Friday, September 30, 2011

It's Scary Time!!!

Once again, the month of October is upon us. If you stopped by last year you know this is the time of year when I drag out all the creature features, slasher flicks, and haunted house stories I can find right up through Halloween. I even throw in a ghoulish comedy or two. Somehow, we're going to squeeze Batman into this mix. In all, it'll be 31 solid days of horror starting at midnight tonight!!!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Source Code

Directed by Duncan Jones.
2011. Rated PG-13, 93 minutes.
Cast:
Jake Gyllenhaal
Michelle Monaghan
Vera Farmiga
Jeffrey Wright
Michael Arden
Cas Anvar
Max Denoff
Brent Skagford
Gordon Masten

Colter Stevens (Gyllenhaal) finds himself aboard a commuter train in Chicago and he has no idea how he got there. He really freaks out when he makes his way to the restroom and sees a face different from his own in the mirror. He returns to his seat where his behavior disturbs Christina (Monaghan), whom he doesn’t know but who appears to be his traveling companion. Of course, she thinks he’s whoever that was in the mirror and has no clue about what’s happening. In a few minutes, the train explodes, he blacks out and wakes up in a capsule talking to Cpt. Goodwin (Farmiga) through a monitor. By the way, he doesn’t know her, either. Shortly, we’re let in on the plan. Through an invention/discovery called Source Code the last eight minutes of a person’s life can be retrieved to be relived by someone who is a close enough match. Our soldier is a match for the man in the mirror. His mission is to find out who blew up the train. He can go back into the matrix…er…Source Code numerous times, but he always only has eight minutes before he’s kicked out. Back and forth Colter is tossed apparently through time and/or space to conduct his investigation 480 seconds at a time. He also pursues other curiosities on his own since it seems he was volunteered for this mission without his knowledge or consent.

Source Code lost me pretty quickly. Though the movie tries its best to confuse you early on, that wasn’t it at all. I followed just fine. Perhaps I followed too well. I say this because the one thing that ruins a movie built on suspense happened. I knew who the bad guy was within eight minutes of being told what our hero was supposed to do. That’s roughly fifteen minutes of real time. It was pretty simple, actually. I looked at the only person who struck me as a viable candidate, said to myself “That’s who did it,” and waited to be proven right. Unfortunately, I was. There was no mystery for me. Watching him accost person after person in hopes of hitting the jackpot felt like a pointless exercise. It was similar in feel to an episode of CSI. Yes, what’s going on is vaguely interesting but I know the person they bring in at 15 after the hour and 30 after aren’t the killer. It’s always the one they start chasing at 45 after.

Once you’ve figured out the villain it’s easy to sit around looking for other things. Not one to resist this particular temptation, I mapped out how I thought the story would play out in my mind. Sadly, I got almost all of it right including the emotionally manipulative finale. It’s the type of ending I’d normally be okay with because my energy would’ve been spent guessing the identity of the killer. To make matters worse, it spends its last few minutes of screentime breaking every rule of its own movie science without sufficient explanation.

So far I’ve been relentlessly bashing SC but take it with a grain of salt. The truth is if you don’t know who the terrorist is this is probably highly intriguing sci-fi. Even though the protagonist relives the same eight minutes repeatedly, it manages to not be boring like the similarly styled Vantage Point a few years ago. On top of that, some will fall hook, line and sinker for what’s intended to be a tear-jerker climax. It just failed to grab me. Each time it threatened to do so I dodged it by finding something else to nitpick. If it manages to get a hold of you, you’ll probably enjoy it. If it doesn’t, welcome to my world.

MY SCORE: 5/10

Friday, September 23, 2011

Madea's Big Happy Family

Directed by Tyler Perry.
2011. Rated PG-13, 106 minutes.
Cast:
Tyler Perry
Loretta Devine
Cassi Davis
Shannon Kane
David Mann
Tamela Mann
Bow Wow
Lauren London
Teyana Taylor
Rodney Perry

Director Tyler Perry’s most famous creation is back for another adventure. This time, the big family actually belongs to Shirley (Devine) and they are anything but happy. Shirley has come down with an almost immediately terminal form of cancer. Her doctor informs her she only has four to six weeks to live. She’s actually been battling this for seven years and was thought to be in remission. Her family knows none of this. She decides the only way to let them know what’s going on is to have them all over for a grand dinner and break the news after they’ve filled their bellies. However, as soon as her three adult children lay eyes on each other sparks fly, tempers flare and they all flee in different directions. This mix is made even more volatile by the fact that aside from their problems with their siblings they all bring and display their issues with their spouses and children, as well. The two daughters treat their husbands like dirt and the son has baby mama drama and a gold digging girlfriend. As a dear friend of Shirley’s, Madea is asked to help straighten up this dysfunctional bunch.

From the very beginning it is clear that this is classic Tyler Perry. Everything is over the top, both dramatically and comedically, problems mount at an alarming speed, and there’s plenty of sermonizing. This is the director’s tried and true formula. That formula is largely influenced by the movie Soul Food. Much of his work mimics that movie’s tone and style with Madea and/or others adding extra zaniness and homespun wisdom. Here, we practically get a remake. A television set full of money seems to be the only thing missing.

