Film Review: The Hangover (2009)

The Hangover (2009)
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis
Directed by: Todd Phillips
Written by: Jon Lucas and Scott Moore
Rated: R
Rating: 3 (out of five)

The Hangover

I had little to no interest (closer to no interest) in seeing this movie until I watched the Golden Globes.  People had recommended it, but they also recommended other comedies that turned out to be only mildly amusing.  Then the Golden Globes played a clip during their broadcast …

Stu: She’s got my Grandmother’s Holocaust ring!
Alan: They gave out rings at the Holocaust?

I still can’t really explain why, but that moment is extremely funny to me.  So I rented it.  And very much enjoyed it.

Doug is getting married.  So Stu and Phil throw him a bachelor party in Vegas.  Doug’s fiancée’s brother, Alan, tags along.  When they wake up, severely hung over, Doug is missing and no one can recall what happened during the night.  The story really is that simple.  There is nothing more to it.  The best situational comedies are simple.  Look at “Seinfeld,” for instance.

We start with a terrible phone call from the best man to the bride – a bloody, dirty, tired, and worn out looking best man, calling the pampered, immaculate looking bride.  Phil tells her there’s no way the wedding is going to happen in five hours.

Flashback 48 hours earlier to beginning of the escapade.  We meet Phil (Cooper), a teacher, ready to get out and let loose.  We meet Stu (Helms), a dentist, tied down by an over-controlling girlfriend who is thoroughly very pleased that the bachelor party isn’t happening in Vegas (he tells her their going to wine country).  And Alan (Galifianakis), Doug’s soon to be brother-in-law, who is his own kind of loner (“a one-man wolf pack” who definitely provides the most awkward moments of the flick).

They toast on the rooftop of their hotel, then head down to the streets.  When they wake up the next morning, Doug is gone, the hotel room is trashed, chickens peck around through the mess, a tiger is trapped in the bathroom, and a baby is found in a closet.  Oh, and Stu is missing a tooth.  That’s only the start.

The trio begins a long hunt for their friend by working backward through the night’s events, trying to find out where Doug went by discovering where the tiger came from and why Doug’s tooth is missing and who’s baby that is.

I can’t say that this movie is great character study, or extremely well written.  But it is hilarious throughout.  What makes it rise above other generic comedies of late are the characters.  They actually have personalities and problems, and the night’s events provide a form of therapeutic treatment for them.  The characters feel real, not created simply because a comedic moment was needed.  The comedy comes from this sense of sincerity.

You care a bit about each.  Will Phil grow up and quit stealing kids money?  Will Stu shed his girlfriend and spread his wings?  Will Alan’s wolf pack ever grow?  You even care a little bit if they find Doug or not.

From these characters comes dialog that is witty and genuine.  It doesn’t feel like it’s pieced together from comedy cliché’s and predictable reactions.  Of course it’s there to get a laugh, but the character isn’t saying this line simply for the laugh.  The line comes from the character, from the story, driving the plot forward.  It’s a strongly written film.  Because of this, it easily rises above.

It’s hard to call a movie about a killer hangover smart, but this one actually is.  It’s getting rare to see a mainstream comedy that is these days.


Film Review: Coraline (2009)

Coraline (2009)
With the voices of: Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Keith David
Directed by: Henry Selick
Written by: Henry Selick, based on Neil Gaiman’s novel
Rated: PG
Rating: 5 (out of five)

CoralineCoraline is the third stop-motion film from Henry Selick, the mastermind behind The Nightmare Before Christmas.  (I will admit that I thought Corpse Bride was his handy-work too, but it turns out I was very wrong there.)  It is nothing short of brilliant.  When an animated film is so good that you forget you are watching animation, the creators have really accomplished something.  When they manage to do that against what seems like all odds, they’ve created something truly amazing.

Coraline Jones (that’s “CORE-a-line” not “CARE-o-line”) has just moved to a new apartment with her parents.  They are horticulturalists of a sort, but lately they’ve been putting aside actually cultivating a garden in favor of writing.  Her father is authoring a catalog that he hopes to be his magnum opus that will feed the family.  Coraline doesn’t care in the least and is more interested in having adventures.  Their new neighbors, Mr. Bobinsky, Miss Spink, and Miss Forcible, though colorful, aren’t enough.

On her first foray into her new surroundings she meets the son of her apartment’s proprietor, Wybie.  And a sly black cat.  Bored with their lack of creativity, she retreats back into her house and begins cataloging everything she finds.  Which includes an curiously small door that has been wall-papered over.  After sufficiently pestering her mother enough that she gives in, the door is opened, only to reveal a brick wall.

