Reel Opinions


Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse

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As Eclipse opens, self-centered teenage girl Bella (Kristen Stewart) is trying to convince her vampire boyfriend Edward (Robert Pattinson) to not only marry her, but also make her a vampire as well. It doesn't sound like the wisest of decisions, but you can't deny that Bella is single-minded in her determination. It's all she seems to think about. Edward's not too hot on the idea. It's not the marrying part that bothers him - he's not a commitment phobic. He's just not turned on by the idea of the girl he loves turning into a blood-sucking immortal like him.

picThese are the kind of romantic dilemmas that one can only find in Twilight, a franchise that has thrilled teen girls and many of their mothers with its gloomy gothic love story, where nobody seems to be able to express their love in a tone above a monotone whisper. I found the first movie pretty bad, but unintentionally funny at times. I found the second movie, New Moon, to be downright torturous, and I still hold it as a cinematic benchmark as one of the worst times I had at the theater this past decade. Now here's the third installment, and I must admit, I didn't hate it. Oh sure, it's just as cornball and sappy as the earlier ones, but this one feels a little tighter and not so sluggish in its pacing. Is it because of new director David Slade (30 Days of Night)? Is it because this movie focuses slightly less on endless monologues where characters express hollow emotions that sound like they were ripped straight from a grocery store romance novel? It's probably a little of both.

picSo, Bella wants Edward to make her a vampire as soon as she graduates from high school. Edward encourages her to spend some time with family, since she won't be able to be around them if she does go through with it. She visits her mom in Florida, and even spends some quality time with her father (Billy Burke), who seems a bit more on the ball in this movie. This is the guy who didn't seem to notice that his daughter had left for Italy at a moment's notice in the last film, remember. This time, he at least questions and sometimes seems uncomfortable over his daughter's obsession with the boy she's dating. The other vampires in Edward's family also try to talk Bella out of the decision. They share their individual stories of their last days as humans, and some of the flashbacks are kind of entertaining. But, Bella's mind is made up. There's a complication, of course. Her friend, Jacob the werewolf (Taylor Lautner), is still hanging around. He still loves Bella, even though she hurt him at the end of the last film. He also still prefers to walk around with his shirt off as often as possible, as do the rest of his werewolf brothers when they are in human form. (Not surprisingly, the sole female member of the werewolf clan is required to wear a tank top at all times.)

picJacob is against Bella's decision to leave humanity behind, and I must admit, he makes a lot of good points. For a guy who walks around without a shirt in the middle of a snowstorm, he has some common sense. He reminds Bella that if she chose him over Edward, she wouldn't have to change to be with him. She wouldn't have to leave everything and everyone behind. She also wouldn't gain an uncontrollable blood lust, as we learn that newborn vampires are particularly ferocious and hard to control for the first few months. This is the kind of stuff that make the girls in the audience swoon out loud. These two men who are sensitive, strong, and have big pouty lips are pulling Bella in two directions. Although she never quite leaves Edward's side, she does briefly consider some of Jacob's fairly reasonable points as to why maybe being a vampire isn't exactly the best plan to follow after high school. I guess it's hard to say no to a guy with perfect abs who is willing to carry you in his arms through the forest in order to protect you.

picWhile the love triangle plays out, there's sinister things going on. One of the villains from the first movie, Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard), is seeking revenge by building an army of vampires. They're making their way to Bella's home town, and a war is about to start brewing that will force the local vampire and werewolf clans to clash against Victoria and her army in a large field that seems like it was built for just such a climactic encounter. CG werewolves lunge, vampires leap at each other with fierce determination, and there's a lot of bloodless decapitations, so the movie can hold onto that precious PG-13-rating. Parents need not be concerned about the violence depicted. It's all pretty cheesy looking, and accomplished with low rate special effects. Even with all this battle and death, there's still plenty of time for the movie to cut away to Bella and Edward, standing on a snow-topped mountain, making longing glances at one another.

picReader, I'm not denying that this is all hokum, because it's the very definition of it. The romance at the center of it all is still unconvincing, and the performances by Stewart, Pattinson, and Lautner are still more wooden than they should be. Although, to be fair, they do try to show more emotion here than in the past. But Eclipse has a sense of pacing that the previous films lacked. It also has a little more self-aware wit to its dialogue. None of this can lift the heavy-handed nature of it all, but it does make it a little more bearable than the past. The plot still moves slower than it should, but at least it actually seems to be moving. There are still some moments where I felt lost. There's a little girl in the evil vampire army that the camera kept on cutting to, like she was supposed to be important, but the movie fails to clue us in on just why. I guess that's for fans of the books to know, and me to never find out.
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The audience at my screening gasped with each plot reveal, swooned at each shot of Lautner's perfect body, and made audible sounds of shock and awe when Edward finished a particularly romantic speech to Bella. I was less enthused, but then, this movie is not made for me. It knows its audience, it speaks to them, and it does its job. At least it has the decency to do its job in a slightly more tolerable way than the past. Sometimes when you're watching a movie you have no interest in, you have to grasp onto the little things.