Even without understanding this, most of his core audience doesn’t even get to be surprised by all the plot developments because they’ve likely seen the play of the same name Perry created, toured around the country and sold on DVD the year before. They still flock to his movies, though. It’s become a genius marketing plan. He’s created an entire industry where duplication of product is not only expected but ravenously craved by its consumers.

From my viewpoint, Madea’s Big Happy Family is a colossal disappointment. Part of the problem is its exactly the same as every other movie with the name “Madea” attached to it, as well as a few others. What makes it feel worse than those is it comes on the hells of “For Colored Girls.” Whether you liked that movie or not, it showed Perry as an artist willing to take risks and leave his comfort zone. Even if he didn’t stray very far he still tried to stretch his wings some. Since he has the eyes and ears of so many trained on his every action. I hoped that FCG signaled the start of an artistic growth spurt. I hoped he had either found something more to say or was at least willing to try different ways of delivering his message. Lastly, I hoped he was becoming confident enough to let his audience question what they’ve seen which may in turn make them question themselves and stimulate their own growth. Instead, we get a regression to the norm. It’s a highly profitable norm, but it’s a spiritually unfulfilling one. This is particularly troublesome given the Christian slant to his work. It reaffirms what his core fans already believ in but doesn’t encourage them to do anything more than nod in agreement, laugh and wait impatiently for the next installment in the Tyler Perry canon.

For those that are fans, this is right up your alley. Madea is as outrageous as ever. Mr. Brown (David Mann), Cora (Tamela Mann) and Joe (the director in a dual role) are back for good measure. The movie moves swiftly and maintains a southern gospel tint. Every second of it is precisely who we know Tyler Perry to be. It never once threatens to be anything more. The question is does this float your boat, or not?

MY SCORE: 4/10

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Elephant Man

Directed by David Lynch.
1980. Rated PG, 124 minutes.
Cast:
John Hurt
Anthony Hopkins
Anne Bancroft
John Gielgud
Wendy Hiller
Freddie Jones
Michael Elphick
Hannah Gordon
Dexter Fletcher

John Merrick (Hurt) has been massively deformed all his life. He has been dubbed “The Elephant Man” and is forced to put himself on display as a freak at a carnival sideshow. He is such the draw, the carnival’s owner Mr. Bytes (Jones) calls him “my treasure”. Dr. Treves (Hopkins) is a well respected surgeon who wishes to study “the creature”. After John suffers a beating at the hands of Bytes the doctor takes him in, giving him a room in an isolated part of the hospital where the doc works. As word spreads about the institution’s newest resident, curiosity rises. Once again, people are flocking to see “The Elephant Man. Is Dr. Treves really any better than a sideshow proprietor? The good doctor eventually questions his own motives. The agendas of most others is painfully obvious. They either fear John’s grotesqueness or seek to profit from it by exploiting him. Those who do neither brazenly point and stare. Thus, the movie becomes an exploration of bigotry and the courage some will show in the face of it. We think the lines between good and evil are clearly drawn. However, we’re made to wonder if even the good guys are causing harm. Based on a true story.

Director David Lynch never lets us off the hook by skimming portions of the story. He paces his movie very deliberately, painstakingly so, at some points. This lets us know John intimately. We learn that despite his deformities and the way he’s been treated there is no bitterness in him. There is only his need to be accepted as a man. This makes him a completely sympathetic character.

There are no subplots to speak of. The movie focuses solely on the plight of Mr. Merrick. This tunnel-vision approach gives the film something I find lacking in other work by Lynch: coherence. It is not some cryptic mass of celluloid you have to wade through seventeen times before deciding you finally get it. It’s easily accessible without being easily formulated. Within its rather normal frame many of the director’s nuances and idiosyncracies are contained. However, he never lets them overwhelm the movie. Instead, they flesh it out.

The duty of fleshing out John only falls partly on the man who plays him, John Hurt. To his credit, Hurt plays the role with a perfect naivete and timidness. He wears the latter as a shield. It often fails him, but nonetheless comforts him by its presence. Like Frankenstein’s monster would eventually come to be played for laughs, it would’ve been easy to have Merrick be a bumbling fool, gaining our affections through laughter. Hurt plays him as a man keenly aware that his life is no laughing matter. The rest of the responsibility for making John whole belongs to Dr. Treves. Through an excellent performance by Anthony Hopkins, he draws the man out of the freak.

When its all said and done, we’ve gone on a tumultuous journey with a man that took no easy steps. We root for him not just because we want him to do well, but because we need him to. If he does, it reaffirms our belief that enough of us human beings are decent people. If he doesn’t he will not have failed, we will. In either case, it begs us to reevaluate how we treat those who are different from ourselves.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Boys Don't Cry

Directed by Kimberly Peirce.
1999. Rated R, 116 minutes.
Cast:

Hilary Swank
Chloë Sevigny
Peter Sarsgaard
Brandon Sexton III
Alicia Goranson
Alison Folland
Jeanetta Arnette
Rob Campbell
Matt McGrath

Right away, we find out the one thing in Brandon’s (Swank) life that has caused him the most problems. He is really a she name Teena. Determined to live and pass as a man, this behavior is mostly an issue when whatever girl he’s dating finds out his secret. This is usually followed by Brandon being chased and/or beaten by a group of the girl’s male relatives and friends. It doesn’t look like a fun existence, but Brandon seems bound to keep repeating the cycle. It also appears this way to Brandon’s cousin Lonny (McGrath). Lonny eventually becomes tired of all the drama and decides that Brandon can no longer stay with him in his trailer. With nowhere to go, Brandon falls in with a crowd of ruffians led by John (Sarsgaard). They whisk Brandon away from his hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska to Falls City about an hour away. Shortly, he meets Lana (Sevigny), the girl of his dreams. Based on a true story. To say Brandon is confused or sick is a matter of opinion and belief.

