Sunday, August 30, 2009

Shorts (**)

Shorts. PG. Written and Directed by Robert Rodriguez. Starring Jimmy Bennett, James Spader, William H. Macy, Jon Cryer, Leslie Mann, and Kat Dennings.

After teaming up for Death Proof, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino have obviously taken completely different career trajectories. Shorts was released on the same day as Quentin's latest masterpiece, Inglourious Basterds, and to say that Shorts falls far short of masterful is to be kind. Like other Rodriguez productions (particularly Spy Kids and The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl), this is a homegrown kids flick with Rodriguez doing every task behind the camera and using his kids to fill in any gaps in the cast. The movie jumps around in time, and breaks its story up into little vignettes, or shorts, all centered around a magical colored rock that grants every wish of the person holding it. The adults in the movie are all throwaway characters, and despite being portrayed by talented actors (William H. Macy, Leslie Mann, James Spader), Rodriguez couldn't really care less about them and leaves them stranded, overacting up a storm to stay afloat. Shorts is silly and scatter-brained, and should prove a decent diversion for kids on DVD, but it's not a very good movie, and given Rodriguez' bountiful, but still largely untapped, potential behind the camera, one wishes he would put these childish projects away, or at least just serve as a producer on them.


Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Final Destination (*); Halloween II (*)

The Final Destination 3D. 82 mins. R. Directed by David R. Ellis. Written by Eric Bress. Starring Bobby Campo, Shantel VanSanten, Nick Zano, Haley Webb, and Mykelti Williamson.

Until now, I've been a fan of the Final Destination series. Not so much horror movies as they are grotesque comedies, the first three films offered true guilty pleasures. The highway sequence at the beginning of Final Destination 2 is a particular standout in the series, and if you've never seen it, I would recommend checking it out, even if you are not a fan of horror. But this new one should be avoided at all costs. Eschewing the "4" in its title, and going the "Fast and Furious" route, The Final Destination is the nail in the coffin of the series. It is a creatively bankrupt entry, with one thing to offer audiences: death in 3D and even then, the 3D is far from impressive. My Bloody Valentine from earlier this year utilized the technique to much better effect. The only thing that distinguishes this new Final Destination from the others is the race track sequence that opens the film. Otherwise, the plot is the same: a group of folks escape death at the beginning of the movie, and are later picked off one by one in intricate, insane ways. The first movie featured Ali Larter and Sean William Scott, among others, but as the series has progressed, the cast has turned to mostly unknowns, and this latest cast is probably the least talented of all. It's almost as if all the good young actors have been taken, and we're now stuck with the leftover crap. Same goes for the unimaginative death sequences - none fail to register and they are saddled with terrible special effects that scream CGI just so the filmmakers can do something with the 3D technology. The end is particularly egregious, where three big deaths are shown using CGI X-ray skeletons rather than actual actors and practical effects. Did they just run out of money at that point? Hard to say, but it's doubtful that you'll stick around long enough to care. After all, having seen this, you've just wasted your own money.

Halloween II. 105 mins. Written and Directed by Rob Zombie. Starring Scout Taylor-Compton, Sherri Moon Zombie, Brad Dourif, Tyler Mane, and Malcom McDowell.

After sitting through the idiotic The Final Destination, I went straight into Halloween II, hoping for a real horror movie. At first, it appears Rob Zombie might have delivered. Halloween II jars its audience into shock with gory images of the damage inflicted on several of Michael Myers' victims from the previous outing. But Zombie doesn't have anything to offer after that aside from some brutal repeated stabbings, all rendered in bone-crunchingly detailed sound. Zombie is a semi-talented director, and I think he has a great movie in him somewhere, but this sure isn't it. Halloween II is as ugly, unpleasant, and downright repellant as movies get. None of the characters are likeable - particularly the actress who has taken over the Jaime Lee Curtis role (Scout Tyler-Compton). Compton is so annoying and screechy in the role that you just wish Myers would kill her and get it over with. But no, she's the one who has to live through the whole thing. Remember when Drag Me to Hell proved that horror movies could be fun again? Halloween II is the antithesis of that. It is not fun. Nor is it scary, exciting, or interesting. Zombie tries to throw in some psychological elements - a dreamy white horse(!) - but it doesn't add anything to the movie. Halloween II (the ninth in the series) is utterly pointless and unnecessary. I didn't think it could get worse than The Final Destination that night. I was wrong.


