Reel Opinions

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Debt

Labor Day weekend is traditionally treated like a cinematic dumping ground for most studios, which is why it's surprising to see something as intelligent and challenging as The Debt hitting screens around this time. Of course, it wasn't planned this way initially. Miramax originally planned this for a December release last year, but when the studio went under, they had to sell it off to Focus Features, who has decided to release the movie right in the middle of the dog days of summer. I'm not sure if it's a smart idea, or if it will find much of an audience. I do know I'm glad it's out there, and I'm certainly glad I saw it.

picA remake of a 2007 Israeli film, The Debt kicks things off with an out of sequence narrative that had me a little frustrated at first. As the film jumps back and forth between two different time periods (1966 and 1997), we find ourselves intrigued, but also a little bit lost. It doesn't take long for the pieces to start to fall into place, and we begin to realize what director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) is doing with his story. He's giving us vital pieces of info of the film's two storylines (which run in the separate years), and preparing us for what's to come. The film itself is a study in the idea of the "unreliable narrator", where we're told one thing, but then the truth is revealed, and we find out some key details were left out. The movie's an intriguing little puzzle, and fortunately, it doesn't fall flat in its major revelations, nor does it fall apart too much when you think back on it.

picDescribing the plot can be tricky, as it's hard not to delve into spoiler territory, but I will try my best. The opening moments of the film introduce us to our three main characters, who back in 1966, were young Mossad agents on a dangerous mission in East Berlin. They are Stephen (Marton Csokas), David (Sam Worthington), and Rachel (Jessica Chastain from The Help). Their mission is to capture a Nazi war criminal named Bernhardt (Jesper Christensen), who once went by the name of "the Butcher of Birkenau", and killed many innocent people in horrific medical experiments. They must capture him, and bring him to Israel, so that he can have a public trial. Bernhardt now has a respectable medical practice in Berlin, and Rachel must pose as a regular patient seeking help with getting pregnant in order to gather information on him, as well as check his identity. These are some of the more nerve-wracking moments of the film, and it's easy to see why, if you were trusting your body to someone who once used to be called the "Butcher of Birkenau".

picHis identity is confirmed, and the three agents manage to capture him, and sneak him out of his office. From this point on, the plan starts to go wrong. But, it had to end okay, right? Because the movie keeps on flashing forward to some 30 years later, where the elder Rachel (Helen Mirren) is helping to promote a book that her adult daughter has written about her mother's successful mission back then. However, something's obviously not right. Stephen (now played by Tom Wilkinson) has started following Rachel around, even though they haven't spoken in years, and David (now played by Ciaran Hinds) seems to be troubled by the past. I really don't want to go much further. A lot of the fun for me was figuring out where the plot was going, and the revelations. I suggest walking into The Debt knowing as little as possible.

picOf the two main plots, the one set in '66 is easily the more interesting, as it holds the most tension, and has a claustrophobic vibe of paranoia that builds with remarkable and precise intensity. The scenes set in the more recent years are certainly good, and have actors like Mirren, Wilkinson, and Hinds at the top of their games. It just doesn't have the same feeling of excitement that the flashbacks do. I was never bothered by it, though, as both stories complement each other well enough. The plot with the younger agents also holds the more memorable performances. Jessica Chastain, in particular, is wonderful as the younger Rachel. It's yet another stand-out performance from Chastain, in what is proving to be a banner year for the actress. In The Help, she stood out as being the most interesting and well-rounded character in a movie full of stereotypes. Here, she gets to be strong, yet vulnerable, and has moments of fear and sadness where we really sympathize with her.

picI enjoyed the movie greatly as a thriller, especially when the mindgames come into play, and relationships are tested. But, the movie also works as a claustrophobic drama, where the three young agents find themselves in a situation they had not planned for, and are trapped with their enemy in a place where they cannot leave. It creates some tense moments, sure, but we also start to feel for the characters as they break apart emotionally right before our eyes. Sure, we've seen this stuff done before, but that doesn't make it any less riveting. What's amazing is that for almost the entire length of the film, it never sells out, or takes a cheap way out. We get plenty of opportunities to care about these characters, or know what they're thinking. It's not until the film's final moments that we get a quick and dirty resolution that smacks of the screenwriters wanting to wrap things up in a hurry. But, this isn't until the final moments, and it doesn't hurt what's come before too much.
The worst thing I can say about The Debt is that it's a good movie, when it could have been a great one with a little bit of extra time on the script. Still, I'm not complaining. It's a rare late-summer movie for adults that doesn't talk down to its audience, or try to simplify things. I hope that audiences will have the patience to sit through this one. Most of all, I hope it finds an audience in the first place.

