Monday, August 30, 2010

The Expendables / * (R)

Image courtesy of Lionsgate

Barney Ross: Sylvester Stallone
Lee Christmas: Jason Statham
Ying Yang: Jet Li
Gunner Jensen: Dolph Lundgren
James Monroe: Eric Roberts
Sandra: Giselle Itié
General Garza: David Zayas
Tool: Mickey Rourke
Paine: Steve Austin
Toll Road: Randy Couture
Hale Caesar: Terry Crews

Lionsgate presents a film directed by Sylvester Stallone. Written by David Callaham and Stallone. Running time: 103 min. Rated R (for strong action and bloody violence throughout, and for some language).

I anticipated that Sylvester Stallone’s new super action extravaganza “The Expendables” could be a wonderful throw back to the action flicks of the 80s that fueled many of it stars’ careers. I figured it would either be an enjoyable actioner that incorporated the largest cast of action icons ever assembled together for the same film. Or, it would just be bad. However, when I envisioned an unsuccessful film of it, I still figured it would have enough camp and charm that it might be a fun bad movie.

The sad reality of it is, however, that “The Expendables” is just plain bad. I’m not sure that’s expressing it clearly enough. “The Expendables” is bad, bad, bad, bad. Not a good bad, but a bad bad. And it’s stupid. Oh, so stupid, stupid, stupid! It’s not just stupid and bad in concept, but it’s terribly made. It’s nonsensical, poorly shot, poorly edited, you barely understand a word that the actors say, and the plot is like something half remembered from a dream after most of the story’s connection points have already been forgotten.

The plot, from what I can gather out of the unintelligible dialogue and stunning jumps in reasoning, involves a band of former Special Forces mercenaries known as The Expendables, lead by Stallone’s Barney Ross. They’re hired by a man named Church (Bruce Willis), who may be CIA, to depose a dictator on a South American island country. After reconnoitering the island with his second in command, Lee Christmas (Jason Statham, “Crank: High Voltage”), Barney deduces that a former CIA agent named James Monroe (Eric Roberts, “Heroes”) is really in charge on the island, running it as a cash crop of drug trafficking.

Barney believes that their target is really Monroe. Let me get this straight.  Since the CIA wants to save themselves the embarrassment of rogue agents, they trust this independent team to figure that out for themselves. What embarrassment does that save them? Isn’t this black ops work off the books anyway? Who would find out what they were really hired to do other than… them?

That’s just an example of the random nature of the developments in this movie. I think the real reason for this CIA secrecy is to create a cameo role for Willis and an even less logical cameo for California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger as a rival mercenary who also meets with Willis to turn down the job and exchange a moronic muscle-flexing conversation with Stallone. This is, however, the one scene in the movie that created a laugh for me. Willis asks about Schwarzenegger, “What’s that guy’s problem?” Stallone responds, “He wants to be president.”

But other than that one exchange, all of the film’s dialogue seems to be cut from a dozen other action pictures and pasted together, sometimes at random.  Here’s a sample dialogue from a later scene:

“Am I dying?”
“I shot you a few inches above your heart.”
“I’ll take that as a ‘Yes.’”


That was pretty much the recurring theme of my thoughts throughout the movie. “What?!” Yes, I realize I’m not supposed to be thinking in a movie like this, but for some reason screenwriter David Callaham (“Doom”) is under the impression that the audience expects these characters to be deep thinking human beings who do what they do for… well, he never really goes into that. I guess it’s because its what they’re best at. Emoting, not so much, no matter what the script requires from them.

Well, let me take that back for a second. Mickey Rourke (“The Wrestler”) delivers a speech at one point that could easily garner him another Academy Award nomination were it in another movie. His speech is totally out of place and it seems the only reason he is even in the movie is to deliver a well-acted speech. Too bad it’s in the middle of all this other crap. I wonder if he wrote it himself, like Robert Shaw’s U.S.S. Indianapolis speech from “Jaws”.

I’m sure many will feel I’m too judgmental on a movie that is essential only a Smith & Wesson commercial. I’m expecting too much. I’m trying to impose a cultural ideal on something that’s just for fun. Hey! I’m as big a fan as any of Smith & Wesson commercials. I just want mine to be good and make some sense. That’s not a lot to ask when all you have to do is hang some good action scenes on it. As Smith & Wesson commercials go Sylvester Stallone proved he could make a good one with “Rambo”. This one, unfortunately, resembles a gun that’s had a hacksaw taken to it.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Penny Thoughts: August 20-26

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009) ***½
Director: David Yates
Writers: Steve Kloves, J.K. Rowling (novel)
Starring: Daniel Radcliff, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman, Jim Broadbent, Tom Felton, Bonnie Wright, Helena Bonham Carter, Jessie Cave, Evanna Lynch, Robbie Coltrane, Maggie Smith, Frank Dillane

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
At the time of its release, the sixth installment of the “Harry Potter” film franchise seemed a little slow and lacking in some of the series’ wind. Although it was markedly better than the previous film, it seemed sort of tamed. Upon my third viewing of the film, my opinion on it has changed considerably. “The Half-Blood Prince” is the darkest film of the series, which has gotten consistently darker with each episode. It’s also a more mature adaptation than even the earliest of the series. Liberties have been taken in cutting many character’s roles down substantially, but as a film the trimming down of the extraneous and expansive subplots works by focusing the primary storyline, sharpening it to highlight Harry’s perilous life and journey.