To say Brandon’s deceitful and misguided is fact. His insistence on keeping up a lie at the expense of the emotions of others would normally make him totally unlikeable. Thanks to a masterful performance by Hilary Swank and a very well written script, this isn’t the case. Those of us who haven’t gone through the same struggle probably won’t be in love with Brandon. However, we begin to understand and gain empathy. We admire his courage in some areas while simultaneously lamenting his lack of it in others. To facilitate this, Swank mixes the wild enthusiasm of a child in a candy story with the same child’s fear of being caught stealing. We understand both ends of the spectrum and everything in between.

As well as we come to know Brandon, he’s not the only person we feel for. Our hearts also go out to Lana. She wants us to think she’s tough, that she can handle whatever comes her way. Eventually, we come to realize that not only is she not such a tough nut, but she’s a perpetual victim. She’s a victim of her mother’s carelessness and of the affections of others, including Brandon. Though less heralded, Chloë Sevigny’s performance is no less effective than Swank’s. The surprise is that after this and other critically acclaimed portrayals early in her career, Sevigny hasn’t quite reached the level of stardom she seemed destined to.

Boys Don’t Cry is a movie that asks us to examine the characters on the screen and ourselves, as well. It holds our beliefs up to the light and gives us a look at them we might not have taken. For some, the protagonist will pose a challenge. Brandon is an affront to all they believe. Will they be able to see passed sexuality and into humanity? This is also a fascinating drama that gives us a ride on an emotional roller coaster. After all the climbs, drops and loops we are entertained and drained.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Due Date

Directed by Todd Phillips. 2011. Rated R, 95 minutes. Cast: Robert Downey Jr. Zach Galifianakis Jamie Foxx Michelle Monaghan Danny McBride Juliette Lewis

In Atlanta on business, Peter (Downey) is about to board a plane home to Los Angeles in plenty of time for the birth of his first child. His wife Sarah (Monaghan) is scheduled to have a C-Section in five days. A not-so-lucky chance meeting with an aspiring actor named Ethan (Galifianakis) sends his life spiraling out of control. Because of Ethan, Peter is kicked off the plane. He’s subsequently put on the “no fly” list, doesn’t have his wallet containing all his money and ID and is put into the position of having to ride across the country with the delusional and less than intelligent Ethan.

Downey gives us a perfect straight man. He plays Peter’s mostly humorless personality to the hilt. His job is to build on the humor initiated by others. He does this flawlessly by reacting to things not always as most of us would, but the way most of us would like. It’s over the top, but just enough to keep from becoming totally presposterous. The effect is that the initial joke makes us laugh and Downey’s reaction makes us laugh even more.

The job of getting us laughing in the first place is most often handled by Galifianakis. Much like his work in The Hangover, his character is completely oblivious to the inappropriateness of what he’s doing until after the fact. It’s a tactic that works brilliantly time and again. This is due in large part to the way he plays the role. His antics are outlandish but he plays it as if what he’s doing is completely natural.

From time to time, other are brought in to help create humor onscreen. The cameo by Danny McBride is most successful. Offscreen, director Todd Phillips handles the load with relative ease. With the aforementioned The Hangover as well as Old School and a few others under his belt, he’s proven adept at taking silly premises and making them far funnier than they should be. Many comedies throw everything against the wall to see what sticks. Once again, he seems able to throw the right things.

MY SCORE: 7.5/10

Monday, September 12, 2011

You Again

Directed by Alan Fickman.
2010. Rated PG, 105 minutes.
Cast:
Kristen Bell
Odette Yustman
Jamie Lee Curtis
Sigourney Weaver
Betty White
James Wolk
Kyle Bornheimer
Billy Unger
Kristin Chenoweth
Victor Garber


Hey, have you seen that romantic comedy that ends in a wedding? Of course you have. Yes, this is yet another one. If you still want to see You Again, read on. If you don’t, read on anyway just to be sure. I mean, it’s got Betty White in the cast. That’s gotta count for something, right?

Okay, so we know how it ends. Like most rom-coms it’s not the ending, but how we get there that determines whether its good or not. The easiest route usually starts with boy meets girl. Kudos to this film for not including that little cliché. In fact, YAis not really about the couple that gets married. It’s actually about the contentious relationship between the soon-to-be bride Joanna (Yustman) and her beau’s sister Marni (Bell). Well, it’s mostly about Marni. She was once the classic Hollywood high school nerd. She wore big glasses, had bad hair and got great grades. As an adult, she’s transformed into a beautiful swan with a very successful career. In high school Joanna, then known as J.J. was her nemesis. J.J. was the head cheerleader which by movie logic means she was without question the most beautiful, popular and meanest person in school. Her most famous moment appears to be having Marni carried out of the building and locked out while the entire student body sings Queen’s “We Are the Champions” in perfect harmony.

