Reel Opinions

Friday, November 27, 2009

Ninja Assassin

With a title like Ninja Assassin, I knew I was not going to get art, but I was at least hoping for some dumb fun. And yes, I'm a firm believer that dumb can be very fun if done right. I'm the guy who gave a good review to the gloriously stupid G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, after all. As the movie went on, I was disappointed to learn that while it had plenty of dumb to spare, there's very little fun. The numerous action scenes (which should be the highlight of any movie called Ninja Assassin) are poorly lit, filmed mainly in such close and tight shots it's sometimes hard to tell what's happening, and just not that exciting to watch, no matter how much CG blood is splattered on the screen.

picYes, I said CG blood. Whenever a character is decapitated, dismembered, sliced open, or gouged (which seems to happen every two seconds at times), gallons of bright red computer-enhanced blood flies all over, covering everything in sight. The filmmakers probably had to make it look cartoonish in order to avoid an NC-17 rating, but it still looks too unconvincing to get the desired effect. Sometimes the blood is the only thing we can see, given the camera's tendency to go into "shaky cam" mode whenever the action heats up. This was a surprise to me, given that the film was directed by James McTeigue, whose previous film (2006's V for Vendetta) had a lot of expertly-paced and edited action sequences. Here, all coherency goes out the window, and we just get a lot of flashing images, with a few shots of limbs flying or blood splattering. There are some potentially cool sequences (such as a massive battle that takes place on a freeway), but we never feel like we're watching the best parts.

picThe movie, I guess, is supposed to help Korean pop singer, Rain, get a career as a Hollywood action star. He had a supporting role in last year's Speed Racer movie, but he doesn't have quite the charisma here to carry a leading role. His character, Raizo, betrayed his ninja clan when they killed the woman he loved (Anna Sawai) after she rejected their ways and tried to escape. Now, Raizo is forever on the run, keeping his skills sharp by training in his apartment, and fending off random assassins sent to kill him while he's trying to do his laundry. The first hour or so of the movie is devoted solely to Raizo having flashbacks about his childhood and teenage years training as a ninja. It's supposed to tell us about who Raizo is, but we never feel any sort of personal connection to him, or to the enemies that still haunt him for his betrayal. Thrown into the mix is Mika (Naomie Harris), a woman investigating a string of murders that she thinks are tied into ninja clans. She gets too close to the truth, the evil ninjas show up to kill her, Raizo shows up to save her, and the two go through a series of action sequences that don't stop until the end credits roll.

picThe problem with Ninja Assassin is that none the characters (the heroes or the villains) are interesting enough to carry even the paper-thin story that this movie tries to tell. And since the action sequences are not that interesting to watch, the movie kind of sits there up on the screen, never making any sort of impression. I'm all for action movies that are "check your brain at the door" entertainment, but I felt at times that this movie was asking me to check a little too much of my brain in order to enjoy it. I kind of liked the way that the movie presented the ninjas as having almost supernatural or superhuman abilities, but it's not used as well as it could have been. I get what the filmmakers were trying to do. They were trying to make this like an elaborate comic book or video game come to life. That wasn't my issue. My issue came with how uninvolved I was, and how the movie kept on coming up short for me.
Walking out of the movie, I overheard a boy who must have been 10 or so talking to his dad about how awesome the movie was. While I think the movie is too violent for kids, I could understand his enthusiasm. The movie speaks on his intellectual level, and to those who simply want to watch a lot of computer-generated gore flash on the screen. What other kind of audience would you expect with a movie called Ninja Assassin?

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Thursday, November 26, 2009

Old Dogs

There are plenty of bad comedies released every year, but very few that can be labeled inexplicably bad. The last movie to earn this title was All About Steve. Old Dogs thankfully does not quite reach the same levels that one did, but it's still inexplicably bad in its own misguided way. How anyone at the studio thought this movie was fit to be released in its current form is beyond me. Not only does the screenplay by David Diamond and David Weissman (Evolution) hold not one single honest moment or genuine laugh, but the movie's been hacked to pieces in a futile attempt to salvage it.

picOld Dogs was originally set to be released in the Spring, but has been shuffled through various release dates until finally hitting theaters for Thanksgiving - Appropriate given how large of a turkey the movie is. During that time, it was edited beyond recognition, so that in the final product, scenes start and stop at random, characters and plot points are introduced and forgotten about at the drop of a hat, and the entire movie feels disjointed, almost like you're watching a 90 minute trailer. Consider this - In the movie, Robin Williams plays a guy struggling with raising two kids he never knew he had. At one point, he blows up, telling his best friend (John Travolta) that he wishes he never had kids. His son (Conner Rayburn) hears this, and storms off, slamming the door to his room shut, as Williams looks hurt. How does he make it up to the boy? He doesn't. There is no follow-through to this scene, and no reconciliation between the two. Next time we see the kid, he's perfectly fine around Williams. In fact, the scene that comes after the kid storms off concerns Williams trying to win over his daughter by having a tea party with her, while dressed up in an embarrassing King outfit that makes Williams look kind of like King Friday from Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. Did I mention that this scene also contains Williams wearing an electronic suit that allows Travolta to control him with a joystick from another room? I'll leave you to figure out how that plays in by yourself.

