Reel Opinions

Thursday, December 31, 2009

The 4th Annual Reel Stinkers Awards

It's that magical time of the year again. As we reflect back on the year that was, the time comes for me to think back on the films that stole 90 minutes to two hours out of my life. Time to count down the worst movies of 2009.

You'll notice some changes here. Usually, I count down the Top 5 movies, then go on to the Dishonorable Mentions - films that were bad, but not quite bad enough to crack the top. This year, I'm going beyond the Top 5, and giving you the Top 10. Yes, 2009 was a treasure trove of stinkers, and there were too many movies that I felt deserving of top spots. So, I'm upping the ante.

As always, my Best of 2009 list is on its way. There are still some films in limited release that I need to see, and I have to give them a chance before I write up my list. So, let's get this ball rolling, and carve up some cinematic turkeys.


10. STREET FIGHTER: THE LEGEND OF CHUN-LI - This was Hollywood's second attempt to turn the successful Street Fighter video games into a live action franchise, and given how awful their first attempt (released back in 1994) was, this was surprisingly even worse. Kristin Kreuk from TV's Smallville portrays the title heroine as a boring and brooding vigilante. The film itself is kind of dark and murky, which is a complete turnaround from the video games, which are usually bright and colorful. We're left with a plodding action movie with little action, and fights that sometimes end seconds after they start. There's also some hilariously bad casting on display, such as the little girl they got to play Chun-Li as a child (who looks absolutely nothing like Kreuk), and a miscast Chris Klein as a police detective on the trail of Chun-Li.
9. DRAGONBALL EVOLUTION - I almost hate putting this movie in the Top 10, because it's one of those movies that are so bad, it's funny and entertaining for all the wrong reasons. This live action take on the popular Japanese manga and anime follows a young boy named Goku (Justin Chatwin) who teams up with a girl named Bulma Briefs (yes, that is her real name) and a team of young martial artists to track down objects called DragonBalls which, when joined together, can grant a "perfect wish" (whatever a "perfect wish" is). The cast frequently look just as confused as the audience is, the movie is terribly misdirected, and the only joy it creates is from the unintentional laughs it gets. Dragonball hit theaters in Japan a month before the U.S., so word got out quickly to the fans that the film was a total dog, and no one went to see it.
8. FIRED UP - In this pathetic farce, two of the oldest-looking high school football players ever captured on film (played by actors who are pushing 30 in real life) ditch football training camp, and go to cheerleader camp instead, hoping they can score with the girls there. Since the movie is PG-13, the sex is tame, and the raunchy humor is lame. Instead, we get some moldy old high school movie plot cliches. Will the cheerleader dating the school jerk wise up and fall for one of the football guys? Will the school's cheerleader team, which has routinely come in last place every year of the camp's competition, be able to bet their more popular rival team? Will you care? Fun fact - This was supposed to be Maxim Magazine's first attempt at a feature film franchise, similar to National Lampoon. When they saw this clunker, they had their name taken off the film, and all references to their involvement was covered up.
7. TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN - Yes, this movie was the most successful film of 2009, but do you honestly know anyone over the age of 20 who actually enjoyed watching this? Michael Bay's sequel was everything that was wrong about summer blockbusters tossed together into an overly long mess of a film. It was loud, it was it was annoying, it was chaotic, and it didn't make a bit of sense. It was a total sensory overload that seemed like it would never end. Bay's movie has reduced the Autobots and Decepticons (both childhood icons to me) into giant walking pieces of scrap metal that never shut up, and sometimes are hard to tell apart from one another.
6. OLD DOGS - This long-delayed comedy finally limped onto screens over Thanksgiving weekend. What a perfect time for such a giant cinematic turkey! A painfully unfunny mess featuring the very talented Robin Williams and John Travolta reducing themselves to playing a couple of friends who are forced to look after a pair of cute, bland Hollywood kids. Wackiness is supposed to ensue, but all we get is tedium. The film was edited over and over again in a futile attempt to save a doomed project, so we get a movie that seems to have been edited with a chainsaw. Scenes begin and end with little rhyme or reason, and characters fade in and out of the narrative with no explanation. The only amusing thing about this movie is how many talented people were suckered into it.
5. BRIDE WARS - This woeful comedy casts the lovely and talented Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson as a pair of best friends who turn into feuding "Bridezillas" when their dream weddings are accidentally scheduled for the same time and place. A sensible person could solve this problem easily, but the screenplay has been written for idiots, and takes us through a long and insufferable plot where the two girls turn into obnoxious, screaming harpies who try to sabotage each other's wedding preparations. Seeing Hathaway and Hudson lower themselves to this level was depressing, not funny. The whole thing was a 90 minute exercise on the Idiot Plot, where the characters are forced to act like total idiots, or else the movie would be over in less than 10 minutes. If only the misery Bride Wars brings could be over so fast.
4. THE BOX - I've seen comedies with fewer laughs than The Box. Too bad this was intended to be a tense, psychological sci-fi thriller. James Marsden and Cameron Diaz (sporting one of the worst fake Southern accents in recent cinema memory) find a wooden box left on their doorstep by a mysterious man who has part of his face missing (Frank Langella). He tells the couple that if they push the button on top of the box, someone who they don't know will die, and the pair will receive $1 million. That's the easy part to comprehend. It quickly goes downhill into a confusing and messy sci-fi parable. We get gateways to the afterlife, mind control, nose bleeds, deformed feet, aliens, men who are back from the dead, and water-like vortexes appearing out of nowhere. What we don't get is an answer to what any of this means, and what writer-director Richard Kelly was thinking when he made this.
3. THE TWILIGHT SAGA: NEW MOON - I was not a fan of last year's Twilight, but New Moon was just an interminable and unwatchable piece of junk. No other franchise has mystified me with its popularity like Twilight has. This time around, lead heroine Bella (Kristen Stewart) is forced to break up with her vampire boyfriend, Edward (Robert Pattinson), and then spends the entire two and a half hours of the movie sulking, moping, and hanging out with her hunky best friend (Taylor Lautner), who walks around with his shirt off most of the film in order to show off his chiseled body, and is secretly a werewolf. Bella is one of the most self-centered heroines I've encountered in a movie. She cares only about herself, and routinely puts herself in danger, just so that she can have a vision of her vampire hottie, with no thought to anyone else who may care about her. That's the whole movie in a nutshell, only stretched to two and a half hours, which feel like six while you're watching it. If the glacial pace of the film doesn't get you, then the monotone and wooden performances will.
2. HALLOWEEN II - Rob Zombie's follow up to his 2007 revamp of Halloween is a dark, depressing, unpleasant, badly acted, and incoherent experience. The movie has no vision, and merely wants to be an endurance test to see how much depression and brutality the audience can take before they bolt for the theater doors. Young heroine Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) is trying to forget about the deadly events last Halloween. Meanwhile, the psychotic Michael Myers gets a visit from the ghost of his mom on a white horse (don't ask), who tells him to track down Laurie again. Michael spends days walking to the town, kidnaps Laurie, and then seemingly returns to his hideout in a matter of minutes. (Just one of the many glaring logic holes to be found within the film.) We get a lot of graphic violence with little meaning, and a lot of weird images that writer-director Zombie doesn't even try to explain. Not even an out of the blue cameo appearance by the king of polka parodies, "Weird Al" Yankovic, can salvage this garbage.
1. ALL ABOUT STEVE - This is not only the worst film of 2009, but quite possibly one of the worst romantic comedies ever made. Sandra Bullock plays a woman named Mary Horowitz, who is supposed to come across as quirky and lovable, but often comes across as an insane, borderline psychotic, nutjob. Mary is set up on a blind date with a guy named Steve (Bradley Cooper), a cameraman from a cable news channel. This single date is enough to turn Mary into an obsessed stalker. She becomes so obsessed with the man that it causes her to lose her job, which she sees as a sign that she should devote her life to stalking and following Steve wherever he goes. Remember, this is supposed to be a light-hearted comedy. Instead, it ends up being a repulsive misfire of a movie. Bullock is embarrassing, forced to wear obnoxiously loud clothes, and act like a mentally unhinged 16-year-old with a crush. It gets even worse when Bullock falls down into an abandoned mine, and becomes a hero, because she helps rescue a class of deaf children who were on a field trip to an amusement park, and all ended up falling down into the mine. (I'm not making this up.) It's stupid, it's kind of disturbing, and it's the worst time I had at the movies all year.

