Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Eagle Eye - DVD Review

EAGLE EYE (**) - Starring Shia LaBeouf, Michelle Monaghan, Billy Bob Thornton, Rosario Dawson, Michael Chiklis, Ethan Embry and Anthony Mackie.
Directed by D.J. Caruso.

Kalukistan? Really? Did I hear that right? Because at first I thought I heard them call it Palooka-stan, and I knew the filmmakers weren't that cynical. I'm not a big fan on made-up countries in movies, unless it's something like Freedonia with Pres. Groucho Marx. Or Moldavia from Dynasty, but then, Moldavia eventually became a real country.

I am almost over Shia LaBeouf. I've been rooting for him ever since I saw Holes and season 2 of Project Greenlight. The movie he made on that series - The Battle of Shaker Heights - wound up being forgettable tripe, but Shia had professionalism about him, and he seemed like a good kid. His persona, though, hasn't evolved beyond the fast-talking hustler type, where he's pretty much been the same character in the last four or five movies he's done.

So we now come to Eagle Eye, from Disturbia director D. J. Caruso, and it comes off as a Jon Turteltaub remake of The Game, with some Enemy of the State thrown in, containing a third-act revelation that's hard to swallow, even in a movie like this. (Diagram that sentence, Abbott!)

The movie gets its name from a government project that enhances its ability to spy on its citizens. Hence this female voice is able to call Jerry (Shia) no matter where he is, and give him instructions that he must follow right then. She can see through every camera, hear every cell call, access every database, jam any signal...

Jerry must go on the run because he finds himself being framed for terrorism. Meanwhile "she" is putting him through a series of tasks he must complete if he wants to stay alive. Billy Bob Thornton is the determined FBI agent hunting Jerry down, and like Gerard from The Fugitive, he eventually figured maybe Jerry's innocent of what they're pursuing him for.

I don't want to hint at the reveal, as I figured it out well before it happened, much to my chagrin ("they're not really going down this path, are they?..."). It has some good chase scenes, but otherwise, allow me to damn it with faint praise by saying it's better than Jumper.

And I'm hoping Shia chooses something a little more challenging once he's done with Transformers 2.

American Teen - DVD Review

AMERICAN TEEN (****) - Directed by Nanette Burstein.

The best teen drama of the decade. Maybe that's because it's a documentary cut together like a John Hughes movie.

Yes, Virginia, high school is still like you remember it. Your social cliques, your awkwardness, your pressures, your joys, your failures, your fleeting friendships and crushes, and your sense of impending doom or release when graduation comes. All there. All here.

It focuses on four seniors at a small Indiana high school. They introduced as cliches, and then we see them fleshed out into real people. There's Hannah, the artsy rebel; there's Jake, the band geek; there's Colin, the basketball star; and there's Megan, the popular mean girl. Fifth kid Mitch (handsome jock) is thrown in there, so there can be five like The Breakfast Club, but it's really about the four.

It's amazing how much frank footage Burstein was able to gleem. These kids don't seem to care they're being filmed, like everyone's life is its own reality show. Particularly Megan, who does some cruel things in this movie that surely inspired some nasty retaliatory posts on her MySpace page.

I was rooting for each kid, especially as you learn more about their personal lives and what may have shaped them this way. I wanted Megan to recognize how hurtful her behavior was. (In a fiction movie, she'd end up with punch poured on her head at prom, and that would be that.) I wanted Colin to get that basketball scholarship. I wanted to Jake to finally figure out how to talk to a girl. I wanted Hannah to find some happiness that wasn't related to today's boyfriend.

Some of it feels staged, but I was moved by the plights of these kids, and as this chapter closed on their lives, I wanted to just know that they're all okay. Call it the beauty of using real people.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Valkyrie - Movie Review

VALKYRIE (***) - Starring Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Carice van Houten, Terence Stamp, Thomas Kretchmann and Eddie Izzard.
Directed by Bryan Singer.

Maybe when it was conceived, this movie was Oscar-bait material. Its journey has resulted in a straight-forward action-thriller, albeit one with an inevitable unhappy ending. As my wife put it, "it's hard to watch a movie about good people doing the right thing, knowing they're going to fail miserably."

Nevertheless the Nazi is Hollywood's most utilized villain, and by extension, the German. Now we get a movie where the majority of Germans are good guys who just find themselves trapped in a bizarro world where their country is ruled by a madman. Tom Cruise is fine, if a bit out of place, as Col. Stauffenberg, the one-eyed soldier who sees that Hitler must be stopped, and he finds a circle of rebels, generals and such, all played by Brits, who need a decisive man to join their team.

Every man knows he will be killed if they fail, but they fear the consequences if they do nothing. I didn't read in advance, so I didn't know the fate of their families, and every time we see Mrs. Stauffenberg (Black Book's Carice van Houten, underutilized here), I wondered if she and the children would suffer the same fate we know her husband will.

Adding to the pain is to see how well the rest of their plan would have gone, if only Stauffenberg's bomb had actually killed Hitler. I'd love to see the Holodeck simulation on that one.

The Tale of Desperaux - Movie Review

THE TALE OF DESPERAUX (***) - Starring the voices of Matthew Broderick, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Watson, Ciaran Hinds, Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, William H. Macy, Stanley Tucci, Tracey Ullman, Christopher Lloyd, Frank Langella, Tony Hale, Frances Conroy, Richard Jenkins and Robbie Coltrane.
Directed by Sam Fell & Robert Stevenhagen.

This movie was more thoughtful than I expected, more dramatic, which I appreciated. It would be more at home with Disney's old-school classics than most animated movies of the past ten or twenty years. As such, it was one where my five-year-olds squirmed through most of the movie. But for older kids, it's a rich tale, and the animation alone is quite beautiful, more closely resembling paintings come to life than anything else.

It's based on a book, and it feels like it throughout. After all, what original screenplay would have a side character that swirls to life embodied by the fruits and veggies that happen to be in the room?

It's an ensemble story, taking place in three worlds. There's the Kingdom of Dor, where the humans are. There's Mouseworld, hidden behind the walls and under the floors of Dor, and then there's Ratworld, a dark place in the underground sewers. It starts with Roscuro (Hoffman), a sea-faring rat who loves the smell of the soup coming from Dor. (I know many will compare this to Ratatouille because of that, but really, the book was written years before that great Pixar movie, so, be fair.) After Roscuro's nose gets him into trouble and sets off a chain reaction of tragedy, he finds himself plunged into Ratworld, led by the creepy albino rat Botticelli (Hinds). Dor becomes a gray kingdom, where rats and soup are declared illegal, and the princess (Watson) looks out her window every day, praying for rain to return to her land.

Meanwhile in Mouseworld, Desperaux is born, a tiny mouse with big ears and an unparalleled sense of adventure. Mice are supposed to be full of fear and anxiety; what's wrong with this child?

The movie opens up a tapestry of characters. We see a scullery maid in the corner at the end of the scene, and hey, what do you know, she has a part to play in this story too.

My main issue would be probably be with pacing. Some characters cried out for more development while other scenes lagged and went on too long, but it still takes some unexpected turns, and I appreciate any movie where I don't know what the next scene will hold but I'm looking forward to it.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears A Who! - DVD Review

DR. SEUSS' HORTON HEARS A WHO! (***1/4) - Starring the voices of Jim Carrey, Steve Carell, Carol Burnett, Will Arnett, Seth Rogen, Dan Fogler, Isla Fisher, Jaime Pressly, Amy Poehler, Jonah Hill and Charles Osgood.
Directed by Jimmy Hayward & Steve Martino.

Finally a big-screen Seuss movie done right. For decades, the half-hour Boris Karloff-narrated TV special of How the Grinch Stole Christmas has been the standard bearer. The live-action version I thought was okay at the time, but it doesn't hold up to repeat viewing. Mike Myers' Cat in the Hat was a monstrosity.

This one feels faithful to a Seussian world and sentiment, and it still allows for the humorous riffings of Carrey & Carell. Carrey's Horton isn't the humbledrum pachyderm from the old TV-animated special. He's hyper, he's over-the-top, he's precisely the animated vehicle to capture Carrey's natural cartoonyness. Carell gets his own clever verbal asides as the eager-to-please Mayor of Whoville.

It also pulls off a feat I feared most: it doesn't feel padded. It flows nicely and naturally in the story, with Charles Osgood's dutiful voice narrating in verse, guiding us through. It's from Blue Sky studio, and I'd take this over either Ice Age movie (excluding Scrat's scenes of course.)

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor - DVD Review

THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR (**) - Starring Brendan Fraser, Jet Li, Maria Bello, Michelle Yeoh, John Hannah, Luke Ford, Isabella Leong and Liam Cunningham.
Directed by Rob Cohen.

There are some problems with this movie that should have been ironed out before filming began. I usually like Maria Bello, but giving her dark hair and a British accent just pounded it home that she's not Rachel Weisz. And if in 1999 there was The Mummy, where Rick & Evelyn fell in love, and in 2001 it was ten years later where they had son Alex in tow, I guess it makes sense that in 2008, their son would now be 21. But Brendan Fraser is 39, and Luke Ford is 27. Freddie Boath, who played Alex in The Mummy Returns really was only ten when that movie came out, so he's 17 now. Anyway at this rate, Brendan Fraser's son will be his same age in The Mummy 4. And since this movie made almost $400 million worldwide, don't dismiss Mummy 4 just yet.

Now I know what some are thinking. Why make a third Mummy movie? Was there really that big a clamor for one? I repeat: it made almost $400 million worldwide. Movies are in the business to make money. I find it strange how Brendan Fraser could be in two successful blockbusters, but neither seemed to do a thing for his career. Well, I guess it means he can put off starring in a TV show for a couple more years.

Arnold Vosloo's mummy was laid completely to rest, and The Rock's Scorpion King became a good guy, so it's time for a new one. Alex O'Connell is now his own man, doing archaeological digs in China. He unearths the burial ground for the dragon emperor, played by star-power upgrade Jet Li. He'd been cursed by a witch, but naturally, with a drop of blood from one pure in heart, he can be awakened. Why do witches put little caveats in their spells like this?

Mom and Dad show up in China, and apparently Rick & Alex have father-son issues. "Why can't you let me fight my own mummies?" Weird as it is to see Fraser pretend to be Ford's father, it weirded me out more when I realized Ford looks like a 25-year-old Matt Damon and a 25-year-old Ethan Hawke have been photoshopped into one face. But I digress.

It was the big dumb explosion-fest I expected. Rob Cohen took over directing duties from Stephen Sommers, and he's actually a little worse. Proof of this is the fight scene between Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh. It's so choppy and slo-mo'd, it could be any two amateurs fighting. What is Cohen trying to cover up? You telling me Li and Yeoh can no longer choreograph five punches in a row without needing a break?

