Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Women - DVD Review

THE WOMEN (*1/2) - Starring Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Eva Mendes, Debra Messing, Jada Pinkett Smith, Candice Bergen, Bette Midler, Carrie Fisher, Cloris Leachman, Ana Gasteyer and Joanna Gleason.
Directed by Diane English.

Never saw the 1939 original. Was amused by never showing a single male onscreen. I've seen more than one movie where we never see a woman onscreen, but at least those movies had reason to not show women. They didn't pertain to the story being told. If the ship never landed on that island in Master & Commander, we'd have never seen women in one of Russell Crowe's best movies.

My main problem with this movie is that if you're not going to show any men, tell stories that make sense to not have the men be there. If the central character's story is about how her husband is cheating on her, how can you not show him? We see her side of phone calls, and people repeating conversations they had with him, and, and... just hire an actor already. Show, don't tell.

Can you imagine a movie with all men where the lead is going through a divorce because he learned his wife's cheating on him, and he confronts the other man, and his son repeats conversations he had with his mother, and there are only men walking the streets of New York, and, and... that movie would likely suck too.

Watchmen - Movie Review

WATCHMEN (***1/2) - Starring Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Jackie Earle Haley, Patrick Wilson, Malin Akerman, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Carla Gugino and Matt Frewer.
Directed by Zack Snyder.

I loved it.

I read the graphic novel for the first time about seven months ago, and I haven't read it since. I tend to want to read books before the movie comes out, but I also wanted the memory to fade so when I watched the movie, I could let some elements surprise (beyond what the filmmakers are changing). Seven months isn't enough time to forget a lot; there were only a few points where I wondered "Did they change that from the book?"

I thought the opening credit sequence was great, to the tune of "Times They Are A-Changing" as we watch the revisionist history of the United States if superheroes had been around. It gets in a lot of backstory in three minutes. In fact, the whole soundtrack rocked for me, finding perfect spots for "All Along the Watchtower", "99 Red Balloons", "Hallelujah", and a great closing credit song with My Chemical Romance's cover of "Desolation Row."

Yes, the movie is admirably faithful to the source material, something that can't be said for a lot of previous Alan Moore adaptations (see The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Or don't.) Most of the changes made, I agree with. I'm glad they cut all the stuff with the kid at the newspaper stand reading the comic book about pirates. It added a level to the graphic novel, but we can't have a five-hour movie.

The stand-out in the cast for me was Jackie Earle Haley as Rorshach. Rorshach has the best story-arc anyway, but Haley has to do most of it behind the inkblot mask. Haley has the raspy Batman-voice thing going, but he's able to convey menace with a slight head-nod. By the time his mask is ripped off, I was giddy to see what Haley was going to do and he didn't disappoint. I was also impressed with Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan. The big blue demi-god is emotionally detached, and Crudup, who arguably had the hardest job, keeps him believable. Patrick Wilson is fine as the impotent Nite Owl, a guy who's regressed into his Clark Kentisms the longer he's retired. Matthew Goode was okay as Ozymandias, nothing really special there. Malin Akerman was flat as Silk Spectre for me, but not bad enough to drag the movie down.

I'd be curious about what people thought who hadn't read the graphic novel first. It's a deconstructing take on superheroes, showing that after a few decades of vigilantism, most of the "masks" have been psychopaths themselves. Superheroes have eventually been outlawed, except for Dr. Manhattan, who works for the US government.

We see the Comedian attempt rape and later kill a woman pregnant with his child. We see Rorschach do a number of bloody killings (although I liked the more subtle way he dispatched of the child killer in the book). Dr. Manhattan wins the Vietnam War by walking across the fields and making bodies disintegrate by pointing at them. It's violent stuff.

The ending is different, but I think this ending would be more palatable for non-fans, and I don't think it's worse than the book's ending. Some of the plot points have been used in everything from The Incredibles to Heroes, but this came first.

Bottle Shock - DVD Review

BOTTLE SHOCK (**) - Starring Alan Rickman, Chris Pine, Bill Pullman, Rachael Taylor, Eliza Dushku, Freddy Rodriguez, Dennis Farina, Bradley Whitford and Miguel Sandoval.
Directed by Randall Miller.

If you've ever been tempted to watch a wine-tasting contest on TV, this movie's for you. When it comes to all things wine-loving, though, Sideways was a better movie.

