Reel Opinions


Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Haunting in Connecticut

Some movies just should not start off by mentioning that what we're about to see is based on a true story. In the case of The Haunting in Connecticut, the movie betrays that comment by being eerily similar to past haunted house movies like The Amityville Horror, Poltergeist, and The Shining. If events did happen as they are depicted (which I naturally have doubts), then all the family would have to had done was have a marathon viewing session of those movies on video, and they'd have a one up on the spirits that were supposedly tormenting them. The ghosts here have obviously never met a horror cliche they didn't like.

The movie's not all bad. It's competently made, and the actors are game. It's just hard to get involved when the movie is so cinematic and obviously inspired by other films that you're constantly doubting the story's credibility. The original story took place supposedly in the mid 80s, when a family moved into an old house that was originally a funeral parlor with dark secrets. I remember seeing a TV documentary on the original case once, and being intrigued. Of course, I later learned that the author who was hired to document the haunting case was eventually told to make up most of it, due to the fact that the family who lived in the supposedly evil house couldn't keep their facts straight. So maybe it's okay if the movie creates its own take on the story, since everyone else involved apparently did. Regardless, The Haunting in Connecticut gives us a perfectly acceptable and perfectly standard haunted house movie that has one too many jump scares, and not enough human emotion, despite some early promise.

One thing I will credit the film for, it gives the family a decent reason to be living in the haunted house in the first place. The story kicks off with a troubled family who seem to be at the end of their ropes. Oldest teenage son Matt (Kyle Gallner) is dying of cancer, and his mother Sara (Virginia Madsen) has to drive him eight hours to Connecticut, where the nearest hospital that has the right program to treat him is located. It's obviously starting to take its toll on her, along with the fact that she has two other kids to take care of (Ty Wood and Sophi Knight), a niece (Amanda Crew from Sex Drive) who is living with them for reasons not explained in the screenplay, and her husband (Martin Donovan), who is a recovering alcoholic constantly on the verge of falling off the wagon. She's attracted to the abandoned old house, because it's so close to the hospital. Most of the family moves in (dad has to stay behind to hold onto his job, and comes up on weekends), and almost immediately, Matt starts being haunted by nightmarish visions of the house's past involving dark rituals and spirits being summoned. It doesn't help that his bedroom is in the dark, scary basement where the embalming room from the house's funeral parlor days used to be.

The movie goes for a psychological approach early on, making us wonder if the ghostly visions Matt keeps on seeing are hallucinations from the medical treatments he's receiving over at the hospital. Of course, it'd be kind of a tease if the haunting was all in his mind, so the story throws in the Reverend Popescu (Elias Koteas), who starts to clue the family into the fact that "something bad happened here". Given the fact that the character of Popescu is mainly here to explain the background story of the house, the screenwriters should have shown some wit, and just named him "Reverend Exposition". Once the truth is revealed, the ghosts start tormenting the entire family. Dark figures lurk in the shadows, mysterious footsteps beat against the floorboard, fluttering birds are heard underneath eerily rustling bed sheets, and zombie-like figures that have been burned to a crisp start popping up before the family members and the Reverend with alarming consistency. It's about this point that the screenplay pretty much drops any attempt to tell a story, and turns into an endless series of things popping out of the dark at characters.

First-time feature director Peter Cornwell (who shot to fame with the award-winning short animated film, Ward 13) shows a sense of style and atmosphere, and he never lets his cast ham it up too much, except for a scene where the father goes on a drunken rage against light bulbs. (Trust me, it makes sense in the context of the story itself.) It's simply the fact that the script does no favors to the director or the talented cast. It doesn't tell us enough about the family for us to be as emotionally involved with them as it wants us to be, and then rushes straight into the special effects sequences. The early moments of the film hint at a more human approach, with the mother fighting desperately to save her eldest son's life, but his disease is scarcely brought up again once they move into the house, except for some fleeting mention. At least Kyle Gallner's performance as Matt is appropriately weak and frail, so we never completely forget. It's just disappointing to see what could have been an emotional thriller downgrade into a generic and standard spookhouse flick.

The Haunting in Connecticut is not really bad, it's just another movie that made me feel like I've seen it all before. It's bound to happen, but it's always a let down when it does. In the end, it doesn't matter too much how accurate the film is to the actual events, or even if the actual events even happened at all. The main thing that matters is that this is a technically well done film that deserved a screenplay that was more interested in the characters rather then jump scares.

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Saturday, March 28, 2009

12 Rounds

Wrestler turned action movie star, John Cena, sure does have a rough time when it comes to women. The guy's only done two movies, and both times they've centered around some deranged criminal snatching his wife and/or girlfriend. His previous film, The Marine, featured Cena as a human tank hunting down a small group of criminals who blew up a gas station and drove off with his wife. In 12 Rounds, Cena is featured as a human tank hunting down an international terrorist who blows up Cena's house and takes off with his girlfriend. See the difference?

