Reel Opinions


Saturday, November 27, 2010

Faster

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Silly me. With a title like Faster, and with Dwayne Johnson taking his first action role in a while after a long stint with unsuccessful family films, I expected a silly and adrenalin-fueled good time. Instead, Faster turns out to be a depressing, plodding, ugly, vile little movie that's just painful to watch. This is a movie that's message seems to be "revenge doesn't solve anything, but it's a good way to kill 100 minutes as long as there's a big enough body count".

picThe movie dispenses with pointless things like names for its characters, and instead refers to its main characters by titles. First we meet "Driver" (Johnson), a getaway driver just out of jail after a 10-year stint, and eager to kill the people who put him there in the first place, as well as killed his brother. He wastes no time. As soon as he's released from prison, he goes running along a long stretch of desert road like a badass Forrest Gump, and makes his way to an abandoned junkyard, where he still has his car, gun, and vital information on how to find the people who wronged him waiting for him after all this time. Before the movie's hit the 10 minute mark, he's forced his way into an office building, and murdered a telemarketer in front of everyone - the first person on his hit list.

picThe murder (the first of many) is brought to the attention of "Cop" (Billy Bob Thornton), a strung out detective with a drug problem, an angry wife threatening divorce who recently kicked him out, and a partner on the case (Carla Gugino), who is not happy to be paired up with him. The Cop also has a secret and personal connection with the Driver, which anyone who is half-awake while watching this movie should be able to figure out in 10 seconds. Finally, we have "Killer" (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), an internet billionaire and thrillseeker who does hit man jobs on the side for fun. He's been hired to go after the Driver, but finds it hard to concentrate on his work having recently been married to his long-time love (Maggie Grace), who wants him to quit killing people and start a family with her.

picOf the main characters, "Killer" should have been the first to go in a much-needed rewrite, as his plot never really seems to go anywhere, nor does it hold much weight with what's going on. But, at least he's in good company, as very little in Faster holds any weight. This is a grim little movie that's only concerned with building a body count for most of its running time, only to have a tacked on message about forgiveness near the end, only to climax with more murdering. Now, I'm not a prude. I can enjoy a violent movie as long as I find it done well. (See my review of Machete for proof of that.) But Faster is just repetitive and dull. I never felt excited, the action sequences are tame for the most part, and a lot of the movie just made me feel uncomfortable. (Did we really need the scene where an old man tries to drug and rape a teenage girl before the Driver shows up and shoots him in the head?)

picWhat's perhaps most bizarre is why anyone thought this would be a good action role for Dwayne Johnson. He is a charismatic, charming actor, but he doesn't get to show it here. He has little dialogue throughout the entire film. Most of his scenes simply require him to look pissed off before he kills someone. Anyone with the right build could play this part, and the role does not play up to his strengths in the slightest. As for Billy Bob Thornton, he has the appearance of a homeless man who somehow got his hands on a police badge, and started hanging out at the station. If this movie were animated, there would be flies buzzing around his head, and a cloud of dust following him everywhere he goes.
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Both Johnson and Thornton are talented, and deserve better than this. I'm sure they saw this film as a simple pay day in their respective careers. Now it's time for the audience to pay as they sit through the movie, wondering why someone would want to make a movie like this in the first place.

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Friday, November 26, 2010

Burlesque

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What we have with Burlesque is a movie that cries out to be R-rated. With a title like this, it should be a sleazy, dopey, thrill. Instead, it's a neat and tidy little movie where everyone's really very nice (even the bad girl's not all that bad), there's absolutely no sex, and the world is a pretty cheerful little place where dreams come true everyday, and if you ever become homeless, that nice hunky guy who works at the burlesque bar (who is not gay, despite the fact he wears eyeliner on the job) will let you live in his apartment, and even let you sleep on his bed, while he takes the couch, because that's just the kind of guy he is.

