Thursday, December 30, 2010

Into the West: The Coen Brothers Hardly Make a False Move with “True Grit”

My favorite Western is “Back to the Future Part III.” I realize not only is this blasphemous, but it also doesn’t make any sense. And that’s because to be perfectly honest, I’m not a fan of Westerns. The components that make up a Western never really interested me. Was it a surprise that I was, at first, disappointed with Quentin Tarantino’s second Kill Bill movie, seeing as though it was more Western-influenced than the first part? Not really. Westerns to me, like their setting, seem ultimately dry and dull. I really only saw True Grit for two reasons: its Oscar buzz and because the Coen Brothers were behind it. I could care less that it’s a remake of the John Wayne classic. I haven’t seen it so it means nothing to me. But after seeing this updated “True Grit” I can say that I did find myself entertained, but not nearly as much as someone who would more fully appreciate this type of film.

“True Grit” makes a sort of strange turn for Joel and Ethan Cohen. They are known for their quirky flicks that are usually dark but have a strange sense of humor to them. They are true originals. Even if something like “No Country for Old Men” was based on a novel, they certainly put their own stamp on the material. That movie is sincerely a Coen Brothers movie, no question. Here in True Grit you’ll have to look a little harder. But they are certainly there. Here this time they not only working from a novel (by Charles Portis) but this is the second time this story is hitting the big screen. Jeff Bridges (a reason along to see this movie) steps into the Oscar-winning shoes of John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn, a man hired by a fourteen year old girl named Mattie Ross (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) to avenge her father’s death. Mattie’s father was killed by the coward Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) and Mattie is hell-bend on revenge. Steinfeld certainly is a find. This is her feature film debut and you’d think she’d been in twenty other movies. After some disagreements, Mattie and Rooster set off to find Chaney in Indian territory. They are also joined by LaBoeuf (an equally good Matt Damon).

That’s pretty much all the story offers, as since this is a more traditional western, the plot is simply about vengeance. Of course the performances elevate this thing and the beauty camerawork by long-time Coen collaborator Roger Deakins is beautiful (although his work here isn't nearly as flasy or interesting as what he did with "The Assassination of Jesse James..."). There are lots of chases and guns shooting and lots of greasy, dirty bad guys here as well. And despite all the traditional aspects of the film, there are some genuine Coen touches. I’m not sure if in the original film LaBoeuf’s tongue gets nearly bitten off and Rooster yanks the bitten part out of his mouth, but here it seems overwhelmingly like a great, squeamish Coen Moment. The film doesn’t reach the level of intensity of “No Country for Old Men” and is not nearly as violence (this flick is PG-13) but there are some pretty violent things going on. Including witnessing three men getting hanged. One of which comically doesn’t get any last words.

The Coen Brothers are at it again and they certainly put their stamp on this True Grit remake. Fans of Westerns will be pleased and non-fans will find some things here to enjoy. I can’t say it’s converted me into a fan of this genre, although the film’s third act is pretty riveting, however you’d be hard pressed to find anything truly disappointing here in “True Grit.” GRADE: B

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Stutter Island: “The King’s Speech” is Certainly a Crowning Achievement

“The King’s Speech” is one of the Oscar frontrunners for Best Picture. And I could see why – if this were the mid-90s. The problem is that the Academy rarely goes for the “British period piece” anymore. To some, myself included, it was a shock that Atonement was nominated a few years ago (it’s director was snubbed which showed a sign of weakness) and yet here we are in 2010 with “The King’s Speech” about the ascension of King George VI to the British throne. The problem is that to be a good king you must be able to address your people and if you can hardly get a sentence out of your mouth because of stammering, to be quite frank, you’ll look like a fool. This is the true story of the relationship between the popular monarch and his speech therapist Lionel Logue. It was a special relationship and it is simply the best part about “The King’s Speech” and that is due to the wonderful performances of Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush and their wonderful onscreen chemistry.

I’ll still put my money on “The Social Network” for Best Picture, but in “The King’s Speech” we have everything in place for a glorious Academy Award-baiting movie. We have a period setting, with glorious costume and production design. We have terrific performances from its cast and it’s simply a bonus to be telling a real life story. The film begins with Albert Frederick Arthur George (firth) having to give a speech. He stutters and stammers. Good thing his older brother Edward is the heir to the crown. His loving and supportive wife Elizabeth (Helen Bonham Carter) sets him up with several therapists, one of which makes him stuff marbles into his mouth. She finds the eccentric Mr. Logue (Rush) who insists that, although he’s treating a member of the Royal Family, they be on a first name basis and do the therapy on his own premises. They start a wonderful working relationship as Bertie (as Lionel calls him) begins to warm up to his therapist’s strange methods. He forces him to read aloud with music blasting into his ears from headphones, which makes a recording of his voice sound nearly flawless.

And of course there is all that stuff with Albert having to become the King of England once his brother Edward (Guy Pearce) decides he’d rather marry an American woman than take the throne. All of this stuff is played out in pretty standard fashion and staged well enough by director Tom Hooper. He employs plenty of use of short lenses and close-ups which really through the viewer off kilter. But it’s never extremely flashy and doesn’t exactly call attention to itself. This isn’t the elaborately staged “British period piece” that “Atonement” was. You won’t find any six minute long tracking shots in this film.

What the film has most going is in its performances. Colin Firth, who was also amazing in last year’s “A Single Man” is great here as well. He might as well clear off space on his mantle right now. There’s no competition. Rush is exceptional as well and the two actors play off each other exquisitely. Rush almost steals the film and any scene without him makes you complete aware that something’s just missing. Carter is good too in the role of “the supportive wife” but she’s not exactly relevatory. And Michael Gambon shows up as the dying King.

“The King’s Speech” is a good movie, but it’s not a movie I personally loved. Sure it has the pedigree and all the factors of a traditional Oscar flick, but it doesn’t really transcend anything. Sure it makes you feel good, but in that regard I think “The Fighter” did that much better. I can recommend “The King’s Speech” if you want to see what all the Oscar fuss is about or if you’re a speech pathology student. I smell a field trip! GRADE: B

Saturday, December 18, 2010

I’m a Dancer! “Black Swan” is an Unnerving and Strange Ballerina Fright Fest

How is it that I have seen two Showgirls-like films within nearly weeks of each other? Is 2010 the year of honoring one of the most rewarding and entertaining cult films of all time? Maybe part of its 15th anniversary celebration? We got the splashy musical form of Showgirls around Thanksgiving with the Cher-tastic “Burlesque” and now we have the ballerina horror flick version known as “Black Swan.” Ok ok ok, I’m really only joking around “Black Swan” is a serious film with great awards potential and Burlesque and Showgirls probably don’t deserve to be mentioned with it, but come on, I can’t be the only one who spotted some strangely suspicious similarities: “Attack it! Attack it!” equals “Thrust it! Thrust it!” and the story about the rival between two lesbianonic female dance rivals seem a little obvious to me. But I digress. What’s important here is that “Black Swan” is a great film and a particularly strange yet interesting one. It’s a movie that practically demands to be seen more than once because there’s really so much going on I can’t imagine I was able to take it all in one sitting.

Let me get something out the way first. “Black Swan” is a horror film. There I said it. Don’t believe me? When you watch the movie I’m pretty sure you’ll either jump (I did) make some kind of audible sound of disgust (I did) or want to hind your eyes (I almost did). There are frightening images here. Of course this isn’t the time of horror film where a crazy guy in a mask stalks large breasted coeds, but it relies on disturbing images and delving deep into the subconscious of its emotionally and psychologically damaged heroine. In a way it reminded me a lot of Roman Polanski's "Repulsion" and even some of David Cronenberg's early movies. The film stars the wonderfully engaging Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers, a dancer in a New York City ballet company. Like most professional dancers, she's obsessed with it. The company’s director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) has announced they will be doing “Swan Lake” but a version in which the main star will have to act out two parts the White Swan (innocence/virginal) and the Black Swan (cunning/sexual). He replaces the “aging” ballerina star played by Winona Ryder and the ballet-obsessed Nina fights for the role which she gets. Enter her main rival Lily (Mila Kunis).

