Saturday, October 31, 2009

Michael Jackson's This Is It (***)

Michael Jackson's This Is It. 111 mins. PG. Directed by Kenny Ortega. Starring Michael Jackson.

This Is It is about as good as it can be, but it's just a shame that this is what audiences have to watch rather than the real thing. Culled from who knows how many hours of rehearsal footage, This Is It shows Michael Jackson preparing for a series of concerts in Europe that would play to the fans, rake in a ton of money, and hopefully get him out of debt. There's a lot of good footage here, and the show's director, Kenny Ortega (High School Musical, Newsies), also serves as the movie's director. He does a nice job of keeping the focus on Michael and moving the picture along. It's basically split up into a series of bits on each song, and the audience is given a sense of what the concert would have actually been like. Based on what's presented here, it would have been one heck of a concert. Michael is in top form, at least voice wise, and he certainly still has some dance moves. At times, his movements seem out of this world, and I guess the same could be said of Michael's personality. He's a weird dude, to be sure, but he's immensely talented and This Is It captures that dynamic. This is definitely not a full profile of the man. My big drawback with the movie is the fact that this was never supposed to be a movie. Rehearsal footage is interesting and all, but it means that we're never treated to a full blown performance. Michael kind of half sings and half goes through the steps the whole time - it's never 100%. So as a concert film, it's good, but not great - an unfortunately unfinished project. The other issue I had with it is that because the movie focuses so much on Michael and never strays too far from him for too long, we only get quick, fleeting glimpses of the behind-the-scenes action - how the show was created, the costumes, the choreography, the production elements, etc. That stuff is in there, but not enough, so as a full-fledged "behind the curtain"-type of documentary, This Is It comes up short. Still, there's no denying Michael's legacy, and This Is It does justice to both the man and his music.

- John

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Trick 'r Treat (***)

Trick 'r Treat. 82 mins. R. Written and Directed by Michael Dougherty. Starring Leslie Bibb, Dylan Baker, Anna Paquin, and Brian Cox.

Just a quick note on this one. Despite having built up a pretty fervent cult following after playing at several horror festivals the last two years, Warner Bros. decided to dump this well-reviewed film straight to DVD. And though it would be fun to watch in a theater, I think DVD is actually the best way to view Trick 'r Treat. It's a throwback to the '80s in the best possible way. Juggling four different stories set on Halloween that initially seem unconnected and then intertwine, Trick 'r Treat recalls other horror anthologies like Creepshow. It's a fun, not-too-scary movie, with a couple of great sequences, and an inordinate amount of kids dying on screen. On second thought, maybe that's why it went straight to DVD. The movie is not perfect, and it's kind of slight, but if you're into comedic horror movies or '80s flicks and want a quick fun viewing, you won't go wrong with Trick 'r Treat.

- John

Monday, October 26, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are (**1/2)

Where the Wild Things Are. 94 mins. PG. Directed by Spike Jonze. Written by Spike Jonze & Dave Eggers. Starring Max Records, Catherine Keener, Mark Ruffalo, and the voices of James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, Catherine O'Hara, and Forest Whitaker.

It pains me to say it, as I was really looking forward to this one, but, at best, Where the Wild Things Are is an ambitious misfire. At worst, it's a tedious, melodramatic bore about a little boy and a bunch of manic depressive monsters. There's no denying the heart and soul that went into this movie. Co-writer/director Spike Jonze is a talented guy, and you can sense his passion and devotion behind the camera. A lot of thought went into this adaptation of the beloved children's book by Maurice Sendak, and kudos for turning 13 sentences into a sustainable feature length film. In fact, I liked a lot of things about the movie. The first twenty minutes are highly effective as we see the boy, Max, face relatable childhood problems: a sister who won't play with him, a destroyed snow fort, a mom who'd rather work than play with him. The chords the movie strikes during this opening segment are pure and true. I liked the music by the Yeah Yeah Yeah's Karen O, which perfectly captures the spirit of childhood. The cinematography and art direction are fantastic. I liked the use of giant puppet costumes for the monsters rather than CGI, and think it was a brilliant move to cast James Gandolfini as the voice of the main monster, Carol. Gandolfini has an almost comedic, light tone to his voice, but when he gets angry - it turns scary, and nobody breathes better (or more heavily) than Gandolfini.

