Friday, April 29, 2011

SFIFF: Bleeding Walls And Exploding Toilets In "The Selling"

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

"The Selling" is a horror comedy with some local ties. Director Emily Lou attended San Francisco State University, as did writer and star Gabriel Diani, and costar Etta Devine. Diani and Devine are also a comedy team with some YouTube hits under their belts. (I like the one about replacing the n-word in "Huckleberry Finn" with the word "robot.")

While these locals now call Los Angeles home, they haven't gone Hollywood in terms of budget, as "The Selling" is definitely a low-budget affair. Diani plays Richard Scarry (yes, like the children's book author), a struggling real estate agent in Overlook, California (of course) who decides to buy a sketchy house (on Elm Street, natch) with his business partner in hopes of doing a quick flip and profitable sell. Unfortunately, it turns out the house is haunted, and selling becomes a bit of a challenge. After all, in this market people are already "too scared to buy."

While the film is a horror comedy, it is much better at generating laughs than it is scares, especially if you're a fan of slapstick. But ghostly apparitions, bleeding walls, and exploding toilet effects are all handled well, considering the budget. The majority of the cast are not well known, aside from Barry Bostwick, who has a small part as a priest brought in to "clean" the house. ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer" fans will also recognize the Mayor in a brief cameo.)

Ultimately, I think "The Selling" might have worked better as a short film, as towards its end, it begins to lose some steam, and jokes and scares begin to repeat themselves. Still, it's not a bad entry into the comedic horror genre, and I look forward to seeing more from these SFSU grads.

The Most Erotic Movie I've Seen All Year: Fast Five

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

"Fast Five" is the most erotic movie I've seen all year. At one point in the hot mess that is the "fifth" entry into this ridiculous series, Vin Diesel, (back again some more!), and the Rock, (once again his hulking self, after some scary skinny years), stare intensely into each others eyes and start sweating. It is so obvious they want to kiss. Instead, they kick each others asses, but really, this is just foreplay.

I have seen every entry in the "Fast and Furious" franchise, but I couldn't for the life of me tell you what actually happens in any of them. If that's something you feel you need to know before going into this, I suggest Wikipedia. But if you want to catch up on these films, you really only need to see the first one, ("The Fast and the Furious") and the fourth one ("Fast and Furious"), which, yeah, is confusing since that means this one is actually the third real sequel, and that "Five" means nothing.

The film begins with a prison break, and ends with a bank heist. Dom (Diesel) is back, as is former cop Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker), and the woman he loves, Dom's sister Mia (Jordana Brewster). Together they gather a team of everyone who has ever appeared in any of the previous movies (this includes Ludacris, Sung Kang, and Tyrese Gibson), to pull off One Final Job, stealing $100 million from Rio de Janeiro's criminal kingpin.

Hot on their trail is a Federal Agent named Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), who has put together his own team, which includes local law enforcement officer/beauty queen Elena Neves (Elsa Pataky), one of the only officers in Rio not in the pocket of crime lord Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida).

Of course, plot doesn't really matter in a movie like this, does it? It's all about the cars and the explosions. And to tell you the truth, I thought there was a little too much plot, and not enough cars. (The amount of explosions is fine.) The whole thing runs over two-hours long, and there's a solid 30 minutes in there that does not involve cars and/or fights. That is unnecessary, especially when the action is as well directed as it is here. (Justin Lin, who directed the previous entry, as well as "Tokyo Drift," is back in the driver's seat for this one.)

But what car action is presented, is all kinds of awesome ridiculousness. Most people will probably laugh at the implausibility of almost every stunt in the movie. But I'm not going to argue over the plausibility of a bus t-boning a 1970 Dodge Charger, with the result being the bus then flips over ten times, killing absolutely none of the dozens of prisoners chained up inside, and the Charger driving away with some minor cosmetic damage. I'm not going to argue about this because it's pretty obvious this could happen. The Charger is an awesome car.

But let's get back to the film's eroticism. Most of the men in this movie are buff and sweaty, except for the Rock, who is ripped and greasy. I found it pretty refreshing that while there are three attractive women with supporting roles in the film, there's only one scene featuring one of them in a bikini. The men and the cars are the real sex objects here.

