Archive for November, 2008

Review: ‘Four Christmases’ – The Case of the Missing Third Act

November 29, 2008

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The pairing of Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon in a comedy about family (not to be mistaken for a family comedy) is about as appealing as a peanut butter and tuna fish sandwich.  Separately, they’re fine.  Together?  Not so much.

And thus the joyless experience of watching Four Christmases begins.

What’s it about? San Fancisco couple Kate (Witherspoon) and Brad (Vaughn) are completely enfatuated with each other.  They’ve been a couple for three years now, and each Christmas they find an excuse to avoid visiting their respective parents (all of whom are divorced) so they can take an exotic vacation for the holidays.  Thick fog grounds their flight to Fiji, and while attempting to reschedule their flight at the airport the two end up on the local news.  All four parents just happen to be watching the same newscast, causing their cell phones to ring and ring and ring and ring.  and now Kate and Brad must spend quality time with relatives they really don’t like.

First on their list of visits is Brad’s white trash father Howard (Robert Duvall) and his UFC-enthusiast brothers Dallas (Tim McGraw) and Denver (Jon Favreau).  Brad is beat up his brothers.  Zaniness ensues.

Second is Kate’s mom Marilyn (Mary Steenburgen), a cougar-type who’s never met Brad and can’t keep her eyes off of him.  Marilyn and sister Courtney (Kristen Chenoweth) delight in digging up Kate’s past (She was fat!  The other kids taunted her!  They thought she was a lesbian!).  Inexplicably, Kate takes a pregnancy test, only to have to retrieve test applicator (Thing you pee on?  Pee reader?  I have no idea what the actual term for it is) from a bratty neice in the inflatble trampoline emporium known as a Jump Jump.  Oh, and Brad and Kate somehow get chosen to portray Joseph and Mary in Marilyn’s boyfriend’s (Dwight Yokam) church play.  Wacky and zany mix-em-ups ensue.

Next it’s on to Brad’s mom’s (Sissy Spacek) house, where Brad is still uncomfortable that his high school buddy (Patrick Van Horn) is now Mom’s live-in boyfriend.  A game of Scattergories ensues.  It’s not that zany, but it sure is unfunny.

By this time Kate and Brad have seen other sides to their significant others, and their three-year infatuation with each other has come to a screeching halt.  (In regular relationships, this happens much, much, MUCH sooner.)  Kate visits her dad (Jon Voight) without Brad as Brad visits his father again.  Lessons are learned.

What’s good about it? The movie is 82 minutes.  And there are some funny lines here and there.

What’s bad about it? This is one of those soulless, mean-spirited Christmas movies marketed in a way that makes you think you want to see it.  The Christmases in this film are a mere excuse to tie four family visits into one day (it could very well have been called Four Easters or Kate and Brad are so unlikeable, as are all their extended family members.  The pregnancy test was an invitation to raise the stakes, but it is dismissed with such nonchalance that you’re scratching your head as to why it was even introduced (other than a reason to have Witherspoon chase her neice in a Jump Jump).

What’s worse, THE MOVIE HAS NO THIRD ACT!  The movie, while humorless, follows a standard story arc, and at the point where Kate and Brad learn that Nobody’s Perfect and Like It Or Lump It, Your Family Is All You’ve Got, you expect their newfound knowledge to be put through one more test that will make or break the relationship.  Instead, [SPOILER ALERT] the film does the “one year later” thing and you see them on New Year’s Day with their newborn baby, and somehow they avoided not telling any family members about the pregnancy.  And lo and behold, a news crew ambushes them because their bundle of joy is the first newborn of the year!  And the cell phones ring and ring and ring and ring AGAIN!

So apparently Kate and Brad didn’t learn ANYTHING.  Perhaps they would have if there was a third act.

Perfect for: the Two and a Half Men crowd.

Playing Catch-up, part 2: More movies I’ve seen of late

November 22, 2008

THE BAXTER

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A good friend of mine recommended I take a look at The Baxter, Michael Showalter’s 2005 comedy about a putz who tries to win back his fiancee from her high school sweetheart.  She noticed that I had not posted about The Baxter, and I told her I was hesitant because I really did not like the film.  (She was okay with it–she watched The Devil Wears Prada per my recommendation and hated it.)

The film feels like a big inside joke, like you need to be part of the New York improv/sketch comedy scene to enjoy it (writer/director/star Showalter is part of Stella, along with Michael Ian Black and David Wain; Black and Wain have small parts in The Baxter.)  Elizabeth Banks is the fiancee, Justin Theroux is the old boyfriend, and Michelle Williams is the girl Showalter wants to be with.  With the comedic pedigree behind The Baxter, you would think the film would actually be funny.  The only bright spot is a cameo by Paul Rudd, who can’t help but infuse energy into any film he’s in.

