Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Raising the Bar

How long has it been since Matthew McConaughey has been known for anything besides his good looks? Sure, he's had his share of hit films over course of his career, with romantic comedies like Fool's Gold and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, dramas like We Are Marshall, even the psychological thriller Frailty. But McConaughey's resume isn't what has been getting him the most attention of late. Appearing on several "sexiest man" magazine covers, it's easy to forget that once upon a time he was one of the more respected and renowned actors in Hollywood. Often picking film that are more "fun" than critically acclaimed, he's all but secured a second or third tier celebrity status, well below the likes of George Clooney or Javier Bardem, but still above say, Michael Douglass. With the trailers to The Lincoln Lawyer, however, McConaughey seems to be refuting that status. Reminding so many people of his captivating performance in 1996's A Time To Kill, the box office winner looked to be as charming as ever in this adaptation of the novel my Michael Connolly, perhaps finally choosing a role that put his full talents on display. It certainly looked good enough to draw me out to the theater this past Sunday, hoping that the trailers did more than highlight the film's best moments.

A very special episode of Law & Order: Celebrity Victims Unit
McConaughey plays small-time defense attorney Mickey Haller, a smart and charming smooth-talker who, despite a career of defending lowlifes and scumbags and holding a not small amount of disdain for overzealous cops and prosecutors, is actually the hero of this story. Out of the blue, Haller is brought in on a high-profile case: a wealthy Beverly Hills playboy named Louis Roullet (Ryan Phillippe) is being accused of beating and threatening to kill a young woman he had met one evening. Naturally, he claims that he's being set up, and there is certainly enough doubt accredited to the woman's story to make such a statement feasible. As more and more facts become known however, what began as a straightforward case becomes a twisted cat-and-mouse game in which Mickey's not sure who to trust, or what he can do to make things right.

Macy channeling his Boogie Nights persona
The strength of the story lies in its straightforwardness and honesty. Told exclusively from the perspective of Haller, the film's tale is learned by the audience at the same time our hero becomes privy to it. In this way, we're never under the impression that the characters know much more than we do, and this helps draw in the audience to the point where stepping away before conclusions are drawn is nearly impossible. You're invested in nearly every second of the film's run time, and the time spent never feels empty, as every moment bristles with the tension of wondering what new ground-breaking piece of information we'll learn next from the film's assorted cadre of characters.

I just wanted to plug in a photo of Marisa Tomei... for all the obvious reasons
The film's biggest draw is that of its cast. Director Brad Furman did a wonderful job filling in all the roles, even if most of them pale in comparison to McConaughey. The film is told from Haller's singular point of view, and it's fortunate that an actor of McConaughey's charm is in charge here. A perfect blend of charisma, humor and brains, Haller is practically written for McConaughey to melt into. The film suffers slightly for never straying from his side (it's probably the closest I've seen to a one-man show with an ensemble cast), but not so much that it permanently damages the relationship with the audience. I'll see Marisa Tomei in just about anything, so varied are her exceptional performances. She's just as good here, though her role as Haller's District Attorney ex-wife isn't the kind of award bait that her aging exotic dancer in The Wrestler was. Still, she does a great job and some of the film's best scenes are where we see both the good and bad in the relationship between the former flames. Sweet yet strained, it was a fully realistic pseudo-romance, enhanced by the stars' chemistry. That Tomei also played a smart, sophisticated woman as well is almost a bonus. William H. Macy is also good in a small role as Haller's private investigator friend, and solid performances abound from such varied talents as John Leguizamo, Josh Lucas, Frances Fisher, Bryan Cranston, Michaela Conlin, Margarita Levieva and Laurence Mason. Michael Pena as well is simply amazing, and while he is relegated to only two short scenes, his character proves to be so engaging and important that you really care what happens to him despite his brief appearance. The only real disappointment among this crowd is Phillippe, who has never been one of my (or many people's) favorites. The only film I've liked him in was last year's MacGruber, and then only because he was able to drop that uber-serious attitude he usually brings to roles not unlike this one. When all is said and done, he's given far too good a role to know what to do with, and doesn't pull it off convincingly. Still, with McConaughey in charge of just about every scene even this small annoyance barely makes a real fuss.

Get over it Matthew; Cranston has won more awards than you
If there's anything lacking here, it's the result of a rather lackluster ending that tries a little too hard to tie up all the loose threads. Compared to the rest of the film, it lacks the composure to be attractive to the audience and results in a bit of disappointment in comparison. Still, The Lincoln Lawyer is good enough to recommend to anyone looking for a fun movie, even if the subject matter is a bit more mature than Haller's one-liners. An ideal platform for Matthew McConaughey to dispel any thoughts that he can't do more serious fare, The Lincoln Lawyer tops out at #4 on the 2011 Top Films list. A lot of fun and a good old fashioned legal thriller, I think just about anyone can go into this film and more or less enjoy it.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Fail Fatale

From the moment the trailer for Sucker Punch debuted at 2010's Comic-Con, it had become my most anticipated film of 2011. More than Thor. More than Captain America. More than just about any theatrical release you can imagine scheduled for this year. With it's engaging special effects, talented cast and explosive action, Sucker Punch looked like a crazy three-way love child borne of Kill Bill, 300 and The Pussycat Dolls. There was only one major obstacle between this film and guaranteed awesomeness: director Zack Snyder. While I (among others) loved his directorial debut in 2004's Dawn of the Dead, the remake of George Romero's classic zombie-ocalypse, his films have since been known more for style rather than substance. 300 (which I admit I haven't seen) has been described as a generally brainless film with beautiful sets, and Watchmen would have been unwatchable if not for the same style of visual splendor. Even his animated feature Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Houle was criticized for it's lack of character development and predictable story, while any who see it might "ooh" and "aah" the ocular stimuli. Simply put, Snyder is good at making things on screen look good, but that alone doesn't make for a good director. He was the main reason for any scenario in which Sucker Punch would not live up to its full potential, and that's a shame, as going in I (and my friend The Opinioness, who ventured with me) was worried that without Snyder this film might actually have had a chance of surprising us.

