Sunday, April 29, 2012

Leatherheads

1.5/4

Starring: George Clooney, John Krasinski, Renee Zellwegger, Jonathan Pryce

Rated PG-13 for Brief Strong Language

There are two things that every screwball comedy must have: timing and momentum.  These things are essential and non-negotiable.  Without them, you end up with a bore like "Leatherheads."

The film is about the beginnings of professional football (although anyone who even has a mild appreciation of the game should stay far away from this disaster...as should everyone else by the way).  Dodge Connelly (Clooney) is a player for the Duluth Bulldogs, a minor team.  As it is now, football has no rules and few spectators.  College football is a different story, and everyone is talking about Carter "The Bullet" Rutherford (Krasinski).  He's talented, a war hero, and a nice guy...in other words, he's the kind of guy you almost want to strangle because he's so good.  He even has his own agent, the sleazy CC Frazier (Pryce).  After every professional team goes belly up (including the Duluth Bulldogs), Connelly hatches a plan to revitalize it: get Rutherford to play.  Rutherford and Frazier aren't persuaded until Connelly offers them a healthy paycheck.  Meanwhile, a reporter named Lexie Littleton (Zellwegger) is chasing down a story that may prove that Rutherford isn't the hero that everyone says he is.

The story has some potential to be a screwball comedy that might have been produced in the 40's.  In fact, it's obvious that that's what Clooney is going for.  Clooney, however, has missed the mark by an enormously wide margin.  The timing is way off on nearly every joke, and they aren't particularly amusing to begin with.  It's strange because all of the cast members have proven, many times, that they understand how to effectively time a joke.

Dodge Connelly is a role that might as well have been tailor-made for Clooney.  He's a lovable rascal, just like  many of his characters are (Danny Ocean, Archie Gates, Jack Foley).  Clooney knows how to get a laugh, but here he's flat.  More successful are his co-stars, Krasinski and Zellwegger, although there's not much they can do.  Pryce is completely miscast.  In fact, one has to wonder what Clooney was thinking when he offered him the part (and it's certainly not the actor's finest hour either).

Nearly every creative decision that Clooney has made misfires badly.  The cinematography, meant to capture the sepia tone of early films, drains any energy the film might have, it's too long by a half hour and the timing is horrible.  And as a result, "Leatherheads" is utter crap.  Clooney, Zellwegger and Krasinski can do better.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Pirates! Band of Misfits

2/4

Starring (voices): Hugh Grant, Martin Freeman, Imelda Staunton, David Tennant

Rated PG for Mild Action, Rude Humor and Some Language

The existence of a British claymation comedy brings to mind Nick Park, the creator of the "Wallace and Grommit."  While those shorts (plus the movie) come from the same studio, Aardman Animations, Park did not have any direct involvement with "The Pirates! Band of Misfits."  They do however, share the involvement of Peter Lord, who produced Park's films and co-directed this one.  This, however, is the only time that Park, Wallace or Gromit are going to be mentioned in this review because doing so is insulting to the inventor and his dog.  This movie couldn't be more mundane.

The Pirate Captain (Grant) is an enthusiastic buccaneer with a hardy crew who adore him.  Sadly, they're the only ones who give him any respect since he is not especially successful.  The Captain wants to win the "Pirate of the Year" award, but to do that, he needs booty.  Luck comes his way when he runs into Charles Darwin (Tennant), who realizes that the Captain's parrot, Polly, is in fact a dodo, which as been extinct for 150 years.  Darwin wants to enter Polly into a science competition, but his motives are hardly pure.  He wants the glory for himself to capture the attention of Queen Victoria (Staunton), who, by the way, has an obsessive hatred for pirates.

Where's Jack Sparrow when you need him?  The loopy and offbeat pirate that caused the "Pirates of Carribean" franchise to gross over nearly $4 billion dollars (let's face it, once they saw the first movie, few people went to see it strictly for heartthrob Orlando Bloom) would have added some much needed humor to this movie.  This pirate movie isn't completely devoid of wit, but grins are seldom and chuckles are even rarer.

The most interesting thing about this movie is that Hugh Grant is completely unrecognizable as the lead.  There's no semblance of the stuttering Brit who popped up during "Four Weddings & a Funeral," "Nine Months" and the "Bridget Jones" movies.  Had I not known previously that it was him, I would never have guessed it, and even now it's hard to believe that it's Grant voicing the role.  He does well, and so do his cast members.  Imelda Staunton goes so far over-the-top as Queen Victoria that she resembles "Alice in Wonderland's" Queen of Hearts (one has to wonder what the Royal Family thinks about her portrayal in this film).  Jeremy Piven and Salma Hayek provide cameos as The Captain's competitors respectively.  British character actor Brendan Gleeson also has a small role as one of The Captain's crew.

The problem with the film is that the whole thing is pretty generic.  There are a few clever asides and moments of wit (like the monkey who speaks with note cards), but those are rare.  The filmmakers apparently think that it's more clever than it actually is.

The 3D is also a problem.  The film takes place in darkness or at night for much of the running time (a bad setting for 3D...remember "Pirates of the Carribean: On Stranger Tides" or "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2?"  Not only that, it's bad 3D.  The image is constantly blurry, especially during the action sequences when the camera moves too fast for the 3D to pick up.  If you must see it, which I don't recommend, 2D is definitely the way to go.

The Last Boy Scout

1.5/4

Starring: Bruce Willis, Damon Wayans, Danielle Harris, Noble Willingham, Taylor Negron, Chelsea Field

Rated R for Graphic Violence and Very Strong Language

Action comedies are supposed to be fun.  A good one will raise the adrenaline while keeping you laughing.  "True Lies" is a good example.  So is "Rush Hour."  "The Last Boy Scout," starring the action star of the early nineties, Bruce Willis, is mean-spirited bore.

Joe Hallenbeck (Willis) is a washed up private detective (Bogie must be rolling in his grave) who has just discovered that his wife (Field) is cheating on him with his best friend (Bruce McGill).  But when said friend ends up dead in an explosion after giving Joe a case involving a harassed stripper (a pre-famous Halle Berry), he ends up getting roped into a conspiracy with an ex-football star, Jimmy Dix (Wayans) involving corrupt politicians and a football team owner.

This movie is unpleasant from the first scene.  A football player brutally guns down his opponents on the way to scoring a touchdown and then blows his brains out.  The two lead characters are depressed misanthropes who need to go to rehab (Dix is a pill-popper and a coke head).  The obligatory barbs that they trade (some of which are clever) aren't funny, they're mean.

After "Die Hard," Bruce Willis was the guy to call to play a wisecracking action hero.  He has screen presence and can look tough while firing a big gun.  Plus, he's a vulnerable action hero; he's not like Schwarzenegger who blows away bad guys without batting an eye.  When he gets hit, it hurts.  But while Willis is a decent actor, he can't save this movie.  And it doesn't help that Wayans is a bland sidekick.  Danielle Harris is good as Joe's foul-mouthed daughter Darian, but she has some rough edges.  Noble Willingham is enjoying himself as the villain, although his henchman, a nasty man named Milo (Negron) is a gay stereotype.

Tony Scott has chosen the wrong tone for this movie.  Instead of the 100 minutes of fun that it wants to be, it is more like the Mel Gibson thriller "Payback."  That movie wasn't very good either, but crafting an uber-bleak action movie isn't the problem.  They have their place.  The problem is that it makes the story more lame than it already is and causes the jokes to become mean-spirited rather than funny.

I'll admit that the film does pick up in the final act.  The action finally comes and it's well choreographed by Scott.  But the rest of the movie is so lame and depressing that it's really a chore to get through.  There are also some obvious scripting problems, like in the scene where Darian is cussing out her father.  Their repartee is obviously scripted and never feels real.

I always figured this would be a loud and dumb action movie.  I was right, but it's also pretty damn depressing.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Mike's Musings: How to Watch a Movie in the Theater Without Pissing Everyone Off

Theater attendance is down considerably from where it was a year ago.  It's been years since a movie I've wanted to see was sold out, and it's rare that there is much of a line to buy tickets.  There are a number of reasons for this: movie quality is going down the drain, there's a complete lack of variety or originality, the ticket prices are ballooning exponentially, and the theater experience (bad 3D, dim lights and sound unless you pay extra for IMAX) is terrible.  Plus, Blu-Rays and big Hi-Def TVs are fairly affordable, and offer a better experience for a much cheaper price, and since few people go to the theaters are causing the release windows to shorten, it's not that long of a wait for a movie that most are only mildly interested in.

But the reason no one talks about is that the theater goers are horrible.  I used to love sitting in a crowded movie theater watching a good movie.  Now, I dread it.  Many people in the theater are shockingly impolite to other people who want to watch the movie.

The biggest problem is right now is texting during the movie.  Seriously people, is getting a message of "LOL" from one of your friends really that urgent?  I admit, I have done this, but I've stopped now that I realize how incredibly irritating it is.  A few weeks ago, I was watching "The Cabin in the Woods" in a relatively crowded theater.  A few rows in front of me, I saw this LED light flash on and off every few seconds.  Someone was texting during the movie.  It got so bad that I said aloud for them to stop texting.  And I was criticized.  I doubt that the person meant any harm.  After all, a cell phone screen is pretty small.  But they're also pretty bright, and in a darkened movie theater, it lights up like the sun.  Our eyes are attracted to bright lights, so a cell phone screen, despite its size, is virtually impossible to ignore.