Monday, December 22, 2008

Mamma Mia! - DVD Review

MAMMA MIA! (*1/2) - Starring Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard, Amanda Seyfried, Dominic Cooper, Julie Walters and Christine Baranski.
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd.

Yikes. I'm glad everyone looks like they're having fun, but wow, what a trainwreck.

Movie musicals need leeway to get everything set up, and then you can swept up in the show. The good ones, like Chicago or Hairspray, can hook its audience right away. This one doesn't benefit from that great opening number. Where it lost me though was its first big number. "Dancing Queen" is when the whole island joins in, and the choreography is terrible. It's embarrassing to watch them do the same moves I've seen in school musicals.

Meryl Streep leads the hands-waving-in-the-air parade to the pier, and then they break into this jazz-hands, hip-shake thing that looks improved on the fly. Its chorus isn't rousing; it's a welcome signal that the end of this number is nigh.

Then there's Pierce Brosnan's... valiant attempt to sing. And Christine Baranski's creepy cougar number.

The plot's a flimsy thing about a girl inviting three guys to her wedding, any of whom could be her real dad. It's an excuse to string some ABBA tunes together, which should be doable. The ending's silly, and a bit painful since Brosnan's vocals come into play. It's supposed to be escapist fluff entertainment, but yeesh, would that it had a better director! Too many numbers feel forced, too many cast members feign fun, and too many of the songs fall flat.

Critical Consensus on 2008 Movies compiles the top ten lists of various film critics. With over 50 down, and several more to go, here's where things stand currently:

1. WALL-E - 277.5 points
2. The Dark Knight - 207
3. Milk - 185.5
4. Slumdog Millionaire - 182
5. The Wrestler - 153
6. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - 118
7. Rachel Getting Married - 114.5
8. A Christmas Tale - 112.5
9. Synecdoche NY - 101.5
10. Happy-Go-Lucky - 95.5

11. Wendy & Lucy
12. Let the Right One In
13. The Edge of Heaven
14. Man on Wire
15. Frost/Nixon
16. In Bruges
17. The Visitor
18. Che
19. The Reader

(4 Months, 3 Weeks 7 2 Days is the actual #19, but since it finished #12 in 2007, I took it out).

Now looking back through the years, these charts have been semi-indicators of how Academy voters might swing. * - winner

*1-No Country for Old Men
2-There Will Be Blood
15-Michael Clayton

2-The Queen
*3-The Departed
4-Letters from Iwo Jima
7-Little Miss Sunshine
(#1 that year was United 93)

1-Brokeback Mountain
4-Good Night and Good Luck

*3-Million Dollar Baby
4-The Aviator
13-Finding Neverland

1-Lost in Translation
*2-The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
3-Mystic River
8-Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World

6-The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
7-The Pianist
10-Gangs of New York
11-The Hours
(#1 that year was Far From Heaven)

So by this terribly unscientific look at the thing, no film has been nominated for Best Picture finishing outside the Top 19.

And Pixar movies have finished at fifth (Finding Nemo), sixth (The Incredibles), and ninth (Ratatouille) in their respective years, but never #1. So if ever there was a year to nominate a Pixar movie outside of the Best Animated Film category, this is it.

It also raises the question about best picture hopefuls like Doubt, Gran Torino and Revolutionary Road. Unless there's some critical surge, I'd write those three movies off for the big one. There's still a question as to whether or not The Dark Knight will get nominated. Far as I know, no superhero movie has ever been nominated, but it's unlike any superhero movie ever made.

I think the three locks for Best Picture nominations are Milk, Slumdog Millionaire and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The Dark Knight should be a lock, but you never know with this Academy. Frost/Nixon is the likely fifth. It's doing well in limited release, it's from Ron Howard, it leans left politically, but now I wonder if WALL-E could get a groundswell from out of nowhere, or if The Wrestler can get enough buzz about it's not just Mickey Rourke's performance that makes it great. If Harvey Weinstein worked for Pixar, I'd say he'd get the job done. This is the guy who talked the Academy into giving Roberto Benigni a Best Actor trophy.

Friday, December 19, 2008

My Best of TV 2008

1. LOST (ABC) - The flash-forward twist was awesome, revitalizing the show to its best since Season 1. New cast members like Jeff Fahey and Jeremy Davies added interesting constants to the formula, and the show seems more focussed now that they have an endgame. The best acting moment of the year for me was when Sun watched Jin die in the ship's explosion. It's been years since I've hoped a character isn't really dead, but I'm crossing my fingers Jin somehow got off that boat in time. I love a show that makes me care like that.

2. DEXTER (Showtime) - I can't believe Michael C. Hall hasn't won an Award for this yet. Maybe once Boston Legal is finally gone, James Spader will stop blocking Hall from winning for his intriguing anti-hero, the Serial Killer with a Moral Code. Jimmy Smits is sure to get some Emmy love this summer for his district attorney who goes from righteous to scary.

3. THE OFFICE (NBC) - Probably the only show on TV where I'll watch the reruns again.

4. MAD MEN (AMC) - Personally I like the restraint of basic cable that Sopranos vet Matthew Weiner has on him. I think adding nudity and profanity to this would subtract from its power in the moments of quiet devastation. For the rape scene, it's most effective when all we see is the shocked, deadened look on Joanie's face as she just tries to bear what's happening.

5. HBO MOVIES - History comes to life in fine form in John Adams, with Paul Giamatti breathing life into our second president, the most underrated one we've had until author David McCullough gave him his due. Bonus points for Tom Wilkinson's wily Ben Franklin, but there was also Wilkinson as James Baker in Recount. Baker may have been cast as the villain, but his scene where he reveals why he became a Republican makes it all okay. It made history suspenseful, which is hard to do. And House of Saddam was really good, too. So yeah, hard to choose just one.

6. BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (Sci-Fi) - All good things must come to an end too soon. I can't wait to see what the crew does now that they've found Earth, and found her to be a barren, radioactive planet. And then in a handful of episodes, it'll be gone.

7. SUMMER HEIGHTS HIGH (HBO) - Wisely, HBO didn't remake this show; they're airing it as it originally was in Australia, and I can't imagine anyone trying to do what Chris Lilley does so well in embodying three awful people (a self-absorbed drama teacher, a mean girl, and a Polynesian bully) week after week and making the next episode funnier than the previous. Sadly this was its only season.

8. LIFE ON MARS (ABC) - Jason O'Mara's a break-out star who holds his own with Harvey Kietel each week. I just hope this show is able to find an audience and stick around.

9. SURVIVOR (CBS) - Two good seasons in a row. The spring Fans vs. Favorites had some great twists and staggeringly stupid moves, each dumber than the week before. It was only marred by having a harpy like Parvati win it all, but that's what happens when idiots like Eric and Jason are all that stand in their way. The fall season had Marcus's Foursome look like an immovable force, but the underdogs overthrew it, and Sugar single-handedly made sure it was mixed up each week, to her own peril, but to the credit that a nice guy like Bob could win it all.

10. THE 2008 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION (Bunch o' networks) - Endless entertainment. The drama of Obama overthrowing the Clinton machine. John McCain emerging from the ashes. Sunday-news round-tables becoming must-see spin rooms. Romney vs. Huckabee. John Edwards revealed to be a total scumbag. Fox News vs. MSNBC and the winner is CNN's Campbell Brown. Saturday Night Live becoming significant again. Daily Show & Colbert Report with mounds of material. And so on.

Honorable Mentions:

PRISON BREAK (FOX) - Season 4 is the best since the first. The action's always amped, and the twists and turns don't feel desperate or made up on the fly anymore.

BREAKING BAD (AMC) - Bryan Cranston's wrenching protrayal of a dying man going to the dark side to financially secure his family has had its darkly funny moments, but it makes Weeds look silly by comparison.

DAN on BIG BROTHER 10 (CBS) - Sometimes when you watch a weekly-elimination reality show, it is so dang entertaining to watch a nice-guy underdog brilliantly outplay his housemates and come out on top.

My Worst of TV 2008

1. MOMMA'S BOYS (NBC) - I'm not sure who deserves more blame on a show like this. The producer? The casting director? The first six minutes - six minutes! - was a preview of what we'll be seeing this season, and it featured a ton of bad behavior. This is the Bachelor, Meet My Folks, and Rock of Love rolled into one. It had the usual catfighty stuff the first night, where one mean girl made another girl cry. What killed it for me was when it revealed the Michigan mom is a total racist. ("No blacks, no Asians, and no Jewish girls!") The fountain of ugliness gushed out, and what reason would I have to tune in for Episode 2 that didn't involve a degree of morbidity?

2. KATH & KIM (NBC) - Selma Blair, staring blankly at someone is not funny. Molly Shannon, this is not an SNL sketch; it's a character we're supposed to want to see week after week. Supposedly there was this funny Australian show on which this was based but it got lost in translation.

3. HOLE IN THE WALL (FOX) - Picture taking one game from the array of MXC, and focussing an entire show around just that, week after week. What next, a show solely dedicated to the Pyramid challange from American Gladiators?

4. DO NOT DISTURB (FOX) - Jerry O'Connell, show-killer. I can't say it's all his fault. The writing was bad enough, the cast of Cheers couldn't have saved it.

5. LIVING LOHAN (E!) - So that's why Lindsay's so screwed up. Actually the majority of the episode I saw seemed to focus on how much grief Dina Lohan's kids get for being Lindsay's siblings. These kids need some privacy, not a reality show.

6. THE MOMENT OF TRUTH (FOX) - I watched three or four episodes. One problem with this show is that the polygraph is wrong sometimes. Clearly most of the time it said someone had lied on their test, the contestant had told the truth. The main problem is that the questions are so probing and personal that it destroys lives. Literally. One couple got divorced after the episode aired where she admitted she'd had an affair.

7. REAL TIME WITH BILL MAHER (HBO) - I watched him on and off for years, but he's become meaner and angrier to the point there's no point seeing what he thinks of this weeks' issues. He loves strip clubs and pot; he hates religion and Sarah Palin. Got it.

8. TRUE BLOOD (HBO) - I'm sorry, but if most of an episode revolves around a guy with an erection that makes his unit swell up like "an eggplant", I'm done with you. Cool opening-credits sequence though.

9. FOOTBALL NIGHT IN AMERICA (NBC) - I never would have guessed a football show anchored by Bob Costas would be the lamest one on TV, but his supporting cast doesn't offer much help. CBS, FOX, ESPN, and the NFL Network all do it better.

10. THE WRITERS' STRIKE - It hurt the industry, killed viewership, eroded support of enough shows that they got cancelled, and when the dust settled it was clear that the concessions the WGA was not worth the money lost to their guild members, let alone the entire television industry. Besides, Saturday Night Live was dark during the GOP primary race. I hear Bill Hader has a dead-on Mitt Romney we'll likely never see.