So that's the good - should be enough, right? Unfortunately no. Once Max gets to the island, things start to fall apart. The theme of the movie (children feel everything that adults do but don't know how to articulate it) is hammered home time and time again by the half clever/half heavy-handed device of using each monster to represent a facet of Max's personality or one of his family members. The dialogue between Max and the monsters is dull and tepidly written. The "wild rumpus" that marks the main part of Sendak's book is quick and sloppily rendered in the movie. It's clear that Jonze and company didn't have entertainment on their mind when making it - they were trying to make a point. And that's exactly the problem. I can take real. I can take dark and depressing. I could care less if kids like this movie or not. I appreciate that Jonze and company were trying to make a film about childhood for adults. But I cannot stand when entertainment is sacrificed for art. The two are not mutually exclusive, and, in fact, the best movies do both. Where the Wild Things, for all its ambition, is not one of those movies.

- John

Couples Retreat (**1/2)

Couples Retreat. 107 mins. PG-13. Directed by Peter Billingsley. Written by Jon Favreau, and Vince Vaughn & Dana Fox. Starring Vince Vaughn, Malin Akerman, Kristin Bell, Jason Bateman, Jon Favreau, Kristin Davis, Faizon Love, and Jean Reno.

By all accounts, Couples Retreat should have been a much better movie than it actually is. Co-written by longtime friends and co-stars Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau, and directed by pal Peter Billingsley (Ralphie from A Christmas Story), the movie has a great cast, an exotic location, and a promising comedic set-up. Vaughn and Malin Akerman (who's actually never been better - seriously) play the most stable couple in the movie, who decide to head to Bora Bora and accompany their best friends, a type-A, fertility challenged pair played by the always dependable Jason Bateman and Kristin Bell, as they try to mend their broken relationship and stave off divorce. Also along for the ride are an adulterous pair of high school sweethearts (Kristin Davis and Jon Favreau) as well as a recently divorced guy dating a girl half his age (Faizon Love). What promises to be fun in the sun soon turns into couples therapy and yoga sessions - all played to none-too-subtle effect. For a while there (a good portion actually), Couples Retreat coasts along on the charm of its cast and a handful of amusing gags. It doesn't hurt to have beautiful locations and Kristin Bell in a bikini for most of the movie. But then that last third hits, and everything falls apart. There's a cheesy Guitar Hero battle staged like an Old West confrontation, an unfortunately timed rain storm, and the ridiculous happy endings given to each couple. The movie would have been much more effective if it had kept together those couples who should stay together, and broken up those that had no business being together (ahem, Favreau and Davis, ahem). The big climax strikes one false note after another, and will have you rolling your eyes. Still, the cast holds this slipshod affair together. For the most part. Kind of. Not really.

- John

Capitalism: A Love Story (**)

Capitalism: A Love Story. 127 mins. R. Written & Directed by and Starring Michael Moore.

Love him or hate him, Michael Moore may be a polarizing personality but he's a pretty darn good filmmaker. Even when his movies overreach or avoid impartiality, he still knows how to entertain and keep things interesting. But after four big documentaries (Roger & Me, Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11, and Sicko), his filmmaking quirks are starting to wear a little thin. It doesn't matter what subject he's covering - he always pulls from the same bag of tricks. The sing-song narration, the Jackass-style "stunts", the archival footage of 1950s Americana, the weepy profiles on victims (of gun control, health care, George Bush, GE, etc.). By now, you've seen it all before and the end result is just tiring. It doesn't help matters that Moore struggles to connect the dots necessary to make the grand thesis statement he wants to make: capitalism is the devil. That's a tad hard to believe given the fact that capitalism has been very kind to Moore, and though I appreciate how popular Moore has made the documentary film, he's starting to abuse the power he's gained. Maybe he needs to switch it up and tackle another fictional film (but please, no Canadian Bacon 2). Capitalism: A Love Story is all talk and no game. At a running time of over 2 hours, the movie easily outstays its welcome, and offers zero solutions to the problems it raises. If it's a documentary you're after - allow me to suggest Anvil! The Story of Anvil instead.

