Friday, March 25, 2011

Makes Frances Look Like A Fairy Tale: Sucker Punch

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

I'll admit upfront that I wasn't feeling that great when I saw "Sucker Punch" this week. Going on day five of the worst cold of my life, I was on the mend but probably not in the best of spirits to be seeing a late night showing of a big, dumb movie. But one thing's for sure: The thing was loud enough to blast the congestion out of my ears.

"Sucker Punch" is the story of Baby Doll, a teenager in what appears to be the 1950s who, after the death of their mother, tries to save her sister from the creepy and molesty hands of their stepfather. This ends in tragedy, and Baby Doll is sent to the World's Worst Mental Hospital to be lobotomized. (These aren't spoilers; this all happens in the film's first 10 minutes or so.)

At the hospital, Baby Doll retreats into a fantasy world where, instead of prisoners in a mental ward, she and her fellow inmates are prisoners in a burlesque club that is also a brothel. This whorehouse is only marginally better than the mental hospital--their costumes are prettier, and they get to wear make-up--so it seems an odd choice in fantasy worlds.

When Baby Doll is forced to dance, she retreats into yet another fantasy world that plays out exactly like a video game level. She gains weapons, fights a boss monster, and gathers the first of five items she will need if she wants to escape.

And thus the rest of the movie plays out: Baby Doll does her amazing dances, (which we never actually see), those who watch are hypnotized by it, and she and her friends embark on various battles, fighting such things as reanimated World War I Germans, fire-breathing dragons, and shiny robots. The first few battle sequences are visually amazing, exciting, and a lot of fun. But, like in many video games, the other levels fights end up looking a lot alike, and eventually, they get kind of routine.

Now, I don't have a problem with big, dumb movies. I've loved a lot of big, dumb movies. And "Sucker Punch" could have been one of the biggest, dumbest, and funnest. But I feel like director Zack Snyder chickened out, and instead felt the need to wrap the movie in a false sense of import by adding all the mental hospital nonsense.

It is so clear this movie exists for the sole purpose of showing pretty girls in skimpy outfits, fighting really awesome baddies. So why frame that with a story that makes "Frances" look like a fairytale?

That opening set-up lingers over the movie, giving everything an unnecessary feeling of gloom, leading to an ending that is absolutely depressing, and absolutely predictable. It seems a bit silly to set most of the movie in a burlesque brothel, and not show any actual song and dance numbers.

From what I've read, it sounds like Snyder intended the movie to have some musical numbers, but decided they lightened the tone of the film, so he cut those out, leaving one to play over the ending credits. That's a shame. A few moments of song and dance would have given the movie some much needed levity, as it's virtually devoid of humor as it is.

And yes, I have failed to mention any of the film's stars. That's because there's really nothing memorable about any of the actors on screen, and almost every line of dialogue--what little there is--is forgettable. Although I will say this: Jon Hamm, what the hell are you doing in this?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Pee Jokes And References: Paul

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

It's hard to know exactly why "Paul," the sci-fi spoof starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, is a failure. Some might argue that since this is the first movie Pegg and Frost have made without their director and co-writer, Edgar Wright, that it is in his absence that blame can fall. I might agree with that if I was a fan of "Hot Fuzz," the last movie the trio made together, but that cop movie parody fell flat for me. But I did like "Sean of the Dead" well enough, and also enjoyed their TV venture, "Spaced." So I don't think I can pin the blame on the lack of Wright, or the presence of director Greg Mottola.

Instead, I'm just going to have to blame this failure on a lack of vision and some terrible laziness. It seems the movie never got much further than the concept phase.

"So, imagine two totally geeky dudes on a tour of UFO hot spots in America meet an alien that looks like what we all think an alien looks like, but he talks like SETH ROGEN, has a bland human name, and smokes pot!"

"OK, great! So what do the guys do with the alien?"

"Oh, you know. The usual trying to get him back to a meet up point with a ship from his home planet while running away from the feds thing."

"Cool! Let's start writing some jokes!"

"How about we just have the guys quote stuff from a bunch of sci-fi movies. That'll be funny."

"But shouldn't the alien say some funny things too?"

"He's voiced by Seth Rogen. That's funny enough!"

"You're right. Let's start filming!"

So, yes, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost play two nerds, who, after a stop at Comic-Con, go on a road trip across the Southwest, and encounter a large number of American stereotypes: Gay-bashing rednecks, small-minded Bible-thumpers, big-haired waitresses, and a little green alien.

