Monday, December 29, 2008

Movie Review:The Spirit

Frank Miller is infatuated with color schemes of black and white with splashes of red. In The Spirit he uses these to great effect. As a director he has a great eye for stunning visuals and iconic moments. As a writer he has a wry, twisted sense of humor that translates well to the stylized movies he likes to put out.

The Spirit (Gabriel Macht) is a super-hero whose primary super-power is his ability to repeatedly come back from death. He acts as a sort of detective/spy for the police force while battling his arch-nemesis the Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson), a villain who has the same ability and a wicked sense of humor.

For example, the Octopus has a bizarre preoccupation with eggs. He also has a never-ending series of cloned minions (Louis Lombardi) that die with regularity only to come back with new names ending in -os; Pathos, ethos, Adios (the last one we see) and, after one long monologue about not getting egg on his face, he names his next minion Huevos...Spanish for egg.

The Octopus is trying to attain the blood of Heracles to make himself immortal. Silken Floss (Scarlett Johannsen) is is assistant trying to pay her way through college. Sand Saref (Eva Mendes) is tyring to attain Jason's Golden Fleece because it is shiny. The Spirit is trying to end crime in his city.

That is about it as far as story, which is fine. This is a pretty action-filled romp with occasional spots of humor and some outstanding visuals. If you like those sorts of movies, you will love The Spirit. 

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Movie Review: The Tale of Despereaux

If you saw the trailers for The Tale of Despereaux (2008) you probably thought it was a cutesy movie about a mouse, Despereaux (Matthew Broderick) who doesn't realize he should be afraid and how he overcomes the teaching. It was expected there would be several scenes of him in class learning mousely things and a few events around Mouse-town interspersed with occasional interactions with Princess Pea (Emma Watson).

Imagine our surprise when about ten minutes into the flick we still had seen hide nor hair of Despereaux. We had spent the time with Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman), a sailor rat, who was responsible for getting soup and rats banished from the island.

The school scenes I expected so much from were disappointing...there could not have been more than a minute or so of them I had not already seen in the trailer.

Essentially, everything concerning Despereaux was shown in the trailers and the majority of screen time was characters who never showed up in the trailers. This was unfortunate because it painted a very skewed view of what the movie would be like.

You went in expecting Shrek and got The Secret of Nimh. 

This is not to say it is not a good is hard to tell because it takes some time to readjust expectations and figure out the movie is not about what you thought it was.

Short form of the story; Roscuro wants some soup, startles the Queen who then dies, causing the king to banish soup and rats, then sit around playing his lute all the time. Roscuro banished to rat kingdom where he doesn't fit in. Despereaux doesn't fit in and is banished to rat kingdom. Farm Girl becomes Princess handmaid, wants to be princess, captures Princess, Roscuro and Despereaux rescue her, King sees error of ways, everyone is happy again.

Okay story, terrible comedy with very few laughs. Animation was decent at best. Nothign special here, this one is no better than a rental.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Movie Review:Australia

Australia (2008) is the story of a young aboriginal boy Nullah (Brandon Walters) who does the voice over...wait a second, no, it is the story of Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) battling to save her farm from King Carney (Bryan Brown), wait a second, it is her trying to save the farm from Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), wait a second, he just lost all to the Japanese and no longer troubles her,  it is a love story between Ashley and Drover (Hugh Jackman), wait a second, it is the story of Ashley learning she cannot control everyone and everything around, wait a second, it is the story of Drover standing up for, wait a second, it is the story of King George (David Gulpilil) passing on the old ways to Nullah...oh, never mind.

Nobody really knows what this movie is about because it changes themes, goals, and rules repeatedly. Of course, by the end, nobody cares, either, they just want to escape the teatre. It also ends, then goes on for another two hours. If you thought the ending of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) was long and overwrought, particularly the extended edition, then you definitely do not want to see Australia because it takes even longer to end. 

Nor is it worth waiting for the end. The pointless sacrifice on the island adds nothing to Drover's character, the resolution of the tension between Drover wanting to be free and Ashley wanting him to not leave Far Away Downs makes no sense...

ah, lets face it; the film is a bit of overwrought crap that nobody in their right mind should see.

Movie Review:Seven Pounds

Will Smith is probably among the most bankable stars in Hollywood right now. He can do action, comedy, or drama. In  am Legend (2007) he was more or less alone onscreen for the vast majority of the movie...and carried it off. Clearly, he is more than just another pretty face.

In Seven Pounds (2008), widely considered his attempt for an Oscar, he plays Ben Thomas, a man haunted by some tragedy in his past.

Throughout the movie he tries to help seven random strangers. The most important is Emily Posa (Rosario Dawson), a woman dying due to heart problems. Thomas is also dying of a heart ailment...but his is mental rather than physical.

Seven Pounds then refers to the weight of a human pounds on average. It also refers to the theme of the story. Emily becomes the healing needed by Ben as she becomes his friend and shows him recovery from past tragedy is possible. 

Unfortunately, the script is extremely weak and the story rather shallow. As a result, director Gabriele Muccino is forced to rely on flashbacks, playing with time, and essentially hiding the story to stretch it out to feature film length. the story might be worthy of feature length, but as written it would have done better as a 30 minute after school special or Hallmark Holiday movie. 

There are some nice moments in the movie, but for the most part it really drags and also manages to irritate. The flashbacks and playing with time are more of a story than anything else and somehow manage to take what could be an excellent story and turn it into drek.

The movie is slightly redeemed by the two twists at the end, though all the clues to the result are there. I caught them, my wife caught one of them. The end was depressing, maudlin, and disappointing. This movie could have been great. It wasn't. It wasn't even good. Blech.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Movie Review:Punisher Warzone

If you ever watch the old 1980s television series the A-team and thought, "Wow, they made a mistake. Take the number of shots fired in the series and instead shoot them in each episode and you would have something," then Punisher:Warzone is for you. 

If you ever thought, "The only thing that interferes with a great action movie is an involved plot, then this movie is for you.

If you ever thought, "I really need to see the inside of more heads, preferably extremely bloody" then this movie is right up your alley.

If you ever thought, "Action movies are far and away best when everyone plays their role seriously and to the hilt except the villains who need to be extremely cartoonish...adopting bizarre, exaggerated walks, maniacal cackles, and weird speaking styles" then this movie is definitely one you need to see.

Rumors abounded as to why director Lexi Alexander had all her blogs about the process taken down and that she had been removed from the project. If the antics of Jigsaw (Dominic West) and Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchinson) had anything to do with her point of view...she did very well because they detracted from what otherwise would have been a great take on the Punisher.

Fans of the comic know what I am talking about. The Punisher, aka Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson) was a brutal vigilante who was notable for his high body counts, creative uses of a variety of weapons, high body counts, the number of shots he fired in each issue, and his high body counts.

On the third try, they finally got the Punisher right. His costume is outstanding, with the ghostly skull on his Kevlar making a real impact statement unlike the cheesy T-shirt from the 2004 Thomas Jane bomb The Punisher. 

Unlike the brooding, moody Jane, Stevenson's Punisher indeed seems driven by vengeance but aware of what he is doing. He has developed a network of helpers who identify when, where, and how many mobsters will be gathered. He then shows up to dispense his brand of justice...a high-octane bout of gunfire, physical decimation, and killing.

The movie is a really solid action movie. 

Unfortunately, Dominic West looks like he thinks he is playing a cartoon character. His walk, his facial expressions, vocal inflections, and interactions with Doug Hutchinson move them from "believable, intense villains" status straight to "How in the world did you get (mis)cast for this part?

Still, there is plenty of solid acting, a decent plot, and lots of action that should make non-fanboy status Punisher fans go home happy. Definitely an enjoyable effort despite the ridiculous twosome. 

Naturally, there are a few loose, what happens to the Russians in the climactic hotel shoot-out? We can assume...but it is certainly not clear.

On the bright side, the movie is enjoyable, action packed, avoids becoming maudlin, and has a nice conclusion. If you like good shoot-out movies with a healthy dose of hand-to-hand combat, go see Punisher Warzone. Just ignore the Jigsaw and his gang.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Movie Review:The Transporter 3

Jason Statham is quietly building a very respectable action star resume. A lot of that comes from the Transporter series. 

They all have similarities. Statham plays Frank Martin, a former military special forces guy who works as a transporter. He gets details from people regarding weights, package sizes, and price. He shows up, picks up the package, and delivers it. No questions, no modifications to the deal, no problems.

