Friday, June 26, 2009

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (**1/2)

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. 147 mins. PG-13. Directed by Michael Bay. Written by Ehren Krueger & Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci. Starring Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, and John Turturro.

Michael Bay's sequel has been pummeled by critics and with fairly good reason. It runs an hour too long, the humor is cheap and, in the case of two robots - Skids and Mudflap, racially insensitive, and the story is an incomprehensible mess. That's not to say that the new Transformers is entirely worthless. The technical stuff is spectacular. The special effects are top notch, letting you see things on screen that your eyes can't even believe sometimes. Matching the visuals spar for spar are the sound effects and editing - all the robot noises and transforming and explosions are brilliantly rendered and add a lot to the viewing experience.

The first hour of the movie is probably the best. It replicates the look and feel of the first film, and does what all sequels should do - amp up the action, develop the characters and their relationships a little more, introduce new characters, etc. The opening action sequence is particularly impressive, though it sets the bar too high for everything else that follows. Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox are back, though you'd barely know it. LaBeouf does a fine job, and Fox improves slightly over her performance in the first film - that's not saying much though. I still have issues with the robots talking - it takes away from the cool visuals and gives the movie a corny, kiddie vibe - but that's probably the point.

About an hour in, however, the story relocates to Egypt, and remains there. For another hour and a half! Most of that running time is spent tracking the characters through the desert as they fight and complain, wasting time until the big finish. The final fight on and around a giant pyramid is sometimes awesome, but mostly exhausting. By the end, you can't get out of the theater fast enough.

Michael Bay's approach to sequels (Bad Boys 2 is his only other one) seems to be this: "You want more? I'll give you more...." He's a talented guy, but he's saddled with a worthless script. With Steven Spielberg on board as Executive Producer, you'd think they would have caught the story inadequacies beforehand. Nope. This one's all about the robots, and based on early box office figures, audiences could care less about story and subtlety. I'm reminded of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest - another bloated sequel that wipes away the modest charms of the first film and makes you never want to see another Pirates movie again. I feel the same way about Transformers now.


Monday, June 22, 2009

Year One (**)

Year One. 100 mins. PG-13. Directed by Harold Ramis. Written by Harold Ramis & Gene Stupnitsky & Lee Eisenberg. Starring Jack Black, Michael Cera, Oliver Platt, David Cross, and Hank Azaria.

Year One features a great cast, talented producers (Judd Apatow is one of them), and funny writers (Harold Ramis and two guys from The Office), but they're all working in the service of a hopelessly misguided idea that seems about as comedically fresh as the time period the movie is spoofing. One can't help but look at the great comedies of today (Knocked Up, The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Role Models, The Hangover) and notice that they are all modern, relatively un-gimmicky stories. Those movies don't need high concepts to be funny, so why bother with Year One? The movie is a road comedy of sorts, following two cavemen tossed from their tribe who set off for Gomorrah to try and rescue their lady loves from slavery. Along the way, they run into Cain and Abel, Abraham, and other Biblical characters. In fact, the plot isn't all that different from what you see in the preview; the only thing not already given away is fart, poop, and pee jokes. Some of them hit their marks, much to my resistance, but most just fall flat. Jack Black is perfectly cast, but a lot of his schtick goes a long way. That leaves it up to Michael Cera to earn the majority of minor chuckles. He's still playing George Michael, but darn it if his comedic timing isn't still spot-on. His spin on every line reading creates laughs on screen when there aren't any on the written page. Director Ramis has made great comedies before (Groundhog Day, Caddyshack, Analyze This), but Year One isn't one of them. Still, thanks to Cera, this one might not be a horrible rental - just lower those expectations. Keep lowering them. One more time. Okay, good.


Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Proposal (*1/2)

The Proposal. 108 mins. PG-13. Directed by Anne Fletcher. Written by Pete Chirarelli. Starring Sandra Bullock, Ryan Reynolds, Craig T. Nelson, Mary Steenburgen, and Betty White.