picInstead of the fun, raunchy movie we should have, we get a sanitized movie musical that's built as a vanity project for its star, Christina Aguilera. Much of the film's screen time is devoted to her singing one elaborate Broadway-style musical number after another, while the rest of the cast stand in the dark shadows, smiling, and nodding with approval. Aguilera plays Ali, a girl who gets tired of working at a dead end bar in a small dead end town as the film opens, and decides to take every bit of money she has to catch a bus to L.A. While hunting for various acting and singing jobs around town, Ali comes across a Burlesque club run by the lovely Tess (Cher, in her first acting role since 2003's Stuck on You). Ali is immediately smitten by the place, and the stage act, and wants to be a part of it. But Tess has too many financial problems on her mind. She's in danger of losing her club, and doesn't have time to pay much attention to this small town girl with big dreams. So, Ali decides to pose as a waitress, and starts working there undercover, studying the moves of the dancers up on stage every chance she gets.

picAli does not have to wait long for her big break. A hole in the line up needs to be filled when one of the girls gets pregnant. Ali auditions, and gets the job. Not long after that, the "bad girl" of the club, Nikki (Kristen Bell) shows up drunk, and Tess gives Ali her big number for the night. This proves to everyone that Ali has a powerful voice, and can bring the house down. It's also the first of many, many scenes that the movie devotes to nothing but Aguilera singing on the stage, while everyone else looks with approval. Ali becomes a singing star, and everyone else who works at the club pretty much gets shoved in the background, except for Tess and her gay best friend and business partner (Stanley Tucci). They have the money problems to deal with. There's also a love triangle for Ali to get involved in, as she finds herself torn between the kind and handsome bartender at the club (Cam Gigandet), and a millionaire who can offer her anything (Eric Dane).

picThe problem with Burlesque should be obvious, and no, it's not that the plot is made up completely of off the shelf cliches. The movie just doesn't have its mind in the gutter like it should. It's not sexy, it's not risky, and it's about as sharp and edgy as a butter knife. With its overblown, yet sanitized pop musical numbers (none of which are all that memorable), the movie starts to resemble 2001's Moulin Rouge, if it had been made for the "tween" Disney crowd. None of the characters get to have any real personality, though Tucci probably comes across as the most likable, since he at least gets to throw in a few humorous asides into his dialogue. Ali is a boring heroine to start with. She starts out as a small town girl with big dreams, but as soon as she becomes a star, the movie forgets that she's a character, and mainly just gives her one number to perform after another.

picRegrettably, that's all the movie is - a showcase for Aguilera. We're denied the primal trashy pleasures that the film's title promise because of its star. Writer-director Steven Antin can't even hit the right notes when it comes to rivalry within the club. There's a subplot where Ali's sudden popularity upsets the former star of the show. We sit and wait for there to be some kind of standoff between the two women, but it never comes. They just exchange a few glances at each other backstage, and that's it. The former star gets fired by Tess, then comes back in the final scene and apologizes to everyone, getting her job back. Where's the tension? Where's the backstabbing? Where's the catty remarks we expect? How can a movie called Burlesque not understand that these elements are essential to such a character?
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Will this movie have fans? Undoubtedly. In fact, I can expect it becoming a cult classic both with Aguilera and Cher fans, as well as bad movie lovers. I guess I just wanted more from my trashy entertainment. This is a movie that whistles a happy tune, when it should have been doing a dangerous dance of seduction.

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Thursday, November 25, 2010

Love & Other Drugs

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Edward Zwick's Love & Other Drugs is a movie constantly struggling with itself. It struggles to find the right tone, the direction it wants to go, the message it wants to convey, even what sort of movie it wants to be. It careens wildly from one idea to the next. And when it hits upon a good idea and we start getting comfortable, it switches gears on us again. It's frustrating, and the movie as a whole doesn't really work. But, there is some good stuff to be found amongst the confusion of the screenplay.

picThe stuff that works is when the two leads, Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway, get to be smart adults in a genuine sexual relationship. When they're lying in bed, or just talking to each other, the movie works, because they come across as real, interesting people. It also helps that Gyllenhaal and Hathaway have great chemistry, and make an attractive screen couple. It makes us wish that the movie could have just been about their relationship, but Zwick and his co-writers, Charles Randolph and Marshall Herskovitz, just can't leave it at that. They also want their movie to be a satire on pharmaceutical drugs, a raunchy sex farce, a Judd Apatow-style buddy comedy, a thought-provoking drama on Parkinson's Disease, and a melodramatic "love conquers all" tearjerker.