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Sunday, June 27, 2010

Knight and Day

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There's a lot to like in Knight and Day, and a lot that also disappoints, creating a very mixed experience. What director James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma) does get right is the tone. The movie is a perfect blend of light romantic comedy and frantic comic action. It's something filmmakers have been trying to do a lot this year, often with mediocre (Killers) or disastrous (The Bounty Hunter) results. This movie gets the mood right, and even finds two very likable stars to lead the film. Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz have worked together once before (in 2001's Vanilla Sky), but here they get to spend a lot more screen time together, and get to create some wonderful chemistry that draws us in instantly.

picWhat does not work overall is the script by actor-turned-screenwriter Patrick O'Neil. When I say this, I don't mean to say that the dialogue is bad exactly. There are some charming and amusing lines, and the opening action sequence set on an airplane is exciting and off-the-wall funny. Where the script for Knight and Day falters is that it did not make me care about anything. I liked the performances by Cruise and Diaz, but the characters they are playing often resemble blank slates, since the script gives them very little time to talk. They're almost constantly running for their lives or involved in firefights. When they're not doing that, they're trying to fill us in on a plot, which seems severely underdeveloped and is completely incapable of drawing us in. There's an item that the bad guys want, and Cruise and Diaz have to run all around the world to make sure that the item does not fall into the wrong hands. That's about as deep as the plot goes. That's Step 1 in writing a screenplay. I wish O'Neil had gone on to Step 2, and dived more into his characters, who are completely likable, but featherweight in terms of personality or development.

picBut before all that happens, we're immediately drawn in by the charming and offbeat way the two leads are introduced. Diaz plays June Havens, a woman who is trying to board a plane in order to get back home in time for her sister's wedding. During her time at the airport, she has various "chance" encounters with a handsome man named Roy Miller (Cruise). Their encounters seem like accidents, but we later learn they were anything but. They meet again on the flight, which is surprisingly empty. They talk, there's a connection, and then June heads off to the restroom. While she is inside, Roy suddenly proceeds to kill everyone on board the plane, including the pilots. Is he psychotic? He tries to explain to June that he is a secret agent, and everyone on board the plane was there to kill him. And now that June has gotten involved and the people after him know who she is, he has to protect her as well. He explains all this while attempting to land the plane (the pilots are dead, remember), which he does in the middle of a cornfield, trying to make it look like an accident, while he and June walk away.

picThis is a great opening that not only immediately grabs our attention, but also gets us involved right from the start. We want to know more about Roy and, not only that, we want to see more of Roy and June together, since the actors are charming and very funny throughout this 20 minute sequence. Roy gives June some advice about how to avoid the people following him (since he's certain they'll now be following her as well) and drugs her. When June wakes up in her own apartment, she tries to go on with her life as normal and prepare for her sister's wedding. But, just as Roy told her, some men in black suits seem to be following her wherever she goes. They are led by an agent played by Peter Sarsgaard. He wants an object that he claims Roy stole from the agency, and could be dangerous. June doesn't know who to trust. Everything Roy said would happen with the men following her does happen, and he gives her some good advice on how to stay alive, and know what warning signs to look for. But, the agents following her tell a very convincing story about how Roy went rogue, and has lost all sense of reason.

picRoy and June are obviously reunited when he helps her survive a high speed chase - A well-crafted scene, which loses some of its impact by its use of glaringly obvious green screen and CG effects. This begins a non-stop chase around the world as the two try to stay one step ahead of those pursuing them, and to find someone that Roy is determined to protect. None of this matters, since the screenplay is not developed enough. It's all plot manipulations set up to create a series of elaborate and entertaining, but somewhat hollow action sequences that are set in such far off places as Spain, Jamaica, and Austria. It's all well done and kind of fun, but I never got over the fact that there was nothing really going on underneath. When the villain's identity is revealed, I didn't care, because the movie hadn't even developed him as a real character. Even when his role in the plot is revealed, he still doesn't matter, as the movie doesn't feel the need to really use him. This makes Knight and Day a very odd and somewhat frustrating experience. We like the actors, we like the action, and there's fun to be had, but it's all built on a very hollow foundation.

