Sunday, December 30, 2007

Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem

Dark, dark, dark, shaky, someone gets killed, dark, dark....That about sums up the ostenato found in this awful sequel. I feel I may loose some credibility saying this, but I kind of enjoyed the first one. It was dark (thematically), isolated, and in a really interesting Antarctic setting. It reminded me a bit of John Carpenter's Thing. Requiem, however, was dark in hue only, and featured an uninspired cast that I was losing track of even as their ranks were being thinned. Even if you're looking for a brainless action movie, avoid this one like it's a Predalien.

The plot (if you can venture to even call it that) this time out has one Predator trying to quell an alien outbreak in a small mountain town. The humans, of course, are again caught in the middle. Directors Colin and Greg Strauss are visual effects wizards who have worked on dozens of films. They are experts at their craft, but unfortunately being good with effects does not necessarily translate into being good at directing.

It was an interesting concept of having one Predator act as a cleanup crew. They even named him "The Wolf" in an homage to Pulp Fiction. It's a bad sign, though, when the most interesting character never says a word. In fact, I'm not even going to get into the cast list because there's too many people, and none of them have screen time of any importance. I would have no way of even determining who the main characters were. The funny part is...I don't care.

I can't give this a complete zero, because that's is reserved for a select few movies that have absolutely no redeeming qualities. I believe I've only given out four of those. The effects in this movie were very well done. I just can't fathom any of their decisions in this piece of garbage. Killing off the only romantic interests? Seeding an already pregnant women with aliens? Or what about destroying the whole city? In case you have no idea what the Predalien I referred to earlier is, it's a hybrid between the two. Don't worry, they ending was left not only open for a sequel, but requiring one.


Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

This marks the sixth collaboration between Tim Burton and Johnny Depp. It seems that all of their Gothic styled previous outings (Sleepy Hollow, Edward Scissor Hands, etc) have been leading up to this. This most bizarre hybrid of horror, drama, musical, and even a little comedy create the perfect fodder for this well seasoned team.

The story of Sweeney Todd dates back to the mid eighteen hundreds. It is the story of Benjamin Barker, and man wronged by a judge. Years later he seeks revenge by opening a barber shop and killing customers in his chair- all in hopes of getting to the judge. In various versions he has a partner, Mrs. Lovett (played in this version by Burton's significant other and frequent collaborator, Helena Bonham Carter), who bakes the dead bodies into meat pies and sells them in her restaurant. The story is a clear commentary on class divisions in 19th century London, and the vapid living conditions in the city. Not only is he trying to exact revenge on a corrupt government official, but he is also killing the rich and feeding them to the poor. Seems like a pretty bitter commentary to me.

It wasn't until 1979 that composer/playwright Steven Sondheim got hold of the material and turned it into the version we are familiar with today. His musical is filled quirky, memorable, and sometimes haunting songs. His music and requires much more appreciation than most musical fare. The surprising part was that it took almost thirty years for a major movie release of it (there were some TV and non-musical versions made in that duration). I'm glad it fell into the ample hands of Tim Burton. Nobody but him could do this movie justice.

First of all, everybody can sing. Depp's and Carter's characters don't have the vocal gymnastics you would expect from Andrew Lloyd Webber. That was left up to newcomers Jayne Wisener and Jamie Campbell Bower, who play Todd's daughter and her suitor. In fact, Campbell took the lead on my favorite song in the musical. Some humor is variously inserted throughout the movie, especially during some of the musical numbers. Sacha Baron Cohen (of Borat fame) plays a rival barber in all of his over dramatic glory. His song garnered more than a few laughs from the audience. His apprentice (played by 14 years old Ed Sander) navigated through several numbers that would have left most people tongue tied. Perhaps my favorite scene was the unlikely duet between Depp and Alan Rickman (the judge that had wronged him) in the barber chair.

Besides the utter absurdity of the plot, and the even more absurd idea of it being a musical, there were some rather funny moments in the relationship between Todd and Lovett. He plays out an incredibly dramatic imaginary musical number, and she patiently waits for him to be done. Or the scene when the two of them sing about what the people pies will taste like. It's this sort of sick humor that gives the characters a feeling of hopelessness. When the characters are singing about cannibalism, it shows just how dark the society is in which they are living.

If you strip away all the music and the supporting characters, Sweeny Todd is a classic tragic hero. He becomes so engrossed in his own obsession that it leads to his downfall. Depp plays this very well, and everybody else plays off him equally well. Burton creates a dark portrayal of 1800s London. The only vibrant colors in the movie occur during an escapist dream sequence- one I could have done without. Aside from this the only color is in their blood-shot eyes, Cohen's flamboyant clothes, and the blood.

You didn't think I would write a review without talking about the blood did you? There was a lot of this, making it well worthy of its R rating. The blood was very cartoony, but if you're squeamish, you should probably steer clear. The movie combines some wonderful talents we're already familiar with (Depp, Rickman, Carter, Burton, etc) and some very promising rising stars (Wisener, Bower, Sanders). If you can handle the violence, see the movie. If you can't, get the soundtrack. It's not quite the same, but you'll still enjoy it.


Saturday, December 29, 2007

National Treasure: Book of Secrets

Nicholas Cage returns in the inevitable sequel to 2004's National Treasure. Like its predecessor, this movie is a paint by numbers hybrid of Indiana Jones and The Da Vinci Code. That worked okay the first time around. This time, however, it fell flat. It lacked adventure and ingenuity found in the first one, and runs over two hours- something a simple action/adventure movie should never do. Or something a Nicholas Cage movie should never do.

Book of Secrets re-assembles almost the entire cast from the first one. In addition to Cage as treasure hunter Ben Gates, Justin Bartha, Diane Kruger, Jon Voight, and Harvey Keitel all return. They are up to their old tricks, except this time Gates and his crew are setting our to prove the innocence of his ancestor in the Lincoln assassination. For some reason this requires him finding one of the biggest treasures in the history of civilization- again. This time an emaciated Ed Harris makes an appearance as Mitch Wilkinson, a rival treasure hunter. Unfortunately, the motivation for his actions in this movie is razor thin. Rounding out the cast is Helen Mirren as Gates' mother. Not exactly The Queen, but I'll forgive her cause she brought a little sparkle to the movie.

I thought this might be another holiday popcorn movie. It's always fun watching someone figure out puzzles and the dynamics between Gates and his recently estranged wife (Kruger) were charming at first. This quickly lost my interest, however. I'm not sure if it was when they broke into Buckingham Palace, or the Oval Office, or maybe when they kidnapped the president. It doesn't matter, each was more absurd than the last. This was only matched by the absurdity of the clues, and the characters solving them. Why would someone inscribe a clue on a statue after it was useful, and so cryptic that those it was intended for could not even figure it out? I don't know, but somehow Gates was able to decipher it in a matter of seconds. Or why would this all exonerate his ancestor?

Plot holes aside, there were some fun moments. Not since Indiana Jones: Last Crusade was a scene in a library so cool. And despite how unrealistic it was, one of the puzzles towards the end was really inventive. This is about what I would have expected from Jerry Bruckheimer and John Turtletaub. There was just too much length, with not nearly enough substance to make it worth while.


Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Golden Compass

Now I haven't read the book, so I can't really comment on the faithfulness of the movie to its source material. I'm under the impression that much was left out, as the movie progressed fairly quickly without explaining much- aside from simply telling us "This is how it is, so accept it." This is okay, however, since it's a fantasy story. You have to do into it, suspend your disbelief, and don't think too much about it afterwards.

It's very difficult to quickly summarize this movie adapted from the first installment of Phillip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy. In short, it is about a mythical world where all the citizens have a demon (an animal that is attached to everything they do) and where an iron fisted magistrate controls almost every aspect of society. Daniel Craig stars as Lord Asriel, an academic set on disobeying the magistrate. He is researching a mysterious substance known as dust, something the government is trying to cover up. His niece, Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) is on a mission of her own, finding children who have been taken during the night. She is truly the lead in this movie, setting off on an adventure that will introduce her to a wide array of characters and landscapes.

