Saturday, December 31, 2011

Birth of a Movie Muller

I've always loved movies, but I can pinpoint exactly when that love became a bit of an obsession down to the date: January 1st, 1982.

It was on the beginning of that new year that I decided to start writing down the titles of all the movies I'd seen, when I'd seen them, and rate them. I had an old ledger book, something I believe I found in a dumpster across the street from our apartment, (a tale for another time), and it seemed a good enough journal for my obsession. (See image of page one above.)

I decided my ratings would be based on a scale of one through five, with one being "Poor" and five being "Great!" Since I was a 12-year-old, my cinematic tastes weren't exactly refined, and I think I ended up giving out a lot more fives than I would (and do) today, but hey. I was a lot more easily entertained then.

Along with the ledger book, I also started to keep a scrap book I called the "Genre Book," in which I'd paste in movie reviews and newspaper ads from what I considered genre films--those being anything that would be categorized as horror, fantasy, or science fiction.

That book fell by the wayside after about two years, but it is with some equal bits pride and embarrassment that I can tell you I kept track of the movies I saw, and rated them in that same ledger book, for 30 years. Including this year, as a matter of fact.

I'm not giving up the practice, mind you. I've just run out of pages in that book, and I figure it's time to move that bit of anal-retentiveness to the computer, most likely in the form of a boring spreadsheet. (I wish there was some kind of template that could duplicate the pages of my beloved ledger book.)

I felt the closing of that ledger book deserved some kind of recognition, and hence, this blog was born.

For the next year I am going to look back at those movies I saw and rated 30 years ago in 1982, and write about them. I'll do my best to remember the experience of those first viewings as best I can--I often have great recall about just what theater I went to see these things in--but I know for others the memory is going to be a bit muddled, and my mullings vague.

But I'm looking forward to this looking backwards, and I hope anyone who stumbles upon this blog will join in on the mullings, since that level of interactivity is something my 12-year-old brain would have only deemed possible in the movies.

Friday, December 23, 2011

A Waste Of A Good Monkey: We Bought a Zoo

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

"We Bought a Zoo," the new film from writer and director Cameron Crowe, is about a newly-widowed father who decides to take his two children into space on a rocket ship to Mars.

Just kidding! It's about a family that buys a zoo. They really buy a zoo. And thus this movie falls into that genre of films wherein all you really need to know about it is right there in the title. Much like "Hotel For Dogs," you know what you're getting into.

Except in this case, you kind of don't. Yes, the story centers on Benjamin Mee, (Matt Damon), a journalist whose wife has recently died, leaving him alone to father his two kids, seven-year-old Rosie, (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), and troubled 14-year-old Dylan, (Colin Ford). Not feeling inspired in his job at a local paper, (no, this doesn't take place in the 70's), he up and quits, and decides to make a fresh start somewhere new, away from noisy neighbors and uninspiring schools.

So, of course when a private zoo somewhere outside of L.A. presents itself, complete with animals, a quaint house, and a staff of quirky characters, Ben jumps at the opportunity, much to the chagrin of his more practical brother, and accountant, Duncan (Thomas Haden Church).

You would think that the introduction of the "zoo" aspect to the movie would result in lots of comedic scenes with kooky animals, and heartwarming moments of bonding with beasts. You would think that. And yet, the animals here are, for the most part, nothing more than background scenery.

On the one had, I kind of appreciate Crowe not taking the easy route by resorting to animal movie cliches. But on the other hand, there is a monkey in this movie, and all it really does is sit on Patrick Fugit's shoulder. That's it. That's a waste of a good monkey!

And that kind of sums up the whole movie. There are good actors in here, but it just feels like a waste of talent. Aside from Damon and Church, Scarlett Johansson is also on hand as the head zoo keeper, and Elle Fanning is her younger cousin, Lily, who runs the zoo restaurant, and develops a complicated but sweet relationship with Dylan. John Michael Higgins is the requisite villain, a government inspector who will either grant the zoo permission to open, or shut them down if they aren't up to code by the beginning of summer.

I've been a huge fan of Crowe's, ever since I read his book "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" when I was in junior high. "Say Anything" created a perfect character in Lloyd Dobler, and "Singles," which I saw when I was the same age as the characters in the movie--and going through a similar phase of flannel clothing and romantic heartbreak--just sealed it: I loved his movies. And yes, I include "Vanilla Sky" in that love.

"Elizabethtown," not so much.

It was with that movie that he seemed to lose his touch. Where in previous films, quirkiness was not a replacement for real character development, in that one, quirk was all there was, and it felt hollow.

At one time, Crowe could be incredibly sincere and sappy, and yet, it worked. (Mock the "You had me at hello" line all you want, but dammit, it killed in Jerry Maguire.) But in "We Bought a Zoo" the emotion feels uncomfortable and mawkish. He holds the camera on his actors for too long during scenes of high drama, giving one the urge to look away until the awkward moment passes. And all the heart-to-heart dialogue, (and there is a lot of it), just doesn't feel genuine. In scene after scene, none of it works.

But I will give him this: He still has a knack for child casting. That kid in "Jerry Maguire" was cute, but he's nothing compared to Maggie Elizabeth Jones, who plays young Rosie here. I have to say she is, without a doubt, the cutest damn kid I've seen in a movie in years, and a natural actress to boot. Pair that girl up with the monkey, and you've got yourself a hit.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Nothing We Haven't Seen Before: The Sitter

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

There are so many things about the comedy "The Sitter" that perplex me, with perhaps the ultimate thing being its very existence. Who read the script and thought it was a good idea? I want names!

To start with, I find its star Jonah Hill a bit perplexing. He has made a consistent career out of playing characters that are just so loathsome and unlikable that I can't imagine anyone saying to themselves, "Hey! Jonah Hill stars in this. I love him!"

Then in the past year, he lost a bunch of weight, and I always find the whole falling-into-line-with-Hollywood-standards-of-attractiveness thing to be kind of sad, be it actor or actress. (Of course, I can't really know why he decided to lose weight, but it wasn't exactly surprising.) And he's been making the talk-show rounds this year, with the releases of "Moneyball," and now "The Sitter," and he's actually a likable and humble guy in real life.

So we have an actor who I kind of feel sorry for, actually kind of enjoy in real life scenarios, yet can not stand to watch on screen.

Pair this with the conundrum that is director David Gordon Green, whose early career is filled with some astoundingly beautiful and heartfelt films, like "George Washington" and "All the Real Girls," but who has recently turned to directing a series of pretty stupid and unmemorable comedies, including "The Pineapple Express" and "Your Highness."

But even those two strikes don't necessarily doom a film to failure. Unfortunately, there is absolutely nothing redeemable about "The Sitter."

Heavier Jonah Hill stars as Noah, a twentysomething slacker who lives with his mother and gives regular oral sex to a girl named Marisa, (Ari Graynor), who he'd like to think is his girlfriend, but who is really just using him for his oral sex skills. (This bit opens the film. Do not think because there are kids in this that it is in any way an appropriate movie for children.)

He gets roped into babysitting a trio of kids because this is the movies, and in the movies, parents will leave their kids with anyone. One of the kids is a high-strung tween boy with anxiety issues. Another is a young girl who wants to be a celebutante, and paints her face with bad make-up while singing dirty rap songs. The third kid is the family's adopted Hispanic son, who enjoys fire and setting off bombs in toilets.

"Girlfriend" Marisa promises Noah a night of sex if he will pick up some coke and meet her at a party, so Noah packs up the kids in the family minivan--despite having a suspended license for a DUI--and the quartet head to Manhattan. Of course, the coke deal goes bad, and eventually Noah and the kids are being chased by a drug dealer played by Sam Rockwell.

It seems like director Green thinks that by being raunchier, "The Sitter" will somehow surpass other more family-friendly babysitter movies like "Adventures In Babysitting" and "Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead." But the movie goes both too far, and not far enough.

