Saturday, September 29, 2007

Flop in the Name of Love: “Good Luck Chuck” is More Like Good Luck Schmuck

Okay, let me get right to the point. “Good Luck Chuck” is a bad movie and it’s mildly entertaining at best. I was able to get through it without much damage to my brain although most cinephiles will want to run screaming the other way. Don’t get me wrong, “Chuck” is pretty much the bottom of the comedy barrel, but you certainly could do a lot worse (here’s looking at you Chuck and Larry). Yeah it’s offensive, smug, unoriginal, unbelievable and mildly retarded, but still it has enough scattered chuckles to prevent you from committing suicide in your seat.

Don’t care about the story? Too bad here it is: Chuck (Dane Cook, who tries really hard to convince us he’s a dentist) is a cursed man. Some Goth girl cursed poor Chuck back in middle school. Every time he “gets with” a woman she goes on to find the man of her dreams. How is this really a curse? You’re correct, it really isn’t because by the film’s midpoint Chuck has bedded at least 34 beautiful women in various positions. This guy is so dumb he really does think he’s cursed. Oh wait I forgot, he sleeps with ugly fat women too. The poor guy, taking one for the team! All these women think of him as a good luck charm for they are destined to marry the man of their dreams after being with Chuck. Haven’t they heard of And what beautiful woman has to sleep with a goof like Dane Cook just to meet the man of her dreams? Oh who cares!

So Chuck realizes that this curse is going to get the best of him when he meets Cam (Jessica Alba, who tries really hard to convince us that she’s some sort of penguin scientist). Cam is a klutz for no apparent reason except to give us sporadic chances to laugh at Jessica Alba being hit on the head, running into polls, and smashing her face on the pavement. Oh and she electrocutes Chuck. Is any of this particularly funny? Not really. Chuck loves Cam but he can’t sleep with her or she’ll marry the man of her dreams. Well wouldn’t you think that if they were really meant to be together then they should just do it already and maybe she’d end up marrying Chuck? Of course not; these characters have a mild case of mental retardation so, instead, Chuck acts like a crazy fool and professes his love in rather psychotic ways like showing up at her work dressed like a penguin. How cute! Cam quickly labeled Chuck a stalker freak and refuses to see him. Aww shucks!

Most offensive of all is Chuck’s plastic surgeon friend Stu (Dan Fogler, who’s even more annoying than Jack Black) who is the epitome of misogynistic scum; and I’m not even a woman! Watching this character was like watching a puppy get run over by a garbage truck: something you never want to witness. This guy is hairy and fat and he makes fun of fat women? How does that make sense? This guy is supposed to be a ladies man and he gives women bigger breasts as part of his job. I think the writers were trying to spoof the “hot shot cocky sidekick” character but instead have made the movie worse than it really should have been.

Okay so I know I’ve been rather mean but it’s difficult not to be. I don’t want to pick on this film the way Stu picks on overweight ladies, but come on, this movie pretty much deserves it. I’ll admit I laughed here and there (the opening scene was pretty great, the rest was downhill) and if you take out that jerk character who makes Stiffler from “American Pie” look like Wally Cleaver, then you’d have a much more tolerable movie. This film relies too heavily on raunchy jokes and pratfalls. Well-made movies like “Knocked Up” or “Superbad” may be raunchy, but they feel organic and are never offensive. And those movies actually employ talent. Frankly, I would have given Jessica Alba’s role to someone with actual comedic skills (such as the underused Anna Faris) but what do I know. I’m just a lowly film critic. GRADE: C

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Mob Scene: “Eastern Promises” Works Because of Stellar Performances

In one of David Cronenberg’s early films a man’s head explodes. We see the whole thing happen right on screen. This took place in the film Scanners. In that film, people who could read others’ minds (called ‘scanners’) were amongst those living normal, happy lives. The head explosion instantly came to mind while viewing “Eastern Promises.” No this film isn’t horrible and didn’t really make my head explode, but because I was such a big fan of “A History of Violence” I had to feel slightly disappointed. It’s just that I couldn't wrap my head around what was going onscreen in Cronenberg’s first foray into crime drama (assuming you don’t really count his last movie). Promises is probably the auteur’s most mainstream film to date and with strong echoes of movies like “The Godfather” it’s really hard to appreciate the filmmaker’s vision, when the whole time it’s really just giving me a migraine.

