Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Road

The Road is a movie that makes you think about other post-apocalyptic dramas and say to yourself, "You know, those other movies really seem lighthearted now."  It is one of the few movies that makes me consider Children of Men as a laugh riot.  In case you're having trouble judging my tone, I'll spell it out for you: DEPRESSING.

This shouldn't come as a surprise, considering the people involved with this movie.  The director, John Hillcoat, has done bleak in the past.  Viggo Mortensen doesn't usually take roles in romantic comedies (unless you count the end of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King).  The movie is adapted from the novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy, author of No Country For Old Men, someone whose subject matter doesn't really lend itself to frivolity.

This is the story of a nameless man and son as they make their way across the remains of the United States, toward the sea.  Something has happened in the recent past (within the lifespan of the boy) that has ruined the world.  It is a dark, dirty, ashen post-apocalypse.  Crops have failed and animals are dead.  The only nourishment the father and son can find are occasional bugs or, if they're extremely luck, canned goods.  Ammunition is at a premium; the father has a revolver with two bullets, one for him and one for the boy.  Some people have resorted to cannibalism and scour the land in gangs.  Obviously, this tends to make the father suspicious of strangers.  Despite this logical animosity toward others, the two meet occasional strangers, including Robert Duvall and Michael K. Williams (best known for his awesome work as Omar in The Wire series).  Sometimes, they encounter a habitable house; sometimes, those houses are being used by cannibals to store their "cattle."  As they make their way cross country, the father begins coughing blood and knows his time will soon be up.

Sounds like fun, eh?  I have to say that I did not enjoy this film.  I also should point out that enjoyment was definitely not the goal here.  This film takes the Hollywood cliche of the post-apocalypse and makes it downright horrifying.  I am Legend was lonely, but had some cool moments (Oh, don't want to hunt deer in NYC?  Liar!).  Mad Max had dozens of colorful characters.  28 Days Later had excitement and some little moments of joy sprinkled throughout.  The Road has survivors that have made it this far because they are stubborn.  They have no hope.  They have no friends.  The keep going because they don't want to stop.  Watching this is something of an endurance test, too.  Sometimes, a movie will take on a difficult, depressing subject, and the tone just doesn't match the subject matter.  That is not the case here.  The post-apocalypse will suck, and this film knows it.

This is a dark movie, and the cinematography matches the tone.  The lighting is dim (because it's permanently cloudy) and the camera takes in sweeping panoramas of dead wasteland.  If you're going to watch this, do it in the dark.  Everything looks painfully authentic here, including the actors.  Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee (the son) both lost a lot of weight to appear this malnourished.  This might lose its impact as the film progressed, if it wasn't for the occasional flashback to the pre-apocalypse, which was full of color, electricity, a healthy Viggo and his late wife, played by Charlize Theron.  Those brief moments serve as a visual reminder of just how horrible the world the father and son occupy really is.

The acting here is top notch.  Viggo Mortensen does his best work when he doesn't have to speak much, and this is not a wordy movie.  He plays a tired, scared man that will go to any length to keep his son alive, and he looks like a man that has spent years living like that.  Kodi Smit-McPhee does a good job as the son, clearly living scared, but still trying to understand his father and others.  This movie avoids melodramatic father-son moments, but there are still a few touching scenes toward the end.  These two are on screen for almost the entire movie; the supporting cast is lucky to share the screen for more than two minutes.  Charlize Theron's character could have been glossed over to represent how great the past was, but she is shown as a woman, wife, mother and person in her few scenes.  She is sometimes happy, other times not.  It's a surprisingly varied role, given the limited screen time, and Theron does it justice.  Robert Duvall delivers an unsurprisingly great performance as an elderly survivor that looks like he is 300 years old.  Michael K. Williams and Guy Pearce both make the best of their bit parts, minute as they are.  There is no bad acting in this entire movie.

From a technical point of view, John Hillcoat did a fantastic job bringing this story to life.  The acting is very good, the cinematography is very good, the tone of the movie is very appropriate, and I think the film accomplished everything it set out to do.  And yet, I don't think I want to watch this movie again in the near future.  While I appreciate a lot of things here, I just can't get past how exhausting this movie is.  And I'm not sure you're supposed to.

Friday, May 28, 2010


Let's assume that the inevitable vampire apocalypse happens in a few years.  What would that world look like?  According to Daybreakers, surprisingly similar to today.  In the year 2019, the world has become overwhelmingly populated with vampires; vampirism has spread like a pandemic, infecting almost the entire human population.  Aside from the streets being empty during the day, though, things appear much as they do now.  There's still TV, vampires drive cars, drink coffee (with sugar and blood), and eat normal stuff.  They just happen to catch fire and explode in the sun.  With vampires being so much like their human selves, it is not surprising that they are running through their most precious natural resource: human blood.  Yes, it is a subtle allegory.  The number of "wild" humans is almost nonexistent and, even with human farms (a term that is not used in the movie, but totally should have been), the supply of human blood will run out in a matter of days.

So, what's the big deal?  There are lots of animals that bleed.  Unfortunately, human blood is the only blood that can keep vampires from turning into monsters.  With extended periods of human blood starvation, normal human-looking vamps begin to change; they become paler, their ears become pointed, they lose the ability to speak, their hands become claws, and they grow wings.  Basically, they end up looking like Nosferatu with wings.

Ethan Hawke's character is a vampire hematologist (Hilarious!  Aren't they all amateur hematologists?) that is trying to create a human blood substitute for the vampire population.  So far, his best result has led to his vampire subject exploding.  And that, apparently, was progress.  Hawke works for Sam Neill's company; Neill wants to farm humans out for their blood.  Why he is funding Hawke's work when he clearly just wants human blood, I don't know.  They kind of explain this (the general population gets the substitute, while the rich pay for the good stuff), but Neill later claims this was a lie.  Whatever.  Hawke happens to hate being a vampire.  He doesn't want to die, but he has been abstaining from human blood for a while, drinking only pig's blood.  He accidentally encounters the human resistance and meets Willem Dafoe's character, a  human that was once a vampire.  Together, they work to find a cure to vampirism...but will anyone want it?

As far as vampire movies go, this is a solid entry into the genre.  It's smarter than a lot of vampire movies and I liked the pseduo-science that went into the script.  Hawke's work with Dafoe was interesting, if a little silly, and followed a moderately logical stream of thought.  Basically, the sun starts a vampire's heart beating, but it increases too fast, causing their body heat to increase, eventually lighting on fire.  The explosions aren't explained.  Still, that's not a terrible idea, so writers/directors Michael and Paul Spierig deserve some recognition for trying to make vampirism sound scientific.  I liked a lot of little touches in the movie.  I liked that vampires can buy cars that have darkened windows and digital video cameras so they can drive in the daylight.  I like that they don't only drink blood, but it is an important part of their diet.  I really liked that this movie explained the more monstrous style of vampires; you don't usually see the scary vampires in the same movie with human-ish vampires.  A lot of thought went into the production for the lifestyle of vampires, and it really comes through in the details of this film.

That said, this movie could have used more attention to the script.  To give you an idea of the poor choices made in this movie, Willem Dafoe sings a few lines of Elvis Presley's "Burning Love."  Yes, it's awkward.  There are other things that just don't make sense.  Sam Neill has a human daughter that is captured.  He has her turned into a vampire against her will, despite knowing how close they all are to starvation.  Not exactly father of the year material.  There is a scene where humans are traveling great distances to reach a supposedly safe hiding spot for humans, but they decide to travel at night.  Maybe I have more military training (I have seen several war movies) than the Spierig brothers, but that just strikes me as stupid to a fault.  Should they travel through empty streets during the day, or travel at night, when vampires are active?  Tough call.  That sort of random stupidity is all too common in this movie and really keeps it from being genuinely good.

The acting is solid, despite a largely foreign cast.  Ethan Hawke apparently combs his hair back only when he's a vampire, but is fine aside from that.  Willem Dafoe is Willem Dafoe; he's not winning over anyone with this performance, but he is typically solid and over-the-top at the same time.  Sam Neill does a good job with this villainous turn; he does not appear to like acting in American movies much, but it's always nice to see him pop up. Claudia Karvan, Jay Laga'aia, and Michael Dorman turn in respectable supporting performances, but nobody really stands out.  As far as direction goes, the Spierig brothers seem competent, but I think directing is just their way of getting their screenplays to the big screen.

Daybreakers has an interesting concept with a lot of good detail, but the story allows a lot of stupid things to happen.  I'll give the Spierig brothers kudos for trying to make a smart vampire movie, but they don't succeed here.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Street Fighter

Martial arts movies, like Westerns, are often judged on a different scale than most American movies.  Since most Martial Arts movies come from abroad, the plot is generally unimportant.  This is partially because all you really want to see is some awesome kung fu action, and partially because American dubbing is usually all but incomprehensible.  For instance, in The Street Fighter, there is a scene where the main character uses the phrase "mean and nasty" four times in under a minute.  I doubt that's an accurate translation.  Anyway, most of the time, viewers are willing to overlook a lame or nonexistent plot if the action is good.

