Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Year's Gore Quota Has Single-Handedly Been Filled!

Rated R for sequences of strong bloody horror violence and gore, graphic nudity, sexual content, language and some drug use.
88 minutes
Dimension Films
***** of 5

Article first published as Movie Review: Piranha 3D (2010) on Blogcritics.

When I first caught wind that there was a remake of Joe Dante’s 1978 cult classic “Piranha” I wasn’t quite as wary as if the film announced were for something like “Jaws.” Skepticism was never an issue as most people have never even heard of the original. I have been a fan since I was probably eight years old. An uncle had been in a motorcycle accident and with it being summer vacation, I was asked if I would take care of him. What better way for a young boy to begin his cinematic horror education?

While I had already seen the likes of “Jaws” and “Poltergeist” over and over, this is when I was introduced to Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead 2.” As if that wasn’t enough, I had longingly yearned to watch a movie called “Piranha” whose VHS cover art I had fallen in love with at the local video store. Now in my 30s, with this original classic just released on Blu-ray and “Piranha 3D” finally upon us, it's with great pleasure that I wholeheartedly agree with the current 82% consensus on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s also been officially announced that a sequel has already been greenlit in spite of opening box office receipts thanks to strong reviews and word of mouth. Rejoice!

Alexandre Aja (“High Tension,” “The Hills Have Eyes,” “Mirrors”) finally proves what all the bloody fuss is about. Here’s a director with such an unabashed imagination that it only seems fitting that he join forces with a couple of members of the current “splat pack” — Eli Roth (in front of the camera) and Quentin Tarantino (behind). Speaking of which, it’s been said that the spring breaker whose bum is nibbled on before getting dragged through her inner tube in a literal geyser of blood and gore was suggested to Aja by Tarantino. But thankfully the two credited writers, Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg (both credited to last years underrated “Sorority Row”), bring a likable cast of characters who clearly know what kind of movie they’re in.

With a fantastic opening “Jaws” homage, we find Richard Dreyfuss reprising his Matt Hooper role, out fishing in a fenced-off part of the lake complete with signs warning one to stay out. Before he can finish singing “Show Me the Way to Go Home,” a beer bottle has caused a seismic rift in the lake floor where sure enough, thousands of prehistoric piranha burst forth and it’s clear as Matt circles around his vortex of doom that he should have brought a bigger boat.

The next course brings us to meet up with 17-year-old Jake Forester (Steven R. McQueen, grandson) whose mother Julie (Elisabeth Shue) is the local sheriff at Lake Victoria where she just wants to try to keep the peace as they’re under attack by thousands of drunk and horny college kids for spring break. We learn this is an annual hot spot when Julie demands that Jake miss out on the debauchery to look after his two younger siblings, Laura (Brooklynn Proulx) and Zane (Sage Ryan).

Not wanting to miss the chance to spend some time with his unrequited love Kelly (Jessica Szohr), Jake pays the kids $60 to look after themselves while he boards director Derrick Jones’ (Jerry O’Connell) Wild Wild Girls yacht to assist as a “location scout” to lead them to Lake Victoria’s local g-spots and to ogle Derrick’s two stars Danni (Kelly Brook) and Crystal (porn star Riley Steele) who are brought along to film a nude underwater ballet. Meanwhile, Julie and Deputy Fallon (Ving Rhames) have found Matt’s chewed up body and a group of red-shirted scientists show up led by Novak (Adam Scott).

Two members drift down into the rift to discover a seemingly endless cave chock full of the carnivorous piranha all too happy to protect their lair of unhatched eggs. After the two divers are eaten alive and Novak and Julie capture one of the piranha they take it to local crazy man Mr. Goodman (Christopher Lloyd in full Doc Brown mode) who knows way too much about the local aquatic life. Here we learn the rules about how they hunt and kill, preempting what can only be called the most horrifically hilarious showdown of gore witnessed in years. If you’ve ever wondered what happens when a girl's hair gets caught in a propeller, yeve been warned.

