Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Unstoppable - DVD Review


Starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pine, Rosario Dawson, Kevin Dunn and Ethan Suplee. Directed by Tony Scott.

Rosario Dawson's comparison of "a missile the size of the Chrysler building" is burrowed in my head due to the fifteen times I saw the preview. Somehow I missed it in theaters, but on DVD, it's a perfectly fine rental of your basic man-vs-machine actioner. Tony Scott's choppy editing has annoyed me in the past, but it works here.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Paul - Movie Review

ll 1/2

Starring Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Jason Bateman, Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio, Blythe Danner, John Carroll Lynch, Jane Lynch, David Koechner, Jesse Plemons, Sigourney Weaver and the voice of Seth Rogen.
Directed by Greg Mottola.

Ever see someone faint in real life? Or fainted yourself? My experience is you do not freeze with a grin on your face before falling straight back. Nevertheless everyone who faints in this movie does so the same way. Lot of fainting. It's indicative of the lazy writing that creeps in to this otherwise interesting premise.

Pegg and Frost, the duo from Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz (both better movies), are Graeme and Clive, two sci-fi geeks who've made their way to Comic-Con in San Diego. They are starry-eyed and thrilled to be amongst the sword-makers, Klingon-speakers, and parade of Princess Leias in golden bikinis. They've also decided on this trip to hit all the alien hotspots (Area 51, Roswell, etc.)

But somewhere along the way they encounter an actual alien. He's Paul, a little green man who's been here for sixty years but has decided now's the time to go home, and since he's voiced by Seth Rogen, he smokes weed.

The movie has a slew of pop-culture references, mostly of the Spielbergian sort, to the point that it ceased being funny and became just distracting. It also features some American caricatures that might be amusing through the British lense, but the rednecks are just a little too rednecky, the anti-evolutionist Christians just a little too kooky, and why does everyone they meet want to know if they're gay or not?

There's a lot to enjoy here and a lot not to. I recognize the same description could apply to a bowl of Lucky Charms and cat food.

P.S. I applaud that a movie this self-referential did not exploit the fact that Pegg is Scotty in the new Star Trek movies.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Don McKay - DVD Review


Starring Thomas Haden Church, Elisabeth Shue, Melissa Leo, Keith David, James Rebhorn, Pruitt Taylor Vince and M. Emmet Walsh.
Directed by Jake Goldberger.

This dark comedy/noir thriller Coen wannabe is about a small-time janitor named Don McKay (Thomas Haden Church) who gets a letter from his old high-school girlfriend, so he decides to return to his hometown to see if there's something that can be rekindled. It doesn't take long for him to see something's not right with her, and it doesn't take much longer than that for a dead body to show up.

Now the characters aren't particularly fleshed out, but that's well-disguised by its cast, including Melissa Leo, whom I suddenly feel like I'm seeing everywhere. It really boils down to the last half-hour, when all the twists happen and everything starts to make a little more sense. As such, it's a neat screenplay exercise, and it's by no means painful to sit through, but it's underdeveloped and easy to forget.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Waking Sleeping Beauty - DVD Review


Directed by Don Hahn.

This documentary, culled from hours and hours of bored employees filming each other, explores the decade of Disney animation from its lowest to its highest peak, 1984-1994.

It's really about the Three Egos - Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Roy Disney - who were good for each other and the company but they couldn't stand each other. The fourth man, Frank Wells, served as mediator and massager, and it really makes one wonder where Disney animation would be today had Wells not died in 1994.

In 1984 the company was struggling. The brand had suffered from the poor box-office of The Fox & the Hound, Don Bluth had left and made The Secret of NIMH, and then Roy Disney helped get Michael Eisner from Paramount, and then Eisner recruited Katzenberg. They saw The Black Cauldron, an expensive flop, kill the morale of the animators and they knew they needed to get things turned around.

