Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire

Unfortunately, I missed the advance screening of Danny Boyle's (Trainspotting, The Beach, 28 Days Later, Millions) latest pet project when it screened at the Virginia Film Festival back in October. Three months later it got a limited release and I was able to catch it at our local avant garde theater wishing I'd had a chance to see it on a bigger screen. Here is the conundrum that breaks my heart. How does a movie this well put together, poignantly delivered and even socially relevant get released on as few theaters as possible to the tiniest audience bracket when a blatant Hollywood pocket liner like "What Happens in Vegas," "Four Christmases" and whatever bullshit Larry the Cable Guy comes up with will release to scathing reviews and still take #1 at the box office? End Rant...

Slumdog Millionaire is a veritable art museum of cinematography and editing. Of course, this comes as no surprise as this tends to be one of veteran director Danny Boyle's trademarks. Genre experimentation has also been his strong suit during the course of his career. Adding his signature visual aesthetic to such genre pieces like 1999's underdog rom-com A Life Less Ordinary, the zombie-esque apocalypse horror film 28 Days Later (which he is currently rumored to be revisiting for the franchises 3rd outing 28 Months Later) and sci-fi mood epic Sunshine. This time he takes on Bollywood and nails it with seeming ease and precision.

Again rooting for the underdog (or Slumdog in this case,) Millionaire follows the extraordinary life of Jamal Malik. Orphaned at an extremely young age, the course of his life is established through a set of flashbacks incited by the trivia questions on the Indian version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," on which he has been accused of cheating. After all, who would expect a formerly homeless orphan to know the increasingly difficult answers on the widely popular gameshow. And since this is Mumbai we're talking about, the treatment of the perpetrator is less than pleasant at times, so be ready for that, at least. Luckily, for the films benefit, it doesn't fall into a predictable pattern (question, flashback, question, flashback, etc. etc.) It sets the stage this way and then finds it's own growth and narrative structure, all the while making sure to leave no question unanswered (so to speak.)

Hopefully, Slumdog Millionaire will be able to walk away with an award or two this season. An admirable feat considering there's not a single recognizable face in the film (all Indian cast, completely unknown within the US filmgoing community.) So whether you're able to see it in a theater this winter, or have to hold off until it's domestic DVD release, be sure that this film is on your "to see..." list as soon as possible, it's worth the time/wait/whatever might be holding you back.


There was a time when Guy Richie was on top of the world. He'd had a breakthrough success with his two bit petty thug crime comedy called Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and the even more successful pseudo-follow up Snatch (you know, the one with Brad Pitt.) He even went as far as marrying Madonna. It was about this time that he and fellow producer Matthew Vaughn parted ways. Vaughn pursuing projects like Layer Cake (starring a pre-Bond Daniel Craig and the Neil Gaiman adaptation Stardust) and Richie going on to release Swept Away, starring his wife and Revolver, which was delayed for about 3 years and to this date, you'll be hard pressed to find anyone who's actually seen it.

Returning to the well from which spawned his first two successes, RockNRolla, after much deliberation, is a particularly unfortunate spectacle. It seems Guy has come down with what I like to call "George Lucas Syndrome." A small amount of large scale success and the ego is inflated to elephantine proportions wherein a story editor or second or third draft are no longer necessary to efficiently tell a compelling story, resulting in sloppy narrative and self indulgent exposition. In short, I was BORED. That's right, bored. At a Guy Richie movie! In what kind of Bizarro universe does this happen? Though with an impending divorce, I may not be the only one to notice Richie is slipping.

First off is the pacing issue. Now, I'm all for building the mood and character in lieu of dispensing the action for the sake of the audience attention span, but the first hour of RockNRolla is convoluted at best and the exposition does little to move forward or even explain the plot. This would seem formulaic for a Guy Richie film, but his priors (Lock,Stock and Snatch) did it with a more endearing and entertaining quality that culminated in a 3rd act that revealed all loose ends to be lit fuses connected to the same stick of dynamite, which would promptly explode some time before the credits rolled. In RockNRolla, the seemingly unrelated characters and incidents remain unrelated and the plot threads never really mesh for the better part of an hour and a half and then they all get shoehorned into a finale showdown that seems forced and comes off uninteresting and kind of predictable. By the time anything really started to happen, I was more preoccupied with how hungry I was than what was happening onscreen. Either I should eat more often or I was a victim of bad storytelling.

The cast with impressive credentials does very little to impress here. They also have the trademark weirdo gang names. Gerard Butler (making yet another attempt to break into the mainstream without resorting to chick flicks) is a thug that might be gay. Tom Wilkinson has a thick accent and a bald head. Thandie Newton proves once again that she IS in fact British, and Jeremy Piven and Chris Bridges (aka Ludacris) play a couple of record producers with very little to do (apparently the tour was over and Entourage was between seasons.) Relative newcomer Toby Kebbell plays drug addled rocker Johnny Quid who also narrates the tale, for no other good reason than his thick accent, rippling abs on an emaciated skeleton and his pointless contribution to the 3rd act showdown.

I'd hate to think that Guy Richie's career was a fluke at best, but he's done nothing to prove otherwise in the last 8 years since Snatch hit the screen (though his former cohort Jason Statham has proven he can maintain muscletone and be smarmy in EVERYTHING.) With a new twist on the classic Sherlock Holmes on the way starring new fan favorite Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law we'll see if Guy Richie still has what it takes to be the cutting edge director he once was or if his ship has indeed sailed. However, the Ninja Sherlock Holmes he's been pitching sure doesn't bode well. At least RDJr's got another Iron Man in the works to soften the blow.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Quantum of Solace

2006 saw the rebirth of a classic franchise that had been molested repeatedly for close to ten years. The James Bond name became an eye-rolling Disney ride of a cartoon by the time it reached Pierce Brosnan's final chapter (and not a moment too soon, either.) Casino Royale came out the gates with not only a new face to the unmistakable name, but an entirely new feel. Gone were the gadgetry, hokey dialog and world-domination-bent mastermind super villains that have haunted Ian Fleming's slicker-than-thou spy. In it's place was a well put together adaptation of the original novel, updated to make sense in the 21st century and grounding our hero back to a more human playing field.

Since *spoiler warning* Casino ends on a relatively cliff-hangery moment, the sequel was more or less imminent (also taking into consideration the box office intake, it was damn near guaranteed.) Does Quantum of Solace live up to the standard re-set by Casino Royale? Yes and no. It really depends on what you're looking for. The casual aesthetic of Casino is absent in lieu of a more action oriented pace, as the central plot involves Bond carrying out a personal vendetta.

New 007 director Marc Forster (acclaimed director of Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland and Stranger Than Fiction) gives the film a certain Bourne quality with some excessively kinetic action sequences (I'm still not sure if my confusion came from our unfortunate vicinity to the screen or just extremely shaky camerawork,) though what can be made out is some rather impressive and entertaining spy-violence. Basically picking up mere minutes where Casino left us ("Bond, James Bond..." Bad-ass...) Quantum carves the path of an agent on the verge of going rogue, torn between his loyalty to his country and his desire for a bloody revenge. And, of course, no 007 adventure is complete without the signature "Bond Girl," which even in this case moves away from type and instead of a strict love-interest/sidekick, Camille (played passably by the lovely Olga Kurylenko) acts as more of a skewed mirror image of Bond. Sometimes working together out of happenstance, though never actually working toward the same goal. Two opposing though similar means to an end, which is to say, there are technically two villains to dispatch (one with considerably more screen time than the other, for obvious reasons.) Dominic Greene (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly's Frenchman, Mathieu Amalric) is Bond's central target, a third world exploiting businessman with the temperment of a rabid hyena. Jeffrey Wright returns as American CIA agent Felix Leiter and 007's side source and of course, Dame Judy Dench as the cold, yet matronly M.

