Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Academy Award In Memorium Omissions

Patrick McGoohan (Braveheart); George Carlin (Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure); Eartha Kitt (Holes); Harvey Korman (Blazing Saddles); Sam Bottoms (Apocalypse Now); John Philip Law (Barbarella); Mel Ferrer (Cyrano de Bergerac); Paul Benedict (The Freshman); Edie Adams (The Apartment); Estelle Getty (Stop or My Mom Will Shoot); Robert Prosky (Far & Away); etc.,etc.

But I did see some publicists and executives get in.

How could they not include Don LaFontaine, king of the trailer voice-over?

Taken - Movie Review

TAKEN (***) - Starring Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Famke Janssen, Leland Orser and Xander Berkeley.
Directed by Pierre Monel.

Contrary to popular perception, Liam Neeson has played his share of morally dubious characters, and action characters. The guy has played everyone from Darkman to Rob Roy to R'As al-Ghul, after all, and he's mentored everyone from Orlando Bloom (Kingdom of Heaven) to Ewan McGregor (The Phantom Menace). So while at first it seemed like an odd choice for Liam "Schindler" Neeson to star in a bone-crunching "I will hunt you down" thriller, it makes perfect sense just a few minutes in. This guy has a good heart, he's a loving father making up for lost time, and if you take his daughter...

He. will. kill. you.

It's an 1980's style action movie that benefits from having a real actor in the lead, therefore making it more like the Bourne movies than Cobra. Neeson plays a CIA man who's retired to be closer to his daughter (played with 17-year-old aplomb by 26-year-old Lost vet Maggie Grace). When she gets kidnapped while vacationing in Paris, he kicks into gear to get her back quickly, Machiavellianly.

Neeson's a guy easy to root for, and as a dad myself, if my daughter was kidnapped, I'd want those same skills to hunt the baddies down.

Religulous - DVD Review

RELIGULOUS (**1/2) - Starring Bill Maher.
Directed by Larry Charles.

Larry Charles directed Borat, and he directs this, and they're very similar. There are some funny moments as the makers set out to make people look stupid, but people can only look stupid if they let those with a camera in.

In order to enjoy this movie, I tried to think back to the Bill Maher I enjoyed in the 1990's, the one who was a little more libertarian and a little less angry.

Maher does a smart thing by introducing his family first and explaining how he came to his non-belief. Then he goes across the USA and across the world to challenge people on their beliefs.

First he goes to something called the Truckers Chapel, and when he starts talking to them about the Bible being fictitious, one guy is so offended he storms out. One trucker talks about how he was into drugs and women before he was saved, and Bill says, "And the downside was...?"

Bill spends more time interviewing fringe folk, showing the "God hates fags" crowd, interviewing a guy who claims to be ex-gay, interviewing a member of Ex-Jews for Jesus. It becomes clear he's not going to interview anyone too prominent, and that the vast majority of his scorn is going to be toward Christianity. In fact many people stop their interviews with "I don't know what this documentary is about..." which makes me wonder if he sought out people who never heard of him and he said "I'm doing a documentary on religion" and then they were surprised he took the "con" position.

He does try to get an interview at the Vatican but is literally thrown out, so he interviews a priest outside who pretty much says, "Yeah, it's all crap."

What's funny is how many people wilt after just a couple questions; they can't defend what they believe. Bill admits it's a luxury not to believe, and I joined in his incredulity when he visits something like the Creation Museum that claims Adam and Eve rode dinosaurs on the Earth together five thousand years ago (they show a triceratops with a saddle). Or the dude who claims to literally be the second coming of Jesus. Or the Amsterdam guy who's built a religion around marijuana. Why even make a documentary if you're not going to stack the deck to illustrate your point, right?

He gets around to mocking my faith by showing anti-LDS videos (in the movie it's done in a way like they're showing the silly parts of pro-LDS videos). He chuckles with a couple ex-Mormons, and then he moves on.

He'll do some unfair things, like putting subtitles under people mocking their answers. (It means when someone speaks in a foreign language, we can't trust the subtitles are actually what they're saying.) Those willing to go on camera in the first place suffer for it, but the ones that do it, it can result in amusing answers, like a senator who sums it up by saying "You don't need to pass an IQ test to be a senator." The movie invites viewers to feel superior to everyone Bill talks to.

Bill spends the last few minutes on militant Islam. He interviews a Dutch parliament member who wants to make Muslimism illegal. He interviews two guys in a Muslim gay bar. His eventual conclusion is simple. Christians and Muslims are on the road of a self-fulfilling prophecy to destroy the world and therefore justify their "end of days" prophecies. "Religion is a fairy tale," he preaches in his closing monologue. "Grow up or die."

