Saturday, July 31, 2010

O Brother Where Art Thou? “Charlie St. Cloud” is Harmless, Charming Schmaltz

You wouldn’t assume that a kid who starred in made-for-TV movie called “High School Musical” would become such a successful movie star. There are always unexplainable things in the universe and that’s just one of them. The fact is though is that Zac Efron, for all the tween girl obsession that he receives, isn’t actually a horrible actor. Ok, he’s not really a great actor, but he does have some presences and enough ability to carry a movie. Even if it’s one about playing an adult in a teen’s body or playing a teen who plays catch with his dead brother’s ghost. I’m confident that one day Mr. Efron will find a project that will fit him well and sort of give him some street cred. I thought that was supposed to happen with “Me and Orson Welles” but I guess not. But here in “Charlie St. Cloud,” the story of a young guy who loses his little bro in a tragic accident and then somehow gains the ability to see dead people, he’s decent enough to not make me feel embarrassed for actually paying money to see this movie in the theater.

If you’re not sure what Charlie St. Cloud is about, think “what if The Sixth Sense had been originally written by Nicholas Sparks of The Notebook fame?” And then you get Charlie St. Cloud. Throw in a little mix of Ghost and you can see where this is going. And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t totally shocked by a third act plot development. Sue me, I didn’t see it coming. But then again, I didn’t really get all of “Inception” either. So there you go. Efron plays Charlie St. Cloud. He’s a sailor. He races boats. He’s about to graduate high school and attend Stamford in the fall. Everyone in town knows him. He’s the guy all the teen girls in the town dream about dating. Ya know much like Efron himself. He has a special bond with his younger brother. It seems as though their father is either dead or somewhere else. They are like best buds. Cue the drunk driver who smashes into Charlie’s car, killing poor little Sam (played by Charlie Tahan). Cut to the funeral where Charlie is so verklempt , he can’t even throw his bro’s baseball glove in his open grave. He proceeds to run into the woods, where he runs smack into little Sam. He makes a promise to him that he’ll play catch with him for an hour every day before sundown.

We then flash-forward five years later. It turns out Charlie gave up on his dreams as characters in movies like this tend to do. He never went to school and has chosen to work as a groundskeeper in the graveyard where Sam is buried. Now he’s not only known as the town heartthrob, but the town nut as well. He hasn’t even gone sailing since his brother’s death cause it was something they loved doing together. He does catch the eye of a pretty girl he went to high school with named Tess (Amanda Crew), who is also a sailor, and has plans to sail around the Cape of Good Hope. Who wouldn’t want to do that? So they sort of start a fling, and now Sam starts to feel left out, as dead people usually are left out of the loop.

I won’t delve that much deeper into the plot, and to be honest, do you even really care? This is a movie tailor made for the tween/Twilight set and they ate up every single minute of it. I couldn’t believe the squealing I heard whenever Zac made puppy dog eyes at Tess and stared blankly into her eyes. I want to actually tell you more of what happens. But I won’t tell you that Sam is not the only dead person Charlie sees. Whoops I said it. Director Burr Steers, who also worked with Efron on “17 Again” does like working on stories with some kind of fantastical element, and it seems to fit well here. This just feels more like candy coated melodrama, but you know what? I was entertained by it.

“Charlie St. Cloud” is Efron’s attempt to become a more dramatic actor. He’s certainly on his way, but he won’t make it too far if he’s stuck in schmaltzy stuff like this. Granted it’s exactly what his fans want, and I believe that he will crossover as a mainstream actor one day. Just look at Leonardo DiCaprio, he was a teen heartthrob stuck in romance epics and now he’s an Oscar-worthy actor working with today’s top directors. Fans who know what they are getting into with this flick will enjoy themselves. Anyone else who’s being dragged? Hunker down and pray for daylight. GRADE: B

Friday, July 23, 2010

A.I. Artificial Insemination: There’s Nothing Artificial About the Funny and Touching Domestic Dramedy “The Kids Are All Right”

What has great performances, a witty and amusing script, and a hip, indie look and feel? “The Kids Are All Right.” This is the latest flick to come out of Sundance and it’s almost guaranteed to be a mainstream hit. Think “Little Miss Sunshine” or “Juno.” I’m not sure if it’ll catch on like those two, but it certainly deserves to stand amongst them. It tells the wonderful story of an upper middle class lesbian couple and their two children and the wrench that is caused in their lives when the kids decide to bring their biological father into their lives.

