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Movie Reviews 2008

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My Movie Reviews

5 Stars= It's Simply the Best

4 Stars= Totally Rocks

3 Stars= Rad

2 Stars= Bad

1 Star= Terrible 

Zero= Totally Sucks

10,000 B.C.

So easy a caveman could do it *1/2

Prediction, there won’t be a film in the entirety of 2008 more unconsciously silly or historically inaccurate than “10,000 B.C.” Personally, I could care less whether or not an action picture such as this is plausible. If I gave a rat’s ass about historical accuracy I probably would have never recommended the Spartan epic “300” last year. Not even Oscar-winning Best Pictures like “Gladiator” or “Braveheart” were entirely up to the level of your history books. “10,000 B.C.” is a movie so implausible that is would make either of the “Ice Age” movies seem realistic.

If the title didn’t already give it away for you, the film is set in 10,000 B.C. In this era of lethal mammoths and dreadlocks lives an incredibly bland hero named D’Leh, played by Steven Strait. When D’Leh’s childhood love Evolet, played by Camilla Belle, is kidnapped and throne into slavery, the young warrior sets out with a tribe of others to save her. D’leh and Evolet are some of the most unconvincing prehistoric characters of movies. Evolet’s eyebrows have clearly been waxed while D’leh appears to have using crest white strips since boyhood. In addition to that, they’ve nearly mastered modern day English. These two leads are essentially two very attractive models with dirt smudged across their faces.

The movie comes from director Roland Emmerich who specializes in apocalyptic pictures of nonstop action sequences. His previous accomplishments include “Independence Day” and “The Day After Tomorrow” which to me worked as enjoyable guilty pleasures. I’d even go as far to say that I didn’t hate his American version of “Godzilla.” “10,000 B.C.” doesn’t work on any level however, not for the purposes of mindless action or goofy camp value.

There are some movies that are worth recommending purely in terms of special effects. This is one of those movies where the computer generated images and visual effects are truly the stars. The dilemma is that the woolly mammoths and saber-tooth tigers of “10,000 B.C.” are cheesy and unconvincing with no personality. I thought back to Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park,” the first picture to ever mix CGI effects with live-action. In “Jurassic Park” the actors were able to convincingly interact with the images that weren’t really there. “10,000 B.C.” on the other hand is fundamentally a bunch of so-called actors senselessly prancing around in front of a green screen.

My quarrel with “10,000 B.C.” is that it’s free of a single compelling character with special effects that weren’t special. Historical inaccuracy aside, there’s no reason why this big-budget extravaganza couldn’t have gotten the job done. I have ever confidence that the filmmakers could have made a moderately entertaining disaster movie like “Cloverfield.” Instead they settled for one gigantic mess of uninspired action and laughable dialog. The bottom line is that “10,000 B.C.” is all together a forgettable and boring experience. How is it that a film overflowing with supreme battles could be so empty?

Baby Mama

My Baby's Mommy **1/2

If one subject was exhausted in movies last year, it was the concept of pregnancy. A broken condom never resulted in more laughs per minute than in Judd Apatow’s ingeniously titled, “Knocked Up.” Shortly following “Knocked Up” was the independent sleeper, “Waitress,” a wonderful picture depicting the life a pregnant woman in an abusive marriage. Then the movie industry released “The Brothers Solomon,” a film so awful that the filmmakers should have just aborted the baby. The year then ended with the Oscar-nominated “Juno,” a perfect film about a pregnant teen. “Baby Momma” is a movie that’s not nearly as bad as one of the films I listed above. However, it’s also nowhere near as good as the other three movies dealing with pregnancy.

SNL graduate, Tina Fey, stars as Kate, a successful business woman who is missing one thing in her life, a baby. Cursed with a triangular uterus, Kate soon discovers the odds that she’ll ever conceive a child are one in a million. With the option of adoption out of the question, Kate decides to try a surrogate agency. Kate is paired with a white trash woman named Angie, played by Amy Poehler, to be her baby momma. The sloppy Angie moves in with the intensely neat Kate to become the female odd couple.

If there’s a duo of actresses I’d like to see reunited in more projects it’s Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Tina Fey has been proving her strengths as a writer for years, most notably her screenplay for the hilarious “Mean Girls.” However, she’s only just popping out as an actress for her award-winning performance on “30 Rock.” Amy Poehler is naturally uproarious in just about anything. In “Baby Momma,” they have chemistry much like Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in “The Odd Couple” or Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn in “Wedding Crashers.”

While the casting is dead on in “Baby Momma,” the writing isn’t quite at the level we would hope. Writer Michael McCullers has revealed talent as a storyteller for his work in the “Austin Powers” movies. Here however, McCullers doesn’t really bring anything unique to the table as a director. This is one of those movies where you laugh here and there. However, there’s not really enough moments that batter you over the head with hilarity.

Don’t get me wrong, there is some pretty funny material in “Baby Momma.” A majority of which has already been featured in the theatrical trailer. But then I suppose it’s not fair for me to decline a film for its ad campaign. My problem with “Baby Momma” is the fact that we’ve seen this same scenario numerous times before and better. After five films revolving around pregnancy in the past year, do we really need any more baby drama?


The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

The Chronic (What?) cles of Narnia**1/2

Throughout the course of “The Chronicles of Narnia” series, the worst possible thing imaginable happens to the four young heroes: They’re forced to go through puberty twice! In the first movie, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy Pevensie all entered the magical realm of Narnia as children. For 15 years they ruled over the land and matured into adulthood. Then when they returned to the fantasy-free world, they became youngsters once again. Quite frankly, I can’t imagine a worse hell than having to repeat the process of growing up.

What I want to know is what happened during the 15 years the Pevensie’s spent in Narnia. I suppose nothing very eventful occurred during that time. You’d think that within those 15 years the Pevensie siblings would have become more mature. However, they’re still the same adolescents at heart. I don’t believe for a second that any of them are adults trapped in the bodies of children.

“The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” takes place one year following the events of the previous film. The four kids are swooped back into Narnia to find the kingdom in ruins. They soon learn that in Narnia time, they have been absent for nearly 1,300 years. Here’s what I find curious. If the Pevensie’s returned to their youthful state when they first left Narnia, shouldn’t they turn old again when they return to Narnia? But then I guess they would be rotting corpses after 1,300 years. The ruthless King Miraz has forced all the Narnians into exile. The fate of the land lies in the hands in the four children and a medieval hunk named Prince Caspian, played by newcomer Ben Barnes

“Prince Caspian” is certainly a great looking movie. In terms of visual effects and art direction, this is a significant upgrade from “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.” What this second chapter lacks is a sense of awe. I felt the original film was really about something with a story worth investing in. “Prince Caspian” on the other hand seems to center more on large-scale battles and mystical creatures. The final outcome never really takes off.

This addition to the “Narnia” series introduces dozens of new characters. However, only a couple of players are actually memorable. Sergio Castellitto gives a good effort as the evil King Miraz. However, he’s nothing compared to Tilda Swinton’s spine chilling villain of the White Witch, who’s reduced to a mere cameo here. Prince Caspian himself isn’t a very compelling hero. He lacks the charisma and emotion of a warrior such as Aragorn from “The Lord of the Rings.” The only noteworthy newcomer is Reepicheep, a swashbuckling mouse that’s a bit like Remy the Rat crossed with Puss 'N Boots.

This addition to the “Narnia” franchise is well acted, visually impressive, and at times exciting. However, it lacks the enchantment of the first film. While it’s miles better than “Eragon” and “The Seeker,” it doesn’t compare with “Harry Potter,” “The Lord of the Rings,” or the underrated “Spiderwick Chronicles.” The four leads are all talented young actors, particularly Georgie Henley as the endearing Lucy. I’d like to see them reprise these roles and for this series to continue. What the filmmakers need to remember next time around is that magic doesn’t come from production values. It comes from the heart.

Cloverfield

Ahhh! It’s Godzilla’s distant cousin! ***1/2

There has been immense speculation and numerous questions asked regarding the film, “Cloverfield.” “Is this movie based on real footage from a handheld camera?” “Is the monster, which has been concealed in all the previews, really Godzilla?” Personally I’m only half convinced that “Cloverfield” is based on actual tape recordings labeled as property of the United States government. I’m fairly certain that the monster is only a distant relative of Godzilla. None the less, this is an effective and well made extravaganza of big explosions and loud noises that surpasses most routine disaster pictures.

The story, as absent as it might be at times, is told through the video camera of several young adults in New York. As if from absolutely nowhere, a colossal monster starts attacking the city in a hideous rampage. Even as the monster tears New York to shreds, the heroes of the movie document all the footage, amazingly not running out of tape. This is their story of survival that is at times quite fascinating.

If there is one aspect to admire regarding “Cloverfield,” it’s the films ability not to completely follow the formula of your typical apocalypse movie. Unlike “The Day After Tomorrow” and “Armageddon,” there is no overly dramatic score pounding the movie. At no point in the movie does somebody deliver a speech that has obviously been prepared in advanced. Best of all, there are no idiotic military commanders who are constantly making mistakes throughout the course of the movie.

The video camera method of filmmaking isn’t entirely original. Since the “Blair Witch Project” scored box office gold nearly ten years ago, the idea has been done to death. The jerky cinematography in “Cloverfield” often left me dizzy with a pounding headache. While it drove me crazy at times, I believe it’s the hyper cinematography that saves the film. The camera becomes a real character in the movie which adds to the effect of the plot.

“Cloverfield” was produced by J.J. Adams who directed “Mission Impossible III.” The man knows how to fabricate a decent action picture. There is especially much to admire in the casting of the film, featuring an acting ensemble of primarily unknowns. The actors are successful at not creating character but real people in a hostage crisis much like in Paul Greengrass’s “United 93.” I’ll admit that the movie does fall a little flat in its conclusion which is just as much a downer as “I am Legend.” Then again, I suppose I never expected to get a good feeling out of a disaster picture.

College Road Trip

That’s not so Raven *

Overly protective fathers are a common cliché in many family movies such as “College Road Trip.” But never before has a parent been more overbearing and controlling than Martin Lawrence’s James Porter. The character is so obsessed with his daughters well-being that he hand picks her college, spies on her constantly, and despises any boy who shows even the slightest bit of interest in her. In one instance he even tasers a seemingly friendly young man, who shows no threat to his daughter at all. Is this material really supposed to be funny? That’s the question I kept asking myself through the entirety of “College Road Trip.”

Raven Symone, one of the more forgettable graduates of the Disney Channel, plays James’s teenage daughter, Melanie. James is stricken with grief when his baby girl gets an interview at Georgetown, several hundred miles away from home. He decides to take Melanie on road trip to D.C., with the ambitions to convince her to attend a college closer to him. But how much do you want to bet that James will eventually accept his daughter’s choices and allow her to leave the nest?

This is one of those movies where everybody seems to know that the material isn’t funny. So the entire cast acts over-the-top and manic out of desperation to make the audience laugh. Lawrence delivers a performance so frenzied that he half-made me crave a Christmas movie staring Tim Allen. Even more exaggerated is Raven Symone, who just comes off as annoying as she chants her lines in a high-pitched voice. While on the road, the two meet another father/daughter pair who enjoying singing show tunes. Their characters are truly psychopathic, making the family from “Meet the Robinson’s” appear ordinary. 

There’s even a pig throne into the mixture because this entire premise was just too realistic. Of course the animal results in a series of comic bits, none of which even merit a smile. There’s one scene in which the pig ingests a bag of coffee beans and is released during a wedding. The bride is splashed with jello and the groom plunges into a chocolate fountain. When the father of the bride points out that a statue cost him ten thousand dollars, it’s evident that it’s going to be knocked over. Its movie pigs like this that makes me wonder whatever happened to lovable pigs like “Babe.”

Movies like this are required to have an embarrassing, sentimental moment between the feuding father and daughter. In “College Road Trip” however, we seem to get scene after scene of James and Melanie coming to terms. Disney isn’t incapable of producing a quality movie about parents and their children. Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsey Lohan were a terrific on-screen-team in “Freaky Friday.” That film’s director, Mark Waters, didn’t just settle for the most obvious physical gags though. Some no-brainer critics might classify this movie as family fun. But I assure you that “College Road Trip” is anything but family fun. It’s not fun for anyone.

 

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

8 going on 80 *****

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is possibly the most unique movie going experience you’re likely to have all year. And quite frankly, this has been a great year for original storytelling. Like “WALL-E” and “Slumdog Millionaire,” here’s another movie with ideas and a vision. Although there are still plenty of uninspired films in theaters, these are three movies that remind us just how wonderful the cinema is. “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is an extraordinary film that goes above and beyond to tell an unforgettable story.

“Mommy, my pubic hairs are all gone!” “That just means that you’re becoming a little boy, dearest.” Imagine what it would be like to be born an old man and become younger as you grow older. That’s what happens to Benjamin Button. His mother dies in childbirth, his father abandons him on the doorstep of an old folks home, and a loving woman named Queenie, played by Taraji P. Henson, takes Benjamin in. The movie follows Benjamin’s incredible life story and the remarkable characters he meets along the way. 

Brad Pitt plays Benjamin and quite magnificently I might add. Throughout the first hour of this movie, I was assured that this aging man couldn’t possibly the 45-year-old Pitt. I thought to myself, “This must be another actor up on screen!” With the use of seamless special effects however, Pitt is amazingly transformed into old man Benjamin. I truly believed that this was not a special effect but a real-live elderly man before my eyes. Performance wise, Pitt sells every moment in his role.

Although Pitt is likely to gain the most attention come award season, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is not a one-man show. Every actor brings something to the table in one of the year’s finest acting ensembles. Cate Blanchett is particularly memorable as Daisy, the woman who captures Benjamin’s heart at first sight. Extended cameos from Tilda Swinton and character actor Jared Harris add to the picture. The best performance in the film however, comes from Taraji P. Henson. Henson is full of heart as the woman who first discovers Benjamin and instantly accepts him.

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is in every way, shape, and form, a fairytale. Watching this movie, I was greatly reminded of the work of Tim Burton. The film has the same outlandish feel a modern-day fantasy like “Edward Scissorhands” or “Big Fish.” Visually, the movie is enchanting and will certainly pickup several technical Oscars. And underneath the extraordinary visuals and production budget of 160 million dollars, there’s a heart.

I genuinely cared about the romance between Benjamin and Daisy. The two meet when Benjamin is a little boy trapped in an old man’s body and Daisy is a little girl. This relationship may raise the eyebrows of some. In some bizarre way however, the love story works. Their relationship strikes resemblance to the relationship in “Forrest Gump.” This isn’t much of surprise seeing how that film’s screenwriter, Eric Roth, adapted this film as well.

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is an ingenious idea, brilliantly told by a visionary filmmaker. David Fincher, whose previous credits include “Fight Club” and “Panic Room”, directed the film. Now Fincher has fashioned an epic masterpiece for the ages. There are some filmmakers who know how to come up with a promising premise. However, only so many know who to execute that premise.

The Dark Knight

The Knight is Darkest Before the Dawn *****

Christopher Nolan's “The Dark Knight” is a picture so engrossingly haunting with such rich performances and direction that it earns comparison to crime epics such as "Goodfellas" and "The Departed." Even without the ingenious art direction of Tim Burton, Gotham City, shot on location in Chicago, has never been more menacing than through the eyes of director Christopher Nolan. To this date there hasn’t been a more complete and complex portrayal of Bruce Wayne/ Batman than from Christian Bale. For the past year Batman has cleaned up the streets of Gotham, leaving mod kingpins shivering in terror. Maggie Gyllenhaal takes over for Katie Holmes as ADA Rachel Dawes. Although she is pursuing the new district attorney Harvey Dent, played by Aaron Eckhart, of course Rachel still holds a torch for her childhood love of Bruce.


From glimpses of the theatrical trailer, it was evident that the late Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker was something magnificent. Ledger’s performance in everyway lives up to the hype, creating one of the most horrifying screen villains of all time. With smudged makeup and a whispery voice, Ledger fashions a Joker more spine-chilling than Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh or Jonny Depp’s Sweeney Todd. Heath Ledger literally becomes this character like Anthony Hopkins in “Silence of the Lambs” or Daniel Day Lewis in last years “There Will be Blood.” Even if Ledger doesn’t receive a deserved Oscar nomination, he is guaranteed the MTV Movie Award for Best Villain.