Yes, yes I think I will follow you into battle
After the death of her mother, Baby Doll (Emily Browning) is sent to an insane asylum for violent girls by her evil and lecherous stepfather. That same evil bastard wants to have Baby Doll lobotomized to prevent her from talking about his transgressions, and an orderly named Blue (Oscar Isaac) assures him that an expert is coming in a few days to carry out the procedure. With only days before completely losing her identity, Baby Doll hatches a plan to escape along with several other inmates: diva Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), her sister Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung). Sneaking behind the backs of Blue and the asylums' doctor Madam Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino), the five follow their plan via highly-exciting imagination-action music videos, and attempt to overcome the many obstacles in their path to gather what they need to escape.

Sorry Gugino, your Polish accent doesn't make up for your lack of necessity
The film's best achievement is by far the visuals. Yes, I know, stop your vigorous head-nodding, we all knew this was going to be the case. The film has a very Inception-esque vibe, not only in the amount of imagery used but in the story's concept as well: the young women live in an asylum, but create an image in their minds of a Roaring 20's-era brothel, because the real world is too painful. From there, Baby Doll imagines this whole other world in which she and her friends battle dragons, robots and monsters to obtain the real-world items they need. So Sucker Punch can be described as a dream within a dream, just like last year's summer blockbuster. However, while the theme worked for Inception because it was an integral part of the story, these overly-designed sets act with no real purpose to the plot of Sucker Punch, serving as merely an alternative telling of the far more mundane events; apparently Baby Doll has a hypnotic dance that immobilizes her target while the other girls simply steal what they need to escape, THAT'S IT. And I'm sorry, but after a completely gonzo first action scene in which Baby Doll takes on a trio of vicious giant Gollems, the rest of film's like scene feels remarkably similar, never growing in spectacle or explosiveness. Instead, they are just one steady hum, like that of a dead man's pulse.

Worse, the film's story is so dry and uninteresting that it's filled with miniature music videos of random stuff happening, mostly the transition from the first dream to the second. While the film's opening is an amazing feat, mixing tragic storytelling and amazing imagery (Snyder did a similar opener for Watchmen), the musical montages that follow are obvious filler for having nothing else to do while the film moves to the next major plot point. At least Snyder is the master of the film soundtrack, from the haunting tones of "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" in the opener to Emiliana Torrini's "White Rabbit" and a Queen hip-hop mash-up and Bjork's "Army of Me" (proving perhaps that Bjork appeals to all the people some of the time). It's only the excellence of the soundtrack that makes these scenes even remotely entertaining, as even what we can see on the screen doesn't always make up for just how lousy the storytelling gets.

Her hair moves more than in a Japanese anime, and the audience gets about as many nosebleeds
The acting is at least solid throughout, though by no means special. I have to imagine this is more due to the especially weak characters, not the actual talent involved (okay, it doesn't hurt that I'm convinced everyone on the cast minus Vanessa Hudgens could beat the crap out of me). Browning doesn't have a whole lot to do besides stare blankly and speak dry, unoriginal dialogue. She does get some juicy scenes (including being the star of the film's opening) but otherwise her biggest contribution to the film might be in the form of three musical tracks. Cornish is the best of the ladies, but also is limited by poor repartee and no character growth. Malone and Chung appear also to be talented while delivering their cliched lines with as much emotion as they can convey. Hudgens is the worst of the bunch by a long shot, so it's good that she doesn't really do much besides smirk and cry, given the context of whatever scene she's in. Oscar Isaac chews scenery as the film's main antagonist but was much better in 2010's Robin Hood, and Carla Gugino is merely a cypher when it comes to being the closest thing to a maternal character seen in the film. Serving no purpose, it's hard to imagine what Gugino was thinking when she took this part, especially as her tole in Snyder's Watchmen did her no favors. Finally Sean Glenn emulates a Carradine to great effect as Baby Doll's guardian angel, who guides her to the tools she needs.

By far The Real World's greatest contribution to society
Once again, we're left with the idea that Zack Snyder should probably stick to visual artistry. I could forgive him not being able to set up the audience for the meat and potatoes that is his amazing effects, but the film's sheer inability to produce anything original or noteworthy is inexcusable. It's as if the large number of possible inspirations for the strong female roles (Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor, The Bride, and Thelma and Louise) didn't exist in creating characters so anti-feminist. While they fight against injustice and sacrifice for one another, any considering these emotionally-stunted girls as "strong" female roles doesn't really know what they're talking about. Under another director, perhaps a woman who could more empathise with the themes Snyder fails in properly understanding (Kathryn Bigelow, Lexi Alexander or Karen Kusama, to perhaps name a few), would have been more successful. I do applaud Snyder's attempt to tackle something new and different, but the film's lack of originality and his failure to capitalize on the great ideas he himself put forth are the main reason Sucker Punch will be in contention for 2011's worst movie of the year. As it stands, the film barely cracks the Top 10 films of the year, coming in square at #10. Fans of DC's Superman beware, you will be unprepared when Snyder takes on your beloved hero next in the franchise's upcoming reboot, called for now Man of Steel. It will most likely make Superman Returns look like a masterpiece in comparison.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Being a Good Guest

Today, Netflix Streaming goes back a few years to 2007 and the South Korean monster movie The Host. When the trailers for this film started appearing in American theaters the year before, I had been enticed by not only the the film's premise, but the method in which this idea was carried out. As a monster movie with comedic elements, I had been interested to see whether the pace set by the trailer could be carried out by a full-length motion picture. But, like many films at that time, I missed out on seeing it in the theater, and while I always had it on my "to do" list, it was in danger of never crossing my path as more and more films flocked to the theaters and DVD racks. Even seeing up to three films a week doesn't seem to cover as much ground as I had originally thought. Fortunately, I happened upon it one evening while searching Netflix's library, and while I didn't immediately view it, I certainly made a point to take an evening and catch up on this international hit.

