Reel Opinions


Friday, April 30, 2010

A Nightmare on Elm Street

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The update of A Nightmare on Elm Street did not do a lot for me. It's middling, it never really reaches the lows of being terrible, while at the same time never really being good, and while never dull, it fails to generate even the slightest bit of tension. It does manage to do one thing, for better or for worse. It makes Freddy Krueger (portrayed here by Jackie Earle Haley, stepping in for Robert Englund), quite arguably the most charismatic and interesting of the movie monsters who slashed and sliced their way through the 80s, into a rather boring and surprisingly generic creation.

picThere's certainly nothing to complain about Haley's performance. He tackles the role with enough gusto, even if he does basically seem to be giving the exact same performance he gave in Watchmen last year. The fault lies, as it often does, in the script itself. It doesn't seem to understand the nature of the film's villain. He's a twisted sort who enjoys messing with the minds of his victims, and takes enormous pleasure out of it. Evil as Freddy may be, you could never argue that the guy did not love his work. We don't sense that evil joy in this new Freddy. His one-liners are quite lame, the best he can come up with being pointing at one of his intended victims with his razor-sharp claws, and growling "Tag, you're it". But the worse offense the movie makes to the character is that Freddy is now a generic "boo" monster, who sits around waiting for his victims to fall asleep, then literally jumps out of nowhere while a loud noise blasts on the soundtrack. He does it over and over again to the point of tediousness. There's no originality in this Freddy. No sense that the guy is toying with the person he's stalking, no sense of patience or timing. He just shows up, kills, and waits to kill again.

picWe see some flashbacks of Freddy before he became a terribly charred dream demon. Back then, he was a groundskeeper who worked and lived at the local preschool. He was good with the kids, but then some of the kids started talking about how he was sexually abusing them. The parents got mad, decided to take the law into their own hands, and trapped him in a building, setting it on fire. Now Freddy is seeking revenge by invading the dreams of the kids who ratted him out, who are now all teens who go to the same school, and have no memories of the events that happened long ago. Why Freddy waited a good 10 years or so to kick his revenge plan into motion, the film fails to explain. Was he just biding his time, or was he procrastinating? The teens who begin to be threatened by the ghoulish Freddy include cute blonde Kris (Katie Fowles), her on and off-again boyfriend Jesse (Thomas Dekker), talented young artist Nancy (Rooney Mara), and her somewhat boyfriend Quentin (Kyle Gallner).

picBy the way, that's not a basic description of the four lead characters, that's literally all there is to their thinly written personalities. They are brought together when one of their fellow students (Kellan Lutz) dies mysteriously in a diner. Before he died, he was talking to Kris about strange nightmares that he was having. The kids quickly realize that they are all having the same dreams with the same demonic figure haunting them, and before long, the small group start getting picked off one-by-one, until there are only two left to uncover just what Freddy wants with them. The parents who took revenge on Freddy long ago show up, closely guarding their secret. They're played by actors like Connie Britton (from TV's Friday Night Lights) and Clancy Brown, but are given literally nothing to do but to look nervous when their kids start asking questions. It's about this point that we realize that the filmmakers have no intention of expanding upon the original 1984 film, or its ideas. This is just a quick cash grab for everyone involved.

picThere's a curious lack of imagination in this Elm Street update. The nightmare sequences are depressingly trivial and mundane, a far cry from the surreal images and special effects that graced the earlier films that probably had a smaller budget. Aside from a sequence where young Nancy enters her bedroom and finds it's snowing inside, there's no images that stand out. Most of the dream sequences take place in Freddy's world of pipes, steam, and fire, or the ruins of the old school where it all began. Director Samuel Bayer (a music video director making his feature debut) doesn't seem to grasp the concept of what made the original films stand out - There was a twisted wonder to Freddy's madness. He liked to mess with their heads, and got enormous pleasure out of seeing their reaction to the bizarre images and creatures he would haunt them with. He was so much more than the simple killing machine this movie makes him out to be.
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This is a standard movie all around for its type. The characters are thin, but the performances never really offend, and it seems to have been made with enough competence so we're not bored. We just never get involved, never feel any tension, and don't really feel anything in general except for a few moments where we jump in our seats. The movie plays out, fades from your mind the second the end credits start to roll, and when you step out of the theater, the past 95 minutes or so feel like a dream where you kept on wishing you were doing something else.

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Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Ghost Writer mini review

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I really wish I could do a full review of Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer, as this is definitely a deserving film that is worth your time. But, I've been busy this week, and so, a mini review will have to suffice.