As a fellow nerd who has attended Comic-Con, has several boxes of comic books in storage, and can quote "Star Wars" with the best of them, you would think this movie was tailor made for me. Alas, much of the pop culture riffing on display in "Paul" comes off as nothing more than lame pandering. To merely quote "Star Wars" is not a joke. Comedy so often comes from the unexpected, but there is nothing unexpected in "Paul." Anal probe jokes? Check. An appearance by Devils Tower? Check. A bar band playing the music from the Cantina scene in "Star Wars"? Check. Someone quoting "Aliens" at Sigourney Weaver, not to mention the mere presence of Sigourney Weaver? Check and check.

Still, I didn't come out of "Paul" hating life, like I did after watching "Hall Pass." There's a talented cast of co-stars on hand, doing their best to elevate the material. Kristen Wiig's Christian trailer park manager has a few funny, foul-mouthed moments. Jason Bateman does the steel-jawed man-in-black thing very well. Blythe Danner--yes, Blythe Danner--has some surprisingly sweet scenes near the end. And while there is no doubt that the alien Paul is a CG creation, it's well done, and not a distraction.

Perhaps for some, merely being able to recognize all the references, combined with some pee jokes, and the sight of an alien's bare ass is enough for an evening's entertainment. But I was expecting much, much more than something your average Comic-Con fan boy could have cooked up.

Cool As A McConaughey Cucumber: The Lincoln Lawyer

This  review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Back in the day, I thought Matthew McConahayhay was the bee's knees. Of course, I can't remember just what movie made me think that, but he was voted People's Sexiest Man Alive at some point, so maybe I was just basing my lust on that. Oh, and how he looks without a shirt, of course.

But then McConaghay started playing bongos in the nude, seemed to exist in a haze of pot smoke, and was basically shirtless all the time, often while doing yoga on the beach. All that shirtlessness just forced me to look at his face a little more, and you know what? Not that cute!

"The Lincoln Lawyer," based on the book by Michael Connelly, stars Matthew McConequy as slick Los Angeles defense attorney Mick Haller, who works out of the back seat of his 1980s Lincoln, for a reason that is never really made clear. A chauffeur, (Laurence Mason),--and former client--drives him around town as he wheels and deals from case to case, cool as a McCouneghy cucumber. And he wears a suit--which means, a shirt--throughout it all. This is a major disappointment since the movie would have been a lot more entertaining if he showed up in court partially naked at least ONCE.

Haller is hired by Louis Roulet, (Ryan Phillipe), a rich kid real estate magnate accused of the brutal assault of a hooker. Roulet maintains his complete innocence, arguing that he is actually the victim of an elaborate plan to get his money via an eventual civil suit seeking damages. But since Roulet is played by Phillipe, an actor who manages to ooze creepiness and sleaze no matter who he's playing, his innocence seems...questionable.

If there's one thing attorneys and detectives should learn after years of noirish crime books and movies, it's that if a rich client decides to hire you, someone not under his usual employ, something is definitely up.

And so, the case proceeds. Nothing is as it seems. A surprisingly well-known supporting cast pops in and out of the story. This includes Marisa Tomei as McConeghough's ex-wife-with-ridiculous-hair; William H. Macy as his equally shaggy investigator; John Leguizamo as a greasy bail bondsman; Michael "Eddie and the Cruisers" Pare and Bryan "Breaking Bad" Cranston as detectives; and most ironically, Josh Lucas, an actor who looks a LOT like McConneghy, as the prosecuting attorney.

McConeguyhugh's Haller goes from smooth operator to despondent, sweaty drunk in the blink of an eye, wrestles with the moral ambiguities of his profession, but remains smart enough to--spoiler alert!--stay alive through the film's multiple climaxes. (Seriously, this movie has so many endings I stayed through the credits just to make sure they didn't tack another one on there.)

I supposed there isn't anything overtly bad about "The Lincoln Lawyer;" it's fairly engrossing and acted well enough. It hits all the marks you want a courtroom thriller like this to hit. But you can also turn TV on any night of the week and watch a TV show about a lawyer, or someone in law enforcement, dealing with a similar case, that is just as good as this movie. With that kind of comfortable competition up against you, you had better bring something extraordinary to a story like this. And a shirted Matthew McConaughey isn't it.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Heavy (Wolf) Petting: Red Riding Hood

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

"Red Riding Hood" is directed by Catherine Hardwicke, who directed the first "Twilight" movie--and was banished from any involvement with the sequels--and it's clearly her attempt to capture some of those "Twilight"-loving tweens looking for the latest in supernatural lust.

Set in a snowy, fairy tale land, at some unspecified, renaissance-esque time, "Red Riding Hood" centers on Valerie (Amanda Seyfried), a young woman reaching marrying age. She is betrothed to Henry (Max Irons), a young man of means, although she is really in love with Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), a lowly woodcutter. See, they've been in love ever since they were wee and used to trap and slaughter rabbits together. (For reals.)