I felt jealous watching this movie. I would love to be employed in such a creative environment, regardless of the egomaniacs who lord over everything to please the gods of commerce. And Disney's not in a bad place now by any means with John Lasseter wearing two hats between Pixar and Disney, and Tangled being Disney's biggest animated hit since Lion King, but man, had Wells lived, and lyricist Howard Ashman (who died from AIDS complications in 1991), I really wonder where they could've gone.

The Switch - DVD Review

l 1/2

Starring Jennifer Aniston, Jason Bateman, Patrick Wilson, Jeff Goldblum, Juliette Lewis, Thomas Robinson and Todd Louiso.
Directed by Josh Gordon & Will Speck.

I thought this was supposed to be a comedy. It's actually a sappy 45-minute melodrama. Oh, it's 90 minutes? Well, they stretch it out with mournful, contemplative piano chords.

Aniston and Bateman play platonic best friends. She decides she wants a baby and hires a sperm donor. She even has a party at her house to celebrate the insemination. Bateman gets drunk and depressed and on a whim, trades the donor sperm with his own. He's so drunk, though, that he doesn't remember it the next day. Meanwhile Aniston moves away.

Six years later she moves back, and heck if the little tyke doesn't remind Bateman of himself. Well, that's an hour of the movie gone. You can guess where the last half-hour goes.

I can say I liked Bateman's performance. He never felt like he was trying to be funny. But then, the script rarely asks him to. It sounds to me like this premise could have gone the farcical route, but instead it lays there like a dead fish. How many more bad movies can Aniston put her name on before producers stop shelling out the dough?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Mother and Child - DVD Review

lll 1/2

Starring Naomi Watts, Annette Bening, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Jimmy Smits, S. Epatha Merkeson, Cherry Jones, Elpidia Carillo, David Morse, Amy Brenneman, David Ramsey, Elizabeth Pena, Lisa Gay Hamilton and Marc Blucas.
Directed by Rodrigo Garcia.

This was farther down my rental list so I was surprised when Blockbuster Online sent it to me. I wasn't sure if I was going to see it, but I'm glad I did.

This movie follows three different women with parental issues. There's Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), an ambitious attorney with attachment issues who can never stay in one place for too long. We eventually learn she had her tubes tied when she was 17, and she was adopted. There's Karen (Annette Bening), an unhappy nurse who helped her elderly mother even though there doesn't appear to be much love there. There's Lucy (Kerry Washington), who can't have children, but she and her husband are going through the adoption process.

Each storyline is strong, as each actress is given a deep character to explore and anchor her thread. I actually liked Bening here more than in Kids Are All Right. She's a prickly character who slowly dethaws when a patient colleague (Jimmy Smits) asks her out and continues to be nice to her despite her curtness. Elizabeth, also, is one of those people I wouldn't like in real life, but as we learn more about her, we grow to understand her. She eventually starts dating her boss, played by Samuel L. Jackson, who gives an unusually restrained, and therefore welcome, performance. Lucy goes through her roller-coaster of emotions as well, as the birth mother of her soon-to-be baby isn't peaches-n-cream to deal with.

It wound up being an effective and moving film.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

ABC's V - TV Review

The second-season finale was easily the best episode of the series. Wow. And yet with its mediocre ratings, ABC may cancel it, but I say a show that goes out with a bang like that needs to be rewarded with one last season. For those who've been watching, you've probably been annoyed like me that half the characters aren't interesting and the plot each week is the human resistance comes up with a plan, and then the plan backfires.

This time the stakes were high and the episode rolled like the climax from a George RR Martin book. There was a very real sense that no character would be safe, and they weren't. Let's just say the show ends with most of humanity under a trance, three significant characters dead and the fate of at least one more in jeopardy, and Anna poised to conquer Earth with ease. You can't let a show end on that note.

Also, the best line of the entire series was uttered in this episode: "That's how you kill your mother!"