Obviously he runs into enough problems to have made 3 movies. They are not intended to be realistic. However, if you like high-octane adventure stories with a lot of car chases (and in this case bike chases), improbable stunts that are eye-catching and pleasing, basic plots that give you a clear-cut bad guy and plenty of fun, then these movies should work very well for you.

Frank, as usual, relies on Inspector Tarconi (Francois Berleand) to do the technical work and be his ace in the hole as he works to deliver the package. In a surprise to nobody in the audience, the package turns out to be the girl Valentina (Natalya Rudakova).

Frank drives maniacally to elude everyone chasing him, puts on a couple very entertaining martial arts shows, demonstrates the agility of his car, and saves the day.

The one quibble would be the mystery of the appearing window. Sure, the movie is not meant to be realistic. Nevertheless, there was still the glaring continuity error of the window Frank kicks out reappearing and disappearing during the gas station stop, only to reappear for good. 


When that is the biggest was an entertaining flick. If you like action or car chases or bike chases, this movie will entertain you.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Movie Review:Four Christmases

Holiday movies. They are omnipresent it seems. Some are good, others are not... they are smarmy and predictable. Smarmy and predictable can work. Shrek the Halls is enjoyable if not necessarily the "instant classic" it has been anointed. Then again...How the Grinch Stole Christmas is brutal but well loved for some reason that eludes me.

What differentiates Shrek the Halls from smarm that is take it or leave it fare is they remembered to put in some humor. That is a formula for entertaining Christmas fare.

Four Christmases (2008) manages to be smarmy, predictable, and still fun. Brad (Vince Vaughn) and Kate (Reese Witherspoon) get off some pretty good one liners, there are laughs to be had with family interactions, pee on a stick in a mouth, and so forth.

At the same time, there is some heart in the flick. It is bizarre, smarmy heart that leaves you wondering if you really just saw that...but it is heart.

So we have a holiday movie with a few laughs. If you expect anything else, you will be disappointed. If you are looking for brilliant, incisive dialogue or if you are looking for an intricate, intelligent plot then you will be sadly disappointed. 

But if you want feel-good holiday fare with a few laughs, you should see this movie.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Movie Review:Bolt

From the first trailers I have looked forward to seeing Bolt (2008), a non-Pixar Disney animated feature. The wait was worth it.

Bolt (John Travolta) is a puppy rescued from a shelter by Penny (Miley Cyrus). 5 years later, he is the star of a television show aptly titled Bolt. Bolt and Penny, in an aggressive knock-off of Inspector Gadget Meets Lassie, engage in adventures to find Dr. Calico (Malcolm McDowell) who kidnapped Penny's father and sends endless hordes of helicopters, motorcycles, and henchman to capture Penny.

Each carefully scripted episode is done to keep Bolt from realizing he is acting. As a result, he thinks the adventures are real and he has superpowers; he can leap incredible distances, melt things with his heat vision, and has a super-bark.

One day the network demands a change in format so the next episode ends in a cliff-hanger that leaves Penny captured. Bolt, desperate to rescue her, escapes. Through an entertaining series of events, he is air-mailed from Hollywood to New York.

There, he captures the cat Mittens (Susie Essman) and together they begin making their way back to Hollywood. Along the way they pick up Rhino (Mark Walton), a Hamster who loves the show Bolt and believes Bolt has super powers.

Numerous jokes ensue as the trio makes their way across country. Along the way Mittens stops being a captive and starts being a friend, Bolt figures out he is not really super-powered and starts being a "real dog" and the jokes fly fast and furious. Ultimately he rescues Penny, Mittens and Rhino find a home, and everyone is happy.

This movie works on many levels. It is cute for the kids, funny for the adults, and has a nice, if predictable, story. The pigeons will remind many of the Animaniacs and certainly add to the story. The surface message about cats and dogs getting along (different breeds, different people) is nice and heart-warming.

The underlying message is better, though. Enough already of 2 things; 1) thinking the audience has to have totally committed actors, the price is too high, and 2) let kids have real childhoods. Stop pushing them so hard.

Overall, a very good experience. Go see it or I will send Rhino to snap your neck.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Movie Review:RocknRolla

As a general rule, I am not a director-driven movie watcher. I seldom find that enjoying one of a director's works automatically means I will enjoy other works he puts out. A fine example would be Peter Jackson. I loved the Lord of the Rings franchise but would rank King Kong among the worst efforts I have seen in recent years.

Conversely, disliking one movie they helm may dissuade me from seeing others if it is their first work I have seen. I was not overly enamored of Snatch (2000) and as a result did not see some of his other efforts. Guy Ritchie has developed a reputation as not the most accessible of directors and as someone who is an acquired taste.

That kept me away from RocknRolla (2008) until almost too late, the last day it was in local theatres when my desire for Kettle Corn overcame my desire not to see another stink bomb akin to We Own the Night.

Pity. Rock is a smart, funny flick with some very sharp acting. Oh, sure, some of it is pick and punch stock characters...the silent, yet capable muscle behind THE MAN, the self-important gangster boss, the foreign interloper outsmarting the local guy...but the roles were played so well I really did not care.

Rock is several stories that intertwine because they involve the same characters. Mini subplots are woven in such a way they all make sense either individually or as part of the larger tapestry of the overall movie.

One Two (Gerard Butler), Mumbles (Idris Elba) and Handsome Bob (Tom Hardy) are a small time crew who sometimes work for gangster Lenny Cole (Tom Wilkinson). Lenny engages in real estate scams. When he prevents One Two and Mumbles from garnering planning for a deal they are putting together, he puts them in a financial hole.

They climb out of it using information given them by Stella (Thandie Newton), the accountant for the Russian mobster also involved with Lenny. Using her tip, they steal a payment intended for Lenny which puts the permits on hold, the Russian in a hole, and Lenny unable to come through. Meanwhile, Lenny's estranged, strung-out step-son Johnny Quid (Toby Kebbell) steals the Russian's "lucky painting" from Lenny.

Lenny sets his strong-man Archie (Mark Strong) on a search for the painting.

In the end, everyone is looking for someone...the Wild Bunch is looking for the informer putting them in prison, the Russian is looking for the traitor in his organization, Archie is looking for the Wild Bunch, his former managers are looking for Johnny Quid, Johnny is looking for...something...and some mob strong-arm guys are looking for the guys who boosted the money they were couriering.

The resolution is satisfying, makes sense, and leaves it wide open for a sequel.

This is a tightly-scripted movie with some particularly strong performances, especially Toby Kebbell. The framing is well done, the cinematography alternately beautiful at times and dark and gritty at others. You have to think a little to follow the story and parse out the meanings of all the interactions, but in the end it is very worthwhile and highly entertaining. This movie should have had a better reaction from the movie-going public.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Movie Review: Role Models

Seann William Scott is often entertaining, though he is prone to the occasional Evolution (2001) or Dude, Where's My Car? (2000). Still, even in those train wrecks he was entertaining, they just had horrendous scripts. 

In Role Models Scott plays Wheeler, the costume wearing representative for Minotaur energy drinks. His partner Danny Donahue (Paul Rudd) is a guy with a gorgeous girlfriend Beth (Elizabeth Banks), a job as spokesman for Minotaur, and a hatred for everyone and everything in life.

In his best scene in the movie, he says what we are all thinking about the names for the drink sizes at certain nameless coffee shops. Enough of the Venti nonsense. Really. 

Unfortunately, he does so in rather annoying ways. As likable as Wheeler is, Donahue is exactly that annoying. The only mystery about Beth breaking up with him is not why she did not do it is why she ever got together with him in the first place.

So when Donahue throws a fit on-stage and follows it up by driving the Minotaur truck onto a school statue, he and Wheeler are sentenced to community service. Inexplicably, 2 guys who committed their crimes in and around a school are allowed to perform their community service around children. 

Wheeler is matched up with foul-mouthed Ronnie Shields (Bobb'e J. Thompson) while Donahue is matched up with fantasy geek Augie Farks (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). 

Numerous jokes follow, but unfortunate numbers of them come back to 2 things; 1) Ronnie saying inappropriate things which apparently are funnier coming from the mouth of a 10 year old, and 2) Augie plays live action medieval war games.

The funniest role belongs to ex-(?) cocaine addict Gayle Sweeney (Jane Lynch), the founder and directer of the organization Sturdy Wings that puts the criminals and the kids together. She gets off some very funny lines and pornographic bits involving wrapped hot dogs.

At some point Wheeler and Donahue make the predictable switch from "just doing time to stay out of jail" to actually caring about the kids. 

