Thursday, September 27, 2007

Good Luck Chuck (2007)

Good Luck Chuck (2007) is an amalgamation of scenes that worked in other recent romantic comedies, classic cliches, and breasts. Lots and lots and lots of breasts.

Coming in there is a great deal of potential for humor. Super hot Jessica Alba is advertised heavily in the trailers...if there is anyone in America who has not yet seen the trailer of her in tight shirt and white panties (with a penguin emblem) they simply have been nowhere near a theatre or television set in the last month. That shot has played over and over and over ad nausea.

Playing opposite her is popular comedian Dane Cook. He has quickly become popular as both comedian and heartthrob.

Between the two of them you have a lot of rising star power.

Add to that the great potential of the story of Charlie (Dane Cook), aka Lucky Charm Chuck, a man who can get any woman he wants but can't keep her. Instead, she will soon leave him, meet the man of her dreams and get married. As a result, hot women are knocking down Chuck's door. Yet the man who can have any woman he wants can't find love.

It is potentially a hilarious and/or touching story. Unfortunately, Josh Stolberg and Steve Glenn got a bit lazy.

The movie starts with a scene that feels like a direct rip-off of the premise for the Jennifer Garner vehicle 13 Going on 30 (2004), except this time the girl Chuck hooks up with in spin the bottle wants him and he wants nothing to do with her. As a result, Young Anisha (Sasha Pieterse) casts a hex on him that he will be surrounded by love but never experience it.

Fast forward a few years. Best friends Chuck and Stu (Dan Fogler) work in the same office building. Chuck is a dentist and Stu is a cosmetic surgeon specializing in breast enhancements.

One thing never becomes clear...and that is why, exactly, Chuck and Stu are friends. Stu is a self-indulgent, horny, breast-obsesses loser who has no dates with anyone more attractive than a cantaloupe. Actually, the cantaloupe or whatever fruit it was IS his only date. He breaks out cheesy cliched line after cheesy cliched line. Most of them interfere with Chuck's attempts to make progress with girls.

For example, at the wedding where Chuck's "Lucky Charm" effect is introduced into the story, Chuck meets Cam Wexler (Jessica Alba) and instantly is deeply infatuated with her, Stu interrupts them. He sees Cam and breaks loose with, "Here I am, what are your other two wishes", a line as fresh as a pre-Caesar bottle of wine.

Stu is a stereotypical chauvinist. Girls are breasts, butts, tail, and several other more profane words. They are good for sex, getting laid, getting screwed, etc. He loves to drop the F-bomb about them, regularly uses the word trim, has no concept of appropriateness, and works at his job largely as a way to see naked breasts.

Actually, looking back, I do not recall so much as a single positive trait he displayed in the entire movie. Nor was he a good friend to Chuck in any way whatsoever.

Yet they are good friends. The "buddy" cliche is often see it assumed in movies. Sometimes you see things that make the friendship make sense...for example, in the Bad Boys series of movies even though Smith and Martin fight a lot, you also see them away from work and their friendship makes sense. The same holds true for Peter Parker and Harry Osborn in the Spiderman franchise. Other times it makes less sense...I would argue Ladder 49 (2004) was a fine example where the "friendships" and camaraderie seemed fake and forced instead of natural... and such as Good Luck Chuck when you never see them doing "friend things." You pretty much only see Stu screwing Chuck over.

As the movie develops, Cam is aware of Chucks' get-around nature and is not interested. He keeps trying but she is not interested. So Stu talks him into sleeping we are "treated" to a montage of Chuck and random girl sex scenes of increasing bizzarity and his increasing boredom. He finally decides to stop, goes back to pursuing Cam and finally gets his shot. For a while it works. Then there are problems. In the end he gets the girl.

Along the way we reheat several tired pick-up lines, date jokes, happy stoned on marijuana dude jokes, and happy date montages.

We also spend a lot of time with naked breasts. Check out the number of times that line or one like it has been used in this review and you start to get the picture.

I wanted to like this movie. I am a huge Jessica Alba fan and have heard good things about Dane Cook's work. Sadly, this was a thinly disguised soft porn movie with a weak plot, weak writing, and nothing in particular to recommend it.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

3:10 to Yuma (2007)

The Western genre has a lot of iconography that is always with any viewer, whether they consciously think of it or not. You have the lone hero, standing alone against the odds, you have the fearful and incompetent townspeople, and you have the villain.

