Reel Opinions

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Last Song

In The Last Song, Miley Cyrus plays Ronnie, an alienated teenage girl who's angry at the world, and not happy at all that her mother is sending her and her little brother, Jonah (Bobby Coleman), to live with their father (Greg Kinnear) in his beach-side home for the summer. You can automatically see the appeal of the character for Ms. Cyrus. She most likely saw it as a chance to shed her sunny Hannah Montana image, which she has made no secret that she is trying to escape from. I admire the effort, but this is not the vehicle to prove yourself a serious actress.

picIf anything, this could damage any future career goals. The film is relentlessly cornball, the emotions forced, and the plot a vague hook to hang a bunch of melodramatic situations upon. You also have to look at the fact that Cyrus just is not very good in the role. There is no anger, angst, or emotion in her performance. She's just scowling and looking moody at the camera all the time. Scene after scene, I kept on checking for something that showed she was building a real character, but there's never any evidence. I would say that maybe this was not the right role for her, but it's been highly publicized that screenwriter and author, Nicholas Sparks, wrote the character for her. It's a total miscalculation all around. Then again, it sort of fits here, since the entire movie is a complete and total miscalculation.

picWhen Ronnie arrives at the beach-side town, she doesn't fit in at all. She wears a lot of black, and always has a scowl on her face. All the other inhabitants in the town are young 20-somethings that look like they walked in from an audition for a teen soap opera. Since she is not as buff, tan, or blonde as they are, they immediately shun her. Everyone, that is, except for Will (Liam Hemsworth). He's an attractive nice guy who falls for Ronnie at first sight. Of course, all of Will's friends are snooty and stuck up sorts who try to sabotage their relationship. We don't get to really know these characters. They just show up if the movie needs a contrived crisis for Ronnie and Will to work through. Of course, love ultimately prevails. The two get to know each other through a variety of montages, where we see them swimming, playing in the mud, making sand angels on the beach, and carving their names in trees. I can't be sure, but I think this movie holds the record for the most number of montages held in a single film. It's hard to tell, since some of them literally come one after another, with only seconds of dialogue to separate them.

picThe two have a lot of challenges ahead of them in their relationship. Ronnie was once a bright young classical pianist, and has even been accepted into Juilliard. But, she might not even go. Ever since her parents divorced, she's been angry at the world, and has even resorted to shoplifting once. This is why she's not happy about being with her dad for the summer. She still hasn't forgiven him for walking out on them. Dad had his reasons, of course, which we learn later on. As for Will, he has secrets of his own. He comes from a rich family, but finds his home life cold and unfeeling ever since a family tragedy made everything awkward at home. In true soap opera fashion, everything is treated as a bombshell. ("You're rich, and you didn't even tell me??") Ronnie's upset, because her dad walked out on her. Her little brother is upset, because he's growing apart from his dad. Will's upset, because he knows the secret of who started the fire at the local church, which Ronnie's dad blames himself for. Will's friends are upset, because they don't think Ronnie's good enough for him. With all this, did we really need an entire subplot devoted to Ronnie trying to save some sea turtle eggs from being eaten by raccoons?

picSince The Last Song is based on a Nicholas Sparks novel (he co-wrote the script as well), the broader the emotion, the better. The movie fulfills another Sparks standard, in that someone must be stricken with a fatal disease (preferably cancer) at some point. It does not disappoint, and we can literally see it coming when a character casually mentions to Ronnie that they were sick for a while last year, but then immediately tells her not to worry and that "everything's okay". The cancer makes a surprise return, and we get a long, dragged-out sequence where goodbyes are said, tears are shed, and the music score hammers you over the head with emotion. This is a movie that previously showed little regard for subtlety, strong characters, or strong dialogue. When one of the characters becomes terminally ill, it gives the movie an excuse to go all out into offensively bad writing. The film's climactic moment is so heavy-handed and awkward, it shows a sign of restraint on the part of the filmmakers that they did not have the dying character show up dressed as an angel with a harp and wings, sitting on a cloud.
Seeing as this movie was designed from the ground up as a vehicle for Miley Cyrus to break out of her image, would it have killed the people behind the scenes to inject a little bit of life, honesty, or plausibility to the final product? This is a completely artificial wannabe tearjerker that doesn't get the emotions it so desperately clamors for, because we don't believe a second of it. I wish Cyrus the best of luck in her future career. I really do. But if she thinks this is the way to go, she's fooling herself.