Over-all, if you think profanity from little kids is a joke in and of itself, think 30-somethings being jerks is funny, and like lots of drug use jokes, this movie will hit your funny bone hard. If not, maybe wait for the next effort. 

Friday, November 14, 2008

Movie Review: Quantum of Solace

The latest release in the James Bond franchise is a first; the first sequel in the entire run. It is a sequel to Casino Royale (2006). One thing about sequels...if you are going to do one, either use the same director or else use another director who has the same vision as you do.

Martin Campbell was a quite serviceable director. His action sequences were crisp and allowed you to have a sense of what was going on and why. Marc Forster clearly did not go to the same editing school.

Quantum of Solace starts out brilliantly. The opening sequence is innovative and fun, a definite visual treat for fans of special effects. The opening action sequence, however, was what really set the tone. 

In a high-octane car chase you are simply thrown into, Bond makes his harrowing way across a mountain into a town, wiping out numerous opponents on the way. Of course, you mostly have to realize it is his enemies who die in the various crashes because A) Bond ain't gonna die and B) you later see him walking around. 

The editing is atrocious. Remember the classic tracking shot in On the Waterfront that really set the standard for maintaining continuity in a shot, eclipsed only by Hitchcock's rope? This movie is the antithesis. Director Forster seems to think good action storytelling means hyper-active jump cuts, a pulsing, overriding sound track, and more rapid, jarring cuts.

At no point in this or, to be honest, any action scene do we really get an opportunity to sit back and enjoy what we are seeing. Again and again random arms are extended with guns, knives, or fists, bodies fall, and another 6 cuts are thrown across the screen.

Combine the rapid cutting with a bizarre, meandering story that is neither very complex nor easy to follow. Broken down, it goes something like this:

Camille (Olga Kurylenko) wants revenge on Bolivian dictator to be General Medrano (Joaquin Cosio) for raping her sister and mother and killing them along with her father. She intends to get to him through Quantum member Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric).

Greene is putting Medrano in power in order to make money selling water rights. He is keeping the CIA away by promising them the oil they think he has found.

Bond (Danile Craig) is using Greene to get to Vesper Lynd's (Eva Green) boyfriend. His name? I am not sure. I mean, he has less than 2 minutes of screen time at the end of the film, that come seemingly out of nowhere, one can only assume the information given to Bond by Greene? That is my best guess.

M (Judi Dench) is trying to figure out whether Quantum exists and if so who they are and whether she can trust Bond.

Enter explosions, car chases, foot chases, gunfire, a boat chase, more gunfire, more foot chases, death via oil (!), and approximately 12 billion cuts lasting 2 seconds or less to make you think you saw something.

Open memo to directors: shaky camera work, rapid cuts, and showing small snippets of action does not good storytelling make. In fact, it can take otherwise acceptable storytelling and turn it into a train wreck.

This movie had the potential to be really good. Instead, it turned into a barely comprehensible story full of meaningless deaths, pointless action, and little entertainment. Boo hiss, even with the abominable Moonraker as part of the conversation, this one is a serious contender for worst entry in the Bond franchise. Very disappointing. 

I know I keep coming back to it, but I cannot say it strongly enough; directors, if you are going to lure us in with promise of an action movie...let us SEE THE ACTION! 

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Movie Review: Madagascar:Escape to Africa

Every so often there is a movie preview that has you laughing, has you thinking, "This is going to be a great movie that I will love!" Then the movie comes along, you watch it, and head home for a long bath as you try to clean off the stench of the disappointment. Meet Madagascar (2005), a movie that had tremendous vocal talent, a good premise, great trailers, and a horrible script. It was lacking laughs and, while on a later viewing may not cause me to want to gouge out my eyeballs for merely having seen it, was at first blush a huge, Shrek the Third-like disappointment, though it did precede the latter title which shall not be named again here.

The previews for Madagascar:Escape to Africa (2008) were merely okay. Maybe my standards of expectations were lowered by having seen the first train wreck, but be that as it may, this was a movie I wanted to see. 

The best elements from the first movie were not only retained, they were turned into the focal point. We got to see much more of the Penguin commando team, the debonair-yet-repulsive monkeys, Melman's (David Schwimmer) compulsiveness, the interplay between Marty (Chris Rock) and Alex (Ben Stiller) with the fun-loving nature of Marty in full effect full effect full effect full effect...see the movie, that joke actually makes sense. 

Even Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen) gets an expanded role, and it is much funnier than his first, though I do not know there is another "I like to Move it move it" song in this one to catch people's attention.

This movie has some killer visuals, with great animation, tight dialogue, a good story that will keep you interested and entertained. There are some great cameos from the first movie you might not expect and ultimately the simple yet heart-warming story comes to a nice conclusion. This is definitely a sequel that blows away the original from an entertainment standpoint.

Movie Review:Zack and Miri Make a Porno

For some inexplicable reason, the marketing campaign for Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008) has had a hitch in its giddy-up. Apparently someone, somewhere thinks "porno" is a dirty word that cannot be said on television. I am guessing they missed the Season 11 Simpsons episode with the following exchange:

Homer: "So what are you working on?"
College Nerd: "A device that lets you surf for porn a million times faster."
Marge: "Why would anyone need that much porn?"
Homer (drooling):"Mmmmm....million times faster."

Furthermore, if porn/porno is not able to be said on "free" television, they apparently missed the entire run of Friends in which, if it did not show up in EVERY episode, one suspects the word did not miss that frequency by much, thank you Joey. 

Anyhow, if you don't know what to expect from a movie made by Kevin Smith, perhaps knowing Seth Rogen of the Judd Apatow movie factory is involved. Anytime Rogen or any of the Apatow crew is involved, here is a handy checklist of things you can expect to see/hear/experience:

- gratuitous nudity, both male and female
- celebration of same
- a wide vocabulary used to refer to genitalia, sex acts, sex desires, sex, sex thoughts, sex positions, sex....well, I think you get the point.
- a boat load of profanity
- crudity
- more gratuitous nudity
- celebration of drug or alcohol use, or both

Anyone who has not figured that out yet has not been paying attention. Of course, one other thing they do is make stuff people like to laugh at. That is their specialty.

So with that in mind, we get Zack and Miri. It is the story of two room mates who have been friends for decades, but just platonic friends. They both work minimum wage dead-end jobs, just killing time. But they are getting deeper and deeper in debt. 

They are in such dire straits that their water and electricity gets turned off. 
After a disastrous trip to a High School reunion they return home and decide to make a porn movie as a way to make some easy money. First, they talk about how having sex with each other will be "just business".

The heart of the comedic portion of the movie has to do with finding a location, camera, and actors, making a script, and shooting the movie. Along the way a variety of problems crop up. Among the problems is a growing jealousy as Zack and Miri each separately realize they don't want the other to have "random, meaningless sex" with someone other than them. 

You have seen this movie before. You have heard most, if not all, of these jokes before, although perhaps not in this order. Ultimately, there are a decent number of laughs, though not as big as you might expect, and a predictable love-story ending which is not necessarily a bad thing. The Break-up ending was not predictable...and not very good, either. It actually kind of killed the movie. So yeah, sometimes predictable is good.

Overall, this movie had a lot of promise and it is possible big Kevin Smith or Seth Rogen fans will love it. As a casual observer of their stuff, I think I was actually disappointed. 

Friday, October 31, 2008

Movie Review:Eagle Eye

If there is anything we have learned from movies like Terminator, I Robot, and so forth, it is that computers designed to make people happy will ultimately turn on the people and attempt to conquer/kill/make slaves of them.

If there is anything we have learned from movies such as Enemy of the State, The Handmaids' Tale, or 1984 it is that governments with access to surveillance technology will mis-use and abuse those powers.

If there is anything we have learned from a century of Hollywood it is that the industry is derivative.

Hence we have Eagle Eye (2008), the convergence of Terminator, I Robot, Enemy of the State, and 1984.

The movie starts by following Jerry Damon Shaw (Shia LaBeouf), a shiftless slacker who scams his co-workers out of small stakes at poker, hasn't seen his brother in a couple years, and refuses to accept money from his apparently well-off family even though he is behind on rent and overdrawn at the bank.

We also meet Rachel Holloman (Michelle Monaghan), a struggling single mother sending off her son Sam (Cameron Boyce) to Washington DC on a band tour.

Together the two of them are manipulated into a series of set-piece action bits that are highly entertaining. At one point, in a field in the middle of nowhere, falling electrical powerlines create the danger in a scene eerily reminiscent of the famous crop-duster scene in North by Northwest. Oddly, one thing never resolved is how a computer could force those power lines to snap and fall...but if you are going to investigate plot holes, this movie is the wrong one for you.

