Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A Nightmare on Elm Street - Zero Stars

About a half hour into A Nightmare on Elm Street, I was bored into considering the logic behind the premise. Things like if you're merely slashed by Fred in your dream, but not killed, should you get a tetanus shot when you wake up? Or why is the solution in this scenario always to just try to stay awake? What will that do besides delay death by an unenjoyable two or three days? And can these characters actually hear that cliche shrill horror suspense music that was added in post-production to every scene? They must, because why else would they be terrified to go into their backyards to bring the dog inside? I suppose in a film like this you should just take it wherever you can get it, because Nightmare is about as scary as an untied shoe or riding a bike without a helmet. Fred looks like a drowsy scarecrow whose head is a stretched-out ball-sack with a mouth, and he is shown in the very first scene, a rookie mistake which, though I'm not an expert on the horror genre, I'm pretty sure breaks an unwritten rule, even if it's only a slasher film. Even worse is the scene that comes about twenty minutes later when one of the characters describes him to her friend, who also sees Fred in his dreams. Why go through an "eerie" two-minute description of a character, who has already been shown onscreen, to another character who already knows what he looks like? But that's the kind of thing this movie does best: dragging out scenes with obvious results.

Of all the perplexingly nonsensical plot twists or poor character decisions, the most confusing thing about the film is why someone picked this film to remake. As cultish or kitschy as the original film is, I think even some of its biggest fans would admit that it really isn't very good. But what it lacks in actual quality it makes up for with cheap thrills and genre conventions, and I mean that in an endearing way. This new update leaves those things out, opting instead to attempt to take the story and character seriously, without doing anything to make anyone care. It's a movie in which the characters are obnoxiously stupid and one-dimensional, with parents who are ignorant to the point of insanity who spew out boringly outrageous dialogue, a movie in which you don't revel in the fact that characters make poor decisions which prompt you to say things like "Don't go in there!" with pleasure, but instead you literally wonder why the Hell they would actually consider going in there in the first place, because once they're in there, it's not nearly as exciting, by means of kitsch or genuine thrill, as it should be.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Joneses - *

The Joneses has an intriguing premise: a group of salesmen move into a neighborhood and pose as a perfect family in order to sell the American Dream, which in this case is a bunch of unnecessary and expensive products that companies pay them to endorse. Unfortunately the film is exactly what it is against: a glamorization of consumerism. Like the McDonald's documentary Super Size Me, this film only serves to make its target that much more alluring (I got a Big Mac immediately after seeing Super Size Me). Who wouldn't want a nicer car, or flat-screen televisions in every room, or microwavable pizza rolls that won't make you fat?

Not making the statement it was trying to make would have been okay with me, but in addition to that it is also not exciting or even entertaining in any way, despite the fact that it stars David Duchovny and Gary Cole. For a while Duchovny's presence fooled me into thinking that I liked it, because there are a couple of times when it almost turns into an episode of Californication, but when a half hour went by and he hadn't gotten drunk and slept with a hooker, I realized I was just watching a boring film. Not only does the film not achieve the lofty goal of its premise, but the premise itself detaches the viewer from the reality of anything that is happening on the screen. It's hard to care about characters that have everything, and I'm not even sure if we're supposed to care about them. And when the time comes late in the film for them to make tough decisions, it's hard to distinguish between their emotions and their greed; I wasn't sure if they actually felt affection for anyone, or if they were just trying to make a sale.

In the beginning the film is exactly what it hates: a glorification of American insatiability and in the end it is exactly what I hate: an exercise in unearned heavy-handedness. In the third act Gary Cole, who plays the neighbor, commits suicide by tying himself to one of the many expensive toys that he had been buying throughout the film, a lawnmower with a television fixed above the steering wheel that he couldn't afford, and driving it into a pool. You see, he was drowning in debt, and so he literally drown himself... using the very cause of his debt! Brilliant. This device of making the audience get on-board with something in the beginning, in this case cool products, and then using that something to indict the audience in the end has worked before (watch Lord of War), but after this film instead of feeling guilty, I just pulled out my phone and looked at the BestBuy ad to see if they had any flat-screens on sale.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Back-Up Plan - ***

