanted to China and follows a twelve year-old Jaden Smith, but it has a freshness to it that will make you forget to look for similarities with the original. At 140 minutes, the film runs a little too long and, to be honest, the first half hour could easily have been trimmed, though it does contain a few nice character moments. But once you get past that, and Jackie Chan enters, it's a really enjoyable film. I never thought I'd say it, but Jackie Chan gives an amazing performance, one of the best of the year, even. And Jaden Smith isn't so bad, either. It's not a perfect movie, but it's a lot better than it needed to be.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Ramona and Beezus - **1/2

The first half of Ramona and Beezus is kind of an annoying experience, especially if you're over the age of six. During this forty-five minute period everyone in Ramona's life treats her like a nuisance and condescends to her whenever she opens her mouth. The hyper-polished look and obnoxiously over-cute tone led me to the early conclusion that this would be yet another children's film with no joy and an obvious message. I was wrong, or half wrong anyway, because that description certainly does suit the first half of the film well. But then it eases up somewhat, and with the help of a nice supporting performance from Transformers' Josh Duhamel of all people, Ramona and Beezus gently glides into the territory of genuine sincerity. Though the obvious message remains, the film is made for kids, not a twenty-three year-olds. And when the message is to be yourself, and let your imagination run wild, I'm not going to bitch too loudly.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Knight and Day - ***

Though it was ignored by most people and shit on by the rest, Knight and Day succeeds more than enough of the time to make its reception seem unfair. Though you may think the title is awkward and the cast is questionable, Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz will make you remember why they became stars in the first place. While I am a big fan of Cruise, I haven't been able to say that I enjoyed Diaz in a movie in more than five years, but here they are fantastic together, alternating roles as straight man and funny man to great effect. Cruise is as charming as ever, constantly on the verge of being over-the-top in the best way, especially considering the plot and tone call for exactly that. Though it may devolve into silly nonsense in the third act, it's nothing that these two stars can't keep afloat.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Social Network - ****

The Social Network isn't flashy or fast-paced or full of distracting stylistic flourishes. It's straightforward, precise, and steadily paced... it is completely assured film making, and it inspires nothing but confidence in its viewer from the first frame. Its opening scene, like all of its scenes, is a micro-masterpiece, masterfully written, lit with perfection and purpose, and flawlessly performed. It also features one of the best lines to kick-start and encapsulate a film I've ever heard: "You're probably going to be very successful some day, and when girls don't like you, you're going to think it's because you're a nerd, but it's really because you're an asshole."

When I first heard about "the Facebook movie," I thought it was a stupid idea, but that was before I learned that it was about the creation of Facebook, and not a series of trite observations from loose acquaintances. It couldn't be more the opposite of what Facebook has become, and I can assure you that The Social Network tells a fascinating story that transcends an Internet fad.

The truly great thing about the film is Mark Zuckerberg. There is some debate over how right or wrong it was of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin to take liberties with this story, which has Zuckerberg doing some pretty awful things. But what it amounts to is one of the most interesting, engaging, and entertaining characters I've ever seen. I actually found myself rooting for him to screw over all of his friends and explain why he is better than they are, because he does it so gracefully, so fluently, and so goddamn entertainingly that it is absolutely irresistible. I actually found myself wanting to be him at times, despite the fact that what I know about him leads me to believe that he is a complete asshole. But he makes for such an amazing character, and I think that that's one of the great things about movies: when you can trust and root for somebody you would never want to know in real life. The Social Network is at once great escapism and painfully poignant, and it's a masterpiece.

Let Me In - *

Here we go with yet another completely unnecessary remake, this time of the criminally overrated Swedish vampire film, Let the Right One In. Director Matt Reeves, who tried, and failed, to elevate the giant monster genre a few years ago with the over-hyped, under-scripted Cloverfield, tries, and fails again, to elevate the vampire genre with the renamed replica Let Me In.

For some reason Reeves decided to set his film in 1983, 1983 via 2010, with every character dressing like contemporary Brooklyn hipsters, and playing Ms. Pac-Man while Ronald Reagan constantly addresses America. There's nothing in the actual style, the cinematic style, of Let Me In that feels like the 80s, an idea that could have worked for a schlocky vampire film, but Reeves desperately wants his film to be legitimate, despite setting it in the 80s for the cool factor.

The big problem I have with this film, which is the same problem I had with the original, is that there are too many subplots to maintain. The film is essentially about a twelve year-old boy who is bullied in school falling in love with a vicious twelve year-old-looking vampire girl. But there is a sizable portion of the film devoted to her caretaker, who goes around draining the blood from people for her to consume, which causes an absurdly half-assed police investigation by a detective unworthy for even a campy film. Who hasn't seen enough movies to know that you should watch for the peephole to darken when knocking on a suspect's door before giving up? The real issue is that these subplots add nothing at all to the film, other than forty-five minutes, and essentially end up cancelling each other out.

All that aside, I will say that the film looks pretty good. It's full of snowy nights and neon lights, which are captured brilliantly by Reeve's cinematographer, Greig Fraser. Also contributing some of Reeve's desired legitimacy is Chloe Grace-Moretz, who already wowed us this year as Hit Girl in Kick-Ass, and wows again in a much more subdued performance. She's about the only thing worth watching in this film, which is high praise for a movie co-starring the under-appreciated Richard Jenkins and Elias Koteas, or maybe it's just low praise for Matt Reeves for making Jenkins wear a bag over his head as he limps around, mumbling his nine lines, and putting Koteas in an equally thankless role. Yeah, let's call it low praise for Reeves... all around.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Notes 9/27-10/3

Monday 9/27:
Easy A
Alpha and Omega

Tuesday 9/28:
Resident Evil: Afterlife 3D
The Virginity Hit
Cairo Time
Animal Kingdom
The Town

One thing that I have come to realize this year is that it doesn't take much to be a hit at Sundance, or Venice, or even Cannes. Both Cairo Time and Animal Kingdom boast some prizes and "Official Selection" from some of these festivals and they both turn out to be more-or-less worthless. Pretentious gets you pretty far in the world of independent cinema, even, and maybe especially, if the film is empty, devoid of any attempt to entertain. I used to buy into these types of pretentious films... A few years ago I would have fallen for the all-grit no-logic missed potential of something like Animal Kingdom, and would have tried a whole lot harder for a whole lot longer to find some meaning in the colossal boredom of Cairo Time, but I really just don't have the patience for that nonsense anymore.