Whew...Finally got that done with. Now it's time to move onto the Dishonorable Mentions of 2009. Make no mistake, even though the following films did not crack the Top 10, they are still very bad movies. Approach any of the following films with extreme caution.


The Unborn, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, The Uninvited, New in Town, Push, Confessions of a Shopaholic, Madea Goes to Jail, The Last House on the Left, Miss March, Alien Trespass, Fast and Furious, Hannah Montana: The Movie, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, Dance Flick, Year One, I Love You Beth Cooper, Orphan, Aliens in the Attic, The Time Traveller's Wife, The Goods, Post Grad, The Final Destination, Gamer, Sorority Row, Pandorum, The Stepfather, Planet 51, Ninja Assassin, Transylmania, Did You Hear About the Morgans?, The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day


Tie between New Moon and Halloween II

The Final Destination

Anne Hathaway in Bride Wars

The entire cast of New Moon

Planet 51

Tie between Romantic "comedies" that are painful to watch, and vampire movies

The Stepfather (Halloween II is disqualified, since it is technically not a remake of 1981's Halloween II.)

All About Steve

Dakota Fanning in New Moon and Push
Thomas Haden Church in All About Steve and Aliens in the Attic
J.K. Simmons in New in Town, Aliens in the Attic, and Post Grad

Mudflap and Skids, the obnoxious jive-talking Autobots in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Tie between Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and New Moon

Fox for releasing Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, Dragonball Evolution, Bride Wars, All About Steve, Miss March, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, I Love You Beth Cooper, Aliens in the Attic, and Post Grad. Keep up the good work, guys!

Well, there you have it. The worst of 2009 in a nutshell. Now let us never speak of them again, and hope that everyone involved with them gets to do a good movie in 2010.

Have a great year, and happy viewing to you all!