What “The Kids Are All Right” lacks in dazzlingly visual design it makes up for with a great script and even better performances. Julianne Moore is Jules and she’s married to Annette Bening’s Nic. They are a happy couple and they have two teenage kids in which they each conceived by the sperm of one donor. There’s Joni (Mia Wasikowska) who just graduated high school and will be attending college in the fall and her younger brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson) a typical fifteen year old boy. Laser really wants to know who their real father is and he’s not yet eighteen he enlist his older sister to seek him out. They contact him and it turns out to be a guy named Paul (Mark Ruffalo). The two kids first meet their dad and in one of the film’s many awkward, yet touching, and strangely realistic scenes.

Of course they don’t tell their moms right away about meeting dad. You see Nic is sort of a control freak, think the lesbian Carolyn Burnham from “American Beauty” except not as psychologically damaged. She’s an ER doctor and is therefore a little overprotective of her kids (and rightfully so). That also means she’s sometimes a little too busy with work for her partner Jules who’s a little more free spirited. She’s just started a gardening/landscaping business. And once the sperm donor plotline is brought out into the open, in another funny and awkward scene involving Laser and his two moms, Paul hires Jules to landscape his backyard. What follows is something weird and yet never feels forced: Paul and Jules begin to find themselves attracted to one another. I promise to say no more.

The film’s strongest suit is definitely the award-worth performances throughout the wonderful, close-knit ensemble. Bening gives a great performance and she’s particularly amazing in some of the film’s third act scenes. While her character might have some quirks that can be easily to dislike, she’s never unlikable. Bening gives Nic credibility as a woman who is always concerned and always has a wine glass firmly in hand. Moore equally matches her as the more loose Jules. Of course Moore is always a fine actress and here she’s gets an almost meatier roll because her character can quickly become the monster but she never does. You never side with just one character and I credit director/writer Lisa Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg for creating characters we empathize with even if they don’t always make the most rational decisions. Cholodenko refuses to make this a story just about the tribulations of a gay couple and rather makes it about a gay couple who go through all the same emotions and ordeals as straight couples. Of course this isn’t your traditional family, but she makes it as traditional as possible. Ruffalo is also extraordinary as a man who’s literally thrust into this family life and the way if throws his life off balance. He makes a difficult role seem effortless. Hopefully his work doesn’t go unnoticed. And the kids are definitely all right. They give great performances as well and equally match their adult counterparts.

I can see how someone might mistake this for just a dysfunctional family TV sitcom and maybe some will see it as such. I don’t. The film doesn’t have quite the glorious cinematic look that some movies have, but I don’t think it’s supposed to. It goes with a realistic look and that suits the movie. It’s pretty amazing how the film deals with these family issues in the most organic way possible. Nothing is forced and nothing seems out of place. It’s a rewarding and touching experience. It’s unquestionably better than all right. GRADE: A-

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Dream Team: “Inception” is an Engrossing, Densely Layered Mind Trip

“Inception” is pretty much the cinematic equivalent to a Rubik’s Cube. It’s really fun to play with but nearly impossible to figure out. I’m sure even the film’s most ardent fans can’t fully decipher all of the film’s meanings but it’s such an absorbing piece of work that could only be handled by the same guy who brought us the blockbuster “The Dark Knight” two summers ago. While Christopher Nolan, who cut his teeth in the independent world has moved on to sprawling action movies with bigger budgets, he’s still managed to keep his dignity intact. He never takes the easy way out by succumbing audience expectations. He does what he wants to do it and how he wants to do it and while you can feel the influence of dozens of other films in this particular work it still feels original enough to not feel like a rip-off. “Inception” is a movie that is only successful because of the “man” getting put behind it. It has stars! It has flashy effects! It has a humungous advertising campaign. This film would never work as an art house indie, although it retains many of the ideas often found in those types of films. Here though with a bigger playground to play on Nolan is having a ball and his number one interest is the audience and giving them the time of their life.

