Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Let’s Get Cynical: “Dark Horse” Features Todd Solondz’s Trademark Weirdness

How does one really describe a Todd Solondz film? Perverse? Weird? Unpleasant? Certainly “not for everyone” is probably the best place to start. The constantly cynical and sometimes outright depressing – yet immensely talented and original – filmmaker has probably made one of his most accessible films. And that’s only because it doesn’t feature taboo subject matter such as abortion, pedophilia, rape, or other forms of sexual depravity. It’s almost an entirely new Todd Solondz. But not really. Here we’re presented with yet another character that Solondz forces us to dislike. Abe is an overweight mid-30s guy who still lives at home with his parents, collecting action figures and browsing eBay while he works for his dad’s small company. He’s the family black sheep, but sees himself as more of a dark horse – ready to break free and surprise them all. Sometimes he’s hopelessly optimistic while at other times I have expected him to blow his brains out.

Abe (Jordan Gellber) is hopelessly stuck in arrested development. He goes to work, buys toys, and drives around town in his garish yellow Hummer. He lives with his mother and father. They are played by Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken. I wonder why these two haven’t been cast in a Todd Solondz film before, but I digress. Dad is apathetic to his son and mom is rather smothering. We also learn he has a much more successful doctor brother (Justin Bartha). Abe meets an equally apathetic woman at a local wedding named Miranda (Selma Blair looking brilliantly overly medicated). Miranda also lives with her parents and after a failed attempt at being an author hesitantly accepts a date from Abe and after only two meetings, a marriage proposal. And in true Solondz pessimistic fashion she also has an easily transmittable disease.

Abe has a dream about his dad’s office workers named Marie (Donna Murphy). He seems to have visions of her from time to time which are mixed in with real conversations. At points we’re not always sure which scenes are real and which are not. Later in the film, Abe will have conversations with people we will learn are definitely not really happening, but to say more would spoil things. To say the third act of the film is strange is saying something. But it’s never as strange as one whose seen all of Solondz’s films would think. And even if Abe is one of the more seemingly outgoing characters in Solondz’s films he’s easily one of the more annoying ones.

Todd Solondz certainly has done it again. He presents us with yet another sarcastic look at suburban life and presents it in an original way. You have to admire his work and his view of the world. He even blurs out an obvious Toys R Us logo since he most likely didn’t have the rights to show it. His film doesn’t reach the brilliant heights of his masterpiece “Happiness” but anyone craving something extremely different or strange in a summer of superheroes and blockbusters could do far worse than this satirical and sometimes perverse little dramedy.  GRADE: B

Monday, June 25, 2012

Gettysburg Excess: The Fun “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is Silly Action Fluff

At least “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” isn’t based on actual events. Well it kind of is. Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president. He did marry a woman named Mary Todd. He did deliver the rousing Gettysburg Address. And he did attend the theater which would be the location of his assassination. He did not however, according to documented history, hunt and kill vampires. But he does in this movie. And if he can be the one responsible for ending slavery why not add vampire hunter to an already impressive résumé? The film as directed from the “Wanted” guy Timur Bekmambetov takes a rather serious approach to the subject matter of slaying vampires, yet it still maintains a strong sense of silly fun. If you can’t enjoy a movie in which history is revised to include a vampire hunting American president then you’ve come to the wrong multiplex.

By all rational accounts “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is a pretty stupid movie. And it actually inexplicably borrows a lot from Bekmam…er, Timbur’s own “Wanted.” Here a young, pre-politics Abraham Lincoln is trained in the way of vampire hunting after he witnesses his mother’s death at the hands of a vampire. Lincoln is played by Benjamin Walker who is simply wonderful here and he resembles a young Liam Neeson. He’s receives his vampire hunting training from Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper) who we learn much more about as the film progresses. Henry wears awesome shades I’m sure are not quite period accurate. Henry becomes Abraham’s mentor, ordering him various vampires to slay, with a goal to eventually find the vampire who murdered his mom.

The film, as written by Seth Grahame-Smith who also authored the book this was based on, works sublimely well by mixing fact and fiction. The film follows the real history closely, such as introducing the civil war and the Battle of Gettysburg, but this time the North is actually fighting Southern vampires. It’s all as fascinating as it is utterly ridiculous and stupid. But the film works because it takes it all seriously, which actually makes it rather fun to watch. Lincoln meets Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and marries her and she even gets to have a little kick-ass scene of her own.

