Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Movie Preview: April 2011

Before we're blasted into the summer movie season, here's what's headed our way first.

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

Summer’s finally right around the corner and that means lots and lots of the usual multiplex fanfare. With March coming to a close with quite the whimper, it looks like April is here to pick up the slack. Oh sure, I was quite excited for a few things in March (namely “Rango,” “Paul”) and there was even a genuine surprise, (“The Lincoln Lawyer”), but now the studios are finally suiting up and breaking out a few of their big guns.

April 1

It’s certainly no April fool’s joke that the month starts off strong. First up there’s Duncan Jones’ anticipated follow-up to his Sundance debut “Moon,” “Source Code.” Paired with a writer (Ben Ripley) who’s delved unsuccessfully in sci-fi before, and a top-notch cast (Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan and Vera Farmiga), we’ll see if this train set thriller of body swapping lives up to the expectations of early critical word of mouth.

For the kiddie set, we have “Hop” with Russell Brand lending his vocal talents to the Easter bunny who just wants to drum in a rock and roll band. With James Marsden, Kaley Cuoco and Gary Cole part of the live-action duties here’s hopping… err, hoping that director Tim Hill (“Muppets from Space,” the first “Alvin and the Chipmunks” and “Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties”) has finally learned a thing or two about the live-action/computer-animated hybrid films with a script from the writers of “Despicable Me.”

On the flip side of things, James Gunn returns to cinemas for the first time in five years with another swipe at superheroes with the appropriately titled “Super.” His last feature was the splattacular horror/comedy “Slither” and now his second outing (he is also the man behind 2000’s “The Specials”) will hopefully be better rounded that one. Featuring a plethora of cult status A-listers, Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler, Kevin Bacon, Michael Rooker, Linda Cardellini and Nathan Fillion, things are definitely looking super for “Super.”

Meanwhile, the guys behind the original “Saw,” director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell, bring us a spooky tale of parents (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne) trying to keep their comatose child safe from evil spirits in a horror tale made up of some pretty great early buzz. While the original “Saw” will always continue to be the best of the now run-into-the-ground series, their “Dead Silence” is definitely underrated and even while dabbling in PG-13 territory lets audiences remember that one of the scariest tales of haunted families is only rated PG: “Poltergeist.”

April 8

This is one busy day with three big movies opening wide here. What shall reign supreme has yet to be seen but chances are with Universal touting “From the director of “Pineapple Express” (David Gordon Green) all over their advertising, it will be close between the James Franco, Danny McBride, Natalie Portman, Zooey Deschanel starring “Your Highness” and another highly publicized remake by the name of “Arthur.” Helen Mirren, Russell Brand and Jennifer Garner lead the way to see if they can make good on the original loveable billionaire premise that Dudley Moore originated back in 1981.

And finally, the girl with the hardest name to pronounce in Hollywood, Saoirse Ronan (“The Lovely Bones”), Eric Bana, and Cate Blanchett step up for some hopefully thrilling shenanigans in “Hanna.” Ronan plays the title character who’s been raised in the wilderness by Bana, her father, to be a killing machine. Blanchett is an intelligence officer out to take them both down. Director Joe Wright is out of his safety zone here (after spearheading a string of stuffy dramas, “Pride & Prejudice,” “Atonement,” “The Soloist”), this just may be his most entertaining film yet.

April 15

Two beasts of a different color raise their heads mid-month and I couldn’t be any more excited for one of them. First up, there’s the new family-friendly Blue Sky Studios animated “Rio” featuring as a Jesse Eisenberg-voiced macaw who falls in love with the bird of his dreams, voiced by Anne Hathaway. There’s also a little film called “Soul Surfer” about a surfer (AnnaSophia Robb) returning to the open sea after losing her arm to a shark. Wait… did someone say shark? Count me in! Dennis Quaid, Craig T. Nelson, Helen Hunt, and Carrie Underwood(?!) also star.

To say that I’m a bit obsessed with the “Scream” series is a gross understatement. I even own the Ghostface action figures, so it’s no surprise that the film I’m most excited for is none other than “Scream 4.” The original trilogy cast returns (Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, David Arquette) and now Ghostface is after a whole new slew of victims to be dispatched frighteningly hilariously. While I’ve heard wishy-washy things about the production, Kevin Williamson is still credited with the screenplay and I know that the Weinstein’s have given Wes Craven extra funding to add additional material to make some of the killings pay off even greater. So fingers crossed and let’s hope I don’t have to make a trip to Hollywood donning my own Ghostface mask and pay those production-tinkering prone Weinsteins my own little visit.