picThe entire movie is like this - Just one scene after another with little to no lead-in. Williams and Travolta take the kids on a sudden camping outing, where they are antagonized by a macho scout troop leader (Matt Dillon), and a wild-eyed psychopath (Justin Long), who I think is the dad of one of the kids in the group. Where did these characters come from, and what do they have to do with anything? Heck if this movie knows. They're forgotten about a few scenes later, and never mentioned again. Travolta also has a budding relationship with a girl at work who serves as a Japanese interpreter (Lori Loughlin from TV's Full House) that never goes anywhere. It seems like her part was supposed to be bigger, but most of her scenes ended up on the cutting room floor. As it stands, she comes and goes from the story at will, the movie forgetting she exists for long periods of time. The one supporting character who seems consistent in the movie is the dog that Travolta's character owns. He's one of those "intelligent" dogs you sometimes see in movies, who somehow understands what people are saying, and is able to give "cute" reaction shots whenever someone says or does something funny. If there's a more desperate sign of a desperate comedy than a reaction shot dog, I haven't found it.

picI realize I haven't spoken a word about the plot. That's only because it doesn't matter. It's merely a set up for these random scenes I've been talking about. Williams and Travolta are business partners who are about to make a big company deal with a powerful Japanese corporation, when a woman from Williams' past comes back. She's played by Travolta's real-life wife, Kelly Preston, and she dumps two twin kids (played by Rayburn, and Travolta's real-life daughter, Ella Bleu) on him. He's apparently their biological father after they spent a drunken and passionate night together once seven years ago, and now she has to go to prison for two weeks after she pulled a protest stunt. The cast handles this material energetically at least, but the movie does them absolutely no favors. It doesn't allow them to create genuine characters, it just drags them from one slapstick sequence to the next. They go camping, they go to baseball games, they experience the side effects of pills, they break into a zoo and get attacked by gorillas and penguins, they fly on jetpacks, and then the movie's over. I liked the last part the best.

picIt's bad enough that Old Dogs just is not funny, but it's also sappy and mawkishly sentimental. The music score by John Debney hits you over the head with music that's supposed to be whimsical and heartwarming, but ends up being overpowering. The movie tries to find a human tone, as both Williams and Travolta warm up to having the kids in their lives and realize there's more to life than business deals, but there's a big miscalculation here - The characters never seem human to begin with. The adults act like idiots, the kids act like zany sitcom stars, and for some reason, the movie feels like we don't get the joke, so it has to keep on spelling it out for us. Just in case we don't laugh at Robin Williams mistaking bear droppings for face paint, it will remind us in dialogue once or twice that he just did. Either that, or it will cut to a reaction shot of the dog, who will raise an eye with a confused whimper noise on the soundtrack. It's never a good sign when a comedy feels the need to draw attention to its own jokes. I haven't seen a comedy this insecure in its own audience since The Love Guru.
To say that everyone should have known better would be an understatement. Did Williams really need another paycheck? Did Travolta really need to drag most of his family into this? Did director Walt Becker (Wild Hogs) see anything worthwhile in this script? For that matter, did the studio? You could go on for days asking "what were they thinking?", and never get an answer. The only definite conclusion to be found is that Old Dogs is garbage.

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Fantastic Mr. Fox

The first word that comes to mind when I try to describe this film is "joyous". Fantastic Mr. Fox is just a lot of fun to watch, from its charmingly low tech stop motion animation, to its sharp and dry sense of humor. The tone and wit of the film is very much in the style of Aardman Animation (Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run), but it has a unique style that allows this movie to join the ranks of Up, Coraline, and Ponyo as one of the best animated films of the year. This is the perfect remedy for anyone who had to sit through Planet 51 last weekend.

picThe director and co-writer is Wes Anderson (The Darjeeling Limited), a mostly indie filmmaker best known for his offbeat comedies. Walking in, I couldn't picture his style of humor working in a family film, but now I see how natural it is. Fans of his films will easily recognize his dry, deadpan dialogue. The characters certainly talk like they're in a Wes Anderson movie, they're just furrier than normal. Some of his "regular" actors like Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and Bill Murray even provide voices. What grabs your attention before the dialogue, though, is the look of the film. The style is intentionally low key stop motion, with somewhat jerky movements, and fur that bristles on the characters from the animators moving the figures one frame at a time. It has a certain nostalgic quality to it, like the stop motion animated TV specials one would watch on TV. The style of the animation fits the fable-like story, which is based on the classic childrens book by Roald Dahl. Anderson and fellow screenwriter, Noah Baumbach, went to great extremes to get the look and feel right, even going so far as to write the screenplay in Dahl's former home for inspiration.

