Monday, April 27, 2009

Obsessed (*1/2)

Obsessed.  109 mins.  PG-13.  Directed by Steve Shill.  Written by David Loughery.  Starring Idris Elba, Beyonce Knowles, Ali Larter, Jerry O'Connell, and Christine Lahti.

Obsessed is so trashy and idiotic that it should have just been called "Hands Off My Man, Bitch!"  The movie is a real groaner - featuring stupid characters doing stupid things every freakin' second.  Director Steve Shill aims for B-movie ineptitude and pretty much hits the bullseye.  The plot is recycled Fatal Attraction stuff: Ali Larter plays a new temp, Lisa, who has the hots for her boss, Derek (The Wire's Idris Elba).  Oh, and she's crazy too, and her attempts to come on to him grow increasingly problematic for Derek.  None of this sits too well with Beyonce, as Derek's wife - perhaps one of the more paranoid, least understanding, obnoxious woman ever captured on film.  If Larter's character wasn't so bat-flipping insane, it'd be hard to side with Beyonce - she's pretty detestable here on her own.  And remember that whole business about Zac Efron being a movie star?  Yeah, Beyonce is not.  She's still unsuccessfully trying to recapture the magic she had in Austin Powers in Goldmember, which remains her best performance.  Needless to say, the movie culminates in one of the ultimate catfights, as Beyonce takes matters into her own hands.  Lots of hair pulling and slapping ensues.  Obsessed is a terrible movie, but it plays right into the hands of audiences who like to feel smarter than the movie they're watching.  Much like the Jennifer Lopez vehicle Enough from a few years back - Obsessed doesn't have a subtle bone in its body, and it telegraphs where it's going at every turn, but darn it if the movie doesn't engage its audience on some level.  I'd call the movie a guilty pleasure, but really, you just feel guilt about having watched it - there's no real pleasure to be had here.


Crank: High Voltage (*1/2)

Crank: High Voltage.  85 mins.  R.  Written and Directed by Mark Neveldine & Brian Taylor.  Starring Jason Statham, Amy Smart, Bai Ling, and Dwight Yoakam.

Some movies walk a fine line between depravity and entertainment and stay on the right side (Pulp Fiction), the Crank movies, on the other hand, do the exact opposite.  High Voltage is a strange beast - it takes nothing seriously and purports to be an action movie, but it has almost zero action and is more disgusting comedy than anything else.  Statham plays the unstoppable Chev Chelios, who died at the end of the first Crank, but is back for seconds here.  When his heart is stolen, and replaced with an electronic one that requires constant shocks of electricity to keep pumping. Chelios goes on the run to get back his real heart before the fake one gives up on him.  That's about all there is plot-wise, and the filmmakers couldn't care less.  They shoot the movie in a constant state of fast shutter sports-style camera mode, and never linger on one shot long enough for you to get any real sense of action.  Just when the action is about to start, the movie will cut to a quick cut montage of photographs or an absurd Godzilla-style fight.  There are certain audience members, I'm sure, who will find all this funny, and some of it is in a very rude, crude way (early on, Chelios interrogates a bad guy by lubing up a machine gun and sticking it in the guy's ass), but so much of the movie is, well, unlikeable.  It's about unlikeable people doing unlikeable things, and it's all shot and edited in an in-your-face, unlikeable manner.  Oh, and it's totally misogynistic, and I feel bad for Amy Smart, who should be beyond this type of filth in her career by now.  High Voltage is an extreme visceral ride, but it's all just too, too much.


Sunday, April 26, 2009

Summer Movie Season Preview

Summer starts on May 1 this year.  How do we know?  Well, that's when the first big ticket release opens (X-Men Origins: Wolverine), and that's usually what I go on.  To help you plan your summer moviegoing, here is a handy guide to the notable release dates (with the movies I'm most excited about in bold).  Where I've heard some advance reviews, I'll let you know.