If you're looking for recommendations on these eight movies, I probably won't actually review them for a while, but The Virginity Hit and The Town are well-worth your time and money.

Weirdest Google search that landed somebody in Denzel, WA this week: "jason statham leather jacket end of expendables." Glad to be seventh down on that list of search results. Thanks for visiting, Los Angeles Biker.

New Feature!

Regular readers of this blog know as well as I that it could certainly use some regular upkeep, so I have decided to start logging some non-review content each week. I don't know if there will actually be anything noteworthy to post every week, but we'll see how it goes. Considering the fact that I am roughly fifty reviews behind, this new feature might get updated just as frequently as reviews do. It kind of pisses me off that I didn't think to do this earlier, or that I actually did think of it but refused to implement it so late into the year to screw up the uniformity of content covered on this blog. But it occurred to me that most of the people who end up here based on Google search results for "Denzel Washington should have been in The Expendables" only to find a snarky zero star review don't even realize that I don't actually consider myself a critic, but am just somebody who decided to see every movie for a year, so I'll start posting some other thoughts.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Death at a Funeral - *1/2

I don't know why the original Death at a Funeral needed an update a few years after it was made, but apparently it did, and we have it now, from acclaimed writer/director Neil LaBute. I also don't know why acclaimed writer/director Neil LaBute needed to venture into the low-brow comedy territory, but here we are. The new Death at a Funeral features a host of aimlessly crude jokes split equally between four different subplots with different areas of a family coming together for a funeral. A good portion of these jokes, mainly the ones about poop, or at the expense of a homosexual midget blackmailing the family with racy photos of their deceased father, or delivered by Martin Lawrence, fail completely. Others actually are pretty funny at times, though I'm doubtful it has anything to do with the awful writing, and everything to do with the actors performing them, Tracy Morgan and the underrated James Marsden in particular. The rest of the comedy stems from reactions of people hearing comments through paper-thin walls and zany sitcom moments, like when the guys think they've accidentally killed the midget while their wheel-chair bound uncle takes a shit in the next room. I think I'd rather have been shitting in the next room while this was going on as well, because I'm pretty sure that's what Mr. LaBute was doing instead of directing it.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

MacGruber - **1/2

The obvious question when thinking about MacGruber is how do you turn a ninety-second SNL parody skit with no story or resolution into a ninety-minute theatrical film? I'm not sure, and it's not exactly clear if its creators know the answer either. The result is a hit-and-miss send-up of every action film cliche you can think of, whether or not it actually pertains to 80s cheeseball television show, MacGyver, or not. The good news is that when the jokes do land, the film can actually be very funny, but when they start failing, it gets pretty ugly. It goes in streaks where you'll get five or ten straight minutes of failed bits, and then it rebounds and gets good again. The best praise that I can give it, and it does deserve some praise, is that it always does rebound from these lulls. Val Kilmer also adds a lot as an over-the-top psychotic villain, and if nothing else, MacGruber does give me some images I never thought I'd see, like Ryan Phillippe dancing around, pants down with a celery stalk sticking out of his ass to throw off the bad guys. It sounds too low-brow to even be ironic, and I honestly cannot explain why I laughed, especially considering that fact that he was not the first person in the film to do it. MacGruber is full of moments like these, moments that I can only explain my reaction as my brain just not knowing what else to do but laugh, and somehow this film confuses my brain in this way more often than it doesn't, and that's okay with me. Like one of MacGyver's stupid plans, MacGruber isn't a gem, but it'll certainly do the trick if you're not paying too much attention.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Losers ***

The Losers is nothing brilliant, and the good thing is that it's not trying to be. It's refreshing to see a film that knows it's place, especially when it delivers everything it promises. In this case it's gunfights, cleavage, and one-liners, and it works. Splendidly. It's a fairly low-budget affair, but it does a lot with a little, putting together some stylishly ridiculous action sequences, and rounding up a great cast of actors who work well together. For my money you can't do much better than Chris Evans in a witty side-kick role, and Jason Patrick nails the part of the comically sinister villain. Entertainment for the sake of entertainment seems to be a difficult thing to pull off these days, but The Losers wins does just that.

Oceans - ***1/2

Oceans may not be too much more than a Discovery Channel documentary, but the difference is that you get to see this film on a giant screen, and due to some ridiculously beautiful imagery, that is a pretty big difference. Though there isn't much in the way of a narrative, Oceans does have a few great sequences that play with your emotions, or at least tug on the part of you that hates to see adorable creatures preyed on by vicious predators. Take the scene in which a nest of sea turtles hatch on a beach and head for the water. We watch for a few minutes as hundreds of them struggle to cover about thirty yards and can't help but marvel with a big smile, until a flock of seagulls swoop down and pick them off one by one, until only a handful make it to the water. It's as fascinating as it is heartbreaking, and it might actually be a better action sequence than many actions films have featured this year. Absolutely dynamite.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Last Exorcism - ***1/2

The Last Exorcism has all the makings of a worst-of-the-year candidate: it's approached in the increasingly-tiresome found-footage faux-documentary style with a derivative set-up involving the Devil as the villain and is a horror film distributed by Lionsgate, the folks responsible for almost every shitball torture-porn gore-fest you find at the bottom of the cinematic barrel. But The Last Exorcism features none of the things you expect, delivering very little of the obligatory crowd-pleasing moments that modern horror films seem to require. Instead, it's a very slow build-up, starting as more of an interview-style documentation of a charismatic preacher who doesn't believe in God. The first half of the film is more funny than it is anything else, with the preacher revealing some tricks of the trade, and agreeing to perform the exorcism merely to prove that it's all an empty ritual involving cheap parlor tricks. The central performance by Patrick Fabian as Reverend Cotton Marshall might actually be one of the best of the year. His performance took me from pure dread to loving the film in less than twenty minutes. And what's really amazing is that when it turns from light and funny to dark and scary, the filmmakers actually pull off the transition marvelously, turning a joke into something deeply unsettling. Don't miss it.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Agora - Zero Stars

Agora is apparently about the famous Roman atheistic female philosopher/astronomer Hypatia. Unfortunately Hypatia is only in maybe half of the film, and what's more unfortunate is that of that half, maybe half of the scenes involve her walking around a sandbox with a stick, drawing diagrams of the Earth's rotation and orbit in relation to the Sun. Even more unfortunate is that these scenes aren't even the most boring material in the film.

