Reel Opinions


Saturday, August 29, 2009

Halloween II

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When Rob Zombie brought us his remake of Halloween in 2007, it reeked of corporate greed. Whereas the original 1978 John Carpenter film was a true suspense film and a labor of love, Zombie's version was just a crude attempt to cash in on the famous name. Now we have Halloween II, which is not only a greedy movie (Zombie originally stated he had no plans to do a sequel, but changed his mind when the last movie made money.), but it's also a vile, ugly, and contemptible one.

picThere's no reason for anyone to see this movie. There's also no real way to defend it. There's no style, no detectable plot, and no fully developed ideas. It's a murky, gloomy, depressing experience. I have nothing against movies that are dark. They can be very enjoyable as long as the filmmaker is trying to make a point or has a vision. If this movie does have a vision, it seems to want to be an endurance test. There were many times when I wanted to bolt for the theater door and let the outside world wash the film's images from my mind. But, I toughed it out, hoping that a scene would come along that would explain why this movie needed to be made. It never came. All we get are a lot of images of depression and brutality until the end credits come. Anyone who pays to see this movie at a theater that is also showing The Hurt Locker (a film with more suspense than anything this movie musters) gets what they deserve.

picBefore I start talking about this movie and why you should not see it, let's clear the air - The movie is not a remake of 1981's Halloween II. The opening 20 minutes or so are set in and around a hospital, which seem to be an homage to that film, but it all turns out to be an elaborate dream sequence. The returning heroine, Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton), has gone from a happy and bright teen in the first movie, to a morose little thing who dresses in black, has a lot of nightmares about Michael Myers, and screams a lot. She's living with two survivors from the original movie - Annie (Danielle Harris), and Annie's father, the Sheriff (Brad Dourif). All three of them sit around, looking glum, as if Michael is on their minds a lot. It would be hard for him not to be. The one year anniversary of his rampage the previous Halloween is coming up, and Michael's former therapist, Dr. Sam Loomis (Malcolm McDowell), is all over television, promoting a trashy new book he's written about his former patient and the murders. McDowell's presence in this film is strange indeed, as his scenes often seem to belong in a different movie altogether. The strangest scene is when he goes on a talk show where "Weird Al" Yankovic is the co-host. I expect a lot of things in a Halloween movie. Weird Al is not one of them.

picMeanwhile, Michael Myers himself (Tyler Mane) survived the last movie, and has been living as a hobo the past year. He begins to have visions of his dead mother (Sherie Moon Zombie) on a white horse, along with visions of himself as a child (Chase Wright Vanek), who tell him it's time to track Laurie down again. How does he know where she lives now? Never mind, I guess. A better question is what was Zombie thinking when he included so many of these bizarre dream sequences and visions that Michael keeps on having? They make less sense as the movie goes on, and eventually turn into an excuse for the director to throw a lot of random images and strange special effects up on the screen. When Michael's not having cryptic visits from ghost mom, he murders anyone unfortunate enough to get in his way. These murder scenes are murky, brutal, and vile. They often come across as grisly images that make little sense, while screams and pitiful cries ring out on the soundtrack. There is a strong undercurrent of hopelessness throughout the entire movie. This can be a powerful thing in the right hands, but this movie uses it like a gimmick. It takes a morbid delight in its own pain and suffering. This is entertainment for masochists.

picFor those of you who never bothered to watch the last movie, this one features no exposition or explanation about the characters or how they relate to each other. They're simply up there on the screen to suffer until Myers comes along and stabs them mercilessly. It doesn't tell a story. It wallows in its own misery, gives us a couple killings, then sends us home. When you consider how much a great horror movie can do, Halloween II seems like even more of a cheat. Horror can be exhilarating, funny, sad, exciting, and even oddly touching sometimes. This movie does not accomplish any of this in its 100 minutes. It doesn't create a single emotion except contempt for the filmmakers. Whatever a theater is charging for such an experience, it's too much. As if all that's not bad enough, the film's ending leaves a sour taste in our mouths. It saves the final insult for right before it lets us get back to our lives.
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I advise anyone who is considering watching this movie to think twice. There are a lot of good movies out there right now - Movies that can do so much more than this does. Don't let it steal your precious time and attention. If you want to be scared, there are much better alternatives out there. This is one of the absolute worst films of 2009.