May 1: 
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (leaked online two months ago; not good)
Ghosts of Girlfriends Past

May 8:
Star Trek (J.J. Abrams and Co. knock it out of the park; good for both Trekkies and newbies)

May 15:
Angels & Demons (better than The Da Vinci Code)

May 21:
Terminator Salvation (rated PG-13 - what?)

May 22:
Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian
Dance Flick

May 29:
Up (Pixar does it again)
Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi successfully goes back to Evil Dead roots)

June 5:
The Hangover (Warner Bros. already greenlit a sequel)
Land of the Lost 
Away We Go (Juno wannabe with John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph)

June 12:
The Taking of Pelham 123 (meh)

June 19:
The Proposal
Year One (talented cast, lackluster laughs)
Whatever Works

June 24:
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (Spielberg called it Michael Bay's best movie yet)

June 26:
My Sister's Keeper
The Hurt Locker (first Iraq War movie that actually works)

July 1:
Public Enemies
Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs

July 10:
Bruno (better than Borat)
I Love You Beth Cooper

July 15:
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

July 17:
500 Days of Summer (Sundance hit; romantic comedy that's poised to be a breakout hit)

July 24:
The Ugly Truth

July 31:
Funny People (Judd Apatow's third film - he's 3 for 3)

August 7: 
GI Joe: Rise of Cobra (cheesy and unspectacular)
Julie and Julia
Shorts (fun Robert Rodriguez film for kids)

August 14:
Taking Woodstock
The Time Traveler's Wife

August 21:
Inglourious Basterds

August 28:
Final Destination 4
The Boat That Rocked


The Soloist (***)

The Soloist.  109 mins.  PG-13.  Directed by Joe Wright.  Written By Susannah Grant.  Starring Jamie Foxx, Robert Downey, Jr., and Catherine Keener.

Though it has all the makings of an awards season contender, and it features two outstanding performances from Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr., something feels a bit off with The Soloist.  Based on a series of real life columns by journalist Steve Lopez (Downey, Jr.) about a homeless, schizophrenic musical prodigy who dropped out of Juilliard (Foxx), the movie focuses, more or less, on the two's burgeoning friendship.  And while it doesn't play by the typical narrative rules of the feel-good genre, that's both a good thing and a bad thing.  The good: Downey and Foxx are given a lot of space to show their stuff - both actors are at the top of their game here, and the movie flirts with but never stoops to any overly sentimental goopiness.  The bad: The Soloist fails to engage on an emotional level.  There is a whole middle section of the movie (a good 20 minutes or so) where Downey's character explores the homeless underbelly of L.A., and it leads one to think that the movie has a bigger story on its mind and that Foxx's character is just an entry point to that story.  But that subplot is soon jettisoned and we're back to focusing on just Foxx's mental illness and Downey's struggles to connect with him.  My favorite part of the movie is a scene where Foxx and Downey see a rehearsal performance from a symphony orchestra.  Foxx is so taken with the Beethoven music that's being played that he just tunes out to everything else around him, and it's at that point that director Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice) takes the screen to black and just shows a bunch of brightly colored images moving in time with the music.  It's a bold, beautiful moment (very Kubrick-esque), and it will probably piss off just as many audience members as it pleases.  The Soloist is disappointing in that it has everything going for it, but never really gains any traction.  Downey and Foxx are deserving of awards recognition here, but I seriously doubt anyone will remember The Soloist come Oscar time.


Saturday, April 25, 2009

State of Play (****)

State of Play.  118 mins.  PG-13.  Directed by Kevin Macdonald.  Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray.  Starring Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Helen Mirren, Robin Wright-Penn, and Jason Bateman. 