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Saturday, March 27, 2010

Hot Tub Time Machine

I really wanted to like this more than I did. The title alone pretty much brings automatic goodwill, and the premise, which sort of combines last year's surprise hit, The Hangover, with Back to the Future, sounds like it should be a lot of fun. It should be, and it is at times. But not enough for me to recommend Hot Tub Time Machine. For the scattered jokes that do work, there are far too many that don't. This is a Level 1 comedy. They had the title, the premise, and the cast. That's a great start. Too bad they didn't go much further, and truly exploit the potential.

picAt the outset, we meet three long time friends who are all suffering mid-life doldrums. Adam (John Cusack) just went through a nasty divorce, his ex-wife took almost everything, and now he's stuck alone with his nerdy nephew Jacob (Clark Duke), who spends all day in the basement on the computer. Nick (Craig Robinson) is a washed up singer whose career never took off, and now works at a pet center. (This allows the movie to have it's first gross-out gag about two minutes in, where he has to stick his hand up a dog's rear end to fish out some car keys.) Lou (Rob Corddry) is a former wild man who realizes the party is over, and is now a suicidal alcoholic. The guys feel they need an opportunity to get away from their troubles, so they take Jacob, and head for their favorite teenage vacation spot - a Colorado ski resort where the three friends have some of their happiest youthful memories of sex, booze, and drugs. They arrive at the resort, only to find it mostly abandoned, run down, and its main employee is a one-armed bellhop with an attitude (Crispin Glover), who kicks the guests' luggage around with his feet and is disrespectful, but still expects a big tip at the end.

picBut hey, at least the hot tub outside their room works! Sure, it's emitting a mysterious, eerie orange glow, but that doesn't stop the guys from diving in with a mixture of alcohol and a Russian energy drink made up of illegal ingredients. The liquid concoction somehow ends up shorting out the electronic sensor on the hot tub, and this activates a swirling vortex which sends the four guys back in time to 1986 - the time when the ski resort was at the peak of its popularity, and Adam, Nick, and Lou were hip teens looking for action. In fact, when the three guys see themselves in the mirror, they look like their younger selves. Young Jacob looks the same, but his body flickers in and out of existence from time to time, so the guys realize they have to make sure not to screw the past up and ensure the right future. As Adam, Nick, and Lou relive their past, Jacob tries to track down a mysterious repair man (Chevy Chase), who seems to know how to fix the hot tub and send them back to their own time, but has a bad habit of speaking in riddles and disappearing and reappearing at will.

picI can certainly accept the out-there premise, and even think it could work, but the movie plays it too safe to truly take advantage of its own weirdness. Instead of exploiting the idea of these guys being transported back in time to their past, the movie wastes a lot of time on obvious and overdone jokes about the era. The bad hair, the cheesy music, the guy talking on a really big cell phone, the leg warmers...These jokes have become cliche by now, and Hot Tub Time Machine is content to merely roll them out, not going to the next level, and actually doing something unexpected. That's really what holds the whole film back. It never goes far enough, and gives us only the norm. We know what will happen to these characters, we know what the "third act twist" will be concerning the identity of Jacob's father (whom he never met), and we can see how a lot of the gags will play out a mile away, because director Steve Pink (Accepted) never quite shows the right timing for a lot of the jokes.

picGranted, some big laughs do manage to show through. But a movie like this needs to be risky and wild. This one seems strangely uncertain. It also has a couple bad ideas that just don't work out, namely the Chevy Chase character. He never makes any real impression, and just is not funny at all here. He's not the only disappointment in the cast, unfortunately. John Cusack is surprisingly boring in a straight role. You'd think with his past as an 80s teen actor, he'd be able to rift a little bit on it, or maybe poke fun at himself. Clark Duke is also disappointing, and often comes across as a wannabe Jonah Hill. The members of the cast who seem to be having the most fun are Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson, and Crispin Glover. They also have the best understanding of the material, and get all the laughs. They know how to make it work, and although the movie gives Corddry and Robinson lots to do, they can't carry the entire film on their own, despite their best efforts.
Hot Tub Time Machine has obviously been designed to ride the wave of popularity of The Hangover, but it fails to understand what made that film special. It took a simple premise, then simply ran with it to the most ridiculous extremes it could think of. The strong lead performances added a lot, too. I think this film had all the essential things for a similar success, but it never comes together like it should.

