Reel Opinions

Friday, December 31, 2010

The 5th Annual Reel Stinkers Awards

It's New Year's Eve, and it's time to reflect on the year that was. Here at Reel Opinions, that means it's time to look back at the films that stole my time, and the time of anyone unfortunate enough to watch them. That's right, it's time for the 5th Annual Reel Stinkers Awards, where I "honor" the worst films of 2010.

As always, my "best of" list is still on the way, since there are still some films stuck in limited release that I will hopefully see. So, for now, sit back and relax as I roast these cinematic turkeys.

10. YOU AGAIN - It seems to be a trend in Hollywood that every year, we get one female-targeted romantic comedy where a bunch of talented women get paid to act like idiots, perform tired slapstick gags, and basically tumble around and act like spoiled children. Case in point: In 2009, that movie was Bride Wars. In 2010, it was You Again, a dreadful and unfunny film that wastes the talents of Kristen Bell, Jamie Lee Curtis, Sigourney Weaver, and Betty White. They are supposed to be playing successful adults, but it's hard to picture them that way when the weary screenplay has them do nothing but scream, fight, fly about on the rafters, and tumble into and out of anything that could serve as a slapstick gag. It's not funny, and it's not amusing. It's just plain annoying.
09. THE LAST AIRBENDER - The career of once prolific filmmaker, M Night Shyamalan, has been in free fall for a while, but hit rock bottom with this misconceived, misdirected, and badly acted live action adaptation of a popular fantasy cartoon series on Nickelodeon. People who were unfortunate enough to walk into this movie without any knowledge of the cartoon were pretty much lost, as the film fails to explain most things. And when it does explain, it does so with endless, boring scenes where a character just stands there, spouting exposition dialogue for a good two minutes. Those who were familiar with the cartoon, on the other hand, were angered by the film, and how it left out key elements, and pretty much turned what was a lively and fun adventure story into a boring, broody mess, with actors who were more wooden and two dimensional than the original cartoon characters. The Last Airbender stands as one of the worst adaptations to come along in a while.
08. MY SOUL TO TAKE - 2010 was not a good year for horror filmmaker, Wes Craven. First, his classic film, A Nightmare on Elm Street, gets a watered down and mediocre remake that turned Freddy Krueger (one of the most charismatic and personable movie monsters ever invented) into a dreadful bore. Months later, Craven himself wrote and directed My Soul to Take, which stands as the single worst horror film of the year. It's an incoherent mess made up of half-baked ideas, stupid symbolism, and death scenes so amateurish, they seem like an afterthought. Nothing makes sense, the characters don't hold the slightest bit of interest, and the central mystery (a serial killer who may have or may not have returned from the dead) doesn't raise the slightest tension. And that's not even the film's worst offense. This movie was marketed as being in 3D, but there were absolutely no 3D effects whatsoever, nor was there anything in the film that would benefit from it. This film was a total con, stealing money from anyone unfortunate enough to see it.
07. COP OUT - A few weeks ago, when I reviewed The Tourist, I said that the on screen teaming of Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie was the worst celebrity team up of the year. How soon I had forgotten the dreaded misfire, Cop Out, which holds the distinct "honor" of worst on screen team by pairing up Bruce Willis with obnoxious comic actor Tracy Morgan. This is supposed to be a buddy movie, but these two actors don't even seem to like each other up on the screen. Willis seems bored, constantly looking like he wishes he was anywhere but shooting this movie. And Morgan just does his standard motormouth comic routine, completely ignoring Willis. This alone is bad enough, but combine with the fact that the movie is not even the slightest bit funny and painfully dull, and that nobody's heart seemed to be into making this film. Especially not the director, Kevin Smith, who seems lost at the reigns of a big budget cop comedy. He should stick to the smaller, dialogue-driven comedies he's known for.
06. OUR FAMILY WEDDING - Sometimes bad movies just sneak up on you. I hadn't even heard of or seen any advertising for this dated romantic comedy until it suddenly showed up at my local theater. Now I'm trying my hardest to forget it. The movie is about two ethnic families (one black, one Mexican) coming together when their respective son and daughter end up falling in love and marrying each other. The movie drowns itself in ethnic cartoon stereotypes, dated racist humor, and forcing talented actors forced to behave like idiotic children. The film's ultimate low point? A scene where respected actor and filmmaker, Forest Whitaker, is being humped by a goat who has trashed the wedding, and got into his supply of Viagra pills. I'm hoping he had a long, sad talk with his agent after shooting was finished that day.
05. SEX AND THE CITY 2 - The original Sex and the City movie certainly wasn't anything great. It was too long, and it was pretty much for the fans of the show only, but it was at least watchable. This ill-conceived sequel brought absolutely nothing, however. Even the fans couldn't find much to like. In this plotless and pointless follow up that nobody really asked for, the women from the TV show take a luxury vacation to Abu Dhabi, leave their husbands and loved ones behind so they can revel together in materialistic excess, and pretty much spend the length of the film acting like spoiled, vapid idiots. That's literally all there is to it. This movie's idea of a third act crisis is that there may not be any seats left in first class for their flight home. Cynical, narcissistic, and empty-headed, this ended up being one of the bigger box office disappointments of the summer movie season, and for good reason.
04. MACGRUBER - Saturday Night Live has a long history of failed attempts to bring their characters to the big screen. Their latest effort, MacGruber, is pretty much one big explanation as to why. This comedy (in theory, not in execution) follows the title character (played by Will Forte), a MacGyver wannabe, as he hunts down the evil Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer). The film's main joke is that "Cunth" is pronounced without the "h" at the end. (Ho, ho) Other weary gags include MacGruber distracting the enemy by dancing around naked with a piece of celery stuck between his butt cheeks (which he later eats, of course), and MacGruber rounding up his team of macho tough guy soldiers, only to discover one of them is now gay. This is a tired, witless movie that fortunately came and went from theaters, so hardly anyone noticed it. But if you did happen to see it, you have my condolences.
03. JONAH HEX - Quite possibly the most incoherent movie of the year was Jonah Hex. Based on a DC comic book about a physically scarred bounty hunter (Josh Brolin) with the supernatural ability to speak to the dead after a near-death experience, which goes largely unexplained as to how or why this came about. He then spends the rest of the movie chasing after a villain named Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich, who really should have known better), who is planning to kill the President with a super weapon powered by some glowing orange balls. What are these glowing orange balls? Once again, no explanation. The movie was severely edited before release, so the final version that played on screens only ran 75 minutes. Entire plot points were left on the cutting room floor, as were key scenes, so absolutely nothing up on the screen made any sense whatsoever. What did end up in the final film wasn't that great to begin with, so I don't think we missed much. Even if this movie made perfect sense and explained everything, Jonah Hex would still be one of the worst films of the year, thanks to its terrible performances, and Megan Fox's (as Jonah's prostitute girlfriend) shaky Southern accent.
02. LITTLE FOCKERS - This late year release came in just under the wire to be counted as one of the worst films of 2010, and it truly is. Little Fockers, a tired and painfully unfunny sequel to 2000's Meet the Parents and 2004's Meet the Fockers, casts its large and talented cast adrift in a moldy old sitcom plot that forces everyone to act like clueless idiots. The movie is not funny in any way ever. The cast (which includes the likes of Ben Stiller, Robert De Niro, Owen Wilson, Dustin Hoffman, Barbara Streisand, Harvey Keitel, and other actors who really should have known better) are given absolutely nothing to do but act like total morons, and perform tired pratfalls and gross-out humor involving erectile dysfunction jokes and projectile vomiting. A huge embarrassment for everyone involved, and a total waste of time and talent. With movies like True Grit and Black Swan playing over the Christmas holidays, there's no reason for audiences to subject themselves to Little Fockers.
01. STANDING OVATION - Remember when I said earlier that sometimes bad movies sneak up on you? Well, nobody could have seen this one coming. It arrived during the summer with absolutely no hype, fanfare, or real advertising. Heck, the most it played on was some 600 screens its opening weekend. How or why my theater got it, I have no idea, but it did. And as soon as I saw it, I knew I was watching the absolute worst film of the year. Standing Ovation follows two singing groups made up of teenage girls competing against each other in a music video contest for the grand prize of a million dollars and a recording contract. The concept is nothing new, but this is easily the most dimwitted and amateurish example of it I have seen in many a moon. The acting is terrible all across the board, the girls themselves are underdeveloped and unlikable in every way, the music performances (obviously intended to be the highlights of the film) are generic and unmemorable, and it holds the distinction of having the single most annoying character in any movie this year, a little girl who calls herself Alanna Wannabe (played by Alanna Palombo), and spends the entire movie shrieking about how she's going to be a star someday, and trying to break into different music acts. The only joy I got out of Standing Ovation is the knowledge that hardly anyone saw it, or even knows of its existence. I wish I could be so lucky.

