Friday, August 31, 2012

J. Edgar

Directed by Clint Eastwood.
2011. Rated R, 137 minutes.
Cast:
Naomi Watts
Lea Thompson
Christopher Shyer
Dermot Mulroney
Ken Howard
Geoff Pierson
Jeffrey Donovan

The life and times of the famed first director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover (DiCaprio). He’s reciting his memoirs to various bureau agents serving as typists. His recollections start in 1920, or thereabouts, a short while before he would get the job he literally kept for the rest of his life. He tells his story in grand fashion, sure to highlight the bureau’s successes along the way. Of course, he’s also sure to claim credit for them, whether deserved or not. If it were up to him, this movie would be an unabashed puff piece, a love letter to both the organization he loves and to himself.

Alas, it’s up to director Clint Eastwood. Since that’s the case, Hoover’s memories are spliced with flashbacks to things the lawman would likely never speak of. There are two main subjects explored. First is his blatantly Oedipal relationship with his mother, played by the always awesome Judi Dench. Second is the relationship he carried on with Clyde Tolson (Hammer), the man he hired to be the FBI’s assistant director despite dubious qualifications. The two are portrayed as having a friendship with a homosexual slant, if not a full blown romance. That’s because whether or not their interactions are strictly platonic or not is a murkier issue. If we are to believe the film, there is hand-holding and come-hither looks exchanged over the years, but nothing more.

Leonardo DiCaprio does an excellent job showing us a man who strains to repress his nature and masks his insecurities with a rigidly formal persona and shameless bullying of anyone he could, including the various Presidents of the United States he served under. This makes him a bellowing contradiction. He’s a man dedicated to bringing the nation’s criminals to justice yet totally unethical in his efforts to keep his job. He rabidly protects the sanctity of America yet seemed to detest freedom of speech. DiCaprio ably puts these complexities front and center.


Still, the performance isn’t quite what it could be. Part of this is no fault of the actor’s. The makeup betrays him and does the same even more egregiously to Hammer. Whenever either is shown as an old man, which is quite often, they look distractingly bad. The other night I caught a glimpse of what is perhaps Eddie Murphy’s last great comedyComing to America. In it, Murphy and buddy Arsenio Hall play something like a dozen characters between them. Even though the movie is over twenty years old, the makeup jobs still look good. In fact, they’re outstanding on several and very good on all but one, the lady in the nightclub that Hall plays. However, if you’ve seen it, you may agree it wasn’t supposed to look believable for that scene. Here, DiCaprio and Hammer are supposed to be believable. They’re supposed to represent the two men getting older. Sadly, they look deformed rather than aged. They are too plainly buried beneath pounds of immobile, seemingly hardened rubber that’s been glued to their faces. It’s hard to buy into the illusion we’re watching gentlemen in their twilight years when they look as if they’re struggling to move their lips beneath the weight of their prosthetics.

Another issue is that the movie seems to dislike its protagonist. Thankfully, this keeps it from being an exercise in hero worship. However, it may go too far in the other direction. The effect is it feels like it is less interested in informing us than it is in embarrassing Hoover. We’re never sure why even the people closest to him like him. It seems a miracle that only one person appears happy when he dies.

As biopics go, J. Edgar is a mixed bag. It wants to expose him, but is frustratingly vague about certain aspects of his life. Good things that he’s done, most notably a centralized finger printing system, are downplayed as mere strokes of his ego. The impact of all the advancements in law enforcement under his watch is hard to gauge. So is the stuff the movie seems to want to tell us. It’s entertaining in spots but never captivates us beyond how bad the characters look.


MY SCORE: 5/10

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Directed by Stephen Daldry.

2011. Rated PG-13, 129 minutes.

Cast:
Thomas Horn
Zoe Caldwell


Oskar (Horn) is a happy little boy who does everything with his father Thomas (Hanks). Much of their time together is spent on fanciful excursions like looking for New York’s “lost sixth borough.” Dad uses these to bolster the boy’s confidence and develop his social skills since it seems the boy suffers from some form of autism (the movie half-heartedly kinda sorta rules out Asperger’s Syndrome). The two get along swimmingly. However, bliss is not eternal and Thomas dies during the tragic events of 9/11. A year later, he finds a key his father had hidden in a vase. Oskar then embarks on his own expedition all over the Big Apple to find out what it unlocks.

Though we hardly see her, Oskar does have a mother. She’s played by an appropriately worn looking Sandra Bullock. Nearly every word she says is laced with a defeatist attitude. Neither she nor her son are taking her husband’s death well. Basically, she lies in bed while he traverses the city trying to dig up remnants of his dad. Eventually he gets some company on his daily treks from the old guy known only as The Renter (von Sydow). The Renter doesn’t talk but rents a room from Oskar’s grandmother who lives across the street.



There are some interesting things going on in Extremely Loud. Oskar encounters some interesting people on his travels. The relationship between he and the old man is endearing. All thanks for this is due to the wonderful Max von Sydow. He expresses so much without ever uttering a sound. His is a remarkable piece of work. A couple other performances also shine in the brief time they’re allotted. I’ll not divulge any further details as this may give too large a hint about the outcome.

As we inch nearer that outcome things fall apart. The movie becomes too transparent in its attempts to manipulate. It tries to play on our inherent sympathy for children and soon has Oskar bursting into tears every so often in hopes that we’ll do the same. Some of us will. For the rest of us, however, Oskar’s proven to be kind of a jerk. We’ve humored him out of sympathy for his quest, but we’re not ready to sob with him. To combat this, we’re next hit with a seriously contrived and overly gooey conclusion that somehow excuses mom’s highly questionable parenting tactics. It’s clearly meant to have us bawling at the notion of sweetness and enveloped by the warmth of closure. Instead, I merely felt violated as it kept trying to touch my sensitive areas without permission.