- John

The Invention of Lying (**1/2)

The Invention of Lying. 99 mins. PG-13. Written and Directed by Ricky Gervais & Matthew Robinson. Starring Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner, Tina Fey, Rob Lowe, Louis C.K., and Jonah Hill.

Anyone who's seen the British version of The Office or Extras knows that Ricky Gervais is one seriously funny guy. And when he writes and directs his own material, you're usually in for something special. Such were my hopes with The Invention of Lying. Gervais hasn't had the best luck on American screens - Ghost Town was just alright and the Night at the Museum flicks are nothing to write home about. Turns out neither is his latest effort. Despite a clever premise (Gervais creates the first lie in a world where people only speak the truth) and a very promising (and funny) first half hour, The Invention of Lying soon loses its way, trading laughs for feel good moments and lame religious allegory. Gervais is at his best when he's misanthropic, awkward and sarcastic, and all of that is in rather short supply here. Not even Jennifer Garner as his unlikely love interest can save the movie. The Invention of Lying had the potential to be another Groundhog Day - what we get though is another Ghost Town. Gervais has a great big screen comedy in him still, but he has to stop courting the masses. When comedies try to please everyone, they usually end up pleasing no one.

- John

Saturday, October 10, 2009

A Serious Man (***)

A Serious Man. 105 mins. R. Written and Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen. Starring Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, and Amy Landecker.

The big story behind A Serious Man, the latest film from the Coen Brothers, is that it's their most personal movie to date. That doesn't necessarily mean it's their best. A Serious Man is a step down from last year's very funny, star-studded Burn After Reading and six degrees removed from the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men. Theater actor Michael Stuhlbarg plays Larry Gopnik, a suburban Jewish man in the 1960s dealing with a handful of crises which all seem to be coming to a head. His estranged wife wants a "Get" - some Jewish form of divorce; his son is constantly on the run from a school bully to whom he owes money; his wack job brother (Richard Kind) is sleeping on his couch; and he's getting blackmailed at work on the eve of getting tenure. This being a Coen Brothers movie and all, there are a handful of absurdly hilarious moments and some cleverly written exchanges of dialogue, but the movie never really achieves liftoff and hovers around the same serio-comic stasis that plagued their arty hit-and-miss The Man Who Wasn't There back in '01. Stuhlbarg is good, and the scenes between him and one of his students bribing for a better grade are immensely enjoyable. The ending is a bit abrupt and doesn't really leave you with a fond impression, but no film fan can ignore a Coen Brothers movie, and A Serious Man is no exception.

- John

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Whip It (**)

Whip It. 121 mins. PG-13. Directed by Drew Barrymore. Written by Shauna Cross. Starring Ellen Page, Marcia Gay Harden, Kristen Wiig, Eve, Drew Barrymore, Juliette Lewis, Daniel Stern, Andrew Wilson, and Jimmy Fallon.

Drew Barrymore makes her directorial debut with Whip It, and that's what it feels like: a movie from a first-time filmmaker. The big success here is that Drew was able to pull it off. She's made a movie. It's not a very original movie, and it's not all that funny, but it's far from a disaster. Ellen Page stars as Bliss Cavender, an aimless indie-rock loving misfit, who rebels against her beauty pageant-loving mom (Marcia Gay Harden), and joins up with a roller derby squad called the Hurl Scouts. Adopting the moniker of Babe Ruthless, it's there that she finds her true self and a place in the world, if only she can overcome her parents' disapproval, her best friend's rejection, and the taunts of a rival roller derby queen played by Juliette Lewis. Page is good and very different here than she was in Juno, but she's stuck having to play cliche after cliche, and the unimaginative script is strictly by-the-numbers. Andrew Wilson (Luke and Owen's brother) has a couple of nice moments as the squad's coach, and Kristen Wiig is pretty good too in a mostly dramatic role that shows her range as a performer. But for every thing that Drew gets right, she gets as many things wrong. She doesn't really capture the intoxicating thrill of roller derby, or why Bliss would be so drawn to it in the first place. As a director, Drew is also prone to corny "comedic" moments, like when the girls get in an all-out food fight after a game one night. Food fight scenes are almost impossible to pull off, and Whip It proves to be no exception to the rule. By the end, you're just ready for the parade of cliches to end. Will Bliss' mom accept her newfound roller derby queen status? Will her dad attend one of her games? Will her best friend forgive her? Will the Hurl Scouts win the championship? That last question should be easy to answer if you've seen A League of Their Own. Here's hoping Drew uses Whip It for the stepping stone in her directing career that it is, and actually does something a little more worthwhile next time out.