Friday, August 21, 2009

Inglourious Basterds (*****)

Inglourious Basterds. 152 mins. R. Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino. Starring Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Diane Krueger, Eli Roth, and Mike Myers.

Coming off the mixed bag that was Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino is back in fine form with Inglourious Basterds, his best film since Pulp Fiction. Basterds is his war epic, and for better or worse, it's a Tarantino movie through and through. This thing has his imprint all over it. All the signature moves are there - the spaghetti western music, the foot fetishism, Samuel L. Jackson, and more. But he uses all of that to stylish effect and couples it with a stellar script full of intense, crackling dialogue, and two roles for women that stand out among all the brute violence and dark humor. Basterds resonates on several different levels, and for those expecting just another Dirty Dozen-type "men on a mission" flick, you're in for a treat because Basterds, among its many attributes, certainly doesn't play by any of the war movie rules.

In fact, much of the movie is not even devoted to the Basterds - a Jewish-American group of soldiers captained by non-Jew Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt, at his loose comedic best) and out to kill as many Nazis as possible. Like many of his other movies, Tarantino splits the story into chapters, alternating the focus on different characters and then bringing everything together in the end. In fact, the real star of the movie here is French actress Melanie Laurent, who plays Shosanna Dreyfus, a French-Jewish girl who, at the beginning of the movie, narrowly escapes death at the hands of the "Jew Hunter" (the Oscar-bound Christoph Waltz) and later turns up as the owner of an ornate movie palace that figures prominently in the end. There are other storylines, and part of the thrill of the film, and Tarantino's genius, is that he takes you from one story to another and makes each one so enthralling that you don't want to leave. Each time he cuts to a different chapter, you're initially disappointed because what you had just seen was so enjoyable, but as each chapter unfolds, the story captivates and draws you in completely.

There are scenes in this movie that are instant classics. The beginning showdown between a French Farmer and the "Jew Hunter" is funny and intense, and a virtual master class on dialogue and character. The initial scene in the woods where the Basterds interrogate some Nazi prisoners is a comedic highlight. Another great scene takes place in a basement bar and results in an explosion of unexpected violence. The movie runs nearly three hours with previews, and many of these scenes are long, slow-burns that are drawn out to the point of breaking. But they don't.

Inglourious Basterds is by no means flawless. When Tarantino lets his freak flag fly at the end and rewrites history in one fell swoop, many may jump off the bandwagon. But I found it refreshing - there are so many movies these days that go to extremes to get every period detail right. Tarantino's ambitions are much more crowd-pleasing. Imagine Valkyrie but with a happy Hollywood ending. Basterds is a kitchen sink-type movie (Tarantino throws everything in that he can), but it works. Audiences will quickly find themselves in the hands of a defining filmmaker who creates entertaining Cinema (with a capital "C"). At times funny, horrifying, and heartbreaking, with excellent performances from Pitt, Laurent, Waltz (as one of the great movie villains), and even Diane Kruger, Basterds is easily on the short list for best movie of the year. Highly recommended.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Time Traveler's Wife (***)

The Time Traveler's Wife. 104 mins. PG-13. Directed by Robert Schwentke. Written by Bruce Joel Rubin. Starring Rachel McAdams, Eric Bana, Ron Livingston, and Stephen Tobolowski.

