Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Baker’s Dozen “Top Ten” Films of 2010

Article first published as A Baker's Dozen "Top Ten" Films of 2010 on Blogcritics.

When I sat down to mull over the 132 locally released films I’ve seen during 2010, I thought it would have been harder to come up with a list of the best. Through some parts of the year there seemed to be a glutton of greats, for the better part of the year they were few and far between. A bunch seem to stem surprisingly from the middle of summer while lots of the remainder were collectively released almost all at once at the tail end just in time for awards consideration.

I honestly thought coming up with a list of the year’s worst offenders would be harder than this but probably not. It’s so much easier to rag on something as atrocious as “Little Fockers,” “Furry Vengeance” or “The Back-up Plan” than it is to come up with something new to add to the heap of praise already allotted to most of these films. Having already fully reviewed most of the films on this list also represented an obstacle all its own.

While I figured a Top 10 would be suitable enough there were a few more films that needed some light shone upon them. You’ll see what I mean. Alas, here is a “baker’s dozen” of the best and some extra favorites from 2010.

#13: “Piranha 3D”

Why is this film on the list? It never pretends to be anything more than it is and wound up being the perfect end cap to a pretty slow summer. With teeth and breasts bared in equal measure it was a grand time for those going in knowing what to expect: balls to the wall gore and nude underwater ballet that made your eyes pop out all in the best use of 3D technology almost all year. If not for “TRON: Legacy” it would have single handedly held that title. Bring on the tentatively, or would that be tittatively titled, “Piranha 3DD!”

#12: Easy A

Emma Stone has been a comedic force to reckon with even since we first laid eyes upon her back in “Superbad.” With her long red hair and sultry voice she’s been intoxicating cinematic hilarity but not with the exactitude she brings to the scathing screenplay presented here. Even in “Zombieland” she wasn’t afforded the barb-tongued wit on display afforded by Bert V. Royal and amazingly “watered down” for the PG-13 rating, along with Will Gluck quickly rising through the ranks of today’s top comedy directors. Easily earning back seven times its $8 million budget, Sony Pictures obviously knows they’ve got something with Stone and have just cast her as Gwen Stacy in their knuckleheaded “Spider-man” reboot. This is the perfect love child representation for if the '80s, “Clueless” and “Juno” had a threeway. Having just been released on Blu-ray and DVD this week, the film easily earns its spot in your video library’s A-list.

#11: “Four Lions”

While I may not have caught this little bit of surreal outrageousness at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, I sure am glad to have seen it now. All you need to know is that a hapless quartet of British Jihadists dream of becoming the next big terrorists. This also includes a trip to boot camp. You may ask yourself why you’re laughing at all as everything from crows to sheep to the wannabes themselves start to go boom, but it’s a true tour de force all in the name of farce and satire and never lets up. This movie made me laugh hard and even think hard as ideology gets caught in the crosshairs and co-writer/director Christopher Morris shows “Dinner for Schmucks” how it’s done.

#10: How to Train Your Dragon

Admittedly, dragons have always interested me for some reason or another. While I may not be a fan of say “Dragonheart,” I found “Reign of Fire” to be somewhat of a guilty pleasure and at some point I plan to dive into the “Temeraire” novels. If any movie was best seen on IMAX and in 3D this year it was “How to Train Your Dragon.” With its simple story of a boy and his “beast,” leave it to the directors who brought us the misunderstood “Lilo & Stitch” to bring us a heartwarming tale about a finding yourself with a period-perfect version of man’s best friend and give DreamWorks a film that finally gives Pixar a run for their money.

#9: True Grit

This was the movie I had waited for all year long. And for a good 100 minutes it surpassed every bit of my expectations. And then came along the film’s cold shoulder of an ending. While the Coen Brothers have been anti-climactic before (“Burn After Reading,” “A Serious Man” and even their Best Picture winner “No Country For Old Men”), here’s a story so simple that there’s no excuse for such a lackluster ending. It’s almost as if they wanted to keep the runtime lean enough that they totally skipped out on what should have been a far more emotional ending moving this one higher on the list. Alas, leave it to source material to not translate as well as you’d expect and this is what we’re left with. A Best Picture nod is surely in the ranks as well as for Best Adapted Screenplay and hopefully something for little Hailee Steinfeld but unfortunately I foresee no wins here. Perhaps the story itself is now “too old and too fat?”

#8: The Social Network

With a ripe cast, a game director and another of the year’s best screenplays at work, we got this gem of a film. David Fincher seems to be on the fast track to accessibility with each film but it never undermines what comes first in each of his films: story. Aaron Sorkin delivers a shoe-in for Best Adapted Screenplay and deserves to win, for without his brilliant script the film wouldn’t be anywhere near as great as it turned out. Oh sure, Fincher’s direction and his cast of Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake and Armie Hammer hilariously pulling double duty. However, it’s Fincher’s overdirection that keeps the film as a whole from achieving true greatness and Timberlake is far from the “revelation” that people proclaimed upon its release.

#7: “Catfish”

Standing in line for this at this year’s Sundance Film Festival there was a lot of buzz. All we knew was that it was described as a documentary/comedy/thriller and had something to do with Facebook. As the perfect companion piece to “The Social Network” these two films together paint the ultimate portrait of a generation. While the film has been unjustly ousted from Oscar’s Best Documentary shortlist it should be at the top of the list. Knowing as little about this film as possible going in is the ultimate gift to yourself as you watch the story develop with your jaw on the ground. In case you missed it in theaters which its box office surely indicates, do yourself a huge favor and rent it once it hits Blu-ray and DVD on January 4th.

#6: “Black Swan”

Darren Aronofsky may not have been nominated for his direction of “The Wrestler” but that may continue to be his most mainstream film ever. He’s back to his perversely twisted ways and appears to be much more comfortable here. Working with a smashing original screenplay by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin, along with Natalie Portman’s brilliant performance, everything comes together for one of the most sinister films of the year if not one of the most entertaining. While the main attraction is all the talk surrounding the sexual nature of the film, and who can resist the temptation to bare witness the Portman/Mila Kunis lesbian action, there’s far more than meets the eye as Aronofsky dabbles in Hitchcockian territory while blowing full steam ahead into his own. If Portman doesn’t win Best Actress I don’t know who can.

#5: “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”

Rewatching this film at home on Blu-ray is a thing of sheer beauty. Thankfully the rest of the movie lives up to its visuals. Edgar Wright deserves any number of accolades for bringing this rambunctious piece of video game art come to life for all to behold. Between this and “Youth in Revolt” Michael Cera proves himself leading man status and shirks his pigeon holing and Mary Elizabeth Winstead makes everyone chant “nom, nom, nom” but it’s Ellen Wong’s astounding portrayal of Knives Chau who steals the film. She truly is the hilarious epitome of teenage obsession. As for the rest of the film, everything from the opening 8-bit Universal logo (used at my own wedding this past 10/10/10) to the brilliantly realized “nega”-ending, if this film doesn’t shine from your HDTV you need to adjust your picture because it looks more amazing and is thereby far more engrossing watching at home and in some ways that says more than anything.

#4: “127 Hours”

Danny Boyle may have won Best Director in 2009 for his over-direction of that year’s Best Picture winner “Slumdog Millionaire,” but it’s exactly that that keeps this film from beating out my top three. With another shoe-in for Best Adapted Screenplay, Boyle and Simon Beaufoy (who also won his own Oscar for “Slumdog’s” screenplay) have taken Aron Ralston’s book “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” and masterfully brought to the screen his accounting of 127 hours stuck in a canyon with limited resources and a fight to stay alive. You don’t have to cut off anyone’s arm either to guarantee a Best Actor nod if not win for James Franco who affectionately portrays a man willing to cut off his own arm to survive against his own ego’s best wishes.

#3: “The Fighter”

Having never heard of Micky Ward or Dicky Eklund prior to walking in to “The Fighter,” all it had going for it was its stars and director. David O. Russell has had me since “Three Kings” bursts into theaters. With its meticulous melting pot of war hijinks and a dose of hilarity for good measure I have been a fan even through “I Heart Huckabees.” With his one-two punch of his cast including Mark Wahlberg as Micky, Melissa Leo as contender for world’s most controlling mother, Amy Adams as a surefire Best Actress nominee if not winner and Christian Bale as Dicky, you’ve got one of the best ensemble pieces of the year. However, if Amy Adams somehow doesn’t nail down her award, there’s no one that can displace Bale from his. While at first you might be annoyed with the character of Dicky he portrays and think, “Wow, at least Bale took the “Machinist” route to get into character,” it’s during the closing credits where we see video footage of the real Micky and Dicky and the walls come tumbling down as we realize that what we just witnessed for 2 hours was a solid case of amazing acting. I expect big things to come about once the Oscars nominees are finally announced.

#2: “Toy Story 3”

Oh, Pixar, how do you keep doing it? Every year, one right after the other, you just keep hitting them out of the ball park. Never being one to simply one-up yourselves you have to exceed our expectations at every turn. Even your most mediocre endeavor (“Cars”) is still a better film than most of what’s considered “family fare” year after year. Michael Arndt, thanks for proving your Best Original Screenplay win for “Little Miss Sunshine” was no hoax. Lee Unkrich, thank you for picking up the slack for John Lasseter and bringing such a thrilling, heartwarming, tear inducing, grand finale to cap off what simply has to be the perfect trilogy to end all trilogies. As excited as I am to hear the news that the toys will be back in short film form, I really hope that sleeping dogs will lie and we can enjoy the end of the perfect series without being beat into the ground “Shrek”-style. It took ten years to bring us something so special, let’s not take that away from us.

