Sunday, December 28, 2008

Interview With the Liar: You’d Be a Crook if You Didn’t Check Out “Frost/Nixon”

Some people say that Richard Nixon was one of the worst presidents ever (I said “one of” Mr. Bush). Perhaps that’s true. He was and still is the only president ever to resign from office, due to the scandals of all scandals. Of course Nixon was way before my time, so I have no real negative or positives feelings towards him. In fact, I don’t know much about him at all, which is why I think I enjoyed “Frost/Nixon” so much and why it’s such a great film. I learned a lot and while I don’t know whether or not I would use this film as the ultimate tool for learning about the 37th president of the United States, it was a fascinating portrait of a man who betrayed his country and hardly got a slap on the wrist. This film, based on the play of the same name, is about TV interviewer David Frost’s attempt to question Nixon about Watergate and his presidency; a presidency that betrayed the American people.

As directed by Ron Howard, “Frost/Nixon” first and foremost has the feel of the 1970s. It doesn’t just use catchy songs from the era and bad wigs to give you an impression of the time period, but stylistic choices and everything from costumes to the performances all capture the time well. Of course, I am far removed from that time period so my knowledge of the 70s rests simply in the fact that I’ve seen many films from the 70s. So it’s got the look and feel of the time but is the movie any good? Yes it is! The film uses Watergate as a jumping off point and takes place years later with Nixon (played masterfully by Frank Langella) in seclusion. British TV personality David Frost (the always great Michael Sheen) wants the ultimate challenge of interviewing Nixon and attempting to get some sort of confession out of him, with the goal of airing the interview nationally on American television. He was Oprah before there was even Oprah.

I haven’t seen any of the actual interview footage except for a few clips here and there online after seeing the film. I assume what goes on in the film is nearly word for word since it was aired on national television. So as far as my knowledge goes most of the story is “historically accurate.” Of course, this is really a dramatization. It’s a big glossy Hollywood production that is put together darn well if you ask me. This story is engrossing from start to finish. And it’s sort of amazing in that it’s essentially based on a conversation between two people and yet it’s riveting and emotionally satisfying. And Howard employs a technique in which the various actors are “interviewed” and give short testimonials about what’s going on. It’s a nice touch. There are four sets of interviews between Nixon and Frost and it is fascinating to see how each one progresses and how each man uses mind tricks and their own wit to out do each other. It’s the ultimate showdown and you don’t know who’s going to draw their gun first.

The film is supported by a phenomenal supporting cast. We get Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell who work for Frost as researchers. They have some great funny lines that help break the tension thanks to Peter Morgan’s excellent screenplay (which is based on his own play). Kevin Bacon is great as well as one of Nixon’s military aides. Toby Jones even shows up looking sort of like Mini Me with huge black frames. And “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” star Rebecca Hall appears as Frost’s love interest. Most will be said about Langella’s Oscar caliber turn as Nixon and that is fine and dandy, but I’d like to briefly commend Sheen. He was so great in “The Queen” opposite Helen Mirren who also got all the praise. And now here he is again opposite another masterful veteran performance that just seems unstoppable. Sheen is actually really good at playing a celebrity even though I’m not sure I’d actually call him one. His Frost is almost a politically active James Bond in that he’s up against a seemingly relentless force and yet he can nearly always get what he wants.

“Frost/Nixon” is a great time to be had at the movies. It feels significant and yet it doesn’t forget that it’s a movie and it wants to entertain as well. It’s an Oscar-worthy look at a man who many hated and many loved, and while it’s obvious that Nixon is supposed to be the “bad guy” the filmmakers aren’t afraid to actually make him more than that and actually be a human being. This is great stuff. GRADE: A

Friday, December 26, 2008

Young At Heart: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is a Fascinating Piece of Art

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” defines the reasons we go to the movies in the first place. It tells an interesting and original story. It uses exciting cinematic techniques to tell its story. And it’s entertaining through it’s nearly three hour running time. In an age when movies are unnecessarily long (see “Australia” or “There Will Be Blood”) it’s good to know there are ones that are actually necessarily long (see “Titanic” or “Magnolia”). This film I believe works despite its length and there are likely to be people who disagree, but the movie presents us with such a fascinating story that the length never seemed to be bothersome. “Benjamin Button,” based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story of the same name, is simply about a man who was born as an old man and ages backwards. Therefore when he’s twelve he appears to be 70 and when he’s 70 he appears to be a young boy. It’s a weird premise that just simply works mostly due to some standout performances, special effects and David Fincher’s assured direction.

The film, like most these days, has a framing device. The story takes place during present day, or more specifically New Orleans circa Hurricane Katrina. An old woman is dying in her hospital bed and her adult daughter is by her side (Julia Ormond). The daughter begins to read a diary written by a man named Benjamin. We begin to see how this man was “born under unusual circumstances.” Benjamin was born in 1918 looking all wrinkly and his father took one look and decided to abandon him. The baby is taken in by Queenie (an outstanding Taraji P. Henson) who runs a sort of old age home. We then get to see how this baby actually begins to look younger as he grows older.

This is achieved with some of the best cinematic wizardly of recent memory. Most of the time we see what appears to be a young boy with Brad Pitt's head made up to look like an old man. I assume it’s equal parts CGI and prosthetic make-up. It’s 100% convincing. I’m not even sure when Brad Pitt actually appears on screen as a full human being, but he’s stupendous anyways. He doesn’t give a showy bravura performance but it’s still affecting and is one of his best performances to date. It’s obvious he could act circles around the other Hollywood heartthrob Tom Cruise any day of the week.

I think what is so amazing about the film besides it’s “Forrest Gump”/”Big Fish”-like story of a simple man whose life was anything but simple, is how easy it is to buy into this premise. It doesn’t nearly seem as far fetched as it could have been in less talented hands (it's screenplay was written by "Forrest Gump" and "Munich" scribe Eric Roth). It’s a technical achievement through and through, but let’s not forget that this is a film brimming with not only great technical achievements but stong themes of love and loss and great performances as well. Pitt, like I said, is great in the title role. You almost feel as if it were made for him. When you finally get to see Benjamin as a young guy you’re immediately drawn to why he is such a celebrity in the first place. The same with Cate Blanchette, as Daisy, who is the love Benjamin pines for throughout the film. She gives her usually majestic performance, but it’s obviously Pitt who has the showier role. But don’t worry, we get to see her with old lady make-up as well.

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is a movie that you feel confident saying was the reason movie cameras were made for in the first place. It is sweet, and weird, and beautiful and absorbing and touching. It might even bring a tear to your eye. This is the type of fantastical film that I enjoy (it has an unrealistic element, but plays it realistically). You can tell it’s working extra heard to make you believe every moment of what’s happening on screen. It defines cinema in all aspects and should rake up nominations when the Academy announces the nominees in January. Bravo to all involved. GRADE: A

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Nun’s Story: Meryl Streep Inhabits Her Inner Sister in “Doubt”

“Doubt” is the type of movie that I can’t recommend to everyone and for several reasons. If you’re a fan of good acting then I would say see it. If you hate pretentious dialogue that is constantly reflecting the story directly then I would say skip it. If you enjoy top talent having “dialogue matches” in which people fight with looks and gestures and sharply written dialogue I would say see it. If you hate movies that seem small, intimate and “stagy” I would say skip it. And of course, if you are fan of Meryl Streep, you’ve got to see it. It’s obvious that she’s on her way to her 15th acting Oscar nomination with “Doubt” in which she plays a strict nun who confronts a priest when she learns that he may be abusing a Black school boy.

“Doubt” is an actor’s dream. It’s a movie (and I assume the Pulitzer Prize-winning play is as well) that actors would look to when trying to hone their craft. Well I would anyway. I mean just look at its recent SAG nominations. It received 5. It’s pretty astounding considering there are only 5 categories to begin with. Every principal cast member was nominated by their acting peers and it’s obvious that “Doubt” is a tour de force of the art of drama.