I screened this series for my oldest son this year in preparation for the two-part finale that begins this November and concludes next summer in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows”. Rarely has a franchise done so well to maintain its integrity and quality throughout such a long series of films. J.K. Rowling not only inspired a generation in reading, but she helped provide Hollywood with one of its most successful film franchises of all time.

Read my original review.

The Ghost Writer (2010) ***½
Director: Roman Polanski
Writers: Roman Polanski, Robert Harris (also novel)
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams, Kim Cattrall, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Hutton, James Belushi, Eli Wallach

Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment
Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer” is a classic film noir with a desperate hero, a femme fatale and a plot that turns back on itself in an unexpected way. I wasn’t as surprised by some of the elements as I might’ve been if I hadn’t been watching a good deal of noirs lately; but it’s expertly made by Polanski, proving that despite what you may think of his exile and past crimes, he continues to be viable and important filmmaker. Ewan McGregor makes for the perfect noir protagonist and the supporting roles are played in a way that effectively manipulates both the hero and the audience. Mystery fans should check this one out.

Mother (2010) ****
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Writers: Bong Joon-ho, Park Eun-kyo, Park Wun-kyo
Starring: Kim Hye-ja, Won Bin, Jin Ku, Jae-Moon Yoon, Jun Mi-sun, Lee Young-Suck

Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
“Mother” just proves you can’t keep those Koreans down. That statement applies to the closing moments of the film; and as far as the filmmaking goes, I’m beginning to think that the Koreans cannot do wrong. I’ve seen more original, entertaining and completely unpredictable movies from South Korea and the past couple of years than any other single area. What the Spanish filmmakers did to freshen up filmmaking in the oughts, perhaps the Koreans will do in the next decade.

This is the second film I’ve seen from director Bong Joon-ho, the first being the 2008 monster flick “The Host”, and both have taken what should’ve been conventional storylines and infused them with a freshness due to their wonderful attention to observational detail and quirky, original, yet entirely identifiable characters. In this film, a mentally handicapped boy is railroaded into a murder conviction in a small town. His mother relentlessly pursues the case to prove her son’s innocence. Despite the dark nature of the film’s subject, the film is filled with humor and great tension. I love how some of the lines of investigation the mother pursues are wrong turns, lacking that false instinctive intuition of so many Hollywood mystery protagonists.

Edge of Darkness (2010) ***
Director: Martin Campbell
Writers: William Monahan, Andrew Bovell, Troy Kennedy-Martin (television series)
Starring: Mel Gibson, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston, Bojana Novakovic, Shawn Roberts, David Aaron Baker, Jay O. Sanders, Denis O’Hare

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
“Edge of Darkness” is a strangely fascinating movie, and not quite what you might expect going into it. It isn’t a perfect movie by any means. There are several discrepancies in the film, ranging from story structure to editing and framing flaws, but it’s a thriller with a different brain, one as much focused on the philosophy of the characters as their actions. Although it’s wonderful that they had such a good vocal coach so everyone’s Boston accent was spot on, someone should have informed the filmmakers that not everyone in Boston (or Massachusetts for that matter) actually speaks with a Boston accent. Yes, New Englanders speak funny, but not all of them do. Oh yeah, and Mel Gibson’s an asshole.

A Single Man (2009) ****
Director: Tom Ford
Writers: Tom Ford, David Scearce, Christopher Isherwood (novel)
Starring: Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Nicholas Hoult, Matthew Goode

Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company
While the period piece “A Single Man” was fairly universally praised by critics upon its initial release, many categorized it as a sort of fashion show of early sixties style. This notion is most certainly born from the fact that its director Tom Ford is more famous as a fashion designer than as a filmmaker. I think this simplification of the film dishonors its depth and scope. On the surface, the movie is an examination of a man in deep grief for the loss of his 16-year long relationship with his gay lover after a car accident, but like so much great cinema there are layers of meaning lying beneath that surface.

Although it is a detailed period piece that is in love with the fashion and style of it setting, it’s deeper meanings have even more resonance with today’s growing problems of excess and fear. Ford suggests that fear drives so much of our lives there is little about our existences we can trust as real. Have we all become out of touch with our own true selves due to the fear that drives us? Do we have any real values any more? Do any of us truly feel joy in our lives? When we do, we must hold onto those moments to keep us going. “A Single Man” is more than just a beautiful film; it is profound.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World / *** (PG-13)

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures
Scott Pilgrim: Michael Cera
Ramona Flowers: Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Knives Chau: Ellen Wong
Stephen Stills: Mark Webber
Kim Pine: Alison Pill
Young Neil: Johnny Simmons
Wallace Wells: Kieran Culkin
Julie Powers: Aubrey Plaza
Stacey Pilgrim: Anna Kendrick
Envy Adams: Brie Larson
Roxy Richter: Mae Whitman
Matthew Patel: Satya Bhabha
Lucas Lee: Chris Evans
Todd Ingram: Brandon Routh
Gideon Gordon Graves: Jason Schwartzman

Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Edgar Wright. Written by Michael Bacall & Edgar Wright. Based on the graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley. Running time: 112 min. Rated PG-13 (for stylized violence, sexual content, language and drug references).

Someone asked me if the title of this movie is accurate, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”. Well, in Scott Pilgrim’s world there are really only three elements of reality: video games, music, and romantic obsession. In this story Scott Pilgrim plays bass in a band. He becomes infatuated with a girl named Ramona Flowers, and he must fight her seven evil exes, video game style, to the death Music and mortal combat over a girl has Pilgrim fighting for everything he knows.