The strongest part of this movie was the acting. That's right, we have a new Dakota on our hands now- same age as Fanning, and just as good. Nicole Kidman plays a villainous, but conflicted extension of the ministry. She does what she does best- bring human characteristics to a generally unlikeable character. The rest of the movie is filled with a stellar cast, in perplexing small roles. Craig was not in much of the movie, but I'm sure his character will come into play much more in the sequels. Freddie Highmore (starring in August Rush) lends his voice to Lyra's demon, Pan. Ian McKellen is the voice of Lorek Byrnison, the polar bear featured so prominently in the trailers. Sam Elliot plays what else- a cowboy. His character is joyous, but horribly out of place in the context of the rest of the movie. Kathy Bates contributes her voice as Elliot's demon. Even Christopher Lee is in this, with no more than one or two lines. Even in the most minor roles, the cast was a huge priority in this movie.

As with any movie of this scale, huge stock was put in the visual effects. Rhythm and Hues (The Chronicles of Narnia, Night at the Museum) contributed world class effects and animation. The movie features a huge cast of computer generated demons, each with its unique look and personality. The greatest compliment to be paid to these artists is not saying how good these effects looked, but how good the characters were. The minute you stop thinking of them as effects, and think of them as characters, they've succeeded.

There has been tremendous controversy surrounding this movie and its source material. Pullman's books have been accused of being anti-Christian, and certain groups have spoken out against the movie. Director, Chris Weitz, made a conscious effort to distance the movie from these themes. Having not known about this controversy, I would have never drawn any connections to this issue. Despite toning down this controversy, the movie is still not for children. The movie is violent and in a few cases, graphically so. It's no Lord of the Rings, or Braveheart, but it's also not as tame as Harry Potter. A movie that has a cast featuring very strong children seems to be good.

It was a fun, interesting movie, but not without its flaws. As I mentioned earlier, even though it's fantasy, it still should have done more to explain why things are how they are. I'm hoping some of this is cleared up in the sequel,


Sunday, December 23, 2007

Bring it On: In It to Win It

In an earlier post I picked Saw as the next franchise to reach a tenth installment. Changed my mind- Bring It On will reach that prestige long before. This is the fourth installment of the series, but with them being released straight to video, there's little slowing them down. I've seen the first and the third movies, and out of all of them, this has been the worst.

Believe it or not, the movie revolves around two rival cheer-leading squads, and a big cheer competition. This time, however, there is a romantic entanglement between Carson (Ashley Benson) leader of the Sharks, and Penn (Michael Copon) a member of the Jets. The Sharks and the Jets? Ugh. A curse befalls the two teams, and they are forced to work together and form a single squad- the Shets. I was really really hoping that the name was supposed to be a joke, but I don't think it was. Any sort of romantic conflict between the two warring families ends at this point.

The movie is filled with all sorts of delightful phrases such as "Cheer smack down," "Cheer-tastrophy," "Cheer rumble" (That scene was straight out of West Side Story), "Cheer-off," you want me to keep going? Thought not. Very little in this movie is even worth mentioning, except to say- if you like cheer-leading movies, go ahead and watch this. Most people, however, may get more enjoyment from my idea for a crossover between the two most over worked series out there. Bring It On: The Land Before Time.


Charlie Wilson's War

Charlie Wilson's War combines a number of great talents into a winning piece of cinema. Mike Nichols' directing, Aaron Sorkin's writing, the talents of Tom Hanks, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Julia Roberts, and the true story this is based all contribute greatly to the success of this piece.

The story is about Charlie Wilson (Hanks), a senator from Texas who teams up with Gust Avrakatos (Hoffman) a CIA operative, and Joanne Herring (Roberts) a Texas socialite to wage an almost single handed war on the Soviet army invading Afghanistan. The three of them manage to shape policy, direct money, and somehow orchestrate cooperation among half a dozen Middle Eastern countries- all while keeping everything under the radar. It's a brilliant study on the workings of congress, and had it not been a true story, it would have bordered on farce worthy of Dr. Strangelove.

Tom Hanks is, of course, always amazing. That goes without saying. Julia Roberts plays pretty typical Julia Roberts, and I didn't find myself having much empathy with her character. Hoffman is fast proving himself to one of the great actors, and his cynical, yet zen-like role here is evidence of that. Finally, Amy Adams is cast as Wilson's assistant, Bonnie. This was a small role, but she functioned rather well as a foil to Wilson's outlandish behavior. It's his staff that keeps his political career alive.

I honestly can't believe Sorkin and Nichols hadn't worked together before. Nichols directed such political gems as Wag the Dog, and Catch-22. Sorkin is of course the mind behind the West Wing television series. They both brought to the table wonderful wit, while still commenting on a rather dark topic. It was very interesting seeing one representation of how Congress may have worked (and may still work). In the movie, it's all about favors, and Wilson was owed more favors than anyone. Votes are not determined necessarily by the issues themselves, but by whoever is willing to return a favor.

The movie had even more poignancy now than if it had been made several years ago, given the current hostilities towards America in the region. On top of the studies in character and Congress itself, Charlie Wilson's war is an interesting study in repercussions. What seems bad at first may turn out for the best, and what seems to be very good, may not be in the end. "We'll see."


Saturday, December 22, 2007


Enchanted is a twist on the old tales of the damsel in distress and Prince Charming. This movie combines traditional animation in one part, and live action in the other. The animated characters are thrust into our world- a world that is certainly no fairy tale.

Amy Adams stars as Giselle, the aforementioned damsel. She is all set to marry her Prince Edward (James Marsden), even planning him rescuing her in distress. On her wedding day, however, Queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon) pushes her into a well that transports her to modern day New York. Edward soon follows, as does Nathaniel (Timothy Fall) close friend of the prince, but secretly a toady for the Queen. In New York Giselle meets Robert Phillip (Patrick Dempsey) and his daughter (Rachel Covoy). Apparently he's also McDreamy to her, because she begins questioning her relationship with Edward, and her whole concept of love.

I really enjoyed this movie. It was cute, and was certainly not your typical approach to a fairy tale- live action or animated. It deals with the characters questioning themselves, and it doesn't turn out how any of them expect. Of course there are the obligatory gags found in any fairy tale. Forest critters help Giselle clean Robert's apartment, Edward slays a formidable beast- which turns out to be a bus, and the poison apple is replaced by a poison appletini. Perhaps best of all is the role of Edwards furry side-kick- a squirrel that, logically enough, loses his ability to talk and sounds like a squirrel in the real world. Little self-conscious tidbits like this really made the movie.

Enchanted kept me entertained throughout- something that is becoming ever increasingly difficult to do. And there's little doubt in my mind that the plethora of gags, and lovely animation will keep young and old audience entertained. It combines sight gags, with mature innuendos that may be inappropriate, but are also above the heads of young children. This is a difficult line to tread, but Enchanted does it quite well.

Director, Kevin Lima, brought years of Disney experience to the table, most notably being a character designer on Oliver and Company and the Little Mermaid. Enchanted thankfully keeps that Disney style alive, even with their 2D department currently closed. But of course, that's not all that holds this movie together. As with any good movie, the story is king. In this movie, the royal family of story, acting, and animation are all enchanted.


Friday, December 21, 2007


This movie passed through theaters without much fanfare this Summer. I was actually not going to spend the time to review it, if not for two reasons. The first is that it is now out on DVD, and I'm sure plenty of youngens will be yearning for a copy. The second is that this is the first of three movies I'm sitting down to review that feature Amy Adams. Just to give a heads up, they're also going from worst to best.

The movie is based on the classic cartoon character with one twist. He's a real dog this time. Underdog (voiced by Jason Lee) was caught in a lab accident giving him super powers (evidently including the ability to talk). He comes to find an owner in Jack Unger (Alex Neuberg). The two of them team up to stop Dr. Barsinister (Peter Dinklage), the man responsible for Underdog's powers. All the while Alex is trying to hook up with Molly (Taylor Momsen) and Polly (Amy Adams), Molly's dog.

I really think this could have been okay had it been a fully animated movie. Instead, it was live action with some mediocre visual effects. There were some entertaining throwbacks to the original series. Underdog's name is Shoeshine (a reference to his occupation in the series), speaking in rhyme, and his love interest-Polly. Unfortunately Frederik Du Chau's attempt at an update just succeeded at taking all the fun out of it.

Patrick Warburton is again the best part of the movie. Even in the worst movies, he is downright hilarious. This time, he stars as an inept sidekick to Barsinister. His presence makes this movie almost bearable. That is until you remember the rest of the movie. The main problem with Underdog is that it took a beloved cartoon character, and made it a dull visual effects piece without any of the charm of the original.