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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Our Idiot Brother

Is there anything worse than seeing a talented cast stuck in a movie that doesn't let them truly work with the material? Our Idiot Brother is one such movie. It's the kind of movie where we see the names in the cast flashed during the opening credits, and expect great things. The movie starts out slow, so we wait for things to pick up, and for the cast to truly break out and entertain us. But the movie never picks up, and the cast never does. It's infuriating, for sure. And although the movie has some nice moments, we just can't get over how halfhearted the whole thing seems.

picThe movie stars Paul Rudd as Ned, the "Idiot Brother" of the title. He's nice to a fault, extremely naive and trusting, good natured, prone to blurting out peoples' embarrassing secrets at the wrong time, and the one true love in his life is his pet dog named Willy Nelson. As the film opens, he's thrown in prison for a short while after he tries to sell a bag of weed to a uniformed cop. He's released early ("I was named 'model prisoner' four months in a row", he boasts), and heads back to the farm where his girlfriend (Kathryn Hahn) lives, only to find that she has moved on, and refuses to let him move back in. What's worse, she has his precious dog, and won't let it go. With nowhere else to go, he must move in with his three individual sisters - Miranda (Elizabeth Banks), Natalie (Zooey Deschanel), and Liz (Emily Mortimer). One by one, he destroys his sisters' lives and relationships with his blunt honesty, and inability to keep his mouth closed about things like infidelity and a hidden pregnancy. Of course, he means well, and does his best to fix what he destroys. But his main goal is to get his beloved Willy Nelson back, and live happily on his own.

picDespite the film's R-rating, this is a gentle and a little too lazy comedy that, much like the character of Ned, is a bit too nice to a fault. We keep on waiting for some kind of edge or for a big laugh, but it never comes. We laugh politely from time to time at some of Ned's misunderstandings, but for the most part, this is an overly safe and lethargic comedy that just constantly seems to be stuck in the slow lane, like it's afraid to really fly with its premise and cast. Maybe the joke is that Ned is such a nice guy, and he's surrounded by such terrible people. His sisters are all more than a little bitter toward him, even before he starts destroying their lives. But, much like a sitcom, Our Idiot Brother is fond of tidy solutions to all of its problems, and Ned is able to make everyone around him be a little nicer just by being his pleasant self.

picThere are moments where the movie seems to want to be taken seriously, and these work just about as well as the comic moments, because we don't care about the characters. When one of the sisters discovers from Ned that her husband (Steve Coogan) has been having an affair on his job, there is absolutely no tension created, not even when she confronts her husband in the bedroom. There's no sense of betrayal, no sense of love lost, and no sense of pain. The actors are just reciting a scene, and we're just waiting for the film to move on to the next scene. This is a muted movie in just about every way. The laughs are near non-existent, the drama is thin and unconvincing, and the pace is so glacial, it seems to be at a stand-still at times.

picWhat's frustrating is that I have no doubt that with a different screenplay or approach, this cast could have really made this material into something to watch. But, much like the film itself, the actors seem muted, and are never allowed to be as funny as we know they can be. Oh, there are certainly laughs to be had, but they are sparse and not big, full ones. We watch the actors up on the screen, and remember how funny they can be, and have been in other films. That leads us to wonder what they saw in this project. I have no doubt that the actors will get a chance to be funny again, but here, they're listless in a particularly lifeless little movie.
I kind of hate to say such things about Our Idiot Brother, because the idea is workable, the cast is strong, and you really want the thing to come together while you're watching it. But, I can't sugar coat it - I just didn't laugh all that much. There are some sweet moments, and a couple scenes that I liked, but overall, I think I'll be hard pressed to remember anything about this one a month from now.

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Saturday, August 27, 2011


I've seen movies just like Colombiana many times, and I'm assuming you have too. It's yet another action thriller about a seemingly-soulless assassin, who just wants to lead a normal life, but most of all, wants to find the killer of their parents. In this case, the assassin is played by Zoe Saldana from Avatar. She doesn't get to show a wide range of emotions in her performance, but something tells me that was the last thing on the mind of director Olivier Megaton (great name, if it's real, which I doubt). I think the filmmakers were more interested in how Saldana fills out a slinky, black stealth suit. I'm pleased to report, very well.

picColombiana opens with a little girl from Bogota named Cataleya (played by 9-year-old Amandla Stenberg) watching her parents get killed at the hands of some drug dealers. Dad was in the drug dealing business himself, wanted out, and his former boss didn't take it well, as expected. Little Cataleya escapes from her parents' killers, and makes her way out to Chicago, where her uncle Emilio (Cliff Curtis) lives. It turns out that Emilio is in the killer for hire business, and Cataleya wants in on the job, so she can track down the murderers of her parents. Fortunately, Emilio wants the child to get an education first, as you have to be smart and go to school to learn how to kill people, and not get caught. In one of the film's more insane early moments, Uncle Emilio demonstrates this by shooting up a random car in front of an elementary school in broad daylight, and simply walks away without anyone noticing.