MY SCORE: 5/10

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Ranking the Batman Movies: #6

6. Batman: Gotham Knight
(2008)
Directed by Toshi Hiruma and Bruce Timm
Batman…Kevin Conroy
James Gordon…Jim Meskimen
Alfred…David McCallum
The Scarecrow/The Russian…Corey Burton
Sal Maroni…Rob Paulsen

And here is the most experimental Batman movie of all. To be honest, that’s probably the reason I like it so much. It’s a unique approach to the character that doesn’t undermine what we know of him, but expands our understanding. To achieve this we don’t follow a single narrative. Instead, there are six vignettes telling different stories involving our hero. They’re not officially part of the Nolan series, they seem to fit snugly in the space between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, referencing events in the former quite often. This also looks different than anything else in the canon. Most of the animated flicks either try to look like the comics or one of the animated series. Gotham Knight does neither. It plays with different styles and color palettes. In a bold move, even Batman himself is rendered in a number of different ways. Understandably, this may be a bit too eclectic for a some folks but to me it’s a magnificent effort.


Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Happy Feet Two

Directed by George Miller.

2011. Rated PG, 100 minutes.

Cast:
Pink
Benjamin Flores Jr.
Carlos Alazraqui
Lombardo Boyar


Mumble (Wood), along with seemingly every penguin in the world finds themselves trapped when a giant hunk of ice blocks their path out of a frozen valley. Meanwhile, Will and Bill, a pair of krill played by Brad Pitt and Matt Damon, respectively, break loose from their school and venture out into the ocean on their own. Pop song medleys and dancing ensues.

As with its predecessor, the singing and dancing is the strength of the movie. The way songs most of would never think of in the same sentence blend seamlessly is brilliant. The numbers are lively and make time speed  by as we tap our own happy feet and maybe even sing along. That is, of course, as long as the thought of musicals aimed at children doesn’t automatically turn your stomach.

Where the first movie falters is in its sudden twist in tone. After two cheerful acts encouraging kids to be true to themselves, the third is an excruciatingly dark one involving man’s exploitation of animals for financial gain and destruction of the environment on top of our hero suffering spells of dementia. Even though we never get anywhere near those depths this time around, we’re only given one fun act before settling in for lots of penguins fretting about their pending doom and worshipping false idols. Sure, there are plenty of attempts at humor but most of them fall flat. To gauge this, I made sure to notice my children who weren’t laughing very often. The truth is the penguins and most of the other creatures fail to engage us unless they’re belting out a tune.




One exception, at least on a minor level, is Mumble’s son Erik (Ares). Like his dad, he’s a bit different than the other penguins. He doesn’t join in on any of the songs they sing. In fact, he doesn’t say much at all and spends as much time as possible hiding. As in almost every other movie ever made that features such an insecure character, this is all leading up to the moment he bursts out of his shell. The pleasant surprise is how effective a moment this is. It’s an absolute showstopper, by far my favorite part of the entire movie.

The rest of the film proceeds as it must, efficiently but not always joyfully. Everything happens right on time as we’ve been trained by countless other kiddie flicks. The climax is ridiculous, even for a cartoon about singing penguins. All of this would be forgivable if it didn’t commit a cardinal sin. There are large chunks of Happy Feet Two that are just plain boring.

MY SCORE: 5/10

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Ranking the Batman Movies: #7

7. The Dark Knight Rises
(2012)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Batman…Christian Bale
James Gordon…Gary Oldman
Alfred…Michael Caine
Lucius Fox…Morgan Freeman
John Blake…Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Catwoman…Anne Hathaway
Bane…Tom Hardy
The Scarecrow…Cillian Murphy
Miranda Tate…Marion Cotillard

The final chapter in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is probably the most gorgeous Batman movie ever made. It’s arguably the darkest themed, also. A terrorist named Bane (Hardy) comes to Gotham and destroys the city from a socio-political standpoint while he simultaneously threatens to physically destroy it by detonating a nuke within the city limits. While we may shrink in our seats a little further each time our beloved Gotham, as well as Batman himself, takes another hit we can’t turn away. Christian Bale may have solidified his place as the best Batman of all time with his best performance in the role. The same goes for Michael Caine, easily the best Alfred there’s ever been. Anne Hathaway has also earned mighty praise for her work as Catwoman. The Dark Knight’s fights with Bane are insanely tense. Yes, there’s a lot of “best ever in a Batman movie” stuff going on. However, some narrative issues in Act 3 keep this from “rising” any further on the list.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Directed by Rob Marshall.

2011. Rated PG-13, 136 minutes.

Cast:
Astrid Bergès-Frisbey
Stephen Graham
Keith Richards
Richard Griffiths
Sam Claflin


Cpt. Jack Sparrow (Depp) is back for another adventure on the high seas. This time he is in search of the original fountain of youth. More accurately, he’s a reluctant guide for Blackbeard (McShane) and his daughter Angelica (Cruz) who need to find it for selfish reasons. Cpt. Barbossa (Rush) is hot on their tail. He wants to catch up with Blackbeard to settle an old score. Lots of swashbuckling, wisecracking and Cpt. Sparrow prancing about ensues.

As usual, Depp and his cast mates have a grand time hamming it up. Nearly every role is merely an excuse to mug for the camera. Our performers willingly dive over the top. The movie, even the entire franchise is better for it. Played straight this would likely be a dreadful affair. Played as it is, with a wink and a smile, allows both the viewer and the movie itself to revel in its absurdities. Like the best moments of the series: On Stranger Tides functions as much like a vaguely risqué comedy as it does an adventure film about pirates.

