Thursday, December 22, 2011

Movie Review: “The Adventures of Tintin”

My favorite animated film of the year finally makes its way across the pond.

***** out of 5
107 minutes
Rated PG for adventure action violence, some drunkenness and brief smoking
Paramount Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: The Adventures of Tintin on Blogcritics.

While motion capture in film is nowhere near as intolerable as when first introduced via Robert Zemeckis’ excruciating “Polar Express,” it sure has come a long way. This year, however, it may have even finally hit its stride. From the dusty plains of “Rango” to Andy Serkis’ hopeful Oscar-nominated turn as Caesar in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” it was only a matter of time before Zemeckis’ long time buddy, Steven Spielberg, unsurprisingly, one upped him. Along with producer Peter Jackson as his partner in crime, Hergé’s beloved Belgian character finally gets a sea worthy big budget adaptation in “The Adventures of Tintin.”

While already a huge moneymaker overseas (currently standing at a massive $239 million), this isn’t the first time Tintin and his faithful canine companion Snowy have made their way to the States. When it was announced that Spielberg and Jackson were uniting to bring a trilogy of sorts to the big screen, it was a moment of glee. Even if just because I knew they would set out to prove exactly what you can really do with full length motion capture animated films and 3-D features as well.

The story may seem a tad convoluted, but that’s not the point of “The Adventures of TinTin.” Spielberg has finally made the best “Indiana Jones”-like film since Indy rode off into the sunset in 1989. Tintin (Jamie Bell) is a young reporter who’s just set his sights on a replica of the fabled Unicorn, a model ship. After it’s quickly snatched away by Ivanovich Sakharine (Daniel Craig), Tintin finds himself kidnapped where he meets up with the whiskey swilling Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis). Together, the three (Snowy in tow), must travel the globe to discover the secret of the Unicorn including a lost treasure buried beneath the sea by Haddock’s pirating relative, Sir Francis Haddock (Serkis again), after the best “Pirates of the Caribbean” sea battle Disney never gave us.

The screenplay was originally drafted by Steven Moffat (“Dr. Who,” “Sherlock,” “Coupling”), with a rewrite by the brilliant Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz”, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”) and Joe Cornish (“Attack the Block”). The three have written an amazing film that could easily have taken place within the “Indiana Jones” universe. If they wound up being our Three Wise Men for the rumored fifth venture, I’d be even more on board than I already am. As a Spielberg fanatic, I have to admit that I didn’t despise “Crystal Skull.” I know how much he loves his aliens and considering the timeline of the entry it fit in far better than people may want to admit.

Now Spielberg and Jackson have welcomed in a whole new kind of adventure. Where, thanks to the CG assistance of course, whole action sequences can be breathtakingly choreographed into a single take. And considering the writers, it should come as no surprise that there are references aplenty to The Beard’s previous work, along with the original Hergé comics as well. As I mentioned the motion capture here finally works – even if Jamie Bell may seem a bit too wide eyed and you’re dying for him to blink.

But nothing spoils the fun thanks to Spielberg reveling in his yesteryears and whisking us away on his most grand adventure in a long time. If it hadn’t been for the aforementioned “Rango” being a complete original, where this is based on previous material, it would be my frontrunner for best animated film of the year at the Academy Awards. As it stands however, “The Adventures of Tintin” still takes the case of being my favorite animated film of the year.

Photos courtesy Paramount Pictures

Movie Review: “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”

Best. “Mission.” Yet.

***** out of 5
133 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action and violence
Paramount Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol on Blogcritics.

A lot of people have been integrating IMAX filmed footage into their movies lately. While the best are few and far between and range from the great to awful (“The Dark Knight” to “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen”), there’s still plenty of room to keep our mouths agape. And if director Brad Bird has anything to do with it, his live action debut, “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” seems set out to make sure that if you don’t already suffer from acrophobia, you just might after his central pièce de résistance is over.

Brad Bird is best known as the genius behind one of the single greatest superhero movies ever made (“The Incredibles”). And was also the man who made the world discover that yes, anyone can cook, even if it’s a rat named Remy (“Ratatouille”). It was only a matter of time before someone handed him a camera and a deft screenplay (courtesy of producer J.J. Abrams’ regular partners in crime, Josh Applebaum and Andre Nemec), letting him set his sights on a big-budget action film. If you thought his visuals in “The Incredibles” lived up that film’s title, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

In “Ghost Protocol,” we meet up with Ethan Hunt locked up in a Moscow prison. Benji and Co. have just arrived to break him and fellow inmate Bogdan (Miraj Grbic) out to the tune of “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head.” We’ve also seen another agent, Hanaway (Josh Holloway, “Lost”), being taken out by who turns out to be an assassinating blonde (Léa Seydoux) with high ambitions. Jane and Benji inform Ethan that Hanaway was killed by Sabine Moreau while they were attempting to obtain some documents. Turns out said documents just happen to be nuclear launch codes.

The codes are also being hunted down by our current antagonist, Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist). Hendricks of course just wants to use them to start an all out nuclear war. Things get a little tricky for the team however, as the IMF has disavowed all agents thanks to Hendricks setting off an explosion inside the Kremlin. Now Ethan and his crew are about to be declared terrorists right after choosing to accept their mission of finding Hendricks and obtaining the codes. But not before the Russians take out the IMF Secretary (Tom Wilkinson) with a hailstorm of bullets leaving everyone en route to Dubai to get back the nuclear launch codes and save the day.

There’s been a whole lot of press surrounding Tom Cruise and his daredevil antics during the filming of “Ghost Protocol” — most of it having to do with his leaping, crawling, and running down the face of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. When Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his band of merry IMF misfits – Benji (Simon Pegg), Jane (Paula Patton), and Brandt (Jeremy Renner) – discover their most current MacGuffin is related to the building’s 130th floor, you get a whole new perspective on the ground floor. By now we all know that yes, that is Tom Cruise performing his own stunts as usual and it’s all for the greater good.

With J.J. Abrams returning as producer, even if handing off the reigns to Bird, there’s some surprising continuity for a change. And not just because of some select characters (including series favorite Luther Stickell, Ving Rhames) making joyful appearances. We also get back composer Michael Giacchino who infuses the film with his own musical cues tying this film with “III,” even if at least thematically. Not to mention that writers Applebaum and Nemec have plenty of background in the spy business after having worked on Abrams’ own “Alias.” It’s like a big welcome conglomeration of everything Bad Robot and Pixar.

Plenty of references abound, ranging from Ethan using extraction code Alpha 1-1-3 to Jane’s use of a red balloon. Not to mention the finale which will seem all too familiar, yet every bit as fun, as the door chase sequence in “Monsters, Inc.” And finally, anyone who doesn’t take the time to witness “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” the way it was meant to be seen, on their local IMAX (if available at least), is only shortchanging themselves. “Ghost Protocol” is definitely one of the year’s most fun films.

Photos courtesy Paramount Pictures

Movie Preview: December 2011

Get ready for a holiday wallop!

Article first published as Movie Preview: December 2011 on Blogcritics.

It’s that time of year again. While the snow may not be falling in my neck of the woods yet, the awards season is ramping up. And while the cinematic presents may seem few and far between, that doesn’t mean the month will leave you out in the cold. While nothing of true note may be opening until December 16, that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth waiting for.

December 2

Sorry, literally not one new film opening. Nothing to see here folks, moving along…

December 9

While “Valentine’s Day” was absolutely one of the worst films of 2010 doesn’t mean that the “creators” of that monstrosity shouldn’t try capitalizing on yet another holiday. Now you get “New Year’s Eve.” You’re welcome. Poor Gary Marshall is still out to prove just how much he’s forgotten about how to make a great romantic comedy, or even just a fun movie. Long gone are the days of “Pretty Woman,” “Beaches,” “Overboard,” “Nothing in Common,” “The Flamingo Kid” or even “Frankie & Johnny.” Something sure seems to have sucked the life out of ol’ Marshall during the ’90s and he’s never recovered.