April 22

The end of the month pretty much fizzles out, aside from one huge film staking its claim in the final weekend of April releases. This day sees only one wide release. Surprising in that anything else opening against it wouldn’t find any trouble finding itself at the top spot of the box office. With the faux-vampire “Twilight” “saga” finally coming to a close this year, Robert Pattinson still has yet to find any kind of footing outside of staring harassingly at Kristen Stewart, but he’s probably betting pretty highly on Francis Lawrence’s adaptation of the Sara Gruen-penned novel, “Water for Elephants.” With a screenplay from hit-or-miss Richard LaGravenese, here’s hoping Lawrence’s branching out from genre fare (“Constantine,” “I Am Legend”) can give us something with more substance than what looks like something typically out of the Nicholas Sparks canon. It sure helps that Pattinson has the assistance of Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz and the great Hal Holbrook along for this look into a traveling circus. Oh, there’s also another Tyler Perry movie opening, “Madea’s Big Happy Family.”

April 29

So alas, in the end, comes the fifth entry of the most ridiculously entertaining, big dumb action series (with its most ludicrous title yet, no less). That’s right, just when you thought the series couldn’t get any more outrageous, “Fast Five” finally throws “The Rock” (Dwayne Johnson himself) behind the wheel to take down returning cast members Paul Walker, Vin Diesel, Jordana Brewster and Tyrese Gibson as they try their hand at another big heist. Director Justin Lin goes huge with this entry as the “Fast and Furious” series finally hits IMAX; I’m all in on this one.

Meanwhile, Disney tries to fill in the space left behind now that their “High School Musical” kids have graduated. Joe Nussbaum directs, but just because he made the great “George Lucas in Love,” doesn’t mean we can forgive him for “Sleepover” and “American Pie Presents The Naked Mile.” Even if “Sydney White” shows signs of him headed in the right direction, directing a cast of virtual unknowns and featuring one of the world’s most uninteresting trailers sure doesn’t help his case so we shall just have to see.

Also, The Weinstein Company inexplicably is going to try to capitalize on a sequel to an original no one saw with “Hoodwinked Too! Hood VS. Evil.” I’d give director Mike Disa the benefit of the doubt if it just didn’t all look like more of the same and not in a good way. Even if he’s contributed to good films in the past. Last time I tried this route we wound up with Kelly Asbury’s beyond abysmally awful “Gnomeo & Juliet,” so there ya go.

With May gearing up to stomp 2011’s first quarter into oblivion, I’ll be sure to keep everyone posted throughout April to find out which of these is worth their time. Even if most moviegoers will see nearly all of them whether they deserve your hard-earned cash or not, but I digress…so sit back and let April soak in before the onslaught of awesome begins starting with the mighty hammer itself on May 6!

Photos courtesy Dimension Films, Universal Pictures, and Twentieth Century Fox

Monday, March 28, 2011

Movie Review: “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules”

Just because I'm not the target audience doesn't mean they deserve this.

** out of 5
Rated PG for some mild rude humor and mischief.
96 minutes
Twentieth Century Fox

Article first published as Movie Review: Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules on Blogcritics.

Sometimes my wife can spot when I’ve had it with a particularly bad film based on how long before I take off my glasses. Most bad movies make it as far as the half-way mark (“Battle: Los Angeles”), some as soon as 15 minutes (“The Back-up Plan”), and occasionally sooner (“Furry Vengeance,” “Little Fockers”). However, once in a while intuition gets the better of me and I know that it’s not worth the trouble of even putting them on. This week’s offender happens to be the totally unnecessary cash-in/sequel – “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules.”

I felt the same way for 96 minutes.

The first film didn’t have a whole lot going on behind the camera and the same can be said again here. The saddest part of director David Bowers live-action debut, is that most of his past work in the animation field have been pretty good choices – “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?,” “Count Duckula,” “An American Tail: Fievel Goes West,” “Danger Mouse,” “Ferngully: The Original Avatar,” “We’re Back: A Dinosaur’s Story” and “Balto.” It seems to be that once he switched gears from working under the tutelage of Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg to be taken under the wing of DreamWorks, things went awry (“Flushed Away” being the exception). But in all honesty, his worst offenders have been his two most recent – “Astro Boy” and now this.

In “Rodrick Rules,”Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon, one of the most annoying child actors right now) is entering a new school year and thinks that not being the new kid in a new school, as he was last year, he just may finally have a sweet ride ahead of him including setting his sights on new girl Holly Hills (Peyton List). That is, if older brother Rodrick (Devon Bostick), his hypocritically-understanding parents Frank and Susan (Steve Zahn and Rachael Harris), and all of his schoolmates don’t try their darnedest to get in his way.

In true sequel fashion, and to ensure maximum continuity, Patty (Laine MacNeil), Fregley (Grayson Russell), Chirag (Karan Brar) and Rowley (Robert Capron) – his now best friend whom he apparently didn’t see once the entire summer according to one line of dialogue – have returned. Unfortunately for us, Chloë Grace Moretz was bright enough to move on to far bigger and better things.