Wisely, this fourth installment in the “PotC” series sticks with a few easy to follow storylines. This is a welcome regression from the hyper-convoluted abyss that is At World’s End. While that movie is an incoherent jumble of parts, On Stranger Tides is a cohesive unit that moves forward at a brisk pace without leaving us behind. For some the entire franchise has lost its luster and will want nothing to do with this movie. For me, it’s a gleeful return to what we love about the PotC world. That said, I wouldn’t mind if they didn’t make any more of these. The time has come for Cpt. Sparrow to flitter away. This would be going out on a solid note.

MY SCORE: 6.5/10

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Ranking the Batman Movies: #8

8. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
(1993)
Directed by Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm
Batman…Kevin Conroy
James Gordon…Bob Hastings
Alfred…Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.
Andrea Beaumont…Dana Delaney
The Joker…Mark Hamill
The Phantasm…Stacey Keach

By now we realize that a generous portion of Gotham’s citizens have ties to organized crime. A mysterious masked and caped figure known as The Phantasm has started killing them off. Of course, Batman has to find out who this is and stop them if, for no other reason, he’s being blamed for the murders. We also get some flashbacks to our hero’s earliest days as a crime-fighter which also coincides with a very serious relationship with Andrea Beaumont. She’s just come back to town and stirs up all sorts of emotions in Bruce. This is probably the best handled love story among any of the features. You can see the twist coming a bit, but the rest of the movie is so enjoyable it doesn’t bother you. Many rank this as the best Batman animated feature and some would put it right at or near the top on this list. I’m not quite in that camp, but it’s quite good.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Directed by Sean Durkin.
2011. Rated R, 102 minutes.
Cast:
Sarah Paulson
Hugh Dancy
Brady Corbet
Maria Dizzia
Julia Garner
Louisa Krause

After two years of not speaking with anyone in her family, Marlene (Olsen) suddenly calls her sister Lucy (Paulson) from a payphone. Surprised and relieved, Lucy rushes out to pick up her baby sis from two hours away. Her and her husband Ted (Dancy) let Marlene stay with them until she can get back on her feet. They don’t realize how far a climb that is. Marlene is obviously damaged, but they don’t understand why. She won’t tell them what we already know: she’s just escaped from a cult.

We watch Marlene try in vain to make the transition back into “normal” life. She seems to know she’s done the right thing yet she can’t shrug off the off-putting communal habits she’s picked up. Neither can she stop replaying in her head the horrors she’s endured. She’s been psychologically and physically manipulated. It all haunts her.

Elizabeth Olson does an amazing job being haunted. She makes Marlene a study in fragility mixed with ill-timed, hallucination or nightmare driven outbursts. At times, she’s an unapologetically brazen, raving lunatic. At others she’s so timid she seems to be trying to hide within herself. All of it is wrapped in paranoia as she’s never quite sure that the people she’s left behind aren’t coming to get her. It’s a high-wire act balancing a plethora of emotions, each seamlessly inhabiting the character so that none feel false.



As Lucy, Sarah Paulson is also very good. She assumes multiple roles in Marlene’s life. She’s both motherly and sisterly. She even tries her hand as an amateur therapist. She probes for clues, and tries to do so delicately in an effort to keep from upsetting the applecart. This proves to be a task easier said than done.

Wisely, the two parts of Marlene’s life we’re shown run side by side through the use of flashbacks. It the tale had been told in a linear fashion it runs the risk of being less impactful. One part or the other would be too dominant. Told as it is, if provides us with easy reference points in the other half of the story. The pain, or the result of the pain we see as it’s being caused stays fresh in our minds.

Despite subject matter that seems ready-made for a traditional thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene forgoes most genre conventions. Where most movies would build towards a dramatic showdown and/or a daring escape, this movie is only interested in the possibility of the former and totally downplays the latter. In fact, escape is the first thing that happens and it’s never mentioned again. As a result, we get a movie that plays more like a slice-of-life than a dramatization, albeit a very dark slice. Like many such movies, the ending isn’t a climax, but a stopping point. It’s an intensely interesting one that opens up plenty of possibilities forcing us to confront the questions it raises without giving us any of the answers.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Mirror Mirror

Directed by Tarsem Singh.

2012. Rated PG, 106 minutes.

Cast:
Armie Hammer
Michael Lerner
Jordan Prentice
Danny Woodburn
Mark Povinelli
Ronald Lee Clark
Sean Bean


By now, the only reasons to dig up any of the known fairy tales are to subvert or deconstruct them. Mirror Mirror does neither, opting for yet another pretty straightforward retelling of “Snow White.” Sure, there are minor changes here and there, but nothing that would actually justify its existence. Don’t get me wrong. MM is not necessarily a bad movie. It’s just not necessary.

The main change in this version of the classic is that the proceedings are narrated by the Evil Queen (Roberts) who swears this is her story. She’s taxing the citizens of the kingdom so much and spending that money so fast, both they and she are broke. She inherited the kingdom from her late husband, whom she had killed, of course. Snow White (Collins) is locked away but manages to storm out of her quarters for the occasional temper tantrum. She even manages to sneak into one of the Queen’s balls which is where she meets the handsome Prince Alcott (Hammer). One of the Queen’s minions is tasked to kill the girl. However, he has not the heart. He marches her out to the woods and basically tells her to get lost and stay that way.



All of this leads to the other big change in MM. Snow White eventually runs into The Seven Dwarves. These guys don’t whistle while they work. That’s because bandits have to be quiet before they attack. See, these dwarves run around on stilts and rob anyone who ventures into the woods. Gone are the iconic names like Dopey, Sleepy, etc. and the personalities that come with them. This is a fairly indistinguishable lot. All we really need to know is that Snow White assumes the role of Robin Hood and they, her merry men. To this end, she gets to do most of the saving of her own day. I suppose this could be considered another twist but even that’s old hat, these days.

