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Movie Reviews 2009

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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

500 Days of Summer

Don't assume that there aren't any intelligent or original movies out there just because it's summer *****

“500 Days of Summer” is the first feature film from director Marc Webb. With his debut picture, Webb exemplifies the kind of movie I would expect from a director of Woody Allen’s caliber. “500 Days of Summer” has the resemblance of a contemporary “Annie Hall.” Both films are note perfect commentaries of how relationships work and how relationships don’t work. Along the way, “500 Days of Summer” is funny, truthful, original, wise, and at times even a little whimsical. The one thing that the movie is not however is a love story, as the narrator states in the film’s first five minutes.

In his finest performance to this date Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Tom Hansen, a young man who wants to be an architect but finds himself working for a greeting card company. Tom is instantly allured by his boss’s new assistant Summer, played by Zooey Deschanel. After breaking through the awkward early stages of the relationship, a romance begins to brew between Tom and Summer. The film takes place in a course of 500 days, jumping around between the key points of Tom and Summer’s story.

There’s one particularly great scene in the early state of Tom and Summer’s relationship. Tom dances down the street, having just slept with Summer for the first time. Unexpectedly and hilariously, a parade of sheer joy erupts behind Tom with the song, “You Make My Dreams,” playing in the background. The parade follows the delighted Tom to an elevator. As the elevator doors close, Tom has a confident smile on his face. When the doors open, it’s another hundred or so days into Tom and Summer’s relationship. Tom appears gloomy and suicidal for Summer has recently dumped him.

That parade scene may be completely inexplicable. Nevertheless, director Marc Webb makes it work on every level. The scene reminded me of the Von Steuben Day Parade sequence in “Ferris Bueller's Day Off” as Matthew Broderick lip-synced “Twist and Shout” through the streets of Chicago. “500 Days of Summer” takes numerous offbeat chances such as that parade musical number. And yet, the film still feels almost completely realistic and truthful to the nature of relationships.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt gave an underrated performance in an overlooked film called “The Lookout” a couple of years ago. It’s really kind of strange that Gordon-Levitt has not yet broken out into major stardom having done such strong work for years now. After “500 Days of Summer” though, I believe Gordon-Levitt will soon be recognized as one of our most talented up-and-coming actors. Gordon-Levitt is funny and entirely convincing as a man who desperately wants to make things work with the woman he thinks is his soul mate.

I’ve often complained how there aren’t enough well written roles out there for women in the movies today. “500 Days of Summer” however, has not one but two great female characters. One of which is of course Zooey Deschanel as Summer, who cares deeply for Tom but simply does not want to be his girlfriend. Deschanel, like Gordon-Leviit, has been doing good work in movies for a while now. This is her career-defining performance. The other great female character is newcomer Chloe Moretz as Tom’s little sister, who knows more about women and relationships then he does. Moretz is plucky and has tremendous screen presence here. I’ll be interested to see what she will do next.

Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber wrote the film. “500 Days of Summer” is a considerably better movie then the last project Neustadter and Weber worked on, “The Pink Panther 2.” Neustadter and Weber have both developed one of the most unique anti-romances of recent years. The two will undoubtedly be nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

I don’t know how well this independent sleeper will perform with audiences or if will be a top contender come award season. What I do know is that “500 Days of Summer” is one of the best films of the year and deserves to be recognized by everybody as such. I love this movie. 

Adventureland

Your body is an Adventureland ****

“Adventureland” comes from writer/director Greg Mottola, the same man who brought us “Superbad.” That film was raunchy, perverse, and occasionally even disgusting. At the same time however, “Superbad” told a heartfelt story of friendship and the insecurities of being a teenager. The end result was one of the funniest hard-R, teen comedies since “Animal House.” With “Adventureland,” Mottola could have simply produced an uninspired retread of his previous film. Instead Mottola has made one of the best and most surprising teenage comedies of recent years.

“Adventureland” strikes resemblance to some of the best films from John Hughes, who made “The Breakfast Club” and “Sixteen Candles.” This is a movie about teenagers that recognizes teenagers as real people. The movie is a pitch perfect portrait of people in their late teens and early twenties. It creates three-dimensional, sympathetic characters we care about.

The movie takes place in the summer of 1987. James Brennan, an awkward college graduate played by Jesse Eisenberg, is all set on taking a trip to Europe. His dreams are crushed however, when his alcoholic father looses his job. James is forced to get a summer job at an Adventureland, a crappy amusement park where the rides are all lame and the games are all rigged. James is prepared to endure quite possibly the worst summer imaginable. By the end of the movie however, he may very well grow richer from the experience. 

Jesse Eisenberg, who shares much resemblance to Michael Cera, is really quite good here as James. The real surprise in this movie however, is Kristen Stuart as Em, the young girl who catches James’s eye. Stuart previously stared as the lead in the pop-culture phenomenon, “Twilight.” In terms of box office, “Adventureland” won’t reach the same heights as “Twilight.” However, years from now when people look back at Stuart’s early career she’ll be best remembered for this performance. Stuart takes the character of Em and creates a regretful, angry, confused, an above all independent woman. For the first time I recognized Stuart as an actress capable of serious dramatic work. The sweat romance between James and Em is what makes “Adventureland” something truly special.

In addition to Eisenberg and Stuart, “Adventureland” features an army of memorable supporting players. Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig of Saturday Night Live are hilarious as the amusement park managers who recruit young James. Hader and Wiig have starred in numerous other productions in supporting roles. However, I personally would love to see the two upgraded to leads. Also good here is Martin Starr as Joel, a fellow employee who shows James the ropes, and Matt Bush as Frigo, a kid who makes life hell for James. Ryan Reynolds, who typically does more lightweight material like “Just Friends” and “Van Wilder,” takes another step forward in his career as Connell, the hunky park maintenance guy. With his work here and in last years “Definitely, Maybe,” Reynolds continues to prove that he can be a compelling presence on screen with the right material. I wouldn’t mind seeing these characters reunited twenty years from now in an overdue sequel to “Adventureland.”

“Adventureland” might not go onto be the box office hit that “Superbad” was. Like “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” however, I believe the film will develop a cult following in the years to come. I predict that in due time we’ll being seeing people wearing T-shirts with “Games, Games, Games, Games, Games” and “Rides, Rides, Rides, Rides, Rides” on them. You people know who you are. Those people who bought those “Vote for Pedro” shirts then sold them ten months later in a garage sale. 

Angels & Demons

Gosh Dang-it! **1/2

Ron Howard’s adaptation of “Angels & Demons” is perhaps the best theatrical version of Dan Brown’s novel possible. Before you jump to any conclusions, no I am not quite recommending this follow-up to the financially successful but undoubtedly flawed hit, “The Da Vinci Code.” Both “Angles & Demons” and “The Da Vinci Code” succeed and fall flat in the same departments. The two films are both beautifully shot, well-acted thrillers with heart pounding musical scores. However, a meandering plot, underdeveloped characters, and an overly long running time bog down those exceptional qualities. My indicial opinion on “Angels & Demons” is mixed. At the end of the day though, I have to ultimately decline the picture.

Tom Hanks reprises his role as Robert Langdon, who has gotten a much-needed haircut since the previous movie. Shortly after the death of the Pope, four cardinals who are likely to take his place are mysteriously kidnapped by the underground organization, the Illuminati. If that isn’t enough, the Illuminati have also issued a treat to blowup the Vatican with a ticking time bomb. The Vatican seeks out Langdon’s assistance to unlock another absurd mystery. 

My primary dismay with “Angels & Demons” is Robert Langdon himself. Tom Hanks is unarguably one of the most gifted actors of our generation. It’s not really his fault that Langdon is one of the blandest protagonists of all conspiracy movies. Robert Langdon can decipher clues that virtually nobody else could possibly figure out without breaking a sweat. He’s kind of like Tony Shalhoub’s character on “Monk,” only with no personality at all. Now that would make an interesting movie: Mr. Monk goes to the Vatican.

As dull of a character as Robert Langdon is, he’s still the most interesting character in the entire movie. Ayelet Zurer plays Vittoria Vetra, a scientist who teams up with Langdon. Ayelet Zurer does an exceptional job at looking beautiful but is unable to create a character with such a hollow script. Just for once I would like to see a movie like this where the female lead isn’t gorgeous but overweight and puggly. Then maybe the screenwriters will work to fashion a compelling character.

This is another one of those movies where everybody, particularly random guards and police officers, aren’t very bright. There’s one scene in which an assassin hired by the Illuminati kills a member of the Swiss Guard and takes his badge. When reinforcements arrive, the assassin waves the badge around and the police officers lower their guns. The assassin then shoots the two dead. Wouldn’t the officers have thought to themselves, “Hey why are there a bunch of dead guys in here? How do we know that this guy is really a member of the Swiss Guard? Maybe he just killed a Swiss Guard and stole his badge.” That’s only one of the many foolish decisions people make in this movie.

As I stated at the beginning of this review, this is probably the best “Angels & Demons” movie we could have hopped for. Watching this film, it become evident to me that Dan Brown’s bestseller is certainly a good read. However, the material simply does not transfer well to film. “Angels & Demons” is likely to entertain anybody who was a fan of the first movie. I personally found the film to be a little better than “The Da Vinci Code.” There are some genuinely exciting moments in the final act and a surprising revelation. Even then though, it’s too little too late. 

Avatar

Why is everybody so anti-blue person? *****

Among all the film’s released in 2009, none had me more inquisitive with anticipation than James Cameron’s “Avatar.” This has been a passion project for Cameron since 1994 when he first fabricated the story. Now fifteen years later, the technology has finally caught up to the director’s vision. Numerous speculators have criticized the film prior to its release, claiming that nobody will ever go see a movie centered on blue people. After producing the most successful movie of all-time, it appeared that maybe Cameron had become overly confident with a picture that could have been called “Dances With Smurfs.” With a production budget that ranged between a rumored 230 and 500 million dollars, many felt that the film would be a definite dud. It my eyes, “Avatar” was destined to become either the best film of the year or the biggest disappointment of the century.

The good news is that unlike most event pictures, “Avatar” is a marvelous epic that in everyway lives up to the hype. Witnessing “Avatar” is like watching “Star Wars,”  “The Lord of the Rings,” or “The Matrix” for the first time. It’ll only be a matter of time before the film becomes embedded in our popular culture. Soon people will be mastering the new language that was created in the film and showing up to sci-fi conventions dipped in blue paint. However, “Avatar” is so much more than a fanboy’s wonderland. It’s a revolutionary picture that is both exciting and romantic that will forever change the way audiences perceive motion pictures.

The film sets itself in 2154 AD on a foreign moon known as Pandora. In this mysterious world resides a race of blue, ten-foot-tall aliens known as the Na’vi. These peaceful, earth-loving creatures live together in a mother tree, which rests upon a vast supply of Unobtainium, a mineral that the greedy humans of earth desire to save their dying planet. The military needs somebody on the inside to gain the trust of the Na’vi. A scientist named Grace Austine, played by Sigourney Weaver, develops a genetically engineered copy of the Na’vi beings known as an Avatar. One of the select few with the genetics to control these Avatars is Jake Sully, a former marine played by Sam Worthington who has been paralyzed from the waist down. The film’s force of evil is Colonel Miles Quaritch, played by Stephen Lang, who promises Jake that his legs will be repaired if he can infiltrate the Na’vi’s inner circle.

Sam Worthington was last seen in “Terminator: Salvation,” a dreadful mockery of Cameron’s first two exceptional “Terminator” films. While I didn’t care for “Terminator: Salvation” at all, Sam Worthington’s performance was certainly the highpoint of the picture. Here Worthington continues to prove that he is an actor of substantial talent. Worthington gives a complete performance and develops Jake Sully into a character that is joyful, complex, and full of depth. Unlike so many other protagonists who are thrown into extraordinary circumstances, Jake has a sense of awe and is amazed by the new world he has discovered.

Jake is confronted by an extraordinary dilemma when he falls in love with a sexy Na’vi princess named Neytiri, played by Zoe Saldana. Neytiri shows Jake the ways of her culture and Jake soon realizes the Na’vi are not savages but harmonious beings with rights to their land. This is a somewhat familiar story brilliantly executed with fascinating ideas and original, memorable characters.

Saldana, who previously starred as Uhura in the reboot of “Star Trek,” delivers another winning performance as Neytiti. Her character, along with all the other Na’vi, is brought to life through the latest in motion capture technology. Although Saldana herself is never on screen, she gives a terrific performance that is both emotional and physically impressive. The Na’vi feel more realist than any computer generator character ever put on film. The romance that develops between Jake and Neytiti, as predictable as it might be, is every bit as gripping as the love story of Jack and Rose in “Titanic.” Walking into the picture, I wasn’t sure if I could really care about a romance between CGI blue creatures. By the film’s conclusion however, I was amazed by the affection I had for these characters.

I haven’t even mentioned the stunning look of the film. “Avatar” creates a unique universe full of creatures and landscapes unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. This is a movie much like “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” Peter Jackson’s “King Kong,” or epically “Titanic” which leaves you astonished by the groundbreaking art direction and visuals. As incredible as the effects are though, it’s Cameron’s mesmerizing story that makes “Avatar” one of the years finest films.

To get the full effect of this extraordinary picture you have to see it in 3D. I’m far from being the biggest enthusiast of the 3D technology. Although I’ve enjoyed some 3D outings such as “The Polar Express” and “A Christmas Carol,” I always seem to be aware that I’m watching a 3D movie. After the first five minutes of “Avatar” however, I completely forgot about the 3D glasses I was wearing. I felt as if I had been absorbed by the movie screen and was actually engaged in this world. Unlike so many other films that are shown in 3D just to jack up the ticket price, “Avatar” is a picture intended to be seen in 3D.

The film all works up to a heart-tugging climax with the most superbly shot final battle since “The Return of the King.” The action sequences indeed rock. What makes this sequence even more thrilling is how much you’ve come to care about these characters and whether or not they’ll survive. What happens between Jake and Neytiti is information I won’t give away. However, the final scene between the two had me more on edge than any scene in any other movie this year. Like J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” and “District 9,” “Avatar” is another classic entry to the science fiction genre. With “Avatar” James Cameron continues to prove that he can do no wrong when it comes to filmmaking…unless you count “Piranha Part Two: The Spawning.”

Away We Go

Go, go, Away We Go rangers! Go, go Away We Go rangers! Mighty, morphing Away We Go Rangers…that was probably the dumbest headline I’ve ever done. The movie’s still good though. ***1/2

“Away We Go” is another one of those independent drama/comedies full of colorful dialog and abundantly quirky characters that instantly win you over. The film may not be as funny or insightful as a breakout hit like “Little Miss Sunshine” or “Juno.” Nevertheless, it’s still a charming romance with a clever screenplay, skillful direction, and very funny performances. In a season where people are throwing away their money on a certain brain-dead movie that grossed 200 million dollars during it’s opening five days, “Away we go” is a movie much more worthy of your time and money.

The film stars John Krasinski of “The Office” as Burt Farlander. Maya Rudolph from “Saturday Night Live” plays Burt’s devoted girlfriend, Verona, who refuses to marry him even though she is six months pregnant with his child. The two live in one of those matchbox houses where the power goes out if too many electrical appliances are plugged in. When Burt’s parents, hilariously played by Jeff Daniels and Catherine O’Hara, announce that they’re moving, Burt and Verona decide it’s time to make a change too. The couple travels the countryside from Phoenix, to Tucson, to Miami, seeking the perfect home to start a family.

The backbone of “Away We Go” is carried by the winning performances from Krasinski and Rudolph. Krasinski has always been an appealing uprising star. However, he has been having trouble making the transition from television to film with movies like “License to Wed” and “Leatherheads.” Here he shines in role that’s perfectly tailored to his talent. The real surprise though is Maya Rudolph who up until now has been making brief cameos in movies. In her first leading performance, Rudolph emerges as a serious actress capable of other comedic and dramatic work. This is a great breakthrough performance that I hope doesn’t fall through the cracks.

Allison Janney delivers an uproarious supporting performance as Lily, Verona’s estranged friend from Phoenix. Janney steals the entire show during her short time on screen, once again proving to be one our most underrated actresses. Also good here is the comedian Jim Gaffigan as Lily’s husband and Maggie Gyllenhaal as a hippy mother who doesn’t believe in using a stroller. This is without a doubt one of the finest acting ensembles of the year.

Sam Mendes who made “American Beauty,” which I regard as a perfect movie and one of my favorite films, directed “Away We Go.” For a while now Mendes has been having difficulty recapturing the same magic of his début film. “Away We Go” isn’t the masterpiece that “American Beauty” was. But as a standalone picture, it’s a sweat little charmer with several laugh out loud moments. Mendes is a monumentally gifted director and I can’t wait for his next film. 

The Blind Side

A home run...oh wait, that's a baseball term ****1/2

I’m just going to start off by saying that “The Blind Side” is a terrific entertainment. It’s truly one of the year’s finest pictures. The film is so powerful with such rich performances that I genuinely hope it achieves serious award consideration. The film is in the tradition of numerous other sports movies where the audience can predict almost every major plot point. I’m sure some might cringe at the predictability at the story. However, it’s characters are so appealing and it’s moral of the importance of family is carried out in such as inspirational manner that I didn’t care. This is a wonderful sports movie that’s about more than just a big game.

This is the true story of Michael Oher, an oversized and uneducated, but by no means stupid, African American boy played with great presence by newcomer Quinton Aaron. Michael, or Big Mike as everybody calls him, is homeless and without any parents. With some help from his friends and a school football coach who sees positional in him, Michael manages to get enrolled in a good Christian school. However, Michael’s test scores are far below standards and is unable to participate in sports.

One night a wealthy Southern bell named Leigh Anne Tuohy, played by Sandra Bullock, spots Michael walking down the street with nothing but a plastic bag and the cloths on his back. Leigh Anne offers Michael a place to stay for the night. Michael comes to live with Leigh Anne and her husband played by Tim McGraw along with their two children played by Lilly Collins and a charming child actor named Jae Head who somewhat reminded me of a young Mickey Rooney. They all help Michael improve his grades just enough to go out for football.

This is Sandra Bullock’s finest performance. I’ve heard many other critics describe this as the Erin Brockovich of her career. However, I’m not entirely sure if Leigh Anne Tuohy and Erin Brochovich have much in common other than that they’re both real, independent women who don’t take shit. Bullock lives this role and creates a unique and endearing heroine. I believe that Leigh Anne is the kind of human being we would all like to have in our lives. Somebody who’s strong, caring, and will stop at nothing to protect the ones they love. Will Bullock, who has been doing strong work for years, finally earn a much-deserved Oscar nomination for her performance in “The Blind Side?” I certainly hope so.

While the film is an inspirational tale of family at heart, “The Blind Side” is also an exhilarating film about football. The film opens with Bullock’s character delivering a gripping monologue about the sport. Whether you are a fan the game of not, Bullock’s words will fully engage you. Michael’s first big game is both exciting and humorous and every bit as entertaining as a real football game. This is a movie about football by people who are truly passionate about the sport.