Eastern Promises works first and foremost because of the performances. Naomi Watts it’s a British nurse who delivers a young girl’s baby. The mother dies in childbirth, leaves behind a journal written entirely in Russian and Watt is instantly connected with the abandoned baby. She insists that her Russian born uncle translate the diary. She believes this young girl was troubled and somehow connected to the Russian mafia. Meanwhile, Viggo Mortensen, sporting a new do and terrifically dead-on Russian accent is the driver of a famed Russian mob family that called this little London town their home. The patriarch is Armin Mueller-Stahl who, like Marlon Brando in the 1972 mafia classic runs his family’s “business.” He owns a popular restaurant that is a front for the horrific crimes committed against other bad guys. Mueller-Stahl’s son Vincent Cassel is a creepy and intense mob guy who is always hanging out with Mortensen.

I really didn’t care too much for the film’s story. I don’t know a single thing about the Russian mafia (I didn’t even know there was a Russian mafia, let alone in England) so you can imagine my confusion. I don’t really dislike having to read subtitles but it does make a movie more challenging to follow. If these Russians are such bad people, that didn’t really translate well for me. I never really thought Watts was in harms way and Mortensen was way too nice if you ask me which affects something revealed about his character a little too soon. The film’s plot (written by Stephen Wright) is so tight that it couldn’t let me in on the fun. It seems like a film that was more fun to make than to actually enjoy.

Having said all that, this film has one of the best fight scenes in a movie in recent memory. The finale takes place in a bathhouse, with Mortensen taking on two baddies, while fully exposed if you catch my drift. The choreography is amazing that it appears this scene was never rehearsed. And it’s so well shot and edited that it makes all of the uninteresting stuff that came before it practically forgettable. This scene alone is worth the price of admission and is one of two really positives the film has (along with its Oscar worthy performances from all involved).

Cronenberg’s films are definitely an acquired taste. I’ve liked some of his films and disliked others. I’m one of the very few who likes it when he has to resort to gruesome special effects to scare the audience. There are violent images in this film but none compare to the images he has shown us in the past. While the film has enough positives to make it a recommendation some may tout 'Eastern Promises' to be as good as 'The Godfather' which is absurd enough to make your head explode. GRADE: B-

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Crime and Punishment: Jodie Foster Refuses to be a Victim in “The Brave One”

If you like your female movie heroes brandishing a gun ala Charles Bronson than “The Brave One” is for you. Don’t get me wrong, this is a powerful film with terrific performances, but I do feel it sends a slightly mixed message about vengeance. Obviously, you have to take matters into your own hands after being victimized by violent crime. Of course, it doesn’t take the route of the Sally Field melodrama “Eye For an Eye” in which Field takes matters into own hands when her daughter’s killer gets off too easy. That film portrayed the police as bumbling idiots who couldn’t find a legal way to lock up Kiefer Sutherland’s slimy rapist character. In this film, Jodie Foster becomes a gun-toting vigilante after her fiancé is killed in a brutal mugging. Foster is in top form, as usual, and we like following her character’s tragic tribulations.

The movie works as long as you’re willing to forgive it for perpetuating the stereotype that New York City is run down with crime committed by minorities. There is no Superman or Spider-man present in this world. Fosterplays a radio DJ who we don’t really know much about besides that she’s about to marry Naveen Andrews from TV’s “Lost.” She just ordered the wedding invitations and life can’t get any better. That is until they run into some scary delinquents who videotape themselves beating the crap out of this loving couple. Foster recovered but her lover dies. Her world is over, there’s a whole in her heart. She nearly becomes agoraphobic and before we know it she’s buying an illegal gun in an alleyway.