Now, years later Joanna is marrying Marni’s brother Will (Wolk). He has no idea about her mean girl past despite going to the same school during her reign of terror. She wants to keep it that way. Marni wants Joanna to tell the truth about everything and make an apology. Over the weekend leading up to the bid day, the zany antics of thes two wild and crazy gals ensue. Oh, almost forgot something. Marni’s mom Gail (Curtis) and Joanna’s aunt Ramona (Weaver) have a similar relationship that’s still volatile despite the two having not seen each other in decades.

Yes, what all of these ladies do can accurately be described as zany. Is it funny? Meh. There are a few moments that are good for a laugh. All of our ladies, including Marni’s grandmother (White), play off each other well enough to generate the occasional chuckle. Then there’s the slapstick and pratfalls aspect so some of you won’t be able to stop giggling. That said, a lot of it is unfunny stuff recycled from other unfunny movies. Even worse, the way the handle the whole bully vs geek thing makes it feel like something that should be airing as a half-hour sitcom on ABC Family. I can totally see Marni as the main character in a series developed over time. In a feature, there isn’t enough of her for us to really latch onto. That’s magnified by her willfully sinking to unbecoming depths to do something she could’ve accomplished by confronting Joanna on the first day after finding out about the wedding. We sympathize with what happened to her in high school, but we don’t like her.

All of the bickering, strutting, scowling, rapping and competitive dancing takes us through the prerequisite ups and downs we’ve come to expect from such movies. It has a formula and sticks to it pretty faithfully. So now you know, and knowing is half…um…nevermind. If you like rom-coms see it. If you don’t, don’t.

MY SCORE: 4/10

Friday, September 9, 2011

North Dallas Forty

Directed by Ted Kotcheff.
1979. Rated R, 118 minutes.
Cast: Nick Nolte
Mac Davis
Charles Durning
Dayle Haddon
Bo Svenson
Dabney Coleman
Steve Forest
G. D. Spradlin
Savannah Smith Boucher

Phil Elliot (Nolte) is a veteran wide receiver for the North Dallas Bulls. Everyone seems to agree he has the best hands in the league. Over the years, his body has taken a tremendous beating. He’s in constant pain and seems to subsist on a diet of painkillers, B12 shots, cigarettes and alcohol. Citing what they call his childish attitude, his coaches have taken him out of the starting lineup and are constantly on his case. He pines to get his job back and does whatever it takes to be ready to play.

Doing whatever it takes seems to be the mantra he and his teammates live by. It pushes these men to the extremes in all situations. For them there is only intense pleasure or sharp pain. Though the two often mix, there really isn’t a middle ground. They are emotionally and socially underdeveloped, applying a football mentality to all areas of their lives. The sport encompasses their entire beings. When Phil laments “It’s the only thing I’m good at,” he seems to be speaking for the whole team.

Their shortcomings reveal the sacrifices they’ve made to get as far as they have playing the game they love. The question Phil must wrestle with, the one they will all have to answer at some point, is does the game love them back. His every effort is met by a naysaying head coach who hands down orders to be barked by his drill sergeant of an assistant. The two function remarkably like a ventriloquist act. Regardless, Phil perserveres. We come to admire and pity him simultaneously for what he puts himself through. We become his friend and wonder if he has any others in his own lockerroom. We doubt very seriously whether the one guy who seems to be on his side truly is.

The movie also has shortcomings. The biggest one is that the love story between Phil and Charlotte (Haddon) seems to come out of nowhere. He meets her early on. She disappears from the movie for quite a while until we suddenly see the two waking up in bed together. It also feels a little rushed given that the entire movie spans a time frame of only about 3 weeks.

Still, more than any movie before it, and perhaps since, North Dallas Forty gives us a long realistic look at the inner-workings of professional football. Though the amount of dollars has increased exponentially and the drugs involved have mostly changed the framework seems to still be intact, judging by the recent lockout in the NFL. The ‘us against them’ attitude of both players and owners still feels present. The owners still hold most of the cards, able to cut a player at any point regardless of contract. Players fearing for their livelihood still put their bodies through arguably inhumane treatments to stay on the field. A number of these same players act out immaturely leading to a sport-wide arrest rate seemingly quite a bit higher than that of the public at large. Coaches rely on an endless stream of data to create gameplans and remove emotion from the decision making process. It’s all summed up beautifully by the eloquent words of Jo Bob (Svenson), frustrated, fed up and yelling at one of his coaches: “Everytime I say it’s a game, you say it’s a business. Everytime I say it’s a business, you say it’s a game!”

