Wednesday, June 29, 2011

How to Be a Serial Killer

Directed by Luke Ricci.
2009. Rated R, 88 minutes.
Dameon Clarke
Matthew Gray Gubler
Laura Regan
George Wyner

Mike Wilson (Clarke) is a serial killer and proud of it. So much so, he doesn’t mind sharing his knowledge of the ins and outs of recreational murder. While perusing the aisles at the local video store he meets Bart (Gubler) who works there. When he sees Bart getting berated by a customer, Mike decides to help out the best way he knows. A short while later, the rude patron is dead and Mike takes Bart on as his protégé.

Bart asks tons of questions while tagging along on Mike’s excursions and Mike is only too happy to share. He answers his trainee’s inquiries in two ways. The first is simply him answering in the most obvious way: face to face. The other way is more geared towards us, the viewers. To this end, the movie is broken up into 10 lessons. Each lesson is given by Mike standing on a stage. Stylistically, this is a straight rip from Bronson, another movie about a career criminal. However, just like it does there, it works. After his little spiel, we switch back to “the real world”.

Speaking of “The Real World,” we’ve arrived at my chief gripe with this movie. Ever since that show first became a hit on MTV roughly two decades ago television, particularly reality TV has been littered with people speaking directly to the camera about their feelings on what we’ve just seen or what we are about to see. How to Be a Serial Killer utilizes this tactic, as well. It’s a tired gimmick that only serves to repeatedly stop the flow of what is otherwise a morbidly enjoyable dark comedy.

Thankfully, through it all we have the gleefully insane performance of Dameon Clarke in the lead role. His character is not one we should like, but has a personality we’re drawn to. Clarke balances this very nicely. Of course, since it looks like the whold movie was made for roughly five bucks and very few of us know anyone who’s even heard of it, his work has gone completely unnoticed. As Bart, Gubler holds his own and has managed bigger and better things in his career (he plays on TV’s “Criminal Minds”). The two of them, plus the Herculean effort their characters put forth to keep all this a secret from Mike’s girlfriend Abigail (Regan) keeps us intrigued. The movie has its shortcomings, but it’s still low-budget, twisted fun.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Little Fockers

Directed by Paul Weitz.
2010. Rated PG-13, 98 minutes.
Ben Stiller
Robert De Niro
Teri Polo
Owen Wilson
Dustin Hoffman
Barbara Streisand
Jessica Alba
Blythe Danner
Laura Dern
Kevin Hart
Daisy Tahan
Colin Baiocchi
Thomas McCarthy

We all know someone like this. He’s normally a nice guy. You like him, well enough. One day, he tells a hilarious story. It’s literally a knee-slapper, might be the funniest thing you’ve ever heard. This is Meet the Parents. A few months go past and he tells the story again. This time he adds some details he left out the first time, giving it just enough twist to get you cracking up all over again. This is Meet the Fockers. After a few more months, he pulls out that story again. He tries switching it up a bit, but you quickly realize its just the same story and it is no longer funny. To make matters worse it’s now his “go to.” Anytime there’s a break in the conversation he starts up with it. That, my friends, is Little Fockers.

With the passage of time, our tale has a few inevitable wrinkles. Gaylord Focker, AKA Greg (Stiller) and his wife Pam (Polo) now have a set of twins about turn five years old. He’s now head nurse at the hospital. His mom Roz (Streisand) now hosts a talk show where she gives sex advice. His dad Bernie (Hoffman) is feeling neglected and is off in Spain learning to dance the Flamingo. Pam’s mom is feeling much the same way, sort of. She really just wants to get laid more often. That’s the job of Jack (De Niro), self-proclaimed protector of the Byrnes family name.

At first, things seem great with Greg firmly entrenched in the circle of trust. Shortly, Jack suspects Greg as having an affair and we’re back to square one. Jack mercilessly trying to find out the truth while Greg gets bent out of shape ensues. By that, I mean anything involving these two guys consists larely of recycling the jokes of the first two movies. By the way, the person Jack thinks Greg is sleeping with is pharmaceutical rep Andy Garcia played by sometimes “it” girl Jessica Alba. Immediately upon meeting her, we realize she is very purposely named after the male actor of the same name. We figure this out because they run that joke into the ground within about two minutes of her first showing up. Did he sign off on this?

