Saturday, March 28, 2009

Space Sham: “Monsters vs. Aliens” Isn’t Out of This World

I think I’ve reached the point where even with glorious 3D technology a movie can still be a dud. The dud I’m referring to is “Monsters vs. Aliens” which is DreamWork’s latest attempt to out Pixar Pixar. Even with stuff being thrown in your face which includes a paddle ball, which was done over fifty five years ago in the original “House of Wax,” “Monsters vs. Aliens” is sort of a lame attempt to get you in the theater. To be honest, had the film not been in 3D I don’t know if I’d be as inclined to spend my hard earned cash.

The problem here is mostly due to the fact that the film is just simply forgettable. Here I am nearly 2 days later and I’m trying to figure out stuff that actually went on in this flick. I remember the story starting out with Reese Witherspoon’s character getting married, getting hit by a meteorite and then growing to ginormous proportions while at the alter. She’s immediately taken away by the government and locked away where they keep other “monsters” which include a slimy one-eyed blob (Seth Rogen), a brilliant talking cockroach (Hugh Laurie) and a amphibious creature known as the Missing Link (Will Arnett). Oh and there’s a gigantic beetle thing that doesn’t really talk (and sort of reminded me of the strange Katie character from Horton Hears a Who!). So apparently there’s some aliens who want to invade earth for some reason and it’s someone’s brilliant idea to let the monsters fight the aliens, and in so doing, they are let go, free to pursue a life of religious fulfillment.

The story seems like a sort of lame attempt to create lovable characters and while the voice actors do a wonderful job, I can’t really say the writers (all five of them) can’t really come up with anything witty or particularly original for them to do or say. The only monster that gets any laughs at all is Rogen’s B.O.B. character and that’s mostly because Rogen’s voice (and in particular his laugh) is so well known and funny on its own. The animation of these characters is well done but nothing approaching Pixar level quality. It’s obvious the animators went for the more traditional “cartoon” look which is totally fine; I mean this isn’t WALL-E.

And what of the 3D effect? I’m not so sure it’s worth shelling out the extra bucks to get the added dimension, but I’m sure it’s got to be a lot more fun than the 2D version. And you get to keep a nice looking pair of 3D glasses, that in all honesty, I was tempted to mail to the blind guy on American Idol. In most of the recent 3D movies, I never really felt the 3D was a gimmick, but here it definitely feels like just another way to get people to buy a ticket. Yeah the marketing ploy worked for me and now I’m paying for it ($11.25 to be exact). GRADE: C

Saturday, March 21, 2009

It’s the End of the World as We Know It: “Knowing” is a Smart Apocalyptic Thriller

If you go see “Knowing” there is one thing that is guaranteed to happen: you won’t get it out of your head. You might hate it, you might love it, but it’ll probably start a deep conversation with whoever you saw it with. Whether the movie is “smart” or “stupid” doesn’t really matter here. What matters is the power of a film to spark discussion and on that basis alone “Knowing” is a film worth seeking out. It’s really a movie for everyone because it has action sequences of destructive violence and it has quieter moments of philosophical debate. It is scary and intense and discomforting. It will make you think about your place in the world and whether there really is something greater out there. Most would call this a science fiction film and that is probably most accurate. And having set the film in reality makes everything that occurs in the film almost that much more disturbing.

You can tell from the trailer that this film looks like a stupid Nicolas Cage action movie. However, you’ll probably agree that the premise seems rather interesting for what seems like a dumb waste of money: a time capsule is buried by school children in 1959 filled with drawings of what the future may hold, except one drawing is not a drawing at all. It’s a set of numbers which supposedly forecast every major disaster in the entire world. Scary huh? Oh but why did it have to be Nicholas Cage? I have nothing against the Cage, but let’s just say he hasn’t been proof of a surefire action hit. Besides his “National Treasure” movies, I’ve had zero interest in his recent cinema undertakings. But rest assured this is certainly one of the best Nicholas Cage movies since “Matchstick Men.”