Friday, December 14, 2007

5 Minute clip from Cloverfield

I Am Legend

This is the latest iteration of Richard Matheson's 1954 novel of the same name. This is essentially the book that gave birth to the apocalyptic zombie story. Everything from George Romero's Living Dead series, to Resident Evil, to 28 Days Later their existences to this novel. I Am Legend is only the second version of the story I've seen (the other one being Charlton Heston's Omega Man), but this one was far superior.

I have dubbed 2007 the year of the one man show, with 1408, Into the Wild, and now I Am Legend. Will Smith stars as Robert Neville, a military scientist trying to contain an global virus (a cancer vaccine gone awry). Most of the movie is spent with him being the sole survivor (along with his dog) in the ruins of New York City, continuing his research to try to cure this virus. Of course he's not actually alone. Hiding in the shadows, and emerging only at night is a race of infected people who for simplicity sake, I'll just call zombies. It's a game of cat and mouse, as Neville rules the day, and the zombies rule the night. Turns out they're a lot smarter than he gave them credit.

I Am Legend delves more into the human condition than any zombie movie I've ever seen. This immediately puts it leagues ahead of most zombie fare. Neville talks to mannequins and his dog to prevent himself from going crazy. No end of the world movie I've seen explores this isolation and loneliness as this one did. Unfortunately, this doesn't last long. By the mid-point, the creatures begin emerging more and more, and it becomes just another horror flick.

Then we are introduced to two new characters, Anna (Alice Braga) and her son, Ethan (Charlie Tahan). They are traveling to a supposed survivors' colony. This creates an unnatural, and uninspired dichotomy between the two of them. Oh well, I guess they couldn't keep Neville alone for the entire movie.

It was quite haunting to see New York City as a ghost town (take Vanilla Sky and multiply it by a hundred). They reportedly spent $6 million just shutting down and transforming different areas of the city. Unfortunately some of the other visual effects weren't done nearly as well, with the creatures acting a bit too cartoony, and some very obvious CG work.

I appreciate one technique they tried to employ- non-linearity. Francis Lawrence, in his second feature flips back and forth between before the outbreak, and after. This worked for a bit to keep some important events from the audience as long as possible to build suspense. Unfortunately, what it builds up to is obvious long before we see it. This results in a fairly climactic moment- being fairly anti-climactic. In general, though, the movie is handed quite well by Lawrence.

I Am Legend makes attempts to reach beyond the typical zombie movie. It delves into isolation, and paranoia, and even religious themes. In the end, though, these ideas aren't fully explored. This does possibly go down as a definitive zombie movie of recent years.


Thursday, December 13, 2007

Golden Globe Nominees

American Gangster
Eastern Promises
The Great Debaters
Michael Clayton
No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood

Across the Universe
Charlie Wilson's War
Sweeney Todd

Tim Burton, Sweeney Todd
Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men
Julian Schnabel, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Ridley Scott, American Gangster
Joe Wright, Atonement

George Clooney, Michael Clayton
Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood
James McEvoy, Atonement
Viggo Mortensen, Eastern Promises
Denzel Washington, American Gangster

Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Julie Christie, Away From Her
Jodie Foster, The Brave One
Angelina Jolie, A Mighty Heart
Keira Knightley, Atonement

Johnny Depp, Sweeney Todd
Ryan Gosling, Lars and the Real Girl
Tom Hanks, Charlie Wilson's War
Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Savages
John C. Reilly, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

Amy Adams, Enchanted
Nikki Blonsky, Hairspray
Helena Bonham Carter, Sweeney Todd
Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose
Ellen Page, Juno

Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Wilson's War
John Travolta, Hairspray
Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton

Cate Blanchett, I'm Not There
Julia Roberts, Charlie Wilson's War
Saiorse Ronan, Atonement
Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone
Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton

Diablo Cody, Juno
Ethan and Joel Coen, No Country for Old Men
Christopher Hampton, Atonement
Ronald Hardwood, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Aaron Sorkin, Charlie Wilson's War

Bee Movie
The Simpsons Movie

4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (Romania)
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (France/U.S.)
The Kite Runner (U.S.)
Lust, Caution (Taiwan)
Persepolis (France)

Eastern Promises
Grace is Gone
Into the Wild
The Kite Runner

''That's How You Know,'' Enchanted
''Grace Is Gone,'' Grace Is Gone
''Guaranteed,'' Into the Wild
''Despedida,'' Love In the Time of Cholera
''Walk Hard,'' Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

No Country For Old Men

The Cohen Brothers finally created a perfect companion piece to Fargo. It's been six or seven years since their last good movie (The Man Who Wasn't There), and they are back in full force. No Country, adapted from Cormac McCarthy's novel of the same name, teams of up the brothers with Tommy Lee Jones, Woody Harrelson, Josh Brolin, Kelly MacDonald, and in perhaps the most terrifying role ever- Javier Bardem. This is one of the best movies I've seen in a long time, but despite its recent Golden Globe best picture nomination, I don't see it holding up against an all around powerhouse like American Gangster.

This ultra-violent, tex-mex flavored movie features a winning ensemble cast. Brolin stars as Llewelyn Moss, a simple blue collared worked who stumbles across a drug deal gone wrong. In addition to several bodies, he discovers $2 Million. This sets into motion a cross country chase with Anton Chigurh (Bardem), a cold blooded killer hired to retrieve the money. Tommy Lee Jones stars as Sheriff Bell, a third generation lawman, functioning as the observational voice much like Frances McDormand's character, Marge, was in Fargo. Bell is continually one step behind Chigurh, forced to pick up the pieces in his trail of destruction. Harrelson makes a short appearance as Carson Wells, another hired gun, this time sent to track down Chigurh who is now considered unreliable.

The violence aside, this is a very interesting study on human nature. Why do people act the way they do? Chigurh has a certain twisted set of morals. Despite all the pain he inflicts, he always is true to his word. Moss perhaps the most human of any of the characters, tries to do what's best for him and his wife (Macdonald), short of giving up the money that is. Bell is very similar to Morgan Freeman's detective in Seven. He's waiting out retirement, jaded and stoic.

Like all of the Cohen's movies, this one is filled with razor sharp wit. Throughout there are expertly crafted conversations with lines such as:

"That's very linear sheriff"
"Well, age will flatten a man."

"Just how dangerous is he?"
"Compared to what? The Bubonic Plague?"

"You've seen him? And you're not dead? Huh."
"Who's this guy supposed to be, the ultimate badass?"
"Well I don't think that's how I would describe him."
"Well how would you describe him?"
"Well I guess I'd say he doesn't have a sense of humor."

These are just a few of the brilliantly written lines, brining in a sense of humor to an otherwise very dark movie. At its core, it seems that No Country for Old Men is about the cruelty of the world, and the progression of time. As time goes on, life gets meaner and meaner. As was spoken in the movie: "You can't stop what's coming." Even if we don't understand this, we have to accept it.


The most R Rated Trailer Ever

Sorry, but I just had to post this. I don't think I've ever seen a trailer more inappropriate for any audience. It's for Alien Vs. Predator Requiem. This is not the one they're showing on TV.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Fred Clause

This is 2007's answer to The Santa Clause franchise. This movie deals with Santa's family, including his older brother, Fred. Good holiday movies have been in short supply in recent years, and this addition at least makes an effort to rectify this. It's not entirely successful, but at least it's not "Jingle All the Way"

Paul Giamatti was an interesting choice for Santa. It works in that he brings a more realistic tone to the character, though he sometimes comes across more as a curmudgeon than jolly old Saint Nick. Maybe it's just that Giamatti timbre we've all come to know. Fred is typical Vince Vaughan- the slacker with a heart of gold. At least here, there's actually motivation for his character to act the way he does. His entire life he's been upstaged by his younger brother. After a series of misfortunes, he goes to the North Pole to help Santa prepare for Christmas. This could not come at a worse time. Clyde (Kevin Spacey) is an efficiency expert sent by the board to determine whether they are going to keep Santa Clause on or not. I'm not sure what "board" he represents, but he said they already dumped the Easter Bunny, so maybe it's some Christian/Hallmark board of directors? Regardless, this is a pretty funny concept. As is absolutely required with this premise, Fred proceeds to turn the North Pole upside down.

You can tell what movie this is from the end of the exposition. The lines stating that with Sainthood comes immortality for you and all your family, and that none of you age, sums up the mentality of the movie. Any questions about plot holes or unbelievability are to be answered by "magic."