Now that the worst of the worst is out of the way, it's time to move onto the Dishonorable Mentions. The films that didn't quite crack the Top 10, but should still be avoided. Act with caution if you should come across any of these movies at your favorite DVD rental store. They can be quite painful if you should subject yourself to them...


The Book of Eli, The Spy Next Door, Dear John, Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, The Bounty Hunter, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, The Last Song, Why Did I Get Married Too, Death at a Funeral, The Back-Up Plan, Furry Vengeance, Grown Ups, Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, Step Up 3D, Vampires Suck, Going the Distance, Resident Evil: Afterlife, Paranormal Activity 2, Skyline, Burlesque, Faster, The Tourist, Yogi Bear


Little Fockers

Tie between Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore and Step Up 3D

Robert De Niro in Little Fockers

Alanna Palombo in Standing Ovation

3D films

My Soul to Take, with Clash of the Titans and The Last Airbender being very close runner ups

Death at a Funeral


Tracy Morgan in Cop Out and Death at a Funeral

Tie between Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan in Cop Out, and Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie in The Tourist

Alice in Wonderland

Warner Bros. for giving us Cop Out, Sex and the City 2 (through their New Line label), Jonah Hex, The Book of Eli, Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, Going the Distance, and Yogi Bear

So, that's the worst of 2010 in a nutshell. Mistakes were obviously made, but we can only hope that the people involved with these duds will get to make a good movie in 2011.