State of Play is a thrilling deft and surprisingly fast-paced film that always stays a step or two ahead of the audience.  It's a smart movie, featuring terrific direction from Kevin Macdonald (Last King of Scotland) and great performances from Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, and in a memorable supporting role, Jason Bateman.  It's nice to see Affleck continue his streak of respectability, and it's also nice to see Crowe back in form (though certainly not physically - he's let himself go a bit here) after his throwaway performance in last year's disappointing Body of Lies.  State of Play is based on a British six-hour miniseries, and though the movie runs less than two hours, it's jam-packed with political intrigue and a relevant dissection of the future of reporting and newspaper viability.  I haven't seen the original miniseries, but I have to think the writers (including Tony Gilroy of Bourne and Michael Clayton and Billy Ray of Breach and Shattered Glass) did a nice job of adapting it here because nothing feels forced or rushed or given short-shrift.  Affleck plays a congressman whose aide is mysteriously killed.  His college roommate is Crowe, an old school newspaper columnist tracking the story with the help of a new-wave blogger played by Rachel McAdams (back on screen after a long absence).  As is the case with most movies of this ilk, nothing is what it seems and nobody tells the whole truth.  This is a classy production through and through, and it relies more on character interaction and development for its thrills rather than a ton of action.  There are flaws - the supposed bad guy constantly has an "evil" look about him, and not all of the twists and turns are satisfyingly played out - but overall, it's one worth seeing in theaters.


Friday, April 24, 2009

17 Again (***)

17 Again.  102 mins.  PG-13.  Directed by Burr Steers.  Written by Jason Filardi.  Starring Zac Efron, Leslie Mann, Thomas Lennon, Melora Hardin, and Matthew Perry.

There are two things 17 Again makes abundantly clear to its audience as they leave the theater: (1) body/age switch movies have been done to death by now, and the concept is stale; and (2) Zac Efron is a movie star.  The movie begins in 1989, where high schooler Mike O'Donnell (Efron at 17, Matthew Perry as his older self - I know, the two look nothing alike) is about to play a championship basketball game.  In a clever nod to Efron's High School Musical roots, Mike breaks from his pre-game warm-ups to join the cheerleaders in a minute-long, expertly choreographed dance sequence that sets the right tone for the rest of the movie.  Too bad Mike's girlfriend is pregnant - he leaves the game (and a possible college-career and scholarship) for her, and flash forward to the present, where Mike is unhappy with his lot in life, with two kids who want nothing to do with him, and a wife (the always welcome Leslie Mann) who is seeking a divorce.  After a chance encounter with a mysterious janitor played by Brian Doyle-Murray, Mike magically turns into his 17 year-old self, and has another shot at life.  Needless to say, he learns some lessons along the way, becoming a better dad and husband, while hijinks and Three's Company-style mishaps happen all around him.  The comedy is pretty lame and the story been there-done that, but here's why 17 Again works: Efron.  He's charming and knows how to sell a joke.  He has great rapport with Leslie Mann and believably plays up the romantic angle there, and his scenes with Reno 911's Thomas Lennon (as Mike's geeky best friend) are the best thing in the movie and often do manage to amuse.  After this and I Love You, Man, where he stuck his tongue in Paul Rudd's mouth, Lennon is proving to be quite a valuable comedic utility player.  Though 17 Again will be forgotten in a few months, I think Efron's going to be around for a while.  And, given his performance here, that's not necessarily a bad thing.


Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Ones

Monday, April 13, 2009

Observe and Report (***)

Observe and Report.  84 mins.  R.  Written and Directed by Jody Hill.  Starring Seth Rogen, Anna Faris, Michael Pena, and Ray Liotta.

