Reel Opinions

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Crazies

The opening moments of The Crazies are so peaceful and idyllic, you just know something sinister is about to happen. In the small town of Ogden Marsh, Iowa, a farmer does his chores, friendly neighbors greet each other, and American flags wave peacefully outside just about every building. The town Sheriff, David Dutton (Timothy Olyphant), is at the local baseball diamond to cheer on wholesome, clean-cut high school baseball team. The serene mood is interrupted when the town drunk suddenly comes walking onto the field with a loaded shotgun in his hand. David tries to reason with the man, but he is unresponsive to his words and raises his gun. David is able to raise his gun first and fires, killing the man in front of everyone.

picDavid feels remorse for his action, and doesn't know what to say when the man's grief-stricken wife and teenage son confront him. He assumed the incident was brought on by the man's alcohol problem, but the wife insists he had been sober for two years. Indeed, when the mortician's report arrives, there's no sign of any alcohol in the man's bloodstream. These opening moments intrigued me, and made me think I had stumbled upon the rare, thoughtful and character-driven horror film, but the plot speeds right on ahead, and introduces us to the Sheriff's wife, Judy (Radha Mitchell), who is the town doctor. She too has a strange incident with a despondent and unresponsive man who is brought in for an examination by the man's concerned wife. She can't see anything physically wrong with him, despite his odd behavior, and sends him home to rest. That same night, the man ends up locking his wife and young child in the closet before he sets the house on fire with them inside it. It's a chilling scene to be sure, and it would have been even more so if the film had slowed down to actually let us feel for the people these things were happening to. Instead, the plot plows on ahead once more.

picAre you noticing a pattern here? The Crazies keeps on setting up interesting and terrifying situations, then just moves right on along, like it can't wait to get to where it's going. It'd be one thing if the movie was hurrying along to something truly interesting, but director Breck Eisner (Sahara) eventually settles down into a predictable and disappointing series of non-stop jump scares, with people leaping out of dark corners or just out the camera's eye. After the early promise, we get a fairly typical plot for this sort of film. We find out that the town's water supply has become tainted, and is turning the people slowly into mindless and murderous zombies. The military quickly swoops in and seals off the town, killing anyone on sight who shows any sign of illness. The film is a remake of a 1973 horror film by George Romero, and it feels like a remake, because you constantly feel like you've seen it all before. David and Judy try to escape from the town and the military forces with the help of David's Deputy (Joe Anderson) and a young woman from Judy's office named Becca (Danielle Panabaker, who after this and last year's Friday the 13th reboot, might want to lay off the horror remakes for a little while). All the while, they're constantly menaced by people who have succumbed to the disease ("the crazies" of the title), who all act exactly like every single generic monster villain that's ever walked, lurched, or slithered across the silver screen.

picThis really had the potential to be so much more. Aside from a scene where young Becca sees her boyfriend get gunned down and incinerated by the military, we never really get a sense of the tragedy of the situation. We don't know anything about the townspeople, or who they really were before the disease hit, so they become faceless monsters who jump out and attack our heroes on cue. I don't know what happened here. The script by Scott Kosar (2005's The Amityville Horror) and Ray Wright (Pulse) starts out smart, and offers some genuine thrills, such as a sequence in a high school where Judy and Becca are strapped down in gurneys, only to have a deranged man start stabbing the helpless people to death with a pitchfork. But then the whole thing goes on autopilot in the second half, and I found myself losing interest little by little, until I just didn't care anymore. The movie stops being tense and scary as well at this point. I'm tired of horror movies that rely solely on things jumping out for their scares. They don't even provide a good jolt, since we pretty much can sense a set up for an attack from a mile away.

picAt least I can complement the movie on a technical level. It's very well made for a film of its kind. The vast cornfields and desolate streets do give a small sense of isolation that I wish the movie was smart enough to utilize more. The cast also manage to wring out as much personality as they can out of their thinly written characters. At least none of the heroes are annoying. In movies like this, there's usually one character that you hope will get chomped by the zombies or shot by the army, but no such feelings were stirred within me here. The problem was I didn't really have any feelings for the characters. Annoyance at least would have been something to respond to. I don't ask for much in my heroes in post-apocalyptic zombie movies, just give me something to respond with.
I tried my hardest to hold onto the early feelings of intrigue and enjoyment I felt during the first 40 minutes or so watching The Crazies. But, as the film lost its way, I found myself losing my good will. I eventually found myself wishing that Woody Harrelson's character from Zombieland would show up and liven things. If ever there was a movie that needed a guy who still knew how to have fun when modern society is collapsing all around him, it's this one.

