Monday, January 18, 2010

The Lovely Bones (**)

The Lovely Bones. 139 mins. PG-13. Directed by Peter Jackson. Written by Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens & Peter Jackson. Starring Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Saiorse Ronan, Stanley Tucci, Michael Imperioli, and Susan Sarandon.

It pains me to say, but with this misguided adaptation of Alice Sebold's bestselling book The Lovely Bones, Peter Jackson has jumped the shark. Gone is the brilliant director behind the Oscar-winning Lord of the Rings trilogy, and in his place is some unfocused, tech-heavy hack struggling mightily to juggle six different tones at once. It's almost borderline incompetent at times, but then Jackson will pull off a nifty visual trick and remind you why he was so good in the first place. The movie starts off well enough. Set in mid-1970, The Lovely Bones follows our young protagonist, Susie Salmon (Atonement's Saiorse Ronan), as she navigates first love and a frenetic but loving family life before being brutally raped and murdered by the neighborhood creep (a cartoonish, but effective Stanley Tucci). It's at that point that the movie starts losing it. Much has been made of Jackson's unhealthy focus on the afterlife, rendered in glorious yet totally distracting CGI that pretty much kills any narrative progression or audience investment in its tracks. Susie provides a near-constant voiceover from the grave, but the movie never recovers. Mark Wahlberg stumbles around trying to look tortured and anguished - he doesn't come off well. Rachel Weisz as the absentee mom is mostly MIA, and Susan Sarandon also jumps into a few scenes as an absurd old dame, sent to the Salmon house to brighten things up after Susie's death. Jackson tries his hand at juggling multiple tones - one minute the movie's a broad comedy, the next a police procedural, and the next a moody crime thriller. And that's just in the real world segments of the movie - I can't even tell you what kind of tone Jackson was aiming for with all that CGI afterlife rubbish. I kept being reminded of the Robin Williams crapfest What Dreams May Come during those scenes. When The Lovely Bones finally ended after its 2.5 hour running time, I could only shake my head at how far the mighty had fallen. In one fell swoop, Jackson managed to ruin a relatively good book, while tarnishing his stellar directing reputation. What 1941 is to Spielberg, The Lovely Bones is to Jackson. It's another unpleasant reminder that our film idols are only human.

- John

A Single Man (***1/2)

A Single Man. 99 mins. R. Written and Directed by Tom Ford. Starring Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Matthew Goode, Ginnifer Goodwin, and Nicholas Hoult.

If there's one word to describe A Single Man, it's stylish. That should come as no surprise given that the movie is directed by fashion designer and former Gucci creative director Tom Ford. This is his first film, and already he's established himself as a confident and capable director. Sure, A Single Man is prone to fits of hazy and artsy pretentiousness, but it's easy to overlook when Colin Firth is so darn good in the lead role. You've never seen him like this, so far removed from the bumbling dork in the Bridget Jones films. It's a truly great performance, and he deserves all the awards recognition he's been getting. The movie tracks the course of a single day in 1962. Firth plays George, an English professor mourning the death of his longtime gay lover, and contemplating suicide. Julianne Moore is also quite good as the neighbor and friend who provides comfort to George, that is, when she's not hopelessly crushing on him. Ford does a really nice job of establishing a melancholy mood, and he often allows the movie (and its characters) the time to breathe. As an audience member, the movie just washes over you, much like George himself, in all those naked under-the-water shots of him scattered throughout. There's nothing revolutionary here - just a finely tuned character study, with an Oscar-worthy performance from Firth, and '60s style (there's that word again!) to burn. Well worth your time, if you can find it playing at a theater near you.

- John

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Book of Eli (**1/2)

The Book of Eli. 118 mins. R. Directed by the Hughes Brothers. Written by Gary Whitta. Starring Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis, Ray Winstone, and Michael Gambon.

I'm not quite sure what to make of The Book of Eli, the post-apocalyptic, Bible-thumping bloodbath from co-directing brothers Allen and Albert Hughes. The movie aims to appeal to both the action-loving crowd and Christian moviegoers alike, with one of the most mixed messages I've seen in a movie in quite a while: spread the word of God, but kill every last motherf**ker that gets in your way. Denzel (commanding the screen as always) stars as a loner walkabout named Eli, who's on a mission to deliver the last-known copy of the Bible to an undisclosed location. He wields one helluva blade and sports bad-ass shades, all while walking to the camera in ultra slow motion. He's also quick to kill anybody that gets in his way, which proves to be a lot of people since main baddie (or is he?) Gary Oldman is after the Bible as well and will do anything to get his hands on it. There are some nifty action set pieces in the movie, with the highlight probably coming in the last third when Eli and his companion (Mila Kunis) are holed up in an old cannibal couple's house while Oldman and his cronies fire upon them from outside. In what seems like one continuous take, the camera goes from out of the house to in it and back out again through the bullet holes. Cool stuff. Too bad the movie's so sluggish in between the rousing action scenes. It's nice to have the Hughes Brothers back behind the camera again (they haven't directed a movie since '01's From Hell), but The Book of Eli is a confused and scattershot effort, with one of those twist endings that plays more like "What?!" than "Whoa!" Worth a look on DVD though.

