Monday, March 30, 2009

Knowing (**1/2)

Knowing.  122 mins.  PG-13.  Directed by Alex Proyas.  Written by Ryne Douglas Pearson and Juliet Snowden & Stiles White.  Starring Nicolas Cage and Rose Byrne.

Knowing is a movie tailor-made for Nicolas Cage's current career arc.  It's a preposterous, self-serious jumble of conspiracy thrillers, disaster movies, and alien attack flicks, and director Alex Proyas (of Dark City and I, Robot fame) seems to be cribbing right from the M. Night Shyamalan playbook.  Cage plays a widowed MIT professor whose son comes home with a page of numbers dug up from his school's 50 year-old time capsule.  As Cage soon discovers, the numbers portend every major global disaster for the past fifty years, and suggest that there are three more disasters still to come.  It's a silly premise that, while engaging enough, has no chance of offering a reasonable explanation to the audience.  I think the filmmakers know that there's no good way to explain the numbers so they just jump on board the end of days idea - and throw in some white rabbits, alien angels, and flaming moose (I told you this movie was ridiculous).  On the plus side, the special effects are pretty good, and Proyas does stage the two major disaster scenes in the movie with flair.  Knowing does take some risks at the end (not that they pay off), and it does strike a weird tone at times, but like Cage himself (box office successes aside), the movie is kind of a wash-out. 


Saturday, March 28, 2009

Monsters vs. Aliens (**)

Monsters vs. Aliens.  99 mins.  PG.  Directed by Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon.  Written by a bunch of people.  Starring the Voices of Reese Witherspoon, Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, Will Arnett, Kiefer Sutherland, Hugh Laurie, and Stephen Colbert.  

Monsters and aliens.  Each on their own are pretty awesome.  Put them together, even better.  Pit them against each other in a battle over world domination: Hell yes.  If ever there was a can't miss prospect for a 3D kids' flick, it's Monsters vs. Aliens.  And yet, that's exactly what this movie does: miss the mark on a whole host of different levels.  The biggest blame falls on the script.  It took five credited writers, and countless other uncredited ones to come up with the uninspired story, unfunny jokes, and tepid action sequences strewn throughout the movie.  Rather than explore the concept, the writers are content just showing a bunch of monsters hanging out and coming to grips with their eccentricities, and, oh yeah, occasionally fighting a big alien robot (on Golden Gate Bridge) or one cartoonishly evil alien (voiced by The Office's Rainn Wilson).  The pop culture homages to past monster movies (The Blob, Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Fly) is appreciated, but not artfully executed.  Almost all of the jokes fall flat, and aside from a few choice quips from Seth Rogen's blob character and a funny riff on the Close Encounters of the Third Kind theme song (think "Axel F"), there's really nothing all that clever.  The big gimmick of the movie is its "Tru 3D", but as with most other 3D movies these days, the gimmick wears out after a half hour, so the movie better be pretty good after that.  Monsters vs. Aliens, despite the potential, is a giant letdown.   When you cast Stephen Colbert as the voice of the President and don't give him one funny thing to say, you know you've missed out on some opportunities.  The movie tries way too hard to be kid-friendly.  Kids are tough.  They can take it.  And they deserve a monsters vs. aliens movie that gives them their (parent's) money's worth.


Sunday, March 22, 2009

Duplicity (***)

Duplicity.  125 mins.  PG-13.  Written and Directed by Tony Gilroy.  Starring Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, Tom Wilkinson, Tom McCarthy, Denis O'Hare, and Paul Giamatti.