To give you an idea of the quality of The Street Fighter's action, consider this: it received an X rating for violence.  Not sex.  Violence.  Granted, it was released in 1974 and times have changed, but there is at least one scene that will generate an audible response from you.  I'll give you a hint: bare-handed castration.  Awesome.  And, in some states, it would be completely justified.

The actual Japanese title for this movie is translated roughly as "Clash, Killer Fist!"  Apparently, the American producers didn't know awesomeness when they heard it.  I don't want to dwell on the convoluted plot, but Sonny Chiba plays Tsurugi, a mercenary, and he was hired to save a convict's life.  He does so with unique style, but is told by the convict's brother and sister that they don't have the money to pay for the service.  Being the bad-ass mofo he is, Tsurugi attacks the siblings; the end result is the brother dead and the sister sold into sexual slavery by Tsurugi.  What a twist!  Aside from that, Tsurugi is offered a job by the Yakuza and turns it down.  Aiiiieeee!!!  Thinking that he has too much information, the Yakuza try to kill Tsurugi; he then decides to join the "good" side just to spite the Yakuza.  Judo kick!  More stuff happens, I assure you, but the important thing to keep in mind here is that Tsurugi spends almost all of this movie fighting.  Good guys, bad guys, it doesn't matter as long as he can make them bleed.  Christian Slater explained it best in True Romance: Sonny Chiba isn't a good guy or a bad guy, just a mean mutha.

What really sets Sonny Chiba apart from other Martial Arts actors is his facial expressions.  Bruce Lee may have cornered the market on pure talent and his hilarious noises, but Chiba is light years ahead with his mean face.  It's hard to explain to someone who hasn't seen it firsthand, but whether Chiba is fighting street punks or an entire dojo, his facial expression is enough to make even the toughest foe ask, "Whoa, what's going on with this guy?"  He usually has the kind of smile you associate with someone that is about to eat your face off.  Oh, you still have a face?  Well, then consider this movie an investment in your continued survival.  You've got to learn these things sometimes.  Oh, and I'm pretty sure his eyes are a gateway to hell.  Maybe not the gateway, but definitely a gateway.

Another great thing about this movie is that it goes against the grain.  In most Martial Arts movies, something bad happens in the beginning.  The hero shows up, unable to help, and spends about forty minutes letting the story build until he decides to beat up every person he sees.  Here, Chiba doesn't wait around for the plot.  The plot is that he fights people.  I might not be exaggerating; the dubbing in the American version is so bad that recurring characters in the series have different names.  You could make a valid claim that the script is equally up for grabs.  Chiba isn't even the toughest guy in this film.  He gets beaten by a middle-aged guy with Kirby Puckett's body.  Chiba evens struggles against other people, too.  When you see Jet Li, Tony Jaa, or Bruce Lee fight in a movie, they are without peer.  Sure, some freak might give them a moment's pause, but they are never outmatched.  That vulnerability makes Chiba all the more appealing.  Who cares if he's not invincible?  He's still going to beat the snot out of you.

It's difficult to gauge director Shigehiro Ozawa's work here, since the translation is obviously terrible.  Ozawa directed this and the other Street Fighter movies that came out in 1974 (Return of the Street Fighter and The Street Fighter's Last Revenge), so he must have had something going for him.  At the very least, he knew when to tell Chiba to punch somebody in the face.

Now for the $64,000 question.  Is this a good movie?  Well, in Martial Arts terms, it is a clear classic; it is not cliche-ridden and introduces a new star.  In standard American movie terms?  Well, Sonny Chiba beats a lot of people up.  Aside from that, the movie is pretty hard to understand without multiple viewings.  So, no, it's not an immediately accessible film and it will not convert those that are not already fans of the genre.  That doesn't mean it's not awesome, though.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Informant!

The Informant! is the real-life story of Mark Whitacre (played by Matt Damon), a man who became an informant to the FBI and yet was still prosecuted by them.  Whitacre is an upper level executive in a company that does some boring stuff with corn.  They make corn into other things, like ethanol and whatnot.  He is overseeing a project that is supposed to increase the output of the additive lysine, which is used in commercial livestock; the project isn't doing well.  Whitacre goes to his bosses (Thomas F. Wilson and Tom Papa)and explains that he has been getting phone calls from a competitor; the competitor alleges that there is a mole at Whitacre's company, ADM, that is sabotaging the lysine production.  For a fee, the competitor will identify the mole and/or explain how to bypass the sabotage.  The boss contacts the FBI, who announce their intention of tapping whatever phone Whitacre uses for these calls; when FBI agent Shepard (Scott Bakula) arrives at Whitacre's home to install the tap, Whitacre drops a bomb on him.  ADM executives (including Whitaker) have been secretly negotiating with their global competitors for years to set the price for lysine on a year-by-year basis.  That allows the lysine companies to make hundreds of millions of dollars by keeping the price of lysine artificially high; this affects farmer, which in turn affects consumers, which means that the general public has been bilked out of tons of money because these corporate fat cats were greedy.

Whitacre volunteers to act as an undercover informant for the FBI, gathering hundreds of video and audio tapes of these back-room dealings over five years.  The case against ADM is pretty good.  Then everything goes wrong for Whitacre.  The District Attorney begins prosecution against ADM, but is shown some interesting things in ADM's paperwork.  It turns out that Whitacre, who voluntarily blew the whistle on a multimillion dollar case of price fixing, spent those same five years defrauding his own company out of millions.  The FBI was embarrassed to realize that their star witness was, in fact, a high-level criminal himself while he worked with them.  Whitacre tries to cover for himself, weaving a dense web of barely coherent lies, but he is prosecuted for his crimes.

 As you can probably tell, this is a plot-heavy movie.  If you're going to watch this, the details will matter, so don't bother if you're tired or bored by legal stuff.  In the end, it's not the plot that is as important as what Whitacre says throughout the film.  Whitacre is constantly lying and contradicting himself throughout the film.  Remember the corporate mole and sabotage from the beginning of the movie?  Completely made up.  And that's not even an important point in the movie.  The film makes a brief (if insincere) detour to blame some of his behavior on bipolar disorder, but the fact remains that he lies in every scene in the movie.  The more you pay attention to his initial claims, the more you will appreciate him getting caught lying later.

I say "appreciate" and not "laugh at" for a reason.  While this is categorized as a comedy, I would say that it is probably as comedic as Fargo.  Yes, there are funny things in both, but neither is light-hearted and the comedy does not come from jokes or gags.  Really, this is a movie-sized Law and Order with a complete idiot as the main character.  Maybe I shouldn't say he's a complete idiot; he did manage to steal millions from his own company and spy on them without getting caught.  In fact, the only reason he got caught for embezzlement is because he blew the whistle on the price fixing.  No, he's a complete idiot.  His primary motivation for blowing the whistle was to get all the other executives fired, so he could take over the company.  Gaps in logic like that are the most common sources for comedy here, but Matt Damon does a series of voice-over non sequiturs that are genuinely funny.  Still, branding this a "comedy" does the film a disservice by setting up unreasonable expectations, like jokes.

The acting in the movie is fine.  Matt Damon gained about twenty-five pounds to play the role and he does seem more down-to-earth here.  I also have to admit that I was consistently frustrated by his character's lies, so Damon was convincing . I don't think his performance is exceptional, but he does a good job.  I was particularly impressed by his mustache. The rest of the cast is decent, but nothing special.  Scott Bakula and Joel McHale are fine as FBI agents.  Melanie Lynskey does a lot with the given material as Whitacre's wife, but it's ultimately a bit part.  Clancy Brown, Paul F. Tompkins, Patton Oswalt, Tom Papa, Thomas F. Wilson and several other recognizable faces and voices (one of John Cusack's sisters has a small role) all do their jobs, but they are essentially playing straight men in their two or three minutes on screen.  There are a lot of stand-up comedians in this cast, which makes the lack of outright jokes in this movie all the more apparent.

That brings the direction into question.  Steven Soderbergh is a director that has no problem using style to make a point in his films.  Normally, I like his choices.  He has used interesting cinematography, split screens, and hand-held cameras to good effect in the past, but here is plays it pretty straight.  Too straight for my liking.  The actors all play their roles as if they are in a drama, which is fine, given the script.  However, the casting of so many known comedians undercuts this.  While the comedians are not being funny (not their fault), their mere presence implies that something should be found funny.  Normally, I like seeing comedians branching out into drama, but this just seems insincere.  I also don't like being told (subtly or not) what should be funny.  This isn't as insulting as a laugh track, but I still don't like it.  Another odd directoral choice is the music Soderbergh used.  I get that it adds a whimsical feel to a movie that is largely light take on Soderbergh's Erin Brockovich.  I get that the juxtaposition of the music with the monotony of big business is intended to remind viewers that this is a comedy and make Damon's voice-over lines feel less random.  It doesn't work for me.  I found the music annoying.

