Friday, April 29, 2011

Movie Review: "Prom"

Skipping this “Prom” is like the best idea ever!

* out of 5
Rated PG for mild language and a brief fight.
103 minutes
Walt Disney Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: Prom on Blogcritics.

I will always remember… going to my own prom with one of my good friends. She asked me because I had originally asked her to go to another dance and she already had plans (not to go). So alas, there we were at the Little America drinking water, punch, or whatever it was, but the funny thing is, the one thing I remember most was dancing with one of my best guy friends, Matt Mabey. It’s funny, the things you really remember, isn’t it? Maybe it’s because the two of us have been friends since elementary school but who knows. All I know today is that after this weekend’s opening of the new Disney film “Prom,” there won’t even be one lasting memory from anyone unfortunate enough to suffer through it.

I’ve mentioned several times in past reviews that taking my glasses off while sitting through a film is the one way my wife can tell I have had it with a particular film. “Prom” managed to make it to the 35-minute mark but that was surely pushing it. Another way I can tell whether I’m thoroughly enjoying or absolutely loathing what’s happening onscreen is whether I take any notes. Sometimes I'll write an entire review in what looks like a manifest of complaints. Granted, I may not be the target audience for a film like “Prom,” but if this is what today’s generation of pre-graduates considers their benchmark then I just can’t help but feel sorry for what they’re being spoon-fed by Hollywood.

“Prom” apparently wants to be the “ Valentine’s Day” of the season. However, that may be giving the film more credit than it deserves. “Prom” follows along a huge group of teenagers as they all fall into the traps of trials, tribulations, and ultimately, clichés, as they get ready for prom.

Brookside High School is no different than any other; you could take a checklist from any John Hughes film, or any high school film at that, and find everyone rightly in place. From overachiever Nova Prescott (Aimee Teegarden) to bad boy Jesse Richter (Thomas McDonell), wannabe lacrosse jock Lucas (Nolan Sotillo) to star lacrosse varsity jock Tyler (DeVaughn Nixon). There’s also the “Say Anything” Lloyd rip-off (Nicholas Braun), but this guy is no Dobler, that’s for sure.

The film tries to keep track of at least fifteen characters, none of whom have a real character arc; you can see their comeuppances foreshadowed the minute they’re introduced. It’s literally as if a cast of transparency sheets were thrown in front of the camera. Meanwhile, director Joe Nussbaum and writer Katie Wech (making one of the least charismatic screenwriting debuts in a long time) keep throwing around the question, “Prom?” to which the audience may simply wind up shrugging their own shoulders thinking the same thing.

Everything comes across this lackluster. It’s like watching a bad TV sitcom filmed with a laugh track in mind that someone forgot to throw in during post-production. None of the songs from the soundtrack fit either. Why would any self-respecting DJ play Taio Cruz’s “Break Your Heart?” The whole film is this misguided. It all feels so flat and thrown together that you’d think you’re watching a work print. There’s rarely any kind of background noise as if Nussbaum thought filming the scenes au naturel is a good idea for a film like this. There’s rarely even any kind of original score. Instead, anytime something even close to resembling a character moment has just another melancholy soundtrack offering that never fits the mood of what’s happening onscreen. And this happens on a regular basis. Just about every five minutes a new “twist” happens and you wish Scooby were sitting next to you to yelp out “ruh-roh.” Except that would actually be funny, unlike anything that happens here.

Finally, as much as people may have complained about some of the characters in “Scream 4,” in the opening scene featuring Aimee Teegarden playing Jenny, she converses with her friend Marnie (Brittany Robertson) – Marnie: “…if the beginning of “Stab 7” is “Stab 6,” then is the beginning of “Stab 6” “Stab 5,” and if so, what is “Stab 4” about?” Jenny: “You’re overthinking it.” Marnie: “Am I? Or did whoever make it just underthink it?”

What I think? How about we make the end of “Prom” the beginning of “Scream 4” because let’s face it, these characters are so cloying that you sit wishing Ghost Face would make an appearance and stab someone just to shut them all up.

Photos courtesy Walt Disney Pictures

Movie Review: "Fast Five"

Buckle up and hang on to your butts, this season’s off to a grand start.

**** ½ out of 5
PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, sexual content and language.
130 minutes
Universal Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: Fast Five on Blogcritics.

I have to admit up front, for better and worse I love big, dumb, fun, action movies. While the granddaddy of them all will probably forever be “Torque,” there’s always room for something new. So long as there are lots of car crashes, outlandish stunts, and loads of unintentional humor, I’m always game. This weeks’ entry into the canon that cannot be stopped comes from a long line of successors in excess – “Fast Five.”