If we've learned anything from films like Gladiator or 300, it's that subplots involving ancient political power struggles might be the least interesting thing able to be captured on film. Okay, maybe that's an overstatement, but given the last decade's sampling of attempts, the difficulty level of making ancient politics interesting seems to be pretty high. Agora doesn't prove otherwise, focusing the bulk of the film on the power struggle between Christians and anyone (and everyone) else. There are beatings, stonings, stranglings, sword fight battles, and people set on fire, and I assure you none of it will entertain you or make you care. It looks and feels like a low-rent Gladiator with a duller color palette and weird cheap CGI effects involving zooming in or out from the moon all the way into a building in Egypt.

And that's not even getting into the love triangle between Hypatia, her slave, and one of her students, who ends up being the region's Prefect later on. Slave and Prefect love her, but she loves philosophy. Nothing comes of either subplot, with the Slave joining the Christian Army for no apparent reason, hanging out instead with a crazy bearded guy, wreaking all sorts of havoc on statues of Roman Gods and whatnot. It doesn't really make any sense. It also doesn't help that every character in the film is ultra serious. That could not have been the way people were seventeen-hundred years ago, and if they were, then I think it warrants taking creative license to make characters seem at all interesting, or at least tolerable to watch for two hours and seven minutes.

The only thing that does make sense in the entire film is the message, which is screamed at the audience, at full volume, at every possible moment... Christians are the enemies of reason and unappreciated scientists are the true martyrs of history. The only valuable moment in the whole experience is one poignant line that comes at the very end. Too bad it's completely crushed and muddled by the burden of so much other nonsense and clutter going on to truly register.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Piranha - ***

Boobs, blood, and more boobs. Not usually the best combination, but somehow Alexandre Aja fits it all together for some outstanding entertainment in the new Piranha film. It's easily one of the thinnest plots ever conceived: seismic activity ruptures the floor of a lake near the shore of a small town during Spring Break, and thousands of highly evolved piranha come out to feed. Finally a film that knows not only to be dumb, but also how to be dumb. It has no pretensions about being great, or even having any kind of plot resolution, but instead it's eight minutes of set-up, probably two of which feature a fantastically whacked-out Christopher Lloyd, and then eighty minutes of climax. And it's refreshing to see a retro drive-in style horror movie made with sincerity, without any purposefully silly Grindhouse-like winks at the audience. It's exactly what it needs to be. The boobs are big, the CGI is terrible, the blood flows by the gallon, and it's all genuinely fun. Apparently that's not an easy task, because I don't think I've seen anyone actually pull it off since Aja did it with The Hills Have Eyes a few years ago.

Charlie St. Cloud - *1/2

I enjoyed about half of Charlie St. Cloud. The first half, that is. But the second half pretty much negates the first half, or renders it irrelevant, or makes you question the movie to the point where even the enjoyable first half doesn't make any sense. That's a bad place to be. There's a plot twist that drives that second half that has been done a little too often in recent years, and done far better than it is here, and it's completely unnecessary in this case, which makes it all the more awful to sit through. The story follows Charlie after he gets into a car wreck that kills his little brother. Before he died, Charlie promised to meet him in the woods every day, a promise that is kept for five years after his death, until Charlie reunites with a girl he used to have a crush on. There is plenty of interesting drama that could have been explored here, but this potential goes unfulfilled, and what began as an intriguing and heartfelt premise gets buried in tired supernatural twists and by the end it goes fate-and-religion out of nowhere on you. What a shame.

Life During Wartime - *

Life During Wartime may have many of the ingredients of a Todd Solondz film: loneliness, pedophilia, social misfits, confused children, but it's missing the most important part, which is the spark that makes it all hilarious and poignant at the same time. A brilliant opening scene aside, Life During Wartime is missing the awkward tension that is too painful not to laugh at. Instead it plays out a little more straight, feeling more like a misguided drama than anything else. And finding out that this was a pseudo-sequel to Solondz' Happiness doesn't really help. I'm not sure why we needed to revisit these characters, or why the choice was made to cast different actors in the roles. It doesn't work. Life During Wartime feels less like a continuation of that film than a tired rehash of it. It just came off as a series of boring scenes with vulgarity for the sake of vulgarity, and by the end I was left feeling not like I didn't get it, but like there was just nothing there to get.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Nanny McPhee Returns - 1/2*

The only thing in Nanny McPhee Returns that is more of an eye-sore than Emma Thompson's make-up is the rest of the movie. The whole thing. The color palette; the scenery; the props; the action going on inside the frame, like the scene in which Nanny McPhee is trying to teach five little shits to stop fighting by tapping her magic stick on the floor, causing the kids to start hitting themselves, pulling their own hair, and banging their heads against the walls. All of it. It's all bad, painful even. Like the magical child abuse scene, almost every other comedic attempt fails two-fold, not only missing completely on the humor, but also on the tone. The weirdest example of this is when Maggie Smith's character mistakes a pile of cow shit for a cushion at a picnic, is corrected, but sits in it anyway because it looks comfortable, which is followed immediately by the arrival of a telegram from the War Office saying that the kids' father has been killed, which it turns out was forged by their uncle, who has a gambling problem and is trying to convince their mother to sell the farm so that silly-serious hit-women do not remove his kidneys, which they almost do later on, but are stopped when they are literally blown away by an enormous bird-fart that also harvests a field of barley. Wholesome family entertainment, written by Academy-Award winning screenwriter, Emma Thompson.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Takers - Zero Stars