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


Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Gulliver's Travels

I feel I should open this review by admitting up front that Gulliver's Travels was not made for me. It's made for kids up to a certain age. (I'd say 11, or so.) I didn't much care for it, but then again, I am not 11 or so. I am at least able to admit that as far as kid's entertainment (kid's, not family entertainment) goes, this is much better than its current rival, the boring Yogi Bear.

picIf the title leads you to think that you are paying to see an adaptation of the classic story by Jonathan Swift, then the fact that Jack Black's face is on the poster will probably lead you to expect that it's not a very faithful one. The very basic elements of the story are there, though modernized to appeal to kids. Gulliver (or Lemuel Gulliver, as his full name goes) has been transformed into a 30-something man-child working in the mail room of a local New York newspaper. Black plays him with a lot of goofy enthusiasm and naive sweetness, which I'm sure kids will find easy to relate to. Gulliver has not done a lot in his life, which hasn't helped him get ahead in his job, or talk to the woman at work whom he has a crush on, the lovely travel editor Darcy (Amanda Peet). He decides to change all that, but goes about it the wrong way. He lies to Darcy, saying he's an experienced traveler and writer, and after plagiarizing a piece to prove his ability as a writer, she gives him a shot by sending him off to Bermuda to cover a story about the Bermuda Triangle.

picSailing to his destination, Gulliver finds himself in the middle of a storm, and a massive whirlpool which pulls him into its vortex. When he comes to, he is shipwrecked on a distant island, and finds himself prisoner in the kingdom of Lilliput, where the inhabitants are odd thimble-sized people who live in ancient castles, and speak old English dialect, but apparently possess great technological knowledge, as they're capable of creating giant transforming robots for Gulliver to wrestle with during the film's climax. At first, Lilliput's King (Billy Connolly), Queen (Catherine Tate), and lovely young Princess (Emily Blunt) are suspicious of the strange, giant visitor, but when they discover that his massive size is an advantage in their battle against the neighboring war kingdom, they herald him a hero. Gulliver becomes an overnight celebrity in the tiny kingdom, and befriends a humble peasant named Horatio (Jason Segel), who is in love with the Princess, even though she is engaged to be married to the jealous General Edward (Chris O'Dowd).

picThe movie plays out pretty much how you expect. There's a message for the kids about being yourself, in the form of Gulliver making up stories to the Lilliput people about his former adventures (which are stolen from movies like Star Wars and Titanic), in a foolish attempt to get them to like him, which ultimately gets him in trouble when his boasting goes too far. There are plenty of pop culture references, some of which are sort of clever, such as when Gulliver has the tiny Lilliput people create their own version of Times Square in the center of the kingdom. (An idea I wish the filmmakers had taken further.) And of course, there is some bodily fluid humor to be found. You can't have a movie with a giant Jack Black, and not show his titanic butt crack at some point, I guess. The kids at my screening found the sight particularly hilarious. They howled with laughter even more when Gulliver saves the King from burning to death by dousing the fire with a "yellow shower".

picFortunately, Gulliver's Travels does not rely on this humor too often. It's pretty harmless stuff all around. Jack Black is energetic, and the effects used to create the illusion that he is a giant amongst these tiny people can be sort of imaginative in an old fashioned way. It's certainly not state of the art stuff, but it gets the job done. That being said, there's not a lot here to recommend unless you're in the right age group. The movie is cute and energetic, but not all that funny for adults. And if you're a purist of the original story, don't even think of watching this. Just download the trailer. The images of Jack Black rocking out to a miniature KISS tribute band, or grappling with a giant robot should be enough to tell you that a faithful adaptation was the last thing on the mind of screenwriters Joe Stillman (Planet 51) and Nicholas Stoller (Get Him to the Greek).
One Final Note: Once again, Hollywood's greed shows through, and Gulliver's Travels is being presented in 3D, when there is really no need for it. The 3D was added in post production, is largely pointless, and adds absolutely nothing whatsoever. I can only hope that families (and audiences in general) will one day take a stand against this obvious fleecing, but seeing as though my screening was full of kids and parents looking for something to do over the Christmas break, that day won't be anytime soon.