That night Coraline is awoken by a jumping mouse whom she follows through the house.  To the curiously small door.  Through the curiously small door.  And into the Other World, where she meets her Other Mother, and her Other Father, and the Other Wybie, and that strange cat.  Everything is perfect at first glance.  Her mother is baking tasty meals and her father is full of life and energy and all they want to do is please Coraline.  It takes her a few minutes to notice that their eyes are mere black buttons sewn onto their faces.

Retreating back to into the Real World, Coraline is once again faced with the sheer monotony that she feels makes up her life, and she quickly finds herself venturin g back into the Other World and becoming more and more at home there.  As is the case with these stories, it’s not long before she discovers that the black buttons are there for a reason, and that hiding under all the shiny facades of fun is something evil.

Coraline is a story about youth.  It’s about youth itself learning to embrace life and finding adventure.  It’s about youth’s influence on adults.  It’s about the adults lusting after youth in dangerous ways.  It’s about adults finding their youth again and their lives brightening and adults not leaving their youth behind.

Gaiman’s writing is always rooted in myths and folk tales.  What Gaiman always does well is to make these common tales uniquely his own.  Coraline is no exception to this.  And I hate the fact that I haven’t read the book!  (Though the movie, I hear, is sufficiently close to the book, there are some variances.  Notably Wybie, who isn’t in the book at all.)

More than being a great modern folk tale, Coraline is an amazing visual feast and an incredible technical achievement to boot.  I’ve linked an article at the bottom that was eye-opening.  Who knew that the Other Mother morphing into her real self was such a painstaking shot to produce!

All in all, this film deserves a spot on anyone’s shelf and is a great movie to get the whole family together.  Perhaps I have a dark vision of what family movies should be, but I still think it’s a great film.  Technically, creatively, visually – all of it comes together perfectly.


Great article on the making of:

Film Review: Surrogates (2009)

Surrogates (2009)
Starring: Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, Ving Rhames
Directed by: Jonathan Mostow
Written by: Michael Ferris and John D Brancato, based on the graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele
Rated: PG-13
Rating: 2 (out of five)Surrogates (2009)

A few years ago, Alex Proyas’s I, Robot (2004) came out.  It deconstructed Isaac Asimov’s phenomenal “I, Robot” stories and turned into an action vehicle for Will Smith.  I enjoyed the  movie but it definitely wasn’t good science fiction.  It was just good action.  That’s about the best thing I can say for Surrogates.

I have not read the graphic novel so I cannot make any comparisons in that regard.  There are some moments in the movie that are obviously painstakingly recreated from the frames of the novel.  Those are unfortunately few and far between.

14  years from now we have the technology to create and control “surrogates.”  These are lifelike androids that experience life for us while we remain back at home, lying in a pod that allows our minds to control the surrogates.  The great part of surrogates is that you get to feel everything they feel and have none of the side effects.  Sex has gone up, but STI’s have gone down.  The aging process is almost non-existent in the real world.  Surrogates don’t age, just their controllers do.  But also virtually non-existent in the real world is human connection.  There are reservations of humans — “meat bags” – where no surrogates are allowed to enter.  These havens of humanity are run by The Prophet (Rhames) who aims to restore life to it’s natural roots.

We open with a murder.  Someone on a motorcycle fires a pretty powerful weapon at two surrogates.  It causes their surrogates to fry – which isn’t new, as bullets through electronic components can cause some serious damage – but it also causes their controllers to fry as well.  The surrogate/controller who is killed is none other than the son of Dr. Cantor, the man who invented surrogates.

This sparks the first real homicide in years (surrogates kill other surrogates, people don’t kill people anymore).  Lt. Greer (Willis) and his partner (Mitchell) are brought on to solve the case.  Much is unique about it:  why did the safety mechanisms fail and cause the controller to die when the surrogate was fried?  What weapon is powerful enough to do that?  Why would someone do such a thing?  Is The Prophet involved?  They then get wrapped up in a conspiracy that takes us through to the movie’s inevitable ending.

Mostow also directed Terminator 3.  He hasn’t grown much as a director since then.  (On a funny note, I see that his next project is a re-tell of the Swiss Family Robinson – interesting change of scenery from sci-fi).  The movie is rather derivative as far as it’s production goes.  The action isn’t bold, the explosions are only “big,” the suspense is barely there.  This is true of a lot of movies that Hollywood churns out these days, and I can openly confess to liking a lot of them.  I even liked Terminator 3!  The real issue with this movie isn’t the production.  It’s the story.

Again, I haven’t read the graphic novel, and don’t intend to at this point, but the story here is what is wrong with this movie.  Re-read the paragraph above explaining the future society presented in this movie.  The one thing this story does is a great job of tantalizing us with these little, realistic details of how surrogacy has affected future society and humanity as a whole.  It only hints at it though, and only for the first few minutes as the credits roll.  It blatantly ignores, and even sometimes purposely avoids, parallels to our current society’s addiction to gadgetry and the “zoning out” it causes.  This movie is completely devoid of any social context whatsoever.  And that is it’s problem.