Who would have thought that, four months into the year, one of the most enjoyable movies to date would be a romantic comedy starring Jennifer Lopez? Not me, but there you have it. The Back-Up Plan isn't great, not even close, but it does do enough of the little things to get you on its side so that you're willing to overlook the obvious transgressions... They don't like each other at first, but then they get to know each other and hit it off, until he does something that is taken out of context and they break up for a while until her friend tells her to wise up, and so on. Sure, it has all of the cliches and narrative potholes of every rom-com I can't stand, but it also has several moments I would call hilarious, like when Lopez's water breaks at a geriatric wedding and you can see everyone in the background feeling their pants, or when Robert Klein shows up for one scene as the gynecologist, half of which consists of him repeating the word "vagina" ten times in a row to ward off the boyfriend's squeamishness. Maybe I liked it because it has the right amount of vulgarity, or the right kind of bathroom humor, or maybe it's just that, while it's not realistic in any sense, it's my kind of fantasy, the kind where an average guy can win over a beautiful girl with a candle-lit dinner where he serves pizza.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Kick-Ass - ***

I think I like the new comic-book adaptation Kick-Ass a lot more when I'm not watching it. It's a movie that grows on you. I walked out of it feeling a little disappointed, and wrote down a list of complaints like, "I didn't like the kid in the lead role," "Feels low-rent," "Disjointed." But after a second viewing and a few weeks to ponder over the experience, I don't really feel too strongly about any one of those comments, and my list of praiseworthy details has maybe doubled since opening night.

While I can't say I loved the movie, the things that I loved about it are those which I recall most easily. Aaron Johnson, the kid in the lead role, really isn't that bad. I think it's just that he is upstaged by just about everyone else in the cast, most notably by Chloe Grace-Moretz as Hit-Girl, the eleven year-old sword-wielding assassin, and Mark Strong as the mob boss and ultimate target of the film's "real-life" superheroes. Strong gives what is probably my favorite performance of the year, with the perfect blend of menace and nonchalance, like when he leaves a brutal interrogation scene and tells his henchmen to kill the guy however they wish because he wants to catch a movie with his kid. In lesser hands it would come off as grim, but Strong somehow makes it laughable. And that's really when the film is at its best, when it can transform something that should be offensive into something entertaining. Hit-Girl and her father, Big Daddy (played superbly by Nicolas Cage), share a number of these scenes, making wholesome family fun out of asking for and receiving a butterfly knife for a birthday gift.

I think the problem I have while watching the film is that not all of it is handled with the grace that these scenes are, and so sometimes it felt like it was going from one extreme to another without giving me time to adjust. At times it goes from real danger to a happy-go-lucky action sequence in the blink of an eye, and that's where it feels disjointed; it shifts its momentum too quickly for everything to register. And that's where the difficulty in adaptation lies. It's easy to pull off a change in tone in a comic series, when there are natural breaks in the narrative and each issue can have its own feel, but a film is meant to be experienced as a whole, and so a story like this can maybe seem like a little too much. But I have to say that for all of it's flaws Kick-Ass still manages to be pretty awesome.

The Runaways - **

About 20 minutes into The Runaways I noted that all it consisted of was haircuts and a great soundtrack. Though it goes through a short period of being mildly interesting, my initial assessment was not far off. The "biopic" of The Runaways, which is really only about two of the members of the band, features that polished rebellion that Catherine Hardwicke perfected to absolute mediocrity in Lords of Dogtown a few years back, where characters wear rebellion well, but never actually do anything rebellious. Kristen Stewart's Joan Jett utters "fuck" and "cunt" a few times, and even ruins a perfectly good t-shirt by ripping it up and spray-painting "Sex Pistols" on it, but you walk away with the assumption that she probably doesn't even hate her parents.

Dakota Fanning, however, comes off a little more bad-ass, playing Cherie Currie, the bi-sexual jail-bait possible-girlfriend-of-Joan-Jett-(they-sleep-together-one-night)-but-it's-never-really-made-clear-what-the-Hell-is-going-on-between-the-two-of-them lead-singer of The Runaways. She gets all of the fun scenes, all two of them, where she gets to win a junior high talent show by lip-syncing to glam-rock era David Bowie and giving her classmates the finger. Watching I Am Sam ten years ago, I never thought I'd see adorable little Dakota Fanning dressing up as an androgynous rock-star and dry-humping a school auditorium stage, but she steals the show. Well, her and Michael Shannon as the band's flamboyant manager and mentor. He only gets a few scenes, but the movie's almost worth watching for them alone.