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Sunday, December 26, 2010

How Do You Know

James L. Brooks is a great filmmaker. I mean, the guy has Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, and As Good as It Gets to his credit. Heck, he even helped develop the seemingly eternal TV animated sitcom, The Simpsons. It's hard to top yourself with credits like that. So, maybe people had a lot of inflated expectations for his latest film, How Do You Know. I mean, just go on over to Rotten Tomatoes, and look at some of the reviews it's getting. Well, I'm going to have to go against my fellow critics, because while it definitely has its problems, I kind of liked it.

picGiven the reviews and word of mouth, I was not exactly looking forward to this movie. But, it surprised me. Is it a great movie? Far from it. There are moments when the film lacks focus, and some characters aren't developed as well as they could or should be. But what does work worked very well for me, and what worked was the simple (very simple) adult romance about three characters who are not only trying to find love, but two of them are at crossroads in their careers that could go either way. The key word here is "adult romance". The screenplay by Brooks at least allows the characters to act like intelligent individuals most of the time, except for some rare unwanted turns into slapstick territory.

picThe characters at the center of this romance are Lisa (Reese Witherspoon), a champion softball player who just got cut from her team, and fears her career is over as she enters her 30s, Matty (Owen Wilson), a carefree and laid back professional baseball player who is famous for his womanizing, and George (Paul Rudd, more charismatic here than he's ever been), who has not only found himself unemployed from the company run by his father (Jack Nicholson), but has also become the target of a federal investigation about said company. The film follows the triangle that forms between the three main characters. Lisa initially hooks up with Matty, but also develops a friendship with George, after a mutual friend hooks them up on a dinner date. But George is interested in more than a friendship, and sees Lisa as the only good thing in his life at the moment. At the same time, Lisa finds herself worried about her committed relationship to Matty, who doesn't seem to be on the same length as her about where they're going in life, and can never seem to find the right thing to say.

picThe performances at the center of How Do You Know help sell the thin material, save surprisingly for Jack Nicholson, who seems to be phoning it in a little here. This is not a case of the director not knowing how to work with the actor, as Nicholson has appeared in three of Brooks' past films, so I don't know what happened here. At least he gets to leave the film with some big laughs (one in a hospital scene late in the film, and the other the final reaction shot he gets). Up until then, however, he's upstaged by Witherspoon, Wilson, and especially Rudd, who use their charm and natural screen presence to make the characters seem more interesting than they probably were on the written page. The three leads work well together and individually, and the movie does manage to give them some funny moments, such as when Lisa finds out just how prepared Matty is for a one night stand.

picWhere the movie suffers just a little is in the stuff that does not revolve around the three main characters, and their relationship. James L. Brooks is famous for putting a lot of subplots and secondary characters in his movies, but here, he seems to flounder a little when he's not focused on his central angle. The material concerning Rudd's character, his father, and the federal investigation is never built as much as it should be, nor does it capture the emotion it needs to. Likewise, a subplot concerning Rudd bonding with a pregnant assistant from his old job (Kathryn Hahn) seems kind of pointless, although it does at least climax with some big laughs. If the movie was sharper and more focused, I think it could have been great. There's still some good material when the movie is not centered on the central romantic triangle, it's just never given enough attention.
And yet, I'm still recommending it. As I said before, the stuff that does work worked very well for me, and I liked all three of the leads. The movie's a warm, fuzzy little film that's likable enough to win me over, despite it's obvious faults. I'm still waiting for Brooks' next great film, as are a lot of people, obviously. But How Do You Know is certainly not bad at all, and awfully charming when it wants to be.

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Friday, December 24, 2010

True Grit

I think it's safe to say that filmmaking siblings Joel and Ethan Coen are some of the most diverse directors working today. They've tackled screwball comedy (Raising Arizona), dark crime drama (No Country For Old Men), road trip films colored by a unique sense of nostalgia and offbeat fantasy (O Brother, Where Art Thou?), and quiet, human-based dramas (A Serious Man). And yet, though they have had a lot of success in their career, they have never really had a movie that conquered the box office, and could be considered a blockbuster. True Grit, a real crowd pleaser, could be that film for them.

picMany of you are probably familiar with the earlier 1969 film that starred John Wayne, and gave him his only Oscar in his career. Well, the Coens have gone back to the original source material (the 1968 novel written by Charles Portis), and have given us a film that is sure to please fans of the original, while also being its own unique creation. This is a darker, slower, and somewhat more somber film than the original, complete with a bittersweet ending that is supposedly closer to how the original novel ended. When I use words like "darker" and "somber", I don't want to give the feeling that the film is a downer. The movie takes moments for the Coen's offbeat humor, and it's an enthralling old-fashioned adventure story, beautifully shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins. A big aspect to the film's tone is how much more real it seems compared to the John Wayne version. This film's depiction of the Old West seems more "lived in" and raw.

picAnother major change from the '69 film is that the story is told entirely from the perspective of its heroine, 14-year-old Mattie Ross. She's played by Hailee Steinfeld here, a young actress who has worked entirely in television up until now, but shows a real knowledge for demanding an audience's attention on the big screen. As the film opens, Mattie arrives in a dusty town seeking a bounty hunter who can help her track down a man by the name of Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who murdered her father in a drunken rage one night. Chaney is a wanted man, known to many by different aliases, but Mattie finds that the local law enforcement is less than cooperative, since Chaney is supposedly hiding somewhere in "Indian Territory". Still determined to find justice, she scrounges up some money from a local trader, and uses it to employ the services of a drunken, one-eyed, tough-as-nails Marshall named Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges).