The film does drag a tad in the final act when an investigator played by Sharon Morris accuses the Tuony family of using Michael for their own agenda. Other than that minor quarrel, “The Blind Side” is a near-perfect movie. The supporting performances add to the film’s success. Every minor role, from Kathy Bates as tutor who helps Michael raise his grades, to Kim Dickens as a science teacher who realizes Michael is not a simpleton, to Adriane Lenox as Michael’s regretful mother, is crucial to the picture. I was with these characters every step of the way and truly cared about Michael, although I knew everything that was going to happen to him. Director John Lee Hancock has taken a classic sports story and fashioned a great film that’s fresh, funny, moving, and exciting for anybody who is a fan of movies.

Brüno

Wait a minute, aren’t you that guy from “Borat?” ****

Sacha Baron Cohen is unquestionably the bravest person working in movies today. There are only a handful of actors on this planet who would go to the Middle East and tell a terrorist leader that Osama Bin Ladden looks like a homeless Santa Clause. It’s really quite amazing that Cohen has now made two movies in which he disgraces numerous individuals and cultures and yet he has not been murdered. I hope that Cohen isn’t assassinated in the near future because then we’d be loosing one unique comedic mind. Like his star making film debut in “Borat,” Cohen continues his streak of hilarious, offensive, and tasteless performances with “Bruno.”

With an Austrian accent, hair highlighted blonde, and a fashion sense more outlandish than Ben Stiller’s character in “Zoolander,” Cohen fashions the homosexual fashionista of Bruno. After creating a scene with a suit made completely out of Velcro at a fashion show, Bruno looses all of his creditability. In a pursuit to reclaim his fame, Bruno travels to America to become a celebrity. Along with his assistant Lutz, played by Gustaf Hammarsten, Bruno punks numerous celebrities from Paula Abdul to Congressman Ron Paul. Originally there was a segment in which Bruno interviews Latoya Jackson. However, the scene was cut from the final print of the movie due to Michael Jackson’s tragic death. But you just know that the lost scene will eventually surface on the Internet and when the film is released on DVD. 

Last year Mike Myers produced a dreadful gross-out comedy by the name of  “The Love Guru.” At least eighty-five percent of the jokes revolved around penises, none of which were in the slightest humorous. For a movie that primarily centered on male genitalia I found it extremely odd that there weren’t actually any visible penises in the movie. “Bruno” is another comedy full of penis related humor. The difference between “The Love Guru” and “Bruno” however is that the genital jokes in “Bruno” are actually funny. “Bruno” is a comedy that isn’t afraid to go all the way. Unlike so many uninspired PG13 comedies, “Bruno” pushes the envelope to the fullest extent and is hilarious in doing so. The film even goes as far as to show a dancing, talking penis, which chants, “Bruno!” That’s not even the most shocking thing in the movie.

Throughout “Bruno” I laughed, I cried, I gasped, I cringed, I gaped in bewilderment, and then I laughed some more. Like Cohen and Director Larry Charles did with “Borat,” “Bruno” is a laugh riot and at the same time oddly manages to create a message about prejudice in the world today. Through Bruno’s outrageous interviews with intolerant southerners and religious groups, the film accurately demonstrates the discrimination of the gay culture in 21st century America. One could easily observe the character of Bruno as a raging stereotype. Really though he’s just another endearing character from Cohen who embraces the gay culture.

While it isn’t quite as fresh as “Borat,” “Bruno” is still an ambitious and even insightful hour and twenty-three minutes of nonstop laughter. The film ranks right up there with “The Hangover” at the top of the hilarity chart. Once again I must give hats off to Cohen for flat out fearlessness. What character will Cohen bring us next? Lets just hope that he doesn’t have another “Love Guru” up his sleeve.

Coraline

Her name isn’t Caroline, it’s CORALINE ****1/2

There are those who tend to avoid animated movies at all cost, under the impression that the genre is intended for children only. If you’re one of those people, I dare you to see “Coraline.” The film is so spine-chilling that it makes “Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride” look like “Curious George.” I guarantee that the movie will leave children of the youngest ages with wet trousers. For everybody else however, “Coraline” is a unique and whimsical fairytale with the same offbeat spirit of the underrated “Monster House.” While kids of an older age will love it, parents will love it too, maybe even more. 

Dakota Fanning provides the voice of Coraline Jones, a bratty yet perfectly likable little girl. Like most kids in these kinds of movies, Coraline is forced to move into a dilapidated, creepy house. Her parents, played by Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman, are too distracted by work to pay any attention to her. Coraline discovers a small door that leads her into a world parallel to her own. There she meets her other mother and other father, who sound and look just like her real parents with exception to their button eyes. 

They bake Coraline her favorite meals, sing her songs, and give her the attention she desperately desires. But of course there wouldn’t be much of a plot if there weren’t some sort of threat to the protagonist. Coraline soon learns that her other parents aren’t as loving as they appear. She risks loosing not only her life but her real parents as well.

The film was written and directed by the great Henry Selick, who made “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “James and the Giant Peach.” Here Selick uses his brilliant method of stop-motion animation to create a lively flight of imagination. The opening credits of this movie alone are breathtaking. The film is a visual treat that exhilarated me all the way through. In it’s own way, “Coraline” is every bit as beautiful to look at as “WALL-E.” This is one of those movies that I personally cannot wait to see in 3D. The experience might be so enchanting that it could very well kill me.

“Coraline” strikes resemblance to a number of other movies. This story of a plucky girl who is swooped into a mystical world and must rescue her parents reminded me of the Oscar-winning “Spirited Away.” The film creates a completely original world of it’s own like “Pan’s Labyrinth” or “Harry Potter.” Like those films, “Coraline” is a fable with a heart above all things. Coraline is a little girl who might not instantly win you over. As the movie progresses however, I became genuinely invested in her story. By the end of the movie, I was routing for her to succeed.

There are a number of other animated films still to come out this year from Pixar’s “Up,” to Disney’s “Princess and the Frog,” to Hayao Miyazaki’s “Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea.” However, I sincerely hope that “Coraline” won’t fall through the cracks. Selick’s latest masterpiece is deserving of an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature. What will Selick do next? Personally I’d like to see him produce a re-imagining of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. Selick’s murky, stop-motion animation approach would be a perfect fit for the story.

Disney's A Christmas Carol

What exactly is a humbug? ***

“Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol” is undoubtedly one of the most beloved holiday stories of all time. And yet, I do not believe there has ever been a truly great screen version of Dickens’ timeless tale. Over the years there have been numerous feature length adaptations, made of television movies, and reimagining’s of the story. Just earlier this year we got “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” with Matthew MaConahay. Although I suppose that wasn’t so much a reimagining of “A Christmas Carol” as it was a mockery of it.

After seeing this story so many times we’re starting to get to the point where another “Christmas Carol” is about as necessary as a fifth “Indiana Jones” movie. The good news about “Disney’s A Christmas Carol” from Director Robert Zemeckis is that for the most part the film is true to the spirit of the original source material. Although the movie must have cost a fortune to produce, it never merely turns Dickens’ tale into a wild spectacle of visual effects. It also doesn’t downplay the most frightening elements of the story, which will undoubtedly scare young children.   

I suppose there’s really no point in discussing the story seeing how everybody has heard it. And if you don’t know the story of “A Christmas Carol” then I guess you’ve just been living in a bubble your entire life. What I will talk about however is the inspired direction Zemeckis chose to take this adaptation. Like in his two previous film outings, “The Polar Express” and “Beowulf,” “A Christmas Carol” is brought to life through the magic of motion capture animation. Zemeckis takes the landscapes of 18th century London and creates a unique world that’s vibrant and exhilarating purely to look at. The characters seem to exist in a universe that’s somewhere between CGI animation and live action. Even if you turned the sound off “A Christmas Carol” would still work purely as a visual experience. 

Starring as Scrooge is none other than the great Jim Carrey. Initially I was worried that Carrey would simply go into overdrive with this role, much like he did with Ron Howard’s live-action adaptation of “The Grinch.” However, Carrey actually takes his role quite seriously here. He fashions a Scrooge that is believable and accurate to Dickens’ depiction of the character. In addition to playing Scrooge, Carrey also takes on the roles of the Ghost of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. Both Zemeckis and Carrey have done a fine job at recreating these three spirits. I especially liked the character design of the Ghost of Christmas Past who has the presence of a ghostly candlestick. This is truly some of the strongest work Carrey has ever done as an actor.

All in all, I enjoyed this “Christmas Carol” revamp a fair deal. However, it is not in the same league of Zemeckis’ wonderful “Polar Express,” which is destined to become a holiday classic. The problem with “Disney’s A Christmas Carol” is that there are one too sequences of Scrooge and the spirits floating over the buildings of London. At first these scenes are more exhilarating than a rollercoaster. After a while however, they become tedious and the audience wishes Zemeckis would get back to the story.

There’s also a needless chase scene involving a miniature Scrooge being pursued by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come and a coach of horses. The sequence somewhat reminded me of the much criticized scene in “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince” in which Death Eaters set the Weasley family’s house on fire. Neither of these two chase scenes were in their original source material and do not add to the effect of their screen adaptations. Why do so many directors feel is it necessary to throw random action sequences into their movies? Are they afraid that kids today will be board without fast chases and violence?

I mentioned already that the movie is far too scary for young audiences. Many parents will look to this film as a way to keep their five-year-olds amused on a winter afternoon. Parents should keep in mind however that the film will more than likely give anybody under the age of ten nightmares. There’s a particularly creepy scene in which the Ghost of Christmas Present evaporates into a skeleton. But of course Dickens’ original novel was never intended for little children. I for one am glad that Zemeckis did not sugar code the dark themes of the story. If you’re looking for a more cheerful version of “A Christmas Carol” for the entire family though, I’d recommend my childhood favorite, “A Muppet Christmas Carol.”

Disney has been putting a lot of promotion into the film’s 3D technology. My thoughts have always been mixed on 3D. On one hand 3D can make a film more engaging like in “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” However, I kind of agree with Roger Ebert that 3D can also be a distraction and a gimmick used to squeeze a couple of extra pennies out of the customer’s pocket. I’ve never walked out of a 2D film thinking to myself, “Boy, I wish that movie had been in 3D.” Before the screening of “A Christmas Carol” I saw previews for “How to Train Your Dragon,” “Toy Story 3,” and “Avatar,” all of which noted they would be playing in 3D. All I could think to myself while watching these previews though was that the movie studios are really shoving this 3D thing down America’s throat.

Zemeckis’ “Polar Express” is perhaps the most extraordinary 3D experience I’ve ever had. Like he did in “Polar Express,” Zemeckis proves with “A Christmas Carol” that in the right hands 3D can be done well. Watching the film, I felt as if I was floating into the movie screen and the snow was dropping on my head. Unlike some 3D films, “A Christmas Carol” is not just a series of arms popping out at the audience. Whether you see the film in 3D or 2D, “Disney’s A Christmas Carol” is simply a lot of fun.

District 9

No alien's land ****

There have been so many movies that depict aliens as bloodthirsty villains like “Independence Day” and Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds.” “District 9” on the other hand is a science fiction fable that finally recognizes aliens as sympathetic characters. Now that I think about it, neither “Independence Day” nor “War of the Worlds” ever attempted to turn their aliens into real characters at all. Essentially they were just creatures with virtually no personalities and only existed to exterminate mankind for no reason. “District 9,” like the best movies of it’s kind, creates otherworldly characters the audience actually cares about and will remember in the years to come.

This documentary-styled sci-fi tale sets itself in Johannesburg where an alien mother ship has been hovering for the past twenty years. On this ship a race of extraterrestrials have been discovered. The aliens, preying mantis-like beings that man labels as “Prawns,” are taken into custody by the government and put into a slum known as District 9. Eventually it is decided by Multi-National United (MNU) to move the Prawns into a new concentration camp.

Wikus Van De Merwe, a good-hearted yet somewhat dim MNU field worker played by Sharlto Copley, is given the duty of charging the Prawns with eviction notices. While searching the home of a Prawn named Christopher, I’m assuming Christopher is his slave name, Wikus stumbles across a vial of black liquid. He accidentally sprays himself with the substance and soon begins to suffer significant side effects. Wikus starts to loose minor body parts such as his fingernails and teeth and develops the hand of a Prawn!

I wasn’t sure if I could truly care about characters as flat-out repulsive as the Prawns. Writer/director Neill Blomkamp manages to do the impossible though by taking these creatures and shaping them into individuals I really empathized with. There’s a genuine sadness to the Prawn creatures that are imprisoned against their will and simply want to return to their home planet.

“District 9” doesn’t merely turn the entire human race into corrupt villains however. Sharlto Copley, who has starred in virtually nothing until now, is especially strong as Wikus. In the beginning we’re not sure if Wikus is going to be one of the good guys. As he is bestowed with tragedy and becomes hunted by his fellow men, Wikus develops into a real character that your heart breaks for. A partnership even arises between Wikus and the Prawn of Christopher as they attempt to retrieve the vial from the government. This friendship is surprisingly stimulating and even meaningful.     

In addition to first-rate storytelling, “District 9” is a spectacle of visual effects as well. In an age where so many movie aliens are drawn with anorexic bodies supporting their massive heads, the Prawns are some of the most unique-looking aliens in quite sometime. Another sight to behold is their alien mother ship, which is designed with such rich attention to detail. It makes the overblown mother ship of “Independence Day” and the clunky tripods of “War of the Worlds” look like hunks of junk.

The key to the success of the movie is the vision of up and coming director Neill Blomkamp, who was discovered by Producer Peter Jackson. Blomkamp has constructed a fascinating and even wise film that is not just pro-humanity but in favor of all living creatures. My only complaint with the film is that it sometimes jumps between it’s fake documentary format to standard storytelling. Sometimes the characters are aware of the cameras and other times they don’t seem to realize the cameras are even there. That minor quarrel aside, “District 9” is an entirely original achievement.

If the film goes onto be a success at the box office I’m sure that they’ll feel entitled to make a sequel that will more than likely be creatively entitled “District 10.” I believe this would be a mistake however. “Descript 9” ends on just the right note although it does not entirely resolve everything. The film leaves us with an open ending which will leave you thinking as you exit the theater. This is one movie I’d like to see the film studio leave alone as a standalone piece of art.

An Education

I Gonna get meself edjumecated ****

Lone Scherfig’s new film, “An Education,” is elevated by a wonderfully written female protagonist brought to life though an extraordinary performance from a charming newcomer. From “The Ugly Truth,” to “Twilight,” to “I Love You Beth Cooper,” it’s not easy to find a movie in this day and age that doesn’t paint young women as controlling, desperate, or slutty. “An Education” however, creates an intelligent, independent young adult who thinks she has the world all figured out. Throughout the course of the movie though, she discovers there are no shortcuts in life and becomes a woman. Like the best recent coming-of-age stories such as “Juno” and “Adventureland,” “An Education” is about a person who all young adults can identify with.

The film sets itself in 1960’s London. In a magical breakthrough role, Carey Mulliagan plays Jenny, a sixteen-year-old who is being pressured by her parents to go to Oxford. Although she earns superlative marks in school, Jenny can’t help but think that there’s something missing from her life. One day an older man named David, played by Peter Sargaard, sweeps her off her feet. I was worried that “An Education” would be another cliché tale of a girl full of potential who throws her life away for some guy. The film offers much more incite to how the real world works than I anticipated however.

Nick Homby’s screenplay features some sharply written sequences. But sometimes the dialog flies over your head so fast that you miss what the characters are saying. And I was kind unsettled by the romance between the teenage Jenny and David, who looks like he’s in his late thirties. The reason that the movie succeeds though is Carey Mulliagan’s performance. Mulliagan arises as a shining new star in this movie. Many have hailed her as the Audrey Hepburn of this generation. Mulligan lives up to this comparison and not just because she’s beautiful, brunette, and thin. She is completely lovable and appealing as this confused individual who finds herself.

Another strong performance comes from Alfred Molina as Jenny’s father. Molina’s character wants his daughter to spend all of her time studying and to never have any fun. At first he seems like the same conservative, controlling parent we’ve seen in a million other movies before. Throughout the course of the film though, Jenny’s father emerges as a character that really does care about her daughter and her own happiness. Molina has been an underrated actor for years. Here he is funny and witty in his finest performance.

There’s also memorable work from Olivia Williams as a teacher who motivates Jenny to stay on the right track and Emma Thompson as her stern headmistress. But the movie really belongs to Mulliagan. This is an actress of substantial talent who is going to go onto give more terrific dramatic and comedic roles. By the end of the movie her character not only receives an education on English literature but an education on life itself.

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Fantastic like a fox ****
 

I'd hate to hail “Fantastic Mr. Fox” as fantastic, seeing how every critic in America is bound to use that word to describe the picture. However, I cannot think of a superior adjective to embrace the film. From beginning to end, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is a triumph of fantastic entertainment. The visual look of the movie is fantastic for sure. What’s equally fantastic regarding the movie though is the first-rate vocal cast, witty dialog, lovable characters, and simple, yet engaging, story. Just as “The Incredibles” proved to be incredible, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is a movie that lives up to its title.

The film is an animated adaptation of the classic children’s novel from the one-of-a-kind mind of Roald Dahl. George Clooney supplies the voice of Mr. Fox, who once made a career out of stealing chickens from local farmers. However, Mr. Fox is persuaded to find a safer line of work when he learns that Mrs. Fox, played by Meryl Streep, is pregnant with their first child. For the next two years, or twelve fox years, Mr. Fox maintains a steady, dull job as a columnist for a newspaper that nobody reads. Longing for the good old days, Mr. Fox decides to come out of retirement for one last job. Along with his sidekick Kylie, a timid possum voiced by Wallace Wolodarsky, Mr. Fox sets out to rob three nasty farmers named Boggis, Bunce, and Bean.    

Providing the film’s funniest performance is Jason Schwartzman as Mr. Fox’s misfit son, Ash. Ash is a little, socially awkward fox that desperately wants to impress his father. When Ash attempts to tag along with his infamous dad on the big heist though, Mr. Fox replies, “No, you’re too little and uncoordinated.” Mr. Fox sees more of himself in his athletic nephew Kristofferson, who is voiced by Eric Anderson, brother of the film’s director, Wes Anderson. Although we’ve seen this kind of story of sibling rivalry before, Wes Anderson’s down to earth screenplay morphs the movie into something utterly unique. This is a surprisingly meaningful tale about the importance of family and finding the hidden talent in your shortcomings.   

As I already mentioned, the look of the film is wondrous. Anderson made the brilliant dissuasion to bring the film to life through motion capture animation. The art direction creates a dazzling world that is like a living toy town. Every shot is a visual treat filled with wonder. The film reminded me of “James and the Giant Peach,” another stop motion animated feature adapted from a Roald Dahl book with the same outlandish charm. Just as Henry Selick did in that film, Wes Anderson realizes the original world Dahl created in the way that a hand drawn or digitally animated film never could.