- John

Zombieland (****1/2)

Zombieland. 81 mins. R. Directed by Ruben Fleischer. Written by Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick. Starring Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin.

Zombieland is everything you could want in a horror comedy about a world taken over by zombies and more. It is an unpretentious, kick-ass flick that hits the comedic bullseye almost every step of the way. The script is smart, the direction is stylish, and the casting inspired. How great is it to see Woody Harrelson back in action as a leading man? Woody is an awesome actor particularly adept at comedies, and he's got himself a classic character here as Tallahassee, the Twinkie-lovin' zombie killer in the vein of John Wayne. He's equally matched with Roger Dodger and Adventureland's Jesse Eisenberg as Columbus, who, armed with a boatload of funny lines, makes all of them stick. Zombies certainly factor into the movie, but it's more of a road trip comedy than anything else. Tallahassee and Columbus are joined by Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) as they travel cross country to L.A., looking for the last refuge in America that hasn't been taken over by zombies. Along the way, Columbus (all the characters are named after their home towns) serves as the audience's nervous tour guide to Zombieland, giving a list of rules to survive (Rule No. 1 - Cardio). These rules pop up on screen throughout the movie, and they're cleverly used, sometimes making a funny scene even funnier. Best of all though is a celebrity cameo in the middle of the movie (I won't reveal who), and it's one of the great cameos of all time, both for who the person is and what the movie does with him/her. This segment is an instant classic, and will definitely be a highlight talking point for audience members when the lights go up. If you enjoyed Shaun of the Dead, you're almost certain to get a kick out of Zombieland. The movie is gory, goofy fun, and I can't recommend it highly enough. Nut up or shut up, but whatever you do, go see Zombieland. It's one of the best of the year.

- John

Surrogates (**1/2)

Surrogates. 89 mins. PG-13. Directed by Jonathan Mostow. Written by Michael Ferris & John Brancato. Starring Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, Rosamund Pike, James Cromwell, and Ving Rhames.

Surrogates is a competent but lazy retread of many movies of its ilk that have come before (I, Robot, District 9, The Island, etc.). Clocking in at under 90 minutes, the movie is easily watchable and though director Jonathan Mostow (Breakdown, Terminator 3) manages to stage one or two exciting action sequences, the story is so been there-done that, and Bruce Willis so clearly phones it in, that Surrogates can't ever rise above mediocre. Willis plays a cop in the near future, where everyone lives vicariously through robot, look-alike surrogates. As a result, crime is down and cities are safe and clean, but sterile, and nobody really lives life anymore. This point is hammered home repeatedly throughout as we see the real human characters in horrible condition - as if they haven't taken a shower in over a month. When two people are murdered, Willis' cop character frees himself from his surrogate and tries to solve the murder himself, uncovering far-reaching conspiracies and taking down the whole surrogate system in the process. Surrogates is instantly forgettable and the very definition of disposable entertainment - it's the kind of movie you'd find being broadcast on TBS on a Saturday night. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it's not all that good either.

- John

Fame (*1/2)

Fame. 107 mins. PG. Directed by Kevin Tancharoen. Written by Allison Burnett. Starring Kay Panabaker, Naturi Naughton, Kherrington Payne, Bebe Neuwirth, Kelsey Grammar, Charles S. Dutton, and Megan Mullally.