Director Bowers does bring a far more visual style to this entry of what will probably be an ongoing series of films (the original unfortunately made five times its budget worldwide). But he also thinks that three poop jokes in a row are okay if you have a character comment on it. Just because Patty says, “Only an idiot would find humor in bird poop,” doesn’t make the so-called jokes beforehand excusable. That is unless maybe, by the end of the shoot, Bowers had mentally checked out as much as you will have by this point, and he was trying to make a statement. But that may be giving him too much credit.

Be sure to pay close attention to poor Steve Zahn’s every facial expression, as he seems to be the only actor who knows he’s trapped in a tried and true paycheck movie. I can only imagine what celebrity mortgage payments must be like to have taken on this project.

When Rodrick takes Greg out for a big night on the town, so to speak, all they do is hit up a convenience store where they eat hot dogs, get brain freezes and laugh behind a hedge. Big dreamers here, right? Speaking of which, this just brings to mind the fact that for a film about a teen with such dreams of grandeur, everyone from Bowers to the writers (Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah) are all on autopilot assuming that the target demographic will laugh at anything. Just so long as there’s wacky music playing in the background.

And if they thought they were being clever by never making a big deal out of Rodrick’s band’s name, Loded Diper, they sure do drive it into the ground when they play their big song for the local talent show. So alas, when Greg and Rowley bounce around the back of Rodrick’s seatless van and Rowley winds up sitting on Greg’s face, you can’t help but feel that the filmmakers are doing the same thing to you.

Photos courtesy Twentieth Century Fox

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Movie Review: "The Lincoln Lawyer"

"Well alright," Matthew McConaughey finally makes a great movie.

**** ½ out of 5
Rated R for some violence, sexual content and language.
119 minutes

Article first published as Movie Review: The Lincoln Lawyer on Blogcritics.

To reiterate some facts from my past review of “Conviction,” I will always remember wanting to be a lawyer more than anything for years growing up. It all started of course with reading John Grisham. Throughout junior high I was obsessed with his novels. Probably heavier reading than for most kids that age, but at least the profession was easier to achieve than anything floating around the other authors I was reading (Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy). Having never read a Michael Connelly novel, the film adaptation of his “The Lincoln Lawyer” just may make me sway his way.

I continued reading these types of books and still enjoy a healthy dose of Paul Levine, Tami Hoag, or even a nice procedural in the case of Thomas Harris or John Sandford here or there. Not to mention how much I love Kenzie/Gennaro series by Dennis Lehane. However, obviously as I sit here and write a review for another movie, boyhood dreams clearly did not pan out. Thankfully in the case of Michael Connelly, now maybe Hollywood will realize they can get adaptations of his novels correct. After the complete misfire that was Clint Eastwood’s “Blood Work” way back in 2002, “The Lincoln Lawyer” shines a light of hope.

In his sophomore outing, after a direct-to-video debut (“The Take”), director Brad Furman brings a sometimes hilarious, while most of the time quite intense courtroom drama/tale of redemption to the big screen in a big way. While writer John Romano’s last feature was the dismal Nicholas Sparks' weepie “Nights in Rodanthe,” he reclaims himself beyond words with his adaptation of “The Lincoln Lawyer.” And just when you thought that Matthew McConaughey had completely devolved himself into another celebrity punchline, everyone brings their A-game and knocks all expectations out of the park.

In “The Lincoln Lawyer,” McConaughey portrays Mick Haller, a slightly sleazy, but ultra-slick lawyer who drives around from client to client with the help of his trusty driver, Earl (Laurence Mason). One morning he’s called in to the tank by bondsman Val Valenzuela (John Leguizamo, “The Take”) to meet with Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe) who’s just been slapped in the slammer for beating a prostitute to a pulp. Of course Louis swears he didn’t do it, but with the aid of his trusty investigator Frank Levin (William H. Macy), his ex-wife/fellow lawyer Maggie (Marisa Tomei), and a few similarities to a prior case involving a previous client, Jesus Martinez (Michael Peña), sentenced to life in San Quentin, Mick starts to fit the pieces together and gets caught up in a fight for his own life outside the courtroom.

Between his portrayal of Mick here and his appearance in Ben Stiller’s “Tropic Thunder,” McConaughey is finally making us remember why he rose to stardom in the first place (coincidentally along with another fellow costar in said film). Having not played a character like this since “A Time to Kill” and “Amistad,” it’s a return to his roots and he gives a revelatory performance finally making his name worthwhile on a poster again. Even Josh Lucas playing a prosecuting attorney (while making every scene seem like they were filmed with a mirror as he and McConaughey look way too similar) comes out a winner even if Ryan Phillippe still plays the same character he does in every film.

So while in my March preview I may have shrugged off “The Lincoln Lawyer” as “a movie you’ve never heard of,” here’s a film that plays more like Oscar fodder and seems out of place in the midst of a March releases. While we’ll have to see how long it remains in our minds as the year rolls on, and let’s not forget we’re only three months into 2011 so far, this is definitely one of the best films of the year thus far.

Photos courtesy Lionsgate

Movie Review: "Paul"

Third time's the charm and Paul is here to pick up the slack after those other two alien disasters.