The situations Noah and the kids find themselves in are nothing we haven't been seen before. Crazed and eccentric drug dealers who WANT THEIR MONEY BACK; the black gang that hates on the white boy at first, but then respects him; the babysitter who hates kids, but then teaches them valuable life lessons.

There's even an exploding bag of cocaine. At least in "A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas" when the coke exploded, the kid actually got high. "The Sitter" doesn't have such balls.

And because there is nothing really funny here, most of the time one is just left thinking that Noah is nothing but an asshole for putting these kids in such danger. "The Sitter" doesn't go far enough into the realm of dark comedy to be anything but an unpleasant viewing experience about an exceedingly unlikable guy put in charge of some seriously messed-up kids who could all use some attention from a good child psychologist.

My only hope is that this will completely flop, forcing Jonah Hill to take on more roles like his stint in "Moneyball," and director David Gordon Green to either go back to the dramas he does well, or at least find a comedy that is actually, you know, funny.

Friday, December 2, 2011

A Joyful Viewing Experience: The Artist

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

I admit that going into the movie "The Artist," I was a little skeptical. I feared a black-and-white silent movie made by a French director would be a boring slog about the death of REAL Cinema, and was thankful that its running time was a mere 100 minutes long. Indeed, "The Artist" is black-and-white, and silent, (for the most part), and in classic Hollywood's square aspect ratio; it's about as far from a modern 3D epic as one can get.

And thank goodness for that.

I'm glad to say my negative assumptions about it were completely wrong, and I probably haven't had such a joyful viewing experience since my first viewing of "Amelie."

Set in Hollywood during the final years of silent movies, the film focuses on George Valentin, (Jean Dujardin), a Douglas Fairbanks-type action star who acts solely with his eyebrows and a smile that's a mile wide. His sidekick, both on screen and off, is his faithful Jack Russell terrier.

An accidental meeting between him and an ingenue fan, Peppy Miller, (Berenice Bejo), gives the young acting hopeful the break she's been hoping for, and soon her star begins to rise.

Meanwhile, Valentin refuses to believe talkies are anything but a passing fancy, and when the studio boss (John Goodman) axes his next picture, George decides to use his own money and produce and direct the silent epic himself. History can tell us how that works out for him.

Director Michel Hazanavicius's eye for detail is spot-on and there are moments in the movie when it really does look and feel like a classic silent film, albeit a really sharp and good looking one.

At times, it plays more like a film that would have been made during the era, than a film about the era; the goal is not historical accuracy, but historical homage--to the great silents, but also to classic talkies like "Singin' In the Rain" and "A Star Is Born."

And while there is a lot here true film geeks will love, it is not stuffy film fandom wankery. It is, first and foremost, a fun movie.

Of course this is not new territory for director and star, who have also made a pair of spoofs/homages to 1960s spy movies, ("OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies" and "OSS 117 : Lost in Rio").  But "The Artist" is a little less jokey than those films, and has a lot more heart; the two leads bring both brilliant comedy and pathos to their roles. (Dujardin does multiple takes of eyebrow acting that bring the laughs each time, and Bejo's moment of pantomime with a tuxedo jacket is something I'll never forget.)

I imagine for people who have never seen a silent movie, "The Artist" might be a tough sell. But what makes the movie work so well is how it is able to utilize silent movie form in a way that never feels intrusive, or overshadows the film's sentiment. The intertitles are used sparingly, but you are never lost wondering what people are actually saying because the acting and visuals are so strong.

The movie isn't perfect: The music, which, in a silent movie, is going to be ever-present, is a tad generic and annoying, (apart from one sequence which inexplicably uses Bernard Herrmann's "Scene d"Amour" from Hitchcock's "Vertigo"). And the middle part of the film, which takes the story from romantic comedy into the realm of melodrama, is a tad too long.

But even that, in the end, works in the film's favor. Just as I reached the point of frustration with George Valentin's stubbornness and pride, the answer to the question, "Why doesn't he just make a talkie??" is revealed in a brilliant bit of dialogue that both perfectly ends the film, and sums up everything I felt while watching it.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Irksome: My Week With Marilyn

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

"My Week With Marilyn" is based on two books by Colin Clark: "The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me," and "My Week With Marilyn."

The first book is a fly-on-the-wall look at the making of the 1957 film "The Prince and the Showgirl," during which author Colin Clark was a "third assistant director," but was really just Sir Laurence Olivier's on-set gofer. It takes a very detailed look into the day-to-day, on-the-set production of what turned out to be a pretty mediocre movie.

I believe most of this book is true because I can see no reason why anyone would willfully make up something that is, for the most part, so boring.

As for the later book, which details his alleged week alone with Marilyn as they frolicked in the English countryside? Complete and utter fabrication. You just have to read both to see that one feels quite real (and mundane), while the other reads like the heated dream of an aging Englishman.

Aside from the fact that the movie is being sold as "based on a true story," it might not seem like whether the story is truth or fiction would matter, as almost all biographical tales have to be taken with some grains of salt. But in this case I find it irksome because what is being presented as truth is really just another male fantasy about "Marilyn Monroe," sex icon; broken little girl; man-eater; and drugged-up movie star.

The movie opens with Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) at the movies, watching Marilyn Monroe singing "When Love Goes Wrong" and "Heat Wave," but not in a scene reproduced from any actual movie. This is pure fantasy, and is our first introduction to Michelle Williams's Monroe, and it is an unfortunate one. Her voice is adequate enough, but her physicality is all wrong. She looks like she has a pillow shoved up her dress to replicate Monroe's ample derriere, and she comes off as a bad drag queen.

This opening stacks the deck against Williams, and she has to do a lot of work to erase that unfortunate beginning from our minds. I'm glad to say she does, for the most part, do that, (but then director Simon Curtis goes and ruins it all again by ending the film with another bad musical number).

The majority of the film takes place during the production of "The Prince and the Showgirl," the movie version of the play "The Sleeping Prince," in which Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) had starred with his wife, Vivien Leigh, (played by Julia Ormand here). Monroe has just started her own production company, and hopes working with the world's greatest actor will help Hollywood, and the world, take her more seriously as an actress. Olivier, on the other hand, is getting older, and hopes working with the world's biggest sex symbol will help him recapture his youth and a younger market share.

But they clash on the set. Olivier doesn't take to Monroe's "method" style of acting, or the constant presence of her acting coach, Paula Strasberg, (Zoë Wanamaker), and Monroe, who suffered from insecurities and stage fright, is constantly late to the set, flubbing her lines, or never showing up at all.

This, of course, drives Olivier insane. But as his co-star Dame Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench) points out, when Monroe does get it right, it's magic, and when she's on screen, no one can look at anyone else. (And she's right; Monroe is the only reason to watch that movie.)

Off the set, Monroe also clashes with her new husband, Arthur Miller, (inexplicably played by Dougray Scott), and her business partner, Milton Greene, (Dominic Cooper; I guess Williams was one of the only Americans allowed on set?), and Olivier assigns young Colin to keep an eye on Marilyn, and rein her in, if he can. Eventually they develop an affection for each other, much to the chagrin of Lucy, the young costume girl Clark is dating, (played by Emma Watson, in a part that is pretty pointless).

Soon Colin and Marilyn are escaping to the English countryside, skinny dipping, sharing a bed, and confessing intimate secrets to each other. It's a lovely fantasy, I suppose.

There's much talk of an Oscar nomination for Williams, though I think that's being a little generous. Now, I don't fault the casting of Michele Williams. Marilyn Monroe had a unique star quality that just can't be replicated. (If it could be, we wouldn't still be talking about her today.) And while Williams doesn't really look like her, (she's too skinny; too modern), she is a good actress, and perhaps that is the more important casting decision. (I'm sure there are plenty of actresses out there who look more like Marilyn, and who can do an uncanny impersonation, but impersonation and solid acting don't always go hand-in-hand.)

But the movie is, really, pretty standard stuff, and the screenplay Williams has to work from doesn't rise above the many Marilyn cliches we've seen in countless biopics before. She does the best that she can, but even Williams at her best can't convey the absolute magic Marilyn was able to project on screen in even her worst movies. Monroe could make a movie as bad as "The Prince and the Showgirl" watchable, but Williams can't save "My Week With Marilyn."