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Friday, February 26, 2010

Cop Out

Here is a movie that goes wrong in so many ways, it's hard to know where to begin describing its many faults. Yes, Cop Out is not very funny, and seems to be built on a plot that could barely withstand a half hour TV police drama, let alone a 100 minute long movie. But, let's get back to that later, and take a look at the first problem that comes to mind. Any good cop buddy movie succeeds or fails on the chemistry between its two stars, and Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan have absolutely none. They don't even seem that comfortable together on the screen, which makes the audience feel uncomfortable watching them.

picNot exactly a good start, when they're supposed to be playing characters who have not only been partners on the job for nine years, but also best friends. Willis is supposed to be the tough "straight" cop, while Morgan has the job of being the goofy comic sidekick. We're supposed to see how they can work together, despite their different personalities, but we never do. Willis often looks like he wishes he was acting along side someone else, while Morgan seems to mainly be playing for the cameras, rather than to his co-star. It's distracting, since we're constantly paying attention to the actors and their off key performances, not the characters they're playing. It's especially distracting to watch Morgan, who knows he's supposed to be the main jolt of comic energy in the film, but tries way too hard. He raises his voice, he bugs his eyes, and he quotes dialogue from other movies non-stop, but he never gets a single laugh. That's because he seems to constantly be making a conscious effort to be funny, like a failed stand up routine. He should have tried to build a genuine character, and let the laughs build from there.

picIn the movie, they play Jimmy (Willis) and Paul (Morgan). At the start of the movie, they're chewed out by the chief for letting some drug runners get away during a botched undercover job. Here is where we get another sign of trouble in the film early on. During the undercover job, Morgan is dressed in a foam rubber cell phone costume. He doesn't get to do anything funny while wearing the costume, mind you, the costume itself is the joke. Then, while the chief is ranting and raving, he's still wearing it. Why? And why does he continue to wear it the entire rest of the time he's at the police station? It's like the movie is wondering why we didn't laugh the first time we saw him wearing the phone suit, so he keeps it on, hoping we'll laugh if he keeps it on long enough. We don't, and the plot creaks on. We learn that Jimmy's adult daughter (Michelle Trachtenberg) is getting married, and wants a big, expensive wedding. Jimmy doesn't want his ex-wife's slimy new boyfriend (Jason Lee) to pay for the ceremony, but he doesn't have any money to cover it. He decides to sell a rare, prized baseball card, only to have it get stolen by a pair of incompetent burglars before Jimmy can sell it.

picOne of those burglars turns out to be a goofy dimwit played by Seann William Scott. He likes to practice parkour (a martial art that consists of doing flying leaps across rooftops), break into people's houses so he can use their toilets, and tell non-stop obscene knock-knock jokes once Jimmy and Paul finally capture him and have him locked up in the back seat of their car. They want to know what he did with the prized baseball card. Turns out he sold it to the same drug dealer they were after at the beginning of the movie. Now a cop movie about a stolen baseball card would be pretty thin stuff, so there's a lot of pointless subplots that try to hold our interest, but never go anywhere. Paul's worried that his wife (Rashida Jones) is cheating on him with their neighbor. There are two other cops (Kevin Pollak and Adam Brody) investigating the drug dealers. There's also a beautiful young woman (Ana de la Reguera) who is on the run from the villains and wants Jimmy and Paul's help, but can only speak Spanish. She's in the movie to provide sexy eye candy (which she does quite well), but never grabs our attention in any meaningful way.

picIt's hard to believe that so many talented people can be involved with a comedy as tone deaf as Cop Out. It doesn't earn any laughs, it's not shot particularly well, and the action sequences are instantly forgettable. A lot of this has to do with the fact that the director is Kevin Smith (Zack and Miri Make a Porno), a man who knows how to write some very funny dialogue, but even he himself admits that he is not very strong behind the camera. So why allow him to helm a fast-paced action movie? Everything seems off due to Smith's inexperience, especially the pacing. I'm not saying the guy's not allowed to branch out from his usual dialogue-heavy films, but this probably wasn't the best project suited for him. Speaking of dialogue, the movie certainly could have used some of his trademark wit. Instead, screenwriters Robb and Mark Cullen allow nearly every gag they set up to fall flat with a deafening thud.

picConsider the scene where Jimmy and Paul stop a car thief, only to have it turn out to be a foul-mouthed 11-year-old boy. Why is this scene funny? The movie seems to think it's because the kid drops four-letter-words every two seconds, and strikes one of the cops in the privates. A good screenplay could have possibly made this funny. Instead, we get Bruce Willis threatening to tell the kid's mother about what he's done, and the boy breaks down in tears. End of scene. Or how about the scene at the beginning when Tracy Morgan is interrogating a suspect by quoting movies? He quotes everything from Al Pacino in Heat, to Batman, to Schindler's List, and even Dirty Dancing. Yeah, we smile at first, but the scene just keeps on going and going to the point that we just want him to stop. Same goes for the scene where Morgan goes into graphic detail about his bowel movements, and just keeps on going long after we got the joke. We start being mildly amused, and just end up disgusted and bored.
Cop Out is the worst kind of comedy. It's not funny, but it desperately thinks it is, and just keeps on hitting you over the head, hoping you'll laugh. Despite the movie's insistence, I think you'll find the urge to resist laughing quite simple. It's an obnoxious, rancid little movie made by people who should have known better.