***** out of 5
Rated R for language including sexual references, and some drug use.
104 minutes
Universal Pictures

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

Walking into some films you can’t help but question yourself on how you could possibly be objective when you already feel that the folks behind and in front of the camera can do no wrong. Case in point this week happens to be the new film from spoof/homage masters Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Bringing a new director in tow with Greg Mottola and letting Frost finally share co-writing duties doesn’t keep this from not being a surrogate addition to the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy or the Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy as it’s been called here in the States. Even with Edgar Wright having nothing to do with this, there’s something far too familiar with “Paul” to set it apart, I’m thinking the inclusion of producer Nira Park certainly helps though.

First it was zombies (“Shaun of the Dead”), then for the greater good it was Michael Bay (“Hot Fuzz”) and soon enough they’ll be tackling the end of the world (the aptly titled “The World’s End”). They say write what you know and it’s extremely clear that what these two (Pegg and Frost) know, is movies and comedy. Pegg and Wright have mentioned they’re wanting to make Frost a larger part of the writing process on “World’s End” and if its any indication from the likes of “Paul” then I can’t help but feel that somewhere along the way he already has been, even if uncredited. Now having taken on the genre of sci-fi, or even more exact – Steven Spielberg films in particular – it’s pretty clear that these guys know how to write a spoof and have been giving the finger to team Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg since 2004.

In “Paul” we are introduced to a wide eyed little girl having herself a close encounter in Moorcroft, WY circa 1947 ending with her film-titled dog being squished by a crashing UFO. Cut to the present day where we meet Graeme Willy (Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Frost) freshly arriving at Comic Con. They meet their favorite science-fiction writer, Adam Shadowchild (Jeffrey Tambor) where Clive tries to show off his own sci-fi story featuring a three titted alien on the cover (“awesome,” as everyone who sees continually repeats).

Moving on, the duo hit the road where they have mapped out their travels seeking out all things extraterrestrial ranging from the Vasquez Rocks in California to Nevada State Route 375 with a stop off at the black mailbox. It’s not too long before their backing into a couple of hillbillies’ (David Koechner and Jesse Plemons) truck and meeting up with our title character, a little green man named “Paul” (perfectly and hilariously voiced and motion captured by Seth Rogen) and eventually Ruth Buggs (Kristen Wiig) whom they accidentally kidnap from her Utah fundamentalist father Moses (John Carrol Lynch).

Turns out Paul is on the lam from The Big Guy (Sigourney Weaver) and soon enough everyone from a pair of bored, bumbling, hide and seek playing FBI agents, Haggard and and O’Reilly (Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio) to an in touch with his inner badass Jason Bateman as Agent Zoil. All Paul wants to do is go home but The Big Guy wants his brain for study even if it’s at his health’s expense (even while Paul comes off as a bit of a chainsmoker) and turns out that Paul first thought he wasn’t the prisoner it turns out he really was. We also learn he’s had quite an affect on pop culture from flashbacks and conversations along the way.

While “Paul” may have originally seemed simple enough on paper, it’s actually got far more plot than you’d ever expect; let alone way more characterization and heart to go alongside all the one-liners and fart and dick jokes. While some people are stuck playing one-note versions of their arrested development oversized id’s (pretty much anyone involved with Happy Madison Productions), Frost and Pegg are quickly immortalizing the fact that even when you’ve finally reached an age such as 40, it’s ok to still love your comics and take a bro-mantic holiday through the back roads of America.

To give away any of the big jokes would be a complete disservice as the film is on a constant crescendo with each one pretty much topping the last Meanwhile, the cast is pitch perfect and Mottola shows that David Gordon Green isn’t the only one graduating from smaller scale films like “Superbad” and “Adventureland” as Green is with “Pineapple Express” and his upcoming “Your Highness.” Working with so many people you’re already comfortable with can’t hurt things either. Most of the cast and crew have worked together almost their entire careers in one way or another. So listen up non-believers, “Paul” is probably the sci-fi extravaganza we’ve all been waiting for, now have Scottie beam you up and buckle in for the most hilarious ride of the spring.

Photos courtesy Universal Pictures

Friday, March 11, 2011

Movie Review: "Battle: Los Angeles"

It's battle of the alien flicks this weekend where ultimately it's audiences who lose either way.

** ½ out of 5
Rated PG-13 for sustained and intense sequences of war violence and destruction, and for language.
116 minutes
Columbia Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: Battle: Los Angeles on Blogcritics.

Just when you thought March wasn’t already overstuffed with three, count ‘em, three alien films, sadly we have to wait until the end of the month for the good one. Although to be fair, there’s at least an hours worth of good accounted for here. While fairing half better than this week’s other entry, the way more family oriented but decidedly worse and just as boring “Mars Needs Moms,” we have to hold out until next Friday when we finally get the film worthy of our attention with “Paul.” So alas, here we are with Earth duking it out Michael Bay style in “Battle: Los Angeles.”