In other words, MM progresses as a Snow White movie must. Much of our time is spent watching Julia Roberts have a grand time being evil. She chews scenery with boundless verve in both of her roles. She also plays the mirror, by the way. It can either be fun to watch or painfully annoying. I wouldn’t fault anyone who thought it was either. Regardless of which way you lean, you’ll agree the movie is fairly lifeless when she’s not on the screen. Even the kids in the target audience are likely to have a “been there, done that” reaction to it all. I fully expect there are legions of little girls that proclaim this “the bestest movie evar!” I’ve no problem with that. After all, it’s a story about a princess. I’m just not sure they’ve gotten anything different than they’ve already gotten from dozens of other movies.

MY SCORE: 5.5/10

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Ranking the Batman Movies: #9


9. Batman Returns
(1992)
Directed by Tim Burton
Batman…Michael Keaton
James Gordon…Pat Hingle
Alfred…Michael Gough
Catwoman…Michelle Pfeiffer
The Penguin…Danny DeVito
Max Shreck…Christopher Walken

Of all the live-action Batman films, this is definitely the strangest. Even though he directed both movies, Batman Returns is much more a part of Tim Burton’s world than 1989’s Batman. Gotham and its inhabitants become truly gothic. Perhaps our first hint is the name of Christopher Walken’s character, Max Shreck. For those not in the know, the real Max Shreck is a horror icon for having played Count Orlock in the classic Nosferatu. Catwoman, as played by Michelle Pfeiffer is a writhing mass of fetishized femininity. She put so much into the role that for me, it’s easily the quintessential portrayal of the character. If she’s the stuff our slightly off-kilter fantasies then Danny DeVito’s take on The Penguin is something that’s escaped from our nightmares. Everything about him is delightfully disgusting, if that’s possible. By the way, the plot basically involves him trying to get elected mayor of Gotham while working with Catwoman to get rid of The Caped Crusader. There was a fallout to such a bizarre approach to what was supposed to be a mainstream franchise. Batman merchandise took a hit as McDonald's actually dropped all merchandise related to the movie from their Happy Meals. A number of parents were up in arms over the film. Of course, there was also that whole ‘let’s get Joel Schumacher in here’ thing after all that stuff happened.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Underworld Awakening

Directed by Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein.

2012. Rated R, 88 minutes.
Cast:
Stephen Rea
India Eisley
Theo James
Kris Holden-Ried
Charles Dance


The awakening takes place right at the beginning. Well, that’s not quite true. We start this adventure like we normally do, with our host vampire, Selene (Beckinsale), giving us a quick history lesson. I’ll be as succinct as possible for those of you who already know the scoop. The vampires have been at war with the lycans (werewolves) for over 600 years. Most of that time, Selene has been a frontline soldier on a unit called The Death Dealers. Recently, as in during the franchise’s first movie, she fell in love with Michael who becomes a hybrid of the two species. Both sides now hunt the couple.

For this installment, there is an added dimension. Humans have discovered the existence of vampires and werewolves and go about exterminating both. Michael and Selene are captured and cryogenically frozen due to his unique condition. She “awakens” twelve years later when another ‘subject’ helps her escape. Of course, she sets out to find her beloved Michael.

Aside from what’s mentioned above, nothing else really happens. Okay, there is one development early involving the subject that freed Selene and one twist late that’s not really surprising. Most of what’s in between is gory but shoddily staged action sequences showing our heroes (Selene, a young girl and a male vampire) fighting cgi lycans. If that’s going to be the bulk of your movie, a better effort should be made to make it somewhat believable. The lycans look better than in Awakening’s woeful predecessor, Rise of the Lycans, but still have no weight to them. A six and a half or seven foot muscled and hairy beast should at least disturb vehicles a little bit when it leaps from one to another. Since this happens early on, it’s hard to shake the feeling we’re looking at anything but a collection of pixels.



This is all the more frustrating because I am actually a big fan of the first movie in the series. I like the way the story develops. I like how the two iconic movie monsters are viewed through the prism of The Matrix. Finally, I like that it introduces us to Selene, one of the most intriguing female vampires in cinematic history. I enjoyed the second movie (Evolution), though quite a bit less. Awakening marks the second straight Underworld movie I think is absolutely horrible. Rise of the Lycans is just another in a long line of poorly executed prequels and didn’t involve the franchise’s main protagonist. This brings her back and gives us some interesting developments early on but does nothing with them. Instead, it’s content to show us a steady stream of scene showing Selene killing lycans. In the nooks and crannies of downtime she does little more than whine about Michael. It’s as if the filmmakers believed that a good idea is good enough on its own and needs no fleshing out.

Admittedly, my expectations were low for a fourth movie in a franchise that seems to peter out about midway through the second installment. Still, it’s a disappointing entry because the potential for an exhilarating tale is there. The first five minutes or so is spectacular movie-making, revealing an intriguing premise with numerous possibilities. In lieu of journeying down any of the possible avenues opened, Awakening simply tries to hide its lazy writing with a succession of not-always-so-nicely-rendered battle scenes. That, my friends, should be punishable by two shots to the chest and one to the head with ultra-violet or silver nitrate rounds, depending on which side of the monster ledger you think we’re dealing with.