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Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Terry Gilliam is a talented filmmaker. He's also apparently a cursed one. Many of his films have been met with some sort of behind the scenes misfortune. Heck, there's even a documentary called Lost in La Mancha, which chronicles his attempt to make a film about Don Quixote starring Johnny Depp, and was plagued by so many disasters (floods, personal injuries on the cast) that the project never got off the ground. His latest film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, was met with tragedy when its lead star, Heath Ledger, died unexpectedly in early 2008.

picThe film finds a clever way to get around this. Ledger had already shot a lot of his scenes to begin with, and the film's fantastic and whimsical premise allows for his character to be played by multiple actors, including Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell. The film's central premise revolves around a magic mirror that allows people to enter bizarre, CG-filled worlds made up of their own imagination. Whenever Ledger's character, Tony, steps through the mirror, he changes his appearance and is played by a different actor. It's a clever way to cover up the death of your star, but not exactly a successful one. It's never really explained why no one else who enters through the mirror changes their appearance. We're just supposed to accept it. Unfortunately, we can't, because it's a glaring reminder of the tragedy that occurred behind the scenes. People were able to watch The Dark Knight, and completely see his performance for what it was, without thinking of the man behind it. Here, I think audiences will have a harder time. There are some astonishing and wondrous visuals to be found throughout, some of which seem to draw heavy inspiration from Gilliam's days as a cartoonist and performer for the Monty Python comedy troupe. What the film lacks is a strong narrative and focus.

picThe idea behind the film is certainly interesting on paper. The titular Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is an aging old street magician who travels across London in an ancient and run down traveling circus that seems like it comes from another time and place. Considering that the good doctor is immortal, it probably is. This immortality came about due to a deal he made with the Devil long ago. These days, the Devil goes about by the name of Mr. Nick (Tom Waits). The deal that was struck concerns the magic mirror, and how Parnassus must use its powers to convert five different people to his cause. If he cannot by the time Parnassus' only daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole) turns 16, then Mr. Nick gets to take Valentina as his own. Business has not been good for the traveling circus, and they have not been able to convert any souls. That's where Ledger's character, Tony, comes in. The crew of the circus first discover him hanging from a noose on a bridge, and barely alive. They revive him, and although he doesn't remember anything about himself, he does seem to have a keen business sense, and knows how he can drum up stronger business for the circus as Valentina's sixteenth birthday approaches.

picA lot of talent obviously went into the making of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. The visuals and the various fantasy worlds that the magic mirror produces are absorbing, and the cast fill their roles well, and give what emotion they can. Unfortunately, a lot of this emotion is suffocated underneath the visuals themselves. This is a muddled movie that all too often serves as an excuse to display Gilliam's imagination and flights of fancy, rather than display any sort of coherent and strong plotting. The film ends up being more like an experiment, rather than an actual movie. It's a movie that seems to have been made for Gilliam himself, and perhaps his die hard supporters. Anyone outside of the inner circle will probably be completely lost, or amused by parts of it, but find it overall tiresome. That's about where I fall. I was interested and I was intrigued, but never truly engaged. As the effects began to take total center stage, choking what little meaning the film had, I became less interested.

picIf the movie needs structure, than the cast needs it even more. They often seem lost and adrift in the director's imagination. If none of the cast get to make most of an impression, it's not entirely their fault. They're often written in simplistic terms, or not given much to work with to begin with. If Tom Waits makes any impression as the film's central villain, it's because of what he brings to the performance, not by anything he's been given by screenwriters Gilliam and Charles McKeown. As for Heath Ledger and the other actors who play his character during the fantasy-filled sequences, they certainly seem to be trying. Ledger brings some gusto to his scenes, but never enough to make us truly attached to the character. As for Depp, Law, and Farrell, only the last actor makes any sort of impression, since he gets the most screen time. Depp and Law never come across as anything more than a gimmick, and sometimes seem to be winking at the camera.
This is one of those movies where you find yourself admiring what the filmmakers were trying to do more than what's ended up on the screen. I admire Gilliam's art, his vision, and for pulling on with this project through what must have been impossible odds. But the movie itself is such a jumbled mess, it's hard to really get enthusiastic. Doctor Parnassus delights from time to time, but those moments never create a whole satisfying experience.

