Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Directed by Lorene Scafaria.
2012. Rated PG-13, 101 minutes.
Connie Britton
T.J. Miller
Mark Moses
Nancy Carell

What would you do if you knew for certain the world were going to end in three weeks? That’s the question facing us all in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World as a seventy mile wide asteroid is on a collision course with Earth and all attempts to stop it have failed. More specifically, it’s the question facing Dodge (Carrell). It’s also become exponentially more difficult to answer now that his wife has decided this would be the perfect time to leave him. Everyone around him is truly living each day like it’s the last, engaging in whatever activity their hearts desire while Dodge sits around and mopes. He finds someone to commiserate with in the flighty Penny (Knightley). She’s similarly distraught, having broken up with her boyfriend. Eventually, the two decide to help each other do the one thing they each must before it’s too late. An apocalyptic adventure ensues.

Early on, the movie focuses as much on our decaying societal mores as it does on the lives of our protagonists. Here is where most of its humor lies. The jokes are largely to be expected, generally revolving around people getting all the sex and drugs they could possibly want, but still fun to see play out. There are only two other jokes: the occasional ominous yet loony newscast and the situations Dodge and Penny find themselves in because of the outbreak of riots. The violence, and any humor derived from it, ends when a very odd man takes a bullet to the throat. You’ll have to see for yourself to understand how and why this could possibly be funny. A short while later, the sex and drugs part of the movie climaxes with a trip to a chain restaurant. Unfortunately, we still have half the movie to go.

Immediately upon finishing the very strange dining experience of our heroes, the movie settles into a string of predictable events in an effort to create a romance. Problem number one, again, is that the comedy disappears almost entirely. Instead, we’re stuck in this drama which never surprises us and will have to either deliver the depressing finale we've been trudging toward or, concoct some ridiculous BS for the sake of giving us a happy ending. Problem number two is that we never feel strongly enough about the couple in question to overcome problem number one. Dodge and Penny aren't two people we can see together under any circumstances. Making an exception because people are bound to do things and be with people they normally would not even consider. However, this just makes things seem even more preordained. This, combined with the fact that everything happens so perfectly on schedule, our pulse rate never increases. Our performers give it their all, but their interactions lack the magic needed to make us ignore these blemishes.

All is not terrible for the second half of the film. First, there is a wonderful scene, albeit a bit of a painful one, between Dodge and his dad played by Martin Sheen. It’s the one time we truly sense the emotion of the two people speaking. Second, the final scene is one of endless tenderness. It is by far the most enjoyable exchange between Dodge and Penny. If somehow, you find yourself caring by this point, you might even have to wipe away a tear or two. Odds are, you won’t.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Rust and Bone

Directed by Jacques Audiard.
2012. Rated R, 120 minutes.
Matthias Schoenaerts
Armand Verdure
Corinne Masiero
Bouli Lanners
Jean-Michel Correia
Mourad Frarema
Yannick Choirat

We first meet Ali (Schoenaerts) while he’s traveling to his sister’s house with his five year old son Sam (Verdure) in tow. We quickly realize he’s a hard luck case. Sis is none too pleased to see him, but takes the pair in for Sam’s sake. Soon, he gets a job as a bouncer at a nightclub. While working one night, he meets Stephanie (Cotillard) when he comes to her rescue, even drives her home, after she has a run-in with some jerk. Nothing more happens as she has a boyfriend. The two go their separate ways: Ali back to bouncing, Stephanie back to her job training killer whales at Marine Land. Unfortunately, an out-of-control whale causes all sorts of damage. Stephanie wakes up in the hospital only to discover that both of her legs have been amputated just above the knee. A few months pass, and feeling lonely because her boyfriend has disappeared, she gives Ali a call. From there, the two begin sort of a one-sided romance. It’s not because she’s lost her legs. It’s that Ali is a tough one to pin down.

As with many other movies of its ilk, Rust and Bone is only as good as the chemistry between, and performances by, its two leads. Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard make a believable pair. As simple and off-handed as it sounds, that’s a compliment of the highest order. Schoenaerts’ Ali displays a perfectly cavalier attitude about everything, including his son. This would seem an impediment to true romance because the other person probably wants to be taken seriously. In fact, it is. However, it also enables him look past her condition and treat it as a mere fact of life and not something he has to talk about while obsessing over the difficulties it may cause. Sure, it’s a topic of conversation, but not the deciding factor in how much, or little, he values her as a person.