The second problem is talking.  You know those commercials before the movie that ask you to not talk during the movie?  They're not just filler.  There's a reason why they're there.  Theaters may be loud, but they're not loud enough to cover someone's whispered conversation.  This has been a problem for years.  Every time I've been to a movie, there was an add asking the audience not to speak during the film.  In the same movie, the cell phone girl and her group of friends were chatting constantly.  It was super annoying...so much so that I almost got out of my seat to ask them to shut up.  Complaining to the ushers, despite the warnings that they'll kick out anyone talking or texting, does little.  At a screening of "The Thing" last year, there was a couple who wouldn't shut up through the whole movie.  I complained to the usher (this is why there is no review of it), who simply sat in for a few minutes.  The couple quieted down, but resumed their conversation when the guy left.  And they were mad at me at the end of the film.  What the hell?  If your conversation is that urgent, leave the movie for a few minutes.  You're obviously not paying that much attention to the movie.

Another pet peeve of mine are people who eat their snacks incredibly noisily or worse, come to the theater sick.  No one wants to hear you chew your popcorn or shift your popcorn bag.  And I can guarantee you no one wants to catch your cold, much less listen to you sniffle or hauck up a bunch of mucus.  Seriously people, stay still, chew with your mouth closed and stay home if you're sick.

People get into the habit from watching television together.  There's no one who cares if you talk a lot since it's just your friends, and some people love giving commentaries on the film while they're watching them (the "Mystery Science Theater 3000" crew made a career out of this).  But movie theaters are public places, and the people around you don't want to hear your conversation or bodily functions.  They want the optimum experience from going to a movie theater.  And with the high prices and low quality, that's something that should be respected with a 10 to 20 dollar fee.

Mike's Musings: Titanic vs Avatar

James Cameron is a master storyteller.  From "True Lies" to "Titanic" and "Avatar," Cameron knows how to involve an audience and stage an action scene for maximum effect.  But more importantly, he knows how to create characters that everyone can relate to and care about.  Those two qualities are the reasons why his last two films have broken box office records.

Now that I've seen both of them within a day of each other on the big screen (a local theater had a showing of "Avatar" on the mega screen in 3D), which is the optimal medium to view both of them, I started wondering which was the stronger film.  They're both excellent films, and I have no reservations about giving them both 4/4 ratings.  Both films are rousing experiences with great emotional highs and lows, and are superbly told with compelling characters and stories.

When it comes to action, "Avatar" is the way to go.  That's not to say that "Titanic" lacks breathtaking sequences of drama and destruction (it has them), but "Avatar" is an epic sci-fi war movie.  The final battle at the end is jaw-dropping.  The battle is bigger than big and an expertly crafted spectacle.

"Titanic," on the other hand, is an altogether different movie.  Cameron himself joked that it was his "190 million dollar chick flick."  He has a point.  The film is a romance set against an epic tragedy.  It has love, sex and a lot of disaster movie action.  We love the characters and gasp at the magnitude of the tragedy.

So which is the stronger film?  It's hard to say, but I'd have to go with "Titanic."  "Avatar" was a formula movie done very well, and a showcase for the power of 3D (when effort is actually put into it).  Yet while we were involved in the story, that's all the movie was.  A story, one that we had been told before.  "Dances with Wolves."  "The Last Samurai."  They're all variations on the same theme.  The characters are the archetypes that the film requires.  It is a rousing success mainly because of the skill with which Cameron tells it.

"Titanic," on the other hand, is a much more ambitious movie.  It seeks to tell the story of the "unsinkable" ship (that sunk) and providing a tour of it while presenting an array of real-life and fictional characters...all while concentrating on a romance between two three-dimensional characters.  It's a lot of stuff two weave into a compelling movie, even at 3 hours long.  But Cameron does it almost flawlessly (Jack and Rose shout each other's names far too much, especially during the final sequence).  "Titanic" succeeds not just because of the special effects, but his careful crafting of two characters that we end up caring about much more than what we see.  Through all the melodrama and destruction, our attention to Jack Dawson and Rose Dewitt-Bukater never falters.

This is just my opinion.  I'm sure that there are people who prefer "Avatar" to "Titanic," and I wouldn't be one to blame them.  I also know a few people who can't stand either one.  I find that hard to accept, but to each their own (Wes Anderson has a sizable and vocal fanbase, and everyone who has read my review of "The Royal Tenenbaums" knows my thoughts on him).  I'd love to hear everyone else's opinions, so feel free to comment.  Please explain why though...just reading "Titanic sucks" is kind of dull, really.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Inside Man

3/4

Starring: Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Willem Dafoe, Christopher Plummer, Chiwetel Ejifor

Rated R for Language and Some Violent Images

This ain't no bank robbery!--Detective Keith Frazier
Indeed, very little of what happens in this movie is what it seems.  Everyone has an ulterior motive and no one plays by the rules.  This keeps the film much more interesting in Spike Lee's imperfect but very compelling thriller.

Four people walk into a Manhattan Bank and tell everyone to lie down.  They are ruthlessly efficient and intelligent.  It's quite clear that these are no ordinary bank robbers.

Detective Keith Frazier (Washington) is on the scene.  He's been in this kind of situation before (or at least knows what he's doing).  The head thief, who tells us in the opening scene that his name is Dalton Russell (Owen) wants buses and a plane to escape with the hostages.  Everything seems to be going according to plan until Frazier realizes that he's being played.  Meanwhile, there is a mysterious woman named Madeline White (Foster), who has a special interest in something being stored at the bank.

The performances are top notch.  Washington is terrific as Frazier.  He's tough when he needs to be and affable at other times.  He's an everyman who happens to be a cop.  Clive Owen is at his dangerous best as the head thief.  He's calm and collected, which raises Frazier's nape hairs.  This is one tough bad guy.  Jodie Foster is delicious as the cheerfully wicked Madeline.  She's the kind of woman who can take care of dirty business...for a price.  Willem Dafoe, Christopher Plummer and Chiwetel Ejifor provide solid support.

At first glance, Spike Lee may seem like an odd choice to direct a heist movie.  Lee is known for his films on race relations, not thrillers.  But the filmmaker pays careful attention to how discrimination is found in today's world.  A Sikh has his turban taken accidentally but can't get it back until he cooperates.  A few of the characters use slang terms when they shouldn't.  It's very real and almost missable if you're not looking for it.

Lee has a solid grasp for suspense.  "Inside Man" will keep you on the edge of your seat throughout the film, and Lee is successful at camouflaging the twists.  This is one movie where you won't see what's coming next.  The heroes are smart, but so are the criminals.  The stakes are high and everyone is trying to outplay the others.  You don't get movies like this very often.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Sleepy Hollow

3/4

Starring: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Michael Gambon, Mark Pickering, Miranda Richardson

Rated R for Graphic Horror Violence and Gore, and for a Scene of Sexuality

Apologies to Washington Irving, but Tim Burton's movie (which butchers the story beyond recognition) is a lot of fun.  The film is "based on the story" by Irving, although once the first half is over, the similarities end, and the imaginations of Andrew Kevin Walker (writer of "Seven") and Kevin Yagher take over.

I have not read Irving's tale; my previous knowledge of the Headless Horsemen is limited to the 1949 Disney short.  It's a pretty simple story, one that would have trouble being extended into a film of feature length.  In their adaptation, Burton and his screenwriters let their imaginations run wild.  Conspiracies, witchcraft and buried secrets are at the heart of the story.  Oh, and lots of lopped off heads.

Irving's famous hero, the oddly named Ichabod Crane (Depp), is a man ahead of his time.  He's a geeky scientist and inventor who believes that reason and science rule everything.  Because he's giving the police and the law no end of grief, the judge in New York City (Christopher Lee in a cameo) sends him to Sleepy Hollow, where three people have lots their heads...literally.  Crane goes to solve the mystery and ends up fighting to keep his own head.

The acting is effective, but all the actors have been better elsewhere.  Crane is pure Depp; he's geeky, odd and cowardly.  It's a role that Depp was born to play (and has before).  Crane is so similar to a number of roles that the actor has played that he lacks originality, and Depp is sometimes sloppy in his portrayal.  That being said, we only see Ichabod and not Depp, so the actor does his job.  Christina Ricci is also adequate, but there are times when she seems miscast.  She also has zero chemistry with Depp (despite them being good friends in real life), although their romance is really a subplot.  Michael Gambon can do no wrong and is always a welcome presence.  Mark Pickering (in his debut role) is okay as Ichabod's young assistant, but he's not spectacular either.

This is Tim Burton's show through and through.  It's a visually dazzling movie with so much atmosphere that it threatens to liquefy the screen.  Sleepy Hollow is a grim and creepy place.  Everyone is cold and dirty, and there never seems to be any daylight.  The art and set design by Rick Heinrichs and Peter Young (who won an Oscar for their work) is particularly good, as is the cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki (who was nominated, but lost to Conrad L. Hall for "American Beauty").

If the story were as strong as the film's look, it would get an easy 4/4.  Don't get me wrong, it's not bad.  It is derivative, but it keeps things going and holds the attention.  Also, some better performances would help too.  But I liked it.  It's good spooky fun.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Letters to Juliet

2/4

Starring: Amanda Seyfried, Christopher Egan, Vanessa Redgrave, Gael Garcia Bernal

Rated PG for Brief Rude Behavior, Some Language and Incidental Smoking

Despite having the presence of two gifted actresses and a director who has done great work before ("Tadpole"), "Letters to Juliet" is kind of a trial.  It looks great and has some wonderful views of Italy, but the romance is undeveloped and the film lacks focus.