While sometimes a little confusing and a bit hard to piece together at times, Quantum of Solace is an ample follow up to a series reboot of Casino's magnitude (which was somewhere in the Batman Begins radius, though Quantum doesn't come close to The Dark Knight's sequel appeal, it does it's best.) There are some well placed and tasteful tributes to Ghosts Bond's Past, you may know them when you see them. While it's already debunked that the next installment will not be a further continuation of the Casino/Quantum arc, it's not a huge concern. If Casino Royale reinvented the Bond-Wheel, Quantum puts those wheels on a car, places an angry man behind the wheel and drives it through your living room wall.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Fringe - Season 1 Holiday Break Assessment

It's not surprising that the new J.J. Abrams series Fringe is doing as well as it is. With hits like Alias (first two seasons anyways) and LOST under his belt, this new age horror/sci-fi/mystery hybrid with the dynamic sensibilities of the X-Files of yesteryear has become the mainstay in my Fall season primetime TV watching routine; and not a moment too soon with the slipping integrity of former prodigal series Heroes.

While the similarities to X-Files are present (and sometimes just plain rampant) within each episode, Fringe manages to serve as more of an homage than a rip-off or clone. Replacing the aliens and unexplainable monsters is the seemingly untapped realm of "fringe science" (keep a record, how many times will I say Fringe in this whole thing? Four so far) or more appropriately "theoretical science," yet unproven phenomena such as ESP, cloning, teleportation, etc. There's the FBI, the interdepartmental division involved with the "out there" cases, and a company called Massive Dynamic which may or may not be involved in (wait for it...) a series of bizarre occurances being refered to as "the Pattern." In comparison to the inner workings of the island on LOST this sounds pretty simplistic, but with each new episode the mysteries seem to connect in the least likely of places creating a dark, mysterious and ominous atmosphere that's been missing from serialized drama over the last six or seven years.

Olivia Dunham, FBI (Aussie blonde newcomer Anna Torv) is called in on a case where a terrorist attack has just taken place on an incoming flight to Boston (no, not Oceanic flight 815, Glatterflug flight 627 to be exact but just for fun, Glatterflug is German for "Smooth Flight.") As it appears, all the passengers, including the terrorist, have seemingly melted. The big boss Agent Broyles (Lance Reddick, aka LOST's mystery man, Matthew Abadon) warns that this is part of something bigger and of course she doesn't believe him (but we all know that it's true.) However, in the midst of the case, Agent Dunham's boytoy/work partner, Agent John Scott is pretty much blown up and infected with the contagion from the Hamburg flight. This leads Dunham to her series cohorts Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble, Return of the King's evil madman Denethor) and his wanderlusting, arms dealing, swindler of an estranged son, Peter (Joshua Jackson, in a significant departure from Dawson's Creek's resident whatever-guy, Pacey.) Walter, having experienced a psychotic break in an undisclosed, work related accident alongside Massive Dynamic's founder Dr. William Bell, has spent the past 17 years in a mental institution. Dunham tracks down Peter and with his reluctant help, Walter is released to find a cure for Agent Scott's condition as he may have been familiar with the contagion. And this is just the first 20 minutes of a two hour pilot episode.

This week's episode, entitled "Safe" marks the last episode before the holiday break (not returning until late January, as most shows do in the winter months) leaving us with a pretty hefty cliffhanger. While some smaller questions were answered, like most of Abram's series, these just led to even larger, more prominent questions. Questions I don't think I can wait to be answered (but wait, I will.) I am also predicting some substantially cliffhanging season finales in the coming years.

Thanks to the nice timeslot, following House M.D, enough viewership warranted a full season order from cancellation mongers FOX and it continues to receive positive reviews from those who choose to write-up every week (ahem, Jeff Jensen... where's my Fringe TV Watch on EW already?) While it's proven to be a much more new-viewer friendly series for the most part, keeping the mythology heavy episodes fewer and farther between, I wouldn't be surprised if
the over-arcing storyline takes the lead should the show manage to stay on the air for more than two or three seasons.

Until its return I will likely be rewatching all 10 episodes, not to catch up per se, simply because the show is so damned fun to experience. If you haven't seen it yet, do yourself a favor.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Zack and Miri Make a Porno

Kevin Smith is one of those directors that I'm so mindlessly faithful to he could put out a movie like Jersey Girl and I'd still pay to see it, and even kind of like it. While he's had trouble distancing himself from his roots in Jersey post-Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, the summer vacation of a movie that was supposed to "tie off" the loose ends of the original series of preceding films (Clerks, MallRats, Chasing Amy and Dogma,) Jersey Girl rang a bit too sappy and sentimental for die-hard Smith fans and everyone else just plain hates Ben Affleck. So it was back to the watering hole for a final farewell to Red Bank with Clerks II (which underwent about 3 or 4 subtitles ranging from "Hardly Clerkin'" to "Passion of the Clerks.") This time, he's finally put these characters to rest, peacefully and respectfully with his new film Zack and Miri Make a Porno.

Zack and Miri puts Kevin back in the seat where he's best. Writing for twenty-somethings. His eloquence and predilection for ten dollar words combined with lewd humor and sex jokes have and always will be his strongest suit and it is back in full force with this outing. Now, Smith is no stranger to controversy. Having previously fended off GLAAD and the Christian Coalition (receiving actual death threats from the latter...) he had to take on the industry's own MPAA this time around. Now it is literally impossible to make a movie entitled "Zack and Miri Make a Porno" without a moderate amount of onscreen sex, whether there's any nudity to go with it or not and while there IS full frontal on both male and female (in a brief comedic context and never onscreen together at the same time) the MPAA saw fit to slap an NC-17 rating across the little film. This is what could be the cinematic equivalent of the Motaba virus and Smith was not about to stand for it. Luckily, through several cuts and pleading his case to the board, he was able to squeeze an R rating before release.

Prerelease drama aside, Zack and Miri is a thoroughly enjoyable film if not a bit uneven at times. A staple of Smith's writing is one or two extended monologues purveying the thematic weight of the piece. Jeff Anderson as Randal Graves did this in Clerks, Jeremy London's T.S. Quint was responsible in MallRats, Ben Affleck's Holden McNeil piggybacked by an opposing Joey Lauren Adams as Alyssa Jones followed in Chasing Amy and so on. Seth Rogen's Zack Brown pulls it off well in this outing, unfortunately it's at this point where the movie loses focus. Now, I'm all about emotional depth and building believable characters, but this should not come at the expense of the narrative story-arc. Without spoiling too much, if the title of the movie states that two people are setting out to do a particular thing, it's probably a good idea to ensure that A) they do just that and B) if said objective is not completed, give us a plausible explanation why. While it's definitely not my least favorite of Smith's filmography, it is far from the best. In truth, it almost seems like a less genuine younger brother to '96's Chasing Amy.