One of my dismays with the original “Batman” picture was Jack Nicholson’s interpretation of the Joker. In my eyes, the performance always came off as a misfire, with Nicholson doing an over-the-top retread of Beetlejuice. Here, Ledger and Nolan develop the Joker into a truly frightening screen presence. The Joker does have his own sick sense of humor however. There’s one instance in which he makes a pen disappear, which I won’t give away.


In the first four “Batman” pictures, the villains were always notorious for stealing Batman’s thunder. Heath Ledger’s Joker indeed steals the show in “The Dark Knight” as well. However, that doesn’t stop any of the other actors from creating real characters. One particularly notable character is Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent.


In most superhero movies, the law enforcers always seem to shun the outlaws with disapproval of their reckless ways. Harvey Dent however, looks upon Batman as the potential savior of Gotham and wants to see him succeed. He is willing to assist Batman and even sacrifice himself for the good of Gotham. Dent isn’t without his inner demons though. Through loss and tragedy, the Harvey Dent character slowly becomes a two-faced monster. (I hope that didn’t give anything away for you.)


There’s not a performance that isn’t crucial to the film. Every actor is aloud their moment to shine from Gary Oldman’s Lt. Gordon, to Michael Caine as Batman’s dedicated servant Alfred, to Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox. Once again Christian Bale delivers a note-worthy performance as Bruce Wayne. Bale’s performance along with the screenplay develops Batman into an intriguing character and more than just a dark suited man there to save the day.


Last week I wrote that “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” broke new grounds for superhero movies. I still hold “Hellboy II” in the highest regards as one of the best of the superhero genre. Among all of the superhero movies however, I believe “The Dark Knight” is the one bond to reach new heights. Christopher Nolan has fabricated a work of art that deserves serious award consideration, despite its comic book roots. Never before has a movie of its kind been more profound, leaving me thinking for hours and then days after the screening.
Its predecessor, “Batman Begins,” was a masterpiece of superhero and gangster pictures. When you put “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight” beside each other, they can be considered the “Godfather Part 1 and 2” of superhero movies.

Definitely, Maybe

My magic 8 ball points to definitely, yes ****

When it comes to making movies, no genre is easy to do well. I believe that last statement goes double for romantic comedies. It’s doesn’t take much for somebody to produce a lame-brained screenplay of one cliché after another. A majority of romantic comedies rely purely on star power by recruiting likable personalities such as Katherine Heigl. To fabricate a formula-free script of true romance is difficult for any filmmaker to accomplish. “Definitely, Maybe” is a movie that succeeds however, where so many other romantic comedies fall flat. Here’s a love story of such charm that rages as the most original movie of its kind since “Chasing Amy.”

Ryan Reynolds stars as Will Hayes, a divorced father whose romantic life is in the dumps. After a sexual education class, Will’s daughter Maya, played by Abigail Breslin, becomes inquisitive of her parent’s love life before her birth. Will informs his daughter that in the past he has had three great loves, one of which includes her mother. He decides to tell Maya the story, changing the three ladies names to create a love story mystery. The film is both a romance and a mystery that keeps the audience guessing more than most crime thrillers.

The first of the three mystery women is the underappreciated Elizabeth Banks as Will’s college sweetheart, Emily. Will soon leaves his longtime love behind however, to live out his dream as a young Democrat in New York. There he befriends the free-spirited April, played by Isla Fisher. In addition to them is Rachel Weisz as Summer, a journalist who enjoys the company of older men. In a majority of love stories it’s obvious who will end up together and who will get tossed aside. The screenplay here however is extremely careful to keep us guessing who Maya’s mother truly is. Will has chemistry with all three women and it’s gripping to unravel the mystery of who his lifelong love is.

Reynolds has always been an appealing actor. The dilemma is that he’s been recruited to one terrible film after another. In “Definitely, Maybe” he is finally aloud to express his talent and likeability. Abigail Breslin was simply pitch perfect in “Little Miss Sunshine” a few years back. Here’s she nothing short of irresistible as a daughter who desperately wants to see her father happy. Hats must go off to Elizabeth Banks and Rachel Weise for their roles as well. Although, the standout performance of “Definitely, Maybe” comes from Isla Fisher. Fisher is wonderful and endearing in this movie as a woman who foever caries a torch for Reynold’s character and yet can never get the timing right.

“Definitely, Maybe” is a cauldron of other movies mixed into one. The film has a “Forest Gump” feel to it as Will reminisces of the early 90’s as Clinton is elected into office and cell phones come into style. The framing device is reminiscent of the “Princess Bride” with a father telling his daughter a bedtime story. The sheer originality of this film is in the spirit of even some of the best romantic comedies from Woody Allen. While it might not out-gross a movie like “27 Dresses,” there is a definite chance people will be talking about it a lot longer.

Disaster Movie

I don’t need to tell you that it sucks. But I will anyway.  Zero stars

I thought I had witnessed American moviemaking at it’s lowest with the release of “Meet the Spartans” last January. The “300” satire became the number one movie in America during it’s opening weekend, surpassing all five of the Best Picture Oscar nominees. Although millions lined up to see this cinematic turd, I have yet to meet one person who actually enjoyed “Meet the Spartans.” Hopefully that means everybody will avoid “Disaster Movie,” a film so uninspired that it steals jokes from “You Don’t Mess the Zohan.”

Both “Meet the Spartans” and “Disaster Movie” were written and directed by Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer. Their track record also includes films such as “Date Movie” and “Epic Movie.” With exception to Uwe Boll, Friedberg and Seltzer are without a doubt the least ambitious filmmakers on the planet. If you saw any of their previous movies, I suppose “Disaster Movie” will be exactly what you’d expect. The film is full of crude celebrity impressions, racial stereotypes, bad slapstick violence, gross out gags, needless dance sequences, lots of product placement, and comedy bits that go on for far too long. What I want to know is whether Friedberg and Seltzer think this material is actually funny or are they trying to make terrible comedies?

In “Disaster movie,” the two rip on “Juno,” “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” “High School Musical,” and “Enchanted,” none of which are actual disaster movies I might add. Try comparing this film to the fake music biopic, “Walk Hard: The Dewy Cox Story,” or Edgar Wright’s buddy cop satire, “Hot Fuzz.” Those movies had characters and were actually satirizing a genre. “Disaster Movie” isn’t so much of a takeoff on disaster movies as it is a series of references of every blockbuster to come out in the past year.

I was reminded of that one Saturday Night Live skit where Bill Hader impersonated Daniel Plainview from “There Will be Blood.” As a five-minute sketch, the material was funny. What the people behind “Distaste Movie” don’t seem to realize is that what’s funny as a skit isn’t always funny as a feature-length movie. In addition to all of the movie references, “Disaster Movie” is full of pop culture gags. Twenty years from now though, who’s going to remember those AT&T dropped call commercials or Sarah Silverman’s song “I’m Fucking Matt Damon?”

Watching “Disaster Movie,” I felt as if my sanctuary of the theater had been desecrated. Although they got the Disaster portion of the title right, the Movie part is a stretch. “Disaster Movie” is not a movie. Friedberg and Seltzer are not filmmakers. Shame on them for making this movie! Shame on the movie studio for releasing their movie! There are bad movies, there are unbelievably bad movies, and then there’s “Disaster Movie.” 

Doubt

Twist and Doubt ****1/2

“Doubt” is a challenging and haunting achievement that tackles issues we face even today. This is one of the best films ever made dealing with the controversy of the Catholic Church or religion in general. The film offers no easy solutions. Now that I think about it, the film really doesn’t offer any solution at all. In the end however, that just makes the film even more provocative.

The movie stets itself in 1964 in the Catholic school of St. Nicholas. Meryl Streep plays Sister Aloysius Beauvier, one of those stern authority figures that believe in harsh discipline towards children. There’s one in every Catholic school. I suppose that’s why so many former Catholic students have converted to atheism. The school has just accepted it’s first African American student. Father Flynn, a seemingly friendly priest played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, takes the timid student under his wing. Sister James, a loving nun played by Amy Adams, becomes suspicious of Father Flynn’s intentions when the student returns from his office one day with wine on his breath. When Sister Aloysius hears of this she becomes convinced that Father Flynn has been making sexual advances towards the student. She becomes determined to expose Father Flynn for the monster she believes he is.

I suppose it’s needless to say that the cast is nothing short of exceptional. Streep is a spine-shilling ice queen as Sister Aloysius. She even manages to bring some much-needed humor into the film with several memorable one-liners. Amy Adams continues to prove that she’s incapable of giving a bad performance as the naive Sister James who wants to see the good in everybody. The best performance in the film however, comes from Viola Davis. Davis demonstrates ten of the finest minutes of acting this year as the molested child’s mother. In her diminutive, yet powerful, screen time, Davis delivers a performance that just might win her an Oscar.

The film was written and directed by Oscar-winner John Patrick Shanley. In his adaptation of his own play, Shanley presents a thought provoking character study that understands human behavior. Are Sister Aloysius’s accusations against Father Flynn true? The screenplay keeps the audience questioning all the way through. Shanley never turns Sister Aloysius into a hero nor does he depict Father Flynn as a villain. At times we even wonder which character we’re supposed to be routing for or if we’re supposed to be routing for anybody at all. 

My one and only complaint regarding “Doubt” is its staginess. Throughout the entirety of the movie I couldn’t help but feel that I was basically watching a filmed version of the play. Aside from that minor quarrel, this is one of the year’s finest films.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

We are Sarah Marshall ****1/2

Judging from it’s previews, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” is one of those romantic comedies that would appear tired even for a television sitcom. From it’s theatrical trailer, I was assured the film would sink into Dane Cook territory to be about as humorous as “Good Luck Chuck.” However, I had not taken into the consideration the film’s producer, the great Judd Apatow. Through his films “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” Apatow achieved comic gold in what could have been two one-joke catastrophes. “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” is in every possible way a formula romantic comedy in which every plot point is evident to the audience. As apposed to so many other recent comedies though, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” is uproariously hysterical with meaning and wit in what is one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen.

The story of the film is easy enough as Peter Bretter, played by Jason Segel, is dumped by his longer term girlfriend, Sarah Marshall, played by Kristen Bell. Overcome with sorrow and grief, Peter decides to get away from it all on a trip to Hawii. By sheer coincidence, Peter just so happens to encounter Sarah and her new boyfriend conveniently residing at the same hotel. The notion that these two would coincidently run into each in this fashion is improbable of course. However, the audience accepts this simply because it sets us up for some of the largest laughs of recent cinema.

“Forgetting Sarah Marshall” is made up of one of the funniest and most unforgettable cast of characters in all of comedy. Segel’s endearing and all-around sympathetic character of Peter is helped through his romantic crisis by an entire band of colorful individuals. Bill Hader of “Saturday Night Live” is nothing short of hilarious as Peter’s stepbrother. Paul Rudd creates the classic character of Chuck, a clueless, stoned suffer dude. It wouldn’t be a Judd Apatow production without Jonah Hill, who is naturally funny as a chubby waiter. There is also truly a breakthrough performance from Mila Kunis from “That 70’s Show” as the girl who helps Peter get back on the horse. Kunis is nothing short of delightful in her transformation from a television actress to a movie star.

Most romantic comedies require at least one of the characters to be unlikable, typically an X-girlfriend or jerky boyfriend. In “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” there is not a character who the audience doesn’t rejoice. The Sarah Marshall character in particular is not just a bitch who tosses Peter to the side. Rather, the screenplay develops her as an independent woman with feelings and even sentimentality. Newcomer Russell Brand steals the whole show as Sarah’s new boyfriend, Aldous Snow. Brand is uproarious as this character who comes off as half Hugh Grant and half Johnny Depp. Here’s an ensemble of characters so lovable and sharp that I believe the cast is worthy of a Screen Actors Guild nomination.

This is one of those movies that overflows with comedic genius. The audience is blundered over the head with one sidesplitting sequence after another, most notably a Dracula musical performed by puppets. The number greatly reminded me of even some of the best musical sequences from Mel Brooks. “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” is superb comedy. The notion that there will be a funnier movie this year I find incomprehensible.

Frost/Nixon

What a dick ****1/2 

Frank Langella is a highly respected Broadway actor who has popped up in numerous feature films as well. Langella is probably best recognized for his role in the 1979 version of “Dracula.” In recent years he has appeared as CSB Chairman William Paley in “Good Night and Good Luck” and Newspaper Editor Perry White in “Superman Returns.” Now in Ron Howard’s film adaptation of the stage play, “Frost/Nixon,” Langella reprises his Tony-award winning role as the shamed president. Is there an actor out there who could deliver a more complete portrayal of Richard Nixon than Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone’s “Nixon?” Up until I saw “Frost/Nixon” I didn’t believe such a feat could be achieved. Langella delivers a career defining performance in a spot on interpretation of America’s most notorious politician. 

The film sets itself in the summer of 1977, three years following President Richard Nixon’s departure from office. Nixon refuses to discuss the Watergate scandal or the Yom Kippur War with the press. But a British playboy/talk show host named David Frost, played by Michael Sheen, manages to persuade Nixon into a series of interviews.

Langella might not look or sound one hundred percent like Nixon. However, he nails him in every other way imaginable. Langella captures Nixon’s mannerisms with a hunched back, a dawdling limp, and an uncanny look in his eyes. More importantly, Langella does a substantial job at embodying Nixon’s personality. He perfectly exemplifies Nixon’s cockiness, Nixon’s arrogance, and Nixon’s regret. Unlike some of the performances in “W.” (Cough, Thandie Newton), Langella does not merely impersonate this man. Rather, he lives the role.  

Langella is such a powerhouse of acting in this picture that the rest of the cast may get lost in the shuffle. “Frost/Nixon” is full of enriching performances however, with one of the finest acting ensembles of the year. Michael Sheen is particularly memorable as David Frost. Sheen is excellent as a showman who confidently takes on Nixon and soon realizes he’s way in over his head. The interviews between the two are like an intense ping-pong match with both players furiously competing to come out on top. Supporting Langella and Sheen are Rebecca Hall as Frost’s lady friend, Sam Rockwell as a hardcore protester of Nixon, and Kevin Bacon as Nixon’s loyal aid.

Performances aside, “Frost/Nixon” is a first-rate character study from Director Ron Howard. Peter Morgan’s screenplay is fascinating and makes you see Nixon in a completely different way. Howard and Morgan don’t sugar code Nixon’s character nor does they make Nixon out to be a monster. The movie depicts the former president as a corrupt man who was often too proud to admit his faults. At the same time however, we see glimpses of a regretful individual seeking forgiveness. Although he was a flawed man, Nixon was a man nonetheless. By the end of the movie the audience actually comes to sympathize with quite possibly the worst president we ever had. 

 

Frozen River

Over the river and through the woods to over the boarder we go ****

What a great year this has been for character actors. After years of playing minor supporting players in popular movies, Richard Jenkins demonstrated his full potential as a serious leading man in “The Visitor.” Now Melissa Leo, who for the past couple of years has been playing small parts on television shows and independent movies, breaks out as an actress of substantial talent in “Frozen River.” These are two veteran character actors who may not have the star power of somebody like Jack Nicholson or Meryl Streep. Given the opportunity to shine however, Jenkins and Leo can be every bit as exceptional.

In “Frozen River,” Leo plays Ray Eddy, a single mother struggling to make ends meet. Ray’s husband recently abandoned her and her two children. After working at a drug store for two years, her boss still refuses to give her a promotion. Desperate to make the down payment for her new home, Ray reluctantly teams up with a Mohawk smuggler named Lilia, played by Misty Upham. The two start smuggling Chinese and Pakistani foreigners across the frozen St. Lawrence River for a profit of $1,200. 

Melissa Leo is nothing short of magnificent in this picture. She is perfectly cast as a trailer trash mother who loves her children with every fiber of her body and will do anything to support them. Sure, we’ve seen this same character a million times before. Not since Julia Roberts in “Erin Brockovich” has there been a more compelling or badass single parent though.

Misty Upham is also quite good as another single parent whose child was stolen by her mother-in-law. Together, Leo and Upham two have one of the most absorbing on-screen partnerships of the year. The two start off literally wanting to kill each other and eventually become reliant on one another.

The movie was written and directed by first time filmmaker, Courtney Hunt. Here’s another director who understands how people talk and how the world works. Like “The Visitor,” another picture dealing with immigration, “Frozen River” doesn’t cram it’s message down the audiences throat. As a matter of fact, I don’t believe the film even has a message regarding illegal immigration. The main focus of Hunt’s screenplay is the extraordinary relation that develops between these two women and the fiascos they undergo.

