Archive for the ‘3-Star Movies’ Category

Day Watch by Night, Night Watch by Day

January 15, 2008

In the beginning, there were forces of Light and of Dark, and one fine day, the two great armies met on a bridge and proceeded the beat the ever-living immortal crap out of each other, until it was decided by one of the Great Ones that the Dark people would watch over the Light (i.e., “Day Watch”) and the Light would watch over the Dark (i.e., “Night Watch”). And eons later, Timur Bekmambetov made a couple of movies on the theme of good versus evil: Night Watch (2004) and Day Watch (2006).

In Night Watch, we meet Anton, a nervous young man who’s apparently found out that his girlfriend is having an affair while pregnant; Anton visits a crusty old Russian woman (the movies are set in Moscow) who claims she can cause a miscarriage justlikethat. But then things sort of go wrong, and things aren’t as they seem, and I feel safe in telling you that as a result of this meeting, Anton discovers he is one of the eternal ones involved in this timeless battle against the forces of dark – a Light One. Those of Light and Dark are known as Others – i.e., not humans – people with otherworldly powers who can exist on planes other than your typical Earth plane. And legend has it that some day a Great Other will basically break the longstanding tie between the Light and Dark Others, in essence tilting the battle one way or another.

It all sounds awfully Gothic, doesn’t it? Anton grows into a mopey, cynical agent of the Light, not entirely happy with his lot and keeping his emotions and desires fully in check. He works on a team of Light agents who patrol Moscow in heavy-duty all-purpose trucks to halt illicit Dark activity during the day.

Meanwhile, what of this Great Other? Are his or her talents completely latent at this point, or is he or she on one side or the other? The actions undertaken by Anton in that aborted arrangement with the old Muscovite set into action a chain of events whose importantance and relevance are not readily apparent until well into the second movie, Day Watch.

One interesting aspect about the production of the movies is that they both have the look and overall tone of a movie from 1980s Hollywood. I’m not sure if this is an intentional effect, or if the Russian film industry is still about a generation behind American moviemaking. I can’t quite put my finger on what made me think of the 1980s, but it was abstractions as lighting and the color of the film. Hey, all the agents have cell phones, so it’s surely not set IN the 1980s (in fact, the second movie is set in ’06, I believe.)

Both movies are a lot of fun, with the usual caveat about subtitled Russian movies in play. To be honest, with so much action going on – and some inventive, gory special effects – I hardly noticed the time it took me to read the subtitles. It’s not as if they’re crafting Dostoyevsky down there, you know. As as result, I focused much more on the action at hand and was able to follow along with things pretty well. Sometimes the plots get a little… complex, shall we say, but it’s never so out of reach that you want to give up on it and watch an old Yakov Smirnoff routine instead. (That would be dumb of you, and you’re not dumb.) Both movies are intense, visceral films and present a creative new take on a theme that’s popped up in myriad films over the entirety of the movie camera’s existence. The denouement in Day Watch at the party is something to watch – shades of The Omen and Phantasm, to be sure.

Night Watch (2004): ***
Day Watch (2006): ***

362 – Rise: Blood Hunter

January 2, 2008

Despite its unwieldy, off-putting title, Rise: Blood Hunter (aka simply Rise) isn’t as terribly cheesy and disgusting as I imagined it would be. A reporter (Lucy Liu) wakes up in a morgue’s body drawer and discovers she’s been changed into a blood-seeking, human-chomping immortal, or something, and rather than gleefully embrace her new self she decides to track down the evil bastards who put her in that condition, making her a sort of avenging angel for all those who have been similarly wronged.

Sadie Blake (Liu) is a sexy, classy young lady who’s just written a front-page story about teen goth clubs. One of her coworkers, the nerdy computer stereotype, tracks down a phone number that one of the teens handed to Sadie – turns out it’s not a phone number but the first in a series of clues that leads to a website devoted to some weird bloodsucking cult. Sadie, of course, thinks the story’s over and goes on a quickie vacation to Mexico with her sister, but when she returns, you guessed it, her coworker’s dead. Sadie follows clues like a good little Nancy Drew and winds up getting kidnapped (several times) and killed (several times), all to figure out who or what’s behind everything.

The story jumps around a lot, flouting the conventions of time as we know them; things simply don’t happen in the exact order we’d expect them to, which clouds Sadie’s motives and intentions quite a bit. Is she good? Is she even human? After all, once she’s been attacked by the vampire people, she’s not exactly the picture of health, and she’s gotta eat to survive. Is her ultimate goal of revenge enough to offset the unpleasant facts?

It helps that there’s a typically hissable bad guy, Bishop (James D’Arcy). He’s eternal, of course, and he kills and mutilates and rapes for the sheer joy of it. There are no moral or ethical quandaries with this guy. Plus he has an effete, brandy-swilling British accent, making all the more unctuous and slimy. (Well, he’s slimy also because he’s often covered in someone’s blood.)

Now, granted, this isn’t a pleasant, sedate movie to watch. It’s full of gore and guts, although not so much as, say, a movie like Saw or Hostel. It’s still not for the weak of stomach. You might remember how, in Kill Bill, The Bride traveled all over to wipe out those who’d wronged her – but the film didn’t show us this in the order in which each avenging occurred, did it? So you’d see Uma Thurman wander over to Viveca Fox’s house not knowing if she’d already visited Lucy Liu. Well, you would know, of course, if you picked up on the subtle hints, and that’s exactly how it is here. At one point, Sadie runs into alcoholic, world-weary cop-with-a-conscience-and-a-cause Clyde Rawlins (a fantastic Michael Chiklis) and mutters something about having seen him before. And if you watch the movie closely, you see exactly where. It’s as if there are no coincidences in the movie, and I think that works in its favor.

Still, it IS just a revenge flick, albeit one with vampires and a kick-ass crossbow. Liu is very, very good – she’s not the screaming, hands-in-the-air type of heroine, but she’s also not the balls-out gut-stomping Lara Croft type, either. Remember, Lucy Liu is petite; she doesn’t automatically have this intimidating screen presence, so she uses what she has and makes the most of it. In her case, I’d have to say it’s her eyes, flashing terror or courage in…. well, in the blink of an eye.

So despite some predictability, the movie does work, thanks to Liu and the novelty of the disjointed sequencing. There are quite a few chills, and the plot doesn’t stray too far from its main revenge thread, thus simplifying matters.

***

358 – I Am Legend

December 16, 2007

Anyone familiar with Richard Matheson’s story about the last man to survive a massive worldwide plague will have very little to complain about regarding this newest adaptation, with Will Smith as the slightly crazed Dr. Robert Neville, the harried former military doctor who’s been waiting for signs of other survivors for three long years.

Every day, Neville gather supplies from throughout New York City, and every evening, at dusk, he shutters his abode against the onslaught of zombie creatures that live only in the dark. Well, against those who’d attack if they knew where he lived. Which they don’t, really. And Neville has it made, at least in terms of resources. He has generators for electricity, so he can cook his own food (and for his dog, Sam). He has great security. He can watch movies to his heart’s content. But after three years, he’s more than a little lonely – he’s beginning to go crazy. (He’s even positioned mannequins in the video store so he can “converse” with them each day.)

We have a vague idea of what caused 99% of the Earth’s population to die, but the movie’s more concerned with the aftermath; how Neville survives, and how he lost his family. (Hint: It’s not because of the plague.) And this is where the strength of Will Smith comes into play. Until recently, Smith was mostly Action Guy – Independence Day, Bad Boys, I, Robot, and so on – and basically thrived on dopey catch phrases. Good news! There are no catch phrases in this movie. In fact, Smith has to actually emote and act, and damn if he doesn’t do an exemplary job. Remember when Tom Hanks chatted up a volleyball? Same sorta thing, only Smith’s talking to his German Shepherd; he needs to in order to keep hold of the tenuous gossamer strands of his slippery sanity.

When he’s not out gathering provisions and scouting for people, Neville is busy in his basement lab, trying desperately to reverse the virus and cure everyone. I’m not sure about the science angle of this, but since Neville himself is immune, he figures he can inject one of the zombie creatures with his blood, but that doesn’t work. So he keeps at it, adding things, taking away things. It’s all very scientific.

