Monday, January 31, 2011

The Ghost Writer


Directed by Roman Polanski.
2010. Rated PG-13, 128 minutes.
Cast:
Ewan McGregor
Pierce Brosnan
Olivia Williams
Kim Cattrall
Tom Wilkinson
Robert Pugh
Timothy Hutton
James Belushi


The Ghost (McGregor), as he’s often called, is hired to ghost write the autobiography of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Brosnan). However, there are peculiarities about the job. Not the least of which is the reason he is hired in the first place. The man originally assigned to the task has suddenly turned up dead. Next, the manuscript is said to have already been written, but no one outside of Lang’s most trusted people have actually seen it. Last, but certainly not least, accusations of war crimes are being hurled at Lang. Pretty soon, those accusations turn into a full-blown criminal investigation. Like us, The Ghost wonders just what has he gotten himself into and if he can get to the bottom of it.

This is the type of move where the threat of what could be next carries the day. To this end, it gives us much more in the way of tension than action. It’s better for it. Action is a short burst of excitement and is largely visual. Tension is much more visceral and lingers longer. It keeps us interested in these people.

Because of tension, we’re vested in the exploits of our hero. With every step he takes, we fear that it is a false one and that he will pay dearly for it. What also helps is that often, he isn’t sure whether or not the move he’s making is a good one, either. Nor is he some super-spy trained in the ways of espionage with tons of gadgets at his disposal. He’s just a guy who finds himself in the midst of something enormous. To get through it, he has some ideas, but generally takes the next step presented to him.

To pull this sort of thing off, a movie has to be well written. This one is. It keeps us going long enough to sustain our curiosity. Director Roman Polanski helps by being patient. He never rushes his story and barely embellishes what little action there is. This gives it a real-world feel that adds to our enjoyment. I will have to dock TGW a bit because my initial suspicions about where the trail will lead turn out to be true. Within the first 20 minutes I guessed the answer. Luckily, asking the questions is still lots of fun.

The banter between The Ghost and Adam offers some of the movies best moments. As the Prime Minister, Brosnan gives an outstanding performance. McGregor is also strong, as is Olivia Williams as Lang’s wife, Ruth, and the reliable Tom Wilkinson as Paul Emmett. Casting wise, my one gripe is with Kim Cattrall. She gives a weird portrayal as Lang’s top assistant. Seeing her try to speak with an English accent is odd in itself. However, combined with her almost robotic line deliveries it becomes downright ridiculous.

In sum, TGW manages to overcome its shortcomings to be a wonderfully taut thriller. It’s capped off by an amazing shot to end the film. It reminds me of the director’s own classic horror film, Rosemary’s Baby. In both movies, the finale is startling because of what you don’t see.

MY SCORE: 8.5/10

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Despicable Me


Directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud.
2010. Rated PG, 95 minutes.
Cast:
Steve Carell
Jason Segel
Russell Brand
Julie Andrews
Will Arnett
Kristen Wiig
Miranda Cosgrove
Dana Gaier
Elsie Fisher


Gru (Carrell) is a supervillain who’s day just been ruined. Someone else has just pulled off the greatest heist of all time. It’s so big, it’s said the new villain responsible makes all others look lame. Not one to take being outdone lightly, Gru devises a plan to steal the moon. His plan involves adopting three little girls from the local orphanage. However, after that happens Gru finds he’s gotten much more than he bargained for. We watch his relationship with the girls grow as he tries to simultaneously plot his crime. As expected, there is much cuteness in this. However, the girls are a distraction and seem to be softening the ornery Gru.

Most of our comedy comes from the minions. These little yellow guys are, by far, my favorite part of the movie. It doesn’t even matter that you can’t understand a word they say. They’re just plain fun and totally willing to do all the dirty work. Our action is derived from Gru’s interactions with Vector (Segel), the villain Gru is trying to one up. When the two get together, there are plenty of fireworks.

DM is a very solid kiddie flick. Though there is some, it isn’t overrun with bathroom humor and the things meant for adults don’t completely fly over the kids’ heads. It’s an enjoyable hour and a half that doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but gives us a fun ride.

MY SCORE: 7/10

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse


Directed by David Slade.
2010. Rated PG-13, 124 minutes.
Cast:
Kristen Stewart
Robert Pattinson
Taylor Lautner
Billy Burke
Bryce Dallas Howard
Peter Facinelli
Anna Kendrick
Xavier Samuel
Dakota Fanning
Michael Welch
Jackson Rathbone

Ashley Greene
Gil Birmingham

This entire series gives me cause to rant. For three movies now, I’ve had to endure whiny, annoying, sexually frustrated teenagers say “woe, is me” and take two full hours to say it, each time. What am I gonna do, not watch them? The women in my house eat this stuff up. “The women” consists of my two pre-teen daughters and my wife who is…um…not a pre-teen. I think she’ll be okay with that.

Anyhoo, before I go too far off the deep end, let me give the particulars for those of you who’ve been living under a rock. Human girl Bella (Stewart) is still trying mightily to get into vampire Edward’s (Pattinson) pants. He’s an old-fashioned sort, maybe because he’s over 100 years old, but whatever. He asks her to marry him roughly every five minutes. Somehow, she thinks that’s too big a commitment but begs him to either take her virginity or change her into a vampire for all eternity. He agrees to do the latter after Bella’s high school graduation, but only on the condition she marry him, of course. Even though she’s ready to become one of the undead, she’s not as sure about the marriage thing because she also has strong feelings for werewolf Jacob (Lautner). Jacob spends all his energy trying to lure Bella away by badmouthing Edward and standing around with no shirt on. Like Edward, he makes jealous. He makes me seriously consider dropping twenty bucks on a Shake-Weight I’ll probably never use.

Oh yeah, there’s lots of action this time around. That’s because Victoria (Howard) is still pissed about ther boyfriend getting killed in the first movie and is organizing an army of
”newborns” to go after Bella. Normally, something like that would be a spoiler, but its painfully obvious from very early on. What’s laughable is that they try to hide it for quite some time as if we ever doubted her involvement. By the way, “newborns” are those newly transformed into vampires.