Funny Games

Why so serious? Because this movie is so sadistic Zero stars

“Funny Games” commences with a family a three driving to their summer home, listening to classical music. The audience is then badgered over the head with heavy metal as the title is plastered onto the screen in red, bulging letters. That’s essentially the entire mood of “Funny Games.” The opening scenes of this movie express true class and intelligence. As it goes on however, “Funny Games” becomes sadistic and hateful to the point I wanted nothing more than to change the station.

Naomi Watts and Tim Roth star as a married couple with an adoring son. When they arrive at their house by the lake, two creepy men in sporty outfits, played by Brady Corbet and Michael Pit, intrude on their property. The family is then emotionally and physically torchered through a series of cruel mind games. Throughout the course of the movie, a dog is beaten to death with a golf club, a mother is forced to remove her cloths, and a little boy is shot and killed. I can’t imagine anybody taking any sort of pleasure in this movie. The film is so malicious and vindictive that I cannot believe that the talented cast and crew behind it were able to classify the end product as entertainment. 

I haven’t been a very big fan of the “Saw” or “Hostel” series, or any other franchises that exists purely to exercise violence for that matter. But at least those movies knew that they were nothing more than torcher porn. As much as I despised those movies, I still believed there was an audience for them. I don’t know whom “Funny Games” is intended for though. The film seems to think that it more than a typical slasher picture when its actually every bit as disposable. 

One movie that “Funny Games” merits comparison to is 2006’s “Hard Candy.” Both films are essentially and hour and a half of people being torchered. The difference between “Funny Games” and “Hard Candy” though is that “Hard Candy” was an actual movie. Although the film wasn’t always easy to watch, it was effective with something to say. “Funny Games” has absolutely nothing to say, even though it might make itself out to be something more. 

What makes “Funny Games” even more brutal of an experience to watch is that it’s well made and effectively acted. So much potential went into this product only to accomplish what? To create a malevolent and spiteful calamity that will depress anybody with a shred of conscience. The last act of the movie is especially despicable with this innocent family awaiting their deaths. “Funny Games” hates its characters and thinks the audience is stupid for caring whether or not they survive the ordeal.

There’s one scene towards the end in which the Naomi Watts character takes a shotgun and kills one of the crazed intruders. The other intruder then grabs a remote control, re-winds back in time, and stops the shooting from ever happening. It was at this point in the movie that literally said out loud, “You have got to be fucking kidding me!” The ending is one big middle finger to the audience that should leave everybody involved with “Funny Games” ashamed of themselves.

 

Get Smart

Smart spy spoof, get it? ***1/2

Classic television programs are next to never proper source material for motion pictures. But of course this is old news for anybody who threw away ten dollars on “The Honeymooners.” I’m just about ready to declare the Will Farrell, Nicole Kidman abortion of “Bewitched” as the worst romantic comedy I’ve ever seen. My hatred for the dreaded “Dukes of Hazard” only seems to increase as time goes by. Even with an impressive cast, I was half convinced that “Get Smart” would only reach the heights of mediocre to horrendous. Unlike most T.V. retreads however, “Get Smart” is the rare movie that doesn’t suck a supreme amount of ass.

Steve Carrel plays Maxwell Smart, a blundering nerd who works a dull desk job for the secret government organization of Control. While he’s naturally talented as a tech guy, Max desires nothing more than to be promoted to the rank of agent. The Chief of Control, played by Alan Arkin, is left with no choice but to give Max a shot at the big leagues when every other spy is compromised. Max is teamed up with the luscious Agent 99, played by the luscious Anne Hathaway, to prevent an attack from the agency of KAOS.

If there was an Oscar for Best Casting Director, “Get Smart” would be a certified contender in my eyes. I believe that Steve Carrel was tailor made of the role of Maxwell Smart. While most comics could have completely missed the mark, Carrel hits just the right note. Carrel doesn’t overact in this performance, or at least not as much as he usually does. Anne Hathaway has always been a talented and plucky young actress. Here however, she simply dominates the screen with beauty and lovability. Even The Rock, who appears to be going by his professional name of Dwayne Johnson now, has good comedic timing as the overpowering Agent 23.

I wouldn’t go as far to say that the script for “Get Smart” is entirely first rate. A majority of the best gags here are visual while some of the dialog falls flat. Carrel’s previous comedy, “Evan Almighty,” was completely dependent on bad physical comedy in desperation to make the audience laugh. Physical humor can work however and in “Get Smart” it works quite well. While some of the material is redundant and clichéd, a majority of the jokes left me smiling.

“Get Smart” shares much in common with “Night at the Museum” as a visually stunning comedy. While it doesn’t beat you over the head with laughs, it’s enjoyable all the way through. What I found especially exceptional regarding the film were the action sequences, which I think are more exhilarating than the original “Mission Impossible” movie. Here’s an action comedy that gets it right as pure “B” summer entertainment. I’d even be willing to see “Get Smart” develop into a film franchise like “Austin Powers.” Now there’s a first, me desiring a sequel to a T.V. adapted movie.

Gran Torino

You don’t mess with the Eastwood ****

The funniest movie of the holiday season isn’t Jim Carrey’s “Yes Man” or Adam Sandler’s “Bedtime Stories.” It’s Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino.” The truly funny thing is that Eastwood’s latest picture isn’t even a comedy. Actually, the film deals with some pretty heavy subject matters such as racism and gang violence. I don’t know if Eastwood’s original intentions were to make “Gran Torino” as hysterical as it is. Either way, the film is an engaging surprise with an even balance of comedy and drama.

In addition to directing, Eastwood casts himself in the lead role of Walt Kowalski. Walt is an ill-tempered, Korean War veteran. His loving wife has recently passed away. The rest of his family considers visiting him to be a chore. Walt’s teenage granddaughter wishes he would finally kick the bucket so she can inherit his 1973 Gran Torino. I don’t know why it’s so funny to see Eastwood playing a cranky, racist, old man. It just is.

Next door lives a family of Asians, who Walt considers to be savages. One night a brawl breaks out between an Asian teenager named Tao, played by Bee Vang, and a local gang. With a shotgun and a threatening glare in his eyes, Walt scares the gang away. Soon after that, Walt reluctantly develops a friendship with Tao, who he continues to refer to as “Toad.” Their relationship is reminiscent of the friendship between Daniel and Mr. Miyagi in the original “Karate Kid,” only with the races reversed.

Will Eastwood win his first acting Oscar for his performance in “Gran Torino?” Probably not. Nevertheless, this is another superb feat from Eastwood. In what could have been a one-dimensional role, Eastwood manages to give the Walt character a heart like no other actor could. I’m sure we’ve all had a grandparent like Walt in out lives. There is a certain truth to his character that the entire audience can identify with. At first we feel genuinely uncomfortable around the grumpy man. By the end of the movie, we’ve come to adore him.

“Gran Torino” might not be Eastwood’s best film outing. A subplot regarding a priest who attempts to help Eastwood with the loss of his wife is a tad cliché. While it lacks the depth of superior Eastwood films, “Gran Torino” is still a touching and provocative story. Hats must go off to Eastwood who in his senior years still manages to direct, produce, compose, and star in A-list entertainment. In every way, shape, and form, Clint Eastwood in this movie. 

Hamlet 2

Jesus Christ Sexy Star ****

If you haven’t seen any of the previews and walk into “Hamlet 2” completely oblivious, you’ll be in for the surprise of your life. To settle any confusion, this movie is not the untold follow-up of the Shakespearian masterwork. I have every confidence that if William Shakespeare were to ever see this film, he’d instantly classify it as an ungodly tragedy. For everybody else however, “Hamlet 2” is a surprisingly upbeat comedy of enlivening music and note worthy performances.

Steve Coogan plays Dana Marschcz, a third-rate actor who is reduced to working as a high school drama teacher for gas money. After poorly reenacting a series of Hollywood movies such as Erin Brockovich, the school board decides to pull the plug on the drama program. Dana is reluctant to go down without a fight however. Along with his unenthusiastic students, Dana decides to put on the greatest play of all time, “Hamlet 2.” It’s a zany and touching musical extravaganza that plays out like a demented version of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” 

Coogan was seen earlier this month as the decapitated director in “Tropic Thunder.” I vastly enjoyed Coogan’s five minutes on screen in that movie. In “Hamlet 2” however, Coogan is truly given an opportunity to fully embrace himself in front of an American audience. The British comic doesn’t retrain himself from creating a character that is every bit as manic as a Jim Carrey personality. As twisted of a character Dana might be though, Coogan manages to incorporate a bizarre heart into his performance. In some nutty way, the audience comes to feel for this determined man who simply wants to embrace the theatrical arts. Even in a year that includes Steve Carell’s bumbling agent in “Get Smart” and Robert Downey Jr.’s jive talking Australian in “Tropic Thunder,” Coogan delivers possibly the year’s finest comedic performance.

I’m sure you’ve all been inquisitive of when Elizabeth Shue is finally going to make her big comeback in movies. “Hamlet 2” at long last answers our prayers with Shue doing a first-rate job at playing herself of all people. I’d even go as far to say Shue is just as good at playing herself in this movie as Neil Patrick Harris was at playing himself in the “Harold and Kumar” movies. There is an especially creditable cast of supporting players with Catherine Keener as Dana’s longsuffering wife and Amy Poehler a stern lawyer. I especially admired the performances from the under-the-radar actresses Natalie Amenula and Phoebe Strole as Dana’s students. 

Here I was convinced that Dracula’s Lament from “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” would be the most ridiculous musical number I’d see all year. Amazingly enough, “Hamlet 2” manages to fabricate an entire soundtrack of more off the wall songs. The most memorable of the bunch is the enthralling number of “Rock me Sexy Jesus.” This is quite possibly the most outrageous movie soundtrack since “South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut.” This isn’t much of a surprise seeing how that films co-writer, Pam Brady, helped to write this film as well.

Along with director Andrew Fleming, Brady has concocted one of the most outlandishly hysterical independent comedies since “Napoleon Dynamite.” Even in all of its absurdity, “Hamlet 2” has an uplifting “School of Rock” quality to it. The Dana character has a true passion for acting and teaching drama. By the end of the movie, the audience has developed a certain soft spot for the performing arts as well.

Hancock

My Super Ex-Boyfriend **

Every superhero goes through some rejection from the public in their career. Spider-Man has to put up with negative comments in the newspaper everyday. But Hancock is probably the first superhero who deserves to be not liked by society. Here’s a movie about a supernatural man who fights crime and in the process leaves everything in his path destroyed. In addition to that, Hancock is a raging alcoholic and essentially an asshole to everyone. And for some reason the screenplay makes him out to be a tortured outcast we’re supposed to have pity on. In my eyes however, if any actor other than Will Smith was in this role, Hancock would be completely unlikable.

Hancock can fly through the air with a body impenetrable to bullets. So he’s basically Superman with an attitude. In the films opening sequence, Hancock stops a high-speed chase. In the process, a highway is left in ruins, buildings are shattered, and sheer chaos erupts. This one scene has a certain “Team America” sense of humor to it and is quite funny. “Hancock” is the kind of movie that opens with a potentially interesting concept. Rather than following-up on that idea though, the film takes one wrong step after another, resulting in a jumbled mess.

I simply don’t understand the Hancock character. Apparently he’s intended to be a good man who’s acting-out because he feels isolated from humanity. But his inner character is never really explored or explained. In a movie where he should be the most interesting character, the only compelling person is a man named Ray, played by Jason Bateman. Ray is the only one who sees the potential in Hancock and wants to help him. Bateman is effective and witty in his performance. But not even his likable presence can save the movie.

Also wasted here is Charlize Theron as Ray’s wife, Mary. There’s a bizarre love triangle between Hancock, Mary, and Ray. However, the relationship doesn’t really add up to much. There is also a twist involving the Mary character which I won’t give away. What I will say however is that the twist comes completely out of nowhere. When the twist arises in the third act, the movie seems to run completely out of ideas and meanders into “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” territory.

“Hancock” never really decides what it wants to accomplish. Is it supposed to be an action/comedy or merely a superhero spoof? As an action/comedy the entertainment value and laughs are only moderate. As a satire, there’s not really anything it explores that Brad Bird’s “The Incredibles” didn’t already. There’s only one truly witty moment in the movie when Hancock uses his bare hands to shave his beard. Now that I’ve given away the best part of the entire movie, I suppose there’s no reason for you to sit through “Hancock.”

The Happening

Mark Wahlberg talks to trees *1/2

I raised the eyebrows of many when I gave M. Night Shyamalan’s uniformly panned “Lady in the Water” a recommendation. I admit that the film was in every way, shape and form a mess. However, I found it to be somewhat of a glorious mess. As preposterous and jumbled as the story might have been, I got caught up in the action. I found myself entertained although the plot was all over the place. Call me crazy, but I’m sticking with my gut on that film.

Whether you love him or hate him, it’s hard to deny that Shyamalan is a talented and stylish director. Shyamalan has made some great thrillers such as “The Sixth Sense” and “Signs.” Then he has made some mediocre pictures like “The Village.” M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening” is a first for me though. It’s the first film by Shyamalan that has altogether bored me. The movie is so lacking in the chills department, that the characters are reduced to literally running away from wind.

Mark Wahlberg plays a science teacher named Elliot Moore. Elliot is having trouble connecting with his distant wife, Alma, played by Zooey Deschanel. But how much do you want to bet that a mysterious phenomenon will occur that will bring the feuding couple together? Soon an epidemic strikes New York when people begin killing themselves for no particular reason. Nobody can explain what’s happening. However, Elliot believes it has something to do with the trees. It’s not easy to make the presence of trees menacing in the movies. “The Happening” simply doesn’t manage to do so.  

This film is being advertised as “M. Night Shyamalan’s first R-rated movie.” Quite frankly, I don’t see how that fact is creditable. Maybe if Quentin Tarantino was making his first G-rated picture that would be something interesting to see. “The Happening” is slightly bloodier than Shyamalan’s previous accomplishments. However, most of the deaths result in unintentional laughs. There’s one scene in which a man is attacked by a bear and has his arms ripped off. I believe Shyamalan intended this scene to be serious. Instead, it comes off as just plain silly.

I still have confidence that Shyamalan can turn his career around. He’s attempting to do too much though, producing, writing, and directing all of his films. Maybe he needs a collaborator to assist him in the storytelling department. Until then, he’ll remain as the best working director who continues to make uninspired movies.

 

Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay

Harold and Kumar’s Bogus Journey ***

One could say that Harold and Kumar triumphed over a lot in their first adventure. However, a trip to White Castle would appear meager compared to the obstacles they undergo in their second film outing. Throughout the course of “Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay,” the two buddies are hunted by the United States government, attacked by the Ku Klux Klan, parachute from a plane, meet the president, and still manage to find time to light a joint. In just a couple of days, these two stoners endure more than most clean men accomplish in a lifetime.

The film picks up immediately after the original picture, as the two digest an army of White Castle burgers and prepare for a trip to Europe. For the record, this Harold and Kumar sequel is not just a rip-off of “Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo” or “Eurotrip.” Kumar even states early on in the movie, “This is going to be just like Eurotrip only it’s not going to suck.” Through a colossal misunderstanding and ethnic stereotyping, Harold and Kumar are accused of being terrorists. The best friends are then throne into the detention camp of Guantanamo Bay. After an inexplicably simple escape they go on the run, encountering one bizarre calamity after another.

“Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay” is raunchy, vulgar, not to mention disgusting. However, the film has a certain wit and incite that I believe will surprise most audiences. Unlike so many brain-dead comedies that settle for obvious and cheap gags, “Harold and Kumar” is observant of modern day political and racial issues. The results are for the most part hysterical in a film that in a twisted way reminded me of the 2005 Oscar-winner, “Crash.”

John Cho and Kal Penn, who typically play minor supporting characters, are surprisingly appealing as the team of Harold and Kumar. These are two characters that I believe are going to be remembered as classic movie party boys. Perhaps the funniest performance in the entire movie comes from Rob Corddry as a homeland security agent. Corddry doesn’t hold himself back from creating a completely over-the-top character who cracked me up with every scene he’s in. Neil Patrick Harris reprises his role as an exaggerated and deranged vision of himself. This is one of his best performances and no, that is not a backhanded complement.