Early on, Stephanie is simply grateful for Ali’s kindness. As the movie persists, she begins to feel like a real woman again. She remembers how to assert herself, perhaps even better than she did before. She learns to enjoy life, escaping the bottomless abyss of self-pity with a helping hand from Ali. Through her initial leaning on him, she learns independence. Each actor portrays their half of the relationship as genuinely as possible. We fully get why things develop as they do.

Subplots are handled solidly, for the most part. Ali’s ever-changing job status informs whatever it is he has with Stephanie. Chief among his string of occupations is the most illegal one. He soon starts fighting on the streets for money. Strangely, this is the setting in which the two grow closest. As far as his son is concerned we see time and again how much of a struggle it is for him to take care of Sam. Though Sam is clearly a plot device more than anything, a cog in the machine of a love story, he’s still an intriguing part of our tale.

The one thing I take umbridge with is Stephanie’s rehab. Essentially, this is a movie about a woman overcoming serious obstacles to reclaim her sense of self-worth. Dealing with her new physicality is part of this. We see the shame she feels when out in public, or even in private when doing things supposedly “normal” people don’t have to do. Eventually, we see her gain some sort of confidence thanks, in no small part, to a set of prosthetic legs. What we don’t see is any part of the process that doesn’t deal with Ali. It’s understandable that the filmmakers didn’t want to take too much time away from the couple in question, but it feels too easy. One moment, she’s being shown the prosthetics for the very first time. The next, she’s walking around on them amidst a throng of strangers with no qualms about jostling her as if she’s been doing it for years.

Perhaps, I’m being lazy, asking for too many things to be spelled out for me. With that in mind, I have to say that Rust and Bone is still a very enjoyable, if clichéd love story. Aside from our heroine losing her legs, there’s not much here that marks this as a unique movie experience. However, our two stars turn in excellent work. We believe in their relationship and ride the roller coaster with them.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Black Mama, White Mama

Directed by Eddie Romero.
1973. Rated R, 87 minutes.
Margaret Markov
Sid Haig
Lynn Borden
Zaldy Zshornack
Laurie Burton
Eddie Garcia
Alona Alegre
Dindo Fernando
Vic Diaz
Wendy Green
Lotis Key
Alfonso Carvajal

Black Mama, not actually called this in the movie, is played by the incomparable Pam Grier. That’s really all you need to know. Okay, maybe that’s all I need to know. After all, she’s Pam Grier. Any further description is unnecessary. For me. Since you’re not me, and probably not Pam Grier, I’ll indulge you with some of the particulars of this cinematic experience.

We meet Black Mama, and White Mama, on the bus on their way to an all-female prison camp where the two will be inmates. Black Mama is serving time on a possession charge. White Mama, not actually called this and played by a not so bad herself, Margaret Markov, is something of a political prisoner. We’re told she’s a revolutionary. Exactly what kind of revolutionary and what she’s fighting for, I’m not sure. Just suffice it to say it’s the 1970s and revolution is in the air.

The first third of the movie is pure testosterone driven Women-in-Prison fantasy. Mass shower scene? Check. Horseplay between the ladies during said shower scene? Check. All female and horny lesbian prison guards? Check. Horny lesbian guards getting rough with anyone that steps out of line? Check. All of these checks lead to our heroines being locked in “The Oven,” a form of (not exactly) solitary confinement. It’s basically a box barely big enough for the two ladies to stand inside back-to-back. There’s not even enough room for them to wear tops! Why no, nothing so far at all qualifies as gratuitous nudity. I mean, it’s all germane to the plot. Okay, I’m lying. Don’t judge me.

Right after getting out of “The Oven,” the ladies are informed they’re being taken elsewhere because some higher ups want to ask both of them some questions. This means another bus ride, only now, the two are shackled together. White Mama’s revolutionary buddies attack the bus and engage the cops in a shootout, during which the Mamas escape into the woods. From here, we get a rehash of The Defiant Ones, only with more guns, Sid Haig and random boobies all over the place. This. Is. Heaven.

Wait..what? Did I say that out loud? I’ll admit I can occasionally get in a really shallow mood and this movie perfectly fits those times. Then again, I’m not sure if my love for it speaks to my shallowness or my depth. What I mean is Pam Grier touches me in a deep…too much? Sorry. Give me a moment. I’m putting my ‘objective reviewer’ cap back on and adjusting it so that it fits…just…so. There.

Horrible, cringe-inducing dialogue? Check. Both intentional AND unintentional humor? Check. Wooden acting? Check. Excessive cheese, sleaze, and shameless exploitation? Check. Check. Double check.