Timbur’s film features a love or hate it style. It bares no real resemblance to reality, such as when Lincoln chops down an entire tree with one swing of his axe during his training. It’s established that he has to no actual superpowers, just pure rage and hate for vampires. Certain characters’ actions seem to defy gravity or logic (check out that horse stampede sequence) but if your watching a movie about President Lincoln killing vampires you shouldn’t be expecting anything less. The actors are great and the makeup is simply outstanding. Walker plays the elder Lincoln with such precision; he just may give Daniel Day-Lewis a run for his money.  GRADE: B

Great Scott! Pixar Enters Fairy Tale Territory with “Brave”

It’s funny that I thought of “Brave” as one of those “body switch” movies. You know where two characters switch places and learn some kind of life lesson. I’m thinking specially “Freaky Friday.” Here we’re presented with a mother and daughter. They obliviously love each other, but they don’t always see eye to eye. Enter in some magical spell and then said mother and daughter are forced to figure out a way to get things back to normal. It’s funny that I think specifically of “Freaky Friday” since, in a way, Disney and Pixar have sort of switched places this year. Here we have a more traditional fairy tale adventure in the style of Disney's classic animation. And later this year Disney will release a high concept comedy called “Wreck It Ralph” which seems suspiciously like something Pixar would create. In the end, this latest Pixar effort seems rather by the numbers with a few original gags and bits of heart thrown in. It’s nowhere near the horrible train wreck that was “Cars 2” but fails to really live up to the high standards of Pixar’s greatest achievements.

It’s impossible to discuss “Brave” without getting into plot specifics. So much so in fact, that the trailers and TV commercials haven’t even given away what the actual plot of “Brave” is. What you do know is that it’s about a young Scottish princess named Merida (Kelly McDonald). She has beautiful long, curly red hair. And she’s Pixar’s first central female character. Taking a cue from Disney Princesses Past, she yearns for something greater in life instead of being forced to follow the role her royal family has provided for her. A bow and arrow competition will determine who she’ll be betrothed too and what a selection it is. Seeing these goofs vie for Princess Merida’s hand is rather humorous indeed. One is a blue face painted William Wallace wannabe. One is a overplump dufus whose heavy brogue can’t even be understood. And the last is a cross-eyed goof. It’s no wonder Merida longs for something else. She wants her fate changed.

Enter the mysterious witch in the woods who just might be able to cast a spell to make Merida’s life better. Of course if she had seen “The Little Mermaid” or countless other Disney movies, she would have known better. Someone close in Merida’s life is transformed which causes a large ruckus and some surprisingly funny comedy as well. In the end though, this is really a story about a mother and daughter, a bond that cannot and simply will not be broken.

It goes without saying that the production value of this Pixar film, like all the others, is just simply gorgeous. In particular, Merida’s red hair is mesmerizingly rendered. The lush green Scottish landscapes are beautiful and all of the character designs are beautiful as well. But for all of this, there’s still something missing here. Perhaps after being release nearly two years after Dreamworks’ “How to Train Your Dragon” it sort of has a “been there, done that feel” and that’s only because Pixar trademark is its originality. I appreciate Pixar’s attempt to veer into new territory (this is also their first period piece) and if this was just another Disney release it would definitely rank up their with the early Disney classics, but this is certainly no “Finding Nemo” or “Toy Story.” It’s certainly welcome after blunderous “Cars 2” but hopefully “Monsters University” can return us to the more traditional Pixar that we all feel in love with more than fifteen years ago.  GRADE: B-

Sunday, June 17, 2012

I Love the 80s: “Rock of Ages” is as Cheesy and Fun as the Decade that Influenced It

Ahh nostalgia, what has thy done to American cinema? Those who remember the cheesy hair metal rock songs that were birthed during the 1980s will either love or hate the new musical “Rock of Ages.” If you can turn off your brain slightly and enjoy what “Rock of Ages” really is (a glorified bigger budgeted feature length “Glee” episode or celebrity karaoke if you will) you’ll probably find yourself having a good time. The film features great music sung by names you know (and some you don’t) and they all mostly do a great job. The cast is simply having fun and all they ask of you is that you do to. After all this is a movie directed by the guy who infused “Hairspray” with such boogie inducing fun one couldn’t help falling in love with it.