“Harold and Kumar” doesn’t necessarily have the laugh-out-loud per minute value of a comedy like “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” There are some sequences that perhaps strive a little too hard to push the envelope. Nevertheless, a great percentage of the jokes work here. Harold and Kumar are much in the spirit of duos such as Bill and Ted, Wayne and Garth, or Jay and Silent Bob. The film is absurd on one hand, smart on the other, and all around hilarious.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Hella golden ****1/2

Most outlandish superheroes such as The Thing and The Hulk didn’t develop their physical abnormalities until later in life. Hellboy on the other hand, is a hero whose been dealing with a freakish exterior since birth. With a devil tail and an oversized right hand, it’s hard to picture what growing up must have been like Hellboy. At least his acne would have blended in with his red skin. In the opening scene of “Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” the audience is taken back to visit the demon as a pre-teen. Underneath Hellboy’s unsightly surface, a jumpy little boy who believes in Santa Clause and Howdy Doody is introduced. Its little, inspired moments like this that develop the out-of-this-world Hellboy into a humane character with inner emotion.

The original “Hellboy” was only a mid-level success a few years back. Since then however, the film has developed a cult following on DVD and director Guillermo del Toro’s credit has tripled with his Oscar-nominated “Pan’s Labyrinth.” I personally didn’t much care for “Hellboy,” finding it to be somewhat of a missed opportunity. “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” is on all level more enthralling, more humorous, and more imaginative than its predecessor. The first “Hellboy could be considered a dress rehearsal for this sequel.

Ron Perlman reprises his role as the fire- immune demon Hellboy, whose resemblance is similar to Marv from “Sin City,” dipped in red paint. The film reunites the hero with his fiery girlfriend Liz, played by Selma Blair, and fish-like companion Abe Sapien, played by Doug Jones. Their mission is to stop the evil Prince Nuada, who is in search of three pieces of a golden crown. When the crown is completely assembled, the prince will be granted the ability to command the unstoppable Golden Army to destroy all mankind. On paper, this is the kind of lame brained story that seems fit for a video game. “Hellboy II” has a certain down-to-earth personality to it though, which prevents the film from becoming a cheesy geek fest.

“Hellboy II” has the same offbeat attitude and wit of last years “Transformers.” Even with all the mystical sites occupying the screen, the film never takes itself too seriously. Hats must go off to the screenplay, which has fun evolving Hellboy into a three-dimensional and wisecracking character. And behind Hellboy’s one-liners, there’s a heart and a man who wants to find acceptance in a judgmental world of humans. The movie even finds time for a sweat romance between the fishy Abraham and Princess Nuada, played by Anna Walton. There’s one particularly hilarious sequence in which Hellboy and Abe become inebriated. When was the last time you saw a superhero kick back with a six-pack? Well actually, I suppose that was the entire concept of "Hancock."

“Hellboy II” is every bit as magical and wondrous as Del Toro’s previous films. There are mystical creatures in this movie that would make the hand-eyed, pale man from “Pan’s Labyrinth” seem pitiful. Prince Nuada is an especially menacing, first-rate villain with the same eerie presence of Lord Voldemort. Perhaps the most memorable new character is a robotic, German man named Johann Krauss, who of all people is voiced by Seth MacFarlane of the cartoon “Family Guy.”

What truly makes this movie work is the audacious vision of Guillermo del Toro. Del Toro has created a completely unique world of imagination like “Star Wars” or “Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.” Superb art direction, costumes, and makeup aside, Del Toro tells a real story that never runs out of gas. The ending sets us up for another sequel, in which Liz will deliver Hellboy’s unborn child. What will Hellboy’s spawn be like? I’m sure it would make a great playmate for the three baby ogre’s in “Shrek the Third.”

The Hottie and the Nottie

Beauty and the brute 1/2*

It’s amazing how in some movies a nottie can be transformed into a hottie with a simple removal of glasses and new hairdo. The makeover in “The Hottie and the Nottie” however, would make the transformation in “She’s all That” look like a cakewalk. Now that I think about it, “The Hottie and the Nottie” is a movie so dreadful that it would make watching any other bad movie seem like a cakewalk. I can’t imagine another film sinking lower than this resentful catastrophe of awful performances and severally terrible direction. With a movie like this all I can say is, “Yeah, it’s really that bad.”

Here’s a so-called romantic comedy that completely rips-off “There’s Something About Mary” and subtracts any charm or humor. In this scenario, Paris Hilton stars as Cristabel, who is desired by every man who cross paths with her. Joel David Moore has the Ben Stiller role as Nate, a young man who has been pining over Cristabel since elementary school. After twenty-six years of bad relations, Nate decides to track down his long lost love. Unfortunately for Nate, Cristabel is reluctant to date anybody until her nottie best friend, June, can find true love. What a setup for a comedy!

Paris Hilton received the Razzie for Worst Supporting Actress a few years back for her role in “House of Wax.” Personally, I think Paris’s win had more to do with her controversial social life than her actual performance. Her work wasn’t nearly as dire as Jessica Simpson in “The Dukes of Hazard” or Carmen Electra in “Dirty Love.” Here however, Paris Hilton is excruciatingly bad, expressing no acting presence whatsoever. You can almost here her thinking throughout the entire movie, “Look at me I am so hot.”

I suppose nobody is going to walk into this movie anticipating A-list work from Paris Hilton. But the supporting cast doesn’t add to the equation either. Joel David Moore has a strange Steve Carrel persona only without any comedic timing or talent. He doesn’t have a shred of chemistry with Paris Hilton in a bewildering onscreen romance. I’ve taken a vow never to walk out of a movie. Halfway through this particular film though, I completely lost interest and started texting people of my grievances.

Paris Hilton has plastered her name all over this movie as both its star and executive producer. I’m starting to think that she actually wants people to despise her. With the strait-to-video trend becoming more and more popular these days, I’m amazed that this picture was allowed a theatrical release. It should have been sent strait to the internet with Paris’s other movie. This might be the most obvious statement ever but “The Hottie and Nottie” is a severe nottie.

In Bruges

When in Bruges *****

“In Bruges” has a certain quality that’s rare to find in even some of the best movies from American cinema. Here’s a film so profound and rich that you’ll find yourself entirely entranced all the way through. By the first thirty minutes it’s attained the rank of a masterpiece. By the final act, it’s completely outdone itself. The movie’s sheer genius then sticks in your head to the point you see no other choice but to watch it again. I can’t remember the last time I wanted to instantly re-watch a movie after the first showing. “In Bruges” is one of the few movies to have that affect on me.

Usually at this point in my review I would give a brief synopsis of the movie. “In Bruges” however, is a film filled with so many twists and turns that I’ll only unveil the basic setup. The story involves a pair of hitmen named Ray, played by Colin Farrell, and Ken, played by Brendan Gleeson. The two are sent to the Belgium city of Bruges for a relaxing holiday as ordered by their boss Harry, played by Ralph Fiennes. Ken is fascinated by the many sites of the city while Ray considers the land to be his own personal hell. That’s all the information I’m going to give away because I want you to be able to experience “In Bruges” free of any spoilers, despite how little those spoilers might be.

As far as movie hitmen go, Ray and Ken are among the most fascinating of all gangster pictures. This is a duo to be considered in the same league of Vincent Vega and Jules from “Pulp Fiction” or Carl Rolvaag and Gaear Grimsrud from “Fargo.” The exchange of dialog between the two is first-rate and the chemistry couldn’t be more dead-on. Credit must go to both Farrell and Gleeson for the most complete performances of their careers. Of course I must mention writer/director Martin McDonagh who creates this dark and humorous world in his first outing as a feature-length filmmaker.

There are some scenes in movies that amount to absolutely nothing. But there’s not a moment throughout “In Bruges” that doesn’t add up. The film is full of elements that at times may seem completely irrelevant. As the picture builds up however, every insignificant little aspect falls into place. In some bizarre way, the movie is a bit like “Seinfeld” as the story comes together in one great coincidence. The final result of the whole ordeal is spellbinding.

What else can I possibly say to declare my admiration and love for this film? That it deserves to be classified as an American classic. That it’s perfect in just about everyway imaginable. That to call it a work of genius is an understatement. Early release date aside, “In Bruges” won’t exit my mind come award season. I doubt it ever will.

The Incredible Hulk

Why so green? ***1/2

A wise frog once said, “It isn’t easy being green.” The Wicked Witch of the West, the Green Goblin, Shrek, the Grinch, Oscar the Grouch, all tortured souls and all green. But if you think about it, is it really easy being any color in this day and age? Consider the Violet Beauregarde character from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Did she have it any easier when her faced was turned blue?

I wasn’t exactly a fan of Ang Lee’s “Hulk” picture from 2003. As a matter of fact, I for the most part resented every moment of the movie going experience. The CIG creation of the Hulk was about as realistic as Baby Bop. The performances and romance between Eric Bana and Jennifer Connelly were all together bland. Even the action sequences were surprisingly disappointing, especially given Lee’s great “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” In addition to poor box office results, I was astonished when the studio decided to go through with a sequel. I would later discover however that this “Hulk” installment is more so of a re-imagining than a sequel. For that purpose, I walked into the theater uncertain what might be in store for me.

I’m happy to say that “The Incredible Hulk” is in everyway a step up from the 2003 version. The casting is vastly superior, the visual effects are note-perfect, and a more humane element has been added to this “Hulk.” It just goes to show that any movie can be done well in the hands of the right actors and director. This film is a fine example of the saying, “Don’t remake good movies, remake bad movies.”

This time around, the great actor Edward Norton takes on the role of Bruce Banner. Due to an experiment gone terribly wrong, Banner is transformed into the hot tempered creature of the Hulk. After months of seclusion, Banner is tracked down by the military. General Thunderbolt Ross, played by William Hurt, has the aspirations to capture Banner and use his disease as a weapon. Banner soon returns home where he is reunited by with his beloved Betty Ross, played by Liv Tyler. The story of this movie is by no means at the same level of “Spider-Man 2” or “Batman Begins.” Nevertheless, “The Incredible Hulk” works purely as an action roller costar.

Last month I was probably the only person on the planet that didn’t rejoice the gigantic hit, “Iron Man.” I’m almost even driven to believe that I made a mistake by declining the picture. While I felt “Iron Man” itself was flawed, I greatly admired Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as Tony Stark. As good of an actor as Edward Norton is, the Hulk isn’t nearly as interesting or compelling of a hero as Iron Man or Spider-Man or Batman for that matter.

What I found more absorbing regarding “The Incredible Hulk” over “Iron Man” is the emotional factor. There is a meaning and almost poignant relationship between Bruce Banner and Betty Ross that reminded me of Peter Jackson’s “King Kong.” Also superior by comparison are the action sequences with a supreme amount of exhilaration. Whether you enjoy it more than “Iron Man” or not, “The Incredible Hulk” is a guaranteed good time at the movies.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Indiana Jones and the last crusade of raiders of the lost temple of the doomed ark ***

It’s amazing that in the ocean of obstacles Indiana Jones has been confronted by, he has never once completely lost track of his hat. Any other hero would surly misplace his headwear in a string of chases. But not Indiana Jones. Whether he’s running from savage tribes or riding an unstable mine cart, Indy will always prevail to keep his hat by his side. If the man was given the choice between reclaiming the Holly Grail or his trademark hat, I believe it’s evident which one he would rescue.

With Harrison Ford turning roughly 150 years old, perhaps I’m exaggerating his age a tad, many considered a fourth installment to “Indiana Jones” to be unfilmable. Since the project was announced nearly ten years ago however, revivals of Rocky Balboa and Die Hard have proven just how timeless these heroes remain even in their senior years. Quite frankly, I’ve been welcoming the return of Indy with open arms. “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” is not a revival that completely leaves you down like some of the “Star Wars” prequels. Given the standards that the series has set for itself though, this Indy installment isn’t quite up to its exceeding standards.

The movie picks up roughly twenty years after Jones’s previous adventure. Rather then going up against the Nazis or a bloodthirsty cult, Indy finds himself confronted by communists this time around. The soviet leader is none other then Inna Spalko, played by Cate Blanchett, who has the aspirations to uncover a mysterious crystal skull. In a race to retrieve the artifact, Indiana is aided by a young boy named Mutt Williams, played by Shia LaBeouf in another winning performance. Ford and LaBeouf have a great chemistry together much in the spirit of the father-son relationship in “The Last Crusade.”

I’d say the only major downside regarding “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” is the absence of Ke Huy Quan as Short Round. As far as I’m concerned, he was the most essential character in “Temple of Doom” and his exclusion from this adventure is blasphemy! Also missing from this installment is the great Sean Connery, to whom I hoped would return as Indiana’s father. Karen Allen is back in action however, as Indy’s long lost love of Marion Ravenwood. Allen’s presence was greatly missed in the previous two “Indy” pictures and it’s great to see her character resurrected.

As for the action sequences, there isn’t a moment in “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” that can compete with the opening scene of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Then again, is there an action sequence that can? Breathtaking summer action still occupies the screen that manages to stay true to the Indiana Jones we know. I love the sheer sense of wonder of one particular car chase which is so over-the-top that it makes any of the battles in “Pirates of the Caribbean” appear probable. This is a sequel that works primarily because it embraces the spirit and liveliness of prior episodes.

What prevents “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” from attaining the rank of the previous three films is it’s hollow plot. Rather then inventing an entirely unique story, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas seem to take the easy way out with the explanation of an alien invasion. The alien factor doesn’t work in the slightest and appears tailor made for another movie. After “Close Encounters,” “War of the World,” and “E.T.,” did Indiana Jones really need the outer space treatment? Was the holocaust in “Schindler’s List” really just an alien conspiracy?

Journey to the Center of the Earth

Journey to the center of your mom ***

When a movie takes the time to incorporate “3D” into the title, I believe it officially cancels itself out as a potential Oscar contender. Some directors are declaring 3D to be the next big thing that will one day dominate cinema. Personally I don’t know where this accusation is coming from. If you’d think back to “Jaws 3D,” “Spy Kids 3D,” Amityville 3D,” and “Sharkboy and Lavagirl 3D,” have you ever really seen a great 3D movie? Although this method of moviemaking can be done well in movies such as “The Polar Express” and “Beowulf,” 3D usually just comes off as a cheap gimmick.

“Journey to the Center of the Earth” is in ever way, shape, and form a movie intended to be seen in 3D. This is a movie where everything seems to be charging at the screen, from yo-yos, to man-eating fish, to tape measurers, to the opening credits. I can recall at least three instances in which somebody spits at the audience. But to fully appreciate the disgusting, dripping saliva, you’ll have to seek out your local 3D showings. As a 3D experience, “Journey to the Center of Earth” works as a well-made and often fun time at the movies.

Brendan Fraser adds to his string of light-wait, yet perfectly enjoyable roles as Professor Trevor Anderson. When Trevor is paid a visit from his nephew Sean, played by Josh Hutcherson, they stumble upon a copy of “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” previously owned by Trevor’s missing brother. Handwritten notes in the book lead Trevor to believe there is a hole leading to the center of the earth somewhere in Iceland. Once there, the scientist and nephew team up with a mountain guide named Hannah, played by Anita Briem. After getting trapped in a cave, the three fall down a semi-bottomless pit, which leads them to a prehistoric world of wonder.

“Journey to the Center of the Earth” isn’t so much of remake of the 1959 version than it is a remake of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” Fraser has always had a Harrison Ford persona, dating back to the first “Mummy” picture. His character’s love interest of Hannah is a bit like Willie Scott, only not nearly as insufferable. In some bizarre way, young Josh Hutcherson strikes a resemblance to Short Round. There’s even a mine cart chase throne into the mix. The film has the same sense of adventure of an “Indiana Jones” picture and is about as good as the more recent “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”

There are times in the movie where it goes out of its way to throw objects at the audience. But I suppose it’s almost impossible to find of 3D movie that doesn’t call even a little attention to itself. Among the movies that have given into this 3D fad, “Journey of the Center of the Earth” is one of the most enjoyable. The question is whether or not the film will play equally as well on a regular format. I suppose that’s up to you to decide.

Kung Fu Panda

Samaria Jack Black ***1/2

As I stood outside the movie theater, purchasing my ticket of admission, about nine children passed by eyeing the “Kung Fu Panda” poster. “Look, it’s the panda,” the little six-year-olds cheered in enthusiasm. Without even seeing the picture, kids appear to have been won over by Jack Black’s talking panda merely from the T.V. spots. So of course I’m assured that any child or dedicated parent will enjoy this film immensely. I found myself taking a great deal of pleasure in “Kung Fu Panda” despite not being a parent or young child.


The story commences in a sharp anime-like fight sequence with much resemblance to the cult cartoon “Samaria Jack.” The film then jumps into the world of digital animation where a roly-poly panda named Po, voiced by Jack Black, resides in China. Po has the aspirations to one day rise above his dead-end job as a noodle chef and become a kung-fu master. The lovable panda at long last gets his big break when he is selected by Oogway, a kung-fu sage voiced by Randall Duk Kim, to be the dragon warrior.