3:10 to Yuma (2007) takes all that and turns it on its head. 3:10 is the story first and foremost of 2 men and their relationship to people around them.

Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is the failing rancher, injured in body during the Civil War and injured in spirit by a drought-beset, debt ridden farm, a wife and son who don't respect him, another son quite sick, and a nigh on to hopeless situation.

Conversely, Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) is the smart, tough, capable leader of a particularly successful, albeit brutal, band of train robbers.

In the opening scene the character of Evans is set. His farm is raided at night and his barn set on fire by Tucker (Kevin Durand) and another man. They are the henchmen of Glen Hollander (Lennie Loftin), the man about to foreclose on the Evans ranch. Evans, former sharpshooter for the 2nd Massachusetts regiment, has a clear shot at Tucker as he rides away but refuses to take it. His son William (Logan Lerman) shows his deep disappointment and continues to criticize his ineffectual dad.

In the next scene we start seeing the "good badman" of Ben Wade. While waiting for a stagecoach he carefully draws a picture of an eagle that has been sitting on a nearby branch. The love of nature and desire to capture beauty gives him the classic movie markers of a good guy which is accentuated by the good-humored smile he constantly maintains. This smile is an even stronger marker when contrasted with the ever-present frown on Evan's face.

In the ensuing stagecoach robbery Wade's gang charges into a heavily armed group of men. They are on the verge of failing their ambush when Wade pushes the scattered herd of Evans' cows in front of the stage. Every member of the stagecoach crew is killed except for Byron McElroy (Peter Fonda), the long-time foe of Wade. Even he is badly wounded when Charlie Prince (Ben Foster) shoots him at point blank range...but Wade won't let Prince finish the job.

In Charlie Prince we have one of those supporting characters so essential to turning a good movie into a great one. Foster does an outstanding job of playing a man who has a cult-figure like worship of Wade. He has a fanatical, somewhat psychotic look in his eyes. He looks like he really enjoys the adrenaline and his role as a sadistic killer.

After the conclusion of the robbery the Wade gang repairs to Bisbee to celebrate. Wade sends the boys on so he can enjoy the attentions of the saloon woman but waits too long and is captured. Stagecoach man Grayson Butterfield (Dallas Roberts) puts together a group of men to take Wade to Contention to put him on the train to Yuma prison. To earn money for his farm Evans joins the group.

As they travel Wade maintains his sense of humor...until the first night out on the road Tucker goads him too far. Wade, while handcuffed, manages to kill Tucker by strangulation. And here is one of the places the viewer starts to understand the depth of this movie. He would escape if not for the timely intervention of William, who snuck out after them against his Dad's orders.

Tucker is nominally on the side of the law. He is transporting a thief and murderer...yet he himself has engaged in criminal behavior in burning down Evans' barn. Even while in the posse he has been goading you not only do not grieve for his loss, you are tempted to cheer Wade's dispatching of him.

The same is true of his inevitable killing of McElroy after a verbal exchange in which the "pious" McElroy is revealed to be a murderous weasel of the worst kind...and finishes with him being thrown off the cliff. Again, the verbal exchange leads you to identify with Wade, the does almost every verbal exchange.

Another fine example would be between Wade and Butterfield. Butterfield talks about all the stages Wade has robbed, all the money he has stolen...and Wade replies something along the lines of "Notice he says nothing about the lives I have taken." Thus we notice the interesting dilemma...the representative of corporate America, Butterfield, cares about possessions and the outlaw cares about lives.

So the audience is cheering the villain...this could be a disturbing trend. And it continues when Apaches attack. Wade manages to seize a gun, sneak up the hill and dispatch them. His heroic role gains him further admiration. Then he makes good his escape, taking the guns of the posse and their horses.

Unfortunately for Wade, he rides into a railroad camp being run by a hard case Marshal who had watched Wade shoot down his brother. When the posse catches up to Wade he is being tortured brutally by the Marshal. The way Wade bears up under the torture refers back to the Western codes...the hero bearing up against impossible odds without murmur.

It is at this point that the point of having Doc Potter (Alan Tudyk) makes his presence felt. First he protests the mistreatment of Wade as immoral. Moments later Potter is dead and symbolically the posse has lost its conscience.

Of course, the evil Marshal must receive his comeuppance which comes when Prince rides through. He asks where Wade went, notices the badge, asks if they are a posse, then guns down 3 men in fewer seconds. It further advances his role as a very dangerous adversary.