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Friday, March 26, 2010

How to Train Your Dragon

During the opening moments of How to Train Your Dragon, its young hero, a Viking boy with the unlikely and unfortunate name of Hiccup (voice by Jay Baruchel) introduces us to his home village of Berk. It's a place where his people have lived for hundreds of years. During that time, they've also been tormented by the other main inhabitants on the island the Vikings call home. "A pest problem", he calls it. The pests being dragons.

picThere's a lot of dragons, apparently, in different sizes, shapes, and abilities. There are the traditional fire-breathers, of course, but there are also ones that spray acid, some that can burn you with scalding hot water breath, and some that can even kill you with their violent and thunderous roaring screams. They swoop into the village, taking livestock and sheep back to their nest. The Vikings have battled these beasts for years, but there is one particular type of dragon they know little to nothing about. It is perhaps the most dangerous of all, as it flies so fast it can hardly be seen, and attacks just as quickly. It's been dubbed the "Night Fury" by Hiccup's clan. Naturally, in the village of Berk, knowing about dragons and how to slay them is everything. That's probably why young Hiccup is considered an outcast. He doesn't fit in with the rest of his people, as he's scrawny, kind of short, and not very skilled with a weapon and a shield. The fact that he's the only son to the village chief and champion dragon slayer, Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler), puts him at a particular disadvantage.

picWanting a chance to prove himself, Hiccup becomes determined to accomplish what no one has done before - bring down and kill the dreaded Night Fury. Through a stroke of luck, he actually manages to bring down the creature when he shoots it out of the sky with a crude weapon he made. When he finds the dragon lying wounded and helpless in the middle of a woodland clearing, he finds he cannot finish it off. He sees something in the dragon's eyes, and maybe the creature does in him as well, as it spares his life when he sets it free. The Night Fury dragon can no longer fly, due to its injuries, so Hiccup sees the opportunity to not only aid the creature (which seems more intelligent and aware than his people have ever believed dragons could be), but to also understand it, creating an unlikely bond. It's a traditional "boy and his dog" story, only How to Train Your Dragon adds an extra layer of smart and funny dialogue, genuine heart and warmth, as well as an exciting visual style that actually benefits from the 3D technology, so it's not just a gimmick.

picIn the long-standing animation war between Dreamworks (the makers of Dragon) and Pixar, it's pretty much been accepted by fans that Pixar films generally have deeper characters and emotion, whereas Dreamworks centered on fast-paced gags, childish puns, and pop culture references. This movie could change a lot of people's perception on that, as it's easily the most character-driven and emotional cartoon to come out of the studio. The writing and directing team of Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois (Lilo and Stitch) have not only created a rousing and exciting adventure fable for kids, but have packed it with plenty of clever dialogue and emotion for adults to latch onto. The relationship between Hiccup and the dragon (whom he names "Toothless", due to the creature's retractable teeth) is of course at the center, and in the cinema's history of two different beings from different worlds coming together, I'd rank it right up there with the one in E.T. The filmmakers are wise to make the dragon likable and relatable, without making it overly cute. It can be threatening when it wants to. It holds great destructive power, and will fight back when it feels threatened. But, it can also be quite playful and charming when it is in the right mood. I dare anyone's heart not to melt when the dragon, overcome with rapture, rolls on its back in the grass like a dog.

picIn fact, I liked the way the film handled its wide variety of dragons. They come in different forms, sizes, and colors - all of them very imaginative. I also appreciated that the dragons acted like animals, not comic sidekicks. They do not belch or fart on command in order to amuse the younger members watching in the audience, and you really get a good sense of their world and the way they live, especially when the movie reveals just what goes on inside their nest. This is one of the rare films that gives you the feeling of not just a beautifully realized fantasy world visually, but also in the underlying structure, and how it was planned out by the filmmakers. The 3D visuals are naturally captivating, especially the sequences where young Hiccup takes flight on the dragon's back. Compared to the muddy and disappointing images in the recent Alice in Wonderland, this acts almost as a "how to" example for future filmmakers as to how films of this sort should be done.

picIt's not just the visual splendor that draws us in, fortunately. The characters are likable, the things they say often funny, and yes, the relationships between them are strong. Sure, we've seen them all before. There's the one between Hiccup and his father, and how the young Viking wants to live up to his father's expectations, but at the same time feels he is misunderstood. There's also the one Hiccup slowly builds with the female lead, Astrid (America Ferrera). They start as rivals in their dragon slaying class, but soon bond when she opens her eyes to his way of thinking, and that the dragons can be tamed and used as allies. And yet, even though we know what to expect, we care about these characters, because they've been written in such a bright fashion. One of the hardest things for a movie to do is to make old material seem fresh, and this one accomplishes it with a strong script, a stunning visual style, and characters we are immediately drawn to.
If there's any fault to be found here, it's the odd casting decision to have all the adult Vikings be voiced by actors with heavy Scottish accents, like Gerard Butler and late night talk show host Craig Ferguson (who gets a lot of laughs here), while having the younger Viking characters be voiced by young Hollywood types like Baruchel, Ferrera, and Jonah Hill. It'd be a major distraction in probably any other film, but How to Train Your Dragon is so energetic, likable, and sometimes even awe-inspiring, that you just don't care about the tiny details. I know that Toy Story 3 is on the summer horizon, but for now, this holds the animation crown for 2010.