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Dealing with Blockbuster Online

I tend to put most new releases I haven't seen in my Blockbuster queue, and then I sort them by how curious I am to see them. If a movie stays in the teens or twenties too long in the ranking, I figure I'm not going to see it and delete it. I plan to cancel it at the end of the month and try Netflix next month, as Blockbuster is carrying fewer and fewer of the independent titles. Many foreign or documentary titles aren't there, and they stopped carrying the VeggieTales. They also tend to send things out of order. I have the ones I want to see most at the top; why did you send me #12 on the list?

Now when I've called customer service before, they've told me to make sure sure my top 10-15 titles are "Available." Well, only about 10 of the 40 titles in my current queue are "Available" and they're not the 10 I want most. What am I supposed to do if the ones I want to get are Short Wait, Long Wait, Very Long Wait, On Order or Unavailable? Wait for them to be come Available? Could take weeks; could take months. I have one movie I've wanted to see for over a year but it's never become Available. Now my desire's dwindled and I probably never will see it. For some of the bigger titles, I tend to go through Redbox. They have a free rental code once a month, and on months when I've suspended my Blockbuster account, I can catch up on what Redbox offers.

I don't like that Blockbuster's approaching bankruptcy. I like the option of them being there. On the other hand, they're the ones who gobbled up all other video-rental stores, and they don't send me the titles I want to see. What is the bonus of claiming you have Unstoppable a month before Netflix or Redbox when you put it in your Long Wait pile and won't send it to me for two months?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Secretariat - DVD Review

ll 1/2

Starring Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Margo Martindale, James Cromwell, Dylan Walsh, Nelsen Ellis, Dylan Baker, Scott Glenn, Fred Dalton Thompson and Kevin Connolly.
Directed by Randall Wallace.

This deeply square movie has many admirable elements going for it, and many cliched elements going against. I can't blame the cast for doing a good job covering how shallow their characters are.

This family-friendly movie's about the winningest racehorse who ever lived. It centers on his owner Penny Chenery (Diane Lane), a millionaire who doesn't know much about horseracing, but with her daddy ailing, she'd determined to make this one a winner.

The music swells at the right times, the cinematography's gorgeous, but I couldn't help but recall how Seabiscuit was a better movie.

Rango - Movie Review


Starring the voices of Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Ned Beatty, Bill Nighy, Alfred Molina, Stephen Root, Harry Dean Stanton, Ray Winstone and Timothy Olyphant.
Directed by Gore Verbinski.

If there's a better animated movie this year, then this is going to be a great year.

This animated Western comedy has its humor level seemingly more aimed toward adults than kids, but my kids still liked it. It takes tropes from several sources and uses them all for maximum efficiency.

It's about a lizard with a falir for the theatrical who finds himself in a small critter town named Dirt, where they need a new sheriff. The Lizard dubs himself Rango and makes up a heroic backstory. The town embraces him. Then the real trouble starts.

There are nods to Chinatown, Apocalypse Now, the Eastwood-Leone collaborations, and many more. But they're never done just for the wink and the nod. It enhances the story.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Going the Distance - DVD Review

ll 1/2

Starring Drew Barrymore, Justin Long, Christina Applegate, Charlie Day, Jason Sudeikis, Ron Livingston, Kelli Garner and Jim Gaffigan.
Directed by Nanette Burstein.

It's a romantic comedy that is able to coast on the likeability of its leads for only so long. On one hand, it's nice that their dilemma doesn't feel like some manufactured plot device to rip them apart at the end of Act 2. They really love each other, but he's in New York and she's in California. On the other hand, this movie feels like it was assembled from a used-screenplay-devices program. Throw in some Judd Apatow level humor here, a meet-cute scene there, and the rest of the movie should take care of it itself. It has a couple good laughs, but it's not really original, and it's a matter of waiting to see which one will stop being selfish and move cross-country to be with the other.

Let Me In - DVD Review


Starring Kodi Smith-McPhee, Chloe Moretz, Richard Jenkins, Elias Koteas and Cara Buono.
Directed by Matt Reeves.

This is an entirely decent, dark remake of Let the Right One In. I'd recommend seeing the original over this one, if you can bear the subtitles, but this is still good in its own right. It's about a boy bullied at school who befriends a girl his age, and she happens to be a vampire. It's moody, competently executed.