The film’s script (written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John J. McLaughlin) then focuses mainly on Nina’s obsession with dance, her attempts to find the “darker half” of her personality, and how this new girl Lily begins to warp her mind. As the virginal (it’s assumed by not made clear) Nina, part of her psychology involves being able to “let loose” in order to fit the Black Swan role. Thomas even gives her an assignment to help her out: he tells her to go home and touch herself. This brings us one of the film’s most disturbing and frightening scenes when Nina begins to enjoy herself under the covers, turns around and begins humping her bed and when she looks over she sees her mother sleeping in the chair next to her bed. What a nightmare! And that’s because Nina has yet another horror in her life: her obsessed mother Erica played by Barbara Hershey. Erica is a former dancer as well and she keeps a close eye on Nina. She’s one of those wacky stage mothers who never found success herself and would rather enjoy success through her own daughter.

Since this is a Darren Aronofsky film there are plenty of disturbing things going on here. As rehearsals for “Swan Lake” progress Nina becomes more and more psychologically unstable. She has weird dreams and visions, of which she’s not sure what is real. She seems to be scratching at her back which becomes more and more damaged as the film progresses and her skin sort of begins to become “bird-like.” Perhaps Nina’s only way to play the role of the Black Swan is to actually become one in her own mind. Aronofsky is great a great director. He’s great at makes horror films where one wouldn’t normally find one (i.e. Requiem for a Dream) and he’s great at giving us character studies about people who are obsessed with their careers (i.e. The Wrestler). Here he combines the two in a remarkable piece of filmmaking. Look at the way he uses the wonderful texture of his 16mm film stock to get at the nitty gritty of the ballerina world. A happy film about dancers would be much more glossy and shiny; here we’re given the opposite. This is a dark and almost ugly film. Look at the way his camera follows Nina so closely when she’s walking to work and from work or even in her dance routines; sometimes you expect Portman to hit the cameraman in the head.

“Black Swan” is truly a sight to behold. It has some grotesque and yet beautiful images. It features great performances and pretty mesmerizing direction. You feel like you’re begin guided by someone who knows exactly what they’re doing and doing this specially for a certain purpose. There are no unintentional shots in this film. “Black Swan” is a pretty bizarre backstage flick and it may leave you scratching your head. But don’t scratch too hard or Barbara Hershey use her scissors on you… GRADE: A

Punch-Drunk Glove: “The Fighter” is a Knock Out

Do I know anything about boxing? No. Do I like watching boxing? No. Did I love the movie “The Fighter?” Absolutely yes. It’s funny when a filmmaker can make you interesting in a subject you don’t care much about. But perhaps that’s because “The Fighter” isn’t so much about boxing but rather a young man trying to make something of himself without letting his borderline crazy family getting in his way. “The Fighter” tells the true story of Massachusetts welterweight boxer “Irish” Mickey Ward and him trying to deal with his crack-addicted half-brother Dicky Eklund who was a fighter himself. Mark Wahlberg plays Ward and he is great. However the real standout here is Christina Bale giving one of his best and most impressive performances as Eklund. I’d be shocked if I didn’t hear his name called out on Oscar night.

I think most of the success of “The Fighter” can be attributed to most of the story revolving around Ward’s strange interactions with his family. His mother played here by the wonderful Melissa Leo was his manager. She is the epitome of Massachusetts white trash and seems like she could be a cousin of Mona Lisa Vito from “My Cousin Vinny.” She has nine children, her sons Mickey and Dicky and seven daughters who seems function as her own female entourage. The sisters are always together and almost always shouting over each other. Sometimes they’re just there in the scene as Mickey interacts with his mother and brother and his new girlfriend Charlene played superbly by Amy Adams. I give the film credit (specifically director David O. Russell and the film’s three screenwriters) for spending so much time with this people. They are funny but the film is a drama but the movie finds a perfect balance of with its humor without ever going over-the-top.

What is it about boxing movies that always make such great movies? I’m not quite a fan of the joyous underdog story “Rocky” mostly because I saw it’s countless imitators first and I didn’t really enjoy Martin Scorsese’s gritty boxing tale “Raging Bull” again for the same reasons, but something about “The Fighter” just simply works as great dramatic filmmaking. You care about Mickey because of what he has to deal with and you find yourself caring about a guy who’s this close to completely throwing his life away because he’s hooked on crack. That’s why it’s not really just a film about boxing., much in the same way the success of “Million Dollar Baby” hinged on the fact that it was much more than just a boxing movie. This film spends a surprising amount of time on Dicky’s storyline and his character has a fully satisfying story arc which makes it simply a standout in a movie that’s already great to begin with. Russell stages great fight scenes, especially at the film’s end, that I almost wanted to stand up and cheer. Sure we’ve all seen it before but it just works.

“The Fighter” is just simply an all-around great movie. There seems to be something about film set in and around Boston that just work in movies, whether it’s “The Departed,” “Gone Baby Gone,” “The Town” and now “The Fighter.” It features terrific performances, great characters to care about and superb direction. Hands down “The Fighter” is simply a winner. GRADE: A

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Screen Actors Guild Award nomination predictions


The Fighter
The Kids Are All Right
The King’s Speech
The Social Network
The Town

possible: Black Swan

Jeff Bridges — True Grit
Robert Duvall — Get Low
Jesse Eisenberg — The Social Network
Colin Firth — The King’s Speech
James Franco — 127 Hours

Possible: Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine

Annette Bening — The Kids Are All Right
Nicole Kidman — Rabbit Hole
Jennifer Lawrence — Winter’s Bone
Natalie Portman — Black Swan
Michelle Williams — Blue Valentine

Possible: Lesley Manville, Another Year

Christian Bale — The Fighter
Andrew Garfield — The Social Network
Jeremy Renner — The Town
Mark Ruffalo — The Kids Are All Right
Geoffrey Rush — The King’s Speech

Possible: Michael Douglas, Wall Street Money Never Sleeps

Amy Adams — The Fighter
Helena Bonham Carter — The King’s Speech
Melissa Leo — The Fighter
Hailee Steinfeld — True Grit
Jacki Weaver — Animal Kingdom

Possible: Mila Kunis, Black Swan

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Golden Globe Nomination Predictions

Best Picture – Drama
The Social Network
The King’s Speech
The Town
Black Swan

Best Picture – Musical/Comedy
The Kids Are All Right
Toy Story 3
Love & Other Drugs
How Do You Know

Best Actor – Drama
Colin Firth – The King’s Speech
James Franco – 127 Hours
Jesse Eisenberg – The Social Network
Jeff Bridges – True Grit
Leonardo DiCaprio – Inception

Best Actor - Musical/Comedy
Johnny Depp – Alice in Wonderland
Jake Gyllenhal – Love & Other Drugs
Paul Rudd – How Do You Know
Will Ferrell – The Other Guys
Jim Carrey – I Love You Philip Morris

Best Actress – Drama
Natalie Portman – Black Swan
Nicole Kidman – Rabbit Hole
Hillary Swank - Conviction
Jennifer Lawrence – Winter’s Bone
Michelle Williams – Blue Valentine

Best Actress – Musical/Comedy
Annette Bening – The Kids Are All Right
Julianne Moore – The Kids Are All Right
Anne Hathaway – Love & Other Drugs
Julia Roberts – Eat, Pray, Love
Cher - Burlesque

Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale – The Fighter
Geoffrey Rush – The King’s Speech
Mark Ruffalo – The Kids Are All Right
Andrew Garfield – The Social Network
Justin Timberlake – The Social Network

Best Supporting Actress
Helena Bonham Carter – The King’s Speech
Melissa Leo – The Fighter
Amy Adams – The Fighter
Hailee Stanfield – True Grit
Mila Kunis – Black Swan

Best Director
David Fincher – The Social Network
Joel & Ethan Coen – True Grit
Darren Aronofsky – Black Swan
Christopher Nolan – Inception
Tom Hooper – The King’s Speech

Best Screenplay
The Social Network
The King’s Speech
The Kids Are All Right
True Grit

Best Score
The Social Network
Alice in Wonderland
127 Hours
The King’s Speech

Best Original Song
“Bound to You” from “Burlesque”
“You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me” from “Burlesque”
“Me and Tennessee” from “Country Strong”
“I See the Light” from “Tangled”
“We Belong Together” from “Toy Story 3”

Best Animated Film
Toy Story 3
How to Train Your Dragon
Despicable Me
The Illusionist

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Naked Fun: “Love & Other Drugs” is a Good, Though Flawed, Dramedy

If you go to see “Love and Other Drugs” you will see naked people. Those people are Anne Hathaway from “The Princess Diaries” and Jake Gyllenhaal from “October Sky.” They have certainly grown up. But those who saw Brokeback Mountain have already seen what these two have under their clothes. So let’s pretend that you don’t want to pay money to see these two young hot stars get naked and hump each other for two hours. Let’s pretend you actually want to see a nice story about a hotshot pharmaceutical rep who falls in love with a young woman with a rare case of Parkinson’s. If you see it for this reason you’ll get a nice story with great performances, however there are some weird slips the film makes along the way, but ultimately I found it satisfying.