Do you remember that old live action “Batman” television show? Whenever there was a fight scene, the sound effects would be represented in big bold comic book style words across the screen. Well, Director Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead”) must’ve been a fan, because his movie, adapted from a comic book, is filled with visualized sound effect words. But he seems to take the technique quite a bit further than the old “Batman” show did. He not only visualizes the sound effects in words; he seems to visualize them with their corresponding emotional values. The “WHAM!” in a fight sequence is just as bold as you’d expect it. But a “thunk” when the hero is hitting his head against a post for being a twit starts small and gets bigger as he continues to thunk his head.

Then there are the fight sequences and the music. The animated power behind the fight sequences seems a forgone conclusion as concussion rings can be seen when fist meets head. What really impressed me were the concert sequences. Never have I seen music itself so accurately portrayed on screen. The music is a physical entity. As the bands play, the music sends out visible rhythms and sound waves through the audience. As a big music fan, this is like seeing what you’ve always felt when attending a live concert. Most of the fight sequences happen around the concerts and eventually the fights and the music become one, making for an impressive music showdown between Scott’s band and a band that includes two of Ramona’s exes. The music, quite literally, comes alive.

The cast of this film is immense. The meekly unassuming Michael Cera, of “Superbad and Juno” fame, plays Scott. Cera’s shtick as the soft-spoken nerd with a heart and mysterious attractiveness might be getting old for some, but it makes him a perfect Pilgrim. Mary Elizabeth Winstead (“Live Free or Die Hard”) is less accessible as the aloof Flowers, but that works for a contrast between the characters. It’s Scott’s emotions and life histrionics that are on display here, no one else’s.

But there are so many else’s to be dealt with by Scott. There’s his gay roommate (Kieran Culkin, “Igby Goes Down”) to keep his reality in check and his high school aged girlfriend, Knives (Ellen Wong), whom he can’t bring himself to break up with once he hooks up with Flowers. There’s Julie Powers, (Aubrey Plaza, “Funny People”) a superheroine-monikered employee of both the local record store and coffee shop, who seems set on destroying all Scott’s delusions, and he has so many. Scott’s sister (Anna Kendrick, “Up in the Air”) also does little to boost Scott’s ego. But, his own ex, Envy Adams (Brie Larson, “United States of Tara”), with her great success as a rock star, is his biggest psychological hurdle.

There’s also Scott’s band, the Sex Bom-Ombs. They are Stephen Stills (Mark Webber, “The Hottest State”) on guitars and vocals, Kim Pine (Alison Pill, “In Treatment”) on drums and as another brooding ex of Scott’s, and Young Neil (Johnny Simmons, “Jennifer’s Body”), the band’s groupie and sometimes-bass player. In fact, he does so well filling in for Scott; I’m not sure why the band even bothers with Scott and his romantic theatrics. They should’ve kicked him to the curb long ago.

Have I forgotten anybody? Oh yeah, the seven evil exes. Perhaps I should just stick with the most notable of them. Chris Evans (“The Losers”) plays a parody of his own action star status, who attacks Scott with his army of stunt doubles. Brandon Routh (“Superman Returns”) is the vegan-powered bass player of Envy’s band. The biggest laugh of the film comes when the vegan police appear to remove Routh’s powers for various vegan violations. Finally, there’s Jason Schwartzman (“The Darjeeling Limited”) as Ramona’s most recent ex, a record executive who also happens to hold the fate of Sex Bom-Ombs in his pen.

With such a large cast it’s almost assumed that the characters will be underdeveloped and soulless, but I think the comic book source material serves the film well here, in that all the characters are portrayed in such broad strokes that little development is necessary. They can simply go to work placing their hurdles of either physical violence or psychological scolding toward Scott. It’s really like a video game version of a typical romantic comedy. This one is highly populated with characters that exist simply as obstacles before Scott’s goal of being with Ramona. When he defeats them, they turn into coins, just like in a video game. I like that Scott’s first foe didn’t even produce enough coins for bus fare.

The movie’s biggest flaw—ironically, considering its subject matter—is a lack of heart. I fear this is a video game symptom that followed the movie’s gaming mentality onto the screen. Even so, the movie is funny, visually innovative, and quite surprisingly entertaining. So if you’re a fan of the video game format, the comic book format, great music, or even simply seeing sound effects visualized as words on screen, this movie’s for you. Hmmm, I’m not too sure that really makes for a broad audience spectrum.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Penny Thoughts: Aug. 13-19

Back to the Future (1985) ****
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writers: Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale
Starring: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover, Thomas F. Wilson, Claudia Wells

Image courtesy of Universal
It turns out that this 80s classic that was such a hit for me as a kids is also a hit for my kids. They loved the original “Back to the Future”. My oldest seemed to be a step ahead of the movie the whole time. “Wait,” Jack would say, “If they sent Einstein ahead a minute into the future, then he’s about to pop up right where they’re standing.” They didn’t quite understand all the different details about life in the 50s. They wondered why we were laughing at things like Marty’s Mom’s mention of her hope chest. But they were with the movie the whole time. “Oh no! The wire broke. How’s he going to get back to the future!”  I love family movie night. Although, a word of warning—it’s important for parents to remember that a PG rating was much more lenient when we were kids. We had to explain to our youngest that he shouldn’t repeat the phrase “Holy shit!”

