Saturday, March 27, 2010

It’s Hard Out Here For a Wimp: “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” is a Clever Look at Life in Middle School

I’m grown up. Sort of. I don’t have kids. But I was one. And “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” will appeal to anyone who was once a kid. So that’s pretty much everyone. So therefore if you think you’re too old to see “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” (which is based on a serious of books) you’re wrong. In fact it think you’ll get more out of it having been through middle school. Movies for kids don’t have to be stupid or dumbed down, and this movie is not. I imagine it’s sort of similar to what Woody Allen might come up with had he written a movie for ten year olds. And frankly, young Greg Heffley is sort of a young Alvy Singer, trying to get through life, a smart guy, who happens to be surrounded by complete morons. Sure I’m not sure most 12 year olds are this wise and observant about life, at least I don’t think I was, but most 12 year old characters in movies don’t really act their age do they?

Our hero is Greg (Zachary Gordon) and he’s about to enter dreaded middle school. A thing that he says is the dumbest thing invented. Everyone is awkward especially him and with his skinny, tiny frame. He’s yet to hit puberty, so worst is really yet to come. His best friend is Rowley, a sweet and charming rotund young boy who sort of coasts through life under Greg’s guidance. He helps Rowley learn to be “cool” and even though Greg himself isn’t very popular, he insists that he is. But oh as the saying goes, it’s hard out here for a wimp. And as this story progresses he will find himself lower and lower on the popularity echelon.

There are many things working against Greg so that we instantly find him sympathetic. He’s cursed with an older brother who constantly teases him and beats him up. Is this what having an older brother really is like? Perhaps I was blessed by only having sisters? Although I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be “beaten up” by a brother. His parents don’t just understand him and I think most kids sort of feel that way. He’s also cursed with an underdeveloped body. He’s surrounded by other boys with hair in places he’s yet to see develop and his skinny frame is forced be a “skin” in gym class. It’s hard not to sympathize with this youngin.

Although you soon realize what does he really have any right to complain about? He’s well provided by his parents, lives in a good home, and seems to have everything he could want, yet he still finds things to complain about. Like having to eat breakfast while his potty training brother goes to the bathroom next to him. And having to attend a Mother-Son Dance. But those are just standard things everyone goes through growing up. The point is he makes pretty funny wry observations about life as a kid. Of course there are silly things added in for the kiddies, like Dad (Steve Zahn) dumping water on unsuspecting trick-or-treaters and an odd subplot about a moldy piece of cheese on the playground. But overall the script is pretty tight and witty, sort of a watered down “Mean Girls” for young boys.

“Diary of a Wimpy Kid” does prove something. That it’s possible to make a family friendly film that isn’t stupid and doesn’t treat kids like they’re stupid. You don’t need singing animals or constantly slapstick humor to get kids to laugh. After all, after seeing this film you realize kids are a lot smarter than we give them credit for. GRADE: B

Dragon the Line: “How to Train Your Dragon” is High Flying Fun

“How to Train Your Dragon” is the latest thrill-a-minute 3D spectacle. It may empty your wallet, but at least it’ll fill your heart. Sure it looks “cool” in 3D and some of the flying sequences are pretty breathtaking, but I’m pretty sure this is still another unnecessary use of 3D technology. Now there was a time just a few years back where I’d go see anything in 3D. it was a novelty then and now it seems to be the standard. And as shocking as this is, I think I prefer my 3D gimmicky. I want stuff being thrown at the audience and I want the characters to be in on the gag. Sometimes not enough things are being thrown at the screen it begs the question “why am I wearing these uncomfortable 3D glasses over my regular eyeglasses. Maybe having so much gear on my face is just annoying. In any case, 3D works for “How to Train Your Dragon” but much like “Alice in Wonderland” I don’t know how much it’s actually needed.

Having said all that, the latest animated adventure from the studio that brought you all those Shrek movies, is certainly a blast. It tells the story of a young Viking and his family who are constantly fending off evil, man-eating dragons. But could it be the dragons are just misunderstood, and like most “man-eating beasts” (ie Great White Sharks?) they are in fact just big creatures that are misinterpreted as monsters? (Although I don’t suggest swimming with Great Whites even if you are Anderson Cooper) Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) is a skinny little Viking. His father Stoick (Gerard Butler) insists that he go through “dragon hunting training” to make sure he grows up to be a fierce hunter. But Hiccup stumbles upon an injured dragon who can’t fly and after a few meetings realizes the beast isn’t as evil as all the Vikings make the dragons seem.