picAll the effort to get closer to the source material has paid off with an adaptation that is faithful, yet fleshed out enough to fit the feature length without feeling padded. When we first meet the wily Mr. Fox (voice by George Clooney), his passion is stealing chickens from the local farm with the help of his caring wife, Felicity (Meryl Streep). When Felicity became pregnant with their first cub, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), Fox had to leave the fast-paced life behind, settle down, and become a columnist for a local woodland creature newspaper. The Fox clan is a fairly happy family unit, though young Ash is feeling jealous when cousin Kristopherson (Eric Anderson) moves in, and starts stealing all the attention away from him at home and at school. Fox, though, is showing signs of a mid-life crisis. He's tired of living in a hole in the ground, and wants to move into a larger home in a tree that overlooks three local farms that are run by the meanest farmers in the valley - Boggis (Robin Hurlstone), Bunce (Hugo Guinness), and Bean (Michael Gambon). The allure of the farms, and dreams of his past days of chicken-snatching glory, become too strong for Fox to resist. He begins a secret double life, one which is quickly discovered by the local farmers. When they go to great lengths to capture whoever is stealing their prized chickens, they end up threatening all the local animals.

picFantastic Mr. Fox is a very subtle film, both in its humor and storytelling. The jokes and one liners sometimes fly so fast in a deadpan sort of way, you might miss more than a few. All the more reason to watch it more than once, I suppose. This is also a charming and heartfelt film, with more emotion than I expected. The relationship that Mr. Fox has with his wife is one that carries the heart of the movie. She understands her husband is frustrated with his settled down life, and maybe has a hunch that he might be secretly doing something behind her back, but she trusts him. When she learns the truth, and how his actions may have hurt not just their family, but all the other animals around them, she does not know how to respond, and even strikes out in physical anger by slashing his cheek with her claws. I've read some reviews complaining how the matter is not resolved. They do talk things out, but there's a sense at the end that things are still a little tense between them, although Felicity does clearly still love her husband, and helps out in his plan to get back at the farmers. I feel this is intentional, and makes the characters all the more human, or at least as human as stop motion foxes can be, anyway. Clooney and Streep bring genuine warmth and depth to their characters, and how they interact with each other, making Mr. and Mrs. Fox more interesting than most live action couples we see in movies.

picAnother aspect of the story I liked concerns their son, Ash. He's always felt like he's been in the shadow of his father, and wants to live up to the expectations everyone seems to have of him. When his cousin comes to live with them, these feelings grow stronger, as cousin Kristopherson excels at everything he does not - Swimming, karate, yoga, science, talking to the girl he likes at school...When his dad chooses Kristopherson, and not him, to go with him on his secret late night chicken raids, it deeply hurts Ash. The Foxes are obviously a loving, but very dysfunctional family. This has always been somewhat of a trademark of Anderson's films, and it's used to some of its best and most emotional effect here. Stepping into animation for the first time seems to have opened a lot of doors for him. He can hold onto his style of dialogue and humor, while at the same time it forces him to create more human characters than in some of his past films, since he has to try harder with emotion to make these stop motion figures seem alive. He also makes excellent use out of his talented voice cast. None of the celebrity voices distract, not even Clooney, who seems to be playing Mr. Fox the same way he played Danny Ocean in Ocean's Eleven and its sequels. At least it fits the character.
The only thing I can't say about Fantastic Mr. Fox is how kids will respond to it, as I was the only person at my screening. I can imagine older kids getting a kick out of it, but younger ones might squirm in their seats, as the humor is almost entirely dialogue-based and very dry. I think this is a movie that will develop a cult following over time. It's very smart, completely charming, and makes me want to see Anderson tackle animation again. I think he's found a niche.

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Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Blind Side

In bringing the story of Michael Oher, defensive tackle for the Baltimore Ravens, to the screen, writer-director John Lee Hancock (The Rookie) manages to avoid most (not all) manipulations, and gives us a generally entertaining crowd pleaser. The Blind Side is a simple rags to riches story, with a heavy emphasis on family. Have we heard it all before? Of course. But seldom this well.

picWhen we first meet Michael, he's an awkward and heavy-set teenager with nothing to his name. He was taken away from his drug-addicted mother at a young age, and has since been drifting from place to place. He sometimes sleeps on the couches of anyone who will let him stay, but usually he sleeps at the local gymnasium after it's closed, where he searches for discarded bags of popcorn for food. He goes to a local school, but his grades are so bad, the teachers are starting to doubt if he even has a chance. Quinton Aaron (Be Kind, Rewind) plays Michael Oher, and he gives the character a sort of gentle, yet strong-willed essence. It's next to impossible not to think of Precious, the other movie that came out recently about a hard luck, overweight black teenager who rises above the hate and violence in her life. That movie is definitely harder edged than this, but The Blind Side does give us just enough to sympathize with Aaron's portrayal of Oher. We sense his feelings of loss and isolation during the early scenes that depict him as a wanderer with nothing going for him.

picInto Michael's life comes Leigh Anne Touhy. She's a wealthy and feisty woman who sees Michael walking alone late one night. She feels drawn to him, and asks him to stay at their house for the Thanksgiving holiday, since he has nowhere else to go. This short stay becomes extended, as Leigh Anne and the rest of her family strike an immediate, if not guarded, connection with him. Sandra Bullock portrays Leigh Anne, and it's easily the best role she's had in years. She's strong, sentimental, and surprisingly three dimensional. I can picture other actresses playing her almost like a cartoon caricature. She's gruff, speaks with a Southern accent, and openly admits to carrying a gun in her bag at all times. Bullock finds the right note to play her. She's strict and kind of brash, but not so much so that it turns into a self parody. Her performance here is almost enough to make you forget her disastrous turn in the equally disastrous All About Steve. Almost enough.