A drug is a substance that’s alters a person’s physical well-being. In other words you have a headache? Pop an aspirin and you feel better. The ultimate metaphor for a drug in “Love and Other Drugs” is, yes, love. Jamie (Gyllenhaal) has never known love; in fact he’s never even told his family he loves them. Maggie is similar. She’s a free spirit who’s more into meaningless sex more than settling down with “the one.” However what happens when these two personalities connect? Well besides lots of hot, sweaty sex love happens duh! And it changes them as if they were taking…a drug.

Director Edward Zwick sort of pushes the drug metaphor a lot and I think he wants to comment on the current state of the pharmaceutical industry, but I’m not so sure he’s as biting as he needs to be. I think he sorts of wants this film to be like “Thank You For Smoking” but spends too much time on the romance of his lead characters for that biting satire to happen. But that’s ok because I actually enjoyed the romance between the two leads. The two actors have great chemistry, which the proved a few years back in “Brokeback Mountain.” Gyllenhaal is great at playing that smooth-talking sales guy and he is rather charming. Hathaway is equally good as a woman who is so scared about her uncommon condition that she hides behind of façade of free spiritedness. She’s wonderful and if this year wasn’t such a great year for women, she’d probably get awards recognition for it.

I did say that there are a few bumps along the road in “Love and Other Drugs.” I’m not quite sure the tone of the film is completely solidified. The film seems like a straight comedy from the beginning, but begins to devolve into a bittersweet serious romance. But then there are these moments of almost strange raunchy comedy that seem more suitable to a Judd Apatow film. For instance one scene has Jamie and his Jack Black look-a-like brother Josh (Josh Gad) attending a ritzy “pajama party” where Jamie becomes involved in a three-way and taking a little blue pill. He awakes a few hours later with an erection that won’t go away and his brother rushes him to the hospital. And then the sequence just sort of ends. There’s no pay off, so to speak. What a bummer.

One of the more interesting aspects of the film involves the film’s period setting. The movie is set in 1996 just as the, err rise, of the popularity of Viagra was hitting its stride. The movie isn’t so much about Viagra as it’s more about the guy who ended up selling a lot of it, but like I said this isn’t that movie. And there’s the surprisingly clichéd scene at the end where the man realizes he made a mistake and actually loves the girl and he has to track her down and plead with her that he is in fact in love. After all Jamie isn’t really sure at first if he wants to begin a relationship with such a sick girl. And Maggie isn’t sure that Jamie is the type of guy that would want to stay with such a sick girl.

“Love and Other Drugs” has plenty of great things going for it: great performances, it’s pretty funny, it has an interesting story that sometimes meanders, and it has lots and lots of sex. If you’re seeing it for that least reason you’ll be more than satisfied, but if you see it for the other reasons…oh please who am I kidding? We just want to see hot people bone don’t we? GRADE: B

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Hip to be Cher: So Sue Me, I Enjoyed “Burlesque”

Yes I enjoyed “Burlesque.” When someone’s 10th favorite movie of all time is “Showgirls” can you really blame him? Sure “Burlesque” imitates lots of other movies including the aforementioned “Showgirls” and also “Chicago,” “Moulin Rouge,” “Flashdance,” “Cabaret,” etc. But who cares? It’s flashy and entertaining and clichéd or not, it’s a razzle dazzle musical that might even work better as a stage show. As a film it’s campy fun and never dull.

“Burlesque” tells the story of a young girl named Ali (Christina Aguilera) from a small town in Iowa who has big dreams of making it in the big city. She makes two much better decisions than Nomi did in “Showgirls:” don’t dream about working in Vegas and don’t hitchhike there. Ali moves out to Los Angeles and takes a bus (one way of course!). There she looks for a showbiz job, where she stumbles upon The Burlesque Lounge. Lucky for her Cher is the owner of this little theater. Ok Cher’s not really the owner, but she player her. Her name’s Tess and she doesn’t like when strangers are in her mirror. Ali pleads Cher, er I mean Tess, for a job; any job. She meets Jack (Cam Gigandet), a bartender, and she begins waiting on tables without anyone’s permission. It’s because she’s so determined, duh! Let’s just flash-forward a little to where Tess and her gay BFF/stage manager Sean – Stanley Tucci, reprising his Devil Wears Prada role - finally let Ali into the show as a dancer. However, unbeknownst to the employees at The Burlesque Lounge this young waitress turned dancer has one of the most powerful voices they’ve ever heard. I mean it’s Christina Aguilera for God’s sake!

It wouldn’t be a musical without a romance right? Since Ali is new in town and doesn’t really have anyplace to go, her new bartender friend Jack let’s her crash at his place. It turns out he’s actually straight even though he wears eyeliner at work. Too bad Jack has a fiancé that’s conveniently 3000 miles away. No one’s surprised when they fall for each other, but they have good enough chemistry and they’re easy to root for. But there are bigger worries then whether Ali and Jack will eventually hook up, the Burlesque Lounge is in financial trouble! Tess needs money to keep the place open and Ali’s talented voice may be the only hope.

Ok, so if you haven’t figured it out by now “Burlesque” is a pretty corny movie. But you know what? Burlesque itself is pretty corny. I mean it’s a bunch of women in gaudy outfits dancing to random songs. And people find this stuff entertaining? The movie kicks things up a bit once Ali begins singing at the shows instead of lip-syncing which is the standard practice at the B. Lounge. Tess insists that customers come to see people dance, not to hear them sing. Of course Ali’s powerful voice is enough to make fellow performer Nikki (Kristen Bell) really jealous and I was waiting for a backstage catfight that never quite happened. Although Tess does take out Nikki’s car window with a tire iron at one point. But let’s face it, people go to see musicals for the music and the musical numbers are where the film really delivers. First time writer/director Steven Antin stages the scenes well and there’s plenty of energy radiating from the screen. And all of the singing and dancing is done on the stage, so there’s never that awkward “breaking into song” moment.

Let’s face it, most people will label “Burlesque” as a clichéd guilty pleasure. I don’t think the performances at that bad and Cher and Tucci actually work tremendously well together. It’s not really an atrociously bad film like the Razzie-winning “Showgirls” and it’s not as prestigious as the Oscar-winning “Chicago.” It fits comfortably somewhere in-between. Anyone who’s a fan of campy fun will find a good time to be had at “Burlesque.” GRADE: B+

The Trouble with Hairy: Although CGI, “Tangled” is a Worthy Addition to the Disney Animated Canon

What is it with Disney princesses? They’re always getting into trouble aren’t they. They long for something bigger something greater. Some of them don’t even know they’re princesses. Take Rapunzel as seen here in the newest addition to the Walt Disney Animated Classics collection (number 50 to be exact) “Tangled.” The film’s title is almost borderline dreadful mostly for what it actually represents. The Disney suits were worried that a Disney animated musical about a princess named Rapunzel would not attract of the film industry's favorite customers: boys. So they changed the title and decided to put the focus on the film’s male hero Flynn Rider. He’s a thief with a heart of gold and you won’t be too shocked to find out who he falls in love with.