And it stars Pam Grier. Drool. To hell with that objective nonsense. All of this movie’s sins are hereby forgiven. Henceforth, Black Mama, White Mama shall forever be described by the best, greatest, loveliest, most wonderful, terrific, terrible, worst, most horrible, crappiest, yet still endearing term in the history of moviedom: so bad it’s awesome!

Friday, July 26, 2013

Killer Joe

Directed by William Friedkin.
2012. Rated R, 101 minutes.
Juno Temple
Gina Gershon
Marc Macaulay

Chris (Hirsch) is in trouble. The cocaine he’s supposed to sell has been stolen and he doesn't have the money to pay off his supplier. He suspects his mother, since she’s the only one who knew where it was and her long broken down Cadillac is suddenly running very well. Chris needs the money pretty quickly and he’s just heard about his mom’s fifty thousand dollar life insurance policy of which his little sister Dottie (Temple) is the beneficiary. He fills his dad Ansel (Church), now remarried to Charla (Gershon), and Dottie in on his idea and all are in agreement that it’s a good one. Not wanting to do the deed themselves, they hire Joe Cooper (McConaughey), a Dallas detective who provides such services on the side.

From there, the movie gets into some even more uncomfortable territory. Much of this surrounds Dottie. We’re not quite sure how old she is. She’s not as slow on the uptake as everyone around her thinks, but she’s plenty naïve and easily taken advantage of. When Chris and Ansel can’t pay Joe’s advance, he offers to take Dottie as a retainer. Let’s just say their “dinner date” can be tough to watch. However, that’s the twisted charm of this movie. It delights in parading an entire roster of unlikable people before us and mining the depths to which their souls have sank, if they ever had any in the first place. Dottie stands apart from the crowd, maintaining innocence despite doing things that would normally disqualify a person from being innocent. This is key to the movie’s success because even though we might not readily identify with this woman-child, we sympathize for her and find it difficult to lay blame at her feet. Juno Temple plays the role wonderfully. She fully personifies Dottie in the way this movie needs her to.

Joe is on the opposite end of the spectrum. He’s cold, calculating, and ruthless. The one trait that facilitates all those others is his complete lack of conscience. McConaughey plays it with a scary coolness. He’s always in control of the situation and is more than willing to make sure it plays out in his favor. He might be my favorite villain of 2012. Of course, he doesn't see himself as a villain, but a businessman following through on a transaction, regardless of what actions that calls for.

Besides Temple and McConaughey, the rest of the cast is also great. Thomas Haden Church is perfectly dumb, Gina Gershon is thoroughly skanky (we literally meet her crotch first), and Emile Hirsch nails it as the brightest of a not very smart bunch.

The twists and turns of our plot develop because of people we don’t, or rarely, see. This works because it fosters the notion that these people are not only in this together, but completely alone with one another. Any problems they may face will have to be dealt with on their own. To paraphrase Ansel, and a very old saying, they must lie in the beds they've made. They, and we, know that the cavalry isn't riding in to save the day and ‘happily ever after’ will be an elusive destination. Whatever happens is going to be determined by these few people we've spent all of our time with.

Eventually, things can get to be a bit on the outrageous side. I've already mentioned Joe's “date” with Dottie. Later, the way he utilizes a chicken leg is something I’m fairly certain the Colonel never envisioned. Then we get to that ending. It’s purposely ambiguous and will flat piss some people off. The standard question that lingers is did she, or didn't she? We can argue which for eternity, with evidence to support both sides. For some, this will leave way too much wiggle room. I suspect this makes Killer Joe a love-it or hate-it type of affair. Count me in the love-it camp.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Master

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.
2012. Rated R, 143 minutes.
Joaquin Phoenix
Ambyr Childers
Jesse Plemons
Rami Malek
Madisen Beaty
Lena Endre
Kevin J. O’Connor
Amy Ferguson
Joshua Close
Patty McCormack

Right away we come to understand that Freddie Quell  (Phoenix) is a tad off. After serving in World War II, reintegrating into normal society has been an issue for him. Our natural inclination to sympathize with veterans is tested because we get the sense he wasn't wrapped too tight even before the war. And he’s overly obsessed with two things: getting drunk and getting laid. He manages the former practically every night; the latter, not at all.

One drunken night, Freddie wanders into the circle of Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), AKA The Master to his followers. He’s written a book, teaches cryptic lessons and performs strange rituals to enlighten us all. In effect, he’s started his own religion which many would call a cult. From everything I've read, the guy is based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Makes sense. Anyhoo, he takes a shine to Freddie and begins “processing,” or indoctrinating him into “The Cause.” We spend the rest of the movie watching The Master try to tame this particularly wild beast.

