Friday, March 19, 2010

Jude Takes The Law Into His Own Hands In This Upgradeable But Thankfully Not Disposable Hilarious And Gory Thriller

Rated R for for strong bloody violence, grisly images, language and some sexuality/nudity.
111 minutes
Universal Pictures
*** ½ out of 5

Some directors just can’t help but wear their influences on their sleeves. While some may scoff at a first-timer taking these measures, let us not forget when Quentin Tarantino made his grand cinematic entrance with “Reservoir Dogs” 18 years ago. Director Miguel Sapochnik may not be up to the standards we now expect from Tarantino, but his debut film “Repo Men” is definitely a hodgepodge of many movies we’ve already seen.

“Repo Men” is based on the novel “The Repossession Mambo,” adapted by its author Eric Garcia (also author of the highly under-seen “Matchstick Men”) and co-written by TV vet Garrett Lerner. It must be fun to adapt one’s own novel for the big screen as it could either allow the author to condense some things while expanding others or possibly do both at the same time. If the original novel is anywhere near as much fun as the film is, at times it probably makes for a fantastic beach or airplane read.

Set in the near future, a company called The Union has developed a way to manufacture any organ one could possibly want in life if it were to need replacing. But it’s not just the organs that come with a price. The Union is outfitted with their own brand of repo men who are dispatched to reclaim your organ if you run past due on payment. The best repo men in the business happen to be lifelong friends, Remy (Jude Law) and Jake (Forest Whitaker).

Remy and Jake make good money harvesting organs back for The Union but Remy’s chosen profession is beginning to take its toll back at home. His wife Carol (Carice van Houten) nags him every chance she gets to talk to his boss, Frank (Liev Schreiber), about making a move from repo to sales. Jake knows that repo is what’s in Remy’s heart and is put off by Remy even contemplating a change in profession. But after Carol and their son Peter (Chandler Canterbury) witness Jake performing a drive-by repo in the back of a taxi, she gives Remy an ultimatum and leaves with son in tow.

Remy wants to do good by his wife and decides to take one last job but things go awry as a faulty defibrillator sends Remy to the hospital where he wakes up to find himself under the worst worker’s comp settlement ever. The Tin Man has been given a new heart but after his first solo night back on the job he finds that his heart’s just not in it anymore. He never wanted the heart implanted but knows that death is the only way out so it’s business as usual with Jake at his side; but of course Remy can’t keep up on his payments.

Now Remy must take evasive action to get himself taken out of the system with the help of random drug-addicted hottie Beth (Alive Braga). Beth and Remy immediately hit it off and after playing a game of “my implants are more numerous than yours,” they do what anyone who’s just met does in an R-rated movie — consummate the relationship. Remy tries to bargain with Frank but it all comes down to fighting his way into The Union’s corporate offices to take himself and the new girl of his dreams out of the system and save their lives.

Set to the tune of old school crooner standards jazzed up for modern audiences, director Sapochnik and his two writers take a blender and just start piling in as many random movie references as they can think of with liberal amounts of blood and viscera for added texture. The film bounces around from “Moulin Rouge,” “Minority Report,” “Children of Men” and “The Bionic Woman,” to “Oldboy,” “Next,” “Total Recall” and even “Brazil.” And finally, what movie about repo men harvesting body organs would be complete without a nod to Monty Python?

As the blood flows freely and we get to bear witness to the most grisly yet hilariously disgusting faux-sex scene possibly ever filmed, once it reached the denouement I was originally conflicted with the film’s ending. After talking it out with another critic, however, the ending makes perfect sense. If you sit down knowing what to expect then prepare to have a blast. It’s a comedy of darkest proportions and wallows in gallows humor but the ride is worth the trip even if we’ve seen it all before.

Diet "Bourne" Turns Out To Be Diet Caffeine-Free "Bourne" In Spite Of All The Hyperactive Shaky-Cam

Rated R for violence and language.
115 minutes
Universal Pictures
*** out of 5

Some people just hate shaky cam. Normally it doesn't bother me as much as some, but from a visual perspective it can greatly detract from your viewing experience. “The Blair Witch Project,” “Cloverfield,” Paul Greengrass's two “Bourne” films—at least those had strong enough stories that you could look beyond a director in desperate need of a tripod.

Yes, folks, Greengrass is back and in overdrive with “Green Zone.” While it may have brought a sense of involvement to the proceedings of his “Bourne” films—and makes sense in a film about the war in Iraq—when the story comes down to a simple whodunit in the desert, the shaky cam is more than unnecessary. Even a simple shot handled with a steadicam would have sufficed, but if the camera isn't moving then apparently Greengrass just isn't satisfied.

