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.