Much has been written about how The Twilight Saga is merely a Mormon plea for pre-marital abstinence. I’ve no problem with that, the vampire is a great choice to build such a metaphor. However, our creature of the night is completely neutered. Being a vampire, like many view having sex for the first time, should be both a blessing and a curse. Sure, they have immense power, but their weaknesses should be huge detriments. I imagine the author believes sex before marriage to be a sin, a black mark on one’s soul. There’s also the possibility of unwanted pregnancy and disease. All of thes could be perfectly manifested in the horrific things vampires must do to survive and the simple fact that daylight is fatal to them.

There is no real downside to being a vampire in this series. In this world, vampires are only killed by others like them. They can learn to survive without having to pose a threat to humans, and daylight doesn’t kill them. It makes them sparkle like a diamond, but causes no physical discomfort. The only drawback, should you avoid being killed by other bloodsuckers, is you’ll live forever and get bored from time to time, repeat high school and move every few years. That’s it? Sign me up, now!

Let’s back up a bit to the whole daylight thing. Not only would its deadliness to vampires have helped the abstinence purpose, it’s a key component in the mythology of such creatures. Starting with the first movie, this franchise stomps that tradition into the ground. In this installment, they drive a wooden stake right through its proverbial heart. They don’t even pretend the sun even matters. What used to be a full-on shine is now looks more like someone across the room trying to get their watch to reflect off them. It’s so faint, it’s hardly noticeable. There are multiple scenes of vampires standing around, or fighting, in wide open fields in the middle of the day. Bram Stoker is probably spinning in his grave.

You’re probably saying to yourself “I already know all that, how’s the movie?” That depends. If you’re a fan of the franchise then you’ll be very pleased. If not, maybe. A huge point in Eclipse’s favor is that it is far less depressing than its predecessor, New Moon. That one was a full-on mope-fest seemingly designed to inspire millions of young girls to leap untethered from the nearest tall building, on top of being dumb. At least, this is just dumb. I will say this: the scenes which all three participants in our love triangle share are actually fun in a morbid, so bad it’s awesome sort of way. The dialogue is beyond trite, but it is contentious. It helps that the possibility of an all-out brawl erupting feels high. In addition, the action I mentioned earlier kicks thins up a notch. Granted, it looks kind of hoke with vampires breaking like porcelain, but at least something is happening. Sue me, or just never forgive, but because of these things and expecting to see the worst movie ever made, I actually kinda-sorta enjoyed it. For my money, it’s the best of a very bad trilogy.

MY SCORE: 5.5/10

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Twilight Saga: New Moon


Directed by Chris Weitz.
2009. Rated PG-13, 130 minutes.
Cast:
Kristen Stewart
Robert Pattinson
Taylor Lautner
Billy Burke
Ashley Greene
Anna Kendrick
Michael Welch
Michael Sheen
Peter Facinelli
Rachelle Lefevre
Dakota Fanning

Gil Birmingham

Plot: Vampire Edward (Pattinson) decides the best, safest thing for Bella (Stewart) is for him and the rest of the Cullen to skip town. To get over her pain, Bella starts spending more time with Jacob (Lautner). Not only does Jacob pine for her like Edward, but he has a secret of his own.

The Good: It knows what its fans want. Therefore, we get a constant barrage of teen melodrama, including Bella lashing out at anyone who dares disagree with her. And since teenaged girls make up the core audience, we get lots of Jacob without a shirt. Yep, I need to hit the gym, but I digress. The action scenes, when we get them, are actually well done. Jacob and his buddies instantaneously wolfing out is spectacular. In fact, the whole movie looks great. It has a more polished look, with better special fx than the original.

The Bad: The tagline for this movie should’ve been “Now, with more emo!” Watching Bella sit around, literally for months, being totally depressed is…uh…depressing. Then, Edward and Jacob aren’t exactly rays of sunshine, either. All three are blatantly suicidal. It all amounts to beating us over the head with the saga’s main message: pre-marital sex is evil. As a dad of young girls, I appreciate the sentiment. However, here sex is a merciless villain punishing any who even think of it. No wonder Bella seems like she’s always thirty seconds from downing a bottle of sleeping pills and slitting her wrists. All that stuff aside, the dialogue is trite, predictable and delivered clunkily by the cast. The decisions these people make are consistently idiotic. Finally, the way the movie ends is an all-out insult to our collective intelligence. Given all we know about Bella, it is incomprehensible how this qualifies as some sort of cliff-hanger (see Spoiler, if you care...er...dare).

The Ugly: The wimpy regular guy who likes Bella, trying to watch a bloody action flick.

Recommendation: This is simple. If you’re a fan of the original and/or the books the movies are based on, have at it. If not, skip it.

MY SCORE: 2/10

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Twilight


Directed by Catherine Hardwicke.
2008. Rated PG-13, 122 minutes.
Cast:
Kristen Stewart
Robert Pattinson
Billy Burke
Taylor Lautner
Peter Facinelli
Elizabeth Reaser
Anna Kendrick
Jackson Rathbone

Ashley Greene
Gil Birmingham
Cam Gigandet

Plot: Bella (Stewart) moves to Forks, Washington to live with her dad. At her new high school, she meets and falls in love with Edward (Pattinson) whom she discovers is a vampire.

The Good: It's a very stylish movie. The camera often seems to be next to a fog machine but it works. It works because all that slow-motion fog, the usually soft rain, the angst-stricken looks on the major characters' faces and the almost constant 6 AM lighting, more on that later, stress that this is a romance. Since it so diligently creates the atmosphere of a storybook romance it only has to do a few other things right to make it's target audience, teenage girls, fall in love with it. It does. The couple involved has to make a huge sacrifice to be together and face some sort of seemingly insurmountable challenge to their love. If they cannot overcome that obstacle, on of them must die with the other weeping at his/her side. If they do, then they must pledge their undying love for one another. I won't tell you which happens here, just know that Twilight covers it's bases.