Instead, it is a glitzy, fast-paced, adrenaline packed thrill fest with a mild shock as to who the villain is and why Jerry and Damon are the victims.

Meanwhile, they are being chased by Agent Thomas Morgan (Billy Bob Thornton), a sharp minded yet ineffectual pursuer who is always one step behind. In the big finale he provides the opportunity and motivation for Jerry to make the last-second save to keep the entire command structure of the U.S. from being killed using a rather clever bomb designed to combine Sam's trombone with a diamond necklace worn by Rachel.

The movie is entertaining and will leave you smiling. Sure, it takes the bounds of reality and believability and stretches them like Homer Simpson's all-you-can-eat pants...but that is beside the point. It is designed to critique the Patriot Act and over the top government surveillance while providing an entertaining action flick. It delivers on that premise in spades.

The acting is very well done, particularly by Billy Bob Thornton. He tends to take some quirky roles in off-beat movies...Bad Santa, Sling Blade, Bandits...and yet he can deliver in a serious role such as this one. LaBeouf is generally entertaining if somewhat one-note in his delivery and Monaghan, despite some cheesy lines, delivered on what she had to work with.

With the exception of the first chase scene the photography was excellent. In fact, my biggest quibble with the movie was the use of many jump cuts to create tension rather than showing what was going on. I thought that section was very poorly edited. They made up for it later with some spectacular shots so all is forgiven.

If you are a fan of the Action genre, take a look, you will like this movie.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Movie Review:Max Payne

Time and time again people think bringing video games to the big screen. Typically they try to emulate part of what made a video game famous. Sometimes this works well, though still not getting past the level of forgettable...say, Doom. Other times it makes you want to gouge out your eyes with an ice pick in a vain attempt to rid yourself of the heinousness of what you subjected yourself to; Super Mario Brothers comes to mind. Most fall somewhere in between.

Max Payne (2008) makes Super Mario Brothers look like great cinema. From the horrific acting to the bizarre, meandering, non-sensical storyline (or lack thereof) to the predictable climax, this movie is a mess.

Shot in dark tones, it strives for the film noir feel. It wants to be gritty, dirty and violent. It comes out dreary, depressing and full of head cheese.

Payne follows the story of Detective Max Payne (Mark Wahlberg), stuck in the Cold Case division of homicide 3 years after the murder of his wife and baby. He lost everything, including his will to live and his partner.

Events lead him to discover clues to the case, though each clue is accompanied by the death of someone he was in contact with, thus making him appear guilty of murdering his former partner, a random girl he meets at a party, a guy from the company his wife worked at, and retroactively, his wife.

In some weak, derivative action sequences he gets the file with the info, goes to where a drug gone awry is manufactured, kills lots of people, then kills the "surprise" villain.

The action sequence in the club is the best part of the movie. It is also a fine opportunity to refill your popcorn tub and soda...because it is not very good.

The best part is a slow-motion sequence (possibly lifted direct from the game) in which Payne does a back flip to shoot a guy in the head with his shotgun. Meanwhile, his assailant...a highly trained soldier wielding a fully automatic machine gun...misses him by a good 10'. Whatever.

In short, if you are a fan of badly acted, poorly shot movies with weak scripts and bad action sequences, this movie is for you. Conversely, if movies with tacked-on Norse mythology, shaky motives, boring action sequences, and counter-intuitive actions by vital characters are not your thing, just see Hitman...not a great video game movie, but exponentially better than this steaming pile of monkey droppings.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Movie Review:Appaloosa

A good Western can be a tough sell. Then again, a good Western can be tough to make. But Ed Harris took a stab at it, directing himself as Marshall Virgil Cole who, along with his partner Hitch (Viggo Mortenson) tours the country taking on peace-keeping jobs for hire.

Cole has his own set of rules which are of questionable legality but unquestioned effectiveness. When Marshall Joe Bell (Robert Jauregi) is murdered by Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), he brings those rules and Hitch to the town of Appaloosa to bring peace to the town.

In Appaloosa he becomes enamored of widowed, loose-moraled Allison French (Renee Zellwegger). She threatens to drive a wedge between Cole and Hitch, though this is resolved when they chase Bragg after he escapes. There is a shoot-out, they recapture Bragg and things seem set aright.

However, Bragg manages to gain a pardon through political connections. In order to save Cole's job, Hitch kills Bragg and rides off into the sunset.

The plot, such as it is, is rather simple; can a woman come between 2 friends with different reasons for being lawmen? But the path to get there is entertaining. The slow pace of the movie gives you time to enjoy the interplay between Cole and Hitch, between Cole and French, and between Bragg and Cole. There are several fun lines and it avoids stereotypical Western climaxes: the shootouts exist but are not central to the plot nor particularly memorable.

Instead this is a buddy picture masquerading as a Western. If you like Westerns you will like Appaloosa.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Movie Review:Body of Lies

The previews for Body of Lies (2008) seemed to be built around the conceit that either Roger Ferris (Leonardo DeCaprio) or Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe) was a mole in the CIA who was actually working for the terrorists. This assumption of course could not be made by anyone who has read the book it is based on, but that is beside the point.

While action packed, Body  takes a while to hit its stride. Ferris is a knowledgeable Middle East operative who works under Hoffman. Hoffman tends to keep his field operatives in the dark and run multiple operations simultaneously, some of which interfere with each other.

When Ferris tries to bring in an informant, Hoffman refuses. The informant is caught so Ferris kills him so he cannot reveal who Ferris is. Against Hoffman's orders, he and his partner go to raid a safe house. The partner ends up getting killed and Ferris badly hurt. When he recovers he heads to Jordan where he falls for an Iranian nurse named Aisha (Golshifteh Farahani). Meanwhile, the head of Jordanian security named Hani (Mark Strong)  and Ferris try to work together. Repeated interference by Hoffman causes them massive problems. It comes to a head when Hani will not turn over control of his informant inside the terrorist cell to Hoffman. First, however, Hani and Ferris work together on a safe house project.

Together they try to track users of an Al Quaeda splinter group safe house in an attempt to find mastermind terrorist Al-Saleem (Alon Abutbul). When the safe house is burned down they lose their lead. Convinced Ferris knew about the operation Hoffman had ordered that caused the disaster, Hani throws Ferris out of Jordan. 

Ferris concocts a plan to make an innocent architect named Omar Sadiki (Ali Suliman) look like a terrorist mastermind in an attempt to make Al-Saleem reveal himself out of jealousy. The plan works to an extent but Al-Saleem kills Sadiki when he realizes Sadiki was a pawn. 

Sickened by the mounting losses, Ferris is on the edge of quitting when Aisha is captured. He tried to exchange himself for her. As Saleem and his men prepare to torture Ferris to death, Hani makes the last second rescue. 

Sickened by the continued disposal of innocent people by Hoffman's methods, Ferris quits to stay in Jordan with (presumably) Aisha. 

The action in this movie is excellent, the web of deceit often hard to untangle (I deliberately left out a couple of twists that may or may not surprise you) and the various considerations of each character make enough sense to keep you intrigued with the movie beginning to end. If you like action movies, this is a good choice. If you like thrillers, it is a good choice. If you just like good stories with a bit more complexity than the average cinematic fare, this is the right choice. Overall, a very entertaining flick. 

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Movie Review: Beverly Hills Chihuahua

The previews for Beverly Hills Chihuahua (2008) were built around a rapping dog and a dance number on a pyramid. If that dance number is not on the special features I will be shocked and disappointed because it is hysterical and amusing. A lot of the commercials also revolved around Papi (George Lopez), the heroic Chihuahua who is in love with Chloe (Drew Barrymore).

Chloe is the point of life for Aunt Viv (Jamie Lee Curtis). When Viv goes to Italy for a couple weeks and cannot take Chloe, she leaves Chloe with Rachel (Piper Perabo). Piper is a shiftless, irresponsible girl, presumably late teens or early 20s who seems to do nothing but talk to her friends and party.

The relationship between the 3 is all that is right and all that is wrong about pet ownership. Viv clearly cares for could be argued too much. She spends thousands of dollars on pet care, changes Chloe's clothes several times a day, and so forth. She is way over the top with it and Chloe is a spoiled, miserable mutt as well. At the same time, Rachel is careless about caring for the actual needs of the dog, too lost in her own world to care about the life, animal though it is, that is in her care.

Well, Rachel's friends decide to go to Mexico on an overnight party trip. Rachel leaves Chloe in the room, Chloe sneaks out, gets dog-napped by a ring of dog-fighters, and the chase is on. 