I'll admit, I still love me some Vin Diesel, even if more and more he is beginning to resemble the bastard love child of Yul Brynner and Corky. And pairing him up with the Rock is so obvious I can't believe it hasn't been done before. So, even if the two of them are unable to consummate their love in this film, you can be damn sure there will be a sequel. (Especially since a scene that runs during the end credits drops a bombshell reveal about one of the series regulars.) And I say, bring it. "Fast Five" is about as much fun as a big, dumb, greasy slab of man-meat movie can be.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

SFIFF: A More Conventional And Contemporary Grey Gardens In "The Good Life"

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

One of my all-time favorite movies is the documentary "Grey Gardens." If you've never heard of that movie, I am not about to try and explain its brilliance to you. Just go out and rent it. Or better yet, buy it, because it is a film you will want to watch more than once.

The Danish documentary "The Good Life" is described as having "parallels" to the Maysles' classic, and that was enough to get me to watch. It's a portrait of Mette Beckman, a widowed mother, and her middle-aged daughter, Anne, who live together in a small apartment in a coastal tourist town in Portugal. Once upon a time, they were a rich Danish family, living the proverbial good life, with homes all over Europe. But political uprisings in Portugal led to the loss of all their money, and they now must survive on mother Mette's small monthly pension. This is something daughter Anne is unable to come to terms with, as she feels she is entitled to a much better life, and was not raised to actually do something as boring as work for a living.

While there are indeed some parallels to the Beales of "Grey Gardens," the Beckmans of "The Good Life" are considerably more...conventional, (some might say, more sane), and as such they aren't nearly as entertaining on their own as the Edies are. Still, it is interesting to see a contemporary tale similar to that of Beales play out, and I am sure it's a story that is happening with alarming frequency in this day and age.

There's a scene in the movie where we see Anne dancing by herself in a disco, a woman clearly in a world of her own, and it immediately reminded me of the dancing scene in "Grey Gardens." If only the two of them could have met and shared their terrific dances with each other, and a camera crew. That would be a document for the ages.

Monday, April 25, 2011

SFIFF: Meek's Cutoff, A Small But Complicated Tale

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

For a long time, I was convinced I didn't like Westerns. This was based on watching, and being bored silly by, a lot of John Wayne movies, and some other lesser entries in the genre. Meanwhile, I grew up loving the "Little House on the Prairie" books, and it wasn't until recently that I realized the "Little House" books are, essentially, just a female version of a Western.

Enter "Meek's Cutoff," a Western that falls closer into "Little House" territory than it does, say, "Stage Coach." It tells the story of three families traveling through the Oregon trail via covered wagons in 1845. They are led by Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a boastful and grizzled guide who claims to know the best way to the Oregon valley, though after days of seemingly aimless wandering, and diminishing water, his followers begin to lose trust.

If you've seen any of Kelly Reichardt's previous movies, ("Wendy and Lucy;" "Old Joy"), you should know not to expect anything resembling excitement. This movie does not attempt to mask the tediousness of cross-country wagon training. There's walking....a lot of walking. And I am pretty sure the ever present squeak of one wagon wheel will haunt my dreams for years to come. But Michelle Williams and her fellow female cast do an excellent job of portraying the drudgery of pioneer life, while also illustrating the feminist truth that both men and women had hard jobs to do on the American frontier. Only women had to do those jobs wearing corsets and blinding bonnets.

"Meek's Cutoff" isn't for everyone. If you prefer your Westerns have clearly delineated good guys and bad guys, action packed shoot-outs, and stereotypical happy endings, this is not the movie for you. But if you like covered wagons, women in bonnets and calico dresses, and small but complicated tales of the American West, check it out.

Friday, April 22, 2011

SFIFF: Stake Land, A Solid Entry In The Vampire Genre

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

The San Francisco International Film Festival kicks into high gear this weekend, but if you thought it was nothing but snooty movies you have to read, think again! There's an honest-to-goodness horror flick screening tonight.

"Stake Land" is a post apocalyptic, vampire, coming-of-age, Western, road movie with a hint of Terrence Malick. Yeah. It's a mouthful. A bloody mouthful.