Greenberg (2010) ***½
Director: Noah Baumbach
Writers: Noah Baumbach, Jennifer Jason Leigh
Starring: Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans, Jennifer Jason Leigh

Image courtesy of Focus Features
It’s hard to describe the success of a film like “Greenberg”. It’s not a laugh out loud comedy. Some, who aren’t used to darker comedies, might describe it as an outright drama, but it’s not. It’s incredibly observant of human nature. More of us are like Greenberg than we would care to admit. Not that he is an everyman in anyway. And then there’s the girl, who not enough of us are like. Ben Stiller and Greta Gerwig turn in two very impressive performances in their utterly awkward romance. Unfortunately, not many audiences really want to see a movie about a socially inept man, the mess he makes of things, and the girl who’s willing to put up with him. If they did, they might learn a little too much about their lives.

The Losers (2010) ***
Director: Sylvain White
Writers: Peter Berg, James Vanderbilt, Andy Diggle (comic book), Jock (comic book)
Starring: Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Zoe Saldana, Chris Evans, Idris Elba, Columbus Short, Óscar Jaenada, Holt McCallany, Jason Patric

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
Did anyone tell Sylvester Stallone that someone had already made “The Expendables” and released it earlier this year? Further, did they tell him that it was infinitely better in every aspect; it’s well acted, well written, funny, exciting, loud and even has a plot that makes sense? It’s called “The Losers” and in the race for the best Smith & Wesson commercial for 2010, it turns “The Expendables” into the real loser. “The Losers” makes Stallone’s movie easily expendable, if you will.

Ghost World (2001) ****
Director: Terry Zwigoff
Writers: Daniel Clowes (also graphic novel), Terry Zwigoff
Starring: Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, Steve Buscemi, Brad Renfro, Bob Balaban, Illeana Douglas

Image courtesy of United Artists
This was one of my favorite movies of 2001. I hadn’t seen it since about 2003. Time is the great clarifier. I always knew I loved this movie about an outsider girl and her friend upon graduation from high school. I liked the movie, but never understood the mechanics of its narrative until now. It’s about rebirth into the world from childhood into adulthood.

What happens to most of us is we go through this transformation from who we were to who we think we should be. For many of us, we don’t find out until later that who we think we should be and who we really are are two different things. Some of us just transform and never look back. For some the transformation is harder. But I think the transformation is necessary, even if you must transform into a more advanced version of what you were before. The transformation is necessary for the advancement, however. It’s necessary to make that choice to transform in some way. Some people, like the Steve Buscemi character, never make that choice. But if you don’t get on the bus, you don’t advance. You don’t have to change what you are to do that. You just have to choose. Otherwise, you’ll remain merely a ghost of what you were as a child. That’s what I got from it this time anyway.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Other Guys / *** (PG-13)

Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Allen Gamble: Will Ferrell
Terry Hoitz: Mark Wahlberg
Captain Gene Mauch: Michael Keaton
Dr. Sheila Gamble: Eva Mendes
David Ershon: Steve Coogan
Roger Wesley: Ray Stevenson
Martin: Rob Riggle
Fosse: Damon Wayans, Jr.
P.K. Highsmith: Samuel L. Jackson
Christopher Danson: Dwayne Johnson

Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by Adam McKay. Written by McKay & Chris Henchy. Running time: 107 min. Rated PG-13 (for crude and sexual content, language, violence and some drug material).

In my review of the film “Cop Out” from earlier this year, I commented at how angry I was while writing the review. I was angry that I had sat through such a pathetic excuse for a buddy cop comedy, angry that I had to write about it afterward. Like an answer to that film’s failures, comes the new Will Ferrell buddy cop comedy vehicle “The Other Guys”. “The Other Guys” gets everything right that “Cop Out” got totally wrong. This is the buddy cop comedy you want to see.

The movie stars Ferrell (“Step Brothers”) as Detective Allen Gamble, Hollywood’s first ever portrayal of a forensic accountant—a real cop job according to the filmmakers. He’s paired with Detective Terry Hoitz, a good cop who’s been knocked down to essentially desk duty because he accidentally shot Derek Jeter. Mark Wahlberg (“Date Night”) is well used in the role, which capitalizes on two of his best skills—his ability to make fun of his own image and his ability to put others down. Hoitz delights in insulting Gamble at every convenience.

The entire precinct plays second fiddle to the two stars of the force, Highsmith and Danson, played by the absurdly testosteroned Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.  These guys are essentially spoofs of the typical buddy cop movie heroes. They cause untold amounts of damage to the city, place everyone around them in danger, and get all the accolades. What happens to them has a sort of perfection to it and proves an understatement of their captain’s assessment that they really weren’t very good cops.

Anyway, Gamble and Hoitz get their shot at a real case when Gamble stumbles across a Bernie Madoff type character named David Erschon (Steve Coogan, “Tropic Thunder”), who makes his money scamming investors. Their pursuit of Erschon produces some of the film’s best laughs. Observe the sequence where Erschon first distracts the detectives by offering them tickets to Broadway shows, then the cops interrogate him with a good cop/bad cop ploy gone awry. This scene is particularly funny in the way the absurdity just develops without the characters seeming to try to be absurd.

While the movie is firmly grounded in the buddy cop genre, it ventures into the same realms of ridiculousness as Ferrell’s and director Adam Mckay’s other hits “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” and “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby”. As we learn more about the two cops’ pasts, their former antics fly further off the rails. Hoitz thinks every crime must be related to drugs or gun trafficking and he likes to become an expert performer of artistic ventures in order to make fun of the people who are really artistically natured. “I learned to dance so I could make fun of the guys that did it in school,” he says after some impressive dance moves.

