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Saturday, February 28, 2009

Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li

I try to see the good in every bad movie. A performance that stands out, or maybe a scene that hints that the project had an actual vision at one point before buckling under studio interference. I got nothing from Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li. No sense that anyone believed in it at any point in time, and an overall feeling that the cast wanted it to be over sooner than I did. This is a joyless and plodding little movie that performs the mortal sin of managing to be both boring and mind-numbingly dumb at the same time.

Those of you with good memories will recall that this is not the first attempt to bring the Street Fighter video games to the big screen. There was another film in 1994 with Jean-Claude Van Damme and the late Raul Julia in his final role. That wasn't a very good movie, either. It was noisy, campy, and cheesy as all get-out. But at least it seemed to be trying and had a vision, misguided as it was. This movie in comparison is drab, grimy, murky, and not very fun at all. It's almost as if director Andrzej Bartkowiak was under strict orders from the studio to remove anything that could be remotely fun or exciting. Mr. Bartkowiak is no stranger to butchered video game to film adaptations, having brought us 2005's cinematic take on Doom. With a title like Street Fighter, we at least expect some fast-paced action. And with Chun-Li as its central focus, we at least expect some sexy fun. (In the video game world, she ranks right up there with Ms. Pac-Man and Lara Croft amongst the "first ladies" of gaming.) But the fighting (on the streets or otherwise) is unimpressive, with many battles ending mere seconds after they start. As for the title heroine, she's been turned from a sexy and fun martial artist, into a brooding Batman-like vigilante who spends more time talking to us in a droning and endless off-camera narration than she does kicking butts.

Through her narration, we learn that she was a child born into wealth. Her loving parents hoped she would become a concert pianist. Then, one night, the villain Bison (Neal McDonough) and his men broke into her family's home and kidnapped her father. Bison, we learn, is a crime lord who is so evil, he doesn't have anything good left remaining within him. He somehow transferred everything good within him into the body of his at-the-time unborn daughter through an ancient ceremony. He then proceeded to kill his wife and rip his child right out of her stomach. For reasons that are unexplained by the movie, the daughter somehow went missing, and he's now searching for her. He also plans to use his wealth as a businessman to buy up all his rivals, take control of a slum area in Thailand, and destroy it so that he can build a new community. Bison was apparently born and raised on the streets of Thailand, which makes his weak Irish accent that comes and goes throughout his dialogue all the more mysterious.

Chun-Li, meanwhile, has grown up to be a young woman played by Kristin Kreuk from TV's Smallville. In the early moments, she seems content to live out her childhood dreams of being a pianist, but then an ancient scroll is delivered to her, and she has a feeling "it means something". Her mother conveniently dies of Cancer shortly thereafter, so the young girl has the opportunity to leave her world behind and live as a homeless person on the streets of Thailand, seeking the aid of a mysterious martial arts master named Gen (Robin Shou). While on the streets, she sees the suffering of the poor people, and it gives her another reason to fight against Bison. She decides to become a Robin Hood-like figure, robbing from Bison to give to the poor. Also after Bison are a pair of police detectives, played by a terribly miscast Chris Klein and Moon Bloodgood. Klein manages to mangle every line of dialogue the hacked-out screenplay gives him, while Bloodgood exists simply to break the record for the most amount of leather clothing worn by a single woman in a film.

The performances as a whole all but guarantee this movie could sweep the acting nominations when it comes to next year's Razzie Awards. They would be merely bad individually, but the fact that no one in this movie seems to be working on the same page makes them excruciating. As the heroine, Kreuk seems to think she's in a bad rip off of Kill Bill. McDonough's turn as the head villain comes across as the most boring Bond villain ever put to film. Meanwhile, Michael Clarke Duncan (as Bison's right-hand man, Balrog) reads his dialogue as if he's under the impression his character is supposed to be mentally slow. Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li fails by just about every lowered expectation you may have. It's not exciting, it takes itself way too seriously, and the plot often doesn't make a lick of sense. In one scene, we're introduced to one of Bison's followers - a woman negotiating a business deal for her boss. The next time we see her, she's at a nightclub, and Chun Li decides to lure her in by pretending to hit on her on the dance floor. How did she know the woman was a lesbian? The only other scene we saw her in didn't provide us any clues, and our heroine has spent no time around her. Maybe it was a lucky guess?

There's a lot of things this movie doesn't explain. We know that this wise old martial arts master training Chun-Li used to be a criminal who worked for Bison, but why does he have magic powers? (When she takes a bullet protecting a kid, he heals her and causes her wound to magically mend itself in seconds.) For that matter, how did he survive being stuck in his house when it's blown up with a rocket launcher? Why are Bison's soldiers so heavily armed with machine guns if they hardly ever use them? Their strategy mainly seems to stand around and wait for Chun-Li to show up and kick them, which makes me wonder how they managed to become such a feared army in the first place. Why is it after spending weeks on the streets and sleeping in trash-strewn alleys and gutters that Chun-Li's clothes are just tattered slightly, but her hair and skin are flawless? Why does the movie even try to build up our expectations by introducing a villain named Vega (played by Taboo, from the music group Black Eyed Peas), only to have him exit the movie in the very next scene in a fight that lasts all of 15 seconds?