Smith’s beautiful, evocative performance is among the best he’s ever given, about on par with the maudlin The Pursuit of Happyness; I Am Legend is an action movie that doesn’t smack you over the head every five seconds with, well, more action; it instead builds suspense and then pays off. Multiple times. One reason this works is that director Francis Lawrence employed a hand-held camera during many of the more violent scenes, and it’s usually a pretty effective method – it’s just that sometimes the zigzagging is a little jarring. Still, not a big problem.

There are some differences between this movie and the original story, but they’re not bad differences, exactly; an example of a story being updated while not being demonstrably altered. And here’s another plus – although you do get to see the creatures – and they’re pretty nasty looking – you don’t see them often enough to get used to them, or their hideous screeches, or their no-holds-barred, uninhibited, visceral behavior.

***

352 – Bee Movie

November 4, 2007

Back in olden times, a B movie was one that was filmed largely on the backlot of a particular studio – that is, the kind of movie that had few, if any, known actors and that received little, if any, real promotion or hype. These were low budget, low-impact movies.

But the similarity between those B movies and Bee Movie is purely nominal. Look! Big stars! Lots of hype? Is it worth the 90 minutes of your time to put up with a theater full of squealing youngsters, even if you yourself have no children and in fact are quite conspicuous? Short answer – yes!

Jerry Seinfeld (who also cowrote) is Barry B. Benson, a worker bee who just wants to fly away from the hive and see what’s out there in the great big world; he doesn’t want to be tied down to the same ol’ monotonous job with Honex, making honey. Which is what bees do. No, he wants to fly, explore, live! His best pal Adam (Matthew Broderick), is a bit more conversative and openly embraces the long, dull office job that awaits him, and he tries in vain to dissuade Barry from acting on his dreams. Ah, but to no avail; once Barry flies out with the Pollen Jocks, bees who, well, collect the pollen the bees use to make honey, he sees those dreams fulfilled. But such a journey isn’t a cakewalk, nosir, it’s fraught with danger, as Barry gets caught in a car’s engine, along with other mishaps, eventually finding his way to a windowsill outside the apartment of one Vanessa Bloome (Rene Zellweger), who saves him from being splattered by her friends.

So it’s your typical bee-meets-girl movie. Oh yes, I went there for that silly pun.

Now, things are tough enough for Barry as he tries to win over Vanessa while jousting (verbally and physically) with her beau, Ken (Patrick Warburton, who’s terrific as always) and dealing with his overprotective and not-completely understanding parents (Kathy Bates and Barry Levinson) when he learns that – gasp! – humans EAT honey. Honey that the bees make! After a little investigating, Barry sees with his own eyes how honey is harvested by humans from manmade hives populated by drugged-out bees – and he decides to sue the human race for stealing the bees’ honey!

And what had been a quirky love story (look! interspecies romance!) now becomes a little-man-versus-the-big-conglomerate plotline, and to tell the truth I felt a little guilty siding with the little guy. Barry takes the major corporations to court, and they’re represented by the oleaginous Layton T. Montomgery (John Goodman), who lays on the good-ol-boy thicker than, well, you can guess. Can Barry and the bees stand up to Monty and the humans? With Oprah Winfrey as the judge, how can he go wrong? But wrong he does go, and that’s as far as I’ll take this plot summary.

Bee Movie is everything you want to see in an animated movie. It’s inventive and creative (check out how detailed the hive operations are, or even Vanessa’s apartment, or the courtroom), it’s believable, and it’s utterly charming. An animated movie HAS to be charming, too, because otherwise we adults would see it as just some dopey kids movie, wouldn’t we? Seinfeld is winning and sincere as the bee with a cause, even when – especially when – things don’t work out the way he expects them to. Bee Movie has a lot of heart, with a perfect, cheery ending.

***

351 – Planet Terror

November 1, 2007

As half of the larger Grindhouse movie (with Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof), Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror is precisely what it aims to be – an homage to cheesy, low-budget zombie movies of the seventies and eighties. Although it’s told in a straightforward manner, Planet Terror allows the viewer to enjoy the nostalgia theme ironically, with just enough creeps and scares to be viewed as a honest-to-goodness horror thriller.

Seems some kind of noxious nerve gas that changes those who breathe it into flesh-eating zombies has been unleashed into the air at a military base (helpfully called “Military Base” on road signs). The army can’t help – they might be behind it! So who can save the day? Why, a motley crew of citizens from a nearby town, of course, including a stripper who’s just quit her job (Rose McGowan), a tow-truck-driving loner (Freddy Rodriguez), an honest sheriff (Michael Biehn), and a domestically abused doctor (Marley Shelton). Somehow, they must eradicate just enough of the mindless drones to escape to a better clime and find out how to keep the disease from spreading further. Can they do it? Yes they can!

As with most Robert Rodriguez movies, there’s a lot of style AND substance to go around. For one thing, the movie’s very well filmed, from the seamy lighting surrounding J.T.’s Bone Shack to the orderly madness of the local hospital. Heck, even the music sounds authentic, like the producers spent $20 to grab a few songs off of iTunes. Which brings me to the same conundrum I experienced with Death Proof: Why, if these are supposed to be homages to old-time crapfests from the 1970s or so, are there so many nods to modern living? I mean, why not go whole hog and have the movie actually SET in the 1970s? Wouldn’t that have made more sense?

Eh, doesn’t matter too much. Little anachronisms may be an irritant, but the movie’s so well put together that you likely won’t even notice or mind. Plus, Rodriguez makes up for that – and then some – by mischievously releasing the movie as if it had a missing reel (a reel that was never filmed, it should be noted). Oh, it’s priceless. Freddy Rodriguez, as El Wray, is in the middle of coupling with his ex-ex-now-maybe-on-again, Cherry (McGowan) when the film appears to melt and perhaps fall off the reel; the viewer then sees a title card apologizing for the delay, and then POW, we’re back in the movie, well further along than when we’d left it. (Humorously, the sheriff thanks El Wray later on for revealing his true identity and calling to the lawman; El Wray nods and tells the sheriff to keep it under his hat. Nudge nudge, wink, wink!)

But see, this isn’t just about a stripper with a heart of gold warding off hordes of zombies; it’s about a legless stripper with a heart of gold. See, early on, Cherry was sideswiped by a transport vehicle as she walked along the side of the road. She somehow caught the disease the zombies would later get, but she was “saved” when the good doctors chopped off the offending and infected leg. Heck, for part of the movie she has a table leg wedged into her metal stump, but later on? Later on she gets a machine gun there. Now THAT’S badass! She’s a lithe stripper, you see, able to bend and twist and fire the gun wherever she wants. That Cherry, she has quite the assets, doesn’t she?

McGowan and F. Rodriguez are both great, and so’s the well-picked supporting cast, including Biehn as the intrepid sheriff and Jeff Fahey as his brother, a restauranteur. Oh, and Michael Parks, who’s played the same kindly Texas Ranger Earl McGraw, who’s been in both Kill Bill films and Tarantino’s Death Proof, not to mention From Dusk Till Dawn (also directed by Rodriguez), and he’s wryly amusing here. Heck, Bruce Willis appears unbilled, too. Tarantino’s in it as well; he’s actually half-decent as an actor, although his turn in Death Proof was a bit more entertaining.

In all, Planet Terror serves as a grimy reminder of just how deservedly unsung those cranked-out crapfests were back in the day, back when you’d pay a nickel for a double feature, and that included popcorn, by gum! The characters are appropriately shallowly written, although often the actors add just enough depth to make the movie worthwhile, even nonironically.

***

346 – 3:10 to Yuma

September 8, 2007

This remake of the 1957 oater (that’s movie talk for “western”) is servicable largely because of the earnest craftiness of its two leads, who skillfully play off each other in a battle of wills, if not morals. Unfortunately, while the motives of the good guy (playes by Christian Bale) are both noble and realistic, some of the actions of the bad guy (Russell Crowe) may leave you scratching your head, and while nebulous intentions can make for wonderful mystery, in the end you’re still not sure why Crowe’s dastardly Ben Wade has done what he’s done, and what it all means.

Dan Evans (Bale) is a dirt-poor farmer who lost a leg in the Civil War. His farm’s about to be foreclosed by an unscrupulous land owner who’s taken to damming a river and burning down Evans’ barn to force him off his own property. So when stagecoach robber Ben Wade (Crowe) is captured and needs to be escorted to the nearby town to get on the titular train, Evans volunteers, both to gain payment to help save his farm and to save face in front of his two kids, one of whom is sick from tuberculosis and one who thinks his old man is a spineless failure. Saddled by debt and ungrateful kids, Evans’ decision and motivation are easy to understand.