There is a demented sense of humor at work in Jody Hill's sophomore directing effort.  Having left Danny McBride behind (though not too far behind - McBride cameos here) in favor of the nearly everywhere Seth Rogen, Hill follows up The Foot Fist Way with a much darker, more risque comedy.  Observe and Report, following on the heels of the similarly themed Paul Blart: Mall Cop (which sucks), is a totally different beast altogether.  It's an R-rated comedy, and it earns that rating.  Rogen does a nice job and actually stretches a bit here - playing a far different character than his typically likeable pothead losers.  Anna Faris and Ray Liotta are great in the supporting roles.  Though I didn't laugh out loud too much during the movie, I was a fan of the bleak, often pitch-black humor, and I found myself thinking about Observe and Report after leaving the theater, wanting to see it again.  It's the kind of movie that, like watching Big Lebowski the first time, you recognize as doing something different, and though you may not appreciate it fully on the first viewing, it has lots of potential.  There are some great bits here: Rogen's endless "f**k you" exchange with Aziz Ansari (of Parks and Recreation), the Oldboy-influenced fight scene between Rogen and a bunch of cops trying to take him in, and, of course, the five-minute long naked flasher chase sequence at the end.  Observe and Report is certainly not my parents' cup of tea, and it is by no means perfect, but if you like your comedy to take chances, you'll want to Observe this Report.


Sunday, April 12, 2009

Adventureland (***1/2)

Adventureland.  98 mins.  R.  Written and Directed by Greg Mottola.  Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Martin Starr, Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, and Ryan Reynolds.

Don't go to Adventureland expecting a riotous comedy.   Though the Miramax marketing department is doing all it can to convince people this is the second coming of, say, Superbad - it's not.  There are funny parts but this is more of an independent, coming-of-age dramedy.  Writer-director Greg Mottola does a nice job of nailing the look and feel of an '80s teen flick.  He has a good eye for period detail and the theme park setting is honestly captured.  The story may seem a tad over-familiar at times (hipster slackers + pot = life lessons learned), but the talented cast (SNL vets Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig are standouts) helps sell it.  And while I like both Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart here, they are in real danger of repeating themselves and becoming one-trick ponies.  Eisenberg is like a less funny Michael Cera, and Stewart has trouble looking at other actors when speaking to them and takes way too long to say a line in her attempts to be real.  Adventureland is a modestly charming film - one that entertains and keeps you happy while it's on, but one that's pretty disposable as soon as you leave the theater.  Great '80s soundtrack though - if there's one element of the movie that sticks with you, it's that.


Fast & Furious (***)

Fast & Furious.  PG-13.  99 mins.  Directed by Justin Lin.  Written by Chris Morgan.  Starring Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Jordana Brewster, and Michelle Rodriguez.

Having reunited the original cast and shucked all reference to "the" in its title, Fast & Furious proves to be a welcome summer blockbuster in the middle of spring.  Like its predecessors, this fourth film in the never-ending franchise provides more of the same: nifty car chases (especially the one that opens the film and is seen in all of the trailers - sort of a Duel-lite sequence), lunkhead acting (courtesy of the limited range of Diesel and Walker), and a story that drags whenever its character aren't behind the wheel.  The point being: If you liked the other Fast and the Furious flicks, you'll enjoy this one just fine.  Director Justin Lin helmed the previous installment, Tokyo Drift, and though he's still trying to match the potential he showed in his first film (the little-seen, under-appreciated Better Luck Tomorrow), he knows how to stage an action sequence and give the audience what they want (i.e., fast cars, rockin' soundtrack, and two hot girls making out in the corner of the screen in every scene).  The story is lame - something to do with an underground drug smuggling operation, but that's true for all of these movies.  If you're going to see Fast & Furious for the plot, I'd suggest you just flush your money down the toilet.  It was a great idea to bring back all of the original cast members.  Funny what 8 years can do for a person's career - neither Diesel nor Walker has done anything significant since the original Fast and the Furious, and here they are again - back to the well, which, given the boffo opening weekend box office numbers, seems to have been a very smart move indeed.  It's rare when a fourth film reinvigorates a franchise, but that's just what Fast & Furious has done.  The ending sets up a fifth movie perfectly (though it misses out on a prime opportunity for a Tyrese cameo), and I can guarantee there will be a fifth.  My guess for the title: Fast/Furious.