Monday, December 28, 2009

The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day

Ten years ago, the story of upstart filmmaker Troy Duffy was supposed to be a rags to riches Hollywood tale like no other. He was a bartender who managed to sell his first script to Miramax Films for almost a million dollars, and became the toast of Hollywood overnight. His script for The Boondock Saints was the talk of the town for a little while, but a series of events led to no studio contract, no support, and a film release that only hit 5 screens for a week. All of this can be viewed in the highly entertaining documentary, Overnight, which chronicles the rise and fall of the cinematic career of Duffy. I highly recommend you watch it. I definitely recommend you watch it over his 10 years too late sequel, The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day.

picYes, Duffy's film managed to become a major cult classic on DVD - so much so that a sequel is now in theaters. The original obviously has its fans, and so will this one. I, however, can only report on my personal reaction, and I can say with certainty that this is one of the most forced examples of cinematic machoism that I've seen in many a moon. Everything about this movie rings false. The dialogue rings false, because it uses four letter words in much the same way a 13-year-old would in order to sound tough. The overall tone rings false, because it feels a constant need to remind us how cool and bad it is, and it just comes across as being desperate. The visual style and tone of the action sequences seems to be stuck in the late 90s, back when people were trying to emulate Tarantino. It feels very dated, out of touch, and very unsure of itself, despite the cocky male attitudes that are constantly on display in each and every one of its characters.

picThe movie reunites us with the MacManus Brothers, a pair of hard-drinking, tough talking Irish blokes who went on a vigilante killing spree 10 years ago in Boston, which climaxed with the public execution of a notorious gangster. Since that day, they have gone into hiding, and now live with their father (Billy Connolly) in Ireland, tending sheep. Connor (Sean Patrick Flanery) and Murphy (Norman Reedus) McManus now have fake long hair and beards that make them both look like they're both starring in the title role of a dinner theater production of Jesus Christ: Superstar. But then, troubling news comes their way. Back in Boston, a priest has been murdered, and the killer has tried to use their signature murder style, so that the police will think that the MacManus Brothers were responsible. A quick shave, haircut, and a gratuitous shower scene later, and the boys are ready for action once again to track down the killer. Their father does not seem the least bit surprised by his sons' actions. He explains their need for revenge by saying, "Peace is the enemy of memory". I'll leave you to figure that one out.

picSo, the MacManus Brothers return to Boston, and team up with a trio of foul-mouthed simple minded cops from the first film. There's some new friends to aid them, as well. On the ship back to America, they befriend a Mexican named Romeo (Clifton Collins, Jr.), who acts as their sidekick, comic relief, and an excuse for them to make a lot of dated racist and ethnic jokes about Mexicans. There's also an FBI Special Agent named Eunice Bloom (Julie Benz), whose decision to wear dominatrix-style high heels at crime scenes does not seem the least bit practical. (When she makes her entrance at the scene of the priest's murder, she slowly steps out of a car like a supermodel in an 80s music video, complete with blaring guitar rifts blasting on the soundtrack.) From this point on, the plot doesn't really matter. Connor and Murphy spend as little time as possible gathering information on who framed them, and spend most of the time trading drunken insults with one another, and occasionally getting in elaborate and overly-staged shoot outs, that are often done in slow motion, and sometimes given instant replays, just in case we missed a single detail the first time around.

picAt least The Boondock Saints II is a competently made bad movie. It's shot well enough, and there are some good actors on display, including Peter Fonda and Willem Dafoe in small roles. But the story is leaden, and the dialogue is often insulting in its misguided views of manhood and violence. It's hard to tell if Duffy is trying to be ironic, or if he actually believes the stuff he has his characters preach. He even stops the movie completely to give us a lengthy dream sequence where the MacManus Brothers are visited by a fallen friend, who inspires them with talk of "real men don't talk about their feelings", and "John Wayne was such a man, he died with 45 pounds of undigested red meat in his ass". As if the movie's forced male machoism vibe wasn't enough for us to pick up on the point, he has to stop the film to spell it out for us. The guys in this movie murder with glee, frequently make jokes about prison rape and homosexuality, and guzzle hard liquor as if it were water. The only time the MacManus Brothers are really offended is if their manhood is brought into question.

I got tired of all this forced male posturing long before the movie did. Did I mention this movie is almost two hours long? Well, it is, and it runs out of steam before the first hour is up. This is a tiresome and very tired movie that becomes even more so the more it stresses how cool and manly it is. I imagine Duffy hopes his audience will go out and buy a six pack of beer and eat an extra bloody steak when they're done watching this movie. All I wanted to do was wipe this movie from my memory as soon as possible. Think I'll start as soon as I'm done typing this sentence.

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Sunday, December 27, 2009


There's a lot of star power on display in Nine, but very little else to engage us. The songs are sung well enough (this is a musical, after all), but they are at the service of a story we can never get emotionally attached to. A lot of big names like Daniel Day-Lewis, Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Sophia Loren, Kate Hudson, Marion Cotillard, and even Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas obviously put forth a lot of energy and effort, but I don't think director Rob Marshall (Chicago) has a clear vision here.

picThe movie is supposed to take us into the mind of Italian director, Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis), as he struggles with his latest film and the various women who make up his life and his past. His newest film has wonderful costumes, a set, and a beautiful leading lady in the form of his current muse, Claudia (Nicole Kidman). What it does not have is a script. Instead of facing the problem head-on, Guido drives off to go into seclusion and smoke, drink, and engage in various affairs with his mistress (Penelope Cruz) and a reporter (Kate Hudson). No matter how far he runs, however, his life catches up with him. His producer and crew track him down, as does his long-suffering wife (Marion Cotillard), who was once a promising young actress, but now devotes herself to a man that she knows does not truly love him. As Guido tries to sort out both his professional and personal problems, he is haunted by visions of his past, which include his late mother (Sophia Loren), his Catholic upbringing, and his experiences as a child when he encountered a prostitute (Fergie).