Ah, but getting the nefarious Wade to Yuma is going to be a complicated trick indeed, because the rest of his gang, led by Charlie Prince (Ben Foster) isn’t going to let their fearless leader be trundled off to Yuma to die. Luckily, bounty hunter Byron McElroy (a gritty Peter Fonda) gets the idea of using a decoy stagecoach to lure the varmints off the trail while he and the rest of the posse, including Evans, schlep Wade in the other direction. The gambit works for a while, allowing the good guys to place precious geographical space between them and the bad guys; it also allows the movie to continue unabated. Because, after all, there are more people in Wade’s gang then there are trying to bring him to justice – all they’d have to do is find him, shoot the hell out of the place, and grab him.

Although there’s plenty of gunplay and death by bullets, this is much more of a psychological drama than anything else. Wade, as played coldly (but not charmlessly) by Crowe, has two goals in mind: gain the mental upper hand on Evans, an untrained rancher, and gain his escape from the clutches of law and order. Meanwhile, although Evans’ intentions are less murky, he’s not some squinty-eyed sharpshooter whose aim is always true; he’s not an iconic hero who you just know is gonna save the day. Bale is terrific; you can really see the anguish he feels as a supposed failure in the eyes of his sons. In the hands of lesser actors, these two complex roles would have seemed less symbiotic and therefore less sincere. For example, apparently Movie Guy Tom Cruise was initially supposed to have Wade’s role; if that had come to fruition, we would have been distracted by Movie Star Tom Cruise, and the movie would have suffered terribly as a result.

But despite the wonderful performances by Bale and Crowe, the movie’s shortcoming is that Ben Wade’s intentions seem rather inscrutable. I don’t mean that they’re simply ambiguous (is he going to flee or help the good guys fight off Navajo Indians?), I mean that they don’t make much sense. One minute, Wade is all set to get away from Evans and escape to the safety of his gang, but in the next he’s actually fending off his gang as it attacks Evans. There’s no explanation given for this change of heart, but the new attitude is gone as quickly as it arrives, leaving the viewer a little puzzled. Sure, some may explain this as “Wade comes to respect Evans and so doesn’t want to see the rancher killed,” but Wade’s actions were much more than that. He wasn’t just trying to save Evans, you see, he was actively trying to knock off members of his own gang, and the reason for that escaped me completely.

Still, 3:10 to Yuma is firmly entertaining, benefitting from two gritty, believable performances by Crowe and Bale, although it’s marred by some unexplained actions on the part of its charismatic villain.

***

343 – 300

August 26, 2007

Remember those commercials for the US Marines, wherein some ripped young recruit is climbing a mountain, and then he almost falls as he reaches the summit, so he reaches out with a muscular arm and, gritting his teeth and emitting some sort of war cry, he reaches for the mountain and hoists himself up? That’s sort of how the entire two hours of 300: men screaming as they stab, fillet, garrote, gut, and impale their enemies on pointy things. It takes two hours because there are so many enemies, and because they’re using spears and swords instead of guns.

300 is loosely based on a real-life event, the 480 BC defense by a small band of Spartan soldiers of their homeland from a marauding Persian army, led by Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro). The movie is more directly based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel about the battle itself, so some liberties are taken, but more importantly the use of the comic as the basis allows the blood and gore to be shown in an almost-surrealistic format, thus enabling the normal (read: not bloodthirsty) viewer to enjoy the film without feeling guilt at seeing so much mayhem.

King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) has a tough decision to make. An emissary from Xerxes meets him and tells him that Sparta must bend its knee to its new ruler. Leonidas will have none of this, and soon the messenger and his companions are thrown down a deep pit. Okay, that was an easy decision. Now Leonidas must decide whether to wait for Xerxes’ army or to take the fight to the edge of the sea, meeting the enemy there. The trouble is, Sparta is a society with touches of democracy: in order to go to war, Leonidas must get approval from the Council, which isn’t inclined to give it. This does not stop our hero-king.

The last time I saw an adaptation of a Frank Miller graphic novel, I was extremely unimpressed – Sin City, I thought, was terrible both technically and creatively. But 300 is different; the blood, which is omnipresent, is stylized, wonderfully imagined, and incredibly detailed, even on a ten-year-old, 27-inch TV set. You can literally see individual drops of blood as they fall from each wound! Some of you are already shaking your heads – “Um, that’s not a good thing, seeing that!” – but you’re wrong! Or, you’re not wrong, just not the intended audience for 300. The movie, particularly the battle scenes, can be best compared to the fight scene in Kill Bill Vol. 1 in which Uma Thurman takes on the Crazy 88. In that scene, Thurman’s Beatrice slices and dices through minions after minions, lopping off limbs with aplomb; it’s much the same here in 300, and in each scene the violence is raised (or lowered) to an appropriate cartoonish level.

Butler gives a truly commanding performance – perhaps on par with Russell Crowe’s turn as Maximus in Gladiator or Mel Gibson’s in Braveheart, a true, fearless leader who is well prepared to die to save his country and his land. Leonidas is terrifyingly strong and courageous, an imposing figure even in the eyes of Xerxes, who fancies himself a king-god (at the time, the Persian army was the largest in the world). Leonidas must inspire his countrymen not only to fight for their families and homes but also to follow him to their certain deaths. I mean, come on – 300 soldiers against tens of thousands? It’s not an obvious victory. Butler is truly up to the test as the tenacious warrior king, a man who would rather die than be subjugated – a fact that eludes Xerxes until the battles are nearly over.

On one level, too, this is a chick flick. I mean, every male actor is bare chested, and he’s totally cut. (The actors had to work out using some pretty intense, tortuous methods to get those six-pack abs.) So if you’re of the female persuasion and like well-built men, this is a movie for you. Sure, they stab each other a lot, so that might put you off, but look! Half-naked men! You gotta love that, right? And for the men, there’s sweet, sweet death of numerous characters, some named, mostly not. In fact, according to IMDb, 585 deaths occur in the movie! Sweet indeed.

While Leonidas and his 300 battle to the death, a battle of words takes place back at home. Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) tries valiantly to persuade the Council to send the full Spartan army – Leonidas wasn’t permitted to take them, obviously, since the Council hadn’t granted permission for war – to help back up their king. To do this, she must work her way around the conniving Theron (Dominic West, who looks a lot like Harry Hamlin and acts like Han Solo gone way bad). And that’s fun and all, and Headey is wonderful – and gorgeous and wise – but thankfully these scenes are short and small in number. The battle scenes are the real draw! HA-OH!

Although the violence may turn some people off, those who like that sort of thing will be enthralled at its exquisite detail and poetic beauty. Butler is so superb, you want to leap into your TV and follow him to the ends of the Earth.

***

342 – Superbad

August 25, 2007

Superbad manages to be both enjoyable and touching, and not in the creepy-uncle sort of way, either. If you can stomach the 186 instances of the f-word – and I’m sure most of you can – you’ll never stop laughing. It’s hysterical. I’m not going to put it on the level of classics such as Airplane! or Young Frankenstein, but coming from a thirtysomething who’s not the intended audience, it’s badass in its funniosity. It’s a movie in which high school seniors talk like high school seniors and act like high school seniors, not a movie like Porky’s, in which guys with receding hairlines pretended they hadn’t yet grown pubic hair.

First things first – I’m changing my name to McLovin, because it’s THAT hardcore. When chicks hear my name, they may give me an askance look, but they’re really thinking, “Hm, that is so hawt.” I know this because Fogel (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) wound up scoring, sort of, on the basis of his new name. That’s right, pushed-up glasses, dorky haircut, stammering, it all means diddly if you have one and only one name. Why else did Madonna get so much action back in the day? Or Jackee’? Or Cher. Or Fabio. Yes, I’ll be the thirtysomething, Dilbert-like Fabio. Chicks dig that.