The story opens in March of 2003 in Baghdad. We see a group led by Al Rawi (Yigal Naor) being evacuated as the surroundings are under attack. While stuff blows up outside in the background, you get immediately distracted as subtitles fly in the way of the foreground, which only confuse things more since you can't tell who's even saying the dialogue.

Four weeks later, Chief Roy Miller (Matt Damon) is leading his group in search of weapons of mass destruction, or WMDs. Their latest excursion takes them to an abandoned toilet factory warehouse, meaning three strikeouts in a row for Miller & Co. After expressing his concerns over the validity of their intel, he's pulled aside by CIA agent Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson) who agrees with Miller's theories and asks him to join their side.

The opposing side to the CIA is led by Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear) who is being hounded by Lawrie Dayne (a totally underused Amy Ryan) reporting for the Wall Street Journal. Poundstone is getting his information from a source known as "Magellan" whom Lawrie wants to meet herself for interview purposes, while Miller—working with his self-made "interpreter," Freddy (Khalid Abdalla)—and Brown are trying to figure out who "Magellan" is, because of the crappy (pun intended) intel.

While one man has been a constant in the shaky world of Greengrass (editor Christopher Rouse), it appears that the chink in his chain is his director of photography, Barry Ackroyd. This is their second collaboration (the first was “United 93”) but Greengrass needs to stick with seasoned DP Oliver Wood if he's going to keep churning out films looking the way they do.

Apparently in Greengrass's world, if it ain't broke don't fix it. But there definitely appear to be cracks starting to show in his armor. Here he is working with screenwriting vet Brian Helgeland, the man behind “Mystic River,” “A Knight’s Tale,” and “Payback.” However, Helgeland is also the man who brought us the recent “Cirque du Freak” adaptation, the “Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” remake, Robert Englund’s directorial debut “976-EVIL,” and Freddy Kruger’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master.” Adapting nonfiction (Rajiv Chandrasekar’s book “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone”) and assembling it for a big Hollywood studio production has to have been quite the task, but Helgeland is capable of far better than this.

And as for Greengrass, when you have one extended foot chase sequence in a 115-minute movie, don’t wait for the last half hour to spring it on us and don’t film it at night. While this may have been how it happened in real life, this is not the kind of material that fits the film’s style. As if it’s not already hard enough to see what’s going on in the film for the previous 70 minutes, when all the film’s action takes place in the dark you’re going to wind up with one of the most boring “action” sequences in an already lumbering film.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Pop! Go Expectations Veering Into Unintentionally Darker Than Anticipated Territory

Not rated
24 Minutes
National Film Board of Canada & Warner Home Video
** out of 5

“Where the Wild Things Are” was one of my favorite movies last year. Admittedly, I would never go so far as to say it was one of the best movies of 2009, but if you read my review you’ll see that it certainly holds a special place in my heart. That movie has a wide variety of haters. Some people have either never really been a normal child or have simply forgotten what it was like to be one.

In any case, with the release of “Where the Wild Things Are” on Blu-ray and DVD, I was contacted by the National Film Board of Canada and offered a screener copy for “Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More to Life,” a new short film making its debut on said video release.

What’s this? A new short? Produced by Spike Jonze? Voiced by Jonze himself, along with the great Meryl Streep and Forest Whitaker? Imagine my enthusiasm to get the chance to review a new Maurice Sendak short film even if not being lucky enough to get my hands on a screener copy of “Where the Wild Things Are.”

“Higglety Pigglety Pop!” tells the story of Jennie (voiced by Meryl Streep) who thinks she has everything a terrier could ever want. But after an opening discussion with her home’s window flower, Jennie wonders if there could be possibly more. After Jennie devours the flower she sets off with her bags packed out into the world.

Soon she’s walking down a city street where she spies a sign expressing an opening for the lead in the “World Mother Goose Theater’s” production of “Higglety Pigglety Pop.” After a pig, wearing the Mother Goose Theater sign, explains that only an actress with experience can land the role and also tells her that she only has until the first night of the full moon to find just what she needs for the part: experience.

Experience lands her on the delivery wagon of Milkman Cat (voiced by Al Tuck) who tells Jennie that she can get some experience by visiting the big white house where a baby refuses to eat. However, if she fails to make baby eat then she runs the risk of being eaten by the downstairs lion (voiced by Forest Whitaker.)