This is a true story (which ultimately sinks it) of a California vineyard that entered their wines in a blind taste test with French wines in 1976. They are underdogs, they have obstacles thrown at them, and it follows every plot point you'd expect any sports movie to follow. The sun shines brightly, and there are some decent performances from the likes of Alan Rickman and Freddy Rodriguez, but it's a lightweight story I've seen a thousand times before, just not in the competitive world of wine-making.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Punisher: War Zone - DVD Review

PUNISHER: WAR ZONE (*1/2) - Starring Ray Stevenson, Dominic West, Julie Benz, Doug Hutchison, Colin Salmon, Dash Mihok, and Wayne Knight.
Directed by Lexi Alexander.

Julie Benz (Dexter) appeared in two movies in 2008 with a character named Jigsaw, the other being Saw V.

I would say at least 100 people get killed in this movie, and at least 90 of them are by the hands of Frank Castle, a.k.a. The Punisher. This movie is a reboot, ignoring the Thomas Jane movie. As such, I didn't feel a lot of sympathy for Castle and what he became. He's just a killing machine who tends to blow people away willy-nilly. Yes, he assumes they're bad, but when he shoots an undercover agent, he feels remorse, and he befriends the widow to try to make amends. I found myself hoping he wound up dead by the end of the movie.

But it's based on the Marvel comic. It uses the name and he has the skull on his front, but the skull is just a slightly less-black shade than the rest of his outfit so you can barely tell it's there.

The police tend to wink and nod when it comes to the Punisher because he kills bad guys, but seriously, they made it clear he's already killed hundreds of people before the opening credits; by the end, I would have found any cop justified in just putting one in the back of Frank's head, especially after he blows a mobster's head right off as a cop is trying to handcuff said mobster.

(There's a reason in the comic-book world why the Punisher started out as a villain.)

But at least Dominic West and Doug Hutchison have fun as the malevolent brothers Jigsaw and Loony-Bin Jim, respectively.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

How to Lose Friends & Alienate People - DVD Review

HOW TO LOSE FRIENDS & ALIENATE PEOPLE (*1/2) - Starring Simon Pegg, Kirsten Dunst, Jeff Bridges, Megan Fox, Gillian Anderson, Danny Huston, Miriam Margoyles, and Max Minghella.
Directed by Robert B. Weide.

This movie should have ended at the 40-minute mark with Simon Pegg's Sidney getting fired. Or if he had another chance, at the 60-minute mark. But somehow at the 60-minute mark, Sidney is still not fired.

Sidney is the editor of a struggling gossipy-snarky celeb magazine who gets hired to join the staff of one of New York's most successful magazines (it's called Sharpe's but I believe it's based on Vanity Fair). His first day on the job, he wears a widly inappropriate T-shirt. It's hard to empathethize/root for someone who's such a fool.

Sidney's goal is to make Sharpe's more hard-hitting, more snipey. Apparently he's never heard of the internet, home of a million snarky celeb-centric blogs. Sidney is unlikeably written but he's played by Simon Pegg. Which just reminded me of Run Fatboy Run, another movie where he plays a boor where I kinda wanted him to lose in the end.

This is like The Devil Wears Prada, except the employee isn't that nice to begin with, and the boss isn't that evil. Opportunities for a sharp satire are left by the wayside, and we get mushy scenes and slapstick scenes mixed in with a little Hollywood nastiness.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Race to Witch Mountain - Movie Review

RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN (**) - Starring Dwayne Johnson, AnnaSophia Robb, Alexander Ludwig, Carla Gugino, Ciaran Hinds, Tom Everett Scott, Christopher Marquette, Cheech Marin and Garry Marshall.
Directed by Andy Fickman.

First of all, the first two movies endure even though watching them again without kid-wonder eyes, their low budgets really shine through. Where the first movie made the fact the kids are aliens a plot twist, this reboot/remake/whatever-it-is establishes it in the opening credits.

It carries on the tradition of eccentric villians. Movie #1 had Ray Milland and Donald Pleasance, and Movie #2 had Bette Davis and Christopher Lee. This one has Ciaran Hinds. I'd like to see Hinds take on James Bond next.

My family got free passes to this, and that was the way to see it. Had I spent the $38.50 it would have cost to take us all to a matinee, I would have felt ripped off. It's an okay addition to the series, for a DVD rental. In theaters, it meant nothing the second the credits started to roll. For one thing, in the originals, the kids felt like kids. In this one, they're weird the whole time. And there's some tear-jerking it goes for the end which doesn't feel earned at all.