As an actual film I think it’s a little less successful. There really isn’t a problem with the story, but I guess how it plays out isn’t nearly as interesting as the trailer would have you believe. The film takes place during the 1960s in a New York borough. Meryl is Sister Aloysius Beauvier who is the principal at a Catholic elementary school. This sister hardly puts the pal in principal. She is stern and intimidating and most of the kids are scared of her. In fact Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) says that “the dragon” is hungry when she scolds a child and drags him away by his ear. Sort of like Helen Mirren managed as Queen Elizabeth in “The Queen,” Meryl here almost makes you feel as if you should stand up when you see her on screen. I was scared of her just as much as her students. Happy-go-lucky Sister James (a perky and perfect Amy Adams) begins to notice Father Flynn’s closeness with one particular student. And in a moment of uncertainty confesses to Sister Aloysius that she believes Father Flynn has been hurting little Donald. We don’t see anything, so we, like her, are very unsure. But she makes the accusation anyways. And now it’s up to Meryl and her habit to out-act Hoffman in the showdowns of showdowns. Of course that’s what’s supposed to happen.

If anything, the final “confrontation” isn’t as intense as you’re lead to believe it may be. Meryl almost crosses the line into overacting for a few seconds, but it won’t cost her a nomination. A real great performance is that of Viola Davis, who plays Donald’s mother. Her one scene is affecting and powerful. She’s also a sure thing for Supporting Actress.

“Doubt” which was directed and adapted by the original playwright John Patrick Shanley, is by no means a horrible movie. It actually features some great framing and compositions by DP Roger ‘Fargo’ Deakins. It has style to spare and features authentic production values. See it to observe some great acting but if you’ve already seen the play on which it’s based then I doubt you’ll find anything new in the film version. GRADE: B

Friday, December 12, 2008

Got “Milk:” Sean Penn Astounds as a Politician with a Purpose

Sean Penn won an Academy Award for Best Actor in 2004 for "Mystic River." I think he should clear off some space on his mantel because his Oscar is about to get a friend. Okay so maybe it’s not exactly written in the stars or anything, but Sean Penn is so amazing in “Milk” that it’s worth seeing the film just to see him act his pants off. Even if you’re a right wing Republican who hates the though of gay people actually having rights you might actually see why people call Sean Penn one of the greatest American actors working today. But enough about Mr. Penn (who by the way is a terrific director as well, go watch “Into the Wild” for proof), is Gus Van Sant’s bio pic about slain politician/gay rights activist Harvey Milk any good? Of course.

With “Brokeback Mountain” having paved the way for mainstream audiences afraid to see, gasp, homosexuality portrayed realistically on screen, “Milk” can be described as a film that even people with an open mind will be able to enjoy. While I would describe Milk as a much more liberal leaning film than “Brokeback” anyone who has any sort of passion (whether it be any sort of political activism, environmentalism, vegetarianism, civil rights activism, women’s rights activism etc) will be able to relate with what goes on in the film. Harvey Milk was just an ordinary guy who happened to extraordinary things. As a gay man he didn’t want to be discriminated against (and hated the violence committed against gays) so when the politicians in San Francisco didn’t satisfy him he took matters into his own hands and ran for office. After a few failed attempts at winning (although he gained more votes with each progressive election) he finally won a seat as City Supervisor.

Milk is surrounded by a merry gang of fellow friends and activists all supporting his cause and all giving tremendous performances on top of it. James Franco is great as Milks younger boyfriend. It’s funny how the Hollywood Foreign Press Association nominated him for “Pineapple Express” and not this film. Of course he doesn’t have as showy a role as Emile Hirsch who could easily win an Oscar nomination come January. After all, he was horrendously shunned by the Academy last year for “Into the Wild.” Josh Brolin also amazes in an Oscar worthy performance as Dan White a fellow Supervisor who has many disagreements with Harvey Milk which leads to a horrible tragedy.

Van Sant who lately has directed a string of strange art house flicks (“Paranoid Park,” “Last Days,” “Elephant”), is more well known for his breakout success “Good Will Hunting.” “Milk” could easily win him his second Oscar nomination, although it will be interesting to see how the mostly conservative Academy will respond to this liberal minded flick. But conservative or liberal, any film lover can appreciate the superb directing style throughout “Milk.” Van Sant uses plenty of archival footage which gives the film a grittier documentary feel. It makes the film feel more legitimate and even intimate. The style is simple but effective and he mostly lets the actors do what they do best. Even writer Dustin Lance Black finds a great stride in pretending us a back and forth narrative with Milk speaking into a recording device just weeks before his assassination. This is a device that I felt worked here rather well, but didn’t really work for “Slumdog Millionaire.”

Of course, with Milk we know of the inevitable out come of the story. Harvey Milk was shot to death along with the mayor of San Francisco by Dan White. There doesn’t really seem to be a specific reason for this hateful crime except that White must have felt personally threatened (and uncomfortable with Milk’s successes). The film makes no real conclusions but would rather present the events as they unfold (and although this is a story from years past, couldn’t more be relative today). It would have been nice for the film to go on so we could see how Milk’s role left an impact on society, but alas the film ends when Milk’s life does. But what we’re left with is the effect one person can have on hundreds of thousands of people throughout the country. The film still belongs to Penn who disappears into the role and creates a quirky and adoring character that we grow to know and love. “Milk” provides the reasons why we go to the movies in the first place. GRADE: A-

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Quiz Show: “Slumdog Millionaire” Isn’t Quite the Winner I Was Hoping For

The end of “28 Days Later” was sort of disappointing. The end of "The Beach" was a little too crazy if you ask me. And the ending of “Sunshine” was just a little too ridiculous. Danny Boyle is a filmmaker who knows who to make fascinating and original films but somehow gets tripped up when it comes to the final act of his movies. However, that mostly changes with “Slumdog Millionaire,” his critical darling that might just bring him closer to Oscar gold. I was so excited to see “Slumdog Millionaire” after reading so many raves about how amazing it was, it wasn’t really surprising to me when I realized I didn’t actually enjoy it all that much. The film is alright and the ending is better, but on the whole, this is a film that left me so ambivalent that I almost felt as if I had been punk’d. I mean I was hoping this would be my favorite film of the year and right now it’d be lucky if it even cracked my Top 20.

Like I said, the ending of “Slumdog Millioniaire,” like you’ve probably read, makes the film worth seeing. Everything comes together and without giving too much away, will make you feel differently than you had in the film’s previous hour and a half. If I can be perfectly honest, there were some segments of the film in which I had to fight to keep my eyes open. Perhaps it was my long weekend in Cape Cod that did me in, but while the film has an electric energy which is obvious due to its kinetic cinematography and fast editing (and interesting musical score as well), it has a surprisingly slow pace about it. Perhaps it’s the fact that the film’s story is set up as a bunch of flashbacks which seems nearly grind the film’s present story to a grinding halt. It’s sort of like Forrest Gump. Adult forest flashes back to his life and how it affected people and yet we’re not like, go back to the present so we can see Forrest just sitting there on the bench. The story in the present wasn’t what was interesting. It was his past that was. Here we get the opposite. It’s the story in the present that is interesting. Although who wouldn’t jump in human feces to meet their favorite movie star?

What I mean is the film is about Jamal (Dev Patel) who is a poor Indian boy growing up in Mumbai. Through a bunch of trials and tribulations including surviving mob attacks and enough corruption to make the governor of Illinois look like Gandhi, Jamal ends up on the popular Hindi version of ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” But how could a lowly young lad from the slums of Mumbai ever dream of winning big? Well it’s because every since question he is asked he has learned throughout his hard life. We see the greasy host ask him a question and then we flash back to some tough time in Jamal’s childhood where learned the answer. And then we flash forward to the present where he receives a new question. Even the host can’t believe this sewer rat is doing so well that he feels the need to feed him an incorrect answer just so that he could lose.

Of course this isn’t a movie about competing on a game show (which is I guess, what I thought it was) but rather a fairy tale about true love. Yada yada yada. Jamal and his obnoxious brother Salim meets Latika when they are young and the three of them become a young set of the Three Musketeers. One for all and all for one. That is until Latika is capture by bad guys and Jamal just may never see her again. That is until he gets the chance to be on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, but like all sappy love stories. He did it for her and not for the money.