MY SCORE: 4/10

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Ranking the Batman Movies: #10

10. Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero
(1998)
Directed by Boyd Kirkland
Batman…Kevin Conroy
Robin…Loren Lester
James Gordon…Bob Hastings
Batgirl…Mary Kay Bergman
Alfred…Efram Zimbalist Jr.
Mr. Freeze…Michael Ansara

Despite all the damage done by Joel Schumacher and Arnold Schwarzenegger making a mockery of Mr. Freeze just a year earlier, Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero was released direct to video in 1998. It proceeds to tell the story of Victor Fries a thousand times better than Batman & Robin. It treats the story as a serious narrative and ably conveys the desperation and sadness of our villain. In fact, this is more of a Mr. Freeze movie that just happens to include Batman. Still, it doesn’t skimp on the superhero stuff, either. Both Robin and Batgirl get ample opportunity to show their stuff. As viewers, we’re put in the difficult position of deciding whether or not we can sympathize with the bad guy. It’s not as simple as Batman beating up the bad guy then shoving him into Arkham. This is far from it.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Three Stooges

Directed by The Farrelly Brothers.

2012. Rated PG, 91 minutes.
Cast:
Chris Diamantopoulos
Sean Hayes
Will Sasso
Larry David
Kate Upton
Stephen Collins
Kirby Heyborne
Brian Doyle Murphy


I had mixed emotions when I found out there was going to be an all-new Three Stooges movie. My hope was that it was going to be a biopic about their long career detailing the relationships between the at least half dozen men who were members at one time or another. I vaguely remember a TV movie to this effect some years ago. Eventually, I discovered it was simply going to be a full-length feature in the grand style of one of their famous shorts. I watched and laughed at plenty of the Stooges’ stuff as a youngster, occasionally as an adult, so I was game.

We meet our heroes shortly after birth when they’re unceremoniously dumped at an orphanage run by nuns. So outrageous is their behavior over the years, finding someone to adopt them is impossible. In fact, the boys are still there as adults. Out of the kindness of the nun’s hearts, I guess, they haven’t been sent packing despite wreaking havoc and being unable to complete even the simplest task. Don’t feel too bad. All of this is played for laughs, of course.

In case you’re somehow unfamiliar, introductions are in order. The Three Stooges are made up of Moe (Diamantopoulos), a nitwit but nonetheless their leader, and two dimmer bulbs, Larry (Hayes) and Curly (Sasso). The orphanage is going broke. Unless they can come up with $830,000 in thirty days, it’s doors will close forever. If you know anything about movies at all then you know the only thing left to do is for the boys to venture off to the big city to try and raise the cash themselves. That’s all you need to know about the plot other than MTV’s “The Jersey Shore” plays an improbably prominent role. To say the story is a weakness is a gross understatement.



If there is magic to be found in a Three Stooges movie, it lies not within the plot, but in the physical humor. Coming into this, I wondered how true this movie would be to its source material. In the old days, Moe would berate the other two for any mishaps, theirs or his, and a round of them slapping each other, hitting one another over the head with a variety of heavy blunt objects and poking one another in the eyes would ensue. The mishaps usually involved accidents that would be bone-breaking at the very least, in real life. Thankfully, the update remains faithful to that formula. It is exactly what most of us imagine a Stooge flick to be. Those of you who found the original trio hilarious, will likely find these guys to be much the same. They do a remarkable job imitating the real Moe, Larry and Curly. It’s refreshing that our beloved Stooges haven’t been sanitized to fit 21st century sensibilities.

On the other hand, the commitment to getting it right is the movie’s biggest problem. It’s a movie aimed at kids. Don’t worry, I’m not going to start moralizing. It’s just that the Stooges’ heyday, and even up through the 1970s when I was watching them, were less enlightened times. Three guys verbally and physically abusing one another or repeatedly having heinous accidents were a legitimate source of comedy. Now everything about the Stooges has been outlawed or incessantly railed against. There are PSAs about much of this stuff. I understand there is a good bit of Stooge influenced stuff going on in children’s programming these days, but it’s easier to digest as a cartoon. Today’s kids are less likely to laugh at a live-action version of the same things. Indeed, I laughed more than my own offspring. Times are a changin’.

MY SCORE: 6/10

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Ranking the Batman Movies: #11


11. Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman
(2003)
Directed by Curt Geda and Tim Maltby
Batman…Kevin Conroy
Robin…Eli Marienthal
James Gordon…Bob Hastings
Barbara Gordon…Tara Strong
Alfred…Efram Zimbalist Jr.
Batwoman…Kyra Sedgwick
Carlton Duquesne…Kevin Michael Richardson
The Penguin…David Ogden Stiers
Dr. Roxanne Ballantine…Kelly Ripa

If you couldn’t already tell, the Batman franchise dabbles in a number of genres. Here, we get sort of a whodunit. The question isn’t who the bad guy is, but who is this other good guy? Actually, good girl in this case. Someone calling themselves Batwoman has also taken to the streets of Gotham to fight crime and is effective, but sloppy. Of course, our hero has to get to the bottom of this because Batwoman doesn’t live by the same moral code as he does. Her techniques are dangerous and ruthless. It’s a solid Bat-tale with a terrific twist that we can’t quite see coming. It’s also notable for being the only movie on the list to show Bruce in an interracial relationship. The best part about that is that I make a bigger deal out of it than the movie which never mentions it.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

21 Jump Street

Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller.

2012. Rated R, 109 minutes.

Cast:
Brie Larson
Dave Franco
Ellie Kemper
DeRay Davis
Jake Johnson
Holly Robinson Peete


For lack of better terms , Jenko (Tatum) was a high school jock and Schmidt (Hill), a nerd. As adults, they drag each other through to graduation from the police academy by each helping the other with their weaknesses. As cops, they’re so inept they make Barney Fife look like Columbo. Google it, youngsters. Since immaturity is part of their problem, they are banished to the 21 Jump Street program which uses youthful officers to work undercover in local high schools. Their mission is to take down the supplier of a dangerous new drug. Raunchy, slapstick comedy ensues.