Charges of fraud and other improprieties against Dodd happen from time to time. We also wonder how much control over The Master his wife Peggy (Adams) has. These things are interesting, but neither holds our attention like the battle of wills waged by The Master and Freddie. Therefore, our enjoyment of this film is derived almost entirely from the dynamics between the two men. The only other thing that really perks us up is the same battle of wills Freddie is fighting with himself. If he simply can’t control himself, how does Dodd ever hope to?

Facilitating our intrigue, we get a pair of wonderful performances from Hoffman and Phoenix. Hoffman is perfectly charismatic as the leader of a budding way of thought, no matter how out there it may be. In an exemplary manner, he pulls off his character’s ability to instantly adapt his explanations to most lines of questioning and knack for shouting down anyone not persuaded by his answers. The work Phoenix turns in is flat amazing. From the start, he fully embodies this raging man-child who is understanding of little more than pleasure and pain. In any year in which Daniel Day-Lewis hadn't convinced people he was actually Abraham Lincoln, Phoenix may very well have walked off with the Oscar that he was nominated for.

Unfortunately, deciphering what we’re supposed to take from this movie is no easy task. As it rolls along, it seems to be peeling back Dodd’s many fraudulent layers, but it never follows through in any tangible way. Most notably, Dodd’s own son is presented as a non-believer, but nothing is ever done with this once we learn it. The young man just keeps going along with the program while wearing a pissed off look on his face. It might also be an examination of Freddie’s sanity, or lack thereof. Much of the film at least hints at that idea, while two scenes in particular intently focus on it. Well, maybe. The first includes a party where many of the followers are happily playing music, clapping and dancing while the very drunk Dodd sings a tune. It so happens that all the women are standing around naked. It’s shown as if this may only be Freddie’s perspective on things. However, it’s also followed by a rather strange moment between Dodd and Peggy that suggests otherwise. Later, the rather lengthy “window to the wall” scene shows that poor sap Freddie cracking up while made to walk repeatedly from one end of a room to the other. Then again, it’s more likely this is just to showcase Dodd trying to break him as he attempts on numerous occasions. It’s also entirely possible that, as the ending suggests, this is all about Freddie’s quest to get a woman into bed and just how intricately tied to his happiness the success of this mission is. Therefore, when The Master ends we may be hit by a wave of confusion as we wonder what we just watched. In this case, that’s a good thing. We have much to talk about.

Whatever it is, Paul Thomas Anderson directs it in a manner that makes it difficult to look away from. The shots are beautiful and, as stated, Hoffman and Phoenix command the screen. Many of their scenes together are scintillating. The director brings this out with excellent story-telling skills. Some people will take issue with the story he’s telling, or more specifically, they’ll wonder what the story is about.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Favorite Fourth Films

Recently, I’ve been watching a lot of part fours. Haven’t we all? As a general rule, the fourth movie of a franchise is crap. But they can’t all be terrible, can they? With that question in mind, I decided I was going to make a list of my favorite fourth installments.

Just for the purpose of clarification, read that sentence again. It says fourth installments, meaning the fourth movie to be released. Therefore, even though comments and your ideas on the matter are always welcome, don’t get cute and tell me that the original Star Wars was a part four. I know this. However, it was not the fourth movie released. While filming “A New Hope”, George Lucas and company had no way of knowing that they would even be able to make a second Star Wars movie, let alone enough of them to make that Part IV he slapped on the movie’s opening scroll make sense all these years later.

And the answer to the question you’ll have once you’ve looked over this list is no. I have not seen the fourth Harry Potter movie, or for that matter, any of them at all. I keep telling myself I’m going to take a week or two and go through the whole franchise. I just haven’t gotten around to it yet.

I probably haven’t seen that one, either.

So with a little bit of research to make sure I wasn’t forgetting anything, I decided that these were my favorite fourth movies in the various franchises I’ve had the pleasure, or pain, of sitting through:

10. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
After the abysmal third entry, At World’s End, this follow-up pared down that flicks roughly a thousand story lines, to a much more manageable number. With a lot less traffic to maneuver, we got a return to the fun we had with the first two installments. Of course, this isn't as good as either, but it’s a good time nonetheless. (Click here for the full review)

9. Live Free or Die Hard
I can say with a straight face that this is my most reluctant choice for the entire list. For one thing, I've never considered it a true Die Hard. It looks like DH, has the same protagonist, and a similar plot, but it’s not quite DH. This is Barry Bonds from 2000 to 2003. For non-baseball fans, I’ll explain. Prior to 2000, Barry Bonds was already one of the greatest baseball players of all time. He would've been honored as such whenever he decided to retire. Then in 2000, he started to do things scarcely believable as humanly possible. Of course, this is precisely the period when many believe his use of anabolic steroids bore fruit. While it was happening many people, myself included, cast a skeptical eye on his most recent achievements. Still, there was no denying it was incredibly fun watching him hit ridiculously long home runs, and a ridiculous amount of them. That, my friends, is precisely how I feel about Live Free or Die Hard.