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Sunday, March 21, 2010

Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Here is a movie that's easier to admire for what it tries to do, rather than what's up on the screen. Diary of a Wimpy Kid (based on a series of best selling books by Jeff Kinney) wants to take a satirical and somewhat honest look at the most awkward time in a child's life - namely, middle school. It's an odd time for everyone. You're too old to be considered a "child", but still too young to know better. It's a time when fitting in with the right crowd and wearing the right clothes means absolutely everything. It's also an odd time where you're too old for childish toys, but still young enough to believe childish school urban legends about that mysterious piece of moldy cheese that supposedly has been stuck to the basketball court blacktop for years.

picI liked that aspect of the film. Early on, one of the kids at the middle school tells the story of the slice of cheese which has been laying there since time immortal (or at least what a 12-year-old views as time immortal). Whoever touches it gets the dreaded "cheese touch", and basically commits social suicide, as no one will go near them. It makes sense, since the only way to lose the "touch" is to pass it on to someone else. These are the kind of things that only make sense to someone in the age group of the characters, and when the movie focused on stuff like this, I smiled out of recognition. I imagined what a smarter and wittier movie could do with that material. This is not that movie, though. It's harmless enough alright, but it suffers from one major problem I couldn't get over.

picI didn't like the "Wimpy Kid" of the title. He's Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon, who I must admit, is a pretty talented young actor), a 12-year-old who thinks he is ready to tackle middle school, but is not ready for the fact that almost everyone around him has had a growth spurt over the summer, making him one of the smallest kids in his class. His older brother (Devon Bostick) gives him the following advice to survive the next three years - lay low, and don't draw attention to yourself. But Greg has different ideas. He wants to climb the popularity ladder to the top, excel at every sport and after school club he tries out for, and ultimately end up as the "Class Favorite" in the yearbook at the end of the school year. The main thing holding him back from achieving popularity is his best friend, Rowley (Robert Capron), an overweight kid who always says the wrong or "uncool" thing, rides a girl's bike, and has the worst fashion sense imaginable.

picThe funny thing is, the character of Rowley fits the title of a "Wimpy Kid" better than Greg does. Greg at least has an understanding of what's considered "cool" amongst his peers, whereas Rowley seems to have not only missed the boat completely, but also the pier. The big problem I had with the film is that Greg frequently seems abusive and sometimes mean to Rowley. One of his favorite games to play with his friend is one where Rowley rides down the sidewalk on a big wheel bike, while Greg stands at the side, and throws a football at him as he passes by. This causes an accident where Rowley ends up breaking his arm. To Greg's shock, this suddenly makes his friend popular. Girls swarm around Rowley, wanting to sign his cast, and they actually start to get to know him and like him. Greg is left alone, which would be sympathetic, but the problem is that the kid is never once sorry for what he did. In fact, he actually thinks Rowley should thank him for breaking his arm, since it led to his sudden popularity.

picIf this was the only thing I didn't like about Greg, I still probably could have found more to like about this movie, but this is one selfish, self-centered kid. He constantly ignores the advice of a girl at his school named Angie (Chloe Grace Moretz), who is obviously wiser than him in just how pointless the pursuit of popularity is. He's so focused on his own goal of becoming popular, he brushes her aside every chance he gets. He's also a manipulative little brat. At one point in the film, he abandons a bunch of kindergarten kids he was looking after in a muddy ditch in an attempt to save his own skin. When the incident is brought to light, he blames it on Rowley. Why are we supposed to sympathize with this kid? Yes, he learns a life lesson at the end, and makes a speech in front of his fellow students about what he's learned, but it's too late by that point. The entire third act of the film concerns Greg trying to win Rowley's friendship back after wrongfully blaming him for the incident, but I couldn't help but feel that Rowley was better off without him.