Another recycled element is Kevin (Wilson) and his obsession with Pam. He’s actually planning to marry someone else. When that doesn’t work out, he pops by the Focker household to make Greg all sorts of uncomfortable, especially since Jack is rather fond of Kevin. Finally, we have the actual little Fockers. Despite the movie being named after them, they hardly figure in the proceedings. They are Samantha (Tahan) and Henry (Baiocchi). She refuses to talk to her dad because she’s just like Jack. Henry is basically a prop that constantly sees, hears or says things he shouldn’t.

The time when the movie focuses on something besides the infamous circle of trust, it is at its best. This is not nearly enough. Much more could’ve been done with the marriages of both sets of in-laws, including Jack’s health. More could also have been done with the children and their relationship with their grandparents. Instead, we heaping doses of Jack efforting to catch Greg in a lie, again, along with the prerequisite cheap body and/or sex humor. It’s just more and more of the same thing we’ve already had two helpings of, but it’s less than half as filling as it was before.

MY SCORE: 4/10

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Directed by Michael Apted.
2010. Rated PG, 113 minutes.
Georgie Henley
Skandar Keynes
Ben Barnes
Will Poulter
Tilda Swinton
Gary Sweet
Terry Norris
Bruce Spence
Bille Brown
Laura Brent

Simon Pegg

Edmund (Keynes) and Lucy (Henley) are back for a third adventure in Narnia. Even though I stopped caring about halfway through their second, so am I. What’d you say? There are two other kids that were involved in those first two tales? Apparently, they’re getting too old for talking lions and saving mythical worlds. As penance, they’ve been shipped off to where all of us unimaginative slobs go: America. If you miss them that much, we do get to see them from time to time, briefly. The older sister is even of minor consequence. Well, not her exactly but how she looks. Am I rambling? This movie does the same, giving it a very At World’s End kind of feel. That movie being from another franchise burdened with intolerably long titles: The Pirates of the Caribbean. Reminding one of that installment of the franchise isn’t a good thing. With that in mind, I’ll give it my best shot.

We find our two young heroes now living with an uncle who’s face we never see. That’s because the only shots of him are of him hiding behind the newspaper he’s reading. This is fitting because like all regular world adults in this series, he’s completely irrelevant. The important thing is that they can’t stand their cousin Eustace (Poulter) and the feeling is mutual. Lo and behold, during a gripe session between the three, the water in the painting on the wall starts moving, pours from the canvas, fills up an entire bedroom and miraculously drops the trio into the middle of an ocean on Narnia. Wouldn’t you know it? They’re right in the path of a giant ship helmed by none other than Prince Caspian (Barnes). Technically, he doesn’t helm the ship, there is a captain. However, that guy pretty much gets told to ‘shut up and know your role’ whenever he dares attempting to impart some of his wisdom. Well, not in those words. That’s just what it sounded like to me. Anyhoo, Caspian tells our heroes that world peace has been achieved on Narnia. Since they’re accustomed to being called upon only when there is trouble afoot, the kids have no idea why they’re here. Eventually, the find out that some neon green mist that must have escaped from an eighties hair band concert periodically shows up and snatches up small boats full of people. Somehow, it’s decided that the only way to stop this is to gather up the seven mostest specialest swords in all the land and arrange them all together in cute little design. Before we actually get to that point, lots of stuff happens.By stuff, I mean a barely coherent string of events that hope they’re exciting because so much is going on.

Lots of things come up and go unresolved in favor of an action scene and moving on to the next “thrilling” event. Like the aforementioned At World’s End, it keeps flinging things at the screen until it becomes convoluted. It also doesn’t always follow its own rules. For instance, a particular bracelet seems to have killed the person its found on, but does something far different to Eustace. Other things just keep happening. Even a light saber fight suddenly breaks out. It all gets to be a bit of a mess.

For all its lack of focus, this is never a boring movie. Nonsensical? Sure. Boring? No. It consistently gives us interesting visuals. Of course, there’s all that swashbuckling going on. And most of the characters are just dumb enough to keep things interesting. So, in the end you find time has gone by quickly. Thankfully. As for what exactly happened during that period, you might not be entirely sure.

MY SCORE: 5.5/10

Friday, June 17, 2011

Gnomeo & Juliet

Directed Kelly Asbury.
2011. Rated G, 84 minutes.
James McAvoy
Emily Blunt
Michael Caine
Ashley Jensen
Jason Statham
Matt Lucas
Jim Cummings
Maggie Smith
Ozzie Osbourne
Patrick Stewart
Hulk Hogan

Plenty of movies rehash tired formulas, try to inject new life into them and pretend to be extracted purely from the filmmakers imagination. Gnomeo & Juliet does loads of rehashing, but holds no false pretenses about its originality. It recognizes that it is merely a copy of not only the original, but of the countless copies that have come before. It even tells us this right at the beginning. In case the title isn’t obvious enough, the original is William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Indeed, our seldom seen human characters are named the Montagues and Capulets. They live next door to one another. Cleverly, their addresses are 2B and Not 2B. Nevermind that this references an entirely different play. It’s funny if you understand it. Even the bard himself makes an appearance in the guise of a statue voiced by Patrick Stewart.

