Reel Opinions

Saturday, August 28, 2010


Every year, there seems to be at least one crime drama that's well executed, but fills itself with so many cliches and recycled characters that it's hard to get involved. This year, that movie is Takers. Considering the film was not screened for critics, it's much better than I was expecting. It moves well, it's never boring, and there are a couple good action sequences. But the movie can't escape the fact that there's not a single ounce of original or creative thinking in the plotting, dialogue, or the characters.

picThe movie uses a dual plot device, where we get to look at the lives of people on both sides of the law. It's a gimmick that was used brilliantly in Michael Mann's 1995 classic Heat, but doesn't quite have the same effect here. On the wrong side of the law, we have five slick thieves who pull off a bank robbery with ingenious careful planning. They're upper class robbers for the most part. When they're not planning their next heist, they're in fancy clubs, sipping champagne, and discussing offshore investments. The group includes team leader Gordon (Idris Alba), brothers Jake and Jesse (Michael Ealy and Chris Brown), Gordon's closest friend John (Paul Walker), and team strategist A.J. (Hayden Christensen). Their latest bank job catches the attention of a pair of cops - A glowering loner named Welles (Matt Dillon) and his young partner, Eddie (Jay Hernandez). The two, Welles in particular, become obsessed with tracking down the elusive gang.

picOf the two plotlines, the criminals definitely get the most screen time and characterizations. The movie only faintly touches on the investigation that Welles and Eddie personally undertake. The plot kicks in when the criminals are approached by a former member named Ghost (rapper Tip "T.I." Harris), who has just gotten out of prison, and has a risky new job for them to take. He has a plan for an armored car heist, with all the details worked out thanks to some Russian criminals he has ties with. The gang members are nervous about taking the job so soon after their last heist, but Gordon agrees to it, and plans are hastily set into motion. From there, we can expect that the best-laid plans will go wrong, close ties will be broken, and most of the leading cast will be dead by the time the end credits come.

picTakers does not disappoint, and pretty much checks off every expectation and cliche as it goes along, almost like the four credited screenwriters made a list of what kind of scenes to include in the script beforehand. I don't expect every movie I see to be a new experience, but this one outright steals from much better films, and doesn't even attempt to hide it. There are some effective touches here and there. Director John Luessenhop knows how to stage an impressive action sequence, and gets to show it during a very lengthy chase sequence that starts in a subway station, goes up onto the streets, through multiple floors of an office building, and onto the rooftops and balconies. There's also a subplot concerning Gordon's drug-addicted sister (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), which helps humanize the character, but would have been even more successful if it did not seem to be thrown into the plot at random.

picThere are actually a lot of characters who seem to be thrown in at random, yet the script has no idea what to do with them. One of them is Zoe Saldana (Avatar), who shows up as a woman dating one of the criminals, but never really gets a scene to make any sort of impression. We also get a bizarre scene with tough cop Welles having family problems with his young daughter, since he's too obsessed with the case to pay much attention to her. The movie makes a big deal out of this for about 10 minutes or so, then we never see the daughter ever again, nor is she spoken of. There's a sloppiness to the screenplay, with so many characters either failing to make the slightest impression, or simply coming and going from the story at random. It gives Takers a highly uneven tone, which it never recovers from.
I must take this time to question the studio's decision to edit this film down to a PG-13. This is a very violent adult-themed movie, and it's distracting to see the obviously edited sequences that are obviously supposed to be much harsher. Maybe they thought with music talent in their cast, they wanted teens to be able to see it. Still, this is a movie for adults, and should be marketed as such.

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Friday, August 27, 2010

The Last Exorcism

You can pinpoint the exact moment that The Last Exorcism flies off the rails, and that's a real shame, because up to that point, the movie had been pretty engaging. This is a movie that starts out intelligent and fascinating, turns mildly creepy and still interesting, goes on to lose much of its power but still holds our attention, and then wraps up with an ending that's sure to send audience members walking out of the theater mumbling and angry.

