Saturday, March 31, 2007

Skate Movie: Figure Skating Gets It’s Due in the Uproarious “Blades of Glory”

It’s been done before certainly, but at least here it’s done well enough that it doesn’t matter. Blades of Glory is about two male figure skating rivals who are forced to skate together. And surprisingly the film doesn’t rely too heavily on male-on-male ice skating jokes. It basically pokes fun at figure skating competition in general. Who wouldn’t love to see Will Ferrell and Napoleon Dynamite’s Jon Heder gliding ever so gently across the ice to popular pop songs? If you thought the ads for Blades looked stupid, be prepared to laugh loud and often.

Ferrell plays Chazz Michael Michaels a sexaholic figure skater with the figure of well, not a figure skater. Heder plays Jimmy MacElroy a shaggy-haired orphan who just so happens to have skated since he was a little boy. Both are introduced “Access Hollywood” style and we know that right from the start this isn’t a film to be taken extremely seriously. We open up with Jimmy as a young boy skating with nuns to the tune of Andrea Bocelli’s “Con Te Partiro.” An event occurs in which both rivals are banned from competing in professional male single figure skating. But alas there is a loophole found by Jimmy’s stalker fan Hector who hilariously gives John Lennon’s stalker a run for his creepy money.

Since both male skaters are encouraged to join forces and skate together we need another villain! Enter in brother and sister team Stranz and Fairchild Van Waldenberg (Will Arnett & Amy Poehler). They are a manipulative, incestuous (and funny) pair who makes life miserable for their innocent, younger sister Katie (Jenna Fischer of The Office), who is always being blamed for their parent’s tragic death. Both Arnett and Poehler work extremely well together and Fischer makes a perfect foil for the crazy pair.

Meanwhile Chazz and Jimmy are coached by none other than Mr. Coach himself Craig T. Nelson. According to imdb his character is simply “coach.” Coach teaches this flamboyant pair to work as a team and to get over the fact that millions will be making fun of them. Their situations are comical and engaging and while it could have easily been montage, montage, montage, the script actually has being both smart and funny on its plate.

The film (directed by Josh Gordon & Will Speck) has plenty of great things going for it. We get the standard figure skating cameos (Brian Boitano, Nancy Kerrigan etc) and even frat pat regular Luke Wilson shows up for fun. The skating sequences are a hoot. The costumes are appropriately ridiculous. The dialogue is funny, must of it seeming to be improvised. I must credit first time writers Jeff & Craig Fox for simple hilarity. The cast is entertaining, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t get caught up in it all. While some may find that this has been done before as “Dodgeball” or “Talladega Nights,” Blades of Glory offers enough laughs worthy of a gold metal. GRADE: B+

Friday, March 09, 2007

Battle of the Bulges: “300” Is Neither Style Nor Substance

I never thought a film could make me pine for the cheesiness that is "Troy," the Spartan vs. Trojan epic that many thought of as nothing more than a "Gladiator" rip-off. Not to mention a poor adaptation of The Illiad that made no attempt to be original or intelligent. It had laughable throwaway lines like Brad Pitt shouting, “Do you know what's waiting beyond that beach? Immortality! Take it! It's yours!” Even though the whole thing was basically a mess of a film, it was entertaining. The latest sword & sandal flick to hit the big screen, “300” tries way too hard to entertain it’s target audience of 15 year old boys.

I enjoyed director Zack Snyder’s “Dawn of the Dead” remake a lot if not more than the original. That was a film updated for today’s MTV “I need an edit every other second” generation type of moviegoers. And frankly, sometimes I’m one of them. While it was definitely quicker paced than the 1978 version, it stood out besides the fact that it was all hip and cool. Now we have “300” which is supposed to be a hybrid of the Gladiator-esque epic and Sin City-esque coolness. It’s really neither. The “style” (scenes shot in front of green screen with the computer effects placed later) wears thin after ten minutes. And frankly the palette here is just ugly. The washed out colors are supposed to look old and vintage, but are just bland.

The film is based on Frank Miller’s comic…err, graphic novel of the same name. It follows the true story of King Leonidas (Gerard Butler, or as some may end up calling him, Butt-ler) and his army of 300 burly Spartans, who have more six packs than a frat party. They end up being outnumbered in the ensuing Battle of Thermopylae (in 480 B.C. for those historians who care). Their numbers are low, but their spirits are high. Barf. This is as inspirational as a high school football game in Texas. Then there is the enemy Persian leader (Rodrigo Santoro) who looks like RuPaul with bling. Let’s not forget the Frank Miller essential “creatures” including Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan), looking like the love child of Gollum and The Goonies’ Sloth, who will eventually betray the Spartan army.

As “original” as the film is trying to be, it ultimately isn’t. The soundtrack didn’t have any oomph and I’m getting sick of the typical female vocalist whining on the soundtrack. What about family members of the hero running through wheat fields? Got it. Or how about shots of thousands of arrows coming toward the camera? Been there, done that. And whoever thinks this film is violent obviously has never seen a Road Runner & Wile E. Coyote cartoon. A child is more likely become a serial murderer from watching Saturday morning cartoons than from watching this.