Actually, there's a big difference in that 12 Rounds is a much better movie. Faint praise to be sure, as anyone who has seen The Marine can probably agree with. The movie has been produced by the WWE's film division, and is also probably the best film to come out of their production company. Once again, faint praise for anyone who has seen See No Evil, The Condemned, and other movies that I've done my best to block out of my memory. I'm not recommending the film, as it's a little too generic and similar to the movies it shamelessly mimics (mainly the Die Hard and Speed films). It does, however, allow John Cena to stretch his acting muscles ever so slightly. It's a blink and you miss it moment to be sure, but he's actually allowed to grimace at one point in order to show pain. This is a step up from his last movie, where he was portrayed practically as a human Terminator, able to merely walk out of burning buildings without a single scratch, burn, or singe on his body. Maybe they'll let him limp in the next movie.

Recapping the plot to a movie like this is probably an exercise in futility, but here goes - Cena's a police detective in New Orleans named Danny Fisher, who shot to fame a year ago when he managed to single handedly subdue and capture a terrorist named Miles Jackson (Aidan Gillen). During the capture, Miles' girlfriend and partner in crime (Taylor Cole) was killed when she was hit by a car during her escape attempt. Miles blamed Danny, and swore vengeance. Now Miles has escaped from prison, and in a very short matter of time, has rigged Danny's house to blow up, kidnapped his girlfriend Molly (Ashley Scott), and has set up a series of 12 different "games" and challenges all over the city that Danny must figure out and complete if he wants to keep Molly alive. He leaves clues and riddles all over the city for Danny to find, and also leaves cryptic hints during conversations over the phone. I loved it how Miles was so confident in his plan, he made no effort whatsoever to hide what he was doing. He openly talks about his terrorist actions in public places like busses and busy street corners, surrounded by people who don't even seem to notice the shadowy looking guy talking about bombs going off sitting in the bus seat right next to them.

I'll admit, I didn't have very high expectations walking into 12 Rounds, and the movie surprised me by being merely mediocre instead of terrible. There's nothing special about it. Cena makes for a passable action hero when he's running around, chasing bombs, and driving runaway fire trucks down crowded streets, but whenever he's required to share a scene of dialogue with one of his co-stars, he doesn't seem all that comfortable. The movie understands this, and gives him as little human contact as possible, except to move the plot along or introduce the next challenge he must face. For something built solely around non-stop action, there are surprisingly very few action sequences that manage to stand out. The only one worth mentioning is a scene involving a runaway streetcar filled with passengers that's set to plow into a street carnival. It's notable not only because it's somewhat exciting , but it's also one of the few scenes in the movie that takes advantage of its New Orleans setting. Aside from that, the movie could have been set in any major city and it wouldn't have made a difference. (The script is nice enough to throw in a mention or two of Hurricane Katrina, though.)

Everything else about the movie is pretty average. The villain's not very memorable, and seems like he's trying to be like one of the bad guys of the Die Hard films, but knows deep inside that he just doesn't cut it. Ashley Scott makes for a passable woman in distress, but the movie never spends enough time for us to get attached to her. The total amount of time she gets to spend with John Cena is probably less than 10 minutes, so we never really get a sense of their relationship. What we do have are a string of stunts and action sequences that may not stand out, but get the job done enough. Director Renny Harlin (The Covenant) keeps the pace moving at least. He knows that this is a big, dumb movie, and gives us what we expect. No more, no less. At the very least, the action is easy enough to follow. Aside from the final confrontation that gets a little jumbled due to the confined space it takes place in, there are few cases of the infamous "shaky cam" or jumpy editing.

12 Rounds is still not enough to convince me that Cena should be making movies, though. He doesn't have half the charisma or screen presence of fellow former wrestler, Dwayne Johnson. Of course, in order to show he had some, he'd have to play a character who was required to do more than run around and glare on cue. Even John McClane in the Die Hard films gets to show a sense of humor. You get the sense that if Cena's character tried to tell a joke, he'd shuffle his feet uncomfortably, sputter out a few words, then run off. Probably to punch somebody.

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Friday, March 27, 2009

Monsters vs. Aliens

The opening moments of Monsters vs. Aliens briefly filled me with dread. As I'm sure you know, the movie is being released in select theaters in 3D, but many (such as myself) are forced to watch it in standard 2D. One of the first images we see in the film is a guy playing with a paddleball, bouncing it toward the screen. This is supposed to make audiences in 3D theaters gasp as the ball seemingly flies toward them, but sitting in a standard theater, I immediately started to have bad flashbacks of last year's gimmicky Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D.