Ferrell’s background is even more absurd. His wife (Eva Mendes, “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans”) is smoking hot, yet he doesn’t seem to notice. In fact, he treats her as if she’s some homely burden he’s been hung with. We learn that prior to police work he basically acted as a pimp on his college campus, although he sees it as merely helping his female friends to hook up with men for a percentage of the money they charged their clients. See, that’s not exactly… no wait. Yes, that’s pimping.

Much like the expertly directed racing scenes in “Talladega Nights”, McKay once again shows a knack for adapting his style to the genre in which he’s spoofing.  The action scenes here could work in any straightforward police picture. Some critics have complained that the grittiness of the action works against the absurd humor developed by the filmmakers, but I like the contrast.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the film is the rediscovery of one of Hollywood’s lost comedic talents, Michael Keaton. Keaton started out as a comedian in such vehicles as “Mr. Mom” and “Night Shift”. When he turned toward more dramatic fare in his later career, he seemed to be quickly forgotten. As the typical beleaguered precinct captain, Keaton brings not only more funny to the film, but a freshness to a character that has been overdone to the point of becoming a blackened, tasteless, bone-dry shell in film after film. Keaton’s captain doesn’t spend his every minute on screen yelling at his detectives. He plays the character more like a babysitter that tries to find the right approach at maximizing incompetence. I loved the bit at his moonlighting job at a home improvement store when he starts to tell his store employees about a serial rapist on the loose.

“The Other Guys” gets the look and feel of the buddy cop flick pitch perfect, but is free to have a good deal of fun both within and outside the conventions of the genre. Unlike Kevin Smith’s “Cop Out”, the cast here seems to be working hard and having fun, rather than phoning it in. The combination of Will Ferrell’s particular brand of absurd humor and gritty, hard action work well with the help of Mark Wahlberg bridging the gap between comedy and legitimate action hero.  This one left me with a smile and a few sore ribs, as opposed to a furrowed brow and a broken keyboard.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Penny Thoughts: August 6-12

The Haunted World of El Superbeasto (2009) *½
Director: Rob Zombie
Writers: Rob Zombie, Tom Papa, Mike Bell, Joe Ekers, Tom Klein, Mr. Lawrence, Joe Orrantia, Carey Yost
Starring: Tom Papa, Sheri Moon Zombie, Brian Posehn, Tom Kenny, Rosario Dawson, Paul Giamatti

Image courtesy of Starz Media
Hmm. “The Haunted World of El Superbeasto” is an adult cartoon created and directed by horror metal musician and director Rob Zombie. I think he should stick with music and live action movies. Yeah, that’s about all that needs to be said here.

The Sandlot 2 (2005) *
Director: David Mickey Evans
Writers: David Mickey Evans, Robert Gunter (characters)
Starring: Max Lloyd-Jones, James Willson, Samantha Burton, Brett Kelly, Cole Evan Weiss, Neilen Benvegnu, Sean Berdy, Greg Germann, James Earl Jones

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox
I did not see 1993’s “The Sandlot”, which seemed to gain some target demographic popularity at the time of it’s release, but hardly comes near any sort of classic kid’s film status. After seeing “The Sandlot 2”, I now know I never have to see the original. Not only does the sequel recount the entire story of the first film, using archival footage to show all its highlights, but also it tells most of the story of the second film through narration before it shows it to you. Not only is this the most wasteful use of narration I’ve seen in any film, but also the story of the two movies appears to be exactly the same only the second is ten years later with different kids. What could possibly be the point of a movie like this? The fans of the original are now grown and couldn’t have any interest in a second rehashing of the movie from their childhood. For those who weren’t around to be fans of the original I think the original will do just fine. It doesn’t exactly leave questions hanging in the air.

A Prophet (2010) ****
Director: Jacques Audiard
Writers: Thomas Bidegain, Jacques Audiard, Abdel Raouf Dafri (original), Nicolas Peufaillit (original)
Starring: Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bencherif, Hichem Yacoubi

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
“A Prophet” follows in the tradition of “Goodfellas” and “Gomorrah” in presenting a compelling and tempting criminal life. An outsider gets a glimpse of what the inside can offer him and he is enveloped in the lifestyle. “A Prophet” is also unique among these other great films by depicting this criminal grooming from behind prison bars. The movie moves at a perfect pace to establish its hero as first just a tool for the mob organization behind bars, then as a valuable asset, rising to the point where he’s controlling his own criminal activity, eventually orchestrating an amazing coup. This is fine filmmaking and wonderful storytelling. I also like that it isn’t a typical rise and fall of power story. It’s a unique manipulation of the hero’s situation to his advantage. His ascension isn’t perfect, but it’s smart in a smart film.

Legion (2010) *
Director: Scott Charles Stewart
Writers: Scott Charles Stewart, Peter Schink
Starring: Paul Bettany, Lucas Black, Adrianne Palicki, Tyrese Gibson, Willa Holland, Kate Walsh, Kevin Durand, Charles S. Dutton, Dennis Quaid, Jon Tenney

Image courtesy of Screen Gems
Is it me? Or is there something wrong with the notion that when heaven goes to war it’s with handguns? For that matter, would a warrior angel from heaven wield some sort of medieval club that was gadgetized like it came out of MI6’s Q Division? To give “Legion” credit, it has a lot of really cool looking pictures in it, but it really doesn’t make much logical sense at all. If God’s angel warriors had the ability to possess anyone they chose, as this movie poses, it should’ve taken all of five minutes for God to eliminate the mother of humanity’s final hope. And as the all-knowing divine being, shouldn’t he have realized that there was a hope left for humanity, rather than letting a rouge angel one up him in his own game? The more I think about this movie, the more I think two stars is being kind, so I’ll stop now. That way I won’t have to go back up there and delete one of those stars. Nope, couldn’t help myself.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Salt / **** (PG-13)

Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures
Evelyn Salt: Angelina Jolie
Ted Winter: Liev Schreiber
Peabody: Chiwetel Ejiofor
Vassily Orlov: Daniel Olbrychski
Mike Krause: August Diehl

Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by Phillip Noyce. Written by Kurt Wimmer. Running time: 100 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action).

