Friday, April 29, 2011

Dinner for Schmucks

Directed by Jay Roach.
2010. Rated PG-13, 114 minutes.
Steve Carell
Paul Rudd
Stephanie Szostak
Zach Galifianakis
Jermaine Clement
Bruce Greenwood
Lucy Punch
Ron Livingston
Larry Wilmore

After one of his co-workers is fired, Tim (Rudd) joins the mad dash to replace the guy in hopes of a raise and a large office on the 7th floor. He comes up with an idea to potentially lure a huge client which makes himself the prime candidate for the promotion. To seal the deal, he not only has to land the client, he has to attend a very special dinner at the boss’ house. What makes it special is that it is the annual “Dinner for Winners.” The “winners” are really people that the execs at the company think are idiots. Each of them must bring one such person that they will all make fun of. At the end of the night, they give a trophy to whoever they deem is the biggest idiot. However, they call him or her the most extraordinary person and never let them in on the joke. Tim’s dilemma is that the girl he’s been practically begging to marry is appalled at the idea and wants him not to go.

To complicate matters, a person that fits the bill to a tee practically falls into his lap. In a case of neither guy paying as much attention as they should, Tim hits Barry (Carell) with his car while Barry is trying to pick up a dead mouse he’s spotted in the street. It turns out he uses the deceased critters to create his artwork. Some of it is original, some are replicas of already famous pieces of art. Think “The Mona Lisa,” only using a rodent instead of a woman. Of course, Tim invites Barry to that special dinner. From that point on, Tim’s life is turned upside down.

A huge chunk of the movie proceeds as follows: Barry does something dumb and/or presumptious with predictably catastrophic results. Tim yells at him. He tries to help fix the problem, but makes it worse. Some of it is funny, a lot of it isn’t. There is also the subplot of Tim’s girl Julie (Szostak) possibly sleeping with over-sexed and eccentric artist Kieran (Clement). Things finally take a turn for the better when we meet Barry’s boss Therman, played brilliantly by Zach Galifianakis. The intense gaze on his face and his cheesy magician’s mannerisms are perfect. Almost all of the funniest scenes in the movie involve him. This includes the “pudding” joke which has a perfectly orchestrated delayed effect.

Galifianakis doesn’t show up until late in the second act. He elevates the movie to the level of watchable, at least while he’s on the screen. He can’t make the ending acceptable, largely because we know what’s coming right from the start. The bigger issue is we can’t quite muster up the sympathy needed to make it work. We can’t because even though Barry is certainly pathetic enough, he’s not likeable enough. The problems he’s caused can’t be attribute to naivete even though that’s what we’re supposed to believe. They’re things that, if I were Tim, would’ve caused me to try and do him bodily harm. In other words, we don’t feel bad when Tim makes him feel bad. We think he deserves it. The effect on the movie is that we don’t really care how it turns out, we just want it to end.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Edge of Darkness

Directed by Martin Campbell.
2010. Rated R, 117 minutes.
Mel Gibson
Ray Winstone
Danny Huston
Bojana Novakovic
Shawn Roberts
David Aaron Baker
Jay O. Sanders
Dennis O’Hare
Damian Young
Gbenga Akinnagbe

Det. Craven (Gibson) is about to rush his daughter Emma (Novakovic) to the hospital. Just as the two step out the front door, a gunman fires a single shot, kills her and speeds off. It’s assumed the bullet was meant for him. After all, he’s been a cop for long time and has presumably made a number of capable enemies. He’s not so sure. Maybe it was, but she’s been acting awfully strange since he picked her up earlier that evening. She wouldn’t say much about it, but seems to be going through a tough time. Physically, she’s a total wreck. Every so often, she’ll suddenly vomit. The she has a spontaneous nosebleed. That’s when dad tries to get her to the hospital. Then there is that plant she works at that does something or another with nuclear energy. Hmmm.

Our hero tells his bosses that he is going to be involved in the investigation of his little girl’s murder, regardless of policy. Oddly enough, this doesn’t involve any yelling. In fact, he doesn’t get much of a fight at all. After this, he’s got people to see, starting with Emma’s boyfriend. From there, let’s just say he meets some very interesting, wealthy and/or powerful people.

We follow Det. Craven on his crusade to serve justice. In turn, we’re rewarded with a solid thriller/mystery. After a short while, it becomes apparent who killed Emma. The mystery actually lies in figuring out why. When we get the thrills, they often start with a jolt and are pretty brutal.

Mel Gibson plays the lead with a constantly pained look on his face. He ably conveys the emotions of a grieving father, albeit on who is an action hero, but a grieving dad nonetheless. However, his attempt at a Boston area accent doesn’t work too well. Part of the problem is it sounds exaggerated. The rest of the problem is that no one else seems to be doing one at all. This makes his efforting to say things such as “cah” instead of car that much more obvious.

Gibson’s accent, and your personal feelings about him, aside, Edge of Darkness is a solid flick that has some easy answers, but doesn’t necessarily give us the easy ending. Because of the way it’s presented, whether or not it’s a happy one is open to debate. Luckily, even though it’s not an action flick there is just enough of it interspersed to keep us interested until we get that far.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Bullets or Ballots

Directed by William Keighley.
1936. Not Rated, 82 minutes.
Edward G. Robinson
Humphrey Bogart
Joan Blandell
Barton MacLane

Once Cpt. McLaren (Joe King) takes over the police department, he fires Johnny Blake (Robinson), one of the most successful and feared officers on the force. The local mob boss, Al Kruger (MacLane) seizes the opportunity and recruits Blake to join his gang. Based on the story of real-life cop Johnny Broderick. Most famous for his roles as a gangster, Robinson switches sides of the law in one of Hollywood's earliest tales of an undercover cop who may have gotten in too deep (movie buffs will see what I did there). As is usually the case with Robinson, it's a virtuoso performance. In this case, he exudes the arrogance necessary to move up the criminal ladder. To help matters out, the cast also includes a particularly angry Bogart for Robinson to go back and forth with. The story does a nice job of putting our hero in compromising positions for him to figure out. Best of all, the ending is a courageous one, particularly for the era. It leaves us a little unsure how we're supposed to feel. The entire film is a blueprint for the many movies of its kind to follow.