The Proposal is one of those romantic comedies that gives the genre a bad name. It's a lazy, unfunny movie that hopes to coast on the numerous charms of its two leads, but is ultimately brought down by awkward comedic timing and an unbelievable love story. Scenes linger on just a few seconds longer than they should, and some seem to be building towards a payoff that never comes. Bullock stars as a balls-to-the-wall career gal, Margaret, who is supposed to be as scary a boss as Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, but really she's just a bitchy version of the typical Sandra Bullock character. Ryan Reynolds is her put-upon assistant, Andrew, in a typical mainstream Reynolds role, underplayed and lacking any bite. When Margaret is threatened with deportation (she's an illegal Canadian), she blackmails Andrew to pretend they're engaged to keep her in the country. Their scheme ultimately lands them in Andrew's hometown of Sitka, Alaska, where they fight, bicker, and maybe, just maybe, fall in love. Here's the problem: Reynolds and Bullock work well together, but at no point do you believe that these two are falling in love. This movie only works if it's about Margaret ditching her ice queen facade, and Andrew learning to grow some cojones. Margaret and Andrew should be good friends, not a romantic couple. Hey, it worked for My Best Friend's Wedding - why not here? Perhaps most egregious of all though are three jaw-droppingly stupid scenes that are about the worst thing you'll see on screen this year. First, there's the one where an eagle scoops up a dog while Margaret chases them. The dog is rescued, but then the eagle goes after Margaret's phone. Second, there's a waaay too long scene at a local bar where Oscar from The Office plays an unsexy stripper that Betty White gets a little too excited about. Third, and this one's a doozy, involves Betty White and Bullock doing chants in the forest. The chants ultimately lead to Bullock singing Lil Jon's "Get Low" and shaking her rump. It was about this time that I put my head in my hands, gave up, and turned down this proposal.


A Second Opinion: The Hangover (***1/2)

It's rare where you see a movie more than once, and it actually gets better on the second viewing. But that's exactly what happened last night when I saw this summer's sleeper smash The Hangover for a second time. What struck me the second-go-round were a couple of things: (1) it spreads its jokes around pretty evenly throughout the entire movie, and saves the biggest laughs for last (the pics over the end credits are a doozy); (2) when it's not making you laugh (which is infrequent), the mystery aspect of the story (what did happen to those guys last night, and just where the f**k is Doug?) keeps you entertained; (3) the casting is spot-on and refreshingly void of any superstars - just four very funny actors working at the top of their game; and (4) Zach Galifianakis is the man. His character alone is worth the price of admission.

Prior rating: ***
New rating: ***1/2


Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Taking of Pelham 123 (**1/2)

The Taking of Pelham 123. 106 mins. R. Directed by Tony Scott. Written by Brian Helgeland. Starring Denzel Washington, John Travolta, James Gandolfini, Luiz Guzman, and John Turturro.

You don't have to have seen the 1974 original to get a sense of deja vu with the new remake of The Taking of Pelham 123. There is nothing here you haven't seen before about 100 times already. The original Taking was no classic, but it was a very effective comedic thriller and offered a time capsule view of '70s New York and its citizens - much like Ghostbusters did for the city in the '80s. The new Taking makes the mistake of fashioning the story into yet another Die Hard knock-off, with a coasting Travolta in Broken Arrow bad guy mode again as Ryder, the leader of a group that hijacks the 123 train and holds its riders hostage to the tune of $10 million. Meanwhile, Washington (working with director Tony Scott for the fourth time), and inhabiting the Walter Matthau role - his character is even named Walter in a shout-out to the original, is the subway transit director who communicates with Travolta. Both lead actors are fine, but their characters are non-starters. Sure, each is given a "complicated" backstory in an attempt to add shading to their good/bad characters (Walter was charged with accepting bribes; Ryder has Catholic guilt), but, again, there's nothing new to these characters. The "Taking" of the title happens over the opening credits, and is given very little emphasis - a missed opportunity if you ask me (Travolta just points a gun at the conductor and, before you know it, the train is hijacked). The script by Brian Helgeland is workable and evenly paced, and in the hands of another director, might have been a fertile blueprint for a decent movie, but Tony Scott does everything he can to tank the project. I'm instituting a rule right now that Scott is absolutely forbidden from ever using blurry slow motion in one of his movies again. The man is out of control. Remember Top Gun and Crimson Tide? He used to be able to direct a movie, but since Man on Fire in 2004, he's become captivated by hyperkinetic editing and the blurry slo-mo, and: It. Just. Doesn't. Work. Non-discerning action fans may find modest Saturday night rental fun with the flick, but this is a pretty worthless remake.