#1: “Inception”

And now for the big one... Here is a film that has just as many haters as proclaimers. A gargantuan, spectacle, blockbuster film, that has caused even its biggest detractors to think as much, if not possibly even more so, than its biggest flaunters. Drop by any Inception related forum and you’ll see what I mean. This is the one film that was so spectacular upon initial viewing that the next morning I immediately ran out to buy tickets to see it again on IMAX. It really is that monumental.

It took Christopher Nolan ten years to prep his script to ensure it was ready for the big screen and it shows. (Probably something another director should have spent some time doing instead of making sure his effects would work.) To quote John Hammond, here is a film chock full of scenes “so astounding that they'll capture the imagination of the entire planet.” If one can find another film this year as completely mesmerizing and brain twisting and so simply involving from scene one then congratulations to you. Does the totem fall or not is up to you dear viewer. Thank you Nolan, for never giving an answer and making audiences believe what they want. While I will spend the next couple of months preparing myself for “Inception” to probably not win Best Picture as it rightfully should, it won’t be the first time I’ve been let down by the Academy. However, dear Academy voters, start your engines, this year’s race is going to be a tight race.

Photos courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures, Paramount Pictures, Universal Pictures and Screen Gems

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Fock The Focking "Fockers!"

Rated PG-13 for mature sexual humor throughout, language and some drug content.
98 agonizing minutes
Universal Pictures
Zero stars

Article first published as Movie Review: Little Fockers on Blogcritics.

Sometimes there are movies you walk into knowing you’ll have no need to take notes. Then there are times you happen to get so caught up in the film that by the time it’s over you look down and realize you haven’t written a thing, as was the case with “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” Then there are movies where you’re relieved you don't have a notepad in front of you as the movie is so frustratingly awful you just know you would have wound up tearing the pages out, ripping them to pieces, and tossing them into the air.

The newest cinematic atrocity to join this rank alongside such displeasures as “Valentine’s Day,” “The Back-up Plan,” “Furry Vengeance,” “The Last Airbender,” and “Yogi Bear” happens to be none other than “Little Fockers” and is quite possibly the worst offender. Ten years ago, the original Ben Stiller/Robert De Niro comedic gem, “Meet the Parents,” seemed rather fresh. And while the first sequel “Meet the Fockers” nowhere near lived up to its predecessor, I still laughed. But nothing, and I mean nothing, can prepare you for the abomination that is “Little Fockers.”

As if you need a plot synopsis, here is one, but I’ll keep it brief. It’s been six years since we last saw Greg (Stiller) and Pam (Teri Polo) Focker. They’re living a normal life with their young twins, Samantha and Henry (Daisy Tahan, Colin Baiocchi). But things just wouldn’t be the same without some kind of dysfunctionality provided by the uncomfortable visitation of Jack and Dina Byrnes (De Niro and Blythe Danner). And before you can say “What could possibly go wrong?” we’re treated to all kinds of supposedly hysterical hijinks. Unfortunately, hilarity does not ensue.

Prepare yourself to bask in the glory of absurdities, like Henry asking Greg if girls can poop from their vagina. See Greg bathe his in-laws with his own blood while carving a turkey. Hear Greg continually called “Gay” by his parents Bernie and Roz (Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand who both at least look like they're trying to have fun). See Greg give Jack a penile shot of adrenaline in front of Henry. Witness Jessica Alba trying to act, and even failing to convey the time-honored tradition of a woman in heat.

But wait! There are far worse things afoot, as Universal Pictures allows one of their most respected classics, “Jaws,” to be trashed by director Paul Weitz, who seems to be allowed to unfortunately handle whatever he wants so long as he doesn’t leave the Universal lot. While Weitz may have given us such films as the first “American Pie,” the classic “About a Boy,” and the amazing “In Good Company,” he has been on a drastic losing streak with his two films, “American Dreamz” and “Cirque du Freak - The Vampire's Assistant.”

Admittedly neither of those films reach the amateurish level of ineptitude on display here, but at least they could pass themselves off as films. The highest level of sophistication that “screenwriters” John Hamburg and Larry Stuckey strive for is embarrassing. How many times can they make Bernie and Roz call Greg “Gay” or have both Jack and Greg use the phrase “God-Focker” ad nauseam before you realize that the joke is on you for paying to see this garbage? Such a shame too as the last movie Hamburg gave us was the brilliant “I Love You, Man.”

There is one thing in this film that is hilarious, and it’s not even a joke. When the high point of your film is one single act of unintentional humor, the real joke is on the audience. Alas, while I may have flipped the movie the bird over its inexplicable “Jaws” reenactment, complete with “forward tracking, zoom out” shot and John Williams' classic score, Universal is flipping all of us the bird in return. And my biggest fear is that the series is finally dumbed down enough that this one will make far more box office bucks than either of the first two. Merry “focking” Christmas everyone, we reap what we sow.

Photo courtesy Universal Pictures

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Welcome To The Grid, The IMAX 3-D Event Of The Year

Rated PG for sequences of sci-fi action violence and brief mild language.
127 minutes
Walt Disney Pictures
**** ½ out of 5

Article first published as Movie Review: TRON: Legacy on Blogcritics.

Some film series churn out a new sequel every year (“Saw” and now soon-to-join-in “Paranormal Activity”) whether we like it or not. Even worse is how usually the quality becomes increasingly awful that if the movies weren’t taking themselves so seriously they’d become self aware and maybe even entertaining. However, when a film takes 28 years to produce a sequel you’d have to question if the return to the well was warranted. In the case of “TRON: Legacy,” the answer is most definitely a resounding yes.

Coming from a director with no prior directorial duties, Joseph Kosinski, could leave some people scratching their heads. But anyone who isn’t completely enthralled with the imagery he’s managed to come up with here would either be a fool or just annoyed by the 3-D in which case why did you pay to see it that way to begin with? With the film’s screenplay also coming from two “Lost” writers (Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz), it’s no wonder that the film is chock full of love and endearment of the 1980s, and was that a backgammon game I saw on a table? You bet. It’s also worth mentioning that there are plenty of jabs given to both the Wachowski siblings and George Lucas.

“TRON: Legacy” begins in 1989 with Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) telling a bed side story to his seven-year-old son Sam (Owen Best). His grandparents (Donnelly Rhodes and Belinda Montgomery) look on before Flynn wraps things up and tells his little “kiddo” that he must be going but not before he tells his son that no matter what happens, in the grand tradition of foreshadowing, they will always be on the same side.

In the present day, now 27-year-old Sam (Garrett Hedlund) is a daredevil who doesn’t want to be CEO of the empire his father left behind. See, Flynn never came home after that night of storytelling and Sam, along with Flynn’s ol’ chum Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner back from the original “TRON”), have never given up hope of finding out where Flynn may have disappeared to so many years ago.

After Sam makes public the recent ENCOM operating system, Alan visits Sam and tells him he received a page from Flynn from the disconnected number belonging to Flynn’s arcade. Wouldn’t it be something if Sam were to drop by and see dear old dad hard at work just waiting to say, “Hey, kiddo, lost track of time.” And before you can say “Game On” Sam is transplanted from the real world into the visually astounding virtual reality of the TRON grid itself and even assigned his very own disc. From Light Cycle races to disc duels, Sam is in a bout to survive with nary an explanation of how anything works.

Once it is discovered that Sam is the son of Flynn he is whisked away and introduced to Clu (played none other than by a computer-enhanced, 21-year-old younger version of Bridges himself). Clu has been seeking out Flynn as he needs Flynn’s disc to escape into the real world but Flynn has been seeking refuge and guarding Qorra (Oliva Wilde) the last remaining Iso living within The Grid who is the miracle the real world has been in need of for years. Now it’s a race against time before the portal between the grid and our world closes again and Sam is trying to help his father and Qorra escape before Clu himself gets set loose into the real world.

Between the aged Jeff Bridges and the computer enhanced younger version, it’s like getting a two-for-one deal and him being able to so distinguish the two versions is just further proof of how deserving he really was of that coveted gold statue he won for “Crazy Heart.” Between these two characters (one of which speaks in abiding Dude speak) and his turn in the Coen’s adaptation of Charles Portis’ “True Grit,” it really is the time for Bridges to truly shine.

The biggest surprise may be Garrett Hedlund is the leading man I hoped he’d be. With plenty of charisma and range suited for Sam I found him to be much more likeable than I originally did after the film’s teasers and trailers went live. And even more so goes for Olivia Wilde. Bringing the naïve innocence required to a character born within the grid you totally buy it when after asking Sam if he knows Jules Verne she hilariously replies, “Really? What’s he like?” Michael Sheen even shows up as a character named Castor/Zuse who may be more than he appears and nearly steals the whole show.

The score by Daft Punk (who also plays a couple of “Masked DJ’s”) never gets old and keeps things moving along as well as the pacing. Easily my second favorite score of the year behind Hans Zimmer’s “Inception.” But the real star of the show is of course the visuals. Whether you might think there may be a bit too much hype surrounding the film you’d be wrong. “TRON: Legacy” is without question a mesmerizing display of visuals gone wild and the only way to see it is in IMAX 3-D. It truly is a sight to behold.

There are even cues taken and one upped from the likes of “The Dark Knight” to “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” to “Avatar” on how to use the format correctly. The screen is continually shifting not only between aspect ratios but there are several sequences shot in traditional 2-D leaving pretty much only the sequences taking place within the Grid in 3-D.

The Real 3-D format should be put to pasture as everything seen the IMAX way is brought to life with stunning clarity, lacking the dull shading brought on by the lesser of the two evils, so to speak. In the end, while “Avatar” may have looked great but was exhausting in length, here’s the 3-D event that’s exhausting by way of sheer splendor which is by far a much more rewarding experience making this one of the must see movie events of the holiday season.