This is a spellbinding thriller, with Ewan McGregor playing an unnamed author (the credits simply refer to him as "the Ghost") who is hired by a former British Prime Minster (Pierce Brosnan) to ghost write his autobiographical memoirs, after the previous writer mysteriously drowned and turned up dead. The mystery deepens as more characters are introduced, such as the wife of the Prime Minister (Olivia Williams) and his assistant/mistress (Kim Cattrall, a long way from Sex and the City here). The writer quickly finds himself in over his head as he discovers that the previous ghost writer had uncovered something in the Prime Minister's past that may uncover a long and tangled web of conspiracies.

This is a complex film that unravels slowly, but when it finally starts to hit, it hits hard. Wonderful performances all around (especially McGregor, who delivers one of his better performances here), and a mounting sense of dread that genuinely builds, rather than hitting us all at once. The Ghost Writer is a masterful film, one of the better ones of the year so far. It's suspenseful, exciting, sometimes funny, and should not be missed if the film's limited run makes it to your local theater.

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Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Back-Up Plan

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Sometimes you come across a bad movie where it at least seems like the cast were trying. And sometimes you come across a bad movie like The Back-Up Plan, where it seems like everyone up on the screen knew they were stuck in a turkey. This is a dead-in-the-water romantic comedy that gives us nothing to think about, nothing to laugh about, and nothing to look forward to except for the end credits.

picThe movie marks the first major starring role for Jennifer Lopez in five years. Most critics would make a snide comment right about now, something along the lines of "If this is the best project she could find, she should have waited another five years". But I will not stoop to this level, dear reader. The reason is because if you think about it, the quality of this film is not too far removed from some of the romantic comedies she made at the peak of her acting career, such as The Wedding Planner, Maid in Manhattan, and Monster-in-Law. So, despite her absence from acting, her ability to pick the most mediocre and bland material out there obviously has not changed. She plays Zoe here, a single woman who supposedly owns a pet store. I say supposedly, since we never see her actually do any work, and she only hangs out at the store to talk to two of her co-worker friends. The pet store also allows her to have a cute "reaction shot" dog, whom the filmmakers cut to so often for reaction shots from dialogue the actors say, you'd almost think the dog was giving a silent commentary on the film itself.

picAs the film opens, Zoe is desperate to have a baby. Since she can't find the right guy, she decides on artificial insemination. The same day she visits the doctor to get it done, she has a fateful run in with a handsome young man named Stan (Alex O'Loughlin), when they both try to hail the same taxi. In the grand tradition of bland sitcom level-writing, the two hate each at first, but it takes mere seconds for Stan to start to warm up to Alex, and begin following her around, asking for a date. Zoe eventually gives in, and the two begin a relationship that seems to be built on physical attraction and little else. It would be nice if screenwriter Kate Angelo gave these characters some personality, but the plot (such as it is) kicks in before that can happen. It seems that Zoe has become pregnant from the insemination, and she doesn't know how to tell Stan. She, perhaps unwisely, breaks the news after they have sex in a store room of cheese (long story). Now Stan doesn't know if he should stay and help her raise the baby or not. Some advice from a dad on a playground (Anthony Anderson) encourages him to stay with Zoe, and the two prepare for parenthood.

picObviously, a decent comedy could be made from this material, but The Back-Up Plan is so bland to the point that it literally evaporates right up there on screen. Characters, dialogue, and situations are set up, but they are performed so haphazardly, they go in one ear and out the other. I'm finding it hard to remember many specifics about the movie to write about. I do remember that it kept on setting up characters, making them out to be important, only to have them disappear without a trace. The dad on the playground who gives Stan advice pops up another scene or two after he's introduced, then is never seen again. Likewise, Zoe's two friends who work at the pet store show up enough early on that we think they're going to play some part in the plot, only to have them disappear completely until the end. She does have another best friend character (Michaela Watkins), and although she appears throughout, she doesn't really get to contribute anything of note.

picThe big overall problem is that nothing really happens during the entire running time. The movie keeps on setting up ideas that could work, such as a support group for single mothers, only to completely botch it up. The support group, in question, plays like something out of a bad sitcom, with a bunch of loony women that no one in their right mind would want to be around. I feel it's appropriate to mention right now that both screenwriter Angelo and director Alan Poul have all of their former experience working in television, and that this is their first feature film. That explains why the movie feels like an extended pilot for a sitcom that never got off the ground. This is an aimless and plotless movie that never goes anywhere, and forces us to endure adult characters who sometimes seem dumber than they should be.
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It all boils down to The Back-Up Plan being a total waste of time and energy. It doesn't even seem to care about its own destination, as we don't really get to see Zoe give birth to her twin children. Oops! I gave away the ending. But, honestly, did you expect this movie to end with a miscarriage or an abortion? The babies are born, misunderstandings between the lead lovers are solved, the music swells, and the movie ends. It ends almost two hours later than it should, but it ends.