picThe rest of the Touhy clan includes her husband (Tim McGraw), a fast food tycoon, and two kids, the youngest boy (Jae Head) providing strong comic relief throughout the film. They bond with Michael as well, and before long, he's part of the family. They help improve his studies with the aid of a private tutor (Kathy Bates), and before long, his grades are strong enough for him to go out for the school football team. None of this should come as a surprise to anyone even remotely familiar with the inspirational sports drama formula, but that's not where the film's strength lies. I have no doubt that The Blind Side has been whitewashed and sanded over to appeal to mass audiences (the Touhys come across as being a bit too saintly at times), but it also manages to avoid some mistakes you expect to see in a film such as this. There is no real villain who tries to hold Michael back from his dreams, there is no tear-filled reunion between Michael and his long-lost mother, and the movie does not play up the race issue of a wealthy white family taking in a homeless black teenager. Yes, it's brought up once or twice by a supporting character, but it never becomes the focus of the drama itself. Instead of manipulating crises, the movie focuses on the simply family bond that grows between Michael and the Touhys.

picIt's true, the movie does not avoid all pitfalls. There are certain moments that the movie can't help but dish out some corny scripted dialogue. ("You're changing that boy's life", Leigh Anne is told at one point. "No...", Leigh Anne replies with a thoughtful look in her eyes and a pause "...He's changing mine".) It's also hopelessly optimistic, sanding over any real danger. Cynics would be advised to avoid this movie like the plague. But really, it's nowhere near as cheap and manipulative as it could have been, or as the trailers make it look. It doesn't preach, it doesn't patronize, and the performances are strong enough that I'm recommending it. You know a movie is working when you recognize its tired cliches, but you don't care. It works even better when certain cliches that you expect to see don't even show up.
The Blind Side is not a great movie, and doesn't pretend to be. It's simple, it's effective, and it's bound to work on most audiences. It's heartfelt and funny, doesn't talk down to its audience, and seems to know what it's doing. When you consider that there are a lot of movies playing right now that can't even get one of those things right, that's a bigger feat than it may sound like at first.

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Friday, November 20, 2009

Planet 51

There is one good joke in Planet 51, and it happens early on, when we're being introduced to an alien world, where the inhabitants of the planet live peacefully in a suburb that seems to be inspired by 1950s Americana cliches. We see the aliens living in picket fenced homes, going to monster movies, and hanging out at the ice cream parlor. We also see an alien woman walking her dog. The canine is modeled after the creature from the Alien movies, and is even named Ripley, after the Sigourney Weaver character from the films. This is the best gag that writer Joe Stillman (Shrek and Shrek 2) comes up within the entire 90 minutes.

picPlanet 51 is harmless enough, but it's also pretty brainless. It's not as bad as Delgo, but about on par with Space Monkeys, in terms of CG animated films. That enough should tell anyone who has seen those films all they need to know, but I'll go into more detail for those who haven't. As I mentioned, the alien world seems to be modeled exactly after our society. The inhabitants claim to have never heard of Earth, yet they have obviously somehow heard the music of Elvis Presley, as one of his songs is playing on the jukebox in one scene. The inspiration for the cartoon seems to be the classic B-movie space invasion films of the 50s, only with the roles reversed. The aliens are distressed when a space shuttle lands right in their backyards, and a human astronaut from Earth named Charles T. Baker (voice by Dwayne Johnson) steps out. He expects the planet to be uninhabited, but when he lays eyes on the creatures, he runs and hides. The aliens, fearing they're being invaded, call upon the vicious war General, Grawl (Gary Oldman) to save them.

picAs Charles tries to figure out a way to get back home (Grawl and his soldiers have confiscated his craft), he befriends a young alien named Lem (Justin Long). Lem's your typical animated film hero. He doesn't believe in himself, he pines after the girl next door (Jessica Biel), but can't admit his feelings, and he has a goofy best friend (Seann William Scott) to dispense one-liners. The movie is supposed to be focused on the friendship that develops between the human and the young alien, but I never sensed it. The necessary scene where we feel like the characters are truly connecting is missing. Now that I think about it, the main thing that seems to be missing from Planet 51 is a purpose. The script is scattered and aimless, throwing in a ton of sci-fi references that will likely fly over the heads of most kids in the audience, and some adult humor that unfortunately will not. (When Lem and his friends see Charles naked at one point, they all look down at his legs, and comment on the "antenna" he has down there).

picI can see what the filmmakers were trying to do here. This could have been a really fun movie if it had just been smarter, the humor had been sharper, or the characters been more memorable. Yeah, the movie's drawn nicely, but so what? Very few CG films aren't. It still feels like a waste of concept and talent. I liked the idea behind the movie's premise, but the screenplay does nothing with it. You also get the sense that the celebrity voice talent isn't being used to the best of their ability. My attention sparked when I saw John Cleese's name appear in the cast during the opening credits. (He plays the scientist who works alongside General Grawl, and wants to dissect the human astronaut "terrorizing" their world.) Too bad he's given a thankless role here, and probably would have been better off staying home, or waiting for a better project to come along. No matter how good your cast is, they can't breathe life into your project if you give them nothing to do.
A lot of people obviously believed in this project. Planet 51 boasts three directors and 16 different producers (that has to be a record). I fail to see what the draw was. The movie's designed to steal some money from kids on Thanksgiving break, and will probably be forgotten by anyone who sees it by the time they're putting away their Christmas decorations, if not sooner. I'm already beginning to forget it, which is probably for the best.