The great action film is near extinction. I didn’t realize this until I saw the new Angelina Jolie action thriller “Salt”.  There was a time when the action movie had style and efficiency and grace. The age of digital imaging has muddied the action movie with effects that look unbelievable or, sometimes, just plain blurry. Even the excellent Jason Bourne franchise seems to just pull it off with shaky camera shots and quick cut editing. “Salt” is like a blast from the past, in more ways than one. Thanks to recent events involving Russian spies in the United States, it’s pretty easy to buy the Russians as our enemies again.

The movie opens with our heroine, Evelyn Salt, being tortured in a North Korean prison. I was immediately reminded of the opening segment of the James Bond flick “Die Another Day”, one of countless victims of today’s CGI heavy action practices. Almost immediately we realize this is not going to be the same kind of action movie as that one. There are no giant hovercrafts bouncing around to send our heroine on an explosion-fueled ride of destruction in the name of freedom.

Instead, Salt is met in the neutral zone by her CIA boss, Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”), in a prisoner exchange that was partially arranged by her boyfriend, Mike Krause (August Diehl, “Inglourious Basterds”). Some time later Mike is now Salt’s husband and she’s back at work with the CIA’s Russia division. One day, a defector named Vassily Orlov (Daniel Olbruchski), claims a Russian sleeper agent will assassinate the Russian president during the funeral of the U.S. vice president. He then reveals that the agent’s name is Evelyn Salt.

Consider the moments immediately following Orlov’s claim. Director Phillip Noyce (“Dead Calm”) is an expert at developing tension in unspoken terms. Evelyn knows she will be detained, but focuses all her concern on her husband,  insisting that he’s in danger and must be found. Is this just a distraction for the other agents, or is she genuinely concerned for her husband’s safety? Agent Winter seems concerned for his employee, more so than his duty to his job. Yet Schreiber keeps a cold calm in front of National Counterintelligence Agent Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor, “2012”). Peabody leaps into containment mode, working only from the responsibility to secure a possible threat. The tension in the room rises immediately to the point of near physical manifestation.

From that point on the tension is released and raised again and again through non-stop action that quickly takes us to places we couldn’t have suspected. Is Salt really a Russian agent? Why does she run? Why does she do exactly the things she shouldn’t? Why does she save her dog and find it a home? I think that final question means more than just that the filmmakers are sentimental dog lovers.

I, of course, would never suggest what the answers to these questions are in a review. Some have said that they could predict some developments. I’m pretty sure that’s true, but I find it hard to believe that most people could predict how the movie would get to its conclusions. Any good critic knows it’s not what happens in a movie that makes it great, but how it happens.

Take a look at how the action develops in the movie. After being ousted for something she knows she isn’t, Salt leads her former colleagues on an amazing chase through buildings, streets, highways, byways, and overpasses. Noyce’s direction here is so precise that there is never a question of what is happening, yet always there’s the question of just how each situation Salt puts herself in is perceived as better by her than the last. She jumps from an overpass to the top of a semi. From there she jumps to a tanker. Her every move is calculated, yet each seems to put her into a spot that is more impossible than the last, and yet it all seems plausible from an action universe point of view.

Then in New York, Salt raises the stakes by doing exactly what she shouldn’t be doing. She finds herself in a police car, and you think there’s no way she can possibly get away from this. Yet, she does, and you don’t question how she did it. Not only does the action seem possible despite its implausibility, but also her actions all end up making sense. There’s reason for everything she does. Nothing is done just to put her into another impossible situation, and somehow each moment seems more impossible than the last.

There are some people who will say I’m nuts to claim the action in this movie is plausible, but I’m speaking in a purely entertainment state of mind here. Jolie and Noyce sell what Salt is doing. They sell what she’s capable of, and I for one am very glad that Tom Cruise opted out of this project so it could be rewritten for a female lead. The vulnerability of a female lead aids in raising the stakes and in raising the shock value of her maneuvers and motivation. I haven’t been this thrilled by an action thriller in years.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Penny Thoughts: July 30-August 5

Green Zone (2010) ***½
Director: Paul Greengrass
Writers: Brian Helgeland, Rajiv Chandrasekaran (book “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone”)
Starring: Matt Damon, Greg Kinnear, Brendan Gleeson, Amy Ryan, Igal Naor, Khalid Abdala, Jason Isaacs

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures
Is this really the only way we can honestly approach this never ending war that this country started? With action movies by the team the brought us the best of the Jason Bourne franchise? Now, “Green Zone” is a good movie. I’m not knocking it, but it strangely feels like one of the few popularly seen honest statements about our involvement in Iraq. Truth is this film is much more fiction than fact, yet somehow its still more honest about what might have down than most Americans would like to be about that war. Maybe I’m just being won over by good filmmaking, but c’mon. Someone fabricated that war. The question of what happened to those WMDs should never leave any American’s mind, and if it takes Matt Damon running around shooting a bunch of guys to remind us, well at least someone is.