picI guess I should commend the film for combining all these drastically different elements, and at least staying afloat. The movie's never boring, the lead performances are great, and there are a number of dramatic scenes that stand out. The problem is those dramatic scenes don't belong in a movie like this. Allow me to explain. As the film opens, we meet Jamie Randall (Gyllenhaal), a smooth womanizer who uses his charm with the ladies to have sex on a regular basis at his job as an electronics salesman. He gets fired for having sex with the boss' girlfriend while on the job, and quickly finds employment working as a pharmaceutical salesman. Jamie struggles for a while, trying to sell Zoloft, but then Viagra is invented, and suddenly, he's in demand, both on the job and in the bedrooms of various doctors' receptionists that he works with on the job.

picThis first hour or so has the feel of an adult sex comedy, maybe something Judd Apatow or the Farrelly Brothers would dream up. In fact, Jamie has a roommate who would be right at home in one of those movies - His younger brother Josh (Josh Gad), a sex-starved little dweeb who talks and acts like he models his life after past Jonah Hill performances. But then Jamie has a chance meeting with a beautiful young woman named Maggie (Hathaway). She's a free spirit, an artist, intelligent, and sympathetic. Best of all, she likes to have non-commitment sex. Jamie is obviously fine with this, but then he starts actually liking her for who she is, and actually wants to date her. There's a problem, naturally. The reason why Maggie does not want to have a real relationship is because she's in the early stages of Parkinson's Disease, and knows she will only get worse over time.

picThere are the tell tale signs (he hands shake a little every now and then), and when the disease starts getting worse, she pushes Jamie away. This is when Love & Other Drugs starts to overachieve. It wants to be a thoughtful drama that asks can a couple stay together despite the hardships of the disease, while still making time for rowdy, raunchy roommates and penis jokes. I wanted the movie to go back to when Jamie and Maggie were just a simple, intelligent couple having a healthy sexual relationship. When the disease takes over their storyline, Maggie goes from an interesting character, to a walking plot device. It's a credit to Hathaway that her performance is as good as ever during these moments, but the script is no longer interested in her as a person. It's too bad, because I would have preferred a movie just with them being a couple, rather than the whole melodramatic disease plot recycled out of Love Story.

picAnd yet, even then, the movie finds some moments of truth. There's a great scene where Jamie comes across another man married to a woman dealing with an advanced stage of Parkinson's. He talks about the daily hardships they both face as a couple, and regretfully admits that although he loves his wife, he would probably leave before the disease got so bad if he had to do it over again. The movie needed more moments like this. More truth, rather than melodrama uncomfortably merged with gross out jokes. Ultimately, this is a movie that lacks focus. It's very good in parts, but the movie itself just never gets a grasp of what it is, and who it's speaking to. With a more certain approach, this could have been something.
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And yet, this is not a bad movie. Just a confused one that never finds the right tone. At the very least, it made me want to see Gyllenhaal and Hathaway on screen together again. They're great here, and manage to hold our attention even when the script is sinking in its own confusion. Edward Zwick is a strong filmmaker, and certainly will be strong again. Here, he misses the mark due to his own uncertainty about the material.

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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Tangled

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The Disney Studio, once the undisputed king of the animated film, has in recent years fallen to the wayside to their own Pixar studio, and even Dreamworks, which has been stepping up their game in recent months. Recent in-house attempts to climb back to the top, like the forgettable Chicken Little and the mediocre Meet the Robinsons, did little to change things. And while films like Bolt and last year's The Princess and the Frog were sweet, they were too minor to make much of an impact. Tangled (which is the studio's 50th animated feature) is therefore their chance to prove they still have what it takes. Fortunately for them (and us, the audience) Tangled is the best in-house Disney film in decades.