picI wanted the movie to slow down at times, and truly go deep into the two likable leads. Cruise and Diaz are great here. They're romantic, they're funny, and they play off each other well. But they never really get a chance to create real characters behind the back-and-forth comic banter. They're often too busy being on the run or being shot at for us to truly get to know them. We like what we see, and we want to see more. Still, they're obviously having a lot of fun up on the screen. It's great to see Tom Cruise being allowed to be charming and funny again. It's something he hasn't gotten a chance to do in a while. As for Cameron Diaz, she's very likable, even if she doesn't really do a good job at convincing us as to why she's so willing to trust Roy and go with him, even though he repeatedly drugs her and deceives her. My guess? She goes with him because Roy just happens to look like Tom Cruise.
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I read somewhere that Knight and Day is a script that's been languishing in "development hell" for about 10 years or so, and has gone through a variety of different approaches and stars. (At one point, it was planned as a vehicle for Adam Sandler, and even Chris Tucker was attached.) Considering how long it's been in development, it's sort of disappointing that it's not more satisfying. Oh, it's certainly fun for what it is and works as escapism, but it doesn't work enough for me to fully recommend it. It's a very near miss, though. This is a fun and lightweight romantic action comedy. But even a movie such as this needs a structure to hold it all together.

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Friday, June 25, 2010

Grown Ups

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For a movie called Grown Ups, this is a very juvenile film. It's also tired, trite, and completely devoid of a plot. It takes five comic actors who have been likable or funny in the past, and then gives them nothing to do but lame slapstick and gross out gags. There are a lot of scenes where the stars (which include Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Chris Rock, Rob Schneider, and David Spade) seem to be making up the dialogue and entire scenes right there on camera. And no, that's not a good thing.

picBut before all that, the opening 10 minutes do seem to hint at a workable premise. The set up opens in 1978, where five kids win a big championship basketball game. The coach invites the kids and their families to his cabin, where they celebrate. Flash forward to the present, and those five kids are now adults with hectic lives. Lenny (Sandler) is a Hollywood agent with spoiled technology-obsessed kids and a fashion plate wife (Salma Hayek), Eric (James) is...well, fat, Kurt (Rock) is a hen-pecked stay at home dad, Rob (Schneider) is deep in a romantic relationship with an elderly woman, and Marcus (Spade) is a sleazy womanizer. Spade's introduction scene offers an ominous sign of where the humor in this film is going, as it's built around an O.J. Simpson joke (the first of two in this movie).

picThe friends are reunited when they receive news that their childhood coach has passed away. They gather at the cabin of their youth to respect his memory, spread his ashes, and maybe teach their individual kids the wonders of nature, if they can tear them away from their video games and texting devices. Mostly, though, they sling comic insults at each other, talk about the old days, stare too long at a pair of sexy young women (who just happen to be daughters of Rob's from past marriages), and look for slapstick antics to get into. Kevin James plays the fat guy of the group, so he of course is required to be a walking disaster area. Seconds after he appears on the screen for the first time, he breaks a swimming pool, sending all his kids flying out of the water. He also slams into trees and rocks, talks about eating a lot, and sometimes wears a bucket of fried chicken on his head as a helmet for reasons not explained in the screenplay by Sandler and Fred Wolf.

picBelieve it or not, he's one of the more developed characters to appear in Grown Ups. Most of the guys (and their wives and their kids) are written so thin, they might as well be transparent. There's hints at conflict now and then, which is brought up briefly, only to be ignored. Rock's character is jealous that his wife (Maya Rudolph) gets more respect from their family than he does. James' wife (Maria Bello) still breast feeds their four-year-old son, and is frequently shown with a breast pump in a lot of her scenes. And, of course, the rival basketball team who lost the big game 30 years ago is still around, holding a grudge, and want a rematch with the five friends. This leads to the most anticlimactic "big game" climax in the history of cinema. The movie is bizarrely devoid of plot, characters, and anything a viewer can grasp onto.

picThis wouldn't matter if the material itself is funny, but it seldom is. Okay, I chuckled during the scene where Chris Rock and Tim Meadows (as a member of the rival basketball team) argue over which one is the token black guy, but that was as close as this movie got to a smile from me. What it does have is a lot of gross-out humor. We get a close up of a disgusting foot, a guy landing face-first in feces (only to have his face get pushed back in when he tries to stand up, of course), and naturally, someone getting squirted in the face with breast milk. I wonder what kind of audience Grown Ups is trying to attract, as it's too dumb and childish for adults, but far too raunchy for children, despite the PG-13 rating.
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It's sad for me to see Adam Sandler follow up his wonderful and underrated performance in last year's Funny People with this slapdash comedy, but I'm sure this movie will make more money in a weekend than that film made in its entire run. This will obviously inspire more films like this. Hey, I get it. These kind of movies are fun to make, and do well with audiences. I just wish his smarter films got the same respect, so he wouldn't have to dip into this well so often.