picWe flash forward to the present, with Saldana now playing the role of the adult Cataleya, and using her skills her uncle taught her in a convoluted and loopy sequence where she manages to kill a prisoner who's being held in a jail overnight. Her trademark with her killings is to leave the image of a flower that shares her name drawn in lipstick on the bodies of her victims, as that was her father's mark, and she is hoping the drug dealer who killed her parents will one day see it, and reveal his location to her. Outside of her hired killing jobs, she's trying to have a romantic relationship with a nice young man (Michael Vartan), which is hard, since she can't really tell him anything about herself for his own safety. There's also a grizzled old FBI agent (Lennie James), who is trying to track Cataleya down, and for reasons the movie fails to go into, refuses to believe that a woman could be responsible for these hit jobs, and that it has to be a man behind them.

picThe whole movie works like clockwork, with all the expected character types, plot points, and action sequences that we would expect in a movie like this. This could still be fun if Colombiana was particularly well made or intense, but it's not. There's a certain laziness to every facet of the production. The action seems edited (and it most likely was, in order to get a PG-13), and the movie cuts away from the more sexual or erotic moments, which make you wonder why they bothered to include them in the first place. The movie was co-written and produced by Luc Besson, who specializes in mindless action thrillers such as this. Here, he seems preoccupied, as if his heart wasn't really in this one. His movies are usually a lot more explosive than this.

picAs if the movie wasn't easy enough to predict already, it has a nasty and not-very-subtle way of foreshadowing certain events. When we see a random scene of Cataleya feeding some vicious dogs that belong to a friend, we just know that those dogs will be chowing down on a bad guy later on in the movie. They do not disappoint, though I must say I am impressed that those dogs were able to hear her command to attack while the bad guy is talking to her on the phone. At the very least, the movie does venture into guilty pleasure territory at certain times, and comes close to working on some level. But then, the plot and the film itself go back on autopilot, and we're left waiting for the next insane moment Besson threw into his script in order to grab our attention.
Colombiana is the kind of movie we usually get at the end of August. Cheap, forgettable, and making a quick pit stop in theaters before it languishes on shelves at the rental store. I'm sure the movie was fun to make, especially for Saldana, who gets to show off a lot of fighting and acrobatic skills here. Too bad the film itself isn't more fun for the audience.

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Friday, August 26, 2011

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

Sometimes a movie can be so successful in certain ways, it helps me forgive its obvious flaws. Such is the case with Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, a remake of a 1973 made-for-TV film (and the third remake I've reviewed in about a week) that is filled with atmosphere, strong performances, and an overall sense of unease that hovers over the theater through most of it. The source of the flaws stem from the script by producer Guillermo Del Toro and Matthew Robbins. The holes found within it are not only large enough to drive a truck through, but it ruins some of the atmosphere that the film works hard to build.

picThe movie opens with a sequence that does a great job of building dread. Some time in the past (it looks to be the late 1800s or early 1900s), the master of a dark, brooding mansion calls for his housekeeper to join him in the basement. It turns out that the whole thing is a trap, so that the master can knock out the teeth of the housekeeper with a blunt object (we notice he's missing more than a few of his own teeth), and sacrifice them to some unseen creatures that are lurking in the dark shadows of the room, and feast upon the bones and teeth of humans (especially children). They refuse his offering, and choose to drag him into the shadows instead. Cut to some time in the present, and we meet a sad and withdrawn young girl named Sally (played by the talented young Bailee Madison) who is being sent to live in the creepy old house we saw earlier, where her dad Alex (Guy Pearce) and his new girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) have been restoring the mansion in order to make a profit, and hope to start a new life with Sally - an idea Sally's clearly not thrilled about, and wastes no opportunity to show to her future stepmother.

picThe family arrives at the house, and even though it's been spruced up a little, it still looks like it was built to be the setting for a horror movie. It even comes equipped with all the usual trappings of a haunted house, including a sealed off room, lots of dark corners for the characters to unwisely poke around in, and an old groundskeeper (Jack Thompson) who seems to know the history of the house, and knows that something bad is locked within it, but doesn't do a very good job of warning the family living there until it is much too late. Little Sally comes across the long-sealed up room (which just happens to be the basement room from the opening scene), and begins exploring, when she suddenly starts to hear ominous and raspy whispers speaking to her from within a dusty old vent leading to an ash pit. She unwisely breaks off the seal blocking the vent, and unknowingly unleashes the shadowy little creatures who have been trapped within the walls of the house for decades, and are now determined to stalk and threaten Sally.

picDon't Be Afraid of the Dark doesn't really break any new ground in the horror genre, but first-time feature director Troy Nixey has a real talent for building subtle suspense. He relies on good old fashioned mounting dread, instead of rapidly cut "boo" shots, with the monsters leaping at the camera. We hear the whispers of the little demons from the walls and different corners of the room, we see their shadowy figures scampering just out of frame like cockroaches, and there are a couple creepy moments, such as when the little demons that Sally frees try to convince her that her teddy bear has come to life (Sally sees the bear moving on its own, while we see the shadowy creatures manipulating it from behind, trying to get her interest, and lure her closer). The movie has a great way of building upon the dread that all children fear that there is "something" in the dark recesses of their home that only they know about. It plays upon this primal fear expertly.