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Celine: Through the Eyes of the World

As a film documentary of Celine Dion's 2008-2009 "Taking Chances" world concert tour, Celine: Through the Eyes of the World suffers from a lot of the same problems as This is It, the recent Michael Jackson film. We never truly feel like we're getting a behind the scenes look at the concert itself, as we never get to see the preparations that go into staging such a show, and we seldom get to hear from the people who work with her or are up on stage with her, unless they have to gush praise for the woman they work for. The material here is light, breezy, and doesn't give us as much personal access as some fans would probably like.

picDespite this, it comes across as a better film than the Jackson one, because Dion is often much more involved, and comes across as a real person in her film. In This is It, Michael Jackson often came across as an enigma, even to the filmmakers. He was constantly kept at a distance, and never really gave his personal views on what was going on around him. When he was truly talking to the cameras, it sounded as if it had been prepared in advance. Here, we at least feel like we're seeing some of the private side of Mrs. Dion, as she speaks privately with her husband/manager, Rene Angelil, and son, Rene-Charles. The movie even manages to build a little bit of tension late, when Dion discovers she has strained her vocal chords, and we actually get to see the medical process to diagnose the problem.

picAside from that, Celine: Through the Eyes of the World acts better as a travelogue than an actual documentary on the recording superstar. We see her visiting different parts of the world, and seems to be making the argument that her music is one thing that people from all over the world can agree on. We see her fans gush about her music in different languages, we see how far they have traveled, we see them break down in tears at the very sight of her. Heck, we even get to see the French President bestow his highest honor upon her, for bringing French music to the rest of the world. It's all very superficial and sort of egotistical, since director Stephane Laporte edits the footage so quickly, we feel like we're only getting bits of pieces of what we're looking at. It seems to be the only explanation when the film depicts her meeting famous figures like Nelson Mandela and Muhammad Ali, and barely shows the conversation that follows. (I believe Ali got to say a few words of praise for Dion, but Mandela stays silent.)

picWe do get some lovely shots of the different countries and cities she visited during her tour, and we even get to see her visiting some places like Mandela's prison cell, and a former Nazi concentration camp (where she breaks down and cries in the middle of the tour). It just never really adds up to a lot. The movie lingers too long on the fluff and the praise, and when something seems to threaten Dion's happiness, the movie is all too quick to cut away. At one point, she has to cancel some concert dates when she becomes ill. We see a five second clip of two fans who seem disappointed and a little angry that they missed out (this clip seems to have been taken from a local news program), and then it immediately cuts to Dion being perfectly healthy and performing moments later.
The movie's main point seems to be that Celine Dion is a tireless performer, is loved all over the world, and is an adoring wife and mother. She's also good natured with her crew and staff, and has an offbeat sense of humor. All well and good, but not enough to fill the nearly two hours this film runs. Fans may also be disappointed that very few, if any, of her songs featured in the film are played in their entirety. As a film, it has its moments of entertainment, but as a backstage look at the woman and the concert tour, it comes up short.

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Saturday, February 20, 2010

Crazy Heart

Scott Cooper's Crazy Heart is a simple and cliched film that is elevated by the lead performance by Jeff Bridges. It tells a story we've heard many times before. It's a redemptive one about a former celebrity who has hit rock bottom, and eventually tries to set things right, both with himself, and the numerous people he has burned bridges with. Bridges, in the central role, is sensational. He always demands our attention, and grabs our interest in a way that the film's predictable plot does not.

picHe plays a country western singer named Bad Blake. He was once at the top of the music industry, but years of alcohol abuse, and the fact that he hasn't written a new song in years, has reduced him to playing in bars and bowling alleys. He has his loyal fans, who seem to hold onto their memory of his past glory as much as he does. They don't even judge him when he has to leave in the middle of a song in order to throw up in a dumpster out back. Bad still has some friends in the industry, as well. There's a young upstart singer named Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) who views Bad as a mentor, and wants to help re-launch his career. But Bad resents Tommy. He helped get the young man's career off the ground, and now he's gone off and become a bigger star than he probably was back in his prime. In Bad's eyes, the world has screwed him over one time too many, and he doesn't see any reason to care anymore.

picIn terms of relationships, Bad was married once and even had a child, but walked out on both of them. Now his main form of human contact are the one night stands he has with women he meets at his concerts. He hasn't given a thought to a serious relationship in years, until he meets a young journalist named Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who interviews him. She is attracted to him, even though she is well aware of his alcohol problem. She has had bad luck with men in the past. She's a single mother with a four-year-old son named Buddy (Jack Nation). Despite this, she is drawn to him, and he in return. Bad bonds with both Jean and her son, and before long, he begins to see himself as the father figure he never knew he could be. But first, he has to battle his own personal demons.

picThe outcome of the story we can pretty much predict from the start. We can also predict a lot of the crises that Bad will face along the way. Crazy Heart gets all of its emotion from Bridges' performance. He makes what could be another simple "fall from grace and redemption" story into something much more noteworthy. He is real here. Everything is dead-on. He walks with a stumbling lurch that represents years of strain and pressure on his body. He talks with a raspy and strained voice that sounds like the years of drinking and smoking have taken their toll. His eyes are cold and disinterested, almost as if he feels like he's seen it all, and doesn't care to see any more. When he meets Jean and Buddy, we can see a faint glimpse of life that we didn't notice before, but Bridges is careful not to lose the character. This is not a story about an overnight change, after all. Bad Blake is a man who has spent the past 30 or 40 years slowly killing himself, and it shows in every bit of Bridges' portrayal.