I could simply make a bunch of puns about how Takers just takes your money, or how it takes your time; how it takes up a screen at your movie theater; how it takes away your interest in watching it after about eleven minutes; how it takes about forty minutes for someone in the film to say the title: "We're Takers... that's what we do," and so on. I could do that, but that would be too easy. It wouldn't be very thoughtful or insightful, or worth the time it would take to read it; it would be boring and predictable, like every other comment anyone else has spoken or written about it; it would demonstrate no effort by me, nor would it give anyone reason to believe that I took any time to think about what I am writing and publishing; it would have absolutely no value or significance, and would be boring and obnoxious to read. It might not even make any sense. It would probably be taken to be the worst comment about a film so far this year... which is why cliche puns are a perfectly suitable comment about Takers.

Vampires Suck - Zero Stars


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Step Up 3D - 1/2*

Step Up 3D banks just about everything on the assumption that team-choreographed-street-break-dancing is, like, pretty much the coolest thing ever. It's not. Not really. Not even in 3D. In fact, 3D might even make it worse, especially considering the rest of the movie gives absolutely no reason to utilize the technology; it opens with, and features throughout, a montage of footage that a guy is shooting on a handheld camera and any of the non-dancing is shot in close-ups.

There is one good scene, a Singin' in the Rain-like dance sequence set to a remixed ice-cream truck jingle that took me by surprise, but it's probably the only part of Step Up 3D that even approaches any real style or quality. The rest is indescribably abysmal, revolving around a dance-feud between the good guys, who inhabit a house for awesome break-dancers that is about to be repossessed by the bank, and the bad guys, who are led by a former good guy bent on revenge against them after getting kicked out of the house due to gambling problems which motivated him to throw a major dance competition. It all plays out like a series of last-minute revisions and improvisations, with no attention paid to how moment impacts a scene, or how that scene impacts the movie as a whole. Characters say exactly what they're feeling, and seem to only be able to think in cliche: "What are you doing up on the roof this late?" "I like to come up here, and just listen to the sounds of the city, you know..." Though I will give someone credit because I would have sworn he was going to say that he goes up there sometimes... to think. Bravo, though it's probably safe to assume that the actor just botched the line. Another thing I would almost describe as impressively obnoxious is the tendency for characters to react to anything they see. There is a subplot that is started after the Camera Guy shows his footage to his Future Girlfriend... they're walking down the street the next day and she sees a poster on a telephone pole for California Film School and says he should apply: "You need to take risks! That film school sounds amazing!" Apparently that's all it takes to make a decision... "I saw a poster so it must be good!" I call this impressive because it actually makes me want to see more of these characters' daily lives and how they go about being influenced by every goddamn sign they see as they walk down the street in fucking New York City. But that's what the movie's all about: creating nonsensical feel-good moments in between epic dance battles. Oh, and later on, after the good guys win the world championship, Future Girlfriend leaves Camera Guy a package which turns out to be an acceptance letter from that film school. She applied for him and they sent the letter to her, apparently. Not to spoil it or anything.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Date Night - ***

The premise of Date Night is weak at best: a married couple with a boring life go out on the town and unknowingly pose as criminals and get in over their heads, running from both the bad guys and the cops to prove their innocence, all the while injecting some much-needed excitement into their lives and learning that their marriage is still fresh. Yup, it could have been a miserable ninety minutes, but the perfect casting of Steve Carell and Tina Fey saves it from turning into the drollery that it really could have. With great timing and delivery they're able to turn mediocre jokes into good ones, and they're way too good together for even some of the lesser obligatory marriage-and-kids jokes to come off as more than harmless. Great cameos help too, whether it's Mark Wahlberg's ridiculous surveillance system, or Mila Kunis and James Franco as naive scumbags in love... Hell, William Fichtner's horny, drugged-out utterance of "Sexy robots!" alone might make the film worthwhile. It's not all gold, but enough of it is.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Winter's Bone - *1/2

Loads of broken-car-and-unused-toy-littered yards and wolf print sweatshirts are an earmark of the stark reality of the desperate, poverty-stricken world in which Winter's Bone is set, but no amount of dirty, abandoned Playskool slides can make you forget that you're watching an average popcorn thriller, although maybe it's because you can feel all of the actors playing bad guys (and there are many) trying their hardest to act villainous, coming off most of the time like goons waiting for their close-up in which they get roundhouse-kicked in the face by Steven Seagal in an early-90s action flick. And oh yeah, there aren't very many thrills in Winter's Bone. I kept waiting for it to take off, but it really never does.

In the film, Ree Dolly has to find her father, a meth-head drug-dealer who put up the family house for bail. If she doesn't find him, she'll lose the house, and her brother and sister. So she spends most of her time asking neighbors to borrow their trucks in order to drive to a destination to which she could have just as easily walked. This is evidenced by the fact that nobody lends her a truck and she does walk everywhere, though one nice neighbor gives her a doobie for the road (Thanks!). So these inquiries basically amount to narrative laziness, ploys to introduce characters that will be important later on.

Winter's Bone took home some major awards at Sundance, and many of the people who see it will tell you it's a work of art, that it has something to say, or that it paints a portrait of those forgotten and left behind by society and rarely seen at the movies, but the truth is that none of these characters is anyone you haven't seen in a dark alley in a typical Hollywood thriller. The only difference here is that they're transplanted to the redneck countryside of Nowhere, Missouri and drive a twenty year-old pick-up truck instead of a ten year-old Cadillac Cutlass.