picThe movie is the latest in an increasing number of "docu-horror" films, that are set up like documentaries, and do their best to fool us into thinking we're watching real life. Sometimes these movies work, as in last year's Paranormal Activity. But here, I was never quite convinced what I was watching was real. Despite the low budget, director Daniel Stamm gives the movie a little too much polish. All of the actors are convincing, but there's something phony about the camera work that seems a little too professional, and ruins the illusion, especially when the special effects eventually take over. But before that, we're introduced at the beginning to a charismatic pastor named Cotton Marcus (a strong performance by Patrick Fabian). He's a showman who relies on everything from drama to even magic tricks and special effects to thrill his many followers when he gives sermons about Christ and the Devil. But, as the film opens, he's starting to have a crisis of faith.

picHe tells us that he was practically forced into the ministry as a child by his father (also a pastor), and never saw any reason to question what he was doing. He readily participated in fake exorcisms and performed "miracles" all in the name of money to help pay for his son's medical expenses, since he does not have insurance. But when he read a newspaper article about a boy who died during an exorcism, he began to have a guilty conscience about what he was doing, and decides he wants to debunk the practice of exorcisms once and for all. He hires a film crew to follow him on what will be his final exorcism job. He plans to use the documentary to expose the ritual as a sham.

picThe exorcism job takes him to a run down old farm house run by a fundamentalist named Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum), who believes that demons are in control of his sweet 16-year-old daughter Nell (Ashely Bell). The farm animals are being slaughtered in the middle of the night, and young Nell finds herself covered with blood when she wakes up in the morning, no memory of what happened. Cotton believes that he can explain everything through rational means. After all, both Louis and his son Caleb (Caleb Jones) don't exactly come across as the most trustworthy individuals. I liked the ambiguous quality of these early scenes. We're never quite sure who to trust, and the movie does a good job of building an atmosphere inside the home that is close-knit, but also unsettling.

picCotton performs the exorcism as planned, complete with plenty of effects and tricks, which he walks us through before actually performing it. He assumes the job is done, and heads back to his motel, ready to return to his family the next day. That night, however, Nell shows up in his motel room in a catatonic state. What happens next, I will not reveal, but at this point The Last Exorcism seems to be building up to something special and truly creepy. There are a couple eerie moments here and there, but the movie loses its ambiguity, and soon turns into endless scenes of Cotton and his camera crew sneaking around dark halls of the farm house, while demonic voices whisper on the soundtrack. The cast is what was keeping my interest. They're wonderfully honest, even when they are possibly facing supernatural forces, and create a mounting sense of dread and panic.

picThen comes the ending, which I will not reveal, but will say that I spent the last 10 minutes hoping that the movie wasn't going where I thought it was going. Sure enough, it was, and we get an ending that will probably elicit laughs rather than screams. Why the filmmakers chose to go with this route, I do not understand. It doesn't even make any sense from a logical standpoint. I'm trying hard to avoid spoilers, but should you see this movie, ask yourself this - Given what the cameraman was looking at, why did he go on filming for as long as he did? And why does he insist to keep on filming as the movie closes? This is one of those moments that kills the illusion of reality the movie tries to create. If what we see was actually being filmed, the cameraman would have probably dropped the dumb film equipment, gotten in the car, and be halfway down the driveway by the time the movie actually ends.
The Last Exorcism is a well made film that unfortunately decides to cheapen itself as it goes along. It starts out smart, intelligent, and kind of intriguing, but doesn't hold onto that approach as long as we'd like it to. The filmmakers clearly have a talent for the genre. Now all they have to do is find an ending that is fitting of everything that came before it.

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Monday, August 23, 2010

The Switch

There's a lot of stuff I didn't buy in The Switch. It's contrived, and sometimes comes across like a sitcom. In fact, some of the characters talk in that all-to-wise kind of way, like in a sitcom. They have a smart and witty response for everything that's said. One character who fits this bill is played by Jeff Goldblum, who plays the best friend of one of the main characters. And just like the best friend in many sitcoms, he always has something quick to say. There's another best friend character in the film played by Juliette Lewis, and she too exists to provide a witty commentary on what's going on around her.