Our focus, however, is on the garden gnomes that live in the yards of our fueding homeowners. In a very Toy Story type of way, the gnomes spring to life when the humans aren’t looking. Like the humans, the two groups are constantly bickering and competing. Often, things get rather ugly. True to the Shakespeare classic, a guy from one side, Gnomeo (McAvoy), meets and immediately falls madly in love with a girl from the other side, Juliet (Blunt). Lots of property damage ensues.

The movie’s humor is spotty. There are lots of jokes my children didn’t laugh at, even a little. At others, they did so loudly.That is, at the jokes meant for them. The ones meant for us parents aren’t so much jokes as they are a stream of references to films we’re familiar with. Some of them work marvelously, many fall flat. This is a big problem with G & J. It just keeps referencing or copying other movies in hopes these will be funny. This is why we can indentify shots stolen from The Matrix and dialogue from Brokeback Mountain without necessarily getting a charge from either. For the kids, these are just meaningless moments that quickly pass.

Where the battle lines are drawn and the resulting violence is troublesome. I’m no puritan calling for the complete sanitization of cinema. I’ve watched and enjoyed plenty of movies, a number of them kiddie flicks. Here, it feels too much like something else we’ve become all too aware of. Gnomeo is a blue gnome while Juliet is a red. The two sides breaking into all out war whenever someone from one side is in the other side’s yard is awfully reminiscent of the real life gang problem. I wouldn’t mind if there were some point to it. There is not. It could also be construed as misleading because one character is presumably killed and comes back only for the sake of not having a death in a kids’ movie. Again, this is coming from someone who loves old school Looney Toons. However, the leap to reality is a lot further for a coyote and a road runner than it is for a group of reds and blues wailing on each other at every opportunity.

There are good parts to G & J. As I said earlier, there are moments that are just flat out funny. There are others that are creative, despite the seemingly constant nods to other, better movies. Still, it seems to be enough to satisfy its target audience. They’ll probably like it, not love it. You may like it, you may not. It’s fast-paced, loud, sometimes funny and occasionally cute. Meh.

MY SCORE: 5.5/10

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Winter's Bone

Directed by Debra Granik.
2010. Rated R, 100 minutes.
Jennifer Lawrence
John Hawkes
Dale Dickey
Isaiah Stone
Ashlee Thompson
Valerie Richards
Shelley Waggener
Garret Dillahunt
Ronnie Hall

At age seventeen, the weight of the world is already on Ree’s (Lawrence) shoulders. She has to take care of her two younger siblings. Her mom is catatonic, having been driven mad by Jessup, her husband and the father to her children. He, of course, is nowhere to be found. He also happens to be a known cooker of crystal meth. The local lawman stops by the house and informs Ree that Jessup has a court date coming up next week. If he doesn’t show, Ree and the family will lose their home since it was put up as collateral for his bond. She then decides to try and find him in hopes of getting him in front of the judge on time. To do so she has to go all over town, including some scary places and ask questions of some very scary people.

The first place Ree goes is to her uncle Teardrop’s (Hawkes) house. How he got that name is never explained and frankly isn’t important. What is important is that we understand he probably didn’t get it by doing something nice. He’a a tough, grimy type with a reputation that suggests he’s not to be fooled with. When he speaks, you get the unmistakable sense he means what he says. For better or worse, his wife understands this. She promptly backs off her efforts to get him to help Ree after he tells her “I’ve told you to shut up once, with my mouth.” John Hawkes plays the role perfectly, with a quiet power and barely beneath the surface insanity that makes everyone else uncomfortable. He looks every bit like Sam Elliott, only somehow more frayed around the edges and without the smirk. Teardrop is all business.

The next person Ree encounters is perhaps even more frightening than Teardrop. She runs into Merab (Dickey). She’s the wife of Thump (Hall), the local crystal meth kingpin. He sends her out to deal with Ree. Merab tries to be friendly and reason with Ree that this issue should be dropped. When that doesn’t work, things turn ugly. They get uglier when Merab’s sisters are added to the mix. Dickey’s performance is award-worthy. There’s not a moment we don’t believe her. There are plenty of times when she’s unsettling. Part of it is because it seems no matter what the situation, she has no fear and is completely matter of fact about everything. We don’t like her. She’s too strong for us.

