Friday, April 27, 2012

Trip with the Teacher

Directed by Earl Barton.
1975. Rated R, 91 minutes.
Cast:
Zalman King
Brenda Fogarty
Cathy Worthington
Robert Porter
Robert Gribbin
Susan Russell
Jack Driscoll
Jill Voight
Dina Ousley
Ed Cross

If you’re familiar with my reviews of B-movies then you know that I watched way too much Skinemax back in the 80s and 90s. For those unfamiliar, Skinemax is a euphemism for the soft core adult flicks that cable network Cinemax aired pretty late on Friday and Saturday nights. Do they still do this? I haven’t that channel in years. What I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned is that I also spent some time watching their main competitor in the boobie movie arena: Showtime. One of Showtime’s main draws was a series called Zalman King’s The Red Shoes Diaries. Wham bam, thank you ma’am – get your pseudo-porn fix in thirty minute installments. FYI, none of the episodes were related in any manner other than the prevailing theme. Almost all of them revolved around a woman having some sort of sexual awakening or fantasy and also narrating the story. We’re not talking Emmy quality TV, but if you’re still up and at home at 2 AM on the weekend then it’s infinitely more interesting than watching Sports Center for the umpteenth time in a row.

Fast forward to a much more recent sleepless night. While digging feverishly through the DVD vault I latch on to one of the grindhouse collections I’m just crazy enough to own. It’s a 2 disc set with 4 movies on each disc. I’ve watched and reviewed three of the movies on Disc 1: The Pick Up, The Teacher and Best Friends. I’ve done the same for Malibu High on disc 2. Since I’m a bit of a completist, it only make sense to watch the last of the four from the first disc, Trip with the Teacher. I hit the play button and whaddya know? Our feature presentation stars none other than Zalman King. It has to be the same guy, right? I mean, how many Zalman Kings could there be? I’m willing to bet Zalman King has never met another Zalman King that wasn’t related to or named after him.

Our boy Z, produced all of and directed most episodes of “The Red Shoes Diaries”. He does have a few mainstream successes to his unique name. Of course, they’re also on the risqué side. King directed Two Moon Junction, Wild Orchid and is one of the writers of the iconic 9 ½ Weeks. Here, he’s just an actor. In fact, he gets to play Al, the villain. Suffice it to say that I can see why he went into producing and directing. Still, his is arguably the best performance in TwtT despite the fact that he mumbles all of his lines for the first third of the film, and screams them the rest of the way. It’s like he suddenly transforms from King of the Hill’s Boomhauer to Jack Nicholson’s Joker.


Al is not only a psycho, he oozes craziness from the moment we see him. He’s not terribly bright, either. He and his even less smart brother Pete (Porter) happen upon a school bus with a group of young girls waving wildly and smiling at the two of them plus Jay (Gribbin), the guy they just met because he helped fix Jay’s flat tire. Sorry, I forgot to mention that the trio is riding motorcycles. You know how much young chicks dig bikes. At least, that’s what I’ve heard.

Lo and behold, the boys stop at the same gas station as the bus. By the way, the bus contains four teenaged girls, one adult female teacher, Ms. Tenny (Fogarty) and Marvin the bus driver (Driscoll). Despite the fact that the guys all look 30 and the gals all look 16, everyone except Ms. Tenny and Marvin gets their flirt on. The bus scoots off while the guys hang back, still getting gas and stuff. By the way, “and stuff” is a term only used in highbrow literature. You’re reading a pro here, folks. Anyhoo, Al takes this opportunity to sneak off and quietly kill the gas attendant/mechanic for giving them a little lip. Trust me, the sleaze is only beginning to drip at this point.

A few miles down the road, the bus breaks down. When the guys catch up, Pete tries to figure out what’s wrong with the thing and decides the fuel pump is busted. Since this is the 70s and there are no cell phones, the boys begrudgingly agree to tow the bus. Yup, you read that right. They whip out some rope from I don’t know where, hook their bikes to the bus and take off in a manner that totally looks like someone is just driving the bus slowly behind them. Never mind that. All you really need to know is that the guys tow them to an abandoned shack in the middle of nowhere. Once there, we get to see Al in all his glory.


Not long after arriving at the shack, Al and Pete kill Marvin the bus driver and knock out Jay, who’s actually a nice guy. The obviously scared school girls try to formulate an escape plan without consulting the teacher. The easy one among them then decides this is as good opportunity to “get some”. Well, not exactly, she has another plan. It’s not a particularly good plan, but a plan nonetheless. She tries to distract Al with her feminine wiles in hopes of getting him out of the way so the rest of the girls can…I don’t know what they think they’re gonna do, so whatever. Ol’ Al is not quite as dumb as a box of rocks, but still horny. He starts screaming at the easy girl to take off her clothes right there in front of everyone. Sufficiently petrified, she does. What’s Ms. Tenny doing while this is going on? Oh just sitting in the corner watching it go down. Apparently, her brain jumps back into her head just before the easy girl is completely naked, she remembers psycho Al doesn’t have a gun and she intervenes. None too deterred, Al drags the teacher into the next room, beats her with a belt while yanking her clothes off then raping her.