“Tangled” is a movie musical in the tradition of the greats like “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Little Mermaid” and like those films it centers on a strong female character who wants to know about what’s “out there.” It turns out Rapunzel was the daughter of the King and Queen, but she was snatched away by Mother Gothel (voiced by Donna Murphy). Gothel used the power of this special healing flower to keep herself young and beautiful for years and years. This same flower helped the Queen from dying as she gave birth to her baby. It turns out that magic healing powers were transferred to Rapunzel through her golden hair. With just a song she could harness her hairs powers, which Gothel was jealous of and needed in order to stay young and beautiful forever. She kidnaps the Princess and raises her as if she were her own, locking her away in a tall, tall tower, never able to set a foot into the real world.

That is until Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi) a thief hired to steal the Princess’ crown, stumbled upon the tower and Rapunzel herself. Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) unaware of her royal status is scared of this stranger but intrigued as well. She sends her mother off to find her a unique 18th birthday present, while she insists Flynn take her to see the Queen and King’s floating lantern display, which they do every year on their missing daughter’s birthday. There seems to be a lot of setup for a Disney movie, but there you go. So in the meantime there’s plenty of time for Flynn and Rapunzel to fall in love. And to sing songs of course! Because Disney musical maestro Alan Menken is on hand to write the music for Rapunzel and her co-stars. The songs are well done if not particularly overly memorable and sound like more modernized versions of songs you may be familiar with from the early 1990s. There’s a song about hope and wonder “When Will My Life Begin” and a song about dreams “I’ve Got a Dream” and it wouldn’t be complete if the villain didn’t beak out into song either with “Mother Knows Best.”

“Tangled” is influenced and some might even says it outright borrows elements from earlier Disney films. In fact you can probably name something in this movie you’ve seen before in the other classic films. But those are the elements Disney fans have been holding onto for years! Last year’s The Princess and Frog” represented the hope that Disney could return to glorious form that made those early movies so rich and warm and successful. With “Tangled” they’ve proven that the formula can still work even nearly 20 years later. Sure “Tangled” feels a little more modernized, with computer generated animated and not the hand drawn stuff, but the animation represents animation in the new era. (Actually the advertising for the film actually feels the most modern, what with that Pink song blasting during it). Most people cried foul when films transitioned from black and white to color and in the end that wasn’t all that bad. And I loved how much Rapunzel's hair became a characater of its own. She uses her hair much in the same way Indiana Jones might use his whip.

I still believe Disney can, and will, make good hand drawn movies in the future. I mean it’s Disney for crying out loud they created this stuff and I think they will stick to it. Sure they’ve had to adapt along the way, but Tangled is a great return to what made them popular in the first place. It has wonderful and funny characters (including a particular memorable chameleon sidekick named Pascal), good songs and lush animation to feast your eyes on. So what are you waiting for? Don’t be embarrassed if you don’t have kids, just go see it already! GRADE: B+

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Rock: “127 Hours” is a Fascinatingly Harrowing Tale of a Man’s Struggle to Survive

I wasn’t so much of a fan of Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” when it premiered back in December of 2008, but his follow-up “127 Hours” is where it’s at. It’s so emotionally wrenching, disturbing and yet beautiful my eyes were completely glued to the screen. I sat there transfixed for 93 minutes while the true life story of Aron Ralston, played magnificently by James Franco, unfolded before my eyes. He was, and still is, a free spirit. He’s a young guy always looking for another great adventure (similar to Chris McCandless of “Into the Wild” fame, but portrayed as more likable) until he gets caught in the crevice of a canyon; a gigantic boulder pinning his arm to the rock wall. He’s trapped for days and yes we know he survives (Ralston’s memoir is the basis for the film’s intense screenplay by Boyle and Simon Beaufoy), but it’s witnessing his ordeal that makes this movie just so captivating to sit through.

We don’t get to learn too much about Aron before he sets out on his mountain bike ride and his rock climbing trip in Blue John Canyon in Utah. He’s by himself and he doesn’t tell anyone where he’s going. He meets up with two strangers. A pair of young girls (played by Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn) are also out hiking for the day, although they’re not quite as knowledgeable as Aron. They agree to hang out with him while he shows them around. They even spend some time swimming an underground crevice. They part ways, but not before they invited Aron (who they obviously feel attracted to since he’s so charming) to a party they’re having at their place the next evening. They’re even having a giant inflatable Scooby Doo. Aron won’t be making it to the party. Just a short time later a loose boulder pins him. At first he’s surprised and shocked and then the realization sets in that that rock isn’t going anywhere. Neither is he.

Aron is forced to sit there, or stand there rather until either someone find him or he dies. There’s another solution but Aron doesn’t think of until it becomes a last resort. Aron is a smart guy. He’s an experienced climber and has some equipment at his disposal. He’s got ropes and climbing gear, he has nearly a full bottle of water (sometimes Boyle brilliantly gives us his water’s POV), although he gulps down most of it pretty quickly, not anticipating being stuck for so long. It’s not long before he begins to have strange dreams and then straight up hallucinations. He sees his family and friends. He sees the mistakes he made in life as one would do if you were on the brink of death. He even has a video camera to document his incident. He even says his goodbyes. It’s heartbreaking. But you can’t underestimate a human’s will to survive. Or their ability to drink their own urine to stay alive or eventually, in Aron’s case, resorting to self-surgery. Bear Grylls has nothing on this guy.

Boyle bring such much energy to a story about a man who can’t move it’s almost unbelievable. The film is so kinetic with all his fancy editing and close-up and jittery camerawork. It’s almost an exhausting experience and you begin to feel what it might be like to be in Aron’s shoes. Boyle implements such wondrous cinematic techniques such as splits screens, beautiful visuals, a great score by A.R. Rahman and such a superb use of music and sound. There are sounds, used in the film’s later scenes once Aron realizes what he must do to survive (which includes amputating his own arm), that are so chilling they sent a tingle down my spine. There are images seen here you probably haven’t seen anywhere else and you’re all the better for having seem them. And Franco should be commended for giving the best performance of his career.

“127 Hours” is such a magnificent piece of dramatic filmmaking. It deserves to be considered in this year’s Oscar race. There are such wonderful and innovative techniques used here you simply can’t turn away. There are disturbing elements here yes, but they’re never grotesque or revolting or, more importantly, gratuitous. It’s such a triumphant story of endurance and survival it’ll probably make your life seem almost worthless, but it’s such an eye-opening experience - and ultimately uplifting - you just might not be the same after having witnessed it. GRADE: A

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Welcome Back, Potter: The Flying and Magic Epic “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1” Isn’t Half Bad (But It’s Still Just Half)

The latest Harry Potter film is not a good movie. It’s a good half of a movie. You have to wait until July of next year to see the second half. Sure it’s a movie that’s split right down the center, but this two and a half our opus is certain to give even the slightest Harry Potter fan a preemptive dose of dweeby excitement. I don’t consider myself a Harry Potter fan and even I enjoyed myself. And even thought this movie is still really only half a bigger overall film, it stands up pretty well. It does have a beginning, middle and an end. Although that ending is rather abrupt and I didn’t really notice a climax anywhere since it seems like the entire second part will be the climax. Only time will tell.

Having said all that I certainly had to study up in order to understand even three quarters of what was going on in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1.” I’m probably the only human on the planet who has seen all the films but who hasn’t read the immensely popular (is popular even a strong enough word?) series of fantasy books by J.K. Rowling. And I’m ok with that. Sure I said I’ve seen the films, but that doesn’t mean I really understand what’s going on in them. I spend plenty of time studying the plots of 1-6 before climbing about the Hogwarts Express for Part 7. I reviewed terms like Horcrux (an inanimate object used by one Lord Voldemort to attain immorality, did I pass?). I’ve known what a Muggle is for quite some time, although I’m still not quite sure what exactly the Deathly Hallows are. Oh dear lord, how do kids get into this stuff anyways?