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The Twilight Saga: New Moon

When I reviewed Twilight exactly one year ago, I called it a lethargic and labored story about people we don't care anything about, saying dialogue that makes the characters sound like they learned English by reading grocery store romance novels. Everything I said then applies to New Moon, except for the lethargic part. This movie goes beyond lethargic to simply being dead in the water. I don't remember the last time I have been so bored watching a movie, or when a film seemed so torturously long that I thought my watch was broken every time I checked it (which was often).

picHere is a movie that literally screams out to be parodied. I'm not talking about recent lame movie parodies like Dance Flick or Disaster Movie, I'm talking about the masters at Mad Magazine. They could have taken this deadly-dull, mopey, miserable thing and ripped it to comic shreds. The movie's certainly asking for it. It takes itself so deadly seriously, but doesn't even seem to realize just how melodramatic, implausible, and downright ridiculous the whole thing is. What I wouldn't give for any of the characters in this movie to crack a smile, or make a smart or witty observation. But, they constantly mope about, trying to look tortured, but instead look like they're bored. We rejoin young lovers, Bella (Kristen Stewart, who switches between two facial expressions - concerned and blank expressionless) and the vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson, who pretty much sticks to blank expressionless the entire film), as tragedy strikes. Bella goes to Edward's house to celebrate her birthday, and gets a paper cut from some wrapping paper. This causes one of Edward's vampire kin to try to attack her, driven crazy by the scent of her blood. Edward protects her, but realizes that their relationship isn't going to work out. He announces he's breaking up with her, and she'll never see him again.

picBella is upset, to say the least. As soon as Edward vanishes from her sight, she starts running aimlessly through the forest after him, calling his name. She literally does this until nightfall, when she suddenly trips on something, collapses to the ground, and kind of lies in a pile of leaves sobbing uncontrollably. From that point on, she starts crying out blood-curdling screams in her sleep, which concerns her poor father (Billy Burke), but not enough for him to actually do anything to help her. His role is to just stand around, look concerned at his daughter, and not even notice when she suddenly decides to fly off to Italy at a moment's notice (that comes much later). Without Edward, Bella feels like she can't go on. She also becomes addicted to putting her life in danger, because whenever she contemplates jumping off a cliff, or getting on a motorcycle with a strange man who might have impure intentions, a ghost-like image of Edward appears before her, telling her not to do what she's thinking of doing. It's the only way she can see her beloved, so she keeps on finding ways to intentionally put herself in harm's way. If you think this sounds horribly selfish and self-centered, you don't know the half of it. Bella spends the entire endless running time caring nothing about herself, and her vampiric hottie boyfriend.

picThe only friend Bella has left is Jacob (Taylor Lautner), who has become quite muscular and ripped since the last time we saw him. The movie feels the need to remind us of this whenever possible, to the point that it's a rare sight that Jacob is seen wearing a shirt, even when a cold, freezing rain is falling upon his chiseled pecs. Jacob wants to comfort Bella and help her forget Edward, but he's got a secret of his own. He turns into a very large CG wolf whenever trouble's a-brewin'. It seems that the wolves and the vampires have been having some kind of hidden war with each other for years. Now Bella's trapped in the middle, forced to choose between a hunky guy who may or may not be paper trained, and an equally hunky but paler guy who might have a moment of weakness, and devour her over the slightest paper cut. This is the central crisis of New Moon, and the characters handle it basically by talking in constant monotones, showing as little emotion as humanly possible. The entire cast seem to be asleep at the wheel, and sometimes even forget to react to what's going on. When Bella finds out that Jacob can turn into a wolf, she asks, "Can't you find a way to just stop?", in a tone that can best be described as total indifference.