picYes, I would go so far as to compare this film to some of the studio's modern classics like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. And yes, I'm just as surprised as you. With its modern CG animation, and ad campaign that emphasizes pop music and one liners, I was expecting a fun, but mostly frivolous film. But, this is a classic Disney fairy tale with all the humor, charm, likable characters, catchy musical numbers, and a tiny bit of a dark edge, just to keep things exciting. (Parents should not worry about the PG-rating when it comes to small kids, though. Aside from a tiny bit of blood on display near the end, this movie's as clean as they come.) In a way, Tangled is a perfect blend of modern animation technology (this is an absolutely stunning film to look at) and strong, traditional storytelling. Directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard (Bolt), along with screenwriter Dan Fogelman (Fred Claus) have basically taken the classic story of Rapunzel, made it smart and current enough to appeal to today's kids, and blended it into something truly special.

picFor everything the filmmakers have done right, however, the studio has made one very big boneheaded decision, which is to release the film in 3D. I have spoken out quite frankly about recent 3D technology in past reviews, and how I view it as probably the biggest scam in cinema so far this century. And as long as a majority of studios view it strictly as a cash grab opportunity to clean a few extra dollars out of the pockets of the audience, that's how it will remain. Watching Tangled in 3D is a serious crime. The dark glasses rob the film of almost all of its color and splendor. And this is a vibrant, beautiful movie. I found myself lowering the glasses from my eyes, so I could take in the color the way it was meant to be seen. With the glasses on, it's like watching the film through a dirty window. Everything's muted and dull. To make matters worse, aside from a scene late in the film concerning hundreds of paper lanterns being lifted into the sky, very little of the movie takes advantage of 3D. So, basically, you're paying a few dollars extra for muddy picture quality, and a lesser experience all around. Do yourself a favor and track down the 2D screening in your town, if you can find one.

picBut let's put that ugliness aside, and talk about the film itself. The plot concerns an evil witch named Mother Gothel (voice by Donna Murphy), who keeps herself eternally young with the aid of a magic flower with life-restoring powers. One day, the flower is picked by some royal guards, who need its powers in order to save the life of an ailing queen who is about to give birth. The queen is restored, thanks to the flower's magic, and the daughter that she gives birth to somehow inherits its powers. The baby's golden hair holds the same restoring magic as the flower. The witch finds out about this, and promptly steals the child away, locking her away in a tower, and forcing her to keep her eternally young with her magic. The child grows up to be Rapunzel (a surprisingly wonderful voice performance by pop singer Mandy Moore), a spirited girl not aware of her own past, but with a strong desire to explore the world outside the tower.

picSo, since she has never set foot outside of her room, what is she to think when a dashing young thief named Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi) enters the tower, hoping to escape from the authorities? The movie gets some big laughs out of their initial meeting (she conks him on the head with a frying pan, then tries to hide his body when Gothel comes home), but we can see a glimmer of the relationship that will grow during the film. Rapunzel soon realizes that Flynn is no threat to her, and sees her opportunity - He will be her guide to explore the outside world, in exchange for his freedom and escape from the various guards, knights, and rival thieves pursuing him. Flynn reluctantly agrees, and the two go on a series of misadventures in the kingdom, as Rapunzel slowly puts together the pieces of her past, and they both develop romantic feelings for each other. As is the cardinal rule in these sort of films, there are animal sidekicks along for the ride. This time, there are two - A clever chameleon who is loyal to Rapunzel, and a very smart horse, who loses the knight riding him early on, but continues to chase after Flynn. These two do not talk at all, but still manage to be full of personality.

