Reel Opinions

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

I'm sure that there will be many a cynic who will scoff at The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and accuse it of being general fluff, with no deeper meaning. Well, they'll be right in a sense, but they'll be leaving out some of the film's other qualities - namely that it is sweet, hilariously funny, contains wonderful performances by some great veteran actors, and is highly entertaining. This is one of the gentlest and most charming movies I have seen in a long time.

picThe title comes from a retirement resort located in India, where most of the action takes place. In fact, the resort's full name is "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly and Beautiful". The building itself is long past its prime. The entire resort seems to be crumbling, the phones don't work, and many of the guest rooms contain wildlife. But its owner is optimistic that he can take this struggling property, and turn it into something that lives up to its lofty name. The owner is Sonny (Dev Patel from Slumdog Millionaire), a young man who inherited the building, and has been trying to keep it afloat, despite pressure from his mother to join his more successful siblings in their business, and to agree to an arranged marriage. Sonny does not want to give up on the Hotel, as he knows he can make it great. He also doesn't want to agree to the arranged marriage, because he loves a local girl, Sunaina (Tena Desae), who works at a call center.

picEarly on, Sonny gets his first guests in a long time. (The sign outside the building proudly proclaims, "Now with guests!", after they arrive.) They all hail from England, and in the opening scenes, we see where they're at in their individual lives, which leads them to the retirement community in India. They include Evelyn (Judi Dench), who lost her home after her husband died, Graham (Tom Wilkinson), who lived in India in his younger years, and wants to return in order to reunite with someone special from his past, unhappily married couple Douglas and Jean (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton), whose relationship has not gotten much better in later years, Muriel (Maggie Smith), who does not trust ethnic people or anyone of a different skin color than her's, yet finds herself in India in order to get a cheap hip replacement surgery, and finally Norman (Ronald Pickup) and Madge (Celia Imrie), who are both lonely, single, and seeking relationships.

picThe movie moves along fleetly, juggling its numerous characters and subplots in such a way that even if not everybody gets to make a big impression, nobody seems unnecessary or underwritten. Part of this has to do with the fantastic performances at the center of the film, but I would also like to point out the screenplay by Ol Parker. In adapting the novel, These Foolish Things, he has really brought out the humanity in these characters. Everybody in this movie is relatable in some way, and nobody comes across as artificial or a walking cliche. The movie's best creation is the character of Graham, a gentle yet guarded man who has a lot of wonderful memories of India, and is struggling both with how it has changed over the years, and also whether or not he is wasting his time looking for this person from his past. Not only is his character likable and his story arc emotional, but the performance by Wilkinson is one his best in a wonderful career.

picThere are a lot of wonderful performances to enjoy here. Judi Dench serves somewhat as a narrator (she blogs about her experiences in India to her family back home), and also develops a shy relationship with one of the other guests, which is heartwarming and sweet. Maggie Smith gets some big laughs as her character is forced into acceptance and tolerance of other cultures. Bill Nighy is also sympathetic as a man who has been trapped in a loveless marriage for years, but doesn't realize it until he comes to India, and notices that his wife sees it in a very different way than he does. Everyone in this movie is acting at the top of their level here, and director John Madden (The Debt) does not let a single character or performance slip by unappreciated. That's no small feat when you consider there's six or seven different characters and plots vying for our attention, but this movie pulls it off effortlessly and with skill.

picThis is such a wonderful little film, it's hard to praise it without giving away its simple charms. I've already talked about the writing, acting, and direction, but there's also just the overall tone of the movie itself. This is the rare "feel good" movie that, well, actually made me feel good. I was genuinely happy watching the film, and not once did I feel manipulated or that I was being talked down to. We feel for these characters and grow to love them. There is also just so much warmth to this movie. The humor, the story, and the tone is very gentle, but not in a mawkish or forced way. There is an art to creating a genuinely pleasing story, without pandering to your audience, and this movie is a masterclass in that art.
Much like last summer's Midnight in Paris, I have a feeling that The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel will become the little movie that comes out of nowhere amongst the big budget blockbusters, and captures a large audience. It certainly deserves to. This is the kind of movie you want to call up people, and tell them to go see when it's over. I may even be dragging some family along for a second viewing. What a great and pleasant surprise this film is.