Let’s pause, shall we? From the sentence in the previous paragraph that starts with “He starts screaming,” things get uncomfortable for the viewer. At least, they did for me. Make no mistake, the movie is pure grindhouse, but the tone of this section is too dire to take the edge off what we’re seeing. The acting is just good enough to make us a bit queasy. Methinks the filmmakers found a way to really put a fright into our cast of young girls. They’re performances are unremarkable elsewhere, but during this little portion they’re downright believable. This also happens in one other scene. A little later, Al runs down one of the girls who makes a break for it. After smacking her around a bit, by the way he’s visibly missing most of the time despite what we hear, and the obligatory tearing of her blouse he knocks her to the ground, face down. He then sits on her back and pushes down on the back of her head until she’s suffocated by the dirt. It’s a bit protracted and again a little too realistic for comfort. This is coming from a guy who practically grew up on slasher flicks. In those movies, and lots of shoot ‘em ups, the violence is indeed graphic. However, its often so over the top with equally ridiculous sound effects that it has a tongue-in-cheek quality. The remake of Piranha is a perfect example of this. Without that cheekiness, there are a few moments where TwtT veers from having a twisted sense of humor to just being twisted. It can be unsettling.


Thankfully, the rest of the movie is unintentionally hilarious, for the most part. The screenplay is a total hack job. The sleaze just drips off most frames and our boy Z chews up the scenery with relentless ferocity. There may be one performance better than his, though. Brenda Fogarty actually does solid work as the teacher. The script doesn’t give her much to work with, but she does a pretty good job with what’s there. Judging from this, I can see her having gone on to more legitimate roles. With that, let’s go to good ol’ imdb.com and see what else is on her resume. Um, nevermind. Let’s move on. Oh, what did I find? Alright, if you must know she’s appeared in a few classics such as If You Don’t Stop It…You’ll Go Blind, All Night Long, Chesty Anderson U.S. Navy and The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington, to name a few. Hey, I’ve seen that last one. Don’t judge me.

Compared to the rest of the cast this is actually a pretty good filmography. For instance, one of our girls is played by Jill Voight. You know I just had to look her up to see if she’s related to Jon Voight and Angelina Jolie. Of course, she’s not. However, I see that she was able to parlay this little success into a few episodes of One Life to Live and winning the coveted role of “Extra Counselor #6” in Friday the 13th Part II. Nice. Okay, I confess. A couple others did have decent careers. Cathy Worthington has been appearing in TV movies and as a guest on various series for nearly 40 years. And you can’t forget our boy Z.

Make no mistake, our Trip with the Teacher is a wild ride that stays in the exploitation lane. Every now and again it drifts into uncomfortability when things get a tad too serious. Thankfully, some riotously horrible scenes snatch us back from the ledge, reminding us we’re in the land of the absurd. Therefore, despite a couple bumps in the road, it’s so bad it’s awesome!

MY SCORE: -10/10

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Up in the Air

Directed by Jason Reitman.
2009. Rated R, 109 minutes.
Cast:
George Clooney
Vera Farmiga
Anna Kendrick
Jason Bateman
Amy Morton
J.K. Simmons
Melanie Lynskey
Sam Elliot

Tamala Jones

Ryan Bingham's (Clooney) job is to travel around the country firing people. However, he faces an uncertain future as his company considers taking him off the road.

George Clooney has entered the rarefied air of Pacino, DeNiro, Nicholson and Washington. I mean, his persona and presence is so overwhelming that he seems to be playing himself in every role but it still works perfectly. He simply dominates the screen, commands you to look at him and compels you to root for him, even when we know we shouldn't. This quality combines with an outstanding script to make the movie work wonders. It vacilates between funny and sad to create empathy. Clooney isn't alone in excellence. His two female co-stars, Farmiga and Kendrick are both great, as is Jason Bateman as Clooney's boss. Still, it's the series of firings that ground the movie, with two that particularly stand out. One is the first victim of the company's new technology. It's a jarring look at the coldness that advancing technology can often bring with it. The other is a brief but powerful cameo by Tamala Jones (Daddy Day Camp, The Brothers, The Wood) that literally haunts the movie.



As much as it plays on our economic fears, it still manages to largely avoid real issues of recession. It's present but our characters are not only above it all, but seem almost totally unaffected (aside from their occasional sympathy). Yes, what the company is considering is a cost-cutting measure but it's more the natural evolution of a business that's thriving. Therefore, it can come across as insensitive, at times. Finally, near the end, our hero begins to make a grand gesture for one of his sisters. However, we never see how that plays out and are robbed of a potentially great moment.

2009 gave us two movies essentially about hopeless womanizers and the path to loneliness that the playboy lifestyle really is, this one and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. If that premise appeals to you, see this one and skip that one. That is, if you're looking for something that handles the subject with both humor and maturity. If you desire to see something zany with more eye candy...and stupidity, then go for the other one.

MY SCORE: 9/10

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1

Directed by Bill Condon.

For no discernible reason other than money, the fourth book in the “Twilight” series is broken into two movies. Seriously, what’s here could’ve easily been condensed into half a flick. An entire two hours wasn’t needed. Oh well, since no one was kind enough to kill me before my latest trip to one of those endangered species known as a Blockbuster store, here I am reviewing The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1. Ah, the things fathers do for their little girls.

At the risk of spoiling the first three movies in one fell swoop, this one begins with the wedding every tween and early-teen girl proclaiming themselves members of “Team Edward” has been clamoring for. Bella (Stewart) finally manages to drag her vampire beau Edward (Pattinson) to the altar. In general, movie weddings are so overwrought and gaudy they turn my stomach. At first glance, this is no different. However, the rest of the franchise has been so overwhelmingly depressing with its oppressive depiction of young love that anything even remotely joyous happening is a welcome change. Well, werewolf Jacob (Lautner), the third side of our love triangle isn’t too pleased. Hey, we can’t all be winners.