Look, I love the Step Up movies about as much as a 30 year-old married man should. I'm a huge fan of talent shows like American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance. And I'm a former theater major, so the whole art school thing hits a little close to home. But all that being said, I pretty much hated this remake of Fame. Lacking some of the grit and '80s cheese factor of Alan Parker's original, this new Fame is a toothless High School Musical wannabe, with almost nothing in the way of plot and a noticeable lack of charm (or acting ability) from any of the young performers. The movie is broken into four segments that line up with school years, and tracks a group of artists (dancers, singers, actors) as they struggle to overcome parental prejudice, crusty teachers, and the impossibilities of show business. Some succeed, and some fail, but Fame won't make you care a lick about any of them. Each performer's backstory is thinly sketched, and revels in cliches. For example, one performer's disapproving dad takes his daughter to task for wanting to sing "honkytonk music" (i.e., hip hop) rather than play classical piano, but by the end, he's proud of his daughter's hidden singing talents. There are a bunch of groan-worthy scenes, particularly one improvised sing-along in a school cafeteria and another where a teacher (played by Megan Mullally) sings at karaoke while her students go crazy in the audience. With any luck, this Fame will not live forever and instead die a quick death in theaters before getting lost on DVD.

- John

Pandorum (*)

Pandorum. 108 mins. R. Directed by Christian Alvert. Written by Travis Milloy. Starring Dennis Quaid and Ben Foster.

Pandorum is like a reject SyFy movie of the week - something that should have never seen the light of day, let alone the inside of a movie theater. The story doesn't make a lick of sense and I don't even think I could tell you what it was about even if I tried, but here goes. Dennis Quaid and Ben Foster play space cadets fighting a bunch of Descent-type Gollum creatures as well as their inner demons, in an isolated spaceship set adrift. Or something of that sort. Honestly, I could care less. Pandorum is worthless on almost every single level. Dennis Quaid continues his decline as an actor - whatever goodwill he earned from his comeback in the early '00s is now long gone. Sure, the production design is decent here, but it's pretty hard not to screw that one up given the dark and hopeless space setting. Pandorum reeks of every kind of Alien knockoff film (Event Horizon, etc.) that has come before it. Indeed, the mood and atmosphere are cribbed directly from Alien, and there's an instant overfamiliarty with the movie that sets it off on the wrong foot, never allowing it to recover thereafter. Couple this with an erratic editing style and on-screen action that is chaotic and messy to the point where the audience can't even tell what's happening, and you get what is easily one of the worst movies of this or any other year.

- John

Paranormal Activity (***)

Paranormal Activity. 99 mins. R. Written and Directed by Oren Peli. Starring Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat.

You may not have heard of Paranormal Activity yet, but you soon will. It's one of the more effective scare stories in recent years, shot on a shoestring budget of $11,000. Ever since it premiered at a couple of film festivals in '07 and '08, positive word of mouth has spread, with some proclaiming it one of the scariest movies of all time. I don't think that's true, and if you can cut through all the over-hype about this being the next Blair Witch Project, what you'll find is an inventive, gore-free thriller. The story is simple enough - a young couple who just moved in together feel their house is haunted (doors closing shut, windows opening, etc) so they buy a camera and film their bedroom at night. It's the same shot scattered throughout the film (see the poster at the left) and there's always a ticking clock in the bottom right corner of the screen. Although the movie can get a little repetitive at times (the couple joke around in the daytime; get scared at nighttime), there's no denying that whenever the movie cuts to the nighttime footage of their bedroom, things get creepy and a sense of dread washes over the audience. Credit should go to writer-director Oren Peli, who shows a nice grasp of mounting tension and never goes for the easy scare (save for the money shot at the end, and some unfortunate CGI that follows). I was also impressed with the acting by newbies Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat. These aren't great performances or anything, but they are quite good for the genre. Paranormal Activity is fun to watch with a theater full of people, but I think it might actually be scarier if you avoid seeing it in the theater. Don't read anything more about it. Rent it when it comes on DVD, watch it by yourself at midnight, and you're sure to get the chills.

- John