I have never read Sendak’s original story but with being such a huge fan of Jonze’s film, I hoped I would be in for something special and truly unique. Unique is certainly the best word to describe this short film. Running a nicely paced 24 minutes at least the proceedings zoom by quickly. It appears that filmmakers Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski (the minds behind “Madame Tutli-Putli”) apparently were more interested in showing what they can get away with on a low budget than whether or not their film was unintentionally frightening and possibly nightmare inducing.

Through the use of stop-motion, model sets, trick photography, puppetry and actors dressed in elaborate costumes Sendak’s story springs to life in what can literally be called a living nightmare for once. Other films have run borderline to falling prey to something similar to this, but it’s the first time that the imagery could be downright frightening. The fact that it’s attached to such a brilliant piece of children’s filmmaking makes it come off as even more brash. Imagine if you were flipping back and forth between “Fraggle Rock” and either “Labyrinth” or “The Dark Crystal” while having a bad acid trip and you get the idea.

Considering I know how most children watch movies (i.e. they don’t watch special features), there’s a good chance that most who run out to purchase “Where the Wild Things Are” won’t have to spend nights coddling their children. Some have complained that the imagery and creatures from “Where the Wild Things Are” were too menacing themselves, but if you happen to think just because this too is based on a Sendak story means it’s safe viewing? Consider yourself warned.

Tim Burton Proves His "Muchness" With A Sequel Worthy Of Another Trip Down The Rabbit Hole

Rated PG for fantasy action/violence involving scary images and situations, and for a smoking caterpillar. (Yup, a smoking caterpillar!)
108 minutes
Walt Disney Pictures
**** out of 5

Last time someone thought Tim Burton and his source material was a match made in heaven things weren’t as scrumdiddlyumptious as we’d hoped. While it definitely stayed true to its roots, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” made one leave the theater not quite as satisfied as you’d hope. However, everyone was proven wrong when naysayers believed that he was also the wrong choice for the film adaptation of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”

When a production team seems too good to be true, sometimes it is. In the case of something like “Valentine’s Day,” you have too many celebrities fighting for screen time in a film that’s not worth anyone’s efforts no matter how nominal. Thankfully, the names Tim Burton, Danny Elfman, and Lewis Carroll make one salivate with glee and spread a smile from ear to ear, Cheshire Cat-style, and their efforts here prove very worthy of expectations.

In this new “Alice in Wonderland,” Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska) is all grown up. She’s 19 years old and headed to a gathering with her mother, Helen (Lindsay Duncan). This being a Disney production, it comes as no surprise to learn Alice’s father, Charles (Marton Csokas), has passed since we first saw him in the opening scene. Alice has been suffering the same nightmare for 13 years of falling down a hole and seeing all kinds of strange creatures from dodo birds to white rabbits.

Alice immediately comes to find out, thanks to Faith (Eleanor Gecks) and Fiona (Eleanor Tomlinson) Chattaway, that the gathering she is at is supposed to be her engagement party. Hamish (Leo Bill) is to ask for her hand. First, however, Alice is back down the rabbit hole and eating and drinking while being shrunken and stretched.

While everything at first seems like more of the same, screenwriter Linda Woolverton (“Beauty and the Beast,” “Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey,” and “The Lion King”) veers off in a mirrored direction. The rest of the proceedings have an all too familiar ring to them so that while the beat may sound the same, this film marches to a whole new drummer. Where all adaptations prior may have been stuck within the confines of the source material, here Woolverton and Burton are able to break free and play with Wonderland to their own ends.

This of course means that no one is safe. When the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) screams “off with their heads” it very well could happen. Aside from all the characters being aged as well, there’s a duel foretold and if Alice is the correct Alice, she has returned to Wonderland to restore order by defeating the Red Queen’s menacing Jabberwocky (voiced by Christopher Lee).

Sporting a production design that deserves accolades and possible nominations come next Oscar season, everything completely gels. The film has a rather cartoon-come-to-life feel but when your film is a sequel of sorts to both an animated feature film – primarily the 1951 Disney classic – and Carroll’s two books, nothing less would have worked. If you make things too lifelike, you can end up with a living nightmare which is not fitting when trying to reach such a deep-rooted fan base that literally spans generations. Also, it’s nice to see that Burton hasn’t forgotten what these types of movies need the most: heart and soul.