picThat's not to say the other performances are completely forgettable. Gyllenhaal is wonderful, and portrays her conflicting feelings of this man who has entered her life with skill. She obviously has feelings for him, and he gets along good with her son, but she has seen this all before, and she probably has an idea where it will end long before it does. Farrell and Robert Duvall are also good in small, supporting roles. But let's be honest, the movie belongs to Bridges. He is what makes Crazy Heart work, and what makes it worth watching. It's the kind of performance you can't take your eyes off of. He's also surprisingly skilled during the scenes where he's required to sing. Speaking of singing, the songs by T-Bone Burnett (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) are quite good, and help convince us that Bad Blake was a successful singer in his prime.
The film has received its share of awards and nominations leading up to the big Oscar night next month, but I have to wonder if anyone would have paid much attention to this film without Bridges' involvement. Probably not. That certainly speaks volumes for his portrayal here. It really is that good, and I hope this fifth nomination finds him walking home with a gold statuette. He is what stays in your mind after the movie is over.

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Friday, February 19, 2010

Shutter Island

Martin Scorsese loves to play with his audience, and that is nowhere more evident than in Shutter Island. This is a well-crafted and fine tuned psychological thriller that actually knows how to build. We start out intrigued when we see our first glimpses of the island itself. As it stands amongst the rough seas and the approaching storm, it appears sinister. The music score starts out subtle and menacing, almost as if it knows something we don't. It quickly builds, and by the time the boat has reached the island, we know that the characters on board are walking right into danger.

picThe two men on board the boat are Federal Marshals, who have been summoned to the island, which is home to a hospital/prison for the criminally insane. One of them is a veteran by the name of Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio). He's the type who's seen it all, and he looks like he has. He's strong, but he's also weary. We learn why through flashbacks placed throughout the film which cover his days in the military, and the doomed relationship to his former wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams), who was killed in an accidental fire. His partner is a rookie named Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo). If he seems a little more optimistic, it's only because he hasn't been on the job as long as Teddy has. The two have come to investigate the mysterious disappearance of one of the inmates on Shutter Island. They are informed by one of the head staff members, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) that a dangerous and delusional patient by the name of Rachel (Emily Mortimer) has disappeared from her cell, seemingly without a trace. None of the staff members who were on duty that night saw anything, and there's no sign of an escape attempt.

picTeddy knows that things are not what they seem, and so does the audience. Nothing quite fits together. The staff seem to be stealing glances off to the side whenever they are interviewed, almost as if they are afraid to tell the truth. The patients that are questioned are obviously not in the right frame of mind, so we don't know if they're telling the truth or not. And then there's the very presence of the building itself on the island. It's an old Civil War fortress, and has many dark corners where whispers and strange voices can be heard. Even when Teddy and Chuck are looking at the facts, none of it makes any sense. The island terrain is rough and covered with dangerous cliffs and poison ivy. So how did Rachel manage to escape while leaving her shoes behind? The movie slowly chips away at its own mystery, only to add more questions just when we think we're getting somewhere. And Scorsese seems to revel in every moment of it as a filmmaker.

picShutter Island is the rare film that you have to pay attention to almost every scene in order to unlock its many secrets. The answers are often staring at us in the face, we just don't realize it until we think back on what we've seen, or during repeat viewings. It plays fair, and it doesn't hold any information back. When the answers do come, they make sense. This is rare enough in itself, but what's truly masterful is the way the film gets you completely wrapped up in a sense of dread from beginning to end. There's not a single scene in the film that feels safe, and as the tension continues to build, it almost becomes overpowering. But Scorsese knows how to draw back when it's necessary. He knows just how much to reveal and when. He uses a lot of classic film noir elements to not only keep us guessing, but to offer insights into the characters and the increasingly winding plot. It's all too easy for a film like this to fly off the rails, but the movie stays grounded, at least until the big reveal. It comes dangerously close to over-explaining the solution, but manages to stay within the realm of believability.

picWhat's most impressive is the film's ability to invoke fear. There's the fear of mistrust that we feel from just about everyone on the island. Even Teddy and Chuck come across as being questionable in our eyes. There's the fear of the unknown, as the movie takes us deeper into the institution's history, and into the dark and forgotten corners of the island. At it's heart, the film is a ghost story, but not in the traditional sense. The ghosts of the past seem to be all around, and as we learn more, the more intrigued we become. The characters seem distant to us, but it's not because they are underwritten. From the not-very convincing smile of the suspicious Dr. Cawley, to Teddy's nervous glances, we constantly feel like there's something we don't know. And when the answers come, they don't disappoint. We want to know the answers, and for once, our curiosity is rewarded.
Shutter Island is a movie that works on just about every level. The atmosphere and performances are top shelf, the story and mystery are intriguing, and the film itself is riveting in a way that few thrillers are. If the climax goes on a bit too long, it's a small price to pay for everything that comes before it. This is the first great film of 2010.

