Reel Opinions

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Next Day Air

What would happen if the gangsters from a Quentin Tarantino or a Guy Ritchie movie wandered into a stoner comedy? The result would most likely be an ungainly mess. Such is the case with Next Day Air - a caper comedy that supplies a few laughs, but piles on the nastiness and violence to such a large degree that I started to become confused as to how I was supposed to react to it.

The action kicks off when a pot-addicted delivery man named Leo (Donald Faison from TV's Scrubs) drops a package off at the wrong address. The package contains 10 bundles of cocaine, and the apartment just happens to belong to a pair of incompetent thugs named Brody and Guch (Mike Epps and Wood Harris), who are still recovering from their last botched robbery, where they managed to make off with the bank's security tapes but no money. The two guys see the cocaine as their ticket to better things, and plan to sell it to Brody's cousin (Omari Hardwick), who is a drug dealer. What they don't know is that the package was supposed to go to their next-door neighbor, Jesus (Cisco Reyes), who finds his life on the line when the package doesn't arrive on time. With the help of his girlfriend Chita (Yasmin Deliz, in a lively performance), he is determined to track down the delivery man and find out what happened to the package.

Next Day Air shows a surprising amount of humor in its opening half hour, allowing the audience to let down its guard. The funniest moment comes when Brody calls his cousin to tell him about the cocaine. The entire dialogue is made up of slang and inside lingo, making it nearly incomprehensible for the audience to understand, so the movie provides some helpful subtitles at the bottom of the screen. It reminded me of the scene in Airplane where Barbara Billingsley spoke "jive", and hinted at some inspired lunacy. Despite a few chuckles early on, the movie never quite lives up to this moment. I didn't mind this so much. It was when the movie became an all-out bloodbath where things started to sour for me.

First-time filmmaker, Benny Boom (I'm praying this is his real name, and not a screen name), gets a lot of energy from his cast, and certainly knows how to stage an action sequence. He uses rapid cuts, but doesn't overdo them to the point of annoyance. The problem lies at the screenplay level, which is largely inconsistent. It seems to be pulling the film in various directions, never sure if it wants to be light-hearted, or if it wants us to take these characters seriously. What are we supposed to think when these comic goofballs start killing each other in graphic shootouts that would be right at home in a gritty crime drama? It's a question I kept on asking, but the movie was never able to provide an answer. The fact that the film's climactic bloody confrontation ends with a laugh (it comes during the end credits) left me feeling even more confused.

Next Day Air obviously wants to be a pitch black comedy, but never gets the tone right. It feels conflicted, and that feeling carries through to the audience. There were parts of it I admired, but I wasn't sure what I was supposed to feel on the whole. This is a movie that needed a few more drafts to figure things out.

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Drag Me to Hell

Oh, how I wanted to love this movie. The premise seemed strong, the talent was there, and it marked the return of Sam Raimi to the genre that shot him to cult fame. Long before Raimi became a blockbuster director with the Spider-Man franchise, he cut his cinematic teeth with the cult hit Evil Dead films. Drag Me to Hell promised to be a return to the director's roots, but it was a big disappointment to me. I came in expecting a scary good time, and instead received a lot of noise and cruelty that didn't excite or even scare me.

This movie is not fun. It's also not that scary. It's essentially 100 minutes of its lead heroine being screamed at by shadow demons, scary gypsy women, and getting vomited on by ghoulish decaying corpses. It also takes time out to have a cute little kitten get murdered in an attempted animal sacrifice ritual, if you're into that kind of thing. Mostly, though, it's a lot of generic jump scares where things fly at the camera, screaming, or there's a loud noise on the soundtrack. I'm just about at my wit's end with horror movies that try to scare us with loud noises. Drag Me to Hell seems to rely on this technique every five or seven minutes, almost to the point that you can set your watch to it. I can picture this premise working as a character-driven horror film, but I didn't care about anyone in the story. The movie's too preoccupied with trying to make us jump to make us care, never realizing that you can telegraph most of its scares far in advance.

So, just what is the premise? Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) is a loan officer at a bank. She's been eyeing that vacant Assistant Manager desk that's across from her's, hoping that her boss (David Paymer) will recognize her talent and give her a promotion. The promotion would also probably help her impress the stuffy parents of her boyfriend, Clay (Justin Long). Up until now, Christine's main problem has been the smarmy kiss-ass co-worker who is also vying for the same position. That changes when a withered old gypsy crone named Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) comes to her, seeking an extension on a mortgage payment she can't afford. Hoping to impress her boss, Christine denies the old hag. Ganush does not take this very well, and attacks Christine that night in the parking garage. During the struggle, the old woman manages to place a curse upon her. Shortly thereafter, Christine is plagued by nightmarish visions, and routine unwanted visits by shadowy demonic forms that delight in tormenting her, as well as picking her up and throwing her around. With the aid of a seedy fortune teller (Dileep Rao), Christine must try to figure out a way to lift the curse in only three days, or else the tormenting demon will claim her soul forever.