But the most important question regarding this movie is why bother? There's not a single reason to watch it, and not a single reason why it needed to be made. Fans of the games will be much happier staying at home and playing the recently released Street Fighter IV on their Xbox 360s or Playstation 3s, and anyone else probably doesn't care about this movie in the first place. It all adds up to a movie that seems to be designed for an audience that doesn't even exist. I said earlier that the film takes itself too seriously, but there is one laugh at the very end - It sets itself up for a sequel.

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Monday, February 23, 2009

Madea Goes to Jail

It's funny to think that when I saw Madea's Family Reunion three years ago, I found it shockingly bad. I hated it so much, I even voted it as the worst film of that year. Yet, here I am reviewing Madea Goes to Jail, and I find myself completely indifferent. It's not that I've warmed up to the character, or to the schizophrenic filmmaking of writer-director Tyler Perry, who enjoys melding over the top melodrama with broad sketch comedy into an ungainly package. I think I've just come to face facts that this is the way it is. This is Perry. He doesn't shock me anymore. I may not like his films, but I've become so used to them and their formula that I'm willing to accept that things will never change.

I imagine the reason why his fanbase enjoys his plays and films so much is that they're like fast food for the mind. You always know what you're getting when you walk in, and your brain gets filled with empty calories as the story plays out. People line up in droves for the same thing over and over. And boy, do they ever line up. As I'm writing this, the movie's just enjoyed a $41 million opening weekend. This will ensure many more Madea movies as long as Perry keeps on wanting to make them. Madea, if you remember, is a feisty old battle ax of a grandma who talks like a street gangster, and is not afraid to pull a gun on anyone who rubs her the wrong way. She's played by Perry himself in drag and a fat suit, which always makes it awkward to see this character in real world situations. Everyone else in the movie looks normal, while Madea looks like she stepped out of a bad Mad TV sketch. Despite having her name in the title, Madea has very little to do with the actual film itself. She's mainly here for comic relief, and never really plays any central part in the plot. Heck, she doesn't even arrive at the title destination until the third act of the movie, with only 20 minutes left to go. Talk about your false advertising.

The movie is really about an assistant D.A. named Josh (Derek Luke). He's worked his way up from the streets, and now seems to have it all, including a beautiful young fiance named Linda (Ion Overman). Everything comes to a halt when he has a chance courtroom encounter with Candy (former child star and Cosby Kid, Keisha Knight Pulliam), a former friend of his who is now working the streets as a prostitute. Josh has a "big secret" that somehow ties into Candy winding up where she is, and feels guilty about it. He offers to help, which Linda is completely opposed to. You see, the world of Tyler Perry is composed of extreme blacks and whites. People are either completely good or completely evil. Linda is the villain, because she's rich, spoiled, and doesn't like the idea of her future husband helping out one of "those people", even if he has a past with her. The movie keeps on giving us hints that Candy is a good person at heart. She may be a prostitute and a drug addict, but she's smart, because she reads books a lot, so that makes her a good person. Josh tries to get his childhood friend the help she needs, while Linda plots and schemes to keep them apart any way possible.

Madea, meanwhile, exists in a completely different story (and seemingly a completely different movie). She escapes from a road rage charge due to a technicality early on, but the Judge orders her to go to anger management, leading to a pointless cameo from Dr. Phil, who tries and fails to control her violent and extreme behavior. Madea continues to wreak havoc, leading up to an incident in a K-Mart parking lot where she steals a construction vehicle and destroys a car that belongs to a woman who stole her parking place. This time, the Judge throws the book at her, and she's sent to prison. This is when the two storylines are supposed to come together, since Candy is sent to prison at the same time on a trumped-up charge created by evil Linda, but the movie never quite gels. The movie tries for two completely conflicting tones. The Josh/Linda/Candy plot is heavy-handed melodrama, while the Madea story is broad, over the top comedy with machine gun-packing drag grannies and pot-smoking grandpas. Even though the characters eventually arrive at the same destination, they still seem to exist in two completely different realities.

Like all of his films, Tyler Perry obviously has good intentions, and just wants us to walk out of his movies feeling good. But that does not excuse the sloppy storytelling and uneven performances on display. I'm still trying to figure out why Madea becomes the focus of protestors outside of the prison, when she is actually guilty of the crimes she committed. Candy is the innocent one, yet the entire last half of the movie deals with people coming together to get Madea out. Also unexplained is Josh's eventual romantic feelings for Candy, since they never have any scenes that seem to build to this. It's almost as if Perry is in a rush to get the feel-good stuff. As is usual with his past few films, there is one good performance that rises above the material. This time, it comes from Viola Davis from Doubt, who plays a local social worker. Whenever she's on screen, you get the feeling she's giving the material more respect than it deserves. Everyone else is either over the top, or seems to be phoning it in.