Fortunately, not long after this, we are introduced to the main character and the movie's heart, Susan Murphy (voice by Reese Witherspoon), and that's where things start to pick up. When we first meet Susan, she's the blushing bride-to-be of vain and egotistical local weatherman, Derek (Paul Rudd). Susan's wedding dreams are shattered when a strange meteor suddenly falls from the sky, crushing her. She's dirty and disheveled, but seemingly okay, until she takes that fateful walk down the aisle. The substance within the meteor causes Susan to mutate into a 50-foot-tall version of herself. The military is immediately called in to subdue the frightened woman, and she is sent to a top secret government facility where monsters, mutations, and other freaks of nature have been held in captivity for the past 50 years. The head of the program, General W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland), introduces Susan to her fellow monsters, mad bug scientist Dr. Cockroach Ph.D. (Hugh Laurie), The Missing Link (Will Arnett), and the literally brainless blob-like creature B.O.B. (Seth Rogen).

Kids have a natural attraction to monsters, and aside from Pixar's Monsters Inc, it's an idea that hasn't been explored to its fullest when it comes to CG animated films. It does lend the film an interesting theme, and is certainly preferable over yet another talking animal movie. The monsters on display are a zippy, fast-talking bunch that are sure to delight kids and make adults smile. They provide more than enough comic relief and some obvious satirical references to classic science fiction films like The Fly and The Blob. But it is Susan who grabs our attention, because she is seeing the movie through the audience's eyes. She is thrown into this strange world of creatures after becoming one herself, is given a new monster name by the government ("Ginormica"), and has to deal with leaving everything she knows behind. Directors Rob Letterman (Shark Tale) and Conrad Vernon (Shrek 2) use her as our entry into the film's world, while keeping the human element at the center. Susan is a strong enough character for us to get behind and, along with February's Coraline, helps the argument that some of the stronger female roles so far this year are popping up in animated films.

I just realized I've come this far into the review without mentioning the "Aliens" of the title. The monsters are called into action by the President of the United States (comic Stephen Colbert in a funny minor role) when an alien mothership appears and begins depositing giant robot drones bent on destroying major cities. The alien warlord Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson) and his clone army have come for the substance that was in the meteor that caused Susan to grow into her current form. With it, he can destroy the Earth and conquer other planets, I guess. The movie doesn't go into a lot of detail, and the plot doesn't really matter all that much. The movie is built around a lot of stunning visuals (which, despite obviously being designed for 3D screens, are fortunately not too gimmicky), and well done action set pieces, such as when the monsters battle one of the robot drones around the Golden Gate Bridge, trying to keep innocent people out of harm's way. I also admired a clever sequence where Susan uses cars like roller skates as she speeds down the street, avoiding danger. The action and the chaos never becomes overpowering, and though the storytelling is slight, the likeability of the characters and the rapid-fire gags keep us involved.

If there's a word that can describe this movie, it would be "fun". The strong voice cast seems to be having a wonderful time, especially Reese Witherspoon, Seth Rogen, Rainn Wilson, and Stephen Colbert, who gets the most laughs in the film. (This movie and role is certainly a better use of his talents than his forgettable turn in last year's The Love Guru.) This is not exactly a great animated film, and it never aspires to be. It's a light and frothy action fantasy for kids that works despite its shortcomings in the plotting department. The action is fast-paced and frantic, without being confusing, and it has a likeably offbeat sense of humor to itself. It's true, a number of gags fall flat, but I was never let down by the spirit of the film and the overall sense that the movie was working on a purely escapist level.

The best complement I think I can pay Monsters vs. Aliens is that when the film ended, I thought to myself I wouldn't mind paying to see it again in 3D so that I can see how the movie is meant to be. I also wouldn't mind seeing the further adventures of the characters, should the movie be successful at the box office, which almost seems to be a given. (What kid can resist a movie with this title?) While it's not up to the standards of the best recent animated films, there's a lot of fun to be had here.

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Duplicity

Watching Duplicity, you can practically picture writer-director Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) grinning and maybe even chuckling a little to himself as he entered each twist and double cross into his script. We the audience find ourselves smiling a lot too. The movie constantly toys with us, but in a good way. It's clever, and it keeps on building, but knows when to stop. We often don't know who to trust, or who's betraying who, but part of the fun is figuring it all out.

The movie puts Julia Roberts and Clive Owen into the lead roles of Claire and Ray. When they first meet in Dubai on the 4th of July, the year is 2003, and both are government spies for different agencies. There's obvious chemistry between the two, but there's also a lot of mistrust with each other. Ray at least has a good reason not to trust Claire. When they spend the night together that same night, she drugs him and steals his top secret documents. They meet each other again in different parts of the world over the years, and although they are obviously in love, there's always that mistrust. That fear that the other is conning them in some way. Could they ever truly be happy together? We hope they can be, because Roberts and Owen have a playful and wonderful banter with each other. It's very different from their previous teaming in 2004's Closer. They're having fun toying with each other, and we get the sense that the biggest danger would be for one of them to let their guard down.