Look no further than “Exit to Eden,” “Dear God,” “The Other Sister,” “Runaway Bride,” “Raising Helen,” “The Princess Diaries 2,” “Georgia Rule,” and the aforementioned “Valentine’s Day.” The first “Princess Diaries” was a small trifle compared to the rest of those. Let alone that writer Katherine Fugate seems to think that having Katherine Heigl (one of my most hated celebrities) crack jokes about there being “more celebrities here than rehab,” or poor Sofia Vergara being degraded into making jokes about how big her boobs are. I will hopefully never have to bear witness to what befalls audiences here. However, if New Year’s Eve were this movie, I could get behind it.

Meanwhile, Jonah Hill makes his final onscreen fat appearance in a movie that just screams “Adventures in Babysitting” ripoff – “The Sitter.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But when it comes from the same guy who used to direct the likes of “George Washington,” “All the Real Girls,” “Undertow,” and “Snow Angels,” apparently being friends with the Apatow Crew is a more surefire way to keep your day job. Even while the law of diminishing returns could be used against him. “Pineapple Express” was a surprise hit all things considered, and while I’m in the minority who enjoyed “Your Highness,” you can’t help but wonder about this one as the studio refuses to screen it. Guess we’ll just have to wait for Hill’s hilarious looking “21 Jump Street” to see the freshly weight lost Hill back in action.

December 16

Now we’re getting to the good stuff. First there’s an artsy fartsy headed our way reuniting the team behind “Juno”: Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman. While Reitman has more hits on resume than Cody, together there seems to be something grand between the two of them. Also today, we get the return of everyone’s favorite detective, “Sherlock Holmes,” who’s up against his arch nemesis Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris). Jude Law and Rachel McAdams return as well for “A Game of Shadows” with the original “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” herself, Noomi Rapace, along for the ride. With a trailer featuring as many slo-mo action sequences as anything released by Zack Snyder, a sense of fun and wise-cracking seems to be headed our way once again with Guy Ritchie seeming to be fully enjoying his deserved turn in the Hollywood spotlight. Game on!

Also out, in an IMAX exclusive release is Brad Bird’s (“Iron Giant,” “The Incredibles”) ascent into live action with a little movie you may have heard of, “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.” (Expanding to a wide release on December 21.) After a bombing in the Kremlin, super spy Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and company go rogue to clear IMF’s name. Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames return while Ethan’s newest cohorts consist of Paula Patton and Jeremy Renner, who may or may not be taking over the series’ reigns after this installment. Also be on the lookout for Josh Holloway, Tom Wilkinson, and Michael Nyqvist. If the teasers and trailers are any indication however, there’s still too much life in the series for it to end here. And with producer J.J. Abrams touting Bird’s IMAX footage as “mind-blowing,” it’s just further proof that if they decided to end things here, at least they seem to be going out with a bang.

For the kiddie set, there’s yet another entry to the dreadful “Alvin and the Chipmunks” series. Some day studios will learn that this live-action/CGI hybrid stuff just doesn’t work. But alas, audiences keep flocking, the rest of the world keeps suffering, and Jason Lee will keep getting work. Too bad “My Name is Earl” was canceled bringing him back to this dreadful looking fiasco. This time the crew finds themselves “Chip-wrecked” (hardy har har) on a deserted island where they seem to bide their time waiting for rescue singing Lady Gaga songs. As if some of her work wasn’t already annoying enough, we should never have the “opportunity” to feast our ears upon her playlist by way of the “Chipmunks.”

December 21

In the interest of there being six big movies opening within four days, we’ll keep the rest of this shorter and sweeter. Today we get two of the most highly anticipated films of the season, along with two high profile directors, but two wholly different features, both featuring protagonists on a mighty quest. In Steven Spielberg’s first foray into motion capture technology comes his adaptation of Hergé’s beloved “Adventures of Tintin.” While the “Secret of the Unicorn” subtitle has been dropped, screenwriters Steven Moffat (“Doctor Who”), Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead”), and Joe Cornish (“Attack the Block”) will be making sure they keep things on a grand scale. On the flip side of things, David Fincher returns to his darker roots with his Hollywood version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” With Daniel Craig stepping in as Mikael Blomkvist and Rooney Mara taking over as Lisbeth Salander, we’ll see if Fincher can one up the original Swedish version of Stieg Larsson’s acclaimed novel.

December 23

When you haven’t released a film in six years people are going to hold you up against your yesteryears. For Cameron Crowe, this means the ilk of such films as “Say Anything…,” “Singles,” “Jerry Maguire,” and “Almost Famous.” While I am a fan of one of his two lesser but more recent affairs (“Vanilla Sky,” not “Elizabethtown”), when you have Matt Damon in the lead, you could probably make any kind of film you wanted. What Crowe has decided to bring us is an adaptation of Benjamin Mee’s true life account of uprooting his family to a zoo to spend their days. Hilarity and lots of heart will undoubtedly prevail.

December 25

There have been lots of horror movies released on Christmas Day. So finding a 3-D alien invasion flick headed our way should come as no huge surprise. I still remember going to see “The Faculty” on the year’s biggest holiday, even if I was one of extremely few. Coming from the man who directed a great little horror diddy already, “Right at Your Door,” we’ll see if Chris Gorak can make due with producer Timur Bekmambetov (“Wanted”) behind him as aliens attack Moscow and Emile Hirsch must save the day in “The Darkest Hour.”

Films about 9/11 have started to dwindle as of late, but thankfully none of them have been anywhere near as cinematically abysmal as “Remember Me.” Thankfully for “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” a writer (Eric Roth of “Forrest Gump”) and director (Stephen Daldry, “Billy Elliot”) with some class have been brought on to direct a grade-A cast (Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, John Goodman, Max von Sydow, Viola Davis). Newcomer Thomas Horn may have won “Teen Jeopardy” but now he’s making the leap from the small screen to the big one to portray young Oskar Schell who’s in search of the lock that a key from his father (Hanks) left behind after dying in the 9/11 attacks. Heartstrings will be pulled but I suspect the sentiment will be real for a change.

And finally, Steven Spielberg gives us a second helping of cinema with his big screen epic adaptation of “War Horse.” When Michael Morpurgo’s novel has already been brought to us on stage with puppets and five Tony Awards no less, I’m sure Spielberg will find a way to make sure his film is of the grand scale it deserves. Having screenwriting masterminds Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot”) and Richard Curtis (“Love Actually,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral”) can’t hurt either. I’ve heard the scope of the film is everything old school in both Hollywood and Spielberg so my fingers are crossed that the 147 minute runtime is well deserved.

With nothing opening after Christmas Day until 2012, there’s clearly already way too much headed our way anyway. With the Thanksgiving films hopefully holding over as well, there’s plenty to keep everyone occupied with too many worthwhile films to see. Have a safe and happy holiday everyone and we’ll see you next year!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Movie Review: “Arthur Christmas”

“Arthur Christmas” deserves to find its legs over the holiday season.

**** out of 5
Rated PG for some mild rude humor
97 minutes
Sony Pictures Animation

Article first published as Movie Review: Arthur Christmas on Blogcritics.

As much as I love watching my annual onslaught of horror movies every October, even more so do I love my Christmas season movies. The standards are obvious (“White Christmas,” “A Christmas Story,” “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” “Scrooged”). But I also love the not so standards (“Gremlins,” the first two “Die Hards,” “Lethal Weapon”). Probably my all time favorite Christmas film would have to be “Love Actually.” Sadly, the last decade has been pretty shoddy with Hollywood's treatment of the genre. Now it appears like Aardman Animation is attempting to save the day with “Arthur Christmas.”

Last year we received the surprise Finnish present, “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale,” but aside from that, our very own Hollywood has been treating us for years with worthless entries. Ranging from “Disney’s A Christmas Carol,” “Four Christmases,” “Fred Claus,” “Deck the Halls,” “The Santa Clause 3,” “Surviving Christmas,” “Christmas with the Kranks,” and “The Polar Express,” it seems as if studio execs have had it in for the holiday – the few exceptions being “Bad Santa,” “Elf,” and the aforementioned “Love Actually.”