Sophie (Seyfried) is a fact-checker for the New Yorker, although she longs to be a writer.  She's been engaged for a year to restaurateur Victor (Bernal) and because he's about to open a new restaurant, they decide to go on their honeymoon before the wedding.  But Victor busies himself buying things for his restaurant instead of spending time with Sophie.  While alone, she finds Juliet's (Shakespeare's Juliet) secretaries, a group of women who answer letters that lovelorn women leave on her wall.  One day she finds a letter buried in the wall for 50 years by a woman who chickened out of marriage when she was fifteen.  Sophie writes back and a few days later, the woman, named Claire (Redgrave) shows up and intends to look for her Lorenzo.  With her is her grandson, Charlie (Egan), a stiff Brit who thinks that this is lunacy.  Sophie tags along intending to write a story about it, but it may turn out that the love story is her own.

"Letters to Juliet" falls into the pit that many romances do: too much time is spent on the plot instead of allowing the romance to flourish.  Despite them falling in love, Sophie and Charlie spend only a few short scenes together.  More affecting is Claire's search for her old love, Lorenzo Bartolini.  This is because more time is spent with it and Redgrave is such an amazing actress.

The acting is good, but not enough to save the movie.  Amanda Seyfried is one of the most talented and exciting actresses of her age group.  She's as talented as she is gorgeous, and she is perfectly cast as the lovely Sophie.  Seyfried gives a better performance than the script demands, which highlights its deficiencies.  It goes without saying that Vanessa Redgrave is just as good as the matchmaking Claire.  She has regrets, but it mature enough not to dwell on them.  She views this little adventure as an opportunity to right past wrongs and move forward.  Less impressive is Christopher Egan; he's a hunk, but his range is obviously limited.  He and Seyfried do have chemistry, but based on the limited evidence, it's more like a high school fling rather than a timeless love.

This was Gary Winick's final film before he died early last year of brain cancer.  It's a sour note to end his brief career on, but then again, this film was produced by Summit Entertainment, who love only the beautiful and the shallow (they are responsible for the "Twilight" franchise).  The film looks great, but there's not much going on beneath the surface.

Trust me, skip this one and go to the theater to see "Titanic" again.

Zoo

3/4

Not Rated (contains discussion of bestiality, a brief and obscured image of the act and the gelding of the horse...it's a probable R, although I wouldn't put it past the MPAA to dish out an NC-17)

I remember reading about the story of Kenneth Pinyan, also known as Mr. Hands, who died of internal injuries after having anal intercourse with a horse.  The story was bizarre to me, just like it was to most others who read it.  And yet, it aroused my curiosity.  Due to the results, it was obvious that Pinyan was on the receiving end (or a "bottom," as it's called).  But why?  Why did he do this?  Up until this case, bestiality was legal in Washington state, but should it be?  Can an animal give consent to sex, or is this question irrelevant?  The documentary "Zoo" asks these questions while giving us an idea of the people who do this sort of thing.

Through the internet, a group of people who have sexual interests in animals found each other.  Eventually, they agreed to meet up in Washington state for a weekend.  Although the names have been changed to protect their anonymity (real actors portray them in the onscreen recreations), the men include H, The Happy Horsemen, and Coyote (who allowed himself to be shown onscreen, but remains nameless).  These are normal people; one is a trucker, another an EMT and Pinyan was an engineer for Boeing.  The film tells what happened before and after the death of Pinyan.

The best thing about this movie is its honesty.  Director Robinson Devor doesn't judge.  He simply asks questions (inaudiably) and gets answers.  If Devor has any opinion about what happened, you won't know it from watching this movie.  He gives voice to those on both sides of the issue and lets the audience make their own judgments.  There are those who think it's wrong, and those who take a "live and let live" attitude (including, surprisingly, Rush Limbaugh).

According to the people involved, they have sex with animals because they feel they have a special connection with them.  Animals don't judge, they listen and there's no interpersonal bull to worry about.  And yet one has to worry about the implications of having sex with an animal.  Does having sex with an animal constitute rape because the animal isn't able to make the decision to have sex?  Or, because it isn't human, does it not matter?  Is it animal cruelty?

Devor has made a beautiful film.  It's quietly powerful and fascinating.  The movie is driven by curiosity, and he asks the same questions we would ask.  He doesn't vilify or treat the people involved as freaks or weirdos.  He lets them explain themselves, and he uses actors to act out what happened.  Devon doesn't sensationalize or exploit.  The video of the sex act is brief and extremely obscured.  In this scene, he concentrates on the reactions of the people watching it instead.

The film is brief; it does what it needs to do and that's it.  Devon does however give in to self-indulgence a few times; some scenes are bizarre and don't make much sense, and there's one scene involving an actor who talks about watching a child who drowned die that really has nothing to do with the film.

Still, for those who are curious, this movie is worth seeing.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Hitch

3/4

Starring: Will Smith, Kevin James, Eva Mendes, Amber Valetta

Rated PG-13 for Language and Some Strong Sexual References

If there was any role that was tailor made for megastar Will Smith, it's the role of Alex "Hitch" Hitchens, the "Date Doctor."  Smith has an enormous amount of charisma and likability, which is what it takes to bring this character to life.  Kevin James, Eva Mendes and Amber Valetta round out the main cast, but this is all Will.

Hitch, as he is called, is a guy who can get any man to win over the girl of his dreams.  He knows all the mistakes that guys make when confronted by a beautiful woman, and by pointing them out and helping them avoid them, he can make the biggest geek look like the biggest stud.  His latest client, a pudgy junior tax accountant named Albert Brenneman (James) who is in love with the world's biggest socialite, Allegra Cole (Valetta).  Although Hitch is up to the challenge, his own romantic life is a disaster.  He can't follow his own rules when it comes to pursuing a gossip columnist, Sara Melas (Mendes), who is chasing down the :Date Doctor" myth (and Allegra Cole, of course).

There are three couplings in the movie: Hitch and Albert, Albert and Allegra and Hitch and Sara.  All of them get their due and are enjoyable to watch, but there's a problem: it makes the running time nearly two hours.  A romantic comedy needs only 90 minutes to tell its story.  If they tightened up the script, it would have been a lot better.

At least the characters are appealing.  No one in Hollywood is more likable (or bankable) than Will Smith.  With his easy going charm and comic aptitude, Smith defines the term "movie star."  Although his dramatic range is limited, this is the kind of role in which he is most at home.  In fact, this is one of his best performances, if not the best.  He's funny, smart and endearing.  He also has great comic chemistry with Kevin James, who hit it big with this movie after being on the long-running sitcom "The King of Queens."  Smith and James make a great odd couple.  Model-actress Amber Valetta is positively luminous as the socialite that Albert falls for.  She's not a bitch who becomes "won over" by Albert.  She's a nice lady who wants love just like everyone else.  She and James also have great chemistry.  Eva Mendes is also good as Sara, the feisty and cynical gossip columnist.  She and Smith don't generate as much heat as the other couplings, but we do have an investment in their relationship.

Director Andy Tennant has made a career out of romances/romantic comedies.  His body of work doesn't have any megahits other than this one (2010's much hated "The Bounty Hunter" was still marketed as being from "the director of "Hitch").  Tennant does good work; he just needs a better editor.

The length is really the only fault with this movie.  The romances are cute, the comedy is at times very funny and the performances are strong across the board.  Is it still worth your time even though it is way too long?  I think so.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Think Like a Man

2.5/4

Starring: Michael Ealy, Jerry Ferrara, Terrence J, Romany Malco, Kevin Hart, Gabrielle Union, Meagan Good, Regina Hall, Taraji P. Henson, Steve Harvey

Rated PG-13 for Sexual Content, Some Crude Humor, and Brief Drug Use

"Think Like a Man," from the self-help book by stand-up comic Steve Harvey, is a standard order romantic comedy (studios, in their desperate love of "brand names," have further lowered the importance of screenwriters by adapting books into romantic comedies...see "Something Borrowed" for another example).  The problem here is that there are far too many characters, and for a self-help book, Harvey's book doesn't share anything particularly enlightening about the male or female sex.

This is really a battle of the sexes: five guys (plus two token guys on the other side of the marriage hurdle for comic relief) versus five girls.  The guys are all best friends in a state of arrested development.  Dominic (Ealy) is a nice guy without direction, Jeremy (Ferrara) has been in a relationship since college but doesn't want to commit to marriage, Michael (Terrence J) is a nice guy whose relationship with his mother (Jenifer Lewis) is way to close, and Zeke is a hopeless womanizer.  The girls stack up like this: Kristen (Union) wishes her boyfriend Jeremy would grow up, Lauren likes Dominic (Ealy), but wants to end up with someone rich and successful, Candace (Hall) adores Michael but doesn't want to compete with his mother and Mya (Good) is postponing sex with Zeke to make sure that he isn't a one-night stand.  The girls feel lonely and hopeless until they start using Harvey's book against the guys.  The guys are helpless until they use the book against them.

To be fair to the film, it's not a two-hour long advertisement for Harvey's book (although it does take product placement to a whole new level--the book is constantly sold out and Harvey himself periodically shows up to dish out new advice on an Oprah-like talk show).  The characters, while not original, are sympathetic and well-acted; even Kevin Hart (who's other film that I saw, the wretched "Soul Plane," was awful beyond comprehension) has his moments.

But there's a fundamental flaw in this premise: all these romances rely on cons, deception and outright lies.  These three things ruin relationships 100% of the time.  People in lasting relationships fall in love because they become best friends, not because they outwit the other.  This sort of thing has happened before in many a comedy (like "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days," for example) and would be forgivable if the movie were funny or enlightening.  But the movie isn't especially funny and Harvey's bits of wisdom are fairly obvious; in fact, all of them have been used as necessary plot devices in previous, better romantic comedies.