Cage plays John Koestler who is a professor at MIT. His wife is dead and he’s taking care of his young son Caleb (Chandler Canterbury). He’s not the best father in the world. In fact he probably wouldn’t be the best father if he was the last father on the planet. But at least he tries. His son’s class is about to hold a ceremony in which they are going to dig up a time capsule buried by the class of 1959. As we’ve seen in the film’s prologue the class is instructed to draw a picture of what they think the future will be like. A young girl named Lucinda, who hears whispering voices, scribbles down lots of numbers instead. In 2009 each student is given an envelope from the capsule and Caleb receives Lucinda’s. Looking at the paper Caleb was given, John begins to see a pattern in the numbers which seem to forecast the date, coordinates and number of human deaths in every disaster in the world. It seems ironic that John just previously had a discussion with one of his classes about determinism and whether things that happen in life are random or predetermined. Think “Final Destination” without the gory slasher stuff.

It’s amazing how quickly we become infatuated with John’s interest in these numbers. He realizes there are several events yet to happen and he wants to try everything in his power to make sure they don’t happen. But how is a single person supposed to interrupt fate’s plans? John ends up finding Lucinda’s daughter and granddaughter, who also hears voices. Turns out Caleb is hearing voices as well. And a strange man in black, who looks as if he walked out of a music video from the 80s, seems to be stalking John and his son as well. What does this all mean? You have to see the film to find out. The film is suspenseful and has some rather disturbing sequences that recall the horror we all remember from events like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. Most people will be either totally into it or find it all hokey and absurd. The film is as good as a film like this can be. It could have been a lot sillier, but from the beginning we really buy into it. How much you like the film, especially its last act, will depend on how much you think about where we are in this great world of ours.

Director Alex Proyas who is no stranger to dark, ominous visions of futuristic society (see The Crow, Dark City, I, Robot) foregoes the stylized, bleak future he’s explored in his previous films. He instead directs the film as if it could all happen tomorrow. The movie takes place in the present day and therefore embodies it with a realistic and intimate setting which makes it all that much more disquieting. You’ll probably leave the theater feeling a little deflated, but what do you expect from a film that basically shows you how the entire world will end? See it and talk about it. GRADE: A-

Manhunter: Paul Rudd is in Search of a BFF in the Hilarious “I Love You, Man”

Entertainment Weekly film critic Owen Gleiberman put it best in his review of “I Love You, Man” by stating this film is “by far the best Judd Apatow comedy that Judd Apatow had nothing at all to do with.” Yes it is true. When you sit there in the theater at the end of this spectacular bromantic comedy you will be surprised to find Apatow conspicuously absent from the closing credits. Judd doesn’t even get an obligatory executive producer credit. In fact the guy who directed the film, John Hamburg (who also co-wrote it with Larry Levin) previously directed the sorta funny but mostly lame comedy “Along Came Polly.” But enough of who was responsible for this flick, you just really have to see it.

Paul Rudd is delightfully goofy and awkward as ever as Peter who has just proposed to his girlfriend Zooey (The Office’s Rashida Jones). They are a warm, happy couple. You really sense they are in love. Everything seems to be fine, except that Peter doesn’t really have many male friends. He’s always been more of a “girl friends” sort of guy and therefore doesn’t have anyone to make his best man. Apparently his brother Robbie (Andy Samberg) is out, literally actually, because they’ve just never really been that close. Even his dad thinks of Robbie as his best friend. After overhearing Zooey chat with her girlfriends about his lack of male buds, Peter sets out to make some guy friends come hell or high water. And the results are simply wonderful.

Rudd is such an expert at playing the goofy guy who everyone finds charming. I’m surprised it’s taken him so long to really get into the spotlight. He’s the guy everyone wants to be friends with, except for in this film, which at first seems a little far fetched. It seems difficult to believe that Paul Rudd could not have any male friends, but once you really get a sense of his character (“sensitive nice guy”) you instantly realize how hard it is for him to be friends with the typical guy these days. In any other movie he’d probably be the “gay best friend” but here he loves women, but isn’t a jerk or afraid to embrace his “feminine side” (he loves “The Devil Wears Prada”). At first he makes attempts to be better friends with his co-workers at the real estate film he works for. It doesn’t go too well. Even his mother sets him up on a “man date” with another guy who has gotten the completely wrong idea. It is scene after scene of Peter’s embarrassing attempts at making friends that makes this movie as charming as it is.