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Valentine's Day

The problem with Garry Marshall's Valentine's Day is that the planning pretty much ended once the all-star cast was assembled. Once they got all these stars signed on, the studio probably figured they were in the clear. They obviously didn't care about the script, which is often contrived, predictable, and not as romantic as it seems to think it is. It's stuffed with too many characters, and too many that don't make any impression whatsoever. Which means that only a small handful of the celebrities in this over-stuffed cast have anything to do.

picThe film is a collection stories that are all tied around Los Angeles on Valentine's Day. The characters in these stories sometimes cross over into other plots, but for the most part, we're supposed to get the feeling that we're watching a bunch of short stories that all take place during a 24 hour period. It's a gimmick, mainly, and that's just the problem. It never turns out to be anything more than that. Some filmmakers (like the late Robert Altman) could successfully pull off a concept like this, and make it work. But Garry Marshall is known for doing entertaining fluff like Pretty Woman. Here, he seems to be at a loss at how to juggle all these characters and plot lines. Some are emphasized over others, and some characters and storylines are barely touched upon to the point that we wonder why they're even there in the first place. It doesn't help that amongst the film's multiple storylines, there's not a single one that stands out, or doesn't feel generic. We never get to care enough about any of the characters, since it's always cutting away to someone else before too long. Because of this, we quickly become bored with the film's structure, and start looking at our watches.

picThe main plot in Valentine's Day (or at least the one that gets the most attention) concerns a happy young florist named Reed (Ashton Kutcher), who just proposed to his girlfriend Morley (Jessica Alba) that very morning. His wise friend and business partner, Alphonso (George Lopez), however, has his doubts if Reed and Morley are meant to be. His advice? Reed should marry his best friend, who just happens to be a sunny elementary school teacher named Julia (Jennifer Garner). But, she's involved with an unfaithful doctor named Harrison (Patrick Dempsey), who is secretly married and has a kid. Elsewhere, a TV sports reporter named Kelvin Moore (Jamie Foxx) is forced to do an on the street report on what people think about Valentine's Day, and ends up getting a big scoop on a football quarterback (Eric Dane). There's also the story of Liz (Anne Hathaway) and Jason (Topher Grace). They recently started dating, and she doesn't know how to tell her new boyfriend that she's a phone sex operator. Also thrown into the mix are two people (Bradley Cooper and Julia Roberts) who strike up a friendship during a plane flight, an elderly couple (Hector Elizondo and Shirley MacLaine) who discover their relationship is not perfect as their 50th wedding anniversary approaches, a teenage couple (Carter Jenkins and Emma Roberts) contemplating having sex, another teenage couple (Taylor Lautner and Taylor Swift) lost in young love, a woman (Jessica Biel) who worries that no one will come to her "I Hate Valentine's Day" party, and a little boy (Bryce Robinson) dealing with his first crush.

picOf the many plots, the ones that probably should have been cut all together are the two concerning the teen couples, as they go absolutely nowhere to begin with, and seem to be thrown in at random to remind us that these actors are in the movie, also. Aside from these two completely pointless vignettes, the other stories seem to be constantly elbowing each other out of the way in order to compete for our attention. Out of all of them, the one that seems to have the most promise is the one between Hathaway and Grace. They're likable, and you wish they could have a full movie to themselves, so they could flesh out their characters. The one with the two strangers on the plane is pretty good as well, and has a nice ending, but once again, the actors never get to go as far with these characters as we would like them to. There are hints at chemistry here and there, but then the movie keeps on cutting to stuff that doesn't work at all, which sends us crashing back down to reality. The problems seem to vary with each story. Some are not as strong as they could be (that would be the one concerning the elderly couple questioning their faithfulness to each other), some suffer from the standard Idiot Plot (the center storyline about the florist torn between two women), and some are just completely pointless to begin with and are wasting our time (the one concerning Taylor Swift and Taylor Lautner).

picBecause of the loose structure and uncertain tone of Valentine's Day, none of the actors get to truly stand out in their roles. Everybody's passable, but nobody gets to rise above the material. Some of the actors (like Jennifer Garner, Topher Grace, and Anne Hathaway) manage to get by on their screen presence alone. While others (like Jessica Alba or Patrick Dempsey) make no impression whatsoever. And then there are actors like Kathy Bates and Queen Latifah, who are stuck in such minor roles, it's easy to forget they're even in the movie in the first place. The movie also struggles to find any laughs. The one time I did chuckle was when the movie took a subtle swipe at Taylor Lautner's Twilight role. (He tells a reporter he's uncomfortable taking his shirt off in public.) Other than that, it's a dead zone of predictable gags, one-liners that fall flat, and two different dogs who exist solely to give reaction shots to what the characters around them are saying or doing. Having one "reaction shot dog" in a comedy is a sign of desperation. Having two means you're not even trying.
Of course, none of this matters. Valentine's Day will make a killing at the box office, thanks to the heavy promotion, the starry cast, and the fact that it's the only romance-themed movie opening this weekend. The studio will make their money, and most people will forget this movie ever existed in a few months. The question becomes just imagine how much more money this movie would have made if it was actually a good script worthy of the talent it attracted. Heck, it might have helped the movie have big weekends beyond the holiday it's named after. Couldn't hurt, is all I'm saying.