Director Jonathan Liebesman has come a long way from his first foray into motion picture filmmaking. His debut film, “Darkness Falls,” was an intrepid mess from start to finish. His follow-up to that dreck happened to be a sequel that was an even bigger mess than the original remake – “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning.” Liebesman seems to have decided that instead of coming up with his own style of filming, he’s continuing his trend of zoom-in zoom-out shaky cam madness (courtesy of cinematographer Lukas Ettlin) and Michael Bay inspired editing to cover up his own directorial flaws. Granted, the screenplay from sophomore scribe Christopher Bertolini doesn’t help in any of this either.

In “Battle: Los Angeles” we find a laundry list of soldiers all surrounding Camp Pendleton in California. The main focus is on Staff Sgt. Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) who appears to be retiring from duty to be a boot camp drill sergeant. Meanwhile there are literally title cards introducing every single other character in the outfit as if Liebesman and Bertolini think the audience is too stupid to follow along. Note: when you start off with that many characters to begin with, why bother with introductions at all when we already know that most of them are going to be killed off very soon anyway?

Pressing forward, “meteors” have been crash landing along the coasts of eight major world cities and eventually figures who look like a cross between the aliens from “Independence Day” and the pods from Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” break out their “District 9”-leftover special effects weapons of mass destruction to destroy the human race in order to gain control of Earth’s water. Now Nantz and his platoon of merry men are stuck on the streets holing themselves up in defense of attack after attack… after attack… Yes, the film is nonstop “action” and special effects “wizardry” ad nauseam. It’s all very exhausting and headache inducing and I’m saying this about a film that was tailor made for my tastes.

The film ultimately stops dead in its tracks at one point. Everyone gets bunkered just long enough for Nantz and local veterinarian/civilian Michelle (Bridget Moynahan) to crack open one of the aliens to figure out how to kill them meanwhile the action must not stop for even that as their hideout is penetrated by said aliens and only rocket launchers down the hallway can fend them off. It’s also around this point when the film starts to feel way too much like the sci-fi edition of “Lord of the Rings” where we’re treated to an endless barrage of false endings. Just when you think the film is over, and believe me, it feels like you’ve already sat through an entire film by this point, there’s still 40 minutes to go.

Speaking of false endings, there’s lots of talk about bombs being dropped with the almighty countdown scenario in tow that obviously never comes. And we all know that when a helicopter takes off chock full of supporting characters with no more room for even the children Nantz has picked up along the way, we know what’s coming. BOOM! Yup, you guessed it, another explosion. It almost feels like the production was coming in under budget and they literally just started placing as many objects in front of the camera to blow up as they could find.

While “Battle: Los Angeles” starts out as mindless fun, in the end it completely fails to be as epic as it thinks it is and quickly takes a huge swan dive into dumb by taking itself so seriously. While all those things can be great when they gel together (of course I’m speaking of big dumb fun here), it never happens. All we get is one of the loudest and busiest alien invasion films in years and not in a good way. It even so much as sets itself up for a sequel in the final scene instead of playing open ended. So now, which of the big tent pole alien films deserve your attention this weekend? Neither. It’s all just another case of pick your poison.

Photos courtesy Columbia Pictures

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Movie Review: "Mars Needs Moms"

Mars may need moms, but we sure didn't need this boring movie about it.

** out of 5
Rated PG for sci-fi action and peril.
88 minutes
Walt Disney Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: Mars Needs Moms on Blogcritics.

Sometimes it feels like it’s another weekend, another family flick. Well in this case it happens to be too true. Unfortunately, this weekend’s family feature comes from the same production house as the dreadful “Polar Express,” “Beowulf” and “Disney's A Christmas Carol.” With only one great movie under their belt (“Monster House”), it’s high time for ImageMovers to move along now, there’s still nothing to see here folks for as much as “Mars Needs Moms,” we don’t need this film.

It must be tough coming up with the next great idea when it comes to family features. But then again, Pixar has been hitting them out of the park with only one true floater (“Cars”) out of eleven feature length films. While I’m still trying to give this summer’s “Cars 2” the benefit of the doubt, all of its advertising is making me think it’s going to be a sad year for Disney and its 2011 brand of so-called “entertainment.” After “Mars Needs Moms” and “Gnomeo and Juliet” (released under their Touchstone Pictures banner against every ounce of John Lasseter’s being and for good reason) and maybe even “Cars 2,” it’s just furthering proof that this will be the year for Paramount Pictures to grab the coveted gold-plated naked man next year for their brilliant “Rango,” or maybe even “Kung Fu Panda 2?” Meanwhile, we’ll just have to bide our time until 2012 finally brings us Pixar’s return to form with “Monsters, Inc. 2.”