MY SCORE: 10/10

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

12 Monkeys

Directed by Terry Gilliam.
1996. Rated R, 130 minutes.
Bruce Willis
Brad Pitt
Madeline Stowe
Jon Seda

Christopher Plummer

James Cole (Willis) believes he is a time-traveler sent back from the future by his captors to investigate "the Army of the 12 Monkeys." This "army" apparently loosed a virus upon the Earth. This virus is believed to have killed 5 billion people and driven the survivors to live beneath the planet's surface. The movie opens with a quote that is actually a prediction that this whole virus thing would go down in 1997. It's attributed to a "diagnosed schizophrenic." This is key because the question of Cole's sanity is really the central theme of the movie. A brief soliloquy by a patient in the mental institution Cole is thrown into when he arrives in the year 1990 explaining his own mental condition gives us a possible explanation of what's actually going on. Of course, the alternative is that Cole is perfectly sane but indeed living in an insane reality. To his credit, director Terry Gilliam doesn't discount either possibility giving viewers something to debate. Willis gives a frantic, even fragile performance befitting the role. Stowe is solid as usual but Brad Pitt lights up the screen during the intervals in which he appears. Overall, it's an excellent, if a bit quirky, piece of science fiction.

MY SCORE: 9/10

Friday, April 22, 2011

Stomp the Yard: Homecoming

Directed by Rob Hardy.
2010. Rated PG-13, 87 minutes.
Collins Pennie
Kiely Williams
Pooch Hall
Stephen Boss
David Banner
Keith David
Tika Sumpter
Columbus Short
Rickey Smiley
Jasmine Guy

Dance movies are pretty much critic-proof. Take the original Stomp the Yard, for example. It’s largely a rip-off of Drumline, right down to how the climactic battle plays out. Still, it was a modest financial success and has developed a devoted following of people who won’t hear a negative word about it. The high energy routines are infectious. People enjoy dance movies, regardless of their narrative issues. This is why Stomp the Yard was made in the first place. It’s why lots of people still tune in to cable airings of You Got Served and Honey. It’s why there have been three Step Up movies. Alas, it’s why we have Stomp the Yard: Homecoming.

Homecoming is, of course, set during homecoming weekend at fictional Truth University. Our hero from the first movie, DJ (Short) has apparently movie on in life, only appearing briefly here. By the way, Short is the film’s executive producer. This time, our wayward but talented dancer is Chance (Pennie). For continuity’s sake, he’s pledging to the same fraternity DJ did in the original, the Thetas. His major issue is he owes a thug from back home a hefty sum of money after losing a battle he thinks was fixed. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the bad guy and his cronies will be coming after him. Rap fans will recognize the bad guy is played by artist David Banner. Chance’s other issue is that even though he seems rather happy with his current girlfriend, his ex-girl that he can’t stand has come sniffing around for a roll in the hay and possibly more. Oh, there is one other thing. This is a dance movie, lest we forget. That means the Thetas are also busily preparing for the National Step Competition in which they hope to beat their arch rival fraternity, the Gammas. Yes, just like DJ was in part one, Chance isn’t so thrilled with the routine his frat brother have come up with. From there, we simply paint by numbers until our generic picture is complete.

None of this matters. Like action-flick fans looking for explosions and car chases, dance movie fans are in it for the dancing, or stepping, in this case. The stepping is a bit subpar when compared with the original movie. Budgetary constraints seem to leave it a step behind, if you will. Still, there are a few creative sequences. You get what you come for. If you’re looking for anything more, pick another movie.

MY SCORE: 3/10

Thursday, April 21, 2011


Directed by Nathan Greno and Byron Howard.
2010. Rated PG, 100 minutes.
Mandy Moore
Zachary Levi
Donna Murphy
Ron Perlman
M. C. Gainey
Jeffrey Tambor
Brad Garrett
Richard Kiel

Once upon a time, there lived a girl at the very top of a very tall tower, controlled by a very evil woman and a very handsome man comes to rescue her. In a post-Shrek world, you’d think Disney wouldn’t be so lazy as to go with that exact setup. Yet, here we have Tangled. It’s the latest version of the classic fairy tale “Rapunzel.” She (Moore), of course, is the girl in the tower. The evil woman is Mother Gothel (Murphy) who kidnapped Rapunzel from her parents, the king and queen, when Rapunzel was just a baby. She does so because the girl’s impossibly long hair has special powers, providing the old lady with everlasting youth among them. Flynn Rider (Levi) is the handsome man. He gets into the tower by accident, but his role is pretty clearly defined. He is to rescue Rapunzel and make sure she lives happily ever after.

There is nothing else here, narratively. Everything simply plays out as it must. What it lacks in creative storytelling, it makes up for in comedy, action and modern sounding dialogue. It mostly works. It’s funny and in some spots, exciting. The style of dialogue and the musical numbers make it easier for its target audience to relate. For them, it’s exactly what they expected and what they wanted. For them, it’s as golden as Rapunzel’s hair. For the rest of us, it’s a fairly enjoyable time-passer. Tangled doesn’t really do anything wrong. It just doesn’t do anything original.