Brought on to train the clumsy, uncoordinated Po is none other than Martial arts master Shifu, who of all people is voiced by Dustin Hoffman. Bizarre casting is evident within much of this movie with Seth Rogan as a Mantis and David Cross as a Crane. Also creditable is Angelina Jolie as Master Tigress, Lucy Liu as Master Viper, and even Jackie Chan as Master Monkey. Po, along with others, is recruited to vanquish the evil Tai Lung, who looks and sounds just like Scar from “The Lion King.”

In terms of storytelling, “Kung Fu Panda” isn’t entirely up to the level of other animations. A majority of the delight and charm of the movie resides in the fantastic fight sequences. I was elevated and all around enthralled by the action of “Kung Fu Panda” which I think deserves comparison to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” There is one particularly notable sequence in which Po and Shifu commence in a battle wielding only chopsticks. This movie is dazzling for the eyes with one beautifully animated scene after another.

Of course this tale of an outcast determined to achieve his dreams against all odds is a cliché. That doesn’t necessarily mean the film itself is bad. The first “Karate Kid” wasn’t entirely an original story and look how damn well that film was carried out. “Kung Fu Panda” is a film much in the spirit of “The Karate Kid.” Although the audience knows just about every plot point, the ride is still positively joyful.

The Love Guru

Myers looses his mojo *

To the amazement of many, I gave “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan” a marginal recommendation a while back. I cannot stress the marginal in that last sentence. Essentially everybody thought I was off my rocket for recommending Adam Sandler’s latest. Nevertheless, I stand by my original review. I managed to look past “Zohans” exterior of stupidity to see a comedy that worked…for the most part. If you were one of the many that didn’t care for “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan,” I dare you to try sitting through “The Love Guru.” If you view “The Love Guru” in it’s entirety, I assure you that “Zohan” will come off as a comedic masterwork.

The usually hilarious Mike Myers plays Guru Pitka, a two-dimensional jackass with a beard as shaggy as Austin Powers’ chest. It is Pitka’s dream to one day become the greatest self-help specialist in all of America. The only shot he has at really hitting it big is to get a spot on Oprah. Jane Bullard, a hokey team owner played by Jessica Alba, hires Pitka to help her through a crisis. Romany Calco plays the teams star player, Darren Roanoke. The athlete has hit rock bottom since his wife left him for another man. The fate of the team lies in the guru’s hands to get Darren’s head back in the game.

I’ve always felt that Myers was underrated as a character actor. “Austin Powers” could of easily have been an uninspired spy spoof not even suitable for Saturday Night Live. “Wayne’s World” was originally a SNL sketch now that I think about it. An SNL sketch aired in the last thirty minutes no less. With the right script, I believe that Myers could achieve the rank of comic mind such as Peter Sellers. It’s a depressing experience to watch Myers waste his talent as the instantly forgettable character of Guru Pitka. 

Guru Pitka is a character that thinks he’s a lot wittier than he really is. Myers has a smile on his face in primarily every scene. His character seems to be fully aware that he’s in a comedy, which in the long run subtracts from the humor. Quite frankly, I think it’s a lot funnier when a comedic character doesn’t know how funny he or she truly is. Take Steve Carrel’s performance in “Get Smart” for example. One of the reasons that Carrel’s interpretation of Maxwell Smart worked is because he remained stone faced all the way through. Maxwell Smart was funny without ever knowing it. In “The Love Guru” the audience can almost hear Myers thinking to himself, “Aren’t I wacky? Please laugh at my antics.”

Verne Troyer, better known as Mini Me, plays the hockey teams dwarf-sized coach. All of his scenes seem to have been recycled from “Austin Powers.” Like all little people, Troyer is limited to how many roles he can play. But why do all the jokes involving him have to revolve around his height? Why couldn’t somebody have taken the time to write Troyer interesting dialog instead of one short pun after another?

I’d be able to let Myers off the hook if he were only the movie’s star at the mercy of a shoddy director and writer. However, he is also responsible for writing the film’s screenplay. There are as many penis jokes in this movie as there are action sequences in “Transformers.” Don’t get me wrong. Jokes about bodily functions can work. However, just because a joke is dirty doesn’t automatically make it funny. In an age of comedies such as “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up,” Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” and “Superbad” did Myers really believe that audiences would go for this material? With exception to a Bohemian Rhapsody reference, “The Love Guru” is a laugh-free dead zone. Among all the comedies of 2008, I hope “The Love Guru” is the one not to get a sequel.

Man on Wire

On top of the world, literally ****1/2

“Man on Wire” is probably the most joyous film with the World Trade Center as a key element that you’re ever going to see. In this day and age, whenever the World Trade Center is brought up the first thing that comes to mind is the tragedies of September 11th. “Man on Wire” makes not even one reference to 911 or our current state in America though. The film is something entirely original and reminiscent of a happier time. It’s a movie so astonishing that it’s almost impossible to believe that it’s a documentary. 

The picture follows the story of Phillippe Petit, a French high wire artist. Petit was made notorious for illegally dancing on a wire rigged between the towers of the Notre Dame church. Then in the early 1970’s, Petit set out to do what many would consider nothing short of insane. With the assistance of a team of others, Petit walked on a wire rigged between the twin towers. 

Although “Man on Wire” is a documentary, it plays out like a heist movie meets an inspirational sports picture. It’s astounding how Petit and his crew managed to sneak into the world trade center, disguised as workers. The audience feels genuine tension when Petit is almost caught by a guard and takes cover under a blanket. We root for this misfit every step of the way to accomplish the unthinkable. In a way, this underdog tale is a bit like the basketball documentary, “Hoop Dreams.”

Petit himself provides much of the films commentary. He comes off as an eccentric, if not mad, man with a true passion for what he does. Eventually he develops into an indivisible the audience really cares about. We want to see this determined man succeed in his outlandish cause.  

The mere image of Phillippe Petit making his way across that wire is spellbinding. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. I could make a long list of words to describe “Man on Wire.” To sum it up however, the picture is breathtaking, simply breathtaking. Come Oscar time, I think that it’s safe to say that the Best Documentary Award belongs right here.

Meet the Spartans

THIS ISN’T FUNNY! Zero stars

It’s only once in a blue moon that I have the privilege to perceive pure Oscar gold this early in the year. Every once in a while I’m fortunate to come across a movie so utterly original and inspiring that I can instantly hail it as a timeless masterpiece. “Meet the Spartans” is not that movie. As a matter of fact, it’s a film so unbelievably and relentlessly awful that it succeeds to make “Date Movie” and “Epic Movie” appear as entertainment. The picture is so paper thin that the screenplay is completely dependent on jokes revolving around Brittney Spears shaving her head, Paris Hilton going to jail, Lindsey Lohan going to rehab, Al Gore’s fear of global warming, Anna Nicole Smith unexpectedly dying, Ugly Betty being unattractive, and the American Idol candidate Sanjaya not being able to sing. Is there a late night talk show that hasn’t exhausted any of these subjects?

There wasn’t an American who didn’t lineup to see the blockbuster of “300” last March. Now it’s taken less than a year for Hollywood to aimlessly throw together a feature length spoof of the hit movie. “Meet the Spartans” is a movie by people who are completely oblivious how to make movies. These are filmmakers who don’t know how to write jokes or create characters. So they reference numerous pop culture gags, jam-pack it with slapstick, and classify it as creativity. I’ve seen “Star Wars” satires on the internet more inventive and original than “Meet the Spartans.”

The film is fully aware that it’s a rip-off of “300.” What it fails to acknowledge is that it’s also a complete rip-off of “Scary Movie” which was in itself a rip-off. But at least “Scary Movie” was an actual movie. “Meet the Spartans” is essentially an MTV Movie Award spoof that drags on for far too long. The spoof genre isn’t entirely extinct. Edgar Wrights films “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz” have revealed just how hilarious a satire can still be. The difference between “Hot Fuzz” and “Meet the Spartans” however is that Mr. Wright knows how to write jokes.

What especially appalled me regarding “Meet the Spartans” was it’s abuse of blatant advertising. I spent the entire course of the movie counting the endless product plugs. I noticed adds for Budlight, Subway, Nike, Dentyne Ice Gum, Coffee Bean, Crispy Cream Donuts, Valtrex, Predigree dog food, and several brands of body lotion. You know that the cinema has hit a new low when a character looks at the screen and says, “Gatorade: is it in you?” “Meet the Spartans” is product placement at it’s worst in an eighty minute long commercial break.

When I watch movies like “Meet the Spartans,” I think of all the brilliant, independent writers who will never have their work published. I think of all the great comedic screenplays such as “Knocked Up,” “Juno,” “Superbad,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” and “Borat.” I think of the time and effort those filmmakers put into their work to accomplish something phenomenal. The people who made “Meet the Spartans” aren’t trying to make a great comedic work. They aren’t even trying.

Milk

Nothing like a tall glass of warm milk *****

“Milk” is a biographical picture that has the feeling of a documentary. Yes, the film features an A-list cast of familiar faces such as Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, James Franco, and Emile Hirsch. Like the drama “Rachel Getting Married” however, every moment of “Milk” seems real. The events being recreated by the actors feel every bit as authentic as the real television footage used in the film. Director Gus Van Sant’s documentary approach fashions “Milk” into possibly the most inspiring biopic of any individual of the past ten years.

  Compared to some other historical icons, Harvey Milk might not be a frequently used household name. However, he was indeed an American hero who fought for the rights of homosexuals. I suppose you could say that Milk did for gays what Martin Luther King did for African Americans. The film starts off in 1970 as Milk approaches the age of 40. He runs a café along with his partner, Scott Smith, in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco. Fed up with oppression from the police and politicians, Milk decides to run for city supervisor. After loosing several times, Milk is finally elected and becomes the first openly gay man to be voted into office.

From his twisted serial killer in “Dead Man Walking” to his revenge-seeking father in “Mystic River,” Sean Penn has played some of the darkest characters in film history. In “Milk,” Penn delivers one of his five best performances as a man who is abundant with joy. Sean Penn not only nails Harvey Milk in terms of speech and appearance though. Penn accomplishes the impossible by making the audience truly believe that this is Harvey Milk on screen. He is pitch perfect in this role, creating one of the most compelling heroes of American movies.

Unlike most biopics that center primarily on the title character, every character in “Milk” is allowed their moment to shine. James Franco is particularly strong as Scott Smith, a man who is genuinely concerned for his lover’s life. I actually think that Franco and Penn have a more meaningful relationship than Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal’s romance in “Brokeback Mountain.” Emile Hirsch takes another step forward in his career as Cleve Jones, a young man who Milk recruits to assist in his campaign. There’s also a breakthrough performance from Allison Pill, who played Steve Carrel’s daughter in “Dan in Real Life,” as a lesbian who joins Milk’s cause.

Josh Brolin has really made a name for himself in recent years with his roles in “No Country for Old Men” and “W.” Here, Brolin delivers one of the movies key performances as Dan White. White, who may or may not have been a homosexual himself, was a former advocate of Milk. He eventually turned against his colleague however, and assassinated Milk in cold blood. If you don’t already know the story of Harvey Milk I hope that last bit of information didn’t spoil anything for you.  

Independent filmmaker, Gus Van Sant, directed “Milk.” This is a crowning achievement from Van Sant in his finest film since “Good Will Hunting.” Along with screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, Van Sant tells an amazing story of one of America’s lesser-known heroes. At the beginning of the movie, Harvey Milk believes he has accomplished nothing with his life. By the end, he has become one of the most influential men in history. Although I knew the story of Harvey Milk walking into the theater, the movie left me completely on edge. The final fifteen minutes are shocking and thought provoking. Given the outcome of Prop 8, I believe this is an important movie for every American to see.

 

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

The mummy returns…AGAIN! **

“The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” is just about the most preposterous movie of the year. Now perhaps I spoke too soon. After all, this was a year that included “10,000 B.C.,” “Wanted,” “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” and “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” In a film like “The Mummy” however, I suppose you can completely disregard the fact that it’s ridiculous. The question is whether or not the movie is any fun. The answer is, “no not really.”

   Brendan Fraser returns as Rick O’Connell while the role of his wife, Evelyn, is taken over by Maria Bello. I suppose after winning an Oscar, Rachel Weisz realized that she was too good to continue doing this material. Their son Alex, played by Luke Ford, is now a twenty something year old who has discovered the tomb of the Dragon Emperor in China. It’s a tad odd how in the previous “Mummy” movie Alex spoke in an English accent and is now speaking in an American accent. Anyways, the Dragon Emperor is soon awakened from the curse that imprisoned him for 2,000 years. The O’Connell’s set out yet again to stop yet another mummy.

This is one of those films that define visual effects overkill. The movie’s production budget was estimated at nearly $175,000,000. There’s not a single Computer Generated creation that feels real though. For example, the mummy’s enormous CGI army looks and moves like well…a CGI army. I compared this third “Mummy” installment to last years “Pirates of the Caribbean: At Worlds End.” Both films are extravagant and overblown with special effects. But the mystical creates of “Pirates of the Caribbean” had personality. Puppets have more imagination to them than the Computer Generated images of this “Mummy.”  

Maria Bello is severally miscast in this movie. Bello is a wonderful actress who was robbed of an Oscar nomination for her work in “A History of Violence” a few years back. However, she couldn’t do a British accent if her life depended on it. Bello seems to be constantly smiling at the camera, fully aware that she’s in a stupid adventure picture. The only actor who appears committed to the project is Brendan Fraser. I will give hats off to Fraser for a good performance. He’s probably the only person in the world who could take this role seriously and still manage to have fun with it. 

This “Mummy” picture has its inspired moments and some memorable sight gags. However, the entire project just comes off as mundane. Basically I had the same reaction to last years “Rush Hour 3.” I enjoyed the first two “Mummy” installments immensely. As for this third chapter though, it’s too little too late.

 

Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist

You damn kids and your iPods, and your mixed CD’s, and your one tree on the hill, and your faces on the book interweb site, and your Abercrombie’s, and your Fitch’s, and your pony’s! ***1/2

“Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” has “Cult Movie” written all over it. This is one of those coming of age stories that might not instantly win audiences over. However, I believe the picture will slowly develop a devoted following on DVD. Years from now people will reevaluate the film and label it as a diamond in the rough. I myself will likely grow to appreciate the movie even more when I revisit it in the years to come. “Nick and Norah” has the same innovative, uplifting spirit of a teenage comedy from the 80’s like “Ferris Bueller's Day Off” or “Adventures in Babysitting.”

The film tells the story of Nick, played by Michael Cera, and Norah, played by Kat Dennings. Nick is a down in the dumps, emo teenager who is crushed when he is dumped by his girlfriend of six months, Trish. After weeks of moping, Nick is pushed by his supportive, gay friends to go out for a night of fun. At a club Nick meets Norah, who asks him to pretend to be her boyfriend for five minutes. That five minutes turns into an entire night as Nick and Norah realize they are made for each other.

Much of the film’s appeal lies in the hands of its two stars, Michael Cera and Kat Dennings. Cera reminds me of a young Anthony Michael Hall. Although he’s essentially playing the same awkward teenage boy again here, Cera is unquestionably likable as Nick. Equally wonderful is Kay Dennings, who previously stared as Catherine Keener’s daughter in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” Here Dennings emerges as a rising star of substantial talent. As a pair, the romance between Nick and Norah is irresistible.

What worries me about “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” is that everybody is going to compare it to Michael Cera’s two previous teenage comedies, “Superbad” and “Juno.” “Nick and Norah” doesn’t have nearly as many laughs as “Superbad.” The film isn’t as insightful or profound as “Juno,” which I hailed as the best film of last year. Some of the comedy bits, involving Norah’s drunken best friend, go on for far too long. There are at least two or three scenes in the movie that could have been cutout altogether.

While it’s not a great film, “Nick and Norah” speaks true to the lifestyle of today’s teenager. Screenwriter Lorene Scafaria, along with Rachel Cohn and David Levithan who wrote the novel from which the film was adapted, understands how teenagers think and talk. The film is full of great dialog as Nick and Norah converse about their passion for music. More importantly, the movie recognizes the struggles and insecurities kids face today. In an age where kids are observed as second citizens, “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” is another film that reminds us that teenagers are people too. 