Finally the escort for Wade arrives in Yuma. Shortly behind them comes Prince and his gang. So we are set for the big showdown.

As soon as they get to Yuma Butterfield heads out to recruit help. He comes back with the Contention Marshal and his capable deputies. However, when Prince makes a diabolical and fiendish announcement to the town, the Marshal and his men elect not to participate in walking Wade to the train. They walk out front, lay down their guns...and Prince and his gang promptly gun them down in a heavy fusillade. Thus we learn that when good men lay down because of the threats of bad men they die anyway.

Finally even Butterfield walks away and tries to convince Dan to do so. Instead, Dan insists he is going to do the job, but not before first wrangling a promise from Butterfield that ensures the success of his ranch.

The final showdown could have been equal to that of High Noon (1952) when Will Kane (Gary Cooper) takes on a numerically superior but morally inferior gang. The only reason it isn't is 3:10 spends too much time leading up to the finish with random violence. It does not build quite the same level of tension...but it does grant the same release.

The showdown is epic. Evans does lots of heroic shooting, Prince is even deadlier in the same erratic, psychotic manner he has been all movie, shooting both at Evans...and anyone he thinks was shooting too close to his hero Wade.

Finally Evans gets Wade on the train, fulfilling his end of the bargain. Through this act he finds redemption. He has proven himself courageous and capable. However, he has also shown he isn't quite vicious enough since he did not slay Prince. Prince lets him know that was an oversight by emptying his gun into Evans, rescuing Wade.

Somehow, it is okay because Evans found his redemption. Meanwhile, Wade hops off the train, gets his gun back...and promptly kills every last member of his gang in retribution for their killing of Evans. Thus he finally finds redemption, the little spark of good within him and we can openly cheer for the man we have privately been rooting for all along.

Then he gets back on the train so Evans' pact with Butterfield will remain intact and as the train pulls out, he signals his horse to follow, leaving it to the imagination that he will escape yet Evans' family will still be cared for. It is a different way to have a happy ending for all.

The cinematography was decent, rarely standing out as either good or bad. The directing was good, though some strange decisions were made...such as having train men standing around after thousands of rounds were poured into the vicinity, numerous people in the final shootout who appeared to be firing at each other for no apparent reason, and in the scene where Prince burns a guy inside a stagecoach, why the guy would give up his gun after firing once. But overall it was solid work.

The acting was, for the most part, outstanding. On occasion Bale would forget he was supposed to limp...other times he looked like he could barely walk so clearly he never developed a limp he was comfortable with. Prince and Crowe were outstanding...actually, everyone was strong. You were in a believable world where people looked like they were behaving naturally.

Overall it was a quite enjoyable movie that is an interesting update of the classic 3:10 to Yuma (1957) with some nice homages...such as Evans and Wade working together to get Wade on the train. If you are a Western fan...or maybe even if you aren't...go check out 3:10 to Yuma.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Eastern Promises, 2007

From the opening moments of Eastern Promises (2007) there is no doubt you will be seeing a harsh, brutal movie. The movie opens with Azim (Mina E. Mina) giving a shave to a Russian mafia member. His son (grandson?) comes in, pulls down the shades, and just a couple minutes later takes the shaving blade and slits the throat of the customer. The bloody gurgling as his life passes disabuses the viewer of any notions this will be a soft movie.

Nor does it suddenly shift to sweetness and light. From there we shift to a pharmacy where a young lady, Tatiana (Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse) asks for help. Suddenly blood gushes forth as she faints, her body hemorrhaging. She dies giving birth to her baby.

Thus we are drawn into a couple of interweaving plots. The baby plot follows Anna (Naomi Watts) as she tries to find the babies' family to keep the baby out of the London welfare system. To do this she needs to get Tatiana's diary translated from Russian. Her uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski) refuses to do it upon discovering it is full of stories of prostitution and drugs.

When Anna finds a card inside for a Russian restaurant, she goes there to get the diary translated. Of course, the restaurant belongs to Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the gourmet Russian cook who is also the head of the feared Russian crime family called Vory V Zakone. Semyon tries to get the diary from her so she will not discover the contents, framing it as his attempt at charity.

Later, Stepan is convinced to translate the diary and discovers that Semyon is the father of the baby. As a result, Nikolai (Viggo Mortenson) is ordered to kill him.

Instead he convinces Stepan to disappear. It is one of numerous clues as to his role long before the ultimate reveal.