picSo yeah, we expect all that in a Disney fairy tale film, but Tangled is an example of how to do it better than the norm. The storytelling is clear and concise, free of filler and pointless characters. The musical numbers by Alan Menken (The Little Mermaid) and Glenn Slater are actually memorable, instead of slowing things down, and sometimes feature fast, funny lyrics that may take more than one hearing to get all the jokes and word play. But most of all, the two lead characters are memorable. Rapunzel is sweet, without being overbearing, and we delight along with her as she discovers her adventurous side. The self-mocking Flynn starts out a bit too jokey and sarcastic at first, but he gradually evolves into a hero we can get behind. This is a movie that forgoes temptation to throw in a lot of references and pop culture, and just tell a strong but simple story. Also of note is the film's villain, who is given a lot of controlling, jealous rage (and a showstopping tune or two) by Broadway's Donna Murphy.
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If anything, this movie does prove that the old Disney filmmaking ideas can merge successfully with modern CG animation, and create stunning results. This is such a beautiful and joyous little film, really a total delight in just about every way. Tangled is not only one of the biggest surprises of the year, but also one of 2010's great films, as well.

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Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Next Three Days

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One of the surprises of The Next Three Days (an American remake of the French film Anything For Her) is that it's a prison break movie where the lead character is an everyman who doesn't really know what he's doing. Usually in these type of movies, we get characters who are cool, calm, and can dream up and perform complex plans in their sleep. In this movie, we get a guy who has the right plan, but doesn't always know how to carry them out. He makes mistakes, and although he stays cool, he comes very close to getting caught.

picThat's why it's a shame that the lead character has to be played by someone like Russell Crowe. It's not that he's bad in the role, he just never quite comes across as an everyman pushed to his limits. He seems like someone who was pretending to be an everyman at the beginning, and as soon as the opportunity comes, he reveals his true self. It's the wrong choice for the character he plays, John Brennan. John is a bookish college professor. He's meek, he's a devoted family man to his wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks) and young son Luke (Ty Simpkins), and he's supposed to come across as the kind of guy who's never done anything risky or dangerous in his life. Crowe looks a little too rugged to be playing such a character. I don't really have anything bad to say about his performance, he just doesn't fit who he's playing.

picThe movie follows what drove John from being an average law-abiding father and husband, to someone who would be willing to risk everything on a dangerous gamble. That moment occurs early on, when the Brennan family is having breakfast, only to have the police suddenly rush in, and arrest Lara for murder of her boss at work. The next time we see her, it's a couple years later. The trial is over, Lara's been convicted, and is facing a long sentence. But John knows his wife is innocent, and when he runs out of appeals, he turns to the advice of someone who has broken out of many prisons in the past (Liam Neeson) as to how to stage the perfect prison break, and escape the country with his family to a place that does not have an extradition treaty with the U.S. government.

picWe witness the events of the murder through a flashback, and it's an exercise in plot convenience. First, we see how Lara and her boss had a very public and heated argument that a lot of their co-workers happened to see. Later that night, as the boss walked to her vehicle, she was attacked by a mugger, who beat her to death with a fire extinguisher, then took her money. As the mugger fled the parking garage, she happened to bump into Lara, who was entering, allowing the victim's blood to get on Lara's clothes without her knowing. Not only that, when Lara gets to her vehicle, she sees the murder weapon lying in front of her vehicle (but not the body), so she picks it up and moves it, allowing her prints to get on the weapon. Writer-director Paul Haggis has always been a sucker for coincidental plotting (see his screenplay for Crash), but as I was watching the events of that fateful night unfold, I started to ask myself if maybe he had taken things too far.

picNo matter, though. The Next Three Days works for the most part, because a majority of the film is devoted to John, and his amateur attempts at pulling off such a risky prison break. Much of the tension is created by his own slip ups, such as when he tries to get some fake IDs from some shady people in a bad area (which ends up very bad for him), or when he has a mishap trying out a custom made key that winds up almost blowing his cover. This element of the character adds some much needed tension, as the film is unusually low key for a thriller, before it hits the final 30 minute mark, and turns into a lengthy and well-executed race against time. His uneasiness with what he's doing also helps make the character easier to identify with. That's why Crowe is wrong for the role. Even when he makes mistakes, he slides into the role of the cunning criminal too easily.