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Friday, April 23, 2010

The Losers

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Based on a DC comic book series, The Losers gives us a lot of stuff we've already seen, and not enough of a reason to want to see them again. The plot is lifted straight out of The A-Team (which is getting it's own movie adaptation in just a couple months), the villain and his plot comes from James Bond, and the characters are stock. They just have to know how to point and shoot, and make a lot of sarcastic quips. At least the movie has the sense to not take itself seriously. But I wish it had more of a satirical edge, rather than just making everybody a one-liner spewing machine.

picIt's certainly a ridiculous movie. It's the kind of film where an armored vehicle supposedly carrying the villain can be making its way through busy highway traffic, until suddenly the heroes arrive in a helicopter with a giant magnet underneath it, and lift the truck straight up into the sky. This happens in broad daylight, in front of hundreds of people, and nobody comments on it. We don't even see it make the Evening News. You'd think somebody would have something to say about it. It's also a movie where the leader of the heroes, Colonel Clay (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) can bring a mysterious woman (Zoe Saldana) back to his hotel room, discovers he can't quite trust her (the accent she was using just seconds ago suddenly disappears), and engages in an elaborate martial arts battle with the woman that winds up setting the entire hotel room on fire. After pummeling each other and setting the room ablaze, the two discover they are on the same side, and casually walk out of the hotel, as police and fire trucks come screaming toward the burning building they just left.

picClay and his team of men (who are "The Losers" of the title) are a CIA team of black ops specialists at the beginning of the film. His team fills the usual requirements for rogue military heroes. There's the smart-mouthed Jensen (Chris Evans), the paranoid Roque (Idris Elba) who is always questioning Clay's orders, family man Pooch (Columbus Short) whose wife is expecting their first child soon, and the silent and deadly sniper Cougar (Oscar Jaenada). In the opening scene, they're preparing to hit the hideout of a drug lord in Bolivia, only to find out that there are children within being used as "drug mules". They disobey orders, and break into the hideout to rescue the children, only to see their efforts betrayed by a traitorous government official named Max (Jason Patric). Clay and The Losers are forced to go into hiding, but secretly vow to get revenge and return to their former lives in the U.S. That chance arrives when a woman named Aisha (Saldana) approaches them with the opportunity to get revenge on Max, and clear their names in the death of the children.

picThat's about as far as The Losers gets in the plot department, before it pretty much drops it, and turns into a series of wild, frantic, yet strangely pedestrian action sequences and narrow escapes. We get a few little bits of plot, most of which is not very developed. For example, the villain Max wants to get his hands on some kind of super weapon called a "sonic dematerializer" which, in a demonstration, can cause an entire island to implode and sink into the sea. It's an impressive sight, but it's also the last we see of it. We know he wants the weapon, but we don't know exactly what his plan is, or what his target is. It has something to do with high tech nuclear weapons called "snukes", and a lot of stolen money. It's not exactly clear, but it doesn't have to be. We just know he's evil. He's so evil, he kills his own henchmen numerous times with little thought. My favorite moment is the scene where a woman who is holding an umbrella over his head to protect him from the sun stumbles briefly, causing the sun to get in his eyes, so he turns around and shoots her in the head.

picWith its fast action and even faster comic quips (which flop more than hit), the filmmakers were obviously trying for an 80s action movie vibe, like the Lethal Weapon films. Unfortunately, the banter between the heroes is not very funny. Chris Evans gets a few laughs as the goofy Jensen (especially during a scene where he has to go undercover in an office building), but for the most part, the jokes and one-liners fall flat. When they're not trading comic barbs, they're usually shooting multiple bullets at hundreds of faceless goons, security guards, soldiers, and anyone else that tries to stand in their way of revenge. This is a very violent movie, and if it weren't for the fact that there's little actual blood displayed, this would probably earn a hard-R instead of a PG-13. The movie shows its comic book roots by having the heroes getting shot, knocked around, thrown through stuff, and outrunning fireballs, all without missing a beat or a sarcastic remark.

picYou know, I almost feel bad for not liking The Losers more than I did. It obviously wants to be a fun piece of action escapism, and it definitely tries. The cast has charisma, and there are a couple of stylistic sequences. The problem is that it's not enough. Everything feels generic and lifted from something else, almost as if the filmmakers were afraid to truly take flight with their own ideas. The action sequences use a lot of slow-mo and speed up effects which are supposed to get us excited, but only make us think of the numerous other movies that have action scenes just like this one. The characters are also sketchy, and barely rise above a single dimension. They get lost in the sound and fury of the movie itself, and never get a chance to be developed.
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This is particularly strange, since the ending obviously hints at a franchise and further adventures for the heroes. The movie intentionally leaves a lot of loose ends, and seems like one big set up. Unfortunately, the movie had done very little to raise my excitement, and did not make me particularly long to see more. With the still-flawed but much better Kick-Ass in theaters, there seems to be very little point in seeing this.