What is there really to say about this Harry Potter flick anyways? If you’re a fan you’re going to see it and judge it based on whether it’s faithful to the book or not. Is it? I don’t really know, but since they split the book into two separate films, I imagine they have plenty of room to keep the important stuff in. What if you’re not a fan? If you’ve never seen a Harry Potter film I doubt you’re going to want to start with Part 7. I’m still not quite sure if these films have much mass appeal outside of the flying and magic fan base, but it does showcase the standard adventure storytelling such as good verses evil. There is action if you like that, there is made-up fantasy stuff if you like that, there is some romance if that’s your thing.

The film is directed by David Yates who has directed parts 5 and 6 and his style seems to fit in nicely with the style the previous directors. The look and feel of all the films doesn’t feel all that different to me, or all the special to be frank, although I do like some of his directorial flourishes such as that hyperkinetic camerawork when the Snatchers are after Harry and his friends in the woods. A similar technique was seen in the opening of “Order of the Phoenix” when Harry and Dudley and are running away from the Dementors. For a second you might think you’re watching a Ridley Scott film.

I won’t even attempt to describe the plot of this movie, although I did understand it for the most part, for fear of humiliating myself (or sounded like a 6 year old). Besides you know what happens; unlike me, you’ve probably read the book! Those who complain about the plot being “Harry Potter goes camping in the woods” are seriously mistaken because the film has plenty of action and is rarely boring and that’s coming from someone who usually finds movies like this boring. All the actors do a great job in their respective roles as they’ve always done since the beginning.

This “Harry Potter” features all the elements of a watchable film. The effects are good, I loved the music score by Alexandre Desplat, it has some nice warm humor, and the film has high production values all around. And even if I’m not the biggest fan in the world, “Deathly Hallows Part 1” didn’t cause me pain and actually makes me excited for the concluding chapter. It’s the rare flying and magic movie that works. Call it a miracle if you want. GRADE: B

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Bore of the Worlds: “Skyline” Succeeds in Creating the Most Snooze-Inducing Alien Invasion in Cinematic History

If anything, "Skyline" is just a missed opportunity. It was an chance to create a story of an alien invasion from the sole point-of-view of regular people like you and me with the use of a low budget yet with cool special effects. But we already have similar movies like “War of the Worlds” (told from the point of view of average people) and “District 9” (low budgeted but with cool special effects). Hey at least the movie’s trailer was awesome. Even if the movie wasn’t just a conglomeration of other alien invasion movies, it could have at least been interesting or decently entertaining. Two things the film is sorely lacking.

“Skyline” tells the story of “normal” people. I’m hesitant to use the word normal because it implies they are normal the way you and I are normal and yet I know you and I are not this stupid. If you don’t like characters who do the wrong things are precisely the wrong time then steer clear of this movie. Let’s forget for a minute that this movie has a shoestring plot with forgettable characters. (A couple attends another friend’s birthday party in LA. They’re staying in a swanky high-rise. We find out the girl is pregnant. Cue alien attack) Most people will go see a movie with aliens because hello there are aliens in the movie! The aliens here are almost cool looking except that still look like they’re still in the process of actually being completely rendered by the visual effects people. They’re not SyFy Original bad, but decent enough. Ok find, I’m willing to throw this lame movie a bone. And I liked how the giant aliens spit out sticky tentacles, but again not enough to salvage the movie.

Yeah there are human characters here, but like mentioned before they’re pretty forgettable. The film’s biggest stars include Eric Balfour who was on “Six Feet Under” and in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” remake. His best friend is Donald Faison, who you may know from either TV’s “Scrubs” or as Murray from “Clueless.” These two guys aren’t bad actors by any stretch of the imagination, but they don’t give particularly amazing performances. The ladies on the other hand fare much worse. Balfour’s girlfriend played by Scottie Thompson is just sort of whiny although she’s not as bad as Brittany Daniel, who I’m not sure why is even a paid actress. She has slummed it up in movies like “Little Man” and “White Chicks” where she always plays a Paris Hilton-like bimbo. And poor Batista from “Dexter” is equally horrendous here. Although most of the blame should be put on the writers for making him utter pretty atrocious lines.

Of course, let’s focus the blame on those who deserve it and that would be “the Brothers Strause” who are special effects guys who try to make movies. They’re last effort “Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem” was met with a collect meh from fanboys alike and here they don’t do much better. Colin and Greg should stick with their visual effects jobs and leave the directing work to… directors. I admire their attempt to tell this story from the point-of-view of average Joes and having the film’ story confined to one real location, but in order to do that you must give us characters to root for and keep things constantly moving forward. Things have to be kept interesting or else you’ll lose the viewer. The characters mostly stay inside their penthouse suite mostly because you can tell the screenwriters didn’t know what else to do. Yes I’m looking at you Joshua Cordes and Liam O'Donnell. There is such a horrible sense of pacing to the whole thing too I began checking for the time half way though. I won’t even mention the laughable moments in the film’s concluding minutes or any of the other many laughable moments for that matter.

“Skyline” is the type of movie that as you watch it you actually think to yourself, wow, I really wish I could be watching a Michael Bay movie instead. Admittedly there are some cool concepts here (I sort of liked the parking garage sequence) and seeing a bunch of human bodies being sucked up all at once into a giant spaceship is a pretty horrifying thing to see. So is the movie. GRADE: D

Friday, November 12, 2010

Strangers on a Train: The High Speed Thriller “Unstoppable” is a Triumph of Energetic Suspense

Great Scott! Finally, we have a movie that fits director Tony Scott’s frenetic directing style. His camera is always moving this way that way, zooming in zooming out. And since “Unstoppable” is about a train that wont stop, his herky jerky camera perfectly fits the story of a runaway train and the inevitable disaster that awaits if it wasn’t stopped. His camera constantly has momentum and that’s exactly what we’re given here in a movie that doesn’t stop to take a breath (and neither will you). “Unstoppable” is a great action movie because it gets everything right. It gives us characters to root for, it gives us suspense, cool action scenes filled with plenty of crashes and a great sense of timing and pace. It’s really just one long awesome chase scene. In fact, this could have been and should have been “Speed 2.”

Something I have to say upfront and I know it may sound ridiculous is that one of my favorite aspects of this movie is the way Tony Scott gives the train personality. This train as seen right at the start during the opening titles just sort of looks – evil. The train is given a level of malevolency I’ve never really witnessed in an inanimate object. Not since Spielberg’s tractor-trailer truck in “Duel” has a vehicle been so menacing and ominous. The way it’s shot and lit and the moody music that blares on the soundtrack, just gives us a feeling of doom. You know something scary is going to go down. After being introduced to train number 777, we introduced to some human characters which includes Will (Chris Pine) who’s a young and recently trained railroad conductor. He’s set to work with train engineer Frank (Denzel Washington) by doing some industrial freight train stuff. Meanwhile a sort of clumsy railway worker accidently lets his train get away from him where it slowly begins picking up speed, enough so that the poor goof can’t climb back on board. Freight train 777 (which is a half mile long and pulling loads of hazardous chemicals behind it) is on an unmanned course of destruction through southern Pennsylvania ready to destroy anything or anyone who gets in its path.

It’s really amazing how simply this whole story is and how well it actually works. You can’t help but think along the lines of, “how does this happen.” Well it did, because this is based on a true story. Of course many liberties were taken with the actually events, because let’s face is this is just a fun popcorn movie, not a biopic about the guy who freed India from British rule. Scott places all sorts of things in the train way including a train of school kids on a field trip and our hapless heroes Will and Frank. We do get a little backstory as the film progresses. Enough to make us care but not too much where we’re constantly wanted to see what train 777 is up to. Frank is being forced to retire while the corporation who owns the 777 train is intend on replacing older works with fresh blood like Will. Train dispatcher Connie (Rosario Dawson) is the one who makes the most rational decisions she can make as she watches the train barrel mile and mile through populated towns. The news media have a field day capturing the runaway train on their skycopters ready to capture anything that gets in the train’s way. It looks like Frank and Will might be Connie’s only hope to stop the train and it’s simply a fascinating experience to see how they’re going to do it.