Here, Arthur (voiced by James McAvoy) is one of Santa’s (voiced by Jim Broadbent) two sons. Arthur bides his time working in the letters department, answering letters addressed to dear old Santa Claus and making sure they believe his bowl full of jelly. Steve (voiced by Hugh Laurie) happens to be Santa’s other son. He runs mission control for old Saint Nick. If you’ve ever wondered how Santa manages to deliver his gifts to all the children of the world, this movie may just take the cake in answering the age-old question. Having just returned from this year’s “mission,” aboard the S-1 (which looks an awful lot like the Starship Enterprise), Steve and Santa are certain that not one child has been missed.

Turns out that Gwen (voiced by Ramona Marquez), in Cornwall, England, has in fact been missed. All she wants is a new bike, found in its wrapping by a giftwrapping elf named Byrony (voiced by Ashley Jensen). While Steve convinces Santa that one child is a miniscule detail, Arthur is convinced that it could mean the end of everything they stand for. Now Arthur embarks on his own mission to deliver the bike himself because no child should be left behind. Along with his Grandsanta (voiced by Bill Nighy) and Byrony stowed away, they break out Grandsanta’s original 150-year-old sleigh, Evie, and they’re off on a series of hilarious misadventures, complete with having the entire world thinking we may be under alien attack.

First time director Sarah Smith and co-writer Peter Baynham (“Borat,” “Big Train,” “I’m Alan Partridge”) bring a wicked sensibility to the film and never forget that there are adults in the audience too. While the film may not be a gut busting good time, there’s still a whole lot of heart and holiday cheer. It would take the coldest of souls to not walk out of the theater in the holiday spirit. A black sense of humor runs through the proceedings and it’s all for the better as it will whiz right over the youngest of heads but give the rest of us just as much to be thankful for. While Aardman may be best known for their brilliant claymation “Wallace & Gromit” adventures, it was only a matter of time before they too jumped on the computer-animated bandwagon. If this is what they’re bringing to the table, then by all means, the more the merrier.

The only misstep happens to come from Sony Pictures themselves. And that just so happens to be the inexplicable inclusion of a ludicrous Justin Bieber music video for his slaying of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” which precedes the film. The video comes complete with Michael Jackson dance styling infusion. While Bieber’s take may be just about one of the worst renditions of a classic song ever, at least the film itself more than makes up for the travesty inflicted upon us an unsuspecting audience. If you show up three minutes late to “Arthur Christmas” you’ll be doing yourself a huge favor.

Photos courtesy Sony Pictures Animation

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Movie Review: “The Muppets”

Life's a happy song, now that "The Muppets" have returned.

***** out of 5
Rated PG for some mild rude humor.
98 minutes
Walt Disney Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: The Muppets on Blogcritics.

When I turned one, my parents birthed an obsession. For my birthday they gifted me with my first Kermit the Frog plush and the seed was forever planted. Over the past 31 years apparently I have not been the only one. I just don’t have the means to make a movie about it. Thankfully, a fellow obsessor by the name of Jason Segel does. With the help from his friend Nicholas Stoller, the two have joined forces with “Flight of the Conchords” co-creator James Bobin to finally bring us the film fans have been clamoring for since 1996’s “Muppet Treasure Island” with “The Muppets.”

Segel may not be the first person who comes to mind when you think of someone to rebirth “kid’s” series. Making his way to stardom in R-rated raunch fests such as “Bad Teacher,” “I Love You, Man,” “Knocked Up,” and his own “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” But bare in mind, it was probably “Sarah Marshall” that got him the job. His character Peter Bretter was also just a tad obsessed with puppetry and that film climaxed in one of the funniest puppet plays outside of anything Muppet related. It was no surprise to me when “The Muppets” was announced with Segel co-writing the screenplay alongside Stoller.

“The Muppets” immediately introduces us to brothers Gary (Segel) and Walter (Peter Linz). Walter just may be the Muppets' biggest fan. He owns everything from the Kermit watch to just about every other piece of Muppet memorabilia ever manufactured. Gary has a girlfriend named Mary (Amy Adams). She teaches at Smalltown Elementary and the three are about to embark on a ten year anniversary trip to Los Angeles. Mary isn’t particularly ecstatic to have Walter tagging along but Muppet Studios is in Los Angeles and there’s no way they could not take Walter.

Upon arrival, they find out, much to their dismay that Muppet Studios has been condemned and the group has fallen out. Walter sneaks into Kermit’s (Steve Whitmire) old office where he overhears Waldorf (Dave Goelz) and Statler (Whitmire) explaining to oily Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) that if the Muppets can’t come up with $10 million in two weeks they forfeit the studio lot along with their franchise title. Walter eventually explains the situation to Gary and Mary then it’s off to find Kermit’s “mansion” to enlist the help from the only frog who can rally everyone up.

Soon enough, Gary, Mary, Walter, Kermit, Fozzie (Eric Jacobson), Sam Eagle (Jacobson), Rowlf (Bill Barretta), Beaker (Whitmire), Dr. Bunsen (Goelz), and Electric Mayhem, are together again. The only missing piece of the puzzle, of course, is the inclusion of Miss Piggy (Jacobson). After traveling by map to Paris, where Miss Piggy works at Vogue Paris, she falls for the old Muppet Man gag but she informs everyone that she’s sworn to never rejoin the group after they too had a falling out after getting married.

Back in L.A. the Muppets have decided they need to get that $10 million to take back their studio and keep their name. After CDE Executive (Rashida Jones) informs them that they just aren’t famous anymore, they coincidentally come up with the brilliant idea for a telethon after Junior CDE Executive (Donald Glover) tells her that their hit show “Punch Teacher” has been canceled and now there’s a two-hour black hole of programming to fill. Only catch is, they have to have a celebrity host. While Kermit wrings through his rolodex of celebrities and comes up empty, Miss Piggy stages a “celebrinap” and now it’s Jack Black to the rescue – even if against his will. But Tex Richman has his own nefarious plans to replace them all with Bizarro World versions called “The Moopets.”

Can the Muppets come up with the $10 million in time before the deed to the studio and their namesake expire at midnight? Will Gary finally ask Mary to marry him? Does Walter have what it takes to become a true Muppet himself? Can Chris Cooper rap? All this and more is answered in the most hilarious, heartfelt film of the year. The jokes pile high and everything works. Leave it to the Muppets to make cameos hilarious again. The film stays true to Muppet roots while managing to usher in a new audience. I’m completely convinced that every adult in the audience was probably more excited than their children ever could be for this new entry to the Muppet canon. And let’s not forget the brilliant new songs brought to life by director Bobin co-written by his “Conchords” cohort Bret McKenzie. Instant classics, every last one.

And “The Muppets” isn’t even upstaged by the laugh till you cry “Toy Story Toons” that’s attached. Yes, the toys are back and in “Small Fry” they’re touching on issues even better suited than tricking Barbie and Ken into thinking they’re on a Hawaiian vacation. While Disney and Pixar were lambasted for providing us their official weakest link in “Cars 2” (which coincidentally is prominently featured on several billboards at least twice during the film), they both have completely redeemed themselves here. While “Super 8” had been my favorite film of the year, I was waiting to see if “The Muppets” could beat it. And yes, this is most definitely the most sensational, inspirational, celebrational, Muppetational film of the year, if not years.

Photos courtesy Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Friday, November 18, 2011

Movie Review: “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1”

Even a polished turd still stinks.

** ½ out of 5
117 minutes
Rated PG-13 for disturbing images, violence, sexuality/partial nudity and some thematic elements.
Summit Entertainment

It’s that time of the year again. Yes, it is the holidays, but the flavor of the week right now just so happens to be the third sequel and the first part of the so-called “worldwide phenomenon.” Yet again, the age-old drama of one woman’s love will be tested. First it was necrophilia and then it was bestiality, now comes just about the only taboo subject left uncharted: pedophilia. While this may not directly apply to the main characters, it certainly rears its hilarious head in “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1.”

When every film in your franchise has a new director, it has to be awfully hard to keep a consistent tone. Director Bill Condon’s resume consists of more adult films (“Dreamgirls,” “Kinsey,” “Gods and Monsters,” “Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh”). Parents would gasp if they even thought their tweens were watching at least three of those. What Condon has managed to bring to this installment is a slight sense of maturity. What the series still lacks is a sense of humor. Oh, there are plenty of laughs to be had for sure, but almost all of them are of the unintentional variety. I’m sure largely due to Melissa Rosenberg still not having much to work with from Stephenie Meyer's novel.