Chloe escapes with the help of Delgado (Andy Garcia). Chased by Diablo (Edward James Olmos), they make their way across Mexico. Meanwhile, helped by landscaper Sam Cortez (Manolo Cardona) and Papi, Rachel tries to trace Chloe.

Along the way they run into a pack rat/iguana team of thieves who provide some nice humor, Chloe and Delgado run into a coyote named...wait for it...Coyote...and eventually there is a conclusion where Chloe is rescued, Rachel and Sam fall in love, and if any of that shocks you then you are pretty obtuse. 

Along the way they get off some vague morality tales about the errors inherent in anthropomorphizing Chihuahuas, responsibility, rescuing animals instead of getting purebreds, and finding good homes for stray animals.

This movie was really good when Papi was on screen and really horrendous when Viv was there. It was highly entertaining when the pack rat and Iguana were on screen as well. More of them, less of Viv, and this movie would have been even better. As it was, it was a fun, light-hearted romp that will be well loved by its target audience of prepubescent kids.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Movie review:Tropic Thunder

Parodies run the gamut. They can be anything from something where they actually develop a story and let the jokes flow out of that, but work in a lot of belly laugh jokes...say, the Airplane or The Naked Gun franchises, to something where simply referencing another movie is thought of as the joke. Somewhere in between are movies that are so full of inside jokes that they end up being at best marginally funny and at worst painful experiences that bring regret to all whom see them. Where does Tropic Thunder fall within this pantheon? It is hard to tell.

It partially depends on how knowledgeable the viewer is about "Hollywood insider" type stuff and how humorous he finds parody. Tropic is full of parody. It starts with some trailers that parody everything from sequels of sequels of sequels that carry on because the former one was successful rather than because it had a story to tell,  to movies that are supposed to be funny because one guy plays multiple parts and farts a lot to movies that use heavy-handed emotion to fool people into thinking a story is actually good.

Then it parodies the over anxiousness of special effects coordinators, the 'star behavior" that is often credited for ruining movies, the overpowered producers, the callousness of Hollywood, the way fictional books are presented as truth and true books are fictionalized, the attempts of actors to win Oscars by playing disabled people, and more. 

At some point you realize the actors are playing to the camera as much as they are to the Tropic Thunder camera. It is a movie within a movie within a movie. They have statements to make about how Hollywood takes itself way too seriously...but they do it by taking themselves too seriously sometimes. Which is odd, because virtually everyone in it parodies himself and is having fun with it.

There are a few laughs in the movie but they are mostly the type where you mainly smile inwardly and move on. 

This movie could have been great and no doubt many people will think it is but if you don't like to look beyond the service this is not the movie for you.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Movie Review:My Best Friend's Girl

Dane Cook is a polarizing figure for comedy fans. Some love him, think he is hilarious, and will see anything he is in. Others regard him as an unfunny jokeless "comedian". I fall somewhere in the middle. I think he could be funny and does a good job of acting...he just has made poor script choices in his movie roles. And yes, I realize the movie roles are different than the critiques of his stand-up.

In My Best Friend's Girl (2008) we meet Tank (Dane Cook), a guy who embodies every stereotype of the arrogant male...interested only in sex, doesn't care about the girl, has no comprehension of how to treat her nice. Theoretically it is a role for Tank. It is his job. He gets paid by dumped boyfriends to show their girlfriends how good they had actually had it with their ex-boyfriend, and then of course the girls would run back to their spurned boyfriend and end up marrying them.

Unfortunately, his over the top crudity does not come across as Jackass just comes across as jackassery. It is not funny. It still manages to be repulsive.

His roommate is Dustin (Jason Biggs). In theory, Dustin is the prototypical "nice guy". When he is given the "let's just be friends" spiel by Alexis (Kate Hudson) he turns to Tank to do his magic. Naturally, Tank and Alexis fall for each other and hilarity ensues. At least, that is how they drew it up. They just forgot to include the hilarity. Or to make Dustin sympathetic.

Actually, he comes across as pathetic. Cloying. Obnoxious. Irritating. Unworthy even of Alexis who is none to desirable herself as portrayed in this film. You kind of get the feeling Tank and Alexis deserve each other. And that Dustin deserved nobody. 

So as the story goes along Tank and Alexis are mutual booty calls who somehow fall in love, Dustin and Tank fight over it, then get back together as friends and the movie (thankfully) ends.

Probably the most interesting thing about the movie was watching the people change into each other.

At the beginning of the movie, Dustin wants a relationship, not sex. He chases Alexis at every opportunity for this very purpose. Yet at the end of the movie he could not care less about building relationships, being a nice guy, or anything like that, he has become Tank in that he is pretty much a random philanderer.

 At the beginning of the movie Tank is quite the philanderer who has a rule; none of the skanks he brings home for sex can stay over;they have to leave after the sex. He says horrible things to the girls he wants to sleep with. And it somehow works for him. Alexis is very sweet, prim, and proper. 

Yet by middle of the flick it is Alexis who, after sex, tells Tank to leave because tomorrow is a work day, using almost the same words he used to kick out girls. Tank has become both the girls he used and also Dustin, the sad, pathetic, guy who wants a relationship, not just sex.

Alexis starts out wanting a sweet relationship, just not with Dustin...and ends up becoming a Tank clone in many ways.

What was the movie trying to say with the inversion of roles? Frankly, the movie was so boring it never really mattered. It was unfunny, uninteresting, and I would have felt ripped off if I had seen it via a free Red Box rental. Spare your eyes from this travesty.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Movie Review:Igor

Picking up on the idea proposed by the Shrek franchise and its more forgettable cousin Happily N'Ever After (2006), Igor (2008) takes the view of the classic villain, in this case the assistant to the evil mad scientist, and makes that movie.

Shrek (Mike Myers) is the best villain-as-hero of all time, but even he falls victim to the same trap Igor (John Cusack) falls into; he is not really a villain, he is just misunderstood. Igor has a heart of gold under his surface desire to be an evil scientist.

Stuck serving under defective mad scientist Dr. Glickenstein (John Cleese), Igor secretly works to invent evil inventions. Sadly, he is best at creating misshapen life; Brain (Sean Hayes) and Scamper (Steve Buscemi). Brain is so dumb he spells his name "Brian" and Scamper was unfortunately made immortal...but wants to die so he keeps committing suicide, only to reanimate moments later.

One of the best jokes in the entire movie is the tire tracks running across Scamper's belly. But there are a lot of other good jokes and several laughs. There is also some tremendous voice and comedic talent. Sadly, a lot of it is wasted; Eddie Izzard as Dr. Shadenfreuede has a horrific role as a stereotypical villain...yes, in a movie where a villain is the hero there is a villain...and another one...and another one.

Anyhow, Igor rolls out, overcomes obstacles, makes his evil invention. So far, so good. The normal roles are inverted. Unfortunately, his evil invention proves to be good. Fortunately, it turns out Igor is not evil at heart...he just wants to invent, so he turns the kingdom back from evil and ends up happy with his good invention.

The best jokes come from the inverted paradigm where evil is preferred and it just depends on what level of evil you are successful at to be successful in the kingdom. The worst jokes and least entertainment come from trying to insert a classic villain into this setting. He just doesn't work.

And saddest of all, the turning of Igor to classic "good guy" weakens the result. This movie verged on greatness and ended up just being another forgettable entry into the field of animation.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Movie Review:Bangkok Dangerous

What is it about arguably great actors...or at the very least, highly entertaining actors...where they feel compelled to show up in hairstyles so bad they make Telly Savalas look fashionable? Tom Hanks infliced us with the pseudo-mullet in The DaVinci Code (2006) and now, proving he learned nothing from the follicly challenged Con Air (1997), Nicholas Cage is back to show that bad hair can't ruin a good movie or save a bad one.

I suspect nobody had their viewing pleasure of either Davinci or Con by the mistakes in the head department. Both were eminently enjoyable for their target audiences. Conversely, the hair can't save Bangkok Dangerous (2008).

Joe (Nicholas Cage) is the unbelievably dumb assassin who rolls into Hong Kong for a few jobs for his new Thai clients. Joe has rules such as don't ask questions. Unfortunately, he only occasionally plans out his assassinations and accepts jobs for whenever or wherever the clients suggest. This, of course, means he would be very easy to set up should his clients so choose since they would know when and where the hit is being performed.

For example, when he is told to whack a gangster at the Sheraton while making it look like an accident he is forced to drown the guy more or less in plain view of everyone, though oddly his deed goes unnoticed.

