Friday, November 27, 2009

The Men Who Stare at Goats / *** (R)

Lyn Cassady: George Clooney
Bob Wilton: Ewan McGregor
Bill Django: Jeff Bridges
Larry Hooper: Kevin Spacey
Brigadier General Dean Hopgood: Stephen Lang
Todd Nixon: Robert Patrick

Overture Films presents a film directed by Grant Heslov. Written by Peter Straughan. Based on the book by Jon Ronson. Running time: 94 min. Rated R (for language, some drug content, and brief nudity).

The key to good satire lies in the storyteller’s ability to believe in the subject of which they are also ridiculing. “The Men Who Stare at Goats” tells a story that might seem difficult to believe in, but on a title card at the beginning of the film it claims, “More of this story is true than you would believe.” I don’t know how much of this story is true. The fact of it doesn’t really matter. What does is that, for all its absurdity, I do believe our government is capable of the practices depicted in this movie.

A reporter, Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor, “Angels & Demons”), stumbles upon the story of a secret U.S. Army unit known as the New Earth Army, which employs paranormal powers on their missions. This discovery comes at a turning point in Wilton’s life. When he stumbles upon the New Earth’s star soldier, Lyn Cassady, on assignment in Iraq, he goes against all his better sense and decides to pursue the story.

Cassady, played by George Clooney (“Burn After Reading”), appears to be quite off his rocker; but he spins a tale of New Earth’s non-lethal philosophy in such a way you want to believe him. New Earth’s ringleader, as played by Jeff Bridges (“The Big Lebowski”), has much to do with the group’s appeal. The ultimate aging hippie actor brings all the hippie love of his career to the role of Bill Django and has a good deal of fun satirizing his own image in this military setting. I don’t think it’s any mistake that McGregor, Obi-wan Kenobi himself, was cast as the reporter who discovers these soldiers who refer to themselves as “Jedi warriors.”

Wilton follows Cassady out into the desert of Iraq on a “mission” that was assigned to him in a “vision.” Cassady shows Wilton many of the methods of New Earth, which often seem like feats that ghost hunters would find no trouble debunking. As the two stumble around the hostile desert, Cassady also feeds Wilton the turbulent history of the New Earth Army, a story that came to an abrupt end when one of its bad apples developed a program where the soldiers were trained to use their psychic abilities to kill a goat just by staring at it.

There really isn’t much to the story of “The Men Who Stare at Goats.” It lacks much of the cleverness and depth of past collaborations between Clooney and his producing and writing partner, Grant Heslov (“Good Night, and Good Luck”), who takes the directing reigns this time around. However, the story has its smirking charm, which is sold by the film’s solid casting. Clooney continues his streak of selling crazy despite his striking looks. McGregor’s boyish innocence is used effectively. Kevin Spacey (“Recount”) is brought in as bad apple Larry Hooper for an instant recognition of his smarminess. And kudos must to be given to Stephen Lang (“Public Enemies”) for his scene-stealing performance as the impressionable Brigadier General Dead Hopgood.

“The Men Who Stare at Goats” feels distinctly like Coen Brothers lite. It falls in to that oddball cinema of the absurd, which most Coen Brothers comedies find themselves. Clooney has certainly played his fair share of oddballs in Coen comedies. He brings their flair to this project, although this one feels much more mainstream friendly than most Coen fare. It lacks the bloodshed that even their more slapstick work tends to contain.

While I don’t think “The Men Who Stare at Goats” will be winning any awards, there is a good sense that everyone involved is just having a good time. That energy finds its way off the screen and into the audience. There are no big guffaws to be had here; it’s more of a thinking man’s comedy. There is a good deal of fun on screen, and that’s good enough for me. Just don’t ask the goats what they think of it.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

2012 / *** (PG-13)

Jackson Curtis: John Cusack
Adrian Helmsley: Chiwetel Ejiofor
Kate Curtis: Amanda Peet
Carl Anhauser: Oliver Platt
Laura Wilson: Thandie Newton
Gordon Silberman: Tom McCarthy
Noah Curtis: Liam James
Lilly Curtis: Morgan Lily
President Wilson: Danny Glover
Charlie Frost: Woody Harrelson

Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by Roland Emmerich. Written by Emmerich & Harold Kloser. Running time: 158 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense disaster sequences and some language).