We’re used to Jonah Hill in such movies. After all, he’s returning to his roots after his Oscar nominated turn in Moneyball. He fits comfortably back into his old role as a socially awkward horndog. We find out that he completed high school as a virgin. It’s implied that he still might be, seven years later, and not by choice. Other comedy regulars such as Rob Riggle, Ice Cube and DeRay Davis help out on that front. The pleasant surprise is how funny Channing Tatum is. The movie itself puts the ball in his court by utilizing his fashion model looks for comedic fodder. He responds by having some genuinely hilarious moments as well as doing most of the heavy lifting during the action scenes.



Story-wise, 21 Jump Street is a paint-by-numbers affair with only one minor surprise. From that vantage point, it’s a movie we’ve seen multiple times and will see bunch more. However, that’s not this movie’s concern. It simply wants to make you laugh. At that it succeeds, provided you’re into crude sex and drug humor. If you’re not, steer clear. Despite its main topics, 21JS is surprisingly smart. It often lampoons action flick conventions like things exploding upon impact that shouldn’t. It even makes fun of its own premise, and by extension, that of the TV series it is based on.

Speaking of the TV series, you might also want to avoid this if you have any reverence for it. For you young’uns, the premise of using youthful looking officers to pose as high school kids is the same, but that’s about it. That was a much more serious treatment of the subject. Most notably, it launched the career of Johnny Depp and, to a lesser degree, Holly Robinson-Peete. Both have cameos in the movie. If you come here looking for something really similar to show, you’re in the wrong place. If you just want to have a laugh at a buddy-cop comedy, you’re in the right one.

MY SCORE: 7/10

Friday, August 10, 2012

Ranking the Batman Movies: #12

12. Batman: Year One
(2011)
Directed by Sam Liu and Lauren Montgomery
Batman…Ben McKenzie
James Gordon…Bryan Cranston
Alfred…Jeff Bennett
Carmine Falcone…Alex Rocco
Catwoman…Eliza Dushku
Harvey Dent…Robin Atkins Downes

As the title suggests, we’re dealing with the first year Bruce Wayne decided to dress up like a bat and chase bad guys. Honestly, this was one of the two hardest movies to rank (I’ll let you know the other one at a later date). It’s based on the iconic graphic novel of the same name. More than just being based on it, the movie is an incredibly faithful adaptation. There are only minor changes here and there. The first problem is that things that work on the page, don’t always work on screen even if it is a direct transfer. The main victim is the incessant narration done by both Bruce and then Lt. Gordon. Another issue is there are 24 years between when the source material and this movie were released. By itself, that’s no big deal. Works of literature that’s decades, even centuries old are constantly reinvented in some new medium whether loosely or faithfully done. When talking about what has happened to the character in that time, it’s huge. The graphic novel has been the impetus for so much of what’s followed in the Batman universe that the exact same material released as a movie feels dated. The book recreated Gotham as a horribly corrupt town ran by gangsters with most of the police force on the take. It developed James Gordon to the status of a real human being, pretty much alone on the force as an honest cop. He also has a wife and a child on the way. He even has mixed feelings about Batman. Most importantly, he has flaws. Year One also gives us the notion that Bruce Wayne isn’t always a swell guy to be around. Even when he’s suited up, he might not always know what he’s doing. The two Christopher Nolan movies have given us all of this, even the first Tim Burton flick used some of the same, rendering this movie kind of pointless.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Battleship

Directed by Peter Berg.
2012. Rated PG-13, 131 minutes.
Cast:
Taylor Kitsch
Brooklyn Decker
Rihanna
Alexander Skarsgard
Tadanobu Asano
Hamish Linklater
John Tui
Liam Neeson
Jesse Plemons
Gregory D. Gadson

I played a lot of board games as a kid. Monopoly and Life were my favorites. I was never big into Battleship, but I had friends that were. I remember the commercials far better than the game itself. They always end when one kid incredulously exclaims “You sank my battleship!” Some version of that iconic scene playing out at the climactic moment is pretty much all I expected the film version. Even those modest hopes proved too lofty.

Toy company Hasbro owns the rights to the game and apparently aren’t too particular about any sort of faithfulness to its properties. As long as whatever is thrown up on the screen brings in goo-gobs of money, all is good. Who could blame them? After all, they also own the rights to Transformers. Whether you love or hate those movies, there is no denying they’re ridiculously successful at the box office.

This brings us back to Battleship, the movie. The game is one of naval strategy, your fleet against your buddy’s. The movie is about an intergalactic alien invasion just off the coast of Hawaii. Wait…what? Okay fine, I’ll roll with it. After finally finding a planet similar enough to Earth to sustain life we send out a signal in an effort to make contact. Never you mind that it’s travelling billions of miles yet appears to get there quicker than most cell phone calls. Just know that whoever is on the other end sends back a military scout team to set up their own communication with their boys back home and commence the takeover.



Before any of this, we meet Alex Hopper (Kitsch), a long-haired hothead with a penchant for trouble. He’s infatuated with Samantha (Decker), the blonde at the bar who very strongly resembles a swimsuit model. By the way, her dad happens to run the local Naval fleet. Fast forward a year or so and now Alex is a short-haired hothead Naval lieutenant who is in love with and dating the swimsuit model from the bar. Her dad still runs the fleet. Oh yeah, Alex might be a captain. Stupid movie has people calling him both. I’m sure this is a joke that I don’t get but that’s kind of a problem, no?