Fantasy aside, here’s the basic plot. Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) are longtime buds who are nearing the end of their high school existence. They expected to go to college together as well, but it turned out that Evan was hella smarter than Seth, so although the former got into Dartmouth, the latter could do no better than a state college. Moreover, it’s the standard end-of-school party time! Seth wants desperately to hook up with Jules, who’s hosting the party. To get into her good graces, he tells her that he and Evan will supply the shindig with booze. (Everyone’s underage, in case that wasn’t clear.) Meanwhile, Evan has the hots for Becca, whom he respects – Evan’s one of those quiet, sensitive types, always tripping over himself not to be impolite while being awkward. The boys now have a quest – use Fogel’s newfound fake ID – he’s suddenly a 25-year-old Hawaiian named McLovin! – to buy a metric crapload of liquor for the party.

As with Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, everything goes wrong. Fogel’s separated from Evan and Seth when the liquor store is robbed, and the other two wind up at a soiree where, among other things, Seth winds up with a nasty liquid on his pants. Plus there are two ribald, hell-raising cops who smoke, drink, shoot their guns in the air – on duty. Aw, yeah. “Can I shoot one?” asks Fogel. “I don’t know,” replies Officer Michaels, “can you?”

On one level, this is pure raunch, with sex and cursing (and even some mild drug use). Lots of sex references that might squick you out if you’re of a certain age and can’t handle teens even thinking about fornication. (You probably haven’t read this far, then, bailing when the “f-word” term was used earlier.) But even so, the profanity seems somehow natural, almost organic – this is how kids talk. Not all, surely, but some portion. It’s not as if they’re all being presented as child prodigies who harbor mean streaks, they’re merely acting as typical teens might.

On another level, though, there is deep meaning in the relationship between Evan and Seth, two friends who have grown to be completely dependent on each other over the years, so much so that they’re in denial about their future – Evan will be rooming with Fogel at Dartmouth, a fact he’s kept from Seth. Seth is arrogant, loud, obnoxious, and not particularly bright or gallant, and Evan is his polar opposite in nearly everything. Neither one exudes machismo or toughness, although Seth puts up a good front. Their sweet, platonic relationship comes off as sincere to its very core. This is not a cheap dichotomy thrown together for laughs; you get the feeling Seth and Evan really care for each other and that each feels he’d be hopelessly lost without the other. It’s a bittersweet feeling.

But that’s all below the surface. Revel instead on the entertaining performances by the bombastic Hill and the reserved Cera – these guys act as if they’ve known each other all their lives, the chemistry’s so good. Also no slouch is the inimitable Mintz-Plasse, who’s a bit like DJ Qualls’ character in Road Trip: geeky and yet appealing as all get out. Superbad is charming, nasty fun.

***

340 – Hot Fuzz

August 14, 2007

Some might say that if you liked Shaun of the Dead, you’ll like Hot Fuzz, since they have the same director, writer, and stars (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost). But while Shaun was a more-or-less tongue-in-cheeky-cheek look at zombie movies, Fuzz is a little more straightforward, going for an action-comedy vibe rather than a horror-comedy vibe. This isn’t to say Hot Fuzz fails to meet expectations, it’s just that you sort of have to make sure your expectations are calibrated efficiently.

Nicholas Angel (Pegg) is a straight-arrow London bobby who is extremely good at his job. Crime declines considerably when he’s on the beat, much to the dismay of his superiors, who feel he’s making the rest of them look bad. As a punishment for his good deeds, Angel is transferred to the hinterlands of England, specifically a small village called Sandford, where he proceeds to lock up half the town in his first night on such reckless crimes as underage drinking and urinating in public. Oops, turns out the criminal of the second crime is his new partner – cue wacky soundtrack – who’s also the son (Frost) of the police chief (Jim Broadbent). Off to a bad start already, Angel is chagrined to learn that the police force in the sleepy town doesn’t really care a lot about crimestopping, instead electing to eat, drink, loaf, that sort of thing. Then people start to die in mysterious and gruesome ways, and only Angel believes they’re all connected. The deaths, not the people themselves, although that’s also possible. He smells a conspiracy, is what I’m trying to say here. But no one believes him – cue wacky soundtrack again.

Now, this might have come off as a one-note, dumb action movie if it weren’t for the grim determination of Pegg to essay a character of some depth. He’s not simply a righteous cop out to save the world, he’s a nice guy who has ultimate respect for the law and is devastated when others don’t. Pegg’s performance is perfectly sincere, and although he seems unassuming and even vague – witness his Shaun of the Dead – he is commanding, taciturn, and an utter delight as the seemingly humorless, single-minded cop. He’s fantastic, and because his character is so emotionless, the other actors by contrast seem even funnier, particularly Frost as a doofus who’d love to be more than what he is, if only there weren’t so much work involved. Broadbent, Stuart Wilson, Paddy Considine, and a wolfish Timothy Dalton round out a pitch-perfect cast.

Hot Fuzz is splendid, a genial change from Shaun of the Dead, as it maintains all the soul and equilibrium of that minor classic without feeling stodgy, stilted, or dull. Pegg in particular – good thing, since he’s the lead – manages to elevate the proceedings magnificently. Oh, and watch for Peter Jackson and Cate Blanchett in cameos (hint: it’ll be tough to spot Blanchett).

***

Don’t step in pig slop, and don’t snort my cocaine. Not yours

August 9, 2007

Every now and then, I take a break from New movies and delve into my ever-expanding Netflix queue to check out an older film. Sometimes it’s a certifiable classic that I’ve managed to miss; other times, it’s a fairly new movie that seems appealing; other, other times it’s a hidden gem that I’ve heard much ado about.

The other day, a couple movies showed up in my mailbox – Babe: Pig in the City and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. The former is a sequel to the 1995 surprise hit, and the latter was the second pairing of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as the London sleuth and his portly, comic-relief friend.

Babe isn’t a bad movie, but it has very little of the charm that the first one had. Which is odd, because the director (George Miller) was the producer the first time around, so it’s not like he was bringing a wholly new approach to the story. Oh, and the story? Well, Farmer Hogget (James Cromwell) is seriously injured on the farm (with the help of Babe, yay Babe), and the nefarious, well-dressed men from the bank are going to foreclose on the farm, so it’s up to Mrs. Hogget to travel to the Big City with Babe to capitalize on their sheep-pig’s newfound fame. Only stuff happens, as any traveler can confirm – to start things off, Babe’s impounded by the luggage guys when a dog, showing off his olfactory moxie, barks his fool head off. Then officials force Mrs. Hogget to be strip searched, and then they’ve missed their shuttle, and finally they wind up at a hotel for people with pets. At the hotel, Babe meets orangutans and chimps from a travelling show (run by Mickey Rooney, who barely speaks in the movie), plus dogs and cats and those ubiquitous singing mice from the original movie. The calamaties never stop, of course, leading to one contrived happenstance after another, culminating in a frenetic, acrobatic pig chase at a haughty charity ball.

I suppose that if you decided that none of the story had to make any sense at all, if you viewed it as purely absurdist theater, you might be somewhat satisfied with the results. But although I thought Babe was cute and endearing in the first movie, here the character is a little less charming and seems no different than any other underdog character in the history of movies.

I will say this, though – the set designs were pretty nifty; it reminded me of the 1990 Dick Tracy film. Nothing’s too dirty or unusual. There’s a hint of a criminal element, but even that comes off as surreal. When Mrs. Hogget and Babe arrive in the city, we get a panoramic view of its skyline, which includes the Hollywood sign, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Sydney Opera House, the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, the Rio de Janeiro statue of Christ, the World Trade Center, and the Empire State Buiding, among others. So The City is basically an amalgam of many big cities, which makes some sense, since Babe and Mrs. Hogget probably have never been to one, and this makes it easier to show the vast chasm of difference between city life and farm life.

Other than that, though, the movie just wasn’t much fun. Cromwell shows up for a few minutes at the beginning and at the end, which is a shame, because he’s an excellent actor. I guess the writers felt some contrivance was needed to get a Hogget to the Big City, and who would care if Mrs. Hogget was the one who couldn’t make it?

Of course, if you’re watching this hoping for a strong, unpredictable ending, you have to know you’ll be disappointed. I mean, really, do you think Babe won’t save the farm? Bah ram ewe, indeed.