The animators and writers do probably the best thing possible my making this dragon, who Hiccup calls “Toothless” like a big dog or cat. He’s playful and has many domesticated animal traits that most animal lovers will recognize. And you instantly fall in love with him. I have to admit that the story is very simple, and not completely original (it sort of reminded me of E.T.) and yet it feels genuine and not forced at all. There is humor to be had here but it’s mostly comic relief in the form of various dragons and their quirky personalities as Hiccup’s fellow trainees learn the ropes of dragon hunting. There are characters voiced by Jonah Hill and McLovin himself Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Ugly Betty’s America Ferrera provides the voice of Astrid, whom Hiccup might have some feelings for.

“How to Train Your Dragon” features some really outstanding animation and a terrific look that fits nicely into the other recent outstanding animated adventures. It has some really funny and touching moments and one flying sequence which was pretty breathtaking. Overall I found this an adventure worth taking. Even if I had to wear two pairs of glasses to see it. GRADE: B+

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Along Came Molly: “She’s Out of My League” is Only a 5 Compared to Apatow’s Comedy Classics

The 40 Year-Old Virgin. Knocked Up. Superbad. Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Walk Hard. Step Brothers. Pineapple Express. What do all of these films have in common? They are all produced and/or directed by Judd Apatow. He’s today’s go to guy for quality comedies. What else do they have in common? They are all significantly better than “She’s Out of My League.” If “Knocked Up” were the hot girl with a perfect bod, then “She’s Out of My League” is the nerdy guy with skinny arms and bad hair. That isn’t to say this film is horrendous, because it isn’t, but it’s easily not as good in quality or importance as any of the above films I’ve mentioned. Not surprisingly, Apatow had nothing to do with this one, so we can blissfully shrug this one off as an “Apatow wannabe.” Of course, not all Apatow wannabes are bad, just take a look at the terrific “I Love You, Man” for instance. And after all, “She’s Out of My League” is really the only pure comedy I’ve seen since Ricky Gervais’ “The Invention of Lying” from way back in October. So seeing as though there’s no real competition, you could do a lot worse than this movie.

We get “Knocked Up’s” Jay Baruchel in his first staring role as Kirk. Kirk is a goofy, scrawny guy who works as a security guard at a Pittsburgh airport. So do all his male buddies. Note to self: never get on a plane in this airport. These guys spend more time checking out girls than screening passengers. I’m surprised more terrorist attacks didn’t occur in this film. But I digress. A hot girl comes through security, accidentally leaves her iPhone, which Kirk holds onto until she can return to claim it. It turns out this hot girl named Molly (Alice Eve) is not only nice on the outside, she’s nice on the inside, and decides to give dating Kirk a try. Kirk’s goofball friends, not surprisingly, are shocked that someone like Molly (whom they dub a “hard 10”) would even consider going out with a guy like Kirk (whom they dub a “5”). I’m not really sure who made these classifications, but they seem to have a firm grasp on it. [that’s what she said]

It turns out Molly is actually interested in Kirk precisely because he is a 5. But she knows that he’s actually a 10 on the inside, and she’s only used to guys who are 10s on the outside but only 5s on the inside. This includes her ex-boyfriend/pilot Cam (Geoff Stults) who is as All-American as they come. Even Molly’s more traditional parents are sort of shocked by Molly’s new dating choice. Kirk’s family is very different from Molly’s parents in that they are the super weird parents we usually find in movies like this. Kirk’s dad’s eyes nearly bug out his head when he first sees Molly and Kirk’s mother squeals with delight because her son has snatched such a hottie. And it turns out that Kirk’s parents have taken a likening to Kirk’s ex-girlfriend Marnie and her new boyfriend. They hang out a lot and it’s certainly awkward. And Kirk’s douchey brother Dylan is everything obnoxious brothers are supposed to be.