The Fugitive (1993) ****
Director: Andrew Davis
Writers: David Twohy, Jeb Stuart, Roy Huggins (characters)
Strring: Harrison Ford, Tommy Lee Jones, Jeroen Krabbé, Joe Pantoliano, Andreas Katsulas, Daniel Roebuck, Tom Wood, L. Scott Caldwell, Sela Ward

Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Sometimes it takes movies like “The Fugitive” and “Salt” to remind us that movies can be great even if they are just entertainment. “Salt” greatly impressed me due to its unpredictability and its efficiency. “The Fugitive” was made at a time when efficiency wasn’t so important to film, but it’s carried along by an amazing cast, a cast that seems even more amazing in retrospect when some stars have since risen from the minor roles in the film. Julianne Moore, Jane Lynch, and even Neill Flynn have since emerged as great performers in their own right, the latter two as comic performers. But the anchor in the film is Tommy Lee Jones’s Oscar-winning performance as the hard-nosed Marshall Gerard. Harrison Ford isn’t too shabby either.

The Crazies (2010) ***
Director: Breck Eisner
Writers: Scott Kosar, Ray Wright, George A. Romero (1973 motion picture)
Starring: Timothy Olyphant, Radha Mitchell, Joe Anderson, Danielle Panabaker

Image courtesy of Overture Films
I had a friend who had a very bad reaction to this film. He raged about it. I’m not really seeing his problem. Is it a great and original horror movie? No, but it isn’t terrible either. It has one wonderfully original scene in it, however. That scene takes place in a car wash and ends with a sudden, perfect, and unexpected punchline. I’m also a fan of the movie’s star Timothy Olyphant, who was so good in “Deadwood” and always makes his characters understatedly interesting. I liked the way the film dealt with his deputy, played by Joe Anderson. There’s always a questionable character in these horror movie apocalypse plots, and it seems the filmmakers always go to great lengths to make the audience despise this character from the get go. In the deputy’s case, you want to trust him. This brings out the true horror behind this particular story line, you can’t trust what you know and have chosen to surround yourself with. Again, nothing brilliant here, but a fun horror flick.

The Tracey Fragments (2007) *½
Director: Bruce McDonald
Writer: Maureen Medved (also novel)
Starring: Ellen Page, Max McCabe-Lokos, Ari Cohen, Erin McMurtry, Zie Souwand

Image courtesy of THINKfilm
You know what I’m sick of? I’m sick of teenagers in movies claiming to be just your “typical teen” despite the fact that some unusual tragedy has befallen them. No, you’re not typical. The typical teen doesn’t lose their younger brother after she’s hypnotized him into behaving like a dog. That’s not typical at all. Typical teens don’t have a psychiatrist that is obviously undergoing some sort of gender transformation and no one mentions it. A typical teenager does not run away from home to search for her missing brother and then wander around the city wearing only a shower curtain. There is nothing typical about the teenager in this movie, which plays like something that would be considered groundbreaking in art school, but is actually quite naïve and annoying in its execution, with it’s constant multiple image screen. This might be good as a short film, or it’s technique might work as a short segment of a feature film, but even at its mercifully short length of 77 minutes, “The Tracey Fragments” is more hot air than groundbreaking.

Defendor (2010) ***
Director/Writer: Peter Stebbings
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Kat Dennings, Elias Koteas, Michael Kelly, Sandra Oh, Clark Johnson, Alan C. Peterson

Image courtesy of Darius Films
This is one of those small independent productions that I want to urge people to seek out. Although I’ve awarded it three stars, this cannot suggest to charm and originality of this black comedy about a nearly mentally challenged man who dons the guise of a superhero to fight crime. I guess it’s a more down to earth version of “Kiss-Ass”. It’s filled with wonderful performances by Woody Harrelson (as the superhero, Defendor), Kat Dennings, Elias Koteas (as a dirty cop), Michael Kelly, and the ever-dependable Sandra Oh. It’s funny, but not so much the laugh out loud type. It’s very intelligent. And it doesn’t compromise on its ending. I want to push that star rating into the great category, but perhaps it doesn’t have quite enough “umph!” behind it. I don’t know. But I greatly urge people to seek this small gem out.

Pleasantville (1998) ****
Director/Writer: Gary Ross
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon, William H. Macy, Joan Allen, Jeff Daniels, J.T. Walsh, Don Knots, Marley Shelton, Paul Walker, Jane Kaczmarek

Image courtesy of New Line Cinema
“Pleasantville” is one of my favorite movies from the ‘90s. It’s more poignant today than at the time of its release. During this screening, I couldn’t help but draw a parallel from the Pleasantville town elders, lead by the great J.T. Walsh in one of his final performances, to the current Tea Party. They mean well, but somehow they just don’t get that keeping things the way they are is diametrically opposed to progress, and the world will progress whether you want it to or not. Sure, they can make a good argument with some very good ideas that could contribute to a blissful lifestyle; but as their list of demands continue, their narrow views on society as a whole become glaringly obvious, all under the guise of “moral values.” Thank God, we have color in this world. Values aren’t the gifts that God gave us. His gift to us is color, and those who truly value our world are the ones who understand that.