Having now directed the last three “Fast and…” um, “Fast &...” err… films in the series; Justin Lin has really shown signs of figuring out how to piece together a spectacular action sequence. While the cast may look like they’re having a lot of fun, some of that is taken away by screenwriter Chris Morgan’s dialogue, who happens to be getting to spend his own time in the spotlight this week.

Okay, so that isn’t really the same guy responsible for bringing us some hilariously bad and even some surprisingly good screenplays at the turn of a dime. But “Wanted” was a total blast, “Cellular” was the best movie Paul Walker never made, and “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” had its moments even without a single original cast member. Weirdly, “Fast & Furious” was the first attempt to bring back the whole crew yet seemed stuck in idle way too often. In “Fast Five,” Lin and Morgan reteam for what ultimately plays out like the series’ greatest hits collection.

“Fast Five” starts immediately where the end of “Fast & Furious” cuts to credits. Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) has been sentenced to Lompoc Prison but is rescued by Brian O’Conner (Walker) and Dom’s sister Mia (Jordana Brewster). The resulting bus crash even being poked fun at that there was not one tragedy. Now the three are on the run in Brazil and have decided to go on a job with Vince (Matt Schulze, returning for the first time since the original). At least this film has no singing birds and is thankfully not in 3-D.

This time they’re stealing some high end cars off a moving train. Faster than you can say, “vroom,” double crosses rear their heads, Vince goes missing, and now the trio must find out why Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida) wants one of the cars so badly. Turns out there’s a chip with all of Reyes’ drug trafficking stops on it and now the merry band of misfits want to clear their names, after Reyes’ men killed DEA agents back on the train, in exchange for his chip back.

They also find time to bring back cast members from all four of the last films including Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Ludacris), Han (Sung Kang), and Gisele (Gal Gadot). But now they’re being tracked down by the FBI’s number one muscleman, Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and local agent Elena (Elsa Pataky). If this series seriously needed anything to enlighten it, it’s the addition of the man once known as “The Rock.” His lines seem so naturally hilarious there’s no way Morgan wrote them himself. Who knew that an ounce of improv on a film like this could go such a long way? On a side note, Johnson also manages to make Diesel look like a pipsqueak anytime they’re in the same shot. Not ideal for when you pit them against each other in a lengthy mano a mano brawl.

To say any more regarding the plot would be a waste of time; suffice it to say that as “Morgan” states in his interview, the cars go fast and sometimes they go boom. Director Lin has admittedly come a long way with what he can pull off using age-old pyrotechnics and stuntmen that it’s no wonder it was just announced he’s teaming up with Arnold Schwarzenegger for the next “Terminator.” One scene in particular seems almost like an extension of the city block destruction sequence in “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.” You can’t help but wonder if Lin decided to stage it the way he did as a demo to convince the Governator into sealing the deal. If that’s what it was really all about then consider me sold!

All in all, no one can ever call this a literal good movie. For what it is however, it’s a great movie. Even with the runtime clocking in at 130 minutes it flies right by as all good actioners should. Pumped with more adrenaline and testosterone than all of the first four films combined, “Fast Five” delivers on all counts, where it counts. Fans of the series will eat this up with a spoon (myself included). And what more could you really ask for as the summer film season officially explodes into cinemas this weekend?

Photos courtesy Universal Pictures

Monday, April 18, 2011

Movie Review: "Scream 4"

Reboot? Remake? Sequel? How about all of the above?!

***** out of 5
Rated R for strong bloody violence, language and some teen drinking.
111 minutes
Dimension Films

Article first published as Movie Review: Scream 4 on Blogcritics.

Having driven my wife crazy for (at least) months now, relief is probably the only word I could use to describe this passed weekend. An overgrowing excitement has been barely contained as I have slowly waited for the release of what was sure to be one of my favorite movies of the year. As my wife also told me, “Some people have “Star Wars,” others have “Lord of the Rings,” you have “Scream.”” While “Scream 4” is admittedly far from what one would ever call a “best picture,” it definitely succeeds on all counts for what it should. And in the realm of all the remakes, reboots, and never-ending cases of sequels, “Scream 4” has finally arrived to show everyone that it can still be done right.