Ultimately, the reveal is that Stepan is a Russian undercover agent. He is working against the Vory family. The rape gives him his opportunity to take down Semyon and replace him as head of the family. As the movie closes, he sits alone in the restaurant as the new king of the family.

The cinematography is very effective, presenting a dark, dreary atmosphere in keeping with a movie in which brutality, double-crosses and fear are the norm. The dark colors, raw footage, and consistent themes are quite effective.

The editing was surprisingly rough with numerous jarring jump cuts and a few times when visible flaws in the print hover on the screen for a few distracting moments.

It is the writing that was both a strength and weakness of the movie. From early on there are clues that Nikolai is more than just "the driver" as he refers to himself, and the clues are there he may be some sort of agent. At the same time it is left open that when he receives the "stars above the heart" whether he is indeed an agent...or simply a less brutal crime boss taking over. His complex character is a strength of the movie.

Conversely, the character of Kirill (Vincent Cassell) is a weak point. He is a montage of stereotypes and cliches. He is drunken, weak, impulsive, and stupid. One wonders how someone as loud, annoying, obnoxious, constantly drunk, and incompetent as Kirill could survive in an organization such as the Vory V Zakone when they were warring with the Chechens.

Overall, it is an interesting look at the Russian mafia with a lot of detail such as their system of tattoos and what each tattoo means. If you are not squeamish and don't demand a clear, happy ending then this movie is for you.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Mr. Bean's Holiday

I have seen Bean before...and despite never having been a huge fan of his work, the previews for Mr. Bean's Holiday (2007) combined with truly brutal traffic conditions to convince me going to see it was a good idea. And, in a shining ray of sunshine, sitting through the movie was definitely better than sitting through traffic.

There were some pretty good laughs in the movie. Bean (Rowan Atkinson) is a truly bizarre looking individual. Much of his comedy replies on his appearance and on his flexibility. For example, one scene tries to draw laughs by having him overemphasize the jack-booted goose step of World War II German soldiers, then having his goose-step get his foot caught on a clothes rack. If he did not look so goofy he could not pull it off to draw laughs.

The plot is pretty thin. Bean wins a vacation in Cannes. Being Bean, his ineptitude causes it to turn into a troubling trip, though he continues to have good cheer as problem after problem arises. He records everything on his video camera which seems to have an inexhaustible amount of tape in it.

The movie plays like a series of sketches involving the same character. If you like a sketch, smile, because another just like it will be right behind. If you dislike any particular sketch, don't will be over in a couple moments and you will be on to the next sketch involving Rowan Atkinson playing his Bean character. It is not unlike watching a "Best of Bean" cd of sketches if he had been a recurring character.

Sadly, I am not a huge fan of slapstick comedy. And it is hard to see Bean as a hero when he destroys computers, cell phones, acts as a jerk to a guy trying to help him out, steals a bike, tries to steal a vaguely motorized bike from a guy trying to help him out, and just generally is cruel to a variety of people. On the other hand, he still manages to be a sympathetic character for most of the movie.

Perhaps the best parts of the movie revolved around send-ups of movie making. First, there was Bean's as he wildly waves his camera around, videotapes the most mundane things, and the camera becomes ubiquitous with director Steve Bendelack replicating the "feel" of digital videotape in several of his own shots.

Second, there is the delicious send-up of self-important "art films" when Carson Clay (Willem Dafoe) plays his epic, self-indulgent, effect and mood-heavy but entertainment light film at Cannes...only to have Bean's home video in fast motion be played visually instead, coinciding with the doleful narrative to create a humorous, yet touching film that brings the Cannes audience to their feet.

It does a great job of pointing out the difference between what many independent film-makers think is great and how little most audiences care for them...and also gets in a pretty good poke at Oscar winning films that fail to entertain while films that entertain fail to Oscar.

Ultimately it was a mildly entertaining bit of cinema that probably did a little better at the box office than it deserved to do.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Monsters Inc. (Classic) (2001)

Every so often a chance comes up to see again a movie that you have fond memories of. Others get shoved to the background to never be seen again, often unfairly. If you have not seen Monsters Inc. (2001) since it was in the theatres then you have done yourself a disservice.

Monsters Inc. takes its inspiration from the childhood fears of monsters hiding in the closet. This time it tells the story from their point of view...namely, why would monsters want to hide in closets? What is in it for them?