The true reason that the movie succeeds however is because its heroes are just so likable. We want to see Mr. Fox and his tribe of human-like critters outwit the wicked farmers who threaten their land. George Clooney, who naturally sounds kind of like a fox, is slick and endearing as the movie’s hero. Just as fantastic as Clooney is Meryl Streep as his disapproving, but dedicated, wife. Their relationship somewhat reminded me of the marriage between Mr. and Mrs. Incredible. Stealing the show are Jason Schwartzman as the sarcastic Ash and Eric Anderson as Kristofferson, who finds peace in the chaos that surrounds him through meditation.

In addition to the vocal talents I mentioned above, the movie is carried by an all-star supporting cast which includes Bill Murray as a lawyer Badger, Owen Wilson as the coach of the ludicrous game called Whack Bat, and Willem Dafoe as a villains rat, which I suppose isn’t much of a stretch for him. Rather than having the cast perform in a vocal booth, Anderson made the intriguing decision to bring his actors to a real life farm where they recorded all the voices. The actors are all perfectly cast here, as apposed to some animated films where the filmmakers miscast random celebrities just so they can plaster their names on the posters. Did anybody out there really believe Ben Stiller as a lion or Chris Rock as a zebra in “Madagascar?”

In a season polluted with so many brain-dead movies being targeted at families like “Old Dogs” and “Planet 51,” finally we get a sophisticated family film. Some might consider a family movie being sophisticated to be a negative thing. Don’t assume that the film isn’t any fun just because it’s sophisticated though. Like “Up,” “Where the Wild Things Are,” and “Coraline,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is a family movie that’s entertaining for those of all ages. The question is whether or not the film will be more fun for kids or adults. Personally, I think maybe adults.

Funny People

Dying is easy, comedy is hard **1/2

The funniest scene in “Funny People” involves Adam Sandler’s character, a comedic actor named George Simmons, staring in a movie called “Re-Do.” The movie within this movie stars George Simmons as a middle-aged businessman who is transformed into a baby by a wizard. Justin Long plays George’s character’s little brother who must take care of his now infant sibling. “You’re the one that asked the wizard to make you young again,” Long’s character argues. “I didn’t mean this young,” George Simmons responds. This scene alone in funnier than anything in “Little Man.”  Unfortunately, that clip isn’t even shown in its entirety in “Funny People.” To see the full clip you’ll have to check out George Simmons’ fake website. On this site there are numerous hilarious phony George Simmons movies such as “My Best Friend is a Robot,” “Merman,” and “Astro-Not.”

“Funny People” is the third film by writer/director Judd Apatow, the same man who brought us “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up.” Along with those comedic masterworks, Apatow has produced several other of the best comedies of the past decade including “Superbad,” “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “Pineapple Express,” and “Anchorman.” If there’s a man out there who knows how to blend comedy and heart, it’s Apatow. There are some comedies that try so hard to be one great laugh after another that I wish they would have more depth. “Funny People” however, is a comedy with a lot of depth that I wish had more laughs.

Adam Sandler, who is also the former roommate of Director Apatow, plays the movie’s lead of George Simmons. Like Sandler, George is a highly successful comedic movie star even though his movies are probably not that good. One day George receives the news from his doctor that he’s dying. Unmarried and lacking any close family or friends, George decides to keep this news to himself. Finally George brings himself to confide in Ira, a rookie standup comic played by Seth Rogan.

Although Sandler has done some pretty stupid films throughout his career such as “Little Nicky” and “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry,” I’ve always found him to be an appealing actor. In “Funny People” Sandler delivers his strongest performance since his work in the criminally overlooked “Punch-Drunk Love.” Sandler is genuine and true as a man who realizes through his illness just how empty and shallow his life has been. There’s a certain tragedy to the George Simmons character who appears nothing but funny on screen but inside is calling out in agony, much like many real comedic actors. The friendship that blossoms between George and Ira is especially meaningful.

The problem with “Funny People” is that it’s just over two and half hours long when there’s really only one hours worth of really funny material. I laughed at a lot of the picture. A majority of the running dialog and standup bits aren’t nearly as funny as Apatow thinks they are though. This is probably the most serious film outing of Apatow’s career. However that is not necessarily a good thing. I spent much of the film waiting to erupt with laughter and I never really did. I appreciate that Apatow is trying to broaden his funny bone. But for a movie about funny people, by funny people, performed by funny people, and called “Funny People,” the film isn’t really that funny.  

The movie especially drags in it’s second half when George and Ira take a road trip to visit George’s X-fiancé, Laura. The always-wonderful Leslie Mann, Apatatow’s real-life wife, plays Laura and their real-life daughters, Iris and Maude Apatow, play Laura’s daughters. If they had cut about sixty minutes from the film, “Funny People” might have been a near-great comedy. In the end however, the meandering scenes involving Geroge, Laura, and Laura’s husband played by Eric Bana add up to a mixed comedy. Apatow tries to pack so much material into just one movie and it all never quite comes together.

There are good things in “Funny People.” The performances are all strong and there are some very funny moments, most of which are supplied by Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman as Rogan’s roommates. For every scene that works in the movie though, there is an unnecessary or meandering scene. As much as I hate to decline anything Apatow takes part in, I reluctantly cannot quite give “Funny People” an O.K.

Apatow is one of our strongest writers and directors. He might have actually received an Oscar nomination for “Knocked Up” had it not had the misfortune of being released the same year as “Juno.” Given the standards that Apatow has set for himself though, “Funny People” is ultimately a disappointment. The film is still better than most comedies today that don’t even try to be good. Here Apatow indeed tries. But maybe he tries a little too hard.

G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra

Remember kids, this movie blows. And knowing is half the battle. *1/2


G.I. Joe Rise of the Cobra” is a 13-year-old boy’s fantasy. The movie is full of explosions, planes, trucks, ninjas, gadgets, big ass guns, and a foxy lady who wears black leather at all times. I’m sure any boy in middle school will enjoy this picture immensely. I on the other hand, found it to be as boring as hell. As much as I love gadgets, guns, and women in leather, none of those elements can save this movie. The special effects are cheesy, the dialog is laughable, and even the action sequences are uninspired. I will say this about “G.I. Joe” though. It’s only the second worst movie based on a line of Hasbro toys to be released this year *COUGH* “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.”

The Joes are comprised of a group of characters that we’ve seen in a million others movies like this before. Marlon Wayans plays the teams wisecracking, womanizing black guy, Ripcord. Wayans character spends a majority of the movie trying to woo a beautiful and intelligent, yet tough, fellow Joe named Scarlet, played by Rachel Nichols. But Scarlet is reluctant to ever fall in love, especially with somebody as dopy and shallow as Ripcord. There’s also a commando named Snake Eyes, who never speaks or reveals his face. The movie’s hero is Channing Tatum as the incredibly bland Duke. They all band together to stop a madman from using a bunch of warheads capable of destroying an entire city or some stupid shit.

Leading the Joes is General Hawk, played by Dennis Quaid. I think Quaid is a fine actor. Here however, he gives the performance of a Saturday Night Live sketch quality. He seems somewhat embarrassed to be in the movie, wondering when he is going to get his paycheck. There’s a scene where Quaid tells his troops, “If any of you decide that you have to leave now I will certainly not hold it against you.” But of course not a single Joe leaves. We’ve seen this scene numerous times before. Just for once though I would like a soldier to respond, “Fuck this. I’m getting the hell out of here. I’m just trying to get money to pay for college.” That’s the kind of sense of humor this movie could have used. 

I’m sure that if you played with G.I. Joes or watched the cartoon as a kid, you’ll get a kick out of seeing Duke and General Hawk in a feature length, live action movie. But the film ultimately feels like a two-hour toy commercial. If you look closely you can actually see the price tags on all the tanks and jeeps. Like Disney’s “G-Force,” this is a picture where the studio could care less whether the movie is good or is a hit at the box office. One way or another they are going to make millions off of action figure sales.

The one performance that I did actually enjoy was from Sienna Miller as Duke’s ex-fiancé turned villain, the Baroness. Although I think her black leather ensemble might have clouded my judgment a little. And Joseph Gordon-Levitt does have some fun with his performance as an evil doctor who sounds like a Keanu Reeves with lung cancer. I look forward to seeing what both Miller and Gordon-Levitt will do next. Unfortunately, I’m sure one of their future project will be “G.I. Joe: The Cobra Strikes Back.”

I suppose that a sequel is inevitable. All I can recommend to the filmmakers is to not take the next movie so seriously. Maybe acknowledge how preposterous the premise is and have some fun with the concept. You guys have the potential to make a fun and exciting mindless action picture. Just don’t play the movie with a poker face.

G.I. JOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOE!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Sorry, but I had to do that.

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past

Matthew McConaughey is a real Charles DICKens *

“Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” is a really stupid movie. The premise is stupid, the writing is stupid, the jokes are stupid, the attempts at sentimentalism are stupid, the characters are all stupid, the actors all look stupid playing these stupid characters, and I felt stupid watching it. Seriously, as I watched this movie I could feel my brain cells dying. In addition, the movie is also unfunny, unromantic, and did I mention stupid?

Matthew McConaughey plays Connor Mead, a conceited and obnoxious womanizer who is reluctant to ever settle down or grow up. In other words, McConaughey plays the same character he’s played in almost every movie he has ever starred in. All the ladies drool over Connor as if they were horny high school girls with a boner for Edward Cullen. Every lady except his childhood sweetheart, Jenny, played by Jennifer Garner that is. Jenny’s the one that Connor let get away. Connor may be able to win his love back though if he changes his douchebag ways. 

On the night before his kid brother’s wedding, Connor is visited by the ghost of his Uncle Wayne, played by who else but the great Michael Douglas. Douglas was smart enough to stay away from “Basic Instinct 2.” For some reason though he thought this project was worthy of his talent. Or maybe he just needed to make a couple of quick extra bucks. Actually I suppose that’s the only reason why any of the actors took part in this movie. Douglas’s Uncle Wayne informs Connor that he mustn’t waste his life chasing women as he did and will be visited by three ghosts to help him become a better man. If there ever was a slipshod rip-off of “A Christmas Carol” this is it.

Connor is indeed visited by three ghosts throughout the night. There’s the Ghost of Girlfriends Past aka Connor’s irritating first sex partner, the Ghost of Girlfriends Present aka Connor’s disapproving assistant, and the Ghost of Girlfriends Future aka a knockout blonde who never speaks. “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” shares resemblance to a number of other movies about jerks that are changed for the better due to supernatural occurrences. Some examples include “Bruce Almighty,” “Click,” and “Groundhog Day.” The difference between “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” and those films is that Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, and Bill Murray actually changed.  

In “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” Matthew McConaughey’s character never really undergoes any major character development. Although he claims to have learned his lesson by the end of the movie, he still feels like the same full of himself jackass.

And in the mists of all of the paranormal incidents taking place, the movie still manages to find time to incorporate a lazy slapstick scene involving McConaughey and a wedding cake. McConaughey accidentally knocks out one of the pillars supporting the cake. He then rushes over and attempts to hold up the cake. You’d think McConaughey would call out for help. Instead, he reaches for a bottle with his other hand in order to hold up the cake. In doing so, the cake looses balance and is destroyed. I hope telling you how that scene plays out didn’t ruin the movie for you.    

The really surprising thing about the movie though is that it was directed by Mark Waters who has made one good film after another. It’s hard to believe that the man who gave “Freaky Friday” and “Mean Girls” would reduce himself to this drivel. Waters isn’t the only wasted talent in “Ghosts of Girlfriends” however. Jennifer Garner was simply wonderful a couple of years ago as the adopting mother in “Juno.” If she wanted to, she could certainly carry a romantic comedy. Here however, she’s really not required to do much but stand around for McConaughey to lust after. As for McConaughey, allow me to quote the words of Stewie Griffin from “Family Guy.” “You are just awful. You are one of the worst actors in the history of film. And I think that you need to go away.” But maybe that statement is a little too harsh. I mean, there has to be somebody out there who’s a worse actor than McConaughey…right? 

The Hangover

Hang over me ****1/2

There’s nothing more depressing than a comedy without laughs. If you saw “What Happens in Vegas,” “Disaster Movie,” or “The Love Guru” last year, you know what it feels like to sit in a theater, stoned face, waiting for the absent laughs. “The Hangover” however, is a movie that succeeds where so many other comedies fail. Here’s a movie that’s really, really, really funny. You know that I’m serious when I incorporate multiple really’s into one sentence.

The movie tells the story of four thirty-something-year-old buds. Bradley Cooper plays Phil, a schoolteacher desperately wanting a break from his wife and young son. Ed Helms of “The Office” plays Stu, a dentist who’s relinquished his balls to his bitchy girlfriend. Zach Galifianakis has the John Belushi role as Alan, a fat and dim, yet lovable, single guy. Final there’s Justin Bartha as Doug, who’s only days away from marrying the woman he loves. The guys decide to give Doug one last night of freedom by taking a trip to Vegas. After a drunken night on the town, Phil, Stu, and Alan, wakeup to find their hotel room in ruins, a tiger in the bathroom, a baby in the closet, and Stu missing a tooth. Worst of all Doug has disappeared with only days until the wedding.

Much of success of “The Hangover” is due to the chemistry between its appealing leads. Here’s a group of lovable guys who genuinely like each other. For that reason, the audience genuinely likes them. In previous movies such as “Wedding Crashers,” Bradley Cooper has been typically typecast as the unlikable, jerky boyfriend. In “The Hangover” Cooper plays a jerk yet again. This time around however, Cooper portrays a jerk that the audience can truly rout for. Cooper is hilarious here as a man who seems rough on the exterior but deep down cares about his friends and family.

Ed Helms, who is best known for his character of Andy Bernard, is great as always. The real surprise however, is Zach Galifianakis as Alan. For the past couple of years, Galifianakis has been popping up in small roles in movies and on television. In his first lead performance he steals the whole show with one laugh-out loud line after another. I’m sure for the next year or so, people will refer to Galifianakis as The fat guy from “The Hangover.” In due time though, I’m sure that Galifianakis will create a name for himself with more terrific comedic performances.

The supporting cast is wonderful as well. Rachael Harris strikes just the right note as Stu’s controlling girlfriend, Melissa. Also good is Heather Graham as a stripper who wins over Stu’s affection. Perhaps best of all is character actor, Ken Jeong, as an Asian gangster who targets the four friends.

Todd Phillips directed “The Hangover.” Previously Phillips has brought us other hard-R comedies such as “Road Trip,” a film I wasn’t crazy about, and “Old School,” which I flat out loved. A few years ago he collaborated with Sacha Baron Cohen and several others on the Oscar-nominated screenplay for “Borat.” With “The Hangover,” Phillips is continuing to prove that he is a highly gifted comedic director. While he’s not quite up there with a filmmaker like Judd Apatow, Phillips is certainly on his to achieving that rank.

This story somewhat reminded me of “Dude Where’s my Car?,” which has always been a guilty for me. While it’s probably not saying much, “The Hangover” is a considerably better movie than “Dude Where’s my Car?” or a buddy movie such as “Wild Hogs” for that matter. The film is smart, with a winning cast and more laughs than any other movie this year so far. It’s movies like this that remind us that although comedies often go unrecognized, there isn’t a more difficult genre to pull off.

 

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

There Will be Blood ****

Sometimes I wonder whether or not I am completely out of touch with American audiences. Three weeks ago I gave “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” a rating of one and a half stars. Over that three-week period, the “Transformers” sequel grossed three hundred and forty million dollars at the box office. The film is well on it’s way to becoming one of the ten highest grossing movies of all time. I still can’t understand what so many audiences saw in the picture. Then again, I suppose I’m not the only critic baffled by the film’s success. On the website Rotten Tomatoes, the film only garnered a rating of twenty percent positive. That’s 173 out of 215 film critics who are out of touch with American audiences.  

But enough about “Transformers.” Lets move on to a much superior summer movie with the potential to gross over three hundred million dollars. “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince” is an emotional, visually stunning flight of imagination from director David Yates with first-rate performances and a well-crafted screenplay. While not quite up there with the recent “Star Trek” prequel, this is still easily one of the finest entertainments of the summer. 

In the sixth installment of the series, the sixteen-year-old Harry Potter, once again played by the now nineteen-year-old Daniel Radcliff, returns for another year at Hogwarts. Everybody is proclaiming the young wizard as the chosen one who will vanquish Lord Voldemort. This time around the mysterious potions teacher Severus Snape, played by the always-interesting Alan Rickman, is upgraded to the defense against the dark arts teacher. The new potions teacher is Horace Slughorn, well played by Jim Broadbent. In Slughorn’s class, Harry comes across an old potions book that was once owned by the anonymous Half Blood Prince. Meanwhile there’s a romance brewing between Harry’s best friends Hermione Granger, played by Emma Watson, and Ron Weasley, played by Rupert Grint.

When the first Harry Potter movie was announced there wasn’t a more talked about casting call since the film adaptation of “Gone With the Wind.” It’s needless to say that Daniel Radcliff, Rupert Grint, and especially Emma Watson have all developed into talented young actors. The real surprise in “The Half Blood Prince” however, is Tom Felton as Harry’s schoolyard rival, Draco Malfoy, who may be secretly working for the dark lord. Felton’s character has been somewhat cast away into the background in the previous three movies. Here he gives a complex performance, as a character that is far from being one of the good guys but deep down knows what he’s doing is wrong.

It’s taken me a while to accept Michael Gambon as Albus Dumbledore, who was wonderfully portrayed by the late Richard Harris in the first two movies. Here Gambon settles nicely into the role of Harry’s father figure. The film also does a good job at illustrating a pleasant, little romance between Harry and Ron’s younger, suddenly hot sister Ginny, played by Bonnie Write. However, I’m still not entirely sure what the intelligent and lovely Hermione sees in the chubby, ginger-haired Ron. But I suppose you could ask the same thing about Homer and Marge Simpson. 

I’ll admit that I’m a bit of a closeted fan of the Harry Potter books. Some fans, along with myself, may be a tad disappointed by some of the material that was excluded from the film. I would have liked to have seen a little more of Lord Voldemort’s back-story. As a stand-alone picture however, I believe that fans will highly appreciate that the movie is true to the spirit of the original book. I will say that if you walk into “Half Blood Prince” without reading any of the books or seeing any of the previous movies though, you’ll be more confused than trying to start watching “Lost” during midseason.