But aside from two great performances, the film is a mess. I have no idea what time-span it covers, but I was left with the impression that Joan Jett went to a guitar lesson one day, paired up with an important music producer the next day, and went on tour before the end of the week. It all happens so fast you don't even learn the names of the other girls in the band. It's even missing the enjoyably obligatory scene where they come up with the name for the band. It's more than a little bit annoying that things like this are unclear, because it's not as though the film shows us the lives of the characters when they're not practicing or touring; that's pretty much all you get, which make the scenes in which Joan writes songs about heartbreak that much more aggravating because who has she ever loved? Somewhere in the third act, The Runaways runs away from coherence completely when the band breaks up for reasons that don't make sense and the film tries to manufacture some drama out of the whole thing, but I wasn't buying any of it, and neither should you. If you want to watch a movie about punk-rock, go rent 24 Hour Party People.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Perfect Game - ***

The Perfect Game depicts the trials of the first Mexican team to win the Little League World Series. The movie is kind of like the team itself: scrappy, a little rough around the edges, and in the end it comes out of nowhere to be pretty good. It has it's share of faults, but aside from being a little preachy in the beginning and featuring the inspirational film's stock character of the stubborn father who seems to not want to see his son succeed, and who berates and belittles at every turn until the end, when he risks something to witness the final victory, there's nothing too offensive about the film. Stubborn Dad is handled best when he has a little charm, like Paul Dooley in Breaking Away or even Ned Beatty in Rudy, but here he's a little too serious, which I guess is okay; it is his son who pitches the perfect game in the championship (the only time that has ever been done), so a little crowd-pleasing drama is excusable, I suppose.

But for the most part, The Perfect Game is full of charm and wit. Even the preachiness in the beginning dissolves into harmless fun, with Cheech Marin of all people playing the team's own personal traveling baseball encyclopedia/priest. And a corny cliched romance sub-plot between the coach, played by the underrated Clifton Collins, and a girl back home is handled well enough to actually add to the film rather than detract from it, with Coach being love-coached by a little dirt-ball Romeo who can't throw a ball but can whip up an excuse for why Coach missed dinner with the girl's family and produce a make-shift bouquet of flowers in a moment's notice. The rest of the team is fun to watch too and while this is no Bad News Bears, it's no Hardball (the one with Keanu Reeves) either, and there's enough heart in it to win just about anyone over.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Black Waters of Echo's Pond - 1/2*

I'm not really sure what to say about The Black Waters of Echo's Pond. It's a low-budget horror film with Robert Patrick, the dad from Kindergarten Cop, and the guy that played Frank in Donnie Darko, so of course it was absolute trash. But is it fair to beat up on a campy horror film? It probably is, but is it worthwhile? I don't know about that. You already know it sucks. You already know that there is no story, or what story there is amounts to rubbish. You already know that it is cheesy as Hell. You know that Robert Patrick was ashamed to be in it and probably stipulated in his contract that he only wanted to be on the set for one day, so his part consists of a bunch of shots of him walking around in the woods with a shotgun that are peppered throughout the entire film to make it seem like he actually serves a purpose. Sure, you know all of that, but what you don't know? It has the best line of the year so far: "I wasn't going to punch you, I was just raising my fist!" Okay, it's probably the worst, but the worst in the best way. And the crowd that it was made for sit alone in their seats, mumble to themselves and then chant, "Show me your boobs! Show me your boobs!" whenever a girl is shown wearing a bra. Pathetic? Sure. Hilarious? Absolutely. So thank you, Black Something of Edmond's Porch for assuring me that no matter how bad my life gets, it will always be better than the lives of your fans, and of your cast.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Hot Tub Time Machine - 1/2*

Hot Tub Time Machine is an inverted comedy. You know how a lot of throw-away comedies are funny for about 80 minutes and then for the last 15 minutes or so they stop being funny and wrap up the story that you didn't care about? Well Hot Tub is funny for about 15 minutes, and then has about 80 minutes of boring plot, mostly of the annoying late third-act melodrama type, so most of the movie plays out something like this, "But we used to be such good friends, and now we never see each other anymore and sometimes it just makes me feel alone, you know?" Stuff like that might have been good in a movie with actual characters and development, but Hot Tub is admittedly just Back to the Future meets 80s John Cusack movies minus the charm.