MY SCORE: 6.5/10

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Fighter

Directed by David O. Russell.
2010. Rated R, 115 minutes.
Mark Wahlberg
Christian Bale
Amy Adams
Melissa Leo
Mickey O’Keefe
Jack McGee
Melissa McMeekin
Bianca Hunter
Frank Renzulli

Micky Ward (Wahlberg) has lost his last three fights and is at a crossroads in his professional boxing career. He is trained by his brother Dicky (Bale). Dicky is a local legend, having been a former fighter himself. He’s quick to tell anyone within earshot that he once knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard (who has a brief cameo as himself). Dicky is also extremely unreliable due to his addiction to crack. His pro career combined with his drug habit have brought him to the attention of cable network HBO. They have a camera following him around. He tells everyone they are making a documentary about his comeback, though he doesn’t seem to be working towards one. He is the center of attention, just the way he likes it. However, his demons threaten to sabotage his brother’s career.

Micky’s mom, Alice (Leo) also serves as his manager. She’s well meaning but not the best at either job. She’s often preoccupied with Dicky’s misadventures. With everyone except Dicky, she’s a domineering matriarch ruling her clan with an iron fist. In Dicky’s case, she’s a pushover. The entire family is this towards Dicky. This includes a litter of sisters. Micky’s dream of being a champion is in their hands.

The family dynamic plays itself on a loop in Micky’s life. He’s at the gym, ready to work, but his brother is nowhere to be found until hours after they were supposed to have started training. Alice gets him bad fights with little or no strategy for actually building his career. Micky’s father George (McGee) tries to be the voice of reason. He clearly sees that what’s going on isn’t benefiting his boy. Unfortunately, he’s always shouted down by Alice. Eventually, Micky has to fend for himself. More accurately, he has to have better people fend for him. When this starts to happen is when the family suspects there is a problem. How dare he go outside their numbers for support without him?

We watch this drama unfold in a fashion that feels excruciatingly real. This is where the power of The Fighter lies. We’re either a part of, or have known families exactly like this. If we’re a part of such a family, our empathy for Micky is boundless. If we’ve only know families like this, he has out sympathy. We wish we could save him. We root hard for Charlene (Adams) because she is obviously trying to do just that. We cheer her every action during her run-ins with Alice and the sisters.

Carrying out such a display of not always humane humanity requires great acting. This movie has it in spades. Much has been made of Christian Bale’s work as Dicky. It’s well deserved, he’s magnificent. However, it’s the battle of wills between Alice and Charlene that drives the movie. Leo and Adams each play their roles with undeniable conviction. Every rolling of the eyes, raising of the voice, expressing of concerns, swilling of a shot and puffing of a cigarette rings true. More than becoming familiar with them, we really know them. We know that they both feel they are right beyond a shadow of a doubt. In the lead, Wahlberg gives a perfectly subtle performance. When he finally explodes emotionally, it’s not some overly showy display of acting. It’s completely within the realm of how we think he would behave.

For the uninformed, this is based on a true story. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying there is an eventual triumph. In this way, it’s much like hundreds of other sports movies. Rocky leaps to mind, for obvious reasons. So too, does Invincible, another Wahlberg flick and The Blind Side. They’re both football movies based on true stories. Those two are built one cliché after another until the inevitable feel-good finale. Invincible is more or less average in every way. The Blind Side has the benefit of a remarkable performance by Sandra Bullock. They both feel like a Hollywood version of what really happened, smoothed over and watered down. The Fighter utilizes many of the same conventions. Somehow though, it makes them feel much more real.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Tron Legacy

Directed by Joseph Kosinski.
2010. Rated PG, 126 minutes.
Jeff Bridges
Garrett Hedlund
Olivia Wilde
Bruce Boxleitner
Michael Sheen
James Frain
Beau Garrett
Anis Cheufra

Kevin Flynn (Bridges) disappeared in 1989 and has been presumed dead ever since. In news flashes from that era, we learn that he put technology company Encom on the map and was working on the biggest, bestest thing ever when he vanished. This follows the events of the original Tron, a goofy but groundbreaking 1982 movie that didn’t do as well as anticipated at the box-office but has since developed a huge following. It’s following is huge enough Disney thought there was money in giving us a sequel almost thirty years later. In the original, Kevin accidentally finds a way to physically get inside the inner most workings of a computer. Once there, he finds programs to be like a group of very angry people. It’s like everyone’s hemorrhoids all flared up at once, or something. A few of the less angry folks became the good guys. So, of course, there were villains and Kevin had himself a grand adventure. It was so grand, he began to feel that the answers to all of mankind’s problems were in this world. I told you he was working on the bestest thing ever, right?

Mr. Flynn left behind a very young son who had already lost his mother. His name is Sam (Hedlund). Fast forward to the present. As you can imagine, growing up without either of his parents has left him with some issues. By the way, he was taken care of by his grandparents until they died a few years later. Of course they did, they looked to be in their early to mid thousands when they got him. Basically, what all this means is that Sam likes sabotaging Encom’s best laid plans even though he’s the biggest shareholder in the company. After his latest stunt, his dad’s old buddy tells him that someone paged him from Kevin’s old office from a number that’s been disconnected for over twenty years. Yes, I said someone paged him. For you young’uns who don’t know what a pager is, it’s a miniature version of that giant thing they give you at restaraunts when the waiting list is ridiculous. Only when someone dialed the number to your personal pager, you then broke your neck trying to get to the nearest phone and call them back. If you weren’t at home or work that actually meant resorting to finding a pay phone since most of us didn’t have phones in our pocket. Pay phone? Do they even have those anymore? Do doctors even use pagers nowadays? I dunno. Let’s move on.