I think the biggest flaw with “Rock of Ages” (based on the popular stage musical) is that it’s really just a list of well-known songs in search of a story to tell. Every time the characters engage in dialogue or something resembling a plot, you wish they’d just start singing again. Every story element is something you’ve seen before – but at least the film is very much aware of this – girl from the Midwest in search of fame, the rockin’ nightclub that faces foreclosure, and the aging rock star in need of once last chance of redemption. It even features, shock, a budding love story with young lovers who must overcome a hurdle of misunderstanding. Every cliché is accounting for, but who cares? It feature some rocking music and some pretty enjoyable performances.

Want a real reason to see this thing? Two words: Tom. Cruise. It’s Tom Cruise like you’ve never seen him before. He gets extra points for just showing up in this thing and sells the crap out of it. He plays Stacee Jaxx an aging rock star who’s about to split from his rock band ‘Arsenal.’ He’s really weird and drunk a lot. He even travels with a baboon. (It gives a rather impressive performance as well) What’s with rock stars and primates anyways? He’s going to be performing at the famous Bourbon Room on the Sunset Strip (think Whiskey a Go Go). The guys who run the Bourbon Room are Dennis and Lonny (Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand respectively) and they’re facing a slight debt problem. Meanwhile a young woman named Sherrie (Julianne Hough) breezes right off a bus from Oklahoma, gets her suitcase stolen within five minutes of arriving (ala Nomi in “Showgirls”) and meets Drew (Diego Boneta) who also works at the Bourbon Room and has dreams of rockin’ out as well. Meanwhile a senator played by Bryan Cranston and his wife Catherine Zeta-Jones want to protest the Bourbon Room because rock-n-roll is evil and all that jazz. Snooze. This subplot is needlessly shoehorned in here to pat out the film’s already slightly overlong runtime.

But who needs plot when you have some big name stars belting out great tunes like “Sister Christian,” “Pour Some Sugar on Me” and “Here I Go Again.” One of my favorite sequences, which was all too brief was a great mash-up of “We Built This City” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” Director Adam Shankman knows most of these songs are cheesy and fun and he just sells it – and surprisingly imbues a strong scent of sexuality that dares to push the boundaries of the PG-13 rating. The musical numbers have the most spirit and energy and are staged reasonably well. Everyone looks like they’re having fun and that’s important when you’re in a movie musical called “Rock of Ages.”

“Rock of Ages” isn’t really anything new. It’s doesn’t quite set the bar any higher for movie musicals (or more specially “jukebox musicals”) but it’s a lot of fun and features some good performances and some decent laughs as well. The film’s plot is sort of all over the place and full of clichéd tripe you’ve seen countless times before, but I guess every rose has its thorn.  GRADE: B

Friday, June 08, 2012

Goop Dreams: The Gripping Thriller “Prometheus” is Sci-Fi Horror at Its Best

“Prometheus” might just be a modern sci-fi horror classic. This “Alien” prequel is Ridley Scott’s best film in nearly a decade and lets us forget about that boring “Robin Hood” movie that came a couple years ago. It’s been one of the most anticipated and talked about films in a while. And not surprisingly it’s also become one of the most divisive. Some found the film to be poorly conceived with a muddled script and confusing mythology. Others have found the film a captivating return to the world of “Alien” with thrilling moments and fascinating mythology. I found myself in the latter category. I found it to be a rousing adventure, reminding me of the first time I saw “Jurassic Park” in the theater as a child. And the film is similarly structured: it begins as thoughtful exploration of science and ends up as a rip-roaring horror thriller. It’s sort of the scarier version of “Contact” or “2001.”

The basic story of “Prometheus” revolves around a team of scientists on a mission to a distant planetoid to possibly determine the origin of life on Earth. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her fellow scientist/lover Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) find several unconnected ancient cave drawings which they determine were made years earlier by an unknown alien species. They believe this species, which they refer to as the “Engineers,” are the ones responsible for life on Earth and see these drawings as an invitation to come meet them. The Weyland Corporation, headed by the late Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce in old age makeup and hologram form), has funded the mission which is headed by the rigid and seemingly unenthusiastic Meredith Vickers (‘Ice Queen’ extraordinaire Charlize Theron). Also among the crew is an android named David (Michael Fassbender). Needless to say what the crew of Prometheus find when they get there isn’t quite what they bargained for.