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Saturday, May 26, 2012

Chernobyl Diaries

In Chernobyl Diaries, we get a great, atmospheric setting for a horror movie - the city of Pripyat. This place was once home to the people who worked at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, and were forced to flee during the famous disaster. The entire city now sits abandoned, with everything left where it was when its inhabitants were forced to flee. Just looking at images of the abandoned city on line is enough to create goosebumps. So, what does this movie do to take advantage of its effective setting? It plops in some of the dumbest characters ever to be stalked in a horror movie, and gives us nothing but the most rote of thriller cliches.

picThis is one of those movies where, before you see it, you can make a checklist of the kind of things you expect to see in a horror film, and you'll probably have everything checked off before the movie is over. We have a group of college kids on vacation (check) who unwisely decide to go off their planned route (check) to an abandoned place where nobody can find them (check). Things seem okay at first, but then their car breaks down (check), and they realize that they're stranded with no cell phone connection (check). When they start hearing strange sounds from somewhere nearby (check), they decide to leave the relative safety of the vehicle and explore the dark and forbidden areas of the spooky surroundings (check) until they start getting picked off one-by-one by some unseen monster who lurks in the shadows (check). Eventually, only one or two are left, and they struggle to escape, which inevitably leads to a surprise or shock ending (check). The movie never once falters from this well-established formula, making it come across as rigid, overly-familiar, and quite dull.

picOur vacationing college kids this time are a group of four who are traveling across Europe. We have level-headed Chris (Jesse McCartney), his girlfriend Natalie (Olivia Taylor Dudley), Chris' irresponsible brother Paul (Jonathan Sandowski), and Natalie's friend Amanda (Devin Kelly). They are eventually joined in their travels by a backpacking couple, Michael (Nathan Phillips) and Zoe (Ingrid Bolso Berdal). There. That's all you need to know about our heroes, or all that the movie pretty much tells us about them, except that Chris is planning to propose to Natalie when they arrive in Moscow. Early on, Paul suggests that they all take a detour off their planned vacation route. He's heard about something called "extreme tourism", which involves taking a guided tour of the abandoned city of Pripyat. They meet up with their guide Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko), who takes them to their destination in a van that looks like it's seen better days.

picOnce in Pripyat, the group gets to wander about the desolate streets, since Uri assures them that the radiation levels are low enough for them to safely walk around. During the walking tour, we get a potentially interesting moment that the movie forgets to follow up on. While the group is exploring an abandoned building that was once a home to a family, Uri goes off to another room by himself, and looks longingly and sadly about the room. Was this his room at one time? Did he have some kind of connection with the people who used to live here? It's never brought up again, nor is it ever spoken of. It's just a curious moment that grabs our attention, making us think it's important, only to have the movie drop it as soon as it's brought up.

picWhen night begins to fall and the group heads back for the van to go home, it won't start - someone or something has tampered with it. This is when Chernobyl Diaries pretty much loses any good will it may have built with its unique setting, and turns into a routine slasher movie. The heroes creep about in the dark, calling the name of somebody who was creeping about in the dark just moments ago, until they were suddenly grabbed by something nasty just off screen. The film's director, Brad Parker, tries to put us in the middle of the action by having the camera follow along with the heroes. But the camerawork is so unsteady (especially during the tense moments), it's sometimes hard to tell what's going on. And when we finally do get a good look at just what has been hunting these kids all this time, it's a disappointment, because they kind of look like rejects from the casting call for The Hills Have Eyes remake.

picWhenever I see a movie like this, I ask myself if the filmmakers really intended to make something this bland and familiar. Naturally, no one intentionally sets out to make a bad movie, but sometimes I have to wonder. Didn't they realize that the script offered nothing new? Were they somehow blind to the fact that their big scare scenes were derivative of past horror movies? Do they know how tired audiences are of scenes where a character hears a sound, and sneaks over to where they heard the noise, only to have it turn our to be nothing, and then have some kind of monster suddenly attack moments later? Did the actors find themselves asking why they were playing characters who are dumber than a can of beans?
I wouldn't be asking these questions of Chernobyl Diaries offered at least one inspired moment, or decent thrill, but it does not. All it has going for it is its setting. The filmmakers picked a perfect spot for a horror movie, and then forgot to give us a movie to go along with it. Real shame about that.