The Bad: Now, about that lighting: this is probably the brightest vampire movie in history. Think about that, a vampire movie with only a few nighttime scenes. It uses the fact that cloudiness and rain are near constant in the area as an excuse. However, when there is sunlight it doesn't seem to be life-threatening to the vampires. Hmmm. This, among other things spits in the face of traditional vampire lore. However, the most grating factor is that our heroes both seem to be suffering from depression and share a fondness for whining. As a result, Edward might be the least sexy vampire to ever hit the screen. He's an introvert who lacks charm, basic confidence and who glares and snaps at everyone. He's the Anakin Skywalker of his species. This problem of assigning sexiness to unsexy characters is evident in Bella, as well. Instead of developing her properly, they just make everyone around her so lame she becomes the most popular and desirable girl in school about 30 seconds into her first day. They were actually waiting for her to get there. They even knew her background and were planning to do a front page feature on her in the school paper. I know I've been out of school for awhile but c'mon, really? As it pertains to Bella and Edward as a couple, the movie tries to have these two obviously cynical people both fall head over heels for one another instantly but other than the aforementioned shared deprssion and whining we've no idea why they would.

The Ugly: Am I the only one who thinks it incredibly stupid for a family of vampires to live in a house high up in the hills with huge floor-to-ceiling windows in nearly every room with no curtains?

Recommendation: It's not nearly as bad as most critics and adults who read the novel will tell you. However, it's not nearly as good as most teenage girls would have you believe. It certainly has it's flaws but it basically does what it sets out to, namely, make a ton of money and have young girls everywhere clamoring for the sequel.

MY SCORE: 5/10

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

All About My Mother

Directed by Pedro Almodóvar.
1999. Rated R, 101 minutes.
Cast:
Cecilia Roth
Marisa Paredes
Penélope Cruz
Candela Péna
Antonia San Juan
Rosa Maria Serda


When you sit down to watch a film directed by Pedro Almodóvar, there are some things you should know. More than likely, it will heavily involve people in some form of entertainment, and someone desperately aspiring to break into the business. In this case, that’s a pair of stage actresses, a young would-be playwright and another would-be actress, though not so desperately aspiring in her case. There will be lots of secrets uncovered as we move along. Lastly, at least one of the characters will live what many consider an alternative lifestyle. Here, it’s a pre-op transsexual. He’s already got the boobs, but still has male plumbing. This character isn’t just a freak show, though that quality is certainly present, even made light of. This character is a constant reminder that things aren’t always what they seem. This is key because it ties back into the plethora of secrets.

We learn early that Manuela (Roth) is keeping a secret from her son. It’s about his absent father. Before she can tell him, he’s killed in a tragic accident. She then decides she needs to confront her past and goes looking for her ex.

As the story unfolds, each character we meet has their own major issues to deal with. Being the only mother in the group, Manuela becomes the one all others lean on. This provides an interesting dynamic between her and her odd circle of friends. In typical Almodóvar fashion, this develops without rushing or dragging. This perfect pacing, along with the colorful characters and their dilemmas, keeps us intrigued.

In comparison to other movies I’ve seen by this director, this suffers from something others do not. It feels overpopulated and disjointed. An entire movie can be made about a number characters here and it would be a good one. All stuffed into this one, it feels like most of these people don’t quite get their just due. The potential even more depth than is present is unexplored.

Exactly like Almodóvar’s other films, he extracts excellent performances from his actors. Even throughout all the melodrama, they never seem to overdo it. Sour notes just aren’t hit. They elevate the material. Particularly outstanding is Cecilia Roth in the lead role. Her emotions effortlessly runs the gamut from depression to triumph and most stops in between.

In the end, the director’s pacing, the sharp dialogue and acting come together to make an enjoyable movie. I don’t think its quite on the same level as some of his other work. However, the mere fact it’s different yet still real, and not afraid of being so, makes it worthy of your attention.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Knight and Day


Directed by James Mangold.
2010. Rated PG-13, 109 minutes.
Cast:
Tom Cruise
Cameron Diaz
Peter Sarsgaard
Viola Davis
Jordi Mollà
Paul Dano
Celia Weston
Jack O’Connell

Maggie Grace

We learn something about Roy (Cruise) long before June (Diaz) finds out. Right at the start of Knight and Day, we find out he’s got some pretty powerful people after him. For some reason, they set it up so that she’d be the only other person aboard a flight with Roy and assassins they’ve sent to kill him. After spectacularly escaping that situation, with June in tow, he goes on the run dragging her along and generally not telling her much of anything. Is Roy the good guy, or the bad guy? Is he lying, or not? What about the people chasing him? Where does June fit into all this? These questions drive all the action and gags that follow. With the next shootout, car chase or fist-fight never more than a couple minutes away, its definitely an action flick. Since much of that action, and nearly everything else fused with jokes, it’s also a comedy.

The near constant action is a big plus. It keeps things moving along. Our runtime breezes by. The whimsical nature of the script helps with this, too. There are no heavy scenes for us to slow down and ponder. The basic pattern goes like this: everything goes boom, a few silly lines of dialogue reveal ever-so-slightly more of the plot, everything goes boom again.

Where it falls apart is in the story. It only gives us a little at a time because its trying to stretch what little is there. What’s there is simply a rehash of something we’ve seen hundreds, if not thousands, of times before. For all the mystery its presented with, it actually holds none. On top of that, the entire movie could’ve been done without the Cameron Diaz character. She’s completely irrelevant, aside from the fact that the filmmakers obviously wanted a female lead to create sexual tension. Otherwise, she just gets in the way, screams hysterically and puts herself in harm’s way on a regular basis merely so she can be rescued. She is a classic damsel in distress, except she’s a damsel our dashing hero just met.

This is strictly for those knights you just want to see a lot of explosions while Tom Cruise does the impossible. Did you see that? Anyhoo, its not terrible popcorn fare, but it isn’t especially memorable, either. About ten minutes after the credits roll, it will simply blend in with all the other action flicks you’ve seen.