Kick-Ass (2010) ***
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Writers: Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn, Mark Millar (comic book), John S. Romita, Jr. (comic book)
Starring: Aaron Johnson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Chloë Grace Moretz, Nicolas Cage, Mark Strong, Lyndsy Fonseca, Xander Berkley

Image courtesy of Lionsgate/Universal
Yeah, “down to earth” certainly doesn’t describe “Kick-Ass” very well. It is a strange and odd sort of movie. It isn’t exactly a spoof of the superhero genre, and yet it doesn’t take itself entirely seriously. Yet it does take itself very seriously in many ways. The action is unique and interesting. The characters don’t do and behave as you might expect. I was especially impressed by Christopher Mintz-Plasse, whom most people recognize as McLovin’ from “Superbad”. He’s set up as his typical character type, a nerdy geek who thinks more of himself than he actually is; but instead, he’s actually intelligent and not entirely oblivious to the world he lives in. The hero, Kick-Ass, on the other hand, is oblivious until he gets beat up enough to realize just how oblivious he is and will probably always be. Anyway, it’s hard to keep a straight line of thought on this one, because it is so odd to begin with.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Despicable Me / *** (PG)

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

Featuring the voice talents of:
Gru: Steve Carell
Vector: Jason Segel
Dr. Nefario: Russell Brand
Margo: Miranda Cosgrove
Edith: Dana Gaier
Agnes: Elsie Fischer
Gru’s Mom: Julie Andrews
Mr. Perkins: Will Arnett
Miss Hattie: Kristen Wiig

Universal Studios presents a film directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud. Written by Ken Daurio, Cinco Paul, and Sergio Pablos. Running time: 95 min. Rated PG (for rude humor and mild action).

“Despicable Me” is really not all that despicable. No, it’s adorable! Ugh! Eww! I think I just threw up a little in my mouth.

Whatever. It’s a good movie, fun for the kids. Nothing much new, but well made.

It follows the life of an evil mastermind, a typical cartoon villain. Well, let’s back up a bit. Gru (voiced by Steve Carell, “The Office”) is hardly typical, even though the transformation he goes through in this movie is. He is certainly not evil, although he seems to wish he were at first. The criminal mastermind world is apparently cutthroat, and Gru may become old news to the world at large if he cannot top a new evil mastermind named Vector (Jason Segel, “How I Met Your Mother”) who has stolen one of the pyramids.

Gru decides to steal the moon. The only problem with his plan is that it requires a shrink gun, which Vector steals from him before he can get the financial backing necessary from the head of the Bank of Evil (Will Arnett, “Monsters vs. Aliens”). Yes, the financial crisis even threatens to thwart the evil plans of the world’s greatest criminal minds.

Gru discovers Vector has a weakness for cookies sold door-to-door by three orphans and hatches a plan to adopt the orphans so he might gain access to Vector’s impenetrable fortress, or house, to steal the gun back. These masterminds’ houses are where the filmmakers cull much of their comedy for the film, making these abodes parodies of the typical James Bond villain’s lair. Vector has a giant shark that swims under the glass floor of his living room. Gru has a ridiculously complicated contraption that takes him from his house’s main level to his secret underground lair.

Anyway, the three orphan girls are too cute for Gru or the audience to resist and it soon becomes apparent that Gru will learn to become a parent. Did you see what I did there? Huh? Like I said, where the story goes isn’t really much of a surprise, but the filmmakers give us a good show getting there.

Even more impressive than the potential theft of the moon is this race of minions Gru has created. They all seem to have different personalities. There seems to be thousands of them faithfully following Gru, even though he sometimes tortures them testing out new evil equipment. They seem to have developed their own language and yet understand English perfectly well. They’re really quite amazing and certainly the most impressive accomplishment on Gru’s evil resume. 

That about covers it for this enjoyable enough family film. I want take the rest of my space to discuss 3D. It seems every CGI film released by Hollywood automatically comes out in the 3D format now. That’s reasonable enough, I suppose; but in the past several months, as the Hollywood and exhibitor machines have been pushing their full force behind this new format, 3D has come under a good deal of attack from the critical community as a whole. This is mostly due to the unfortunate decision of some studios to capitalize on the higher priced 3D tickets by converting live action movies filmed in 2D to a 3D format. This ill-advised move has resulted in lackluster 3D effects on blockbusters like “Clash of the Titans” and “The Last Airbender”. In turn, this has brought derision on the format as a whole.

The first couple of films I saw in the 3D format were fairly impressive in their use of the 3D effects, without a reliance on those effects to tell good stories. This year, however, has seen a deluge of entries into the format that have garnered 3D the label of “gimmick.”  Most of the animated fare being offered up in 3D does not really utilize the format to the great effect that James Cameron’s “Avatar” did. He used the format to suggest the awkwardness of a zero gravity environment, to highlight the gargantuan machines of the humans and their impact on an alien planet, and to accentuate the beauty of that planet’s unique characteristics. Most 3D endeavors, however, are not this bold in their use of the extra dimension.

Take “Despicable Me” as an example. The 3D format is totally unnecessary here to suggest anything that couldn’t otherwise be suggested in two dimensions. There are some sequences where the filmmakers use the format as a gimmick to shove objects in the audience’s faces, such as when the nose of Gru’s airplane stops seemingly inches from our own noses. During the closing credits some of Gru’s minions have a contest to see who can get the closest to the “camera.” But these are merely gimmicks, add nothing to the film as a whole, and will not enhance the 2D format of the final DVD version.

There are a couple of sequences here that do utilize the 3D format well, such as the first shot of Gru’s minions working in his secret lair, or the rollercoaster ride, which achieves the effect of feeling like a real rollercoaster ride. But these sequences don’t have much of an impact on the story as a whole, and don’t carry a significant influence on the entire film. Until filmmakers can learn to incorporate 3D into the artistic impact of the film, 3D will remain a mere gimmick; and the more Hollywood forces 3D upon its own output, the more likely they are to turn audiences against the format all together.