The preview for the film adaptation of The Time Traveler's Wife looked pretty good. A weepy tearjerker aimed straight at the female demographic, sure, but an interesting one. Then came the reviews, which were all mostly negative. I had my doubts about the movie, but I'm happy to report that the final product is more in line with the promise of the preview than with the bad reviews. I haven't read the book by Audrey Niffenegger, but I bet it's a good read. The plot of The Time Traveler's Wife is like a Nicholas Sparks novel. Only cooler. Bana plays Henry, a man inflicted with some sort of time traveling symptom that makes him travel backwards and forwards in time without any control. He wakes up naked in different locations each time, on the run from people and frantically searching for clothes. The movie takes this premise, and adds a love story to it. How does a relationship work with a man who can disappear at any time and be gone for weeks with no indication of when he'll be back? That's the question posed here, and thankfully, we've got the exceptionally talented Rachel McAdams (as Claire) to answer it. I actually found the concept fairly romantic, and when the inevitable sad ending arrives, there's a definite impact that these kinds of movies usually lack. Yes, I'm talking to you, Message in a Bottle and Nights in Rodanthe. Is The Time Traveler's Wife sappy? Yes. Is it corny? Yes. Is the time travel concept non-sensical and preposterous? Oh yeah. But the movie works despite all this. Bana and McAdams are in fine form, and audiences looking for a serious romance could do a lot worse. Cough, Nights in Rodanthe, Cough, Cough.


Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard (**)

The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard. 89 mins. R. Directed by Neal Brennan. Written by Andy Stock & Rick Stempson. Starring Jeremy Piven, James Brolin, David Koechner, Ving Rhames, Kathryn Hahn, and Ed Helms.

On the surface The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard has the "goods." The cast is chock full of funny actors, it's produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, and it's directed by The Chappelle Show's Neal Brennan. Check, check, and check. But like many of the cars sold in the film, The Goods is a lemon. It strives to be outrageous and completely off-the-wall in its style of comedy, but it just comes across as random and forced. There are a few laughs here and there (mostly from Ving Rhames, who's excellent), but most of the gags fall flat. Too bad - the cast is game and you can tell that everyone thought they were making comedy gold, but something got lost in translation between filming on set and the end result on screen. It might not make for a bad rental though, especially if you're in the mood for a brainless, kooky comedy, with characters who behave stupidly in an almost unrelenting manner.


District 9 (****1/2)

District 9. 112 mins. R. Directed by Neill Blomkamp. Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell. Starring Sharlto Copely, Jason Cope, Nathalie Boltt, and William Alan Young.

District 9 is a rarity in movies today. Hugely successful at the box office upon its release, the movie flew under the radar for months, had a budget of only $30 million, and was directed by an untested 29 year-old who unsuccessfully attempted to bring Microsoft's Halo video game to the big screen. But here's the thing: District 9 offers more bang for the buck, more candy for the eye, and more food for the brain than every other studio blockbuster (save Star Trek) that's been released this summer. Part City of God, part Independence Day, District 9 is an assured feature debut for Blomkamp, and a welcome shot in the arm to the sci-fi genre. There's real content here, and it makes you think, but the most impressive thing about the movie is that it does all that without ever once failing to entertain and deliver the goods. With Peter Jackson producing, District 9 certainly knows how to kick ass when push comes to shove, and in the film's final half-hour, the action on screen has a "wow" factor of about 10. A riff on Blomkomp's South African upbringing and apartheid issues, District 9 takes a pseudo-documentary approach to its story about aliens living in shacks on the outskirts of town after their spaceship stalls over Johannesburg some 20 years ago. Called District 9, the area is policed by a government unit called MNU, and as the movie begins, MNU agent Wikus Van d Merwe (first-time actor, Sharlto Copely) has been tasked with evicting the aliens from District 9 and moving them to fenced-off camps further away from the city. When Wikus is exposed to alien substance, all hell breaks loose as he begins to change into one of the aliens and is hunted by the military and Nigerian slumlords who want to use him to operate alien weapons, which only work in the hands of the aliens. Sounds crazy? Sure - this is science fiction after all, but District 9 works because it grounds the sci-fi ideas in reality and consistently operates on a plane of believability, as if this how things would really happen. The movie approaches instant classic status, but is docked a few points for inconsistency: it drops its documentary style midway through in favor of a straight-up narrative, and then goes back to documentary mode at random times. Still, that's a minor hiccup in an otherwise thrilling moviegoing experience. Bring on District 10.