**

And then we have Sherlock Holmes. Rathbone and Bruce teamed up for the second time, following Hound of the Baskervilles, released the same year. This time, Holmes is asked by a young woman (the wonderful Ida Lupino) to watch over her, because she fears the imminent demise of her brother after receiving a malicious note. Meanwhile, Holmes has also agreed to help guarantee the safe passage of a precious stone arriving from India, to be stored with the crown jewels. And behind every move, it seems, is the diabolical Professor Moriarty (George Zucco), who’s out to break Holmes and then retire from a life of crime.

Somehow, all of these storylines are related, although it takes Holmes quite a while to deduce this. Could there be misdirection involved? Oh, perhaps. And just maybe Holmes will figure it all out but not tell anyone how he’s come to those conclusions until after the bad guys have been rounded up, like glibly mention it to Watson while puffing his crack pipe and plinking his violin. I think that if Holmes were played here by a lesser actor than Rathbone, one might not be able to stifle the urge to slap the smugness right off his face. I also found it interesting that the only way to come up with a good villain was to make the villain even more pompous and irritating. By contrast to Moriarty, Holmes is Pollyanna.

It’s an entertaining movie, still, mostly because of the great chemistry between Rathbone and Bruce; Lupino proves she’s more than a gun-moll kinda actress; Bruce himself is perfectly cast as the comic relief, which is sorely necessary in this film. Not quite a classic most remember, but a lot of fun anyway.

***

339 – The Bourne Ultimatum

August 5, 2007

Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), or whoever he is, continues to be on the run from the police, innocent people, the CIA, and the world at large. He’s scared, he’s frustrated, and he’s in mourning, since losing his beloved Marie (whom he met in the first Bourne movie and who died in the second). Bourne’s put together a little bit of his past, after killing scores of people with skills he didn’t know he had, but now a British reporter has published a series of articles about Bourne – and they seem to contain a lot more detail than an outsider would have. This sets the plot in motion, as Bourne’s flushed out into the open in London, and the CIA battles with itself to either bring him in or shoot him dead like a dog.

You can see the frustration build on Damon’s increasingly creased face; he’s looking older, weathered, beaten down – although Bourne can still disarm two strong bastards quick like a bunny rabbit. Jason Bourne doesn’t have much to go on regarding his former life, but he’s able to grasp at a couple of loose threads and weave a comfy blanket out of them. That sort of sums up this movie, really – it’s a comfy blanket that doesn’t go overboard in trying to wow the viewer while avoiding the appearance of stagnation. Damon has grown rather well into the lead – ironically, he looks a hell of a lot more believable here than he did as Edward Wilson in the recent The Good Shepherd. Damon’s grim and determined but not robotic; he appears to be a couple of steps ahead of the audience, anyway, and that’s what’s important.

Helping Damon out is an excellent supporting cast. Joan Allen is back as CIA operative Pamela Landy and manages to look tough while not looking bitchy. Great job, Joan! David Strathairn joins the cast as CIA Deputy Director Noah Vosen, with an aging Scott Glenn as the agency’s director. Turns out Strathairn (who’s also a fantastic actor – see him in Good Night, and Good Luck, for example) and Allen have tremendous chemistry together; their in-office battles could have come off as just histrionics, but both actors use steely glares in lieu of angsty shouting. When these two were onscreen, the tension was palpably thick, and you were always wondering if the characters had ulterior motives in how they want to deal with Bourne.

Also back is Julia Stiles as Nicky Parsons; her scenes with Damon far supersede those he had with Franka Potente in the first two Bourne films. So much is said with a flit of the eyes, with a curl of a lip. We aren’t beat over the head with Nicky’s motivations – in fact, they’re left rather vague, which is good – and neither she nor Bourne behaves quite as predicted when they’re interacting.

I wasn’t a huge fan of the first in the series (The Bourne Identity), and I felt that the second (The Bourne Supremacy) was a little bit better. This one, purportedly the last of them, is the best of the lot, although that’s perhaps damning with faint praise. One trouble is that there are plot holes that you can drive a car through. Another is that when director Paul Greengrass wants to film an action scene, he makes sure no cut lasts more than a half-second, else your brain would be able to follow what’s going on. It’s extremely chaotic, intended to convey the sense of how a real fistfight or car crash would appear, but still – I don’t need the scenes to be so realistic that I get a headache from watching them. This is supposed to be fun for me!

A favorite dumb moment – Bourne’s involved in a high-speed chase that culminates with his car hitting a parked car and then getting slammed by the chasing car, from behind. Bourne, of course, exits his car with a few scratches, although the guy who slammed INTO him dies while slumped over his car. Makes little sense. Sure, we need to see violent crashes – it’s the American way! – but c’mon. No injuries? Heck, at least Bruce Willis limped a bit in the new Die Hard movie.

And finally, although this is alleged to be the last of the Bournes, it’s all left rather open ended. Which is a shame, really; at the end, you’ll notice there’s a great chance to finish the series definitively without making it seem too pat. And the filmmakers passed this up, presumably to ensure they could have another shot at making millions more dollars.

***

338 – Night at the Museum

August 3, 2007

When you hear about a wild movie set in a stodgy museum with Ben Stiller as a harried night watchman, you think one of two things: “That sounds GREAT! Because I heart Ben Stiller!” or “This is going to be the suckiest bunch of suck that ever was, because Ben Stiller’s in it.” Ben’s sort of a polarizing comedy figure in movies these days; people are either enthralled by his mugging and one-note performances, or they’re not. Ordinarily, I fall among the latter group: The guy just kind of skeeves me out a little. I don’t think he’s funny. His deadpan deliveries do nothing for me. They do nothing!

And yet in Night at the Museum, Stiller’s inabilities don’t matter a whit. How could they, when the main focus is on the CGI special effects and supporting performances? See, it actually helps here that Stiller’s so annoying and dull, because for the most part all he has to do is react to the mayhem around him. He doesn’t have to have a take-charge personality, really.

Stiller is Larry, a sad-sack, sometimes-employee jack-of-no-trades who reluctantly accepts a job as the night watchman at the Museum of Natural History in New York. The departing guards, led by Cecil (Dick van Dyke), tell Larry to read the instruction manual, and as it turns out that’s good advice, as the museum’s exhibits – animals, historical figures, what have you – all come to life after dark. Some, like Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams) roam the museum freely, while others, like the miniatures from the Old West and Roman Empire displays, are stuck in their glass (plastic?) enclosures. Oh, and the giant T-Rex skeleton comes to life, too, but it’s really just a big ol’ puppy dog, yes it is, so that’s not too dangerous, either. No, the real problem is that if any of these denizens gets out of the museum, he or she turns to dust. Dust, I say! That could get messy.

Plus, Larry’s dealing with home issues, as his son Nick (Jake Cherry) thinks his dad’s a big stinkin’ loser who can’t do anything right, which isn’t much different than how most people think of Ben Stiller, anyway; Nick’s drifting away from Larry, psychologically, and toward his stepdad, who seems more solid and stable. Meanwhile, Larry’s trying to meet cute with the museum’s tour guide, Rebecca (Carla Gugino), because it’s illegal in forty states to have a comedy without a love interest of some kind, and the monkeys don’t count.

Anyway, despite the Stiller casting, which often seemed like a bad decision, the movie’s pretty damn funny. And it oughta be, since it was written by two of the guys behind Reno 911! – Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon. Plus, it has noted funny people like Williams (who’s very good, actually reining in his zaniness just enough; he manages to lend gravitas to the role) and Owen Wilson (who steals every scene, chews it up, and vomits funny) who allow Stiller to just sit there and, to quote Wilson’s Jedadiah, take it like a man. Well, comically speaking. Serving as the comic foil to Wilson (who plays a miniature Old West cowboy who’s a little sensitive about his height) is Steve Coogan, who plays Roman emperor Octavius. Yes, history be damned, the cowboys and the gladiators are constantly waging war against each other.

The movie is that it never really takes itself too seriously – i.e., you never have Great Important Issues that Larry must face, alone, in order to Save the Day. The only thing that’s grand and sweeping about this movie is the awesome special effects, which are whimsical and fun without being intrusive.

Adding to the fun are the three actors playing the retiring/fired, aged museum guards – some nobodies called Dick van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, and Bill Cobbs. These guys don’t look like they’ve lost a step with their comic timing, and how great is it to see Rooney piping up every few minutes with a snarly catchphrase-worthy line like “Listen up, lunchbox!” These guys more than make up for the sad-sack Stiller. Which leads me to the one real debit of the movie – there are a few too many times in which Stiller’s Larry must Take Charge, and as an actor he just doesn’t convey that sort of attitude well. He’s a good supporting actor, but I think someone with a little more panache – but still with a light comic touch – would have been a much better fit.