As if it weren’t already enough to pay homage to “Jaws” with the brilliant pre-credit kill, there are references aplenty from lines of dialogue (“Do you think a propeller could’ve done this?”) to the very particular “forward tracking, zoom out” camera shot aka “the “Jaws” shot.” We even get “piranha-vision” as they track blood and sound to find their next kill for as we learn from Mr. Goodman, these particular piranhas are “organized and methodical.”

The cast definitely plants their tongues so far into their cheeks you’re just left in wait for a piranha to come by and snatch it away. While none of the body parts featured in close-ups happen to be tongues, director Aja has definitely come up with enough body parts floating around for them to chew on whether it be an eyeball, breast implants or even O’Connell’s highly publicized penis. Yes, a pair of piranha fight over Derrick’s dismembered member and spit it back in your face because while the film itself was not originally shot in 3-D, they knew it was going to be converted and filmed appropriately.

Huge kudos to Aja for having the balls to bring us a film that just barely received its R rating only nine days prior to release! The filmmakers have staked numerous claims that “Piranha 3D” would be one of the goriest movies ever and have definitely succeeded. And while we all know studios love to unleash unrated versions of films on home video, after bearing witness to the amount of copious amounts of gore, carnage, and “weapons of mass-turbation,” I can’t even imagine what could possibly have been deemed unfit for the theatrical release and left on the cutting room floor — but I can’t wait to find out.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Whatever You Do, Avoid "Nanny" McPoo!

Rated PG for rude humor, some language and mild thematic elements.
109 minutes
Universal Pictures
** out of 5

Article first published as Movie Review: Nanny McPhee Returns on Blogcritics.

Emma Thompson, my sincerest sympathies. While you may have brought us the first disposable and decently harmless original “Nanny McPhee,” it appears that in order to one-up the first film you’ve gone and done a little dumpster diving. Thank you for giving us a movie that could quite literally be called “Nanny McPoop.” As she always informs characters, “Small c, big P.” I’m surprised there weren’t any urination jokes, but I digress.

In no less than five minutes, “Nanny McPhee Returns” allows the audience the wonderment that is a fresh cow pie plopping onto the ground, followed, of course, by another shot of said scat being flung from a barn door. Then it graces us no less than one minute later, mind you, with a black crow belching in the face of poor Nanny McPhee (Thompson herself). Nanny McPhee calls this crow her friend, but if this is the company she seeks… well, we all know how much misery loves company.

Yes, things run so afoul so quickly. The script can’t be completely to blame. While lots of directors cut their teeth in television, sometimes when that’s all they’ve done, it’s all they can do. Somehow first-time feature director Susanna White has attracted the likes of not just Thompson, but also Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rhys Ifans, Ralph Fiennes, the great Maggie Smith, and Ewan McGregor. Wait… Ewan McGregor? What’s he doing here? Oh yeah, he’s off in a war leaving Gyllenhaal’s character to fend for the family farm to show up in a hilarious flashback and walk on set at the end to make for happily ever after.

For a children’s film, this thing is the definition of convoluted. While it may be easy to break down into a few sentences, let’s see what’s in store for you with “Nanny McPhee Returns.” This was, by the way, originally titled “Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang.” If only the rest of the movie had been shortened, or simply focused on the synchronized swimming piglets.

Isabel Green (Gyllenhaal) has three rotten kids: Vincent (Oscar Steer), Megsie (Lil Woods) and Norman (Asa Butterfield). Isabel’s brother-in-law, Phil Green (Ifans), who owns half of the family farm, is convinced her husband is not returning from war and will go to his wit's ends to try to convince her to sell the farm. Phil really wants Isabel to sell the farm after he’s been harassed by Miss Topsey (Sinead Matthews) and Miss Turvey (Katy Brand) because Phil owes their boss some money.

Meanwhile, “the cousins,” Cyril (Eros Vlahos) and Celia Gray (Rosie Taylor-Ritson, who looks like she could play a part in a live action version of “An American Tail” sans makeup), are on their way but arrive a day early. If you thought Isabel’s children were awful, just wait till you meet these two. No one gets along and this, of course, brings us to Nanny McPhee, who shows up to teach the kids five life lessons because she comes when she’s needed but not wanted and must leave once she’s wanted but not needed.