MY SCORE: 5.5/10

Friday, January 21, 2011

Machete


Directed by Robert Rodriguez.
2010. Rated R, 105 minutes.
Cast:
Danny Trejo
Jeff Fahey
Jessica Alba
Robert De Niro
Steven Seagal
Michelle Rodriguez
Don Johnson
Lindsay Lohan
Cheech Marin


A couple years ago, director Robert Rodriguez joined forces with his bestest buddy, fellow filmmaker Quentin Tarantino to create Grindhouse, an homage to low-budget, 1970s grindhouse cinema. Rodriguez’s Planet Terror is unquestionably the more adrenaline-charged of the two halves. It has loads of zombies, a heroine whose amputated leg is replaced by a functioning machine-gun and buckets of blood. Between the this and Tarantino’s Death Proof were a few faux-trailers that fans immediately began hoping would really be made into movies. One of those trailers was Machete. At least in this instance, fans get their wish.

Machete (Trejo) is the name of both our hero and his weapon of choice. He’s a Mexican Federale on his way to rescue an apparent kidnapping victim from druglord Torrez (Seagal). Long story short: it doesn’t quite work out for the good guy. His whole family ends up dead, along with his partner. He himself is left for dead in a burning house. It should hardly be a surprise he manages to escape. The movie knows this is too easy and doesn’t even bother showing it to us. We just jump into the opening credits and theme song, after which we switch locations from Mexico to Texas.

Once in Texas, we find the immigration debate is on steroids. Senator John McLaughlin (De Niro) is so anti-immigration, he and his cronies literally hunt Mexicans under the cover of night. Luz (Michelle Rodriguez) runs a taco stand that’s really a front for “The Network”, a modern-day underground railroad for Mexicans trying to cross the border into the States. Then there’s Machete. He’s been moseying along as a day-laborer but suddenly finds himself hired to kill the senator. After some double crossings, which the senator survives, Machete has to go on the run from the American law, try to clear his name and bring the real bad guys to justice.

As expected, a healthy dose of graphic and over the top violence keeps our inner-sadists sated. This includes beheadings, impalings and even a crucifixion. There’s also enough nudity to live up to the exploitation flicks to which Machete owes its existence. It basks in the light of outrageous, testosterone driven fun.

Those things alone would make it worthy of a look. However, it adds something extra. It gives us really sharp social commentary through satire. The immigration issue is front and center. However, it also riffs on internet culture, celebrity culture, our obsession with technology and even the clergy. Between the action scenes, there are plenty of laughs to be had.

The cast aids immensely in our enjoyment. For the most part, they play it straight. It’s as if they’re unaware how ridiculously exaggerated this all is and it works perfectly. In the lead, Danny Trejo is deadpan but awesome. A surprisingly good Steven Seagal and surprisingly creepy Don Johnson steal all of their scenes, not to mention the incomparable Cheech Marin. Even Jessica Alba is solid. My one minor complaint is with one of my all time faves, Robert De Niro. He actually turns in a fine performance. He’s the one person who doesn’t quite play it straight and is at his campy best. This actually fits the character and the movie. For some reason though, I just felt like this should’ve been William Shatner’s role. In no way am I suggesting Shatner is a better actor than De Niro. I’m only saying that, in my humble opinion, the senator seems to perfectly fit Shatner’s abilities.

If you’re a fan of Rodriguez’s work and have some understanding of what you might be getting into, you’ll have a blast. The key here is that although nothing that actually happens is to be taken seriously, the movie’s message is. Of course, if you’re one of the hardliners who support what the government is doing in Arizona and think Mexicans are stealing “our” jobs, this might piss you off. If you’re not, or you at least have a sense of humor, it’ll be a fun ride. As for me, I’m anxiously awaiting the sequels we’re promised at the end of the movie: Machete Kills and Machete Kills Again. Please Mr. Rodriguez, make it happen.

MY SCORE: 9/10

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Murder, Inc.


Directed by Burt Balaban and Stuart Rosenburg.
1960. Not Rated, 103 minutes.
Cast:
Stuart Whitman
Peter Falk
May Britt
Henry Morgan


After making a name for themselves as talented killers on their home turf of Brownsville in Brooklyn, New York a ruthless gang that would come to be known as Murder, Inc. is hired by a nation-wide crime syndicate to carry out assassination. Yes, it’s based on a true story but no, hip hop fans, this has nothing to do with the record label headed by Irv Gotti. In fact, this is where he got the name. Over the years, it’s become largely forgotten but this is a ruthless gem that doesn’t blink and just gives it to you plain. Stuart Whitman gets top billing but Peter Falk is “the man” here. He’s wickedly grimy, psychotic and slyly intelligent. He’s definitely someone who makes you check to make sure you still have your watch after shaking hands with him. Falk is so good in this movie, he seems to leave a stench on the screen that permeates the movie. Whenever he left a room, I looked around my living room to make sure I still had all my valuables. Finally, the movie undercuts itself just a bit by narrating parts of the movie that could’ve been shown.

SCORE: 8/10

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Jonah Hex

Directed by Jimmy Hayward.
2010. Rated PG-13, 82 minutes.
Cast:
Josh Brolin
Megan Fox
John Malkovich
Will Arnett
Michael Fassbender
John Gallagher Jr.
Tom Wopat
Michael Shannon


The possibility of time travel is still one of the great unknowns. Most of us would love to be like Marty McFly, traversing human history at will. As of right now, we can’t. Mentally, I often take trips to and fro throughout our existence, entertaining the possibilities or cherishing the memories. One of my favorite memories is spending much of my allowance on comic books. Spider-Man and The Uncanny X-Men were my favorites. For years, not a month went by when I didn’t grab the latest edition of each. This included all three of the Spidey periodicals that were going at the time. It’s a good thing they were only sixty cents a pop, back then. I grabbed many other titles, as well. Though I had seen it on the racks plenty of times, none of them were ever “Jonah Hex.” I don’t recall any of my friends buying it, either. I certainly never read a single issue. Perhaps, that was a subtle warning or foreshadowing of how I should’ve treated this movie.