In fairness, Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Ree, is very good, but hers is the only fleshed-out, seemingly real character in the film. And the scene in which she discovers the truth about her father is also very good, but at that point the boredom of the bleak, washed-out, banjo-strumming, squirrel-hunting world in which the film is set has already closed in and suffocated any desire you have to care about what's going on.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Last Airbender - *

The Last Airbender is terrible on just about every level a film can be. It fails to achieve everything that it sets out to do. It's an eye-sore in every visual respect, from the drab cinematography to the ubiquitously atrocious special effects. The story is as silly as it can be, and what little narrative you can draw from its mess of pseudo Eastern religious cliches and unexplained mystical power structure, to the "Avatar" itself, begs to be laughed at. What's worse is these things are presented as if the audience should know how to put them in a logical order (something Mr. Shyamalan used to know how to do himself), let alone find them entertaining.

Airbender also acts as yet another example of a truly failed adaptation. Not every medium translates well to another. The film is adapted from an Americanized anime cartoon on Nickelodeon, where you can get away with a lot of the things Shyamalan tries to pull off in a live-action film. Crazy animals work just fine in a cartoon, where they fit in to the visual landscape and animation style, but when you have a CGI turtle-seal in a real-world Arctic setting, it just looks like garbage. Even something as simple as a haircut is made to look embarrassing for anyone involved in its creation. Or when an Element Bender is about to use his powers, he goes through a strange, way overlong ritualistic kung-fu dance before some of the horrid CGI effects escape his hands. It's pretty astonishing. The question that most often comes to mind while watching the film is, "Am I really supposed to be taking this seriously?" Unfortunately I'm not sure what the answer is. One thing is clear: Shyamalan thinks it's a masterpiece... It's not.

I really should hate The Last Airbender. I should. But I don't. I appreciate it in the same way I do films like The Neverending Story. There's something endearing about misfired children's fantasy films. Pure imagination stifled by the inability to capture it on film is a beautiful thing. Or a hideous thing. Whichever it is, it's kind of fun to watch. And trust me, that's not giving any credit to M. Night Shyamalan.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Salt - *

Who is Salt? I won't tell you because I don't want to ruin the surprise you'll feel when the film ruins the surprise itself after about a half hour. It's one of those films where you can guess the trajectory of its twists because you've seen any other political thriller released in the last eighty-seven years. Yup, Salt peaks at about the twenty-five minute mark, and steadily goes downhill from there, all the way to the incoherent multi-predictable-twist ending. It starts out fine enough, even if it's a little bit slow. There is some decent set-up, and a fairly impressive chase sequence that ends with Salt jumping between tractor-trailers on the freeway. But after that it settles into a series of uninteresting flashbacks and half-assed political double agent subplots which feel like the cinematic equivalent of somebody mumbling through the seven day forecast. Snooze.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Kids Are All Right - ***

I hate it when films reuse existing titles, a somewhat recent example of this would be the Will Ferrell soccer vehicle, Kicking & Screaming, which was not a remake of Noah Baumbach's brilliant comedy, Kicking and Screaming. This movie, The Kids Are All Right has nothing to do with the song by The Who, or the excellent rockumentary The Kids Are Alright.

I think that in this case, the offense is far more egregious because the filmmakers have simply reused a title that people are somewhat familiar with, for no reason other than that it will seem somewhat familiar to people. Boring.

The movie is about a gay couple and their children. One day, the kids decide to find their genetic father, so they contact the sperm bank who puts them in touch with dad. Mom and mom are unsure about it until they meet him, and guess what? One of them likes him and the other one doesn't.

It's funny, too, that a movie about such an unconventional family could be told in such a conventional way. From the beginning, one could predict exactly what would happen in the movie. Who sleeps with who and who ends up being a jerk and who makes up in the end and where everyone winds up. It's all predictable and blah, blah, blah.

However, the actors, especially Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo make the movie not just bearable, but incredibly entertaining. Their time together on-screen is especially great, though a dinner scene late in the film with Ruffalo and Annette Bening singing Joni Mitchell is probably the film's shining moment. All in all, it's quite good.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinski - *1/2

The first twenty minutes of Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinski shows the preparation, performance, and reception of a ballet premiere in early 20th century Paris. It's a great sequence that ends with the audience booing and laughing at the show. The rest of the film kind of feels like that ballet... It's not boring so much as it is just not very interesting to watch, settling into the cinematic equivalent of the aimless running and jumping of a bad ballet performance. It's the story of an affair between the title characters, and that's about it. They kiss and make small talk, have some sex, he gives her a piano lesson, and she fixes a missing button on his vest. It's not thrilling or erotic or exciting in any way. There are some decent performances by the leads, one of which is the magnificent Mads Mikkelsen, but they cannot hide the fact the film really has nothing much going on. We see Coco design some clothes and create a perfume, and Stravinski writes some music, but the film doesn't show how these events relate to their affair, nor does it establish why their relationship even matters at all. Aside from some fancy clothes and retro cars it's all rather drab. But maybe period pieces just don't really do it for me.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World - ****

It seems funny to think that Scott Pilgrim could be the role that Michael Cera was born to play, considering it's essentially the only role he's ever played, but I think that Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is the film in which he was meant to play it. His awkward/irresponsible late-teen/early twenty-something has never been more enjoyable, nor has it been better blended with the narrative, and cinematic, style as it is here in this love letter to/send up of hipster culture. Covering everything from being in a shitty grunge band to vegan superiority to going through a bi-sexual phase, Scott Pilgrim weaves together an impressive collection of hipster cliches without succumbing to their obnoxiousness, and skillfully turns small problems into amusing epics, ranging from finding reasons to put on a hat in order to cover up imperfectly messy hair to having to defeat seven evil exes to win the right to date a girl.

It's an action film disguised as a comedy, or maybe a comedy disguised as an action film, following more the structure of an action film, while taking on more of a comedic style and pace. But it's also part romance, part drama, part fantasy, kung-fu musical, live-action anime and about a dozen other different genres, mixing them all together into one of the funnest, sweetest, smartest film of the year, edited together at warp speed using a dozen different aspect ratios and never missing a beat. I defy you to find another film even remotely similar. It's incredibly unique. It's pure style and kinetic energy. It's simultaneously nostalgic and ahead of its time. Scott Pilgrim is, without a doubt, one of the most fully realized films I've seen in a long, long time. I can't recommend it enough.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Expendables - Zero Stars

The Expendables opens with a shot of the crew riding motorcycles through the street and into a building, then cuts to the title card, then jumps into a poorly staged action sequence. The motorcycles are not seen again until an end credit montage in which they ride them out of the building from the opening. That's pretty much what the movie is like: a hodge-podge of random shit that is meant to be badass, but that have absolutely nothing to do with anything else in the movie. "Motorcycles and leather jackets are real masculine and macho, so we have to get them in there somewhere," Sylvester Stallone surely said out of the side of his mouth to his writing partner at some point.