picYou probably have the formula in your head already. This mismatched pair will venture out, and bond despite their differences. We expect that, but what we don't expect is that the screenplay (also by the Coens) is smart enough to handle this relationship in a low key and realistic way, rather than forced sentimentality. The relationship between Mattie and Rooster is one almost entirely out of respect. He respects her determination, and willingness to tackle any harsh environment or situation to reach her goal. She admires him because, despite his drunken and faded appearance, she can see the great man that he once was, and still can be when needed. The two are also joined off-and-on in their journey by a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who is also seeking to bring Tom Chaney to justice. He exists to create some tension in the group, as he is not entirely sold on Rooster's worth as Mattie is. In a wise decision, the film makes him somewhat more likable and less confrontational than he came across in the earlier film.

picWhat I admired most about True Grit is how genuine it felt. There are no action sequences that feel like elaborate set pieces, even during the climax. Every situation or stand off occurs from every day situations, such as the need for shelter from the cold. We feel like we are witnessing a journey, not a planned-out screenplay where an action sequence must occur every 10 pages or so. It gives the film a tone that is laid back, but never dull. I also admired the touches of humor during some of the film's darker or grimmer moments, such as when Mattie is forced to sleep at the mortician's parlor her first night in town, and a man casually asks her if she would like a coffin for a bed. This has long been a trademark of the Coens, and it's in full display here.

picAnd then there is the casting, which helps elevate this film beyond a mere remake, because we view them on their own, and are not constantly comparing them to the ones in the earlier film. Everyone's so strong here, we accept them, and don't even think about the '69 version. Bridges, in particular, pulls off the unenviable task of making the character of Rooster his own, without aping Wayne's well-known portrayal. He's dirtier, surlier...Probably closer to how the character was originally envisioned. He's a broken man, but one who still knows how to spot and respect a strong-willed individual. I have already spoken briefly about young Steinfeld's performance as Mattie, but it's worth repeating - It's the most natural performance by a teenage actress I can think of this year. She's tough, rigid, and honest. There isn't a false moment in her entire time in front of the camera. As for Damon, he doesn't leave quite the impression that Bridges or Steinfeld do, but he still manages to hold his own.
At the beginning of this review, I said that True Grit is a crowd pleaser, and it truly is. It's an old fashioned genre film, beautifully told, acted, and shot. It's also a loving tribute to the earlier film (which the Coens obviously have great respect for), while at the same time venturing out on its own, and including many of their usual trademarks. This is probably the closest the Coens have come to a mainstream film, and it's a winner, showing they can still be artistic and make their own kind of movies, even with a bigger budget and full Hollywood support. (Hollywood heavyweights like Steven Spielberg and Scott Rudin are credited as producers.) If this is a sign that the Coens have truly gone Hollywood, maybe that's not such a bad thing.

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Thursday, December 23, 2010

Little Fockers

It's amazing that Little Fockers can be as bad as it is, and still attract such big name talent. The cast list includes names like Ben Stiller, Robert De Niro, Owen Wilson, Jessica Alba, Blythe Danner, Teri Polo, Dustin Hoffman, Harvey Keitel, and Barbara Streisand. All of them talented people who deserve much better. This is the kind of movie actors have long, sad talks with their agents over. It's amazing none of them took one look at the script, and demanded a rewrite.

picThe movie reunites the cast of 2000's Meet the Parents (an amusing movie) and 2004's Meet the Fockers (less amusing, but better than this), and then plops them in situations so forced, it wouldn't make the grade on a TV sitcom. The movie is not funny in any way from beginning to end. It makes the great miscalculation that people acting stupid and misunderstanding each other is enough to get laughs. It's not, obviously. It's not funny to see actors like Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman act like idiots, unless they're given something to do. Nobody has anything to do in this movie. They're only back, because the last two movies made money. They seem to know they're stuck in a turkey that ran out of inspiration two movies ago. They're merely cashing a paycheck here, as is the director Paul Weitz (Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant), the writers John Hamburg (I Love You, Man) and Larry Stuckey, and hell, probably even the caterers.

picNow, no one will ever mistake Meet the Parents for a great movie, but it had some sharp dialogue and an energetic cast. That energy is long gone in this tired installment that finds Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) still feuding with his father-in-law Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro) over who should be the head of the family. And the sharp dialogue has been replaced with tired gross out gags about erectile dysfunction, sex, and projectile vomiting. Mainly, though, the movie is all about our old reliable friend, the Idiot Plot. You remember the Idiot Plot, don't you? That's when a movie goes to great lengths to drag out a situation that could be solved if the characters would just say one little word or sentence. Instead of saying the one thing that would clear everything up, the characters act like, well idiots, and do everything in their power to make sure that one thing that would clear everything up is never uttered until the screenplay deems it convenient.