Casting-wise, the only returning Jersey Alums are Jeff Anderson (Randal Graves of Clerks fame) and Jason Mewes (actually NOT playing Jay) who do their thing passably, Mewes actually coming off slightly nerdier than his previous alter ego. Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks (having worked together on Judd Apatow's 40 Year-Old Virgin) have a chemistry that is both obviously awkward and sweetly endearing. Rogen, apt at playing the stocky blockhead since his debut in Judd's one-season series Freaks & Geeks is pretty much perfect for Smith's brash loudmouth character (he's always got at least one of them, except it's usually Jason Lee.) Though this time, the sensitive guy and the loudmouth are rolled into one person which added a strange sense of inner conflict that seemed like relatively new territory, though it was left mostly unexplored by the film's end. Elizabeth Banks' Miriam Linky is just plain adorable, as most of her characters are. The Office warehouse worker Craig Robinson steps in as Zack's coffee shop work-buddy (we get the idea they would be closer friends if he weren't married) and makes for some particularly funny exchanges. Porn-heir Tracy Lords also makes an appearance (after all, you can't make a movie about porn without a veteran, thankfully this time it wasn't Ron Jeremy) and shows some actual acting chops. However, the show stealer comes and goes within the first 20 minutes. Justin Long (Jeepers Creepers and last summer's Die Hard 4, possibly cast due to his on set friendship with Kevin) displays some character acting beyond compare in a Kevin Smith film as a west-coast gay porn actor with a ironic connection to Zack and Miri's graduating class. Complete with gravelly voice, slicked back hair and what just might have been some well placed ad libs, I was in stitches for the depressingly short duration of his presence on-screen.

While not quite as funny as some of the other comedies of '08 (more laughs per capita are present in Tropic Thunder and Pineapple Express) it's still well worth a trip to the theater now that we can all put gas in our cars without breaking the bank. And though it gets a little lost in the message, it is a message that we can all aspire to in one way or another. I'm interested to see where Kevin Smith goes from here, having recently announced a horror film (Red State) and a yet untitled sci-fi picture.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Strangers

It's the end of October and Halloween is in the air again. The temperature drops, the leaves start to fall and it's the perfect time to shut off the lights, curl up on the couch with a plate full of pumpkin seeds and hot cider and settle in for a marathon of good old fashioned horror movies. Sadly, "good old fashioned horror movies" are in short order these days, as the industry seems to have forgotten what truly makes a movie scary anymore. Then I watched The Strangers.

On the surface, it's easy to pass this movie off as "just another horror movie," but upon closer inspection, it's so much more than that. Produced on what looks like a shoestring budget with only six characters to speak of, The Strangers relies almost solely on mood and atmosphere as opposed to flashy special effects and excessively gory deaths. From the outset, the movie is an uncomfortable journey into fear. The main characters Jamie (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler) share an inordinate amount of uncomfortable silences before the story actually begins to unfold, setting a sort of base coat of tension in preparation for what's to come.

High marks go to first time writer/director Bryan Bertino on a number of levels. The actors (especially Liv Tyler, who spends a large portion of the movie in front of the camera by herself) handle themselves admirably, reining in more than believable performances. Tactfully placed reveal shots combined with sparse lighting and a very red heavy color palette add to the mood. The fluid narrative and depth of character help to raise The Strangers above typical "torture porn" and transcend the horror genre to an almost psychological level. The violence is sparse and blood kept to a minimum and yet, the film pulls off what gorier incarnations have failed to achieve.

It's obvious that Bertino understands the basic principles of genre film-making (or any kind, for that matter.) In order to create a truly visceral, real and terrifying experience you have to place to viewer in the mindset of the characters, make them feel the tension of the moment as if it were happening to them. This is something that's been missing from horror movies for as long as I've been watching them, and that's the problem. I've only been watching them and not experiencing them as the genre begs them to be. The Strangers is as effective today as John Carpenter's Halloween was in 1978, all the while never bothering itself with cliched serial killer stereotypes. So I welcome the fall season with a shiver in my spine and and a paranoid glance over my shoulder. The Strangers has succeeded where so many others have failed.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Burn After Reading

If you've ever seen a Coen Brothers film, you know just how abstract and disjointed a cohesive narrative can get, in fact, I've come to expect it from them. Even their more mainstream films like Intolerable Cruelty displayed wildly erratic behaviour and character traits commonplace to any typical psyche ward. If this is what you're expecting, Burn After Reading will not disappoint by any means.

Burn combines the more ridiculous aspects of the CIA, online dating, paranoia and the workout culture into a mystery of absurd proportions (in the same narrative confusion that made The Big Lebowski such a cult phenomenon.) Everything about the story is closely hinged on the idea that nobody has a clue what anyone else is really up to causing a ripple effect of idiocy and overreaction that ends up having some very entertaining (if not morbidly violent) repercussions.

The show stealer this time around is Brad Pitt (tactfully credited last) as the flamboyantly energetic and charmingly dim gym instructor. His interplay with co-worker Frances McDormand (who, unfortunately hasn't had a notable role since 2001's Cameron Crowe film Almost Famous) is brilliantly hilarious. Coming in second is George Clooney as the paranoid, womanizing, sexual deviant. John Malkovich drops almost as many eff-bombs as John Goodman in Lebowski. Richard Jenkins takes a turn for the morose (opposite his excitable and furious role in Step Brothers.) Tilda Swinton is a smarmy bitch and J.K. Simmons provides a confused objective commentary from his office in the CIA.

The culmination of the film is a whirlwind of bizarre incidents that would be classified as "wacky" if it weren't a Coen Brothers film, instead they can be chalked up as poignant absurdity. While not their best film of late, it is a fun ride that rises out of the shadows of last years dark award winner No Country for Old Men.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Baby Mama

I'll be the first to say that 30 Rock is one of the best sitcoms on TV right now. I'll also be the first to say that Amy Poehler is still one of the funniest members of SNL (a torch that's soon to be passed to newcomer Kristen Wiig, but that's another story.) The casting decision to put both Tina Fey and Amy Poehler opposite each other is always a smart one since they work so well together. Unfortunately, this was probably the only smart decision encompassing the entirety of production on the film Baby Mama.

Though not without it's charm, Baby Mama can be summed up as the uglier younger sister to last year's Knocked Up. Written and directed by SNL writing alum Michael McCullers, this outing's disappointment doesn't come as a surprise when his resume includes such "hits" as Undercover Brother and the second and third Austin Powers films. The plot is pretty formulaic and the gags are moderately underwhelming, though it's impossible to hate the movie for its shortcomings when the two main characters are as damned cute as Tina and Amy.

The final ace up Baby Mama's respective sleeve is the supporting cast. I found myself saying "Holy crap, *insert celebrity name here* is in this?" at least four times, and these aren't mild mannered cameos either. Among the star studded day players are Sigourney Weaver, Greg Kinnear, Maura Tierney and (most surprising of all) Steve Martin all providing a handful of laughs a piece to prevent any unnecessary gut-busting.

Overall is was considerably endearing and pretty funny for the most part, though I'm glad I didn't end up paying $9 to see it in a theater. Worth at least a rental if all your other options have been exhausted.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Tropic Thunder

Though Ben Stiller has had about as many career misses as Nicholas Cage in recent years, the only difference is that Ben Stiller manages to climb out of the hole he's dug himself every once in a while and make something worth paying ten bucks to sit in a crowded theater. Even then, he usually has to make the movie himself to give himself any credit (excluding The Royal Tanenbaums of course) because lord knows, no one else will until they shovel out the next in the Focker series (and you know it's coming so buck up and deal with it already.) But all bitchery aside, Stiller knows his satire as proven by The Cable Guy, Zoolander and the latest and most likely to offend just about anybody, Tropic Thunder.

When early promotion for the film first popped up I had just about no interest in it because I failed to notice two things. 1) The film was co-written by Stiller himself, which I'm more likened to give a fair shot and 2) The black guy in the background on the first promo shot was freaking Robert Downey Jr, and while this was impressive and altogether ballsy, I still wasn't completely sold until the first red-band trailer was downloaded onto my computer. Yes, the movie was rated R and a hard R at that. Now, I'm not one to sing the praises of a movie just because it's garnering a MPAA tag that promises at least a handful of F-bombs and some morally questionable material, but when you're aiming for the level of comedic satire that this movie was advertising, it's kind of a must.