CHANGELING

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Clint Eastwood has become one of Hollywood’s most prolific directors; since 2003 he’s directed five films (including Changeling) and he still has another one–Gran Torino–coming out in December.  His recent films have been real showcases for actors, and Changeling is no exception.  Angelina Jolie plays Christine Collins, a single mother in 1928 Los Angeles whose son goes missing.  The LAPD, in need of some good PR, recovers her son…only it’s not her son at all.  (He’s three inches shorter.)  When Christine persists in refuting the LAPD’s claim, she’s thrown into a mental hospital against her will.

This is an exhaustive, heart-wrenching drama that’s not easy to watch.  Jolie’s performance is Oscar-worthy, and Eastwood’s direction is deliciously spare and restrained.  But Eastwood’s got to lighten up.  With Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima and now Changeling, Eastwood has become the King of Despair.  Doubtful if Gran Torino will buck the trend.

QUANTUM OF SOLACE

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I LOVE Casino Royale.  Hands down, it’s the best James Bond film.  Rebooting a franchise is always a risk, and Casino Royale gave James Bond a certain gravitas that the prior films (obviously) lacked.  It was dark.  It was intense.  And Daniel Craig’s Bond was a bit of a sociopath (after all, he’s a killer).

Quantum of Solace, however, is a much weaker sequel (the first in the series, really; this one’s a continuation of Casino Royale, not a standalone story).  The Villain?  Weenie.  The Girl?  Uninteresting.  The Action?  More of the same, but far less exciting.  This may also be the only Bond film that had locations that I don’t want to visit: Haiti?  The Bolivian Desert?  Russia?  Blech.

The film is watchable, but it definitely is missing something.  And coming in at around 105 minutes, Quantum of Solace is probably the shortest of 007’s adventures.  I wonder, however, what wasn’t good enough to make the final cut.

Playing Catch-up

November 17, 2008

My life is kinda’ busy right now.  I make no apologies for having plenty to do.  I refuse to write a “sorry I’m such a terrible blogger” post, but I will say that I’ve seen a lot of movies lately but do not have the time to write full-blown reviews for each one that I’ve seen.  (I might be busy, but I can always make time to watch a movie.)

So here are some quick reviews on the stuff I’ve seen of late (in no particular order).

THE TV SET

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This is one of those films where you’re led to believe you’ll be watching a comedy because of the insane things people do and say.  However, The TV Set, while expertly acted (particularly by Sigourney Weaver as the executive from Hell), is more informative than entertaining, cautionary than humorous.  David Duchovny plays a TV writer struggling to get his dramedy The Wexler Chronicles produced.  The network loves it, but wants changes.  And more changes.  And then some more changes. PERFECT FOR: People who love behind-the-scenes types of movies.

APPALOOSA

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I had somewhat high hopes for Appaloosa; Last year’s 3:10 To Yuma was my top movie of 2007.  Sadly, Ed Harris’s second directorial effort lacks the heart and intensity of Yuma.  Harris and Viggo Mortensen are Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, hired guns given charge of the town of Appaloosa, New Mexico, to rid it of rampant crime at the hand of Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons, who seems terribly out of place despit his best to muffle his British accent).  Renee Zelwegger shows up as a two-bit hussy masquerading as an old-fashioned kind of girl, eyes always fixated on the nearest alpha male.  Some interesting moments, but stoic performances from Harris and Mortensen (a deliberate choice, I’m sure) make Appaloosa watchable, but not memorable.  PERFECT FOR: Western fans.

NETFLIX THIS: BIGGER, FASTER, STRONGER

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Bigger, Faster, Stronger follows director Chris Bell as he tries to make sense of the widespread use of steroid use in America, and in the process upends everything you thought you knew about it.  While much emphasis is places on how steroids have (artificially) built up America’s heroes (like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone), the film also tells the very intimate story of his own family–Bell’s older and younger brother are both on steroids.  The scene where Bell’s mother discovers her sons’ steroid use is heartbreaking.  “There is a clash in America,” Bell says, “between doing what’s right and being the best.”  Bigger, Faster Stronger is not only educational, but highly entertaining.   PERFECT FOR: People who want to like Michael Moore but can’t stand his smugness.

*Sigh*  I’m out of time.

Review: ‘W.’

November 3, 2008

I’m not a big Oliver Stone fan; I don’t mean that I don’t like his films, it’s just that I haven’t seen any.  Barring half of 1991’s JFK (I was bored and confused.  But I was only 14 at the time), my exposure for Stone’s liberal agendas and conspiracy theories has been minimal at best.  Sure, I know where he leans, politically.  But his films?  Haven’t a clue.

I was eager to see W. because I am not a fan of George W. Bush and have, admittedly, been caught up in the election hoopla.  (I myself lean to the left in a state so red it glows at night.)  I’m an Obamaniac, to be sure, and what better way to sit in the choir seats and be preached to than a scathing expose on the complete incompetence of our 43rd President?