Dishonorable Mentions:

DEAL OR NO DEAL (NBC) - I'm not bitter that I stood in line for seven hours for a 10-second audition, where I went first in my group then saw how the other nine in my group used their 10 seconds and wished like mad I had gone last instead of first so I could have done it better. Not at all. I mention this show because the episode where someone finally won the $1 million, they promo'd it with every commerical break that it was going to happen. That's like Survivor saying at every commercial break: "And tune in to watch Randy get voted out." Not to mention the winner was from Utah and so likely among the 10,000 that were there that day. I think she was the one dressed up like a fairy.

HEROES (NBC) - I loved Volume 1. I was iffy on Volume 2. Volume 3 committed some egregious sins continuity-wise, but I'll be back for Volume 4 to see if they learned their lessons. But the quality drop from Volume 1 to Volume 3 is glaring.

JOSHUA on BIG BROTHER 9 (CBS) - Somehow he beat out Mike Boogie and Evel Dick for being the biggest jerk ever on that show. How? By making fun of a houseguest's father's suicide.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

SAG Award Nominations


Slumdog Millionaire
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Richard Jenkins, The Visitor
Frank Langhella, Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn, Milk
Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler

Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Angelina Jolie, Changeling
Melissa Leo, Frozen River
Meryl Streep, Doubt
Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road

Josh Brolin, Milk
Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt
Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire

Amy Adams, Doubt
Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Viola Davis, Doubt
Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Kate Winslet, The Reader


Boston Legal
Mad Men
The Closer

30 Rock
Desperate Housewives
The Office

Michael C. Hall, Dexter
Jon Hamm, Mad Men
Hugh Laurie, House
William Shatner, Boston Legal
James Spader, Boston Legal

Sally Field, Brothers & Sisters
Mariska Hargitay, Law & Order: SVU
Holly Hunter, Saving Grace
Elisabeth Moss, Mad Men
Kyra Sedgwick, The Closer

Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock
Steve Carell, The Office
David Duchovny, Californication
Jeremy Piven, Entourage
Tony Shalhoub, Monk

Christina Applegate, Samantha Who?
America Ferrera, Ugly Betty
Tina Fey, 30 Rock
Mary-Louise Parker, Weeds
Tracey Ullman, Tracey Ullman's State of the Union

Ralph Fiennes, Bernard & Doris
Paul Giamatti, John Adams
Kevin Spacey, Recount
Kiefer Sutherland, 24: Redemption
Tom Wilkinson, John Adams

Laura Dern, Recount
Laura Linney, John Adams
Shirley MacLaine, Coco Chanel
Phylicia Rashad, A Raisin in the Sun
Susan Sarandon, Bernard & Doris


Fly Me to the Moon - DVD Review

FLY ME TO THE MOON (*1/2) - Starring the voices of Christopher Lloyd, Kelly Ripa, Tim Curry, Nicolette Sheridan, Robert Patrick and Ed Begley Jr.
Directed by Ben Stassen.

I guess the best thing I can say about is the animation is better than a quickie like Happily N'Ever After, but it apes the look of A Bug's Life too closely. Take the ants from a Bug's Life, make them shorter and fatter, add little antennae and wings, and now you have the flies. Flies are the sort of creatures I don't want to see made cute for kids. Baby flies are maggots, and the sight of maggots that are supposed to be cute just seems wrong.

It also features a Grandpa Fly who's at least forty years old. Um, excuse me?

It takes place in the 1960's, where three kid flies dream of going to the moon. They find a way to stow away on Apollo 11. Meanwhile there's a silly subplot of Russian flies trying to do the same thing. The movie was filmed to be in 3D, and there were several parts where I could almost hear the filmmaker whisper "Look what I can do in threeee-Deeeee!"

It's strictly for little kids, a place-holder to keep the munchkins quiet for an hour and a half, and there are plenty of better titles out there that can do that.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

My Academy Award Predictions

This'll change next week, and the week after, but...

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Slumdog Millionaire

Dark Horse: Revolutionary Road

Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino
Frank Langhella, Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn, Milk
Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler

Dark Horse: Richard Jenkins, The Visitor

Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky
Melissa Leo, Frozen River
Meryl Streep, Doubt
Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road

Dark Horse: Kristin Scott Thomas, I've Loved You So Long

Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon
Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight
Gus Van Sant, Milk

Dark Horse: Darren Aronofsky, The Wrestler

Josh Brolin, Milk
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt
Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire
Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road

Dark Horse: Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder

Amy Adams, Doubt
Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Viola Davis, Doubt
Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler
Kate Winslet, The Reader

Dark Horse: Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Bolt - Movie Review

BOLT (***1/2) - Starring the voices of John Travolta, Miley Cyrus, Susie Essman, Mark Walton, Malcolm McDowell, James Lipton and Greg Germann.
Directed by Chris Williams.

Pixar's John Lasseter served as executive producer on this, and I can see his touch. The story is more solid than Chicken Little, if not more familiar, and yet it has its own flavor.

I have a hard time counting the CGI animation movies as part of the Disney animated classics. To me, Disney animation stopped with Home on the Range (a bad note on which to end) and it will be revived with The Princess & the Frog next year. Meanwhile this is the best of the Disney CGI flicks, and actually the best non-Pixar animated film to come from Disney since Lilo & Stitch.

John Travolta voices Bolt, a Hollywood action dog who isn't aware that he has super powers and he's just on a TV show. When an episode ends in a cliffhanger, bolt still fears his person Penny is in danger. He escapes but accidentally gets shipped to New York, so he must trek back to L.A. to save her. Along the way he picks up a declawed cat and a fat hamster in a roller ball as traveling companions.

I counted three subplots from the Toy Story movies in here, but the characters are likeable enough that it's easily forgiven and forgotten. Right now for me, it rivals Kung Fu Panda as to what was the second-best animated movie of the year.

What We Do Is Secret - DVD Review

WHAT WE DO IS SECRET (**) - Starring Shane West, Bijou Phillips, Rick Gonzalez, Noah Segan, Ashton Holmes, Tina Majorino, Ray Park and Azura Skye.
Written & directed by Rodger Grossmann.

I got into listening to late-1970's punk for a bit in the late 1980's. Sex Pistols, X, Black Flag... I don't remember the Germs. Nevertheless, we get a biopic of Germs lead singer Darby Crash, who died from a drug overdose at age 22 in 1980. It's not a very long story to tell if it starts in high school and his band rises and falls so quickly.

Darby is played by Shane West, previously known to me as Tom Sawyer in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and one of the prime suspects on why that movie was so bad. He also played the punk doctor Ray on ER, and his first season was the year I finally stopped watching ER. So here he is. And he wasn't half bad.

The movie's problem is that it, like its subject matter, is so shallow. Darby Crash was a jerkwad whose music wasn't special or unique. None of the music played in the movie really stood out of any other punk song. The Germs might have been able to get big if they didn't get banned from every venue they played in, as they and their fans were prone to destruction, vandalism and violence.

And they were so young. There's no wisdom to benefit from knowing them, other than drugs kill. Gee, really? So it was interesting to see Reaper's Rick Gonzalez as a punk rocker, and it was nice to see that West can be a decent actor, but it doesn't do anything to shed light on the punk movement, thus rendering the story fairly pointless.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Day The Earth Stood Still - Movie Review

THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (**) - Starring Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly, Kathy Bates, Jaden Smith, John Cleese, Jon Hamm, Kyle Chandler and Robert Knepper.
Directed by Scott Derrickson.

This sci-fi remake updates the 1951 original for today's times, which means its message couldn't have been any less subtle if the robot Gort was played by Al Gore. It keeps the Cold War paranoia vibe, which made me wonder if in the filmmaker's heads, Dick Cheney was somehow president.

I'd like to think our society wouldn't be as arrogant and shoot-first as it's portrayed here, but to be faithful, Klaatu has to get shot when he gets off his ship, and the plot needs to unfold from there.

An alien ship lands in Central Park. When a being steps off, he's greeted by a handful of scientists and a hundred machine-gun-toting soldiers. One of the itchy-fingered soldiers accidentally fires, and Klaatu needs surgery, stat! He's a being of light but he morphs fairly quickly into Keanu Reeves. I think it's a great idea to have Keanu play an alien. I think he'd be a good terminator too. Any of those roles where he seems disjointed and doesn't talk much, he can do. Look how well he broods in Much Ado About Nothing.

Jennifer Connelly, who really needs to find a non-downer role, is a microbiologist named Helen who must fight to save mankind when the Secretary of Defense (Kathy Bates) decides that the aliens must be dealt with like al-Qaeda. Klaatu, Helen, and Helen's annoying stepson (Jaden Smith, who was better in The Pursuit of Happyness) go on the run, away from the government but to get back to Klaatu's ship. As they run, Helen tries to convince Klaatu to call off the planned annihilation of the human race.

I was looking most forward to seeing Jon Hamm and John Cleese in this movie, but Hamm's role is so underwritten it could have been played by anyone, and Cleese only has one scene. His scene made me lean forward in my chair and look forward to his character's integration into the movie, as a thoughtful professor who tries to reason with Klaatu why the humans deserve another chance, but then he's gone.

I wasn't expecting much going in, so I didn't think it was that bad. The logic of the destructive force in the final act wavers (the outrunning-an-explosion type of logic-wavering), and while we mercifully don't get a final speech spelling out today's lesson, it still ends on a cold and empty note. So, all technology is bad? Klaatu, can't we compromise?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Golden Globes Nominees Film Acting...

Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Angelina Jolie, Changeling
Meryl Streep, Doubt
kristin Scott Thomas, I've Loved You So Long
Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road

Rebecca Hall, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky
Frances McDormand, Burn After Reading
Meryl Streep, Mamma Mia!
Emma Thompson, Last Chance Harvey

Leonardo DiCaprio, Revolutionary Road
Frank Langhella, Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn, Milk
Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler

Javier Bardem, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Colin Farrell, In Bruges
James Franco, Pineapple Express
Brendan Gleeson, In Bruges
Dustin Hoffman, Last Chance Harvey

Golden Globe Best Picture Nominees

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Reader
Revolutionary Road
Slumdog Millionaire

Burn After Reading
In Bruges
Mamma Mia!
Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Blockbuster vs. Netflix

I've been going back and forth between Blockbuster and Netflix recently. I suspended both of them for a month after switching to DirecTv and getting tons o' movie channels for a few months. I'm back on Blockbuster, but they can be frustrating.

Netflix gives you 3-at-a-time DVD's for $16.99 a month. Blockbuster does the same at $15.99. The advantage of Netflix is they're faster about sending the DVD's to your home. The advantage of Blockbuster is that they have some titles that are exclusive to them the first couple months, titles like Miss Potter and Superhero Movie.