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Sunday, June 20, 2010

Jonah Hex

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Maybe at one time, Jonah Hex resembled a real movie. Maybe it had a plot that carried it from Point A to Point B. Maybe it had richly developed characters that grew on us through thoughtful dialogue that was written with care. I'm willing to give the movie the benefit of the doubt, because what's ended up on the screen is so severely edited, butchered, and stitched together that I feel like over half the movie has been lost. Mind you, what I did see did not exactly fill me with the desire to see any more.

picThe movie that is playing at theaters across the country runs a mere 75 minutes, including previews. This was obviously originally a hard-R that's been edited down beyond recognition to a more "family friendly" PG-13. I'd really like to know what studio head thought this was a wise decision, as this is a very dark, violent, and nasty little movie where mean people do cruel and inhumane stuff to each other in each scene. Why did they feel the need to soften the material, when it just makes it come across as gutless and uninspired? I was also wondering what the mother sitting in the row behind me was thinking when she decided to take her two children (who looked no older than eight) to this movie. What was she thinking during the early scene where Jonah Hex (Josh Brolin) rides into town, dragging three corpses on the ground behind him? He presents them to the Sheriff for a bounty. The Sheriff reminds Hex that the criminal gang he was sent after had four members, and refuses to pay for only three. That's when Jonah tosses him a sack with the decapitated head of the fourth member.

picJonah Hex, we learn, was once a Civil War soldier who served under a man named Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich). When the War ended, Turnbull went crazy for reasons the movie only briefly hints at (he's upset the South lost), and started shooting up hospitals and killing innocent people. Jonah took a stand, a fight broke out, and he ended up killing Quentin's son. This in turn led to Quentin seeking revenge by killing Jonah's family and horribly disfiguring his face. Scarred emotionally and physically, Jonah now wanders the desert as a gruff bounty hunter who has the supernatural ability to talk to the dead. How did this come about? Best I can understand, he had a near-death experience, and now he suddenly has the ability to interrogate corpses he finds for information. It comes in handy, since the dead seem to hold a lot of information about Quentin's current whereabouts, and his plan to kill the President (Aiden Quinn) with a long lost military weapon.

picThere's an old flame for Hex in the form of a local prostitute named Lilah (Megan Fox). We don't know anything about their past together, and the movie's not very keen on dispensing the information. So we get a lot of scenes where Fox stares vacantly into space, which I guess is supposed to symbolize she's falling for him. She also constantly slips in and out of her shaky Southern accent, making some of her dialogue hard to understand. No matter. She serves no real role in the plot. Neither does anyone else, for that matter. Jonah just wanders around the desert, killing everyone in sight, until he tracks down his nemesis. There are a lot of inexplicable scenes along the way, none more so than a sequence occurring at a fighting arena that comes out of nowhere, and doesn't seem to go anywhere. Scenes seem to start and stop at random, sometimes failing to clue us in as to where it fits in the plot itself.

picI'm dying to know who Jonah Hex is made for. Is there an audience for movies that make no attempt to tell a coherent story, or characters who have not a shred of personality? I know the character is based on a comic book, which has gone unread by me. It'd be more appropriate if the inspiration were a video game, which is what it more closely resembles. People keep on popping up like in a shooting gallery, and Jonah keeps on blowing them away. It's all very repetitive and mindless. None of the action is shot all that well to start with, so we end up watching a bunch of talented actors who look like they could use a long, hot bath shooting at each other over and over. Everything else in the movie is devoted entirely to exposition dialogue that somehow ends up making us more confused than before.
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As I struggled to pay attention to what was unfolding up on the screen, I realized I was fighting a losing battle. Jonah Hex is a movie without rhyme, reason, or purpose. It's sort of impressive in a technical sense, but it's at the service of a movie that's been cut and butchered beyond recognition. My thoughts once again turn to the mother in the row behind me. What possessed her to take her kids to see this over Toy Story 3 or The Karate Kid? Those are movies with heart and imagination. This is an ugly, violent little nothing of a movie that has nothing to offer anyone.

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Friday, June 18, 2010

Toy Story 3

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This movie made me happy, plain and simple. Toy Story 3 obviously doesn't have the groundbreaking charm of the original, or as much of the surprising human emotion of Toy Story 2 (still my favorite of the three), but it's as strong a sequel as you could hope for. Not much has changed, and that's all for the good. The characters are still some of the warmest to grace the screen, the humor and wit are there, and the action sequences are still surprisingly sophisticated for G-rated fare. All in all, fans should be ecstatic.