Sunday, August 09, 2009

Julie & Julia (****)

Julie & Julia. 123 mins. PG-13. Written and Directed by Nora Ephron. Starring Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci, Chris Messina, and Jane Lynch.

Arriving in theaters in late August, and targeting the ever-underserved demographic of adult women, Julie & Julie does a fine job of extending Meryl Streep's hot streak and giving audiences a refreshing, totally enjoyable diversion. Streep is fantastic as Julia Child, nailing the accent and giving a full-bodied performance without ever stooping to caricature. Adams is equally good as Julie Powell, a modern-day blogger who takes it upon herself to cook all 524 recipes of Julia Child's french cooking book in one year. The movie jumps back and forth between the two stories - Child in 1949 France; Powell in 2002-03 New York, and writer-director Nora Ephron does a good job of keeping things moving along, never staying on either story for too long. Streep's portion of the movie is probably the more interesting, if only because she's so darn good as Child and makes her such an engaging screen character. Because Julie and Julia never met in real life, the ending lacks a satisfying wrap-up and too often, the movie strains to put these two characters in parallel situations. But it's hard to complain too much when there's so much delicious food on screen. You'll leave the theater hungry, wanting to go home and break out a bottle of wine - that's what I did anyway. The wine was delicious, and so is this movie. If you think it's just a chick flick, think again.


G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (**1/2)

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. 118 mins. PG-13. Directed by Stephen Sommers. Written by Stuart Beattie and David Elliot. Starring Channing Tatum, Marlon Wayans, Sienna Miller, Rachel Nichols, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Dennis Quaid.

G.I. Joe is the last of summer's big action blockbusters, and if you weren't already exhausted by sitting through Transformers, Pelham 123, and Wolverine, you will after seeing this. Loud, dumb, and frantic, G.I. Joe is a movie with the attention span of a 10-year-old boy, and with good reason, it's aimed squarely at that segment of the moviegoing public. Never one for subtlety, Van Helsing's Stephen Sommers is in the director's chair after a five-year absence, and though he was given a huge budget (a reported $175 million), you can't really tell. The special effects are terrible and look like a draft rendering, rather than the final product. The acting is atrocious, even by esteemed industry vets like Dennis Quaid. You know you're in trouble when Marlon Wayans gives one of the better performances in the movie. Hell, even (500) Days of Summer's usually reliable Joseph Gordon-Levitt is bad. The plot is beside the point - this is a movie designed to sell toys. With that in mind, it's somewhat successful. 10-year-old boys will love it, and will certainly want to rush out and buy a Duke action figure. I didn't quite get there, but I did appreciate the middle action sequence set in Paris, where Duke (Channing Tatum) and Ripcord (Wayans) are running around the city in these super-duper suits that make them run 100mph, jump high, and do all sorts of other cool stuff. G.I. Joe is fast-paced and action-packed, but it's just too silly and frantic for it's own good, as if slowing things down for a second would somehow reveal all the movie's inadequacies, even though they're fairly evident anyway. In fact, G.I. Joe is the very definition of empty calories: Sommers and company stuff a lot of things down your throat, and you're left feeling full, fed-up, and not at all satisfied. Between this and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Hasbro has made a lot of money this summer, but I'd be pretty happy never seeing their logo in front of a movie again.