I believe in truth in film criticism, so I will say this for Madea Goes to Jail - There is one funny idea in the movie. When Madea arrives at prison, she discovers her cellmate is a hopelessly sunny and cheerful woman who doesn't seem like she should be behind bars, until we find out she's a serial killer who murdered 18 men. The movie seems to be hinting at some twisted satire here, but naturally, doesn't do anything with this character after she's introduced. It's too bad. Her introduction scene is the closest I've ever come to actually laughing at a Tyler Perry movie.

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Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Best Films of 2008

Well, it's Oscar night, so I think it's time I take a trip down memory lane and look back on my favorite films of the past year. As usual, you'll see a wide variety of films. Not just serious Oscar contenders, but also some comedies and superhero movies. 2008 had a great variety of great films in just about any genre you can think of. The format of this list follows the same as in previous years. I first choose my pick for the single best film of 2008. I then list my choices for the "Great Films" of last year, the films that stand out in my mind for one reason or another long after I viewed them. I then list the "Honorable Mentions", and finally the performances of last year that stood out to me.

One thing I want to note before I begin. You'll probably notice that one of tonight's Best Picture nominees, Milk, is not on this list. It's not that I didn't like the movie, it's that I never got a chance to see it. I'm a regular paying customer when it comes to movies, and I can obviously only review movies that come close enough to me. For whatever reason, that particular film never came. I try to see all the Best Picture nominees before the night of the ceremony, but sometimes something gets in the way. I will get to see it eventually in some way, obviously, and I will add it to this list later on if I feel it's worthy of recognition. (I was not a huge fan of one of the other nominees, The Reader, for example.) So, with that out of the way, let's get down to the important stuff...the movies.


THE BEST FILM OF 2008








SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE - So many people seem to have fallen in love with this little movie that could, and it's easy to see why. Slumdog Millionaire is charming, heartwarming, funny, exciting, and one of the best times I've had at the theater in the past year. It's easy to see why this has become such a crowd pleaser with audiences. It has a certain innocence to it, and its central love story is something that can speak to just about anyone. More than that, Danny Boyle has simply given us a great film to start with. The story initially grabs your attention with its unorthodox and out of sequence storytelling, and then wraps you in even further with its characters and exotic settings. This is a rare feel-good movie that stimulates all the senses, not just the heart, and lingers in your mind long after you've seen it.


THE GREAT FILMS OF 2008 (IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER):






THE DARK KNIGHT - 2008 will be remembered as a banner year for comic book films. Iron Man got the ball rolling back in May, but I don't think anyone expected the juggernaut that The Dark Knight would become. This is the first film in the Batman franchise that truly felt like a complete film to me. It not only successfully fleshed out the main character as an individual we could care about (something filmmakers have been struggling with since 1989's Batman film), but it was also one of the deepest and most challenging summer blockbusters to come along in years. There was a lot going on in this movie besides costumed heroes and villains, and for the first time, Gotham City and its inhabitants seemed like real characters that we could truly get behind. Throw in Heath Ledger's unforgettable performance, and it's easy to see why this movie won over both fanboys and regular movie goers.





THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON - Were it not for Slumdog Millionaire, this probably would have taken the top spot. Director David Fincher truly outdid himself with this quiet and fascinating look at life. This movie gave me something I seldom get at the theater - The feeling that I was watching something truly great. It starts with the visual style of the film, making Benjamin Button the most beautiful movie of the year. But then, it goes even further, as we follow the title character through his "life led backwards", his experiences, and the people he meets. This is a nearly flawless film, with so many individual scenes that would probably make great short films on their own. The fact that this film could have gone wrong in so many ways (it could have come across as gimmicky and overly sentimental), but never takes a wrong step in its nearly 3 hour running time makes this movie a small miracle.




TROPIC THUNDER - My favorite comedy of 2008. I don't remember the last time I laughed this much at a movie in a long time. Ben Stiller's warped tale of spoiled actors lost in the jungle while shooting a Vietnam war epic not only expertly skewers war films and the Hollywood system in general, it savagely holds a mirror up to just about every one of the false pretenses actors have about themselves, and exposes them for how ridiculous they truly are. But the movie's not just great because of its laughs, it also holds one of the best comic performances of the year from Robert Downey Jr, in what can only be described as one of the most challenging roles any actor has taken in a comedy in recent memory. Tropic Thunder may come across as offensive and crude, but it's also a lot of fun.



THE WRESTLER - One of the most unforgettable films of the past year. Mickey Rourke's comeback story has somewhat overshadowed just what a great film this truly is. Yes, his performance is worthy of all the praise its been getting, but there is just so much to love about this film. The Wrestler is honest, brutal, and often seems very real and unscripted. We feel like we're watching real people up on the screen, not characters in a screenplay. This movie finds the perfect tone for just about every moment, especially the ending, which for once does not give us all the answers we're looking for. Also of note - The fact that Bruce Springsteen's haunting theme song was not nominated for an Oscar is one of the great crimes of tonight's ceremony.


DOUBT - In bringing his Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning Broadway play to the big screen, writer-director John Patrick Shanley not only brings us undeniable energy and engrossing storytelling, but also assembles one of the finest casts featured in a film in 2008. It's no surprise that the four main leads here (Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis) have been nominated, as they are all commanding and unforgettable presences here. This film, about a nun who suspects a priest is having a secret affair with a young boy, gives us no easy answers, but it does give us a lot to admire. It asks a lot of questions, and leaves it up to us to make up our own minds about what happened. Doubt is high-level drama at its finest.

FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL - My other favorite comedy of the year, and a wonderful star vehicle for rising star Jason Segel. Sarah Marshall doesn't really do anything radically different from other romantic comedies. But it does have some of the biggest laughs of the year, and some wonderful comic performances. More than that, this is a very heartfelt film with characters we not only care about, but come across as being genuine. These are not the usual stock character types, and they don't make intentionally stupid decisions just to move the plot along. The characters are handled with a surprising amount of intelligence, and don't always act the way we expect them to. Above all else, it's impossible not to see this movie and not dream of seeing a musical of Dracula performed by Muppets. Sure, that sounds weird, but watch this movie and you'll understand.


HONORABLE MENTIONS

Cloverfield, Definitely Maybe, The Spiderwick Chronicles, Be Kind Rewind, Charlie Bartlett, The Other Boleyn Girl, The Bank Job, Horton Hears a Who, Run Fatboy Run, Leatherheads, Iron Man, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Strangers, The Incredible Hulk, Get Smart, Wall-e, Young @ Heart, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Brideshead Revisited, Burn After Reading, Igor, Ghost Town, Appaloosa, Towelhead, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, Body of Lies, The Express, The Duchess, Sex Drive, The Secret Life of Bees, Religulous, Soul Men, Role Models, Bolt, Nothing Like the Holidays, Marley & Me, Revolutionary Road, Last Chance Harvey, Frost/Nixon


THE STAND-OUT PERFORMANCES OF 2008

Amy Adams (Doubt), Summer Bishil (Towelhead), Cate Blanchett (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), Russell Brand (Forgetting Sarah Marshall), Madeline Carroll (Swing Vote), Michael Cera (Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist), Don Cheadle (Traitor), George Clooney (Burn After Reading), James Cromwell (W.) Tom Cruise (Tropic Thunder), Penelope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) Viola Davis (Doubt), Kat Dennings (Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist), Leonardo DiCaprio (Revolutionary Road), Robert Downey Jr (Iron Man and Tropic Thunder), Clint Eastwood (Gran Torino), Aaron Eckhart (Towelhead and The Dark Knight), Susie Essman (Bolt), Dakota Fanning (The Secret Life of Bees), Anna Faris (The House Bunny), Isla Fisher (Definitely, Maybe), James Franco (Pineapple Express), Taraji P. Henson (The Curious Case of Benamin Button), Dustin Hoffman (Last Chance Harvey), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Doubt), Angelina Jolie (Changeling), Keira Knightley (The Duchess) Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon), Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight), Francis McDormand (Burn After Reading), Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire), Brad Pitt (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Burn After Reading), Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler), Jack Scanlon (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas), Jason Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall), Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road), Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon), Meryl Streep (Doubt), Tilda Swinton (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), Emma Thompson (Last Chance Harvey and Brideshead Revisited), Marisa Tomei (The Wrestler), Kate Winslett (Revolutionary Road and The Reader), Evan Rachel Wood (The Wrestler)


And with that, I close the chapter on 2008 and look to the year ahead. I can only hope that some of the best trends of the past year (comic book movies and summer blockbusters worth caring about, adult comedies that are both funny and smart) carry on into 2009. Enjoy the Oscars tonight, and happy film going to one and all!

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Friday, February 20, 2009

Fired Up

In 1980, Mad Magazine attempted to follow in the footsteps of rival humor magazine, National Lampoon, and break into the world of movies with the seldom-seen (and rightfully so) teen sex comedy, Up the Academy. Apparently the magazine staff knew what a turkey the film turned out to be, as they actually disowned the film in print, and even went so far as to praise one of the actors from the movie who decided he wanted his name taken out of the credits. The end result is that the movie came and left theaters with hardly anyone noticing, and the guys at Mad got to take one last shot at the stinker by doing what they do best - Parodying the film in their own magazine.

What does all of this have to do with Fired Up? A quick search on the Internet reveals that this movie was originally intended to be Maxim magazine's big break into feature films, but their name has been removed from all advertising and press material. They had the good sense to hide their involvement. If the cast and crew were smart, they would have thought of fake names to try to distance themselves from this lame teen sex comedy that has very little sex and even less comedy. Thanks to the magic of the PG-13 rating, we can have a movie that merely hints at non-stop sex, female nudity, and dated gay and lesbian humor. Even if the film has been "cleaned up" (this was obviously intended to be an R), there's still a scuzzy and uncomfortably sleazy feeling that flows throughout the movie that leaves the viewer squirming instead of laughing. Am I saying the movie automatically would have been good if it had been free to show its true adult colors? Not really. But at least then it would have been trying.