***

336- Dreamgirls

July 29, 2007

After you cut through the electrifying songs and dazzling choreography in Bill Condon’s story of a Detroit girl band struggling to succeed in the sixties and seventies, you’re left with a fairly typical rise-and-fall story, but because of the powerful performances turned in by the phenomenal Jennifer Hudson (who won an Oscar) and the dynamic Eddie Murphy (who was nominated for one), the movie rises above typical showbiz biopics, even the fake ones.

The Dreamettes are Effie (Hudson), a bombastic diva with a strong voice; Deena (Beyonce Knowles), a willowy, softer touch; and Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose), the youngest of the bunch. They’re not succeeding on the local talent-show circuit, so they hook up with the famed James “Thunder” Early (Murphy) to perform as his backup singers, which doesn’t sit too well with Effie. They’re coached along by Curtis Taylor (Jamie Foxx), who attempts to mold them into crossover artists, leaving the placid world of the R&B charts behind for the bigger fame and fortune of the nationwide pop charts.

Naturally, as some stars rise, others must fall. Early’s great, and wildly charismatic, but he’s not always what Curtis wants in a star who can appeal to a wide audience. Sowing the seeds of his own destruction, Jimmy falls prey to the usual pitfalls of stardom – money, drugs, and the knowledge that he’s no longer the man of the moment. Meanwhile, the Dreamettes are persevering, first as his backup trio and then on their own, conquering what was somewhat deprecatingly called the chitlin circuit. Curtis has grander plans, though; he wants his charges to eventually play Miami, a place far away from Detroit, a place where, as Curtis tells Jimmy, they won’t even let black people wait on tables. (Remember, this is in the early sixties.)

The movie is based on a Broadway musical, so the songs and choreography – all wonderful – are derived directly from the stage presentation; this may seem a little strange, because given the setting (Motown in the sixties), it seems like there should be bona fide R&B hits coming at you, although admittedly a lot of the songs do sound similar to chart-toppers from that time. In fact, the fashion styles and the songs remind you very strongly of some (figurative) heavyweights in the field at that time: Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross. (It’s been said that the Dreamgirls were supposed to be The Supremes, but the movie was merely inspired by the real-life Supremes, which explains why there aren’t more real-life names bandied about in the movie; it’s not biographical story.)

There’s no question that Hudson, in her first role, and Murphy, the longtime comedy-film veteran, truly sparkle in their roles and were each deservedly nominated for Academy Awards (Hudson won; Murphy lost to Alan Arkin). As for Hudson – she can SING. I mean, she belts out the tunes with a fantastic mixture of passion, guts, and anger, as best befitting her largely (no pun intended) unhappy character, Effie. And when you watch Murphy, you completely forget he once recorded a song called “(My Girl Wants to) Party All the Time,” and the singer he most reminds you of is James Brown. He’s spectacular.

Not so spectactular was Foxx as Curtis Taylor; he was far too low key and, well, morose. He’s somewhat believable in turning from a naif in the music world to a cutthroat businessman, but he lacks the screen presence – the panache – to really pull it off. Denzel Washington was reportedly offered the role but declined on the grounds that he can’t sing – although I’m sure dubbing wouldn’t have made a huge difference.

Still, it’s not much to carp about. The songs are perfect, and the final number is a huge showstopper that’ll leave you clapping for more.

***

335 – The Simpsons Movie

July 28, 2007

When a TV show finally hits the big screen, what should the movie have that the show didn’t? Obviously, stuff you can’t get past the censors on television; jokes that are even more adult in nature, drug use, nudity, even some profanity – as long as the basic characterizations and tone of your program aren’t mucked with. Right? I mean, what’s the point, otherwise? And that’s exactly what the cleverly titled The Simpsons Movie manages to do, shoehorning pithy comments and witty repartee into a relatively brief (87 minutes) cinematic explosion, a supernova of one of comedy’s brightest stars.

Now, often full-length feature versions of a TV show will simply be a long episode, or a couple of episodes strung together semicohesively. And semicoherently. But Matt Groening and James L. Brooks takes a plausible-for-the-Simpsons storyline and ratchets up… well, everything. There’s more visual and verbal humor, more characters (though not new ones, really), more exciting locales – not just Springfield – and tons of in-jokes, most of which the intended audience is going to fawn over like Bambi’s momma. (Speaking of which, there’s an amusing scene in which Adorable Woodland Creatures help get Homer and Marge ready for their coital bed.)

The basic plotline is that after a lot of nagging by one Lisa Simpson, the horribly polluted Lake Springfield – where people dump crap, dead bodies, and toxic waste – has finally been cleaned up. Mayor Quimby is especially proud of their new deterrent system to prevent people from dumping – it’s a wall. But wouldn’t you know it, it’s only so idiotproof, and Homer winds up throwing an entire silo of pig poop (don’t ask) into the lake, immediately killing it and causing some mutant creatures to develop. The EPA, noting this, decides that the entire area must be sealed off, so they put a huge glass dome around Springfield. No one can get in, and most importantly no one – especially toxic waste – can get out. No wonder that in short time the rest of the Springfield citizenry rise up and form an angry mob out to get the Simpsons.

As I said, there’s nudity – but, sadly, it’s not anyone you’d want to see naked. No, not even Patty or Selma. And, believe it or not, there’s death! Of course, it’s not like any of the Simpsons themselves die, or even a secondary character. But hey, there are literally scores of characters in the Simpsons universe, so it’s okay if one of them bites it, right? And double hey, it’s not as if the movie is part of any grand continuity – if someone gets hurt in the movie, I’m betting they’ll be peachy keen next time you see them in the TV show.

To be sure, even though there’s some envelope pushing and such, the characters remain who they are – Homer is a complete screwup who somehow manages to both destroy and save everyone at least once; Bart is a selfish brat who picks on his sister and is susceptible to dares; Lisa is a dreamy brain who pines for a new boy; and Marge is the proverbial glue that usually holds them somewhat together.

The movie’s not very long, which might be its only real debit. It’s wildly amusing, and the movie makes the best use out of its short running time, being chock full o’ jokes and references that only Comic Book Guys in their mom’s basement will get. Thankfully, there are very few celebrity voices – one Name does the voice of the chief bad guy, with the EPA, and another plays himself. (I’m not even including the brief appearance by Green Day, though.) I like that – it’d be too easy for the Bigwigs to shovel in celebrity after celebrity, as has happened in many a Simpsons episode over the years.

Our favorite yellow family survives its first foray onto the silver screen – the movie is so well done, it feels like an episode from the middle years of the series without seeming like a simple extension of the show. It’s hysterical, appropriately raunchy, and just absurd enough to be the ne plus ultra of animated movies. Well, at least those that are animated in a traditional (i.e., not wholly computerized) style. So pass the donuts and gulp down your Duff brew!

***

333 – The Last King of Scotland

July 18, 2007

Supposedly, Idi Amin’s official, obviously self-awarded title was “His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.” I note this in case you’re on the fence as to whether the Ugandan dictator (sorry, president) was indeed a madman.

Amin was the “people’s choice” leader of the central-African nation Uganda from 1971 to 1979, a reign marred by mass murders, cannibalism, and generally rude behavior on the part of the Fearless Leader toward, well, anyone not him. In other words, not a particularly fun time to be a Ugandan, or to visit Uganda.

In the Last King of Scotland, Amin is played by Forest Whitaker, who turns in an Oscar-winning performance as the unhinged leader; it is a singularly magnificent exhibition, a prime example of an actor simply disappearing into a role. Gone is the goofy persona from Good Morning, Vietnam, or the morose hitman from Diary of a Hitman; Whitaker is finally at center stage. And where you might expect some actors to ham things up a bit, playing a larger-than-life character, Whitaker comes across as honest and eminently believable. His Amin believes in Uganda, wants to see it prosper, but he’s drawn by the centralized power and damaged by bouts of insecurity and self-doubt.