Photo courtesy Walt Disney Pictures

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Third Time Is Not the Charm As the Series Unknowingly Lurches Into Self Parody

Rated PG for some frightening images and sequences of fantasy action.
115 minutes
Fox 2000 Pictures
** ½ out of 5

Article first published as Movie Review: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader on Blogcritics.

It only took Walt Disney Pictures two outings to give up on the C.S. Lewis book-to-film adaptations of the “Chronicles of Narnia” series. While there are seven novels, we are now only up to the third film. If the law of diminishing of returns is any indication, then even Fox 2000 Pictures better get ahead of themselves after witnessing the disastrous entry “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” (which also seems to be trying to vie for the year’s longest film title).

Whoever thought Michael Apted a wise choice as director was somewhat misguided. Oh sure, he directed one of the James Bond flicks (“The World Is Not Enough”), but the rest of his resume reads of silly entries into the annals of thriller convention. Ranging from the Jodi Foster/Liam Neeson drama “Nell” to the Hugh Grant/Gene Hackman hospital thriller “Extreme Measures,” the only other so-called “thrillers” he’s had a hand in is that disposable “Bond” entry and the rather silly Jennifer Lopez headlining “Enough.”

Maybe the only film the producers at Disney caught was his “Enigma” because his choice as director causes nothing but that title. Serviceable is the best word to describe his craftsmanship here and I suppose when it comes to family entertainment that should be enough. But after the masterstroke that Disney delivered with “Toy Story 3” this past summer, you’d think that Fox would want something a little more substantial for their big holiday tent pole release. Alas, all we’re left with is enough religious head-bashing to make a summer away at bible school seem subtle.

In “Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” Lucy and Edmund Pevensie (Georgie Henley and Skandar Keynes) are living in Cambridge against their wishes with their aunt and uncle and their intolerable cousin Eustace Scrubb (Will Poulter, so brilliant in his “Son of Rambow” debut and on “School of Comedy” yet so awful here). Edmund just wants to fight for his country and Lucy yearns to be as beautiful as her sister. Siblings Susan (Anna Popplewell) and Peter (William Moseley) are nowhere to be found aside from some brief fantasy sequence appearances and lucky them.

One day Eustace, Lucy and Edmund are having a closed-door discussion about how much the two siblings hate being in Cambridge and how much Eustace hates them being there. Suddenly Lucy sees water running from a painting on the wall that looks like something out of Narnia and sure enough the room is flooded with water and they are all transported away to sea where they’re all picked up aboard the “Dawn Treader” captained by Prince Caspian himself (Ben Barnes) who is now King of Narnia. Everyone is quickly informed that they must rescue seven lords to save Narnia from “The Nothing.” Wait… this isn’t a new “NeverEnding Story?” Moving on then.

Lots of swashbuckling marches forth while talking mice and walking oxen crack wise. Meanwhile Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson) and The White Witch (Tilda Swinton) make even briefer appearances than Susan and Peter whose characters seem to be needed only to further the production values and budget costs.

Along the way there are also lots of references to both better and worse films. Everything from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” trilogy, the “Harry Potter” series, “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” “Lost,” “Army of Darkness,” “Aladdin,” “Pan’s Labyrinth,” and even “Ghostbusters.” That’s right, “Ghostbusters!” Since when does “Ghostbusters” belong in an allegorical Christian film? Maybe what we didn’t know is that secretly “Ghostbusters” itself was just that? Nope, this film is just that ill-conceived.

With all of the effects thrown at the audience (in another awful 3-D conversion by the way), and the surprisingly quick pace, it appears that all of the blame could be placed on the writers. Working with such a beloved novel to base their screenplay on there’s no reason for everything to be so ham-fisted on screen. When the best thing one can say about this is that at least more happens than in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1,” it’s still not meant to be a compliment as at least that film they were trying to make a great feature even if they wound up merely pandering to its built-in fan base.

While it may have been since childhood that I read any of the “Narnia” novels, they could never have been so overwrought and even pretentious. When David Fincher’s handling of the seven deadly sins is less brash, something has definitely gone awry. Although I do have to give the production designers kudos for throwing in a last minute “Jurassic Park” reference. If you don’t think the “Clash of the Titans” based kraken lookalike resembles a dilophosaurus then you’ve probably fallen asleep. But on the other hand, the film is far too bombastic to afford even that small pleasure.

Photo courtesy Fox 2000 Pictures

Friday, December 3, 2010

Portman Soars and Aronofsky Lands Another Oscar Worthy Effort

Rated R for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use.
107 minutes
Fox Searchlight Pictures
**** ½ out of 5

Article first published as Movie Review: Black Swan (2010) on Blogcritics.

When you’ve powered your way through nine new movies within a week it takes a lot to go back and sit through one of them again. While there have now been three, the others being “127 Hours” and “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale,” it took the batshit insanity of Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” to force me back to see if it was as good a second time around and I wound up loving the film even more upon revisiting.

Aronofsky has made a name for himself after his breakthrough at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival with “Pi” but it was thanks to his all too realistic drug use depictions in “Requiem for a Dream” that really put him on the map. And while his third feature outing (“The Fountain”) was considered a huge misstep, he brought back his A-game with a film of great intimacy and a few Oscar nods for its stars Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei with “The Wrestler.” While they have now been A-listed again, after seeing him back in deranged form with “Black Swan,” hopefully we see him nominated this year along with his superstar Natalie Portman.

Nina Sayers (Portman) has big dreams of becoming the new star for Thomas Leroy’s (Vincent Cassel) reimagining of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” While many find Thomas’ choice to kick off his new season, he expects to “strip it down, make it visceral and real.” At first Thomas doesn’t think Nina has the power to become the Black Swan by the end of the story, he is too well aware that she most definitely conveys the White Swan at least. When future rival Lily (Mila Kunis) arrives fresh off the plane from San Francisco that’s when Nina has to do some soul searching to figure out whether she has the guts to pull off the perfect performance and prove herself successor of the retiring Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder).

Natalie Portman sure has come a long long way from the days of “The Professional” or her cutesy turns in “Anywhere But Here” and “Where the Heart Is.” She’s thankfully broadening her horizons from playing the epileptic girl next door (“Garden State”), a stripper (“Closer”), a foul-mouthed rapper in a “Saturday Night Live” digital short, the bruised ex-girlfriend (“Hotel Chevalier”) or shaving her head and kicking ass in “V for Vendetta,” she’s finally becoming the standout actress critics and fans alike have spotted since 1994.

Now whether she’s next seen in her upcoming romantic/comedy “No Strings Attached,” a raunchy period comedy, “Your Highness,” or in next summer’s blockbuster “Thor,” it’s nice to see she’s keeping things varied and not taking any time off. We can all use more Portman in our cinematic diet. And it’s of particular note with “Black Swan” that she’s bound to become one of Mr. Skin’s most searched names after the bedroom scene she shares, first with herself, and then with Kunis after a drunken, drug-addled night out.

Aronofsky fantastically blurs the lines between the film’s reality and Nina’s increasingly perversed fantasy which is all part of the fun as events begin piling upon one another. Whether it’s a did they/didn’t they hook up between Nina and Lily or all the events of the denouement, everything is thrown into Aronosky’s pressure cooker leaving the audience squirming to find out what’s really going on.

While “Black Swan’s” ending may be quite similar to “The Wrestler’s,” that film ended a little too ambiguously and left me with a bad after taste and a shrug of the shoulders. Here, screenwriters Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin have given a fitful ending where everything finally adds up to the sum of its parts and it’s finally realized that what Thomas says about his version of “Swan Lake” is what everyone involved has decided to do with the film and that is worthy of a standing ovation all in itself.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Slay Bells Are Ringing and Santa's Up To More Than Making a List and Checking It Twice

Rated R for some nudity and language.
73 minutes
Oscilloscope Pictures
**** out 5

Article first published as Movie Review: Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale on Blogcritics.

Just after November 1, and as the Christmas season draws near, one of the first things I do is to start sprinkling the sounds of the season into my musical enjoyment. I also begin watching some of the less traditional seasonal favorites as I try to save the more literal Christmas films for after Thanksgiving. Sometimes however, a film such as the Finnish “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale” just can’t wait.

As for said untraditional films, these would include the likes of say, “Die Hard,” “Lethal Weapon,” “Gremlins,” or even “Love Actually.” While not outright holiday movies, the season permeates throughout these films. As the season expands, I like to add in the classics such as “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” “Elf,” “White Christmas,” “A Christmas Story,” and “Scrooged,” just to name a few.

Admittedly, some of my favorite holiday films fall into really unusual genres, including Christmas-themed horror films. Some might say that it’s sacrilege to make the yuletide spirit dark and mischievous with a heavy dose of mayhem and murder, but as red may be the ultimate color of the season, what’s wrong with a little bloodshed for good measure?

In “Rare Exports,” it’s 24 days to Christmas and sawdust has just been found at an archeological dig atop the Korvatunturi Mountain. It’s brought to the attention of Riley (Per Christian Ellefsen) who becomes immediately concerned about their find. He gives everyone safety instructions consisting of “No drinking, smoking, cursing, loitering, cavorting or arguing,” also stating: “Any attempt to break these rules may result in death and/or the death of your co-workers.” That’s right; they’ve stumbled upon the frozen gravesite of the one and only Santa Claus, and Riley plans on a little grave robbing.

Hiding not-so-discreetly behind cases of clearly marked high explosives are pseudo-friends Juuso (Ilmari Järvenpää) and Pietari (Onni Tommila). The boys leave through the hole they’ve cut in the fence surrounding the dig site and return home. Pietari is convinced that what Riley suspects is true and begins reading up on everyone’s favorite jolly St. Nick. But what Pietari finds out is that Santa (Peeter Jakobi) is really a sadistic devil-like creature who partakes more of torturing young ne’er do wells and spanking them to pieces.