Anyone who knows me, knows it’s a safe bet that I’ll give a comic book movie a shot. Therefore, even as negative feedback mounted to unbelievable heights, I never really entertained the notion of not seeing it. So there I was, all alone with a comic book flick that I really had no frame of reference for. That didn’t bother me. I just wanted a fun movie.

Very quickly, we find out Jonah (Brolin) is an ex-Confederate soldier and is at odds with his former, and still corrupt commander Quentin Turnbull (Malkovich). For the slow among us, this makes it a comic-book western set in the 1870s. Anyhoo, for some reason or another Jonah has not only turned on Turnbull, but killed his son Jeb. None too pleased about this, Turnbull returns the favor by having Jonah tied to a cross and killing his family right in front of him.. Still not satisfied, QT then literally brands his initials on our hero’s face. Jonah trying to get revenge ensues.

Oh, I forgot something. Since this is a comic book movie, our hero has a superpower. You see, Jonah nearly died on the cross QT strapped him to. When he came back from “the other side”, he emerged with the ability to talk to the dead. They’re like his personal GPS because each dead person can track the movements of the people they knew when they were alive. It’s not the most appealing ability to have, but it is what it is. No wonder I never read this comic. Almost forgot something else: Turnbull has bigger things than Jonah on his mind. He’s trying to build some ultimate weapon so he can overthrow the hated Union government and get rid of all us damn Yankees. What is it? What does it do? How does it work? I saw the thing and I’m not sure I can tell you a whole lot. Okay, maybe I gave up caring by then. The gist of it is, it shoots giant glowing canon balls and blows stuff up real good.

Sound silly? That’s okay, silliness can be well executed. Sadly, not in this case. Our hero occasionally kills people because he feels like it, is in love with a prostitute and doesn’t have the most pleasant personality. The prostitute, by the way, is named Lilah and is played by Megan Fox. She works so hard at her southern accent she neglects to ever change her facial expression. Even a face as beautiful as hers is boring if it never does anything. John Malkovich could’ve saved this thing by giving us a dynamic villain, but he’s far too restrained. As Jonah Hex, Brolin does what’s asked of him and grunts his way through the movie.

The whole thing reminds me of another movie set in the 19th century in which the bad guy creates a superweapon he wants to use to take down the US government: Wild Wild West. Yeah, I went there. The only real difference is tone. The Will Smith vehicle went for screwball comedy/buddy flick/action movie. This uses the gal as both lover and buddy, keeps the action and is goofy but not funny, at least not intentionally. In fact, it has no funny bone to speak of, trading in the former’s jovial demeanor for surliness.

Once again, I’m thrust back in time to the hours I spent gazing at the racks and racks of comics deciding what to spend my hard earned allowance on. A smile comes over my face as I see myself accidentally knock an issue of “Jonah Hex” onto the floor and step on it in an effort to reach the latest issue of “Batman”.

MY SCORE: 3/10

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Black Godfather


Directed by John Evans.
1974. Rated R, 90 minutes.
Cast:
Rod Perry
Jimmy Witherspoon
Don Chastain
Diane Sommerfield
Tony Burton
Damu King
Anny Green



J. J. (Perry), Not The J. J. of Good Times, and his bestest buddy in petty crime decide to break into some white dude’s place. Neither of these two geniuses thinks to bring a weapon of any sort and are promptly shot upon entering the premises. The buddy gets killed, but Not The J. J. manages to make it down the street where he is picked up by a good samaritan who just hates to see young brothers bleeding to death on the sidewalk. The good samaritan turns out to be none other than Nate Williams (Witherspoon), the numbers king of “the Black community”, we’re told. By the way, Nate’s sidekick is former boxing champion Sonny Spyder Brown. At least, that’s what he’s called in this movie. For me, the moment I saw him his name became “Hey, that’s Duke from the Rocky movies!” True story.

Anyhoo, Nate says he picked Not The J. J. up and had him nursed back to health because he recognizes talent when he sees it. Funny, I didn’t know writhing in pain on the pavement was a talent. Well, it’s not. Wait…did you think? Let’s move on. We quickly learn why Nate thinks Not The J. J. is talented. It happens that the place Not The J. J. and pal tried to break into belongs to Tony (Chastain), the local white gangster who really runs things. Now, I’m confused. Is breaking into a known gangster’s place of business, while he’s there with his goons talented, or just dumb as hell? The lights were on and you could see movement from outside, by the way. My head hurts, and we just started.

Finally, the opening credits roll over the funky 70s theme song, a very groovy tune if you were wondering. When its done we’ve skipped ahead a few years and Not The J. J. is now big-time. Not only is he Nate’s top dog, he actually runs things while Nate piddles around in semi-retirement. “Hey, that’s Duke from the Rocky movies!” seems bitter about all this since it looks like he got jumped in the pecking order. Oh well, what’s he gonna do, throw in the towel? Okay, that went over some of your heads. The rest of you probably think my humor sucks. I don’t really care.

Feeling his oats, and still more than a little bit upset about the whole getting shot thing, Not The J. J. decides he’s going to take down Tony. His own crew of thugs isn’t enough to do this so he forms an uneasy alliance with a Black militant group to help him. So yeah, the pushers, pimps and numbers runners join forces with a Black Panther styled organization to…ahem…in my most militant voice…stick it to the man!

Even though it’s achieved classic status among many Blaxploitation fans, it isn’t quite the totally bananas, anything goes experience many of these movies are. A lot of the genre conventions are present, but not the near complete lack of restraint that makes Blaxploitation extraordinarily fun. Furthermore, Not The J. J. lacks the charisma of Shaft, Superfly or the Mack. He certainly isn’t the purveyor of cool they were, either. This means we’re left with a movie that, during its own era, thrilled audiences desperate for any representation of Black power. However, in a world that’s post-Spike Lee, post-Denzel, post-The Matrix (many of that hugely successful franchise’s heroes were Black, Neo aside) and more recently and importantly, post-Obama, its major flaw is more easily discerned. It’s so glaring, it’s near-fatal. It points itself out several times as if its something that’s going to be resolved, yet never really addresses it. Many movies of its type have the same problem. This one just isn’t fun enough to overcome it.