picThe Idiot Plot is put into overtime in Little Fockers. One of the subplots concerns Greg being paired up with a sexy young woman at work named Andi Garcia (Jessica Alba). The movie then contorts itself wildly in order to put the two characters in one compromising situation after another that makes it look like Greg is cheating on his wife, Pam (Teri Polo), but of course he isn't. And of course, he never says a word, and just lets everyone else assume that he is. This allows De Niro's character to misinterpret everything he sees, and report the wrong information to the rest of the family. Obviously, this whole situation would be cleared up if Greg just stepped up and explained everything, but then the movie would only be 10 minutes long. Speaking of De Niro, he gets his own embarrassing subplot about not being able to sexually please his wife (Blythe Danner) anymore. So, we get a weary scene where he takes a sex drug, gets an erection that won't go away, so Greg has to inject the bulge (which the camera makes sure to focus on, in case we don't get the joke) with a needle, and then...Oh, why go on?

picI'm straining my brain to think of one gag, one moment, one second of this movie that is not woefully miscalculated in some way, but I'm coming up empty. The talented cast is completely wasted here. Some (like Polo and Danner) are pushed completely in the background, leaving you to wonder why they even bothered to return at all. And then there are some (Streissand, Keitel, and Hoffman) who barely register as cameo appearances. Hoffman supposedly did not want to appear in this movie originally, because he did not like the script, but the studio was eventually able to talk him into doing a few days worth of work. He should have stuck with his gut instinct and sat this one out. And what of the Little Fockers themselves? They are Greg and Pam's twin children, Samantha (Daisy Tahan) and Henry (Colin Baiocchi). They hold so little presence in the movie itself, and have so little to do with anything that happens, it only leaves you wondering why they named the movie after them.
As if Little Fockers isn't bad enough, the film's final scene actually seems to be leading up to a fourth movie. If there was any justice in Hollywood, this would be the end of it, but thanks to ads running around the clock on television, people will flock to this movie, hoping to recapture the good memories they have of the previous films. If audiences are smart, they'll just stick with their memories, and let this dud sink.

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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Black Swan

One of the first things I noticed about Black Swan is the way the film is shot. It's filmed almost (if not entirely) completely with a handheld camera that follows it's heroine, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman). Actually, it doesn't so much follow, as it tracks both her, and her line of sight. There are a lot of times where we feel like we are looking through the eyes of the character. We are looking into her world, and how she sees the world around her.

picThis is extremely important, as Darren Aronofsky's (The Wrestler) latest film is all about that world, and how the line between fantasy and reality begins to merge with disturbing results. By showing us this world through the main character's point of view, we are equally sympathetic and terrified by what we are seeing, much more so than if we were an outsider looking in. The approach is somewhat similar to the classic Japanese anime psychological thriller, Perfect Blue. Both films are about a rather sheltered and chaste woman and their maturing sexuality, and how it ties into a project they are working on (a crime drama in Perfect Blue, a ballet here). In both films, we get a first-hand look as the heroine loses her grip on her identity, and reality itself. The two films share just as many differences as they do similarities, but it would be wrong if Aronofsky did not at least state that the earlier film aided his vision at least a little. (He's openly admitted to being a fan of the film in past interviews, and even paid tribute to it with a scene recreation in one of his earlier films, Requiem for a Dream.)

picRegardless of any source of inspiration, Black Swan stands on its own as a tense and powerful psychological erotic thriller. It's one of the great films of the year. Before Aronofsky begins to play with our perception of reality, he gives us a first-hand look at the harsh behind the scenes life of a professional dancer. Much like his last film, The Wrestler, opened with an almost documentary-style look at the main character's career and what goes on behind the scenes, so too does this film. We see the lengths the dancers go to be "perfect", the dressing room gossip, and the struggle to stay at the top. We witness this early on when the director of the ballet company, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), announces that the company's star dancer, Beth (Winona Ryder) will be stepping down and retiring. Judging by Beth's reaction to this news and how she acts around him, it's not by her choice.

picYoung Nina has dreams of taking Beth's position, and getting the starring role as the Swan Princess in Leroy's revisionist production of Swan Lake. Nina is a woman of tremendous talent and dedication, but she is also extremely guarded and naive. This is something Thomas Leroy immediately recognizes. The part that Nina desires in the production is actually a dual role. She must play both the pure and virtuous White Swan (something he knows Nina would excel at), but also the seductive and dangerous Black Swan. This is where Nina has trouble. She cannot be free sexually. She is repressed. She is frightened and rigid. Thomas is willing to help her, both professionally, and ways that would seem slightly less moral. And yet, the film is careful not to make the character of Thomas Leroy into a generic slimy villain, or a pervert. He is complex, and far from the one-dimensional lusting figure a lesser film would present him as.

picThe role requires Nina to reach far deep into herself, exploring dark areas she has never dared to explore within her personality. This is where the drama lies. Nina is a suppressed woman. She is well into her 20s, but still has the fragility and timidness of an awkward 12-year-old girl on the verge of puberty. Her room is filled with toys and childhood trinkets, and her domineering mother whom she lives with (Barbara Hershey, giving a performance that's both sympathetic and terrifying) keeps her under a tight psychological grip. The role of the Black Swan forces Nina to face feelings and thoughts she has held back her entire life. And as they begin to rise to the surface (literally in some cases), they fly out of control, as does Nina herself. We begin to question along with her what is real, and what is not. Some are clearly horrific delusions made up in her own mind, but there are some that we find ourselves questioning right along with her.