Tony Gilroy's follow-up to Michael Clayton is one of the rare movies that actually gets better as it goes along.  For the first hour-and-a-half though, Duplicity keeps its audience at a distance and stays lukewarm and only moderately interesting.  After a bizarre slow-mo fight sequence between Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson's corporate honchos to kick things off, the movie settles into a complacent rhythm, alternating between present-day schemes and a set of repetitive, awkwardly inserted flashback sequences showing the burgeoning relationship between Julia Roberts and Clive Owen.  Both stars charm and give comfortable performances as ex-spies infiltrating two rival companies fighting over a secret pharmaceutical formula.  It's not until the end though, when they make a big play to steal the formula that Gilroy finally ratchets up the suspense.  The final twist in the end is surprising and satisfying, and you leave the theater thinking the movie better than it actually was.  Good endings can do that - too bad the rest of Duplicity wasn't up to par.


Saturday, March 21, 2009

I Love You, Man (****1/2)

I Love You, Man. 110 mins. R. Directed by John Hamburg. Written by John Hamburg and Larry Levin. Starring Paul Rudd, Jason Segel, Rashida Jones, Andy Samberg, J.K. Simmons, Jane Curtin, and Jon Favreau.

The two stars of I Love You, Man gave audiences the two best comedies of last year (Segel with Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Rudd with Role Models), so it's no big surprise to find that their new flick together is just as good, and on the short list for one of the funniest movies of 2009. Paul Rudd is on fire here, earning laughs every time he's on screen - which is pretty much the entire movie. He plays Peter Klaven, a successful real estate agent who, after getting engaged, realizes he doesn't have any good male friends to make his best man. He then sets out on a series of awkward "man dates" trying to find a new best bro. Segel is Sydney Fife, the lucky suitor - an easygoing, brutally honest guy who bonds with Peter over Rush songs and brings out a whole new side of him, much to the dismay of Peter's fiancee, nicely played by the very likeable Rashida Jones. Rudd and Segel play off each other really well, and whether their dialogue is scripted or improvised, they make the most of every awkward situation and sincere emotion, creating a believable male friendship that's also funny as hell. The humor in I Love You, Man is smart and truthful, and resorts to gross-out gags and crude language only when necessary and doesn't rely on them, like so many other R-rated comedies these days, as a crutch. Writer-director John Hamberg improves greatly on his last effort, the sporadically amusing Along Came Polly, and has a really interesting idea to work with here. Platonic, hetero man-love hasn't really gotten a fair shake on screen, and is rarely discussed in real life as well. How does somebody make new guy friends later in life? I Love You, Man explores the hows and whys of that, which gives the comedic happenings an undercurrent of relevance and dramatic weight (not much obviously - this is mostly just a laugh-out comedy). I gotta say, I loved this movie, man.


Saturday, March 14, 2009

Race to Witch Mountain (**)

Race to Witch Mountain.  100 mins.  PG.  Directed by Andy Fickman.  Written by Matt Lopez and Mark Bomback.  Starring Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, AnnaSophia Robb, Alexander Ludwig, and Ciaran Hinds.

Disney raids its vaults yet again with this remake/reimagining of the old Witch Mountain movies.  And like most non-Pixar Disney product these days, it seems audience-tested to death, trying to appeal to as broad an audience as possible without offending anyone in the process.  This new Witch Mountain had the potential to be an exciting kids action movie.  One wishes they had brought on Jerry Bruckheimer to produce, and a director with more visual imagination than Andy Fickman, who previously directed Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson in last year's The Game Plan.  I like The Rock a lot, but he's kind of stuck playing the wise-cracking sidekick here.  The two kids who play human-looking aliens are pretty terrible though, and Carla Gugino, though stunning, is wasted as a scientist who comes along for the ride.  Fickman wants this thing to play like a Tony Scott film, sort of an Enemy of the State-lite, but he's ill-equipped to deal with all the action (which is poorly choreographed) and the special effects (which are sub-par and almost embarrassing at times).  Race to Witch Mountain is frantic and action-packed, but for all the happenings on screen, nothing is really interesting.  Non-discerning kids might enjoy it, but it's a disappointing chore to sit through for everybody else.