picA majority of the film is made up of shots of ripped men with their shirts off, visions of Bella and Edward lying or strolling through flower-filled fields, and a lot of scenes where the actors stare confused at each other, as if they're waiting for director Chris Weitz (The Golden Compass) to yell "cut". After nearly two hours of this, the action switches to Italy, where we meet an elder council of vampires. This is supposed to be where the action finally picks up, but the movie stays in low gear. It also wastes the talents of two very good actors (Michael Sheen from Frost/Nixon, and Dakota Fanning), who show up as vampires, but are given absolutely nothing to do but stand there. Maybe they're being saved for the next one, but it's maddening none the less. The entire climax feels dragged out to ridiculous lengths, while being anticlimactic at the same time. It achieves this by having the characters talk so slowly and linger over each spoken word, while not really wrapping anything up at all. The last half hour is all one big set up for the next film, Eclipse, which was already being advertised at my theater with a "Coming Soon" poster and a release date of June 30th of next year. The only good news of this is that there's only four films in the Twilight franchise, and with them coming out so quickly, we'll be able to go on with our lives before too long.
New Moon manages to be agonizingly slow, as well as slow-witted. Unless you're a rabid fan of the original book series, there's no excuse to see this. In fact, the fans don't even seem to know the reason. Walking out of the theater, I saw some girls talking about the movie, and I just had to ask them what the appeal of this franchise was to them. They stopped, as if puzzled by the question, and then said "the hot guys". They then went and bought another ticket for tonight's show with other friends, who will most likely enjoy it for the same reason. Accuse me of being stuck up if you must, but I ask for more from my cinema experience. This is one of the worst films of 2009.

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Friday, November 13, 2009


Director and co-writer, Roland Emmerich, claims that 2012 will be his last disaster movie where the Earth gets attacked. After sending aliens (Independence Day), giant lizards (Godzilla), and even Mother Nature (The Day After Tomorrow) after us, this is the big finale. And it certainly shows. This is easily the grandest of Emmerich's films in terms of visual spectacle, and the effects are definitely something to see. The script, however, is completely recycled from those earlier films, and should be familiar to just about anyone who's watched one of the previous titles.

picAs everyone should know, the film is very loosely based on the belief by some that the world is set to end on December 21st, 2012, as predicted by the ancient Mayans. Personally, I think it's an elaborate plot dreamed up by cheapskates who want to weasel out of their Christmas shopping that year, but I digress. Anyone looking for some serious information on this particular end of the world theory would do better looking up one of the numerous websites devoted to the topic. This movie is a live action cartoon, filled with stock characters that have suited Emmerich well in the past, and he obviously sees no reason to mess with tradition. There's the nice guy who's forced to become a hero in his family's hour of need, some cute kids to clutch onto the hero while the world around them goes up in smoke, a pair of bickering old men, a cooky conspiracy theorist whose ideas may not be so crazy after all, shady government officials who desperately try to hide information from the public, and a noble President of the United States who pretty much stares solemnly at everyone around him while patriotic music plays on the soundtrack. Throw in a lot of impressive action sequences, where a lot of faceless extras die, but our heroes remain unharmed, a cute little dog to get a big reaction from the audience when it narrowly escapes danger, and supporting characters who unwisely say things like "I'll be right back" or "I'll be okay" (which means they'll be dead two minutes later or less), and you get the idea.

picThe hero role is filled in by John Cusack, a likable actor who brings just enough of his screen presence to make his shallow character of Jackson Curtis work. Jackson's a failed sci-fi novelist who now works as a limo driver. As the film opens, he picks up his two kids (Liam James and Morgan Lily) from his ex-wife (Amanda Peet) to take them camping. They arrive at Yellowstone National Park to a surprising number of ominous signs ("The lake's dried up!") and government officials walking about. Jackson also comes across a wild-eyed conspiracy theorist named Charlie Frost, who seems to have been written with Dennis Hopper in mind, but we got Woody Harrelson instead, who does his best Hopper imitation. Charlie tells him about the theory of the world ending on December 21st. Jackson doesn't believe him, but why should he? He wasn't around during the film's opening scenes when a concerned scientist named Adrian (Chiwetel Ejiofor) delivered disturbing findings to the President of the United States (Danny Glover) back in 2009 that evidence from the sun's solar flares and the Earth's crust proves that the world is coming to an end. The President places Adrian and a shifty official named Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt) in charge of building arks that can carry select people safely when the time comes.

picAfter almost an hour of build up and tedious exposition, the time finally does come, and we get what we paid to see - The end of the world. Emmerich goes for pure spectacle here, and pulls off some truly impressive sequences, especially the initial big scene when Jackson and his family are speeding down a collapsing California highway as the ground beneath them literally splits and breaks apart. The trailers have unfortunately given away a lot of this scene, but it's still impressive to watch. Buildings topple, fire falls from the sky, the earth sinks, and thousands of extras (both real and digitally created) flee for their lives or fall to their deaths. The move even has time for a cheap laugh or two, such as when Jackson gets stuck driving behind the car of a tiny old lady moving very slowly as the world is literally falling apart behind them. Is it silly and implausible? Oh, hell yes. But it's also the first sign of life the movie has had up to this point. Up until then, I wasn't all that involved. The dialogue was hokey, the characters were stock, and I just didn't care about what was going on. Things pick up a little bit once the special effects kick in, but we still never escape from the stilted dialogue.