Monday, August 03, 2009

The Ugly Truth (**)

The Ugly Truth. 95 mins. R. Directed by Robert Luketic. Written by Nicole Eastman and Karen McCullah Lutz & Kirsten Smith. Starring Katherine Heigl, Gerard Butler, Eric Winter, John Michael Higgins, and Cheryl Hines.

The Ugly Truth is about as fresh as a high school production of Rob Becker's Defending the Caveman. It is yet another lame studio romantic comedy, with an unbelievable plot and lame jokes. Even more insulting, the movie is rated "R", but it's the most half-assed "R" I've ever seen (or maybe I'm still reeling from Bruno's abuse of the rating). I say, if you're going to go for the "R" rating, then go for it - see The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Superbad, or any other Apatow production.
Heigl stars as Abby, an uptight, professional television news producer who has almost no love life to speak of. Butler is Mike, a public access, Loveline-type commentator, who prides himself on speaking "the ugly truth" about women, dating, and relationships. When Mike is picked up as a guest commentator for Abby's news program, the two immediately butt heads, but soon bond when Mike agrees to help Abby woo her new doctor neighbor. What follows is a soggy stream of sex jokes, with the centerpiece being an indirect ripoff of the When Harry Met Sally orgasm scene. This time though, it's Heigl wearing vibrating underwear to dinner, and when she loses the remote and a little kid picks it up to play with it, she starts to enjoy dinner, ahem, a little too much. Are you laughing yet?
The Ugly Truth is not a chore to sit through, it's just pointless and stupid. The movie asks us to believe that Mike's commentary would somehow connect with audiences and cause viewership to substantially increase, even though the advice he offers is insulting and unoriginal, and basically boils down to, "All guys think about is sex." Watching The Ugly Truth is like playing an unsubtle game of "Battle of the Sexes," but with none of the fun. Heigl continues to be a likeable leading lady (though I could have done without all the happy dancing she does here), and Butler does what he can, juggling stupid lines and a growly American accent. One can't help but watch this though and think back to all the controversy Heigl caused when taking Knocked Up to task for having underdeveloped female characters. Okay, fine, but THIS is okay?


Sunday, August 02, 2009

Funny People (***1/2)

Funny People. 160 mins. R. Written and Directed by Judd Apatow. Starring Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann, Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman, and Eric Bana.

Make no mistake - Funny People lives up to it's title. It is a very funny movie, and with Judd Apatow sitting in the director's chair for only the third time, that should really come as no surprise. But it's also way too long, clocking in at an indecent two hours and forty minutes. And despite a game performance from Adam Sandler (who has never been better), and strong supporting work from Seth Rogen and Eric Bana, the movie never achieves greatness due to an unfocused script, half-hearted drama, and character arcs that leave a lot to be desired.

All that being said, I really liked Funny People on the whole. I love Apatow as a writer-director, and admire what he's attempting to do here. He's said in the press that Funny People is his "James L. Brooks" movie. Brooks is the writer, director, and/or producer of such classic films as Terms of Endearment, As Good As It Gets, and Broadcast News. All do a nice job of balancing comedy and drama, and are full of rich characters and insightful human drama. Funny People wants to be as good as those films, but Apatow doesn't quite get there. One hates to tell him how to write, but he certainly could have used a couple more rewrites here.

Sandler plays a close-to-home character named George Simmons. George is a comedic actor on the decline who returns to doing stand-up after he's diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening blood disease. It's on the stand-up circuit that he meets Ira (Rogen), a fresh-faced, insecure comic struggling to make a name for himself. George asks Ira to write some material for him, and it's not long before Ira is keeping George company as he goes to bed and accompanying George on his doctor visits. George ultimately tries to win his old girlfriend back (Leslie Mann), the one who got away and is now married with kids. The movie poses the question: what would you do with your life if you thought you were going to do and then you didn't? According to Funny People, you don't really change all that much. And while that may be true in real life, it doesn't exactly make for a fulfilling movie.