When the original “Scream” graced my local silver screen back in December 1996, it quickly ushered in a whole new era of horror film by shining a light on its loving audience, myself included. Here was a movie where all of the characters have seen, love, and cherish the horror genre. They know all the rules of how to survive a horror film, but that couldn’t keep them from falling under the knife of director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson. Upon its release, fans said to themselves, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

Then “Scream 2” followed up almost exactly one year later in 1997 and set up its funhouse mirrors on sequels themselves. Unfortunately, by the time “Scream 3” arrived in February 2000, Williamson had departed and Ehren Kruger, in spite of a fitting last name, wound up bringing what should have been a spectacular close to a true trilogy, dragging its heels across the finish line. The arrival of cameos from Jay and Silent Bob will forever be the biggest sore spot no matter what any further sequel could bring. Finally, Craven and Williamson are back together as they belong to set the series right again.

Ten years have passed since Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) last fought off that fiendish Ghost Face. She’s returned to Woodsboro as the last stop of her self-help book tour before she settles down to start her life over while bunking with her aunt Kate (Mary McDonnell) and niece Jill (Emma Roberts). In classic opening scene fashion however, Jenny and Marnie (Aimee Teegarden and Brittany Robertson) are brought under Ghost Face’s knife while just trying to have a nice night of watching “Stab 7.” Yes, the “Stab” series has turned into quite the money maker and it was only after Sidney threatened to sue after the third film that the filmmakers decided to just start making stuff up.

With the latest murders rearing their heads and now-Sheriff Dewey (David Arquette) on the scene with bored-out-of-her-mind-after-ten-years-of-marriage Gale Weathers-Riley (Courteney Cox) on his heels, its all everyone can do to keep the new cast members from being cut into fish sticks. Who’s the new killer? Is it Kirby (Hayden Panettiere), Charlie (Rory Culkin), or Robbie (Erik Knudsen), the trio of horror aficionados of which the boys are heads of the local Cinema Club at Woodsboro High? Deputy Judy (Marley Shelton), former classmate to Sidney herself? Or could it once again be a case of the obvious: Jill’s ex-boyfriend Trevor (Nico Tortorella)?

A few other fresh faces could either be targets or suspects including Sidney’s publicist Rebecca (Alison Brie), or a couple of Woodsboro’s finest, Detective Hoss (Adam Brody) and Deputy Perkins (Anthony Anderson, the first actor to have appeared in both a “Scream” and “Scary Movie”). In true Williamson fashion, Hoss and Perkins both know all too well the rules of being a cop in a scary movie, even if they should be sharpening the requisite rules of simply being in a scary movie. With the town’s annual “Stab”-a-thon (a “Rocky Horror Show” style marathon of all seven “Stab” films) on the horizon, a party could just be the place to either find and stop Ghostface or become another part of the slaughter.

But what would the slaughter be without the last eight letters of the word, right? Even if producers Weinstein thought Kruger being brought in for some script polishing was a good idea, at least this time you can’t really tell. “Scream 4” takes aim at all of the Platinum Dunes remakes (ranging from the better: “Friday the 13th,” the worst: “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning,” to the completely unnecessary: Wes Craven’s own “Nightmare on Elm Street”). They also find time to run the “Saw” series (aka “torture porn”) across the coals while bringing to light the latest trend of “found footage” which is really funny when you consider that Dimension Films next horror release is exactly that (“Apollo 18”). Let’s also not forget that live streaming, all things internet and the word “meta” get sent up and used at their own expense too

A sense of surrealism and nostalgia collide for an extra fast paced 111 minutes with bigger jokes and more blood than the series has seen since the original. Craven was literally born to make the “Scream” films or at least the same of this ilk as he did a lot of the same things back in “Shocker” and “New Nightmare.” Here things are far finer tuned thanks to another shining script from Williamson (even if Kruger may have tried to dumb things down a little bit). Thankfully the cast livens those moments up even while they are few and far between. So while this weekend’s opening numbers may not have been up to the series standards, hopefully we can spread some loving word of mouth to the fan base and let the rest of us know that we can all breathe easy as the “Scream” series returns to its roots and takes its own stab at a whole decade’s worth of horror failure. Welcome back Woodsboro, we’ve missed you.

Photos courtesy Dimension Films

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Movie Review: "Rio"

Not as big a piece of bird turd as you'd think, but a "Conchord" unsurprisingly steals the whole show.

*** out of 5
Rated PG for mild off color humor.
96 minutes
Twentieth Century Fox

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

In the annals of computer-generated family fare, we all know that Pixar reigns supreme. While DreamWorks may be their closest competitor, they have yet to maintain the steady stream of quality coming out of John Lasseter’s camp. While a random great film is few and far between from other production houses (“Rango”), some can’t help but keep one step behind by continually playing it safe. Case in point would be Blue Sky Studios. And their latest venture, “Rio,” is no exception.