There is some wit on display in Drag Me to Hell, and the movie is certainly well made in a technical sense. But I never got over the hollow feeling the movie left with me. It all boils down to the fact that I was indifferent to everything that was going on. I could never figure out why I was supposed to care about Christine and her plight to rid the curse. A lot of this has to do with the fact that Christine is merely a manipulation of the screenplay, running from one scene to the next with the sole purpose of moving the story along. She never comes across as someone we can truly get behind. All of the characters are sketchy and clumsily written. I was actually surprised by how simplistic it seemed. Every scene is a set up for more graphic special effects and demons spewing blood and maggots. The whole thing feels so mechanical and artificial, and there wasn't a single moment where I felt truly involved. I was admiring the craft and the camera work, but found I could care less about anything else.

The movie falls into a disappointing and repetitive cycle of jump scares, until it actually seems to be leading somewhere in the last 20 minutes or so. I got my hopes up, only to be let down by the ending. Some have praised it, but I found it hopelessly predictable. Raimi does a poor job of hiding the final reveal, but I kept on telling myself he wouldn't really be trying to pull this off. Surely he must have something up his sleeve to catch us off guard. He does not, unfortunately. My main problem is how the ending makes so much that has come before it completely pointless. It's like a bad punchline that doesn't get a laugh after a long and dragged out joke that wasn't that funny in the first place. I'm trying my hardest not to go into spoiler territory, but anyone who watches the scene with Christine and Clay in the car, and does not immediately suspect that she's holding the wrong envelope is a hopeless optimistic.

Please don't read this review as me saying I hated Drag Me to Hell, because I didn't. As I mentioned before, the movie was obviously made with care, and I laughed a couple times at the film's off the wall/morbid sense of humor. But a couple laughs aren't enough to make me forget the fact that this is an extremely underwhelming horror film. It's also a nasty little movie that seems to take pleasure in torturing its characters. If those characters had a shred of personality, maybe I would have felt sorry for them, instead of feeling like I was being manipulated.

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Friday, May 29, 2009


Since 1994, I have considered the opening sequence of The Lion King to be the best opening for an animated film. Today, that reign has ended, as the opening 10 or 15 minutes of Up easily trumps it. It's not a spectacle sequence, like the animals gathering to witness the birth of the royal cub, Simba. It is a quiet and reflective look at a relationship through the years. It is touching, funny, heartfelt, and ultimately tragic. It's a wonderful sequence, one you want to rewind and watch again as soon as it is over. The opening promises great things, and the movie that follows delivers.

The sequence centers on Carl Fredricksen and Ellie, two people who meet as children and are drawn together by their love of adventure and exploration, as well as a shared idolization of a famed explorer by the name of Charles Muntz (voice by Christopher Plummer). In a beautiful sequence told without dialogue (none is needed, as the haunting music score by Michael Giacchino tells us everything we need to know), we see Carl and Ellie's relationship blossom into love and eventually marriage. We witness their joy, their hardships, and most of all, the dreams that they lost together. And yet, their love stays strong through it all. By the end of the sequence, Carl is alone for the first time since he met Ellie. He is now an elderly man, who somewhat resembles a cartoon caricature of Walter Matthau, and is brought to gruff life by Ed Asner in a fantastic voice acting performance. Carl is a man deflated. His dreams are gone, and the only thing he has left (the house he built with Ellie) is in danger of being lost as well. Seeing no other option to save what little of his life he has left, he rigs his house up for flight with the aid of an impossible number of balloons, and a homemade system to steer its flight. The balloons lift Carl's house right off its foundation, and into the sky for a special destination - his last chance to fulfill the dreams he once shared with Ellie.

We've seen this in the trailers. We've also seen that Carl picks up an unexpected stowaway in the form of Russell (Jordan Nagai), a pudgy and eager little boy who is so devoted to his goal of becoming a true Wilderness Explorer Scout that he never takes off his uniform during the course of the film. What the trailers do not reveal (and that I will do my best not to spoil) is just how fantastic the adventure is that the two will experience. I hate using words like "fantastic" to describe what characters in a movie experience. I also hate to use the word "magical". And yet, those are the immediate words that spring to my mind when I think back on Up. This is a movie that is filled with more heart, poignancy, and adventure than any other movie you can name so far this year. It's almost starting to become a cliche to say it, but animation studio Pixar has outdone themselves once again. The movie is full of color, humor, emotion, adventure, and most of all, unforgettable characters who seem a lot more three dimensional than most animated (or live action) characters.

And no, I'm not talking about the fact that this is the first Pixar movie to be featured in 3D in select theaters. I'm talking about how each of the characters seem surprisingly human. Beyond the previously mentioned prologue that introduces us to Carl, we find a man who would prefer to shut himself away from the rest of the world, and just be with the memories his house holds. It's rare enough to have a 78-year-old man being the central focus of an animated family film, but to also have him be full of complex emotions proves that the filmmakers are truly aiming for a wide audience. Carl is not a sad-sack, however. He obviously still has a love of adventure, as proven by his decision to leave everything behind and take to the skies, and when he finds himself or any of his newfound friends in peril during the journey (besides Russell, he also befriends a long-lost prehistoric bird, and a dog named Dug who can speak his thoughts thanks to a mechanical collar), he's more than up to the challenge. I also enjoyed the relationship he develops with young Russell during the course of the film. Having never been able to have children with Ellie in the past, Carl becomes protective of the boy, and truly bonds with him during some of the film's most heartfelt moments.