picNine sets itself up into a predictable formula quite quickly. We're introduced into a woman either from Guido's past or his present, and they sing their feelings about him in an elaborately staged musical number. Even his costume designer (Judi Dench) gets her turn in a cabaret-style number. The songs are lively, though were probably much more thrilling on the live stage in the original Broadway production than they are here. The problem here is that the songs stop the story, instead of enhancing them like they should. The musical sequences never feel like they belong in the story itself. It's almost as if the movie is trying to tell the story of the director's infidelities and experiences with women, with occasional stops for variety show-style tunes. It's well known that this is intended as a musical adaptation of Federico Fellini's classic film 8 1/2. That film served as an internal look at the mind and struggles of the filmmaker, and the filmmaking process. This feels like a musical revue that never gets off the ground.

picThat's not the say the movie doesn't have its moments. They are simply buried under a lot of content that never quite engages. I think there is a surprising lack of emotion here. Daniel Day-Lewis can be a very compelling and easily relatable screen presence, but he seems muted here. Maybe he was not right for the role, but we don't get to feel any real emotion in his turn as Guido until the very end. Likewise, we don't get to spend enough time with a lot of the women in Guido's life to truly get to feel their emotions. They show up, sing a number or two, then walk off the screen. It creates a distant experience, where the audience knows what they're supposed to be feeling, but don't actually feel it. It creates a curious feeling for the audience, where we feel like we're filling in the blanks that the movie should be filling.

picThere is one notable exception, and that is Marion Cotillard as Guido's wife, Luisa. Not only is she beautiful to look at and sings very well in her two numbers, but she manages to get us behind her character. Of the various women who walk in and out of Guido's life, she seems to get the most screen time. It's a wonderful performance, and one of the few characters who actually seems to have more than two dimensions. A close second would be Penelope Cruz, who plays a woman who obviously loves Guido, and wants to be more than his mistress. But there's still a distance with her. When she tries to poison herself when Guido rejects her, it does not have the punch that it should. We watch with casualness, when our hearts should be breaking for her.
I guess I don't really know whom Nine was made for. Despite the fact the original stage musical won a number of awards back in 1982, I don't think it has the drawing power to be the hit the studio wants it to be. And fans of the original Fellini film are likely to stay home and watch it instead. This is the kind of movie where you admire the actors and the skill that went into making it attractive to look at, but there's nothing that grabs you underneath.

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Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel

Fans of 2007's live action take on Alvin and the Chipmunks can take heart. The Squeakquel is more of the same, and matches the quality of the first film in every way. It's no better or worse. Those who were not taken by the 2007 movie should heed this warning. The Squeakquel is more of the same, and matches the quality of the first film in every way. In other words, you already know what you think of this movie without seeing it. My reaction was certainly exactly the same. It's kind of sweet in a bland way, not very offensive, and not interesting in the slightest.

picThe helium voiced pop star trio of Alvin (voice by Justin Long), Simon (voice by Matthew Gray Gubler) and Theodore (voice by Jesse McCartney) are back, but this time, they are joined by three new rodents who want to follow in their footsteps (paw-steps?) and break into the music scene. They are the Chipettes, and their music act is best described as Destiny's Child, only smaller and furrier. This group is made up of three young chipmunk girls named Brittany (voice by Christina Applegate), Jeanette (voice by Anna Faris), and Eleanor (voice by Amy Poehler). Those are some pretty big names voicing the Chipettes, which surprised and confused me. Surprised, because I can't imagine what projects these women must have turned down so they could get the chance to do the voices of singing rodents. Confused, because I fail to see the point of casting celebrity talent as the Chipmunks or Chipettes, since their voices are sped up and distorted to the point that you have no idea who is playing them. None of their talent comes through in their performances, and they all sound the same when their voices have been sped up to "chipmunk level", so it defeats the whole purpose of casting name actors.

picBut, I digress. Back to the plot. The Chipettes arrive by mailing themselves in a Fed-Ex package, and have the misfortune of falling into the hands of sleazy former music producer, Ian (David Cross). Those who saw the first movie will remember that he was the villain who abused the Chipmunks, working them to exhaustion until they managed to escape and ruin his career. Now he's looking for revenge, and sees the naive Chipettes as his opportunity to disgrace the Chipmunks and get back to the top of the music business. Meanwhile, the original Chipmunks are sent off to school, as their father figure Dave (Jason Lee) has decided they need an education. Unfortunately, Dave is injured in a freak concert accident in the film's opening scene, so he's gone for most of the movie. (Apparently, Lee only agreed to return if he could shoot all of his scenes in one or two days.) With Dave out of the picture, the Chipmunks are put in the care of a family relative - the irresponsible and video game-obsessed Toby (Zachary Levi from TV's Chuck), who seems to be suffering from an extreme case of arrested development. At school, the Chipmunks fend off bullies, play football, and participate in a concert in order to save the school's music program.