Pineapple Express

All aboard the Pineapple Express ****

If the title were all you had to go on, you’d probably have no idea what a movie like “Pineapple Express” is supposed to be about. For all I knew, the film was about SpongeBob SquarePants’s pineapple house under the sea or a sequel to “The Polar Express.” Actually, Pineapple Express is a rare brand of weed, which causes a heap of trouble for two stoners played by Seth Rogen and James Franco. Whether you bring your bong into the theater or not, “Pineapple Express” is one hysterical stoner comedy. The movie is so outrageous and funny that people will be astonished to know the same man who made the prestigious drama “Snow Angels” directed it.

Seth Rogen plays Dale Denton, a deadbeat process servant dating an 18-year-old, high school student. His best friend is Saul Silver, played by James Franco, a drug dealer who spends all day smoking in his pajamas. As a pair, Rogan and Franco create two of the most endearing potheads in the history of stoner comedies. I’d even go as far to say that they deserve comparison to Cheech and Chong, Jay and Silent Bob, and Harold and Kumar. Dale witnesses a drug kingpin, played by Gary Cole, commit murder against an Asian competitor. Along with his buddy Saul, Dale goes on the run with the kingpin following his trail of weed. 

Just a couple of weeks ago, Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly teamed up in the movie “Step Brothers.” I’m sure there was a good amount of people who walked out of the theater cheering, “ GREAT BEARD OF ZEUS! THAT WAS THE FUNNIEST FUCKING MOVIE EVER!” I marginally recommended “Step Brothers” merely for the chemistry between Ferrell and Reilly. As time goes by however, I seem to be thinking less and less about the movie. “Pineapple Express” on the other hand, is a buddy picture that leaves you laughing days after the screening. While I won’t go as far to say that it’s the funniest movie of the year, a title that belongs to “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “Pineapple Express” is the one of the most complete comedies in a while.

The film comes from Producer Judd Apatow, who previously worked on “Step Brothers.” Here Apatow continues his winning technique of raunchy, R-comedies with heart. After writing the hilarious “Superbad,” screenwriters Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have fabricated another winner of comedy. These three men have worked together on numerous other projects such as last years “Knocked Up.” However, I believe that “Pineapple Express” is their first film entitled to a sequel.

Credit must also go to the skillful direction of David Gordon Green. Green has been making under the radar, independent pictures for years. He couldn’t have taken a more 180-degree turn with “Pineapple Express.” Nevertheless, Green directs his first large scale, action comedy with inspired blocking and style. Through “Pineapple Express,” Green has made a recognizable name for himself, which might drive people to finally track down his previous work.

Prom Night

The bloodiest prom since Carrie **

For a brief period there were rumors of the upcoming “High School Musical” sequel being entitled “Haunted High School Musical.” Of course the title was eventually changed to the now official title of “High School Musical: Senior Year.” Still, I can’t help but imagine what a project such as “Haunted High School Musical” would have been like. Just try to picture a Disney, slasher movie set to music. Had they reunited the cast of “High School Musical” and throne a couple of songs into the equation of “Prom Night,” maybe a somewhat interesting slasher picture could have been produced. Instead the filmmakers settled for a lackluster effort to exploit numerous high schoolers in the midst of prom season.

In this uninspired remake of the already uninspired 1980 horror flick, Brittany Snow stars as Donna Keppel. Donna is overcome with agony when a psychopath who has been stocking her murders her family. The stalker is captured and throne into an asylum for the mentally unstable. Donna eventually manages to pick up the pieces and get her life back on track. But wouldn’t you know it, the stalker breaks out of prison to reunite with Donna on the most important night of her life, senior prom. 

As far as bad horror movies go, “Prom Night” is one of the better ones. The actors are all about as good as the film requires them to be. Brittany Snow, along with other females, does an adequate job at running around and screaming scared. The guys are all fairly decent at acting like teenage boys with dicks for brains. None of that is exactly a complement regarding “Prom Night.” Although it’s still probably the nicest thing I have to say about the film.

“Prom Night” is a formulaic horror movie just as much as “Failure to Launch” was a formulaic romantic comedy. Here’s a slasher picture that floods with one cliché after another. Of course we get the classic waking up to realize it was all just a dream and the closing of the bathroom medicine cabinet to reveal a creepy figure behind you. Other than one effective and well-shot sequence in the films commencement, “Prom Night” doesn’t really have anything innovative to offer.

Not too long ago I saw another thriller entitled “Funny Games.” The film was a sadistic and resentful exercise in torcher that made itself out to be a clever, suspense movie with a message. “Prom Night” isn’t nearly as cruel of a film as “Funny Games” is. The problem is that it’s predictable to the point I couldn’t take it anymore and is altogether boring. There’s really no reason for it to exist other than to make a couple of cheap bucks off of teenagers in need of mindless entertainment.

 

Quarantine

Quatan-seen it, been there, done that **

If there’s one thing I’ve official become sick of in the movies today, it’s the first person, handheld camera gimmick. This form of moviemaking was ingeniously haunting when it was first used in “The Blair Witch Project” several years ago. Since then, the method has continued to be effective in movies such as “Cloverfield.” With “Quarantine” however, the handheld camera method official wears out it’s welcome.

The film stars Jennifer Carpenter who played the title character in “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.” Here she’s back playing a terrified, screaming girl yet again, this time as news reporter Angela Vidal. Along with her cameraman, Angela is assigned to interview a local fire department. When the firemen receive a distress call of course the eager news team tag along. They arrive at an apartment building where unbeknownst to them a fatal disease has broken out. The residents are all put under quarantine with no possibility of escape. Angela and her cameraman document these events even as the building falls victim to the virus. 

Like many movies of it’s kind, “Quarantine” features a lot of screaming, a lot of running, and a lot of dizzying camera movements. Somehow I knew that the entire movie was going to add up to a final scene with the lead character meeting her demise. We’ve gotten so many handheld camera movies in the past couple of years, that they’ve become their own genre with a formula. “Quarantine” is a formulaic handheld camera movie down to the bone.

Throughout the course of “Quarantine” I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Didn’t I see this same exact movie ten months ago?” The film is essential “Cloverfield” only with a toxic virus as a substitute for a Godzilla-like monster. But I suppose it’s not entirely fare of me to decline “Quarantine” simply because I saw a similar film earlier this year. The question is whether of not the movie stands alone as a success. Even on that level however, “Quarantine” is still a second-rate effort with more laughs than thrills.

“Quarantine” is a well-made accomplishment with flesh-eating mutants that are every bit as convincing as the “28 Days Later” zombies. The performances are uniformly convincing. “Cloverfield” however, developed characters I grew to care about. In “Quarantine” the heroes are all essentially idiots who keep making the same mistakes over and over again. I eventually got to the point where I was sick of mutants jumping out at the camera and wanted the picture to end.

 

Rachel Getting Married

I Ross take the Rachel ****

“Rachel Getting Married” is about as authentic as a fictional movie can get. The film features no witty one-liners or over-the-top performances. There is no musical score, with exception to a wedding band that often practices their instruments in the background. Although the movie includes monumental stars such as Anne Hathaway, every moment seems factual to everyday life. If “Rachel Getting Married” had been made with a cast of completely unknown actors, it could be mistaken for a documentary. The movie is an almost mirror image for anybody who has ever had a dysfunctional family. 

Anne Hathaway gives an Oscar caliber performance as Kym, the black sheep of her family who has spent the past several months in rehab. Kym is temporarily released from her “cell” to attend her sister’s wedding. The rising star Rosemarie DeWitt breaks out into stardom as Kym’s big sister, Rachel. Although Rachel loves her sister deeply, apart of her still resents Kym for accidentally killing their little brother in an automobile accident. Rachel can’t forgive Kym just as Kym cannot forgive herself for her deeds. 

I’ve always felt that Hathaway was a natural born star. In her previous projects however, she always seemed to get outshined by supporting players. Although she was the true leading lady of “The Devil Wears Prada,” it was Meryl Streep who stole the show. In “Brokeback Mountain” she played the wife of Jake Gyllenhaal’s sexually confused cowboy. However, it was Michelle Williams as Heath Ledger’s longsuffering wife who earned a Supporting Actress nomination. In “Rachel Getting Married,” Hathaway is finally allowed to standout and embraces her true talent as an actress. Hathaway is funny, charming, and all together heartbreaking as this deeply troubled and regretful individual.

“Rachel Getting Married” is full of moments that seem to have been taken right out of real life. There’s a superbly well-acted and well-written rehearsal dinner scene in which Kym gives a toast to her sister and fiancé. Kym desperately attempts to be funny in her speech but just comes off as awkward. Everybody at the table feels uncomfortable, as does the audience. Who hasn’t been in a situation like that before?

From what I’ve told you, “Rachel Getting Married” might seem like one big downer. I’ll admit that the picture is not always easy to watch. The movie’s not likely to have the following of an all-round lovable comedy/drama such as “Little Miss Sunshine.” For every tragic scene however, there is an uplifting scene. For every tear there is a laugh. The film has a unique balance of both misfortune and joy that is quite moving.

Jenny Lumet has fabricated a note-perfect debut screenplay with dead on dialog. Jonathan Demme, who won an Oscar nearly twenty years ago for “Silence of the Lambs,” directed the film in a surprising turn. Demme uses a handheld camera, giving the picture the genuine feeling of a home movie. Along with Hathaway is an ensemble of outstanding supporting performances. Rosemarie DeWitt gives a star making performance as the title character of Rachel, Bill Irwin is superb as their forgiving father, and Debra Winger brings down the house in one particular scene as their mother. These are characters that you might not always like. By the end of the movie however, you grow to accept them as if they were part of your own family.

The Reader

Read my lips, “It sucks!” **

“The Reader” is up for a Golden Globe Award for Best Picture. I suppose that’s evidence that Golden Globe nominations can be bought. I could make a long list of films that were more deserving of that nomination. Take for example Gus Van Sant’s “Milk,” or John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt,” or Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight.” Apart of me thinks that the people who voted for “The Reader” didn’t even see those three films. 

Kate Winslet plays Hanna Schmitz, a German woman who seduces a 15-year-old boy named Michael, played by David Kross. After giving into temptation one night, a relationship blossoms between the two. When they aren’t making love, Michael reads one of his many books to his new lover. After a summer, Hanna and Michael end the affair and go their separate ways. Several years later, they meet again when Hanna is put on trial for Nazi war crimes.

Personally, I didn’t give a tiny rat’s ass about the romance between Hanna and Michael. Although a great portion of the movie focuses on their early romance, at no point do they have chemistry. I was reminded of “Notes on a Scandal,” a film where Cate Blanchett played a schoolteacher who seduces one of her students. I eventually came to understand and even sympathize with the Cate Blanchett character though. In “The Reader” however, I found it extremely difficult to care about Kate Winslet’s Hanna.

I suppose that Kate Winslet is destined to get an Oscar nomination for her performance in this picture. Winslet, who has been nominated six times in the past and never won, is undoubtedly overdue for an Academy Award. Here, Winslet is emotionally charged and gives it her all. But her performance does not measure up to her work in  “Little Children,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” or “Titanic.” As wonderful of an actress Winslet might be, this is not the role she should remember for. If she does go onto win the Oscar for this performance it will be out of pity. 

“The Reader” is roughly two hours. However, I felt that the entire movie could have been told in half an hour. Hanna and Michael spend the first forty-five minutes continually boning each other. The next forty-five minutes deals with Hanna’s trial. Then the movie basically drags on for an additional thirty minutes. Along the way, none of the characters are really developed. By the film’s conclusion, you feel as if nothing has happened at all.

This is one of those movies that seem designed to win awards. The cast is A-list and the director, Stephen Daldry, has made one acclaimed film after another. Even that title has a certain Oscar-ring to it. If “The Reader” does go onto achieve an Oscar nomination for Best Picture however, I will eat my hat.

Sex and the City

So it’s about three hookers and their mom? ***

I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve seen more than one episode of “Sex and the City.” As a matter of fact, I own the two-hundred dollar complete series on DVD. If that’s not bad enough, I went to go see the feature-length movie of “Sex and the City” with another guy. I suppose at this point in time you’ve completely lost your respect for me. Nevertheless, I shall proceed on with this review with whatever little dignity I have left.

The film picks up four years following the series finale, chronicling the lives of four women in Manhattan. There’s Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie, the sex novelist who specializes in the art of puns. Kim Cattrall stars as sex-crazed Samantha, who has at long last found love with her absolute hunk, Smith Jared. Kristin Davis reprises her role as the mild-mannered Charlotte, living a happy life with her adopted daughter and husband. Last but not least is Cynthia Nixon as Miranda, the redhead lawyer who finds her marriage in a rut. In addition to the ladies we’ve come to love is Carrie’s on and off boyfriend, Mr. Big. The movie for the most part followers their romance as the two prepare for an overdue wedding.

The most important character introduced through this movie is Carrie’s assistant, Louise, played by Jennifer Hudson. Hudson completely stole the show and my heart in “Dreamgirls” a couple of years back. Here she proves that her previous performance was not just a fluke. This former “American Idol” candidate can truly act and is deserving of a long, flourishing career.

“Sex and the City” doesn’t necessarily have the mass appeal of a film like “The Simpsons Movie,” which I think could be enjoyed by just about anyone. I even enjoyed the film enough to include it on my top ten list last year. “Sex and the City” on the other hand is primarily intended for fans of the show only. As a fellow fan of the series, I can conquer that any “Sex and the City” admirer will enjoy this film version a whole lot. I for one did.

The movie is essentially a seasons worth of episodes crammed into one. At nearly two and a half hours, “Sex and the City” will probably ware out the welcome of even the most loyal viewers. For anybody who ever spent a day watching a “Sex and the City” marathon though, this should be just the movie for you. Unlike some shows that have no business being remade into motion pictures like “The Dukes of Hazard” and “Bewitched,” “Sex and the City” seems tailor-made for the movies. The film is more charming than other television adaptations. While not in same league of a great love story like “Definitely, Maybe,” “Sex and the City” runs circles around “Made of Honor” and “What Happens in Vegas.”

Perhaps the primary character of “Sex and the City” is the fashion. Like “The Devil Wears Prada,” the contemporary costumes play a significant role in this movie. The clothes are fabulous and I mean that in the most heterosexual way possible. The fashion hasn’t gone out of style and neither has “Sex and the City,” not even after four years.

Slumdog Millionaire

Million dollar movie *****

“Slumdog Millionaire” is an absolute winner. The film is a recipe for essentially everything one could possibly look for in a motion picture. It’s a moving, funny, exciting, romantic, and enchanting adventure that leaves you wanting more. This is the kind of movie people will be talking about for ages. It’s a movie I can’t wait to experience again with my friends and family. In an age where the price of creativity is higher than gas, “Slumdog Millionaire” returns to the tradition of original storytelling.

Newcomer Dev Patel plays Jamal, an orphaned, underprivileged street rat. Jamal has spent a majority of his life attempting to reunite with his one true love, Latika. He manages to make it onto India’s version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” with hopes that Latika will be watching. Most people of Jamal’s class rarely make it past 16,000 rupees. Jamal on the other hand, manages to win 10 million rupees, becoming an overnight sensation. He is only one question away from taking home the grand prize of 20 million rupees. 

Accused of cheating, Jamal is arrested after the shows taping. Although the police attempt to force a confession out of him, Jamal continues to insist that he knew the answers. Much of the movie is told through flashbacks as Jamal tells the police of his journeys with Latika and his older brother, Salim. In each chapter, Jamal explains how each major event in his life helped him to gain knowledge of the answers. 

Many young teenage girls have described Bella Swan and Edward Cullen of the “Twilight” series as this generations “Romeo and Juliet.” Sometimes I wonder if those girls have ever even read “Romero and Juliet.” The relationship between Bella and Edward is instantly forgettable compared to Jamal and Latika’s romance. Freida Pinto, another newcomer, is beautiful and delightful as Latika. As a pair, Pinto and Patel are perfect in one of the most endearing romances I’ve ever seen on film. I can’t remember the last time a truly routed for two individuals to find each other against all odds. There’s one particular phone conversation between the two, which I won’t dare give away, that is more touching then any scene in any other movie this year.

The film was directed by Danny Boil who made “28 Days Later.” Here Boil fabricates a heart-tugging thriller. Simon Beaufoy adapted the wonderful screenplay from Vikas Swarup’s novel, “Q&A.” Although you might not necessarily buy all of the screenplays twists, “Slumdog Millionaire” is an all around magical film. Here’s an example of filmmakers that not only know how to come up with a great premise but carry it out as well. 