It’s really just a geek show. Let’s just say “300” won’t make any converts of non graphic novel fans. I know there are plenty of people who will love this movie, I’m not one of them and that’s okay. I just felt that I didn’t get to know any of the characters particularly well, so did I even care if any of them get killed?* It got annoying watching inspirational speech, battle, speech, battle, and speech for two hours in dreary colors. This is a testosterone-filled, emotionally empty movie of mind numbing special effect shots that aren’t very impressive in the first place. GRADE: C

*I realize I may sound like a hypocrite since I enjoy slasher films that don’t exactly rely on three dimensional character development, but I digress.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Romancing the Tone: Drew Barrymore & Hugh Grant Turn Up the Charm in “Music & Lyrics”

I find myself indulging way too much on VH1’s popular “I love the (insert decade here)” series. My favorite is the ‘80s with such classical pop culture references as Cabbage Patch Dolls, The Breakfast Club and Wham! When the film “Music & Lyrics” opens with a horrendously cheesy ‘80s music video by fictional pop group Pop! the nostalgia bus hit me. Okay, so maybe I was only 6 when Milli Vanilli lip-synced their way to a Grammy Award, but I love all things 80s. Then the film introduces washed up Pop! has been Alex Fletcher (Hugh Grant) and we never get to see the 80s again! The film would rather be a typical romantic comedy than a skewering of everyone’s favorite bad-hair decade.

This is definitely an above average romantic comedy, but it doesn’t come close to capturing the comedy of Drew Barrymore’s last romantic romp Fever Pitch. Writer/director Marc Lawrence assures us there’s no question that Barrymore and Grant will get together, with bumps along the way, but there’s a mildly engaging time to had here. Sophie Fisher comes into Alex’s apartment to take care of his plants. And while Alex is having a little bit of songwriter’s block, it just so happens that Sophie is a gifted writer. If Alex can write a hit song for Cora a Shakira-like pop singer then he’ll surely be superstar again.

So Alex and Sophie become writing partners. He writes the music and she writes the lyrics. And wouldn’t you know that these two might just hit it off in the love department. Sophie has some odd quirks, which Barrymore handles well. She pricks her finger on a cactus and promptly exits Alex’ apartment before it gets infected. It’s kind of difficult to see how Alex was ever such a huge star, but we just have to accept it.

A romantic comedy works only as well as the two lead work together. Does the audience actually want to see the two get together? Do they make a good couple? Are they worth rooting for? The answer here is yes but their romantic journey isn’t without it’s lulls. There are many scenes that just sort of hang there with no real direction. Some of their scenes in which they try to sort out their music are just kind of boring. There are laughs to be had, but it’s not really a laughfest.

Most comedies like this reveal in funny, entertaining secondary characters. Here we have some TV veterans in on the fun. Brad Garrett, of Everybody Loves Raymond fame, plays Alex’s manager and he has a good goofy quality that works, but doesn’t necessarily make him funny. The standout here is Kristen Johnston of 3rd Rock From the Sun who plays Sophie’s sister. As Rhonda, a married woman with kids who never lost that Pop! crush she has such an unfeminine way about here that completely works in her favor. Her shouting, “Gary I’m going out!” after learning she has a chance to see her favorite Pop! star in person (while in unfocused background) is the film’s funniest throwaway line.

Music & Lyrics isn’t without some issues, but anyone in the mood for a light romantic romp should be please. It’s not total garbage, yet not a complete success. While I’m sure many would find it a waste of time, I found enough about it to be charmed by it all. GRADE: B-

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Skank’s on a Chain: The Oddball Southern Tale “Black Snake Moan” is Surprisingly Watchable

I don’t even know what to say. The trailer for “Black Snake Moan” puzzled me way back in December. What appeared to be a film about a black man who “rehabilitates” a young promiscuous white woman in the Deep South looked like an odd movie going experience. And low and behold it is! This is certainly a B-movie if there ever was one. And I’ve decided that every movie that Samuel L. Jackson makes from now on should have “snake” somewhere in the title.

We open on some old black & white stock footage of a black blues guitarist unknown by me. Then we cut to Christina Ricci doin’ it with Justin Timberlake. Then we have Samuel L. Jackson in what appears to be a scene involving his ex-wife. What is going on? I have no idea. Quickly Ronnie (Timberlake) is going off to war and Rae (Ricci) is going to be left all by her lonesome. As Ronnie drives away, Rae (who gives Reese Witherspoon a run for her money in the Southern accent department) begins to thrive and wriggle in the grass in what appears to be an orgasm brought on by Ronnie’s car exhaust. After a night of being drugged up and wasted at a party she ends up right near Lazarus’ (Jackson) house. She’s beaten up and barely conscious and barely clothed for that matter.