Blockbuster has a policy to limit Monday mailings. They told me the post office requested this; Netflix has no such policy so I wonder about that. Both of them used to be good about same-day turnaround with DVDs shipped. Netflix is still good at that, but Blockbuster only seems to be good about that on certain days. For instance, when I reinstated my Blockbuster account on December 1st, they only mailed out one title. Even though I'm paying for three-at-a-time, they didn't mail the other two titles until the 3rd. I emailed a complaint but got the usual explanation:

"To avoid shipping delay, may I suggest that you maintain 15 or more 'Available' titles at the top of your queue at all times."

Now when I talked to a live person a couple months ago I was told that when they receive a DVD in the morning, the system checks your top three titles and if one of them is Available, it will send it out that day. I've had too many examples of that not being the case. The lady also told me that on Day 2, it checks further down the list, I want to say 8.

So I mailed two DVDs on Friday. They received them Monday. I had 15 'Available' titles at the top of my queues, even though some of the titles I really wanted next were designed as Short Wait, Long Wait and Very Long Wait. Monday they sent me a title from around position 30 of the 40 in my queue. Huh? Weird. Well, at least they mailed something. Tuesday came to a close without the other DVD being sent. I called a live person. She told me that even though the title may say 'Available' it may not be Available at the distribution center near me. Really. Man on Wire was #1 on my list, and yesterday was its first day being Available. How could my center not have it in stock? She apologized and sent me an e-coupon for a free in-store rental, which I appreciate and will use. The next title sent came from somewhere around 26 of the 40 in my queue. Okay, why did it skip the 25 titles above it?

I'm paying $19.99 for the 5 in-store exchanges a month. I think it's worth it for the month, even though Blockbuster can only be counted on mailing out DVD's Wednesday through Friday. I can always check out on Mondays and see what the free rental code and get something from there.

Wanted - DVD Review

WANTED (***) - Starring James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman, Terence Stamp, Thomas Kretschmann and Common.
Directed by Timur Bekmambetov.

This wild ride of a movie is based on a comic book series, and if you didn't already know that the first few minutes into the movie, you'd know it based on how stylized the whole thing is. The movie isn't trying to be realistic, but it is trying to be fun, putting Fight Club, Matrix and Harry Potter in a blender and hitting Frappe.

James McAvoy, a long way from Mr. Tumnus, is our hero Welsey Gibson, such a loser than his name in Google gets no hits. Although my theory is that the Fraternity was rigging his computer to do that, because Welsey Gibson actually yields 142,000 hits (the first few related to the 'Wanted' character, but if the movie addressed that, it would be eating its own tail.)

He finds out his long-lost father died yesterday, and he was one of the best assassins in the world. He finds this out from a beautiful woman named Fox (wink!) who instantly gets into a gun fight with the man who killed his father. She then brings him to the Fraternity, a secret organization of assassins run by a mellifluous man named Sloan, played by the almighty Morgan Freeman.

Bullets fly in this movie like they have a mind of their own, like they could hover in mid-air and then change direction in a Looney Tunes cartoon. Blood splatters nicely against white walls, and the action scenes get the blood pumping.

This movie dared bill McAvoy first even though Jolie and Freeman are the big names, but this is where McAvoy really comes into his own, for my taste, as a movie star. Yes, he was very good in Atonement, and he was very different in Narnia, but I can remember him better from this. It's fun to watch him go from pathetic office drone to top-notch rootin'-tootin' shooter.

Monday, December 8, 2008

I snoozed, I losed

I voted for the new Mountain Dew flavor. I saw the winner was the Wild Berry flavor (Revolution?), and that my local store had it in 12-pack form. The next week I went in to buy it and it was already gone. Not sold out. The store decided they didn't move enough its first month to justify keeping it in stock. That came and went faster than Black Cherry Mountain Dew.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars - DVD Review

STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS (**) - Starring the voices of Samuel L. Jackson, Christopher Lee, Anthony Daniels, Ian Abercrombie and Tom Kane.
Directed by Dave Filoni.

This was originally intended as the first three episodes of the Cartoon Network TV show, but George Lucas loved it so much, it went to the big screen.

The cartoon is fine, but I can't imagine paying theater prices to see it. I do not consider this the seventh Star Wars movie. It has more in common with the two Ewok TV-movies than either trilogy.

It takes place between Episodes II & III, and before the rest of the episodes airing on Cartoon Network, so the only new thing we know we're going to get is the introduction of Anakin's new padawan, and Dooku's new apprentice. We also get to meet more of the Hutt family family. There's Jabba's baby son Stinky, and his gay uncle Zero. (And I don't mean subtle T.R. Knight gay; we're talking Liberace gay. Anyone dying for a drag-queeny Hutt with Truman Capote's voice? Your prayers are answered!)

The movie makes Lucas's world less and less magical. "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..." used to inspire dreams. Now it inspires toy lines and video-game spin-offs. And it's weird how it keeps building up this band-of-brothers feel about the clone troops that you know are just going to turn around and slaughter the Jedi.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian - DVD Review

THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: PRINCE CASPIAN (**1/2) - Starring Georgie Hendley, Skandar Keynes, William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Ben Barnes, Peter Dinklage, Sergio Castellitto, Warwick Davis, Pierfrancisco Favina, Tilda Swinton, and the voices of Eddie Izzard, Ian McShane and Liam Neeson.
Directed by Andrew Adamson.

I reread the seven Narnia books right before the first movie came out, and I can't say I remember how all the stories went but Prince Caspian was one of the weakest. The book is about 200 pages long in small paperback format, and it sends the four Pevensie kids back to Narnia, where it takes them about 30 pages of exploring to figure out centuries have passed there. Then they meet a dwarf who tells them about Prince Caspian, and we get 70 pages or so strictly on him. So we're halfway through the book at that point. Then they figure out how to meet up with the prince, they prepare for a battle with the Telmarines (the human race that has since banned the magical creatures of Narnia), the actual battle is about 10 pages, and then we get denouement.

The movie's first half handles this the best possible way, cutting back and forth between the two stories. The second half is about 30 minutes longer than it needed to be due to the fetishizing of big fantastical battle scenes somewhere between Braveheart and Lord of the Rings. If I'm swept up in the battle, great, but I couldn't help but think a kids movie should have a little more magic and a little less killing.

On its own merits, the attention to detail is scrumptious. The sets, the creatures, the scope, all of that works. Acting-wise, I didn't find Ben Barnes that compelling a protagonist. He's a prince denied his throne by a scheming uncle. Got it. He's Hamlet. Or Simba. Maybe it's because his long, thick hair was always perfect that I felt Caspian was more about posing than motivation.

I found it shrewd of the director to cast all the Telmarines with French or Italian actors. They have a vague Eurotrash sense about them without being overtly against any particular ethnicity. Sergio Castellitto is the main villain Miraz, but when we get Tilda Swinton back in a cameo as the White Witch, we get a taste of what a real movie villain should feel like. The White Witch is Malificent meets Cruella De Vil. Miraz is a poor man's Jean Reno.

I liked a lot of it. I thought the first 75 minutes or so were perfectly paced, but at that point I realized we still had an hour to go in what took the book about 40 pages to tell. I am encouraged that the next chapter in Narnia's tale will have a different director.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Happening - DVD Review

THE HAPPENING (*1/2) - Starring Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo, Betty Buckley, Spencer Breslin, Ashlyn Sanchez, Frank Collison and Alan Ruck.
Directed M. Night Shyamalan.

Oh, M. Night Shyamalan. I can't think of a single other filmmaker out there who has had such a steady decline. You can list his movies in order from when he made them and see each one is not as good as the one before it. The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, The Village, Lady in the Water, and now The Happening. At least The Last Airbender, his next, is in no way a thriller and doesn't have a twist ending.

What's the scary thing here? Not ghosts, not aliens, not monsters in the woods. The movie doesn't reveal what the danger is here until 45 minutes in, so until then we get some nuttily self-aware dialogue like "Why are you only telling me little pieces of information at a time?" The second half is a band of survivors on the run, and while talented filmmakers could make the most mundane things scary, I simply felt no suspense when Mark Wahlberg tries to outrun the wind. Aagh, the wind! Run!

Some of Night's tricks really fail when Betty Buckley enters the scene as a weirdo isolationist. Someone suddenly there, speaking in strange cadence... making me rest comfortably in the back of my seat rather than putting me on the edge. Night's failing his actors. He did great with Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson, and even Paul Giamatti in a lost cause, but Wahlberg seems lost. I almost wanted him to break into self-parody. ("Hey, tree, how's it going? Say hi to your mother for me.")

So yeah, being on Last Airbender, and hopefully another movie or two he doesn't write himself.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Twilight - Movie Review

My wife and I went to the Carmike-12 theater near us, as I have four passes I need to use before the end of the year. I was shocked our chosen title was not there, so we raced to the nearby, just-opened Cinemark-14, which had our chosen title on three screens. This was around 6:00, so I got tickets for the 7:30, and then we went out to eat.

It's not reserved so I wanted to make sure we were back by 7:10 to be in line for when seating started. Now this is when I learned that of the 14 screens, 7 of them only seat 112. That ain't big. Had I known that, I might have gone for a different showtime, to see it in one of the 207 or 293 seaters. So they'd already let people into our theater, and we wound up on the third row. Fifth row center is my favorite, but it was fine.


FIRED UP - This formula comedy could have easily been made in 1984 starring Andrew McCarthy and Rob Morrow. Two buddies decide to got o cheerleading school to be amongst all the hot chicks. The two guys are Nicolas D'Agastino and Eric Christian Olsen. Not sure who D'Agastino is but Olsen played young Harry in Dumb & Dumberer. I think they're supposed to be college-age but Olsen looks like he's 30. Sexual hijinks ensue. Looks awful. Opens March 20.

BRIDE WARS - Best friends Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway have dreamed of their perfect wedding since they were little girls, at the Plaza. Then due to a scheduling mishap by Candice Bergen, they get booked on the same day. Each tries to sabotage the other's wedding so they can be the one who has it at the Plaza. Both actresses are doing the formula paycheck thing so they can keep doing their indie projects I'm sure. One scene has Hathaway in full bridal gear bursting on Hudson walking down the aisel with her father, and Hathaway tackles her. No thanks. Opens January 9.

CONFESSIONS OF A SHOPAHOLIC - Isla Fisher, who stole the show in Wedding Crashers, gets the starring role as a shopaholic who must now figure out how to be thrifty once all her cards are maxed out and she finds herself in mountains of debt. In these tought economic times, I don;t really feel like seeing a spoiled rich girl charm her way into getting all her debt paid off. Opens February 13.

DANCE FLICK - This parody movie from the Wayans actually made me laugh out loud a couple times. It's a send-up of Save the Last Dance, Step Up, How She Move, and their matriarch Flashdance, and unlike those Epic Movie yahoos, the Wayans have a plot in mind and clever twists on what they're satirizing. I look forward to renting it. Opens February 6.