The big deal about Edward and Bella joining one another in holy matrimony is that for three movies now we’ve been hearing that once the “I dos” have been said the new hubby will turn his bride into a vampire. She’s been begging for it practically since the day she met him. As many of you know, and I’ve noted before, vampirism in the Twilightverse is a thinly veiled metaphor for sex. That means everything we’ve seen so far has been an unrelenting advocacy of abstinence until marriage. Fine by me. I do have daughters, after all. However, another possible metaphor occurred to me. More on that, later. For the time being, just know that Bella suddenly decides to wait until after the honeymoon before becoming one of the undead.


Now that the two most morose lovebirds in cinematic history are married, they finally get to do the oochie-coochie. For a few minutes, Breaking Dawn – Part 1 is genuinely cute. My older daughter commented with shock how Bella was actually smiling. The movie then swims into some decidedly adult waters by giving us a love scene. For the first time in the series, the boundaries of the PG-13 rating are put to the test.

Since happiness is not tolerated in the Twilightverse, marital bliss doesn’t last too long. Sex with hubby leaves poor Bella all bruised up. It also leaves her pregnant. Never you mind whether or not that’s possible (even Edward’s not so sure). It is what it is. Lest you forget this is a franchise predicated on the idea that lovemaking must have dire consequences, being pregnant with a half-vampire isn’t enough. It’s killing mom from inside her own body. In typical series fashion, we spend the next 45 minutes to an hour watching Bella die while everyone around her wrings their hands and tries to figure out how to save her. We’re told it’s too late to turn her into the very creature she’s aspired to be for the last few years.

Here is where I get back into metaphors. Maybe it’s because by this point I’m bored to tears. Regardless of why, a thought struck me. Go ahead and call me silly. What I’m getting at is merely a possible interpretation I may have concocted out of thin air. Since the abstinence ship has sailed, could we be on to a diatribe against mixed marriages? Okay, now forget about it.


Anyhoo, the werewolves are none too pleased about the potential addition to the Cullen clan, that’s the vampires in case you somehow didn’t know. They decide the only way to deal with this problem is by killing both mother and child. To be perfectly honest, the wolves had been the one aspect of the series I’ve enjoyed. That changes drastically with this installment. This mostly has to do with them talking while in wolf form. Actually, I think they’re communicating by telepathy since their mouths don’t move. Any of you who’ve read the books, feel free to clue me in at any time. For that matter, explain this whole business of “imprinting”, too. They said it a thousand times and I think I get it, but I must’ve missed the explanation. The bottom line is the wolves come off extraordinarily goofy this time. Taylor Lautner must sense this. He’s so distraught that other than a quick nipple shot in the first few seconds he spends the entire movie with his shirt on. So much for giving your target audience what they want.

Breaking Dawn – Part 1 continues the tradition of bludgeoning its audience into misery. After all, that particular emotion loves company. The Twilight Saga is nothing, if not a bunch of miserable beings trying to miserize each other to death. “Miserize”? The “Twilightverse”? Dear Lord, I’m so bored I’m making up words to entertain myself but I can’t stop watching. It’s only fitting. This series has beaten all sense, intelligence and joy out of me. Yet, I dutifully sit with my family through each addition to the canon. I’m like a kidnap victim with Stockholm syndrome taking a twisted liking to his captor. Like a submissive eagerly awaiting a beating from a dominatrix I’m morbidly anxious for Breaking Dawn – Part 2. I’m like a character in the franchise. I make my way through each film in an emotionless manner other than the pained look on my face. Knowing the films themselves hate me, I still press on. Perhaps just to be able to say that I really did see them all when I proclaim undying hatred for all things Twilight, I am looking forward to enduring more cinematic wounds. Help me.

MY SCORE: 3.5/10

Friday, April 20, 2012

Midnight in Paris

Directed by Woody Allen.
2011. Rated PG-13, 94 minutes.
Cast:
Owen Wilson
Rachel McAdams
Marion Cotillard

Kathy Bates
Michael Sheen
Carla Bruni
Adrien Brody
Kurt Fuller
Mimi Kennedy
Tom Hiddleston
Corey Stoll

Lea Seydoux

Gil Pender (Wilson) is a successful Hollywood screenwriter who wants to break into legitimate literature. To that end, he’s working on a novel. He’s also on vacation in Paris with his fiancé Inez (McAdams) and her parents. We immediately learn that he longs to have been alive and in the city during the 1920s when many of the greatest artists of all time roamed its streets. His days are spent with Inez around her friends and family. More often than not this includes Paul (Sheen), an insufferable know-it-all. In an effort to get away from Paul’s incessant pontification, Gil finds himself taking late night walks alone. It just so happens that every night at midnight he’s scooped up by some people in this movie’s version of a DeLorean and they take him to precisely where he wants to be: Paris in the 1920s. Shortly, he’s face to face with F. Scott Fitzgerald (Hiddleston) and Ernest Hemingway (a particularly good Stoll). He get his manuscript read by Gertrude Stein (Bates). He also gets acquainted with a number of others such as Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo) and Bunuel (Adrien de Van). Each morning he’s back in the present longing to get back to the past. Yes, this is a movie about his romantic view of a particular city but also about traditional romance, too. Is Inez really right for him? Perhaps it’s Picasso’s on-again, off-again mistress Adrianna (Cotillard). After all, the two take a shine to each other.