Hurry, they're about to make a Starcraft 2 announcement!
The Park family is an odd lot of misfits and losers. Patriarch Hee-bong (Byon Hee-bong) has little left except a snack and noodle stand in the public park. One of his sons, Nam-il (Park Hae-il) is college-taught but an alcoholic protester by nature. Daughter Nam-joo (Bae Doona) is competitive archer who can't succeed due to a lack of nerve. His other son is a lazy bum, but at least Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) has one thing to be proud of: his bright young daughter Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-seung). Things are going normally for the family today. The park is lively with potential customers, and things are for the most part normal. At least, things were normal before the discovery of a strange creature hanging under the nearby Wonhyo bridge. The creature then attacks the gawking bystanders, killing many of them in the process, and then before it disappears manages to kidnap young Hyun-seo while Gang-du is helpless to do anything but watch. Soon after, the military arrives and quarantines everyone who was in the vicinity of the attack. Not believing the youngest member of their family to be deceased, the four remaining Parks come together as a family to escape quarantine and hunt down the creature that took away their brightest star.

I'd shout a warning, but there's no movie without you getting nabbed, sorry.
Despite sporting a meager budget (by Hollywood standards), The Host manages to do an amazing job with the creature effects used. Looking like something of a mutated fish, the monster here moves fluidly and is perfectly melded into the real-world environments we're shown. From the beginning, we see the monster in all it's glory. There are no half-focused shots of it early on, with more and more detail coming into focus the more of the film we see. While that's not normal filmmaking it doesn't make the creature any less of a mystery and seeing the full creature from the beginning doesn't make it any less scary. There are very few times where the creature looks anything less than authentic, but even those limited circumstances are remedied by the softening of a camera's focus and pushing the creature into the background.

Seriously, did he cosplay as Cloud Strife that year or something?
You wouldn't think a thriller film featuring giant monsters to also possess great acting, but The Host has no fewer than three outstanding performances within it's borders. Song Kang-ho will at first annoy you with his bright orange hair and apparent laziness, but as he becomes the father whose daughter is lost, Kang-ho's performance becomes much, much better. His single-minded determination makes for some compelling acting, and you can begin to see why he is such a revered leading man in the Far East. As the family's patriarch, Byeon Hee-bong is stellar from the start, and easily becomes one of the most sympathetic characters in the film. Knowing what it's like to lose a loved one, the elder Park is arguably the strongest member of the family and the one the audience will likely be rooting for. But the real star here is the film-debuting Ko Ah-seong as the youngest member of the Park clan. Rather than leave the mystery as to whether she's alive or dead, we're shown scenes of her surviving in the creature's nesting area, and by a long way they end up being the most enjoyable parts of the movie. As a spunky young heroine, her attempts to escape the situation she's in are often more interesting than the the exploits of the rest of her family. Park Hae-il and Bae Doona are unfortunately nowhere near as interesting as the rest. Both are pretty much cut from the same cloth; smarter-than-average people bogged down by a glaring weakness. It's a shame in that both characters could have been much more interesting whereas in reality they have their moments but otherwise don't get to do much.

Sure, it's the sewers. What could go wrong?
The film's main problem is that it can't wrap a good enough story around interesting elements. There are long periods of nothing happening centered by a sudden, violent scene involving the monster, ad nauseum. The humor elements are also frittered away. While there are some scenes that do tickle the funny bone, mostly involving physical humor, I found myself thinking that if they'd played the film more straight and done away with those bits, it would have made for a more powerful film. Indeed these interludes are few and far between, and I can only wonder as to why they were included in the first place. The only such parts involving the main cast are more awkward than gut-busting, making the error more obvious.

Yes, Mr. Anderson finally saw The Host, now stop looking at me like that!
Also awkward is the film's obvious stance on the United States' military presence and impact on South Korea. The creature's growth is blamed on US carelessness, and in fact was based on a similar real-life incident that occurred in 2000, when a Korean mortician working for the US military dumped large amounts of formaldehyde down the drain, raising environmental concerns and inciting anti-American antagonism. And a later scene in the film draws obvious comparisons to Agent Orange, the controversial herbicidal warfare chemical. I actually don't have a problem with the the use of these sources to satirical effect and don't have any problems with any actual anti-US posturing to the point where they actually have a reason to distrust our military forces. However, being on the opposite end of that barb does feel a bit odd, and is not something you usually will see in film, especially with the very PRO-military Battle: Los Angeles currently doing so well overseas, most notably in - you guessed it - South Korea.

Not surprising with monster films; lots of dark spaces
When all is said and done, however, I can't for the life of me figure out why this film was praised as highly as it has been. The acting is alright and the special effect were good, but with a story so hokey and full of holes that it largely negated all the good the first two brought to the table. The humor was needless, and as a final insult the last act was so silly and idiotic that I wish I had stopped watching well before then. I can't in good faith recommend it to you, but if you're hard up for a monster flick and haven't seen this one yet, I suppose I could step aside and let you learn the hard way.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Limitless Opportunities

When it comes to choosing films to watch, sometimes it's not about what film you want to see most, but what you're stuck with when all is said and done. If I'd had my way, I probably would have used this morning to see The Lincoln Lawyer, Matthew McConaughey's thriller that hearkens back to his amazing performance in A Time to Kill. I also want to see the adaptation of classic Bronte novel Jane Eyre, and I've been looking forward to Tom McCarthy's latest indie film Win Win for some time now. But, due to no good showings of Lawyer, as well as Eyre and Win Win not making it to my preferred theaters as of yet (soon, I hope), I was left with fewer choices than I would have preferred. Stuck between films I've seen, films I've never heard of, and films I have no inclination to see, I decided to settle on a title in which I had at least a small  interest. Limitless I think surprised many when it went #1 at the box office this past weekend, and the film boasted of its star power in the rising Bradley Cooper and Hollywood icon Robert De Niro. Still, the trailer to me seemed a little weak, with what seemed like an interesting idea doubtlessly bogged down by convention and normalcy, despite it's sky-reaching goals.

Hey, Cooper looks like my 2010, only more greasy.
Based on the 2001 novel The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn and directed by Neil Burger, Limitless introduces the viewer to Eddie Morra (Cooper), a hopeless writer at the lowest point of his life. He lives in a crappy apartment, his girlfriend (Abbie Cornish) has just left him, and to top it off, he is in danger of losing his book contract because he cannot frame a single sentence. When fate introduces him to new experimental wonder drug, NZT-48, his life is changed. NZT-48 allows one who takes it to access 100% of their brain functionality, as opposed to most of us who at most can reach about twenty. Eddie goes from zero to hero faster than an episode of Queer Eye, dropping his slovenly looks, finishing his book and making gobs of dough through the stock market. It isn't long though before his action is threatened by the limited supply of the drug, it's revealing side effects, unscrupulous mobsters and crooked Wall Street goons, led by Street legend Carl Van Loon (De Niro).