I enjoyed Foster’s character’s arc, although she buys that gun a little too quickly if you ask me, although I was surprised at how quickly she has a reason to. She enters a convenience store in which a customer walks in shoots the clerk and in order to save her own life (since she’s practically a witness) she shoots the guy and ejects the security tape. Terrence Howard plays the sympathetic detective who is assigned to the case. They can’t understand why they have a double homicide and no stolen cash. Soon Foster shoots anyone who looks at her the wrong way. And we do feel that someone who has been what she has been through would do anything possible to protect themselves and other innocent people.

The movie sort of sends a wrong message that taking justice into your own hands is the only way to get revenge. It actually shows that revenge is a good thing, although I can’t really say that shooting every bad guy in the city will make one overcome the loss of a loved one. I mean what would Gandhi have to say about this?

The acting here is top notch and director Neil Jordan has a keen visual style (although he doesn’t reveal Foster’s character to be a man half way through) which keeps it way above Lifetime movie and exploitation flick. Though frankly it would be awesome if this were the third part of “Grindhouse.” But let’s face it this is really Death Wish with a bigger budget. And the ending has Hollywood written all over it, but the movie works well enough that it doesn’t really matter.

The film has genuine moments of suspense, tragedy and drama. The characters are completely watchable and Foster’s role seems to be tailor made for her. Andrews does well with his very tiny role and you really feel Foster’s sense of loss. You feel the sense of loss in her heart, a piece of her is missing and the only way to get it back is to take justice into her own hands. Although I don’t think she’ll ever go back to the way she was, apparently this is one of her own 6 steps of grief. Perhaps step 5a – vigilante stage-taking out city scumbags. GRADE: B+

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Here Comes the Fun: Julie Taymor Takes Us on a Magical Mystery Tour “Across the Universe”

“Across the Universe” has something going for it the second you sit in your seat: you will pretty much know most of the songs in this smashing new musical vision from director Julie Taymor. The film features the music of The Beatles (with a fantastically musically capable cast), but I couldn’t really say it’s a “best of” The Beatles. There were a few songs I was unfamiliar with (although I'm come to enjoy) and still some songs I couldn’t believe weren’t used. (No Here Comes the Sun? Eleanor Rigby? Ob La Di, Ob La Da?) Of course, the songs were chosen as a base for a love story. Therefore I’m not so sure how they could really squeeze in Eleanor Rigby since it’s about a funeral. However you will be jamming to the film’s strong beat even if you might care less about the characters.

Some might say that the film is more of a visual feast than a character driven drama. And you know what, that might be true, but this is a musical. I didn’t see this movie to be wowed by Oscar-worthy performances or labyrinthine storylines. I came to listen to The Beatles! I came to have my senses wowed! My ears were having a good time and so were my eyes. Taymor is such a fantastic visual director that she makes Baz Luhrmann’s musical “Moulin Rouge!” appear black and white. And like I said before the songs are catchy we already known them so we can sing along right away.

Even though this is more of a visual treat (this is a motion picture after all) there is an actual story here with characters (many of which are appropriately named Beatles songs. It’s the 1960s and we have American high school graduate Lucy (Even Rachel Wood) and her slacker college brother Max (Joe Anderson) who gets by with a little help with his friends. Across the ocean in Great Britain is Jude (Jim Sturgess, who looks like he could be the 5th Beatle) who comes to America to find his estranged father. (However, he doesn’t arrive in a yellow submarine). From an early scene in which Lucy sings Hold Me Tight to her current beau who’s about to go off to war, we can imagine, through the magic of cross-cutting that Lucy and Jude just might end up together. And like all timeless love stories, something will keep them apart so we can root from them to be together. That just so happens to be the Vietnam War! Frankly, there doesn’t really seem to be much conflict between Lucy and Jude once they start their love fling. She becomes an anti-war activist and he just wants to be an artist, but they’re charming and we enjoy seeing them sing our favorite songs.