I’m not looking for this to be a social critique of technological advances and their effects on humanity.  I think it would have been a wrong choice to have done that.  What I’m asking for is a sense of what’s happened and the realization that this has a profound effect on how the characters would have gone about daily life.  Instead we get one single moment where Greer walks through the streets as a meat bag instead of a surrogate for the first time.

Look at District 9.  It’s not meant to be a social commentary on Apartheid, it’s not meant delve into social injustices, but because the story was borne of those conditions, it’s effects are directly presented on-screen.  I again think that it would have been the wrong choice for that film to have been a true social commentary, but at least it wasn’t afraid of the idea it projected.  Another brilliant example is Blade Runner.  The film doesn’t truly attempt to be a critique, but instead delivers us into a fully realized world that serves as it’s own critique, completely apart from what the filmmakers were filming.

A brief hint of what this movie could have been was provided by some early teaser posters.  Take a look here and here to see what I mean.

Action.  Check.  Some pretty explosions and car crashes.  Check.  A real world to set the story in?  Nope!


Prof. Ishiguro and his “Geminoid” twin:

Film Review: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans (2009)

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans (2009)
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Val Kilmer, Eva Mendes, Xzibit
Directed by: Werner Herzog
Written by: William M. Finklestein
Rated: R
Rating: 4.5 (out of five)

This review contains possible spoilers!  The final paragraphs contain what may be considered spoilers.  While I do not consider them spoilers, as I don’t think they actually spoil anything, some may take offense.  Consider this fair warning.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans It’s now been over 72 hours since I watched Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans.  There’s a reason this review is going up significantly later than my viewing.  I didn’t know what to say.  I’ve decided that is actually a good thing.  Maybe even a great thing.

When I first saw the listings for a movie called “Bad Lieutenant 2” I couldn’t help but laugh.  I’ve not seen the original Bad Lieutenant (1992) starring Harvey Keitel.  Then I saw Herzog was directing and I was flabbergasted.  Why would he remake something like that?

Turns out it’s not a remake nor is it a sequel.  Herzog claims to have never seen the original, and the only reason the phrase “Bad Lieutenant” is in the title is that the producers felt it would boost the film’s profile.

Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant follows Terrence McDonagh (Cage), a veteran cop in New Orleans.  The film is set in the aftermath of Katrina.  In the opening scene, Terrence takes a leap into a flooded landing to save a criminal.  For his heroism, he is promoted to Lieutenant and left with an irreparable back injury that causes him severe pain.

As Terrence’s pain worsens the Vicodin his doctor prescribed just isn’t enough.  As a cop, he has access to the store rooms where the confiscated drugs are.  Guess what happens?

Terrence begins a terrible slide into hardcore drug usage.  His girlfriend, Frankie (Mendes), is a prostitute, and assists Terrence get his fix when he needs it.  His father and step-mother are alcoholics, though his father is trying to go through AA again.

In one of the more uncomfortable scenes I’ve ever watched, Terrence follows a young man and his “date” out of a nightclub into a vacant parking lot.  Flashing his red and blue lights, he explains to them that they “match a description” and to give him all their drugs.  They do, and as the young man pleads with him to not report anything, Terrence begins to rape the woman.  And he forces the young man to watch.  And Herzog forces us to watch.

Then the hallucinations begin.  Iguanas and alligators and breakdancing souls begin distracting Terrence as he tries to do his day job.  Although it’s not clear if it’s really a “job” to Terrence any longer.

Throughout all this, tying all of it together, is a high profile murder case, taking Terrence deep into the underground drug scene in New Orleans.  The murder story is a MacGuffin, something to keep the viewer interested in something that seems normal.  This is the great irony of Bad Lieutenant: a horrible murder seems acceptable and commonplace next to Terrence.

In some ways this film seems almost like a retelling of Shakespeare’s Richard III.  Terrence develops a hump and almost limps.  He plows through obstacles with ruthless efficiency, setting up the pieces well ahead of time.  His insanity and instability grows the further he digs himself.

Cage is absolutely phenomenal as the drug addled Terrence.  His portrayal of addiction and violence (both against others and against one’s self) is frightening.  There is not a single moment where you look at this sad figure of a cop and think “Hey, that’s Nicolas Cage!”  One of the best performances of the year without a doubt.

This is not an easy movie to watch.  It is hard, in your face, unrelenting, and uncompromising.  Herzog has found a great partner with Cage.  They have no qualms about getting dirty and taking you right down with them.

The first shot is of a water snake swimming along and a convict near drowning.  It ends with Terrence slumped in front of a giant glass aquarium of swimming creatures with the convict he saved sitting beside him, the fish circling endlessly in their tanks.  Did we just go through two-hours of personal hell only to begin again?  Is this the beginning of the end?  The beginning of another downfall after what was almost a successful return to normalcy?  At one point Terrence asks “Do fish have dreams?”

