Saturday, April 28, 2007

And They Call It Puppy Love... The Terrific Fable “Year of the Dog” Has Bite

Where has Molly Shannon been lately? The last time she headlined a movie, it was the critically panned “Superstar.” She has since shown up in smaller supporting roles in movies like “Wet Hot American Summer,” “Talladega Nights” and even “Marie Antoinette.” How come this funny lady hasn’t had top billing since 1999? Who knows really, but “Year of the Dog” is a triumphant return. Here, she is funny and emotionally deep as a woman whose best friend is her dog. And then her dog dies.

As Peggy, Shannon imbues the awkward loneliness that was the central characteristic of her Mary Catherine Gallagher SNL character. Of course, here she is playing it for emotional depth, rather than broad comedy. This seems like a role written for her. She has restrained herself and she’s surprisingly capable of being extremely moving. Peggy loves her small dog Pencil. She lets him sleep in her bed with her and she even shares meals with him. She also has an office job at a company where she has a loyal female friendship with Layla (Regina King). King is terrific in this role as the off the wall friend, a supporting role that is usually played by Shannon.

One night poor little Pencil is sniffing around the yard and is tragically poisoned. Peggy is devastated, as is the audience, because her whole world is gone. She is at first consoled by her neighbor Al (John C. Reilly), and then suspects that perhaps he might have something to due with Pencil’s unfortunate demise. Eventually Peggy meets animal lover/vegan Newt (Peter Sarsgaard). A strong friendship builds between them and he insists that she adopt a new dog. Soon she pours herself into animal charity and animal rights activism. She promptly adopts a vegan lifestyle and begins a mission to help animals any way she can. Even when her new adopted dog (an abused German Shepherd) becomes aggressive with her, she refuses to just kick him out. She knows he’s just an animal and she still wants to care for him.

There are a few other people in Peggy’s lives: most notably her brother Pier (Thomas McCarthy) and his wife Bret (a perfect Laura Dern). They are your average suburban young power couple. They have a young daughter and a baby. Bret is the type of young mother who is at constant odds with her daughter’s school’s administration and feels movies like “Babe” are too powerfully emotional for young children, despite its G-rating. Peggy baby-sits for her niece one weekend, in which she promptly drags her to an animal sanctuary where farm animals have been saved from slaughter. Of course an attempt to visit an actual slaughterhouse doesn’t go over too well with the little tyke.

Wanting to take a youngin’ to the slaughter house is just one example of the dark nature of the film, which at times almost seems like Todd Solodnz directing “Erin Brockovich.” It’s funny that Peggy would take a 5-year-old girl to see cows get turned into hamburger meat, and while they never actually make it there, you can’t help but laugh at the absurd situation. Peggy soon goes from animal loving to animal crazy. Her transformation from dog lover to animal activist to animal rights absurdity is not to be missed.

All of Peggy’s actions are a direct result of her pet’s heartbreaking death. It’s through Pencil’s death that Peggy finds out what her meaning in life really is. It’s very unpredictable to figure out what bizarre action she’ll take next or how she’ll end up. We’re not sure if the film is going to follow Peggy and Newt into a blissful relationship and when we find out that’s not the case, we’re completely ready for the next step in the plot. The characters are richly defined and rooted in realistic human behavior. For instance, when Peggy brings in vegan cupcakes to her office, her co-workers quickly refuse the desserts as if they were made of cyanide.

First time feature director Mike White, who co-scripted last year’s odd Mexican fable “Nacho Libre” does a great job behind the camera (a camera which hardly moves; he let’s the actors do the work). His characters are quirky and interesting and he constructs a narrative of true human nature. His film will make you laugh and cry; it’s a fun fable that’s paws above the rest. GRADE: A-

Police Farce: Action Spoof “Hot Fuzz” is Mostly a Mixed Bag

Sometimes it takes me a while to want to see anything with, err, British accents. Their articulate manner of speaking, so eloquently makes my stomach churn. I’m especially not a fan of period pieces. I don’t think I could ever sit through an entire movie having anything to do with the words Jane and Austen. However, there are plenty of British imports, horror mostly, that have made it past my “but it has British accents” way of filtering out to see. I saw “28 Days Later.” Loved it. I saw “The Descent.” It was one of the best of 2006. I saw “Shaun of the Dead.” It was hysterically gory. And here comes the next British import: a spoof of cop action movies mostly in the vein of Michael Bay. I unfortunately had a mixed reaction. Let’s discuss.