The movie drags a bit as it gets closer to the end,and the 2 hour running time might bore some of the younger ones- especially for a cookie cutter Christmas movie. However the performances by Giamatti, Spacey, and Kathy Bates (as Santa and Fred's mother) can be appreciated by older audiences. It seems that they main problem with the movie is that it tries to split its target audience, not fully appealing to either one. Sight gags are a plenty when elves are involved, and the reconciliation of the Fred and Santa attempts to create a theme of family values. Nothing really pans out, though. Not a great movie, but as far as holiday fair goes- not terrible.


Tuesday, December 11, 2007


From the opening slates stating that every year such and such number of people go under anesthesia, and every year such percentage are awake the whole time, I knew that I was ready for the movie to be over. This opening was just short of saying this was based on a true story. Does that mean we're going to immediately start feeling for the star, Hayden Christensen? Sorry, didn't work on me.

I can't tell much about the plot, because it is filled with some twists. Essentially, it's about a very rich and powerful heir going under the knife for a heart transplant. He then suffers from anesthesia awareness, resulting in him being conscious, yet paralyzed during the operation. How does he handle this? Somehow he makes it through by screaming to himself, "it's only pain." Somehow all that pain vanished in time for him to be able to overhear a plot to kill him during his operation. And that's all I'm gonna tell you about the plot.

I really don't Hayden Christensen (except for his role in Life as a House), and this movie continues that streak. It seems fitting he'd be paired with the sexy, yet vapid Jessica Alba. Finally, add Terrence Howard, the actually decent actor who's been in six other movies this year. Him, and Lena Olin (playing Christensen's mother) are the only two characters with any sort of convincing emotional struggle. And the audience still doesn't care all that much about them.

There were some interesting directorial techniques from Joby Harold. He blurred the lines between time periods, consciousness, and reality. Scenes with Christensen leaving his body and witnessing events he could not possibly know about were a little troubling, but they were a little reminiscent of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I was able to suspend my disbelief for this, and actually appreciate it. Unfortunately, the interesting directing doesn't make up much for a mediocre script, and terrible acting. Thankfully, it has a merciful 80 minute run-time. If it stuck around any longer, Awake could be a perfect cure for insomnia.


Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium

This is possibly the best children's movie I have seen in a long time. Zach Helm, in his directorial debut, crafts a world of wonder not seen since Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory- and this one isn't creepy as hell. You can't help but feel like a kid and leave with a smile on your face.

Dustin Hoffman plays Mr. Magorium, the owner the titular Emporium. After an over 200 year career, he is thinking of leaving his store to Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman) the manager. I will say it's a bit difficult to watch her in a children's movie after seeing her in Closer. Enter Henry Weston (Jason Bateman), the exasperated accountant who is charged with organizing the store's financial records. Of course, he doesn't believe any of the magic surrounding the store (real magic, not the "illusions" his Arrested Developmental brother Gob created). In the midst of this shakeup, strange things start happening to the store.

There are a lot of undertones to this movie. Mahoney is a struggling musical prodigy, and must decide between following her dreams, or taking over the store. Weston is grounded in the real world and is unable to see the wonders going on around him. Throw into the mix Magorium facing his own mortality, and Eric Applebaum (Zach Mills), a nine-year old patron struggling with loneliness, and you get a whimsical movie filled with a lot of rather serious texts. All of these characters work so well together, bouncing opposing personalities and traits off each other. Mahoney is drawn between the far-out wonder of Magorium, and the analytic nature of Weston.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect out of this movie, but I loved it. It made me smile, and it actually made me feel good. Despite the movie being oh so fun, it deals with issues children and adults face- the loss of innocence and imagination, as well as isolation and loneliness. Go see this movie, and enjoy.


Wednesday, December 5, 2007


There's clearly nothing special about this by-the-numbers horror flick, and there's certainly not much original in it. But, it is kind of creepy, and the locale lends itself really well to a scary movie. As a matter of fact, I can't believe I haven't seen a parking garage horror movie before now. P2 is like the parking garage episode of Seinfeld gone horribly horribly awry.

Workaholic Angela Bridges (Rachel Nichols) is working late on Christmas Eve and finds herself locked in the parking garage. Of course she's not alone, and the movie quickly decomposes into the standard story of the heroine trying to escape the psychopath. Both Bridges and her pursuer (Wes Bently) use the parking garage to their advantage. Director Franck Khalfoun also uses the parking to his advantage fully integrating the location into the action of the movie. The entire movie hinges on the claustrophobia and isolation induced in a parking garage. Many people already have fears about these structures, and this movie would certainly not help.

The first twenty minutes or so progressed very nicely. It built atmosphere and really worked to isolate the main character. Once Bently entered the picture, however, it all devolves into a standard horror flick. I expected this movie to be more of a psychological thriller, but it certainly disappointed on that front. It was a lot more gory than I was hoping. It seems that today even a movie with this much potential doesn't take advantage of it.


Into the Wild

I had to spend a little time thinking about this movie after I saw it. I was underwhelmed when I watched it, but after mulling it over for a bit, I grew to like it more and more. It was a tad long, coming in at almost 2 and a half hours, and there were some techniques used that I didn't really care for, but overall, it was very successful.

This is the true story of Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) who after graduating college, gave up all of his possessions, and took off traveling West on a journey that eventually took him to Alaska. The movie flips back and forth through time between him in Alaska, and his adventure getting there. It also flips back and forth between the characters McCandless meets along the way, and the family he left behind.

This is clearly Sean Penn's pet project that he was wanted to make for a long time. I would wager that he wanted to play McCandless himself, but it took ten years to get the project signed off on. By that time Penn was far too old to play the character. That's okay, because Hirsch plays the role amazingly well in what is essentially a one-man-show. Like Christian Bale, he fully immerses himself in his roles. Hirsch did all of his own stunts, and lost over 40 pounds for the part. This left Penn free to focus entirely on directing, which he did very well. Everything was shot on location, including three separate trips to Alaska for three different seasons.

McCandless met some of the most interesting people along the way. Whether it was Wayne Westerberg (Vince Vaughn) the farmer in North Dakota he worked for, Rainey and Jan (Brian Dierker, and Catherine Keener), the aging hippies, or Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook) the elderly man who wanted to take him in as his own son. He touched all of these people, and learned from them in turn. Still nothing could stop him from his Alaskan adventure. This led to an interesting theme that wasn't directly spoken of in the movie. In spite of all the people that cared for him, and everyone who he affected, he was still selfish in his desire to go off alone into the wild. This is a difficult path to tread when you're making a movie commemorating someone. Do focus on their flaws as well? To his credit, Penn managed to paint McCandless as a hero, while not glossing over any of his flaws.

The only part I didn't really care for was the voice-over narration by his sister, Carine (Jenna Malone). It's not as if there was anything really wrong with how it was done, I'm just not a big fan of voice-overs when not needed. It always strikes me as a bit of a lazy way to progress the plot, without actually showing anything. It's similar to when characters reveal plot points awkwardly in conversation- it draws attention to it being a movie.

This is something I normally talk about, but I have to in this instance. The soundtrack is amazing. I really appreciate when movies like this have a sort of continuity in the music. Nearly the entire soundtrack is contributed by Eddie Vedder. In a break from his grunge roots, he provides a number of folk songs that perfectly compliment the movie. It felt as if he was channeling Bruce Springsteen.

Occasionally while I'm writing a review, my opinion of the movie changes. This is one of those cases. Every paragraph seemed to make me like the movie even more. I stand by my assessment that it was too long, but I still strongly recommend this movie anyway.


August Rush

I've been falling behind a bit on film reviews. There's several that I have seen for a while now, that I still haven't written reviews up. I'll try to rectify this situation- starting with August Rush. This was on my top 20 for the rest of the year list, and unfortunately, it didn't meet my expectations. I'm not sure what I expected. It was inspirational, and had good music, but it was just way too sappy for me.

This may sound crazy, but I found some distinct similarities between this an "Perfume: the Story of a Murderer," which I reviewed in August. Both of these movies are about orphans who are incredibly gifted with one of their senses, but lack any sort of social skills. The difference is that in Perfume, he goes on to be a murderer, and in August Rush, he simply wants to find his parents. This movie is a bit more friendly.

August Rush (Freddie Highmore) is the aforementioned orphan with the impeccable ear for music. He was a product of one night of romance between concert cellist Lyla (Keri Russell), and punk singer Louis (Johnathon Rhys Meyers). Apparently she was trying to get away from her overbearing father, or at least slum it for the night. After an unlikely series of events, she had her baby taken away from her and put in an orphanage. The rest of the movie focuses on her and her son trying to find each other, using music as a guide.