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The Final Destination

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You'd think since The Final Destination is the fourth film in the long-running horror franchise, the filmmakers would try to shake things up a little. You would be wrong. Aside from adding some 3D effects (which are only available in select theaters), director David R Ellis and screenwriter Eric Bress (both of whom worked on Final Destination 2) seem to be going through the motions. It follows the exact same plot as the previous movies, the gore scenes (the obvious selling point of the series) are frequently flat and uninspired, and not even the cast seem that involved. There are a lot of horror movies that fail to deliver any thrills, but this is the first in a while that also made me feel completely indifferent as well.

picIf you've seen any of the earlier films, you know the drill by now. A group of kids narrowly escape death, thanks to a psychic vision one of the kids has right before a terrible accident that should have taken their lives occurs. This time, the accident occurs during a car race, and the kid with the vision is bland nice guy Nick (played by bland and wooden newcomer Bobby Campo). His vision not only saves the life of him and the friends he was with, but also a few other bystanders. (Although, a woman who initially escapes from the carnage does get decapitated by a flying tire when she thinks she's safe.) The kids think they're safe, but we know better. We know that a mysterious invisible force (presumably Death itself) is going to start hunting the survivors down one-by-one, and killing them in the order that they were supposed to die the day of the accident. We know this, because it's the same thing that happened to the kids in Final Destination 1-3. Only now, things have been dumbed down considerably.

picThe kids at the center of the film don't go to school, don't have parents, jobs, or friends outside of each other. They've also been given the shallowest of personalities. Nick's the nice guy who's haunted by visions (which are represented by lame CG sequences), Lori (Shantel VanSanten) is his girlfriend, Hunt (Nick Zano) is the womanizing jerk of the group, and Janet (Haley Webb) is Lori's friend. We know that they exist to be killed in over the top ways, but couldn't the movie have given them something to do before their big scene? The only character who raises our interest is a security guard named George (Mykelti Williamson), who survives the accident thanks to Nick, and begins to wonder if maybe he should have died, as he feels deep guilt for a past drunk driving incident that claimed the life of his wife and child. His character arc could have brought some meaning to the story, but the movie has to speed right along and get to a scene where a character is crushed to death by a bathtub falling through the roof of his hospital room. (Shortly after this happens, George himself is hit by a semi truck.)

picOther deaths include a racist redneck being dragged by his tow truck and catching on fire, a woman getting a rock shot through her skull by a lawnmower, the womanizing jerk character getting his guts sucked out of him by a pool drain, and even an explosion at a movie theater that personally brought back memories of the climax to last weekend's Inglourious Basterds. You would think that these sequences would at least be interesting, but they are frequently clumsily shot and filled with bad CG blood effects. The movie itself is barely 80 minutes long (including credits), so these unimpressive sequences are pushed into the foreground, since there's no time for characters or real dialogue. This is what turns The Final Destination into a total waste of time, especially if you end up paying almost $17 to watch the thing in 3D, as if having the blood fly off the screen will somehow make it a better movie. Whether the movie is in 2D or 3D, you still get some of the stiffest and lamest acting to hit a mainstream movie this year.
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This is presumably the last film in the series, but it already seems to be on the way for a big opening weekend thanks to the 3D gimmick, so expect a fifth go-around sometime soon. Might I make a suggestion for the next movie? Have it be about Death invades the set of a Final Destination movie, starts killing off the actors, and the filmmakers try to hire him, because he's better at it than the stuff they come up with.

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Friday, August 28, 2009

Taking Woodstock

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Ang Lee is a filmmaker with many great films to his credit, including The Ice Storm and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. His latest, Taking Woodstock, probably won't be joining the list of his greats anytime soon, but there's nothing wrong with that. This is a small and slight movie, but it has a lot of charm, a few laughs, and a lot of likable characters. Even when the movie seemed to be more than a little aimless at times, there's a certain sweet-natured approach that Lee and screenwriter James Schamus bring.

picRather than focus on the actual Woodstock concert itself, the movie instead acts as a behind the scenes look as to how it all came together. I've heard a lot of people complain about the fact that the movie deliberately keeps the concert in the background the entire time. For those people, I recommend Michael Wadleigh's 1970 film documentary of the event. Ang Lee's movie is centered on Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin), the one who made it all happen. He's a young man helping his parents Sonia (Imelda Staunton) and Jake (Henry Goodman) manage a run down motel that's on the brink of closure. We can see why business is not good. The pool is full of bleach instead of chlorine, and the penny pinching mother insists on rarely changing the sheets and charging an extra dollar for pillows on the beds. The bank is threatening to foreclose, and it's probably going to be their last summer in business. Elliot sees an opportunity to make a lot of money when he notices in the local newspaper that a youth music festival set for Wallkill has been canceled. Making a few phone calls, he brings the festival to his small town of White Lake, New York, and offers his motel as a base of operations and a place for the concert organizers to stay.

picTaking Woodstock is very direct and low key. There's no real crisis motivating the plot. Sure, some of the locals are not exactly happy with the fact that thousands of Hippies are descending upon their quiet town, but it doesn't try to play up the melodrama. We see him strike a deal with local dairy farmer Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy) to hold the concert on his land. We also get to see how the event grows larger than he ever dreamed. Lee does a great job depicting the time period and the turn out, especially during a scene where Elliot takes a ride on a police officer's bike down the road, which is filled with people walking to the concert that is miles away. This sequence looks very complex, and must have been hard to set up, as there's literally thousands of extras on screen. We may not get to see the actual concert itself, but we do get to see a lot of the impact it had on the culture at the time. The movie gets a lot of the details right and feels authentic. There are even some sequences that seem like actual footage of the event, with the actors spliced in. (I couldn't tell if this was the technique they used, or if it was just a very believable recreation.)