The central plot concerns Claire and Ray in the present day, working for rival big businesses. He is an industrial espionage expert working for a company called Equikrom, while she is the director of security for rival corporation Burkett & Randall. There's talk that Burkett is set to unveil a new product that will revolutionize the industry, although it is still top secret to many of its employees. The CEO of Equikrom (Paul Giamatti) wants the plans, and sends Ray and a small team to infiltrate the rival headquarters. Everything is not what it seems, of course. Claire is actually a "mole"within Equikrom, and Ray is her handler. There are even more secrets and revelations beyond that will not be revealed, but I will say I enjoyed being wrong for once about where a movie was taking me. Besides, it's a lot of fun to see Roberts and Owen going at each other with the sharp dialogue they've been given, which seems to be a combination of respect, romance, and distrust.

Duplicity is a spy caper set in the world of big business, which makes a lot of sense when you think about it. Considering how close guarded industry secrets are, it makes a lot of sense to create a story built around people who specialize in stealing secrets within the business. Sure, the stakes may not be as high as say in your usual spy or James Bond thriller, but it is no less engaging thanks to Gilroy's ability to keep things moving and keep his audience guessing as to who is conning who, and who is being conned. The movie uses an out of sequence style in an attempt to throw us off, with random flashbacks placed throughout, but the story is not as difficult to figure out as one might think. This is not a bad thing here. It fits the somewhat lighthearted mood of the story, and there are some wonderful pieces of comic dialogue.

There's actually a lot of little things that make Duplicity a satisfying movie. Yes, there's the playful and sexy banter between the two leads, but there are also a lot small touches, like wonderful supporting performances from Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson as the two feuding CEOs at the middle of it all, and who aren't afraid to break out into full-contact brawls if they should have chance to cross paths with each other. The movie also has a lot of fun with a sequence where Ray goes undercover and seduces a trusting travel agent who works within the rival corporation for information. The payoff scene where Claire must listen to the account of the night the two spent together is one of the highlights of the film. More than anything, though, the movie is just a lot of fun to watch. While the movie is designed around deceiving the audience, we never once feel cheated.

Some movies try too hard to be clever. Duplicity finds the right level and sticks with it. It also finds the right level of humor, suspense, and intrigue to keep us guessing. I found myself admiring the skill of Gilroy's screenplay to hold all these ideas together, and the skill of the performances to bring them to life. If you're expecting a simple story you can follow with no problems from Point A to Point B, you might be disappointed. If you're expecting a little more and a little bit of fun to go with it, you won't be.

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Saturday, March 21, 2009

Knowing

Director Alex Proyas has shown a strong visual sense in films like The Crow, Dark City, and I, Robot. In his latest film, Knowing, he also shows a secret desire to become the next M. Night Shyamalan. Just like the Indian-born director, Proyas starts his film off with an intriguing mystery, only to have everything blow up in the audience's face when the answers start coming. There are some very well done scenes to look out for, but when the plot begins to be hijacked by non-stop CG sequences and the mysterious "Whisper People" who are stalking the main characters from the shadows, Knowing goes from creepy and fascinating to bombastic and loud.

In a prologue sequence set in 1959, we see a little girl named Lucinda Embry (Lara Robinson) put a piece of paper that is covered top to bottom with seemingly random numbers in a school time capsule. The girl is solemn and withdrawn from the other students, and hears ghostly whispers all the time, so she obviously knows of some ominous event that's to occur. Flash forward to the present, when the time capsule is unearthed, and the piece of paper Lucinda placed inside it falls into the hands of a widower college professor named John Koestler (Nicolas Cage) and his young son Caleb (Chandler Canterbury). With a level of speed and deduction that would make Sherlock Holmes jealous, John figures out that the numbers are not random at all, but they are rather a list of every major disaster that was yet to happen at the time Lucinda scribbled them down, as well as the number of casualties in each event. John quickly discovers that there are dates yet to come on the list, and begins to wonder if there's a way he can prevent the future disasters from occurring. But who are the mysterious people dressed in black who lurk in the woods surrounding John's home, and why is Caleb suddenly starting to hear the same constant whispering that Lucinda did in the opening sequence?

I'm afraid that is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the plot, which is one of the big problems in Knowing. There's a lot of ideas on display here, but nowhere near enough time to fit them all in. The movie wants to be a doomsday story, a movie about a man struggling with his religious faith, a disaster flick, a drama about a dysfunctional family who refuses to come together, an ecological warning, and a race against time as John and Caleb are joined by a woman named Diana Wayland (Rose Byrne) and her young daughter Abby (Lara Robinson again) as they try to figure out how to stay alive from the ultimate disaster the list hints at. We get all this, and aliens too, who are visiting Earth looking for the "chosen ones". If this all sounds somewhat silly and bombastic, you don't know the half of it. The movie is an assault on the senses, and not in a good way. The movie bombards us with one disaster after another, while the heavy-handed music score by Marco Beltrami blasts and pounds away at our skulls and eardrums as it tries to build tension. It got to the point that I was grateful when a relatively quiet scene came up on the screen.