August leaves the orphanage in hopes of finding his mother, using music. Along the way he an array of characters including The Wizard (Robin Williams) a performer who runs a band of street urchins who play guitar for money. I couldn't help but wonder if I was actually watching Oliver. Highmore and Williams were both very good, but I just didn't really buy the characters themselves.

The whole thing is pretty inspirational, with August being a musical prodigy, and using his talents to try to find his parents. It also throws in a kind of tacked on contrast between the upper class (Lyla's concert venues, and August's time at Julliard), the lower class (Louis's punk band, and the street musicians), and the in-between (a group August meets at a church). All of these groups come together in the end because of music. It's a nice little story, but nothing special. And when it comes to musical inspiration, it doesn't hold a candle to movies like Mr. Holland's Opus.


Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Mist

I don't know why I keep watching movies like this. The Mist was nothing more than standard horror bill of fair, albeit not as bad as 30 Days of Night Was. What really perplexes me about this movie is that it is getting very good reviews from the general populace. Though I felt there were some scary moments, and it actually made an effort to go much farther than a horror movie, it was a rather lackluster effort.

This is certainly not the worst Steven King adaptation ever- that title would have to go to the Langoliers, or his made for TV epic version of the Shinning. In fact, this could have been very good, being directed by Frank Darabont (director of hugely successful King adaptations The Shawshank Redemption, and The Green Mile). I was awful disappointed with this one, however.

The plot is about as simple as it comes. A mist falls over a town. Hidden within the fog is a plethora of creepy crawly monsters. Some are big, some are small, but all are deadly- and hungry. Most of the movie centers on a small band of people trapped in a supermarket, and their efforts to stay civilized and survive. This is all tested when they begin to divide into two groups. These are led respectively by the hero, David Drayton (Thomas Jane), and the crazy religious nut, Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gray Harden), who wants to begin sacrificing people to appease god. It's in these moments of paranoia and fanaticism where the movie begins to take on life. Unfortunately, this is never fully fleshed out.

The biggest disappointment is the acting. Everybody in it is just simply hollow. As a result I didn't believe any of the characters, even in their most dramatic states. I hate to blame the actors, though- because they are so uniformly bad. I think the finger should be pointed straight at the script. Everything is so rigidly scripted, that it's impossible to believe people are actually saying these things in this situation. Harden's religious rants are so clean that she sounds like a street-corner preaches who's rehearsed a thousand times- not a person trapped in a convenience store with monsters outside. Don't get me wrong, her character is scary, but everything she says is just so scripted.

I heard rumblings before I saw this about a brilliant ending. I don't want to give anything away, suffice it to say that a purposely dark ending, does not equal a deep one. The few shining moments were when they were dealing with their inner-demons (clearly embodied in the demons outside the store as well). The themes of "what happens to civilized people when the lights go out?" would have been very interesting had it not been blatantly told to us. This was entirely an up and down movie. Unfortunately there were far more downs than ups, and far too many "c'mon!" moments. It squarely ended on a down note, leaving a rather bad taste in my mouth. I expect this movie to fade away a lot faster than the mist itself.


Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The TV Set

This movie from late last year was playing at the Athens Film Fest, and unfortunately it was one of the many movies I was not able to see. I was, however, able to catch it on video, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Jake Kasdan (Orange County, and the new Walk Hard: The Dewy Cox Story) wrote and directed this movie clearly based on his experience in failed TV shows. This is even more evident when considering one of the producers was Judd Apatow, a long-time collaborator with Kasdan, and perhaps the biggest runaway success of 2007.

The movie follows the life of a TV pilot called the Wexler Chronicles, and its producer, Mike (played by David Duchovny). It's all about the network executives changing the script, the plot, the stars, and just about everything to do with the show for the sake of ratings.

"What if the brother doesn't kill himself?"
"But that's what the entire show is about!"
"I know, but we were just thinking, what if he doesn't?"

Lines like that peppered the movie, and are delivered so convincingly, that I have no doubt Kasdan and Apatow heard something to that effects while working on Freaks and Geeks.

Sigourney Weaver plays Lenny, the cruel executive, and Ian Gruffud takes the role of the good executive with a failing marriage, Richard McCallister. They play a sort of good cop, bad cop team, but still end up usually doing the same thing. Everything is then filtered through Alice (Judy Greer), Mike's assistant. She is constantly upbeat, and tries to gloss over everything. In the end, however, you're left wondering if she works for him, or the network.

The acting, apart from one exception I will mention, was superb. All four of those characters truly seemed the wrestle with the situations they're in. There was a surprising amount of depth for a Judd Apatow movie. The one aspect I did not like was Zach Harper (Fran Kranz), the star of the show. The character was a horribly inconsistent actor, doing wonderful in rehearsal, then blowing every take. Okay, I realize that this was the point of the character. My problem was that he was a sleaze, and kind of unstable off-set as well. There was enough of this elsewhere, and I think the movie needed one more nice-guy, that could have been fulfilled by him.

The scenes with Mike interacting with the executives or his assistant were spectacular. They created a feeling of despair that I'm sure rings true with anyone who has ever had any role in a TV show. Even if you haven't, the story is conveyed so well, you'll think you have.


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Bender's Big Score

Futurama is finally back, but not on TV. Bender's Big Score, released on DVD today, is the first of four new Futurama movies. I'm starting to retract my long held beliefs that TV shows (especially cartoons) do not make good movies. Earlier this year, the Simpsons movie surprised me by actually being good. Bender's Big Score is just as good as any of the episodes ever were.

The movie is much more complex than one would expect. This isn't surprising from a show that often prided itself on being confusing and elaborate, using time travel to explore fairly simple plot lines. Dwayne Carey-Hill was a character designer, and assistant director on the series. He only ever directed one episode, making him an odd choice to tackle the first full length movie. In the end, however, he proved himself to be able to handle this. Trying to make it as simple as possible, the plot is as follows. A group of aliens takes over the world by scamming the human race with Internet schemes. They find a code for time-travel tattooed on Fry, and use it to go back in time and steal all the riches of history. Fry then uses the same code to try to stop them. This results in a series of paradoxes and confusing plot holes. That's all a part of the jokes, however. It's as if the creators are smirking at the audience the whole time. It's a big joke and we're all in on it. I love that, when it's done well.

The secondary plot is actually the strongest. It continues the long running theme of Fry's unrequited love for Leela. Fry uses time travel to try to make her love him, but ends up creating a parallel love story, and going to great lengths to be her true love.

All the voices from the series are back. This is good, because it just would not work without them. Billy West is easily one of the best animated voices of all time. John Di Maggio, Katey Sagal, Lauren Tom, and Phil Lamar also deserve recognition. There is hardly an animated series in the 90's that at least one of these talents was not involved in. It wouldn't be Futurama without all of them. On top of this, the movie featured such cameos as Coolio, and Al Gore in a recurring role.

The movie isn't without its weak points. It seems they tried to cram as many characters from the show as they could. This resulted in some awkward scenes, and an embarrassingly painful musical number. Aside from these few unpleasant parts, the movie far surpassed any expectations I had.


Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Bee Movie

This movie was pretty fun- at least it started out that way. About midway it just started getting a little odd. It starts out sounding like an extended Jerry Seinfeld routine- with all the jokes about bees. It's one pun after another, some of them funny, some of them make you roll your eyes, and none of them last longer than a one-liner. Despite this, it's still pretty fun

The crux of the movie follows Barry B. Benson (Seinfeld), who is not content finding one job to do the rest of his life. One day he ventures out of the hive and meets Vanessa Bloome (Renee Zellweger), a human. Yes, bees can talk with humans. The plot thickens, and gets even more absurd when Barry finds out about bee farms, and tries to sue the honey companies. At that point, the movie lost me.

The actual plot developments are handled fairly clumsily. The evils of the bee farm are revealed by two bee keepers essentially narrating what they're doing. These flaws didn't really bother me, however. After all, it is an animated movie about bees. It also includes isseus about smoking, money ("honey changes people"), and greed. It actually does a good job showing the extreme consequences of little actions, and how things may not always turn out as you want.

The cast was great. Seinfeld, Zellweger, Matthew Broderick, John Goodman, Kathy Bates, Chris Rock, and even delightful cameos by Ray Liotta, and Sting. By far the person who stole that show was Patrick Wharburton, who plays Bloome's bee hating boyfriend. I laughed at literally everything he said. He really is one of my favorite comedic actors today.