Anyhoo, you write the rest of the script. Make sure the aliens aren’t particularly bright and let an awful lot of obviously military people live after having shown the capacity to kill by the hundreds. Do this to spare our heroes for the sole purpose of making sure this thing stretches to over two hours. Keep your love story mostly centered around Alex being intimidated by his girlfriend’s father. Even though this guy is played by Liam Neeson, don’t use him for anything else. Shoehorn in a few references to the game, including a giant grid, of course. Add in a ton of jokes and one-liners. Pray at least a few of them are funny. In other words, make it exactly like Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, or any of his other movies, for that matter.

Imitating Bay is precisely what director Peter Berg does. However, Joe Q Public isn’t as much a cushion for Battleship to fall back on. Despite the game having been around since World War I, in some form or another, it has nowhere near the nostalgia factor going for it that Transformers does. Dots on a paper or blips on a grid are nowhere near as exciting as giant fighting robots. Besides that, I’m not sure anyone who has played the game could come up with enough of a storyline to justify a movie being made for it. Sadly, neither could the people actually involved in making it. Second, this doesn’t offer the spectacle of said robots transforming. The fact that none of aliens has as much as a personality renders this even more run of the mill. Think about it. We’ve seen scores of alien invasion flicks, but only three Transformers flicks. So far, that is. I hate to sound like I’m defending that franchise because I hate the last two movies it gave us. At least they give us something we’re not really getting anywhere else. Don’t get me wrong. If you’re looking for lots of stuff going boom, there is some enjoyment to be had here. It’s paced quickly enough and the aliens unleash some nasty weaponry. If you want anything deeper than that, move along. Nothing to see here.

MY SCORE: 4/10

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Ranking the Batman Movies: #13


13. Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker
(2000)
Directed by Curt Geda
Future Batman/Terry McGinnis…Will Friedle
Bruce Wayne…Kevin Conroy
Young Robin…Matthew Valencia
Young Batgirl…Tara Strong
Barbara Gordon…Angie Harmon
The Joker…Mark Hamill
Harley Quinn…Arlenn Sorkin

Full disclosure: I’m not a big fan of Batman Beyond. For those unfamiliar, the TV series takes place well after Bruce Wayne has retired from crime fighting. In his stead, Terry McGinnis has taken over as Batman and wears a snazzier, sleeker suit while patrolling Gotham. In the movie, old Bruce is trying to help out the young punk because his old nemesis The Joker has apparently returned from the dead after 40 years. Attempting to figure if The Joker is really alive or if this is an imposter is interesting. However, in the end it all comes across a little bland to me. It doesn’t help that massive cuts were made to many of the action scenes due to sensitivity over the then recent Columbine High School Massacre and the amount of violent content in “children’s” programming. That’s not the main problem though. The real deal is I just don’t find the future Batman a compelling one.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Larry Crowne

Directed by Tom Hanks.
2011. Rated PG-13, 99 minutes.
Cast:
Tom Hanks
Julia Roberts
Cedric the Entertainer
Bryan Cranston
George Takei
Pam Grier
Taraji P. Henson

Gugu Mbatha-Raw
Wilmer Valderrama
Rob Riggle
Nia Vardalos

Our story starts with 50-something Larry Crowne (Hanks) losing his job at big-box store U-Mart. It’s an obvious downsizing move but he’s told that since he didn’t go to college he has virtually no chance for advancement within the company and it’s against policy to limit their employees in such a manner. That runs counter to what I’ve seen and experienced. Such people are a gold mine because they become experts at their jobs and the company has a built in excuse for not promoting them. This saves the company money since they don’t have to give that person a raise nor hire and train a new person to take their place, but I digress. With all of his newfound free time since he can’t find a job, Larry does indeed decide to go to college to keep this from happening to him in the future. Once there, he’s encouraged to take Speech 217 because it’s a life-changer. It doesn’t hurt that he’s given a huge hint that the instructor is hot. When he gets there, he agrees she’s hot. She is Mrs. Tainot (Roberts), pronounced Tay-no, she emphasizes. Note the Mrs. Prefix but understand her marriage sucks. We spend a good deal of time in her class.

Lest you go thinking Speech is his only class, we also spend lots of time with Larry in Econ 1, taught by Dr. Matsutani played by George Takei AKA Mr. Sulu. He pimps his book, laughs at his own jokes and confiscates Larry’s cell phone repeatedly. It’s an odd, somewhat creepy but still enjoyable performance. Before he gets to either class, Larry runs into Talia (Raw). She’s young, pretty and vibrant. She’s also capable of overrunning men in mere seconds, bringing to life the term “killing them with kindness.” Almost immediately after meeting Larry she changes everything about him: his wardrobe, his hair, the way his furniture is arranged, even his name. She insists upon calling him Lance because she thinks it fits him better. He’s so smitten, he lets it all happen. We’re told she has this effect on all men.



Most of the movie just trots by without much in the way of joy or pain. When I say trot, I should say prance because it is shamelessly bland. There are some exceptions, of course. We bristle, or at least I did, whenever Talia is busy recreating Larry. It’s like a horror movie with some happy-go-lucky psycho taking over your life. On the other hand, the scenes with Mr. (Cranston) and Mrs. Tainot are much more enjoyable. The story of their deteriorating marriage is an interesting subplot we’re tempted to try and separate from the rest of the movie. Their scenes are funny, melodramatic and infinitely more intriguing than anything else going on. It could possibly have made a nice dark comedy.

Alas, it is not to be. We’re stuck with Larry Crowne as is. It wants to have something deep to say about the economy but doesn’t . It wants to be an enthralling romantic comedy, but isn’t. Larry gets not one, but two “game-winning” moments that are anti-climactic to the point of being boring. Even the plucky neighbor routine is botched. Cedric the Entertainer and Taraji P. Henson play the happily married couple that lives next door to Larry and makes their living by having a yard sale every single day. Seriously. Ced is supposed to dispense sage advice and make us laugh as he haggles price on everything. Instead, he just says a lot and most of it is unfunny. As he’s running off at the mouth, Ms. Henson just hangs out in the background collecting a paycheck for doing nothing. Good for her, managing to get paid while participating in this mess as little as possible.