picNaturally, Alex and Kim do not believe Sally when she starts talking about tiny ten inch monsters that seem to be repelled by the light, and drawn to dark places. Alex has the role of being the character who constantly makes bad decisions and refuses to listen to reason, so that little Sally can be in danger for as long as possible. As for Kim, she begins to soften up and believe Sally eventually, especially when she does her own private investigation on the house itself, with the help of a local and friendly "exposition librarian", who knows a lot about the old man who lived in the house decades ago. It's also right around this time that we finally get a good look at the monsters tormenting Sally, and naturally, the big reveal can't hold a candle to the mystery that the movie so expertly sets up. No matter how advanced the CG, it can't stand up to the terror of the unknown.

picI am recommending the movie because, despite the fact that the material is well-worn, it's executed well enough here. Still, certain things bugged me while I was watching the film. I did not like the way that the characters were forced to suffer a sudden drop in I.Q. in order to make the plot keep moving on at certain times. The plot is motivated entirely by the actions of the characters, but a lot of those actions sometimes make absolutely no sense. These are characters who know they're in a horror film, and fill the required roles of poking around in places they don't belong in an artificial way. They're doing it because the script tells them to, not for any logical purpose. All of the actors in the cast are giving the material their all, but the material doesn't always return the favor.
Those who are expecting a fast-paced thrill ride are likely to be disappointed with Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. This is a deliberate slow-burn Gothic thriller, and for all its flaws, it still manages to leave you feeling a little uneasy at times. In a strange way, the film reminded me of the animated film Coraline, since both films feature young girls discovering dark secrets within a dreary home. This film, however, is rated-R, and is certainly not for young kids. There is a certain spooky innocence to the film that I kind of liked. It's an old fashioned horror story, and it manages to create some memorably spooky images, which is more than I can say for a lot of recent horror films.

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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Double Mini-Reviews: One Day and Buck

During the past week, I was sick with a terrible cold, so I was not able to review last weekend's releases as quickly as normal. Fortunately, I am caught up, and before this weekend's batch of reviews begin, I thought I would write out two mini reviews of the last two films I saw left over from the previous weekend...
ONE DAY - This is a passable, yet slight, romantic drama that finds entertainment in the dialogue (taken from the best-selling novel by David Nicholls, who also wrote the screenplay), and the simple, everyday tone of the film itself.

It follows two people, Emma (Anne Hathaway, sporting a shaky British accent here) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess), who meet as recent college graduates on July 15th, 1988. Why the significance of the date? Because the movie's central gimmick is that it follows both of their lives each year on that particular day, and how their relationship with each other builds, falls apart, builds again, and ultimately blooms into love, and the different people who walk in and out of their individual and collective lives. The fragmented narrative worked well enough for me, even though the movie puts more emphasis on certain years than on others. It's kind of fascinating to see the lives of Emma and Dexter change as the years pass. Emma starts working at a dead-end job at a Mexican restaurant as a waitress, eventually becomes a teacher, and writes a book. Dexter starts out as an alcoholic TV celebrity, burns out, puts his life back together, and ultimately realizes that what he's wanted out of life was in front of him all along.

There are a lot of nice moments here, and certain scenes between Hathaway and Sturgess carry some emotional weight, thanks to their performances. But, we never sense a complete connection between the two characters, due to the fact that the movie only looks at the lives of these people one day out of each year. So much obviously happens off camera, we sometimes feel like we're getting only part of the story. Also, certain supporting characters (like a struggling stand up comic that Emma has a relationship with for a time) never seem as fleshed out as they should be. Certain dramatic events (like a failed marriage for one of the characters) also doesn't have as much emotional weight as it should.

Something obviously got lost during the transition from novel to screenplay, but that doesn't mean that One Day is a total failure. It's a quiet, romantic story with a strong cast, and good direction by Lone Scherfig (An Education). Maybe I was just in the mood for a simple romantic story, but this movie worked enough for me. I wasn't wowed by it, but I don't think that was the intention of the filmmakers in the first place.

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BUCK - A beautiful, quiet, and meditative documentary about Buck Brannaman, the horse trainer who was the inspiration for the best-selling novel, The Horse Whisperer, and also worked as a consultant and trainer on Robert Redford's film adaptation.

Buck tells his story in his own words, and he tells it with genuine humor, good will, and quite a lot of sadness. You can tell how hard it is to talk about the days of his youth, when his older brother and him were child celebrities as junior cowboys and trick ropers, yet were constantly under the thumb of their alcoholic father, who would beat them whenever they screwed up. Buck was fortunate enough to escape from his father, find a foster family, and began a career as a horse trainer, where he encouraged methods to understand and create a bond with the animal, rather than using force or older cruel tactics to get the animal to behave. Buck now hosts successful seminars at ranches all across the nation, where he teaches his methods to his many friends and followers, and trains his teenage daughter to follow in his footsteps.