Despite the absurdity of the plot, and scenes such as a group of bees carrying an airplane, I still enjoyed the movie. It was by no means a wonderful movie, and was certainly no Ratatouille, but it was still fun. It is a movie all ages can enjoy, and you even laugh while groaning at the endless barrage of bee puns. Bee Movie is essentially a kid friendly Seinfeld sketch.


Monday, November 19, 2007

Dan in Real Life

This movie started out rather promising, and I was excited going into it. It had a promising cast and premise. It seemed like it would be filled with the same sort of dark, almost funny desperation that makes Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach so special. Unfortunately, in his second movie, Peter Hedges creates a tale that seems to fall flat in a number of places.

Now this isn't a bad movie. It was actually pretty good, just not as good as it could have been. Steve Carell trades in his comedic shoes from the Office, and for a widowed single father (the titular Dan) with three daughters. He packs up his rebellious daughters and heads to his parents (Dianne Wiest and John Mahoney) for the week for a sort of reunion. He must deal with his egotistic brother, Mitch (Dane Cook) constantly berating his already fragile self-esteem. The one shinning spot is when he meets Marie (Juliette Binoche) in a bookstore. The setback? She is already in a relationship- with Mitch. And she's spending the weekend with them.

This has the potential to be either a brilliantly sad movie, or one ripe with unpleasantly awkward situations. Unfortunately, it takes the latter route through most of it- with Dan and Marie going to great lengths to hide their feelings, and their chance encounter. Even improbably lengths (i.e. a shower scene). These situations come across feeling more like gags than plot.

Steve Carell is wonderful in everything that he does. Even his comical characters have humanity behind him. In this instance, his depressing character still has a tint of lightheartedness. He throws in a little bit of that Michael Scott charm here and there (the "Put it on my tab" line from the trailers). Dane Cook seemed like an odd choice, but for the character I guess he does okay. His daughters, unfortunately seemed like over emotive charicatures of what teenage daughters really are. ("You murderer of love!"). Maybe this was accurate, and teenage girls are really that dramatic- I don't really know. The most disappointing part was the chemistry between Dan and Marie. I really didn't feel it. Carell does a much better job being an introspective one-man show, than interacting romantically with others.

For the most part the movie was straightforward and more enjoyable than not. I always enjoy watching Steve Carell do what he does. But there was really nothing special about the movie. A lot of the chemistry was not there, and it strayed into easy awkward situations a bit too much.


Friday, November 16, 2007

Purple Violets

This was the last movie I was able to catch at the Savannah Film Fest this year. Opening for it was a delightful short called "Numero Dos." This follows a roadie for country music star, Brad Paisley in his attempt to find a bathroom, because of an unwritten rule about not being allowed to defecate on the tour bus. This is immediately a rather humerus situation. There's nothing terribly original about Numero Dos. The situations are fairly obvious and cliched, and it looks like it was shot over a weekend. But it is fun, and in a comedic short, that's really all that matters.

Purple Violets is Ed Burns' newest movie. For this outing, he trades in his macho man characters (Brother McMullen), for a dramatic sappy turn. Behold, it turns out Burns actually has a sensitive side. Purple Violets is about four singles living in New York City. Patti Petalson (Selma Blaire) and Brian Callahan (Patrick Wilson) are both authors with their unique problems. Petalson wrote the great American novel, then dropped of the face of the literary Earth, never to repeat. Callahan makes millions writing schlocky detective novels, never able to write what he wants. What brings the two of them together? They used to be in a relationship and are now trying to rekindle it. The problem? Petalson is married.

Meanwhile, Michael Murphey (Burns) a trashy Ben Affleck wannabe is Callahan's lawyer. Kate SCott (Debra Messing) is Petalson's best friend. These two also used to be in a relationship. The entire movie follows these two couples trying to cope with their demons from the past, and try to rekindle what they had. The characters seem very real, if a little exaggerated. But you really feel for them.

Purple Violets feels like an updated 1970's Woody Allen Film. The movie is as much about New York as it is about the characters. They embody the same desperate loneliness as Allen's Manhattan, all while having a bit of dark humor. There were a number of negative reviews about this movie, but I didn't really understand their problems. The cited poor acting, and drivel written by Burns, but I think all of them work.

Purple Violets also is ushering in a new form of distribution. This movie is not going to be seeing a wide theater release. Instead, it is being distributed entirely on iTunes. This may be because they weren't expecting a terribly commercial success out of this one, so it's a perfect test. If you have the time, you should hop on iTunes and check it out.


Monday, November 5, 2007

30 Days of Night

In my experience, I've found that terrible movies are a lot easier, and a lot more fun to review. This is why I'm reviewing 30 Days of Night while I still have one movie I saw at the film fest on the back burner. I checked on IMDB, and this actually has a 7/10 rating. I am dumbfounded by this. I found nearly no redeeming qualities in 30 Days of Night.

The movie revolves around a group of oils workers, or mine workers, or some other grizzly northern generic wilderness community cliche. In the dead of winter the town is plunged into blackness for a month (hence the name) and is essentially cut off from the rest of the world. This provides perfect pickings for a band of roving vampires. Sound great? Wait, there's more. Josh Hartnett stars as the stony faced sheriff of the town, trying to save as many citizens as he can (as long as they're family or blond).

Need more? How about the obnoxious language the vampires gargle out? Or the painfully rigid dialog. "That cold ain't the weather, that's death approaching." "When man comes up against something he can't destroy, he destroys himself instead." "Mr. and Mrs. Sheriff. So sweet. So helpless against what is coming." It just goes on and on with horribly written dialog being delivered in the most horrible way imaginable.

Ben Foster (whom I praised highly in 3:10 to Yuma) is the worst offender here. His slow southern drawl squeezed out from behind rotten teeth is supposed to be indicative of a vampire. And who is he anyway? He's built up to be a major character, and nothing is ever done with him. This is just one example of the next issue I had with this movie.

Plot holes! Somehow, with 90% of the town being wiped out in the first few days, the 5 or 6 main characters manage to stay hidden and alive for another 25 days? It's almost as if director David Slade had no concept of time. Days fly by without the least attempt to build tension. It jumps from one action filled event, to another weeks later. The characters themselves provide their fair share of holes. I won't get into to it be because it'll give away some spoilers, but suffice it to say that most of what our hero does makes no sense.

I could go on about this, but I think that the bad directing, acting, and writing provide enough examples. It tried to create a similar feeling to that of The Thing, or Alien, making the audience feel isolated and in suspense. Despite these efforts, and the perplexing producing by Sam Raimi, it fails. This is the second vampire movie I saw last week (The first being Netherbeast Inc), and this was by far the worse one. This weekend, however, being the 2007 After Dark Horror Fest. I'm planning to at least attend a few of those, and hopefully will wash this bad horror movie out of my mouth.


Friday, November 2, 2007

The First Saturday in May

I had absolutely no idea what this movie was about going into it, which shows my complete ignorance of the sporting world. I attended the screening because it was coupled with a new short by Bill Plymton- Shut Eye Hotel. Though it was an enjoyable little animation, it was not quite up to par with his old work. He incorporated 3D for the first time (that I know of) with his trademark sketchy drawings. The mood was nice, and it was entertaining, but it lacked the twisted humor that has defined his work.

The First Saturday in May follows the efforts of 6 horses on the trail to the 2006 Kentucky Derby, widely considered one of the most exciting races of all time. This is a subject I have never had an interest in, but I found the movie utterly fascinating. Something is to be said about a documentary that can hold my interest on a topic I've never really cared about.

It traces the various teams through triumphs and heartbreaks as they prove themselves worthy of being in this prestigious race. Barbaro, Brother Derek, Achilles of Troy, Jazil, Lawyer Ron, and Sharp Humor, 6 horses that grew to become the major contenders for the derby are heavily covered. But the movie is more about the people. The trainers, the jockeys, and their families are all the true focus of this movie. Interestingly, except in two brief exceptions, the owners are never interviewed or mentioned. This results in giving the impression that these multi-million dollar horses are still firmly rooted in the working man. I think that's good, in that when thinking of horse racing, I usually thought of the high-stakes a glamor, not the hard work. This movie changed all that.