The movie actually starts out quiet and somewhat intelligent. It seems to ask a lot of questions, like are the tragic events that happen to us planned, or is it simply a case of "shit happening", as the character of John so elegantly puts it. True, Nicolas Cage doesn't exactly do anything great with his performance (he's pretty much cashing a paycheck here, something he's been doing with disturbing frequency), but we buy into it, because it all seems to be leading up to something. This is a story that would have benefitted from a screenplay that was actually interested in exploring its own ideas. Instead, we get a lot of violent disaster set pieces that are shot quite well (there are no cuts during a sequence when John witnesses a plane crash near a highway where he's stuck in traffic, and goes running to help the few survivors), but quickly grow increasingly silly. It all leads up to an endless string of scenes where the actors are required to do nothing but run around, screaming at each other, until the climactic moments, which manage to be tragically depressing and upliftingly hoaky at the same time.

Knowing ends up being undone by its own sense of spectacle, and it's "everything but the kitchen sink" mentality. A story such as this needs a tight focus, but here it careens wildly about from Roland Emmerich-inspired disaster flick to Spielberg-style sci-fi fantasy. I may have eventually felt exhausted while watching it, but I was certainly never bored. As I mentioned, there is definitely a certain style to admire here. Proyas manages some very impressive shots that must have been hard to set up. And yet, even he manages to get carried away as the story descends into madness. A sequence where a subway train flies off the rails into a crowd of waiting people starts out being impressive and tragic, but then we get a first person point of view shot through the train's windshield as it mows down the people, CG blood splattering on the screen. What could have been technically impressive turns into something that's cheap and exploitive.

And yet, it is the human element that suffers most of all. We never believe the relationship between John and his son (part of this is due to the underwritten screenplay, and part due to the unconvincing relationship Cage and young Canterbury display), and a subplot concerning John and his estranged father gets lost amongst all the carnage and explosions, thereby lessening the impact of the film itself. Knowing is a movie that tries to do too much, but manages to accomplish very little.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

I Love You, Man

Here it is at last - the first truly funny comedy of 2009. A few comedies over the past couple months have made me smile, but I Love You, Man is the first that actually made me laugh. The movie's not perfect. The plot's hardly there, there are some logic holes in the premise, and it meanders during the middle section. But when you're truly laughing out loud at a movie, that doesn't seem to matter. The secret to the movie's success at comedy? Forgo easy and cheap physical gags (though there is the rare dog droppings gag), and instead have dialogue that is truly funny.

It's always wonderful when a movie is a joy to listen to as well as to watch, and the screenplay by director John Hamburg (Along Came Polly) and co-writer Larry Levin (Dr. Dolittle 2) has some very sharp comic wit on display. The characters here not only talk about interesting things, but say them in such a way that it's truly entertaining and funny just listening to them. The movie also has a lot of charm, thanks to a strong cast. The film stars two comics currently at the top of their game, Paul Rudd (fresh off the very smart and funny Role Models) and Jason Segel (from the even better Forgetting Sarah Marshall). The movie knows how to use them and their comedic styles to great effect. It's no surprise that the two have great chemistry together (Rudd had a small role in Sarah Marshall, as well). It's also no surprise that with a supporting cast that includes J.K. Simmons, Saturday Night Live's Andy Samberg, Jon Favreau, and Jane Curtin that the two have very strong support. The movie, which is billed as a "bro-mantic comedy", can best be described as a romantic comedy built around male bonding. All the cliches and elements of standard romantic comedies are there, but they are turned on their head by the dialogue and the absurdness of the humor.

Rudd plays Peter Klaven, real estate agent and all around nice guy who, after proposing to his girlfriend of eight months, Zooey (Rashida Jones), is shocked to discover that he has no guy friends, and no one to act as his Best Man at the wedding. Peter's the kind of guy who's always been more comfortable around women, and who's idea of a perfect evening is sipping wine with the woman he loves and watching a chick flick. Peter seems to be pretty close with his father (J.K. Simmons) and younger brother (Andy Samberg), but oddly, they are never once considered. (Hence, the logic holes I mentioned earlier.) Desperate to find a best friend, Peter begins to go on a series of "Man Dates" to find the right guy for the job. After a string of disasters, he meets Sydney Fife (Jason Segel) at an open house Peter is holding in an attempt to sell Lou Ferrigno's mansion. (And yes, Ferrigno does turn up as himself in a very funny small role.) Sydney is not afraid to speak his mind, has a way of understanding the nature of men and how and why they act, and spends most of his time in his "Man Cave" - a shrine to manhood that's attached to his house. The two bond over music by classic rock group Rush, and are soon spending as much time as possible with each other, which does not sit well with Zooey, who starts to feel ignored.