That flaw is in its morality. What happens if/when Not The J. J. runs Tony out of town? He merely ascends to a throne built upon the same crimes the movie suggests were perpertrated on Blacks by the White establishment. As we’re told several times, Not The J. J. is no different or better than Tony. The movie is aware of its own problem and knowingly proceeds as if not to be. It dodges the question it asks of itself: what good is replacing a White devil with a Black one?

MY SCORE: 4.5/10

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Kids Are All Right

Directed by Lisa Cholodenko.
2010. Rated R, 106 minutes.
Cast:
Annette Benning
Julianne Moore
Mark Ruffalo
Mia Wasikowska
Josh Hutcherson
Yaya DaCosta
Eddie Hassell
Kunal Sharma
Zosia Mamet


Nic (Benning) and Jules (Moore) have built their loving family the new fashioned way. Many moons ago, each of the ladies was artificially inseminated, bore a child and at some point apparently prior to any of this, decided to marry each other. Their daughter Joni (Wasikowska), named after rock icon Joni Mitchell, has just turned 18 and graduated high school. She is on her way to college in a few weeks. Their son, Laser (Hutcherson), is 16. He seems to also be bright, but makes extremely poor choices in friends. For him, “the wrong crowd” is all wrapped up into Clay (Hassell), the Neanderthal he hangs out with. Clay seems destined to die a horrible death trying to perform a stunt for YouTube. Anyhoo, things are fairly mundane until the kids decide to find out who their biological father is, without their moms’ knowledge.

In short order, they discover their dad is Paul (Ruffalo), a local restaurant owner. Totally unaware that he actually has kids up to that point, he’s living the bachelor life. You see, he donated sperm 19 years ago and has since forgotten about it. Women throw themselves at him, including Tanya (DaCosta). She’s not only his “friend with benefits” but his employee, as well. Evidently, she doesn’t believe in bras. Of course, a slob like me would notice such a thing for obvious reasons. However, there’s more to it than that. Her bralessness, the afro she sometimes wears (yes, she’s Black), the seemingly no-strings-attached sex she has (with a White man, no less), mark her as a free spirit, a bit rebellious and alternative thinking. She’s a female version of Paul. Though she’s a minor character, she helps frame the movie. She is the embodiment of both his lifestyle and the opposing force he becomes to Nic.

For all intents and purposes, Nic is the patriarch of her family. She’s domineering, demanding and can’t stand that Paul has been suddenly injected into their lives. Her partner Jules appears much more the wife in a traditional sense. She’s been a stay at home mom at Nic’s behest. She’s searching for her own identity and feels neglected. The entire situation becomes volatile as Nic has frequent outbursts and increasingly drowns her sorrows in alcohol. The children grow to like Paul more and more with each visit and he becomes the first client of Jules’ fledgling landscaping company.

As is the norm when worlds collide and get turned upside down, everyone is confused by what’s going on and try to make sense of it all. To the film’s credit, so do we. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Is there even a right and wrong? What does this mean? Are the kids, or the adults, really all right? This enhances our experience because we’re working our way through it with the characters. In the end, we’re not sure we have any answers. Still, we’ve had an interesting ride with a family not as dissimilar to our own as appearances would lead most of us to believe. That said, if you're religious, or other convictions make you scoff at the notion of a nuclear family headed by two women, you might not be willing to enjoy it.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps



Directed by Oliver Stone.
2010. Rated PG-13, 133 minutes.
Cast:
Shia LaBeouf
Michael Douglas
Carey Mulligan
Josh Brolin
Frank Langella
Susan Sarandon
Austin Pendleton
Vanessa Ferlito


There is a lot of stuff happening, here. The iconic Gordon Gekko (Douglas) is finally out of jail and armed with a best-selling book. Still, his daughter Winnie (Mulligan) blames him for everything since the crucifixion of Christ and wants nothing to do with him. Of course, this means she’s in love with a guy just like him. That guy is Jake Moore (LaBeouf), a young Wall Street hotshot with a jones for an alternative energy company in California.

Keep up, we’re just getting started.

The firm Jake works for collapses. Did I mention this is set in 2008? Anyhoo, when the firm goes belly up, Jake’s beloved boss Lou (Langella) can’t take it anymore, or finally had enough of the smell in the subway, and steps in front of a train. As you would expect, Jake gets all pissed and , tries to go Jason Witwicky and get Bumblebee to kick some ass. However, since he can’t do that in this movie, he decides he’s going to try and take down the man who he thinks is responsible for all his recent misfortunes, Gordon Gekko…oh, wait, sorry. That would’ve made it more interesting. Instead, it’s some other cold-hearted arrogant mogul named Bretton James (Brolin). He’s the kind of guy that likes to stab people in the back and then come around front and act tough as they die.

Well, since it is 2008 and all, the Dow Jones does all of Jakes heavy lifting and all the firms soon find themselves in financial ruin and facing extinction. By the way, there’s also Jake’s mom (Sarandon) who’s a real estate junkie, a cajillion karat engagement ring and an angry liberal website.

Phew! Let me catch my breath.

Actually, all that sounds like an interesting movie. Add in the fact that Oliver Stone is indeed directing the sequel to one of his masterpieces, and this has the pedigree to be great. Sadly, it’s nothing of the sort. It’s just a bunch of stuff.

An old baseball saying warns us to “make them beat you with your best pitch.” If you’re a pitcher tasked with getting out the other team’s star hitter in a potentially game-changing moment, throw your best pitch. If that pitch is a 100 mph fastball, go with that. Don’t bother with your curveball that doesn’t curve so much. For non-baseball fans, it simply means go with what you do best in crucial situations. WS: MNS rarely throws its best pitch.