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Friday, May 25, 2012

Men in Black III

So I'd be sitting there, watching Men in Black III, not really involved in what was going on up on the screen. But then, something would happen (usually an action sequence) that would spark my attention, and make me notice it. The whole movie is kind of like that. The plot, the characters, and the dialogue feel curiously flat for most of its running time. But every now and then, the script would hit upon a scene or an idea that hinted at something more.

picIf you liked any of the earlier Men in Black films, you'll probably find something to like here. As for me, I found the original 1997 movie to be clever and fun, the sequel less so, and this one somewhere in the middle. Yes, it's a desperate attempt to revive a franchise whose heyday was 15 years ago, but even as that, it's not that bad. Heck, considering the well-documented behind the scenes stories that apparently went on during the making of the film, it's amazing it even manages to stay afloat. Reports of clashing egos, an unfinished script, and a runaway budget to the point that the studio considered pulling the plug on the project halfway through all seemed to hint at a bloated disaster. What we get is a movie that is watchable, but feels kind of dated. In this age of intelligent superhero movies, does anyone still care about sassy Will Smith blasting aliens into goo?

picAt least Smith and co-star Tommy Lee Jones step easily back into their roles as Agents J and K, respectively. As the film opens, they are hot on the trail of Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement), an alien criminal who escapes from a high security prison on the moon in the opening scene. Boris has a score to settle with Agent K, as it seems that he was responsible for him getting captured some 40 years ago. Rather than take on his foe in the present, Boris decides to get his hands on a time traveling device, and go back in time to 1969, when their fateful encounter happened, and change history. Sure enough, in the present, Agent K suddenly disappears from existence, and all of a sudden, nobody is aware of who K even is. Somehow, J is not affected by the time shift. There is an explanation as to why he's not affected, but I didn't really understand it. (It has something to do with him drinking chocolate milk.) Regardless, what's important is that J realizes he must go back in time himself, and try to prevent Boris from altering the present.

picJ travels back to 1969, where most of the action takes place. There, he tracks down a young Agent K, and must try to convince him he's from the future, and has come to save him. Rather than trying to make Tommy Lee Jones look younger through CG or make up, the filmmakers have cast Josh Brolin as the young Agent K, and it was a brilliant decision. The transformation and Brolin's performance is downright uncanny. It gets to the point that we forget we're watching another actor taking on the role, and just eventually feel like we're watching a younger version of the character. It also helps that Brolin is able to capture the same kind of easy chemistry that Jones has with Smith. The scenes between J and the young Agent K are amongst the best in the film. If there's any reason to see Men in Black III, it's to see how Brolin just completely disappears into his role.

picSo, the scenes with the Agents work. Too bad the rest of the movie doesn't hit those same heights. There are some impressive action and special effects sequences here, but the dialogue and plot often come across as wooden and clunky. J travels back in time, he meets the young K, he has a run-in with Andy Warhol, they uncover Boris' plan, and that's about it. There's not a lot to get excited or involved with here. Strangely enough, there is a revelation in the last five minutes or so that is oddly bittersweet, effective, and adds a whole new level to the relationship between J and K. It's a shame the movie keeps it until almost the end, as it could have added some much needed dramatic weight to the earlier scenes. Isn't one of the points of a sequel to expand the characters? This one at least does, but it waits far too long to do it.

picAnd for a movie based around aliens, this one comes up surprisingly short in this department. Many of them (once again designed by Rick Baker) are restricted mainly to cameos or background actors. As for lead villain Boris, he has an interesting look, and the opening sequence makes him out to be a menacing and worthy threat to our heroes. But then, the movie just kind of forgets about him until the end. He kind of shows up now and then to remind us he's in the movie too, but it's almost as if the screenplay (credited solely to Etan Cohen, but apparently worked on by many more writers) had a hard time thinking of how to fit him into the plot. The main emphasis this time seems to be the large-scale action sequences, which include J's dizzying jump from a skyscraper in order to travel back in time, and a shootout at a Chinese restaurant.
I guess I would describe Men in Black III as a mixed bag. It's never dull, and there are some very good moments, but there are also a lot of long periods where the movie just seems to be spinning its wheels. It at least has enough action to satisfy summer movie audiences for a weekend or so, but not much beyond that. It's the kind of film you might remember with a smile, but you won't be able to remember much about it.