Anyone who doesn’t know an ounce of plot for this has either been living under a rock or is, thankfully for them, completely dismissive of the whole series. We begin with a slight recap from “Eclipse” as Jacob (Taylor Lautner) checks his invitation at the door to the wedding of Bella (Kristen Stewart) and Edward (Robert Pattinson) on his way to ripping off his shirt in the rain to transform into a wolf to go into hiding from his emotions out in the wilderness. Then we very briefly see some of the wedding prep, where I guess we’re supposed to be reminded that Bella is something of a tomboy as she gets training in high heels from Alice (Ashley Greene).

Now that Bella and Edward are married, they make a pit stop on their way to their honeymoon destination in Rio de Janeiro. Their final destination happens to be a seemingly deserted tropical island chock full of sunshine. Every vampire’s favorite hideaway these days, right? So even though Jacob gave Bella a stern talking to about the dangers of vampire sex, Bella just wants to get it on now that they’re happily married. After a few (literal) headboard breaking, pillow shredding, bruise inducing sex sessions, it’s only after two weeks that Bella realizes she’s missed her period. Or as the critic sitting next to me pointed out, “Of course, she’s late; otherwise, he’d be all over that.”

The new dilemma this time is finally realized as Bella and Edward must come to terms with the pregnancy. How a dead vampire’s sperm still swims, let alone how he gets an erection, is beyond me. Maybe Edward was turned with a hard on and he just hasn’t called a doctor since it’s been way longer than four hours, but I digress. Anyhow, Bella is taken under the wing of the Cullens’ and even Jacob comes to terms with her being one of them now, and everyone must find a way for Bella to have her little bundle of joy, even if it may kill her. I won’t go into spoiler territory, but if you can’t see where this is headed, you just may be the target audience.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the sex scenes having to be trimmed in order to secure the tween friendly PG-13 rating. However, there’s really just about as much sex in here as anything on TV rated MA. I always thought that was reserved for R-rated deserving programming but apparently so long as you keep the thrusting to a minimum, it’s all good. Yes, the roadrunner effects pop up a few times, but don’t look anywhere near as bad as they did in the first three installments. But props must be given to Condon for his pacing. This is the first “Twilight” film that didn’t have me checking my watch every five minutes. Seriously, how dead paced are those first three? Sheesh.

Maybe the reason being is just how much funnier this one is than the others. Just you wait until you bare witness to one of the most singlehandedly flat out hilarious things ever committed to celluloid. I won’t give everything away, but let’s just say that the wolf effects are funnier than ever. And as if one wolf doesn’t look bad enough trouncing through the woods alone, wait until you see a whole pack of them… in broad daylight... talking to each other telepathically while howling and snarling. Oh man, just thinking back on this scene has me laughing out loud.

Needless to say, Condon has finally managed to bring a, dare I say, watchable “Twilight” film that for the first time didn’t leave me despising it upon leaving the theater. It’s still in no way a good movie and from the beginning, the series needed to tread the R-rated waters I’ve been told it embraces in the books. But alas, at least Summit has finally delivered something that actually looks like a film and not two hours of amateur hour. So if anyone is assuming I am giving this film a recommendation, let’s just say that even a polished turd is still a turd. Just because it’s shiny and new doesn’t make it any less of a stinker. But at least this time the men getting dragged along to “Breaking Dawn” won’t hate themselves the morning after.

Photos courtesy Summit Entertainment

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Movie Review: “J. Edgar”

Performances save what would otherwise be another Eastwood snoozefest.

*** out of 5
Rated R for brief strong language.
137 minutes
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: J. Edgar on Blogcritics.

The list of Hollywood biopics is long. Very long. They’ll make a movie about pretty much anyone of any kind of notoriety. Most of the time, they’re pretty great. Giving us either a checklist of historical events or showing us some back-stories we may be unfamiliar with. That is, shedding light on a subject that hasn’t been given as much attention. When it comes to adapting a big production based around the life of one of America’s most influential and public faces, you better come up with something more than we may think we already know. And so is, sort of, the case with Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar.”

Writer Dustin Lance Black is no stranger to the subject of biopics. He may have given us the Oscar winning screenplay for “Milk,” but he also wrote the screenplay for “Pedro.” This was the film about the first HIV-positive homosexual reality TV star from MTV’s “The Real World: San Francisco.” I’m sure most people have never heard of “Pedro,” but “Milk” happened to be nominated for Best Picture at the 2009 Academy Awards and I’m certain that Black, along with Eastwood, have their sights set on a similar projection. Given the fact they have Leonardo DiCaprio starring as the titular character looks to only be further trying to seal the deal.

A fellow critic told me that “J. Edgar” featured a “Wikipedia screenplay.” And it’s pretty true. But in the case of the performances, that’s where the film truly shines. It starts with Hoover meeting with a writer (Robert Irwin) to tell his life story in his own words — with events ranging from his earliest job in Mitchell Palmer’s (Geoff Pierson) office to his dead-end attempts to woo Helen Grandy (Naomi Watts). It mostly plays out like an interweaving of skits based on true events. We also get the founding of the Bureau of Investigation, where his forensic science is shunned for its “extreme” nature such as employing wood specialist Arthur Koehler (Stephen Root), along with the transition of gangster films to the G-men heroes of the silver screen after the arrest of “Machine Gun” Kelly, and of course the Lindbergh (Josh Lucas) baby gets its due.

The largest amount of screentime happens to be split between the two biggest relationships in Hoover’s life: his mother Annie (Judi Dench) and Clyde Tolson (“The Social Network’s” Armie Hammer). At first you may be wondering why a man who leads the nation’s FBI still lives at home with his mother, but it makes sense when you take into account how much time he also spends at work and socially with Tolson. Yes, Eastwood and Black make no attempts to hide Hoover’s homosexuality and there’s even one scene with a pretty monumental kiss between the two. However, some of this plays a little too much like “Psycho”-lite and comes across almost as unintentionally funny. Thankfully we have the scenes being handled with the utmost care by DiCaprio, Hammer, and Dench.

The film could also easily have fallen apart in the hands of a lesser director. But Eastwood manages to handle everything as maturely as it deserves. However, the screenplay seems to be trying so hard to piece everything together that without Eastwood and the rest of the cast everything would have been another story altogether. The ending seems be trying to pack a bigger emotional wallop than it can conjure up and also seems oddly out of place. It heads straight down the “Beautiful Mind” route but with the story being about Norman Bates rather than John Nash, or even the film’s own Hoover.

In the end, if the film is nominated for anything, it will surely be for acting and possibly Best Picture. Let’s face it; these are the films that Oscar is prone for. While it in no way deserves the highest honor, the cast may still receive their due, along with the makeup department. That is if they discount the scenes featuring an aged Armie Hammer who looks like he’s stepped off the set of “Saturday Night Live” wearing a Tolson Halloween mask. It’s made even more evident how sketchy his makeup is when he’s filmed standing next to DiCaprio in broad daylight. Even if yet another critic friend hadn’t pointed it out prior to seeing the film it’s still just as blatantly bad. And DiCaprio’s brown contacts are a bit of a distraction. In the darker lit scenes he comes off almost vampiric.

Granted, there are some pacing issues but the length is never as wince inducing as some of Eastwood’s more recent films. The runtime flies by compared to the likes of “Million Dollar Baby,” “Gran Torino,” or even worse, “Hereafter.” “J. Edgar” may owe a large debt to Martin Scorsese’s own DiCaprio starring “Aviator” and maybe even Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies,” but if you’re looking for a big budget Hollywood biopic you could certainly do a lot worse.

Photos courtesy Warner Bros.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Movie Preview: November 2011

I'm as excited as Animal for November. Movies! Movies! Movies!

Article first published as Movie Preview: November 2011 on Blogcritics.

Now that we’ve plundered the bottom of Hollywood’s barrel the last few months, it’s high time for both Oscar bait and yuletide offerings throughout November. While one of the two Christmas flicks will undoubtedly be better than the other, there’s always room for possible guilty pleasures. Let’s take a gander and see what’s being thrown under the tree for cinemagoers this year.