PUSH - Heroes: The Movie. Chris Evans can move objects with his mind. Dakota Fanning can see the future. Djimon Hounsou is the big baddie who wants to exploit their abilities. It looks like junky, guilty-pleasure fun, with the potential to be terrible. Opens February 6.

VALKYRIE - Finally we get a genuinely promising movie. I've seen the preview a few times, and I'm already sold on seeing Tom Cruise, Ken Branagh, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, et al, plotting to kill Hitler for director Bryan Singer. This is Branagh's third time playing a Nazi that I can think of, but the first time he's one of the good ones. Opens December 26.

And then we got to our feature presentation.

TWILIGHT (***) - Starring Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Billy Burke, Peter Facinelli, Elisabeth Reaser, Nikki Reed, Taylor Lautner, Cam Gigandot and Sarah Chalke.
Directed by Catherine Hardwicke.

My advanced knowledge: I read the first 140 pages of the book, so I had an idea how the first act would go.

Twilight is The Notebook of 2008, a shamelessly schmaltzy romance that is nevertheless entertaining on its own merits. It success hinges on its leads, and I wouldn't say Kristen Stewart (Bella) and Robert Pattinson (Edward) equal Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling, but each inhabits their character with just the right amount of quirk and conviction.

17-year-old Bella has moved to Forks, Washington, the most overcast town in the continental US. Her dad is Chief o' Police of this little town, and she has moved here to free up her mother to travel with her new husband. It's a rare movie that shows the teen daughter genuinely getting along with her divorced parents and her new stepdad. Bella suffers new-girl-in-school syndrome, but she makes friends easy enough, except for one exception, the pale Edward Cullen, who acts like he despises her.

After a few days, Edward reintroduces himself, and they start to get along, but when Edward miraculously saves her from getting hit by a van, Bella's mind starts to swim. Who is this guy really?

Those expecting the sex and/or violence associated with recent vampire flicks will be disappointed. Most deaths appear off-screen or cut away right before the killer vampires strike, some of it due to budget and some to keep it in PG-13 bounds so as not to alienate its core audience. It's mainly a relationship melodrama, with two people getting to know each other, where one of them happens to be a vampire.

I look forward to seeing what the bigger-budgeted sequel will do, mostly because my wife enjoyed it so much. Guys, bring a date. Don't be the guy who sees Twilight by himself.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Hellboy II - DVD Review

HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY (**1/2) - Starring Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Doug Jones, Jeffrey Tambor, Luke Goss, John Hurt, Anna Walton, James Dodd and Seth MacFarlane.
Directed by Guillermo Del Toro.

Some changes are in place for this sequel, free of the shackles of origin-establishing. Gone is John Myers, the through-his-eyes character from the first one that might have been in the sequel if he'd been played by an actor more famous than Rupert Evans. Gone is David Hyde Pierce's voice for Abe Sapien, for now bodymaster Doug Jones can do it himself. Added to the mix are more goblins and creatures that would have been equally at home in Pan's Labyrinth.

Hellboy's still got working-man troubles, but his agency is under more pressure to keep their existance secret, as YouTube is really making cover-ups difficult. Meanwhile the Prince of the underground creatures has decided that enough hiding, it's time to conquer the surface and the ungrateful humans who walk the Earth.

The movie turns into a colorful explosion of CGI, like a better-produced Spy Kids after a while. The gooey fluidity of it all made me lose interest. If the movie's effects are making me think of Spy Kids movies, that's not a good thing.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed - DVD Review

Directed by Nathan Frankowski.

If you've ever wondered what a right-wing Michael Moore movie would look like, this is a fairly decent example. Moore loves to play fast and loose with facts, inserting snippets of movie scenes or propaganda pieces to invoke an emotional reaction, and so do Stein & Frankowski. Moore likes to be coy and pretend to be a rube, and so does Stein. So why should I take Stein's arguments any more seriously than I do Moore's?

The movie starts out as an examination of how the science community is shunning and firing professors who are open-minded about intelligent design. It slowly builds its case that Darwinists are closed-minded atheist fascists, often showing the Berlin Wall as its metaphor. Darwinists are Soviets guarding East Germany from the evil capitalists of West Germany.

I think an argument could be made for Darwinism and intelligent design overlapping somewhere, but this movie isn't interested in making that argument. It pokes holes in Darwinism without really explaining how intelligent design works. Like Moore's, this movie preaches to its choir, and my skepticism on what Stein was really trying to do came early, when he said mainstream scientists were adamantly opposed to even broaching the subject, and then he has a series of one-liner dismissives. But one of them was Christopher Hitchens, a noted columnist and best-selling author of "God Is Not Great" (an argument for atheism), but I would not call Hitchens an establishment scientist.

So Stein's point ultimately boils down to Darwinists are atheists with their own agenda of killing God, and he's not above comparing how Hitler used elements of Darwinism to support his own Master-Race propaganda. In fact, the Jewish Stein tours a concentration camp site, pondering the Holocaust, and then interviews the author of "From Darwin to Hitler" to talk about eugenics. Yeah, not subtle. It also leads to Darwinist theories justifying abortion, euthenasia, etc. By the time Stein visits Darwin's home, the soundtrack suggests it might as well be Auschwitz.

It was gigantically unfair for Moore to try to blame Charlton Heston for the Columbine shootings in his movie, and even Moore fans pointed that out. I'd say it's equally unfair of Stein to blame Darwin for the Holocaust. And then he loops it back to the scientists, those close-minded liberal fascists who trample anyone who whispers "I.D." Academic Freedom in America is Dead! Da da dummmmm.

But then the real killers comes in, the final interview with atheist Darwinian scientist Richard Dawkins. It's an amiable chat, and if more of the movie had been this, it would have been a better movie. It also reminded me of one of Moore's strengths: his interviews. They're gotcha interviews, but it's always interesting to see who will allow themselves to get caught how. Stein gets a gotcha on Dawkins, where Dawkins admits intelligent design would certainly explain some things (as long as it's not God!)

I tend to like Moore's movies in spite of themselves, and I liked a lot about this movie. But it is what it is, a seriously stacked deck, which seems to be what more and more documentaries are becoming in order to make money.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Quantum of Solace - Movie Review

QUANTUM OF SOLACE (**1/2) - Starring Daniel Craig, Olga Kurylenko, Mathieu Amalric, Judi Dench, Jeffrey Wright, and Giancarlo Giannini.
Directed by Marc Forster.

I'm a big Bond fan. In 1999, for lead-up to The World Is Not Enough, my friend and I watched every Bond movie in order within a month's time. They had to be the Broccoli Bonds, which meant we skipped Woody Allen's Casino Royale and Sean Connery's Never Say Never Again, which was basically a remake of Thunderball. My wife has hated Bond ever since, but it was a great pop-culture overloading experience. (I eventually saw the wacky Casino Royale version. Never saw the black-and-white Jimmy Bond made for American TV in the 1950's.)

Now of Pierce Brosnan's four movies, I consider GoldenEye the best and The World Is Not Enough the worst, although Die Another Day was the movie that had the shark-jumping moment of Bond riding the wave with obvious help from CGI. Bond stunts should always be primarily done by stuntmen so we can believe people could do this. Once CGI-Bond surfed, Brosnan's time as Bond was over.

Which means Quantum of Solace will likely be to Craig what Tomorrow Never Dies is to Brosnan, what Thunderball is to Connery, what The Man with the Golden Gun is to Moore. Not the best of his Bonds, but not his worst, and an easily forgettable chapter in the library. Craig's only had two, and Casino Royale was better, and if QoS winds up being Craig's worst Bond movie, good for him.

This Bond is still bitter over the betrayal and death of his one true love Vespa, and in seeking revenge, he stumbles across an international conspiracy by a multi-fingered power-ring called QUANTUM, which is the 21st century's SPECTRE. We don't know who the head is but I do hope in a couple more movies we learn it's a cat-stroking bald guy named Blofeld. But I digress.

Marc Forster seems like a good, quirky choice to direct a Bond film, and you'd think he'd bring to Bond what Paul Greengrass brings to the Jason Bourne series. Good direction on the acting parts, and quick-choppy editing on the action parts. But for my taste, the action scenes were too choppy and too quickly-edited. Many times I couldn't tell what was going on, to the point that I wished the movie had one or two less action sequences than it did.

The Bond-girl here is a generic model/actress type named Olga Kurylenko. I'd put her on the same memorable level as Carole Bouquet. Who? Exactly. (For Your Eyes Only.) Mathieu Amalric, brilliant in The Diving Bell & the Butterfly, plays the villainous Dominic Greene, who's the corporate backer of a military coup in Bolivia. I thought he did well. I can see why Amalric asked if he could have a scar or something, but his eyes are memorable enough.

As for Bond, my hope for the third movie is he gets his sense of fun back. Craig's Bond is an angry cold-blooded killer, and that's cool and all, but I'd like to see Q show up, see Bond crack a smile here and there. Bourne can be Bourne; now let Bond be Bond.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

War, Inc. - DVD Review

WAR, INC. (**) - Starring John Cusack, Hilary Duff, Marisa Tomei, Joan Cusack, Dan Aykroyd and Ben Kingsley.
Directed by Joshua Seftel.

This satire isn't as clever or timely as it thinks it is. Maybe three years ago it would have felt more so, but its targets are obvious, and the dark humor doesn't translate to laughs very often.

John Cusack works for a company called Tamerline (which seems to be what Halliburton and Blackwater would be if they merged). They're a private company that the US contracts out to conduct their wars for them, and they're run by a former US president, played by Dan Aykroyd, who uses facial tics somewhere between Dick Cheney and Jonathan Winters. Tamerline has conquered the Middle East country of Turaqistan, and Cusack is the assassin/manager running the place.

There's some Dr. Strangelove aims of madness here, but it reminded me more Southland Tales, another ambitiously messy movie. Some ideas work better as ideas than actually acted out, and some are just bad ideas.

Kung Fu Panda - DVD Review

KUNG FU PANDA (***) - Starring Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Ian McShane, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross and Randall Duk Kim.

DreamWorks's bright and zippy CG-animated tale may have looked slight compared to Wall-E, but I'll take Po the Panda over Shrek any day.

Jack Black is the front-and-center vocal star of this amiable send-up of kung fu movies. Somehow Po stumbles into the middle of a prophecy, and master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) must train this inept, doughy thing into a martial-arts master so he can fulfill said prophecy.