I’ve been fairly forward in reviews about how disappointing Roland Emmerich’s films have been in the past. Up until now, the only film of his I’ve liked was 2000’s “The Patriot”. While that one embraced a figure—however inaccurately—in American history, all his other films have been special effects extravaganzas, with several attempting to reproduce the atmosphere of the great Irwin Allen disaster flicks that were so popular throughout the 70s. With his new movie “2012”, it seems he may have actually studied some of the better disaster movies.

The story deals with the end of the world, as we know it. What it gets right is not focusing on preachy soapboxes about humanity’s insignificance or man’s responsibility to his environment, as Emmerich’s less successful “The Day After Tomorrow” did. Nor does it delve too much into the Biblical implications of an apocalypse, although it doesn’t entirely ignore them either. Certainly a gathering of many of the Earth’s animal species by our collective governing bodies and the construction of vessels referred to as “arks” leans toward the Biblical, if not exactly the Apocalypse.

While “2012” is heavy on special effects—and there are some seriously overblown effects sequences here—the journeys the characters must take through these events are firmly the focus of the movie. The shear amount of effects on display here cannot be denied, but the characters don’t merely serve to get from one effects sequence to the next, as they did in Emmerich’s last film “10,000 B.C.”. Here the characters have lives and minds that are not content to simply fall into the pattern of racing from one danger to the next. They stubbornly go from one effect to the next. Often it’s their stubbornness that lands them in danger and gets them out.

Like many a great disaster flick the cast of this movie is epic and includes A-list actors at every level of the plot, including Danny Glover (“Lethal Weapon” series) as the President of the United States, Thandie Newton (“Crash”) as the first daughter, George Segal (the original “Fun With Dick and Jane”) as a doomed jazz musician on a cruise liner, Oliver Platt (“Frost/Nixon”) as a White House staffer concerned more with preserving the government institution than the fundamentals of humanity, and Woody Harrelson (“Zombieland”) as a spaced out conspiracy nut who somehow has everything right.

Also along the lines of a classic disaster pic, the plot focuses primarily on two main characters, i.e. the Paul Newman and Steve McQueen characters in “The Towering Inferno”. One is an expert in the disaster situation at hand, the other is simply an everyman caught up in the event trying to survive against the odds. The enigmatic Chiwetel Ejiofor (“American Gangster”) plays the scientist who discovers that geological events have transpired that will bring about drastic seismic shifts in the Earth’s crust by the end of the year 2012, essentially bringing about the end of the world. John Cusack (“1408”) handles the everyman duties as a failed writer and husband who must survive the most extreme of these calamitous events with his estranged family in tow.

When I first saw the ads for this movie I was a bit concerned about how totally implausible the destruction of the world looked. It is totally implausible, and perhaps Emmerich goes a little too far overboard with his first major disaster sequence, where California essentially falls into the Pacific. A subtler, slower developing disaster might have served his characters’ flight a little better. I can still recall those first flames building quietly while the guests partied in “The Towering Inferno”. But despite a few repetitive “let’s fly this plane out of here before the land drops out from under us” sequences, Emmerich eventually finds his stride and does a good job developing new catastrophes for the characters to survive before all is said and done.

“2012” is a movie that must be taken with a suspension of disbelief. If you can do that, this movie’s extremely suspenseful and a hell of a lot of fun. For all the efforts Emmerich has made throughout his film career to resurrect the classic Hollywood disaster flick, it seems a bit of irony that he finally made a good one with what he claims will be his final disaster flick. He’s spent many years trying to establish himself as the modern Irwin Allen. This time he actually lives up to the legacy of that Hollywood giant.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs / ***½ (PG)

Featuring the voice talents of:
Flint Lockwood: Bill Hader
Sam Sparks: Anna Faris
Tim Lockwood: James Caan
‘Baby’ Brent: Andy Samberg
Mayor Shelbourne: Bruce Campbell
Earl Devereaux: Mr. T
Cal Devereaux: Bobb’e J. Thompson
Manny: Benjamin Bratt
Steve: Neil Patrick Harris

Columbia Pictures presents a film written and directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Based on the book written by Judi Barrett and illustrated by Ron Barrett. Running time: 90 min. Rated PG (for brief mild language).