It had some in-jokes I liked, like Meredith Salenger's cameo as TV reporter Natalie Gann, and the original Witch kids (Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann) having cameos. Then they had one character set up like it should be a meaningful cameo, and it wound up being Garry Marshall. Is this a joke I just don't get? "Hey, it's the guy who did the voice for Chicken Little's dad!" or "Didn't he direct The Princess Diaries?" I would've gone for Dean Jones or Robin Williams or Tim Allen or Tim Conway or Geoffrey Rush or Michael Crawford or Ed Asner or Ray Wise or . . .

Rachel Getting Married - DVD Review

RACHEL GETTING MARRIED (***1/2) - Starring Anne Hathaway, Rosemary DeWitt, Bill Irwin, Debra Winger and Anisa George.
Directed by Jonathan Demme.

This movie feels like it's about real pople, affecting real lives. There are sections, some quite long, where it's like we're just watching footage of a family's home movies of the wedding. The plot sneaks in though, as Kym, playing with hurricane fury by Anne Hathaway, shows up to be the maid of honor.

Kym's been in rehab, and while the revelations of how why this family is so dysfunctional come out at the plot-point markers I'd expect, Demme is able to make it flow in a way that it still seems believable. This movie is his most Altman-esque work to date.

Hathaway earns the kudos she received for playing Kim, but I was equally impressed with Rosemary DeWitt as Rachel, the good daughter, the bride to be who has to put up with her self-centered recovering-addict sister.

If I had a complaint, it'd be that the editor indulges too long for some wedding scenes. They could have cut ten minutes easily and the movie would not have lost anything.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas - DVD Review

THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS (**1/2) - Starring Vera Farmiga, David Thewlis, Asa Butterfield, Jack Scanlon and Rupert Friend.
Directed by Mark Herman.

A kids movie about the Holocaust. Except it isn't a movie I'd show kids. Maybe it's doing things that way on purpose, like Avenue Q doing things Sesame Street style even though it's clearly not for kids.

It's very well-made, and I was drawn in by the friendship of the two boys, one of the son of a Nazi, the other in a concentration camp. Bruno is the German boy; Shmuel is the Jew. At first Bruno thinks Shmuel is just a worker on a farm he can't leave, and Shmuel doesn't seem too clear on what is really going on either.

I read a couple reviews before I saw it and I wish I hadn't. The vague references to the third act told me where it was going well before it got there, and I think if I'd seen it without hints, the movie would have had a greater impact on me. Even so, it can be melodramatic in an Oscar-bait sort of way. When it's just the boys, I feel like I'm watching two kids about to journey to Narnia or Terabithia. So why was this Holocaust movie made? I'm still not sure what the point is, other than maybe to show that adults may think they're being good parents doing the right thing, even when they're acting what history demonstrates as unspeakably evil.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

What Just Happened - DVD Review

WHAT JUST HAPPENED (**) - Starring Robert DeNiro, Robin Wright Penn, Bruce Willis, Michael Wincott, Catherine Keener, John Turturro, Sean Penn, Stanley Tucci, Kristen Stewart, and Moon Goodblood.
Directed by Barry Levinson.

Great cast with a thin inside-baseball story about behind the scenes at Hollywood. There are two main stories centered on one beleaguered producer named Ben (Robert DeNiro). For one movie already filmed, he's trying to convince his artistic director not to have the dog shot at the end of the final cut. For another movie yet to be filmed, he's trying to convince Bruce Willis to shave his beard. Those are the two conflicts, and both come to resolutions.

So when a character asks at the end, "What just happened?" I can say this is what happened with the dog and this is what happened with the beard, and other than that, not much. And we get a half-dozen movies every year that show behind-the-scenes Hollywood where the majority of players are selfish, amoral, Machiavellian loudmouths. It just reminds me that no matter what industry Hollywood demonizes, they're just as harsh with themselves.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Flash of Genius - DVD Review

FLASH OF GENIUS (**1/2) - Starring Greg Kinnear, Lauren Graham, Dermot Mulroney, Alan Alda and Mitch Pileggi.
Directed by Marc Abraham.

Act One: Bob Kearns (Kinnear) invents the intermittant windshield-wiper and arranges to seel it to Ford. Ford backs out of the deal, but then uses Kearns' design in what they claim is their own invention of the intermittant windshield-wiper.

Act Two: Over the next twelve years, little guy Kearns fights against Big Corporation Ford with their high-priced lawyers and intimidation tactics. Meanwhile everyone around Kearns loses faith in him and wishes he'd just give up. His wife leaves him.