I guess what seems to be the film’s biggest problem is a lack of extremely funny and witty writing. This is supposed to be comedy’s most important thing of course, because without funny writing there is no funny movie. I chuckled at parts and was entertained the whole way through, but some story elements just felt stale. It’s as if the writers (Sean Anders & John Morris) just got bored half way through writing the script. They come up with a few gross out situations, because movies like these need to have these moments, which include the removal of body hair and a certain bodily fluid. The film isn’t too shameless though and I’m glad to say and these scenes are decently brief.

I found myself rooting for Kirk, for some reason, even though I pretty much knew how things were going to play out. I enjoyed Molly’s droll best friend played by Krysten Ritter; I hope we get to see more of her at some point. Kirk’s three best buds are pretty forgettable and don’t add anything fresh or new to the proceedings. Although I’m glad Molly is as nice as she appears to be and you come to find out it’s not so shocking that she would go for someone like Kirk. “She’s Out of My League” is not a fantastic film, it certainly has its issues, and it’s nowhere near as good as some other comedies that have come out in the past few years, but you could do a lot worse. GRADE: C+

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Insane in the Membrane: A Virus Turns the Local Townsfolk into “The Crazies”

If you go see “The Crazies” you should probably be forewarned that you’ve probably seen it before. Most likely you haven’t watched the little seen original film directed by George A. Romero. In fact, I had never even heard of it until this remake was scheduled for release. No, you’ve probably seen a lot of it before in other movies like “Dawn of the Dead,” “28 Days Later,” heck even “Zombieland.” The zombie film has sort of become an unfortunate retread in the horror genre as of late, because everyone seems to be making them. However, even though The Crazies doesn’t necessarily reinvent the genre, it certainly is one of the better ones and is worth seeking out.

“The Crazies” takes place in the little town of Ogden Marsh, Iowa. It’s a quite Midwest town where nothing much happens. It seems like the most exciting event is a local high school baseball game. An elderly man wanders into the outfield with a shot gun and the local sheriff David Dutton (Timothy Olyphant) is forced to shoot, and kill, the man when he ignores his orders to put down his weapon. The man’s wife and son are devastated, but David insures him it was for his own protection as the man was acting very strangely. It turns out he’s not the only one as it’s soon discovered that several of the townspeople begin acting crazy and become extremely violent. It turns out the local water supply has been contaminated by a virus. The origins of it I will not expose here, but those conspiracy theorists will most likely be overjoyed.

Soon David is on the run with his pregnant wife Judy (Radha Mitchell) and his deputy Russell (Joe Anderson) from these “crazies.” While in most zombie films the infected are violent and mindless. Except here it seems like those infected know exactly what they’re doing even though they are pretty much insane. And yes they are extremely violent. One infected man even locks his wife and son in a closet and sets the whole thing ablaze.

I was actually genuinely surprised at how much I found myself caring for the characters. Olyphant and Mitchell actually have good chemistry and are well matched as young soon-to-be parents. The movie is pretty relentless, barely giving you much time to breath between several tension filled sequences. Look at one scene in which Judy is strapped to a gurney. She can’t move from the bed at all. An infected man slowly approaches her, dragging a bloody pitchfork on the floor behind him. It’s pretty suspenseful stuff as long as you don’t expect the main character to be killed off so soon.

There is some really good stuff to be found here and it’s all filmed in an appropriately dark and gritty tone. I can assume the original film, being a Romero movie, to have a very low budget quality, and while this remake is no slick piece of filmmaking, it is appropriately low budget looking and yet never ever feels cheap. It’s director who last made the big budge adventure film “Sahara” seems much more suited to this genre as is writer Scott Kosar who gave us The Machinist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake.

Like I said the film’s biggest drawback is the fact that there are dozens of films like it out there that you’ve probably already seen. “The Crazies” should please fans of the genre who aren’t already sick of it. I guess I’m sort of one of them, I think we should take a break from all these zombie movies; it’s enough to drive you crazy. GRADE: B

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Oscar Forecast 2010: “Locker” with a Chance of “Avatar”

UPDATED: So The Hurt Locker cleaned up huh? It won a total of six Oscars (including first time female director winner Kathryn Bigelow) in a show that was rather predictable, save for a surprise Best Adapted Screenplay win for the deserving "Precious." For a moment, i thought Gabby might have a shot at Actress but the super lovable Sandra Bullock got it as planned. To think she won a Razzie (for All About Steve) and an Oscar in the same weekend is a pretty big feat. And she accepted both in person. I enjoyed this super long ceremony but somehow this supposedly streamlined show ended up ballooning into a show that had DVRs being cut off all over the country. My biggest question is how Avatar only managed 3 technical wins (just as many as Benjamin Button last year I might add). I got a total of 19 out of 24 predictions correct missing out on Adapted Screenplay, Sound Editing, Live & Animated Shorts and Documentary Short). See you at the movies. Winners listed in bold.