picWe never really get a sense of things outside of Elliot's world, because the movie seldom leaves the motel grounds. Fortunately, there are some very memorable supporting characters that make it worth while. Staunton and Goodman get a lot of laughs as his traditional parents, who are at first not sure what to make of the strangers coming to their motel, but eventually get into the spirit of things. Liev Schreiber is surprisingly convincing as Vilma, an ex-Marine turned transvestite who acts as security at the motel when local teens start writing hate messages on the wall of the motel. The key to Schreiber's success is that his performance is played straight, and he lets the laughs come from his dialogue and his character, not from the clothes he's wearing. Emile Hirsch is also very good as Billy, a Vietnam vet who suffers from flashbacks. While the performance is faultless, the character never comes across as strong as it should. I suspect many of his scenes were left on the cutting room floor.

picOddly enough, it is Demetri Martin as Elliot who drags things down just a little. It's not that he's bad, he's just kind of a boring lead, and doesn't grab our attention as much as the other characters do. He's likable enough, but the movie doesn't give him enough to do. He acts as an observer for most of the movie. When he does take center stage, such as in a lengthy sequence where he has an acid trip, it brings the pace down to a near crawl. There are also some scenes that hint at sexual discovery for him, but these moments don't come across quite as strong as they should. It lends the film a strangely uneven tone that the movie never escapes from. Parts of it are very funny and lively, while other moments seem to be lacking life. At least the movie remains likable throughout, and that's why I'm recommending it.
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For all of its faults, Taking Woodstock is an interesting little movie. It also manages to give us a side of a famous story that we haven't heard. That's the one thing audiences should keep in mind before walking into the theater. Those expecting a lot of actors posing as famous music faces of the era will be disappointed. It may not work all the time, but it worked enough for me.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Hurt Locker

It's not supposed to be this way. The strongest contender for the best film of 2009 is not supposed to come out during the dog days of summer. And yet, here it is. Am I getting ahead of myself, with four months left in the year? Maybe so, but I can't help it. The Hurt Locker has everything you could want in a movie. It's compelling and dramatic, it's frightening and intense, it's full of wisdom and honesty, and it's also exciting as hell. This is a sensational movie.

Hollywood's attempts to bring the current Iraq War to the screen have been met mainly with indifference by either critics or audiences. The Hurt Locker quite brilliantly sidesteps the biggest problem that hindered movies like Lions for Lambs, The Kingdom, and Stop-Loss. The problem? A lot of those movies carried an obvious political agenda. The solution that screenwriter Mark Boal (who worked on an earlier Iraq-themed film, In the Valley of Elah) comes up with? He completely dodges all personal beliefs and hidden agendas, and just gives us the reality of the battlefield. The soldiers in this movie have a job to do on the battlefield, and they are here to do it. They are devoted to their duty, and that is it. It's an unflinching look into their lives. There is no real structured plot that leads us from point A to point B. The movie throws us into the middle of their tour of duty (they have 38 days left in their rotation we're informed early on, and a subtitle keeps track of how many days are left), and gives it to us straight. It's an intense slice of life that few of us ever get to see, and director Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, Strange Days) creates a total sensory experience to the point that we find ourselves going through the same emotions as the characters up on the screen.

The focus on the film is on the EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) squad of the Bravo Company. They are called to dismantle bombs that are discovered on the streets, in cars, and in one particularly intense scene, attached to an innocent person. At the beginning of the film, the squad is made up of lead technician Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce), Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). It's clear they have a close bond, so we feel Sanborn and Eldridge's pain when Matt is killed in a failed attempt to dismantle a bomb. A new member joins the squad in his place, Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner). He's brash, cocky, and in the eyes of his fellow squad members, dangerous. This is nothing new in a war movie, but the way the screenplay handles their relationship is. James is not your usual cocky young recruit. He doesn't do what he does for glory. He does things his own way, but we never get a sense he's trying to show up his comrades. The movie shows how all three men handle the situation they're in differently. All three of them, and the way they react to the war feels natural, instead of like war cliches. We feel like we're listening to actual stories from the battlefield, and the movie never once goes for manipulation or bombastic showmanship.