“Inception” takes place in an alternate (though realistic) world in which people have been able to “hijack” people’s dreams. By hijack I mean enter a person’s dream and steal information that can only be found in a person’s subconscious. Let’s just say Freud would have a field day with this flick. And who knew that rain in your dream means you have to take a leak? Leonardo DiCaprio is Cobb who is part of a dream heist team. He’s the “extractor” the one in charge of getting whatever info his team needs to get. There’s Ellen Page’s character Ariadne who is the architect; she can actually design the dream world. Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the point man. Eames (Tom Hardy) is the forger who can impersonate the target in the dream world. Think of this team as sort of an Ocean’s Eleven but instead of getting inside a safe they are getting inside someone’s mind. They even dress the part with most of them spending the film dressed like they’re about to shoot a GQ photo spread. It turns out what they really want to do is plant an idea inside the mind of the mark – Cillian Murphy’s Robert Fischer – and they have the ablity to enter into the dream world of people who are already in a dream.

Does this sound confusing? Because it sort of is. There are several different dream levels. Once they’re in a dream they can go to sleep within that dream and enter a new dream and so on. They do this because every time they enter a new subconscious state real time slows down dramatically and let’s them accomplish more in less time. The last third of the film takes place within minutes of real time and yet they have what seems like hours to complete their mission. Nolan does a great job of constantly making sure we know where we are and when. We know what dream we’re in and who is where. The crosscutting between all these dream worlds is pretty astounding. I smell Oscar.

All of the actors give great performances although Leo probably has the juiciest role. You see his deceased wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) appears in his dreams and tends to disrupt his subconscious heist plans a lot. He had to leave his two young children behind for reasons I won’t get into here. But what really stands out here are the film’s jaw-droppingly awesome action sequences which are like nothing you’ve ever really seen before. Sure you’ve seen similar stuff in movies like “The Matrix,” but most of this stuff is pretty photorealistic and Nolan employs as many practical effects as he can. A sequence in which Arthur must battle some bad guys in a rotating hallway is simply astonishing. Not since “A Nightmare on Elm Street” has a rotating room had so much personality.

While I’m still a little confused on random bits of the plot and sometimes everything doesn’t quite gel as quickly as you’d like, Inception is a wildly imaginative and fun ride. It has awesome visuals an interesting story and a wonderfully epic cinematic feel. It’s pretty close to rivaling “The Dark Knight” as the de facto “intelligent” summer blockbuster. Sorry “independent” Nolan fans, he’s playing in the big leagues now and I think “Inception” is a home run. GRADE: A-

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Victoria’s Secret: Bella Must Evade an Army of Vampires and a Love Triangle in the Improved “Twilight Saga: Eclipse”

Well all I can say is that “Eclipse,” the third chapter of the wildly successful vampire melodrama, is a vast improvement on the second part “New Moon.” While I didn’t howl with delight at this third entry, I was mildly amused and I think we all credit the improved direction from David Slade (Hard Candy) and better performances from the young cast. I guess they say third time’s the charm and that’s pretty much the case here cause I can definitely see how non-fans of the first two films might actually find something worth watching here, whether it’s the “army of vampires” storyline or the previously mentioned better acting and better directing (it’s darker and more serious). While I can’t call Eclipse an epic, must see, I can say that it could have been a lot worse and it has enough positives to make it worth sitting there for two hours.

I’ve always said from the start that I’m not Twilight’s target demographic (tweens aged 13-17 and cougars aged 45-51), but I found something oddly enjoyable about the first film. I kind of embraced its cheesiness and the exaggerated teen angst love story abut teenage outcast Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) falling for eternally teenage vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). It was fun following Bella as she learned about the mysterious pale-faced boy with wild hair that never seems to move and his close-nit “family.” The next film in the series, “New Moon” boringly followed Bella’s frustration with her Edward leaving her (for her safety of course!) while she bonds with teen werewolf Jacob Black (perennially shirtless Taylor Lautner). To call “New Moon” a snooze-fest would be giving it too much praise because everyone likes a good nap every now and then. Luckily I didn’t find myself falling asleep as much in “Eclipse.”