Now that you've got the backstory, now about the movie itself. Like Zoolander, it doesn't take it's material seriously enough to get lost in the actual "plot" at hand but rather revels in it's own absurdity while it takes merciless pot-shots at Hollywood and the entertainment industry as a whole. I'd never have left it to Ben Stiller to blatantly point out how ridiculous the idea of being a celebrity is, but he did an admirable job. Kicking off with a fake energy drink commercial followed by three trailers for movies featuring each of the "lead stars" previous films set the tone for the 2 hours that followed. Stiller the action star that's literally made the same movie six times (via the Hollywood sequel machine,) Jack Black the slapstick comedy genius with a drug problem (with some low blows to Eddie Murphy and Young Hollywood in general,) and Robert Downey Jr the method actor who literally becomes every character he's ever played, dying his skin brown the play an african-american in the film within the film "Tropic Thunder." And what surprises me was the lack of offense to a white actor in blackface for almost two hours in lieu of several minutes of dialog involving the word "retard." They're making fun of actors (Tom Hanks, Sean Penn and Dustin Hoffman come to mind... they're also mentioned in said dialog) not the handicapped.

Stiller handles his character well, though his screen presence can be a bit cumbersome at times. Jack Black serves up his best performance since High Fidelity. Robert Downey Jr goes without saying, but I'll say it anyways, is a brilliant performer and provides the most quotable performance of the summer (I found myself saying the "I know who I am!" speech at least 10 times the week after viewing.) Though the most surprising cast member was the underplayed but genuinely funny Jay Baruchel (Knocked Up, TV's canceled UnDeclared and Million Dollar Baby) as rookie actor Kevin Sandusky. The kid's got promise and I look forward to more of his work. Danny McBride's (The Foot Fist Way and Pineapple Express) gung ho pyrotechnic specialist was well played and Nick Nolte was in it, so there's that. More surprising were the unexpected appearances by both Matthew McConaughey and Tom Cruise (the latter almost unrecognizable.)

Overall, Tropic Thunder was one of the better comedies I saw this summer and I didn't feel bad that it knocked The Dark Knight out of the number one slot the week it came out. If you're looking for a good laugh and you don't get offended too easily, go ahead and give Stiller one more chance.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Pineapple Express

It's come to my attention lately that there are very few mainstream comedies worth seeing lately. Maybe it's due to a maturing sense of cinematic awareness on my part or it could be that studios don't know what's funny anymore. Either way, there are few names left in the comedy game that I can trust anymore, luckily one of those names is still Judd Apatow. Following the success of last years breakout comedy Superbad, which thrust the uber-talented Michael Cera and Jonah Hill into the public eye and unleashed the writing styles of Apatow alum Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg on an unsuspecting world (both with writing credits on the underappreciated TV series Undeclared.) Now comes their sophomore feature length Pineapple Express.

I’ll go ahead and say right now that Pineapple Express is the type of movie that I’m normally likened to hate at first glance and without Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow’s names involved I may not have stepped into the theater in the first place. If it’s one sub-genre that I don’t find entertaining, it’s “stoner comedy.” I have trouble laughing at what is generally two guys sitting in a room bantering about how high they are, and unless there’s a pretty engrossing plot going on (a la Dazed and Confused ) I can usually find better things to be doing with my time. While marijuana is a prominent factor in Pineapple, the usual stoner mechanics takes a backseat to the actual story. The thing that proved funniest was that while they never draw attention to how much pot they’re smoking, what you realize is that 90% of everything they do is motivated by how high they are. This way, when either of the characters do something outlandish or unrealistic when faced with a situation, you don’t have to suspend your disbelief that far at all.

The script is consistently solid. Rogen and Goldberg have proven that Superbad, their 10 year pet project, was not just a fluke. Instead of injecting the mainstream with yet another in a long line of teen-comedy clones (College, The Rocker, the umpteenth American Pie sequel, etc. etc.) they’ve concocted a well timed action-comedy satire. Playing up the ridiculousness of most action movies (the never-ending ammunition, the conveniently placed and accessible firearms, the over the top splatter-gore) definitely kept the laughs coming.

It was good to see Seth Rogen and James Franco side by side again after eight or so years (since the disintegration of Freaks & Geeks, one of the most promising shows that never got a chance) and their chemistry is still right on. I've been defending Franco for years, in light of his role choices in a flurry of inspirational military academy flicks and the Spider Man franchise, and I was happy to see him knock this role out of the park. Rogen was good as usual, I'm curious as to how much was actually ad libbed and how much was scripted. There were some nice "guest" appearances, most notably Ed Begley Jr. ,Nora Dunn and the surprising return of Rosie Perez. I was also very impressed by newcomer Danny McBride (the new recruit in the Apatow Army after his breakthrough mockumentary The Foot Fist Way, of which I have yet to see.)

All in all, Pineapple Express is not just a Pot Comedy. It's a well developed action-comedy-satire that happens to have a fair amount of pot smoking in it. Needless to say I'm looking forward to Seth Rogen's take on the classic character The Green Hornet.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Charlie Bartlett

Films about high school have been a mainstay in the halls of cinema for as long as it's been able to be captured on film. From American Graffiti to American Pie, these movies generally represent the way we wish high school could've been for us ideally, in a comedic background. Then there are the high school "issue" movies like Pump Up the Volume and Heathers that aim for the societal issue. Charlie Bartlett steps up to the plate with the intent to have its cake and eat it too by cramming a comedy with a message.

The most salvageable thing about Charlie Bartlett are the actors. Grade-A performances are shelled out by Robert Downey, Jr. (of course,) Hope Davis, Anton Yelchin (Hearts in Atlantis) and Kat Dennings (40 Year Old Virgin.) Yelchin especially, playing the neurotic outcast, Ferris Bueller clone that becomes the high school's impromptu bathroom therapist, I can tell this kid has a healthy career ahead of him. Hope Davis as the prescription drug addled mother was wonderful and of course RD Jr. never lets me down. The dialog is witty and convincing, charming and alarmingly funny, though this is where the problems begin.

Charlie Bartlett is a film that suffers from cinematic schizophrenia. I assume in an attempt to emulate a certain kind of high school movie, it decided to emulate ALL of them. There are scenes that I was sure I'd viewed before, and then I realized that I had. I'd like to say that this is all homage, but I can only picture the writer sitting down at his computer after enduring a 48 hour educational system movie marathon, becoming the proverbial Victor Frankenstein of the screenwriting trade. A little bit of Mean Girls meets a little bit of Thumbsucker meets a little bit of Rushmore thrown in for good measure. All in all, there was the central character arc involving Charlie, but then that was diluted with about ten other thematic elements. It seemed that the movie stumbled over all of these elements in an attempt to find its own footing and make its own point, but in the end it outstayed its welcome and ran about thirty minutes too long. Then in a freak occurrence of meta-screenwriting, the movie seemed to notice its unnecessary longevity and ended so abruptly that it felt as if nothing was actually resolved. Also, my biggest beef was with a scene late in the second act that would've held a fair amount of gravity had it not been abruptly killed by a raucous punk song and a rather pointless riot.

Now don't get me wrong. Charlie Bartlett is not a bad movie. It's a fair movie with a problematic script that was overshadowed by the talent of the actors involved, which is similar to the stance I have on Juno. I'd definitely recommend seeing this movie, but here's a list of movies to see first.