Friday, November 11, 2011

Man's Inhumanity To Man: Into the Abyss

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

I'm a sucker for a good true crime story, and have probably watched more episodes of "48 Hours Mystery" and "Dateline" than would be considered healthy. But even better than shows like those is a good true crime feature film. "The Thin Blue Line" and "Paradise Lost" are two movies that play out even better than the best fiction, and went on to actually change history and the lives of its subjects.

Werner Herzog's "Into the Abyss" is an odd sort of true crime documentary, less interested in investigating the guilt or innocence of its subjects than it is in documenting the effects a truly thoughtless crime has on everyone involved, from the perpetrators and the cops who catch them, to the victims' families, and almost everyone in between.

The crime in question was committed in 2001 by Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, two teenagers in Conroe, Texas, a town outside of Houston. Their original intent was to spend the night at a friend's house and then steal his mother's Camaro while everyone was asleep. Things didn't go as planned, and by the end of the evening, a 50-year-old mother and two teenage boys were dead.

All for a Camaro.

The details of the crime are laid out pretty graphically via a lot of crime scene footage shot by the police, although just how the whole night played out isn't explained in the clearest of ways.

Michael Perry eventually got the death penalty and Jason Burkett got a life sentence, and Herzog interviews both of them in jail, Perry a mere eight days before he was scheduled for execution. Both of them deny their guilt, basically blaming the other for the ultimate crime.

Why Burkett got off with a life sentence is made pretty clear. His father--who is also in jail--spoke at his sentencing, pleading for his son's life. That won over the jury. It is alluded to that Perry's family wasn't as supportive, but other than that, Herzog doesn't go into just why Perry ended up on death row while his friend did not. And this is a little frustrating.

Again, Herzog's intent here isn't really to document a crime, or argue for the guilt or innocence of the people involved, but the imbalance in the narrative, with much more focus on Burkett than on Perry, harms the film.

Some of the other subjects interviewed by Herzog--who never appears on camera, and whose voice is only heard when asking his subjects questions--include members of the victims' families; a death row pastor; a former death row guard; friends of the victims and killers; and, most spooky of all, a woman who ended up marrying Jason Burkett from behind bars.

Herzog gets his opinion about the death penalty out of the way quickly, stating that he's against it, but that doesn't mean he has to like the person who's on death row, so the movie isn't really an "issue film" either. Still, it would be hard to come away from a viewing feeling really positive about the state of capital punishment in this country.

In fact, it's hard to come away from "Into the Abyss" feeling positive about much of anything; it's pretty depressing. Yet, the film is subtitled "A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life," and some glimmers of hope do emerge. Ultimately, life itself, both as a force of nature, (random encounters with wildlife dramatically affect some of the subjects in the film), and in the very human will to survive, prevails, even in the face of man's--and the law's--inhumanity to man.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Death, Drugs, And Dummies: A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

I saw "A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas" while sick and slightly feverish, and I can only think this helped the viewing experience. Of course, the ideal viewing experience would involve seeing it totally stoned, and any theater manager who calls the cops or kicks someone out for firing up once the lights go down is obviously a Scrooge who hates Christmas. And possibly America.

It's been a few years since "Harold and Kumar Escape Guantanamo Bay," and there has been a rift in the toasted duo's friendship. Harold (John Cho) is now a rich Wall Street executive trying to avoid the egg-tossing protesters outside his office so he can get home to his hot Latina wife (Paula Garcés) and welcome her father home for Christmas. Her father is played by Danny Trejo, and that, to me, is this 3D movie's best joke: Is there any actor whose face you'd like to see less in 3D than Danny Trejo's?

Meanwhile, Kumar (Kal Penn) is a perpetually stoned med school drop-out loser who spends his days pining after an ex-girlfriend and smoking lots of weed purchased from the local mall Santa (played by Patton Oswalt). A mysterious box left at his front door leads him to a reunion with Harold, and their ultimate Christmas Eve quest to replace Harold's perfect pine Christmas tree, which had been lovingly grown for 12 years by his terrifying father-in-law, but was accidentally burned down by Kumar.

The film plays out as you would expect a "Harold and Kumar" movie to, with the duo facing death, drugs, and dummies in the course of a very long evening. I didn't exactly laugh my ass off, but I did have the stupid grin you'd associate with someone stoned out of their minds through most of the movie's 90 minute running time.

And I did genuinely laugh at most of the moments involving Harold's friend Todd (Thomas Lennon) and his three-year-old daughter, who ends up ingesting more drugs than Harold and Kumar in all three movies combined. If you find the thought of a child getting high on pot, coke, and ecstasy to be in bad taste, well, you aren't seriously thinking about seeing a "Harold and Kumar" movie, are you?

You should also probably avoid this movie if the sight of dicks, boobs, Santa with a gaping head wound, or racist jokes of all stripes offend you. Because you're gonna get all that, and it's all going to be flying right at your face via some impressive 3D effects. (I tend to hate 3D, but there is absolutely no reason to see this movie unless you see it in 3D. You can practically get a contact high from all that hovering CG smoke.)

Neil Patrick Harris, of course, returns, playing "himself," (if you thought he died in the last one, you obviously left before the credits were over), and this time the jokes centered around his sexuality fall a little flat. Thankfully, the ridiculous musical Christmas number he's a part of makes up for it.

And yes, November 4th is too early for a Christmas movie to come out. It's too early for stores to be stocking their Christmas loot, it's too early for lights to be put on those outdoor trees, and it's too early for anyone to have to be worrying about a holiday that is basically two months away. It's enough to drive someone to heavy drug use.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Spookily Prescient: In Time

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

"In Time," Andrew Niccol's latest science fiction thriller, (he also wrote and directed "Gattaca" and "S1m0ne"), is set in a future where people have been genetically engineered to stop aging at 25, and time has replaced money as the new currency. Once someone hits 25, the neon clock on their forearm starts counting down, and they have one more year to live, unless they can earn, inherit, borrow, or steal more time.

The rich have hundreds of years on their clocks, while the rest--the 99%--live day-by-day, hour-by-hour, and minute-by-minute. Being poor means having about an hour left on your clock, and once someone's clock runs out, they drop dead.

Justin Timberlake stars as Will Salas, a factory worker in a "ghetto" called Dayton. He and his 50-year-old mother, (played by Olivia Wilde, see how that works?), live in a rundown apartment, working crappy jobs in order to live. Literally. In their town, every second counts, so there's no time to idly chat over coffee in the morning. (Literally.) (And if you think those "literallys" are annoying, prepare yourself. The time puns run aplenty in the movie.)

Their world appears to be a Marxian nightmare come to life, as workers have no choice but to slave for the wages set by the corporation overlords, because to not work is to die. Literally.

Will meets and saves the life of a man (Matt Bomer) over 100 years old, with over 100 years left on his clock--in other words, a really, really rich man. But this guy has had enough of living, and, in a suicidal gesture, gives all his time to Will. (In this world people can borrow or lend time by clasping hands. It's best not to think too hard about it.) Will, with all this extra time on his hands, (LITERALLY), decides to try and shake up the system, buying his way into the rich city of New Greenwich, to see how the better 1% lives.

The time-is-money thing is a genuinely intriguing concept, and for the first 45 minutes or so, the movie really works. It certainly fed into my inherent anxieties about time. (I am always watching the clock, worried I will be late to something, or run out of time before I need to get something done). So when two characters race towards each other with what could be their final minutes of living ticking down on their armclocks, I was genuinely tense.

But while the movie's political metaphor is spookily prescient, (I couldn't think of a better time for this movie to open, what with the Occupy movement spreading, and getting more heated), it's also disappointingly muddled, and devolves into a rather rote Bonnie and Clyde-meets-Robin Hood story, with Will kidnapping Sylvia, (Amanda Seyfried), the daughter of one of the world's richest men, (played by Pete Campbell Vincent Kartheiser). She, of course, falls in love with Will, and then joins in on his plan to crash the system, by robbing the rich and giving to the poor.