picAnd then there is Lily, the newest dancer to join the company. She's played by Mila Kunis, and in a film filled with noteworthy performances (both Portman and Hershey should be locks at award time), she is the real breakthrough to me. Having mainly worked on television, and slowly moving toward film, Kunis gives the best performance of her career as the complicated figure who is either trying to befriend Nina, or destroy her. The character of Lily is intentionally kept at a distance, as Nina is not sure what to make of her, so neither are we. She is the main source of Nina's paranoia that someone will come and upstage her, just like what happened with Beth. Lily seems to represent a lot in Nina's eyes. She represents fear, freedom (both sexually and emotionally), and power. It's that last part that the movie is intentionally vague on. Is Lily truly overpowering Nina, or is it simply Nina supplying this woman power with her own fear? We can certainly make our own assumptions (and we do), but the movie is wise not to spell everything out.

picIt's this skewed view of events that make Black Swan so compelling. We know that Nina is not a reliable narrator, and yet, we are forced to view the events through her eyes. We can create our own assumptions of what really happened, which are usually quite the opposite of what we are watching up on the screen. Some critics of the film have complained about the melodramatic and sometimes bombastic nature of the narrative, but again, I think this ties into the story that Aronofsky is trying to tell. It also once again ties into the "unreliable narrator" angle. We are not watching a realistic reenactment of events. The story takes frequent trips into fantasy, horror, and psychological drama. We are constantly watching a fevered mind trying to sort out fantasy and reality.
So, we're left with a main character who is distant to us, even though we are watching everything through her eyes. It's a fascinating angle, one that grabbed me from the start, and refused to let go. This is not a movie to figure out or analyze while you're watching it. Just let it grab you, and transport you like only great films can. Much like his previous film, Aronofsky lifts the veil on a performance art that many people misunderstand. This time around, instead of emotional gut-wrenching power, he does it through fear and confusion.

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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Yogi Bear

Anna Faris is a lovely and talented woman. She has a cute and expressive face, a nice smile, and strong comic timing. Sure, I have admired her in other films, but in Yogi Bear, which gave me absolutely nothing else to think about, I sat and watched her performance closely, and was impressed by her energy. Sure, the hollow and lame brained script gives her nothing to do, but she at least tackles the awful material with grace and such enthusiasm, I couldn't help but smile from time to time.

picI was grateful for those rare smiles, because otherwise, this is a dimwitted and flat-out boring live action and animated comedy for kids. Will kids at least enjoy it? I honestly do not know. The ad campaign, and even the title of the film itself, would like you to believe that this is a modern revival of the old Hanna-Barbera cartoon character who was famous for stealing picnic baskets (or "pic-a-nic baskets", as he calls them) and for being smarter than the average bear. And yes, Yogi (voiced here by Dan Aykroyd) and faithful sidekick Boo Boo (voiced by Justin Timberlake, who is quite an impressive dead-ringer for the original voice) do appear for antics that seem to be taken from the cartoons. (I never watched much Yogi Bear as a kid, so I can't be certain.) But, I noticed something odd as the film went on. The movie itself is not really about them. They play no real role in the plot itself. Odd that Yogi gets his name in the title, but spends all of his screen time either as a supporting comic relief character, or reacting to the plot that is going on around him.

picInstead of a movie built around the bears, the plot decides to instead focus on Ranger Smith, who always served as kind of a straight man to Yogi's antics in the cartoons, and is played here by Tom Cavanagh. I find this an extreme miscalculation on the part of the filmmakers. Do they seriously believe that kids would be more interested in the boring and stuffy old park ranger, rather than the CG bears who talk, sing, dance, and fly on home-made airplanes? Apparently, they do, as he seems to get more substantial screen time. They try to liven the character of Smith up by giving him a smart, but quirky, love interest by way of a nature documentary filmmaker named Rachel (Anna Faris), and a goofy sidekick named Ranger Jones (T.J. Miller). But it doesn't hide the fact that the Ranger should not be the focus of the movie.

picThe plot (such as it is) centers on Smith's attempts to save Jellystone Park from being closed down as it nears its 100th anniversary. The crooked Mayor Brown (Andrew Daly) wants to shut the park so he can sell it to greedy loggers who want to cut all the trees down. Smith and Rachel try to prevent this by throwing an elaborate celebration to raise money, which Yogi and Boo Boo inadvertently ruin with their pranks and antics. That's pretty much the entire 80 minutes or so of the movie right there. Ranger Smith keeps on trying to save the park, then the bears show up and do something wrong. We then get a revelation during the last 15 minutes that Boo Boo's pet turtle is actually an endangered species, and could save Jellystone, so everyone goes racing to find it, and foil the Mayor's plans to cut the park down. What's stunning is that it took three different writers to work on such a simple and basic plot.