Obviously nobody ever told Eddie to not take money from Russian gangsters
Where the film succeeds is showing us how easy it can be for the desperate to cling to anything, ANYTHING, when they are at their most downtrodden. Even though Eddie is competent and sane enough to know that taking an illegal drug is probably not a good idea, once he gets that good feeling coursing through his system he's helpless against it's power. That it allows him to be arguably the best person he can be is almost irrelevant when you factor in all the trouble that brings him. In fact, this film might be seen by many as anti-drug, even going into the hazards of overdosing. Not all the film's details match this hypothesis, however, and in the end the moral of the story is muddled and unclear.

De Niro attempts to wow Cooper with his Taxi Driver skills
And that's Limitless's problem: we're not sure what to make of this tale of sometimes morals and drug dependence. On one hand, Eddie is anything if not a sympathetic character. Even when on his binges, he never does anything I would think of as WRONG. Instead he is practically dragged from conflict to bloody conflict, almost never actively making a move unless coerced, by drug or otherwise. On the other hand, he somehow seems to be addicted to this substance, even if it steadily brings him more trouble. So what's the point of it all? The script doesn't offer any answers to these thoughts, or even the questions asked in its own story. For instance, if 100% of someone's brain is activated by this drug, how in the hell does this guy not think that borrowing money from a Russian mobster (Andrew Howard) is a bad idea? This and other banal problems have no place in the unique realm that this drug is supposed to produce, and yet there you are.

Wishing he had a bigger window
I probably would have walked out of the theater if it hadn't been for the acting talent on display. You might at first accuse Cooper of playing the same kind of playboy he appears to be in many of his films, but in Limitless he actually plays two distinct editions of Eddie Morra. As the "classic" starving artist, Cooper realistically portrays the depression and frustration of being an unaccomplished writer in the world's greatest city. For Eddie's "enhanced special edition", Cooper can be the more confident, affable and charming performer we're used to, which I'm sure is much less of a challenge. Still, his overall ability is rightfully the mainstay of the entire film, and anybody else in the role would have simply felt wrong. Abbie Cornish is slowly turning herself into a genuine superstar, and while smallish parts like her romantic interest role will only help so much, they WILL help if she treats them as seriously as she does here. She's obviously immensely talented, and it would have been nice to see a larger role created for her. She's not the only waste of talent, however. It seems Burger can be lumped in with a multitude of directors who don't know what to do with Robert De Niro in his later years. De Niro is as gravelly and posturing as he can possibly be, but it doesn't make up for the fact that his character is a fairly useless one. Seriously, I kept waiting for Van Loon to become relevant over the course of the story, but the film's biggest fallacy is the idea that they would do anything interesting with this star. Some stronger performances belonged to an unrecognizable Anna Friel as Eddie's ex-wife and Andrew Howard as the film's real human villain.

Cue green screen... and go!
Limitless would probably work fine as a P.S.A. to keep kids from doing drugs if it had managed to fall on that side of the moral spectrum. Instead, it lionizes a drug's effects and seems to indicate that we all might benefit from a bit of chemical help to be our best. That seems like a dangerous philosophy to adopt, and even taking The Gospel of Uncle Benjamin into account, it's an idea tough to justify within the parameters set by the story. But that's beside the point when the film doesn't do enough with the great ideas it puts forward. Far too conventional to take advantage of an otherwise interesting story, Limitless debuts rather low at #8 for 2011. It had the potential to be something; it could have been a contender. Instead it will meet an early exit by the end of next month at the latest.

Monday, March 21, 2011

My Friend Paul

I think I realize now why I didn't love Shaun of the Dead when I first saw it. When the zombie-comedy film, co-starring English comedians Simon Pegg and Nick Frost first reached our shores back in 2004, I wasn't in the theaters to see it. I honestly don't remember what I was up to about that time, but despite so many around me raging about how great it was, I safely managed to completely avoid the film release. A year or so later, I finally rented the DVD and despite (or perhaps because of) the tons of positive hype I'd received from friends and acquaintances that this was one of the funniest movies they'd ever seen, I found myself unenthused by some of the obscure jokes and inane plot threads. That's not to say I didn't LIKE Shaun; not at all, I liked it very much. I just didn't LOVE it like so many around me seemed to. So underwhelmed was I by this that I skipped the duo's next collaboration, 2007's Hot Fuzz, altogether, and only in 2009's Star Trek reboot did I see either of the actors (Pegg) perform in another film. So it wasn't with a ton of excitement that led me to seeing science fiction comedy Paul last night. Instead, I decided that the trailers looked good enough, the buzz was big enough, and enough time had passed that I would be willing to give another Pegg/Frost film a shot, even knowing the lackluster Seth Rogen had a role to play. My low expectations then made it that much sweeter when the film proved to be much more than I could have imagined.

The Battle of Helm's Deep re-enactment hit a few snags: nerds
Starting at the last place you would ever expect a film to begin (San Diego's famous Comic-Con), we meet Graeme and Clive (Pegg and Frost), a writer/illustrator duo enamored with all things science fiction. Visiting the United States for the first time, the duo follow up the San Diego stint with a road trip of the US's most famous UFO sites, including Area 51 and the Black Mailbox. They expected to have a fun time. What they DIDN'T expect was to accidentally meet Paul (voice of Rogen), a big-headed "gray" alien who need their help. Paul just escaped from Area 51's lock-down facility in which he'd been held for decades, and must escape to a rendezvous point before the government agents led by Special Agent Zoil (Jason Bateman) can catch up with him and bring the little guy back for dissection.