picThink about how disappointing this is. You have three talking and singing woodland creatures (six, if you count the Chipettes) going to a school filled with teenage humans. Imagine the possibilities you could dream up, or the trouble you could have the little creatures get into. You could have Alvin try out for the school musical. You could have Simon get a crush on a human girl, and have a very funny scene where he has to meet her parents. You could have Theodore struggling in class, and finding inspiration in a teacher. There's a lot of opportunity, and The Squeakquel ignores them all. I think they only set foot in an actual classroom for about two minutes. I was dying to see how the little Chipmunks would take notes in class, seeing as the pencil and paper would probably be two times bigger than they are. Instead of actual imagination or humor, we get some lame bullies, and an uninvolved subplot concerning peer pressure, where Alvin has to decide if he wants to be popular and hang out with the evil jocks, or stick with his brothers. You can do so much more with talking Chipmunks, I assure you.

picOf course, the kids won't care. The packed theater I saw this movie in certainly didn't seem to mind the lack of inspiration, or the total absence of fresh humor. They "awwhed" on cue when adorable little Theodore snuggled up close to Toby. They burst into laughter when feisty little Alvin gave a wedgie to the bully who had just dunked Simon's head in a toilet. They even laughed when the movie threw in some dated and tired pop culture references to films like Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now, and The Silence of the Lambs. I expect a lot of things from an Alvin and the Chipmunks movie. Seeing Alvin imitating Hannibal Lecter is not one of them. I watched the whole thing with general disinterest, but never really hated the film. The movie's far too bland to create any strong feelings, positive or negative. This is the kind of movie where everyone showed up to do their job, did their job, and went home, probably wondering at what point did their careers arrive at the level where they have to play second fiddle to animals that aren't even there on the set.
The movie does its job, too. It gets the kids out of the house, and entertains them with a lot of bright colors, cute CG animals, pop music, and fart jokes for 90 minutes. I guess that's all you can expect for a movie that calls itself a "Squeakquel". When the inevitable third movie comes, I hope the writers can actually think of something interesting for the Chipmunks and Chipettes to do. They're kind of cute in a way, but just like the movie itself, very boring.

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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Sherlock Holmes

The updated, revisionist take on Sherlock Holmes is sure to be greeted by a severely mixed reaction. Those who hold the classic stories close to their hearts might find it hard to view the famous London super sleuth as some sort of strung-out superhero. That's certainly the way director Guy Ritchie (RocknRolla) depicts him. Oh, he's just as analytical and deductive as he's always been. But some viewers might be in for a shock when Holmes and Dr. Watson burst open the door of the villain's lair, and begin duking it out with an army of thugs early on.

picI greatly enjoyed this movie, though, and I suspect a lot of audiences members will feel the same way. It's a lot of fun, it's beautiful to look at thanks to some clever set design and beautiful cinematography by Philippe Rousselot (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), and it keeps up a good pace to hold our interest. There are flaws to be found, certainly. The storytelling can sometimes be murky, and the ending doesn't really resolve anything, opting instead to serve entirely as a set up for a sequel that may not come, but I hope does. There's too much here for just one movie to hold. Robert Downey, Jr. takes on the role of Holmes, and he certainly continues the winning streak he started last year. He's a riot to watch, and fills out the character better than I would have imagined. Jude Law shows up as Watson, and he too seems to be having more fun than he's had in a film in a while. They make a great pair, and the main reason I hope the film does become a franchise is because I would love to see their screen relationship strengthen over a series of films.

picThe film beings by throwing us in the middle of the action, with our heroes in hot pursuit of a notorious serial killer with ties to the occult and black magic named Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong). The villain is captured and sentenced to death, but does not seem the least bit worried. He even warns Holmes during a prison visit that he will continue his killing spree from beyond the grave. Sure enough, mere days after Blackwood is hanged for his crimes, reports start coming in of sightings of Blackwood all across London. More crimes and more murder victims begin to appear, and as Holmes and Watson race to discover the truth, they are brought face-to-face with a ghost from Holmes' past. A woman named Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) seems to play some part in the latest mystery. She was once a possible love interest for the famous detective years ago, until she revealed herself to be a criminal and ran off. Now she's back for reasons that are not initially clear, though she seems to be working for a mysterious and shadowy man who will be very familiar to fans of the original stories. Love continues to complicate matters in the form of Watson's girlfriend, Mary (Kelly Reilly), whom the doctor plans to marry, and possibly leave Holmes for good for a normal domestic life.

picThe ad campaign for Sherlock Holmes emphasizes the special effects and over the top action sequences, and though there is certainly an abundance of both, they do not overpower the story, or the mystery at the center of it all. The movie is frantic, yes, but not to the levels of annoyance usually associated with directors like Michael Bay. I liked the tone of the film, how it mixes traditional Holmes elements of deduction and analyzing, while at the same time updating things just enough to be entertaining for mass audiences. It never feels too dumbed down, and it never feels like it's doing a great disservice to the original stories - which is what a reinvention of a franchise should be. For all of its updating and revisionist takes on the classic characters, there are still some hidden tributes and references for fans to pick up on. Clearly the filmmakers did some research, instead of just throwing together a blockbuster, and slapping a famous literary character name on it.

picThe care of the filmmakers shows in just about every aspect here. The movie's look is appropriately dark for the time period, but not gloomy. There's a certain wonder and beauty to the design, which seems to be inspired half by historical London and half by imagination. The casting is pretty much pitch perfect all the way around, except for Rachel McAdams, who never really grabs our attention the way her character is supposed to, unfortunately. Most important, however, are the action sequences, which are done well enough so that they don't seem out of place in a Holmes film. I liked the way that Holmes would sometimes go over the fight in his mind, analyzing and planning each step and swing he would take, and just how much damage it would inflect upon his opponent, until he found the best solution for victory in battle. It's too bad that the film drops this approach fairly early on in the film.
If the film seems confident in itself by setting itself up for an inevitable sequel, it has every right to be. This is a well made and highly entertaining piece of escapism. Sherlock Holmes is light on sense, but it's energetic, much more so than some recent blockbusters. I can only hope that any future installments leave me in similar spirits, wanting more.