Watching this thing, I kept on thinking back on another movie I saw a few months ago called Sex Drive. Very few people saw that movie in the theater, but it was a wonderful little film that embraced its raunchy teen roots, while also showing an inspired absurdist humor and characters we could actually care about. Fired Up is the complete opposite, as there's nothing here I could possibly care about. This film creaks and moans through its tired humor and leaden plot about two high school football players who consider themselves ladies men, and decide to skip football camp for cheerleader camp so that they can be surrounded by beautiful girls for three weeks. How do they pull this scam off? I'll get back to that. I want to talk about the fact that our two heroes are played by Nicholas D'Agosto and Eric Christian Olsen. The fact that the movie tries to pass these men who are pushing 30 (D'Agosto is 28 and Olsen is 31.) as high school students is funnier than anything in the movie itself. It also adds a touch of awkwardness to the subplot where Olsen's character falls for an "older woman", who happens to be 30. D'Agosto at least has some awkwardness and timidness on display sometimes, but Olsen seems to think he's the next Jim Carrey in his performance. Just because you took over for Carrey in a prequel to Dumb and Dumber that nobody saw doesn't make it so.

So, the two guys pass themselves off as male cheerleaders so they can get into the camp. One of the girls on their school's squad (Sarah Roemer from Disturbia) doesn't buy their forced enthusiasm at first, but soon begins to fall for D'Agosto's character. Of course, she's already hooked up with a guy who's a total jerk (David Walton). Also as to be expected, their school cheerleading team stinks, and are always being mocked by the more popular rival team from another school. I guess we're supposed to care about these two guys learning a new appreciation for women and for cheerleading in general, but the movie's dead in the water. Every gag and line of dialogue falls with a deafening thud. Even the choreography for the cheer routines is uninspired, as the girls seem to be doing the same tricks over and over. We keep on waiting for some spark of wit in the screenplay, but the closest thing we get is the high school football coach (played by veteran actor Philip Baker Hall) says the word "shit" a lot. Apparently, it only takes a couple "F-bombs" to earn an R, but you can say shit as much as you want, and still get by with a PG-13. I'm sure the kids who made up a majority of my screening (who looked no older than 11) went home with a new appreciation for the word.

The whole thing only runs just short of 90 minutes, but feels a lot longer than that. That's because the movie feels needlessly padded. It's almost as if first-time director Will Gluck and first-time screenwriter Freedom Jones didn't know how to fill out their thin premise, so they keep on falling back on the same jokes. Remember, if you're desperate for a laugh, have the girls triumphantly yell out "F.U.", because the name of the cheerleading camp is Fired Up University. (Wouldn't that make it "F.U.U.?") And what could be funnier than having the guys being forced to bunk with not one, but two, gay stereotypes who don't even exist as actual characters in the screenplay? The movie aims for easy targets, and still misses the point, by not even doing anything with these characters in the first place.

I can't think of another movie this year (except maybe Bride Wars) that I wanted to walk out early from than Fired Up. And yet, I toughed it out, and was even the only person who stuck around for the outtakes and bloopers during the end credits. Usually, these sort of things are a treat for the audience. Here, it makes the movie resemble someone who just won't leave you alone and let you go on with your life. The outtakes and alternate scenes kept on coming, and all I could think to myself was what a miserable little movie this is.

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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Confessions of a Shopaholic

Perhaps if it were a smart satire, Confessions of a Shopaholic could have worked. But it's not a satire, and it's certainly not smart. This movie is a shrill, brainless, and obnoxiously bubbly romantic comedy that praises consumerism and spending beyond your means, while at the same time condemning it. If only mixed messages were the most of this movie's problems. Throw in leaden dialogue, forced and unconvincing humor, an implausible plot, and a central romance completely lacking in passion and purpose, and you have one of the most uncomfortable movie experiences of the year.

The opening credits actually filled me with hope. The star of the film is Isla Fisher, a rising comic actress who has been very good in films like Wedding Crashers and Definitely, Maybe. My hope continued to build when I read some of her co-stars...Joan Cusack, John Goodman, John Lithgow, and Kristin Scott Thomas. Even the director, P.J. Hogan, has made many films I admired including Muriel's Wedding, My Best Friend's Wedding, and 2003's live action Peter Pan. Somehow, all of this talent has come together to make a film of stunning banality and bad taste. The bad taste part is not entirely the fault of the filmmakers. After all, they didn't know what the state of the U.S. economy would be when they were shooting the thing. But the folks at Touchstone/Disney should have known better to release a movie were a bubble-headed heroine praises the values of impulse spending throughout, and solves all of her money problems by being her adorable and ditzy self. It sends the wrong message to its audience, and is probably not the kind of thing most people want to watch right now.

The movie is garish and annoying, kind of like it's lead character, Rebecca Bloomwood. Isla Fisher plays her kind of like Elle Woods from Legally Blonde, only without the good intentions and the hidden smarts. As the film opens, she works as a journalist for a gardening magazine, but the job is mainly so she can keep herself stocked with the latest fashion accessories. This passion has led to a massive amount of backed up debt and maxed-out credit cards, but it's okay! She's got a supportive best friend who she lives with named Suze (Krysten Ritter). That's the first problem with this movie - Rebecca never seems to be in any danger of losing anything. She lives off her friend and her friend's fiance, and she's constantly able to ignore the increasing amount of calls and visits from the debt collector with cute and implausible excuses. ("My aunt died in a sky-diving accident!") In this movie's world, being swallowed by financial debt isn't such a bad thing. It's a light-hearted and fun romp where you just might find love! And don't forget, being pursued by debt collectors can lead to an endless string of delightful slapstick moments.