If had to rank all six of these Harry Potter movies, I would place “The Half Blood Prince” as my fifth favorite, just behind "Prisoner of Azkaban" and just above the previous film, “Order of the Phoenix,” which I also admired a great deal. “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince” isn’t as magically whimsical as “Sorcerer’s Stone” or “Chamber of Secrets” or intensely exciting as “Prisoner of Azkaban” or “Goblet of Fire.” Nevertheless this is a more than worthy addition to what is becoming one of the best film franchises of the past ten years. Most film series would seem dead in the water after this many sequels, the “Rocky” and “Jurassic Park” movies to name a few. “Harry Potter” however, is one franchise that continues to build it’s story with every passing movie. This is a series with memorable characters and a story worth investing in. That’s more than I can say about another movie currently playing at your local theater.

Note: The film is rated PG, which is a tad odd seeing how it’s even creepier than the previous two movies that were rated PG13. Then again, I suppose most kids have read all seven of the books by age ten. It’s really up to the parents to decide whether or not the kids can handle the powerful subject matter.

 

He's Just Not That Into You

Romantic comedies for dummies **

I can imagine a bushel of critics declining the film “He’s Just Not That Into You” by stating, “I’m Just Not That Into This Movie.” At the risk of battering you over the head with an overused pun though, I’m merely going to say that I didn’t much care for the movie. I suppose I’m not the right person to be critiquing this picture. This is the kind of film I might have enjoyed if I was a single woman, a married woman, or was equipped with a vagina of sorts. Unfortunately I’m not so I didn’t.

The film strings together a series of relationship tales that occasionally intertwine. At the center of the movie is Ginnifer Goodwin as Gigi, a hopeless romantic who spends day-by-day attempting to decipher the mixed messages left by men. Gigi has a thing for a restaurant manager played by Justin Long, who is best friends with a real-estate agent played by Kevin Connolly, who is pursuing a woman played by Scarlet Johansson, who is infatuated with a man played by Bradley Cooper, who is married to a woman played by Jennifer Connelly, who works with a woman played by Jennifer Aniston, who is in a long term relationship with a man played by Ben Affleck. Did I forget anybody? Oh yeah! The film also stares Drew Barrymore, who isn’t given nearly enough screen time in this congested romantic comedy.

This is one of those movies that’s bound to make a lot of money due to the presence of a likable and talented cast. There isn’t a bad performance in this picture. The problem is that most of the actors are unable to create memorable characters with such a dismal script. Take Ginnifer Goodwin for example. Goodwin is an underrated actress who gets a lot of work on television. Film-wise she previously stared as Johnny Cash’s first wife in “Walk the Line.” Here she does what she can with such a needy, clinging, and oblivious character. However, the film ultimately made me want to see her in a better movie.

“He’s Just Not That Into You” feels like a sitcom stretched to two hours and ten minutes. For a romantic comedy there aren’t many uncontrived romantic moments or laughs for that matter. The film doesn’t really offer any new incite on relationships that “Sex and the City” or “Hitch” didn’t already. Quite frankly, I don’t see why anybody should pay ten dollars to see a movie that reads like a relationship advice novel. 

Here’s a movie with a first-rate cast, some nicely written scenes, and a few dare I say bitterly sweat moments. However the final product never really comes together. “He’s Just Not That Into You” wants to be “Love Actually.” But it simply doesn’t have the wit or originality of that film. It’s not a terrible movie. It’s just a forgettable one.

The Hurt Locker

A fist full of reality and hurt *****

A great, fictionalized film with the Iraq war as a key factor has been waiting to be made for years. “The Hurt Locker” is that movie. Sure there have been plenty of films that have revolved around the war on terror. “The Hurt Locker” is the first of these movies to get it absolutely right though. This is a bold, haunting, and all around intense glimpse into the lives of an American Army Bomb Squad. Here is a movie that is a gripping experience from beginning to end. Beautifully shot, written with depth, with superlative performances from an outstanding acting ensemble. There hasn’t been a finer film illustrating the horrors of war in quite some time.

Set in the year 2004, “The Hurt Locker” revolves around three soldiers who have been stationed in Bagdad to defuse bombs. Anthony Mackie heads the squad as Sergeant JT Sanborn, a by the books military leader. Brian Geraghty plays Sanborn’s longtime ally, Specialist Own Eldridge. At the center of the movie is Jeremy Renner as Staff Sergeant William James, a conceited and wiseass explosives specialist. The movie follows the three men’s unbelievable journey of thirty-nine days in hell. 

Jeremy Renner may not be a household name, having only stared in small supporting roles in movies such as “28 Days Later,” “S.W.A.T.,” and “North Country.” Here Renner demonstrates the same on screen presence of a young Sean Penn or Tom Cruise as William James. In this breakthrough performance, Renner emerges as an actor of substantial talent with a long career ahead. Renner is emotional, complex, and times even humorous as this individual who feels more at home disabling bombs than back on free soil with his wife and infant son. While William James doesn’t always say exactly what’s on his mind, we can read the character’s emotions through Renner’s performance. This is a star-making turn for Renner. Although he may not receive an Oscar nomination for Best Actor come next February, Renner is certainly worthy of the honor.

The film was directed by Kathryn Bigelow, no relation to Mike Bigelow who brought us “Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo.” This is a stunning turn for Bigelow as well. Bigelow incorporates heart-pounding tension within every scene of the movie. She even manages to make the dullest circumstances, such as sitting around and waiting to see if the enemy will retaliate, to be stimulating. This is the kind of directorial outing that I would expect from a filmmaker such as Paul Greengrass. Bigelow may very well follow the Sofia Coppola rout and become the second American female to be nominated for a directing Oscar.

“The Hurt Locker” doesn’t preach a political message to the audience nor does it try to manipulate the audience with cheap melodrama. Rather, the movie is a complex character study about realistic, relatable people. The story is never clear-cut or simple because the subject matter is never simple. No matter what your personal views on the Iraq War or war in general might be, “The Hurt Locker” demonstrates a statement that we can all agree on: “War is a drug,” as quoted at the beginning of the film.

This is also the first time that a war movie has actually left me desiring a sequel. Ten years from now, I’d like to see a follow-up to “The Hurt Locker,” depicting what toll the Iraq War has taken on William James’ life. The profound final shot of the movie will leave you asking yourself, “What will become of this man?” This is truly one of the most fascinating motion pictures of the year.  

I Love You, Beth Cooper

I don't love you, Beth Cooper. However, I do love the idea of you. *

“I Love You, Beth Cooper” is one of the most awkward movies I have ever witnessed. From the opening scene where the nerdy Denis Cooverman proclaims his love to Beth Cooper to the end, “I Love You, Beth Cooper” made me uncomfortable it’s entire running time of 102 minutes. Why is the movie so uncomfortable? The jokes aren’t funny for one thing and there’s nothing more awkward than a comedy without laughs. Imagine being at a dinner party where a drunken guest won’t stop telling terribly unfunny stories. In addition, there is not a single believable or relatable character in the picture. This isn’t so much a movie as it a string of awkward situations featuring awkward people who utter awkward dialog.

Newcomer Paul Rust plays Denis who has been in love with Beth Cooper, the beautiful head cheerleader played by Hayden Panettiere, since seventh grade. Although he has been sitting behind Beth for the past six years, Denis has never worked up the courage to even talk to her. However, he does have a life-sized poster of the cheerleader taped over his bed. Well that’s not creepy in the slightest.

After declaring his love during his valedictorian speech, Denis is swept away on a life changing night with Beth. The two are joined by Beth’s two girlfriends, played by Lauren London and Lauren Storm, and Denis’s sexually confused best friend Rich, played by Jack Carpenter. Along the way they vandalize property, drink and drive, have encounters with wild animals, and are hunted by Beth’s cocaine sniffing, revenge seeking boyfriend, played by Shawn Roberts, who continually whales on Denis throughout the course of this film. The movie feels like a cartoon as Denis is hit by a car, falls off his roof into a thorn bush, gets punched in the face numerous times, and has a microwave thrown at him. This material works in a cartoon because it’s not real. Here however, the audience just feels depressed and pity for this longsuffering character.

I think that Hayden Pannettiere is a charming young actress. She’s best know for her work on the once popular show “Heroes,” where she plays yet another cheerleader. However, Pannettiere has selected a dismal and forgettable project to pilot her film career. A couple years ago I wrote an essay on how some younger actresses are so desperate to make the leap from television to motion pictures that they settle for whatever script gets dropped in their lap first. Pannettiere certainly has the potential to carry a movie. But here she’s given such a 2-dimensional character to work with. The movie attempts to make Beth Cooper sympathetic by incorporating a side story of how her brother died. That subplot just seems forced and manipulative though.  

The same can be said about Paul Rust, who demonstrates essence of talent here. The problem is that the movie wants the audience to like his character of Denis when really he kind of gets on your nerves. We are expected to look past Denis’s nerdy exterior to find a kind, likable person on the inside. Instead we find a winy, unbearably inept individual who’s so pathetic it’s hard to rout for him. Denis is not just a lovable nerd with a school crush. He is a seriously disturbed stalker with an unhealthy obsession.

What makes the movie even more disappointing is that it was directed my Chris Columbus. Columbus is one of the most underrated filmmakers working today. He directed the first two “Harry Potter” movies, the first two “Home Alone” movies, and wrote the screenplays for “Gremlins” and “The Goonies.” How somebody with a track record as impressive as Columbus’s ended up directing such a humorless and unimaginative film like “I Love You, Beth Cooper” is beyond me.

This is a film that so desperately tries to be in the spirit of one of the John Hughes high school comedies. However, it does not have the depth, insight, or humor of “The Breakfast Club,” “16 Candles,” “Weird Science,” or “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” In an age of future coming of age classics like “Juno,” “Adventureland,” “Superbad,” and even “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” “I Love You Beth Cooper” does not even come close to making the cut. The best part of the entire movie is the ending credits, featuring pictures of the film’s cast and crew from their senior years of school. I got a good kick out of seeing Chris Columbus as a teenage boy with thick glasses in a tuxedo. Aside from that brief montage of photos, the experience of this movie is more uncomfortable and less fun than having the sex talk with your parents.

I Love You, Man

No seriously, I'm actually in love with you...so um...where do we go from here? ***1/2

We get so many movies that explore opposite sex relationships that it’s about bloody time that we got a movie revolving around the friendship of two dudes. “I Love You, Man” is a bromantic comedy in the purest sense. The film is often funny, sometimes truthful, and ultimately carried by two all around likable leads. In terms of laughs, the film isn’t quite up there with a buddy picture such as “Wedding Crashers.” However, it runs circles around plain sitcom material stretched to and hour and thirty minutes like “You, me, and Dupree.”

The always endearing and flat out hilarious Paul Rudd plays Peter Klaven. Peter has just asked Zooey, his girlfriend of eight months played by Rashida Jones, to marry him. These two are clearly made for each other, which is why Zooey instantly accepts Peter’s proposal. As strong as their relationship is, Zooey is uncomfortable with the fact that Peter does not have any male friends. She encourages Peter to get out there and do some serious bro bonding. After a series of failed friend dates, Peter eventually finds a male companion in Sydney Fife, a swinging bachelor played by Jason Segel.

Paul Rudd and Jason Segel have worked together before in Judd Apatow productions such as “Knocked Up” and the underrated “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” which Segel also wrote. Judd Apatow did not produce “I Love You, Man” although this is the kind of movie you’d expect to be right up his alley. Like a Judd Apatow production, “I Love You, Man” succeeds with numerous laugh-out-loud moments and a heart. As a pair, Rudd and Segel create one of the most entertaining onscreen bromances of the year. These men are unquestionable two of the funniest individuals working in movies today. They both create lovable characters that enjoy hanging out with one another and quite frankly I wouldn’t mind hanging out with.

In addition to the two stars, “I Love You, Man” is comprised of a band of memorable supporting players. Andy Samberg is hilarious as Peter’s homosexual brother without turning his character into a raging gay stereotype. Also good here is Jamie Presley of “My Name is Earl” as Zooey’s best friend, Denise, and Jon Favreau as Denise’s jerky husband. The names keep coming with great minor roles from J.K. Simmons and Jane Curtin as Peter’s parents and Thomas Lennon as man who kisses Peter under the impression that he wants to be more than just friends.

And in the mist of everything, the film even manages to work in a sweat romance between Paul Rudd and Rashida Jones. Jones previously starred on “The Office” as John Krasinski’s girlfriend for a season. Currently she can be seen on “Park and Recreation” with Amy Poehler. Here, Jones is wonderful as an independent woman who doesn’t cling to her man but still loves him sincerely and wants to see him happy.  This is another step forward for this lovely and above all gifted up and coming comedic actress. Although Jones has winning chemistry with Rudd, the real love story of “I Love You, Man” is the endearing friendship between Paul Rudd and Jason Segel.

The film was directed by John Hamburg whose previous credits include “Meet the Parents,” “Meet the Fockers,” “Along Came Polly, “Zoolander,” and virtually anything that stars Ben Stiller. Those films were all funny and so is “I Love You, Man.” The film may not be as funny as some of the best comedies of recent years. Nevertheless, “I Love You, Man” is solid entertainment and a perfect date movie for opposite sex couples and same sex best buds alike. 

Inglourious Basterds

Brad Pitt is the Shit *****

“Inglourious Basterds” is, in the simplest words, one hell of a moving going experience. In a year of so many dead in the water movies, this is a picture that truly lives and breaths. Watching this movie, I felt as if Director Quentin Tarantino had personally injected a needle of steroids into the projector. Tarantino’s latest stroke of genius is as enthralling, absorbing, provocative, and audacious as a movie can get. It’s motion pictures like this that reminds me how great a movie can be and why I love the cinema.

This fictionalized, I cannot stress the fictional, World War II epic follows the journey of a notorious Jewish-American platoon hailed as “The Basterds.” Lt. Aldo Raine, hilariously and boldly played by Brad Pitt, leads the Basterds in a crusade where they will be doing one thang and one thang only, killin’ Nazis. The Basterds are made up of an A-list cast. The most interesting of the bunch is Eli Roth as Sqt. Donny Donowitz AKA “The Bear Jew.” Roth is a visually talented director who for some reason chooses to produce mere trash like the “Hostel” films and “Cabin Fever.” As an actor however, Roth has terrific screen presence as a soldier who beats Nazis to death with a bat.

Not since Amon Goeth in “Schindler’s List” has there been a more chilling or pure evil film Nazi than Christopher Waltz’s Col. Hans Landa. Waltz won the award for Best Actor at the Cannes film festival this year and he may very well go onto win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor as well. In the opening scene, the menacing Hans Landa intrudes on the property of a dairy farmer who may be harboring Jews. Landa is horrifying in this scene, comparing Jewish people to rats and eventually persuading the diary farmer to surrender the Jews he has been protecting. This scene is an intense mixture of rich Tarino dialog and excellent acting.

Another award worthy performance comes from Mélanie Laurent as Shosanna Dreyfus, the only survivor of a Jewish family that was massacred by Landa. Shosanna runs a movie theater where she plans to exact her revenge on the Nazi party. Mélanie Laurent is emotionally charged and luminous here as the most revenge driven woman since Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill.” How Shosanna will get her revenge is a question I will not answer though. It will be a true shame if Laurent is not recognized by Academy for her breathtaking work here.

You never know what any of these characters are going to do. Even when you think you have them completely figured out, they surprise you. There is a notably great scene in which Landa and Shosanna are reunited in a restaurant. Shosanna knows that this is the man who killed her family and he knows that she is the Jew who got away from him. I sat in the theater at the edge of my seat, anticipating how this provocative scene would play out. The end result of the sequence is mind-blowing.

There are great performances all around from Diane Kruger as an actress who helps the Basterds bring down Hitler to Til Schweiger as a firm Basterd who has become famous for brutally assassinating Nazis. Even an unrecognizable Mike Myers has a memorable walk-on role, slowly recovering from his Razzie-winning performance in “The Love Guru.”

At the core of the movie is Quentin Tarantino. His love for film is witnessed in every scene of this picture. Like his Oscar-winning “Pulp Fiction,” the “Kill Bill” films, and the underrated “Death Proof,” “Inglorious Basterds” is one of those movies that is so ingenious that you need to watch it multiple times to fully comprehend it. With a funny and stimulating screenplay unlike any other and brilliant direction, Tarantino has fashioned his epic of filmmaking.

It's Complicated

A movie about old people for old people **1/2

“It’s Complicated” is, in the purest sense, a crowd-pleaser. This is a pleasant little feel good movie that’s likely to win over many. The audience I saw the picture with laughed at a great deal of the picture and seemed to exit the theater with high spirits. So it kind of pains me to admit that I myself did not much care for the movie. I’m sure a lot people are going to love this film and claim I’m a soulless monster for not enjoying it as well. I certainly felt like a beast among humans while watching the picture.

Meryl Streep plays Jane, an aging, accomplished woman who owns a restaurant. Alec Baldwin plays Jake, Jane’s ex-husband who left her about eight years ago for a young, sexy little thing named Agness, played by Lake Bell. At their son’s graduation Jane and Jake both get drunk and find themselves back in bed together. Jake is all for leaving his new wife and getting back together with his old wife. Jane however is reluctant to go down that road again. She finds herself smitten with a shy architect named Adam, played by Steve Martin. 

I think that Streep is absolutely wonderful in this picture. She is terrific as a conflicted woman torn between two men. The real scene-stealer though is Alec Baldwin as Jake. Baldwin was born to play this cocky, conceited womanizer who does really respect his ex-wife and even his current wife. It’s always fun to see Baldwin and Martin, who are archrivals in real life for the most times hosting “Saturday Night Live,” together on screen. In a year of romantic comedies about some completely unlikable individuals, it’s nice to see a movie about three good people who all deserve to be happy.

There’s also some nice work from John Krasinski as Jane and Jake’s daughter’s fiancé, who unwillingly finds out about his future parents-in-law’s affair. Lake Bell’s Agness however, is never really developed at all. Her character only seems to exist to provide a barrier between Jane and Jake. There’s a lot that the filmmakers could have done with her character. But she just comes off as one-dimensional and kind of sad. Streep, Baldwin, Martin, and Krasinski are so good here though, that you kind of overlook Bell’s character anyways.

As stellar as the leads are, “It’s Complicated” suffers from a significant lack of unoriginality and laughs. There is indeed funny material in the picture and I did smile a fair deal. But there was never a moment in the picture that left me laughing my ass off. A majority of the film’s twists and best comedic situations are given away in the coming attractions trailer. It’s not the films fault that the trailer gives away the standout scenes. But the movie is almost two hours long when there’s really only a five minute long trailer’s worth of truly funny material. 

The film was written and directed by Nancy Meyers who specializes in movies about the relationships of older people. However, I felt her previous work, which includes “Something’s Gotta Give,” not only had more depth but also more laughs. As I stated before, a lot of people are going to absolutely adore this movie even though I myself didn’t. “It’s Complicated” is miles better than most Katherine Heigl and Matthew MaConahay star vehicles that plague our theaters. If you disregard this review and go see the movie anyways, you’re likely to have a good time. If you share some of the same problems I had with the picture however, perhaps we could go live together in the mountains somewhere in shame.