The message - "Believe in yourself" - is simplistic, but I enjoyed Po's unflappable optimism, even as Shifu and all his students are trying to get Po to quit. There's plenty of laughs from the physical humor, in grand Looney Tunes tradition. The budget exceeded $100 million, so the animation is lush and vivid, much better than the quick cheapies like Happily N'Ever After.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Visitor - DVD Review

THE VISITOR (***) - Starring Richard Jenkins, Hiam Abbass and Danai Gurira.
Written & directed by Tom McCarthy.

Richard Jenkins is a character actor who's been around for years (Fargo, Step Brothers), but in his first starring role, he proves he has the chops to carry a film. He may be a dark horse for a Best Actor nomination. He plays Walter, a widower and a teacher who's lived life on auto-pilot for years. He reconnects with another human being in Tarek, an illegal immigrant living in his old apartment. At first there is mistrust, but the way the relationship evolves between Walter and Tarek is believable and ultimately rewarding.

Transsiberian - DVD Review

TRANSSIBERIAN (***1/2) - Starring Emily Mortimer, Woody Harrelson, Ben Kingsley, Kate Mara, Eduardo Noreiga and Thomas Kretschmann.
Directed by Brad Anderson.

Horror may be stuck in a rut forever, but the suspense thriller still holds tons of promise. The train has always been a wellspring of claustrophobic potential cinematically, and it's put to good use here.

This might have made more money with a bigger named actress but I loved Emily Mortimer as Jessie. She and her husband Roy (Woody Harrelson) are traveling on a Russian train after a church mission in China when they meet a young couple also traveling. I don't want to give much away from the early moments, as I had no idea what was going to happen when I saw it. Needless to say, Ben Kingsley plays a Russian detective who has interest in this train, and it's unclear who's good or bad for a while, but the movie hinges on Mortimer, who gets herself into some high-suspense moments.

It's an intelligent, thoughtful thriller, with belieavable, breating characters. And a quick check to has it at 92%, so I'm not alone.

Sundance boycott idiocy

I think rational minds will prevail over the initial whisperings of boycotting the Sundance Film Festival over Prop 8 passing. Here's a great blog post that follows the money, state by state:

Hollywood is more likely to hurt the Yes on Prop 8 voters by boycotting the Oscars.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Journey to the Center of the Earth - DVD Review

JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (**1/2) - Starring Brendan Fraser, Josh Hutcherson, Anita Briem and Seth Meyers.
Directed by Eric Brevig.

This is an unabashed carnival ride, a roller-coaster tilt-a-whirl of a movie that was probably more fun on the big screen in 3D. In fact, that's my biggest complaint. Amidst a coal-mine ride out of Indy's Temple of Doom and carnivorous plants off Pete Jackson's King Kong island, I kept wishing I could see this thing at 40 feet tall, wearing the glasses. As a 2D DVD, it's merely okay, a kids adventure made palatable by cool if uneven special effects and the can-do light-hearted leadership of Mummy vet Brendan Fraser.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Love Guru - DVD Review

THE LOVE GURU (*1/2) - Starring Mike Myers, Jessica Alba, Justin Timberlake, Romany Malco, Meagan Goode, Verne Troyer, Ben Kingsley, John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, Jim Gaffigan and Telma Hopkins.
Directed by Marco Schnabel.

The Cat in the Hat is still the worst movie Mike's ever made, but this movie is a hodge-podge of Myers humor crammed together under a thin excuse of a plot, and most of the jokes fall flat. Why would a self-help guru be so mean to midgets? On what planet is Jessica Alba remotely believable as the owner of a hockey team? What is so inherently funny about Ben Kingsley's character having his eyes crossed?

Guru Pitka is hired to help a star hockey player get his confidence back. His methods are unorthodox and arbitrary, and filled with potty humor. Example of the humor level: Justin Timberlake plays a French goalie nicknamed "Le Coq" because of his big you-know-what. Tee hee.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Death Defying Acts - DVD Review

DEATH DEFYING ACTS (**) - Starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, Guy Pearce, Saoirse Ronan and Timothy Spall.
Directed by Gillian Armstrong.

It starts out promising enough. It reminded me of The Illusionist and The Prestige with its period approach to magicians, and Guy Pearce is game as Houdini, but the story is really more about the mother-daughter con team of Zeta-Jones and Atonement's Ronan. Eventually, though, Zeta-Jones's Mary falls in love with her mark, Houdini, and the movie gets less interesting as it gets more predictable.

Changeling - Movie Review

CHANGELING (***1/2) - Starring Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, Michael Kelly, Colm Feore, Geoff Pierson, Amy Ryan and Denis O'Hare.
Directed by Clint Eastwood.

This movie makes the old-fashioned new again. We have an old-fashioned mystery that spins and spirals into different genres, as the unfolding of the story takes us in new directions.

Except that it's based on a true story. So if you don't already know the events surrounding this tale, I recommend seeing this first and then doing your research. I didn't know, and I was enthralled.

Jolie plays Christine Collins, a single mother in Los Angeles 1928. One day when she comes home from work, her son is missing. The LAPD won't help in the first 24 hours, but five months later, they claim to have found him in Illinois. Trouble is, the boy is not her son. He claims he is, the police claim he is, and when she continues to protest, the sneering detective has her thrown into an insane asylum.

So we go down a tumultuous road that is reminiscent of One Flew Over a Cuckoo's Nest, but also has elements of Chinatown and Norma Rae. Jolie, for her part, is great in a role that doesn't have too many notes beyond steely determination. She must say the phrase "my son" over 200 times. Her plight is scary; there is more intensity in the asylum than in 95% of horror films. What I love about Eastwood is his ability to move from genre to genre and master it. I think of how diverse and yet how competant movies like Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby and Letters from Iwo Jima and this are. (Although now that I think about it, I wonder if he could pull off a comedy.)

There's a melodrama to it I liked. It follows the 1970's tradition of Act One being setup, Act Two being injustice, and Act Three will either be triumph or destruction. And false endings aside, it squeezed a tear out of me, which movies very rarely do.

And the actual true story could spawn a slew of movies from different angles.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Saw V - Movie Review

SAW V (**1/4) - Starring Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, Scott Patterson, Julie Benz, Meagan Good and Betsy Russell.
Directed by David Hackl.

If you've seen the first four, you will feel about this one about the same way you felt about the three previous sequels.

The Saw franchise is my guilty pleasure. The first one was a shot in the arm to horror. The acting was all over the place, but I couldn't help but relish Cary Elwes going way out there as Dr. Gordon, the man who has to cut off his own foot if he wants to live. It also had Michael Emerson doing his bug-eyed bad-guy thing. Saw also had one of my favorite twist(ed) endings of any horror film the past six or seven years.

The sequels have had varying success with their twist endings, and I would say if you ranked them, this one had the weakest.

Unlike other horror franchises, this one requires you to see them all for it to make sense, even though if you think about it, there is a giant abandoned warehouse somewhere full of booby traps, and every time the cops sweep the area in the aftermath of a Saw movie, they miss that one secret door that leads to five or six more rooms of torture devices.

This movie relies on flashbacks to all the other movies, and it creates new ones as we get the back story on Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), revealed as the twist ending in Saw IV as the new water-carrier for Jigsaw, who died at the end of Saw III. Turns out that hey, Hoffman was behind the scenes all along, helping Jigsaw and Amanda with their elaborate traps. Mandylor, who looks like Brenda Fraser's less successful alcoholic brother, does fine as Hoffman, a cop who wanted revenge but saw the "light", at least the light Jigsaw offers.

Saw V blatantly introduces items and details with no explanation, setting groundwork for Saw VI. So while you could see any of the Friday the 13ths and they stand alone, Saw is not that way. And if I had to choose between seeing another Saw sequel or seeing Hostel III, Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, or Hills Have Eyes 3, it'd be no contest.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Appaloosa - Movie Review

APPALOOSA (***1/2) - Starring Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renee Zellweger, Jeremy Irons, Timothy Spall, Lance Henriksen, Tom Bower and James Gammon.
Directed by Ed Harris.

The classic Western is back, even if we only get one a year. It deserves to stand alongside 3:10 to Yuma, The Assassination of Jesse James, and Open Range as a good movie on its own, and then bonus points for being a good ol'-fashioned cowboy movie. It wasn't that long ago American Outlaws and Texas Rangers about killed the genre.

Ed Harris stars, directs, co-writes, and co-produces in this thing. He even sings a song over the closing credits. He and Viggo plays Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch respectively, gunmen who roam from town to town takin' the law jobs, cleanin' up the place, then movin' on. Seems the town of Appaloosa is a might run over by Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), your typical rich landowning bad guy.

I enjoyed the deepened relationship between Cole and Hitch the most. The looks that say everything, the spare, laconic dialogue. It's hilariously understated. I could see Gary Cooper and Robert Mitchum having just such conversations. I also loved the emphasis on honesty in the old West. If you gave your word, you gave your word.

My one quibble - Renee Zellweger. She was the weak link in Leatherheads and the weak link here. I don't enjoy her as a performer anymore. I would've much rather seen Kate Beckinsale or Molly Parker or Emily Watson or Francis O'Connor or any number of different actresses in this role. Maybe it's the Academy curse. Maybe she hasn't been able to lose the weight from her face since the Bridget Jones sequel, so now when she smiles, her cheeks squish her eyes shut. I don't know what it is.

Chicago 10 - DVD Review

CHICAGO 10 (**1/2) - Starring the voices of Hank Azaria, Nick Nolte, Dylan Baker, Mark Ruffalo, Roy Scheider and Jeffrey Wright.
Written & directed by Brett Morgen.

This stylized documentary outstylized the Errol Morris doc I just saw, although I really appreciated what Morgen was going for here. My main problem was that he couldn't shape it in a way where a story was told, where a series of events are strung together where we can follow cause and effect, this lead to that. To understand what actually happened, it's good to already have your own familiarity with the 1968 DNC riots and subsequent Chicago 7 trial, or do your own reading before or after viewing, as the movie is full of cool images and powerful scenes, but it's missing the crucial element of narrative.

It cuts back and forth between 1968, leading up to the riots, and 1969, during the farce of a trial. In 1968, we have all real footage, and where we don't have the actual footage, we have actors covered with rotoscope animation (like in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly and those soulless Charles Schwab commercials). In 1969, we have the trial, and all dialogue is taken from the transcipts, but we have actors doing the parts. Hank Azaria is Abbie Hoffman and Allen Ginsburg, for instance. This allows for editorializing. The judge, as voiced by Roy Scheider, might as well be Strother Martin ("what we've got here is failure to communicate") but when you look at what the judge said and did during the trial, it seems pretty fair.

For me, the 1968 footage is much more effective. We see the players - Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, et al - saying their words and doing what they'll do. We see the perfect storm brewing at the DNC. History's been kinder to LBJ; it's easy to forget just how hated he was in 1968. There seems to be an effort to tie the fervor of 1968 to anti-war sentiments of 2008, but it was a much different time. Most importantly, there was a draft back then. But the most chilling moment was when one of the protestors, talking to the crowd, said they will march to the convention and enter "by whatever means necessary." Oo, that's not going to end well.