We remember from the end of the first film, (which technically makes the second film borderline unnecessary and pointless), that the evil vampire Victoria (now played by Bryce Dallas Howard) wants to seek revenge on Edward Cullen because he and his Cullen brothers killed her lover James. Does she want to kill Edward himself? Not really, she’d rather kill his lover Bella because he would ruin his (eternal) life. She begins creating an “army of vampires” by first turning a young college student Riley Biers (played by Xavier Samuel) into a vampire during the film’s opening moments. From there they create new vampires who are thirsty for human blood. Why Victoria doesn’t kill Bella while she’s vulnerable, like in the shower, is beyond me. After all, it worked wonders for Norman Bates. But I digress.

The Cullen family decides to team up with the local werewolf clan whom they have a century’s long feud with. Jacob and his hairy brethren decide to put their issues at rest for now, to help save Bella from the bad vampires. He even uses his stinky b.o. to help mask Bella’s human scent. There is some great tension between Jacob and Edward because let’s not forget that Jacob is in love with Bella too although she’s not certain if she feels the same. Ahh teenage love triangles are the epitome of dramatic tension. There’s plenty of that for the fans, but at least Bella doesn’t do anything too stupid this time around like cliff diving and such. There is a great scene involving a tent that seems to be a fan favorite and actually finds both Robert and Taylor with some fine acting ability. And I enjoyed learning some more about the various Cullen clan, one of whom is completely envious of Bella’s human status. The Volurti, the all-powerful vampire-ruling coven from Italy, show up as well. Yet again they are extremely poorly shoehorned into Melissa Rosenberg’s script and therefore given hardly anything to do, except confuse viewers who haven’t read the books. Thanks for nothing Dakota.

I sort of with the film ended on more of a cliffhanger so that I could feel the urge to want to continue watching this series but it doesn’t really. In fact it could end right here. No need for a weird vampire baby, or whatever it is that happens in the next book. Overall this is an improvement over New Moon, and while the film has a more serious and less corny tone as the first film, I still think that one’s slightly better. You Twihards can judge for yourself. GRADE: B-

Friday, July 09, 2010

To Catch a Predator: Get to the Theater and See the Commendable Action Flick “Predators”

One thing’s for certain: most old-school “Predator” fans will enjoy this new vision from B-movie maestro Robert Rodriquez (believe me I know). While he only produced the film, although that whole “Robert Rodriquez Presents” stuff can be slightly tricky, it’s definitely a worthy follow-up to all other sci-fi action flicks starring those creepily dread-locked alien hunters. Even fans of Arnold’s original action hero will be glad to know that Adrien Brody almost comes close to matching Schwarzenegger’s rippling body muscle per muscle. This ain’t the scrawny guy who you remember as the Holocaust survivor in “The Pianist.” It’s good to see the Predator franchise return to it’s action roots after a couple silly, albeit entertaining, confrontations with the extraterrestrials from the “Alien” films.

We see our main characters literally drop out of the sky and into the deep jungle. We’re introduced to several tough-looking dudes, and one woman, who all seem to have a few things in common, they don’t remember how they got here and they are all some kind of trained killer or soldier. One guy’s just a plain ol’ criminal who happens to be on the FBI’s most wanted list. Brody is Royce is seems more concerned with himself to care much about the other people dropped into the same situation. Of course they stick together and slowly realize they’re not exactly in a very familiar jungle. And is that some Jupiter-looking planet up there in the sky?

Turns out they’ve been brought here by those warrior-like alien predators who enjoy hunting the most intelligent and sophisticated game they can get their hands on. Human killers and soldiers of course! We learn pretty quickly what all the characters deals are including Topher Grace’s Edwin who seems wildly out of place. Turns out he’s a doctor and from what I can tell has been brought there to help heal those who might become the predator’s victims. How exactly you repair someone’s ripped out spinal column and skull is beyond me, but heck I never went to medical school. So not only does these band of survivors have to evade the sly predators but they must try and figure out a way to get the heck home! And luckily a half-crazy Laurence Fishburne shows up for some needed exposition.