Director Edgar Wright has an eclectic style all his own. He uses lots of flashy editing, but not because he thinks it’s cool. It’s because he knows that other directors think it’s cool. He’s in on the joke. He directed "Shaun of the Dead" with finesse. He knew the zombie formula very well. And his fake trailer segment “Don’t” in the “Grindhouse” double feature is hysterical. He understands parody. In "Hot Fuzz" it seems like there’s too much going on. He can’t really focus. What genre is he spoofing? Romantic comedy? Police procedural? Horror? Action? I’m not so sure either.

Simon Pegg is a great comic actor. He’s also a great actor beyond just humor. He gets inside his overachieving London police officer character Sgt. Nicholas Angel with humorous depth. He also co-wrote the film with Wright and they offer some genuinely funny moments. (And odd cameos by Peter Jackson and Cate Blanchett, but good luck spotting them) It’s just that the screenplay is a little awkward. Just when what seems like the final plot twist is revealed there’s still 50 minutes to go. The first half is more “Police Academy” and the second half is more “Bad Boys.” And the movie's plot goes from ridiculous to absurd in no time flat (although I guess you have to blame Michael Bay on that one).

Angel is promoted and reassigned (because he's too good at his job) to Sargeant at a hamlet's police service, which is home to some of the most inept police officers since "The Naked Gun." Jim Broadbent his here as Inspector Frank Butterman. “Shaun” alum Nick Frost is his son Danny. We have the Andys who are two cocky, mustached incompetents. An old geezer who’s accent is so thick it sounds like he is mentally challenged. And they throw in a female officer to spice things up. All of these characters add mildly funny bits, but they’re definitely not up to par with what “Shaun’s” supporting characters had to add.

And let’s not forget the suspected bad guy which includes former 007 Timothy Dalton as the owner of the local supermarket. He first tells Sgt. Angel that he’s a slasher…of low prices. But right away we know this guy is really up to no good. Eventually a serial killer begins stalking this safe village. And it turns out that the culprit may have some accomplices. There is an entire coverup that Angel intends to uncover. Meanwhile, there are some scattered gross out deaths that seem left over from the filmmaker’s previous zombie comedy, but they were welcomed nonetheless. And it’s not until the end of the film that all the slow motiona action, car chases and gunfire occur. It's all well staged, (as good as Mr. Bay) but by that point I didn’t really care too much.

“Hot Fuzz” has its amusing moments and some genuine laughs. It knows what it’s trying to do, but I wish it went about it in a different way. Some of the later plot points are completely outrageous, which bogs down the story but does add more potential comedy. I really thought the second half was just odd. Although seeing a priest getting shot and proclaiming “Jesus Christ!” made me laugh more than it should. It’s not as dumb as “Police Academy” and not as smart as “The Naked Gun.” And as far as being similar to "Reno 911," "Point Break" or "Bad Boys" who knows, because I had the good fortune to miss out on those. GRADE B-

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Legally Bland: “Fracture” Offers Great Performances and an Okay Script

Anthony Hopkins is Hannibal Lecter to some people. And some people is me. A cold chill runs down my spine when I see his face. I know this great actor is just that: an actor. However, it’s impossible not to compare his best performance to his other bodies of work. In “Fracture” he plays another sophisticated psychopath. However, now he has no real apparent motive and no interesting backstory. And even without trademark lines references fava beans and Chianti, this thriller is still miles above the recent Hopkins-less Lecter prequel “Hannibal Rising.” The problem is that for all the powerhouse acting onscreen, director Gregory Hoblit doesn’t give us much here that’s suspenseful or engaging.