picFor all it's problems, I'm recommending the film. It's entertaining, it kept me intrigued, and aside from Crowe, the rest of the performances fit. Banks is very effective and sympathetic here, as is Olivia Wilde (TV's House) as a woman who befriends John, but never quite seems sure of what to make of him. This is a minor film, but an interesting one. I would have liked if the movie had dug a little bit deeper into its own questions. John seems to come to the conclusion that his only chance for justice is to break his wife out of prison but, aside from a few scenes when he hesitates, we never really get a sense that he's questioning his own actions. He often seems a little too willing to bend the laws to fit his own purpose, and doesn't deal enough with the internal struggle such a situation would bring.
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There's a moment in the film where a cop warns John to think about how his son would feel if both of his parents were in prison. This is a good example of what I just said, as the film never really slows down and examines this statement. This is an entertaining little film, but if it cared enough to actually think about the questions it raises within the main character, it could have been so much more.

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Friday, November 19, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I

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David Yates' Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part I makes its intentions clear from the very beginning - We are leaving the safety of Hogwarts, and entering a very dark, cold, and unfeeling world. We get a sense of this right at the studio logo that opens the film. We see the familiar Warner Bros. shield as the opening notes of John Williams' theme plays (although it sounds slightly sadder and somber than we're used to), but as the logo flies closer to the camera, its surface begins to decay and rot into something darker and less familiar.

picThat kind of summarizes the film itself, as young heroes Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson), and Ron (Rupert Grint) find themselves exposed and out in the open for most of the film. The number of friends and allies they can turn to seem to be depleting by the second as the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) continues to grow in power and build his army. Harry and his friends are now seen as wanted enemies by the Ministry of Magic, and are forced to go into exile as they search out an ancient power that can save them. All of this, of course, is the build up to the ultimate confrontation to come. In fact, that's what Deathly Hallows Part I is - build up. Although it is never boring, those who are not completely steeped in Potter-lore might grow a little restless from time to time. The film acts almost as total fan service, re-introducing characters we haven't seen on the screen in seven or eight years, and expects you to be up to date on everything going on, even things that the books went in depth on, while the movie barely touches upon them.

picI'm not trying to scare anyone away from the film, as it's very well done. Just as a casual fan whose only experience to the Potter world has been the films as they've been released, I felt a little bit behind, as I tried to remind myself who a lot of these characters were, and when I last saw them. I never felt lost, though. This is a fairly low key adventure to begin with. Much of the film deals with how Harry and his friends deal with the fact they can't really trust anyone but each other anymore. With the death of the wise wizard Dumbledore, there are no more comforting adult figures to guide and protect the young heroes. They can't go back to the familiar halls of Hogwarts, and must constantly stay one step ahead of their pursuers. This is where much of the drama of the film sets in, as we see how the forced exile effects the heroes differently, both physically and emotionally.

picMuch of the conflict in the film is actually internal, which surprised me, given how action-heavy the first half hour or so is. After a harrowing chase through the skies and even the streets of London early on, the remainder of the film deals with Harry, Hermione, and Ron slowly piecing the clues together of what they're supposed to do to stop Voldemort. It begins to resemble a two and a half hour scavenger hunt, as the heroes visit one location after another, gather information, and then move on. Fans familiar with the original novel will no doubt be fascinated, as they'll hold knowledge that other viewers do not. Those who are not familiar may find the pace uneven. Although I was never bored, I did find the pace dragged from time to time.

picAnd yet, in the back of our minds, we all know that this is leading up to something big - the final showdown that we've been waiting to see on the screen for almost 10 years now. As everyone knows, the studio has decided to divide Deathly Hollows into two parts - a brilliant marketing stunt guaranteed to make them double the cash. This is the build up. Deathly Hallows Part II (set for release in Summer 2011) is where everything will come to a head, obviously. Is it all a big tease? Well, it's nowhere near as bad as it could have been. There's the expected cliffhanger ending, but at least it ends at a logical point in the story, and doesn't feel like the movie simply stops.