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Limitless

Directed by Neil Burger.
2011. Rated R, 105 minutes.
Cast:
Bradley Cooper
Robert De Niro
Abbie Cornish
Andrew Howard
Anna Friel
Johnny Whitworth
Tomas Arana
Richard Bekins
Ned Eisenberg


Eddie (Cooper) is down on his luck. He can’t pay his rent, his girlfriend just dumped him and he looks like he doesn’t bathe. The closest thing he has to a job is working on his novel. By working, I mean staring at his laptop for hours trying to get even the first word written before giving up and heading down to the nearest bar. Somehow, he’s received an advance from a publishing company for the supposedly upcoming book. I’m not quite sure how he managed to turn that trick. It’s obvious that managing anything is a monumental challenge for this guy. By chance, he bumps into his ex-wife’s brother. After some small talk and a couple drinks the brother-in-law gives him an interesting looking pill. We’re told that instead of only being able to access about 20% of his brain like normal folks, this pill will allow him to access the full 100%. I’ve always been told normal folks use 10% so I’m feeling like I’ve been shorted all these years, but whatever. After some apparently not-so-deep thought. Eddie pops the pill and suddenly he’s sharp, focused, motivated and can recall any piece of information he’s ever read, heard or seen at a moment’s notice.

Since the effects only last a day, he hunts down the brother-in-law to get some more. The guy promises him more if he runs a few errands for him. Our hero goes out to get the drycleaning and breakfast only to return to his new dealer’s dead body. Miraculously using his own brain power, he manages to find the stash of pills. Shortly after starting his daily regimen of NZT-48, as the pill is called, he takes his newfound powers to the stock market with the help of $100K in startup money he borrows from a local loan shark. In short ordr he turns that into millions. This makes him a media darling and earns him a spot under the wing of financial mogul Carl Van Loon (De Niro). Eddie’s battle with drug addiction ensues, more or less.

Watching our hero’s meteoric rise is fascinating. We’ve all wondered what was possible if we really reached our full potential. We really could finish that novel, make tons of money and dazzle anyone we come into contact with using just our knowledge. Like all drugs, NZT has side effects. Those are interesting as well. Because of them, he finds himself in some strange predicaments including being suspected of murder. Visually, it’s also a treat. It starts with Eddie’s unbelievably blue eyes whenever he’s on NZT. From there, the movie doesn’t overwhelm us with special fx, but gives us a series of nice touches that form a beautiful picture.

The problem comes with the choice of obstacles to trip up our hero. There are three options and the movie goes with the one that’s by far the least likely. For lack of a better word, it’s just dumb. Let me put it this way: I may not know you personally or have any idea how smart you are, but I’m confident in saying you would’ve avoided this issue without breaking a sweat. You would’ve done so long before it became an issue. Simply put, how smart can he really be and do something so utterly stupid. What would’ve been better, and what I hoped was coming, is Eddie eventually becoming adversaries with and squaring off against Van Loon. Well, it sorta happens. However, it lasts all of about two minutes so I was severely disappointed. While its fun enough to enoy, its inexcusable for a movie about a person with superior intelligence to have it’s protagonist have so much trouble with something us average folks would not.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Jumping the Broom

Directed by Salim Akil.
2011. Rated PG-13, 112 minutes.
Cast:
Paula Patton
Laz Alonso
Angela Bassett
Loretta Devine
Mike Epps
Meagan Good
Tasha Smith
Julie Bowen
Valerie Pettiford
DeRay Davis
Gary Doudan
Romeo Miller
Brian Stokes Mitchell


And the y lived happily ever after. That Jumping the Broom ends this way should not be a surprise. It’s a romantic comedy named after a centuries old wedding tradition. You should already know how it ends. Our main character is food of saying “the details make the person.” So it is in the details where JtB is made or broken. That main character is Sabrina (Patton). Tired of dealing with no-good men, she asks God to send her a soul mate and vows abstinence until He does. Don’t worry, she immediately bumps into Jason (Alonso), who is apparently “the one.” Skip ahead a bit to after what we’re told is “five incredible months” he proposes, she says yes and then the movie starts.

The nuptials are to be held at the mansion of Sabrina’s rich parents on Martha’s Vineyard. Evidently, they’ve been rich a very long time. There is one little detail that makes this movie go. Sabrina has never met Jason’s family. They’re quite the opposite of Sabrina’s folks. Jason’s family are working class people from Brooklyn. Nevermind that no one of them speaks with anything that sounds even remotely like a New York accent. Just know that they are on their way to the Vineyard fro the wedding and Mom, the widowed Mrs. Taylor (Devine) is none too pleased that she’s never met her future daughter-in-law. Rich people interacting with poor people and lots of melodrama ensues.

Details keep flying at us. How well we deal with them will determine whether or not we enjoy it. They come fast and most of them help keep this a fairly light affair, moving us quickly through the near two hour runtime. The problem is after a while there’s so much going on the movie feels cluttered. Most of these strands are amusing but not always necessary. It begins to feel like the wedding episode of a daytime soap opera. Among those things that need to be cut entirely is the language switches. From time to time our wealthy characters will suddenly start speaking French. It’s presented like its just something sophisticated rich folks do. Maybe, but it comes across as strange and certainly isn’t needed to provide us with a clear distinction between the classes. The rest of the movie does a perfectly fine job establishing this.

Still, there is another detail that could stand some fleshing out. It’s really just one line of dialogue, but its drawn from history and transcends the movie. However, it may do so in a disasterous manner. In a spiteful retort to Mrs. Taylor, Mrs. Watson (Bassett) proclaims her family once owned slaves. Yes, there really were blacks that owned slaves. Most often, they purchased them as a way to get/keep them from under the thumb of white slaveowners whom, as we know, were harsh taskmasters to understate it by a couple thousands miles. To those not aware of this historical tidbit, Bassett’s line goes far beyond the villainy its trying to assign to her character. It reeks of self-hatred and shows a level of elitism even greater than I think the filmmakers are going for. A thirty second explanation would balance this. Those is charge should never assume their audience is stupid. By the same token they also should assume knowledge of any particular historic fact. This is especially true when the much more widely known and still practiced tradition that the movie is named after is explained in full.