I guess this is what the movie was meant to be: everything that action movies have, including every random action icon from '87 to '98, but somewhere something went wrong, or everywhere everything went wrong, because what it's missing is entertainment. I'm not sure if Stallone is worse at writing, directing, or acting, because The Expendables hits none of the notes that it should, and wants to hit. It takes itself ultra seriously, shooting all of the dialogue, and quite a bit of the action too, in ultra close-ups. I guess ultra-badasses require an ultra amount of screen-space to speak lines like, "If I could have just saved that girl... I don't know... maybe I could have saved what's left of my soul." That comes out of the mouth of the Mercenary Gone Straight, who's still a tough guy who does the skull and rose-petal tattoos for the guys. And yes, just about all of the dialogue is that bad. Just about all of it is spoken in shorthand... "The general went rogue after skipping town with the goods, it was a real cash-plus operation..." Even their more civilian conversations are like this, but maybe that's because their civilian lives are still hardcore and action-packed; what little we see of them outside of their missions involves a subplot with Jason Statham beating up the no-good boyfriend's basketball team of the woman he loves: "You shouldn't have bruised the girl... next time I'll deflate you!" (after stabbing their basketball). I think that the only time I could condone punching a woman is in this movie, when Stone Cold Steve Austin does just that, because it just means that I don't have to hear whatever poorly-conceived Stallone afterthought was going to escape her mouth. And yes, the scene's a real stunner.

What should have been light and fun is just cold and dark, straining to be philosophical at times. The plot makes no sense, and the action makes even less sense, with the end being basically an eruption of chain-reaction explosions. There is about a three minute montage of the guys setting a bunch of charges on the walls of a big Spanish mansion. I don't know where all of these explosives came from or how they could carry them all, but when they push the button the terrible CGI explosions just keep coming, even from building where no charges were set. And there isn't even a solid one-liner to top it off. It's bad. It's pathetic. It's most definitely expendable.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Jonah Hex - *1/2

Anyone looking forward to Jonah Hex had to have known that something was wrong when there were no trailers or promotional material released until about three weeks before its release date. To be fair, it's really not quite as bad as I anticipated, but it's still not much to get excited about. Who is Jonah Hex? He's a guy whose face got burned while he watched his family die in a fire and now he can somehow talk to dead people to help the U.S. Army solve problems during the Civil War. I'm sure there's more to the character in another medium, but that's pretty much all the film offers. He's sort of like a superhero, or a guy with magical powers, powers that he uses maybe twice in the entire film.

Jonah Hex has some interesting shots, some bad special effects, some witty dialogue, and a handful of mediocre action sequences, which amount to an overall product that is completely watchable, but far from essential. The script comes from the absurd writing team, Neveldine/Taylor, which sounded exciting, but it ends up not making any sense, which is sort of their forte when they're directing, but with someone else in charge it all falls apart. It's narratively incoherent, lacking build-up of any kind and, at 88 minutes, the climax feels like a second-act set piece, but there's no third act to follow it. I'm not sure how much of this is anybody's fault; it feels like the studio saw a failure coming and tried to edit down a two-hour movie to 88 minutes, scrapping all of the relevant connecting scenes, and leaving in only the scenes with guns, shouting, or Megan Fox's cleavage.

I guess you could say that Josh Brolin does a decent job in the lead role, but he has almost nothing to do, and no real support. John Malkovich wanders aimlessly through his scenes, spitting out his bad dialogue as if he were doing an impression of John Malkovich mocking a villain in a B-movie, which kind of works somehow, and Megan Fox is as worthless as ever. In actuality it may be one of the most important films of the year... the film that makes people realize that Megan Fox has absolutely nothing to contribute. Bravo Jonah Hex.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Cats & Dogs 2: The Revenge of Kitty Galore - **

I'm not really sure why Cats & Dogs needed a sequel nine years after it came out, but here it is. It's completely unnecessary, but honestly not unfunny. Granted, a lot of the humor stems from how bizarre the execution of such a silly concept is... cats and dogs speak with awkward mouth movements, wear suits and eye-glasses, fly around with jet-packs... in 3D! It's not brilliant, not for a minute, but it has its moments. In addition to some pleasantly unexpected film references refitted for pets, there are actually a few clever moments and genuinely funny lines throughout this ridiculous film, like when the heroes walk into a house full of cats that are high on catnip, or when a spy dog rises from under the floor of a jail kennel to bust a police dog loose, and the police dog asks the spy dog how he knows his name, to which the spy dog (voiced by Nick Nolte) replies dryly, "I just came up from under the floor; I think we can assume I'm a little smarter than you are." Cats & Dogs 2 is actually kind of a pleasure to watch for about a half hour, after which the novelty wears off and the jokes are more inconsistent, but I think I have to give at least some credit to the kids' film that gave me the feline Hannibal Lector.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Killers - Zero Stars

Killers is a pretty appropriate title for this new Ashton Kutcher, Katherine Heigl rom-com. They certainly are killers, but not necessarily in an active sense. They're passive killers, like the deep voice guy from the Saw films. Like Deep Voice Guy, they lock you into making a tough decision between being tortured by watching them go through all of the charmless motions of a poorly thought-out, high-concept, espionage-driven romantic comedy, or killing yourself to end your misery. Of course, no victim in the Saw films is innocent; they're all in that situation due to some awful misdeed. The killers in Killers are no different, only punishing those wicked idiots that agree to invest money and time on such an inevitably shitty film.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Predators - 1/2*

The most interesting part of the Predators trailer was the shot of Adrian Brody stopping in his tracks to look down at his torso as a dozen or so predators have their laser targets on him. Unfortunately this isn't the way it plays in the film; instead it is just one predator targeting him, much less thrilling than a dozen. That's pretty much the way the rest of the film is: a lot less thrilling than it should be, failing to deliver the action and excitement that it promises, giving the audience no evidence that it even needs to exist at all.