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It's Complicated

Before I begin this review, I'd like to get on my soapbox, and rant a little about the folks at the MPAA, and their rating of this film. It's Complicated is a sweet, funny, harmless romantic comedy that contains only one utterance of a four letter word, has no real nudity (and when there is, it's covered up Austin Powers-style), and although sex plays a large role in the story, we don't actually get to see it, only the events after. Sounds to me like this would be a PG-13, tops. And yet, due to the fact that there is a comic sequence halfway through the film where the lead characters become goofy after smoking a single joint, the film has been slapped with an R-rating. And yes, this really is the only reason it received the rating, as reported in the Los Angeles Times.

picI could wonder about the logic behind the rating, but that would probably take up this entire review. I know that the ratings are supposed to advise audiences about the content, but isn't this a little extreme? Consider Avatar, a movie that features multiple acts of violence, including people getting shot at, blown up, crushed to death, and speared through the heart multiple times. It is PG-13, and even has kid-friendly merchandise such as Happy Meals available at McDonalds everywhere. Yes, it's all fantasy-based violence, but I still don't really understand the logic here. Even the previously mentioned Austin Powers films were PG-13, despite containing gross out humor and content much worse than anything to be found in It's Complicated. (Remember the scene where Mike Myers drinks a cup of feces, mistaking it for coffee?) I'll stop here, but I think you get the point. The rating should not keep anyone away from the sweet-natured and somewhat surprising romantic comedy.

picI say surprising, as this is one of the few times watching a romantic comedy where I was not certain of the outcome before the characters were. Writer-director Nancy Meyers (The Holiday) has crafted a love story that is not quite as complex as the title implies, but still leaves you uncertain about who will end up with whom when the end credits roll. It's a love triangle between a single mother named Jane (Meryl Streep), her ex-husband Jake (Alec Baldwin), and a new man in Jane's life, a lonely architect who is helping her with additions to her house named Adam (Steve Martin). As the film opens, Jane is a recent empty nester. She's been divorced from Jake for the past 10 years, and her kids have all grown up and moved on. Jane sees this as the perfect opportunity to get the dream kitchen she has always wanted, as she runs a highly successful pastry business outside of her home, so this is why she hires Adam. There's a connection, to be sure. Adam is sweet-natured, kind, and still hurting from his own divorce. They seem like a good couple. But then Jake comes back. When Jake left, he was having an affair with a young woman (Lake Bell), whom he has since married. But life with the woman and her bratty 5-year-old son has lost its luster, and Jake is beginning to realize what he left behind.

picJane and Jake reunite in New York City for their youngest son's college graduation. Fate conspires to bring them together (her kids run off to be with friends, while he's alone because his wife had to stay home and take care of the sick child). They share drinks and dinner at the hotel bar, and before the night is over, they're dancing and even having sex back in the room. Jane sees it as a one-time lapse of judgement. Jake sees it as something more. He wants to rekindle what they once had together. He begins slipping away to be with her, and the more time they spend together, the more we realize that yes, we want them to be together. Jake obviously still cares very deeply for her, and although she initially resists, feelings start to form on Jane's side as well. But what about Adam? When she's together with him, we also want them to be together. He's obviously dealing with a lot of grief from his own divorce, and sees Jane as the first source of normalcy his personal life has had since his ex-wife ran off with his best friend during a vacation. He cares about her just as much as Jake. It's rare for the outcome of a romantic comedy to be a surprise, but Meyers pulls it off, but making the three characters at the center smart, interesting, and likable despite their flaws.

picIt's Complicated is certainly smarter and better-acted than most films targeting women we got this past year. It's also genuinely funny in a number of scenes, including some scenes so funny, you can't hear the dialogue over the audience's laughter. The cast certainly helps here. Streep, Baldwin, and Martin all bring a certain low key comic sense to the film. They never seem to be overacting or reaching for the intended comic response. Even when Baldwin's character is sneaking around outside his ex-wife's house, spying on her date with Adam, it's done a lot less broadly than I expected. Although the movie is largely a romantic comic fantasy, the performances keep it grounded in reality. Martin, in particular, is sweetly charming in his role. Considering how many paychecks he's been cashing in the Pink Panther and Cheaper by the Dozen films, this serves as a reminder that yes, he can actually act and be very likable when the film doesn't force him to be clueless buffoon. Streep, meanwhile, probably could have done this role in her sleep, but she doesn't phone it in. She makes Jane into a well-rounded and charismatic woman that we can relate to. This is harder than it sounds, considering her character lives in a sprawling house in Santa Barbara, which she apparently is able to afford by running a pastry store.