There were two big surprises about W.: 1) It’s kinda’ dull; and 2) If the film is anything, it’s a sympathetic (yet incomplete) portrait of man who, according to the film, had to become the most powerful man in the world to break out from the shadow of his father’s political legacy.

What’s it about? Uh, George W. Bush.

The film goes back in forth in time from the early 2000’s when Bush (Josh Brolin in an Oscar-worthy performance) and his team–including Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright), Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn), Karl Rove (Toby Jones) George Tenet (Bruce McGill), Paul Wolfowitz (Dennis Boutsikaris), Condoleeza Rice (Thandie Newton) and Vice President Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss)–as they contemplate, argue and ultimately decide to have the US invade Iraq; to various defining moments in W.’s life in the late 60’s (drinking!), 70’s (drinking!) 80’s (drinking…and then getting sober…and helping Dad (James Cromwell) with his Presidential campaign) and 90’s (running for Governor of Texas!).

What’s good about it? Brolin’s performance is spot-on, and the scenes of Bush & Co. debating the feasibility of a war with Iraq (with Powell being the wet blanket) are fairly engaging.  I also admire Stone’s willingness to portray W. as a tortured soul (his rocky relationship with George Bush Sr. is the sole dramatic force throughout the film).

What’s bad about it? For starters, I must admit I’ve never been a fan of biopics.  I like my films to have a first, second and third act; biopics don’t work that way.  Mostly, they’re Stuff Happening.  And while some people’s lives are larger than others, there’s no real narrative thread to drive the story.  W. is no exception.  The film, clocking in at around two hours, is about a half-hour too long.  We know the basic storyline, so why do Stone and writer Stanley Weiser drag it out for so long?

The film also shows W. drinking.  All.  The.  Time.  Booze is everywhere.  He’s a boozehound.  I get it.  There are also a plethora of scenes where people eat that usually feature W. talking with food in his mouth.

Perfect for: Bush fans.  All eight of them who are left.

Netflix this: ‘Black Narcissus’ – Nuns gone wild!

November 1, 2008

Okay, so only one sister goes wild in Black Narcissus, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1947 film about nuns in the Himalayas.  But the entire film has a wild undercurrent of unease that sucks all the nuns in; some fight the current with all their might and some surrender completely to it.

While made in 1947, Black Narcissus feels revolutionary in some ways; the film doesn’t feel like an oldie, thanks in part to its breathtaking cinematography and art design (the film deservedly won Oscars for both).  It feels new and fresh, and had it been made today, I don’t think much would have changed.

What’s it about?  The film starts briefly in India, where Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr, The King & I) has been assigned to lead of group of sisters to start a school and clinic in the Himalayas.  The Palace of Mopu was donated by a rich general, who housed his concubines there. 

Clodagh does not get to choose her fellow sisters for this assignment, which include Sister Briony (Judith Furse), the strong,no-nonsense nun; Sister Phillipa (Flora Robson), the anguished soul; Sister Honey (Jenny Laird), the perky and compassionate one; and Sister Ruth (Kathleen Bryon), the one who’s a couple beads short of a rosary.

Upon arrival at Mopu, Clodagh instantly locks horns with Mr. Dean (David Farrar) a Brit who lives down the mountain.  Dean is there to help, but often his methods clash with Clodagh.  But there’s a subtle–yet never consummated–attraction between Dean and Clodagh; Dean is a bit of a louse at times, and Clodagh frequently calls him on his crap.  Their relationship never even rises to flirting,  but Ruth senses something illicit is going on between the two and jealously obsesses over their platonic relationship.

Life at Mopu is hard; the wind blows incessantly, as if there will never be calm to Clodagh and the sisters.  Clodagh catches herself reminiscing about her life prior to becoming a nun; we get glimpses into a life that seemed so full of hope and optimism, contrasted to what Clodagh has now become: stoic and unsure of her ability to lead the sisters.

Sister Ruth becomes and increasing concern for Clodagh.  Ruth’s deterioration into madness is the juiciest part of the entire film, and what she does to defy the sisters isn’t really that boundary-pushing, but is nonetheless shocking.

What’s good about it?  The cinematography–as I mentioned before–is absolutely beautiful.  Kerr and Farrar’s performances are solid, but it’s really Bryon’s Sister Ruth who steals the show.  She’s not only crazy, she’s down right frightening.

While the film is (obviously) steeped in Catholicism, Black Narcissus isn’t really about religion.  It’s not a pick-me-up type of film.  It’s one of those films where people learn from their failures.  Sister Act this ‘aint.

What’s bad about it?  The film is on slow burn, so if you’re expecting Lots of Stuff Happening At Once, you’ll be disappointed.  

Perfect for: Deborah Kerr fans, cinematographiles, and anyone looking for a film with right amalgamation of drama, suspense and artsiness.