Pump Up the Volume
The TV series Freaks & Geeks
Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Mean Girls
The Chumscrubber
Sixteen Candles
Ferris Bueller's Day Off
Grosse Pointe Blank (whatever, there's a high school in it…)

Step Brothers

If anything, you can't deny that Will Ferrell does his job well. Whether the result is funny or not is up to opinion, but chances are, you've all laughed at SOMETHING the man's done over the course of his career. Once Ferrell teamed up with director Adam McKay (Anchorman – The Legend of Ron Burgundy) and producer Judd Apatow (Knocked Up and TV's erroneously canceled shows Freaks & Geeks and Undeclared) we got to finally see what kind of comedy Will Ferrell goes for and has since given us a plethora of hedonistic man-children. What surprised me about this routine was the introduction of veteran character actor John C. Reilly. Having appeared in high grade films such as Gangs of New York, Boogie Nights and The Thin Red Line it never occurred to me that this man was absurdly funny. It also helps that Ferrell and Reilly have possibly the best onscreen chemistry of any comedy team since Abbott and Costello, except with more swearing and genitalia.

The concept of Step Brothers is basically a close cousin to 2004's The 40 Year Old Virgin. Ferrell is Brennan Huff and Reilly is Dale Doback. Both are in their late 30's and live with their parents and act like a finicky pre-teen. Their respective parents Robert Doback (Richard Jenkins of the late series Six Feet Under) and Nancy Huff (Mary Steenburgen of Back to the Future III fame) fall in love and get married forcing Brennan and Dale into each other's presence. What results is a particularly hilarious clash of dominant personalities. Dale portrays the more dominant bully type and Brennan is the uber-defensive, passive aggressive side of the coin. As their antics progress, it devolves so far into absurdist immaturity at certain points it actually becomes relatively predictable. This can also be attributed to the trailers and promotional materials that usually divulge the funnier moments, which isn't to say Step Brothers doesn't have its fair share of gags up its proverbial pant leg. Some of the funnier moments were brought about by Richard Jenkins exasperation with the "boys" which thrust him into fits of swearing and vulgarity, usually uncharacteristic of a man of his age and profession.

Unfortunately, the film suffers from some pacing issues at the midway point. It shifted from being genuinely funny to TRYING to be genuinely funny. Though, this is only for about 20 minutes in the middle-end and it gets back on track nicely in time for the finale. While not the crowning glory of the summer movie season, Step Brothers is a thoroughly entertaining 90 minutes of raucous, vulgar and absurd humor for the immature kid in all of us.

But it's no Superbad.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Dark Knight

Christpher Nolan waltzed onto the film scene in early 2000 with his (purposely) muddled psychological character drama Memento (based on a short story by his brother Jonathan) and it seems that he’s since made a career out of the dissection and analysis of the human psyche. In the age of the Comic Book Movie, no hero is better suited for Nolan than the Batman. After the franchise took a turn for the worse in the late 90’s, making Batman appear more like a member of the Pussycat Dolls than the fearsome Caped Crusader, it seems the character was shelved in Hollywood. However, a plethora of comic books took a turn for the dark side (The Long Halloween, Dark Victory and Hush, all compliments of senior scribe Jeph Loeb) and thus was the basis for the relaunch in 2005. Originally handled by Darren Aranofsky as an adaptation of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, the project was halted after the script was deemed “too violent” (ironic, really…) and was then handed off to Chris Nolan and writer David S. Goyer (Dark City and the Blade trilogy), which became what was to be Batman Begins. Now in 2008, Nolan returns to continue the saga with The Dark Knight.

Batman Begins was the unexpected kick in the teeth that the franchise needed out of a re-boot. Finally fleshing out Bruce Wayne’s transformation into the intimidating force we’ve all come to know and love, Nolan’s desire to ground the material in the “real world” as much as possible lent to the film’s staggering success. It’s just as important to understand where your character came from as to where they’re going, and Begins paved the way or at least laid the groundwork for what will become the standard for the Batman mythos on film. That being said, The Dark Knight does everything the perfect sequel should do. It’s bigger, darker, heavier and faster and it barely slows down at all before the final credits roll.

The only words I can think of to describe the story are Sprawling Epic. The scale of the film is monumental, and the comparisons you’ve been hearing in all the other reviews (Heat, The Departed, Godfather II) are all completely accurate and relevant. It seems the superhero element was lightly dusted around the Gotham City crime saga, whereas you can omit Batman and Joker and still have the makings of brilliance all around. Now that we’ve got the origin story out of the way, it’s time to take on the big guns, and as promised, those big guns are manifested in Bruce Wayne’s arch-enemy and eternal tormentor, The Joker. The story takes so many twists and turns, it feels as if you’re trapped in the backseat as the Clown Prince of Crime drives headlong off a cliff, laughing manically all the way down. Once it starts, there is very little time to catch your breath.

Now, without question, the late Heath Ledger took the Joker and knocked it out of the goddamn park. Watching him onscreen, he was nearly unrecognizable; disappearing into the character completely in what will likely be the quintessential Joker from this day forward. Joker has been somewhat of a wild card (both in character and portrayal) over the years. Cesar Romero’s depiction in the 1960’s camp-fest TV series was rather silly, with the white makeup encrusted in his moustache while just kind of laughing at everything. Jack Nicholson’s performance in Tim Burton’s 1989 film was good, but still didn’t bring anything new to the character. The Dark Knight gives us a Joker that we’ve never seen before, or even dreamed of. The result is actually quite frightening. With his scarred visage, psychotic laughter and sadistic temperament, Chris Nolan and Heath Ledger have given us a villain that is so maniacally unpredictable, you wouldn’t want to be in the same room as him, let alone try and stop his criminal rampage. His actions teeter on the brink of hilarious and terrifying, more than a few times I found myself laughing and cringing at the same time. In doing so, the Joker has become what his namesake represents; the wild card. He leaves a path of destruction in his wake and lets the pieces fall where they may, whether they serve his intentions or not. And it’s extremely tragic that we’ll likely never see a performance of that caliber again.

As far as the rest of the cast, each one knocks out a solidly comparable performance alongside their fallen cast-mate. Christian Bale has finally gotten comfortable in the skin of millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne. In this chapter, it becomes apparent that Batman is the driving force in his existence and Bruce Wayne is just a circumstantial passenger to his dark alter ego. Michael Caine’s Alfred the Butler is spot on, as expected. Gary Oldman returns as police lieutenant Jim Gordon, his character played up this time around, as he represents the dichotomy between the police force (order) and Batman’s vigilantism (chaos.) Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) is back, serving up more Bat Gadgets and also flexing his Wayne Corp muscles, keeping Bruce afloat and under-wraps. One of the ballsiest moves was the recasting of assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes. Replacing Katie Holmes is Maggie Gyllenhaal who truly takes the character to its depth, caught between her deepset emotions for Wayne and her current love interest; which brings us to Gotham’s “White Knight” District Attorney Harvey Dent (Thank You for Smoking’s Aaron Eckhart.) Polarizing the Batman dichotomy as the city’s hope for sanity, he represents one of the key themes in The Dark Knight. There are two sides to every coin. Right, wrong, order, chaos, due process, vigilantism, life and death are all represented and flipped on their sides, crossing lines that should not be crossed and thrusting characters into moral dilemma’s from which the results could be catastrophic.

Improving upon its predecessor by leaps and bounds, yet still remembering where it came from, The Dark Knight is essentially the perfect sequel. It has transcended the comic book/superhero movie genre into something else entirely; something truly epic.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Incredible Hulk

2003 marked the year that Marvel first stumbled over it's own ambitions before sprawling flat on it's face by over saturating the movie-going community with poor adaptation after poor adaptation. One of the first of these missteps was Ang Lee's version of The Hulk. Too much stylization, not enough character or plot and portraying Hulk as a giant half naked emo-kid with daddy issues combined with an incoherently confusing and frustrating ending made for the flop of the century. Even solid casting choices like Jennifer Connelly weren't enough to save this mess. With Batman getting the reboot in 2005 after an eight year break from the multiplexes, I wasn't expecting another Hulk attempt for at least another four to five years. But lo and behold, 2008 has brought us The Incredible Hulk, oven fresh with a new cast and director. And believe me when I tell you, it's better for it… by leaps and bounds.