To fix her problem, Rebecca plans to get a job at a fashion magazine. Due to circumstances too convoluted to recap here, she instead ends up getting hired as a writer for a savings magazine. She blows the initial interview, but the magazine's head editor, Luke Brandon (Hugh Dancy, who comes across here as a wannabe Hugh Grant without the personality and screen presence), is just so charmed with Rebecca's off the wall behavior (She uses a noisy pencil sharpener in the middle of a business meeting! She dives and crawls across a long executive table to answer the phone!), that he not only gives her a job, but he starts to fall for her. Darn if we can figure out why. The two have nothing in common, and their scenes together that are supposed to be romantic have all the passion and joy of a prostate exam. Of course, now that she has money again, she has to force herself to control her spending habits. She starts going to self-help meetings (hence the title), but never seems to take them truly seriously.

Like I said, Confessions of a Shopaholic could have worked if the movie treated its subject matter with some wit, or maybe if it had something to say about compulsive spending. Instead, the movie parades some of the worst romantic comedy cliches imaginable, and stale slapstick gags. Poor Rebecca seems to be a magnet for walls, people, and anything else conceivably possible to crash into. She also never comes across as someone to root for. Besides her obsession with spending beyond her means, she never shows a true work ethic (she misses deadlines and interviews to do more shopping, without even being punished), and she also lies incessantly. Her editor/romantic interest is supposed to come across as someone who is patient and willing to see the best in her, but he instead comes across as the most gullible man to walk the face of the Earth. It's almost alarming how artificial this movie comes across, and how detached from reality it seems to be.

But, it's just supposed to be mindless escapism, right? You're not supposed to read anything too serious into it, right? Hey, I was ready for a good time walking into the movie, and like I said, the names displayed in the opening credits filled me with hope. All that talent is used to no effect, however. Outside of Fisher, the rest of the names I mentioned are neglected in forgettable cameos and supporting roles. Isla Fisher does at least appear to be trying, but her performance is too far over the top. She's constantly shrieking, playing up the goofiness of the character, and really just seems to be trying too hard. After seeing her in this, I'd love to see her in a more low key comic role, where she doesn't seem to be pleading for the approval of an invisible audience in every scene. Her performance never once finds the right tone, nor does it ever strike the right note.

Even if the movie wasn't being released at a bad time, it still wouldn't have worked. The movie is too forcefully cute. It actually resembles its lead character, in that it often doesn't seem to know what it's doing, and thinks it can just coast on by with artificial charm. If Confessions of a Shopaholic had at least been a decent length (say 80 or 90 minutes long), I could at least say it didn't overextend its welcome. Too bad the movie's nearly two hours.

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Friday, February 13, 2009

Firday the 13th

Last month, when I was reviewing My Bloody Valentine 3D, I was faced with wether I should recommend it or not. I admitted in my own review that the acting was largely wooden, the characters written haphazardly, and the plot was nothing more than an excuse to throw globs of gore at the screen. And yet, I could not deny that I had fun watching it. It had some inventive and gruesome death scenes (the true test of any slasher film), and was better made than the norm for the genre. I ended up giving the film a mostly positive review, but only to those who would appreciate going to a movie about a homicidal miner killing numerous people and ripping out their hearts.

Now that I have seen the new Friday the 13th, I think I made the right choice recommending that film, because Valentine is the better film of the two. Yes, its plot was just an excuse to throw globs of gore on the screen (and if you saw it in 3D, off the screen as well), but hey, at least it attempted to have a plot. Despite being billed as a re-imagining of the franchise, Friday the 13th is really the same old song and dance that teens have been screaming at since 1980. Sure, the bigger budget makes for a better looking movie than the original (as if that wouldn't be a given), but when you get right down to it, things haven't changed much. Jason Voorhees (Derek Mears) is still prowling the woods around abandoned Camp Crystal Lake, taking out anyone who should dare enter, or try to have sex or maybe smoke a little weed. The cast in this movie isn't made up of any real discernable characters. They're simply sheep being led by screenwriters Damian Shannon and Mark Swift (Freddy vs. Jason) to be slaughtered by the masked psycho.

Our group of victims this time around are led by the stuck up rich kid, Trent (Travis Van Winkle), who's brought his girlfriend Jenna (Danielle Panabaker) and his friends to his parents' cottage mansion home for a weekend of drugs, sex, and alcohol. The group includes sexy bimbos Bree (Julianna Guill) and Chelsea (Willa Ford), Chelsea's boyfriend Nolan (Ryan Hansen), black guy Lawrence (Arlen Escarpeta), and Asian guy Chewie (Aaron Yoo). These characters are literally only distinguishable by skin and hair color, except for Chewie, who at least gets to spout off a couple one liners during the scenes he's alive. I don't think I'm spoiling anything by saying all of these characters are doomed, since they're here to party and have wild, unhinged sex. As everyone knows, that's pretty much an invitation to the grave in one of these movies. Jenna's the "nice girl" of the group, so she's safe. Instead of partying with the others, she decides to help a guy named Clay (Jared Padalecki), who is searching for his sister (Amanda Righetti) after she went missing while partying with her own group of sex and drug-obsessed friends in these same woods. We witness the sister's encounter with Jason before the film's main titles, and eventually learn that she's being held captive in a series of underground caverns below an abandoned cabin where Jason calls home.