I always know that I'm watching a truly great movie when I find myself wrapped up in the story being told. Not only was I wrapped up in the deceptively simple tale Up tells, but I also found myself admiring a lot of the design touches the artists threw in that show their devotion. The bountiful and beautifully rendered colored feathers of the giant bird who follows along on Carl's journey. The design of the massive airship Carl and his group discover halfway through the film, which looks like an ordinary blimp on the outside, but inside is a massive structure unlike anything we've seen. The wonderful imagery of Carl's first flight as the house lifts over the surrounding city. These are moments I won't soon be forgetting, and will watch again many times on DVD. It's easy to make a good looking CG film, but it's a lot harder to show us things we've never seen before in the movies. Director Pete Docter (Monsters Inc.) and the entire crew clearly let their imaginations soar here, and it creates the best experience at the movies I've had this year so far.

If I have been somewhat vague in describing the film and its wonders, it's intentional. I walked in with as little knowledge as possible, avoiding all previous reviews and articles, and walked out enthralled about the experience I had just had. This is the true definition of a family film, as it works on a number of levels for anyone who watches it. With most CG animated films these days being overhyped events or generic sequels to past hits, Up truly stands out as a wonder. It manages to be touching and poignant, almost poetic at times, while at other times being one of the funniest films the studio's put out in a while. How good is this movie? When it was over, I almost wanted to buy a ticket for the next showing, but other things prevented me. This is one of the great films of the year.

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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Dance Flick

What I'm about to describe is an actual joke from Dance Flick. An unwed teenage mother named Charity (Essence Atkins) has been having trouble getting her deadbeat boyfriend (Shawn Wayans) to take care of their baby. In one scene, the boyfriend shows up at her door, and says "I'm here to pick up my kid". He walks over to the baby, picks it up, then sets it back down. He then walks out the door, stating that he'll be back next weekend to pick their kid up again. This might be a good time to mention that it took five different people to write this movie.

If that didn't tickle your funny bone, the movie hopes this one will...Our young hero Thomas (Damon Wayans, Jr) is from the "wrong side of the tracks". Dancing is the only thing he knows how to do. In one scene, he's dancing in the middle of the street during a fierce rainstorm. I know this is supposed to be a reference to some dance-related movie, but I can't for the life of me remember which one. Anyway, as he dances, the wind starts to blow harder, threatening to blow him off camera. He's then struck by lightning. Bet you didn't see that one coming. We see him singed with his hair standing up, and then the movie cuts to the next scene. That's the kind of movie Dance Flick is. It goes for the most obvious gag, and then doesn't even bother to go any further than that. The character that's supposed to be a parody of Ray Charles falls down an open manhole while walking down the street. Because he's blind, get it? The fat girl who's supposed to be a parody of the lead character from Hairspray? She...well, she doesn't do anything. She just stands in the background, and looks like the girl from Hairspray.

You watch this movie and wonder to yourself how the humor of the Wayans Brothers was once considered cutting edge. The movie is like being stuck on a sinking ship for 83 minutes. You watch the actors up on the screen, floundering, and you start clutching for anything that can save you from the monotony and the lameness of the jokes. The film itself is mainly a parody of Save the Last Dance, a movie from 2001. If that's not current enough for you, there's not one but two jokes about Halle Berry as Catwoman. I ask again, it took five different minds to come up with this? The loose plot centers on Megan (Shoshana Bush), a white girl from the suburbs. She once had dreams of being a dancer, but then her mother died in a freak car accident involving a gasoline truck, Lindsey Lohan, and Halle Berry. Now she's in an inner city school called Musical High School, and has a chance to live out her dreams again. But first, she has to impress the stereotyped students, and the tough school dance instructors, like Ms. Cameltoe (Amy Sedaris), who doubles as a human beatbox, producing sounds through the same part of her anatomy that inspired her name.

I don't think I've seen a comedy this forced and pathetic since Mike Myers' infamous The Love Guru. The movie tries everything for a laugh, but earns little to none at all. It throws in goofy signs in the background (a sign in the school hall reads, "Don't go to college - it's a waste of time"), musical numbers that stop the movie, and not in a good way (the obese loan shark Sugar Bear, played by David Alan Grier, does a pointless Dreamgirls-inspired number about how much he loves food), and there are a couple High School Musical references that are so vague, you wonder if the filmmakers even bothered to watch the movies. If it weren't for the fact that Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer are out there making stuff like Meet the Spartans and Disaster Movie, I would call this the lowest form of mainstream comedy you can find in a cinema. Dance Flick will just have to settle for second lowest.

Even at 83 minutes, Dance Flick seems much longer than it should be. There's not enough material here even for a sketch on the Wayans' old TV program, In Living Color. The genre of parody movies has been on life support for a while now. If this doesn't signal the last dying gasp, nothing will.