Maybe it’s my lack of knowledge of anything Indian, but I found the story line to be confusing at points. It didn’t help that Jamal and the other young characters are played by 3 different actors throughout the film or that with all the fast paced editing, sometimes the story just seemed more jumbled than actually romantic. This is what I don’t get: throughout the whole film we’re treated to dark images and corruption and gang members and violence and even torture. For the most part it feels like Babel more than Cinderella. And yet, there’s a freakin’ Bollywood dance number during the end credits. Does Mr. Boyle even know what kind of movie he just made? (Relax. I enjoyed the dance sequence, but come on, it seriously belongs in a totally different film)

Remember I said the ending of the film almost redeemed itself for me? That is pretty much true in that we finally get to the suspense of will he win the money or not and the film stops flashing back. But alas it was not all wonderful. There was a point where I think I was supposed to cry, and yet I showed no emotion. In fact I didn’t really know how to feel throughout the whole thing. If this is supposed to be a romantic love story, I think I missed the boat. If you had your hopes up for this movie I’m not recommending that you don’t see it. In fact I think you should see it, because it’s really not terrible in any way. In fact I’m more mad at myself for not enjoying than I am at the actual movie. I’m sure the film will continue to rack up awards. I just won’t be handing any out. Sorry Jamal. GRADE: C+

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Outback Mountain: “Australia” is an Unworthy Journey Down Under

I laughed once. I cried zero times. I yawned a lot. I looked at my watch even more. And that pretty much summed up my experience with “Australia,” the new romantic/ historic/dramatic war epic that has swept overdramatically into a theater near you. If I can give you once piece of advice it’s this: Be afraid. Be very afraid. I can only recommend this film if you are a) a die hard fan of either Nicole Kidman and/or Hugh Jackman b) a die hard fan of long, boring romantic epics or c) you have about 3 extra hours of your day to spare. Ok and one last one. Two words: Baz Lurhmann. In fact…

Dear Mr. Lurhmann,

My name is Chris Gallo. I am a huge movie fan. Every since I was little I have loved watching movies. I enjoy going to the theater to see nearly every movie that is released. I like most types of movies although I would say that I have a particular infatuation with the horror genre. I am writing to you today to proclaim my utter hatred for your latest film “Australia.” Let me start by saying I’ve never actually been quite a fan of your work. In fact, if you decided to go into early retirement, I wouldn’t mind at all.

I remember when your version of “Romeo + Juliet” was released (and seriously what is with that plus sign, could you use an ampersand like every other version?). Everyone seemed to be obsessed with it, but I found it rather annoying. I couldn’t understand anything the actors were saying because you chose to use Shakespeare’s original dialogue but updated the play’s setting to modern day Los Angeles. Ok that is a cool idea, I’ll give you that. But besides the film’s exciting prologue, the movie has little to offer except annoying editing and even more annoying acting.

Then came “Moulin Rouge!” which I didn’t see in the theater because frankly it looked like it sucked. In fact, many critics didn’t like the film and it didn’t do extremely well at the box office, but the Academy decided to nominate it for Best Picture anyways. I felt sort of bad that you weren’t nominated for Directing but at least you were listed as a producer. When I finally saw the film during my college years I fell asleep half way through but I actually thought that the idea of using modern songs in a film set in the past was actually pretty original. When I finally saw the film in its entirety I actually didn’t hate it. But I really didn’t love it.

I’ve yet to see "Strictly Ballroom," which was your first feature. The odds of me ever actually watching it is equal to the likelihood that you’ll ever actually read this; so I’ll just assume I’ll hate it and save two hours of my life.

Now comes “Australia” your most ambitious production yet. It’s a movie that is supposed to have everything! And in fact, I was sort of looking forward to seeing this one. Except that every hour that passed while sitting in that theater was pure torture. I was bored and not fascinated with the story. It felt clichéd and overdone. In fact, the third act, which was the most clichéd of all, is when things actually started to pick up. All the war scenes had action in them and prevented me from actually slipping into a coma. However, it was probably the most unnecessary part of the film. In fact, your film reminded me of “Pearl Harbor” with all its lovey-dovey romantic silliness set against the backdrop of an “important issue.”

There is nothing technically wrong with your film and I can attest that you are one of the most original filmmakers working in Hollywood. But in an age when Hollywood is churning out remake after reboot after sequel. I’m honestly looking forward more to the remake of “Friday the 13th” than I am to your latest cinematic project.

All the best for a healthy + happy new year,


PS – I also found your 1999 “Everybody’s Free (to Wear Sunscreen)” single to be slightly obnoxious and annoying as well.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Love at First Bite: “Twilight” Doesn't Suck (Too Much)

Okay, I’m going to admit right off the bat that I’m not exactly the target audience for this teen vampire romance. In fact I’m not really sure what I was doing at the theater on opening night amongst all those 12 year old girls. You’d think I was at a Jonas Brothers concert. They cheer and applauded. And if you’re a fan of these vampire novels then you’re probably going to enjoy the movie as well. I’ve never read the novels (and don’t plan to) and I actually never even heard of “Twilight” until it started getting a lot of attention because of the film adaptation. So in all honesty, this movie is one gigantic ball of cheese, extra gooey. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t actually entertained throughout.

I can’t really decide if actually going to see this film on opening night was a good experience or a bad one. I mean, most films with built-in audiences are going to flock on opening day, but perhaps this was a mistake. They entire audience cheered with glee when the title of the film appeared. I said the TITLE. The double syllable word twilight was enough to send a wave squeals throughout the theater. And don’t even get me started when Edward (Robert Pattinson) appeared on screen. I thought every girl was going to fall down dead. Ok so besides all the screaming tweens, is this movie any good? Yes and no.

I don’t really know if I would say this is a good film. I’m sure I would call it faithful to the source material based on the audience’s reactions. Basically what the big deal is that Bella (Kristen Stewart) is a new girl to Forks, Washington. She’s saying with her father (Billy Burke). She meets a boy who she knew from when she was younger named Jacob. At school, she meets a few friends, but mostly feels like an outcast. Then she meets strange by dreamy Edward (cue the salivating tweens). Something is slightly off about Edward and his “brothers” and “sisters.” They are odd and rather pale, but I guess that’s sort of normal for the northwest. It turns out Edward is (spoiler!!!) a vampire, although him and his family don’t prey on humans to feast. They’re “vegetarians” if you will, and only feed on the blood of animals. Actually learning about Edward and his family was more fascinating than I thought it would be and Pattinson actually is a rather charismatic actor and has good chemistry with the rather bland Stewart (anyone else thing she looks like a boy going through puberty?) And let’s be frank people, from what I’ve heard the movie is all about this vampire/human romance, which I believe is sort of sold well in the film. Having been directed (and written) by women (Catherine Hardwicke and Melissa Rosenberg respectively) the romance cheese is turned up to an eleven.

The film was entertaining for the most part, although it sometimes bordered on camp. Some of the supporting players (including Bella’s mortal friends) overacted slightly as if they were competing to be the funniest one on the gag reel. The “bad guys” who are also vampires but still prey on innocent humans. These characters who include James (The OC’s Cam Gigandet), Laurent (Edi Gathegi), and Victoria (Rachelle Lefevre) are not well rounded at all. We don’t learn anything about them and they seem just stuck in the movie simply to have some sort of conflict. As if a romance between a human and vampire wouldn’t be enough. It would have been more interesting if Edward was “sort of” a vegetarian and the story focused on his urge not to drink Bella’s blood. But I’m not Stephenie Meyer am I. Edward’s family life was some of the more interesting stuff going on here, although their family tradition of playing baseball during thunderstorms was rather silly if you ask me.

Let’s get this straight; all you adolescent girls out there will think this is your favorite movie of all time. However there might be something here for others if you’re willing to check it out. Just be ready to beat off little girls for the best seat in the theater. GRADE: B

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Not Fonda Bond: “Quantum of Solace” is for Die Hard Fans Only

Let me make this quick and painless: I’m not a James Bond fan. (My heroes growing up were of the Freddy and Jason variety.) The first time I saw a James Bond film was a couple years back when the overpraised Bond franchise revamp “Casino Royale” hit the big screen. I enjoyed that film for the most part (although it was about 30 minutes too long). It had some great set pieces and Daniel Craig was great as the new Bond. Did it start a need to see all the other films I missed along the years? No. I’m no more a fan now than I was before I saw Casino Royale. I saw Quantum of Solace out of sheer interest in the fact that a) it will most likely be a huge box office hit b) director Marc Forster, who is the human directing chameleon (seriously, this guy made Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland, Stay, Stranger Than Fiction and The Kite Runner) and c) the movie isn’t overtly long. Oh and I heard the plot had something to do with water and the environment. “Erin Brockovich” this is not.