The original Predator got down to business pretty quickly... there was a little expository sequence, and then a bunch of guys get thrown into the jungle and start shooting up the place. Predators begins more like an episode of the Twilight Zone, where six or seven random people wake up while parachuting down to a strange planet and have to figure out how and why they got there. Of course, we know why they're there, but for some reason director Nimrod Antal decided to amp up the suspense aspect of the story rather than the action, of which there is very little. I bring up the original film not to argue that a re-make has to be exactly like the original, but because it seems odd that what made the original great is left out, and because we know exactly where the film is going before it even starts, the pleasure of discovery is removed, making the attempted suspense irrelevant. So we're left waiting and waiting for something that never comes.

Though there are more predators this time around, as the title suggests, Antal for some reason decided to focus more on his boring human characters, a group of the world's greatest mercenaries and killers. They're given a unique assortment of weapons, which they barely use, to very little effect, both on the predators and on the audience. The writing is awful, the direction is flat, and the acting is pretty dry, which makes for a very, very boring film. But something tells me that's not going to stop someone from making the inevitable spin-off, Aliens vs. Predators.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Repo Men - ***

The future is always a tricky matter when portrayed in movies, especially when they take a negative view toward it. Repo Men has an intriguing premise, visual flare, some great budget effects, and a dark sense of humor that makes its dystopian future seem fresh rather than redundant. It plays a little bit like a low-rent Blade Runner, sans the philosophical inclinations, though it's not entirely devoid of intelligence. Following men who forcefully repossess expensive organs, the film has some unique action sequences, especially when one of these men gets one of these organs against his will and goes on the run. But what sets it apart from other action films is its ability to slow down and show a more contemplative side, like when Jude Law's character gets a call to repossess an organ from a recording artist, and let's the guy demo a new song for him before he gets to business. They sit and listen for a few minutes, Law tells him he's been a fan for years, and then asks him to lie down so he can remove his heart.

It's exciting, it's thrilling, and it's even kind of funny, but for some reason Repo Men slipped through the cracks. It's one of those movies that you missed and will forget about for a few years, until you stumble upon it at three in the morning cruising through Netflix instant plays. That's going to be a great night for you.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Mid-August Lunch - **

Mid-August Lunch, an Italian film about an obscure holiday, begins charmingly enough: Gianni is living with his overbearing mother, struggling to pay the bills, when he agrees to babysit his friend's mother for the weekend in exchange for a little debt forgiveness. The scene in which this is negotiated hits a nice subtly comic rhythm, as both push impositions on each other while still trying to keep up the pretense of a harmless conversation between old pals, and when this friend shows up with his mother and an aunt who was never part of the deal, it gives their whole exchange a nice punchline. From there the film slowly devolves into a wash of boring conversations between undeveloped characters. More women are added to the house before the night is out, and they nag at each other and at Gianni while he plays host. This could have been fun, but none of these characters has any distinct personality to form any kind of witty exchange. It's kind of depressing when you reach a point in a film when you realize that it's not going anywhere... and the only thing worse than that realization is sitting through the rest of the film after that, especially when it consists solely of a group of people celebrating a holiday you've never heard of.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Toy Story 3 - ****

A great film doesn't concern itself with what happens, so much as how it happens. You probably know the broad strokes of how Toy Story 3 will play out before you're too far into it, but the way it actually comes together is really a thing of beauty... and Pixar isn't about broad strokes at all. They have always been great at finding a way of telling a unique story using elements of its natural environment, unlike, say, Shark Tale, the story of fish who inhabit an underwater Times Square and have an Italian mafia. They have not yet put this skill to better use than they do in Toy Story 3, in which they actually come up with a story worth telling, and a way worth telling it. You could focus a viewing of this film alone on looking at all of the old toys they've included, or seeing how they've integrated the functions of these toys into the narrative, like using a bookworm as a librarian who keeps the instruction manuals for different toys.

It seems crazy that a handful of animated plastic toys act in ways more human than most of the characters in any film so far this year, but there you have it. Crazier still is that, amid these incredibly genuine moments, the film also delivers consistent laughs and some of the best executed sight gags I've seen in a long time, a few stand-outs being Spanish Buzz, Mr. Tortilla Head, and Ken riding the rickety elevator of Barbie's Dream House. To pull all of this off in a G-rated story about friendship and loss, and the need to have a purpose in life is really pretty phenomenal.

If you have eyes, ears, and a heart, you'll certainly shed a tear or two in the final sequences of the film as you watch two of the most iconic characters in all of cinema walk off into the sunset for the last time... Its bittersweet ending (though far more sweet than bitter) actually conveys a sense of loss that other animated films lack the ambition and imagination to even strive for, and you, and your kids, need to experience it. That isn't to say that this is one of those sequels that banks on your pre-established feelings for its characters, though growing up watching Buzz and Woody does land them a special place in my cinema-going heart. No, Toy Story 3 more than succeeds on its own merits.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Why Did I Get Married Too? - Zero Stars

There's almost no way to talk about Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married Too? without sounding racist. It's as if before writing the screenplay Mr. Perry passed around a hat to everyone he knew and asked them to throw in a folded piece of paper with a black stereotype written on it for him to include in the film. In addition to being put off by a cast of token black characters, I was never able to tell whether the film was supposed to take the film seriously or if I was supposed to be laughing at it; it's difficult to classify exchanges like, "I thought you quit drinkin'..." "Girl, with that negro you're lucky I'm not on crrrrrrack!" as bad drama or failed humor.