picThis should come as no surprise, but the sole reason to see 2012 is for the effects. The screenplay by Emmerich and composer Harald Kloser (10,000 B.C.) gives us a large number of subplots and characters, but doesn't bother to develop them into anything worth caring about. There's a budding relationship between Adrian and the President's daughter (Thandie Newton) that seems particularly unnecessary, since we already have Jackson and his ex-wife rediscovering their feelings for each other during the crisis to give the movie its romantic angle. Then there's the two old men who work as entertainers on a cruise ship (Blu Mankuma and George Segal), trying to reconnect with their family back on land as the disaster hits. This seems woefully underdeveloped, lacks the emotional punch intended, and could have been removed from the film entirely with no consequence. There's actually a lot here that could have been cut, and made this into a tighter paced movie. In its current form (just over two and a half hours long), there are too many dead spots between the action sequences. The characters aren't strong enough to hold our interest when they're not running for their lives.

picWhile this is certainly not a bad movie, I think that's what did it in for me. I constantly felt a distance between the film and me while I was watching it. I never feared for the characters, or wondered if they were going to make it out okay, since it's pretty easy to tell who will be still alive when the end credits come. (There's only one death late in the film I did not predict.) I also didn't feel for them. I was more interested in what was going on around them, and how the effects artists had pulled it off. That's not to say the actors are disagreeable, although a number of them do go over the top. They know what kind of film they're in, and they give the right amount of effort, but not much more than that. At least they convincingly react to the CG effects all around them, which is really all that's expected of them in a movie like this.
So, 2012 is a total junk food movie that works in some ways, but wears out its welcome. It probably would have been better if the studio had stuck with its original plan to release it over the summer, though. It seems a little out of place with the holiday and Oscar Bait films right around the corner. Still, audiences looking for a cheap thrill will get what they wanted. If that sounds like you, you can bypass this review, buy your ticket, and indulge.

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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Box

I've seen comedies with fewer laughs than The Box. Unfortunately, all of the laughs are completely unintentional. This is a ludicrous, overstuffed, and overblown thriller that is filled with half-baked plot points, and dialogue that only a screenwriter could love. Not only is this a hopelessly muddled movie, but it frequently mistakes confusion for mystery.

picThe film is written and directed by Richard Kelly, who rose to fame with the 2001 indie cult favorite, Donnie Darko, and then pretty much fell from it with his 2006 follow up, Southland Tales. The Box is (in his words) his commercial film, but I fail to picture what kind of audience a movie such as this is supposed to attract. It takes the effective short story, "Button, Button" by Richard Matheson, and then drowns it in unnecessary, convoluted sci-fi elements. Such elements include gateways to the afterlife, mind control, nose bleeds, aliens (I think), men who were struck by lightning and are now missing part of their face, water-like vortexes appearing in the middle of public libraries, and one deformed foot that was the result of an accident with a doctor's x-ray machine. The audience at my screening was laughing out loud with each plot development.

picBut before we get to all that, we're introduced to a married couple named Norma (Cameron Diaz, sporting one of the worst fake Southern accents I've heard in a while.) and Arthur (James Marsden). They're a fairly well off couple with a kid (Sam Oz Stone), but money problems are starting to creep up. Arthur, who works at NASA, didn't get that astronaut position he was hoping for, and Norma (a teacher) needs her deformed foot fixed , and is hit by bad financial news at the school where she works. Early one morning, a wooden box with a red button is left on their doorstep. Later that same day, a man by the name of Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) rings their doorbell. He's the previously mentioned man who is missing part of his face, a fact Norma is able to overlook quite easily because gosh darn it, she knows how it feels to be different, because of her foot. (She tells him this in a hilariously long-winded monologue.) Arlington makes them an offer. If they push the button on the box, someone they don't know will die, and they will receive one million dollars.

picAfter much emotional wrangling and going back and forth, Norma pushes the button. They get the money, and Arlington leaves with a fairly ominous warning that he will deliver the box to someone else, and if they push it, someone they don't know will die, hinting that it could be Norma or Arthur. Oh, if only it were that simple. From this point, the movie takes a nose dive right off the path of coherency, and slips into a series of ideas and plot elements that are either given little to no explanation, or probably would have been better off being left out. This movie needed a director that could weed through Kelly's numerous ideas, and pick out which ones worked and which didn't. As it stands, nothing works here. I admit, I was intrigued at first. Kelly is obviously trying to tell a Twilight Zone-like story about greed and valuing human life. But whatever message or ideas The Box tries to impart are buried underneath a lot of exposition and confused story telling.

picThis isn't just a bad movie, it's an annoyingly bad movie. We're informed at the beginning that the movie is set in 1976 for no reason that I can discern. Therefore, we get a lot of blatant 70s references, like the beyond ugly wallpaper in the home of the main couple, which actually becomes distracting. And just to make sure we really know the movie is set in the 70s, we get a lot of TV sound bites from the era blasting in the background, like the Bicentennial and advertisements for the TV sitcom What's Happening. This obviously holds some nostalgic value for Kelly, but it has no place in the story. And then there is the obnoxious music score, which constantly pounds away at your senses, and underscores each scene with the subtlety of a jackhammer. It's distracting almost from the moment it enters the film. The performances, as well, are largely over the top. Only Langella displays any credibility as the soft-spoken, yet ominous Arlington Steward. Diaz seems to be concentrating only on not letting her bad accent slip (which it occasionally does), while Marsden simply looks befuddled most of the time.
I'm sure that devotees of the director will view The Box as some sort of misunderstood masterpiece, but there's just too much off here. The performances, the music, the editing, the writing...It's impossible to take it seriously as it goes along. Whatever point the movie was trying to make is lost long before the thing is over. And when it's finally done, you walk out shaking your head, wondering how something like this got the green light. Maybe some mysteries are better left unsolved.