“Quantum of Solace” is basically The Bourne Identity Part IV. The movie is pretty much 105 minutes of nonstop action. The quick editing and shaky camera nearly caused me to get a migraine. If you almost threw up watching “Cloverfield,” you’ll probably need a barf bag. What’s worse is that I hardly cared about everything that was going on. Bond keeps killing the bad guys much to M’s (The Dame) displeasure. She insists she needs a least one bad guy brought in for questioning, but Bond insists on dispatching them one after another. To makes things worst for M, she begins to distrust Bond and things it’s possible that he could be a traitor.

It’s my general understanding that this film, while not as well received as Casino Royale, is hands over feet better than any of the films starring Pierce Brosnan. Possibly that is true. You can see that the film wants to let general action fans into the fun rather than just die hard Bond fanatics. Although I still felt like I was missing something. I felt as if I had walked into the movie halfway through. Maybe I’m just slow or maybe the movie is too fast, either way “Quantum of Solace” doesn’t offer much more than a few solid action sequences, most of which while entertaining are simply forgettable. I still haven’t forgotten the spectacular foot chase from “Casino Royale,” which was worth the admission price by itself.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t check out the latest Bond installment. In fact, odds are if you’re a James Bond fan you’ll love it. But this movie wasn’t made for me. For fans only. GRADE: C

Thursday, November 13, 2008

I Will Be Your Father Figure: “Role Models” Will Cast a Level 5 Charm Spell on You

“Wet Hot American Summer” is my 12th favorite movie of all time. Director David Wain, who managed a comedy laugh riot from his little independent movie from 2001, then went on to direct last year’s anthology flick “The Ten.” It was mildly amusing yet no where near as successful as “American Summer.” Now he presents us with “Role Models” which is a great staring vehicle for long time David Wain collaborator/friend Paul Rudd. I remember Paul Rudd from way back in 1995 when he was the lead in “Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers.” Back then he was credited as Paul Stephen Rudd. Modifying your name because you were in a craptastic movie isn’t going to fool me Mr. Rudd. But you certainly redeemed yourself by also being in “Clueless” that year. And you all know him from his parts in “The 40 Year Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up.” But enough film history. Rudd now shares the screen with Stifler himself Seann William Scott.

Danny (Rudd) and Wheeler (Scott) are best buddies and co-workers. They work for a energy drink company in which they make rounds at local schools advocating not doing drugs (except for caffeine of course). After a particularly rough day with his girlfriend (Elizabeth Banks) Danny finds himself in a bit of a legal tussle with Wheeler. Basically they can either take 30 days of jail time or 150 hours of community service. Since a man’s biggest fear is being raped in prison, they opt for community service. Danny’s ex-girlfriend sets the pair up with an organization called Sturdy Wings which is a sort of Big Brother, Little Brother program in which adults are paired with kids. The organization’s founder is played by the endlessly hilarious Jane Lynch who is at her scene-stealing best. If you’re a fan of her then her scenes alone are worth the price of admission.

Danny is set up with Augie (McLovin) who is a rather awkward teen who is a big fan of fantasy role playing. He even wears a cape 24/7 much to his parents’ concern. Wheeler is even worse off. He is paired with Ronnie (Bobb'e J. Thompson), a tiny terror tyke whose mouth is as foul as anything heard on pay cable. The pairings are horribly matched and everyone pretty much hates each other, but you can pretty much guess that they’ll all be best friends by the film’s end. Of course it’s the journey that is so much fun.

Many of the film’s big laughs come from Augie’s participation in LAIRE (Live Action Interactive Roleplaying Explorers) which is a role playing scenario in which a bunch of dorks dress up in medieval costumes and pretend to be knights in shining armor or what have you. The guy who plays Katherine Heigl’s doctor in Knocked Up is the King and he’s simply awesome in the role, as he takes his being the king way too seriously. It is Augie’s goal to take out the king in a massive annual mock battle and become the king of LAIRE. Rudd mostly rolls his eyes, in typical Paul Rudd fashion.

Meanwhile, Ronnie is making Wheeler’s life a living hell. He’s foul-mouth and always gets himself into trouble. He even locks Wheeler out of his jeep and drives with Wheeler chasing on foot. Of course, Wheeler isn’t exactly a saint. During a campout, he takes too much Ambien and stumbles out of his tent completely naked after a tryst with a Sturdy Wings co-ed. Oh and he brings Ronnie to a party and leaves the kid to fend for himself while he hooks up with an elementary school teacher.

By the end of the film both Danny and Wheeler will learn lessons about themselves and their little friends. And by the end they will be dressed as members of KISS. David Wain has made a film, while not on par with “American Summer”, that is funny and feels surprisingly fresh. You’d be doing yourself a favor to partaketh in “Role Models,” doth won’t be disappointed. GRADE: B+

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

About a Boy: “Changeling” is a Gripping Period Drama From Start to Finish

Angelina Jolie have what seems to be 14 children living with her in real life, but in her newest movie “Changeling” she only has one. And within the first fifteen minutes he will be gone. Gone baby, gone. Clint Eastwood’s latest directing effort (is it me or does it seem like this guy could direct a movie with his eyes closed and it would still seem effortless?) is a fascinating story of a woman who son disappears. Just when all hope seems lost the boy returns to her. Except that she insists it isn’t her son. The trailers may get you to want to see this movie, but they don’t even begin to show you what this movie really has hiding beneath the surface.

Hey Academy members, will you just nominate Angelina Jolie please? She hasn’t been nomed since she won for 1999’s “Girl, Interrupted.” She’s more than a pretty face and humanitarian baby adopter. She’s actually a good actress. And here she gives one of the best performances of her career. (I’ve yet to even watch “A Might Heart,” but I hear she was great in that as well). Here she plays Christine Collins. She’s a single mother living in 1920s Pasadena, California. She works at the telephone company and she gets called into work one afternoon which just so happens to be the day she promises to take her son Walter to the movies. She reluctantly leaves her boy behind and when she returns he’s gone. When she calls the police they insist the boy will most likely return, as they always seem to do.

Just when she thinks it seems like she’ll never see little Walter again, she gets a call from the police who say they’ve found her missing child who was in Illinois. Police Captain J.J. Jones (Blair Witch 2’s Jeffrey Donovan) reunited Christine with her son. Except that she says its not her son. It seems to be a simple mistake except that the young boy calls her mommy and gives her a big hug. Christine is shocked. And Jones insists that the boy is hers. She takes the boy home and even realizes that he’s a few inches shorter than her son because she had started a height chart on the wall. How could her son have shrunk three inches in just a few weeks? A doctor hired by the LA police department insists the trauma could have caused the boy’s height to decrease.

Soon Christine begins hounding the police department and asking too many questions. How can this be my son? Why wouldn’t I know my own child? I don’t even want to tell you anything else that happens in the rest of the movie because to say so would spoil the entire experience. It’s not like there is any real plot twist, but the plot itself is interesting enough that it should never be discussed with out viewing the movie first. I will whet your appetite by saying that veteran character actors John Malkovich and Amy Ryan appear here in parts too good to spoil and that’s all I’ll say about that.

This film, like many of Eastwood’s recent films, take you down roads you never though you’d go. I’m sure you went to see “Million Dollar Baby” expecting to see just another boxing movie and yet it was so much more. That is definitely the case here. You expect this film to be about a mother coping with the disappearance of her child and yet there’s so much more going on that the trailers, fortunately, have kept under wraps. And let me just say that screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski based this story on an actual case from the time period (I read he even placed actual newspaper clippings into the script to remind those that read it that it all really happened). It is a story so fascinating and yet so disturbing you can’t simply turn away. I suggest looking up the real story, but only after you’ve seen the whole film.