Maybe the main cause for concern behind Blue Sky’s quality lies solely in the hands of director Carlos Saldanha. There also could be some issues regarding what Fox Studios lets them get away with. I doubt founder Chris Wedge figured they’d always be one step behind in the realm of feature films. But when Saldanha has directed four of their six films, maybe it’s time to hand the reigns over to someone else. While “Rio” is admittedly a step in the right direction, they still seem too preoccupied with over-the-top slapstick, pop culture, poop jokes, and stunt voice casting (all something DreamWorks is finally shying away from themselves).

In “Rio,” we are whisked away deep into the jungles of Rio de Janeiro. The local bird community has awoken for the day and are commencing into a joyous burst of song and dance. Fresh macaw hatchling Blu (voiced by Jesse Eisenberg) may be able to wiggle his tail feathers, but we quickly learn that he hasn’t learned to fly just yet. Before you can say, “Toucan Sam,” all of the birds, including Blu, are snatched up by poachers and loaded onto a plane for the states to be sold off as pets. But thanks to a red light in Moose Lake, MN, Blu is thrown from the truck and found in a snow bank by a little girl named Linda (voiced by Leslie Mann).

Linda and Blu live together rather harmoniously, so much so that they brush their teeth and beak together, and Blu gets to tag along to work with her at her very own bookstore. One morning, Tulio (voiced by Rodrigo Santoro) literally crashes into her store as him being from Rio de Janeiro means he doesn’t know how to walk along icy sidewalks. Tulio has come to talk Linda into taking Blu to an aviary in Rio where he will mate with Jewel (voiced by Anne Hathaway), the only other living specimen of his kind, to save their species. Linda agrees very hesitantly but off they go, just in time for Carnival.

Before you know it, a bullish cockatoo named Nigel (perfectly voiced by Jemaine Clement), and a little street rat named Fernando (voiced by Jake T. Austin) has allowed Blu, Jewel, and all the rest of the birds to be stolen by a couple of bumbling smugglers to be sold off and exported by Sylvio (voiced by Bernardo de Paula). But eventually Blu and Jewel escape (cuffed together anyway) and meet up with toucan Rafael (voiced by George Lopez), and two other birds, canary Nico and cardinal Pedro (voiced by Jamie Foxx and Now they’re all off to break Blu and Jewel’s bonds with the help of a bulldog named Luiz (voiced by Tracy Morgan) and try to teach Blu how to fly as walking the streets of Rio just takes too flocking long.

If you can’t guess how everything will end up then you must be the target audience – i.e. under ten-years-old. However, while the film may be on the boring side, it’s far from as plodding as Blue Sky’s last outing “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs.” Here it’s ultimately a few of the voice cast (Eisenberg, Mann, Clement and Hathaway) who manage to save the day, along with some surprisingly funny side characters. Who knew that “Back to the Future’s” own Biff (Thomas F. Wilson) as a caged bird would wind up to be such a hilarious gag.

It’s nice to see that some of the voice cast, (Clement again, Foxx, and were actually used for more than just their names in the credits (contributing at least one song to the soundtrack). Even Hathaway gets a brief chance to let her vocals fly. What’s even more surprising is how the film also tries to play out as part musical. However, it’s just another log on the fire to their never ending display of ripping off recent films. You try telling me that Tulio doesn’t look a little like Flint from “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” or that Linda doesn’t more than resemble Susan from “Monsters vs Aliens.” And the aspect of integrating the soundtrack instead of just another barrage of pop songs wasn’t just recently done in “Tangled,” but I digress.

It’s also of note that there’s anywhere near this kind of quality coming from credited screenwriter Don Rhymer when the rest of his resume consists of all three “Big Momma’s,” “Deck the Halls,” “The Honeymooners,” and the sequels “Agent Cody Banks 2” and “The Santa Clause 2!” Maybe it seems to be in animated fare where Rhymer belongs between “Rio” and his last offering, “Surf’s Up.”

In the end, at least “Rio” is far less offensive than the year’s worst animated feature so far, “Gnomeo & Juliet.” But it’s a far cry from Oscar worthy as well. What a shame that while Blue Sky doesn’t produce anywhere near the amount of films as Pixar or DreamWorks and yet this is still the best they can do. When the best part of the film is the short running beforehand (“Scrat’s Continental Crack-Up”) also ran in front of the Fox flop “Gulliver’s Travels,” can’t say I blame them. At least now audiences will actually see it.