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Saturday, May 19, 2012

What to Expect When You're Expecting

If there's one kind of romantic comedy I've grown increasingly weary of, it's the kind that assembles an all-star cast, and then tries to juggle multiple characters and plot lines. Most movies have a hard time creating one believable couple up on the screen, what makes filmmakers think they can handle five or more? To be fair, What to Expect When You're Expecting is certainly an acceptable movie, but not much more than that. It's cute, it's pleasant, and it has a lot of bright actors playing characters that didn't require much thought for the writers or the actors.

picThe movie is loosely inspired by book by Heidi Murkoff, but it has about as much to do with the book as this weekend's other big release, Battleship, has with its own source material. In other words, both films are only using the famous title to bring in audiences. This is a gentle, feature-length sitcom about different couples, and their unique road to parenthood. Our first couple is Jules (Cameron Diaz) and Evan (Matthew Morrison). She's a TV fitness guru who meets her love when they're paired up on a celebrity dance show. Jules realizes she's pregnant when they win the competition together, and she throws up in the trophy cup on live TV. Next, is Gary (Ben Falcone) and Wendy (Elizabeth Banks). They've been trying to get pregnant for years, and when they finally are, they end up getting upstaged by Gary's former NASCAR racing father, Ramsey (Dennis Quaid) and his 40-year-younger trophy wife, Skyler (Brooklyn Decker, who's also in Battleship this weekend). When Gary and Wendy try to announce they're expecting a baby at last, Ramsey and Skyler have to announce they're expecting twins.

picThese two couples and their plots make up a majority of the film. Also floundering about the narrative, competing for our attention, are Holly (Jennifer Lopez) and Alex (Rodrigo Santoro), who can't have children and decide to adopt a baby from Ethiopia. Finally, there's Rosie (Anna Kendrick) and Marco (Chace Crawford), who are competing mobile food vendors that once dated back in high school briefly, and are brought back together after a one night stand leads to Rosie being pregnant. Also thrown into the mix is the "dad's group", a group of dads who get together every Saturday in the park, and discuss their family lives and children. They're led by Vic (Chris Rock), and exist for no reason other than the screenwriters thought the script needed just a few more characters and plots, and for Chris Rock to do some mildly funny stand up material on fatherhood.

picOf all the plots swimming about What to Expect..., the dad's group probably should have been the first to hit the cutting room floor. They don't belong in the movie, and they don't really contribute. Outside of that, there's nothing really wrong with any of the couples portrayed in the film. They're all likable, and they're all played by agreeable actors. But, thanks to the multi-plot format, we don't really get to know any of them as much as we should, because the movie's always jerking us in a new direction with a new story every few minutes. All of the different couples and plots are separate from one another for the most part. There are some loose connections scattered about (Jennifer Lopez' Holly does some artwork for Brooklyn Decker's Skyler), but not much. The only real connection between all these people is that they all end up going to the exact same hospital at the exact same time for one reason or another.

picThis is a bright and cheerful movie for the most part. It's safe, it's sanitized, and aside from the rare sad moment or two, nothing all that bad happens to these people. At the very least, it doesn't try to be what it isn't. It doesn't try to pretend that there's more on its mind than being a frothy sitcom of a movie. As far as those go, this one's not that bad. The cast is good, even if they're not exactly being challenged here with their characters. The movie also moves along quite well, despite a nearly two hour running time. It actually doesn't give itself a chance to drag, since it's always leaping from one point of interest to the next. This may not be a very memorable movie, but at least it's not a boring one.
What to Expect When You're Expecting is what I call a "rainy day movie". If you catch it on TV some time on a boring, gray afternoon, it won't offend, and you might even enjoy it. It actually seems like it was made to be watched on TV, with you still in your pajamas, and you don't feel like going out. In a big theater, it feels pretty forgettable. But on TV on such an afternoon, it might serve its purpose better. It will probably still be pretty forgettable, though.