picAnd yet, despite this, I'm recommending the film. Why, you may ask? Two reasons. Reason no. 1 is that a lot of these smart and funny things that the characters I mentioned above are actually smart and funny. I did not buy that the things they say would just come up off the top of their heads, but I have to give credit to screenwriter Allan Loeb (21). I laughed quite a few times at the dialogue. Reason no. 2 is a much bigger reason - I loved the relationship between two of the main characters. They are Wally (Jason Bateman) and a six-year-old boy named Sebastian (played by a wonderful child actor named Thomas Robinson). The connection that they build together is quite literally charming, and one of the more sweeter relationships I've seen in a film in a while. And what a complicated relationship they have, too. Wally may or may not be the kid's father, due to an incident that happened seven years ago at his mom's "pregnancy party".

picDo women who choose to become artificially inseminated throw a "pregnancy party"? Do they invite all their closest friends to celebrate while she and her sperm donor go off in another room to do their duty? They do in this movie. The woman in question is Wally's life-long best friend Kassie (Jennifer Aniston). She announces her decision to Wally in an early scene that lets us know just how close they are as friends - They're able to have a casual conversation in a restaurant where they talk about her cervical mucus and his scrotum. Wally is upset by her decision to have a baby with the sperm of a guy she barely knows - a happily married and charming guy named Roland (Patrick Wilson). He's handsome, he's athletic, and he's witty. Wally, on the other hand, is a neurotic and a classic hypochondriac, but very loyal. In other words, he's doomed to remain forever in the "friend zone" according to Wally's other best friend and co-worker, Leonard (Goldblum).

picEvents unfold at the pregnancy party. Wally gets drunk, and while in the bathroom, accidentally knocks over Roland's sperm sample. Panicked, Wally replaces it with his own (using a magazine cover picture of Diane Sawyer from Good Morning America as inspiration). Kassie becomes pregnant and moves away, leaving Wally behind in New York City, wondering what happened. He gets his answer seven years later, when Kassie comes back with her son Sebastian in tow. It's painfully obvious to the audience which of the two men in Kassie's life her son takes after. He not only looks like a miniature version of Wally, but displays some of his neurotic tendencies, as well. Regardless, Kassie is interested in starting up a relationship with Roland, who recently divorced. She wants him to be with the man she believes helped bring him into the world. But, the kid likes being around Wally. They spend days together, and he's there when the boy needs advice on handling bullies, or even when he's sick.

picThese are the moments that give The Switch its heart, and also make it watchable. I'm sure the synopsis above has scared off some readers from ever watching the film, and I can understand. Just hearing the premise gave me bad flashbacks of a failed romantic comedy from earlier this year about artificial insemination, The Back Up Plan with Jennifer Lopez. That was a terrible "Idiot Plot" movie about characters too stupid to live. The characters here are smart, funny, and kind of sweet. In fact, the sperm mix up is really only a plot point, and the movie doesn't make a huge deal about it. It's actually about the relationship that builds between Wally and young Sebastian, and at that, it kind of reminded me of the charming Hugh Grant comedy, About a Boy. Just like that film, it follows a kind of closed-off man who opens his heart and his life to a child. They build a real relationship here. The movie loses its contrived sitcom premise, and just lets the characters bond through some genuinely charming scenes.

picThis is when the movie started to grab a hold of me. I liked the scene where little Sebastian shows Wally his collection of picture frames with the pre-set photos already inside them. He pretends that the pictures of the people already in the frames are his extended family, and creates backgrounds for them. It's a joy to watch young Robinson in his scenes with Bateman. He doesn't play up the cute factor in his performance, like some child actors. It's surprisingly soulful, and he comes across as wise beyond his years, without seeming like a mini-adult. Once directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck (Blades of Glory) find a more natural groove for their characters, the movie starts working. I liked the characters, and I wanted to see them get together by the end.
The Switch is a movie that could have gone disastrously wrong, and comes close to it a couple times early on. But, it never goes off the rails, and gets better as it goes along. Everyone involved should be complemented for making this tricky material work through humor, sentiment, and intelligence. This is a movie that constantly seems to be performing a tightrope act, and manages to keep its footing by staying grounded in likability.