The Last House on the Left (***)

The Last House on the Left.  99 mins.  R.  Directed by Dennis Iliadis.  Written by Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth.  Starring Sara Paxton, Monica Potter, Tony Goldwyn, Garret Dillahunt, Aaron Paul, and Martha MacIsaac.

I'm no big fan of Wes Craven's original film, but I found the remake to be surprisingly effective.  It mostly follows the plot of the original and remains a rape-revenge tale.  In a nutshell, two teenage girls are taken hostage by a pack of killers, with one left dead in the woods, and another who is raped but narrowly escapes.  When the bad guys seek shelter at a nearby house, which just happens to be one of the girls' parents' house, the parents take justice into their own hands, and give the bad guys their just desserts.  Some of it's suspenseful and some of it's meant to satisfy the audience's bloodlust, but as gruesome and unsettling as the subject matter can be at times, the acting and directing are good enough and smart enough to not get bogged down by the nastiness and to treat the material with an adult and dramatic sensibility.  The final scene is a bit too much though and seems tacked on just to give the audience one last laugh/scream.  The pack of very bad people, led by character actor Garret Dillahunt and Big Love's Aaron Paul, make a big impression and their characters are scary and unpredictable enough to keep you on the edge of your seat.  Not a great film, but a good one, as long as you're in the mood for a dark, disturbing ride.


Saturday, March 07, 2009

Watchmen (***)

Watchmen.  162 mins. R.  Directed by Zack Snyder.  Written by David Hayter and Alex Tse.  Starring Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Malin Akerman, and Carla Gugino.

Watchmen arrives in theaters after a two-decade struggle to adapt it to the big screen, an arduous legal battle that threatened to send it straight to DVD, and constant bickering among fans of the graphic novel about the alleged "unfilmmable" story.  Expectations were high with this one, and though I only recently read the graphic novel for the first time and am not a lifelong fan of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' seminal work--named one of the top 100 pieces of literature of all time by Time Magazine--I think the movie is a faithful, passionate version with moments of brilliance.  But it's too long and the last hour is a complete drag, sending audiences out of the theater on a wave of meh.  I give credit to screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse for compacting the story and making sense of the constant flashbacks (and flashbacks within flashbacks).  The movie is structured like an old school detective yarn, with Jackie Earle Haley's Rorschach trying to solve the recent murder of fellow masked avenger, The Comedian (Grey's Anatomy's Jeffrey Dean Morgan), and figure out who's trying to knock off superheroes.  Just like the graphic novel, the movie exists in an alternate version of 1985, where Nixon is still President and nuclear war is imminent with Russia.  For about the first two hours, the movie is great.  The opening credits are a standout sequence, as is everything with Rorschach in jail.  Haley and Morgan steal the show as Rorschach and The Comedian, respectively.  They're awesome.  Everyone else?  Not so much.  Patrick Wilson is okay as Nite Owl II, but Malin Akerman has no business being in anything other than a romantic comedy, and Billy Crudup gives a solid but boring performance as the superpowered, naked and blue Dr. Manhattan.  Anytime Dr. Manhattan is on screen, the movie becomes ponderous and tedious, and a bunch of other adjectives that will have you checking your watch.  By the time the final hour rolls around--basically everything after Rorschach is busted out of prison--the story gets weirder and weirder, taking its characters to Mars to Antarctica and back again.  I think it's at this point that the fidelity to the source material gets in the way.  The white and black striped tiger with horns?  Uh, maybe that's cool in the graphic novel, but it comes out of nowhere and is just lame as seen on screen.  Stuff like that should have been cut.  Director Zack Snyder is a talented guy.  Between this and 300, he's got the fast-fast-then sloooow motion action sequences down to a pat.  Snyder has great visual acuity, but he's not so good with actors and character moments.  When Watchmen is good, it's really good and like nothing else you've ever seen.  Like I said, there are moments of brilliance, and I would definitely say you should see it, but it is by no means a great movie, or even a really good one.