It's also at this point that it becomes another movie in which the hero is constantly running somewhere, while dragging his high-heeled girlfriend behind him. And she's not the only thing dragging: For a movie all about the sanctity of time, it really drags on, clocking in at almost two hours. (No doubt some will come out demanding those two hours of their lives back.)

Plot threads are brought up, but never fleshed out, (apparently Will's father was some kind of radical, back in the day, though we never really learn much more than that fact), and the addition of a gangster--or "Minute Man"--who robs and kills people for their time is pretty unnecessary, especially since Will's already got a cop--or "Time Keeper," (coolly played by Cillian Murphy), on his tail.

Ultimately, the movie isn't strong enough to get past all the questions its concept brings up, and that can get pretty distracting. To wit: Why is everyone riding around in 1960's and '70s muscle cars? Is it because those hunks of steal are thought to be safer, and no one wants to risk death by car crash? If everyone stops aging at 25, does that mean people younger than 25 are more desirable? Is 12 the new 21? How come there aren't any cell phones? Is it because no one wants to get (....literally) locked in to a two year contract with a crappy service provider?

And the biggest question of all: While Justin Timberlake is perfectly adequate in the role, (and, frankly, does the best he can with some really clunky and obvious dialogue), when the hell is he going to take a break from this acting thing and make another damn record?

Time's a wasting!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Unfortunately, No One Goes Crazy In A Shed: The Thing

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

When I first heard an updated version of "The Thing" was in the works, I was worried. When I heard it was going to be both a remake and a prequel, I was both worried and pissed. We don't need any more remakes of great movies in the world. Let's move on to remaking crappy movies!

But I was pleased to see that, in terms of story, "The Thing" really is a direct prequel to the 1982 film, (which, I guess, should now officially be known as "John Carpenter's The Thing,"--itself an adaptation of Howard Hawks' 1951 "The Thing From Another World"--since this prequel has nothing in the title suggesting it is anything but a remake). Unfortunately, in terms of plot, it follows many of the same scenarios seen in Carpenter's film, and that's where the movie falters.

There were some questions I had going into "The Thing," like, is the movie going to be entirely in Norwegian? The burnt-out station in the '82 film was filled with Norwegians, and the guy MacReady and his crew have the shoot-out with didn't speak English.

That little plot point is dealt with by placing an American paleontologist, Kate, (played by "Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World"'s Mary Elizabeth Winstead), in the center of that Norwegian station, thus forcing the Norwegians to speak English (most of the time). But, of course, there's one guy on the team who can only speak Norwegian. (You can guess what happens to him.)

Kate is brought to Antarctica after the Norwegian team discovers a flying saucer buried under hundreds of thousands of years worth of ice, and a creature frozen several yards away. She's got experience extracting frozen creatures from ice, although what she's dealt with in the past have been things of Earthly origin.

The scientist who recruits her is a shifty guy named Halvorson, (Ulrich Thomsen), and he decides they should take a tissue sample before carting the frozen creature back to civilization. This turns out to be a colossally bad idea.

Before long the alien thaws, escapes, and starts wreaking havoc, and the movie proceeds to play out much like the Carpenter and Hawks films (and the source material, the novella "Who Goes There") did, with the realization that this creature is a mimic, and it's possible no one is who they say they are.

We've come a long way from the creature shop effects or 1982, but that's not necessarily a good thing. I'll always believe that things (no pun intended) that actually physically exist in the world are going to produce a more visceral reaction than things (sorry!) created in a computer. And while credit should to be given to director Matthijs van Heijningen for using some actual creature props here, there's still too much CG, and none of the monster revelations produces the kind of "You've got to be fucking kidding!" reaction elicited in Carpenter's film. The Thing in this film just isn't that creative.

This Thing also doesn't seem that smart. Perhaps by the time it gets to the American camp it has learned a thing or two, but here, it manages to reveal itself at really bad times, and you don't really understand if its intention is to mimic people and take over the world, or just get back to its spaceship and get the hell out of there.

But this The Thing does do a few things right. It's a nice tribute to the 1951 version to have a female scientist amongst the players, and the test she comes up with to determine alien from human is clever. The movie is also very reverential to the 1982 film, and fans will be happy to see the mysteries seen in that burnt-out station are, for the most part, explained here. (And don't leave the second the credits start rolling. You'll be sorry.)

But, on the other hand, if you've seen the 1982 film, you'll recognize, beat for beat, the plot points here. Those people who are unaccounted for for periods of time--are they human? The person knocking at the door--is he human? The first attempt at creating a blood test is thwarted--just like in the Carpenter film--and a make-shift alternative is done instead.

But what this one does not take from the '82 version is any real sense of paranoia. "John Carpenter's The Thing" was all about paranoia, and when you found out a character you actually kind of liked was, in fact, the Thing, it stung.

In this one, there's a complete failure of character development for the majority of the guys in that station. They're all bearded, most speak Norwegian, and it's virtually impossible to tell most of them apart. Why are you going to care if someone's the Thing if you don't even know who the hell that guy was to begin with? In other words, there's no Wilford Brimley going crazy in a shed here.

Ultimately, "The Thing" is able to follow the one rule any sequel or prequel should, which is: don't fuck with the original. Fans of the 1982 film will probably have fun, but for anyone who hasn't seen that one, and chooses to see this one instead, well, you're missing out on the better Thing.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Crushing of Hope: The Ides of March

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Putting both George Clooney and Ryan Gosling into the same movie seems like an almost comical abundance of riches, but within the context of the political drama "The Ides of March," it makes a lot of sense.

Gosling plays Stephen Meyers, press secretary to Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris, (Clooney), who is running for the Democratic presidential bid. No year is given, although it feels a bit like a time pre-Obama. The focus here is the Democratic campaign, and Republicans get only passing mention.

Clooney the man is a staunch Democrat, and is very vocal about the causes he believes in. Of course, this has led to some call for him to run for office, and the character he plays here is, basically, what one would expect Clooney-as-presidential-hopeful to be: Unabashedly liberal and progressive, popular, charming, and swoon-worthily attractive.

So, it makes sense that such a candidate would have an equally charming and attractive press secretary. Gosling's Stephen is the face of the campaign, while the polar-opposite Phillip Seymour Hoffman is the campaign manager, Paul Zara, the man behind the scenes.

The story finds them in Ohio for the primary, with Morris up against an older and more middle-of-the-road candidate in a campaign run by Tom Duffy, a veteran manager played by Paul Giametti. Duffy sees the fire and ambition in Stephen, and convinced his candidate has the nomination in the bag, attempts to woo Stephen over to the winning team.

Except Stephen is a true believer, working for Morris not just because he thinks he will win, but because he believes he should win. New York Times writer Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei), who is a friendly if constant presence on the campaign, warns Stephen that he is only setting himself up for disappointment, as politicians will, inevitably, fall far below the pedestals you place them on.

Eventually, Stephen's meeting with the opposing side, the much-needed endorsement of a governor his candidate can't stand, and a comely young intern (played by Evan Rachel Wood), threaten to topple the entire campaign, and it is in the playing out of these dilemmas that the movie reveals its ultimately cynical truth.

I haven't been a big fan of political dramas in the past. I find real-life politics so ridiculous, rage-inducing, and sad that I tend to stay away from fictional accounts as entertainment since they so often just pale in comparison to the insanity of real life. "Ides" suffers a bit from that problem. At many times throughout the film I found myself thinking what we are actually facing as a country, and the trials facing the current administration, are more dramatic and intriguing than anything a writer could come up with. And the movie's placement in a world free of Obama and Tea Parties is kind of a distraction.

But Clooney the director is able to build up the suspense, and present what backstage politics may be like in an entirely believable way. What's missing here is a bit of levity. Clooney the man is very funny, and that sense of humor has found its way into almost all of the movies he's directed. Apart from the film's terrific opening, in which Gosling riffs at a debate sound check, there is not much humor, or a feeling of off-the-cuffness, to be found here, and as a result, much of the movie feels very stiff.