All I can say is finally. The Oscars are finally here. This has been the longest Oscar “season” yet. It feels like months since we watched the Golden Globes, oh wait it has been months. For some reason (could curling have anything to do with it?) the Academy Awards were pushed back to March which made things all the more difficult to predict this year. And yet for some reason some categories are locked up tighter than Charles Manson. There are some races that seem up in the air, if you’ll excuse the expression. Like for instance Best Picture. I wanna bet the farm on The Hurt Locker, but this whole 10 noms and preferential ballot thing is making me sort of nervous. I’m thinking anything could happen. Let’s break it down, shall we?

Who Will Win:
The Hurt Locker. I wanna say this is all locked up, but it’s not. If this were a normal voting year, I’d say sure. But no one really knows how this preferential ballot is going to affect who wins this award. And for as many reasons for this film winning (it’s a critical darling, it’s got the momentum, it’s won nearly every precursor award) there are reasons against it (it bombed at the box office and it’s recent “bad taste email” scandal doesn’t help). I’m still going with “The Hurt Locker,” but I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if “Avatar” were to win here. It’s certainly possible.
Who Should Win: Up in the Air. “Up in the Air” is the small film that works perfectly with the other recent best picture winners of the past few years. It’s topical and charming and will stand the test of time. It was my 3rd favorite film of the year. “The Hurt Locker” would certainly be deserving as would “Avatar,” but I’d have give my vote to “Air.”

Will Win:
Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker. If you were to bet against her, you might as well just throw your Oscar pool money away. She is going to win, not because a woman has never wont before, but because she directed one of the most visceral movies of the year. If James Cameron hadn’t won before this would be more of a race. In the battle of the exes Bigelow takes it.
Should Win: Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker. I didn’t really like The Hurt Locker when I saw it in theaters, and I’m much more of an Up in the Air fan, but, like last year, I’m willing to spread the wealth. You can’t deny that Bigelow made a film that is intense and chaotic and yet completely in control. Nice work.

Will Win:
Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart. Duh. Snooze.
Should Win: Colin Firth, A Single Man. Based on sheer performance alone, he takes the cake. I didn’t see “Crazy Heart” or “Invictus,” but it’d definitely be between Firth, who gave a great emotionally draining performance and Jeremy Renner who stuck out in a film better remembered for its look than its performances.

Will Win:
Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side. I still can’t believe that Sandra Bullock is this close to winning an Oscar. I never thought it would happen. Ok, let’s be honest people. This is a weak year. In any other year, Bullock wouldn’t have a chance in hell. I’m honestly surprised she has the momentum. She was really good in her film, and was definitely the best part (I still can’t believe it’s nominated for Best Picture), but I think the Academy will probably vote for her more because they like her than because of her performance. That always happens, just deal with it. Meryl, you will have 16 more chances.
Should Win: Gabby Sidibe, Precious. She was simply sensational in that movie. You really think they plucked some poor teen from Harlem. But when you see her personality in real life, you simply can’t believe it. It’s like she’s Daniel Day-Lewis or something. For a first timer, she gave the most deserving performance. Her nomination is her reward. I am a big Streep fan and technically I really want to see her win again, but she’ll be back.

Will Win:
Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds. He stole every scene he was in. and that is a great supporting performance. He turned a cold-hearted Nazi into a cold-hearted and charming Nazi. Anyone who bets against him is a fool.
Should Win: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds. The only other actor I can comment on is Stanley Tucci in The Lovely Bones and he was certainly the best part of that movie, but nothing really compares to Waltz when it comes to super creepy psycho killers.