It would be futile to criticize Friday the 13th for its lack of characterization and plotting. After 10+ movies, I think the formula's pretty much been set in stone, and it's not concerned with deep characters or dialogue. That right there is the biggest problem. The movie stays so close to tradition, we feel like we've seen it all before. While it doesn't take away anything the fans expect, it also doesn't add anything. Jason still has the ability to pop up seemingly out of nowhere to stab his victims, he's still a master of teleportation - able to kill a cop at the front door, then be up on the second story roof seemingly three seconds later, and he still has a passion for knives when it comes to killing his victims. I was actually surprised when he used an arrow in one scene, and thought maybe he'd be spicing up his act a little with a few more creative kills. It's not to be, sadly. Jason's main method of attack is to rush and stab, or maybe pop up out of nowhere and stab. The added intensity of the gore this movie has over the earlier films doesn't hide the fact that we're watching the same method of killing over and over.

It's a shame the movie runs out of steam so quickly, because the opening 15 minutes or so are surprisingly tense and successful. These are the scenes concerning Clay's sister and her friends. (There's also a brief prologue before that concerning Jason's equally psychotic mother.) It's during these moments that the movie is fast paced and really pretty fun. Then the main cast takes center stage, and all the energy seems to exit from the movie. Sure, the cast is game, but they seem to know they're here to be killed off, and so most of them stand around waiting for Jason to come along. There's so little creativity on display here. Director Marcus Nispel (2003's Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake) tries to distract us with some stylish and atmospheric shots (the abandoned cabin where Jason lives is actually pretty creepy), but it never builds to anything. There's next to no tension, and very little suspense, since identifying who's going to live to see the final scene is so easy, everyone might as well have been wearing a name tag reading "Victim #1, Victim #2, etc..."

So, what are we left with if the movie doesn't try to stand out from its numerous previous entries? Very little, I'm afraid. This is a joyless and soulless exercise designed to make a fortune opening weekend, then pretty much be forgotten. The filmmakers had a golden opportunity here to take an iconic movie monster, and do something extraordinary with him. Instead, all Friday the 13th gives us is a warmed-over rehash of something that wasn't that great to begin with.

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The International

No one will say that The International is the most original thriller to come along this year, or even the most plausible. But, it is well made, and has a few memorable action sequences. Of particular note is a shootout at the Guggenheim Museum that occurs half way through, and is so well done it's almost worth the ticket price alone. Fortunately, the movie itself is pretty good, and would have been even better if the screenplay by Eric Warren Singer had treated its characters as actual people, instead of caricatures designed to move the plot along as they race from one end of the movie to the other.

The lead roles are filled in by Clive Owen and Naomi Watts. They're charismatic actors, and they do what they can with their thin roles. Owen is Louis Salinger, a tough-talking Interpol agent who's most definable trait is his steely stare and three day facial stubble. Watts is his sidekick, Eleanor Whitman, who basically exists to explain Louis' maverick actions to their superiors. She doesn't have a lot to do in this movie, but at least she's able to sell the few scenes she gets to spend with Owen, and is not just standing in the background. The plot concerns them investigating the International Bank for Business and Credit, which they believe is dealing in illegal arms deals so that they can control debts in the countries where civil and border wars are brewing. The higher ups at the bank are very good at covering their dirty tracks. Anyone who gets too close, or tries to leak information to an outside source usually winds up dead.

Given the current economic situation, it's easy for audiences to accept bankers as villains. Heck, things continue the way they are now, and they may just replace Nazis as Hollywood's go-to bad guys. The movie is complex, with plenty of smart-sounding dialogue, but doesn't really make a lot of sense when you apply logical thought to it. There's always a mob of hitmen employed by the bank who pop up when needed, and the police are never around, so the characters can run about streets the world over, guns in plain sight, without a single person batting an eye. And yet, I didn't care while I was watching The International. The movie is quickly paced, has been shot well, and contains a number of action sequences that demand our attention. The director, Tom Twyker (Run, Lola, Run) doesn't give us enough time to slow down and concentrate on how ludicrous the whole thing is. We get wrapped up in the various plot developments and twists, and even though we may chuckle and shake our heads from time to time, we don't care.

One thing that I liked is that the movie seems to be trying to capture the feeling of classic paranoia thrillers like Three Days of the Condor, and for the most part, it succeeds. The influence of the villains seems to be everywhere - Tapping phones, spies and snipers watching the every move of our heroes, and even delivering death by poison just by brushing up against a person, such as in the opening scene. If they can kill people so silently, why do they need the hitmen in the first place, you may ask? I did, too. But then, I realized that the movie just wanted me to go with it. That was easy enough, given the skill with which the movie has been made. This is one time that the style over substance actually works. And yet, there is some substance. I was intrigued, and I wanted to know what was going to happen. Half out of morbid curiosity, and half out of general interest. With so many mediocre and unmemorable movies out there, even a movie that can arouse my morbid curiosity can be considered somewhat of a triumph.