picI think what I appreciated the most about this film is seeing how far the actors have come over the years. Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint have obviously grown into their roles so much to the point that it's impossible to picture these characters as anyone else. And all the returning actors and characters are sure to delight long-time fans. It really makes you appreciate just how well cast these movies have been from the very beginning. The franchise has been lucky, not only for being able to keep pretty much all their regular actors from the very beginning to the end (except, obviously, for original "Dumbledore", Richard Harris), but for finding actors who could grow and keep up with the characters as the series went along.
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Deathly Hollows Part I is a flawed film that will probably appeal more to fans than to those on the outside. Still, I managed to have fun, and it has me interested in what's to come. Even though the film is incomplete, it did not bother me as much as some other films that leave things completely open for a continuation. At least we're guaranteed one this time around, unlike say, The Golden Compass. This may not be Harry Potter's strongest hour (Prisoner of Azkaban and Goblet of Fire still remain my favorites of the films), but as a set up for great things to come, it entices just enough.

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Sunday, November 14, 2010

Morning Glory

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I can be a pretty easy target for a fuzzy, feel-good comedy. But sometimes, I feel like my emotions are being manipulated just a little too much, and I resist giving into its forced charms. Such is the case with Morning Glory, a sweet and inoffensive light comedy that's a little too fluffy for its own good. Even the slightest of comedies have to have some kind of human element for the audience to connect with. Morning Glory frequently feels too much like an extended sitcom, and a mediocre one at that.

picOne of the big reasons I could never embrace the film is that I did not agree with its central message for a second. The movie seems to argue that the news should be dominated with trivial reports, and wacky stunts, like weathermen riding roller coasters, and anchorwomen sumo wrestling. It seems to think that a news program lowering its standards in order to get ahead in the ratings is a good thing. The closest thing to an antagonist in the film is the grumpy old anchorman, Mike (played by Harrison Ford, who has the best stone face and gravely voice outside of Clint Eastwood). Mike is a once-respected anchorman who once covered big stories and wars. Now his career is on the skids, and he finds himself hosting a fluffy last-place morning news show called Daybreak. When the show starts devoting more time to fluff pieces and soft journalism, he becomes upset, thinking that they should cover...well, real news. I remind you, this is the character we're supposed to be disagreeing with.

picThese changes in the program come about due to our heroine, Becky (Rachel McAdams), a chipper and plucky young woman who is charged with the task of saving the program before it gets canceled. She fires the old, creepy anchorman who has a foot fetish, and replaces him with Mike, thinking that alone will boost ratings, due to his history and status. When that doesn't work, she begins putting more stunt pieces on the show in a desperate attempt to boost ratings. This is seen as a good thing, but I couldn't get this nagging thought out of my mind that I was not buying what the movie was selling. It's true, Mike does finally get a big scoop by exposing a political scandal on live TV, but the movie doesn't consider it a happy ending until he finally gives in to Becky's point of view, and starts doing improvised cooking segments live on the air.

picIt's not that I didn't like Becky, or McAdams' performance. The character is so gosh-darn spirited and sweet, it's impossible to hate her as a person, and McAdams brings a lot of charm. It was the message behind the character that did not sit well with me. Screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada) seems to be taking an attitude of "it's okay to sell out, as long as you get to keep your job". The movie also misses a lot of opportunities with the relationship that slowly builds between Becky and Mike. It's supposed to be sort of like the student teaching the grumpy old mentor how to adapt to modern times, and we're supposed to be happy when Mike finally sees things her way. But I wasn't. It felt like a cop out and a surrender, not acceptance on Mike's part.

picMorning Glory misses a lot of opportunities when it comes to human relationships, now that I look back on the movie. There are a lot of relationships that are hinted at throughout the film, but none that are fully developed. There's the competitive one between Mike and his diva co-anchor, Colleen Peck (an underused Diane Keaton). They feud on and off the set, but it never seems to lead anywhere. They just engage in empty-headed banter, and it never goes deeper than that. There's also a romantic love interest for Becky in Adam Bennett (Patrick Wilson), an employee at the station who worked with Mike in the past, and gives Becky some advice on how to handle him. I never detected any real chemistry between McAdams and Wilson. This surprised me, given that the director of this movie, Roger Michell, got a lot of chemistry out of his stars in his earlier romantic comedy, Notting Hill.
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As the film went on, I eventually realized that this was a very empty movie that had very little to say. I didn't care about the characters, even though I liked the actors, and there was nothing happening up on the screen that I felt involved with. The fact that I strongly disagreed with the message it was bringing across didn't help things. Morning Glory is not supposed to be a life-changing movie. I get that. But, even fluff movies such as this have to be made well, and this one is not.

