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.