November 4

Maybe giving themselves a little too much room for repeat value comes those loveably bumbling stoners (Kal Penn and John Cho) in “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas.” Todd Strauss-Schulson is making his directing debut so we’ll have to see if the series’ creator’s (Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg) have left us some Christmas cheer while they’re off handling directing duties (or would that be doodies?) on the fourth official sequel for Universal’s “American Reunion.” Face-shot Santas, naked nubiles, and claymation all make this ripe for the course of hilarity but we shall see if “Harold & Kumar” can keep the old saying true about the third time being the charm.

While the original idea for “Tower Heist” has been claimed by star Eddie Murphy to have been conceived as a “black ‘Ocean’s Eleven,’” it seems that director Brett Ratner got his hands all over this thing and the end was nigh. Now filled to the brim with the likes of Casey Affleck, Matthew Broderick, Michael Peña, Gabourey Sidibe, Judd Hirsch, and Téa Leoni, it seems like lead Ben Stiller and Ratner have just called on a few of their friends to pick up the slack. How Alan Alda got culled into this is beyond me.

Featuring a screenplay by Ted Griffin (the man who gloriously updated “Eleven” himself), however, it was co-written by Jeff Nathanson who just so happens to have treated us to the “Indy IV” story, along with the screenplays for “Rush Hour 2” and “3” and “Speed 2: Cruise Control.” Just because he co-wrote Spielberg’s “The Terminal” and “Catch Me If You Can” means nothing with the rest of his credits working so hard against him. But word-of-mouth isn’t horrible and maybe Ratner has finally learned there’s more to making an action film than flashy special effects (“X-Men: The Last Stand”) and chop suey editing (the “Rush Hours”) but let’s not hold our breath, nobody likes a funeral.

November 9

There hasn’t been a mid-week opening in a while now (even if limited) so why not let it be for a man of such high acclaim as Clint Eastwood. Sure his last few films have been a mixture of snooze fests (“Gran Torino,” “Changeling,” “Million Dollar Baby”), the inexplicable (“Hereafter”), and occasionally accolade deserving (“Letters from Iwo Jima,” “Invictus”), the man knows what’s he’s doing most of the time. Hopefully “J. Edgar” can liven up his oeuvre with Leonardo DiCaprio as the titular head of the FBI. The trailer makes the film look like a cross between “The Aviator” and “The Departed” which is a huge step up in terms of entertainment value for Eastwood as of late. I hope it lives up to either of those films. Maybe it’s a case of working with a Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”) screenplay. All I know is Eastwood’s films could sure use the adrenaline.

November 11

When your marketing campaign consists solely of making sure you know it’s “From the Producers of ‘300’” and features a no-name cast, save for Mickey Rourke, maybe you should also mention that it’s from the director of the cult classic “The Cell,” Tarsem Singh. Oh wait, they used that strategy for his last film, “The Fall,” and attracted absolutely no one. So now they’ve upped the gladiator-esque angle and made it look like a “300”/“Watchmen” hybrid. The R-rating on “Immortals” is just about the only possible saving grace as it could be a guilty pleasure gore fest. Unfortunately, I’m suspecting that writers Charley and Vlas Parlapanides have only conjured up another 3-D borefest.

As if the date 11/11/11 wasn’t ominous enough, the producers of “Grown Ups” are promising to deliver an even worse film with Adam Sandler’s “Jack and Jill.” While he may have spoofed these types of films in Judd Apatow’s “Funny People,” we all know he’s never above actually making them. Now he’s back with director Dennis Dugan (single-handedly responsible for no less than eight Happy Madison efforts since his only good film “Happy Gilmore” back in 1996). Hard to believe that a man can make each film worse than the previous so repeatedly for 15 years and still find work. Must be nice to have friends in Hollywood who keep letting you ruin all of their own endeavors; not that they start out any better in the story stage. Now Sandler is playing his own fatter sister version of himself, making the audience want to puke “oy vey” in the process. Prepare to have your sense of good taste thrown out the window if you’re even considering sitting threw this dreck.

November 16

The second film of the month to get a limited mid-week release falls upon director Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants.” While he may not be a household name by any means, you’ve at least heard of his films. Payne is the man behind “Citizen Ruth,” “Election,” “About Schmidt,” “Sideways,” and “Jurassic Park III.” Now he brings us another novel adaptation. This time working from Kaui Hart Hemmings’ book about a father (George Clooney) trying to reconnect with his two daughters. The eldest played by none other than “The Secret Life of the American Teenager’s” own Shailene Woodley. Not my first choice for an Oscar-bait flick, but then again, Payne was able to finagle a hilarious performance out of Chris Klein in “Election” so who knows. With backup from Beau Bridges, Robert Forster, Judy Greer, and Matthew Lillard, this surely looks like it’s after at least one of those coveted gold statues.

November 18

As if the end wasn’t already nigh enough with “Jack and Jill” headed our way on 11/11/11, the beginning of the end rears its head with the first part of the “Twilight” saga finale, “Breaking Dawn - Part 1.” I have never, nor will ever, read any of this so-called “worldwide phenomenon” and from what I hear, the books aren’t really that much better. The only reason for attending a “Twilight” film in theaters is to laugh at how ludicrous it all is while being shushed by the “Twi-hards.” If this is what sets a teenage girl’s heart aflutter these days, thank Jeebus I grew up in the ‘80s for these be sad times. The best parts of this pregnancy-induced fourthquel are the prospects of the easiest porn spoof name yet, “Breaking Dong” (unfortunately, even that wouldn’t be anywhere near as hilarious on purpose as this will be unintentionally), and the fact that now there’s only one more film to suffer through.

Speaking of suffering through, another unnecessary computer-animated sequel marches forth with “Happy Feet Two.” Why George Miller thought this was a good idea instead of stepping back into his post-apocalyptic “Mad Max” world we’ll never know. All we know is that now Mumble (voiced by Elijah Wood) is back, this time bringing with him a tail-feather-shaking chick of his own. The only thing here that sparks my interest is the voice casting of Brad Pitt and Matt Damon as a couple of krill. Maybe if those two had written their own film featuring their characters it would have been worth noting. However, they’re stuck playing second fiddle along with everyone else to Robin Williams continuing to do his voice “acting” that has never reached his own bar set so high in Disney’s “Aladdin.”

November 23

In no particular order, there are three big family films opening today: “Arthur Christmas,” “Hugo,” and “The Muppets.” There’s not a whole lot that can be said to make expectations any higher for each of these films, save for maybe “Arthur Christmas.” What you may not know is that it’s Aardman Animations’ first feature since 2006’s “Flushed Away.” While that one didn’t quite live up to their own reputation for the house that “Wallace & Gromit” built, this one should set them back on track. Featuring an all-star voice cast including James McAvoy as the titular Arthur, along with Hugh Laurie, Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent, and Will Sasso playing “American James,” the trailer should help seal the deal. Hilarity will surely ensue.

Speaking of which, leave it to the man behind a brilliant Dracula-musical-within-a-movie (Jason Segel’s “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”) to give us a brand spanking new Muppets movie. Yes, “The Muppets” are finally back on the big screen for the first time since 1999. “Muppets from Space” may not have been their finest achievement but it’s been far too long since the whole gang was together in true form. No one is spared as Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, Rowlf, Swedish Chef, Pepe the Prawn, Waldorf, Statler, Animal, Dr. Teeth, and Beaker all gave us something to really laugh about. Segel has a deep understanding and true love for these characters and everyone will undoubtedly be given their due. Along with his “Sarah Marshall” cohort, Nicholas Stoller, and director James Bobin (“Flight of the Conchords”), they’ve even wrangled up Bret McKenzie as music supervisor just to put the icing on the cake. This is the movie I’ve been most excited for all year. Yes, even more so than “Super 8!” Can. Not. Wait!