But really, it doesn't change much from Let the Right One In, and I liked that one more.

It's Kind of a Funny Story - DVD Review

ll 1/2

Starring Keir Gilchrist, Zach Galifianakis, Emma Roberts, Viola Davis, Lauren Graham, Zoe Kravitz, Jeremy Davies and Jim Gaffigan.
Directed by Ryan Fleck & Anna Boden.

It's kind of an amusing story, the kind of movie I probably would have really liked if I'd seen it as a teenager, but now its mopey shallowness goes like water off a duck's back.

Keir Gilchrist (The United States of Tara) is a charismatic enough lead, our teen narrator who has some angst and asks to be committed when he's feeling suicidal. What happens when you combine Diary of a Wimpy Kid with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest? You get a slightly cooler movie than this.

I did enjoy many elements of it. I like when he goes to sing karaoke and he imagines everyone decked out in full Queen/David Bowie gear. I liked the budding romance between him and the hot girl inside. (Of course there's a hot girl inside).

It's fine. I don't regret renting it, but I wouldn't go out of your way to track it down either.

The Next Three Days - DVD Review


Starring Russell Crowe, Elizabeth Banks, Brian Dennehy, RZA, Lennie James and Liam Neeson.
Directed by Paul Haggis.

This mirthless remake (of a movie I didn't see) follows a husband (Crowe) who desperately seeks a way to free his wife (Banks) from prison, wrongfully accused of murder. Banks is known for her comedic chops, so on one hand I admire her stretching it here, but on the other hand, I didn't feel as compelled for her plight as I should.

Most of this movie is dedicated to planning the break-out, with a little sidetrack of Crowe killing some bad guys. Liam Neeson, heavy in the trailer, only has the one scene, where he gives the advice on break-outs.

Even then it was a thumbs-sideways until the little groaner they threw in there at the end.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

New TV Shows

CRIMINAL MINDS: SUSPECT BEHAVIOR (CBS) - I've never seen an episode of the regular Thomas Gibson-starring Criminal Minds, but I thought I'd give this one a look. This one is obviously relying on the viewer to already be familiar with the tropes of this franchise. There was no attempt to define characters; it was 100% procedural. Forest Whitaker adds gravitas to whatever he attempts, but he has to be thinking, "I won an Academy Award. What am I doing here?"

MR. SUNSHINE (ABC) - Seen a couple episodes now and it's not really working for me yet. I love Matthew Perry and that he's on a comedy this time, but he doesn't have the ensemble to bounce off of just yet. Andrea Anders is her peppy self, but her presense reminds me that the brilliant Better Off Ted gave her more to do. Nate Torrence and James Lesure, meh so far. I do like Allison Janney as his boss Crystal. I hope it picks up, but Cougar Town's a better show.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Stone - DVD Review


Starring Robert DeNiro, Edward Norton, Milla Jovovich and Frances Conroy.
Directed by John Curran.

Stone seems to be a movie with a lot on its mind, but it isn't going to share what that is.

The plot seems basic enough. Jack (DeNiro) is a prison warden interviewing a punk convict named Stone (Norton). Stone has cornrows and a Southern accent, and not for one second did I buy the character from Norton. Stone has a sultry wife named Lucetta who seems willing to use her feminine wiles to persuade Jack to recommend Stone for parole.

Jack is married, lovelessly so, as we see in the first scene as a young man he threatened to kill their daughter after his wife asked for a divorce. The wife (Frances Conroy) is still there years later, and we can tell her soul was crushed long ago.

Jack listens to conservative religious radio to and from work, looking for something and not finding it. He gives in to Lucetta, but Stone has found new peace from a New Age philosophy he's found in prison. Jack now wonders just how dangerous Stone is.