The film also has a tendency to deal in stereotypes.  The guys are commitment-phobic lotharios in a perpetual state of arrested development and the women want love and commitment.  Who hasn't seen that before?  Not only is this cliche, but it reinforces the sexual double standard: men only want sex and those who are skilled enough to get countless women to sleep with them are studs, while women are virtuous and emotional (and the only women who like sex are sluts).  I mean, Robin Williams had a point when he said "God gave men a brain and a penis, but unfortunately not enough blood to run both at the same time," but still.  Aren't women allowed to enjoy sex and men to want marriage?  Switching the gender roles would have given the film an edge that it desperately needs.

There's nothing wrong with the acting.  In fact, some of it is particularly good.  Ferrara, Union, Terrence J and Hall are especially strong.  I really felt for them.  The others aren't far behind.  Hart is likable, and while he gets some laughs, he talks way too fast to understand a lot of what he says.  The cast members pick up a significant amount of slack left by the flat screenplay and make the most of the time that they're given.  We see them as individuals, not types, which is crucial.

Tim Story tells the story like he should.  He sets the stage and shows the beginning, middle, end and reunion of each character.  He doesn't show off or try to be too hip and offbeat.  It's the solid workmanship that every film needs.  Story, whose previous credits include "Barbershop" (which is the only one that got positive reviews), "Taxi" and the "Fantastic Four" movies (all of which were considered to be horrid), knows what needs to be done and does it.

The film is entirely watchable and on some level enjoyable.  But it's also completely generic; there's nothing special about it either.  If you like romance with a few laughs, this will fit the bill, but that's it.

Immortals


3/4

Starring: Henry Cavill, Mickey Rourke, Luke Evans, Freida Pinto, Stephen Dorff, John Hurt

Rated R for Sequences of Strong Bloody Violence, and a Scene of Sexuality

For what it is, “Immortals” is good fun.  It’s not pretentious or deep by any means (the plot is paper thin and character development is zilch), but for those who crave uncensored brutality and a peek at Freida Pintos’ rear end, it’s worth a trip to the theater.

Theseus (Cavill) is a young man living in a little Greek village about 5000 years ago.  He’s been built into a warrior by an old man (Hurt), who tells him that he will serve a purpose later on.  Meanwhile, war is on the horizon.  King Hyperion (Rourke) is on the warpath.  He intends to find the Epirus Bow, a legendary weapon forged by the gods.  With that, he can release the Titans, the vanquished enemies of the gods, and destroy the deities who stood by while his wife and child died.  Now it’s up to Theseus to realize his role in this saga and find the bow to destroy Hyperion.  He has the support of the gods, but they can’t intervene unless the Titans are released.

Like I said, this isn’t a particularly complex movie.  There’s no one to identify with and the plot is too simple to be truly engaging.  In an age where character and plot are sacrificed in favor of visuals to appeal to foreign audiences, it’s up to the director and his cast to pick up the slack.  It rarely works (see this year’s other R-rated action movie, the Marcus Nispel dud “Conan the Barbarian”), but when it does, they can still do battle with the golden oldies.

Indian director Tarsem Singh is a director who has flown under the radar, making two critically acclaimed, if little seen, movies (“The Cell” and “The Fall,” for anyone who’s wondering).  Ironically, it’s taken Hollywood over a decade to give Tarsem a big budget action movie when it’s his visual sense that is his best attribute.  His costumes and set designs are vividly imagined and extravagantly designed.  His movies would be worth watching on mute just to see them.  Unlike hacks such as Nispel, Tarsem can actually tell a story, and he’s capable of choreographing action sequences that get the blood pumping (the film is being marketed as something akin to “300,” and while there are similarities, the action scenes are more sparse until the end).

The lead of the film is Henry Cavill, a young British actor who is on his way up the ladder (he’s set to play Superman in Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel”…another connection to “300”).  Acting-wise, he doesn’t have much to do other than look buff and kick ass.  It helps that he can recite dialogue convincingly and he has screen presence.  I expect him to go far because he is able to bring a little emotion to a character as thin as this.  Mickey Rourke is his usual badass self, although there’s little difference between Hyperion, Whiplash (“Iron Man 2”) and Marv (“Sin City”).  Frieda Pinto is on hand to look cute and give the guys something to ogle at, although her acting skills leave something to be desired.  John Hurt is always interesting to watch no matter what he’s in (one almost wishes he was onscreen more).  Everyone else fills their jobs admirably.

There are two things that critics are saying that I don’t understand.  One, the plot makes no sense, and two, the 3D is actually good.  The plot makes perfect sense, although it is pretty dumb at times (the same argument can be made about the majority of action movies, however).  The bottom line is that the director must get us involved to the point where we overlook, or better yet, don’t notice them, and that’s the case here).  The 3D is no better than it has been since “Avatar.”  It’s eons better than “Pirates of the Carribean: On Stranger Tides,” but it’s about as good as “The Smurfs.”

The bottom line is that this movie appeals to the baser instincts in all of us. There’s nothing substantial about it at all, unless you count the costumes and sets. If you’re good with that, you’ll like the movie.

Identity (Extended Edition)

3.5/4

Starring: John Cusack, Ray Liotta, Amanda Peet, John Hawkes, Alfred Molina, Clea DuVall, John C. McGinley, William Lee Scott, Gary Busey, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Rebecca DeMornay

Rated R for Strong Violence and Language

The thing that makes "whodunits" easier to pull off in writing than on film is that words take more time to read than images.  It takes longer to read about what is happening than to see it.  There is a wider range in which to stretch the truth (which is crucial in a "whodunit") than in a movie.  "Identity" proves that it is possible to create a superior whodunit when you have a smart script and a talented director.

Eleven people arrive at an out of the way motel during a terrible storm.  The roads are blocked either way and they're all trapped.  They're a varied bunch.  A man named Ed (Cusack) driving a past-her-prime actress named Caroline Suzanne (DeMornay) to Los Angeles.  A family of three, George (McGinley), Alice (Leila Kenzle) and son Timmy (Bret Loehr) seek refuge after an accident.  A newly married couple Ginny (DuVall) and Lou (Scott).  A prostitute named Paris (Peet) on her way to start a new life in Florida.  A cop named Rhodes (Liotta) transporting a serial killer named Robert (Busey).  And the weird hotel manager, Larry (Hawkes).  As soon as everyone gets settled in, people start dying.  Meanwhile, a psychiatrist (Molina) is desperately trying to save a spree killer (Vince) from a lethal injection by proving him insane.

One could crudely call "Identity" a slasher movie, but it's an unfair title.  Although there are some plot similarities (a rising body count, victims dying in mysterious ways, and an unseen killer), it's quite a bit different than "I Know What You Did Last Summer."  Or "Scream" for that matter.  This movie has more in common with Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock than Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger.  For one thing, the characters are smart.  They don't make the same stupid mistakes that everyone who gets stabbed/shot/eviscerated or otherwise murdered in a horror movie.  Second of all, it's actually about something: identity (more than that I will not say).

It goes without saying that these two stories are connected.  In a movie like this, that's a given.  The difference here is two-fold: a, it's not possible to guess how, and b, knowing the truth doesn't diminish the suspense (it actually raises the stakes).

The acting varies, but overall it works.  John Cusack, appearing in a very different movie than he's usually in (this is a scary, almost humorless affair), and his likable personality serves him well.  Ray Liotta is also very good as the knowledgeable cop.  Amanda Peet, who should have gotten an Oscar for her performance in "The Whole Nine Yards," is uneven.  She's good when she's low-key, but when she becomes a screaming, crying victim, she goes over-the-top (this, by the way, describes the acting by the usually horrible Clea DuVall as well).  John Hawkes is his usual off-the-wall self.  The rest of the cast does their jobs, except for Rebecca DeMornay who is horrible as usual.

This is a writing and directing triumph by Michael Cooney and James Mangold.  Cooney, who's previous credits were the horror-comedies "Jack Frost" (not the Michael Keaton family film) and it's sequel, "Jack Frost 2: Revenge of the Mutant Killer Snowman," has crafted a superior mystery.  It plays by its own set of rules and keeps surprising us (and the ending twist is actually earned).  Mangold, whose resume is incredibly diverse, manages the twists very well.  We are never sure of what's coming next.

Does the film hold up during post-viewing examination?  No, but then again most thrillers, especially ones of this ilk, don't either (serial killers always have this impossibly complex plans to put the cops through the ringer only to end up dead anyway).  There are flaws, minor ones, that are apparent during the film as well: some background characters show up and we don't know how they got there, and the climax isn't as clean as it could be.

Still, for lovers of whodunits, this is a good one to check out.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Cracks

3/4

Starring: Eva Green, Juno Temple, Imogen Poots, Maria Valverde

Rated R for Some Sexuality, Nudity, and a Disturbing Attack

Let me state upfront that this is not for the average filmgoer.  It is too slow-moving and subtle for those raised on Michael Bay's films to appreciate.  There's no plot, a lot of beautiful images and and talking.  That being said, I'm giving a recommendation because I liked it, and giving it less than because most people won't like it is incredibly dishonest.

"Cracks" is the debut feature of Jordan Scott, the daughter of Ridley Scott and niece of his brother, Tony (both serve as executive producers).  It's a stunning debut, and unlike anything that either of her relatives have done.  This is an arthouse film through and through.

Scott tells the story of a diving team at an exclusive boarding school in 1930's England.  Stuck-up Di (Temple) is the team captain.  The team is coached by the earthy and charismatic Miss G (Green), to whom the team members are incredibly devoted.  A new girl from Spain arrives to join the team.  Her name is Fiamma (Valverde), a wealthy aristocrat.  Miss G and the younger girls are happy to have her, but Di and her friend Poppy (Poots) view her as a threat and treat her with hostility.