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Friday, May 22, 2009

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian

My review for 2006's Night at the Museum ended by saying, "With just a little bit more magic and awe added to the proceedings, it could have been something really special". Battle of the Smithsonian needs more than just a little bit of magic and awe. It needs a complete top-to-bottom overhaul, starting with a script rewrite from Page 1. This is as crass, bloated, and soulless a summer blockbuster as I have ever seen, and it seems the only thought that returning director Shawn Levy put into it was how much chaos could be fit into a single shot.

The movie is chaos, plain and simple. It takes a loose plot and a potentially bright and talented cast, then pretty much orders them to run around screaming, not really doing anything for 105 minutes straight. The talent that is ignored here is enormous. We've got Ben Stiller, the luminous Amy Adams (the only one in the cast who seems to be trying), Robin Williams, Owen Wilson, Ricky Gervais, Bill Hader, Christopher Guest, Steve Coogan, Eugene Levy...Even Darth Vader and Oscar the Grouch make cameos. (And yes, I refuse to look up the names of the actors playing these childhood icons, and prefer to believe they're making cameos by themselves.) All these actors are victims of a screenplay by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon that simply doesn't care. It has no wonder, and absolutely no sense of what is going on within it. This is the kind of movie that asks what would happen if the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. came to life, and it can't even think of an answer. It doesn't even come up with a punchline or something interesting for Lincoln to say. It treats Lincoln as a special effect, and its cast as a living and breathing prop.

To promise children and adults wonder and excitement, and then give them recycled and uninspired garbage seems like a terrible trick being played on the audience. It made me angry, and I'm someone who found something to like about the original movie. That one at least had some kind of valuable hidden lesson about how history needs to be appreciated and preserved. This time, we've got Larry Daley (Stiller) running around like a video game character, dodging special effects. Sure, we got that in the last one, but there was a reason behind it all. He was an actual character with motivation. I'm afraid the only motivation here is greed. Greed to make more money after the original became a hit. Larry isn't even a museum guard anymore in this one. He's gone on to start his own business and does infomercials with George Foreman. (Rule no. 1 of celebrity cameos - It's not funny just to see someone doing a cameo. You have to give them something to do or say that's amusing.) When he hears that his historical friends at the Museum of Natural History in New York are being put into permanent storage, because the museum is being remodeled as a high-tech wonderland (with holographic exhibits), he decides to pay them one last visit.

The exhibits are packed away and sent in crates to the archives underneath the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. The magical artifact that brings them to life at night is shipped with them, and trouble immediately starts when it falls into the hands of the revived Egyptian ruler, Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria, making the grave mistake that thinking the fact his character talks with an annoying lisp is funny.), who plans to use its true power to revive his evil army of the underworld. Larry gets a desperate phone call from Jedediah the cowboy (Owen Wilson) about the situation, catches the next flight to Washington, and poses as a night watchman so he can reach the archives and save his friends. He's joined along the way by Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams), who has also been revived by the artifact's power. That right there is pretty much it. Larry and Amelia run around the museum as other actors run around in the background and foreground. The movie never once slows down for plot, development, or to even answer the obvious questions. Questions like, why are there no actual guards within the Smithsonian at night? Also, wouldn't someone notice the Lincoln Memorial is up and walking around the streets?

I know, I'm not supposed to be asking these questions, and I wouldn't be if the movie actually held any sense of wonder. But Battle of the Smithsonian treats everything either as mundane, or as a lame gag. Kahmunrah assembles an "army of evil", including Ivan the Terrible (Christopher Guest), Al Capone (Jon Benthal) and Napoleon (Alain Chabat), but the movie does nothing with this idea. Just like everyone else, they blend into the background. Imagine what a real screenplay could do with these characters from different time periods being forced to work together. That would require actual thought. The main thought here seemes to have been, "How can we do the first movie, only bigger, louder, and less appealing"? It's always sad to see the inspiration of the original film turned into a charmless cash cow sequel. It's even sadder to see one good performance struggling for our attention amongst it all. The performance belongs to Amy Adams, and although she is likable as the feisty and sweet Amelia Earhart, not even she can rise above this material and make it worthwhile.

I'm sorry if I sound like a total cynic and a killjoy, but I hated this movie. I wanted it to end long before it did, and when it was over, I wanted to forget about it. Something I'll be trying my best to do as soon as possible when this review is finished. Night at the Museum wasn't a classic, but at least I could envision some sort of thought process going into it. Watching Battle of the Smithsonian, all I could envision was the cast having long, sad talks with their agents and dreaming of better scripts.

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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Terminator Salvation

After watching Terminator Salvation, I went to chat with a friend who was working at a nearby store. He wasked me what I liked about the film, and one of the complements I gave was that the action sequences were competently edited and easy to follow. I had to stop myself short there and think about what I just said. Was I really admiring a movie for allowing me to get a clear look at what was going on? Indeed, I was. In this day and age of Michael Bay and rapid-fire editing styles, the fact that director McG (best known for the Charlie's Angels films) allowed my brain enough time to comprehend what was going on during the intense moments seemed like a blessing.