Meanwhile we get lots of interesting supporting characters. Dana Fuchs who plays the Janis Joplin-like landlady is a standout. This is her first film and she completely adds a ferocity to the film that’s unrivaled by anyone else. And we have Martin Luther as JoJo who’s the Jimi Hendrix stand-in who also is very good. Fellow follower Prudence (T.V. Carpio) has an amazing solo performing the saddest version of I Want To Hold Your Hand I’ve ever heard. Some character introductions are odd (including Prudence’s) because they’re sort of randomly placed. But that’s only in the beginning and the film is getting better all the time. And let’s not forget the wacky cameos by non other than Bono, Eddie Izzard and a cloned Salma Hayek.

Ok, so here’s what everyone really wants to know: If The Beatles songs are so amazing, why would you want to hear mostly unknown performers sing them to weird visual cues? Yeah The Beatles’ songs are so wonderful that they really don’t need to be redone (kind of like classic movies that don’t need remakes), but here these covers are really well done, or at least I think so. These are songs that can be sung faster or slower and the message is still crystal clear and the melodies are still tuneful and the lyrics are still catchy. But let’s be frank, Lennon and McCartney and the gang don’t have the most astounding voices you’ve ever heard in music history, so it’s a welcome change to hear someone else sing your favorite tunes. And this cast is definitely up to par.

Taymor has found images as bizarre and hip as the Beatles’ songs themselves. Androgynous Marilyn Manson weirdos? Yup. Nearly naked army recruits dragging the Statue of Liberty through Nam? Yup. Psychedelic bus trip to the tune of I Am the Walrus? Yup. (And I love the bowling alley scene!) Her images are just as odd and twisted as the lyrics that accompany those memorable melodies. This film will reignite a love for Beatles music that has lasted throughout peoples’ lives. It will spark feelings you never realized you felt. “Across the Universe” is a creative and wild trip that didn’t let me down. GRADE: A-

Let’s Get Metaphysical: “The Nines” is Hardly By the Numbers

Note: This is an abridged review because I simply can’t remember enough of the film to warrant a full length review (I saw it awhile back in LA) It’s most likely never going to play anywhere else, but I advise looking for it when it’s released on DVD.

“The Nines” is guilty of one thing: Making a good actor out of Ryan Reynolds. Yeah Reynolds has had charm and a commanding presence in films prior, but he’s not exactly what you’d call a “serious actor.” But you’ll be surprised that he carries himself rather well in John August’s strange, philosophical and striking new film in which he plays three different roles which are, I suppose, all parts of a larger character, one that could possible be traced to…well why should I spoil the fun for you? I don’t want to give any secrets and that’s most likely because this movie is confusing and completely open to interpretation. It’s always interesting and entertaining if you don’t mind struggling to determine what this film is really trying to say.

Like I said earlier the acting is good, especially Melissa McCarthy who sort of plays a version of herself (she was apparently in the show Gilmore Girls, which is referenced in the movie). She’s outlandish and bizarre and delivers some delicious lines courtesy of August’s wickedly intriguing screenplay. He seems to be entering David Lynch terrirtory and that could be a good thing or a really bad thing. Hope Davis is also here playing several roles in the three separate acts that become more connected as the film progresses. And little Elle Fanning tries to out act her big sis in the typical "strange/wise child role."

While the film is a puzzle it’s never frustrating to the point of wanting to tune out. I can’t say this is something that is completely original ("Mulholland Dr." was an equally bizarre LA-set mind blower) but for your money why not spend your hard earned dough on a film that can make you think instead of one that will make you stupid? And besides, I saw this film very late at night and it kept my attention all the way through so that’s saying a lot. GRADE: B