The story is told through the eyes of Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), a young Scotsman who arrived at Uganda hoping to make a difference in the health of Ugandans but who wound up as the personal physician – and a bit more – of the country’s unstable president. Garrigan’s wide eyed, but not so wide eyed that he can’t pause to bed seemingly every woman he lays eyes on. I guess it’s the rowdy Scot in him, or something. Anyway, he goes from being a simple country doctor (and making eyes at his colleague’s wife) to the presidential palace, where he naturally beds one of Amin’s many wives. Nothing good can come of that.

Whitaker’s superb, of course, but McAvoy seemed a little more transparent as the dictator’s right-hand man, his number-one closest advisor. McAvoy’s Garrigan seemed to wilt in the presence of Amin, which makes sense until you realize part of the characterization is that Garrigan stands up to Amin; that’s why the latter respects the former. Even the way Garrigan and Amin meet seems wrong. There’s an accident, and the president needs some mending (sprained hand); meanwhile, a cow that had been hit by a car is braying in pain. No one is doing anything about it, so Garrigan grabs Amin’s gun – with all his soldiers around him, mind you – and shoots the cow several times. Problem solved. Only we’d seen no evidence that Garrigan could handle a gun or that he was comfortable around them, and we saw virtually nothing after that that would imply he was the strong, heroic type. And, really, grabbing the new president’s gun in full view of his heavily armed soldiers? Doesn’t make much sense. Later on, toward the end of the movie, Garrigan makes two ridiculously stupid decisions, too, putting the whole notion of his intelligence to the lie.

The biggest problem, though, is that nearly all of Garrigan’s problems can be traced to one source – his penis. Yeah, I said it. If he’d kept the thing in his pants, he wouldn’t have been in ANY trouble with Amin and would have found it a bit easier to eventually leave the country and return to Scotland.

But the bottom line is that this is Whitaker’s movie, despite the perspective, and he’s so perfect that it’s easy to forgive McAvoy’s lightweight performance and the plot oddities. The Last King of Scotland is a cut above most historical movies, because even knowing the ending won’t spoil the fun. It’s also exquisitely photographed (in Uganda itself), and it’s riddled with electric scenes.

***

331 – Volver

July 14, 2007

The luscious and luminous Penelope Cruz plays a Spanish woman at the center of a close-knit family of (mostly) women in this Pedro Almodovar tale of murder, family secrets, trust, and hairdressing. Cruz’s Oscar-nominated performance and the beautiful cinematography of Jose Luis Alcaine lift this from being more than just your run-of-the-mill double-crossing family-issues movie.

Raimunda (Cruz) is a vivacious, busty working woman (no, not a hooker) who’s married to Paco and has a teenage daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo). Turns out Paco’s a bit of an ass – as most males are in Almodovar films – and when he loses his job, his assness (yes, that is a word, now) goes off the charts. Stuff happens, and soon there’s no more Paco to worry about.

Raimunda’s sister Sole (Lola Duenas), an underground hairdresser – who knew they existed? – also lives in the city; the sisters lost their parents years ago in a house fire and now spend time with their mother’s sister Paula, a doddering woman who acts as if her sister is still alive. The sisters remark about how Tia Paula seems to have lost her marbles, but at least she has a neighbor looking in on her every day. And then, of course, the old woman dies.

Sounds tragic, right? Only it turns out that now people in the village are seeing Raimunda’s mother, long dead, that she’s appearing to them all because she needs to complete something she’d begun in life. What could it be? At first Irene appears to everyone but Raimunda, especially Sole, who takes her mother in as a hairdresser’s assistant, a mute Russian. (Trust me, it makes more sense in the movie.)

And while all of this is going on, Raimunda has somehow taken over the neighborhood restaurant (she was just supposed to show it to a prospective buyer while the owner was away but has opened it to cater for a film crew). SO you can see there’s plenty of chaos going on in their little world.

Cruz’s explosive performance as the self-centered Raimunda is the vortex of the entire film, galvanizing the other actors – not to mention a pretty snappy script, by Almodovar – into a miasma of wit and emotion. Above all else, emotion. I mean, after all, it’s a Spanish movie. They don’t make placid, lifeless movies in the Spanish language – check out Telemundo on any given day, and you’ll see what I mean. Everyone speaks MUY RAPIDO! and with feeling! Of course, not being a native Spanish speaker works against me there. But here, not so much. Never mind the subtitles – they’re helpful, but you can still get the jist of things just by watching the incredible Cruz work. She looks positively radiant and walks off with virtually every scene she’s in (which would be almost all of them). Cruz’s Raimunda is passionate, vibrant, beautiful and beauteous, and she’s the single best reason to watch this clever, involving film that really hits its stride with a nifty twist in the final reel or so.

***

327 – Live Free or Die Hard

July 1, 2007

I ask you, could anyone BUT Bruce Willis play John McClane? Of course not. Even twelve years after his last appearance, McClane is still the all-American, G.I. Joe, Bad Guy killah with a soft spot for his family but also for Doing the Right Thing. Here, he’s up against a madman (Timothy Olyphant) bent on virtually hacking his way into the U.S. infrastructure to prove some kind of point, or something. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. All that matter is that McClane kicks ass. That’s all we want to see.

All McClane has to do, see, is pick up a kid in Camden, New Jersey, and schlep him down to Washington in the middle of the night. Sounds like a job for a rookie cop, right, but of course a senior detective was requested. And it seems this kid, Matt Farrell (Justin Long) is some kind of super-sekrit hacker dude person who’s wanted for questioning by the FBI, something about a major attack on government computers earlier that day. Of course, other people are looking for Farrell (i.e., the bad guys), and they blow everything up trying to get him and, by extension, McClane. They fail.

Then the madman, Thomas Gabriel, sets his evil, evil plan further in motion by causing all of the traffic lights in DC to go green. Cackling with glee, he causes the stocks at the NYSE to plummet! Mass chaos ensues! Meanwhile, McClain’s trying to shepherd his young charge to various government offices, trying to find a safe place for him. There aren’t any.

Of course, at some point it gets personal between McClane and Gabriel, so the bad guy nabs McClane’s teenage daughter, Lucy. Why do bad guys do this? Do they really think the hero will be all, “Oops, you win, I give up!” because his family’s in jeopardy? Don’t evil villains watch movies? Gabriel’s lucky, though, because he has a chief minion who can kick ass, Mai (Maggie Q). Naturally, at some point she goes womano-a-mano with McClane, but the only reason she does as well as she does is that a) she’s a woman, so she’s not your typical henchman and b) she knows kung fu. I mean, of course she does, she’s Asian. They all know that stuff, right?

A lot of things blow up. You might have seen the trailer, in which McClane speeds a cop car out of a tunnel, and jumps out at the last minute as the car slams into the side of a hovering helicopter. Pretty nifty stuff, if not even a little believable. Often, McClane will do something that winds up hurting him pretty bad, with blood dripping down his face and all, but he’s fine, no, let him just walk it off.. or jump down a flight of stairs, or run down the street. It’s all good, because he’s the hero. We expect him to shrug off pain and injury to vital organs. But when the pilot of the chopper falls at least thirty feet and is perfectly okay, I dunno, I’m a little skeptical.

But it’s okay, because little implausibilities won’t bother you. The thing to note is that Willis, his smirk, his I-ain’t-taking-no-crap attitude, they’re all back. And, good news, there aren’t a lot of side comments about McClane’s age, mostly because he kicks the asses of people half as old. Willis looks like he’s still in tip top fighting shape. He’s not paunchy, or graybearded. He looks a lot like he did in 1995, so good on him.

Wonderful visual effects and another gritty, appealing, and above all fresh performance from Willis, who clearly looks into the role – he’s not sleepwalking through it, as you might expect an aging action star to do, just collecting a paycheck. I swear, the man looks like he’s enjoying gettting shot at. He rocks. But it wouldn’t matter how into the role Willis was if the plot was too convoluted to follow, or too simplistic to warrant attention, or if the rest of the cast was so wooden that you kind of wished they’d all get mowed down. And that’s where Long came in. Part victim, part sidekick, total hacker, Long was perfectly cast, a good complement – useful without being annoying. Tough to find people like that in action movies.

***

325 – Apocalypto

June 27, 2007

In Mel Gibson’s searing look at familial love and the declining dominance of Mayan civilizations, a hunter-gatherer tribe is raided in the middle of the night by a warrior tribe, and its surviving males are taken to the Mayan city to be sacrificed to the gods as a way to end drought. One of the men, Jaguar Paw, must escape and make his way back to his pregnant, trapped wife and their young son.