Connor Paolo--perhaps best known as Serena's gay brother on "Gossip Girl"--plays Martin, a teenage boy who is orphaned after his family is killed by the vampires that have turned the world into a ghost town. He is taken in by a man known only as Mister (Nick Damici--who also co-wrote the movie), a fearless vampire killer on his way north, to "New Eden," the country formally known as Canada.

As they travel across the vampire ridden wasteland, Mister teaches young Martin the ways of vampire slaying. Along their journey they face vamps, and the even more fearsome religious zealots who view this new world as their chance to rule. To top it off, an almost unrecognizable Kelly McGillis shows up in a small role as a nun.

Yeah, we're kind of up to our necks (sorry) with vampires these days, but "Stake Land" is a solid entry in the genre, with good scares, surprisingly beautiful cinematography, (some moments look like vampire slayers walked onto the set of "Badlands"), and did I mention, Kelly McGillis as a nun?

Pretty Simple And Derivative: Ceremony

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

"Ceremony," from writer and director Max Winkler, (yes), is a low key romantic comedy that owes a lot of dept to the works of Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach. Indeed, impression may be the sincerest form of flattery, but when was the last time you decided to see an impressionist instead of the real thing?

The film follows the slight Sam, (Michael Angarano), a struggling young writer with a bad mustache, a lot of condescending attitude, and an obsession with an older woman he shared a brief fling with. He decides to crash this former flame's weekend wedding, and drags along a friend suffering from some post-traumatic stress, promising him some male bonding, when in reality, he just needs someone to give him a ride.

Sam comes off as an aging version of "Rushmore"'s Max Fisher, though I don't think Sam has an accomplishment as historic as saving Latin under his belt. No, Sam's tunnel-visioned eye is firmly planted on the feminine prize: Uma Thurman's Zoe. And while she may still have some feelings for Sam, she's set on marrying her documentary filmmaker fiance (played, with a suitable amount of sleazy egotism, by Lee Pace).

So, over the course of the wedding weekend, at a suitably bohemian beachfront house filled with guests, (see: Baumbach's "Margot at the Wedding"), Sam and Zoe come to terms with the meaning of their romance and their futures. (It's with the houseful of background players that I'd wished some Robert Altman had also been an influence, as these guests are, for the most part, nothing more than background furniture, and some moments of eavesdropping on these minor characters could have opened the movie up a bit.)

Ultimately, the relationship between Sam and Zoe doesn't really make a lot of sense. I guess we are supposed to understand why Sam is so smitten with Uma Thurman's Zoe because, well, she's played by Uma Thurman. But aside from that, there's nothing particularly magical about her. In turn, Zoe's continued tolerance, and romance, with Sam is confusing. There are references to parents dead, and children's books written, so perhaps this affair between an Amazonian woman and young man ironically referred to as "Big Sam" is supposed to come off as a kind of fairy tale. Unfortunately, like many fairy tales, it's pretty simple, and derivative of many previously told tales.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Best Scream Movie Since The Original: Scream 4

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

I have to admit, I was a little annoyed by the studio and publicity machine's insistence that any reviews of "Scream 4" (no, I will not refer to it as "Scre4m") refrain from any and all spoilers about the movie's "kills" and its ultimate killer reveal. Who are they kidding? This is a "Scream" sequel, not "Citizen Kane" or "Psycho."

But then as I was watching it, I realized I actually didn't know much of anything about it going in, and I have to admit, that was a pretty nice experience. Of course I can't really say if knowing any of the film's "reveals" would have tampered my enjoyment, but why risk it? I promise to make this review spoiler free.

"Scream 4" is the best "Scream" movie since the original.

The end.

Not enough? OK.

If you haven't seen the other "Scream" movies, I can't really imagine why you'd want to see this one, although I have a feeling Dimension is hopping this entry will serve more as a "reboot" and less a "shriequel" or "screamake" (two terms coined in the movie). If you have seen the previous three movies, it's probably a good idea to refresh your memory about them, especially the bits about who the killers turn out to be.