From the start, this movie paves right over top it's predecessor by re-establishing the origin story WITHIN the opening credits (and let me tell you, there is absolutely NO recycled footage from the first film, if anything it's a giant homage to the 70's television series.) Replacing Eric Bana as the internally tormented scientist Bruce Banner is Edward Norton, who falls into the role as if it were second nature. And quite honestly, it kind of is, with psychologically split roles in Fight Club and Primal Fear under his belt, this over exemplified Jekyll and Hyde persona is right up his alley. William Hurt plays the dodgy General Ross who is tracking Banner as best he can along with the aid of the war ravaged foot soldier Emil Blonsky (renowned Brit badass Tim Roth.) Both with ulterior motives of their own design, their dynamic performances reflecting and refracting each other every step of the way, not a beat is wasted on these two. My only qualm is that William Hurt's moustache will never live up to the epic proportional standards of previous Ross portrayer Sam Elliott (but then again, whose moustache ever will?) Dr. Betty Ross, the resident lost-love interest, returns to the scene at the hands of Liv Tyler who handles the emotional beats surprisingly well. If there's a movie for her to re-prove her worth since her role in Lord of the Rings, this one is it. Another notable appearance is that of character actor Tim Blake Nelson (O, Brother Where Art Thou? as well as bit parts in Minority Report and Syriana) whose role will remain nameless for the sake of possible spoilers.

One of the major improvements on the relaunch was the focus on Bruce Banner as a character, not just as the seed for that which is The Hulk. With little dialog up until the first actual "Hulk Out," we're given the portrait of a desperate man on the run. A man willing to do whatever is necessary to find a cure for his wrecking ball of an alter ego. Norton embodies this entirely, providing what could be the quintessential Banner for the first time onscreen since Bill Bixby's television portrayal. Possibly even moreso.

Throughout the film, there are nods to every medium that Hulk has been represented in. References to the television show are as subtle as a flannel shirt or as simple as a brief onscreen appearance by the original Green Monster, Lou Ferrigno (he's even given a couple lines this time, as opposed to his literal "walk by" in the 2003 edition.) I was particularly taken by the representation of Hulk's mental evolution, from haphazardly picking up and tossing whatever may do the most damage to protecting himself or developing crude weapons out of whatever is available and may do the most damage. Yet, he remains a creature (literally) of pure instinct, and it doesn't let you forget that, even at his most human of moments. Also fun is the incorporation of a few of the trademark "abilities" that he's demonstrated in the comics over the years (I won't ruin them for you, but if you know them, you'll be giddy when you see it happen.)

All in all, I'd say this movie was almost, if not just as enjoyable as Iron Man (there's even a slight tie in, for the Avengers' sake. Also keep your ears open for a Captain America reference.) And if you're not as compelled by the story elements as I was, then just revel in the blatant bad-assery that this film provides in it's plentiful action sequences. There's just something ridiculously awesome about an Abomination being bashed repeatedly in the face with the front end of a police cruiser.

Hellboy II - The Golden Army

It seems that director Guillermo Del Toro has been one of the most renown hot/cold directors to emerge from the Hollywood fantasy scene in the last eight years or so. Gaining critical acclaim for his early Spanish language work Cronos and The Devil's Backbone and then being panned across the board for the commercial flop Blade 2, Del Toro seemed to bridge the gap with the mostly ignored HellBoy. Based on the Dark Horse comic book of the same name, created by Mike Mignola, HellBoy was released to a lukewarm reception just prior to the comic-book-movie explosion (Thanks, Marvel…) alongside blockbusters like Spiderman 2, Punisher and (ironically enough) Blade: Trinity. While not an amazing film, I found the original HellBoy to be a decent starting point for what will turn out to be a trilogy (as is the thing to do these days.)

Though it wasn't until Del Toro released Pan's Labyrinth that he started to become a household name (whether you can pronounce Guillermo or not…) Now four years after the first HellBoy outing comes the long anticipated and budget inflated sequel HellBoy II - The Golden Army. Now I'll give a fair warning, I'm a pretty big fan of the source material and I may find it necessary to point out the differences and therein the flaws of the film franchise compared to the printed medium. That being said, this movie was considerably better than its predecessor.

One of the noticeable differences from the first film is the production design. Now working with the special effects team behind Pan's Labyrinth, HellBoy II's creatures were much more intricate and bizarre than the first outing, ranging from whimsically dangerous to gut wrenchingly twisted. I was also surprised at the amount of puppetry was used in lieu of CGI. Unfortunately, this is one of the areas that strayed from the comics, but not in a bad way. Golden Army's monsters looked more like a mishmash of Final Fantasy bosses than long dead mythological deities, though I've always been a fan of the FF monster design, so the eye-candy was a treat for me.

Performance-wise, David Hyde-Pierce (Niles Crane from TV's Frasier) ducks out on Abe Sapien's voice duties, leaving body actor Doug Jones to fend for himself. Admittedly, he's a bit shaky on the outset, but eventually filled the Fish-Man shoes well enough for me not to have noticed a difference. One of my biggest qualms with the films in comparison to the comics is HellBoy's portrayal. In the comics, he doesn't say much and when he does, it's rather inconsequential, however in the movies, he is basically a Duke Nukem/Ash from Evil Dead/John McClane one liner machine. Which is unfortunate, because I'd like to think the Seed of Destruction, our proverbial Left Hand of Doom has more depth than "Now you've pissed me off!" But I digress. Ron Perlman looks and plays the part to a tee as per usual and Selma Blair manages her way out of the paper bag she's been stuck in since the last HellBoy. The new addition to the BPRD (Bureau for Paranormal Research and Development) Johann Krauss is entertaining for a while and serves his purpose in the end, at least for some rock'em sock'em, popcorn action. Sadly, Jeffrey Tambor's character, BPRD chief Tom Manning, is horridly underplayed (as an Arrested Development fan, it always pains me when any member of the Bluth family is cast and then ultimately cast aside) but then again, there's a consumer friendly run-time to keep in mind.

The story this time around is yet another classic "bad seed seeks revenge on the world and family that shunned him" which would seem redundant if not for the plethora of character involved. It was pretty apparent that there was likely a good 30 minutes of footage cut from the final film as some of the overlaying themes were cut short in the last act, but in today's "unrated director's cut" DVD market, I can see these words on the box art following it's home video release.

Overall, the movie should keep you entertained for it's almost two hours and as usual, it caps itself off while leaving room for the imminent sequel. Mostly, I see this movie as decent filler to bridge the gap until The Dark Knight comes out.

The Happening

Ever since his major debut in '99 with The Sixth Sense, director/writer/whatever M. Night Shayamalan has cornered himself as a proverbial one trick pony. It seems that everyone will go into one of his films asking themselves "What's the twist going to be?" and spend most of the film trying to think far enough ahead of the story in order to beat it to the punch. Admittedly, The Sixth Sense was effective (if not fairly predictable to some) and Unbreakable was very well done, though the twist in this case was particularly unnecessary, it still worked for all intents and purposes of the film. It wasn't until Signs that I started to see a flaw in the designs and the dangers of clich├ęd repetition. I was onboard Signs the whole way (an alien apocalypse seen from one small household) until the last five minutes when we were bashed over the head (almost literally) with that trademark twist. A twist that singlehandedly ruined the previous 103 minutes. I'll admit, it was after this mess that I washed my hands of the Shayamalan name altogether as I haven't yet bothered to see either The Village or Lady in the Water.