The film is based, for the most part, on a play called "Farragut North," and some of that theatricality remains. Most of the action takes place in hotel rooms, campaign offices, buses, and private jets, giving the proceedings the claustrophobic feeling that is probably inherent in any campaign. (You may be traveling the country, but you're really only seeing the insides of boring buildings in the process.) This basis in theater also means it is an actor's film; the movie is its dialogue and actors, and thankfully the cast here is outstanding all around.

Ryan Gosling isn't a showy actor, and I think he gets guff for that, with some critics equating his delivery to mere mumbling in the Brando vein. But I think it's much harder to emote internal anger than it is to scream and throw things, and by the end of "Ides" Gosling's Stephen is full to the brim with suppressed rage. The movie is nicely bookended with scenes featuring close-ups of Gosling, and his performance in both is a picture perfect portrait of the crushing of hope.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Statham Leaves His Shirt On: Killer Elite

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Last week saw the opening of a remake of a Sam Peckinpah movie called "Straw Dogs." This week we have a movie with the same title as a Sam Peckinpah movie, but it's not a remake. Just so we have that clear.

But I do think this "Killer Elite" may have something in common with that "Straw Dogs" remake: They're both not very good.

Perhaps just knowing that the movie is about an assassin played by Jason Statham tells you enough to know it's probably crap. But I happen to like a lot of movies in which Jason Statham plays an assassin, (or a thief, or a guy who drives a car), so I went in with an open mind. (And a desire to see Statham take of his shirt and possibly kill someone with it.)

My friends: He leaves his shirt on in the entire movie. That's reason enough to stay the hell away.

Oh sure. Knowing that both Robert De Niro and Clive Owen are in it probably makes it sound like this movie is a classier affair, something that wouldn't pander to an audience hoping for shirtless Statham. It's very obvious the movie wants to be considered important and serious, so it avoids jumping full throttle into mindless action and violence. But the thing is, it doesn't succeed in being a serious movie, so it fails at both.

Supposedly based on a true story that took place in the early 1980s, Statham stars as Danny Bryce, an assassin who has retired from the job, until his friend and former comrade, Hunter, (Robert De Niro), is taken hostage by a dying sheik who seeks to avenge the deaths of his three sons at the hands of British forces during a war in Oman. In order to free Hunter, Danny must kill the three former soldiers, while making their deaths look like accidents, and not before obtaining taped confessions.

Of course, in real life, these assassinations occurred over a 17-year period. In the movie, it takes about a month.

The assassination rules are actually a good set-up, as there's potential for fun in seeing how Danny and his team will figure out just how to kill three men "accidentally." Unfortunately, after the first killing, their plans get pretty preposterous, and how Danny goes about making them happen is just laughable. (Don't even get me started with the whole ridiculous scene in a hospital, apparently the only one in all of London.)

Clive Owen plays a member of a secret government operation called the Feather Men, and is wise to Danny's plan and is dead set on stopping him, even as his fellow Feather Men seem unconcerned. He and Statham have a couple of bone-crushing fights, but director Gary McKendry uses annoying shaky-cam camera work, and rapid cutting, so that you never really get a sense of who's getting punched in the face by who; (perhaps better to hide the stunt doubles with).

There's some last minute double-crossing, and "surprises" that really don't make much sense and just add needless complications (and minutes) to the film. There's also the requisite helpless girlfriend back home, (Yvonne Strahovski from TV's "Chuck"), that Danny drags halfway across the world to help letting her wander aimlessly around the dark streets of Paris.

I've long maintained that Jason Statham is the Jean-Claude Van Damme of our generation, but with a slight difference. Every now and then he will make a movie that is actually kind of serious. Even something to be respected.

I have a feeling he thought "Killer Elite" would be one of those movies, but unfortunately, it doesn't come close.

Making Spitting Chaw Into A Dixie Cup Look Sexy: Moneyball

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

"Moneyball," based on the book by Michael Lewis, tells the story of A's General Manager Billy Beane, the team's record-breaking 2002 season, and how a former ball player and a recent Harvard economics graduate were able to revolutionize the game by throwing out the old rules about baseball drafting and scouting, in favor of acquisitions based purely on statistics. And not just the usual stats--instead, they decide the most important stat is a player's on base percentage, regardless of his age, ERA, or, most importantly, price.

Now, if all of this sounds a little dry, at times, it is. I can't imagine someone who actively loathes baseball being entertained by this movie. Add a disdain for math and stats to that mix, and this is probably not the film for you.

A's fans are likely going to flock to it, although I also wonder how entertaining it will be for them. If they're fans, they certainly know how the 2002 season ended, thus negating the only real excitement and suspense the movie really has.

I grew up in San Francisco, and aside from a brief bit of "Billyball" mania in the early 80's, (I was a kid; I didn't know any better), I have been a Giants fan, and a Giants fan only.

Thus, I really knew shit-all about the A's and their record during the early part of the past decade. As such, I was able to be surprised by the movie's ending; I'm not sure A's fans will be quite as enthralled. (But then again, sports fans can be an odd lot, getting entertainment from re-watching classic games over and over.)

Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, and he's...well, he's Brad Pitt. He's good looking; he's got easy charm paired with moments of locker room rage; and he even makes spitting chaw into a Dixie cup look sexy.

The scenes between him and the old-school scouts, the A's manager (a perpetually pissed off Philip Seymour Hoffman), and Peter, the wunderkind stats guy (Jonah Hill), are great. That, and some exciting game scenes, are really enough to sustain the movie.

Which makes it a double shame that the filmmakers decided to shove in a story about Beane's ex-wife, (played by Robin Wright), and his pre-teen daughter, (played by Kerris Dorsey). Whenever that girl picks up a guitar and sings, (and she does it more than once), the movie screeches to a grinding halt.

I don't know if that storyline is in there to try and appease the non-baseball fans in the audience, (read: ladies), but it is unnecessary, and it doesn't work. This is a movie about the business of baseball, and that's enough.

Steven Soderbergh was originally set to direct "Moneyball," and I think he really would have been better suited than director Bennett Miller, who doesn't have Soderbergh's gift for non-linear storytelling and plot momentum. Large chunks of the baseball season just seem to pass unnoticed in the movie, and the flashbacks about Beane's early career as a high school draft pick with the Mets don't blend well into the narrative.

Aaron Sorkin had a hand in the final version of the screenplay, and there's plenty of his patented walking-and-talking dialogue. And much like he was able to do with "The Social Network" and its tale of nerdy Web site building, Sorkin is able to make something as dry as baseball stats pretty exciting, and when the movie sticks to that, it's great fun.

Finally, how pissed off must Paul DePodesta be? Imagine it. You find out the book in which you are a major character is being turned into a big Hollywood movie. Your former boss Billy Beane is being played by Brad Pitt! And you are being played by...Jonah Hill?!

OK, fine, he's got a different name in the movie, and is probably more of an amalgam of people than actually Paul Podesta. But still. That's got to be a bigger ego blow than leading the Dodgers into their worst season in over 10 years.

Friday, September 16, 2011

I Don't Know Why You'd See This: I Don't Know How She Does It

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Have you noticed that when it comes to Sarah Jessica Parker, there's a bit of a gender divide? I mean, in terms of who likes her. Women loved "Sex and the City," and plenty of them were self-identified "Carries." Meanwhile, a lot of men seem to be flummoxed by her fame and popularity, deeming her a "horse face," and questioning why someone like her would grace the covers of so many magazines. Often, they just seem downright pissed off at her. Like, "How dare someone not conventionally beautiful be pushed in front of my face every where I go?"

So, I don't think many men will be rushing out to see "I Don't Know How She Does It" this weekend. But I also can't imagine why anyone else would rush out to see it either, because it's a bad, bad movie.