Sam goes to check out dad’s old digs. Whaddya know? It’s the arcade from the first movie, only it is now abandoned and has been sitting there for two decades. Nothing has been touched, except for tarps being thrown over everything. Other than some dust, it’s all in tact. Even the electricity still works. Kevin must’ve wrote the power company a massive check before he got missing. Anyhoo, Sam wanders around, finds the secret passageway leading to pop’s still functioning computer. After a few tries, he guesses the old man’s password and voila! He’s actually inside the computer on “the grid.” I hate when that happens.

Well, programs are still angry so as soon as he gets there, Sam is dropped into some gladiator type games. He survives and is taken to his father. Not so fast, my friend. He’s actually taken to Clu, the program his father made in his own image. Yes, there are lots of allusions to Christianity. Imagine a movie that examines religion, includes a guy with a God complex and pumped full of special fx. Wait a sec. How did you know I was thinking of The Matrix or Superman Returns, or Tron, or…n-n-nevermind. I want to get through this. Eventually, Sam is taken to his real father, often referred to as “The Creator.” See? Since Clu is the fallen angel type trying to take over things Kevin, Sam and Quorra (Wilde) trying to escape through the portal ensues. I haven’t mentioned Quorra, yet? She’s the sexy program that hangs around “The Creator” and does his dirty work. You see, Kevin is much more New Testament benevolence than Old Testament wrath so he prefers to avoid all the conflict. Besides, she not only completes the trinity, she reminds us a lot of Trinity, too. Yup, I’m referencing The Matrix again. The movie does this a lot, as well.

The rest of the film falls into many of the same traps as the original. The visuals are fascinating, often stunning and sufficiently drive the action sequences. Those action scenes can be lots of fun, especially the ones involving the light-cycles and later light-planes. What’s between those scenes is convoluted to the point of incoherence. It’s logic is often faulty and some things aren’t nearly transparent enough. For instance, it comes to light that Clu wants to take over the real world by escaping through the portal himself. Huh? Someone please explain how this works. When my pc repair guy pulls out a motherboard does he risk being attacked? To make matters worse, Legacy takes itself way too seriously. There’s no humor, the score is ominous and the landscape is bleak. By the way, I had no idea the inside of my computer looked like a post-apocalyptic wasteland somehow filled with neon lights. The overwhelming silliness doesn’t match the tone. The original does offer some humor, realizing its own inherent absurdity. Seriousness works in something like The Dark Knight, which actually did have lots of humor, because despite it being about a guy dressed as a giant bat fighting a psychotic clown, its world resembles our own. The world of Tron Legacy does not. This world is a mashup of a number of other sci-fi flicks through the years including its predecessor.

At long last, I’ve finally come to the end of this review but do so with much consternation. I’ve been clueless about what’s really going on with every keystroke I make. Wars may have been fought because I backspaced over characters I didn’t mean to type. My Microsoft Word may be mounting a revolt right now. I work it like a slave. Finally, my heart is heavy. I deleted a program this morning. Did it die peacefully in its sleep? Or did I unknowingly send my system’s stormtroopers to perform a violent killing?

Sunday, April 17, 2011


Directed by Steven Lisberger.
1982. Rated PG, 96 minutes.
Jeff Bridges
Bruce Boxleitner
David Warner
Cindy Morgan
Bernard Hughes
Dan Shor
Peter Jurasik
Tony Stephano

Kevin Flynn (Bridges) tries to hack into his former employer’s network to find proof he created the company’s biggest selling video games. In the process, he is literally sucked into the system and has to fight his way out. It’s an odd watch due to a meandering plot and dialogue convoluted with pseudo-techno jargon. The actors are indeed afterthoughts to the special fx. All the bad guys simply keep a stern look on their faces while the good guys use an expression that says either “gee willikers,” or “holy moly.” Even future Oscar-winner Jeff Bridges just looks wide-eyed and goofy most of the time. It’s just another movie in which computers try to take over the world. Ironically, it crumbles under the weight of showing off its own technology.

Still, it’s the technology that makes Tron an essential movie. By today’s standards it looks primitive and can be outdone by any teenager with a desktop at home. However, it represents the cutting edge of its day. This is the first movie by a major studio to extensively use cgi. Summer blockbusters, as we know them are often traced back to Jaws. They were changed forever by this film. As a result, Tron’s importance far outdistances it’s actual artistic merit.

MY SCORE: 5.5/10

Friday, April 15, 2011

The American

Directed by Anton Corbijn.
2010. Rated R 105 minutes.
George Clooney
Paolo Bonacelli
Violante Placido
Johan Leysen
Irina Björklund
Filippo Timi

Hitman/weaponeer Jack, or Edward (Clooney, the character goes by both), is on the run from “The Swedes” and contemplating a career change. His boss Pavel (Leysen) moves him to a small, remote Italian village while things are either smoothed over, or another job arises. He merely has to lay low and not make any “friends.” Not finding the town to his liking, he actually relocates to another small town. Laying low seems easy, at first. He has serious trouble with not making friends. First, there’s Father Benedetto (Boncelli), who takes a shine to him. Additionally, our hero has cast his own shine upon Clara (Placido), the prostitute he’s getting way too close to. Meanwhile, the next job comes. He’s tasked to build a special weapon for a hit someone else will make.