However, The Happening intrigued me. It seems in an attempt to distance himself from his "twist of fate" as it were, M. Night has left the 3rd act reversal behind in lieu of something else entirely. The previews for The Happening looked especially intriguing and featured something yet uncharted for the director, an MPAA rating of R. Unfortunately, as it turns out, you can't substitute one gimmick for another and expect anything of substance to come of it.

The story (if one can even really call it that) follows Elliot Moore, played by Mark Wahlberg and his wife Alma, a particularly unemotive Zooey Deschanel in their attempts to outrun and ultimately survive an outbreak of a toxin that causes the survival instinct in humans to be repressed, resulting in mass suicide. Therein lies your R-rating. The first 15 minutes or so are fairly effective, though it's all downhill from there, right about the time Mark delivers his first line. Now, I'll be the first to say Wahlberg is a pretty accomplished actor at this point (with roles like The Departed, Boogie Nights and I Heart Huckabees under his belt) but he phones in the worst performance of his career, either through terrible dialog or bad directing. The only performance that was passable is John Leguizamo who is underplayed to the point of insignificance.

It is explained very early on (and repeatedly thereafter) that the toxin that is affecting the eastern seaboard is the result of a rapidly evolved defense mechanism in plants and it's being set off by smaller and smaller groups of people. Starting in Central Park, New York and eventually "chasing" groups of five or six people across small county Pennsylvania, the toxin is only ever displayed by heavy winds, which makes absolutely no sense at all. Granted, there isn't really a way to SHOW that a plant originating toxin is after you, but this method implies that either the plants are causing the wind or the toxin evokes strange and unusual weather patterns. Good for the cast, bad for the picky (or even rational) viewer. And of course there is the obligatory message about global warming, mass-media sensationalism, gun control and (for no apparent reason) religious zealotry.

I was hoping this would be the film to take M. Night Shayamalan out of the "do not watch" column, but alas, it just doesn't seem like he really cares about his art or his audience anymore. A promo on the Sci-fi channel quoted him as saying "Whatever… it's rated R…" It just goes to show, if you don't have a story worth telling, it doesn't matter what it's rated. It's still garbage.


The budding animation studio Pixar spread it's wings in 1995 with their flagship pet project Toy Story, the company has, in a mere 13 years, literally gone "To Infinity and Beyond." And their latest masterpiece Wall-E is definitely a testament to their company's limitless potential.

Marking the third directorial outing for executive Pixar head John Lasseter's right-hand man Andrew Stanton (Bug's Life, and Finding Nemo,) the company does not seem intent to break it's stride any time soon. As you may or may not know, Wall-E stands for Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class, which brings us to Earth in the distant future. Humans have left and Wall-E is the sole surviving unit left to "clean up the planet" to make it habitable again. Though, one thing went wrong. He developed a personality, which is brilliantly characterized in the films opening scene. There is approximately 30 or so minutes that are literally devoid of any dialog (and honestly there doesn't need to be) as we learn more about Wall-E and how he's adapted to "life" on his abandoned planet (his predilection for the film "Hello, Dolly" is particularly adorable.)

Pixar has always prided itself on it's attention to detail and Wall-E is no exception. In fact, Wall-E has gone ahead and set a new bar for digital animation. From the dirt encrusted on his outer casing right down to the lovable robot's collection of knick knacks, no stone was left unturned. At times, I was almost certain someone had hand placed actual props into the film, it was that realistic.

I was also surprised to see that there were some pretty heavy themes at play in what will likely by 2009's Best Animated Feature Oscar Winner (just my bid, I could be wrong, but unless somebody releases an animated version of Citizen Kane, good luck!) Ranging from anti-big business (Wal-Mart, I'm looking and you) and human over-dependence on computers and machinery (as I review this movie on my laptop, preparing to post it on the internet...) there is also the glimmer of a "greener" message under the beeps and blips that everyone can take to heart in this resource diminishing age.

Another aspect that caught me by surprise (and it really shouldn't have) was the film's score by Thomas Newman (best known for the award winning theme to HBO's Six Feet Under.) It carried the film where it needed to and gently supported it when otherwise necessary. And I'm not one to rush out and buy the score to just any movie, but this may be the next iTunes download I invest in.

As I've learned over the last ten years, Pixar has rarely let me down (their only misstep being Cars, which admittedly, I haven't seen if only for the presence of Larry the Cable Guy) but Wall-E exceeded all of my expectations and then some. It's cute, thought provoking, visually gorgeous and overall (and most importantly) just plain fun.

Across the Universe

Thus far people may think that I'm one of those reviewers that loves everything. I've posted three write-ups for movies I liked. True enough, but this will not be one of them.

When I first caught wind of this phenomenon called Across the Universe, I was pretty excited at the prospect of a musical using only songs by the Beatles that was also a visual interpretation of their existence in their musical, social and politically tumultuous era of American History. Even the trailers made it look like the makings of a modern classic.

Now it all sounds good in theory, and I'm sure had someone else been at the helm, a salvageable film would've been possible, however, I don't know what kind of bad drugs Julie Taymor (Titus) was doing while consuming mass amounts of High School Musical Disney Channel drivel to come up with this incoherently predictable mess. And I'll be the first to admit that I'm not a huge fan of the musical (Sweeney Todd was great and admittedly Moulin Rouge was amazing) but I know how they're supposed to work. The songs being sung should have some significance to what is going on in the scene. That being said, the song choices and placement were horrendous. Someone needs to explain to Miss Taymor the definition of the term "subtlety." When the artistic license of these classic tunes wasn't wrenched so unforgivingly out of proportion that the meaning is lost in a sea of confusing and homoerotic imagery (army recruitment dance numbers) it was crammed so blatantly down our throats that it seemed these scenes were thrown together by a 3rd grade remedial music class (think of singing the song "Blackbird" as a blackbird flies by, with no real association with what's going on in the scene.)

Then there were the one dimensional characters. Each persons motivation was so one sided and boring that by the end of the movie, I really didn't care what they'd accomplished so long as I got out of the theater with my brain safely in my skull and not dripping out my ears and on to the floor. Jude (yes, they named all the characters after significant Beatles nomenclature) comes to the Americas in search of his "war hero" dad. He falls in love with (you guessed it) Lucy who's brother happens to be Jude's new stateside buddy Max (Maxwell's Silver Hammer, for those keeping track.) The boys get the hairbrained idea to move to the "big city" and go nuts. They line up a dumpy apartment from Sadie (should I really even bother anymore?) who happens to be the resident Janis Joplin ripoff and soon they're all rooming together along with fellow Jimi Hendrix ripoff, JoJo and lesbian former cheerleader Prudence. Sound lame? It is.

What ensues is to be expected. No surprises, except that the talent of the Beatles is wasted on a story this pointless. For a more pleasant experience, drop some acid and pop in "Magical Mystery Tour" and call it a night.

Southland Tales

Southland Tales, the follow up to 2001's cult phenomenon Donnie Darko by writer/director Richard Kelly, will likely not fall into the same status it's predecessor did. While Darko remains to this day one of my favorite films in recent years, Southland Tales may have been too big of an idea to sell this early in a budding film career. One can go into this film expecting anything and there is a 99% chance that what you get will not be remotely close. Even after reading the adjoining prequel graphic novels (Two Roads Diverge, Fingerprints and The Mechanicals) the conclusion encompassing parts 4,5, and 6 (Temptation Waits, Memory Gospel, and Wave of Mutilation) takes so many turns that it will take you by surprise whether you want it to or not.