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Saturday, April 17, 2010

Death at a Funeral

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Taking direct inspiration from a 2007 British comedy with the same title, Death at a Funeral may just be the most pointless Hollywood remake since Gus Van Sant's infamous shot-for-shot update of Psycho. It slavishly follows the plot and gags of the original film, but still somehow manages to miss the point. The original had a sort of manic energy that this one lacks. It's leaden, it's overblown, and it's nowhere near as fun as it was the first time around.

picMaybe it's the director at the helm of the remake. The director is Neil LaBute, a playwright and filmmaker who was once known for edgy, independent dramas, but has in recent years been known for bombastic and silly ones, like the infamous remake of The Wicker Man and Lakeview Terrace. He certainly seems to be trying here, but his style of directing is all wrong for a farce such as this. It's not fast-paced enough, and is sluggish when it should be light and hilarious. He also has an annoying habit of having the actors constantly act silly, as if they know they're in a comedy. One of the joys of the original is that the characters seemed to be normal, everyday people who watched in horror as the situation spiraled out of control. Here, the cast includes names like Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, and Tracy Morgan. They're constantly mugging for the camera, giving exaggerated line readings and bugging their eyes, and always seem to be playing for the camera. This movie works better when the actors act like they're not in on the joke.

picA good example of how this remake misses the point of what made the original funny is the very first scene. Rock's character, Aaron, has the unenviable task of having to hold his father's funeral at their family home. The funeral home delivers the casket and opens it, only for Aaron to discover that it's not his dad inside. They have delivered the wrong casket, and lost his father somewhere. In the original film, it was funny because it was understated, and the character seemed justifiably horrified in a comic way. Here, Rock immediately goes into what seems to be an improvised stand-up routine, making cracks like "This isn't Burger King, you just can't mess up my order!" A person in such a situation would not be trying to think of clever things to say, so it sounds phony and artificial. It's a bad sign of things to come. In fact, Rock seems miscast as the character. He's constantly landing one-liners and comebacks, when he should be feeling like he's getting in over his head as the funeral service gets out of his control. The laughs should come from the situations, not from the actors constantly reminding us we're supposed to be laughing.

picThere are actually a lot of casting misfires here. Martin Lawrence plays Rock's brother, Ryan. He's a playboy and a published author, which is a source of constant irritation to Aaron, since he's working on a novel himself, but can't get it published. He's supposed to be cocky and arrogant, but Lawrence takes it a bit too far to the point that I hated his character whenever he walked on the screen. The relationship between the brothers is supposed to drive a lot of the plot, but because I didn't care for one and absolutely hated the other, I found it hard to care. Other examples of wasted casting include Luke Wilson (who is completely unfunny as a former suitor of a woman attending the funeral, and is trying to win her back), Keith David as the preacher, Loretta Devine as the grieving mother, and surprisingly Peter Dinklage, as a mysterious man who shows up at the funeral, and has a history with the deceased. I say surprisingly, since Dinklage played the exact same role in the original film, but doesn't get nearly as many laughs here.

picSome may complain that I'm comparing it too much to the original, and that I should view it as its own work. The problem is that the movie keeps on forcing those who have seen the 2007 film to compare it, as it's literally the same film we got last time, only not as good. This is most likely due to the fact that both versions share the same screenwriter. There have been a few cultural things added, since this version is set in L.A. instead of England, but otherwise it's basically 90 minutes of warmed-over cinematic leftovers. The one performance that does come close to capturing the madcap spirit of the original is from James Marsden, who plays the fiance of one of the attendees of the funeral. He gets the biggest laughs when his character takes some hallucinogen drugs (he mistakes them for Valium pills), and spends the entire funeral service high as a kite. It's an inspired bit of lunacy, but isn't enough to lift up this leaden retread.
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I'm still trying to figure out just who the audience is for a Death at a Funeral remake. The original didn't exactly win over many people, made around $8 million its entire theatrical run, and was quickly forgotten, except for those like myself who discovered it on DVD. Those who hated the original will hate this one as well, and those who are fond of it would be better off staying home and watching it. This is a pointless remake of a movie that, while funny, didn't need to be remade in the first place.