It’s best pitch is the Gordon Gekko of the original movie. That Gekko is simultaneously magnetic and repulsive. He is irreverent, unapologetic, self-absorbed and above all, greedy. He is one of the best villains of the 1980s, possibly of cinematic history. This version is much more pathetic. His smugness and sliminess has lost most of its appeal. Worse than that, because we do get glimpses of the old Gordon, he’s a secondary player on what should’ve been his stage to shine.

That stage is thoroughly hogged by Jake and James. As our good guy, LaBeouf does what LaBeouf always does, take it or leave it. As the bad guy, Brolin turns in another in what’s becoming a long line of impressive performances. The problem is the characters themselves. They’re both less interesting knock-offs of their counterparts from the original, with equally less interesting dialogue and relationship between them. There’s no complexity to it. It’s simply good guy vs. bad guy. The original gave us two guys who obviously admired one another and, for a time, really were on the same side. The sequel ditches that for standard hero/villain fare, not its best pitch.

About two-thirds of the way through, we get a cameo by Charlie Sheen, ever so briefly reprising his role as Bud Fox. This might be the best scene in the movie. That’s the worst thing that it could’ve been. Seeing Sheen and Douglas have a short, but contentious conversation is too much a reminder of what could’ve been. It’s a mere hint of the movie we wanted. After a few fleeting moments, Sheen walks off dragging our hopes and dreams, kicking and screaming behind him, never to be seen again. There went the movie’s best pitch.

We get more curveballs that don’t curve. We get lots of drawn out scenes of meetings where old men try desperately to save their own backsides. We get lots of one-on-one meetings between others, either trying to save themselves or talk tough to one another. We get lots of clips of CNN. All of this is steeped in joyless financial jargon. The movie only moves away from feeling like economics class when it involves Gekko’s daughter, Winnie. However, with her constant whining she’s much more an annoyance that the reprieve we need.

This movie has needs, too. Apparently, it needs us to like the Gekko family, along with Jake who keeps threatening to be their new addition. To that end, everything is wrapped up in one gutwrenchingly cheesy and hastily tied little bow. All of the good guys will have their cake, and eat it too. It’s too easy, too cliché and not Oliver Stone’s best pitch.

MY SCORE: 5.5/10

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Wall Street


Directed by Oliver Stone.
1987. Rated R, 126 minutes.
Cast:
Michael Douglas
Charlie Sheen
Daryl Hannah
John C. McGinley
Hal Holbrook
James Karen
Martin Sheen
Tamara Tunie


Struggling young stock broker Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) earns his way under the wing of big-time power player Gordon Gekko (Douglas). The younger Sheen holds his own as the eager kid who’s suddenly figured out how to make unbelievable loads of money. His real life dad, Martin Sheen, also gives a wonderful performance as his fictional dad.

The Sheen family’s work aside, this is Michael Douglas’ movie. He is absolutely magnetic and dominates every scene in which he appears. His now iconic “Greed is Good” speech serves as an exclamation point behind his name. Despite the fact he has no superpowers and doesn’t kill anyone, Gekko is one of the all-time great movie villains. His scariness is derived from the fact that we know for a fact there are Gordon Gekko’s in the real world who’ve made fortunes putting us regular people out of work because it’s profitable for them. Not one of us has ever waged intergalactic warfare against an evil Jedi or saved our girlfriend from a mad scientist with giant mechanical arms. Lots of us have worked for companies that were bought out or went through mergers and felt uneasy about our futures. This gives Gekko power beyond many other bad guys.

A sidenote: This has mostly held up pretty good over the years, but dates itself when Gekko is talking on a cell phone. It’s about the size of a microwave. Of course, this applies to the computers in this movie, as well. These things aren’t mere dinosaurs. They’re single-cell organisms at the dawn of time. Still, nevermind all this. Wall Street is the crown-jewel of Michael Douglas’ career and one of Oliver Stone’s very best.

MY SCORE: 10/10

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Town


Directed by Ben Affleck.
2010. Rated R, 125 minutes.
Cast:
Ben Affleck
Jeremy Renner
Rebecca Hall
Jon Hamm
Blake Lively
Peter Postlethwaite
Slaine
Titus Welliver


Doug MacRay (Affleck) and his boys rob a bank in their hometown of Charlestown, MA. As a warning, we’ve already been told this Boston-area city produces more bank and armored car robbers than anywhere in the world. Anyhoo, as things develop quickly, part of their getaway involves taking one of the bank’s managers hostage. Since they’re not completely evil and were wearing masks, they decide to let her out, blindfolded, at the beach. Our gang keeps her drivers license as a little insurance. When they finally bother to look at her license the next day, they discover she live right in their neighborhood. Doug takes it upon himself to follow her around and make sure she can’t give any useful information to the cops. Very unwisely, he starts courting the shaken would be witness and the two begin to fall madly in love.

These events set up an intriguing game of cat-and-mouse that is, at times, reminiscent of Michael Mann’s classic Heat. Don’t worry, this does plenty of its own thing and is outstanding in its own right. The storytelling is fascinating and the robbery scenes are intense. It also builds relationships that have grown from simple roots, but become more complicated as time goes on. The first is obviously of Doug and James (Renner), his partner-in-crime. Helping it be that is Renner as James. His and Affleck’s characters are like brothers, but actually aren’t. Each has selfish motives but needs the other. Like he was in The Hurt Locker, Renner is simply fantastic in his role.

Three other subplots are done just as well. There’s the cop procedural element. Here is where it most resembles Heat. The police learn who the bad guys are rather quickly. They just have to figure out how to catch them. Then, there is our gang’s working relationship with “The Florist” (Postletwaite). Finally, we have Doug’s relationship with his dad who’s been incarcerated for many years.

All of these things combine to make The Town a excellent experience. It is a crime drama through and through, a fantastic one at that. Kudos goes to Affleck, who steered the ship. With this, and Gone Baby Gone from a couple years ago, he’s establishing himself as an outstanding director.