Midnight in Paris gets points for being an atypical romantic comedy. The genre is filled with tales of boy meets girl that proceed through a succession of predictable ups and downs. They only differentiate themselves by the preposterousness of their situations. Seriously speaking, what could be more preposterous than a time traveling aspiring novelist meeting his long deceased heroes and possibly falling in love with their women? The difference is those other movies pass themselves off as only slight exaggerations of the type of romance we’re all sure to experience when we meet that special someone when in truth they’re farcical, at best. This film understands its place. It knows it is presenting us with impossible events and runs with it. Through characters other than Gil, it lets us know it is keenly aware how crazy this whole thing is.

The writer and director is none other than Woody Allen. As proof, the movie contains many of his usual touches. Gil is fairly similar to most of Allen’s protagonists: smart, quirky and a bit of a loner. He’s probably not as self-deprecating as he might’ve been had Allen played the character himself, though. The women are flighty, yet seem to have a keen understanding of our hero. Like the director’s best, MiP is charmingly whimsical. Unfortunately, it relies too heavily on its premise. It seems to think that transporting us back and forth in time is enough to wow us. It often settles for cute instead of going for all-out funny. Sure, there are laughs to be had. However, they’re spaced at intervals too large. Near the end, things get a bit convoluted as a third era is awkwardly introduced. Still, MiP does lots of things well. It is a good Woody Allen movie, just not a great one.

MY SCORE: 7/10

Thursday, April 19, 2012

American Splendor

2003. Rated R, 101 minutes.
Cast:
Paul Giamatti
Harvey Pekar
Hope Davis
Joyce Brabner
Judah Friedlander
9Toby Radloff
James Urbaniak
Madylin Sweeten
Danielle Batone

When most of us think of comic books, we think of costumed heroes with super powers battling outlandish villains. Harvey Pekar, played by both Paul Giamatti and the real Harvey himself, this seemed to extremely limit the types of tales that could be told. He felt the possibilities would be infinite if storylines were more directly drawn from real life. With that in mind, he created “American Splendor,” a comic book series based on his own life. The “ripped from reality” principle is applied to this film. We weave in and out of fictionalized accounts of Harvey’s experiences and his own observations of them. It’s a viewing excursion different than most and superior to the few similarly styled movies I’ve come across. We first meet Harvey shortly before he hatched the idea for his own comic. Things unfold in an almost linear fashion up to and including the filming of this movie. This gives it a wonderfully self-aware quality that comes across as conversational and without the arrogances that seems to be inherent in most such films.

Visually, American Splendor is subtle, yet poignant. Harvey’s cluttered apartment is a perfect representation of the mind he’s able to pull his stories from. Many of the outdoor scenes have a chilly look to them, mirroring his normal disposition. This is interspersed with interviews of Real Harvey, as he’s listed in the credits, his wife Real Joyce (Brabner) and his buddy Real Toby (Radloff). In one brilliant shot we see the actors playing Harvey and Toby (Friedlander) taking a break in the background, completely out of character, while the genuine articles are talking to the camera. If there is one place the visuals falter, it’s in its depiction of Pekar’s final appearance as a guest on “The David Letterman Show.” We saw his first via a clip of the real thing. It’s seamlessly integrated into the film. For the last appearance, that technique is abandoned and we get Giamatti doing the scene. That wouldn’t be bad at all since he is quite good. However, having an actor play Letterman and only showing odd shots of the back of his head is jarring. It feels like a movie that’s been completely open about itself suddenly has something to hide.

Much of the humor is derived from Harvey’s social awkwardness. Despite this and his not-so-sunny demeanor the script, Giamatti’s performance and Real Harvey combine to endow the man with a weird sort of charm. For instance, the first thing he does after meeting Joyce (Davis) face to face for the first time is tell her he’s had a vasectomy. We laugh and wonder what she must be thinking. Still, it’s so typically Harvey that we understand. Essentially, that’s the overwhelming theme of AS. Regardless of all his idiosyncrasies, we wouldn’t have him any other way.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Sinners and Saints

Directed by William Kaufman.
2010. Rated R, 104 minutes.
Cast:
Johnny Strong
Kevin Phillips
Costas Mandylor
Sean Patrick Flanery
Bas Rutten
Method Man
Kim Coates
Tom Berenger
Jurgen Prochnow
Brooklyn Sudano
Jolene Blalock

Wanna see a good old fashioned shoot ‘em up? Well, it’s not quite old fashioned. This isn’t some black and white western where the smoke from a revolver and the bad guy slumping over then falling off his horse is as graphic as it gets. Au contraire mon frère. This is thousands of rounds being fired from all manner of weaponry. We literally see the hole as its being created for every shot that hits a human body, complete with blood gushing out. Take that into consideration before pressing play. If that sounds like what you’re looking for, have at it.