This entry starts as the other three do, with pre-credit murder--meta-murder if you will--and it's a lot of fun. Or at least as fun as gut-ripping murder can be. That this murder coincides with the return of Sidney (Neve Campbell, who must have a portrait aging in an attic somewhere) to Woodsboro, some 15 years after the rampage of the first film, is lost on no one, not least of all her younger cousin Jill, (Emma Roberts, daughter of Eric, niece of Julia), and Jill's high school friends, (who include Hayden Panettiere, in an unfortunate hairdo), who dub Sydney the "angel of death."

Sydney is not the only character from the previous films to make a return. Dewey (David Arquette) is now the town Sheriff, and he remains married to Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox), who has retired from the true crime book writing biz. For now. Even Henry Winkler has a cameo of sorts. (Keep an eye out in the high school hallway for that one). Of course, both Ghostface and the Voice (once again voiced by Roger Jackson) are back wreaking murderous havoc, and before long the bodies start to pile up.

I'll say no more about the plot, but will say the movie's self-awareness and references pile up almost as much as the bodies do, and for the most part that works as well as it has in the past. It's hard to believe now, but back in 1996, most teens didn't have cell phones, and it is the modern day teenager's constantly wired-in life that the killer is able to take advantage of this time around. (Yes, Facebook and Twitter have cameos.)

There are a ton of cameos and unexpected bit players popping up throughout, but, again, it's kind of fun being surprised by these. So let's just say almost every pretty young actress who has appeared on a TV show featuring teenagers in the last three years has some kind of role in this.

"Scream" spawned a lot of crappy teen-centric horror movies, and I'd posit that these lame and tame horror movies are also partially responsible for the torture porn era that followed. Thankfully, the movie doesn't go the t-porn route, although you can be sure the "Saw" movies are mentioned. (By the way, if characters talk about how meta it is to talk about being meta, is that being meta-meta?)

"Scream 4" does have its faults. It's a tad too long; sometimes true scares are sacrificed for the sake of self-awareness; and the new teens are not quite as appealing as the OG teens. But by returning to the scene of the original crime, writer Kevin Williamson and director Wes Craven manage to give the series a clever reboot; it remains as gleefully ridiculous (and let's face it, as far as whodunnits go, the "Scream" movies have always been ridiculous) as its predecessors, but ultimately adheres to its own number one rule: Don't fuck with the original

Friday, April 8, 2011

Doobies Should Be Handed Out At The Door: Your Highness

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

I was under the impression that a "stoner comedy" involves main characters who spend the majority of a film stoned and/or on the quest to get weed in order to get more stoned. But in the case of "Your Highness"--which, judging from its ads and ad placements is clearly marketing itself as a stoner comedy--I think it just means it's a movie that will seem a lot funnier if you watch it while stoned.

It will also probably seem a lot funnier if you grew up loving such sword and sorcery epics as "Conan the Barbarian," "Excalibur" and, of course, "The Sword and the Sorcerer."

Personally, that particular genre never really appealed to me--my youthful movie interests were centered on horror, sci-fi, and anything involving a naked Richard Gere--and aside from way too many viewings of "Beastmaster," I probably haven't seen any of the movies "Your Highness" is both satirizing and paying tribute to. (And I wasn't stoned, so you can probably see where this is going...)

The basic story centers on slacker Prince Thadeous (Danny McBride), and his older and more accomplished brother, Prince Fabious (James Franco). Fabious has returned home from a quest with the head of a slayed cyclops, and Zooey Deschanel.

Zooey plays Belladonna, a lass Fabious has rescued from the evil Leezar (Justin Theroux). Having spent a life in captivity, she is virginal, and pretty dim. In other words, the perfect bride! But before the two can wed, she is kidnapped by Leezar, so Fabious and a reluctant Thadeous must embark on a quest to rescue her and thwart Leezar's plans to take over the world and father a dragon baby.

Along the way they are faced with traitors, a pervy wizard puppet, a five-headed lizard monster, and Natalie Portman's Isabel, a woman on a quest of her own, who needs no help from the buffoons around her.

Portman is also the best thing about the movie. She kicks ass, looks breathtakingly beautiful, and delivers what is easily the film's funniest line with an admirably straight face.

