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.