We spend day after day with Edward, learning his idiosyncracies and understanding his loneliness. Most of all, we feel his paranoia. We don’t mind that he sleeps with a gun. In fact, we’re glad he does. We realize there’s a serious possibility of danger around every corner and in every dark place or hiding behind every obstruction. The movie achieves this mostly through tension, only occasionally resorting to action. Tension sticks with us, appearing in a number of different guises. Sometimes it carries the threat of death, other times it doesn’t. When it does give us action, there are no Bourne style superhuman feats and no extended shootouts where hundreds of rounds are fired. Our action comes in short bursts of violence. If you’re looking for tons of car-chases, fist-fights, gun battles and explosions, look elsewhere. This might bore you to death. In my opinion, the reason this movie doesn’t get its just due is because we were led to believe it was packed full of these things. People went in expecting eye candy and other than Clara’s frequently naked body, they got food for thought. The lack of visual thrills fosters the belief this is a real guy in the real world, albeit a clandestine segment of it, but certainly more real than most other movies based on hitmen.

Another thing that helps us suspend belief is the lack of humor. This is no clever dark comedy like the similarly themed In Bruges. That is a great movie, but its over the top antics make it feel like an artistic interpretation of a bad situation. The American feels like it has been ripped from some poor slug’s life. Clooney is the perfect vessel to channel this guy’s angst. He just looks so worn and antsy, we get the idea that any types of jokes are lost on him. He can only think of what he wants to do next and what may actually happen next. Both scenarios scare the hell out of him.

All of this leads to a finale we sort of know is coming, but hope is not. Even worse for our emotions, its so close to not happening we can’t stand it. What could be teases us with how close it is, yet how far away it must have really been.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Easy A

Directed by Will Gluck.
2010. Rated PG-13, 92 minutes.
Emma Stone
Amanda Bynes
Alyson Michalka
Thomas Haden Church
Lisa Kudrow
Stanley Tucci
Patricia Clarkson
Penn Badgley
Dan Byrd
Malcolm McDowell

Cam Gigandet

Keeping up a lie usually involves telling more lies. One mistruth simply begats the next. For most of us, this continues until the entire house of cards comes tumbling down on our own heads. Olive (Stone) is going through just such a thing.

It all starts innocently enough. She tells her best friend Rhiannon (Michalka) that she’s got a date this weekend when she really doesn’t in order to avoid going camping wither Rhi’s eccentric family. By the time Monday rolls around Rhi wants to know the juicy details of said date. Even though she’s done absolutely nothing at all since leaving school Friday afternoon, she tells Rhi that she lost her virginity to a college guy. Though said in confidence, this happens to be overheard by the wrong set of ears which, of course, share a head with the wrong set of lips. Olive suddenly finds herself to be the most scandalous girl in school. A select few know the tale to be false. However, most of these are boys who help perpetuate the myth, plus create more falsehoods. These guys are in search of changing their own rep and soon they’re lining up to pay Olive for the privilege of saying they slep with her, even though they hadn’t. As you can imagine, Olive soon comes to be viewed as the school whore.

Of course, this all coincides with Olive’s English class reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel “The Scarlet Letter.” She is inspired by the plight of Hester Prynne and embraces her new found notoriety since before she was never talked about at all. She also yearns to piss off Marianne (Bynes), the school’s “Jesus freak.” Olive not only dons progressively sluttier outfits, she adorns them with a giant red “A” just like Prynne was made to wear. Things are going great, until she realizes they really aren’t.

Brazenly, but wisely, Easy A juxtaposes itself with the Hawthorne classic. It even takes the time to note the similarities and differences for us. It goes so far as to defend not only the novel, but the original film version while throwing barbs at the much more recent cinematic attempt starring Demi Moore. The movie gets much mileage from this, even filling in the uninformed on what happens in the book nearly as much as telling its own story. This makes the correlation between the two easily accessible and not just an in-joke to those of us who actually did the reading assignment in school.

The film doesn’t hide from its other major influence, John Hughes movies of the 1980s. Olive blatantly tells us she wishes her life were helmed by the famed director. We also get plenty of references and even short glimpses of those movies. As with “The Scarlett Letter,” this aids our audience, presumably mostly made up of teens and twentysomethings, get the jokes. However, this also highlights the one major flaw I find in Easy A. Our BFFs are too good looking. Part of the charm of movies like Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club is that stars like Molly Ringwald and Ally Sheedy looked and felt like awkward teens relegated to high school’s lower social class, unsure whether they would ever blossom into the beautiful butterflies they so longed to be. It helped they were actually teenagers. Stone did a fine job with the role. She just can’t possibly give off that type of vibe. Her age, she’s 22 may have something to do with it. The natural confidence of someone already past the painful stages is difficult to contain. In addition, Michalka (also 22) as Rhiannon looks anything but the sexually frustrated, unable to get a boy co-ed we’re told she is. Let’s be honest, if she went to almost any high school in America looking the way she does here, she’d be constantly surrounded by an ever-widening swarm of athletes, rich kids, pretty boys and local college underclassmen. Beating them back with a stick might be a literal action for her instead of just a figure of speech.

The looks of the cast aside, I find Easy A funny in enough spots and very smart. It doesn’t often cause out loud laughter, but extracts the grins and soft chuckles that come from being able to relate to what we’re seeing. It may resonate more with females because their reputations are generally touchier topics. Still, I enjoyed it and had no problem becoming vested in the fate of our hero.