I don't mean to criticize this movie for what it is not.  I think the script is smart, if a tad dry, and I think Damon's character worked, but would have been better in a movie that was more overtly comical.  I just don't think this movie achieved what it set out to do.  Damon's voice-over, the music, and the constant presence of comedians all indicate that this movie was meant to be funny.  I didn't laugh or enjoy this movie much.  While I found the story interesting and the plot well-paced, I just didn't enjoy this alleged comedy.  This isn't a bad movie, just one that's lying to itself about what it wants to be

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Miss March (Unrated)

Okay, I will be the first to admit it: this movie looks stupid.  Really, really stupid.  Like, Scary Epic American Pie Movie Film 4.25 stupid.  And yet, after watching previews for this movie, something inside me said "Well, it might not be so bad."  Don't get me wrong...this movie hits the stupid button like it's a whack-a-mole game.  I still laughed.  Why?  Because I find some things funny, jerks.

The premise is pretty weak, I'll admit.  Eugene (Zach Cregger) has been abstinent throughout high school, but his girlfriend, Cindi (Raquel Alessi), has finally talked him into having sex after their senior prom.  Nervous and not very sure about his decision, Eugene looks to his best friend, Tucker (Trevor Moore), for advice.  His advice is to do some shots of whiskey.  Drunk and confident, Eugene leaves his friend to finally lose his virginity...but opens the wrong door, falls down some stairs, and ends up in a coma instead.  Four years later, Eugene finally wakes up from his coma, only to find that his family has moved out of state and his girlfriend is MIA.  The only friend that stuck around is Tucker, who has modeled his entire life after the model set by Hugh Hefner and Playboy magazine.  Thanks to his Playboy subscription, Tucker realizes where Cindi has gone; she's the centerfold in the March issue!  And to think, I assumed nothing would ever reference the movie's title!  The two friends make the only logical conclusion they can: they must take a road trip to the Playboy Mansion so Eugene can find Cindi and Tucker can fulfill his lifelong dream of visiting the Mansion.

If you think that the premise is just a sad excuse to make as many tasteless jokes as possible, you aren't completely wrong.  There's a lot of dumb, gross jokes here.  Honestly, a lot of the jokes are borderline for me.  If they were delivered or written just a little differently, I probably would have hated half of this movie.  Luckily, Zach Cregger and Trevor Moore (who both co-directed and co-wrote the film) are masters of walking the line between stupid-funny and stupid-annoying.  These two are (only slightly) better known as part of the Whitest Kids U' Know comedy troupe.  If you have the opportunity, check them out; they are punchline-based sketch comedy (like my hilarious friends in Big Dog Eat Child), and are more than willing to be really, really stupid for the sake of a joke.

The characters are pretty basic here; Eugene and Tucker are just opposites as a sensitive virgin and a sex-crazed egomaniac.  The supporting characters are just as basic.  The girlfriends don't do a whole lot; Tucker's girlfriend, Candace (Molly Stanton) gives a solid performance as a crazy girl and Raquel Alessi isn't required to do much more than be pretty as the title character.  Only Craig Robinson's performance as rapper Horsedick.mpeg moves beyond a broad stereotype into the realm of complete ridiculousness.  As Robinson's character's name might indicate, this is still a stupid, stupid movie.  Aside from that, there are a couple of aggressively sexual lesbians, crazy firemen, some random sluts, and (of course) Hugh Hefner himself.  This is actually the best movie I have seen Hefner in, barely edging out The Toxic Avenger IV: Citizen Toxie.  I'm not criticizing the supporting cast, mind you.  They exist as fodder for jokes, and they do the job they were hired to do.  Who should hang out on Hosedick.mpeg's tour bus?  Whores?  Done.  Who do you want to play insatiable lesbian lovers?  Two hot chicks that are willing to do nudity?  Double done! Who should play a bit role as a doctor?  Cedric Yarbrough?  Excellent choice, my friends.

Believe it or not, a movie with a character named Hosedick.mpeg has some offensive jokes.  Most notably, this movie has some disgusting bathroom humor (I'd say it's the best of its kind since Dumb and Dumber) and has two odd running gags, one at the expense of epileptics and another aimed at firemen.  I guess the epileptic and fireman gags aren't really offensive so much as they are snowball jokes; they start out only kind of funny, but get better as the movie goes on.  Another one of those is the T-shirt that Eugene ends up wearing for the entire movie.  It's a dumb, cheap laugh, but it's never referenced again, which helps undercut the movie's supposedly sincere moments.  You might notice something odd when Eugene is being talked into sex by his girlfriend at the beginning of the movie; I don't know if the theatrical version has this, but the dialogue is dubbed over in parts.  I did a little research and found that they replaced the word "retard" with "crackhead."  That was what went over the line for the producers.  Not a black man called Horsedick (dot-mpeg!).  I guess that's what they refer to as a "judgment call."

 It's difficult to write a review for a comedy that actually makes people want to watch the movie.  You don't want to describe the jokes in detail.  The plot and acting are both going to be, almost necessarily, universally poor.  All that really matters is the writing, timing, and delivery.  In those three important areas, this film delivers.  Sure, Miss March has gotten scathing reviews across the board.  Yes, Hugh Hefner was nominated for a Razzie award for his supporting role.  I think those critics missed the point.  This was never going to be that romantic comedy with heart that will function as a date movie.  It's not a coming of age tale (not really) that has an out-of-left-field emotional ending, like most sex comedies.  These characters do grow a little, but not much.  Instead, this movie goes for the funny.  Sometimes, they swing and miss.  Badly.  Like, corkscrew into the ground badly.  But, once it gets you laughing, you will find even the stupidest moments endearing.  Or, at the very least, you will feel smarter than the characters.  Still not sure if this movie is for you?  Check out some Whitest Kids U'Know clips on youtube.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Monsters vs. Aliens

I think the "versus" movie is a fantastic idea. When you explain exactly what the movie is about in the title, you don't have to waste unnecessary time developing characters or plot, and can just get on with the fight.  Freddy vs. Jason is, obviously, the best example of this, but there are a lot of good vs. match-ups out there.  Ninjas vs Pirates: The Movie, anyone?  Yes please!

Monsters vs. Aliens, for some unknown reason, chooses not to embrace its title and instead tries to tell a story.  Big mistake.  Instead of watching animated monsters fighting animated aliens, probably ripping their innards out and using them for jump rope, viewers are treated to the girl-power tale of Susan (voiced by Reese Witherspoon), as she learns (SPOILER!!!) that happiness does not come from living for others.  Susan, later dubbed Ginormica, is the submissive fiancee of local weatherman and swollen ego, Derek (Paul Rudd), until she is struck by a meteor on their wedding day. 

On a side note, I'd just like to say that, if you find a large object falling toward you, DO NOT turn around and run away.  You're still in the line of impact, and you might not have the best depth perception; instead, run perpendicular to the object's path and you will hopefully avoid any meteors heading your way.  You're welcome. 

Anyway, Susan became radioactive and turned into a giant.  Once again, movies prove science wrong by showing how a horrible accident inevitably leads to super powers.  Take that, science!  Susan is quickly subdued by the military and taken to a military complex that houses other monsters.  The other monsters are an amorphous blob, B.O.B. (Seth Rogen), a mad scientist with a cockroach's head and abilities, Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie), a half-ape and half-amphibian evolutionary wonder, the Missing Link (Will Arnett), and a Chrysler Building-sized grub, Insectosaurus.  Susan is renamed Ginormica by the monsters' military liason, the R. Lee Ermy-esque General W.R. Monger (Keifer Sutherland) and is told that she is now a monster.  See, it's funny because she looks like a normal woman (albeit 100 feet tall) and they're calling her a monster.  Get it?  Well, the kids will.  Susan has a hard time accepting her new role, especially when she is told that monsters never leave their secret military complex.  Frowny face emoticon!  Things change quickly when the alien Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson) shows up to conquer the planet.  Well, that's just his secondary goal.  What Gallaxhar really wants is the radiation that Susan has absorbed; this will return her to normal, but will give him ultimate power.  Obviously, this leads to the monsters being released to fight the alien menace; through the power of fist-fighting, Susan learns the value of self-esteem and true friends.