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Sunday, August 22, 2010

Nanny McPhee Returns

Charming, funny, whimsical, and a little bit dark, Nanny McPhee Returns is all of these things, and a fitting sequel to the 2006 original. While I enjoyed the earlier Nanny McPhee film, I had dubious expectations walking into this one, as I wondered if a sequel was necessary. Having seen it, I still have my doubts if a "return" trip was in order, but I'm glad it's out there.

picEmma Thompson (who also wrote the screenplay and produced the film) returns as the titular character, a supernatural British nanny who is less "spoonful of sugar", and more "mouthful of vinegar" both in her appearance and her methods. Dressed in Gothic black, accompanied by a black bird (who belches and provides toilet humor for the kids in the audience), and her face covered in warts with one lone buck tooth jutting down from her upper lip, Nanny McPhee is intimidating. Her eyes are piercing, and her gaze is all-knowing. She also carries a large walking stick, which allows her to summon spells that can help whatever family she is currently assigned to. That's one thing I noticed about the character while watching this film. Despite getting her name in the title, Nanny McPhee is very much a background character, and I mean that in the best way. Her method is to teach troublesome children how to solve problems and learn to get along on their own. She offers up magic for assistance, but does not stand in the foreground. She watches events unfold, knows when to step in, and when to step back.

picAs in the first film, McPhee arrives mysteriously on the doorstep of a family desperately in need of her assistance at just the right time. One thing that has changed is the tone. Whereas the first film seemed to take place in a storybook England setting, this time it's set in a very real period - England during World War II. The family in question is headed by a poor farmer's wife named Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal, pulling off a very strong British accent here), who is stressed out by having to raise her three kids on her own, while her husband (Ewan McGregor in a cameo) has gone off to fight in the war. She's struggling to keep the farm and her family afloat, but it's difficult to keep everything running smoothly at home, and keep up at her part-time job working for a ditzy old candy store owner, who often needs more looking after than her kids (Maggie Smith). If that's not enough, there are two more kids coming to live with her. Spoiled and wealthy cousins from London, Cyril (Eros Vlahos) and Celia (Rosie Taylor-Ritson), have been sent to her farm for safety during the war, and immediately begin causing trouble around the house.

picAnd yet, there's still more problems for poor Isabel - Her shifty brother-in-law Phil (a wonderfully slimy Rhys Ifans) is pushing her to sell the farm, since he owns half of it, and he wants to sell it to pay off his gambling debts. With all of this crashing down on Isabel, Nanny McPhee shows up, and begins to put things in order in her own unique way. She teaches the children how to get along with each other, how to solve their own problems, and how to show bravery in the face of adversity. I like the way that the movie portrays McPhee's powers, and how she does not use them to instantly solve any problem that comes the family's way. When the kids must track down some piglets that have run away from the farm, she actually uses her magic to make the pigs harder to catch, giving them the ability to climb trees, swim through water in synchronized choreographed numbers, and even fly. She does this to force the kids to not only work together to catch the pigs, but also to force them to think creatively on how to solve their problem.

picThis is a charming movie all around. Kids are sure to love the various antics of the different animals that Nanny McPhee is able to summon on command (either to help the kids out, or play pranks on them), and adults will enjoy the sometimes clever dialogue and strong performances from the cast. There is some unfortunate reliance on toilet humor in some of the early scenes, but it goes away quickly enough, and is replaced with some clever visual gags, such as the "pig scratching" machine that the kids invent inside the barn in order to keep the animals happy. The movie's also not afraid to look at some of the hardships of war, with plot developments that occur late in the film. While it all works out in the end, I appreciated that the movie respected its audience enough to realize and emphasize that war can be a scary and lonely time for children.
Nanny McPhee Returns may be an unnecessary sequel, but it's the best kind - One that understands the charms of the original and carries on the tradition, without making it seem like a virtual retread. Emma Thompson and director Susanna White treat the material and characters with respect. They're clever, witty, and well-spoken. That's rare enough in any children's film. Yeah, there's some crude humor provided by that belching black bird, but those talented swimming pigs more than make up for it.