Headlamps for under $10? I've got to call this in!
The film does a lot of stuff right, and the main reason for that can be attributed to the amazing script written by the film's stars. While the film drags a little bit in the opening, it does make for a nice enough opener and allows those who might not be familiar with the Comic-Con experience to catch a glimpse of what they're missing. Once the duo get on the road and meet their extraterrestrial wingman, however, the film manages to take off and the excitement is perfectly paced throughout. The film doesn't fall in the trap of being too serious, however, as the comedy is solid throughout, with only repeated jokes as to the duo's questioned sexuality failing to inspire much mirth. Director Greg Mottola did his share of work, and while his penchant for potty humor and sight gags is still here, so is his ability to make fun characters connect a-la Superbad. In all, he makes the perfect companion to Pegg and Frost, with all three seemingly on the same page for most of the film.

Obviously though the sign said "No PANTS, No Shoes, No Service"
The best however is the film's unabashed nerdism. There are obvious scenes that are easy to pick out, from Steven Spielberg's cameo and a redneck bar whose band is playing the famous "Cantina Theme" from Star Wars, but the film truly draws from the lesser-known geekery every chance it gets. When you see Graeme wearing a tee-shirt with the comic character Invincible on it or when Clive mutters in his sleep "Boomer, it's forbidden," the true comic and sci-fi nerd can't help but smile at the references. The film doesn't treat these fans as jokes, either; fans of sci-fi and fantasy comics, shows and films have never been shown so much respect from a big-budget Hollywood film, at least not since 1999's Galaxy Quest. Pegg and Frost are as large fans as could be conceived, but neither are portrayed as simple or one-note characters. They're complex creatures with wants, needs and flaws, as far from comic nerd cliches as you can get.

Things were so simple on Arrested Development...
Speaking of Pegg and Frost, their hard work and respect for the subject matter really shows in their performances here. Pegg's acting isn't notably special, but he comes off believably as an artistic nerd who finds himself in a situation he would have thought impossible only days ago. Frost I had expected to dislike, as his sluggish character in Shaun was one of the main reasons I didn't come away a believer. However, he's much more sympathetic here, and in fact manages to steal the spotlight on several occasions. He's simply more fleshed out (no pun intended) and more likely someone you'd want to hang out with. The fraternity between the two stars is obvious, and they work together so charmingly that I'm not sure I want to see them in anything else if the other wasn't present. Some of the film's best bits can safely be attributed to the arrival of Kristen Wiig on the scene as a long-suffering creationist Christian who's mind is blown upon meeting the little grey man. Wiig might be close to graduating from the house at 30 Rockefeller Plaza to become a legitimate Hollywood star, and she's got the comedic timing and talent to make it work. I was worried Bateman would play the straight guy too well, but he puts in a solid performance as Agent Zoil, strong and unpredictable to the end. The weakest parts of the cast were probably the film's sub-villains, most notable Bill Heder and Joe Lo Trugilo as Zoil's subordinates, who don't even come off as half-competent as government agents. Blythe Danner and Jane Lynch even make for nice scenes as colorful characters on the path the film takes. But it's Seth Rogen as the titular hero who's the true surprise. Rogen, who I pretty much dislike in everything I've seen, manages to be the PERFECT voice for the foul-mouthed alien, and I was genuinely pleased with the character's range and Rogen's ability to carry the load.

E.T. phone HOME! Big time.
The reason I didn't love Shaun of the Dead became clear to me as I watched Paul's closing credits: for all the good Shaun presented, I just wasn't really a fan of zombie movies at the time, and so much of of what was so innovative about the film went over my head. With Paul's much more appealing medium, I now realize that Pegg and Frost are, like me and so many others, just fans who make films about what they love. While I didn't connect with Shaun's zombie comedy (and with my respect for Zombieland, I wonder if that would change should I try again?), Paul's love letter to fandom was much better received.. With the slow opening going against it's otherwise perfect narrative, it comes in trailing only The Adjustment Bureau at #2 for 2011. A well-written, funny as hell celebration of Sci-fi and fantasy, I would recommend it to anyone out there, though it'll be the real, unashamed nerds who get the best experience out of it.

Friday, March 18, 2011

We Find the Defendant... Entertaining

As a birth-born resident of the city of Boston, I've always been interested in films that focus on cities or locations in the state of Massachusetts. Even if the films aren't of the higher quality (I'm looking at you, overrated Mystic River) the locations and aesthetics just feel like home, making the theater feel cozy and warm. And from the misty, haunted asylum of Shutter Island to the gritty Charlestown grotto of The Town to the blue-collar Lowell of Oscar-nominated The Fighter, 2010 was a big year for the Bay State. One that might have slipped under your radar however is this small gem that didn't do a lot at the box office, but nevertheless confidently tells the haunting true story of false imprisonment and uplifting redemption surrounding the Ayer arrest of Kenneth Walters in 1983. Conviction didn't draw much of an audience, mostly due to little or no marketing, and failed to capture even local Massachusetts audiences in the numbers other films handily made. The film even has heralded stars in two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank and underrated performer Sam Rockwell. So how IS the film? I was interested enough to find out.

Let the record show that Juliette Lewis has forgotten her lines
Betty Ann Walters (Swank) is a mother and happy woman in the year 1983. Married with two children, she has a strong relationship with her brother Kenny (Rockwell), a devoted family man with a string of minor crimes on his rap sheet. When he's arrested for the murder of Ayer resident Katharina Brow, Betty Ann is the only one who seems to believe that he didn't commit the crime. The police match his blood type to the crime scene. Family and friends who have witnessed his violent ways in the past act nonchalant and surprised at this apparent development. Only Betty Ann, with memories of the caring and loving brother she grew up alongside, refuses to believe this. Over the span of eighteen years, the endeavors to complete her schooling, enter law school and pass the bar to try and get her brother's sentence overturned. Obstacles block her every path, but her resolution and determination drive her forward.

Whitey Bulger, however, walks free
When you first witness the blood-splattered crimes scene that is presented in the film's first few minutes, you might get the impression that you're in for a terribly depressing tale. The setup for the film follows this path, with scenes of Kenny's trial and sentencing and various flashbacks to the duo's unloved childhood painting a bleak picture for what is to follow. All that changes, however, when Betty Ann goes back to school and the rest of the film is as inspiring and uplifting as it had been dark before. It makes for a surprising turn, and I was pleasantly surprised how much better the film got because of it.