picBesides its unlikable protagonist, Diary of a Wimpy Kid has very little to comment on. It's a loosely connected series of PG-rated gross-out gags focusing on urination, boogers, snot, and other bodily fluids that kids in the 10-12 range will likely find hilarious. And of course, if the movie keeps on coming back to that moldy piece of cheese, you just know that not only will someone touch it at one point, but they will also eat it. The movie is also never as funny or as wise as it seems to think it is. I don't know about anyone else, but I highly doubt any middle school would have a "Mother and Son" dance night. Speaking of moms, Greg's parents (played here by Rachael Harris and Steve Zahn) are given very little to do, and may as well have not been in the movie at all.
I will give Diary the benefit of the doubt, and say that it probably works better on the written page. In fact, word from kids is that the movie differs greatly from the books. I will probably never know, and have no plans to find out for myself. All I can comment on is the film itself, and how it ended up focusing on the wrong kid. There are some cute moments here and there (I liked the little line drawing cartoons that show up from time to time, expressing Greg's thoughts), but they are overpowered by one insufferable little kid in the middle of it all.

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Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Bounty Hunter

Watching The Bounty Hunter only makes you wonder what a better movie it would have been if it had played upon the strengths of its stars, Gerard Butler and Jennifer Aniston. They're tossed aside here, forced to wind their way through a labored and dumb plot we don't care much about. Instead of creating real chemistry, they run around exchanging insults, and engaging in non-stop bickering. It's not even funny bickering. If you were sitting in a restaurant, and were forced to listen to a couple at another table have the same kind of arguments these characters have, you'd ask your server to move you to another table.

picIt wants to be a romantic comedy with action elements, and fails on both counts. We don't like the romantic leads, and judging by this film, director Andy Tennant (Fool's Gold) doesn't know how to stage an exciting action sequence. So, we start to look for something else to grasp onto, maybe some wit or original thought in the script itself. But screenwriter Sarah Thorp gives us none. She at least gives us a premise that could have worked in a better screenplay. Aniston plays a reporter named Nicole, who is investigating a recent suicide that she thinks is a cover up murder. Her investigation causes her to miss her court date over a minor incident involving a police officer. A bounty is put out on Nicole for her capture, which is brought to the attention of Butler's character, Milo. He's her ex-husband, a former cop turned bounty hunter. They had a whirlwind romance, a brief marriage, then found out they drove each other crazy and divorced. We don't get to see why these two characters would be attracted to each other, other than physical appearances.

picThen again, Milo and Nicole are not interesting people to start with. They have no personality and no defining characteristics, other than she's an emotionally wound up woman, and he's a slob. The two are reunited when he tracks her down and captures her at a horse racing track. From that point, we wait for sparks to fly, since the movie is obviously going to have them rediscover feelings for each other during their journey together. The sparks never come, because the movie gets lost in a convoluted crime plot involving dirty cops, drug deals, hitmen, and crooked bounty hunters. I highly doubt the audience paying to see The Bounty Hunter is interested in stuff like that. They come for some funny, possibly sexy interplay between the two stars. They'll be disappointed. The stars have zero chemistry, and there's not a single laugh to be had. As I sat stone-faced and realized it was going to be a very long movie, I hoped it would be over soon enough. Turns out, the movie runs almost two hours. To say that there's not enough here to fill almost two hours of material would be an understatement.

picThe script is completely by the numbers, and filled with moments we can figure out almost as soon as they start. We learn that Milo has a beloved car, so naturally it's going to have its windows shot out by thugs pursuing them, and be wrecked by the end. And when the couple hop aboard a golf cart to chase after a fleeing person they want to question, we just know that cart is going to end up in a water hazard on the golf course before it's over. Scene after weary scene, the movie never disappoints. It also fills itself with a lot of pointless characters, such as a nerdy and kind of creepy co-worker of Nicole's (Jason Sudeikis from TV's Saturday Night Live), who follows her and ends up getting captured by some crooked bounty hunters who mistake him for Milo. He's not funny in the slightest here, his plot goes nowhere, and it could have been removed from the film without any harm. Then again, the same could be said for most of the film.

picAs I think back on The Bounty Hunter, I find that I keep on going back to Cop Out, another failed action-comedy from about a month ago. Both films concerned themselves with an unlikable duo played by actors who had no chemistry. And both have completely disposable villains that fail to make the slightest impression. The lead villain here is filled in by Peter Greene, but judging by the amount of screen time he gets, it barely registers as a cameo. He threatens someone with a tattoo needle, he gets involved in a car chase, then he shows up for the required warehouse shootout at the end. The movie puts no thought into its villain, just like it put as little thought as possible into everything else.
I'm trying hard to think of something positive or redeeming to say about this film, but I'm coming up empty. The movie is a total paycheck for its stars, and a waste of time for everyone else. I'm sure the studio is hoping for one big weekend at the box office due to the fans of Aniston or Butler. Maybe if The Bounty Hunter had a real script, they could have gotten two or three weekends out of it.