To round out our Thanksgiving offerings comes the first kid-friendly flick of Martin Scorsese’s four and a half decade career. With John Logan (“Rango”) adapting Brian Selznick’s “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” about a boy who lives in the walls of a train station, and a cast consisting of Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Richard Griffiths, Jude Law, and our heroes Chloë Grace Moretz and Asa Butterfield as Hugo himself, this thing looks primed and ready. Let alone that Scorsese is also making his first foray into 3-D filmmaking. Will he come back to the format? Only time shall tell, along with how well the film works out. But between these three family offerings, I’m personally excited for all three and I’m 31 years old. That should definitely say something.

So alas, we’ve finally got lots of things to look forward to here, even if none of them are really expected to be tempting Oscar to look their way. While there’s a slight lull mid-month, at least it looks to be going out with a bang. In the meantime, there are more than enough offerings to tide us over as December actually looks pretty barren. But we’ll get to that when it gets here. Now everyone have a safe and happy holiday!

Photos courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures, Columbia Pictures, Summit Entertainment, Walt Disney Pictures

Monday, October 31, 2011

Movie Review: “Puss in Boots”

DreamWorks pulls off a twofer for 2011.

**** ½ out of 5
Rated PG for some adventure action and mild rude humor.
90 minutes
Paramount Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: Puss in Boots (2011) on Blogcritics.

In a perfect world, there would be no such thing as mediocre amongst the Pixar catalogue. But alas, every few years, John Lasseter wants to deliver another “Cars” film. While DreamWorks may be better known for throwing a few clunkers our way, the last few years have been mighty kind. Maybe it’s losing all those coveted Best Animated Feature Oscars along the way. Not that this weekend’s “Puss in Boots” will completely change that but it’s continuing in the right direction.

All that aside, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it every time: as of now, so long as DreamWorks isn’t trolling out another “Shrek” film, they seem to do mighty fine. Looking back over their list of films since “Shrek” premiered just over ten years ago they’re actually doing way better than I make it sound. The only true stinkers being “Shark Tale,” and the last two “Shrek” films, “Shrek the Third” and “Shrek Forever After.”

When you notice the director of “Puss in Boots” is none other than Chris Miller, the director of “Shrek the Third” (arguably one of the worst DreamWorks feature thus far), it gives cause for alarm. Can he pull a nice little trick out of his hat and deliver the prequel we’ve been waiting for since Puss made his first appearance back in 2004’s “Shrek 2?” We all know Puss has been the best thing to happen to that entire franchise so it was only a matter of time before his tale was finally told.

“Puss in Boots” works as an origin story, but keeps the film within the fractured “Shrek” fairy tale land while never sinking so low as to even conjure up any of those films’ characters. “Puss” (voiced by Antonio Banderas) has his own tale to be told. Here we find that as a young kitten, he is placed within an orphanage in San Ricardo, where he quickly befriends Humpty Dumpty (voiced by Zach Galifianakis). The two aspire to grow up and escape the confines of said orphanage to fulfill Humpty’s dreams of finding Jack’s magical beans that lead to a giant castle where the golden goose lies ripe for the taking if they can get it past the Great Terror.

There’s also a subplot involving Jack (voiced by Billy Bob Thornton) and Jill (voiced by Amy Sedaris), who already have possession of the magical beans, as well as one with Kitty Softpaws (voiced by Salma Hayek). Will Puss and Kitty find love amongst the betrayal and swash buckling? Can Humpty and Puss make nice and get over their sordid past involving a bank heist where Humpty is left on a bridge to be imprisoned? Can a film filled to the brim with cat jokes continue the funny for a brisk 90 minutes? Find out all this and much much more because the cat’s out of the bag on this one.

With a surprisingly minimal four credited writers (Brian Lynch, David H. Steinberg, Tom Wheeler, Jon Zack), including an uncredited rewrite from executive producer Guillermo del Toro, the “Puss in Boots” team have delivered and then some. I had high hopes for this entry in the “Shrek” canon but was yet to be convinced. And if it wasn’t for “Rango” and “Kung Fu Panda 2” already having been released, they’d have a mighty fine chance at winning that coveted Oscar for this one. However, DreamWorks now has a fighting chance with two possible nominations where Pixar may not even receive one (“Ohhh,” as one “Puss” character may say).

Charles Perrault’s timeless character is finally given his due, and so are we as one of the year’s flat out hilarious films, along with one of the most action packed, has arrived.

Photos courtesy DreamWorks Animation

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Movie Review: “Paranormal Activity 3”

Genuinely creepy for the first hour. Then comes the "mythology" to screw it all up.

*** out of 5
Rated R for some violence, language, brief sexuality and drug use
85 minutes
Paramount Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: Paranormal Activity 3 on Blogcritics.

Just last week in my review for the remake of “The Thing,” I mentioned that when it comes to prequels, you either have a checklist of unexplained events to answer for or you can have some fun and build upon what’s already been laid out. The new “Thing” did this extremely well. When it comes to this weekend’s horror entry, “Paranormal Activity 3,” not so much. Paramount Pictures obviously wants film after film of groundwork laid, but this is becoming an alarmingly weak foundation.

I have to admit, when Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman were announced as directors of the series’ second prequel, I breathed a sigh of relief. Here are directors who know the genre all too well. Their extraordinary “Catfish” was a work of sheer genius. How much of their documentary was fake, who knows. And who cares? It was a great thrill ride featuring one of the best twist finales in years. It also featured a few horror elements sprinkled in a couple of scenes which is no doubt how Joost and Schulman scored this gig.

Unfortunately, they’re also straddled with the screenplay courtesy of Christopher B. Landon. From the mind who gave us both “Disturbia” (fun) and “Blood and Chocolate” (atrocious), he also was partially responsible for “Paranormal Activity 2.” Given that both “sequels” are prequels, I can only imagine that this format to the series is mostly his. And it’s a nice twist on the standard genre trend. Why not keep going backwards to root out “how the activity began,” as the film’s tagline reads? I’ll tell you why not, because none of it makes a lick of sense.

If you watched these three films chronologically, they’d function the same way most horror series do. If “3” came first it could be heralded as fantastic in comparison to “2” and “1,” which would come off as being standardized sequels. This theory actually makes sense as the end of the original Paranormal Activity” was the worst thing ever sprung from the mind of Steven Spielberg. People may pick on “Hook” or “The Lost World,” but we all know by now that the first “Paranormal” ending was his idea, and what a horrible idea if there ever was one. What worked marginally well for a good 85 minutes has the final minute completely obliterate any sense of fun.

The same is pretty true with “3” as well. We begin somewhere in the timeline of “2” with Rey sisters Kristi (Sprague Grayden) and Katie (Katie Featherstone) prepping for the birth of Kristi’s baby boy. Katie has also brought along some boxes she got stuck with after their grandma Lois passed away. And so begins the new installment. Now we are treated to the series’ most likeable couple, Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith) and Julie (Lauren Bitter), Kristi and Katie’s mother. Dennis is their stepfather and is looked down upon by Lois because he doesn’t offer any financial security by just being a wedding videographer. Of course, this means that he has access to multiple video cameras and keeps a steady supply of video tapes in the garage where his editing station is.

Now we learn that as a child, Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) has an imaginary friend named Toby. Katie (Chloe Csengery), is always playing the older sister role by making Kristi participate in family birthday parties and calling her a baby for having an imaginary friend. Soon enough, all sorts of spooky noises are heard through the house and all kinds of paranormal activities rear their head. At least this time Joost and Schulman play up some nods to “Poltergeist,” along with its sequel (for better and worse here), and a dash of “The Blair Witch Project” for good measure.

The performances in “Paranormal Activity 3” work as the film’s superglue. But even superglue has the ability to wear away after so long. Like I said, eventually Paramount Pictures seems to have demanded that the film continues its headlong nosedive into the series’ own mythology, which just makes the proceedings more ludicrous as the minutes tick by. This is also by far the least boring of the three films, but some would wholeheartedly argue with that.

In the end, if you’re a fan of the series you will love this entry as Ariel and Schulman pull off some fun stunts, and they even get to rely on the age old drama of someone dropping something down the garbage disposal. So if you like these films go for it. There’s really not much playing right now in the way of horror, and it is October for crying out loud. The good old days are definitely behind us as we’ve already been treated to both “Insidious” and “Scream 4” all the way back in April, while “Final Destination 5” spectacularly killed off its latest round of pretty young actors last month before “Fright Night” vanished, and the only other horror film playing right now is “The Thing.” While the better of these two won’t make a lick of money compared to the other, at least “Paranormal Activity 3” isn’t a total bust. I just wish that someone could figure out how to end one of these things... if not the whole enterprise.