To put you even more at ease, or disturb you further, Sinners and Saints plays like a remake of the first Lethal Weapon, only gorier. The major “modern” update is that this movie is set in post-Katrina New Orleans. As you may know from the Nicolas Cage vehicle Bad Lieutenant, nothing good happens in ‘Nawlins these days. Ever. Johnny Strong stars as Mel Gibson…er…uh…Det. Sean Riley. Trust me, his real name is far more suited to the character. Instead of putting his own gun in his mouth when he wakes up every morning, he drives down to the cemetery where his son is buried to keep himself depressed. Actually, he sleeps there on most nights. His boy died of leukemia over a year ago and his wife left him shortly after. Apparently, the only thing that makes him feel better is killing people. He does this with great regularity. First on the list is a gang of bad guys he and his partner try to bust in a rickety old house. The partner does something incredibly dumb and takes a bullet in the throat from the obligatory random black drug dealers holed up inside. Of course, Riley goes to work. Gotta establish how much of a badass he is, right? Why yes, the partner dies.


It takes a little while, but we eventually meet our hero’s new partner, Danny Glover. Oops, I meant to say Det. Will Ganz (Phillips). Will is definitely a younger version of Glover's Murtaugh. This means we unfortunately don’t get to hear him say “I’m too old for this…” Otherwise, he’s much the same: black with a wife and two kids he looks forward to seeing at the end of every shift. They keep him grounded, so he’s a lot more level-headed, meaning boring, than Riley. The most interesting part about him is that his lovely wife is played by Brooklyn Sudano who played Vanessa on the sitcom “My Wife and Kids.” This is also the most interesting thing about her, too. Anyhoo, Det. Will is played by Kevin Phillips. This bears mentioning because he’s not even one-tenth the actor Danny Glover is. He delivers every line as if he’s reading it aloud directly from the script. It’s a cringe-worthy performance. Surprisingly, the best acting is done by the underused Method Man. He’s the only one who even makes an attempt at a New Orleans accent. Speech patterns aside, his character is actually interesting and interesting to look at. More of him wouldn’t have hurt.

Believe it, or not, there is a plot. Someone has been slaughtering whole houses full of people. A reporter and his family get killed, later a fake ID maker and his cohorts, etc. At least one person in each case is set on fire, doused, and set on fire a few more times until dying. Nice. Well, its up to our heroes Super Mel and Bland Danny to figure out how these cases are related and catch whoever is responsible. Meanwhile, Super Mel is being investigated by Internal Affairs because people keep winding up dead in his presence. By the way, Tom Berenger plays the ornery captain that keeps tabs on him.

The problem with S and S is that it gets to be rather silly without being aware of this, at all. Like many cop flicks before it, and as I’ve already beaten into the ground, the construct is pretty much ripped from Lethal Weapon, but it has none of that franchises sense of humor. It’s a somber, brooding affair that takes itself dreadfully serious. Meanwhile, Super Mel is routinely outdueling groups of high-powered automatic weapon wielding professional killers with just his nine millimeter and athletic prowess. Why yes, these pro killers are expert shots whenever they’re not shooting at our hero. It starts out as cool, but as Super Mel does more and more amazing feats it gets to be overwhelming. My brother watched it with me and he put it best: “All this dude’s missing is a cape.”

MY SCORE: 5/10

Friday, April 13, 2012

Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked

Directed by Mike Mitchell.
2011. Rated G, 87 minutes.
Cast:
Jason Lee
Amy Poehler
David Cross
Jenny Slate
Matthew Gray Gubler
Jesse McCartney

Brothers and sisters of the congregation, I’ve learned a new word: twee. Let us turn our text to the book of Urbandictionary.com, chapter 20 verse 23. It says that twee is “something that is sweet, almost to the point of being sickeningly so. As a derogatory descriptive, it means something that is affectedly dainty or quaint, or is way too sentimental. In American English it often refers to a type of simple sweet pop music, but in British English it is used much more widely for things that are nauseatingly cute or precious. It comes from the way the word sweet sounds when said in baby talk. Twee.

Family, this is the part where I tell you that the Lord works in mysterious ways. It could only have been the Almighty God that deposited the word twee into my spirit and moved me to seek out its meaning just hours before sitting down to watch Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked. Only He could’ve known that without knowledge of this itty bitty word there Would Be…Could Be…Should Be…no review today. I would have not the language to express the sights and sounds that Engulfed Me…Surrounded Me…Trapped Me as the whale did Jonah! Twee.

Brothers and sisters, I don’t think you understand. You see, there are three…yes, indeed there are Three…Count ‘em One, Two, Three boy chipmunks. There’s Alvin (Long), Simon (Gubler) and Theodore (McCartney). They are one of the biggest musical acts in the world. They call themselves…I Said they call themselves THE, as in THE one and only…as in THE most important…as in THE stars of our show…they call themselves THE Chipmunks. There are also three girl chipmunks: Brittany (Applegate), Jeanette (Faris) and Elanor (Poehler). They too, are one of the biggest musical acts in the world. They are known as The Chipettes. Now family, even big time stars need some time away from the spotlight…a chance to recharge their batteries…some R and R…to take it easy. So, what do they do? They go on a family vacation with their so-called “father”, the human being named Dave (Lee). This is NOT David who slew Goliath! No, NOT THAT David who became king of Israel! This ain’t even DOCTOR David Bruce Banner who transforms into the Incredible Hulk when angry! This is Just Dave, guardian of six singing chipmunks. Dave and his family are oh-so-sweet, sickeningly so. Twee.


Family, let us not take their vocation…oh yeah church, I’m moving on to their VO-cation and away from their VA-cation…let us not take their VO-cation lightly. That’s right, they sing. They sing with helium fueled voices so shrill they pierce the lower rungs of Heaven! These voices grate nerves like the horns of The Fallen Angel scraping the soles of The Creator’s feet! They sing. They sing songs that are WEAK…FRAIL…INNOCUOUS…WITHOUT Substance…DEFICIENT in Strength! They sing Simple Sweet pop music! It’s Nauseatingly cute! Twee.