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Friday, March 19, 2010

Repo Men

While no one will ever confuse Repo Men for an original film, or even a great one, I must admit it's been made with a certain degree of skill. The movie on the whole is kind of fun and held my interest, there's a lot of lively songs on the soundtrack, the cast holds their own, and the action sequences are cleanly edited, so we can actually tell at all times what's going on. You know things in the action genre are getting bad when I'm actually praising a movie for letting me see what's going on during a fight sequence.

picThe film introduces us to a futuristic society that's heavily influenced by the one seen in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. For sci-fi fans, this won't be the last time they'll pointing out a similarity or "influence" to a past film while watching it, but I digress. We learn of a shady corporation called The Union. They specialize in state of the art organ and body part replacement technology that's highly advanced, and seems to be used by just about everyone in this world. The head of the corporation is a slimy and slicked back tycoon named Frank (Liev Schreiber, pulling off the slimy and slicked back very well here). He promises potential customers that if they use his company's artificial hearts, lungs, what have you, they will have a longer and fuller life with their loved ones. Of course, he doesn't mention what happens if by any chance you can't pay for your new internal organ that's now keeping you alive. He has a team of brutes whose job is to track down people who are behind on their payments, break into their house, zap the non-paying customer with a stun gun, then remove the artificial organ or body part through the means of on-the-spot surgery. They're known as the Repo Men, and since everyone seem to use the Union's body replacement technology, business is booming on both ends.

picWe meet two of the top members of the Repo team, Remy (Jude Law) and Jake (Forest Whitaker). They're good at what they do, and work together well, since they've been friends since childhood. For them, tracking these people down, cutting them open, removing whatever needs to be returned to the Union, and leaving the customer to die is all part of the job. It's somewhat chilling the first time we see Remy do it with such cold accuracy and total nonchalance. Jake thinks they both have the perfect job, but Remy has a family, and his wife (Carice von Houten) doesn't like the idea of what her husband does for a living, nor does she think it makes him a good role model for their young son (Chandler Canterbury). She wants Remy to take a desk job at the company instead, but when he hesitates, she and the kid walk out. Remy wants to win their trust back, and agrees to a different job, but makes the unwise decision to do one last job as a Repo Man. On this particular job, his equipment backfires on him, gravely injuring himself instead of the intended target. When Remy awakens, he's in a hospital with a new artificial heart provided by his own company beating away inside of him.

picI can understand if you think Repo Men sounds a bit gruesome so far, and while it certainly can be bloody, there's a darkly comic tone to the script by Eric Garcia and Garrett Lerner that keeps things from getting too brutal. Besides, the movie seldom slows down long enough to let the gory details sink in, since this is a high tech chase picture. Now that Remy has a personal connection with the people he's charged with going after, he finds he can no longer kill them and remove their artificial organs. With him not being able to make any money on the job, it doesn't take long for him to start receiving notices in the mail that he's behind on his own payments for the heart inside of him. He has no choice but to go on the run, aided by a woman named Beth (Alice Braga), who has every reason to be on the run, as she's filled with many replacement parts (ears, eyes, lungs, etc). I would have liked to have seen a stronger personal relationship between the two characters, as it would have made their more intimate scenes stand out more. They decide they need to break into Union headquarters, and delete their personal files if they ever want to survive. This leads to a lot of gun battles, martial arts fights with the various thugs sent after them, and a twist ending that makes sense upon reflection, but still feels like a bit of a cheat.

picLook, I'm not saying this is a great movie, or even a good one. But director Miguel Sapochnik obviously knows what he's doing. His directing style is energetic and fast, and he knows how to stage a fight sequence, such as one that occurs in an airport, and the climactic sequence where the heroes take on a wave of attackers with a variety of weapons, ranging from guns to hacksaws. He also has a good sense of tongue-in-cheek humor, which is displayed throughout. The cast wisely pretends that they are not on to this fact, and take this material seriously. If it ever felt like the actors were winking to the camera, it would have sent the entire film crashing to the ground. If only the pacing were a little better. There are long stretches where not much seems to happen, and we find ourselves waiting. If Sapochnik could have tightened the film, he'd have a full-on guilty pleasure here. As it stands, this is a promising film from a promising fairly new filmmaker that stumbles, but still manages to entertain.
Sitting through the end credits, I was surprised to see that the copyright date is from back in 2008, meaning Repo Men has been sitting on the studio shelf for two years or so. It's certainly better than most films studios are afraid to release, and is even better than some movies that get pushed into release with no hesitation at all. This is a movie that will never be known as being art, but it can be kind of fun if you're in the right mind set.