If there is a fault to be found here, it's obviously that the plot is shallow, and exists simply as an excuse for the two lead actors to play off of each other as often as possible. Fortunately, this is where I Love You, Man excels. Peter is the kind of nice guy who tries to be cool and fun, but usually winds up making the situation worse for himself. He blurts out strange nicknames to call his new friend, or says expressions that don't even make any sense. Rudd has a lot of fun with the character's charmingly awkward tendencies, like the way every accent he tries to mimic ends up sounding like a cartoonish Irish Leprechaun. Sydney is the opposite of the button-down, straight arrow Peter, but we can see the connection. He's the free spirit that Peter secretly longs to be. Sydney, meanwhile, embraces his new friend because he's someone whom he can impart his wisdom onto. All of Sydney's other friends have moved on, started families, and generally don't have time for him anymore. The camaraderie that builds between the two is at the heart of the film, and as they go through the standard relationship formula usually reserved for romantic couples in movies (there's the misunderstanding, the break up, the last-minute reconciliation), I found myself caring about the characters.

The movie is also frequently charming. While the humor can be raunchy and driven by topics of sex and masturbation, it is never mean spirited or offensive. It's also sweet, observational, and frequently very smart. It's only during the middle section when the screenplay almost seems to run out of things to do or say, but fortunately there's usually a gag that works just around the corner to keep things moving. There are a lot of great little comic details, like the constant arguments that a married couple (Jon Favreau and Jaime Pressly) who are friends with Peter and Zooey have throughout the film. But it is the combination of Rudd and Segel's natural chemistry, along with their likable characters, that drives the movie. They're obviously having a lot of fun up there on the screen, and it manages to carry through the screen into the audience.

I Love You, Man may come across as slight at times, but it manages to work in the way it combines male bonding with romantic comedy conventions. It's an easy-going film that should appeal to just about anyone, I would imagine. The cast and the script itself hit the right mark in nearly every scene. But really, all you need to know is that the movie delivers some big laughs. Considering some of the other comedy choices you have at your local theater right now, that can't be ignored.

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Saturday, March 14, 2009

Miss March

Zach Cregger and Trevor Moore are the creators, writers, directors, and stars of a TV sketch show called The Whitest Kids U Know. I've not seen this show, nor have I even heard of it before I did a small bit of research on these two guys. They are now the creators, writers, directors, and stars of a movie called Miss March. I have seen this movie, and believe me, I wish I hadn't. While not completely unwatchable and certainly a step up from the last teen sex farce I endured (Fired Up), you get the sense while watching it that these guys have no idea what to do when it comes to movies.

Cregger and Moore play teenage best friends named Eugene and Tucker, respectively. As is the unwritten rule in the teen sex comedy, Eugene is the straight arrow "nice guy", and Tucker is the wild, sex-crazed "party guy". Tucker's world seems to revolve solely around women and Playboy magazine, which is his main obsession in life. (You'd think the guy would catch up with the rest of the world and discover Internet porn by now.) As for Eugene, he has a sweet girlfriend named Cindi (Raquel Alessi), and the two travel around to different middle schools, preaching abstinence to preteens and "scaring them straight" by showing them graphic photos of sexual diseases. Prom Night is approaching, and Cindi seems to be ready to break her vow of abstinence. To prepare himself for sex, Eugene gets drunk and winds up falling down the basement stairs, where he is knocked on the head by a falling toolkit and sent into a coma.

Four years later, Eugene is awakened in his hospital room with a wack on the head from a baseball bat by Tucker. Everything's changed for Eugene since that fateful night. His dad's gone on with his life, abandoning him, and Cindi is gone also. Tucker soon discovers what Cindi has been doing with her life when he cracks open his latest issue of Playboy, and discovers that she's the current month's centerfold. Wanting to know what has led the girl he loved to this, Eugene escapes from the hospital with Tucker's help, and the two begin a cross country journey to the Playboy Mansion. The remainder of the film follows the standard teen sex road trip comedy formula, only with none of the inspiration and an overall feeling of "been there, done that". The two guys encounter the expected oddballs on their journey, including a former classmate turned rapper named Horsedick.MPEG (Craig Robinson), some very horny lesbians, and an army of disgruntled firefighters who are chasing after Tucker cross country, because they've been sent by his psychotic girlfriend (Molly Stanton), who wants to kill him after he stabbed her with a fork repeatedly while they were having sex. (It's a long story.)

At the very least, Miss March has the balls to embrace its R-rating. After the PG-13 Fired Up and The House Bunny (another Playboy-themed movie which oddly seemed to be targeting preteen girls), I was kind of looking forward to an all-out raunch comedy. Unfortunately, the best thing that the screenplay by Cregger and Moore can come up with is a running gag concerning the fact that Eugene can't control his bowel movements after being in a coma so long, so he keeps on letting the brown stuff fly at the worst times (accompanied by exaggerated cartoon-style fart sound effects that blast on the theater speakers). Another running gag is the name of their rapper friend who they hitch a ride with briefly on their adventure. As I mentioned, his name is Horsedick.MPEG, and the movie seems to think it's so funny, the characters keep on saying his name in almost every line of dialogue when he's around. I tried to count how many times his name was spoken in one scene, and lost count somewhere after 13. Funny names are seldom funny to begin with, and when you cram said name down your audience's throat, not only does it become less funny, it starts to lose all meaning.