I was pleasantly surprised to the find that the film had a good sense of atmosphere and an overall sense of dread. I credit director Nimrod Antal who made the harshly underrated thriller “Vacancy” a few years back. While I didn’t necessarily relate to many of the characters, including the most wanted guy (The Sheild’s Walton Goggins) it was sort of enjoyable to see him attempt to shiv the predators with his tiny knife while the others are equipped with massive machine guns and handguns. And with that said there’s plenty of blood and guts for those who enjoy that sort of thing. I’m talking about myself of course. I could have done without a certain character revelation in the film's last act, but that's really nitpicking here. Otherwise the film is swift, action-packed and suspenseful.

“Predators,” call it a reboot or a sequel (it references the events of the first film), is a fun time at the movies if you enjoy this kind of thing. It takes an already established and highly regarded fan favorite franchise and respects it (I loved composer John Debney’s homage to Alan Silvestri’s original score). You can tell Rodriquez is a fan of the series and only wanted to attempt to please those who enjoy the original while maybe garnering a few new fans along the way. “Predators” is definitely worth seeking out. GRADE: B

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Air Pollution: M. Night Shyamalan is Out of His Element with “The Last Airbender”

There was one thought I couldn’t get out of my mind while watching “The Last Airbender,” a story about a world in which the four natural elements (earth, air, fire and water) are an integral part of the plot: Where is Captain Planet so he can take out this garbage? I realize there are many fans of the Nickelodeon Asian-influenced animated series “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and maybe they’ll get more out of the movie than I would, but still I think they’ll be throwing rotten tomatoes at the screen assuming they were smart enough to bring some to the theater. The latest dreck from once cinematic master M. Night Shyamalan just sort of sits there like a dead fish. I wanted emotion. I wanted to feel involved. I wanted to be entertained. None of that happened while watching “The Last Airbender.”

I knew nothing about the original series which takes place in a magical world. There are four nations and they each have their own natural element. Some people in each nation can manipulate the element with martial arts moves. There is always one person, however, who can manipulate all four elements and is required to help maintain tranquility amongst all four nations. This person is known as the Avatar. And he isn’t a blue alien with dreadlocks. It turns out that little Aang (Noah Ringer; a far cry from Haley Joel Osment) is the last of his air bending tribe and just so happens to be the Avatar. He’s discovered frozen in an iceberg by Katara (a wooden Nichal Petz) and her older brother Sokka (an almost as wooden Jason Rathbone). They get him out and Katara feels the need to protect him. Then the ridiculously confusing story begins about Avatars and the evil Fire Nation and then Dev Patel from “Slumdog Millionaire” shows up as the flawed bad guy with corny martial arts moves.

I can tell you that after actually watching the first two episodes of the original series that those 46 minutes were 110 times more compelling that happens in the live action movie. I think there are several reasons why it just doesn’t work. Shyamalan who no one doubts is an original filmmaker who likes to tell creative stories just somehow can’t develop his characters well enough for anyone to care about them. Perhaps he was just assuming everyone who would see the movie would automatically have seen the show? I think Shyamalan works better telling ghost stories and is really good at getting the audience to think about the unknown. There’s actually too much going onscreen. The action feels jumbled and looks confusing. And then there are the actual martial arts-inspired moves the characters use to manipulate the elements. These characters just look silly because the choreography just looks dumb. The effects themselves are ok, but nothing to write home about.

For the most part I was bored by Shyamalan’s version of “The Last Airbender.” Odds are you’ll be bored too. It’s too bad because while I never was too excited about the film when the trailer first hit, the story of the “Avatar The Last Airbender” is actually more entertaining than I ever gave it credit for and in just a couple episodes it was so clear that Shyamalan’s vision is just completely sub par. I hate to compare someone’s work to the original, but even if this was another of Shyamalan’s original creations, it still just ain’t happening. I think he needs to take it as a sign because it seems like the poor guy’s career isn’t unbreakable after all. GRADE: D+

Note: The so-called “racism” involving the film’s casting didn’t bother me and isn’t a reason why the movie is so bad. Whether the heroes were played by white people or Asian people or shadow puppets, it would have been bad either way.