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Saturday, August 21, 2010

Lottery Ticket

It's hard to review a movie like Lottery Ticket. It's harmless, has its heart in the right place, and inoffensive. But there's also nothing really that stands out about it. It's content to play out up on the screen, never really grabbing your attention, or giving you something to think about. Part of it has to do with the fact that we've seen everything the movie has to offer before. A larger part has to do with the fact that, despite a talented and spirited cast, there's just not a lot of energy on display.

picIt's a sweet-natured story about a young man named Kevin (rap artist Bow Wow), who lives in a poor inner city area with his grandma (Loretta Devine), best friend Benny (Brandon T. Jackson), and best girlfriend Stacie (Naturi Naughton), who secretly longs to be more than friends, but Kevin doesn't notice, since he's unwisely fixated on the sexy young gold digger who lives in the neighborhood (Teairra Mari). Kevin dreams of being a tennis shoe designer one day, while his grandma dreams of winning the lottery, especially now that the grand prize total has hit $370 million. The whole city seems to be obsessed with the upcoming lotto drawing, but Kevin doesn't buy it. He thinks it's all an excuse to keep poor people poor. But, when he goes to pick up his grandma's ticket, he decides to play some numbers of his own as a lark. The fact that he was recently fired from his job at Foot Locker plays a big part.

picThe numbers he picks turn out to be the winning ones, of course. Unfortunately, it just so happens to be the beginning of the long 4th of July holiday weekend, so the lottery office is closed, and he can't claim his prize for another three days. During those days, Kevin becomes besieged by a number of local opportunists who want in on his winnings. The sexy neighborhood siren who wouldn't pay any attention to him in the past suddenly starts coming on to him. The local crime boss (Keith David) begins offering his protection services. The minister at his church (Mike Epps) hopes to get some of Kevin's money so he can pay for a new church, house, and even a new wife. Worst of all, the local thug (Gbenga Akinnagbe) starts coming after him, looking to steal the ticket. Of course, this could have been solved if Kevin would sign the back of the ticket like he's supposed to, but he doesn't think of this until it's too late and the ticket is stolen.

picThe movie has a large cast of colorful characters played by some reliable actors, but the only performance that stands out is rapper Ice Cube, as a faded boxer who is now a recluse. He gets some good moments as the wise mentor character who befriends Kevin, and gives him advice on how to handle his problems, and to keep in mind who his real friends are. It's nothing new, but Ice Cube sells his scenes, and gives the movie some much needed humanity. There are also a couple scattered laughs. I liked the scene early on when Kevin's grandma is talking about a dream she had where she was on a bus with Jesus Christ as the driver. When asked why Jesus was driving a bus, she responds that it's a recession, and everyone needs work where they can get it. Aside from these fleeting clever moments, Lottery Ticket is a pleasant but banal morality tale about money, staying true to yourself, and helping out those less fortunate. It's a nice message, and the movie's heart is in the right place, but it could have used a little bit more brain to go with it.

picDirector Erik White tries to mix broad slapstick humor with heartfelt sentiment, and the results are uneven. The change in tone can sometimes be jarring, as it will often occur in the same scene. I liked the quieter and sweeter moments better. There's a good scene between Bow Wow and Brandon T. Jackson, where they confront each other on a rooftop about what the money is doing to their relationship. But, it seems a little out of place, when the characters are often forced to act exaggerated and goofy the rest of the time. We also get to see a lot of talented actors get pushed aside, or disappear from the movie altogether. Loretta Devine, Keith David, Terry Crews, and Charlie Murphy all make good impressions in their roles, but the movie drops them in favor of the uninspired plot with the evil gang members trying to steal the ticket.
Lottery Ticket is the kind of movie that's full of good intentions, and obviously has the talent to bring it to life, but it never quite connects. I kept on waiting for the movie to pick up and impress me like I wanted it to, but I felt like I was constantly being kept at a distance. There are moments here that hint at a better movie, but they don't end up adding up to much.