Herzog isn’t afraid to leave us wondering.  Are you?


Herzog on Bad Lieutenant, Singing Iguanas, and Prop Cocaine:

Film Review: The Princess and the Frog (2009)

The Princess and the Frog (2009)
Voice talents of: Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, Keith David
Directed by: Ron Clements and John Musker
Written by:Ron Clements, John Musker, and Rob Edwards
Rated: G
Rating: 3 (out of five)

princess-and-the-frog-poster I haven’t thought much of Disney Animation for a long while.  I really had to think coming out of the theater about what movies they had released in the last decade.  Disney’s partnership with Pixar has far outweighed Disney’s solo releases.  Those that I could think of I didn’t particularly enjoy.  Whether it’s just my imagination or not, but Disney Animation Studios has had a losing streak for while.

Pixar has proved recently that family-friendly entertainment need not be without a touch of darkness to it.  Some of the best children’s story are themselves a little dark.  I think that it was this element that Disney’s most recent animated adventures have lacked.  (Granted, Lilo & Stitch had some darkness to it.)

The Princess and the Frog is a strong return to animation for Disney.  And it brings with it a very effective and dark new villain.

We all know the original story of the “The Frog Princess.”  Disney has changed things up by moving the familiar story to Prohibition-era New Orleans, and thereby introducing their first black Princess.  Wait, a Princess in 1920’s New Orleans?

Tiana is our hard-working heroine.  Her mother has worked as a talented seamstress to the rich upper crust of New Orleans for years, and her father worked incredibly long days to keep his family financially stable.  He passed along his dream of owning a beautiful restaurant to his daughter, who has carried on his dream after his passing.

The upper crust childhood friend of Tiana’s, Charlotte, has been pining after a Prince since she could say the word.  One day her dream seems like it’s about to come true.  A Prince from Maldonia, Prince Naveen, is visiting New Orleans and will be staying with Charlotte and her family.

Enter the scheming voodoo Shadow Man, Dr. Facilier.  Seeing an opportunity to swindle Charlotte’s family of their riches and take over the bustling port city, he begins working his magic by turning Naveen and, accidentally but also fortuitously, Tiana, into frogs.

Naveen and Tiana must then race to get themselves restored with the assistance of a great collection of supporting characters (Louis the trumpet playing Alligator, Ray the romantic firefly with his eye on the most beautiful firefly in the sky, and Mama Odie the ancient bayou-dwelling voodoo lady).

There isn’t an amazing new animation technique.  There aren’t immense visual landscapes.  There aren’t “ooh-aah” 3D effects.  This is classic animation, reminding us of Disney’s legacy as the king of animation.  This movie shows that someone at Disney still understands the art of hand-drawn animation, which most people in Hollywood dismissed years ago, and shows that it’s still as lovely as ever.

Unfortunately, it’s not quite as magical as those previous films.  There’s something missing … it’s so close!  The soundtrack was sadly a little lacking (especially considering who wrote it!).  But I don’t think that’s the reason.  I don’t think Disney has lost their magic, but perhaps they should focus on something like The Princess and the Frog instead of making temporary teen sensations.  And yes, I’ll say it: maybe they were being overly cautious with the African-American characters, seeing as their last animated attempt is still notorious, 63-years later!

While this film proves that Disney hasn’t lost it, and that hand-drawn animation is still alive and kicking, it does fall short of being a true animated classic.


Film Review: (500) Days of Summer (2009)

(500) Days of Summer
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel
Directed by: Marc Webb
Written by: Scott Newstadter and Michael H. Weber
Rated: PG-13
Rating: 5 (five out of five)500_days

I don’t like chick flicks.  Well, I usually don’t.  I will admit to liking one or two, here or there.  When Harry Met Sally comes to mind.  I’ve always found it annoying when a movie navigates it’s plot points with predictable ennui.  I understand why so many people find them appealing – the fairy-tale essence and the good, happy, romantic ending – and I appreciate that.  I just don’t like it myself.  My collection of movies is decidedly darker, and I don’t think that’s just because of my personality.  I’ve always looked towards art to reflect back to me what I see every day, and the art that does that I find attractive.

So I liked 500 Days of Summer (which is to be referred to without the e.e. cummings-like punctuation for the rest of this review).  It was different, and more a reflection of reality than most love stories these days.

The film is told in a series non-sequential flashbacks, going backwards and forwards through the character’s relationship.  Non-linear story telling is nothing new, but I think it’s the first time I’ve seen it applied to a love story – except, as the Narrator tells us, “This isn’t a love story.  It’s a story about love.”