Jumping back and forth between the two time periods might have worked if each followed a natural linear progression, but the 1968 order of things is jumbled. The 1969 line is better at this, but it lacks the impact. I thought both storylines had built to climaxes that were coming in the next scene, but suddenly the credits are rolling and we get a bunch of epilogue cards. How extensive were the injuries at the riots? Why did the lawyers for Hoffman and crew wind up serving more jail time than the accused? I don't know. I guess I can do more of my own reading.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Standard Operating Procedure - DVD Review

STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE (**) - Directed by Errol Morris.
Music by Danny Elfman.

Most Iraq/Abu Ghraib documentaries connect the dots up the chain of command and blame Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, etc., for what happened. Not this one. I'm not sure what this one is aiming for. To exonerate the soldiers of Abu Ghraib? Not exactly. To condemn them? Not really that either. It takes a close, uncomfortable look at the photos from Abu Ghraib and pieces together a timeline of events, and it has interviews with most of the soldiers involved. It came down to a modern-day example of The Experiment with no one there to stop it.

The Experiment took place a few decades ago, and it took normal people and put them in a prison setting. It was to last 30 days but it was stopped prematurely because the "guards" were getting violent with the "prisoners." These soldiers were to watch the prisoners and interrogate them, but with no rules and no oversight, things got out of control. Well, there were some rules. Rules like it was okay to sexually humiliate the prisoners.

My problem with this documentary is that Errol Morris is too in love with his own filmmaking skills to bother focussing the narrative. It's like a 113 minute opening credit sequence. It's littered with recreations, ghostly images, animation, re-enactments, so that sometimes we don't know what's real. At one point I thought I was watching real video of the human pyramid set-up, only to realize it was actors recreating it, filmed in a grainy Zapruder-like fashion. At one point a soldier talks about Saddam Hussein, on the run, bursting into someone's house to make an egg. We then see soft-light on a hairy hand, cracking the egg in slo-mo, the egg falling into the pan and splattering, the slow sizzle, with added CGI sparkles around it.

The natural villain to the proceedings here would seem to be Gen. Janis Karpinski, in charge of Abu Ghraib. But she's one of the interviewees, so it wasn't her fault. Lynndie England, she of the infamous double-point to a prisoner's exposed privates, is made human, telling her story of a 20-year-old soldier who fell in love with her married 34-year-old superior, Sgt. Charles Graner. Most of the interviewees talk about this pose or that picture as Graner's idea, Graner's plan, Graner's doing. Graner is not interviewed. But his wife is, and Graner is humanized too. Soldiers refer to their superiors, to unnamed bigwigs who gave Graner orders, superiors who said to interrogators "we did this at Gitmo; try it here."

One sad result of Abu Ghraib is that the military didn't get much helpful information out of these prisoners. They were basically tortured and humiliated for nothing. A couple of them were murdered, but that was easier to cover up because there were no photos.

As uncomfortably compelling as some of this could be, it would be sabotaged by ominous cords from Danny Elfman's score. I love Danny Elfman, but the soundtrack felt more suitable for the upcoming Da Vinci Code prequel. And then we'd closeups of a soldier beating on a prisoner. Not actual footage, just actors, with quick editing of different film stocks so it looks like very third minute is directed by Oliver Stone.

It concludes by telling us that no one above the rank of Staff Sergeant went to prison for Abu Ghraib, and that Charles Graner is still serving his ten-year sentence and the US Military will not let him be interviewed. I'll wager when he gets out, he'll name some names. But if Errol Morris interviews him, he'll probably have the letters fly out of his mouth as he talks.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

This Week on NBC's Heroes

I like how Mohinder is turning into The Fly, complete with that rattlesnake shaking in the soundtrack during his scenes. (Actually he's more like the Spiderthing Gary Oldman turned into in Lost in Space). I like how the overarching theme is clear, even if all the subplots are all over the place. I love Robert Forster joining the cast, and that they found a way to bring back Malcolm MacDowell. I think all the time-travel stuff is too messy, and I think they made a mistake not killing off Sylar at the end of the first season. They're now doing what they always do on TV shows: taking a cool villain and turning him into an anti-hero. The more air-time they give Nathan and HRG, the better off the show is. And Parkman, once they get him out of Africa.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Savage Grace - DVD Review

SAVAGE GRACE (**) - Starring Julianne Moore, Stephen Dillane and Eddie Redmayne.
Directed by Tom Kalin.

This movies proves that Moore and Dillane are great actors, and that it's all for naught if they can't use those talents in a story worth telling. It's the true story of a dysfunctional family of the icky kind, showing rich people in their decadent glory. Money can't buy happiness, but families like these are good arguments for wealth redistribution.

It's the true story of Brooks, Barbara and Antony Baekeland. Brooks is heir to the billions left by his grandfather, who invented plastic. Brooks is a cold, ambivalent father; Barbara is a clingy, unstable mother; and Antony never really had a chance, but he grows up to be a cross between Augusten Burroughs and Jean-Baptiste Grenouille.

This isn't so much a story as a series of events in the family's lives that spans across the decades. Picture Michael Apted with his 7 Up series, but he stops in on this family at the worst possible times. "Oh dear, the father is sleeping with his teenage son's girlfriend; let's try again in seven years." Seven years later. "Oh, my, what's the mother doing in bed with her son and his boyfriend?"

Moore gives a ferocious, devastating performance as Barbara, who'd rather have her son be oedipal than gay. It's one of those roles where I hope now she can do some rom-com's or adventures or something less soul-crushing.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Kath & Kim - TV Review

Wow, this show was bad. They can make Kim stupid, but she spells it o-v-u-r? Really? And it has dueling voice-over narrations from both characters. It's based on an Australian TV show, but something is seriously lost in translation. Even Chris Guest vet John Michael Higgins can't save it.

Bigger Stronger Faster - DVD Review

BIGGER, STRONGER, FASTER (***1/2) - Directed by Christopher Bell.

This was a very interesting documentary, in that you could summarize it in one word - "steroids" - but it goes in many unexpected directions and provides a lot of food for thought. It's also a very personal one. Chris Bell is the middle brother of three, all of whom were into bodybuilding, and his two brothers still are, and they're very open about their steroid use. He starts out talking about his heroes - Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Hulk Hogan - and the disillusionment he felt when he learned they do steroids.

But he eventually gets around to a question: Why are steroids so bad?

The doc winds up being a meditation on winning at all costs, on why some drugs are demonized when the deadliest one (alcohol, tobacco) are still legal, and why Congress spent more time on baseball than health care, energy and Iraq combined.

Bell is interested in the facts, in actual studies. He does a good job demonstrating what a bad job the media has done on the truth about drugs and steroids in particular, how "experts" go on shows and testify before Congress without any actual evidence. He also asks questions about Pres. Bush, who owned the Texas Rangers when steroid use was rampant there, but who later condemns it in a State of the Union address.

It shows a lot of guys working out. "Training." Training for what? If they get bigger, then they... do what? Keep getting bigger? We meet one sad guy early on, a guy had a part in Sly Stallone's arm-wrestling pic Over the Top, who works out at Gold's Gym and sleeps in his van. What is he working toward?

Bell's older brother is a pro-wrestling wannabe. We see footage of him being a jobber for a while, one of those no-names that Mr. Perfect or the Undertaker would beat up 15-20 years ago, but he blames drugs on why he never made it. Today he still sadly clings to the hope he can make something happen. (I just realized Bell missed an opportunity here; he doesn't go into how many pro-wrestlers die prematurely. Mr. Perfect, Rick Rude, Yokozuna, Davey Boy Smith, Eddie Guerrero, etc. He mentions Chris Benoit to illustrate how paranoid the media got, but... I'm off-track here.)

His younger brother set the record for weightlifting. 705 pounds. On steroids. Everyone there knows it. The movie ended with me believing the majority of everyone in sports is on drugs somehow.

If Tiger Woods got laser-eye surgery to make his vision 20-15, isn't that performance enhancement? This movie gives a lot to the viewer to chew on.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Run Fatboy Run - DVD Review

RUN FATBOY RUN (**1/2) - Starring Simon Pegg, Thandie Newton, Hank Azaria, Dylan Moran and Harish Patel.
Directed by David Schwimmer.

The formula vehicle comedy is a Hollywood staple. Put comedian in situation, unfold it in three acts, and voila, a movie. Not all vehicles are created equal, nor are all comedians. Ben Stiller tends to stick with the two-man buddy formula. When he goes solo it can be successful (Night at the Museum) or stinky (The Heartbreak Kid). Low-end vehicles are always kicking around Hollywood (see: Dane Cook, Rob Schneider, Larry the Cable Guy).

This is one such formula, but you have a screenplay from Simon Pegg (Hot Fuzz) and Michael Ian Black (The State), and a directorial debut from David Schwimmer, and a good lead man (Pegg). if there is a weakness of the three, it's Schwimmer. There are plenty of times the comedy flows naturally, but then bizarre slapstick and pratfalls come out of nowhere.

Pegg plays Dennis, who ran out on his pregnant fiancee (Thandie Newton) on their wedding day. So, he starts off as a jerk. Five years later, we see his situation, where he's been regretting it ever since, playing single dad on the weekends, but now he feels intimidated when she gets a successful, handsome boyfriend Whit (Hank Azaria). Somewhere in there it comes up that Whit's going to run a marathon, so Dennis says he's going to run too. Of course, Dennis is out of shape.

It's also another movie where at the end, either Dennis accepts the new guy, or the movie will throw in a quick, contrived way to expose the guy as a jerk a la Tin Cup. And Dennis is such a petulant whiner through most of the movie, I credit Simon Pegg for preventing me from actively rooting for him to lose at the end.

I come back to the direction. When Dennis bumps his head on a mirror, it's not a bump and an "Ow", he quickly falls to the ground from it. When he's about to go down some stairs, and Whit sayd "Watch out for that first step," Dennis trips and goes thud-bang-tumbling down the stairs. At least Whit doesn't say, "It's a dooozy!"

So overall it's average; not bad for a rental, glad I didn't pay big-screen prices to see it.

(Gaffe watch: at one point Dennis and his friend Gordon get in a fight. In the scene the garbage can nearby is upright, then on its side, then upright again.)

Taxi to the Dark Side - DVD Review

TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE (***) - Directed by Alex Gibney.

This won the 2007 Academy Award for Best Documentary. It's another example of a movie where its technique is standard (talking-head interviews mixed with photos of the events and ominous music), but it's paced in an ideal way for the filmmakers to get their point across.

This movie focusses on one man, a taxi driver picked up in Afghanistan, held and tortured for months and eventually killed, but innocent of doing anything wrong. The movie then explores everything from the top down as to what led to the US military to reject habeas corpus and the Geneva convention to create a perfect storm of torture and murder.