Cut to Christmas Eve and strange occurrences are afoot including the local reindeer population being obliterated before the yearly roundup. All the radiators around town have disappeared as have the local supply of potato sacks. Children are starting to go missing and Pietari’s father Rauno (Jorma Tommila) may have accidentally trapped Santa in a spike-filled wolf trap.

Pietari is convinced this is the real Santa they’ve found and tries to warn his father that “The Coca Cola Santa is a hoax,” but not before dad and his friends decide to extort their find for payback for the reindeer slaughter in the amount of $85,000. Before you can say “...and to all a good night,” Riley too tries to warn them against the dangers ahead but not before Santa’s little helpers rally in the woods and prove they will stop at nothing to protect their dear employer.

Thankfully through all this, director Jalmari Helander and his co-writer/brother Juuso Helander (expanding their previous “Rare Exports” shorts from 2003 and 2005, see below) walk a fine balance between the horror and comedy. It all plays out more like a ’50s B-movie creature feature which probably seemed more evident to me having just recently partaken of “Tremors” before watching this movie. While you may think from the trailer that it looks like a potential splatter flick, there’s surprisingly only one onscreen death.

The Helanders clearly know that you don’t need buckets of gore to have a good time and rely more on the audience’s knowledge of all things holiday related for the more sly jokes to work. Everyone in the cast is clearly enjoying themselves without outrightly winking at the camera and little Onni Tommila manages to carry the film on his small shoulders and really takes over when Pietari’s time to shine comes calling. The film builds to a fantastic conclusion that finally clears up just what the title really means. And in case anyone was wondering exactly how Santa can be in a million places at once? We finally get an anecdote that makes sense.

Between both “Black Christmas” films, “Santa’s Slay,” “Don’t Open Till Christmas,” “Silent Night, Deadly Night,” and “Christmas Evil,” I just love a little horror with my Christmas films. I even make sure to find time to squeeze in the Robert Zemekis directed “Tales from the Crypt” episode “And all Through the House.” Now comes “Rare Exports,” another holiday classic that plants its tongue firmly in cheek while still staying true to tradition and offering up what plays out more like a creature feature than an outright horror film featuring Santa as antagonist.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

"HP 7.1" Has Finally Arrived and Feels As Halved As Its Title

Rated PG-13 for some sequences of intense action violence, frightening images and brief sensuality.
146 minutes
Warner Bros. Pictures
*** ½ out of 5

Article first published as Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 on Blogcritics.

It’s been said since the beginning back in 2001 that the “Harry Potter” films are critic proof. Yes, this is the first definition that pops into my brain whenever someone asks me if the most current film is any good. Having never read any of the books, yet having seen all of the films in release order, I can assure you that these are what they’re talking about.

Sure, they may be better than most of what else has come out the same year, but whether they’re really any good isn’t a matter of importance. Through thick and thin, the fans will stand by them and buy their tickets, ensuring massive box office numbers. While the best of (now seven) films is without question, Alfonso Cuarón’s “Prisoner of Azkaban,” I hope each new film will be the best. Only then will it finally win me over and now. With the arrival of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1,” unfortunately, I’m still waiting.

We begin this chapter with Rufus Scrimgeour (Bill Nighy), the Ministry of Magic, assuring the public that while these may be dark times, the ministry still stands strong. Next we see that Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) is doing everything in his power to ensure otherwise with a meeting including his rag tag group of evildoers featuring Severus Snape (Alan Rickman, looking rather portly), Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) and rounding out the “Sweeney Todd” cast, Wormtail (Timothy Spall) hiding in the corner. Also in attendance are Lucius Malfoy (Jason Issacs) and Draco (Tom Felton).

Team Evil has Charity Burbage (Carolyn Pickles) of Hogwarts in suspended animation to find out when Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is to be hidden at a safe house. After all of Harry’s friends gather in one place, they all take his form to throw off the Death Eaters as he’s still underage and has “The Trace.” After a deadly race to said safe house, Rufus shows up to present the will of the deceased Dumbledore to Harry, Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint). None of them know why they are presented these gifts but accept and we the viewer know that all things will be spelled out by the end of the 146 minute runtime.

Meanwhile, Harry, Hermione, and Ron are off to see the wizard… err, wait, wrong movie. The trio of friends set off in search of four Horcruxes, or “How to Defeat Lord Voldemort and Live to Tell about It.” The only way these can be destroyed is with Gryffindor’s sword, which winds up being at the bottom of a frozen lake which allows the girls in the audience to swoon over a shirtless Harry Potter.

We also learn that Harry’s and Voldemort’s wands are twins and therefore can do no true harm to one or the other. Voldemort takes into possession Lucius Malfoy’s while Harry winds up having to take over Hermione’s after some kind of accident and she breaks his. Now neither possess their original wands and, if you don’t know what this means, then you need to watch more movies. Lastly, there’s a quick story time sequence where we finally learn of what the Deathly Hallows are, which is far more enchanting than anything else in the whole movie.

Finally, while the trio are hiding out together in the woods, we also get a lover's triangle involving the Horcrux which apparently makes the wearer go mad from osmosis. Ron is influenced the most and begins to think that there’s something more going on between Harry and Hermione and trots off on his own leaving the two chums to scowl, mumble, and have an awkward moment of dancing to lighten their moods. Everything is of course a build up where even Dobby (voiced by Toby Jones) shows up to make sure everyone is rightfully accounted for, even if it’s just to be killed off. Now don’t go crying foul thinking anything I’ve written is a spoiler. We all know this particular novel has been on book shelves for over three years now.

Don’t get me wrong, as I mentioned before, each of the “Potter” films is a step above most of what’s playing in the theater next to it, but director David Yates is totally incapable of coming up with a way to bridge the two part film. My appetite for the real finale, “Part 2,” has not been entirely whet, but it is coming and having seen all the previous films and having not read any of J.K. Rowling’s young adult novels, I am at least curious to see how it all plays out, even if most of what’s been seen in the trailer for “Part 1” seems to be mostly made up of imagery from “Part 2.”

If only director Yates had not been spending time watching the “Twilight” films (and apparently hanging out with fellow directors Ridley Scott and Paul Greengrass), he wouldn’t have such a hard time finding his own directing style. If ever such a series existed that quick-cut editing and shaky cam were put to lesser use we’ll never see it. Let alone the fact that Yates cuts back and forth from shaky cam to steady cam at the drop of the hat in the same scene. It’s beyond distracting and just calls attention to the director’s lack of personal style.

And while I know this is the first of a two parter, there is absolutely no buildup at the end of this one. It ends rather abruptly as if screenwriter Steve Kloves wasn’t sure where to put the juxtaposition to give this film its closure to leave you on the edge of your seat. Maybe if they all had spent some time hanging out with Peter Jackson they could learn a thing or two. And would it kill some of the cast to learn to speak up or at least enunciate? Half of the movie the characters mumble so many of their lines I wish the film had some kind of subtitling.

Alas, as for what we do get, we come back to the term “critic proof” as no matter what anyone thinks of how this all plays out, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” is going to make far more money than this ever will. But hopefully for the non-fans, we get something more akin to “Azkaban” and then everyone will have something to cheer about.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Love Child Of “Broadcast News” and “Anchorman”

Rated PG-13 for some sexual content including dialogue, language and brief drug references.
102 minutes
Paramount Pictures
**** ½ out of 5

Article first published as Movie Review: Morning Glory (2010) on Blogcritics.

Watching the morning news is something I used to avoid. Since getting together with my now-wife however, it’s become part of the daily routine, as she’s always watching something, since she writes for a local paper. Even when she’s not home, while I’m getting ready for the day the news is on. While it may just be the local broadcast, I’m even more thankful that I’m not subjecting myself to the likes of the morning variety shows. Oh, you know, “The Today Show,” “Good Morning America,” “Live with Regis and Kelly.” However, if any of these were akin to the likes of “Day Break” in this week’s “Morning Glory,” I may find myself tuning in just to witness the daily trainwreck.

While our morning news team of choice may not be particularly award worthy, they get the job done and there’s only two anchors you wish would quit their day job. While J.J. Abrams has not dipped his toes in the waters of this world, he definitely has immersed himself in TV Land. From “Felicity,” “Alias,” “Lost” and now “Undercovers,” he knows what makes for good television. So it’s no wonder that we find him producing Aline Brosh McKenna’s (“Devil Wears Prada”) hilariously original script. Even director Roger Michell (“Notting Hill,” “Changing Lanes”) may seem an unlikely choice but he brings the madcap behind-the-scenes shenanigans to life with a light and fluffy exuberance keeping a smile on your face when you’re not laughing out loud.

In “Morning Glory,” we find Becky Fuller (Rachel McAdams) ruining a first date as her phone consistently rings. It turns out that Becky is the producer for “Good Morning New Jersey.” Waking up every morning at 1:30 a.m. is plenty to show her dedication in the film medium until the day she thinks she’s getting a promotion. Instead the show gets handed over to some over-educated kid named Chip and Becky finds herself out of a job and stalking other shows with a bombardment of resumes and follow up phone calls.

On the verge of thinking all hope is lost (even her mom (Patti D’Arbanville) thinks she’s too much of an overachiever), she gets called in for an interview with Jerry Barnes (Jeff Goldblum) of IBS. After thinking she’s screwed herself over, Jerry calls her on her way out of the building and offers an Executive Producer credit to the downtrodden “Day Break” morning show. Her first order of business is firing the smarmy porn addicted co-anchor Paul McVee (Ty Burrell) but now she needs a new co-host.