SJP plays Kate Reddy, a married mother of two--a six-year old girl, and a two-year-old boy--and an investment banker with a large Boston firm. Her job requires her to travel a lot, but she has an architect husband, (Greg Kinnear), who is able to stay at home much of the time, not to mention a full-time nanny.

So, of course, she feels a tremendous amount of guilt about not being home enough.

That's the film's gimmick: That a working mother who apparently has it all really doesn't, because no matter how much time she gives to her kids and her family, they are going to complain about it, and her devotion to her job is just going to make her feel guilty about the time she isn't with them.

Now, I don't know how true that sentiment may be. I have no kids, and the toughest planning I have to do on a daily basis involves deciding what time I should take a nap if I wake up at noon. (Kidding! Figuring out where to go eat every night is a torturous decision, too!) But I have a feeling that this movie is just going to offend mothers out there who really have no choice but to work. Guilt has a harder time coming into play when NOT working would mean not feeding your kids at all.

I suppose one could look past the annoying sociological implications presented in the film if it were actually funny or entertaining. But it's not. It's full of Kate's annoying voiceovers, (which just makes one think of "Sex and the City," which was full of SJP's voiceovers, but was, for all its faults, still funny), and characters talking to the camera, like they're in some kind of documentary. (This is a conceit that "SATC" used too, in its early seasons, but wisely dropped.)

Nothing any of these talking heads says is ever funny, which is shame because both Busy Phillips, (who plays a bitchy stay-at-home powermom), and Olivia Munn, (who plays Kate's extremely up-tight and driven junior co-worker), are in the movie, and they are both very funny actresses. Every time they came on screen I just found myself praying that they'd have something funny to say. Instead their quips and "humorous" comments land with almost audible thuds.

Every comedic bit in this movie is cliched and predictable. When Kate gets two emails simultaneously from a friend and a high-powered executive, you know she's going to send her replies to the wrong people. When she scratches her head before a big meeting, you know it's going to be something more than an itch. When the name of the man she will be working closely with for the next few months is revealed to be Jack Abelhammer, you know that's not going to pass without comment.

Pierce Brosnan plays Abelhammer, and he's his usual suave, smooth, and charming self. Which makes it that much more unbelievable when he ends up falling for the frazzled and perpetually stained Kate. But that's not even the movie's biggest "You have got to be kidding me!" moment. (I'm going to give away part of the ending here, because I don't give a damn about spoiling this crap movie for anyone. So if you care about such things, spoiler alert! Stop reading now.)

Despite finding him attractive, despite having more chemistry with him than with her husband, and despite the fact that she should obviously be with a man who understands and respects the passion she has for her career, she rebuffs Jack's proclamation of love, and instead suggests he go out with her best friend. (A single mom played well by Christina Hendricks, although, again, she is given nothing to work with.)

It's not so much the rebuffing that gets me--I understand, she's devoted to her family, yadda yadda--as it is the casual suggestion that he just fuck her best friend instead. And they all go along with it!

"So, you're saying he's actually madly in love with you, but you don't want him, so he should just settle for me instead? Sounds AWESOME! Sign me up!"-- No One's Best Friend.

In the end, I couldn't help but be reminded of the 1987 flick "Baby Boom," which was about motherhood, and working, and the struggle to do both. It was also kind of offensive in its implications about job success and maternal instincts, but it was something "I Don't Know How She Does It" isn't, and that's funny. Why don't you just do yourself a favor and hook up with watch that instead.

Friday, September 9, 2011

That Wet Spot On The Hand Rail Of A Muni Bus: Contagion

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Stephen Soderbergh's "Contagion" begins with a cough, and ends with a handshake, but those two things are enough to bring about the end of humanity.

There are few things I love more than a good disease and end-of-the-world story. When I was a kid, I read Stephen King's "The Stand" in one weekend, and a few years later, read it again, in its "uncut" edition. My favorite book last year was "The Passage," and I read "The Coming Plague" back in the '90s like it was a potboiler, unable to put it down. (The chapter on Legionnaire's Disease? Riveting.)

"Contagion" is more "Coming Plague" than it is "The Stand," and is more interested in procedure than it is character development, but this focus doesn't make it any less engrossing.

That opening cough belongs to Gwyneth Paltrow's Beth, a businesswoman on a layover in Chicago, on her way home from a trip to Hong Kong, whom we meet in a scene titled "Day 2." A bowl of peanuts at an airport bar and a credit card transaction continue a chain of transmission that started at a Hong Kong casino, and before long Beth is deemed patient zero, and the first American victim of a deadly new virus. (This is not a spoiler, as anyone who has seen a trailer has seen Paltrow die, to which I might add: any movie featuring the death of Gwyneth Paltrow can't be all bad.)

From here on we gradually meet the film's large number of players. They include Matt Damon, as Beth's widower; Laurence Fishburne, as a doctor at Atlanta's Centers for Disease Control; Kate Winslet as his deputy in the field, expounding such facts as the average person touches his or her face 2,000 times a day; Marion Cotillard as a World Health Organization epidemiologist who must trace the origin of transmission like a detective; Jennifer Ehle as the scientist in search of a vaccine; and Jude Law as a San Francisco blogger who posts an early (literal?) viral video on his blog, and then proceeds to fuel the flames of rumor and paranoia to all who will listen.

And those are just the major players in a much larger cast that covers several continents. Soderbergh has tackled this kind of sprawling story before, with the Oscar-nominated "Traffic," and he manages to balance the players and stories just as well here. He understands how to use movie shorthand (such as a woman answering a cell phone with her left hand, showing a wedding ring, while the man she is talking to mentions "safe" phone numbers to call him on), and keeps the pace moving relentlessly forward, complete with an ever-present soundtrack that brings to mind John Carpenter-penned horror movie scores.

The fact that the film is filled with so many familiar faces certainly helps to keep characters and the places they're in straight in the viewer's mind, but the two-hour running time doesn't leave one much time to form a lot of empathy towards those characters. Paltrow isn't the only top-billed star to bite it in this movie, and the deaths happen quickly, and without much fanfare.

But perhaps that's the point. When a virus is is sweeping the globe, threatening to kill one in every four people it attacks, there's little time for funerals, grieving, or tears.

Aside from the virus itself, there isn't really a villain to root against in "Contagion," but Jude Law's blogger Krumwiede comes pretty close. He's shown to be more interested in his "12 million unique visitors" than he is in facts, and spreads rumors that prove to be just as potentially harmful as the virus itself (and travel just as quickly).

(Also, if that weren't enough to make him the bad guy, Soderbergh also slaps some ugly teeth into Law's pretty boy mug. Or maybe it's just because he assumes bloggers can't afford dental?)

While the film has a classic disaster movie set-up, (with a few aspects of the zombie genre thrown in), Soderbergh manages to convey the feeling of global impact (rioting inevitably breaks out in major cities), while maintaining a more intimate feeling of intensity (barricading oneself in one's home as a means of protection from the virus doesn't do much good against people with guns).

But ultimately, "Contagion" is a procedural drama as horror movie, with heroes (and heroines) emerging from behind microscopes, and the killer lingering in that wet spot on the hand rail of a Muni bus. (Lord help you if you see the movie in a theater with a cougher. THAT would certainly be a more immersive experiences than 3D!)

While it's true that we don't learn that much about most of the characters in the movie, the movie still packs an emotional wallop at the end, with a brief moment of connection, sorrow, and hope amongst a trio of survivors, and a coda that brilliantly brings the movie full-circle. Is it the end? Or merely the beginning of the end?

Friday, September 2, 2011

A Whimper, Not A Bang: A Good Old Fashioned Orgy

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

For most, Labor Day weekend officially marks the end of summer, and the comedy "A Good Old Fashioned Orgy" is an appropriate end-of-summer movie, since it, too, partially takes place on Labor Day. It is also the latest in a long string of disappointing summer comedies.

Jason Sudeikis, who MUST be leaving "Saturday Night Live" any day now, stars as Erik, a thirtysomething professional who hosts wild theme parties every summer at his family's Hamptons estate.