I guess Bill's saying the world would be better off if we would be more like him. Let the debate begin.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Hounddog - DVD Review

HOUNDDOG (*) - Starring Dakota Fanning, Piper Laurie, David Morse, Robin Wright Penn, Amefo Omilami, Cody Hanford, Isabelle Fuhrman and Jill Scott.
Directed by Deborah Kampmeier.

This is country-fried Southern Gothic at its Hollywood-vs.-America worst. It's the type of indie that lets talented actors pour on the ham while drawling and swattin' mosquiters. It's the movie that announces that Fanning is growing up, and it does so in a discomfiting, exploitive fashion.

Fanning plays Lewellen, a 12-year-old girl who loves gyrating while singing Elvis tunes. (She breaks into the title song at least ten times throughout the movie.) It's 1956 Alabama, which means the adult folks enjoy their drinkin', clingin' to their guns and religion. It's a juicy role for her, but she's surrounded by cliches. To emphasize her grandmother's God-fearing nutjob, they've given the role to Piper Laurie, who thirty years ago was a God-fearing nutjob who drove her daughter Carrie bonkers. Good thing Lewellen doesn't have telekinesis. Or not, because it would have come in handy when she gets raped. Ick.

I know the King never would have consented to his name and music being used in a story like this were he still alive. This movie needs to be buried and forgotten.

City of Ember - DVD Review

CITY OF EMBER (**) - Starring Saoirse Ronan, Bill Murray, Tim Robbins and Mary Kay Place.
Directed by Gil Kenan.

Four stars for the production design.
Three stars for making me believe the book is probably worth reading.
Two stars for the execution of the plot.
One star for character development.

I wanted this movie to open my mind's imagination, but it's pretty obvious where it's going the whole time, and the only surprise is showing how moles have evolved in the post-apocalyptic future. I'd wager it was a blast for the cast and crew to play on those sets though.

2008 Academy Award Winners

BEST PICTURE - Slumdog Millionaire
BEST DIRECTOR - Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
BEST ACTOR - Sean Penn, Milk
BEST ACTRESS - Kate Winslet, The Reader
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR - Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS - Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY - Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire
BEST FOREIGN FILM - Departures, Japan
BEST ART DIRECTION - The Curious Case of Benajmin Button
BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY - Slumdog Millionaire
BEST MAKEUP - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
BEST SOUND MIXING - Slumdog Millionaire
BEST FILM EDITING - Slumdog Millionaire
BEST VISUAL EFFECTS - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
BEST ORIGINAL SCORE - Slumdog Millionaire
BEST ORIGINAL SONG - "Jai Ho", Slumdog Millionaire
BEST ANIMATED SHORT - La Maison en Petits Cubes


Coraline - Movie Review

CORALINE (***1/2) - Starring the voices of Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Ian McShane, John Hodgman, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, and Keith David.
Directed by Henry Selick.

I sat and marvelled at the clever inventions springing forth from the right brains of Henry Selick and Neil Gaiman. This is great entertainment all the way around, and it's pretty much what I would hope the director of Nightmare Before Christmas, including demonstrating improvements with his techniques.

Coraline is a girl frustrated by her parents inattention who finds a portal to an alternate reality where her parents are attentive and sweet, and the only price is that everyone has black buttons for eyes. Coraline finds herself less enchanted with her actual life and more intrigued by this new place, but soon enough, the sinister motives of her "other mother" reveal themselves.

It makes me want to read the book.

Now there is one scene that bugged me as a parent, and it's why I won't take my younger kids to it. I'd be okay with the spooky elements of the movie. But there's one scene where this grotesquely disproportionate aging actress sings a song as Aphrodite with nothing but pasties on her breasts, which are as big as her head.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire - Movie Review

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (***1/2) - Starring Dev Patel, Anil Kapoor, Irrfan Khan and Madhur Mittal.
Directed by Danny Boyle.

Let's put it this way. Since The Dark Knight or Wall-E aren't there, I'd be okay with this movie winning Best Picture. And with a movie I found to be really good, I feel compelled to lead with my quibble.

I knew before-hand there was a torture scene, but there was an act of violence against a child that took me a good ten minutes to recover from. Time passes and there is eventual retribution, but ugh, if I didn't know the movie had a feel-good ending, I don't know how I would have felt. I would have felt deceived. "Hey, I didn't know I was seeing City of God." But Boyle, to his infinite credit, links the events together in one big tapestry that's part Dickens and part Capra as directed by Paul Greengrass.

We follow Jamal as a kid, as a pre-teen, and as a teen, in love with a girl, going through the hardships of being poor in Mumbai. He goes through many hardships and trials, and it all builds to a triumphant conclusion.