Becky finds a loophole in Mike Pomeroy’s (Harrison Ford) contract where if offered an official position and he turns it down they have the right to fire him and he loses out on $6 million. With her new ragtag band of a morning news team also including the egotistical but game Colleen Peck (Diane Keaton) and weatherman Ernie Appleby (Matt Malloy) they fight the daily grind including but not limited to getting Mike to banter or save their ratings by either having Colleen kiss a frog or strap Ernie into a live broadcast on board a new rollercoaster.

The best part of all this is that while things could have quickly dissolved into another pleasant but instantly disposable chick flick, McKenna’s script finds a new male lead of sorts in Becky’s job. Yes, there’s a subplot involving a romance between Becky and fellow IBS employee Adam Bennett (Patrick Wilson), but even this is kept sincere and realistic. With Adam working in the same building he knows how important the job is to her and thankfully never gives her the clichéd ultimatum of choosing between love and a career.

While some things may be played closer to over-the-top than it could have been, most of the happenings are more low key than you’d expect. This helps make the quips and verbal sparring even funnier. While you may know where everything is headed, it is still a chick flick at heart, you can’t help but thank McKenna, Michell and Abrams for keeping everything on a realistic level and relying on the funny more than the sap. There’s almost none to speak of here. When it’s sentimental it deserves to be and the cast give their all to keep things in line when it could have strayed into “Anchorman” territory. And while that movie is a hilarious classic in its own right, “Morning Glory” makes for a fine companion piece for how things are happening today.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

"Megamind" Saves Fall Season, Film At Eleven

Rated PG for action and some language.
96 minutes
**** ½ out of 5
DreamWorks Animation

Article first published as Movie Review: Megamind on Blogcritics.

Superhero films have donned the multiplexes since the 1940s so it must be hard trying to come up with something new by now. And yes, the spoofing of said superhero films has been done and will continue ad nauseam. But with every character being thrown at us from Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Watchmen, X-Men; it’s the original characters along the way that really have the ability to stand out. M. Night Shyamalan may have given us the fantastic “Unbreakable” but it was Brad Bird who broke the mold when he delivered us “The Incredibles” (arguably one of the greatest superhero films of all time).

Now DreamWorks Animation is jumping on the bandwagon to bring us its slice of the pie, with Will Ferrell in voice command as the giant blue-headed “Megamind.” Director Tom McGrath (both “Madagascar” films) and his team of sophomore writers, Alan J. Schoolcraft and Brent Simons, deliver us something more unexpected than the trailers and film spots will lead you to believe. While some of it borrows heavily from the best while giving nods to the rest, they still manage to bring something different and largely hilarious to theaters this weekend.

Megamind has just arrived on Earth along with the goody little two-shoes Metro Man (voiced by Brad Pitt). While Metro Man was delivered under the Christmas tree to a wealthy family, Megamind winds up crash landing in Metro City Prison. Raised by his fellow inmates with the belief that evil is good, it’s not until his time off for good behavior that he meets up with Metro Man in school and their rivalry is born.

Megamind just wants to continue the bouts between him and Metro Man always trying, but never winning, to take over control of Metro City (or Metrocity as Megamind always mispronounces). He finally hatches a scheme, assisted by his ever trusting Minion (voiced by David Cross), involving kidnapping local TV reporter Roxanne Ritchi (voiced by Tina Fey) to lure in Metro Man and destroy him once and for all. When his plan seems to finally work he finds himself a man without a song.

Megamind now finds himself ruling Metro City and running rampant through the streets stealing himself everything from the Mona Lisa to the Ark of the Covenant but eventually he finds himself bored having existential conversations with inanimate objects. After he takes the form of local nerd museum worker Bernard (voiced by Justin Theroux), he finds himself convinced of a new plan to make his own superhero foe and accidentally finds it in the form of Roxanne’s unrequited love slave Hal (voiced by Jonah Hill).

In the form of Hal’s “Space Dad” (aka Marlon Brando from the original Richard Donner Superman film), Megamind trains the newly trademarked “Tighten” to save the city from Megamind’s nefarious plans and rescue Roxanne so she can fall in love with him. Little does Tighten know that Megamind himself is falling in love with Roxanne until he spies them having a smooch off at dinner. Now Tighten decides he doesn’t want to be the good guy and a new super villain is born and it’s up to Megamind himself to save Metrocity, err, Metro City, and Roxanne, from impending doom.

Director McGrath keeps things sailing along merrily and hilariously with further nods to everything from the classic “Donkey Kong” arcade game to even a blink and you’ll miss it reference to Ferrell’s own “Anchorman.” The voice cast is more than up for the ensuing hijinks with Ferrell finally finding a character worthy of his over-the-top antics Fey using her spry sarcasm in overdrive.

At first Hill seems a little bored with his character but that’s because Hal is far less interesting character than Tighten turns out to be, it’s when he’s finally transformed that Hill gets to let loose and bring on the funny. And speaking of which, why no one has thought to use Brad Pitt to voice a superhero before is beyond me. He’s not only spot on as a man of steel with an enormous ego but he’s just as hilarious here as he can be in a good live-action comedic role of which he’s been far too limited.

So while you may think the well is beginning to run a little dry either in the case of superhero films or especially in the world of spoof, thankfully we find there’s still something left. Some credit probably needs to be given to Ben Stiller as an executive producer or even the surprising inclusion of Guillermo del Toro brought on for some additional editing, these names aren’t so surprising given Stiller typically knows funny and Del Toro certainly knows a thing or two about superheroes (“Blade II” and the “Hellboys”). So movie going is finally saved with a double helping of hilarity no matter what your cup of tea. Ultimately, however, this is the far greater film arriving in theaters this weekend.

Not Up To Par With "The Hangover" But Still One of Todd Phillips Best

Rated R for language, drug use and sexual content.
96 minutes
Warner Bros. Pictures
*** ½ out of 5

Article first published as Movie Review: Due Date (2010) on Blogcritics.

Expectations can be one thing — and when your last film (“The Hangover”) is the highest grossing R-rated comedy of all time you can only imagine how hard it could be to follow that up. A long line of successful comedies in general can be a tough act to string along when you’re continually trying to one-up yourself. This may not be director Todd Phillips ultimate goal but it is definitely his trend. While his new comedy, “Due Date” isn’t exactly a masterpiece, he sets the bar higher in other aspects if not where you would think.

Situational comedy in film is something that most people call an acquired taste. Ok, let’s be honest, most people don’t like in movies. Many would claim it belongs on the boob tube with a laugh track playing in the background, something like “Two and a Half Men” instantly springs to mind here. Maybe it’s because it’s the brunt of a spectacular joke that’s far funnier than that show has ever actually been in spite of its viewership.

While this year’s earlier “Dinner for Schmucks” was far funnier than its box office numbers would suggest, it makes me think that the sole success of “Due Date” will strictly rely on the cult following of Phillips, and it doesn’t hurt to have Robert Downey, Jr. and Zach Galifianakis in starring roles. With four credited writers, it’s not as much of a surprise. While there seems to be a lot of ad-libbing going on, Phillips, along with Alan R. Cohen, Alan Freedland and Adam Sztykiel have come up with enough hilariously taboo situations, one-liners, and anecdotes to make up for the far zanier and over-the-top sequences that sneak into the final third of the film.

Peter Highman (Downey, Jr.) is just trying to board his flight in Atlanta, Ga. to get home for the birth of his first child. After Peter meet-cutes Ethan Tremblay (Galifianakis) at the airport not only does their luggage get swapped but they both get grounded and stuck on the No Fly List after a scuffle on board involving a cell phone and an Air Marshal. Ethan is nice enough to offer Peter a ride home to Los Angeles (Ethan claims to be an aspiring actor on his way to Hollywood) as his wallet and drivers license were left aboard. Faster than you can say “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” hilarity ensues. Knowing as little about the plot is your greatest asset here.

While Steve Carell’s Barry character in “Schmucks” was called, “a tornado of destruction,” a meeting of the mind’s between him and Ethan would send Barry running for the hills. Here is a man so out of touch with his surroundings that he continually refers to himself as 23 years old, thinks a headshot works as a picture ID, and isn’t ashamed to masturbate in the car seat next to Peter just to get himself to sleep. Even if it means his dog Sunny needs to participate by masturbating in the backseat as well.

One thing definitely goes for Todd Phillips: at least his movies progressively look more like real films. Maybe his inflating budgets are making him more able to hire real cinematographers and better editors. Speaking of which, at a scant 96 minutes, the pacing is more assured and there are fewer spots that tend to drag.

As for Downey, Jr. and Galifianakis, a better pairing for this movie could not have existed. While Galifianakis is starting to be typecast with Ethan being the naïve madman with a heart of gold, if it weren’t for Downey, Jr. playing Peter, that character would have been far too unlikeable. He really is quite a douche. Thankfully, Downey, Jr. has so encompassed the everyman role that even when he’s sucker - punching a youngster or spitting on Ethan’s dog - you just can’t help but empathize with him. So while everyone may be expecting “Due Date” to be “The Hangover 2,” this is a whole other beast. Feel free to hitch a ride with the new odd couple from hell; just make sure you don’t drink the coffee.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Sam Rockwell Knocks It Out Of the Park, See It For Him If Nothing Else

Rated R for language and some violent images.
107 minutes
Fox Searchlight
**** out of 5

Article first published as Movie Review: Conviction (2010) on Blogcritics.

All throughout junior high and high school I found myself immersed in the world of John Grisham. While his movies never enticed this teenager into a local multiplex, I did read at least six of his early novels before realizing that they were all essentially the same. For years, it also piqued my interest into becoming a lawyer. While that really never panned out, I still enjoy great legal films and novels. The Paul Levine “Solomon vs. Lord” series also offers some great reading even if focused more on the screwball angle.