Enter Sydney Fife. As played by Jason Segal, he is a goofy, childish, man boy, who is not nearly as annoying as you’d think he should be (think the anti-Stifler). He’s just plain lovable and you want Peter to be friends with this guy. He’s actually pretty cool, mostly because of the way he just seems to coast through live with nary a care in world. We all want to be friends with him. Peter meets Sydney at an open house Peter is hosting. He’s trying to sell The Incredible Hulk’s Lou Ferrigno’s house, complete with Lou Ferrigno statute. Sydney shows up for the food, not for the house, and he and Peter seem to hit it off. We instantly sense that maybe this could be Peter’s friend and we witness Peter’s uncomfortable and hilarious attempts to become friends.

I love the way the movie plays how sort of difficult it can be to make friends as an adult. It is so much easier when you’re ten, when you can just invite a friend over to play in the sandbox, but watching the friendship develop between Peter and Sydney is just so much fun to watch. In fact, I’m sort of jealous of them. I want to be their friend too. And odds are, so will you. In true, Judd Apatow form, the film has heart and some terrific supporting characters including Zooey’s friend Denise (Jaime Pressly) and her sleazy husband (played by “Iron Man” director Jon Favreau) whom she loves and hates equally.

"I Love You, Man" is a film I absolutely loved from start to finish. The writing is great, the acting is great and you really fall in love with and relate to the characters. This is one of the best bromantic comedies to date. It’s good to see the positive effect Judd Apatow has had on Hollywood. As long as they keep churning out gems like this, I have faith that movies today are truly in a new Golden Age. GRADE: A

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Like a Virgin Spring: Horror Remake “The Last House on the Left” is Only a Movie, but Still a Good One

I’ll watch nearly every horror movie that is released. Show me your worst: Show me blood, show me guts, show me brains, show me people being ripped apart. It’s cool with me. Having said that, I’m not so much a “fan” of Wes Craven’s 1972 film debut “The Last House on the Left.” It's more an interesting film to discus, analyze and dissect rather than actually enjoy. I mean I can watch horrible things on screen, but I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t particularly enjoy watching a group of disturbing delinquents savagely abuse, torture, rape, murder and disembowel a pair of young teenage girls. While this may have been classified as a horror film back in the day, today it holds up as a political and sociological statement of society (and response to Vietnam and the Manson murders) and is completely raw, shocking and disturbing, if only because you think everything that is happening on screen is actually happening. But alas, as the original trailer so kindly pointed out, it's only a movie.

Having said all that, this new remake, supervised by Craven himself, ups the ante in terms of suspense, production value and actual entertainment value. This is a film, while yes disturbing at parts, is still 100% more watchable than its predecessor. And why is that? Because they certainly play down the torture sequence and up the ante in terms of the revenge of the scorned parents. But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s lay out what this movie is all about.

Basically we have a teen girl and her parents who are vacationing in their lake house in the middle of nowhere. Seriously, what is with people in movies who have vacation homes in the middle of the woods? It’s not exactly relaxing to think I could be murdered and scream for help and no one would ever hear me. Mari (Sara Paxton) asks her parents (Monica Potter and Tony Goldwyn) if she can borrow the car to go into town and hang out with her girlfriend Paige (Superbad’s Martha MacIsaac). Her parents are weary (because Mari’s old brother died a year ago) but let her go anyways. Her father, a surgeon, gives her a wad of dough and a kiss good bye. While in town Mari and Paige meet a strange but nice enough boy named Justin (Spencer Treat Clark) who says he can hook them up with some good weed. Like rebellious teens tend to do in movies like this, they go back to the hotel room where his father Krug (Garret Dillahunt) is staying and they smoke up. Daddy comes home early with his girlfriend Sadie (Riki Lindhome) and younger brother Francis (Aaron Paul). Oh by the way: these people are absolute lunatics and just previously murdered two police officers the night before. This disturbing family unit takes Mari and Paige on a crazy adventure that ends in death and despair in the middle of the woods.

What follows is the “difficult to watch” sequence of these wackos hanging out in the woods while they torture these innocent girls. The original film’s take on this sequence was much more graphic and disturbing (they force one of the girls to pee her pants for crying out loud) and it takes up nearly half of the film’s runtime. Here director Dennis Illiadis makes it just one section of the film. Screenwriters Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth add more character development and actually create people easy to sympathize with. We’re supposed to feel nothing but hatred for the murderers, which is obvious because once these guys end up at the house of Mari’s parents, both unbeknownst that this stranded “family” has left their daughter for dead, we’re on the edge of our seats waiting to find out if they will figure out who these loons really are. The ending segment of the film, which includes Mari’s parents seeking the ultimate revenge (which the audience screamed and cheered with delight) is actually a lot more entertaining and suspenseful than the original. Like most of the recent horror remakes the film benefits from a bigger budget and more production value (and 100% better acting), but it’s still missing the grittiness (i.e. where are the intestines?) that made the original such a cult hit. Although by getting the film out of the 70s, it makes for great use of everyone's favorite kitchen appliance.