Levitt plays Tom Hansen, someone who has almost been an observer to his own life.  He went to school to become an architect, but spends his days writing the insides of greeting cards.  Enter Summer (Deschanel), who has just moved to L.A. from Michigan and has landed herself a job as Tom’s boss’s assistant.  Tom is instantly in love.

He truly believes that Summer is The One, The Only One, from the very beginning.  After a few days and some helpful prodding from his friends, Summer and Tom end up together.  From the very start, Summer is very plain and disarmingly honest about what she wants – in her first real conversation with Tom, she tells him she doesn’t want a relationship.  Shortly afterward, she makes sure Tom understands that all she wants is to be friends.  Tom hears what he wants.  He hears “take it slow” and “see where it goes.”

Tom has long believed in fairy tales and he doesn’t see what’s in front of him.  He sees what the fairy tales have led him to believe and he thinks that Summer shares this.  But as the Narrator told us at the very beginning, “This isn’t a love story.  It’s a story about love.”

Deschanel is just perfect as Tom’s tantalizing object of obsession.  She sees Tom for exactly who he is and likes him for exactly that.  She’s smart, funny, beautiful, playful, and it’s Tom’s bad luck that he can’t help but fall in love with her.

Summer is a bit mysterious in this movie.  We’ve all been so trained by Hollywood’s clichéd romance movies that we expect she’ll change and see that Tom is It.  When she doesn’t, she becomes mysterious.  The film almost instantly leaves the love story arc and heads into unexplored waters.  We only see her through Tom’s eyes, and what he doesn’t understand, we don’t either.

The director borrows from other pieces of art to help display Tom’s feelings.  Glimpses of Fellini, Disney, and French post-modernism explain what’s going on inside without being literal about it.  There’s even a nod to When Harry Met Sally.

When you look back on a years worth of related events, especially that of a relationship, you tend not to see it exactly as it happened.  You see it in glimpses that aren’t chronological; you see references from movies, books, and TV; you see things not quite as they were, but as a heightened experience of what happened.  In other words, it plays out like 500 Days of Summer.

Which is why it’s a great film.

(As a side note, a few of my friends complained about the ending.  While I can understand their complaint with the very last scene, I completely disagree and thing that there was no more apropos an ending for this film than what was presented.  Even the name of the girl applied.)


Who is Jennifer Beckman?

Mini-reviews: The Happening, The Descent, Brick, and The Ruins

The Happening (2008)
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel; Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Rating: * (one star out of five)

Summary: The story begins with an outbreak in Central Park. Tourists, residents, people are making their way through the park when the wind picks up. Everyone freezes, and begins slowly backing up a handful of paces. Then they begin to kill themselves, by any means they can. At a building site in the city, construction workers begin to walk off the top floor of the building to their crushing deaths. In a school in the city, Elliot (Wahlberg) and Julian (John Leguizamo) are pulled from class to a teachers-only meeting where they told there is an “event” happening, most likely a terrorist attack using chemicals. Then everyone runs for their lives from the New England area, where the “event” appears to be spreading to less populated areas. It quickly becomes clear that it’s not terrorists.

Thoughts: A stunning failure. And by stunning, I don’t mean it looked pretty; it was absolutely awful. Which hurts me a little inside to say, as all of Shyamalan‘s previous movies had some redeeming quailty (I have not yet seen Lady in the Water, though). Beautiful cinematography was something I could rely on — not any more. The dialogue itself was written well; but the direction and the acting behind it were terrible. There were awkward pauses, but not awkward in a realistic way. The explanation for what was going on should be of no surprise to people at this point, but I won’t spoil it here. Suffice it to say that the explanation is no twist, and it’s not scientifically plausible. Scientific reasoning is not something that I normally hold against films, but the way that the information was presented made it such that I found it hard to ignore the hard science behind it all. In a word: Skip it. Period.

The Descent (2005)
Starring: Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza; Directed by: Neil Marshall
Rating: ** (two out of five stars)

Summary: After Sarah’s (Macdonald) family is killed in a tragic car accident, her friends try to bring her life back to some semblance of normalcy. Juno (Mendoza) invites the group of friends out on a spelunking trip in a basic cave system. The friends then journey into the cave system, which immediately begins to crumble behind them, sealing the entrance. They must then find their way out and band together as well as they can. This is, however, a horror film: the requisite violence does ensue.

Thoughts: Ultimately, it was a disappointing movie. I honestly cannot say if it’s because I was expecting more or if the movie is just weak. I do not wish to spoil anything, but the first 50 or 60 minutes of a 100 minute movie are spent wandering the caves, with no real action. Had this been a movie about lost explorers, it would not have been that bad, though it could have done better. Unfortunately this is billed as a horror film, and supposedly a disturbing and bloody one at that. With what I thought was a reputation behind it, I expected the terror to begin much earlier in the film, but until about 40 minutes from the end, the only scene of anything ‘horror’ related is a severely broken shin. All that being said, once the Crawlers are encountered, the film succeeds. The darkness of the caves, the eerie glow of the flares and failing flashlights work in magically horrific ways. And the ending — what a terrific bummer of an ending. The ending works, and is by far the best of the movie. In a word: The horror fan in me has to recommend it for the last 40 minutes, but to the average viewer, I’d say skip over it in favor of other fare.