While the movie skips over some details (we never really learn what happened to his brother, who was also beaten by their father), this is still a compelling and personal journey. We get to witness first hand his various successes (and failures) in his professional life, and how his method of showing empathy for the horse is a successful tool. We get to meet the different people who he has inspired, and we generally understand how they have been inspired by him. This is not just a "talking heads" documentary, where people just praise or talk about a person. We feel the warmth of his various relationships from everyone to the people who attend his workshops and seminars, to his elderly foster mother, who still joins him on the road sometimes.

Buck is an inspiring and pleasant little film about a very good person who managed to rise above a very grim beginning that could have turned him into a terrible person if things had turned out differently. It's a movie about moving beyond the pain of the past, and finding inspiration in the beauty of animals and everyday life. This is a wonderful and heartfelt film.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Spy Kids: All the Time in the World

I'm never quite sure how to review a movie like Spy Kids: All the Time in the World. On one hand, the movie obviously was not made for adults, but for kids - It's loud, it's hyperactive, it's as colorful as cotton candy, and the dialogue seems to be made out entirely out of puns. (Since this movie is about time travel, most of the puns are built around time and clocks.) But, there were moments while watching the movie that I found myself thinking that if I was 10 years old and watching this, I'd probably be witnessing one of my new favorite movies.

picOf course, this was the intention of writer-director Robert Rodriguez. He's made all of the Spy Kids movies at the level that kids could easily understand. He speaks their language, which really is a wonderful gift, when you think about it. Some of the earlier films in the franchise were clever enough so that adults could enjoy them on some level. This isn't one of them. In fact, I'd say that if you're beyond Elementary School, you might think the movie gets a little tiresome by the end. But, there are flashes of fun here, and the spirit is there. Everyone up on the screen knows what kind of movie they're making, and went all out. The film goes so all out, it gives us not one, but two pointless gimmicks! The first is the 3D, which is expected in this day and age, and also expected, is largely disappointing. The second is the "Aroma-Scope", which is just a fancy way of saying "scratch 'n sniff". You get cards with different numbers on them, and when that number flashes on the screen during a certain scene, you're supposed to scratch that number and smell what the character is smelling. It didn't work for me very well, but I thought it was because I was recovering from a very bad cold when I saw it. But, I've read other reports where people have said it didn't work very well.

picThe film kicks off with a fun little action sequence where a super spy named Marissa (Jessica Alba) who, despite the fact she's nine months pregnant and due any day, is still active in duty, and hunting down her arch nemesis, a helium-voiced villain named Tick Tock (Jeremy Piven, in one of three roles he plays in the film), who has weapons that can stop time. Marissa is able to fight off and capture Tick Tock and his minions, even though her water breaks in the middle of the fight, and she begins to go into contractions. The fact that I saw this movie immediately after Conan the Barbarian made me realize I saw two films in a row that open with a woman going into labor in the middle of battle. I hope this isn't becoming a trend in Hollywood, but I have to at least give this movie credit for having a sense of humor about the idea. After capturing the villains, she races off for the hospital, where her husband Wilbur (Joel McHale from TV's Community and The Soup), and Marissa's two step kids Rebecca (Rowan Blanchard) and Cecil (Mason Cook) are waiting for her.

picMarissa gives birth to a new baby girl (who provides the required number of fart and poo jokes that kids movies need), and drops out of the spy game in order to spend more time with her new family. She's desperate to strike up a relationship with Rebecca and Cecil, as they still haven't accepted her as their new mom, and are upset with their dad for remarrying after their mom passed away years ago. Other family issues includes father and husband Wilbur never having enough time for his kids and new wife, as he's busy developing a new reality TV show about tracking down and finding spies. (The gag being he doesn't realize his wife was a spy, as Marissa has always told the family she's an interior designer.) As the problems in the house build, an even bigger problem hits the world. Time begins to speed up, screwing up all time in the world. A masked supervillain who calls himself the Time Keeper makes a televised threat that he plans to hold the world hostage by manipulating and speeding up time unless his demands are met. Marissa is called back into action to track down Time Keeper, as he has teamed up with her old nemesis Tick Tock.

picThis is also right about the point when kids Rebecca and Cecil find out the truth about their stepmom being a spy. They find this out with the help of their pet dog Argonaut (voice by Ricky Gervais), who is actually a one-liner spewing robot sidekick who was designed by Marissa to watch over the kids if they were ever in danger, and she wasn't around. He's programmed not only to talk, but also to shoot tiny metal balls out of his rear end to slip up pursuing bad guys, which brought no end of amusement to the kids at my screening. When Tick Tock's men invade the home, Argonaut the robo-dog has no choice but to take the kids to OSS spy headquarters, where they not only learn the truth about Marissa, but also learn about the now-defunct Spy Kids division from former and original-Spy Kid, Carmen (Alexa Vega), who even though she is an adult, she's still carrying on her sibling rivalry with her brother and other former-Spy Kid, Juni (Daryl Sabara).