Whatever its themes are, I didn't get. Maybe it means to say that finding meaning in life is pointless. It fizzles and fades before anything really happens.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Hall Pass - Movie Review


Starring Owen Wilson, Jason Sudeikis, Jenna Fischer, Christina Applegate, Richard Jenkins, Stephen Merchant, Nicky Whelan, Joy Behar, JB Smoove, Tyler Hoechlin and Alexandra Daddario.
Directed by the Farrelly Brothers.

The Farrellys may have made the funniest raunch-comedy of the 1990's, but nothing they've attempted since has been able to recapture that magic. This one is another swing and a miss.

In some ways, I didn't dislike it as much as I thought I would, because I see a lot of promise in some of their set-ups and scenarios. The main problem is that most of the comic energy doesn't really arrive until the last half-hour.

Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis are two buddies who've hit forty and are married, but they still gawk at attractive women like they're a pair of frat buddies. Their wives (Jenna Fischer, Christina Applegate) are annoyed by their immature behavior, and the table is therefore laid in an unappealing manner. The wives are two-dimensional shrews, and the guys are clueless dweebs.

After a self-help author-friend convinces the wives to give their husbands a one-week "hall pass" - a week off from marriage where they can sleep around with no consequences - the boys go into horny anticipatory overdrive. The joke here though is that the guys have been out of the game so long, they don't really know how to proceed.

Pete Jones, winner of the first Project Greenlight season, helped with the story, and that's probably where a lot of the sweetness comes in. For me though, the movie didn't really start working until an hour in, when Owen Wilson gives a comeback monologue against a snarky coffee-house employee. The movie has consequences for their actions and I liked how some of the plot threads tied together at the end, but it can't save a first hour of laugh-free dullness.

Get Low - DVD Review


Starring Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray, Lucas Black, Gerald McRaney and Bill Cobbs.
Directed by Aaron Schneider.

An old coot decided he wants to have his funeral while he's still alive. This period piece gives a chance for Robert Duvall to show how much he can do with so little. The movie carries us along, like a gentle stream, and while the actual funeral doesn't have quite the emotional impact I think the makers intended, it's still a solid piece of work.

Monsters - DVD Review

ll 1/2

Starring Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able.
Directed by Gareth Edwards.

If I didn't know anything about the budget, I probably would've not liked this movie. But since they were able to make this with such a small budget, I have to admire it. Its main problem is that it's all setup and no payoff.

This shows the world in a few years if an alien "infection" happened, where northern Mexico is quarantined. It follows two people in Mexico who need to get back to the US, and eventually, about halfway through the movie, they decide they have to go by land.

We see glimpses of the giant "monsters" in the infected area. They're something between floating squids and Cthulu. I liked how every once in a while you'd see them on the news, but their presense has become commonplace. District 9 explored similar ideas, but with a bigger budget and better results.

I'm glad I saw it, for now I know, and I can look forward to whatever Gareth Edwards does next. But is it necessary to see? Not really.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Conviction - DVD Review


Starring Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver, Melissa Leo, Peter Gallagher, Juliette Lewis, Loren Dean, Clea DuVall and Karen Young.
Directed by Tony Goldwyn.

Hilary Swank plays Betty Anne Waters in this true story of a woman who put herself through law school in an effort to prove her brother's innocence. It has Oscar-bait written all over it, even though it disappeared quickly and never got the buzz. Truth is, I really enjoyed Sam Rockwell as the brother who is innocent but knows from his poor life choices, it figures he'd end up in prison anyway.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Waiting for Superman - DVD Review

lll 1/2

Directed by Davis Guggenheim.

This piercing examination of the US public school system is not a cut-and-dried look at heroes and villains. It's an in-depth examination of our declining education system, and I get the feeling the makers came to some conclusions they didn't anticipate or desired.

What it boils down to is that most teachers are trying and working hard, but because with the strength of the unions, there is no way to fire the worst 5% of teachers, and those 5% are dragging the whole system down.

The movie follows four or five kids, and the ending comes down to a lottery in each area for them to be admitted to these brighter, better charter schools. For the ones that don't get in, it feels like their entire future is doomed.