Anyhow, Vincent has a plan to sell his five prize piglets to Farmer Macreadie (Bill Bailey) to pay for the tractor to make the harvest and save the farm. Phil has other plans and will even go so far as to fake Mr. Green’s death in the war to convince Isabel to sell the farm, but Vincent feels it in his bones (which seems to be his only line of dialogue for the last half hour) that his father is still alive and needs Cyril and McPhee’s flying buggy to visit Lord Gray at the War Office in London to find out if his father is really dead and save the day.

If you’re wondering what Maggie Smith is doing in this production, well, it’s to knowingly sit on a cow patty because it just looks so comfortable. Ralph Fiennes seems to be in the film to wear a look of disgust when a child hugs him, but it’s probably because he just watched the dailies for the rest of the film. And Ewan McGregor? Why, he’s the new British Christopher Walken apparently. It seems as if someone called him and said, “Hey, we’re shooting a movie out in the country. Want to get paid to make out with Batman’s dead girlfriend and watch Maggie Smith disgrace herself?”

If you’re looking for a movie that basks in the glory of having a set dressed with “poo as far as the eye can see” (as Cyril points out upon arrival) then look no further. As much as the awful direction and hammering of messages goes, it all really goes back to the script. While Thompson and Gyllenhaal may have made friends while filming “Stranger Than Fiction” and Smith and Fiennes must be an acquaintance thanks to that one boy wizard series, there’s no reason for anyone to have become involved with this dreck, most of all McGregor, who is in it for less reason than anyone else as he was blessed with maybe one line of dialogue. I suppose seeing how he shows up after all is said and done, he’s the one who’s getting off easy.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

A Third KO In A Row From Edgar Wright

Rated PG-13 for stylized violence, sexual content, language and drug references.
112 minutes
Universal Pictures
***** out of 5

Article first published as Movie Review: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World on Blogcritics.

Can a movie not based on a video game still count as a video game movie?

The first time I had the opportunity to bask in the glory of epic epicness that is “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” I may have attempted to take notes, but in that respect failed miserably. So awash in the greatness was I that there was no way I was going to be able to soak in what was being splashed upon my retinas with such aplomb that I gave up before even trying. To look away for even a second is to deny yourself such visual splendor that a second viewing will be the only way you can reward yourself. Lucky for me, I have reaped said reward.

Edgar Wright is nothing new to me. While most film audiences' first Wright experience was partaking of a little slice of fried gold called “Shaun of the Dead,” I had already devoured his two series’ of a little something called “Spaced.” I’m not sure there's any director working today aside from Quentin Tarantino who is so in tune with pop culture that they make it look like a walk on the beach compared to some directors who think they have their finger on the pulse of what’s cool and hip. It’s no wonder that Wright was brought onto “Grindhouse” to contribute his faux trailer, “Don’t.” While I support Wright’s second helping, “Hot Fuzz,” to be a better film than “Shaun,” I suppose it all comes down to taste.

Some have recently felt that Michael Cera had run his course and was beginning to grate on audiences with the same ol’ shtick. As a fan of both Cera and the Oni graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley, I patiently waited to find out what he could bring to the character of Scott Pilgrim. Thankfully, he brings his sense of awkwardness and innocence while taking charge of the scene and showing that even he can stand up to the hilariously evil snarkiness of Jason Schwartzman playing Gideon Gordon Graves, one of Ramona Flowers’ (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, another “Grindhouse” participant) evil ex-boyfriends, err… exes.

Scott Pilgrim (Cera) is dating a high schooler named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). They almost held hands once but then she got really embarrassed. They go out shopping together and play Ninja Ninja Revolution at the arcade and she even thinks his band Sex Bob-Omb rocks. Scott’s band is a group of friends from high school made up of himself on bass, lead singer Stephen Stills (Mark Webber), and Scott’s own ex, Kim Pine (Alison Pill) on drums. They also have a band practice stand-in who knows all of Scott’s parts named Young Neill (Johnny Simmons).