Julie & Julia

Feed me ***

As a film critic I am often asked which movie universe would I like to live in the most? This is not a simple question for any movie lover to answer. We’d all love to experience a movie such as “Star Wars,” or “Harry Potter,” or “Raiders of the Lost Ark” firsthand. If I had to single out one particular movie universe to live in though, it would have to be “Julie & Julia.” I felt envious of everybody in this movie as they gorged on the delectable cuisine of Julia Child’s cookbook. I have to admit, listening to Amy Adams deliver a monologue about the joy of butter while grilling a stick of butter kind of turned me on. Now that I think about it, maybe I’m thinking more with my stomach than I am with my head on this decision. 

The film takes two true stories, both of which probably wouldn’t work as two individual pictures. As a single movie however, the two tales blend together quite nicely. Amy Adams plays Julie Powell, a young, contemporary woman who lives above a pizza parlor with her devoted husband. One day Julie meets up with three friends for lunch. The three self-absorbed friends all gloat about their accomplished careers while Julie has yet to do anything significant with her life. Although this is based on a true story I have a hard time believing this scene actually happened. This lunch scene has been done so many times in the past it feels more like a movie cliché than fact.

As a lover of fine food, Julie decides to start a blog in which she cooks her way through Julia Child’s cookbook. This brings me to the movie’s other storyline, revolving around Julia Child and how she broke out with her legendary cookbook, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Meryl Streep plays Child in a wonderful performance. Meryl Streep embodies Julia Child, depicting her as an enthusiastic and all around lovable personality. It’s impossible not to like her. The great character actor Stanley Tucci plays Julia’s husband, Paul, who encourages Julia to pursue her dream and sticks with her every step of the way. In a year of some dismal romances, I found it comforting to find a movie about a married couple that actually love and support each other.

Amy Adams is one of the most likable actresses working in movies today. She completely won me over with her previous star making roles in “Junebug,” “Talladega Nights,” “Enchanted,” “Misses Pettigrew Lives for a Day,” “Doubt,” and “Sunshine Cleaning.” Here however, I found it difficult to like her character of Julie Powell, who spends a large fraction of the movie wining about her life. She constantly complains about her lack of accomplishments and new apartment, which is actually a lot nicer than she makes it out to be. Julie doesn’t even seem to really appreciate her husband, played by Chris Messina, who is essentially the greatest guy on the planet. You’d think that a woman who works at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, taking calls from the families of 911 victims, would be a little more grateful for what she has.

It isn’t really Adams’ fault that Julie Powell is such a needy character though. It’s just her misfortune that she has to compete with a character as lively and scene stealing as Streep’s Julia Child. I suppose Anne Hathaway suffered from the same dilemma in “The Devil Wears Prada.” Streeps endearing performance is what elevates “Julie & Julia” above a mere average picture. The film isn’t much. But for what it is, “Julie & Julia” is fluffy, light, and enjoyable with an Oscar-worthy performance. Did I mention that all the food all looked beyond delicious too?

Land of the Lost

Where in the world is Matt Lauer? He's lost. *1/2

If there’s one thing for certain about “Land of the Lost” it’s that it’s a visually impressing movie. Obviously a lot of time, effort, thought, and money went into this production’s look. The art director’s, costume designer’s, and special effects wizard’s talent is present in every frame of the movie. They worked diligently to create a bizarre world full of imagination that’s really quite striking. Unfortunately where the movie triumphs in visuals it fails miserably in the departments of storytelling and humor.

Will Ferrell, who’s always likable even if the material stinks, plays Dr. Rick Marshall. In the film’s opening scene we find Marshall on the Today Show to promote his new book about time warps and theory of an alternate universe. Matt Lauer claims that Marshall’s accusations are preposterous. This sends Marshall into a fit of rage. He attacks Lauer and is retrained by security. That interview between Lauer and Marshall is one truly funny scene. It’s particularly hilarious when Ferrell pulls out a pipe and Lauer insists that he put it away. Unfortunately the movie falls completely flat afterwards, resulting in a series of dopy gags that don’t pay off. Maybe it would have been better to throw away the rest of the script and air that Today Show scene on Saturday Night Live as a five minute sketch. As a matter of fact, “Land of the Lost” feels a lot like a series of comedy sketches woven into one. The end result just feels sloppy and completely incoherent. 

Three years after the Today Show incident, Marshall finds himself working as an elementary school science teacher. A young woman named Holly Cantrell, played by Anna Friel, approaches Marshall. She believes in Marshall’s theory and encourages him to build a tachyon amplifier, a device that will give them the ability to travel through time and space. They team up with a redneck tour guide of a cave, played by Danny McBride. In this cave the three are transported into a universe full of moneymen, lizard people, dinosaurs, and giant walnuts.

Brad Silberling, who has made some good movies like “Casper” and “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events”, directed the film. With “Land of the Lost” however, Silberling has produced a movie that’s 100% special effects and 0% humor. Special effects can work in comedies, dating all the way back to the original “Ghostbusters” and more recently with the enjoyable “Get Smart.” Most of the time however, so much thought is put into the movie’s craft that no thought goes into the script. That’s the exact case with “Land of the Lost.” Silberling forgets that comedy doesn’t come from effects but from dialog and situation.

Ferrell is a charming comedic presence, McBride is on his way to becoming a major movie star, and Friel has done some wonderful work on the overlooked show, “Pushing Daises.” I look forward to see what these three talents will do next. Unfortunately they aren’t given anything to do here. Most of the movie’s jokes revolve around running from dinosaurs, dinosaur poop, and dinosaur urine. The real star of the movie is a T-Rex the three explorers name Grumpy. It’s a great looking CGI creation that’s every bit as realistic as the T-Rex in Peter Jackson’s “King Kong.” Sadly, Grumpy’s talents are wasted as well.

This is the second feature length adaptation of an old television series that Ferrell has starred in, the previous being the bombshell “Bewitched.” If Ferrell should take anything away from “Bewitched” and now “Land of the Lost,” it’s that he should steer clear of television adaptations. I will say this about “Land of the Lost” though. It’s not as terrible as “Bewitched,” which I thought had absolutely no humorous moments. Here at least Ferrell manages to deliver a memorable one liner every thirty minutes or so. Maybe the film will make for a nice ride at Universal Studio’s theme park in the distant future. As a motion picture however, I found “Land of the Lost” to be a total waste of time and space.

Paranormal Activity

I am so startled!!! ****

“Paranormal Activity” has been earning much comparison to “The Blair Witch Project.” Both films are handheld camera startlers that cost next to nothing to produce. Despite it’s diminutive production budget, “Paranormal Activity” has continued to prosper in theaters merely from buzz on the Internet and word of mouth. This past weekend the film climbed to the top of the box office chart, beating out the multi-million dollar “Saw VI.” So does “Paranormal Activity” live up to the hype? Is it really the scariest movie of all time as some have described it? Personally I think to even call it one of the twenty scariest movies of all time is a bit of a stretch. Still, in a year that included a remake of “Friday the 13th,” a second “Halloween 2,” and yet another needless “Saw” picture, “Paranormal Activity” is a surprisingly effective startler that at times legitimately freaked the hell out of me.

The film stars two promising newcomers named Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat, a loving couple who have decided to start living together. Katie, who has been hearing whispery voices since childhood, believes that a demon or ghost has been haunting her. Wherever Katie goes, the spirit follows. Determined to get to the bottom of his girlfriend’s haunting, Micah decides to purchase a big ass camera. Micah and Katie keep the camera running at all times and eventually the two start to notice some paranormal activities occurring in their sleep.    

This is one of those movies that the audience keeps expecting to jump into the blood and gore factor like so many other modern day slasher movies. However, the first thirty minutes of “Paranormal Activity” is surprisingly subtle, featuring some hilarious dialog as Micah attempts to call out the demon and Katie insists he knock it off. The audience actually comes to care about this couple and wants to see them survive the ordeal. Then the movie slowly builds the suspense with little breadcrumbs of sheer terror. It’s not easy to make something like a door randomly closing slightly and then reopening frightening. But writer/director Oren Peli manages to do just that. It all works up to a stirring final act that left me completely on edge. Although I kind of knew how the movie was going to ultimately end, the final sequence is so well done that I actually jumped out of my seat. 

What prevents “Paranormal Activity” from being a great film is the questionable decisions it’s characters constantly make. If a demon is haunting you and will follow you wherever you go, why not seek refuge in a church? Last time I checked demons aren’t the biggest fans of Jesus. And why do these two sleep in their bedroom every night with the door open, practically inviting the demon in? Couldn’t they at least close the door and lock it? Then again I supposed a locked door never stopped an evil spirit before.

There are times in the film where I wanted to scream out, “Don’t explore that hallway, don’t go into that attic, and for God’s sake don’t buy a wigi board!” As foolish as it’s characters might be at times, “Paranormal Activity” redeems it’s for not going for easy scares. When you expect the monster to jump out and massacre the victim, it doesn’t. This is a movie where the audience doesn’t always know what is going to happen next. That’s real suspense.

The poster reads “DON’T SEE IT ALONE.” Rarely do I take advice from a movie poster. However, I believe that “Paranormal Activity” is a movie intended to be seen with a large audience or at least two or more good friends. The audience I saw it with was laughing, gasping, and screaming the entire ninety-minutes. Only time will tell if the film will play equally as well on DVD. As a midnight cult flick though, “Paranormal Activity” is a guaranteed startling good time at the movies.

Ponyo

The ultimate fish out of water story ****
 

In 1989 Disney gave us “The Little Mermaid,” telling the story of mermaid who wished to be human. Twenty years later, Disney brings “Ponyo,” the enchanting new animation from master Japanese storyteller Hayao Miyazaki, to America. In the spirit of “The Little Mermaid,” “Ponyo” tells a similar tale of a little goldfish with the desire to become a little girl. Before you jump to any conclusions, I want to assure you that “Ponyo” is by no means a cheap Japanese retread of an American animated classic. “Ponyo” takes this fairly familiar fish out of water premise and tells a story that’s magical, touching, exciting, meaningful, and original.

The film opens with a dazzling hand drawn sequence set under the sea. The ocean floor is populated by a variety of sea animals. The most endearing of the sea creatures is little Ponyo, a red goldfish voiced by Noah Lindsey Cyrus. In this scene, Ponyo sneaks away from her father, a stern sea wizard who is admirably voice by Liam Neeson, to explore the surface of the world. A 5-year-old boy named Sosuke, voiced by Frankie Jonas, discovers Ponyo. When Ponyo licks the blood off of a cut on Sosuke’s finger, she develops the power to become human as well. Sosuke and Ponyo become friends and grow to love each other. Ponyo doesn’t realize however, that by leaving the water she has threatened the entire balance of nature, which could lead to disaster. 

The English cast is first rate. Young Noah Lindsey Cyrus and Frankie Jonas are both utterly charming as the two leads. Also worth mentioning are Tina Fey as Sosuke’s devoted mother and Matt Damon as Sosuke’s caring but often busy father. There’s also some great work from Cate Blanchett as Ponyo’s gorgeously drawn sea goddess mother. John Lasseter, the Principal Creative Advisor for Walt Disney Imagineering and director of the “Toy Story” films, supervised the English version of “Ponyo.” Hats off to Lasseter and all those involved with bringing “Ponyo” to America audiences. The key to the success of “Ponyo” however is the completely unique imagination of Hayao Miyazaki, who is considered by even the Disney and Pixar animators to be the master of animation.

I mentioned before that “Ponyo” is a hand drawn animated film. This is especially inspiring in a generation where almost every animated film is computer generated. This is such a beautiful movie to look at with such rich detail in every frame. I’d like to bring up one notably fantastic sequence in which Ponyo jumps from wave to wave during a tsunami that trails Sosuke and his mother. It’s astonishing to think about all the painstaking time and effort that must have gone into developing that one dazzling moment alone. It’s no wonder why Miyazaki only comes out with a new movie every three years, acting as a director, writer, producer, editor, and composer. There may not be a more ambitious director working in movies today.

Like previous Miyazaki masterpieces such as “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” “Ponyo” creates a wonderful world of it’s own free of hostility and villains. Here’s another treasure from Miyazaki that proves that a movie does not have to be violent or constantly intense to keep children amused. This is a film about love and friendship as apposed to other animated movies like “Monsters vs Aliens” and the recent “Ice Age” sequel, which were only about mindless action. Like Pete Docter’s “Up,” this is an animated movie that not only respects the intelligence of children but adults as well. Although “Ponyo” isn’t quite up there with Miyazaki’s Oscar-winning “Spirited Away,” this is still a more than worthy effort from the 68-year-old mastermind.

This gentle and innocent fantasy from Japan may not be the easiest sale in an age where American family movies seem to only revolve around loud noises, chases, and explosions. But parents, I implore you all to heed my next words. This is a much better movie to take your children to than pure cinematic junk food like “G-Force” and “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” You and your child will not only be more entertained by “Ponyo” but you both may even learn something from the experience. This is a film for everyone that should be seen by everyone.

Precious

My Precious.... ****1/2

“Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire” is a picture that I’m sure many people are going to avoid under the assumption that it’s too depressing. I’m not going to lie, “Precious” is not an easy movie going experience. It’s an often brutal and uncomfortable screen adaptation about extremely difficult individuals. I wouldn’t be surprised if some people walked out of the film’s screening within the first twenty minutes. At the same time however, “Precious” is an incredibly uplifting story of independence and second chances fuelled by several excellent performances. If you sit through the entire picture, I guarantee you’ll walk out of the theater inspired.  

In a stunning debut performance, Gabourey ‘Gabby’ Sidibe plays the title role of Claireece “Precious” Jones. Precious is an overweight, African America, sixteen-year-old girl who has been impregnated for the second time by her father. Her mother Mary, played by the comedian Mo’Nique, abuses her both physically and mentally at home. Although Precious is illiterate, her principle realizes that she is not stupid. She suggests that Precious start attending an alternative school so she can finally move onto high school. For the first time Precious is shown kindness from her classmates and teacher, Ms. Rain.

Gabby Sidibe had starred in virtually nothing until this project. At only twenty-six-years old, she delivers one of the most powerful, gut-wrenching performances I’ve witnessed on screen in quite some time. Sidibe creates a character who is victimized her entire life and still proves to be determined and intelligent. She does not depict Precious merely as a victim but an empowering heroine who completely wins the audience over.

The real surprise in the movie though is Mo’Nique, who usually does more lightweight work like “Soul Plane” and “Domino,” as Mary. In her first scene Mary questions Precious whether she picked up her cigarettes. When Precious informs her that she was unable to get them, Mary goes ballistic and attacks her daughter. Mary is a despicable, ugly human being who the audience instantly despises. Although the character does not change throughout the course of the movie, Mo’Nique does not turn Mary into a one-dimensional monster. She recognizes the character as a woman full of hate and is incapable of taking responsibility for her actions. But in one particular intense scene, we see a woman who has been seriously damaged by her boyfriend and society. It’s not easy to absolutely loathe a character and still kind of pity her. However, Mo’Nique manages to do just that. I never would have pictured her in a role such as this. But Mo’Nique fully embodies Mary. Watching her powerhouse performance in this movie left me thinking, “Where the hell did that come from?”

There are mesmerizing performances from the entire acting ensemble. The lovely Paula Patton plays Ms. Rain, the teacher who stands by Precious and influences her to reach her full potential. While we’ve seen this kind of character in numerous another movies, the screenplay by Geoffrey Fletcher avoids all obvious clichés. Patton’s performance fashions Ms. Rain into a loving and stern woman who is beautiful on the inside and outside. Another surprising performance comes from an unrecognizable Mariah Carey as a social worker who takes an interest in Precious. I thought that Carey’s acting career was officially over with her Razzie-winning work in “Glitter.” In “Precious” however, Carey exemplifies remarkable screen presence and emerges as a woman who might have a serious future in acting.

Lee Daniels, who previously worked as a producer in films such as “Monster’s Ball,” directed the film. Daniels manages to bring a significant amount of light into the grim subject matter. He isn’t afraid to leap into fantasy territory in which Precious daydreams of a life where’s she’s beautiful, rich, and white. With “Precious,” and to another extent “The Blind Side,” 2009 has proven to be a truly great year for movies about underprivileged young adults who are given second chances through the love of strangers. The relationship that develops between Precious, Mr. Rain, and her classmates is something truly special in this truly special film.

The Princess and the Frog

It isn't easy being green or black. But it's what's on the inside that counts. *****

2009 has been a truly triumphant year for the film medium of animation. First Henry Selick’s wonderfully weird “Coraline” kicked off 2009 in February. The fun continued throughout the year with Hayao Miyazaki’s delightful “Ponyo,” Wes Anderson’s stunning “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” and Robert Zemeckis’ gorgeous revamp of “A Christmas Carol.” Now as a grand and suiting finale, Walt Disney Pictures returns to hand-drawn animation with “The Princess and the Frog.” How good is the movie? Let me put it this way: If you think Pixar’s pitch-perfect “Up” is the only animated feature worthy of a Best Picture nomination, you haven’t seen “The Princess and the Frog.”

It’s been five years since Disney produced a traditional hand-drawn animated feature. However, there really hasn’t been a quality Disney animation with the makings of a classic since “Fantasia 2000.” The 21st century has been a dry spell for Disney animation with the forgettable “Atlantis: The Lost Empire,” “Home on the Range,” and “Treasure Planet.” In an age dominated by digital animated comedies, it appeared that we might never see another old-fashion Disney cartoon. “The Princess and the Frog” is the comeback from Disney I’ve been hoping for. I’ve often said that as outstanding as the Pixar films are, the very best animated films have always been the Disney classics such as “Snow White,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid,” “The Lion King,” “Pinocchio,” “Fantasia,” “Bambi,” “Cinderella,” “Aladdin,” and so many other films I don’t have time to list. “The Princess and the Frog” is a classic that deserves comparison to all the films I listed above.

Anika Noni Rose from “Dreamgirls” holds the honor of voicing Disney’s first African American princess, “Tiana.” Tiana is a highly independent young lady who dreams of nothing more than opening her own restaurant. She learns from her father that wishing upon a star can only take her so far. It is up to Tiana to achieve her own dreams through hard work. One might say that this diminishes the Disney slogan that “when you wish upon a star your dreams come true.” But remember, Pinocchio didn’t just become a real boy via a wish on a star. He had to prove himself brave and unselfish. “The Princess and the Frog” merely clarifies this meaningful message.

Although Tiana works her fingertips to the bone as a waitress she can never quite come up with the money to buy her restaurant. After years of hard work and double shifts, Tiana is driven to wish upon the evening star. And who should show up on her balcony but a talking frog with a grin of pearly white teeth. This frog is Prince Naveen, hilariously voiced by Bruno Campos, who has been cursed by a slick villain known as the Shadow Man, voiced by Keith David. Naveen mistakes Tiana, who is wearing a gown and tiara at the time, for a princess and insists that she kiss him to break the spell. Tiana agrees to give the frog prince a smooch in exchange for the money to finally get her dream off the ground. Matters don’t exactly go as planned however when Tiana kisses Naveen and becomes a frog too.

