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-