Ryan Gosling is definitely one of the best young actors working these days. Every performance he gives is outstanding. And I think it was I who first said that he would get an Oscar nomination for his role in the wonderful “Half Nelson.” Okay, so I wasn’t the only one, but still, he was amazing! While his acting is still up to par, the only real reason to see this film is to witness the legal clash between our young hero Willy Beachum (Gosling) and our aged villain Ted Crawford (Hopkins).

Ted’s younger wife Jennifer (Embeth Davidtz) is having an affair with Rob (Billy Burke). Apparently this is ground for murder and in first ten minutes poor Jennifer has been shot in the head in her own home, by her own husband. Ted has known about the affair and decided to take matters into his own hand. The police enter Ted’s home and promptly arrest him. And lo and behold, one of the arresting officers is Rob. The police get a signed confession; this is an open and shut case. Or at least local hotshot District Attorney Willy thinks so. He decides to take the case and Ted decides to act as his own lawyer.

And so begins a battle of wits between theses two men who must carry the rest of the film. All of the evidence eventually becomes unusable. A conflict of interest makes the signed confession useless. And before Willy can say, “Boy am I screwed,” Willy is confronting the judge about being acquitted. The script introduces a forced love interest in the form of Nikki (Rosamund Pike) who is supposed to be Willy’s new boss. Of course that doesn’t stop them from doin’ it.

As it turns out Jennifer is in a coma. Her prognosis is not good, but it’s not really bad either. She may wake up she may not. Willy visits her in the hospital because he feels guilty for letting the man he knows did it go free. The point is that he just can’t prove it in court. Is the film trying to say our justice system doesn’t work or that guilty people get off too easy? I’m not really that sure. In fact, I’m not really sure what the film is trying to do at all. If it’s supposed to thrill, it doesn’t. If it’s supposed to be suspenseful, it’s not. If it’s supposed to showcase powerhouse acting, it does. And let’s not forget past Oscar nominee David Strathairn as Gosling’s employer who has a commanding presence.

I’m not so sure what to think of “Fracture.” It doesn’t really have much to say about our justice system. It doesn’t really have much to say about why people commit horrible crimes. There’s no real motivation behind Ted’s actions. There’s no reason why he chooses to mess with Willy’s mind. It’s basically an excuse to have a young and a seasoned actor go head to head. If you’re expecting the next great villain ala Hannibal Lecter you’re dead wrong. GRADE: B-

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Fear Window: “Disturbia” is a Slightly Ingenious Hybrid of Hitchcock and The O.C.

I was disturbed about half way through “Disturbia.” The reason I was disturbed had to do with how much I actually enjoyed it. It’s not an award-worthy piece of cinema, but it’s a lot better than just a high tech Hitchcock rip-off. If fact, it’s leaps and bounds better than Gus Van Sant’s horrendous, ill-fated “Psycho” remake, which still gives me headaches. “Disturbia” takes it’s time to build suspense thanks to D.J. Caruso’s competent direction, enjoyable teen characters borrowed from The OC and a script (penned by Christopher B. Landon & Red Eye’s Carl Ellsworth) that has enough twists and turns to keep this out of the update hall of crap.

The film begins oddly enough with a father and son fishing together. At first you might suspect that you’ve sat down in the wrong theater. Alas something tragic occurs and you realize that this film might just live up to its title. In fact the entire film is slightly ingenious in a way, because it updates a classic film (“Rear Window”) for a modern audience, yet it still remains legitimately faithful to the source material. Okay, so a lot has changed in major ways, but the underlying story still remains. Up and coming actor Shia LeBeouf plays Kale, who is a troubled teen (aren’t they all?) A school incident results in him having to be under house arrest for the summer. He has a sensor on his ankle that fetches the police when he wanders too far from his yard.