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Friday, May 18, 2012


Is there anything in Battleship that wasn't borrowed from some other source? Let's see...The movie itself is loosely inspired by the board game of the same name. The plot and characters seem to be ripped directly out of the recent live action Transformer films, or Independence Day. The tin-eared dialogue sounds so familiar, you can sometimes quote it before the characters even open their mouths. This movie wasn't written, it was assembled from bits and pieces of different similar movies that have worked with audiences in the past. The end result is a soulless commercial product.

picBefore I go into too much detail, let's focus on the positives first. For one thing, the movie's not in 3D. Every time a big budget summer release resists the urge to throw in some half-assed 3D just to get a few more bucks slapped on the ticket price, I cheer. What else?...Well, as generic as the characters are, there is some actual attempt to develop them. That's always a plus. And hey, the movie may be uninspired, and the result of corporate greed and massive audience pandering, but it's not terrible. Uninspired, but not terrible. When I'm stuck watching a movie like Battleship, I try my hardest to look at the positives. The fact that I was considering "it could be worse" a positive shows you that I was fighting a losing battle with the film playing up on the screen.

picThe plot: In 2006, scientists discover a planet similar to our own that could sustain life, and name it Planet G. NASA begins attempting to communicate with the planet, to see if there is intelligent life. One particular scientist, named Cal (Hamish Linklater), offers the ominous warning that "If intelligent life does come here, it's going to be like Columbus discovering America, only we're the Indians". Naturally, no one listens to him. Cal is the type of scientist usually played by Jeff Goldblum - He's sarcastic, too smart for his own good, and a bit neurotic. He exists to be ignored by military and government heads, until it is too late. He also will become an accidental hero by the end of the movie. We know these things the moment we lay eyes on him, because we've seen his character type before. The movie does not disappoint, nor does it deviate from its expected character arc.

picIt takes six years for the aliens inhabiting Planet G to arrive on Earth. They happen to arrive right in the middle of a Naval war game, and touch down in the middle of it all. Our hero is Lieutenant Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch from John Carter). He too is immediately familiar to us. In his prologue sequence, we see him as a hopeless loser living on the couch of his Naval Commander brother, Stone (Alexander Skarsgard). Alex gets an ultimatum - Join the Navy too and change his ways, or live on the streets. Since joining the Navy, Alex has managed to net himself a sexy girlfriend named Sam (model-turned-actress Brooklyn Decker). He's also developed a reputation for being reckless and a loose cannon who doesn't follow orders. This naturally puts him at odds with Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson), who sees potential in Alex, if only he wasn't such a screw up, and followed orders. Much like his role in March's Wrath of the Titans, this role pretty much exists so Neeson can pick up a pay check just for showing up, and he treats it as such. He serves no role or purpose in the film, other than the fact that he happens to be the father of Alex's girlfriend.

picSo, the alien ships land in the middle of the war games, and immediately create a barrier of energy around some of the ships, trapping them within with no way out. One of those ships is the one under the command of Alex, where he will be forced to be a leader for the first time in his life. He has to rally his crew, and fight back against the aliens. Funny thing about the ships those aliens arrive on. When they first touch down, they're near-invincible to fire from the Navy ships. Yet, when the time comes for Alex to step up and become a leader, they magically become highly vulnerable to his cannons. Call it luck, or lazy screenwriting. There are no wrong answers here. Meanwhile, the aliens clank about in metal armor suits that make them look like Master Chief from the Halo video games a little bit, and begin their invasion campaign, which seems to be centered around Hawaii and Hong Kong for some reason. Why do the aliens leave their sometimes-invincible and sometimes-not ships? So that we can get a subplot where Alex's girlfriend, a wounded Army soldier (played by real life former soldier Gregory D. Gadson), and Cal can stop their plans.

picA movie like Battleship must have felt like a paid holiday for the screenwriting team of Erich and Jon Hoeber. All they had to do was plug in characters and plot elements from different movies. There is nothing that surprises here, and nothing that impresses. Even the effects, while competently done, seem familiar. There's just nothing in this movie that we haven't seen before. Everything's safe, been tested for maximum audience-pleasing effect, and smells of corporate influence. This isn't a movie, so much a product. It's been designed to sell tickets its opening weekend, sell tie-in games, and sell fast food promotions. I probably wouldn't mind so much if it looked like some sort of thought went into the plot or the dialogue, but I certainly couldn't pick up on anything. To make it even easier for consumers, it's been dumbed down.
It seems like every summer we get a movie like Battleship, where it's blatantly obvious the studio was thinking with its wallet, instead of its head. Sure, you could argue that about a lot of movies, but most of them usually make some kind of effort to hide the fact. I have no doubt that this movie will find an audience over the summer. I also have no doubt that most of that audience will prefer The Avengers to this.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Dictator