It’s impossible to explore more of the film’s plot without avoiding spoilers, so take this as a warning if you haven’t seen the film. Shaw and the team find a decapitated alien corpse in a structure on the planet. It seems as though these Engineers are extinct. They also find a room full of metal canisters that contain a mysterious black goo. This goo appears to mutate whatever comes in contact with it, which leads to some rather disgusting horror movie moments that are just as effective as anything seen in the previous Alien films. Before we know it certain characters have become infected with this substance which leads to a serious of unfortunate events that lead to what just might be the creation of the alien species we’ve come to know and love from the Alien films. And speaking of which, anyone who doesn’t find the “surgery scene” disturbing and squeamish has obviously seen “The Human Centipede II” way too many times (for the record I’ve only seen it once). This scene alone might instantly become one of the most unsettling scenes I’ve seen in a film in quite a while. I haven’t seen a sci-fi thriller this intense, exhilarating and flat-out entertaining in a long time.

“Prometheus” seems to just get everything right. Noomi Rapace is a wonder. Having not seen her Dragon Tattoo films nor the Sherlock Holmes sequel, this is my first experience with her as an actress. She gives a pretty kick-ass performance. Her character refuses to quit despite having an unplanned, um, surgery, halfway through the film. The wonderful Michael Fassbender, as the android David, is a revelation. He’s just as good here as he was in last year’s criminally under-nominated masterpiece “Shame.” As David, he wanders the empty corridors while the human crew is in hypersleep awaiting arrival to LV-223. Like Wall-E, he watches Hollywood movies (even mimicking Peter O’Toole’s blonde hairdo in “Lawrence of Arabia”). Writers Jon Spaihts (a newcomer) and Damon Lindelof (the 'Lost' guy) have crafted such an interesting concept and story and they are purposely vague on several plot details which I didn’t find annoying whatsoever. What exactly is the black goo? Who made the Engineers? Why did they create humans and then want to destroy them? How does the alien get to LV-426? And what exactly is David’s deal anyways? When things are ambiguous on purpose it encourages fun discussions after seeing the film. This is a thinking person’s sci-fi movie and you’re all the better for having witnessed it.

The movie is also a technical wonder. It features breathtaking cinematography (check out that opening sequence in IMAX 3D!), beautiful art direction with not-so-subtle hints at previous Alien production design, a terrific music score, and some awesomely squeamish and realistic special effects. Ridley Scott has crafted such an original movie filled with wonder and excitement (and an intense sand storm sequence). It’s certainly not something that everyone will enjoy but those who are looking for a great adventure and two hours of meditative yet action-packed thrills need look no further. It's one of the year's best.  GRADE: A

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Fish ‘n Strips: “Piranha 3DD” Might be the Stupidest Killer Fish Movie Ever Made (OK It Is)

The "Piranha" remake that came out in 2010, which you probably didn’t see because it totally bombed, was one of the best killer fish movies ever made. Its really dumb sequel “Piranha 3DD” (which is supposed to be pronounced “three double d” get it? Breasts. Big ones) is the complete opposite in every way. It’s poorly written, directed, and acted. The effects are pretty bad (although the first film’s weren’t exactly groundbreaking). These are things that could conceivably be forgiven had the movie actually been either scary or at least funny. You will laugh at “Piranha 3DD” to be sure. But not in the way the filmmakers probably intended.

“Piranha 3DD” attempts to be a send up of its original, which itself was already kind of a send up. I think it’s trying to be like “Scary Movie” but it’s definitely not a comedy. Yet it’s not really horror since it is not scary or suspenseful, and even the gory scenes are not particularly special or memorable. It’s so utterly ridiculous and dumb you wonder why the Weinstein Co even bothered at all. I mean this is a movie where you’ll see a baby piranha bit on a teenage boy’s penis after it comes out of the vagina of the teenage girl he’s having sex with. And you’ll see breasts. Lots of breasts.  

Let me attempt to explain the premise, which the film takes about 50 minutes setting up (and the film runs about 71 minutes before the credits start rolling). It’s a year or so after the horrible events at Lake Victoria from the first film. This time the piranha are even meaner and can now chew through metal. They get into the drainage system and are hell bent on crashing the opening of a non family friendly water park that is probably seeping in STDs. What do you expect when the sexual predator version of Todd Packer from The Office is running this place? Oh, it’s called The Big Wet. His stepdaughter Maddy (Danielle Panabaker) knows the piranha are coming but that jerk won’t shut the place down. Meanwhile a bunch of other teenagers who we couldn’t care less about are having sexual relations and getting their body parts chewed off.