It's very entertaining. I might have been overhyped for it, but not by much.

Miracle at St. Anna - DVD Review

MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA (**1/2) - Starring Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonzo, Omar Benson Miller, Matteo Sciabordi, Pierfrancesco Favino, Valentina Cervi, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Turturro, John Leguizamo, Kerry Washington and Walter Goggins.
Directed by Spike Lee.

Spike Lee criticized Clint Eastwood for not putting enough black people in Flags of Our Fathers. Clint rolled his eyes and told Spike to make his own WWII movie. Spike may have just been garnering publicity for his project, because less than a year later, this opened, and it did even worse business than Flags did. Was the public tuning out of World War II movies?

I don't know what went wrong with either marketing-wise, but I think there will be WWII movies until the end of the world. If the earth is consumed in a nuclear apocalypse, and centuries later small pockets of survivors are able to pull together and reform society, one of the first movies they make will be about World War II. Directors find it irresistable. When are we getting Marty Scorsese's take on WWII, I wonder? Has Woody Allen done a romantic comedy with the Holocaust as a back-drop yet?

I think one issue is that audiences might not have been ready to hear Spike Lee preach again. He gets on his soapbox here and there, but it wouldn't be a Spike Lee joint if he didn't. The main issue might have been the running time. If a movie's going to run at 165 minutes, those 165 minutes had better fly by, but with a muddled narrative, time is an issue. I remember looking at the counter at one point and thinking "Wow, still an hour and a half to go."

On the other hand there were times I appreciated being able to sit around with the characters. It's a matter of judicious editing. Cut the 30 minutes or so that wasn't interesting enough to be there, including the grandstanding and the bookended narrative device, and this could have been a good movie.

It starts in 1983 with an old black man watching John Wayne in The Longest Day, and he grumbles about no black people in the movie. Cut to his post-office job, but when his eyes lock with a familiar old face, he pulls out a pistol and shoots the guy. A reporter is determined to get to the bottom of why he would do this, and what's the deal with the head from a 400-year-old statue in the guy's bedroom?

Having seen both bookends, I don't think it was an effective way to go. Saving Private Ryan had its own questionable bookend (which was much tighter), and any time this movie invites comparison to SPR, it loses.

It's jarring to get a "black man vs. privileged white folks" lecture every 15 minutes or so. It doesn't let the movie become real. It's Spike hauling out his soapbox. And the strange tonal shifts don't help.

Friday the 13th - Movie Review

FRIDAY THE 13TH (**) - Starring Jared Padalecki, Danielle Panabaker, Amanda Righetti, Derek Mears, Travis Van Winkle and Aaron Yoo.
Directed by Marcus Nispel.

A remake? A reboot? A reimagining? Whatever you call it, they've gone the Superman Returns route. They're pretending the first two or three movies happened, and we're picking up from there. Forget The Final Chapter, and Parts 5-8, and Jason going to hell or getting shot into space or fighting Freddy Krueger.

Unfortunately the makers didn't choose to reboot enough, reimagine enough. The Friday the 13th franchise has always been a lame series. Jason is a symbol, but he has never been scary. The movies have never been scary. It's always been a excuse to get horny teens together and then kill them off one by one because they're all stupid, wandering off in the dark by themselves. Jason doesn't run because he doesn't have to.

So from the guys who took the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and put the horror back in horror movie, I was wondering if they could do something with Jason. They were able to add a little spookiness, and any changes they wanted to make, I was on board for. Jason keeps prisoners now? Okay. Jason's a little smarter here, though he still doesn't make a sound. If his victim's running away, he's okay with running. I don't think we've ever seen where he lives before, but we do in this one.

Buuut, they didn't change enough. There's still a bunch of honry teens (played by a bunch of 25-year-olds) who get together and engage in mindless conversation, bong-hitting, and then pairing off. There are only three characters who generate any sympathy, so we know the rest of them are going to hacked off; it's just a matter of when and where. I cared about more of the characters in Jason X. The killin' order is as predictable as anything. And the ending has Jason dead, but with a "is he really?" moment to leave things open for a sequel.

I can't say this is any better that part 6 or 7, so what was the point? Besides truckloads of money, I mean.

Friday, February 13, 2009

W. - DVD Review

W. (**1/2) - Starring Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, James Cromwell, Richard Dreyfuss, Jeffrey Wright, Thandie Newton, Ellen Burstyn, Scott Glenn, Toby Jones, Bruce McGill, Ioan Gruffudd, Stacy Keach, Rob Cordrry, Colin Hanks, Jesse Bradford, Noah Wyle, Marley Shelton, Dennis Boutsikaris and Michael Gaston.
Directed by Oliver Stone.