In “Mars Needs Moms,” we find out that Mars has been watching us from deep within their underground lairs. (Why Mars’ aliens are not adapted to their own planet’s atmosphere is never explained which is just one of way too many plot holes to bother with.) Every 25 years new batches of “hatchlings” are born and their nanny bots need a software update. This go around they’ve aimed their tractor beams on Mom (voiced by Joan Cusack), mother of Milo (motion captured and acted by Seth Green while voiced by Seth Robert Dusky).

Accidentally stowing away on the ship ride back to Mars, now Milo has to find his mom before her memories are erased and she’s obliterated to a swirling dust cloud just like Gribble’s (voiced by Dan Fogler) mom was 25 years earlier right before his very eyes. Along with the help of a ‘60s hippy speaking resident alien Ki (voiced by Elisabeth Harnois) and her Kim Kardashian rear end/equestrian-love-child good looks must save Mom and give the evil Supervisor (voiced by Mindy Sterling) a serious attitude adjustment.

The biggest problem with “Mars Needs Moms” is that it’s so. damn. boring! While seeming to be tailored made as a big action adventure for twelve year old boys who need it pounded into their heads that they must love their moms, it’s not very subtle about its message. Every five minutes it seems like Milo is on another diatribe about why everyone needs a mom (at the beginning of the film all Milo wants is his Dad (voiced by Tom Everett Scott) who is also super creepy as a motion capture creation by the way) to come home from a business trip to take him to a movie. Meanwhile he’s refusing to eat his broccoli, jumping on his bed instead of going to sleep and telling his Mom that he’d be better off if he didn’t have a mom. See what I mean?

And let’s not even begin on how creepy these motion capture humans are getting. While the technology seems to be getting better with each film, it’s getting further and further behind when it comes to replicating people. It’s an animated film to begin with, why can’t the human characters be computer animated as well. Pixar and DreamWorks fully understand this concept; it’s beyond me why producer Robert Zemeckis can’t get the hint. When every character looks like the offspring of Gollum, they’re never going to score empathy in their plights. Surprisingly, the least intrusive aspect of the whole production is the 3-D. If you’re going to bother purchasing a ticket (even if you should be going to see “Rango” either again or for the first time) the price just may be worth paying for a matinee IMAX 3D presentation. It’s far better than the waste of money that is both RealD 3D and the worst offender, Dolby 3D.

No matter how you look at it, director Simon Wells (who brought us the far superior films “An American Tail: Fievel Goes West,” “We’re Back: A Dinosaur’s Story,” “Balto” and even “The Prince of Egypt”) should have just simply gone all out and made this a live action feature film. But then again, maybe it’s Zemeckis’ inherent sense of putting children in peril every fifteen minutes that would have fared even scarier in live action that held back that chance. Either way you look at it, it’s another day another dollar for the Mouse House and while this film does not deserve to be seen, we all know you’re all going to waste your time and money on it anyhow. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Photos courtesy Walt Disney Pictures

Friday, March 4, 2011

Movie Review: "Rango"

Don't be surprised to see this heaping helping of awesome take Best Animated Feature at next year's Oscars.

***** out of 5
Rated PG for rude humor, language, action and smoking.
107 minutes
Paramount Pictures

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

Just when we all thought Pixar and DreamWorks had the computer animated family genre all wrapped in a nice little bow comes Paramount. Oh sure, we all know Paramount is the U.S. distributor for good ol’ DreamWorks, but who knew their real money was secretly being invested in a Nickelodeon Movies feature? On a crash course to being one of the best films of the year comes this weekend’s truly inspired “Rango.”

Director Gore Verbinski and writer John Logan are not known for family-oriented films. But they are both known for action. With Verbinski behind the camera for the original “Pirates of the Caribbean” trilogy, you forget that he was also the man behind three other hilarious films – “Mousehunt,” “The Mexican,” and “The Weather Man.” Let’s not forget this is also the same man who outdid the original “Ringu” with his remake of “The Ring.”

Logan has had his hand in some great films of his own since the end of the '90s, ranging from “Any Given Sunday,” “Gladiator,” “The Last Samurai,” and “The Aviator” to “Sweeney Todd,” but he also gave us some lesser efforts in “The Time Machine” (2002) and a surprisingly bland even-numbered entry to the “Star Trek” enterprise. Together with Verbinski and star Johnny Depp, he has brought us an incredibly inspired spaghetti western just when we thought that Quentin Tarantino had shown us how great it could be done.

In “Rango” we are immediately introduced to the film’s Greek chorus of owls. They tell us about a lizard who is going to die, a daydreaming chameleon named Lars (voiced by Depp). As a scaly (and scaled down) version of Andy from the “Toy Story” films, he sure has dreams of grandeur and plays out a swashbuckling hero tale in what turns out to be his container full of rocks and a water hole for drinking. Faster than you can say “ironic unexpected conflict,” a traffic situation winds up with Lars’ tank crash-landing in the desert where the sun is so hot it molts him twice. The cause of the accident happens to be a run-down armadillo named Roadkill (voiced by Alfred Molina) who in his dying breath discusses with Lars eventually meeting him again “on the other side” of the road.