The opening ten minutes of The Dictator had me laughing out loud, and ready for a great time. And then, the movie kind of bottoms out as soon as the plot kicks in. It almost feels like we're watching a hilariously satirical short film, followed by a depressing and low rent crude Hollywood comedy. Is studio interference to blame? The fact that the movie's running time barely hits 80 minutes, and a number of gags in the trailer didn't make it in the final film certain arouses suspicion.

picThe film earns its first big laugh before the movie even begins, with a memorial dedication to Kim Jong Il. Then, we're introduced to Admiral General Aladeen (Sacha Baron Cohen), iron-fisted ruler of the fictional Middle Eastern country of Wadiya. We witness Aladeen's many achievements, such as holding an Olympic games (where he rigs all the competitions so that he will win), and spearheading a nuclear program to design weapons of mass destruction, under the guise of creating a program for peaceful purposes. Once again, things seem promising. There are some good gags during these moments, such as how Aladeen sleeps with a number of Hollywood celebrities (Megan Fox has a cameo in this part), and then hangs their Polaroid pictures on his wall, and gazes at them longingly. (They all leave after the sex is over and they've been paid off, none of them ever stay to cuddle.)

picDuring these opening moments, The Dictator seems to be building up to be a sharp and biting satire, but it's suddenly pushed aside for a conventional plot, and the movie never recovers. There are still laughs, yes, but they are much fewer, and not as big. Aladeen is invited to New York to talk before the United Nations. Little does he realize, the whole trip is a trap set up by his scheming Uncle, Tamir (Ben Kingsley), who wants to replace Aladeen with a dim-witted look-alike (Cohen, in a dual role). Tamir hopes to start a democracy in Wadiya, so that he can start oil trading with other nations. He hires some men to kidnap the real Aladeen and shave off his beard, so that no one will recognize him, while the look-alike takes his place before the United Nations. Despite his place as the film's lead villain, Tamir never really gets established as a character, and I think has about three or four minutes worth of dialogue in the entire film. Seeing an actor like Ben Kingsley forced to mainly stand in the background in every scene is depressing, and a total waste. Maybe he did this movie as a favor?

picStranded on the streets of New York City with nobody recognizing him, Aladeen finds himself alone for the first time, until he befriends Zoe (Anna Faris), a feminist who runs an organic food store, and whose sole running gag is that she has a lot of armpit hair. (Ho, ho) A romance of sorts blooms between the two, but it's not very convincing. Part of the problem is the script, which seems to throw in the relationship as an afterthought, and part of the problem is that Cohen and Faris have next to no chemistry together. Both are very funny comic actors, but the script (credited to Cohen, and three other writers) offers them no favors. Neither are given anything truly funny to do in their scenes together, and their scenes seem to revolve around the same basic joke repeated over and over - That Aladeen is used to being a cruel dictator, and doesn't know how to act in social situations.

picRepetition actually is a big problem in The Dictator. The movie keeps on returning to the same jokes throughout. It's almost as if the writers couldn't think of enough ideas to stretch this out to feature length, so they just keep hitting the same notes over and over. What makes this especially depressing is how fresh and funny the opening moments seem. It makes you wish that the movie had just stayed in Wadiya, or maybe had gone for the same "mockumentary" approach as Cohen's past two starring projects, Borat and Bruno. That certainly seems to be his comfort zone, as this movie's almost totally on auto pilot once it hits American soil. Also like his past films, Cohen tries to shock us with some crude humor. And while it certainly can be fearless at times, it seems much more forced this time around, and the jokes don't hit as hard.
I still have great admiration for Cohen, and how he tries to be as politically incorrect as possible with his humor. This time, however, he's stuck with an idea that's just too thin, and a character that's not strong enough to carry a film. I did laugh while watching The Dictator. But, as the movie went on, a feeling of disappointment overcame me, and pretty much stayed with me the rest of the running time.