Act Three: Kearns finally gets his day in court with Ford, acting as his own lawyer.

It's a true story, and while there is some satisfaction over Kearns finally getting to the big auto industry, I couldn't help but feel at the end, was it really worth it if it cost him his marriage?

Friday, March 6, 2009

Quarantine - DVD Review

QUARANTINE (**1/2) - Starring Jennifer Carpenter, Jay Hernandez, Steve Harris, Rade Sherbedzija, and Greg Germann.
Directed by John Erick Dowdle.

It's The Blair Witch Project meets Cloverfield meets 28 Days Later. It's not as nauseating as Cloverfield but it's not as inventive, and when you've seen one flesh-eating zombie, you've seen them all.

Dexter's Jennifer Carpenter (great screamer) is a journalist doing a profile piece on firefighters when they get a call to a building. She and her cameraman, along with the firefighters, get quarantined in the building, though they don't know why, but soon enough they start getting attacked by residents trying to bite into them. We only see and learn what they see and learn, and the explanation is brief and nicely done.

I'm glad they had the camera be held by a professional, as Cloverfield focussed on shaky-cam so much I had to look away from the screen at one point to fight back motion sickness.

Pet peeve though, the last three seconds of the movie were in the freakin' trailer. I wondered the whole movie when that scene was coming, and the answer was "Right before the closing credits."

JCVD - DVD Review

JCVD (***) - Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Francois and Damiens.
Directed by Mabrouk El Mechri.

Who knew the Muscles from Brussels could act? Here, JCVD plays himself, pretty much, going through another divorce, facing a child custody case, filming a crappy straight-to-DVD movie that might open in a couple European countries, when he finds himself in the middle of a robbery. Now one of JC's characters could dispatch all the bad guys in a few minutes. But in real life, with real hostages, he's forced to just play along. It's performance art reminiscent of what John Malkovich had to do in Being John Malkovich.

There is one monologue that JC gives to the camera where he sums up his life in three minutes, and it made me feel for the guy. Can't Sly Stallone find a part for him in The Expendables? A quick check on IMDB says his next project is the surely-straight-to-DVD Universal Soldiers: The Next Generation, which may or may not co-star Dolph Lundgren.

The movie's filmed in Belgium, and it's 90% subtitled.

Body of Lies - DVD Review

BODY OF LIES (**) - Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, and Mark Strong.
Directed by Ridley Scott.

There are directorial flourishes Scott will enjoy that I tend to enjoy, but I was surprised by the flatness of this movie. It's reduced the war in Iraq to a dull cliche, with agents and double-agents talking conspiracies and politics and Islam without ever emotionally engaging the viewer. The main thing I learned from it is that Leo DiCaprio still looks too young to convincingly sport facial hair.

Russell Crowe, who's acted as Scott's muse is past movies, goes through the motions with a lazy Southern accent as the bureaucrat we know will eventually give Leo, earnest field agent, the shaft.

Buildings will be blown up, poor folks will be collateral damage, at least two people will be tortured (while Qu'ran verses are recited), and everyone wearing a tie is a liar. There's your movie.

Fireproof - DVD Review

FIREPROOF (*1/2) - Starring Kirk Cameron and Erin Bethea.
Directed by Alex Kendrick.

I thought this might be good. Posititve message, sleeper hit, made more money than three of the five Best Picture nominees (I know, so did Friday the 13th, but still...) I was hoping I could capture that middle-America vibe that made this a word-of-mouth success.

But the first thing that slapped me awake was the reaffirmation of the opinion I developed when watching Like Father Like Son in 1987: Kirk Cameron is a terrible actor. And since he's the star in this, all the other amateur actors aren't any better. Not that he's done favors by the dialogue. Any of it. Ever.

Sample dialogue during an argument: "You disrespectful, ungrateful, selfish woman!" or "You never assume I can do anything honorable!" Could his former Growing Pains co-star Leonardo DiCaprio salvage these lines? It'd be tough.

He and the rest of the cast engage in every high-school acting bad-habit under the sun. Several times when someone says "I" or "me" they then point to themselves. Who really does that? When a thought can be conveyed with a glance, it's not just a glance but an eyebrow raise, furrow, wink and eye-bug. And then we get two lines of dialogue over what the glance was about.

So with everything delivered heavy-handed and underlined three times, it feels like the dramatic re-enactment of a 100-minute infomercial for an evangelical self-help book. And maybe for those who don't care about acting or writing or subtlety, they'll get fulfillment out of it.