picIf you're guessing that Rebecca and Cecil will eventually become Spy Kids themselves, and learn to use a lot of fun and inventive gadgets to fight the bad guys and help their stepmother in her battle against evil, you'd be right. This is the studio's way of rebooting the franchise, and in all honesty, I could easily see them rebooting it every few years or so with a new pair of kids. Spy Kids: All the Time in the World is goofy from top to bottom, and while it sometimes seems to take place in our world, it also has a lot of set pieces in places that could never exist, like a massive fortress made up of clocks and flying gears. The movie makes no effort to hide what it is - a silly adventure story for kids. This, of course, means there's very little for adults in the audience to grab onto, but they won't find it unwatchable. The actors are all in on the film's fun, and seem to be having the time of their lives, especially Alba, who is obviously loving her "supermom" role.
At the very least, nobody seems to be "cashing a paycheck" here, or looks like they don't want to be involved. They're having fun, the kids at my screening were having fun, and I have to admit, I smiled from time to time. (Ricky Gervais provides a couple good laughs as the voice of the dog.) This movie wasn't made for me, but don't let that stop you from letting your kids to see it. If they're at a certain age (I'd say 6-11), they'll find much much entertainment. Any older than that, and you might be pushing it.

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Sunday, August 21, 2011

Conan the Barbarian

The new update of Conan the Barbarian does not want to entertain, tell a story, or introduce us to the world created by original author Robert E. Howard. It simply wants to be an endurance test, and splash as much blood, gore, decapitations, neck-breakings, cruelty, mud, and filth up on the screen as it can, until we literally want to go running for the nearest exit. This is a vile and contemptible film that wallows in nastiness and depression. If I ever meet anyone who says they found this to be a fun movie, I'll have to question their character.

picDespite the almost total lack of plot, we do get some backstory at the beginning, which is narrated by Morgan Freeman, of all people. Mr. Freeman has lent his voice to a lot of narration in film, and I have a feeling he'll be wiping this from his credits as quickly as possible. We then cut to a savage and brutal battlefield, where a female Barbarian is in labor as she lies dying right there in the middle of battle. Her husband, Corin (Ron Perlman), helps his dying wife deliver the child, slaughtering a few enemy soldiers as he helps her deliver it. Giving birth to the baby, her last words are "His name will be Conan!". Corin holds the bloody child up to the sky triumphantly. The main thing I took from this scene is the fact that Perlman is wearing so much shaggy hair and heavy make up, he looks more like he's trying out for the role of Bigfoot in a remake of Harry and the Hendersons, than he does a fierce warrior.

picCut ahead to Conan as a young boy (Leo Howard), who is learning from his father how to be a proper Barbarian, as well as a swordsmith. Conan's boyhood days of slaughtering random invaders in the forest and forging swords are cut short, when his village is burned down, and his father killed by the evil Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang). Khalar attacked the village, because he wanted a piece of an ancient mask that apparently holds the power to resurrect his dead sorceress wife, and become a god. I guess that's as good of an evil plan as any, but that's pretty much all there is to the character, other than the fact he has an evil daughter named Marique (Rose McGowan), who likes to make monsters out of sand, and slice people open with her talon-like fingernails. Conan grows up to be an adult (Jason Momoa), obsessed with tracking down Khalar Zym. That's Conan's motivation through the whole movie, right there. Oh, and there's a "pure blood" named Tamara (Rachel Nichols), who is needed in Khalar's evil ritual to become a god, as both a human sacrifice, and as a vessel for his dead wife's return.

picConan does not so much tell a story, as it is a series of bloody action and torture sequences, and then it is over. It probably helps if you are familiar with the universe of the characters, as there's so little exposition. Conan keeps on entering different cities and places, and we see a subtitle informing us where he is, but the movie doesn't really tell us much beyond that as to how these places he's visiting fit into the fantasy world. One place even has a giant deadly octopus or squid swimming about its waters, though its purpose alludes me, other than director Marcus Nispel thought it would make for an interesting fight sequence. Looking at Nispel's past credits, I see he has a slew of remakes under his belt including 2003's Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a TV version of Frankenstein, and 2009's Friday the 13th. Someone in Hollywood must think this guy knows what he's doing in rebooting franchises. I would like to tell that someone they're wrong.

picHere's another amazing fact about this movie - There are three different writers credited. What's so amazing about that? Well, considering that 60% of the dialogue consists mainly of grunts, cries, screams, and wails of rage, I have to wonder what the screenplay itself looked like. At least when the characters do actually talk, they get to say intelligent lines like, "I don't like you, Barbarian!". I'd comment on the performances about this point, but what would be the use? The entire cast is forced to act like characters in a video game, hacking and slashing anyone in their path, with the minimalist of dialogue to move things forward to the next scene, where they hack and slash anyone in their path once again. I know, this is Conan, and I should not be expecting rich characters and dialogue. But hey, at least Schwarzenegger got to say a one-liner once in a whilein the earlier movies.
Conan the Barbarian is being shown in both 2D and 3D formats. If you should find yourself with a desire to watch this film (against your better judgement, I would hope), see it in 2D. That's how I saw it, and I saw absolutely nothing that dark, murky glasses would have added to the experience. Either way you do see the movie, you're still left with total garbage.