The movie showcases the different missions that the men are sent on, as well as their private time back at the base. The mission scenes are done in an almost documentary fashion, and we feel the tension and fear that the men do. They are constantly being watched by locals, who view their efforts to dismantle the bomb from the street corners, house windows, and from the rooftops. The men are never sure who to trust, and neither are we. This is how the movie puts us into the middle of the action. There is no central villain figure lurking behind the scenes, planting bombs. We feel just as lost and confused in this strange foreign land as they do. When they return to the base, they're allowed to be themselves, and we can identify with them. Eldridge visits with a on-site therapist (Christian Camargo), and talks about his fears of dying in battle, thinking that it's almost inevitable. Sanborn wonders who outside of his family would miss him if something were to happen to him during his tour. And James feels torn between his job, and the wife and baby he has waiting for him back home. Once again, the movie does not take a wrong step here. The emotions are genuine, and avoid heavy-handed melodrama. We're not being manipulated to feel for them, we're listening to stories that genuinely feel heartfelt.
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The film has a somewhat unstructured tone. There's no real overall plot to carry it. Sometimes, a single scene seems to almost be a self-contained short film. One of my favorite moments is when the team comes across another American squad, who is stranded in the middle of the desert. As James and his men attempt to help the other team, they are suddenly attacked by snipers. This leads to a slow-burning, dragged-out, but certainly not boring sequence where the two teams must work together to survive. It's a fantastic example of tight editing, precision pacing, and a genuine sense of dread and fear that the scene creates. Another fantastic sequence concerns a subplot, where James befriends a young local boy named Beckham (Christopher Sayegh). The ultimate fate of the child (which I will not reveal) is one of the most chilling sequences in recent memory, and when James comes across his "replacement" just a few scenes later, we share his disgust. The Hurt Locker contains more individual scenes of raw power than most movies contain in their entire running time.

The cast, in turn, deliver some rightfully knock out performances. In a rare movie, big name actors like Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes (who appears as the head of the stranded team) are placed in cameos, while relative unknowns (although some of them have been working in small roles for years) get the leads. These are explosive roles, and equally powerful performances. Renner, Mackie, and Geraghty are intense and real here. They don't seem like actors stepping into the boots of soldiers. We can see the exhaustion on their faces, and it's credible to believe that these men have spent the past year or so living through hell. What's amazing is how the performances and the movie itself keep us on edge the entire time. When the movie is over, we feel just as emotionally and physically drained as the characters must feel. I watch so many movies where I just don't feel anything. Watching a movie like this is not only rare, it's worth celebrating.

The Hurt Locker is indeed worth celebrating, and should definitely be seen as it is slowly brought into wider release. Summit Entertainment (best known for bringing us the disappointing teen vampire romance, Twilight, and its upcoming sequels) deserves admiration for bringing this small movie out to the masses. This is one of the best movies about war to come along in years, but you don't have to be a fan of the genre to enjoy it. To be honest, I knew very little about the movie, and wasn't expecting to be completely captivated. Those expectations were met and surpassed five minutes in.

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Saturday, August 22, 2009

Post Grad

It's no secret that August is usually the month of summer when the studios dig through the bottom of the barrel on their release schedules, but to be honest, we've been pretty lucky so far this year. We got Funny People (Okay, so that technically came out July 31st, but it's close enough to August, darn it!), Julie and Julia, District 9, and Inglourious Basterds. Even indie favorites like (500) Days of Summer and The Hurt Locker are starting to get wide releases. I was starting to feel a little spoiled. Good thing Post Grad is here to remind me what the month of August usually means for film.

Don't let the movie's ad campaign fool you into thinking this is a story about a recent college graduate who is looking for her place in the world, finds employment impossible, and has to move back in with her family. This premise is merely a launching point for one of the most banal romantic comedies to come along in a while. The whole thing plays out like a failed sitcom pilot stretched to feature length. It's a shame the movie never finds a human angle that would have made it work. Post Grad centers on Ryden Malby (Alexis Bledel), who has been a star student throughout her entire school career. She got the right grades, the right letters of recommendation, and even though she barely missed being valedictorian of her graduating class to her life-long academic rival (Catherine Reitman), she's still confident when she strides into the interview at her dream job at a publishing company. Her rival ends up getting the job, she can't pay for the luxury apartment she picked out for herself, her car gets totaled in an accident, and Ryden is forced to move back home.

It's a situation many people Ryden's age probably find themselves in, and walking in, I had hoped the movie would deal with it honestly. All hope for honesty flies out the window when we meet her family. Her dad, Walter (Michael Keaton), is a bungling dreamer who hopes to make his fortune selling novelty belt buckles. It's later revealed that the buckles he bought from a dealer were stolen, and he gets arrested in a pointless subplot that goes nowhere and has no real resolution. Her kid brother, Hunter (Bobby Coleman), is a weird little boy with a passion for licking people's heads and sock puppets. His contribution to the plot is that he wants his dad to help him build a soap box racer. They end up building one out of a funeral casket they happen to have lying around the house. (I wish I was making this up.) She has a mom (Jane Lynch) and grandmother (Carol Burnett), but they don't contribute much. Ryden also has a best friend named Adam (Zach Gilford from TV's Friday Night Lights), who is in love with her, but she sees him as just being a companion. He's been accepted to go to law school in New York, but he sticks around so he can be her confidant, I guess.