MY SCORE: 8/10

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Green Lantern: First Flight

Directed by Lauren Montgomery.
2009. Rated PG-13, 77 minutes.
Christopher Meloni
Victor Garber
Tricia Helfer
Michael Madsen
John Laroquette
Kurtwood Smith
Larry Drake
Olivia d’Abo
Richard McGonagle

An alien crash-lands on Earth. Speaking to the very special ring he’s wearing, he tells it to go forth and find his successor. The ring picks pilot Hal Jordan (Meloni) and brings him to the fallen visitor. Just before the visitor passes away, he informs Hal that he is now a “Green Lantern,” one of the defenders of the universe. He also tells Hall that The Guardians will send for him. By the way, the rings gives him all sorts of powers and allows him to do pretty much whatever he can think of, including flying. The next day, four other Green Lanterns show up and whisk Hal off to another planet so The Guardians can evaluate him.

Hal is thrust into the middle of the investigation of the murder of Abin Sur (McGonagle), the guy that flew all the way to Earth to die. High ranking Lantern Sinestro (Garber) offers to take the earthling under his wing to “see what he’s made of.” Hal discovers Sinestro is a bit aggressive in his interrogations and feels handcuffed by The Guardians, limiting his abilities in cleaning up the universe. Hal is also informed that someone has stolen the precious Yellow Element which is the only thing that can overpower the Green Element that powers the Lanterns.

From there, we get a police procedural trying to ascertain the identity and whereabouts of the thief who’s taken the Yellow Element. It is made abundantly clear that whoever is responsible can, and certainly will try to gain control of the entire universe. With all of that on their collective plate, you can imagine the Lanterns get testy with one another from time to time. In particular, new guy Hal draws the most ire, basically because he’s the new guy.

Green Lantern: First Flight is solidly written and has some entertaining action scenes. Of course, the action really cranks up near the end as our villain and his cause become known. The problem is the movie goes against its own logic in order to achieve the prerequisite happy ending. It’s not a deal-breaker, but questions are easily raised.

Overall, this is a solid entry into the DC canon. It gives us an origin story without dragging us through all the years of Hal Jordan’s life prior to getting the ring. The twist in the investigation is spotted a bit too easily, but still leads us to a fun finale. The lingering question is, will the live-action version starring Ryan Reynolds as our hero be better or worse?

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Other Guys

Directed by Adam McKay.
2010. Rated PG-13, 107 minutes.
Will Ferrell
Mark Wahlberg
Eva Mendes
Steve Coogan
Michael Keaton
Damon Wayans Jr
Rob Riggle
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson
Samuel L. Jackson
Natalie Zea

After the death of the city’s two most heroic cops, Det. Hoitz (Wahlberg) decides it’s time for he and his partner Det. Gamble (Ferrell) to step up and fill the void. The problem is heroism doesn’t come easy for these gents. Hoitz is a hothead, itching to get into some real action while Gamble’s name is pure irony since he’s perfectly content to sit at his desk all day, every day.

The vast majority of people reading this will either love this movie or hate it to no end. In other words, it’s a Will Ferrell comedy. Over the top stupidity is the default mode of humor. Occasionally, something slyly intelligent sneaks onto the screen. If you’re already laughing at the stupid stuff, you’ll howl when something smart happens. If you’re not already laughing, these will be the few occasions you’ll chuckle, just a bit.

Ferrell returns to the familiarity of his best known characters. He’s well meaning and high-spirited, but also a bit neurotic and certainly naïve. Of course, in every buddy cop flick, the buddies have to be polar opposites. Therefore, Wahlberg plays Hoitz as high strung, ready to jump into the fray, but still generally down on himself for some mistakes he’s made. Their contrasting personalities is just the first of the action flick clichés put through the ringer. There are many to be skewered and The Other Guys tries to hit as many of them as possible. My favorite being Gamble’s rant on people coolly strolling away from explosions in the movies.

Knowing that this movie is aware how dumb it is may be the key to enjoying it. If you take it seriously, either as an action flick or a comedy, you’ll be severely disappointed. If taken as a riff on the action-comedy genre then you might have fun with it. Even so, I will grant that some jokes either go on too long or simply fall flat right away. While it’s not one of Ferrell’s best, it definitely has its moments. This movie succeeds in most areas where Kevin Smith’s Cop Out tries and fails miserably. TOG actually works in some areas.

There is one thing TOG takes seriously. Unfortunately, that one thing is product placement. The brand-name dropping and label shots reach distracting proportions. Perhaps worst of all, it often feels like a really long commercial for the Toyota Prius. Everyone in the movie cracks jokes about it, but when push comes to shove, she performs like a champ. I’m still not even thinking about buying one, so there.

In the end, this is a take it or leave it sort of picture. It’s exceedingly dumb, but in enough of the right spots. If you’re a glass half full type and think dumb can work, take it. If you think that dumb is just dumb and should be ignored, leave it. Better yet, how much do you like Will Ferrell?

MY SCORE: 6.5/10

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Paranormal Activity 2

Directed by Tod Williams.
2010. Rated R, 91 minutes.
Sprague Grayden
Brian Boland
Molly Ephraim
Katie Featherston
Vivis Cortez
William Juan Prieto
Jackson Xenia Prieto
Seth Ginsberg
Micah Sloat

Right away, we figure something out in Paranormal Activity 2 that alters our vision of the original. Apparently, while Katie (Featherston) and Micah (Sloat) were dealing with an evil spirit in their home, Katie’s sister Kristi (Grayden) and her family is doing the same. Actually, their ordeal starts first. This sudden revelation makes the first movie feel like something is missing since none of this is ever mentioned. Nevertheless, it all begins shortly after little Hunter (the Prieto twins) is born. Pretty soon, inanimate objects are moving about by themselves and things often go bump in the night. Ever the pragmatic, Kristi’s husband Daniel (Boland) always has an explanation for everything while his wife and daughter Ali (Ephraim) think otherwise.