Now, I am not above stupid comedy; in fact I laughed pretty hard when Rob Corddry projectile-vomits at a squirrel, which is about 15 minutes into the movie, but I don't think I laughed again until the car ride home. Okay, that's not exactly true; there is a subplot with a one-armed Crispen Glover that is pretty funny, but other than that it's a somber John Cusack lamenting lost love (embarrassing), Craig Robinson singing the Black-Eyed Peas in the 80s (very embarrassing), and Rob Corddry saying things like, "We could combine Twitter with Viagra... Twittagra!" (lacks the minimum amount of effort required to be embarrassing). That leaves Clark Duke with nothing to do, essentially playing Marty McFly without the charismatic personality, walking around making sure the other guys repeat the past so he can be born in the future. It's boring. I never thought I'd have to beg for a couple of dick and fart jokes from a movie called Hot Tub Time Machine, but there it is.

You might think that a half star is a little harsh for this movie, but it was just such an awful experience to watch it. I originally had it lined up for zero, but there are a few moments that are pretty good, too good to be in a zero-star film, like the low-brow scene referenced earlier, or simply the line, "It's called male bonding... have you even seen Wild Hogs?" No matter how much I hated anything else in the movie, that line is still funny. And maybe that's just it: on paper, it's not like this is a tough sell: a silly premise and four actors that are actually funny. And in practice it actually showed potential for a little while, but it just gradually grows worse and worse. It wasn't even entertaining to make fun of it. I noticed that even my posture grew more slumped as I grew more discouraged with what I was watching; by the end, I was somehow sitting on the small of my back and my body was turned away from the screen. If only my eyes and ears could have been.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

How to Train Your Dragon - ****

How to Train Your Dragon made me feel something movies so rarely do: elation. It's beautiful, funny, exciting, and has a Hell of a lot of heart. I went into it thinking that it was directed by the guys responsible for the Madagascar (ugh) films, so I already had a bias against it, but it won me over in about twenty minutes, after which I gave in and started loving it. It is actually directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, the team behind Lilo and Stitch, and Sanders was also a writer on Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King, and his talent shows through wonderfully in this film. Though there isn't much of a story, the characters are pretty fantastic, and there is enough wit and intelligence to overcome what could be considered a formulaic narrative arc.

I saw this film in 3-D, a format which I am not very enthusiastic about. I'm one of those guys who, in advance, is already hating on all of the movies lining up to cash in on it (Fuck you Spider-Man 4), but Dragon kind of nails it. Maybe it's the fantastic flying sequences, which cover maybe twenty minutes, and are truly amazing, maybe it's the crisp animation, or maybe it's the fact that the great cinematographer Roger Deakins was a visual consultant that makes it work... I don't know what it is, but the 3-D is spectacular.

I should also mention that the voice-cast is superb, featuring a few guys from the Apatow family, like Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who are always pretty reliable in any shape or form. And then there is also Gerard Butler, who contributed to that negative bias when I walked into this, coming only a week after seeing The Bounty Hunter, but he pulls is it off brilliantly. He helps turn what could have been, and usually is, a boring character, the stubborn father who refuses to accept his son for who he is until the big finale where the son is the hero, into someone who seems real, given that you accept the reality of the film. His gruff, warrior voice in the beginning gradually fades to understanding tenderness by the end.

Though Dreamworks Animation normally produces bottom-of-the-barrel dreck and misery, like Shrek, Shark Tale, and Skrek the Turd, How to Train Your Dragon is nothing short of animation magic and, like some of the best Pixar films, it's enjoyable for viewers of all ages. After Kung Fu Panda and this, maybe I'll even give Shrek Forever Afturd a pass. Okay, probably not, but I couldn't give this film a higher recommendation. See it. Love it. See it again.