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.
Monday, August 23, 2010
Sunday, August 22, 2010
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 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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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 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
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
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, 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
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
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
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
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
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.