We’re privy to these happenings through two avenues. First, members of the Rey family are fond of carrying around a camcorder, much like Micah in that first movie. Second, they’ve installed security cameras all over the house after what they think is a break-in. Early on, come home to discover their house has been ransacked. Immediately, they assume it was done by burglars. We know better.

As expected, the severity of the strange occurrences elevates as time passes. The Reys are also often visited by Katie and Micah, periodically. Occasionally, Ali’s boyfriend Brad (Ginsberg) is on hand. The family dog seems to be aware that something is not quite right. Even Hunter appears to have the same feeling.

If you’ve seen the original, you’ll notice there’s a few more people around, plus the dog. Basically, this is the only thing that differentiates the sequel from its predecessor. Many of the scare tactics are recycled. The pacing feels identical and the interaction between the skeptic (Daniel) and the believers (Kristi and Ali) feels the same. While the first felt fresh, particularly in the stagnant haunted house genre, this one feels like a remake.

With that said, it’s not a terrible watch. Adding more people to the mix does give us several points of view, which we didn’t have the first time. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that one of them is a baby. Kids in danger tend to get us emotionally involved easier. We just can’t stand it when our angry Casper includes junior in all the fun.

The other thing that keeps us watching is the potential for another crazy ending. We simply have to see how this thing turns out. This one tries but doesn’t have quite the wow factor of the original. It’s interesting, but only in a way that makes you say “Hmmm…that’s interesting.” It doesn’t make you say “OMG!” In summation, that’s the problem with the whole movie. While it’s an okay movie with a couple frights, it often just feels like more of the same.

MY SCORE: 5.5/10

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Directed by Jon Turteltaub.
2010. Rated PG, 109 minutes.
Nicolas Cage
Jay Baruchel
Alfred Molina
Teresa Palmer
Toby Kebbell
Monica Bellucci
Omar Benson Miller
Alice Krige
James A. Stephens

Way back when, like before David Blaine, there lived a magician…er…sorcerer named Merlin (Stephens). He fought for all things good and had three apprentices. They were Balthazar (Cage), Horvath (Molina) and Veronica (Bellucci). Merlin’s arch enemy was the e-e-evil Morgana (Krige). Somehow, she got Horvath to betray his master and help her do bad things. Of course, the good guy wins, anyway. Morgana gets trapped in a tiny contraption that looks like a miniature weeble-wobble (‘member those?) and Horvath gets trapped in some other thing. Unfortunately, Veronica gets stuck inside the same device with Morgana. Finally, weakened from the battle, Merlin dies. The end.

Sadly, that’s not really the end. Before croaking, Merlin gives Balthazar a ring that looks like a dragon and tells him it will lead him to the Prime Merlinian. The Prime Merlinian is the only person who can actually kill Morgana should she ever escape the weeble-wobble. Fast forward twelve hundred plus years to the year 2000. In true Disney fashion, we quickly surmise that goofy, loner fourth grader Dave (Baruchel) is our hero. A few minutes later, Balthazar finds this out also, pretty much by accident. You see, numbskull Dave wanders off from his class while on a school trip and finds himself caught in the middle of a battle between two wizards after he accidentally lets Horvath out. I hate when that happens. Bada-boom bada-bing, Balthazar gets Horvath back in his cage, but gets trapped there himself. Meanwhile, Dave runs off with the weeble-wobble, throws it in the street and looks like he literally pissed his pants. He’s thoroughly embarrassed in front of the one girl that’s ever smiled at him. The end.

Again, I’m wishfully thinking. Instead, we have to fast forward another ten years to get to the meat of the story. Sadly, it’s the same old meatloaf. You know the routine. That goofy, loner kid is now a goofy, loner college kid. Evidentally, he’s never even been close to getting laid because he’s still pining for the girl from fourth grade who once told him he did something cool. Hey, how did you know it was the same girl that smiled at him? Did you watch this by accident, or something? Oh yeah, I just re-remembered this is a Disney movie. Therefore, no one has ever gotten laid. EVAR! What was I thinking? Anyhoo, Horvath gets out and busies himself trying to find the weeble-wobble so he can bust out Morgana and she can do some really bad things. She’s such a naughty girl. As you might expect, this often involves trying to kill Dave. Thankfully, Balthazar has also gotten out and saves our would-be hero more than once. See, Dave doesn’t know magic. Balthazar has to tutor him as we go along, thus making him…wait for it…wait for it…THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE! Ta-dah!

Okay, fill in the blanks from here. I promise you, the rest of it plays out exactly as you expect. Oh alright, I’ll give you one more morsel just in case you’re slow, or something. Becky, the girl that smiled at Dave and told him he did something cool all the way back in fourth grade suddenly pops back into his life. She happens to attend the college he’s transferred to. That’s enough. Get a pen and a napkin. Go! Yup, it’s just like that.

Don’t get me wrong. As a laser and light show, it functions pretty well. Bolts of electricity, bodies and all manner of cgi manufactured goodness whiz across the screen at a frenetic pace. This may cause seizures but it keeps our eyes busy. Fittingly, Nic Cage gets in on the act. His long locks flow and his trench coat swooshes to remind us how cool it would be if we were sorcerers. Maybe not, but he’s Nic Cage and you just wish you were.

Wait, what did I just say? Nevermind.

Speaking of Mr. Cage, he’s thankfully not as over the top as he normally is. The rest of the movie handles things in that department. Still, his more restrained than usual performance is hardly enough to save the movie. That said, it is what it is. Young viewers will likely enjoy it. Veteran viewers will often roll their eyes, never be surprised, proclaim it stupid and still might be mildly entertained by all the stuff that’s going on. They just won’t think it’s good.