Photos courtesy Paramount Pictures

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Movie Review: “The Thing”

Some“Thing” wound up being the best horror film of the year.

***** out of 5
Rated R for strong creature violence and gore, disturbing images, and language.
103 minutes
Universal Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: The Thing (2011) on Blogcritics.

Remakes are probably way too easy to make these days. When motion pictures have been on a virtual production line since 1914’s “Birth of a Nation,” there’s an interminable amount of features you could consider. Making a prequel, however, gives someone the opportunity to both not only take a few liberties but also satiate fanboys’ desires at the same time. When the film you’re leading up to is John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” you’ve got yourself quite a heavy load.

Having just rewatched the original merely days ago on Blu-ray, I couldn’t help but walk into director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s prequel with a long checklist of events that need to happen. To say that he, along with screenwriter Eric Heisserer (“Final Destination 5,” 2010’s “Nightmare on Elm Street”), succeeded is a bit of an understatement. There may be a few things that lend themselves to the territory of remake as well, but through and through, their “Thing” still finds plenty of new ways to cover old ground. Let’s also not forget that even Carpenter’s take was a remake as well. All three based on John W. Campbell Jr.’s short story, “Who Goes There?”

After the appropriately 1980s version of the Universal logo raises some serious goosebumps, and the 1982-version of font begins, expectations were immediately raised. It’s 1982 all over again as we’re swept away to the icy tundra of Antarctica. A group of Norwegian researchers, including Olav (Jan Gunnar Røise), are following a signal and it’s not long before they fall into a tight cavern uncovering a spacecraft that’s later mentioned to be 100,000 years old.

Turns out, there’s also a specimen on site so Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) recruits Columbia University paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) to help him uncover the find. Now Kate is headed north along with Sander’s assistant Adam Goodman (Eric Christian Olsen), who explains to Kate that in the three years he’s worked with him he’s never seen Sander this excited. Along with a group of diggers and scientists, they all land at Thule Station with the news that a big storm’s headed their way. After the specimen is excavated, it’s only a matter of time before all hell breaks loose.

You may think you already know everything walking in, but Heijningen and Heisserer have conjured up a prequel with rare ambition. They never try to outdo Carpenter’s version, instead paying tribute in all the right ways. Everything from how the axe found its way into the wall to the man with the slit wrists in the chair to the man with the melting face is given its due. And, of course, it all organically leads into the beginning of the 1982 film. That is if you stick around for some of the end credits, FYI.

Thankfully, even with the use of some shaky cam, you always know what’s going on when the action and/or horror strikes thanks to some great cinematography courtesy Michel Abramowicz. And Marco Beltrami gives us the best creature feature score this side of Michael Giacchino’s “Super 8”. Some may balk at the use of today’s modernized CGI in some of the creature effects, but Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr.’s practical effects are put to splendid use as well. As Kate repeatedly yells through the film, be sure to “run!” to this new version of “The Thing.” It just may wind up being the best horror film of the year.

Photos courtesy Universal Pictures

Monday, October 10, 2011

Movie Review: “Real Steel”

“Real Steel” is real dumb.

** ½ out of 5
Rated PG-13 for some violence, intense action and brief language.
127 minutes
Touchstone Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: Real Steel on Blogcritics.

Some movies have the ability to start out with great pedigree then succumb to the nature of being cannibalized by Hollywood. For instance, say a film features two quality producers in the likes of both Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. Next, add in the fact that the film being adapted is based on a dystopian short story by none other than Richard Matheson. And finally, say the adaptations story is credited to Dan Gilroy (“The Bourne Legacy”) and Jeremy Leven (“Don Juan DeMarco,” “The Legend of Bagger Vance”). This is only some of the behind-the-scenes talent involved with “Real Steel,” but don’t get your hopes up just yet.

An official adaptation of a Rock’em Sock’em Robots film somehow just feels inevitable with Peter Berg bringing us an alien-infused “Battleship” and Ridley Scott is trying to get a “Monopoly” film on the way. But in the meantime we’re left with Wolverine himself, Hugh Jackman, amidst the directing duties of Shawn Levy. Bear in mind this is the same man who has burdened filmgoers with such calamities as “Big Fat Liar,” “Just Married,” “Cheaper by the Dozen,” “The Pink Panther,” and two “Nights at the Museum.”

While the first “Museum” was arguably passable entertainment it doesn’t hold up to repeat viewings at all. And the only film on his resume worth any attention is the Steve Carrel/Tina Fey venture “Date Night” . But I’m sure that film had everything to do with the cast involved and nothing to do with the screenplay or direction. Speaking of screenplays, while Gilroy and Leven are credited with the screen story, it’s John Gatins who receives credit for the screenplay. Here’s a man responsible for bringing us such classics as “Summer Catch,” “Hardball,” and “Coach Carter.” What? You don’t remember any of those flicks? Well, unfortunately I do and knowing this bit of information makes me less surprised about some of the machinations, let alone terrified to see what he will wring out for Zemeckis’ first live-action film (“Flight”) in eleven years.

In the year 2027, I will be 47 years old, but apparently the only thing that will have changed is literally only cell phones. At least as far as the world according to Levy is concerned. Humans in sports have also become a thing of the past and have been replaced by the World Robot Boxing League (WBR) where now we get giant robots; that are probably pretty cheap effects after three “Transformers” films. In the film however, these robots are far from cheap. They run upwards of $50,000. At least when they’re names consist of Ambush or Noisy Boy. The man behind these robots is Charlie Kenton (Jackman) who is a former boxer who luckily has not let his body go to waste.

After Ambush is gutted by a bull at a fair event, he now owes money to cowboy Ricky (Kevin Durand). Ricky wants his money but Charlie takes off in his truck to meet up with love interest/seeming-mechanical expert Bailey Tallet (Evangeline Lilly). On the day Noisy Boy shows up Charlie is also introduced to his abandoned son Max (Dakota Goyo, a kid as annoying as his name would suggest). Charlie has just signed over his parental rights to the boy’s aunt Debra (Hope Davis) in a secret exchange with her husband Marvin (James Rebhorn) for said $100,000; half now, the other half after they return from a nice, long trip to Italy sans child.

Now Charlie has Noisy Boy, the best robot to come out of Japan, but is also stuck with Max for the summer. After Charlie arrogantly gets Noisy Boy pummeled to pieces, they scavenge a metal recycling compound in a rain storm looking for parts to rebuild it. But in true Spielbergian fashion, Max is sliding down a ravine only to be saved by a generation two robot Max digs out and names Atom. Before you can say father/son bonding, Max learns that Atom can understand him when the plot requires him too and that he’s got a built-in shadowing program which also comes in handy whenever convenience necessitates. Meanwhile, Farra (Olga Fonda) offers Charlie and Max $200,000 to make Atom a sparring ’bot for their world champion Zeus but of course Max refuses to sell and now Atom and Zeus may be pitted against each other in a duel to the death.

For a film about fighting robots and as being marketed as such, there’s an awful lot of awful dialogue. The humans are of absolute zero interest, yet there they are, scene after scene just yucking it up amongst themselves. This may be Levy’s most accomplished looking film to date but that doesn’t save any of us from his lack of subtlety, let alone Gatins even worse command of it. Even Jackman can’t hold up as the lead when all we want to see are the robots fighting each other but there’s maybe twenty minutes of that in a two hour feature. As a deadbeat father, Jackman just can’t pull it off. When he’s not trying to look like he’s about to cry, he can’t keep himself from maneuvering one Wolverine air kick, meanwhile Goyo just won’t shut up thanks to drinking the never-ending supply of the film’s biggest promoter, Dr. Pepper. Even poor Danny Elfman gets downgraded here providing the film nothing more than to cue the violins.

