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.