Saturday, June 06, 2009

Land of the Lost (**)

Land of the Lost.  93 mins.  PG-13.  Directed by Brad Silberling.  Written by Chris Henchy & Dennis McNicholas.  Starring Will Ferrell, Danny McBride, Anna Friel, and Jorma Taccone.

I've never seen a single episode of the 70s show Land of the Lost, so maybe some of the story and joke intricacies are lost on me, but, for my money, the movie version is an aimless and flat comedy.  Sure, it gives Will Ferrell yet another chance to perfect his cocky boob persona, but something feels a bit off by trying to insert that kind of comedy in what is essentially a Journey to the Center of the Earth rip-off.  Ferrell plays Dr. Rick Marshall, an expert on time warps, whose research funding and reputation in the science community is trashed after a disastrous interview with Matt Lauer on the The Today Show.  Cut to three years later, and thanks to the urging of grad student Holly (the always welcome Anna Friel), Rick takes up his time warp studies again, and the two soon find themselves, along with a hillbilly tour guide (played by who else?  Danny McBride), stuck in some alternative universe where past, present, and future collide.  Really, they just end up in a world where dinosaurs still exist, monkey men are friends, and scary walking lizards named Sleestaks are a threat.  None of this stuff is taken seriously, and all of the unbelievable things the characters encounter are treated with a shrug of indifference.  Don't be fooled by the marketing - families are in for a surprise if they go in expecting a kids flick.  There's drug use, nudity, sex jokes, f-bombs, and more in the movie, which is all fine by me, but one has to wonder who the filmmakers were aiming to reach.  It's too mature for kids, yet too immature and stupid for anyone over the age of nine.  If it's a down-and-dirty comedy you're looking for, go see The Hangover instead.  There are some gags that hit their target in Land of the Lost - I especially liked the scene where Ferrell, McBride, and Chaka (The Lonely Island's Jorma Taccone) get stoned off some island fruit, and McBride dares Ferrell to make out with Chaka.  But moments like these are few and far between.  Land of the Lost is just plain weird.  That can be a good thing, but the comedy needs to be as weird as the concept in order for it to work.  Too much of the movie is just plop Will Ferrell in a CGI environment and let him do his thing.  No thanks - if I'm just going to see Ferrell make an ass of himself, I'd much rather watch Anchorman 2.


Thursday, June 04, 2009

Away We Go (***1/2)

Away We Go.  97 mins.  R.  Directed by Sam Mendes.  Written by Dave Eggers & Vendela Vida.  Starring John Krasinski, Maya Rudolph, Catherine O'Hara, Jeff Daniels, Allison Janney, and Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Sam Mendes' follow-up to the much hyped (and way too depressing) Revolutionary Road is a 180 degree change of pace in terms of tone and pacing.  It's a low-key charmer, featuring two great lead performances from John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph.    They play Burt and Verona, an unmarried couple expecting their first child.  When Burt's parents announce that they're moving to Belgium, Burt and Verona head off on a cross-country odyssey to figure out where to live and raise their child.  Loosely modeled on the screenwriters themselves, real-life couple Dave Eggers & Vendela Vida, the story hits a lot of graceful, truthful notes about love, marriage, pregnancy, parenthood, and home.  When the movie focuses on the happy couple, and gives us an intimate look at their relationship with each other, Away We Go glows.  But the movie is not without its independent comedy roadblocks.  Many of the supporting characters here are way too quirky and broadly sketched, and overplayed by the recognizable actors inhabiting them.  Trying to make as big an impression in as little time as possible, Catherine O'Hara, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and (especially) Allison Janney are all annoying and, well, fake.  In a movie that aims to touch upon the little truths in life, it's a mistake to give these characters so much screen time and take the focus off of Burt and Verona.  But then, near the end, in an extended sequence set in Montreal, the script slows down, gets serious, and explores some interesting issues, and the movie benefits from it.  I enjoyed this movie as a serio-comic relationship film, but the comic elements threaten to derail it at times.  The movie stays on track though thanks to Krasinski and Rudolph, and a heaping help of clever, insightful dialogue.  Away We Go is a small film worth seeking out.


Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Up (****)

Up. 96 mins. PG. Directed by Pete Docter & Bob Peterson. Written by Bob Peterson. Starring the voices of Ed Asner, Christopher Plummer, Jordan Nagai, Delroy Lindo, and John Ratzenberger.

Despite its title, Up doesn't quite reach the lofty heights of Pixar's best films (for my money, Wall-E, The Incredibles, and both Toy Storys), but it is a worthy effort and stands head and shoulders above almost all other animated films.

Up tells the story of Carl Fredricksen, a widowed, grumpy old man whose house is on the verge of being torn down. Carl has shut himself off from life, grieving both his dead wife and the adventurous life they dreamed of but never lived. When a retirement home is forced upon him, Carl takes to the air - tying thousands of balloons to his chimney and setting off for a South African paradise, with a stowaway boy scout on board to both pester and, later, humanize Carl. The house he can't let go of is an obvious metaphor for his wife, Ellie, whose presence lingers throughout the film. In a beautiful, wordless montage at the beginning of the movie, we see Carl and Ellie's relationship develop over the years - from the joy of their marriage to the heartbreaking miscarriage Ellie suffers and finally to their tearful goodbye on her deathbed. Moments like these are what separates Pixar from every other competitor. They take non-traditional animated subject matter, and turn it into something magical - something that a live action film would even have trouble duplicating.

Up's at its best when it allows these emotional character arcs to take front and center stage. I could have done without Carl's tagalong kid - though he's not annoying, he's nothing new or interesting either. We've seen the cute Disney kid character a thousand times before. I also found the middle section dragged a little, focusing too much on the exotic bird the two are trying to protect, as well as the broad comedy involving a dog named Doug who's been fitted with a collar allowing him to speak. These parts probably play well with the little kids, but often feel at odds with the semi-serious tone of the first act.

In any event, the animation is spectacular to look at and there's a surprising amount of action. The filmmakers use 3D technology wonderfully - never going for the cheap gag, and just allowing the 3D to enhance the image, rather than distract from it. Up is a step-down from Wall-E, but it does great things for animated film, and moviegoers would be foolish to pass up a chance to see it on the big screen.


Drag Me to Hell (****)

Drag Me to Hell.  99 mins.  PG-13.  Directed by Sam Raimi.  Written by Sam Raimi & Ivan Raimi.  Starring Alison Lohman, Justin Long, Lorna Raver, and David Paymer.

After nearly tanking the Spider-Man franchise with the emo-dancing Peter Parker, I'm happy to report that Sam Raimi is back in fine form with Drag Me to Hell.  Taking a cue from its title, the movie is a cut-to-the-chase, campy, scary, funny thrill ride.  It is the quintessential midnight movie, best watched with a packed theater, and it's a ton of fun.  Horror movies these days come in two varieties: uberviolent slasher flicks and spooky ghost stories.  In a refreshing twist, Drag Me to Hell is neither.  It harkens back to Raimi's own Evil Dead trilogy, and quickly sets itself apart from everything else around by gleefully scaring the piss out of its audience, while having a grand old time doing so.  Raimi is in full command of his craft here, and owns the audience, employing every visual trick and sound effect in the book to manipulate people's reactions in just the right way.  Alison Lohman (whose acting leaves a lot to be desired) stars as a bright, lucky-in-love bank loan officer, who, in an attempt to impress her boss and one-up the co-worker with whom she's fighting over a promotion, denies a loan to a crazy old gypsy lady and finds herself cursed with the "Lamia."  She now has three days to rid herself of the curse and all the horrifying things that come with it before she's dragged to hell, never to return again.  A fight scene in an abandoned parking lot between Lohman and the gypsy lady early on in the film strikes a perfect balance of scares and laughs, and really sets the tone for everything else that follows.  If you're not on board at that point, I don't know what to tell you.  Drag Me to Hell is one damn good time at the movies.