Walking into the desert in search of food, water, shelter, anything, Lars has immediate run-ins with a hawk out for blood and Beans (voiced by Isla Fisher) who has a defense mechanism that tends to pop up whenever she gets overexcited. Lars hitches a ride to the town of Dirt. Here we find out that the town is drying up and the bank only has six more days of water while Beans is discussing finances with Mr. Merrimack (voiced by Stephen Root).

Meanwhile, Lars has taken up at the local saloon where they only have cactus water (i.e. alcohol) on hand and he realizes he can be anyone he wants in this town where nobody knows his name. Lars decides to become “Rango,” a man of action who happens to have killed a posse of seven brothers with one bullet. We also find out that the Mayor (voiced by Ned Beatty, a dead ringer for James Coburn) is controlling the water supply and may have something fishy up his sleeve.

The Mayor deems Rango the new town sheriff after he accidentally kills the hawk with one bullet just like his original tall tale, to give the townsfolk something to believe in. Even if little Priscilla (Abigail Breslin) just wants dibs on his shoes or any gold fillings when trouble finally comes a-calling. Things quickly switch gears into mindboggling action set pieces after the local bank gets robbed thanks to Rango’s naïveté and he wrangles up a posse of his own to wander out into the desert in search of the water thieves and Rango’s “brother” Rattlesnake Jake (voiced by Bill Nighy) gets called in by the Mayor to keep his own brand of order in place.

As I said, the spaghetti western has been reborn. Verbinski and Logan very well may have finally given us the best western, action adventure, family entertainment that would make Sergio Leone proud. Be on the lookout for a cameo related to a previous Depp film. There’s also a great nod by composer Hans Zimmer to Carter Burwell’s “Raising Arizona” score for when things get good and wacky let alone treating us to the first great throwback to the days of Ennio Morricone.

Finally, thankfully this was not converted into the third dimension to allow us to see just how jaw dropping the visuals truly are. With Industrial Light & Magic helping things out it’s no wonder that everything looks so photo realistic save for Rango’s meeting with the Spirit of the West (aka The Man with No Name, brilliantly voiced by Timothy Olyphant). Humans have never been computer imageries number one fan.

There are some few instances with Rattlesnake Jake that may frighten the wee ones and the action gets pretty intense in a few sequences earning the film its PG rating, but the action is handled so deftly you always know what’s going on and Verbinski even manages to throw in spectacular jokes amidst the mayhem. Congratulations to everyone, Rango brings us the first great film of 2011 and a top contender for next year’s Animated Feature Oscar has arrived.

Photos courtesy Paramount Pictures

Movie Review: "Cedar Rapids"

Take a trip with these knuckleheads in a film that deserves its own two bags of peanuts.

**** ½ out of 5
Rated R for crude and sexual content, language and drug use.
86 minutes
Fox Searchlight

Article first published as Movie Review: Cedar Rapids on Blogcritics.

One of the more fun aspects of missing something during the Sundance Film Festival is catching a film when it finally hits theaters. While obviously not everything gets snatched up for a theatrical release, Fox Searchlight sure has a way of picking some great ones. With five films picked up at this year’s festival, here is the first for the year and the third (after “Chuck & Buck” and “The Good Girl”) to receive distribution for director Miguel Arteta. And who knew insurance could be so much fun as “Cedar Rapids” wholeheartedly proves.

Arteta is definitely making a name for himself in the big world of comedy. Whether it’s his already mentioned theatrical releases (also including his criminally underseen “Youth in Revolt”) or on TV (“Six Feet Under,” “The Office”), he’s slowly becoming a force to be reckoned with. The same thing could be said for John C. Reilly who’s really found a niche for bringing his degenerates with a heart of gold and shoving them in your face until you’re ready to cry from laughing so hard. Thanks also goes out to first time scribe Phil Johnston for bringing everyone one of the best black comedy scripts in years.

Tim Lippe (Helms) works hard and truthfully for Brown Star Insurance in Brown Valley, Wisconsin. He lives a simple life where he thinks he’s in love because he’s “making love” (as he continually calls it when he’s not telling her “I’ll dream of you in my heart”) to his former junior high teacher, Mrs. Vanderhei (Sigourney Weaver)… err, Macy and gives her a pre-engagement ring much to her chagrin. After his co-worker Peter (Thomas Lennon) asphyxiates himself and people start talking about him being some kind of deviant, their boss Bill Krogstad (Stephen Root) decides to send Tim to Cedar Rapids for the annual insurance convention seeking out the coveted Two Diamond Award which Peter has won two years running.

Having never been outside of Brown Valley before, he checks his small town worldview of naïveté in his bag (he’s literally terrified of credit card imprints used for room incidentals and boasts a fanny pack hiding his insured traveler’s checks) where he meets his first African-American, Ronald “Ronimal” Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) who uses way too many acronyms and the one man he was sworn by Krogstad to avoid, Dean “Deansie” Ziegler (Reilly). Along the way he also finds his way through Bree (“Arrested Development’s” Alia Shawkat) playing a drug swindling prostitute loitering around the hotel and Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche) who just might be the key to opening up little Lippe’s eyes to the big bad world that lies outside his comfort zone.