But all is not tranquil in this fairy tale town. For twenty years, they have had a "deal" with the local werewolf, wherein it will not slaughter villagers as long as they leave it a nice bit of livestock every full moon. But when a young woman is found mauled, the village decides they've had enough of this werewolf bullshit, and they're gonna hunt it down and kill it. (Not really sure why they couldn't have come to this decision sooner.)

Now, I suppose all of this doesn't sound inherently stupid. Modern fairy tales can be done well, and "Little Red Riding Hood" has been tackled before, perhaps best in the 1984 film "In the Company of Wolves." But the approach Hardwicke takes renders the film almost--yes, I'll say it-- howlingly awful.

For one thing, this kind of story just feels awkward when American accents are involved. It's hard enough to suspend ones disbelief that the renaissance was full of permed, squeaky clean women wearing expertly applied eyeliner, but throwing the flat sound of American teen-speak into the mix only ups the snerk-quotient. I kept expecting a "The Village"-type ending exposing the location of the town as being present day Tahoe, but alas, that doesn't happen. Even Julie Christie, who plays the witchy grandma, has to mask her British accent. Gary Oldman, as a werewolf-hunting priest, does have an accent, but I have no idea if it was supposed to be German, Italian, or Russian. Whatever he's supposed to be, he does give the wolf a run for the money when it comes to scenery-chewing. (Virginia Madsen and Billy Burke--who also plays Bella's father in the "Twilight" films--round out the cast as Valerie's parents.)

You don't need a degree in Women's Studies to know that the "Little Red Riding Hood" story is full of some heavy Freudian imagery, (RED = MENSTRUATION, people!), but this is a PG-13 movie, and the sex is limited to some heavy petting, and really not much of it. The two guys after Valerie's heart are both generically handsome cyphers; being a werewolf would be the only interesting thing about either of them. Alas, the film follows the "Twilight" example and remains way too chaste, some creepy incest allusions not withstanding.

I'll give the movie this: It's lovely to look at, from Seyfried's ruby red lips, and skin as white as snow, to the Fantasyland-eqsue village, to the swooping helicopter shots over snowy alps; Ren Faire fans will wet their pants over the costumes and the big party scene. And if the "Twilight" crowd does flock to this, rendering it a hit, (lord help us), you can be damned sure there will be a sequel. The ending all but guarantees us "Red Riding Hood 2: Love's a Bitch."

Friday, March 4, 2011

Metaphysical Phooey (That Works): The Adjustment Bureau

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

“The Adjustment Bureau,” loosely based on a short story by Phillip K. Dick, is a strange movie; a blend of romantic comedy conventions, science fiction set-ups, fairy tale cliches, and metaphysical phooey that, ultimately, works in its own little way.

Matt Damon stars as David Norris, an up-and-coming politician running for New York senator. On the eve of the election, the newspapers pick up on evidence of an impulsive immaturity in his recent past, and he tanks at the polls. That same evening, he meets-cute with Elise (Emily Blunt), a ballet dancer with whom he has an immediate and mutual attraction, though she pulls a Cinderella, disappearing without giving him a last name, or a phone number.

Almost a year later, he is rising from the ashes of his political loss when he meets Elise once again. It is around this time that the dandy men in hats who have been hovering around David reveal their true purpose, and the film’s sci-fi set-up: Mankind’s lives are, for the most part, a series of carefully planned events, overseen by Adjustment Agents whose boss is known only as “The Chairman.”

Yes, God is a company CEO, and angels are mad men flipping through moleskin notebooks.

David has, through no fault of his own, strayed from the path set out for him, and this needs to be rectified or else he, Elise, and by implication, the entire world will suffer dire consequences. Should he follow his heart or his fate?

Yes, all of this sounds rather hokey, and the “science” in this fiction is relegated to magic hats and doors. But Damon–who is as affable and funny here as he tends to be on the talk show circuit–and Blunt–who has a natural humor herself–keep the film afloat. There’s no doubt their characters are meant to be together, and they even manage to completely sell the most trite of fairy tale tropes: the magical kiss.

There are not a lot of explosions or showstopping CG effects in the film, and the ads and trailer make it seem a lot more…exciting than it actually is. But that’s not a bad thing. First time director George Nolfi, (he previously wrote “The Bourne Ultimatum” and “Ocean’s Twelve”), seems more interested in character than spectacle, and has cast the film well across the board: “Mad Men”‘s John Slattery plays an adjustment agent not too far from his Roger Sterling character, and Terence Stamp is suitably menacing as a kind of “cleaner” agent. Even Jon Stewart and James Carville make cameos. Be sure, there are moments of genuine suspense and awe to be found in the movie, but this is not this year’s “Inception,” and thank God–or the Chairman–for that.