It's a blessing in more ways than one, since Terminator Salvation is easily the most action-heavy film in the franchise. While the previous entries weren't exactly deep on any level, they did wrap themselves up in complex time travel storylines and paradoxes. This one keeps things fairly simple. Aside from a prologue set in a prison in 2003, the action is rooted entirely in the futuristic battle fields of 2018, as the human resistance battle for survival against the deadly and tyranical machines and robots that are hunting the post-apocalyptic Earth for human survivors, then gathering them up and slaughtering them like cattle. We don't get to see much human suffering, as the film is PG-13 (a first for the franchise, which has been R up to this point), but the movie still keeps things at a dark and sinister level, so it never feels like the thing's been toned down too much. The body count in this movie is mainly robotic anyway, so the rating makes sense.

We learn early on that the human resistance has stumbled upon a technology that could help turn the tide against the machines. The higher ups of the resistance want to use it right away to stage a massive attack against Skynet (the central computer at the head of the machine army), but lead soldier John Connor (Christian Bale) has reservations, due to the humans being held hostage within the complex that's set to be bombed. In a parallel plot, a man by the name of Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) has awakened in the middle of the post-apocalyptic battle with no real memory of who he is. He is eventually joined by a teenage resistance fighter named Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) and his child companion Star (Jadagrace). Reese is the obvious focus of the movie, and those who have seen the original Terminator film already know why. As for Star, she brings nothing to the story or the film, nor does she have any dialogue (she's written as being mute for reasons unexplained), so we'd probably be better off without her. The three head out to look for Connor and the other rebels, after hearing a radio broadcast that John sends out to any human survivors.

Compared to the previous films, Terminator Salvation can come across as aimless, as the heroes stumble into one action sequence after another. It's not until Marcus arrives at the resistance base that the plot finally kicks in and things finally start to get interesting. This may be escapism popcorn entertainment, and while it's not a great example, it's pretty decent summer entertainment. I'd rank it below Star Trek, but above X-Men Origins: Wolverine. (Last weekend's Angels & Demons doesn't even register.) Even if the plot doesn't always grab us, the production values and technical work does. Many of the action sequences manage to generate a certain amount of tension (even if the robots do seem to be a bit too fond of jumping out at people or shooting blindly at them, which makes me wonder how they managed to take over the world in the first place), and are well executed. The special effect work is also wonderful, with a wide variety of mechanical menaces for the human actors to grapple with. In fact, if there is a problem with the plot, it's that there never seems to be a central villain figure this time around, and we keep on waiting for one of these cool machines to take center stage. For my money, the towering robot that captures and harvests humans gets my vote for the most impressive opponent, although I did like the motorcycle robots also.

You'll notice that I've gone this far into the review without mentioning the absence of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who headlined all the previous films. Well, he does make a brief appearance in a sneaky digital way, and it's easily the highlight of a very impressive final half. But what of the rest of the cast? Christian Bale is appropriately intense as John Connor, even if he does have the nasty habit of growling some of his lines when it's not appropriate. It's Sam Worthington and Anton Yelchin who get the most screen time, and so they are able to able to create the biggest impact with us. Worthington especially handles a tricky role quite expertly, especially since he's a relative newcomer. The main disappointments come from the female cast members, especially Bryce Dallas Howard, who has her talents wasted in the minor role of John's wife, Kate, and is reduced to doing nothing but standing in the background, holding her pregnant stomach for most of her scenes. Also disappointing is Moon Bloodgood who, despite having a somewhat sizable role as a soldier working for Connor, doesn't quite stand out as much as it should.

Walking into Terminator Salvation, I decided I would judge it both as an individual film and as part of the series. As a film, it's a little bit hollow, but has certainly been made with quite a bit of skill. It's certainly been made with more skill than most movies that are on their fourth sequel. As to how well it fits into the franchise, there are plenty of nods to the earlier films in the dialogue, and even in the music score by Danny Elfman. Overall, it needs to be judged as the popcorn entertainment it is. On this level, slight as it is, it succeeds. I may have a hard time remembering it a few months from now, but at least I'll remember having fun while watching it.

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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Angels & Demons

A sequel offers a chance for the filmmakers to correct the things they did wrong the first time around. Lord knows that 2006's screen version of The Da Vinci Code had plenty of room for improvement. With the follow up, Angels & Demons, returning director Ron Howard decided to pay attention to one crucial criticism a lot of people had with the first film - Tom Hanks' hair. Everything else has pretty much remained the same. Of all the things that needed to be fixed, the lead actor's hair should have been the last thing on anyone's list.