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Saturday, February 13, 2010

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

Aside from his unusual ability to hold his breath underwater for seven minutes, young Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman) is a typical teenage boy with typical teenage problems and lifestyle. He struggles in school, thanks to his dyslexia. He has a wise-cracking black kid named Grover (Brandon T. Jackson from Tropic Thunder) to act as his best friend and sidekick. His sweet-natured mom (Catherine Keener) is married to an oafish beer-guzzling jerk, whom Percy resents as his stepdad.

picOne fateful day, Percy takes a school field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A teacher pulls Percy aside into a secluded room, and reveals herself to be a winged demonic monster, who demands to know where Zeus' lightning bolt is. Percy, obviously, does not know, and does not know what's going on. Fortunately, another teacher named Chiron (Pierce Brosnan) and loyal Grover show up, and seem to know what's going on. It also turns out that Grover is a satyr, a half man-half goat creature from Greek mythology. He has somehow managed to keep this a secret all these years, though I couldn't understand how. Not only that, Chiron is eventually revealed to be a centaur (half man-half horse), who has somehow kept his secret by posing as a cripple in a wheelchair. The two chase away the demon, and take Percy home. His mom also seems to know what's going on as well, and is forced to tell her son the truth. He is a demigod, and the son of Poseidon, god of the seas, whom she was briefly married to at one time. Sadly, we don't get to see the Honeymoon video, or even a sex tape.

picWe're clued in on the plot. Someone has stolen the legendary lightning bolt of Zeus (Sean Bean), and he thinks Percy is the culprit. (Why, it is never revealed.) Grover and Percy's mom drive him to a camp where he will be safe, but before they can arrive, mom is kidnapped by a Minotaur sent by Hades (Steve Coogan), who holds her captive in the Underworld. Hades thinks Percy has the lightning bolt, wants it so he can take over the realm of the gods, and won't give back his mom until Percy hands it over. The camp, it turns out, is a training ground for demigods. We find out that all the Greek Gods have sons and daughters in our modern world, and they spend their time training for battle at a camp that looks like a cross between a Renaissance Fair, and a summer camp. While there, Percy is befriended by Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), daughter of Athena. With Annabeth and Grover's help, Percy sets out to find a way to enter the Underworld so he can save his mother, as well as figure out who framed him for stealing the lightning bolt before a war of the gods can begin.

picIf Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief sounds ridiculous, you don't know the half of it. This is one of the goofiest movies I've seen in a long time. At least it has the sense to not take itself entirely seriously. There are some clever touches here and there, such as the location of the entrance to Hell. Unfortunately, the movie is never as smart or as clever as it seems to think it is. Director Chris Columbus (I Love You, Beth Cooper) keeps things moving at such a rapid pace, we never get the time to get attached to Percy and his friends, or comprehend this loopy plot. The film is set with the pace of a frantic video game, with each scene leading to another battle, special effects sequence, or major action scene. As soon as Percy, Grover, and Annabeth leave the camp, they head to a stone garden in New York to do battle with the vampish Medusa (Uma Thurman). Next, they're off to a museum in Nashville, where a hydra battle awaits them. After that, they hit a casino in Vegas, where they must resist temptation. Finally, it's a pit-stop in Hell, where Hades is revealed to be an aging British hair metal rocker trapped in a loveless marriage with Persephone (Rosario Dawson), followed by a battle in the skies over New York City with the real lightning thief, and finally a brief tour of Mount Olympus.