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Saturday, May 12, 2012

Dark Shadows

It's easy to find fault with Dark Shadows, but it's also easy to have fun while you're watching it, which is why I'm recommending it. Yes, the movie suffers from the same problem a lot of Tim Burton films do, in that it emphasizes style over substance. (To this day, Ed Wood remains his most affectionate and human film.) And yes, you can also easily argue that the narrative is a mess of ideas, and characters who aren't even developed. But, the film's Gothic mood, off-kilter dark humor, and all around strangeness worked with me. It's a nice return to non-conventional form for Burton, after the all-too conventional and boring Alice in Wonderland.

picAs everyone must know, the film is based on a campy soap opera from the 60s and 70s, that's more remembered for its unintentional comic value than anything else. I have not seen the show, so I cannot make any claims as to how faithful the film is, or what fans will think of it. What Burton and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith have done is created an off the wall melodrama about an undead vampire, his scorned witch lover, and a small fishing village caught in the middle of their eternal struggle. The film opens in the 18th Century, where the son of a wealthy landowner, Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), is enjoying his family wealth in the small town his clan founded called Collinsport, and deep in love with the beautiful Josette (Bella Heathcote). His love angers the housemaid Angelique (Eva Green), who is secretly a witch, and not-so-secretly in love with Barnabas. In revenge for rejecting her, Angelique curses the Collins family name, kills Josette, transforms Barnabas into a vampire, and turns the entire village against him, which leads to him being buried alive in a coffin.

picFlash forward some 200 years later (1972, to be exact), and the town of Collinsport is in shambles, although Angelique (who is still alive, thanks to her magic) has transformed herself into a powerful business owner, and has basically driven the current members of the Collins family into near-bankruptcy. Barnabas is freed from his supposedly eternal prison by a construction crew (whom he immediately feasts on as soon as he is freed), and then heads to his family mansion home, only to find the house in decrepit shambles, the family business in pieces, and his current descendants a sad sack family of eccentric dysfunctional oddballs. There's the matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), who is the first to discover who Barnabas really is, her louse of a brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), wannabe hippie teen daughter Carolyn (Chloe Moretz), and Roger's son, David (Gulliver McGrath), who can (and frequently does) see and communicate with ghosts. Little David's odd behavior has caused his father to all but ignore him, and forced the family to have a full-time psychiatrist (Helena Bonham Carter) live with them.

picAlso living within the Collins home is the newest member, a nanny by the name of Victoria Winters (Bella Heathecote, in a dual role). Her physical resemblance to Barnabas' tragic lost love jump starts a romantic subplot that is supposed to provide the heart of the movie, but it never really gets off the ground. We don't spend enough time with Victoria, so she never develops as a real character. Likewise, the relationship that builds between Barnabas and her feels tacked on, as we never get a reason for why they are drawn to each other, other than the fact she resembles the woman he loved 200 years ago. The whole family actually suffers from similar problems. We're introduced to them, and their individual quirks and problems, and then the movie pretty much leaves it at that. There is no development for any of the family members, so when they start spouting lines about how they have to stick together and the importance of family, it simply feels hollow. The family never gets to play a real role in the film, except for the end, where some very sloppily inserted plot developments suddenly throw them in the center.

picWhat does work (and what the movie mainly focuses on) is the rivalry between Barnabas and the witch, Angelique. It is a complex relationship, as there is obviously some sexual tension and desire between them, but they are sworn enemies. This leads to some melodramatic dialogue, a lot of glaring at one another, and even some supernatural love making, where they trash an entire room in a fit of unwise passion with each other. Dark Shadows is a movie filled with clever and off-kilter ideas, that is unfortunately surrounded by stuff that doesn't work as well. When it does work, the movie has a bizarre kind of energy I admired. Depp plays Barnabas as a proper nobleman who cannot hold back from his need to slash open a throat now and then (he does have to eat). With his pale skin, yellow claw-like fingernails, and overdone clothing, he looks like a Gothic cartoon caricature of an 18th Century nobleman. The movie does have some fun with him being out of his element, and dealing with 1970s pop culture, such as hippies, troll dolls, and lava lamps.

picEven more fun to watch is Eva Green as Angelique, who appropriately chews the scenery, and slithers about it like a highly-aroused snake. She's having a blast with her vampish villain character, and it really comes through in a performance that's kind of sexy and naughty in a playful sort of way. On the whole, the entire movie is fun to watch, thanks to a great production design, and some well-used pop and rock music from the era on the soundtrack. The performances, the strong production, and the overall dark sexuality of the film helped with the obvious script problems, at least for me. I'm sure there will be many who accuse the movie as being all flash, with little underneath. I won't be able to argue with that. All I can say is that I had fun, and the movie worked enough for me, so I am recommending it.
I have a feeling that Dark Shadows will struggle with finding an audience, especially with the summer movie season just kicking off. It's a little too uneven and odd to be a major tentpole production going up against a crowd pleaser like The Avengers. Even so, this stands as some of Burton's best work in a while. It's still not close to some of his classic films, but it will certainly do.