A movie this stupid doesn't need to look as good as it does, but I guess that's one thing director David Gordon Green has carried over from his artier film days. ("George Washington" and "All the Real Girls"--which also stars Zooey Deschanel and Danny McBride--are two of the most beautifully-shot films I've ever seen.)

It certainly has better effects than it needs to have, and some of the fight scenes are actually pretty thrilling. It almost feels like they really wanted to make an honest-to-goodness fantasy epic--there's definitely one in there--but lacked the courage of their convictions, and instead decided to go the parody route.

The problem is, the parody is too tame, and what we get instead is humor centered on anachronistic swearing, and a lot of really, really lame gags, most of them involving dicks: the viewing of dicks, the lack of dicks, and the fear of other men's dicks.

This all leads to some obvious questions about the creation of this movie. Were Green and McBride stoned when they wrote it? Was the cast when they filmed it? Did they get the producers and studio stoned before they screened it? And if all or even some of that is true, it seems only fair that there be a person passing out doobies--"Even More Immersive than 3D!"--at the theater door. But since they aren't, all I can say is, see this movie sober and you're bound to have your high hopes shattered.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Pooping Jelly Beans: Hop

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

I'll freely admit that when it comes to cute things, I am an unabashed sucker. Puppies and kittens will easily raise a piercing cry of "OH MY GOD SOOOO CUUUUTE!" from my lips, but I also tend to have the same reaction to stuffed animals, greeting cards, and, on rare occasions, babies. So I did not go into the movie "Hop" with any kind of reluctance. That bunny is fucking cute, yo.

Alas, no level of cute is a cure for an uninspired story, the lack of any real humor, or hopeless acting.

"Hop" is the story of E.B. (Russell Brand), the teenage heir to the Easter Bunny crown. He lives on Easter Island (duh) with his father (Hugh Laurie), who the current Easter Bunny, (no mention of mummy bunny), and an army of yellow chicks who work in the candy factory that fills the world's Easter baskets every year. But E.B. does not want to be a beloved holiday icon; he wants to be a rock and roll drummer, and decides to escape the island, via rabbit hole, taking his dreams to Hollywood.

It is at this point that the movie's combo of animation and live action takes hold, "Alvin and the Chipmunks"-style (both are directed by Tim Hill). E.B. pairs up with Fred, a twentysomething slacker (James Marsden), who reacts in disbelief at the talking rabbit, although no one else who meets E.B. seems all that surprised, including David Hasselhoff, who plays himself. (Of course, he may just be playing an absolute blotto version of himself who would not balk at the sight of a drum-playing, talking bunny.)

Back on Easter Island, the head chick, Carlos (Hank Azaria), plans to take over the Easter Bunny vacancy via a forced chicken coup.

The animation in "Hop" is really quite lovely, and director Hill has had enough practice with the live-action/animated hybrid that the results are pretty seamless. So it's a shame that these things are utterly wasted on a movie that only managed to make me laugh once--ONCE!--in a scene in which E.B. pretends to be a stuffed animal, and is squeezed with glee by Kaley Cuoco, who plays Fred's sister. (And, OK, the fact that the bunnies poop jelly beans is a nice touch.)

And it's not enough to say "Well, this is a kids movie!" There were a lot of youngins in the theater when I saw it, and they were noticeably antsy during any scenes that did not include the cute bunny (and there are way too many scenes that don't), and didn't seem all that amused by any other moments, either. Also, I'm pretty sure jokes involving the Playboy Mansion and the Hoff are going to be lost on them, (and aren't very amusing for adults, either).

I have been utterly immune to the so-called charms of Russell Brand, but his performance as E.B. is probably the least annoying thing he's done thus far. Unfortunately, this lack of annoyance also seems to result in a lack of humor, as he really doesn't have any memorable lines in the entire thing. And I am not sure comedy is James Marsden's calling, as his approach to it revolves around constant mugging, which, coming from a face like his, is the visual equivalent of Ethel Merman singing through a mega horn: waaaay too big.

"Hop" is not an affront to comedy, animation, and children's movies; it's not worthy of hate. But because it doesn't really try to be anything but completely innocuous, inoffensive, and tame, it ends up being about as satisfying as a hollow chocolate Easter bunny, albeit a cute one you feel a little bad about biting the head off of.