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Friday, April 16, 2010

Kick-Ass

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Looking back on Kick-Ass, I find that I am of two minds. On one side, the film is obviously energetic, well-acted, and certainly features a number of scenes I won't soon forget. The movie is also very funny at times. On the other side, this is also an extremely disjointed movie, featuring severe shifts in tone and style. All of the characters seem to have wandered in from a different movie, and they collide in a single film that is often entertaining, but also often seems confused as to what it is.

picLet's start by looking at the main character, Dave Lizewski (played by Aaron Johnson). Dave is an average teenager. He admits this up-front in his narration. There's nothing special about him. He's not even the "funny one" in the small group of friends he hangs out with at school. His two best friends, Marty (Clark Duke) and Todd (Evan Peters), and him hang out at the comic book store, and basically look and talk like they've wandered in from a Judd Apatow comedy. They have a sarcastic and smart view on comics, women, and sex that would make them seem right at home in Superbad or Knocked Up. Speaking of Superbad, Christopher Mintz-Plasse (who played "McLovin" in that film) hangs out at the comic book shop, too. He plays Chris, the wealthy and isolated son of the city's local crime boss, Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong). For all his money, Chris really just wants to have friends. Oh, and he also wants to take control of his father's criminal empire someday. As for Dave, he asks a simple but life-changing question to Marty and Todd - "What would happen if someone actually tried to be a superhero"?

picIt's an honest question, if you think about it. Dave figures someone doesn't need powers to be a superhero. Just the right training, the right costume, and the desire to want to help people in need. Dave needs something in his life. His home life is boring, and his school life is worse, since he's constantly ignored by the girl he's long had a crush on, Katie Deauxma (Lyndsey Fonseca). His crazy idea of attempting to be a real-life crime fighter just might be the thing he needs to add a little excitement in his life. He orders a costume off the internet, modifies it a little, and takes up the name of "Kick-Ass". His first attempt at superheroics does not end up well. He tries to stop some carjackers, and ends up getting stabbed in the stomach and run over by a car. His second attempt to stop a crime he witnesses goes a little bit better, and manages to be captured by someone's camera phone. The person puts the video on Youtube, and "Kick-Ass" becomes an internet sensation. I kind of liked this aspect of the film, and how it viewed how the media would become attached to this costumed hero. Even if he wasn't that good at his job, the fact that he's actually out there sparks people's interest. It even grabs Katie's attention, though not in the way Dave probably hoped.

picUp to this point, Kick-Ass has played as a sort of R-rated rift on Sam Raimi's original Spider-Man film. But there are two other characters that the movie keeps on cutting to once in a while who will soon play large roles in the plot, and bring about a change in tone. They are the father and daughter duo of Damon (Nicolas Cage) and Mindy (Chloe Grace Moretz). Over the past few years, Damon has been training his young daughter (who has just turned 11) to be the perfect killing machine. She's been trained in just about every weapon and martial art known to man, and on her birthday, he surprises her with a pair of deadly knives. The apartment they share is also filled with just about every automatic weapon you can think of lining the walls. All of this is in preparation for Damon's big plan. He has a personal score to settle with the crime boss, Frank D'Amico, and plans to start a war against the entire crime family. They too both don superhero personas, he dressing up as a Batman-wannabe called "Big Daddy", and she as his pint-sized assassin sidekick "Hit Girl", whose outfit conceals various hidden weapons. Their style of seeking justice is very different from Kick-Ass. They don't seek glory or attention. They prefer to just swoop in, take the criminals off guard, and murder them mercilessly before anyone knows what happened. The scenes of violence in the film are indeed brutal, and may catch some off guard. How you react to the sight of a young child slicing up a room full of men will play a big part in your enjoyment of this movie.

picAs for me, I was not offended, but I did become a little confused. With the arrival of Big Daddy and Hit Girl, the movie loses its sarcastic and smart tone, and seems to try to be aiming for a more Quentin Tarantino vibe of combining off the wall humor with graphic, sometimes horrifying violence. And yet, the movie seems to want things both ways. Whenever the movie is focused on Dave/Kick-Ass and his friends, the movie goes back to its Apatow feel. This results in a something that feels like it's being pulled in two different directions. While I never lost interest, I did grow tired of the movie's constant tonal shifts whenever a character walked on the screen. Director and co-writer Matthew Vaughn (Stardust) never quite finds a balance between the film's two extremes. This leads to an uneven final product that has a lot of great individual moments, but never quite came together as a whole for me.

picAm I saying that this is a bad movie or that you should not see it? Not at all. Like I said, the film is often very funny. And there are a lot of great moments or individual scenes. But there are too many problems on display for me to fully recommend it. One big drawback is the character of Kick-Ass himself. He's not that interesting the way he's portrayed here, nor does he have much of a personality, either in or out of costume. In fact, it's the duo of Big Daddy and Hit Girl who do most of the major action for a majority of the film. Yes, Kick-Ass takes his place in the third act, and finally gets to live up to his name, but before then, I was finding it a little hard to get excited about anything that concerned him. The movie also could have been trimmed by about 15 or 20 minutes with no sacrifice. There's a long middle section that sort of drags, and doesn't introduce that much that we haven't seen before. I never lost interest, but it did sometimes feel like the movie was spinning its wheels or padding for time.
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The ending hints at a lot of possibilities for a sequel, and I hope it gets a chance to exploit them. I would love to see the characters taken further and meet their full potential. As a stand-alone film, Kick-Ass is a flawed, but interesting start to a potential franchise. There's a lot that's done right here, and there's a lot of room for improvement. A sequel can take advantage of that. Let's hope they get a chance to do it, and let's hope they don't waste the opportunity.