As a thriller, Angels & Demons is a lot like a dog chasing its own tail. It does a lot of running around without really accomplishing anything. But for some bizarre reason, screenwriters David Koepp (Ghost Town) and Akiva Goldsman (I Am Legend), have decided to slow the pace down to the point that we're watching it run around without really accomplishing anything in slow motion. At times, the screenplay resembles an experiment to see how much they can slow the movie down before it comes to a complete stop. It would be different if it used this to its advantage to create atmosphere, or maybe some characters we could care about, but no. Harvard University symbologist Robert Langdon (Hanks) is recruited by the Vatican to help track down and rescue the four candidates that are likely to become the successor to the recently deceased Pope. A group claiming to be associated with the underground society of the Illuminati are claiming responsibility for the kidnapping, and are threatening to kill each kidnapped cardinal starting at 8 PM that very night, each one dying each hour. Not only this, but the Illuminati have also stolen a bomb made of antimatter that is set to go off at midnight. If it explodes, it will take all of Vatican City and part of Rome with it.

With such dire circumstances, you would expect Langdon to be in a race against time to stop mass destruction, but you would be wrong. He and the supporting characters have plenty of time to stand around and discuss the plot in long, labored dialogue scenes that not only slow the movie down, but are written almost entirely in cliches. Langdon is hired due to his knowledge of the history behind the Illuminati, and their long battle with the Catholic church. He hardly needs this knowledge, however, as he seems to have the unique ability to stumble upon the right clue at the right time, which is of course hidden from everyone else. Watching the movie, I couldn't help but think of the National Treasure films, where Nicholas Cage plays a man who can solve numerous centuries-old mysteries and riddles in a matter of seconds just by glancing at them. The coincidences the screenplay asks us to believe as Langdon follows one clue to the next border on laughable. As the story grew more convoluted and the contrivances kept on piling up, my mind started to focus on the characters, hoping that there would be someone that could hold my attention.

There's a rather large supporting cast either supporting Langdon, or standing in his way. Chief amongst them is a scientist named Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), who was originally one of the head people in the antimatter project before it was stolen from the lab, and is now aiding Langdon in his search. We learn nothing about her outside of the plot, and the extent of her help is to steal something from the Vatican Archives for him, so there's little to hold our attention there. Representing the Vatican is a cop named Olivetti (Pierfrancesoco Favino), the head of the Swiss Guard (Stellan Skarsard), and a young priest who was close to the former Pope named Camerlengo Patrick McKenna (Ewan McGregor). We also learn nothing about them outside of what is necessary to the plot. These are people who exist solely to be manipulated by the screenplay, and hold no discernable personality or interests, so the actors often seem to be at a loss as to what they're supposed to be doing. We don't even get to learn anything about Robert Langdon himself, which leads to a rare performance from Tom Hanks where he seems to be here simply because the last movie made money. He's cashing a paycheck here.

It must be said, Angels & Demons has an attractive look, thanks to the cinematography by Salvatore Totino. We get some beautiful shots of Roman churches, but that leads to yet another problem. Due to the strangely sluggish pace, we feel like we're watching a travelogue instead of a race-against-time thriller with thousands, perhaps millions, of lives at stake. It's not enough to take our minds off the fact that very little is going on, and what is happening is genuinely ludicrous. Yes, it's a good looking movie, but to what end? If there's nothing underneath, it easily collapses in on itself. The plot is built on a shaky foundation that leads to a twist ending, when the true mastermind is revealed. It must be said, the reveal is highly anticlimactic, particularly with how contrived the discovery is made. In a movie that is built upon coincidences, the last 10 or 15 minutes go beyond the breaking point.

This is not an unwatchable movie. It's not even ambitious enough to truly go for broke and be awful. It's simply monotonous as it constantly repeats its simple formula of Langdon racing around following clues, finds a dead body, goes onto the next clue, finds another body...This itself is a surprise, especially with David Koepp credited as head screenwriter. He is, after all, a guy who specializes in fast-paced blockbusters like Jurassic Park and Spider-Man. Here, his mind seemed to be on other things. I could certainly relate. Long before the movie was over, going over my grocery list in my head of things to get afterward seemed like a thrill ride compared to what was going on up on the screen.

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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Star Trek Mini Review

So, the Star Trek movie's out, and there hasn't been a review posted here yet. What gives, you may ask? Despite the fact that I saw an advance screening of the movie on Thursday, I have not had a lot of time to sit down and write one of my full length reviews of it. And so, therefore, I am offering this one-time only mini-review. I hope it will suffice, as I'm going to be busy the next couple days. I promise I will return to my usual format of full length reviews next weekend. Just bear with me this one time.

Now, onto Star Trek. Basically, director J.J. Abrams (Mission: Impossible 3) and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (2007's Transformers) were charged with the task of not only relaunching the classic sci-fi franchise, but also introducing it to a new and wider audience. For the most part, they have succeeded. The movie is a lot of fun, if not a little bit slight. The young cast picked to play the classic characters are a great fit and bring some exciting new opportunities for future entries. Chris Pine (taking on the role of Captain James T. Kirk) and Zachary Quinto (as Spock) especially get their characters down, and create an interesting relationship and chemistry with each other that I want to see expanded upon in the inevitable sequel. The rest of the crew of the Enterprise have much less to do, so I'm hoping maybe they'll get more screen time next time around.