It’s hard to get me laughing. I chuckle. I don’t guffaw. I’ve had moments of uncontrollable laughter. I remember an incident with my brother and a grouper dish in a fancy restaurant that threatened to get us kicked out, but for the most part I’m a single “Ha!” man.

That being said, “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” is an absolute laugh riot. I was laughing during almost every single moment of this movie. The laughs are pretty basic, as any food-based comedy would be. Although, often the filmmakers show a great knack for subtle and background humor that isn’t always in your face. It’s sweet and non-offensive. It doesn’t imbue its story with great depth or even jokes just for the grownups. But the basic kid-friendly comedy it embraces it sharply done and non-stop.

The story takes place on the small island town of Swallow Falls, located under the ‘L’ in the Atlantic Ocean (ho-ha). The citizens of Swallow Falls are forced to live off their own overabundant sardine supply when it is realized by the rest of the world that sardines are gross. Little Flint Lockwood, however, is an inventor who will eventually invent Swallow Falls’ saving grace, a machine that turns the weather into food. So instead of a snow shower, Swallow Falls will get an ice cream shower that even forms in scoops on the rooftops. The town becomes famous for its food weather and changes its name to Chewsandswallows (ha-ho).

The whole thing is pretty simple. There’s no new ground broken here. Flint (voiced by SNL’s Bill Hader, “Tropic Thunder”) is the scientist oblivious to the world around him. He has a disapproving father (James Caan, “Elf”), whose admiration is a desperate commodity for Flint. Sam Sparks (Anna Faris, “Scary Movie” series), the intern promoted to weather girl to cover the island’s unique precipitation, is secretly as much a nerd as Flint, and therefore is a potential love interest. The Mayor (Bruce Campbell, “The Ant Bully”) pushes Flint’s invention too far out of greed and gluttony. So you’ve got the tension with Dad, the romantic interest, and the bad guy. Is it a surprise to learn that everything eventually goes horribly wrong? No real stretch there, but the details of the movie raise it to a higher level than your average family flick.

Take Tim Lockwood’s eyebrow, for instance. Flint’s father is a big man, very imposing yet very soft spoken. He has a monobrow that is so large it covers his eyes completely. You can do this in animation. In real life this man would barely be able to function. His eyebrow keeps him composed, but when truly angered or surprised that eyebrow raises up, exposing the man’s vulnerable eyes beneath. The effect of this event is considerably humorous.

Or take Flint’s pet monkey, Steve (Neil Patrick Harris, “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog”). Steve is Flint’s Igor, although he seems less useful. Whenever Flint is cooking up a new food to fall from the sky, Steve suggests Gummy Bears. Steve’s insistence on Gummy Bears becomes second nature—even to the audience—but eventually the story brings Steve his Gummy Bears in a “big” way. The results have the audience finding a new respect for the lame-brained companion.

Unfortunately, I never had the pleasure of reading the original children’s book by Judi and Ron Barrett to my two boys; but as I understand it, the movie diverges greatly from the story in the children’s book. Screenwriters and directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (the producing team behind CBS’s “How I Met Your Mother”) have shaped the premise of the island with food for weather into more of an adventure than what was presented in the Barretts’ book. This helps the movie work on a universal level that all audiences can tune into.

“Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” certainly never reaches the levels of greatness that the films of Pixar Studios do, films like “Up” and “WALL•E”. But there is no denying the fact that I haven’t laughed this much in a movie theater yet this year. There are no profound truths to be found in a movie about food falling from the sky, but it will stick to your ribs.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Horrorfest 09 Week 3: Horror Up, Horror Down

My strange mix of horror continues into week three with a black & white classic, a modern mocumentary, a Japanese anime, its misguided live action remake, and the best horror movie to be released in recent memory.

I hadn’t heard of “The Innocents” when Netflix suggested that I might like it just weeks before Horrorfest began. Based on the Henry James novel “The Turn of the Screw” and boasting a screenplay credit for Truman Capote, I hadn’t expected the devious and truly frightening movie I was in store for as I began to stream it onto my laptop late one evening.

There is nothing about this period piece ghost story that didn’t surprise me, from the fact that I’d never heard of it, to the fact that it came from a Henry James novel, to the fact that a British class setting could be so moody and creepy, to the fact that an actress like Deborah Kerr would be allowed to carry such a heavy piece almost singlehandedly in 1960.