When another hit goes bad on the waterways, he does not call it off but instead engages in a high-profile, high-speed chase through the waterways and ends by pulling the trigger in plain sight, then having a lengthy pose so anyone who might desire can photograph it.

Along the way, Joe breaks his own rules and takes on Kong (Shahkrit Yamnarm) as his student. Since he normally kills his errand boys, this is a step up morally speaking. Yes, teaching someone how to commit murder is a positive step...that tells you something about the theme of this movie.

But along the way, Joe falls for a local pharmacist, Fon (Charlie Yeung). She is mute so their communication is non-verbal which, in conjunction with the constant questions of Kong, reawaken his conscience.

This moves him into a new world. Ultimately, however, the final job of his career, the one that will make him rich, turns out to be a job he will not do. Fearful of betrayal, the gangsters kidnap Kong and Aom (Panward Hemmanee), the dancer/liaison who has started dating Kong.

Joe goes to rescue them which leads to the third action packed set piece and an ending that has him contemplating suicide. To understand his choice it is vital to understand the symbols of the movie.

Early on, Kong points out that an elephant trunk pointing down is emblematic of bad luck. As his relationships with Fon and King develop, Joe moves into a new world. In the world of the assassin he is emotionless, has no relationships, and is always prepared to move to the next job.

Now, however, he has a pseudo-friendship with Kong, he has a budding relationship with Fon, and he is starting to become part of the Thai culture. Emblematic of this, he makes a connection with a live elephant and then turns the elephant picture upside down...which turns its trunk right side up.

Later, Fon's deafness proves a problem as when 2 random guys try to mug Joe, he kills them both. Fon has her back turned and hears nothing, simply turns when blood splatters her and turns to see 2 dead men and Joe with a gun in her hand. She then rejects him.

Unfortunately, now Joe is part of a world that, through Fon, has rejected him but is no longer part of the world of killers. This is pointed out through the use of mirrors. Early on, he shows Kong that mirrors are all around them. Yet when he stops by the house of Fon on the way to rescue Kong, he fails to use the obvious mirror on his car and thus does not see she has repented of her acceptance of him.

Believing the Thai world and the world of happiness with Fon can never be, no longer an assassin, he rescues Kong whom he sees as a younger version of himself.

Of course, if Kong retakes the path Joe took, he can never continue the relationship with Aom. Thus ultimately Joe must die in order for Kong to have a new path that does not end up in the world of the assassin.

Too bad the movie never really sets up that way.

A dark, gloomy movie, it does have 3 action-packed, gunfire filled set-pieces, but they are pretty plain, by the numbers pieces that don't deliver on the promise. We have seen better boat/motorcycle chases in the James Bond, Italian Job, Bad Boys, and other franchises. We have seen better gunfights thousands of times. There is nothing really original or even exciting. The camera work is okay but too often replaces great shots with rapid cuts to convey movement and excitement.

This movie bombed at the box office and deserved to do so. If you like dark action, go see The Dark Knight again. If you life fun action, go see Iron Man. If you want a good "assassin who wants to retire after one last job that goes wrong" then check out Assassins (1995). Just don't bother with Bangkok unless you have a free Red Box rental for some reason.

Movie Review:Longshots

The movie poster and trailers for The Longshots (2008) were nothing if not misleading. They portray happy, smiling people taking part in yet another "inspiring sports story of a misfit, fish out of water non-athlete who becomes a star. You expect a certain amount of sappiness, a whole lot of feel-good cheer, and just generally a feel-good story.

Instead, it starts out dreary and gets much, much worse before getting better...sort of.

Curtis Plummer (Ice Cube) is a guy who has pretty much lost everything. Once a star football player, he blew out his knee and got a job in a factory. When the factory closed, he basically gave up on life. He spends his time with homeless guys hanging around the local trashed out football field with other homeless guys. His daily routine includes taking money out of his "Get out of Minden" fund to buy another beer.

Meanwhile, his niece Jasmine Plummer (Keke Palmer) is a loner/loser who does little except pine for her father Roy (Malcolm Goodwin) who ran off several years prior. She is picked on by the other kids, loses herself in her books, and is basically crawling through life.

When Claire Plummer (Tasha Smith) has to take extra hours as a waitress to make ends meet, she turns to Curtis to watch Jasmine. Curtis is so far beyond being a decent guy that he holds out until Claire offers him 5 bucks an hour to watch his niece.

It does not go well as Jasmine and Curtis not only do not hit it off, he shows a mastery of the ability to say the wrong thing at the wrong time, sending her ever further into a dark spiral.

Finally he gives up on trying and takes her to the park. In one of those movie cliches, she picks up an errant football and proves to have a natural talent for throwing.
So Curtis starts teaching her how to quarterback. How to grip the ball. How to cock. How to throw. Naturally she is great.

After a brief time where the coach will not replace his inept quarterback, Jasmine gets her shot. The Minden Browns start winning.The spectator totals explode. Well, they at least go from a half dozen people to maybe 20....
As word spreads of Jasmine's exploits, the media starts paying attention. Using the idea the media needs to see more of Minden than run-down streets, Reverend Pratt (Garrett Morris) convinces people to get together and clean up the town.

As the Minden Browns make their improbable run to the Pop Warner Super Bowl, Roy makes an untimely reappearance, Curtis replaces the ill coach, and everyone has something to solve.

For Curtis, he needs to fulfill the statement he made to Jasmine: "When you find something you are good at, you have to pursue it and don't let nothing stop you."

Jasmine has to realize that Roy is worthless and she needs to move on with her life.

Minden needs to regain their town pride since the factory is not coming back.

Coach Fisher (Matt Craven) needs to let his son know that he is proud of him.

What, did that just seem thrown in? Well...lots of things were just "thrown in" in this movie. Like the iconic moment when the Browns are celebrating their unity and the camera holds on a black hand and a white hand clasped together in unity. Now, nothing wrong with that...except that theme was nowhere else in the movie and when you see it, there is no question a statement being made. Great statement...completely out of the blue and random. Jasmine's hand being there would have meant more. And easily recognizable via her Dad's watch which she never takes off.

Or the crowd assembling when the Browns return from the Super Bowl. Or out of nowhere Coach telling his boy how proud he is of him and how proud he is.

Ironically, Curtis is the only one who does not achieve his goal. He proves to be a GREAT coach. Yet when he is offered a presumably decent paying job in his dream town of Miami, he turns it down to return to Minden and no future. While his reasoning of being there for Jasmine is honorable, it is a contradiction of the movies themes of people needing to get to better places.

Ultimately, the outright misery and depression of the first hour and change of this movie is just too much to overcome and what could have been a nice, enjoyable niche film is just too dreary.

A lot of that needs to be laid at the feet of first-time director Fred Durst, better known as the lead singer for Limp Bizkit. The filming is inconsistent, at times having the clear, smooth feel of being shot on digital video and other times looking as if it were shot on extremely grainy film. Themes are introduced and then ignored. Resolutions occur to questions that aren't asked.

And the advertising was highly misleading.

This might be worth a Netflix, but there is no need to see this in the theatre.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Movie Review:Death Race

Roger Corman was famous for making inexpensive movies of questionable quality that made money because of their appealing factors...scantily clad women, extreme violence, and other segments of exploitation. One of his cult favorites was Death Race 2000 (1975), an extremely violent depiction of a race where pedestrians are worth points and a driver's odds of surviving are not good. Someone decided this was such a good idea it needed an update so they cribbed the "plot" of The Condemned (2008) and mixed it with Death Race 2000 to give us Death Race.

In 2012 the economy is shot, the prisons are overcrowded, fires burn randomly in major cities, and thje only colors in existence seem to be dark blue, grey, and black. Death Race has all of the visual markers of classic dystopian fare with the grim color schemes, constantly overcast skies, and settings in scenes of urban decay. However, unlike most classic dystopian films such as Brazil, Metropolis, The Handmaid's Tale, The Condemned, The Omega Man, Wall-E, 1984, and so forth, Death Race apparently has nothing to say about society. It is definitely a child of Corman in that the appeal of this movie lies in the violence, the cars, and the babe.

Death Race is the story of Jensen Ames (Jason Statham), an ex-NASCAR racer who lost his license do to some shady dealings. He has a country music type day...the plant where he works shuts down, he gets home to find his wife murdered and himself framed for it. Sentenced to prison for life he is sent to Terminal Island, home of the Death Race.