While the movie is fun and the cast is great, I could not help but be disappointed in some aspects, particularly the plot which seems to be an afterthought to the sci-fi spectacle. There are some major logic and plot holes the movie asks its audience to leap over, and the plot of the central villain did not make a lot of sense to me. Speaking of the villain, Eric Bana (as a rogue time-traveling Romulan named Nero, who is seeking vengeance against the Federation) is disappointing in that he is never fully developed into an interesting character. His main trick is to glare at everyone he sees and scream about vengeance. A big, grand sci-fi blockbuster like this needs a real threat, and he never came across as anyone I could care about.

I have mixed, but mostly positive feelings looking back on Star Trek. Having never been a huge fan of the franchise (though I've enjoyed most of the earlier movies), I walked in with no pre-conceived notions or expectations. The movie delivers as a fast-paced summer blockbuster filled with special effects, but I wanted a little bit more underneath. I'm hoping that maybe Abrams (should he return for the next film) will slow the pace down just a little bit, so we can get just a little bit deeper into the characters. I was interested in what I saw, and I wanted more. If the next movie can strike the perfect balance of spectacle and characterization, it will truly be a movie worth remembering.

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Sunday, May 03, 2009

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past

More than probably any other genre, chemistry between your lead stars is vital in a romantic comedy. If we don't want the two leads to get together by the end, then why are we bothering to watch? Ghosts of Girlfriends Past makes two vital mistakes. It gives us two mismatched leads, and it doesn't make us care about them. The couple we're supposed to be rooting for here are Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Garner. In the movie, McConaughey plays a sleazy, thoughtless womanizer, and Garner plays a sweet girl with a warm smile and the personality of cardboard. We never learn much about their relationship, or what they see in each other besides a physical attraction.

If only this was the movie's only problem. It is also charmless, witless, and doesn't hold an ounce of originality. And no, I'm not talking about the fact that the movie borrows its plot from A Christmas Carol. It's the fact that the comedic set pieces are either contrived or lamely constructed, the characters are annoying or not very interesting to start with, and there's not a single moment that's inspired or even smart. You would think since the plot is old hat and we already know what's going to happen, that screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (Four Christmases) would try to add some wit or likable characters to grab our attention. Instead, we get McConaughey playing Connor Mead. He's the "Scrooge" of the story, and he's a sleazy and slimy ladies man who somehow manages to appeal to every woman he meets. He's a photographer for model shoots, and usually winds up in bed with one or all of the women he works with. I didn't like Connor, and despite the movie's efforts to convince me there was more to him, I didn't buy it. McConaughey tries to give the character as much laid-back charm as he can, but the character still comes across as a sleaze, even when he's supposed to have found redemption at the end of the story. (Sorry I spoiled it for those of you who never read or heard of A Christmas Carol.)

Connor goes to the mansion home of his late Uncle Wayne (Michael Douglas) to attend the wedding of his younger brother Paul (Breckin Meyer) and bride-to-be Sandra. (Lacey Chabert, giving what is easily the most shrill and obnoxious performance of 2009 so far.) We learn in flashbacks that Uncle Wayne raised Connor and Paul after their parents died in a car accident, and taught Connor everything he knows about women. Connor doesn't believe in love or relationships, and when he has a blow out during the wedding rehearsal in front of his brother and Connor's first girlfriend Jenny (Garner), the ghost of Uncle Wayne decides to pay him a visit and convince him to change his ways around women. He gets the whole "being visited by three ghosts" deal, and all of the ghosts show up as women from Conner's past. With their help, he's supposed to realize his true feelings for Jenny (whom he slept with and immediately walked away from, despite the fact he truly cares about her), and also realize that he will die alone if he doesn't change his attitude toward love.

All well and good, but Ghosts of Girlfriends Past makes a grave miscalculation with Connor by not only making him repulsive, but also boring. I never once cared about him, and the movie didn't give me reason to. We're supposed to hope that he opens his eyes and realizes his true feelings for Jenny, who was his childhood sweetheart before he became a soulless womanizer. Not only is Connor boring, but so is Jenny. Sure, she's attractive. She's played by Jennifer Garner, how can she not be? But there's just as little to her as there seems to be to Connor, and the movie glosses over their past relationship in montages, so we never get a true sense of what brought them together in the first place. The two actors also have zero chemistry together, and almost seem to be mismatched. Both actors have pulled off leads in romantic comedies before, but here they seem to be drifting because the movie gives them nothing to do.

Another mistake the movie makes is that it makes the Michael Douglas character a better example of whom the main character of this story should have been. He does a much better job than McConaughey at being sleazy yet likable, and made me think that the movie should have been about him instead. When I brought up this suggestion to a friend, they told me he's too old to bring in audiences. I say if Clint Eastwood can still pack in audiences, I see no reason why Douglas couldn't. (The fact that a sequel to Wall Street has just been announced as a go proves my point.) He knows how to make the most out of his few scenes, and comes across as the film's sole highlight. Everything else about it is lazy and uninspired. It's not just the lead characters who are sketchy and unmemorable, unfortunately, it's everyone. There's nothing for us to get involved in and care about. I also didn't laugh or even smile once, which is a sad experience when you're watching a comedy. I wanted to find something to enjoy, but the movie kept on preventing me.