MY SCORE: 4.5/10

Monday, April 4, 2011

Holy Rollers

Directed by Kevin Asch.
2010. Rated R, 89 minutes.
Jesse Eisenberg
Justin Bartha
Danny A. Abeckaser
Ari Gaynor
Jason Fuchs
Mark Ivanir
Elizabeth Marvel
Bern Cohen
Hallie Kate Eisenberg

At twenty, Sam’s (Jesse Eisenberg) life appears to be already mapped out for him. He lives with his parents and leads a fairly strict Hasidic lifestyle. He is studying to become a rabbi and it has been arranged for him to marry a very pretty girl. He also works at the dry-cleaners his father owns. That business puts food on the table, but affords the family no luxuries. Even the necessities are worn and ragged. Particularly problematic is the ancient stove. Turning it on requires a pair of pliers and just the right touch.

Sam dreams of bettering his family’s circumstances. If nothing else, he wants to buy his mom a new stove. This is where Yosef (Bartha) comes in. Yosef lives next door and is the older brother of Sam’s best friend. He is also a drug-runner. He works for Jackie (Abeckaser), an Istraeli born Ecstasy dealer. To help the operation, Yosef dupes straight-laced Hasidics into thinking they’re transporting medicine from Amsterdam into the U.S. for the wealthy. Yosef not only recruits Sam for such a trip, Jackie likes Sam so much he quickly becomes an integral part of this small outfit. He’s also sucked into the fast paced lifestyle and becomes an outcast amongst his friends and family.

This is based on a true story. It is interesting and efficiently told. Aside from the fact we’re dealing with Hasidic Jews, there’s not much that’s unique about Holy Rollers. It also lacks the storytelling acumen of movies it’s so clearly influenced by like Scarface and Blow. Though their tales were familiar, even when we first saw them, their sweeping narratives stick with us. Though HR takes its cues from those others, it never really strives to be the type of epic they are. Instead, it moves rapidly through its story, sure not to overstay its welcome.

However, I did say it is efficient. Despite clocking in at a hair shy of 90 minutes, it hits all the spots it has to in order to keep us vested in what happens to Sam. Everything needed to give us a solid crime drama is present. It’s just that not much of it is explored enough to make HR stand out. Part of the problem is that Sam isn’t a dynamic enough personality. Yes, we see that he has dreams and aspirations and the things he’s willing to do to achieve them. Still, he’s little more than a reflection of whoever he happens to be around at the time. Perhaps most troubling, we see how his religion reacts to his indiscretions, but never really find out if there is a real struggle within him. We don’t know if he’s having knee-jerk reactions or really turning his back on his faith. It’s an aspect that could’ve helped the movie by allowing us to participate a little more.

Regardless of its issues, HR is a solid watch. The acting is top notch. In spite of what it leaves out, it never feels like it is rushing through what it has. It makes its way from beginning to end in a manner worthy of your perusal. It just doesn’t quite live up to its potential.

MY SCORE: 6/10

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Last Exorcism

Directed by Daniel Stamm.
2010. Rated PG-13, 87 minutes.
Patrick Fabian
Ashley Bell
Iris Bahr
Louis Herthum
Caleb Landry Jones
Tony Bentley
Logan Craig Reid
Shanna Forrestall

Cotton Marcus (Fabian) has been preaching ever since he can remember. As a very young boy, his father not only had him in the pulpit, but delivering fire and brimstone laced sermons. Before he had even hit puberty, Cotton graduated to performing exorcisms. He’s now highly sought after for his ability to dispatch demons. He’s also a fraud. He has become disenfranchised with the church and not completely sure he even believes in God. He wants to expose the entire industry of exorcising demons as all fakery and showmanship. To do so, he’s making a documentary not only explaining this, but actually filming the last exorcism he will perform. Yes, this falls squarely into the young, but rapidly growing horror sub-genre of “found footage” movies. Though this is the rare one that doesn’t tell you this up front, you can still guess how it ends for Cotton and his crew. If you’re stuck, think Shakespearean tragedy. If you’re still stuck, read a couple Shakespearean tragedies.

Despite having a pretty good idea how it finishes, these movies can work if the journey to that finale is a good one. The Last Exorcism builds nicely and gives su some tense moments. All of which involve 16 year old Nell (Bell) whom, along with her father, believes she is possessed by the Devil. Her brother Caleb (Jones) has a different take on the situation. We in the audience are led to believe she is, but there may be something to what Caleb thinks. Will Cotton and company figure this whole thing out? What will happen when they do?

Their next move is often a hotly debated topic amongst our would-be filmmakers. It’s what propels the movie. We already know what we think of Nell. Our interest in in how our heroes will react. We’re also interested in what they think is happening. A wide array of speculative statements are made wheny they repeatedly try to come up with a gameplan to deal with their ever-changing situation.

All of this works well enough. Most of us aren’t scared because not only have there been lots of exorcism movies for us to learn from, but this one is fairly obvious in its machinations. Still, we’re intrigued. We wonder how all of this will affect Cotton’s faith. Will he find a logical, human explanation or will he run back to church, apologize to the Lord and beg forgiveness?

There is a big problem with The Last Exorcism. It can be traced back to what type of movie it is. The genre dictates an abrupt ending. That happens here, but only after a revelation we need to know more about. Literally, two minutes after we see something that makes us want to see lots more, the credits are rolling. This works fine in Cloverfield and more recently Paranormal Activity. It doesn’t quite fit, here. In this case, it feels like the most interesting parts of the movie are purposely excluded.

MY SCORE: 5.5/10