Side note: Whether I liked the film or not, a sequel is currently in the works, picking up exactly where this one left off. I love it when sequels pick up at the exact ending of the first (take Underworld and Underworld: Evolution). Unfortunately, the plot of The Descent 2 sounds ridiculous.

Brick (2005)
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Lukas Haas; Directed by: Rian Johnson
Rating: *** (three stars out of five)

Summary: This is a hard one to summarize. Brendan (Gordon-Levitt) is a loner in high school, a loner with a bit of a past. He receives a distressing phone call from his ex-girlfriend shortly after she’s supposedly gone missing. He tries to track her down, but arrives too late, discovering her dead body outside of town. Brendan enlists the help of a friend and enters the criminal underworld of his school, working his way up to the top of the felonious food chain to The Pin (Haas), the young ruler of the underage syndicate. Brendan tries to play both sides to swing the outcome the way he wants.

Thoughts: Extremely well made for a first endeavor; it’s a complicated film for a young auteur. The stylings behind it are strongly rooted in the classic film noir crime dramas: everything from the camera angles to the story to the deliverance of the dialogue mimic some of the greatest films Hollywood produced. The plot is somewhat convoluted at times simply because of that dialogue, but that is not a detriment to the story. I did feel that the film had a bit too much of a hint of amateurism and that drew away from the films final polish. The overall plot was ridiculous, if you stopped to think about, but that’s the beauty of setting such an intricate film noir in a high school — it is ludicrous. And it works surprisingly well. It could have been a much tighter film (see Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) and that would have made it brilliant. As it sits, it’s a fine first film for what could be a promising writer/director. In a word: Recommended viewing for those who love film noir.

The Ruins (2008)
Starring: Jonathan Tucker, Jena Malone; Directed by: Carter Smith
Rating: *** (three stars out of five)

Summary: A group of friends on vacation in Mexico are looking for one last adventure before they head home. At the hotel the meet a young German, Mathias (Joe Anderson), who tells the group of an uncharted, recently discovered Mayan pyramid. His brother, an archaeologist, is exploring the site, and he invites the group along with him to be among the first to see the pyramid in hundreds of years. When they arrive at the site, they are immediately surrounded by locals with guns and arrows who are yelling at them. The nearer the group gets to the temple, the louder the locals scream; at one point, one of Mathias’s friends tries to make peace and is immediately killed. The group retreats up to the top of the pyramid, only to discover no one from the archaeological team surviving — they are all wrapped in plants. Then things get worse.

Thoughts: I was dreading seeing this movie, and avoided it for a long time. The plot sounded absolutely ridiculous and some of the visuals shown in the trailers weren’t that enticing. In the last few days, I’ve seen some interesting headlines floating around about how this unassuming film got under the critic’s skin. I had to watch it and I’m glad I did. This movie gave me what I was hoping The Descent would. This film is not really horror, but it is definitely graphic. The horror aspects of the plot don’t kick in until near the end. Several scenes made me wince (the first death is timed perfectly to be unexpected). The ‘surgical’ scene involving the three males in particular made me grit my teeth. For being a movie about a five people trapped on top of a ruined Mayan pyramid, with creepy plant life and threatening natives surrounding them, this movie actually succeeded on a level I never imagined it would. The only downside is that the final few shots are extremely predictable while the rest of film is not. In a word: I never thought I’d say this, but I’d recommend this film. Check it out, it might surprise you.

Mini-reviews: Prince Caspian, 88 Minutes, and more

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
Starring: Ben Barnes, William Moseley; Directed by: Andrew Adamson
Rating: ** 1/2 (two and a half stars out of five)

Summary: The Pevensie children are sent back to Narnia a mere year after returning back to war-time London. But more than one year has passed in Narnia — 1,299 more to be exact. There they find an exiled Prince (Barnes) who is struggling with his blood-thirsty uncle, King Miraz (Sergio Castellitto) who has long been scheming to steal the throne from the royal family. Caspian and the Pevensies join forces to fight the Telmarines and restore the land to the Narnians who have long been prosecuted.

Thoughts: Not nearly as good as the book, and, unfortunately, not nearly as good as it’s prequel (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005)). The filmmakers relied on action and violence rather than politlcal intrigue and plot. The story felt extremely thin for how long the film was. The effects were astounding, as was to be expected, but fantasy epics with grand special effects are somewhat cliche these days. Prince Caspian failed to find something to unique to pull it apart from the rest of them. This is even more unfortunate because they are planning to continue turning the books into movies (see here); a brilliant director is attached, so hopefully that’ll help. In a word: Long, with weak storytelling, but amazing special effects and action mean you shouldn’t ignore it.