Seems Monster City needs power. Screams provide the power to light their city, fuel their cars, power their they send out Scarers to carefully selected children to draw forth the screams they need to power their city.

Sulley (John Goodman) and Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) are the top scare team for Monsters Inc., the third generation company of Henry J. Waternoose (James Coburn). Production has been slow overall, though apparently not for Sully or Randall Boggs (Steve Buscemi) who are neck and neck in their race to break the all-time screams record.

On the side, however, Randall and Waternoose are working a malevolent scheme to illegally kidnap kids and raise the number of screams they can get from any given child. Their plan goes astray when Sulley inadvertently lets Boo (Mary Gibbs) into Monster World...a strictly forbidden act that, if discovered, will consign Sulley and Wazowski to banishment just as happened to banished monsters Loch Ness, Bigfoot, and The Abominable Snowman (John Ratzenberger). This is a terrifying fate, so Sulley and Wazowski cannot go to the authorities.

The plot is nothing spectacular...but it does not need to be. The graphics and animation are magnificent, the gags hilarious, and the chase scene is one of the best chases in cinematic history. The trail through door after door, location after location is entertaining and original.

The characters are likable, including Randall the villain of the piece, and the resolution is a good one for all the good guys with a humorous but not cruel end for the villains. This is a movie that will let you smile and laugh for a while and, if you are into the messages given by movies, it teaches that laughter and getting along with those who are different is a path to a more prosperous and enjoyable life than you can achieve through fear and disharmony.

Stardust, 2007

Some projects are rather ambitious. Take, for example, welding together a power packed cast including luminaries such as Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert De Niro, Ian McKellan and Peter O 'Toole with an offbeat, somewhat bizarre story and making it entertaining without being overbearing. Stardust (2007) is exactly such a project.

In the first 10 minutes it has to establish the rules for a bizarre world, introduce and then cast aside a primary character, and interest you in the main character who begins his screen life as a bumbling, incompetent boob. Even worse, it then gets strange and introduces a complex yet humorous subplot.

Stardust is the king making tale of young Tristan (Charlie Cox), a boy who just happens to work in a produce store, and his future queen Yvaine (Claire Danes), a star fallen from the heavens. When she falls, Yvaine brings with her a pendant thrown up by the King (Peter O 'Toole) for his three surviving sons to find and battle over. Whoever finds the pendant and has it change color will be the new king. Yvaine simply wants to return home.

Tristan wants to marry Victoria (Sienna Miller). To prove his love for her, he sets off across the Wall to find the fallen star and bring it back to show his love for her.

Meanwhile, three aging witches find out Yvaine has fallen to earth. If they can find her and kill her they will have their youth restored. They send Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) off to bring back Yvaine for their ceremony.

Thus we find several story lines woven together:
The sons striving to kill each other, avoid being killed, and find the pendant.
Lamia and the witches trying to find the star and kill her.
Yvaine trying to return home.
Tristan trying to bring the star back to his village to show his love for Victoria.

Along the way he meets Captain Shakespeare (Robert De Niro), the cross-dressing swashbuckling pirate captain, and of course his real mother Una (Kate MacGowan). In the climactic finish a multi-way battle erupts between evil Septimus (Mark Strong), the witches, and Tristan with eternal ruler ship of the Kingdom at stake.

Director Matthew Vaughn does a magnificent job of creating a believable world of fantasy with just the right mixture of brutality and whimsy. Certainly that is a strange mix, so perhaps an example is in order.

The rules for ascending to the kingship are simple. The King produces numerous sons who then attempt to kill each other off. As they die, they appear as ghosts somewhere close to the survivors with the means of their death still axe in the head, a smashed in face, and so forth. The recurring scenes of the dead sons of the King as each falls prey to some gruesome fate are hilarious, and made all the more so because of the presentation.

We also get to see some different things from Michelle Pfeiffer. I am sure many critics are talking about her courage in taking on such a role...she loses her hair, ages hundreds of years, shrieks maniacally...but the truth is the average movie-goer is wise enough to appreciate a well-played role and will subsequently accept her in a role where she displays her beauty throughout. She was quite entertaining in this role and a delight to watch.

In a similar vein, De Niro had a great time with his cross-dressing role. He plays comedies well and has fun with running counter to his more typical tough-guy role.

Overall, this is not your normal fare but if you are willing to engage in a different universe and have some fun watching Tristan grow from bumbler to hero, this flick is for you. You will see some great performances, some magnificent special effects and an ending that is out of this world.