Aside from a scene that shows us why it's never a good idea to use a strobe light when you're having sex with a girl who suffers from epilepsy, the humor in this movie seems tired and generic. It's like Cregger and Moore were lost as to how to fill 90 minutes of material, so they just decided to do some half-assed recreations of scenes from better road trip comedies. To be fair, the two guys do have a certain chemistry on screen with each other, but they bring nothing to their individual characters. Cregger is dull as the "straight man" of the duo, and never really gets to do or say anything funny. He's there mainly to shake his head at the antics of "goofy" Tucker who, judging by Moore's performance here, thinks bugging his eyes out when he talks is the funniest thing in the world. They're surrounded by a supporting cast who seem game, but aren't given anything to do. In particular, Molly Stanton always seems close to hitting on something as the girl trying to hunt down and kill Tucker, but the movie doesn't know what to do with her and wastes her potential in nearly every scene.

Watching Miss March, I wanted to pay a personal visit to Cregger and Moore, sit them down, and make them watch a teen sex road trip comedy that came out a few months ago called Sex Drive. That was obviously the kind of movie they were trying to make here, and that film did everything right that they do wrong. This is a charmless and witless comedy that is not confident enough in itself to be funny. Given the filmmakers' experience in TV sketch comedy, maybe it's no surprise that the film resembles the worst Saturday Night Live movie you can remember.

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Race to Witch Mountain

I must admit that I don't have any real memories of 1975's Escape to Witch Mountain, or its sequel that came a couple years later. I remember seeing one of the movies on TV once when I was a kid, but I'll be darned if I know which one it was, or what happened in it. So, I walked into Disney's modern day revamp/reimagining, Race to Witch Mountain, with pretty much a clean slate. Kids are sure to fall in love with this movie. It's fast-paced with a lot of action, features a lot of special effects (not great special effects mind you, just special effects), and a likable lead performance from Dwayne Johnson. Adults will be less enthused, but at least they won't find it torturous to sit through.

We're first introduced to Johnson's character, a Las Vegas cab driver named Jack Bruno. He's an ex-con trying to go straight, although his former criminal employers won't let him forget his past and always seem to be following him. For a former pro wrestler, Dwayne Johnson has been building a respectable action movie career for himself, and he certainly brings a certain amount of humanity and charm to his character and the film itself with his screen presence. The action kicks off when a pair of strange kids named Sara (AnnaSophia Robb from Bridge to Terabithia) and Seth (Alexander Ludwig from The Seeker: The Dark is Rising) seemingly materialize in the back seat of his cab. They offer him a large sum of money to drive them to a certain point in the desert far outside of the city. The kids are being pursued by government agents (whom Jack initially mistakes for mobsters from his former crime boss) and an alien bounty hunter who bears more than a little resemblance to the creature from the Predator films. As they try to stay ahead of the various pursuers, Jack eventually learns that the kids he's transporting are actually aliens themselves, on a mission to save their dying home planet. With the aid of a noted UFO expert named Dr. Alex Friedman (Carla Gugino, who can also be seen in the recent Watchmen), Jack must help the two kids complete their mission and retrieve their spaceship, which is currently locked away in a government bunker deep underneath the mysterious Witch Mountain.

Race to Witch Mountain has been criticized by some as being too violent for a family Disney film, and indeed, there is a surprising amount of action sequences, fighting, and explosions. No deaths are actually depicted on camera or implied too much, however, and I can't imagine any kid really being traumatized by the experience. The character of Jack Bruno has a quick sarcastic wit, and keeps on reminding us that we're not really supposed to be taking the whole thing seriously to begin with. As a fast-paced action movie for kids, the movie works. The movie hardly ever seems to slow down, which is good, since it doesn't give adults much time to consider the logic holes in the plot before the movie goes on to the next one. This movie wasn't made for adults anyway. And it's commendable that despite the film's rapid pace, the movie is edited in such a way that we can clearly see what is happening at all times. The film is energetic as well, and kids are sure to enjoy the fact that the two child leads in the movie have paranormal powers that they can use to play pranks on and fight back against the more evil adult figures.

And the accompanying adults in the audience? They'll chuckle at some of Johnson's one-liners, and find the whole thing easy enough to take, but nothing special. The movie obviously wants to be a spectacle, but the special effects are never quite convincing enough for anyone over the lower double digits to truly get lost in the story. It's not that they're bad or laughable, they just lack any real imagination and seem to be inspired by other sci-fi films. Director Andy Fickman (who directed Dwayne Johnson's last Disney film, The Game Plan) keeps everything moving like he should, but doesn't really do anything that stands out. At least the movie brings us some likable performances, especially from Johnson and Gugino as the adult heroes. As for the kids, AnnaSophia Robb gets some good moments, but young Alexander Ludwig seems to have taken the fact that he's playing an alien a little too literally, and comes across as very stiff and not very personable. Still, they fill the roles well enough, and nothing really offends.