This is a movie that is much more than a kidnapping drama, it is a story of women’s rights and political corruption that, even though takes place during the 20s, still seems to find relevance in our current era. This is a striking and emotionally charged (and surprisingly unsettling) film that will stay with you long after the final credits have rolled. GRADE: A

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Wedding Bell Blues: You’ll Be Addicted to “Rachel Getting Married”

I never though I’d write these words but I will: Anne Hathaway is Oscar-worthy. Yes little Princess Diaries is all grown up and can prove that she can act like a pro. I mean, not to say that she’s never been good or anything, but I figured Hathaway would always be “very good” and not necessarily “show-stopping amazing.” Of course it’s the type of role that gets noticed. In “Rachel Getting Married” she plays a recovering drug addict who is released from rehab for the weekend to attend her sister’s wedding celebration. What results is a weekend of sly one-liners and family secrets that have been simmering for years. This film, directed with a gritty, shockingly realistic style by Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme, is a dark, emotional and ultimately satisfying portrait of a broken family in serious need of a patch job.

I don’t want to spend this entire review raving about Anne Hathaway, but she is really, really good. And she deserves whatever accolades (and shiny gold statues) she may accrue. She shows a sense of vulnerability in her I’ve never seen and there are moments when just her facial expressions say things no dialogue could. Hathaway plays Kym who at the beginning of the film is waiting for a ride home from rehab. At first we’re not sure we don’t know her whole story which is slowly revealed as the film progresses. She’s picked up by her father Paul (Bill Irwin) and stepmother (Anna Deavere Smith). And they arrive at her house where her sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) and friends and other wedding helpers are preparing for the wedding of a lifetime. It appears that not only is Kym a recovering addict but also seems to be harboring some kind of hurtful secret from her past. She enters what looks like a child’s room and we can tell her past isn’t lollipops and rainbows.

What is so amazing about this film, besides Hathaway and the rest of the talented cast, is the Demme’s cinéma vérité direction, who shoots the film with handheld cameras (and what appears to be High Def video) as if it were a documentary and Jenny Lumet’s script which feels so real you’d swear you were watching a really high budget home movie of your own screwed up family. The camera gives us shots that are sort of ugly in that they instantly reflect the emotions and state of minds of the characters. If you’re looking for epic shots and beautiful vistas, you should be watching “Lawrence of Arabia.” I would never be able to tell this was a Jonathan Demme movie. Even though I’ve only seen “Lambs” and “Philadelphia” he employs a drastically different filmmaking style that is much more anti-Hollywood but fits perfectly with the film’s story. The camerawork sort of makes you feel uneasy as it should.

The past that comes back to haunt the members of this family is truly heartbreaking and everyone does such a great job of portraying true emotions rather than overly dramatic “made-for-TV” melodrama, which this could have easily become. Lumet’s screenplay slowly peels back the frayed layers of a family that I’m not really sure ever was all one solid piece. Kym’s father is divorced from her mother (played here by Debra Winger) and she’s not exactly going to be winning any Mom of the Year awards anytime soon.

I hesitate to mention this film reminded me a lot of the Dogme 95 film “The Celebration” mostly because I doubt you’ve even heard of it, and I hardly enjoyed it, but this is a more tolerable version. I do love movies where unspoken thoughts of a supposedly tight-nit family comes bubbling to the surface and all hell breaks loose. Is it depressing? Sure. Is it sort of hard to watch? Kind of. But it certainly makes for a fascinating movie from beginning to end. GRADE: A

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Madness of King George: “W.” is a Fascinating Behind-the-Scenes Look at Our Most Misunderestimated President

At nearly two hours into Oliver Stone’s President Bush biopic “W.” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (Thandie Newtown) exclaims that Morocco is willing to donate expert mind field navigating monkeys on behalf of the United States’ Operation: Iraqi Freedom. It’s a moment of pure hilarity that sort of sums up the entire film. I sort of had an image of a bunch of monkeys sitting around the oval office trying to run the country. That’s pretty much what’s been going on the past eight years, but it’s sort of difficult to tell from watching “W.” a movie that honestly isn’t a Bush-bashing opus but rather a portrait of an everyman who was given the opportunity to run the country and did it. If anything it’s those around him who were pulling the strings. If anything, George W. Bush is pretty much sympathetic in this film and is expertly portrayed by “Goonies” alum Josh Brolin.

Oliver Stone is certainly known as a political filmmaker in Hollywood and certainly knows how to push people’s buttons. He has a history of making liberal-minded dramas of such topics as the Vietnam War, the Kennedy Assassination and even 9/11. he’s an antiwar activist after having served active duty in Vietnam so you can sort of assume he’s not the biggest fan of the Iraq War and our current administration. Having said that, “W.” isn’t quite as Bush hating as one might think. I’m not so sure Bush fans are going to necessarily embrace the film, but I do think it has a point, besides showing the life of one of our most despised commander-in-chiefs. It wants to show how a regular Joe made it to the White House. George Bush is sort of like you and me. He went to college and got drunk. He was always living under his father’s shadow and always seemed one step behind his younger brother Jeb. Even when he wanted to run for Governor of Texas his parents (portrayed by James Cromwell & Ellen Burstyn) disapproved because Jeb was going to be running for Governor of Florida at the same time. Sometimes a guy just can’t get a break.

Honestly, most people who are going to see this film are not going to see it because they want to see the life story of a president they think is dumber than mud (yeah he went to Yale, but he got all Cs). They want to see whether the portrayals of real life current administrators are going to be actual characters or just SNL impersonations. Well I have to say that Bush’s cabinet is portrayed by good actors (Richard Dreyfuss is Dick Cheney! Toby Jones is Karl Rove! Jeffrey Wright is Colin Powell! Scott Glenn is Donald Rumsfeld!) All these performers raise above just impressions and actually deliver performances. If anything Thandie Newton who I mentioned earlier as Condoleezza Rice seems more of a caricature mostly because I think that’s exactly how she seems in real life. I also really enjoyed Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush whom we get see first meeting her future husband at a backyard BBQ. Banks doesn’t really get to do much besides play the supportive wife but she makes the best of her role. I enjoy seeing her in any film whether she’s give the opportunity to be funny or not.

What I really admired about the film besides portraying a sympathetic portrait of Bush (but don’t worry he still has plenty of dumb, Bushism moments like that time he choked on a pretzel and unknowingly making up words like “misunderestemated” as if it actually existed) is the film’s story. As written by “Wall Street” scribe Stanley Weiser we get an almost “Godfather Part II” structure in which we crosscut between Bush’s early years in college, as an alcoholic and eventually gaining the respect of his father George Sr. Meanwhile during the “present day” sequences we see first term-Bush talking with his cabinet post 9/11 about an ‘axis of evil’ and how exactly to go about declaring war (with the help our most manipulative VP ever).

If anything “W.” isn’t only just a biopic but a cleverly disguised anti-war film. We don’t exactly root for Bush to declare war on anybody even though we all felt hurt and furious about the 9/11 attacks. But let’s face it if we were going to go to war because of 9/11, at least declare war on the right people. Many Iraq War themed films have been released over the past few years and this is the only one that actually delves into the process and portrays the people responsible realistically in a move that was all about politics and not about consequences. Like any great Oliver Stone film, it will get people talking. See it. GRADE: B+

Friday, October 10, 2008

Rabid Season: “Quarantine” Offers Some Shaky Camera Thrills

“Quarantine” is one of those films that is meant to test its audience. Like “The Blair Witch Project” and “Cloverfield” its goal is to scare and see how far they can go without the audience completely bailing on the film before it ends. All three feature shaky, handled photography handled by one of the film’s actual characters. The film is pretty much in real time (or at least about 90 minutes worth of footage of the characters lives). Most people just want to go out and see a scary movie and some people want to go out and see something original. Both audiences should be pleased with “Quarantine” which is effective in creating suspense, providing genuine moments of terror and a brief running time that certainly doesn’t out stay its welcome.

“Quarantine” stars Jennifer Carpenter (who you may know from TV’s “Dexter”) as Angela who is a local newswoman. She’s covering a news story about a group of local firemen. Angel and her cameraman (who provides the film’s camerawork and whom we therefore hardly ever see) tour the firehouse and even get to slide down that infamous firehouse pole. The first act of the film is simply Angela being shown around the firehouse by firemen Jake (Jay Hernandez) and George (Johnathon Schaech). She even gets hit on in the process. The fireman insist that if they get a call Angel will even be able to tag along to see how they respond to an emergency. Everything seems fine until they get called to an apartment building. It appears neighbors heard some screaming and called the police and fire department. They enter the building and they never step outside again.