picWhen a popular film franchise hits its third movie, it's natural to expect an easy cash grab on the part of the filmmakers. Not so here. Toy Story 3 feels as every bit as fleshed out and natural as the first film, surprisingly enough. It's been said that director Lee Unkrich (Finding Nemo) viewed the film as part of a trilogy, so there's a narrative flow between this and the earlier entries. As we rejoin our plastic heroes, Woody the pull string cowboy doll (voice by Tom Hanks) and action figure Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), they are facing perhaps their darkest hour. They've been locked away in a chest, forgotten, the past few years. Their human owner, Andy (John Morris), is now 17 and headed for college. Many of Andy's toys we've grown to love in the past two films have either broke, or moved on to different owners after various garage sales over the years. There are but a small few remaining in that chest with Woody and Buzz, including Rex the dinosaur (Wallace Shawn), Hamm the piggy bank (John Ratzenberger), Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris), Jessie the cowgirl doll (Joan Cusack), and Slinky Dog (Blake Clark). They wait for the day that they will be played with again, but they know too well that it will never come, and they'll eventually be stuffed into the attic, or worse, tossed out with the trash.

picThere's a creeping sense of abandonment and isolation that permeates the film's theme. These toys only want to be played with. It's what they're built for, after all. But what happens when there's no one to play with? It's a theme that was explored in the last film, but is central to this one. When Andy's mom accidentally mistakes the bag holding the toys for trash and sets them out on the curb, Woody and the others decide to take fate into their own hands, escape from the bag, and sneak inside a box of donations that is headed for a local day-care center. They arrive at their destination, and find what they believe to be paradise. The day-care is a chance for misfit and unwanted toys to get a second lease on life, and be played with and loved again. The lead toy at the center, a strawberry-scented teddy bear named Lotso (Ned Beatty) promises the new arrivals everything they could want. But it all comes with a price. The kids at the day-care like to play rough with the toys, and Lotso rules over all the toys like an iron-fisted prison warden. Those who do not play by his rules are subject to severe punishment or brainwashing, as what happens to Buzz when he tries to stand up to the bear.

picIt's at this point that Toy Story 3 takes a wildly satirical turn, as it largely turns into a send up of prison escape films. The way the movie skewers film noir elements in a child-friendly package is all at once inventive and hilarious. As in the previous entries, the film is full of imagination (as depicted in the wildly creative opening scene), references to other films (sharp eyed fans of Japanese anime should recognize one of the toys who shows up at a little girl's house), and dialogue that's bound to fly over the heads of younger viewers, but make accompanying adults laugh. And then, of course, there are the returning characters, each of whom get their moment to shine. Hamm spouts off one-liners with ease, Buzz gets reprogrammed as a Latin lover with hilarious results, and Mr. Potato Head finds a creative use for tortilla that has to be seen to be believed. The new characters are memorable as well, as Toy Story 3 holds the largest cast of any of the films (and perhaps of any Pixar film). Lotso is a memorable villain, full of Southern charm, but holding a dark past. And don't get me started on the Ken doll, voiced hilariously by Michael Keaton. I'll leave you to discover his charms yourself.

picAs wonderful as the film itself is, it all comes with a steep price, and that price is the decision by the Disney corporation to milk as much money as they can from the film by showing it in 3D in most theaters and charging extra. I guess it's not enough for them that it's a great movie that stands well enough on its own, they needed to add a pointless gimmick. Let me be blunt and say that the 3D adds absolutely nothing whatsoever. You are not gaining anything by paying the extra charge to watch it in the "preferred" format. In fact, it lessens the experience on the whole. The 3D glasses make the visuals look muddy and washed out. And since a majority of the film takes place at night or in dark rooms, this causes a lot of problems, and takes away a lot of the detail that the Pixar artists put in. There is no reason this needed to be 3D outside of corporate greed, and I strongly advise everyone to seek out a 2D showing, and see the movie the way it's meant to be.
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That bit of ugliness aside, Toy Story 3 is just about anything you could want. The movie may not be as technologically impressive as some recent cartoons, but it fits, since the characters who inhabit the film are antiques themselves. It's still attractive, and there's a lot of great little details. (I love the way the toys move and walk differently, depending on their build.) Fifteen years after the original, and the series has not lost its heart, wit, or brain.

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Monday, June 14, 2010

The A-Team Mini Review

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Once again, planned to do a full review of this, but things are hectic here, so a mini review will have to do.

More or less, you get what you want her from an A-Team movie. There's a lot of big, dumb action sequences, a plot that sounds complex but makes less sense the more you think about it, and four likable actors in the middle of it all who make it all worth watching. A military team comprised of team leader Hannibal (Liam Neeson), ladies man Lt. Templeton "Faceman" Peck (Bradley Cooper), tough talking B.A. Baracus (Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, who does his best here, even if there's no way he could ever live up to the immortal Mr. T from the original TV show), and certifiably insane pilot Murdock (Sharlto Copley, showing a lot of range from his breakthrough role in last year's District 9, and making a great comic relief here) are framed for a crime by their own superiors, and go on a personal war against those who wronged them.