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past marks a rare misstep for director Mark Waters, who has had a string of enjoyable movies including the Freaky Friday remake, Mean Girls, Just Like Heaven, and The Spiderwick Chronicles. I'm sure he'll recover, but I have to wonder what he saw here. I have no doubt that this material could have worked, but everyone went about it the wrong way. New Line Cinema is releasing this movie as an alternative to Wolverine, the summer's first big potential blockbuster. Given that the only choices most audiences will face this weekend are either a mediocre comic book movie or a misguided romantic comedy that doesn't work on any level, I'd say everybody loses.

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Saturday, May 02, 2009

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

As a kick-off to the summer movie season, X-Men Origins: Wolverine feels surprisingly slight. It's not a terrible movie by any stretch of the imagination, nor is it memorable. It's up there on the screen, it kills two hours, then you forget about it. It feels like it should be plopped in the tail-end of the season, maybe late July/early August. After getting Iron Man, The Dark Knight, and Hellboy II: The Golden Army last year, I expect a little more from my big screen superheroes.

Just as in the earlier X-Men films, Wolverine is once again played by Hugh Jackman. It's the role that made Jackman a film star, and he's as good in the role as he's always been, I guess. But there's something off here. As the title suggests, this is his character's origin story. We see how he discovered his mutant powers as a young boy, we see the beginnings of his relationship/rivalry with his half-brother Victor, who will eventually come to be known as the villain Sabertooth (played here by Liev Schreiber), and we see him battle in various historical wars over the various decades. We don't so much see these events, as gloss over them in a short montage that plays over the opening credits. The movie seems to be in a hurry to get to where it's going. Funny thing is, there's no need for it to hurry. There are surprisingly few action sequences for fans to look forward to (most have already been revealed in the film's trailer), and despite the brisk pace of the story, not a whole lot happens. It's also hard to build up tension and drama when the film's two major villains play major roles in the earlier films. Since this is a prequel, we already know the outcome when Wolverine faces off against them.

After a 10 minute run-through of "Wolverine: The Early Years", the movie cuts to the chase - Victor and him are approached by a military man named William Stryker (Danny Huston), who is putting together an elite team of mutants. Victor's blood lusting ways seem to fit right in with the group's militaristic and extreme agenda, but Logan (Wolverine's real name) grows distant from the group about five minutes after agreeing to join, and walks away. He tries to run from his past and lead a simple life as a lumberjack in Canada with his girlfriend, Kayla (Lynn Collins). Naturally, it doesn't take long for Logan's personal demons to catch up with him and destroy his attempt at leading a normal life. His quest for revenge will lead him through a thinly-plotted narrative, where he'll encounter various other mutants such as the grossly overweight The Blob (Kevin Durand), teleporting John Wraith (recording artist Will i am), and the wily gambler Gambit (Taylor Kitsch). Aside from Gambit, none of the additional mutants really have anything to do with the story. They're just mainly there for the comic fanboys to recognize and point at the screen when they pop up.

Despite focusing only on one character, instead of an entire team of characters like in the X-Men movies, Wolverine suffers from the same problem that's been with the franchise since day one - Too many throwaway characters who exist mainly to show off a special effect as they display their mutant power, then disappear. The screenplay by David Benioff (The Kite Runner) and Skip Woods (Hitman) seems to view everyone who enters the story with no more curiosity than you and I would view a rock on the street. Even Wolverine himself seems to get shafted in the character development department, especially since we learn next to nothing about his relationship with the kindly school teacher Kayla. She's introduced without warning or set up, and for someone who plays such a large role in his life and fuels a good chunk of the plot, we never become attached to her. Equally underdeveloped is the antagonistic relationship between Logan and half-brother Victor. Their dialogue exchanges usually revolve around icy one-liners and equally icy stares. With this kind of B-level treatment, it's easy to forget that Wolverine is an A-level character in the comics world.

That's not to say the movie is completely unwatchable. The action sequences, though nothing spectacular, are well shot and edited. Director Gavin Hood (Rendition), having no experience shooting action sequences, turned to executive producer Richard Donner (the Lethal Weapon films, 1978's Superman) for guidance. He obviously paid close attention, but a lot of the action sequences come across as highly generic or cliched. How many more times are we going to have to watch the shot of the hero casually walking away from the exploding vehicle or building, as if he doesn't notice it? And even though he seems to be going through the motions this time around (or maybe it's the fact that the screenplay gives him little meaningful dialogue), Hugh Jackman does his best to bring as much of his charisma as he can to his character. He at least manages to slip some dry wit into a few scenes. The rest of the cast may as well have been computer generated, given the amount of personality they display.

When the original X-Men film came out back in the summer of 2000, times were different. We expect more from our blockbusters than we did back then, and Wolverine often comes across as a relic of the past. The franchise needs to evolve and get a little bit smarter if it wants to rake in the big bucks longer than its opening weekend. I have a hunch this movie will be forgotten by a lot of people by the time July comes. Wolverine deserved better, and so do we.

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