It appears the old woman has some sort of sickness (its basically a superstrength version of rabies) which is equally gross and violent. The other tenants begin to worry and soon the authorities outside lock everyone inside. There seems to be some kind of forced quarantine in process and luckily they have a camera crew inside filming the whole ordeal. The film is actually scary, mostly because we don’t know what is just out of frame. There are moments where characters just sort of stand there and we have wait for what seems like an excruciatingly long time for something to jump out at us. Eventually more people become infected (because they’re all practically trapped in a box) and we learn that even a camera can be come a useful weapon.

The film is directed by John Erick Dowdle who previously directed The Poughkeepsie Tapes which has yet to see the light of distribution. I saw that trailer over a year ago and I can’t wait to see it. I didn’t even realize that Dowdle had directed both films, but obviously someone realized he would be the right guy for “Quarantine” because he knows how to structure a film that is based on the gimmick of the first person camera. These movies can work well when done correctly. The actors feel real. I felt like the opening scenes could have been part of a local news show. The subjective camera just works when it comes to the horror genre. It’s a proven fact. Add in the jittery handheld work like the previously mentioned “Blair Witch” and “Cloverfield” and you have a recipe for success. Why are these movies becoming so popular all of a sudden? I think it’s the Youtube craze if you ask me. When anyone can have access to a camera and post it online for everyone to see, it becomes cool that the average Joe can become a “filmmaker.”

“Quarantine” may not necessarily add anything new to the shaky camera thriller genre (and I don’t know if it’s as rewatchable as “Blair Witch” or “Cloverfield”), but it certainly is not a step in the wrong direction. It’s probably best not to watch the film if you already have a headache because you’ll probably puke half way through it, but migraines notwithstanding is worth 90 minutes of your time. GRADE: B

Monday, October 06, 2008

Home Movies: Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks Are More than Friends in “Zack & Miri Make a Porno”

I can recall a couple years back when I watched “Clerks II.” It was a film I wanted to like but didn’t really care for. I haven’t seen it since and I think that might like it a bit more if I saw it again, but still it’s a little too “Kevin Smith” for my tastes. I realize that’s exactly what Kevin Smith fans want in a Kevin Smith movie, but I guess I felt like I wasn’t in on the jokes. Like Sarah Palin, I felt like an outsider even though this maverick filmmaker has such a devoted fan base. Now comes “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” which is sure to please everyone. Die hard Smith fans will enjoy the dirty humor and graphic dialogue and non-Smith fans will appreciate the actual story about two lifelong friends who discover they actually have feelings for each other once they shoot a homemade adult film in order to get money to pay their rent. The film feels more like a Judd Apatow comedy than a true Kevin Smith movie, but you can tell that Smith has matured as a filmmaker and is capable of telling a good story along with filthy, filthy dialogue and plot elements (Fair warning: this movie has porno in the title so why don’t you leave the kiddies at home please).

Judd Apatow all-star Seth Rogen is Zack. Elizabeth Banks is Miri. They live together and they have been best friends since high school. They even attend a 10 year high school reunion mostly to see what has become of their fellow loser classmates. Unfortunately they live in Pennsylvania (a change of location for Smith’s New Jersey-set films) and it’s the dead of winter. That means when their utilities are turned off because they have no money to pay their bills (Zack works at a coffee shop and Miri works at the mall) they realize they might just want their heat, water and electricity back. At their reunion they run into a classmate who now makes adult films (a hysterical Justin Long) and Zack and Miri get the stupendously crazy idea to make their own porno flick to make money so they can actually live like normal human beings.

With the help of some friends they assemble a cast and crew which includes Deacon (Smith regular Jeff Anderson), Delaney (Craig Robinson), Barry (Ricky Mabe), Bubbles (real life porn star Traci Lords), Stacey (real life porn star Katie Morgan) and Lester (Smith’s BFF Jason Mewes). Zack comes up with the idea of “Star Whores” which would be a pornographic spoof of “Star Wars.” What follows is a hilarious (and wonderfully dirty) movie about these people attempting to make the ultimate homemade porno. And it probably has one of the funniest cinematic cameos of human feces I’ve ever seen in a film.

Kevin Smith has crafted such a wonderfully zany cast of characters for this film. And surprisingly there is a lot of heart here as well. Rogen and Banks have natural chemistry together (and great comedic timing). Those who want to see a dirty Kevin Smith film will be pleased and those wanting to see a story which, stripped bare (pun intended) could easily have been a clichéd “best friends who discover their undenying love for one another” movie but instead it transcends genre conventions to become one of the most funny and touching films with the word porno in its title ever made. GRADE: A-

Note: I viewed this film at a screening during the Woodstock Film Festival on October 5th.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Far From Heaven: Bill Maher is Funny as Hell in “Religulous”

Religion. What is it exactly? It means a lot of different things to different people. To me religion is a cult. It’s a bunch of people afflicted with the same delusional beliefs that if they follow their god’s rules then they will be set for life (aka don’t kill or take the lord’s name in vain and spend eternity in heaven). Every religion is different, but to me they hall have something undeniably the same: religion is a way of running peoples’ lives. Some people are so content with the ways of the Lord that they’re blinded by the wrath of God. I think its obvious that you shouldn’t commit the sin of murder. Any rational human being doesn’t need an ancient book to tell us that. Late night talk show host/comedian doesn’t really believe in any form of religion whether it be Catholicism or Judaism or that weird marijuana religion that we learn about in the Netherlands. “Religulous” mostly consists of Maher just trying to get answers. Why do people follow a certain religion and what’s with all those weird crazy rules.

According to Wikipedia, 85% of North Americans follow some form of religion. That’s a large chunk of the population, yet there are still plenty of people who don’t follow any sort of religion. You can definitely put Maher in that other 15% of the popular. He doesn’t really follow any sort of religion, although he seemed to enjoy that weird marijuana religion I mentioned. You could classify Religious as a documentary in that it’s a non-fiction piece mostly consisting of Maher interviewing various religious people and how their religious work and why they follow a certain savior. Maher easily gets people worked up just by asking questions (which to some religions seems like a major no no). ‘Thou shalt not question religion’ should be the 11th commandment.

The most interesting people that Maher talk to are definitely those devout Christians like the ones who spend their free time reenacting Christ’s crucifixion (with plenty of musical numbers to spare). There’s actually a place in Orlando, Florida called Holy Land. You should check it out in case you ever get bored with Mickey Mouse. Also interesting is how Maher gets kicked out of the Vatican only to encounter a friendly priest nearby who practically denounces God in front of the cameras. He insists modern religious is practically ridiculous will of its crazy rules.

Most funny of all however are those random film clips and TV clips thrown in for good measure. When Maher discusses how we never get to learn about Jesus’ teen years and how he must have been an awkward teen Jew, we cut to “Superbad” star Jonah Hill looking awkward and Jewish. I can’t even imagine how much stock footage from movies, TV and other places are in this film. It really adds to the humor and makes this anything but a stuffy documentary about religion.

Maher intends to be irreverent and controversial (and it helps with “Borat” director Larry Charles at the helm). He doesn’t attack people or force them to think the way he does, but he just wants to know what is going on inside some of those religious freaks we all associate when we hear “let Jesus save you” when we’re walking down the streets of Manhattan. We want to know why it is so important to spread the love of Jesus. We want to know why religion is such an important factor in people’s lives and why we’re such a religious country. Is it possible to have morals without belonging to a religion? I think so. But what do I know? It’s not like I’m God or anything. GRADE: B+

Friday, September 26, 2008

Enemy of the State: Shia LeBeouf Runs, Jumps and Grows a Beard in “Eagle Eye”

Watching the completely illogical and implausible film “Eagle Eye,” I was reminded of another techno-thriller called “Live Free or Die Hard.” Both have similar elements (technology is not only our enemy but is frigging everywhere). Both have illogical stories and lots of mindless action and things getting blown up and “normal” people getting caught up in ridiculous situations for the sake of the audience’s entertainment. "Live Free or Die Hard," however ridiculous it was, was still a movie that you bought into mostly because it didn’t take itself too seriously, and Bruce Willis really pulls off the whole action hero thing well. I wish I could say the same for Shia LeBeouf in "Eagle Eye." The film is so ludicrous and implausible that we spend more time slapping our foreheads than gripping the armrest.