A good replacement for Jackman probably could have been made with Josh Holloway who’s already costarred with both Lilly and Durand on “Lost.” Perhaps then there may have been a chance for at least some chemistry between Charlie and Bailey and he could have brought a more respectably smart ass tone to the character. Now all we’re left with is a film ripe for cameos that never materialize and a bunch of humans who do all the talking when like I keep saying, all we want to see is robots fighting. Granted, I will give credit that what we do see of the fights is pretty awesome and could have made for grand entertainment. But alas, it all comes down to making the film family friendly and easily digestible for the masses. Something Levy knows far too well. In a world where Spielberg could have used this as an opportunity to whet our appetite for his upcoming “Robopocalypse,” unfortunately, “Real Steel” is just real dumb.

Photos courtesy Touchstone Pictures

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Movie Preview: October 2011

Just gotta trudge our way through October before Oscar comes calling.

Article first published as Movie Preview: October 2011 on Blogcritics.

When it comes to October, I guess the days of a new horror movie opening every weekend are long gone. While you may be able to curl up on the couch at home every night, there’s a mere two horror flicks opening this month. While one looks way better than the other, the latter still has something going for it behind the cameras that have piqued my interest. So alas, let us delve into the haunt free October that is 2011.

October 7

Kicking off with only two new openings comes one for the family, and one for the rest of us. Shawn Levy is not the man who first comes to mind when it comes to big budget action films with Steven Spielberg executive producing and Robert Zemeckis producing. Yet here comes the man behind such disasters as “Big Fat Liar,” “Just Married,” “Cheaper by the Dozen,” “The Pink Panther,” and the second “Night at the Museum,” bringing us an unofficial Rock’em Sock’em Robots film. Granted, the first “Night at the Museum” wasn’t a complete bust but I have no doubt the only thing holding “Date Night” together was Tina Fey and Steve Carell. In “Real Steel,” the gist is that it’s set in the future where robots duke it out in the ring instead of humans. I have some choice words to say about this one and they’ll all be available later this week.

On the flip side of things, we do get a new George Clooney movie! Whether he’s in front of, or behind the camera, the man just does not produce a stinker. Okay, maybe “Ocean’s 12.” Now he brings us another possible Best Picture front runner with “The Ides of March.” Also in the spotlight is star Ryan Gosling who’s having the year of his life. Hot off his performance in “Blue Valentine” last year, 2011 has already given us “”“Crazy, Stupid, Love.” and “Drive.” Maybe we should just give him Best Actor right now on account of collective performances. Anyone? Anyone? Here Gosling plays second fiddle to Clooney’s Presidential candidate where he gets a crash course in corruption. While it sounds slightly cliché, Clooney is directing his own screenplay based on Beau Willimon’s (also credited as co-writer) play “Farragut North.” I think Clooney and company have cooked up another winner.

October 14

Two remakes hit screens this day and while I have seen one already, I can vouch that the other will be the greater of the two. First we get a completely unnecessary remake of the Kevin Bacon starring (cult) classic, “Footloose.” While that film may have been another step to securing Bacon as the huge star that is now, can the same be said for Kenny Wormald? I’ll let audiences be the judge here, but I’m sure had director Craig Brewer opted to adapt the Broadway version he may have really been onto something. But that’s about all I can say about this now.

Meanwhile, another John Carpenter classic gets a makeover in what’s being called a “prequel.” But anyone who’s ever seen his remake of “The Thing from Another World,” simply titled “The Thing,” knows that it’s a remake through and through. Thankfully they kept the R-rating and probably upped the gore quotient, even if it appears to be handled from the inside of a computer instead of with stellar practical and makeup effects ala Rob Bottin. At least director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. is keeping things looking cool enough to keep us hot-headed fanboys from getting too bent out of shape. Plus, it gives us all another chance to behold Mary Elizabeth Winstead up on the big screen.

We also get a new comedy from director David Frankel. While not a household name, he did provide us with “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Marley & Me.” Now he’s behind the camera again with his biggest comedic cast yet for an adaptation of the Mark Obmascik novel “The Big Year.” When your three leads consist of Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, and Jack Black, it’s even more surprising to find a supporting cast packed to the gills such as this. Not only will the comedic trio be on the lookout for the rarest birds in North America, they’ll be in cahoots with the likes of Jim Parsons, Rashida Jones, Anjelica Huston, Joel McHale, Tim Blake Nelson, Diane Wiest, Anthony Anderson, JoBeth Williams, Brian Dennehy, Kevin Pollack, and Corbin Bernsen… phew! I think I smell a sleeper hit in the making with this one.

October 21

Three different genre films open this day; our second horror helping along with a big, dumb, action movie, and another comedy. Up first is the film I should have absolutely no interest in seeing. After being burned by the first two “Paranormal Activity” films I should be holding this third at arms length. Yet leave it to Paramount Pictures to talk the minds behind one of my favorite Sundance Films (“Catfish”) into helming “Paranormal Activity 3.” Now we get to see how it all started back when Katie and Kristi are kids. Leave it to a spooky game of Bloody Mary to commence the shenanigans. While the series seemed headed for diminishing returns, I can’t help but love the trailers and TV spots for this one. Plus, like I said, I loved me some “Catfish” and was totally disgusted when the Academy deemed it ineligible for Best Documentary. Let’s see if Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman can finally give us what we’ve been waiting for.

Director Paul W.S. Anderson has honestly never made a quality film. Even his “Death Race” remake is just about the only thing he even has close to a guilty pleasure, which isn’t saying much. So now he sets his sights on bringing us yet another big budget explosion extravaganza with his version of Alexandre Dumas’ “Three Musketeers.” All I’ve gotten out of this so far is that things will blow up, swords will clang clang and swoosh swoosh, and cleavage will rear its head at every chance. I may feel cold on this one, but I have yet to even see one TV spot for the other action film headed our way today.

Another “Johnny English” heads our way, because apparently Universal is under some kind of contract to release all of Studio Canal’s features regardless of whether they make any money in the states or not. Needless to say, Rowan Atkinson’s titular character is “Reborn” and I’m sure audiences are as likely to show up as they were last time.

October 28

Just because the rest of the month seems lackluster doesn’t mean we can’t have four major releases this day. I’ll try to be quick as there’s only two really worth mentioning. First up is director Roland Emmerich’s first foray into a film that does not revolve the end of the world in some manner. Instead he thinks it’s a good idea to proclaim Shakespeare a fraud in “Anonymous.” If that doesn’t make one balk already, I don’t know what could.

Meanwhile, Andrew Niccol thought it was a good idea to cast Justin Timberlake “In Time” as the next big action star alongside Amanda Seyfried’s breasts. While the filmmakers are caught up in legal action, Timberlake tries to play serious action which will probably only make audiences laugh harder than when he’s in his annual “SNL Digital Short” contributions.

Finishing out the month is a couple of suave exercises in live action and the third dimension. First, DreamWorks finally brings forth the long-awaited “Puss in Boots” film with Antonio Banderas slipping into his most recognizable character as we all get to see what lead up to that fateful day where he meets up with “Shrek” and company. Director Chris Miller gives Charles Perrault’s feline lead his own flick, but let’s just pray that he learned from his mistake that was the unbearable “Shrek the Third.” Maybe the blame could solely be placed on that film’s thirteen(!) credited writers compared to “Boots’” seemingly simplified four here but we shall see.

And alas, here we also get treated to more semi-autobiographical misadventures of Hunter S. Thompson courtesy of Johnny Deep in “The Rum Diary.” Last time he slipped into the warped shoes of Thompson we were treated to Terry Gilliam’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” While I still may not be able to sit through that head trip in one sitting, things look far more streamlined here thanks to writer/director Bruce Robinson. Tagging along for the ride in debauchery this time is Amber Heard, Giovanni Ribisi, Aaron Eckhart, Richard Jenkins. Having not directed a feature since 1992’s “Jennifer Eight,” I’m suspecting a lot of love to be awash over Robinson’s production.

So that about sums it up for October. Yes, not a whole lot to be excited about but definitely some tasty morsels sprinkled about to satiate our sweet tooth while we continue waiting it out for November and December when Oscar season really starts to kick it into high gear.

Photos courtesy DreamWorks, Fox 2000 Pictures, Universal Pictures, Summit Entertainment, Paramount Pictures