While all of the above-mentioned may be fiction, sometimes it’s the truth that can lead to even more rewarding filmmaking. In “Conviction,” director Tony Goldwyn takes a compelling script from Pamela Gray, throws in some tremendous acting and churns out his best film yet. Although he'd only directed only three feature films prior to this one (“A Walk on the Moon,” “Someone Like You…,” “The Last Kiss”), he’s been heavily involved in television. Having done episodes in series including “Dexter” (one of the best shows on right now), “Justified,” “Damages,” “Kidnapped,” “Law & Order” and “Without a Trace,” directing a movie like “Conviction” makes sense.

“Conviction” concerns the true story of a 1980 murder; Katharina Brow had been stabbed 30 times and her head literally beaten to a pulp. All eyes immediately set upon Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell), as he's had a long, sordid history with the police. Although Kenny is originally found innocent, two years later he’s back on trial, and this time he's found guilty, sentenced to life without parole.

Now Kenny’s sister Betty Anne (Hilary Swank) will spend what seems like the rest of her life proving Kenny’s innocence, including attending law school and passing the Bar Exam. But it's not until the possibility of DNA testing comes along that Betty Anne can bring the family long-overdue justice. Not to say that she doesn't seek out a little help from a fellow lawyer friend, Abra Rice (Minnie Driver) and hot-shot lawyer, Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher) of the Innocence Project.

While sometimes the handheld camera style gets a little distracting in the home-front parts of the story, director Goldwyn never lets things fall into the melodramatics of television and keeps things at a more personal level. This is particularly helpful in the relationship of Kenny and Betty Anne. You always believe they are siblings, and this is helped even more so through the use of flashbacks. The best of these shows them boxing in the family barn where Betty Anne (Bailee Madison) KO’s Kenny (Tobias Campbell); in another we see them breaking and entering into people’s homes, eating all their candy, and passing out in a sugary daydream living a better life vicariously through their escapades.

The biggest travesty (besides Kenny’s conviction) will be if Rockwell does not get some attention at the next Academy Awards. If they can honor Johnny Depp for his Capt. Jack Sparrow then there’s absolutely no reason Rockwell shouldn’t be nominated for his hilarious scene-stealing turn as Justin Hammer in “Iron Man 2.” However, his portrayal in “Conviction” of Kenny Waters is particularly heartbreaking as you see just how a good man can keep his scruples and sense of humor even while behind bars for a crime he knows he didn’t commit while he watches his sister spend her life setting him free. Minnie Driver also deserves kudos for her hilariously quick witted turn as Abra.

Oscar bait season is officially upon us, and while this may not be one of the best films of the year, it’s certainly far greater than most of what’s come out. If the Academy sticks to its ten- nominations rule for Best Picture (which went into effect last year), I won’t be surprised if “Conviction” gets a nomination. It may be Halloween this weekend, but instead of wasting your money on another tread through Hollywood’s sequelitis (the worse than the first “Paranormal Activity 2” and the supposedly “final” “Saw 3D” until it makes more money than any of its predecessors), why not seek out the underdog? It deserves as much of a fighting chance as Kenny did in real life.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

No Answers to the "Hereafter" Here, Better Luck Next Time, Punk

Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements including disturbing disaster and accident images, and for brief strong language.
129 minutes
Warner Bros. Pictures
** out of 5

Article first published as Movie Review: Hereafter (2010) on Blogcritics.

Alright, Clint Eastwood, it’s time for you to make my day. I’m not sure if it’s that at the ripe old age of 80 you’re starting to run on fumes, but it’s definitely starting to show in your work behind the camera. A good ol’ shot of adrenaline never hurt anyone and if it’s all for the sake of trying to ease yourself into being annual Oscar bait every year (“Mystic River,” “Million Dollar Baby,” “Flags of Our Fathers,” “Letters to Iwa Jima,” “Changeling,” “Gran Torino,” “Invictus,” phew!), then congratulations. Except that it’s becoming increasingly less deserving. And if this week’s “Hereafter” is any indication, maybe you just need to entrust yourself over to a new studio because while Warner Bros. may be letting you get away with whatever you want, your name is no longer enough to satiate the cinematic palate.

Peter Morgan isn’t necessarily a household name himself, but he’s written more than his fair share of film gold. When four of your last five films have been the likes of “The Damned United,” “Frost/Nixon,” “The Queen,” and “The Last King of Scotland” you’re doing very well for yourself. But apparently Morgan seems to be far better suited working with source material based on real life events. With “Hereafter” being his first foray into original material since 1998, maybe it’s a good thing the new Bond film isn’t happening after all (he was co-writing the script). If Morgan was being brought in to do rewrites or maybe some script polishing then I’m sure it was a brilliant idea but at this point we may never know.

In Eastwood’s and Morgan’s meandering “Hereafter,” we meet Marie LeLay (Cécile De France). She’s vacationing in an undisclosed country with her boyfriend Didier (Thierry Neuvic) and ventures out shopping for gifts for her boyfriend who’s too lazy to go out himself to grab last minute somethings for his own kids when a tsunami strikes. This scene is intense, filmed so as to know what’s actually going on, and having just returned home from a honeymoon in St. Thomas, more than realistic. (Thank goodness we didn’t see this film before we left!) After she gets swept away in the tsunami and seemingly drowns she visits a plain of being which she’s positive to be the hereafter. She continues on to Paris where she’s a hard as nails TV correspondent but is driven by Didier to take some time off and write a political novel she keeps talking about. Instead she starts poking around into scientific facts about the afterlife searching for answers to what she saw that day and decides to write a book about that instead.

In San Franciso, George Lonegan (Matt Damon) is being pushed into performing readings for his brother Billy’s (Jay Mohr) clients against his best interests. George has a gift (or curse as he calls it) and can communicate with people’s loved ones after a surgery gone wrong as a child. He just wants to keep working at a sugar refinery and be at peace with himself even if it means staring longingly out windows, drinking coffee at the dinner table, or his favorite pastime, listening to Charles Dickens books on disc. After he meet-cutes Melanie (Dallas Bryce Howard more aloof than ever and nowhere near as cute as Eastwood thinks it is) at a late night singles cooking class she learns his secret and even she can’t help but push him into what he dreads the most.

Meanwhile, in London, twin brothers Marcus and Jason (Frankie and George McLaren) are trying to cope with a drug addicted/alcoholic mother (Lyndsey Marshal). They have their photo taken together as a gift to dear old mum but nothing can keep child services from beckoning. When she decides to get her life back on track is when disaster strikes of course. Jason takes off to the chemist to assist in mum’s rehab but that’s when he’s bullied in the streets and runs out into the street only to be struck by a car. Marcus copes by having his new foster parents move a second bed into his room at their house and keeps Jason’s urn nearby but not as close as his hat which he wears whenever possible. After a ghostly game of keepaway in the tube and Marcus escapes certain death, he too begins researching the afterlife bringing him to seek out answers bringing him to cross paths simultaneously with both Marie and George at the end of the movie where you knew it was headed all along but most sadly we find out the movie still has nowhere to go and even less answers than the faux soothsayers.

If people hated the sentimental and open-ended “Lost” finale then they will outright despise this film. Hell, even if you absolutely loved said finale you will despise this movie. It’s like the writers of “Lost” wrote a feature length “Seinfeld” episode. And the worst episode of both series at that. If “Seinfeld” claimed to be a show about nothing, here’s a movie that’s about even less. Seriously, how many times can we be shown Matt Damon staring out a window or laying in his bed staring at the ceiling? Now imagine that for two full hours. The best thing to do would be to wait for NetFlix to watch the opening scene on Blu-ray as it will surely look stupendous.

Yup, that’s the grand scheme of things. Admittedly, for the first hour I was slightly interested in spite of the slow pace. You can tell that the story threads are going to wind up coming together somehow in the end and I thought maybe by the dénouement Morgan, Eastwood and his cast could at least be on to something either mischievous and throw in some awesome twist ending or maybe make you care about everyone that when their fates are finally revealed you might give a damn. Well once you finally get to the film’s big reveal you’ll either be groaning or snickering or running for the exits as you realize that it really was just a huge waste of time. I’d rather be stuck in the hereafter than have to suffer sitting through “Hereafter” ever again.

Monday, October 4, 2010

"Let Me In" Deserves a Warm Welcome

Rated R for strong bloody horror violence, language and a brief sexual situation.
115 minutes
Overture Films
**** ½ out of 5

Article first published as Movie Review: Let Me In on Blogcritics.

Say what you will about remakes, and also about the current vampire craze that’s swept the globe lately, but when they’re done right in both respects it’s certainly something to cheer about. A lot was working against Matt Reeves (director of “Cloverfield”) adaptation of the Swedish “Let the Right One In” (adapted by the original novel's author John Ajvide Lindqvist and directed by Tomas Alfredson), but this new Americanized remake, “Let Me In,” manages to distinguish itself while paying true reverence to its source materials.

Vampire lore sure seems to be getting pounded into the dirt these days. Whether they’re walking around in the gloomy daylight of Washington or saving themselves for marriage, people sure seem to be trying way too hard to romanticize this particular breed of antagonist. Anyone who knows anything about vampires should be smart enough to realize that real vampires cannot walk during the day, drink human blood to sustain “life,” and have to be allowed into your place of living. Hopefully “Let Me In” will reawaken audiences as to how a vampire film is supposed to be – dark, moody and bloody violent.

The story remains the same but the structure seems to be a little different; however, all things considered we still get the lonely story of two 12-year-olds (one more or less) set in a bleakly confined and snowy region, this time set in 1983 Los Alamos, N.M.

Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is bullied at school every day by Kenny (Dylan Minnette) and his band of misfits. He takes out his repressed aggression nightly on a tree trunk with a knife while asking, “Are you scared little girl?” One night while playing “Rear Window” in his bedroom, he spies a new girl moving in with a man who would appear to be her father (Richard Jenkins). Her name is Abby (Chloë Grace Moretz), she doesn’t wear shoes in the snow, she doesn’t attend Owen's school, likes puzzles, informs Owen they can never be friends and tells him on more than a few occasions that she’s “not a girl.”