That's really all there is to this movie. Race to Witch Mountain never offends, you smile a couple times, then you go on with your life. This is a strictly average movie that may find some fans with the 10 and under set, but will most likely be forgotten by both kids and adults when the glitzy and heavily hyped CG cartoon Monsters vs. Aliens hits theaters in a couple weeks. If Disney had hoped to reboot the franchise and get some sequels out of this, they should have tried a little harder, because the movie seems constantly on the verge of working. It works enough, but not quite enough for it to be memorable.

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Friday, March 13, 2009

The Last House on the Left

If there's a lesson to be learned from The Last House on the Left, it's this - If you ever see a suspicious-looking and awkward teen lurking in the dark corner of a supermarket, and he offers to take you to his seedy motel room for some weed, don't go with him. Thanks, Hollywood. I'll be sure to remember that next time I'm in such a situation. If there's a lesson to be learned from this review, it's that your money and time is much better spent doing something else than watching this remake of a 1972 Wes Craven film (which itself was a remake of a movie from 1960 called The Virgin Spring).

It's too bad that teenage friends Mari (Sara Paxton) and Paige (Martha MacIssac) learn the lesson the movie wants to impart with us a little too late. They follow the teen named Justin (Spencer Treat Clark) back to his room, hoping for a party, only to learn that his family are a group of psychotic killers on the run from the law. We witness in the film's opening scene how Justin's father, Krug (Garret Dillahunt), Uncle Francis (Aaron Paul), and Krug's girlfriend Sadie (Riki Lindhome) murdered a couple of police detectives. (Just to let us know they're *really* evil, the movie makes us watch Krug strangle one of the detectives with a car seatbelt and forces him to bleed all over a family photo of the detective's children.) The murder has made front page news, and the family doesn't want any witnesses, so Krug and the others take the two girls out to the woods to have their way with them. Paige ends up dead, and Mari ends up getting raped and left for dead when she tries to escape and is hit by a stray bullet. With a storm bearing down on the local area, the killers decide to take refuge in the closest house nearby, which just happens to belong to Mari's parents, John (Tony Goldwyn) and Emma (Monica Potter).

John, Emma, and Mari have come to the house for a much-needed family vacation after dealing with the tragedy the past year of their eldest son, Ben, dying. When the killers arrive at the house, wounded and disheveled (Mari and Paige got a few hits in on them before they were overpowered), the parents initially have no idea, as they think their daughter is staying overnight with the friend. Then young Justin begins to feel racked with guilt when he realizes who the house belongs to, and begins to leave little signs for the parents to discover who they are and what they did. When Mari manages to drag herself to the front porch of the house and the parents discover her clinging to what little life she has left, they decide to take the law into their own hands by seeking bloody vengeance. This is obviously intended to be a thorny moral issue. Heck, the film's poster even asks us "If bad people hurt someone you loved, how far would you go to hurt them back"? Too bad it never has any intention of answering this question, as The Last House on the Left is an entirely exploitive and cheap enterprise designed solely as a gore show.

Yes, there is quite a lot of gore. The R-rating is put into effect as we get to see close up and graphic depictions of stabbings, rapes, attempted drownings, fingers being cut off in a kitchen garbage disposal, blood-splattered shootings, and to top it off, someone being paralyzed then stuck in a microwave until their head explodes. The problem is the movie stops at the shock value of these images. There's nothing behind them other than the filmmakers wanted to maybe raise a concerned eyebrow or two. The only way a story like The Last House on the Left could work is if we actually cared about or were interested in what was going on, or about the people these things are happening to. But we don't, because everyone who exists in this movie exists for a single narrow-minded purpose. The daughter exists solely to be raped, the daughter's friend to be murdered, the villains to do terrible things and then have terrible things happen to them...There are no real relationships on display, not even within the family. Mere moments after they arrive at the vacation home, the daughter runs off to be with her friend. It's like she knows what the audience is here for, and wants to give it to them as quickly as possible.

Not only does this cheapen the entire film, but it actually managed to lessen the impact of the film's harsher sequences with me. The characters are so single-minded in their motivation, I had a hard time seeing them as people instead of merely as manipulations of the screenplay. The movie asks us how far would we go to find vengeance, but the characters of John and Emma never do. As soon as they find their daughter and discover what's happened to her, they grab the nearest sharp or blunt object, and start going after the killers. There's no pause for questioning, asking if what they're doing is right, or even a moment's hesitation. Like everyone else, they know what they're here for. (The fact that the characters literally have nothing to do with anything in the movie until the final 40 minutes or so is proof of this.) This could have been a tense and terrifying dramatic thriller, but because the movie never strays from the expected path or gives us anything to think about, we're simply left to wait for the inevitable.

The film's sole saving grace is that the director Dennis Iliadis shows some talent here. I hope he can get attached to a real movie next time around. The Last House on the Left is for people who don't care what's going on up on the screen, as long as they get to see some severed limbs. When the film's poster asks smarter and tougher questions than anything brought up in the movie itself, you've got a problem.

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