The acting is terrific.  The star of the show is Eva Green.  Miss G is worldly and breathes life into her pupils.  She is so seductive that it's a little creepy.  There's something not right about her and her relationship with these young girls.  Green, who frequently plays strange characters, is very good in the role.  We can see why the girls would be beguiled by her, and also why they should be wary of her.  Juno Temple, a young actress on the rise, is also very good as Di; she reminded me of Saoirse Roman in "Atonment," which Temple also starred.  Both Briony and Di are conceited, insecure and vindictive.  And yet Di has her moments of kindness as  well.  Maria Valverde, a Spanish actress that is an unknown, is terrific as Fiamma, who is kind to the other girls but is catching Miss G in some uncomfortable situations.  She draws our sympathy more than anyone.

This film is a cross between Tarsem's "The Fall" and Tim Roth's "The War Zone."  Like Tarsem, Scott creates a number of beautiful images that she lovingly crafts.  She uses a lot of unique camera angles and choreography to give the film the look of a moving painting.  Thematically, it's like "The War Zone" in the sense that an older figure destroys the innocence of a younger girl (or girls in this case).  It's not nearly as disturbing as Roth's masterpiece, but it is at times quite unsettling.

The problem with the film is it lacks focus and sometimes drags.  Di's character arc is also handled ineffectively.  She seems to change depending on the needs of the screenplay.  Temple is talented enough to bridge the gap for the most part, but she still seems bipolar.

As I've said before, this is not for everyone.  But if you're willing to take a chance, it's kind of hard not to fall under its hypnotic spell.

The Matrix

4/4

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Joe Pantoliano

Rated R for Sci-Fi Violence and Brief Language

Science fiction and philosophy are perhaps two peas in a pod.  When telling a story that takes place in the future, it opens the door to new inventions, and with each radical invention that we use in our daily life, it makes us ask questions about ourselves and how we fit into this huge world of ours.  In "Minority Report," we were asked to ponder the difference between free will and pre-destination, and also the ethical implications of each.  In "I, Robot," we were asked to think about what it means to be human, and where the line between a living creature and a thinking machine is drawn.  In "The Matrix" (which, by the way, came before both of those films), we begin to question our own reality.

Thomas Anderson (Reeves) is an office drone by day and a computer hacker named "Neo" by night.  For him, life is a dream that he can't wake up from.  He knows that something isn't right with his world, but he can't explain what.  When he wakes up one morning, the computer seems to be talking to him.  He follows its instructions and meets a woman named Trinity (Moss).  She in turn introduces him to the mysterious Morpheus (Fishburne) who will give him the answers and as a result, turn his world upside down.  The world as we know it is not real.  It is a computer program designed to enslave us while human beings are farmed for their energy by machines.  Morpheus and a few humans who are freed from this prison are fighting to free the rest of mankind from the machines.

Strange as it may sound, "The Matrix" is actually a (loose) metaphorical re-telling of the story of Jesus Christ, as filtered through layers upon layers of science fiction, to the point where James Dobson and the rest of the Bible Thumpers will deem it unrecognizable from the original story.  But it is there for those who are paying attention.

The acting is excellent across the board.  Keanu Reeves has long since maligned for his acting skills, or allegedly, the lack thereof.  I'm not a member of this group.  I think, that with a strong script and director, Reeves can be great.  "Speed," "The Devil's Advocate" (his best performance in my opinion), "A Walk in the Clouds..." I rest my case.  As Neo, he's the perfect guide into this maze of ideas, technology and violence.  He's a hero that we can all get behind.  He's just as confused as us in the beginning, but learns as we do.  Laurence Fishburne walks the fine line between creepy and sympathetic as the prophetic Morpheus.  He's a highly intelligent man, but his firm belief in something (that's explained in the film) may be his undoing.  Carrie-Ann Moss is also very good as Trinity, the tough leather-clad babe who may be hiding something.  Joe Pantoliano is adds some comic relief by being his usual off the wall self as Cypher.

The villain of the film, the program known as Agent Smith, is probably one of the best and most inventive villains in film history.  As played by the great Hugo Weaving, with his slow, silky voice (reminiscent of Alan Rickman), he is a truly evil...thing.  But Weaving goes beyond using his voice to add menace.  He uses slow and deliberate body movements to emphasize his role as the bad guy.

One of the most striking things about this movie is the visuals.  This is a techno-noir.  It's like having computer science-fiction in the 1940's, and it's the perfect mix for a movie this unusual.  It's also reminiscent of "Dark City," a slightly similar movie that was released three years prior to "The Matrix."

"The Matrix" is most famous for its groundbreaking special effects, like in the first scene when Trinity jumps in the air, freezes as the camera moves and then does a few flying kicks into the bad guys.  Not only are they eye-popping, they raise the adrenaline considerably.  The fight scenes, choreographed by the great Yuen Woo-Ping (who also did the sequels and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") are inventive and expertly done.  The action scenes have been spoofed by the likes of "Scary Movie" and "Charlie's Angels," but like all the most famous movie moments, they work flawlessly within the context in which they were originally presented.

This is a true mind-bending action movie that piques the intellect and the adrenaline.  There's nothing quite like it.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The International

1.5/4

Starring: Clive Owen, Naomi Watts, Ulrich Thomsen, Armin Mueller-Stahl

Rated R for Some Sequences of Violence and Language

Boy, the hipsters are going to love this.  A conspiracy thriller about a world bank causing wars for their own gain...that's gotta be right up their alley.  They may be the only ones who like it (although it is "...mainstream"), however.  This is an incredibly lame thriller with no characters, very little action and a plot that doesn't make much sense.

Ever since "Run Lola Run" made a smash in the arthouses, everyone wondered when Tom Tykwer was going to make an action movie.  His kinetic visual style, fast pace and sure hand for creating adrenaline made him a possible new wunderboy for action movies.  But Tykwer never went down this road.  He made "The Princess and The Warrior" with his "Lola" star, Franka Potente, the first film in Krzysztof Kieslowski's unfilmed trilogy (Heaven, Hell and Purgatory...his "Heaven" starred Cate Blanchett and Giovanni Ribisi), and the film version of Patrick Suskind's beloved (although I couldn't finish it) novel "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer" with Ben Wishaw.  Evidently, "The International" wasn't meant to be an action film, but after disastrous test screenings and reshoots to turn it into an action flick, it was released in February 2009, during the Great Recession (oh, the ironies...).  All this doesn't help the fact that the movie is crap.

This movie is so boring that by the end of it I couldn't remember where it started.  Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Owen) and New York Assistant District Attorney Ella Whitman (Watts) are investigating the International Bank of Business and Credit, which is the go-to bank for all sorts of criminal enterprises.  The bank is involved in a major purchase of missiles, and Salinger & Whitman want to stop it.  Unfortunately every potential witness or informant has the tendency to turn up dead.

For the better part of an hour, the plot makes little sense even though it's fairly simple upon reflection.  Tykwer doesn't give as a chance to be fully introduced to the characters, and the writing by Eric Singer is sloppy.  But even when things become clear, it becomes apparent how lame this story actually is.  Don't get me wrong, I love conspiracy thrillers and action movies, but even when bankers and finance bigwigs caused this economy to tank (this was pure dumb luck for the movie...even if anyone had heard about it, I doubt it would have made half as much money if the economy didn't suck), this movie still blows.

Clive Owen and Naomi Watts needn't worry.  Their talents are of use in other projects, so this is really just a movie they'd rather forget (except for the healthy paycheck, of course).  Neither one of them looks particularly interested.  Ulrich Thomsen is an okay villain, but it would have been a real casting coup to get Richard Fuld, the head of the Lehmen Brothers to star.  I don't know if he can act, but he's definitely more hatable.  Armin Mueller-Stahl is underused, but like all good actors who don't get enough roles, at least he's in it.

Tykwer does what he can to keep the energy level up, but that sometimes works against the film.  There are times when I wished he would slow down so I could actually figure out what was going on.  The one good scene, a shoot-out at the Guggenheim museum, is okay, but it should have been better.  Methinks that Erick Singer started with that idea and built around it.  Pity it's all crap.

The Silence of the Lambs

3.5/4

Starring: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Anthony Heald, Ted Levine, Brooke Smith, Kasi Lemmons

Rated R for Strong Grisly Violent Content including Disturbing Images and Torture, Some Strong Violence, Sexual Content and Language including Sexual References

The term "psychological thriller" is used to describe films that rely on plot and character rather than explosions and gunfights to get the adrenaline up.  This was Hitchcock's playground, and other entries include "Match Point," "The Net," and "The Ninth Gate."  But that's really a catch-all term for cerebral thrillers.  "The Silence of the Lambs" is a true psychological thriller; the suspense comes not from the plot, but from the mind games that the two lead characters play.

FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Foster) is sent on a fairly routine mission.  She must get a brilliant psychopath, Dr. Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lector (Hopkins) to undergo a psychological profile.  Everyone else has failed to get him to cooperate, so this is a last ditch effort.  Surprisingly, Lector agrees.  But Starling's boss, Jack Crawford (Glenn), has ulterior motives.  He intends to use Starling to get Lector, who is a former psychiatrist, to help them track down a serial killer nicknamed Buffalo Bill, who skins his victims.  In order for that to happen, Starling has to allow Lector to examine her.

Without a doubt, the most famous (or is that infamous?) element of the film is Hannibal himself.  Everyone knows his name, and there's not a single doubt why.  Hopkins is positively terrifying in the role.  With his smooth voice and careful facial acting (he never blinks), the classical British actor gives the performance of a lifetime.  Never has there been a villain this complex or frightening.  Lector is not a one-dimensional psycho.  Far from it in fact.  He is a cultured and sophisticated killer who enjoys toying with his victims, especially the hospital's psychiatrist, Dr. Frederick Chilton (Heald), whom he despises to no end.