“The Last House on the Left” is one of the more enjoyable horror remakes. It’s hard not to make comparisons to the original, as is the case with most of these films, but it can stand on it’s own. Anyone interested in where Wes Craven came up with such a shocking story should probably seek out Ingmar Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring,” a film which I have not seen myself, whom some may be surprised to find out won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. How shocking is that? GRADE: B

Sunday, March 08, 2009

The Last of the Really Great Superheroes: “Watchmen” is a Watchable Comic Book Geek Fest

I have not read the comic bo…, er, graphic novel “Watchmen” (published in 1987) nor do I have plans to ever read it. I’m sorry, but reading adult themed stories with drawings always seemed so odd to me. If I’m reading a book with illustrations, I’ll stick with the Bernstein Bears, but I digress. Comic books and graphic novels aren’t quite my cup of tea (I never even heard of Watchmen the supposed “Citizen Kane” of comic books until I heard they were making it into a film) but I do love movie adaptations of them. That being said, if you enjoy movies that happen to feature superhero characters then odds are you’re going to in the very least enjoy “Watchmen.” There really isn’t anything horrible about it, (it’s not “Batman & Robin”) yet there isn’t anything particularly earth-shattering about it (it’s not “The Dark Knight”).

Having said all that, it seems that the general consensus is that most “fanboys” feel disappointed in the film and even the book’s original creator Alan Moore wants nothing to do with the film. I feel in a special position not having read the book, because I have nothing to compare the film with which always seems to work out well. However I will say I felt slightly lost with some of the thick plot’s elements most notably the whole ending which I won’t spoil for you here. Fanboy Alert!: the ending is slightly modified supposedly. Everything up until the last thirty minutes or so worked well for me in that I enjoyed following along with the characters, learning their backstories and trying to figure out who killed The Comedian (Jeffery Dean Morgan) in the film’s opening sequence.

I have to give credit where credit is due. Alan Moore has actually created a fascinating world with Watchmen. The story takes place in an alternate 1980s America in which history has been slightly altered due to the rise of caped crusaders in the 40s, some of who eventually helped out the US in the Vietnam War. But now it's 1985 and these masked heroes have been outlawed and Richard Nixon has been reelected to the presidency. The Cold War is raging on and the entire world is in fear of being nuked. Meanwhile, The Comedian, an aging, retired Watchman has been murdered and we don’t know who did it or why. It seems like someone is trying to take out all the former superheroes.

So who exactly are these Watchmen? Well there is Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) who is the only one with actual superpowers. He was “disfigured” in a horrible accident and now he glows bright blue and spends most of his free time free ballin’ while working for the government. He’s with Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman) who's the daughter of the first Silk Spectre (Carla Guglio). Silk starts to become romantically involved with Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) who can’t seem to get his mojo until he starts to fight crime again. Probably the coolest character, and I’m sure the fanboys will agree, is Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) who wears a mask that has moving ink blots which are pretty cool to stare at. His backstory is probably the most fascinating and disturbing and he’s definitely one of the more well rounded characters.

If there’s any real problem with the film it has more to due with its length than anything Zack Snyder related. This guy directed the sad excuse for a film “300” which I hated and while he employs a similar style here, it’s definitely more of a departure from the standard “shot-in-front-of-a-green-screen-so-it-can-look-mad-sick” appeal of his previous directorial effort. I was a fan of his remake of “Dawn of the Dead,” so it pleases me that his “Watchmen” is completely watchable although it goes on rather long (I heard there’s an even longer version for the fanboys) and the ending is a little bloated and less than satisfying. Again, in a totally unbiased not familiar with the graphic novel sort of way.

If there is any real reason to see this flick, it’s for the completely, amazingly cool opening title sequence which reimagines history Forrest Gump-style with superheroes taking part in some famous times in history (see who killed JFK! The opening of Studio 54! Look, there’s Andy Warhol!) all set to the tune of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” The killer soundtrack, visual style and interesting characters conspire to form an enjoyable movie going experience that is more substance than style, for once. GRADE: B+