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Friday, August 20, 2010

Piranha 3D

I can appreciate a horror movie that has its tongue planted firmly in cheek as much as the next guy. Heck, when your movie is called Piranha 3D, it's almost expected. But this movie gave me mixed messages. It's goofy, it's campy, it's trashy, and it's over the top. So much so, the cast seem to constantly be winking at us, like they're in on the joke. It also has a very nasty and mean streak to it, which kind of clashes with the sense we're not supposed to be taking this seriously. Maybe I wouldn't have minded so much if the movie succeeded even once in thrilling or scaring me. Is a tiny thrill or a jump in my seat too much to ask for?

picThe piranha of the title are not your usual variety. They're prehistoric fish that are much more vicious, agile, and aggressive than you would think. They've been trapped in an underwater cave for the past two million years, and yes, the movie does explain how they survived down there all this time. An earthquake occurs, the cave is ruptured, and the piranha are now free to roam about and devour whatever they wish. We don't get a very good look at them for a while. There's a lot of "first person" underwater camera shots that are supposed to make us believe we're getting the point of view of the carnivorous fish, but usually turn out to be a false alarm. The first person to become a victim to the piranha is Richard Dreyfus, giving a clever and playful spin on his iconic Jaws character. This is the first of many instances of self-referencing humor. It's also the best of them. Once this scene is done, the piranha kind of leave the picture for an hour or so, and we get our plot set up.

picThe heroes are a mother and teenage son. The mom (Elizabeth Shue) is the sheriff in a beach resort town. Her focus is currently on trying to keep rowdy college students from causing trouble and killing themselves during Spring Break. Her son (Steven R. McQueen) is a bored kid with a sort-of girlfriend (Jessica Szohr). He gets invited to help a sleazy porno filmmaker (Jerry O'Connell) shoot his latest film, and goes along with it without his mom's permission. He climbs aboard the filmmaker's boat, they go out to the middle of the sea to shoot the movie, and naturally find themselves trapped in the middle of the prehistoric piranha invasion. Shue's character, meanwhile, gets wise when dead bodies start popping up in the water. She captures one of the deadly fish, and takes it to a scientist friend played by Christopher Lloyd.

picIf you should see this movie, watch Lloyd's big scene. He knows how to handle this material in a way that a lot of the cast do not. There is no winking at the camera, or sense that he is playing up the inherent crudeness of the movie itself for laughs. He handles his scene so seriously and in such a dramatic way, the laughs come naturally. He's one of the few actors who could take a line like, "This piranha existed two million years ago. So, what's it doing here?", and sell it. The rest of the cast act like they constantly know they're in a bad movie. This always bothers me. Bad movies are accidental, never intentional. Either the talent's not there, the budget's not there, or there was a struggle for control behind the scenes. Piranha 3D is a movie that knows it is trash, revels in it, and that's exactly what bothered me.

picThe movie is filled with gratuitous nudity and large-breasted women shaking what they have at the camera. This comes with the territory, obviously. You can't have a killer fish movie without beach babes. But director Alexandre Aja (Mirrors) fills his movie with them as a 3D gimmick. Yes, this is the first recent 3D jiggle-fest movie, which I'm sure will delight 13-year-old boys the nation over. He also fills his movie with buckets of blood, gore, limbs, mangled bodies, and any other kind of gruesome imagery he can think of. When the piranhas finally do go on their rampage, you can't say that the movie doesn't give the audience what they want. Not only do we get to see dozens of beautiful extras get eaten alive in blood-soaked water, but also decapitated, sliced in two, ripped open, mangled, and shredded. Most of this is contained in one long sequence, but it still makes you wonder just where is the line that separates the R-rating from a NC-17.
I'm kind of torn on my thoughts of Piranha 3D. On one hand, it pretty much does what a movie of its type is supposed to do, and is sure to please those looking for a goofy gorefest. On the other hand, I was never that entertained. There were moments where the movie's joke (and yes, the movie is basically one big, sick joke) worked with me, but not enough for me to recommend. I guess I wanted some genuine thrills to go with the globs of 3D cleavage and blood. Call me old fashioned, but when I see a movie like this, I want to think twice about getting wet ever again. I'm saddened to report that as soon as I came home from this film, I hopped in the shower with no problem whatsoever.