“Unstoppable” is simply a wonderfully suspenseful action thriller. However it’s not just mindless. Am I the only one who thinks there’s more here than meets the eye? Could the unmanned train perhaps represent our current economy chugging out of control with the once seemingly secure American way of life headed for utter disaster? Maybe I’m looking too deeply here because let’s face it this is still just a well-executed action thriller. It's about ordinary people caught in an extraordinary situation. I’m still not quite sure how Scott was able to get some of the shots he did get, but one thing I’m certain of is that this is a movie worth catching up to. GRADE: A-

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Brother, Sister: “Conviction” is an Arresting True Life Drama

One of the main things that the terrific film “Conviction” has going for it is it’s a wonderful story about the bond between a brother and a sister. Not in quite a while have I seen such a touching relationship portrayed in a movie. Betty Anne and Kenny are the type of siblings who really depend on each other. They had a rough childhood. Their father died when they were young and they had a mother who was nearly absent just as much. They were sent from foster family to foster family but were never able to break their special bond, even whenever Kenny would egg on the two of them to do something wrong (like sneaking into a person’s home and pretending they had an actual happy life). Kenny’s borderline repellent behavior wasn’t enough to stop Betty Anne from standing by her brother even when he was accused of murdering a local woman. While he was at first cleared of charges, a person especially close to Kenny would later be responsible for him actually being tried and convicted for a crime he never even committed. And the story of “Conviction,” which is based on actual events, is especially intriguing because it dares to let us care about a person who if in different circumstances, we might as just as well assume the man was guilty.

Kenny Waters, played here by the wonderful Sam Rockwell, whom I especially loved in the underrated “Matchstick Men,” is a person that is difficult to like. And that’s why Tony Goldwyn’s direction and Pamela Gray’s script are so great, because they get us to care about someone who’s really difficult to care about. Kenny has anger management issues, he gets in fights, sometimes he’s just unpleasant. His sister Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank in full Erin Brockovich mode) doesn’t care about his personal issues. When he’s finally sentenced to life in prison for a murder she honestly believes he didn’t - and more importantly wouldn’t commit – she makes it her life mission to get him out of jail. And she does so by first getting her college degree and eventually getting into law school. She’s willing to put her life on hold and even disrupting her marriage to a guy even more unlikable than Kenny. She’s willing to become a lawyer just to help her own brother. How many of us would do that for a sibling?

The outcome of the film’s story isn’t what’s important here, it’s the events leading up to it that counts. And that includes plenty of stumbles and road blocks along the way. Luckily Betty Anne befriends another older woman in her class named Abra (Minnie Driver), mostly because they’re “the only ones in class who’ve gone through puberty.” Abra also makes it her mission to help Betty Anne because like her she’s a strong woman who’s willing to help out a friend who’s in a desperate situation. At first I wondered, once betty Anne becomes a lawyer, what is she really going to be able to do to help her brother get out of jail. I mean, not to be Debbie Downer, but he’s already been convicted. What is she really going to do? Of course there’s a lot more to this story than you or I even knew about. I’m hesitant to use the word “conspiracy” but there’s a lot going on and it’s fascinating to see how much is really going on…and as one character once said in Minority Report: “dig up the past and all you get is dirty.” Well Betty Anne is about to be covered.

The film does have a happy ending and it’s sort of remarkable how you really related to this woman and her struggles. Sure on the surface this all seems like made-for-TV melodrama, but it’s not melodramatic. Sure there’s nothing especially fascinating in how the film is shot, but that’s to be expected in a character based drama. And the film is wonderfully littered with great although brief supporting turns from people like Melissa Leo as a dirty cop, Peter Gallagher reprising his “OC” role as a lovable lawyer, and Juliet Lewis who is great a trashy key witness.

Let’s face it, “Conviction” doesn’t have the emotional punch or flashy goodness of “Erin Brockovich,” but it offers much more substance than “The Blind Side.” It tells a fascinating story in an entertaining and easily digestible way. It features excellent performances from a completely reliable cast and tells a beautiful account about a brother and his sister who refuses to give up hope. Whether Swank gets a nomination or not (does Bening have to watch out again??) it doesn’t matter; what matters is that “Conviction” is a movie worth anyone’s time and money. GRADE: A-

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The Mourning After: “Hereafter” is a Beautiful Film That Dares to Show us an Afterlife

Do I believe in an afterlife? I don’t know. Do many people believe in an afterlife? Yes. Do I believe in an afterlife after seeing Clint Eastwood’s gripping drama “Hereafter?” I don’t know. “Hereafter” is a wonderful film, not only because it’s well made and entertaining, but also because it chooses a divisive subject matter and doesn’t force an opinion onto you. What does Clint believe? What does the writer Peter Morgan believe? You won’t really know after seeing this movie actually because this is a film that says “hey what IF an afterlife exists?” but refuses to say “this IS definitely what happens after you die.” I like that. The film features an interesting plot structure and great performances and some truly heart wrenching scenes of moving drama.

The film actually tells three seemingly unrelated stories, which happen to take place in three different countries (think “Babel”). The film opens with a French woman leaving her hotel room and experiencing a near death experience. A giant tsunami rages onshore killing thousands of people, but Marie (Cécile De France) amazingly survives. Of course she practically drowns and is unconscious for a while, until two guys are able to bring her back with the help of CPR. She experiences strange “visions,” of which she simply cannot shake. Meanwhile, a man named George in San Francisco played by Matt Damon, is nearly always being forced to give people psychic readings. He has to turn people down because he just can do it anymore. He’s a legitimate psychic that we’ll learn later in the film comes from a near death experience he had as a child. He’s now able to communicate with the dead, but for him it’s become more of a curse than a gift. And lastly we’re introduced to a young set of twin boys in England. They’re extremely close, as twins tend to be, but mostly because their mother is a fall down drunk. She means well, and I believe she actually loves her two sons, but she’s a complete mess. And they spend most of their times covering for her so they won’t be sent away. Tragedy strikes however, and one of the boys is in dire need of someone who knows how to speak to the dead…

A somewhat fantastic story, almost supernatural if you will, sounds like an odd directing choice for Clint Eastwood who’s given us such great and poignant films recently. “Million Dollar Baby,” “Mystic River” and “Gran Torino” are just a sampling of his fantastic directing work as of late. Those gritty dramas seem a far cry from a story revolving around the possibility of an afterlife, but his style just simply works for this story. He tells human stories with realist people. And that’s exactly what we get here. We get winning performances from the cast and his sort of gloomy and washed out look that could have easily made the film feel macabre but instead feels just right. Peter Morgan’s original screenplay gives us three fascinating stories which seem like there’s no way they could come together, and yet they do. And whether you think the end of the film is predictable or cheesy you can’t deny the power that Eastwood has built as each story gets progressively more interesting. Even a movie revolving just one of these stories would be fun to watch, but he gives us three!

I was pretty impressed with some of the imagery in “Hereafter.” The tsunami opening is equally impressive and disturbing. The story about the twins is heartbreaking. And you really feel a connection with Damon’s character as we slowly learn what it’s like to live with such a powerful ability. We learn, after he begins a friendship with a woman, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, that even getting involved in a romantic relationship just isn’t very easy for a guy who sees dead people every time he shakes a stranger’s hands. “Hereafter” is a moving and emotional film that, doesn’t make you feel drained (nor depressed), nor does it force any sort of opinion down your throat. It wisely takes religion out of the equation and makes it appealing to everyone, no matter what you believe yourself. GRADE: B+

Sunday, November 07, 2010

V For Villain: “Megmind” is an Outrageously Fun Take on Superhero Clichés

This is the animated superhero film I’ve been waiting for. Some will say “Megamind,” a funny new animated comedy from the DreamWorks gang, is not much more than a retread of Pixar’s “The Incredibles.” Whether that’s true or not is debatable, what’s not debatable for me is that Megamind is leaps and bounds more entertaining than that Pixar film (Relax! It’s the only one I feel lukewarm about). And if Megamind proves anything, it’s that the villain 9 times out of 10 is more interesting than the good guy. Megamind revolves around the villainous Megamind (Will Ferrell) and what happens when he actually ends up defeating the good guy the heroic Metro Man (Brad Pitt). You see a supervillain is nothing with a superhero.