Photos courtesy Twentieth Century Fox

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Movie Review: "Hanna"

Possibly the most artistically cool action thriller you'll see all year!

***** out of 5
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some sexual material and language.
112 minutes
Focus Features

Article first published as Movie Review: Hanna on Blogcritics.

While original ideas are few and far between in Hollywood these days, once in awhile an homage is plenty fine by me. Quentin Tarantino has been doing the genre wonders for years, so why not let someone else put on their game face? And while Joe Wright may not be the first person that comes to mind for traveling in QT’s footprints (“Atonement,” “Pride & Prejudice” and “The Soloist”), Wright assuredly marches in unleashing his own brand of female empowerment with “Hanna.”

Armed with one of the best casts this side of an art house film (Eric Bana, Cate Blanchett, Olivia Williams, Jason Flemyng), it’s the perfect casting of almost 17-year-old Saoirse Ronan that’s Wright’s true coup de grace. After directing her to her first Oscar nomination back in 2007 in “Atonement,” she proves herself a true force to be reckoned with. While this role may not bring about her second nomination, it will definitely put her in a well deserved limelight. For further proof of just how well a young actress can carry a film, just watch her in Peter Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones.” Stucci was far from the best thing about that production.

In “Hanna,” we are immediately introduced to our title character in the Alaskan tundra’s where she silently tracks, kills, and guts a caribou all by her lonesome. A man sneaks up behind her informing her, "You're dead — I've killed you," and a fight ensues. It’s not a real fight per se because we learn that this man is Hanna’s father, Erik Heller (Bana). Having lived in the wilderness their entire life, Hanna has never heard music but can speak at least 4 languages. She keeps telling her father that she yearns for more and that this life isn’t enough.

One morning, Erik gives Hanna a transponder and tells her that with the flip of a switch it will inform “her” of their location. After Erik takes off to hunt for food he returns home to find the beacon flashing and learns that his little girl has finally grown up. Now “her,” Marissa Wiegler (Blanchet), is put on the case having a close history with Erik from the past and now we find out that he is an MIA government agent who’s been AWOL for 16 years. We also learn that Marissa is who killed Hanna’s mother when she was a baby and is the reason they’ve been in hiding her entire life.

Very quickly, Hanna is captured and taken to a bunker where she’s questioned before informing that she would like to speak to Marissa. A decoy is sent in who Hanna quickly dispatches along with everyone else who gets in her way of escape and finds her way out only to find out that she’s somewhere in the middle of the Moroccan desert. After walking for miles she comes across a family consisting of pseudo-hippy parents, Rachel and Sebastian (Williams and Flemyng), their teenage daughter Sophie (Jessica Barden), and son Miles (Aldo Maland). Meanwhile Sophie and Miles both take up quite a liking for young independent Hanna.

Meanwhile, Marissa is doing everything in her power to cover up why she is after both Erik and Hanna while they’re both trying to find and kill her too. Bring in some of Marissa’s dispatchable cohort Isaacs (Tom Hollander) and his merry band of misfit compadres who are more than willing to go to any extremes to track down Hanna for her. Now Marissa is just hoping to stay one step ahead of both of them to keep them from finding her first.

The screenplay manages to bring badassery to all kinds of new levels thanks to Seth Lochhead and David Farr in their screenwriting debuts (and what a debut it is!) But I can’t help but assume that without the artistic finesse that Wright brings whether it’s his stunning cinematography by Alwin H. Kuchler or his tight editing courtesy Paul Tothill or the tremendous score realized by The Chemical Brothers. Everything plays together so cohesively and the pace flies by so fast you’d never realize that this whopping thriller runs 112 minutes. Erik instills a mantra of “adapt or die” within Hanna and it seems to be Wright’s as well when it comes to making the move from stuffy period pieces to high flying action flicks. This is as close to a “Kill Bill: Volume 3” as we’re gonna see until Tarantino finally gets around to serving us another cold dish of revenge.

When I mentioned Tarantino in opening, there’s a reason. Here we have a film with such artistic merit that it feels like an independent art house flick while the mass consumer viewers can have their cake and eat it too. Whether it’s a long single take subway fight ala “Oldboy” or a song that sounds a lot like “Tu Mira” by Lole y Manuel from the “Kill Bill: Volume 2” soundtrack, right down to the story managing to brilliantly end coming full circle, there’s something for everybody here, it’s just a matter of telling whether anyone will see it. Hopefully this doesn’t wind up suffering from the “Scott Pilgrim” effect - being the film critics adored that won’t find an audience until it hits home video.