picLike I said before, I can't claim to be an expert on Yogi Bear, but the cartoons did run on TV for numerous decades in various forms, so they had to have been more entertaining than this movie, which is a total bore. Yogi and Boo Boo (despite being enthusiastically voiced by Aykroyd and Timberlake) are dull, and devoid of personality. They may be pranksters, but their antics are bland and repetitive. The human cast members don't hold up much better, and are usually victims to lame running gags, such as the Mayor not being able to work his car window, or Ranger Jones constantly screwing up simple tasks, such as setting up fliers for the park. As I mentioned in the opening, only Anna Faris gets to display any charisma or charm, and that comes from her performance, not from anything in the script.
The studio obviously hopes that Yogi Bear will become a franchise like the Alvin and the Chipmunk films, but if this movie is any indication, there's not enough material for even one Yogi movie. This is a dumb and witless film that might entertain the very youngest of kids, but that's probably it. If your kid is old enough to read by themselves, they're probably too old for this movie.

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Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Fighter

I think David O. Russell's The Fighter focuses on the wrong fighter. The character that this movie should be about is Dicky Eklund. He's played by Christian Bale in a performance that is mesmerizing, powerful, joyful, and heartbreaking. It's one of the best performances of the year, and one of the best characters I've come across in a movie this year. He was once a rising professional fighter, and even beat Sugar Ray Leonard in the ring at the peak of his career. Now, he's a faded crack addict with a son from a faded relationship, delusions of a return to glory (he thinks the camera crew following him around is filming a documentary about his comeback, when it's really about crack addiction), and a desire to see his younger half-brother become a better man than he ever was, has been, or will be.

picThat half-brother is Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg). He grew up idolizing Dicky, who taught him everything he knows about boxing. He's tolerant when Dicky does not show up to help him train for an upcoming fight, and looks the other way when Dicky comes stumbling out the back window of a crack house, not wanting their mother to see him, even though she's standing right there. Mickey has been trying to break into the professional boxing circuit for a while, but has not had much luck, thanks to a string of embarrassing losses. His career is almost a total family affair, with his brother training him, and his mother, Alice (Melissa Leo) managing him and booking fights from the kitchen in her house. Mickey comes from a close-knit, but dysfunctional family that could be politely described as "white trash". The brother's a motormouth drug addict, the mom's a chain-smoker so demanding of her son, she would give some notorious "stage mothers" a lesson in how to be controlling, and Mickey's seven sisters all look like sleazy rejects from an equally sleazy reality dating show.

picThe film itself (based on a true story) is about how Mickey broke free of his controlling family, and starts to live his own life and career. It all starts when he meets a kind-hearted but sharp-tongued bar waitress named Charlene (the always-reliable Amy Adams). As she falls in love with Mickey, she starts to try to convince him that he should go after what he wants, not what others want from him. This obviously does not sit well with Alice, who sees Charlene's actions as trying to steal her son away from her. Mickey does start to go after what he wants, and tries to make his family understand, which is hard. As his career grows, we are supposed to stand up and cheer as the "nobody" from the small Boston blue collar town has a shot at the championship. Never heard that plot before in a movie, have you?

picThe problem with The Fighter is not that we've heard the story before, but that I never cared about Mickey. He's too passive, and disappears too much into the background to the point that I almost didn't know why the movie was following him. There was no moment in the movie for me where I truly got behind him, or felt he was making a huge accomplishment. He's just there up on the screen, surrounded by much more interesting characters. I have nothing against Wahlberg's performance here. He's a fine actor, and he's fine as Mickey. I just could never shake the feeling that a movie following Dicky would have been much more emotional and powerful. He carries all the human interest in the movie. When his brother won't stand up for him after a run-in with police which sends him to jail, he feels betrayed. His struggle to become clean and sober is not just for himself, but also so he can help his brother reach the top, and so he can be with his son again. There's a lot of workable material here, and Bale's award-worthy performance sells every moment when he's up on screen.

picToo bad Mickey can't do that. He has potential. There's a subplot about how he's fighting so he can earn money to buy a bigger place, so he can have more visitation with his young daughter from a failed marriage. Once this is established, the movie almost seems to forget about it. We see the daughter and the ex-wife in a couple more scenes, but they never become a driving force in the drama that unfolds. They're treated as a plot device. So, what are we left with? Well, there are a number of stand-out performances to be sure. Besides Bale, Melissa Leo and Amy Adams make for engaging rivals for Mickey's heart and mind. Their struggle for him should make for powerful drama, but the movie never finds the right tone.
The Fighter just never really clicked with me. It's obviously well made, and has a lot of strong performances to its credit, but I felt like I was being kept constantly at a distance. I never found myself truly rooting for Mickey, not even during the fight scenes, which are surprisingly lacking in tension and suspense. And since I didn't feel anything for the main character either in or outside the ring, the movie just kind of sits there. Sure, it's well made, but what's the point if it just sits there?

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