The plot seems to revolve around which couple can argue the loudest, or who can destroy the most expensive items in their beautiful houses when they return from an island getaway. Or maybe it was who can argue over the most ridiculous nonsense... (SPOILER ALERT) The couple that argues over the guy revealing the password to his cell phone to prove he isn't cheating wins. It goes on for the entire movie, despite the fact that there isn't enough there to sustain a single scene. There isn't even enough there for a verse in Janet Jackson's original song recorded for the film, though that doesn't stop her from singing about it anyway.

Why Did I Get Married Too? is poorly written, and Perry's direction of the material is even worse. It looks as if it were written for the stage, as most of the scenes consist simply of one shot of four people sitting in a row on the beach or in a house. Bland visuals would be acceptable if the actors could carry a scene, but in this case they can't, and the dialogue they are given is putrid at best. I never understood why Tyler Perry was such a phenomenon and, after actually seeing one of his films, I'm even more baffled than before. He's a terrible writer, an even worse director, with no comprehension of visual storytelling, scene structure, pacing, or the relevance of a single scene to the film as a whole... and he might even be a racist. The only credit I can give him is that I don't remember seeing a single basketball in the entire film.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Vincere - *

It's a true story, so that means I'm supposed to care, and it's in a foreign language, so that means I'm supposed to think it's great. Unfortunately it's boringly pretentious and doesn't make any sense. Vincere tells the story of Mussolini's Mistress, mother to his first son. Why that story matters at all I'm not sure; I didn't have a guess before seeing the film, and after seeing it I'm not even sure there's enough here to call it a story in the first place. It's as if someone took a really complex film and removed every other scene. Needless to say, what's left makes no sense whatsoever, and isn't interesting or entertaining in the slightest, which makes it something of a chore to watch. It consists of a bunch of scenes of Mussolini's Mistress crying in different places until the midpoint, when all of her crying is done in an insane-asylum. I'm not sure if it was supposed to be a portrait of dick-headed men who deny the truth or irrational women who can't take a hint, but what's on screen is a woman condemning herself to an awful life trying to get one of the most powerful men in the world to own up to an illegitimate son, as if that wold ever work out. Unfortunately the audience gets the hint a lot earlier than she does, so Vincere ends up feeling like a week in solitary confinement.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Last Song -1/2*

Greg Kinnear stars along Miley Cyrus in The Last Song, the latest too-sappy-for-its-own-or-anyone-else's-good Nicolas Sparks adaptation, playing the guilt-ridden estranged Dad, keeping cancer a secret from the kids. While watching the film one thing is clear, and that is that Kinnear must have a daughter between the ages of maybe seven and fourteen, and she is surely a Hannah Montana fan. Why the Hell else would he be involved with this awful schlock? There is almost nothing else good about the film other than Mr. Kinnear, who makes about a quarter of the film almost bearable, but it's all muddled by the intolerable little asshole who plays his son and Miley's approach to acting, which is speaking with perpetually clenched teeth and casting dirty looks at the pretty boy she will later fall in love with as Dad withers away. I guess it's a coming-of-age story, only it depicts a rebellious seventeen year-old girl mature into a calm fifteen year-old.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work - ***1/2

When I first heard about this Joan Rivers documentary, I instantly wrote a one-line review of it in my head... It went something like this: Why would someone ever choose Joan Rivers as the subject of a feature-length film. Who would ever want to look at her face for ninety minutes, let alone listen to that obnoxious, scratchy voice?

My first impression walking out of that Joan Rivers documentary: Holy shit! A movie that actually made me care about Joan Rivers!

My image of Rivers has always been that annoying superficial red carpet commentator that she was sucked into being for so long, but what I never realized about her, and one of the first things made clear in Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is that maybe she doesn't actually like being that person... "You think I like going out there and talking to those assholes!" Apparently not. The film portrays the vulnerable side of a comedian and, to an even greater extent, the way show business warps good intentions and promising beginnings into annoying, superficial red carpet commentators, desperate for a gig, shown most effectively in a sequence in which Joan goes up against daughter, Melissa, on Celebrity Apprentice, and acknowledging the sadness of actually having to place importance on such a triviality. Though if that doesn't interest you, it's worth seeing if only to discover, or to remind yourself, that Joan Rivers is actually really funny.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The A-Team - Zero Stars

In the new front-runner for The Most Unnecessary Film of the Year, The A-Team, we see the team assemble and plan some of the most outrageously complicated missions imaginable, sequences that are so impossible that director Joe Carnahan is unable to trust the audience to accept them playing out on their own. The film pretty much consists of about four of these missions, which are edited down to dullness, not being allowed to play out coherently. Instead each action sequence is inter cut with the planning of each step of the mission, and burdened with some hokey voice-over narration to further convince you that these long series of perfectly timed coincidences involving their enemies' reactions or the bending of the laws of physics could ever be planned at all... which would be fine... if they were the slightest bit entertaining. Besides being cut down to nothing, whenever any of these sequences is allowed to breathe a little and play unbroken, they are shot so close to the action and edited so rapidly that you can't even decipher what is happening. It's all very tiresome.

The A-Team also suffers from its simultaneously strict and loose adherence to its source material. Why would you ever have someone act like Mr. T? The charm of a guy like Mr. T is his sincerity, so when you have an actor reprise a role originated by Mr. T, the worst thing you can do is make it ironic, which is pretty much what's on display in this incarnation of The A-Team. The film tries to replicate the kitsch of an 80's hit while at the same time making it a modern big-budget action film, which only ends up dissolving any of the charm that was there to begin with, and lands the film somewhere in between taking itself way too seriously and not seriously enough.

And that's not even mentioning the abysmal CGI that blankets the film. At best it looks like a Saturday morning cartoon, which would be good if I were watching Wile E. Coyote trying to catch the Roadrunner, but bad when it's live-action and I'm watching the A-Team try to fly a free-falling Army tank by rotating its barrel the right number of degrees and shooting a shell to propel it a certain distance in a certain direction at the perfect time, so that they can land safely(?(!)) in a small lake in Germany. That cartoonish scene might sound too ludicrous to not be fun and enjoyable, but it's really not. Or perhaps, in the words of a real action film, I'm too old for this shit.