88 Minutes
Starring: Al Pacino, Leelee Sobieski; Directed by: Jon Avnet
Rating: * 1/2 (one and a half stars out of five)

Summary: Jack Gramm (Pacino) is a top dog forensic psychologist. A man he recently sent to death-row is finally coming up on the big day and he’s maintained his innocence since he was caught. On this day, the final day of the murderer’s life, Gramm receives an incredibly threatening phone call telling him he has a mere 88 minutes to live. At first he blows it off as yet another side effect of his job. It’s immediately clear that the threats are real, though, and he begins an 80 minute long chase to save his life and find who’s conspiring against him (who he automatically knows is related to the murderer). And (what a surprise) 88 minutes has personal meaning to Gramm …

Thoughts: Way too cliche, predictable, and ultimately boring to be that good. I love watching Pacino on screen, and even a cliche’d murder mystery can be entertaining. This movie took itself way too seriously to accomplish much entertainment at all. Your list of possible suspects is immediately limited to three, only two of which are at all probable considering how strongly the script tries to implicate one early on. When you finally reach the end, you wonder why you even cared in the first place; the end is both predictable and utterly ridiculous. The best part is that the from the moment Gramm finds he has 88 minutes to live, that’s the remaining runtime — usually movie don’t stick to their own timelines, so I enjoyed that part. In a word: Predictable and thorougly unoriginal mystery.

Shoot ‘Em Up
Starring: Clive Owen, Paul Giamatti; Directed by: Michael Davis
Rating *** (three out of five stars)

Summary: Mr. Smith (Owen) is awaiting a bus when a pregnant lady runs by, followed by some thugs with guns who are obviously trying to kill her. Smith, ultimately a do-gooder, throws his food aside and saves her, the baby (which he delivers), and kills a bunch of guys. Then Hertz (Giamatti) shows up — the man in charge, who continually comes up with new ways to find (and kill) Smith. Smith in the meantime dodges these attempts and enlists the help of a lactating prostitute to help him care for the baby. To add to the plot, it does have a conspiracy going on … but that’s not really important.

Thoughts: A ton of fun. Fun, inventive violence that looks good; fun performances by Owen (who sort of relives his Sin City days) and Giamatti. The Subplot (ie, the reason why they want to kill the baby) is utter lunacy, but it is only there to further the violence. And I’m OK with that. Between this and Smokin’ Aces, I’d pick this. There’s not much to else to say, other than it worked wonderfully for what it was and what it wanted to be. In a word: It accomplished what it set out to do: great, strong violence with a great cast.

Smokin’ Aces
Starring: Jeremy Piven, Ryan Reynolds; Directed by: Joe Carnahan
Rating: ** (two out of five stars)

Summary: Buddy ‘Aces’ Israel (Piven) is a stage performer turned mafioso in Vegas. Then he turns FBI informant. And then he gets a $1 million bounty put on his head by his former Mafia boss. Several different people decide their going to try to get the bounty, including neo-Nazi’s, a nameless/faceless professional assassin, and other horrible, nasty people. Of course, the FBI is trying to prevent the assassination, and they have other interests for wanting to bring down this Mafia family.

Thoughts: Great action but not much else. I take that back; it has some good dialogue too. But after violence and some good dialogue, it doesn’t have much else. The ‘twist’ at the end is incredibly predictable if you accidentally think about the movie (as I did). The pace is quick and direct, and the violence just as it should be: way over the top. I couldn’t rightfully give it a top rating, as it’s just eye-candy, but it was definitely good eye-candy. In a word: Great, bloody, explosive violence; some good dialogue; nothing else.

Review: The Strangers (2008)

The Strangers (2008)
Starring: Scott Speedman, Liv Tyler
Directed by: Bryan Bertino
Written by: Bryan Bertino
Rated: R
Rating: 1/2 (half star out of five)

A young couple who are having temporary relationship issues return home after a friends wedding. They are then terrorized by three people in masks, who haunt their every turn until the ending we pretty much saw coming before we bought the tickets.

To quote Roger Ebert in his review of this movie: “What a waste of a perfectly good first act! And what a maddening, nihilistic, infuriating ending!” He then describes how he read an interview with the director who said it was his first directorial job ever. This prompted Ebert to bump his review up 1/2 a star because he felt the director at least had the “chops” to make a movie. I disagree.

There was nothing original about this movie; there was nothing that I hadn’t seen before in another film that did it one-hundred times better. I hate to say it, but I was bored. First, let me pick apart the bulk of the film.