The screenplay by newcomer Kelly Fremon seems much more interested in Ryden's love life, than her career problems. That explains why her job hunt is all but forgotten about for most of the film's middle portion, and instead focuses solely on her trying to decide which guy to go with. You see, there's a cute older guy named David who lives across the street (Rodrigo Santoro). Ryden meets him when her dad accidentally runs over the guy's cat, and they have to hold a funeral for it. This leads to Ryden and David having sex on his inflatable couch. Their relationship progresses, and Adam feels hurt. Ryden tries to apologize, but Adam won't answer his phone, so she decides to do the most logical thing - Swipe an ice cream truck and interrupt his basketball game by declaring her apology over the truck's loud speaker. (Once again, I wish I was making this up.) Adam accepts the apology, but wouldn't you know it, he decided to go to law school after she hurt him that night. By this point of the movie, Ryden has gotten that dream job at the publisher (her rival got fired), and now she has to decide wether she should stay at her successful job, or quit and leave everything behind to follow Adam to New York.

That's the kind of climax that makes audiences want to throw stuff at the screen. If that's not bad enough, the conclusion also relies heavily on mistaken identities and the age-old Idiot Plot, where all the problems and misunderstandings would be solved if one character would say something, and the other character would listen rather than jumping to the wrong conclusion and running away. I disliked Post Grad pretty much all the way through it, but its final moments made me downright hate it. It doesn't treat its own subject matter with an ounce of respect or integrity, I only laughed one time during the cat funeral scene, and the script reads like a bunch of bad romantic comedy cliches stitched together. There's also not a single thing about the movie that stands out, or is even noteworthy. Everything's average at best, including the performances. Maybe it's the fact that it's director, Vicky Jenson, is working in live action for the first time here. (She's previously worked on animated films like Shrek and Shark Tale.) Whatever the case, absolutely nothing works.
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The movie tries to be quirky with its humor, as if it's trying to distract us from how boring the central romance is. It ends up being a lost cause. Post Grad is the kind of immediately disposable entertainment that August is meant for. It doesn't have anything new to say, and doesn't do anything particularly well. It's simply there to make you wonder who gave the project the green light. Considering what movie theaters are charging these days, it's too expensive to sit through a movie just to ask that question to yourself over and over.

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Shorts

Robert Rodriguez's Shorts is a series of ideas in search of a movie that's big enough to hold them all. The movie's opening moments promise a sweet and quirky coming of age story that was starting to grow on me. I smiled, especially during the opening scene concerning the two kids having a staring contest that literally goes on for days, the kids staring at each other no matter what they happen to be doing. The main plot kicked in, with the young heroes finding a magical wishing rock at the end of a rainbow, and I was still in good spirits. I was interested in where the story was going. Too bad the movie wasn't. As soon as the magic rock enters the story, the movie loses control of itself, and turns into a special effects demo. As the movie started to throw out microscopic aliens, killer crocodiles, and even man-eating booger monsters at me, I wanted it to go back to the staring contest.

The story is told out of sequence, and divided into five separate chapters, which made me think of Inglourious Basterds - The last movie I thought would be on my mind while I was watching this. It's all centered around a corporate community called Black Falls, which is run by the tyrannical businessman, Mr. Black (James Spader), who has invented a handheld device that can literally do anything. Everyone who lives in the neighborhood works for Black, including the parents of our young hero, Toe Thompson (Jimmy Bennett from Orphan). Toe feels ignored by his parents (Jon Cryer and Leslie Mann), who seem constantly on the verge of being fired by their boss. He's also picked on by bullies at school, especially by a girl named Helvetica (Jolie Vanier), who is the daughter of Black. While escaping from the bully and her gang, Toe stumbles across the magic rock, which grants his wish that he had friends by sending tiny aliens down from outer space to obey his every command.

This is some magic rock. It keeps on bouncing into the hands of different people who live in Toe's neighborhood, and granting their desires to the point that the entire city is in danger. A trio of young brothers (Trevor Gagnon, Rebel Rodriguez, and Leo Howard) wish for a giant fortress, and wind up giving their baby sister super intelligence, so she can speak to them telepathically. A germophobic scientist and his son (William H. Macy and Jake Short), end up accidentally creating a giant man-eating booger when they wish their experiments would work right, and have to venture out into the germ-filled world to stop the creature. (They wear radiation suits at all times whenever they're outside their germ-proof house.) And when the rock falls into the hands of the evil Mr. Black, he wishes to be the most powerful thing in the universe, and turns into a giant robot. It doesn't take long for the wishes to start to get out of control, such as when Toe's mother wishes that her husband and her could be closer, and they wind up with their bodies fused together.