Directors Ron Clements and John Musker, who made “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin,” have taken perhaps the most basic of fairytales and morphed it into an enormously entertaining feat of storytelling. The film is full of memorable supporting players such as a jazz-playing alligator named Luis and a firefly named Ray who has fallen in love with a sparkling star. Keith David’s Dr. Facilier is every bit as fun and menacing as the great Disney villains like Jafar and Scar. Stealing the whole show is Broadway actress Jennifer Cody as Tiana’s lovesick best friend, Charlotte, a Southern bell who somewhat reminded me of Kristin Chenoweth’s Glinda the Good Witch from “Wicked.” And of course there’s Jenifer Lewis as Mama Odie, a 200-year-old, blind fairy godmother who Tiana and Naveen seek out to break the spell.

As for the music, there’s not a song in the picture that’s quite as show stopping as “Under the Sea” or haunting as the title song from “Beauty and the Beast.” Then again, how many songs are? “The Princess and the Frog” is a film full of memorable musical numbers from composer Randy Newman. The catchy tune of “Down in New Orleans” captures the essence of the jazz age. The number of “When We’re Human” is every bit as fun as “Hakuna Matata.” The most enthralling song of all is the gospel of “Dig A Little Deeper” as Mama Odie reveals to Tiana and Neveen what is most important in life. Although a Best Picture nomination unfortunately might not be in the cards for the film, it will be an undying shame if “The Princess and the Frog” doesn’t win the Oscar for Best Original Song.

At the heart of the movie is a charming romance between Naveen and Tiana. These are two individuals who instantly win you over and want to see end up together. Prince Naveen is certainly the most original and endearing prince in the history of Disney fairytales. Unlike most cardboard Prince Charming’s, Naveen is somebody with a one of a kind personality and inner demons. Tiana is perhaps the most independent of all Disney princesses. This is a girl who does not wait for her prince to come and takes initiative to realize her dream. Through Tiana, Naveen learns just how shallow and empty his life has been. Through Naveen, Tiana learns that although it is important to work hard, life is empty without loved ones. In a year full of movies about relationships, it’s interesting that the year’s two best romances were “Up,” where the love story only lasted about five minutes, and now “The Princess and the Frog.”

This entire picture is simply a delight. I want to personally thank John Musker and Ron Clements for devising such as rich and imaginative story. I want to thank the film’s executive producer, John Lasseter, for green lighting this project. I just want to hug every person involved with this movie for keeping the tradition of Walt Disney classics alive. A couple years ago Disney got it just right with the Cinderella story satire of “Enchanted.” Now for the first time in almost ten years, Disney has gotten an animated fairytale just right again with Broadway styled music, a witty screenplay, lovable characters, exciting action, beautiful animation, and heart. I just hope that audiences will give the film a chance in an age where 2D is practically extinct. “The Princess and the Frog” is proof that hand-drawn animation is alive and well.

The Proposal

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes ***1/2

O.K. here’s the pitch: Sandra Bullock plays Margaret Tate, a demanding executive editor-in-chief for a book publishing company with no social life at all. Ryan Reynolds plays Andrew Paxton, Margaret’s tormented assistant. They can’t stand each other. Margaret is faced with a major predicament when she learns that her visa has been terminated. To avoid being deported back to Canada, Margaret forces the longsuffering Andrew to marry her. After convincing Margaret to give him a promotion in exchange, Andrew reluctantly agrees to become her groom. To prove their relationship is legitimate, the two take a trip to Alaska for Andrew’s grandmother’s ninetieth birthday. They plan on getting hitched and then getting a quickie divorce. But how much do you want to bet that by the end of the movie Margaret and Andrew will realize that they actually love each other?

If you’ve seen “Failure to Launch,” “How to Loose a Guy in Ten Days,” “27 Dresses,” “Made of Honor,” “Music and Lyrics,” “License to Wed,” or any of the other films among the increasing list of formulaic romantic comedies than you’ll be able to foresee every major plot point in “The Proposal.” I’ll admit that as I sat down to watch this film I wasn’t expecting much. What makes “The Proposal” superior to any of the movies I listed above though is that it’s carried by two extremely appealing leads, plenty of smiles, and several surprisingly strong supporting performances. Like “The Devil Wears Prada” from a couple of years ago, the film is a surprise and a delight on all levels.

I was worried that “The Proposal” would essentially be a retread of the dreadful and amazingly successful “What Happens in Vegas,” another film where two people who can’t stand each other are forced into a relationship. Unlike Cameron Diaz and Ashton Kutcher however, Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds have real chemistry here. Bullock is particularly good as a woman who at first comes off as the boss from hell. As the movie progresses however, Margaret develops into a sympathetic character that the audience actually cares about. Ryan Reynolds, who was so good last year in the underrated “Definitely, Maybe,” is also quite appealing in another endearing role. While I didn’t entirely believe that Margaret and Andrew’s romance would happen in real life, the two still completely won me over.

I also liked Mary Steenburgen and Craig T. Nelson, who I think are somewhat typecast here as Andrew’s parents. The real scene-stealer though is Oscar Nuñez from “The Office” as Ramone, a foreigner who works as a waiter, an erotic dancer, a store clerk, and a wedding minister. Nuñez might not get as much work in movies as his fellow “Office” co-stars, Steve Carrel or Rain Wilson. With this performance though, Nuñez proves that he’s certainly capable of taking on more film projects. And of course I must mention the always-wonderful Betty White as Andrew’s wisecracking and loopy grandmother.

“The Proposal” isn’t in the same league of a laugh out loud every minute romantic comedy like “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” There are really more smiles here than laughs. However, I smiled the entire way through which is more than I can say about “He’s Just Not that Into You,” “My Life in Ruins,” or “Bride Wars.” Especially for the winning performances from Bullock, Reynolds, and others, “The Proposal” exceeds above the standard level of romantic comedies. This is one of those movies where the cast clearly had a good time making the movie and the audience has a good time watching them. The film is a real charmer. That’s really all you can desire from a movie like this.

Public Enemies

High expectations are Michael Mann's worst enemy ***

On paper "Public Enemies" is the kind of movie that you'd expect to achieve the rank of A-list entertainment. The cast is first-rate and the director, Michael Mann, has made one great crime picture after another. And yet, "Public Enemies" never quite takes off like it should. Despite that I am still recommending the film for it's redeeming qualities. Given the standards that Mann has set for himself as a director though, "Public Enemies" is a bit of a disappointment.

The film sets itself in 1933. Johnny Depp plays John Dillinger, the real life bank robber who was thought by some to be a contemporary Robin Hood. He robbed the banks but allowed the customers to keep their money. In the eyes of the FBI however, Dillinger was a dangerous criminal. The Feds put Agent Melvin Purvis, played by Christian Bale, in charge of the investigation to bring Dillinger down. Halfway through the movie I almost anticipated for Bale's character to breakout and scream, "You still haven't caught John Dillinger? Are you a fucking Professional?!"

If there's a reason to see "Public Enemies" it's for Depp's terrific portrayal of John Dillinger. Depp is one of the most unique actors working today. As somebody who usually plays such outlandish characters, Depp is exceptional in one of his more mainstream roles. Christian Bale, one of our most underrated actors, gives a genuinely good performance as Melvin Purvis. However, he's not allowed enough screen time to really shine. By the end of the movie I felt that I didn't get to know his character at all. The same thing goes for Marion Cotillard, who plays a coat checker named Billie who catches Dillinger's eye. Cotillard has a couple of really good scenes here. However, her character is never fully realized either.

I essentially had the same reaction to "Public Enemies" that I had to Ridley Scott's "American Gangster" from a couple of years ago. Both films are well made and well acted achievements. However, neither film quite gets to the center of the lead character's personalities. As good as Depp is here, John Dillinger isn't nearly as fascinating of a crime figure as Jack Nicholson's Frank Costello in "The Departed." Both movies are also brought down by their extensive running times of two and a half hours. At the hour and fifty-minute mark I was pretty much set with "Public Enemies."

My overall opinion on "Public Enemies" is that the film is solid entertainment but could have been better. I wanted more character development and a little less shootouts. That aside, Michael Mann has fabricated a great looking movie with note-perfect art direction and costumes. For Depps performance, which could very well earn him another Oscar nomination, I am recommending "Public Enemies" for what it is rather than for what it isn't.

 

Saw VI

Will the game ever be over? *

I have to admit that I didn’t actually hate the first “Saw” picture. I wouldn’t go as far to say that I liked the movie or that I’d recommend it. In some depraved, sick way though, I thought the film kind of worked as trashy, mindless entertainment. “Saw II” however, was just another brutal and ugly exercise in torture with no suspense whatsoever. From there on I decided to avoid any further installments to this franchise like the plague. This Halloween however, I was dragged against my will to a dark chamber where I endured severe, insufferable torture unlike any other. In other words, I saw “Saw VI.” I bet you didn’t see that little twist coming! 

This addition to the “Saw” franchise isn’t any better or any worse than I anticipated. So in short, it’s dreadful. The direction is shoddy, the acting is amateur, the script is nonexistent, and it’s not scary in the slightest. The movie commences with a man and a woman trapped in a dungeon with torture devices locked on their heads. Via video, the infamous Jigsaw Killer informs the two that only one of them will leave alive. Whoever can shed the most fresh will earn their freedom. The looser however will have their skull drilled into. The man grabs a saw and skins his stomach while the woman chops off her left arm with a butcher knife. All I could think to myself while watching this scene was, “Are there really people out there who enjoy watching this? This is entertainment? What has our society come to where a movie like this can pass as a good time?”  

One of the primary problems with this entire franchise is that the Jigsaw Killer isn’t a very compelling force of evil. Try comparing Jigsaw to a true menace like Heath Ledger’s Joker. Both Jigsaw and Joker present their victims with impossible decisions. But I actually cared in “The Dark Knight” when the Joker gave the people on the two boats the option of blowing up the other boat or he would destroy both vessels. In “Saw VI” however, Jigsaw forces a man to decide whether or not to save an older woman with a family or a young man with no living relatives. Whoever the man doesn’t save will be hung to death. Where Joker’s depraved acts were truly horrifying the Jigsaw Killer’s games are just disgusting.

The “Saw” movies are essentially this generation’s “Friday the 13th” movies. Both film series are completely disposable. But seeing how they only cost a couple million to produce and require no original ideas, the studio keeps releasing them. And the studio will continue to release these “Saw” movies until they finally become unprofitable.

You can expect several more “Saw” sequels. Then perhaps there will be a crossover between “Saw” and the equally despicable “Final Destination” or “Hostel” films, which might actually be so bad it’s good much like “Freddy V.S. Jason.” Finally the cycle will start all over again with a “Saw” remake and another dozen sequels. Game Over? Yeah, like THAT’S ever going to happen.

Sherlock Holmes

No Shit, Sherlock! ***

Have you ever read a Sherlock Holmes novel and thought, "This thing could really use some more ass kicking and explosions?" That's probably what Guy Ritchie thought while he was making this Sherlock Holmes reboot. The film is a big, loud action picture that is somewhere between being ridiculous and just stupid. I have to admit though I was not bored by the movie. Unlike some recent action pictures that take themselves too seriously like "G.I. Joe" and "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," "Sherlock Holmes" is a movie that's willing to wink at the camera and note just how silly it truly is. I'm sure some will be dismayed by the film's absurdity. But if the movie doesn't take itself seriously, why should the audience?   

In a witty and charismatic performance, Robert Downey Jr. breathes life into the world's greatest crime sleuth of Sherlock Holmes. The villain of the picture is Lord Blackwood, played by Mark Strong, an artist of the black arts who is captured by Holmes and hung to death. But what the dickens! It appears that Lord Blackwood has been resurrected from the grave and is taking the lives of innocent people. Along with his trusty partner Dr. Watson, played by Jude Law, Holmes sets out to solve another mystery.

There's also a romance between Holmes and a seductress thief named Irene Adler, played by the always-appealing Rachel McAdams. However, their relationship seems kind of dull compared to the bromance between Holmes and Watson. Downey and Law have terrific chemistry together and are the primary reasons to see "Sherlock Holmes." Despite their constant bickering, the audience can sense that these two are truly good friends who like and respect one another.

Although Downey and Law make an interesting duo, what "Sherlock Holmes" lacks is a really fun and menacing force of evil. A terrific villain can make or break an action picture such as this. Compared to The Joker in "The Dark Knight," Davy Jones in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, and Lord Voldemort in the "Harry Potter" movies, Lord Blackwood is kind of a bore. From the start he seems completely outmatched by the lively Holmes and Watson. The audience never senses for a minute that he apposes any real threat to our heroes.

The action sequences are perfectly fun. The plot however, often meanders and the dialog is a little to fast-paced for my taste. But I suppose nobody is going to go to this movie for the plot. And to my surprise, the screenwriters actually mange to come up with an explanation that remotely makes sense in the final act. For the performances from Downey and Law and the inventive craft the movie, I believe that "Sherlock Holmes" is just good enough to recommend. You can expect a sequel in the near future. The filmmakers need to remember next time around though to make the villain more threatening, come up with a more intriguing story, and most importantly keep it fun. Then maybe they can produce a fantastic adventure instead of just a pretty good one.

Sunshine Cleaning

CSC: Crime Scene Cleanup ***

“Little Miss Sunshine” was an indie comedy/drama about a dysfunctional, yet lovable, family who drive around in a dilapidated van with Alan Arkin as a foul-mouthed grandfather. The film went onto conjure an Oscar nomination for Best Picture and win the Best Original Screenplay award along with a Supporting Actor win for Arkin. Now the producers of that film bring us “Sunshine Cleaning,” another indie comedy/drama about another dysfunction, yet lovable, family who drive around in another dilapidated van with Alan Arkin as another foul-mouthed grandfather. The film wants to be hailed as this year’s “Little Miss Sunshine.” Unfortunately, “Sunshine Cleaning” simply doesn’t have the humor, depth, as many memorable characters, or originality of that film.    

Before you jump to any conclusions, I want to make it abundantly clear that I am actually giving “Sunshine Cleaning” a recommendation. This is a charming little sleeper with a well-crafted screenplay and several winning performances. “Sunshine Cleaning” is a movie that’s full of note-worthy qualities. If you sit down to watch the film expecting something as profound as “Little Miss Sunshine” though, you might be a tad disappointed.

The always-lovable Amy Adams stars as Rose, a thirty-something-year-old who was the shit in high school. Now however, she finds herself working as a maid and raising a child on her own. Rose is having an affair with her ex-boyfriend and father of her child, a detective name Mac played by Steve Zaun. Mac brings Rose back to a happier time when she was the head cheerleader and he was the star quarterback. Deep down Rose knows however that Mac will never leave his wife and children.  

Mac informs Rose that she can make a good living if she gets into the crime scene cleanup business. Desperately needing a better job to get her misfit son into private school, Rose decides to follow through on Mac’s advice. Along with her flakey sister Norah, played by Emily Blunt, Rose starts up Sunshine Cleaning.

The high point of the movie is the performances from Amy Adams and Emily Blunt, who naturally look like sisters. Adams and Blunt have a tender relationship that at times is very funny and sometimes rather touching. Every scene between the two is truly special. Adams is especially memorable as a struggling mother trying to provide for her son. Her character kind of reminded me of Keri Russell’s character in the underrated “Waitress.”

What prevents “Sunshine Cleaning” from achieving an additional star is several unnecessary subplots. One subplot involves a bewildering relationship between Emily Blunt’s character and a lesbian played by Mary Lynn Rajskub. Alan Arkin spends a majority of the movie attempting to sell shrimp in order to buy a pair of binoculars for his grandson. There’s also a bit of a romance between Rose and a one-armed storeowner played by Clifton Collins Jr. None of these subplots are necessarily bad. All that time however I wanted the movie to get back to Amy Adams and Emily Blunt and their cleanup business.

In a nutshell, I liked “Sunshine Cleaning” although it could have been better. The entire cast is extremely strong. The screenplay Megan Holley features some great dialog, particularly one scene in which Adams dishes out her feelings to her dead mother. Watching “Sunshine Cleaning” though, I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that the film was trying too hard to be the next “Little Miss Sunshine.” Now that I think about it, maybe my problem with “Sunshine Cleaning” isn’t that it wants to be the next “Little Miss Sunshine.” Maybe it’s that I wanted it to be the next “Little Miss Sunshine.” There are some movies you want to love and end up just liking a fair deal. “Sunshine Cleaning” is one of those movies.   

Star Trek

As they say in Klingon nuqDaq ‘oH puchpa’’e’. I’m actually not sure what that means but I’m pretty sure it’s positive. ****1/2

In the past, whenever somebody asked me what my favorite “Star Trek” movie was, my instantaneous response would be, “I’m really more of a Star Wars guy.” I’m in no way, shape, or form a Trekkie. I’m only remotely familiar with the characters of Captain James T. Kirk and Mr. Spock. Klingon is not one of the languages I’m fluent in. After ten theatrical entries to this genre, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to J.J. Abrams’ reboot of “Star Trek.” To my surprise however, Abrams’ re-imagining is not only a step up from the previous “Star Trek” films but better than any of the “Star Wars” prequels. As a matter of fact, this “Star Trek” may very well be the most engaging movie going experience of this early summer.

In this origin story, Chris Pine climbs into the captain’s chair as James Tiberius Kirk. Kirk is an arrogant, yet intelligent, young man whose father sacrificed his life in the line of duty to save his family. Although Kirk has become a juvenile delinquent, Captain Christopher Pike, played by Bruce Greenwood, sees potential in the boy. He persuades Kirk to enroll in the Starfleet Academy. There our hero meets numerous familiar faces such as Hikaru Sulu, played by John Cho, Dr. Bones, played by Karl Urban, and Mr. Spock, played by Zackary Quinto.

I’m sure that some die-hard “Star Trek” geeks will have trouble accepting new actors in these classic roles. I’d be up in frenzy if I found out that a heartthrob like Zack Efron was playing Luke Skywalker in a “Star Wars” movie. However, I found this to be one of the strongest acting ensembles of the year thus far. Chris Pine is particularly good here. Pine’s Kirk makes Hayden Christensen’s Anakin Skywalker look like a winy little girl. Actually I suppose Christensen’s Anakin Skywalker was already a winy little girl.

Along with Pine is a first-rate supporting cast. Zackary Quinto, who is best known for playing Sylar on “Heroes,” creates a Spock of his own. Simon Pegg is hilarious and perfectly cast here as Scotty. An unrecognizable Eric Bana is menacing as the movie’s force of evil, Nero, who seeks retribution for his destroyed planet. The film does become a tad nutty in the second act when a former “Star Trek” cast member makes a memorable cameo. This is only a minor flaw though in what is otherwise great storytelling. 