The story follows a nanny on her first job, replacing another nanny that had died suddenly. The two children whose care she is charged with are both sweet and intelligent, seemingly the perfect little specimens. Soon the nanny begins to suspect ghosts of the former nanny and a deceased driver the dead woman had an affair with while in service together are haunting the children. It begins to seem as if the children may have been indirectly, if not directly, responsible for their deaths. But the movie doesn’t give into cheap excuses for the children’s strange behavior. Instead of being “evil” these children may have very deep psychological reasons for their behavior. Or maybe they are evil. Or maybe the “ghosts” are evil. Or maybe it is all in the nanny’s head. The film is brilliant in leaving all these possibilities open to the viewer’s interpretation.

“American Zombie” is not a horror movie, but rather another zombie spoof that presents its subject in mock documentary form. It follows several different zombies living in Southern California. It shows their lives as if zombies are the latest in our country’s string of minority figures. They’re used as cheap labor and discriminated against by the population, who for the most part fears them as flesh eaters.

The filmmakers use a diverse group of zombies to detail their existence. One is a slacker/loser who seems perfectly happy to be a zombie, a happy-go-lucky dead guy. Another is a zombie activist, fighting for zombie rights and equality. A third is an office worker ashamed of her deadness. Like many documentaries with a specific goal this one culminates in a zombie festival in which no living humans, save for the film crew, are allowed. Are there secrets the zombie community doesn’t want the living population at large to know about?

This is the question the film crew, headed by real life student academy award winner documentary filmmaker Grace Lee and the slightly more fictional Andrew Amondson (real person, not a documentary director), aims to answer. The film has fun with the divergent methods the two directors wish to employ to obtain those answers. Lee—the experienced documentarian—wishes to gain trust, while Amondson seems to think he’s the next great journalist, asking the hard questions directly. It’s not really scary, but its fun.

For horror fanatics the remake is just part of the landscape. More often than not a remake will be inferior to the original. This is often the case because the themes of the times in which the original was made are no longer relevant, and the filmmakers haven’t made an effort to redirect the themes of the story to fit current events. Of course, sometimes it’s just a mater of good filmmaking versus poor.

With “Blood: The Last Vampire” it is a little of the latter and a lot a matter of a major format change. The original “Blood” was animated in the style that has become known as anime. And it is all anime, with a focus on action and an affinity toward the strange.

The story follows a girl wielding a samurai sword, killing people on the subway and in a school on a U.S. military base. She’s not just slicing and dicing anybody, though; she’s killing “vampires” disguised as normal people. She works for the American government and apparently is half vampire herself. The film is visually stunning and quite creepy in the way it depicts its “vampires” working through the student population.

The live action remake tries very hard to retain the spirit of the anime, but that doesn’t translate so well. The stylized acting of the G-men comes off clumsily and they run out of remake story at about the halfway point (the original film is only 45 minutes). The background story on the girl they come up with to fill in the second half of the film is much weaker than the vampire-hunting portion that takes place on the military base.

Another problem with the live action is that the focus is less on horror and more on Hong Kong-style wire acrobatic fighting. The mixture of genres here detracts from the story, which in itself detracts from the visuals. The film is really quite a mess and a further example of how the vampire mythology is falling further away from its psychological horror ancestry and leaning more toward pure fantasy.

To wash the taste of that failure from my mind I choose to force my wife to watch the best horror movie of the year and one of the best films overall of 2009, Sam Raimi’s over-the-top horror extravaganza “Drag Me To Hell”. Angie had trepidations going into the screening. She’s not a big horror lover. When the film was over, however, she was facebooking every friend she had to recommend it for a good Halloween scare.

Raimi’s rollicking “Drag Me To Hell” is most certainly one of the most fun times you’ll have watching a movie this year. One reason is that he has so much fun with his subject matter. He knows when the horror he has developed is just plain silly and he comes at his audience with tongue firmly in cheek in those moments. He also knows how to generate genuine scares through atmosphere, lighting and—mostly prominently—sound. This makes “Drag Me To Hell” also the most frightening time you’ll have watching a movie this year. Not too light, not too heavy. This is filmmaking at its sharpest. Read my full-length review here.