There he is under the direction of Warden Hennessy (Joan Allen), the by-the-numbers corporate villain who is willing to kill prisoners for good television ratings to make money for her corporation. I suppose that could be the message of the movie if not for the fact the entire line-up of prisoners involved in the Death Races seem to indeed be exactly what you would expect in a maximum security prison for the violent criminal. They are unabashed and unashamed psychopathic killers who race because they like killing people. They do not feel taken advantage of but actually enjoy what they do.

Ames is expected to take the place of secretly deceased masked racer Frankenstein. If he wins the next race Frankenstein will be a 5 time winner and therefore entitled to freedom. However, it is quickly obvious that Hennessy has no intention of allowing her highest ratings earner, Frankenstein, to win a race.

She has even gone so far as to co-opt Frankenstein's navigator Case (Natalie Martinez). Case is a fine example of the exploitation nature. There is no real reason within the Death Race world to have a female navigator brought in. However, in the film-going world, Natalie Martinez is really easy on the eyes in her tight jeans, mid-riff baring and bust enhancing t-shirt so she comes along for the ride.

Ames is driving the real star of Death Race, the fast-back armored Mustang.

As the race goes along, he and rival Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson) kill most of the competitors who are there for cannon fodder with the notable exception of the prisoner who actually killed Jensen's wife who of course must be killed by Ames. The other drivers knock off a couple of each other, and the bizarre addition of the monstrous Guard-driven semi accounts for a couple more. This forces Machine Gun Joe and Ames to team up to eliminate it.

In the end Machine Gun Joe, Case and Ames team up to escape the prison, kill Hennessy and escape to a good life in Mexico.

There are no themes of redemption, though there certainly are themes of vengeance. The movie is not complicated and makes no bones about what it is; a big engine, big gun ride full of big guns, death and destruction with a feel-good ending. If you like that, you should really like Death Race. It doesn't do very much but it is very good at what it does.

Movie Review: The House Bunny

Sometimes you see a movie review and think, "Wow, here is a train wreck I don't want to get within a mile of" but circumstances beyond your control combine to lure you in anyway. As a thirty-something married male I think it is safe to say I am not the target audience for The House Bunny (2008). Nevertheless, off I went to see it.

The opening scenes had a few laughs but were mostly just setting up the character of Shelly (Anna Faris) whose talents lie more in having a hot body, beautiful face, and skills at being sensual than they do in the areas of having a functioning brain.

When the machinations of another Playboy Bunny lead to Shelly thinking she has been kicked out of the house she finds herself homeless and directionless. She lands at a sorority house full of over the top "individualists".

She then shows them how to be more attractive to boys...primarily by wearing fewer clothes, more make-up, and gyrating their hips and breasts while demonstrating less intelligence. Meanwhile, her own attempts to romance Oliver (Colin Hanks) fall flat as she goofs up again and again. At one point after the transformation of the girls is complete there is a "coming out"scene where they show off their new sexy looks.

Ultimately the situation at the Playboy Mansion is straightened out, she is allowed to move back but instead elects to stay at the Sorority House where everyone has learned they don't need to dress provocatively...they just need to be themselves. And yes, it works for Shelly and Oliver as well...

This is not a particularly deep movie but it is a very entertaining one. Shelly has line after line that are hilarious and quotable. In the end, it is just good fun with a surprisingly large number of laughs and a nice feel-good conclusion.
I think you will see from the pictures pretty much the main theme of the movie visually. They try to attach a weak, "Oh, just be yourself" moral at the tail end but it is at best tacked on. Nobody returns to their anti-social modes of dress or over the top nerdiness, but rather retains some of the more typical modes of dress and less negative attitudes in order to remain close enough to mainline society to be likable. This is definitely not a socially conscious movie but it is an entertaining one.

Movie Review:You Don't Mess With the Zohan

Adam Sandler is not known for doing particularly serious work. In fact, the more serious he tries to be, the more critics seem to lam bast him. Nevertheless, he has found his niche. He typically plays immature, directionless losers with good hearts that some event stimulate to change their life for the better. They are generally a bit...well...stupid, but fun nevertheless. They typically provide a decent number of laughs even when you see the jokes coming.

From time to time he steps out a bit and tries something new. I now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (2007) made a more or less serious statement about how gay marriage is perceived and how gays are treated in firefighting. Click (2006) dealt with life, death, and dealing with your spouse. Spanglish (2004) was far and away his most serious, well-rounded role. Gone were the over the top zaniness, the clueless, hapless loser, and in their place were a serious attempt to look at a marriage in trouble and a cultural divide between immigrants. These roles have been atypical.

In You Don't Mess With the Zohan (2008) he returns to the Waterboy (1998)/Anger Management (2003) /Wedding Singer (1998) type of zaniness. As Zohan Dvir (Adam Sandler) he is an Israeli counter-terrorist. He is very good at whatever he does....including catching stuff in his butt-crack and flipping it wherever he wants it to go.

His primary enemy is the Phantom (John Turturro), a Palestinian bombing expert. When the Phantom is traded in a prisoner exchange, Zohan tires of it. He decides the never-ending war is pointless and wants to cut hair instead. So when he is sent after Phantom once more he fakes his death and moves to New York.

There he befriends Oori (Ido Mosseri), a Jewish electronic salesman. I point out he is Jewish because the movie pointedly does, and that points to one of the themes of this movie. There is a very prominent theme to the movie; the ongoing war between the Palestinians and Jews in Israel and Palestine should be resolved and ended in peace. Unfortunately it never makes any attempt to explain how this can be accomplished or any real-world solutions.

Eventually Oori helps Zohan get a job in a Palestinian hair salon working for Dalia (Emmanuelle Chriqui). Slowly he works his way up from floor-cleaner to hair cutter. One of the running jokes has to do with his enormous ah, talent with the ladies. After he cuts each elderly woman's hair he takes them in the back room and nails them. Finally, this brings him to the attention of erstwhile cab-driver Salim (Rob Schneider). Meanwhile, Dalia rejects him because he is Israeli and she is Palestinian even though she has previously stated she likes New York because it doesn't matter if they are Palestinian or Israeli, they are just trying to pay the rent.

This introduces another subplot. Walbridge (Michael Buffer) wants to tear down the "community" of shops and build a mall. To accomplish this he has been raising the rent on the shops to ridiculous levels. Dalia is able to keep paying the rent because of Zohan's success which is threatened by his discovery.

Salim notifies Phantom that Zohan was not dead but was posing as a hair cutter. In the climactic battle it is revealed Phantom is Dalia's brother, Phantom and Zohan put aside their differences to battle the rednecks Walbridge sent to firebomb the shops. Peace is achieved between the Palestinians and Israelites, Zohan and the Phantom...and Salim....all become friends and Dalia and Zohan hook up.

There are a lot of laughs in the movie. The action sequences are deliberately over the top and ridiculous but they are not the point of the movie. It is not meant to be a brilliant movie, just a bunch of fun with some vague sense of social awareness and it delivers on that promise.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Hamlet 2

There is a moment in Hamlet 2 (2008) in which Brie Marschz (Catherine Keener) says to her husband Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan) something along the lines of, "Every so often there is an idea that is so bad it almost becomes good again." If it was not a self-referential line it certainly should have been.

Hamlet 2 follows the story of Dana, a failed actor turned failed drama teacher as his life undergoes a profound change. Driven by an adversarial relationship with his father which seemingly predestined him to failure, he tries to recapture his fleeting glory from life in commercials by producing plays that are copies of popular movies. To show the depths to which he has descended they show a few minutes of his adapted play Erin Brockovich in which his 2 (two) high school drama students try to convincingly play people old enough for her to have multiple marriages and kids. The visual is so ludicrous it threatens to leave the audience in stitches. Fortunately, the deliberately cheesy and horrific acting kept us in our seats. Meanwhile, the tiny audience gives only light applause.

Here they review the caustic review of their play.

Nor is Dana's home life any better. He makes no real money and Brie doesn't either since she stopped dealing drugs. As a result, they have taken in a border named Greg (David Arquette) who is the only one with a paying job or car. Dana roller-skates to class.

Due to budget cuts, the new school year brings a surprise. Instead of merely 2 students, now Dana faces 28, most of them Latino, none of them interested in drama. Soon Dana is told that drama is being cut effective at the end of the semester. Desperate to cling to some vestige of being in show business, he decides to write a play to raise sufficient funds to keep the department alive. He settles on a sequel to Hamlet. Sort of...

The students slowly come together, the project takes on a life of its own, and soon becomes larger than life and incredibly, over the top profane. Rand Posin (Skyler Astin), his long-time stalwart student becomes disgruntled as his role is shrunk and Octavio (Joseph Julian Soria) becomes the unquestioned star. He turns the script in to the principal. Meanwhile, Dana's life is falling apart as his wife leaves him for Greg, he is tossed out of school, and protests threaten to completely shut down production.