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Saturday, April 10, 2010

Date Night

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I'll admit up front that I was not really looking forward to Date Night, even though it featured two very talented comic actors in the leads. The movie looked like a perfect opportunity to waste their talents in a standard and predictable premise that would undermine their comic timing, and run them through a string of action comedy cliches. I grew more disheartened when I discovered the director was Shawn Levy, a filmmaker who has not exactly been a mark of quality in the past. (His past efforts include the Cheaper by the Dozen and Pink Panther remakes, and the Night at the Museum films). Add all this to the fact that recent action comedies like The Bounty Hunter and Cop Out had been bad experiences, and you can understand if I wasn't exactly walking into the theater with a spring in my step.

picWell, I must say, I love it when a film surprises me. Date Night is everything those previously mentioned misfires are not. It's smart, it's energetic, it's creative with its action sequences (there's an elaborate and very funny car chase sequence that made me laugh harder than any other movie so far this year), and at only 88 minutes, it's breezy and quick enough to be a fun time. Most of all, it knows how to use its lead actors, Steve Carell and Tina Fey. Not only are they both funny here, and get many chances to show off their gift for improv dialogue, but we can believe that they are a loving but bored married couple looking for a night out in the city. They have a very natural chemistry, and act like they've been together for years. The movie is also smart to make them real characters that we can get behind. They're not just funny, they're sympathetic. Plus, no matter how crazy the situations that the movie puts them into get, they never lose sight of their characters, or start doing things that we couldn't believe their characters would do in the present situation.

picCarell and Fey play Phil and Claire Foster. They're an ordinary couple whose lives revolve around their kids and their careers. A usual night out for them is going to the local steak house, and amusing themselves by guessing what other couples seated at the tables around them are thinking, or going to a book club event at a neighbor's house. One night, Phil decides they should do something different. They drive into Manhattan, and try to get a table at a trendy seafood restaurant called Claw. The scenes depicting this modern, ultra-trendy, and snobby restaurant are so dead-on perfect, it would be considered a parody if it wasn't so true and realistic in every regard. Phil and Claire arrive with no reservation, so naturally, the place is packed and they have to wait at the bar. Phil becomes worried that their special night is going to be a bust, so you can't really blame him for what he does next. A waitress is calling for a party of two called the "Tripplehorns". The mysterious couple are obviously a no-show, so Phil seizes the opportunity, and calls out that his wife and him are the Tripplehorns. They get a table, and the night can finally begin.

picNot long after they are seated, two men approach their table. This brings the "mistaken identity" element that all screwball action comedies of this sort must contain. The men (played by Jimmi Simpson and rap artist Common) are dirty cops working for a New York crime boss (Ray Liota, hamming it up as usual). Apparently, the real Tripplehorns have stolen a flash drive with incriminating evidence, and the men want it back. Phil and Claire obviously have no clue what's going on, but get dragged into an elaborate crime plot of blackmail and shady elected officials with dirty secrets. The movie gives us the expected string of chase scenes, shootouts, and sequences where Phil and Claire will have to do things they never dreamed, like breaking into an archive office in order to get information on a person. But, it's all done with a lot more wit, energy, and intelligence than the norm. Part of the credit goes to the screenplay by Josh Klausner (Shrek the Third). Even more credit is due, I think, to Carell and Fey, who obviously are having a blast playing off of each other, and improvising a lot of their lines.

picThey carry a lot of the film effortlessly, but fortunately, the movie provides them with a lot of strong support. Mark Wahlberg shows up as a hi-tech computer expert/playboy who refuses to wear a shirt, James Franco and Mila Kunis have a memorable scene as the real Tripplehorns, and get a lot of laughs, and the talented Taraji P. Henson is a police detective who finds it suspicious that this suburban couple from New Jersey keep on getting involved in all these crime scenes. Other strong names in the cast include Mark Ruffalo and Kristen Wiig, who both get small roles. Like the lead actors, the movie is smart enough to use the talents of its cast, and doesn't waste them. I also admired how no one in the movie seems to be playing dumb. Everyone here is at least of average intelligence, and dragged in over their heads by a series of events that happen in a single night. Even the villains are depicted as serious threats, instead of the bungling comic buffoons we sometimes get in these movies.
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Date Night gets a lot of things right that similar movies just don't seem to understand. The characters are likable and drive the plot, not the stunts and special effects. The movie also finds humor in its dialogue, not with people getting hit with stuff. (There is a running gag about Fey's character always running into open drawers, but it's a small one.) That it can avoid these dangerous pitfalls is admirable enough. The fact that it's actually engaging and we find ourselves caring about the characters is even more so. This is not a great movie, but in its own way, it's a small miracle that it turned out as well as it did, considering everything that could have gone wrong.