Also like I said, the more accolades thrown Ronan’s way the better. Here she gives her all to bring a fully nuanced performance where we see a girl who’s totally entranced, bewildered and ultimately frightened nearly to death by electricity; loves the feel of the wind across her body whether she’s walking alone in the desert or riding on the back of a young boys’ motorcycle. It’s also rather curious that she attempts to kiss a boy then nearly breaks his neck for actually trying then turns around and finally kisses Sophie in thanks for being her friend.

While this weekend features another high tale of an epic journey (“Your Highness”), here’s one that you’d first expect to show up at your local art house and not playing in the theater next door. But hopefully the film finds its audience as it more than deserves to turn into the sleeper hit of the spring. Although so does another little film that’s already headed that way right now (“Insidious”). So alas, take a chance on “Hanna” and you’ll be far from sorely mistaken.

Photos courtesy Focus Features

Friday, April 8, 2011

Movie Review: "Insidious"

Finally, a scary movie that earns its scares as much as it delivers them.

**** ½ out of 5
Rated PG-13 for thematic material, violence, terror and frightening images, and brief strong language.
103 minutes

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

To review, or not to review, that was my question. I did not take my notepad to sit down and watch the new horror film “Insidious,” from the creators of “Saw,” director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell. All I wanted was to sit back and let the film try its best to scare me. What myself and my other three cohorts got was way more than we anticipated for a change. Most horror movies rely on gimmicks and shock content and rarely wield the power of weird, but when it comes to this film, Wan and Whannell throw just about every trick up on the screen and just about every last one of them stick.

In “Insidious” we meet Josh and Renai Lambert (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne). They have just moved into a new house with a baby and their two boys, Dalton and Foster (Ty Simpkins and Andrew Astor). One morning Dalton and Renai are flipping through a picture album and Dalton asks his mother why there aren’t any photos of his father from when he was a boy. Renai looks as if she’s never thought about it before but shrugs it off to the fact that Josh is both camera-shy and horrible at holding onto memorabilia.

Josh teaches while Renai stays at home putting the house together and writing songs. Before you can say “Poltergeist,” books start moving themselves, strange voices are being picked up on the baby monitor, and both Dalton and Renai have spooky occurrences up in the old dusty attic. Dalton falls off a ladder and hits his head but seems okay, but the next morning he seems to have fallen into a coma. The doctors cannot explain what is wrong. Three months later they move Dalton home and it’s not too long before the spirits return to terrorize poor Renai as they seem to want nothing to do with the rest of the family. Or so we think.

Soon enough, Renai forces Josh into moving them all again into yet another house. But just when you think everyone’s safe, things take a turn for the worse and the malevolence reaches a fever pitch. It’s here when Renai tells Josh’s mother, Lorraine (Barbara Hershey), about what’s going on as Josh of course doesn’t believe her (even after “something” leaves a bloody handprint on Dalton’s bedsheets). Lorraine suggests bringing in some paranormal investigators, Tucker and Specs (Angus Sampson and Whannell), to check things out who immediately call in their true expertise Elise (genre vet Lin Shaye). She informs them that their son is not in a coma but is an astral projector and has gotten lost in what she calls “the furthering.” Also, Dalton is on the verge of being possessed and must be saved before it’s too late.

Both Wan and Whannell have come a long way from their “Saw” heyday and totally recover from their “Death Sentence” remake misstep. While they may have now seen their “Saw” franchise completely run into the ground, I seriously hope this doesn’t turn into yet anoter new franchise as well. It works perfectly as a standalone and there’s no way they could one-up themselves with a sequel. Let alone the fact that the ending closes the book on pretty much anything else you could add to the story. But that’s a very good thing. What Wan has crafted here is one of the scariest boo-fests in years. Yes, “Drag Me to Hell” was an insanely freaky film, but that had a huge course of humor running through its veins to keep things from getting too scary.

And while that film had about 30 times this one’s budget, it’s flat out amazing what Wan and Whannell have been able to wring out of a measly $1.5 million budget. Already making back ten times that amount already, this is the perfect kind of fare we genre fans truly deserve come October. But alas, now we have the dreaded “Paranormal Activity” franchise to “look forward to.”