Will Win:
Mo’Nique, Precious. She’s had this thing in the bag since Sundance 2009. The Academy loves when someone not known for their acting ability (singers, rappers, comedians, magicians etc) wow them with their dramatic acting turns. And Mo’Nique has it down pat. She was so incredibly good as Precious’ wicked and yet human mother, you simply couldn’t take your eyes off her. Good show indeed.
Should Win: Mo’Nique, Precious. The Academy is actually going to do things right when it comes to the supporting races. Good for them!

And the rest…

Original Screenplay: The Hurt Locker

Adapted Screenplay: Up in the Air Precious

Animated Feature: Up

Foreign Language Film: The Secret in Their Eyes

Documentary Feature: The Cove

Art Direction: Avatar

Cinematography: Avatar

Costume Design: The Young Victoria

Film Editing: The Hurt Locker

Make-Up: Star Trek

Original Score: Up

Original Song: The Weary Kind, Crazy Heart

Sound Editing: Avatar The Hurt Locker

Sound Mixing: The Hurt Locker

Visual Effects: Avatar

Animated Short: A Matter of Loaf and Death Logorama

Live Action Short: The Door The New Tenants

Documentary Short: The Last Truck Closing of a GM Plant Music by Prudence

Friday, March 05, 2010

The Magic Kingdom: Tim Burton Brings Us Down the Rabbit Hole in the Uneven “Alice in Wonderland”

I am a big fan of Tim Burton’s movies. And for once, I finally understand why most critics have mixed feelings about his films. Many tend to lean towards the camp of Burton being a great visionary with wild and exotic locations, costumes with quirky and original characters. A lot of the time all of this stuff gets bogged down with weak story elements and unnecessary plot developments or characterizations. Sometimes when he makes a film with a character in the title, he spends more time on secondary characters (Batman Returns for instance). Which brings me to his version of “Alice in Wonderland.” It’s a beautiful film with outstanding production design (mostly computer generated but lovely nonetheless) and other simply scrumptious visuals. But there’s something about this story that sort of just didn’t work for me.

Being a film called “Alice in Wonderland” I expect this film to be about a young girl who wanders off into a magical land full of talking animals, smoking caterpillars and an evil queen whose idea of recreational activities include public beheadings. What we get in this new version is more of a sequel with Alice now being a 19 year old young woman who has already visited Wonderland but doesn’t remember actually having been there. Sort of lame if you ask me. The film is written by Linda Woolverton who worked her magic on the scripts for Disney’s “Beauty & the Beast” and “The Lion King.” I appreciate the attempt to rework what everyone already knows about Wonderland and turn it into a new story, but then rename the film something along the lines of “Return to Wonderland.”

Having put all of that aside, there are definitely elements I enjoyed here. We have newcomer Mia Wasikowska as Alice, who gives a good performance, however she’s upstaged by two of her other female actors. We have Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen, who has a huge head and a tiny body which looks odd at first, but comes directly from Burton’s wonderfully warped mind. And the other is the White Queen played terrifically by Anne Hathaway. She has an Amy Adams in Enchanged quality which reminded me of a super angelic version of Glinda the Good Witch of the North. Lots of laughs to be had at watching Hathaway’s engaging performance.

There are other familiar characters we meet along the way, but because this is more like a sequel it’s feels like we should have already been introduced to these characters. This includes Johnny Depp’s hammy version the Mad Hatter, Alan Rickman as the toked-up Caterpillar, Steven Fry as the Cheshire Cat, and Matt Lucas as both Tweetledee and Tweetledum and Michael Sheen as the White Rabbit. In fact there are so many other characters, you don’t get much time to get to know much about them. And there is so much here plot wise about saving Wonderland from the Red Queen that to be quite honest, I didn’t find myself caring much about the fate of any of these beings.

I don’t have too much to say about seeing the film in 3D, but it didn’t really need it. I guess I like my 3D with extra cheese. Throw stuff at me and remind me that I’m watching a 3D film. 3D has the power to full engulf you in a movie experience (like the breathtaking “Avatar)” but here it just seems like a way for Disney to wring more money out of you.

I can’t really call myself an “Alice in Wonderland” purist because I haven’t read the books and my knowledge basically lies in what I’ve seen in the 1951 Disney cartoon, but something about Tim Burton’s version just was slightly off for me. It has some great performances and a majestic look with the usual Burton quirkiness and very good visual effects, but I’m not sure I’d want to stumble down this rabbit hole again anytime soon. GRADE: B-