I know Oliver Stone wanted to catch the moment and get this movie out before Dubya left office, but this movie would have been better served if he'd waited a few years and let some history settle, then give a more rounded perspective to Bush's story. Stone's JFK was full of paranoid conspiracies, but it had an urgency to it 28 years after that president's death. Stone's Nixon was able to give that president a full Shakespearean scope to his life, his rise and fall. Stone's W. just feels rushed and incomplete. It is not without its insights, but it feels like two acts to a three-act story, with a large cast that mostly goes to waste.

I will grant Stone artistic license with some of the history and just roll with what he's presented. This movie is able to convey the Dubya charm that got him elected, and some of the boneheadedness that sunk him in his second term. Bush never comes across as stupid; he's just not the most articulate guy, and if anything, he can be too trusting. I felt for him when all his advisors, many of whom served his father, were on board for the Iraq war, but then when no weapons of mass destruction were found, no one had answers for him.

It is a bit odd that his entire life pretty much boils down to daddy issues, with James Cromwell playing a sterner George H.W. than we're used to seeing. Thandie Newton comes off as a bizarre SNL caricature of Condi Rice, and Jeffrey Wright's Colin Powell is a mere martyr. Richard Dreyfuss's Dick Cheney lacks a white cat to stroke when he talks about establishing an empire in the Middle East.

Brolin, however, eventually disappears into the role. Between this, Milk and No Country for Old Men, Brolin's really able to show some range, and the ability to inhabit different characters. And if it wasn't for Heath Ledger, I'd say this was Brolin's year to get some gold.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist - DVD Review

NICK & NORAH'S INFINITE PLAYLIST (***) - Starring Michael Cera, Kat Dennings, Alexis Dziena, Ari Graynor, Jay Baruchel and Aaron Yoo.
Directed by Peter Sollett.

Gross, gross, gross, gross!

This movie is a sweet, nice little high-school romance between two likeable leads, almost killed by the grossest scene of the year. It involves vomit. That's all I need to say on that.

Michael Cera does his usual quick-speak stutter awkward-dude thing as Nick, the only straight guy in a gay band, still pining for his mean-girl girlfriend after she dumped him. Meanwhile, based on the mix CD's he leaves her, Meangirl's friend Norah thinks he'd be a cool guy to hook up with. While at a club, Meangirl teases Norah about being single, so Norah claims she has a boyfriend, then to complete the ruse, walks up to Nick, kisses him, and asks him to play along. Gee, of all people...

The whole movie takes place in one night, with Nick & Norah going in and out of bonding as Nick tries to shed his feelings for his dumper, and Norah tries to find her drunk and lost other friend. It's not exactly American Graffiti, but this is one I can see 16-year-olds seeing and then feeling nostalgic over it twenty years from now.

Although if you see it, you've been warned about the vomit scene.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

We Own G.E.

The taxpayer stimulus bailout whatever-we-want-to-call-it is giving over $100 billion to GE, which is about what it's worth, which means we own it. Now the money's focussed on their energy side, but does this mean Pres. Obama's proposed $500,000 salary cap on companies that receive federal funds extend to all branches of GE? Does this mean all actors and directors who work on Universal Pictures take pay cuts? What about NBC actors? Do Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin take the hit? Do MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, Chris Matthews and Joe Scarborough give back most of their paychecks now?

Looking at Universal's upcoming slate, I'm not that encouraged for spring. The Last House on the Left might bring out torture-porn fans. Duplicity has a great cast (Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, Paul Giamatti, Tom Wilkinson) but a middling marketing campaign. Will there be clauses added to the back-end deals of guys like Will Ferrell (Land of the Lost) and Adam Sandler (Funny People) that they now get 10% of the gross only up to $500,000?

I guess it's my patriotic duty now to see Fast & Furious 4. We all must sacrifice.

Do U.S. taxpayers now get a discount at Universal Studios Orlando?

Monday, February 9, 2009

Dirty Jokes in Kids Movies

This is a trend that has been bugging me for a few years now. The first time it annoyed me was with 1998's Antz, a DreamWorks animation pic that decided to include one ant calling another ant an "a--hole." Then there was 2000's Titan A.E., where you had a butt shot of the main character. Don't get me started on the Shrek series.

I bring this up because of two things I heard about. 1.) Monsters vs. Aliens. My wife was offended because there's a scene in the preview where a guy has to get his butt scanned to be admitted into a secret government room. That scan would presumably include his privates. Isn't that sexual harrassment? What if it was a woman who had to have her naked butt scanned to get into a government room?