I didn't know the law library had copies of "Little Bo Peep"
The acting here is top notch, led by the simply amazing performances of Swank and Rockwell, who could easily have earned award nominations for their work had the film sold better and gotten more supporters. Swank especially is inspiring as the real-life crusader, who loses so much in pursuit of justice, not the least of which her marriage. Despite this, her single-minded quest to find her brother innocent makes for a riveting portrayal, one in which you find yourself wanting her to succeed against all odds. Rockwell is also amazing and surprisingly sympathetic as Kenny; I say surprisingly because, not to judge, but Kenny is played as kind of a dick. Short temper, bad relationship decisions, violent outbursts: everything that most people would hate, and most in the film as least are put off by his character. Kenny is given some saving graces: the obvious love he harbors for his daughter, and the care he's always had for his sister. Most actors would have fumbled this role but Rockwell (seriously, why couldn't he have gotten a nomination for the tragically underrated Moon?) manages to make the character someone to fight for, a mean feat in itself. A worthy supporting cast of Minnie Driver, Melissa Leo, Juliette Lewis, and Peter Gallagher fill the proper narrative holes with solid performances, though only Driver is given material substantial enough to stand out. This is a film that really relies on its stars to shine, so at least that part worked out.

Don't be sad, Hilary. We'll get you that third Oscar soon!
The film does have some problems, most notably the massive weight of the tale's message. Obviously the ability to perform DNA testing was a huge milestone for crime investigation, but the film's critical eye towards those detectives in not back-checking every murder and rape case to make sure they got the right guy is not a little overwrought. We're pretty much told outright that the law is corrupt and attempting to keep Kenny down, rather than being open to the possibility of simple incompetence. I was actually okay with this for the most part, but when Betty Ann tells one character that after eighteen years, Kenny "would be dead by now" if the state had instituted the death penalty, it was about as damning as you can get. Whatever your opinion on the death penalty, you can't help but be put off by the statement, as it seems to take the film in directions unneeded. But the biggest problem I had were the myriad flashback scenes showing how tough the main characters had it growing up. Some scenes would have been fine, but director Tony Goldwyn didn't know where to stop, forced only by the continuing narrative of the film to stop showing little kids pretend to be actors.

With a message so heavy it would make Kendrick Farris wince, it's fortunate that the strong story and inspiring acting keep the film on track and as uplifting as possible. While Swank and Rockwell should have gotten more attention for their performances, Conviction settles on that second tier of film quality, not quite good enough to run with the big boys but enough to recommend for a casual rental, or at least that's what this jury has concluded.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Red Cloak of Shame

Ah, progress. Progress is the method by which we don't have to suffer the same things over and over again until the end of time. Progress means that what bores us can be replaced with something new and exciting. Progress means that we can ditch same-old, same-old for new, fresh, product. Movie monsters are no different; Frankenstein wore out his welcome decades ago, mummies died out sometime around the turn of the century, and the Swamp Thing never was as popular as some would have you believe. These days vampires are the cream of the crop, what with their outstanding popularity through widely differing sources including RPG games like White Wolf's Vampire: The Masquerade, television shows like The Vampire Diaries, and the books and movies of the Twilight series. As a result, blood-sucking leeches have never been more popular, nor nearly as sexually attractive. That can't last forever, of course, and studios are hard at work trying to figure out which mysterious creatures will climb the box office charts next. Trying to perhaps spin off some of the popularity of Twilight's character Jacob Black, werewolves seem to be Hollywood's new pet project. The going has been rough, however, especially the abject failure of last year's remake of The Wolfman, which starred Benicio del Toro and Sir Anthony Hopkins. Werewolves might not be ready to usurp Dracula's crown, as the newest attempt is the retelling of the popular folk tale Little Red Riding Hood. Called simply Red Riding Hood, the film was directed by Catherine Hardwicke (who also directed Twilight) and obviously re-geared to appeal to the same teen audience that enjoy the vampire films with such gusto.

"Got any Lycanthopic-brand condoms?"
In an unnamed village in the middle of nowhere, villagers have kept an uneasy truce with a local werewolf, leaving sacrifices - often small animals - to protect the people. It's the only life Valerie (Amanda Seyfried) has known. The daughter of a woodcutter (Billy Burke) and his wife (Virginia Madsen), Seyfried has lived in this place in relative peace, though the fear is always there. When her family arranges a marriage to have her married to Henry Lazar (Max Irons), scion of one of the richer families around, she conspires to run away with her secret love Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), but is halted when the werewolf attacks and kills her sister. It is the first time a human has been attacked by the wolf in recent memory. This results in the town's priest (Lukas Haas) summoning legendary werewolf hunter Father Solomon (Gary Oldman) to hunt and kill the beast. Solomon brings news that is hard for many to admit and causes consternation in the remote place: the werewolf is in fact not some beast confined to the wilds but in fact one of them.

Sure, it's a deep, dark cave. What's the worst that could happen?
If any of you nodded off after a sentence or two of the previous paragraph, then this film isn't for you. Meant to appeal primarily to teen girls, it's hardly surprising that you wouldn't want to see this particular film. For the rest of you... Red Riding Hood isn't for you either. Unless you're a true masochist, there's very little positive to draw from what amounts to little more than gummed-up drivel. It's geared towards teens but the idea that anyone could believe the foolish, cliched, and preposterous story is time well spent seems like a big, cruel joke. I admit I've never seen one of Hardwicke's films before now but seeing this doesn't exactly make me want to rush out and rent Thirteen or Lords of Dogtown. Her early career as a production designer does come off well here,  as the film uses colors to great effect (especially Valerie's red cloak against white, snowy backgrounds), but her direction style suffers at the hands of her pandering ways. The further you attempt to trudge through the mess that is the plot, the more you simply want all the suffering to stop as there's less and less to give any sense that the film hasn't run away without the director in full control.