You know, things like "The White Trash Bash," complete with fake mullets, tractor races, and wandering cows. When his father, (played in a cameo by Don Johnson), decides to sell the place, Erik decides that he and his group of stalwart friends will have to end their summer with the most hedonistic party he can think of: an orgy. (A good, old-fashioned kind.)

Most of the movie consists of Erik slowly convincing his friends to go along with the idea. His right-hand horndog McCrudden immediately leaps on board, but that comes as no surprise since he's played by actor Tyler Labine, and he's basically playing the same character he did on the TV shows "Reaper" and "Mad Love."

The rest of the cast are comedy veterans as well, which makes it that much more surprising that the film is as unfunny as it is. There's no sense of natural comedic rhythm in any of their banter, giving the impression that they were sticking closely to an unfunny script, with no room for improvisation. I know that Martin Starr, Lake Bell, and Nick Kroll are capable of being much funnier than they are here.

And it's a crime that Lucy Punch and Will Forte are basically relegated to the sidelines as the married couple who resent being left out of the orgy. I seriously cannot remember a single line of dialogue I laughed at, though I do remember cringing at what was supposed to be a hilarious comedic riff on cervical cancer.

It's not giving anything away to say that the orgy does, indeed, happen. But here the movie seems to lose its nerve, never knowing whether it wants to dive into the laughs found in far raunchier comedies, or the emotion seen in more indie fare. (I was reminded of the mumblecore comedy "Humpday," about two straight male friends who decide to make a gay porno film. That film took a risky sexual premise, but played it straight--no pun intended--and as a result had more genuine laughs.) Ultimately, it doesn't commit to either, and instead putters along in its safe R-rated way.

Now, I haven't seen all the comedies released this summer, (and Jason Sudeikis starred in three of them), but aside from "Bridesmaids," I have to say, what I did see was depressingly bad, and with the addition of "A Good Old Fashioned Orgy," this summer season of movie comedies ends not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Invariably Laughable: Conan the Barbarian

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

As someone who seems to be missing the part of the brain that gets any kind of entertainment out of movies featuring sorcerers, ancient lands, and men fighting with swords, I probably shouldn't be reviewing a movie like "Conan the Barbarian." Especially because I really couldn't tell a "good" fantasy epic from a "bad" one, since ultimately they all come off as profoundly stupid to me. (Except for the "Lord of the Rings" movies. That's the kind of mystical movie magic that was able to work its charms on me.)

I know I've seen parts of the 1982 Schwarzenegger version of "Conan," as it always seemed to be on cable television when I was growing up, but even then I knew that particular brand of movie wasn't for me, so I can't really compare the two films. But I can compare the naked chests of the actors playing the titular role, and have to say, Arnold's is far more impressive than Jason Momoa's. I bring this up because about half-way through the movie, as I was growing increasingly bored, I figured I could just concentrate on those pecs to keep myself entertained. Didn't work.

The movie opens with Morgan Freeman, AKA the go-to-voice-of-God, explaining that what we are about to witness is set in a time that never happened, in lands that never existed. Conan is born on the battlefield, and by "born," I mean his mother is stabbed in the gut with a sword during a fight, (an act we get to witness in vitro, perhaps the movie's best moment), and is subsequently ripped from her stomach by his father, (Ron Perlman), who then raises him to the heavens with a mighty roar, natch.

A young and barbaric Conan later witnesses the death of his father, and grows up pec-ish, and full of rage, on a quest to kill Khalar (Stephen Lang), the warlord responsible for his father's death. Khalar, meanwhile, is on a quest of his own, to find a woman of "pure blood," to help unleash the power of a magic mask made of bones. At Khalar's side is his gothy daughter, Marique (Rose McGowan), a witch with a receding hairline, finger blades, and wedge boots.

Once Tamara, (Rachel Nichols), the woman of "pure blood" is found (and pure blood just means something about lineage, not virginity, as I was convinced for half the movie), it is up to Conan to protect her, boss her around, and eventually bed her. After all, his self-professed mantra is, "I live; I love; I slay. I am content."

There is little dialogue in the movie--perhaps the better to sell the film overseas with--but what is there is invariably laughable, although not really funny enough to sustain the movie on a camp level. But if it's bloody sword fights you're after, then "Conan" gets the job done there; I never knew blood could spurt in such a variety of ways!

Of course, those blood spurts are presented in 3D, as everything seems to be these days, but the effect isn't utilized much, and instead it's one of those movies where the 3D effects are about depth, and not things flying at your face. Which is to say: A waste.

I came away from the movie thinking it was terrible, and not worth seeing by anyone, but again, I am not entirely sure what fans of this genre would be satisfied with! I DO know that the life of the books' author Robert E. Howard is a fascinating one--he was a weird dude!--and a movie about him, called "The Whole Wide World," which came out in 1996, and stars Vincent D'Onofrio, is definitely worth seeing. Go rent that, and leave "Conan" to the barbarians.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Putting The Fun Back Into Senseless Violence: Final Destination 5

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Director Fritz Lang once famously said of Cinemascope, "Oh, it wasn't meant for human beings. Just for snakes, and funerals." I have a similar contempt for 3D, and find it an annoying intrusion that is only good for movies about racket-based sports and jugglers. But now I'll have to add one more genre to that list: Movies in which people are killed in a ridiculously baroque fashion.

Given the choice between seeing a movie in a standard screening, or one in which I am forced to wear sunglasses for the duration of an experience that doesn't offer any more depth than your standard lenticular postcard, I'll choose the former. I say, if you're going to go the 3D route, GO THE DISTANCE. Throw shit at my face. Make me duck. Be goofy! In good movies, 3D is merely a distraction, and in bad movies, it is too often just wasted. "Final Destination 5" gets it right: It is a stupid movie that uses 3D to make the experience better.

In fact, the opening credits of "Final Destination 5" are more fun than every single 3D movie I've seen in the past two years combined, (and that includes "Piranha 3D"). Now, if you're not someone who likes horror movies in general, and insanely gory ones in particular, this is not going to change your mind about the genre. But if you, like me, have grown a little tired of recent horror offerings, especially torture porn, then this is the movie for you, because it puts the fun back into senseless violence.

As with all "Final Destination" movies, the plot is the same. A group of good-looking people narrowly avoid death in some kind of catastrophe, are visited by the Candyman a coroner, (Tony Todd), and learn that death doesn't like to be cheated, and will soon be back to get them all.

In this version, the group of people work for a paper company, and are embarking on a work retreat. Sam, (Nicholas D'Agosto), (who, for some inexplicable reason, is also a chef at a French restaurant), has the premonition that saves his life, and the lives of his coworkers. And what a premonition it is. There are more ways to die on a collapsing bridge than merely falling to your death. Many, many more ways. And when those deaths happen, you can be sure guts, blood, and bones will be flying right at your head.

Thus the movie progresses, with grisly and elaborate Rube Goldberg demises galore, and plenty of twists along the way. (If you think that air conditioner dripping water onto that frayed wire is going to end in disaster, you had better think again, my friend.)

I'd say most people have a fear of impalements, and beheadings, or if not a fear, a general notion that these things would be unpleasant experiences. But I think where these films probably succeed best is when dealing with those phobias that not everyone shares, but will hit certain people right where those fears lie, such as in the eye (LASIK surgery!); or with needles (acupuncture!); or, as always, flying (that one's for me!).

I was fully prepared to have a horrible time at "FD 5." The screening was kind of late at night, I was surrounded by a family who were passing popcorn back and forth, with plenty landing on my head, and someone had the brilliant idea to bring a baby to the movie.

But once the deaths started flying, (and the baby and father left the theater), I was laughing, squirming, screaming "OHMYGOD," and trying to cover my eyes, (those 3D glasses sure get in the way of that), with the rest of the howling audience.