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Saturday, August 20, 2011

Fright Night

I don't think that Fright Night, the 1985 comic horror film that's become a minor cult hit over time, was on anyone's short list of films they wanted to get remade. But, here it is, and there's a lot that director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Marti Norton (I Am Number Four) get right. The movie, like the original, is assured in its mixture of comedy and violent horror. This is a tricky balance to pull off, and I applaud the filmmakers for it. That said, there are some pretty big missteps and lost opportunities here. This is a decent remake, but could have been so much better in the longrun.

picThe film's biggest mistake is the handling of one of the lead characters, Peter Vincent. In the '85 original, he was a likable and sympathetic character, as well as just a great idea all around. In that film, Peter Vincent was a washed up B-movie horror actor who was facing hard times both personally and professionally. He was the host of a cheesy late night monster movie program, and no one took him seriously anymore, or seemed to notice him. The heart of the film came from the relationship he began to develop with Charlie, a teenaged boy who was convinced that his next door neighbor was a vampire, and needed Vincent's help, because hey, who better to turn to for help than a guy who spent most of his life fighting vampires in countless movies? The late, great Roddy McDowall played Vincent as a broken down man with nothing to believe in, who gains some confidence and some purpose back in his life when he finds himself fighting for something he believes in. It was a great character, and could easily have worked in the modern version, but that's not what we get.

picThis time around, Peter Vincent (played here by Doctor Who's David Tennant) is a boozy, obnoxious, spoiled, and cowardly Las Vegas magician who has an interest in the supernatural, and uses it in his act. He is no longer a sympathetic character we can root for. Instead, he has been reduced to being the odious British comic relief who drinks too much, insults and drunkenly swears at his girlfriend/assistant, and staggers about. His character is completely wrong for Fright Night. It's not even all that convincing that Charlie (played here by Anton Yelchin, who is already starting to look a bit too old to be playing a high school kid) would turn to this film's Vincent for help, other than the fact the screenplay twists and contorts itself to bring the two together. As for Tennant's performance, it too hits every wrong note. He seems to be doing a Russell Brand imitation, and a repellant one at that. The portrayal of the character, as well as the performance, is one of the key factors that kept me from enjoying this update as much as I wanted to.

picAt least the other updates and changes are nowhere near as jarring and hurtful to the film. The setting has been changed to an isolated suburb in the middle of a desert on the outskirts of the Las Vegas strip, which when you think about it, really is a perfect setting for a modern day vampire film. With such a strong night life scene, and the relative isolation of the neighborhood, it makes sense why the vampire Jerry (played by Colin Farrell) would make the area his personal feeding ground. Too bad the movie doesn't exploit the idea as much as it should. As in the original, Charlie suspects that his new neighbor Jerry is up to no good, when he notices young women entering Jerry's house, but never coming out, and blood-curdling screams from next door waking him in the middle of the night. His suspicions are further aroused when he watches a videotape of Jerry, and finds out he doesn't show up on camera. Charlie knows that he's dealing with a supernatural evil, and what's worse, he knows that Jerry is watching him.

picThis is where the remake goes further astray, as since Peter Vincent has been reduced to a comic sidekick with no real bearing on the story, the movie turns into an extended cat and mouse game between Charlie and Jerry, with no real human emotion at the center of it all. Don't get me wrong, it's all done very well, and the cast fills their parts well. But this modern day Fright Night is missing the charm that made the original more than just a standard monster movie. There is a hint at some human emotion early on in the character of Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Charlie's geeky former best friend, who Charlie has since ditched so he could hang out with some cooler kids, and start a relationship with the lovely Amy (Imogen Poots). Charlie and Ed used to be inseparable, making homemade action movies and participating in role playing games. Now that Charlie is hanging out with a different crowd, Ed is visibly hurt and saddened. An early scene where the two former friends confront each other hints at a very strong subplot, but unfortunately, Ed exits the movie fairly early on (much faster than in the original), so this intriguing element ends up going nowhere.

picAt the very least, Fright Night stays true to its classic vampire roots, making Jerry into an animalistic killer, though he is far less interesting than the vampires in last year's Let Me In. In the original, Jerry was more of a dangerous seducer and manipulator. Farrell's portrayal is much more aggressive and brutal. In one scene, Jerry wants to gain entry into Charlie's house, but Charlie naturally refuses to invite him in, as vampire lore clearly states that a vampire can only enter someone's house if they are invited inside. Not letting this stop him, Jerry digs up a gas line in the back yard, and causes Charlie's house to explode, so he doesn't have to work around that silly old rule. I think this approach could have worked if Jerry was allowed to be more deceptively charming. It certainly would have made his acts more shocking. Here, he comes across as the deranged sort who really would blow up someone's house to get at them.