See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at!


Friday, May 04, 2012

The Avengers

It's no surprise that The Avengers operates like a well-oiled machine. After all, Marvel Studios has been building up to this movie for the past few years. I'm sure they've been planning this one for a long time, knowing that if they screwed up this ultimate team up of some of their biggest superheroes, the comic fan community would never let them hear the end of it. And so it is. The Avengers is a well-executed and well-cast kick off to the summer movie season. It gives what it promises, and is almost guaranteed to be a crowd pleaser.

picThe Avengers finds six of Marvel Comics' biggest heroes banding together to battle the evil Loki (Tom Hiddleston) from last year's Thor movie. With so much superhero talent, it's a shame that Marvel has given us one of their weakest villains in recent memory. Loki does not come across as being menacing or all that evil in the slightest to me. He is arrogant, he is smarmy, and he's kind of whiny at times. He strikes me as somebody who wants to be a great villain, but really is just a cocky little egotist who sees himself as being something greater than he actually is. Even the Avengers themselves don't really seem that afraid of him. He's the kind of villain who has to be backed up by an entire army of lizard men-like aliens just to get people's attention. And that's just what he does this time around. He's seeking a cube of energy that can open a gateway to said alien dimension, so that they can cross over and conquer Earth. He wants the people of Earth to view him as a god, but when you think about it, it's the aliens who do all the work, so shouldn't they be the ones being worshiped if the invasion campaign is successful?

picWhen Loki succeeds at stealing the energy cube, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) from a secret government organization known as SHIELD seeks out some of the world's greatest superheroes, so that they can counter that threat. The team that he gathers to make up the Avengers includes Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson). Characters like Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and The Hulk need no introduction, as they have appeared in many successful film and TV projects. Hawkeye and Black Widow will be less known to those who don't frequent the world of comics, and this is most likely why they don't get quite as much screen time as the first four. That doesn't mean they're wasted, or given little to do. As a matter of fact, one of things that impressed me about the film is how well it balances its large cast of superpowered characters, and gives each of them a turn in the spotlight to show off their powers.

picAs the heroes assemble, they quickly learn that they have to face their own egos and work together if they will succeed. Iron Man is a snarky loner, who doesn't seem to embrace the whole team mentality at first. Captain America is literally from another time and place, and doesn't quite fit in to modern society. And Bruce Banner (aka The Hulk) has that whole anger issue he's been working on for a while. The movie is just as concerned with the heroes battling their own egos and issues as it is with them fighting aliens from space, so it's a good thing they're played by some strong actors. Downey, Evans, and Hemsworth all step easily back into their roles, especially Downey, who easily gets some of the best lines and moments in the film. Ruffalo is the third actor to take on the role of Bruce Banner in roughly 10 years, and is probably the best. As for Renner and Johansson, their roles are more physical, and they impress the most when they are showing their skills in their action scenes (he as an expert archer, and she as a martial artist/assassin).

picThe Avengers plays out pretty much exactly how you would expect, right down to the extended climax, where Manhattan is reduced to rubble by invading aliens. But, it's all done with a lot of energy and style by director and co-writer Joss Whedon. He directs the action with the giddiness of a teenage fanboy, which I guess is appropriate, given the source material. On the other side of the coin, he sure does love exposition dialogue, some of which seemed endless. There's not a whole lot to this plot, but the way these characters sometimes endlessly drone on, you'd think there was. What's really important, however, is that the movie delivers on the special effects, action, witty exchanges, and daring heroics that the audience for this movie wants. It's certain to green light some sequels for the individual heroes, as well as probably an Avengers 2 somewhere down the line.
A movie like this is bound to shatter box office records, and probably sell a good amount of toys to go with it. But hey, at least the filmmakers were kind enough to make the movie itself good. Mind you, I said good, not great. It's fun and all, but not very smart. I have a feeling we may have to wait for Christopher Nolan's next Batman movie later this summer for smart. The Avengers are all about fun, and hey, that's not such a bad thing.

See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at!


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