As exceptional as the performances are, the primary reason to see “Star Trek” is the magnificent direction from Abrams. Yes, Abrams packs the movie with nonstop wall-to-wall action sequences. However, there hasn’t been a more exhilarating action picture since well…“The Dark Knight.” This is one of those movies that hooks you in from the opening shot and keeps you captivated all the way through. Unlike Michael Bay, Abrams knows how to surround action with a moving story, a sense of humor, and compelling characters. With this “Star Trek” and the underrated “Mission Impossible III,” Abrams is proving to be the best pure action director in the business today. 

I’m sure many of you are amazed to hear me compare a “Star Trek” movie to “The Dark Knight,” which I hailed as the best film of last year. Is “Star Trek” as good of an origin/revival story as Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” or “The Dark Knight?” Not quite. Still, I believe this is summer entertainment at it’s finest. I know we’re only two weeks into the 2009 summer movie season. However, I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that there won’t be a better live-action event picture within the next three months. If there is, then I guess we’ll be in for one magnificent year of movies. 

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3

Take me or leave me ***

“The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” is one of those movies that can basically be summed up in the theatrical trailer. If you’ve seen the trailer then you’ve essentially seen every major plot point of the movie. This would usually grant me probable grounds to decline the picture. But you know what? I don’t care. I’m still recommending this engaging thriller for several well-written sequences and two first-rate performances.

In this remake of the 1974 movie of the same name, Denzel Washington plays Walter Garber, a New York subway dispatcher. Garber is one of those low-key, everyman guys who is about to find himself thrust into an extraordinary situation. When a band of hijackers take a train hostage, it is up to Garber to bargain with the leader. The hijackers are lead by a man named Ryder, played by John Travolta. Ryder demands a ransom of ten million dollars in one hour. For every minute they go over the time limit, Ryder will kill one hostage.

We’ve seen this same scenario in a million other movies. What makes “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” better than the typical heist movie is that it doesn’t cheat too much. In most movies such as this, there would be an idiotic authority figure who keeps making stupid decisions or a slick politician who only cares about getting re-elected. In this movie there is a negotiator played by John Turturro and a New York City mayor played by James Gandolfini. Unlike most movies however, “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” doesn’t turn either of these characters into stereotypes. Rather, they both play men with no hidden agendas and want to make sure everybody makes it out of this crisis alive.

If there’s a flaw in the movie it’s in the direction from Tony Scott. Like Michael Bay, Scott is one of those directors who simply won’t let the camera settle. Scott has previously brought us movies such as “Man on Fire,” “Domino,” and “Déjà vu,” all of which are edited like coming attraction trailers. The cinematography in “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” is also frantic and sometimes distracting. After a while however, I managed to overlook this error due to the movies redeeming qualities.

The real reason to see “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” is for the performances from Washington and Travolta. Washington, who typically plays larger than life characters, is quite good here as an average man trapped in an out of the ordinary ordeal. Travolta is also memorable as the semi-crazy individual who takes the train hostage. Travolta is menacing and at times rather hilarious. I guarantee that as you walk out of this movie you won’t be able to stop chanting, “Mother fucker” in a Travolta-like voice. The performances from Washington and Travolta are what save “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” from being just a standard summer thriller.    

“The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” is a far from perfect movie. There’s one particular run away train sequence that seems almost ripped-off from “Spider-Man 2.” Nevertheless, the film is entertaining from beginning to end with some excellent acting jobs. As far as summer action movies go, I liked this one more than “Angles and Demons” and a hell of a lot more than “Terminator Salvation.” If you haven’t seen the trailer for “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” you’ll find it entertaining. If you have seen the trailer you’ll still find the movie to be entertaining.

Terminator Salvation

You still haven't killed John Connor! Are you a fucking professional?! *1/2

James Cameron’s original “Terminator” was an action movie that introduced a whole new world of ideas. “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” is perhaps the best pure action movie ever made. Then again, “Terminator 2” was more than just an action picture. In addition to the breathtaking action sequences, it was a movie with characters the audience cared about, interesting dialog, and a heart. “Terminator 2” is the perfect example of a sequel that in everyway surpassed its predecessor. My thoughts on “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” have always been mixed. “Terminator 3” was a well made and face paced summer movie. However, the film ultimately left me thinking, “Did we really need another Terminator movie when the second one ended so perfectly?” “Terminator Salvation,” the forth addition to this franchise, only adds to my initial desire that the series had ended with “Terminator 2.”

Allow me to set the stage. The year is 2018. Skynet and its army of Terminators have obliterated a vast majority of mankind. John Connor, this time around played by Christian Bale, leads a resistance against the Terminators as prophesized. There’s also a mysterious man named Marcus Wright, played by Sam Worthington, who’s last memory was being on death row in the year 2003. The fate of humanity depends on these two men to destroy Skynet.

Christian Bale may very well be the most underrated actor in the business today. The problem with his character in “Terminator Salvation” is that the screenplay doesn’t require him to do much except scream and look intense. Between Wolverine of the recent “X-Men” film, Robert Langdon of “Angels & Demons,” and now Christian Bale’s John Connor, this is truly shaping up to be the summer of underwritten male protagonists. Also wasted in “Terminator Salvation” is Dallas Bryce Howard as Connor’s pregnant wife, Kate. Howard is a talented young actress with wheelbarrows of potential. Here however, she is given nothing to do but stand around and provide emotional support to her husband. Their relationship is never further explored or elaborated on. As a matter of fact, none of the relationships in this movie are really elaborated on. 

The Terminators themselves aren’t very interesting villains. At least the Autobots in Michael Bay’s “Transformers” had personalities and wit. Then again, I guess that Terminators aren’t supposed to have personalities or a sense of humor. However, Arnold Schwarzenegger managed to create a real character in his Terminator, despite a lack of personality. That’s another thing. How could they make a “Terminator” movie in which Schwarzenegger is not principal player? Arnold does make a sort of cameo towards the end of the picture. Even then though, the audience is so detached from the story that nobody really cares.

It’s hard to take this movie seriously when it comes from a director named McG. McG started his career by directing music videos. Recently he made the two “Charlie’s Angels” movies, which were both essentially extended music videos. With “Terminator Salvation,” McG strips away the ideas of the first two movies and produces a loud and unattractive action picture. The first two “Terminator” movies were action movies with heart and ideas. “Terminator Salvation” is just an action movie. 

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Michael Bay presents EXPLOSIONS!!!!! *1/2

Here I was under the impression that “Terminator Salvation” would be the only lousy robot movie I’d have to sit through this year. In just over a month however, I have encountered yet another mechanical dud. As I sat in the theater waiting for “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” to begin I thought to myself, “I could use a big budget, mindless, nonstop action adventure right about now.” But as the old saying goes be careful what you wish for.

In this follow-up to the big old hit from 2007, Shia LaBeouf returns as Sam Witwicky. With college just around the corner, Sam wishes for nothing more than a normal life with his girlfriend Mikaela, once again played by Megan Fox. It’s hard to maintain an everyday lifestyle though when you’re best friends are a bunch of robots from another planet. Optimus Prime and his band of Autobots have joined forces with the United States government to protect the world from the evil Decepticons. The Autobots and human race face total annihilation when a Decepticon named Starscream teams up with the resurrected Megatron to take vengeance on the universe! 

Director Michael Bay’s first “Transformers” movie was far from being a cinematic masterpiece. The picture was loud, manic, and completely ridiculous in its story.  Nevertheless, the film was entertaining with a down to earth sense of humor. For what it was I had a lot of fun with the picture. “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” like most sequels of it’s kind, is essentially a retread of the original film minus any imagination at all.

Many new Transformers are introduced in this sequel. But neither the film’s director nor screenwriters put in any effort to make these machines into real characters with unique personalities. Rather, they simply decided to have half of the Transformers utter cheesy dialog such as, “We must destroy the Decepticons,” while another half talk like members of a black street gang. The first time we hear an Autobot use the word “Bitch” in a sentence it’s kind of funny. After the ninth time it’s just repetitive. 

If you haven’t figured it out yet, I did not much care for this movie. Despite my opinion, the audience of fanboys I saw the film with seemed to like it immensely. People were cheering and laughing throughout the endless two and a half hours. When the movie reached it’s conclusion, a vast majority was applauding uproariously. I couldn’t understand what they admired so much regarding the movie. Was there something I missed? Then it hit me, it’s not the film itself that people loved. It’s the notion of the movie. These are diehard fans that were going to declare any “Transformers” movie as a work of genius no matter how forgettable.

In my eyes, Transformers is to this generation of kids what the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were to the kids of the early nineties. Both franchises have a certain fandom appeal. However they’re both completely lacking in compelling characters and a story worth caring about. It’s cinematic junk food with zero nutritional value. This would be all right if only the picture was entertaining. Instead it’s just plain boring with nothing innovative to offer. Ten years from now the kids of today will reevaluate this “Transformer” movie. A few may have found, nostalgic memories of it. Most will just think to themselves, “I can’t believe I actually ate this crap up at a certain point in my life.”

I will admit that I did actually like some of the performances from Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox, who I think is a slightly better actress than most people give her credit. A majority of the actors though just frantically scream their lines over the earsplitting action sequences. The only light spot in the entire movie is Samantha Smith and Kevin Dunn as LaBeouf’s parents. I’d rather see a movie about these two characters staying in on a Saturday night than see “Transformers 3.” 

There’s not a doubt in my mind that this movie is going to make hundreds of millions of dollars. I’m sure the movie will break all sorts of records at the box office during it’s opening weekend. The film could very well go onto become the highest grossing movie of this entire year. But so what?

The Twilight Saga: New Moon

Pale Force *1/2

I never got around to reviewing the megahit of “Twilight” from last year. Had I taken the time out of my busy schedule to review the picture however, I probably would have described it as a music video meets a soap opera with the appearance of a film by college students. “New Moon,” the highly anticipated second installment to the “Twilight” saga, is a significant improvement to it’s predecessor in one area, visuals. The effects are first-rate, which isn’t much of a surprise seeing how Chris Weitz, who made the great looking “Golden Compass”, directed it. Unfortunately, where “New Moon” is a step-up in terms of visuals it’s still completely lacking in the most essential area of a movie, story.  

Edward Cullen, America’s sexiest vampire played by Robert Pattinson, is still going steady with Bella Swan, the modestly attractive mortal played by Kristen Stuart. At her 18th birthday party, Bella gets a paper cut and is attacked by Edward’s brother. After that close call, Edward realizes that his world is just too dangerous for Bella to live in. Edward tells Bella that they can no longer be together. Aw, the old “my life is too complicated for us to be in a relationship” speech. It never grows old…NOT!

Kristen Stuart proved earlier this year in the overlooked “Adventureland” that she’s more than capable of carrying a picture. In that movie though, Stuart was actually given a character to work with who had inner demons and a personality. Here her character of Bella Swans spends a majority of the movie sulking in self-pity and longing for her lost love. Masses of young women look up to Bella. However, I think that her character sends a negative message to teenage girls that you are incomplete without a romantic partner. After the third scene of watching Bella cry herself to sleep I wanted to just scream out, “Gee girlfriend, get over it. Romance is good and all. But there’s more to life than just boys.”

Stuart is essentially a talented actress who is limited to playing a one-dimensional character. This Robert Pattinson fellow though, has yet to prove that he has any acting presence whatsoever. He seems incapable of raising his voice, gaping his eyes, or revealing any hint of emotion. In every scene he appears either half asleep or stoned. Whether he’s supposed to be overflowing with joy or drowning in despair, Pattinson always has the same somber, boring expression on his soulless face.

What this entire series is lacking is any sense of awe. Bella Swan is an average teenage girl who has been swooped into an extraordinary world of super natural beings. And yet she seems completely bored by her soundings. Nothing impresses her, not even when she discovers that her best friend Jacob, played by Taylor Lautner, is a werewolf. At least in the “Harry Potter” series, the characters actually acknowledge the magnitude of the extraordinary circumstances they find themselves in. Although wizards, dragons, and letter-delivering owls surrounded Harry, he was still a young boy at heart. Bella however, is just such a hollow and needy individual that I found it hard to relate to or sympathize with her. Unlike Stephenie Meyer, J.K. Rowling actually understands the emotions that teenagers experience.

In addition to the empty characters, “New Moon” is also really, really, really, BORING! The movie is roughly 130 minutes long and so little seems to happen. If you fast-forward through all the scenes of Pattinson walking in slow motion, the movie would probably only be an hour long. Even in the final act when Bella races to save Edward’s life the pacing feels incredibly slow. 

The most entertaining aspect of the entire movie is the audience. Everybody was cheering uproariously whenever Edward stormed onto the screen or when Jacob removed is shirt. Some critics argued that “Paranormal Activity” wouldn’t have been nearly as entertaining without the audience. While I somewhat agree with this accusation, I still believe that “Paranormal Activity” works as standalone film, with or without the audience. If it wasn’t for the audience in “New Moon” however, I would have felt completely detached from the picture. Watching this movie, I felt as if I was at a Jonas Brothers concert. The only strong points of the movie itself are the performances from Ashley Greene and Nikki Reed as Edward’s sisters. They’re too young actresses to lookout for.

To me these “Twilight” movies are basically “Transformers” for girls. Where all the boys flocked to “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” to see Megan Fox’s cleavage, all the girls will lineup to see “New Moon” for Pattinson and Lautner’s hot bods. I can’t imagine that the “Twilight” saga would be nearly as successful without the attractiveness of it’s stars. If you stripped away Pattinson’s untamed hairdo and Lautner’s perfect chest, people would discover that there is nothing to this movie.

I’m not anti-vampire. I never miss an episode of the HBO vampire series, “True Blood.” The reason that “True Blood” works though is because it actually has characters and there are matters at stake. In “New Moon” the only thing at stake is whether or not Bella will end up with Edward or Jacob. Quite frankly, I could have cared less. Another plus for “True Blood” is that it has erotic sex scenes. Edward Cullen has gone 104 years without sex and refuses to make love to Bella until they are married. This is truly the ultimate tale of abstinence. Remember kids, Edward Cullen says wait until marriage!

I suppose I’m not the right person to review this movie. Everything I’ve just said isn’t going to have the slightest impact on any of the girls who cherish this series. They’ll all walk into the theater proclaiming it’s a masterpiece and walk out of the picture hailing it as a masterpiece. I’m just happy that somebody is going to have a good time at this picture. I sure didn’t.

The Ugly Truth

This movie blows, and that's the truth *

The Filmmaker: O.K. I’ve got a real swell idea for a romantic comedy, see? A real winner of a feel good date movie.

The Studio Executive: I’m listening.

The Filmmaker: It’s called “The Ugly Truth” and it’s all about a single, white, professional, blonde woman. Her life revolves around her job as a television news producer and she doesn’t have any time for romance. I was thinking maybe we could get that Katherine Heigle girl to play the part.

The Studio Executive: Yeah, women like her. She’s like a thirty-something-year-old Sarah Jessica Parker with half the nose.

The Filmmaker: Exactly. Anyways, this woman, lets call her Abby, the ratings for her show are really low. To give the show a boost, her boss hires this conceited womanizer named Mike to do a report on how men only care about sex and women are stupid. I thought Gerard Butler would be perfect for the role.

The Studio Executive: Gerard Butler, you mean that “300” guy?

The Filmmaker: Yeah. But he was also in “The Phantom of the Opera.” Chicks dig the phantom.

The Studio Executive: But I don’t think people are even aware that he was in that movie.

The Filmmaker: Look, the point is that we’ve got two attractive, likable stars. Whether the film itself is good or not, people will still line up to see the picture because of the star power. The work’s half done for us!    

The Studio Executive: Well that is true. Proceed.

The Filmmaker: Right, so Mike and Abby start off hating each other. Abby has a thing for her new neighbor, a nice, good-looking fellow. A doctor perhaps? Every woman wants to marry a doctor, right? Anyways, Mike makes a bet with Abby that he can get this hot doctor to fall in love with her. For their first date, the doctor takes Abby to a baseball game. While on the date, Abby where’s a headset and Mike instructs her what to do and say.

The Studio Executive: Hasn’t that been in like a million other movies and sitcoms?

The Filmmaker: Um, yeah. Where do you think I came up with the idea?

The Studio Executive: Well that doesn’t sound very funny at all.

The Filmmaker: No, no, it’s totally hilarious. I also have an idea for another really funny scene where Abby puts on a pair of vibrating panties and a little kid pleasures her with the remote control.

The Studio Executive: What the hell did you just say?

The Filmmaker: You’ll see.

The Studio Executive: Right, so what happens in the end? Does Abby end up with the nice doctor?

The Filmmaker: No, she ends up with Mike.

The Studio Executive: But I thought you just said that Abby and Mike hate each other?

The Filmmaker: They do. But in the world of movies “I hate you” is really just another way of saying “I love you.” One night they’ll both realize they love each other, Mike will to rush to Abby’s door to find the doctor there with no shirt on, Mike will assume Abby had sex with him, Abby and Mike will get into a fight, eventually they’ll come to terms, and then they’ll confess their love for each other on television in a hot air balloon. Just like in real life!

The Studio Executive: But why do these two individuals fall in love with each other?

The Filmmaker: They just do. Come on work with me here!

The Studio Executive: But these two characters both sound really unlikable. The Mike character in particular sounds like a total sexist pig with no redeeming values.

The Filmmaker: How about we make him a father figure to his nephew? There you go. He seems more sympathetic already.

The Studio Executive: What about this Abby girl? She just seems really needy and desperate.

The Filmmaker: Just like all women! All the single ladies are totally going to relate to this woman.

The Studio Executive: What about the comedic relief?

The Filmmaker: We could star the very funny Cheryl Hines and John Michael Higgins together as a husband and wife news team.

The Studio Executive: Will they be given funny dialog to work with?

The Filmmaker: No. But people will think it’s funny because Hines and Higgins have been so funny in the past. People are idiots!

The Studio Executive: I just don’t know about this. This entire project seems really sleazy and clichéd. And more importantly it doesn’t sound either funny or romantic.

The Filmmaker: But don’t you get it, sir? It doesn’t matter if we make the worst romantic comedy of the year, which we probably will. If we just plaster Heigle and Butler’s faces on the poster and advertise the hell out the picture, people will go see it.  

The Studio Executive: I just don’t know.

The Filmmaker: Look, you can either take a risk on a smart, sophisticated, realistic romantic comedy that people may or may not go see or play it safe with a charmless star vehicle that is guaranteed to show profit no matter how terrible. What’s it going to be?

The Studio Executive: ...Mr. Filmmaker, welcome to Hollywood.

The Filmmaker: I knew you’d see it my way. BAH-HA-HA!!!

The Studio Executive: May the lord have mercy on our souls.