His co-star, Jodie Foster, has a less flashy role, but is just as well-developed and acted.  Starling is spunky and tough, and although Lector frightens her, he fascinates her as well.  Lector realizes this and finds this amusing.  They only share a few scenes together, but they are unquestionably the best in the film.  A twisted teacher-student relationship forms between them, one of intelligence and respect.  They grow to understand each other. Lecter is all too willing to give her the information that she needs, but he makes her work for it and do something for him in return.  It's "quid pro quo," as he calls it.

Sadly, the scenes with Buffalo Bill are just not as compelling.  It's really unfair to compare them to the Lecter/Starling scenes, but it's inevitable since they occur in the same movie.  Director Jonathan Demme tries ot liven them up by not shielding how demented they truly are, but the screenplay by Ted Tally just doesn't give the character enough depth.

Speaking of Jonathan Demme, the director's work is superb.  Known primarily as a documentary filmmaker, Demme gets us into the minds of his characters in a way that I haven't seen before.  He often has his actors look into the camera in close-ups so we can see their facial features.  While certain characters appeal to certain people, recognizing and interpreting body language is instinctive and universal.  It adds a whole new dimension of fear to an already chilling story.  Demme also has the camera look around a room as a character (usually Starling) enters it.  We become inextricably bonded to the character and see how she sees the world.  Starling is a petite woman (Foster is 5'3" in real life) in a male-dominated profession, which Demme takes care to convey.

"The Silence of the Lambs" took the world by storm.  Despite being released in February, a studio's dumping month and well-before the typical window of Oscar-bait releases, it was one of three films in Hollywood history to win the so-called "Oscar Grand Slam:" Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay (for the record, the other two were "It Happened One Night" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest").  I'm not particularly surprised.  Flawed as it may be, it's a movie the one doesn't forget.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Phat Girlz

3/4

Starring: Mo'Nique, Kendra C. Johnson, Jimmy Jean-Louis, Joyful Drake,

Note: the version being reviewed is the Extended Edition.  For the record, the theatrical cut is rated PG-13 for Sexual Content and Language, including Some Sexual References

Confidence is sexy.  Although many guys drool over the likes of Gisele Bundchen, Jessica Alba and Angelina Jolie, chances are that they wouldn't stick around for long if these gorgeous women turned out to be neurotic disasters.  It's the same reason why people like Queen Latifah and Mo'Nique.  Both are big women, but they carry themselves with confidence.  They know exactly who they are and are happy with it.

That's Jazmin Biltmore's (Mo'Nique) problem.  She's been a big girl all her life, but she lives in a world where being thin is everything.  Models, customers, the people at the club...they're all thin.  No wonder Jazmin and her girlfriend Stacey (Johnson) are depressed.  Luck strikes when Jazmin wins an all-expenses-paid trip to South Beach, Miami.  While there, she meets a handsome doctor, Tumbe Jonathan (Jean-Louis) and to her utter disbelief, he's head over heels for her.

Although the film is marketed as a romantic comedy, that's just a subplot.  This is really more about Jazmin's journey towards accepting herself for who she is.  If nothing else, writer/director Nnegest Likke gets this right.  She populates the extras with paper thin women, or as Jazmin calls them, "skinny bitches."  Likke pays attention to what it's like for someone with an overeating problem, and although the script is weak, this theme is well-acted by Mo'Nique.

The shining star of the film is unquestionably Mo'Nique.  Although she started out as a stand-up comedienne, she has proven herself to be a good actress.  "Phat Girlz" was made three years before she blew the world away with her performance in "Precious: based on the novel 'Push' by Sapphire," (for which she rightfully won an Oscar), and her talent as an actress shows.  We get on Jazmin's side and underneath all the put-downs and sarcasm, there's a very lonely woman filled with self-hate.

Tumbe sees that, and that's what makes the romance work.  Nigerian culture may have gotten him interested in big women, but he can read Jazmin like a book.  Model/actor Jimmy Jean-Louis may not be the best actor, but he is earnest and likable, and he and Mo'Nique have great chemistry.  We become invested in their relationship.

The other elements are not as successful.  Essentially, anything without Mo'Nique or Jean-Louis is flat.  Kendra C. Johnson is horrible as Stacey.  She can't act, and pairing her with a force of nature like Mo'Nique only highlights her deficiencies as an actress.  Joyful Drake isn't much better as Jazmin's catty cousin, Mia, who is upset that her husky friends are getting more attention than her.

Apart from getting us into Jazmin's mindset, little else of what Nngest Likke does works, and the film relies on the charisma and talent of the actors.  Her script is superficial and is in desperate need of some rewrites, and her shot selection is abysmally stale.  There hasn't been camerawork this shoddy outside a high school student film.

And yet, the stuff that works is really good.  The stuff about Jazmin's clothing line is uplifting and Mo'Nique has some great one-liners.  And I felt good after watching it.  Flawed, yes (the extended edition is far too long), but for what it is, it's a good flick.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Change Up

2.5/4

Starring: Jason Bateman, Ryan Reynolds, Leslie Mann, Olivia Wilde, Alan Arkin

Rated R for Pervasive Strong Crude Sexual Content and Language, Some Graphic Nudity and Drug Use

I approached this movie with trepidation.  It got mediocre reviews and it stars Jason Bateman, a funny actor who does the exact same schtick in every movie he does, and it has long since become annoying.  At the start of the movie, I was regretting my decision to watch it, but being the film critic that I am, I soldiered on and what do you know?  I kind of liked it.  It's too flawed to recommend it outright, but it's not as bad as it seems to be at first.

Dave Lockwood (Bateman) and Mitch Planko (Reynolds) have been life-long best friends.  Their lives have taken them in different directions however.  Dave is a hotshot lawyer about to make partner, and Mitch is a layabout wannabe actor.  One night while getting drunk, they both say that they want each others' lives.  Then while pissing in a fountain, a series of blackouts happen and they end up in each others' bodies.  Now they have to figure out how to get back to normal...if they want to.

The body-switching comedy is nothing new.  It was very popular in the eighties, and both "Freaky Friday" and "The Parent Trap" (the original being one of my favorite movies as a kid) have been remade.  It's not hard to see why there are a number of them out there.  The fish-out-of-water plot device has been a much-relied upon comic scenario for eons.  The key is being creative enough to take the plot in funny directions.  "The Change-Up" does this with mixed effectiveness.  Some of its really funny, but other times, it's just gross (Reynolds line about "eye-rape" is a case in point).

To give credit where it is due, neither of the two leads relies on their comic personas to carry them through the movie.  Both Reynolds and Bateman work hard to mimic the other's mannerisms, and that makes a lot of the jokes work.  They use their reputations for comic effect.  Of the two, Reynolds is more successful.  Seeing a hedonist (like Reynolds usually is) becoming an anal-retentive twit (like Bateman usually is) is pretty funny.  Reynolds does it with confidence and a wink.  Bateman isn't quite at that same level.  The "Arrested Development" actor can only play one role, and it's gotten old.  Bateman is never comfortable playing the sex-crazed party animal, and some of the jokes come across as cruel rather than funny because of it.  It's time to let him to pasture and give someone else a shot at fame.

The female co-stars have limited screentime, but they're both solid.  Leslie Mann gets to show off some dramatic chops as Dave's wife Jamie.  She has one scene where she pours her soul to the teenage babysitter that's both funny and sad at the same time.  Now that's talent.  Olivia Wilde is on hand for eye candy, but she's a decent actress.  It should be noted that while both actresses have topless scenes, neither of them actually bared their boobs for the camera.  They were computer generated.  Shame though.

David Dobkin is the man responsible for the grossly overrated "Wedding Crashers."  He understands the concept of comic timing, but there's little that he can do when one of his leads is boring (although he does make us spend more time with Bateman...I guess it's because he's more dynamic?).  Ironically, the dramatic elements work better than the comedy.  Like all raunchy comedies after "American Pie," there's a large dose of sweetness at the end.  It's affecting, and it almost saves the movie.  But not quite.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods

3.5/4

Starring: Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz, Bradley Whitford, Richard Jenkins

Rated R for Strong Bloody Horror Violence and Gore, Language, and Some Sexuality/Nudity

How does one begin to review "The Cabin in the Woods?"  For one thing, it defies description.  The film is so unusual that it was a challenge to market.  All things considered, it turned out well.  The trailer promised something weird, and the movie delivers.  Believe me, the trailer gives away nothing.  Second of all, it's impossible to describe what makes this movie so great without giving anything away.  This movie is best if you know nothing about it.

I'm going to be as vague as I can.  Five friends are going on a little excursion to a cabin in the woods (ha ha).  Weird things start happening almost as soon as they are out the door.  The gas station attendant is creepy and hostile, there's a mysterious two-way mirror, and the basement is filled with scary odds and ends.

That's it, really.  That's all I can say.  There's so much new stuff that goes on in this movie that it is impossible to  say any more.  Suffice it to say that from frame one, it's clear that this is going to be an unusual horror movie.  And yet, that's the genius of the movie.  Creators Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard give us little tidbits gradually.  Each scene reveals another clue, and it isn't until the end that the movie shows all its cards...and even then we're not sure how things are going to turn out.

The acting is effective, but horror movies are generally not known for their acting.  All the leads do their jobs effectively, although Jesse Williams makes for a boring hunk (even for a horror movie).  It's unusual to see adult character actors like Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford in a horror movie like this, but I'm not saying anything else about them.