Ree has to work with and through these people and several others to complete her mission. Completion comes in a most strange way in a wonderfully horrific scene. To her credit, the young Jennifer Lawrence holds her own in the role, and then some, even against the two powerhouse performances described above. Her portrayal requires more emotional ups, downs and outbursts than anyone else in the film. She handles them all quite well. She appears to have a very bright future. Lawrence, and the rest of the cast is helped along by some brilliant dialogue. It is a terrific blend of colloquialisms and menacing statements that build all sorts of tension. The film is shot in a perfectly bleak manner reminiscent of The Road. This has a similar feel of hopelessness. That feeling also comes through the music. Mostly sang by Marideth Sisco, who appears in one scene, its sadness about the futility of the singer’s efforts mirrors Ree in a manner we can’t deny. We hear it. We feel it. This is an excellent movie experience that is as much about the language we hear and the music we feel as it is about what we see.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Killing Cabos

Directed by Alejandro Lozano.
2004. Rated R, 103 minutes.
Tony Dalton
Pedro Armendáriz Jr.
Ana Claudia Talancón
Raúl Méndez
Joaquín Cosio
Gustavo Sánchez Parra
Rocío Verdejo
Silverio Palacios
Jacqueline Voltaire

“Did you ever hear the one about the Chinese cook?” This question sets the circular plot of Killing Cabos into motion. Cabos (Armendáriz Jr.) is none other than Oscar Cabos, the local crime boss who apparently runs everything both legal and illegal and everyone is afraid of him. How is it that this most rich and powerful of men has come to be unconscious in a bathroom stall? The answer to that lies with the fellas occupying the next two stalls, Jaque (Dalton) and Mudo (Kristoff). The day before, Cabos caught his daughter in the midst of a romantic interlude with Jaque, who managed to escape with his life. He also works for Cabos in some unexplained capacity. So of course, Cabos calls him into his office with some malicious intentions. Luckily for Jaque, Cabos slips, falls and knocks himself out. Jaque calls his buddy Mudo to help him move the hefty gangster. What will they do with him? How will they explain it? What about these other two guys plotting to kidnap Cabos? These two have no clue what’s already going on. That’s very important. In fact, we quickly become aware that no one really knows what’s going on.

Instead of answers, each question begets more questions. The plot constantly twists and coils back on itself. Around and around we go. If you’ve seen a Guy Ritchie movie, you get the idea. This movie uses tactic well. We’re kept off-balance, nevere quite sure what’s next. It comes with the prerequisite cast of zany characters. This includes Cabo’s domineering wife, Mudo’s neighbor with the incessantly squawking bird, an ex-pro wrestler and his diminutive but very sharp-toothed bodyguard. It uses them to give us a large dose of humor. It certainly helps that none of the characters are as smart as they think they are. This works, often enough. Some of it is just downright clever.

Overall, this is an enjoyable watch. However, it never quite escapes the shadows of much of Ritchie’s work, never really setting itself apart. Though it pretends to, it doesn’t really have the griminess of the movies it copies. This is most evident in the violence department. There is a couple of brutal scenes, but more often we get WWE style wrestling moves and the really rough stuff happening off-screen. We’re left to rely on the comedy, which is good, not great. That said, it deserves a look. Subtitleophobes beware: we’re speaking English. Oh, what about the Chinese cook? Let’s just say he had the misfortune of making Cabos upset.

MY SCORE: 6.5/10

Monday, June 6, 2011

Bedtime Stories

Directed by Adam Shankman.
2008. Rated PG, 99 minutes.
Adam Sandler
Keri Russell
Guy Pearce
Courtney Cox

Plot: Hotel maintenance man Skeeter (Sandler) babysits his sister's kids for a few days while she's out of town. With their help, he comes up with elaborate bedtime stories which amazingly become reality.

The Good: It's so gosh-darn cute. The kids are cute. The stories are cute. The way they translate into reality is cute. Therefore, our viewing is sprinkled with chuckles and giggles. All of this helps to keep things moving along nicely as the movie bounds from one tale to the next.

The Bad: It's so gosh-darn cute. Since it is, it's not afraid to pile on the cheese. So, in between the giggles and chuckles you might be rolling your eyes a lot. It doesn't help that the plot is a paint-by-numbers job.

The Ugly: The Booger Monster.