This movie is co-directed by Conrad Vernon (Shrek 2) and Rob Letterman (Shark Tale), and you can identify elements of their previous work here.  My major problem with Dreamworks Animation's films is their lack of depth.  Sure, they're nice, light movies for little kids, but I like cartoons, too, man!  With Pixar making such amazing movies every year, Dreamworks' stuff often pales in comparison.  Here, we get a movie whose moral is basically that girls should have their own identity and not just be accessories to successful men.  Whoa...edgy!  This soft-sell of a tale is reminiscent of Letterman's Shark Tale' and its "lying is bad" moral.  On the bright side, Conrad Vernon's presence is felt, too.  One of the main reasons Shrek 2 is my favorite Shrek is because it is not afraid to just go for jokes.  Here, both Hugh Laurie and Seth Rogen are both used very well; neither really adds much to the plot, but both are decently funny whenever they get the chance (and I hate Rogen, so that's a huge compliment).  I think these joke characters (Insectosaurus is another) are really what work best in this movie.  It's just too bad they are sprinkled through a competent, but uninspired, main plot.

The animation in this movie is as good as you would expect.  While I have my own issues with Dreamworks Animation's stories, their movies always look great.  This movie was the first computer animated movie made in the new stereoscopic 3-D, but I just saw the 2-D version and it still looked good.

The voice acting is star-studded, but a little hit-and-miss.  Reese Witherspoon may or may not be a good choice as the main character; due to the story's strengths and weaknesses, she doesn't really get an opportunity to excel.  Hugh Laurie and Kiefer Sutherland might have been playing stock characters, but they did a great job diving into their roles; it is difficult to identify them in this film.  Seth Rogen and Rainn Wilson clearly had the most fun making this movie, and it shows.  It helps that their characters are both idiots, since that doesn't stretch their acting too far from their comfort zones.  Stephen Colbert was an inspired choice to play the President of the United States, but I was a little underwhelmed by the lines given to him; there's even a couple of minutes early on where his character is on screen, but has no dialogue.  What a waste!  The rest of the cast failed to impress me.  I didn't care for Will Arnett, as the Missing Link, in particular, but Paul Rudd, Amy Pohler, Julie White, Jeffrey Tambor, Ed Helms, Renee Zellweger, and John Krasinski all made brief and unmemorable appearances in the film.

I guess the bottom line here is how likable the movie is.  Kids will absolutely enjoy the movie.  B.O.B. plays for cheap laughs and his humor is aimed at the kids.  Adults will like some of the humor, sure (my favorite was Insectosaurus), but the story is saccharine enough to cause cavities.  There are certainly worse children's movies to watch, but I don't think this one has the all-ages appeal to make it a classic.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Mr. Brooks

 Have you ever seen a movie that you wish you could have edited yourself?  Or at least had some input into the writing process?  That's how I feel about Mr. Brooks, an interesting take on the serial killer motif that manages to shoot itself in the foot with poor acting and unnecessary use of Demi Moore.

Earl Brooks (Kevin Costner) is a successful family man with a daughter in college (Danielle Panabaker) and a doting wife (Marg Helgenberger).  He is the mild-mannered bespectacled Chamber of Commerce "Man of the Year," and he is a serial killer.  Brooks has an imaginary friend, Marshall (William Hurt), that serves as the voice for his blood lust.  Brooks is a fastidious killer, taking pains to select random victims, leave no physical evidence, and always stay in control.  Brooks is also known as the "Fingerprint Killer," thanks to his habit of leaving a single bloody fingerprint from each of his victims at the crime scene.  This is an unusual setup for a movie that follows a killer.  First and foremost, Brooks is the hero of the story.  Viewers are also very aware that Marshall is imaginary, so you don't have to worry about any A Beautiful Mind-style surprises.  Brooks' approach to serial killing is unique, too, as he treats it as an addiction and attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings on a regular basis.  Also, how odd is it for a movie to show a serial killer as a fully functional member of society?  The twist comes when Brooks gives in to his addiction and kills a couple that he has been fantasizing about for some time.  This couple happens to enjoy having sex with the curtains open; for the first time, Brooks has a witness to one of his murders.  The witness is a "Mr. Smith" (Dane Cook), an amateur photographer that likes to take pictures of the now late couple having sex.  Instead of turning Brooks in, though, Smith blackmails Brooks into mentoring him in the ways of murder.  Brooks doesn't like it, but he agrees.

That's the basic premise of the movie, and I think it's a refreshing take on the typical killer movie.  It's not a slasher and it's not a James Patterson-ish thriller.  It's a smart premise and I appreciate it.  You would think that would be enough plot for a movie, but two subplots are introduced as well.  The first is the case of Brooks' daughter, who has dropped out of college and returned home, pregnant.  She is followed soon by police from her college town; apparently, she is a suspect in a murder on her campus.  Brooks is able to spot flaws in her alibi and has the horrible realization that his daughter is a killer, too.  While not a necessary story, this is an interesting way to flesh out Brooks' character, giving him reasons to exist beyond his blood lust.  The second subplot involves the detective that is in charge of the "Thumbprint Killer" case.  The detective (Demi Moore) is an independently wealthy woman in the midst of a messy divorce.  Her story ties in a little more directly into the primary plot as the movie progresses, but that is basically what her character is all about.

This is a very uneven movie, which is likely due to the nature of director/co-writer Bruce A. Evans.  Evans has done some great work in his career, including writing Starman and the screenplay for Stand By Me.  On the other hand, he has also written the screenplay for Jungle 2 Jungle and wrote the story for Cutthroat Island.  The man is a little hit and miss.  He's also not much of an actor's director.  Demi Moore and Marg Hengenberger both give fairly wooden performances here, while Dane Cook is just obnoxious.  That might just be the character's personality, but it feels like he is trying to channel Brad Pitt's character from 12 Monkeys and he is failing miserably.  Costner and Hurt, on the other hand, are a lot of fun to watch.  They have genuine chemistry and Costner does a good job flipping the switch from the quiet Brooks to the creepy "Thumbprint Killer."  My favorite scenes in the move have just the two of them talking to each other.  The best line in the movie comes from Hurt, speaking of Mr. Smith: "Even if that guy was charming and funny, I still wouldn't like him."  I know.  I feel the same way about Dane Cook.  While he's not great with the lesser actors, Evans does a good job with the cinematography and some of the physical acting.  For instance, I like that Mr. Brooks wears glasses, but whenever he slips into his killer persona, he takes the glasses off.  It's not subtle, but it's a nice touch.  The main problem with the film is the Demi Moore subplot.  It is completely unnecessary and adds nothing of value to the story at large.  The daughter subplot isn't great, either, but it at least shows a different side of Brooks' character.  It would be very easy to make this movie into the story of a man that wears a mask in public, but is a monster in private.  Her subplot shows his soft side; it is not handled very well (and it pops up at unexpected times in the film), but is a novelty in serial killer characterization.

This movie should be better than it is.  I generally like Kevin Costner; the man is a charming actor, as long as he's not being overly ambitious.  William Hurt is, almost without exception, a high quality addition to any film.  Their chemistry is great here.  And yet, the movie doesn't focus enough on their relationship.  The story should be all about them, but attention is diverted to Demi Moore, Dane Cook, and Danielle Panabaker.  That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but the execution is terrible.  It is rare for a subplot to make such a negative impact in a movie, but it really illustrates what works well here and what does not.  If I had to assemble a "Director's Cut" of this movie, it would be about thirty minutes shorter and completely omit Moore's character.

Saturday, May 22, 2010


Whiteout is a heartwarming documentary about the trials and tribulations the emperor penguin must endure to continue their species.  Wait...I'm sorry.  Wrong movie.  This movie is set in Antarctica and is about...people?!?  Oh, no...that can't be good...that means characters will find some excuse to wander around outside, bundled up in parkas, masks, and goggles, making it completely impossible for even the best actor to convey anything except "Brrr!" to the audience.  Only terrible things can come from setting a movie in Antarctica.  Well, that's just common sense.  I'm sure this director knows what he's...crap.  Dominic Sena.  The director of Swordfish and Gone in Sixty Seconds is in charge of putting together an Antarctic movie that isn't terrible?  Dear Hollywood, what were you thinking?  Sincerely, Brian.

Whiteout is a murder mystery set in the frozen tundra of Antarctica.  Well, it's not so much a mystery as it is a process of elimination, since there's (maybe) thirty actors in the whole film.  Kate Beckinsale plays the part of a US Marshall, whose back story the script assumes you want to learn more about.  How should we learn about her?  Colorful dialogue?  Supporting characters talking behind her back?  No, let's use the old repetitive partial flashbacks trick.  That's always a crowd pleaser!  As a viewer, there is nothing I like more than seeing the same flashback over and over again, until the script allows us to see the final little bit that explains why the flashback is supposed to be important.  It's not annoying at all, even when you can summarize the scene with one sentence.