Here’s hoping that for every awful movie to come about from the Hollywood Blacklist (“Cop Out”) comes a movie like “Cedar Rapids.” With spitfire hilariously quotable dialogue to sure-handed comedic direction and a cast that knows how to take their characters to the next level while staying believable (even if Reilly seems to be warming up for “Step Brothers 2”), it’ll be hard to find another comedy anytime soon that keeps the laughs coming from beginning to end. And at a scant 86 minutes, you couldn’t ask for a more wham bam thank you ma’am good time.

Photos courtesy Fox Searchlight

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Movie Review: "The Adjustment Bureau"

Damon and Blunt give us a romantic subplot worth rooting for in this fantastic Philip K. Dick adaptation.

**** ½ out of 5
Rated PG-13 for brief strong language, some sexuality and a violent image.
104 minutes
Universal Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: The Adjustment Bureau on Blogcritics.

Expanding a short story has to be tricky work. Broaden things too much and you lose what made the original so great. Add the wrong things and the entire production could go awry. While it worked to love it or hate it status with Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” now we’ve got something far more mainstream but still highly intelligent with Philip K. Dick’s “The Adjustment Bureau.”

After getting a few notches on his belt by writing or co-writing some higher profile films (“Timeline,” “Ocean’s Twelve,” “The Bourne Ultimatum,” and even “The Sentinel”) George Nolfi's first outing behind the camera is a doozey. Bringing on the man he’s worked with twice before probably doesn’t hurt either. Star Matt Damon was also in his “Ocean’s” and “Bourne” entries. Teaming Damon up with Emily Blunt is also a thing of beauty. Here are two actors who can really act yet also bring a whopping amount of sincerity to their characters’ plight.

In the film, David Norris (Damon) is running for New York Senator. Featured on everything from “The Daily Show” to the cover of “GQ,” it looks like a sure-fire win. However, all hope is suddenly lost after a scandalous mooning incident and Norris takes to a restroom to practice his losing speech. When Elise (Blunt) sneaks out of what David thought were empty stalls they are both instantly smitten. David can’t help but feel a strong case of déjà vu and they kiss before being interrupted by David’s right-hand man Charlie (Michael Kelly). After Elise inspires an off the cuff and heartfelt speech instead of what Charlie wrote for him, David thinks he’ll never see Elise again.

However, he runs into her on a bus that he’s not supposed to catch thanks to his watcher, Harry (Anthony Mackie), sleeping through what was supposed to be a coffee spill causing him to miss the bus. Now the "Adjustment Bureau" has to correct David and Elise’s paths splitting them up once again but not before Elise can give him her number. Walking in on the "Intervention Team" having a once over on Charlie in his office before a big meeting, David’s taken hostage and into what looks like an abandoned warehouse where it’s explained to him that he is not to expose his peak behind this wall that he’s not even supposed to know exists and that he must never see Elise again or the Bureau will erase his brain and everyone will think he’s gone crazy.

Cut to three years later and David is running for Senate again when he finally runs into Elise, once more riding the same bus every day to work for those three years. Thinking that the two running into each other is far greater than mere chance--and despite what the Bureau may have to say about it--David takes this opportunity to try to win back Elise, making up a story about being mugged and losing her number. Coming out of anyone else’s mouth there’s no way you’d buy that story but like I said, with Damon in charge and with Blunt by his side, suspension of disbelief is far easier to buy than usual. To say anymore about the plot would be ludicrous and ruin the fun.

Speaking of which, this film is just that: a lot of fun. If you thought “Inception” was a great head trip you're going to enjoy this film too. Here we get the same sense of awe and wonder but on a slightly smaller, yet far more realistic, level. This movie is guaranteed to send paranoia into a fever pitch. Here is a film that could easily be dismissed as an “Inception” sequel but it’s working on its own level. Decide for yourself about its religious themes, at least it never takes itself too seriously and gives us two actors with some true chemistry.

Director Nolfi has apparently picked up some great tricks of the trade after working alongside the likes of Richard Donner, Steven Soderbergh, and Paul Greengrass. The man can film a great action scene, even if it consists of Damon simply running through the streets. The cinematography from John Toll and the score by Thomas Newman are both top notch as well. Thinking about it now, the last time I loved so much about one movie happened to be “Inception” last year. It doesn’t seem like much of a coincidence anymore that this was bumped from last summer’s slate and moved to this spring instead — it has the thrills of a summer blockbuster, but also has the intelligence and soulfulness usually only afforded to a film released just in time for Oscar season. With both of these aspects melding beautifully, it looks like Universal Pictures has found the perfect spot for something like this; here’s the first great film of 2011.

Photos courtesy Universal Pictures