This all culminates in the big bloody climax that we’ve been waiting impatiently for. The gore scenes aren’t that particularly special. I didn’t mind that director John Gulagar employed some rubber fish instead of using all CGI which gives it a bit of a retro feel, but everything here is just plain bad. He has no real sense of how to stage any of the deaths. And they’re so over the top that instead of laughing at the gruesomeness of it all (which was encouraged and welcomed in the first film) we just roll our eyes. The film is way too busy trying to outdo the original that it forgets about all the other aspects that go into making a quality horror movie.

Unfortunately, this thing has direct-to-DVD written all over it. I can’t say much about its 3D since I had to watch this at home on demand because of the film's scant theatrical release. I will do the rest of the actors a favor and not mention them by name here. I will however mention the cameo appearances by David Hasselhoff, who is an even worse actor when he’s playing himself, and Gary Busey, whose last good film role was “Rookie of the Year.” Damn this movie is bad.  GRADE: D (what else?)

Friday, June 01, 2012

Madam’s Apple: “Snow While & the Huntsman” is an Entertaining Fairy Tale Update

The last thing I want out of a movie is a boring fantasy with strange creatures and magical beings. It took me several viewings to get what the big fuss was about with “Harry Potter.” Which is why it’s with great surprise that I found “Snow White and the Huntsman” to be a fun, more action-oriented retelling of the classic fairy tale. While comparisons to the animated Disney classic are inevitable, no such comparisons should really even be made. This is just “Snow White” for the “Lord of the Rings” crowd, or rather people who may not otherwise really care about this classic story that everyone knows all too well. While the film has its flaws (eye-rolling dialogue and a few lackluster performances) it remains a showcase for one person and one person only: Charlize Theron, who blissfully (and in a rather campy way) steals the movie away from those around her with her wickedly good portrayal of the Evil Queen.

If you’re not a fan of Kristin Stewarts moping as seen in the Twilight movies, this film probably won’t make you a fan. She’s better here as Snow White than her bland Bella role, but not much. The script (by Evan Daughtery, John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini) attempts to give her more of a personality and a sense of independence and defiance but she still isn’t given all that much to do. And neither is the “Huntsman” played by Chris Hemsworth. He’s just there to look burly and dirty and fight things. Although in the end, she does suit up in armor (including a rather horrible “rousing” pre-battle speech) to fight for her rightful place as Queen (more on that later). But those are silly nitpicks. This is really just a fun fairy tale turned action-movie and in that regard the movie works.

The story of course is rather familiar. A woman basically seduces the King, he falls in love with her, marries her, and then she kills him so she can take over his kingdom. He has a beautiful daughter who makes the Queen, named Raveena, jealous so she locks her away in a dark tower. She even uses her pathetic Finn (Sam Spruell) to get what she wants. This royal beauty is of course Snow White (Stewart) with the fairest skin in the land and lips as red as a rose. But Snow White escapes into the forest and the Queen’s magic mirror says that in order for the Queen to stay young and beautiful she must consume Snow White’s heart. And people say The Human Centipede is gross. The Queen of course is played by the astonishingly talented Charlize Theron. She consumes the role and is just simply exquisite. The role and performance almost borders on the edge of camp, and it actually works. When the film decides to follow Snow White as she makes her adventure through the forest (and meeting some impressively rendered dwarves) with the Huntsman (Hemsworth) on her tail, I felt like the movie suffered. I was way more invested in the Queen’s lust for beauty than Show White’s endeavors to evade capture. There’s also a prince in there somewhere.

First-time director Rupert Sanders has made the film a visual wonder. The cinematography, the costumes, the production design, and the visual effects are all superb. It has a surprisingly epic look and feel. But it’s really just a summer action movie for those who like action and for those who like romance. “Snow White & the Huntsman” tries to please everyone and I’d say in that regard it’s pretty successful. But don’t take it too seriously or attempt to deconstruct what you’re seeing, because then you’ll just find that deep down it’s really just a bad apple, but it’s at least worth taking a bite.  GRADE: B+