That entire previous paragraph might be nit-picking. The more important issues to our enjoyment are the crowded feeling it gives us, as I’ve already mentioned, and the bombardment of clichés we’re hit with. The things that happen in most rom-coms happen here. In addition, it’s also heavily influenced by the Tyler Perry canon. Thankfully, it’s not as loud or outlandish as those films, but the formula of secular humor punctuated by Christian heedings is clearly visible. To this end, it should be noted that Evangelist Bishop T. D. Jakes, who’s made several movies himself, has a small role and is one of the producers.

There are some good things here. As I’ve said, much of it is amusing. It doesn’t often cause uproarious laughter, but there are some chuckles to be had. Our cast is game. The continuous sparring between Angela Bassett and Loretta Devine is enjoyable melodrama. Leads Patton and Alonso acquit themselves well enough and fans of Romeo can rejoice he’s a slightly better actor than his dad (Master P). Admittedly, that last one isn’t saying much but roll with it. In all, it adds up to one big giant package of “meh.”

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Malibu High

Directed by Irvin Berwick.
1979. Rated R, 92 minutes.
Cast:
Jill Lansing
Stuart Taylor
Katie Johnson
Phyllis Benson
Alex Mann
Tammy Taylor
Garth Howard
John Harmon
John Grant


Meet Kim (Lansing). Her life is a total mess. Her boyfriend Kevin (Stuart Taylor) just became her ex-boyfriend, dumping her for the school’s resident rich girl Annette (Tammy Taylor). Kim is a high school senior, but she’s either flunking or barely passing all of her classes and might not graduate. She lives with only her mom because her dad committed suicide. The two of them argue constantly. Her only friend, if you can call her that, is Lucy (Johnson). Lucy is sincere in her friendship but we get the feeling Kim only keeps the girl around because she has a car and a father who apparently doesn’t pay attention to his liquor cabinet. Luckily for us, Kim’s life is about to get a whole lot messier.


Let’s go back to our first meeting with Kim. If you don’t know you’re in for a slimeball of a movie within the first five minutes a box of rocks is too intellectual for you. Mom is calling Kim to get her lazy ass out of bed before she’s late for school. When Kim finally throws back the covers we see she’s naked. Am I missing something? How many, if any, teenagers living with their parents sleep in the nude? By the way, she’s 18 years old, but actress Jill Lansing looks closer to 30 than 20. Anyhoo, even after she puts on her robe she has to peel it back so she can stare at her boobs in the mirror. Meanwhile, Mom has breakfast ready for her little hell’s angel. What does Kim do when she gets to the table? Of course, she immediately lights up a cigarette. Mom complains. Argue, argue, fuss, fuss, cuss and off to school she goes. Trust me folks, this is barely the tip of the iceberg.



Later that night, Kim is hanging with Lucy at the local disco and gets all pissed because she sees Kevin and Annette. To ease her pain she makes Lucy leave so they can score some weed from Tony (Mann) and go raid Lucy’s dad’s liquor cabinet. That last part is a regular thing we’re told. By the way, Tony is important as you’ll learn in a few moments.

Before I go any further I have to apologize. I pride myself on not spoiling the movies I review. However, this trash is too good to keep to myself. Like a cheerleader with a quarterback on prom night, we’re goin’ all the way, baby! Go pop some popcorn, grab your beverage of choice and strap in for the long haul.

Back to our regularly scheduled program. At Lucy’s house and under the influence of alcohol and marijuana, Kim declares she’s about to turn her life around. Starting tomorrow she’s going to become a straight A student and she’s going to make plenty of money so Kevin will be jealous. If you can’t figure out how she plans on this, well, I’ve already mentioned where you stand in comparison to a box of rocks. Let’s just say this is where the real fun starts.

First thing in the morning Kim goes to see Tony, the weed man. I forgot to mention he’s also a pimp on the side. Or is he a pimp that sells weed on the side? Nevermind. Just know that he’s been after Kim for a while to work for him. She’s finally going to take him up on his job offer with one condition: she can’t work during school hours. You know how important school and stuff is to an aspiring prostitute. In case you couldn’t guess, Kim dons her ho gear for this momentous day. A girl’s gotta start working on those grades, ya know. What? You thought she was about to start studying? Rocks.


Kim’s first order of business is passing history. After class, her teacher Mr. Donaldson (Grant) asks her not to show up dressed like a whore again. Well, his exact words are “There were more eyes on you than on the blackboard!” She ignores that and tells him to meet her after school at High Point. She says it as plainly as if she were asking the time. I would say the girl needs to work on her seduction skills, but dammit it works! Easily sleazily, Mr. D makes his way to High Point that afternoon. By the way, High Point is a not really so secluded place near the beach. Immediately, the two start getting it on. Yes you horny li’l devil, we get our first sex scene. Unfortunately, it’s the furthest thing from sexy you could imagine. They awkwardly embrace and kiss while they roll around in the dirt, both topless. We notice that the camera is uncomfortably close. Porn does this to give us a point-blank look at the business end of the transaction. For better, or worse, you know what you’re looking at. Here, we get the camera mere centimeters from the middle of Mr. D’s very hairy back. I didn't know if I was watching two people have sex or a grizzly bear wrestling with a helpless camper. Guess what dear reader: almost all of the scenes of people doing the oochie-coochie play out this way. And just about all the guys have hairy backs.