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Saturday, April 03, 2010

Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married Too?

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There's a strange disconnect between the movie Why Did I Get Married Too? (a sequel to Tyler Perry's 2007 hit film) thinks it is, and the movie it actually is. It seems to think it's a wise, eye-opening film about love and relationships. In reality, it's an overblown, crude, live action cartoon that shoots itself in the foot so many times, you start to think that Perry (who not only produced, wrote, and directed the film, but stars in it as well) was attempting to sabotage his own movie.

picTo be fair, the movie starts out being tolerable enough. It's not great or even good by any stretch of the imagination, but the first 45 minutes or so don't offend. These moments concern four different married couples (all of them best friends with each other) who go on a yearly couples getaway vacation. We learn early on that all of them have their own problems that they bring with them. Patricia (Janet Jackson) is a self-help author who seems to have a perfect relationship with her husband, Gavin (Malik Yoba). However, telltale signs of heated arguments behind closed doors hint at something else. Sheila (Jill Scott) is recovering from a bad relationship with her abusive ex, and hopes for a fresh start with her new husband, Troy (Lamman Rucker), who is struggling with unemployment. Things become awkward when her ex-husband, Mike (Richard T. Jones), shows up at the resort uninvited. Meanwhile, Diane (Sharon Leaf) and her husband Terry (Tyler Perry) seem to be happy, but Terry suspects his wife is unfaithful. Angela (Tasha Smith) thinks that her husband Marcus (Michael Jai White) is unfaithful too, and goes to extremes to try to get him to fess up, and give her access to his cellphone, so she can check all his calls and messages.

picThe character of Angela is the first big misstep the movie makes. She's loud, she's crass, and she's annoying to the point that we don't only wonder why Marcus stays with her, but we wonder what he sees in her in the first place. He mentions that the sex is good, but no sex, no matter how good, is worth the constant humiliation that Angela puts him through. She embarrasses him publicly every chance she gets, refuses to believe a word he says, and even goes so far as to humiliate him at his own job, where he works as an anchorman for a local sports talk TV show. When she suspects him of cheating on her, she barges in on his TV show while it's being filmed live, and chews him out. The scene is supposed to be played for laughs, but Tasha Smith is so shrill and abrasive, she made my skin crawl. Why does she think he's cheating? Because the elderly snoop who lives next door to them claims to have heard sexual sounds coming from their bedroom in the afternoon when no one's supposed to be home. Angela comes home one afternoon, hears someone making love upstairs, and grabs a loaded pistol from a closet door. She bursts into the room, fires multiple rounds into the wall and floor while she screams at her husband, only to find not Marcus in bed, but their hired gardener and his girlfriend.

picThis is the kind of stuff that holds Why Did I Get Married Too back from being the movie it wants to be. It keeps on throwing scenes so contrived and unnatural at us, it reaches the point where we can't even picture these characters as being rational human beings anymore. I don't care how angry or how certain Angela is that her husband is cheating, there is no logical explanation for her to just start shooting blindly at whoever is in their bed. When she discovers it's not her husband in bed, she doesn't seem to care, and even chases the two lovers out of her house, shooting at them the entire time. I was waiting for the scene where Marcus comes home, sees his bedroom and hallway riddled with bullet holes, and asks what happened. It never comes. Oh, he does come home, but the gunfire is never mentioned, and the two apologize and make up. It's supposed to be a happy ending for the two, but all I could think about was the safety of the two children she shares with her husband, given her violent and extreme mood swings that she constantly displays.

picThe other couples and their problems are not handled much better. In fact, the movie becomes increasingly silly to the point that we want to cry Uncle. Almost every conversation in the movie becomes a high-pitched shouting match at some point, showing that Perry has no confidence in his own material. He doesn't let his couples work things out like intelligent individuals. They scream, they smash and break stuff, they throw tantrums, and they don't get to exhibit anything that could be considered a genuine human emotion. Subtlety has never been a strong suit of Tyler Perry's past films, but here, he goes for broke and comes up empty handed. There's not a single moment here that's not contrived, manipulated to a ludicrous degree, or hollow. There's also a total lack of a dramatic arc, with Perry's screenplay throwing in crises and plot developments seemingly at random.
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Is there anything here worth recommending? Well, the surprise cameo during the last 10 seconds is kind of fun, but you have to sit through an absolutely awful climax to get there. It's not worth it, overall. In fact, nothing about this movie is worth the trouble of the cast or the crew. This movie ends up being a giant waste of time for everyone involved, and the audience watching it.