MY SCORE: 4.5/10

Monday, August 6, 2012

Ranking the Batman Movies: #14


14. The Batman vs. Dracula
(2005)
Directed by Michael Goguen
Batman…Rino Romano
Alfred…Alistair Duncan
Vicki Vale…Tara Strong
Dracula…Peter Stormare
The Penguin…Tom Kenny

This time around, The Dark Knight takes on the real Prince of Darkness, Dracula. Things start normally enough by Gotham standards. The Joker and The Penguin bust out of Arkham Asylum in an effort to find a stash of loot somewhere in Gotham Cemetary. Bada-boom, bada-bing, Penguin manages to wake up Dracula who then tries to take over the city by creating an army of the undead. Admittedly, it is a bit odd seeing Bats take on a supernatural villain, but it’s well done. Also odd is seeing The Joker as someone else’s pawn. Speaking of The Joker, he’s part of the reason for this movie’s low ranking. I am not a fan of Kevin Michael Richardson’s voice-work as the Joker or the way the character is drawn. The overall effect is he’s much more brutish, lacking any of the character’s normal refinement. Finally, “vs. Dracula” is a little more graphic than I was expecting but it fits the plot since we are dealing with vampires here.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Hugo

Directed by Martin Scorsese.
2011. Rated PG, 128 minutes.
Cast:
Asa Butterfield
Ben Kingsley
Chloë Grace Moretz
Sacha Baron Cohen
Jude Law
Ray Winstone
Helen McCrory
Richard Griffiths
Frances de la Tour
Christopher Lee

Hugo (Butterfield) is a tween-aged boy who lives alone inside the giant clock at the train station. Sort of. He’s supposed to be living there with his uncle Claude (Winstone) who is responsible for keeping the clock wound. However, Claude is a drunk and hasn’t been seen in quite some time. Hugo’s dad was already a widower when he died leaving his son in the care of his not-so-responsible brother. So Hugo keeps the clock running all by himself. He also works feverishly to fix the automaton his father left him, a robot that supposedly writes. Hugo has never seen it work.

Much of our hero’s day is spent scavenging food and parts from the shops in the station while avoiding station cop Inspector Gustave (Cohen). His favorite target is the toy store owned by crotchety old Papa Georges (Kingsley). When Georges catches Hugo, he makes the lad work for him to pay for all the stuff he’s stolen. He also confiscates the kid’s notebook which looks like a manual for the automaton. In an effort to get his notebook back, Hugo recruits Isabelle (Moretz) who lives with Papa Georges and his wife because her own parents have passed away. The two embark on a book retrieving adventure.



Eventually, we find out Hugo isn’t at all about the notebook , the writing robot or even the title character. Like Super 8, which I’ve recently watched, Hugo is actually a movie about movies. In this case, it focuses on the earliest days of filmmaking and how magical moving pictures must have been to people who had never heard of such a thing. By extension, it’s also about when we in the contemporary audience first fell in love with movies ourselves. After all, even the most cynical of us has been awed by a film and transported wholly into its world at some point in our lives. Finally, it makes an eloquent point about the need to step up the effort to preserve old films. If the viewer misses all that stuff about movies and merely focuses on the surface of Hugo, they’ll still get an enjoyable film.

Hugo is also about the visuals. That’s not quite right, the visuals are there to enhance the feeling that watching a movie is akin to witnessing magic. They are an important part of the film. Each shot is beautifully framed and the fluid movement of the camera has the effect of sweeping us away into this world. Unfortunately, I’m ill-qualified to comment any further. My lack of technical expertise aside, it’s a movie designed to be a 3D experience that I watched in 2D on a not-so-wide screen. Though I’m not a huge fan of the medium I would like to see this as it is meant to be seen.

Even without the funny glasses, I still had a good time watching Hugo. The story is thoroughly sweet and touching. Admittedly, that’s not what I’m normally looking for out of my Scorcese, but he makes it engaging. Interestingly enough, my children didn’t enjoy it as much despite the two youthful protagonists. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe you do need to understand a bit about the history of movies. After all, it is an adventure that leads not to a treasure of gold or something they deem tangible, but to an archive of silent films (I’m not spoiling anything). Maybe when I’m old and they’re making one of their obligatory visits I’ll force them to watch it with me just to see if they get it.

MY SCORE: 8/10

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Ranking the Batman Movies: #15


15. Batman Forever
(1995)
Directed by Joel Schumacher
Batman…Val Kilmer
Alfred…Michael Gough
James Gordon…Pat Hingle
The Riddler…Jim Carrey
Two-Face…Tommy Lee Jones
Dr. Chase Meridian…Nicole Kidman

Well, whaddya know? We populate the bottom of the list with both Joel Schumacher movies. Anyone even vaguely familiar with the franchise probably knew this would be the case. This was the first of the JS flicks. He was hired to lighten up the series after the macabre adventure that was Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. The results are fairly bad. The tone is uneven: dark and brooding at some points, over the top campy at others. It makes little to no sense whatsoever. As The Riddler, Jim Carrey delivers a completely unhinged performance. It’s like watching Frank Gorshin on speed. That part isn’t so bad because we kind of expect that from him. What’s bizarre is watching Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face behave the same way. It didn’t seem to fit either him or the character. Robin is introduced, for I don’t know what reason. The pleasant surprise is that Val Kilmer wasn’t too bad as Batman.