8. Saw IV
By the time most horror franchises get around to a fourth movie, the series barely resembles what started all the fuss in the first place. Our killer, who somehow manages to survive being killed at the end of every movie is usually transformed from a menacing figure giving life to our darkest fears to a stand-up comedian. The kill scenes seem to be Vaudeville inspired blood-baths. Good times are had by all and it’s on to the next sequel. Whatever you think of the Saw movies, the franchise avoided that particular fate. In fact, this installment succeeded in breathing new life into the saga without sacrificing the elements that drew people to it in the first place. If ranking all of the Saw flicks this one should come in nearer to the top than the bottom.

7. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace
What? Don’t look at me that way. I told you the rules on this one right up front. True, I was disappointed with a movie I’d waited quite a few years to see. True, Jar Jar Binks tempted me to track down some pimply-faced theater manager and demand my money back. But, you know what? When it was all said and done I didn't find it to be nearly as terrible as everyone seems to. And I’ll admit that I just love the pod racing scene. If I were simply ranking the Star Wars movies, I’d rank it fifth. However, it’s an incredibly secure fifth because I think Attack of the Clones is one of the worst films ever made.

6. Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter
Hindsight being 20/20, and with the help of another eight movies or so, why any of us Jason fans ever thought this was really “The Final Chapter” is beyond me. Hey, I was a young teen who didn't know any better. When the big movie studios told me it was going to be the last one, I believed them. Then I saw it. And yeah, Jason’s death did seem to be rather definite, at the hands of a young Corey Feldman, no less. Of course, the only thing definite was that this wasn't the last one. Is it a masterpiece? No. It is one of the better movies in the canon, though. Not that that’s saying much. However, as a guy that grew up on Jason flicks, I even own every Friday the 13th movie ever made, I had to find a spot for this one. Either that, or never be allowed to go to Camp Crystal Lake ever again.

5. Rocky IV
AKA Rocky defeats Communism. While certainly nowhere near the best the franchise has to offer, it’s probably the most fun. What could possibly be more fun than Apollo Creed entering the ring while James Brown serenades us all with “Living in America?” Okay, maybe Mr. T pitying the fool who dares step in the ring with him as he predicts “Paaaiiiinnn.” But that’s part 3. In part 4 it’s Apollo, JB and Ivan Drago, who punches with 1850 pounds of pressure per square inch, or something outrageous like that. Unfortunately, it doesn't end so well for Apollo. For the rest of us, though, you’re damn right it does.

4. Rambo
Yes, two in a row for Sly. Truthfully, this probably isn't a “better” movie than some of the ones I've ranked behind it. However, it is unmatched in terms of an unbridled balls to the wall experience. The main character transformed from an actual man to a superhero two movies and twenty-some odd years prior, so we held no preconceived notions that this was going to be the continuation of a great character study. If ever there truly was a “turn your brain off” movie, this is it. It’s bloody, gory, non-stop action literally starting about two minutes in, and it gets out of our hair in not much over an hour.

3. Scream 4
Some of you will applaud this selection. Some of you will wonder what the hell is wrong with me. I think this is a severely underrated movie. While I wouldn't call it great, I found it to be a very good movie, self-aware of it’s own self-awareness, and the changing of tides in the horror genre. Then again, it’s probably sufficient for me to say I’m a sucker for all things Scream, so I’ll leave it at that. (Click here for the full review)

2. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
After seeing M:I-GP, I informed my brother that I've finally seen a Mission: Impossible I liked. Being a fan of the series, he scoffed. I’ll explain. I thought the first movie was unnecessarily convoluted and complicated. I like to think I’m fairly intelligent, but that movie left me completely baffled without entertaining me one bit. Both the second and third movies were the exact opposite, just plain dumb. This movie had the perfect balance of intelligent spy stuff and silly action. For me, it’s clearly the best of the franchise. (Click here for the full review)

1. Lethal Weapon 4
Like M:I-GP, this is the rare fourth installment that it can be argued is the best of its franchise. Unlike Ghost Protocol, or anything else on this list, I'd actually listen to people proclaiming it a legitimately great movie. It maintains the humor and camaraderie from the prior three movies and gives us plenty of action. Much of the action is due to Jet Li, who makes his American debut in spectacular fashion. Here’s how good LW4 is: there are lots of people who are still clamoring for a Part 5.