So here is summer vacation and this poor guy has to sit in his house all day long. His mom (The Matrix’s Carrie-Ann Moss) rightfully cancels his itunes subscription and cuts the wire to his TV set. What’s a troubled teen to do? He grabs his binoculars and begins spying on the neighbors of course! He’s sometimes joined by his friend Ronnie (Aaron Yo, who plays an enjoyable, if clichéd, ethnic sidekick). Both boys’ libidos race for Ashley (Sarah Roemer) the young hottie who has just moved in next door. She spends her summer afternoons exiting her swimming pool in slow motion. Eventually she becomes watch buddies with Kale and Ronnie.

The film takes its time establishing its characters and that’s a good thing. We will grow to enjoy them and become more worried for them once they get into danger. The danger would be the form of the scary neighbor across the street who just may be a serial killer. I can’t really say anything else without giving away all the fun. The neighbor is played by character actor David Morse (I recall him as Jodie Foster’s dad in “Contact”), and he does a great job of throwing everyone off balance. He’s creepy and then not and then creepy again. The film has fun playing with us, because we’re actually not sure whether everything will just turn out to be a red herring, much like the first half of “What Lies Beneath.”

Elements of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” make appearances (and the plot is similar to an episode of “The Simpsons” in which a handicapped Bart suspects Ned Flanders of murdering his wife) after Kale causes the cops to come out one too many times. The film also celebrates the medium’s (and the Hitch’s) most favorite theme: voyeurism. And while the film really does take its time getting to the good stuff (Hitch would be proud) it’s worth the wait. In fact, I feel the target audience for this film might even be bored. There are so many elements that are geared for the under 15 crowd, yet I can’t help but think that adults will enjoy it as much as teens. Perhaps they should have pumped up the language to keep out the annoying cellphone texting tweeners.

“Disturbia” is Alfred Hitchcock for the ipod listening, blog writing, You Tube watching generation. It’s hip without seeming too corny, yet it’s mostly intelligent unlike most PG-13 rated scary movie garbage. Most of it is believable and when the characters make stupid decisions or make bone headed moves, you’re quickly able to forgive them. The young leads are appealing and the villain is legitimately frightening. If Hitchcock was still around I wonder what his Ipod playlist would be like? GRADE: B+

Saturday, April 07, 2007

The Gore the Merrier: “Grindhouse” Offers Two Bloody Fun Pictures For the Price of One

I didn’t grow up in the 70s when cheesy exploitation flicks crowded urban movie houses. Grindhouse is an ode to exploitation and has no social value whatsoever. Grindhouse films were B-movies made famous by small cinemas who’d grind out schlock flick after schlock flick so often that the film itself would become scratched and damaged. These were films not part of the mainstream. And like any popular auteur, directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino have made films that could appeal to anyone who loves going to the movies. Or at least anyone who has a craving to see Fergie get torn apart by ravenous zombies.

Each director has written and directed his own film with phony film trailers appearing before and in-between each movie. It’s important to note that going to see Grindhouse is an experience. It will take over 3 hours of your time, but it’s well worth it. Sit back, relax and enjoy the ride. Let me comment on the fake trailers. We get previews for Machete, Werewolf Women of the S.S., Don’t and Thanksgiving. These are expertly made trailers for films that look undeniably horrible. Of course that’s what makes them so fun. God-awful director Ed Wood would be lovin’ it if he were still kicking. These trailers are a perfect part of the Grindhouse experience. And if you don’t like watching trailers too bad: remember this is a movie for people who love going to the movies!

The first film up is Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror.” In short, it involves a spreading virus, which causes people to blister up and become monstrous zombies. It’s one of the best homage to B-movies ever. Sort of similar to last year’s Troma-inspired “Slither,” this film is awash in colorful characters and even more colorful blood & guts. Rose McGowan is Cherry. She is a go-go dancer, not a stripper. Her leg ends up being a zombie’s lunch. She’s fitted with a literal peg leg and eventually a machine gun. Watching this femme wipe out a horde of bloodthirsty zombies with her machine gun leg is one of the most iconic cinematic images since Dorothy skipped down the yellow brick road. (Too much?) The film has intentionally funny dialogue yet plenty of gross outs and jumps. Horror film fans will be foaming at the mouth.