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Vampires Suck

The Twilight films are ripe for parody. I've said so myself in my own reviews of the film. It's next to impossible to take them seriously, unless you are already one of the franchise's many devoted fans. With such an easy target for satire, it's amazing just how off the mark Vampires Suck is. Actually, it's not so amazing, considering the film comes from the minds of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer.

picFor those of you who are not familiar with Friedberg and Seltzer, they are probably the most notorious filmmakers to come along since Uwe Boll. And if you don't know who that is, I implore you to look up Boll's "masterpiece", The House of the Dead. I wouldn't want to ruin the surprises in store. But back to the duo behind Vampires Suck - They do spoof films that are supposed to be in the tradition of movies like Airplane! and The Naked Gun. They got their big break back in 2000 co-writing Scary Movie, a film that had a large number of fans, but I wasn't one of them. They waited six years to give us their follow up, Date Movie, which was a parody of romantic comedies. It was absolutely terrible, not funny in the slightest, and panned by just about every critic in the nation. But, it made money, so they got to do more films over the years. Their targets have been fantasy films (Epic Movie), the movie 300 (Meet the Spartans), and the summer blockbusters of 2008 (Disaster Movie). Much like Date Movie, they have all been absolutely terrible, not funny in the slightest, and panned by just about every critic in the nation. But, they have all made money.

picTo call Friedberg and Seltzer filmmakers would be stretching the term to its breaking point. They don't so much parody the films they're targeting, rather they do scene-for-scene remakes, only adding references to pop culture. These are not even actual jokes about pop culture, they're literally just name-dropping whatever teen audiences (the film's main target group) are talking about. In Vampires Suck, for example, they do a recreation of a scene from the first movie, only they have the characters name-drop the TV show Jersey Shore, and have some look-alike actors of the cast of that show just happen to be standing there. That's literally the entire gag right there. It's humor in its laziest form. They can't be bothered to come up with a punchline, or even a build up. They just want us to laugh out of recognition. But, we don't laugh, because there's nothing to laugh at. Just throwing in a reference to a popular TV show or pop culture figure is not funny in itself. If you're going to have Lady Gaga in a scene (or at least a look-alike of her), give her something to do that's funny, instead of just name-dropping her in your dialogue, and having her standing there for a few seconds.

picBut this is how all of their films work. It doesn't matter if they're taking aim at romantic comedies or the Twilight Saga, the films are generally all the same, and miss the point entirely by not really spoofing the intended target in the first place. This has earned Friedberg and Seltzer a reputation that only very few bad directors have earned in their lifetimes. Of their past five films, three of them have been ranked as amongst the worst films ever made over on the IMDB website. Their movies are cheaply made, and rushed to theaters. How rushed are they? Vampires Suck started shooting back in the spring of this year, and it's already on screens less than five months later. That would be an impressive feat, provided there was anything of value up there on the screen.

picI realize I haven't talked much about the film itself. The movie basically mixes the plots of the first two Twilight films, and then does some shot-for-shot remakes of select scenes, only with juvenile humor and pop culture name dropping thrown in. Some of the names have been changed ("Bella" is now called "Becca"), and the movie has been cast based on who most looked like the original actors, not on their actual talent. You get the feeling that Friedberg and Seltzer are more interested in making their film look like the real thing, rather than actually ridiculing it. And when they do attempt it's joke, it usually lands with a deafening thud, such as the running gag concerning Jacob the werewolf resembling a dog each time we see him as the movie goes on, but no one notices.
Think of all the things you could hit on in a spoof of Twilight. The wooden acting, the forced rivalry between Edward and Jacob, the leisurely pacing, the overwrought teen angst melodrama...Think of all these things, and Vampires Suck misses them all. Instead, we have the characters name-dropping Facebook, Twitter, and the Black Eyed Peas. You know, things that have nothing to do with the topic at hand. This movie is a total mess.

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Sunday, August 15, 2010

Eat, Pray, Love

One of the obstacles I had to overcome while watching Eat, Pray, Love was the lead character, Liz Gilbert. Mind you, I do not know anything about the real person who inspired the character, nor have I read the autobiographical novel she wrote that inspired this film. But, judging solely by how she is portrayed on the screen, she comes across as a shallow, self-obsessed woman who hurts others simply because she is unhappy with where she is in her life. I'm sure the book explained some of her decisions much better, but in the movie, I wasn't too fond of her.