If you want a thorough explanation of the plot then go to Wikipedia. I seriously had no idea what was really going most of the time watching this film. The film begins somewhere in the Middle East and has to do with an assassination of some sorts. Then we’re introduced to Jerry who is a twenty-something kid who just learns that his twin brother was killed. A short time later there is an exorbitant amount of money in his bank account and mysterious boxes are delivered to his apartment. He gets a call from an unknown voice telling him to leave his apartment because he’s about to be arrested. Before you can say “Holy crap, why is someone who sounds like Julianne Moore calling my cell” Jerry’s being arrested by the FBI. He’s questioned by Agent Billy Bob Thorton, who looks like he’s either been airbrushed or just has really, really smooth skin for a guy in his 50s.

Meanwhile divorced mother of one Rachael (Michelle Monaghan) gets a phone call from “the voice” who says that her son, who she just put on a train for a class trip to D.C., is going to be harmed unless she follows the directions she is given. Our hapless (and seriously confused) heroes meet up in a car and question each other about what the heck is going on. This is followed by chase after chase, action sequence after action sequence. And there are lots of quick edits. The film could basically be the illegitimate love child of Michael Bay and Tony Scott. I normally wouldn’t mind action sequence after action sequence if I actually cared enough (or actually had a clue) about what was going on. Monaghan and LeBeouf are likable actors in likeable roles, but I didn’t really care about them a whole bunch. In fact, they escaped so many implausible situations that I basically wanted to throw up my hands and just say “are they superhuman or something!?” (And don’t even get me started on the whole “secret floor of the Pentagon” sequences with Rosario Dawson and Michael Chiklis. You’ll laugh in spite of the fact that you paid money to witness all of this).

"Eagle Eye" is probably the most expenseive way to get the message across that if we continue to let technology control our lives then it will literally control our lives. If you’re a big fan of mind-numbing action (although the sequences were staged well by “Disturbia” director D.J. Caruso) then "Eagle Eye" is for you. I love me some action but here Eagle Eye just seems to be a conglomerate of parts of better movies. I was excited to see Caruso and LeBeouf’s second pairing and I have to say “Disturbia” was a much more plausible and enjoyable affair. I longed for the intimate and suspenseful atmosphere of that “Rear Window” rip-off rather than the broad action spectacle of this “North by Northwest” rip-off. GRADE: C

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Spirited Away: Ricky Gervais Sees Dead People in “Ghost Town”

Remember that movie “Ghost?” A non-dancing/non-singing Patrick Swayze dies and leaves poor girlfriend Demi Moore all alone. He becomes a wandering sprit and he uses funny lady Whoopi Goldberg to communicate with his true love from beyond the grave. All those funny scenes involving Goldberg and Swayze were actually pretty funny for a heavily dramatic film (after all its director is one of the co-directors of Airplane!) So imagine taking all the funny parts out of “Ghost” and spinning it in a new way and you have “Ghost Town.” Schlubby dentist/person hater Ricky Gervais goes under the knife for a medical procedure, “dies a little bit,” and then is able to see and communicate with dead people who are roaming New York City because they have “unfinished business.” Imagine BBC’s “The Office” meets “Casper” crossed with “The Sixth Sense” and you have “Ghost Town.”

“Ghost Town” has funny parts which are mostly due to Gervais gifted, and dry, comic timing. As Dr. Pincus he is a lonely guy who doesn’t like talking with other humans which is why he’s a dentist. Patients can’t really strike up conversations while their mouths are full of cotton. I think he likes inflicting harmless pain on people as well. After his surgeon Kristin Wiig tells him that he had died for a few minutes on the operating table during a colonoscopy, Pincus begins seeing people around the city who are ghosts. These ghosts follow him around because he’s the only one who can see them and like I said, they have unfinished business. What’s funnier than a man who hates people to be constantly followed around by dead people?

The main storyline involves Greg Kinner’s ghost who died when he was hit by a city bus. His wife Tea Leoni lives in Pincus’ building and she’s seeing a new guy and Kinnear needs Pincus to make sure his wife doesn’t fall in love with this other guy. Oh and it seems as though Kinnear was having an affair and he didn’t live long enough to tell his wife the truth. So basically the entire movie revolves around Kinnear following Gervais around trying to get him to become friends with this wife. And wouldn’t you know they may just have feelings for each other.

The movie does have some extremely solid funny moments, but on the whole I felt the experience to be wishy-washy at best. If you’re a die hard Ricky Gervais fan then you’ll probably be satisfied much in the same way you’d be satisfied with “The House Bunny” if you love Anna Faris. Director David Koepp isn’t a novice when it comes to stories about ghosts and spirits after all he wrote and directed “Stir of Echoes” and “Secret Window” but he turns the genre upside by turning it into a Frank Capra fantasy-comedy. There are moments that work and moments that don’t. (Gervais and Leoni don’t exactly make the most likely couple) but I admire everyone trying their hardest.

I can’t whole heartedly recommend “Ghost Town” to everyone but if you’re a fan of Gervais and his British sensibilities or fantasy-comedy romps then by all means take a trip to Ghost Town. GRADE: C+

Friday, September 19, 2008

Entertainment Weekly Cares About My Opinions PART 3D

In a recent poll, readers were asked to submit their favorite "election year themed" films. I suggested Recount, which was HBO's made-for-cable dramatization of the 2000 presidential election. If you haven't seen this, check it out. Whether you're a Republican or a Democrat or Joe Lieberman you've got to agree that that fateful election made all of us a little embarrased to be "US American.",,20209564_20209584_20226904_10,00.html

Saturday, September 13, 2008

How to Succeed in Idiocy Without Really Trying: “Burn After Reading” is a Smart Movie Filled with Stupid People

It’s almost been a year since the Coen brothers released “No Country For Old Men” on the movie going crowd. Ten months and four Oscars later, they have a silly farce up their sleeves called “Burn After Reading” which follows several wacky and unimaginably dumb characters who think they’re involved some kind of spy caper. It’s not cinematically meaningful or psychologically rewarding or any other highbrow terms one uses to describe important film art. It is a silly farce with weird characters who look weird, sound weird, do weird things and have weird names. It’s all very…weird.

Basically the film starts with Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), who has just been fired as a CIA agent. Because he has so much time on his hands he decides to write a memoir. I’m sure he’s had a thrilling life, but “retirement” is never like this: A CD-rom containing his memoir was found by employees who work at a gym. Co-workers Chad Feldheimer (a skunk stripe-coiffed Brad Pitt) Linda Litzke (France McDormand), who seems like she could be a distant cousin of Marge Gundersun, think the disc contains super secret CIA information and decide to contact its owner and blackmail him for lots of cash. Even though Linda works in a gym, she feels she needs plastic surgery to fix those “problem areas.” After all, all the exercise in the world won’t get rid of crow’s feet. Osbourne’s life gets turned upside down by these weirdoes who aren’t very good at blackmail.

Meanwhile, Osborne’s wife (Tilda Swinton) is having an affair with an eccentric man named Harry Pfarrer (Coen alum George Clooney) who always has to go for a jog after having sex. And he has probably invented the weirdest sex toys in the history of weird sex toys. Harry becomes paranoid when it appears he’s being followed by a guy in a car. It’s interesting to see Clooney in this performance because while its not really bad acting, its certainly a far cry from his previous Oscar-nominated effort “Michael Clayton.”

Basically the whole point of all of this is that (Potential SPOILER) there really is no super secret CIA disc and all of these characters get involved in something they thing is top secret and life threatening, but its not. (It’s the Mother of all McGuffins) Of course that doesn’t stop life threatening things from happening. This is a spy caper written by the Joel & Ethan Coen after all, so it’s highly likely that someone isn’t going to make it to the end credits. One scene in particular is just too good to spoil here. And besides with Carter Burwell’s dark, thumping score, you really get the sense that something bad is coming anyways.