The movie is better than I'm probably making it sound. Like I said, you don't have time to trouble yourself too much with the plot while you're watching it. One thing that did trouble me, however, is how distant I felt to the characters. The actors fill the roles well enough so that we're not bored, but The International never quite brings them to the level of complexity that we expect or are waiting for. The characters played by Clive Owen and Naomi Watts seem to be growing closer together during the course of the film, so much so that she is willing to put her career on the line for him. And yet, we never get a clear picture of what they mean to each other. The one character who does seem to possess a genuine personality is the one played by Armin Mueller-Stahl, who plays a man who gathers intelligence for the evil bankers. Just watch his big scene with Owen late in the film, and how conflicted he seems to be. He's one of the few in this movie who is able to create a genuine character, and not just someone designed to feed the complex plot to us.

For all its faults, I enjoyed The International for what it was. If anything, the movie proves that if Daniel Craig should ever tire of the gig, Clive Owen would make a great James Bond. He's got the ability to pull off the action stunts, he's got the menacing stare, and although he doesn't get to display it much in this film, I know he's got the cool charm. Even if he's not playing a relatable character here, he's at least believable as an action hero.

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Sunday, February 08, 2009

Push

The opening moments of Push are devoted pretty much to explaining what we're about to see. We get a five minute monologue from Dakota Fanning who explains to us that there was a top secret Nazi experiment during World War II to create psychic soldiers. That experiment is still going on today, and so there are people walking amongst us with paranormal powers. Some are Watchers (they can see and draw what will happen in the future), some are Sniffers (they can smell an object and tell where it's been and who has used it), some are Movers (they have telekinetic mind powers), some are Bleeders (they can scream so loud they make your blood vessels explode), and some are Pushers (they can control your mind). All of these people are on the run from a government agency called The Division, who want to track them down and use their powers for their benefit.

You get all that? Good, because that's all you're getting. Push is a messy and jumbled attempt to cash in on the recent super hero boom, and also shares more than a few similarities with the TV series Heroes. Once we get that brief explanation, the movie throws us into a convoluted and increasingly confusing chase that sends our characters running across Hong Kong for a briefcase that holds a drug. The drug in question is supposed to enhance the superhuman abilities of these people, but usually it winds up killing them. There's one girl who's managed to survive, and The Division wants her. They also want the drug she managed to escape with. The girl everyone wants is Kira (Camilla Belle). She's a Pusher, and she's on the run from another Pusher who works for The Division named Carver (Djimon Hounsou, who is quickly building a career out of being the guy you get to cast in your movie if you can't get Samuel L. Jackson). Kira has a past with a Mover named Nick (Chris Evans), which is why he gets involved when a young Watcher named Cassie (Dakota Fanning) shows up on his doorstep one day, saying she needs his help in tracking down the briefcase.

There's a problem - Cassie's visions and the pictures she draws usually end with the two of them dying. If they want to see the end of this, they'll have to figure out a way to change the future. In order to do this, they'll have to stay one step ahead of not only The Division, but also some Chinese gangsters with paranormal powers who want the briefcase for their own means. Kira doesn't remember where the briefcase is. After she hid it somewhere, she had someone with mind-erasing powers wipe her mind a clean slate. So, what we get is a lot of actors running around, using their powers on each other, looking for this briefcase. It's an endless chase filled with characters we don't care much about. Not that the movie gives us much to go on to begin with. After a brief set up, the movie goes full tilt and never slows down enough to clue us in on what's going on, or why we should give a flip about what's going on in the first place. It's style over substance, and the style isn't enough to distract us.

Push seems to get murkier as it goes along. The character motivations in looking for this drug eventually becomes so clouded over in the screenplay by David Bourla that they become non-existent. They simply want the drug because they're there up on the screen. This wouldn't be so bad if the movie didn't add more and more characters to the mix, who usually exist to show off their powers and then move on. It piles on the characters, but the shaky storytelling doesn't have enough support to hold them all, so we're forced to watch it collapse in a pile of overblown battles and soulless special effects. The actors don't seem to be too concerned about breathing life into their characters, although Dakota Fanning at least attempts to add some emotion into her role. You get the sense she's here because she got a free trip to Hong Kong, rather than anything in the character she plays. As for Chris Evans, he's about as bland of an action hero you could want, doing as little as possible to stand out or even grab our attention.

You get the sense that Push has been designed to launch a franchise, but it's far too underdeveloped to make any audience want to see more. It's an unsatisfying experience all around, and seems content to do as little as possible. I will give the movie credit for one thing - It has a sneaky way to create potential controversy. It explains that booze helps Watchers have clearer visions, so there's a scene where Fanning's 13-year-old character gets drunk to help her own visions. All I could think while watching this scene is booze would probably help the experience of watching this movie as well.

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