MY SCORE: 8/10

Friday, January 7, 2011

The A-Team


Directed by Joe Carnahan.
2010. Rated PG-13, 117 minutes.
Cast:
Liam Neeson
Bradley Cooper
Jessica Biel
Quinton “Rampage” Jackson
Sharlto Copley
Patrick Wilson
Gerald McRaney
Brian Bloom
Henry Czerny

Omari Hardwick

Overkill is underrated. That phrase is used in the trailer for The A-Team and somewhere along the way our fearless leader, Col. Hannibal Smith (Neeson) actually does utter these words. This movie treats that statement like a plague to be cured. Nothing is done that isn’t overdone. Another line of dialogue helps ease us into suspending our belief. Cpt. Sosa (Biel), hot on the trails of our heroes, tells her own team that these guys “specialize in the ridiculous.” This flick knows its just dumb fun, and makes sure you do, too.

If you have any knowledge of and/or recollection of the 1980s then you know this movie is based on the television series of the same name. For you youngsters that only see him in commercials, or know of him through his Chuck Norris styled “facts”, that series, along with Rocky III is the reason Mr. T is famous. From its first episode, it told us these guys were fugitives from the law based on a crime they didn’t commit. While fleeing the government and trying to gather information to clear their names, they were hired by the good citizens of Anytown, USA to take on the local bad guys. The movie is a prequel to this. It examines how our boys found themselves in that predicament. Honestly, going this route is a wise decision. We get the origin story we never really got from the series.

Even if this is all a bit goofy, and wholly unrealistic, it’s a fun, brainless adventure. As brainlessness goes, this is top notch. There’s plenty of narrow escapes, elaborate plans and pure zaniness, a lot like its source material. Much of this formula’s success hinges on the work of Liam Neeson as Hannibal. As was the case with Taken, his booming voice and unshakeable swagger elevates the material he’s given to work with. He’s helped most in this department by Bradley Cooper as Face. Sharlto Copley is adequate as Murdoch. The only suspect performance is turned in by MMA fighter Quinton “Rampage” Jackson as B. A. Baracus. The problem is his Mr. T impersonation comes and goes. Either do it, or don’t. That said, I was hoping to hear him use Mr. T’s iconic catch-phrase “I pity the fool”, but I don’t remember him using it. However, this version of Baracus forgoes all the gold chains and instead rocks a tat on his left hand that reads “pity” while one on his right reads “fool.” I guess that covers it.

Overall, The A-Team is a popcorn flick with no pretentions of being otherwise. This enables us to enjoy it even as it revels in its own stupidity. Of course, for some it will just be entirely too dumb. Once again, it knows this and doesn’t mind one bit.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

12 Angry Men

Directed by Sidney Lumet.
1957. Not Rated, 96 minutes.
Cast:
Henry Fonda
Lee J. Cobb
E.G. Fiedler
Ed Begley
Joseph Sweeney
Jack Klugman
6 other angry men


Plot: The 12 jurors of a first-degree murder trial deliberate the case.

The Good: Acting.This is a movie that's all about the actors. Without strong performances it would fall apart. Thankfully, this movie gets a good performance out all 12 guys. The writing is also exceptional as it has to be to carry such a claustrophobic movie. All but a couple minutes at the beginning & the very end take place in the deliberation room or adjoining restroom. The characters don't so much develop as they do reveal themselves. It becomes a very effective tool saving its most powerful moment for last. Director Sidney Lumet's pacing is also remarkable. Even though the scenery never changes and there are no action scenes to speed things along, the movie moves along rather quickly without rushing itself. His best trick however may be that for the most part he stays out of his actors' way.

The Bad: A couple of the guys really don't do much. Not really a detractor because it's awfully tough to write major parts for 12 different characters without making the movie excruciatingly long.

The Ugly: When the jurors all turn their back, quite literally, on one of the jurors spouting off his prejudices. Ugly in such a good way.

Recommendation: If you're a fan of courtroom dramas, this is an absolute must-see. If you just want to see a movie with some great acting and writing this is also for you. Skip it if you're under the distinct impression that every movie has to have either an explosion &/or love story

MY SCORE: 10/10

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Shrek Forever After


Directed by Mike Mitchell.
2010. Rated PG, 93 minutes.
Cast:
Mike Myers
Cameron Diaz
Eddie Murphy
Antonio Banderas
Walt Dorhn
Jane Lynch
Craig Robinson
Julie Andrews
John Cleese
Jon Hamm


Shrek (Myers) is struggling with the monotony of family life, and the loss of privacy brought on by the celebrity his adventures have earned him. He longs for the days when he was a single, and feared, ogre, free to take a mud bath in peace. This leads him to sign a deal with Rumplestilskin (Dohrn) for just one day to enjoy as the monster he once was. If you’ve paid any attention to the first three movies in the series, you know things in Far Far Away are never quite so easy. Needless to say, the deal comes with plenty of strings attached. Suffice it to say that Shrek once again finds himself trying to find true love’s kiss.

In keeping with the direction the franchise has taken, this fourth installment is a more straight-forward adventure than the ruthless deconstruction of the fairy-tale that was the original. Here, Shrek finds himself in an alternate reality and Fiona to be the leader of “the resistance” against the rule of Rumplestilskin. There’s lots of swashbuckling and Shrek trying to convince everyone that what he’s saying is true. There are lots of references to the original movie, but like I said not as much of that same style of humor. There is some, such as when we first meet The Pied Piper. When it goes down that road is when it is most successful. That said, there are other moments that work quite well.

Forever After suffers from predictability and constantly using the original as a crutch. It also gives its action scenes more responsibility. The franchis is at its best when the action supplements the humor. This movie has it reversed, the humor only supplements the action, and it is less intriguing because of it. However, its still a fun ride that for all its flaws, is a step up from the lackluster Shrek the Third.

MY SCORE: 6.5/10

Saturday, January 1, 2011