A quick note on a trio of movies I’ve seen on a number of similar lists that I’ve not included. I know I thought I said everything on this subject in the opening, too. Anyhoo, I feel obligated to mention Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Sudden Impact, and Thunderball by name to clarify why they’re not here. I actually have seen all of them. Unfortunately, I’ve not done so in two decades for any of them. Simply put, I don’t really remember enough about them. Sorry, but such is life. Maybe I’ll get back around to those and re-do this list one day.

Other Part Fours reviewed on this site:

Friday, July 19, 2013

American Reunion

Directed by Jon Hurwitz.
2012. Unrated Version, 114 minutes.
Jason Biggs
Alyson Hannigan
Eugene Levy
Chris Klein
Thomas Ian Nicholas
Eddie Kaye Thomas
Ali Cobrin
Mena Suvari
Tara Reid
Jennifer Coolidge
Natasha Lyonne
Katrina Bowden
Shannon Elizabeth

After two less successful sequels, and way too many straight-to-DVD spin-offs, the gang from the original American Pie is back. Steeped in raunch, fueled by a handful of classic scenes, and coining a term that’s spawned thousands of websites I don’t want my kids knowing about, that film instantly took its place in the pantheon of teen sex romps. This time, it seems the entire school missed their ten-year high school reunion and are getting together for their thirteenth.

Jim (Biggs) and Michelle (Hannigan) are still married and have a little baby boy, but no sex life. Oz (Klein) is a TV host on a sports show and has a free spirited model for a girlfriend. Kevin (Nicholas) is married to someone we don’t know and the movie doesn’t really care about except for the fact that she doesn’t make the trip. Finch (Thomas) is a globe-trotting adventurer who makes his way back to town for the special event. Stifler (Scott) is still Stifler and still living with his mom (Coolidge).

Among the various subplots that spring up, the most prominent involves Jim’s former next door neighbor Kara (Cobrin), whom he used to babysit. She’s turning eighteen this weekend and has the hots for him. You can decide for yourself whether she’s important to the movie because she actually poses a real threat to Jim’s marriage or because she spends a considerable amount of screen-time topless. That’s followed closely by Jim’s dad (Levy) trying to get back into the dating game now that his wife has passed. As for the other guys, old flames show up: Heather (Suvari) for Oz and Vicky (Reid) for Kevin. In all cases, things play out just as expected.

In a nutshell, that things proceed with so little in the way of surprises is this movie’s biggest problem. There’s nothing we don’t see coming, including ninety percent of the gags. A good portion of them are rehashes from the original, or recaps to make sure we remember what happened in that first movie. For instance, we’re shown Jim’s famous video taping scene several times. With so many telegraphed blows thrown, it’s no wonder our funny bone manages to dodge a high volume of them.

Occasionally, there are laughs. Most of them are due to Eugene Levy and that lovable awkwardness he always brings. For me, he is by far the funniest person in the whole series. It seems the movie itself, and really the entire franchise, wants it to be Stifler. I usually put him behind Jim, but I’ll give him second this time. He does give us the one truly unpredictable scene we have. It involves revenge on some young punks and not even his buddies know what he’s up to. Throughout the movie, he behaves so outlandishly as to scarcely seem human, but this forces to laugh on a couple of occasions.

The final act plays out somewhat strangely. I feel I have to reiterate that this has nothing to do with where all the narrative strands end up which is precisely where we thought they would. Nor does it have anything to do with the film using this time to give a cameo to seemingly every person who had a part in the original. That’s also to be expected. In fact, we wonder why they’re all back-logged like they are. What’s odd is it’s handling of these people. A number of them walk onto the screen and immediately announce their sexuality. They stroll over to one of our main characters who recognizes them and asks how they’ve been. They then respond with something like “I’ve been good and, oh, I’m gay now.” Who does this? Let’s forget about the fact that none of these people were gay before and concentrate on how they present themselves. Is the movie trying to be politically correct, or is it making some grand statement in support of gay right? Or, is it making fun of homosexuals? Either of the first two would be preferable to what it feels like which is the latter. If that’s the case, the movie even does a poor job of this. It seems to point a finger at them and laugh simply because they are gay and without having them do anything that could possibly make us laugh. The one possible exception being how uncomfortable Stifler’s Lacrosse buddies make him. Other times it comes across as if it’s a punch-line, but without the rest of the joke. As evidence, whenever a character makes their declaration there’s a pause in the dialogue like a public speaker might employ when they expect applause or laughter. This inspires neither.