One of many confused looks
If there's one bright spot that shines through the film's procession, it's Seyfried, who may be stuck in a limited role but does it well enough to be head and shoulders over the rest of her cast. Seyfried's part might be nowhere close to authentic (what kind of name is Valerie in mythological dark ages? It sounds like a Valley Girl moniker) but at least they cast the right woman for the part. Oldman I hoped would be hammy and entertaining as he was in last year's Book of Eli, but here his particular cut of pork is rump roast as the film's most vocal antagonist. Burke, like his role in Drive Crazy, doesn't quite do enough to justify his casting. Madsen, who has done little since being nominated for an Academy Award for her role in the overrated Sideways, shows either rust or exactly why that hiatus from major films was necessary. Same with Haas, who never has been a standout talent. Julie Christie is downright disappointing as dear old Grandmother, who doesn't have a lot to do besides be another suspect in the mystery of who the wolf might be. But most disappointing are the duo of would-be love interests paired off with Valerie. Max Irons tries to be the rich but sensitive soul, but comes off as bland and unworthy from the start for Valerie's love. He's slightly overshadowed by Shiloh Fernandez, but not by much. Playing the brooding outsider, Fernandez is the one that the few fans of this film will be cheering for, but he takes sullen to another level, completely uninteresting to the rest of us. Hardwicke stated that she cast for chemistry; she sure as hell didn't cast for talent. While it WAS nice to see refugees from famous sci-fi shows as Stargate's Michael Shanks and Battlestar Galactica's Michael Hogan and Jen Halley in small parts, they didn't manage to drag my opinion of the film from the deeper pits.

I'm surprised they kept the cloak red at all
Most insulting is the film's one-note romantic tale. Even with the danger of the wolf all around, the biggest problem would seem to be Valerie's decision between her two lovers. The film couldn't pass a Bechdel Test if it tried (Thanks to The Opinioness for introducing that term to me) and should come off as insulting to any intelligent X-chromosome-wielding individual. Seriously, all the women in this film can seem to talk about are the men. Even when talking about the damn WEREWOLF the conversation turns to men! That any rational, free-thinking person might be suckered into thinking this is high art is a frightening prospect indeed. It's sad how closely the film tried to capture the Edward/Jacob rivalry and make it work in this case, a desperate attempt to drag in that Twilight crowd.

Okay, am I the only one seeing a tampon commercial?
In the end, what remains of folk tale Little Red Riding Hood is merely a large portion of the title, a red cloak and a talking wolf. The film really owes nothing to the source material, using it instead as a means to an end, something familiar to drive people into the theaters. There's just not a lot more to say here. Barring mild brain damage, there is no good reason for you to waste your money on this film. Being the eleventh 2011 film I've seen, Red Riding Hood is the first to completely miss the Top 10 list. Even Drive Angry had campy moments that were fun to witness, but this film is lacking in even that brief humor or excitement. Bad direction, bad cast, bad story, this film indeed has it all. It might even hold out and become this year's worst film, though of course that's too soon to tell. The attempts to reign in the crowds seems to have failed miserably as well, with people seemingly not wanting werewolf films at this time. Perhaps someday that will change, and lycanthropes will occupy the same status currently held by vampires. Perhaps that will NEVER happen, and werewolves will be pushed aside to make room for some newer monster. Loch Ness, perhaps? Progress means things are constantly changing, but there's often no telling what will make us smile until we come across that line. Someday, vamps won't be the talk of Tinseltown. Until then, Edward Cullen - not Lawrence Talbot - reigns.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Battle for Box Office Bucks

On the night of February 24/25'th, 1942, antiaircraft batteries in Los Angeles opened fire on what they thought was a Japanese attack force over the skies of the city. In the end, nothing was shot down, and the military discounted the entire incident as a false alarm, declaring that the target in question had been a "weather balloon." The incident is known today as the "Battle of Los Angeles." Many who have studied the event question whether there was a government cover-up, as the weather balloon theory didn't quite make sense. Still others hypothesized that the unidentified aircraft was extraterrestrial in nature, and if so, wondered as to the craft's purpose. Now, almost seventy years later, we're presented with one possibility, that of alien invasion. Directed by Jonathan Liebesman, Battle: Los Angeles's trailers promised explosions, lots of gunfire and excitement when I witnessed them last year. After being disenfranchised with the unmitigated crap that was Skyline, anything that would bring back the quality of the genre to the level of, say, Independence Day, was welcome. I'd been waiting to see this film for months, and being able to see it opening day was a treat I wasn't going to squander.

Awww, he just wants to say hello! With weapons.
Veteran actor Aaron Eckhart plays USMC Staff Sergeant Nantz, a veteran marine who, true to form, is getting too old for this shit. His career marred by an ugly mission in which most of the men under his command died, Nantz is now stateside in Los Angeles, training new recruits. Now, having just turned in his resignation, Nantz is ready to go on to the next stage of his life when meteor showers start crashing down near every major coastal city around the globe. The military realizes almost too late that the meteors are an alien invasion force, and Nantz finds himself pressed back into service as the human race is set upon by a relentless foe who wants nothing more than our total extermination.

Michelle Rodriguez plays against type as a tough chick... oh, wait...
The film definitely delivers when it comes to action. The designs of the alien invaders and the chaos they bring upon the city is beautiful to behold, thanks in large part to the Brothers Strause (who make for lousy directors but sure can create great effects). The alien creatures are meticulously detailed and move realistically, even if they come off as expendable shock troops. You get chills every time they appear on screen, so effective is their use. It's a shame that the immersion is damaged by the director's insistence on using what you might call "shaky cam." Every time a tense moment comes upon us, the shaky cam comes in to make the battle sequences appear even more chaotic than it already is. Even worse are the close-ups, which render any attempt to discern what's happening on the screen fruitless. This is especially true during a particularly frenetic scene on the Santa Monica Freeway, in which almost half the soldiers in the story are killed off but we don't know what happened until afterward. The shaky cam is by far my biggest condemnation of the film, as it's both lazy and inefficient to telling the story.