As the wishes spiral out of control, so does Shorts itself. What starts out as being charming and clever eventually becomes monotonous. That's because Rodriguez isn't interested in letting anything sink in. Here's a movie that features a little girl wishing that she could be a giant wasp so that she can battle her father, who has turned into a towering robot, and treats it as a minor event. I became frustrated. I wanted the screenplay to slow down, or at least go back to the stuff that was working during the first half hour or so. I became especially frustrated that the movie wasn't even going to follow through on most of its own ideas, and simply use them as an excuse to parade CG monsters across the screen. This is a film that talks down to kids. It throws a lot of bright colors and creatures up on the screen, and expects them to be entertained. It didn't seem to have much of an effect on the kids at my screening. They know when they're being talked down to.

The cast at least does what they can, even if many of the actors seem to be above the material they're given. I'm trying to figure out what William H. Macy saw in his role, which consists entirely of him grappling with a CG booger. Sure, it pays the bills, but is it really worth it in the end? Also underused are Cryer, Mann (who should have quit while she was ahead with Funny People), and Spader, who brings plenty of smarminess to his role as the evil Black, but never really gets a character to play, since his role is so underwritten. At least the kids are good and seem to be having fun, especially newcomer Jolie Vanier as Helvetica. She brings a lot of comic energy in her role of a bully who may actually be harboring a secret crush for her target. I'd like to see her in a better movie, one that deserves her obvious talent.

Shorts is not unwatchable, and is certainly better kid's entertainment than Aliens in the Attic, faint praise as that might be. Even so, it is tremendously disappointing. The opening half hints at something much smarter and funnier than what we get. If Rodriguez wants to do another family film, he should leave the special effects at home, and just focus on the characters. He obviously knows how to attract talented people, he should do them the favor of giving them interesting characters to play. Couldn't hurt, is all I'm saying.

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Friday, August 21, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

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Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds is not quite the all-out crazy, fast-paced World War II revisionist film that I was expecting. Many of its scenes are intentionally leisurely paced, mounting the tension through Tarantino's use of dialogue. The tension builds until it explodes into a brief frenzy of violence. It's a successful formula, for the most part. Some scenes are a bit too self-indulgent in its dialogue, and in the process end up going on longer than they should. It's a mixed bag to be sure, but the good definitely outweighs the bad, or in this case, the somewhat disappointing.

picThe film's structure is divided into five individual chapters. The first four are focused on a certain character, or characters, who plays a large role in the overall story. In the opening chapter, we're introduced to SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). Nicknamed "The Jew Hunter", he has a calm and almost charming manner about him as he pays a visit to a local farmer who is harboring Jewish refugees under his floorboards. This entire sequence (which seems to last for over 20 minutes), introduces us not only to the character of Hans (who is perhaps the most memorable Nazi villain on film since Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List), but also to the film's gift of dialogue. It creates an incredible amount of tension, even though Hans or the farmer he is questioning never raise their voices once. Their conversation is casual and serene, but we can see the intensity in their faces as they try to break one another's will. It's a wonderful scene, and the ensuing violence when the refugees are discovered is all the more shocking considering the tone of the entire conversation. One of the women who was hiding under the floorboards manages to escape, and will play a larger role in a future chapter.

picIn the next segment, we're introduced to the Basterds themselves. They're a gung-ho group of Americans who are under the command of Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), a fast-talking Southerner who wants one thing and one thing only - the scalped heads of as many Nazi soldiers they can find. The few Nazis they choose to let live are branded for life with a swastika that Aldo carves into their forehead with a knife. Even though Brad Pitt is at the center of the film's ad campaign, he actually has limited screen time in comparison to Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), who is the focus of the third chapter. She's the woman who escaped from the farm in the opening scene, and has since been running a movie theater in German-occupied France under a fake name. When she is approached to hold a grand premiere of a Nazi propaganda film at her theater, she begins to plot to blow up the building with everyone inside during the screening as a desperate act of revenge. This ties into Chapter 4, where a German actress serving as a double agent named Bridget von Hammersmart (Diane Kuger) teams up with the Basterds to get them inside the movie premiere to pull off an assassination plan of their own. It all builds to Chapter 5, where all the characters and storylines come together for one explosive finale the night of the premiere.

picCalling Inglourious Basterds a war movie is quite a disservice, as it's also features nods to Spaghetti Westerns, exploitation, and over the top revenge films. Tarantino manages to keep things pretty much under control, however. Despite the multi-plot structure and large cast of leads, it never becomes confusing or overbearing. It does come dangerously close to slowing to a halt a couple times, though. That's because Tarantino apparently loves his own dialogue so much, he seems to have refused to cut a single word of his screenplay. Therefore, we get scenes that go on for literally 30 minutes or more, with just the characters sitting at a table, talking. In some instances, this is wonderful and highly suspenseful (such as the previously mentioned opening scene at the farm). But there are some sequences, such as one based around a 20 questions-like game in a tavern, that had me fidgeting just a little. It's not so much I found the dialogue bad, I just did not find the pacing of the conversation as tense. I also found the Basterds themselves largely uninteresting. Despite Brad Pitt's winning and often very funny performance, they never come across as real three dimensional characters. Maybe that was the point, but I found myself much more interested in the plot that theater owner Shosanna Dreyfus was hatching, other than the one Aldo and his men were.