Then there’s the even more bizarre reunion of John Cho’s character and his buddy from the first movie. It is their exchange from that original that gave us the term MILF. Here, when the two see each other, they repeat only that word to one another what feels like dozens of times during a tearful embrace. Again, what’s the joke? Are we merely supposed to crack up because they say this word? Or, is it because, as is heavily implied, they’re getting back together after breaking up their homosexual relationship? Or, is it simply the franchise patting itself on the back for birthing, or at least naming a subgenre of porn. Maybe it’s all of those things. I dunno. In any event, it isn’t funny.

The bottom line is that American Reunion is a middling comedy, at best, that doesn’t always let us in on the jokes. The ones they do aren't always funny. Occasionally, they are but not nearly enough to call this a good movie. Much like Stifler, it’s desperately clinging to its glorious past and fails to really recognize the changing of times, therefore stunting its own growth.

MY SCORE: 5/10

Monday, July 15, 2013

Rise of the Guardians

Directed by Peter Ramsey.
Rated PG, 97 minutes.
Khamani Griffin
Jacob Bertrand
Kamil McFadden
Olivia Mattingly
Dominique Grund

Turns out there really is a slew of mythological beings collectively known as the Guardians watching over our children. As we learn very early on, in this movie if not in real life, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and the Sandman are all indeed real. They've all been on their jobs since the end of the Dark Ages when they brought hope to the world, overthrowing the rule of the Pitch Back, AKA The Boogeyman (Law). Now, the bad guy is back to reclaim the world. On the advice of The Man in the Moon, The Guardians go outside of their ranks and turn to the reckless and mischievous Jack Frost (Pine) to help them stave off Pitch.

We immediately notice that the design of each character, with the possible exception of the Tooth Fairy, is a bit off from what we’re expecting. This is actually a stroke of genius that adds depth and personality to iconically mysterious figures. It brings them a bit closer to us, enough for us to identify with, as much as that’s possible. As intended, the one we relate to most is Jack. Far more than any of the others, he’s one of us. He’s unsure of himself and longs for attention and approval. That said, the Easter Bunny might be the most fun. He’s wary of Jack, downright dislikes him and lets it be known. Hugh Jackman has a great time voicing the character and it shows.

Character designs not withstanding, the movie has an interesting overall look. It seems to sit somewhere between full-blown CGI and traditional animation. This works nicely. Even better is the contrast between the bright, cheery colors surrounding our heroes and the gray pallet that adorns the villain. It reinforces the notion of good against evil.

Speaking of evil, it’s the bad guy that really makes the movie work. Jude Law is simply amazing. His methodical cadence is symbolic of Pitch’s carefully measured actions. Most of the time he’s also unsettlingly calm. To boot, he exudes confidence that he will be victorious, making him a very formidable foe.

On the surface, things boil down to that good guys/bad guy stuff. That aspect alone is fun, but there’s more to it than that. It plays on our childhood hopes and fears to create both excitement and dread. On an even deeper level, it’s possible to see the entire plot as a test of faith and what happens if we don’t have it. No, this doesn't get preachy and it’s not an advertisement for any religion. However, the theme is present. More than any of this, it’s just plain fun to watch.

MY SCORE: 8/10

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Happy Fourth of July!!!

Make it a happy and safe holiday!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

Directed by Hark Tsui.
2010. Rated PG-13, 119 minutes.
Andy Lau
Carina Lau
Bingbing Li
Chao Deng
Tony Leung Ka Fai

We kick things off in the year 689 A.D. Empress Wu (Carina Lau) is about to crowned as the first female ruler of China. As you might imagine, this ruffles the feathers of many men. It probably doesn't help that she’s having a giant monument to herself built a mere sixty-six yards from where her coronation is to take place. During the final days of its construction, a high-ranking government official who is giving a tour to a visiting dignitary, spontaneously bursts into flames and falls to his death. Not much is left of him, save for his shoes. A short while later, another official suffers the same fate, suddenly catching fire and dying right in full view of the empress. A couple of clues lead everyone to think this has something to do with what happened in the province of Dee eight years ago. Therefore, they must hire the only man who can possibly solve this case, Detective Dee (Andy Lau). Of course, Detective Dee has been in prison over that span for treason. You see, he was one of those men and publicly opposed Wu’s ascension to the throne. Now that she needs his help, she’s willing to let bygones be bygones and sends Jing’er (Li), her most trusted bodyguard to retrieve the detective and get this case cracked so her coronation can go off without a hitch.