Now those of you who have seen it, prepare your biting remarks and fresh produce for the flailing when I say I really enjoyed this movie. Overall, one can describe it as a "Pop Culture and Political Satire in the Apocalypse Blender on High Speed." The film in itself is basically commenting on the state of affairs, ALL affairs that we as Americans are dealing with in this day and age. We worship false gods on the silver screen, we're running out of fuel resources and our personal freedoms are being infringed upon more and more each day. These are all issues represented in Southland Tales that come to an absurdly chaotic conclusion that I found both whimsically odd and poignantly tragic.

One of my main concerns and points of confusion with the film was it's overabundance of characters. The central three (or four) are Boxer Santaros (Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson) the amnesiac movie star who is sleeping with Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar,) the porn star with her own reality show and hit single and Ronald Taverner (Seann William Scott,) amnesiac Iraqi war vet posing as his kidnapped twin brother Roland Taverner for an extremist group's publicity stunt/sting operation. Confused yet? That's just the beginning, and a laundry list of characters follow, weaving together a tapestry of conspiracy, revelation and ultimately, destruction. We have Zora Carmichaels (SNL's Cherie Oteri) a head of the upstart radical group, the Neo Marxists, Republican Senator Bobby Frost (played by Mr. Darko himself, Homes Osborne, the character's name being one of the two poets who inspired the film,) war draftee Martin Kefauver (Thumbsucker's Lou Taylor Pucci,) rogue cop Bart Bookman (John Lovitz,) the ice cream truck driving arms dealer Walter Mung (Highlander's Christopher Lambert,) Military Research specialist Simon Theory (a heavily made up and aged Kevin Smith,) and the war torn, drug addicted vet and narrator Pilot Abilene (a surprising casting choice of Justin Timberlake, who plays it surprisingly well.) The ever growing list of names and motives admittedly make for a particularly frustrating and confusing viewing experience, though for me, this adds to the replay value. Creating a puzzle that may or may not come together into a solid image. Though, to it's benefit, there are some really awesome scenes and imagery going for it, even if they never really meld into a coherent story. Some of the visuals in the last 20 minutes are impressive to say the least.

After rereading the graphic novels and giving the movie a few watches, I can surmise this. The moviegoing public or the public in general is not now, nor will it be ready for a movie that crosses so many genres while commenting on the current state of affairs and ultimately doesn't take itself seriously enough. But when it comes down to it, that is precisely the point Kelly was trying to make from the get go. Whether you loved it, hated it or couldn't care less, maybe it struck a chord somewhere and got you thinking.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

As a long time fan of the series, dating back to the tender age of six when I witnessed the nazi's melting faces with awestruck amazement and genuine horror, I was particularly excited for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Now here's the thing. When you're anticipating a new Indiana Jones movie, what is it you're really looking for? Anthropological facts? Historical accuracy? Shia LaBeouf's naked ass? Of course not! Indiana Jones is the quintessensial thrill per minute adventure formula, so to expect any more or less would just be foolish. That being said, allow me to continue.

I'll start by saying I absolutely loved this movie. It harkened back a time when I gaped at movies in wide eye'd hypnosis and just let the ridiculousness ensue. By and large, this is possibly the largest scale Indy adventure thus far. While not spanning the globe to the extent of The Last Crusade or Raiders of the Lost Ark, the perilous obstacles are grander in scale by leaps and bounds, yet it still doesn't feel like it's too much. Once you've seen Indy outrun a giant boulder or gracelessly leap out of the way of the Breath of God-Death Scythes, it's not hard to believe anything he pulls off in Kingdom, even at his progressed age.

I admit, at first I was kind of distracted by Ford's weathered facade, but as soon as he started bounding across the rafters of the government "relic warehouse" I was sold. Ford's still got it and he ain't losing it anytime soon (I think after this we can forgive Hollywood Homicide.) Cate Blanchett fairs well playing Russian dominatrix/telepath (I know, right?) Irina Spalko and is relatively unrecogizable with her Louise Brooks haircut. Shia LaBeouf welcomes himself to the series as Mutt Williams, Indy's supposed son with Raiders alum Karen Allen, who returns as Marion Ravenwood (now Marion Williams, naturally.) John Hurt fills the absent shoes of Sean Connery as Jones's former mentor and colleague Oxley. Another welcome newcomer is Ray Winstone (Nicholson's left hand in The Departed and of Beowulf fame) as Mack, a cockney Brit who seems to have been through a war or two at Indy's side.

Granted this day in age the overuse of CG effects is a concern to everybody not in line to see Pixar's next instant classic (Wall-E, June 27th!) and of course Spielburg is going to use it. However, he DID use it sparingly, like he said he would, but when you've got a nuclear explosion, giant fire ants and a jungle-buggy swordfight it's kind of hard NOT to use it a little bit. Now I've been hearing a plethora of complaints about this movie and I can understand them to a point, but at the same time, I can't help but think that people didn't know or remember what kind of movie they'd paid to see. Anything in this movie is not more or less believeable than jumping from a crashing plane using nothing more than an oversized life-raft as a makeshift parachute or downing a Nazi fighter plane with a parasol and a flock of seagulls.

All in all, if your expectations are in the right place you should thoroughly enjoy Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. While not as good as Raiders or Crusade, it is much more enjoyable than Temple. Good cast, good adventure, good fun. Buy some popcorn and just remember to have fun.

Iron Man

In what can be called the "official kick off to the summer movie season," Iron Man definitely opens up with a bang. Literally. One of the many downfalls or weak points in comic book movies of late has been what I refer to as "Origin Story Syndrome." With results ranging from a tedious 30 to 40 minutes of a nerdy Peter Parker coming into his new powers in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man to the heavily character driven vision-quest of Bruce Wayne that took up more than half of in Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins (the latter succeeding by leaps and bounds in my book.) When we are introduced to Tony Stark (played perfectly to a tee by my favorite revolving door rehab client, Robert Downey, Jr) we're barely given enough time to get comfortable in our squeaky theater seats before the first explosion is set off, thrusting our protagonist into the birthing process of a hero in the making. The different in this origin story is the way in which it's developed inside the over-arcing storyline within the film. At no point did I find myself thinking, "Well, ok, when the hell is he going to become Iron Man, already?" mainly because I was so enthralled with Tony Stark as a character. Whereas most comic book adaptations are all about the hero and the villain and overcoming the evil plot, these elements are melded perfectly within the story of a man coming to terms with his personal and moral obligations after becoming a victim of his own naivety and carelessness.

As I said before Robert Downey, Jr personifies Tony Stark completely. From his performances in Zodiac and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang the choice was golden from the start. Jeff Bridges plays a perfect villain as Obadiah Stane and Terrence Howard plays a decent best friend/sidekick (or future War Machine.) The only character I felt was a bit of a misstep was Pepper Potts, played by a whimsically vacant Gwenyth Paltrow. It's not that she's untalented, I just don't think she really knew what to take from the character, resulting in a clicheic and sort of blank character that really doesn't do a whole lot for the film. Also, just for fun, look for Peter Billingsly's cameo (Ralphie from 'A Christmas Story,' yeah, he's in there.)

Overall, a good start for Marvel's independent production studio (now their own entity.) Jon Favreau (director and actor protraying Stark's chauffeur) obviously has a love for the character and the genre and let's it show onscreen without regret. With the sequel greenlit and rumored to be in early development already, let's hope that Marvel doesn't let old habits die hard and ruin it the way that X-Men 3 and Spider-Man 3 flew the coop and kicked it's entire audience in the teeth.