While Scott thinks everything is fine and dandy with dating a 17-year-old Chinese Catholic schoolgirl with the uniform and everything, all that changes after dreaming of another girl with short bright purple hair who we find out is named Ramona Flowers (Winstead), delivers for, and will only agree to hang out with Scott if he signs for his damn package. Scott finds out that Ramona is real when he spies her at one of Julie Powers’ (Aubrey Plaza) parties where Julie forbids Scott from dating Ramona and everyone else tries to warn Scott about her baggage which he gleefully ignores while proceeding to stalk her throughout the party until she leaves.

Once Scott signs for his package and has a lame first date with Ramona, Stills informs the band that they have all been accepted into the TIBB (Toronto International Battle of the Bands). Now the cool kids will finally be wearing Sex Bob-Omb shirts too and not just Knives. At said TIBB the party gets crashed by Ramona’s first “Evil Ex-Boyfriend,” Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha). While Scott may have skimmed Patel’s email about the League of Evil Exes he has come to fight. Yes, Scott must defeat Ramona’s seven evil exes before the two of them can officially be together. Now that’s baggage.

While it may seem like my three paragraphs of synopsis is stuffed to the gills with plot, I’ve barely scratched the surface and to say any more would only disservice the film and ruin the hilarious surprises. “Scott Pilgrim” is pure experience and if you thought you’ve seen over-stylized representations of comic books or graphic novels before, nothing can prepare you for this. However, beware the Vegan Police and Lucas Lee (Chris Evans) and his stunt team. Note to Wright: we’ve seen what you can do with action spoofs, but would you be so kind as to direct a string of Lucas Lee films, pretty please?!

What director Edgar Wright and cowriter Michael Bacall have managed to pull out of their hat is a film that’s totally enraptured by itself. It is completely self-aware and almost comes across as a parody of something but as it’s based on original material it just goes to show what some real imagination in Hollywood can bring. If you think Nigel Godrich’s recomposition of the Universal Pictures theme is brilliant, just wait till you see what Wright comes up with to slam dunk the joke later. It also seems in Wright’s best interest that he uses the comic form mostly for framing and editing while visually sticking to the video game aspects for storytelling purposes.

First June brought us “Toy Story 3,” then July gave us “Inception,” and now August gets its offering of total coolness overload with “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” While May’s Iron Man 2 can’t be left without notice, and some may find it a dreadful summer when there’s been a total of four exceptional films, these sure make up for the rest of the lot if you ask me.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Third Time Is Not the Charm, But This Time It's Served. In. Yo. Face!

Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.
97 minutes
Touchstone Pictures
** out of 5

Article first published as Movie Review: Step Up 3D aka "Soundtrack: The Motion Picture!" on Blogcritics.

Some movies have the uncanny ability to overcome their dopey screenplays by either having actors more capable than the writing or a director who knows what he’s doing. Strangely, Step Up 3D has a little of both going for it; unfortunately, it’s only for one take. While the film as a whole is pretty much a solid case of “you get what you pay for,” this one scene makes you long for an entirely different film but I will get into that later.

Director Jon Chu could very well find a name for himself as a great musical director. If he could find a script better suited for the style that pops up towards the end of this effort, he could definitely pull the next great Hollywood musical right out of his ass. Alas, for now, he’s working with a script so inept and clichéd that it veers toward parody if the film weren’t taking itself so gosh darn seriously.

What first time screenwriters Amy Andelson and Emily Meyer have cobbled together is laugh-out-loud hilarious but not because it’s supposed to be. This is a script that thinks it’s a clever endeavor needing to save the warehouse from being sold because it’s the only place these kids feel they can call home. It weirdly calls to mind another unintentionally funny film, August Rush, which itself wasn’t too shabby when it was focusing on the music and not the crazy antics of Robin Williams.