picSpeaking of the performances, Laurent's turn as Shosanna is definitely one of the highlights. This is the first time I have seen her in a film, and she almost walks away with the entire movie. A lot of this has to do with the fact that we sympathize with her the most. She's the only character with a real background story, so we feel the most attached to her. The other main highlight is Christoph Waltz as the main Nazi villain. He is the perfect combination of charm and menace. He smiles brightly, is soft-spoken, and hardly (if ever) brandishes a weapon. It is his manipulation and his use of words that make him chilling, and hopefully a strong contender come Award time next year. The other performances are strong, but don't stand out as much, due to the screenplay treating them as avatars rather than actual people. I have a strong hunch that were it not for Pitt's performance, the character of Aldo would be a lot less memorable than he comes across.

picIf I was somewhat disappointed with the storytelling, the visual style of the film helped me get over any hurdles. This is easily Tarantino's best looking film yet, with grand wide shots, and tight close ups that manage to up the tension as much as the dialogue in many of the scenes. The climactic sequence at the movie theater is just as explosive as any action sequence you can find this summer, probably more so. But it's the way he stages his smaller scenes that impressed me. He gets so much out of his performers, you can almost look forward to an acting highlight in nearly every scene. The only thing that took me out of the movie is his tendency to dip into stunt casting. Horror filmmaker Eli Roth (best known for directing the Hostel films) shows up in a small role as one of the Basterds, who has a passion for bashing Nazi's skulls in with a baseball bat for the entertainment of his fellow men. ("It's the closest thing we have to a movie", Aldo says.) It's not quite as distracting as it would have been if Tarantino initially got his way, however. Originally, he wanted Adam Sandler to play the role, but fortunately Funny People got in the way. More distracting, though, is a strange cameo by comic actor Mike Myers as a British General during a mission briefing scene. He sticks out like a sore thumb, and briefly takes us out of the film.
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I think the best way to summarize Inglourious Basterds is what I read in one on-line review, which stated "Ideally, the movie should be seen twice, the first time to adjust to what it isn't and the second to appreciate what it is". I don't think I could say it any better. For all its faults, this is a strong piece of entertainment. It doesn't quite climb to the top of my favorite Tarantino films, but it mostly proves he still has what it takes behind the camera after being out of the limelight for a little while. The movie itself may not be as memorable as I would have liked, but it's certainly not forgettable.

See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at Amazon.com!

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

2 Mini Reviews for the Price of One!!

Okay, so here I am doing Mini Reviews again. I promise this is the last time. I had problems posting photos with Blogger the past few weeks, which prevented me from adding my reviews last weekend. So, I fell behind. So, I'm just going to do two mini reviews of films I saw last weekend. Starting this Friday, full reviews, all the way. Now that all the problems have been fixed, I can go back to my regular format. Expect full reviews of Inglourious Bastards, Post Grad, Shorts, and The Hurt Locker this weekend. For now, here are the two mini reviews of the other films I saw last weekend...

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The Time Traveler's Wife - An interesting concept is brought down by a half-hearted execution. Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams play two people who fall in love, despite the fact that he is inflected with a strange and unexplained disease that causes him to suddenly disappear and reappear in another place and time. They try to make the marriage work, but find it hard to deal with simple things, such as having a child. The movie also tries to make it work, but finds it hard due to a lack of passion between the two leads. The pace is sluggish, the story never really grabs your attention, and the whole thing just seems like a lot of wasted talent.

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The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard - Jeremy Piven (from TV's Entourage) leads a talented and energetic cast in a movie that just doesn't deliver. It's not for lack of trying. This comedy, about a band of "mercenary" car salesmen who try to save a failing auto dealership by staging a grand Fourth of July sale, has some laughs and everyone seems to be giving it their all. Problem is, the movie never takes off. Too many gags fall flat (They hire a D.J. for the sales event named D.J. Request, who refuses to take requests - ho, ho.), and the whole thing is never as funny as it should be. Will Ferrell shows up in a cameo as a guy who dies in a parachuting accident dressed as Abe Lincoln while holding a sex toy. After Land of the Lost and now this, the guy should really start being a bit more picky about the projects he chooses.

I repeat - Full reviews to start again tomorrow. Thank you for your patience.