Despite it’s “R” rating, I believe that “Slumdog Millionaire” defines an uplifting movie. While it might be a too intense for children under the age of ten, this is a terrific movie to take the entire family to. I’d dare anyone not to get a good feeling from this picture. It all leads up to a mesmerizing ending that I guarantee will leave you applauding uproariously. In a year of war, loss, and a suffering economy, “Slumdog Millionaire” is the perfect way to bring cheer back into this world. 

 

Snow Angels

Dark Angels ****

“Snow Angels” is an undoubtedly heartbreaking experience to watch, especially for those with young children. That last statement is by no means a rejection towards the film. Yes, the movie is devastating with many scenes that aren’t easy to sit through. At the same time however, “Snow Angels” is a truly a bold and powerful picture of how parents relate to their kids. Although there’s tragedy around every corner, the film never exploits the audience’s emotions like some mellow dramas.

The film tells the story of two families, both going through a phase of emotional trauma. Kate Beckinsale plays Annie, a single mother desperately trying to hold it together. Sam Rockwell plays her estranged husband Glenn, who wants to win his family back but cannot get his act together. Down the street is the young trombone-player, Arthur, played by Michael Angarano. Arthur is also going through a rough patch as his parents become separated. In this story of loss and distress, Olivia Thirlby is the movie’s heart as a new girl at school who brings light into Arthur’s life. Thirlby previously stared as the best friend in “Juno,” another pitch-perfect portrait of teenage life. 

There is not a character in “Snow Angels” who the audience cannot identify with. The film opens with a harsh band director, firmly forcing his marching band to give one hundred percent. Anybody who is or was a band geek can relate to this nazi-like teacher who demands perfection from his students. Sam Rockwell is especially terrific in his performance as a drunken, suicidal father struggling to find purpose. Although you might not want to be stuck in a room with the Sam Rockwell character, you can easily relate him to people you know in real life. “Snow Angels” is full of characters like that.

I believe the only thing that could have made “Snow Angels” a better movie is if it had had a different ending. One movie that the film merits comparison to is the Oscar-winning suburban drama, “American Beauty.” “Snow Angels” foreshadows in its opening scene that somebody will be dead by its conclusion. In “American Beauty,” the Kevin Spacey character instantly informs the audience that he will be dead in less than a year. The film kept me hooked with intensity all the way through. Then when the death finally arose in its final scene I was spellbound. I never knew what direction “American Beauty” was going to take while in “Snow Angels” I got to a certain point where I knew everything that was going occur.  

As far as suburban dramas go, “Snow Angels” is not in the same league of “American Beauty” or perhaps an even better example, “Little Children.” Never the less, this is still a provocative and engaging story with much thanks to its director, David Gordon Green. Green has produced one acclaimed film after another. Here, he flawlessly captures the essence of his characters with honesty. It’s easy to make a movie about heartbreaking. What’s difficult is to make a movie that is truly heartbreaking. David Gordon Green has managed to do just that.  

 

Speed Racer

Tacky races  **

I’ve always had a theory that a child’s name will map out his or her entire future. For example, if you name your daughter Porsche chances are older man will be gawking her by the time she’s ten. If you name your son Damien there’s a strong possibility he’ll one day become a deviant mastermind of pure evil. Any child with a name like Speed Racer is destined to become a racer of automobiles. After all, how many investment bankers or politicians have a name that outlandish?

This is the live-action adaptation of the cult cartoon where all the characters talk faster than the Gilmore Girls on speed. Emile Hirsch plays Speed Racer, a young car racer on the rise of fame. Although Speed is receiving generous offers from all the major racing corporations, he is committed to his family business. John Goodman and Susan Sarandon play Speed’s parents, Mom and Pop Racer. Quite frankly, I always find it a tad odd when somebody is named Mom or Pop as if they were destined to become parents. When Speed rejects an offer from the evil conglomerate of Royalton Industries, the CEO holds a vendetta against the young racer. Along with his girlfriend Trixie, played by Christina Ricci, and the mysterious Racer X, played by Mathew Fox, Speed sets out to save his family’s business and the sport he loves. Will kids understand or even care about this story at all? I doubt it.

There are those who have deemed the visual effects of “Speed Racer” to be dazzling while others have labeled them merely as cheesy. Personally, I found the technical design to be an ingenious combination of a live-action and anime universe. The first fifteen minutes of “Speed Racer” is a particularly vivid flight of imagination. Unfortunately, there’s not much else to the movie aside from its visuals. “Speed Racer” is like a toy that comes wrapped up in bright, colorful packaging. When you open it up though, the toy becomes old in a matter of seconds.

One of my dismays with “Speed Racer” is that Speed Racer himself isn’t a very compelling hero. Don’t get me wrong; I believe that Emile Hirsch is a talented young actor with mountains of potential. But the character of Speed Racer is about as fascinating as Anakin Skywalker in the recent “Star Wars” prequels. The movie seems a lot more interested in Speed’s younger brother Spritle, played by Paulie Litt, who is the center of attention in every scene. Spritle is an easy character to hate if you don’t like kids who are overly hyper and always getting into trouble. Fortunately, I just so happen to like those kinds of characters.

If the Wachowski brothers demonstrated anything with their “Matrix” trilogy, it’s that they can create unique worlds of imaginative landscapes. With “The Matrix” sequels and now “Speed Racer” however, the Wachowski’s seem to have forgotten how to tell a story or create characters. I suppose the fanboy in me will always hold a certain affection for a movie like “Speed Racer.” Not enough affection to fully embrace it though.

The Spiderwick Chronicles

We love the chronicles of Spiderwick ***1/2

“The Spiderwick Chronicles” is a fantasy fable that flies off the pages onto the screen with imagination. Here’s a slice of fiction with the exhilaration of “Harry Potter” and the spirit of last years “Bridge to Terabithia.” While the film might become a little too absorbed with magic at times, it never entirely looses it’s way like the visual effects extravaganza “Eragon.” Even in a string of mystical creatures and chases, the film redeems itself with personality and charm. The final result is easily one of the best times I’ve had the movies all year long.

The movie’s protagonist is Jared Grace, played by Freddie Highmore, a young preteen torn apart by his parent’s recent divorce. It seems as if all children in these stories are required to have at least one absent parent. Against his own freewill, Jared is forced to move into a murky, old house with his mother, played by Mary Louise-Parker. Jared uncovers a book by his great, great uncle Spiderwick. He opens the tome, despite a note insisting that it remains sealed, which unleashes an entire world of supernatural creatures and danger.

Neither Jared’s twin Simon, also played by Highmore, nor sister Mallory, played by Sarah Bolger, believes their brother’s accusations. His siblings soon come to realize the army of goblins praying outside their house however. The three children set out to stop the ogre Mulgarath who wants to possess Jared’s book to destroy all mankind. This setup is common in many fantasy pictures such as this. However, the story is engaging nonetheless.

In most movies such as this, the Computer Generated characters typically steal the whole show. What I found surprising regarding “The Spiderwick Chronicles” however, was the impact from the human characters. Freddie Highmore convincingly plays the duel roles of Jared and Simon Grace, creating two different characters. At one point in time I was almost driven to believe that two different actors were portraying these roles. Also worth mentioning is the under the radar actress Sarah Bolger who has terrific presence here. The underrated Mart Louise-Parker is especially effective as Highmore’s distressed mother.

"The Spiderwick Chronicles" might be a tad too intense for the youngest of viewers. But if your children made it through the last "Harry Potter" picture without any tears, this film should be a brisk walk in the park. The special effects aren’t necessarily in the same league of a movie like “The Lord of the Rings.” However, the visuals are a bushel of fun nonetheless. That last statement pretty much sums up my feelings towards “The Spiderwick Chronicles.” While not at the level of some of the best in the fantasy genre, the film is a blast from beginning to end.

 

 

Step Brothers

Step up 2 the brothers ***

“Step Brothers” is an example of why the rating scale of zero to four stars is flawed. Here’s a comedy that’s by no means bad enough to right off completely. However, it’s not necessarily good enough to welcome with open arms. Like “Knocked Up,” “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” and “Superbad,” “Step Brothers” is a movie that beats you over the head with joke after joke. While the film is one gag after another, it’s not one laugh after another. The comedy is a hit and miss effort with a laugh percentage of about 50/50. Split down the middle, I am allowing “Step Brothers” a pass for the fifty percent of jokes I did laugh at.

The setup for “Step Brothers” is positively hilarious. Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, two of the most ingenious talents of comedy, are reunited to play Brennan Huff and Dale Doback. Both Brennan and Dale are in their early forties and still living with their parents. And I thought Andy from “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” was a looser in life. When Dale’s dad, played by Richard Jenkins, and Brennan’s mom, played by Mary Steenburgen, get hitched the two reluctantly become step brothers. They get off on the wrong foot but soon become fast friends. 

As for the humor in “Step Brothers,” the film is almost as raunchy and perverse as the recent “Harold and Kumar” sequel. The movie wants to be a hard R comedy and indeed achieves that rating. I found myself laughing at a lot of the obscene and even childish material in “Step Brothers.” As I left the theater though, not a single memorable line came to mind. Even though I enjoyed a majority of the film during the showing, it doesn’t have the lasting effect of some of the best hard R comedies.

Ferrell and Reilly give it their all and are quite terrific a pair of immature men children. One of the funniest sequences between the two involves Reilly’s drum set, which he has forbidden Ferrell to play. They get into a massive feud, resulting in Ferrell rubbing his balls on the instrument. The scene is funny indeed. However, it’s hardly in the same league of Ferrell’s famous streaking bit in “Old School.” Nevertheless, I laughed and that’s the important thing I suppose. 

“Step Brothers” is fairly in the spirit of last months “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan.” The humor is beyond brainless and the laughs come and go. For what I did laugh at though, I’d give both films the most marginal recommendations of three stars. It would be an overstatement if I told you to rush out to the theater to see either “Step Brothers” or “Zohan.” As a matter of fact, perhaps you’d be better off just renting these two comedies when they come out to DVD.

Tropic Thunder

You mutant offspring of comedy people ****

What if one of the “Hot Shots” films had been made with a budget of 100 million dollars? You’d get a movie like “Tropic Thunder.” The film is a ridiculous satire of war pictures with a lot of jokes that leave you laughing “What the fuck.” At the some time however, “Tropic Thunder” is fiercely well fashioned with the same sound and visual quality of a war epic like “Saving Private Ryan.” Although the large-scale action sequences sometimes deduct from the comedy of the film, “Tropic Thunder” is still easily one the funniest war comedies ever produced.

Ben Stiller both directs and plays the films lead, Tugg Speedman, an action star who somewhat resembles Sylvester Stallone. Speedman finds his career in a slump after staring in “Special Jack,” a critically panned disaster about a full-grown, retarded man. Staring in a war epic called “Tropic Thunder” is the actor’s last shot at reviving his fame. Among the films cast is Jack Black as Jeff Portnoy, an over-weight, drug addicted comedian who wares his hair exactly like Chris Farley, and Robert Downey Jr. as Kirk Lazarus, a five time Oscar-winning, Russell Crowe-like, Australian actor who plays the films black platoon sergeant. 

Unable to maintain control of his cast, the director, played by Steve Coogan, releases the actors into the jungle of Southeast Asia. The land is overrun with Vietcong soldiers who mistake Speedman and his men as an actual American platoon. The actors retaliate back at the apposing team, under the impression that they’re still making a movie.

Earlier this summer, I was probably the only person who wasn’t entirely won over by “Iron Man.” The more and more I think about Robert Downey Jr.’s performance however, the more entitled I feel to allow the film a second viewing. Downey Jr. gave one of the great superhero performances as Tony Stark. In “Tropic Thunder,” he couldn’t be more convincing as an Australian actor playing an African American. Through these two films, Downey Jr. is making a comeback much like Johnny Depp made with “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Both actors have been underrated for years and are only now just emerging as two of the cinemas most unique talents.  

Between “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “Pineapple Express,” “Tropic Thunder” is another strong contender for the funniest movie of the year. After staring in last year’s disappointment, “Heartbreak Kid,” Ben Stiller is back on track with his funniest performance since “Dodgeball.” In addition to the three leading men, there are some hilarious supporting performances, particularly from Tom Cruise, who is more unrecognizable in this role than Felicity Huffman in “Transamerica.”

In Stiller’s previous directorial outing, “Zoolander,” three characters perished in a gasoline fight accident. There was no build up to their deaths and the audience never saw it coming. It was as if somebody had simply squished an insignificant grape. Another unexpected death occurs early on in “Tropic Thunder,” resulting in the pictures largest laugh. I suppose tragically, randomly killing a character is just Stiller’s good luck charm to a successful comedy.

 

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

In Barcelona ***1/2

“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is a movie that seems to have come right off of Woody Allen’s assembly line. Here’s a movie that is well acted and stylishly directed with dialog that’s always interesting to listen to. That’s exactly what we expect from any picture by Allen. What “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” lacks is the incite of some of Allen’s best work. Watching this movie, I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that Allen wrote the entire screenplay on a napkin one afternoon.

Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson, a regular among many of Allen’s films, star as Vicky and Cristina. The two are best friends that decide to spend the summer in Barcelona. Vicky finds herself engaged to a reliable, yet somewhat dull, man named Doug. Cristina on the other hand is the adventurous risk-taker who will go out with just about any strange man. Enter Juan Antonio, a Spanish painter played by Javier Bardem. 

To her surprise, Vicky falls into Antonio’s arms in one night of heated passion. The next day she decides that she made a spontaneous mistake and tries to forget the ordeal. But wouldn’t you know it, Vicky suddenly finds herself wanting more out of her routine life. This wouldn’t be a Woody Allen picture if at least one of the main characters were facing some sort of romantic crisis. Soon after that, Antonio starts pursuing Cristina. Things go well for a while. Matters become complex however, when Maria Elena, Antonio’s x-wife, comes into the mix. The three eventually become well acquainted and soon Antonio, Cristina, and Maria find themselves in a relationship. This is one of Allen’s more bizarre anti-romantic comedies.

Penelope Cruz delivers the scene steeling performance as Maria Elena. Cruz is emotionally charged and at times quite humorous as an x-wife from hell that the audience actually comes to sympathize with. The real discovery in the film however, is Rebecca Hall as Vicky. Hall hits just the right note here as this confused woman with a life altering decision to make. I look forward to seeing what she’ll do next in what should be a successful acting career. The performances from Cruz and Hall, along with Bardem and Johansson, are the keys reasons to see “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.”

I suppose my problem with the film itself is that we’ve seen this same thing from Woody Allen before and better. From the signature Woody Allen opening credits to the end, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” feels incredibly rhythmic. But I suppose that’s hardly a valid criticism. After all, if any other director had made this movie I’d probably be praising it right now. “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is well worth seeing for the performances and a sophisticated use of dialog. Given the standers that Allen has set for himself as a director however, we expect more. I look forward to the day that I can honestly use the quote, “Woody Allen’s best film in years.” As for now, I suppose I’ll have to settle for “A B+ effort from Allen.”

The Visitor

My monthly visitor ****

If I were to ask your opinion on the actor Richard Jenkins, you’d most likely respond, “Who the hell is that?” Jenkins name has never sparkled in bulging letters on a movie poster. Yet, he’s been working in show business for roughly thirty years with over eighty projects to his credit. He’s popped up in numerous features by the Coen Brothers. If you think back you might remember his cameo as the shrink in “There’s Something About Mary.” For the longest time, I myself was unfamiliar with the actor’s name. That was until I saw Jenkins’ triumphant, breakout performance in “The Visitor.”

In his first leading man role, Jenkins plays Walter Vale. Walter is a gloomy, widowed college professor attempting to find some sort of purpose in his empty life. When Walter returns to his Sublette apartment in Manhattan, he discovers two immigrants residing there. The immigrants are played by Haaz Sleiman as Tarek and Danai Gurira as his girlfriend Zainab. Stricken with loneliness, Walter decides to allow the couple to stay. An unlikely friendship arises between Tarek and Walter when the foreigner teaches this aging man to play the African drum. Walter is stricken with grief when Tarek is arrested at the train station and is threatened with deportation.

After Tarek is arrested, Walter is paid a visit from his new friends mother, Mouna, played by Hiam Abbass. Both Walter and Mouna have lost their spouses and eventually a surprising romance occurs. The scenes between the two are especially effective and even touching. Like Jenkins, Hiam Abbas has been popping up in minor supporting roles for a while. Here she delivers a mesmerizing supporting performance that is unfortunately likely to be overlooked. 