Co-writer and director Joe Carnahan (Smokin' Aces) has basically given us a prequel to the original TV series, and a feature length version of the 15 second opening narration that would open every episode. Most importantly, however, he remembers what made The A-Team fun in the first place - It never takes itself seriously for a second. All of the main actors get plenty of one liners and chances to kick a lot of butt in the process. The action sequences are big, loud, implausible, and kind of fun. (I love the sequence where the guys parachute a tank from an exploding airplane.) That being said, I wish there was more actual stunt work, and less glaringly obvious CG during some of the more elaborate sequences.

This is a fun "check your brain at the door" kind of movie that delivers on plenty of over the top fights and throw away gags that don't always hit, but when they do, they hit pretty well. This isn't great filmmaking, but what do you expect, it's The A-Team! Fans will get what they want, and even those who don't hold a lot of nostalgia of the show might find themselves having fun. A special note for fans - Sit through the end credits for one more sequence with some surprise cameos.

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Friday, June 11, 2010

The Karate Kid

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Given how much could have gone wrong with a remake of The Karate Kid, it's amazing how much this movie gets right. Let's start with the original movie. Yes, it's fondly remembered, and it's probably a part of everyone's childhood who grew up in the 80s. But just try to watch the movie now, and not wince at some of the cheesier moments. This version is much more serious and kind of somber in tone, while still staying true to the plot and the style of the original.

picThen there's the fact that the film's young star is Jaden Smith, son of superstar Will Smith, who just happened to produce the film along with his wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith. Just hearing this would lead one to think that the film would be a major ego trip for the celebrity family, but the movie is remarkably down to earth, laid back, and kind of sweet. Young Jaden plays Dre, a 12-year-old kid who is forced to move from Detroit to Beijing, China when his widowed mother (the always reliable Taraji P. Henson) gets a job transfer overseas. His mother is excited by the opportunities the foreign country can bring as a new beginning for herself and her son. Dre, meanwhile, feels out of place, since only a small handful of the people around him speak English. Kudos to the filmmakers for remembering that people in China prefer to speak Chinese, and the movie does not shy away from using subtitles in many scenes.

picIt does not take Dre long to make a friend, however. There's a cute and talented violinist girl in his school named Meiying (sweet newcomer Wenwen Han) who takes an instant liking to him. Of course, her parents are extremely traditional, and do not want their daughter hanging around with Dre. This creates some pointless tension in the third act that's resolved so quickly, you wonder why the filmmakers left it in. Of bigger concern is another kid whom Dre meets his first day in China, a tough martial arts boy named Cheng (Zhenwei Wang). Cheng has some pretty impressive fighting skills, and is not afraid to use them on anyone whom he does not like. Dre unwisely tries to pick a fight with the kid when Cheng starts giving Meiying a hard time, and promptly gets his butt stomped into the ground. A note to parents: Despite the film's PG-rating and family friendly advertising, some of the fight scenes in the film are surprisingly brutal and intense, especially since it's all involving preteens. The fact that no blood is shed or depicted is probably the only thing that held it back from a PG-13.

picAnyone who saw the original film should know what happens next. There's an odd and kind of mysterious maintenance man who works at the apartment building where Dre lives. He's quiet and keeps to himself, but he watches Dre with great interest when he notices him practicing martial arts to hone his fighting skills. He's called Mr. Han in this film, and is played by Jackie Chan. In the original, the character (Mr. Miyagi) was a wise old man with a dry sense of humor. Mr. Han seems to be a much more haunted individual. He seems to be hiding from something, and is constantly working on repairing an old car with fierce determination, almost as if he's possessed by inner demons. These demons reveal themselves in a surprisingly heartbreaking scene late in the film, when we learn of Han's past. This scene alone shows some of Chan's best acting in a Hollywood film ever. Like always, we want to stand up and cheer for him during his big fight scene, when he fends off the bullies who are viciously attacking Dre. But for the first time, I actually felt genuine emotion for a character he was playing. He's wonderful here.

picAside from a few small additions, things go pretty much the way we remember them the first time. Cheng and his friends go to a vicious kung fu school that is taught by a sadistic one-dimensional villain who screams at his students about "no mercy". Dre knows he needs to learn how to fight back, but doesn't want to get roped into the evil school. So, Han decides to teach him traditional kung fu by means of unorthodox methods that seem pointless and repetitive at first, but are actually helping the kid hone his skills. There's a big tournament at the end, and there's a romance between Dre and Meiying. The screenplay by Christopher Murphey does a great job of paying respect to the original, while at the same time not making the movie seem like a total rehash. One of the brilliant moves the script makes is switching the action from California to China. It truly allows us to sympathize with Dre, and how he is completely out of his element. The movie handles this realistically, and gives the characters time to react to their strange new surroundings. It also doesn't hurt that the movie makes great use out of the exotic scenery, beautifully shot by cinematographer Roger Pratt.