Later that night, Kim makes her way over to Tony’s beat up VW van, a pure 70s mobile. He apparently lives and works in the damn thing. Somehow, she already knows that the going rate for working girls is 60% of the take and asks if this is what she’ll get. Wait, did she do some research on local hooker commission we weren't told about? Anyhoo, Tony gets all pimpish and tells her she’ll get 40% and like it. Hey, that’s better than what the girls got in The Mack. As Pretty Tony from that movie eloquently puts it “…my hoes, I keep ‘em broke. (If they) wake up with some money they subject to go crazy.” Hmmm…this explains so much about this movie, so let’s continue.

Before Tony can sell a product, he’s gotta test it first. Yup, more hairy back. Since Tony’s a benevolent pimp, he doesn't make his newest (only?) girl walk the streets. He brings the johns to her so she can turn tricks right in the back of the van. Not one to be content with just 40% we witness our girl cut side deals. Basically, after the pop you paid Tony for, she’ll let you pop a second time if you pay her directly and not mention it to you know who. Hilariously, she has to stress “CASH” like one of these degenerates is gonna write her a check. Well, we get more hairy back and shots of the van a rockin’ (don’t come a knockin’). We laugh and then comes the best/worst shot in all of cinematic history. It’s only a couple seconds long, but more than memorable. The last time we see the van rockin’ the camera pulls back to reveal a group of guys waiting in line like they’re at Starbucks. We’re talking at least a half dozen deep. Looks like our girl has got a busy night ahead.

Kim’s popularity explains how we shortly see her driving a shiny new sports car. It also brings her to the attention of Lance (Howard), a more upscale pimp. He strolls up on her while she’s catching up on some much needed Kim-time on the beach and offers her 60% with much nicer clientele and higher prices. Being a fair ho and all, she goes back to Tony and asks for a bigger cut. Well, let’s just say she starts working for Lance. Yes! She no longer has to bone random guys in the back of a dirty van. Now she gets to do them in a skuzzy hotel room! You know what this means, right? More hairy backs, only with brighter lights. Ewww. Seriously, are all the guys in Malibu (at least in 1979) half ape?


Warning: here comes a plot twist. Kim goes to meet one of her high-priced johns and is understandably startled when he digs in his bag of tricks and starts yanking out whips, chains and stuff made of leather. Comically, she has a look on her face that says “What kind of girl do you think I am?” Actually that look is supposed to be fear, but that’s not as funny. Anyway, S&M dude jumps all over her. Struggle, struggle, scream, scream, struggle then blam! Our girl manages to get the ice pick off the nightstand and stab him in his surprisingly hairless back. He drops dead. Kim freaks out and leaves. She tells Lance who tells her don’t worry about it. He’ll find some loser to take the wrap. Seriously. Still, that’s not quite the end of it. Lance’s light-bulb comes on when it becomes obvious Kim’s got a taste for murder. He tells her there’s more money in killing people than screwing them. He gets her a gun and has her first job all lined up. She acts all appalled and drops this gem on him: “I’m a hooker, not a hit girl!” Nonetheless, she accepts the mission. It helps that her first assignment is…wait for it…wait for it…to kill van-pimp Tony. After killing him and some other random dude Lance gets Kim a brand new luxury vehicle befitting a classy killer slut such as herself.

In between all this, Kim moves in with Lance, flips off her mom with both hands, starts snorting coke, stops by Lucy’s to show off the new ride, tells mom the reason dad killed himself is because he couldn't get it up anymore after years of looking at her lounge around in her moo-moos and keeps banging her teachers. Yeah, that Kim’s a nice girl. Mom and the box of rocks probably could have a conversation because she doesn't seem to notice her daughter’s moved out and barely presses Kim about the new cars, clothes, etc. Somewhere in there is a Kevin/Annette sex scene. Since his back isn't hairy, the camera is a little further away and reveals more of the not-so-hot action.


The school principal gets wind of Kim’s scheme to sleep her way to the honor roll and calls her to the office. While reading her the riot act he nearly goes into cardiac arrest. All is good when he pops a couple heart pills. He then tells Kim he’s coming to her house so he can personally tell her mom she’s being expelled. When he gets there, Kim is there all alone in her robe and she tells the old man mom has gone out for groceries but will be back shortly, so he can wait. She takes his coat. Let’s stop right there for a second. No one in this entire movie has had so much as a sweater on and this geezer is walking around with a full blown suit and overcoat! Well, as you might suspect, his pills are in his coat pocket. Kim sneaks them out, excuses herself and promptly flushes them down the toilet. She comes back to the living room where the principal is waiting and drops her robe. At this very moment we make a discovery we had given up on. We find out that Kim does indeed own a bra. Her boobs have been swinging free since the opening credits so I had my doubts. However, the bra doesn't stay on long and she starts giving the old dude a lap dance  He clutches his heart, looks for his pills and croaks. Forget about just graduating, this chick’s trying to be the valedictorian of skanks. Oh, you didn't know that was going to happen? Rocks.