That's a shame too because Sandler starts off, and the script supplies him with, an Oscar-caliber performance. George is not the most likeable of guys, and Sandler hits all the right notes. If the character of George had actually been given a complete character arc, we might actually be talking Oscar for real instead of just merely saying that Sandler has never been better.

In fact, Funny People moves along swimmingly until an extended segment at Leslie Mann's house, where the movie just stops to a crawl and meanders for another hour or so, with nothing all that important happening. There are still some funny bits in there, but it's this segment of the movie that really drags things on for too long and wears the audience's patience thin.

The lack of compelling drama does not detract from the comedy. There's a ton of great stuff here - most of it centered around penis jokes - and when Apatow just lets his stars riff, the movie is a joy to watch. I especially liked the scene where Ira makes George an iPod playlist and the two spar back and forth over the song selection. The stand-up sequences are well done, and if I was giving a grade for pop culture jokes alone, Funny People would easily get an "A." I am recommending Funny People, and encourage you to see it, but it does not live up to its potential, and is not as satisfying as The 40 Year-Old Virgin or Knocked Up.


Saturday, August 01, 2009

G-Force (**1/2)

G-Force. 90 mins. PG. Directed by Hoyt Yeatman. Written by the Wibberleys. Starring Zach Galifianakis, Will Arnett, Bill Nighy and the voices of Sam Rockwell, Penelope Cruz, Tracy Morgan, and Nicolas Cage.

As far as kids' films go, parents could do a lot worse than G-Force. Yes, there are numerous fart jokes, and yes, the script is full of bad animal puns, but thanks to uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, there's a lot of action and a slick sheen to it all that makes it, talking guinea pigs excluded, a somewhat bad-ass kids' flick. Heck, it has to be better than Ice Age 3. The voice cast is solid enough: Sam Rockwell, Nicolas Cage, Tracy Morgan, and Penelope Cruz, but nobody is given anything funny to say, and the script is nonsensical and witless, with lines like, "This is off the hizook!", just reeking of faux hipness. The movie is blessedly short, and the end action sequences are impressive in their scope and special effects, but for every thing the movie gets right, it gets about 20 things wrong. The soundtrack is oddly obsessed with the Black Eyed Peas, and incorporates bits and pieces of this summer's hit songs, "Boom Boom Pow" and "I Gotta Feeling" into every other scene. It casts brilliant, rising comedic stars Zach Galifianakis (last seen running away with The Hangover) and Will Arnett (Gob, 'nuff said) in live action roles, and then completely wastes them. And then there's that whole talking guinea pig thing, which when you think about it is just dumb. To close this on a personal note, I took my one-year-old son to G-Force for his first movie - he made it through about an hour and then started getting fidgety. Still, not too shabby. The boy's got some Hammervision in his DNA, that's for sure.


Orphan (*1/2)

Orphan. 122 mins. R. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. Written by David Johnson. Starring Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, Isabelle Fuhrman, and CCH Pounder.

There are bad movies that are just boring. There are bad movies that are just bad. And then there's the special kind of bad movie - one that's so over-the-top and ridiculous that you can't help but be entertained by it. Orphan is the latter. Make no mistake - it's a terrible movie. Though produced by Leonardo DiCaprio (what?!) and Joel Silver, it's a derivative mess and apes every evil child scenario already seen in movies like The Good Son and The Omen. It's definitely not scary - director Jaume Collet-Serra fails to grasp even the most basic horror movie conventions. And to top it all off, there's a twist towards the end of the movie (I won't reveal it) that strains all credibility to the breaking point. And yet, despite all this, you'll still find yourself getting into it, wishing that evil Esther would get what's coming to her sooner rather than later. One wonders what talented actors like Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard are doing in schlock like this. Both do what they can with a borderline idiotic script, but nobody leaves this thing smelling like a rose. Well, maybe the make-up people. Given the ludicrous plot twist, they do a pretty decent job of bringing it to life. If you're in the mood for an unintentionally funny horror movie, go ahead and sign those adoption papers.