The cast give their all with Byrne playing the helpless, heartbroken, scared shitless mother to a T and Wilson finally gives a real performance without looking bored throughout the proceedings as he usually does. Maybe the father figure is what he’s meant to play. In the end, the movie has simply one agenda and that’s working overtime in the BOO! department and “Insidious” plays out like “Poltergeist” and “Drag Me to Hell” giving the “Parnormal Activities” the old Chinese finger trap. It’s seriously that good.

Photos courtesy FilmDistrict

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Movie Review: "Arthur"

Dreadfully boring aside from a handful of quips and the always saving grace of Helen Mirren.

** ½ out of 5
Rated PG-13 for alcohol use throughout, sexual content, language and some drug references.
110 minutes
Warner Bros. Pictures

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

Sometimes a remake happens way too soon (“Death at a Funeral”), is completely unnecessary (“Psycho”), or rarely betters the original (“The Ring”). Let’s not even get into Hollywood’s endless case of sequelitis. For some, when a film is merely 30 years old it seems a little redundant to be remade, but when you take into the account of “Death at a Funeral” being three years apart from the original, you know nothing is safe when it comes to Hollywood needing to wring more money out of the movie-going public. Even when the original doesn’t feature subtitles (the J-horror fad of the late ‘00s). Such is the case with this week’s Russell Brand offering, “Arthur.”

Director Jason Winer may be able to make a winning episode of “Modern Family,” but lets face it, that show does well regardless of who’s behind the camera. (On a side note, it also makes far more sense on why there’s a shot with a poster for said TV show behind the cast at one point.) Screenwriter Peter Baynham also has had his hand in comedy gold as the man behind screenplay and story credits ranging from “Brüno” and “Borat” to “I’m Alan Partridge” and “Big Train.” The man has worked with funny before so maybe all the blame here really can be placed on star Russell Brand?

The story remains the same; Arthur Bach (Brand) lives the life of luxury in possibly New York City’s largest suite where he considers Central Park a “nice backyard.” Here’s a man so rich he owns a fleet of movie cars including, but not limited to, the Batmobile (why does he own the Batmobile? Probably because this is a Warner Bros. film) and the “Back to the Future” DeLorean (which nearly steals the whole show). Arthur is looked over by his nanny Hobson (Helen Mirren) because his mother Vivienne (Geraldine James) is too busy running Bach Worldwide to care for him after the passing of his father. Vivienne wants Arthur to marry her top executive, Susan (Jennifer Garner), because the company simply needs to be left in the hands of someone baring the last name of Bach.

Of course this means Arthur becomes instantly smitten with Naomi (Greta Gerwig) who gives illegally guided tours of Manhattan. Now Arthur must choose between true love with Naomi or face the power struggle of settling for someone of his mothers choosing of whom he has no interest in, Susan. If you’ve never seen the original (and let’s face it, anyone interested in a film starring Russell Brand probably has not) or are ignorant to how these supposed rom-coms work, you will never see the ending coming. Just like the guy sitting a row behind me who apparently has never seen any kind of film before.

The screenplay features hardly any real jokes and with how much Brand falls flat in his “comedic” performance it only makes you think that every line of dialogue out of his mouth was single-handedly written by Jason Segel in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Either that or Brand knew he was in the midst of so many better comedy performers that he had to step up his game. Having sat through some of one of his stand-up shows via NetFlix, I’m guessing it’s the former. Helen Mirren seems to be having the only bit of fun whether she’s warning Evander Holyfield she’ll bite off his other ear or even when she’s telling Arthur to wash his winky. But scenes involving Nick Nolte as Burt Johnson, Susan’s father, are too mean spirited and feel completely out of place and Vivienne making a remark about our “coffee-colored President” is simply abhorrent. Let alone the fact that you never once feel like Arthur even deserves to be with Naomi in spite of screenwriting clichés.

When the only characters with any chemistry are Arthur and Hobson you’ve got a huge problem when you’re aiming for rom-com status. At one point Naomi is trying to explain to Arthur that for once she thought she’d earned something and how good it felt and says, “You don’t know what that feels like, but you should try it sometime.” The same could be said for both Winer and Baynham and even Brand himself. I’m sure if it weren’t for his eccentric real life behavior and marriage to pop star Katy Perry he’d quickly fade from the lime light even faster than he quickly deserves to with each new film.