Brothers and sisters, like Satan has a plot to enter our souls and turn us away from our Salvation, so too does Chipwrecked have a plot. The Chipmunks, The Chipettes and their so-called “father” Dave take a cruise for their family vacation. Shortly after their ship sets sail, Alvin’s mischief causes mayhem. All six of the furry little creatures find themselves holding tightly the string of a kite. The wind carries them to a Deserted Island! Dave MUST find them! His Heart is BROKEN! His “Children” are MISSING! His Paternal INSTINCTS take over! He MUST…he HAS TO…he WILL get to That Island! His MOTIVATION…DEDICATION…OBLIGATION…INCLINATION…His E-MOTION and DE-VOTION...Their Connection…Their link…Their Familial Bond…Their Unconditional LUUUUHHHVV is Disturbingly adorable…Horrifically pleasant…Repulsively perky! It is NOT funny! It is NOT exciting! It is NOT suspenseful! It LACKS tension! It LACKS imagination! It is Syrupy Sweet, Sickeningly So! It is filled with Simple…Sweet…Delicate…Forceless…Languid…Limp…Powerless pop music! It is AFFECTEDLY DAINTY, QUAINT and way too SENTIMENTAL! It is NAUSEATINGLY CUTE and PRECIOUS! Brothers and Sisters, Chipwrecked Is Wrecked! It is EXCEPTIONALLY UNEXCEPTIONAL! It is BROMIDICALLY BLAND…DEVILISHLY DULL…MERCILESSLY MILD…PARTICULARLY PLAIN…TRAGICALLY TRITE! WithOUT question, the good Lord has placed in MY VERY HEART the perfect word to describe the ATROCITY to which I bore witness: Twee.

Can I get an “Amen”?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Hangover Part II

Directed by Todd Phillips.

The gang’s all back for another misadventure. It’s Stu (Helms) who is tying the knot. He and his lovely fiancé Lauren (Chung) are having their wedding in her native Thailand. Of course, he invites his buddies Phil (Cooper) and Doug (Bartha) to tag along. Understandably, after the events of the first movie, it takes quite a bit of cajoling before Stu agrees to invite Alan (Galifianakis). Per Stu’s orders, there will be no bachelor party. Begrudgingly, he agrees to have one beer with the fellas on the beach before returning to Lauren’s side. Of course, much more than that happens and the boys don’t remember any of it when they wake up in a rundown Bangkok hotel. This time, the missing party is Lauren’s little brother/child prodigy Teddy played by the Mason Lee, the son of famed director Ang Lee. Teddy is only 16 but is already a Stanford pre-med student. The only sign of him in the room is the finger he seems to have lost at some point during the night. It’s still wearing his Stanford ring. Mysteriously, they have added one: Mr. Chow (Jeong), the villain from part one. Now, he’s on their side. The guys going all over Bangkok looking for Teddy ensues.

If you’ve see the first one, then you’ll notice that this is essentially the same movie. This is both a good and a bad thing. It’s good because I suspect the audience for this is people who love the original and want more of it. Part II is more than happy to oblige. It’s a sequel that doesn’t seem to tell a new part of the story as much as it just gives us an alternate version of its predecessor. The downside to this is that the sameness gets to be overwhelming, at times. The freshness and mystery of the original is gone. We have a fairly good idea how this will turn out and, in a number of cases, it’s kind of hard to laugh at the same jokes twice.

Once that freshness and mystery has dissipated, the only thing we have left are those jokes. Due to many of them being recycled material, they’re much more hit and miss than in the previous film. Luckily, when they hit, they tend to hit big. There is loud, hearty laughter to be had at several points. Other funny moments eminate from Alan through another superb performance by Zach Galifianakis. You may find more with Chow, but that depends on whether or not you find Ken Jeong annoying. The same goes for the monkey the boys have acquired.



One other thing does mark this as a true sequel, though. Things are bigger. Aside from Teddy potentially missing a digit, or worse, Chow is now an international criminal with international heat on him. There’s some shooting and huge car chase. Even Stu’s physical dilemmas are bigger. He wakes up with a tattoo on his face. It is a replica of the one that adorns the grill of Mike Tyson. Instead of being a nod to the first film like it’s obviously intended, it’s a constant reminder of the better movie. Still, later on we’ll learn something about Stu even bigger than that. As for Tyson, he himself eventually turns up again. Sadly, this time he does something far worse to our ears than he ever did to Evander Holyfield’s.

The Hangover Part II isn’t a bad watch, despite all I’ve said. It just pales in comparison with its predecessor. As stated, it’s the same basic formula. Unfortunately, most of the new ingredients dilute the potency of its humor. Mainly to blame is all the action flick stuff thrown in. Whenever those elements pop up, they give the movie a far more serious tone. Instead of action and comedy complementing one another, they take turns. This makes the movie uneven, almost as if we’re switching channels back and forth between a sitcom and a murder mystery. To be honest, this is probably a lot better for people who haven’t seen Part I. With that said, I do like the movie. I laughed a lot which is what comedy is about. I just don’t like it as much as the original.