Remember I said the characters are really weird? Well they are; really, really weird. Pitt is having a blast playing the strangest character of his career, and that includes the weirdo he portrayed in “12 Monkeys.” He likes to rock out to his iPod while he works the treadmill and insists on riding his bike to the “trade off” even though he’s wearing a suit and tie. Pitt here is hilarious. And Linda is even stranger. After Osborne fails to pay them off, she goes directly to… the Russian embassy. To accomplish what exactly? I don’t know, but if you’re an idiot who thinks you’ve found a top secret CIA disc, that’s what you do.

In fact “Burn After Reading” could easily play as a training video on how to be a complete moron. You’ll laugh and find some twists and turns. Mostly sit back and enjoy the moronic shenanigans. And try to fit in a jog afterwards. GRADE: B

PS – Love that “Burbs-like” opening sequence that zooms into the globe and ends up at a CIA facility in Washington DC.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Something’s Rotten in the State of Arizona: To See or Not to See “Hamlet 2” That is the Question

Early in “Hamlet 2” Dana (Brit Steve Coogan) comes home to find his wife Brie (Catherine Keener) hanging out with Gary (David Arquette). They’ve taken on a third roommate because they need the money. Gary doesn’t really do much besides work out apparently and follow the married couple everywhere they go which includes a fertility clinic (which happens to employ one Elizabeth Shue, but more on her later). Gary pretty much gets to do nothing in the handful of scenes he’s in which is a testament to some of Hamlet 2’s occasionally sloppy writing. It’s apparent the screenwriters couldn’t think of anything else funny except for some rather catchy and enjoyable lyrics to their big musical number “Rock Me Sexy Jesus.” What does this have to do with the Shakespeare tragedy? Not much really.

Dana is a former bad actor. He starred in some really bad commercials in one of which he played a herpes patient. The film starts similarly to the opening of Tropic Thunder. It shows us a few faux ads starring the actor within the film. Both films want to be satires, but I think “Tropic Thunder” is more successful and not because it has 34 times the budget of the Sundance favorite “Hamlet 2.” Hamlet 2 feels like a low budget movie, mostly because it is, but I can’t help to think that if director and co-writer Andrew Flemming (director of my 11th favorite movie of all time ‘Threesome’) could have spiced up his film a little if he had some extra dough to go around. Not that money can buy you extra jokes. The film has plenty. I laughed a lot. But there were just sections that either felt forced, boring, or awkwardly paced. Maybe they could have used the extra money to hire a better editor or someone to actually compose some sort of music score. ‘Cause the film feels slow. No music can work for “No Country for Old Men,” not for a slapstick comedy.

Now that I’ve gotten that all out of the way let’s focus on Hamlet 2’s strengths. But first, what’s it all about. Remember I said Dana is a bad actor. He’s so bad, he’s ended up in the drama department of a Tucson, Arizona high school. He writes his own plays based on previously published material. For instance, we get to see a glimpse of his amazingly bad dramatic production of “Erin Brockovich” starring the two theatre brats who star in all the plays. These plays are awful and the school board is making cutbacks, which is always the case in these movies. During a new semester, in which he has a large influx of students taking drama for the first time because it was the only elective left, the drama critic for high school paper insists he put on a play that will be so amazing they won’t be able to cancel drama. So of course he opts to writing an original piece: a sequel to the Shakespearean tragedy “Hamlet.”

Much of "Hamlet 2" has to do with Dana’s wacky, insecure character (who like Hamlet, has some serious daddy issues) attempting to coast through life merrily. Eventually his wife leaves him for Gary the third roommate for no real apparent reason. (Oh, wait I forgot that Dana is "shooting blanks") The movie really gets going once we actually get to see the students perform Hamlet 2, which as far as I can tell, has not much to do with the original and co-stars Jesus (played by Dana) and a special cameo for Hillary fans. But it does feature some hilarious numbers such as "Raped in the Face” and the aforementioned “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” which is so catchy I recommend downloading it from iTunes. The musical which gets attention before its opening starts a firestorm in the conservative town as a mockery of religion because, according to the principle, it features “the devil making out with the President of the United States.” The brilliant Amy Poehler shows up as a first amendment rights attorney named Cricket Feldstein who insists the play go on as scheduled. What began about a bad actor, who is an equally bad teacher, dissolves into a commentary about the role of art in society and freedom of speech. It just takes some time to get to the “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” part.

“Hamlet 2” isn’t really a total wash, because I saved the best for last. Even though she’s not really given much to do, Elizabeth Shue does show up here as herself. Apparently she’s gotten sick of Hollywood (perhaps because Hollywood got sick of her?) and decided to try out nursing instead. Much to Dana’s excitement she offers to speak to his class and answer questions (even though they don’t really know who she is). She even comes to see the premiere of “Hamlet 2” and really enjoys herself.

Any movie that has Elizabeth Shue making fun of herself and has irreverent songs with a dancing Jesus is fine in my books. Hamlet 2 is weird and different and it has bad parts and good parts. It’s really a mixed bag. Like a box of chocolates, you really don’t know what you’re gonna get. GRADE: B-

Monday, August 25, 2008

Puttin’ on the Ditz: Anna Faris Barely Saves “The House Bunny” From Eviction

Anna Faris is one of the most talented young comedic actresses working in Hollywood right now. It’s just that she’s almost rarely given the right material to work with. She makes appearances in critical darlings like “Lost in Translation” and even “Brokeback Mountai.” And even stars in critical dumping grounds like “Waiting…,” “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” and the “Scary Movie” franchise. My personal favorite performance of hers is probably of Jessica Simpson wannabe Samantha James in “Just Friends.” That was a movie that was worth sitting through because of Faris’ perfect comic timing and outstanding screen presence. She’s one of those people who can make you laugh with just a silly look such as simple widening of her eyes. She tells jokes with her face.

The only real reasons to even watch Faris’ latest vehicle, “The House Bunny,” is because of her. Just the idea of her portraying a Playboy bunny is funny in itself. Faris is Shelley Darlingson who partying in the Playboy mansion with her “family” and dreams of getting her own spread in the magazine. After her 27th birthday celebration she gets a note from Hugh Hefner informing her that she’s too old to be living in the mansion and must vacate immediately. Before she can say “I know what boys like” Shelley is homeless and depressed. She stumbles upon Greek row at a local university and makes friends with the losers of the Zeta Alpha Zeta (ZAZ for short, and am I the only one who’s thinking the Airplane! trio here?) sorority who put the reek in Greek. The outcast sorority, which is about to have its charter revoked for lack of membership and blonde hotties, is lead by Natalie (Superbad’s Emma Stone). Natalie thinks that Shelley’s provocative lifestyle could be just the thing her sisters need to gain membership and save the sorority. What we get is a handful of sloppily written stereotypical characters (the husky, manly foreign girl who overacts and former ‘American Idol’ runner up Katherine McPhee as the pregnant girl who squeegees her belly during the car washing scene) that don’t even seem like real people who must be transformed into beauties. Think “from geek to chic;” paging Maury Povich.

Most of the laughs revolve around Shelley’s previous lifestyle being a slutty Playboy bunny who walks around daily like she’s about to enter a brothel. Faris carries most of the humor mostly with her physical appearance and some funny sight gags. When she stands over a steaming manhole to pose like Marilyn Monroe, she gets wickedly burned and screams. That was my favorite part of the film’s trailer and its probably the funniest part of the actual film. (Besides the odd way Shelley learns peoples’ names by pronouncing them out loud like little Linda Blair from “The Exorcist.”) In most movies like this we usually don’t care too much about the plot but here I did want to care and I just couldn’t. Sometimes the lines of dialogue and the jokes and the story were just all a little too much to handle and the final product is mostly Grade D when it should be Grade A. (the film’s writers’ previous efforts include “Legally Blonde” and “10 Things I Hate About You,” which were simply and enjoyable diversions). I guess I was expecting a little bit more.

If you’re a fan of Anna Faris I would give this a mild recommendation, but otherwise you’d probably be smart of steer clear of “The House Bunny.” I don’t really regret seeing it, but I almost wish that it offered a better showcase for Faris’ talents. If you want to watch a stupid movie in which Faris will make you laugh, rent “Just Friends” instead. I’m looking forward to a future Anna Faris that will make full benefit to her talents and will widen her audience even more. Until then, I guess we’ll have to settle for “The House Bunny.” GRADE: C+