picI don't want to stress only the negatives, for as far as horror remakes go, this one's pretty good. It's well made, well acted, well shot, has some laugh out loud comic moments, and has some good special effects to its credit. Oh, and it's in 3D, which for the most part is pretty pointless, except for one very cool effect. When a vampire dies in the movie, their bodies burn up in ashes and cinders, and the 3D effect of having the cinders seemingly fly out of the screen is very well done. But, that alone is not worth the inflated ticket price, especially since this movie naturally takes place mostly at night or in dark places. Best to see the 2D version if you can, as aside from the cinder effect, you're not missing a whole lot.
Like most remakes, Fright Night is no replacement for the original, but it does its job well enough. I just missed the human emotion from the original, and was especially turned off by the portrayal of Peter Vincent. Heck, if he had been handled differently, I might have been able to recommend it. As it is, this is a near-miss. I'd recommend it as a rental, but why, when the original is already available for rent?

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Saturday, August 13, 2011

30 Minutes or Less

The last time that director Ruben Fleischer and actor Jesse Eisenberg teamed up, they brought us the very funny Zombieland. Now they bring us the loopy pitch black comedy, 30 Minutes or Less, which isn't as memorable, but still has some laughs. Well, the first half of the movie does, at least. Eventually, the movie seems to forget that it's a comedy, and exchanges laughs for mindless car chases, explosions and shoot outs. I liked the first half better.

picThe film has been generating some controversy the past week, due to the similarities between the film's plot, and a real life crime situation that happened back in 2003, when a pizza delivery man named Brian Wells tried to hold up a bank with what he thought was a fake bomb, only to discover it was very real with tragic results. First-time screenwriter Michael Diliberti claims that the incident was not an inspiration for his screenplay, but I'm not really buying it. Regardless, I'm here to review the film itself, not to debate its inspiration. The pizza delivery guy in this movie is Nick (Jesse Eisenberg), a slacker man-child with a passion for action movies and video games, but little else in life. About the only thing going right in his life is that he somehow managed to get a very cute and faithful girlfriend named Kate (Dilshad Vadsaria), who also happens to be the twin sister of his best friend, Chet (Aziz Ansari). Unfortunately, Nick has never told Chet that he's been dating his sister, and when Chet finds out, he doesn't take it well. The two break off their friendship, but are forced to rekindle it when Nick ends up with a bomb strapped to his chest, and Chet is the only guy he knows that he can turn to for help.

picEnter our antagonists, dim-witted friends Dwayne (Danny McBride) and Travis (Nick Swardson). They're hapless pool cleaners who are tired of being under the thumb of Dwayne's verbally abusive retired Marine father (Fred Ward). They decide they want to murder the old coot, but don't want to get their hands dirty, so they plan to hire a hitman named Chango (Michael Pena). His fee is $100,000. In order to get the money to pay for the hit, they place a phony pizza delivery order, and when Nick shows up to deliver it, they kidnap him and strap a bomb to his chest, telling him he has 10 hours to rob $100,000 from a local bank, or they'll detonate the bomb. That gives Nick plenty of time to hire Chet's help, tell off his boss, say some words to his girlfriend, pull off the bank heist, and get involved in a number of high speed car chases that are pretty well shot, but get kind of tiresome after a while.

pic30 Minutes or Less kind of reminded me of July's Horrible Bosses, another adult-targeted comedy about very stupid people trying to pull off a murder. That was a much better movie, because that movie featured likable guys who were dragged in way over their heads, and the comedy built on the fact that nobody knew what they were doing. There are some elements of that here (the actual bank heist gets a couple laughs, due to Nick and Chet's inexperience), but all too often, the movie relies on violence instead of laughs. The obvious question here is why? Why hire such a funny cast, and reduce them to shooting each other and crashing cars? What's sad is that when the actors are allowed to play off each other, there are some laughs to be had. This is a movie that should have been more confident in its talent.

picThis is a movie that walks a fine line between comedy and cruelty, and it at least manages to stay afloat, unlike last weekend's abysmal and hateful The Change-Up. I was never outright offended by the film, and the characters are really too simple-minded to be hateful. Even the bad guys come across more like 10-year-olds in the body of adults trying to act tough, rather than being genuine threats. The goofy tone of the film helps move things along, as does the film's rapid pace. We're never really given much time to apply much thought to what we're watching. It's only during the film's extended and unnecessarily bloody climax that things started to get a little uncomfortable for me. Fortunately, by that point, the movie is almost over. This is a film that works in bits and pieces, but doesn't work enough for me to recommend it.
With a running time that barely hits 80 minutes, the movie doesn't hang around for long. It will probably take less time for you to forget it once it's done. The best thing that can be said about it is that it's a passable time waster of a movie. Anyone who tries to sell it as being more than that is overselling it.
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