"The Cabin in the Woods" was delayed for three years.  Normally, that's a cause for concern; studios want to release movies they think will sell as soon as possible.  Delaying a movie usually means trouble.  That's not the case here.  It was delayed because the studio wanted to convert the movie to 3D, which Goddard and Whedon were vehemently against.  Thankfully, the studio relented and released it as it was meant to be seen.

It's been a long time since a movie has surprised me like this.  Most movies are formulas that are too afraid to do anything different.  This one does.

Spirited Away

4/4

Starring (voices): Daveigh Chase, Jason Marsden, Suzanne Pleshette, Susan Egan, David Ogden Stiers

Rated PG for Some Scary Moments

I love this movie.  I love it with all my heart.  "Spirited Away," written and directed by master storyteller Hayao Miyazaki, is a true masterpiece.  Not only is it the finest animated film ever made, it is one of the best films ever made period.  It deserves a place alongside "The Godfather," "Schindler's List," and "Casablanca."  Visually dazzling, emotionally complex and splendidly told, this is truly a movie for all to enjoy.

Chihiro (Chase) is a whiny brat who is upset that she's having to move to the middle of nowhere with her parents (voiced by Lauren Holly and Michael Chiklis).  On the way there, they get sidetracked and end up in an abandoned theme park...or so they think.  Chihiro's parents begin to chow down on delicious food (that they'll pay for later), but they end up turning into pigs.  Now Chihiro is trapped in the world of the gods and forced to work in a bathhouse run by the vicious Yubaba (Pleshette).  Her allies are few, and she has to remember who she is if she ever wants to return to her world.

The first thing one notices about a Miyazaki film is the vivid and colorful images.  All of his films are wildly imaginative, but none moreso than "Spirited Away."  This is a truly beautiful film that would be worth watching on mute.  Miyazaki fills the screen with wonderful and bizarre creatures that capture the eye as well as the mind.  From the three bouncing heads in Yubaba's office to the mysterious Noh-Face that lurks in the background, there is never a dull moment for the eyes.  In fact, this whole world, particularly the bathhouse, begs "Explore Me!"

The second thing one notices is the complexity of the story.  Disney movies, even the best ones, are constrained by formulas.  That doesn't happen here.  There's no telling where this story is going to go.  Miyazaki carefully lets it unfold as Chihiro sees it.  We don't know any more about this strange place than she does.  The story also follows a different formula than American films.  The themes of identity and transformation are, as told by the Japanese filmmaker, different than what we're used to.  Yet at its heart, this is really a coming of age story.

The voice acting is fantastic.  Daveigh Chase is terrific as Chihiro.  This is a girl we can all get behind and root for.  Chase, who famously played Samara in "The Ring," has a tendency to get shrill when she screams, but those moments are few.  Jason Marsden, a popular Disney voice actor, is positively perfect as Haku, the mysterious boy who may or may not be helping Chihiro.  His voice is soothing and seductive, and Miyazaki draws him in such a way that he is both threatening and romantic.  Susan Egan, also a good voice actress, is terrific as Lin, Chirio's feisty friend.  The late great Suzanne Pleshette (in her final film appearance) is suitably menacing as the boss who controls her workers by stealing their names.  At the very least, no one can claim that Yubaba isn't an original villain.  And yet, Pleshette gives the character some humanity, mainly in the form of her doting on her giant baby (Tara Strong, another popular voice actress).

While Kirk Wise may have directed the English speaking voice actors (and added a few lines), this is all Miyazaki.  It has all his trademarks; vivid images, characters that touch the heart and a strong storytelling ability.  But more important is the feel of the film.  Miyazaki is the master of tone; all of his films have a sense of magical whimsy that only he can create.  The wonderful musical score, by Joe Hisaishi (who always scores Miyazaki's films), is beautiful and evocative without being overly manipulative.

"Spirited Away" is the highest grossing film in Japan, passing "Titanic."  Watching it, it's not hard to see why. This is truly a breathtaking film.

Three Kings

3.5/4

Starring: George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, Spike Jonze, Cliff Curtis

Rated R for Graphic War Violence, Language and Some Sexuality

"Are we shooting?"--Troy Barlow
That's the first line of the film.  If that quote, in the context of a war movie, makes you laugh, then this is a movie for you.  Actually, David O. Russell's "Three Kings" is more a political satire than something like "Saving Private Ryan" or "The Hurt Locker."  It's twisted, bizarre and occasionally hilarious.

The Gulf War has just ended.  The troops are celebrating when one day a man is arrested with a map sticking out of his rear end.  Three soldiers, average guy Troy Barlow (Wahlberg), the rule abiding Elgin (Cube) and high school dropout Conrad (Jonze) realize that the map leads to bunkers where Saddam Hussein is stashing the gold that he stole from the Kuwaiti sheikhs.  Along with Major Archie Gates (Clooney), who stumbles in on their plans, they decide to take it for themselves.  Of course, when they realize what is going on now that the Americans are leaving, things change considerably.

"Three Kings" is to war movies as what "Nurse Betty" was to crime thrillers.  It's a legitimate entry, but it's an offbeat one.  Writer/director David O. Russell takes a number of political jabs, such as when following the rules comes into conflict with one's humanity and common sense, and the military's relationship with the media (this leads to a very funny subplot featuring "Saturday Night Live" alum Nora Dunn).

The acting is great.  George Clooney, who clashed with the director (they got into a fistfight over him taking his anger out on the extras), is effective as Gates.  Clooney, well-known for being a liberal and humanitarian (and this film fits in with his ideology), plays the character as a thief who grows a conscience.  He understands the concept of comic timing and more importantly, what Russell is trying to achieve.  Mark Wahlberg, a decent actor himself, is also very good as the "heartthrob" (Russell has some fun with him being worshiped by Conrad), although his character is more of an archetype.  Still, Wahlberg makes it work.  Ice Cube is also good in a surprisingly subdued role as the religious Elgin.  The rapper turned actor has typically been cast as a version of Samuel L. Jackson at his most profane and hilarious.  Here, he proves that he's got solid dramatic chops as well.  The funniest performance goes to Spike Jonze (yes, the director of "Being John Malkovich") who plays the dim-witted Conrad.  It would have been easy to make him a dumb hick caricature, but while Conrad is a dumb hick, Russell uses him wisely and intelligently.

The best performances don't come from the three biggest names (or four, for that matter).  Instead, they are given by New Zealand actor Cliff Curtis and Said Taghmaoui.  Both are underrated character actors, and they do terrific jobs.  Curtis plays the unofficial leader of the group of Iraqi refugees that Gates and his guys end up saving almost by default.  He's intelligent and knows how to appeal to Gates' humanity in a surprisingly real way.  Taghmaoui, whom I've been a fan of for a while, is very good in what is a small but important role as an interrogator.  He's not a bad person, he's just desperate and angry.  The character gives voice to our "enemies" who are being labeled as one-dimensional zealots by the conservative media.

Roger Ebert said that "'Three Kings" is some kind of weird masterpiece, a screw-loose war picture that sends action and humor crashing head-on into each other and spinning off into political anger."  I couldn't have put it better myself.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Lockout

2/4

Starring: Guy Pearce, Maggie Grace, Vincent Regan, Joseph Gilgun, Peter Stormare, Lennie James

Rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence and Action, and Language including Some Sexual References

"Lockdown" is a sci-fi version of "Air Force One."  It's got a lone good guy going up against an airborne vessel full of gun-toting psychopaths.  That's not such a bad thing; the premise is dynamite and if you're going to borrow, you might as well borrow from the best.  The problem is that it's a wussified, dumbed down copy.  There's no tension or excitement to speak of, and because the film borrows (in this case, it's outright theft) from the superior Wolfgang Peterson thrill-ride, it makes this seem lamer than it actually is.

2079.  The United States has created a maximum-security prison orbiting the Earth.  The President's daughter, Emilie (Grace) is on a goodwill mission to make sure that the technology used to induce "stasis," the way they keep the prisoners locked up, has no ill-effects against the prisoners.  While there, the prisoners escape and Emilie is held hostage.  Now, a wrongfully convicted CIA-agent has the chance for freedom if he goes in and rescues her.

The amount of plot elements that this movie steals from "Air Force One" is startling.  There's the brutal takeover, the heavily accented villains (Irish this time, not Russian), the threat of executing hostages at regular, timed intervals, the escape pod, a massive in-air battle...and let's not forget the lead's strong ties to the presidency.  Quite frankly, it's surprising that Columbia Pictures didn't sue Europa Corp (the production company behind this movie).

Compairing "Lockdown" to "Air Force One" is impossible not to do, and it makes this film look that much worse.  "Air Force One" was an exercise in white knuckle suspense and adrenaline on overdrive.  "Lockdown" is a faded echo.  The desire to get a PG-13 rating couldn't be more obvious (gunshots sound like capguns, the most intense violence occurs off screen, and there's not much claustrophobia), and that is it's greatest failing.  Some stories need an R rating to work.  "Sin City" is one of them (can you imagine a neutered version of that movie?), and so is this.  It needs the intensity and punch that a PG-13 movie won't allow.  Even the prison movie genre is traditionally R-rated.

The performances are as good as they could be, but it feels like everyone is holding something back.  For his part, Guy Pearce seems to enjoying himself playing the sarcastic ne'er-do-well.  He has a few great one-liners.  Maggie Grace, doing her second action movie produced by Luc Besson (the other being "Taken").  She's uneven, but usually pretty good.  She's certainly better than in the other film, mainly because she's not a 26 year old playing someone ten years younger.  Vincent Regan makes for an okay villain, but he pales in comparison to Gary Oldman.  Far more colorful and interesting is Joseph Gilgun, except that his accent is so thick that it's hard to understand anything that he says.  Lennie James is lifeless and Peter Stormare is simply showing up for the paycheck.