MY SCORE: 6.5/10

Monday, April 9, 2012

Priest

Directed by Scott Charles Stewart.
2011. Rated PG-13, 87 minutes.
Cast:
Paul Bettany
Karl Urban
Cam Gigandet
Maggie Q
Christopher Plummer
Lily Collins
Brad Dourif
Stephen Moyer
Josh Wingate
Alan Dale

Generally speaking, there are two types of vampires. The first type is a tortured soul who hates what he’s become. The idea of feeding on humans disgusts them. He views his immortality as more of curse than a gift. The other type has completely bought in to the Prince of Darkness persona. He’s very charming, yet manipulative, overtly sexual, sadistic and just thoroughly evil. As we’ve seen in nearly a century’s worth of vampire movies and books, there is plenty to be mined in the depths of either type. Unfortunately, Priest tries to reinvent the wheel and fail’s miserably. The vampires here are eyeless, saber toothed greenish monsters that crawl around on all fours. Applause should be given for trying to take the genre in a new direction. However, like in the Wrong Turn movies, it’s not a direction we should’ve went.

As the story goes, man and vampire have been warring since the beginning of time. Vamps were getting the best of it, so much so that humans literally walled themselves into makeshift cities where everything is controlled by the church. Somehow that’s not really explained, a group of super soldiers called Priests rise up and kill most of the creatures of the night, herding the remainders onto reservations. Since they’re no longer needed the Priests have faded into normal society. That’s a bit difficult considering each one of them has a tattoo of a cross splattered on their face.



We focus on, um, Priest (Bettany). He was once the leader of a squad of Priests and still has nightmares about the one guy he lost. Within a few minutes we find out that the lost guy, Black Hat (Urban) is now leading around a pack of vampires around. Don’t blame me, they didn’t give these guys regular names. And yes, I said a pack of vampires. We’ll get to that later. Anyhoo, Black Hat’s first stop is at Priest’s brothers house. No, this isn’t within the walls of the city. This is on a barren farm way out in the middle of nowhere. The vamps kill the brother and his wife, then kidnap their daughter. Taking none too kindly to having his niece abducted, Priest hooks up with the farm town’s very young sheriff Hicks (Gigandet) and springs into action. By the way, the higher ups in the church forbid this and send four other Priests to bring him back, dead or alive. Actually, the higher ups don’t do anything except get shouted down by Monsignor Orelas (Plummer) who gives the order to track down our hero. Did I mention that he said dead or alive? Just checking.

As a first person shooter or an RPG on your video game console of choice, what follows would probably be fun. The source material seems suited for this. I guess here is where I should mention Priest is based on yet another graphic novel I’m not cool enough to have even heard of. Were the fans of this book railing so loudly that Hollywood had to oblige them with a big screen adaptation? I seriously doubt it.


The problem starts with the vampires. They seem not to be able of intelligent thought, let alone formulating evil plans to conquer the world. This includes the one vampire all of this is attributed to. Spoiler Alert!!!: This vampire barely has a presence and should play a prominent role in a sequel, if one is ever made. As a whole, the vampires don’t impress as a real threat to humanity. Sure, they’re a physical threat, but are every bit as vulnerable to our weapons as any other animal plus they can’t come out during the day. Instead of a race that aspires to world domination, they’re much more a nocturnal pack of rabid dogs roaming the wastelands. I told you we’d get back to the “pack” thing, didn’t I?

Our threat comes in the way of Black Hat, the former Priest. Though they treat it as some big secret, the deal is he’s a “human vampire.” Basically, it just means he’s like Blade, if you’re familiar with that comic book hero. Of course, the difference is that Black Hat is a bad guy. He helps because he’s by far the most interesting character in the movie. Actually, Monsignor Orelas is the most interesting character. That’s mostly because he’s played by Christopher Plummer, but I digress. Our hero is exceedingly bland, his sidekick is a waste of space and the potential for a love interest is telegraphed far in advance, but only given an infantessimal moment of no consequence. Why yes, silly, her name is Priestess. The few almost intimate seconds they share isn’t enough to make these characters three dimensional, just a sad reminder that they could’ve been. Likewise for the movie’s one twist. By the time it happens we don’t care anymore. On top of all this, Priest is also similar in tone and confrontation with the church as Legion. This is no mere coincidence since that movie has the same director and star.


Both the not quite there love affair and thrown in twist make the entire movie feel rushed. Instead of developing anything at all, we’re merely hurried off from one action sequence to the next. The overall effect is we feel like we’ve just watched someone else play a video game for an hour while they us their other controller is broken. To make matters worse, one of their “better” friends comes over and starts using it with no problems. I like playing video games. I don’t like watching other people play them.

MY SCORE: 3/10

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Directed by David Fincher.
2011. Rated R, 158 minutes.
Cast:
Rooney Mara
Daniel Craig
Christopher Plummer
Stellan Skarsgard
Robin Wright
Yarick von Wageningen
Joely Richardson
Geraldine James
Donald Sumpter
Julian Sands
Ulf Friberg

Alan Dale

Lisbeth Salander (Mara) isn’t your typical girl. She generally doesn’t like people and they generally don’t like her. She works for a company tthat does extensive background checks and is only used on “interesting” cases. In other words, she’s a very talented computer hacker. Despite being an adult, she’s also a ward of the state whom we’ll see jump through some very interesting hoops to get control of her own affairs. Oh, almost forgot, she has a tattoo of a dragon on her back.

