Monday, May 28, 2007

Roach Motel: “Bug” Will Either Get Under Your Skin or Drone On and On

Like the characters in "Bug," I’m feeling slightly paranoid. Unlike the characters in "Bug" I'm not a complete wacko. I'm scared because we found a huge spider in our house the other day. I’m talking Buick-sized here. If one innocent bug (assuming it wasn’t poisonous, seeing as though we live in Connecticut) could make me practically fear for my life, what could hundreds of bugs do? If you want to see a movie in which hundreds of creepy crawly insects attack innocent locals then “Bug” is not it. “Bug” shares much more in common with Hitchcock than “Arachnophobia.” And while it is psychologically taut and watchable from start to finish, it may cause involuntary laughter from those not inclined to deal with a movie called “Bug” that, SPOILER, never shows a single insect on screen.

Based on a stage play by Tracy Letts (who also wrote the screenplay) “Bug” is not a film to be easily liked (read: not mainstream) but it’s a good alternative to the big budget summer spectacles. This is a movie worth praising simply for how different it is. It’s the complete opposite of what you’d expect from a movie opening on Memorial Day weekend. If you’re going to check out Pirates 3 and it’s sold out, I don’t think I could honestly recommend “Bug” because odds are you’re likely to walk out halfway through it. But that’s not because it’s a bad movie, it’s because most moviegoers have been trained to accept a certain type of cinematic structure that is simply different in “Bug.” It’s simply about a couple of emotionally lost characters who talk to each other in a grungy motel room and the mental breakdown that follows. It’s tensely directed and makes you feel uncomfortable and claustrophobic and it has really gross parts as well. It’s a movie easy to dismiss but hard to forget.

William “The Exorcist” Friedkin is an over-the-top director. His films tend to get a little ridiculous and he’s not exactly subtle. For instance, never see “The Guardian” which is about a nanny-posing, tree-worshiping druid. I’m not making this up. I *wish* I was making this up. (It makes the Ashton Kutcher movie of the same name seem like “The Godfather”) Having said that he’s a great director of actors and he wrings a spectacular performance from Ashley Judd. Her scenes (which is basically the entire movie) command your attention; you can hardly keep your eyes off her. Michael Shannon is a lonely drifter who is introduced to Judd by her best gal pal (Lynn Collins). Judd’s a lonely, southern woman and she enjoys the company no matter how odd Shannon seems. (She’s obviously lonely since she lives in a motel literally in the middle of nowhere) Meanwhile, Judd’s crazy ex-husband (perfectly wacky Harry Connick Jr.) is bugging her ever since he was paroled.

Like I mentioned earlier the film is based on a play and it’s obvious: minimal staging, theatrical lighting, lots of monologues, a small cast and lots of psychological tension. The entire movie you’re really thinking what’s the point of all this and where is this going, and then it just ends, and you have to ponder for hours afterwards about what you just witnessed. It will get under your skin and either stay with you and make you think, or it will make you grab a can of Raid and make you swear never to see it again. Like a play there are two acts: the first involving the meeting of Judd and Shannon’s characters. They eventually make passionate love and then he confesses that after serving in the Gulf, the military planted tiny bugs into his body that feed off his blood. Judd pretty much buys this nonsense right away and it sets up the second half of the film in which they basically go completely berserk. Their final scenes achieve a superior lunacy that I found fascinating to watch. This is some tremendous acting because I bought everything they were saying. I almost felt that these actors would need counseling after playing these roles. They present us with some very disturbing (ripping out teeth much?) and vibrant images (a room covered with tinfoil looks cool) and it’s hard to remove yourself from what’s going on.

The allusions to “Psycho” are there: a seedy motel setting and a great opening tracking shot that is repeated throughout the film. Something is coming and we don’t know what, and that’s exactly the point. Because like the enigma-filled TV mystery “Lost,” “Bug” is a mysterious mind trip that you can’t escape. It may bug the heck out of you but it’s a completely watchable and worthwhile experience. GRADE: B

NOTE: During my screening, several people got up and left. They left with probably less than 15 minutes left to go in the movie. The movie is 100 minutes long. If you can stand the first half hour and get up that far into the movie, you’re more of a moron than I give you credit for.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

One Flew Ogre the Cuckoo’s Nest: “Shrek the Third” is a Decent Chapter in the Overly Popular Series

My favorite movie of all time is “Airplane!” As strange as it sounds, I love movies so much that I love when movies reference other movies. I remember vividly going to see the first “Shrek” movie. It was practically the “Airplane!” of fairy tale movies. It was about time that an animated film came along that poked fun at the various clichés made uber popular by Disney cartoons. All that those elements like a princess stowed away in a tall tower, slaying dragons, magical woodland creatures, and talking animals all had it handed to them in the first “Shrek.” The film was a sensation that not only wont the first Animated Film Oscar but spawned a sequel and now a third chapter. This third outing of “Shrek” brings back all the characters we’ve come to adore in a story that is mostly enjoyable.