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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Fourth Kind

Given how many movies there are about aliens, it's surprising how few there are about alien abductions. The last major one I can remember is 1993's Fire in the Sky, which was a pretty mediocre film until the impressive and truly frightening climax that took place on the ship. Because of this, I was kind of hoping that The Fourth Kind would fill a void. I took my seat, ready to be intrigued. As the movie played on, intrigue was replaced by boredom. You know you're in trouble when you start checking your watch 15 minutes in.

picWriter-director Olatunde Osunsanmi has given the film an interesting hook, at least. The movie is a mixture of fictionalized recreation of a supposedly real incident concerning a series of mysterious disappearances that have happened in Nome, Alaska, combined with "real" documentary footage. The whole thing, in truth, is an elaborate fiction, much like the recent Paranormal Activity. You only need to look at the credits, and see that three different people are credited with coming up with the story to know that it's not as real as the movie would like you to believe. But, the movie keeps on trying to convince you what you're seeing actually happened. It's kind of annoying, actually. One of the reasons why Paranormal Activity worked so well is that it did not draw attention to itself. There were no credits, no studio logo, and no constant reminders that you were watching a movie. The Fourth Kind goes out of its way to the point of annoyance, giving us subtitles reminding us that we are looking at paid actors. Heck, the film's lead star, Milla Jovovich, even walks right up to the camera at the beginning of the movie, and tells us that what we're about to see is very real and very disturbing. She oversells it, as I doubt anyone but the most paranoid of alien conspiracy theorists could find what follows disturbing.

picThat's not to say there's a jump scare or two, but for the most part, the movie is a long and tedious slog where Jovovich's character, a psychologist named Abigail Tyler, pieces together information that the disappearances in her town may be the result of aliens. It all starts when she begins to interview a number of patients suffering from sleep disorders who all tell the same story. Around 3 in the morning or so, they wake up and see an owl staring at them through the window. They can't remember anything else, so she places her patients under hypnosis, where they relive a supposedly terrifying memory from the night before that's been locked away in their minds. The patients scream and thrash about madly under the hypnosis, and when Abigail brings them back, they can't even speak of the terrible things they've seen. One patient even goes so far as to murder his wife and kids, then kills himself, so he doesn't have to remember it anymore, or put his family through it. We witness this both through dramatizations, and "real" video footage of the supposed actual sessions. The movie uses a split screen effect, with the "real" footage on the left, and the recreation on the right. We also occasionally get to see some interviews with the real life Abigail Tyler, who is supposed to be traumatized by the events that followed, but comes across as more of an actress than Jovovich herself.

picAfter the patient performs the murder-suicide, the town's local sheriff ("Will Patton - actor, as Sheriff August", the movie says when he walks on the screen the first time) becomes suspicious of Abigail. His suspicions are deepened by the fact that Abigail's husband was murdered a few months ago by an intruder they were never able to find. As if all this isn't enough, one of Abigail's kids went blind after her husband's murder (Mia McKenna-Bruce), and the other kid (Raphael Coleman, in a very over the top performance) hates her guts. Instead of helping her children get over the feelings of loss and resentment, Abigail instead becomes obsessed with the notion that aliens are responsible for all the recent strange activities going on around her, and drags fellow psychologist Abel Campos (Elias Koteas) into a hunt for the truth. They watch a lot of videotape, listen to a lot of garbled recordings that are supposed to be alien speech caught on tape, and interview an expert on dead languages, which may be a key to the aliens.

picAll of this sounds potentially exciting, but the script moves at a glacial pace. Instead of building suspense or intrigue, The Fourth Kind seems more interested in constantly breaking the fourth wall, and reminding us whether what we're watching is real or a dramatization. Of course, it's all a dramatization. It's been documented that there was never an Abigail Tyler working in the psychology field in Alaska, and any bit of evidence found on the Internet related to the film was planted by Universal Studios as a promotional gimmick a month or so in advance. I didn't know this in advance to watching the film, and I still had my serious doubts when I saw how broad some of the performances were in the "actual" footage. It didn't help that the video camera was constantly and conveniently blacking out or turning fuzzy whenever something important was supposed to be happening. The movie itself is well made at least, even if some of the performances are off. Jovovich's idea of a dramatic performance seems to consist of talking in a whispered monotone as often as possible.
When you stop and think about it, this movie amounts to really nothing more than an elaborate hoax that no one really bought into to begin with, anyway. I hate to bring up Paranormal Activity again, but at least the filmmakers had the sense to claim it was fiction from the start. It's not like the makers of Cloverfield tried to convince us a monster really did attack New York City. (Although I would have loved to see them try.) So, who are the makers of The Fourth Kind trying to kid? It's all a bunch of smoke and mirrors trying to cover up a movie that isn't all that interesting to start with.

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