Lazarus comes to the girl’s rescue. He runs down to the pharmacy for some medicine and makes it his goal to help this poor thing. Soon he discovers that she’s hornier than a rabbit in heat and before you know it Lazarus has chained up poor Rae to the radiator. He has decided to cure Rae of her wicked ways (read: stop being a slut). There are scenes of Ricci writhing around on the floor as if the Invisible Man is sexually assaulting her and it’s really hard to figure out what we’re supposed to do with all of this. I mean, it’s kind of funny and kind of not, but it’s always entertaining.

The film doesn’t exactly know what genre it is, but it always has a conscious idea that it’s a too silly to be taken seriously. There are outrageously funny parts including a young teen who stops by the house to deliver something and Rae promptly jumps him. Music also has a main role here although I would hardly called it a musical. There are scenes that take place in a steamy jazz club in which Lazarus is center stage and filled with secondary characters. This is a film that could have been Misery meets Pretty Woman but it’s not. And the film works best if you try not to label it as one type of genre.

The actors do good jobs in their roles especially Jackson and Ricci. I admire Ricci for taking a sexually provocative role that I’m sure many actresses certainly passed on. I’ve never found her to be an overly gifted actress (even in Monster she was one-note) but she finally gets a role she can shine in. Jackson is also well cast as the Southern musician who’s mission it is to cure Rae of her sins. And Timberlake does a fairly good job as Rae’s boyfriend, but it’s still hard to keep a straight face when his character breaks down into tears. I mean this is the guy who sings SexyBack for God’s sake.

This is one of the strangest movies I’ve ever seen and writer/director Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow) has certainly come up with one of the most original stories to come out in awhile. It’s a film not exactly recommended for everyone, but anyone curious enough to see what a film called “Black Snake Moan” could possibly be about should give it a try. GRADE: B+

Saturday, March 03, 2007

I Saw the Sign: “Zodiac” is an Enjoyable Murder Mystery

I love serial killers. Okay that makes me sound like Ted Bundy; rather, I enjoy learning about what goes on inside a serial murderer’s mind. Some might not think so, but it can be fascinating. I really enjoy the sick ones: Dahmer, Gacy, Gein, you know, the ones that cut people up or turned their home’s crawl space into a foul grave. Can you blame me? I like movies like Saw and Hostel. So, it’s not surprising to find out I was thrilled to learn David Fincher was making another serial killer flick, but the Zodiac? I’ve never found him a very interesting or compelling killer. And to me, besides the fact he was never caught, there’s not much about him that’s fascinating. Therefore is it not surprising that I didn’t absolutely LOVE “Zodiac”? It is a very good film and a fascinating look at the people who literally became obsessed with finding out who this maniac was.

Since most of us know that the Zodiac was never identified (even though some of his victims survived) we can probably guess the film’s ending, but it’s the process in how we get there that’s compelling. The film starts superbly with a young couple in a car in the late sixties. We’re just waiting to see how they get killed and it’s suspenseful. The murder scenes are the best parts of the film. The next couple by the lake is especially good, it’s hard to know where it’s going exactly. The killer shows up with a gun, but they end up being stabbed.

The main characters included San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist and single dad Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal). Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) is a writer for the paper. The Zodiac begins by sending cryptic letters to the Chronicle, in code (paging Robert Langdon), in which he demands they be printed in the circulated paper. Soon Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) enters the scene as the case’s lead detective. The actors are good, and while many might find this to be an exceptional cast, I found it just good. These are all watchable actors, but none of which I’m a particular fan of. As for the women, I’ve never particularly liked the blandness that is Chloë Sevigny (she’s Gyllenhaal’s blind date and eventual wife).

While the film is long, that’s not a problem. The film runs smoothly and is moderately intriguing, but the film’s second half (which has no more murder scenes) gets slightly hysterical when Robert takes over (Paul has a complete collapse and leaves the paper) and becomes obsessed with the finding out the killer’s identity. Downey’s character is a scene-stealer and he’s missed in the fim’s last half.

This is the least David Fincher-esque of all his films (although I’ve never seen The Game). He has some trademark stylistic camera moves and placements. I loved that taxicab aerial view shot. While he played homage to Hitchcock in Panic Room (with fun experimentation with long takes and nifty camera moves), here he pays homage to 70s procedural flicks. This is more of a police mystery rather than psycho thriller, which seem like it could definitely have been released in 1978. It plays more like All the President’s Men than Silence of the Lambs, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just unexpected.

Unfortunately we get no real insights into a serial killer’s mind. We don’t get the sense of the fear of what it was like to live in the Bay area during this time, but we get to feel what it was like to be a reporter at a newspaper. That seems odd to me. One scene towards the end that is supposed to be suspenseful isn’t because it would be way too obvious if a certain character just happened to unwittingly step into the killer’s domicile ala Jodie foster at the end of Lambs.
While the film is enjoyable, sophisticated and unexpectedly not overly grotesque, I couldn’t help but feel like the whole thing was procedural. It didn’t feel exactly fresh or new, but I found it a worthwhile cinematic experience. GRADE: B