Since killing the old dude is extremely low even for an assassin/ass-seller, none other than Lance is disturbed when he hears about this. Nonetheless, he’s got another job for her. Ahem…ahem…plot twist! She’s to kill her ex-bf’s new gf’s uber-rich dad. Got that? Revenge is sweet, ain't it? Apparently, the rich guy likes to party with hookers and has a special place he takes “all his girls” so no one should see Kim coming or going. Got that, too? Cool. Kim shows up, puts a bullet in the guy’s chest and starts to leave. Unbeknownst to her, Annette and a few friends, including Kevin have just pulled up out front so she can tell her old man something I couldn't be bothered to remember. Hold up. Hold up. Hold it. Annette’s dad is a special piece of work. If you put in the time, effort, and money to have “a special place” to entertain hookers why the hell does your daughter know about it? Hey, wait a sec…I knew this place looked familiar. This is the same house in which Annette had her little rendezvous with Kevin. You know what? I don’t even want to keep going down this road, so we’ll move on.


So Annette is on her way up to the house. Of course, she bumps into Kim who’s on her way out. Kim still has the gun in her hand so she shoots Annette. Kevin hears the shot even though I’m fairly certain she has a silencer on the gun. He runs over to see Kim, still with the gun in her hand. No silly, she doesn't shoot him. She runs past her car and takes off on foot down the beach. Pause. Let’s talk about music. A few times so far I’d thought I recognized some of the score. A little internet research reveals I was right. Some of it was later used for the best sketch comedy show of all time not named Saturday Night Live, SCTV. There was no research needed for what I heard next. Annette’s pals lead her into the back of their vehicle and take off for the hospital. Kevin decides to go after Kim. As he starts running, the theme from “The People’s Court” starts blaring from the speakers. I kid you not. And it’s the long, extended version. I am in bad movie heaven! We notice that the plaintiff, Kevin, is seriously haulin’ ass. The defendant, Kim, still has a huge lead though. While waiting for Judge Wapner to appear we realize Kim missed her true calling. The girl obviously could’ve been a track star because Kevin’s not gaining any ground. Suddenly, she remembers she has a gun, takes cover behind a random giant rock (?), draws her weapon and gives a Kev a stern warning. Since he’s the hard-headed sort who thinks he has an "S" on his chest he decides to approach anyway. Just as Kim is about to pump one into him a random team of cops gun her down from off-screen. Aren't they supposed to be at the house? How did they know… never mind. Kim’s lifeless body is lying face down in the sand. A wave rolls in over her and we get “THE END”.

Malibu High is an unforgettably terrible movie. The acting is horrible. However, lead Jill Lansing is giving it her all and we appreciate the effort. It’s a bit of a surprise she never showed up in another movie given her talent for sassing folks and willingness to take her top off. Her performance, as good/bad as it is, is the highlight of the movie. Still, it can only help so much because Kim is one of the least likable protagonists I can ever remember. The dialogue is often laughable, but not usually on purpose. Overall, it’s right up there with with the Pia Zadora travesty The Lonely Lady as one of the sleaziest movies I've ever watched. It’s so bad, its awesome!

MY SCORE: -10/10






Friday, September 2, 2011

The Tourist

Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.
2010. Rated PG-13, 103 minutes.
Cast:
Angelina Jolie
Johnny Depp
Paul Bettany
Steven Berkoff
Timothy Dalton
Rufus Sewell
Christian De Sica
Alessio Boni


The police are hot on the trail of Elise (Jolie). Everywhere she goes there are a couple of agents practically within spitting distance. Cameras are constantly trained on her and her every move is reported back to Inspector Acheson (Bettany) in real time. However, they’re not really interested in her. They are after her super reclusive boyfriend Alexander Pierce. They don’t know what he looks like. Still, they’ve managed to surmise that she is leaving Paris to meet him on their way to Venice. To throw the hounds off her scent, Elise throws herself at tourist Frank Tupelo (Depp) on the train, making the cops think he is the man they’re looking for. Why the law is after Pierce isn’t immediately clear. Why someone else is after him is made plain right away. He’s managed to steal over $2 billion from a ruthless gangster who also isn’t sure what he looks like.

Watching Jolie get followed around is mildly interesting. Trying to figure out who’s the mystery man is a tiny bit moreso. Occasionally, we get a chase scene as Frank either flees for his life or gets rescued by Elise. Mostly, these are not spectacular action sequences. They’re just adequate and advance the plot just a bit. It’s all rather bland.

Our two leads were brought in to be anything but bland. Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp are both stars. This is without question. Each has considerable presence, demanding we watch them. That is their job and both do it well. Sadly, the rest of the movie fails them. Who the actors are is remarkable. What they are doing is not. As a result, the romantic sparks that may have ignited this affair are missing. The humor that may have carried the day is hit or miss, at best. This means this movie has many of the same problems as a pair of movies of recent vintage: Knight and Day and Killers. Unfortunately, this has less action than either of those to distract us with. This wants to be smarter than those. It is. It’s just not smart enough to mask its flaws and raise itself from mediocrity.

MY SCORE: 5/10