The first “Shrek” had the benefit of its originality. When Princess Fiona is singing to a bird in the forest and her high notes causes it to self-combust, that was a laugh riot! That film turned fairy tale clichés on its head and finally spoofed all the good-natured fun to be found in Disney movies with plenty of a adult humor. “Shrek the Third,” while it still has moments of pure hilarity, just has a slight “been there, done that” feel. It’s obvious that the filmmakers really had to concentrate on getting a decent story (there are nearly five writers) because the first two “Shrek” films didn’t necessarily require a third chapter. It’s obvious that this third film is here to make money and satisfy fans, and in those regards it’s bound to succeed.

At the end of the last film Princess Fiona (in ogre form) and the lovable “Shrek” are living the life of luxury in the kingdom of Far Far Away. Fiona’s parents the Queen and King are the rulers, but the King (in frog form) is dying (in a hilarious scene). As part of his last words, the King announces that there is an heir to the throne to be found in a man by the name of Arthur. Since Shrek doesn’t exactly find himself to be king material, (nor father material even though Fiona is preggers) he sets out with Donkey and Puss in Boots to find this Arthur and make him rightful King of Far Far Away. Of course the devious Prince Charming and all the other storybook villains have other plans in store.

First time director Chris Miller has made a technically brilliant computer animated film. Computer technology has come a long way since the first “Shrek” and it’s obvious. The characters definitely move more realistically, the camera moves are more fluid and the colors are simply beautiful. The details on the characters are amazing from the stubble on Prince Charming’s face to the way the animals’ hair moves realistically. And not surprisingly the talented cast pretty much steals the show. Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy, Antonio Banderas, Rupert Everett are all in fine form.

The film has several riotous standout moments. The Gingerbread Man has a hilarious sequence in which is life flashes before his eyes. He has many funny memories such as being baked in the oven and being tortured by Lord Farquaad in the first film. Shrek finds Arthur, (Justin Timberlake) who happens to be a teenager in high school, in what has to be a highlight sequence. All the teens talk in a funny mix of Valley Girl talk and Renaissance vernacular. Common lines here are “Like, totally ew-eth.” Also new to the film are the squad of princesses, who must take down Charming’s raid of Far Far Away, including Amy Poehler as Snow White (who has a standout sequence with forest critters), Amy Sedaris as Cinderella, Cheri Oteri as a narcoleptic Sleeping Beauty, and Maya Rudolph as the scheming Rapunzel, complete with hair extensions. And there are about a gazillion other talented actors giving their voices that would take days to list.

I can’t help but think this third outing is just a padded, moneymaking product, but it’s an entertaining product. The characters that we all fell in love with are back and it’s a worthy summer movie. There are plenty of randomly funny sequences, but I think it’s time for Shrek to retire back to his smelly swamp. GRADE: B

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Down With the Sickness: “28 Weeks Later” is an Infectiously Good Sequel

“28 Days Later” scared the crap out of me. I’m sure it scared the crap out of you. It was one of those great scary movies that come along every few years and just blow you away. Last year’s was the British import “The Descent.” Remind me not to go cave diving anytime soon. It seems nearly impossible to make a successful horror sequel from such an outstanding first start. (Does the God-awful “Blair Witch 2” ring a bell?) Bigger doesn’t automatically mean better, but “28 Weeks Later” is a gloriously entertaining follow-up that is every bit as intelligent and frightening as it’s predecessor.

Sometimes sequels with a clean slate of characters and crewmembers just don’t work. I’d love to say that’s why “The Birds II: Land’s End” wasn’t successful but that figuring out that mess could take 28 weeks time. I was worried that Jim, Selena and little Hannah weren’t around. By the end of the first film, you felt as if you were experiencing the horrifically disastrous apocalypse with them. And besides isn’t the cardinal rule to continue a horror sequel with the previous film’s survivors? Not in this case, but it turns out to be a good thing.

New director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo has made his film similarly to Danny Boyle’s without just ripping off his style (the film is also shot mostly on Digital Video). It feels as if Boyle could perhaps be behind the camera, but alas his only credit here is as executive producer. At least we don’t get an overwhelmingly dark and crazy third act, although I’d have to say the ending here is in the least…bleak. Our new characters consist of Don (The Full Monty’s Robert Carlyle) who escapes the intense precredit sequence without his wife, because the guy LEFT HER BEHIND. How fascinating to start a movie with a cowardly hero! Let’s thank the brave writers Rowan Joffe, Jesús Olmo and Fresnadillo.

After nearly 6 months, the infection (which consists of the “rage” virus that turns bitten humans into ravaging, blood-vomiting lunatics) that has nearly wiped out England has been abolished (And by abolished I mean it’s going to come back in the second act). Don is able to return to what’s left of society and is reunited with his children Tammy (Imogen Poots) and Andy (Mackintosh Muggleton). The United States Army is in charged of helping the Englanders’ reenter civilization. They are taking no chances and have severely guarded an enclosed area. The outside areas still have rotting corpses all over the place. Leave it to the US to help rebuild a society torn apart by malevolent forces (you see what I’m getting at here or what?) And as it turns out, Tammy and Andy’s mommy (Catherine McCormack) survived the opening sequence but she somehow carries the “rage” virus but doesn’t show any outward symptoms. Perhaps a cure is in order.