It's powerful when at the end, the soldiers who've been interviewed are the ones who went on trial for abuse and assault, when it's clear that there's blood on the hands of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzales, and a few generals.

When this movie originally came out, John McCain was losing the GOP primaries, so it's interesting he pops up here as a hero until they get a jab in at the end with no evidence.

The final scene is like a twist ending, when it's revealed director Alex Gibney's dad was a WWII interrogator, and we see a brief interview with him right before his death on how disgusted he is with what the Bush Administration has done.

Speed Racer - DVD Review

SPEED RACER (**1/2) - Starring Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Matthew Fox, Benno Furmann, Paulie Litt, Roger Allam, Rain and Richard Roundtree.
Directed by Andy & Larry Wachowski.

I think the movie Twins, with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito, is based on the true story of the Wachowski brothers. I don't know which one's which, but they seem to be the offspring of George Lucas, Michael Bay, Tarsem, McG, Sam Raimi, Robert Rodriguez and JJ Abrams via mama Kathryn Bigelow, with all the good and bad that implies.

Sometimes it's visually amazing. It's anime brought to life in a way no one has done before. At 2 hours and 15 minutes, it's also a good half-hour too long to subject its audience to such sensory overload. Everything is moving and swirling and spinning by, but my main problem with this is the racing.

Think of the podrace in The Phantom Menace. At least you had a sense of speed and distance and how far away the finish line was. Never anywhere in this movie do you get the sense of where they are in the race. It might as well be the teacups at Disneyland going very very fast. The cars spin and fly and move back and forth, but it never moved me beyond seeing actors in front of a green screen. The camera's spinning all over the place for the angles, but I felt the rush more in Pixar's Cars.

It's colorful and pretty. The actors keep it moving for the most part. I enjoyed the silky yet gravelly tone of Roger Allam as the Shakespearean villain Royalton who tempts Speed with the big sponsorships. I liked Matthew Fox as Racer X. Paulie Litt was as annoying as an anime kid should be. The Wachowskis were going for something new and I give them a lot of credit.

But somewhere in there, the actual race should matter.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Made of Honor - DVD Review

MADE OF HONOR (*1/2) - Starring Patrick Dempsey, Michelle Monaghan, Kevin McKidd, Sydney Pollack, Busy Phillips, Chris Messina, Kadeem Hardison, Kathleen Quinlan and Elisabeth Hasselback.
Directed by Paul Weiland.

My first problem came in the first five seconds. No good movie has ever began with a Smashmouth song. My next problem came a minute later. When a woman is surprised in a comedy, she has to scream at the top of her lungs for a full minute while bouncing around and spraying mace in the eyes of he who startled her. What Happens in Vegas did the same thing.

The eventual premise is that Tom (Patrick Dempsey) and Hannah (Michelle Monaghan) have been best friends for ten years, but right around the time he's realizing she's the one, she gets engaged to a rugged Scot named Colin (Kevin McKidd). And so we have a role-reversal of My Best Friend's Wedding. So this movie can go one of two directions. Either Colin winds up being a cad and Tom gets Hannah, or Tom learns in the end to let Hannah go and end with a dance with his lesbian friend. And there's no lesbian friend. Or it could go the Sweet Home Alabama way, where Dempsey himself played the good-guy fiance who unbelievably just steps out of the way.

Let's just say around the 75-minute mark the deus ex machina enters, followed by one painfully contrived misunderstanding that felt like it hit the screenwriter one night when he was looking for one more complication before the inevitable ending. The third act is embarrassing for the all the actors to go through the motions of delivering mediocre summer fluff, and it just occured to me the end IS out of a Julia Roberts movie, just not My Best Friend's Wedding.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Sex & the City - DVD Review

SEX & THE CITY (**1/2) - Starring Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Kristen Davis, Cynthia Nixon, Chris Noth, Jennifer Hudson, Evan Handler, Jason Lewis, David Eigenberg, Willie Garson and Candice Bergen.
Directed by Michael Patrick King.

I imagine this is just like watching five episodes in a row of the series. And I hear it was a good series. I saw maybe one episode, but fortunately the movie is designed to appeal to those who've never seen it.

I didn't think it was bad. It's a total chick flick. I enjoyed the breeziness to it, the interaction of the characters, at least the main four. We get a five-minute narration/montage basically catching us up to where the series ended. Then the movie starts to mess some of the happily-ever-afters the series left them with.

I was confused by their careers. You never see them working. They're always shopping or traveling or eating out, but they're all rich, especially Samantha. Did she inherit it? Ehh, doesn't matter. The money's there to pay for the obscene amount of clothing changes, like it's one long fantasy of women in their 40's to play dress-up. There's tons of product placement. It's a celebration of excessive consumerism. Its real flaw to me was casting Academy-Award winning actress Jennifer Hudson, who showed that Dreamgirls was her one note. I was surprised. I could almost see it in Sarah Jessica's eyes, the effort it took to carry her co-star in their scenes.

It's long, about two hours and twenty minutes, so it's probably better on DVD, where it does feel like watching five episodes in a row.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Kabluey - DVD Review

KABLUEY (***) - Starring Lisa Kudrow, Scott Prendergast, Christine Taylor, Conchata Ferrell, Teri Garr, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Chris Parnell and Angela Sarafyan.
Written & directed by Scott Prendergast.

In the beginning, I thought this was going to be awful. Lisa Kudrow plays a struggling mother who loses her husband to another year of Iraq War duty. She turns to her last resort - her loser brother-in-law - to help watch the kids, her two little terrors. All of this was peddling along without much hope of a decent movie emerging, but it finally got there.

After one day of babysitting, the bro-in-law (Prendergast) proves to be incompetant, so Kudrow deicdes she's rather have him get a job and help her pay for daycare, and his job is to wear the big blue costume of Kabluey, the mascot for Kudrow's company, a dot-com start-up that had 95% of its staff downsized right before construction on their new facility completed.

His job is to stand on the side of a country road and hand out fliers advertising space in the building, probably the least effective marketing he could possibly do besides putting an "Ask Me About Rental Space" sign on the inside of his bedroom closet. It turned into a weird meditation of isolationism, and Pendergrast's low-key direction started to give off that Jared Hess vibe.

Kabluey has a giant head; the size of it forces it to always slump forward, so no matter where Prendergast goes, his mascot looks dejected, a big blue Charlie Brown the morning after the NASDAQ crashed. There's plenty of physical humor, as Kabluey has no hands, so Prendergast must contort to do simple tasks.

It's not one to get overhyped for. This movie snuck up on me, and I liked it for that.

Noise - DVD Review

NOISE (**) - Starring Tim Robbins, Bridget Moynahan, William Hurt, William Baldwin, Margarita Levieva and Gabrielle Brennan.
Writte & directed by Henry Bean.

This is a 30-minute idea stretched to 90 minutes. I liked the set-up, and I felt for the character. Tim Robbins is a guy being driven crazy by excess noise, especially the invasive sound of car alarms. He eventually becomes a vigilante known as the Rectifier, who vandalizes cars that have their alarms go off. He's also so angry anyway that car alarms feel like an excuse for him to go nuts.

I liked the first 15 minutes, and I liked the last 15 minutes, and the movie takes a couple walks around the park in the middle. I feel like more and more indies I've been seeing have been doing that, like they're all based on short story ideas, but they stretch it out to feature length. If they stay short, they know the only way they'll get seen is if they're nominated for Best Live-Action Short and then air on IFC or Sundance Channel. Full-length at least gives them hope of some DVD rentals.

But this movie makes a good case for the pointlessness of car alarms.

Baby Mama - DVD Review

BABY MAMA (***) - Starring Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Steve Martin, Greg Kinnear, Dax Shepard, Sigourney Weaver, Romany Malco, Maura Tierney, Holland Taylor, John Hodgman, James Rebhorn and Siobhan Fallon Hogan.
Directed by Michael McCullers.

30 Rock is a hit partially because Tina Fey is so willing to share the spotlight and concede the floor to her co-stars. Her persona lends itself to being straight man to whoever wanders in. Fey's also demonstrating a good nose for material. Mean Girls was a good movie, 30 Rock won its second Emmy, and now here comes a traditional SNL buddy comedy, except the buddies are women this time around.

Fey plays a career-first woman who suddenly finds herself at age 37 and regretting her single, childless state. She looks into adoption and in-vitro fertilization, but they don't turn out to be viable options. She seeks a surrogate mother, going through a reputable agency, but she lands Amy Poehler's free spirit, who winds being a little bit psycho.

Steve Martin gets a lot of laughs as her new-age boss at an organic foods company. Greg Kinnear is adequate as the obligatory love interest. Other SNL cast members pop up in decent cameos for positive effect.

Is it formula? Absolutely. But at least it's funny.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Righteous Kill - Movie Review

RIGHTEOUS KILL (**1/2) - Starring Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, John Leguizamo, Donnie Wahlberg, Carla Gugino, Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson and Brian Dennehy.
Directed by Jon Avnet.

See it for the treat of watching DeNiro and Pacino act together in one movie, but it's no Heat. It's nowhere near Heat.

The two men have made some poor choices since their 1995 teaming. They've both had good projects too, but I can't help but look at DeNiro and think "15 Minutes? Hide & Seek?" or at Pacino and wonder "Two for the Money? 88 Minutes?"

I read the original script called for Pacino's character to be a couple decades younger than DeNiro's, and that makes sense. Pacino keeps joking that DeNiro's his role model, things like that. In real life, Al has a couple years on Robert.

It seems a series of criminals who have been getting off on technicalities have been getting murdered, and the killer leaves behind poems. So the cynical cops investigating don't mind the bad guys getting snuffed, but they recognize they have a serial killer out there and they need to stop him. It doesn't take long (and the preview gives this away) for them to figure out that the killer must be a cop as well.

Having seen two Avnet movies within a week of each other (the other being 88 Minutes), I noticed something exploitive about how he treats his women. 88 Minutes had a killer who likes to string his women up and cut them, so that they slowly bleed to death while he's raping them. There's only one main female character in Righteous Kill, and she's a cop who likes rough sex, insomuch that we first think she's getting brutally raped before we find out she's just roleplaying. Carla Gugino must have read the script and muttered, "The things I do to get to work with DeNiro..."

(Which reminds me of the American Express commercial of Tina Fey trying to meet with Martin Scorsese. "I may miss my chance to get kicked to death in a movie." But I digress.)

Righteous Kill was one of those movies where we get an obvious red herring, a more subtle red herring, and then who I thought the actual killer is. But it actually wound up being the subtle red herring. I thought the subtle red herring was too obvious, but with mysteries, I guess it's pretty hard these days to surprise audiences with whodunit.