Owen disregards all these things and pursues a “friendship” of sorts nevertheless. They only meet at night, decide to go “steady,” and play arcade games when Abby isn’t throwing up after eating Now and Laters. What Abby needs and what Owen hasn’t figured out yet is that Abby is a vampire and has been 12 years old for a very long time. When a few people go missing, including a neighbor in the apartment complex, and Abby goes bonkers after Owen wants to make a blood pact, the cat’s out of the bag but still Owen doesn’t care as Abby seems to be the only person who truly cares for him.

Amping up the creep factor for Owen is just the start of what Reeves has changed for the better. In the original the two leads gave their all but they were portrayed far more innocently and here the relationships between Owen and Abby, as well as Abby and her Father, feel much deeper, ultimately making for a much sadder version if that’s possible. Here I found Smit-McPhee much more likeable than I did last time he was on-screen in the far overhyped “The Road.” There I felt like his character was far too whiney and a bit of a pussy to be the post-apocalyptic son of both Viggo Mortensen and Charlize Theron. This is how that character should have been portrayed but I already know that I am in a huge minority of people who did not like “The Road.”

As for Chloe Moretz, here’s a 13-year-old actress to reckon with. After the double whammy of this and her stunt as Hit-Girl in “Kick-Ass,” not to discount her turns as the too-smart-for-her-own-age younger sister of Joseph Gordon-Levitt in “(500) Days of Summer” and the only thing watchable in the awful “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” I have to say that she’s far better a young actress than most could dream (we’re all looking at you, Dakota Fanning).

Then there’s director Matt Reeves. Along with composer Michael Giacchino, cinematographer Greig Fraser and editor Stan Salfas, he’s showing just how much game he has even when not under the watchful eye of his Bad Robot mentor J.J. Abrams. While you may have seen everything that happens here before and not too long ago at that, he still brings a sense of new to the proceedings, even providing a car crash seemingly filmed in one take that will literally take your breath away, and makes you care more for the characters than the first time around. Even when one is a sociopath in the making and the other is a blood-sucking vampire.

There are a few instances of obvious CGI but it never takes away from anything and all the key scenes are firmly in place – the hospital fire, the Fatherly blood collections and of course the almighty swimming pool. Unfortunately, the swimming pool scene is just about the only part where things veer away from greatness. The staging is nowhere near as graceful and the impact lessened. This is the homerun scene in the original and here it feels like just another splattery horror movie ending. But when two minutes is all I have the slightest complaints about, I’d say Reeves has managed to deliver a homerun of his own all around.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

"Facebook: The Movie!" "Like" It Today, I Know I Did.

Rated PG-13 for sexual content, drug and alcohol use and language.
120 minutes
Columbia Pictures
**** 1/2 out of 5

Article first published as Movie Review: The Social Network on Blogcritics.

What’s the first thing you did this morning? At some point I can almost guarantee it was logging into Facebook. If it wasn’t before you left the house it was more than likely something you did as soon as you got to work. Or maybe even while sitting in traffic with your handheld device of choice. The fact of the matter is that Facebook runs a huge portion of everyday life whether we “like” it or not. And if you ever wondered how the mega-site came to be or are simply looking for a second frontrunner for this year’s Best Picture race then look no further than David Fincher’s “The Social Network.”

Fincher comes locked and loaded, armed with a motormouthed lead (Jesse Eisenberg, “Zombieland,” “Adventureland”), a hilariously game supporting cast and a surefire Best Adapted Screenplay from Aaron Sorkin (“A Few Good Men,” “The West Wing” and “Charlie Wilson’s War”) based on Ben Mezrich’s novel, “The Accidental Billionaires,” accounting the infant stages through the millionth members of Facebook.

Even I have to admit that I originally hated the idea of Facebook: being friends with all kinds of people you've either never met or haven’t seen in years suddenly anchoring themselves into your every thought and action. While “what’s on my mind” may not be as continually updated as others, I have since pretty much abandoned my Myspace account. Now after having seen this movie, I actually appreciate Facebook a little more, even if in the grand scheme of things, it all comes to fruition through years of litigation, backstabbing and ultimately an egocentric case of envy.

In Fall 2003, Mark Zuckerberg (Eisenberg) has just been broken up with by his Boston University girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara, the new “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”). After she explains to him that he’s like dating a Stairmaster, he gets drunk and starts blogging about her being a bitch — and her false-advertising bra size. At the same time, he hacks into Harvard’s database and steals as many pictures of the female student body as he can. He launches a new site called (a “hot or not” rip-off) which crashes Harvard’s server after 22,000 hits in 2 hours.

This brings him to the attention of the Winklevosses: Tyler and Cameron (both played by Armie Hammer). They want him to create a site they call “Harvard Connection” where students can socialize online. After weeks of putting off the brothers, and scoring financial backing from his best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield, the new “Spider-man”) to set up their own site called “The Facebook,” Zuckerberg launches his site. This pisses off the brothers Winklevi and their cohort Divya Narendra (Max Minghella), who want to sue the pants off Zuckerberg and get him expelled for stealing their idea.

Eventually Zuckerberg gets stuck in litigation hell being sued by everyone from the Winklevosses to Eduardo himself (after his stock is diluted to the point that he has absolutely nothing to do with The Facebook anymore). All this is really brought on after Zuckerberg and Eduardo meet with Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake). While Zuckerberg and Parker want The Facebook to remain “cool,” which is its niche, Eduardo thinks that they need to start generating revenue and gets totally cut out when he takes a summer trip to New York to look for advertisers. What initially seems like a minute change to drop the “The” suggested by Parker is really what sets things in motion. It is the grappling hook that Parker plants in Zuckerberg’s back.

To say anymore would ruin some big surprises. For what may seem like just another 120-minute gab-athon, brings about some pretty deep human rivers of emotion. Although Eisenberg has been pigeonholed into playing the same type of character he's played before, it’s a hilarious character. What he brings this time is a snarky attitude and very subtle mannerisms that speak much louder than anything screenwriter Sorkin has coming out of his mouth.

Whether you love Facebook or detest it, you’re probably on it. Even Erica Albright and both Winklevi have profiles and fan pages. Unfortunately, while the site may still be as “cool” as Zuckerberg and Parker wanted to keep it, it’s also chock full of the advertising garbage that Eduardo sought out. Thankfully you can hide and block such applications as Mafia Wars and Farmville.

While some people love the idea of having thousands of friends spread all across the globe, I have a hard time even being friends with some family members. When you don’t like the idea of your closest friends (I currently only have 219) knowing your secrets, why would you want someone in a foreign land sharing them with everyone else they know, but I digress.

As for “The Social Network,” Fincher has created quite a snapshot of the Internet generation and whether we like it or not, this is our story. Everyone wants to be somebody even if it’s just to their own friends. While showboating may be a great way to get noticed, how better than to broadcast it across the Internet on a wall where hundreds of friends will surely notice. I mentioned earlier that we have a surefire screenplay nomination but there’s also no way that Fincher and the film itself won’t be taken for granted come awards season. Along with his cinematographer Jeff Cronenworth, editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, another nod hopefully goes out to the cast as well as the score brought to us by Atticus Rose and none other than Nine Inch Nail’s Trent Reznor. “Inception” and “Toy Story 3” finally have some competition.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Zack Snyder Tries His Hand At Family Fare and Fares Very Well For At Least The First Hour

Rated PG for some sequences of scary action.
90 minutes
Warner Bros. Pictures
*** out of 5

Article first published as Movie Review: Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole on Blogcritics.

Sorely lacking from today’s children’s fare is something that seemed to be in full swing throughout the ‘80s – a sense of danger. While some classics could be deemed too frightening for younger audiences now, does that say more about those particular films or does it say that children are far more heavily guarded these days? Leave it to Zack Snyder (“Dawn of the Dead,” “300” and “Watchmen”) to give a try while succumbing to both studio expectations and his own pretensions with the long windedly-titled “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole.”

From “An American Tail” to “The Land Before Time,” along with “The Goonies” to “Gremlins” and even Disney’s own “The Black Cauldron” to “The Secret of NIMH” there was a sense of true danger which in turn enhanced whichever adventure was playing at the local multiplex that weekend. Nowadays families are stuck with things such as, most recently, “Marmaduke,” “Furry Vengeance” or “Alpha and Omega” to the true drecks of cinema – the “Garfields,” “Scooby Doos,” and “Chipmunks” franchises. There’s never been a greater time to thank Hollywood for Pixar and DreamWorks for giving families movies to really cheer about while Warner Bros. apparently has a lot of catching up to do in the story department.

While Snyder may not seem like the type to make a fore into family entertainment, for a good hour at least he really seemed to be onto something. Let alone that he’s working with a premise that needs to have talking hooters seem anthropomorphic, along with screenwriters John Orloff and Emil Stern (trying to launch a new series out of Kathryn Lasky’s novels) gave it their best shot. Unfortunately, the final half hour becomes so clichéd and formulaic, let alone cheesy and over the top that eventually there’s almost no salvaging what’s happened beforehand.

To keep things simple, which the movie seemed to have going for it, is a story about three siblings – Soren (voiced by Jim Sturgess), Eglantine (voiced by Adrienne DeFaria) and Kludd (voiced by Ryan Kwanten) – raised on tall tales about the ancient “Owls of Ga’Hoole” who keep order and stage battles against the evil Metal Beak (voiced by Joel Edgerton). Soren and Kludd are eventually snatched mid-branching by menacing members of The Pure Ones lead by the possibly sinister Nyra (voiced by Helen Mirren), right-hand owl to their true leader Metal Beak.