Directors James Mather and Stephen St. Leger clearly know what they're doing.  I'm not faulting them for the wimpification of their film.  It's not their fault, it was the studio.  They know how to choreograph action sequences without shaking the camera.  Sure it's dumb and absurd, but so was "Air Force One."  The problem is that the studio didn't have the guts to allow the film to be what it needed to be.

Bordertown

2.5/4

Starring: Jennifer Lopez, Maya Zapata, Martin Sheen, Antonio Banderas, Sonia Braga

Rated R for Violence including a Brutal Rape, Sexuality, Nudity and Language

"Bordertown" is one of those movies that fails to find a balance between a message movie and crowd pleasing entertainment.  This is a social issue drama about a topic that needs to be told, but the need to appease those who love action and cheap thrills, it includes unnecessary elements like an out-of-place romance and shocks that belong in a slasher movie.

In 1994, the United States Government signed the North American Trade Agreement with Mexico, allowing products for Americans to be made cheaply just across the border in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.  This allowed the expansion of maquiladoras (sweatshops), and an influx of women looking for work.  It also lead to an increase in violence against women.  Estimated death toll is 370+ since 1993 (the film however claims its more than 5000).  A reporter, Lauren Adrian (Lopez), takes the story in the hopes that she will become an international reporter.  When she gets to Juarez, she finds that there is a survivor of one of these brutal attacks.  This frightened young woman, Eva (Zapata) may be the key to stopping it.  But there are those who are working behind the scenes to make sure that the story never gets out.

By all accounts, this should make a good movie.  Serial killers, conspiracies, sex...all components of a great thriller.  The problem is that they're included in a movie that is meant to wake people up.  If you want to alert people to a horrible crime or plight, honesty is the best policy.  Beefing it up with thriller elements only makes the film cheap and distasteful.

The acting is effective, but not standout.  Jennifer Lopez, who can be a great actress when she works at it, is adequate as Lauren, but she mainly relies on her good looks and charisma instead of her talent.  This is the third time she has worked for writer/director Gregory Nava (the other films being "My Family" and "Selena").  Mia Zapata is quite good as Eva.  She earns our sympathy despite the fact that she has one too many nightmares.  Martin Sheen is on hand, but he doesn't have much to do except encourage Lauren.  He's really a plot device rather than an actual character.  Antonio Banderas is very good as Lauren's old pal as well.

After seeing the wonderful "Selena," I expected more from Nava.  "Selena" had everything a good movie should have: real characters, strong performances and fully developed relationships.  This could have been similar, but the need to sex it up ultimately defeats it.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Stir of Echoes

3/4

Starring: Kevin Bacon, Kathryn Erbe, Zachary David Cope, Illeana Douglas

Rated R for Violence, Sexuality and Language

ESP.  Murder.  Buried Secrets.  Supernatural.  These elements sound like something straight out of the mind of Stephen King, but actually "Stir of Echoes" is based on the novel by the great Richard Matheson.  Still, those who are looking for an intriguing story and some solid spookiness will find it here.

Tom Witzky (Bacon) is your average blue collar guy living in Chicago.  He's got a wife, Maggie (Erbe), a five year old son Jake (Cope) and another baby on the way.  One night at a party, Tom gets hypnotized by his new age sister-in-law, Lisa (Douglas).  Something goes wrong and Tom starts going haywire (echoes of another Kevin Bacon movie, "Hollow Man," but this one is a lot better).  He's seeing ghosts, can sense things before they happen and is constantly thirsty for orange juice.  Maggie is constantly scared and frustrated with her husband, even more so because it's happening to Jake too.

The film's strong point is the story and the setting.  The story is great; it's got a few good twists and turns and is well told by screenwriter/director David Koepp.  Koepp really takes time to establish the setting of blue collar Chicago, and it make the experience more intimate.

The same cannot be said about the acting.  At best, it's adequate; the small budget of $12 million didn't allow for any big names.  Kevin Bacon, never an actor of great range, is more at home playing creeps and villains than a hero.  Kathryn Erbe, who was the only good thing about the show "Law and Order: Criminal Intent" (every time her co-star, Vincent D'Onofrio came on screen, I wanted to put my foot through the TV), is also okay, but another actress could have done a better job.  The shining stars are Cope and Douglas.  Cope is quite good.  He's neither too creepy nor too cute.  Douglas, an underrated actress, is also strong in a performance as the sarcastic Lisa.

David Koepp is one of the most in-demand screenwriters in Hollywood.  He was behind "Jurassic Park," "Panic Room," and "Spider-Man."  He's also proven himself to be a talented director.  "Secret Window" was a creepy movie and so is this.  It's also visually inventive, like in the scenes where Tom is hypnotized.  It proves that big budgets aren't required to catch the eye, only big imaginations.

"Stir of Echoes" has a strong beginning and end, but the middle portion drags.  One gets the sense that it's spinning its wheels.  Shave about ten minutes or so and this would be a great little movie.  Still, I recommend it for lovers of ghost stories.

Wishmaster 2: Evil Never Dies

1/4

Starring: Holly Fields, Andrew Divoff, Paul Johansson, Oleg Vidov

Rated R for Horror Violence and Gore, Strong Language and Some Sexuality

The only reason I watched "Wishmaster 2: Evil Never Dies" is because it came on a double disk with the original, not because the first was any good.  While that on had its share of cheap laughs, this sequel is a waste of time.  It's deadly boring, and it completely disregards the first one.

Morgana (Fields) is stealing some artwork from a gallery with a few of her friends, including Eric (Chris Weber).  The robbery is botched, and the others (including Eric and two security guards) are murdered.  But during the shootout, the statue of Ahura Mazda from the first film is damaged and the fire opal falls out.  The Djinn has retaken the human form of Nathaniel Demerest (Divoff) and turned himself in to the police.  He claims sole credit for the robbery and the murders.  But there's a method to this madness: he needs 1,001 souls in order to get the three wishes from the person who released him (which is Morgana) and release all the djinn upon the world.  Now it's up to Morgana and her priest friend, Gregory (Johansson) to save the day.

While it would be wrong to say that Alex Amberson, played by the bland Tammy Lauren in the first film, was interesting or sympathetic, the character is both compared to Morgana and Gregory.  I didn't care about either one of them (the only one I did care about was Eric, but like in the first one, the film makes the mistake of killing off the most interesting character early on).

The acting is not the film's strong point.  Under better circumstances, I suppose Holly Fields could be at least an adequate actress, but with the pathetic material she's been given, there's nothing Meryl Streep could do with it (Streep would have the good sense to run the other way if it was offered to her, but never mind.  Still, the thought of someone like Streep in a gorefest like this sounds kind of groovy).  Her co-star, Paul Johansson, can't even get that faint of praise.  He looks like a deer caught in the headlights, and would probably be turned down on a soap opera.  Andrew Divoff is back, once again playing one of the blandest monsters in Hollywood history.

I'm not against changing the rules in a horror movie, especially since they were so thin in the original.  Plus, having to make the djinn steal 1,001 souls means more inventive kills and bloodletting, right?  Nope.  Unlike most horror movie sequels (as stated by Randy Meeks in "Scream 2"), there's less carnage in this sequel.  That means there's more time spent with the badly acted characters babbling over the silly formulaic plot instead of giving audiences what they're paying to see.  I mean, no one sees a "Wishmaster" movie to get scared, right?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Wishmaster

2/4

Starring: Tammy Lauren, Andrew Divoff, Robert Englund, Wendy Benson

Rated R for Horror Violence and Gore, and for Language

As a horror movie, Robert Kurtzman's "Wishmaster" is a failure.  It's not the least bit scary, and only two of the  shocks are actually effective (and even they aren't very good).  But as a piece of camp, it's not half bad.  The special effects are suitably cheesy, the acting can charitably be called lousy, there are gobs of gore and no one has any brain cells to speak of.  There are quite a few giggle inducing moments in this movie.

In the time before time (haha), the djinn were created.  Capable of unimaginable evil, the djinn were held hostage by the need to grant wishes.  Of course, whoever wishes a wish gets a nasty interpretation of it.  One such djinn (Divoff) is held hostage in a nearly flawless fire opal, and is accidentally released by a woman named Alex Amberson (Lauren).  Now, this djinn is free to wreck havoc, while causing Alex to have nightmares of his bloodletting.  Unfortunately, the djinn has further use for Alex.

This is one silly movie.  Horror movies are not known to demand deep thought, but this has taken film intelligence to a new low.  In Kurtzman's world, Borat would be Nobel Prize material.  Strange as it may sound, that adds to the charm of the movie.  Lovers of camp would be wise to check this one out (although I don't recommend it to anyone else...unless you're drunk).

The acting is flat.  Tammy Lauren, an actress of TV and soap opera credits, is a flat heroine (in more ways than one).  As a dramatic actress, she's credible, but she's an awful scream queen, and worse, she doesn't even get naked (a must for a decent horror movie).  Izabella Scorupco has a better scream in "GoldenEye."  Andrew Divoff, despite having a low growl for a voice, is a pretty bland villain.  No one else bears a mention except for Tony Crane, who plays Alex's best friend Josh.  He's a much more likable and interesting character, but he has barely any screen time.  I think this movie would have been much better served had he been the lead instead of Alex.

Robert Kurtzman has made a pretty lame horror movie.  His shot selection is uninspired and he has no grasp of atmosphere.  Kurtzman's background is in visual effects, and it shows.  There are a number of cool visuals, like when a guy turns into a snake and ancient statues turn homicidal.  That stuff is pretty neat.

That's what "Wishmaster" is like: a few mildly interesting elements in the service of a silly story featuring stupid characters.  I'm not going to recommend the film, but it is watchable.