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

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Saturday, November 13, 2010

Skyline

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I don't know about you, but when I pay to see a movie about an alien invasion, I want to feel like I'm a part of it. I want to see panic in the streets as the invaders rain their lasers down upon the fleeing Earthlings. I want to see stone-faced military officials debating on how to face the alien menace, and then put all their hope in a last ditch effort. In other words, I want to see aliens actually invade Earth.

picIn Skyline, we're stuck in an apartment building for most of its running time, while the invasion happens right outside, just out of sight of the camera. Sure, some of the invading creatures venture toward and inside the building, but for the most part, we're spectators on the sidelines to the war happening just outside. The movie decides to focus on a group of people hiding within the building's penthouse, as they try to figure out what's going on, and how they can possibly escape. I could see this being an intriguing and suspenseful low budget hook if used properly. Raise the stakes and the confusion by having the trapped people scrambling for any information they can get, or maybe trying to survive as time passes, and hope dwindles. But the movie blows this opportunity. There's no sense of fear or isolation, just sheer repetition, as the characters try to do the same things over and over, like glance out the windows, or run to the roof of the building.

picAnother knock against the film is that the characters we are stuck with for the majority of the running time are a rather shallow bunch. It would be one thing if these were interesting people waiting out an invasion happening just outside, but the people we're asked to follow hold no personalities that I could gather. Our heroes are Jarrod (Eric Balfour) and Elaine (Scottie Thompson). They're in love, and vacationing in L.A. to visit one of Jarrod's old childhood friends, Terry (Donald Faison), who is now a Hollywood big shot. The other characters include Terry's wife Candice (Brittany Daniel), Terry's mistress Denise (Crystal Reed), and a worker at the apartment building named Oliver (David Zayas). There. That's all you need to know about the characters right there, other than Elaine has been sick a lot lately, and may be pregnant.

picNormally in a movie such as this, we can forgive the weak characters and dialogue if the special effects and action are truly a sight to behold. But, this never happens. Part of this has to do with the fact that directors Greg and Colin Strauss (Alien vs. Predator: Requiem) made this film on the cheap outside of the studio system. But then, I remember last year's District 9, another sci-fi film made on a shoestring budget that featured effects that rivaled a lot of the big budget stuff, and had interesting characters we cared about. Skyline is simply toxic junk for the brain. When we do get to see effects, many of them seem recycled from other films, such as Independence Day, Spielberg's War of the Worlds, and even Michael Bay's Transformers films. Even though the film was made independently, we still feel like we're watching a soulless big studio project, since it swipes its images so blatantly.

picIt also doesn't take long for the screenplay by Joshua Cordes and Liam O'Donnell to start repeating itself. The characters bicker with each other, almost get sucked in by the mother ship's beam of light, try to look for a way out, run to the roof of the building, go back to the apartment and bicker some more...It's almost amazing how little tension or suspense the movie is able to build. You would think something, heck anything, would happen eventually. All we find is tedium as the movie goes through the same motions. The actors aren't talented enough to rise above the thin material, either. They succumb to it, becoming so boring that we don't feel anything for them. It gets to the point that we want the camera to check on other apartments in the building, to see if there's something more interesting going on in any of them.
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This basic cycle of repetition continues until the last five minutes. That, oddly enough, is when Skyline finally decides to throw some intriguing visuals and ideas our way. I won't spoil them or go into too much detail, but I will say this - The new ideas presented to us during those five minutes may suffer from a gaping plot hole and require a great deal of dodging logic to make it work, but at least it gives us something to think about, which is more than the rest of the movie provides. The Strauss Brothers say the ending is a set up for a sequel. I say don't make grand plans for a continuation if you can't get the setup right.

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