Recommendation: This is solid family fare. The stories are inventive, so they hold your attention as the movie bounces merrily along. There's really not much here to offend even the hardcore prudes, but it is predictable. You're willing to forgive all that because, well, it's just so gosh-darn cute.

MY SCORE: 6.5/10

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Sandlot

Directed by David M. Evans.
1993. Rated PG, 101 minutes.
Tom Guiry
Mike Vitar
Patrick Renna
Chauncey Leopardi
Marty York
Brandon Quintin Adams
Grant Gelt
Shane Obedzinski
Victor DiMattia
Denis Leary
Karen Allen
James Earl Jones
Marley Shelton

Scotty (Guiry) has just moved into the neighborhood. He’s a home-body and a geek, for lack of a better word. At his mom’s encouragement, he ventures out into his new stomping grounds. Shortly, he falls in with a local group of boys who spend every day of their summer vacation playing baseball at the sandlot. They are not so receptive to Scotty, at first. Not only does he not know how to play the game, he can’t even throw a ball ten feet. His lack of athleticism also hinders his bonding with Bill (Leary), his stepdad.

Soon enough, Scotty learns to play ball and becomes one of the guys. However, there are other issues to deal with. Bill still hasn’t really warmed up to him, there’s another group of boys who challenge Scotty and friends to a game and he still has to figure out who Babe Ruth is. More important than any of these things, our heroes will have to deal with The Beast, at some point. According to local legend, The Beast is a man-eating, baseball-devouring canine living in the yard just beyond the sandlot. Any homeruns the boys hit land on the dog’s turf, lost forever. They don’t even bother trying to retrieve the balls. They know that all the boys who have dared to venture into that yard have never been seen again.

What unfolds is a fun and funny coming of age story. We come to understand the friendship between the boys and its hierarchy. Within that, they have some hilarious interactions. Unknowingly, they make choices that will define the rest of their lives. We get to experience their best summer ever, along with them. It helps that it’s written in a manner we can relate to whether we’re sports fans, or not. Admittedly, those of us who are, or have been boys who spend most of their free time playing and/or talking sports with our buddies are the target audience. Still, those who don’t fit that profile won’t feel left out.

For all it’s charm and nostalgia, there are flaws. Scotty’s inability to play baseball suddenly disappears after one highlighted play. Stepdad Bill doesn’t seem to like anyone, let alone Scotty. Most problematic is that it often feels like a remake of Stand by Me. It just adds a few more boys and baseball while replacing the quest to see a dead body with a giant dog. Regardless, it is still a fun watch. However, if you’ve seen Stand by Me, you get a “been there, done that” feel.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Baby Mama

Directed by Michael McCullers.
2008. Rated PG-13, 99 minutes.
Tina Fey
Amy Poehler
Sigourney Weaver
Greg Kinnear
Dax Shepard
Romany Malco
Steve Martin

Kate (Fey) hears her biological clock ticking in IMAX quality surround sound. She’s a successful career woman, but at 37, she wants very badly to have a baby. With no man in her life, she tries artificial insemination. After a number of failed attempts she goes through a very special agency that hires Angie (Poehler) to be her surrogate. To say they are different is quite an understatement. Kate is focused and goal-oriented. She’s been steadily climbing the ladder in corporate America. Angie seems to have been, or will be, a guest on “Jerry Springer.” Despite the obvious contrast, Kate is undeterred when she meets Angie and her common-law husband Carl (Shepard).

Their differences between the ladies are supposed to make them a funny pair. It doesn’t. There are moments here and there that are mildly amusing. However, if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen most of them. The ones you haven’t involve Malco as the doorman. Still, there’s only a few of those. He also doubles as Angie’s conscience. Then there’s the running joke about the lady who runs the agency. Played by Sigourney Weaver, the joke is that even though she’s up in age she is pregnant while Kate cannot get that way.

What’s left is the story. Surprisingly, it holds up better than the humor. The twists are effective, throwing the plot in new directions. It adds enough layers to keep things somewhat interesting. Of course, there’s the prerequisite love story. This one is between Kate and Rob (Kinnear). Yes, it includes the expected ups and downs and once a certain thing happens in another part of the story, we can predict what the outcome here will be. Still, all of this is more intriguing than any part of it that tries to make us laugh.

All told, Baby Mama is a light-hearted take on what could be a gravely serious subject. It completely skirts any discussion of ethics, instead using its topic as a springboard for its punchlines. It approaches the class difference between Kate and Angie in the same manner. The movie has its moments, but feels flat in too many places. It isn’t a terrible watch, but it is highly forgettable.