Up

Even after ten films Pixar can still get it up. Sexual innuendo intended as always. *****

Last year in “WALL-E” the people at Pixar proved that they could tell a compelling and even touching love story about robots. In the first five minutes of “Up” Pixar tells a profound love story between two humans. The movie begins with a pair of adventurous whippersnappers named Carl and Ellie. The two meet in their youth, grow up, get married, and share a wonderful life together. The montage eventually works its way up to a heartbreaking moment when Ellie passes away, leaving an elderly Carl alone in the world. This brief segment, set to a fabulous musical score by composer Michael Giacchino, is more meaningful than any scene in any other movie this year so far.

From there on, the movie follows the life of the 78-year-old Carl, voiced by Edward Asner. Carl is a bit like a toned down version of Clint Eastwood’s character in “Gran Torino.” The grumpy Carl deeply misses his late wife, cherishes his privacy, and is told by everybody that he should be in a nursing home. When Carl faces eviction from his beloved house, he decides to take a trip to Paradise Falls in South America, where him and Ellie always dreamed of exploring. How does Carl get there? By tying an army of balloons to his house. In this dazzling sequence of magnificent colors and sheer beauty, Carl and his house are lifted away on a journey of a lifetime.

“Up” is a movie full of unforgettable sites and even more memorable characters. On his flight of adventure, Carl finds himself stuck with a young stowaway named Russell, voiced by Jordan Nagai. Russell is a somewhat chubby, somewhat dim, and I think somewhat Asian Boy Scout whose only one badge away from becoming a master wilderness explorer.  It’ll be obvious to anybody in the audience that by the end of the movie Carl and Russell will become friends. However, it’s the unexpected way that this relationship unfolds that makes “Up” one of the most memorable buddy pictures since…welll…“Toy Story.”

Also among the cast of characters is a dog named Dug, who where’s a collar that enables him the ability to talk. Dug is one of many talking dogs in this movie that have been instructed by their master, another old man voiced by Christopher Plummer, to hunt down a rare, tropical bird. This story somewhat reminded me of the rousing Disney animation, “The Rescuer’s Down Under.”  

Unlike the films from Dreamworks Animation Studio, which have always been a hit and miss in terms of storytelling, Pixar isn’t simply going through the motions with each of it’s movies. Once again they have taken a fairly simple concept and made the best damn movie possible. Like the greatest animated films, “Up” is a picture that escalates above and beyond that rank of a standard cartoon. Director Pete Docter, who made “Monsters Inc.” and co-wrote “Toy Story,” has produced an animated feature that’s really about something. This is a movie about life, friendship, letting go, and new beginnings. Docter remembers that wherever there’s a laugh, there should also be a heart. “Up” is a breathtaking combination of these two essential elements.

Up in the Air

After three films, Jason Reitman can still get it up...wait? Did I already use that pun? Aw, I don't think so. ****1/2

It’s not easy to single out one filmmaker as the breakthrough director of the past ten years. We’ve had so many stunning directorial débuts this past decade from Peter Jackson, Christopher Nolan, Judd Apatow, Martin McDonagh, Danny Boyle, Paul Haggis, Jon Favreau, and several of the Pixar directors. If I had to name one director that defines this generation though, it would be Jason Reitman. Some might describe Reitman as a hipster and smartass new aged storyteller. However, I believe he is a wonderful and intuitive director with a terrific commentary on contemporary America. 

His first film, “Thank You For Smoking,” was a hilarious satire of the tobacco industry. His next film, “Juno,” was a pitch-perfect comedy of a pregnant teen that ranked as my best film of the year. Now for the third time in a row Reitman has hit a winner out of the park. The name of the film is “Up in the Air.” Like Reitman’s previous works, the movie is a humorous, witty, and insightful study of human nature. The screenplay, which Reitman and Sheldon Turner adapted from a novel by Walter Kim, is filled with rich dialog that flies over your head. Although it’s not quite up there with Reitman’s last film, it’s easily one of the finest pictures of the year.

In one of his strongest performances, George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham. Ryan is one of those middle-aged men who lives an isolated life and never saw the point in getting married or having children. His job requires him to fly around America and fire people who all ask him, “How do you sleep at night.” He lives out of his suitcase and only stays at his actual apartment forty-something days out of the year. The closest thing he has to a meaningful relationship is with a woman he meets in an airport lounge named Alex, played by Vera Farmiga. We’ve seen numerous characters similar to Ryan before. But it’s Clooney’s in-depth performance that shapes Ryan into one of the most fascinating characters of the year.

Ryan’s boss, played by Jason Bateman, assigns him a young apprentice named Natalie, played by Anna Kendrick. It is Ryan’s duty to take Natalie, who suggests that the company should start firing people via web cam, and show her the ropes. Anna Kendrick was last seen in a bit part as Jessica in “New Moon.” Here she explodes into stardom as an actress with limitless potential. Kendrick is magnificent as a woman who thinks she has the world all figured out. Through Ryan however, Natalie learns that life is not so straightforward. Along the way Natalie also opens Ryan’s eyes to how empty his life has been. Kendrick might not be a household name like her “Twilight” co-star, Kristen Stewart. Twenty years from now though, I believe that Kendrick will still be making movies while Stewart will merely be remembered as the stoned chick who played Bella Swan.

At the ninety minute point of “Up in the Air” I was worried that the film would copout with a sentimental ending. In the last twenty minutes however, the film takes a couple of unexpected turns. There’s a scene in which Ryan rushes to Alex’s doorstep which I saw going one of two ways. I won’t give away how the scene plays out. However, I have to admit that the scene took me by complete surprise. This is a movie that does not take the easy way out like so many other romances with a conventional, feel good final act. Instead it ends on a truthful note that is not exactly happy but still quite uplifting.

Watchmen

If the watchmen watch over us, who watches over the watchmen? Then who watches over those who watch over the watchmen? Then who watches over those who watch over those who watch…it just goes on and on! ***

The Hugo Award winning “Watchmen” has been hailed as the greatest graphic novel of all-time. For the past couple of months, fanboys have been anticipating the theatrical release of “Watchmen” like its Jesus’ second coming. Does “Watchmen” live up to all the hype? The film isn’t as emotionally challenging as Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” or “The Dark Knight.”    It lacks the down to earth humor of “Iron Man,” “Hellboy II,” and the “Spider-Man” films. I wouldn’t even go as far to say that it’s as entertaining as “Sin City,” “Superman Returns,” “V for Vendetta,” “The Incredible Hulk,” or the “X-Men” trilogy. The standards for graphic novel movies have certainly been raised in the past decade. While I am giving “Watchmen” a recommendation, I have to admit that it’s not in the same league as any of the films I listed above.

The film sets itself in an alternate universe during the year 1985. Richard Nixon has been elected for a third term, the country is on the break of nuclear war, and costumed heroes, Watchmen as they call themselves, roam the streets. When a senior Watchmen known as the Comedian, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, is murdered, the heroes band together to get to the bottom of it. Among the Watchmen is Patrick Wilson as Dan Dreiberg aka Nite Owl, a companionate, gadget-wielding superhero who’s gone into retirement. Then there’s Malin Akerman as Laurie Jupiter aka Silk Spectre, another retired Watchmen who wears a sexy leather ensemble. The most interesting of the bunch is Jackie Earle Hayley as Rorschach, a masked vigilante who seems like a character out of the Frank Miller universe.

None of these Watchmen necessarily have superpowers. They’re all just really good at kickin’ ass. The only character with any real power at all is Dr. Manhattan, played by Billy Crudup. He has the ability to grow to the size of a skyscraper, manipulate shape, duplicate, transport, and obliterate anything or anyone who crosses his path. As far as I’m concerned, he could pwn any other the other Watchmen without lifting a finger. Dr. Manhattan is a truly fascinating technical creation, glowing bright blue with eyes like white crystal stones. He goes nude for the most part, occasionally wearing a suit or metal thong to hide his blue genitalia. Dr. Manhattan makes the Silver Surfer of the “Fantastic Four” movies look like the whip he is.

The performances are all first-rate, with exception to one. Patrick Wilson does an admirable job as Dan Dreiberg, acting as the stories voice of reason. Billy Crudup manages to create a real character in Dr. Manhattan, although he is hidden behind special effects throughout a majority of the movie. The standout performance comes from Jackie Earle Hayley. Hayley is haunting and menacing as Rorschach in a certified badass performance. With his work here and his Oscar-nominated performance in “Little Children,” Hayley is official back in business.

The misfire performance comes from Malin Akerman as Laurie Jupiter. Akerman is great to look at in hot leather. To be frank though, she’s really not much of an actress. As a matter of fact, she makes Jessica Alba look like Kate Winslet. Most of the time she just seems to be smiling at the screen, thinking to herself, “Look at me! I’m in a comic book movie. Hi mom!” If you ask me, the actress who should have been cast in the role is Selma Blair from the “Hellboy” films. Blair is not only an attractive actress but more importantly can act as well.

“Watchmen” comes from director Zack Snyder who brought us the visually enchanting “300.” “300” was one of those movies that you either really got into or thought was just plain lame. Personally, I was one of the fans in the theater with a red “3” painted onto my chest, standing next to two other guys with red “0’s” painted onto their chests. “Watchmen” is likely to have a similar effect with audiences. Some fanboys will walk out of theater saying, “That was better than sex…I assume.” While other will drearily say, “Gay!”

I myself am a bit on the fence with “Watchmen.” The film is almost too true to it’s original source material. It’s overly long at just less than three hours when it could easily have been two hours. On top of all that, the film is jumbled in its message, if it has a message at all that is. Nevertheless, the performances are excellent for the most part, the dialog is always interesting to listen to, and the effects are breathtaking. This is one of those movies that’s enchanting purely to look at. At the end of the day however, the backbone of “Watchmen” is its compelling characters. That’s the most important thing in a movie like this.  

 

Where the Wild Things Are

Any of you wild things want to try some Ritalin? ****

There’s a scene early on in “Where the Wild Things Are” in which young Max, played with great presence from newcomer Max Records, bombards his sister and her friends with snowballs. The friends then retaliate against Max and destroy his beloved snow fort. All the while Max’s sister stands there and does nothing. In a fit of rage the wild Max storms into his sister’s bedroom. He stomps around in his snowy boots and destroys a heart he made for her out of popsicle sticks. Seconds later Max realizes the terrible deed he has committed and instantly feels sorry. He seeks refuge in his bed until his mother, played by Catherine Keener, comes home to find what Max has done.

What child hasn’t gone through this cycle of emotions? We all know what it’s like to be furious at a sibling or parent, wanting revenge, then guilty when that revenge is exacted. You’re then left nothing to do but wait until your parent comes home to confess your wrongdoings. “Where the Wild Things Are” is a movie that touches base on so many emotions that children feel, such as anger, confusion, guilt, the need to rebel against your elders, and joy.    

Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book contained more pictures than words at only ten sentences. Unlike the live action adaptations of “The Grinch” and “Cat in the Hat” however, “Where the Wild Things Are” is a film that gets the spirit of the original source material absolutely right. Like Robert Zemeckis’s film version of “The Polar Express,” this is a movie that expands the world that the original children’s book created with depth, a moving story, and a meaningful message.

Shortly after he has another outburst with his recently divorced mother, Max runs away from home. He hops aboard a ship and ventures to the land of wild things. There he meets several ferocious beasts that make Max their king. In the book the wild things had no names or distinct personalities. Director Spike Jonze along with co-screenwriter Dave Eggers however, have molded the wild things into real characters that in some way embody Max’s own feelings.

There is much of Max in Carol, a horned beastly creature voiced by James Gandolfini. Carol, like Max, is misunderstood and has been aggressively acting out towards his friends. Just as Max feels abandoned by his mother, who has started seeing other men, Carol feels betrayed by his friend KW, another wild thing voiced by Lauren Ambrose. KW has recently left her fellow wild things to hang out with two new friends named Bob and Terry. Carol feels KW drifting away and is deeply afraid of the changing world around him.

Carol views Max as somebody who can make everything better much like a child looks to up to a parent. Carol eventually learns however that Max, like anyone’s parent, is not perfect and cannot take all the sadness out of life. How Jonze and Eggers managed to take a picture book and morph it into a movie with such emotional impact and rich characters is beyond me. However, they completely pull it off.

Jonze, who also directed the great “Being John Malkovich,” takes the beautiful pictures of Sendak’s original book and fashions a gorgeous, wonderfully strange world unlike any other. The wild things are truly magnificent technical creations, constructed out of animatronics suits with computer-generated faces. It’s the all-star voice cast that includes Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper, Paul Dano, and Michael Berry Jr. that give the wild things the essence of real people however. The land of wild things is the sort of world children dream about at night and imagine they live in during the day. This is a movie that the late great Jim Henson would have felt right at home in. It’s a magical world that’s scary, exciting, weird, and blissful.

“Where the Wild Things Are” is the kind of family movie with the dark, yet magical, atmosphere of a classic like “The Wizard of Oz,” “Pinocchio,” or “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Little ones may be frightened by the hostility of the wild things. This is a movie with some pretty heavy material that is not necessarily intended for everyone. Nevertheless, “Where the Wild Things Are” is still a wonderful picture for the entire family that is actually likely to have a greater influence on older audiences than kiddies. The film will scare some, delight others, and will ultimately one day become a children’s classic.

Year One

One of the worst of this year or any year for that matter 1/2*

“Year One” is the most disappointing comedy of the year. The film is made up of an all-star cast of comedic performers, including Jack Black, Michael Cera, David Cross, Paul Rudd, Hank Azaria, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse. Judd Apatow, director of “Knocked Up” and “The 40-Year Old Virgin,” produced the film. The director, Harold Ramis, has contributed to some of the greatest comedies ever made, including “Groundhog Day” and “Animal House.” Despite all of this, “Year One” doesn’t have a single memorable moment in it’s entire hour and a half long running time. Not since “The Love Guru” has so many talented people come together to produce such a laugh-free comedy.  Hell, “10,000 B.C.” had more laughs than this movie.

The film sets itself in the year One as the title suggests. Jack Black stars as Zed, who is essentially Black playing himself in tattered clothing. Wanting more out of life, Zed decides to eat from the tree of forbidden fruit and is then banished from his tribe. Zed is accompanied by Oh, an awkward teenager played by Michael Cera. Together the two venture the world and meet numerous biblical figures.   

The screenplay was written by Ramis along with Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, both are alumni of “The Office.” Their script is full of tired gags about encountering wild animals and debating whether to remain still or run. There’s also a tasteless scene involving the Cera character rubbing oil on the hairy chest of a high priest played by Oliver Platt. Plus we get lots of fart jokes, lots of penis jokes, lots of gay jokes, lots of jokes about women’s armpit hair, and lots of jokes about licking bear poop. What were these gifted writers thinking? Did they seriously believe any of this material was funny? Maybe Ramis is suffering from George Lucas syndrome. Ramis has had so much success throughout his esteemed career that nobody had the guts to tell him that his screenplay wasn’t funny and was in desperate need of a re-write. There isn’t an idea in this movie that is even suitable to be on Saturday Night Live for five minutes.

There are times in “Year One” where we see potential for a better movie, such as when Zed and Oh encounter Hank Azaria as Abraham and convince him not to sacrifice his son Isaac, played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse. Even that scene however results in a number of lamebrain jokes about cutting off the tips of penises. The film wants to be like Mel Brook’s “History of the World: Part 1,” which was no masterpiece. But at least “History of the World” knew how to take a historical event, like Moses announcing the Fifteen…I mean Ten Commandments, and satirize it. “Year One” is basically just Black and Cera doing their usual routine in an unlikely setting. This would be all right if they were given material to work with. Instead they just seem bored as they desperately try to make the audience laugh.

To be fair, there is one, just one, genuinely witty line of dialog in the movie. Cera’s character asks a young servant girl when she gets off work. She then replies, “Never I’m a slave.” Aside from that one scene, which can be seen in the film’s theatrical trailer, the movie is absolutely dead in the water. 

It takes some talented people to make a truly awful film. Ramis, Black, Cera, and the rest of the cast and crew behind “Year One,” are all talented people who have together produced a truly dreadful film. They can all do better and I believe they will do better in the future. For now however, “Year One” is in the purest sense talent flushed down the toilet. 

Zombieland

No it's not swine flu. He's just a zombie ***1/2

“Zombieland” is a trashy, slightly vulgar, self consciously campy zombie satire full of shameless product placement. It’s also a surprisingly well-crafted, well-written picture with a couple of near great performances. The film is unarguably funny. I laughed out loud throughout “Zombieland” just as much as I did in “Shaun of the Dead” and “Slither” and almost as much as I did in Robert Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror.” What struck me the most about “Zombieland” however is it’s effective storytelling. This is a zombie movie about characters the audience actually cares about and exceeds beyond mere junk like “Zombie Strippers!” 

Jesse Eisenberg plays Columbus, an awkward loner who has survived a zombie outbreak only because he plays by a list of survival rules. The kinds of rules that the idiots in those “Resident Evil” movies should follow such as always wear a seatbelt and always double kill the zombie. On his pilgrimage Columbus comes across a fellow survivor named Tallahassee, played by Woody Harrelson. Tallahassee is one of those country cowboys who specializes in killing zombies and loves Twinkies with a passion, hence the product placement I was talking about.

The two meet up with a pair of con artist sisters played by the lovely Emma Stone and the feisty Abigail Breslin. The four eventually come to trust each other and band together to fight off the zombie invasion. Along the way Tallahassee finds his Twinkies and the four ultimately find each other.

A few months ago Jesse Eisenberg starred in the overlooked “Adventureland.” Some seemed to believe that Eisenberg was merely copying Michael Cera, who also specializes in playing frizzy-haired, insecure teenage virgins. Although I admit that he shares a great resemblance to Cera, Eisenberg by no means copies him. In “Adventureland” and now “Zombieland” Eisenberg has delivered two great performances with his own unique signature. Although Cera might be a more household name, I wouldn’t be surprised if Eisenberg went onto have a better career.

There are strong performances all around. Harrelson is especially hilarious and perfectly cast as the shotgun wielding Tallahassee. This is a breakthrough performance for Emma Stone who was last seen as Mathew McConaughey’s obnoxious first sex partner in “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.” Abigail Breslin proves that she can be lovable even in a movie centered on flesh eating zombies. There’s also an appearance from a special guest celebrity, which I will not give away. What I will say however that it’s the funniest and most unexpected cameo since Tom Cruise’s scene stealing role in “Tropic Thunder.”  

This is the first feature film from director Ruben Fleischer. Fleischer has fashioned a neat little zombie romp with zombies that sprint like gold medalists as apposed to so many other limping, mentally challenged zombies wee see in the movies today. It all leads up to a splendid climax in which the four friends take on the zombies at an amusement park. Who would have guessed that Eisenberg would star in two films this year that take place in amusement parks and end with the word, “land?” And in some bizarre way, the movie even has a significant message about friendship and family. This is a movie with something that so many other zombie pictures lack, a heart. Although I’m not entirely sure if a zombie movie is supposed to have a heart or brains for that matter.