Next is a slight change of pace: Tarantino’s “Death Proof.” This segment stars Kurt Russell as a homicidal stunt car driver. He uses his car which he insists is “death proof” to hunt down unsuspecting victims. Of course he doesn’t expect to meet up with real life stuntwoman Zoe Bell who takes him on the ride of his life. Rosario Dawson co-stars in here with Bell and two others as members of a film crew. Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is an actress in the film, while Dawson is the make-up girl. The four of them share stories during long dialogue scenes, which could put some to sleep. However, anyone who enjoys Tarantino’s ear for enjoyable, pop culture driven dialogue will love it.

Grindhouse is genre filmmaking at it’s best. The films are skillfully and artfully made (with each director as the credited DP) and even Tarantino gets in on the fun. He plays Rapist #1 in “Planet Terror.” And it’s his best performance since playing an Elvis impersonator on an episode of “The Golden Girls.” Not much more can be said about the films in terms of plot without giving too much away, but this is well worth your time. You won’t be moved, become a smarter human being, or have a life altering experience with “Grindhouse,” but you’re sure to have killer time. GRADE: A

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Lord of the Rings: “Peaceful Warrior” is a Slightly Corny Tale of Personal Triumph

I was expecting a historic fight. I was expecting a Yoda vs. Mr. Miyagi battle. Both were inspirational mentors wise beyond their years. While their respective films may have ended, there are plenty of “let’s train the cocky newbie” stories left to be told. Now we have the true story, as told in the book “The Tale of the Peaceful Warrior,” of Dan Millman who was a star college gymnast who seemed to have everything. He was fit and dedicated to his sport, had great grades and an equally successful social live. But what about on the inside?
Those expecting a simple triumph over adversity tale will be disappointed to know this is a self-help book disguised as a movie. And that is not necessarily a bad thing, but the film can be rather preachy at times. Dan (Scott Mechlowicz) is the kid who thinks he has it all until he meets the random gas station attendant who he refers to as Socrates (Nick Nolte). Apparently this man can leap from the ground to the roof in a split second and Dan wants to know how. But before he can learn about Socrates he has to first learn about himself.

As written and directed by Victor Salva, the film has a structure of what I’d like to call “gym scenes” and “gas station scenes.” In the gym scenes we get to learn about Dan and his teammates who are all training hard for the Olympic qualifying competition. We get scenes of strong young men training on the hobble horse or dangling on the rings, which is Dan’s main event. Everything he’s ever wanted is in those rings. It’s through the “gas station scenes” in which Dan learns that it’s not about the goal but the journey that’s important.

Of course tragedy strikes and it doesn’t look very good for Dan. He has shattered his right leg and it’s unlikely he’ll ever be able to compete again. I’m sure you can guess what happens. Dan is determined! Socrates will help his young protégé; his young “peaceful warrior.” Meanwhile Dan catches the eye of Joy (Amy Smart) who is somehow a relative of or friend of Socrates. The film thankfully doesn’t give the love story a full storyline, yet it’s so underdeveloped that it’s borderline unnecessary.

For all its philosophy 101 attributes the film is slowly paced and plodding, but it does have a good message that is fairly worth seeking out. While the film isn’t vacant of clichés, it has enough original flourishes to give it a decent recommendation. Nolte’s performance is subdued and mysterious. Mechlowicz makes his character interesting enough to care about, even though he’s not really altogether likable. And it appears that the actor has done a lot of his own gymnastics. His teammates are just caricatures and appear so that the “gym scenes” can actually have dialogue. The camerawork is very good, with some neat compositions and nice visual sense.

A standard “look inside yourself” inspirational drama, this time about gymnastics, “Peaceful Warrior” is fairly engaging and it does inspire. Whether or not you’ll find the “gas station scenes” all that interesting or believable is another story. You’re bound to get caught up in it or laugh out loud. The studio obviously had no faith in the film itself, as it only received a limited release last summer and has hardly made a blimp on the radar since then. GRADE: B-