You might be wondering why Kate Beckinsale took this role, since there are neither vampires nor werewolves in the script.  Well, at least not in the final script.  I think she took the role to flex her acting skills, because most of the leading roles she gets have her thrown into skintight leather outfits, bending in pleasing, if surely uncomfortable, directions.  This must seem like a vacation for her.  All parkas, all the time?  Not only does she force attention away from her body and toward her acting, she gets to eat whatever she wants during shooting because nobody looks sexy in a parka.  Of course, the director manages to squeeze in a little T & A at the very beginning, as Beckinsale returns from finding the dead body and decides to take a shower.  I would like to point out that most people would wear warmer undergarments in the Antarctic than she does.  Oh, well.  It's a personal choice.

Sorry, I got sidetracked.  Where was I...?  Oh yeah, the plot.  Well, the movie actually begins with a scene set in the 1950s, aboard a Russian plane.  The plane crashes in Antarctica after the passengers and pilots have a shootout over...well, that's not explained right away.  Instead, we have a murder mystery that somehow involves these moronic Russians.  Seriously, how stupid can they be?  Obviously, there is something valuable on the plane; the camera gazes at one of the passenger's boxes too long for it to be accidental.  There's nothing valuable in Antarctica, and it's nowhere near Russia or any Communist country, so these guys must have brought the valuables from somewhere else and then decided to...what?  Take them to a Russian Antarctic observation station, where they can cash in their valuables parkas?  Maybe they were leaving the Russian station, heading to Moscow or something.  But where did the valuables come from?  Maybe they're not going or coming from Antarctica, but are just cutting across it as a shortcut to another Communist country.  Well, that won't work, since none are located in the southern hemisphere.  Like I said: morons.

Obviously, the mystery Russian valuables are the motivation for the murder.  Otherwise, the Russians in the beginning make no damn sense whatsoever.  The only question is who the murderer could be...and whether he is working alone or not.  That gives us only a few people to consider.  Is the murderer Tom Skerritt, Beckinsale's best friend on base and the base's longtime doctor?  Perhaps it is Columbus Short, who acts as a friendly sidekick to this murder mystery.  Well, no, he gets beat up. it Gabriel Macht, an inspector from the UN whose arrival coincides suspiciously with some of the killer's assaults?  Seriously, I'm pretty sure they would have had a flashing neon sign reading "Suspect" around his neck if they could.  Or is it Alex O'Laughlin, a jerk pilot that can fly himself out of Antarctica if he found, say, something Russian and valuable?

It doesn't matter.  You won't care.  Sure, the plot is a little dumb, and it probably should have omitted the Russian beginning because, let's face it, stumbling across the wreckage of the plane is all we really need to know about how it got there (hint: it crashed).  It's not a fatally stupid premise, though.  The problem is what makes this movie unique: the setting.  The killer is forced to disguise himself in a parka, mask, hood and goggles...just like every character that goes outside in this film.  The wind and snow often buffet the camera, making the characters indistinguishable for the viewers, which makes a chase scene a lot less suspenseful.  When you can't tell which parka has the killer in it, you stop caring pretty quickly.  Speaking of missing the last boat to Suspense Island, both the killer and good guys have to tether themselves to guide ropes when they are outside for safety reasons.  While logical, it seriously limits where the killer and heroes can run to.  "I have to get away from this killer!  ...As long as 'away' is just further down this guide rope."

This movie is just bad.  It's not necessarily the actors' fault, but they don't really help their cause.  The script, taken from a Greg Rucka comic, is dull, at best.  The ending is anticlimactic, although unintentionally funny.  Okay, I'll spoil it for you: Tom Skerritt, the ringleader of everything, is found out, and decides to walk out into the tundra to freeze to death with Beckinsale's approval.  Probably not what her superior wants to read on the official report.  Hilarious.  The real problem is the setting.  In a book, the environment can become a character and really add to a story.  Some movies can make the outdoors absolutely frightening.  This movie just feels a little clammy.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Guns of Navarone

Imagine you are a casting director, in charge of casting a war movie that will be released in 1961.  Your task is to find a leading actor that can fit the description implied by this line of dialogue: "You speak German like a German."  Who do you choose?  It's not an easy choice.  When I think of available lead actors in the early 60s, I can only think of actors with very unique voices that would sound extremely funny speaking German.  Think about it...John Wayne, Charlton Heston, Cary Grant, James Stewart --- none of them would sound right saying "Ich liebe Deutschland."  Clearly, the best choice was...Gregory Peck?  Really?  Don't get me wrong, Gregory Peck was a man among men, the type of guy that cut razors when he shaved, but...a convincing German?  I have a hard time imagining that.  Of course, this was a time when authenticity in casting often meant British actors putting on dark makeup, so maybe I'm just being picky.

The Guns of Navarone is a Mission: Impossible-type operation, set in World War II and based on Alistair MacLean's novel of the same name. 2000 British soldiers have been marooned on a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, with limited food and weapons.  Intelligence reports indicate that the German forces are planning to make an assault within a week on this island, massacring the mostly defenseless soldiers.  All attempts to save these men have failed because the nearby island of Navarone has two enormous anti-aircraft-style guns covering the stranded troops and their island.  Since attacks by air and sea have failed, a more subtle approach is needed; a motley crew is assembled to sail to the island, sneak into the military complex and blow up the guns.  It's a simple plan.  All they have to do is sail to the island without attracting attention, climb a nearly climb-proof cliff, cross the island unnoticed, infiltrate the military base, sneak into the complex that contains the guns, and blow it to hell.  Viewers learn all this within the first ten minutes of the film.  Does it work?  It's a WWII movie, made in 1961.  What do you think?  Actually, history buffs will recognize this fictional plot as mirroring the Dodecanese Campaign, where British forces tried to capture the Greek and Italian islands to use as airbases against the Germans; it was a costly failure for the British.  I guess the ending isn't so obvious, after all.

This is one of those movies where a bunch of hardy strangers are brought together to kill some Germans.  They do just that.  Gregory Peck is the supposedly fluent German-speaker that is only on the mission because of his rock climbing abilities.  His partner (who openly vowed to kill Peck after the war) is Anthony Quinn, an officer in the defeated Greek army.  They are assigned help, consisting of an extremely British explosives expert (David Niven), a hand-to-hand combat expert with a specialty with knives (Stanley Baker), the leader (Anthony Quayle), and a hot-headed shooter (James Darren).  The group has nothing but bad luck the entire time; their ship sinks on the way to Navarone, their leader breaks his leg on the initial climb, and Germans dog them throughout the film...almost as if they knew where the group would be.  It gets a little predictable at times: one guy will stand up to the authority figure, another will lose his taste for battle, others will form bonds of brotherhood, etc.  The movie throws in some romance and betrayal to spice things up, but this is a pretty standard, mission-oriented, 1960s war movie.

Not that '60s war movies are bad, by any means.  This movie is unique within its genre with both the setting (WWII Greece) and the activities (rock climbing, sabotage), which help keep the movie lively.  It is also pretty brutal for its time.  A few men in the group die unmourned and a woman gets executed, both very atypical of war films in 1961.  The action is fairly commonplace, but director J. Lee Thompson does a pretty good job getting his varied (in talent and experience) cast to react appropriately. 

Movies like this can only get so far on spectacle and plot, though.  It is the cast's performance that determines the longevity of the film.  Here, we have Gregory Peck, who tends to play the same character over and over again; I mean that in a good way, because his stern persona is perfect for war movies.  Anthony Quinn does a decent job of playing Greek, despite the fact that he is Mexican.  The stormy relationship between Peck and Quinn is supposed to form the core of the film, but David Niven's performance opposite Peck is more memorable.  Niven's character is the least military-like in the group and he spends much of the first half of the movie attempting to be sarcastic (I say "attempting" only because the script isn't great).  However, when things get tough, he is the one that stands up for his fellow soldiers and acts as the group's conscience against the tactical mind of Peck.  The dynamic between these two men sums up the film quite nicely.  They address the issues of the value of life on impossible missions, the tactics of torture, honor among officers, and more.  The movie feels dated when you watch it, but it has the decency to function as a movie about soldiers and not as a propaganda piece.

Sunday, May 16, 2010


You would think that the science fiction and horror movie genres would be mixed together more often.  The core audience for both genres are roughly the same, right?  However, I can only think of a few films (notably Alien and maybe I am Legend) that actually have a hefty dose of both horror and sci-fi.  This might be due to the fact that it's easier to write a horror movie about dumb teens being way too curious about a creepy basement abandoned house murder factory for their own good than it is to write a script that has monsters and takes the time to logically plan out a future world or spaceship or whatever.  I like the idea of the sci-fi/horror hybrid, though, because a well-executed hybrid has a lot of potential.  So, with an optimistic heart, I watched Pandorum.