picI was surprised by how much I found myself caring about the characters. Even the more thinly written characters (like Dre's mom) are aided by the strong performances. We may constantly be one step ahead of the characters, even if we haven't seen the original, but the way they are written helps them stand out from the cliched plot. The movie also keeps up a good pace and never seems to lag, even if it does seem somewhat padded. The film runs almost two and a half hours, and I have no doubt that a good 20 minutes or so could have been edited with no sacrifice. Still, at least we don't find ourselves looking at our watches. This is a surprisingly electrifying little film, and I wouldn't be surprised if it went on to become one of the big crowd pleasers of the summer.
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Before I close this review, now's as good a time as any to discuss the fact that it's called The Karate Kid, even though young Dre learns kung fu. (He even angrily corrects his mom at one point when she calls it karate.) Apparently, this is not the fault of the filmmakers. They wanted to call it The Kung Fu Kid, but the studio decided to go with name recognition, consistency be damned. It doesn't hurt the film. This is still a highly enjoyable movie, and the first summer blockbuster this year that entertains all the way through.

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Sunday, June 06, 2010

Get Him to the Greek

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2008's Forgetting Sarah Marshall was a total delight, delivering big laughs, heart-felt sentiment, and characters who were not only likable, but felt kind of real. It was one of my favorite comedies of that year. Get Him to the Greek, a spin off which focuses on a memorable supporting character from that film, will be lucky if it's even remembered by anyone when 2010 draws to a close. It's not bad, really. There are some laughs here, though not as big and not as many as Sarah Marshall had. But, the whole thing feels forced, and lacks a truly sympathetic character that we can get behind. What we get is some laughs, and even some preachy sermonizing coming from characters who probably shouldn't be preaching to us in the first place.

picThe thing kicks off promisingly enough at least, with a hilarious Spinal Tap-style documentary on the fall of the career of hard-rocking, hard-living, hard-drinking, hard-everything really British music star, Aldous Snow (played once again by Russell Brand). When we last saw him in Sarah Marshall, Snow was moving on with his life, but has since fallen on hard times. His latest single and music video, "African Child" (which depicts him as an "African Jesus" giving birth to a black African child), has become known as the biggest disaster in musical history, with critics dubbing it the third worse thing to happen to Africa behind war and disease. Because of the well-meaning yet disastrous album, his career has all but fallen off the map, his wife has left him and taken custody of their kid, and Aldous has dived back head-first into his old habits of extreme substance abuse in order to numb the pain of his life.

picIn order to resurrect Snow's image and career, the head of the music company (played by rap mogul Sean Combs, in an unhinged and profanity-spewing performance that reminded me of Tom Cruse's similar role in Tropic Thunder) sends a young intern named Aaron Green (Jonah Hill) to escort the singer from his home in London to the historic Greek Theater in L.A., where Snow is planned to give an anniversary concert of one his most famous performances from 10 years ago. Aaron is thrilled at the chance, not only career-wise, but also because he has been a long-time fan of Snow's music. He arrives in London to pick up Aldous, only to find the man completely off the wagon, and half-way out of his mind. What's supposed to be a simple pick-up and fly straight back to L.A. turns into a massive bender of sex, booze, and drugs that stretches across London, New York (where Aldous is supposed to be interviewed and perform on the Today Show), and Las Vegas, where Aldous goes on a search for his estranged father.

picGreen doesn't know how to handle the troubled rocker, and finds himself dragged into Snow's world of substance abuse where he's forced into sex, indecent public behavior, and even becoming a drug mule for the guy at an airport. It doesn't help that Aaron has his own problems back at home, stemming from his live-in girlfriend's (Elizabeth Moss) desire to move to Seattle where she would get better work, but would hurt his own career. All of this material could easily work, and it certainly does from time to time, but the film's great moments don't come together to create an all-together enjoyable film. It's a movie that works in bits and pieces, followed by long stretches that personally did little for me. As much as I have enjoyed Russell Brand and Jonah Hill in other films, they are not quite strong enough to carry an entire movie, or at least not this one. Brand's performance is a caricature of burned out British rockers that is funny in small doses, but not developed enough to be the lead of a 100 minute film. And Hill's character is too wimpy and underdeveloped to really matter much to us.