In Step Up 3D, you’re never sure who the real main characters are but this surely is no ensemble piece. I suppose it comes down to the two couples. First you’ve got best friends Moose (Adam G. Sevani returning from numero dos) and Camille (Alyson Stoner from the original) starting their freshman year at New York University. (It’s never explained why these long-time best friends haven’t appeared in the same movie until now.) After bidding his parental units adieu, Moose notices someone wearing some limited edition Nikes and follows this stranger into the middle of a step-off where Moose accidentally gets chided into participating. Meanwhile he not only puts the beat down on Julien (Joe Slaughter) but causes such a ruckus the police get involved and Moose takes off with Luke (Rick Malambri).

After meeting Luke, who takes Moose to his warehouse where dancers can be dancers and there’s a “vault” upstairs where there seems to be a 24/7 rave happening, we get confused as to whether maybe Luke and the girl he’s stalking with his camera for his dance documentary are the main characters. We learn this girl is Natalie (Sharni Vinson) and she seems to be a classically trained dancer who just wants to get her groove on. Luke’s documentary is about dancers and is called “Born From a Boombox.” This also leads Luke to hilariously start calling people BFAB. If you don’t find this amusing then the joke's on you and Disney will continue to keep raping your wallet.

We also learn some random plot elements such as Julien used to be part of Luke’s group called “The Pirates” but has gone on to form his own dance group called “The Samurai.” There’s also a random expositional Pirate character who has conversations with Luke only to further things along but to make sure we know that the bank wants to seize Luke’s warehouse as he’s almost six months behind on his payments because the warehouse used to belong to his parents.

But wait, there’s a World Jam coming up and wouldn’t you just know it, the grand prize is $100,000. But someone isn’t who we think she is and may be there under false pretenses and this same someone just may be the brother of someone who happens to have thrown a match to win some money. At one match there’s even some random Rambo homage complete with aging Asian wagers.

In the meantime, Luke falls for Natalie and they make out atop what appears to be a crematorium while later the truths are revealed at her big birthday party and Moose has to decide between dancing with his fellow Pirates and taking his 8 pm math exam and learns the hardships of standing up your best friend as the other half to their Mary Kate and Ashley Halloween costume.

If Natalie were really falling for Luke and wants to crush her brother, wouldn’t she step up and join them at the World Jam to kick Julien’s ass? Nope, not here. Instead she packs up and buys a ticket to California where she just wants Luke to run away with her so she can get away from it all and he can finish his documentary and go to film school. Meanwhile, Moose has gathered up his crew from the last Step Up including Kido (Mari Koda) and Cable, better known as Glee’s own “Other Asian” (Harry Shum Jr.).

I have not seen either of the first two Step Up films and readily admit they are not what I am clamoring to sit through. I have read good things about Chu’s short film "When the Kids Are Away" and after having watched the trailer for this short film fully understand why Chu was picked to direct the two most recent Step Ups.

Toward the end of Step Up 3D there’s a scene where Moose is apologizing to Camille for his behavior. What results is a standout, jaw-dropping musical number that’s way too short for our own good. Here the characters suddenly have chemistry and look like they’re actually having fun. Chu shows that he can not only beautifully film a scene but choreograph one too, let alone that everything is done in one take which means his editor had to thankfully keep his hands off this scene. The one thing I really want to know is, where’s the rest of this movie?! I suspect that producer Adam Shankman (director of Hairspray) had something to do with this sequence.

It looks like had Chu had been allowed to make an actual musical, he really could’ve been on to something here. But alas, everyone must wallow in the clichés and our ear drums must be pulverized by the blaring soundtrack and we must avert our eyes from literal “in your face” dance moves that are sloppily edited together and filmed as if Chu is cookie cutter MTV fodder.

Note to Chu: you have a niche, it’s just a shame you have to pay your dues. It’s already strange enough that this is Disney’s first venture into 3D filming and makes no sense, but hopefully now that Chu has cut his teeth next time we will get to see something that can really wow us and without the gimmicks involved.