Soren discovers that it’s all an evil plot to “moonblink” them all into mindless zombie slaves to sort through pellets searching for metal flecks which are used for something that is never explained and yet when shown later in the film still makes absolutely no sense. It is said that it is some kind of weapon the Pure Ones are going to use to take away control from the Guardians.

Soren and his new friend Gylfie (voiced by Emily Barclay) are taken in by old grumbling Grimble (voiced by Hugo Weaving) who teaches them to fly and eventually escape from The Pure Ones to seek out the Guardians. Now it’s up to Soren to convince the Guardians of this sinister plot and take down Metal Beak along with his army of evil owls now including newest member/traitor Kludd who’s brought their young sister Eglantine as an offering to The Pure Ones to show his commitment.

Throughout the first hour there is a great sense of awe with that dash of danger thrown in for good measure. Unfortunately, at almost exactly the one hour mark, Snyder and his writers throw in the most inexplicable use of a pop song in recent memory. While it was great to watch the owls fly around in an exhilarating use of 3-D, a training montage set to “To the Sky” by Owl City shows how lazy things are about to become. Yes, feathers fly and beaks collide all set to a bombastic score by David Hirschfelder but what was before slightly innocent becomes downright mean-spirited and far too violent for its inexplicable PG rating. Just because it’s animated doesn’t mean it’s any less violent than Snyder’s own “300.” These birds die great deaths and I do not mean valiantly.

“Legends of the Guardians” proves yet again just how hypocritical the MPAA can be as this film is every bit as violent, if not more so at times, than the two films (1984’s double whammy of “Gremlins” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”) that singlehandedly caused the PG-13 rating to begin with. The gauntlet of violence here runs from implied beheadings to outright impalements. If your children have read the books, hopefully they’ll know what they’re getting into here, but if not, don’t let the rating fool you into thinking this is a clean cut case of family fare but then again, the movie isn’t worth the money spent to begin with.

Friday, September 17, 2010

"Easy A" Earns Its Grade With Flying Colors

Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements involving teen sexuality, language and some drug material.
92 minutes
Screen Gems
**** 1/2 out of 5

Article first published as Movie Review: Easy A on Blogcritics.

I’ve said before that some movies sure wear their inspirations on their sleeves. The ‘80s teen comedy genre is something that’s sorely been missing. When you find a movie with a true ‘80s vibe coming out now, it should be cause for celebration. You may think, judging by the trailer, that “Easy A” is aiming for the easy target of tweenage angst, but at least it sets its sights higher and longs for the yesteryears from when “A John Hughes Production” truly meant something.

With only his sophomore effort under his belt now, Will Gluck could be someone worth watching out for if the rest of his repertoire can live up to “Easy A.”(Gluck’s freshman film “Fired Up!” was a quickly dismissed guilty pleasure.) However, a lot of the credit needs to be shared with writer Bert V. Royal in his screenwriting debut. Calling to mind the likes of everything from “Heathers” to “10 Things I Hate About You” along with everything in between from “Mean Girls” to “Jawbreaker” including a dash of “The Girl Next Door” and a slight shade of “Juno,” Royal absolutely revels in the teen comedies that ran the gamut of multiplexes during the true heyday of instant 80s teen comedies.

While Emma Stone may not be a household name quite yet, she’s instantly recognizable having co-starred in “Zombieland,” “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past,” “The House Bunny,” “The Rocker,” and of course “Superbad.” Proving herself far more assured and even more promising than another overly famous redhead (Lindsay Lohan), Stone nails what it is like to be a misunderstood outcast, at least that’s what my fiancée tells me. Having never been a teenage girl, the more movies like this I see, the more thankful I am not a girl.

The plot is a tad overly convoluted, but that sort of adds to the film's charm as it seems to suffer from the same issues as the lead character, Olive Penderghast (Stone). Olive lives a seemingly normal life for considering herself such an outcast. She gets good grades at Ojai North High School, spends her free time listening to her best friend Rhiannon (Alyson Michalka) continually bitch about the 411 around school, and actually talks to her hilariously open and brazenly honest parents (Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson) while playing word games with peas or deciding which movie to watch for Best Family Winner Night as her father chooses to “Bucket List” this bitches!”

When Rhiannon tries to get Olive to join her for a weekend camping trip with her hippie parents, she tells a little white lie that instantly snowballs to gargantuan proportions. The “terminological inexactitude” of her situation gets embellished even more so when it grows from having lost her virginity to letting other people at school either feel her up or lose their virginity all for the sake of gift cards to everywhere from to Home Depot to Bath & Body Works coupons.

With a watchful eye cast upon her by local Christian extremist Marianne (Amanda Bynes), everything spirals out of control and things take a turn for the worst between getting sent to detention by Principal Gibbons (Malcolm McDowell) to the threat of being expelled after she brandishes all her new school stripper outfits with a big red “A.” Her favorite teacher, Mr. Griffith (Thomas Haden Church) may think she’s taking their reading of “The Scarlet Letter” a little too seriously, but little does he know that maybe it’s his student guidance counselor wife (Lisa Kudrow) who could use some counseling of her own.

Director Gluck sure knows how to ring hilarity out of a montage and how to bring a joke back for killer effect, and what movie doesn’t need a musical number for no apparent reason. With a game cast and everyone bringing as much funny to the table as they can, it’s no wonder that the film never feels as maudlin as it could. Thankfully when things get sort of serious it never overshadows the jokes and, while everything works out in the end, at least the film earns its finale which just may feature the most hilarious joke of the whole movie even if, as it was pointed out to me by said fiancée, it happens to be one wallop of a plothole. If a hilarious joke is the only plothole your film features, then I’d say you’ve done your job quite well.

“Easy A” is worth paying the money for and hopefully it finds an audience as anyone who grew up with the beloved John Hughes comedies can appreciate what’s on display, while current teens can play catch up and finally discover what all the fuss was about.

Ben Affleck Proves Again He's a Powerhouse Director Even If He Can't Figure Out a Fitting Ending

Rated R for strong violence, pervasive language, some sexuality and drug use.
127 minutes
Warner Bros. Pictures
*** 1/2 out of 5

Article first published as Movie Review: The Town (2010) on Blogcritics.

Proving for a third time that his Oscar win back in 1998 for “Good Will Hunting” alongside hetero lifemate Matt Damon was no fluke, his latest two writing endeavors find Ben Affleck with a new partner in crime, Aaron Stockard. With Affleck behind the lens first on “Gone Baby Gone” and now “The Town,” it’s fair to say that behind the camera is a much better fit for him than trying to emote in front of it.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Affleck’s acting skills, but his direction is just far more inspired than his acting chops. In fact, this may be one of the better performances we’ve seen from Affleck in years. Adapting Chuck Hogan’s novel, “Prince of Thieves” (with a title change probably intended not to confuse people with the “Robin Hood” movie), we find that all the skill he brought to the table with “Gone Baby Gone” was no fluke. While it may not be my bet for this year’s Best Picture, I certainly see a nomination in sight even if the ending is pretty much a standard issue happy Hollywood ending.

Affleck stars as Doug MacRay who has lived in Charlestown, Massachusetts his entire life. Growing up in the projects of Boston can be quite a burden but the people seem to wear their inheritance on their sleeves. We learn from the opening sequence that Charlestown produces more bank robbers than anywhere else in the U.S. Doug is one of these. Doug and his friends Albert "Gloansy" Magloan (“Gone Baby Gone’s” own Bubba), unofficial red-shirt Desmond Elden (Owen Burke), and the loose cannon of the group, James Coughlin (Jeremy Renner hot off of last year’s Best Picture, “The Hurt Locker”), have just robbed a bank and taken Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall, “Vicky Christina Barcelona” and “The Prestige”) hostage.

FBI S.A. Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm, “Mad Men”) working alongside partner Dino Campio (“Lost’s” Man in Black, Titus Welliver) are keeping tabs on these boys after they discover that one of them has some mighty interesting sick days at work, aside from the fact that Frawley knows they will “never get 24 hour surveillance unless one of them converts to Islam.” Meanwhile, Doug has confiscated Claire’s driver’s license during the robbery and starts stalking her to find out if she’s a threat to keep James from tying up their loose end with a bullet. Obviously Doug starts to fall for Claire after he learns enough that they’re all in the clear and he does everything in his power to keep her out of harm's way while Frawley keeps trying to get her to throw the whole gang under a bus. All the while, the boys are gearing up for one last job set up by local Irish florist gangster "Fergie" Colm (Pete Postlethwaite).

Surprisingly Affleck has learned quite well from a few of his past directors. From Kevin Smith he seems to have picked up an ear for natural sounding dialogue even if the accents can sometimes get in the way of understanding the conversations. And although “Reindeer Games” was a so-bad-it’s-good type movie, he can direct the hell out of a chase sequence thanks to some time spent with John Frankenheimer. Also of note, a shoot-out between the boys and the FBI in Fenway Park is filmed so that it’s never too busy or confusing and you can tell what’s going on, particularly with police dressed in black raid gear and the boys in white paramedic outfits.

Unfortunately there’s a subplot involving Chris Cooper as Doug’s imprisoned father that proves fatal to the film's denouement and as I mentioned about the Desmond character before, he is never on screen until he winds up getting shot. When a character isn’t even given something to do during the action scenes this should absolutely never come as a spoiler. And while Affleck gets hilarious usage out of the word “ostentatious,” the film never winds up feeling that way even if Affleck and Stockard can’t avoid a cop-out ending with no emotional punch.

Walking out of the screening someone told me the original ending to the book and I am sure that this could’ve been a far greater film had Affleck either cast someone else in the lead for the payoff to work or stuck with the author’s ending which fits the film’s tone much better.