The film begins by introducing us to how Megamind and Metro Man came to Earth. They came as infants, “Superman” style of course! Metro Man landed in nice neighborhood where a nice couple took him in where his superpowers were harnessed for good. Megamind, however, landed in a prison yard, and was instructed by the inmates on the ins and outs of being bad. These two grew up together in Metro City (or “Me-troc-ity” according to Megamind) and the general public is infatuated with Metroman and they obviously hate Megamind, who is able to escape from prison with the help of a wristwatch that can disguise him as anyone he wants ala Mystique from “X-Men.” With the help of his evil minion called Minion, a fishy alien head with an android body (voiced by David Cross), he returns to Metro City with the intent of kidnapping roving reporter Roxanne (Tina Fey) to use as a hostage to trap Metro Man. In so doing, he actually ends up killing his archnemesis! Now he can take over Metro City, which he does, to the tune of Bad to the Bone.

Of course being a supervillain is no fun with out the superhero, so he decides to create one. He accidentally zaps Roxanne’s goofy camera guy (Jonah Hill) and he becomes “Tighten” (the only name he could get the rights to). But nothing is always as it seems in Metro City and sometimes your expectations about who is really a villain and who is really a hero will be a little off. Which is why this movie works so well. There are plenty of original twists and turns, even if it doesn’t necessarily add anything overall new to the genre. It features a terrific screenplay (by first time writers Brent Simons and Alan Schoolcraft) and top notch voice work by its cast. The animation is great which really helps and the film is actually worth paying the extra bucks for 3D. The film is funny and witty, will great pop culture references, that won’t make you roll your eyes, but will have you laughing. Megamind is actually one of the more memorable cartoon characters as of late.

“Megamind” is a great movie. If you love animation or comedies or adventure or superhero flicks, this movie will be more than satisfactory. It’s a highly entertaining and original take on a genre that beginning to get a little worn out. Sure maybe it doesn’t have the prestige of Pixar but it’s definitely one of the best animated movies of the year. GRADE: A-

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Cut and Waste: The Jigsaw Saga Finally Comes to a Close with “Saw 3D”

To see or not to see “Saw 3D.” That is the question. This one is easy. If you enjoy seeing intestines and other various internal organs being thrown at you, see “Saw 3D.” If you enjoy watching someone’s jaw being ripped open by a reverse bear trap see “Saw 3D.” If you enjoy seeing someone’s arms being swiftly ripped off see “Saw 3D.” If you enjoy seeing someone’s eyeballs being gouged out by something pointy see “Saw 3D.” You see where I’m going with this right? Ok, if you’re still with me and not above the toilet bowl ready to puke, I’d like to say that while I admire the Saw films, I’ve never really been a hardcore fan. I like blood and guts as much as the next horror geek, but something about the way these films are usually shoddily shot, edited and sewn together just never really quite sat right with me. Their plots were always a bit too convoluted and you’d have to wear rubber boots just to wade through all the backstory the writers would throw at you. Having said that I didn’t really hate “Saw 3D,” if anything it nicely wraps up this surprisingly popular horror franchise (hopefully) and offers plenty of gore for us sickos. I mean seriously, how’d this film get an R rating anyways?

The most disappointing aspect of Saw 3D is not the writing or acting or editing, but rather has much more to do with the 3D part of its title. Was this movie really shot in 3D? because to me, the filmmakers didn’t really have many cool 3D shots. Horror and 3D really go together and I was slightly disappointed to realize that I could have been watching this movie in 2D and my experience wouldn’t have changed one bit. I mean it’s nice to have an internal organ thrown at you, but it didn’t nearly happen enough. Horror 3D is supposed to be gimmicky, you’re supposed to watch the movie months later at home and roll your eyes at all scenes that would have looked cool in 3D but will just look dumb now that you’re watching it on TV. The filmmakers are supposed to throw stuff in your face and that just didn’t happen here. Lame!

Now I know you’re just on pins and needles waiting to find out what happens in “Saw 3D” (the series’ seventh chapter in case you’re keeping track). The film opens up with a familiar face… hey that’s Dr. Gordon (Cary Elwes) from the oringal Saw. We see him crawling away, one footed, presumably minutes after cutting off his own foot. We see him burn his bloody stump on a hot pipe to cauterize the wound. It’s a nice, and comforting, flashback to a time when Saw was just its own thing and the term “torture porn” wasn’t even on the horizon. Then we cut to a completely pointless scene of two guys in a glass box, trapped with saws near their chests and a woman hanging above them with a saw below her midriff. It turns out they’re in the middle of a crowded city, not the usual grungy basement Jigsaw’s victims usually find themselves in. The girl ends up getting sawed in half (cue the aforementioned intestines) while the onlooker continue to snap pictures on their cellphones (one lady tries breaking the glass with her briefcase to no success) and look mildly entertained. Could it be that all those sick onlookers are actually representing the sick audience that continue to ingest these “Saw” movies? Who knows. Only director Kevin Greuter knows that for sure and we’ll have to wait for his DVD commentary on that one. The rest of the flick involves the cops trying to find Jigsaw’s evil successor Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), but don’t worry Jigsaw himself makes a couple brief appearances. The movie doesn’t spend too much time in boring backstory but spends most of its time killing off its cast members. Seriously does anyone actually survive this movie? The main character who must learn an important lesson is Bobby (Sean Patrick Flannery) who pretends to be a Jigsaw victim and is too busy promoting his new book to realize that he’s about to actually become a Jigsaw victim.

The acting is bad in this movie (Betsy Russell who plays Jigsaw’s wife really sucks at life in this one) and the movie really looks cheap. It also has the standard obligatory Saw Twist Ending which is equally cool and stupid. Did I mention the acting is horrible? But on the brightside (for gorehounds anyways) are there are some pretty sick and twisted kills in this flick. You’ll probably flinch more than once. Is it really scary? Not at all; but you’ll certainly get your money’s worth in blood, intestines and severed limbs. That kind of stuff counts for something, at least when you’re watching a movie called “Saw 3D.” GRADE: C+

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Fear Hunter: You’ll be Scared like a Baby If You See “Paranormal Activity 2”

“Paranormal Activity 2” is not “Blair Witch 2.” Thank God for that. Sure it cost more money ($3 million versus $15,000 for the first one) but it’s still grounded in that made-on-the-cheap look of the original. It still employs shaky, handheld cameras shot by the actors themselves, but this time we also get to see action through stagnant security cams. There are more characters and more scary “stuff” going on here, and this time, the intensity is turned up to an 11. “Paranormal Activity” was an ingenious little film. It was made for cheap, but it was well-made. And it had a savvy marketing campaign. It seemed real and the filmmakers wanted you to think it was real (there weren’t even any titles or end credits!) and the same goes for Part 2. Is it better than the first one? I don’t know, it’s definitely as good. If you were scared of the first, you’re bound to be scared of this. That’s good enough for most people.

The first film shook me up, as it did to many other people. We were introduced to a young woman named Katie who started feeling a strange presence in her home that she shared with her boyfriend Micah. The fist film had scenes of Katie literally being dragged out of bed and eventually becoming possessed, or something like that. Micah was killed, perhaps by Katie’s own hands. There was a demon that was after her. It was never really explained why, if you want to know more you’d better see this new film. What many viewers probably don’t know is that this second movie is actually a prequel. We see Katie, unpossessed and we see Micah not dead. This time however it appears a demon is after Katie’s sister and her husband, stepdaughter and new born Hunter (none of these actors are listed on imdb). A serious “break-in” rattles the family; more so because nothing was actually stolen. The house was just torn up. They install security cameras and so then we get to see each night, in eerie blue night vision. Everything seems normal but as every night progresses more and more creepy things happen. Sure this is practically the same premise as the first film, but this film has enough differences to make it stand out.