Then there's Coraline, which I was looking forward to taking my older kids to, but we were warned there's a scene of a grandma who has breasts bigger than her head, and she does a dance with just pasties on. Why oh why did the filmmakers find it necessary to include this?

Pixar finds a way to make great family movies that includes humor adults can appreciate without resorting to the potty humor these other studios keep inserting into their work. It's like sneaking in a fly or two into the stew. Why put a fly in there at all?

Friday, February 6, 2009

Vicky Cristina Barcelona - DVD Review

VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA (***) - Starring Javier Bardem, Scarlett Johansson, Penelope Cruz, Rebecca Hall, Patricia Clarkson, Craig Messina and Kevin Dunn.
Directed by Woody Allen.

Woody Allen is so much easier to take when he's not in the movie. It's probably been a good decade since I liked a movie that he's in, but when he gets out of the way for other actors, like in Match Point or this one, he can still write good stories. And when his neurotic dialogue is spoken in a Spanish accent, it feels new and alive.

Penelope Cruz is getting the hype for Best Supporting Actress for this movie, and she is really good. It helps that a third of her dialogue is in her native tongue, and the soft tones of the cinematography around Barcelona give it the look and feel of a Pedro Almodovar movie.

The movie centers on two friends, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Christina (Scarlett Johnasson). They're Americans vacationing in Spain, and they get propositioned by a Don Juan local (Javier Bardem) to come to his place for the weekend and maybe enjoy a menage a trois. Vicky's appalled, but Christina's intrigued by his frankness. At different point in the movie, both women wonder if they're in love with him, but things get further complicated by the return of his unstable ex-wife (Cruz).

Javier Bardem is a great stand-in for Woody, it turns out. Others have tried to varying success. I liked John Cusack in Bullets Over Broadway, and Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity (which was otherwise a terrible movie). Will Ferrell in Melinda & Melinda, not so much. Bardem has many of the Woody Character flaws, but his natural charisma makes it easier to swallow that women would overlook those and his not-so-classic looks.

As for Cruz, I'd be okay if she won, but I'm still pulling for Taraji P. Henson from Benjamin Button.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Lakeview Terrace - DVD Review

LAKEVIEW TERRACE (**1/2) - Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Patrick Wilson, Kerry Washington, Ron Glass, Jay Hernandez, Justin Chambers, Regine Nehy, Jaishon Fisher and Robert Pine.
Written by David Loughery & Howard Korder.
Directed by Neil LaBute.

This was a three-star movie until the last ten minutes. Then it becomes less and less Changing Lanes and more and more Unlawful Entry. Despite this, there's still an effective slow-burn performance from Samuel L. Jackson who's just a little bit off, and a slightly unstable Sam Jackson is scarier than a maniacal one.

Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington are the new neighbors in town, and Jackson's a strict widower who's old school when it comes to attitudes on interracial marriage. He's also a cop, and he's not stereotypical the way many Hollywood movies tend to be with bad cops. It's believable he's popular among his peers. He seems good at his job with one or two issues. He's a guy who just doesn't want this new couple living next to him, and the more he subtlely tries to get them to leave, the more angry he becomes when they don't.

It's not so much about race after a while as it is about machismo, two men who don't want to look weak by conceding. Then it all falls apart in a simplistic, over-the-top ending that has been done in so many other movies. That's what makes Changing Lanes so enduring, when it just came down to the two men confronting each other and diffusing things before they went beyond the point of no return. This ending, filmwise, is too easy.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Gran Torino - Movie Review

GRAN TORINO (****) - Starring Clint Eastwood, Ahney Her and Bee Vang.
Directed by Clint Eastwood.

Man, I love Clint. He's been all about deconstruction lately. Here he deconstructs the tough guy. He may be playing a man named Walter Kowalski, but this could be what Dirty Harry would be like at 78, assuming he just became more racist as he got older.

This movie is more about the human drama than the trailer may show. Yes, the danger of gang violence lingers on the edge, and eventually there must be a showdown, but it's more about an old man stuck in his ways finally letting his grinchy heart grow as he gets to know the "gooks" next door.

You could say it's like About Schmidt in many ways. Schmidt was a mid-level man his whole life, and now retired and suddenly widowed, he doesn't know what to do with himself. Walter is in a similar boat. He's tough and grizzled, and after his wife dies no one knows how to relate to him. You can tell his never-seen wife was his buffer to people and sociability and all that crap. It's funny to watch Clint squint and grunt an old-man grunt whenever someone steps on his lawn.

What do you know. Another movie more worthy of a Best Picture nod than The Reader or Frost/Nixon.