- John

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Leap Year (**)

Leap Year. 97 mins. PG. Directed by Anand Tucker. Written by Deborah Kaplan & Harry Elfont. Starring Amy Adams, Matthew Goode, Adam Scott, and John Lithgow.

Another weekend, another worthless romantic comedy. The genre has taken a beating over the course of the last year, and Leap Year confirms that the trend has continued into 2010. Though it is less insulting to the audience's intellect than other recent rom-coms, it's still painfully predictable and never colors outside the lines. Amy Adams stars as Anna, who impulsively flies to Ireland to propose to her dolt of a boyfriend (Adam Scott) on 2/29, in accordance with Irish tradition. Easier said than done. Beset by travel snafus, and stuck with a rugged local bartender as her ride (Matthew Goode), Anna finds herself questioning which "leap" to make, and which guy to choose. Hmm, I wonder who she chooses. Like most other romantic "comedies," there is very little comedy in Leap Year, which, thankfully, foregoes being crass and obnoxious in favor of a storytelling style that is old-fashioned and modest. Adams and Goode are both likeable performers, but their characters are cliches - hating each other at first, and then liking each other once the ice melts, and then loving each other. Leap Year is not bad per se, but you've seen it all a million times before, so why pay money now? For a movie that strives to live by the maxim, "it's not the destination, but the getting there that's the fun part," Leap Year sure is skimpy on the fun part.

- John

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (**)

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. 122 mins. PG-13. Directed by Terry Gilliam. Written by Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown. Starring Christopher Plummer, Heath Ledger, Verne Troyer, Tom Waits, with Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell.

When Heath Ledger died, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus was almost left incomplete, never to see the light of day. And while I'm glad Terry Gilliam stuck with it, and gave audiences one last chance to see Ledger on screen, I wish he had made a movie more worthy of audiences' time. Gilliam has long been on the decline. He really hasn't made a good film since 12 Monkeys in 1995. Imaginarium does little to change that. Sure, there's Gilliam's trademark visual flights of fancy scattered throughout and there's an absurdity to the drama that remains patently his, but the script for Imaginarium is an impenetrable and confusing mess. It has something to do with the devil (a sly Tom Waits) coming for traveling carnie Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) and his merry band of freaks, though I'm really not sure. Every once in a while, Gilliam will grab your interest with an inventive visual or with one of the star cameos from Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell, all of whom pitched in to complete Ledger's performance. The rest of the time, you're left twiddling your thumbs wondering why you fell for Gilliam's ruse again (oh, that's right - Ledger). Gilliam may have another great film left in him, but he's going to have to pick better scripts. There's only so long he can coast on Brazil acclaim. As for Ledger? The film world will certainly miss him, but do yourself a favor. Make The Dark Knight your last memory of him and avoid this clunker.

- John

Youth in Revolt (**1/2)

Youth in Revolt. 90 mins. R. Directed by Miguel Arteta. Written by Gustin Nash. Starring Michael Cera, Portia Doubleday, Jean Smart, Justin Long, Zach Galifianakis, and Ray Liotta.

Surprise! Michael Cera stretches (slightly) as Francois Dillinger, the brash, crude, and ever-so-French imagined alter ego of Nick Twisp (also Cera, not stretching at all). Cera usually lifts up any project with his impeccable comedic timing, and Youth In Revolt is no exception. As directed by The Good Girl's Miguel Arteta, the movie plays like a Wes Anderson movie without the style. Most of the characters deliver their lines in a straight-faced, archly ironic manner, and we're supposed to laugh at their calm in the face of absurdity. What little there is of a plot concerns Nick falling for dream girl Sheeni Saunders, and trying to lose his virginity. That is what leads him to create Francois, but not much happens after he does. There's nothing major going on here, and the movie knows it. To compensate, Arteta casts a ton of familiar funny faces in small, supporting roles: The Hangover's Zach Galifianakis, Steve Buscemi, Fred Willard, and Justin Long, among others. These are all funny people, and Youth in Revolt has its share of laughs, but the plot is wispy and individual scenes feel unconnected to each other, not part of an organic whole. The movie is also prone to using random animation for certain scenes, if for no other reason than to be quirky and hipster cool. Youth in Revolt is a minor comedy, entertaining enough for the January doldrums but easily forgettable after that.

- John

Daybreakers (***)

Daybreakers. 98 mins. R. Written and Directed by The Spierig Brothers. Starring Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, Isabel Lucas, and Sam Neill.