"Final Destination 5" offers about as much edification as your standard roller coaster ride, which is to say, none. And that's just the way it should be.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Chimps Don't Use Muni: Rise Of the Planet Of the Apes

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is a prequel and a remake. Kind of. I'm not entirely sure if it's supposed to be a prequel to the original 1968 Charlton Heston version of "Planet of the Apes," or the 2001 Tim Burton remake, mainly because I'm still confused about what the hell happened at the end of that Burton remake. Was it another planet? Did Marky Mark go forward in time? Or was it both?

I suppose it ultimately doesn't matter, as this movie is, above all else, a reboot attempt, so all previous movies should just fade into the mist, like so many gorillas.

In what appears to be, more or less, present-day San Francisco, scientist Will Rodman, (James Franco), is working on a virus that can act as a cure for Alzheimer's. After successful tests on chimps, Rodman and Steven Jacobs, (David Oyelowo), the mogul funding his project, present their findings, only to have the whole thing come crashing down around them when their star chimp, Bright Eyes (heh), goes on a rampage in the lab, ultimately getting shot right in front of all those potential investors. Needless to say, wallets slam shut.

Of course, things are not as it seems with that chimp. Not only was she gaining intelligence, she was also pregnant, had given birth, and hid her baby from everyone in that lab. (Obviously, the lab techs weren't taking any of that smart serum themselves, if they were dumb enough to miss all that.)

Rodman takes home the baby, and raises it like a son, naming him Caesar (heh heh). Caesar is no ordinary chimp, and over the years that pass, demonstrates increased intelligence, learns sign language, and develops a fondness for sweatsuits. Rodman continues to work on the serum on his own, since he has a personal stake in its success: His father, (John Lithgow), has Alzheimer's. And with no lab animals to test on, he uses his father as a guinea pig, with successful results.

Of course, keeping a super chimp in a San Francisco house is a recipe for disaster, and after a run in with the world's most unlucky neighbor, Caesar is sent to a primate sanctuary in San Bruno (LOL).

At this point, the movie becomes a chimps-in-prison story, as that sanctuary is nothing more than San Quentin, if San Quentin were run by the original Hannibal Lecter and Draco Malfoy. And aside from the absolutely atrocious performance by the aforementioned Tom Felton, (apparently he's making a career out of poorly-played villains), this is the funnest part of the film, with primates speaking in sign language to each other--complete with subtitles!--and a requisite prison yard brawl in which a new king of the cell block is crowned.

As with any good prison picture, a prison break is inevitable, and it's here that movie gets utterly ridiculous, (as if a movie about super-intelligent chimps and a scientist played by James Franco wasn't already). You can either go with it, and accept that about 50 primates in the sanctuary can turn into an army of hundreds once they free their zoo-captive kin, and can somehow make it from San Bruno to the Golden Gate Bridge, via downtown San Francisco, in a short amount of time--or not. (Although, since they didn't take Muni, I suppose that's plausible.)

I had a harder time just going with it, mainly because by this point the bad acting and dialogue had just worn me down. I can imagine James Franco being in on the joke, knowing that the movie he was in was totally ludicrous, but I don't think anyone told poor Frieda Pinto, (who plays his love interest, and zoo vet), as she says such lines as "I love chimps...but I fear them too," with utterly no sense of irony.

Caesar the chimp is played by Andy Serkis, who brought Gollum and King Kong to life using the same motion-capture set-up. He's good, (especially when compared to James Franco), but he's not nearly as good as he was as Gollum or King Kong. When I watched the end of "King Kong," I was such an emotional wreck, I had to look away from the movie screen and stare at a wall in an attempt to stop my crying.

In a movie heavily reliant of computer effects, you had better hope you have a director who really knows how to bring out the humanity that is the heart of a motion-captured performance. Peter Jackson is a director who can. But Rupert Wyatt, the director of "Rise," can't, and as a result, I never felt empathy for Caesar, or for any of the other primates in the film, and it's for that reason that the movie ultimately failed for me.

There's fun to be had in it, for sure, but I can only hope that if it spawns a sequel, they don't resort to CG again, and instead return to those original monkey masks and bad hair, because if there's anything that can make us sympathize with an intelligent super-chimp, it's the sight of one with a bad haircut.

Friday, July 29, 2011

A Pleasant Surprise: Crazy, Stupid, Love.

 This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

For some, the idea of going to a "romantic comedy" is about as appealing as watching a six-hour PowerPoint presentation about fiscal growth. I don't run screaming from rom-coms, but I have to admit that the majority I see just leave me sad and/or angry, so "Crazy, Stupid, Love." was a pleasant surprise in a genre rife with mediocrity.

Steve Carrell and Julianne Moore star as Cal and Emily Weaver, a couple long-married and seemingly happy, until Emily bluntly tells Cal she wants a divorce instead of a dessert at the end of a date night.

Cal doesn't take this well, especially after Emily confesses to sleeping with her co-worker, Dave Lindhagen, (Kevin Bacon). Nonetheless, Cal leaves the house, gets an apartment, and starts to frequent a local pick-up joint, telling anyone who'll listen that his wife has had an affair with DAVE LINDHAGEN! (The name becomes a running punchline). Jacob, (Ryan Gosling), the bar's resident Lothario, takes notice of sad sack Cal, and out of pity, offers to take him under his tutelage, teaching him the ways of the pick up artist.

After your requisite makeover scene, and several failed attempts with the ladies, Cal eventually scores with a wild teacher played by Marisa Tomei. (Who is great in the role, although I am pretty sure I have seen her play this same character--the 40ish wildcat--more than once in the past few years.)

Jacob continues to sleep his way through the bar's clientele, eventually hooking up with a fiery redhead named Hannah, (Emma Stone), who ends up meaning much more to him than a one-night-stand, much to his surprise.

Meanwhile, Emily tries to come to terms with her singlehood, while also dealing with two kids, one of which, 14-year-old Robbie, (Jonah Bobo), is hopelessly in love with his 17-year-old baby-sitter, Jessica, (Analeigh Tipton), who is, in turn, in love with Cal.

This multigenerational set-up may sound like standard romantic comedy fare, but the movie is able to rise above the genre thanks to some great performances, and a clever script. In a refreshing change of pace from movies with upwards of five or more screenwriters, (see: "Cowboys & Aliens"), there is only one screenwriter here: Dan Fogelman, a writer whose previous credits include the animated films "Cars" and "Tangled." (There are, however, two directors: Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who directed last year's "I Love You Phillip Morris." )

It's a tough thing to write fast-paced banter that doesn't sound scripted or affected, but Fogelman manages to make the dialogue in the movie both clever and very real. The characters talk over each other, blurt out things you know they instantly regret, as people are wont to do, and even occasionally find themselves at a loss for words. It's a testament to the script that the most romantic moments in the movie aren't necessarily the big speeches about love, but little bits of conversation where two characters are able to reveal the comforts of familiarity, or the excitement of learning about someone new.

Of course, a good script is nothing without solid performances, and thankfully the movie's full of good actors. Steve Carrell is able to pull off sad sack as well as triumphant ladies' man while remaining sympathetic. Julianne Moore, well, come on. She's always good, so it's a tad disappointing to see her story relegated to the background for much of the movie.

Emma Stone won me over completely with last year's "Easy A," and she's just as funny and peculiarly pretty here. She has an off-handed moment where she imitates Lauren Bacall's High Point coffee commercials that had me guffawing. (Granted, I don't think many others in the audience knew what the hell that was about.)

But the real revelation here is Ryan Gosling. I've appreciated his combination of good looks and acting chops in such films as "Blue Valentine," "Half Nelson," and, yes, "The Notebook," but I was never really a gushing fan girl. Until now. He demonstrates such a wicked combination of sexual smoothness and comedic timing that by the end of the movie, I swear he had my underwear off too. (Apologies to my seatmates.)

Towards the film's climax, it does begin to veer dangerously close to sitcom territory, but it never really derails, and even manages to throw in some plot twists that took me by surprise. I don't think "Crazy, Stupid, Love." is a romantic comedy that will convert the staunchest haters of the genre, but I do think it's a good bet for those who always venture into such films with an undying sense of trepidation.