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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Remember Me

Writer's Note: The following review contains spoilers.

If it had not already been used, a better title for Remember Me would have been "A Series of Unfortunate Events". This is an old fashioned romantic tear-jerker that follows two beautiful people who fall in love, and then have a lot of terrible stuff happen to them. Actually, a lot of terrible stuff happens to them before they've even met each other. I guess we're supposed to be impressed with how their love stays strong, despite everything going on around them. The romantic leads are likeable enough, but mainly only when they're together, and not being manipulated by the melodramatic plot, which doesn't happen often enough.

picThe lovers at the center of all this tragedy and woe are Tyler Hawkins (Robert Pattinson) and Ally Craig (Emilie de Ravin from TV's Lost). They certainly do have chemistry together up on the screen, but the movie seems afraid to use it. Instead, it puts them through a lot of contrived situations. Tyler is a "bad boy with a heart of gold". We know he's supposed to be a bad boy, because he constantly has two-day-old facial stubble on his chin, drinks and smokes a lot, is rebellious to his estranged and emotionally distant father (Pierce Brosnan), and gets involved in a street fight. To be fair, Tyler only got involved in the fight in order to help someone. But, when the police show up, he mouths off to one of the officers. The officer is Neil Craig (Chris Cooper), and he's a hard-headed blowhard who exists in the movie only to be wrong at all times, or to take things the wrong way. He throws Tyler in jail for the night for getting in his way during the questioning.

picTyler's not a bad guy, really. He loves his mother (Lena Olin) and is supportive and loving toward his artistically-gifted little sister, Caroline (Ruby Jerins). But, there's a lot of turmoil at home. Tyler's still grieving over the death of his older brother, who killed himself years ago, and is angry at his dad for...I don't know, really. Yeah, his dad's a jerk, but we never really get a lot of information as to why the father is so cold and cynical toward his family. Meanwhile, we're introduced to Ally, who just happens to be the daughter of the cop who busted Tyler that night. In an opening prologue, we witness the night Ally was a little girl, and saw her mother get gunned down by some muggers in a subway waiting area. This makes her dad fiercely protective of her. Regardless, Tyler and Ally meet. Their meeting is arranged by Tyler's best friend/roommate/comic relief sidekick, Aidan (Tate Ellington). He figures out that Ally is the daughter of the cop who threw Tyler in jail, and thinks they should get revenge by having Tyler pretend to be interested in her, date her, then dump her. Yeah, I'm not sure of the reasoning behind it either. Anyway, Tyler and Ally date and, wouldn't you know it, really do fall for each other.

picWhat follows is a fairly routine romantic drama that doesn't really offend, but something seems funny at the same time. Remember Me certainly seems obsessed with dates, and there seems to be an invisible clock ticking down to a certain event that will play a big part of the lives in the characters, and everyone else in the world. I'm doing my best not to spoil, but the movie begins when Ally witnesses her mother's death as a child back in 1991. The movie then flashes forward to 10 years later. It's almost summer we learn. The months tick by. Tyler and Ally share birthdays, balmy summer nights, and even spend Labor Day together. It doesn't take long for us to figure out what date in September of 2001 it's leading up to. It keeps on giving us not-so-subtle reminders of the passing of time, and just when exactly the story is supposed to take place. (We hear George W. Bush giving a speech on stem cell research on the TV. Tyler and Aidan are watching American Pie 2 in a theater in one scene, which just happened to come out in...gasp...August 2001!!) It really is a distracting method of foreshadowing. The only way it could be less subtle is if it had the Angel of Death itself hovering over our stars.

picIt's distracting, because this is supposed to be a simple and sweet love story, and it's hard to concentrate on that with the constant knowledge of what's coming. It's too bad, because Pattinson and de Ravin have some nice moments together. De Ravin especially brings a real star quality to her role, and I'd like to see her in other things. As for Pattinson, he tends to fly a little into ham-fisted melodrama a little too often, but he can be good during his more intimate scenes with his female co-star. It's when he's forced to act alongside veterans like Brosnan or Cooper that his performance doesn't measure up. Really, there's not a lot to complain about. This is a well-made movie, the performances there, and the characters are easy enough to care for when they're not being strung along by the mechanical plot.
None of this really bothered me until the final 10 minutes or so, when the movie starts piling on contrivances and coincidences so heavily, it's crushing to the audience. We know what's coming, but the movie still feels the need to play up the suspense of it all. It leaves a bitter taste in our mouths when the end credits come. The movie has not earned the ending it gives us. It's an ending that reeks of self-importance, when all we wanted was a simple love story.