Alternately sloppy and smart in equal doses, Daybreakers had the potential to be a classic genre film, but settles for just satisfying B-movie fans. If John Carpenter had directed Children of Men, and vampires were added, it would have looked a lot like this. The year is 2019, and vampires have taken over the planet. Human blood is in short supply, and humans themselves are nearly extinct. Hope arrives when a ragtag group of human survivors (is there any other kind?) team up with a kindly vampire scientist (Ethan Hawke), and attempt to find a cure for vampirism while escaping the clutches of evil corporate goons led by the sinister Sam Neill. This is all well and good, and if the movie had taken its time, and set itself up for a trilogy, it would have been much better. But writer-directors the Spierig Brothers (the gory Undead) have a hard time taking things in moderation, and throw everything they can on the screen. Some of it works (the early set-up of the vampire world is creepy, interesting, and well-defined) and some of it doesn't (Willem Dafoe - hamming up a storm), and the tone veers wildly from serious to silly. Daybreakers tries to be a credible allegory for the oil crisis, but every time a head blows up or the blood gushes in ridiculous doses, you just have to laugh and accept it for what it really is: B-movie fun, nothing more, nothing less.

- John

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

2010 Movie Release Guide (through August)

If you're like me, and enjoy planning ahead, here's a trusty little guide to all of 2010's big releases through the end of summer. A few notes: (1) release dates, as always, are subject to change; and (2) I've indicated the must-see flicks in bold.

January 8
Leap Year
Youth in Revolt

January 15
The Book of Eli
The Lovely Bones
The Spy Next Door

January 22
Extraordinary Measures
Tooth Fairy

January 29
Edge of Darkness
When in Rome

February 5
Dear John
District 13: Ultimatum
From Paris with Love
I Love You Phillip Morris

February 12
Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief
Valentine's Day
The Wolfman

February 19
Shutter Island

February 26
Cop Out
The Crazies

March 5
Alice in Wonderland
Brooklyn's Finest

March 12
Green Zone
Our Family Wedding
Remember Me
She's Out of My League

March 19
The Bounty Hunter
Hot Tub Time Machine
The Runaways
Season of the Witch

March 26
Clash of the Titans
How to Train Your Dragon

April 2
Diary of a Wimpy Kid
Furry Vengeance
The Last Song
Mary, Mother of Christ
Repo Men
Tyler Perry's Why Did I get Married Too?

April 9
Date Night
The Losers

April 16
The Back-Up Plan
Death at a Funeral
Piranha 3D

April 22
Disney Nature's Oceans

April 23
Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps

April 30
A Nightmare on Elm Street

May 7
Iron Man 2
Letters to Juliet

May 14
Robin Hood

May 21
Shrek Forever After

May 28
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
Sex and the City 2

June 4

June 11
The A-Team
Get Him to the Greek
The Karate Kid

June 18
Jonah Hex
Toy Story 3

June 25

June 30
The Twilight Saga: Eclipse

July 2
Knight and Day
The Last Airbender

July 7

July 9
Despicable Me

July 16
The Sorcerer's Apprentice

July 23
Dinner for Schmucks

July 30
Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore
Little Fockers

August 6
The Other Guys
Step Up 3D

August 13
Eat, Pray, Love
The Expendables

August 20
The Baster

- John

Friday, January 01, 2010

It's Complicated (***1/2)

It's Complicated. 114 mins. R. Written and Directed by Nancy Meyers. Starring Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin, and John Krasinski.

After gouging on all those holiday sweets and stuffing myself with multiple trips to Hollywood behemoths Sherlock Holmes and Avatar, it was awfully nice to just sit down and bask in the company of the three brilliantly funny actors starring in It's Complicated. This is Nancy Meyers' fifth film as writer-director and if you liked Something's Gotta Give (I did), you're definitely going to dig It's Complicated. Meryl Streep continues her hot streak as Jane, a divorced mother of three who strikes up an affair with her remarried ex-husband while at their son's graduation. Her ex is played by Alec Baldwin, in a vanity-free performance that rivals his week-to-week brilliance on 30 Rock. The two of them have great chemistry together. To add icing on the cake, Steve Martin pops up as Jane's architect and potential new suitor. It's a smaller role, but the casting of Martin proves a great idea. For once, and this is a big thing for a romantic comedy, I had no idea who Jane would end up with in the end. Both Martin and Baldwin are immensely likeable, and viewer loyalty to each character is easily twisted. Like Meyers' other films, It's Complicated is not perfect. Her obsession with awesome homes and perfect kitchens/gardens is veering dangerously close to middle-age lifestyle porn, and is on the verge of parodying itself a la the pigeons in a John Woo movie. The comedy runs a little broad at times (particularly with John Krasinski's nervous son-in-law character), and I often felt guilty laughing, but darn it if Baldwin sitting naked in front of a video chat screen with Martin on the other end isn't funny. It's Complicated is ultimately a refreshing tale of love and sex between fiftysomethings that audiences of any age can relate to and enjoy.

- John