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Friday, April 02, 2010

Clash of the Titans

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If ever there was a movie that needed a big shot of silly spectacle to make it work, it's this one. Oh, it has its moments. I smiled when the giant scorpions rose up from the ground, and started attacking our heroes like rejects from a 1950s horror film. I also reveled in the sight of seeing actors like Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes hamming it up as Greek Gods, and bellowing lines like "Release the Kraken!" with theatrical flair. Clash of the Titans needed more of this. In its current form, it's too leaden and underdeveloped to truly indulge in its own silliness.

picThe film itself is a loose remake of a 1981 film that probably seemed cheesy and outdated even when it came out, but has gone on to become a cult classic. The new movie stays fairly faithful to the ideals of the original. It's a big, dumb take on Greek Mythology with lots of monsters, special effects, and questionable acting. The movie's obviously been given a new coat of paint, thanks to the CG special effects, which do an admirable job of bringing the various monsters and creatures to life. While Ray Harryhausen's stop motion effects in the original have their charm, I dare anyone not to say there was room for improvement, which this movie provides. It also gives us something I don't think anyone needed - unnecessary 3D. In an attempt to cash in on the recent trend, Warner Bros. performed a very quick transition to take advantage of 3D technology at the last minute, and it shows. It's distracting, it makes the visuals muddy and dark, and it adds absolutely nothing whatsoever to the film itself. If the viewer has a choice, I say go with the 2D version. You'll save money, get a better picture, and won't have to wear those glasses for the entire movie.

picThe plot, obviously, is utter nonsense, which makes it mysterious as to why the movie spends so much time setting it up. It's set in a time of man and Ancient Gods, and as the film opens, man is starting to get tired of the treatment from the Gods on Mount Olympus. The Gods seem to take whatever they want, bring disaster and famine, and still expect the people to worship them. There are cries of rebellion amongst the people, and now the head God Zeus (Neeson) is starting to grow restless. His brother Hades (Fiennes) offers a suggestion - He goes down to the city of Argos (where the Queen recently made the blasphemous comment that her daughter, Andromeda, is more beautiful than any of the Gods), and tells them that unless Andromeda (Alexa Davalos) is sacrificed, the Gods will unleash their most terrible beast, the Kraken, upon them. The King of Argos sends a small band of warriors on a journey to find a way to defeat the Kraken. Amongst those men is Perseus (Sam Worthington), a Demigod who just happens to be the son of Zeus, and holds a personal grudge against Hades after he killed his adopted human father (Pete Posthelthwaite).

picClash of the Titans wastes little time on things like character and plot development. We learn how Perseus came to be - How Zeus disguised himself as a mortal, and had sex with a mortal woman. We don't really learn why he did this, it just shows it happening in a flashback. We learn what happened to the woman who gave birth to Perseus, and what ultimately happened to her husband (who became enraged with Zeus, and tried to kill his wife and son as a result), but none of it makes much sense. This is a movie that likes to give us just the bare details, then move on. No problem. I'm fine with that, as long as the spectacle's there. There are some nice effects-driven scenes, such as the previously mentioned scorpion battle, and the sequence where Perseus tames the winged horse, Pegasus. But all too often, the movie meanders, focusing on lifeless dialogue between the heroes. Not one of the characters reaches a second dimension in terms of development, so it's kind of hard to pull for them to see it to the end of the journey.

picWe see potential everywhere. When Perseus and his soldiers venture to the Underworld to track down Medusa, the movie actually manages to build some short-lived tension. It gives you the feeling of the kind of spectacle this movie could have been. Everything about the movie keeps on selling itself short, though. The characters are bone dry, as are the things they talk about. Maybe this is why most of the cast (especially Worthington) appear to be phoning it in here. Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes at least seem to be enjoying themselves, and know just how much to ham it up and when to pull back, but they're not utilized enough. In fact, even though Hades is treated as the overall villain (he's secretly plotting against Zeus to gain control of Olympus), he never comes across as a real threat. A big part of this has to do with how little he has to do here, and how quickly he's written out of the film in a highly anticlimactic "final battle".
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In fact, the entire final 10 minutes of Clash of the Titans feels extremely rushed and choppy. Yeah, the Kraken looks great when it's finally revealed, but it's not enough to cover up the overall feeling that the filmmakers are racing to tie up every loose end as quickly as possible. Is this a terrible movie? Far from it. In fact, in some ways, it's an improvement on the original. (Not saying much, I know.) But at the same time, this should have been a lot more fun than it is.

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