picIt helps somewhat that Liz Gilbert is played by Julia Roberts. Her warm personality and screen presence kind of help sand off some of the rough edges of the character. But, it still doesn't really help matters when the character seems to care only about herself for most of the first part of the film. As the story opens, Liz is a bored upper class wife and author who despite being married to a devoted husband (Billy Crudup), is unhappy with where her life is. She, she rather coldly divorces her husband, leaving him heartbroken and rejected. Instantly, she goes rushing into the arms of a young stage actor (James Franco), but once again, she does not find what she is looking for, becomes unhappy, and dumps him. At least we can sort of see the cracks showing in her relationship with the Franco character, but considering we spend so little time with the first husband before she leaves him, and only get to see his pain and suffering, the movie does not paint a very flattering portrait of its heroine.

picLiz decides she needs a massive change in her life. She decides to take the trip she has always dreamed of, hoping to find herself and what she's really looking for. Her first stop is Italy, where she plans to see all the sights and do a lot of binge eating of pasta and pizza for four months. Next, it's off to India, where she'll practice meditation and try to find peace with herself. Finally, she plans to head off for Bali, where she will reconnect with a wise medicine man she once met, and continue her spiritual journey. I really hope Gilbert's book explains how she managed to pay for this massive trip that seems to last a year or more, because the movie gives no hint whatsoever. She simply tells her best friend (Viola Davis) her plans, and she's off to see the world a quick scene change later. (After a brief, cold farewell to the Franco character.)

picIt's about this point that the screenplay by director Ryan Murphy (TV's Glee) and Jennifer Salt (TV's Nip/Tuck) turns less into a cohesive narrative, and more into an overstuffed travelogue. The scenes set in Italy consist of absolutely nothing but Roberts touring the city, meeting some colorful locals (who bring nothing to the story), and comical montages where Liz and a friend she meets try on different pants that can match their expanding waistlines from all the pasta they're eating. I was starting to grow a little restless, but then she heads for India, and we meet the most interesting character in the film - a somewhat cranky, middle-aged Texas man named Richard. He's played by character actor Richard Jenkins, and it's the one performance that resonates, because he brings some actual depth to his character.

picRichard, like Liz, is in India seeking peace with himself and some answers to some hard questions in his life. We don't know what those questions are at first, but the more that Liz gets to know and befriend him, he lets down his guard and begins to open up. When he finally reveals the moment he felt his life hit rock bottom and sent him leaving home seeking answers, it's the most powerful moment of the film, because of how Jenkins plays it. Just watch his performance in the scene. He actually seems to be breaking down right there on the screen. But he doesn't overdo it like a lesser actor would. It's a quietly powerful moment, and the best scene in the entire movie. Should Jenkins be honored with a Supporting Actor nod come next year, I would not be disappointed.

picAs soon as the character of Richard leaves the film, so does any built-up power, as Liz travels to Bali. The movie was approaching the two hour mark by this point, and we're finally introduced to the film's central love interest - a Brazilian man named Felipe (Javier Bardem). They have a "meet cute" when he almost hits her with his car while she's out bicycling. Things move swiftly after that, not because the characters seem genuinely attracted to each other, but that there's about a half hour or so left in the movie. Bardem is a fine actor, but he never really creates any real chemistry with Roberts. It doesn't help that by the time he arrives on the screen, I really just wanted the movie to be over.

picRunning at 133 minutes, Eat, Pray, Love often feels stretched out, and at times interminable. There are scenes or characters that grab our interest, but I never really felt a personal connection with Liz or her journey of self discovery. I didn't like her that much during her early scenes, and the remainder of the movie did little to improve my opinion. Roberts is as likable as ever, she's just stuck with a character who rubbed me the wrong way from the beginning. It also doesn't take long for the movie to dive head-first into escapist female fantasy, despite it being based on a true story. Not only can Liz supposedly fly off on her year-long globe-trotting adventure at a moment's notice with no preparation or money worries, but everyone she comes across just so happens to hold some words of wisdom or spiritual advice that bring her a little bit closer to her goal. It gets to the point that it seems like some of the people she meets were just sitting there, waiting for an American who had lost focus in their life to come walking by.
At the very least, this is a well-made movie. The location scenes are beautifully shot, and there's some really good camera work on display. The story just comes across as being so hollow and empty. Like I said, I have not read the original book, so all of my judgments will have to be based on what's up on the screen. Eat, Pray, Love works well enough as a travelogue, but as a compelling narrative, it falls flat.

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