Since most of the footage is seen through the security cameras we don’t really get that nauseating shaky camera feeling like we usually get in movies like this. It doesn’t really bother me too much, but I know some people need to take a Dramamine . Since not much really happens during most of the first half of the film, we get a really good layout of the house, so when something moves even an inch, we know it. Our eyes are drawn to it. Of course no one really thinks the house is haunted except for the family’s Hispanic housekeeper. Minorities, and usually animals, are pretty susceptible to knowing of supernatural beings and after the housekeeper begins blessing the house with incense she is promptly let go by the Caucasian and naïve family. The dad is the most naïve and refuses to listen to his daughter’s plead that something weird is going on. She then uses a Ouiji board. Hasn’t she ever seen “Witchboard” or “The Exorcist” even? It seems this time the demon, or whatever, is after poor little Hunter. He even drags the poor baby out of his crib. But don’t worry, Hunter is left unharmed.

I refuse to say anything more about the other spooky goings on in the film. There are scary things that happen during the night which will probably either make you bite your nails or make you yawn, and if you think the daytime scenes won’t be scary think again. There are plenty of fun BOO! Scares and you’ll definitely jump more than once. The film is extremely suspenseful and some images will certainly cause a shiver up your spine.

Is “Paranormal Activity 2” just a rehash of the first film? Some will say yes. It is similar in style and structure. But is it still scary? You bet. I’m glad they didn’t do something radically different like they did with “Blair Witch 2.” They even go more into the mythology about why a demon is after this particular family. There’s definitely enough disturbing things going on here to easily recommend this flick to anyone who wants to be scared. And for God’s sake won’t anyone save poor little Hunter?? GRADE: B+

Friday, October 15, 2010

Old Dogs: “RED” is a Wonderful Action Comedy for the Older Set

Helen Mirren is a great actress. She won an Academy Award for her simply divine portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in “The Queen.” She’s British. She’s regal. And in the movie RED she is simply bad-ass. In fact, they should have called this movie, “Kick-Ass.” “RED” which stands for “retired, extremely dangerous” is a great story, based on a graphic novel for anyone keeping track, and it features lots of action and humor with a more adult audience in mind. Sure it stars Bruce Willis which will get the fan boys in the seats, but it also features the likes of Morgan Freeman and Mirren who have not been this fun and exiciting in a long time. They certainly let loose and seem to be having a wonderful time. And the audience does as well.

Like all good action comedies there is a romantic element. We begin by being introduced to Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) who’s living in suburbia. He’s constantly making calls to the pension department where he chats with Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker). He’s been getting his checks, but he’d rather rip them up and have a reason to call Sarah. Sarah just so happens to want more excitement in her life. And as luck would have it Frank is a retired CIA agent and Sarah’s life is about to get just a little more…exciting. It turns out that when you’re a retired CIA agent, sometimes there are people who want you dead. So he drives out to meet Sarah, ends up practically kidnapping her and taking her on a wild adventure, trying to evade the bad guys. He meets up with his former team members including Joe Matheson (Freeman), Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich) and Victoria (Mirren).

Why these former agents are being killed off is what drives the story forward. It’s sort of complicated, but not so much where we aren’t having a good time. In fact, were much like Sarah, who doesn’t really know what’s going on. Slowly we learn what these agents deals are. Much of the film reminds me other buddy type comedies like this past summer’s “Knight and Day.” Those who refused to see that film since it featured the borderline crazy Tom Cruise will probably enjoy “RED” since they are similar stories. The scripts from writers John and Erich Hoeber is definitely competent and whatever clichés or tired trappings we’ve become accustomed to in movies like these are instantly forgiven due to the great performances from a top-notch cast.

RED doesn’t reinvent the genre, and it’s not trying to, but what it does do is offer a familiar premise with actors you usually don’t see in these types of movies. See this movie because Bruce Willis is back kicking ass, but stay because Helen Mirren fires a bad-ass gun. And she does it with such class you almost imagine the real queen practically giggling in delight. GRADE: B

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Invitation to Hell: Wes Craven’s “My Soul to Take” is a Nightmare of the Worst Kind

Oh dear lord. Where do I even begin? Bad Wes Craven! Bad bad bad Wes Craven! I’m almost offended by the fact that the man who has directed some of my favorite movies (ie, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and the Scream series) has made the complete mess of a film called “My Soul to Take.” About half way through I begged someone to take my soul as long as it meant I didn’t have to keep watching. I know it’s my own fault, I didn’t listen to the naysayers. I had to see this train wreck for myself. It was 107 minutes of pure rubbernecking. A movie like “My Soul to Take” shouldn’t require the amount of concentration that it takes to watch something like “Inception” or “Mulholland Drive.” At least those movies actually make sense once you piece everything together. “My Soul to Take” makes no sense whatsoever and will make you leave the theater with a sidesplitting headache. It could be all forgiven if the thing was at least semi-scary or even remotely suspenseful, which it’s not.

I honestly believe “My Soul to Take” is a horrendous movie because Wes Craven is a good filmmaker. Let me explain. I had read that Craven was tired of the recent “torture porn” horror trend and sick of all these retreads and sequels and remakes and reboots. I honestly respect him for attempting to do something original. And it was great to see him back in the writer and director’s chair since he hasn’t fulfilled both duties since “New Nightmare” (If anyone is keeping track, he did co-write the horrible movie “Pulse” and the borderline horrible “The Hills Have Eyes 2”). And instead of just making a simple movie that anyone could follow, he attempted to make a complex story with an attempt at social commentary. It didn’t work. His complicated storyline, which involves a serial killer possible coming back from the dead, is too convoluted to make much sense and any attempt at suspense is wasted because the audience is trying to think so hard there’s not time to be scared.

The story revolves around the town of Riverton. We’re supposed to assume this takes place somewhere in New England (it was filmed entirely on location in Connecticut). The Riverton Ripper is a killer who murdered seven people. He’s a father and family man, but he has several other personalities, one of which is the killer. It’s explained to us by a conveniently placed Haitian paramedic that this man in fact has multiple souls, not just personalities, which I guess means if he dies he’s still got like six more souls to use to keep on living. I think? Anyway, he’s taken away in an ambulance and it crashes and we’re supposed to assume he dies or the body gets lost in the river or something. The film skips ahead sixteen years where we learn that seven children were born the night the Ripper died. The kids known as the Rirverton Seven hold a special séance to help prevent the Ripper from showing himself again. Meanwhile, the Ripper does in fact return to kill off the kids born that night, but it’s possible he may not be back at all and it’s one of the teenagers who’s soul is possessed by the Ripper. Yawn.

Wes Craven attempts to create a “Nightmare on Elm Street” type of back story and it really just backfires. There’s way too much happening, and none of it interesting enough, for anyone to care about what’s going on. Freddy Krueger’s story was so fascinating and it’s not a coincidence that he became a pop culture phenomenon. The Riverton Ripper is definitely destined to do the same thing. Craven’s attempt at creating interesting teenage characters also fails miserably. He introduces us to Bug (a decent Max Thieirot) a good kid who’s shy and might have a seriously close connection to the killer. His classmates are all annoying and/or not appealing. His friend Alex is just obnoxious and has to deal with his abusive stepfather (and the two of them are obsessed with the California Condor for some reason). There’s a jock who picks on these two, a pretty popular girl who is the object of Bug’s affection, a religious girl, and a blind boy who I never realized was blind until he whipped out a white cane half way through the movie.

Ugh I can’t believe how frustratingly bad “My Soul to Take” is. It’s a pretty ugly looking movie that feels cheap. Craven’s films, at least the recent ones anyways, have a nice sheen to theme, this one just looks ugly. It feels poorly slapped together. There aren’t even any memorable death scenes! Wes, what is wrong with you! You created Freddy Krueger for God’s sake! Luckily I avoided seeing the film in 3D which I heard is atrocious and pointless. It’s really a shame, because even some of Craven’s lesser known movies like “The People Under the Stairs “or “The Serpent and the Rainbow” can be entertaining even if they’re a little silly. And heck, I’m even a fan of Horace Pinker. I still love Wes Craven, but I’m hoping that his upcoming “Scream 4” will erase all bad memories of this truly dreadful flick. GRADE: D-

Note: I know someone who worked as an extra in the film. He's in the background in one scene and he's a very good extra. The only thing saving this thing from getting an F.