“The Visitor” is terrific film about the problems that plague modern day America. In the wrong hands, this material could come off as preachy and batter the audience over the head with its message. “The Visitor” offers no easy solutions to immigration however. It’s primarily a film about people struggling to survive in this confusing, intolerant world. Writer/ Director Tom McCarthy has fashioned a winning screenplay with spot on dialog that speaks to everyday people. In addition to handling post911 issues, “The Visitor” is also about friendship, finding meaning, and above all life.

At the heart of the movie is Richard Jenkins in a career defining performance. Jenkins is subtle and at the same time emotionally charged as one of the years most compelling protagonists. He perfectly captures the persona of this elderly man desiring to fill his hollow life. This is a performance not to be forgotten when the Academy members mark their Oscar ballots. After years of being under the radar, it’s about time that Jenkins got his due.

WALL-E

WALL-WEE *****

The latest Pixar picture, “WALL-E,” is a movie that asks the age old question, “Can there be romance between two robots?” Well if Pixar managed to make the love story work in a movie like “Cars,” I suppose anything’s possible. Here’s an animated movie primarily being targeted at children with more to say about Artificial Intelligence than Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.” The movie is so smart with ideas that I had to remind myself that this was not a live-action, sci-fi drama but a G-rated, animated comedy. Science fiction aside, “WALL-E” is at heart a meaningful and humane story of love.

The film sets itself over 700 years into the future where all mankind has abandoned earth on an intergalactic cruise. The only conscious being left on the planet is a robot named WALL-E, who spends day by day compacting leftover trash. Some people have argued WALL-E’s resemblance to R2D2. Personally, I think that WALL-E’s design is based on R.O.B., the robot from the old Nintendo Entertainment System. Of course WALL-E is isolated with no companionship other than a cockroach. That is until one day when WALL-E is visited by EVE, a robot sent by humans to uncover life on earth.

WALL-E is much in the spirit of Gromit from the “Wallace and Gromit” series. Although his vocabulary is limited to a series of beep-bop noises, WALL-E expresses his emotion in every other way possible. We understand WALL-E’s desire to one day hold the hand of another robot. The first thirty minutes of this movie is practically a silent movie. While some may grow wrestles with the films silence, I found “WALL-E” to be refreshing. Given some of the loudmouthed animated characters that never shut up like Oscar from “Shark Tale,” it’s pleasant to see a quite family film for once.

“WALL-E” reminded me greatly of “Meet the Robinsons,” another futuristic animated feature. While “Meet the Robinsons” had an inventive imagination, its world of singing frogs and bubbles as modes of transportation didn’t quite add up. The film was essentially a wheelbarrow of ideas that never really came together. “WALL-E” on the other hand, creates one of the great futuristic wonderlands of movies. The deserted landscapes of earth are breathtakingly haunting. The intergalactic cruise ship is just as imaginative and detailed as the star ships of the recent “Star Wars” movies. The world of “WALL-E” is so unique that it ranges with the ingeniously crafted universe of “Blade Runner.”

The story of this robot protagonist must also strike resemblance to the animation “Robots.” I enjoyed both “WALL-E” and “Robots” a whole lot. But the droids of “Robots” at times acted so wisecracking and witty that they were primarily humans made of metal. The audience never believed that any of the robots were truly machines. WALL-E however, is simply a robot built to serve mankind and throughout the course of the movie develops genuine human emotions. Although WALL-E never tosses any one-liners, he’s more human than any of the machines of “Robots.”

This all brings me back to the romance between WALL-E and EVE. I didn’t think that I could actually care about a love story of two machines. However, Director Andrew Stanton has told a wonderful and touching tale of two robots destined for each other. I was reminded of last years “Enchanted,” a film about an animated princess who falls in love with a modern day man. The film could have easily been a cheesy and uninspired cornball fest. Instead, the movie told a real story with a romance I sincerely cared about. Now that I think about it, “WALL-E” isn’t the first love story between droids. I’ve always had my suspicions about CP3O and R2D2.

Wanted

Don’t you wanna? ***1/2

As each week goes by, I seem to find myself more and more taken aback by how absurd summer movie action sequences have become. From the jungle chase in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” to the chopstick battle in “Kung-fu Panda,” to the grenade ping-pong match in “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan.” Among all of these over-the-top summer movies, “Wanted” is by far the most preposterous. The movie is so outrageous that it would make Frank Miller’s “Sin City” or even a Looney Toons skit appear realistic. “Wanted” is trashy, overly violent, and nothing short of entertaining as hell.

James McAvoy stars as Wesley Gibson, a pathetic office drone who feels as if he’s wasting his insignificant, little life. By day he’s torchered by his obese boss, Janice, who would make Mr. Burns of “The Simpsons” seem like the ideal employer. By night he has to put-up with his nagging girlfriend who is screwing his best friend behind his back. Reason is finally brought into Wesley’s life when a foxy assassin named Fox, played by Angelina Jolie, rescues him during a drug store shootout. A mysterious man named Sloan, played by Morgan Freeman, informs Wes that his long lost and recently murdered father was a master hitman. The same killing instincts run through Wesley’s blood, which makes him eligible to join the secret assassin organization known as the Fraternity. 

Even in his senior years, Morgan Freeman reaches Samual L. Jackson’s level of badass. Angelina Jolie in every possible way lives up to her characters name of Fox. Unlike some recent Jessica Alba vehicles, Jolie isn’t reduced to a gorgeous statue here. Jolie is a first-rate action lady and sells every moment of crazed dialog. Although James McAvoy’s track record includes such prestigious Oscar-winners like “Atonement” and “The Last King of Scotland,” I believe this is one of his best performances. McAvoy is hunky, yet calm enough to pull off this role, hitting just the right note. 

There isn’t an aspect of “Wanted” that isn’t over-exaggerated. The narration by Wes couldn’t be more insane. I’m almost, just almost positive that it’s impossible to shoot the wings off of flies or to curve a bullet completely around a room. But I suppose nobody is going to wander into this movie anticipating realism. While some movies take themselves far too seriously, like “10,000 B.C.,” “Wanted” is never afraid to wink at the camera and note just how ridiculous it is. 

At times “Wanted” isn’t quite as bloody brilliant as it thinks it is. This entire live-action, cartoon violence concept has been done before. Anybody who has ever seen “Sin City” is bound to look at this film as a lesser wannabe. Then again, “Wanted” is solid “B” movie entertainment that doesn’t try too hard like last years “Shoot ‘Em Up.” Although if you took some kind of sick pleasure in “Shoot ‘Em Up,” “Wanted” should come off as a masterpiece to you.

What Happens in Vegas

Should have stayed in Vegas *1/2

A couple of years ago, the romantic comedy, “The Breakup,” was declined my many critics and viewers alike. A lot of people argued that the movie was essentially a couple, which were never even compatible to start with, feuding. I admit that “The Breakup” had its fair share of problems and it’s not necessarily a film I’d want to watch again. However, it was effectively acted with some truth about relationships, which influenced me to recommend the picture. “What Happens in Vegas” is another romantic comedy where the two leads spend a majority of the movie arguing with one another. The difference between the two films is that “What Happens in Vegas” has absolutely nothing to say about relationships whatsoever.

Cameron Diaz stars as Joy, a needy hopeless romantic whose just been dumped by her fiancé. Ashton Kutcher stars as Jack, a slacker who cannot commit to anything in life. Like we haven’t seen either of these characters a million times before. The two meet in Vegas where they get hitched after a drunken night on the town. When Jack hits the three million dollar jackpot, his new bride feels that she’s entitled to fifty percent. Joy takes Jack to court, where the judge sentences them to remain married for six months and make their marriage work. Tell me, how often does that happen in real life? What judge would force two people, who are clearly not right for each other, to stay together against their own free will?

Even on the film’s movie poster, Diaz and Kutcher are overacting. They don’t have the slightest essence of chemistry together. Their characters spend a majority of the movie finding ways to torment each other like peeing in the sink and making smoothies early in the morning. I don’t see why the screenwriters though any of these petty acts were funny. Maybe if they had made “What Happens in Vegas” into a dark comedy with Diaz and Kutcher being truly evil, something interesting might have been produced. Instead the filmmakers settled for a series of lazy gags.

I believe that it’s possible for two people to loath each other at the beginning of a movie and end up in love by the end. Some of the greatest romances are a case of when opposites attract. Jack and Joy are so hostile to one another at the beginning of this movie though, that I don’t believe for a second that they could ever be compatible. But what do you know? The two do end up falling in love even though their sudden affection comes out of absolutely nowhere. In this movies last act these two spiteful individuals completely change character and become loving people for no reason.

It’s a requirement for the leads in a movie like this to both have a best friend. But it’s an even greater requirement that the best friends don’t outshine the two leads. Lake Bell plays Joy’s best friend, Tipper, and Rob Corddry, who was pretty good earlier this year in the “Harold and Kumar” sequel, plays Jack’s best friend, Hater. While the scenes involving Tipper and Hater aren’t much, they’re still more amusing characters than either Jack or Joy. I would have much preferred to see a movie about these two lesser-known actors than to see Kutcher and Diaz cashing in on this pot of fools gold. 

“What Happens in Vegas” is a formulaic romantic comedy down to the bone. It’s not impossible to make a good romantic comedy that follows a formula. Take “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” for example. In order to over look a film’s predictability though, the movie should be funny with charm and appealing characters. I beg all of you thirty-something women out there who have no love lives of your own, stop paying to see romantic comedies like this so I don’t have to sit through them anymore!

 

 

The Wrestler

He’s a wrestling machine ****

For generations people have asked the question, “Is wrestling fake?” On one hand, most of the moves are choreographed ahead of time. Although the opponents appear to hate each other in the ring, they’re all secretly friends behind the scenes. Sometimes the players even intentionally cut themselves to make damage appear worse. On the other hand, professional wrestlers do seriously wound and abuse their bodies in battle. “The Wrestler” takes a somewhat silly sport and tells a gritty, engaging, and deeply moving story about it.

In a stirring comeback performance unlike any other, Mickey Rourke plays Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson. Randy is a broken-down, aging professional wrestler. In real life, he’s a nobody with nothing to live for. His estranged daughter, played by Evan Rachel Wood, hates him with a passion. The closest thing he has to a loving relationship is with a stripper named Pam, played by Marisa Tomei. In the ring however, Randy is a hero who is idolized by his fans. When he suffers a heart attack, the doctor informs Randy that he’ll never wrestle again. 

Independent filmmaker Darren Aronofsky directed “The Wrester.” Aronofsky took a monumental risk giving the role of Randy to Mickey Rourke, whose acting career appeared dead in the water. However, I don’t believe any other actor could have taken this role and delivered a more note-perfect performance. Aside from Heath Ledger as the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” there hasn’t been a better casting decision this entire year. In many ways, “The Wrestler” resembles Rourke’s own life story. Rourke was on top of the world, than sunk to the bottom of the barrel, and is now back on top again. This fact only makes his performance even more touching.

Rourke gave an underrated supporting performance as the hilarious and badass character of Marv in “Sin City.” Here Rourke creates a significantly flawed, yet empathetic character in his finest performance. Randy the Ram is a man who can’t function in the real world and would rather die than give up what he loves doing most. The wonderful title song by Bruce Springsteen perfectly sums up the character of Randy. Also affective here is Marisa Tomei as a woman who is genuinely concerned for this man’s well being. Their relationship reminded me of the romance between Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue in "Leaving Las Vegas." They have one of the most memorable and complex romances of the year. 

If you go to see “The Wrestler” anticipating a feel good movie with a conventional happy ending, you might be a tad disappointed. The film is an often brutal and even difficult experience to watch. The ending in particular isn’t entirely happy or sad. However, the movie leaves on an inspiring note. The final image of the film will stick in your mind for days. If you think that wrestling isn’t a real sport, go see “The Wrestler.” You’ll never look at professional wrestling in the same way again.

 

The X-Files: I Want to Believe

I wanted to like it **1/2

“The X-Files” was a show that always appeared intriguing in my eyes. Like many potentially good shows however, I never took the time to sit down and watch it. The show has now been off the air for nearly ten years and still I’ve yet to see a single episode. That’s probably why I wasn’t really able to engage myself in the second installment of the “X-Files” film franchise. If you have a certain nostalgia for “The X-Files” and been awaiting a reboot of the series, there’s a possibility you’ll like the film. I on the other hand, found it to be somewhat dull and even uneventful.

  The film reunites David Duchovny as Fox Mulder and as Gillian Anderson as Dana Scully. Even though these two have known each other for decades and have apparently been romantically involved, they still refer to one another by their last names. The two have retired from their FBI professions with Scully working as a physician while Mulder has been reduced to a house hermit. A special agent played by Amanda Peet re-recruits the famous duo however, to help track down a fellow-missing agent.

Whether you were a fan of the television series or not, it’s hard not to admire the relationship between Mulder and Scully. The two have a great chemistry together as co-workers who clearly love each other and yet cannot be together. The problem is that this film version doesn’t really explore their affiliation with one another. Instead we get a lot of tedious scenes of the two talking about believing and wanting to believe. If you’re going to bring back these classic characters after all this time, why not take their relationship to a new level? Quite frankly, I wanted more character development and less mubo jumbo about having faith. 

The supporting cast doesn’t add to the equation either. Billy Connolly plays a pedophile priest who claims to have physic visions. Connolly delivers a perfectly decent performance. But his role is essentially a retread of every other physic we’ve seen in similar sci-fi movies. Another clichéd character is Agent Mosley, played by Xzibit from “Pimp My Ride.” His character is the classic FBI agent who doesn’t believe in aliens or physics or anything supernatural for that matter. This movie basically belongs to Duchovny and Anderson and nobody else.

“The X-Files: I Want to Believe” isn’t necessarily a bad movie. It’s more so of an uninspired one. The film never really takes off with any new ideas and is especially anticlimactic in its final act. After all time, I think that “X-File” fans are going to expect more. Then again, perhaps I’m not the one to be making that call. I was never a loyal viewer of the show after all. If you’re still holding a torch for “The X-Files” after all this time, this movie might be just what you’ve been waiting for. As a standalone picture however, I just don’t think it holds up.

You Don't Mess With the Zohan

Silky-haired Sandler ***

In a track record that includes movies such as “Little Nicky” and “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry,” Adam Sandler could only be a lifetime achievement recipient at the MTV Movie Awards. Well perhaps I spoke too soon. I’m entirely confident that someday Sandler could win the prestigious Silver Blimp at the Kid’s Choice Awards. In all fairness though, I do believe that Sandler is talented as both a comedic and serious actor. After all, any actor that managed to make the audience cry during a film like “Click” has got be talented. While his Golden Globe nomination for “Punch Drunk Love” will most likely be the high point of his career, it’s difficult to deny Sandler’s lovability.

Let me just state for the record that Sandler’s latest picture, “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan,” is quite possibly the most ludicrous and absurd comedy I have ever seen. That last statement includes all of the Monty Python movies and the most outlandish from Mel Brooks. Sandler plays Zohan, an Israeli assassin with the ambitions to become a hair stylist. Zohan fakes his death in an utterly bizarre fight between a terrorist known as the Phantom, played by John Turturro. Presumed legally dead, Zohan is free to move to New York and live out his dream. If that’s not a strange setup I don’t know what is.

“Borat” was obviously the inspiration for this picture with a Middle Eastern traveling to learn of the American dream. In terms of speech and appearance, I’m almost driven to think that Zohan and Borat are distance relatives. Even in it’s ridiculous plot, I did believe that “Borat” had something to say about our current state in America. “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan” really doesn’t have anything new to say about prejudice in the world. On the other hand, the film does have numerous moments of hilarity. I’d even go as far to say that the film has just enough laughs to recommend it.

A few years ago, the Academy denied the stunt coordinators of motion pictures their own category at the Oscars. Had the award been approved however, “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan” could have been this year’s front-runner. The action sequences of this movie are so over-the-top that they make the animated action of “Kung Fu Panda” seem almost realistic. The visual humor works quite well in this picture as Sandler, or Sandler’s stuntman, kicks through brick walls and leaps from building to building. The funniest sequence I can recall involves Sandler competing in a game of ping pong, using a grenade as the ball.

“You Don’t Mess with the Zohan” somewhat wares out its welcome at roughly under two hours. As a matter of fact, the film is hardly memorable at all. And yet, I found myself amused by a majority of the film’s gags, disregarding just how mild those laughs were. While the movie is nothing profound, Sandler should be guaranteed an MTV Movie Award nomination next year.