The of the more interesting characters included one of the trainer's sons, who bet on the races, hobnobbed with the rich, and become a part-time race analyst- all while he was no older than 10 or 11. In a staged scene where he pulls over a thousand dollars out of his pocket, you do still realize that these horses mean big money. On the opposite end of the spectrum was Chuck, a 61 year old groomer working every day in the trenches with the horses, never seeing a huge payday. He was just as excited, however, as any of the trainers.

The Hennegan brothers grew up around the racetrack, and were allowed unparalleled access to the track, and the horses. They were able to get cameras in the starting gates, and full unhampered access to the horses themselves. This resulted in footage from this pivotal year, that nobody else was able to get.

2006 was an important year for the racing community for several reasons. There was no clear favorite going into the Kentucky Derby. It was more a triumvirate of favorites. Perhaps an even bigger reason why detailed attention was paid that year was Barbaro. This horse from Florida was one of the rising stars in the sport, and went undefeated into the derby. This streak continued as he won the Kentucky Derby without so much as a challenger. Barbaro was promising to become a new legend in racing, but during the next race, he suffered an injury that eventually led to his death.

The movie could have easily turned into a movie about Barbaro, but they limited the tragedy to an epilogue. This was the right decision. The movie pays appropriate homage to the horse, but spends most of the time on the community itself. This was a fascinating movie, and kept me engaged the entire time. I really hope that The First Saturday in May, after it's done on the festival circuit, will get wide distribution.


Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Netherbeast Incorporated

I figured that the first movie I saw at the film fest would be an appropriate one to review on Halloween. Netherbeast Incorporated is an attempt to do for the vampire movie what Shaun of the Dead did for the zombie movie- kind of. Netherbeast is set in corporate America, revolving around a company run completely by vampires. Already this has potential for a very funny movie, with vampires in suits discussing profit margins, while drinking juice boxes of blood.

Darrell Hammond plays the manager as a blend of every Will Ferrell role ever, and Steve Carrel from The Office. There's nothing original about his performance, but it's still so funny. Something has happened to his brain, and he forgot that himself, and everyone around him are vampires. Because of this he inadvertently brings in an efficiency expert (Judd Nelson), and hires a new employee which they refer to as "a first lifer," meaning she's mortal. The office is thrown into a frenzy trying to hide their dark secret from these newcomers.

Steve Burns (you might remember his as Steve from Blue's Clues), plays Otto, the timid lead, who develops feelings for Pearl (Amy Davidson), the new employee. He tries to build a relationship with her, without revealing too much about the company. This leads to some wonderfully awkward scenes with him trying to explain to her the bizarre activities of their co-workers, and why he can only leave the building once every two months.

Most of the movie relies on the same joke over and over- they're businessmen, and they eat people. This results in some unnecessary, and not well executed gore. Also, they're not vampires per se. They don't follow all of the rules, and new restrictions apply. These are all explained through cut aways to power point presentations. These are clumsy, but they work. Finally, the main conflict comes from the "Netherstone" a chunk of rock they all need to survive. It has disappeared, and they need to find it- culminating in a final action sequence that is dull and amateur at best.

It is decidedly low budget, and clearly spent most of the money getting the cast (Dave Foley rounds out the lead roles). I think they put the money where it was best used. Sure it could have looked cleaner, and the action could have been tightened up, but that part wasn't even necessary in the first place. The saving grace of this movie is definitely the interactions between Otto and Pearl, as well as Turner (Hammond) interacting with everyone. This is his first real lead role, and he does it wonderfully.

It gets old, and some parts fall flat, but for the most part, it succeeds in what it sets out to do. Netherbeast is not necessarily a parody, because it doesn't skewer anything specific. It just completely re-invents a genre, and for the most part, does a good job.


Also, The entire short film it was based on can be seen here

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

100 Most Thrilling Movies

In honor of Halloween, here is my list of the 100 most thrilling movies (and one TV show, and one TV movie) of all time. Included are horror movies, thrillers, action movies, and just about anything that creates suspense. I spent about a month putting this list together, so please argue away.

100. The Stepford Wives (1975)
99. Hard Candy (2005)
98. The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
97. Requiem for a Dream (2000)
96. Donnie Darko (2001)
95. Frailty (2001)
94. The Brood (1979)
93. Peeping Tom (1960)
92. The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)
91. Cache (2005)
90. Des Cabinet De Dr. Caligar1 (1920)
89. North by Northwest (1959)
88. Phantasm (1979)
87. Chinatown (1974)
86. Brokedown Palace (1999)
85. Memento (2000)
84. The Matrix (1999)
83. Last House on the Left (1972)
82. Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
81.The Sentinel (1977)
80. Scanners (1981)
79. Repulsion (1965)
78. Fight Club (1999)
77. Invasion of the body Snatchers (1978)
76. The Craft (1996)
75. Pi (1998)
74. Apocalypse Now (1979)
73. Funny Games (1997)
72. The Hitcher (1986)
71. Rosemary's Baby (1968)
70. Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
69. The Wicker Man (1973)
68. The Usual Suspects (1995)
67. Scream (1996)
66. The Birds (1963)
65. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
64. Cube (1997)
63. The Blaire Witch Project (1999)
62. The Fly (1986)
61. Hellraiser (1987)
60. Taxi Driver (1976)
59. American Psycho (2000)
58. Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
57. Touch of Evil (1958)
56. Natural Born Killers (1994)
55. 28 Days Later (2002)
54. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
53. A History of Violence (2005)
52. Don't Look Now (1973)
51. 12 Monkeys (1995)
50. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
49. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
48. Manhunter (1986)
47. Carrie (1976)
46. Marathon Man (1976)
45. Eraserhead (1977)
44. Pan's Labyrinth (2006)
43. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
42. Halloween (1978)
41. Black Hawk Down (2001)
40. Equillibrium (2002)
39. Interview with a Vampire (1994)
38. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
37. Strangers on a Train (1951)
36. The Game (1997)
35. The X-Files (TV show) (1993-2002)
34. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
33. Nosferatu (1922)
32. Rope (1948)
31. The Devil's Rejects (2005)
30. Full Metal Jacket (1987)
29. Jurassic Park (1993)
28. Freaks (1932)
27. Cape Fear (1962)
26. King Kong (1933)
25. Wizard of Oz (1939)
24. Dawn of the Dead (2004)
23. The Others (2001)
22. It (1990)
21. Suspiria (1977)
20. Alien (1979)
19. Deliverance (1972)
18. The Omen (1976)
17. Misery (1990)
16. Old Boy (2003)
15. Audition (1999)
14. Lost Highway (1997)
13. The Exorcist (1973)
12. The Sixth Sense (1999)
11. Jaws (1975)
10. Psycho (1960)
9. Event Horizon (1997)
8. Ju On: The Grudge (2003)
7. Jacob's Ladder (1990)
6. The Thing (1982)
5. Poltergeist (1982)
4. Rear Window (1954)
3. Silence of the Lambs (1991)
2. Se7en (1995)
1. The Shinning (1980)

Monday, October 29, 2007

Saw IV

The other day I was asked what series I thought would next make it to a tenth installment, and without hesitating, I answered "Saw." They are on their fourth movie, and the only thing that's changed is that the surprises aren't surprising (or don't make any sense), and it's gotten a whole lot gorier.

I'm going to tell you straight away that this is going to contain spoilers from the previous movies, so if you haven't seen them, well, you probably shouldn't see this movie anyway.

It starts out as the last one left off, after the death of Jigsaw. From the first incredibly graphic scene of his autopsy, a tape is found in his stomach, starting a whole new slew of tests that he somehow orchestrated before his death. Granted, everything is wrapped up at the end, in about a minute and a half of rapid fire flashbacks, but I don't really get much about this movie. On top of this, flashbacks to the previous movies, histories of new characters, histories of Jigsaw himself, and an apparent lack of concern for the continuity of time add to the confusion. Characters we previously thought were dead are brought back (at least with facial hair to indicate the passage of time).

I just want to grab these film-makers and yell at them. Making a horror movie more convoluted does not make it better. A twist only works if it makes sense. Nobody cares about a surprise ending when we're not led in any specific direction in the first place. Surprise, we revealed something that you don't even care about. On top of this, every shot is the most important shot in the movie. I hardly think walking around an interrogation room warrants speed effects, and a "whoosh."

I actually had to go onto some IMDB message boards trying to find help explaining some things in the Saw universe. The most common interpretations are that the movies are all intertwined, some parts happening at the same time. Maybe if you sat down one night and watched all four of them, you might be able to follow it.