picIt should all be ludicrous enough to be a fun time, but it's not. The movie doesn't explain enough, and leaves us asking too many questions. It's also suffering from a curious lack of magic and wonder. All these fantastic creatures and gods, and the kids barely get to react to them. They're just another obstacle for the heroes to overcome, like enemies in a video game. Maybe this is all to distract us that the plot makes little sense. As I mentioned earlier, it's never really explained why Zeus thinks Percy is the one responsible for stealing his lightning bolt. And despite the bolt being the object that sets the plot into motion, Percy actually spends no time whatsoever looking for it. He spends the entire span of the film searching for some magical pearls that will allow him and his friends to exit the Underworld once they find and rescue his mom. It's only during the climactic moments that he accidentally stumbles upon the bolt itself, and the true identity of the thief, whom he has spent absolutely no time searching for. Speaking of the lightning thief's identity, it's terribly anticlimactic, and nowhere near as shocking as the script would want us to believe.
Percy Jackson is based on a series of novels by Rick Riordan. The studio obviously hopes it will be successful enough to span a franchise like the Harry Potter films. The movie plays it smart, though, and doesn't leave things too open ended. After the failure of films like Eragon, The Golden Compass, and The Vampire's Assistant, it's probably a good idea that the movie takes the safe route, in case sequels never come. Even so, what we have here isn't really good enough to make me want to see more. It's impossible to take seriously, and not goofy enough to be fun. Hopefully next month's Clash of the Titans remake will give us the fun we deserve in a movie like this.

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Friday, February 12, 2010

The Wolfman

Joe Johnston's The Wolfman is a flawed, but entertaining B-movie filled with A-level production values. It gets a lot of things right. I liked that the film stuck to the classic 19th century London setting of the story. I loved the look of the film, especially the large, imposing mansion house that serves for many of the film's settings. I also enjoyed how the film employed mostly physical effects, using CG mainly when necessary. Given the film's well-documented behind the scenes struggle for control, and the numerous release dates, I expected much worse.

picThe film opens like any good movie about werewolves should. A lone figure, illuminated only by the lantern her carries and the light of the full moon above him, nervously makes his way through a foggy forest filled with dead trees. He seems frightened, leaping at every shadow around him, until one of those shadows turns out to be the titular beast. The man runs, and the wolf creature makes short work of him. The man's fiance, Gwen (Emily Blunt), writes a letter to his brother, a Shakespearean actor named Lawrence (Belnico Del Toro). She urges him to return to his childhood mansion home to help search for his brother. (At this point, the man's body has not yet been found, and is considered missing.) Lawrence returns home as requested, and we quickly learn that the mansion holds a lot of unpleasant memories for him, most of them surrounding his cold and distant father, Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins). The home itself is equally chilly in its demeanor. It's filled with cavernous halls, a snarling guard dog, and a lot of stuffed and mounted trophy animals, which naturally take on a more ominous shape when the sun goes down.

picThe body of Lawrence's brother is soon discovered, and when he sees the mutilated state of the corpse, Lawrence becomes obsessed with what kind of man or creature could have done it. The talk at the local tavern seems to point to a mysterious beast that wanders the woods, and may have ties to some traveling gypsies that camp there. Lawrence goes to the gypsies seeking answers, the camp is attacked by the wolf beast, and he is bitten by the monster but survives. From that point, The Wolfman follows a predictable, but never boring path. Lawrence finds himself taking a beast-like form himself whenever there's a full moon, and a series of murders begin cropping up in his wake. An Inspector from Scotland Yard (Hugo Weaving) is called in to investigate, and quickly begins to realize that the clues lead to Lawrence. Gwen begins to develop feelings for Lawrence, but he must do his best to resist, less he harm her. All the while, the owner of the dark mansion stays in the shadows, letting the events play out around him.

picIt's gothic melodrama that's been put together quite well by a talented team. Despite having limited experience working in the horror genre, director Joe Johnston (Hidalgo) has a knack for atmosphere, and knows how to use gory special effects so that they actually do shock, instead of coming across as exploitive. The production design is excellent all around. The dark manors and foggy moors bring out the right mood, and certainly fit the story better than a more modern setting would. There's even a memorable music score by Danny Elfman, which is subtle enough to not overpower the scenes, but does not fade into the background. All of this is complemented by a fine cast, who help breathe life into some thinly-written characters. Not all are successful (Emily Blunt often comes across as a bore), but Del Toro is brooding and intense, while Weaving finds the right balance of cockiness and stern authority. As for Anthony Hopkins, he seems to be relishing his role as the sinister father figure, who seems to be taking great pleasure in his son's personal suffering.

picAs mentioned, a majority of the effects to bring the Wolfman to life are done with physical make up effects by Rick Baker. For this, I am grateful. As someone who has been disappointed by CG attempts at werewolves in past films, I appreciated this approach. In fact, it's when the film does switch to CG that the effects start to lose their hold on the audience. There are some questionable shots of the Wolfman himself leaping across rooftops, as well as some laughably obvious attempts at a computer generated bear in one sequence. Fortunately, this doesn't happen enough to take us out of the film. The computer-enhanced transformation sequences at least are effective. The scenes where Lawrence becomes the beast are the obvious money shots, and seem to have gotten the most attention.
The Wolfman isn't about to become a genre classic, or make anyone forget the original film, but it's an effective reboot. It also feels like a necessary one, given how so many classic monsters are now being romanticized as teenage hunks for girls to scream over. Here's a movie that reminds us that werewolves are not young underwear models who walk around with their shirts off. Who says you can't learn anything from the movies?

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