In all honesty, if Mel Gibson’s name hadn’t been attached to this movie, if there hadn’t been so much attention paid to the film because of its violence level, its big budget, its on-location shooting, and its reliance on the ancient Mayan language, this might have been another largely forgotten film set in a foreign land during an indeterminate time period.

The violence is very brutal and jarring (114 on-screen deaths), but that’s as it should be. Gibson doesn’t want us to view the tribulations of this particular tribe as disinterested souls watching a Hollywood blockbuster, he wants us to understand how perilous every aspect of their lives was, how strong they needed to be, both physically and mentally, and how important one’s family and friends can be.

The beginning scenes had me a little skeptical, because the comedy was a little broad. How broad, you ask? The tribesmen make mother-in-law jokes. No, I’m serious. There’s a nagging old hag who keeps haranguing her son in law about making a grandbaby for her, and he’s impotent. Oh, and there’s a bit about someone getting tricked into rubbing a painful ointment onto his private parts. You know, intellectual humor.

But that quickly dissipates, as the tattooed, bejeweled, and totally armed-and-dangerous warriors attack, beating, slaying, and torturing the members and putting the entire hamlet to the torch. Jaguar Paw, who’d dreamed of the attack, awakens just as the intruders arrive and is able to stow his wife and child at the bottom of a pit. This safety is somewhat short lived, however, when one of the warriors notices the rope that was to allow them to escape the pit – and cuts it off.

Don’t watch this if you can’t stand women in peril, or if you can’t stand watching people sacrificed to the gods. Come to think of it, the woman-in-peril bit is just a mask – turns out that Jaguar Paw’s wife, Seven, is extremely tough, inside and out, and her resiliance and fortitude give her and her child a fighting chance.

The focus is on Jaguar Paw, though, and how he gains almost superhuman abilities as he dodges headhunters and wild animals in his quest to return to his loved ones. That might sound implausible, but as most parents know that when your child’s health is in jeopardy, it’s possible to do things you never thought you could do.

I don’t see this as quite the epic that Gibson was going for, but his directorial touches lend quite a bit of panache and anxiety to the proceedings. Some of the action shots of Jaguar Paw running through his beloved forest, pursued by bad men, are seamless, jaw-dropping views, allowing us to figure out Jaguar Paw’s on-the-fly plans right after he does. Gibson’s style, along with the cinematography of Dean Selmer and the performance by Rudy Youngblood keep this movie afloat; the conclusion, while lacking the intensity of the rest of the movie, is satisfying.

***

322 – Ocean’s Thirteen

June 17, 2007

The really good news is that Ocean’s Thirteen is completely enjoyable. I mean, after the crap effort of Ocean’s Twelve, who could expect anything, well, good? The last one just felt like a bunch of buddy celebs getting together from some yuks and a good ol’ time. But Thirteen tries very hard to make you forget Twelve ever happened, and it largely succeeds.

This time around, the boys are out to avenge their good pal Rueben (Elliot Gould), who’s been doublecrossed by the nefarious Willie Bank (Al Pacino). Reuben invested heavily in Bank’s new, colossal casino in Vegas, but then Bank screwed Rueben out of his share, defrauding him of zillions. The general plan that Danny Ocean (George Clooney) has come up with is to ruin Bank’s opening night on many levels – fix games, cause natural disasters, steal his diamonds, make sure the casino reviewer has a bad time, that sort of thing.

Gone are the self-indulgent overtones of Twelve, as the series returns to its roots as a crisply written caper punctuated by self-effacing performances and a wild, yet not implausible, plot. And, even better, there are times when I actually laughed out loud. I know! Whoda thunk that?

The good news is that through three movies, the main characters haven’t changed; they haven’t grown, they’re not evolving into higher beings, nothing. They are simply who they are. Danny is the leader, a man cool under pressure but not smugly so – kind of like George Clooney offscreen, come to think of it. Well, from what I’ve heard. Rusty (Brad Pitt) is still his right-hand man. Linus (Matt Damon) appears to be #3, but he’s just as much of a doofus as he’s always been (this time around, his father makes an appearance). Most of the other guys – including the timeless Carl Reiner as Sol – get short shrift, but whaddya gonna do when you have eleven, twelve, whatever, guys? They can’t all get the good lines.

One pleasant surprise is that Pacino reins himself in a bit. He’s not all eyes-bugging-out mad, like he was in Scarface, or Devil’s Advocate, or Any Given Sunday, or a million other movies; no, he’s more laid back, but totally in control. Apparently Pacino was the guy that director Steven Soderbergh wanted all along, and he does a damn good job – it’s always good to see Al being a Good Actor instead of a ham. Along for the ride is another name actor, Ellen Barkin, who I’m told once was pretty attractive. At any rate, she’s Bank’s right-hand woman, a sort of Team Evil counterpart to Rusty; Barkin’s Sponder is punctual, efficient, and poured into a slinky breast-baring (almost) dress at all times. Arm candy never hurts, thinks Bank. But beware! For some reason Soderbergh gives us a couple of closeups of Barkin. Hide the children! Or use the opportunity to warn them about the dangers of plastic surgery.

Okay, enough Barkin bashing, and back to the story. Ocean has all of the angles covered, but at the eleventh hour he finds himself in need of major fundage. Everyone’s tapped out, of course, so to whom can they turn but Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), the entrepreneur that the Ocean gang beat in the first two films. It’s good to see Garcia, and at least his character’s appearance here isn’t contrived. Well, not too contrived – they didn’t know anyone else who could spot them $36 million? Eh, guess not.

The one character who annoys me in these movies is Linus Caldwell. He’s a pest to Danny and Rusty; although he supposedly has talents, he seems to spend a lot of time being a pain in the ass to everyone. When he comes up with an idea, everyone’s shocked, and when he’s supposed to be accomplishing something, he fails. At least here his noodginess is less obtrusive than it was in Twelve, when Linus actually ran a plan of his own device. I wonder if the character is supposed to be endearing, almost adorable in how inept he is – if so, though, then Damon really sucks, as the result is that I wish Linus would be killed off.

Still. Ocean’s Thirteen is lots of fun, way more funner than Twelve, and it helps that the bad guy has a strong, pervasive personality that prevents predictability. I think that, as Soderbergh and Clooney have said, this one makes up for the crap that came before it.

***

319 – The Ant Bully

June 4, 2007

Lucas Nickle (Zach Tyler) is a little runt who’s always picked on by the neighborhood bully, so he takes out his aggressions (and neglect by his family) by being a major jerko to the ants and other bugs that reside in his family’s front yard, even going so far as to flood the ant colony with the garden hose. Hey, we’ve all done that, right? No? Just me? Okay, then.

Anyway, Lucas’ aggression has taken its toll on the ants, disrupting their food supply chain. Ant wizard (!) Zoc (Nicolas Cage) decides to literally cut Lucas down to size, shrinking him with some sort of shrinky dink potion, and poof, the bitter lil’ menace is teeny weeny. The better for him to learn the value of an insect’s life, you see. It’s all part of the plan.

Now, Lucas must, in the words of the ant queen, become an ant, one of the colony. Why this must be the case isn’t quite clear, but it’s not terribly important. The ants don’t need him, but even so he’s taken under the gentle mandibles of Hova (Julia Roberts), who wants to learn more about the human, rather than simply regarding Lucas as an enemy who must be smushed. Of course, the other ants in the colony are more inclined to believe the latter than the former, but the queen and the head of council (Meryl Streep and Ricardo Montalban, respectively) have spoken.

To add to the drama, Lucas – feeling shunted aside by everyone in his family – somehow signed a contract with a nefarious, take-no-prisoners exterminator (Paul Giamatti) while his parents are away. Can he save his newfound pals from the deadly exterminator? A-duh.

The Ant Bully is charming and funny, and the animation is well detailed. Although sometimes the movie seems kind of cliched (the fight against the exterminator is straight out of Over the Hedge’s final battle), it won’t matter to the target audience. The characters’ voices are well cast, too, even Cage’s. As with most cartoons nowadays, there’s a Moral to the Story, but it’s not heavy handed and off putting. And the jokes are sometimes complex (or simple) enough for adults to laugh at loud at ’em.

***