picIt's because of the two characters that the film has a hard time with the usual Judd Apatow (who produced the film) formula, in which a likable but kind of emotionally hindered guy finally learns to embrace adulthood. It feels forced seeing these characters making serious life-changing decisions, and finally opening up about their doubts and fears in the last half. This is especially true for Brand's character, who comes across almost like a Saturday Night Live-style parody character, and then suddenly develops a mushy and sentimental heart in the last few minutes. Hill's character, meanwhile, never connects. He spends most of the movie getting knocked around, shot up with drugs, and having stuff stuck in bodily crevices that he resembles more a walking physical gag than a real character. It doesn't help that his subplot with his girlfriend, which is supposed to be his main emotional hook, kind of gets lost in the madness of the screenplay.
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I really wanted to like Get Him to the Greek more than I did. It starts out strong, and has some scattered laughs throughout, but not enough for me to fully recommend it. We really didn't need an Aldous Snow movie in the first place. His character worked well enough and ended on a perfect note in Sarah Marshall to begin with. As it is, this is not a bad movie at all. Just one that doesn't add up to very much when it's all over.

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Saturday, June 05, 2010

Splice

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Vincenzo Natali's Splice is that rare horror film that's interested in its own ideas, rather than in repetitive jump scares. Pity the film's ad campaign is trying to sell it as a cheap modern day Frankenstein story, when it's really so much more. Yes, there is a creature in the film that is created by scientific methods, but its intentions are mostly ambiguous. It doesn't lurk in the shadows, waiting for unwilling victims. It wants to live life in its own way.

picThe creature in question is Dren, and she is the result of two scientists named Clive (Adrian Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley). They work for a genetic science corporation, and are hard at work at creating a hybrid animal gene that could lead to further research about cures for diseases. They are making great strides in their research, but the corporation wants them to move out of the research phase, and start trying to find ways they could market cures. Elsa wants to keep on experimenting, so she slips some human DNA in with the animal genetic code. The end result is a bizarre creature that, when born, kind of looks like a naked rat with the legs of a kangaroo. But, it has a rapid growth rate, and soon begins to resemble a form that is almost human, yet definitely animal. Dren, as she is eventually named by her creators, grows at an alarming rate both physically and mentally. Over time, Clive and Elsa create an almost parental bond with their creation, although they're forced to keep it locked out of sight from the rest of the lab.

picDren herself is truly a wonder of make up design, CG special effects, and a haunting human performance. She starts out entirely computer generated in its infant stage, but is soon portrayed by young Abigail Chu when it is a child, and finally by Delphine Chaneac for the rest of the film. Both of the actresses give a strange otherworldly quality to their performances, which fits the nature of the creature, which is neither human nor animal. It has wings, it can hang from the rafters by its tail like a monkey, and it can produce a scorpion-like stinger from its tail when it feels threatened. The remarkable thing about Splice is that it treats its creature with as much wonder as the audience. It's not simply a generic monster, but a living creature making discoveries on its own. There is a strong dramatic element to the film, as the complex relationship between the scientists and their creation grows. Clive, in particular, seems repulsed by the creature at first, and even attempts to kill it during its early stages. But, his feelings become much more complicated when he begins to notice something in the creature he didn't before, which I will leave you to discover.

picThis is a complex film that manages to avoid cutting any corners for most of its running time. It lets both the scientists and their creation develop into fully realized three dimensional characters. It also respects them enough to let them actually grow through dialogue and full conversations, instead of contrived plot twists. As Dren matures and becomes more aware of herself and the world around her, Clive and Elsa find themselves reacting to this in different ways. Elsa goes through a change, in that initially when the topic of children is brought up, she is not interested. But with Dren, she develops a bizarre mother-daughter relationship, sharing her objects of her own childhood, and even confiding in the creature with unpleasant memories of her own past. Both Brody and Polley give honest performances here. They tackle the roles as well-rounded humans, not victims, or characters in a genre movie. They're fully developed, passionate, and flawed.

picIt's only during the film's third act that things start to go a little astray. While it doesn't hurt the film too much, the special effects-heavy climax seems somewhat out of place, considering how quiet and reflective it has been until the last seven minutes or so. I got the sense that the ending is what the entire movie would have been like if it had been made within the studio system. Maybe Natali and his co-writer Antoinette Terry Bryant thought this ending would help their movie get picked up by a major studio. Still, the scenes after the climax send the movie right back into it's comfortably quiet and disturbing tone, and the final shot will definitely have audiences talking. That's something you certainly didn't get in the recent Nightmare on Elm Street remake.
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Splice is an unsettling little movie, but in the best way possible. It makes you think, and respects your intelligence almost all the way through. As a horror film, it's more successful at being unsettling than out-and-out scary. It actually works better as a psychological drama. As long as you're not drawn in by the deceptive ad campaign (which makes it out to be a generic monster flick), and are willing to ask some tough questions, you'll get a lot out of this one.

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