picThe film is not perfect, and does take a few rare missteps. Jane has a small group of best friends, whom she gossips and drinks wine with in a few scenes. These women serve absolutely no point to the film, other than to scream and laugh as Jane recounts her recent relationship trials. They all talk and act like they wandered in from a lesser Nora Ephron film, and have no place here. The supporting characters are also nowhere near as strong as the three main characters, and don't seem to have been written with the same level of care. The only supporting character who does stand out is the future husband of one of Jane's daughters, who is played by John Krasinski. He has some great comic and physical reactions to everything that's going on around him, so it's the performance that makes the character stand out. I can picture the character disappearing into the background, if he had been played by someone else.
Despite this, It's Complicated manages to be entertaining, thanks mainly to the strong leads, and some genuinely funny writing on Meyers' part. It's sure to be a big draw for women over the holiday season, and it deserves to be. Considering the quality of most recent romantic comedies, I would praise this movie for just being watchable. Fortunately, there's a lot more to recommend here.

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Up in the Air

It is the job of a film critic to recommend films to their readers. However, all too often, I find myself recommending films for certain people, or interests. Rarely does a film come along that I feel the need to tell everyone to go see. Up in the Air is that rare kind of film. It is a simple, deep, and meaningful little film that never once falls into the trap of pretentiousness, and is so thoroughly entertaining, I have a hard time picturing the person who would hate it (though I'm sure they are out there). This is an absolutely wonderful film, and is one of 2009's very best.

picThis is the third film for director Jason Reitman, a filmmaker who, in a very short amount of time, has shown remarkable skill in not only directing, but also writing and choosing his projects carefully. (His other credits include Thank You For Smoking, and 2007's Juno.) Here, he not only shows his talent for mixing humor with human drama, but also for creating unforgettable characters. The lead character in the story is Ryan Bingham, a man who fires people for a living, and literally lives out of his suitcase. He has an apartment, which is barely furnished, since he lives there less than a hundred days out of the year. Most of the time, his home is in the sky, as he flies from city to city, visiting various corporations and helping them deal with firing their employees when cut backs are needed. Ryan is comfortable in his life. He has no real human relationships, not even with his surviving family members back home. But, he is a charmer, is friendly and open to the various strangers who walk in and out of his life. "I'm not a hermit", he tells a co-worker. When he's not performing lay offs on behalf of faceless corporate bosses who hire him, he's a motivational speaker, teaching people how they can lighten the load in their "backpack of life", and live on only the vary bare essentials.

picGeorge Clooney plays Ryan, and it's a different kind of performance from what we usually see from him, especially from his more recent roles in films like The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Fantastic Mr. Fox. In those films, he had a certain larger than life quality to him, and even seemed to be taking a cue from some of his past performances. He has the usual suave confidence we see in his performances, but it's a little more subtle and down to earth here. He plays Ryan as a man who has his life so organized, he knows his way through every major airport and hotel chain. He's the man you want to be behind of if you're standing in a long line anywhere, as he always knows the best way to move through it as quickly as possible. Clooney helps us understand how Ryan could love the life he leads of hardly ever being home, and going from one airport and hotel to the next. For him, this life is all about control. When he's traveling, he's his own boss, knows all the ropes, and has nothing to tie him down. It's independence to him. It's a wonderful performance, to be sure, but it's certainly helped by two very strong female turns by Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick.

picThey play the women who send Ryan's controlled and organized world into anarchy in different ways. Farmiga plays a fellow traveler of the skies, who not only seems to understand Ryan's world and way of thinking, but also emotionally bonds with him. She seems to be his perfect match in just about every way. ("Think of me as yourself, only with a vagina", she tells him.) They meet in a bar, compare travel tips and membership cards, and soon they're having regular sexual encounters whenever their travel paths cross. It's more than sexual for both, though. They have a genuine understanding and bond with one another. Before long, he's contemplating actually going to his sister's wedding in Wisconsin, since he might be able to show up with a date for once. As for Kendrick, she plays a rookie in Ryan's field of work named Natalie Keener. Ryan's boss (Jason Bateman) has implemented some of Natalie's ideas into the job that could cause trouble for his perfect world. Instead of sending their agents out to different companies to lay off employees, Natalie suggests they use teleconference technology so that they can lay off workers without actually being there. Ryan takes Natalie on the road with him, hoping to show her the error of her ways.

picHow the two storylines converge, I will not reveal. Part of what makes Up in the Air a wonderful experience is how we're never entirely sure how things will turn out, or where the characters will end up. This is a razor sharp, bittersweet film that's surprisingly complex underneath its simple exterior. The movie is about how the different main characters view the world, and the dreams they hold. For Ryan, happiness is having as little bonds to the world as possible. Natalie is a young dreamer. She has a boyfriend, wants the American Dream that most people her age want, and is a lot more optimistic. Hearing these two characters talk about their different views on life is not only fascinating, but very honest and real. We don't feel like we're listening to scripted dialogue. They talk like they're having an honest conversation you might overhear between a man and a woman at the stage of life the characters are. There's not a single false moment in the performance, or the dialogue. Anna Kendrick shows a real charisma here as the young and idealistic Natalie. She's a real find here, and I'm sure this performance will help her find work beyond the Twilight film franchise, for which she is currently best known.