I really tried to get swept up in this concept. I think it's very interesting, and actually enjoyed the low budget first installment. Perhaps they should have just kept it at that, though I suppose guaranteed box office returns wouldn't let them. It's a fascinating genre all unto itself, but unfortunately just collapsed under the weight of its own convoluted self-importance.

Jigsaw sums it up nicely "Time is an illusion." That's the truth, but when it comes to Saw, reality itself is an illusion.


American Gangster

This is the first out of my top 20 anticipated movies I was able to see. It certainly deserved a spot on that list. Ridley Scott again teams up with Russell Crowe, and this time brings in Denzel Washington into a bad guy role he's proven he can handle. The three of them together create a modern crime epic, that despite some resemblance to Goodfellas, feels very fresh.

American Gangster tells the true story of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), a drug kingpin who builds an empire using army resources to smuggle heroin from Vietnam to New York. He manages to do all of this while remaining anonymous to the corrupt police. This is until they bring in Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) an officer notorious for honesty, and an outcast among his fellow officers. The honesty in his professional life is contrasted with his failing marriage. The brutality of Lucas' professional life, is contrasted with the way he takes care of his family. Washington, of course, gives a stellar performance. Crowe, on the other hand, just sounds like a Brit trying to sound like he's from Jersey. That's okay, he still brings character to the role.

Scott once again proves himself to be one of our best directors, never letting up on the excitement, or the character development during the entire movie. Who knew that watching characters evolve could be so tense. He could very well be gaining an Oscar nomination, but there's so many worthy directors this year, who knows. The reverse roles of Roberts and Lucas was made a little too blatant, almost telling us about that theme straight away in the trailers. And without giving away too much, it all wraps up a little too neatly and quickly at the end.

The atmosphere is gritty, really gritty. It's great contrasting the streets where Roberts and his team is living, and the upper class luxury Lucas enjoys. He feeds the addiction of the slums, all while staying clear of it. It's hard to sympathize with a character like this, but when you see him with his family, it's just as hard not to. Likewise, you know Roberts is a good guy, but when you see him with his wife, you think he's a sleaze.

The movie isn't flawless, and it probably won't go down in history like the Godfather, or Goodfellas, or even the Departed probably will. It is, however, a fantastic crime drama that actually has humanity.


Saturday, October 27, 2007

Savannah Film Fest

The Savannah Film Fest is this week, and unfortunately I could only get tickets to 4 screenings- most of them shorts. But expect a number of reviews following. Also, a bunch of movies on my top 20 list were released this weekend, so I'm going to try to get to those as soon as possible.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Hoax

The Hoax was a delightful, and overlooked film from early 2007. The movie is a dramatized account of Clifford Irving (Richard Gere), author of an exclusive autobiography of Howard Hughes. The problem? It was all made up. The movie follows the sometimes hilarious, and sometimes tragic efforts to keep up this ruse, and salvage his writing career.

Gere does in the Hoax what he does best. Takes a moderately sleazy character, and plays him with such charm, that you have to half believe what he says. He goes to great lengths to keep up the charade, creating absolutely vivid stories on the spot, and convince everyone around him. His writings even convince the only reporter to have in depth experience with Hughes, ("Capturing all of his mannerisms and speech patterns"). It's interesting how people are captivated by this struggling author only when they think what he's saying is true, as opposed to simply very good stories.

The character isn't all fun, however. As people begin to get more and more suspicious he gets more and mores desperate and paranoid. Veteran director Lasse Hallstrom includes scenes that force you to question whether their real or not. Does Hughes actually capitalize on this media frenzy as a distraction to his failing airlines? Does he use Irving to send a message to Washington that he's really still in charge? Or is all about Irving getting lost deeper and deeper into the character of Howard Hughes- so deep that he loses track of what's real? The audience is never shown for sure.

The best part of the movie was Irving's writing partner, Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina). He is the most truly conflicted character, drawn in by the promise of fame and money (and Irving's smooth talking ), but continuously second guessing the idea. After his rather human turn as Spider Man villain, Doctor Octopus, he's shown to apt at tackling some complex characters.

Interestingly, the real Clifford Irving did not like his portrayal in this movie (even though he signed off on it), saying that it made him look bad. That's actually kind of funny that a person who was made famous by making up someone's life is upset by his own portrayal. Indeed, some of the conflict between him and Suskind, and published, Shelton Fisher (Stanley Tucci) seemed a little tacked on. It worked in the story, but didn't seem very real.

Regardless of how accurate the story is, it's a captivating movie. Both Irving and Suskind are characters with a lot of depth, and the mystery behind how much Hughes manipulated the situation is just fascinating. Some of the side stories were a little contrived, but the bulk of the movie is only enhanced by the fact that this really happened.


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Top 10 Car Chases

I've actually posted this before, but never on this site. I'm sure you'll hate me for some of them, but enjoy.

10. Bad Boys II- This movie was terrible, but the freeway car chase was fantastic, possibly the only good thing Michael Bay ever did. The cars falling from the back of the truck is honestly one of the most absurde things I've ever seen in an action sequence, but it works so well. Special commendations for the CG Mountain Dew product placement flying out of one of the crashing cars.

9. Ronin- This is one of the best shot movies on this list. The directing really is astounding. Doesn't hurt that diector John Frankenheimer was a grand prix driver, and he gave the instructions during the chases "I don't want to see no brake lights." Perhaps the most exciting moments are towards the end of the chase between the Audi S8 and the Citroen through the incredibly narrow streets is as good as they come.

8. The Italian Job (2003)- I may be strung up for this one, but I feel that the remake was better than the original. It was just as exciting, and less absurd (albeit only slightly). They kept everything important from the original- namely the mini coopers, and added a bit of flair that had been lacking. And the subway finish is just fantastic.

7. The Matrix Reloaded- Again, not a good movie, but an amazing scene. I include this scene because despite the tremendous use of CG in the rest of the movie, that kept in the tradition of using real cars in this scene. It's 12 minutes of excitment, and it's beautifuly shot. I will say, however, it's easily the least likely carchase to be seen in real life- though Bad Boys II does give it a run for it's money on that.

6. Blues Brothers- This was a tough call, but I'm including the mall chase over the Chicago climax. The mall is just so damn funny. Who would have ever thought that a car chase could be that funny- even more than Smokey and the Bandit and the Man with the Golden Gun. It's just a fun filled romp of destruction through a shopping mall, with perfectly timed, nonchalant, witty commentary.

5. Gone in 60 Seconds (1974)- This is the original, not the terrible Nicholas Cage remake. I am of course talking about the climactic chase at the end- or actually the entire second half of the movie. The chase scene nears 40 minutes long. It gets a little tiresom at times, but it's never repetitive, and keeps up the excitment the whole time. Allegedly this scene took 7 months to shoot, and I believe it.

4. French Connection- This has to be the most intense scene on the list. It has an interesting concept of Gene Hackman pursuing a suspect who hijacked an elevated train. He follows along on the streets below. There's very little actual destruction in this sequence, but just the intense acting of Hackman shows that he would stop at absolutely nothing.

3. Vanishing Point- As far as the actual story goes, this one is at number one. This car chase is essentially the entire movie. It's not like most where the chase is just fast and intense, these film makers knew how to build suspense. So much can be done in the lull between the major parts to to build the characters. This movie features the open road as its medium, as opposed to the crowded streets. It's almost more like a buddy picture between him and the radio DJ than an action flick. It really is just a fantastic movie, and one of the best endings of any car chase.

2. Bullitt- Steve McQueen really is the grand-daddy of all stunt drivers. It had been a while since I had seen this and I was a little skeptical of putting it on. But after watching it again, I remembered why it was so good. Actually driving at speeds over 100 miles an hour, this scene is really intense. And having it set in SanFransisco allows the cars to play off the landscape more than in and other setting. I will say it ends a little abruptly, but maybe that's because it only feels like half of the 10 minute length.

1. To Live and Die in LA- It's really tough to pick one for the #1 spot, and I really think the top 3 actually are a tie. I picked this one though, because I think it's the most real out of any of them. In this scene, the drivers arenn't perfect. They come to an obstruction that can't be crossed- they stop. It blends high energy, with necessary lulls so that the viewer doesn't get bored. The finale on the expressway is also one of the most amazing things I've ever seen on film. It doesn't look like a movie, it looks like actual footage of a massive pileup. I sill have no idea how they did it all.