I think you can pretty much guess what happens next, so I won’t spoil the fun. If you’re willing to buy how the outbreak begins again then you’ll have lots of fun and you’re bound to jump out of your seat at least a few times. The characters here are just as interesting as the previous film’s and they’re likable including Army nurse Scarlet (Rose Byrne) and US soldier Doyle (Jeremy Renner). I guess the exception here would be jerk soldier Flynn played by Lost’s Harold Perrineau; just because he got off the island is no reason to be all cocky. Fresnadillo has presented some really suspenseful sequences including one that is seen nearly entirely through a night vision lens.

“28 Weeks Later” is a fully competent, enjoyable follow up to 2003’s fantastic “28 Days Later.” It has just as much suspense and surprise, and like all sequels it’s all pumped up. It’s certainly gorier, so the weak stomached might want to skip the big meal before seeing it. I’m not sure a third film could be made successfully (28 Months Later?) because that would just seem like overkill, but when smart sequels like this are produced who knows what number three could bring. GRADE: B+

Friday, May 04, 2007

A Bug’s Life: “Spiderman 3” is a Web of Summer Fun

Don’t be fooled by some of the critics’ lesser reviews of the third installment of the wildly popular Spiderman series. While I’d have to agree that you’re jaw won’t drop and you won’t be overwhelmed by feelings of awesomeness, my spidey sense tells me that if you enjoyed the first two films, there’s still plenty to love. Sam Raimi returns to the helm to add his trademark style of fun, humor and enjoyable action into this pumped-up, song-filled (kind of) tale of Peter Parker, his webslinging alter ego, and the love of his life Mary Jane Watson.

Raimi and his older brother Ivan have written this third script with help from “Spidey 2” scribe Alvin Sargent. Overall it’s a mixed bag. There is a lot to be excited about. A meteorite crashes down which unleashes a creepy, crawly black substance that will be important later on. We’re introduced to criminal-on-the-run Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) who just may be responsible for Peter’s uncle’s tragic murder. He falls into a government experiment and becomes the villainous CGI-centric Sandman, whose effects are startling to witness.

The Raimis also introduce several other characters. Topher Grace stars as freelance Daily Bugle photographer (read: Peter’s rival) Eddie Brock. He will turn into the villain Venom, which is one of the coolest villains to hit a Spiderman movie since Doc Ock. His semi-girlfriend is New York City Captain Stacy’s (James Cromwell) daughter Gwen (Bryce Dallas Howard, who I still haven’t forgiven for Lady in the Water, shudder). She has a slightly annoying perky quality that seems right at home in a Sam Raimi/comic book movie. Daddy Ron Howard must be proud. Sam Raimi regular Bruce Campbell turns in an amusing cameo as a French restaurant’s maître d’. All of these characters are basically as interesting as they need to be and nothing more.

And that’s okay, because those that have returned are in fine form as well. Toby Maguire is a great Peter Parker and he even makes a great superhero. At the film’s start his in-limbo friendship with Harry (James Franco) takes a turn for the worse when he begins behaving like his father’s (Willem Dafoe) psychotic Green Goblin character. Except Harry’s villain is much cooler, hipper and interesting. (IMDb refers to Harry’s alter ego as the “New Goblin” whether that’s accurate is beyond me) I enjoyed Harry’s character arc a lot more than I thought I would. But what audiences really want to know is how Peter and Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) are doing. Peter wants to marry MJ but with the introduction of Gwen that’s highly unlikely. Jealous are we, MJ? There is some soapy love triangle stuff going on here, which will either bore you or be entertaining enough so that you won’t truly mind. And I’d be a horrible critic if I didn’t mention J.K. Simmons who shines and provides big laughs as always as the Daily Bugle’s editor-in-chief.

And not only does this new Spiderman adventure contain new villains but it contains singing, dancing and lots of crying. Apparently this is bad for some critics but I highly enjoyed it. MJ is in a Tony-award winning musical on Broadway and when Peter Parker becomes infected with a certain outer space black slime, it not only brings out his dark side, but his dancing side as well. If you thought the “Rain Drops Keep Falling on My Head” segment in Part 2 was corny, just wait till you see what is in store for you here. It seems odd and out of place, but it definitely goes with Peter’s new dark alter ego (complete with emo bangs and eye liner) and I welcomed it.

While most people will find something to complain about, (I guess technically Sandman’s story could be completely removed without any real loss, but his effects are awesome) you’re bound to enjoy some aspect of Spiderman’s third go round (such as anything having to due with Venom). It has a great mix of action and slow talky parts and yet you’ll probably never even notice that the film runs over two hours. It’s impossible to top the amazing second chapter, but this is definitely a worthy conclusion of the Spiderman trilogy. Of course, this franchise is bound to keep going and going, so enjoy these movies while they’re worth your time and money. GRADE: B+

NOTE: I heard that Bono is writing the music for Spiderman’s Broadway debut. Just a fun fact, do what you want with it.