picLike a lot of great films, this is not really a movie you can catagorize. At times, it seems that it wants to be a romantic comedy about a man who learns how to open his heart and life to someone special, but the screenplay by Reitman and Shelton Turner does not let the story or the characters get pigeonholed into a certain genre. We think we know these people or have them figured out, and then it surprises us. This is especially true of the other main woman in Ryan's life. Vera Farmiga matches her performance to Clooney's so perfectly, that yes, we can actually see the attraction between the two characters. We even start to want them to find each other, and are happy for them when they start sharing more experiences outside of hotel rooms. Once again, I will not reveal where the characters end up, but it is a perfect note. The movie finds the perfect note not just for the characters, but for the ending itself. It feels right, and the characters are where they should be.
There is a lot of quiet power in Up in the Air. The drama is very subtle, but hits very hard and close to home. So does the satirical elements. It does this without ever once drawing attention to itself, and without a single bombastic or false moment. The flow of the storytelling is natural, the dialogue is real, and the emotions are completely honest. This is the kind of movie that makes you excited not just because of what you're seeing up on the screen, but also for what the filmmaker will do next. Thinking back on 2009, it's hard to think of a more note-perfect movie than this.

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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Did You Hear About the Morgans?

In order for a "fish out of water" comedy to work, we need to be amused by the situations that the lead characters find themselves in over their heads in. In order for a romantic comedy to work, we need to like the lead characters and want them to get together by the end. Did You Hear About the Morgans? tries to be both, and fails. This is one of those movies where even the cast doesn't seem to be all that interested.

picThe film marks the third teaming of writer-director Mark Lawrence and star Hugh Grant. Their last effort was 2007's Music and Lyrics, a likable comedy that got a lot of mileage out of the charm and chemistry of Grant and Drew Barrymore. This time, he's paired with Sarah Jessica Parker, and the connection is never there. They play a feuding New York married couple named Paul and Meryl Morgan, who are on the brink of divorce for various reasons. He was unfaithful, and never really got behind the idea of having a child, even though Parker's character really wanted one. Now, she's moved out, and Grant's character is supposed to have seen the error of his ways, and wants to reconcile. We never quite believe this. The chemistry between the actors is never there, so we never get behind that Grant is trying desperately to hold onto what's left of their love. We also never see what drew the two together in the first place. Grant gives his usual performance (charmingly befuddled, constantly stumbling over his own words), while Parker is shrill and somewhat materialistic. If there was anything in the relationship of Paul and Meryl, it left long before the point the movie picks up.

picAfter a tense dinner date, where Paul unsuccessfully tries to make Meryl remember what they once meant to each other, they witness a murder while walking home together. The killer spots them and tracks them down, so the two are forced to go into hiding under witness protection. They're sent to live under assumed names in Ray, Wyoming - a small town filled with so many colorful characters and small town stereotypes, it's a casting director's dream. The Sheriff and his wife are a down home couple played by Sam Elliott and Mary Steenburgen. They're the people the Morgans live with during their time in Ray. They're a nice enough couple, but Paul and Meryl feel uncomfortable around them, because their house is decorated with stuffed and mounted animal heads, and their fridge is stocked top to bottom with large meat carcasses. The joke is supposed to be that Meryl is a strict vegetarian and member of PETA. (ho, ho) I suppose some laughs could be gathered if the movie actually tried to develop the characters and had them facing their differences in an amusing way, but it's too lazy for that. It goes for Sarah Jessica Parker looking at the mounted heads in disgust, stops there, and waits for laughs that never come.

picOther residents of Ray include the gruff, grandfather-like owner of the town's only restaurant (Wilford Brimley), a ditzy blonde who holds multiple jobs throughout the town (Kim Shaw), and a simple minded young medical doctor (David Call). These brief descriptions I just gave are the extent of their characters. Did You Hear About the Morgans? is not just lazy in its characters, but also in the pay offs of its gags. Since Paul is so nervous about running into a bear while staying in Ray, it's only natural that he's bound to have an encounter with a rather large one. The best this movie can give us is a scene where Paul stammers mindlessly at the bear for a little while, then runs away. Other gags that have absolutely no pay off include scenes where Paul tries to chop firewood, and a scene where Meryl tries to milk a cow. So, not only do we end up not liking these characters, but there's nothing amusing about them to start with. So why are we watching a movie about them? It's a question I kept on asking myself, hoping the next scene would provide the answer.

picWhy are we watching, indeed? An even better question would be why was this movie made in the first place? Surely there are scripts out there that would better serve the talents of the cast. Why was this dead-on-arrival flop deemed filmable? It doesn't even have the sense to be a memorably bad comedy, like the recent Old Dogs. It just kind of goes through the motions, almost as if it's not even really interested in making an effort to be truly bad or good. It plays out, and we wait for it to be over. The most offensive part about the film is how obvious it is in its foreshadowing. When Meryl's business assistant in New York unwisely tries to make a call to try to get in touch with her, we just know the message is going to fall into the wrong hands. When Paul and Meryl are taught how to fire a rifle, we just know it's going to play a part in the climax when the killer finally tracks them down. Even the Sheriff's expertise at throwing horse shoes plays a part later on! There's not a single moment we can't predict, because the movie keeps on dropping obvious hints throughout.
If there is an audience for this movie, I can't imagine who it would be. Fans of Grant or Parker would be better off renting their better past films. Did You Hear About the Morgans? is likely to become a tiny blip on the radar of the career of everyone involved. They'll move on to do other things, and it will never be mentioned or spoken of again. It's probably better that way.

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