The movie starts out just fine.  Despite the credits, Ben Foster is the lead actor in the movie and Dennis Quaid plays a key supporting role.  Both men awaken from some sort of hibernation sleep to find themselves in a spaceship.  They don't remember their names, their jobs, what ship they are on, or why they are there.  Details start to come back to them, but only small details, and they come very slowly.  The only thing they do know is that there should be other people around, helping them get their bearings, but there are not.  The room the men awoke in is sealed off from the rest of the ship and the ship is experiencing frequent power surges.  Foster realizes that he is a technical somethingorother for the ship, so he has to find his way to the reactor core to reboot the ship's reactor and get power everywhere.  So far, it's a little dry, but there is a mystery established: what happened and where is everybody?  Ben Foster's pretty good and Dennis Quaid is the same character he plays in every movie.  Not fantastic stuff, but not a bad start.

Things start to get worse quickly.  Foster has to climb through some ventilation ducts that seem to have a lot of foam "We're No. 1" hands growing in them.  At this point, Foster asks Quaid over their walkie-talkie about the symptoms of Pandorum.  Hey...that's the movie's title!  It must be important!  Pandorum is basically the space version of cabin fever, where paranoia and homicidal aggression meet and cause ordinary folks to go crazy.  Symptoms include hands tremors (which both Foster and Quaid show) and hallucinations.  When Foster finds his way out of the ducts, he encounters two things: first, a survivor that attacks him and second, a monster that attacks them both.  Sure, the monster eats the survivor immediately, but Foster was able to learn that the survivor (Norman Reedus) had no idea what the monsters are or what happened to the ship, despite being out of hibernation for a few months.  These kind of things start to happen to Foster regularly.  He meets a survivor, they try to kill him ( is clearly not a monster?) and then the monsters attack, forcing Foster and his new friend to run.

Let's talk about the monsters for a quick second.  They are very bald, pale, and have beady eyes and sharp teeth.  They move like werewolves in the slow-motion scenes from the Underworld series.  They wear bizarre spiky armor (or is it part of them?) that covers their back and/or shoulders, like they went armor shopping at a Mad Max-themed discount store.  They don't talk.  They eat humans, live or dead, as well as their own wounded.  Basically, they are C.H.O.D.s: Cannabalistic Humanoid Outerspace Dwellers.  While nobody in the movie actually uses this phrase, that is only because they never thought of it.  When C.H.O.D.s are on the screen, ready for action, scenes have a strange habit of becoming dimly lit, poorly shot, and generally blurry.  I'm sure that's just an insight into their character, though, and not a lame way to disguise a low budget.

While all the monster chasing is going on with Ben Foster and friends, where's Dennis Quaid?  Right where we left him, in the room he awoke in.  He spends most of the movie sitting down, trying to walkie-talkie Foster (who lost his walkie-talkie about twenty minutes into the movie).  Quaid fills the time by finding another survivor (Cam Gigandet) in the same air vent that Foster escaped through.  This survivor claims to have killed his two crew mates because they had big time Pandorum.  Obviously, you don't want to restrain that guy.  So Foster is on the run from the CHODs and Quaid is killing time with a crazy.

This just isn't a good movie.  It''s trying to be two different things at the same time.  On the one hand, it is trying to be a creepy mood piece, like Alien.  On the other hand, C.H.O.D.s are eating people's faces.  The two styles don't go together.  All the subtlety of a suspense/mystery is lost as soon as albino cannibals show up.  The biggest problem with the movie is the title.  When the title happens to be an illness, one of the main characters is going to be afflicted.  If you make a movie called "Irritable Bowel Syndrome," it's not going to be an action least not one I want to watch.  But which which character has Pandorum?  The one that is trying to restart a nuclear reactor and save everyone, or the first billed actor that has been sitting around for most of the movie?  Hmm...tough call.

 The movie is not devoid of merit, but there's not much.  It's nice to see Ben Foster in a leading role for a change. had a pretty cool futuristic razor.  The first twenty minutes of the movie (basically, until the monsters show up) is promising, but then again, any movie can look decent for twenty minutes.  The acting isn't terrible here.  You know what you're going to get when you give a Quaid a role, but the rest of the cast (including Cam Gigandet, Antje Traue, Cung Le, and Eddie Rouse) was inoffensive.  If Quaid's role was played by an unknown like the rest of the cast, the movie's suspense would have been much more effective.  I will admit that it was a nice change of pace to see Norman Reedus playing a part that was not explicitly Irish.

Those somewhat positive accomplishments are nowhere near enough to salvage this film.   The writers and director have worked primarily in Europe until now, and it shows.  The dialogue is mediocre at best, and the explanations given for the key plot points (What are the monsters?  What happened to the ship?) are so poorly expressed, it feels like they've been mistranslated. I honestly don't think that the lead actors have anything to be ashamed about here (well, except for taking these roles), but the director is another story.  Christian Alavert not only directed this film, but he co-plotted it.  That means that he could have, at any time, said "Wait, that doesn't make much sense...let's try something else," but he never did.  Or, worse, he said that and this movie is the result.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Wes Craven's New Nightmare

Metafilms are, almost by definition, kind of obnoxious.  Any time a movie is about the making of a movie, you know that the filmmakers are trying to be overly clever.  Usually, this requires a great script and director (see Adaptation).  Wes Craven, the writer and director of New Nightmare, is neither.  Don't get me wrong, I like the guy; I don't think anyone can make a convincing argument that his entries in the A Nightmare On Elm Street series are not the best of the bunch.  This movie, though, tries something new and doesn't quite pull it off.

Ostensibly, this move takes place in the "real world."  The actors (at least, all the Nightmare veterans) all play themselves.  Freddy Kreuger is not a creature of dream, but a character created by Craven and played on the screen by Robert Englund.  Heather Langenkamp is the primary character, but John Saxon, Tuesday Knight, and many other actors and producers from the series have small roles.  Essentially, Freddy Kreuger is trying to leave the realm of fiction and enter reality.  Something is different with Freddy, though; this is not the clownish "Vegas Freddy" of the past few movie installments.  This Freddy is meaner, with claws that appear to be a part of his body.  Wes Craven (the character) theorizes that this new Freddy is actually an evil dream entity that the masses have equated with Freddy Kreuger.  Since that is how the world sees this entity, it has assumed the guise of the Freddy character.  Craven believes that the only way to keep the entity at bay is to use art (in this case, a movie) to express the violence and evil that it wants to perform.  This will temporarily sate the entity's lust for carnage, until another movie can be made to keep the entity trapped in fiction.

No, really.  That's the plot.  If there's one thing I can safely say about this movie, it is that it does not insult the audience's intelligence...just their suspension of disbelief.

One of the downsides to making a Nightmare movie featuring the actors from past Nightmares is that those actors were never very good.  It doesn't matter that Heather Langenkamp is playing herself, she is still an awkward actress.  That's far more enjoyable to watch than Wes Craven's struggle to convey an emotion beyond "vaguely tired."  I've seen him in interviews, so I know a little about him...let me tell you, I have never seen somebody struggle so much to convincingly play themselves in a movie.  While this may sound strange to those unfamiliar with the Nightmare series, Robert Englund is clearly the best actor in the film.  He is the only actor that seems comfortable playing himself and he delivers as both the buffoonish Freddy and the new, improved "Super Shredder"-esque Freddy.

This is the seventh installment in the A Nightmare On Elm Street series.  By this point, Freddy had already done pretty much everything he could do.  He succeeded in killing all the children of those who lynched him, he became a dream demon, he he expanded his audience from the Elm Street kids to all kids, and he had been (allegedly) definitively killed.  I get it.  The series needed new life.  This, though, feels more like a homage than a horror movie.  Most of the kills (while done pretty well) are direct references to the more famous Nightmare scenes.  The plot tries to be grounded in reality but must come up with overly complicated justifications for key plot points at the same time.  I admire Craven's attempt, but it just doesn't quite work here; the effort paid off better when Craven fine-tuned this concept in Scream.  The big problem with this movie isn't the metafilm plot, though; the problem is that the previous movies were not good enough to support a clever (if flawed) metafictional homage to them.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

3:10 to Yuma (2007)

Let's be honest, Westerns don't appeal to everyone.  The action is usually bunched together in the beginning (sometimes) and ending (always) of the film.  John Wayne made about two hundred Westerns, and he always plays himself...and sometimes, he isn't even convincing in that.  The golden age of Westerns ended in the 1960s and many have aged poorly.  With the improved special effects in modern movies, the Western action scenes often looks tame by comparison.

3:10 to Yuma, however, doesn't suffer from any of these problems.  The action is sprinkled throughout the entire film, so there is rarely more than ten minutes that pass without someone being attacked or killed.  Since the action is spread so evenly throughout the film, this is probably the most consistently action-packed Western I have ever seen.  No one in the cast attempts to channel John Wayne; this movie follows the post-Western attitude of Unforgiven and The Wild Bunch by having a movie with bad men as main characters and no shining hero in the bunch.  There isn't any blatant racism in the script and women are treated in a manner more in line with today's tastes; Gretchen Mol quietly controls her home and Vinessa Shaw...well, okay, she's treated as an object.  But that's a pretty good percentage for a Western!  The gunplay is fast and frequent throughout the movie, and they even figured out a way to include an explosion.