The cast as well as director Burton are having an amazing time working with the great one-liners set up for them by Woolverton. Mia Wasikowska as Alice plays her part greatly and holds a world completely computerized upon her shoulders with verve. Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter is finally never overused by Burton and lets the rest of the characters have a ball.

From Anne Hathaway as the angelic White Queen, good ol’ creepy Crispin Glover as Stayne, Knave of Hearts, Michael Sheen as the White Rabbit, Alan Rickman as the Blue Caterpillar, and finally Stephen Fry used so perfectly in a Hollywood production for the first time since “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” everyone is used to full effect and it all comes together to make this trip to Wonderland one of the best.

The only thing that seems out of place is the same thing that plagued Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” — a lack of songs. While it was far more awkward in that film, just when “Alice in Wonderland” gets to the point where you’d expect a musical number, the story just keeps whisking along. At least this time there’s enough new material to hold everything together and the pacing moves at a breakneck pace to its finale.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Scorsese Plays A New Hand For A New Decade's Masterpiece As He Turns "Shutter Island" Into His Playground Of Nightmares

Rated R for disturbing violent content, language and some nudity.
138 minutes
Paramount Pictures
**** out of 5

With only one Oscar win under his belt for direction, Martin Scorsese has sure been on fire over the last decade with “Gangs of New York,” “The Aviator,” and his win for “The Departed.” There seems to be just no slowing the man down. After having just received his Cecil B. DeMille Award at this year’s Golden Globes, his latest turn behind the camera, “Shutter Island,” is nothing short of a masterpiece. What’s one thing his last four films all have in common? One name – Leonardo DiCaprio.

Their latest collaboration, “Shutter Island,” comes from a critically-praised novel from Dennis Lehane. While the author is not known for heartfelt-love-conquers-all storylines, they are rooted in a reality that’s gritty and much more palatable when you want things a little more realistic in your movies. From the man who brought us heartbreak and suspense from the streets of Boston comes the same recipe for success, but just off the shores of his native land.

Having read and loved all of Lehane’s Patrick Kenzie/Angela Gennaro novels, I made it a point to be sure to read his “Shutter Island” as soon as the film was greenlit. After having read the novel, it was clear that one thing must be sure of to guarantee the film a success: it must remain as true to the source as possible or it just won’t work. Thankfully, Scorsese and screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis appear to be huge fans of their source material and have given a masterful interpretation in bringing “Shutter Island” to the big screen.

Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) is just offshore on a ferry bound for Ashecliffe Hospital, an institution for the criminally insane, which sits atop the rock known as Shutter Island. It’s 1954 and Teddy is on his way along with his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) to investigate the disappearance of patient Rachel Solando. Everyone seems in a rush to find their missing patient who appears to have simply vanished. The two most hurried to find Rachel is Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow).

A storm is approaching the island and with the risk of a hurricane in their midst everyone must either solve the case or find Rachel before it’s too late. Through the proceedings, Teddy’s past is peeled away, layer by layer. We learn Teddy’s really come to the island to find the man (Laeddis, played by Elias Koteas) responsible for killing his wife Dolores (Michelle Williams) in an apartment fire whom Teddy believes is being held in Ward C, where the most dangerous patients are locked away. Teddy also has plans to blow the lid on patient experimentation akin to what the Nazi’s used during WWII.

When Dr. Cawley announces that they’ve found Rachel (Emily Mortimer), Teddy interrogates her and is not convinced that this is the real Rachel. After the storm blows out the island’s power and the staff have to contain the patients Teddy and Chuck use the disorientation of the moment to have their own run of the island and this is when Teddy discovers the real Rachel (Patricia Clarkson) who lets Teddy in on some island secrets and he begins to question the motives of not just the local staff but of his new partner and himself as well.

Scorsese is working overtime in “Cape Fear” mode here, and some would say he may even be working at his most unrestrained. But what he’s managed to pull off here is a grand bait-and-switch of menacingly operatic proportions. DiCaprio and Williams turn in tour-de-forces while Scorsese surrounds them with spectacularly surreal and all the more frightening dream sequences seamlessly blending a gradually booming foghorn score with perfectly rendered special effects to pull off some of the most intense sequences in quite some time.

What ultimately pulls the film together is it’s true sense of ebb and flow. Everything happens for a reason and when and what Scorsese reveals along the way is all for the sake of making sure everything makes sense. Great crescendos lead the way and just when you think things are headed for their worst there’s a pause to leave you hanging before the scene hurtles into its climax. After “Shutter Island” you could truly call Scorsese a maestro as he pulls his strings to watch you squirm.