Funny Games (the original in 1997, not the remake) was brilliant, in my opinion. Daring, original, and truly frightening. Except for the quirky twist during the climax, the film was startlingly realistic — there were no scenes of people behind you with a knife one second and the next they are gone. If those bad guys were behind you with a knife, you were going down.

Where The Strangers fails is it’s attempt to scare the audience instead of it’s on-screen victims. While getting a movie-goers pulse pounding is important, theres a certain sweat that grows when you know what you’re witnessing before you is real, it’s possible. This one wasn’t. While some shots were simply creepy (namely the first time we see the masked male when our “heroine” is in the kitchen), they quickly loose their appeal. There’s one scene where Liv Tyler is crawling on the ground and for a split-second, there’s a menacing figure with a knife behind her, then it’s gone — and Tyler doesn’t even see it. It’s a scare for us, not for the character, which renders the scare pointless.

I wanted to say that the beginning of the film was good, with some decent building of suspense and drama. Unfortunately, the filmmakers had to ruin it with a terrible voice-over and awful, just plain awful, captions telling us this story is supposedly “based on true events.” Had the filmmakers started the the movie with Tyler and Speedman driving home from the wedding, the first act would have been fantastic (hence Ebert’s comments).

I never expected the end of it to be anything less than mediocre at best. Instead, they went for three or four cheap, cop-out moments that either make the audience scream or go “Oh, how dumb.” Most said the latter.

The only scares this movie has to offer are a few creepy moments at the beginning, and then a bunch of extremely loud crashing noises that would make anyone jump in their seats. And, as horror fans know, those don’t count as true scares. It’s mediocre at best, terrible at it’s worst. Boring overall.

Mini-reviews: AVPR, Astronaut Farmer, Fracture

Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem
Starring: Steven Pasquale, John Ortiz; Directed by: Colin and Greg Strause
Rating: 1/2 (half star out of five)

Summary: When an Alien managed to destroy a group of Predators, including impregnating one with a little gut-busting baddy, the ‘head’ Predator on the hunt seeks revenge. They meet in a small town in the US, whose residents range from a do-good sheriff, an ex-con, his brother and the girl he likes, and a bunch of other people who die. Carnage ensues as the Predator hunts down the Alien, destroying humans who get in the way.

Thoughts: Boring. The original AVP, which was only PG-13, was much better than this one. With an R-rating, one would assume the extra gore would bring a new level to the story … but no. Disappointingly, no one makes any use of the alien-predator hybrid that is being hunted. When the Alien face-hugger implants the Predator, the damned thing that bursts from it’s chest cavity is a hybrid between both species. How cool of a creature could that be? Unfortunately no one seemed to realize this had potential and it was much to the films detriment. In a word: Utter disappointment.

The Astronaut Farmer
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Virginia Madsen; Directed by: Michael Polish
Rating: ** (two stars out of five)

Summary: Charles Farmer has a dream to be an astronaut. So he builds a rocket in his barn with the plan to orbit once around the earth then plummet back down into his backyard, all safely. His son has been working with him and training to man the command center as his father orbits. His family, though in debt and in foreclosure, endlessly support Farmer, stressful as it is. As does the town, at one point even buying advertising on the rocket itself (a la NASCAR). And then he tries to buy 10,000 gallons of fuel. In comes the FBI worried he’s building a WMD. In comes a regulatory board which does all it can to ground Farmer. But they can stop a Dream? (Dream is the name of the rocket).

Thoughts: Not as touching as it should have been, and the lack of any scientific explanations will likely turn of most people. Where he got his equipment, his physics and math skills, and, most importantly, the knowledge to build a rocket with it’s complicated engine, structural design, and ‘advanced’ electronics (‘advanced’ is something of an understatement as the technology in Dream itself harkens to the Gemini-era). The end is also choppy. So why give it two stars instead of one? It was original — what a fantastic idea! I was sold on it when I first saw a trailer, even though I knew it wouldn’t be quite as good as I wanted. In a word: Great idea that falls extremely short on execution.

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Anthony Hopkins; Directed by: Gregory Hoblit
Rating: ** (two stars out of five)

Summary: Ted Crawford is an artist who has discovered his wife is cheating on him with a police officer. So he shoots her in the face and cleans up the murder scene. When the cops arrive, the man she was messing around with is the head detective; Crawford confesses to him. Enter Willy Beachum, a top-notch young lawyer for the prosecution. Can he play Crawford’s game? Or will someone get away with murder?

Thoughts: Just plain average. Both Gosling and Hopkins give good performances, but there isn’t much to any of the characters for these two great actors to truly build anything upon. The actual details of the case and the plan that Crawford has to get off are incredibly predictable. So, once again, why two stars instead of one? Because Gosling and Hopkins were good, and the direction actually wasn’t bad. It was the script that was lacking, not the overall film. In a word: Predictable yet somehow well made.