Back to Lisbeth’s job as a hacker. That’s her entry point into the main plot. She’s been keeping close tabs on Mikael Blomkvist (Craig). He’s a disgraced journalist, having just been successfully sued for libel by a very powerful and high profile businessman. Lisbeth was hired by another rich and powerful guy, Henrik Vanger (Plummer). After being satisfied with what she’s found, Vanger hires Mikael to solve a mystery. Over 40 years ago, Henrik’s niece Harriet disappeared. Even though this happened on the secluded island the entire Vanger family lives on, she was never found and no one has ever been held responsible. Henrik believes someone in the family is her killer. Mikael takes on the project, but obviously can’t make any promises on such a cold case. Eventually, he decides he needs some help and hires Lisbeth, himself.


Truthfully, it takes a while for our two main characters to actually meet one another. Until then, each is embroiled in their own fascinating drama filled with twists and turns. Mikael’s whodunit progresses not unlike many others, but it’s still well done and maintains suspense. Lisbeth’s life saga is brutal, yet compelling. The warning here is that there are some difficult scenes to sit through. After they meet, the twists keep coming and our intrigue is piqued.

In the two lead roles, both Mara and Craig perform excellently. Mara’s Lisbeth appears fragile but is really calloused from the many blows life has dealt, and keeps dealing her. She doesn’t believe in self-pity, only penance. She takes the philosophy of “an eye for an eye” to a whole new level. On the other hand, Craig plays Mikael as the complete opposite of James Bond whom most of us will think of when he first shows up on the screen. Mikael’s a cerebral and emotional guy that’s not used to being in physical danger. Like Bond, women seem drawn to him but it has nothing to do with machismo or suaveness like it does for the super agent. Mikael also doesn’t seem to deal with pain, too well. He’s pretty much the inverse of not only Bond, but also of Lisbeth. Mikael has a tough looking exterior with a soft middle. She’s far more action hero than he.


Don’t get the wrong idea. Though there is action, an action flick this is not. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is part murder mystery, part character study. It’s not only a study of Lisbeth, but of Mikael, too. A large part of this is how their relationship evolves. It’s interesting to note how, as a pair, they function in ways opposite of traditional gender roles. Seeing them interact not-so-subtly lets us know what we should expect when things get tense.

TGwtDT is an excellent movie. However, it can’t be reviewed without comparing it to the Swedish original from 2009. To be fair, director David Fincher’s American version is not a remake, even though it bears a strong resemblance to its predecessor. Both are adaptations of the Stieg Larsson novel of the same name and the first of a trilogy. Without having read it, I’ve heard that this version is slightly more faithful to the book.

I have seen the Swedish film, though. There are some differences. Some work better in this movie while others favor the original. Two main ones stick out. Lisbeth’s guardian is one of the movie’s villains. I feel this character was better done, more thoroughly evil in the Swedish movie. This makes certain events that much sweeter in their brutality. The other is multi-faceted. It starts with the various relaitionships of Mikael. This version explores them more deeply by making the editor of his magazine much more of a factor. This leads us to an ending that better sets up the sequel. Of course, this presumes the entire trilogy will be adapted as they were in Sweden. If you put a gun to my head and force me to choose which I like better, I’ll say this one by a very slim margin.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Puss in Boots

Directed by Chris Miller.
2011. Rated PG, 90 minutes.
Cast:
Antonio Banderas
Zach Galifianakis
Salma Hayek
Billy Bob Thornton
Amy Sedaris
Constance Marie
Guillermo del Toro
Tom McGrath
Tom Wheeler

Already wanted for robbing to Bank of San Ricardo, Puss in Boots (Banderas) decides to steal the legendary magic beans. Planting them will grow the giant beanstalk leading to the land of giants. Once there, he hopes to steal the goose that lays the golden eggs. Getting the beans isn’t going to be easy because they’re possessed by the murderous outlaw couple Jack (Thornton) and Jill (Sedaris). Soon, Puss in not alone in his quest. He runs into an old friend that once betrayed him. The friend also wants the magic beans and has a plan to get them. Begging forgiveness and a chance to make things right between them, he enlists Puss to help him. This friend is none other than Humpty Alexander Dumpty (Galifianakis).

Like the Shrek franchise its spun from, Puss in Boots takes many well-worn fairy tales and breathes new life into them by reimagining the characters closer to our reality, yet still maintaining much of the wonder of their capabilities and surroundings. For instance, Jack and Jill haven’t only evolved into murderous outlaws, they’re also a couple arguing about whether or not to have a baby. PiB isn’t the outright deconstruction of fairy tales that Shrek is, but definitely views them through a wonderfully skewed prism.

Other genres are dragged into the fray and enhance the movie a bit more. Starting with her name and carrying through her actions our hero’s love interest, Kitty Softpaws (Hayek) is downright Bond girl-esque. There’s also nods to westerns, dance movies and of course, Zorro whom Banderas not so coincidentally portrayed twice for the big screen.


Speaking of Banderas, he is once again perfect as the sword fighting, milk drinking, lady loving cat. The same suaveness he brings to his live-action roles is translated in his voice-work. The rest of the characters were also well-voiced without overdoing it. Even Galifianakis, who has the showiest role, manages to keep it just restrained enough to not come off as over-exuberant.

More than anything, what helps PiB is that it has a freshness the last couple Shrek don’t. It’s not burdened by carrying on the whole of Shrek’s life and his ever-expanding family, nor carrying the weight of a franchise. It does enough of its own thing to prove more than worthy of becoming a separate entity.

MY SCORE: 7/10