By all means, now is the perfect time for ALL military forces to be in the air!
Character also doesn't get much attention here, though that's just about par for any story told from a military standpoint. Eckhart is perfectly cast as the grizzled veteran, and after this film I wouldn't be surprised to see the actor who usually goes for more dramatic films make an action or thriller run a la Liam Neeson. Still, his character is the veteran soldier whose body isn't able to take the soldier life anymore, a character played by dozens of actors over the course of Hollywood history. Name a war film, and that character appears SOMEWHERE. Beyond Eckhart, lesser actors play no less cliched roles. The fresh out of officer training Lieutenant (Ramon Rodriguez) with a pregnant wife at home? Check. The one getting married in a few weeks (R&B musician Ne-Yo)? Check. Guy suffering from P.T.S.D. (Jim Parrack)? Check. Soldier with an annoying New York accent (Will Rothaar)? Check. Token female soldier (Michelle Rodriguez)? Rookie (Noel Fisher)? Check, check. Guy (Cory Hardrict) with a dead soldier brother who just happened to perish on Nantz's ill-fated mission? BIG check! Half a dozen cases of cannon fodder later and you've got a ready-to-film military unit. That's not to say that they're not good actors, just that they don't have much to work with. It's a big disappointment when the best character you have is a Navy Corpsman from Nigeria studying to become a doctor (Adetokumboh M'Cormack, best known as Mr. Eko's brother on Lost) but you don't DO anything with that. Civilians also get a bum rap as characters played by great actors like Michael Pena and Bridget Moynahan are given little to do and are ditched at the earliest possible opportunity. That said, it's amazing how much I felt connected with the few characters allowed to do anything, even if it's just caring whether or not they died. The conversations between the characters feel real and honest, fostering that bridge. Even if the characters themselves aren't original, it's nice that they can interact with each other and their environments believably. Also, it's nice to see such a multicultural cast, especially since Hollywood was rightfully lambasted last year when so few films featured minorities and even fewer were actually promoted.

Look for next year's sequel: Battle: Cedar Rapids
The film draws from a number of sources, not the least being Black Hawk Down and Independence Day. ID4 in fact was such an obvious influence that you can visually realize where Liebesman re-shot a scene that matches one from the older sci-fi film. And in a late-film speech, I half expected Eckhart to pull a Bill Pullman and rally his soldiers by shouting "...This is our Independence Day!" Battle: Los Angeles shares many of the weaknesses from these aforementioned films, including poor character development and an over-reliance on special effects. On the other hand, it also shares in their strengths, never disappointing in the action department and being exciting to watch throughout. It delivered on all that was promised, and for that it pops in at #3 for 2011. It may have its flaws, but Battle: Los Angeles is a guilty pleasure, a popcorn film that you HAVE to see on the big screen.

Friday, March 11, 2011

It's a Monster Mash

While I'm sure the film I'm reviewing today did indeed screen in the Boston area upon it's release this past fall, I'm hard pressed to recall it. I do remember some of the hype for Monsters; trailers that didn't show much more than sporadic images from the film along with praise from various reviewers. Despite not many reveals (or perhaps because of it) I was seriously looking forward to the film's release, as it looked like not just any monster movie, but one with great human drama, as well.

And then... nothing.

The film didn't do much in the theaters (at least locally; it was a bigger hit overseas), and went forgotten by many film-goers, myself included. When trolling Netflix for the latest streaming films last week, I was surprised to find it among the newer titles available. When I failed to wake up in time yesterday to make the matinee showing I'd intended (maybe some other time, Take Me Out Tonight), I decided to rest and relax on the couch and let this film take me for a trip.

I don't think we're in Kansas anymore, Toto
Six years ago, a NASA probe sent to search for evidence of extraterrestrial life breaks up upon reentry over Mexico, spreading debris over a wide area. That would be bad enough, if the crash hadn't also brought with it an alien infestation that over time infects most of the Central American country, creating "Monsters" that every so often attack the cities of those unfortunate enough to be in the area. Current day, we meet Andrew (Scott McNairy), a photojournalist who has sought for years to catch one of the creatures on film, content until now with carcasses and disaster areas. Now he finds his big break has met an unfortunate end, since his employer's daughter Samantha (Whitney Able) has been injured while supposedly on vacation in the area, and Andrew has been tasked with making sure she is taken home safely. With both air and sea travel quickly eliminated by embargoes instituted by the military,  the duo are forced to trek by land over the country's restricted zone and a chance to cross the US border's wall built to keep the "infection" from infiltrating the States.

Fun with murals!
If that last part seemed like a shot at the United States's immigration control policy, you wouldn't be the only one to think that. It seems likely the entire Monsters premise tackles the divisive topic of illegal immigration, from the wall to the journey people take to escape to America. The trip is not easy, dangerous even. However, as one character points out, if you don't have the money, you take the risk. Not unlike District 9, the 2009 film that liked refugees from the stars to real-life apartheid victims, the creatures in Monsters are meant to be those illegal immigrants who are widely despised by American citizens, who decry the loss of jobs to low-wage immigrants despite the fact that those same protesters wouldn't touch the dirty jobs the immigrants are often stuck with. The film makes its stance on the strict anti-immigrant policies employed by the US known, as well as its opinion of their effectiveness.

All the rage in Mexico these days
The film only employed two real actors, with most of the film's roles filled by ordinary people wherever they were shooting. The result in carrying so many non-actors meant that any scripted film wouldn't really work, and the result is a film shot more guerrilla-style, with the camera simply following the film's two leads into wherever they find themselves. It's fortunate then that the leads are as fun to watch as the rest of the film. McNairy is good as the disgruntled photojournalist Andrew. Andrew has no interest in what he sees as a babysitting job; he really wanted a shot at a big payday by capturing a monster attack with his camera. Able is even better as the daughter of a media mogul who is apprehensive about her upcoming marriage; After being hurt in Mexico, she's reluctant to even call her fiance. The tension between the two is wonderfully realized in a realistic buildup of friendship and mutual respect that fosters between them. The two actors connected very well over the course of the shooting in fact; McNairy and Able married last July, mere months before the film's release. While hardly the main reason the film works, the two certainly earn much credit for their efforts.

Following the Yellow-Bricked Road doesn't seem to be working out
Monsters was the first feature film from director Gareth Edwards, a jack-of-all-trades who made it on a shoestring budget, shot over 100 hours of footage, and then took it home and edited and added creature effects until he had a film that manages to convey its message while at the same time entertain its audience with a very cool and engaging story. At the very least, it was enough to convince Legendary Pictures to hand him the reigns to the newest reboot in the classic Godzilla franchise. Meanwhile, Monsters is easily among my favorite sci-fi films from the past five years, sharing the shelf with great titles like the aforementioned District 9, Moon, and Splice. A great film that deserves your attention if you haven't taken the time to see it yet.