On a final note, according to IMDB, there are currently 2,744 movies tagged with the term “remake.” The earliest of which dates all the way back to the year 1900 (“A Wringing Good Joke”). How many of them truly qualify under this moniker however, is another story. So while we all may moan and groan every time another remake is announced, I suppose now it’s time to at least acknowledge that it always has and always will be a Hollywood epidemic. However, when this year alone sports a whopping 55 (because lets face it, not all of them are bound to happen nor are literal remakes), all we can do is brace ourselves and cross our fingers that the next one will work. In the meantime, skip the “Arthur” remake and revisit the original, making its Blu-ray debut this week.

Photos courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Movie Review: "Your Highness"

A hilariously raunchy fantasy epic in all the right ways!

**** ½ out of 5
Rated R for strong crude and sexual content, pervasive language, nudity, violence and some drug use.
102 minutes
Universal Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: Your Highness on Blogcritics.

Recently there’s been a particular star that’s arrived in back-to-back weekends – Russell Brand. While he may have been popping up in films as a side character, sometimes that’s exactly where one belongs. Occasionally an actor gets his foot in the door with an ultra low budget outing (“The Foot Fist Way”) and makes friends fast while still earning their keep before making it to the big leagues. This time, that man is the ultra hilarious Danny McBride and now he’s stepping up to the plate and delivering big time with his first big budget starring role in “Your Highness.”

While most may only recognize one other film on director David Gordon Green’s resume (“Pineapple Express”), the man has actually been making great feature films since 2000. Working a few of his star friends over the last decade is surely only helping his case and each film gets even more technically proficient. Now Green is bringing Danny McBride’s rip-roaring fantasy comedy epic to light with some of their friends along for the ride. With a little help from James Franco, Natalie Portman and Zooey Deschanel, and Justin Theroux, it’s the funniest knights in armor tale this side of Monty Python.

In “Your Highness,” we come across Thadeus (McBride) and his loyal companion, Courtney (Rasmus Hardiker) about to be hanged by the local dwarfs population. If you can’t guess what happens when a gang of dwarfs try to hang an almost six foot tall guy then the jokes on you. Making their escape through an animated credit sequence we come to learn that poor prince Thadeus is always in the shadow of his brother Fabious (Franco) and talked down to by their father, King Tallious (Charles Dance). Fabious has just returned from an adventure and has rescued his now-fiancé, Belladonna (Deschanel), from the evil clutches of Leezar (Theroux), who also happens to be a warlock.

Fabious would be honored to have Thadeus be his best man at their wedding but Thadeus would rather get stoned and chase sheep… literally. Meanwhile, at the wedding we learn that Fabious absolutely cannot sing and Leezar returns to kidnap Belladonna once again because the twin moons are headed toward each other and a virgin must be impregnated to unleash a dragon from within said virgin’s innocent womb. Now Thadeus is forced upon his first quest alongside Fabious to rescue the fair Belladonna before Leezar commences with “the fuckening” and all hell breaks loose.

With side adventures running the gamut, here’s where our band of hapless adventurers happen upon everyone and everything from a perverted Muppet-reject, the Great Old Wizard (voiced by puppeteer Mario Torres Jr) to gold thong-sporting Isabel (Portman), who may have more in common with their own quest than originally thought. There’s also the casual betrayal of Fabious’ own men, led by his best friend Boremont (Damian Lewis), and eunich Julie (Toby Jones), and a run-in with a five-fingered foe named Marteetee who knows the true meaning of a booby trap. Will Thadeus and Fabious save the day and will Thadeus finally lay down with Isabel?

Everything comes to fruition in hilarious fashion along with some special effects wizardry that shows Universal knew which film this month to let their guru’s run wild. “Hop” only wishes one of its effects looked as convincing as anything in this whole production. Kudos to McBride for bringing along his “Eastbound & Down” and “Foot Fist Way” co-writer Ben Best. These two know how to wring a laugh out of just about anything. Be it one of McBride’s scathing asides, Franco bringing back and getting full use out of the phrase, “Face!” to Thadeus sporting the world’s worst fashion accessory.

The jokes keep piling up while the story stays tried to true to the fantasy epic tale that shows the makers of the abysmal “Dungeons & Dragons” adaptation that these kinds of epics can still be done right. Thankfully there’s no Wayans’ brother afoot here, good readers. And it’s obvious that director Green completely understands that for any of this to work they have to sell the period and fantasy aspects first. If you aren’t buying into that then absolutely nothing else works. So while there may be an onslaught of accents running around the multiplexes this weekend (there’s also the boring failure that is “Arthur”) do the right thing and let “Your Highness” get medieval on your funny bone.

Photos courtesy Universal Pictures