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Saturday, March 13, 2010

Our Family Wedding

There are bad movies, and then there are movies like Our Family Wedding. Movies so inept that you wonder if everyone involved was somehow blinded to the fact that nothing was working. Did they even read the script, which holds not a single laugh and is filled top-to-bottom with dated ethnic humor and slapstick that wouldn't have cut it in Three Stooges shorts? Did they actually listen to the dialogue that director and co-writer Rick Famuyiwa was having them say? Did they somehow fool themselves into thinking these obnoxious cartoon ethnic stereotypes they were playing were likable characters? What was going through poor Forest Whitaker's mind when he was shooting the scene where a goat trashes a wedding ceremony, gets into his stash of Viagra pills, and begins humping him?

picThese are the kind of questions I found myself asking as each reprehensible and ill-timed scene fell flat. This is the kind of movie you watch in total shock. Mind you, I had no idea what I was getting into. I had not seen any trailers or commercials for the film, so I was walking in almost cold. In this case, a warning of what I was getting into would have been appreciated. The movie concerns itself with two families of different ethnic backgrounds (one black, the other Mexican) brought together when the Mexican daughter Lucia (America Ferrera) and the African-American son Marcus (Lance Gross) plan to get married. They've been in a relationship for a while now, but have not told their parents. Heck, Lucia has even quit law school for the guy, and plans to travel with him overseas where he hopes to be a medical doctor. She's nervous about how her father Miguel (Carlos Mencia) will react to the news of her dropping out of law school, and marrying a black man who is not Catholic. They plan to break the news to both families during dinner at a restaurant.

picUp to this point, the movie had been fairly middling and mediocre. The family dinner scene is the point when it becomes an unsalvageable disaster. They tell their families that they are getting married, and suddenly, everyone starts acting like they're in the worst TV sitcom you can imagine. The dads, in particular, are embarrassing. Forest Whitaker plays Marcus' dad. He had a bad run-in with Mencia's character in an earlier scene, where Mencia towed Whitaker's car. Whitaker's still angry about it, since he shows up at the dinner date in a tiny little car that's way too small for him. (ho, ho) So, when the two men see each other at the same table, they immediately begin behaving like children and acting like idiots. It gets even worse when they find out their children are marrying each other. Did the actors not look at this embarrassing scene and not think of one way it could have been handled in a mature and genuinely funny way? Instead, we get Whitaker making a total fool out of himself, and Mencia getting tongue-tied, and saying things like "I'll be right black" when he gets up to leave. (ho ho, again)

picThis movie's idea of having two different ethnic cultures coming together is having the Mexican grandma scream and faint when she sees a black man standing in her kitchen, or having the families arguing about their individual traditions that should be upheld during the wedding ceremony. All of the material here is hopelessly dated and borderline offensive. We can't get attached to any of the characters, because no one who enters the screenplay seems the least bit genuine. Every emotion is trumped up, so that when people are angry with each other, they literally start shaking each other by the throat. Every situation is overplayed, so that the characters come across as clueless dolts. There's not a genuine moment, thought, or instant up on the screen. No one gets to act like a human being would in such a situation, so we wonder why we're supposed to care about these people to begin with. The mawkish sentimentality that the movie throws at us during the last 20 minutes doesn't help much.

picThere are a lot of subplots tossed in that either don't get enough time, or don't matter at all. Lucia's mother (Diana Maria Riva) is worried that she's no longer sexy to her husband. This comes across as a lame and out of the blue attempt to give her character something to do, since she plays such a tiny part in the main plot itself. There's another subplot concerning Whitaker's character. He's a radio DJ who's a shameless womanizer, and never really settled down. The one woman who does matter in his life (Regina King) has grown tired of him never being able to admit his feelings for her, and walks away from him. This doesn't hit as hard as it should, as King's character hasn't really had a chance to stand out by this point. Even worse, the issue is resolved in such a simplistic and throw away manner that we wonder why the movie even included it at all.
It would be one thing if Our Family Wedding was just another throwaway romantic comedy, but this movie just digs deep in the gutters and comes out rancid. The actors have some charm, especially America Ferrera, but are given absolutely nothing to do. This is a startlingly bad film, and a strong contender for one of the worst of the year.

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