Since this is a martial arts picture, we must first judge this movie on just that, martial arts. The legendary Sammo Hung handles the choreography here and, truthfully, I’m disappointed with his effort. There’s lots of wire work, fitting for a story that incorporates a lot of magic. Therefore, characters fly around effortlessly and perform unbelievably acrobatic feats. This is fine, but the fighting itself is less than thrilling, save for one or two sequences nearer to the start of the movie than the end. It seems there is often a lot more chasing than kung-fuing.

Now, about that story. It’s cluttered, to say the least. It moves forward as a police procedural with the very Sherlock Holmes-esque Dee trying to solve the crime (murder, if I hadn't made that clear). He simply intuits an awful lot (everyone does, actually) and, naturally, he’s always right. This creates so many strands it gets to be a very crowded picture. There is another high-ranking official trying to keep Wu from the throne and/or get Dee to join his cause, he and Jing’er’s infatuation with each other, a couple different trips to magical locales, the possibly evil and supernatural chaplain, the back-story of Dee’s weapon (“the dragon taming mace”), fun with transfiguration, and talking deer. Um, yeah, talking deer. One shows up periodically to, more or less, explain character motivations. The beast itself is eventually explained, but it’s all very goofy. It only gets goofier when a bunch of bad CGI deer are used during a fight scene. It’s a bad idea and worse execution.

Even worse than the execution of everything involving deer is that scene where the bad guy spills the beans. You know the scene, the one where the villain appears to have the hero beat so he proceeds to explain his entire plan that he says is too late to foil while cackling maniacally. Yeah, that scene. In general, I’m okay with this because I know it’s coming and, just like the bad guy always says, there’s nothing I can do to stop it. The problem here is that once everything has been explained, we come to the realization that, in this case, if the bad guy had done absolutely nothing, committed no prior crimes whatsoever, he would've realized his ultimate goal without so much as a hiccup. In other words, I could have been spared this entire movie. Sigh. Consider my loss your gain and avoid this flick even if you are a hardcore martial arts junkie.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Mr. & Mrs. Smith

Directed by Doug Liman.
2005. Rated PG-13, 120 minutes.
Adam Brody
Chris Weitz
Stephanie March

Ah yes, the birth of “Brangelina,” AKA Jennifer Aniston’s least favorite movie of all time. Possibly. You know what? That’s about all the celebrity gossip I can stand so we’ll move on. With your permission, of course.

The actual movie revolves around John (Pitt) and Jane Smith (Jolie). They met five or six years ago, depending on which one you ask, at a hotel in Bogota. Due to an assassination within that country, local police were looking for someone traveling alone. As luck would have it, and their wits, they managed to convince everyone they were together. This inadvertently sparks a romance and the two were married shortly thereafter. Like many couples, particularly those having problems, they keep secrets from one another. Theirs are probably a little bigger than the ones in your marriage. Neither of them knows that the other is a paid assassin. That all changes when they find themselves in the same place, at the same time, trying to kill the same target.

Unsurprising, in hind sight, Pitt and Jolie share a playful chemistry. It carries the movie rather nicely. The jokes, aimed directly at anyone who has ever been in a long-term relationship, and the double entrendres, are all smooth, delivered with the perfect amount of sarcasm. It keeps us chuckling pretty consistently, even during their action scenes together, of which there are plenty. Our two leads appear to be having a great time. Pitt’s scenes with Vince Vaughn also work very well. It’s basically the usual schtick we get from Vaughn, but it works.

Back to the action. It is very well done. Things blow up real good while bullets and fists fly everywhere. Again, our stars are to be commended as both pull off the physicality of their roles without issue. Of course, there are some things that are too much to be believed, but they’re worked in nicely and become part of the fun. Therefore, we laugh and don’t really analyze things that probably shouldn't, or couldn't, happen.

In my world, maybe not the same as yours, Mr. & Mrs. Smith is a movie that’s stood up to repeated viewings. I've seen it several times and enjoyed it immensely each time. Our heroes work great together on the screen and it is exciting. The script they’re working with is clever and completely tongue-in-cheek. For my money, this is one of 2005’s most under-appreciated films.