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Bandslam

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In Bandslam, we get teens who get to talk and act like real teens. They even look like they should be in high school, which is a nice change of pace from recent teen films that featured actors pushing or sometimes past 30 in the lead roles. They're also a little bit smarter than the usual teens we see in these movies, especially when it comes to music. The film has a surprisingly edgy and intelligent tone to its music selection, and the bands the characters talk about. (Kids, be sure to ask your parents who the Velvet Underground were when the movie is over!) Although the film's ad campaign is skewing toward the Disney pop crowd, due to the presence of High School Musical star Vanessa Hudgens in one of the female lead roles, the movie itself takes a surprisingly non-conformist tone.

picSo, why wasn't I more taken with it? It has great music, and the kids are obviously talented with what they do. What it doesn't have is a compelling plot to tie it all together. I liked the kids, but I never found myself truly caring about them. That's because the movie doesn't really try to make us care until the final half, when it suddenly turns out that all the main characters have some kind of secret or past pain that suddenly comes bubbling up in the last half hour or so. All the kids are outcasts, so I guess that's to be expected in a movie like this. Still, until their individual big secrets are revealed, I thought the movie was just spinning its wheels whenever the lead characters weren't singing or making music with their garage band. Speaking of the garage band, we don't learn a whole lot about the individual members who make it up, other than those who have lead roles in the story. It's a pretty big band, but only three of them get any real dialogue or even an actual character. The others pretty much disappear from the story, only to come back for rehearsal or performance scenes.

picThe movie's central character is Will (Gaelen Connell), a sweet-natured but shy kid who is a frequent target for bullies, is bored at school, and finds comfort in classic rock. He also constantly writes letters to David Bowie, talking about his experiences in music, hoping someday the guy will write him back. (No prizes for guessing if this movie features a Bowie cameo near the end.) Will's mom (Lisa Kudrow) takes a new job, which requires them both to move to New Jersey. At first, Will still finds himself not really fitting in at his new school, but then he meets two fellow kindred spirits. The first is a morose girl who dresses all in black, but secretly has a heart of gold named Sa5m ("the 5 is silent", she explains). She's the Vanessa Hudgens character, and she's surprisingly a stand out, since I haven't exactly been a fan of her acting or singing in the past. The other girl whom Will befriends is Charlotte (Aly Michalka, from the pop group Aly & AJ), a former cheerleader and popular girl, who has since given up her previously shallow ways, and is now the lead singer of a struggling garage band.

picHer band's dream is to perform in the upcoming "Bandslam" tournament. It's an annual event where the best high school bands can compete for the grand prize of a recording contract. Charlotte's band needs serious help, so Will takes the band under his wing as manager, and uses his vast knowledge of music to make them into a group that actually stands a chance. He also starts to get close to both girls, though Sa5m warns him not to get too close to Charlotte, as she was the most popular girl in school before she changed her ways and became a semi-outcast. Charlotte is haunted by her "mean girl" past by the presence of her ex-boyfriend (Scott Porter), who doesn't like her hanging around with Will, and decides to dig into Will's past before he came to their school. This decision actually brings about a moment I liked. Usually in these teen movies, the villain has his friends dig up information on the unpopular kid, like they're his henchmen or something. But when he tells his friends to dig up info on Will, they refuse and walk away. They even tell him "we're not your henchmen". I wish the movie had more moments like this, as most of the plot follows direct conventions. Will has a falling out with both Sa5m and Charlotte (He stands up Sa5m on a movie date, and Charlotte's secret past tears them apart at one point), there are reconciliations, and of course, the whole movie climaxes with the big music tournament, where the kids are forced to come up with a new routine and song in less than 5 minutes, because a rival band stole their song. Of course, they pull off this new routine flawlessly. At least the outcome of the tournament is unexpected.

picWhile Bandslam itself is nothing special, there are a lot of little moments that caught my attention. I liked the scene where Will and Charlotte visit the ruins of CBGB, a defunct New York music club that has a lot of history with bands such as The Ramones and Patti Smith. The dialogue here where the characters talk about the bands and their music sounds genuine. Most importantly, however, the music sounds really good. Whenever the kids perform with their band, they genuinely got me excited. There are some great song selections here, both for the band to sing and on the film's soundtrack itself. The acting performances are also strong all around, especially the previously mentioned Hudgens and young Gaelen Connell as Will. He hasn't had many screen roles, but I'd like to see more of him. He has a sort of offbeat charm, which makes him perfect for the underdog role he's been given here. It's also nice to see that Lisa Kudrow has been given a decent role as his mother. In so many teen movies, the parents are written as clueless or comic morons. Kudrow gets to bring a lot of sympathy and even some intelligence to her character.
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There's a lot to recommend here, but I still can't give it my full support, because the movie drags on too much. It's nearly two hours long, and there's not enough here to support that length. I liked the performances and the music, but the characters never seemed to grab me the way I thought they should, and sometimes came across as underwritten. I think Bandslam needed another rewrite or two. Director and co-writer, Todd Graff, was almost on to something here.

See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at Amazon.com!

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