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.