While Russell Crowe's character, Ben Wade, is what you will remember from this movie, the main character is actually Dan Evans (Christian Bale).  Evans is an ordinary guy that can't get a break.  He lost his foot in the Civil War, his Arizona farm needs water and is the middle of a drought (really?  In Arizona?), he is hopelessly in debt and will lose his farm within weeks, he has a young boy that needs expensive medicine, and his older son has no respect for a father that just lets it all happen.  On the bright side, he's married to Gretchen Mol.  Evans finally gets a break when he helps a posse capture the infamous robber/murderer Ben Wade.  Catching a criminal is just the first step in bringing him to justice, though, especially in the Old West.  Since the towns are few and far between, with only a few having courthouses or prisons, that means that Wade has to be escorted to prison, or in this case, to a train that will take him to prison.  Evans joins the posse for a hefty fee.  The trip is several days long, but the real danger begins when Wade's loyal sociopathic right hand man, Charlie (Ben Foster), learns that Wade has been captured.  Ultimately, all that stands between Wade and freedom is Dan Evans.  And all that stands between Evans and death is his determination to bring in Ben Wade.

If this film was just about Christian Bale's character, it would be a depressing psychological piece on a stubborn man that has reached his breaking point.  It might be good, but not in the hands of director James Mangold.  Mangold is the kind of director that does a pretty good job with a movie's overall story, but he doesn't have a noticeable impact on his actors; good actors deliver good performances, while bad actors do not.  Luckily, this story has Russell Crowe's character to balance the moroseness of Bale.  Crowe turns in a performance that is both charming and filled with a sense of imminent danger.  For most of the movie, Crowe does not shoot a gun, but there is always the promise of violence when he is in a scene.  While the plot throws a lot of supporting characters into the mix, the story basically boils down to these two men.  As evil as Ben Wade clearly is, both the audience and Dan Evans have a hard time not warming to him.  For his part, Wade enjoys the company of Evans, but keeps reminding Evans that he can and will kill him, just the same.  For most of the film, the audience (and Ben Wade) assume that Evans is going through all this trouble in the hopes of a big payday, but it is really a matter of pride for a man with nothing else to be proud of.

There are a lot of supporting characters in this movie.  Most function as cannon fodder, but a few stick out.  Peter Fonda plays a Pinkerton agent that has a long history of chasing Ben Wade.  The character is more of a hired goon than a hero, but Fonda gives him depth.  Most of the other actors and characters just serve their purpose.  Alan Tudyk is servicable as a jumpy veterinarian that is out of his element.  Logan Lerman is a little obnoxious as the son of Dan Evans, but his character spends half of the film with a my-dad-is-SO-lame attitude, so it's probably not his fault.  Luke Wilson makes a cameo as a guy with bad teeth.  Dallas Roberts is fine as a cowardly railroad man and Kevin Durand is good as the same jerk he plays in every movie.  Ben Foster, though, turns in a great performance as Wade's loyal second-in-command.  Foster usually chooses supporting roles that require him to be over the top, but they're always fun to watch.  Here, he gets to have another weird accent, some odd mannerisms, and a frequently used fast draw.  The reason he is good here is that he is able to balance a clear affection for Wade with a complete disregard for the lives of everyone else.  When done right, sociopaths can be fun to watch.

This is a remake of a 1957 classic of the same name.  The original stays truer to Elmore Leonard's original short story, but this update did a good job.  The story's core is still Wade and Evans spending time together, waiting for the titular train to arrive.  The primary difference is that this movie spreads the action (and their interaction) out over a greater physical distance.  That was a smart move, because so many remakes fail when they try to imitate what made the original great.  This film manages to stand on its own, even if it does so by making Crowe's and Foster's characters, the meanest in the movie, into the most fun to watch.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Club Dread (Unrated)

The comedy spoof movie sub-genre has always been hit and miss.  Even genre kingpins like Mel Brooks, Jim Abrahams, and the Zucker brothers have had embarrassing missteps (Dracula: Dead and Loving It and Mafia! spring to mind).  Nowadays, the Wayans family has essentially taken over the spoof market; every spoof that has hit theaters in the past ten years has either had a Wayans in it or a writer/director from a Wayans project involved with it.  I have major issues with this trend, partially because I think the Wayans spoofs are lazy, obvious and insulting to my intelligence, and partly because watching there is scientific evidence that they cause massive brain hemorrhages.  My biggest issue with these newer spoofs is that they are mean-spirited.  They don't seem to like the things that they are spoofing, so it becomes an exercise in taunting the spoof subject instead of giving the audience a few laughs and some wink-wink-nudge-nudge moments.
Club Dread is, without a doubt in my mind, the best movie spoof in the past ten years.  There are a few ways that this film separates itself from the pack, and these differences add up quickly to make an  First and foremost, this is not a traditional spoof. 
Just try to name another movie with watermelon-pretzel sex
This is a genuine blend of a stupid comedy and a slasher movie.  There is a quality horror movie here; Broken Lizard just inserted comedic characters into a horror plot.  That this spoof actually has a plot is another key difference.  Most spoofs use their plot as a loose timetable for them to arrange skits or visual gags.  This movie doesn't work like that.  You won't see any actors impersonating Tom Cruise or making any pop culture references to Paris Hilton here.  Instead, the jokes are almost always character- or plot-based.  Perhaps the most important difference between this spoof and the many others on the market today is the respect (or, at least, fondness) Broken Lizard clearly has for the horror genre.  The quality of the kills is pretty decent, showing some gore and some originality.  That makes this more of a comedic tribute to the slasher pics of the 1970s and 80s than an outright spoof.
Which is good, because the world doesn't need more "Trapped in the Closet" jokes

The movie follows a fairly traditional plot outline.  A group of moderately attractive young singles finds themselves in an isolated location with a mysterious killer on the loose.  The singles in this movie are the Broken Lizard troupe: Jay Chandrasekhar, Kevin Heffernan, Steve Lemme, Paul Soter, and Erik Stolhanske.  Of course, they aren't terribly attractive, so they get some help from Brittany Daniel and Jordan Ladd. 
"I'm helping"
The isolated location is the island pleasure resort of Coconut Pete (Bill Paxton), a less-successful contemporary of Jimmy Buffett.  The resort has a few hundred twenty-somethings running around, swimming, drinking and having promiscuous sex.  The killer murders the island's staff (which includes the Broken Lizard guys) with a machete and leaves obscure Coconut Pete references as clues for the staff to decode.  As a horror movie, this isn't a great plot, but I've certainly seen worse.  As a comedic plot, there are many opportunities for the cast to mistakenly suspect characters of being the killer, and the resort setting is an easy mark for party and sex jokes.  All in all, the plot is more than strong enough to support the comedic aspects of the film, with a decent horror framing device.

With that disclaimer in place, how good is this movie?  It's pretty awesome.  The mediocre slasher movie elements jump out at you first.  Creative deaths?  Check --- my favorite is when the masked killer puts on a costume (think about that) to participate in a life-sized, alcohol-fueled Pac-Man game.  Gratuitous nudity?  Double check! 
Erotic penis statue?  Triple Check!
It's the subtle comedy that makes this one a winner, though.  Of course, there are big dumb gags (there's good usage of man-gina and a lot of stoner jokes), but the best are the little ones.  When Kevin Heffernan shows up as the replacement masseur for a six-foot Swedish babe, he only points out that he's 6'1".  Because that's why the guys on the island are upset.  And then there is Steve Lemme's pronunciation of "Penelope" as "Peen-elope."  It's so stupid, but this mistake is never pointed out by any characters in the movie, so he just keeps saying "Peen-elope" the entire time.  Or, around the campfire, Paul Soter tells the tale of Phil Colletti, who massacred his friends with a machete and to this day he is known as, not Colletti.  Machete Phil, even though it doesn't rhyme.  These clever little half jokes are all over the script and I laugh at almost every one.
Admittedly, most of the masseur gags aren't quite half-jokes

Part of these successful moments is due to the actors' timing, but the rest is due to good direction; Chandrasekhar is a good comedic director, knowing how to milk even kinda funny moments for all they are worth.  He's lucky to have some solid supporting actors, though.  Bill Paxton is awesome as Coconut Pete; his nonverbal acting is top notch and he really does come across as a stoned, has-been rocker when he speaks.  The lyrics and song titles for Coconut Pete songs are so good that Jimmy Buffett even played Coconut Pete songs on his tour that summer. 
"Ponytails and Cocktails" is dangerously on-the-nose as a Buffet spoof
M.C. Gainey has some great lines as the resident tough guy on the island and Samm Levine has apparently progressed from playing a general nerd in Freaks and Geeks to playing a sexually aggressive nerd here.  The bulk of the work, though, falls on the shoulders of the Broken Lizard guys.  This time around, I think that Paul Soter as the DJ/drug dealer has the best not-quite-jokes while Steve Lemme is probably the funniest as the sex-crazed Nicaraguan dive instructor.  Kevin Heffernan is okay as the masseur, but he plays the hero and doesn't get to be as randomly fantastic as he was in Super Troopers.  Erik Stolhanske, though, looks like he enjoys his role as the Fun Police, enforcing free drinks with a Super-Soaker, when necessary.
That's a Super-Soaker.  Probably.