In the climax the play is put on in an abandoned warehouse over the protests of the school, other portions of the community, and even the parents of some of the actors. It's controversial nature causes it to become a hit and he ends up with the girl he wants, Elisabeth Shue (Elisabeth Shue...her role is one of the in-jokes in the movie), and a triumphant cast.

This movie is marketed as a comedy and on that score it does deliver. There are plenty of laughs...but some of them are perhaps laughs of embarrassment at the over the top crudity, profanity, and so forth. A pretty good example would be the song, "Rape my Face" which is performed primarily by (supposedly) high school students and discussing rape quite extensively with classy lyrics such as "To talk about rape is never nice, don't use it on a date to break the ice" or something similar. I don't recall the lyrics exactly but the meaning was clear.

And in what is destined to be the most talked about, most controversial section they do the song Sexy Jesus in which they do everything Jesus Christ Superstar was afraid to do one suspects. By the way...seldom have I seen anyone better channel Weird Al Yankovic as Coogan does when playing "sexy Jesus". I did quite a few double-takes, thinking I had seen this before in Weird Al's It's All About the Pentiums video.

You see, though it might be marketed as a comedy and played for laughs, this movie is very much a message he says about his play, it is agit-prop. And it is definitely meant to be.

They go out of their way to offend as many people as possible and they do it deliberately, almost breaking the fourth wall to make sure you understand that offensiveness is the point. Clueless, aggressive ACLU lawyer Cricket Feldstein (Amy Poehler) makes this clear with line after line that is something like, "I married a Jew. That explains the last name.", "Go ahead, hit me, I married a Jew, I have nothing to lose" and so forth.

It is a commentary on lack of funding for the arts...and on how whether the arts are any good is irrelevant. When apparently 10 year old theatre critic Noah Sapperstein (Shea Pepe) is approached for ideas to save the drama program he laments the impending death of theatre and then adds, "But you didn't make anything worth saving." Later, Cricket is walking to her car after telling Dana she will defend his play on free speech grounds. He says, "I think the play might be pretty good." to which she replies, "irrelevant."

I interpreted it as a critique of certain elements of the art world...painting, theatre, movies, music...which produce absolute swill and when people object claim, "We are making art". Just because something is profane or is not understandable does not mean it is good.

Of course, the movie also touched on funding crises which threaten programs such as band, theatre, etc. while leaving athletics untouched. And on pay for teachers. And on race matters. And religious objections to blasphemy. And on...well, there were so many things that even some I meant to remember slipped through the cracks of memory.

Examples of how things were approached are not hard to find. When Dana says his Dad won't let him be in the play, Dana insists on "going to the hood" to tell his Dad what it is. So he charges in only to find Octavio is not a gang-banging violent hoodlum trying to stay in school...he is a 3.9 student already accepted at brown who lives in the rich part of town with his highly successful parents.

In the end, this movie tries to do too much and where they have something to say but don't always know how to say it they rely on driving the "everyone has problems with their Dad" theme through the ground and then centering on time-traveling Jesus as a modern celebrity.

There are moments of brilliance and moments of triteness. You are pretty likely to come away with strong feelings for or against this film when you are done. And probably a lot of quotes.

Monday, August 18, 2008

On audience sophistication

In light of the recent spate of Super Hero movies I have seen numerous Internet conversations which go something like this:

Joe: "Iron Man had a huge plot hole. Why would Stark have the day's paper even though he had not been to the office in a month or so."

Schmoe:"You are watching a movie where a guy uses jerry-rigged parts to keep his heart going that provides more power than an airplane engine, he flies in iron, crashes from a thousand feet in the air without damaged, and you are worried about plot holes?"

The point is pretty clear. As viewers we pick and choose which plot holes matter and which ones don't. In any superhero movie we suspend large chunks of understanding of physics, just as in any Bruce Willis flick we suspend our comprehension of how the world works. But we expect that. We expect Bruce to be able to withstand super-human amounts of punishment and make the world work in unbelievable ways to accomplish his goals.

After the Die Hard series his fans came to expect that so he continued the super-human roles in flicks as diverse as The Last Boy Scout, Sin City and Unbreakable. As a viewer, you intuitively know that Bruce Willis is able to do things "normal" people can't. However, even Willis is able to sometimes break the mold as he did in the Look Who is Talking franchise and even to a large extent in The Whole Nine Yards and its less successful sequel whose name shall not sully this current editorial, Bandits, and so forth.

In other words, the movie audience is willing to wait and see which Willis they are going to see: the one who shrugs off bullets, shoots down helicopters with cabs and outruns collapsing bridges or the one who is always wise-cracking yet ultimately "one of us", a person bound by the laws of nature. He can play both and we will arrive at the theatre in droves to see him in either role.

Yet there are some in Hollywood who apparently believe fans cannot distinguish these types of things. Characters are typecast, put in boxes, and even their real-life personas are expected to conform. There are several examples, but just 2 will exemplify the point perfectly.

Earlier this year there was a huge uproar because Miley Cyrus posed in photos that some found offensive. Maybe they were, maybe they weren't...but the effect they had on her career has been fascinating. See, the problem was not that she posed for them. The problem was someone, somewhere, thought audiences could not distinguish the actions of Miley Cyrus the person from those of Hannah Montana, a fictional character she portrays.

Really? Someone is that naive? This is not the 1960s anymore. Unlike the peccadilloes surrounding George Reeves, people these days certainly have access to plenteous quantities of information about the personal lives of these people. And yes, that applies even to the kids. It is not unusual to see 5 year olds building up Webkins empires, for example. Within a couple of years they certainly are able to, and do, frequent sites that discuss the private lives of super stars and are often contributors to forums.They know the premise of the Hannah Montana show. Yet they are somehow supposed to not be able to differentiate the actions of Miley in her personal life from Miley in her acting life? Is that not the very conceit of the show?

In the same vein, we have the rather shocking rumor that perhaps the reason the next Harry Potter movie has been moved back may have less to do with holes in the schedule from the recent writer's strike and more to do with his role on Broadway where he performs naked?

We as an audience are assumed to be able to comprehend match cuts, dissolves, picture in picture, the meaning of entering a scene via complex dolly pans as opposed to more conventional long shot-medium shot-medium close up-close up sequences, but cannot distinguish the theoretical innocence of Harry Potter, a magic wielding teen, and the rather obvious sexual awareness of Daniel Radcliffe of the real world? Really?

We can easily comprehend complex technical vocabulary that relates states of power or vulnerability by low-angle or high angle shots, we can derive key information regarding character based on amount of focus in a shot, we can subconsciously pick up subtle themes based on how a character's entrances are framed or subtle shadings of color and the soundtrack behind them yet we cannot distinguish an actor's personal life from the characters they portray on the scene?

Isn't that the very point of acting? To make us believe that a rotund midget is extremely dangerous in one role and a lovable uncle type in another such as Danny DeVito has done, Joe Pesci has done, and so forth? In fact, this playing against type has been an art form and career rejuvenating genre at times for guys like Jack Nicholson and Robert DeNiro.

Being stereotyped into just one type of role is a terrifying thing for most actors. How much worse would it be to be removed from some of those roles because of other roles they had performed or even for things in their personal life?

But back to the point. To be sure I skew slightly older than the primary audience for Harry Potter but that does not alter the fact that even the target audience is old enough and smart enough to easily distinguish the naivete of Harry Potter from the worldliness of Daniel Radcliffe just as easily as they are able to figure out that meeting Daniel Craig on the street does not mean they have met an MI6 agent who is licensed to kill.

I am arguing the movie-going audience is smarter than the studios give us credit for. We can distinguish between the character being played on screen and the person playing that character. We have advanced in sophistication past the point where Roy Rogers had to be Roy Rogers off screen as well as on, where George Reeeves WAS Superman.

I would even argue that we are sophisticated enough to accept someone else as Joker despite the way Heath Ledger owned the role. We have accepted different Batmans, Rachel Dawes, and so forth...we will accept anyone WHO ENTERTAINS US and will reject anyone who fails to do so for whatever reason.

In short, the audience is quite sophisticated enough to watch Harry Potter without prejudice because Daniel Radcliffe did an edgy Broadway show whether the movie is released this Thanksgiving or nexy July. Thanks for nothing, those who made the decision.

(Please note: Regardless of when it is released, I will not be seeing the movie)