This movie is not flawless, of course.  This marriage between horror and comedy leaves moments where one genre is being sacrificed for the other.  It's not a huge problem for me, mind you, but I understand that argument.  Probably the worst aspect of this movie is the acting of Jay Chandrasekhar.  The man did a pretty good job of directing here, but (according to the commentary) the group decided to give him an annoying accent and goofy hairpiece to help offset his tendency to get stressed when filming.  I'm sure that Broken Lizard laughs at his scenes, but viewers are left on the outside of that inside joke.  Seriously, I wish they had just left him out of the movie entirely.  The ending can be annoying for people looking for a more traditional horror experience, but I've always felt in was in-line with the general feel of Club Dread.  It's stupid and plays on a horror cliche, but it's still pretty funny.
Another horror cliche: watching people watch things
Maybe the key to liking this movie is feeling like you're in on the joke.  If you're walking in to Club Dread expecting a traditional slasher movie, you'll be disappointed.  If you're looking for another straight-up comedy, like Super Troopers, you'll probably still be disappointed.  But if you're in the mood for something different and reasonably clever/stupid/gory, there aren't many better options out there.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Iron Man 2

Making a good sequel is a tricky business.  Of course, you want to stay true to what made the first film good, but you also need to change it up a little to keep the audience interested.  The tricky part is that you don't want to change it too little, or the sequel feels too similar to the previous movie (see the Saw series).  One cure for this is to spend the entire film budget on the stars and special effects, leaving you with enough cash to buy eleven bananas, so you just hire a half-witted chimp to write your script (which is the true story behind the making of Bad Boys II).  Every so often, though, filmmakers get it right, giving depth to the characters, while including more action because the origin story has already been told.

Iron Man 2 is one of those sequels that gets it right.  A big part of this is the fact that the principal cast remains from the original film, with one exception.  The role of James "Rhodey" Rhodes is played by Don Cheadle instead of Terrence Howard this time around.  While both have been nominated for an Oscar, I think of this as a casting upgrade because Cheadle is charismatic enough to hold his own in the Ocean's movies, and Howard was pretty wooden in Iron Man.  Other than that, Robert Downey, Jr. returns as Tony Stark, the man that wears the Iron Man armor.  Gwyneth Paltrow also returns as his devoted not-quite-romantically-involved life partner/assistant, Pepper Potts.  Downey is once again fantastic as the egotistical and sarcastic lead character.  Paltrow's character has more to do in this movie, and she's fine, but the plot requires her to be annoyed with Downey most of the time, so their chemistry isn't as strong this time.  Cheadle, however, comes through with a pretty solid performance as Tony Stark's straight-laced best friend.  Jon Favreau apparently did another good job directing, because the actors all performed well and the action was awesome.

The supporting cast is good, too.  The role of the malicious Russian physicist/tinkerer, Ivan Vanko, is played with relish by Mickey Rourke.  It's always better when his character has a reason for looking as haggard as Rourke does naturally; here, he plays a heavily tattooed veteran of the Russian prison system with some gold teeth and greasy hair.  Aside from his first scene, Rourke is very good; in that first scene, though, he gives a howl of mourning comparable to Hayden Christensen in Star Wars: Episode III.  Rourke's best moments are when he chuckles to himself.  That creepy laugh with that ugly face makes Rourke a pretty scary guy.  The other villain here is Stark's business (but not intellectual) rival, Justin Hammer, played by the always amusing Sam Rockwell.  Rockwell approaches his character as a first-class salesman that doesn't necessarily care to know the details of what he is selling, as long as it makes him money.  As such, he's perfectly annoying.  To be honest, he doesn't come across as a legitimate threat to Stark (because he's not), but the scene where he is talking weapons to Rhodey shows how effective he can be.  Sam Jackson expands his role as super-secret agent Nick Fury from the last film, and he is appropriately Sam Jackson-esque (read: bad-ass).  Scarlett Johannson stretches her acting range in a small supporting role as a sexy redhead/secretary/martial artist that wears really tight clothes.  Garry Shandling was amusing as an antagonistic senator.  They even had Leslie Bibb reprise her slutty journalist role from the last movie and threw in cameos by Olivia Munn and the late Adam "DJ AM" Goldstein.

You might notice that I've given a lot of attention to the actors so far.  While this is an action movie, Iron Man 2 spends a lot of time developing characters and plot.  The first movie was like that, too, but part of that was because they were telling an origin story.  Here, they use that down time to give Stark two separate types of problems.  The first is the fact that Stark is slowly killing himself with the Iron Man suit.  It's not his fault, really, but his chest battery thingie that saved his life in the first film has a metal component that is poisoning him in the long term.  Oops.  It turns out that no known element can replace the one he's using, either.  That means that, when Stark isn't being his arrogant public persona, he is planning for his eventual death.  These scenes go over well, with Downey doing another great job showing Stark at his most vulnerable.

The other problem is, like in the last film, one of assuming responsibility for his technology.  In Iron Man, it was about keeping Stark weapons out of the hands of terrorists.  This time around, Stark has decided to give the Iron Man technology to no one.  Obviously, the US government is not happy with this.  Justin Hammer wants to fill the hole Stark has left in military contracts, but he cannot figure out the Iron Man technology on his own.  That is where Ivan Vanko comes in; his father worked on a previous generation of the Iron Man battery with Tony Stark's father.  Vanko built an imperfect, but effective version of the battery to power his own suit, but this one has weird electric whips instead of armor.  Obviously, the bad guys team up to take down Stark as a business, as well as a hero.

Since this is a sequel, they have made the action scenes even bigger.  Vanko's first scene using his whips is surprisingly cool and the sheer amount of car wreckage is impressive.  Personally, my favorite action had Stark fighting Rhodey, with each in their own Iron Man suit.  It was just cool to watch.  I would like to point out that only billionaires can afford to fight like that in their own homes.  Scarlett Johannson looked convincing in her fight scene, too, although some of her poses seemed like a little too obviously T & A.  Not that there's anything wrong with that, but some of it just looked uncomfortable.  The big ending fight scene was great, once Iron Man and Rhodey/War Machine finally teamed up.  The action leading up to their team-up was a little underwhelming, given how long it took and I was a little disappointed by the durability of the evil robot drones in the climax, but the fight with Vanko made up for those concerns.  Until this movie, I never considered whips as even remotely cool or threatening; I'm sure they're an acquired taste (as a weapon), but Vanko looked like a legitimate threat in this movie.

Now, for the bad news.  There are a few moments where this movie failed for me.  The first involved Vanko's first battle scene.  As awesome as it was, it had a ridiculous plot hole.  It looked like his plan was always to sneak on the racetrack and attack Stark's race car...but Stark decided to drive the car himself only minutes before the race began.  Was Vanko planning on sneaking into the fancy restaurant where Stark was going to watch the race, dressed as a car mechanic?  It's not a big deal, I admit, but it was a stupid writing mistake.

The other moment was when Stark is watching an old video of his late father, Howard.  It's pretty boring stuff, showing how focused he was on business and not his family, until Howard addresses Tony through the video.  It's the typical emotionally distant father finally admitting how much he cares for his children speech.  If you liked it here, you'll love it in The Incredibles.  It's not that the scene was terrible, but it just...too predictable.  This scene is meant to show Tony at his most vulnerable, finding inspiration and love for an unexpected place, but it just feels flat.  This is probably because the father-son relationship is barely mentioned until the video is played, but Stark's vulnerable moments in this movie are just not as effective in this movie because they are not spent with other characters.

These flaws are pretty well balanced out by a lot of clever little things throughout the movie, though.  Justin Hammer is such a wanna-be, of course he uses bronzing lotion; it is just as obvious that his palms should be orange from using the bronzer, too.   Rourke's tattoos looked like legitimate Russian prison tattoos, too; I recognized some of them from Eastern Promises.  Pepper Potts was upset at Stark giving away his modern art collection because he worked hard to build it; this is a nice bit of work, making subtle reference to the modern art knowledge she showed briefly in the first film.  There's more stuff, but it's more fun to see it yourself.  Honestly, this movie has a lot going for it.  It is a nearly pitch-perfect sequel that introduced new problems to established characters and developed the returning characters even further.  The action is a little bigger and provides a very powerful character with a more even fight.